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Paved With Hearts

Chapter Text

"It's just for the summer," said Aunt Sam, climbing back into the SUV and pressing the map into Jared's lap. "I'll find something else for you before school starts. I doubt they have a school up here anymore."

"It's fine," said Jared, beginning to carefully refold the map along well-worn creases. It was always fine. Every time she moved him from one place to another, it was fine. "Are we on the right road?"

"For now," she said as she reached for the map again, tugging it out of Jared's hands before slapping it down loosely right where it started. "Don't put that away. We need to turn off somewhere up over this hill, and then it's old logging roads the rest of the way." She reached onto the dash and gave the GPS a derisive flick. "God damn useless thing."

"He really does live way up here, doesn't he?"

Jared had already lost track of just where they were, the map just a scrawl of meaningless lines. He'd always known he'd been born somewhere up here, in the mountains of British Columbia, but he didn't remember any of it. He'd been a baby when the accident had taken his parents, and not once in all the years since had Aunt Sam brought him back to what had once been his home. Not until now.

"Middle of nowhere is what it is," said Sam. "Jeff's strange, but you're family so he needs to take his turn. He's been on his own up here long enough."

Jared, experienced enough at recognising Sam's moods to know when not to remind her what a burden she thought he was, fell silent. Children, as she'd told him countless times over the years, had never been a part of her plan.

There was so much else to watch outside the window anyway, things more interesting than his aunt's sour, lined face: endless trees and the snowy peaks that towered over them, and a glistening river in the valley sloping off to their right. It was different from just about everything he'd ever known, and it was beautiful.

In fact, he didn't say another word until he felt the jolt of Aunt Sam turning off the main road and lurching up a daunting incline.

"Are we going to make it?" he said dubiously.

"That’s why I rented the four wheel drive," said Sam. "Hang on, it's going to be rough the rest of the way."

Not everything was like that first hill, but rough was still an understatement. If Jared didn't know better, he would've thought that nobody would live someplace this remote, so far away from people.

"I don't like this at all," muttered Sam, reaching for her phone. Jared would've had gladly made whatever call she needed to so that she could focus on her driving, but he knew better than to suggest it when she had that look on her face. At least her glance hardly flickered down as she scrolled through the numbers and finally punched one of them.

"God damn it, Jeff, answer your phone," she said, tapping her thumb against her steering wheel. She waited and waited before gritting her teeth and dropping the phone down between the seats again, both hands back on the wheel to handle a washout.

"He knows I'm coming, right?" said Jared.

"I left him a message," said Sam, which wasn't the yes he'd been hoping for. "It'll be fine. He's your uncle, he'll take care of you."

Jared had never really been in the system himself - at least not for long, just a misunderstanding - but he'd still known a lot of kids who were, kids who'd heard words a lot like those ones before only to discover how untrue they could be. But he wasn't a kid anymore, and no matter what they found when they got up to his uncle's house, Jared would just make the best of it.

He was good at that.

"Are you still mad at me?" said Aunt Sam when Jared didn't answer. "You know I can't pass up this opportunity. If it was just a few weeks you could look after yourself again, but I'll be in London for at least six months, maybe longer."

"I'm not mad," said Jared. It used to make him sad, maybe, not understanding why he couldn't stay in one place with the same people for very long, but not mad. He'd never been without a roof over his head, so there were always people who had it worse than he did. "Are we almost there?"

"Well, you tell me," she said. "You've got the map. Are we any closer to the black dot than we were fifteen minutes ago?"

"I don't know," said Jared, the view out his window not giving him any point of reference to match it with his map. But they had to be on the right road, the only road he could see, winding higher and higher up the mountain. "I guess we'll find out when we get there."

"Crazy as a loon," she muttered under her breath, slowing down as the road got narrower. It was obviously not abandoned, but equally obviously it was not a road often travelled. "Sometimes I can't believe we come from the same gene pool."

"It looks like a good place to spend the summer," offered Jared, but she didn't want his reassurances that he didn't feel abandoned. She wanted him to agree.

When they reached a fork in the road he told her which way her sketchy, half-remembered directions said to go, but other than that he didn't try to make any more conversation, not even when they finally emerged into a clearing and saw a cabin up ahead.

"If that's not it I'm leaving you here anyway," said Sam, and though she punctuated it with a sharp laugh Jared wasn't entirely sure she was joking.

There was a four-by-four parked up beside the cabin, tufts of grass sprouting up behind the back wheels suggesting it hadn't been driven lately, and while the front - and presumably back - yard could only be described as an open meadow, the side was filled with odds and ends, bits of machinery and a wood pile and what Jared thought was a snowmobile parked in behind for the summer. And everywhere he looked, mixed in with the grass and the trees and the wheels and the wood, hundreds upon thousands of flowers.

"Grab your things," said Sam, yanking the key from the ignition and shoving the driver's side door open. "I'm already running late."

She was marching him up to the door before he knew it, pounding on it with her fist. There wasn't so much as a sign of life at first, and Jared had all but resigned himself to camping out on the lawn while he waited, but Sam persisted. She had to bang twice more before it was answered by a grumpy-looking man with a close-cropped salt and pepper beard.

"Sam," he said, nodding his head, his voice almost completely expressionless. "Never thought I'd see you up here."

Sam huffed out an impatient breath. "I left you messages, Jeff. You knew I was coming."

"You've said you were coming before," he said, his eyes skating away from her and landing on Jared. His expression didn't change. "Who's this?"

Jared had the feeling, though, that he knew exactly who and what he was looking at.

"Jared, do you have all your things?" Sam asked without looking at him.

Jared just nodded, hoisting his single, overstuffed bag a little higher on his shoulder. It wasn't like he kept much from place to place. Just what he needed, that's all he was ever really allowed to bring.

"Good to see you haven't changed at all, Samantha," said Jeff. Just as she kept her eyes on him, he kept his eyes on Jared as he spoke. "You look like your father. Growing like a weed, I'm sure. Probably eat me out of house and home."

"He won't be any trouble, pretty much takes care of himself," she said. "Jeff, I have a flight to catch. Could you just show the kid where he's staying?"

It had been a couple years since Jared had been able to effectively hide, thanks to a growth spurt and his suddenly-impressive height, but he was still pretty skilled at making himself inconspicuous when he wanted to. Which right now he really, really did.

"That's it, then?" he said. "You're just going to drop him off and leave?"

"Well what would you have me do, Jeff? It's bad enough I had to haul him up here myself, since you couldn't be bothered to return my calls, or come down into town to meet him. You made this a lot harder than it had to be."

"Well, maybe dumping a kid off someplace because you can't make room in your life for him should be hard," said Jeff, eyeing Jared then angling his head towards the house, a clear indication to head inside. Jared didn't want to make waves; he just nodded and quickly ducked past him. "Get out of here, Sam. Go catch your flight."

"It didn't have to be like this, Jeff."

"No, it didn't," he agreed. "Now get the hell out of here and don't worry about the boy. Not that you were going to anyway."

The last Jared saw of Aunt Sam was her slamming the SUV door and tearing down the mountain to get away from her brother Jeff.

"Well, go on inside," said his Uncle Jeff when Jared hesitated at the door, watching her retreat. "We're stuck with one another now."

Jared took one last long look at the mountainside, at all that beautiful scenery, and took a last deep breath of the mountain air before ducking inside the cabin. "Do you think I might have a room with a window?" he dared to ask. "I wouldn't ask if this wasn't the most beautiful place she's ever left me. Even if I have to stay inside, I want to be able to look at it all the time."

Jeff gave him a long quiet look before turning to close the door again behind them. "You really think I want to keep you shut up underfoot all the time?" he said, switching on a lamp as the outside light started to dim. Jared wondered if Aunt Sam was going to make it back onto the main highway before it got too dark, but he couldn't bring himself to worry about it for long. "I made up a place for you."

"I don't need much," Jared promised him. "I don't want to be in the way." Jeff didn't say anything, just led him to the stairs at the back of the cabin and gestured for him to go on up. "The attic?"

"It's a loft," said Jeff, following him up. "Not quite finished yet but I threw some better insulation in the other day and sealed up all the plastic. It's summer so we've got some time to finish the work before it gets cold enough to feel it."

"There's a window," was the only thing Jared really noticed, smiling brightly when he saw the fading light illuminating his bed, the only piece of furniture at that end of the loft.

"Yeah, well I've got something to say about people who put kids in rooms without windows," said Jeff gruffly. "If you want a place to put your things, we'll have to make something. I didn't have time."

"So you did know I was coming," said Jared, clutching his bag to his chest.

"Of course I knew you were coming," said Jeff. "You think it's even possible to miss Sam's voice when she's shrieking into your voicemail?" Jared smiled privately and figured no, no it wasn't. "You need anything else? You hungry?"

"If it wouldn't be too much trouble?"

"Gotta cook for myself anyway," said Jeff. "Get yourself settled in. I'll be down in the kitchen when you're ready."

"Thank you," said Jared politely, but the moment Uncle Jeff was gone down the stairs he just dropped his bag and sat on the bed and looked out the window for a long, long time.

:::

It was a beautiful morning. Jared had said those words before, on mornings both beautiful and not, but he'd never really meant them the way he meant them now, stepping outside of the cabin just after dawn and really looking at his new home.

He'd gone to sleep in a warm bed with a full belly, in the home of a person who hadn't yet begun to talk about where to send him next, and he woke up to sunshine and birds singing and breakfast on the table.

It was a beautiful, beautiful morning.

"Well, let's not waste any time having you earn your keep," he heard Jeff say behind him as he stretched his arms up towards the morning sky. "There are things that need doing and I can always use an extra set of hands."

Jared wasn't surprised, and he didn't even really mind. Well, not yet, anyway, though admittedly he hadn't yet bet told just what he'd have to do. He was used to having to earn his keep, and it hadn't been all that often that earning his keep had been anything he wasn't willing to do.

"Where do you want me to start?" he said, turning back around as soon as he'd finished stretching.

"Come with me," said Jeff, motioning him around the other side of the cabin. "I figure you heard the girls last night." He didn't even wait for Jared to answer him, let alone follow, as he surged on ahead, whistling as he went. It wasn't long before he was tackled by two fair-sized dogs. "Come meet Bisou and Sadie, and then I'll show you where the dog food is."

"Hey girls!" said Jared enthusiastically, kneeling down so they could jump and slobber all over him too. "Which one's which?"

"The Rottweiler mix is Bisou," he said. "Sadie's the one currently trying to drown your ear. You like dogs?"

"I love dogs," said Jared, trying almost successfully to pet both of them at once. "I've never had one, though. You can't really take them with you. Well, I couldn't anyway."

Jeff got that dark look on his face again, like he had when they were talking about Jared's bedroom, then shook his head. "My girls will love anyone who pays them any attention," he said, "and especially anyone who feeds them. That'll be your job now, so pay attention."

"I'm paying attention," promised Jared, though at least half of his attention was still on the affectionate dogs who trailed at his heels as he followed Jeff to the back porch. "I don't think I've ever seen so many flowers in one place before."

"I didn't mean pay attention to the flowers," said Jeff, but Jared thought - no, he was sure - he saw a little smile on Jeff's face as he opened the screen door. "They all grow wild up here. Couldn't get rid of them if I tried."

"I stayed with a family who had a big flower garden once," said Jared, pausing once again to pet Bisou who was nosing at his ankle. "I wasn't allowed to go in it, though. It was perfect."

"Well, you can tear around in these ones as much as you like," said Jeff, "after you've done your chores. Come on, Jared, daylight's a-wasting."

It was still early morning so Jared didn't think daylight was wasting that fast, but he did get the point and walked a little faster the rest of the way, even if the two dogs never did leave his heels.

Jeff showed him where the dog dishes were and where the food was and where to find a lot of yard implements that Jared didn't really know what to do with, but he figured he'd learn soon enough. And the work gloves. And the garden tools. And the rain gear.

"You cleaned up after breakfast?" Jeff said when they were done and the girls were feasting by the porch stairs.

"I washed up but I wasn't sure where everything went," said Jared, hoping that was enough.

Jeff nodded and looked at his watch. "All right, I'll be out in my workshop if you need anything. Take your phone if you go anywhere; there are lots of places to get lost around here. Food's in the cupboards, books are on the shelves, and the computer's on the desk in the corner."

"You've got a computer?" said Jared stupidly, not sure what to make of all that.

"Of course I've got a computer," he said. "How do you think I get any business done? Remember to clean up after yourself if you get into anything."

"Wait, that's it?" said Jared. "That's all you want me to do?"

"Who do you think you are?" said Jeff, turning back fully to look at him. "Little Orphan Annie? You're a kid, Jared, go have some fun. Earning your keep doesn't mean working your knuckles to the bone."

It kind of had a few times before; Jared didn't think he could be blamed for jumping to that conclusion. "Are you sure you don't want any--?"

"Go, have fun," said Jeff. "You can make lunch in a few hours if it'll make you feel better."

"It would," said Jared, a smile breaking through and lighting up his face. "It would make me feel better, actually. Can I take the dogs with me if I go anywhere?"

"I don't think they're going to give you a choice," said Jeff, starting for his workshop again and giving Jared a wave over his shoulder without looking back. "Stay out of trouble!"

'Trouble' probably meant 'falling of the mountain' around here, and Jared definitely didn't want to do that. He did want to stay outdoors, though, so after dashing back upstairs for his phone - visions of calamity prompting him to make sure it was never far from him - he whistled for the girls and set off down the road.

Everything was still as breathtaking as the first time he glimpsed it, from the meadows to the trees to the mountain peaks all around him. Instead of following the old logging road back down the way they'd come, when he reached it he started heading up instead, towards the unknown.

"I don't know how long I'm going to be here, girls," he said, reaching down to scratch Sadie's head, "but I plan to enjoy every moment of it."

After all, he might be as much an imposition on Jeff as he was on Sam, but he could name a half dozen places just off the top of his head that already hadn't been as good as this one. On paper his Aunt Sam had always been his guardian, but her actual presence in his life had never been huge. It was just her job, something Jared had understood from a very young age. She'd never asked for this, for him. She did the best she could with the bad hand she was dealt.

He always understood that.

"Well, you guys look well taken care of," he said as Sadie went shooting ahead up the empty road and Bisou squirmed in between his legs. "That's a good sign, right?"

A person who took good care of his animals probably took good care of his people, too.

Odds were good Sadie probably knew where she was going so Jared followed her higher up the mountain, stopping every now and again when something caught his eye. Around every corner there were new things to discover, from the clear blue skies to the sounds in the underbrush, creatures just out of sight, a whole world that was hard to imagine when you weren't planted right in the middle of it.

Though his legs began to ache after a while, Jared still managed to lose track of time until suddenly he realized that the sun had moved far across the sky, that it had to be past lunchtime.

"Oh, no," he said, whistling the dogs back from where they'd disappeared into the trees. "Come on, girls! Sadie! Bisou! We're late!"

At least going down the mountain was a quicker process than going up it. And at least Jared had never left the road, even as it had degraded to little more than an overgrown path.

"Jeff's going to kill me."

He ran the whole way, Bisou and Sadie treating it like some new game, sometimes keeping pace with him, sometimes dashing on ahead, sometimes disappearing into the trees only to emerge again on the road ahead of him. When he finally burst into the cabin, he was sweaty and breathless and his legs were trembling so hard he could barely hold himself upright.

"I'm sorry!" he blurted out before anything else.

Jeff looked up from his soup. "Why, did you break something?"

"Huh?" said Jared, leaning against the doorframe still trying to catch his breath. "No, I... I said I'd make lunch. But I swear, it was just so beautiful up there and I lost track of time. Is there something else I can do to make it up to you?"

"Well, you can shower," said Jeff, something unreadable in his expression. Jared didn't know him nearly well enough yet to know what to make of it. "I can practically smell you from here. And then you can eat some lunch and tell me about your morning. You make it very far?"

"I... yeah, we were way up there," said Jared. "There practically wasn't even a road anymore. You're not mad?"

"Hell, I wasn't even sure I'd see you again before dark," said Jeff. "I knew the girls would be looking out for you."

Jared finally relaxed a little, pausing to sniff his shirt. "I kind of ran all the way down," he admitted. "It was a long way."

"Jesus, Jared, you could sprain an ankle that way," said Jeff, "or worse. You even think about calling, if you were that worried you were late?"

Jared suddenly remembered the phone he'd tucked away in his pocket. "It won't happen again," he promised him. "I just--"

"Panicked?" suggested Jeff, slurping a spoonful of his soup. "That's a habit you'll want to get out of up here. Panic won't get you anywhere. Go on, go shower. I'll warm some of this up for you."

Jared was still a little uncertain about what had just happened, but he'd had too good a time up on the mountain to worry about it for long, and so he stripped off his shirt right there where he stood and headed into the little washroom for a quick shower so he'd be decent for lunch. There wasn't a whole lot of hot water, but after a run like that he wasn't all that keen on hot anyway.

He dashed up into the loft afterwards for something clean and dry to wear, from the meagre pickings that were his whole wardrobe, and sat down at the table just as Jeff was pulling the pot off the stove.

"I could pick up," he said, having gone through all the things he could do for Uncle Jeff while he was hastily scrubbing the sweat from his body. He didn't stop listing them even when his food was placed in front of him. "The yard, I mean. Or the house. Or maybe you need some wood chopped?"

"Do you even know how to chop wood?"

"I could learn," said Jared. "I'm pretty tall now, but I could stand to put on some muscle."

"Your kind of pretty tall before you figure out what to do with it usually means you'll cut your foot off before you manage to chop wood," said Jeff. "If you're itching to help out that much, I guess you could help with the weeding. I'll be in my workshop all afternoon."

"You got a lot of work to do?" said Jared, a smile breaking out again when he realized he was going to get to spend the afternoon outdoors too. "That's what you do, right? You make things out there?"

"Yeah, that's what I do," said Jeff, rising from the table when he finished. "You can do what you like, Jared. Just leave the axe out of it, would you? We can work on that another day, if you're determined."

Really, that was probably just as well, all things considered. Jared cleaned up the lunch dishes and made a point this time of learning where everything was in the small kitchen. Next time he would make lunch, just like he promised.

The garden out behind the cabin was vast, and definitely not decorative. Jared would bet that between the garden and the shotgun Jeff kept in the back porch, Jeff didn't have to do a whole lot of grocery shopping. In fact, he was pretty sure that Jeff didn't go down off the mountain much at all.

Which didn't make much sense to Jared since Jeff was beginning to seem like a genuinely nice guy, but maybe even genuinely nice guys sometimes liked their solitude.

The garden ate up most of his afternoon, but Jared couldn't bring himself to resent a moment of it. He was out in the sunshine in the path of a pleasant breeze, and Bisou kept him company all day even if Sadie seemed to prefer disappearing down a path into the surrounding trees rather than frolicking in the garden. In fact, Jared didn't even wrap it up until he saw Jeff heading into the cabin and realised how much time had passed.

He needed another shower after hours in the dirt, but this time it could wait till bedtime as long as he washed up his hands and arms for dinner. Which he did - thoroughly - as soon as Jeff got out of the shower.

When he came out, though, and headed upstairs to his room, he found that Jeff had already beaten him. And not only had he beaten him up there, but he'd hauled a new piece of furniture with him.

"Is that... where did that come from?" he said, looking at the dresser curiously.

"Out of my workshop," said Jeff, sliding it into place against the wall. "Will it do?"

"Will it do?" said Jared, rushing up suddenly to run his hand over the smooth top. "Are you serious? It's great! Did you really make this for me?"

"Well I didn't call IKEA and have them deliver it up here," said Jeff. "You'll have some shelves tomorrow, unless you want a chair first."

"What? Oh, no," said Jared. "I'm sure you have real work to do, Uncle Jeff. Really, this is more than enough already."

"A boy should have his own bedroom, with a place to put his things."

"I, uh, I don't actually have many things to put anywhere," admitted Jared. "I can't even fill half this dresser. Not even close."

"Well, we'll have to do something about that too," said Jeff, giving the dresser one last pat and then moving off towards the stairs.

"Thank you," said Jared. "Thank you, Uncle Jeff, it really is wonderful."

Jeff just nodded, but then he paused at the top of the stairs. "Until Sam called," he said quietly, "I didn't know. I didn't know what you'd been through, Jared. I always thought you had a home."

"Hey, I didn't even really know I had an uncle," said Jared. "It's not your fault."

It was silent then, for a long time. But Jared was a good listener and he knew he heard Jeff say, "Don't be too sure about that," before he headed down the stairs to make dinner.

:::

Jared wouldn't say things fell into a routine after that, because nothing so amazing as life at Uncle Jeff's cabin should ever be called routine, but after that he didn't wake each morning uncertain whether this would even be his home for long. Most days he spent some time in the garden, and sometimes he took care of the house too, but the rest of the time he didn't have anywhere he particularly needed to be.

Part of Jared, the boyish part, decided immediately this would be dog-playing time. But the other part, the part that had lived in well over a dozen places over the years, use the time to try to figure out what other things he could do to earn his place.

Things like mow the massive lawn, which, once he determined Jared knew enough not to mow down the wildflower meadow or get tangled up in the assorted machinery littering the side yard, Jeff was happy to let him do.

Jared liked it as much as he liked anything, never sorry for any task that kept him outside for long stretches. It never got too hot, even on the sunniest days, and he never worried about burning when he left his shirt behind and did his chores in just a pair of cut-off jeans that had quickly grown too short for him and his battered sneakers. He still didn't have a lot of clothes to his name, even after Jeff had passed a few hand-me-downs on to him, so any time he could use fewer of them was a good day.

He was just about finished, carefully rounding something that looked like part of a tractor, when he could've sworn he heard an engine that wasn't an echo from his lawnmower, something out on the logging road.

"There's someone coming," he said, bending down to turn off the lawnmower so he could better hear the sound of someone coming up the road. "Jeff? I think there's someone coming."

Jeff came out the front door of the cabin, wiping his hands on an old rag. "That'll be Chad," he said after a moment. "It must be Friday already."

"You have guests on Fridays?" said Jared, looking at his slightly-less-pale-than-before chest, his bare, grubby knees. "I didn't know."

"Chad's not a guest, he's just a local kid who runs errands for me," said Jeff. Bisou and Sadie obviously heard the sound of an approaching vehicle too and went tearing off the lane. Jeff tried to whistle them back, to no avail. "Figured I should introduce the two of you anyway. He's about your age."

"Does he live near here?" said Jared, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand and then trying to get a glimpse of the approaching vehicle through the trees.

"Couple of miles away," said Jeff. Jared was pretty sure that qualified as near around here, a lot nearer than anyone else. Jeff had mentioned he wasn't the only one who lived up here, that there were a few people who preferred the mountain way of life, but he'd never really talked about who any of those people were before now.

They watched as the battered pick-up truck turned up the lane, then swung around and backed in closer to Jeff's workshop.

"Chad," Jeff called gruffly as soon as kid hopped down out of the vehicle. He was a little shorter than Jared, but then most people were these days, a skinny guy with unruly, sandy blond hair. "Come meet Jared."

Chad didn't bother to hide the fact that he was beyond surprised to realise someone else was up here besides Jeff.

"Wow," he said. "Jared? Are you...?" At first just his eyes flicked uncertainly between Jared and Jeff, then his whole head got in on the action. "I'm sorry, I have no idea who you are."

"Jeff's my uncle," said Jared, jumping in before Jeff even could. "I haven't been up here before, though. Well, not since I was a baby, I guess."

Chad still looked a little stunned that there was someone besides Jeff here at the cabin, but he nodded like the explanation made it all make sense to him. "So you're visiting for a while?"

"Jared's staying with me now," said Jeff, curling a hand around Jared's shoulder and squeezing, a solid and comforting weight, "so you'll probably be seeing a lot of him."

"Oh, hey, that's awesome!" said Chad, any surprise or confusion lost beneath his instant and obviously genuine pleasure. "Usually the only people I can hang out with around here are my brothers and sister."

"Well, how about you save any hanging out until we get the truck unloaded," said Jeff, "and Jared finishes with the lawn."

"Right," said Jared, backing up a couple steps before he even got that one word out. He didn't want Jeff to think he was shirking his duties already, just because something more interesting had come up. "I'll just... right. I'll totally come help you when I'm finished out here!"

"I'm sure we'll be fine," said Jeff. "We always have been before. Come on, Chad, let's get started."

Jared smiled and gave them a little wave, then smiled a little wider when Chad waved back.

He wanted to rush through the rest of the job, but he also didn't want to have to go back and do it all over again when he botched it, so he took his time and did it right, even when that meant moving at a snail's pace so he didn't get anything caught in the blade. When he finally finished he pushed the mower back in the shed and went looking for Uncle Jeff and Chad, first in the house, then in the back porch, then out by Jeff's workshop.

"You missed all the fun," said Chad when he spotted him. "We're already done."

"I'm sorry," said Jared sincerely. "I just had more lawn left to do than I thought. I promise I'll help next time!"

"Thanks for doing the lawn," said Jeff instead of expressing any kind of disappointment. "That'll save me some time. Why don't you get Chad something to drink?"

"You're not coming in?"

"Still got work to do," he said, already heading for his workshop again. "See you next week, Chad."

"Sure thing, Mr. Morgan," he said, and didn't wait for Jared to lead him inside to help himself to a drink. Uncle Jeff might've tried to include him, but the truth was Chad obviously already knew this place a lot better than Jared did. "You want anything, Jared?"

"I think I'm supposed to serve you," he said, looking at the interior of the fridge and realising one of the things Chad brought was groceries. "Oh, hey, mayonnaise!"

"You know, I wondered why Jeff wanted more stuff than he usually does," said Chad, grabbing the lemonade. "Mom thought he finally coaxed a chick up here, but I told her she was crazy."

"So you know him pretty well?" said Jared. "Uncle Jeff, I mean?"

"As well as anyone does," said Chad. "I mean, he's not exactly Mr. Sociable, but we look out for our own up here."

"My Aunt Sam doesn't think much of him," said Jared. "She says he's a weird recluse."

"Well, he is," said Chad, closing the fridge and grinning at him. "He's a little weird and he's a lot recluse, but there's nothing wrong with that. Your Aunt Sam... she's Jeff's sister?"

