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Splintering in Slow Motion

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October 3, 2016

 

***|***|***|***

 

He has no idea how he manages to walk back to the hotel without bumping into or tripping over anything. Or maybe he did, who knows. He sure doesn’t remember anything up to the moment when he’s standing in front of his door with no key card to let himself in.

The thought of having to talk to another human being effectively reboots his system. He recalls the steps of the procedure to execute, the motions to go through – putting the mask on, pulling his shoulders back, slapping a wide sociable smile onto his face, channeling the charm that people say he apparently has.

He walks up to the concierge desk, feeling as ready as he can possibly be. Until the night manager turns around and Jared sees who it is.

“Misha?”

Misha smiles at him gently, not a hair out of place, as usual. “Hello! Can’t sleep?”

“Yeah, it’s just… uh…” he blinks, trying to wrangle his thoughts back to a point where the words spilling out of his mouth make coherent sense. He fails.

“I saw you walking out of the gate earlier. I waved to you, tried to catch your attention but you seemed pretty intent on getting out of here so… I let you be.”

Probably the same thing happened when he came back in, what with Jared being completely engrossed in his thoughts. Thank God the man isn’t pressing for details. And he’s still smiling. Good. He doesn’t suspect anything. Jared wets his parched lips.

“I-I just went for a walk. You’re right, sleep is evading me tonight. But um, I’m an idiot. I left my key upstairs…”

“No worries,” Misha quickly comes around from behind the desk, one arm stretched out in invitation. “Come on. Let me take you back upstairs.”

“Oh, no, that’s okay, I can…”

“Come on, my little big friend. Grace me with your company a while longer, won’t you?”

Like Jared has a choice. He follows quietly while Collins leads them towards the elevators. In a way, he’s oddly glad to have the man’s attention, if only for a little bit. And if they run into Jensen again, he can ask Misha to confirm if he sees him too. And if not, he’ll know he was just hallucinating earlier.

Speaking of… Oh. Fuck. He could just ask Misha if Jensen’s checked in or not! Why the hell did he not think of that before?

The elevator arrives and Misha holds the door open, waits for Jared to step inside first before following after him.

Jared’s heart begins to race again. He can actually hear the big vein in his forehead throb. Droplets of sweat grease the palms of his hands, as the men ascend to the top floor. Obviously Misha saw him checking in alone, and in his classically diplomatic way has made sure not to mention Jensen, or marriage, or relationships of any kind in Jared’s presence so far.

So he knows.

But if Misha truly considered Jared a friend, shouldn’t he have said something? A word of consolation perhaps? Maybe Misha doesn’t think of him as a friend after all.

Jared feels a slight sulk coming on. Misha has always had a soft spot for Jensen, that isn’t exactly news. Maybe… maybe he found out exactly how things went down that led to the divorce? Maybe that’s why he’s being so standoffish to Jared? Not that he’d blame Misha for it.

The big question is – will Misha be willing to go out of his way for an ‘acquaintance’ like Jared, and divulge something he technically shouldn’t? Guess he wouldn’t know unless he tried.

“Uh, Misha, I wanted to ask you something.”

“Sure! What is it?”

“Uh,” Jared tries but fails to get the words out of his mouth. Not the right ones at least. “H-How are the kids?”

“Oh wonderful, wonderful!” Misha says, beaming with pride. “Max is almost six, and he’s decided he wants to be an Olympic skier. That’s all he wants to do, apparently.”

“That’s a-awesome.”

“Yes, and Marie is turning three soon. She’s a very opinionated young lady. I have no idea what she wants from life, or from me most of the time. But she’s a happy child. That’s all that matters really though, right?”

Jared wouldn’t know, but he purses his lips and nods along.

“They’re coming into town on Tuesday for the festival. It’s unfortunate you won’t be here to meet them.”

“Yeah, sorry. Uh, what festival?”

