Actions

Work Header

Elm Creek Farm

Work Text:

Elm Creek Farm

 

PART I

 

1991

 

1

It had been three weeks since his mother and brother had died, and every day had been dull, with all shades of gray and not a bit of light in them. Nightmares were haunting Jared, of flames, smoke and ash, and when he woke up in the middle of the night, screaming eerily, tears were running down his face and he was gasping hard, trying to breathe. More times than not, his pants were wet, too, the odor of his pee strong in the small room Jared now shared with his baby cousin in his aunt's house. Talking less, the little boy slowly faded into nothingness, getting paler and thinner every day. Gerry, his father, was hopelessly lost in his own grief, drinking a little too much and working a little too hard, not really noticing how much his son was suffering. His aunt Carol, who had welcomed her devastated brother and his son with open arms, was at her wit's end. She tried her best, but how could you console an eight-year-old boy who had lost half his family and all his worldly possessions in a house fire and who had nothing to hold on to anymore? School was awkward as hell, too, because everyone knew what had happened and his classmates were looking at Jared differently, whispering behind his back or quietening down the moment he stepped into the room. Jared himself didn't really know how to cope with the horrible occasion, with losing his beloved mother and the older brother he had been looking up to ever since he could say his name. Angry and sad at the same time, desperate and lonely, Jared wanted to cry, wail and scream, but he also wanted to trash something, anything, and most of all, he wanted his brother and his mom back, wanted to be enveloped in her arms and by her familiar fragrance. But he was old enough to understand what death meant, and the realization that his mom and brother were gone for good tightened his chest so much that Jared sometimes thought he would suffocate, just like he almost did when their house burned to the ground.

Like in the last two weeks since he had been released from hospital, Jared was only picking at his dinner, his fingers scratching over the linen-clad surface of the table, his eyes burning with unshed tears. Carol tried her best, but the homemade chicken wings just tasted differently than his mother's and because of his sleepless nights, Jared had fallen asleep during calculus lesson and the teacher had given him a letter for his father to sign. Jared couldn't give it to him in person, but he had handed the letter to Carol, biting his lips and looking sheepishly. She hadn't scolded Jared, had only ruffled his hair, like his mom would, which had made it even worse.

“Jared, honey, your dad and I think that maybe a change of scenery will do you good,” Carol dropped between a bite, smiling a little too happily.

Expression unreadable, Jared looked up from his plate where he had arranged the remaining fries into what looked like a pile of wood, not sure what his aunt meant by “change of scenery”.

“There is this place called Elm Creek Farm, up in Montana, and they help kids like you.”

Kids like me, Jared thought, wondering what that meant, his expression changing into that of confusion. There wasn't anything wrong with him, was it?

“Kids who suffered a terrible loss, honey,” Carole explained with a soft voice. “You'll fly up there in a week, and you can stay there as long as you want. You'll have school, with kids around your own age, but you'll also do things that help you cope with what happened and hopefully you'll be better and happier once you come back.”

“You’re sending me away?” Jared asked carefully, suddenly feeling a strange hole in his stomach. He wasn't quite sure where Montana was, had never seen much of Texas, let alone of any other state, but if he was to board a plane, it sounded like it was very far away. “Like fat camp?” Colette, his best friend's sister, had been sent to a camp last summer to lose weight and from all Chad had told Jared, it was like being sentenced to prison.

Carol couldn't help as a smirk flitted over her lips, despite the grave occasion that made her send Jared to this farm. “No, not really like fat camp, JT. The food will be far better there I guess.” She winked, knowing how much Jared enjoyed food in normal circumstances. “It's a farm, so there will be animals, kittens and puppies, bunnies, chickens, cattle and horses.”

For a second, Jared's eyes widened in interest. He loved animals but never had been allowed to have any. Then though, his face fell again. They would still send him away, to a place where he hadn't been before, where he knew no one and most of all, where he really would be all alone. Lower lip quivering, Jared tried hard to hold back the tears that were burning in his eyes. “Do I have to go?” His voice was shaking with the emotions that were bubbling inside, pain and loss fighting anger. The thought of going there scared Jared horribly. Most of all though, he felt as if he was being punished for what had happened. As if it was not punishment enough that he had lost half his family.

“Your dad and I think it will help you, JT and we hope you'll give it a try. If it's too hard, if you're homesick and miss your dad, me and baby Lindsey, then we'll pick you up. We're just a phone call away,” she promised, looking at her nephew trustfully.

It sounded like a fair deal in Jared's ears. “Like piano lessons?” Jared pressed out between thin lips, just to be sure. A year ago, his mother had wanted him to learn the piano, but he had been helpless, had neither managed to read the notes nor had found any joy in tinkling the ivories. Remembering how disappointed his mother had been after Jared had begged her to drop the lessons brought more tears to the surface, and Jared sniffed, wiping his eyes.

“Exactly. I know it scares you, honey, but there is no need to be scared. You'll be among friends there, kids who all suffered from a loss and adults who are eager to help you with your grievance and like I said, your dad and I think it'll be good for you, JT.”

Swallowing hard, Jared nodded in agreement, before he pressed out a shaky “okay”. His mom would have wanted him to be good and his brother Jeff would have called him a coward in gentle mocking if he could see him now. For all Jared knew, Jeff and his mom did see him from their cloud in Heaven and he was determined to not disappoint them or even give them a reason to be disappointed in him. He would at least give it a try.

***

Tossing and turning, staring at the ceiling only to bury his head into the pillow after a few minutes, Jared tried hard to fall asleep but failed miserably, despite being tired to the bones. It was not only the fear of another nightmare in which he watched the bodies of his mother and brother burning, but also the news his aunt had borne him earlier, the prospect of being sent away. It scared Jared almost as much as his recurring nightmare. What if he wasn't welcome here at his aunt's any longer? What if his dad or aunt would just forget to pick him up in Montana and he had to stay at this farm for the rest of his life? Would he make friends there or would he be as lonely at the farm as he suddenly felt at home? Four weeks ago, Jared's biggest problem had been the question of how to celebrate his birthday. Now, he didn't give a damn about his ninth birthday. How could he ever celebrate the day he was born when the reason he was on Earth was gone? How could he ever smile and laugh again? How could he ever learn to live with what had happened and overcome the horrors of that night? He understood that the farm should help him with that, but Jared doubted that a few acres of land, livestock, a bunch of kids and a handful of adults could help him deal with the most cruel experiences imaginable and with losing two of the most important persons in his life. Tears tickled his eyes and welled up, like so often in the past nights. Burying his head in the pillow and pressing Sadie, his new stuffed dog against his chest, Jared once more cried for all he had lost in the fire, but also for the future that scared him almost as much as the past.

***

The next few days passed in a blur. Carol took Jared on a shopping tour, getting him a suitcase, another pair of shoes, additional clothes and whatever else he might need for his indefinite stay at Elm Creek Farm. Jared said goodbye to his friends, feeling both relieved that he did not have to see them for a while but also very scared that he might never see them again or that they would forget him while he was up in Montana. On the day prior to his flight, his dad, who had tried hard to stay away from his usual bottles of slumber drinks, went to the zoo with Jared. While they were watching the elephants, which were his mom's favorite animals, Gerry told Jared how much he loved him, how proud he was of him and that he'd get him the moment Jared or someone from the farm called and asked to pick him up. Jared couldn't hide his relief as he buried his face in his dad's strong chest, hoping that he wouldn't disappoint his dad and that he really would have a future with his dad once he came home.

 

2

“Jensen?” Jeffrey asked Jensen to join him at his table with an inviting gesture. “There is a new boy arriving tomorrow. His name is Jared. Would you mind being his mentor?” It was common on the farm that new kids were guided by a kid who had been here longer and would sooner or later leave. It was part of the concept to teach the kids that you had to let go and that loss was a part of life. Jensen had been at Elm Creek Farm for six weeks now. Having lost both his parents in a car accident, his elderly grandma, who had taken him in, had been overextended with the grieving boy who had been very aggressive and had consoled himself with food. It had taken longer than usual for Jensen to adapt, to confide in the therapists and to eat less and lose a bit of the weight around his chubby middle, but now the twelve-year-old was ready to take some responsibility.

Sitting down on the empty chair, Jensen chanced a quick look at Jeffrey, before fixing his eyes on the wooden surface of the table and the fascinating random pattern of the scratches hundreds of knives had left there in the decade the farm had been running. Most of his comrades had already left the dining room for the evening activities; today they offered a night ride with Sam, campfire and sing-alongs with Jim or quiz night with Justin. Jensen still wasn't sure whether to go on the night ride or to quiz night, and now he had another decision to make. Becoming a mentor was a big thing, and he wasn't sure if he was ready for it. His own mentor, Steve, had struggled with the task, but that probably had been far more Jensen's own fault than Steve's. Six weeks ago, Jensen had been an aggressive, frustrated kid, hating everyone and everything, most of all himself, for being the reason his parents lost their lives in that horrible car crash. “Not sure if I'm ready for it,” Jensen admitted, his fingers playing with each other nervously.

“You made tremendous progress, Jensen,” Jeffrey praised Jensen, resting his chin in his palm and looking at the boy openly. “When you arrived, you were so angry.” He had actually thought that Jensen would be one of the few hopeless cases that were doomed to suffer from their loss for years, falling into a deep dark hole and ending in prison, being addicted to some poison or both. “Yet, you picked yourself up, showed us all that you're a good boy and I'm sure you could help Jared.”

Jensen felt himself blush. He knew he had been obnoxious and irresponsible, and it was proof of faith that Jeffrey entrusted him with the task of mentoring this boy. And it wouldn't be that difficult. It was just showing Jared the area, explaining the rules, sharing a room with him and most of all, being his friend. All things Jensen could do easily. Back at home, he had been a good friend for his best buddy Jason, at least prior to that fateful day in February that had changed his life so dramatically. “Okay,” Jensen agreed carefully, looking up from his fidgety hands and into Jeffrey's encouraging smile. “I'll try my best.”

“I'm sure you will, boy. Now, go join your friends,” Jeffrey said as he got up, clapping Jensen's shoulder tightly. “Have a great time.”

“Thank you, sir. Good night.” Jensen got up, walking out of the dining room and over to the cabin that housed his group, lost in thoughts. He felt weirdly happy and encouraged, not only by what Jeffrey had said about him, but also by his important task.

Sam, their counselor, who was in charge of the six kids in the group, smiled at Jensen as he opened the front door, looking up from the heap of clothes she was sorting for her fosterlings. “So, will we welcome Jared to our group tomorrow, Jensen?”

“We will,” Jensen replied proudly, a little smile flitting over his lips. He hadn't smiled or laughed a lot since his parents had died, because he simply hadn't had any reasons to feel joy, but lately, he had felt a little lighthearted again. “Am I getting the mentor talk now, Sam?”

“Indeed you are.” She grinned, stopping in her task to brush a strand of her auburn hair behind her ear. “How about you help me with the horses, join me on the night ride and I'll give you the mentor talk there?” Sam suggested, putting a pair of Jensen's own jeans in the small basket for his clothes. It would be his task to fold them properly and put them away, something he never had done before, simply because his mom had taken care of stuff like that. A month ago, this thought had made him angry and sad, causing him to throw a tantrum and the clothes through his room. Now, after countless tears and minutes of yelling himself hoarse in pain and anger, Jensen had learned to handle his grief.

Taking his full basket, Jensen nodded, heading over to his room. The cabins were all the same. Common room with a small kitchenette, three bedrooms and two bathrooms on ground floor and the counselor's rooms upstairs. “Looking forward to it, Sam.” This alone was a small success, because it wasn't a lie. Jensen was looking forward to the night ride and other than a month ago, he had learned that it was okay to look forward to things again, to enjoy his life, to smile and even to laugh once in a while. At Elm Creek Farm, Jensen had learned that there were things to look forward to, and he hoped he could help Jared learn that, too.

***

Jared slept little during his last night at his aunt's, far too anxious about what would happen the next day. The flight, the farm, the new kids. It was both exciting and scary and he pressed Sadie against his chest as tight as he could, his face buried into her soft fabric fur. Eventually, Jared fell asleep because the next thing that happened was his father shaking him awake and shooing him into the bathroom for his very quick morning ritual. A sandwich was pushed into his hand, he grabbed his rucksack and barely twenty minutes after he had peeled himself out of his bed, Jared found himself on the back seat of his aunt's car who was driving them to the airport.

His grief for once forgotten, just like his tiredness, Jared looked around in awe at the airport, surprised by how busy it already was that early in the morning. They checked in and dropped off his luggage and then it was time to say goodbye to his aunt. She gave him a warm hug, almost as warm as his mom had hugged him, and it felt good to be pressed against her warm, soft body and be cocooned in arms that only wanted the best for him. This hug took a bit of his fear away. “Be good, JT, and be better,” Carol whispered, kissing Jared's cheek.

“Come on Jared,” his father prompted gently, a hand on Jared's bony shoulder, guiding him to security. Jared felt a little anxious there, because of all the strangers and the staff looking so sternly, but once they were through, Jared's dad bought him a cocoa and the warmth that was seeping through the styrofoam mug thawed his ice-cold fingertips. The sweetness hit his taste buds, the warmth was spreading through his tummy and Jared felt a bit of his anxiety melting away with every small sip he took, while they were slowly walking to their departure gate.

They didn't have to wait too long until boarding started and while nervousness was bubbling inside Jared once the plane left its parking position and slowly drove to the runway, he also was fascinated by it. Soon, he'd be flying like a bird, high up in the air, over the clouds. He was wondering if he maybe even saw his mom and Jeff, being up in the sky and so close to Heaven. “Will we see Mom and Jeff, once we're up there?” Jared asked quietly as the plane sped up.

His father swallowed hard. They hadn't really talked about Mom and Jeff since they were gone and for a moment, Jared felt really awkward, biting his lips and playing nervously with his safety belt, as if he had broken a taboo, scared that his dad would be upset with him. “No, we won't, Jared,” his dad answered eventually, adopting a serious and sad tone. “They're nowhere we can see them, but they're still with us. In your memory and in your heart.” Tears were shining in his dad's eyes and Jared leaned into his strong body and let himself envelop into his father's arms, giving and receiving comfort for something no one could really heal.

The flight itself, despite taking several hours, passed surprisingly fast. There was food and drinks, a coloring book and crayons and his favorite audio book on the Walkman and eventually, Jared fell asleep, and only woke up when the plane touched down. “I booked a rental car to get to the farm,” his dad explained while he gave his son his rucksack that was stored in the overhead locker. “It's two hours to drive, maybe a little longer.”

Still sleepy, Jared only nodded, rubbing his eyes and walking down the narrow aisle once it was their turn to leave the plane. Excitement and anxiety were once more defining Jared, and he took his father's hand, something he hadn't done in years, and held on real tight, scared that he might lose him, too, if he let him out of sight. Suddenly, he didn't want to go to the farm anymore. He wanted to be back in San Antonio, in the small room that had become his refuge in the last days, be with his aunt and little Lindsey, even suffer the awkwardness at school. Yet, Jared also knew that there was no way back. He had promised both his aunt and his dad to give it a try, and deep down he knew something wasn't quite right with him. Before the fire, he had been a happy kid, being loved and loving in return, caring and laughing. Now all Jared felt was despair. It shouldn't be like that, should it?

Lost in his musings, Jared didn't really notice how his dad got his suitcase from the baggage belt, only followed him to the car rental counter like on autopilot and later, to their rental car. “You're very quiet,” his dad stated after he had started the motor and was driving to the closest interstate. “I understand you're nervous, worried even, but maybe you can see it as an adventure?”

A few days ago, his aunt had shown Jared a brochure about the farm, full of glossy pictures of animals, small cabins scattered around the premises, the proud historic farmhouse, the creek that had given the farm its name. It hadn't looked too bad, far from it. It looked homey and cozy, like a place where kids could be kids, where they could go fishing or horseback riding, climb trees, splash in the creek and graze their knees. “I'll try, Dad,” Jared promised, looking out of the window. “But I'm still scared.”

***

“How did you feel when you came to us?” Sam asked Jensen as she supervised him while he put fresh linens on both the beds in the small room he would share with Jared.

“You know that, Sam.” Jensen sighed, heat creeping into his cheeks. “I was very angry and sad.”

“Indeed. So keep in mind that Jared might feel like that, too. Or different. But whatever he feels or however he behaves, try to be patient, okay? Grief is something very complex, like most feelings are, and everyone is grieving differently. Also don't forget that he is four years younger than you are. Not even nine years old. That's very young to lose someone close to your heart.” Jensen didn't know who Jared had lost. It was part of the program, that Jared had to give away this information freely and talk about who he had lost and how it had happened, if he was ready. Some told their story the moment they arrived. Others, like Tim, who had left their group last week, never did.

“I won't forget it, Sam,” Jensen promised. “I'll try my best and be as patient as I can be.” Patience wasn't one of Jensen's qualities; he had always wanted to be the first and the fastest, had hated to wait, had become giddy if things hadn't gone quickly enough. But from his own experience here at the farm, he also had learned that some things just needed time, wounds to heal, no matter if physical or mental, on top of the list.

 

3

Staring out of the window, Jared didn't really see much of the landscape that was rushing by as his father was driving him to Elm Creek Farm. They were driving through small towns once in a while, seeing rivers or forests, cattle or fields with crops as the hot summer sun was shining down on them from a clear blue sky. With every passing minute, they got closer and Jared got more nervous, his heart beating a little faster and heavier against his ribcage, his throat feeling a little tighter and drier.

“We're almost there,” his father announced as he took a turn left from the main road, into a narrow side road, barely wide enough for a truck. Potholes had destroyed the once smooth asphalt, causing their rental to shake uncomfortably while his dad steered it along the bumpy road and Jared's stomach to growl angrily with nausea that was rising steadily to new levels. Just as bile was already tickling his gullet, the forest on both sides of the road gave way to a wide, open space. Ranges, with trees scattered between them and fenced by wooden railings, a proud farmhouse, built of gray stone and wood and small cabins that hid between groups of trees or bushes. Horses and cattle were grazing, their coats shining healthily, a dog was dozing lazily close to a herd of sheep with hens picking in the dirt. It looked like in the brochure, as perfect, yet far less fake, because it was real and while Jared's heart was still racing rapidly, while his small hands were wet with sweat and his tummy was still bubbling uneasily, he also felt something he hadn't felt for a while. Real excitement about the adventure his dad had promised him.

Reducing the speed considerably, his father drove the car carefully to the farmhouse, parking it in one of the few parking lots. The asphalt had long given way to gravel, with tiny green weeds fighting against the small stones. “That's quite idyllic, JT,” Gerry noticed after he had turned off the motor and opened the car door, curiously looking around. He had had his doubts, once Carol had mentioned Elm Creek Farm, even after she had told him about their successes, but as he saw the place with his own eyes, he at least had to admit that it was a small piece of paradise, ideal for a mourning kid to heal and that Jared would probably be in good hands here. He had been a crappy father since the fire, but it had been hard for him too, losing his wife, his firstborn and the home he had known for fifteen years and had worked hard for, a place full of happy memories.

Overwhelmed with what he saw, Jared nodded, opening the passenger door and looking around even more curiously than before. In the distance, he could spot groups of kids. Some were playing baseball, another group of four or five were horseback riding and some were working in what looked like a kitchen garden. Leaving the car, Jared stretched his arms and legs, taking his rucksack in his left and his father's hand in his right hand and walking the few steps over to the farmhouse, the gravel crunching beneath his trainers. The sun was shining down on them strongly, yet the temperature was still lower than back at home and everything seemed a tad greener here up in the north than down in Texas.

Once they stepped through the open door into the farmhouse, cool flowery scented air enveloped father and son and through a half-opened door, Jared could hear someone typing. It was where his dad led him to, knocking at the door, then stepping into the room that was clearly an office. A middle-aged woman looked up, smiling warmly. “You must be Jared.” She got up, walking around her desk and looking down at Jared kindly. “And you must be his dad. I'm Brianna, I'm responsible for the office here. Jeff is waiting for you, come on in.” She first gave Jared's hand a squeeze, then offered her handshake to his father, receiving a firm shake in return.

“Jeff?” She announced, after she had knocked on a door that had been closed so far, opening it a few inches and peeking in, “the Padaleckis are here.”

“Lead them in and go get Sam and Jensen.” The voice that spoke was deep and a little scratchy, full of authority yet still kind enough.

Brianna opened the door completely, waving them into the adjoining room. Other than the office, it looked like a mixture of a living room and a library, with dark wooden panels on floor and wall, a real fireplace, shelves full of books and a set of quite modern sofas that seemed a little out of place yet fitted well enough. The man who was getting up from his chair was a bear, or at least he looked like it. Dark hair, tanned face, a bushy salt and pepper beard. He wore a plaid button down and bleached blue denim. “Welcome to Elm Creek Farm,” he said, reaching out his hand and, just like Brianna, first offered it to Jared, then to his dad, “I'm Jeffrey Dean Morgan, head of the farm. I'm very sorry for your loss, Jared, but I'm glad you're with us. Now, how about we sit down, drink lemonade, eat some biscuits and have a talk?” Jeffrey suggested, pointing at the set of sofas while crossing the remaining space with just a few, long strides.

Jared felt a little intimidated by that bear of a man, following his father shyly and sitting down on the edge of the soft upholstery, his sweaty hand still safely wrapped in his father's strong grip. Just moments later, Brianna entered the room, carrying a tray filled with glasses, lemonade and water, biscuits and cakes and placing it on the small coffee table between the set of sofas. Jeffrey started to talk, telling them something about himself, how he came to buy the farm and built it into a camp for grieving kids and how the program works. “You'll be living with a group of four to five other kids in a cabin, Jared. Sam, who you'll be meeting shortly, is your counselor and is living with you in the cabin. And Jensen is your mentor. He's a few years older than you and came to us six weeks ago. He'll show you around and teach you everything there is to know.” Jeff explained some more about the mentor program, which sounded as intimidating as Jeffrey looked; was he supposed to take another kid under his wings, too? Jared wasn't sure if he could do it, and he wanted to know badly, but he was too shy to ask, so he didn't dare to, just nodded, hoping that Jensen would be far less scary than Jeffrey. “We also have a few rules here, and the first is that you kids are not supposed to ask each other why you're here. Of course, you can talk about it, that's why you're here, but long ago we decided that the kid should give this information freely. Which means that Jensen can tell you his story, and you can tell Jensen or anyone else your story, but you're not obliged to talk about it. It also means that Jensen doesn't know whom you lost and how it happened.” Jared nodded, feeling weirdly relieved by it, still remembering the prying questions and the whispers of his classmates. He didn't really want to tell anyone about that horrible night, about his mother's and brother's screams, about the heat and that stink and the roaring noise of the fire. Yet Jared realized he probably had to talk about it sooner or later as he had the vague idea that was why his dad had sent him here. “Do you have any questions, Jared?”

Quite a lot of questions were running through Jared's mind, mundane stuff like mealtimes or when he could go see the horses and heavy stuff, like what was expected of him, but despite Jeffrey's obvious kindness, Jared was still a little too scared of him. Shaking his head, Jared took his still full glass of lemonade instead of blurting out all his questions, the cool, slightly sweet liquid moistening his dry throat.

“Okay then. I'm sure Sam and Jensen will be with us any moment now. You'll get to know them and then Jensen will show you your lodgings and Sam and I will have a short talk with your dad, Jared, and then you can say goodbye. Okay?”

“Okay,” Jared pressed out between his lips, his heart suddenly hammering a little quicker against his chest, the thought of parting ways with his dad very scary.

Silence settled between them, just for a few moments but weirdly awkward, but then, there thankfully was a short knock at the door. It was opened after Jeffrey had called “come in” and a blonde woman stepped into the room, followed by a boy. She was maybe a little younger than Jared's mother had been, sporty, thin and muscled, wearing similar clothes to Jeffrey. The boy was chubby, his face a little too round, just like his middle, the tee he was wearing unable to hide the curve of his abdomen. Despite his obvious nervousness, his fingers playing with the belt loops of his jeans, a smile flitted over his face that was healthily tanned and scattered with countless tiny freckles. Green eyes were looking at him curiously, before they looked at the rug that was covering part of the wooden floor. Jared couldn't help but wonder what Jensen thought about him, but probably, Jensen wondered that, too, as he placed his right hand on his curvy middle in a weirdly protective gesture. It was this gesture, this proof of self-consciousness, that warmed Jared up to the older boy, that made him realize that they were both sitting in the same boat, that they were both nervous in this new situation.

Jeffrey introduced them quickly. There were handshakes between Jared and Sam, and Sam and his dad and a coy smile between the boys and then, Jensen invited Jared to follow him. A nod of his dad and Jared let go of his hand, joining Jensen. He was a whole head taller than him and wordlessly, he led the way out of Jeffrey's room and the office, stopping in the entrance hall.

“So um,” Jensen said, “welcome to the farm.” Jensen looked at Jared; he was such a scrawny small kid, looking far younger than the almost nine years he was, his limbs thin, almost fragile, his hazel eyes big as saucers. Remembering how he had felt six weeks ago, when his grandma, who was too old for the flight to Montana, had said goodbye in front of her house and the cab had picked Jensen up to get to the airport, he could relate what Jared went through at the moment. “I bet you're as nervous as I was when I came here, but it's actually quite a cool place. So, let me just give you the short tour, and don't hesitate to ask whatever you want, and I guess your dad will meet us back at the cabin.”

He started the tour, showing Jared the dining room and the pin board full with papers of all the important facts; menu of the day, schedules, activities of the day. “Food's really good here,” Jensen acknowledged, yet feeling the heat creeping into his cheeks. He knew he was chubby, being twice as broad as Jared, and it made him feel even more self-conscious than usual, his fat face and his round, soft tummy. “So um, let me show you the cabin. You and I are going to share a room,” Jensen explained, as he turned around to lead the way out of the house and over to the cabin. “There are five groups with six kids maximum here. Sam's our counselor and guide, she is great.” Jensen continued babbling, telling him about Sam and their group while chancing a look at Jared every few seconds. He was a quiet kid, not saying anything, yet looking around with a face full of curiosity. “So um, any questions, Jared?”

Jared shrugged. He was a little unsure what was allowed to ask and didn't want to seem dumb.

“It's okay to ask stuff, dude. The rule only applies to why we're here, so you can ask me stuff.”

“Are they nice, the other kids?” Jared's voice was a mere whisper and Jensen could hear the insecurity in the simple question. It suddenly caused the weird need to protect that scrawny little boy. Being an only child, Jensen had grown up without siblings and while he knew that he needed to say goodbye to Jared sooner or later and would probably never see him again, Jensen wanted to be like a big brother for him, if only for a little while.

“I wish I could say yes, Jared, but fact is, we're all here for a very sad reason and some kids are very angry about what happened to them and don't handle it too well. I was one of them,” Jensen admitted, the shame turning his cheeks crimson. “I was really obnoxious when I came here, man. But I overcame it and right now, our group, we're all good and all cool. And um,” he added as he had noticed Jared's eyes widening a little, “I'm nice, Jared. I really am. I mean, I was angry, and um, violent, trashing things, being mean, but I'm not going to hurt you, I swear.”

Jared felt a little uneasy about this confession, but he wanted to give Jensen the benefit of the doubt. His mom had taught him early to never judge people and that everyone deserved a chance, even a second or third one. And Jensen seemed nice enough. “Okay,” Jared mumbled, following Jensen along a narrow graveled path, bushes and trees fringing it left and right.

“We're here. Your home for the next weeks, however long you need to stay,” Jensen announced, pointing at a cabin with an inviting gesture.

The cabin looked a bit like a mini version of the big farmhouse. Gray stone and strong, wooden beams, open windows with plaid curtains dancing in the light summer breeze, a patio with a round table and seven chairs grouped around it. Jensen led the way, up the two steps and into the cabin, Jared following him while looking around curiously. Kitchenette and living room, children's drawings on the wall, a shelf with board games and children's and youth's books, a stereo, yet no TV. Five doors were leading to rooms on the ground floor and a stair to the loft on the first floor. “Sam's living upstairs. It's out of bounds for us, of course, but if you need her in the night, don't hesitate to climb up and knock. So um, that's our room.” Jensen opened the first door on the left. The room was small, with two beds on either side of the wall, a window between them and a low chest of drawers beneath it. One small desk, one wardrobe, pictures on the wall, rugs on the dark wooden floor, quilts covering their beds, a heap of towels on one of them which Jared assumed must be his, because this side of the room looked a little more sterile than the other side. “It's not so bad, isn't it? Not sure where you're from but when I came here, it took me a while to get used to the quietness and the darkness up here. It can be a little eerie.”

A shiver was running down Jared's spine, and for a moment, he felt a little anxious, but then he remembered that he wouldn't be alone in that room. Jensen would be with him and Sam, who seemed motherly enough, would sleep upstairs, and what could possibly happen up here anyway? Yet, he had felt safe in his childhood home, and then the fire had devoured it so hungrily, changing his life from one moment to the next. Jared tried to shake it off. “San Antonio,” he answered Jensen's question instead. “So um, used to light and noise, traffic, stuff like that, though the neighborhood was okay.”

