Jensen's coffee was cold and separated, bitter on top with a sweet sludge seeping up from the bottom, but he barely even noticed; he still sipped whenever he stopped typing for more than a few seconds and paid attention only to whether the cup was full or empty. Currently it was closer to empty than full, but it still had a few more paragraphs in it before he needed to refuel.
A page and a half later he reached for the cup and discovered there was nothing but a bit of coffee-flavored syrup, the remains of too much sugar and too little stirring. He finally looked up then, not at the counter to see i
f there was a line but out the window and across the street, at the man currently arranging books in the window display.
Jensen had only been living in the neighborhood for a week when he discovered the place - discovered both places, really: the coffeeshop where he wrote and the bookstore across the street - and looking back on that first week now he thought it might have been the impulsive decision to get coffee before books that changed everything.
"Bounce quarters off that ass," said Katie, appearing at his shoulder and collecting Jensen's empty cup right out of his hand.
"Hmm?" said Jensen, fixing his eyes on the nearby stop sign and not so much as twitching to acknowledge he knew exactly what she was talking about. "Oh, hey, thanks."
Traffic had apparently always been light on Peter Street, thanks to its perpetual bad repair, so most days Jensen had a clear view right in the front window of the bookstore. When he wasn't writing - which he definitely hadn't been when he'd first come in - he could just sit and people watch through the glass. Or person watch, as was very quickly the case, even if Jensen wasn't quite prepared to own up to it.
"Oh, hey, thanks," she echoed him, rolling her eyes. "You'd better be writing the Great American Novel there, the amount of time you spend with your eyes glued to the screen."
"You ever think I might just be looking at porn?" said Jensen, glancing out the window again.
In the window, the bookstore clerk was bending over to shelve a book. On Jensen's screen Malcolm Moriarty had just bent over to weed his mother's flower garden.
"Anyone who types that much while looking at porn isn't doing it right," she said. "Of course, I know that's what I'd be doing, if I was sitting by this window. Or does he have to be naked for me to call it porn?"
"Who?" said Jensen, like he had no idea. His eyes once again skirted away, focusing determinedly on the pothole in the middle of the street.
He'd never been that person who made friends wherever he went, it just wasn't anything he'd ever been really good at, but from about the third time he'd come into Red Rocket Coffee, Katie'd taken that whole challenge right out of his hands.
"Men," said Katie, in what Jensen had begun to think of as her eye-rolling tone of voice. He didn't need to be looking at her to know what she was doing. "I'll bring you another so you don't have to drag your lazy ass back up to the counter."
Jensen might not have dragged his lazy ass anywhere, but he did finally drag his eyes away from the window when he spotted someone stepping in the door, stamping the dirt off his feet and heading straight for his table. Katie made herself scarce, slipping back behind the counter, and Steve took over the space she vacated, pulling out the chair and making himself at home.
"Writing?" he said.
"Well, I was," said Jensen. He took one last glance across the street, but his mystery bookstore man had taken himself out of the display window. Probably for the best, really.
"If I'm interrupting, I can--" said Steve, jerking his thumb towards the door, but Jensen shook his head.
"No, I'm good," he said. "Ready for a break before my hands cramp up and cripple me for good."
"Not used to it anymore, huh?" said Steve, the comment offhand but striking a nerve all the same.
"Believe me, I'm not complaining," said Jensen quickly, stretching and rubbing his hands, readying for another couple thousand words or so, if he was lucky.
Before about a month ago, before he'd moved into this city, moved in with Steve and found Red Rocket Coffee and Padalecki Books, two thousand words wouldn't just have been lucky, it would've been miraculous.
"So what's it about?" said Steve. "Am I allowed to ask that or are the old rules back in force?"
"It's about a down-on-his-luck writer who moves halfway across the country to share an apartment with his best friend," said Jensen. "He spends a lot of time staring out the window and thinking about better times. It's riveting, I tell you."
"Jensen...." said Steve, then sighed at him. "Fine, don't tell me. If you're still thinking about her, I'm not sure I want to know about it anyway."
"I'm not," said Jensen. "I'm really not. I'm just not sure I'm ready to talk about the new project yet. It's still pretty fragile."
"You could've just said that," said Steve, as Katie reappeared at the table and set down two coffees. "Oh, hey, you didn't have to. I could've come and get something myself once I finished giving Jensen hell."
"Far be it from me to interrupt that kind of noble cause," said Katie. "Any friend of Jensen's is a friend of mine. If you want anything to eat, though, you're on your own. Jensen, I put about a million sugars in yours. I'm not even sure it's drinkable."
"Perfect," he said, and took a deeply satisfying sip.
"You have a friend?" said Steve.
"Shut up," said Jensen, smiling at him and watching as Steve watched Katie all the way back to the counter.
"Didn't you used to always take it black?"
"I'm trying something new," said Jensen, shrugging and sipping again. "It's like coffee and a meal all in one."
"Huh," said Steve. "Well hey, whatever works for you. It is going well, right? You don't have to tell me what it is, but it's going well?"
"It's going well," Jensen confirmed. And considering he'd long ago begun to wonder if he'd ever really write again, it was going better than he had any right to expect. "It's going really well, Steve."
"Well, good," said Steve, and settled down with his coffee and asked no more about it. And if Jensen snuck a few more glances out the window, just in case, he didn't seem to notice.
"Jared, I've got someone named Sylvia Menzel on the phone? Says she needs to speak to you personally?"
Jared sighed, closed his eyes, took a deep and fortifying breath, and called back, "Get her number and tell her I'll call her back as soon as I'm available."
She was probably just calling to tell him that his back order was delayed again but Jared had his zen on right now and he was just going to keep stocking the travel section for the next half hour while letting his assistant manager cover the office for a little while. It wasn't that he was sorry his parents had made him manager of the place when he finished his graduate degree, but at least once a day he liked to remind himself just why he loved the book business in the first place.
Sandy emerged from the back office a few minutes later, joining Jared and pulling a photo book of Tuscany off the shelf, thumbing idly through it.
"You're going to have to tell Professor Morgan his order's going to be another two weeks," she told him, to Jared's dramatic groan.
"What, did they stop delivering mail in Prague or something?" he said. "It's already been over a month. What's the hold up?"
"No idea," said Sandy, "but I'm sure she'll tell you when you call her back after your break. I don't know why you're worried anyway, Professor Morgan will forgive you just about anything. I think he still compares all of his students to you."
"We'll, it's only been a couple years, it's hard to match this kind of brilliance in that short a time," he said with a cocky grin, but he was shaking his head in spite of that. "My mother had some kind of miracle touch with special orders. She never made him wait a month and a half for his books."
"She also didn't write a prize-winning paper comparing the work of Morrison and Ackles to the Latin American magic realists," said Sandy. "So. Did we have another mystery man sighting today?"
Jared chuckled and rearranged the Middle Eastern section to make room for the latest titles. "He was sitting there for about two hours earlier," he said. "Promise you won't tell anyone that I moved the postcard racks to get a clear line of sight from the register?"
"Who am I going to tell?" said Sandy. "Chad? He probably helped you move them."
"I like to look somewhat respectable in front of the staff," he said, glancing around. "Chad already knows I'm a gigantic dork, you can tell him whatever you want."
"I'm going to remember you said that," said Sandy. "So did he do anything interesting? Backflips around the coffee bar? Tore off his skin to reveal a metal endoskeleton? Oh, or maybe he even looked up."
"He smiled," said Jared, giving her a sheepish grin. "Come on, give me a break, it's harmless. I'm allowed to have little bright spots in my day."
"In between calls from distributors and firing dishonest employees? Yeah, I guess you do."
Despite his love of the business, occasionally Jared did still long for the days when his parents were running the place and took care of unpleasant business like employee problems. Especially employees with anger management issues. He did his master's degree in Literature; he was ill-equipped for confrontation.
"Let me know as soon as Brendan gets in, all right?" he said. "I want to get that whole ordeal over with as quickly and painlessly as possible."
"Aye aye captain," she said, as Jared shelved the last of the books and stepped back, satisfied with his work. "So he smiled, huh? At you?"
"Are you kidding?" said Jared. "I was hiding behind our 'Ode to the Inevitable Return to School' window display. I have no idea what he was smiling at, but he has a great smile."
"You should just go introduce yourself," said Sandy, rolling her eyes and finally replacing the book she'd been thumbing through. "It's been a month. Usually it takes you about five minutes."
"Maybe I will," said Jared, rather than pointing out that usually he wasn't stalking someone from across the street. "If only to figure out what it is he does. He's there just about every day."
"I thought you said he worked at the university."
"I said I thought he worked at the university," Jared clarified defensively, "what with the perpetual laptop and books and the proximity and free time in the afternoon."
"So, basically it was just wishful thinking."
"Just my luck that I graduate a couple years too early," said Jared. "I might've had a lecture with him. I might've had a seminar with him."
"I think being his student is about the last thing you want to be, actually," said Sandy, then shoved him in the direction of the office. "Go call Sylvia Menzel already. Your mystery man won't be back till tomorrow now."
"He's not my mystery man," said Jared, "he's just a pleasant distraction. I have a date tonight anyway."
"Yeah?" said Sandy. "That guy from your dad's book club that he introduced you to?"
"You think it's lame," said Jared. "You think it's lame I'm going out with someone from my dad's book club."
"No, I think it's sweet you're going out with a guy from your dad's book club," said Sandy. "I think it's lame that you have a crush on a guy you could be talking to in under two minutes - and that includes the time it takes to cross the street - and instead you're talking about it with me."
"I don't have a crush," said Jared. "I have eye candy."
"Whatever you say," said Sandy, giving him a look he knew from long experience meant she wasn't believing a word out of his mouth. "And you can tell me all about it after you sort out Professor Morgan's order. Go. Now. Before I have to smack your ass in front of all these people."
Jared went, but not without a last look out the window. Just in case.
Jensen wasn't in the habit of taking calls while he was working, but when Chris's name flashed up on his call display he broke tradition and even closed his laptop before answering.
