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Reasons To Stay Alive

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*******************

“So what do you think we should do, Donna?”

His dad’s voice echoes down the empty hospital hallway. Jensen’s head is pounding and it takes him a few seconds to realize where he is.

“It’s the fourth time!”

He wishes his dad would quiet down. Then, a wave of nausea hits, along with the familiar desire to be dead. Or, at the very least, asleep. He can hear that his mother has started to cry now.

Here’s why she’s crying: it’s because she sees, for the first time, perhaps, that free will is an illusion. She wants to take him home, he knows that. But really she wants him to be healthy, and to get his own place. So instead of taking him home for another 24/7 suicide watch, she’s going to have him committed. Free will has nothing to do with decision-making. It’s a calming thought for all of three seconds. A mental hospital or institution means peace and quiet and lots of schedules and certainties to hang on to. It means people who are being payed to put up with your shit, rather than guilted into it by misplaced ideas of parental responsibility. It means not having to decide what you’re going to do next or whether you’re even going to do anything at all.

It’s existing rather than living and it’s everything Jensen needs and doesn’t want. For the first time in months, he makes a choice. A decision. A conscious effort to choose one path over another. He’s going to do what he wants to do because he actually, genuinely wants it. The hospital machine beeping next to his head has quickened its noise along with his heartbeat as the exhilaration takes hold. The sound is grating on his nerves like sandpaper. He yanks all of the wires out of his arm roughly.

The sleeping pills have come out again the way they came in. There’s been a tube down his esophagus; his aching throat tells him as much. But there were a lot of pills this time and it’s like they’ve thickened his blood and his thoughts. Sitting upright is a challenge. He shouldn’t be driving. He should be dead.

He stands up anyway, pulls on the jeans and hoodie hanging over the back of a chair. His mom has already brought in his overnight bag. Its contents haven’t changed since the last time: comfortable clothes, a new notebook and some ballpoint pens, a stuffed animal he got from MacKenzie once, and his wallet. His phone is still on the bedside table at home, but his keys, mercifully, are in the back pocket of his jeans.

His parents aren’t in the hallway anymore. There’s no one. The clock on the wall says three AM. Jensen bolts.

*******************

He drives until the sun comes up, then keeps on driving. The tires rolling down the asphalt give him a comforting illusion of purpose, and he tries not to disturb it by thinking about where he’s going or what he’s going to do once he gets there. Unfortunately, Jensen’s never been very good at controlling his thoughts.

“They’ll think you’re really dead this time,” pops up in his head now, unbidden and immovable. He doesn’t have a phone on him, so there’s no way to dispel the thought. “Let them,” another voice whispers. “It’ll be a relief.”

He drives on.

He still feels heavy with the pills he took, but now there’s also the gnawing, shivery sensation of anxiety and a strong need to keep moving. This doesn’t strike him as particularly fair. Shouldn’t OD’ing on sleeping meds keep him mellow for a few more hours, at least?

He’s been driving for almost twelve hours when finally exhaustion makes him pull to a stop on a dirt road off the highway. He sleeps, wakes up from the sound of traffic rushing by, sleeps again. When he wakes up it’s dark, and he’s not hungry. He doesn’t remember the last time he was hungry, let alone a time when he felt like eating.

The strong, suffocating desire to end his life, to snap out of existence, to disappear, to simply cease to be, has gone. It will return, sooner or later, he knows. One day it will win him over. Yesterday hadn’t been that day, though, and right now he’s alive, breathing in air that smells of grass and cow shit, and suddenly he feels like laughing. He puts in an old Beatles tape, honks the horn three times in quick succession, and floors it.

It is this triumphant, invincible feeling, this illusion that he has outsmarted death, that carries Jensen all the way to Winchester, Connecticut. And even though he doesn’t know it yet, that town holds exactly what he’s looking for.

*********************************

As he pulls up into a parking space on Main Street, squinting against the early morning sun, Jensen starts questioning his decision to leave Texas. Scratch that, he starts questioning every single decision he has ever made in his life, the whole unique combination of fuck-ups that led him here. Self-doubt is a familiar place for him.

His muscles hurt, both from driving and sleeping in the car. His stomach has cramped up around its emptiness, but still he has no appetite to speak of. His digestive system needs sustenance, but the muscles of his mouth and the tastebuds on his tongue are disgusted by the idea. It’s morning, but he hasn’t slept in a while. Coffee is in order.

He spots a coffeeshop a few houses over and drags his sore ass out of the car. It’s a relief to stretch his legs. It’s a relief to breathe in fresh air. Texas, only a day and a half away, suddenly feels like a distant planet.

Above the coffeeshop there is a sign, brown letters on a green background, that reads The Coffee Pad. Jensen steps inside. The color scheme of the interior is a peaceful combination of greens and browns, like a forest, but cozier. There’s a book case in the corner on the far left, with two comfortable-looking chairs arranged kitty corner, so you can see and reach the books from either one. The bar is immediately in front of Jensen, three steps from the door. On the right, there’s a long oakwood table where a few people are working on their laptops. Another customer is placing her order at the counter, and Jensen queues up behind her.

“A large black coffee,” he orders, when it’s his turn. He doesn’t look at the barista, eyes scanning the counter for something he might be able to bring himself to eat. He feels nauseated with exhaustion, though, and nothing strikes him as particularly appetizing.

“Tall, dark, and handsome coming right up,” jokes the barista. It’s not particularly funny. Coffee can be tall and dark, sure, but handsome? Not so much. It’s a lame joke that’s clearly been made too many times before. Jensen looks up to say so but no words make it out of his mouth.

The barista is tall, dark, and handsome. A hot, sticky feeling nestles in Jensen’s chest and he tries to identify it. The feeling isn’t one of the familiar ones. It’s not one of his lifelong companions. It isn’t numbness, with its countless gray tendrils of impenetrable fog. It is not dark, heavy sadness, or sharp, spiky anxiety, or nagging guilt or doubt or blood-red anger or any of the other monsters lodged permanently inside his head.

No, this feeling is a bright little ray of sunshine, informing him in a surprised tone that he is face to face with a gorgeous guy, and, more importantly, that he is very well aware of the fact. He feels joy, if only for a split-second, at his ability to feel joy, and he thinks maybe leaving Texas wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

“Can I interest you in a free cupcake?” asks Gorgeous. He offers up something that looks only vaguely like a pastry. Instead of the elegant swirl of frosting there is something on it that looks like a limp rainworm.

“Jared!” comes a woman’s voice from the back of the shop. “Stop forcing your misbegotten cupcakes on the customers!”

Jensen, who was about to decline politely, notices that Jared has dark brown eyes the exact same shade as his scruffy hair. Suddenly, nothing has ever looked quite as appealing as that deformed cupcake.

“Won’t I get you into trouble?” he asks, inclining his head towards the door where the woman’s yelling came from.

“Nah,” says Jared lightly. “My ass is way too cute to fire.”

He turns around to pour Jensen’s coffee and Jensen quietly agrees that it is a fine ass indeed. If Jared’s ass isn’t on the line, he thinks, it would be downright rude not to accept a free cupcake from him, no matter how weird it looks. He’s suddenly starving, anyway.

“Oh well,” he sighs, just loud enough for Jared to hear, “don’t judge a book by its cover, I always say.” He grabs the cupcake, and gets a huge cup of coffee -more like a bowl, really- and a big grin from Jared.

He walks his loot over to the corner by the bookcase, and takes a tentative sip of coffee. Hot damn. This is some good stuff. It isn’t too bitter, or sour like the stuff from the hospital he’s grown accustomed to. It’s not tepid, but it doesn’t scald his tongue either. There’s no sugar in it, but the coffee is almost sweet, and a little spicy.

After drinking almost half the cup way too quickly, he looks up at Jared and sees that he’s being watched. Jared’s trying to make out what Jensen’s verdict is on his food and drink. In response, Jensen nods towards the coffee and smiles, then turns his attention to the bookshelf in front of him.

His present situation does not bear thinking about. He’s farther removed from home than he has ever been in his twenty-two years. He doesn’t know anyone who knows anyone who lives anywhere near Connecticut. At present, he feels okay. Not good, never really good, but he’s coping just fine with the bright sunlight and the passing glances from the people walking down the street and the background noise of Cat Stevens coming through the speakers. He’s all right. He’s okay. The fog seems far away, tugging at the edges of his consciousness. For now, at least, he is safe.

Jensen spots a copy of Brideshead Revisited on the shelf in front of him, and within moments he is knee-deep in the crooked paved streets of Oxford, its great Cathedrals overshadowing him, browsing library after library filled with books and books and books. He doesn’t notice that Jared, the handsome barista, is still watching him.

*********************************************

It takes two days, this time, for the fog to re-emerge. Two days is an unusually long respite and it makes Jensen anxious as well as grateful. It is these brief moments of life, these glimpses of what it could be like if things were different, that makes his depression both bearable and unbearable at once. They serve as a reminder of what he’s fighting for, of why he chooses, most of the time, to hang on. They serve as a reminder of what he’s missing.

He sits on the front porch of the motel he picked out, cheap but not too shabby, reading and squinting against the sun. He’s made it halfway through Vile Bodies when suddenly the sky darkens. He looks up. Jared is towering over him, face looking otherworldly in the backlighting of the sun.

“Hi,” he says. His big hands, Jensen notices, don’t quite fit in the pockets of his jeans. He smells faintly of sweat and makes Jensen feel things he didn’t think he was still capable of feeling.

“Hey,” Jensen manages. “You’re deformed cupcake guy.”

That earns him a grin. “Jared. What’s your name?”

“Jensen.”

There is a moment during which they both wonder whether Jared is going to tell Jensen his name is unusual. He doesn’t. Instead, he says: “The owner of this fine establishment is a friend of mine. I came over to fix the A/C.”

Jensen snorts. As far as he’s been able to tell, the owner is a grumpy asshole.

“What brings you to Winchester?” Jared asks. His face is so friendly, so genuinely interested, so goddamned handsome. He doesn’t know who he’s talking to. He has no idea what kind of fuck-up Jensen is.

“My car,” says Jensen briskly. He makes a bit of a show of returning his attention to his book.

“I like Waugh,” says Jared, and then he turns around and leaves. Jensen can’t get back to his reading for the rest of the afternoon. It’s like Jared’s still blocking the sunlight.

*******************************************************

That night, the demons return. They weigh on him like black tar, oozing from his pores. Lying awake for the better part of the night all he knows for sure is that he’s bad. He dirties everything he touches. He isn’t even worthy of sleeping on this fucking motel bed. Around 4 AM he moves into the bathtub. Still in his boxers and without water to cushion him against the tile, he lies there. A crick develops in his neck and his back aches from the unnatural bend. It’s cold.

When he wakes up his whole body hurts again and it’s about halfway through the morning. The black tar has left him, seeped out and swirled down the drain while he was sleeping, and restlessness has taken its place. He has to get out of the room. Without thinking, he dresses and walks himself over to Jared’s coffee shop. Is Jared the owner? He certainly swaggers around like he owns the place.

He orders a black coffee. As an extra, Jared gives him a big, bright smile and something that was possibly meant to be a cinnamon roll once. He pays Jared, but he can’t smile back at him. He’s entirely made out of atoms that are about to burst out into the universe. Any minute now, Jensen will disappear. So he can’t smile at Jared. Not even one of the fake smiles used to placate parents and therapists. If he did the atoms would start pouring out of his mouth, and that would be the beginning of the end.

Jensen takes the roll and his drink. What he can do is sink down into one of the armchairs in the lefthand corner and trade in Vile Bodies, which he finished last night at 2 AM, for a Neil Gaiman novel titled Stardust he hasn’t heard of before.

Jensen spends the day in that chair, sits in it until closing time, and somehow, a miracle happens. He doesn’t disappear. Not once, not even for a moment. After a few hours he even stops fearing that he might, and he just reads.

***************************************

The next morning, Jensen finds himself at Jared’s doorstep again. Jared is always working, it seems. This, Jensen thinks, could be a tip off that he is the owner. On the other hand, Jared’s baking skills are so appalling that he can’t possibly be running a successful coffeeshop with them.

On his third morning in Winchester, Jensen is offered a piece of carrot cake.

“What’s this?” he asks doubtfully.

“Carrot cake, duh!” says Jared. “Don’t worry, your caffeine infusion is almost ready, too.”

Although, once again, Jensen has barely slept a wink, Jared makes him smile a little. “Dude, this thing is all icing.” It’s true. The carrot cake is more icing than cake.

Jared is turned towards the coffeemaker now, green apron tied around his waist. Jensen has never ever seen hips that slender and perfect. He blinks his eyes rapidly as Jared turns back to face him.

“Yeah,” he says. Jensen wished he’d stop grinning. It’s almost too much happiness for him to see. How come Jared has so much of it when Jensen has so little?

“But the icing is the best bit.” Then, Jared sticks his index finger in the thick icing and, without taking his brown eyes off Jensen, puts it in his mouth. He licks off all the frosting then pulls his finger from between his lips with a soft pop. Holy fucking Christ. Jensen might be in trouble.