“Hey, I grew up in Texas too, until my parents died.” Jensen flashed him a broad smile. “So, we have something else in common. Something better than grief.” He paused. “Home.” Sadness crept over Jared's face, and Jensen hoped that he hadn't said anything wrong. “I guess your dad will come over quite soon to say bye, and um, if you like I can help you with unpacking your baggage, but if you want to be on your own, I'll leave you on your own, whatever you feel most comfortable with.”

Already close to tears, just thinking about saying bye to his dad, Jared was sure that he couldn't hold them back once they had said goodbye, and the thought that Jensen saw him cry made him feel awkward. It would probably be best to be alone, to press Sadie against his chest and hide beneath the freshly laundered covers.

“I guess you want to be on your own then,” Jensen wondered, and if Jared wasn't mistaken, he could hear a hint of disappointment in his voice. “I understand, I guess. I'm living with my grandma now and she's quite frail, she couldn't even drive me to the airport. We said goodbye in front of her house and I was angry she sent me away and sad and yeah, I cried, too.” It was a half-lie; Jensen had tried hard to bite back the tears because he didn't want the cab driver to see them, but Jared didn't need to know that. “It's okay to cry, if you lose things, no matter if you lose them forever or just for the time being. It's okay to cry when you're sad, Jared. I won't judge you.”

“Jared! Jensen!” Sam called, sparing Jared from an answer. “We're here.” She pulled the half-opened door further open and stepped into the room, Jared's tall dad towering behind her. Gerry came in, too and placed Jared's rucksack and suitcase on the bed. “Now come, Jensen,” Sam prompted the older boy. “Let's give Jared and his dad some space.”

Sam closed the door behind her, giving Jared and his dad all the privacy they needed. Gerry looked around the small room closely, noticing the photo of Jensen and what he guessed were his parents on his side of the chest of drawers that was the boys' nightstand. “He seems like a cool kid.”

Jared nodded. “He's nice, Dad.”

Gerry sat down on Jared's bed, patting the quilt once as a sign for Jared to join him, which he did instantly, scooting as close as possible before doing something he hadn't done for a while and climbing on his dad's lap. “This is a good place, JT,” Gerry announced matter of factly. “Sam is a good woman, and Jeffrey is a good man. You'll be in very good hands here.” He wrapped his arms around his son. “I know, I haven't been a good dad to you since the fire but I want you to be better and to learn how to handle your loss. Your mom would have wanted that too, Jared.” He held Jared a little tighter, Jared clinging onto him in return, suddenly being a toddler again, only feeling safe in his mom's or dad's arms. “You can call whenever you want to, JT, and I'll stick to my promise; if you don't feel good here, I'll come to pick you up asap. But I have the feeling that it won't be necessary.”

Having that feeling, too, Jared nodded. “'m not gonna disappoint you, Dad,” Jared promised, burying his face in the crook of his dad's neck.

“You never would, JT. You're a good boy. Your mom was very proud of you and so am I.”

Jared felt his eyes moistening up, remembering his mom, her laugh and smile, her warm arms hugging him, her scent, her singing or humming softly, her cooking his favorite dishes or tucking him in at night.

“I love you, JT.”

“Love you too, Daddy.” The hug tightened before his dad got up while he allowed Jared to cling to him a little longer. Then though, he whispered, “let go, little ape”, like he or his mom had done so often in the past, and Jared let go, silent tears now running down his cheeks. “We'll see each other in six or eight weeks, JT,” Gerry promised, tousling Jared's hair and, with a soft brush of his lips against his son's soft cheek, he was gone, just like his mom and Jeff, but other than them, Jared was sure, he'd see his dad again. Yet, for a moment, the grief and fear of loss once more overwhelmed him, and he hid his face in his pillow, crying and sniffing, while his small body was shaking.

 

4

Jensen could hear Jared cry and remembered his own arrival here. Other than Jared, he hadn't hidden in his room, but had run away, as fast as his overweight body had allowed, down to the creek, where he had hidden in a thicket, not minding but welcoming the bleeding scratches on his naked lower legs and the bugs that were crawling over his skin. He had spent what seemed like ages there, throwing stones and twigs into the happily gurgling water, until Sam had found him. She had offered kind words and a shoulder to lean on, but even though Jensen had been far too angry to accept any sort of affection from a stranger back then, the knowledge that she was willing to help and listen, that she understood, just helped. He could do the same for Jared.

Quietly, Jensen opened the door to their room, closing it as silently and tiptoeing to Jared's bed. He was sobbing pitifully, his bony back shaking with every sob that escaped his small body. Jensen felt a little awkward as he sat down on the edge of Jared's bed, very well aware that what he was doing might be intruding, that he invaded the boy's space, troubling him in a very private moment. But the private moment had taken more than ten minutes already and Jensen just couldn't bear it any longer, the thought that this kid was feeling all alone in his world. “You're not alone, Jared,” Jensen promised in between two pitiful sobs, placing his hand against Jared's shaking shoulder. “Six weeks ago, I was where you are now and I guess I know how you feel, but you're not alone. Sam and I, we're here to help.”

“But you'll leave.” Jared's voice was muffled by the pillow. “Just like Dad, Mom and Jeff, you'll leave.”

“Yeah, I'll leave. Leaving and losing is a part of life, Jared,” Jensen acknowledged, feeling very wise saying it. “It's what we learn here. But we have memories to keep, and there are always new people to meet. I know whoever you lost won't come back, just like my parents, but as sappy as it sounds, they're still with you.”

Jared sniffed, moving just enough to show Jensen half his blotchy face. His eyes were reddened and puffy, and the hazel of the irises compared with the look of loss reminded Jensen of a puppy.

“If you want to be on your own now, I'll really respect your wish, Jared, but like I promised earlier, we can unpack your stuff and then I'll show you the place. Besides,” Jensen smirked, placing his hand on his tummy and rubbing it, “there's cake and lemonade. Not that I should have any, but you could use my portion, dude.” Sam had talked with Jensen about nutrition a good few times because in the first couple of weeks, his middle was growing scarily, and while he wasn't on a diet per se, they had both agreed that Jensen should be more aware of what he had and combined with the exercise, he already had dropped some pounds.

“It's not that bad,” Jared said shyly, unsure if it was okay to really comment on the older boy's weight, remembering how Jensen admitted how angry he had been when he had come here first. “My best friend's sister is far worse, and she is one the nicest girls I know.” He propped himself up, looking at Jensen. Now he was so close, Jared could see that the freckles not only painted a random pattern over Jensen's face, but over arms and collarbones as well and that his burly statue not only seemed a little intimidating, but that it could also mean protection. He was still very scared to bind himself to a friend he was going to lose in a week or two, whenever Jensen would go, but the thought of being on his own here was even scarier. Fact was, whoever he would confide in or attach to, Jared would lose sooner or later.

“Thanks, I guess.” Jensen smiled. He had a really nice smile that contradicted what he had told Jared about being mean and obnoxious. Someone with a smile like that must be a good kid and could become a friend, Jared was sure of it. It's what his mom had told him. When people laugh and smile for real, they can't be bad, JT, she had said. Just look them in their eyes and you'll see if it's genuine. Jensen seemed very genuine.

“I think, I wouldn't mind some help with unpacking,” Jared admitted, causing the smile on Jensen's lips to grow.

“Great.” Jensen got up and walked to the small closet. Half of it was filled with Jensen's clothes, the other half was empty.

Jared opened his rucksack first, freeing Sadie, hiding her shyly behind the covers, feeling a little ashamed that he needed a cuddly toy. Jensen though just smiled. “I brought my own. Pan the Panda. Yeah, I know,” he chuckled, as he noticed Jared smirk, “not a very clever name, but I've had him since I was three years old, and well, a three-year-old is not the cleverest when naming a cuddly toy.” Jensen loved that panda, a present from his parents, something that had been with him for almost all his life, something that sort of protected him. In the last months, after the accident, Pan had been his best and most of all, his only friend as he had to leave his real friends in Texas behind

“I only got Sadie a month ago, after -” Jared stopped. He wanted to tell Jensen what had happened eventually, but not just yet. Right now, he was too stirred, everything was still too new and too strange.

Jensen did him the favor of not asking what had happened a month ago. Despite his anger, he was not insensitive, and he sensed that Jared's loss was far fresher than his own. Instead, he helped the boy unpacking his clothes, tiny t-shirts and pants compared to the big pieces of canvas he needed for his too big body. Suddenly, Jensen felt very ashamed about it. Just two years ago, he had been as scrawny as his new roommate, but then, he had started to develop a taste in food, and it had been his safe place, when he had had a bad day at school and one pound had piled up on the other. Once his parents had died, Jensen had not known any boundaries and with his grandma being so old, it had been easy to sneak sweets and fast food into her house. Looking down at the prominent curve of his belly, Jensen bit his lips, lapsing into silence. Jared was equally quiet as he handed Jensen his clothes, but the silence between them was not awkward, far from it. They were both lost in their own thoughts, but sharing that silence and working together hand in hand felt good, like it was the beginning of something new and special.

***

The farm was full of little hideouts. Places that were sort of secret, though of course Jensen knew, they weren't really. Other kids had been there before, other kids would be there when he had long returned to Richmond. Yet, for the time being, some of the places were his refuge. Just like him, Jared would probably roam around the farm sooner or later, discover them himself or maybe even places Jensen hadn't found yet, but still, he wanted to show Jared at least one of those hideouts, wanted to share it with him, in case he needed a place where he could be on his own for a while. “I'm going to show you my favorite place here now,” Jensen announced secretively. He'd spent the last hour giving Jared the tour, showing him the other cabins, the swimming pond, the creek with the spot where they could go fishing, the camp with a heap of ashes in its middle where a campfire was lit often.

Now they were strolling along a paddock, heading to the stables. “What I like about this place is that nothing is out of bounds really, apart from the staff's private rooms of course. So, I found this place in my first week here,” Jensen explained, stepping into the horse stable. There were boxes left and right, all empty now, because the horses were outside. Yet, the scent of horse and straw tickled Jared in his nose, the dry heat in the stable combined with the smell somehow comforting. “I've always loved horses. I went horseback riding once a week, while I was still living in Richardson with my parents.” Apart from his parents, it was one of the things Jensen missed the most. His friends at the stable, the horses and their presence, the somehow calming routine that came with tending to a horse. “Do you like horses, Jared?”

“I like all animals,” Jared stated, noticing himself how childish that sounded. “But I admit, I've never seen a horse close up before.” He followed Jensen into a small chamber and watched how the older boy put a ladder against one of the walls. Only now did Jared notice that there was a hatch in the wooden ceiling.

“Horses are great, man,” Jensen answered, thankfully not laughing at Jared, climbing up the ladder and pushing open the hatch. “And riding is great, too. In a way, it makes you feel free. They do a lot of therapy with horses here, and if you like to, I'll help you learn riding.” He disappeared into the darkness beyond the hatch. “Come up.”

Jared followed him, climbing up the wooden ladder, the rungs smooth with age and use. Darkness enveloped him once he joined Jensen, though it was not a complete darkness, with bright sunlight shimmering through countless cracks. The wooden floor was covered with straw, the scent of it far stronger than downstairs. “Maybe I should warn you, Jared,” Jensen said, as he walked over the floor, “there are spiders here, and some mice but it's still my favorite place.” Jensen was only a vague outline in that hayloft full of shadows, “Come here.” Jensen disappeared behind some hay balls, and when Jared joined him, he saw that the older boy had made himself a small pallet there, simple, with an old blanket covering the straw, a pillow he had nicked somewhere and a tin of biscuits. There also was a flashlight. “Never bring fire up here, Jared,” Jensen warned him, not noticing the shudder that was running through Jared at the simple mention of fire, not seeing how his face paled. “If you like, you can sit down next to me.” He patted the space on the blanket next to him. “I don't bite.”

“I know you don't,” Jared whispered, biting his lips. He knew he was shy, far more than before the fire. It seemed that it had burned away so much more than the house and his family; Jared's self-esteem was also gone. Carefully, Jared sat down next to Jensen Indian style, close enough that their knees touched.

“I'm going to tell you my story now, Jared, because I want you to know why I'm here, but please keep in mind that I don't expect you to return the favor, okay? You can tell me your story whenever you want, or not at all, that's up to you.”

Jared nodded, appreciating Jensen's openness as well as his understanding.

“It's not even that much to tell, thinking about it. I stayed overnight at my buddy Jason's and woke up in the middle of the night, feeling very sick. I barely made it to the bathroom. His mom called my parents.” He knew he sounded a little off, a little too neutral, as if he was reporting something on TV, but Jensen had come a long way and it was progress that he was able to talk about it at all. “My dad, he wanted to go on his own, but my mom insisted on coming with him. She was always very protective of me, me being her only child. They never arrived at Jason's. It was raining heavily that night, and Jason, he is living outside Richardson, so it was a fifteen mile drive in the middle of the night in rough conditions and my dad was driving too fast. Their tire ripped, he lost control of the car and crashed into a tree. My mom died instantly, my dad two days later.” Now Jensen sounded less neutral, with emotions bubbling inside him. “I blamed myself, Jared, still do, though it's better after weeks of therapy. I had begged my mom to stay with Jason. She never felt too happy about me not sleeping at home. And I got sick. If I just had stayed at home, like Mom had wanted me to, I probably wouldn't have been sick and she wouldn't have worried about me and my dad, he wouldn't have needed to pick me up and they'd still be alive, Jared. Yet, I know that it was an accident.” He didn't tell Jared anything about the following hours, about him being sick, first because of food gone bad, then because of worry, how Jason's mom had made countless calls to neighbors and Jensen's family until, hours later, the police came to tell them what had happened. He would never tell anyone about how he had felt in that moment, when the truth had hit him that his mom was gone, that his dad was fighting for his life. The desperation had choked him. “My mom's parents are long dead, so my dad's mom took me in. She had him late, is already over eighty and while she is a kind woman, I barely know her. I lost not only my parents, but also my home and my friends, moving from Richardson to Richmond, hundreds of miles away. I consoled myself with food, Jared. I'd developed a taste for food even before the accident, but after the first initial shock that made me sick waned, I practically ate all the time. The weight burdened me, too, it still does. I know I'm a fat boy. I grew very mad, at everyone and anything, but especially at myself. One of my new teachers recommended the farm. Being here really was the best thing that has happened to me since the accident.” Jensen hadn't looked at Jared while he was telling his tale, his eyes fixed at his crossed legs, his fingers playing with straws, but when he looked up now, he saw that the younger boy's eyes were swimming in tears. It touched Jensen deeply.

Jared sniffed, wiping his eyes. “'m very sorry for your loss, Jensen,” Jared mumbled. He at least had his dad, his aunt and uncle, baby Lindsey. Jensen, on the other hand, really was all alone apart from his elderly grandma. “Is it okay if I give you a hug?” There had been lots of hugs in his family but hugging an older boy he had only met three hours ago was something else.

Jensen had never hugged a friend. He found it a little awkward, hugging someone who was not family, didn't even want Sam to hug him although he really liked her and confided in her, but he couldn't say now, could he? “I guess it is,” he said shyly, and even before he could brace himself, he was wrapped into Jared's skinny arms. Curiously enough, it felt unbelievably good. Jared might look fragile and skinny, but there was a real force in that hug, real warmth and sincerity. He clinged on to him real tight, and Jensen felt less awkward than he had expected when he wrapped his own arms around Jared to return the hug. He was so small and skinny but for those few heartbeats, it felt like the younger boy became a part of Jensen. If that was a creepy or perv thought, so be it, but Jensen couldn't help that he felt like that, that something tugged at his heartstrings again and that he really wanted to help Jared while he was still there.

***

After dinner, which Jared had with Jensen and a few other kids and that was a very quiet affair on his side, because he was just too drained and shy, he walked back to the cabin, Jensen by his side. He really appreciated that Jensen had not tried to talk him into joining him for karaoke night, night swimming or a hike with torches, just bore him silent company. Jensen on the other hand worried about Jared; not that he could really blame him, but he hadn't said a word during dinner, and only had picked at his food, like a little bird, although it had been very good, had been playing nervously with his cutlery, had scratched his neck and bit his lip.

“I could stay with you,” Jensen offered once they reached the cabin. It was lying in darkness, with Sam still supervising dinner and all the other kids either dining or strolling around. “I wouldn't mind.”

Jared shook his head. He didn't want Jensen to hate him because he was such a downer. “'m tired, Jensen,” Jared admitted. “I just want to sleep.”

Once in their room, Jared stripped off his shoes and clothes, not minding that Jensen was watching him. Jensen was shocked to see how skinny the boy was, his ribs sticking out, and felt fatter than ever before. The pajama Jared put on was brand new, the colors still fresh. Actually, Jensen had noticed that all of Jared's belongings were new, from the clothes down to the suitcase, and he wondered if that was part of Jared's story. Other than him, Jared was very neat, folding the clothes as tidily as he could and putting them on the chair. While Jared was in the bathroom, Jensen drew the curtains, switched on the light on the nightstand and removed the quilt, sitting down on his own bed and waiting until Jared came back. He looked close to tears. “What is it, Jared?” Jensen asked. “Homesick?”

Jared shook his head. He had no home to be sick for any longer, yet on the other hand, he longed for the house that now was only a blackened ruin. “There's something I got to tell you,” Jared pressed out as he sat down on his bed, his head sunk between his shoulders. He didn't want Jensen to know about the bedwetting and his nightmares, but he knew that the harder he tried, it rather happened. “I um, have nightmares, and um sometimes I pee in my bed.”

He was very grateful that Jensen didn't scrunch his nose in disgust. “Most of us have nightmares and are bed-wetters when we come here, Jared,” Jensen admitted. “Especially the younger kids. That's why all the beds have padding. It's nothing to be ashamed of.” It had happened to Jensen, too. “If it happens, you get yourself cleaned up and wake up Sam, okay? And you also can wake me, too. Now, hop into your bed.” He got up and tucked Jared in once he had slipped beneath the covers, pressing Sadie against his chest. It felt the right thing to do. “Sleep tight, Jared.”

***

Jared didn't sleep tight. He fell asleep just fine, but woke up every hour or so, whenever one of the other kids came back. He could hear laughter in the living room, the water in the shower thundering down, the flush of the toilet, Sam's footsteps in her private rooms upstairs. Eventually, Jensen came back, tiptoeing into the room, rummaging around for his pajamas as quietly as possible without switching the light on. He noticed at once that Jared was awake, the boy trying just too hard to pretend to be sleeping, but he didn't say a thing, just slipped between his own cool linens, pressing Pan against his chest. He tried to clear his mind, breathing in and out, until sleep dragged him away. Nightmares still haunted him, too, several versions, each more sinister and cruel than the other one, about his parents dying in that car, burning alive or bleeding to death, though it hadn't happened like that.

A cruel scream woke Jensen up. First he thought it had been an animal; they were in the wilderness, but then, he could hear Jared panting staccato breaths, as if he had run a marathon, and it was clear that he'd had a nightmare that had woken him up and that he was crying. Without thinking about it, Jensen switched on the light, crossing the narrow gap to where Jared was lying with a pale face and eyes wide as saucers, deeply distressed. “It's okay, Jared,” Jensen tried to console the younger boy, placing his hand on Jared's shoulder. “It's gonna be okay.” It was just a platitude, having heard it quite a few times lately himself, but he just couldn't ignore that look and the tears that were sparkling in Jared's eyes.

“They're gone, Jensen,” Jared pressed out. “It'll never be okay again.”

“Six weeks ago, I was where you are now. I thought my life had ended, Jared. I know you won't believe it now, but please, believe me when I tell you that things will be better if you give yourself a chance to get better.” He felt very grown-up saying stuff like that. “I promise. It's gonna be okay.” Opening his arms in an inviting gesture, Jared took the invitation gladly, propping himself up and letting himself be enveloped by Jensen's sleep-warm body. Other than himself, Jensen was very soft and strong, and he held Jared tight, giving comfort for something inconsolable yet receiving something in return he hadn't known before; trust and faith.

 

5

It took Jared quite a few days to adjust, because it was all pretty much overwhelming. The almost thirty kids, who were all grieving yet trying so hard not to, the teachers and therapists, the farm with its ranges and paddocks. He didn't talk much, stayed in the background, and, just like back at school, avoided the other kids. Everyone, but Jensen. Jensen was his lifebelt. Of course, Jared couldn't spend 24/7 with the older boy, Jensen had lessons and therapy, too, but it was enough to be with him for meals, to spend the evening activities with him and the afternoon hours, if they were both free. Sometimes, they'd lie on the pallet up in the hayloft, talking. Sometimes, they'd go to a lonely spot by the river, splashing in the shallow, but swift water, Jensen never stripping off his tee. It was obvious that he was ashamed of his body, of the round tummy that was very apparent underneath the clothes, but Jared didn't mind. It was just flab covering a body that held a beautiful soul, that had gone through pretty much the same as Jared had, and was still troubled, despite weeks of therapy.

The first session with Judy, who was his therapist and a counselor of another cabin, was awkward as fuck, Jared's throat feeling very dry and his heart pounding rapidly, his small hands sweaty, a feeling of dread in his guts. Instead of talking, she brought Jared into a room where he could express his feelings differently. Some trashed things, some screamed or cried, Jared sat down, took the crayons and painted; three pictures. A house and a family, mother and father and two boys, bikes leaning against the outside wall, a pool, trees, bushes and flowers. The same house, burning, huge yellow and red flames licking at the wall, the windows splintered, the trees scorched. A gravestone, with two names on it, and a little boy and his father standing next to it. Jared was quite a talented artist for his age, and Judy looked at it with a mixture of praise and horror, handing Jared a tissue for his tear-stained face and a glass of water and bore Jared silent company, until the hour was up and he was free to go. Jared felt weirdly relieved by having told his story, though not with words.

Better than the first therapy session was the first horse therapy session, because he fell in love with them at once. Their warm and strong bodies, their soft noses and gentle movements of their heads. Jensen was with him, which made it even better, teaching him how to tend to a pony or horse, how to groom them correctly, how to feed them with a slice of apple or a piece of carrot and everything else you needed to know. It was Jensen who helped him into the saddle and who watched him from the side of the paddock, smiling while munching on an apple that was actually meant for the pony, while Jared felt like Jensen had promised him he would; free.

***

Two days later, Jared decided that it was time to tell Jensen his story. It wasn't that he felt obliged to it, but all things considered, it wasn't a big secret anyways, was it? Sam, Judy and Jeff knew, Carol knew, their old neighbors knew, Chad, his family and all the school knew. Jensen should know, too, simply because he was trustworthy and he was his friend. After lunch, the two boys would often stroll around the farm, sometimes aimlessly, sometimes like they were on a mission. Today it was the former, strolling together side by side, their shoulders bumping, the tall, big boy and the small, scrawny one a funny sight to the adults though they could also see a closeness that was rare, despite the importance of the mentor for all the kids. Of course, a lot of the kids bound but Jared and Jensen somehow were special.

“My mom and brother died in a house fire, Jensen,” Jared announced without any preamble, sounding as neutral as if he was talking about what he had for lunch today. He kept on walking, not looking at Jensen but at the dirt on the gravel, straws and petals, a small piece of paper someone had lost. “It was in the middle of the night. My dad got me out, but barely, and my mom rushed upstairs to where Jeff had his room in the loft. They didn't make it. Dad wanted to help them, but the flames started in the kitchen, and the first floor was already ablaze when he carried me outside. I ran around the house, looking for Mom up in the loft. She was screaming so loud, hammering against the window before breaking it, trying to get out but of course it was in vain. They had barred the window because my brother was a sleepwalker, so it was for his own sake, but when the fire happened, it was their doom. I got away with a light smoke poisoning, only had to stay in the hospital for a couple of days. Dad caught some burns, but also minor, but my mom and brother, they died up there.”

Jensen didn't know what to say because this was so much worse than his own story, simply because Jared had been there. He had practically watched his mom and big brother die without being able to help. “I'm very sorry that happened to you, Jared.” Jensen placed his hand against Jared's back. He wasn't crying, but tears were clouding his eyes. “I'm very sorry that you lost your mom and your brother.” He drew him against his chest and enfolded him in his arms. “It's okay to cry,” he whispered, “you know that. I'm here to catch you. You can let go.”

And Jared let go, once more crying for the loss of his brother and mother, of all the things dear to him, all the bits and pieces that had made them the Padaleckis. He cried, sniffed and wailed, howled like a wolf and Jensen was there. He held him tight in his strong arms, rubbing consoling circles into his back and promising Jared that eventually, it would hurt just a little less and that it was okay.

***

“Here you are,” Sam greeted the two boys when they came back. Jared's eyes were a little red and puffy and he was holding Jensen's hand, clinging onto him. He was his lifebelt and Sam hated what they had to do more than ever before. “Jensen, Jeff wants to talk to you. He awaits you in his office.”

A horrible feeling of foreboding was spreading through Jensen's belly; he knew what that was about. It had only been a matter of time a week ago, when Jared had arrived, but now it was a certainty. His time at the farm was coming to an end, and they would send him back in a plane in a couple of days. Probably, Jeffrey had already talked to his gran, had already arranged the drive to the airport and the flight back home. A home he barely knew, to a grandma who wasn't able to leave the house, who could barely walk and who was not really fit caring for a twelve-year-old who had lost his parents. Yet, it was far better than an orphanage or foster parents because if these places were just half as bad as Jensen had heard, they were hell. Yet, he was aware that sooner or later, he would end up in the system. It would be a miracle if his grandma lived long enough to celebrate his eighteenth birthday. He had thought about telling Jared, but he couldn't burden him with it, having lost his home, his mom and his brother. Jensen was strong, he would manage.

“Jensen?” Sam's voice ripped him out of his dark thoughts. “It'll be okay. Go.”

Chancing a last look at Sam, who gave him an encouraging smile, and at Jared, who looked as shy and troubled as ever, Jensen turned around and closed the door to the cabin behind him.

“Is everything alright?” Jared asked once Jensen disappeared behind the closed door.

“Don't worry, Jared. Everything is how it's supposed to be,” Sam answered, knowing that the news that Jensen would leave in three days would break the little boy. A part of Sam had hated that she had to tell Jeffrey at their meeting this morning that Jensen was ready to go home, knowing very well that Jensen was Jared's only friend here. But he'd come along, just like the other kids before him. “Are you okay?”

Jared nodded. “I told Jensen what happened.”

“That's great progress, Jared. How are you feeling now?”

The little boy shrugged. “Not too bad I guess. I think it was easier telling him than seeing people speculating about it or gossiping about it, if you know what I mean.” Telling Jensen what had happened had made Jared sad, but the hug he had received had lessened the pain a little.

“Do you feel up to doing your homework? Or do you need some time? Or a hug?”

“Jensen gave me a hug.” Jared still felt a little warm and tingly from the tight hug.

Sam lifted her eyes in surprise. “Did he really?” She'd never seen Jensen hugging anyone before, the boy had always shied away from the hugs she offered.

“He did. He gives great hugs.”

Sam chuckled. Who would have thought that angry, aggressive Jensen could give great hugs to a hurting, grieving boy? “Okay then, do your homework, Jared.” She watched Jared disappearing into his room, hoping that he wouldn't break when they took Jensen away from him.

***

Jensen knew resistance was futile, yet, once Jeffrey had told him that he was to leave the farm in three days, he tried to object anyway. He told the boss that Jared was still hurting, that he had only just started to confide in him, that he was Jared's only friend and that by no means could he leave him alone now.

“It honors you, Jensen, caring so much about Jared, but you know, that's not how things work here. The kids stay until they are better, not until their friends are better, and you're doing very well, Jensen. And don't pretend you're not for Jared's sake. You know, you leaving is the last step for you and the first for Jared. So, go and tell Jared and your other friends.”

Jensen left, but not to go and tell Jared. How could he tell Jared that he was to leave? Instead, he ran away, like the angry boy he had been seven weeks ago, yet without cursing and trashing things, though tears were stinging in his eyes. He hid, not in the hayloft, but in a little clearing by the creek, hugging himself, knowing that he'd lose again.

***

Jared had long finished his homework, a bit of calculus and a bit of English, and Jensen still hadn't returned, though it was almost time for dinner. Jensen never missed dinner, he loved food far too much for it. Ignoring his own hungrily growling belly, Jared left the patio where he had been looking out for his friend, strolling down to the creek. He didn't know why he went there first; it just felt like the right place to look and he was drawn there, like an iron was drawn by a magnet. It took him a while, but eventually, Jared found his friend; sitting on the ground, legs pulled against his chest, looking pensively while throwing small stones into the swiftly running stream.

“Jensen?” Jared asked, carefully coming closer, not sure if he was welcome right now. “Is it okay I'm here? I was looking for you.”

Jensen didn't say a word, but patted the spot next to him invitingly. Jared sat down, actually feeling the warmth from his friend's body grazing his own, so close did they sit. Suddenly, Jared knew what this was about. It hit him like a punch, hurt almost as much as losing his mom and brother, yet it didn't come as a surprise. Jeffrey had told him that it would happen. “You're leaving, aren't you?”