"It's not even noon on a Monday," he said. "Either you've got good news for me, or you accidentally got married in Vegas again."
"That wasn't an accident," said Chris, "it was a very well-considered decision made under the influence of an entire bottle of tequila. But I'm not the bearer of good news this morning; I hear you are."
"Me?" said Jensen. "Where'd you hear that?"
"This is why you should never introduce your friends to your agent," said Chris, "especially not at a party with an open bar. I got an email from Steve this morning telling me you're working on something new."
Jensen groaned and figured he should've known he couldn't keep his fledgling novel under wraps for long. It was a miracle Steve'd held out as long as he had.
"I wasn't going to say anything till I was a little further into it," he said. "There's nothing saying this won't get stalled out before long, Chris."
"First time you've set words to page in this long, you're damn right I want to hear about it," said Chris, "even if it stalls out. It's still more than I've heard about in too long. If you can start something once, you can start it again."
"Yeah, maybe," said Jensen, but he had a better feeling about it now than he had in a long time. "I would've told you eventually."
"I know you would've," said Chris. "Eventually. You didn't tell me about your slump until you were well into it either. Keep me in the loop, Jensen, and I promise you'll be the first to hear about any and all Vegas adventures, marriage or not."
"I'm pretty sure already the first to hear," said Jensen, "and I'm not sure I want to know what you do in Vegas. Though hell, maybe that's what I should write my next book about."
Katie chuckled from nearby and Jensen flashed her an apologetic smile.
"Christian Kane's Adventures in Las Vegas isn't your sort of book," said Chris, "but if you ever want to break into the erotica market, I can hook you up."
"I feel this entire conversation is inappropriate for a business relationship."
"Don't you go getting distracted now," said Chris. "Whatever mojo you've got going on, I don't want you doing anything to mess it up."
"How about I email you later this week with a progress report?" said Jensen, slowly opening the notebook again, one handed. "Don't go jumping the gun, Chris. This might be a false start."
"It's still a start," said Chris. "Send me pages if you can? I've got a teleconference in five minutes, so I've gotta run."
"Yeah, maybe," said Jensen, doing a quick assessment of just what he might be able to send. Even now he was reluctant to break up the whole, like once he did whatever magic was making him write again would be gone. "I'm going to go now and replace Steve's shampoo with Nair. Talk to you later?"
"After seven; I'm in meetings the rest of the day," said Chris with a Monday morning laugh, half groan and half cough, and hung up first.
Jensen almost chuckled himself, staring at the phone for a moment then tucking it away in his coat pocket and picking up where he left off. The circus was coming to town, and Malcolm Moriarty needed to be the first to discover it.
"The bruise is fading," said Sandy, touching the corner of Jared's eye gingerly. "I still can't believe Brendan hit you."
"Apparently the lesson to be learned from this is never to fire someone while they're hung over," said Jared, wincing. The bruise might've been fading but it still stung. "Or when you are. Who knew his reflexes would be that good?"
"Who knew that yours would be so bad?" said Sandy. "Apparently being enormous isn't always an advantage." She prodded his face gently once more before pulling back, apparently finding his condition satisfactory. "Well, at least you look less like some kind of renegade cage fighter than you did yesterday."
"Fantastic," said Jared. Renegade cage fighter was not generally the look he was trying to cultivate. "I decided not to press charges," he added, and held up a hand when she looked like she was going to argue the point again. "They say he's agreed to take some anger management classes. He's not a bad kid, he's just--"
"You're too nice," said Sandy, but she didn't argue this time, just touched his eye again and let it be. "So I saw your guy yesterday while you were downtown."
"Damn it," said Jared, "I knew I would miss him. What was he doing?"
"You mean besides the same thing he does every day?" said Sandy. "He was reading García Márquez."
Jared's grin was broad. "You're not just saying that to make me feel better, right?" he said. "I watch him type for days and you get to see him do something like that. Do you think he's read Asturias or Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o too? Oh God, or do you think it might be his area of research?"
"And I can tell all of that by glancing at him through a window for fifteen seconds," said Sandy. "I'm just that amazing."
"If you're not going to play with me, I'm not going to talk to you anymore," said Jared. Outside there was the familiar grinding sound of someone's car hitting the pothole too fast, and Jared winced as it brought his lingering headache to the forefront again.
"Fine," said Sandy. "Maybe he's a closet Kroetsch fan."
"I could live with that," said Jared after a moment of consideration. Marginal, but acceptable. "Anything else?"
"Nothing that you don't see every other day," said Sandy. "He worked on something for an hour or two, I think. He was there for a while, anyway. I was changing the window display so I got a good view. I call the new one 'What To Do Instead of Studying'."
"Do you think he knows Professor Morgan?" said Jared. He glanced out the window but it was much too early in the day for the guy to be there; he generally didn't show up till after noon. "Can you think of any way I can ask him and not sound like a complete freak?"
"Not really, no," said Sandy. "Not without even knowing his name."
"Hmm," said Jared, chewing on his lip as he glanced outside again. "Maybe I need to do something about that."
"So tell me about your latest date," she said, a clumsy but admittedly successful attempt to distract him. "Knowing you, we probably have just enough time before we open."
"Apparently the 'recently beaten' look isn't as popular as you might think," he said, punching his code into the till and hitting the cash drawer with the heel of his hand to unstick it, like he always had to. "We didn't even make it to dessert. Got someone else's number, though."
"Looking like that?"
"I think he thought he was hooking up with a bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks. Which means I should call him tonight before the bruise fades and the opportunity passes me by."
"Either that or he felt sorry for you," said Sandy. "You look more like you were the one who was beaten on than the one who did the beating."
"I'm too big to get beaten up," said Jared. "All I have to say is 'you should see the other guy' and I'm in."
"You didn't seriously say that, did you?" she said. Jared just grinned at her. "And it worked?"
"If by 'worked' you mean 'got me his phone number' then yes, obviously it worked," said Jared. "If I'm not going to find eternal love with book club guy, then at least I can have one good night with leather guy to make up for it."
"Just one night?" said Sandy. "That's all you're looking for?"
Jared just sighed. "Sometimes you take what you can get," he said. "Do you think I've been trying too hard? I mean, I even let my dad set me up on a date. Maybe I should just try to have fun for one night."
"With a guy who thinks you're hot because you've got a black eye."
"Bruised cheek," said Jared, wincing at another grinding sound from outside. "Are they ever going to fix that thing?"
"Not in our lifetime," said Sandy, "but maybe if you get your children's children on it we might someday have a street without a crater in the middle."
"Yeah, I'll get right on that babymaking," said Jared dryly, then out of habit looked out the window again. "Of course, then we'd have regular traffic again."
"And God forbid you don't have a clear view across the street," said Sandy. Though if Jared knew her, and he did know her, she sounded a lot more fond than annoyed.
It hadn't been in Jensen's original plan, what little original plan there was, but when Jensen was inspired to have Malcolm get in a knock-down drag-out fight with his brother, prompting him to throw a few clothes in a bag and flee the house, the rest of the story suddenly opened up to him. He'd been struggling to make it all come together; now, a couple of days later, he felt like nothing could stop him. Apparently bruising up Malcolm's face and personality a little was exactly what his story needed.
So when Katie sat down with him on her break, for the first time Jensen actually answered when she asked him what he was writing about.
"....so Malcolm's feeling alienated from his family, from his whole life, really, and primed to be looking to experience something new."
"Is it just me, or does Malcolm bear more than a passing resemblance to my future ex-husband?" she said after reading the excerpt Jensen was willing to show her.
"Who?" said Jensen, but got it right away when she tilted her head towards the street.
"Coincidence," he said right away, giving her a little shrug. "I guess your constant observations on his backside seeped into my unconscious."
"My constant observations?" said Katie dubiously. "Besides, I don't see anything about that perfect ass in here, and I'm pretty sure I never once waxed poetic about - what was it?" She glanced at the screen again. "Oh yes, his wide smile or the casual way he's always brushing the hair out of his eyes."
"Maybe I made those parts up," said Jensen, but he knew a losing battle when he fought one. "All right, fine, but he's hard to miss. I have a pretty good view from here."
"One of the perks of the job," said Katie with a grin. "What, do you think it's your sparkling personality that keeps me coming over here?" She gave him a friendly nudge, but Jensen knew that a good view of bookstore guy's considerable assets probably was a selling point.
"Maybe I thought it was my wide smile that kept you coming back," he said, turning the computer back towards himself again.
"Not that you don't have a gorgeous smile when you actually show it," says Katie, "but I love you for your mind, sweetie. So is this the sort of novel that'll be finished one day, or the sort of novel where I find out you're actually a kindergarten teacher who only teaches half days and spends his afternoons here."
"Are the two things mutually exclusive?" said Jensen. "A kindergarten teacher can't publish a novel?"
"Are you a kindergarten teacher?"
Jensen turned his smile on her. "I'm pretty sure I'm not good enough with people to be allowed to teach children." Or want to, for that matter. "No, I actually do this full time. Believe it or not."
"Yeah?" said Katie. "So you make a living writing?"
"Used to, anyway," said Jensen. Enough to carry him through for a while after the writing dried up, at any rate. He figured he still got to call himself a writer.
"Anything I might've read?"
"Probably not," Jensen admitted, not because he thought Katie didn't read but because he knew what he wrote had never exactly been an Oprah pick. "But feel free to look me up in a bookstore any time. Most bigger ones will have a copy or two."
"Maybe I'll do that right now," she said, glancing out the window and across the street. "I'm sure I could find someone to help me. Especially if you happen to be shelved on the lowest shelf. Wouldn't that be handy?"
"Ackles doesn't generally make the bottom shelf," he said, "but hey, I'll cross my fingers for you anyway."
She licked her lips, but a moment later her attention was all on him again. "Well, far be it from me to keep you away from your latest masterpiece," she said, getting up from the seat she'd claimed. "Be sure to get a mention of Malcolm's magnificent ass in there, though. It would be a shame to let that go unremarked."