"Yeah, I guess so," said Jared. "There were three of them, Jeff and Sam and my mom. Jeff's the baby."

"Yeah," said Chad. "Yeah, I guess." Jared expected him to ask, like everyone else always did, but when he didn't he figured that maybe people up here already knew the story of what happened to Jeff's other sister. "Is that where you were, before you were here?"

"Yeah, sort of," said Jared. "Aunt Sam had to go out of town on business. Mostly I think she just wanted Jeff to take his turn taking care of me. She's had me long enough."

"Huh," said Chad, like words were coming out of Jared's mouth but he didn't really understand what they meant. "So hey, how long have you been here? Has Jeff shown you much?"

"A few days now," said Jared. "Almost a week, I guess. Mostly Jeff works and I go for walks and play with the dogs and read books."

"Well, we can't have that," said Chad. "I hereby proclaim myself your friend and tour guide, cause God knows you look like you need one."

"A tour guide, or a friend?"

"Both," said Chad with another grin, draining his lemonade and then heading out onto the back porch.

"Mr. Morgan?" he called in the direction of the workshop. "I'm going to take Jared out to the lake, all right?"

There was a long pause, then Uncle Jeff called back, "Have him back before dark. He doesn't know his way around here yet."

"Will do!" Chad called back cheerfully, then tugged Jared out the doors and in the direction of the trees where Sadie always liked to play. "Come on, the path's this way."

"Is it close?" said Jared. "Should I put something else on?"

"Nah, it's the lake, you'll be fine," said Chad without even looking at him. "Hell, you'll probably just end up taking something off. Clearest water you've ever seen."

"Jeff never even told me there was a lake," said Jared, picking his way along the path behind him.

"He would've eventually," said Chad, pushing a tree branch out of his way. "I think he likes to come out here fishing sometimes, even though I've never caught him at it."

"Well, he must go fishing somewhere because we've got a freezer full of fish," said Jared. He'd never really seen Jeff do anything other than work, though, and wondered, not for the first time, if that maybe had something to do with him.

"I figure everyone who lives around here must come to the lake sometimes," Chad went on, "but as long as I never see them I can sort of pretend that it's mine, you know? Or at least that this little corner of it is. You'll see what I mean when we get there."

"Jeff said that there were a few other people up here," said Jared, careful to step over a thrust of jagged rocks in the middle of the path, "but it was hard to believe him. I mean, you're the first person I've seen in a week. I mean, besides Jeff, obviously."

"Oh yeah, there's a few," said Chad. "Miss Gamble, she lives up that way, she used to teach me piano when I was little. And there's Mr. and Mrs. Collins, they're pretty cool. He has this software company he runs from their house, and his wife's an author but I have no idea what she actually writes. Just that they're successful enough have this gorgeous house. Sometimes they have all of us over, all of us who live up here. I mean, just because you live up on the mountain doesn't mean you want to be alone all the time."

"Unless you're Jeff."

"Well, Jeff's different," said Chad, "but we like him fine that way. I mean, we're all a little eccentric, you know? It comes with the territory. That's what my mom and dad always say."

It really wasn't far to the lake, not by the standards Jared used to measure things here on the mountain. If he'd taken a different path one day, gone left in the woods instead of right, in just twenty minutes' time he might've found his way there himself.

"This way," said Chad, trying to lead him to the side as they emerged from the trees onto the rocky shore, but Jared had frozen where he was, staring over the calm waters, at the trees and the flowers and the peaks surrounding it all.

"How does a place like this even exist?" he said, with all appropriate awe. "It's like the whole rest of the world disappears and this is all just for us."

"Yeah," said Chad, pausing to look back at him. "And it's good for swimming, too. You coming or not?"

Jared took a last look at the view and then started to follow Chad down the path closer to the water. "Yeah, I'm coming," he said, stumbling a little on some loose rocks. "Wow, this is just normal to you."

"Well, it's home," said Chad as Jared caught up to him. "More or less. We live over on the other side of it. No, don't bother looking, you can't see it from here." It was true that all Jared could see was water and mountains and trees."

"It's like glass it's so clear," he said. "I hardly want to disturb it."

"So does that mean you're not swimming?" said Chad. "You do know how to swim, right? Jeff wouldn't have sent you out here with me if you couldn't swim, right?"

"It never came up," said Jared, "but yeah, I know how to swim. Well enough not to drown, anyway. I have a lot of survival skills."

"Well that sounds ominous," said Chad as they finally reached their destination, a wide rock plateau about three feet up from the surface of the water, backed by meadow grasses and flowers and, beyond that, more of the majestic trees that Jared had been seeing since he'd first come to the mountain.

Jared just shrugged, and pulled off his shoes when Chad did, peering over the edge and into the water. "I can see the bottom," he said in wonder, and not because the water was shallow but because it was clear all the way down.

"Not for long," said Chad, stripping off his shirt and shorts as well, in quick succession. When he was done, swinging in the wind, he looked back at Jared who still had his shorts on.

"I thought you were swimming!" he said. "What, are you worried someone's going to see you?"

He had a point there, and the truth was that Jared had been a lot more naked before, and for a lot less reason. "Just taking my time," he said, unbuttoning and pulling his cut-offs down his long legs, dropping them on top of his shoes. "You go ahead."

"Way ahead of you," said Chad, taking a flying leap off the rock, arms and legs stretched out in all directions before he curled himself up and cannonballed into the water.

The dogs weren't interested in the whole jumping in the lake nonsense, but they did fly in and out of the underbrush nearby, playing some dog game unfathomable by their human friends.

It was a little weird to be all hanging out like this, but Jared had always been open to new things - he'd had to be - so he gave his whole body an experimental shake and then leapt off the rock into the water.

The very, very cold water.

"Oh my God!" he blurted out when he came up for air, sucking in huge, shocked lungfuls. "You could've warned me!"

"What, did you think it was going to be heated?" said Chad, splashing him as he swam by. "Don't worry, you'll get used to it. I promise your balls haven't crawled up inside your body permanently."

God, Jared hoped not, but Chad was right that he did get used to it before long. And while it didn't stop being cold, the whole place didn't stop being amazing either.

Jared had always made casual friends pretty easily, a skill he picked up moving around so much, but making real friends was a little more complicated. He always had to think about that a little more, weigh out the varies intimacies they'd shared and figure out where the balance of the interactions came out.

This time, after they'd arrived back at Jeff's place before dark and Chad was getting back into his truck to head home, Jared didn't think about whether they were friends now. For once he just knew.

:::

Every morning Jared still asked Uncle Jeff what he could do to help him, he just couldn't help it, and every evening he still worried that what he'd done wasn't enough, especially not compared to how hard Jeff worked out in his workshop.

No one asked him to, but one afternoon after he finished weeding in the garden he decided to haul in some deadwood from the brush nearby. Jeff was going to need it for the winter; he might as well collect some of it now. Between that and the garden he ended up filthy from head to toe, not to mention scratched up around the arms and ankles, but when he was done he actually felt satisfied.

"Sit down, Jared," said Jeff when he emerged from the shower, wet hair dripping on his clean clothes. "I think we need to talk."

Jared nodded and sat down on the edge of one of the wooden chairs. "Is this the kind of talk that I'm going to have to go pack after?" he said, sadly but without any judgment.

These couple of weeks had given Jared enough insight into Jeff's expressions that he could read this one as profoundly sad. Even sadder than Jared felt.

"Just the opposite, really," he said, motioning Jared closer, onto the padded armchair across from him. "Look, I don't know where the hell you've been staying that you think you need to be constantly working to earn your right to stay here, but it's not like that. You're a kid, and a kid should have a home, no conditions attached."

"So you... don't want me to help out?"

"Don't get me wrong, I think all kids should have some sense of responsibility, and God knows that garden's already started to flourish in your hands. But even if you did nothing but sit up in your room all day, you'd still have a home here. I'm not going to send you away, Jared."

"I... don't know what to say," said Jared, which frankly was a rarity for him.

"You shouldn't have to say anything," said Jeff. "You should be able to expect this, and I'm pretty fucking appalled that you can't. Sam's going to get a real piece of my mind next time I talk to her."

"Don't be too hard on her," insisted Jared. "Aunt Sam did the best she could."

"No, she didn't," said Jeff, but he clammed up after that, maybe figuring that Jared wasn't really ready to hear it. Sam always made sure he was okay. It was more than a lot of people had. "You're my sister's kid. You deserved better."

"Will you tell me about her?" said Jared. "About my mom? Sam never does."

"Maybe another time," said Jeff shortly. It was pretty clear Jared wasn't getting anything more on that subject either. At least, not right now. "And you know if you didn't want to stay up here, I'd help you be some place you wanted to be. You know that, right?"

"Are you kidding?" said Jared. "Now that I know this place I don't think I ever want to be anywhere else."

"It can be lonely, for a boy your age. Just because the solitude's right for me, doesn't mean it's right for you."

"I'm not lonely," said Jared. "I've got Bisou and Sadie and you and Chad. I can't ask for anything more than that."

"Can't, or won't?"

Jared finally broke out in a brilliant smile. "I already live in the most beautiful place in the whole world," he said. "I never want to be anywhere but here. Besides, Mr. and Mrs. Collins have invited us up to their house for a cookout. You too, Chad says so. I'm not lonely at all."

"Well, all right then," said Jeff, showing Jared one of his increasingly less rare smiles. "You'll always have a home here, Jared. You're family."

"Do you mean that?" said Jared. "Because I still have a year of school to finish. That's a long time."

"A year is not a long time," said Jeff, "and believe me when I say I want to wring the neck of whoever put the idea in your head that it was. I don't know much about the local school anymore but I'll talk to Mrs. Murray the next time she comes around. Maybe I'll corner her at the Collins' cookout."

"I don't know what to say," said Jared, bouncing a little in his seat.

"You don't have to say anything," said Jeff. "Go on and relax before dinner, all right? I just need to go put my tools away."

"I could start din--"

"Relax, Jared," he said. "Prove to me you can do it. I'll feel a lot better if you do, all right?"

"Well, I'll give it a shot," he said, giving Jeff a grin. A relaxed grin. Maybe even a grin that said he understood and accepted what Jeff was telling him, hard as it was for him to believe. "Maybe I'll check my email. I don't think I've done that in days."

"That's the spirit," said Jeff, getting up from his seat and genuinely looking like a load had been taken off his shoulders. Usually, when Jared was staying with someone, they were relieved when they realised he wasn't going to take up too much of their time or attention. Jeff seemed a lot happier knowing that he was. What Jeff seemed to really want was for Jared to just be a teenager.

With Chad's help, Jared thought maybe he just could be.

:::

"Looks like it's going to be a hot one," said Jeff, looking up at the sky as he took his coffee off the back porch. "You and Chad going to the lake?"

"Nah," said Jared, though they'd been going up there at some point nearly every day they weren't too busy. "He's got something with his family today." Besides, hot up on the mountain wasn't really the same as hot in other places. Jared figured he would actually be pretty comfortable. "I was thinking... do you need some help in the workshop today? I mean, I don't even really know what you do."

"Don't you?" said Jeff, then paused to consider it for a moment. "Well, you'd better come into the workshop then. It's easier to demonstrate than to explain."

"I mean, I know you make things," said Jared, "and I know that you sell them in town--"

"I don't really sell them in town," Jeff cut in. "A few smaller pieces here and there to the tourists in the summertime, sure, but I sell most of my furniture over the internet. I just ship it from town."

Jared had sort of pieced that together, too, just from watching Jeff at work on the computer in the early morning and the late evening, and sometimes a few minutes after lunch when Jared was tidying up.

"Except technically you don't ship it," said Jared. "Chad does. Well, his family does."

"That's just semantics," said Jeff. "We do fair trade over it, Jared."

"Yeah, but...." started Jared, then wondered if he really wanted to say what he was thinking of saying. "You were worried about me getting lonely. But don't you?"

"How could I possibly be lonely with you around, Jared?" he said, opening the door to his workshop wide to let Jared in. It really was kind of amazing, the scope of it all, all the benches and tools and half-finished pieces of furniture. Jared thought of Santa's workshop when he saw it, though he wasn't sure Jeff would appreciate the comparison.

"But I wasn't always here," he said. "I've only been here a few weeks."

Jeff sighed and shooed Bisou out the door before closing it behind them. "I might've grown up around here with your mom and your aunt, but I had a lot of choices in my life," he said. "I went away to school for a couple of years. I could've stayed away if I wanted to, and made a different kind of life for myself somewhere else. But I like it up here and I like what I do and I like the solitude. It suits me. I've got my dogs and I've got my friends - yes, I've got friends, Jared - and I've got a job that I love doing. I have a lot more than most people do."

"Sorry," said Jared, "I didn't mean to--"

"You didn't offend me," said Jeff. "I'm used to people from outside not understanding. But you're one of us now, Jared. There are all kinds of people who chose to live up here on the mountain and they're all peculiar in their own ways. People around here get used to that."

"I like it," said Jared. "That's why I like being here. I mean, that's one of the reasons."

"So do you really want to see what I do?" said Jeff. "You'll have to promise me you'll be careful. There are some tools around here that'd take your arm off if you let them."

Jared involuntarily pressed his arms closer to his sides as Jeff turned up the back lights and illuminated the rest of the room. "Well, come on," he said, motioning Jared closer. "I'm not going to bring them to you."

Jared had been impressed enough with the dresser that Jeff had whipped up for his bedroom in just a day, and then the other bits and pieces that he'd brought up since, the chest, the chairs, the window seat, but his actual work, the work he spent time and effort on, was nothing short of amazing.

"Jeez," he said, "no wonder you can make a living doing this."

"Always was good with my hands," he said, patting the top of a bookshelf he was working on. "That's why university never sat right with me. The whole time I was there I was thinking about coming back here."

"What's that like?" Jared asked him, daring to touch one of the pieces only after Jeff did.

"What, university? There are a whole lot of movies out there that can give you a better idea than I ever could."

"No, I mean going away and having some place to come back to," said Jared. "What's that like?" He could see Jeff's fist ball up at his side and opened his mouth to take it back, but Jeff stopped him with a shake of his head.

"I'm not mad at you Jared," he said. "I'm mad that... that there were things I could've done but I was just too damn stubborn." He looked like he was going to say more, but then he just pressed his lips together and went back to running his hand over the piece of furniture. "This one's almost done."

Jared nodded, accepting that once again the conversation was going to veer away from the things that made them both the most uncomfortable, and the things that Jared most wanted to know.

"If it for somebody?"

"They're all for somebody," he said. "When I was starting out I made the pieces first and sold them after, but now I just do commissions. Well, plus smaller things for Mrs. Murray's shop in town, of course."

"Have you ever been to her shop?"

"Course I have," said Jeff, giving Jared a smile. A small, tense smile, but a smile nonetheless. "I was there just a few days before you arrived, helping her get ready for the season."

"Well, I didn't know," said Jared, smiling back. "You haven't gone into town once since I got here."

"Haven't needed to," said Jeff, popping the top off a can with a screwdriver and reaching for a rag. "Is that your way of asking if we can go?"

"No!" said Jared quickly. "I mean, if I wanted to go, I know I could ask." Though until now he wasn't sure what the answer would have been. "But if I really want to go, I could just go with Chad, right?"

"Yeah," said Jeff. "You should do that one day, Jared. They've got a little movie theatre in town that runs in the summer, some diners, some places to go shop for some new things. You're probably missing all of that stuff. You should've said something."

"I'm not missing it," insisted Jared. "I love it right where I am, Jeff. I'm not missing anything. But if Chad asked me, I'd probably want to go. I mean, if he asked me, I wouldn't want to say no."

"You don't have to explain, Jared," said Jeff. "I know what it's like to have friends. So do you really want to help me stain this, or would you rather just watch? It's all done by hand."

"Aren't you worried I'll ruin it?"

"No," said Jeff confidently. "It's not scrollwork, it's just a little stain. You'll be fine."

"I don't even know what scrollwork is," said Jared, picking up a clean rag and watching Jeff closely. This wasn't like picking up a few chores around the house, things anyone could have done. This kind of work was Jeff inviting Jared into his world.

"And no reason for you to, unless you're interested in picking up woodworking," said Jeff. "Like this, smooth and even. We're picking up the wood grain, not masking it."

"I seriously have no idea what I’m doing," Jared warned him again, but Jeff made it look easy. Jared's parts weren't quite as perfect - there was one patch that just didn't look even no matter what he did - but it wasn't too hard to get the hang of it. Jeff didn't seem concerned about Jared's mistakes at all, though, even though they made the piece imperfect. "You're not selling this one, are you?"

Jeff looked faintly guilty, even as another smile crept onto his face. "Busted," he said, then just carried on with the work, making sure no spot was unfinished. It was sort of soothing, once Jared got into the groove of it. An old radio was playing so quietly in the background that occasionally Jared could hear birdsong over it, and even when they weren't talking, which was most of the time, he could just feel that Jeff was there with him. It was nice.

"So where's this going to end up?" he said when they were done, looking at his stain-covered fingertips and then at the bookshelf. Even though he hadn't contributed much, he did still feel the tiniest bit of pride in it.

"Your room," said Jeff. "What do you think?"

"What, for me?" said Jared. "Uncle Jeff, you didn't have to spend all this time on something for me. You could've just given me a couple of old milk crates and I'd be fine."

"Well, first of all, I don't have any milk crates kicking around," said Jeff, "and secondly, Jared, you should have some things that aren't just making do. How's anything ever going to feel like home if you can fit it all in a couple of duffel bags?"

Jared stared at the bookshelf a little longer. "I don't have much to put on it," he admitted. "But I've got a few things."

"Well, we can do something about that too," said Jeff. "Maybe we should take a trip into town. You're outgrowing all your clothes and you're probably tired of my books. Come on, we need to let that one sit for a while before we can take it inside."

"You really do want me to stay, don't you?" said Jared.

"There was never a test you needed to pass, Jared," said Jeff, "but if it makes you feel any more confident about it, I like having you here. You're good company. And I think Chad would cut my nuts off in my sleep if I ever let you go, so there's that, too."

Jared barked out a laugh, then wiped his hands on his rag one more time. "All right," he said. "So what are we working on next?"

:::

"Here," said Jeff, pulling a nylon sack out of the corner of the porch, where it had been hidden behind a sledgehammer and a rubber mat. "It's not big, but it ought to do you unless you grew another inch or two when I wasn't looking."

"Maybe only half an inch," said Jared with a guilty glance at where the cuffs of his jeans were threatening to ride up on his ankles again. He'd just gotten them when he and Chad had gone into town, but apparently he was growing faster than his wardrobe could keep up with. Jeff looked where he was looking and sighed. "Sorry?"

"Well, it can wait," said Jeff. "You'll still fit in the tent. Sleeping bag might be a little snug, though."

"I'm sure it'll be fine," said Jared. "Chad said we probably wouldn't even need it."

"Yes, well Chad has never been a role model for outdoor preparedness," said Jeff. "You can sleep under the stars if you like, but come two in the morning you'll be glad for something soft to sleep on, and if it rains you'll be doubly glad for shelter. You taking the girls with you?"

"I think they'll come whether they're invited or not," admitted Jared as they heard a holler from around the other side of the house. "I think Chad's here."

"You think?" said Jeff, grinning at him. "Make sure you've got your phone, but don't call me if you've forgotten food. I'm not making a midnight pizza run into the woods."

"Do you even know how to make a pizza?"

"I have many talents you have yet to discover, young man," said Jeff. "Go on before Chad gets it in his head to holler again. Have a good time, Jared. I'll see you tomorrow afternoon."

"As if I'd ever forget to bring food anyway," said Jared, lashing the tent and sleeping bag to the backpack that Jeff had already dug up for him and waving as he headed out the door. The dogs raced up to meet him as soon as he was outside. "Hey Bisou, hey Sadie. Hey Chad."

"Yeah, I love how I'm last," said Chad. "See if I share my smores with you now."

"That would be more of a threat if I wasn't bigger than you, and if I didn't know you've already learned not to keep food from me," said Jared, bumping Chad with his backpack as they started towards the path. When Jared looked back over his shoulder, he saw Jeff watching them from the side of the porch, his arms cross and, Jared thought, a smile on his face.

"So what did you bring, then?" said Chad. "Sadie, damn it, my socks are not for chewing."

"Maybe if you were moving faster she couldn't get a hold," said Jared, bumping him again as they walked. "I grabbed some hot dogs, and I'm pretty sure Jeff put some other stuff in there too when I wasn't looking."

"Jesus," said Chad, suddenly and very obviously looking Jared up and down. "Did you get taller?"

"A little?" said Jared. "I don't know, Jeff just keeps feeding me and I keep getting bigger. I think he thought I was too scrawny when I arrived."

"Little Orphan Jared," Chad teased him. And if it was close to the truth, it was only because they'd become close enough to talk about that kind of thing, as much as two guys ever talked about anything. "Well, you're not scrawny now."

"I'm still a little scrawny," said Jared, "but a couple months up on a mountain aren't going to be enough to fix that, I don't think."

"Yeah, but maybe a couple of years will," said Chad. "Are you going to work with Jeff, do you think? When you're done school?"

"I don't know what I'm going to do when I'm done school," said Jared. "I guess I never really thought about it. I've always just been waiting to turn eighteen so I could decide where I wanted to be for myself."

"But you never thought about where that was?" said Chad. "I see a flaw in your plan, Jared."

"Shut up," said Jared, knocking him again. "Okay, I thought about it. I thought about staying in New York when I was there. Or Texas. I liked Texas all right. Montreal was pretty, but I wouldn't want to live there. And the Prairies were really cold in the winter. I just never really figured out what was right for me."

"I think that's normal," said Chad. "Even if you don't move around everywhere all the time. You really did live all over, huh?"

"Sometimes with Aunt Sam, wherever she had a contract. And sometimes with other families when I couldn't stay with her." Jared knew it wasn't entirely normal, but it was normal for him. "I wanted to go with her when she was working in Italy, but she found a home for me instead."

"Italy would've been cool," agreed Chad. "They've got all that old stuff, and wine."

"That's what you think of when you think of Italy? Old stuff and wine?"

"Isn't that what everyone thinks of?" said Chad. "And that city with the canals that people pee in."

"You're such a romantic," said Jared, but Chad just laughed as they made their way up the path to their favourite meadow, the one with Chad's diving rock. Sadie blazed the trail ahead of them, veering off into the tall grasses, but Bisou lingered by Jared's ankles, like she didn't want him to feel alone.

"You're not going to set up the tent, right?" said Chad. "That'd defeat the whole purpose. When the moon and the stars come out over the lake, it's amazing."

Okay, maybe Jared was going to have to take back the sarcasm about being a romantic. If a moon and stars over a lake weren't romantic, he didn't know what was. At least, according to what all the books said; it was something Jared didn't have a lot of experience with for himself.

"Do you sleep out here a lot?" he said, unhooking his backpack and setting it down on the ground. It was heavier than he was used to hauling around, even for the short trip out to the lake. He was going to have to practice if they ever wanted to go out any further.

"Sometimes," said Chad. "I've got a big family, you know? Sometimes, even up here, I have to get away."

"You ever brought anyone with you before?"

"For overnight?" he said. "Who would I even bring? My sister? No, it's just you and me, Jared. Never really had anyone to show it to before."

It was kind of weird, to put it that way, but it was kind of nice, too. Jared had never been the one that things were meant for, not really; maybe that's why everything in the world always seemed so shiny and new.

"We need to go for a swim before it gets dark anyway," said Chad, even though it wasn't going to get dark for hours. "And eat."

"In that order," said Jared, stripping down without any of the hesitation he once had. This was their place, and Jared knew he finally had something special in his life.

They did sleep outside under the stars, Jared gazing a long time at the way the lights in the sky reflected off the still water.

And in the morning Jared was up with the sun, even though Chad was still snoring faintly beside him. It wasn't the breaking light that woke him, though, or the birdsong coming from all sides. It was just something about being here, and about not wanting to miss a single moment of it he didn't have to.

Jared didn't want to miss a single moment of life if he didn't have to. Not here, not now.

:::

"Here," said Jeff one afternoon after he came in from his workshop, setting down a few papers in front of Jared. "Meant to give these to you this morning."

"What are they?" said Jared, wiping off his hands on a clean towel before touching them. Lunch was cleaned up, but Jared wasn't.

"You need to fill them out for school," said Jeff. "You didn't think you were going to get away with not going to school this year, did you?"

Jared couldn't help but grin at them. "You think I'd want to get out of going to school?" he said. "I love school."

"What self-respecting teenage boy loves school?" said Jeff, but when Jared snuck a glance at him, Jeff was smiling too. "Sam didn't give me any of your records. We're going to have to order them up from the last school you were at."

"Yeah, I keep pretty good track of that," said Jared. "I can take care of it."

"Just tell me where to get it and I'll make sure it's done," said Jeff. "It's about time you had a responsible adult in your life to do that kind of thing."

"Sam used to do it, honest," said Jared. "You could probably email her and ask for the stuff if you wanted."

"Yeah, I think I'd rather contact the school," said Jeff. "They can just forward them on without involving a middleman." It was when he sat down at the table with a cold glass of water that Jared realised he was sticking around for a bit, not heading right back out to work. "You heard from her lately?"

"Aunt Sam?" said Jared. "Not at all. But that's not weird or anything. Since I turned twelve or so she doesn't check in that much. She knows I can take care of myself."

"You know that's not the point, right?"

"It's the point to her," said Jared. "I know you don't think she did right by me, but it's okay. I turned out all right, you know? Lots of kids don't have homes at all."

It was still the thing he always told himself, when it was hard to look on the sunny side. Maybe things weren't easy all the time, but they weren't so bad. There was really only one thing missing from his life, and Jared always worked hard to fill the hole that not having a family left in him.

"I didn't know," said Jeff, but Jared knew he was talking to himself. He'd heard it before, seen the set of his jaw and his hands. He knew what guilt looked like. "But we'll get you all set up here before you know it. I'm sure Chad can show you the ropes."

"Yeah, he's sort of mentioned it," admitted Jared. "Chad's not really that into school, but he said it was going to be cool to have a friend he wasn't related to. I didn't tell him that I wasn't really registered yet."