Jensen chanced a quick look at his young friend. Jared really was smart and very sensitive. He managed a smile, but he knew it was lopsided and it didn't chase the sadness in his face away. “On Friday, Jared. I don't want to, but I have to.” A tear escaped his left eye, and he wiped it away. Jensen needed to be strong for his friend.

Jared fought very hard to keep his composure. He wouldn't cry now, not when Jensen was so sad himself. He could cry later, when Jensen had left for good, but now, he didn't want to cry. Leaning into him, he wrapped an arm around his friend. “It's okay, Jen.” He didn't know why he called him that, it just happened that he shortened his name. “We're gonna be okay.”

 

6

The knowledge that Jensen would leave quite soon and that their days were numbered changed something in their relationship. It was not something major, but just small things; for once, Jared talked a little more and Jensen got more affectionate. He'd never have admitted it to anyone except himself, but he loved that boy. He was like the little brother Jensen always had wished for but never had and all Jensen wanted was to chase the look of sadness in Jared's face away and to see him smile and hear him laugh. When he finally managed to lure a real smile out of Jared, the day after Jensen had found out that he had to leave, it was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. Jared had dimples and his smile was bright, wide and slightly sassy. They were lying together on their towels in the grass, their arms almost touching, Jared telling him some random stuff about his family, and suddenly, instead of tears, there was this beautiful, warm smile. Jensen didn't say or do anything, just took that sight in, already being addicted to it, hoping he could see more of it before he had to leave.

“How about we go swimming?” Jared suggested eventually. The swimming pond wasn't far, and they could hear other kids splashing in the water, cheering and having fun, having forgotten the reason why they were here for a few blissful moments.

Jensen had only been to the pond once, in his first week, and it had been ugly. Another boy had called him fat, had pointed at his tits and the flabby tummy and Jensen had hit him and had almost been expelled because of it. But of course the boy had been right. He was fat, and he had tits, and Jensen hated his bloated body. “I'd rather not, Jared. I um, don't go swimming.” He stroked his prominent middle self-consciously.

Jared wanted to reach out and touch it, but he didn't, knowing that it would cross a line. His mom had told him when and most of all, what was okay to touch and your friend's tummy wasn't on that list. “'m sure it's not that bad, Jen.” He'd never seen Jensen naked. While Jared didn't mind dressing in their bedroom, Jensen always did it in the bathroom. Then though, he was four years older, almost a young man and it probably was different. “I don't mind.”

Jensen felt weirdly touched. “I know you don't, Jared, but I do. I just don't feel comfortable in my skin, don't want people to see it, least of all you.”

A brief shadow of hurt and sadness flit over Jared's face. “Why not?”

“Scared that you like me less when you see the real extent of my weight, Jared.”

Jared's eyes widened. Jensen should know him better by now, but on the other hand, how could he, the way he was, all quiet, shy and withdrawn. “I'm not like that. Mom was a good woman and she taught me to look further than just at the body. It's just curves, Jen. You're more than that.”

Jensen wasn't sure of it, but he gave Jared a smile, receiving a beautiful, dimpled smile in return.

***

That night, Jensen changed in their bedroom. He did it quickly, with his back to Jared who was already lying in his small bed, reading a book, but there was not a hint of disgust in the younger boy's face when Jensen turned around. Slipping beneath the covers, he switched off the light and they talked far longer than they were supposed to be, Jensen telling Jared about his family for once, about his friends and his grandma, about his hopes and dreams.

“You really are more than a bit of flab, Jen,” Jared said tiredly, pressing Sadie against his chest and falling asleep, not thinking about the next day, his last full day with Jensen.

***

They both skipped school, and no one blamed them. While Jared had therapy with Judy, Jensen waited patiently in front of the room, and when it was his turn for his last therapy session with Trisha, Jared did the same. They were joined at the hip, and while both were sad that they had to say goodbye, they were thriving, because of what they had. Sam smiled when she saw them riding over the paddock, watching them for a while, saw their smiles, heard their laughs and Jensen reaching out a hand, taking Jared's and holding it for a brief moment. Those two boys really loved each other.

***

Jensen's heart was heavy as he said goodbye to most of his friends during dinner. He had an early flight to catch and Kevin, who was sort of the utility man on the farm, would drive him to the airport very early in the morning. Waiting in the background, Jared bore Jensen silent company, like a shadow, but Jensen was very grateful for it. He already had had his final talk with Jeffrey, had gotten some last, good advice and a lot of praise on his work with Jared. “You're great with him, Jensen.”

“He's easy to be great with, Jeff,” Jensen had said, thinking about the scrawny boy, his dimpled smile and his tight hugs. He'd miss him, almost as much as he missed his parents, but other than his parents, Jensen hoped that they would see each other again. Maybe, his grandma allowed Jensen to visit Jared in San Antonio, and they could write letters and talk on the phone. He'd already scribbled down his contacts, complete with a short letter, all the things he wanted to tell Jared but just couldn't put into spoken words.

“What evening activity do you want to do on your last day?” Jared asked as they walked back to the cabin. Apart from that first night, they'd spent all their evening activities together. They'd done quiz and karaoke night, night swimming, hiking and riding, but they'd never been to the camp though it was one of Jensen's own faves; guitar music, campfire, homemade lemonade and stories.

“If you don't mind, I'd love to go to the camp tonight,” Jensen answered. “That okay?”

It should be okay, but Jared was scared. The fire scared him, but he hadn't told anyone yet. Not his aunt or dad, nor Judy. Instead, he had drawn more pictures of fire devouring things in their old house, tables and beds, curtains and toys.

“Jared?”

“'m not sure I can do this,” Jared admitted, looking at the cabin they had reached. The setting sun gave the walls a warm red glow, and even the glow reminded Jared of fire and he started to shake badly.

“Why not? Kristy and Karen go, too.” Kristy and Karen were living in the cabin with them, and while Jared didn't talk much, he liked the siblings, who had lost their grandma who had practically raised them, because their parents were successful surgeons too busy to care for their kids.

Fear was suddenly choking Jared. Of fire, and of losing Jensen tomorrow and of being left alone.

“Jared?” A warm, gentle hand touched his shoulders. “Talk to me.” Those green eyes were full of care and love. “What's wrong?”

“Fire. 'm scared of fire.” Just like that, it was out.

“Of course you are, Jared.” Jensen's voice was oozing with gentleness. “Anyone would be. A fire out of control can be scary as fuck, and fire took your loved ones away. But this campfire won't get out of control, I promise. It's warm, cozy and romantic. Would you dare to go, if I'm with you?”

Jared wasn't sure about it. He knew he was being unreasonable. He'd seen fire before. Their house had had a real fireplace, his mom had loved to light candles, and in summer, they had sometimes lit torches on their terrace or had grilled meat over a real campfire. For Christmas, they always had gotten a real fir tree, with real candles. Those were happy memories. Maybe, he could add another happy memory to them? His last evening with Jensen? “I'll give it a try.”

They got their hoodies and a blanket and, just like that, Jensen took Jared's hand, walking him down to the camp. Some kids were already there and the fire was already burning. It was a big fire, the logs cracking happily, the scent of resin strong in the air, the fire fizzling and the smoke tickling Jared's nose. Suddenly, he was back in the house, choking and barely seeing anything through the smoke, but he wasn't. Jensen's hand was a strong presence in his own, and he walked him to one of the tree trunks that were placed in a very safe distance from the fire, grown with weed and moss. “It's okay, Jared,” Jensen promised. “It's not gonna hurt you.” They sat down on the tree trunk, Jensen wrapping the blanket around them, holding Jared snug against his body. “It's never gonna hurt you again.”

Jared's small body trembled, and he buried his head in Jensen's chest, crying once more for what had happened, until eventually, his tears ran dry. Rubbing Jared's skinny arms, Jensen felt him slowly relax, the strong hold around him weakening until Jared drew back, looking a little sheepish and feeling a little awkward. Yet, strangely, no one was looking at him weirdly, least of all Jensen, who looked at him kindly, who really was a friend. The best friend he'd ever had, actually. A shoulder to cry on and his lifebelt. 

It was Jensen, who eventually started to sing along to one of the songs, Jared joining him a little later, his voice shaky and thin, yet there.

Time passed, and Jared felt a little lighter, far lighter than he had felt since the fire, actually. He watched the flames in the campfire dance, noticed how beautiful it actually was, the red glow of the embers, the music of the fire, the light and shadows it threw over the earthen ground, its warmth. Just like Jensen had promised, there was lemonade, biscuits, ice-cream and small sandwiches and Jared saw how hungry Jensen looked at the food, yet not daring to have any, because he was afraid of putting on even more weight.

“You really are much more than that, Jen,” Jared said, putting his hand on his friend's middle, patting the curve gently before he drew his hand back again. Now he had done it, it hadn't been such a big thing.

Jensen smiled, still feeling the tingle Jared's gentle caress had left in his middle; it caused a warmth no fire could. Understanding the message, he got up and took a sandwich and a chocolate cookie, eating slowly, washing it down with sweet sour lemonade and locking this moment into his heart.

***

Sam woke them up in what felt like the middle of the night. Jensen had a quick shower, brushed his teeth and got dressed in their room, not minding that Jared saw all of him. He was too tired to notice much, anyways, leaning into the pillows in his bed, Sadie pressed against his chest. Tears were burning in Jared's eyes, while he watched Jensen getting dressed, packing his pajama into the old suitcase and closing it with a weird finality. Taking the book and Pan to store in his small carry-on duffle bag, Jensen hesitated a moment as a thought hit him. It was more an idea, and before he could change his mind, he took Pan, sat down on Jared's bed and placed him into his friend's arm. “I want you to keep Pan, Jared. To remember me and our time here, and to have something to hold on to, if things are a little rough, or if you're afraid of fire, or if one of your nightmares is haunting you.”

Jared's heart actually skipped a beat because of the grandeur of the gesture. He knew how much Pan meant to Jensen. He had been with him almost his whole life, a birthday present from his parents. How could he possibly accept this gift? “It's too much, Jen,” Jared stammered, looking into his friend's emerald eyes. “You love Pan.”

“I do.” He didn't say that he loved Jared, too, because no matter how close they were, he couldn't just tell him. “But you lost all your own toys in the fire, Jared. And I want you to have him. And maybe, I can come visit him in his new home?”

“Of course you can,” Jared promised. He had already talked to his dad about it, when he had called him the other day and Gerry had allowed his son instantly to invite Jensen. “You'll always be welcome in our house.” They'd move to Austin, for a fresh start and a better job in the company his father had been working for the past five years, and they'd buy a new house once the insurance company had paid. Jared was actually looking forward to it, though it meant losing his old friends. But losing things or people was a part of life, wasn't it? He pressed Pan against his chest, burying his face into the fur. It wasn't as soft as Sadie's, but smooth and soft enough, and it smelled of Jensen. It meant safety and home, acceptance and love. It meant all the things his older friend was for Jared.

“Thanks for everything, Jen,” Jared said, his voice quivering heavily with emotions. “'m gonna miss you.”

“'m gonna miss you, too. And Pan.” He wrapped his arms around Jared, receiving the smaller boy's hug instantly in return, the stuffed animal pressed between their bodies. “Take care, Jared, and be strong.”

“I will, Jen. Just like you are.” Tears were clouding Jared's eyes once more, but he wasn't ashamed of them, especially because Jensen had teary eyes himself. Not taking his eyes off his friend, Jensen got up, shouldered his rucksack and took his suitcase, waving once. “Don't forget me, Jared.”

Jared vowed he never would. He vowed he would keep all his promises, would spend the holidays with Jensen and would be his best friend forever.



 

PART II

 

2004

 

7

The spotlight blinded Jared, and he shifted a little, just enough so that he didn't have to blink, taking a sip of his water. It was a little too tepid and too warm for his liking. He could ask for a fresh glass, for sparkling water which he preferred, but he wasn't one of those stars. Despite being in the business for six years now, having made money and achieved fame, Jared still was down to earth, just like his dad had asked him to, when it had started. It had started with a school play, with someone in the audience working as an agent in LA, with her approaching Jared and his dad after he had received thunderous applause for being Romeo. It had started with minor roles getting bigger and more important, bringing him right here, to this interview with Oprah. She had invited Jared, because as one of the first major Hollywood actors, he had dared to come out. They had talked about this big step and now he had a little break before other questions would be asked. He could have seen them beforehand, but Jared wouldn't do that. He always preferred to be as authentic as possible.

“Welcome back, to our talk with Jared Padalecki, one of Hollywood's brightest stars.” Jared felt heat creeping up his cheeks. “You play the fearful hunter of supernatural things Dean Winchester in the Supernatural movies. Is there anything you're afraid of?”

“Fire,” Jared answered, without blinking. It wasn't even a big secret. He still had a lot of respect for fire and what had happened more than a decade ago wasn't a secret anyways. The story that Jared lost his mother and brother in a house fire could be read on all fansites and in every vita of his on the net. “Though maybe fear is a too big word. I respect fire. I know what it can do, but I also know what it can give.”

“Do you want to tell us more about it?”

Suddenly Jared was back at the farm, sitting next to Jensen, singing songs with him, feeling friendship and love. Jensen. There was not a day when he didn't think about him and when the fear and the insecurity about what had happened to Jensen choked him. “Yeah, sure,” Jared agreed, telling about his happy memories that related to fire, though not about his happiest. This moment with Jensen was too special and private.

“In one of your more recent TV interviews, we could see an old stuffed panda sitting on the couch next to you. We've seen this panda in photos from your childhood and later, in photos of your home or your trailer before. Can you tell us its story?”

It's unbelievable what these people noticed and a sad little smile flitted over Jared's face. Never before had he told his story, Jensen's story. Maybe, if he did now, at Oprah's show, he would have a chance to find him again. “His name is Pan, and he is a token of the best friend I've ever had. Jensen.” And then, without thinking about it much longer, he told their story. It was a very short story, because it ended shortly after they had said goodbye. It ended with unanswered calls and letters that were returned to Jared, with Jared crying and begging, until he and his dad went on a road trip all the way to Richmond only to find a “sold” sign in front of the house Jensen had lived in with his grandma. It ended with neighbors telling his dad that she had passed and that the boy had ended in the system. “I tried my best to find him, back then, with the little means we had, and two years ago, with a private investigator, but Jensen just vanished. It's one of my biggest wishes to see him again. He saved me and inspired me.” Moistening his lips and swallowing hard, Jared looked into the camera. “Jen, if you see this, I hope you're good. Please, get in touch with me. Pan really needs to see you again, and so do I.” Tears were stinging in Jared's eyes but he didn't wipe them away.

***

Jensen normally didn't watch a lot of TV. He was either too stoned or too drunk to do so, and most of the time, they didn't have enough money to pay their electricity bill anyways and it was pure coincidence that he actually saw Jared talking about him. He had been sober enough to work at the grocery store he sometimes helped at and he had heard about the interview on the radio. He had drunk less than usual, had not taken whatever his friends had brought home, and even though withdrawal already made Jensen queasy, he had stayed strong, had sneaked away from the bunch of comrades he was sharing this rathole with and had switched on the old TV, just minutes before Jared had walked into the studio. He was so, so beautiful, tall and muscled, his smile as bright and dimpled as back all those years ago, his voice of course now deeper, but warm and soft, causing a shiver that had nothing to do with withdrawal running through Jensen's body. Those eyes were as warm and beautiful as ever. He was a God. He was all the things Jensen could never be; successful, rich, famous and popular, and so proud of who he was. Gay, just like Jensen was, but that was probably the only thing they had in common nowadays. He had talked about his coming out, about his movies and suddenly, after the intermission, Jared had talked about him, had actually asked Jensen to get in touch. In the first second, Jensen thought he'd do it. Then though, he looked down on himself. At the arms covered with countless punctures, the skin sickly, covered with a rash, his scarily bony body. He felt the teeth he had already lost, his shivering body weak with withdrawal, longing for whatever drug he could get. The crimes he had committed, the prostitution, the fear of already having caught HIV or God knows what. How could he soil Jared? He would be so disgusted, so shocked, wouldn't want to have anything to do with him, would push him back into the gutters, where he belonged. But maybe, if he got out of it, Jensen could find Jared? Maybe, if he was clean, had a job and was respectable, he could dare to get in touch with Jared? Perhaps then, Jared would be less shocked? Yet, there was still the history, the horrible things Jensen experienced and had to do, ever since his grandma had died, less than three months after Jensen had returned home from the farm. How could he ever tell Jared? He was so dirty. Vermin. Jared was too good for him. Biting his lips so hard that they started bleeding, Jensen switched off the TV, taking a deep gulp of the vodka that was still standing on the only furniture in the room and joining his comrades in their delirium. There was a half used shot of heroin and not minding what he could get himself if he used someone else's syringe, Jensen shot the drug into his vein.

***

“A lot of weirdos called,” Suzie, his assistant, explained after she had spoken to Jared's agent. “But not your Jensen. I'm sorry, Jared.”

Sadness washed over Jared, and he just nodded his thanks, walking back to his trailer and locking the door behind him. He had so hoped that his plea on nationwide TV would give him Jensen back but once more, he had hoped in vain. Sitting down on his sofa, Jared took Pan in his hand, looking at the beloved cuddly toy.

Just like Pan had been a good friend to Jensen, it had been a dear friend to Jared. He was cuddled thin, his fur already gone in some places and of course, the scent of Jensen was long gone, too, but Jared still remembered it as if it had been yesterday, the early morning wakeup, how Jensen had looked when he had given Pan to Jared, when they had hugged goodbye. Back then, Jared had been so sure that they would be friends forever, that they would spend summers and holidays together. Yet, after two calls and three letters, it had been radio silence but Jared had never forgotten Jensen. “Not sure we'll ever see him again, Pan,” Jared whispered, burying his face in his tummy, wondering what had happened to Jensen. A thought sneaked into his mind, not for the first time, but it was too horrible to think and like all the times before, Jared pushed it away, hoping that Jensen was alive, breathing, healthy and happy.

“Jared?” Suzie called from outside. “They need you to be back on set.”

Of course they did. Releasing a shaky breath, Jared put Pan back on the sofa, collecting himself and getting into the headspace of Dean Winchester, monster hunter extraordinaire.

 

8

Feeling weirdly uninvolved, Jensen watched as medics performed CPR on Alison, who had been with him for the past couple of years. He was high and drunk, yet he understood that she was gone, even before he saw one of the medics shake his head almost imperceptibly. He declared her dead, calling the undertaker and the cops, and suddenly, Jensen felt panic wash over him. It could have been him. It should have been him. For years, he had been dancing with Death, back and forth, round and round, and had almost been knocking on Heaven's door a handful of times. Yet, he had always come back, thanks to friends who had performed CPR and a surprisingly strong resistance. For almost as long, Jensen hadn't cared. What was he to the world? What was the world to him? He was nothing, just a vermin, a lost case, a disgrace to humankind. Yet, someone out there longed for him. Someone with warm hazel eyes, a dimpled smile and strong muscled arms. Jared.

With shaky legs, Jensen got up. He took his little belongings, throwing them uncoordinated into the small duffle bag he already had back at the farm, among them a photo of Jared and him. Sam had taken it and Jared had sent it over in one of the three letters. He also still had those letters, safely stored in the inside pocket of the dirty bag that was torn in places, the paper thin, the untidy scrawl of a nine-year-old boy smudged with drops of water, tears, blood and stained with dirt.

Not waiting for the cops, Jensen left the small, dingy apartment that had been his home for the past three years, not looking back once, walking for miles and miles. He stumbled, he swayed, he almost fell, he sweated as the alcohol and the drugs slowly left his system. His throat was dry and his belly, sunken in from barely getting anything for months, ached painfully, but Jensen moved on, until he found the drug advice center. Sweating and shivering, Jensen broke down in front of their door, barely noticing what happened to him, until he woke up in a soft bed with linens smelling clean, an IV drip attached to his arm. You're more than that, he heard Jared say to him. He was more than his addiction and he would get better, so he could see Jared again.

***

Another interview. Another question about Jensen. In the past half year, Jared had gotten a lot of prompts regarding this story and a lot of questions about Jensen, and he more or less had always said the same. That Jensen had saved him, and that he was still wondering what had happened to him. He he had told the journalists about the big influence Jensen had on him.

A part of Jared hoped that the more he talked about Jensen, Jensen himself would eventually appear in front of him, but it just hadn't happened. Only one of the many calls his agent had gotten had been promising; from a woman around his own age, telling Jared that he had been in foster care for a while and that a boy named Jensen, who had lost both his parents in his car crash and later his grandma, had been with her. The family had been mistreating the kids, and Jensen, who had been the oldest, had been their favorite punching ball, until he had run away, never to return. The boy sounded like Jensen, and the story made Jared sad and mad at the same time. He could never understand how foster parents could do something like that to their proteges. Yet, although it had been ten years ago, it was the first sign of life and it encouraged Jared to tell his story whenever he was asked, hoping that eventually, Jensen would listen to it.

“JT,” his father said, joining him on one of the sun loungers that were randomly placed around the pool. “I hate to sound like your therapist down at the farm, but you have to let Jensen go.”

Jared signed. “I can't, Dad. He saved me. What if he needs saving now?”

“Maybe he doesn't want to be saved. Maybe he doesn't need to be saved. Whatever happened to Jensen, wherever he is, if it's meant to be, you'll meet again, and if not, you won't.”

That wasn't really helpful, and it wasn't what Jared wanted to hear, but maybe, it was what he had to hear, because in a way, his father was of course right. Thanks to the new media, the story about him and Jensen had traveled around the world. Unless he was living in a very faraway place, or totally isolated, chances were big that Jensen had heard it. Yet, he had decided to not get in touch. Jared had to accept it, just like he had to accept losing his mom and his brother. In the end, losing someone was part of each person's story, wasn't it?

***

Six more months passed in the blink of an eye and bit by bit, things changed, almost imperceptibly. Sometimes, Jared would find himself standing on set, wondering if that was what he wanted to do for the next decades. Being Dean Winchester, or someone else, getting an unbelievable amount of money for it, walking red carpets, smiling into the camera. He wondered why he hadn't found love yet. Sure, he was only twenty-three, but Chad had recently gotten married, following Jordan and just lately, Jared had gotten an invitation for just another wedding from Michael, another high school buddy. For everyone from the outside looking in, life as a highly paid, super famous and popular Hollywood superstar might look like a dream coming true, but it wasn't really. Not anymore. Jared dreamed of something else, of wide ranges and dark woods, of starlit dark canopies and campfires, of horses and dogs.

One not so special day, Jared decided to take a break. He was aware that taking a break meant quitting, because no one really came back from long breaks in Hollywood, but he didn't mind. He would shoot the fourth Supernatural movie, giving Dean the ending he deserved and then, he would go to college and start to give back what he had received. He would study social pedagogy or something like that, and maybe would work with kids like he had used to be

 

 

 

PART III

 

2012

 

9

With disbelief, Jared looked at the buildings that had used to be his refuge as a kid, feeling actual tears burning in his eyes as he saw the decay. Weed everywhere, ivy out of control, the grass in the pastures knee high, bushes and trees overgrown, the barn burned down, which caused a familiar shiver like always when Jared saw ruin caused by fire, the cabins ruined, with broken windows and leaking roofs.

It had been pure coincidence that had led Jared here. After he had finished shooting Supernatural, Jared had really gone to college, yet he had not completely quit acting. Once in a while, he had done minor stuff; guest appearances on TV shows, minor roles in movies, during his college time and even later, once he had started working in social work. Only two years ago, Jared had stopped acting completely, caring for his sick father full time instead. Now, Gerry was gone, being reunited with his mom and Jeff, and Jared was all alone in the world. He had taken a part-time job at a small social station in Austin. One of his tasks was recruiting new personnel, and he had looked through the applications when he had come across a familiar name and face; Sam. He had called her instantly, listening with disbelief that Jeffrey had lost the farm gambling, that they had all lost their jobs and the grieving kids their place to heal more than five years ago. Jeffrey had hung himself in the barn. When Jared had found out that the farm was for sale, he hadn't hesitated to buy it.

Now this decayed paradise on earth was his. He wanted to rebuild Elm Creek Farm, to the place it used to be. A place for kids. He still wasn't sure if it would be a place for grieving kids, or for terminal ill kids, for kids with an addiction or for kids with special needs, but he knew, sooner or later, he'd make up his mind. Probably later, because the place was such a mess. Instead of walking to the main house, Jared turned left, walking down the overgrown gravel path to the cabin he had shared with Jensen. It was as decayed as the other buildings, the patio rotten and collapsed in places, most windows broken, the bleached curtains torn.

When Jared opened the cabin, a moldy stench hit his nose. Inside, it looked even worse, the walls damp, dirt and small bones scattered over the moldy rug, the upholstering of the sofa as shredded as the curtains. The farm was miles away from the closest town, yet it looked as if youths had partied here, with pizza boxes and empty bottles, some broken, scattered over the floor. Jared would have to call an architect, but he was quite sure, this cabin, just like the rest of the farm, couldn't be saved and had to be rebuilt.

The sun was already setting when Jared walked back to the main house. The door wasn't even locked, swaying in its hinges, and it was a mess, too. For a while, Jared hesitated in front of the door that led to Jeffrey's private rooms, as if he could feel his spirit there, but then, he stepped in. It was empty of all his belongings, even empty of the furniture, the windows broken, the walls stained, a mouse scurrying over the floor when Jared moved into the room. He groaned. He couldn't stay here, not really, there wasn't even running water and electricity. 

Shaking his head and sighing heavily, aware of the huge task he had to deal with before he could reopen the farm, Jared drove back to town. He booked a room in the only inn and spent half the night googling for architects in the area before falling into bed, Pan keeping him company, like every night ever since Jensen had gifted him to Jared.

***

That early in the season, Jared was the only guest at the inn, and when he explained to Abby, the landlady, why he was here, she told him quite a bit about the last years of the farm. It was a sad story really, though Jared wondered how much of it was fact and how much fairytale, though a lot of it matched with what Sam had told him reluctantly.

“What are you going to do with the farm, Jared?” Abby looked at the actor curiously. Of course she knew who he was. She'd seen some of his movies on reruns and even had had a little crush on him before Jared came out.

Jared shrugged. “I spent eight weeks as a nine-year-old boy there. This place saved me. The people in this place saved me, and they made me who I am nowadays. I want to give something back, want to rebuild it, into a place for kids, though I don't really know if it will be a summer camp or a place for kids with criminal records or anything in between.”

“Folks wouldn't want it to become a place for kids with criminal records, Jared,” Abby pointed out softly. “Most people here are very narrow minded. But whatever it will become, you'll need help,” she stated, while Jared emptied his second mug of coffee. He hadn't slept much, felt a little troubled and exhausted, with a soft headache knocking at his skull. “For all I know, the farm's a mess. Kids are using it as a playground. A year ago, the barn burned down because someone was stupid enough to throw a cigarette away and the dry straw caught fire immediately.”

“It is a mess,” Jared confirmed, getting into it in more detail, describing what he had seen yesterday. “I think most of the houses need to be torn down and rebuilt,” Jared summarized, feeling the enormity of the task weighing on him. Thankfully, his budget was sort of limitless.

“Then today's your lucky day, Jared. My brothers run a building company; Kevin's an architect and Kyle's a mason. I'll give them a call, if you don't mind.”

Jared didn't mind at all, far from it, and two hours later, he met the brothers, sharing strong handshakes before driving to the farm with them. It looked even worse in bright daylight than in the afterglow yesterday, almost like a waste dump. Someone had disposed of his washing machine in one of the paddocks, the horse stable's roof had a gigantic hole and someone had actually removed parts of the wooden walls the cattle stable had been built of. The destruction was unbelievable. Kevin and Kyle looked at every building, shaking their heads, talking quietly and scribbling down notes on a pad.

“I'm sorry, Jared,” Kevin announced once they had finished the tour. “Most of the buildings can't be saved. We can use the foundation, because it's made of stone, but everything else has to be torn down and rebuilt.”

Jared furrowed his brow, releasing a weary sigh. He had expected bad news, but this would delay the opening of the farm. “What about the farmhouse?” Jared asked, hoping that at least it could be saved.

“For all I know, the council put it under preservation order years ago. I think that's also one of the main reasons the former owner sold the farm again,” Kevin explained. “It can be done, but it will be very costly.”

Thankfully, money wasn't the problem. Jared had made millions as an actor, and had invested it very well, in all kinds of businesses and real estate. Yet, he of course had hoped to spend it on something different, on something other for the kids than four walls and a roof. “Okay, just do whatever needs to be done. Start with rebuilding this cabin.” Jared pointed at the cabin that had been his refuge. He would use his old refuge as his temporary home until his own, brand new house, was built. “Please rebuild it exactly like it used to be, all of the cabins actually. I'll set up camp there for a while I guess. I'd also like to build a small house for me to live in.” Jared wanted to use the space in the farmhouse for classrooms and therapy rooms and he already had a spot in mind he wanted to build his house. “Is it okay if I show you where?”