"I'll keep that in mind," said Jensen, and was still smiling when she walked away.
"I found out who he is," said Sandy, and she didn't just look excited. She looked smug.
"Really?" said Jared, glancing out the window at where he was sitting bent over his laptop, like always. "What's his name?" Sandy paused, and a moment later Jared realized it was meant to be a dramatic one. "What, are you really not going to tell me?"
"That," she said finally, "is Jensen Ackles."
Jared stared at her. "Shut up!" he said finally, loud enough that someone browsing the next aisle shushed him. "Quit it, Sandy. What's his name really?"
"Swear to God, Jared," she said. "Alona had no idea who he was when she gave me his name, she says that other barista, Katie, usually serves him. I even had to ask her to repeat herself, just to make sure."
Jared looked across the street again, but Jensen didn't look like he'd looked up at all, didn't even look like he'd changed position in about half an hour. It shouldn't have been a surprise that Alona had no idea who they'd been serving coffee too. Most people outside of certain literary circles wouldn't peg the name as anything more than something the thought they might've heard once or maybe saw passing mention of in a newspaper. But Jared's family ran a bookstore and Jared had finished his master's degree in literature and Jared knew.
"Okay, now I can never talk to him," Jared pronounced. "Like, ever."
"Whatever," said Sandy. "You could probably talk to the President like he was your long-lost brother if he ever came in here. You can talk to Jensen Ackles."
"No, seriously," said Jared. "I've read Folktales from the Moon, like, fifty times. I can't talk to him, I'd just look like an idiot."
"Should I at least get Alona get him to sign your copy or something?"
Jared just shook his head, staring across the street at Jensen Ackles' profile. "This is better," he said finally. Okay, maybe he wasn't talking to him, maybe he wouldn't have one of his best beloved books signed, but Jensen Ackles lived in his neighborhood, he drank coffee at the Red Rocket and Jared got to watch him write every day. No awkward, fanboy conversation or signature was ever going to be better than what he had already. "Don't say anything, please?
Sandy stared at him for a few moments. "You're an idiot," she said finally. "You know that, right?"
"Just let me have this," pleaded Jared. "And soon as I talk to him it's over, you know? But if he doesn't know I exist, if he just keeps going across the street to write, then...."
"Then everything is still possible," Sandy finished for him.
Jared sighed. "I am an idiot. I know."
"Yeah," agree Sandy. "but you're an idiot I understand. I won't say anything, I promise."
Once every ten years the circus came to Lokivik, rising from the earth somewhere beyond the foothills and marching in to set up in a field just west of the Food Mart. Jensen finished describing the sound of elephants pounding the earth and then sat back, satisfied, to glance out the window onto the street.
He was starting to recognize the other regulars now, the students, the investment bankers, the coffee break crowd. There was one guy he always noticed, Marty, who wandered in many an afternoon. A bit of quiet questioning had established that he squatted in a boarded up apartment building nearby and spent his days cleaning up the local park, a thankless and never-ending task. Jensen knew both Katie and Alona gave him free coffee when they could, and as the weather grew colder gave him a warm place to spend some time.
Jensen was pretty sure Marty was going to make it into the novel at some point because it was too compelling an interaction to let go.
In the meantime, Malcolm Moriarty had developed an affinity for children, based on nothing more than the sight of the bookstore guy helping a pair of twin girls, one holding each of his enormous hands, find the picture book section. Jensen also decided the character was queer, and what he based that on he wasn't admitting even to himself. Both things moved his plot forward so effortlessly that it was like they'd been there all along, just waiting to be brought to the forefront.
"So what is my favorite deadbeat writer working on today?" said Katie, stealing the seat across from him only when Jensen had stopped typing for longer than it took to shake his hands out. He'd never asked it of her; it was apparently just an instinct, maybe self defense against the number of increasingly intense students she also had as regulars.
"His resignation from the human race," said Jensen, shaking his head as he watched he guy squat down and continue to work the children's section. "I'm a hopeless case."
Katie looked at him, then looked out the window, then looked at him. "Oh, thank God," she said. "So you do understand why I feel the need to write odes to that guy's ass."
"I'm not sure about the odes," said Jensen, then let out a soft groan and shook his head again. "I have no idea what I'm doing."
"You're not doing anything," said Katie, smirking at him. "Unless staring counts as doing something."
"He doesn't have hips or breasts," Jensen pointed out, spelling it out without spelling it out. "Seriously. I have no idea what I'm doing."
"Oh God," said Katie. "Seriously? You're sitting here having a gay crisis, right now?" She looked out the window, where the guy was grinning so wide you could see his molars. "For him, I can't say I blame you."
"It's not a crisis," said Jensen, draining the last of his cold coffee sludge in front of her. "And I'm not gay."
"Right," she said, slipping out of the seat again when the door chime sounded and Marty fumbled his way inside. "I'm going to get you a fresh coffee while I let you think about that for a minute. And when I come back with it you're going to tip me really well."
He probably was, she was right. Going to tip her well, that is, not think about it. In fact, he was going to go back to Malcolm and the jugglers and the foothills of Lokivik and not think about bookstore guy at all.
Except the next time he looked the guy was making funny faces, blowing his cheeks out and - Jensen couldn't quite tell at this distance, but he had convinced himself - crossing his eyes at the girls. Guy like that, so good with people, Jensen didn't know what he was doing working in a bookstore of all places.
But he could imagine. Malcolm Moriarty, in that moment, took on the mantle of autodidact. He couldn't afford college thanks to his mother's alcoholism and his brother's criminal activity, but he got himself a job in a bookstore which to him was the next best thing.
Before Jensen knew it he was typing away again, and when a fresh coffee appeared at his elbow he barely gave Katie a nod before reaching for it, still typing with one hand.
And hour later he was still typing when he caught sight of Marty out of the corner of his eye, watched him stumble across the street and disappear up the side street past Padalecki Books.
"You're looking better," Chad noted when Jared walked into the bookstore an hour after opening. Not late - he hadn't scheduled himself to open - but later than he normally arrived. "You look like you got laid."
"You look like you're looking for a new job," said Jared, knocking him on the shoulder on his way by.
"You so got laid," Chad called after him, just loud enough for the nearest customers to hear and stare at him. Then, to add insult to injury, Chad followed him back to the register. "Sandy told me you went to some S&M club last week because some biker daddy wanted you to spank him."
"Sandy told you what?"
"Okay, she might've told me you were looking for your leather jacket for your date," said Chad. "I drew my own conclusions."
"Somehow, I'd already guessed that," said Jared, hanging up his jacket outside the back office and unlocking the door. "You need something, other than to harass me?"
"I'm on Jensen watch this morning, apparently," Chad told him. "I'm here to report that he hasn't shown up at Red Rocket yet."
Jared accidentally dropped his jacket, missing the hook entirely. "You're on what?"
"Hey, don't look at me, it was Sandy's idea," said Chad. "She said you'd never forgive her if he did something noteworthy and no one was around to see it. We both figured I would probably be among the unforgiven too. I did help you move the postcard racks. Those things are heavier than they look."
"One day," said Jared, "I'm going to learn not to hire my college friends."
"I'm not really a college friend if I never graduated, right?" said Chad.
"That's not really a selling point if your goal is to remain employed," Jared reminded him. "I have plenty of applicants with a college degree, you know. It's a harsh world out there."
"Yes, but would they do Jensen watch for you?" said Chad. "I think not."
"They probably would, if I signed their paychecks," said Jared, finally picking up his coat and making his way into his office, "but I'm pretty sure I wouldn't want them to."
"Well there you go then," said Chad. "Oh, and your phone messages are by the register. Someone called Sylvia something called? Anyway, whatever. I wrote it down."
Jared groaned and decided this wasn't the best morning he could have hoped for, freshly laid or not; Chad had been right about that, at least.
It wasn't that Jared had bad luck with dates. In fact, Jared had very good luck with dates, most of the time. It was that he never found anyone to connect with, and it was just his luck that that, unlike most of the guys he met, was what he was looking for.
Which didn't mean he said no to sex. Ever.
"If she calls back, just take a message?" said Jared, practically begging him. "I'm pretty sure it's not good news, and I'm just not in any state for it this morning."
"Well fucked and hung over," said Chad. "Good to see you aren't too hung up on this writer guy. I bet he's a douche. Most writers are."
"Yeah, well, it takes one to know one," said Jared.
"I'm not a writer," said Chad.
"Yeah, that's not the part I was talking about," said Jared. "I'll be in my office, all right? I've got some paperwork to catch up on and things seem pretty slow. Call me if--"
"There's a Jensen Watch sighting?" said Chad, which wasn't what Jared was going to say. Well, not in those words, anyway. "Aye aye captain."
"You've been spending too much time with Sandy," said Jared as Chad left, then closed his office door. He'd brought this on himself, and he couldn't even really be that sorry for it.
Bookstore guy showed up on a chilly afternoon in a woolen cap with tiny little cat ears, like you'd see on a six year old, and Jensen couldn't help but immediately write it into Malcolm. It was just too delightfully absurd to pass up, which was exactly how he described it while explaining it to Katie.
"So you really have been writing this whole thing about Ja--"
"Wait, you know his name?" said Jensen, interrupting her before she could speak it. "You've known his name this whole time?"
"Well, of course," she said. "He's worked across the street for as long as I've lived here; of course I know his name."
"Don't tell me, all right?" said Jensen. "Don't... please?"
"Wow," said Katie. "I knew that you writers were a little eccentric, but...."
Jensen gave her a sheepish smile. "At least until I finish the book, all right?" Which at the rate he was going probably wouldn't be all that long. "Right now he is Malcolm Moriarty. Anything you told me would just... confuse things."
Anything she told him would almost certainly distract him from writing, anyway, and as much as a part of Jensen was dying to know who the guy really was, that was something he couldn't afford right now.
"Eccentric," said Katie again, nodding her head firmly. "Sure, I can do that. But I get to be the first person to read it when you're finished."
"My agent will be the first person to read it when I'm finished," said Jensen. "And then Steve. Would you settle for third?"