“It’s a traditional mountain festival, a street fair of sorts. It’s meant to celebrate life in all its beautiful forms – flowers and animals, dancing and music, food and drink, friends and family…”

Jared looks down at his shoes and keeps nodding like he’s expected to.

“It’s a way to remind ourselves how fortunate we are, to have been given this wonderful gift of life. I wish you were staying longer, my friend.”

The elevator stops at the top floor, and once again Misha waits for Jared to step out first. The American takes a deep breath, thankful for the walk still ahead to his suite at the end of the hall.

“Misha, there’s something else I wanted to ask. A-And I would completely understand if you’re not able to help me out.”

“I will try my best,” the manager says, vaguely enough.

“Have you… seen Jensen recently?”

“Depends on what you mean by ‘recent’, I suppose.”

“Today,” Jared says impatiently, desperately. “Did you see him today?”

Misha keeps walking steadily towards Jared’s suite. “No, I haven’t seen him today.”

It is as he’d expected. For an upscale establishment like the Chedi, discretion is paramount. Misha is prioritizing his professional code (or his friendship for Jensen) over Jared. The thirty-one year old closes his eyes and tries to not grimace. He decides to let it go, and wills for the endless walk to end already.

“But… I have only been here since ten PM today, for the night shift. I haven’t checked anyone in or seen anyone come in since I started.”

Jared looks up at Misha in surprise. The older man is looking at him with a tinge of sympathy softening the crystal blue of his eyes. They’re at Jared’s door by now. Misha steps forward, unlocks and then holds it open, waiting for Jared to pass through.

Jared goes in, at once both grateful and reluctant to do so. He knows his eyes are pleading with Misha to give him more, just as he knows Misha is unable to. Hope has been rekindled, though Jared isn’t entirely sure that’s a good thing.

“Good night, Jared. Sleep well.”

“Night,” Jared whispers and lets the man be on his way.

 

***|***|***|***

 

He spends the night crouched in a corner, hugging his knees to himself. He does not sleep, does not move. He just sits there, trying to process the unexpected turn of events. The sun comes up. He barely registers the changing light, wondering what to do with this new development, if anything at all.

His alarm goes off, as it always does, at seven in the morning. He’d rigged the app to open Spotify and start playing anything at random. Music helps dispel his numbness, somewhat, and he asks himself the sixty-four thousand dollar question he’s been evading all night.

What the fuck should he do now?

He’d been so sure, so certain until about one AM last night. And now he’s thrown back into the world of turmoil he’d fought so hard to claw his way out of. If this is Jensen’s way to get back at him for what happened two and a half years ago, then, hell… it’s pretty damn effective.

“Get a grip,” he tells himself, standing up at last. He stretches, drops to the floor and does a couple of push-ups to get the blood flowing to his brain again.

“Think. Stupid brain. Just work…” he chides himself out of the near catatonic state he’s pushed himself into.

The first thing he needs to do is make sure he did not, in fact, hallucinate. Which isn’t so far beyond the realm of possibility, really. Maybe it was his psyche’s one last, desperate attempt to stop him from… from doing the right thing. Self-preservation is, after all, a hardcoded genetic instinct that has ensured survival of the human species for millions of years. He really should’ve seen it coming. But it doesn’t matter, there’s a lesson in every failure. Now that he’s aware, he will be prepared for it next time.

But then what if he didn’t hallucinate? What if Jensen really is in town? Jared pushes himself back up on his feet. Misha couldn’t help, so Jared will need to find another way to verify it first and foremost. Before he lets himself go any further down that rabbit hole.

He looks at his watch – seven-fifty AM – decides a quick change of clothes is in order. He didn’t want to make Misha suspicious in case he’s still on duty. He dons a sky blue cashmere pullover with a white t-shirt and blue jeans faded to gray, paired with his usual running shoes.

As he dresses, he spots the letter still on the study table and bites his lip. It needs to be put out of sight for now. Hurriedly, he pulls the top drawer open, swipes the letter and all his personal possessions into it, then rushes out the door.