He doesn’t look at Jared. Not at the sparkling dark brown of his eyes, or his smile, or his pointer finger still glistening with saliva. He looks at the cream colored wall above the counter and says: “That’s not very healthy. Or economical, for that matter. Isn’t the icing the most expensive ingredient?”

“Who eats pastries for their nutritional value, anyway? And I don’t work here to worry about the money. How come you suddenly know so much?” The remark is teasing, but Jensen still blushes. After all, he doesn’t know shit. He takes his coffee directly out of Jared’s hand.

“I used to bake a lot, myself,” he says eventually.

“Really?” Jared’s pleased, like they share a secret handshake or something.

“Yeah,” Jensen nods. He’s standing there like an idiot, looking at Jared’s jawline and his shoulders, smiling vaguely and blushing a little. Then, he turns towards his corner of the room.

That’s the day he decides he’s going to be staying in Winchester for a while. First, he buys a cheap phone from the supermarket and texts MacKenzie: “Am fine. Staying in Connecticut for a while. Give this number to mom and I’ll chuck the phone. X, Jen.”
He turns it to silent as soon as the text is sent, vaguely terrified of reading her reaction. She can’t come here. She can’t bring mom here. Maybe he shouldn’t have contacted her.

Next, he asks the motel manager about renting an apartment in town. As it turns out, the manager, Jared’s friend, is something of a real estate tycoon in Winchester. He introduces himself as Chad, spends an obnoxious amount of time styling his hair in the reflection of his smartphone screen, and offers to take Jensen into town in a flashy red convertible to show him some properties.

It’s the end of summer, and they drive with the roof folded down. Jensen thinks he could get used to the gentle, unobtrusive warmth of the East Coast. At least he can breath here.

“There we are, man,” says Chad, as he opens the car door with a flourish. They’ve parked down on Main Street, close to the spot Jensen parked in when he first arrived. Chad is already trying the keys on his chain into the lock of a slender blue door one by one. It’s right next to Jared’s coffee shop.

“I’ll take it,” says Jensen. It feels insane and impulsive and exhilarating and right, the way it felt to floor it out of Texas in the middle of the night with the sleeping pills still in his system.

“Oh-kay,” Chad is looking at him funny. “You don’t wanna, you know, have a look inside first? Discuss the rent, that kind of thing?”

Jensen shrugs. “Sure.”

Chad extricates the right key and leeds him up a long staircase, the steps slightly too small for a grown man’s feet. The apartment is on the second floor, and it’s really fucking tiny. The living room fits a couch, a tv, and a cramped kitchen area. There’s a bathroom with a bath and shower combination, and a bedroom large enough to fit a double bed but not much else. On the plus side, there’s a big window that offers a nice view of the street below. Sunlight is streaming in, making the invisible dust moats floating around in the air visible.

“I’ll take it,” he repeats.

Chad laughs out loud this time. They agree upon a reasonable sum for rent and Jensen hitches a ride back to the motel with Chad to grab his car and his stuff.

**************************************************

He has an apartment now. In a month, Chad will be dropping by to collect more rent. That’s how these things work. Adult life. Responsibility. Although Jensen was able to pay this months rent and his deposit with money he made in college, that won’t last forever. He needs to find a job. He doesn’t think about how he’s never been able to hold down a job for more than a few months before, panic attacks and lethargy always getting in the way. He lies on his big bed in his small room and doesn’t think about anything at all.

He lies there until somebody rings the doorbell. When it happens, the clear ding-dong noise echoing through the room, he suddenly knows he’s been waiting for it. Who could it be? Nobody knows he’s living here. That’s the whole point.

When he tries to sit up, he discovers everything is aching again. Should he lose some weight? He feels so fucking heavy all the time. When he manages to sit upright, the movement calls attention to another problem. He really, really, really needs to pee.

So. Bathroom first, then buzzer, then…food? No. No food.

The checklist of chores takes him ages, his body still heavy and achy and uncooperative. By the time he gets to the buzzer, whoever is on the other end has already rung three more times. Impatient son of a bitch.

He presses the button. “Yeah?” His voice is rough. When did he last talk to anyone?

“It’s Jared,” says Jared’s chipper voice over the intercom. “I brought you a piece of apple pie.”

“Come on up.”

It doesn’t occur to Jensen until after he’s opened the door to check his appearance, and it ain’t pretty. He’s got dark circles under his eyes, rough, uneven stubble on his jaw, and a bright purple gay-straight alliance t-shirt with a hole in the armpit. He just about manages to pull on a pair of jeans over his boxers before Jared’s at his door.

The first thing Jensen notices about Jared is the t-shirt. It’s dark gray and form-fitting and looks like it’s been worn soft over time. It is, Jensen thinks, the polar opposite of his own ratty purple monstrosity. His eyes travel upwards, to bulging pecs and broad shoulders straining to escape their sleeves, up the curve of the slender neck to the Adam’s apple. The fucking Adam’s apple, man. Holy shit. After an interminably long silence spent gaping and objectifying on Jensen’s part, he meets Jared’s eyes.

He clears his throat, says “Come in,” and steps aside. Jared enters, and Jensen suddenly feels like he’s been living in munchkinland. And he’d thought it was cramped in here before. Jared walks towards the kitchen like he owns the place, and the ease of his movements relaxes Jensen somewhat.

“Apple pie?” he asks.

Jared offers up a strangely shaped pile of dough in a cardboard box. Since Jensen doesn’t yet own any cutlery, he digs in with his fingers instead, possibly a bit too enthusiastically. After a few huge bites, he notices that Jared is giving him a funny look.

Mouth half-full of pie, he asks: “Everything okay, man?”

Jared nods. “Jen, are you okay?”

The nickname doesn’t sound unnatural at all.

“Yeah,” Jensen shrugs, “I’m fine.”

“It’s just…” Jared trails off. Please don’t let him say anything more. Please. Please don’t let him look inside the bedroom.

Jensen just keeps looking at his pie as Jared searches for words.

“I haven’t seen you around much,” he says doubtfully. “And since Chad told me you’ve moved in here…”

“Been busy,” says Jensen flatly. “In fact, I still am. You should go.”

Jensen looks hurt for a second, then regains his cool, mumbles “Bye,” and leaves.

“Thanks for the apple pie, though,” Jensen says to the closed door of his apartment. He feels like the shittiest attempt at a human being in the history of the world. He climbs back into the empty bathtub and doesn’t finish his pie.

************************************************

It feels like a long time, this time, before the fog clears. When it does, Jensen heaves himself out of the tub and into the shower. It takes some real effort to wash away the sour smell from under his armpits.

In the kitchen, on the lookout for something edible, he spots a half-empty carton of apple pie. Fuck. Jared was here. Jared brought that here. And Jensen was a complete asshole to him.

Panicked and still hungry and exhausted, he stumbles out of the door and down the stairs to The Coffee Pad. Of course, Jared’s in. In an uncharacteristic moment of reckless bravery, Jensen storms past the group of people queuing, walks right up to Jared and looks him in the eyes.

“I’m so sorry.”

Jared doesn’t seem upset. Maybe he was never upset. Maybe he doesn’t give a shit. He smiles and says: “No worries.” Jensen’s heart breaks a little. He really doesn’t give a shit. Why should he?

“I don’t know you at all,” Jared goes on. Exactly. “I’ve got no business barging into your apartment. I just thought you might need a friend.”

As a matter of fact, Jensen desperately needs a friend. Just preferably one he doesn’t desperately want to get fucked by, as well.

Jared is still looking at him earnestly, completely ignoring his customers, and Jensen caves. “I do,” he admits. “I do need a friend.”

To Jensen’s surprise, Jared abruptly turns away from him. But he’s back in a flash with a big steaming cup of black coffee and a black glob in a piece of greaseproof paper. “Go sit in your chair,” he says. “I have a break in fifteen.”

Jensen does as he’s told.

The next fifteen minutes might not be the most anxious in Jensen’s life but they’re up there in the top ten. In his case, that’s saying something. He thumbs through a thoroughly well-loved copy of The Princess Bride and waits for the seconds to crawl by. It seems that he’s always waiting for time to pass these days.

At long last the fifteen minutes are up. Jared is walking towards him, cup of tea in his right hand and reciting Inigo Montoya’s monologue quietly. What a doofus. Jensen might be in love with him.

He can’t though. He always turns everything to shit.

Jared sits down. His legs are too long to fit under the coffee table, so he sits with his knees pulled up to his chest, arms wrapped around them like a shy child. Jensen has no clue what to say. He wishes, once more, that he could just float away from the world.

“So, Jensen,” of course Jared has no problem breaking the silence. “Where are you from?”

He doesn’t want to talk about Texas, but lying to Jared feels about as evil as kicking a puppy, so he says it anyway: “Texas.”

“And now you’re here…” Jared prompts.

“Now I’m here,” repeats Jensen. “What’s this I’m eating, by the way?”

Jared raises his eyebrows. “A brownie, obviously.”

It’s not a brownie. It’s shapeless and black. Jensen smiles. “Where are you from, Jared?”

“Born and raised in Winchester, Connecticut.” Jared says it proudly, the way some Texans tell you they’re from Texas.

“So, you never lived anywhere else?” Jensen is eager to keep the conversation focussed on Jared.

“Oh, no. I went to college in San Francisco.”

“Yeah?” Don’t picture him in shorts and a tank top in the blazing California sun, don’t think about the San Francisco scene, get a grip, Ackles. His voice has gone down a bit. “What did you study?”

“History, obviously,” says Jared with a grand gesture around the shop. “But, alas, coffee is my true calling.”

Jensen is startled by the fluttery sensation of his own laughter. “Why aren’t you teaching history or something?”

Jared makes a face. “Have you met me? I can’t sit still for three seconds, let alone get a bunch of rebellious teenagers to sit still.”

Jared is toying with the handle of his half-full teacup. He might accidentally tip it over any second. It makes Jensen nervous. To break the silence more than out of any desire to open up, he says: “I don’t want to be a teacher, either.”

Then, when Jared says nothing, quite obviously waiting him out: “I’m an English major.”

“Where’d you study?”

“Harvard.”

“Good for you,” says Jared. He means it, too.

They sit in silence for a while longer, Jensen gently trailing his fingers along the spines of the secondhand paperbacks, Jared fidgeting with his teacup. It doesn’t feel uncomfortable anymore.

Suddenly, Jared jumps up. He does, indeed, knock over his cup, but by now it’s empty enough not to matter. He looks happy. He runs both his hands through his hair, smiling broadly. He looks happy and gorgeous.

“Are you planning to stay here a while, Jen?” His voice has gone shrill with excitement.

Jensen, who suddenly feels more than a little suffocated by the whole situation, just shrugs.

“Have you been to Winchester’s Words yet?”

He hasn’t, but Jared doesn’t give him time to say so.

“It’s the bookshop across the street,” he goes on. “I know the owner, and she’s looking to hire some help.”

Jensen takes a deep, relieved breath. Working with books he can probably handle.

******************************************************

That turns out to be true. The owner of the shop is a young woman named Danneel, just about as happy-go-lucky as Jared. She greets him enthusiastically the first time he walks in, eyes him up and down with the kind of attention that makes him blush.

“Excuse me,” he mumbles. “I heard you were looking to hire a sales assistant?”

A high-pitched squeal and he’s hired.

If he weren’t gay, Jensen thinks, he’d have a crush on Danneel. She puts him to work packing, moving and unpacking boxes, sticking prices onto dust jackets and dusting off spines on the shelves. It’s mindless work, and it suits him just fine. Occasionally he writes a short book review and Danneel adds it to the window display. That’s probably Jensen’s favorite thing about his new job. Also, he can buy books from Winchester’s Words at a discount.

Each morning before his shift starts at nine, he pays a visit to The Coffee Pad. It’s those few minutes of looking at Jared as he pours coffee and cleans tables that get Jensen out of bed in the morning, not the joys of caffeine infusions or selling the illustrated tales of Winnie The Pooh to excited toddlers.

He’s been in Winchester for three weeks now. He’s been feeling reasonably well ever since the apple pie fiasco, and he’s not going to have a problem making the rent at the end of the month or keeping himself well-fed. His new cellphone hasn’t been switched on since he texted Mac that one time.

***********************************

“Thanks, Jared.”

The remark gets him a weird look. “Pouring your coffee is my job, Jen.”

“No, I meant,” Jensen toys with the handle of his mug. Fuck drinking coffee out of paper cups. “ I meant thanks for introducing me to Danni.”

Jared smiles. “No big. I was getting pretty sick of her whining about the workload.”

“I wanted to return the favor sometime.” Is it just Jensen, or does Jared blush at that? “I thought I could show you how to decorate some decent cupcakes for a change.”

“Sure,” says Jared, and Jensen thinks maybe he suffers from the exact opposite of resting bitchface. Resting grinface, or something, Jared smiles so much.

“Come on in here.” Like he already knew Jensen would be suggesting this, Jared pulls a sheet full of cupcakes out of the oven. He puts them aside to cool off and gets to work mixing soft butter and powdered sugar with bright purple food coloring.

“There’s your first mistake,” says Jensen. “Put the buttercream in the fridge for a while to let it harden, otherwise your tufts will get droopy.”

Jared gives him a look. “I should let it harden, huh?”