"Deal," said Katie, offering her hand. "So, what, your entire novel is based on him?"
"Sort of," said Jensen, staring at the words on his screen so he didn't have to meet her eyes. "Let's just say he's been inspiring."
"Yeah, he inspires me to do all kinds of things," said Katie, "but writing's not one of them. You're sure you don't want to actually meet him?"
"I'm not exactly great with people," said Jensen wryly. "Believe me, it's better this way. I get to use him shamelessly and he never has to know about it."
"You're shy, aren't you?" said Katie, grinning at him. "You're shy."
"Totally not the point I'm trying to make," said Jensen, without actually saying that she was wrong. "Maybe I'll meet him when I'm done. It would be ridiculous to try to avoid the nearest bookstore forever."
"Also, ironic," said Katie, "given that you're allegedly a writer."
"Allegedly?" said Jensen.
"Hey, I've never read anything you've written," said Katie. "It's still possible you're a plumber with a laptop."
"I think I preferred kindergarten teacher," said Jensen wryly. "I'm not really great with my hands."
"Not the sort of thing a guy should be admitting," said Katie, getting up when the door jingled and a group of students bustled inside. "It's a good thing you're never going to try to pick me up."
"Not really planning on picking anyone up," said Jensen, but Katie was already out of earshot so he turned back to Malcolm and his knife-throwing adventure, and was at it till the sun started going down.
"Mom, I'm not pressing charges," insisted Jared, holding the phone between his shoulder and his ear as he groped around for the box cutter. "No, I don't care what you-- Mom. I'm fine. Ask Sandy if you don't believe me." Normally he would've gotten Chad back here dealing with the latest shipment, but this wasn't a conversation he wanted to be having in the middle of the store. "No, she would not lie to you. I'm not even bruised anymore."
The problem with skipping Sunday dinner a time or two was that your parents caught wind of your doings from alternative sources and that just never turned out well. But they had known that he was going to have to fire Brendan; as far as he was concerned, the punch was just a detail they didn't need to worry about.
"Mom, it's dealt with," he insisted, moving on to the next box. "You trusted me to do this, so let me do this. I handled it."
It was all well and good to let their baby boy handle the family business, right up until punches were thrown.
"You know we worry," she said, "and there are limits to what you should have to put up with. Are you going to need to replace him?"
"Yeah, I've got Sandy going through resumes," he said with a sigh of relief as she moved on. "One of my other part-timers cut back on her course load and wanted some extra hours this fall, though, so we're not desperate."
"Always better to get things in place before you need them," she said, a lesson Jared had learned long before he even took the smallest place in the family business. "So... any other developments in your life that I ought to know about?"
"Are you trying to ask if I'm dating anyone?" said Jared, inspecting a copy of the latest Chabon for damage. "You know I'm not."
"Well how would I know that?" she said. "All I know is that things didn't work out with Aldis. I haven't seen you in two weeks, Jared, and you know it. You can't spare just one Sunday for you family?"
"This week, I promise," he said. "I went out last weekend, but... well, you know how it goes."
"You haven't brought anyone home since Milo," said his mother with that long-suffering tone that all mothers somehow had. "Are things really that hard out there?"
Jared just laughed and set the book down, moving on again, matching the boxes against his inventory list. "I'm just having fun," he said, because somehow it sounded better than admitting that he could never seem to find what he was looking for. "I'm young, isn't that what we're supposed to do?"
"Well, yes," she admitted. "Still, it would be nice to set another place at Sunday dinner again."
"Believe me, you'll be the first to know," said Jared. "Well, second. Third at worst."
"You'd tell that Chad before you'd tell your own mother?"
"It's not that I tell him things, he somehow just finds out," said Jared. And what Chad didn't find out, he just went ahead and made up. "But there's no one. There's not even... any real possibility on the horizon." Just a pretty face and a lot of forgettable dates, and nothing he really wanted to talk about.
"Well, make sure you're at dinner this weekend," she said. "I don't know what I'll tell your father if you're busy again. You know how he likes the whole family together."
"Yeah, it's Dad who likes the whole family together," said Jared. "I'll call you later this week, all right?"
"Sooner if you have anything to tell me?"
"Of course," Jared promised her, but did not expect that he would. "Love you, Mom."
"You too, JT," she said. "Don't be a stranger."
It was several weeks after moving to the neighborhood when Jensen finally got over himself and set foot inside Padalecki Books. Which was ridiculous because he was a god damn writer, and the neighborhood's main independent bookstore should've been one of the first places he knew by heart.
Of course, when he was this busy immersed in writing a book, he didn't have all that much time left over to read them. He even almost believed that was the real reason when he explained it to himself that way. Almost.
Jensen never thought of himself as the kind of writer who, immediately upon entering a bookstore, went to see if his own books were stocked, but that was the first thing he did in Padalecki Books. This time, he just felt like somehow he needed to know. Like maybe it would mean something.
He did find his own books. In fact, he found multiple copies of them. He might've smiled when he realized that, and hoped that no one was around to see it.
"Help you with anything?" someone said at his elbow, and Jensen realized he must've been standing there staring off into space for long enough to attract attention.
"Oh, thanks, just browsing," he said, immediately looking for something to browse. Thankfully, he was surrounded by shelves full of conveniently located books.
"For anything in particular?" she said. "If you're just looking for a good read, our most extensive sections are in Twentieth Century Literature, Local History, and Gay and Lesbian Interest."
Jensen swallowed hard at that last one, like somehow she'd made that up just for him.
"Just new to the neighborhood," he said, putting his hands in his pockets and looking at his shoes. There was a scuff on his right toe that he hadn't noticed until right that moment, probably because he didn't spend a lot of time staring at them. "Thought I'd check the place out."
"Well, I'm Sandy if you need anything," she said,. "I hope you're liking the area so far."
"Definitely," said Jensen, even managing a smile as she moved off, though he had the feeling her eyes - or someone's eyes - were on him while he browsed. Or lurked. Whatever it was he was doing in there.
He'd known before he even set foot in the door that bookstore guy either wasn't working, or had been busy in the back all day; Jensen hadn't seen any sign of him all afternoon. But he still wasn't sure whether it was a relief or not, not to spot him as he browsed what was, in the end, almost the entire store.
On the spur of the moment before he left, he picked up a copy of his own first novel, Emile's Marathon, and brought it up to the register.
"Interesting choice," said Sandy as she rang it up for him, turning the book over to glance at the back then looking up and giving him a smile that was just a little too knowing.
"It's for a friend," he said quickly. There was no reason to think she'd recognized him - there was no photograph of him anywhere on his books - but he just had a weird feeling. "She mentioned wanting to read it."
Actually, she mentioned not being sure it actually existed, but Jensen didn't think that small difference was worth pointing out.
"It's good, but I like his second novel better," said Sandy as she made change. "Emile's Marathon is great, but Folktales from the Moon is transcendent. Do you need a bag?"
"Uh, no, I'm good," said Jensen, slipping the book into his coat pocket and trying not to blush. "I'll keep that in mind if she likes this one."
"Great," said Sandy, handing over the bills. "Well, I hope we'll see you again."
"I'm sure you will," said Jensen, and all but fled the store.
Jared had stopped taking his turn doing coffee runs a few weeks back, right around the time he really started noticing Jensen and before he even knew who he was, but the Red Rocket was across the street. He couldn't avoid it forever, and even if he could he felt like it was time he maybe grilled Alona for any more information she might be able to offer him.
"Hey Jared," said Katie brightly as he slowly made his way up to the counter.
"Hey," he said, admittedly distracted. "Is, uh, Alona around?"
"Day off," said Katie, "but I promise I can make coffee just as well as she can. How many am I getting for you."
"Just three," said Jared, looking back over his shoulder towards the front window.
"Looking for something?"
"What?" he said. "Uh, no, no, just looking around. Been a while; usually I make the underlings do the coffee runs. Not too busy today, huh?"
"Well, you know how it is," she said. "The traffic through here ebbs and flows, and a couple of our regulars haven't come in yet."
If Jensen has been sitting in his usual spot, after all, Jared would never have taken on the coffee run in the first place. If Jensen has been sitting in his usual spot, he would've chosen another day to pump Alona for information and sent Chad in for the coffee.
"Cream and sugar?"
"For the coffee," said Katie, the look on her face a little more knowing than Jared would've liked. God, he was probably completely obvious.
"Right," said Jared. "Just throw a bunch in the bag and we'll sort it out over there. Chad changes his mind every other day anyway."
He probably could've asked Katie about Jensen, but Katie had apparently become a lot more Jensen's friend than his; she'd probably tell him he had a stalker, and that was the last thing Jared needed.
"So, ten for you and five to split between everyone else, right?" said Katie, just as there was the squeal of tires outside. Jared looked and could've sworn he saw Brendan at the wheel, swerving wildly to avoid both the epic pothole and a random pedestrian. Or maybe every time he saw someone acting reckless, his mind immediately turned to that legendary punch in the face.
"That, uh, sounds about right," he said, just a beat too late. As he was watching, though, he saw what he knew at a single glance was Professor Morgan's car pulling into an empty space on the side street next to Padalecki Books. "Actually, can you make that four coffees?"
"I think I can handle that," said Katie, pouring another and slipping it into the one empty spot on the carrier. "Do you want me to tell Alona you were looking for her?"
"Nah," said Jared, then, "Actually, yes. Would you? You'll probably see her before I do."
"No problem," said Katie, swiping his coffee card through the register.
Jared balanced the coffee on one hand and held the sugar-and-creamer bag in the other and used his ass to open the door, ducking the minimal traffic to cross the street back to Padalecki Books.
"Jared," said Jeff Morgan, holding the door open for him. There was another young man with him, probably his latest graduate assistant, Jared figured. "Just the guy I was wanting to see."
"Yeah, I was afraid of that," said Jared. "Do you want the good news or the bad news first?"
"Gimme the bad news first," said Jeff, following him to the back. "At least I'm pretty sure I know what that is. No word from Eastern Europe?"