He led the way down to the creek and along it, the water far higher now in spring than it had been in the summer he had stayed at the farm, the current stronger. The place that had been Jensen's refuge still looked pretty much the same, except that the trees and bushes had grown and were overgrown. He walked to one of the Elm trees, smiling when he found their initials carved into it, Jensen's JA and Jared's shaky JP. He would make this place his front yard. “Can you build here?” Jared pointed up the small slope and at the pasture that stretched for at least half a mile until it ended at the forest.

“We'll build you wherever and whatever you like,” Kevin promised. “Tell me what you like.”

Jared wanted a home. A place where he could be himself, where he could hopefully one day bring a husband and raise his kids, that was filled with laughter and joy. He wanted space and light and he wanted a fireplace, both in the living room and his bedroom, so that he could face his fear every day.

***

Sinister quietness followed the horrible rage between the two men and with disbelief, Jensen stared at the scene in front of him. The skin on his face had a very tight feeling, nausea was bubbling in his belly and his heart was racing a mile a minute. His hand was sweaty around the pan he was still holding tightly in his right hand. Blood, so much blood. Stephen was still breathing, but barely. Adrenaline kicked in, and all Jensen wanted to do was run. He knew he had to, otherwise he would be dead, sooner or later. His whole body hurt, from the beatings he had received just now, two days ago, last week, in the past four years of the abusive relationship.

Releasing a gasp, Jensen let the pan fall, the noise horribly loud. His instincts kicked in and combined with the adrenaline, it gave him strength. Taking two steps at once, he ran upstairs. He had packed the bag months ago, and had hidden it beneath some loose floorboards. Essential clothes, the little memorabilia he had, like Jared's letters and their photo, and all the money he had managed to pinch off without Stephen noticing it. He grabbed it, hurrying downstairs, changing into trainers and grabbing his jacket, wallet, mobile and car keys.

Two minutes later, he was sitting in the car, starting the motor and ignoring his heavily beating heart. Like a lunatic, Jensen was driving through the quiet neighborhood. Only after a mile or two, did he call an ambulance. He drove to the closest ATM and withdrew half the money on their joint account. Jensen neither was a murder nor a thief, not anymore and he only took what was his, what he had worked hard for in the past four years, which wasn't much anymore, because Stephen had boozed, gambled and whored quite a lot of the money away that had come in.

Jensen threw away the SIM card in his cell. Sooner or later, he also would have to abandon the car, but he'd rather do it later. He didn't really know where to go. The list of his friends was very short. There was Jordan, who he worked with, but they would look at his place first. He also was back in touch with his old friend Jason, but Stephen knew about him, too. He'd also look for him in Richmond and Richardson. The only place Stephen didn't know about was the farm. It was thousands of miles away and Jensen wasn't sure what Jeffrey would say, if an ex criminal and ex addict would appear on his doorstep, but it was the only refuge Jensen knew and he still remembered Jeffrey's words. You'll always be welcome at Elm Creek Farm, Jensen.

***

He felt like a refuge, and in a way, he was one. Jensen drove as far as the next county, checking into a cheap, shabby motel where he slept a couple of hours before he drove to the closest store. He bought hair tinting lotion and other products, batteries and a flashlight, some snacks, all things he might need for the journey up north. While Jensen was driving back to the motel, he listened to the radio. So far, they weren't looking for him, but it was probably only a matter of time. Once he was back in the motel, Jensen dyed his hair, glasses rounding off his changed appearance.

Three towns over was a train station. He abandoned the car there, hopped onto a random train, riding it for two hours before getting out in the middle of nowhere. Jensen had long left South Carolina behind and the town he had ended in was far from ideal; too small and, despite the train station, too remote. Tourists and guests didn't come here, and people looked at Jensen oddly when he had dinner at the local diner. There wasn't even a motel, just private rooms and Jensen hesitated to stay there, scared that the landlord would remember him. Instead, he slept out in the open. This early in the year, it was actually too cold and Jensen put a sleeping bag onto his mental shopping list, for whenever he came across a store again.

Fear still had him within its grasp, and Jensen barely slept that night. What if he had killed Stephen? If he had added murder to the list to his many crimes? How had it come to that?

For a while, Jensen had seemed to finally be on the winning track. He had gotten clean, had started to work part-time, had been able to afford a tiny apartment, had gone to community college and had finished it with top grades. He had led a respectable life, with a well-paid full-time job and a membership at the local gym. In general, Jensen had tried for a better, healthier life-style. Not one drop of alcohol, no smokes or drugs, healthy food. He had done all the things that would have made Jared proud. Sober and finally himself again, Jensen had followed his career, had watched his movies, feeling so much pride for the once so small and scrawny kid. Often, he remembered Jared's pleas, and often, Jensen thought about reaching out, but it had never seemed to be the right time. Not yet, was Jensen's mantra. He wanted to be better and fitter for Jared, needed all his wounds to heal.

Then, he had met Stephen at a bar he and Jordan went to every Friday night. Just like them, Stephen had been a regular. They had started dating and Stephen had worshiped him or at least, it had seemed like that. Looking back now, at almost half a decade of abuse, there had been a lot of little things that should have warned Jensen, though back then, he had brushed them away. He also had brushed away the rough sex, the slaps, the first that punched into his gut, the knife that sliced over the skin of Jensen's thighs, the locked doors, the burning cigarettes, the dark, cold basement or the stuffy, hot loft that became his short time prison. Only a year ago, Jensen had finally found the strength to confide in Jordan, after a long weekend spent locked into the loft in the middle of a hot summer, with nothing so much as a small bottle of water. From then, it had only gotten worse. Life-threatening worse. So worse, that Jensen realized he had to leave if he didn't want to die of a heat stroke, a ruptured spleen or liver or bleed to death, because Stephen would cut too deep.

Nocturnal birds and animals, the rustle of the wind and the cold kept Jensen awake, and he took the first train out of the small town until he reached Cincinnati many hours later. He had preferred driving by car, but he had less than a thousand dollars left. He could easily steal a car, but Jensen had left this part of his life behind. Instead, he got himself a bike second hand for twenty dollars, a tent and a sleeping bag and he started to cycle. Every five or six days, Jensen stayed at a motel, for a good night's sleep and a shower. He let his hair and beard grow and just three weeks after he had left Spartanburg, a stranger was staring back at Jensen, his beard scruffy and his hair unkempt. He looked like a vagrant and in a way, he was. That same night, he called Jordan.

“They're looking for you, Jensen,” Jordan whispered, as if he didn't want to be overheard by his wife. “Stephen, that bastard, is severely hurt. I told the cops that he was abusive, that he had beaten and tortured you for years, and they put it into your favor that you called help, but they're still looking for you. Run, Jensen, and never look back.”

Once Jordan had hung up, Jensen looked at the speaker for a long time, his heart banging against his ribs before walking back to the small motel, locking himself into his room, doubting his decision. Maybe, he should turn himself in? Maybe, if he was lucky, a judge – he shook the thought off before even finishing it. He had a criminal record, had been imprisoned twice. No judge in the world would be in his favor. He only could flee and hope that Jeffrey would take him in and not turn him in.

 

10

Four weeks after his first talk with Kevin and Kyle, Jared moved into the rebuilt cabin that once had been his short time home. It smelled freshly, of wood and paint, of new furniture and cloth. It looked pretty much the same as twenty years ago, but not quite. The windows were a little bigger, the wood brighter, the furniture less old-fashioned, the bathrooms modern. Jared slept in a big bed under the roof, a generous open apartment with a pretty beam construction. There was a steady noise in the air, of hammers pounding against wooden beams, of saws and drills and the air was heavy with the scent of fresh wood. One by one, the cabins were rebuilt and another group of workers had started removing the core from the farmhouse bit by bit.

Jared still hadn't made up his mind about what to do with the place. He had talked to the mayor, and just like Abby had predicted, he had begged Jared not to make it into a home for kids with a criminal record or problems of violence. Wanting to avoid a witch-hunt before the first kids ever arrived, Jared dismissed this idea then. It wasn't worth it and he wanted to have the townspeople on his side. Maybe he should just do it all? A group for kids with special needs, a group for kids who were terminally ill, one for kids who were grieving? He spent days googling, finding out how many other places like his were actually out there, but it didn't really help him with decision making. “One day soon, you'll wake up and know what to do,” Abby encouraged Jared, handing him a beer. He came down to the village twice a week, for a drink and some proper food, talking to Abby and befriending the locals. He never stayed too long. Jared's days were long and hard. He helped where he could, if it only was carrying away the rubble or providing the workers with food.

It was a dark night in early May, the moon only a small sickle on the inky canopy, hidden by swiftly moving clouds, because a cold gust was whistling through the trees. Jared parked his SUV in front of the newly built garage, shivering as he got out of the car. It had been a wet spring so far, with lots of rain, little sunshine, and too cool temperatures for his liking. In times like these, he missed California or Texas. Yet, the air up here was fresher, and he liked the sounds of night, the nocturnal animals, the quietness and deep darkness. Hands hidden in the pocket of his jeans, Jared walked to the cabin, letting his glance glide over the pastures, and along the creek that was only a dark band in the distance.

Suddenly, Jared noticed a flickering light and he stopped abruptly, looking more closely and rubbing his eyes. If he wasn't mistaken, it was the glow of a campfire, down by the creek, shimmering through the bushes that were still half naked with the leaves growing slower than usual, thanks to the cold spring. For a moment, Jared hesitated. Maybe, he should leave them alone, whoever they were. He could get in trouble. But whoever they were also might be in trouble. Besides, Jared just didn't feel safe, knowing that someone was out there in the grounds.

Once Jared reached his cabin, he noticed that someone had been there. Nothing was broken or damaged, but the rocking chair he had bought from a garage sale in the area stood half a foot away from where Jared had put it. It made him uneasy, the thought that someone had been sneaking around there, and after Jared had unlocked the cabin, the lock thankfully not broken, he not only took his jacket, but also his gun. He hated guns, he really did, but Kevin had advised him to get one, and had actually practiced its use with Jared, just in case. Just in case, he took it now, hiding it in his back pocket and covering it with the windbreaker that was a little longer than most of his other outdoor clothes and hid the weapon quite well.

Quietly, Jared moved down to the creek, aware of his every move, thankful for the noise the wind was making as it was whistling through the branches. Finally, Jared reached a spot where he could see whoever had lit the fire. It was a man, his beard long and felted, his hair dark and greasy, his body skinny. He wore glasses and ragged clothes. An old bike was lying on the grass next to the fire, its flames throwing shapes on the canvas of a tent. He looked harmless enough, hopeless and sad even, very exhausted. Almost like death warmed over, like the countless homeless men and women Jared had talked to during his time in college, when he had helped social workers in Austin.

“Hello?” Jared announced himself, loud enough to drown the wind, phrasing the greeting like a question. He came closer, lifting his hand in a peaceful gesture, yet, he noticed how the man tensed. He could be his own age or fifty and it was clear that he had been going through a lot. “I'm Jared. I own these lands. Can I help you?”

The man didn't answer, didn't even dare to look at Jared. It was clear that he was scared. “I'm not going to hurt you,” Jared promised, sitting down on the ground. It was muddy and cold, and the dampness seeped into the bottom of his pants at once. “You're not in any trouble. I just want to help, if you let me.”

Still, no answer. Jared could almost feel the anxiety and tautness of the other man, who finally looked up. Emerald eyes, tired and desperate, that had seen far more than they should have seen, were looking back at him.

“What's your name?”

“Jack.” The man's voice was scratchy, as if he hadn't used it much recently, or had screamed himself hoarse. Now that Jared was so close, he could actually smell the man. Sweat and dirt, clothes that hadn't been washed for weeks.

“Hi Jack, I'm Jared. Tonight is not a good night to stay outside. Why don't you come back to my cabin?” The room he had shared with Jensen was already fully furnished, for old times’ sake, not quite how it had used to be, but alike. Jared knew he should be more careful, shouldn't invite a complete stranger into his home, but the other cabins were still building shells, and this man looked far too tired to be a danger. Besides, Jared could lock the door to his room and he still had the gun to defend himself, if worse came to worst.

The man shook his head. “You wouldn't.”

“That's no problem, really. Just a few years ago, this place was a refuge for kids who had lost family. Now, I want to make it a refuge for kids again. So I think it's okay if you come with me. There is a bed and food, a hot shower and heating. You can stay the night, or a week, no strings attached. You can tell me your story, or not. Okay?”

“Okay,” Jack pressed out with a shaky voice.

“I can help you with that,” Jared offered, pointing at the tent but Jack only shook his head, and the tent was removed surprisingly fast, being put away in a rusty bike basket, just like the sleeping bag. He watched the guy putting out the fire, emptying an old plastic bottle he first filled with water from the stream over it, repeating it twice, making sure that the fire was completely put out.

“Now come,” Jared prompted. He still felt a little weird, asking the stranger into his home, was sort of alert though he knew, it was the right thing to do, the only thing to do. Stupid maybe, but right. Silence stretched between them, the only noise was the howling wind that grew stronger steadily, and the squealing sound the old bike made. Jared wondered how long this man had been riding that bike, where he came from and where he was going to. “Here we are.”

He unlocked the door, switching on the light in the living space and holding up the door for Jack to come through. Squinting his eyes, as if the light blinded Jack, Jared could finally see more of the man. He was tall, yet not quite as tall as himself, though only a few people were. Dirt was camouflaging his features, the beard was bushy and far too long, the hair shining so greasy was it. Curiously, the man looked around, his mouth slightly open. “So um, how about you have a shower? Meanwhile, I'll get the room ready and I'll find a bite for you to eat.”

The man was very quiet, rocking back and forth a little while shifting his little weight from one leg to the other. “You'll need towels, and clothes. Let me just go fetch some. Sit down, make yourself comfortable.”

Jack looked at the brand new sofa doubtfully, shaking his head, as if he was aware of being dirty and unkempt, not wanting to soil the cloth.

“Really, it's okay, don't worry about it.” Jared hurried upstairs, closing the door that separated the apartment from the rest of the cabin, missing that Jack released a breath as shaky as his own. First thing Jared did was put the gun away. He had a really good knowledge of human nature, and he was almost sure that this guy didn't mean any harm. He was just a lost soul, like the other homeless men and women Jared had met during his work, hurting, alone and lonely. Then, he got out a set of towels, a tee and sweatpants, as well as a fresh pair of briefs and socks. With the closest mall being thirty miles away, Jared had stocked up on essentials when he had gone shopping the last time, just in case and now, he was glad he had. He added a bar of soap, a small bottle of shower gel and a fresh toothbrush and toothpaste to the pile of clothes.

When Jared came back, Jack was still standing in the living room, looking totally out of place in his tattered clothes. He hadn't even dared to strip anything off; his stained thermos jacket or his muddy shoes, not even the dirty scarf he had wrapped around his neck. The odor the man was emanating hit Jared full force, now he was no longer in the open, but in a room that was warmed by brand-new heating. Jared tried hard not to flinch, knowing very well that the man hadn't had a choice, that there was a story behind the sad green eyes and that most of all, he could smell himself, too and that he was horribly ashamed by his state. “Here you go.” Jared handed the man the clothes and products. “The bathroom's over there.” He pointed at the door in the middle. “Take as long as you need. I'll make pasta for you. You like pasta?”

Jack nodded. “Thank you, Jared.” The way he said his name triggered something from his past, yet Jared couldn't really tell what. It just sounded familiar. Maybe a bit like Jeff had called him.

“Don't mention it.”

***

Heart hammering heavily against his chest, Jensen locked the door to the small bathroom, leaning against it and gliding down, until he was sitting on the tiles. The cold seeped into his moist, ragged clothes at once, but Jensen didn't mind, he really had far bigger problems right now. “Shit,” he breathed out, taking a deep breath and another one, hoping that the panic melted away.

Looking back at the last two hours, he still couldn't believe that this was really happening. Arriving in the last daylight, noticing that the farm was gone. The cabin Jensen had stayed in years ago was brand new, the only new building apart from a garage and shed. Desperation had been washing over him, but just like now, Jensen had tried not to panic, had remembered the many quiet, secluded spots by the creek and had cycled down there. He had collected wood, had had a meager dinner of the last two pieces of naked toast and an apple and had contemplated about what to do, when he had heard someone approaching. It had been a shock, no, more than that, when Jensen had realized it was Jared. He was even more stunning in real life than on screen, his beauty, but also his kindness, taking Jensen's breath away. Jared had taken quite a risk into welcoming a complete stranger into his house, yet he had done it, out of the goodness of his heart. Jensen didn't even know why he had given Jared the name he had used in the past few weeks. He just could have told him who he really was. But he didn't, and, looking down on himself, Jensen knew why. He looked and smelled as bad as in the times when he had been a homeless teenager, after he had run away from the foster home. That's not how Jensen had imagined their reunion. That's not how Jared should have ever seen him; it was almost as bad as when he had been an addict.

Jensen didn't really know what to do now, but for the time being, he got up, peeling himself out of the clothes. They were hard with dirt and when they were gone, Jensen looked in shock at the belly that was sunken in and the ribs that were sticking out, one by one. No wonder that Jared hadn't recognized him. All he remembered was a strong, big boy with a flabby waist and a round tummy. Not a grown-up skeleton with a scruffy beard and long hair. It probably was better that way. He'd have that shower, a warm meal and some rest and then, he would leave in the morning. Maybe Jason would help him out, with advice and money or maybe he could get over the border to Canada and start a new life there, with a new identity.

Jensen walked into the shower-stall, brand new and modern, like in a posh hotel, opened the faucet and let the hot water thunder down at him. For minutes, he just stood under the strong jet, feeling not only the dirt being washed away but the tenseness in his shoulders melting away just a little bit, before he started to wash his face. He shampooed hair and beard, rinsed it, and did it again, before he lathered his body, scrubbing hard to get rid of the dirt. As always when Jensen touched the scarred skin, a little shudder ran through him. Scars everywhere. On arms and shoulders, torso, abdomen and back. Worst though were the thighs, covered with thin scars scattered over the pale skin in a cruel, yet random pattern. Biting his lips, Jensen tried to fight the memories, yet, he still saw Stephen towering above him, hurting and torturing him, with everything he could find and with his cutting tongue. Tears were burning in his eyes as he felt helpless once again. He had been so sure that Elm Creek Farm could once more be a refuge, but now... He couldn't stay, could he?

Jensen turned off the faucet, stepping into the bathroom, the mirror blind with steam, only showing a very distorting image of him. He toweled himself off and donned the clothes Jared had given him. A soft tee, cozy and warm worn sweatpants, smelling of detergent. Jared's clothes. He had loved him so, so much, the little boy Jared had used to be. Perhaps he just should tell him his story? Years ago, Jared had wanted to see him again so badly, had told their story on nationwide TV, yet being very protective of Jensen's privacy. But no, he couldn't... Jensen released another breath, smelling the stink that escaped his mouth. It really was disgusting. He started to brush his teeth, for minutes, rinsing his mouth, starting anew, until he finally had the feeling that his horrible breath was gone. The tip of his tongue moved over his teeth, far too many already missing. Stephen had thought it would be a waste of money to have them replaced, ignoring Jensen’s pleas, and he had added two more to the list when he had beaten the crap out of Jensen.

“Jack?” Jared called from outside. “You good in there?” He really sounded like he cared. Like back then, when Jared had hugged Jensen for the first time, after Jensen had told Jared how he had lost his parents. 

A lump grew in his throat. He was longing for a hug, for affection and acceptance. Sure, Stephen could have been affectionate, too, but sooner or later, Jensen had to pay the price for it, and it had felt sour, fake, not real. “Yeah, 'm good. Just nice to have a shower.”

Jensen opened the window, cold, moist air smelling of grass, soil and rotten leaves hitting his nose. He felt a little dizzy; maybe, he had showered too hot, maybe because of lack of food. He must have lost several pounds in the last few weeks and he had been skinny before, ever since Stephen had started to starve him. Shaking the thoughts off, Jensen stepped out of the bathroom. The small dining table was laid with simple tableware. There was a small bowl of lettuce, a glass with orange juice and a plate filled with a generous portion of steaming pasta and tomato sauce with vegetables.

“It's not haute cuisine, Jack,” Jared said. “But it's good. You can have parmesan cheese, too.” Jared placed a small bowl with freshly grated cheese on the table, sitting down on the other side of the table, where he had put a glass of orange juice for himself, too. “Tuck in.”

Jensen sat down, looking at the meal and feeling his eyes tearing up again. It had been a while since he'd had a warm meal, and it had been far longer that someone had bothered to cook just for Jensen. With his tattered look, Jensen hadn't been welcome in diners anymore and Stephen had never done the cooking, but had expected to be served. “Thank you,” Jensen whispered, taking his fork, feeling hot liquid burning in his eyes. Blinking rapidly, he fought the tears back. He wouldn't cry now. His hand was shaking badly, so badly that he had to let it go for the moment, squeezing it with his left hand, until it calmed down and Jensen managed to fork some pasta. It tasted really good, well-seasoned, with fresh herbs and fresh vegetables. Jensen ate very slowly. He'd been there before, knew that he would be sick if he ate too much too soon, if he was too greedy.

“You can tell me your story,” Jared prompted eventually, looking at Jensen with his kind, warm eyes. “I won't judge you.”

Jensen believed him. Problem just was, he didn't want to lie to Jared. But he also could not tell him the truth, could he? But maybe he could tell him something, without giving away too much? “I needed to get away from where I was. When I was a kid, I stayed here for a few weeks. I have fond memories of the place,” Jensen started to explain reluctantly. He spoke slowly, his voice sounding raw in his own ears as he weighed every word before he said it. “I remembered how Jeffrey always gave people second chances, how he employed people in need, and hoped I was welcome here. I didn't know that the place was closed.”

So, Jack was another one of Jeffrey's proteges. “I stayed here too, when I was a kid. My mom and brother died in a house fire.” He hoped that their common experiences from childhood, and their good memories of Elm Creek Farm might help to break the ice and convince Jack to stay longer than just one night.

Jensen hesitated, taking a sip of his orange juice to steal some moments. He just could tell his story once more, and maybe, Jared would notice himself who he was? But would that make any difference? No, of course not. Jensen would still be the homeless, broken man who had escaped an abusive relationship by repaying his violent boyfriend with violence and being on the run from the cops for assault. Then though, Jensen remembered the rule; you weren't obliged to talk about what happened. “I still don't really talk about what happened.”

“That's okay.” Jared didn't mind. The man was secretive, plainly hiding something, but a lot of people who had lost their homes were. “Did you stay here, in this cabin? That's where I stayed. That's why I had it rebuilt first thing.”

“No,” Jensen lied, pointing to where the closest cabin was. “I stayed with Judy.” He didn't give away more, just finishing his meal in silence, grateful that Jared didn't push him.

Jared just watched the guy slowly eat his food, almost reverently, which made it clear that it had been a while since he had anything warm in a civilized atmosphere, eating from a porcelain plate with cutlery, drinking from a glass filled with juice. He really hoped he could convince Jack to stay. “Jack?”

Jensen looked up. Those hazel eyes were amazing, warm, soft and so kind.

“Please don't run away. I know you want to or well, are at least thinking about it, sneaking away in the night or early morning. But please, don't. I mean, you obviously sought help here. Help can be given to you here. You can stay a day or a week or a month. You could help me with the farm.”

“You don't know me, Jared. I could be a mass murderer.” Jensen was barely better. Vermin, cockroach, dirt, worm, scum. Stephen had told him, and it had been easy for Jensen to believe, having thought that low of himself once, too.

Jared looked at Jack's arms, noticing the many scars. He'd seen them before. Scars from needles hurting veins, scars from stubs burning skin. This man was an ex-junkie, who had either hurt himself or who had been tortured. “You could be, Jack,” Jared agreed, his posture open, especially his hands, with his palms up. “But if you were, and wanted to do me any harm, you already could have killed me. Look, it's obvious that you had a rough life. Your life could have been mine, if things had turned out differently. Yet they didn't. I was very lucky. Successful. Blessed.” Acting had just been a hobby at school. He never had dreamed about going to LA. Back then, Jared had wanted to be a vet. It had been pure coincidence how his talent had been discovered and a heap of luck in the following years. “Let me give something back, and if it's only a chance.”

“I'm not some social project, Jared,” Jensen spat out, feeling a little insulted, though of course, he knew Jared only meant well. But still, in a way, it felt like being at the mercy of some rich guy.

“Course you're not,” Jared remarked, ignoring Jensen's tone. Not that he blamed him. If places were reversed, Jared would have been skeptical, maybe even offended, too. “But you came here for help, didn't you? Well, just ignore the fact that I’m not Jeffrey. You can get a job and a home, for as long as you want. This chance you were talking about. Think about it, Jack.” Jared refilled Jack's glass with orange juice, watching the man from the corner of his eyes. The way he had said Jared's name had triggered something again. He noticed that Jack had dyed his hair; his true color was far lighter. He had nice, elegant fingers and beautiful emerald eyes. Emerald eyes. Like Jensen. Freckles were scattered over the lower arms, just like they were brushed over the fair cheekbones. Caramel freckles, like Jensen. No, it couldn't be, could it? Yet, the name Jack consisted of the first letters of Jensen's first and family name. No, this hurting man couldn't be Jensen.... The boy Jared remembered had been chubby. This man was far from big, but far too skinny for his height. Yet, Jensen had been a twelve-year-old boy back then. He had disappeared into the system. He could have lost weight. Jared had changed, too, and was far from the scrawny, tiny nine-year-old boy nowadays. It had been almost twenty years. Two decades. But why would Jensen lie to him? Give a false name? Didn't acknowledge that they had known each other in another life once he had seen Jared? Jared wasn't full of himself, but most people recognized him; his face had been everywhere. Should he just confront the guy? Call him Jensen and find out how he reacted? No, not yet. No matter his name, this man was hurting. This man needed help, a home and a place to calm down, to find himself. And if Jensen hid himself behind a false identity, he had his reasons. Jared would wait. “Do you want more?” he asked, as Jack slowly ate the last spoonful of tomato sauce and pasta.

“No, thank you.” He placed the hand on his abdomen. The gesture was familiar, just that the abdomen had been a cute, round tummy back then. “I'm not a good eater.”

“That's okay. There's food in the fridge, if you wake up or want something tomorrow morning and I'm not here. I normally get up very early and have breakfast with the workers, help where I can, though I'm not a real handyman. So, um, I'm going to crash soon, but first, let me show you the room.”

Jared got up and the man followed him instantly. “The room looks almost like my room back at the other cabin,” Jack acknowledged. “Minus the quilt.” Seeing the room he had shared with the boy that was standing beside him as a man now, without knowing who he was, caused a whirlwind of emotions inside Jensen. He could almost hear Jared's harsh breathing after a nightmare, feel the tears he cried the one time he wet his bed and feel his warm body pressed against his own when they hugged goodbye. Back then, neither Jensen nor Jared would have thought that it would be a goodbye for two decades, that the time and most of all the experiences made would change them both.

“Yeah, haven't had the time to get quilts yet.” Jared laughed heartily, throwing his head into his neck, showing perfect teeth and causing Jensen's heart to skip a beat. He was simply stunning. “I'm still not sure what I'll do here, I just know that it should be a place for kids who are less favored in life. Maybe you can help me figure it out, Jack?”

Jensen wondered if his life would have turned out differently, if he had had another place to go after his gran had died, after he had ended up in a horrible foster family or living on the streets. Maybe, it would have made a difference, just like the farm had made a difference after his parents had died. The thought of helping Jared to build such a place charmed a little smile on his face. “Maybe, Jared.”

“Good night then, Jack. Please, don't run away.”

 

11

Jensen didn't run away. Dead to the world, he fell asleep, sleeping safe and sound, knowing he was with a friend here. Hours later, bright sun tickled his nose, and when he looked at his watch he had placed on the nightstand, Jensen noticed with a pang of shock and guilt that it was almost noon. From outside, he could hear the typical sounds from a building site and he was surprised that the racket they were making hadn't woken him up earlier. The cabin was quiet, Jared probably helping outside, like he had told Jensen he would.

Jensen got up, heading into the bathroom, using the loo and brushing his teeth. His dirty rags were gone, replaced by a fresh tee and a pair of jeans that fit him well enough. The tee was brand new, but the jeans were worn, and almost reverently, Jensen stroked over the material, feeling very touched. He swallowed hard to get rid of the lump that was growing in his throat and donned the clothes. The table in the living area was laid and a yellow post-it was sticking on the white plate, inviting Jensen to “tuck in” and get as much rest as he needed. Jensen hadn't been able to “tuck in” for years, but he had a toast with butter and honey, a mug of coffee from an expensive looking coffee maker and a banana.