"Well, you will be soon enough," said Jeff. "People can say what they like about me but they won't say I didn't do right by my nephew. Not anymore."

"Uncle Jeff... it's okay," said Jared. "You never had any reason to wonder. You barely even talked to Aunt Sam before she brought me up here."

"Well, and whose choice was that?" he said. "I know I've said it before, but I'm sorry, Jared. Having a life up here might not have been the life you always dreamed about, but it would've been something."

Actually, it might've been the life Jared dreamed of, if he had dreamed of a particular life at all. It was the life Jared dreamed of if one considered the fact that the life he dreamed of was just a life where he was wanted and loved.

Maybe he didn't say it, maybe neither of them did, but Jeff loved him. He loved him like family. And finally, after all these weeks in his home, Jared knew it.

"I'll get these filled out before dinner, I promise," said Jared, wiping his hands again. "As much as I can, anyway. And I'll get you the stuff about my old school. Is the school far from here?"

"In town," said Jeff. "Do you drive?"

"Legally?"

Jeff almost broke into another smile at that, Jared could tell. "Legally would be preferable," he said. "For my own peace of mind, anyway. No one's really going to stop you up here."

"Licenses cost money," says Jared with a little shrug. "I lived on a farm for a while a couple of years ago, though, so I learned. If there's an emergency or anything."

"Well, obviously Chad drives," said Jeff, "and we can do something about your license. There'll be a lot of days in the winter when driving won't be advisable, though. Do you know how to ski? Snowshoe?"

Jared gaped at him. "You're kidding, right?"

"Not kidding at all. It's actually a pretty quick trip when there's snow on the ground. Down, anyway. You might prefer it to the drive."

It was hard to imagine that he would, but then Jared had taken to everything else up here, so why not that, too? He bet winter would be just as beautiful as summer, snow and ice and all.

"Thanks, Jeff," he said. "I'm gonna call Chad now, I think."

"You do that," said Jeff, getting up from the table again. "I've got some things I need to finish. I'll see you for dinner, Jared."

"Don't forget I'm cooking tonight," said Jared, but Jeff was already heading out the back door, and Jared already had his phone out anyway. He couldn't wait to tell Chad.

:::

Aunt Sam called on a Tuesday, from Vancouver International, sounding as harried as she always seemed to.

"So I'm going to spend the night in the city and then come up and get you tomorrow," she said, as Jared heard a flight announced in the background. "That'll still give you a few days to settle in."

"Come get me for what?" he said. "I thought you were still in London."

"Didn't you get my email?" she said. "I sent it a few days ago."

"No, you didn't," said Jared. "I didn't get anything at all from you, not all summer."

"You must have," she insisted, but it wouldn’t be the first time she'd forgotten he wasn't at some old address, in some old city at some old school.

"I didn't get anything," he said, a little quieter this time. He hadn't really been expecting to, either, and maybe that should have made him sadder than it did.

"Well, it doesn't matter, I've found you someone to stay with for the winter, Jared." Her voice got muffled for a moment, something covering the receiver, then she came back again. He could hear the faint sound of a cash registered behind her. "I've already ordered your records sent to your new school."

"Wait," he said. "But I've already got a school."

"What, up on the mountain?" she scoffed. "What is it, half a dozen students and a teacher who knows a little bit of everything and a lot of nothing?" Jared didn't think there was anything wrong with that, even if it had been. "This is a private school, Jared, but don't worry, the family I'm placing you with has covered your tuition."

"Why?" he said. "What do I have to do for it?"

"Nothing you wouldn't already do anyway," she said. Jared's words caught in his throat for a moment, wondering what the hell she meant by that, before he found it in himself to ask.

"What kinds of things, Aunt Sam?" he said. "You didn't have to do that. I'm fine here with Uncle Jeff."

"Nonsense," she said. "You don't have to put up with that place, Jared. I'm sure a summer was quite enough." Here on the mountain, though, Jared wasn't sure forever would have been enough. "Look, they've got a son at home. All you've got to do is spend some time with him."

"What, like babysitting?"

"No, no, nothing like that," said Sam. "He's twenty-one."

"Special needs?" said Jared. "I guess... I could do that."

"He's not special needs, Jared, he just works from home."

"Then I don't understand," said Jared. Unless she was pimping him out, but even if Aunt Sam hadn't always been everything he wanted in a guardian, he was pretty sure she wouldn't do that.

"I'm sure you'll get on with him just fine, Jared," she said. "He just needs a friend. Now how long do you think it'll take you to pack? Can you be ready by the time I get there?"

"I... can we talk about this?" said Jared. "I need to talk to Uncle Jeff about it."

"Of course you do," she said. "Save me the trouble of calling him myself. It's hard to believe he used to be such a friendly young man. Time's changed him, that's for sure."

Jared thought that time had changed his Aunt Sam a lot more than it had changed his Uncle Jeff, when you got beneath the surface.

"Call me before you come, all right?" said Jared. "Just... call before you come up here."

"Whatever you need, Jared," she said. "I've got to go, a cab's just arrived."

Jared was in the middle of saying good-bye when the line went dead and his aunt was gone again.

:::

Jared thought about not saying anything, but not saying anything about these things didn't make them go away, no matter how much you wished it would.

"Aunt Sam called," he said as he served up the soup and bread. "This afternoon."

"Oh yeah?" said Jeff, feigning disinterest. "And how's London?"

"She's back, actually," said Jared, licking a spatter of soup off his thumb before sitting down. "In Vancouver. She called me from the airport."

Jeff set his spoon down in his bowl very carefully and wiped the corners of his mouth with his napkin before saying anything more. "Oh," he said finally. "And what did she have to say?"

Jared sighed. "She wants to come get me, Uncle Jeff," he said. "She says she found a place for me in the city."

"Well," said Jeff without looking at him. "I guess that's that, then."

"Yeah," said Jared slowly, waiting for something, anything, other than that. "I told her she had to call. That she couldn't just show up."

"Yeah, well, your Aunt Sam has a mind of her own," said Jeff with an undignified snort. "I wouldn't count on her doing something just because you asked her to. But I guess you already know that."

"Yeah, I guess I already do," said Jared. "I don't know what I'm supposed to do, Uncle Jeff."

"Well, I guess that's up to you," he said. "Sam seems to have this all planned out for you."

"I don't think it's up to me," said Jared quietly, for once with not much of an appetite. "It's never really been up to me."

"No, I know," said Jeff. "And if it was up to you?"

"You know I don't want to go anywhere," said Jared. "You know that, don't you?"

"I know you've had a good time this summer," said Jeff. "I know what I'd do if it was my choice."

"Couldn't it be?" said Jared hopefully. "Couldn't it be your choice? I mean, I live here, right? That's got to mean something?"

"I'll try, Jared," he said. "If that's what you really want."

"Thank you," said Jared. "It is."

But they both knew, as they silently dug into their soup, that the choice might well be out of both of their hands. And Jared hadn't come this far in life just to run away now, when he was just a year away from freedom. Besides, where would he run to where she couldn't find him, when the only place he wanted to be was here?

They didn't talk about it after that, but Jared thought about it all day. It was just a year, right? Just a year, he could do that. He could do that even easier than he did everything else, because he knew he had a place to come back to now. He wasn't going somewhere new with no idea what was going to come next. He had a home.

He would've tried to tell Jeff that, but Jeff had disappeared into his workshop, and Jared knew better than to interrupt that, not today.

Just a year. And Jared, with his many years of experience with Aunt Sam, could even see her point of view. She wanted Jared to have a future that didn't have him relying on her for anything. This school, she thought, could make that happen. Jared might have known better, known himself better, but that didn't mean it was necessarily a bad idea. It was just an idea that was wrong for him.

He would miss the mountain, and Jeff and Chad and Chad's family, and Mrs. Collins and her awesome, ridiculous hat collection, and singing off-key folk songs with Sera, and just everyone, but it was just a year. Just one year of school. Jared could do that.

:::

Telling Jeff had been hard, but telling Chad wasn't any easier. Jeff was at least an adult who knew Aunt Sam, who knew just what she was capable of. All Chad knew were the promises Jared had made him.

"But why do you have to go?" said Chad. "I thought you were staying with Jeff now. I thought you were living here."

"Yeah, me too," said Jared. "But Aunt Sam got me into this school and... I don't feel like I can say no to it, you know? It's just for the year. It's not even a real year, it's a school year. That's two months less than a full year."

"I was looking forward to going to school with you, you know," said Chad, kicking the grass. "I've never had a best friend at school before. Town kids are different."

"Yeah, me too," said Jared. "I won't know anybody in the city. I don't even know the people I'm supposed to be staying with."

"Then just stay here," said Chad. "You can decide that, can't you?"

"Not really," said Jared. "Not till I'm eighteen, and that's not till I finish this year of school. But I swear, the day after I graduate I'll be on my way back up here."

"Yeah, well what if you find something else?" said Chad. "You'll probably go to university and never come back up here again."

"Shut up," said Jared, giving him a shove. "You know I'm coming back. You're my best friend. Even if I'm only living here for the summer, it's still my home. I don't want to go, Chad. I just have to."

"I know," he muttered. "But I don't have to like it."

"Yeah, me neither," said Jared. "But I'll email all the time. You have email right?"

"Of course I have email," said Chad. "And IM. And a phone."

"Well, we've never had to use them before!" said Jared. Well, except for the phone, but even that was rare. "Vancouver's not that far away. Maybe I can even come back for Christmas, too." He wasn't going to count on it, but maybe.

"You'd better get me a present anyway," said Chad, "to make up for being a city boy loser."

"You'd better send me something to remind me of home," said Jared, a little more soberly. "I don't know how I'm going to stand being away for so long now that I've got one."

"Oh Jesus, don't you dare cry," said Chad. "If you cry then I'm going to cry and then we'll just be a couple of crying pussies."

"I'm not crying," muttered Jared, but he didn't bother to pretend he wasn't scrubbing a couple of tears away. "Shut up. I've done this dozens of times before."

"Yeah, well maybe that's why it sucks more," said Chad. "I've never lived anywhere but here."

"Moving around's definitely overrated," said Jared. "I've gotta... you've gotta get home for dinner. You're already late."

"Mom won't care when I tell her why," said Chad. "You let me know when you're going, all right? None of this creeping off in the middle of the night. You're going to say good-bye to me like a man."

"Tomorrow, Chad," said Jared. "She's coming for me tomorrow. So you have to come here, first thing. Unless I'm, like, kidnapped from my bed, I'll make sure we get to say good-bye."

"Okay," said Chad, and Jared could see his own struggle not to admit how hard this was going to be. "All right. You'd better. See you later, Jared."

"See you later, Chad," said Jared, and waved at Chad as he went, even though Chad didn't dare to look back once he was on his way. Jared probably wouldn't have either.

:::

She arrived at lunchtime, a couple of hours after Chad had finished helping Jared pack. It took more than one bag this time, but there were still things Jared decided not to bring with him. Things that Jeff had given him that Jared wanted to remain safe her in his home. Things that would remind Jeff that this was Jared's room now, that it was Jared's room even when he wasn't in it.

"I'm not going to cry in front of your aunt and uncle, so I'm going to go now," said Chad, pulling Jared into a rough hug. "If you don't stay in touch I'm going to drive down to Vancouver and kick your ass."

"No you won't," said Jared fondly, but he hugged him back anyway, and he didn't call him back when Chad snuck out the back door. Any good-bye other than that would've just been too hard.

"Jared, your aunt's here," said Jeff, sounding about as cold as Jared had ever heard him. "You should come downstairs now."

Jared came, hauling his bags with him, but hung back as Jeff opened the door.

"Sam," he said, blocking the doorway with his body. "Fancy seeing you here."

"Relax, Jeff, I've come to take him off your hands," said Sam, looking past him. "Jared, are you ready to go?"

"What if I don't want him taken off my hands?" Jeff interrupted her. "He's a teenager, Sam, not a burden to be passed around."

She looked like she wanted to laugh in his face. "This from you," she said, "who's shirked his family responsibilities all his life because of some ridiculous misplaced guilt."

Even from behind him, Jared could see Jeff's whole body tense up. "Damn it, Sam, you never gave me the chance. You never even told me. If he was that much of a burden you should have brought him here years ago. I would have brought him up like family."

"Sure you would have," said Sam. "You would've turned him into someone just like you. Jared, I left the car running, honey. Get your things."

"Are you really going to do this, Sam? Are you really going to just take him?"

"I don't see how you have any say in the matter, Jeff," she said. "I'm the one who found a home for him. I'm the one who saw to his education."

"You don't know what the hell you're talking about," said Jeff. "You just left him with me. Doesn't that make me his de facto guardian?"

"Not on paper," said Sam, "and if you love the boy like you're implying you do, you wouldn't stand in the way of his education. It's a prestigious school, Jeff, and there's no way he'd be able to go to it any other way."

"Does he even want to go, Sam? Did you even ask him?"

"I think I know what's best for him after all these years. Years, I might add, when you didn't have a thing to do with him. One year at this school and he'll have all the choices he could ever want."

"Well, if he goes, he goes, and there's not much I can do about it, is there?" muttered Jeff. "You've got it all planned out already."

"And it's a good thing one of us does," said Sam curtly. "Jared, are you ready to go?"

"No," he said quietly, too quietly for either of them to hear him. But then he never was going to be, so if he had to do this, now was as good a time as any.

Like everything else in his life, Jared would go and he would do as he was told and he would make the best of whatever the situation was.

"Well, go then," said Jeff, moving away from the door. "You don't want to be on those roads after dark."

"I'm sorry," said Jared as Sam grabbed hold of his arm and practically pulled him through to the other side, like an unwanted but nevertheless fought-over prize. "I'm coming back!"

But Jeff was already looking away.

Chapter Text

Jensen Ackles looked perfectly normal. The whole way down into the city Jared had been wondering what was wrong with him, if he was disfigured in some way, or chronically ill, or in some other way unable or unwilling to interact with other people. But when Jared finally did meet him - for certain values of 'meet' - he seemed normal, if a bit quiet and sullen.

Maybe the guy just had no friends because he was a jerk.

"Jim must have let you in," he said, watching his feet while Jared got up off the couch where he'd been waiting. For a moment Jared wondered if this might actually be some other heretofore unmentioned inhabitant of the household, but in his gut, he knew it was Jensen. "You're early."

"Aunt Sam had a flight to catch," Jared explained, feeling a familiar prickle of uncertainty and discomfort; early was as much an inconvenience as late. "She dropped me off on her way."

"Must've been in a hurry," Jensen mumbled. "Didn't Jim show you your room?"

"He, uh, he said he wasn't sure where you were putting me up," said Jared, glancing at the door that Jim had disappeared through. Out to the yard, he'd said, to look after the garden. "He said he doesn't work in the house."

"My mother was supposed to meet you," said Jensen. "She's not home yet."

That much, Jared had already ascertained for himself.

"I didn't mean to be any trouble," said Jared. Fifteen minutes in this house, a house that seemed impossible large for such a small family, and already he was missing Jeff's cabin. No, that wasn't true, he was missing his home from the moment he got in the car with Aunt Sam. "If you know where my room is, I can wait in there until she gets home."

"I know where your room is," he said. "I live here, don't I?"

"So you must be Jensen, I guess," said Jared, following him up the stairs. "I guess if you're not I'm probably in the wrong house or something." Jensen didn't answer, just gave Jared a look over his shoulder that Jared couldn't quite read. Okay, yeah, it wasn't that funny, but it was still an effort. "Is this it here?"

"The door I'm opening for you?" said Jensen. "Yes, it's your room."

He didn't even sound mean - he didn't really sound like anything at all - but Jared felt stupid every time Jensen opened his mouth. There was something going on here Jared was obviously missing, because someone who looked like Jensen should never have needed someone like Jared to be his friend. Maybe he was shy, and a little awkward, but someone who looked like Jensen could still have anything he wanted in the world.

Jared kept those thoughts to himself as he stepped past him into the large, bright room and set his bags down by the door, taking it all in.

"Lots of windows," he said finally.

"Yeah," said Jensen, dragging the word out. "There are other bedrooms if you don't like it. We have six."

"No!" said Jared quickly. "No, it's wonderful, I love it."

"Sure, whatever," said Jensen, lingering in the doorway as Jared went to push the curtains aside, checking the view. He was disappointed all over again when he saw more buildings instead of the outdoors that he'd grown used to. Sure, past all the buildings, past all the homes and the offices and the warehouses and the high-rises, there were his mountains off in the distance, but it wasn't the same thing at all.

Still, it was a beautiful room in a beautiful home and Jared was very good at being grateful for what he had. What he had right now was a new home to get to know, and a man he was supposed to befriend. When he looked at it that way, he had a lot to work with.

"So I was thinking," he said as he turned back around, "since I don't know this area at all, maybe you could show me around a little tomorrow?"

Jensen stared at him in silence long enough to make Jared uncomfortable. "You're kidding," he said finally. "That's your opening gambit? Did you actually think that was going to work?"

Oh, now Jensen had words to say to him. Jared hadn't even realised he was that hopeful Jensen would want to do something until he felt his face fall.

"If you don't want to, you could just say so," he said, sighing softly. Befriending wasn't always a straightforward process. "It's all right. I'm sure I can figure it out."

"Really, that's it? That was hardly an effort at all," Jensen went on. "Not that I'm complaining, but I'm sure my parents were expecting more from you when they made this little arrangement."

"You, uh, you know about that?"

"Of course I know about that," said Jensen. "They're getting desperate. A long line of therapists didn't work, so now they're trying... I'm not even sure what this is. Maybe an attempt to shame me into it."

Jensen had lost him somewhere, and Jared suspected it was earlier than he thought. "Shame you into what?" he said. "Making friends?"

"Going outside, obviously," said Jensen. "As if there's anything out there worth making the effort for."

"Oh," said Jared. He was a sharp boy, no matter what impression he'd given Jensen over the past few minutes. That was all it took for him to suddenly understood just what he hadn't been told about the whole thing. "You don't go outside."

"I think we've established that."

"Jensen, nobody... I didn't know that. I wasn't making fun of you, I just didn't know. You must think I'm an idiot."

"Just what arrangement did you think you were making anyway?"

"I didn't... my Aunt Sam did everything. She told me I had to come and stay here to go to school and I didn't really get much say in the matter. Not that it's terrible or anything! I mean, wow, I've never stayed in a place like this before. But she didn't really explain anything to me, not like I guess she was supposed to."

"Okay, maybe you're not a complete idiot," said Jensen, almost grudgingly, "but I'm still not showing you around the neighbourhood. Talk to Jim, he has to run errands tomorrow anyway."

"I don't have to go out. I could stay in. We could do something here," Jared tried. "I should unpack and settle in anyway."

"You have two bags," said Jensen. "How long's that going to take?"

"Still, I don't need to go out on my first day in the city." Jared closed the curtains again, though they still let plenty of light in, stripes of it on the desk and the area rug and the bedspread.

"You start school next week," said Jensen, "and I don't need a babysitter."

Jared would have replied, but with that Jensen disappeared from his doorway and Jared filed the conversation away as over. He supposed now was as good a time as any to unpack. After all, soon enough Mrs. Ackles would be home to properly introduce him to his new life.

:::

Jim Beaver was, Jared quickly discovered, a good man. The Ackles' gardener and groundskeeper for years, he showed up four days a week, like clockwork. Not quite a member of the family, but something more than hired help.

Jim was the one who, after Mrs. Ackles had arrived home to give Jared the rundown on the home, the school, and their expectations, showed up the next morning and took Jared out with him on his errands, pointing out the various places he would need to know and, when Jared confessed to missing his garden, let Jared get his hands dirty outside while he gave him the real lay of the land.

Jared thought he was going to get along very well with Jim.

Which was a relief, because he figured he was going to need it. This whole situation in the Ackles household was a lot to take in. Sure, on the surface it was simple enough, and they'd stressed that they didn't expect him to fix Jensen, just be a companion to him, but it was still a shock after the summer he'd had.

There was actually a lack of uncertainty to it that not so long ago Jared would have been grateful for: he knew up front that he was here precisely until the end of the school year, no more and, barring unforeseen circumstances, no less. There was even a contract.

Yet all Jared could think about was what he'd be doing if he was back up in the mountains right now, back in Uncle Jeff's cabin with people he knew truly wanted him there.

Not that the Ackles family hadn't been clear that he was welcome in their home, but it wasn't the same thing.

The one thing Jared was truly grateful for - well, the one unexpected thing, because in spite of everything Jared really was grateful for everything they were offering him - was the computer in his room. And not a computer that had been handed down from one of the family members, old and quirky and on its last legs. No, this was a new, shiny, never-been-booted laptop, and it was his.

Hey Uncle Jeff, just wanted to let you know that I arrived okay. The Ackles family is nice, and I haven't had a chance to see much of the city yet but I'm sure I will soon. It's not like being home, but I can stick it out for the school year. It'll be okay.
He'd sent the message on his first day in the house, within an hour of being told the computer was his. There was so much more he could have said, now even more than then, but he wasn't sure Jeff wanted to hear it. And when it came down to it, Jared just wanted Jeff to know that not matter how they'd left things, everything was going to work out all right. That he really believed that.

On his fourth day in the house Jared was lying on his back on the bed - his feet hanging off the end, just a little, and reminding him in some strange way just how close to being an adult he really was - when he realised he was waiting for something. It took a little longer still to realise that what he was waiting for was someone to interrupt him. Sure, he'd had a lot of time to himself at Jeff's, but that was different. This was a home in which he could expect to be interrupted.

But Jensen wasn't coming. Jensen had probably, in fact, shut himself up in his office or in the game room or somewhere in the house where he could avoid everyone else again. Especially when everyone else was Jared.

Well, Jared's role here had been made pretty clear, even clearer now that he'd talked to both Mrs. Ackles and Jim Beaver, and so he wasn't going to let him.

Jensen's suite was down the hall from Jared's, right at the end, and Jared invited himself inside.

"You ever hear of knocking?"

"It was open," said Jared. A crack. Well, technically the knob just hadn't clicked properly, but Jared would take his advantages where he could get them. "You busy?"

"Well, I am at the computer," said Jensen, "and there seems to be a pile of notes and sketches next to me, on top of an open book. Why don't you take a stab at answering that question yourself?"

"Your mom says that's pretty much your standard state of being," persisted Jared. "Why don't you come watch some TV with me? You've been in here all day."

"Look, I know you're bought and paid for, but you don't actually have to spend time with me," said Jensen, sighing and almost but not quite looking back over his shoulder at him. "Things are fine the way they are."

Jared just stared at him. "You don't even leave your house," he blurted out, even though that was definitely not a careful and subtle approach.

"Yeah, and?"

"How is that fine?"

"None of your damn business," said Jensen, typing louder than was strictly necessary. "Don't you have to get ready to start school tomorrow or something? I have work to do."

"Yeah, they told me you'd say that too," muttered Jared. But this particular operation had been a bit of a bungle right from the start. "I guess I'll see you at dinner, then."

"Yeah, maybe," said Jensen.

"And you didn't buy me."

"No?" said Jensen. "My parents are paying for your school so that you can be my best friend. If that isn't bought and paid for, I don't know what is. Don't worry, though, it's not a slight on you. Your family doesn't think they need to buy you friends."

"No, they just wanted to sell me off to get me out of their hair."

Jensen just sighed without looking up. "Can you go be emo somewhere else? I'm not in the mood for teenage angst right now."

Jared didn't say anything as he slipped out the door again, feeling a bit shaky and, well, angry, but more than anything he left the room feeling even sorrier for Jensen than when he went in.

:::

Jared's new high school was a whole nother thing to get used to.

"Don't worry, he always does this," said the guy slouching in the desk next to him when Mr. Singer assigned an impossibly large amount of reading on just the third day of classes.

"He's a sadist," Jared whispered back, already doing some time management in his head.

"He doesn't really think anyone's going to get it done, he just likes to make us sweat."

"Yeah, well it's working," said Jared. Still, he was a fast reader, and with the way things were going with Jensen, he was going to have a lot of free time to do it in. "You've had him before?"

"No, but my brother did a couple years ago."

A quick glare in their direction shut them both up, but just that much had been enough for Jared to feel the beginnings of a connection.

Over the years Jared had been to more than a dozen schools already. If he was lucky he was in one school for the whole year; more often than not he was in and out of at least two, if not more, always playing the catch up game, the make new friends game. Starting at his new school might actually have been the easiest part of this new arrangement, especially considering he came in at the beginning of the year with the other new students, an advantage he didn't always have.

"You're Jared, right?" the guy said when class let out.

"Yeah," said Jared falling into step next to him. "Am I in trouble already?"

"You're the guy who got Katie's bra down off the trophy case on the first day of school."

Jared closed his eyes for a second and wondered if that was what he was going to be known for for the rest of his time here. "Yeah, that was me."

"Katie's a friend of mine," he said. "I'm Aldis. You got lunch now?"

"Yeah, I've got lunch now," said Jared.

Sometimes it really was as easy as that.

He planted himself in the family room when he got back to the house after class, a comfortable room that despite its name Jared had actually never seen the family congregate in, and spread the various readings out in front of him. In fact, except for the occasional meal, he didn't think he'd ever seen the whole family congregate anywhere. He managed to get through a few of his readings before dinner but the real challenge came after, trying to figure out how to finish these, plus the rest of his homework, plus actually get some sleep before school the next day.

A couple of hours into it Jensen turned up out of the blue to join him. He didn't say much - barely more than a soft greeting - but he stuck around with his own book in his hand until Jared gave in and called it a night.

He wasn't sure what it meant, that Jensen was there, but it felt like something.

:::

It was hard not to be curious about how Jensen lived his life. Jared tried to treat him like any other person, but every time Jared had to leave the house for anything, whether it was to go to school or run to the store or the library or just to go outside, he though about what Jensen would have to do instead.

It kind of blew his mind a little.

It was a few days into the school year, when they were both still feeling their way around one another, that Jared actually asked Jensen what he did for a living. Because he obviously did something, even though, living in his parents' house, he technically probably didn't have to. After all, his father was a tenured university professor with a couple of bestselling books to his name, and his mother... well, Jared wasn't entirely clear on what she did but, like his Aunt Sam, it took her away from home for long stretches at a time.