Downstairs, he finds the concierge who’d helped check him in two days ago.

“Guete Morge, Herr Padalecki,” the man greets Jared politely, his practiced little smile barely reaching his eyes.

At least he remembers me, Jared thinks. Maybe this can work. “Howdy, Sebastian! How are you, my man?”

“Very well, sir, and yourself?”

“Awesome, awesome!” Jared leans forward a bit, just like he’d seen Jensen do a hundred times whenever he needed to charm someone to get something done.

“Hey, can you help me with something? I’m looking for a friend of mine. He’s supposed to have checked in last evening but, see I was out and I got back in really late,” he throws in a short, embarrassed laugh. “Uh, his name is Jensen Ackles?”

Sebastian is a tall, impressive man with dark blonde hair, a thick Swiss accent, and a condescending manner that grates on Jared’s nerves. True to style, he prefaces his response with a long-drawn sigh, as if about to commence a lecture to a twelve-year old.

“My apologies, Herr Padalecki. We are not allowed to divulge our guests’ information to anyone, including other guests.”

Jared resists the urge to snap at the man and tries again. “Yeah, totally understand, dude. I’m not asking you to break any laws but, see I already know that he’s here. This is like his favorite hotel in the whole world. He wouldn’t stay anywhere else in Lucerne, you see?”

“Well then, what do you need from me, sir?”

Aargh, this man. “Just… I just wanted to make sure he got in okay?”

Sebastian nods sagely like he understands exactly what Jared is doing. “I can take a message and pass it on, in case someone by that name has, or, does check in.”

Whoa. No.

“Uh, that’s okay! That’s… I’ll… find him myself. Thanks.”

For nothing.

Jared stalks away frustrated, more with himself than with the manager really. He knows where all this desperation to find Jensen is stemming from, and he doesn’t like it.

Hope. It’s a lesson hard-learned, and hard to unlearn as well, even when it’s kicked you in the nuts a hundred times over.

 

***|***|***|***

 

Jared keeps walking aimlessly until he finds himself standing by the indoor pool. He crouches down and considers his own reflection in the water. He’s never been much of a believer, never had much reason to, really. It’s why he’s inclined to think there is a more rational explanation here before jumping to some crazy, supernatural conclusion.

So Jensen is in Switzerland – is that really so unthinkable? Not at all, Jensen’s firm does millions of dollars’ worth of business in Europe. He always did travel a lot, had a bunch of clients, big and small, in all parts of the globe. It was one of the things Jared never could get used to when they were together – Jensen being away so much.

But to be here in this tiny ski retreat, at the exact same time as when Jared was planning his… isn’t it too outrageous, too… too bizarre to be just a coincidence?

A fragile smile threatens to curl his lips, and his breathing becomes a little shallow. Most people with… let’s say, a kamikaze disposition, at some level, don’t really want to do it. Many who try, do so all the while hoping somehow they won’t succeed. Some are lucky, others not so much. Maybe Jared is one of the lucky ones.

Maybe someone up there sent Jensen to Andermatt on this very night because they knew nothing else could change Jared’s mind. Maybe it’s fate, some sort of… divine intervention? And there’s that damn rabbit hole after all. Jared swipes a hand across his reflection in the water, marring it beyond recognition. There’s only one way to solve this… ridiculous predicament.

He needs to talk to Jensen.

Jared stands up quickly, so quickly he almost loses balance and send himself hurtling into the water. He curses his God-given gracelessness and jogs his way to the elevators. The plan is to start at the top floor, and stalk the corridor up and down until Jensen steps out of one of those ultra-luxurious penthouse suites and reveals himself.

He hits the button labeled ‘6’ a little too viciously, vibrating with nervous energy. He’s gotten himself halfway convinced that Jensen came here after him, for him. And it’s scaring the hell out of him. He just needs to hear it from Jensen, whatever ‘it’ may be. Although, the man hadn’t seemed very keen to exchange words of any kind last night.