Then, Jensen went outside. Now, in daylight, it hit him how much this place had changed. Everything from his past was gone, torn down and being rebuilt. Jensen wondered what had happened to the place. It really wasn't the refuge it had used to be anymore. Maybe though, it could become a new refuge? Yet, it would mean telling Jared who he was, and telling his story, and nowadays, Jensen wasn't sure if he could. His life had been a nightmare, one tragedy hitting the next. How could he burden Jared with it? From afar, he could hear him laugh. It was a beautiful sound, and, as Jensen stepped closer, a beautiful sight. Jared's skin was slightly tanned, his hair shiny and wavy, the dimples deep and his teeth white as he flashed a broad smile. Gone was the coy and quiet kid. He was glowing, impressive, simply breathtaking. For a while, Jensen watched him, then the guy Jared talked to said something, and Jared looked at Jensen, smiling, inviting him to join them with a gesture. “Hey Jack”. Jared's hazel eyes pierced him for a second, then Jared smiled at him warmly. “It's good to see you. Did you sleep well?”

“Like a baby. Only woke up an hour ago or so. Thanks for the breakfast.” Jensen looked around, at the countless tools and machines, the more than half a dozen workers who were busy like bees and the cars, reading Clarkson & Clarkson Building Co. “What happened to this place, Jared? It's been years since I was here but honestly, I never thought it would be gone.”

“You should have seen it three months ago, man.” Jared laughed, guiding Jared to a wooden table with two benches, bottles, glasses and food scattered over the tabletop. “Coffee?”

Jensen shook his head. He loved coffee, but if he had too much of it, he got nervous and jittery, and he was nervous enough, without coffee. Jared poured himself a mug, sitting down and starting to tell the story. Once in a while, Jared paused, taking a bite of a donut, drinking a sip of coffee or water to wash it down.

“Poor Jeffrey,” Jensen commented. He really had deserved better. He'd seemed solid like a rock and strong, yet in the end, he had lost everything and had given up. “He was a good man. One of the best I've ever known. He helped me a good deal. I was an angry kid when I came here and Jeffrey, he gave me chances, more than I probably deserved.”

Jared nodded in agreement, finishing his coffee and wiping a crumb from the corner of his mouth. “He was. My mentor and I were very close. After he left I struggled for a while. I was sad all the time, practically stopped eating, couldn't sleep, couldn't concentrate. Sam, who was my counselor, tried her best, but what helped was Jeffery, taking his time and going on a ride with me.” Jared pointed in the direction of where the pastures ended and turned into wild backcountry. “We were gone for pretty much the whole day. He made me smile, he made me laugh and he really managed to make me forget how much I missed not only my family, but Jen. When I came back in the evening, all dusty and sweaty, I was so much better.” 

Swallowing hard, Jensen took a donut, just to keep his hands occupied, trying hard for neutral facial expressions while his heart was breaking. He didn't know. Jared had sent Jensen his first letter maybe a week after he had left the farm and with not one word had he mentioned how crappy he had been feeling. He had missed Jared, too, and Pan, but he hadn't had much time to wallow in self-pity. His grandma had been getting weaker and Jensen had been responsible for the household, shopping, cooking, cleaning and washing, taking care of his gran, whenever the nurse wasn't around. Fear had been his constant companion, the knowledge of her imminent death and the dread of ending in the system far bigger than the longing for the farm, his parents or Jared. 

“You can hang around here, help or watch, or well, go back to the cabin and get more rest,” Jared said, ripping Jensen out of his musings. “You are free to leave, of course, if you want to.”

Jensen had made up his mind, not just now, but bit by bit, whenever he had seen how much Jared cared. “I'll stay, at least for a while.” He wanted to get to know Jared, though what he had seen so far was overwhelming. Maybe, if he knew him better, he could decide if he wanted to tell his story. “And I want to help.”

Jared beamed. “Great, I'm so happy you decided to stay, Jack! Let's get you tools.”

***

Jared didn't want Jack to work too hard and he wanted to find out if Jack maybe really was Jensen, so he brought him into the horse stable to help him clear away some debris. He looked up to the hatch, just for a second. Of course, other kids had found this place, too, but it was another sign that Jack really could be Jensen. He was a quiet fellow, though, barely talking, yet not avoiding work. “Do you want to go to the closest store with me?” Jared asked after they had roughly worked for two hours. “I need to restock, now I have a house guest.”

The work wasn't hard and Jensen had never shied away from work, anyways, but he had gone through quite an ordeal for the last months, was mentally and physically drained and something so normal as grocery shopping sounded like a good way to keep his mind off things. “Yeah, sure.” They stopped work, walked back to the table, where they emptied a bottle of water each. Someone had also brought fresh sandwiches and Jensen took one, the stuffing delicious with chicken, bacon, cheese and vegetables. “Gosh, these are good.”

“Libby brings them every day. She's the Clarksons’ sister and owner of the inn down in the town.” Jared took a sandwich with tuna, mayo and egg, chomping it happily. “Okay, then,” Jared prompted once he had finished his sandwich and had washed it down with a glass of coke, wiping his mouth. “Let's get ourselves clean and go.”

The drive to the closest superstore took almost forty minutes, and the silence between them was a little heavy, at least until Jared turned on the radio. From time to time, Jared threw a glance at his very silent companion, wondering the whole time if Jack was Jensen or not, though he just couldn't tell. It made him feel horrible; who couldn't remember one of the most important persons in his life? Yet, twenty years was a long time, they had been kids then and were adults now, and Jensen had been chubby, in his face, too. The bushy beard hid most of the face Jared guessed was very handsome and probably changed his appearance completely. Maybe Jack would shave it off?

Jared brought his SUV to a halt at the almost empty parking lot, taking his cell and wallet and leading the way. “You should get yourself some new clothes, Jack,” Jared suggested carefully, heading to the spot in the huge store where you could get clothes. “I had the clothes you wore laundered but to be honest, I'm not sure if they're still good enough to wear.” 

Jensen bit his lips, shaking his head. “I can't pay for them,” he breathed out, feeling terribly ashamed. He only had ten dollars left. The journey to Montana had taken him three months, and he had spent all of his money on motel rooms, train tickets or food.

“Course you can. Do you think I expect you to work for nothing? I'll pay you, Jack. That's how it works. So, don't be shy, take what you need.”

Of course Jared would want to pay him, probably far more money than his labor was worth, but for once, Jensen didn't object. He couldn't wear Jared's clothes forever. He took socks, briefs, a pack of tees, another one of the wife-beaters, two jeans and a sweatpant, a pajama and a hoodie. “I'll have to work a lot for that,” he noted, biting his lips. The clothes weren't expensive, but if you had nothing, even ten bucks was a fortune, and these clothes were far more than ten bucks.

“Don't worry about it, Jack,” Jared commented, carefully touching Jack's wrist. It caused a slight shiver running down Jensen's spine. “You don't owe me anything, okay?”

Despite seeing the kindness in Jared's eyes, it was hard to believe it, so Jensen just shrugged, unsure what to say, following Jared over to the groceries. Soon, the cart was overflowing with a colorful mixture of non-perishables, fresh food and drinks. “I only come here once a week,” Jared explained. “There's a small grocery store in town, but of course, the selection is not that wide, and weirdly, I've always liked grocery shopping. It gave me the feeling of being normal.” Jared didn't mention that he had had to camouflage his appearance with shades and baseball cap to avoid being recognized in the heyday of his fame.

Jensen just nodded. “You're very kind, for someone rich and famous,” he stated. “And very normal, I guess.”

Jared furrowed his brow. “Thank you, I guess, though you know, we're people like everyone else. We bleed and we shit and all that stuff.” He grinned, but then Jared realized that it wasn't quite right. They never had to worry about money, and if you didn't have to worry about money, things were so much easier. And some of his friends in the business were very extravagant. Sure, Jared had owned a nice house in LA, too, with expensive furniture and some nice art, two cars and a handful of expensive watches, but it had always felt wrong to live a too fancy lifestyle. “My dad taught me to be kind and stay down to earth, to treat everyone with respect, no matter what his income. I think he did a good job.”

“He did.” Jack smiled, and Jared could see that quite a few of his molars were already missing. With a pang of guilt, he hoped this man wasn't Jensen, simply because if he was, it would mean that he had experienced things so terrible that Jared couldn't probably even imagine them. And no matter how much he was longing to see Jensen again, the thought of him going through such an ordeal was heartbreaking. Suddenly, Jared remembered something. Jensen had loved all kinds of sweets, Oreos and strawberry ice-cream on top of the list. Like on a mission, Jared headed to the aisle with chocolates and sweets, Jack following him, looking around like a kid who sees a candy store for the first time.

“You like anything in particular?” Being an actor came in very handy right now because he looked very neutral as he asked this, and no one would have guessed that Jared had another reason to buy candy than to keep his own sugar level high.

“Oreos maybe? And some ice-cream?” Jack suggested carefully. Of course, a lot of people loved Oreos and ice-cream, so it didn't prove anything, yet it was another check on Jared's mental pro and contra list to find out if the guy was Jensen. “Chocolate bars are great too. I know I don't look like it, but I have a sweet tooth.”

“Yeah, me too,” Jared admitted. “Gummy worms are my favorites.” As if to prove it, Jared took a variety of gummy bears before adding a generous amount of different flavored chocolate bars to the pile of groceries in their cart. He also chose a mixture of different biscuits before heading to the freezers with the ice-cream. “Chocolate and vanilla?”

“And maybe strawberry ice-cream?”

“Strawberry is of course a must.” Jared's heart was doing a small flip-flop. Had someone really gifted him with the greatest gift of all, giving him Jensen back?

***

The sun was setting in the west and Jared was preparing dinner, while Jack had a shower. It was something easy, grilled meat and potatoes, another bowl of lettuce. He laid the table outside, and when he came back to the living room, Jack was standing at the kitchen counter and Jared's heart skipped a beat, because he was stunning. He had shaved, showing the most beautiful face Jared had ever seen, and being a Hollywood actor, Jared had seen a lot of handsome faces. But Jack was simply overwhelming. He had also removed the glasses, and those expressive emerald eyes looked curiously at a collage of pics Jared had put up earlier. Another one of his little tricks. He had been working on the collage for a while now, photos Sam had sent him after he had asked her if she had any, not only of the time when Jared had been here, but a journey through the ages. Right in the middle was the only photo he had of Jensen, a chubby and a scrawny kid, sun and moon, night and day, whatever, but so close. It had been less than two weeks, but Jared had never had a friend like him again.

“That you?” Jack asked, pointing at the photo in the middle, walking closer and giving the collage a proper look.

“Yeah, me and Jensen. He was my mentor. Like I said this morning, we were close, Jen and me. He was -. He saved me. Jensen saved me.”

It would have been so easy to wrap his arms around Jared and tell him that he was Jensen, but the lump in his throat was just too tight and he nodded, blinking rapidly to hold back the tears. “You were lucky then. My mentor sucked.”

“I was.” Jared knew he had been lucky. After that ride with Jeffrey, Jared had slowly started to bond with some of the other kids, and they had actually been jealous of the bond Jensen and he had shared. “He literally took me under his wing. I was not even nine years old when I came here, hurting so much and Jensen, he was there. He was always there.”

“How was the kid you mentored?” Jensen had always wondered, especially back then. In the first days after he had returned to his grandma's home, he had thought about Jared often, wondering how he was faring, worrying about him and missing him. Seeing Jared now made him so proud. He was simply impressive, a wonderful human being.

“I was one of the few kids who never did mentor another kid. Like I said, I was barely nine years old, and the few kids that came, after Jensen had left and I finally settled in, were much older than I, teenagers, so they went to other groups.” Jared shrugged. Back then, it had bothered him, now he understood that Sam and Jeffrey had just wanted to protect him. “So, let's have dinner, Jack. Beer or wine?”

Jensen often longed for beer or wine, like every recovering alcoholic, but he hadn't touched anything even remotely alcoholic in years and God knows, he might have needed a drink, no, a million drinks, after Stephen had started to torment him. “I'm a recovering alcoholic, Jared.” He felt like a loser, admitting it to Jared and heat shot into his cheeks while the wooden floorboards were suddenly very interesting.

Jared just nodded, doing something very nice and putting the beer back in the fridge. “Coke? Water? Juice?”

“Juice maybe?” Jared handed him a cool box of orange juice, getting himself a coke and walking out onto the patio, Jensen following him slowly. Jared had laid the table and lit a few candles in small transparent glasses as well as an ancient looking lamp that was dangling from one of the wooden beams. It was good to know that Jared had a different relationship with fire nowadays and the whole setup seemed very cozy, romantic even.

“Thanks you know,” Jensen said, after he had taken a small bite of his well spiced, very juicy steak. “For all of that. For taking me in, just like that. For giving me a place to stay and a job. A chance.”

“You help me as much, Jack. Really. It's good to not to be alone out here, it can be a little creepy, actually. I was already thinking about getting a dog. Besides, everyone deserves a chance.” Jared took a sip of his coke, looking at the other man. It was hard not to, because he was so beautiful. A man shouldn't be so pretty, but he was. Plush lips, long lashes, those warm eyes, and the freckles scattered over the fine cheekbones. He tried to remember Jensen, but Jared had been only nine years old, and kids that age don't think about other boys as beautiful. The flab and the low self-esteem had sort of distorted Jensen, too. Jared just wished he knew if the man was Jensen, or that he would find out soon.

***

They settled into an easy routine, into something Jared would call camaraderie. It wasn't friendship, because Jack was just holding too much back, sort of staying the dark, beautiful stranger, but it was good. It turned out that Jack was a handyman, and Kyle noticed it too, even offering him a job. Jack declined, though, and it made Jared a little bit suspicious, because it was fairly paid and even came with health insurance, something Jared couldn't offer just yet. Come to think of it, Jack also had never given Jared a last name, but then, he brushed it away. This place was meant as a refuge, and he wouldn't start spying on Jack and betray his trust.

He still watched him, though, still unsure if the man was Jensen or not. Sometimes, Jared was sure of it. The way Jack sometimes scratched his head, the way he placed his hand on his abdomen, the way Jack smiled and laughed, throwing his head back. The way he looked at Jared, just the way Jared looked at Jack, just for a brief moment. The things Jack liked to eat. Then, though, Jared saw the scars. Just glimpses, when Jack would change into a fresh tee, a scarred torso and abdomen, scars peeking out from the shorts he wore. He heard the screams and whimpers in the night, the naked feet whispering over the wooden floor, out of the small room, into the living room, to the fridge or sometimes, even outside, before he eventually came back. This man was hurting so, so much and while Jared wanted to help, he hoped he wasn't Jensen, because it would break his heart.

Jack had been with him for two weeks and the work on the farm was making good progress. Most of the cabins were finished, new stables were built, the farmhouse already had a new roof and fresh floors and ceilings. Just the house that would be Jared's home was nothing more than a blueprint right now. “I've been thinking about getting some horses,” Jared announced at breakfast on Sunday, the late May sun shining down on them warmly.

“You should. I loved horseback riding as a kid.” Jensen bit his lips. Maybe, he shouldn't have said that, maybe, he had given away too much. Sometimes he suspected that Jared suspected something. Not that he had said anything, but sometimes, it felt as if he was on a trial. Oreos, strawberry ice-cream, pasta Bolognese, horses. All the things Jensen had loved as a kid. It made Jensen all warm and fuzzy, that Jared remembered. Perhaps, Jensen should leave now, before it was too late, but he didn't want to. He hated to lie to Jared, and the longer he stayed, the more complex and complicated it would be, but he felt safe here. And Jared had grown into such a fine human being. He loved the grown-up Jared just as much as he had loved the kid.

“Yeah, I love it, too. Jensen taught me. Once I got home from the farm, I asked my dad for lessons, and we found a stable in Austin, where we moved to. I loved cross-country riding, me and my horse, campfires, all that stuff.”

Jensen's comment about the campfire was already on his tongue, but he bit it back. He couldn't give that knowledge away. He finished his breakfast in silence. “Is it okay if I go down to the swimming pond?” They had exchanged the water a week ago and Jensen loved spending some moments of solitude there.

“Course it is. It's our free day. You know you don't have to sign off here. You're free to go, whenever you want and wherever you want.”

“Okay. Would you like to join me?” Jensen asked, finishing his last mouthful of coffee. The idea of lying next to Jared by the pond and letting the warmth of the mild May sun tickle his naked skin seemed really nice. Maybe, Jared would share some stories from his past with Jensen. He loved to listen to Jared's voice and found out more about teenager and young adult Jared, the things that weren't on IMDb, Wikipedia or the fansites Jensen had visited.

“Once I’ve paid the millions of bills and talked to my lawyer because of the registration procedure, I'd love to join you.” They cleared the table, and Jared watched Jack get his towel and leave. His legs were slightly bowed and while it had been such a minor detail, Jared was sure, Jensen did have bowed legs, too. He switched on the dishwasher, getting upstairs and paying the bills. As he got up, his eyes glided over Pan. He was sitting on the bed, together with Sadie, the signs of love Jared had given them visible. Without thinking about much longer, Jared took Pan. “I think we got your daddy back, Pan,” Jared whispered, feeling just a little ridiculous talking to the stuffed animal. He packed him into a small bag, covered him with the towel, before changing into his trunks and getting some drinks and Oreos.

Jack was sleeping when Jared arrived at the pond. It was a beautiful and peaceful sight, yet it cut Jared deeply. The fair, freckled skin was distorted by scars. So many scars, from cuts and stubs. Yet, as he watched him sleep, Jared was sure. Jack was Jensen. How could he have not seen it sooner? But how could he have known that Jensen had to go through so much, that his life had obviously been hell? It seemed so unfair.

He freed Pan from the bag and placed the panda on Jensen's chest. Mumbling something incoherently, Jensen stirred, though not opening his eyes. Tentatively, Jared then reached out, taking Jensen's hand in his. It was just a little smaller than his own, the skin warm and raw, different from back then, when Jared's small hand disappeared in Jensen's big, strong paw. Tears tickled his eyes, and the first escaped. He had missed Jensen so much, had been looking for him for so long, but obviously, not well enough. Bad conscience gnawed at Jared. Maybe, if he had been more persistent, he could have found Jensen years ago, could have spared him from whatever he had been going through and brought him here. “Jen?” He rubbed Jensen's lower arm. “Pan wants to meet his old buddy again, and so do I.”

Lids quivered, a soft sigh escaped those pretty, kissable lips and emerald eyes locked with Jared's. The free hand felt for the cuddly toy on his chest and suddenly, Jensen's eyes swam in tears, just like Jared's. Jensen felt very vulnerable, and very sensitive. He felt the grass pricking his back, the sweat pooling in the gap between his collarbones, a bug crawling over his big toe. He felt Jared holding his hand, rubbing his other hand and lower arm comfortingly and the soft, worn fur of his once best friend on his torso. Jared knew who he was. He had called him Jen, had brought him Pan, and he was touching him so gently, smiling down at him, his own eyes swimming in liquid. “Jared, I-”

“Shh, Jen. Not now. Not ever, if you aren't ready for it. Remember the rules here. Now come here.” The moment Jensen sat up, he found himself being wrapped into Jared's arms. Never before had he been hugged like that. So tight, so warm, so safe. Jared's arms felt like a blanket, cocooning him, protecting him, from Stephen, from his horrible past and memories. Shaking like a leaf, Jared cried so much, his face buried into Jensen's body, whispering incomprehensible platitudes, literally clinging on to him, his hands, widely spread, moving up and down Jensen's body, caressing skin and scars likewise, brushing over his neck. It was very intimate, but it felt so good, and eventually, Jensen let go, too. Sobbing and wailing, Jensen cried for everything that had happened since he had found his grandma dead in her bed. “It's okay, now, Jen. You're safe. Just let go. No need to hold it back, not with me. Never with me.”

No one knew how long they held each other and how long they cried, Pan pressed between them, just like all those years ago. It was Jensen who loosened his tight grasp, just a little bit, to look Jared in his eyes. He could see every pore, the moles, the stubble on his cheek. The beauty and the happiness. Their hearts were pounding heavily, in the same rhythm, and they were so close, as if they were one, Jared and him. “Jared.”

“Jen. Gosh Jen. 'm sorry it took me so long to realize who you are. You just, look at you. You're stunning.”

Jensen didn't know anything about being stunning. He only saw abuse and scars when he was looking in the mirror, only heard Stephen calling him a loser, a criminal, an addict, a homeless vermin. Stephen had been ashamed of who Jensen had used to be, and had been so angry when, little by little, he had found out. A shudder ran through him, and as Jared felt it, he tightened his grip. “Jen?”

“I can't. I mean, I'm not. There is so much you don't know about me, Jared. About my past. What I did, what I had to do. I'm dirty.” He let go of Jared instantly. “I can't- , I should never have stayed. I should go.”

“No, you don't, Jensen.” Jared looked at him all honest, all serious. “Please don't go, please don't run away. I know that you must have experienced horrors, Jen. Your skin tells your story. But you're not dirty. You're not a lesser man because of it. Please, Jen, stay. Now. For a month. For a year. Forever. Twenty years ago, you saved me. Let me be the one who saves you now.”

“Let me think about it, Jared,” Jensen asked. He needed some room and, smiling at Jared sadly, he kissed his cheek, just like that. “I promise, I won't run away. If I leave, I'll say goodbye. But then, please remember that losing someone you love is a part of your life.” Taking Pan with him, pressing him against his chest, Jensen left, not looking back. Tears burning in his eyes, he ran down to the creek, following it, until he came back to their spot. Jared had told him that he wanted to build his house there. It was a beautiful place, perfect to build a home. They had already started to dig up the soil, for water and wastewater, phone lines, electricity and what else, but their place was unscathed and Jensen knew, it always would be. Jared would probably fence it in, to keep it private, would grow flowers, and would put a sunlounger there to watch the gurgling stream.

For hours, Jensen was sitting there, contemplating what to do. Once in a while, he looked at Pan in wonder. Jared had really loved that bear and had taken good care of him. Of course, it looked as if it had been cuddled to death and probably, it had been. “What do you think, Pan?” Jensen looked at the dark, black eyes. “Do you think I should stay? Tell Jared my story? Relive all the horrors and tell him about my crimes? About the cock sucking and prostitution, about the drugs, about the thefts, about how I hurt Stephen? Or do you think I should run?”

“You can't run forever,” the bear answered, in a mocking voice Jensen faked. “Jared was a good kid. He is a great man. He took good care of me. He'll take even greater care of you, Jensen. He might be the one?”

Jensen shook his head. “I thoroughly doubt it, Pan. He could get every gay man on the planet. Why me?” It was a thought Jensen always had pushed away quickly whenever it had sneaked into his mind, a dream too big to dream. How could Jared ever love him like that, if he knew what Jensen had done?

“Because you have history, Jensen. Because maybe, it was meant to be this way.”

Jensen felt totally ridiculous as he talked to himself like that, as if he had an angel and a devil sitting on his shoulder like in those old comics, but eventually, he made up his mind. Slowly, he got up. His limbs were tense, his body hurting from sitting on the ground for so long and his head was aching, a cruel stabbing pain pounding against his temples, from sitting in the sun for hours, not drinking anything. He probably was dehydrated, and his throat was dry. Dizziness washed over him, as he stumbled back to the cabin. Jared was sitting outside in the rocking chair, a drink in his hands. He had hidden all the alcohol in his private rooms, but Jensen couldn't blame him that he needed a drink. He looked up when Jensen came closer, his hand tightening its hold around the armrest. “Jen?”

“I'll stay, Jare.” He's never called him like that, but it felt right, loving.

“Thank God, Jen.” Jumping up, the headrest of the chair bumping against the wooden wall, Jared was with him instantly, hugging Jensen very gently. “Thank you, Jen, for trusting me so much. You won't regret it.”

Jensen wasn't so sure of it. “Can you just promise me something?”

Jared looked at his old friend, at the hands that were tightly woven together, the nails almost scratching the skin and the features that expressed worry. “Anything, Jen.”

“Please don't despise me, when I tell you my story,” Jensen pleaded with a shaking voice, the fear of losing Jared now he found him again tightening his chest.

 

12

Leaning against the railing of the patio, Jensen was looking at the sunset. He was literally glowing, looking even more beautiful, almost ethereal and carefully, Jared joined him. “Are you good, Jen?”

Jensen shrugged. He felt a little awkward, unsure about what Jared expected of him, a little tense, a little angsty. “It's just weird, you know, to be here, with you. I mean, I never expected to meet you here. When I noticed it's you, I wanted to run away, but gosh, Jared, you were so amazing and so kind, without knowing that it was me.”

Jared wanted to know so badly why Jensen hadn't stayed in touch after his grandma died, why he hadn't gone looking for him, why he hadn't reacted after all his appeals, but he had the feeling that Jensen needed his time. Instead, he placed his hand against Jensen's back, rubbing it and leaning into his friend, just glad to have him back.

***

Another week passed. Together, Jensen and Jared brainstormed about what to do with this place until Jared eventually decided that he wanted to make it into a recreation home for parentless kids. Jensen had loved the idea so much. He still hadn't told Jared much, but from the little Jensen had confided in Jared, he understood that his time in the system had been hell. Jared loved the idea of giving these kids a home, if only for a little while, a place to laugh and to heal. He'd created a foundation, hoped that he could finance the farm with donations and he wasn't ashamed to use his fame for it. It was a good cause, helping kids.

Now the cabins were all finished and Jared had offered Jensen to move into one for his own, but he had refused. Quite shyly, he had asked Jared if it was okay if he stayed, and it had caused a weird flutter in his belly Jared hadn't felt for quite a while. Just a few hours later, Jensen sat down next to Jared on the patio. “Is it okay if I tell you part of my story? The part that led me here?”

Closing the book Jared was reading at once, he looked at his friend. “Of course it is. Is this a good place for you?”

“It is as good as any place, Jared. Just promise me to hear me out.”

“Sure I will.” Jared was curious. Jensen seemed very nervous, and somehow he instantly knew it was bad.

“I'm gay.” Jared nodded, having suspected something like that. Not that Jensen had any gay vibes, as little as Jared had them himself, but somehow, he had just known. “Four years ago, I met a guy at a bar. Just like me, he was a regular there. His name was Stephen. It was quite the typical love story, you know. Boy meets boy, boy falls in love, boy moves into boy's house. Boy worshiped the boy and was worshiped in return. Yet, it was all an illusion. Stephen abused me. First, it was harmless. An abusive word here, sex just a tad too hard, a hand that slipped, that slapped my cheek or shoulder. Then the hand became a fist, the abusive word became abusive tirades, the sex became very rough. Because of my past, Stephen called me names and he made me feel so, so low. I know I should have left him, but somehow, I never did. It got worse, Jared. Every week, Stephen found new ways to torment me.” Jensen took a deep, shaky breath, chancing a look at his friend. The pain in Jared's face equaled his own, his eyes were shining with love. Their eyes locked and Jared turned his hand, opening it slightly. Tentatively, Jensen placed his own hand into it, Jared's long, elegant fingers curling around his hand, squeezing once and holding tight. I'm here, it said, and Jensen was grateful for the connection with Jared, not shaking it off. “In winter, he locked me into the basement. It was freezing down there. He let me lie in my mess for days, I think the longest were five, without food, with only a bit of water. In summer, it was the loft. Remember the loft in the stables? How warm it was up there? Imagine, being up in a loft as warm as that for days and days in a row. Without water. I thought I'd die, Jared. He beat me, with everything he could find. Belts, wet shirts and of course his fists. That's how I lost two of my back teeth, Jared. He suffocated me with wet towels. He hurt me with lit cigarette stubs and a very thin blade. He broke my bones. A year ago, I finally found the courage to tell Jordan and his wife. I was in such a bad state, and she once more patched me up and I just couldn't lie to them any longer.”

Jensen paused, moistening his lips, gathering courage for the sad highlight of the story. If things hadn't been so severe, it would have been nice, standing here with Jared by his side and holding his hand. Warm and safe they felt, those hands. Gentle. Capable of a lot of things. “It was a night in February. Stephen came back from work, drunk. I hated when he was drunk, because of my own past with alcohol, and it made him even more aggressive. He started complaining, because the dinner I had made had turned cold. Sure it did. I expected him back at 6 pm, he came at 9 pm. He started to thrash things, throwing them at me, and suddenly, he had a knife. He screamed, howled and raged. Called me names, slashed out with the knife. I was scared, feared for my life. I didn't think when I took the pan. First I only used it as a shield and then, I struck out with it, too. I still remember the horrible sound of his skull breaking. There was so much blood, Jared. I had wanted to run for it for months, had a bag packed and hidden under a secret loose floorboard. I took it, took Stephen's car, drove to the closest ATM, withdrew half of the money and ran for it. I called an ambulance but still, when I called Jordan a few days later he told me that the cops were looking for me, because of assault. I've been in prison before, Jared.” Jared's eyes widened. “I can't go to prison again. They'd probably lock me away for years. No judge would believe me. That's when I decided to go to Montana. I remembered all the lost souls Jeffrey took in, hoping that he'd take me in, too, without asking questions. I swear it was self-defense, Jared.”