"I'm a graphic designer," he said shortly, then when Jared didn't just disappear with his answer, added, "I took a couple online courses from home, but mostly I was just always good at it."

"Can I see some?" Jared suggested, though he didn't invite himself into the room this time.

"Like what?" said Jensen. "It's not like I draw pictures to hang on the wall. It's mostly commercial stuff."

"I don't know, something," said Jared. "I just want to see what you do, Jensen. It sounds interesting."

"Well, come in then, if you're just going to hover anyway," said Jensen, motioning him closer to his workspace. "I'm almost finished this anyway. It's a product promotion for a local company." Jared looked over his shoulder at the carefully laid out flyer. "Still think it's interesting?"

"Yes?" said Jared. "I mean, you obviously do, or you wouldn't be doing it."

"Well, what am I going to do with my life, be a firefighter?" said Jensen. "I had limited options."

That couldn't be the whole answer, though, sad and plausible as it was. Even if he could do whatever he wanted, Jared would bet that Jensen would choose something like this. You didn't get an art job if it wasn't something you liked doing, and that you had some talent for.

"Did you take that photograph yourself?"

"No," snapped Jensen. "Obviously."

"Well, I didn't know," said Jared. "It could have been from before, and I saw your camera on top of your bookcase...."

"I haven't used that camera in years," said Jensen. "The company provided the shots. I just put the whole thing together."

"Well, I like it," said Jared, offering his endorsement even though it was neither asked for nor, he suspected, wanted. "I like the way you... I'm sorry, I don't do art, I don't know the right words for it. I like the way you put things together. It makes me want to look at it more."

"Well, that's the idea," said Jensen, and even though Jared had obviously botched the compliment, Jensen looked pleased anyway. Jared wasn't sure he'd ever seen him actually look pleased about anything before.

:::

It really was a few weeks of settling in, for everyone involved. Jared had a whole new city to get used to, a whole new group of people to meet, and it was clear pretty early on that Jensen had been raised an only child, and wasn't used to sharing his space.

Jared was used to having no choice.

"Come on, Jared, you have a desk for a reason," said Jensen, arriving in the family room with his laptop and a sketchbook in tow. "You're taking up the whole couch."

"Oh, sorry," said Jared, stuffing a chocolate chip cookie in his mouth to free up a hand and pulling his books closer to his side to clear the other half of the couch for Jensen. Even though, he decided not to point out, it was a big room and there was other furniture to be had.

"That's not quite what I meant."

"Come on, Jensen, it's a beautiful day," said Jared, "and you can't see the back yard from my room."

From the French doors of the family room, which Jared had pulled wide open to let in some fresh air, you could see all of it, the flower beds and the path and the trees and the little bench that he sometimes liked to go out and read on. A yard that Jim kept impeccable and that Jared would bet Jensen had rarely, if ever, been out in.

"If you say so," said Jensen, looking out the doors but not going anywhere near them. He sat down at the very edge of the couch and opened his computer in his lap. "At least it's not raining."

"Does it matter to you?" Jared asked him. "Whether it's raining or not? I mean, you never go out in it...."

"The rain makes the house feel damp," said Jensen, hitting the keys a little harder than necessary again. Jared wondered if he even knew he was doing it. "You think I don't notice the weather just because I don't go out in it? You can't look out a window and see it's raining?"

"Sorry," said Jared, chewing the end of his pen as he puzzled through his physics textbook. "I guess I feel like it's different, knowing something and caring about it."

"I care about the weather," said Jensen, a little bit more quietly. A little bit more matter of fact. "I care what the world is like outside of this house."

"Okay," said Jared, accepting the answer without demanding more and falling silent for a little while, working till the theories clicked into place in his head. Genny had promised to catch him up in the morning, but Jared was determined to make it on his own.

When Jensen encroached on his half of the couch he didn't say anything about that either, just moved his books a little further out of his way. Finally, though, his cramping muscles demanded he to get up and move, even if it was only around the room.

"Finished?" said Jensen without looking up.

"Just taking a break," said Jared, wandering over to the wall by the fireplace and looking at the pictures mounted there. It was an eye-opening experience. "You used to go out. Look at that one, you're even smiling."

It was taken somewhere out by the ocean, Jensen's nose and cheeks freckled from sunshine, his hair windblown and the smile on his face broad and sincere. It was kind of amazing to look at, to compare to the Jensen he saw now.

"Obviously it was taken a long time ago," snapped Jensen. "What are you looking at those for anyway?"

"What happened?" said Jared. "It's like you're not even the same person anymore."

"None of your damn business."

"Look, you can keep on just not telling me anything," said Jared, his eyes still lingering on that one picture, "but I'll just have to ask someone else. I'd rather hear it from you."

He wouldn't, but he wasn't sure Jensen knew that.

"Nice," said Jensen. "Real nice. I'm so glad my parents found me such a nice, young man to bring me out of my shell. So gentle and considerate."

"I've sort of already figured out that gentle and considerate are doomed to failure," said Jared. It was hard to say where the two of them were at really - friends in some ways, still strangers in others - but Jared had been dealing with him on a daily basis long enough now that he felt like he knew how to communicate with him. "Just... was it really bad?"

"Yes," said Jensen. "It was really bad. And you can stand there as long as you like; I'm still not talking about it."

"Fine," said Jared. "All right. But you can tell me about this picture of you by the ocean. Are you on a boat? You look really happy."

Jensen looked up at the picture, and Jared would swear he almost smiled. Not a smile like in the picture, but at least a smile, which was more than Jared got out of him most days. If nothing else convinced him that Jensen wasn't happy with the way his life was, that alone would have.

"That was my fifteenth birthday," he said finally. "There was this... well, it doesn't matter. It was a good day, you're right. That was north of here, right at the edge of the shore. My friend Chris took that about two minutes before he tried to push me in."

"Chris, huh?" said Jared. "I haven't met him, have I?"

They both knew it was a disingenuous question considering Jensen hadn't introduced anyone to Jared as his friend.

"He went to McGill for school," said Jensen shortly. "We email sometimes."

"He your best friend?"

"He was," said Jensen. "But you know how things change when you finish high school."

"Not really," admitted Jared. Maybe Jensen was right about that, about things just changing. But Jared wasn't dumb. "Sometimes I wish you could show me these things, all these things you grew up with."

"You'll make friends at school," said Jensen, turning back to his work, though Jared had a sneaking suspicion what he was doing was not actual work, and that if he took a peek at Jensen's screen he'd find him halfway through a game of solitaire. "They'll show you stuff."

"I have friends," said Jared, finally pulling himself away and wandering back in the direction of Jensen and the couch. "Sort of. I have people who'll talk to me, anyway. They want me to play basketball at school, and they won't believe me when I tell them I'm terrible at it."

"You're terrible at basketball? Really?"

"Jensen, you saw me bump into a doorway, like, three times yesterday. I'm not exactly a marvel of coordination."

"Well, who is, in high school?" said Jensen. "You shouldn't play if you don't want to, though."

"Yeah, I'm not," said Jared. "But that doesn't make them stop asking. I don't know. I might join the drama club. Or debate. This one guy I know, Brock, he says the drama club is good people."

"Do you even like acting?" said Jensen. "That's probably a prerequisite."

"I might," said Jared. "Or I might like making stuff. That's what my Uncle Jeff does, he's an amazing carpenter."

"What, like building decks and stuff?"

"No, like building furniture," said Jared. "It's amazing. People pay lots of money to have him build stuff for him. Lemme show you his website, he's got pictures--"

"Hands off the computer," said Jensen, jerking it away when Jared reached across the couch for it.

"Ha, you are playing minesweeper, aren't you?" said Jared. "I knew it."

Jensen scowled and clicked a couple of times and then reluctantly let Jared get near it. "Fine, show me what he's got."

:::

The thing about Jensen was, he was a bit prickly and he was a lot reserved, but as long as Jared could handle being pricked once in a while - which frankly he didn't mind that much, and even less with Jensen than with other people - then Jensen was actually a pretty good guy to spend time with. He could even see glimpses of who Jensen must've been before... before whatever happened to him.

"What do you mean you've never played Xbox?" said Jensen. "How is that even possible?"

"I just haven't!" said Jared. "This one place I stayed, they had one but I wasn't allowed to play. Or I was in this foster home once, they had an old school Nintendo but that was it. I'm a master of Tetris."

"You were in a foster home?"

"Just for a little while," said Jared. "There was this legal thing, but Aunt Sam got me back. Anyway, at Jeff's place I didn't spend much time inside anyway. It's so gorgeous up in the mountains. Have you ever been?"

"When I was younger," said Jensen. "We used to go skiing. I haven't been in years."

"Yeah, I guess not," said Jared. "I don't even know how to ski. Jeff was going to teach me, though, once we had some snow. He said it would probably be easier to get around if I knew how."

"Wow, you were really out in the middle of nowhere, huh?"

"Yeah," said Jared, but with a fond smile. "It was great. I think I could've spent the whole rest of my life there and been perfectly happy."

"But you ended up here instead," said Jensen, "with me."

"It's nothing personal," said Jared quickly. "I mean... okay, I'd give a lot to be back there. But not because of you. You know?"

Jensen just shrugged. "You think I don't know I'm not easy to spend time with?" he said. "Being stuck in here with me gets pretty old pretty fast."

"It doesn't," said Jared. "I mean, okay, I wish we could do stuff. But I know you can't."

"Look," said Jensen. "It's not that I can't leave the house. It's that I don't. I don't want to and I don't need to."

"Okay, don't take this the wrong way? But you do know you're nuts, right?" said Jared. "I mean, not in the certifiable way, but--"

"So I've been told by people with many more qualifications than you," said Jensen. "As far as I'm concerned, you're the ones who are nuts. It's not worth the trouble. Trust me, I know."

"If you could see it, though, you'd know it was worth the trouble," said Jared. "The world is amazing, Jensen. All of it. Even the lame parts are amazing."

"I've seen the world," said Jensen. "I've probably even seen more of it than you have. I've made an informed decision here."

"You really think that, don't you?" said Jared sadly. "You really think that you chose this."

"I did choose this," said Jensen. "Maybe one day I'll choose something else, but right now I choose this. And yeah, I know it's a little fucked up, but so's what got me here. So don't tell me you wish I could go to your auditions at school or to the park or skiing, and then make that puppy dog face at me, all right."

"But I do," said Jared, even softer, before sighing. "Whytecliff School probably hasn't changed much since you went there anyway, and that's most of what I see in a day anyway. It probably hasn't changed much since your parents went there."

"Just my mom," said Jensen, which really wasn't much of an argument. "I think they still have some academic trophy she won on display in the main hall. My dad's from out east."

"Not exactly my point," said Jared, but the fact that Jensen seemed to think it was important made him smile a little anyway. "Is your name on any of the trophies in there?"

"What, are you trying to get me to admit to chess club awards or something?" said Jensen, shaking his head. "My team won the baseball tournament when I was a junior, but that won't have my name on it, just the year."

"You play baseball?"

"I used to," said Jensen. "Second base. I was never good enough to get a scholarship or anything, but we had a good team." Jared could picture it, the way Jensen must've looked when he wasn't quite so pale, when he had a little more muscle on him, when his only exposure to sunshine wasn't through a window. "I totally scored the winning run that year, too."

"Yeah?" said Jared. "You got any pictures of it?"

"Yeah, sure," said Jensen. "When I was playing Danny had a camera glued to her face, I swear. She made sure I had a bunch before she left for Dalhousie."

"Was she your girlfriend?" said Jared.

"No," said Jensen, a lot more shortly and a lot more irritably than Jensen was expecting. "Do you want to see the pictures or not?"

"I want to see the pictures," said Jared firmly. If Jensen was offering, he was taking, even if the offer was obviously to deflect something else. "I want to see whatever you want to show me."

And if Jensen gave him a bit of an odd look at that, Jared just chalked it up to his edginess and didn't think any more about it.

:::

Jared had always been pretty smart about a lot of stuff, practical stuff about how to survive in a new place, about what to do and who to avoid and how to just get by. He didn't know if that was why he always found it pretty easy to make school friends, but he always just fell into a group pretty effortlessly and Vancouver was no different.

Aldis had introduced him to Katie (properly, anyway, and with her bra where it was supposed to be), who had introduced him to Gabe who had introduced him to Genny who had introduced him to Brock. There were others, too, who fell in and out of the group, who showed up at lunch sometimes, or at Katie's after school, or in their little corner of the bleachers during a home game, but those were the five who, if anyone ever asked, Jared would call his friends.

Aldis reminded him a little of Jensen, in a weird way; he could not think of two people who looked less alike, but there was something about the way he always had a sketchbook on hand even though he'd never tell anybody what was in it, that was just like he imagined Jensen would be. But then, Aldis was always the first one to join Jared ever time he had the itch to do something outdoors, so that was something different.

Katie was probably the popular one, if you went through and calculated all the variables. She knew the most people, anyway, and if occasionally her bra was stolen from her gym bag and tossed up on the trophy cabinet, well, it was mostly just to get her attention. She reminded him of the Jensen he saw in pictures, a little brighter and a lot more carefree than he was now.

Gabe was quiet like Jensen, but it was more shy than reserved, really. Once you got to know him he was hilarious, but you had to make that effort in the first place. And Genny was the one who looked the most like him, though he would never tell either of them that, with the same incisive tongue that Jensen had once she trusted you to hear what she had to say.

Brock reminded him of Jensen too, but in a whole different way. Being with Brock reminded him of what it felt like to be with Jensen, he was the one whose smile made Jared feel something new deep in his gut. A feeling Jared was enjoying, but didn't feel quite ready to spend too much time thinking about.

Maybe everyone reminded him of Jensen a little, in their own way.

:::

"It's a girl, isn't it?" said Jensen. "That's what this whole drama club ordeal is all about. You're so into some girl that you're willing to make a fool of yourself on stage to prove it."

"It's not a girl," said Jared. "Come on, can you just read the lines with me? I don't even want the part, but I have to make an honest effort."

"Yeah right there's no girl," muttered Jensen, but he glanced over the pages and started reading Jared his cues anyway.

There was no way in hell Jared was getting the part, but he wanted to work backstage anyway. The audition was just because Brock and Katie were all into it and Jared didn't want to disappoint them. They would end up on stage, and they wouldn't mind that Jared didn't as long as he stuck around to do the other stuff.

"I suck, right?" he said when they'd made it through the scene.

"A little bit," said Jensen, a smile playing around at the corners of his mouth. Jared could tell. "I think you're just not cut out to be a lawyer."

"Or an actor," said Jared. "Okay, but do I suck so bad people are going to laugh?"

"For a high school production?" said Jensen. "I promise there will be people who are not only way worse than you, but way less self-aware about it. And they'll probably sing."

"It's not a musical."

"They won't let that stop them," said Jensen. "Trust me. It's not so long ago that I was in high school myself. Whoever this girl is, you're not going to embarrass yourself in front of her. Well, okay, you might, but it won't be because of your acting skills, or lack thereof."

"I'm serious, Jensen, there's no girl," said Jared, flipping back to the beginning of the scene again and mouthing the lines as he read through them. "There's just some of my friends. Katie and Brock do drama, and Aldis and Gabe don't really but they show up anyway because Brock says he needs the moral support. Genny says she's not going to have anything to do with it, but I bet she will."

"So it's Katie, then."

"Stop!" laughed Jared, smacking Jensen's leg with the script. "Just because I've seen her bra doesn't mean I'm into her. It wasn't even on her at the time."

"You've seen her out of her bra and you expect me to believe you're not doing this whole theatre thing for her?" said Jensen. "Yeah, try again, Jared. I'm not buying it."

"I didn't see her out of her bra, I saw her bra out of her. Or... well, something like that. It's how we met. Anyway, it's not about her, I just want to do something with my friends, you know? They're totally going to need people to build sets. The audition is just to, you know, make them happy."

"If they're your friends, they'll be happy even if you don't audition."

"Oh no, you don't get to give me any talks on friendship," said Jared. "I know it would be cool with them if I audition. But it's more fun to do it all together, even if I don't want a part. Now will you run through it with me again?"

"One more time," said Jensen, "as long as you promise to tell me all about the auditions afterwards."

"Wish you could be there too," murmured Jared, but he didn't push it any more than that. Jensen didn't say anything, just started again from the top.

:::

When Mr. Ackles sat Jared down after school one day, it was a good bet it was a conversation that Jared wasn't going to enjoy.

"Not long till your school lets out for the holidays," he said, leaning forward and clasping his hands between his knees.

"No, sir," said Jared politely. It was the beginning of a typical 'we're looking for a new place for you' speech, but Jared didn't think that was where it was going this time. Maybe actually having a year-long contract meant something.

"I know you've been talking about going to visit your uncle for the holidays, but we think it would mean a lot to Jensen if you stayed."

"Oh," said Jared. "Oh. Okay."

"I don't know if you realise it, Jared, but you've been good for him. I can see a difference in him these days. It'd be a real blow to have that set back."

Technically, he was asking. He was asking Jared to stay. But Jared was living here and going to school here at the Ackles family's expense, for the sole purpose of being there for Jensen, and he didn't feel like there was any real way he could refuse.

"I didn't really have any plans anyway," he said. He hadn't even told Jeff or Chad he might be coming, just in case. "I just thought maybe, you know. Since I had some time off."

"I promise we'll have a big celebration here," said Mr. Ackles. "Christmas dinner like you wouldn't believe. Maybe Jensen'll even sing some carols with us if we're lucky. Have you ever heard him sing?"

"No, sir," said Jared curiously. "I didn't even know he could."

"He used to, with those friends of his," he said, his voice growing distant for a moment. "Well, thank you for understanding, Jared. You won't regret it. I guess I'd better get on top of my Christmas shopping, huh?"

"Yeah, I guess I'd better, too," said Jared faintly, though he'd already picked up the gifts that mattered. He guessed, if he was sticking around, he was going to need a few more. "Was there anything else?"

"No, no, I need to get back to work," said Mr. Ackles. "I'm speaking in Toronto next week. Just let us know if you have any Christmas traditions, Jared. We want you to feel at home."

"Whatever you do will be fine," said Jared, and held his sigh until Mr. Ackles had left the room.

Maybe him being there really was doing Jensen a lot of good; it was hard to know when Jared hadn't known him before, and could only really knew what Jensen was like when he was with him. But considering how seldom Jensen's parents spent any time with him, he would've thought it'd be hard for them to tell too.

:::

They did try, and the truth was that it was a better Christmas than he'd had most years of his life, but in the afternoon, when Jensen had curled up with a new book and his parents were busy in the kitchen fixing dinner, Jared shut himself up in his room and opened his curtains and pulled out his phone.

"Hello?"

He almost cried just at the sound of Uncle Jeff's voice. "Hey," he said, his voice cracking even over just that one syllable. "Uh, hey, Merry Christmas."

"Jared?"

"Yeah," he said, clearing his throat this time. "I... God, I wish I was there."

There was silence for a moment, then Jared was sure he heard Jeff clearing his throat too before he tried to speak. "It's a lot quieter here without you, that's for sure."

"Did you get my presents?" he said. "For you and the girls?"

"Sure did," said Jeff. "I think they're playing with their toys right now." He wasn't even lying; Jared was sure he heard a distinctive squeak in the background. "What about you? Everything arrive on time?"

"I opened them first thing this morning, before I went downstairs. Just in case... I mean, I didn't want to cry in front of them."

"Jared--"

"I really wish I'd been able to come, Jeff. I really wanted to."

"You'd've been snowed in anyway, Jared," he said with a heavy sigh. "We got a heavy one last night. There'll be other chances."

"It was supposed to be our first Christmas as a family."

"Still is," said Jeff, "even if you're there and I'm here." It couldn't be the same as being together, but him saying that, it really was something. "It's still Christmas, and you're still family."

If he was trying to keep Jared from crying, he was doing a damn poor job of it.

"Tell me what it's like up there right now," he said. "Tell me what your Christmas is like."

"Well, it's awfully white," said Jeff, which was a lot more than Jared could say about Vancouver. "I haven't had a tree in a few years but I got one this year. Didn't have much to decorate it with, but it looks all right."

He didn't say it, but Jared suddenly wondered if Jeff got a tree for the first time in years just in case Jared came home.

"It's crazy, how many decorations they put up here," he told him in return. "The tree and the whole house and the garden and lights, like, everywhere."

"Sounds like something you'd see on TV."

"It really, really is," said Jared. That, actually, had been his first thought to. "They, um. They tried to do something nice for me. Like, do some of my traditions too? Except I don't have any. Mr. and Mrs. Ackles didn't quite understand, but Jensen got it. Jensen always understands me better."

They were both silent for a moment after that, then Jeff said, "I hope someday we can do something about that."

"We will," said Jared. "Next year there's nothing keeping me from being there with you. I won't care if we get snowed in because I won't want to be anywhere else."

"Well, you'd be welcome," said Jeff. "Everyone would sure be glad to see you."

And Jared would sure be glad to have them too. To have the mountain and the cabin and the girls and the people, but more than anything, he'd be glad to have Uncle Jeff.

"I should get back downstairs," he said reluctantly, "before someone comes looking for me. I just... I miss you."

"Yeah," said Jeff with another heavy sigh. "I miss you too."

:::

"So how many parties did you turn down to be here today?" Jensen asked him, pulling a couple of beers out of the fridge and offering one of them to Jared. "Go on. It's New Year's Eve. If you don't have a drink in your hand, there's something wrong with you."

"Your parents probably wouldn't approve."

"My parents won't be back from Cuba for a week. Unless you're planning to turn on the webcam and drink it in front of them, I think it won't be a problem."

Jared shrugged and twisted the top off the beer. "Just one."

"Fine, just one," said Jensen. "I'm not going to pour it down your throat."

"No, I mean, just one party," said Jared. "I was invited to Katie's New Year's party but I told her I would rather be here."

"You lied to her? At Christmas? You're clearly not the man my parents thought you were."

Jared snorted and carried his beer into the den. "I think everyone figured that out the moment they laid eyes on me," he said. "None of this was quite what they were planning on, I think."

"Shut up, my parents love you," said Jensen. "You're exactly what they wanted."

"I think I've spent, collectively, less than twenty-four hours with your parents since I arrived," said Jared. "They don't even know me. I figured they didn't want to."

"No, its not that," said Jensen, sitting down on the couch with his feet up on the coffee table and gesturing for Jared to join him. "They're just busy people. Dad's lecturing all over the continent now - hell, all over the world - and Mom never did spend all that much time at home. It doesn't mean they don't like you."

"Or you," added Jared.

Jensen just gave him a crooked, knowing smile. "I know that," he said. "You think I don't know my parents love me? My parents adore me. They just don't know what to do with me."

"I can't imagine you were ever really a handful," said Jared. "I mean... before. Before whatever."

"I wasn't," agreed Jensen. "I was a great kid. Almost everything they could've asked for. But that was before." He shrugged and drained a fair amount of his beer. "They don't know what to do with me now. But I know they're trying."

"You're all trying," said Jared. "I mean, right?"

"Sure," said Jensen. "We're all trying. Trying for different things, maybe, but we're trying. Anyway, why the hell didn't you go to Katie's party?"

"And leave you here alone?" said Jared. "Did you really think I was going to do that?"

"You think this would be the first New Year's Eve I spent alone?" said Jensen. "What do you think I did last year?"

"Well, I figured your parents...."

"Were in Australia," said Jensen. "It's tradition, for the family to go away at New Year's." Jared didn't even have to make his argument this time; Jensen caught his look. "I insisted, Jared. If I'd asked them to stay, they would've stayed. I didn't want them to. They need to get away."

"Well, I didn't want to go to her party anyway."

Well, there was one little reason he might've wanted to go to the party, but it wasn't - quite - enough to make him change his mind about spending the holiday with Jensen.

"Bullshit," said Jensen. "Did my parents tell you you had to stay here? Did they make you?"

"They don't make me do anything," said Jared. "They just... suggested...." That didn't actually make it sound any better, though, and he knew it before the words were even out of his mouth. "I'm sorry, that's not what I mean."

"No, it is," said Jensen. "It's exactly what you mean. Well, I am giving you permission to go. I don't need a babysitter, Jared. What am I going to do, wander away?"

"Shut up," said Jared. "I want to be here. You ever think maybe I wanted to spend my New Year's Eve with you?"

"No," said Jensen. "No, I never for a minute thought that. Because I am, in fact, a very smart man. If you're worried I'll tell them, I'm not going to do that. They're not even going to ask. But if they did, I could lie and say you were here all night."

"No," said Jared. "Come on, Jensen, no. I made my own decision, all right? And if I have to be in the city for the holidays, I'm glad I'm at least spending them with you. It would be weird, spending them with anyone else."

"Okay, but next year, next year promise me you'll go to a big New Year's party. Something with hats and champagne and... blowy things," said Jensen. "Promise me that and I'll get off your case and just let you enjoy your evening in with me."

"Maybe next year we both will," said Jared. "Yeah, okay, I promise."

"Don't hold your breath," said Jensen, but true to his word he didn't bring it up the rest of the night.

:::

It was over four months after they met, on a chilly, rainy January day, when Jared discovered Brock smoked. It wasn't even on purpose. He was sitting out on the back steps, coat unzipped and tie askew, when he caught sight of him out of the corner of his eye, lighting up almost before the heavy door had swung shut behind him.

"Shit," Brock murmured, obviously looking for someplace to hide it before realising he was well and truly busted. "I need to remember to look to make sure I'm alone."

"You're lucky I wasn't someone else," said Jared, squeezing his butt over to the side a little so Brock could join him on the step. "It's going to start raining again."

"Of course it's going to start raining again," said Brock as he sat down, thigh to thigh with Jared. "It's January. Do you mind...?" He waved the cigarette questioningly, just far enough away that the smoke wouldn't drift into Jared's face.

Jared just shook his head. "No, it's fine," he said. "Hey, it's your lungs, right?"

"Hey, you don't give me grief about my bad habits, and I won't ask you what you're doing sitting out here in the rain," said Brock, taking a drag and blowing smoke off to the other side.

"It's okay if you want to ask," said Jared, leaning forward onto his knees. He was going to have to get someone to let out the hem on his pants again, Christ, if there was even any left to let out.