Jensen blushes.

“But it doesn’t taste half as good when it’s cold.” Christ, now he’s pouting.

“Maybe not,” says Jensen. “But I promise you it’ll be easier to work with that way.”

This time Jared laughs at him outright. “So, what you’re saying is that something hard is easier to handle?”

“Yes I am, wiseass. Now, do as I say.”

“Yes, sir!” says Jared with a mock salute. Then, he bends down to put the bowl of buttercream on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. For the first time in a long time, Jensen thinks something other than depression might be the death of him.

He’s never felt like this before.

******************************************

There’s a little tinkle of a brass bell every time someone enters the bookshop. In the beginning, the sound always filled Jensen with anxiety, because it announced the presence of someone he would have to interact with. Maybe they would be rude or impatient. Maybe they’d want a book that wasn’t in stock or ask a question he didn’t know the answer to. It was even more scary whenever Danneel was on her lunch break, and Jensen couldn’t ask her for help. But he’d gotten used to it. He’d become familiar with the computer system. He knew how the books were organized, how the cash register worked(,) and how to give out the correct amount of change. He had even become friendly with some of the regular customers.

So when the bell chimed that morning while Danni was unpacking an order in the back, he was alerted to a customer’s presence but not alarmed by it. Then he looked up.

It was Jared.

Jared wasn’t looking at any of the books or anything. He was walking towards Jensen, eyes focussed intently on the floor. There was the sound of something crashing to the floor, and Danneel cursed loudly.

The tension of the moment was broken and Jared shot Jensen a grin, business as usual. Jensen couldn’t look away from that grin, so without turning around he shouted: “You okay, D?”

Danneel appeared in the doorway, flushed and panting, reassuring Jensen that she was fine, that everything was fine. Then she spotted Jared, giggled, and pointed vaguely towards something behind her. “I’ll just… clean up my mess.”

In a flash, she was gone. Something clicked in Jensen’s brain. Did she have a crush on Jared? He couldn’t exactly blame her. There weren’t two more compatible people in the world. Both incredibly cheerful and outgoing and fun, almost to the point of being annoying. It hurt Jensen’s heart and soul to think of them being together, of Jared being with anyone but him, but whatever. No big deal. Jared probably wasn’t even gay, anyway.

Mindfulness, Ackles. Live in the moment. Jared was still standing across the counter from him, and something was evidently wrong. He looked nervous, like he wanted to say something. Something awkward. Jensen realized with a sinking feeling that he was about to be friend-dumped.

“Hi,” he managed.

“Hi,” said Jared. “I wanted to see how you were doing at work.” For once, his smile seemed a little forced.

“I love it here,” Jensen assured him. He smiled warmly while he said it, and it felt completely genuine. He did love Winchester’s Words. This seemed to put Jared at ease, because his face relaxed a little.

“So, I wanted to ask you,” Jared wasn’t looking him in the eye, and fidgeting with the leather cuff on his wrist. Oh, this was bad news. Bad news.

“Would you like to go on a date with me sometime?” Jared didn’t stutter, and he looked at Jensen intently right after he asked it.

Jesus. Talk about being thrown a curveball. Jensen was completely flabbergasted. He was utterly unprepared to answer that question.

Yes, obviously. He wanted to share crappy Italian food with Jared and listen to him talk about his hopes and dreams for the future, and cuddle on the couch and look at the stars and massage his shoulders to relax him and cook his favorite meals for him and generally be the kind of sappy romantic that lived with his steady boyfriend in small-town Connecticut.

But of course, no, he couldn’t. He was a fuck-up, a train wreck, a failure. No relationship could survive him. He’d always known it and he’d been smart enough, up to this point, never to try. He couldn’t condemn Jared to a life with him. Not the panic attacks, or the crying, or the insomnia. He didn’t have energy to do anything besides work most days, and a relationship required a lot of effort. He didn’t have much of a sex drive. He didn't even have a will to live most of the time. If he ever had an episode of paranoia again, that would be the end of it. No one could be expected to put up with insane shit like that.

Besides, there was no way he could “casually” date Jared. He was already half in love with the guy just from tasting his coffee. His heart wouldn’t survive a real, honest-to-God, are-you-into-me-because-I-like-like-you-date.

He couldn’t look at Jared as he rejected him. There was no way he could bear it. Jared would stop smiling, surely. He’d be disappointed. He might even ask why. So Jensen looked at the computer screen in front of him and mumbled: “I’m sorry. I can’t.”

“Oh,” Jared breathed. He sounded like Jensen had just confessed to killing his puppy. “I’m sorry, too.”

Jensen didn’t look up until the bell chimed again, and Jared was out the door. Jensen hadn’t gotten a chance to tell him he had nothing to be sorry for.

He’d made a rational decision. A smart one. So why did it feel like he’d just fucked up spectacularly?

**********************************************************

“Err, Jen, sweetie?”

It was Danneel, talking softly as though to a wounded animal. Jensen didn’t turn around to look at her.

“Jen? What the fuck did you just do?”

He tried to keep his voice level, really, he tried. “Jared asked me out on a date. I said no.”

“Yes, I got that,” she was massaging his shoulders now, and it was ridiculously awesome. He just wanted to sit on the swivel chair for a bit and have her rub his shoulders and forget about Jared’s goddamned eyes.

But of course, she didn’t let it go. “I got that. Why did you say no, though?”

“Because I can’t go out with him.”

“Why the hell not?”

He got off the chair and away from her quick fingers. “Because I can’t, Danni, let it go.”

“Are you not attracted to him?”

Jensen snorted.

“I thought so. You’d have to be a stone not to be attracted to him. We went to high school together, you know. I was crushed when he came out.”

“I hadn’t even gathered he was gay,” Jensen admitted.

“Well,” Danneel said carefully, as though speaking to a particularly slow child. “He is. And it appears that he is into you, as well.”

“Nah.” That wasn’t true, it wasn’t. It couldn’t be. People composed idealistic images of one another all the time and usually those led to disillusionment and disappointment. Jared wasn’t interested in what he was really like.

“It doesn’t matter, anyway, because I’m not dating right now.”

Danneel slammed a stack of books down on her counter with excessive force. You’d think she’d be a bit more careful with the shop she put all her savings into.

“You already said you’re not dating. But why not?”

“Because I’m not.”

“Jensen, you’re from Texas, right?”

He sighed. “I’m not in the closet, Danneel.”

“Well, if you were, you’d be doing a particularly poor job of it. You practically start drooling whenever Jared appears.”

There was no denying that, so Jensen didn’t. He didn’t say anything more, and tried to get back to work for the rest of the afternoon. His concentration was even worse than usual, and he felt an itchy need for change all over his skin, like he wanted to climb out of it and set it on fire. No. Not yet. Not yet. It’s too soon. Please let me keep this place to myself.

But the black tide can’t be contained, especially not by the one it’s consuming. When Jensen got home from work that night, he stayed there for a week.

***************************************

The bed was uncomfortable, but it wasn’t the bed’s fault. Any place you lay in, motionless, for more than a few hours became uncomfortable, and the creaky monstrosity he’d found at goodwill with the stained old mattress was no exception. He hadn’t moved in a while. His joints ached with it, but the sticky, heavy press of the fog was worse. His body wanted to move, but his mind couldn’t allow it.

The doorbell rang a few times. It could have been Danneel. It could have been Chad. It probably wasn’t Jared.

He was hungry, and thirsty, and he needed the bathroom. It was too cold in the room, but when he managed to pull the blanket over his motionless torso it immediately became stiflingly hot.

Then, suddenly, someone came in.

No. No. Not people. He couldn’t see anyone. He couldn’t speak to anyone. He remained, eyes wide open, staring at the plaster on the wall inches from his face. Whoever was here was making a racket in the kitchen. Maybe they were a burglar. Maybe they were armed. Would they kill him? Would they? Why did everything hurt?

Then Jared stepped into the bedroom. Because it was Jared. Put together and gorgeous as always, Jensen guessed, although he didn’t, couldn’t turn around to look. There was a voice from the other room. Two people, then.

“Is he in there?” That was Chad.

“Yeah,” said Jared, more softly, more nearby. “He’s here. Chad, can you go?”

“Why, dude?” heavy footfalls approaching the bedroom. “Something wrong with him? Or you just wanna confess your big gay crush?”

Jared’s voice sounded different, suddenly. Shiver-inducing. “Chad. Fuck. Off.”

“Okay, man, relax. Jesus, you’re such an uptight asshole.”

More footsteps, farther away now, and the slamming sound of the door.

There they were. There Jensen was, on the bed, smelly and filthy and heavy and terrible like a disgusting stain of human matter on the sticky sheet. And Jared, looking at him, looking at his back so intently that it made Jensen want to disappear. Jared, the human embodiment of sunshine and all things bright and beautiful, looking down on the worst excuse for a human life that had ever disgraced the earth.

Jensen waited for Jared to turn away, to leave. That didn’t happen.

“Jen?”

Jesus.

“Go ‘way, Jared.”

“No.” His tone was still gentle, but it brokered no argument. “I’m staying here until you tell me what’s happening right now.”

Jensen couldn’t do that. They’d be here a while. After a moment of silence, Jared sighed and sat down on the edge of the bed. “Okay. I’ll just wait here.”

And then, like he could read minds, he started slowly tracing a swirling pattern on Jensen’s back. It felt ticklish, and strange, and wonderful. He felt himself breathe again, and become alive. He became aware of something other than his discomfort and misery. Still. He didn’t move. He didn’t do anything much, but he did sleep.

*****************************************

When he woke up, he felt like he could maybe move. Also, Jared was still there.

“Hello,” he said, to announce that he was awake. His voice felt raw.

“Hi,” said Jared, and it sounded way too affectionate. Shit, was Jensen leading him on? It felt so damn good, though, not to be alone for a change.

“Food?” Jared suggested. Jensen appreciated it. It was a question, but it wasn’t “What the fuck is wrong with you?” It gave him a little time to decide whether he was going to be honest with Jared. He probably was. But then, what exactly was he going to say?

“Food’d be good, yeah.”

Jared got up to go to the kitchen. Stupidly, like a clingy toddler, Jensen went after him. Anything, anything, not to be alone in that terrible tiny room for a second longer. It was only then that he noticed what a mess it was in there. The room smelled stale and sour, like he’d been sweating in it for ages without opening a window. That was actually true. He himself smelled worst of all. The sheets were dirty, and there were unwashed clothes strewn all over the floor.

Jared was over by refrigerator, taking in its meagre supplies. “Fried eggs, maybe?”

“Sure.” Jensen didn’t much feel like eating, but he was going to do it anyway. He was going to do one tiny thing right today. Even if it was just so Jared wouldn’t ask questions.

Jared started heating up a pan. He wasn’t looking, and Jensen took the opportunity to rub his eyes roughly and attempt to put himself together. It didn’t really help much.

“You weren’t at the bookstore,” Jared starts, still looking at the stove. “Danneel asked if I knew where you were. It was five days, Jensen, and then I went to Chad for the spare key.”

Five days. Jesus. No wonder he felt like shit. When did he last have a drink of water? Fuck. Fuck. There was no one here to babysit him. He couldn’t let himself get out of control like that. Jared flipped the eggs over onto a plate, and pushed the bigger portion towards Jensen. In spite of everything, the fry smelled greasy and delicious and Jensen started tearing off small bites with his fork. Food. Yeah. Good idea.

“I had the flu,” he managed, mouth half-full of egg whites.

“Yeah?” Jared raised his eyebrows. “Next time you get the flu, you call me.”

“No I won’t,” Jensen said a little too loudly. Don’t get angry now, don’t get defensive, don’t be that kind of asshole. “I don’t fucking know you.”

Jared looked at him for a long time. “Maybe not,” he admitted, “but you could know me. I’d like for you to know me. I think I know you, so.”

It was silent in the kitchen for a while. Jensen munched on his eggs. They were ridiculously good.

“Are you on medication, Jensen?”

He coughed up some egg, eyes watering, and muttered: “Medication for what, exactly?”

Jared avoided his gaze. “Depression, I think.”

“You know what I think?” Jensen was shouting now, and he hated it, he hated himself. It was just impossible to backtrack. “I think you should fuck off.”

**************************************

It did make a difference, though, that Jared had been there. He hadn’t left when Jensen told him to, not even when he said it two, three times, shouted at him. He’d picked up the laundry and put it in the hamper. He’d cleaned up the kitchen, aired out the bedroom and changed the sheets. Jensen hated him. Jensen loved him so much that it hurt to breathe.

He ate three more fried eggs, drank a whole carton of milk and went to bed early. The next morning, he went to The Coffee Pad. Jared and Genevieve were the only ones there, apart from one or two elderly ladies sipping cappuccinos in the corner.

“Thank you,” Jensen said as soon as he was close enough to be overheard. “I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry,” Jared said. “Be smart. Call me next time. Or, you know, call someone else. But pick up the phone.”

Jensen could only nod. He couldn’t say yes, because he was sure it’d be a lie.

“Can you take a break?” It was an impertinent thing to ask. First you yell at a guy to get out of your apartment, next thing you know you’re asking him to take a break from work to chat with you? Way to go, Ackles.