That gives him pause. Jensen had clearly not intended the run-in last night and didn’t exactly look pleased either. It was one AM in the morning – no one expects anyone out of bed at that hour. So then what was Jensen doing out of bed?

He’d looked ready to go out, or maybe coming back from having been out. He looked great, as always – dressed in a black woolen jacket with red hoodie, Armani most definitely (Jensen’s favorite brand), black pressed jeans, and a cream-colored pullover over a white t-shirt. He was also sporting a light, nicely groomed beard. Guess some things do change after all. Back then, he always stayed clean-shaven because Jared would whine so much about stubble burns.

Suddenly, the urge to see Jensen again is cranked up to eleven.

He saunters around the sixth floor, feeling just as creepy as he probably looks. He’s lurking outside the Furka suite when a second later the door opens. Jared quickly spins around and tries to walk away, when a familiar voice calls after him.

“Herr Padalecki?”

Jared flinches. What are the fucking chances he’d be recognized? He schools his face and slowly turns around, only to come face-to-face with the waiter who’d brought him his wine on Friday night.

“Oh, hey! Uh, sorry I didn’t catch your name.”

“Osric, sir. Is there something I can help you with?”

“Hmm? Um, no, I was just…” Jared does the short, embarrassed laugh again. It tends to neutralize the effects of his physically intimidating stature and derail suspicious thoughts – or so his friend Benedict used to say.

“Honestly, Osric, I-I am looking for someone.” The kid seems nice enough, and hopefully ignorant to the data privacy laws of this damn place.

“Tall, dark blond hair, American, green eyes, kind of pretty…very pretty?”

“Male or female, sir?”

“Male! Yeah, sorry, definitely male. I’m positive he’s here somewhere and I… well,” he scratches the back of his head, wondering how to explain without this being TMI for the poor kid.

But Osric is smiling already. “I think I know who you’re talking about, sir.”

Oh thank God. Thank everyone up there in heaven!

“But I hope you understand, I am not allowed to tell you what their suite number is.”

Jared sighs. So much for teenage ignorance.

Osric must have seen something in Jared’s face, because instead of walking away like he seemed about to a second ago, he turns towards him fully.

“I could tell you though, that at this time of the day, the breakfast lounge is quite popular with our… American guests.”

Jared bows his head in gratitude. “Thanks, my man.”

“You’re very welcome, sir.”

“Call me Jared!” He yells, before skidding towards the elevator to go downstairs once more.

 

***|***|***|***

 

Of course! Jared prefers to eat light in the mornings, but not Jensen. Jensen’s always been a fan of big fat American breakfasts.

Back then, Jared used to be an early riser, and mornings were the most productive part of his days. He’d constructed a careful routine and stuck to it like his life depended on it, literally. He’d wake up at five, hit the gym at five-fifteen, take the dogs out, then come back and jump into the shower by six-thirty. Then he’d get dressed and make breakfast – oatmeal and fruits for himself, eggs and bacon for Jensen. Sometimes pancakes or crepes too.

Jensen in comparison, would roll out of bed leisurely at eight or nine. Some days he’d shower and other days not, before sitting down with a newspaper at the island in the middle of their ginormous kitchen. Guess when you’re one of the bosses you can go in whenever you want. The bastard could also work from home whenever. On days like that he didn’t even bother getting dressed.

Meanwhile, Jared was a senior graphic designer for a gaming software company at the time. He’d take the subway, and work nine-to-six most days, unless they were rolling out a new build. Then he’d stay at work late, sometimes all night if needed, without getting paid for overtime.

Jared rubs his eyes and vehemently shoves those memories back in their box. The last thing he wants to think of right now is that damn job. Thinking back to that time, that office… it’s still potent enough to trigger an attack, and Jared sure doesn’t have time for that nonsense right now.

Concentrate. Jensen has to have his breakfast. He could have ordered room service, but looks like the architect still doesn’t like eating alone.