"Oh, I have word," said Jared, passing out the coffee to Sandy and Chad in turn. "I actually just talked to Sylvia this morning and she assured me your order's finally been secured and shipped."
"So how's that bad news?"
"It just shipped yesterday," said Jared. "So God only knows when it's actually going to make it through customs and arrive. Sorry, Jeff."
"Well, that's about what I was expecting," he said. "What's the good news?"
"I got you coffee?" said Jared, grinning at him and offering him the last cup. Jeff laughed and accepted it with a nod. "Sorry, I just got the one," he added for the guy who'd come in with Professor Morgan. "I didn't know Jeff would have company."
"That's all right," he said, looking sincere enough. "I'm more of an organic tea kind of guy anyway."
"Mmm, sorry," said Jeff, only after taking a sip of his hot coffee. "Jared, this is Misha, my new flunky. Misha, this is Jared Padalecki of Padalecki Books, my graduate assistant from... how many years ago is it now, Jared?
"Shut up," said Jared, starting to dump sugar packets into his own coffee. "It hasn't been that long."
"Couple years now," said Jeff unrepentantly. "Any ballpark estimate on those books, Jared? Just a guess?"
"Maybe a couple weeks?" he offered. "It's out of my hands now, we just have to cross our fingers and hope. You didn't come in just for those, did you?" He hoped, anyway; a phone call would've been more painless.
"No, no, I've taken it upon myself to introduce Misha to the most important spots in the area. He just moved from the west coast."
"Most important spots, huh?" said Jared. "Well, I'm glad we made the list. How many places were on it before us?"
"About a half dozen," Misha offered, "but if it's any consolation, the others were all on campus."
Jared laughed and finally sipped his own coffee before it got cold. Jeff, as Jared fully expected from long experience, was downing his quickly.
"Jeff thinks we're better than the campus bookstore, late shipments notwithstanding," he said. "I think he's been coming here for years."
"Since Jared was in high school," said Jeff, nodding along and surveying the store with a certain degree of satisfaction. Maybe even pride. "I like to think I had a hand in Jared's eventual career path."
"Mmm, probably more the growing up in a bookstore than meeting random professors," said Jared, grinning at him, "but I can't deny you might've had some small part in it."
"The way Jeff tells it, he mentored you from the time you were actually shorter than him," said Misha. It was easy to see why Jeff had picked him, of all the applicants he probably had; it took a certain force of personality to be capable of holding your own against Professor Morgan. "Were you ever shorter than him?"
"Once upon a time, when I was young and impressionable," said Jared.
"It's definitely been a while," said Jeff, draining the last of his coffee. "Well, we should probably move on, got a few more places to hit before I release Misha into the wild. Thanks for the coffee, Jared."
"Hey, anytime," said Jared. "You know you're welcome here. Both of you." And that wasn't just good business.
Jeff gave him a last wave and zipped his coat, motioning for Misha to follow as he started to head out of the store, but Misha lingered for a moment.
"So I don't normally do this," he said, looking back over his shoulder towards where Jeff was already heading back to the car, "but, um. You think I could get your phone number? It's totally cool if you're not interested, I just thought, maybe...."
Jared hadn't seen that coming, and couldn't help but smile broadly when it hit. "Yeah," he said, reaching for the nearest scrap of paper, a discarded receipt. "Yeah." He scrawled his number on the back, then went over it again to make sure it was legible. "I'm glad Jeff brought you by."
"Me too," said Misha, and held up the number like a goodbye and a promise in one as he turned around to catch up with Professor Morgan.
Maybe Jared's entire future wasn't written in failed dates and eye candy after all.
Jensen was finally delving into Malcolm's slow and careful flirtation with the quiet acrobat, broadening and deepening their first real conversation, and it wasn't a mystery just what had inspired him to do it.
Admittedly, it wasn't the first time he'd seen his bookstore guy flirting with someone. Honestly, the guy seemed so open and friendly that he was made to flirt. But there was something different today, something new about his smile, something changed about the way he touched.
And the object of his attentions definitely made a good case for Malcolm's queerness, which for Jensen's purposes - his literary purposes, anyway - was exactly what he needed.
He was just broaching the possibility of Malcolm learning some of the tricks of the trade when he felt a nudge on his shoulder. Well, two nudges, because he'd ignored the first.
"Hey," said Steve, sliding into the seat opposite him. "No, don't stop, I just brought you a fresh coffee."
"Okay," said Jensen, and didn't actually stop for another ten or fifteen minutes. After all, it was Steve; he understood. Once he did finally take a break, he finally took a sip of the cooling coffee and kicked Steve gently under the table.
"Hey," he said again, looking up from the magazine he'd been thumbing through. "Having a good day?"
"Terrible," said Jensen, then took a second to jot down a few notes just so he didn't lose his train of thought, smiling to himself as he sketched out a good thirty pages more of the novel. "Can't you tell?"
"You think you can manage some enthusiasm for your best friend's good news anyway?" he said, closing the magazine and shoving it aside.
"I think if I try very hard I might be able to manage." Jensen actually made an effort to drink his coffee before it got cold on him, an increasingly rare occurrence. "What kind of good news?"
"Got a new gig," said Steve. "Nothing big, but it's a regular one."
"Oh, hey," said Jensen. "That is good news. Where is it? That new club downtown that you were talking about?"
"Well, here, actually," said Steve. "Acoustic sets, Thursday evenings. Leaves my weekends free for other gigs and I don't even have to travel far from home."
"Here?" said Jensen, looking around. The truth was, and he hated to admit it, but the truth was that he never even thought about what this place was like in the evenings. In his head it only existed in the hours between lunch and dinner, his designated writing time. "Huh. So I guess I'll have to come, right?"
Steve laughed. "Well, it would be nice," he said. "If you decided to stay home and watch television when I was playing just a few blocks away, I have to admit I'd be pretty disappointed."
"Hey, if I stayed home and had the place to myself, I'd be jerking off, not watching television," Jensen protested. "Give me some credit."
Steve kicked him in the ankle, and not gently. "Any chance I can convince you to sing a number or two with me?"
"Not on your life," said Jensen. "But I'll be here. And just for you, I won't even bring my laptop."
"Hey, it's a miracle," said Steve, "but you know I wouldn't ask that much of you. If you were inspired to write while I was playing, it would probably be a compliment."
"Probably," Jensen had to admit, "but I'll leave it at home anyway. It's been a while since I've had a night out. A fun night out."
"Yeah, it has," said Steve, in a way that suggested it was something he'd given a little too much thought to for Jensen's comfort. "How long?" Jensen didn't answer. After the first few seconds of awkward silence, he figured he didn't need to. "Did she really break you that hard?"
Jensen couldn't do anything but shrug at that; he wasn't even sure what the answer was anymore. If he did know it, though, Steve would be the one person he'd tell. After all, when he was finally reaching his lowest point, when he wasn't bouncing back, when the money started running out, it was Steve he'd come to.
"You know, my cousin's going to be in town next week," said Steve. "The two of you always got along, right?"
"Seriously, Steve?" said Jensen, staring at him in disbelief. "Seriously." But then Steve broke into a grin and Jensen breathed a sigh of relief.
"Like I'd ever let any cousin of mine date you anyway," said Steve. "You have more issues than Time magazine, Jensen. No offense."
"All artists have issues," said Jensen. "You're not exactly the model for well-adjusted yourself."
"Yeah, maybe not," admitted Steve with a grin. "Just... she's already taken up enough of your life, Jensen. Don't let her take the rest, all right?"
"Not planning to," said Jensen, sipping his coffee again. In fact, if there was one thing his crush - and yes, that really was what it was - on the bookstore guy had taught him, it was that he was really, finally over her. "So this Thursday, right? I will absolutely be there."
"Good," said Steve, draining the last of his coffee. "Are you going to be home for dinner? I'm grilling steaks on the balcony."
"You know I'd never miss that," said Jensen, "even if it isn't quite like home."
"According to you, it never really could be," said Steve, "but maybe that's not such a bad thing."
"New is good," agreed Jensen. "Sometimes. Sometimes new is good."
Jared hummed as he pinned next month's work schedule up on the staff bulletin board. And he hummed as he straightened up the children's section. And he hummed as he replaced a burnt out light bulb over the register.
"Dude, quit it," said Chad, "you sound like you're dying."
"I do not," said Jared as the counter was illuminated once again. "I sound like an angel."
"Yeah, a dying angel," said Chad. "I'd think you'd rather be spending time with your boy than torturing the rest of us."
"Oh, hey, is he early today?" said Jared, looking towards the front windows of the bookstore.
"Not that boy," said Chad, arching an eyebrow at him. "Your other boy. You know, the one you're actually dating." He pointed Jared towards the front door, where Misha was wiping his shoes on the mat.
Jared at least had the decency to look embarrassed. "Right," he said. "I didn't mean...."
"I know," said Chad. "Just, for the love of God, stop humming before he hears you."
Jared didn't answer, just clapped Chad on the shoulder absently and wove his way to the front of the store to meet Misha. "Hey," he said, "I wasn't expecting you today."
"I know," said Misha, "and I need to get back to the university as soon as I'm finished running Jeff's errands. But I figured a two-minute visit was better than none, right?"
"Always," said Jared, taking his elbow and leading him into a more private corner. "What's he got you doing?"
"Oh, you know, the usual," said Misha. "Picking up his dry cleaning, getting him coffee, shaving his dog...."
"Shaving his what?"
"Or was it his cat?" said Misha. "Wow, I sure hope I shaved the right one."
Jared laughed, throwing his head back, and bit back any response that came to mind that involved shaved pussy. Of which there were a few.
"Let me guess," he said. "You've been criss-crossing the city chasing down his research?"
"He's got a real hard-on for some of this stuff," said Misha, patting his messenger bag. "We actually have different areas of concentration, but I guess I'll be getting a crash course pretty soon. He wants some input on his syllabus for next semester."
"Jeff'll work you harder than anyone else in the department," said Jared, "but it's always worth it in the end. The guy's a genius. I can't believe you'd put yourself through a couple of semesters of being at his beck and call, though, if you're not that into his work."
