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just a' leanin on my shovel (in this graveyard of dreams)

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When they’re seven, they ride their bicycles around the parking lot of Teller-Morrow slowly, staring unabashedly at the row of shiny Harleys lined up like dominos.

Opie is drawn to his old man’s big black hog, with its blacked-out chrome and the reaper smiling up from the gas tank like an omen. Jax doesn’t see the point – Harleys aren’t made for stealth, not when they shake the ground and set your back teeth rattling when they blast past – and prefers J.T.’s bike, the color of the sky with chrome sparkling like the sun on the ocean.

Sometimes their dads even let them sit on the bikes, and once J.T. laughed and kick-started the bike while Jax gripped the handlebars like his life depended on it, and he knew then and there that one day he was going to wear a patch, too. His blood was made of oil and exhaust, just like his dad, and all he had to do was wait til he was old enough to prove it.

Opie isn’t as sure, not when they were that young, that he wanted the same life as his dad, but Jax knew even then that it was his mother’s doubts that kept him from embracing his destiny. Jax’s mother encouraged him towards the life, towards the building with his last name on it and the club his father had begun.

At school, they’re set apart from the rest of their class. None of the boys dare cross them, not with Jax’s quick fists and Opie’s willingness to fight dirty, and the girls keep their distance, no doubt warned away from them. Jax never cares, not when he has Opie.

Sometimes they fall asleep in the clubhouse together, when Gemma’s supposed to be watching them but she’s too busy watching Clay, curled up in either Piney or J.T.’s room and sometimes even on one of the couches in the clubhouse proper, heads leaning on armrests and feet tangled together in the middle.

*

When they’re fourteen, Opie sneaks a bottle of whisky out of Piney’s room and they take off into the brush on their dirt bikes.

The moon is high overhead casting light over the desert, but they’ve driven this path so many times they don’t even need it, pulling up to their favorite spot with spinning wheels and flying dirt. It only takes a few minutes of fumbling to get a fire started in the pit they made months ago, rocks blackened from soot already.

The night air is crisp, and the fire’s warmth is secondary to the burning heat each swallow of whisky sends through them. Jax props his feet up on the rocks lining the fire pit itself, the flames close enough to nearly melt the soles of his worn sneakers. Opie’s taller and burlier and has abandoned sneakers in favor of thick black boots.

Opie’s going on about the girl he has his eye on, some skinny brunette that’s not good enough for him by half, and Jax is feeling slow and languid, like the world’s slowly rocking him to sleep. He leans his head against Opie’s arm, the denim of his jacket rough against Jax’s cheek, and keeps murmuring, “Uh-huh,” and “That sucks,” until Opie’s voice turns into a mellow droning noise in the background, and Jax is drifting, drifting.

When he wakes up, Opie’s still sitting there, arms loosely wrapped around his knees, sitting carefully upright so that Jax isn’t jostled. He’s staring up at the sky, and Jax doesn’t say anything at first, just looks up at the way the smoke is curling up into the darkness of the night, the way the stars pepper the sky, at the infinity of space. Jax feels small, all of a sudden, and sits up, pulling his feet in and mirroring Opie’s position, knees bumped together.

“They aren’t heroes,” Opie says suddenly.

“Who?” Jax is still blurry from sleep and whisky.

“Dad,” Opie says. “J.T. Clay.”

Jax stares into the leaping flames for a minute before saying, “I know.”

“The things they do…” Opie’s voice cracks just a little, and Jax doesn’t even rib him for it.

“We’ll do them one day.” There’s no waver in Jax’s voice. He’s known he’s meant for the club, has known it since before he even realized the club was something different, something not every kid had in their life.

“I’m not sure…” Opie looks straight at Jax, and Jax realizes for the first time that Opie’s been struggling with this. It makes something twist in his gut, low and sharp. “I’m not sure I can do it.”

“I’ll be there right beside you,” Jax promises. “I’ll do what you can’t.”

Opie doesn’t look reassured, so Jax lurches to his feet and holds out his hand. Opie takes it, pulls himself to his feet, and Jax pulls him in for an embrace, hands still clasped between their chests. “I promise you, brother,” Jax says, voice cracking from using the word for someone besides Tommy for the first time. “I’ll always be beside you.”

“And I promise you, brother,” Opie’s voice is quiet, barely louder than the crackling fire, “that I’ll always be there to get you back out of trouble.”

Jax presses his head against Opie’s chest, holding him tight. When they let go, the conversation goes back to the bikes and girls they’re going to get, but Jax feels the ghosts of the promises they made lingering around them like reapers.

*

When they’re sixteen, they take off.

Jax is riding one of J.T.’s fixer-uppers, a twenty year old bike that uses more oil than gas, and Opie’s bought himself one in about the same condition. Their saddlebags are filled with more tools and motor oil than clothes, and they have two breakdowns before they even get out of California, but it doesn’t matter.