When Jared reaches the restaurant that’s aptly, if a bit snobbishly, named The Restaurant, he’s greeted by the most resplendent breakfast buffet he has ever seen. The place seems pretty popular with locals and foreigners alike. And there, among the crowd of early risers, skiers and tourists, Jared finds the man he’s looking for, sitting alone at a table in the back… with no food in front of him at all.

Jared stands glued to his spot, watching his ex-husband from afar. For the longest time he feels nothing but intense relief. Relief that he hasn’t lost his mind after all, relief for being able to lay eyes on someone he thought he’d never see again.

Jensen looks older, but older is a good look on him. His gray shirt is crumpled and hanging over last night’s black jeans. His hair is awry, like he’s stopped using product, maybe. And he’s wearing his glasses (the man is severely far-sighted) along with his earphones. His head is bowed into his iPad, effectively blocking the rest of the world out.

He looks exhausted. Maybe he’s jetlagged. Maybe that’s why he couldn’t sleep last night, which would explain the random strolling long past midnight?

Jared breathes deeply, plucks every ounce of courage he has, and some he doesn’t, to move one foot ahead of the other. The walk up to Jensen’s table is both infinitely long and over far too soon.

“Hi.”

Jensen blinks into his iPad and goes deathly still, like he recognizes the voice without looking up to see who it is. A second later, he looks up and leans back in his chair.

“Hi.”

His hands are sweating again. Jared buries them deep into his jeans pockets, and tries to smile. “Fancy running into you here.”

“Back at ya.”

Silence drags on for a few, unbearable moments.

“Business or pleasure?”

“Bit of both.”

Jared nods, chews on his lower lip. “Of all the gin joints in the world and all that, huh?”

“Well,” Jensen takes off his glasses. “This has always been my favorite vacation spot, you know that.”

Jared stops smiling. “So… you’ve been coming here a lot?”

“Whenever I can get away.”

Jared snorts quietly, mostly at himself for presuming Jensen would avoid this place too. Why should he? It’s not like the memories they created here together were any big deal.

This is only the sleepy little town where Jared took Jensen ice skating for the first time in his entire life. Only the place where Jensen got down on one knee and vowed to devote the rest of his life to Jared. Only the hotel they came to for their honeymoon, and didn’t leave the suite for ninety-six straight hours. The world may as well have ended in those four days, for all they’d cared. But of course none of that matters enough for Jensen to forego his favorite vacation spot in the whole damn world.

So much for divine intervention. Just an equation of mathematical probability, really. Jared looks out through the full-length glass walls behind Jensen and sighs. The mountains are calling to him again.

“Why don’t you sit down, for a bit?” Jensen asks, his voice clearly unsure. Like he’s just being polite.

“Thanks!” Jared sits down just to make him more uncomfortable.

“You know, last night when I saw you,” Jared swallows painfully and pushes forward. “For a minute, I thought, maybe you were here for…b-because of me? Like maybe you followed me… but that’s just dumb, I know.”

Jensen just stares at him, his jawline unyielding as ever.

“I mean, of course, why would you, after three years? It’s s-stupid, obviously…” Jared laughs, bitterly.

Two years, eight months and three days to be exact. But like hell is he saying it out loud and admitting that he’s literally been counting the days since their marriage fell apart.

Jensen picks up his coffee mug and takes a long, thoughtful, sip. “Let’s not start that again. I think we’ve both moved on. It’s better this way.”

Yeah, well. Jensen’s right about one thing – it would be better if they did move on. Both of them.

“So, who’s the lucky fella?”

“What?” Jared frowns. “What do you mean?”

“Uh, whoever you’re here with.”

“What makes you think I’m here with someone?”

Jensen squints, looking confused and highly skeptical. “Well, unless something’s changed drastically for you recently, I didn’t think you could afford this on your own. I just assumed…”

“What – that I found another millionaire boyfriend to fly me to Europe and put me up at expensive, five-star hotels? Is that what you think I was doing with you?”