Jared's heart was breaking for Jensen. How could anyone do something like that to another human being? Hate Jensen for who he had used to be and what he had done, instead of admiring him that he made it out of the gutters? “I believe you, Jen,” Jared said. Just like that. He really did. He had seen the scars. They bore witness to the story. Besides, it was just in the way Jensen had told the story, in his posture and in his expression. “Thanks for telling me, Jen. Is it okay if I hug you? I mean, a man obviously hurt you deeply and I don't want to intrude.”

Jared's care did something to Jensen, healing something inside him that had long been broken and causing a very weird tingle deep inside. “You're not him, Jared. In no way you're anything like Stephen.”

“No, I'm not.” Jared wrapped Jensen into his arms, pulled him tight against his chest. “Other than him, I respect you, Jen. I don't resent you for what you've done in your past. I just want to make sure that your future is so much brighter and better.”

It was so nice in Jared's arms, so good to feel his warm body pressed snug against his, to feel his love and acceptance. “What now, Jare?”

Jared shrugged. He knew what the correct thing was to do, but correct didn’t always equal right. “I could just forget what you just told me, Jen. You stay on the farm, and if Stephen ever finds out where you are or well, the cops do, we cross that bridge when we come to it.” Though what that might look like, Jared didn't know. As much as he wanted, he couldn't kill Stephen, that was no option. “We could go to the next sheriff station and you turn yourself in. Or I could do a bit of research, you know, and well, call my lawyer and ask him about your options. I'm only going to do that if you want me to, Jen. What do you think?”

Jensen thought about Jared's suggestions for a few moments, thankful that he was willing to keep silent about what had happened, knowing very well that he rendered himself liable to prosecution by not turning Jensen in. “I'm scared, Jared. I can't go to prison again. It's a nightmare without awakening, worse than foster care, and that was hell. Is it okay if I sleep on it? Make up my mind in the next few days?”

“Sure it is.” Jared placed his hand on Jensen's shoulder, squeezing gently. “No matter what you decide, Jen, I'll respect it and whatever happens, I'll support you.” He didn't really care about the consequences for himself. All he cared about was to protect Jensen as best as he could, just like Jensen had protected the boy Jared all those years ago.

“Just like that, Jare? Knowing that I'm an ex-junkie, alcoholic and jailbird?” Jensen couldn't hide the hint of surprise in his voice as he asked that. It was an overwhelming sign of trust and he really wasn't sure if he actually deserved that, with the long line of crimes on his conscience.

“Just like that, Jen. Remember? You're more than that.”

He never had forgotten. Neither the words, nor the way Jared had touched his heart when he had reached out, petting his tummy hesitantly, yet really gently back then. Just like then, Jared showed him extraordinary kindness now. Acceptance and love. “Flab or history, it doesn't matter to you, does it?”

“No, Jen, it doesn't. I see behind it. I see you.”

***

“Good night, Jared,” Jensen said as he got up. He was drained, and he needed some sleep to make his decision.

“You know, you don't have to stay in that small room and that narrow bed for kids. You could, I mean, we've shared a room before.” Jared was blushing deeply. What was he doing? Jensen was hurting, and all he wanted was to be with him. He really was a self-centered bastard, luring Jensen into his bed.

Jensen's heart skipped a beat. The invitation for this closeness and intimacy was simply breathtaking. “But not a bed, Jared,” Jensen tried to remind Jared, unsure what to do. The thought alone of sharing a bed with Jared made him all warm and fuzzy inside.

“It's a big bed, Jen.” Jared felt heat rising into his cheeks. “I had it custom made, because I've always loved big beds. We could put Sadie and Pan between us as a barrier.” Gosh, how old was he to suggest something like that? “I swear I'm not trying to molest you. I just, gosh Jen, I just don't want to let you out of my sight.” Jared pressed his lips together, feeling weirdly embarrassed but also quite emotional right now. It seemed vital to him to be with Jensen and show him how much he cared, despite everything.

Jensen knew it wasn't a wise idea. He knew where that might lead to because damn, Jared was sex on legs and all that, and of course he wasn't blind, too, had seen the way Jared was looking at him, at his lips, his hips, his ass. He couldn't burden Jared with him, couldn't literally give him what he sought. Maybe he just should tell him. But how could he tell him that he hadn't managed to get a hard on for months? That it had been one of the reasons why Stephen had been so mad. “Jared -”

“It's okay. I'm not going to force you into anything you're not ready for.” He looked so sad, as if Jensen had stolen Sadie. “Good night, Jen.” He stepped into his space, kissing his cheek. “If you change your mind, need company or a hug, I'll always be there.”

He didn't take his eyes away from Jensen, didn't want him to think that he was mad, because he wasn't. He knew that it had been a lot to ask and that it wasn't about him, but about Jensen. He had been tormented by a man and it would probably take months, maybe even years, until Jensen would be ready to trust again, if he ever could. Jared climbed up the stairs, leaving the door open just a little bit. Maybe, Jensen would change his mind.

It was warm up here in the loft, and Jared opened all the windows before he entered the bathroom, doffing his clothes, having a quick shower, the cold water cooling his heated skin. When he looked into the mirror, his sad, tired eyes looking back at him, Jared realized with a pang of shock that he was in love. It wasn't like the crushes he had had; it ran so much deeper. He longed for Jensen, always had, always would and his heart was breaking. The thought of Jensen being in prison, and going to prison again was so scary. He'd fight for him, protect him, just like Jensen had protected him all those years ago. If worse came to worst, they would have to run. Maybe, he should try and get a fake ID for Jensen, so that they could flee to Europe? It was a crazy idea, and Jared shook it off, yet knowing very well that he would do it, if he could save Jensen.

When he stepped out of the bathroom, wearing nothing but shorts, it was a little cooler, the mild breeze from outside drafting through. Jared took away the quilt. The bed really was far too big for him alone. He placed Sadie on the side he hoped Jensen would sleep in sometime soon, switched off the light and just listened. From afar, he could hear the steady, cheery gurgling of the creek, the song of the wind in the trees, Jensen rummaging around downstairs. So strong, yet so vulnerable. His story was unbelievable, how he had covered all those miles by bike, sometimes hitchhiking, sometimes taking a train. He was a survivor. His thoughts on Jensen, Jared fell asleep.

***

An eerie scream ripped through the silence of the night, waking Jared up, sending a shiver down his spine and causing goosebumps, in spite of the warmth in the room. He's heard this scream before and for the sake of Jensen, he had always ignored it, because Jensen was a proud, stubborn bastard. Today, he ignored it, too, but he hoped that Jensen would come.

Minutes passed and silence fell over the cabin once more. Then, he heard the fall of soft, naked footsteps over wooden tiles and those feet sneaking up the stairs. Silence, as if Jensen was thinking it through. Finally, the door opened and Jensen was standing in the dark doorway, the moonlight that was seeping through the open windows submerging him into an ethereal light. Silver he looked, like in a fairy tale, just as beautiful as back when the afterglow had been shining down on him. Just like Jared, his chest was bare, yet the thin blanket he slept in was pressed against his chest, just like Pan was, who had moved back to spend his nights with Jensen. He looked like a small kid. Jared swallowed hard. “Come on in, Jen.”

Now it happened, it wasn't even such a big deal. They both had their own blankets and before Jensen lay down on the mattress, he placed Sadie and Pan between him and Jared. Jared watched him, not saying a word, his body only a vague outline. The mattress was just perfect, neither too hard nor too soft, the linen smooth and cool, the pillow cuddly. Jensen wrapped himself into his thin blanket, looking at Jared. The love he saw in his eyes took his breath away and made Jensen tingly. “Hold my hand, Jare?” It just felt the right thing to ask.

“Always, Jen.” Fingers touched each other, danced gently with each other, before they twined, coming to rest over the old panda that had been Jensen's token of love, long before they had both realized it.

***

“Good night, Jare.” Jensen leaned in to give Jared a hug. It had become quite an unusual evening routine. Jensen wished Jared a good night and gave him a hug before he disappeared into his own small room and bed where he fell asleep, only to wake up sometime in the night when he sneaked upstairs with Pan and his blanket. Last night, Jared had only grunted before placing his hand carefully against Jensen's chest, right where his heart was beating, and falling asleep again. The closeness between them was breathtakingly beautiful, and Jensen felt heat creeping into his cheeks just thinking about it like that. When did he become a ten-year-old girl?

“Night, Jen. Sleep tight.” Jared watched Jensen leave. He loved him so much that it hurt, but Jensen wasn't ready for that love yet. He was ready for affection, even starving for it, and had started giving it himself, with the very gentle hugs he gifted Jared with at least twice a day, but he wasn't ready for more. The wounds Stephen had cut ran much deeper than just skin deep, and the many secrets of his past burdened Jensen. Darkness sometimes crept over his features, leaving Jared wondering where Jensen was, what malice he remembered.

He drew the curtains, locked the front door and cleared the snacks away they had while playing monopoly. Jensen was still too skinny, but he had built up some muscles and had gained a few pounds. Jared took a bottle of cooled water from the fridge, switched off the light and went upstairs. He had opened the windows after sunset, and he noticed at once that the wind was stronger than usual. There was a weird vibe in the air, it was warm and heavy, it smelled of rain and thunderstorm. Sure enough, just moments later, thunder was growling in the distance. Jared kept the windows open, slipping beneath the thin linens, his skin feeling weirdly clammy because of the warmth in the room. A gust of wind rushed through the room, moving curtains and papers on his desk. Another growl of thunder, closer, the first bolt of lightning, the first drops of rain. Just like fire, Jared respected thunderstorms, lightning especially, for the destruction it could cause, but he also was slightly fascinated by it. He got up, closed the sky windows and went back to bed. The next clap of thunder was so loud that it actually shook the house, the loudest bang imaginable. No way he could sleep with that racket going on. Just as Jared was wondering whether he should go back downstairs, the door was carefully opened again.

“I can't sleep, Jare.” Jensen stood in Jared’s room, blanket and stuffed panda in his left hand, eyes a little wider than usual and his face pale beneath the tan.

“Me neither, it's just too loud. Crawl in.” He patted the mattress invitingly, not taking his eyes off his friend as Jensen joined Jared on the mattress.

“I was afraid of thunderstorms when I was a kid,” Jensen started to explain, remembering how he had hidden his face in his mom's or dad's chest. “When I was fifteen, I was living on the streets for over a year, Jared. I felt like I was invincible, though deep down, I was hurting and I took what drug I could get. Booze, crack, cocaine. I was a mess. One night in summer, a thunderstorm hit the town. I don't even remember where I was, but I remember how scared I was. When I was a kid, my mom held me, but no one was there to hold me when that thunderstorm hit, and I felt so alone that night. I think it was the first time of many I realized how screwed I really was, how alone, how wasted my life was.”

“Scoot closer, Jen.” Jensen did, until their bodies were touching. “Now lie down, Jen, and let me do what your mom did for you.”

Jensen didn't object. It was what he had come for after all, for a hug and the feeling to be loved and respected, to be more than the fifteen-year-old boy. “I had to sell myself, Jared. For years, I prostituted myself to finance drug usage. I didn't mind if I licked pussy or sucked cock, I just did what had to be done.” Looking back at that now, Jensen felt unbelievably dirty, remembering what he had to do. Cheap motel rooms crawling with vermin, narrow, dirty alleyways smelling of pee, back or front seats of cars, dirty bathrooms in rundown bars or train stations. Men and women of all ages, moans and groans, sighs and screams. The more often Jensen had sold himself, the more he had lost himself, until in the end, it had only been his shell, just like when Stephen had hurt him, and he had hidden the small, intact part of his soul in a safe place deep within.

Jared's arm sneaked around Jensen, and he made sure that he was settled comfortably in his arms, that Jensen could place his head against his chest and feel safe and sound. “I almost overdosed. I tried cold withdrawal, and almost died. I saw your interview with Oprah. I was so stoned that night. In the first glorious moment I thought That's your ticket out but how could I have burdened you? A junkie? A prostitute? A drug dealer and a thief? Imprisoned twice? I couldn't, Jare. I wanted you to keep those fond memories of me, of the chubby boy who left you his most precious possession in the world for safekeeping, the boy you gave so much acceptance and love.” He took Jared's hand and placed it on his flat abdomen. “Back then, I had practically stopped eating, Jare. I was nothing, in all senses of the world.” Jared moved his hand over the flat belly very gently. “Six months later, a friend overdosed. She was barely nineteen, far too young to die. I'm still not sure why, but it was the wakeup call I needed. I sought help and I got it. I got clean. It took me half a year and I was in a horrible state, but I made it, Jare. I haven't taken drugs ever since nor had anything remotely alcoholic. I'm even reluctant to take pain meds. My life was good, and then Stephen came.”

“Your life will be good again, Jen.” Rubbing consoling circles into Jensen's torso, Jared slowly moved his hand upwards, placing it against Jensen's heart. Our hearts belong to each other, this gesture said.

“I can't get a hard on, Jare.” Just like that, Jensen had blurted it out, phrasing his biggest failure for the first time and now it was out, it felt as if a weight had been lifted off his shoulder. “Stephen did something to me, and ever since... I'm dysfunctional.”

Jared's heart was breaking, not because of Jensen's impotence, but because of the hurt and shame in his tone and expression. “You're perfect, Jensen. And we'll be so much more than sex, if you let me be.” He painted consoling patterns into Jensen's chest, feeling its rise and fall, with every breath he took.

“'m scared, Jare, so scared,” Jensen admitted, closing his eyes, protecting himself from both the thunderstorm and his past.

“I know, love. But we'll take it one step after the next. First the thunderstorm, then the demons of the past and everything else.” Rain was thundering down in strong torrents now, hammering against the roof, the wind was howling around the little cabin, bolts of lightning were dancing over the dark canopy but here in Jared's arms, Jensen felt as safe as in his mother's womb. “Don't close your eyes, Jen. Watch the thunderstorm with me. Nothing is going to happen.”

Just like the little boy, who had been so afraid of fires, had trusted Jensen, Jensen now trusted the man the little boy had grown up into. Opening his eyes, his body so safe in Jared's arms, he watched the dance of lightning in the sky, seeing the beauty in it. “It's beautiful.”

“And so are you, Jen.” He pulled the thin linen over their bodies, snuggling as close to Jensen as possible, hoping that, from now on, he could fall asleep every night next to him, for the rest of their lives.

 

13

When Jared woke up the next morning, Jensen was gone and for a very angsty moment, Jared actually feared that Jensen had left him, had sneaked away and run for it. Then though, he noticed that the windows were open again, sending heavenly fresh air smelling of rain into the far too stuffy room, that Pan was sitting next to Sadie on Jensen's side of the bed and that the blanket Jensen had brought up here was lying folded on the slightly crumpled bedlinen. Best sign though that Jensen hadn't run away was the scent of freshly brewed coffee and fried bacon whiffing through the cabin, and radio music sounding up from downstairs.

Jared got up, had a quick shower and brushed his teeth, rinsing with mouthwash, before heading downstairs. His heart skipped a beat, in the positive sense of it, when he laid eyes on the small table; wildflowers in a small glass, chocolate cream, jam and honey, toast, yogurt and cereals. Bacon and scrambled eggs were on a plate in the oven to keep them warm, just like a small stack of pancakes.

Jensen himself was standing outside on the patio, once more leaning against the railing. The thunderstorm had done quite a bit of damage to nature, the muddy ground covered with broken twigs and branches. “Morning, Jen.” Jared announced himself, stepping behind him and curling his hands around Jensen's waist. It was an intimate gesture, sending a wave of happiness through Jensen. One of the hands sneaked around his torso, rubbing his abdomen gently. “You seem to love giving belly rubs, Jare,” Jensen chuckled, leaning into the warm wall Jared's company provided.

“Absolutely, though there is something else I love to do a little more.”

Jensen smiled shyly, knowing what Jared was talking about, yet not knowing if he was ready for it, sharing breath and drinking from Jared's lips. He was out of practice, and a little self-conscious, not wanting Jared's tongue to feel what Jared's eyes had long seen. “Stephen never wanted to kiss me. He hated the missing teeth, Jare. And isn't it funny, because thanks to him, I lost two more and he forbade me to get implants.”

“I'm not Stephen, Jen,” Jared promised, wrapping his other arm around Jensen properly, too, and holding him from behind. He fitted so well into his arms, like Jensen was made for him. “I don't mind the gaps. If you mind them, we go see a dentist. And I don't want to hear that you can't accept it.”

Jensen's heart was beating and he looked in wonder at the arms that held him tight yet so gentle. “Why me, Jared? You could probably date anyone. Why me?”

“Why is the grass green or the sky blue, Jen?” Jared asked philosophically. “I guess it's always been you. You're just the one.” For Jared, it was a logical step. He had loved Jensen as a kid, he loved him now, with all his heart. The connection was strong between them, very unique, an understanding that went so much further than hunger, lust or some sort of attraction, though of course Jared was attracted to this man. To his beautiful body, sure, but most of all, to his beautiful mind and soul.

“With all my baggage?” Still not really believing that this was happening, Jensen turned around, looking into Jared's smiling face. A smile that could light up a room, that seemed brighter than the sun, with healing powers, that made his heart race excitedly and that caused a very nice, queasy feeling in his belly.

“With all your baggage.” Jared's very big hand cupped Jensen's cheek, the thumb brushing over his skin gently. Heat seeped into Jensen's face, gave the skin a soft tingle that ran through his body, settling deep inside his belly.

“Even if they lock me away and I come back even more broken?” It was Jensen's biggest fear, that life in prison would erase all the good inside him and the happy memories, only leaving Jensen as an emotionless shell, robbed of all his joy and love.

The image hurt, of Jensen in orange, beaten and raped, once more addicted to some poison, broken and neglected, once he got released after a decade, maybe even two and Jared felt a cold hand reaching out for his aching heart, freezing it for a moment. “Even then. No matter what.”

Jared didn't say it yet, but it was clear that he really loved Jensen, with every fiber of his body. It was clear in the way he held him and looked at him, in the way he talked so softly, in the tears that were burning in his eyes, in the way he brushed his fingers over Jensen's cheek. He didn't push Jensen, just held him, waiting for Jensen to be ready, staring into those beautiful emerald eyes. Time passed. Seconds or minutes, Jared couldn't tell, with Jensen looking at him in wonder, not able to hide his surprise at being loved so much by someone like Jared. And then, he just accepted it. Just like he had accepted his parent's and grandma's death, he accepted the undeniable fact that Jared loved him. He leaned in, standing a little on his toes and brushed his lips over Jared's. Smiling into the kiss, Jared moved the tip of his tongue over the velvety lips, carefully asking for entry. Sighing, Jensen gave it to him, their tongues meeting, dancing a sensual dance with each other, soft whispers and moans their love song. Jared gently mapped out Jensen's mouth, poked the tip of his tongue into the gaps, not minding them one bit. They told his story, just like the countless scars Jared couldn't wait to worship. Heat was bubbling inside him and he felt his dick stir in interest, fighting it down. It seemed inappropriate, unfair, that he reacted like that, while Jensen stayed lifeless as the limp cock was brushing against Jared's thighs.

It was what made Jensen stop the kiss, looking down on himself, tears glistening in his eyes. The doubts were back. “'m not good enough for you.”

“Don't say that, Jen. One step at a time.” He leaned down, catching Jensen's lips in a chaste kiss. “I said it before, will say it as often as you need to hear. You're perfect.” He kissed him again, to underline his words with some action. “Now, how about we devour that wonderful breakfast you made for us and then start the day?”

***

That night, Jensen climbed the steps with Jared, curling around him while the wind kissed their naked skin. He told him some more about his past. Bit by bit, he wanted to tell Jared all he needed to know. He started where it began, with coming back to his grandma, slowly adjusting to his life in Richmond, summer holidays he had spent with kids from school and the neighborhood, and her going to bed one night without waking up.

“Why didn't you call, Jen? My dad would have tried to get custody of you.” Jared had always wanted to know, and asking this question had been a burning issue to Jared since he had found out that Jack indeed was Jensen.

Looking back now, Jensen wondered that, too. Of course, he had thought about it. He hadn't expected anything of Jared and his father, anyways, but just to let him know. Yet, he had been a little too insecure and confused. “I didn't want to be a burden, Jare. Even then, I didn't want to bother people. I mean, although I had heard horrible stories and I was really scared I was naive enough to think that the system would take good care of me, you know? Some foster parents are good, many are okay. My first foster family was okay, I guess. Not overly friendly, but okay. Besides, despite the calls and the letters, I was scared that you'd push me away once I told you.” Jared took in a hurting breath, yet understanding Jensen just a little. “We'd only known each other for two weeks, man. It was a bit like a dream and I was scared that, back in reality, you wouldn't even bother to tell your dad.” Knowing how caring Jared had been back then, and still was now, Jensen realized it had been the worst decision of his life. He snuggled a little deeper to press their foreheads together, their hands caressing each other's waists and hips, tummies and backs quite gently. “I stayed with my first foster family for over a year, then tragedy happened, and the horror began.” Quietly, Jensen told him about Tuck and Leanne, who had seemed to be so nice at first, but had been devils in disguise. “I ran, preferred a life on the streets to the hell I was going through.”

“You should have called, love,” Jared said, snuggling closer into Jensen's warmth.

“Yeah, maybe.” Sometimes the thought had hit Jensen, one or two times, he had actually been standing in a phone box, once he had called most of the number, but he never had gone through with it. “Like I said, I was scared. To be a burden and that you'd push me away. I was a drug addict already. I knew it was stupid, wrong even, but, gosh, it's cliché, but it just sort of happened, you know. It gave me the feeling that all my problems were flying away, if only for a little while. It numbed the pain and the hunger.” Having had his own experience with drugs, Jared nodded, knowing the feeling. Other than Jensen, though, Jared had never used them. He had tried, because he had been young and stupid, but he had shown better resistance. Yet, his situation had been very different. All he had to struggle with as a sixteen-year-old teenager was the sudden fame, seeing his own face on the TV screen or teen magazines and school mates being either too friendly, to become friends with him, or jealous of the money and fame.

Tiredness swept over Jensen and he made himself even more comfortable in Jared's arms. “Be my big spoon?” He had told Jared enough for now, but he felt good, as if another big boulder had been lifted off his hurting shoulders and he was amazed by how accepting Jared was, holding and loving him like that, despite everything.

Jared didn't even bother to answer, just opened his arms enough to let Jensen turn around, pressing his muscled chest against Jensen's scarred back, kissing one of the thick, bulgy lines the makeshift whips Stephen had used had left and looping his arm around Jensen. “Dream something good, love.”

***

Three nights later, a sweet good night kiss changed into something more, hands moving up and down their half-naked bodies, pinching, stroking and rubbing skin, while hungry and greedy lips sucked ravenously. Carefully, Jared stripped off Jensen's pants. Nature had been kind to him, his privates as perfect as the rest of his body, and Jared gently cupped his dick, rubbed and kissed it, massaged the balls, tried to stimulate Jensen in any way imaginable, but he just stayed limp.

Jensen cried, feeling like a lesser man, like a loser and Jared hated seeing him so broken. He understood how horrible Jensen felt, though he minded far less. He had long sowed his wild oats and they were so much more than sex. Jensen was so much more than a man with an erection dysfunction. “You're more than that, Jen,” Jared said, his hand still cupping his dick, kissing the tears from Jensen's face away, moving his hand upwards, caressing the skin of Jensen's belly, further up, fondling the nipples, before his hand came to rest above Jensen's heart. It was beating quite fast. “It's okay. I love you so much, Jensen.” It was the first time he put his feelings into words. “Even if little Jensen doesn't do what we want him to do. It's okay.”

It felt far from being okay, but horrible. What kind of boyfriend could he be for Jared if he couldn't even get a hard on? What kind of man was he? “I think I need to be on my own tonight,” Jensen announced, slipping out of the bed.

A hand curled around his wrist. “Don't do that, Jen. Don't run away from what we have and what we are.” Jared's finger pressed into his pulse point. Stephen had touched him like that, too, yet it had been very different. His look had been full of malice, Jared's was full of love. It was that look that made Jensen stay. Still feeling like a loser, yet a tad lighter, he crawled back into bed, smiling sadly when Jared's arm wrapped him in instantly.

“Would you mind taking me to see a doc?” Jensen asked, not looking at Jared. He should have gone to see a doctor a year ago, after it had happened, but Stephen wouldn't let him. He had enjoyed it too much, having another reason to make Jensen feel miserable, and he had never been interested in Jensen's dick anyways. All he had been interested in was fucking Jensen unprepared.

“Course not.” He kissed the tip of Jensen's nose, then his forehead, the crow's feet that fringed his eyes, the pillowy lips. “Just promise me one thing, Jen?”

“Yeah?”

“Promise me to not run away if the diagnosis is not what you hope to hear.” It was Jared's biggest fear nowadays; losing Jensen. He just couldn't, not after he had found him again after all these years. “We'll manage, Jen. It's nothing we can't overcome. We -”

“Are more than that,” Jensen cut in, ending the sentence. “I know we are.” He wouldn't let fear win. He'd fight, for his future and his happiness, for a life with Jared in it. “I promise, Jare. I won't run away.”

***

Jensen's hand was sweaty in Jared's, and he felt very unwell in his skin as he was sitting in the doctor's waiting room. They had driven as far as Bozeman to see the specialist, the ride quiet, Jensen lost in his thoughts and Jared not pushing. He had been great these past weeks, very patient and careful, worshiping Jensen with his beautiful body, touching him so gently, yet still, little Jensen had stayed as dead as it had been in the past eighteen months. Jensen, on the other hand, had tentatively started to give Jared hand and blow jobs. It had felt weird, doing it for love and not for money, and after it had happened the first time, Jensen had cried, telling Jared about his time as a hooker, feeling very stained doing so. Jared had been great as always, repeating his mantra, something Jensen held onto whenever he felt low. I'm more than that, he told himself. Even if little Jensen will never work again, I'm more than that. Jared and I are strong. He held onto this thought, just like he held onto Jared's hand, until the doctor called him into his study.

***

Jensen was very quiet when they left the practice, wrapping his fingers around Jared's and holding on tight. He was grateful that Jared didn't rush him into anything, that he waved them a cab and shared his silence as they were driving back to the hotel they were staying because it would have gotten too late to make the drive back to the farm tonight. “Stephen put my dick into a vice, Jare,” Jensen pressed out, trying hard not to walk down memory lane and remember those horribly painful moments. “I mean, who does that? It hurt so much that I passed out. I needed medical attention right away, but he locked me into the loft to keep me away from any doctors. It caused nerve damage. Besides, it's the drug and alcohol use and my mental state. The fear of failure or more the knowledge that I'm a failure. It's all things put together.”

Jared looked at Jensen in horror, because this was just too cruel and disgusting and for once, he was speechless. How could he take Jensen's pain and memory away? The only thing he could do was draw him against his body, holding him tight and giving Jensen all the love he had missed in the last twenty years. “So there is hope for little Jensen?” Jared asked eventually, his breath ghosting over Jensen's ear, his hands wide on his back.

“If I'm lucky, there is. He said that I should get therapy, Jare. Be healthy. Share lots of affection with my beautiful boyfriend.”

“Did he say that?” Jared asked, sighing and holding Jensen a little tighter, his left hand wandering down and cupping Jensen's butt, squeezing it. It was very juicy, that butt, very delicious, like all of Jensen, limp cock included.

“He did. From what I understand, it's essential. Kissing. Cuddling.” Jensen moistened his lips, the tip of his tongue licking over it sensually. “Making love.” He looked at Jared with hope in his heart, the vision of feeling Jared inside him and being one with him causing a tingle deep inside and his heart rate pacing up just a bit. “He offered to prescribe Viagra, of course but um, I don't want to take it. It wouldn't feel real, you know? And I want it to happen because of you and not because of a small blue pill I took. Is that okay?”

Jared looked at Jensen in wonder. “You never cease to amaze me, Jensen. Of course it's okay. I'll worship you, Jen. I'll show you how much I love you,” Jared promised, stroking that juicy butt, his lips ghosting over Jensen's neck. “Will literally make love to you,” he whispered, his voice not only dropping in volume, but into something deep and soft, something salaciously promising. “Until it happens because of our love and attraction, not because of Viagra.”

Jensen wrapped his arms around Jared, having never felt so loved and accepted before. It was the final proof; Jared really loved him, accepting his unusual decision, showing him that they were more than sex. “I know you will. And I can't thank you enough for accepting my decision.”

Jared kissed the thanks away, trailing his hands through Jensen's hair, rubbing his index over the sensitive skin behind Jensen's ear. “So, how about a date, love?” He had wanted to take Jensen on a date for weeks, on a real date, with fine food and maybe a movie at the cinema. The evenings in the local bar didn't really count.

Jensen shook his head. “I'd love to go on a date with you, Jare, but I'm still a wanted criminal and you're still a famous ex-actor. As much as I'd love to, I can't be seen with you here.”

Jared's face fell. He'd never really thought about it, that his popularity would bring Jensen in danger. “It can't stay like that forever,” Jared remarked carefully, “I mean, we could try to change your appearance again -”

Jensen cut him in. “I'll never run around that with that beard ever again. It looked horrible.” Jensen shuddered. While the beard had sort of protected him, it had made Jensen feel as if he was in somebody else's skin. “If it's okay, I'd like you to talk to your lawyer and maybe call Jordan, my friend? See if he has any news?”