"Oh, I am," said Misha. "I am. It's just that his work has been heavily concentrated on writing from the Americas; my thesis is on the roots of the movement in China."
"If you call the American writers overrated, I'm not sure we can date anymore."
"Well, we'll just have to see about that," said Misha. "Listen, I've really got to run, but were you serious about dinner next Sunday?"
"My parents want to meet you," said Jared. "I haven't brought anyone home in... a while."
"So no pressure at all, then," said Misha. "I'll try to make sure I'm free. Just let me know for sure, all right?"
"I will," Jared promised him, giving him a quick kiss before he dashed out the door again. "Call me later."
"As soon as I leave campus," Misha promised him, but made no promises about when that might be.
Back when they were undergrads together - which these days felt like eons ago - Jensen used to sing with Steve a little, usually late at night when they were drunk or stoned and very rarely on stage, but Steve was always the real talent when it came to music. It was a crime, Jensen sometimes thought, that he wasn't a big name in the music world.
But then, Steve probably would've hated that. Right here on a little stage in the corner of a neighborhood coffeeshop was exactly what he liked.
Jensen had been so caught up in his own life for so long - first because of how much of a disaster it had become, then because of how much it wasn't a disaster anymore - he hadn't been paying enough attention to the lives of his friends. Friend. Steve. But there'd been times in the past when it had swung the other way, and somehow it all worked in the end.
That was what being best friends was all about, he guessed.
It wasn't killing him to take the night off from writing, or worrying about writing, or worrying about not writing, or thinking about why the tall and unbelievably gorgeous guy from the bookstore had so much of an influence on his writing. In fact, it felt pretty good.
"Where've you been hiding him?" said Katie, slipping into the seat across from him. It was funny how she hadn't changed her hair or her makeup or anything, but she still looked completely different to him without an apron on.
"In the closet," said Jensen, deadpan.
"Huh," said Katie. "I wouldn't have thought you'd have had enough room in there for the both of you."
Jensen resisted the urge to flick sugar packets across the table at her.
"Do I need to whip out pictures of the ex-girlfriend for you?" he said.
"All that'll do is prove my point," said Katie, pausing to applaud as Steve finished another song and paused for a glass of water. "They're called beards, honey."
"No," said Jensen immediately, though. "No. She wasn't... I was with Danneel for almost ten years. All through college. Through my first two books. She was everything."
Something in his voice must've told her he meant it, because the next time she opened her mouth it wasn't to tease him. "I figured there'd been someone," she said. "What'd she do to you?"
Jensen shook his head. "It wasn't like that," he said. "I just thought it was going to be forever. She didn't, I guess."
"Did she cheat, was that it?"
Jensen shook his head. "No," he said. "I don't think... no, someone would've told me, after we broke up, if she had. Probably would've thought it'd make me feel better, or her look worse, or something."
"Huh," said Katie. "So it just didn't work out?"
"Didn't work out in a fairly spectacular and loud and drawn out way, in the end," said Jensen. "She took everything, and... I let her." It was a period of his life he didn't want to spend a whole lot of time remembering, but at least now he could. He could think about it, and remember her, without it paralyzing the rest of his life.
Steve finished a set, to applause that filled the whole coffeeshop, preventing Katie from being able to delve any more deeply than that.
"I'll, uh, be back," said Jensen, trying not to look like he was fleeing her questions. But just because he could think about it didn't mean it was anything he really wanted to talk about. He might've felt ready to move from it, finally, but that didn't necessarily mean he was entirely okay.
Steve looked up as he approached and motioned him right over without hesitation.
"That's Katie over there with you, isn't it?" said Steve, squinting towards Jensen's table. "That's her name right, the girl who works here? She your girl these days?"
"Who, Katie?" said Jensen. "She's not... we're not. She's a friend, I guess."
"Right, you made a friend," said Steve. "Sorry. I know I haven't said anything but I have to admit I could've sworn you found someone lately. Hell, you've even been smiling."
"I haven't--" said Jensen, but that was a lie. Part of a lie. He hadn't found someone in the way Steve meant it, but.... "Well. There might be someone."
"That guy from the bookstore across the street?" said Steve, smiling when Jensen didn't answer right away. "You might've mentioned him a time or five."
Jensen's throat felt frozen for a long time before he could get an answer out. "It doesn't mean anything."
Steve shrugged, smiling at him. "Doesn't matter to me if it does," he said. "You should've asked him here with you tonight. Maybe next week?"
"It's... not like that," said Jensen. "We're not like that."
"Well, maybe by next week you will be," said Steve, easygoing as always, taking one last sip of water before angling his head towards the his stool. "I gotta get back out there. Catch you afterwards?"
"I'll help you pack up," said Jensen, and lingered there until Steve was halfway through his first song before weaving his way back to his table.
It wasn't until Steve had finished his last set that Jensen looked back at the doors and saw a familiar figure slipping out of the coffeeshop with Sandy at his side, and realized he must've been there all along.
The next time Jared saw Professor Morgan, he was relieved to finally be able to hand over the books he'd special ordered weeks - hell, months - ago.
"Excellent," he said, not betraying even the slightest bit of impatience. "In plenty of time for the spring semester."
"Too bad they weren't in time for fall," said Jared. "I hope this didn't set you back too far."
"Oh no, no," said Jeff. "That would have taken a miracle even your mother couldn't have worked. It's too bad you're not at the university anymore, though; I'm finally teaching that magic realism course we used to talk about. It only took me five years of course preparation to talk the administration into it."
"Damn it," said Jared. "Will you give me the reading list anyway, since I did manage to bully some poor lady in the Czech Republic to get those in the mail to me?"
"I think that can be arranged," said Jeffrey, grinning at him as he handed over his credit card. "Most of it you've probably already read, though. García Márquez, Okri, Ackles, some Rushdie and Tashi Dawa. You know, the other day I heard a rumor Ackles is living in the city now? Maybe with a carefully prepared email campaign I can convince him to guest lecture."
"Yeah, maybe," said Jared, and it took all his willpower not to look at the window and see if Jensen was across the street right at that moment. "That'd be pretty cool, to get him in. He's really a part of the new wave."
"I'll let you know if I pull it off," said Jeff as Jared bagged his books with only slightly shaky hands. "I know you're a fan."
"You know me too well," said Jared, proud of how little he gave away.
Jeff lingered a moment after he tucked the package away into his book bag. "So, you and Misha, huh?"
Jared just smiled at him. "You did introduce us," he said.
"Indeed," said Jeff. "Little did I know. Just try not to distract him from his work too much, would you? I know how distracting you can be when you put your mind to it."
"And you make sure he can find the time to meet my parents," said Jared. "It'll get them off my back, and you know how much I like my parents off my back."
"Oh yes," said Jeff. "I know all about how much your parents like to involve themselves in your life." He closed his bag and slung it across his body again. "You and Misha. Huh."
"What, is that so weird?"
If Jared's eyes went to the window again to see if Jensen had shown up for his daily bout of writing, he didn't admit that the timing had anything to do with anything at all.
"Just unanticipated," said Jeff. "I'll be in touch, Jared."
"So hey," said Jensen, actually going up to the counter to get a fresh coffee like a normal person. "I know it doesn't make any difference whatsoever, but I wanted to let you know I'm going out of town this weekend."
"Oh yeah?" said Katie. "Vacation?"
"Business," said Jensen, "more or less. I'm getting close to finishing a draft and my agent wants a face to face." Though, truth be told, Chris didn't need a face to face meeting for any professional reason; Jensen had a good guess the request came because Steve had told him Jensen wasn't getting out enough.
"That's fast, right?" said Katie, pushing the coffee mug across the counter in Jensen's direction. "The draft, I mean. You finished that pretty quick."
"Well, it's not done yet," said Jensen. Malcolm still needed to confront his brother, and then there was the whole disappearance to consider. "But yeah, a few months is pretty fast. I guess I've been saving it up or something."
"Lots to be said for inspiration," she said, resting her elbows on the counter and smiling at him. "Maybe tomorrow he'll show a talent for, I don't know, trombone, or juggling, and you'll start on the sequel on the spot."
"I'm not that bad," said Jensen, and after a moment of thought took his coffee black, the way he used to. He refused to admit that the image of bookstore guy juggling had already imprinted itself on his brain, ready to be incorporated.
"You are exactly that bad," said Katie, "and you should thank me for enabling you. You think that table's always free when you come in by accident?"
"I thought it was because I come at weird times," Jensen admitted, looking at the table. He'd never actually given it much thought, just one of those things he took for granted.
"There are no such things as weird times when you're in a college neighborhood," said Katie. "So what does almost finished mean? A few pages to go?"
"More like the light at the end of the tunnel," said Jensen. "It's all mapped out in my head now, though. I can see the end."
"So it's more like almost almost done."
"Call it what you like," he said, sipping his coffee. "It means that my table will be vacant for a day."
"How will I ever survive?" Katie teased him. "Well, go get close to actually almost done while you still can. They were clearing out the window display earlier today; you may be in for a manly demonstration shortly if they're ready to set up the new one."
"I'm not here for the manly displays," said Jensen, but he took his coffee back to his table pretty quickly anyway, and definitely kept his eyes out for any window activity.
But then, he always did.
"What do you think he's writing about?" said Jared, sipping his fresh coffee and watching out the window from behind the counter. "You should peek over his shoulder the next time you're in there."
"He's probably writing about the hot baristas," said Chad. "I know that's what I would be doing."
"And that," said Sandy, "is why he's an award-winning writer and you shelve books."
"Hey, I do more than shelve books," protested Chad. "I work the register, too. And I'm Jared's bitch."
"He could be, you know."
"He could be what, your bitch?" said Sandy. "I don't think there's much doubt about that."
"No, Jensen," said Jared. "He could be writing about Katie and Alona."
"And that new girl," Chad added. "What's her name?"
"Adrianne," supplied Sandy.
"Right, her," said Chad. "It's like the coffeeshop of hot."