“Sure,” Jared smiled. “It’s not busy, anyway. You don’t have to be at the shop till ten, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Let’s take a walk, then.”

It was a good idea, but Jensen hated it. The weather was fine, sunny and breezy and gentle, the way the end of summer is in Connecticut. But Jensen’s limbs were heavy with dread. The black goo that had glued him to the bed for most of the week was still there, making the spaces between his bones ache with sadness. Jared was smiling a little too brightly at him, as though he knew what Jensen was thinking. Yet, that smile was impossible to refuse. Jensen turned towards the door.

They turned south on Main Street, in the direction Jensen almost never goes. Jared put a hand on his shoulder but Jensen shrugged it off.

Then, out of nowhere: “My mother suffered from depression for most of her life.”

Jensen froze. “I’m sorry to hear that. That’s terrible.” It’s not just sympathy talk, he knows it to be terrible.

“Yeah,” Jared nodded. “I spent a lot of time taking care of her. It killed her, in the end.”

Jensen gasped for breath. He thinks of Jared, smaller than he is now, more slender, but just as enthusiastic and caring. He thinks of that boy, probably all elbows and knees and awkwardness, and of a mother’s funeral with white lilies and ill-fitting black suits. He wants to cry.

In spite of the tragedy, he appreciates the choice of words. Not: “she killed herself,” but “it killed her.” The infliction is that she was nothing but a victim of the illness.

He thinks of the way Josh spoke to him, back in Texas, about two months before he came here. It was after his third attempt, the one with the razor and the bathwater around him slowly going crimson.

“You know there’s a really simple solution to this problem, don’t you, Jenny?” he’d said.

As a matter of fact Jensen knew no such thing, so he’d listened to his brother attentively.

“Just don’t do it. Just don’t. Just keep living. If the rest of us can do it, so can you.”

He’d cried then. That conversation was one of the only times he’d really cried. “It’s not that easy, Josh.”

“But it is. It really is that easy.”

But it wasn’t. Josh didn’t know that, but Jensen did. And now it seemed that Jared knew it, too.

“I’m so sorry, Jared,” Jensen said again.

“Yeah, well. I’m not going to say it’s okay, because it’s definitely not. I’m just saying, I’m as close to understanding it as I could be without being depressed myself.”

Jensen appreciated that wording, too. Admitting that he didn’t understand, that he could never and that he actually preferred not to, but also saying that he was there. If Jensen needed him. Jensen needed him so much.

“Have you read Reasons To Stay Alive by Matt Haig?”

The question was so out of the blue that Jensen snorted with laughter. “Self-help books, Jared, really?”

“It’s not a self-help book,” Jared said sulkily. “It’s an autobiography. Or something like that. Read it? Please? Because I asked? You can borrow my copy.”

“Maybe,” Jensen conceded.

“Will you ever just say yes when I ask you something?”

This time Jensen laughed loudly, from his belly, and said: “No.”

*****************************************

Luckily, Danneel doesn’t ask about his random five day absence when he shows up for work. Jensen has a sneaking suspicion that Jared talked to her. It’s sweet of him, but he doesn’t like the idea of them talking about his illness behind his back.

“Jensen looked terrible, Danni,” he imagines Jared saying. “It was the most pathetic thing I’ve ever seen. I’m not sure you should keep him on at the shop, because he seems more than a little unstable.”

And Danneel nodding: “Yeah. Yeah, he’s not a great employee, either. Nervous around the customers, sometimes rude, even.”

But since he doesn’t get fired the moment he steps in the door, that’s probably just his overactive imagination. It’s hard to tell, these days, which thoughts are imaginary. Is Texas really a black hole of despair, like the edge of the world? Is the way Jared melts him as dangerous as it feels? He just doesn’t have a clue, and neither does anyone else. With a sigh, Jensen gets to work.

***********************************

It’s three days later that Jared asks again. He doesn’t really ask, this time. He gives Jensen his coffee to go for no apparent reason and then when Jensen takes the cup it’s got writing on it: “Go on a date with me, Jen?” in an uneven felt-tip scrawl. He doesn’t read the message until he’s already out the door, which was probably Jared’s intention. He ducks back into the door of his apartment to get his breathing under control. He takes the cell phone out of his pocket. It’s still switched off, but he’s been carrying it for emergencies. He dials Mac’s number.

“Hello?”

It’s her. She sounds exactly the same, albeit a little distracted.

“Are you driving?”

A high screech makes him hold the phone away from his ear.

“Jensen Ross Ackles, I wasn’t even sure you were alive. Jesus.”

Jensen feels a lump in his throat. “I’m sorry. Mac, I’m so sorry.”

“I started checking the obituaries all over the place, you insane idiot! Hang on a sec, I need to text mom and dad.”

Oh god. Blind panic. “Don’t, Mac. Please don’t. If I’d known you’d do that, I wouldn’t have called you.”

She sighs but doesn’t press the issue. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine, Mac, Jesus. I’m twenty-two years old. How’ve you been?”

“Well, just peachy. Mom and dad are freaking out, I’m still miserably single, and I have finals coming up.”

He doesn’t even manage to let her finish talking because he’s a selfish asshole. “I’m in love with someone.”

If possible, the sound she makes at that is even louder than the one when she discovered he’d managed to keep himself alive.

“With whom?”

“I’m in a small town in Connecticut,” he explains. “And there’s a barista here.”

“Ooh, Jenny. Name?”

“Jared.”

“Good looking?”

He sighs. “Mac, you have no idea. He’s gorgeous. I can’t bear looking at him for too long, because it’s too much hotness.”

She giggles. Then her tone becomes serious. “You need money?”

“Nah. I got a job.”

Another excited screech. It’s a miracle he hasn’t gone deaf. “Where?”

“A local bookstore,” he says. “The owner is a friend of Jared’s.”

“That’s great, Jen, that’s great. Listen, I’m really sorry, but I have to go. I’m pulling up to campus right now but call again sometime soon, okay?”

Jensen promises he will and hangs up the phone. She’s managed to put a smile on his face. He takes a pen out of his pocket and scribbles “Can you be patient with me?” onto a napkin. Then he walks back into The Coffee Pad and wordlessly hands it to Jared. The rest of the day at work seems to fly by, because now Jensen’s got a plan.

***********************************************************

He puts the plan into action that night when he comes home from work. Step one is a text to MacKenzie. It reads: “I’m in Winchester, Connecticut. Pay me a visit the weekend after your finals?”

She responds with an enthusiastic “Yessss please!” almost immediately.

Step two is an appointment with a hairdresser, which Jensen makes for the following afternoon, when he’s off work.

Step three hurts most of all, but like ripping off a band-aid, he feels a great sense of relief when it’s done. He writes an email to a psychiatrist. The guy looks approachable and kind in his photograph. His practice is located in Hartford, which is only about an hour’s drive, and it seems there’s no waiting list. His health insurance covers a year’s worth of visits, so that’s one less thing to worry about. His name is Doctor J.D. Morgan.

He goes to sleep late, feeling elated and happy and on the edge of insanity, like the four times after he almost died but didn’t.

**************************************

It’s nothing but a lucky coincidence that MacKenzie’s visit happens to be on the same weekend as the Annual Fall Foliage Festival.

“What’s this?” Jensen asks, when he sees the poster Danneel has put up on the door of Winchesters Words.

“Oh, it’s the festival,” she says, as thought that explains it all.

“I can read, woman,” he rebukes. “I just don’t know anything about festivals.”

She giggles. “Sorry. I just keep forgetting you’re not from around here. It’s a big event, all the local shops have stands there, there’s a band or a DJ, lemonade, some performances, that kind of thing. I think there’s even dancing in the evening this year.”

“Oh.” Jensen doesn’t really like that kind of thing. “I’ll help you with our stand?” he offers.

“You’d better!”

The next four days are spent picking out and packing up books to sell at the Festival. Jensen uses his lunch break on Thursday to go buy an air mattress for when Mac arrives, and he spots Jared and Genevieve putting up cheesy looking garlands and balloons around Main Street and Town Square.

Jared winks at him as he walks by, and it makes Jensen hot all over. He and Jared haven’t really spoken since the exchange of scribbled messages on coffee cups and napkins, but there’s been a napkin with his coffee every morning since.

The first one read: “I’ll be patient. Take as long as you need.”

The second one read: “The curve of your lips rewrites history - Oscar Wilde” That one made Jensen seriously consider dragging Jared to the backroom of the coffee shop for some quality time with the “curve of his lips.” Quoting Oscar Wilde. How could he ever have thought this guy was straight?

The one this morning just said: “Save a dance for me at the festival?” And that was what had Jensen feeling antsy right now. Of course he wanted to dance with Jared. He wanted it more than he ever remembered wanting anything. It was surprising, that he wanted something that badly, that the fog couldn’t mute it or dilute it or numb the rapid pounding of his heart. It was terrifying, but he already knew he was going to do it.

He started dragging the air mattress back to Danneel’s shop, but he was stopped short by Jared suddenly popping up in front of him.

“Need a hand with that?”

Jensen smiled. Having Jared as a friend, or at least a kind of friend, was like being constantly accompanied by a puppy. He was eager to help you with everything, but just as likely to ruin your life and rip it apart, all with the best intentions.

“I’m fine, Jared.”

Jared nodded at him, touched his shoulder for a moment, and was already turning back towards the gazebo he’d been decorating when Jensen extended an arm to stop him.

“Hey,” he began. “Jared?”

“Yeah?” There he was again. Bright and fidgeting, and beautiful and so, so close.

“I’ll dance with you tomorrow night, if you want.”

The grin that earned him was so bright, Jensen had to look away. His heart hurt in a way he wished would go on forever.

**************************************

MacKenzie had her last final on Friday morning. She got in the car as soon as she finished up, planked it to Connecticut, and she was at his door in the middle of the night. Or, technically, very early on Saturday morning. Jensen opened the door for her, grumpy and half-asleep, and made a vague gesture towards the air mattress. Mac ignored him and together they tumbled into the double bed. Jensen was the little spoon, MacKenzie’s dainty little arm draped over his waist, and he would never, ever say out loud how safe that made him feel. He didn’t need to say it. She knew.

The alarm went off at 7, and Jensen dragged himself upright and climbed out, putting as many of his pointy knees and elbows in Mac’s stomach as he could manage. She might be the sweetest little sister in the world, but she was still his little sister, and the youngest sibling always deserved to be teased a bit.

Mac was so used to his antics that she barely even woke, just mumbled “Fuck off,” and turned over to get back to sleep. Jensen went to The Coffee Pad first, got his usual and a wink from Jared as well as a napkin that read: “See you tonight! x”

It was the “x” that made Jensen’s heart beat in his throat and bring his cup back to the counter. “Listen,” he began, when Jared had a moment. “My sister’s in town. She’s probably going to come in here at some point this morning. Don’t believe anything she says.”

Jared laughed a little. “I won’t. Good luck at the festival today, Jen.” And then he pulled at his shoulder, leaned over the counter, and kissed him gently on the cheek. Jensen exhaled, a little startled and a lot pleased. It was going to be a long day.

He was slightly late for work, but Danneel didn’t call him out on it. She was already carrying boxes of books outside.

“Good, you’re here,” she said. She was holding the door open with one foot, and her arms were too full to make out her face. “Can you set up the stand?”

So Jensen set up the stand and started arranging the books in a way he deemed appealing. He gave The Princess Bride a prominent spot. The festival started at two, and thanks to a combination of caffeine and diligence, Winchester’s Words’ stand was ready an hour early.

Grateful for the small break, Jensen walked over to Jared’s stand to get himself something for lunch. Of course, he found his sister already there, animatedly talking to Genevieve.

“Hello,” Jensen interrupted.

Mac spun around and leapt into his arms. “Hey, bro!”

Jensen couldn’t help but smile, and squeezed her tightly. “Hi, Mac. Hello, Genevieve. I don’t think we’ve met?” He extended his right hand to shake hers.

Genevieve’s eyes were sparkling like she knew something he didn’t. Maybe Jared had talked to her about him. Weren’t they close friends? What would Jared have said? The nightmarish conversation he’d thought up the other day came back to him in a flash.

However, there was nothing but kindness in Genevieve’s expression as she shook his hand. “Nice to finally be introduced, Jensen. You want coffee?”

“Black, please. Do you sell sandwiches, too?”

That’s the moment Jared chose to make his first appearance. MacKenzie squeaked, and Jensen could easily understand why. He was wearing dark, tight jeans and a gray wife beater, as well as the standard Coffee Pad apron, which was an appealing shade of crimson. He was carrying a tray packed with cupcakes, and you could see the muscles of his forearms stand out a little. It was already a warm, sunny day, but Jensen was sure the temperature went up a few degrees. When their dance came tonight, would Jared pull him close with those arms?

“You’re Jared,” MacKenzie asserted, a little breathless. Jensen stomped on her foot, but this only made her blush more brightly.

“Those cupcakes look really good,” Jensen said, shyly looking at Jared.