“You're not wanted by the FBI, Jen,” Jared chipped in, rubbing Jensen's arm. “Why don't you call him yourself?”

Jensen shrugged. He knew he was unreasonable here. “Just feels safer not to.”

Smirking, Jared shook his head, handing him his cell, yet not objecting. It was not a big deal, anyways, talking to Jensen's friend. “Just type in the number, dude.”

Feeling weirdly giddy, Jensen listened to the conversation quietly; how Jared introduced himself, without saying too much about who he was and most of all, where they were, just in case. How he told Jordan that Jensen was good, happy and healthy, thriving, in a new relationship. Then, Jordan did the talking. Something in Jared's posture changed; he sat a little more upright, as if he was pricking his ears at school, listening attentively. First his brow was knitted together, then it relaxed, Jared's eyes widened, but all he said was “um” and “ah”. “I promise,” Jared said, “I'll take good care of him. No need to threaten to kick my ass, Jordan. He's the love of my life.”

Jensen's heart skipped a beat, maybe even two. He'd never thought that Jared's feelings ran so deep. He had hoped, had listened to Jared's declarations, had felt those touches but still, hearing how Jared told Jordan that Jensen was the love of his life was something big. “You're free of all charges,” Jared announced, once he had disconnected the call, flashing Jensen a huge smile.

Still being amazed by the love Jared felt for him, the words took a while to sink in. “What?” He felt weirdly dizzy, his heart beating very excitedly.

“Seems Jordan and Jason are really great friends, Jen. I wish I had this idea. They found two ex-boyfriends of Stephen who he tormented, too. They made statements. Together with their own statements, the evidence found in your house and your health records, they realized that it's not you who was the culprit here. I'll still call Alex, my lawyer, because you're requested to take a statement, but you're clear of all charges, love.”

Jensen didn't believe it. Could he be that lucky? Could he finally be free? “They won't lock me up?”

“Nope, they won't lock you up. You know what that means?”

Jensen shook his head. It meant so much, simply everything. He could be him and he really could have a future with Jared. He was free.

“We can go on our date, babe. So, let's go.”

 

14

“I know we're still new,” Jared started, slipping his arms around Jensen from behind and holding him close, “but I'd love you to move in with me.” They were looking at the building site, the basement and the concrete floor that made the ground floor already finished, the first rows made of bright gray ashlar that would be the outer walls of the ground floor already laid.

In amazement, Jensen was first looking at the half-built house before looking at his boyfriend. He had expected to move into one of the small apartments for the teachers and therapists that wouldn't live with the kids and that just had been finished. He hadn't expected Jared to make this offer, not that soon. But then, maybe, he shouldn't be that surprised. “As your boyfriend?”

“No, Jen, as my cleaner,” Jared shot back, grinning sassily and catching Jensen's lips in a gentle kiss, not minding that the gang was around, carpentering and building. A part of Jared wanted to fall on his knees and propose, ask Jensen to move in as his husband, but the fear of freaking Jensen held him back. “Don't you think it'll be nice, waking up in each other's arms, the morning sun tickling our noses and the swift song of the river our love song?”

“You're such a girl, Jare,” Jensen said mockingly, his eyes holding Jared with the same warm glance that Jared gave him. “But yeah, it'd be perfect. And I'd love to move in with you. As your cleaner and boyfriend.”

It made Jared the happiest he had ever been, and as he closed his eyes and kissed his Jensen, he already saw their future; first, a puppy, then one or two kids, maybe two of their own blood and two adopted, getting older together, here in this house, lying together on the ground by the creek, never letting go.

***

Two dozen candles in small glasses gave the dark room a warm glow and love songs were sounding from the iPod, as Jared led Jensen into the room, blindfolded. It was a big proof of trust that Jensen let Jared do that with him, and he held his boyfriend's hand tightly, squeeing just a little in surprise when he was picked up and, like a bride, carried over the threshold and into the bed they had shared for the last four months. Jensen had long been ready for the last step, hinting it at Jared carefully, yet appreciating that Jared was so patient, that he had allowed Jensen to get to know the body that would become one with him now. Gentle fingers moved over his skin, causing waves of pleasure running through Jensen's body, tingling in his belly until they evaporated, shooting up and down, prickling pleasantly everywhere. The blindness caused by the dark cloth around his eyes made Jensen feel thrice as much as usual, every soft brush of Jared's fingers, his slightly callused skin, the warmth of his breath, his fine hair touching his skin. It was the most sensual feeling in the world, yet not still enough to make him stir but for once, it was okay. Jared loved him. All of him. Limp cock, teeth gaps, countless scars. Big and small imperfections. Jared made Jensen feel like he had last felt when his parents were still alive; worth a million, important and precious.

Warm fingers danced along his collarbone and neck, over his face, tracing the outline of Jensen's features, his plush lips, loosening the blindfold, caressing the wrinkles and freckles. “So many, Jen. You know what I noticed first when I saw you? Your sweet chubby middle and your gorgeous freckles. And now, here I am, finally allowed to kiss them and to touch your middle, though it's not chubby anymore.” He spread his hand wide on the flat, t-shirt covered abdomen, caressing Jensen's face with his lips, while his hands sneaked beneath the waistband of Jensen's jeans. He stripped them off. Whenever he saw the limp cock and the dozens of scars Stephen had left on Jensen's thighs, his heart tightened before it grew even wider with the love he felt for Jensen. Like so often in the past weeks, he kissed and licked the scars hello before stripping off Jensen's briefs. “Hello, little friend,” he whispered, a grunt of amusement escaping Jensen's lips. He kissed the cock, stroked and caressed it, showed Jensen all his love, causing fireworks inside Jensen, yet not the dick to grow. He felt Jensen's disappointment and anger, at himself and the unfairness of the situation. “Don't give up, love,” Jared whispered, nuzzling his face against Jensen's flat belly, kissing the belly button gently. “One day, you'll be big in my hand. I know you will be. Just have patience, love. Give yourself some time to heal. No pressure.” He looked up, staring into emerald eyes swimming in tears. “I love you, Jen. So much. Now, let me show it, okay?”

After taking the lube that was standing on the nightstand, Jared started to prepare Jensen. Stephen had done damage, when he had fucked Jensen unprepared, with so many other things than just his cock, and Jensen took in a sharp breath, releasing a little whimper, when Jared penetrated him with his thumb, to widen the hole just a little bit. “I'll be very careful, babe, but if it's too painful, just say the word and I'll stop. You know we're more than that.”

“More than that,” Jensen repeated their mantra, holding onto it.

Jared took his time, was very gentle, very careful, widening Jensen bit by bit. He felt the scars Stephen had left inside Jensen, the skin that used to tear from what Jared never wanted to know, but it caused something inside Jensen, too, warm fuzzy feelings building into heat, bliss and pleasure. When Jared had finally reached the nerves of his prostate, he felt something in his dick, and Jared, who had his free hand holding it gently, felt it too. A tiny swell. “Oh hello, there's indeed still life in you,” Jared noticed, his voice oozing with affection, kissing the cock. He kept on massaging Jensen's prostate, causing Jensen's breathing to quicken and maybe, just maybe the cock growing just a tiny bit more, before it slackened again. He kissed the head and twined his fingers with Jensen's. “Please prepare me, Jen.”

Jensen was very talented, very deft, very experienced and he did things with his hand that turned Jared on instantly, his cock rock hard only after a little while, the lube massaged in gently, the condom stripped over the proud cock very deftly. Jensen had insisted on it. The first test had come back negative, for all things imaginable, and in general, he had been surprised how well the results had been, taking his history and his drug abuse into consideration, but still, he'd never endanger Jared. It wasn't worth it. “Back or stomach, love?”

“Back.” Stephen had never looked at him, had only used Jensen as a fucking machine, not as a human being and he hoped to see the love in Jared's eyes. Jared's fingers were back between his butts, moving up and down, round and round his hole, two fingers sliding in, just to be sure that Jared would fit. He was huge and he never would want to hurt Jensen. Grabbing Jensen's legs, he pulled him a little closer, lifting him just enough to place the pillow beneath his ass, spreading Jensen's legs wide. He stroked the thighs gently, kissed some of the many round scars the cigarette stubs had left and carefully, slowly, penetrated Jensen. A whimper escaped the depth of Jensen's throat. It hurt on so many levels, physically and mentally, in his body and his soul. It was real pain, but also a good pain, caused by the love and care Jared showered him with. “It's okay, Jare. Move on.” He pressed his lips together, his jaw grinding.

“Relax, love,” Jared said, placing his hand over Jensen's abdomen, feeling his shallow breathing and his heat, while rubbing it gently and penetrating Jensen a little more, bit by bit, inch by inch, forward and back again, until the tip of his cock hit the bundle of nerves, a groan that sounded not one bit painful anymore escaping Jensen's lips. “Ready now, love?”

Fingers squeezed his and Jared took it as the invitation he had been waiting for, riding Jensen, worshiping and cherishing him, just like he deserved. Jared came, with Jensen's name on his lips, their hands so tightly interwoven that both their fingers hurt. Scattering kisses over whatever spot of skin Jared could caress, he stayed inside Jensen for just a little while, the realization that he was actually inside him, a part of Jensen, simply overwhelming. “We're one, you and I, love,” Jared said. It was a statement and his promise of forever, hope and dreams coming true.

***

Jared had managed to fund enough money to run the camp for at least a year and he was sure, the more established it was, it would become easier to find donors. He had talked with his old agent, and producers were still interested in him. He'd go back to acting, just like he had done before his dad had become sick, and would use the money he earned for the farm, too, to make sure that the kids had a home here for many years to come.

Everything was ready for the first group of parentless kids to arrive. The pantry was well stocked with food, classrooms and therapy rooms suitable for the little patients, counselors and teachers employed. Just like all those years ago, there were horses, a few sheep and goats, and some cattle. Next year, they would start to grow grain and corn. Sunflower Cabin, like they had called “their” cabin, was still Jared and Jensen's home, as the house was still not much more than a shell, the interior works just having started.

Then, the bus that had picked up the kids at the closest train station finally arrived. Jensen saw himself, as he looked at the boys and girls stepping out of the bus. Undernourished, mistreated, not wanted, lost in the system. Angry and mad. Yet, when he watched them looking around in awe, he also saw something in their faces he had lost back then. Hope. When he and Jared walked over to welcome them with little gifts, a glass of lemonade and kind words, he knew that's what he wanted to do for the rest of his life, hoping that maybe, he could make the difference, just like Jeffrey and Sam had made for Jared and him.

 

 

PART IV

 

2014

 

15

“Ben is still missing, Jare,” Jensen told Jared on the phone. He was in LA, shooting a movie. It was only a minor part, but it still meant four weeks away from the farm, and away from his boyfriend. They've had missing kids before, but never for that long. It's been three days, and the staff was as worried and clueless as the cops Jensen had called the moment they had noticed that Ben was gone. Better safe than sorry was their motto when a kid was missing and so far, they had all appeared sooner or later.

“Did you check all the hideouts? Old and new ones?” Jared asked as he was throwing his clothes into his suitcase. He had sold the house he had been living in during his Hollywood heyday years ago, had only bought a small one-bedroom apartment, and it was practically empty, only holding the little Jared needed while in LA. Jensen didn't know that he was coming. The missing kid was one reason, him missing Jensen another and most of all, they had been making good progress and Jared had wrapped two days earlier than scheduled.

“Course I did, Jare. Even the few places in the area beyond the farm. Just nothing. Gosh, what if something happened to Ben?” Jensen's voice was heavy with the worry he felt. “I wouldn't -”

“It's not your fault, Jen.” The boy had vanished after a horseback ride in the night and Jensen blamed himself. “I'm still sure that he didn't run away. Ben would have used the chance during the ride, and would have taken the horse. He didn't. Sooner or later, he will crawl out, simply because of hunger. Don't worry, love.” Jared took the last item on the bed that was already bare of its linen; a blue, velvety box, holding a platinum band in it which would hopefully cause Jensen to say “yes”. “I'll be with you soon, Jen. See you.”

“Love you, Jare,” Jensen said, disconnecting the phone call, releasing a breath and slowly waking back to the main house and into the office he shared with Jared, hoping that they would find Ben soon and most of all, unscathed. It was still early in the year, the nights cold and often moist, not a good time for a fifteen-year-old boy to spend outside. Besides, there seemed to be no reason for Ben to run away. From all Ben had told Jensen himself, his foster parents were okay. They didn't care much, but that was still better than being punched.

***

One hour later than scheduled, Jared's plane finally touched down in Bozeman. It took another twenty minutes until he got his suitcase, and it was way past 10 pm when he finally unlocked his SUV. For a moment, Jared wondered if he should just stay the night at an airport hotel. There was a drizzle, the air was damp and misty and the side roads would be slippery. Yet, he wanted to surprise Jensen, wanted to curl around him tonight and hold on tight to him, wanted to feel his warmth, his skin, wanted to smell him. So he stored his luggage in his car, took a sip of his tepid water and started the long ride home.

***

Jensen couldn't sleep. He was worried about Ben and he missed Jared. Gosh, how much he missed him. A person wasn't supposed to miss another that much. It was different, yet nothing compared to how Jensen had missed and still missed his folks. Jared was simply his everything. Friend. Partner. Inspiration. Savior. Counselor. Lover. They really were one, Jared and him. In the course of the last two years, Jensen had confided in Jared bit by bit. He had practically told him everything, all the horrible details. It had helped, just like therapy had helped. He still couldn't get a hard on for more than a few heartbeats, if he managed at all, but despite his failure, Jared loved him, telling him that he was perfect, loved and cherished, proving his words every single day. Being without him, if only for a while, hurt. Jensen knew it was necessary that Jared took acting jobs once in a while. It funded the farm and gave them security, and the knowledge that they were financially safe was reassuring.

For a while, he tossed and turned, pressing Pan against his chest and Jared's pillow against his face, breathing in Jared's scent, but it didn't help. He stripped off his pajama pants, stepped into jeans, slipped into a hoodie and left their beautiful bedroom. All wood and a real fireplace, rustic yet modern, warm and cozy. “Amy.” Jensen whistled and she was with him instantly, a one-year-old beautiful Australian Shepherd. Jensen knelt down, rubbing the soft fur between her ears. “I know it's late, girl, but Daddy can't sleep because he misses your other Daddy, so how about we go for a night stroll?” He'd done that before, when insomnia had kept him awake, in the rare times he doubted himself or when Jared was away.

As if Amy understood her human, she woofed in agreement, following Jensen downstairs. He unlocked the door and stepped outside. It had been raining earlier, and the air smelled of moist soil and grass, of the dung they had deployed on the fields. Jensen started his tour, walking towards the main house. The farm looked different nowadays than two decades ago, with the actual farm buildings much further away from the main house and the cabins than they used to be. Jensen liked it better that way. It made the farm part of the kids’ place without being in the center of it. Everything lay in complete darkness and peace as Jensen walked along the long side of the farmhouse, the gravel crunching beneath his muddy trainers. Puddles had formed and like a kid, Jensen splashed the water, laughing out loud. Patrick, counselor of Cornflower Cabin, seemed to be sleepless too, or had forgotten to switch off his light, because a soft glow was coming from the window in his apartment.

Keeping his pace, taking deep breaths and calming down, trying not to think the worst, a smell suddenly hit Jensen. Smoke. In the first few moments, Jensen didn't think much about it. The cabins all had fireplaces but then, Amy barked, not happily, but alert and when Jensen looked around, he noticed a red-golden glow in the distance. His heart skipped a beat, he quickened his pace and a horrible feeling of foreboding crashed over Jensen as he ran towards the horse stable. Breathing hard, he stopped, the smoke tickling his nose, the heat of the fire grazing him. The loft was ablaze, the horses whinnying in panic, Amy was barking madly. A small figure, his clothes and face dirty and grimed, came running out of the burning stable. Ben. “I didn't,” he stuttered. Jensen ignored him.

For a moment he hesitated, knowing what damage fire could cause, but he just couldn't let the horses die in there. Without thinking about it much longer, Jensen ran into the stable and it felt like running straight into hell. Fire and smoke. Heat and poisonous air.

***

“Only five minutes now,” Jared told himself, driving up the narrow steep road that was leading to the plateau he called his own. It had stopped raining a while ago and Jared had opened the window once it was safe, to let the fresh air in and to help it keep him awake. He loved the many smells up here, the fragrance of freshly mowed lawn, the smell of horse and cattle, and even didn't mind the dung; it was just part of living on a farm. Now though a smell whiffed into his nose that made his stomach churn. Over twenty years ago, this smell had caused him nightmares, awake and asleep, and he had hoped he would never smell it again. He pushed the accelerator, covering the remaining yards far quicker than it was wise in the middle of the night, the shine of the fire guiding him like a beacon to the burning stable. Jumping out of the car, Jared noticed at once how eerily quiet it was, despite the deafening sound of the burning wood. No one was there. No one, but a kid who had been missing for three days, and half a dozen horses in panic. The kid screamed and with a pang of horror, Jared realized that he screamed Jensen's name.

“Ben.” Jared grabbed the boy's shoulders. “Did he go in there? Is Jensen in there?”

Tears were streaming down Ben's face and he just nodded, his eyes wide with fear.

Adrenaline kicked in and within the glimpse of an eye, Jared made his decision. Fear was choking him, of losing the man he loved, of history repeating itself, and it petrified him, for just a millisecond. “Get help, Ben,” Jared shouted. “Now! At once. We'll need an ambulance.” And then, Jared ran, faster than ever before.

The heat inside was unbelievable, scorching the fine hair on his arms, taking his breath away, just like the smoke did. He went down on his knees, where it was a little cooler, a little safer and he crawled, quickly, glancing from one empty stable in the next, his eyes already burning with tears the poisonous smoke caused. The heat and noise of the fire was unbelievable, and Jared breathed as shallow as possible, already feeling a little dizzy, already coughing. Thankfully, he found Jensen lying in the fourth box, unconscious, bleeding from a head wound. Maybe the horse's hoof had hit him as it had bolted in sheer panic, or maybe a piece of a wooden beam had hit Jensen, the roof above him nothing more than a sea of flames. A horrible burn was already distorting part of Jensen's forehead and a glowing piece of wood was lying in the already smoking straw. He shouldn't move Jensen, knew that he could risk paralysis or even worse, death, but staying here meant certain death, and there was no time to waste, oxygen getting scarce. Jared cradled Jensen in his arms, picked him up and ran for it, as fast as he could. It only was seconds, but it seemed like minutes as he ran through the heat and smoke. Jensen's body, muscled but still without an ounce of fat, no matter how well Jared fed him, felt far heavier than it was. Not a groan escaped his chapped lips. God, he wasn't breathing, Jared realized with a pang of horror. Jared barely managed to breathe himself, the heat getting worse, his legs getting weak.

Then, he was outside. It had started raining again, and Jared welcomed the drizzle. He took deep breaths of oxygen, falling onto his knees. People were screaming, running towards the stable but all Jared had eyes for was Jensen. Dead. He was dead. He must be with the scorched hair, the burn on his forehead where the beam must have hit him, blisters already disfiguring his beauty. Panic overwhelmed him, but he still managed to search for a pulse, finding it. “Get Christopher,” Jared screamed. “Now.” Christopher was their doctor. They were so far up here, that Jared hadn't wanted to take the risk of not having a doctor on site.

“Jen,” Jared whimpered, careful not to touch Jensen where his skin was burned. “Please, stay with me. Please don't leave me.” Begging, pleading, Jared repeated the words over and over again, watching the almost imperceptible rise and fall of Jensen's chest, the quiver of his lids until finally, Christopher was by his side. He had once worked in an ER, and he was very competent and quick, cutting away Jensen's clothes, checking his vitals, and providing him with oxygen. Thank God Jared hadn't spared any cost for medical equipment. Christopher tended to the burns on Jensen's hand and forehead with calm hands, putting a gel on them and a weird looking foil.

“A helicopter will bring him to the closest hospital with a burn unit, Jared,” Christopher announced gently. “You won't be able to fly with him, but I'm sure, Patrick will drive you there. Though I'll only let you go once I check you, too.”

Jared wanted to object, but the doctor's stern look kept him from doing so. Time passed, with Christopher checking Jensen once in a while and Jared holding his hand, while the stable burned to the ground and some of the hands tried to catch and calm the horses.

Finally, Jared could hear the sound of the helicopter arriving and then, medics were there, attending to Jensen, hooking him up to an IV, providing him with fluids. “I love you, Jen. Hold on. Promise me to hold on.” A kiss against the smut cheek, a soft rub of fingers against skin, then Jensen was gone and Jared broke. He wasn't ashamed that kids and staff alike saw him crying for the man he loved, didn't feel anything but desperation and fear until a soft, wet snout and a whine got him out of his shock. Burying his head into Amy's fur, Jared cried in fear and pain, memories overwhelming him, of a little kid in pajamas, standing in front of a burning house, seeing his mom and brother die in the flames. 

A hand on his shoulder, a bottle of cool water pressed into his palm, a gentle voice. Christopher. “He's in good hands. Now let me check you.” Jared didn't blink as he was provided with oxygen, too, as hands checked for burns and other injuries. “You should have yourself checked in the hospital, once Patrick arrives there. You probably have a mild smoke poisoning.” 

Jared nodded, feeling a little dizzy and nauseous, with a headache knocking against his skull. 

“Now, let's get you to see Jensen.” Patrick was looming above him, reaching out his hand. Jared took it gladly, being pulled back onto his feet, his legs weak, dizziness washing over him in strong waves. Christopher and Patrick were talking, but Jared didn't hear any of it, too busy swallowing down the bile that was scratching his gullet and concentrating hard on keeping on his own two feet. He had to stay strong, for Jensen.

***

They didn't talk and Jared was grateful for it. Platitudes, no matter how well meant, was what he couldn't bear to hear right now and besides, Jared was too tired and worn to talk, concentrating hard on breathing in, breathing out, his lung and throat burning, his headache worse than ever. Approximately an hour after Patrick had rushed down the narrow bumpy side road, Christopher called. “He's stable. Hospital just called.” A rock as big as India fell off Jared's shoulders. “His state is not life-threatening, Jared.”

Tears were pooling in his eyes and slipping down his cheeks. “Thank God.” Patrick reached out his hand and squeezed Jared's arm quickly.

“It was Ben's fault. He had hidden up in the hayloft,” Christopher explained, though Jared already thought so much, finding Ben in front of the stable, yelling and crying. ”Not sure why we didn't find him there, we looked. He lit a candle, kicked it over. He's scared shitless, Jared.” Closing his eyes, Jared released a shaky breath and another one, trying to calm down. “He knew he screwed up, Jared.” 

Jared shook his head. How could a fifteen-year-old be so careless? “It was an accident, Christopher,” Jared breathed out. “Just ask him to tell the truth when the sheriff is questioning him. I won't kick him out.” Jensen wouldn't want him to. “How are the horses?”

“Some minor burns and they are very anxious. I called the vet, he's with them right now.”

“Okay, thanks for calling, Christopher, really. Thanks for bringing me this good news and for taking care of the horses.”

Despite his anxiety, Jared fell asleep, just minutes after he had finished the call with Christopher. His sleep was restless, filled with fire, screams and smoke, yet Jared slept until they had reached the hospital. Patrick shook him awake carefully once he had stopped the car in front of the ER.

Jared rushed in, his own exhaustion and pain suddenly forgotten. The lady at the reception looked at him with a shocked expression. Only now did Jared notice that he was smelling like smoked bacon, that his clothes were smudged, just like his face and hands were black. And he was short of breath, after running just a few yards. Dizziness washed over him, his head seemed to explode and before he could ask for Jensen, he felt his legs giving in and darkness granting him oblivion.

***

Disorientated, Jared woke up. The bed neither felt like the one in his small apartment in LA nor like the heavenly bed he shared with Jensen at home. There was a strong scent in the air. Disinfectant. Something was sticking in his nose, providing him with oxygen. Oxygen. Suddenly, the memories flooded back into his mind. Fire, smoke and flames. Jensen. “Jensen,” he whimpered, his heart rate quickened and the monitor Jared was connected with started beeping alarmingly.

“Mr. Padalecki.” A female doctor came in, wearing a blue shirt and a white coat, placing her hand on his leg for a brief moment. “Please try to calm down.”

“Jensen.”

“Is stable, Mr. Padalecki. He's in the ICU, where we can monitor him just a bit better than in a normal room, but things are looking good, sir.”

Jared swallowed hard, his throat feeling very dry and tight, until the nice doctor pushed a straw between his lips. The water was heavenly cool, slipping over his hurting throat like balm.

“He has second-degree burns on his left palm and a third-degree burn on his forehead. A concussion. And severe smoke poisoning. He's running a fever and we put him on antibiotics. He might want to get plastic surgery for the burn on his forehead, but it first has to heal.”

“He'll live?” Jared asked, just to be sure.

“He's stable. There is a minor risk left, but if you ask me, his chances are very good and he was a very lucky man. Running into a burning stable to save horses. It could have been so much worse.”

Jared needed to see him, needed to make sure that Jensen was still with him. “I want to see him.”

“You'll need to be a little patient. He's sedated, so he can rest, and you need rest, too. You also have smoke poisoning, though yours is much less severe. You can see him tomorrow.”

Jared wanted to object. Tomorrow seemed far too far away to see his love. But he didn't, the final look the doctor gave him enough to silence Jared.

“I know you're worried, but he's in good hands here. Just like you are. Get some rest.”

***

A nightmare he hadn't dreamed for over two decades was back. This time, it was Jensen who was locked in the room with his mom and brother. It was chubby kid Jensen first, and adult Jensen a moment later, his face burning, his skin melting away like wax, glowing first red and yellow, until it shriveled into blackness.

Breathing hard, gasping for air, Jared woke up. His lungs hurt. Light from the hospital corridor seeped through the glass door into his room, enough for Jared to see the cup of water. Thirstily, he emptied half of it. His heart was racing. He placed his hand against it, wishing it was Jensen's chest his hands touched.

He had been allowed to see him earlier today. For over an hour, Jared had been sitting by his side, holding Jensen's uninjured hand, fondling his arm, placing his hand on Jensen's belly, rubbing it gently. A moan, a sigh, a whimper, a flutter of lids, a jerk of his fingers had been all he had received in return. Yet, it had been enough. Signs of life.

Eventually, a nurse had sent him away, because she had to remove the burnt skin. Jared had watched through the window, feeling sick as the nurse pulled the thin burnt, shriveled skin off Jensen's forehead. The burn, almost as round and big as an ancient golden coin, would change his look forever. Just like the lost teeth, that had long been replaced with implants, or the flagging cock, Jensen would mind that mark. Far more than Jared. Once again, Jensen would doubt himself, would think less of him, would regard himself maimed, ugly, distorted. Jensen still hadn't understood that he was beautiful on the inside, and that this was what counted. He still hadn't really learned that he was more than just looks. But Jared wouldn't give up showing him, teaching him.

***

Six days passed. Jared was released from hospital and moved into a hotel just around the corner, while Jensen was moved from ICU into a sickroom in the same ward Jared had been. Patrick had been nice enough to pack Jared a bag with clothes which Christopher had brought him. He had talked to the doctors and now tried to explain the shattering diagnosis to Jared. “His lung was damaged, Jared. It'll take a long time to heal. His hands and feet are aching, and he can't move his legs properly. This paresis of his legs is a rare, yet not unheard-of aftereffect of a heavy smoke poisoning.” It felt like a punch in the gut. “Paralyzed?” Jared pressed out.

“No, it's not a paralysis, Jared, it's a paresis.” Christopher explained the differences. “He'll still be in a wheelchair.” 

Jared swallowed hard, trying to overcome the initial shock. It was hard to comprehend that Jensen would be in a wheelchair, maybe for an infinite time, unable to walk and move his legs. “What is his prognosis?” 

“With PT it's likely he will walk again, but Jared,” Christopher said gently, “long term consequences of smoke poisoning can be quite severe.” He carefully brought the news and Jared got sicker and sicker, realizing that he could lose Jensen, years ahead of time and that there were many things worse than just two lifeless legs. “You both should talk about his therapy. There are some clinics that are specialized in lung and heart conditions. If you asked me, it would be wise to go.”

Jared nodded, though he knew Jensen never would want to go. He was too stubborn, hated to leave Jared, because he hated when Jared left him. Maybe that was the downside of being so close.

Jensen was awake when Jared came into his room, just barely. He was on morphine and antibiotics, and he could hardly talk, the smoke and heat having caused damage in his throat, too. He still seemed a little confused from the concussion. “What happened?” Jensen had asked before, twice, and Jared had explained, twice. Sighing patiently, he told the story again. “Ben is fine, Jensen, and the horses are all fine, too. You saved them. You shouldn't have, but you did. I'm proud of you.”