"Okay then," said Brock. "What are you doing sitting out here in the rain, Jared, since you're obviously not having a nic fit."

"I dunno," he said. "Just thinking about home, I guess."

"Why, something going on with that friend of yours?" he said. "They're not, like, going to send you away or something, are they?"

"No, not that," said Jared. "I mean home. Home back with my family, with Jeff and Chad and Bisou and Sadie. I miss it, you know?"

Brock looked off in the direction of the mountains. "Yeah, I guess you would," he said. "I'd miss my home too if I had to go away. Hell, I used to miss it when I went away to summer camp. I don't think I could've handled boarding school."

"I guess this is a little like boarding school," said Jared consideringly. "A little bit, I guess. I sort of never thought about it like that."

For it to be boarding school, no one was asking him to think of it as home. He'd never had that before, never lived a place he wasn't supposed to think of, even for a short time, as his new home.

"You didn't go home for Christmas?"

Jared shook his head. "I think if I asked Jeff would've paid for me to go," he said, "but they wanted me to stay here, with Jensen. It was important to be with him over the holidays."

"That's gotta be weird too," said Brock. "Your whole... situation."

"I guess," said Jared. It certainly wasn't quite like any situation he'd been in before, in a lot of ways. "I like him, though. Jensen, I mean. We're friends. It would probably be a lot weirder if we didn't get along."

"So there's good things about being here, then, right?" said Brock, taking another drag and licking his lips as Jared watched. "You don't spend all your time thinking of home?"

"Maybe not all of it," said Jared, bumping his knee against Brock's a little self-consciously, waiting to see if maybe he would do it back. He spent a lot of his time thinking of home, but there were good things about Vancouver, things he would probably see a lot more clearly if he didn't feel like he had to be here.

"Just most of it, then?" said Brock. When he bumped Jared's knee in return, Jared's breath unexpectedly caught, just for that moment.

"Just most of it," agreed Jared, and turned a tiny smile on him. "I don't know why I'm out here today. I guess sometimes things just get to me a little."

"There's nothing wrong with that," said Brock. "Man, I was starting to think nothing ever got to you. You're that guy with a smile for everyone, you know? It's hard to get inside your head, Jared."

"You're kidding, right?" said Jared. "But it's so obvious what I’m thinking, all the time. Everybody can tell."

"Maybe you think everybody can tell, but you're pretty good at keeping the sad parts inside, I think," said Brock. "Who knows what else you're keeping inside?"

"A few things, maybe," said Jared, but he was still convinced that he wore his heart on his sleeve. It was one of the things that had made his life so far both easier and harder. "I just like to look on the bright side, you know? I like to see the good in places. I don't usually complain like this."

"You're not complaining," said Brock. "Actually, I kind of like it. It's like I get to see something that nobody else does, you know? One of the little pieces of you that you usually keep to yourself."

"I don't mind if you see those parts of me," said Jared softly, turning his head to really look at him, in time to see Brock lick his lips again. "Maybe I don't want everybody to see, but I don't mind if you do."

Brock looked away and Jared's heart fell into his stomach a little, even though he wasn't entirely sure why. It wasn't like he'd been promised anything. It wasn't like he was even expecting anything. But he was looking, really looking, and he wanted Brock to be looking back. Brock kept looking away, blew out his last lungful of smoke and stubbed out his cigarette on the concrete step, tucking half away for later.

Then he turned back, murmured "I hope to hell I'm reading this right," and pressed his lips briefly to Jared's.

"Oh," said Jared softly when Brock leaned back again, his eyes wide and staring. His heart was definitely beating again, harder and faster and a whole lot livelier. "Oh."

Brock was staring back, maybe not as wide-eyed but definitely staring. "You don't have to... I don't want to have to apologise for that, but you don't have to say yes."

"Just give me a second," said Jared, bringing his fingers up to his lips, brushing his bottom lip softly. "I don't... I've never. I'm not saying no."

"I don't know what that means," admitted Brock. "I should've... should I have said something? Do we need to say something? Can I do it again?"

"I...." Jared looked around, but they were alone on the steps, everyone else having the sense to stay in out of the rain. "You should do it again."

Brock smiled, a grin that was just genuine, not cocky at all, and kissed him again, this time a little longer and a little wetter.

"I thought maybe you might want to," he said after, not giving Jared a chance to say anything this time. "I knew I wanted to, I've wanted to practically since we met, but I didn't know if you... I thought maybe. When there wasn't somebody else even though girls practically throw themselves at you, I thought maybe."

"Wait, do they?" said Jared. "Throw themselves at me."

"No, never," said Brock quickly. "Not at all. Forget I said anything."

Jared smacked him, then let his hand linger. "Do they really? I never... I guess I hadn't figured out how to notice. Lame, huh? Hard to believe I’m seventeen."

"No, I definitely believe you're seventeen," said Brock, "and maybe you never noticed because they weren't your type. You noticed me, right?"

"Yeah, I noticed you," said Jared. He'd noticed him long before the kiss on the steps, even if he hadn't been sure, hadn't known how to read all the signs. At least he'd figured out that there were signs.

And if Brock wasn't the only person he'd noticed, he didn't have to mention that now. It didn't matter now.

"You taste like smoke."

Brock just laughed and hung his head. "I kiss you for the first time and you tell me I taste like smoke?"

"Well, you do," said Jared. "We'll have to try it different, next time."

"Next time?" said Brock, bumping his knee against Jared's one last time.

"Yeah, next time," said Jared, grinning at his knees. He wasn't sure if the whole world suddenly made more sense or less, but whichever it was, it felt pretty good. "For now, come on. We need to get to class."

:::

The truth was, Jared didn't really have anyone else to talk to about stuff like this. His friends here were all school friends, casual friends, and he couldn't just call Chad up out of the blue and talk to him about this. Despite how prickly Jensen still was, he'd turned into a good friend; Jared was used to the prickles. So finally, after a lot of lying in bed and staring at the ceiling, he got up and found his way into Jensen's room.

"I want to tell you something," he said. "And you have to... I just want to tell somebody. I just want to tell you."

"Isn't it a bit late for you to be wandering the house?"

"I couldn't sleep," said Jared. "I just kept thinking about telling you."

"God, I hope it wasn't illegal," said Jensen.

"No," said Jared, laughing nervously. Better to just get it out there. "I, um. I think I have a boyfriend."

He was expecting some sort of reaction, for better or for worse. Something. Anything. What he didn't expect was the blank stare that Jensen gave him. And he definitely didn't expect Jensen to stand up and just leave.

"Jensen?" he called after him, softly, but there was no answer; he was already long gone. "Fuck," he muttered. "Fuck, fuck, fuck." He figured Jensen would probably be surprised, and maybe have some questions, but this? He'd never thought Jensen would ultimately not be okay with it, and now that he was, he didn't know what to do about it.

It wasn't really... Jared wasn't really freaking out about being into a guy. Okay, it was a little different, a little out of left field, but mostly because he'd never really thought about it before. It wasn't some panicky thing. But he had a boyfriend. Sort of. Maybe. And he thought he could talk about that with the one person who had pretty much become the one person he told everything to.

Only it turned out he couldn't tell everything to him after all.

He wasn't sure what he was supposed to do about it now, but he was pretty sure the one thing he was not supposed to do was follow wherever Jensen had gone. Whatever he was thinking, and whatever it was it probably wasn't good things, he needed to do it without Jared in his face.

But he did need to get out of Jensen's room so he slowly made his way back down the hall to his own, and when that started to feel awkward and confining, he grabbed his laptop and went downstairs to the family room, curling up on the corner of the couch and starting an email to Chad. Not about his boyfriend, but catching him up on everything else that had gone on in his life since the last time he'd written.

He wasn't so caught up in it, though, that he didn't notice the moment Jensen came into the room, pausing uncertainly in the doorway and obviously waiting for Jared to look up and acknowledge him, or send him away.

Jared did look up, but he didn't say anything. He wasn't sure what he could say.

"I gave you the wrong idea," said Jensen. "And I need to set the record straight. I just didn't know how to--"

"You made yourself pretty clear."

"No, I didn't," said Jensen. "Jared, I don't leave the house anymore because I was attacked for being gay. I'm not disgusted, I'm terrified for you."

Jared opened his mouth to say something but no words came out. After all this time dancing around the subject, there it finally was, out in the open, and it wasn't anything Jared had been expecting to hear.

"You don't need to be... I mean...."

"No, don't," said Jensen, hushing him with one motion of his hand. "Just stop. Please don't tell me I don't need to be terrified, because you don't know. I have every reason to be terrified. You have no idea."

No, Jared didn't, but they both knew why that was. "I like him, Jensen," he said. "He's my friend. He's been my friend since I got here. Nothing's going to... I mean. I don't even know if I'm gay. I just have a boyfriend."

"Sometimes that doesn't really matter."

"I don't understand," said Jared. "That kind of thing... it doesn't happen here."

"Obviously it does," said Jensen. "Google it, Jared, it's not that hard to find if you really want to know all the sordid details. It was news."

"I don't want to look it up," said Jared. If he wanted to look it up, he could've done that a long time ago. "I want you to tell me, Jensen. I want you to tell me because you want me to know, because I'm your friend."

"I can't... I had a boyfriend, and I thought we were in love, but we weren't. I was in the hospital for a long time." The words came out halting, each sentence fragmented when Jensen finally got it out. "He turned on me. He and his friends turned on me."

It was such an ugly idea, an ugly thing to have happened to anyone, let alone someone who Jared cared about as much as he did Jensen.

"I'm sorry," he said, knowing the words were inadequate but not having any others to offer that were even remotely appropriate. "I know you don't... that's not what's happening here. That's not what it's like with me and Brock."

"Yeah, I know," said Jensen. "And I know what happened to me was... a rare thing. I know it sounds surreal, like something that doesn't really happen to real people in a place like this anymore. But it still happened. To me. And I can't just forget that it did."

"No, I know," said Jared. "I don't know if I ever could either. I didn't know."

"You could've, though," said Jensen, curious now, slowly entering the room and sitting down nearby. "You could've found out from probably a dozen people. You could've found out from my parents. I always thought you would."

Jared shrugged. "I wanted to know," he said. "But I figured it was your story, you know? It was your choice whether to trust me with it or not."

"Like it was your choice to trust me with your relationship with Brock," said Jensen, "and I went and freaked you out."

"I'm not freaked out." Jensen just gave him a look. "Okay, you freaked me out a little, but it's okay now. I mean, I get it. As much as I can get it. You can... if you ever wanted to, you could...."

"Talk about it?"

"Yeah."

"I'll keep that in mind," said Jensen. "And if you want to talk about your boyfriend, that's okay too."

"Maybe later," said Jared, even though he ached to have someone to talk to about it. Jensen was clearly still a little jittery, and Jared, Jared wanted to give himself a little time to work in one important and overlooked fact that had come to light in the middle of all this: Jensen liked guys too. Jensen would understand. "How about some Grand Theft Auto instead?"

"You're on."

:::

Once Jensen opened the door to the subject, Jared didn't feel quite as reluctant anymore to broach it with someone else. Not Jensen's parents - Jared knew he always could have, but he felt like he didn't know them well enough, and that maybe they didn't know their son well enough either - but there were other people who'd known the family during that time too.

Jared had been helping Jim out in the garden almost since he arrived - there wasn't much of a garden to be had during the winter months, but there was tending and cleaning to be done all the same - so it wasn't out of the ordinary to join Jim out there when he was fixing the door on the garden shed.

"Jensen told me," he said, without preamble. Jim was a man with whom Jared never really had to beat around the bush. "About what happened to him."

"Did he, now," said Jim, hesitating for a moment but not stopping his work. "And just what did he tell you?"

"That he had a boyfriend," said Jared, resting his shoulder against the shed. "And that things... went bad. Jensen got hurt. They hurt him because he was gay."

And for all his reassurances to Jensen that things weren't usually like that, spelling it out like that gave Jared a bit of a chill.

"That's a pretty small part of a larger story," said Jim after a moment when Jared didn't have anything to elaborate with. He turned the screwdriver a few times, securing the hinge, then looked up at Jared. "That's all he told you?"

"I didn't push," admitted Jared. "I figured there would be time for that."

Jim nodded, tested the hinge, then finally stood up again. "Jensen's knows it wasn't all him," he said slowly, considering each word, "but it's all tangled up in his head."

"Can you tell me what really happened then? Because the way Jensen tells it...."

"I'd've been surprised if Jensen had told you much beyond the bare bones of it," said Jim with a heavy sigh. "The boys who attacked him, they used his sexuality, his relationship, as an excuse, but the truth is they were former students of his father's who'd been expelled for cheating. One of them seduced Jensen, found his weak spots, then brought the others in. They were getting back at Professor Ackles and Jensen was too easy a target."

"So it wasn't because he was gay."

"I'm sure those boys did have some prejudice in them, but it wasn't the reason for the attack, it was the excuse for it."

"And Jensen knows this?"

"Everyone knows it," said Jim, "but that doesn't make it any easier for him."

"I know he's talked to a lot of people about it," said Jared. "At least, he mentions that a lot of therapists have come and gone in the past few years. None of that helped?"

"That's not something I can answer for you," said Jim. "Whatever Jensen needs, it's not something he's gotten yet. That's about all I can say."

"So you don't think that it's something that doctors can make better?" said Jared, though even as he asked, he realised that he didn't really think that either. In a lot of ways, there wasn't anything wrong with Jensen. Except in how there really, really was.

"I think that the thing that's going to make Jensen better is figuring out what the problem is, and doctors can help with that but the only one that can do it is Jensen. Now, you want to help me sort bulbs?"

"Sure," said Jared, and though he considered that a close to the conversation, the subject was wide open now, and Jared had a lot of thinking to do. "I, um."

"Was there something else?" asked Jim as he opened the newly rehinged shed door and switched on the light, a bare bulb dangling close to the ceiling.

"I have a boyfriend," Jared blurted out. Jim didn't really need to know that, and would never have asked, but it somehow seemed... relevant. "I think. No, I do."

Jim smiled at him, something genuine and warm. "I'm guessing you told Jensen that." After all, it didn't take much to put two and two together there. "Does he make you happy?"

"He makes me a lot of things," said Jared, smiling back. "I just thought I should... I mean, obviously that's why. Jensen said anything."

"With you, Jared, I'm pretty sure he would've said something eventually anyway," said Jim, an unsolicited vote of confidence. From him, above anyone else, Jared could believe it was nothing but honest. "Now let me show you what I've picked up for the spring."

:::

Finding someone who wanted to touch him and hold him and kiss him and listen to him when his day was rough didn't get rid of the ache for home that Jared held in him day after day after day. If anything, it just made him more aware of it, of how simple things were there and how simple they weren't, here in the city.

And knowing about Jensen now, knowing a little bit about what kept him from venturing out into the world, that changed things too.

"So how's your boyfriend today?" said Jensen, hovering at Jared's bedroom door and looking down at where Jared was sprawled across his bed. "You aren't over at his place?"

"I don't go over there every day," said Jared, though lately it had been pretty often, he had to admit. He just didn't go for very long at a time. "He's out of town this weekend anyway."

"You know, you're allowed to bring him over here," said Jensen. "You're allowed to bring people over here."

"I'm kind of not," said Jared, awkward and reluctant to admit that. "I wouldn't anyway. It would just feel weird. I mean, I know I live here and all, but--"

"But it wouldn't be like bringing them home," finished Jensen. "Because you think of this like a stranger's house."

"I think of it like your house," said Jared, "and it would be weird for me to bring other people into it." And it had been suggested to him that while making friends was important, and building a network was part of why going to the Whytecliff School was important, bringing them home to compete with Jensen might not be the best idea. "Would you even want me to?"

Jensen shrugged, trying to portray indifference, but Jared saw him tense up too. It wasn't the physical world he was hiding from, after all. It wasn't the open spaces and the fresh air and the birds and the sidewalks and the stoplights. It was the people.

"Out there I spend time with them, and in here I spend time with you," said Jared, and as complicated as the whole situation was, it really did boil down to something as simple as that.

"Must be nice," said Jensen. The words could have meant a lot of things, and Jared didn't ask what.

"It's not like this up on the mountain," he said, lacing his hands behind his head and looking up at the ceiling.

"Oh yeah?" said Jensen. "Land of milk and honey, is it? Everyone hold hands and sing kumbaya, fairies dancing through the meadows?"

"Do you always have to be like that?" said Jared.

"Like what?" said Jensen. "Living in the real world? Yeah, I guess I do. There's no magical place that's going to make everything better, Jared. It can't take away what happened."

"Yeah, I know, nothing can. But it's got to be better than this."

"You don't know what you're talking about," said Jensen. "Everyone thinks I should go back out there again, but why? Why should I? All that's out there is pain, and violence, and idiocy, and more pain."

"You don't really think that."

"You don't know what I think."

"You don't really think that, because when I talk about my day, you hang on every word of it, Jensen. No matter what I'm talking about. You miss the world outside this house. And yeah, I know sometimes it sucks. You think my life hasn't sucked? Most of it I never even had a home. But you shut yourself up in here and you miss all the good stuff too."

"I've got enough good stuff in here."

"Sure it's fine, but how can it be enough?" said Jared. "Sometimes in life you get hurt, Jensen. It sucks, but it happens. But a lot of times you don't and those times are pretty awesome."

"Wow," said Jensen. "Wow, I never thought I'd get that speech from you of all people."

"Why?" said Jared. "I want you to know, Jensen. The world is a fucking amazing place. It's an amazing place where shitty thing sometimes happen, sure. There's war and there's poverty and I knew a kid once who almost starved to death. And there are hate crimes. And revenge crimes. I know that. I'm not naïve. But I want you to see the rest again, too."

"I see it, Jared," he said. "I have a television. I have the internet. I have you. I know what's out there. It's just... not for me anymore."

Jared sighed and moved over a little so that Jensen could lie down on the bed next to him. Even though the invitation was less than subtle, he didn't expect Jensen to take it. But he did, hesitating only a moment before stretching out on his back and looking up at the ceiling.

"Tell me some more good stuff," he said, and closed his eyes.

:::

It didn't last. Somehow, in the back of his head, Jared had known it wouldn't. But that didn't mean it didn't suck when he met Brock for lunch out by the bleachers expecting a little bit of alone time and ended up getting dumped instead. Brock left and Jared stayed, eating his lunch without tasting it and sleepwalking through the rest of his classes until he could come home again.

Jensen set a bowl of ice cream on top of Jared's homework before he even asked what was wrong.

"Food can't fix everything," said Jared, toying with the spoon.

"Since when?" said Jensen. "It always fixed everything for you before. You hear from your aunt or something?

"No," said Jared, sighing and letting the spoon fall against the bowl with a soft, wet clank. "Brock dumped me."

"Brock dumped you?" said Jensen. His voice was quiet, his incredulity sincere. "I don't get it."

"Yeah, well, I guess he got back together with his old boyfriend," said Jared. "Or something. I didn't even know he had an old boyfriend, no one ever said anything. So I was a rebound, or whatever. It pretty much just sucks."

"So it was... just regular stupid teenage stuff?"

Jared frowned at him. "That doesn't mean I'm not allowed to be upset about it."

"No, of course not," said Jensen quickly. "It's just... he didn't, I don't know, decide he's not gay anymore or something?"

"What? No," said Jared. "He just didn't want me."

"Huh," said Jensen, sitting awkwardly for a few moments and then putting an arm around Jared's shoulders. "Are you sure ice cream isn't going to help?"

Jared let out a sound that was half laugh and half sob. "It might help a little," he admitted. "If there's a lot of it."

"There's more where that came from," Jensen promised him. "I know where Mom keeps her secret stash. We won't run out of ice cream until your stomach explodes."

"You kid, but I bet I could eat most of it," said Jared, finally picking at the bowl he was offered. As soon as his stomach stopped turning somersaults, anyway. "Can we order pizza for dinner tonight too? And wings?"

"Sure, whatever you want," said Jensen. "You want me to put on a movie where shit blows up, too?"

"Yes," said Jared, pointing at the television with his spoon. "Yes, that is exactly what I want. High body count, Jensen, I want a massive body count."

"And you know, if you wanted to talk--"

"Massive body count."

"All right then," said Jensen, "I'm pretty sure that can be arranged."

Jared shoved another spoonful of ice cream in his mouth. "And he could at least have waited until we had sex," he mumbled around it.

"Yeah, you say that now," said Jensen, without so much as a snicker at Jared's embarrassment, "but you'll be glad later."

"Did you?" Jared asked, regretting it the moment the words were out of his mouth. But Jensen didn't shut down and he didn't go away.

"No," he said finally. "I guess cause my boyfriend wasn't actually into guys." Jared was a little scared to ask anything else, so he just let that statement hang in the air for a few minutes. "I’m gonna grab that movie now."

"Yeah, okay," said Jared, and ate another mouthful of the ice cream. It still stung, all of it, everything that Brock had said and done even though none of it was mean. But hanging out with Jensen, who maybe understood in some ways, that actually did make it better. A little.

:::

Jared took the long way home from school for once, getting off the bus several blocks earlier than he had to and heading down the side streets, passing shops that he never really got a chance to see. Jared wasn't always expected to be home right after school, after all - he already spent time at drama club and debate club, and sometimes Katie's house - but he didn't usually take time after school for just him.

At this hour of the afternoon the streets weren't as busy as they were during the lunch hour, or later on in the evening when people began to get off work. Jared strolled leisurely down the sidewalk, peering in shop windows and smiling at the people he passed. When he passed a pet store, though, he couldn't help but stop and, when looking at the animals through the window proved not to be enough, slip inside the store for a few moments.

He couldn't afford to buy any of the animals in the store, of course; these were purebreds, raised for a population that could indulge in that kind of thing. But that didn't make them any less appealing to him.

"Hello kitties," he said. He knew perfectly well that the cutest baby animals were kept at the front of the store to draw people in, but he wasn't ashamed that it worked on him. "Hello puppies!"

"I see we have an animal lover."

Jared looked sheepishly back over his shoulder. "They looked like they could use some company?" he offered.

"They could use some company, or you could?" she said with a kind smile. "They're--"

"No, don't tell me," Jared interrupted her. "You're going to tell me what breed they are and how awesome they are and I'm going to want one more than anything and there's no way I can afford it."

She just smiled again and nodded. "They seem to like you," she said instead of giving him her sales pitch.

"We had two dogs back home," said Jared. "Bisou and Sadie. I miss them like you wouldn't believe."

"You didn't bring them with you?"

"I'm just here for school," said Jared. "They don't belong in a city anyway. They'd be miserable cooped up here with nowhere to run and play."

"It's a good thing they have a home somewhere else then," she said, "even if you can't be with them."

"I keep telling myself it's just a few more months," said Jared, reaching down to pet one of the puppies in spite of his resolve not to get attached. "It helps a little sometimes. Not much, but a little."

"Sounds like you're pretty miserable being cooped up in a city, too," she said, seeing through him more easily than most. But then, people who worked with animals often read other people better than most.

"I spent most of my life in cities," he admitted, "but I guess I always knew it wasn't for me. Do they have names?"

"Do you really want to know?" she said.

Jared hesitated, then shook his head. "No, I'd better not," he said. "You're not going to have any trouble finding homes for these, right?"

"Not the slightest bit," she promised him. "You know, pet stores aren't the only places with animals that need homes."

"I know," said Jared, "but the shelters require a lot of paperwork and promises that I can't give them. I'm only seventeen."

"No, you're right," she said, reaching into her pocket for a pen, then onto the counter for a scrap of paper, "but a friend of mine has a litter that she just weaned. They're not purebreds, and they're probably going to be a lot bigger than most apartment-dwellers want."

"Oh no," said Jared, but he was smiling even as he shook his head. "You're going to tell me where to get a puppy and I'm not going to be able to help myself and then what am I going to do?"

"Give a good home to a dog that really needs it," she said, handing him the paper with the number and the address. "I know good people when I see them, and I can tell you're good people. That's my friend Annie's number. Tell her Sandy sent you."

"I will," said Jared, and he already knew it was going to be his next stop on the way home. It wasn't even that far away. "I'm not sure whether I should thank you or curse you."

"You'll thank me when you see them," she said. "Just promise me they'll be loved."

"I don't think that's going to be a problem," said Jared, putting the paper safely in his pocket. "I'm, um, I'm Jared. Thank you, Sandy. I wouldn't have... maybe this'll help."

"Maybe it'll help you both."

:::

"What's that sound?"

"What sound?" said Jared, eating his sandwich and pretending there wasn't a faint whimpering and scuffling coming from his coat pocket. "What, can you hear my chewing? I'll try to keep my mouth closed."

"No, not that," said Jensen. "Well, okay, that too - gross, by the way - but there's something else."

He stalked around the table to lurk at Jared's side, giving him a suspicious look.

"All right, all right, just let me finish eating first," said Jared, downing his sandwich in two bites and licking his fingers while Jensen waited. "Promise you won't be mad?"

"I never promise I won't be mad."

"Okay," said Jared, biting his lip and looking down at his pocket. The puppy decided right then to take the decision out of Jared's hands, poking his little nose out through the flap.

"My mother's going to kill you," said Jensen. "Jared, she's going to kill you."

"Do you think we could just not tell her?" said Jared. "I mean, she's not even going to be home for another couple of weeks. Maybe she won't notice."

"You think my mother's not going to notice a dog?" said Jensen, moving hesitant fingers closer to the animal. "That's wishful thinking."

"It's not a big dog," protested Jared. "Like, just a puppy. We could hide him."

Jensen started laughing, finally letting the tiny nose poke at his fingers. "Oh my God, Jared, I can't believe you came home with a dog."

"Puppies need homes too," said Jared, softly and trying not to sound quite as pathetic about that as he sometimes felt. "Jeff has two dogs--"

"Bisou and Sadie, I know," said Jensen, finally reaching right into Jared's pocket to pluck the puppy out of it. "And who's this?"

"His name's Harley," said Jared, looking up and grinning at the way Jensen cuddled the puppy to his chest unselfconsciously.

"Harley like the bike?"

"I don't know," admitted Jared. "Probably? He was already named when I got him. His brothers and sisters were all already gone; he was the last one left."