“That’s not the only thing that looks really good,” said Mac, close enough that only Jensen could hear her. He couldn’t help it. Maybe it was the hormones, maybe it was the amused look Genevieve and Jared shared, maybe it was the elation of the festival, maybe it was the joy of seeing MacKenzie for the first time in months. Jensen started giggling uncontrollably. Jared laughed too, and it only made Jensen laugh more. Then Genevieve and Mac were laughing too, and Jensen felt light enough to fly.

“Hey Ackles, get your lazy ass back over here!”

It was Danneel that interrupted their moment, but she was definitely more amused than pissed. She had a point, though. A number of customers had started swarming towards the bookstand, and Danneel looked a little frazzled. He should go give her a hand.

Only MacKenzie noticed how Jared’s eyes followed Jensen as he walked away.

*************************************************************

It was around 6pm that interest in the books started to dwindle. Jensen was tired, he’d been standing and running around and interacting with strangers all day, and to top it all off he was getting more and more nervous about the dance.

After the second time he dropped a book in the grass, Danneel sent him away. “It’s fine, Jen. Go dance with your boy. Eat a corndog. Relax. I’ll take care of the stand from here.”

Jensen was much too relieved to protest convincingly. He got two corndogs from their neighboring stand, and went in search of Mac. She’d hung around with him for a few hours, but she’d wandered off eventually to check out some of the other stands and meet some new people.

He didn’t find her. He found Jared instead. Or rather, Jared found him.

“Jensen!”

Jensen spun around, a little startled. The sun had started to set, but the square was illuminated by a string of colorful lanterns.

“Jared.” He was still wearing the wife beater. It clung to his stomach so tightly that Jensen wanted to run his hand over the ridges of muscle protruding there. Over the tank top, he was wearing a dark brown leather jacket. Kill me now.

Unsure of what to say, Jensen held up the corndog meant for Mac. “Want one?”

Jared smiled broadly. “Food? Always?”

It was a well-known fact; Jared was always eating. He ate the corndog in three bites and waited patiently while Jensen munched on his, trying not to look like an idiot or be gross or get grease on his face or anything.

“Will you dance with me, now?” Jared extended his hand, and Jensen took it. Jared’s fingers folded all the way around his palm. He felt incredibly tiny all of a sudden, and completely safe. Jared led him towards the gazebo, not letting go of his hand even as they made their way up the wooden steps.

The gazebo was a round, wooden platform, decorated with pink and yellow flowers and lanterns that illuminated the circle softly. There were a handful of couples already dancing there, slowly, some barely moving at all. At the very back there was a small band of adolescent boys. One was on a piano, another played the guitar, there was a guy behind the drums and one singing, all of them dressed in tuxedos. It was the corniest thing ever. Jensen loved it.

Jared pulled Jensen in close, just the way he’d imagined that very morning, and whispered: “Relax. I’ve got you.” Jensen thought he might swoon, or his knees might give out or something equally ridiculous, because Jared smelled indescribably good.

Then the singer of the band, the most awkward of the group of teenagers, opened his mouth, and the most exquisite sound came out: “I should have forgotten you long ago, but you're in every song I know,”

The song was sad, most definitely, and almost too quiet to hear. But it was like the sound of it hit Jensen like a tangible thing, like someone reached inside him and infused the music into his soul. He tightened his hands on Jared’s waist, leaning forward, and rested his head right below Jared’s chin, close to his Adam’s apple. Jared just held him, breathing steadily. He didn’t speak, he didn’t pull away, he just shifted his weight and Jensen from right to left along with the music and stroked his fingertips over Jensen’s back in an unpredictable pattern. It was blissful.

It was like flying, like a higher plane of existence, like heaven. Jensen’s mind just completely stopped, and he reveled in the silence. And then, quite suddenly, without his permission, he was pressing his lips to Jared’s Adam’s apple. Softly, drily. Jared gasped for breath, ran his hands up along Jensen’s sides to his jaw. He put both strong hands there and tilted Jensen’s neck up, up, up high enough for them to kiss.

And then they were kissing.

Jared was greedy, opening his mouth against Jensen’s with very little preamble. Jensen felt the heat of it, the wetness, and made an embarrassing little sound. Jared’s right hand was still cupping his jaw, but the other one trailed down his side, to his back, and just very gently touched his ass. They were hard. They were both so hard. Jared didn’t push it, though, or move to take it any further. He just kissed Jensen, like it was the only thing there was in the world. He kissed Jensen like it was a reward in and of itself to kiss him, like there was nothing he’d rather do. He kissed him like Jensen was precious. And just like that, Jensen started to cry.

Jared disentangled his mouth from Jensen’s, but didn’t put any distance between their bodies.

“Hey,” he said. “Hey, Jen, hey. Look at me a sec.”

Jensen couldn’t. He was looking at his scruffy shoes and Jared’s gorgeous leather boots.

“Please, Jen. What is it? Tell me.”

Jensen couldn’t look. He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t move.

“Jensen.”

A beat of silence. They were still in the gazebo, but Jared had maneuvered them to a dark corner.

“Fine, look at the floor. But I’m entirely serious about this, Jensen. I’m into you. I’m…”

He took a step back and ran both hands through his hair. “I’m really, really into you.”

Now Jensen did look, and all he saw was sincerity. He closed the distance between them and pecked Jared lightly on the mouth. Christ, that mouth. “I really, really like you too, Jared. Can we just go very slow with this?” Then, after a moment of consideration, he added: “I made an appointment with a therapist for Monday.”

Jared’s eyes turned big as saucers. “You did?” Another brief kiss. “That’s amazing. I’m so proud of you. I’ll wait as long as you need. Can I… can I walk you home, though?”

“Yeah,” Jensen decided. He felt fluttery and happy and scared all at the same time. Then Jared took his hand again and walked him to his apartment, to the slender blue door right next to The Coffee Pad. They kissed a little more, less rushed and heated this time, and Jensen stepped into his apartment. He’d never walked the steps with such ease.

In his kitchen, MacKenzie was eating frosted flakes straight from the box, crunching them between her teeth loudly. Jensen made a disgusted face. She ignored it.

“So?” she asked, showing him a mouthful of half-eaten cereal.

“So what?” he bounced back.

“Don’t be an asshole.” She threw a handful of flakes at him. He scrambled to catch and eat them. “How was it?”

“I’m in love with him, and we slow danced in the twilight. How do you think it was?”

“You didn’t freak out on him? You’re not going to jump out of the window out of sheer awkwardness?”

Jensen gave her a mock-stern look. “That’s not funny,”

“You think it is,” she interrupted. “Your sense of humor is black as charcoal.”

“Okay, yeah. I did freak out on him a little.”

She raised her eyebrows at him.

“He really, really likes me, apparently.”

A squeal, and another handful of frosted flakes in the face. “That’s really, really great!”

Jensen rolled his eyes. “Yeah, I guess. I may have cried a little I told him we should take it slow. And I contacted a therapist over in Hartford.” He says the last bit softly, so as to hide it behind the other information, but of course Mac isn’t fooled.

“You did?” It’s common knowledge in the Ackles family that Jensen hates doctors. “I’m so proud of you, Jenny.” Both of them are tearing up, now.

MacKenzie pulls a DVD out of her overnight bag. “Watch Clueless with me? Or do you want to go to bed?”

“No,” Jensen decides. “Clueless is good.”

*****************************************

MacKenzie leaves Winchester on Sunday afternoon. She’s planning to drive through the night and crash when she arrives at her campus apartment in the morning. Jensen, of course, does not approve, but there’s no arguing with Mac once she’s set her mind to something. After telling her, for the twelve-millionth time, to pull over at a motel for a few hours when she gets tired, Jensen makes his way to The Coffee Pad. Goodbyes are probably his least favorite thing ever.

Jared’s there, of course, ready to console him with a cup of coffee and a cup of cake.

“Hey!” Jensen realizes after a few minutes. “The cupcakes you sold at the festival yesterday. They were nearly perfect. How’d you manage that?”

Jared abandons his post behind the counter carelessly and comes to sit with Jensen. “Well,” he says, wiggling his eyebrows, “I had this amazing pastry chef for a teacher. He had the most gorgeous eyes I’d ever seen. And this mouth… This sinful mouth that just made me want to please him.”

Jensen blushes. “But this thing I’m eating right now is barely deserving of the name ‘cupcake.’”

Jared shrugs. “Too much work. Besides, they taste way better when they’re drowning in frosting. And maybe I just wanted to see you make a mess of yourself.”

Jensen takes another big bite, smearing white buttercream all over his lips in the process. He knows his mouth is to die for. He doesn’t like a lot of things about himself, but he does like his pouty, pink lips. And of course, he likes teasing Jared.

Jared tears his eyes away from Jensen, who is now gingerly licking frosting off his bottom lip. He clears his throat. “But in all seriousness, I was wondering whether you’d like a ride tomorrow.”

It takes Jensen a second. “A ride?”

“Yeah, to your appointment.”

Jensen blushes a little. “My appointment. Yeah. It’s in Hartford, at four. I can drive myself, though.”

Jared looks vaguely annoyed. “I understand that you can. But you’ve never been there, have you? You might get lost.” It sounds like a weak excuse. “Besides, I have to drive out there to pick up some stuff, anyways.”

An hour in the car with Jared, and an hour back. It sounds heavenly.

“Can you get off work?”

“Sure,” Jared says, a little cocky. “I can pretty much do whatever I want in this job.”

“That’s not true!” comes Genevieve’s voice from behind the counter.

Jared leans in close to Jensen and tells him: “It is, though.” Then, at a normal volume: “If you come by the shop around three, we’ll take my truck.”

Jensen nods, completely convinced of the genius of this idea and more than a little charmed with Jared’s confident antics.

***************************************

And so Jensen is at The Coffee Pad the next afternoon at two-thirty, which leaves him enough time to drink a “tall, dark, and handsome,” as Jared puts it. He drinks his coffee in big gulps, and by the time he can see the bottom of the bowllike mug, his hands are shaking with caffeine.

“Take it easy, dude,” says Jared. He offers Jensen a bottle of water. “Drink this in the car.”

Jared’s car is an old beaten-up Chevy, dark red like his work apron, and Jensen immediately falls in love with it. The seats are wide and worn and comfortable, and there’s enough space for him to stretch out his legs a little. Even if the car is huge, Jared still looks gigantic and cramped and uncomfortable behind the wheel. Jensen thinks it’s endearing. Jensen thinks he’s never thought of hugeness as sexy before; now it’s the only thing he can think about. Jared starts the car.

Jensen drinks his water.

“You nervous?”

A silence. Jensen looks at the landscape out the passenger side window. Admits: “Yeah.”

“Ever been before?”

That’s not a question he wants to answer. So he doesn’t. Jared changes track. “And you’re an English Lit major, huh? What’s your favorite book?”

The Princess Bride. Mrs Dalloway. The Bell Jar. Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban Which answer will Jared like best? “The Princess Bride,” he decides to say,”but it’s a close call.”

Jared nods. “Man, I love the freakin’ Princess Bride.” There he goes again with the Inigo Montoya impression. It’s spot-on, and Jensen tells him so.

“Thanks. I always did the voices to amuse my sister when we were kids.”

“You have a sister?”

“Yeah, Meghan. About the same age as MacKenzie, I think.”

“Cool. So are you just a movie fan or did you actually read the book, too?”

Jared blanches. “Of course I read the book! Dude.”

That makes Jensen smile. He squints a little against the sun in his eyes. Jared pulls down the visor for him. Before he puts his hand back on the wheel, he lets it rest on Jensen’s thigh briefly. The car rolls down the highway peacefully.

“Radio?” Jared asks after a while.

“Sure,” says Jensen. They settle on Bruce Springsteen. It sounds gorgeous in the sound system, which must have been recently updated. Jensen dozes off. No weird dreams, no panic attacks to wake him up. With Jared next to him and the gentle rocking of the car, Jensen sleeps peacefully for the first time in what feels like ages.

Unfortunately, his slumber does not last long. Jared pulls up on a parking spot in Hartford, and wakes Jensen up by rubbing his shoulders a little. Jensen could get used to that.

“We’re here,” he says softly. Jensen can feel the heat of breath near his ear.

He groans dramatically and yawns.

It makes Jared giggle and poke him in the tummy jokingly. Then, to Jensen’s surprise, Jared gets out of the car and, like a classy chauffeur, holds open the passenger side door. It’s so endearing that Jensen leans up to give him a kiss. It’s nice to make Jared blush for a change.

They sit in the waiting room together.

“Didn’t you have an errand to run in town?” Jensen asks.

“What? Oh, yeah,” Jared seems flustered. “Sure. I can wait with you, though, no rush.”

“Jared,” Jensen says. “What is your errand?”

A beat.

“I need to buy new…stuff.”

Jensen laughs a little. “Stuff, huh? You’re a terrible liar. Are you going to go buy more “stuff” at exactly the same time next week?”

Jared ruffles his hair. “I’d like that, yeah.”

“It’s a date, then,” Jensen says. Before he has time to think about his choice of words, his name is called by the receptionist and he’s being called into Dr. Morgan’s office.

****************************************************

Dr. Morgan is good looking, steady and scruffy and nothing like Jensen’s previous therapists, all dithering young interns. Jensen’s palms are sweaty. He scratches his neck with one of them, and tugs at his earlobe a moment later. Nervous tics. Control yourself.