“You. Saved. Me,” Jensen pressed out, very slowly, taking deep breaths between those three words. “Into. The. Fire. Despite. Fear.” Sweat was visible on the part of Jensen's forehead that wasn't dressed in gauze; he was running a light fever, feeling hot and cold and very weak.

“The fear of losing you, Jen, was far greater than the fear of the fire.” He didn't tell Jensen that the nightmares were back, hoping that they would vanish in time till they finally could share their bed again. Sleeping without Jensen made Jared sort of vulnerable, as if he was sleeping naked on a bed of gravel outside in the middle of nowhere. 

“Disfigured.” A shaky hand pointed at Jensen's face and there was liquid in his eyes. 

“Don't worry, love. You're still beautiful. If it bothers you, you can get plastic surgery to restore your handsomeness in all its facets.” Jared touched the uninjured part of Jensen's face quite gently. 

“Can't feel my legs and my hands hurt so much.” It scared him. The nice lady doctor had talked to him, and Christopher, who worked as their doctor on the farm. He was paralyzed, would need a wheelchair, and would never walk again. Tears pooled in his eyes. “Damaged goods, Jare.” 

“No, honey, don't say that. I talked to Christopher. With PT, your prognosis is good. You'll walk and run again. Dance with me on our wedding day.” 

Jensen snorted, doubting that there would ever be a wedding. If Jared was smart, he would run as fast as he could and get himself a healthy boyfriend, one who could walk and could fuck him. “Useless. Can't work, can't walk, can't fuck you,” he pressed out, taking a deep breath. His head was hurting so much, his whole body actually. “You should get rid of me.”

Jared looked as if someone had punched him in the face. “You'd know me better by now. I love you, no matter what. I'd never get rid of you, Jensen. Never.” He first placed his hand against his own heart before settling it against Jensen's.

A tear escaped Jensen's eye. He saw himself, in a year or ten, bound to a wheelchair, a tube in his nose providing him with oxygen, a nurse feeding him while he was watching the kids play, drooling and uninvolved, scaring their little guests. “Nursing case.”

“Oh love.” Jensen's heartbeat was a slight yet reassuring, steady boom-boom-boom against his palm and he rubbed the chest tenderly, moving his hand a little further down, giving Jensen's belly some sweet caresses. “You'll recover and you'll be better.”

“What. If. Not?” He was so tired. Talking hurt. But he had to know. Had to prepare for the worst, for when Jared would send him away.

“Then we'll still grow gray and old together, Jensen. I really wish you'd finally believe me, Jen. You're stuck with me.” He didn't really blame Jensen. It came with his low self-esteem, with not having been wanted as a kid, with being homeless and all alone. The drugs had made him see things too that had not been there. “You know that, don’t you?”

Deep down, Jensen did. Yet, he never could completely push the fear away, of losing Jared for good, of not being good enough. He smiled, falling asleep.

 

16

Seeing Jensen sitting in his custom-made wheelchair for the first time broke Jared's heart. He looked broken and small and Jared was down on his knees instantly, taking Jensen into his arms, crying with him, yet promising that one day, he'd walk again.

“You don't know that,” Jensen gasped between his pitiful sobs, almost losing consciousness and Jared had to provide him with additional oxygen, the cylinder fixed at the back of the wheelchair. He looked so horribly sick, with his sickly and waxen skin and the far too skinny body. Pain and lack of oxygen were his steady companion. He seemed depressed, and, just like Jared, he had nightmares. Jensen's skin crawled and burned, he could barely move his left hand and he hated to look in the mirror at the face that was distorted by the big, ugly burn. 

Just like Jared had expected him to, Jensen had refused to go to a clinic and Jared hadn't had the heart to object, simply because he had been scared to give Jensen the wrong impression. Self-conscious and scared as he was, Jensen might have felt as if Jared abandoned him if he was being sent to a clinic, so Jared had just nodded his agreement, holding Jensen's hand and promising him that he'd take care of everything. He had already called Kevin and Kyle to make the necessary adjustments to their home, to have a stairlift built in, have ramps built for the wheelchair and make the bathrooms and kitchen accessible. Modification would take a few weeks, and until then, Jared and Jensen would move into Poppy Cabin, the only accessible place with bedrooms on the farm.

“We're going home now, sweetie,” Jared said as he helped Jensen move from the wheelchair onto the passenger seat, making sure that he was sitting comfortably. Sometimes his legs cramped, causing Jensen to cry in pain and Jared had already learned how to inject the muscle relaxant, if it happened. “You let me know if you need anything?” 

Jensen smiled, but it didn't reach his eyes. Part of him wished he had died. Being a burden to Jared was weighing on him, as much as the pain and his weak physical and mental state. The drive back to Elm Creek Farm was a very quiet affair, yet whenever the road allowed it, Jared took his hand off the steering wheel, placing it against Jensen's thigh, rubbing it softly. 

Thankfully, their arrival was unspectacular. Jensen had asked for it, the image that the staff, who were friends or at least acquaintances, would see him in the wheelchair unbearable. Of course, Jensen couldn't hide forever; sooner or later, they would all see him in his new ride, but he still needed time to adjust to his disability. It had been worse enough to tell Jordan and Jason, to listen to their shocked ramblings and the pity in their voice. Only Christopher was there to welcome them and his quiet professionalism helped. Thankfully, he had agreed to do the follow-up care, changing the dressings, applying ointment and Jensen was glad that Jared didn't have to do it, that he didn't have to look at his boyfriend's face when the burn was tended to.

“Here we are, love,” Jared announced as he pushed Jensen's wheelchair up the ramp leading to Poppy Cabin. Amy was there, wiggling her tail, and she sensed at once that something was off with one of her humans, whining and not jumping at Jensen, but nudging his legs softly, as if wondering why they wouldn't work anymore. Feeling her warm, soft fur beneath his hands helped and it charmed the first real smile upon Jensen's lips since the accident. 

Jared had tried his best to make the cabin as homey as possible. There were photos of them hanging on the walls, a bunch of flowers, a TV and a DVD player. Poppy Cabin had bigger rooms, and Pan was sitting on the height adjustable sick bed that gave Jensen a little more independence. It made Jensen smile. “Jen? Do you want something to eat?”

He wasn't hungry and he knew, it worried Jared considerably, but he barely managed to swallow. Sometimes, it still felt as if he was suffocating, his throat feeling tight or sore and besides, he was far too drained from the long ride. “'m exhausted, Jare. Just want to sleep.” 

Jensen allowed Jared to help him get undressed, gentle hands stripping off his sweaty tee, stripping the jeans off the palsied legs, before he helped Jensen transfer into the bed. “I'll get Christopher.” He had been waiting in the living room, and was with Jensen in a minute, auscultating his lung, injecting him meds, tending to the wounds on his hands, which had started healing, and his forehead, which were still weeping. When Christopher had left, Jared was back, with a glass of water that Jensen emptied gratefully and a hand holding his, until he fell asleep. 

***

Jensen was very tired after his first PT session. The therapist was a burly woman called Maise, who had a good sense of humor and smiled a lot. In a way, she was a female version of Jared, just far smaller. She had stimulated Jensen's legs with electricity and had shown him some exercises before Jared had picked him up from the gymnast room in the farmhouse they would use for Jensen's therapy. Now, Jared was wheeling Jensen along the graveled path back to the cabin. It was a mild day, the sun shining down on them, the birds chirping happily. Suddenly, Jared stopped, placing his hands on Jensen's shoulder, slowly sliding them down his chest and pressing his lips against his temple. He was breathing hard. “Jare? Are you -”

“'m good, darling. Just unbelievably happy that you're still with me.” Jared's voice was oozing with gratefulness, yet quivered with tears held back. He kissed Jensen's cheek. “How about we go out for a walk? Visit the horses?”

Seeing Jared that agitated made Jensen swallow down his comment about being too tired. Jared was hurting, too, and if he needed to see the horses with him, it was okay. “Sure”. Jared turned around, wheeling Jensen to the barn they used as a makeshift stable until the old stable had been rebuilt. They passed some kids, who had only arrived the other day. They goggled at Jensen, whispering, one was even pointing at the tube in his nose that provided him with oxygen, making Jensen feel very awkward. Their behavior annoyed Jared and he made a note to teach them that there was nothing wrong with a sick man in a wheelchair. A tear escaped Jensen's eyes. He wanted to hide it, but Jared was just too good an observer. He stopped the wheelchair, going down on his knees. Smiling at Jensen, he wiped the tear away and enveloped him in his arms. For once, Jared didn't say a thing; no platitudes, no promises, just nothing. He just held Jensen tight, conveying all he felt with that one warm hug, ignoring the whispers in the background.

“Have you never seen a man hugging the love of his life, kids?” Jared snarled, throwing glances like daggers at them, his voice dripping with venom. It was very untypical of Jared.

“Jare-” Jensen breathed out.

“No, Jen, just no,” Jared said resolutely. “What you see here, kids, is love.” He looked at the group of kids while his hands were spread wide on Jensen's thighs. “I know most of you don't know it, but you're here to learn about it. Watch Jensen and me. This is love. Besides, this man here is the bravest man on earth. He ran into the burning stable to save all the horses, at the risk of his own life. Now he is in a wheelchair.” The kids goggled, some took shocked gasps, then they ran away.

“You scared them away,” Jensen commented, but a little chuckle followed. 

Jared just shrugged. “Don't care. No one will keep me from hugging my boyfriend.”

Jensen bit his lips. He wanted to say something, needed to say something, but he was scared to do so. Jared wouldn't understand. He would be mad. He would -

“What is it, Jen?”

“If I'm not getting better, you have to promise to let me go.” He gasped for breath, already feeling dizzy again, short of oxygen, despite the cannula in his nose. “You have to bring me to a nursing home, Jared.”

Jensen hadn't asked him to shunt him into a nursing home, had he? The thought alone was heartbreaking and simply unthinkable. “Jen- “ How could he ever do this?

Jensen saw the pain in Jared's face, the horror the suggestion alone had caused. “Promise me, Jare. I don't have the strength to fight. But you- , I can't be your burden.”

New verse, same song, always the same. Yet, it still hurt. “Jensen, I can't.”

“You have to, Jare.” Jensen was close to tears now. “That's not how we pictured our lives. You deserve so much better,” he gasped for air, “than a crippled boyfriend with a limp cock, an ugly burn on his forehead and useless legs.”

No, it was not how Jared had pictured their lives when they had moved into their new home. But it was still better than a life without Jensen in it. “It's the only life I want, Jen. How could I ever shunt you away to a nursing home, babe?” He shook his head, blinking hard, yet not able to hold back the tears. “I only want you, Jen. Please see it. Believe it.”

Jensen so wanted to believe it but he had lost his faith. Not in Jared, but in himself and he didn't know if he could ever find it again. It felt like life had really taken everything from him. First his family, then his pride and health, then it had sent him through hell, and now, as things had finally been looking good, he had lost his mobility and his last bit of strength.

Not saying a word, Jared brought Jensen to see the horses, leaving him alone for a bit, yet watching him from afar, how he stroked their necks and noses, how he kissed their blazes and placed his arms around their long, elegant necks. He watched how he took hungry breaths of air, short, needy staccato breaths, and his heart was breaking.

Wordlessly, Jared brought Jensen home, helping him into his bed and fixing the oxygen mask over his nose before calling Christopher to check on Jensen. He was so scared that one day, he'd leave that room, shake his head and tell him that Jensen was dying. Maybe he was. “Is he dying?”

“No, but I think his lungs were injured before. I know Jensen had a history with drugs. So I guess, maybe he sniffed glue. It's a cheap alternative for drug users, Jared, and the toxic gases might have damaged his lungs. Now, the damage caused by the carbon monoxide just made it worse. The pain in his limbs and the continuing severe headaches don't help, either, Jared. I know Jensen didn't want to, but maybe you should talk to him about going to a clinic.”

“I know I should, but -” Jared bit his lips. “Just a few minutes ago, he asked me to shunt him off to a nursing home. He was adamant, Chris, but I saw the fear in his eyes that I might agree. He is so troubled, I-” 

Christopher poured them both two generous shots of Jack, adding ice cubes and a bit of coke, joining Jared on the sofa, talking to him quietly. First, it was about Jensen's options and his condition. Jensen had released him from medical confidentiality, and Jared's heart was heavy, yet hopeful. Then, he just bore him company. They watched a game, and when it was time for dinner, Jared gave Annie, the chef in the kitchen, a call and ten minutes later, Mitch, the kitchen help came and brought their dinner, including a portion for Jensen. Jared put it into the fridge, quite sure that Jensen wouldn't eat it.

Jensen was still asleep when Jared joined him in bed two hours later, the sedative Christopher had injected him with, helping Jensen to relax and fall asleep. Fear gripped his heart when Jared noticed that his boyfriend looked like death warmed over. Waxen skin stretched over sharp, clearly visible bones, the burns such a stark contrast to the other skin, red and angry, the skin wizened, like an old apple. How could he ever give him into the care of someone else? Even if Jensen never got better, he wouldn't even think about it. He still had so much love to give. How Jensen asked that of him? “Please don't ask this of me, Jen. I can't do that. How could I ever let you go?”

***

Three times in the next week, Jensen asked him to bring him to a nursing home, breaking Jared's heart in ever smaller pieces. “I'm not shunting you away to a nursing home, Jen,” Jared growled when Jensen mentioned it again. “I just can't. But if you rather want professional care, I'll employ a nurse. And soon, we can move back into our house. We actually already could, only the bathroom downstairs needs some adjustments. And I know you hated the idea, but maybe you should think about going to that health resort the doctors in the hospital told us about.”

In a way, it was sweet how adamant Jared was to keep him, Jensen thought. How much he loved and cared. But it was also sad how blind he was, not seeing that he saddled himself with a sick man. “I think I'm dying, Jare,” Jensen admitted. “Look at me.” He really was only skin and bones, thin like a branch. It didn't help, of course, because with every pound Jensen lost, he also lost strength. “The once so chubby boy is starving.” A tear escaped Jensen's eyes. He was too weak to brush it away. Sometimes he was too weak and his hands were too shaky to guide the fork to his mouth, but how could he ask Jared to feed him? “And I just, -, Jared, the thought that you find me lying dead in my bed, all cold is… I can't do that to you.”

Jared took in a shocked gasp. “Shh, Jen. You're not dying.” He took Jensen's hand, first placing it against his own chest, then at Jensen's. “Feel it? Your heartbeat is strong. Chris makes sure that it stays like this with the ECGs, love. You're not dying.” He moved his fingers over the sunken cheeks, the boney collarbone, along the skinny torso. It was creepy, feeling the ribs, one by one, and the hole between the hip bones, especially as Jared still had the picture of a chubby kid in his mind, the belly round and prominent beneath the too tight clothes Jensen had brought to the camp. “Wait a moment, love?”

Jared got up, calling Annie, asking her to make him a strong chicken soup and call him once it was done. Then he mixed a few spoonfuls of yogurt with apple puree. He brought the bowl back, placed it on the small couch in the living-room and lifted Jensen out of his wheelchair. No grown up should weigh so little, Jared thought when he cradled Jensen against his chest. He tugged him against his side and spoon by spoon, he fed him while tears were rolling down both their cheeks. Once the yogurt was gone, Jared placed his hand on Jensen's abdomen, rubbing it softly. “You're not a toy a little boy throws away because it doesn't work that well anymore or because it's broken. You're a human being, breathing, hurting but still perfect in his imperfections. I'm not going to throw you away. Even if you were dying, I'd stick with you to the end, hold your hand and go with you every step. But you're not. You'll be better, and step by step, I'll take you through recovery, no matter how long it'll take. And even if you'll never walk again, Jensen, I'll be with you. We'll have a good, happy life here on the farm, Jensen. You'll be a part of it. Kids will learn from us, about love, endless love, love that conquers everything.”

Even after two years, Jensen was still amazed by how much Jared loved him. He shouldn't be, but he never had managed to grow out of his doubts; being a failure, a lesser man, a burden. It was not that he doubted Jared, but himself. Yet, as Jared sat there next to him, holding his skeleton-like body in his arms and wiping some remains of the yogurt from the corner of his lips, Jensen decided that he really could trust Jared. Not just a bit, or almost, but completely. “Okay. We'll move back home. And maybe, I really should get some treatment at a clinic.” He knew it would cost a damn lot of money, money Jensen didn't have, but for once, he didn't mention it. He just leaned back and let Jared hold him, like he knew he'd do for the rest of his life.

***

They moved back home instantly, packing the most important things, Jared wheeling Jensen home, the small duffle bag riding on Jensen's thighs, Amy wagging her tail happily as she guided the way, running back and forth. Jared helped Jensen get settled onto the couch and headed to the farmhouse, to return with a deliciously smelling chicken soup and freshly baked homemade bread. “Don't think I can eat that myself, Jare,” Jensen admitted, his hands shaking badly; Parkinsonism was another result of the intoxication. The tremors had only started the other day and they made Jensen feel even worse than the paresis.

“Don't be ashamed to ask for help, Jen.” Jared took the spoon, filling it with a bit of soup and guiding it to Jensen's lips, buttering the bread for him and cutting it in small pieces. Spoon by spoon, piece by piece, Jared fed him, until the bowl was empty and the two slices of bread were gone. Gently, he dabbed his lips and wiped the tears away. Jensen felt humiliated that he needed to be fed. “You'd have done the same for me, love. Never be ashamed to ask for help, okay? I'm so happy to do it.” He brought the dishes into the kitchen before joining his boyfriend on the couch again and wrapping him into his arms. 

Later that night, Jared helped Jensen into the stair lift, waking behind it as it slowly moved upstairs. He helped him shower and brush his teeth, because Jensen's hands were still shaking. Cradling Jensen into his arms, he carried him into their bed, massaging the cold limbs, before wrapping him into his arms. “We'll fight together, Jen, and we’ll win. You're not alone.”

***

On the next day, they talked to Dr. Wilson, who had treated Jensen back in hospital, and she recommended two clinics. Both were not in Montana, and it would complicate things a bit, but Jared didn't care. If worse came to worst, he'd just stay in a hotel in the area during Jensen's recovery or drive back and forth. Jensen was more important than the farm, and besides, he had a very adept staff who already had proven their loyalty and wouldn't mind helping carry the burden, if it helped Jared and Jensen. After hours of research and discussing it together, Jensen decided to go to the clinic in Washington State. It was more expensive, but Jared had shrugged it away, simply because more expensive also equaled better care in that case. They called at once and had been lucky, getting a spot for Jensen immediately.

They'd leave tomorrow, taking the car and staying overnight because the trip was just too long to make it in one day. The doctors in the clinic had advised Jared to stay away, to give Jensen time to concentrate on healing and while both hated it, they had agreed with a heavy heart. It was only four weeks, and Jared could visit once halfway through. Their bags were packed and they'd both spend the little time they had until they needed to say goodbye in blissful togetherness. Despite the grave occasion, both were looking forward to it, to the road trip west. 

Wrapped into a light blanket, Jensen sat on the couch. The burns tingled unpleasantly, and whenever Jensen furrowed his brow, which happened quite automatically, or moved his fingers a tiny bit too much, pain shot through his nerve system, numbing him. His hands were shaking slightly, like they did most of the time these days and his legs were tingling, too. Earlier today, during PT, a spasm had hit him, and it had been bad. Going to the clinic scared him, but Jensen had realized that he needed medical care, that he would never get out of that wheelchair if he wasn't treated properly. 

Jared was rummaging around in the kitchen, singing along to the song that was playing on the radio, being up to something. He had been all secretive, talking about a small surprise as he had helped Jensen to get settled on the sofa, disappearing into the kitchen. Jensen could hear the fridge being opened and closed, a drawer being pulled, the sound of cutlery against porcelain, and then, Jared was back, a big bowl of ice-cream, vanilla and strawberry, decorated with Oreos crumbled into small pieces. Instead of sitting down next to Jensen, though, Jared knelt down in front of him, offering the bowl of ice-cream and then, Jensen saw it. A shiny platinum band, half of it buried in the strawberry ice-cream scoop. He knew what it was, but it just couldn't be, could it? “No,” Jensen stammered, hiding his face behind his hands.

“I actually was hoping for ‘yes”, you know, love?” It was not what Jared had wanted to say. “For days, I was thinking about a way to propose, Jen, I even sat in the office and wrote down a speech, tried to learn it by heart, but while I still can remember most lines from my movies, I can't remember what I wrote on that pad.” He shrugged, smiling sheepishly. “Probably doesn't matter because no matter how I phrase it, it always comes down to one plea, Jen. Marry me, and spend the rest of your life with me. Love and trust me, let me catch you when you fall. Be mine, for I'll be yours.”

Jensen's heart was pounding heavily and for a moment, that seemed like a lifetime, he hesitated, the old doubts back. Of course they were. How could he burden Jared with his frail and broken body? Dysfunctional and scarred. Yet, he realized, for Jared, he wasn't a burden. He saw him kneeling in front of him, the bowl with ice-cream in his left hand, the right wrapped carefully around Jensen's injured hand, the warmth of his fingers seeping through the bandages he still wore for protection. Hope and love. He saw him as a boy, his face teary after he had said goodbye to his dad, all alone. He saw him on TV, remembered how proud he had felt when he had told one of his junkie comrades that, in another life, they had been friends. He really was the one for Jared, and Jared was the one for him. Fact, not fiction. Undeniable truth, not a dream. “Yes.” With a shaking hand, Jensen removed the ring from the ice-cream, licking the sticky cool substance away, giving the ring to Jared who placed the bowl of ice-cream onto the floor, slipping the ring over Jensen's finger while his heart beat more excitedly than ever before, his hand sweaty from all the excitement.

“I love you, Jen,” Jared declared, pulling Jensen down onto the floor with him to seal their promise with a kiss. Soft and gentle, full of love, faith and hope. Jared had to be careful as he kissed Jensen, to not steal too much of Jensen's breath, so he took him into his arms, held him as tight as he dared, kissed temple, nose and cheek instead, collarbone and neck, hoping that he could still hold him in a year, a decade, maybe even half a century.

 

 

Epilogue

 

2015

Throwing his head back onto his neck, Jensen was laughing heartily, paying for it just moments later with a dry coughing fit that lasted half a minute. As always, Jared went into full mother hen mode, ready to perform CPR when needed, hating the sight of Jensen gasping for air and his face getting redder and redder. Yet, as always, Jensen calmed down, and, after he had taken a sip of water, he behaved as if it hadn't happened. He just gave Jared a slight smile, twining his left hand with Jared's that was gently placed on Jensen's shoulder.

Eleven months after the fire, Jensen had almost healed completely. In a few weeks, he'd get plastic surgery on his forehead. It had been his choice, not Jared's. Jared loved that scar, just like the other scars that told Jensen's story. He loved that man, even though he was still on the mend. Once in a while, his hands still trembled and then, he needed help dressing himself and getting something into his tummy, that thankfully had filled up a little. On three out of five days, Jensen needed the wheelchair, his legs not fit to bear his weight, the paresis palsying him. Yet, he was constantly getting better, and all the doctors agreed that eventually, Jensen would get rid of the wheelchair for good. He would never run marathons, but he already was good enough for horseback riding, for kissing, for taking short walks on his good days, leaning heavily against his fiancé or a walking frame he also wouldn't need forever. He was good enough to sing, if he took tiny pauses for deep breaths, to laugh and to talk, though sometimes, coughing fits shook his body, just like earlier. And he was more than good enough to roam his hands over Jared's body, give blow and hand jobs and do the most wonderful things with his fingers inside Jared, while little Jensen remained limp. Just like that, Jensen had accepted it. It wasn't perfect, but as long as Jared loved him, it was okay. And he had his fingers, his lips, his tongue and his hands to do good things for his boyfriend. The best he could do though was be with him. Just that.

“What?” Jensen asked, grinning at Jared sassily and getting up from the table where he was sitting with Patrick and Rachel, knocking on the wooden surface once as a sign of farewell. It was time to leave the dining room with his hubby-to-be, for their usual evening round through the farm over to their house, where they'd curl into each other on either the couch or the bed. It was good to have these little rituals.

“Just, seeing you laugh again, it's a gift, Jen. I mean-”

Jensen nodded. “Thanks, you know,” he said, twining his hand with Jared's and kissing it. “For not giving up on me. For not shunting me off to a nursing home, even though I was dumb enough to ask you for it several times.” They were walking along the corridor, Jensen's hand now tightly wrapped around the frame of his walking aid and Jared's hand now a warm presence on his back, stepping out of the house. Mid-March, it still got dark early, and the setting sun was only a small band of glowing light on the western horizon. Kids who had only arrived at the farm the other day were goggling at Jared and Jensen, not used to gay couples or disability, and often, not used to any displays of affection in general.

They walked along one of the graveled paths, passing Snapdragon Cabin and Dahlia Cabin, their steps leading them further away from the lodgings, into the remote area of the farm and towards the horse stables that had long been rebuilt. “Thanks for saving me, Jare. Overcoming your biggest fear, running into the fire, just for me.”

Jared had also done it for himself. The fear of losing Jensen had been far greater than the fear of running into the fire. Besides, it was just what you did for the love of your life, didn't you? “Doofus, Jen,” Jared said, pulling Jensen against his side. “There is nothing I wouldn't do for you.”

Jensen's heart skipped beating. Of course he knew it, but still, hearing it caused the butterflies in his belly to dance the tango. “Really?”

“Really. Once upon a time, there was a boy. Parentless and mourning. Upset and angry. By chance, he met a small boy, just as sad as him, who gifted him with something very close to his heart. This gift, Jen, meant everything to the little boy. He held on to it, for years and years, and it made him who he was. He always wanted to give back as much as he could, repaying others with the generosity and help he had once received. All I am, Jen, I am because you showed me love and generosity. All I am, I am because of Pan and you.”

From a neutral point of view, Jensen knew that his gesture had been massive, but back then, Jensen had done it because Jared had been so sad, hurting and lonely. It had just seemed the right thing to do. Never could have Jensen imagined that it would make such a huge impact on his then so young friend. “'m happy I could give you something, too, Jare, since you gave me so much.”

“How about,” Jared said, tugging Jensen snug against his chest, his hands now doing the walking frame's job and stabilizing Jensen, “we agree that we both gave each other everything, and will always give each other everything, until our time is up?”

Sighing happily, Jensen looked into his boyfriend's eyes. “That sounds like a wonderful plan,” Jensen agreed. Leaning down, Jared caught Jensen's lips with his, caressing them gently, receiving the same fond caress in return. He held Jensen just a little tighter, and suddenly, Jensen felt it. Heat in his loin, his dick twitching and blood rushing down south, while waves of pleasure erupted in his belly.

Jared felt it too; something half-hard, where for years, only softness had been. Smiling, he fell to his knees, unzipped Jensen's pants, tugged it and his briefs down, being met with a wonderful sight. Without hesitation, he wrapped his hands around that beautiful, half-hard cock, stroked and kissed it, sucked and caressed it, watched it grow, bit by bit, until it was all proud in Jared's palm, leaking with pre-come Jared kissed away, tugging Jensen's hips as close to his face as possible.

Jensen himself couldn't believe his eyes, seeing hard and proud what had been mostly dead for such a long time. He cried and moaned, fireworks erupting inside, tingles of pleasure in his toes and fingers. He only lasted long enough for Jared to suck on his cock briefly, coming inside Jared's mouth. Bliss was shining in Jared's eyes, a smile widened around Jensen's now limp cock and he looked so, so happy as he stroked his fingers over Jensen's thighs and ass, before curling them around Jensen's hips, just to make sure that his weak legs wouldn't give out.

“Oh Baby.” What had happened was such a big thing. Jensen had long given up hope for ever getting a real hard on again, and finally, it had happened. Not thanks to a little pill, but thanks to love, trust and faith. “Told you you'd need patience, love. Told you, it would happen,” Jared said, kissing the cock again, before wrapping it back into Jensen's briefs and jeans. “And it was worth the wait.” He got up. “So beautiful, as I knew it would be. So beautiful like the rest of you.” 

Their lips crashed together and as Jensen licked his own come away from Jared's lips and his gums, it was the most sensual, hottest thing he had ever done and tasted. “Mmm,” he sighed, rubbing his crotch against Jared's, his legs wobbly, yet strong enough to carry him, the heat in his groin boiling, Jared's hardness pressed against his balls. They kissed, hungrily and greedily, grabbing each other, breathing hard, both short of oxygen.

Suddenly, Jared couldn't wait to be back home. Part of him wanted to run, as fast as he could, but Jensen was still a long way from running even short distances. “Let's go home love. Let's go to bed and make love.” Sucking in Jared's lips, Jensen showed his agreement, only reluctantly letting go to place his hand around the hated walking aid that made him feel like an eighty-year-old senior. Slowly, they walked home, side by side, Jared's hand back on Jensen's body, pressed against his neck, his back and warm against his shoulder. 

Finally, their home was in sight, dark but for one light in the living room. It guided them home, into their future, here on Elm Creek Farm, surrounded by kids, friends and animals, but most of all, surrounded by each other and their love.

The End