Jared couldn't argue with that, but it had nothing to do with the baristas.
"Even if he is writing about them, it's not because they're hot," said Sandy, giving Chad a firm elbow. "That's not the kind of writer he is, Chad. Which you'd know if you actually read his books."
"Maybe if you guys would stop talking about them all the time, I would."
"I think he might be into Katie," said Jared, his eyes still fixed on the window. Even a car racing by and bouncing loudly through the pothole didn't distract him. "That would make sense, right? He spends more time with her than anyone."
"That you see," Sandy reminded him. "And she does work there."
"Yeah, but maybe that's why he goes. That's why he goes to Red Rocket ever day and doesn't mix it up." Jared had, it had to be said, probably given this entirely too much thought.
"Would it matter if he was?" said Sandy softly.
"No," said Jared, when Chad was smart enough not to say anything to that. "It wouldn't change anything. But I think I'd rather not know."
"Because of your boyfriend. That you already have."
"No," said Jared. "I mean, yes, I know, Misha. But this isn't about that. This is something else."
"You really think that's fair to him?" said Chad.
"No, hey, no," said Jared. "Misha's great. I've even finally convinced him to come home with me this weekend, I think. Jensen is just--"
"A complete stranger?" offered Chad.
"Jensen," finished Jared. "He's just Jensen, you know? Misha's real. Jensen's just a fantasy."
"Yeah, I know," said Sandy, and Jared wasn't quite sure why the look she gave him was so sad.
"It's still rough," said Jensen, sitting down nervously in the chair opposite Chris's desk. "Just the first few chapters."
He'd emailed it to Chris before taking the train out to meet with him, for the first time in months. But he'd still ended up sitting there watching Chris read it, or at least read parts of it, in front of him. It was not the most awkward thing he'd ever experienced, but it was certainly up there.
"It's amazing," said Chris, "but I think you already know that. Who's it about really, Jensen?"
"What?" he said cautiously. "What are you talking about? There's no trick to it, Chris, it's about Malcolm Moriarty and his struggle to--"
"No," said Chris patiently, "I mean who's it about really?" He said it like he already knew the answer to his own question and just wanted to hear Jensen say the words. "I'll admit, making it about a man threw me for the first couple of chapters, but the tousled hair, the mile-long legs, the ridiculous wide smile...."
Jensen still stared at him. "It's about Mal--"
"It's not that I'm not glad you're writing again, Jensen, but let me talk to you as a friend and not your agent for a minute, okay? Because it's not healthy, fixating on Danneel like this. It's been over for a long time."
He had to laugh. He had to laugh like he'd probably never laughed in front of Chris before. "You think I wrote it about Danneel? After all this time?"
Chris frowned at him, and Jensen wasn't sure whether that particular expression came from his agent or his friend that time. Maybe this was why it was a bad idea to blur the lines between the two. "I can't believe I'm saying this, but maybe you should talk to someo--"
"It's not about Danneel," said Jensen. "Okay, I'll admit, I had some inspiration for the character, but believe me, it wasn't Danneel. I haven't even really thought about her in... since I moved. Since I moved, Chris. And if I did write her into something, I'd probably be more inclined to talk about her horns and her forked tail than her legs or her smile."
"Well, at least that's healthier," said Chris. "Sort of."
"Yeah, yeah, I know," said Jensen. "It's just been long enough. I was tired of feeling the way I was feeling. It was good and then it was terrible and then it was over, and... well, there's no and. That's the end of that story."
"Does that mean there's a new girl?" said Chris. "All the times I've talked to you, you never said anything about any new girl."
"I didn't say there was a new girl," said Jensen, sounding more cagy than he actually meant to. "I just said it was written with someone in mind."
Chris, sat back and studied him like he was seeing right through him. He opened his mouth a few times, false starts, then finally said, "New guy?"
Jensen could have laughed it off, should have laughed it off, but he didn't. He just shrugged. "No one I've ever talked to," he said finally. "Just someone from the neighborhood."
"Huh," said Chris, still leaning back and studying him hard enough that Jensen started to squirm in his seat. "Well, there's a revelation. You managed to hit thirty without it ever once occurring to you that you might be queer? Or did you just not say anything to me?"
"There was always Danneel," said Jensen with another shrug, the gesture his default answer to everything Chris threw at him. "It never mattered. I never thought about it."
"Bullshit," said Chris, this time without hesitation. "A guy knows what he's looking at, even if he's never planning to take it home."
Jensen was forced to admit there was an element of truth to that. And that maybe he'd had a lot of self-deceit going on as well, now that he looked back on all those years.
"It doesn't matter anyway," said Jensen. "I don't even know his name, I just used him as my model for Malcolm, and I think it's hard to argue with the fact that that worked out pretty well for me."
"No, you didn't just use him as a model for Malcolm," said Chris, cutting right through Jensen's bullshit. "He's the reason you're writing again, isn't he? It wasn't just getting away from your old life, it wasn't just the change of scenery. It wasn't Steve."
"No, it wasn't Steve," said Jensen, "great as he's been." And really, there was no real reason anymore not to own up to it. "I guess you don't have to actually be with someone to move on, huh?"
"For the love of God, Jensen, the guy's been your entire inspiration to start writing again and you haven't hit that?" said Chris. "I can't believe we're friends."
"We haven't met," admitted Jensen, holding up a hand to forestall anything Chris might have to say to that. And he had no doubt that Chris would have something to say. "I just don't want to ruin what I've got going. Meeting him could change everything. It could make the whole story fall apart."
"Yeah, or it could make it even better," said Chris. "Or, you know, make your life better, which I actually also advocate."
"As my friend or as my agent?"
"As both," said Chris. "You write more when you're not miserable, Jensen. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that out. So it stands to reason that you'll write even more if you're actually happy."
"There's a flaw in that logic somewhere," said Jensen, but fucked if he could figure out just exactly where it was, and fucked if he really wanted to try.
"Oh, who cares," said Chris. "Jensen, the book is going to be amazing, and you and I both know that meeting this guy--" He still said 'guy' like he couldn't quite believe it. "--isn't going to change that. So stop being a chickenshit and go introduce yourself."
"It could go badly."
"Or it could go great," said Chris. "You deserve great, Jensen. Now come on, let's get some lunch while you're in the city. It's been too long."
It could go great. It could go great. And finally Jensen thought that even if it didn't go great, maybe everything wouldn't fall apart again anyway.
"It should have worked," said Jared, slumping down in a plush customer chair as Sandy locked the door and flipped the sign to closed. "I don't... we were right for each other. Everyone said it made sense."
"Making sense isn't the same as connecting," said Sandy, proceeding to dim the lights and then put the kettle on in the staff room. Jared just watched her, biting back all hint of tears or any other emotional display. "Maybe it just wasn't the right time for you."
"Now should've been the right time, though," said Jared. "Maybe he wasn't Jensen, but--"
"No, he wasn't," agreed Sandy, her voice carrying to him from the back. Jared didn't know what she was making for him, but he had a good idea he was going to appreciate it. "But Jared--"
"I didn't do anything wrong. I know I've screwed up relationships before, but I didn't do anything wrong this time."
"Except expect him to be someone he wasn't," said Sandy.
The drink she handed over, once Jared sampled it, was hot chocolate and Irish cream, just the right amount of sweet and liquored up for some post-relationship commiseration. Short as the relationship had ended up being in the end.
"You can't keep doing this," said Sandy gently, as Jared nursed his illicit drink and very decidedly continued to not shed a tear over Misha deciding that things weren't going to work out after all. His parents would have something to say if they knew he and Sandy were drinking in the store, even if it was after hours; right then, Jared didn't really care.
"But this is just how it works, isn't it?" he said. "You keep trying till you find the right one? Or are you suggesting I look into the priesthood or something, because I've got to tell you, right now it's looking a little appealing."
"You know what I'm talking about," she said, and reached past him to draw down the blinds, even though the sun was already down and there was no glare off the fixtures. "You've built up this amazing person in your head and no one's ever going to measure up to that. He won't even measure up to what you've made him into."
Jared wanted to argue that had nothing to do with it, but this time he knew she was right. "I need to meet him," he said finally.
"Yeah, you do," she said, "because I know you, Jared, and you're never going to get past this if you don't. For all you know, the guy's a giant ass who won't even give you the time of day."
Jared just gave her a look, because if nothing else he knew that wasn't true. He almost always sat by himself, sure, but Katie seemed fond enough of him and he'd never, like, dumped his drink on anyone, or brushed them off when they talked to him. Okay, occasionally it seemed like he didn't notice when someone was talking to him, but that wasn't the same thing.
"Maybe tomorrow," he said, glancing over in the direction of the Red Rocket like he could see it through the blinds. Or tomorrow or tomorrow or tomorrow. The fantasy he had was a nice one, and right now, while he was suffering through yet another breakup, he wasn't quite ready to let it go.
"Tomorrow," agreed Sandy, and reached for the bottle. "Tonight let's blow off inventory and get shitfaced."
Jared laughed and nodded, holding out his glass to her. "Thanks," he said. "We'll have to replace the bottle tomorrow. I have a feeling I'm going to be needing it after I talk to him."
"I've already got a case of beer to commemorate the occasion," she promised him. "And we won't do it here. So drink up, Jared. Tomorrow's a new day."
"You seriously never want to meet him?" said Katie. "Seriously. Not even now that, by your own admission, you're almost done that book."
"Not really good with people," said Jensen awkwardly, proving his point. "It's not about what I want to do. He seems like a great guy. He's probably got a dozen girls lined up waiting for him to notice them."
"He's gay," said Katie, shushing him when he tried to protest. "No, quit it; we both know it's not going to ruin your book at this point. And honestly, I don't even know how you didn't know that. Everyone knows that."
Maybe Jensen did. Maybe he just didn't want to get his hopes up, or whatever you called it when you had no intention of ever dating that guy or any guy but thought about it all the time anyway.
"I don't know, maybe I'll go in there one of these days," he said.