“Hi,” he says, awkwardly.

“Good afternoon, Jensen,” says Dr. Morgan kindly. He gestures towards a comfortable-looking leather chair, and Jensen sits down, grateful for the direction. There’s no long couches here, no inky stains on pieces of cardboard, no affirmations of self-confidence embroidered on the pillows. It’s just an office. Dr. Morgan could just have well been a lawyer, or some other kind of well-paid professional. Jensen feels some of his tension seep away.

“How are you doing, Jensen?”

“I’m fine,” he answers automatically. Dr. Morgan’s facial expression says he’s not buying it, but he doesn’t press the issue. That’s a relief. They’re not digging into the heavy stuff right away.

“That’s great. Can you tell me why you decided to come here today?”

That question’s a little more difficult to answer. In a flash, Jensen thinks of Jared, probably still reading Time Magazine in the waiting room. That untangles the mess in his brain.

“I fell in love,” he says simply.

Dr. Morgan smiles at him. It looks genuine enough. “Who’s the lucky lady?”

“Ah,” Jensen scratches his neck again. “Gentleman, actually. His name is Jared.”

Not a trace of surprise. “Is he the guy wearing a hole in my waiting room carpet right now, by any chance?”

This makes Jensen laugh. “Yeah, that sounds like Jared alright.”

“I’m very happy for you, Jensen. Falling in love with someone can be a wonderful experience. What does Jared have to do with our appointment?”

“I’m depressed.” Jensen’s said it enough times that it’s not that hard anymore, but he still looks at the floor. “Or maybe I was depressed, I don’t know.”

“Can you tell me how you’ve been feeling for the last few weeks?”

Now comes the hard bit. “I left Texas about two months ago. I’ve been suffering from insomnia, nervousness. I’ve been exhausted. I haven’t eaten much, either, I don’t think.”

“I see. I thought I heard a Southern drawl. What prompted you to leave Texas?”

“Well, I, uh…” Jensen trails off. He feels embarrassed. Like he’s letting Dr. Morgan down by admitting to this. Like he’s letting Jared down. “I took some sleeping pills. My parents wanted to have me committed.”

“I see,” Dr. Morgan says simply. There is a moment of silence. Although Jensen is aware of the trick that is being played on him, he still felt the need to speak.

“It wasn’t the first time I did that. My mother had already cut back on her hours to mind me during the day.” It made him feel hot all over, and itchy. He was filled again with black sludge. It was whispering in his ear, about how he didn’t deserve to exist. He shook his head from side to side to clear it. Thankfully, Dr. Morgan didn’t comment.

“I’m going to ask a series of diagnostic questions now, Jensen. Is that okay?”

“Yeah, sure, whatever you want.”

“On a scale from one to ten, how would you rate your sadness over the past few weeks?”

“A seven, I think.” It’s difficult to rate such an abstract thing as mood. “Yes, seven sounds about right.”

Dr. Morgan nods, writes something down. Presumably, Jensen thinks, he’s putting a seven in some kind of grid.

“On the same scale, how would you rate your anxiety?”

“A nine.” That one’s easier to answer. Not the worst he’s ever experienced, but pretty bad none the less.

“You’ve been having trouble eating enough food? Or eating food with enough nutritious value?”

“Yes,” he’s looking at the carpet again. “Yes to both.”

“Have you been thinking about death, Jensen?”

“Not really. I mean, yeah. But not like…” he trails off.

Dr. Morgan waits.

“Not like I actually want to kill myself or anything. I want to…”

Dr. Morgan waits.

“I want to live. With Jared. You think I can do that?”

Another smile from Dr. Morgan. “I certainly think you can do that.”

“I’ve been depressed on and off since I was about thirteen years old.”

Dr. Morgan nods. “And you’ve been in therapy before?”

“Yes,” says Jensen.

“Did it help you?”

Softly: “Not really, no.”

“So what’s different this time?”

“I want to get better this time.”

“That’s really good, Jensen. Really good. Have you ever been on antidepressant medication?”

“They don’t recommend it for adolescents. So, no.”

“And you’re twenty-two, is that correct?”

Jensen nods.

“Are you on any medication at the moment? Do you regularly use Tylenol or any other over the counter medications?”

Jensen shakes his head, no.

“Would you feel comfortable with me prescribing you some antidepressants?”

“I guess.”

Dr. Morgan raises his eyebrows. “You’d most likely experience nausea at first, headaches, indigestion. You might even find that the medication worsens your depression short-term. So I have to ask you what you mean by ‘I guess.’”

Jensen snorts. He likes this guy. “What I mean is it scares the shit out of me. But what have I got to lose?”

“Okay. I’m starting you off on 20 milligrams of prozac per day. And I want another appointment for next week, and for you to contact me if the side-effects get too much to handle.”

“Thank you, Dr. Morgan.” Jensen is already half standing up. He suddenly really wants to get out of here. He wants to get back into Jared’s car. With Jared.

But Dr. Morgan’s got more. “Oh, and Jensen? Call me Jeff.”

They smile at one another and Jensen feels like he could probably see this guy every week for a while. No big deal.

************************

Jared doesn’t ask any questions, and Jensen is grateful.

After twenty minutes of silent driving and nervously holding hands, Jensen offers: “He was an alright guy.”

Jared waits for him to say more and Jensen laughs a little. Exactly like Dr. Morgan did.

“He put me on some medication.”

Now Jared looks at him. “You cool with that?”

“I guess so,” Jensen shrugs. “Willing to try anything once.”

Jared shoots him a quick, encouraging smile before returning his eyes to the road. Jensen feels good. Another twenty miles or so later, he asks:

“Jared?” God, he’s so pretty. Don’t think too much about how pretty he is.

“Yeah?”

“Can I stay at your place tonight?”

“Yes.” The response is immediate, the grin even quicker. “Can I take you to my favorite restaurant for dinner, then?”

“Yeah.”

“You like Italian food?”

“Dude. Who doesn’t like Italian food?”

That earns him another laugh. Jensen has a date tonight. Easy as pie.

***********************************

Of course, the anxiety hits fifteen minutes before Jared’s due to pick him up. The blue tie, or the green? Should he even be wearing a tie at all? What kind of restaurant will they be eating at?

He texts both Mac and Danni: ”Blue tie or green tie on a first date?”

Both text back within moments. ”Green!” MacKenzie, charming as always, adds: “have you never seen the color of your eyes, idiot?”

He grins. It’s just so like her to call him an idiot and mean to say good luck, I love you and you can do it, all at once. Just as he finishes tying the green tie into a windsor, the doorbell rings. Jared’s here.

He takes a moment to collect his thoughts and calm his breathing, decides it’s no use, and open’s the door.

Good call on the tie, Ackles. Jared’s wearing a tie in the exact same shade. It looks gorgeous on him. He’s also wearing a fancy looking dinner jacket, a white button down, dress pants and shiny black shoes. Long story short: the boys look like they’ve coordinated their outfits.

Jared grins, and offers up a bouquet of soft purple peonies. Jensen can’t help it. He gasps for breath like a swooning Victorian lady. No one, no one, has ever gotten him flowers before.

“Thank you,” he breathes softly, as he takes the flowers out of Jared’s hands. “Thank you.”

“Of course,” says Jared. And then: “Beautiful flowers for a beautiful guy.”

Jensen scratches his ear. “I don’t have a vase, I don’t think.” He steps aside and lets Jared into the apartment. On the kitchen counter, there’s an empty peanut butter jar that Jensen just washed out to recycle. Without thinking twice, Jared fills it up with tap water and puts the flowers in.

“That’ll do,” he says, rearranging them carefully to be spread evenly along the edge of the vase. “Next time I’ll get you flowers with a vase.”

Next time. “Are you for real?” he asks Jared. He didn’t mean to say it aloud. Luckily, Jared just laughs it off and gestures towards the door.

“Shall we?”

The ride to the restaurant is quick and a little awkward. Jared turns on the stereo again, and this time it’s playing a song Jensen doesn’t know. It sounds nice, though.

The restaurant is in a backstreet between Winchester and the next town over. Predictably, it’s called La Bella Italia. Jared holds open the car door and the restaurant door for Jensen again. Jensen thinks it’s entirely possible someone replaced the pavement with pudding. His knees are wobbly.

“I made a reservation,” Jared tells the maitre’d. “Padalecki, for two people.”

They’re brought to a small wooden table in a quiet corner, candlelight and all. Jared pulls out Jensen’s chair before sitting down, himself.

“You don’t have to do that, you know,” Jensen remarks.

“I know I don’t. I like doing it. Do you mind?”

Jensen softly admits: “No. What kind of name is Padalecki?”

Jared rolls his eyes, but he doesn’t seem genuinely annoyed. “Polish.”

A beat of silence. “Wait. Hold on. The Coffee Pad. Oh my God.”

“Yeah,” Jared says. “Gen’s idea of a joke.”

“It’s funny,” says Jensen.

“It’s really not. Water?”

He pours them both water from the carafe that’s already on the table. Jensen flushes a little, feels the inside of his jacket pocket. “I’m supposed to start taking my medication, now.”

Jared smiles at him. “You went to the pharmacy already? That’s great, Jen.”

“An adult running an errand for themselves isn’t great, Jared, that’s just normal grownup behavior,” Jensen bites out. He can’t help it. He suddenly feels embarrassed and belittled and babied.

Jared flushes. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to… I’m sorry.”

“You really don’t have to hold doors open for me, either,” he snaps.

Jared’s eyes turn wide. “I…”

That’s when the waiter suddenly appears at their table. Almost immediately, Jensen feels embarrassed and guilty about his outburst.

“Good evening, gentlemen. My name is Luigi. Can I pour the both of you some wine?”

Jensen shakes his head. He’s not mixing alcohol and antidepressants. Jared also declines the wine, but asks for a basket of bread.

As the waiter turns around to leave, Jensen makes a weak attempt at breaking the tension. “Luigi? What, did Mario get the night off?”

Jared laughs, maybe a little too much, but suddenly everything is okay again.

“How’d you meet Genevieve?” Jensen asks, with the attentive body language he’s seen actors adapt in romantic comedies.

“Everyone in Winchester attended the same school,” Jared explains. “She threw a mudpie in my face the first day of kindergarten. We immediately became best friends.”

That’s funny. Sounds like Genevieve, too. “Cool. And now you work together?”

“And now we work together,” Jared repeats. “It’s fun. I mean, obviously it’s not my dream job, but it pays the bills.”

“What is your dream job?” Jensen asks. God, it’s so easy to hold a conversation with Jared. It’s never in his life been this easy with anyone.

“Well,” Jared laughs a little. Embarrassment, maybe? “I’m a history major. So I’d love to be some kind of bearded, middle-aged history professor.”

Jensen bites back a groan. Stubble, and a tan jacket, maybe a bowtie. Glasses. Glasses. “You’d need glasses,” he says. His thing for glasses is world-famous in Texas. Jensen always, always, always crushes on guys with glasses.

“I have them,” says Jared. With a flourish, he pulls a pair of horn-rimmed rounded spectacles out of his inside jacket pocket. Jensen feels a flash of heat around his midriff. Then Jared puts the glasses on, says, casually: “I only need them to read.” Oh. Dear. God. There’s a sparkle in his eyes, though, something that makes Jensen thinks he knows exactly what he’s doing. Toying with wildfire, that’s what it is.

“So,” Jensen manages. He’s aware that his mouth has opened a little, and that Jared is looking at it. Everything in the room feels charged and hot and precarious. He clears his throat. Jared’s gaze darts down to his Adam’s apple, the slope of his neck. “So.”

Jensen blinks. “So, what period of history would you be interested in teaching?”

It takes Jared a moment to realize he was asked a question. He tears his eyes away from where it’s been hovering around Jensen’s jaw, stares for a moment at the flickering flame of the candle, and says: “European history. World War I and stuff.”

“Why?” asks Jensen.

“My parents took me on a trip to Amsterdam once, after my high school graduation. We also visited London, Berlin, Paris. I loved it there. I just loved it. It’s so much older than the US. You can feel it in your bones, when you walk the streets there, how old it is. I love that feeling.”

Jensen nods. He’s never been outside of Texas before he came to Winchester. Every foreign country sounds equally fascinating to him. Amsterdam. Paris. London. London. England.

“What about you?” Jared interrupts his train of thought. “What would your dream job be?”

Jensen feels so embarrassed by his childlike idea of a dream job that it takes him a while to answer. It feels almost as ridiculous as admitting to wanting to be an astronaut, or a ballerina. Maybe even worse than those things, because he’s serious about it. “I want to be a writer.”

Jared gapes at him. “Of fiction? Non-fiction? Poetry, drama, prose? A journalist?”

His enthusiasm is contagious, and Jensen grins. “I’d write the instructions on the back of a bottle of bleach if it was the only way to make money from words,” he admits. “Anything. Anything at all. I mostly have experience writing prose, though, so I guess that’s what I’m aiming at.”

Jared nods. “What genre?”

“Literary fiction? I don’t know. It seems idiotic to describe myself as literary.”

That makes Jared laugh. “You ever let anyone read your stuff?”