"Jared Padalecki, rescuer of flowers and puppies," said Jensen. "What are we going to do with a puppy?"

"Play with him?" suggested Jared. "And feed him and take him for walks--"

"That's your department, just so you know."

"--and... do dog things. You like dogs, right? You always said you liked dogs."

"I've never even had a dog before," said Jensen, but he was excited, Jared could see it, for once acting more like an eleven-year-old than a twenty-one-year-old. "How old is he?"

"Almost ten weeks," said Jared, "but he was the smallest to start out with. Annie says he'll get pretty big, but not for a while. I told her you had a yard, a big yard, so he wasn't going to be cooped up inside all the time."

"I can't believe you just brought home a dog," said Jensen. "The way you'd bring home, like, a book. That's crazy. That's something crazy people do."

"Books are harder to cuddle," said Jared, but he had a feeling he wasn't going to be the one who got to cuddle the dog. He thought he was getting the puppy for himself, to not feel quite so homesick or lonely, but maybe there was someone else in the house who needed him even more.

:::

They only left the door open a crack, kneeling on the floor and rolling a ball around so Harley could chase after it, but he still spotted the tiny pathway to freedom and wriggled his way out before anyone could stop him.

"Shit," said Jensen, slobbery orange ball in his hand. "Could you...?"

"Sure," said Jared, pushing himself up off the floor and slipping out into the backyard after Harley. "Hey, boy. Hey, Harley, did you find something interesting out here?"

The rapidly-growing pup had already sniffed his way around the bench and the nearest tree and was heading straight for Jim's garden shed.

"Okay, well, I guess we can give you a little more time to claim some territory," said Jared, standing back while he yipped and circled. Eventually Harley would probably just do his business and head back to him anyway, and waiting it out on the garden path sure beat chasing the guy around all over the place.

It was sort of easy to lose track of time when his eyes were busy following Harley all over the big yard, though, and it didn't seem long at all before he heard a quiet voice calling, "Jared?" from behind him.

He turned around expecting to see Jensen standing just inside the doorway, but he wasn't in the doorway. Jensen was standing just a couple of feet behind him.

"Uh, hi," said Jared, standing right where he was and unable to resist staring. Jensen looked as amazing in sunlight as Jared had always known he would.

"Hi," said Jensen, and tilted his head back and stared up at the sky.

Jared didn't think it was coincidence that Harley chose that moment to come flying back across the yard towards them, running a few circles around Jensen's ankles before hovering near the back door. Jensen chewed on his lip for a few moments, then gave Jared an unreadable look before turning back towards the house.

"You coming back inside?" he said, following Harley.

"Yeah, I guess," said Jared, even though that was the last thing he wanted to say. He wanted to ask Jensen to stay, to play with Harley, to play catch and look at the first sprouts of the garden and go with him everywhere. "You left the ball inside."

Jensen nodded, and reached out to tug Jared's sleeve to come with him. "You're worse than the puppy," he said as Jared reluctantly let himself be drawn back inside.

It was something, though. It was something he'd started to think he wouldn't be here long enough to see.

:::

It had stopped being awkward a while ago, but Jared still stared at anything but his friends when Brock mentioned Travis, and he didn't pretend his friends didn't notice. It wasn't a big thing, though, not really. People dated sometimes. It was just what they did.

It was normal.

"Hey, did you finish the backdrops?" said Brock, giving him a little nudge. "I can't wait to see them."

"They haven't finished painting them yet," said Jared, passing the nudge along to Aldis. "But that's totally not my department."

"I still don't know how you guys roped me into this," he said, stabbing his spoon into his pudding. "I am very sure that at the beginning of this year I told you I was not getting involved."

"That's what you always say," said Katie, "but we know you better than that."

"All I'm saying is at least one of you better be showing up at my tournament next weekend," he said.

"You know we're all going to be there," said Jared. "Even though we already know you're going to win."

"Yeah, if Jared can be convinced to leave his beloved Jensen for that long, I'm sure we all can make it," said Genny, innocently stealing both Aldis's spoon and a mouthful of his dessert.

"Hey," said Jared, "Hey, you know it's not like that."

"Not like what?" said Genny. "Come on, tell us what it's not like, Jared."

"He's like... my brother or something," he said, though the word made him feel squirmy, knowing brother definitely wasn't the way he thought of him, no matter how closely they lived together. "And he's not going to care if I'm gone for most of the weekend. I go out with you guys all the time."

"Yeah, sure, to the movies and stuff," said Katie. "But nothing like this. Are you even allowed?

"Of course I’m allowed!" said Jared. "You guys know it's not like that. I just have responsibilities. They're doing this amazing thing for me, so I have to do something amazing for them, too, to make an even deal."

Except that wasn't right, not really. It was accurate, in a way, but it wasn't what he and Jensen had. Maybe his friendship with Jensen was something that had been preordained from the moment his aunt had made the deal, but that didn't mean it wasn't something real. That didn't mean it wasn't something Jared valued.

"As long as it means you're coming to my tournament, I don't really care," said Aldis. "I'm painting that damn backdrop so y'all can watch me kick some ass in return."

"Drama club looks good on your college applications anyway," said Brock. "Kung fu just makes you look weird."

"Kung Fu'll make you look weird," muttered Aldis. "I got my last application in yesterday. I don't think I'll get into Queen's but I figured I'd give it a shot anyway."

"Like you'd ever move to Ontario," scoffed Brock. "You'd wither up and die."

"You never know. University's a whole new ball game," said Aldis. "Hey Jared, I was thinking, if you applied to UBC would they waive tuition for you? You know, because of Professor Ackles?"

"I'm pretty sure that's just for actual children," said Jared. "Besides, I didn't apply. I didn't apply anywhere."

"You seriously didn't?" said Katie. "Really? I thought you were kidding about that."

Jared shook his head, unable to resist smiling at her expression. "Taking a year off isn't that weird," he said. "Okay, at this school it's a little weird, but normal people do it all the time."

"You should've applied and then just deferred entrance," said Genny. "Then you wouldn’t have to worry about it."

"Applied where?" said Jared. "I don't even know what I want to do. Besides, as far as I can tell I'm the only one not worrying about it right now."

"Slacker," said Brock, but Jared knew fondness in Brock's voice when he heard it, even though it was different now than it had once been. "You know a year off doesn't mean you get to sit around by the pool all day, right?"

"Because you know that's what I do when I'm at the house now, right?" said Jared, rolling his eyes at all of them. Though if the pool had been indoors, he couldn't say he wouldn't have. "Are you all finished sending your applications in? Already?"

"Not me," said Genny. "I've got a few more decisions to make."

"Yeah, like which prestigious university will want you more," said Aldis. "I though you already had scholarship offers?"

"Yeah, but I'm not sure I want to go to school in the states," she said, "even if they want to offer me a full athletic scholarship. Playing hockey's not everything, you know?"

"Shh, don't say that too loud," said Brock. "Even around here I think you'd find more than a few people who'd disagree."

It was sort of an alien conversation to Jared, making decisions he really wasn't thinking about yet, but then the decisions he'd had to make for himself were probably just as alien to them. A year off didn't feel like a luxury, it felt like a necessity, even though he didn't have any idea what he wanted to do.

The only thing he knew for sure was that he wanted to go home.

:::

Jared didn't know when the nightmares started. It had probably been a while, because he'd never felt as rested in the city as he'd felt up on the mountain, but he only started remembering them after his split with Brock. Insidious, dark nightmares where he was trapped here forever, in a room with no windows, dead eyes and pale skin behind a too-large desk.

He thought it was just his personal burden until one morning at breakfast he saw Jensen looking as tired as he felt. Which wasn't entirely unusual, with Jensen, but then he mumbled something about Jared keeping him up and Jared flushed and excused himself from the table.

He tried harder after that, but you couldn't just will nightmares away, no matter how much you wanted to. And talking about what he was dreaming about just seemed to make them come on stronger.

When Mr. Ackles asked Jared into his office for a talk, Jared already knew exactly what it was about.

"Maybe there's some kind of... soundproofing we could put up," he said pre-emptively, before Mr. Ackles even had a chance to say a word. "I don't mean to keep people up."

"Of course you don't," he said kindly. "It's not your fault, Jared. But that doesn't change the fact that we obviously have a problem here."

"I'm sorry," said Jared. "I don't know what to do."

"Do you want to go home?"

"I...." The question was so startling that Jared couldn't even think of an answer to it at first.

"Jensen's told me a little bit about what you're dreaming about," he went on, holding up a hand to forestall any kind of betrayed reaction. "Not a lot, just enough for me to know what's going on. It's normal for someone your age to feel a lot of stress about the future, and someone in your situation even more so."

"I do miss it," said Jared. "I didn't know how much I would miss it until I was here."

"If it means that much to you, we'll make the arrangements," said Mr. Ackles. "You're not trapped here, Jared. You're not a prisoner, to us or to anyone else."

"Aunt Sam wouldn't be happy if I left," said Jared, shaking his head.

"You let me deal with your Aunt Sam," he said.

Jared looked back over his shoulder towards the stairs. "Jensen wouldn't be happy if I left either."

"No," agreed Mr. Ackles. "No, he wouldn't."

"And it would put me behind with my school."

"Your teachers all say you're an excellent student, with some minor concentration issues," he said. "They're disappointed you didn't apply to any universities. I have to say I'm a little surprised too."

"It doesn't mean I’m not going," said Jared quickly. "I just want a little time first, to do what I want."

"I suppose I can't blame you for that," he admitted. "I believe your aunt might have misrepresented your situation somewhat when she made the arrangements with us."

"Yeah, she does that," said Jared wryly. "I think her heart was in the right place, though."

"But you obviously wouldn't have jumped at this opportunity if it hadn't been force fed to you," said Mr. Ackles. Jared didn't think he could really understand, but at least he was trying, and that meant a lot. "You've fit in well, Jared, but if you want to go home... we'll make it happen for you. No one ever wanted you to be miserable."

Jared thought about it, about packing his things and saying goodbye to his friends and being back in Jeff's cabin by dinnertime. And it felt good, he felt warm and safe inside at the thought of being back in a place he loved, with people who loved him. But at the same time, he wasn't a kid. He wasn't the one who'd made the arrangement here, but since being here he'd made some implicit promises of his own. To Jensen, to be there for him, to his friends to see them through their ups and downs this year, and to himself to finish out his final year of high school the best he could.

"It's only a couple months to the end of the school year," he said finally. "It'll be okay. I'll be okay. I'll stay till I'm finished."

Mr. Ackles smiled at him and gave him a paternal pat on the shoulder. "I meant everything I said," he said, "but I'm still glad you've decided to stay. We'll just have to work on those nightmares. I'm guessing nothing anyone could say, though, could convince you to stay longer."

Jared would stay to the end of the year, but he couldn't bear it any longer than that. From now until then, he would be counting the days until he could go home again.

:::

"Jared?" said Chad. "Jared who? I don't think I know anyone named Jared."

"Shut up," said Jared, trying not to laugh.

"I used to know a Jared, but I haven't heard from him in ages. I think he might have run off to join a cult. Or maybe he fell off the coast and drowned, it's hard to say."

"It hasn't been that long," said Jared. "I emailed you last week."

"That could've been anyone," said Chad ominously. "Your new family could've buried your body in the basement and hacked into your email account to cover it up."

"If I promise I'm not buried in the basement, will you acknowledge that I'm probably alive and talking to you right now?"

"Maybe if you pinky swear," said Chad. "Or say scout's honour or something. Were you ever even a scout?"

"Never," said Jared, "but I promise you can trust my word anyway. I know I haven't talked to you in ages, I just...."

"This is going to be one of those weepy conversations, isn't it," said Chad, muffling the phone with one hand as he called out, "someone wanna bring me some kleenex? I think I might have some feelings coming on."

"God you're a jerk," laughed Jared. "I miss you."

"You wouldn't have to miss me if you'd stayed," said Chad, but though he said it every time he called, they'd long ago come to terms with the separation. "So what's wrong? What made you need to hear the lovely, cheerful tones of my voice today?"

"I don't know," said Jared. "I think it's getting harder, being here. A year is longer than I thought."

"Probably because you've never stayed a whole year in one place before," said Chad. "Are you sure I can't push your aunt off the mountain?"

"For you to do that she'd have to come back up the mountain again," said Jared, "and I'm willing to bet she's not going to be doing that. Ever."

"Not even to bring you home?" said Chad. "That's cold, Jared."

"I'm not going to ask her to," said Jared. "I'll make my own way home. So hey, how's Jeff? You've seen him, right?"

"Course I have," said Chad. "Jeff's... Jeff. He's quiet. You know, you could call him yourself and ask."

"You think Jeff's quiet in person? You should hear him on the phone," said Jared. "It's always just awkward, talking to him. He wants me back, though, right?"

"Of course he wants you back," said Chad. "Every time I see him I think he's halfway to his truck to come racing down there to kidnap you. Don't be stupid, Jared, you're the best thing to ever happen to Jeff Morgan and everybody knows it."

"And then I left," said Jared with a sigh, still feeling the burden of responsibility for that even though it had never been his choice, and would never have been his choice. "But I'll be back soon. As soon as school lets out."

"Your aunt's not going to stop you, is she?" said Chad. "You won't be quite eighteen."

"I'll be three weeks from me eighteenth birthday and a high school graduate," said Jared. "She's not going to bother, Chad. I know her. From the moment she placed me with the Ackles family for the year, I think she felt like her job was finally done."

"So she's not going to come to your graduation, huh?"

"I'm not even sure I'm going to my graduation," said Jared. "She'll probably send a present, though. That's the kind of thing she would do. It looks good."

"You're absolutely, positively sure I can't push her off a mountain? I'm not even picky about which mountain. If she's over in Europe, I'm sure there's a nearby Alp that'll do."

"She's all right," said Jared. "She just has her own stuff going on. Maybe we'll even get along better, once we're both adults."

"You're not holding your breath about that, right?" said Chad. "Because as your best friend I'd have to break it to you that that's just not going to happen, and then I'd feel like a dick and who wants that, right?"

"No, I'm not holding my breath," admitted Jared. "But it could happen. Once she doesn't feel responsibility for me... maybe she'll see who I really am."

"Wouldn't hold your breath about that either," said Chad. "Besides, who needs her when you've got Jeff? If you guys don't talk then you should email him again or something. It makes him happy."

"Yeah?" said Jared.

"Duh," said Chad. "Of course it does. I've never seen him take to anybody like he took to you, Jared, and now you're just fishing for compliments so I'm going to stop." The receiver was muffled again, and Jared heard a bellowed, "Just a minute!" before Chad came back on the line clearly again. "I've got to go. You're not going to wait years before calling again, are you?"

"Shut up," said Jared. "It wasn't years. I'll call next weekend, all right?"

"All right," said Chad. "You'd better. Everyone wants to know how you are. You know that, right? Jeff's not the only guy who misses you."

"Yeah," said Jared, his voice unexpectedly catching for a moment. "Yeah, I know that now. Talk to you later, Chad."

"Yeah, you will," said Chad, and apparently that was the only goodbye that Jared was going to get out of him, because the call went dead a moment later.

It was just what he needed, though. A few minutes with his best friend to remind him what he had waiting, when this year was finally over.

The only problem was, making his way to Jensen's room after made him remember what he'd be leaving behind.

:::

Jensen was in the back yard playing with Harley when his mother came home from her business trip.

"Oh my God," she said, dropping her briefcase on the dining room table and heading straight through the room to the French doors.

"We got a dog," said Jared, hanging back with his hands in his pockets. "I hope that's okay."

"That's... of course that's okay," she said, staring out the door for a few more moments and then backing away before Jensen saw her. She took Jared's cheeks between her hands and tilted his head down and pressed a kiss to his hair. "Of course that's okay."

Jared bit his lip so he wouldn't smile too wide. "Jensen'll be in for dinner soon."

"Oh no, no need to call him in," she said quickly. "I'll make something myself, something small. Sandwiches, maybe. Something we can bring outside."

"No, he'll be in soon," said Jared softly, maybe a little apologetically. "Whether we call or not."

"Oh," she said, standing still for a moment then letting out a soft sigh. "Well, it's a start."

"Yeah," said Jared. "Yeah, it is. I don't think he'd mind if you went out there, though."

"I don't think--"

"You wouldn't scare him back inside. It's not like that."

She was silent for another moment, looking Jared over and obviously biting back the question, 'How do you know it's not like that?' But for all that Jensen was their son, and for all that they'd been there when it had all gone down, Jared felt like he was the one who got it, he was the one who got what Jensen's deal was. And it wasn't being afraid of being out of his house.

It was never about him. It was about everyone else.

:::

"Swank," said Brock. "Really swank. So how come you never brought me out here when we were dating?"

"You know why," said Jared, rolling his eyes at him. "It would've been weird. Besides, I'm not even really bringing you now, you just insisted on walking me home."

"Yeah, well we've known you all year and we've never even seen your house," said Genny. "We had to see it at least once before we all finish school and never see one another again."

"Hey, that's not fair," said Jared. "The end of school isn't the end of the world!"

"No, but it's going to change everything," she said. And she was right about that, or at least Jared hoped she was, but everything changing wasn't necessarily a bad thing. Maybe Jared just feared change less than other people. "You guys have to promise to keep in touch or we will never see one another again."

"Like anyone could keep Katie from whipping up a newsletter to keep everyone informed," said Brock. "So this is your place, huh? Do they always get the valet to wait for you upon your return from school, young master?"

"Shut the-- wait, what?" said Jared, because when he looked there was someone sitting out on the front steps. "Huh, that's weird." No, there wasn't just someone on the front steps, there was Jensen sitting out on the front steps. "Oh my God."

"Is that--?"

"Yes!" said Jared, not even letting Genny finish her sentence. "Holy shit, yes. Listen guys, I'll see you tomorrow, all right? Library before class?"

"You know it," said Brock, but Jared didn't even look back, he was already sprinting up to the gate and straight through to the front steps without even pausing.

"Hey," said Jensen, looking for all the world like this was something he did every day. "I figured you'd be getting home soon."

To anyone else he'd look completely normal, that is. But Jared could see the way he trembled, just slightly, the way his eyes never quite stopped moving, the way his breaths were just a hair too quick. He wasn't panicking, not quite, but he could be at any moment.

"You have good timing," he said, taking his cue from Jensen and pretending this was something he saw every day. "Brock and Katie walked me home."

Jensen looked out past him to wave at the pair who had probably reached the gate by now, though Jared still didn't look back, his eyes fixed on Jensen. He was sure going to get some questions at school tomorrow, though.

"I'm not in any hurry, though, if you wanted to... do something?"

Jensen grinned at him, and though Jared could see the 'no' in it, it was a smile all the same. "How about we just get you something to eat?" he said. "You're conscious, therefore you're probably hungry."

It was, Jared had to admit, true.

"All right," he said, but he didn't rush inside. He let Jensen do it in his own time, and was rewarded for that by the way Jensen hesitated a little on the step, looked out at the street beyond them and didn't slip into a panic, not at all.

:::

"You need to sleep," said Jensen. "Seriously, Jared, the last time I saw someone with dark circles like that under their eyes, they were dying."

"You've actually seen someone dying?"

"On TV," clarified Jensen, "and okay, it was make-up, but that just makes it worse. Not only do you look like you're dying, you look like you're TV dying."

"Flattery will get you everywhere," said Jared, yawning and rubbing his forehead with the heel of his hand. "I still have three more finals to write. I can't really relax until they're done."

"You'll do better if you write them well-rested," said Jensen. "I know it's hard for you to believe, but it really wasn't that long ago I was in high school too, you know."

"Liar," said Jared. "You sprung from your mother's womb a fully formed graphic designer. I refuse to believe anything else."

"Actually, let's never speak of my mother's womb again," said Jensen. "But listen to me, really. You know your stuff, Jared. You've known your stuff all year. Cramming is for people who never paid attention, not people who've actually been doing the work. Get some sleep."

"When I'm finished," insisted Jared. "When I'm finished exams, everything will be okay."

"Will it?" said Jensen, his voice growing quieter. "What are you going to do, when you finish exams?"

"Well, I'm...." Jared started, but one look at Jensen's expression silenced him. It didn't change his answer, but that question in his eyes, that silent plea, made him change how he said it. "Jensen... you've always known this was just for the year."

"But it doesn't have to be," he said. "You could stay."

"I can't," said Jared, his voice breaking in spite of his resolve to have a calm, collected conversation about this. He was just too tired, to drained. "You know I can't. I'm barely holding on as it is, Jensen. I need to go home."

"I can't believe you've got all of this," said Jensen, "and still all you can think about is going back to a cabin in the woods."

"It's not all I think about," said Jared. It was close, but it wasn't everything. "I know what I'll be giving up, Jensen. I know. I'm not stupid. But I have to go home. The city is killing me. I can't stay."

"Not even for me?"

Jared squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. "I can't... can we talk about this later, please?" he said. "I'm not doing this to hurt you, I swear."

When he opened his eyes again, Jensen's were blank. Not cold, but obviously suppressing everything he was feeling. "You need some sleep," he said. "Get some sleep and I'll drop it, for now. But if you insist on studying, we're going to have this conversation now."

"That's blackmail," said Jared, but he yawned again and honestly, the one thing he wanted right now even more than home was to go to bed.

"Yeah, but it works," said Jensen, "so I won't apologise."

"I would stay if I could," said Jared softly, but Jensen shook his head, looked away, and Jared dropped it. Neither of them could have this conversation right now, but until they did, it was going to be lurking at the back of his mind.

:::

"You can't go," said Jensen, standing in his doorway and blocking it like that would somehow prevent him from actually leaving. "Jared, why are you going? Don't you have everything you need here?"

"No, I don't," said Jared. "Are you kidding me?

"I need you here, all right? Jared, I need you here."

"Then come with me," said Jared. He'd spent so much time thinking about it, thinking about how to reconcile his need to go home with his desire to stay with Jensen, and that was the one thing he'd come up with. "Jensen, you'd love it up in the mountains, I know you would. You don't have to stay here."

"You know I do."

"I know you don't," said Jared. "I want you to come with me. Doesn't that make a difference?"

"And I want you to stay," said Jensen. "Doesn't that make a difference to you?"

"Of course it does," said Jared, "but I can't stay. I can't stay here, Jensen. You know I'm getting worse. I only stayed to the end of the school year for you."

"You stayed to the end of the school year because my parents already paid for it," said Jensen bitterly.

"No," said Jared. "No. They said I could go, if I needed to. Jensen, they said I could go."

"Yeah, but who would leave before--"

"They said I could go," said Jared. "And I stayed for you. But I've got to go now, I've got to go home."

"I thought you didn't really have a home."

"I didn't, before last summer," said Jared, "but I do now, and it's with my Uncle Jeff. Jensen, come with me. I know you can. You know you can. If you weren't so damn stubborn--"

"This is not stubbornness."

"If you weren't so afraid."

"I have every reason to be afraid!" said Jensen, practically hurling himself away from the door. "Fine, pack then. Whatever. Do whatever you want."

"Jensen, please don't--"

"What am I supposed to do without you here? Go back to how things were before?" said Jensen. "Do you know what that was like? I don't want that."

"Then don't," said Jared. "Then don't go back to that! You've been doing great, Jensen, don't lose that."

"Well, you're leaving, so I guess you don't care," said Jensen, and before Jared could argue that he was off down the hall and then down the stairs.

Jared could have chased him down - after all, there were only so many places, even in a house that size, he could go - but then what. Fight with him some more? There were still things he wanted, needed, to say, but they would have to wait till Jensen was ready to hear them.

:::

As always, Jared didn't have a lot of things to bring with him. The computer was his, they insisted, so that had a bag all its own now. But besides that he had a few new clothes, a few mementos of his friends, and that was it. That was all Jared had to show for his life in the city.

"You can't go in the middle of a fight," said Jensen from behind him.

"Then we'd better stop fighting," said Jared, "because I've already called a cab."

"I don't want to fight," said Jensen, "I just don't want you to go."

"I wish there was a way we could have everything," said Jared, turning around to face him and hoping it wasn't obvious that he was about two kind words away from tears. "But I don't know how to do that. If I stay here, I'm just going to get worse. You know I am."

"I know," said Jensen, "but can you just... you're not going away forever, right? You'll visit?"

"God, of course I will," said Jared. "I'm only a few hours away, you know. You can practically..." He turned to look out the open door and pointed. "There. That's where I live, Jensen." You couldn't see it, of course, and Jared couldn't even be sure he was pointing at exactly the right place, but it was close enough. For this, it didn't matter. "Just come out here and look and there I am."

"It's not the same."

"Of course it's not," said Jared. "It wasn't the same for me either. That's why I have to go. But it's something."

"Yeah," said Jensen, sighing softly. "It's something."

"And when I come visit, I want us to go out and do something," said Jared. "Even if it's just coffee at the end of the street. Do you think you could... I mean, it's been getting better, right?"

"It's been getting better with you here," said Jensen, but he did look out the door again, and he slowly nodded his head. "I'll try. I can't promise anything more than that. I won't lie to you just to make a promise."

"I wouldn't ever want you to," said Jared. Outside, in front of the house, a cab pulled up. "I've got to go."

"I know," said Jensen. "I always knew. Just...." They both hesitated, then Jensen crossed the few steps between them and wrapped his arms around Jared. "Don't forget me."

"Like I ever could," said Jared. He looked at Jensen for a few more moments, memorising every freckle, then he grabbed his bags and turned and headed out to the cab.

He didn't say good-bye, and neither did Jensen. It was the one thing they couldn't say to one another.

Chapter Text

The last email Jared sent Jeff, he told him that his exams were finishing on a Thursday and that the graduation ceremony was the following Friday. What he didn't tell him was that he was on a bus first thing Saturday morning, or that Chad would be picking him up and driving him the rest of the way to drop him off on Jeff's doorstep.

When he showed up at the door in time for dinner, Jeff looked like he was seeing a ghost.

"Hi," said Jared brightly. "I'm home."

He opened the door wider so that Jared could come inside, but didn't say a word until Jared had put his bags down next to the door and was standing just inside, waiting for him.