Jax had to get out of there. He feels guilty, the first Sunday they’re on the road, thinking of J.T.’s grave and how he should be there, telling him about what’s happening. Telling him about Clay living in his house, about Clay sleeping in J.T.’s bed, and the way Gemma’s been acting like a girl in love, instead of a widow in mourning.

Should be telling him about the way the club treats Jax now, like they know he’s going to be one of their own soon, in a way they didn’t just a few months ago, when J.T. was alive and at the head of the table.

So instead, when he and Opie check into a roadhouse somewhere in New Mexico, over barbeque that tastes better than anything Jax has ever eaten in Charming, he tells Opie instead.

It’s not… not quite the same as telling the cool marble of J.T.’s headstone. That brings Jax a different feeling of catharsis. But Opie’s alive and breathing and says, “Fuck, dude,” and buys him a beer from the guy who didn’t bother checking their IDs, not when Opie’s already towering over everyone and Jax’s got a reaper on his shirt.

In their room that night, Opie starts talking into the darkness, telling Jax things about Piney and Opie’s mom and how fucked-up their split made Opie feel, how much his mom wants him to stay away from the club.

“I think she’s going to do it,” Opie says quietly. “I think she’s leaving Charming, and Piney’s not going to stop her from doing it.”

“You can,” Jax says. “You can stay with me.”

There’s a rustle as Opie shakes his head. “I can’t do that. Not with everything that just happened. And my mom… she needs me, Jax.”

“I can’t lose you, too.” The words burst out of Jax. “Not with Dad gone. You can’t leave me alone.”

“I’ll be back,” Opie says. There’s a shuffle in the dark, and then the other side of Jax’s bed dips as Opie settles in next to him, grasps his hand. “You’d do the same for Gemma, you know that.”

Jax can’t argue it; he’d go to hell and back for his mother.

“Besides,” Opie adds, “with me out of the picture, you might stand a chance with Tara.”

Jax lets go of his hand only just long enough to punch him in the shoulder.

*

When Opie gets out of prison, Jax is standing at the gates.

He’s visited every week, more often than anyone else in the club. Most weeks he’d drive Donna up in his pick-up truck, waiting outside smoking until she came out, then leaving his pack of cigarettes sitting on the hood of the truck in case Donna needed it when she came out.

But Opie’s released on a Tuesday afternoon, and Donna’s busy with work and the kids and Jax promises her that he’ll get her husband home safe, don’t you worry. Donna doesn’t like the life but she’s been around long enough to know that it’s better if the guys getting out have a little bit of transition time before being thrown back into normal life with their wife and kids, and she doesn’t even argue that she could easily get the afternoon off or have the kids ride the bus home.

Jax had the prospects bring up Opie’s bike, and he waits outside of Stockton as Opie makes the long walk out past the yard and the guards. The chainlink fence rattles a few times from inmates further down, and Opie raises a middle finger to the walls that held him in for five long years.

Jax pulls him close, kissing both cheeks before pulling him in for a spine-cracking hug, when Opie’s finally a free man.

“Missed you, brother,” he says.

“Trust me, I missed you worse.” Opie’s grin is different now, more bitter.

“Let’s get the fuck away from this shithole,” Jax says, feeling pinned down by just the closeness of Stockton, and hands Opie his cut.

Opie’s hands slide over the leather, tracing over the patches, before he lays it back down on the back of his bike. “I can’t, man.”

“No one’s asking you to do anything,” Jax says. He can almost feel the weight of the VP patch on his chest as he holds back the word, yet. “But you’re a Son, nothing can take that away from you.”

“I can,” Opie says quietly. “Donna, she needs me.”

I need you more, Jax doesn’t say. Instead, what comes out is, “Let’s go get that drink we’ve been talking about.”

“Five years worth of hype, it better be a goddamn good one.” Opie takes the out, and give Jax another tight hug. Then he looks at the cut, and says, “One last time,” before shrugging it onto his shoulders.

It’s a little tight. Opie’s been spending some of his time in the clink working out. Out of necessity, Jax knows, because he knows the things Donna doesn’t about what life was like inside for Opie. Things Donna’s going to learn, mapped out in unfamiliar scars on Opie’s body.

But Opie just rolls his shoulders and sighs, and Jax knows the feel, knows how comforting it is to slide on his loyalty every morning.

They go to an out-of-the-way bar, far from the clubhouse and Charming and rivals. The bartender is a cute bleached blonde who cuts her eyes invitingly in Jax’s way, but all he gives her is a grin, his attention focues on Opie.

He keeps reaching out and touching his sleeve, his arm, his hand, like he’s reassuring himself that Opie’s real. There’s a tension in Opie’s body that Jax doesn’t recognize, though, and the more he drinks, the less he says.