“Not really. Just Mac. My mother thinks…” he doesn’t finish the sentence, but Jared seems to get it anyway.

“That why you left?”

Jensen shakes his head no, but doesn’t elaborate. It’s not time yet for the big suicidal ideation bombshell.

Thankfully, Jared backs off again. “What are you having?”

Jensen looks at the menu for the first time, decides quickly. “Melanzane.”

“Ha!” goes Jared. “Me too. It was my mother’s favorite dish.”

“I’m so sorry about your mother,” says Jensen. “When did she…”

Jared pauses. “Four years ago in December.”

“Jesus, Jared.”

“I was nineteen. I’d postponed college to look after her, but apparently that wasn’t enough.”

The tone of his voice frightens Jensen a little. He puts his elbows on the table and grabs Jared firmly by the jaw, so that he can look directly into his eyes. He even lifts up the glasses to bring them closer together. “Jared, listen to me.” He’s breathing on Jared’s face, but neither of them recoils. “What happened to your mother was not your fault. It wasn’t your mother’s fault. Your mother had a terrible illness and in the end it became too much for her to bear. That’s no one’s fault but God’s, if you believe in that kind of thing.”

“I don’t, really,” Jared admits.

“Me neither,” says Jensen. It feels like a huge admission, a moment of sincere human connection. He feels vulnerable, like he’s bearing his soul, and simultaneously invincible. With Jared this close to him, nothing could ever be wrong in the world.

They order two plates of melanzane.

“Too bad we both ordered the same dish,” Jared remarks. “Now I can’t lean close and offer you a bite.”

“You’re so incredibly cheesy!’ Jensen says. “I can’t believe how cheesy you are.” It sounds like an admonishment, but his grin betrays him.

Jared just nods. He knows how cheesy he is, and Jensen’s just going to have to deal with it. “Maybe…” he begins.

Jensen raises his eyebrows, questioning.

“Maybe we could share a dessert?” Jared rushes out.

Jensen smiles some more. “I suppose we could do that. But I have one condition.”

“Yeah?”

“It has to be tiramisu.”

*****************************************

Jensen wants to split the check. “Jared,” Jensen says, mock exasperated. “Neither of us is the girl in this relationship.”

“Relationship?” Jared quirks an eyebrow.

Jensen sighs. “Besides, there’s no need to woo me or something like that.”

“I know,” Jared answers. “I just enjoy making you blush.”

Jensen blushes. Still, they split the check.

After, Jared leaves his car and tugs Jensen towards a big, grassy field behind the restaurant.

“Where are we going?”

“A walk.”

“A walk where?”

“Just a walk.”

Jensen thinks about protesting. It always seemed silly to him, to walk just for the sake of walking. But Jared is holding his hand, and a couple of yards into the field he pulls him closer and puts a hand on his hip, so that the sides of their bodies are touching. Jensen says nothing.

“Tell me what you’re scared of?” Jared asks. They’ve been walking for a while, it’s almost dark all around them except for the illumination of the stars. It’s quiet, no need to talk loudly. No need to look each other in the eye.

Jensen doesn’t have to ask what the question means. He walks a bit more, thinking.

Finally he decides on: “I tried to kill myself.” Predictably, this makes Jared halt. Jensen doesn’t stop, disentangling their bodies. The heat of it is too distracting.

Jared waits.

“I tried it a number of times. Enough that my parents wanted to put me in a hospital. So I left. And you understand how…especially with your mother and all, it wouldn’t be fair to you.”

“But…”

“No,” says Jensen. “Let me finish. I get paranoid sometimes. Violent, too. I get angry, and I get sad. I get drunk. Once or twice I let random dudes fuck me.”

Jared makes a noise, steps closer to Jensen, brackets his hips with his hands from behind, so they’re pressed close together. “I don’t care,” he whispers, and his breath feels unbearably hot on Jensen’s neck.

He tilts his head to the side. To get away. To give Jared more space. Everything becomes a blur in his mind, of yes, no, please.

He tears himself away. “Yes you do.”

“Can I decide that for myself?” Jared says, approaching again.

He has a point. “I don’t want to hurt you,” Jensen protests weakly.

“Yeah,” says Jared. “And that’s exactly how I know you won’t.”

It’s a silly thing to say, a When Harry Met Sally kind of thing, a Jerry Maguire kind of thing, but it sounds exactly right, the way Jared says it. Jensen steps forward, and then they’re kissing.

They’re kissing, just like they kissed in the gazebo, just like millions of people have been kissing each other for millions of years. But it doesn’t feel like it. It feels like they’re just now inventing kissing, like they are the first ones in the universe ever to feel this good, the first lips ever to meet and the first souls ever to understand. To understand, exactly like this, what the other wants and thinks and needs. So, Jared’s suddenly got two huge hands on Jensen’s ass, and he’s grinding their hips together, and Jensen thinks he might go insane with the pressure and the pleasure and he says so, by moaning against Jared’s neck, by biting the tender skin and sucking it between his lips and writing mine all over, with his mouth and his hands and the sound of his voice.

Jared has completely transformed, and Jensen has to remind himself that the gentlemanlike creature from dinner is still in there somewhere, because suddenly Jared is an animal, and Jensen is being completely devoured.

He tears his mouth away after an immeasurable moment, but still pulls Jared close to keep pressing kisses into the juncture of his neck and jaw. “Do you want to…” his voice has gone hoarse. “Jared, Jared, oh fuck Jared,” that’s definitely going to be a hickey. “Get back to the car?”

Jared nods enthusiastically but keeps on kissing Jensen, now licking a path back up to his mouth. Jensen pulls himself away a little.

“Christ, Jen. Your mouth,” goes Jared, voice the most honey-slicked high-pitched whine. “Let me, please let me…”

He doesn’t finish the sentence. Jensen is pulling him quickly back in the direction of the parking lot. He makes shushing noises, bites Jared’s earlobe, and promises: “Anything. Anything you want. You can do anything you want with me, Jared.”

Jared probably understands that he means it, because he suddenly tackles Jensen to the grassy ground. Jensen gets the breath knocked out of him by the fall, but even more so by the sensation of Jared’s full, considerable weight resting on him, grinding against him. Jesus.

The rush of that is nothing compared to what happens next. Jared leans forward, towards Jensen’s ear, and says: “I’m going to blow you. Right here. Right under the stars. You want that? You want that, sweetheart?”

Jensen thinks his brain might be leaking out of his ears, and makes an incoherent noise. Sweetheart, he thinks. He called me sweetheart. Jared takes his soft moaning for the permission it is, and starts working Jensen’s fly open with fingers that are surprisingly quick for all their hugeness. Jensen tries to focus on breathing in oxygen, but the hot tips of Jared’s fingers on his lower stomach take his breath away. It’s almost too much. Until Jared yanks his boxers down and starts kissing along the shaft. Then, it’s devastatingly not enough. He tries to say so, tries to beg, please, please, give me more, but Jared seems intent on taking his sweet time.

Jensen can’t keep his hips from moving. It’s too much, not enough, and he just has to move. He tries to, but Jared is holding him absolutely still. Jared is strong enough to keep Jensen from moving even a fraction of an inch. Yeah, he’s that strong. Finally, finally, Jared lowers his mouth over Jensen’s dickhead. Jensen comes right away. Shouts, tears the grass out of the ground with two fists clenched above his head, comes some more. “Jared,” he whispers. “Jared, Jared, Jared.”

Jared wipes his mouth with the back of his hand and gives Jensen a cocky grin. He swallowed. Fuck, he swallowed. Just like that, Jensen is ready for round two.

“Good?” asks Jared, voice a little rough.

Jensen can’t really say how good that was, exactly, so he just pulls Jared back on top of him to lick the taste of come out of his mouth.

**********************************

Jared floors it all the way back to town, and Jensen looks at him with an amused sparkle in his eyes. Jensen came. He’s about ready to topple over in a deep sleep. But Jared has yet to be so lucky. So Jensen makes sure to stay alert, considering all the filthy ways he could make Jared fall apart. A sense of power overcomes him. Jared could do anything to him. That means he could do anything to Jared. Just like that, he’s made up his mind.

He looks at the ceiling of the car, tries not to think of awkwardness or embarrassment, tries instead to think of how much he wants this, how much he’s always wanted to try it. Even though the streets of Winchester are deserted, Jared breaks for a red light. It makes Jensen smile.

“Has anyone ever rimmed you, Jared?”

The light turns green, but Jared forgets to step on the gas.

Jensen still can’t look at him, but he goes on: “Come on. You can tell me, Jay. Tight little ass like yours, you can’t tell me no one’s ever wanted to.”

Jared chokes out: “N-no.”

“Well,” Jensen says, grinning widely. “Then I’m going to spread you out on your bed and be the first to taste you there.”

Jared speeds all the way home. Under his breath, he’s muttering: “Jesus, Jen, Jesus. And to think I offered to take it slow.”

Jensen chuckles. He did want that, once. Jared hadn’t pressured him at all, hadn’t asked for anything Jensen wasn’t willing to give. As a result, Jensen wanted to give him everything.

********************

Time passes in a blur after that, vague and full of hot sounds and bright colors and addictive smells. Until Jared’s on the pale blue sheets on his stomach, t-shirt still on and jeans pooled around his ankles, and Jensen’s spreading his asscheeks with flat palms and breathing softly on Jared’s hole.

Jared has moved beyond coherent speech. Jensen flattens out his tongue and laps at the opening. A loud moan comes from Jared. Another swipe. Another. Jared’s arching his back like sluts do in porno’s, trying to get Jensen’s tongue to fuck him. Just as a punishment and a reward for the blowjob he got earlier, Jensen slows down. It’s a tease for both of them and not something he has the willpower for, really. So then he’s stabbing the point of his tongue inside, spit all over his chin, slurping away eagerly. Jared is alternately rubbing his cock against the sheets and his ass in Jensen’s face. He comes, just like that. Jensen feels triumphant.

Jared’s quiet for a long time. The noise of their ragged breathing fills the room.

“Tomorrow morning,” Jared finally manages, “I’m going to fuck you until you forget there’s still a world going on out there. Just you and me.”

“Just you and me,” Jensen repeats, as he cuddles up to Jared. They’ll clean up tomorrow. Or maybe just get dirty some more.

************************

From there on out it’s unadulterated bliss. Straight-out 500 Days Of Summer stuff. Well, the first half of the film. Except for when it isn’t. And today, it isn’t.

Jensen hadn’t stayed at Jared’s place last night. Not because of any particular problem, just because Jared had to work the early shift at The Coffee Pad and Jensen didn’t much feel like getting up at six. That makes this the first morning in three days that Jensen wakes up in his own bed, chilly and alone. Or rather, he spends the night there. There’s no waking up if there hasn’t been any sleeping.

He can’t move, now. He thinks of Jared, tired and bright, waiting for him at The Coffee Pad with a black coffee and some kind of pastry. He thinks of the forty-two steps he has to walk down to get to the street below. Of the heavy wooden door that separates him from the pavement. He thinks of the shower; out of the question. Jared will feed him, that’s one less thing to worry about. But leaving the apartment, the room, the square foot of worn mattress, would require that he put on shoes. Or pants, at least. Jensen can’t do that. So he just lies there.

It doesn’t take long for Jared to come looking for him, now. It’s ten past ten when the doorbell rings, so probably Danneel has also started to wonder where he is. It’s not like him to be late. He can’t get up to press the buzzer. The lethargy, the paralysis, has only gotten worse. He needs to scratch his nose. He doesn’t.

It’s another twenty-five minutes before Jared returns with Chad, and more importantly, the keys, in tow. Luckily, he shakes Chad off at the doorstep. Jensen overhears them arguing, and then Jared’s heavy footfalls making their way upstairs alone. He should go brush his teeth. Open the curtain. He should have picked up his phone earlier, when Jared called. Or when he called the second time. Or the third. Or when Danneel started to message him. He should at least do Jared the courtesy of sitting upright, but he can’t do it.

Suddenly the door opens, a shaft of unbearably bright sunlight, and there’s Jared. He might be mad but he’s not shouting, and for that, Jensen is grateful. Not so grateful that he manages to roll over, away from the wall, to face Jared, but grateful none the less.

The mattress dips down a bit and creaks as Jared sits, stars softly tracing a pattern on Jensen’s back. The movement brings some of his awareness back to the present moment, in which he just is, in which his heart is beating and his breathing is more or less steady and Jared is there with him.

“Hey,” Jared goes, close to his ear, pressing a kiss there.

Jensen says nothing. There’s nothing to say. He’s a black hole of nothingness, and black holes don’t speak.

Jared puts an arm around Jensen’s waist, scoots against him like the big spoon. He grabs Jensen’s phone off the nightstand with one hand and fires off a couple of messages. Then, they just lie there.

Some time later, Jared moves away a fraction. Jensen makes a pitiful noise.

“You should just stay with me from now on, idiot,” Jared says while moving closer to Jensen again obligingly. He’s so incredibly warm and soft and solid.

“None of this is your responsibility,” Jensen objects.

Jared just scoffs at that, but Jensen still thinks it’s a fair point.

“Can I go get something to eat?” Jared asks.