"Oh, don't even start," said Katie. "I know you've been in there already." He gave her a look, which she gave right back at him. "What, you think we never talk? Alona's friends with Sandy."
"The tiny brunette," said Katie. "The one you had a conversation with. Remember?"
"I remember," said Jensen. There was nothing about his one and only visit to the bookstore that he didn't remember. "He wasn't there."
"Yeah, I'll bet you made sure of that before you set foot on the other side of the street," said Katie. For someone who'd only known him a few short months, she knew him pretty well. "Am I right?"
"He might've been in the back," said Jensen, but he'd known the chance of that was slim. That the chance existed, though, made the trip a braver one than it might've been. "I, um." He finally took the book he'd taken to carrying around with him everywhere out of his laptop bag. "I got you something."
Katie looked at it, then smiled at him. "This is your book."
"You said you wanted to read something I wrote," said Jensen, trying to shrug it off. "I just thought... support local businesses and all."
"You bought me your book," said Katie. "Thank you. I will read it."
"Don't feel obligated or anything," said Jensen quickly, suddenly realizing the kind of pressure he probably just put on her. "It won't hurt my feelings. If there's one thing I'm pretty secure in, it's my writing." When he was actually doing it, anyway.
"If nothing else," agreed Katie. "Why don't you just say hi to him, Jensen? He's pretty sweet. Not to mention that ass."
"Yes, I'm pretty clear on your position on his ass."
"Honey, if I actually had a position on his ass, you wouldn't be getting anywhere near him," said Katie. "Seriously, though, he's smart, and cute, and funny, and you'd probably get along."
"If the opportunity presents itself," said Jensen finally, "then maybe I'll... I don't know. Run into him or something. I'll know when it's right."
"People always say that," said Katie, "when the right time is all the time."
"I mean, I'll know when I'm ready," said Jensen. "I'm not saying there'll be a sign or something. If it feels right, maybe I'll go over there again. When he is working. And, I don't know, say hi."
"That's all you need to do," said Katie. "After that, the rest usually takes care of itself."
When the whole thing went down, Jared was watching, completely by accident. Not watching the road, but watching Jensen; the road just happened to be conveniently placed right between them.
He knew the guy in passing - Monty? No, Marty - a fixture of the neighborhood and a guy people liked to help out when they could. Out of the corner of his eye Jared saw him crossing the street at the corner between Red Rocket Coffee and Padalecki Books when a car came racing down the street, way too fast to handle the conditions. There was the screech of brakes, then the sight of a familiar blue beater swerving into the pothole and being bounced on barely adequate shocks into oncoming traffic.
Oncoming traffic that happened to be a single car driven by Jeffrey Morgan, traveling at an appropriate speed for notorious Peter street. They barely bumped one another, but there was still the sickening sound of metal on metal, then a voice Jared knew all too well.
No wonder the car had looked familiar. Jared had watched Brendan Fletcher flee to it moments after punching him in the face.
He could hear Sandy calling 911 from the counter even as he raced out the door onto the sidewalk, in time to watch both drivers emerge unscathed from their vehicles. Brendan was demonstrating his well-honed rage issues, Jeff was keeping his distance, and poor Marty still stood there in the middle of the crosswalk, bewildered, the entire street now blocked by the accident.
It was out of habit that Jared looked over at Red Rocket Books, right at the window where Jensen had been sitting, but Jensen wasn't sitting there anymore. Jensen was, like Jared, standing on the sidewalk outside the coffeeshop, looking back across the street.
And for the very first time, their eyes met.
It was impossible for Jared to look away. He licked his lips and stared and rocked on his feet, and knew the moment it happened that there was no walking away from this one without things changing. So instead of just waiting for them change, he initiated a little change himself.
Before he thought too hard about it he was walking out into the middle of the street, and from the other side, without every looking away, Jensen was doing the exact same thing. They met in the middle, the sound of shouting from one side of them, the whistle of someone attempting to redirect traffic on the other, and Jared had eyes for nothing but Jensen.
"Hi," he said, standing on his side of the yellow line and shoving his hands in his pockets, feeling every inch of his awkward, ridiculous height.
"Hi," said Jensen, practically mirroring him but managing to look graceful when he did. Of course. "I was just, uh...."
"I need to say something," Jared blurted out. "I've been watching you." Jensen's eyes widened and Jared realized how tremendously awful that sounded. "I mean-" He gestured at the display window of the bookstore. "Look, I've read every one of your books about a hundred times. And then I saw you come in here every day and I...."
That was all there really was to it, wasn't it? The person Jared talked about with Sandy didn't really exist, the only thing he'd ever actually done was watch Jensen write. He'd never met him, never talked to him, never learned a single real thing about him.
"You know who I am?" said Jensen, starting to smile.
Jared just felt more awkward. "I feel like a stalker," he said. "I didn't... you were writing, right? That's what you've been doing these past few weeks? And I swear I'm not a freak, I just... liked watching you write. And that sounds so weird but I swear I'm not. It was nice, feeling like I was a little part of that. I think you're amazing."
"More than a little part," said Jensen quietly.
"Oh God," said Jared. "Your new book's about some weird, looming stalker, right? God. I'm sorry. I'm probably lucky you didn't send the police over or something."
Jensen was smiling, though, and he shook his head. "I didn't even know you noticed me," he said, and Jared finally saw the first signs of awkwardness to match his own. Maybe they'd even been there all along. "You're the reason I'm writing again."
"I saw you, the first time I came in here," said Jensen, gesturing with his shoulder at what Jared knew he meant to be Red Rocket. "I hadn't written a word in well over two years and then I saw you and...." He just shrugged then, whatever he was going to say lost to the commotion around them. "I don't even know your name."
Jensen knew he was alive. Jensen had been watching him too. He was the reason Jensen had written a new book. It was amazing Jared even remembered his name to be able to tell him.
"Hi," he said. "I'm... Jared. Jared Padalecki."
"Padalecki," said Jensen, his eyes widening. "That makes so much more...." Then he gave him another smile that was crooked but clearly genuine. "So you're not using the bookstore to supplement your education because your alcoholic mother drank up the college fund?"
Jared opened his mouth to protest, then got it, he got what Jensen was telling him. "Does that mean you're not recovering from the untimely demise of your true love and nursing a crush on a lonely barista, using your exquisite writing to try to speak to her?"
"Exquisite," confirmed Jared. "In some versions 'lyrical', and occasionally 'breathtaking'."
"My ex isn't dead," said Jensen, "and I don't have a crush on Katie."
Jared was pretty sure he got that too.
And even if he didn't, his next act was already set in motion and it was too late to stop it now. He was leaning forward and Jensen was leaning forward and then they were meeting in the middle, their first kiss not like any of the many versions Jared had imagined over the past few months.
He thought he was imagining the cheers and catcalls too at first, all a part of the narrative in his head, but when they finally parted Jared noticed that there were people watching them from the doorway of the Red Rocket. And when he looked over his shoulder he saw there were some familiar faces in the doorway of Padalecki Books, too.
And he finally admitted, with another kiss to Jensen's lips and then one to his forehead when Jensen saw what he saw and burst into embarrassed laughter, that maybe this whole moment really was a long time coming.
"You can't hide from the photographers forever," said Jared, throwing an arm around Jensen's shoulders and steering him back towards the party, smiling broadly as a pair of well-wishers stopped and offered Jensen their hands.
"I can't believe you like this stuff," said Jensen, only after they'd wandered away again.
"Well, it's a good thing one of us does," said Jared. "You're a great writer but you're shit at publicity."
"That's what I pay other people for," insisted Jensen, smiling for the cameras.
"You can hire people to do many things, but you can't hire them to do your book release party for you," said Jared, flicking Jensen's collar when Jensen knew what he wanted to do was slap his ass. "Look sharp, here comes your terrifying agent."
"He's not terrifying," insisted Jensen. Only to the people he was supposed to intimidate. He turned around and gave Chris a much more genuine smile than the one he'd been wearing earlier. "Wow, you own a suit?"
"Screw you, Ackles, you've seen this suit before."
"Years ago," said Jensen, "at my last book release."
"Well, I only need to pull it out for special occasions," said Chris, straightening his tie and turning to Jared. "Padalecki," he said. "Good to see you again."
Jared gave him a dazzling smile, completely in his element here. "Tell Jensen he has to be nice to the press," he said. "He'll listen to you."
"Jensen, be nice to the press," said Chris immediately. "The Lay of Lokivik could be your mainstream breakthrough. You screw this up and I'll have your balls on my Cheerios."
"Told you he'd be on my side," said Jared, swiping a couple of drinks off a tray on its way by.
"Of course he's on your side," said Jensen. "He thinks it's only a matter of time before you start writing, too, and he knows a good thing when he sees it."
"Damn straight," said Chris. "When have you ever known me to let an opportunity pass me by?"
"Of course, if that didn't work," said Jared, "there was always bribery."
"Bribery does tend to work on me," admitted Jensen, taking the drink that Jared offered him. The last time Jared had bribed him to do anything, after all, it had resulted in a night that rivaled even Chris's Vegas stories.
"I get the funny feeling I absolutely do not want to know what you'd use as a bribe," said Chris, grabbing a glass for himself. "Jensen, congratulations, be good, and I'll come find you before they start shutting this thing down. Right now there's a new junior editor working under Kripke who has my name all over her."
"Or she will before the night is over," Jensen muttered under his breath, then gave Chris a wave with his glass as he moved past them and started across the room. "So I believe you said something about a bribe."
"Only if you make nice with the press," said Jared, dropping his voice, "starting that nice young man I see walking towards us right now." There was, in fact, more than one journalist making their way in Jensen's direction, and he knew he'd have to get through them all before the evening was done. But when he tensed up, Jared brushed his thumb over the back of Jensen's hand. "I'd like to point out just how many layers of clothing I'm wearing right now that are going to need to come off."
"And if I'm good you'll let me help?" said Jensen, keeping his face as inexpressive as he could. Jared's next words shook that cool, though.
"If you're good," he said, "I'll let you watch."