The architect is already backing off at top speed. “No, no! You know I never thought that, not once in all the time we were together. I just… you never accepted the alimony. So I don’t know how…?”

Jensen stops there, exasperated and obviously unhappy with his choice of words so far.

Money was never a big point of contention between the two. Sure Jensen offered, but Jared never accepted. There were only two things that Jared let Jensen pay for – their vacations together, and the loft they called home in Midtown Manhattan. Technically the loft was already paid for in full so, yeah, just the vacations then. Maybe that’s why Jensen insisted on so many of them?

Irrelevant. Jared squints hard at Jensen, trying to understand what the older man is thinking. Maybe he’s jealous? And there it goes again – that pesky little ‘hope’ thing that thinks it’s fucking Captain America. Stay down, final warning.

“I came here by myself, Jensen. I came alone.”

Jensen keeps his face blank; he’s always been good at that. There’s a hint of a storm brewing in those sea-green eyes, or maybe it’s just his imagination. Jared can’t say for sure.

“Why? What are you doing here, Jared?”

Jared closes his eyes and relishes the moment. It’s the first time he’s heard Jensen say his name in this entire conversation. It’s the first time he’s heard Jensen say his name in years.

He contemplates telling Jensen the truth. The whole truth – leave nothing out. But then, what would that accomplish, except maybe pity, a fresh burst of rage even, followed by a mad dash out the door to get as far away from the psycho lunatic, never to be seen or heard from again?

Rage he can handle. Rage he would welcome even, because it’d mean Jensen cares at least a little bit about what happens to Jared. Unless he cares only about the repercussions for himself and his reputation, which is possible of course. But hey, anything’s better than utter indifference, right?

Pity is a different matter altogether. Years of fighting the… the darkness has worn his self-esteem down, no doubt. But he still holds on to one last modicum of pride that will never allow him to accept pity from anyone, let alone Jensen.

And if it’s not pride then it’s guilt. Guilt for what he did, what he let happen… guilt that reminds him time and time again that he doesn’t deserve anyone’s help. Doesn’t deserve any second chances. And yet, here they are, in this place once again, together. If this isn’t a motherfucking second chance, then what is? What could ever be?

Jared takes a deep, reluctantly hopeful, breath and opens his mouth to speak…

“There you are!”

Those aren’t his words. That isn’t his voice. It’s female, for one.

Jensen looks up at someone behind Jared. His eyebrows skyrocket briefly before coming down just as fast. He rises from his chair while Jared gulps his disappointment down and turns around.

The woman who walks up to their table is tall, as tall as Jensen, with dark, wavy hair pulled together and tumbling over one shoulder. She’s dressed in royal blue three-quarter pants, a sleeveless white top, and a brown suede jacket hanging off her forearm. She is drop dead beautiful.

“Good morning!” Jensen greets her, his voice full of tenderness. “I thought you’d sleep in longer…”

“Someone left the blinds open and let the sun in so did I have a choice? Not really…” she’s bantering with him. With his Jensen. And she just let Jared know she’s sharing the suite with him.

Jared turns back around and slides lower into his chair, in sync with his heart sinking to the pit of his stomach. Guess he’s the only one who flew halfway around the world solo.

Jensen clears his throat as the woman comes over to stand by his side. “Jared, this is Emily Swallow, my… colleague from work. And Emily, this is… uh, Jared.”

Jared picks himself up and takes her extended hand as politely as he can. Then flashes his thoroughly practiced thousand-watt smile and adds, “The ex-husband.”

Jensen coughs, and she starts, glaring at him briefly before turning back to face Jared. “N-Nice to meet you, Jared. Fancy running into you here, huh?”

“That’s what I said.”

“Uh, so now that you’re here,” Jensen interrupts, “how about we eat, huh?”

“All right, let’s do it!” she says, too perkily for Jared’s liking.

The couple sits down, Emily cozying up to Jensen like she’s been doing it forever. Jared numbly sits back down as well, although he’s not sure what he’s doing here anymore.