“Be quick,” Jensen has moved beyond embarrassment for his childlike dependence. He needs Jared more than he needs breathing. “Can I have a banana?”

In a flash, Jared is back at his side with a banana and a glass of water.

“I love you,” says Jensen. It’s out before he knows he even thought it. He’s actually been thinking it for a while.

“I love you too,” says Jared, and he kisses him on his sleep-sour mouth.

Then, Jensen starts to cry.

***********************************

It takes only about four more hours for the fog to clear. Around mid-afternoon, when Jared suggests going on a walk, Jensen feels up for it. He insists on showering by himself and wearing what his mother always calls “real clothes.” No pajamas, no sweats, no hoodies. Jeans and a button-down. When he comes out of the bathroom, Jared whistles and Jensen cracks a smile because he know he looks like warmed-up crap.

The forty-two steps aren’t that much of an issue when you can just spend them looking at Jared’s ass.

“It’s a sunny day,” Jared says. Jensen thinks he’s right, but the warmth of the sun on his skin doesn’t really register. They walk for a while, like they did that first night. Everything has changed, since then. At the same time, nothing has changed.

“What does it feel like?” Jared asks.

Jensen thinks. He’s read more books than most people twice his age, and many of them have been about depression. He spent a lot of time as a teenager learning obscure words from the dictionary, just because he could. But he doesn’t have the words to tell Jared what it feels like.

“Like I am a dead soul in a body that just won’t die,” is what he settles on.

Jared looks at him, frightened and sad, and Jensen wants to take it back. He doesn’t, because it’s the truth, and Jared asked for the truth.

“What can I do?” is the next question.

“Nothing much.” Jensen’s sorry that he doesn’t have a better answer. “I usually just have to wait it out. Dr. Morgan said the medication would make things worse short-term.”

“That’s terrible,” says Jared. “That’s not the way medicine should work.”

Jensen shrugs. “Depression isn’t the way anything should work. But Jared…” Now comes the hard bit. The hardest thing anyone has ever asked of anyone. “Just please don’t leave, okay?”

Jared shakes his head fiercely, kisses him. “I wouldn’t. You make my soul feel as alive as my body.”

Jensen pulls away. “Cheesy motherfucker,” he mutters. It doesn’t escape him that Jared has completely turned his earlier words inside out.

*********************************

Epilogue

It’s two days after that that Jensen buys a second toothbrush. He puts it in the plastic cup next to the sink in Jared’s bathroom.

*********************************

It’s a week later that he spends the whole day running Winchester’s Words while Danneel is out shopping with a friend. No disasters happen. He thinks he can run the store by himself one day a week from now on, no problem.

*********************************

A month after that, Jensen gingerly dials his mother’s number on his cell.

“Hello?” she says. Then, when he doesn’t speak. “Who’s this?”

“Hi mom,” he says. His voice has gone hoarse. Jared sits opposite him on the bed, smiling and nodding encouragingly.

“Oh,” she breathes. She’s not elated, like MacKenzie was. She doesn’t sound particularly happy to hear from him. It’s a huge effort not to hang up. Jared squeezes his hand.

“You’re okay, then?”

“Yes. I’m okay. I’m in Connecticut.”

“Why?” her voice has turned sharp. “When are you coming back?”

Jensen sighs. “I’m not coming back, mom. I met someone.”

She doesn't sound particularly sad about this news. She just says: “That’s nice, dear. Do you want to talk to your father?”

Jensen shakes his head, says, softly: “No.” He’s not ready for that yet. “Bye, mom.”

He calls her again on her birthday, and he calls on his dad’s. In turn, his parents call him on his birthday, and at Christmas and Thanksgiving. It’s fine with Jensen. He feels like Connecticut is the only part of the world that really exists.

***************************

Slowly but surely, Jensen is moving his stuff and his life into Jared’s apartment. It’s the bigger of the two, and more lived-in, as well. One day, when Chad comes by to collect rent, Jensen impulsively tells him that it’s his last month. He and Jared have some trouble getting the books he’s already collected around him moved, but that’s it. They’re living together.

It’s a week or so after that that Jared suggests getting a dog. Jensen laughs right in his face.

“A dog?”

Jared is blushing, and Jensen feels a little bad. Looks like that was a serious suggestion, then.

“Can we call it Inigo, if it’s a boy?” he backtracks, smiling broadly to show his enthusiasm.

Jared relaxes. The dog ends up being a lady, and they call her Buttercup, but that’s fine. She’s even got gorgeous ringlets of blonde hair to complete the picture. Jensen ends up getting out of bed around the same time as Jared most mornings to walk Buttercup. Who would have thought?

**************************

A year after that, Jensen walks into The Coffee Pad. When Jared spots him, he pours the coffee. Something’s off, though. He’s messing about with his hair and he spills a small puddle of coffee on the counter.

Jensen ties Buttercup’s leash to a leg of the table, and approaches cautiously.

“You okay, man?”

Jared doesn’t look at him. Even worse, he turns away when Jensen approaches. Shit. “Jared?”

In the blink of an eye, Jared’s facing him again. He’s got a small plate in his hands. There’s a cupcake on it, perfectly decorated with pink buttercream. Jensen recognizes it as raspberry flavor, his favorite. Then he sees the cupcake topper. It’s a ring. Smooth, silver surface, understated and elegant.

His tone of voice is completely changed when he repeats: “Jared?” This can’t be right. This can’t really be happening. It’s too good.

Now Jared is looking at him, and the look in his eyes says yes. This is really happening. “Jensen, will you marry me?”

“Yes,” Jensen says. There is no question, no moment of hesitation, nothing. He leaps forward over the counter and kisses Jared on the mouth. God. The taste of Jared’s kisses never gets old.

There’s some whooping and cheering from the regular customers, but Jensen can only look at Jared. Jared, who is looking like he just won the lottery, like he can’t believe his luck. He’s looking at Jensen the way people look at their favorite thing in the world, the way they look at the love of their life. And Jensen is just so goddamned happy.

“Gen?” Jared’s voice is a little unsteady. “Remember when I asked whether I could have the rest of the day off?”

Genevieve is looking at the both of them with a broad grin. “Yeah, I remember. It’s kind of busy, though…”

She’s just teasing. The Coffee Pad is exceptionally quiet for a Tuesday morning. Jared gives her the finger for good measure and leans close to Jensen again.

“I already called Danneel to ask whether she could handle the shop alone, today,” he whispers. “Let’s go home.”

They go home. They stumble, pushing each other against the red brick walls of unsuspecting houses while simultaneously making their way towards the apartment. Jared lifts Jensen off the ground, and Jensen barely notices because he was already flying.

They’re not making any progress, this way. Jensen jumps down from where he’s climbed all the way up Jared’s body, pants: “First one home gets to pick!” and he’s off.

He doesn’t need to explain. They’re always switching in bed, and this time the first one to the door will get to choose how they fuck. Jared’s a little dazed, and Jensen’s lightning fast. When Jared finally makes it to their front door, Jensen’s already opening it with shaky hands.

“You’re going to fuck me,” he says.

Jared grins, because he knows Jensen, his fiancé, so goddamned well.

“On the kitchen counter, Jared.”

Okay, that one he wasn’t expecting. Christ.

They rush up the stairs. Jensen pulls his pants down to around his ankles, bends over the kitchen island. He’s exactly at the right hight for Jared to slide right in, but Jared feels a rush of power when he sees Jensen spread out like that, and he decides there’s absolutely no rush.

“Jen,” he says, conversationally, “where is the lube?”

“Jared, don’t be an asshole.”

Exactly the response he’d been hoping for. “I wouldn’t be so cheeky if I were you, Jensen. After all, you’re the one that wants something from me.”

Jensen whines, giving an almost convincing impression of someone who’s genuinely annoyed. But Jared knows him better than that. Jared knows how much Jensen gets off on the tease, on the power play. Almost as much as Jared does, himself.

He gets on his knees, eye level with Jensen’s hole.

“I don’t know,” he says, breathing hotly on the tender skin. “Doesn’t look ready to me.”

“So prep me, motherfucker,” says Jensen. He hates it when Jared drags his feet like this. The wait, the anticipation, it’s almost too much. He mostly hates how much he loves it.

Jared licks a broad stripe down Jensen’s crack. He smells ridiculously good, there. No one’s asshole should be this delicious.

Jensen is shifting his hips, but the smooth surface of the kitchen island offers no friction. Jared takes pity on him, opens the kitchen cupboard stocked with lube exactly for occasions like these, and starts working a finger in.

Jensen has stopped demanding more. Now, he’s just muttering “yes, yes, yes, yes.”

Jared scissors his fingers, curls them upright at the angle he knows will drive Jensen insane. He kisses a trail down Jensen’s ass cheek and his thigh, and whispers filthy things into the smooth skin.

Then he gets up off his knees and pushes his cock inside. Jensen keens. He’s been worked open pretty well, his hole sloppy and slick and relaxed, and Jared thinks nothing in his life has ever felt this good. Pushing himself into Jensen today, knowing he’ll get to make him moan like this, feel like this, for the rest of their lives. That they’ll be together.

“I love you,” he whispers, “I love you.”

He’s barely even moving his hips, still drawing the pleasure out. He drapes his body over Jensen’s, folds himself down onto the counter, covers every inch of skin he can reach, and waits for Jensen to go limp in supplication, to accept that Jared is the one that’ll decide how good he will feel and when he will feel it.

He’s panting. “I love you too, Jared. I love you. I love you.”

Suddenly, Jared’s had enough of the games. He withdraws almost all the way, teases at Jensen’s opening with his cock head for a moment, then shoves himself inside. Jensen’s still all relaxed, just letting Jared prop him against the counter and using him. Not that it’s a one-sided experience. There’s nothing Jensen gets off on more than this. Jared spreads his palms over Jensen’s, keeping him immobile and still working his hips against Jensen’s ass.

Jensen comes, quite suddenly, with a cry and a tightening of all his muscles. It’s so spontaneous, so unrestrained and beautiful, that it startles Jared’s orgasm out of him, too.

“Oh,” goes Jared. “Oh, oh, Jen, so good for me, sweetheart.”

He maneuvers them both to the couch. Jensen’s legs can barely hold him, but Jared’s moved his strong arms around Jensen’s slender waist, and he’s carrying the brunt of their weight. He pulls Jensen firmly against him on the couch. Jared was made to be the big spoon. Jensen was made to be the little spoon.

“We left Buttercup at the Pad,” Jensen realizes, still a little breathless.

“Relax,” says Jared, softly massaging his fiancé’s scalp. “Gen will take care of her for a few hours.”

Just like that, sticky and happy, they fall asleep in the middle of the day. When he wakes, Jensen has no trouble getting up.

*************************************

Playlist (Warning: contains spoilers for the fic)
Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying - Belle & Sebastian
This song is for Jensen leaving Texas.
Cat Stevens - The Wind
This is the song playing at The Coffee Pad the first time Jensen goes there.
I Don’t Believe In The Sun - The Magnetic Fields
This song is for Jensen’s depression. Depression is different for everyone, but this song comes close to describing my personal experience with the illness.
I Could Have Danced All Night - My Fair Lady Soundtrack
This song is for those who fall in love while dancing.
Do I Wanna Know? - Arctic Monkeys
This song is for Jared, who wouldn't take no for an answer.
Busby Berkely Dreams - Magnetic Fields
This is the song the boys danced to in the gazebo.
Tiny Dancer - Elton John
This song is for Jensen feeling tiny and small and safe in Jared’s arms.
Jens Lekman - A Higher Power
This song is for Jared, who makes Jensen believe, for the first time, in something bigger than himself.
Thunder Road - Bruce Springsteen
This is the song the boys listen to when they’re in the car to Hartford together.
Cruel Annette - The New Mendicants
This is the song Jared plays in the car on the way to the restaurant, the one Jensen doesn’t know.
The Last Worthless Evening - Don Henley
This song is for when Jensen spends the night without Jared and doesn’t cope too well.
There Is A Light That Never Goes Out - The Smiths
Because every playlist needs The Smiths and this song gives me hope.

Book List (Warning: contains spoilers for the fic)
Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
The book Jensen reads the first time he comes to The Coffee Pad.
Stardust - Neil Gaiman
The book he reads the second time he’s there.
The Princess Bride - William Goldman
Jared and Jensen’s favorite book and movie. They named their dog after one of the main characters, Buttercup.
Winnie The Pooh - A.A. Milne
The first book Jensen sold at Winchester’s Words. The buyer was an adorable toddler. Well, technically, the buyer was the toddler’s dad.
The Noonday Demon - Andrew Solomon
A book Jensen just can’t put down.
Reasons To Stay Alive - Matt Haig
This is a book Jared recommends to Jensen. It is also the book this fic is named after.
A Little Life - Hanya Yanagihara
This is my favorite book. It has depression and gay love in it, so you understand why I’d be reminded of it while writing this fic.

Watch list (Warning: contains spoilers for the fic)
Clueless
The film Jensen watches with Mac.
When Harry Met Sally & Jerry Maguire
The movies Jensen is reminded of during the boys’ moonlight walk.
500 Days Of Summer
The movie Jensen compares their relationship to.