"So it seems," he said finally, his voice low and soft. "Jared, I...."

"You didn't think I would really come back, did you?" Jared suddenly realised. "I told you I was coming back, Uncle Jeff. I meant it."

"You're seventeen, Jared," he said, like that made some kind of difference. "You were away at school... you could have done anything you wanted."

"And I did," said Jared. "I did do what I wanted. I'm here, if you still want me."

At that Jeff did what he'd never done before and put his arms around Jared, holding him tight. "I missed you," he said, then thumped him on the back and let go. "If I'd known you were coming I would've planned something for dinner. There's just leftovers."

"Do you really think that matters?" said Jared, leaving his bags where they fell and heading straight for the kitchen. "I'm starving."

"Boy, you grew another couple of inches, didn't you?" said Jeff. "You're taller than I am now."

"You always thought I would be," said Jared. "I think I might have one or two more in me yet."

"Your father was tall," said Jeff, sizing him up while he was still standing. "It's good to have you back, Jared. For however long I've got you."

"We can talk about that later, right?" said Jared. "I just want to be home right now. It's been all I could think about for weeks. Months." Or at least, one of the only two things he's been thinking about.

"Then why'd your smile just drop a little," said Jeff, setting another place at the table. He'd always been kind, it was true, but also never one to pull his punches.

"Oh, I'm not sad to be here, it's not that at all," said Jared instantly. "I just wish I'd been able to convince Jensen to come with me. I'm sure he would've loved it as much as I do."

"Well, I'm sure you did what you could," said Jeff, "but from what you told me about him, there wasn't much chance of that."

"I know," said Jared, pulling Jeff into another impulsive hug while he could. Now that Jeff had opened the door to that kind of affection, Jared wasn't going to let it go. "But it would've been the one thing that would've made this homecoming nicer. You would've liked him too, Uncle Jeff."

"I'm sure I'll have the chance to meet him one day," said Jeff. "Even if it means hauling my ass into the city for the first time in years. Now go on, help yourself to some stew, Jared, you look like you're going to eat a table leg if you don't get something into you soon."

"Maybe not the leg," said Jared, filling his bowl right to the top before sitting down with it. "Maybe just nibble at a corner, to tide me over. Jensen always teased me about that too, said he never ate that much when he was my age."

"Well, Jensen was probably never well on his way to six and a half feet," said Jeff, watching him eat, barely touching his own. He'd probably already had a helping before Jared even got there, and was just eating with him to be polite. "You didn't even tell me you were coming, Jared."

"Well, that's how a surprise works," he said sheepishly. "I guess it was more of one than I figured, huh? I thought it would be the time I was coming that would be a surprise, not the fact that I was coming at all."

"I suppose Chad must've known, unless your family bought you a car and you didn't tell me about it."

"They're not my family," said Jared. "You are. So no, no car, just a best friend who I guess knows how to keep his mouth shut when he needs to."

The stew was maybe the best thing Jared tasted, and from where he sat at the table shovelling it down he could see straight out the window into the back yard, could see Bisou and Sadie playing out there just like he remembered. The whole place hadn't changed a bit since the day Jared'd had to leave.

"So I think I can take the night off, under the circumstances," said Jeff once Jared had stopped eating long enough to get seconds. "I want you to tell me everything I missed."

:::

Jared slept like a baby in his old room, back under his own window with his own view of the world, with all the sounds and sights and smells of home. For the first time in weeks, he didn't remember his dreams at all.

Jeff made a point not to wake him but the smell of breakfast did it for him anyway, and just that easily Jared was back in the rhythm of his old life. He spent the morning in the garden, the afternoon playing with the dogs out in the meadow, and in the evening after dinner he sent an email to Jensen and picked a book off one of Jeff's many shelves to curl up with by the window.

Jeff joined him there a little while later, sitting down next to him and holding out a small, wooden and obviously handmade box.

"What's this?" he said, taking it hesitantly and studying the plain, smooth surface of it.

"There are a few things you should have," said Jeff. "And a few things you should know. Go ahead and open it."

There wasn't much inside, but what was there was enough: cards, notes, and above all else, photographs.

"These were my mother's."

"I know you never got a chance to know her," said Jeff, "her or your father, and I know just a few things won't give you back what you lost, but it's all I have to give you."

"You don't have to give me your--"

"No, they're yours, Jared," insisted Jeff. "They always should have been yours. I can't make up for lost time, but I can at least give you what was rightfully yours all along. There's something I have to tell you."

Jared nodded, his eyes still on the contents of the treasure box, neatly stacked and hidden away for who knew how long. He opened a faded Christmas card and only glanced at the note inside before closing it and looking up at Jeff again.

"What happened?"

Jeff hesitated, and Jared could see the things that hadn't been said all last summer were finally coming to the surface.

"We had a fight," he said finally. "Boy did we have a fight. All the Morgan siblings have always been stubborn as mules, it's nothing we grew into with age. It was over something stupid, too, some trip she wanted to take with you and your dad. It was all so stupid but boy were we fired up about it, all of us. They left angry...."

And there he stopped, the rest of the story beyond his ability to tell for the moment.

"It wasn't your fault," said Jared.

"It's easy to say that now," said Jeff, "but you can't remember it, Jared. You don't know what she was like when she got behind that wheel to go back down the mountain. I didn't live all way up here back then, but we were high enough."

"But that doesn't matter," said Jared, running his fingertips over the front of the card.

He'd missed his parents all his life, in a distant sort of a way, but it was more that he missed the idea of them. He missed having the life he would've had if his parents had survived the accident. But Jeff, he missed them. It was his sister, his brother-in-law. It was someone who'd helped raise him, someone he'd known his whole life.

"I know all about the accident, you know," Jared went on. "I looked it all up, when I was old enough to understand. I know that they got me safely to the babysitter's in town. I know that they weren't racing away from you but on their way to dinner when it happened. I know that they didn't slip on loose gravel because my mom was mad at you. It didn't happen like that."

Jeff looked down at his hands, shaking his head slowly. "It took me a long time to stop blaming myself for the accident itself," he said. "But until I did that, I made a lot of bad decisions. I thought it was the right thing at the time. I thought letting you have a life far away from me was the right thing to do."

"It's okay," said Jared. "It was what you needed to do. I can't imagine how hard it all was for you--"

"For me?" said Jeff. "How hard it was for me?"

"Well, sure," said Jared. "You lost your big sister. I can't even imagine what that felt like."

"Because you've never been close enough to anyone to fear losing them," said Jeff fiercely. "I want that to change, Jared, if you still want to be here."

"If I still want to be here?" said Jared. "Are you kidding me? I never want to have to leave again."

"I'd made peace with it with everyone but you," said Jeff, "and I didn't realize until you were here that you were the only one who mattered all along."

"I don't think there's anything I need to forgive," said Jared, "but since you do, I forgive you, Uncle Jeff. What I have here, what I have now, it's the right thing for me. Maybe everything happened the way it was supposed to after all."

:::

Jared didn't have quite the ego to believe that he was the sole reason Jeff's vegetable garden was suddenly growing madly in the first week he was home, but it was hard to deny that he was out there every morning getting his hands dirty, and it was equally hard to deny that the garden was flourishing under his attention again.

"I had some practice in the city," he said when Jeff looked on, a little surprised and a little amused, but Jeff just shrugged and smiled at him and disappeared into his workshop again, letting Jared carry on.

So it was inevitable that he was dirt from palm to knee when Chad came calling, cutting in from the lake instead of driving around, like he often did.

"Jesus, Jared, Jeff's like a slave driver, isn't he?"

"Hardly," laughed Jared, wiping his dirty hands on Chad's t-shirt. "I've just missed it."

And if it was good to have something to do to keep his mind off what he'd had to leave behind to get all of this back, he didn't have to confess that.

"What, they don't grow things down in the concrete jungle?"

"Ass," said Jared, wiping his hands one more time, right on the clean hem. "I just like this garden. This is my garden. Jim's garden was nice and all, but it wasn't mine."

"And also, winter," said Chad, "which is kind of not the same. You're weird, though, you know that, right? I do everything I can to get out of having to weed the garden."

"Yeah, I noticed," said Jared, "and that's just while you're here, so I can't imagine how much you try it when you're at home. Are we going out to the lake?"

"We'd better, since you clearly need to jump in," said Chad, wrinkling his nose as he eyed him. "Are you done?"

"Yeah," said Jared, glancing back at the garden. "Yeah, I'm done enough for now. There's nothing left to do that can't wait for tomorrow. So are you running away from your chores, or did you really come down here to see me?"

"Now who's the ass?" said Chad, smack the ass in question as Jared walked ahead of him towards the path. "Of course I came to see you. I missed you. Jerk."

"Yeah, you too," said Jared, actually sighing softly at the thought.

"Oh, don't go getting all girly about it, just because I missed you," said Chad. "I didn't write you odes or bring you flowers or anything."

"Yeah, I think maybe that's why I missed you," said Jared. "My friends in the city were more the flowers and odes type." Maybe because at least half of them were girls, and not necessarily the half that were female. "It was all right, but I still wish I'd gone to school with you here."

"Well, it wasn't all bad without you," admitted Chad grudgingly.

"Yeah, because you were worried I'd be competition for the new girl," said Jared. "Did you ever ask her out? It's not like she had a lot of options either."

"You sure know how to make a guy feel special," said Chad.

"Well, did you?"

"I will!" said Chad. "I'm just waiting for my moment. I didn't want to just be her high school boyfriend. No one ever stays with their high school boyfriend."

"Well, you've both graduated now, so if you ask me, I'd say your moment has arrived."

"Yeah, maybe," said Chad. "Maybe. Soon. I swear I'll ask her soon."

"Chicken," said Jared, though he was more aware than ever before just how scary asking someone out really could be. "Unless you've been a complete tool, you know she's probably going to say yes."

"Yeah, due to lack of other options," said Chad. "She's probably going away to school in the fall anyway. I know she has options."

"Aren't you going away too, though?"

"Sure, to community college," said Chad. "She'll be going away away. She even got offered scholarships. Of course, you probably did, too. Jerk. You didn't tell me you were, like, a supergenius."

"I'm not a supergenius," said Jared, "and I didn't apply to university."

"God, I thought you were kidding about that," said Chad. "You really didn't apply?"

"I need a year off," said Jared with a little shrug. "I just need a year to be Jared, you know? To figure out who he even is."

"Jesus, you go to the city for one year and you come back talking about yourself in the third person. I knew it was a dangerous place."

"Dork," said Jared, stripping off his shirt as soon as their swimming rock was even in sight, readying himself to head straight into the water. At least the city hadn't returned the modesty that he'd worked to rid himself of last summer; when they arrived at the rock he stripped off his shorts too, leaping into the clear water without so much as a look back.

"Guess you missed that, too!" Chad called after him, before cannonballing into the water right behind him.

"Guess I missed a lot of things," said Jared. "Especially you and Jeff."

"Aw, come on, I thought we were past all that mushy stuff," said Chad, splashing him with his whole arm. "Get that dirt and crap off you and I'll race you out to the island and back."

Rather than waiting for Jared to finish, though, Chad just ran with his head start, leaving Jared in his wake. But now that he was finally here again, Jared couldn't bring himself to mind.

:::

"So are you sure about this decision, Jared?" said Jeff, leading him out into the workshop after lunch. "I mean, really sure?"

"I'm really sure," said Jared. "And please don't tell me I'm throwing my life away. I've had enough people tell me that since this spring when I admitted I wasn't applying."

"You should've applied, even if you knew you weren't going to go right away," said Jeff, but Jared was shaking his head from the moment Jeff started talking. "It wouldn't have hurt anything."

"If I did it, it would only be to keep people off my case," said Jared. "There was nothing I could get applying this year that I couldn't get applying next year. I couldn't stand the thought of going straight to university, Jeff. I don't expect anyone to understand, but I just couldn't."

"I bet your aunt had something to say about that."

"Oh, you bet Aunt Sam had something to say about it," said Jared ruefully. "She even called. From Paris. She never calls unless it's something really important. Got into all this stuff about how she didn't get me into that school just so I could throw away the opportunity."

"Probably wanted you to follow in her footsteps," said Jeff, switching on lights as they went until they whole room was illuminated. Outside it was rainy and dreary but somehow the shop still seemed homey. Even cheery. When Jared first arrived he sometimes wondered just how Jeff could spend his days in there when he had the whole mountain to work on, but that was before he really spent any time in the workshop, and before he realised that whenever Jeff wanted, the whole back end opened up into the meadow.

"I could've told her I wasn't going to do that long before she got me into Whytecliff School," said Jared. "I thought about going into engineering, though. For a little while."

"Yeah?" said Jeff. "But you still decided not to go for it?"

"There wasn't much that was going to convince me not to take this year off," said Jared. "I can think about again in a few months, or whenever. You don't really mind, do you? That I'm staying up here for the year?"

"God no, Jared, and you don't have to keep asking that," said Jeff, firmly but fondly. "I might worry a little bit if you turn thirty-five and you're still living up in my loft, but when I said this was your home, I meant it. I meant it from the very first time I told you, the very first day you were here."

"And I really am interested in learning how you do what you do," Jared added as Jeff started setting out his work for the day. "I'm not sure I'll ever be as good as you, but I can be useful. I can learn this. I want to learn this."

"Well, there's certainly a lot to be done, and a lot to learn, if you're really interested," said Jeff. Jared couldn't be absolutely sure, but it seemed to him like Jeff actually sounded a little hopeful that Jared might be interested in carrying on what he did up there. "And I'll bet you could do all the computer parts of the job about twice as fast as I do."

"I probably could figure out your ordering system pretty fast," admitted Jared. "If you wanted help with that."

"I don't mind it all," said Jeff. "It's a part of doing business the way I want to do business, and being my own boss. But if you wanted to take some of that off my hands, I'm the first guy who's going to let you. As far as I'm concerned it's just a necessary evil to be able to do what I love for the rest of my life."

And this, this workshop, these things he made, this really was the thing that Jeff loved. It wasn't, as his Aunt Sam had put it, Jeff's exile. Maybe it had started out as a way for him to be away from people but Jeff was happy. Jared hadn't been able to recognise it when he first arrived, and maybe a year ago Jeff did still have some demons to exorcise, but he was clearly happy with this life.

"Maybe my first piece could be for Jensen," Jared suggested, "if it doesn't turn out absolutely horribly. I showed him a bunch of stuff on your website ages ago and he thought it was pretty awesome. Most of the stuff he has.... See, the thing is, he orders some stuff off the internet and all, but most of the big stuff, the furniture, it's all stuff his parents got him ages ago. It'd be nice to make him something more... better."

"More better?" said Jeff, grinning at him. "Maybe it is a good thing you decided not to go straight to university."

Jared blushed, but he knew the barb was good natured. "You know what I mean," he said. "I want him to have nice things. Not just nice things that someone else decided were nice but nice things he actually likes. If he's going to be stuck in there, it should at least be with things that are his."

"I think that's a pretty good idea," said Jeff, pushing up his sleeves. "Did you have something in mind?"

"Shelves," said Jared immediately, the first thing that came to mind that was both useful and, for his own sake, easy. "He already has a desk that he's made his own--" And you didn't mess with a guy's desk, you just didn't. "--but his shelves are all, like, stuff he's probably had for fifteen years. All chipped and stained and there's one with kiddie stickers all over it that he doesn't think I saw, but I did."

"Of course you did," said Jeff.

"And maybe if I make him something, he'll know I'm still thinking about him," Jared added after a couple of moments. "He's still upset. He's not talking to me."

Jeff rested a hand on his shoulder as he reached past him to grab a pencil off his workspace. "Maybe you just need to give him a little more time," he said. "Anyone as close to you as Jensen obviously is will come around eventually. Just keep trying."

"Like I could stop even if I wanted to," said Jared, smiling a little in spite of himself. "I email every day."

"I'm sure you do," said Jeff, giving his shoulder a little squeeze before letting go. "Well, we'll get started on something for him soon enough, but right now we're going back to the basics. And let me tell you, if you don't pay attention to my little tool safety demonstration here, you're never going to get to touch any of it."

It wasn't a threat but it was serious all the same and Jared knew it.

"I'm listening," he said, and he really was. Who knew where he was going to be in a year and who knew what he was going to learn about who he was and what he wanted over the next twelve months, but right here and right now, this was exactly what he needed.

:::

It was a letter Jared never really let himself hope to get. He hadn't heard a word from Jensen since he left, not a phone call, not an IM, not even an email in response to the many that Jared had sent. Then the letter came, picked up during one of Jared's infrequent visits to town, stamped, sealed, and addressed to him. Snail mail.

"He's coming."

"Who, Chad?" said Jeff. "Better get another steak out then; between the two of you, you could clean me out."

"No, Jensen," said Jared, staring at his letter. "Jensen's coming."

"Jensen's coming here?"

Jared turned the letter over, like the punch line would be on the back, but there was nothing else. Jensen was coming, and judging by the date on the letter, he was coming soon.

"I can't believe... okay, he can't be travelling by himself. Jensen can stay in my room with me, but we'll need space for his parents too. And Jim, if he's coming." They couldn't exactly make the cabin bigger, but, "The weather's supposed to hold, right? We could set the tent up, the big one, not the one Chad and I use."

Jeff just chuckled. "Don't get ahead of yourself, Jared," he said. "The tent takes fifteen minutes to set up; we can figure things out when they get here. When are they arriving?"

Jared read the letter again, even though he'd already read it three times. "The day after tomorrow," he said. "I'll have to go pick them up. Jensen says he's taking the train."

"They'll be sorry they don't have a vehicle of their own up here," said Jeff, tutting a little bit as he hauled some things out of the fridge. "But I'm sure we'll make do. It'll be nice to see you with a smile on your face again."

"What? I've been smiling! You know I'm happy, right?"

"I know you're happy here, but any fool can see you've still been pining after the boy, Jared," said Jeff. "You think I didn't notice?"

Jared gaped at him. "You mean pining... like a friend."

"No, that's not what I mean," said Jeff frankly. "But if that's what you want to call it, I'm not going to argue."

"But how could you even know that? I didn't even figure that out till... I'm not even sure I have figured that out yet."

"Because I'm much older and wiser than you are," said Jeff. "And Jensen was always the real reason I was afraid you were never going to come back."

"But I never told you I was... you know."

"What, you never told me you liked boys?" said Jeff. "I don't see why people always need to make announcements about these things. You didn't need to tell me you liked boys for me to figure out you liked Jensen."

"But I didn't know it was like... I knew I liked boys and I knew he liked boys, but I never thought... Oh my God, he's going to be here in two days. In my bed."

"Okay, Jared, the first thing you need to do is not panic," said Jeff, shooting him what could really only be called a smirk. A fond and tolerant smirk, but a smirk all the same. "You've been wanting to see this boy again from the moment you set foot back on the mountain, and the last I heard it was a good day when he managed to go out on the front steps of his house, so if he's coming here it's a good bet he's pretty eager to see you, too."

"I can't believe he's really coming," said Jared, and he knew, he knew, he shouldn't get ahead of himself, he shouldn't get too excited before Jensen actually arrived, but he couldn't help it. "It's amazing."

"Well, you're clearly a person who can do amazing things," said Jeff. "So is there anything else you want to tell me about your time in Vancouver now? I seem to remember asking you about girls a couple of times and you avoiding the subject."

"I, uh, I might've had a boyfriend," admitted Jared after a few moments of awkward silence, "just for a little while. It wasn't, like, a big thing or anything. I mean, I wasn't hiding it, I just didn't want to put it in an email. That just felt kind of weird."

"So nothing serious, then?"

"I thought it was, sort of," said Jared. "Well, no, I thought it could've been. But it wasn't. I mean, he's still my friend, and I miss my friends a little, but Jensen was really the only person I left behind, you know?"

"And apparently he's left behind no more," said Jeff. "Two days to get ready, eh? I'm pretty sure we can do it."

Jared wasn't worried they could be ready in two days. He could be ready in two minutes if he had to be, because it was Jensen. He was a lot more worried about how he was going to wait two whole days, now that he knew he was coming.

:::

Jeff drove them, marking the only time Jared had ever actually seen him off the mountain, despite the fact that he knew he had to go from time to time, and had heard about at least one occasion that Jeff had gone into town without him. Though without visual proof, that might have been just a rumour. The closest the train came was not the small town nearest them, though, but Whistler, where Chad had picked Jared up not all that long ago.

"He gave me the schedule," said Jared, Jensen's precious letter clutched in his hands as they waited at the station. "He should be here."

"Trains are trains, Jared, you know there are sometimes hold-ups. Look at you, you're practically shaking. Sit down and have a drink, would you?"

Jared licked his lips and nodded, but just got a soda out of the machine instead of finding some place to sit down. It would have been just his luck to have been somewhere else in the station when Jensen's train arrived, even though there was nowhere in the station that was so far away that Jared couldn't have been back in an instant.

"Excited, are you?" said Jeff, somehow completely calm and collected as they waited. "There, you see? Here it comes now."

It wasn't that Jared had thought he would never seen Jensen again. He'd known that he'd see Jensen again. But here, in his home, it was something he hadn't dared to do anything more than dream of.

"Jesus, don't run out onto the tracks or anything," said Jeff, all but physically holding him back as the train deboarded. But the moment Jared first caught an unmistakable glimpse of Jensen, there was no keeping him away.

"Jensen!" he called, racing towards him, startling everyone in his path. "Jensen!"

Jensen looked up, at first so alarmed that Jared regretted calling his name so loud, running so fast. But then he broke into the kind of smile that Jared hadn't ever seen on him before, outside of old pictures. Any reluctance he might've had to throw his arms around him was gone in that instance.

But it was still a relief when Jensen hugged him back.

"I can't believe you're here," said Jared breathlessly when he finally let go.

"I kind of can't believe it either," said Jensen, looking around a little nervously. "I don't think anybody can believe it. My parents almost didn't let me, they said I couldn't possibly be ready, but I knew what I wanted."

"Where are they, anyway?" said Jared, looking around. "Do you think they need any help with their luggage? I've got Jeff here with me, believe it or not"

"Jeff, who never comes down off the mountain?" said Jensen.

"I guess today's just full of firsts, huh?" said Jared.

"Well, they aren't here anyway," said Jensen. "I came alone."

"You what?" said Jared. "You came alone? You came all the way here all by yourself?"

"I'm not five, Jared. I've been on a train before," said Jensen defensively.

"You know what I mean," said Jared. "You know what I mean. How did you? I mean, when I left there was no way you could have."

"I guess I just finally found the right motivation," said Jensen. "Except, well, I'm still kind of not great with crowds of strangers. Do you think we could...?"

"Oh God, I'm sorry, yes, of course," said Jared, tugging on his sleeve to lead him in the right direction. "Do you have any more bags? Do you need help?"

"No, just the one," said Jensen. "I looked at all my stuff when I was packing but... I don't know. I guess in the end I figured I wouldn't need all that much other than myself. And some anti-anxiety meds."

Jared grinned and tugged him a little faster. "Maybe you won't even be needing those," he said. "I can't wait to show you everything, Jensen, I want to show you everything."

"How about we start with your Uncle Jeff?" suggested Jensen. "Is that him there?" It wasn't exactly a stretch to pick out Uncle Jeff for anyone who'd seen his picture, and probably anyone who hadn't, too. He was the only one looking in their direction with a wide smile on his face. "I always figured he was going to be more reserved."

"I guess he likes you already," said Jared, "but then who wouldn't, right?"

It wasn't a whole new Jensen from the one Jared had grown to know better than anyone in his year living with him, but it was a new side of him. The shyness wasn't masked by defensiveness, the smiles didn't become smirks. When Jared first met him he thought Jensen would be a hard person to befriend; now he really did wonder how anyone could meet him and not take to him.

"Either you're the Jensen I've been hearing all about, or Jared is much, much more fickle than I ever imagined."

"It's a pleasure to meet you, sir," said Jensen, sticking out his hand for Jeff, more formal than Jared had ever seen him. But then, Jared suddenly realised, he'd never seen Jensen with anyone other than himself and his family before.

"None of that sir nonsense," said Jeff, though he didn't waste any time taking Jensen's outstretched hand. "You can call me Jeff just like everyone else."

"Chad calls you Mr. Morgan," Jared pointed out, though he knew he was just being cheeky.

"Chad's afraid his mother will smack his bottom if he doesn't," said Jeff, "but Chad's a special case. Always has been. Jensen, you're welcome here and it's very much my pleasure to finally get to meet you. I didn't know when we were going to have the opportunity."

"It's a little sooner than I expected too," said Jensen, then he bit his lip and smiled a little and didn't elaborate on that. He didn't really have to, for Jared who knew him or for Jeff who knew more about his situation than anyone who hadn't been there. "Is it far to the car?"

"Not far at all," Jeff promised him, leading the way back outside. "Come on, I think the two of you are probably anxious to get home."

:::

Jared only really realised how tense Jensen had been in the station when they got out on the road home, when Jensen finally relaxed, closing his eyes and taking deep, slow, breaths.

"You all right, son?" Jeff asked, but casually, like he was just being sure.

"I'm all right," Jensen promised him. "It's just been a really long day."

"Well, Jared'll show you your bed as soon as we get in," said Jeff, "and you can lie down if you want. I'll be making dinner but don't feel obligated to join us. It's been a while, but I seem to remember what a day of travelling is like."

"Really, I'll be all right," said Jensen again. "I'm just not used to it."

"You did great," said Jared, and hoped it didn't sound condescending. But he wasn't going to pretend that Jensen taking the train up to Whistler by himself was nothing, either. "You look great. You're... not as pale, or something."

"Jim made me weed the flowerbeds," said Jensen with a wry grin, not even opening his eyes as he said it. "Nobody ever told me he was such a hardass."

"Jim's a hardass," said Jared obediently, grinning back even though Jensen couldn't see it. "So, uh, you don't mind sharing a bed, do you? It's big enough for two, we just... there's not a spare room or anything."

"I don't want to put you out," said Jensen, finally opening his eyes. "I'm not as spoiled as you think I am. I can take the couch or something; I don't want to be in the way."

"No, no, it's fine," said Jared. "I've got my whole loft, it's amazing. But there's just the one big bed. I don't kick or anything."