The conversation comes to a faltering stop, finally, and Jax gets up, frustrated, and goes to piss.

He finishes up, then steps out the back door to light a cigarette. He leans against the back wall of the bar, surveying his surroundings out of pure habit: a flickering street light at the edge of the lot, a wooden fence with a few planks missing, an old beater probably belonging to the bartender. It’s quiet and private, out in the dusk.

The back door of the bar opening sounds as loud as a gunshot. Opie stands there, framed against the darkness, and then steps out and stalks up to Jax, glowering.

“Are you hiding from me?” he demands, breath hot and sour.

Jax can’t lie to Opie, so he just says, “What the fuck is your problem, man?”

“My problem?” Opie grabbed a fistful of Jax’s shirt. “My problem is that I’ve been locked up for five goddamn years over shit that shouldn’t have happened, and you’re acting like it was no big deal.”

Jax shoved back at Opie, barely causing him to stumble back a step. “No big deal? Jesus, Ope, everything’s gone to shit without you. At least you’re going home to Donna and the kids. I couldn’t even keep a hold of Wendy.”

“Boo fucking hoo,” Opie snarls, pushing Jax against the wall. His shoulder is pressed against Jax’s and he’s still gripping Jax’s shirt between their bodies. Jax tilts his head up, ready to spit out something angry and bitter about how alone he’s been without his best friend, but then he sees how desperate Opie’s eyes are, and the words die in his throat.

“I was all alone in there.” Opie’s voice is pitted with all that happened inside, and Jax doesn’t know how to ease it. “And now I don’t even know my kids, don’t know how to be a father to them. What am I going to do?”

“Your best,” Jax says. “You’re a good man, Opie. You’ll make your family proud. And no matter, what, I’m here fore you.”

Opie doesn’t let go, doesn’t pull away, and Jax wraps an arm around him and pulls him in tighter. Opie’s cut smells like the clubhouse, all smoke and grease and exhaust, but Opie himself smells like the gritty prison soap, and it hits home just how alone Opie’s been for the last five years. No friendly contact, no wife, no true friends, just the acquaintances he’d managed to make inside.

It isn’t a surprise, then, that he can feel the hot points of heat where Opie’s body is flush against his, can feel him pressed hard against his gut. Jax doesn’t try to squirm away; instead, he pushes his hips back against Opie, feels Opie slide his leg between Jax’s and rut slowly against him like he can’t help himself.

“I’m here for you, brother,” Jax repeats. “Whatever you need.”

It happens rough and fast, rubbing against each other like high school kids at a dance. Opie’s movements are full of pent-up aggression, and Jax responds in kind, taking out his own frustrations in a way that he can’t with the crow eaters he’s been fucking. There’s violence in every movement, like they’re both half a second from devolving this into a fistfight, and when he comes he bites down on Opie’s cut, so he doesn’t leave a mark for Donna to see.

Jax knows that Opie couldn’t let Donna see this side of him, and when it’s done, just clasps his shoulder and says, “Let’s get you presentable for your family.”

Opie nods, tension finally gone from body as he follows Jax to their bikes.

*

In their cell, after all the secrets have come crashing out of him, Jax feels peaceful for the first time since he learned what Clay did to his father.

He stares at the scar on Opie’s hand, still red and angry, from where he shot him to save that bastard’s life. “It went against everything in me to stop you that night.”

“I was really pissed at you,” Opie says, voice soft like he’s in a confessional. “I couldn’t figure it out. Fucking feds, man. That’s going to bite you on the ass.”

“Don’t I know it.” Jax rests his head on his hands, stares at the prison-issued slippers on his feet. Opie sits beside him, the bunk dipping Jax towards him, and drapes an arm across his shoulders. He presses his face against Jax’s, holds him tight.

“Listen,” Opie says, “About Pope’s…”

“No,” Jax says. “I’m not making that call. He can’t make me do that.”

“I love you, brother,” Opie says, something quiet and unsettling in his voice. Worry twists dark and insidious inside Jax like a snake, but he says the only thing he can say.

“I love you, too.”

*

On Sundays, there’s no one sitting by John Teller’s grave, telling it secrets.

Jax takes his secrets to Opie, telling the cold granite the things that Opie would have scoffed at and commiserated with. The things that should be responded to with a big, friendly hand clasping his shoulder, with a full-bodied hug, with a scratchy kiss on the cheek.

He leaves a flower on Donna’s grave, and pours a shot out onto Opie’s, leaving his secrets behind like wreaths.

“Save me a spot, Ope,” he tells the stone, wrapping Bobby’s abandoned VP patch around his fingers, knowing whose cut it should have adorned. “I’ll be with you soon.”