Jensen clears his throat again while she looks over the menu. “Emily joined the firm last winter. We have been… uh, collaborating with Gathy on a new project in Kuala Lumpur.”

Which is nowhere near Switzerland but okay. Jared smiles sardonically, he understands what is not being said here. Jensen could never keep anything hidden from him too long. No, that’s always been Jared’s thing… the secrets he’s kept over the years, some Jensen still doesn’t know.

“Sorry I kept you waiting,” Emily says to Jensen after they place their orders with the server. Jared declines. He’s not likely to keep anything down anyway.

“You must be starving, poor baby.” She thumbs the blond man’s lower lip affectionately.

“I’m fine, really,” Jensen replies, pulling away a little but not entirely. And he’s lying, Jared can tell.

“He just doesn’t like to eat alone.”

Jared wasn’t intending to say it out loud, but realizes from the identical looks across the table that he just did. Looks that seem full of discomfort, and suspicion, and… pity.

“Excuse me,” he says and stands up abruptly. “There’s… somewhere I need to be.”

The panic is steadily bubbling up his chest and into his throat and he needs to be gone, away, before it breaks through the surface.

He turns towards the main doors, the mountains, and catches a glimpse of Jensen’s face in the periphery of his vision. For a second it looks like Jensen might say something, do something, make him stay. But he doesn’t. So Jared leaves, taking long strides to carry his trembling body away from following eyes, as fast as he can.

 

***|***|***|***

 

The call of the mountains can no longer be ignored. Hell, it’s practically deafening.

Soon as the attack passes and his breaths level out, Jared breaks into a run. Slow at first and then fast, and then hard enough for the cold to barely register against the exposed parts of his skin. Tourists milling about wisely jump out of his way to avoid being mowed down by his Sasquatchian frame. Locals barely pay him any attention, well used to the antics of hot-headed adventure seekers visiting them from all over the world. He runs for miles and miles before he even realizes where he’s headed – the Schöllenen gorge.

It’s just as well. He slows down to catch his breath, then turns towards the steep incline that will take him up to his favorite spot. At this hour in broad daylight, it will likely not be as private. But right then he doesn’t care.

He needs to be where the earth drops off from under his feet and the sound of the running water is loud enough to drown the voices in his head. He needs to feel that indefinable sense of liberation from peeking at the end of the tunnel. Whether there is a light there or not is immaterial. The gorge is the end he’s been waiting for – the end to his unnecessary existence in the dark, to all his pain, his profound sense of unworthiness.

By the time he reaches the point he’s earmarked, he is drenched in sweat and exhausted to the bone. A couple of teenagers on a tandem bicycle wave at him and automatically he waves back. He can’t help it – it’s the years of conditioning to hide his true self behind a mask of fake cheeriness. Once they’re gone, the mask drops and Jared turns to face the edge once more.

It’d be so easy… to scale the protective rails and let himself fly. One last adrenaline rush, like a ski jump from the top of the Gemsstock. His long-awaited swan song. And yet something is stopping him, again. Another stupid subconscious tactic that his psyche is using to subvert his free will, maybe?

“Emily Swallow,” he grinds out, absent-mindedly. There’s a lewd joke in there somewhere. If only Jared had the repertoire and the energy to come up with it.

He’s tired. So fucking tired.

He sits himself down, leaning against the rails, and wraps his arms around his knees pulled up into his chest. He wishes he could vent this tension building between his eyes, choking his throat. But the tears haven’t flown in years. His bottled emotions are like an 82-ton anchor shackled to his feet, mooring him to his island of darkness. Not that letting them out helped him any the last time he tried it.

He still remembers that moment of epiphany like it was yesterday. Actually it was two years, eight months and a few days ago. He’d just made the worst mistake of his life. And no matter how much he cried, the tears couldn’t wash the stain of that horrible sin away. That’s simply the nature of some mistakes – you can never undo them, never atone for them no matter how hard you try.

Infidelity happens to be one of them.

 

***|***|***|***