"Yeah, you do," said Jensen. "Remember the time we fell asleep in the family room? You absolutely kicked me. You woke me up, like, three times."

"That's because I was still having nightmares then," said Jared, his voice growing a little softer. Even though it hadn't been all that long ago, that time of his life still felt like an ever-dimming memory. "That doesn't happen anymore."

"I guess not," said Jensen, just as softly. "You never did really tell me what you were dreaming about." Other than telling him that he dreamed of never going home, which at the time had been more than enough.

Jared glanced at Jeff and then back at Jensen. "Ask me again later," he said, "and I'll tell you this time, if you really want to know."

"I do," said Jensen. "After all, you pretty much know all about mine, right?"

"Do I?"

"You do," said Jensen. "Though I should warn you, it's been a little worse since I started going out. My doctor says that'll pass, that it's just anxiety. Well, not that anxiety is just anything, but--"

"I know what you mean," interrupted Jared before Jensen could get flustered. "You're seeing someone again?"

Jensen shrugged. "You left and... I knew I had to do something. I've got her number so I can still... while I'm up here."

"You know I didn't leave you, right?" said Jared. "I just couldn't stay, Jensen. I couldn't stay there anymore. The city was never my home."

"I know you didn't leave me, but you still did, you know?" said Jensen. "It's not like I didn't always understand why you had to do it, but for me you were still gone. It didn't matter why you weren't there anymore, just that you weren't. So I guess I had to do something about it."

"I always knew you could," said Jared. "I saw it happening. I knew you could get past it."

"I’m not past it yet," said Jensen, "but I’m getting there. I'll get there."

"You will," said Jared, and he wasn't just saying that to be supportive. He really did believe it, right to the tips of his toes, he knew that Jensen could be Jensen again. "And being here, Jensen, being here on the mountain... I'm going to show you everything. It'll all be so much better here. You'll understand when you see it."

Jensen gave a soft sigh and there was an answering yip from the unzipped gym bag that'd never left his side.

"Oh my God," said Jared excitedly. "Is that--?"

"Guess he finally woke up," said Jensen as Harley's little face peeked out of the bag. "How you doing in there, boy?"

"Harley!" said Jared. "Jeff, this is--"

"Harley," Jeff repeated, glancing back at them in the rear view mirror. "Yeah, I got that."

"Missed you, boy," said Jared, leaning in to give the rapidly-growing puppy a nuzzle. "Boy did I miss you, too."

"Couldn't have made the trip without him," said Jensen, letting the dog crawl across them and into Jared's lap. "I hope that's okay."

"Of course it's okay!" said Jared. "Right Jeff?"

"Welcome to the family, Harley," he said. "We'll have to introduce you to the girls when we get home."

"Sadie and Bisou will love him," Jared promised, "just like they're going to love you. I can't wait, Jensen. It's going to be great."

:::

Jensen slept pretty soon after they arrived back at the cabin, but on the way there, just like Jared the first time he'd driven up with his Aunt Sam, Jensen's eyes were trained out the window the whole time. He said been up in the mountains before, skiing with his family from the time he learned to stand on skis, but it had never been here, and that made all the difference.

It was only after he had Jensen in his bed that Jared really thought about the fact that he had Jensen in his bed. But it had been a long and exciting day for him too, and he found that he wound down pretty soon after Jensen did. When he was that tired, crawling into bed opposite Jensen didn't seem so weird after all.

They were up pretty early, if not as early as Jeff, and enjoyed a large breakfast before Jeff disappeared into his workshop and left the two of them alone.

"I hardly even know where to start," admitted Jared, his sudden laugh surprising Jensen enough to make his eyes crinkle when he smiled. "I almost can't believe you're actually going to go outside with me, and see things. Like a dream or something."

Though maybe admitting to dreaming about doing things with Jensen was giving away more than Jared meant to, to both Jensen and himself.

"It's easier when there's no one around," admitted Jensen. "I had to take some pills before the train ride yesterday. But I really wanted to do this."

"How did you?" said Jared. "Was it really just... did you really just have to decide that you were going to, and it happened?"

"It's, um, it's a little more complicated than that," said Jensen, "but I guess I did. I guess I always needed to find something I wanted more than safety. It just took me a while to find it."

"So you wanted to see the mountain more than you wanted to stay in your house?" said Jared. "Well, I'm glad. It's so worth it, Jensen. It's all worth it."

"No, not the mountain," said Jensen. "Even though everything you ever said about this place was right. I wanted to see you. And if I wanted to see you, I had to come. In the end, it was as simple as that."

As simple and as complicated as that, and the idea that Jensen had done it for him nearly took Jared's breath away.

"Now I really don't know where to start," he said. "Do you want to come outside? Do you want to see the lake?"

"Yeah," said Jensen. "Yeah, I really do. Let's just take everything one step at a time, okay? I might still... sometimes I still freak out a little. You never got to see me freak out, but it's not pretty. The lake's not far, right?"

"No, it's not far," said Jared. "But if you didn't freak out on the way here, you're probably not going to freak out at the lake."

"I'm not medicated now, though," said Jensen. "I didn't want to be while I was here, if I didn't have to. It dulls things a little, and I didn't want anything about this visit to be dull."

"Just bring them with you, then," said Jared. "Just in case. The mountain is a lot of things, but I don't think it's a miracle."

"No, I think you're the miracle," said Jensen softly, but he tucked his emergency pills in his pocket and didn't say another word about it. "You'll have to tell me which way to go. I think you could get lost forever up here."

"No, this isn't someplace you get lost, it's someplace you get found," said Jared. Besides, there was no way he was leaving Jensen's side. Not now, and not for as long as he visited, if he could help it.

"You should write greeting cards," said Jensen, "or maybe tourism brochures. You've got just the right mix of cheesy and endearing." Jared grinned and shoulder bumped him, but he didn't argue the point.

"So why'd you send a letter, anyway?" he asked as they walked up the path. "Your email broken?"

Jensen grinned shyly at his feet. "I didn't want to give you a chance to reply," he said, "and I didn't want to give myself a chance to back out. Once I mailed the letter, then I had to do it."

Jared chuckled softly, but he could understand that. It was pretty brave, actually. It was all pretty brave.

"So how long are you... um." He wanted to know, just for his own peace of mind, but on the other hand he didn't. He didn't want to know when this had to end.

"I don't really know for sure," admitted Jensen. "How long do you think it'll be till you get sick of me? I know you have internet even up here so I brought my computer and my work with me. My parents are going to want daily updates, of course. Like I'm twelve and away at summer camp for the first time."

"I guess it's kind of like that for them," said Jared. "I mean... I can kind of see their point of view."

"Yeah, me too," admitted Jensen. "That doesn't mean it doesn't make me feel a little ridiculous."

"Well, they'll get over it eventually," said Jared, "and if I didn't get sick of you after living with you for a year, what makes you think I'm ever going to get sick of you?"

"Ever?" said Jensen wryly. "That's a pretty long time, Jared. You might want to think about that a little more."

Jared could think about it forever, but he didn't think he was going to change his mind. Yeah, maybe they didn't always get along perfectly, yeah maybe they argued sometimes, they weren't the same person after all, but sick of him? It was pretty hard to imagine.

"I'm pretty sure it's going to be a long time, how about that?" he said.

"Well, I'm in your bed," Jensen pointed out with a sharp, nervous laugh. "If nothing else, you'll probably get sick of that."

That, Jared thought, was maybe the last thing he was going to get sick of. But he didn't know how to say that without saying a whole lot more too, so he didn't say anything. The silence itself probably again said more than he meant it to.

"So, um," said Jensen. "How far did you say it was?"

"Just a few more minutes," said Jared, leading him silently through the last twists and turns of the path, right to the spot where he himself had first seen the lake through a break in the trees that first exposed the whole, glistening shape of it.

"Oh," said Jensen, letting out a little gasp. "Wow."

"Yeah," said Jared, because it was still hard to find more to say about it than that.

"I'm starting to see why all this was hard for you to leave behind."

"Yeah," said Jared again, more softly. "It was, I love this place. But it was harder to leave Jeff, you know? I never really had family before, not like that."

"You had your Aunt Sam. For whatever that was worth."

"Sure," said Jared, "and I know she was family, but..." Well, he didn't have to finish that sentence. Jensen already had his opinions of Jared's Aunt Sam, and even now they were showing on his face. "Come on, it's this way."

He led him the rest of the way to the swimming rock he'd spent so many days on with Chad, then stood right at the edge and looked out over the crystal clear lake.

"You want to go in?"

"Do you think we could sit for a little while?" said Jensen. "I didn't bring my swim trunks or anything."

"You don't really need--" Jared started, then nodded his head. "Yeah, let's just sit. It's practically a perfect day today."

"Feels like it, anyway," said Jensen, looking around and then moving back off the rock into the meadow behind to find a soft, comfortable place to sit down. "Feels like the perfect day, Jared, and not just because of the weather."

"Yeah," breathed Jared, sitting down as close to Jensen as he dared. It wasn't as close as he wanted, not so close that Jensen might get spooked; Jensen was the one who moved close enough that they were touching.

When Jensen reached out and took his hand, neither one of them said anything about it. Jared didn't feel like anything had to be said. It wasn't everything, but it was something. It was the start of something.

He was sure of it.

:::

Jensen had been there for three days when Chad showed up out of the blue, stalking across the lawn and inviting himself in through the porch door.

"You never call, you never wri--" he began, before realising that Jared wasn't the only one in the room. "Oh. Hi."

"Hi," said Jensen, as awkward as Jared had ever seen him, suddenly poised to take a step back from the intruder.

"Chad!" said Jared. "Did your mom finally release you from garden duty?"

"Yeah, like, two days ago, bitch," said Chad, still eyeing Jensen suspiciously. "Who's this?"

"Come meet Jensen," said Jared, not seeing any reason to mask his excitement. Chad knew about Jensen. Okay, maybe not everything about Jensen, but about as much as anyone who wasn't close to him.

"What the hell?" said Chad. "I thought you never left your house."

"Yeah, I fixed that," said Jensen softly. Jared could hear him fingering the pill bottle in his pocket. "Jared talked about this place so much, I figured I needed to see it for myself."

"Huh," said Chad. "So, how long are you visiting for, anyway?"

"I don't really know," said Jensen. "A while, I guess."

"A while. Huh," said Chad. "So, what, Jared, were you ever going to tell me?"

"Of course I was," said Jared. "Don't be stupid, Chad, I was just waiting for you to call, since you said you were going to once you were free."

"Well, I'm here now," said Chad. "So what have you seen so far, Jensen? What have you enjoyed of our fine mountain?"

"This and that," said Jensen. "We walked up the road a little bit. And out to the lake."

"The lake?" interrupted Chad. "You took him out to the lake without me, Jared? Really?"

"Sorry, I guess I missed the memo that I was supposed to wait," said Jared. "Sorry?"

"Whatever," said Chad. "It doesn't matter."

"Maybe I should...." This time Jensen really did take a step back towards the stairs. "I don't want to be in the way."

"You're not in the way!" said Jared immediately. "Right, Chad?"

"No, you're definitely not the one who's in the way," said Chad. "So how about you give me a call when you're free, huh, Jared?"

"Chad, stop," said Jared. "Come on. Why are you doing this? You know I've been looking forward to seeing you."

"Have you?" said Chad. "Or did you just forget all about me?"

"Chad!" said Jared, glancing from Jensen to Chad and back again. "Come on, why don't we all go do something, all right? Why don't we all go out to the lake?"

"Actually, I guess I should be getting back," said Chad, and this time he was the one to take a step back, towards the door. "I left my mom and my sister working by themselves. We weren't really done, I just wanted to see you, you know? I'll come back another time."

"Chad...." said Jared, but it was no use this time. Chad took another couple of steps back then took off back through the porch again and across the lawn, in the direction of home. All two miles of it, that he'd just walked once already for a chance to spend time with Jared. "Okay, that was weird."

"No it wasn't," said Jensen. "You didn't tell him I was coming?"

"I didn't have a chance!" said Jared. "I barely got your letter in time to come get you, and Chad was already busy with family stuff. He's making it out to be some big thing and it's not. I don't know what's gotten into him, Jensen, I swear he's usually nicer than that."

"You spend all your time around people, but you sure don't know them very well when it comes to their relationships with you," said Jensen.

"What are you talking about?"

"I might be a complete social retard, but even I could see he was jealous," said Jensen.

"Of what?" said Jared. "I'm not allowed to have more than one friend?"

"That's sort of between you and him, I think," said Jensen. He was alarmingly still, but at least he'd stopped his creeping progress towards the stairs. "Do you think we could stay in for a little while this afternoon? I'm a little...."

Jared wasn't sure exactly how he was going to finish that sentence, but whatever it was he was pretty sure it wasn't good. Jensen definitely looked a little shakier than he had a few minutes ago.

"Of course," he said, and though he'd had half a mind to go after Chad, it was clear what his priority needed to be here. Whatever Chad was going through, he'd brought it on himself. "He's just being ridiculous. He'll get over it."

"Of course he will," said Jensen, and if he sounded placating, Jared figured he could let that pass. Chad had just been a complete ass to him, after all. Jensen was pretty entitled to be a bit dismissive.

"It's different with you anyway," said Jared. "Different from how it is with him. I mean... you know what I mean, right?"

"I think I do," said Jensen, sitting down in the corner of the couch. But whatever he thought, once again they didn't talk about it.

And Jared wasn't sorry they didn't talk about it, right here and right now. There was going to be something to talk about some time soon, but this wasn't the moment, not like this. Not when Jensen was shaken up, and not when Jared was more than a little wound up, too. No, whenever they talked, whenever they figured this out, it would be on their own terms and not because of Chad.

:::

It was another two days before Jared finally called Chad, partly because he wanted to give both Chad and Jensen a chance to cool off and calm down, and partly because he wanted Chad to stew a little. Maybe he did understand, after he thought about it for a while, how Chad felt. He was probably surprised, and a little hurt, and Jared was his closest friend. But that didn't excuse acting the way he had.

"You'll be all right here without me?"

"Of course I will," said Jensen. "I have some work I should do anyway. This is sort of a vacation, but it's sort of life, too."

"The best things always are," said Jared, and had to resist doing something more affectionate than just smiling at him before he slipped out the back and headed towards the lake. Chad had agreed to meet him out there, but there were no promises made about what was going to be said or done.

"Hey," said Jared when he arrived. Chad was already standing by the edge of the rock, waiting.

"Hey," said Chad, not quite mustering up a smile. "So you came."

"Of course I came," said Jared. "Why wouldn't I come, Chad? We're friends, right? Best friends, last time I checked."

"Yeah, well, that's what I thought, too," said Chad. "Until...."

"Until what?" said Jared. "Until you saw Jensen there? You know all about Jensen, Chad. It doesn't change anything that he's here now."

"Sure it does," said Chad. "Of course it changes things. Before it was just you and me, you know?"

"And now it's you and me and him," said Jared. "It doesn't have to be a bad thing."

"I just don't get it," said Chad, kicking at some loose stones. "When you came back up here after school, I thought things were going to be like they were last summer. And they sort of were at first, until suddenly Jensen showed up and now everything's all about him. What's he got that I don't have, anyway?"

"I, um," said Jared, flushing under the direct question, even if it was an unfair one. "He's got... I mean.... You're my best friend, Chad, but I don't want to, you know. Hold hands with you or kiss you. You know what I'm saying?"

"Oh," said Chad, staring at him for a moment. "Oh."

"Yeah," said Jared, shifting his weight awkwardly. "It's like that."

"Wow," said Chad. "So now I'm an asshole if I don't like him, right? Cause your best friend's supposed to like your boyfriend."

"You should like him because he's awesome," said Jared, still fidgeting and not quite meeting Chad's eyes, "not because you think you have to. You just never even gave him a chance so you could see that."

"Jerk," said Chad, giving him a shove. "You never even told me you liked guys. How was I supposed to know?"

"I didn't even know last summer," said Jared. "At least, I didn't know for sure. I'd never really liked anybody like that before this year."

"Before him, you mean."

Jared hesitated, then shook his head. "I, um. I had this boyfriend, for a little while. But I didn't want to tell you over email, you know? I didn't know how."

"You should've just told me," said Chad. "Jeez, what did you think I was going to do, anyway?"

"I don't know," admitted Jared. "I mean, I thought it would be fine, you know? But Jensen had some bad experiences and I just... I don't know. I should've just told you about Brock when it was happening. I wanted to."

"You dated someone named Brock?" said Chad. "Wow. I'm fine with the guy thing but Brock, Jared? I just don't know if we can be friends anymore."

"Jerk," said Jared. "He was a good guy."

"Couldn't be that good if you're not still with him," said Chad, "or is Jensen just the man to beat all other men?" He even snorted at himself after he said it, though. "Okay, talking like that's going to take some getting used to."

"I'd be okay if you never learned to talk like that, actually," said Jared. "Jensen is just... we're not even together. Yet. Sort of. It's kind of... complicated."

"Okay, you are not allowed to call me a pussy about Sophia anymore if this Jensen guy came all the way out here for you and you haven't gotten with him yet," said Chad. "Or is he not into guys? Cause wow, okay, that would suck."

"No, he is," said Jared. "We're... like I said, it's complicated. Do you really want me to talk about it?"

"I don't know," said Chad. "Do you want to talk about it?"

"I don't know," said Jared. "Are we okay now?"

"Am I really still your best friend?"

"Duh," said Jared. "Of course you're my best friend. Who else is ever going to be my best friend if it's not you?"

"Good," said Chad. "Then we're okay. So okay, just give me a second to brace myself for the guy-on-guy stuff and you can talk to me about it. Just no details, all right? I might get into that kinky shit later, but you've got to let me ease my way into it."

"So to speak?"

"Oh God," said Chad. "Okay, that's it, I take it back. Your talking privileges are hereby revoked."

"Too late," said Jared, and tugged Chad's sleeve till he finally sat down with him on the grass. "No take-backs. You have to hear me talk about boys now. But don't worry, I'll still let you talk about Sophia. Asked her out yet?"

When Chad scowled at him, that's when Jared knew they really were okay.

:::

"Jensen cooked," said Jared, making an announcement of it as Jeff sat down at the table, freshly washed up and dressed in a shirt that wasn't rife with sawdust. "Which I say only because, until today, I wasn't aware Jensen could cook."

"Maybe that's because you were always busy after school when I did it," said Jensen. "What, you thought those meals appeared on the table by magic?"

"Yeah, the magic of Pizza Hut," said Jared, setting the casserole down in the middle of the table. "Okay, honestly? I thought you were reheating stuff from the freezer."

"The fact that you can't tell the difference between fresh food and stuff reheated from the freezer makes me weep for your childhood," said Jensen, shaking his head. "Just another thing to add to the list."

"You have a list?"

"Of things you need to be educated about," said Jensen. "It's starting to be a long list. I really should've started you sooner, but I had some, uh, issues to work through."

"Is that what we're calling it now?" said Jared. "Well, at least we're calling it something."

"Just eat your dinner," said Jensen, but he was smiling at him as he sat down and Jared didn't remember ever seeing Jensen look quite so... content.

"This looks great, boys," said Jeff, "I really appreciate this. I got a rush order the other day, worth enough to make it worth my while, and dinner's been the last thing on my mind."

"Hey, you know we'll do whatever you need," said Jared quickly. "You just have to tell us, Uncle Jeff. You know that, right?"

"I thought I trained that out of you, Jared, but I have to say, this week I'm kind of glad I didn't," said Jeff, heaping his plate with food. "Once I'm done with this order, we can start you back in the workshop with me, if that's still something you want to do."

"Yes!" said Jared quickly, before his eyes darted to Jensen. "I mean...."

"I've sort of got some work I've been putting off," admitted Jensen. "Nothing past deadline, just some things I really should get started on. If nobody minds."

"Of course not," said Jeff, "you do whatever you need to do, Jensen. You've got enough space to work in? Jared never had much of a desk, but we could probably whip you up something."

"I'm fine with what you've got, as long as I'm not in the way," said Jensen a little more hesitantly, making the statement a question without actually asking anything. "I don't want to overstay my welcome."

"You're not!" Jared said, so quickly no one else could get a breath in, let alone a word.

"Well," said Jeff, actually taking a moment to address it seriously, "it seems to me like Jared was right about all of this, Jensen. I didn't know you before, so I might be wrong, but it seems to me like you're flourishing up here. So far be it from me to get in the way of that. If there's nothing pulling you back to the city, then you just stay right where you are. As soon as I get this order out of my hair, I will make that desk for you. You just give me your specs and I'll get it done."

"No, really, you don't have to--"

"No use arguing," said Jared. "He'll just make it anyway. If you give him your specs, at least he can make it exactly what you need instead of just guessing. You've seen all the stuff in my room?"

"Well, of course...."

"Jeff made all of that for me. It wasn't even here before I was."

"Never had any guests here before you showed up," said Jeff, talking into his dinner. "Though now that you bring it up...."

"Bring what up?" said Jared. "My stuff?"

Jeff coughed politely. "If you're going to be sticking around, Jensen, are we going to be needing another bed up there?"

"Oh," said Jared, and promptly blushed harder than he ever had in front of either one of them. "Um." He looked from Jeff, to Jensen to Jeff again, then stared at his own dinner. "Can we get back to you on that?"

"Of course," said Jeff. "Just... putting the offer out there. You're both adults, so whatever you decide, that's fine with me. It's really not my business."

It was his business actually, since this was still his home, but Jared was glad for both the offer and for the space. He'd actually have to talk about it with Jensen now, which was both good and terrifying, but it was also made pretty clear that Jensen had a home here too, and that was something that was good no matter how you looked at it.

:::

"So okay, this is awkward," said Jared, leading the way out to the lake in the early morning light. "Is it okay to admit that this is awkward? I figure we might as well just get that out there. This is kind of awkward."

"I know," said Jensen, hands in his pockets as they walked. "I know it's weird. But we should... we need to talk about whatever this is."

Yeah, they were going to have to talk about it, but they didn't until they reached the swimming rock, until they'd settled themselves comfortable in the meadow, side by side. They didn't have to be looking at one another to know they were there; Jared could even feel Jensen's slight nervous tremble, and touched his arm to make it stop.

"It's still so amazing having you out here with me," he said. "I dreamed about it so many times, but I never knew how wonderful it would really be. Not until it happened."

"You told me so much about this place I dreamed about it too," said Jensen. "Sometimes I would even dream about being somewhere just like this, far from the city, lying back and looking at the sky."

"Is it everything you dreamed about?"

"It's different," said Jensen. "I couldn't dream up the way the breeze feels, or the way the trees smell, or the sound of the water. The only thing I really knew was what it felt like to have you beside me."

"At least I gave you that," said Jared.

"You gave me so much more than that," said Jensen, "and I never even... I'm fucked in the head, Jared, you know that, right? I'm still... it's not all fixed. Just because I'm here it's not all fixed."

"I know that," said Jared. "It's okay, I know that this isn't all easy now just because you got past the biggest thing. I read up on this stuff. I know."

Jensen chuckled a little, but Jared wasn't sure at what exactly.

"The thing is, I always understood," said Jensen. "I always understood what it was going to take, for me to feel okay being out in the world again. I just never thought it was something I was ever going to find."

"It's not all me," insisted Jared.

"No, it's not," agreed Jensen. "It was always about me, I know that. It was about me not being able to trust anyone anymore, the way I used to. It was about me just taking a metaphorical butcher knife and carving that part of me out, and then thinking the amputation made me better."

"It wasn't an amputation," said Jared. "It was still there."

"Yeah, it was," he said quietly. "I didn't think I would ever trust like that again, but I did, I do. But that wasn't the only part of me that was broken."

"Jensen, you don't have to--"

"I was in love with him," he said. "That guy, the one who orchestrated the whole thing. He made me fall in love with him. And if I could fall in love with that kind of scum, I couldn't trust myself to ever do it again."

"Jensen--"

"But I did," he said, ignoring the interruption. "I went and did that too. Because you were right, you were all right, you can't just decide not to. Especially when someone like you walks into my life, Jared."

"Oh," breathed Jared, and he had to look, he had to see Jensen's face when he said something like that. "Oh my God."

"It's okay if you don't," said Jensen, not quite looking at him but God, looking so beautiful. "You don't have to... I just had to tell you. You need to know that my heart wasn't just broken, I was broken. And then there was you, and all of the hard stuff was worth trying again."

"You really think I don't?" said Jared incredulously. "Are you blind?"

Jensen finally looked at him, really looked at him, and that look was anything but blind.

Jared wasn't waiting a second more, he couldn't wait a second more. Before he even thought about what he was doing he was pushing himself up on his elbow and leaning in and he was kissing Jensen. No, they were kissing, because from the instant Jared's lips touched his, Jensen was kissing him back.

"If you make me get my own bed," Jensen breathed, still so close their lips brushed as he talked, "I'm going to crawl into yours every night anyway. I don't care about appearances, I just want to be with you."

"Nobody here cares about appearances," said Jared and kissed him again. And again. And again so many times he could barely even catch his breath, and didn't care if he ever breathed again as long as he could spend every moment kissing Jensen.

"I am so fucking in love with you," said Jensen. "Don't ever leave me again."

"I'm not going anywhere," said Jared, "and if I have any say in the matter, neither are you."

Jensen tugged Jared as close as they could get, arms and legs entangled, so close Jared could feel him breathing against his throat.

"It's still all a little scary," he admitted, fingers moving restlessly against Jared's skin. "I can't quite catch my breath."

"It's not just you," said Jared, catching Jensen's fingers with his own and entwining them again. "I'm a little breathless too. Everything I feel for you is so huge I hardly even know what to do about it."

"I knew I had to come," said Jensen softly, lips moving against Jared's skin, "and not just because of everything you told me, but because I knew that I'd be giving up the best thing that ever happened to me if I didn't."

Jared thought about all the things he'd been through to get to this point, all the schools and all the homes and all the people who never tried hard enough to make him feel important. And all of it was worth it, to bring him here to this meadow on this day with this person. He'd always told himself that everything in his life happened for a reason. Now he finally had proof that was true.

"I guess we get to figure all of this out together now, huh?"

Jared couldn't think of anything he wanted more.