Chapter 1: More Than Us
MORE THAN US
There was a knock on the doorframe, and his nearly-15-year-old leaned into the room. "Dad?"
"Yeah, bud?" He was pretty much done for the day, anyway. He swiveled his chair to face his son.
"Okay if me and Robby go swimming?"
The rule was that nobody was to go in unless there was someone watching. And no friends in the pool, unless there was an adult around. "Sure, dude. I'll be right down."
The grin flashed the proprietary Padalecki dimples before JJ disappeared. There was a herd of elephants with size 13 feet charging downstairs, the sound of the glass doors sliding open and shut, and then muted shouts and a mighty splash as somebody cannonballed into the pool. Jensen smiled to himself as he tidied away the sheets of music he'd been working on--or, not working on, as it happened. This song wasn't going anywhere. At least not today, he thought, sighing and pulling the door closed behind him as he headed downstairs. A gale of giggles and high-pitched voices drifted from the other end of the hall.
"Shannon?" he called. The voices shushed each other.
"You girls want a snack?"
A hurried consultation resulted in a, "No, thanks," so he continued down the stairs. Mac and his girlfriend were in the corner of the sofa in the living room, their heads together, his arm around her, her legs tucked up. Their voices were quiet, absorbed in each other; Mac didn't even lift his gaze to acknowledge his dad. Jensen didn't intrude as he continued into the kitchen. He started laying out prep for supper, and putting together some snack food while he was at it. JJ and Robby were having some sort of fight over a ball in the pool, laughing and splashing and calling each other ridiculous names as they swam and battled and swept gouts of water at each other. Jensen couldn't help his grin as he listened to their insults.
Jared was back east, somewhere in Rhode Island, looking at the construction of a new building he'd designed for a college campus dating back to the post-Civil War era. He'd been gone three days, expected to be back in two more. But it felt longer to Jensen. He missed his husband, missed talking over their days, and discussing their kids. Missed having Jared under his hands, too, but that didn't bear thinking about right now, with a houseful of impressionable teenagers. He let go of the thought, though the grin lingered a bit.
He'd had doubts about coming back to this house. It hadn't always been a place of happiness and peace for him; in fact, his first year here had been the worst year of his life. But their last two years in the house had been happy ones, with family nearby and friends, weekend cookouts, a houseful of people coming and going. Leaving had been hard; it had taken a lot of time and thought to make the decision to go. But Jensen couldn't regret it.
It had taken multiple trips overseas before they'd settled on what they wanted for their kids and themselves. They found a farmhouse in Ireland, walking distance from a village of modest size, with a couple of pubs, bookstores, a post office, and good schools. Despite the world's declining birth rate, this area had been less hard hit than many. There was a sizeable number of kids in and around the village, the schools were excellent, and there were lots of activities for children.
So eleven years ago, they bought the farmhouse, applied for Irish citizenship, and moved their family to Ireland. There were three unoccupied bedrooms they fitted up as Jared's office and Jensen's studio, with the best internet connection available. The third was a formally recognized guest room, though both offices could sleep guests at need. And there was need, as their family members visited often. Their friends came to stay too, especially when the members of the band Jensen wrote for and did occasional studio work with were touring in Europe or the UK. The Ackles-Padalecki kids got to know their cousins and their grandparents, their aunts and their uncles, both actual and courtesy ones, quite well over the years.
Most days after school would find a gaggle of youngsters doing homework, playing videogames, acting out adventures or plotting them with drawings and paints and markers on reams of pulp paper. More often than not, there were extras for dinner; Jared or Jensen would look up to find one or more of their own was missing, gracing someone else's dinner table, their seats here filled with other people's kids. It was a great time for their family, and it left them with mostly happy memories.
The reason for their move to Ireland was suddenly manifest the year Mac turned twelve. Ireland's screening for ceiver males was no less exacting than the same screening in the US, but the results were simply that, a question answered. Though parenthood was strongly encouraged, any action taken was up to the child and his family; there was no forced compliance. It was this practice that had prompted the men to move their family away from the US and home.
Jensen, Jared, and the kids had dual citizenship, it was a mere matter of filing some final papers to become exclusively Irish. They never actually got around to that, since Mac tested negative as a ceiver, and life went on pretty much as usual. Jensen couldn't help breathing a sigh of relief, even though there would be no pressure on Mac had he tested positive. Their boys knew about ceivers, and they knew what the testing meant. Before Mac's screening Jared had talked to Mac about it--had he thought about what it would mean to be a ceiver, if he tested positive? And though in Ireland he could still do other things as well, how did he feel about becoming a ceiver--was it something he might choose to be? He had that discussion again more recently, when it was JJ who was twelve, and whose turn it was for screening. JJ had tested negative as well, and those questions had never needed to be answered. Life moved on, and the kids were happy among their friends, were doing well in school, and were reasonably well-behaved, for intelligent, high-spirited offspring.
Things would have continued in their happy, familiar bywater if they hadn't gotten news last fall that Gerry was in the hospital undergoing tests. Jared had flown home right away to be with his family, and when the tests came back with troubling results, he realized that living half a world away wasn't close enough when his dad's time might be limited. He and Jensen had some heart to heart talks late into the night, and more discussions with the kids. They decided to move back to the US.
Jared hadn't sold his house, but had leased it out through the Ackles' interest group. Another family had lived there for a while, but more recently it had been used as a guest residence and conference center for small groups; the pool and gym, the number of bedrooms, and the open kitchen and gathering area made it well-suited for that use.
Jensen had wanted a new place--new to them--with no lingering bad memories, where the family could make new memories of their own. But two trips to their hometown had not resulted in any houses they liked enough to raise their kids in. They toured Jared's old house, and Jensen found himself remembering the good years before the move to Ireland, and letting go of the painful memories of his first years in the house. It was the right place for the family.
So here they were. With a pool full of teenaged boys, a clutch of teenaged girls upstairs, and a quiet young man whose attention was solely focused on the girl beside him. Who, Jensen now noticed, seemed to be sobbing quietly.
He grabbed a box of tissues and approached the pair, catching Mac's eye as he offered the box. Mac smiled his thanks, but didn't indicate a need for parental assistance. Sophie was a sweet girl, usually laughing and teasing Mac and his siblings whenever she was around. He'd never seen her upset like this before. He wouldn't intrude, but he'd ask Mac about it later.
"Soph," he said softly, and waited till she'd wiped her eyes and blown her nose before she looked up at him. "You staying for dinner? You know you're welcome."
She nodded. "Yes, please."
"Okay," he smiled. "You gonna call your folks, or you want me to do it?"
That got a watery smile. "You?"
He grinned and nodded. "You got it."
Checking again on the pool through the glass, he headed up the stairs to tap on Shannon's doorframe. "Nonni?"
The chatter subsided. Three young bodies in positions it hurt him to think about trying to achieve were draped over bed and chair and floor, with books and notebooks and pens strewn about them, and three pairs of eyes surveyed him.
"Are either of you girls staying for supper? I'm glad to call and ask, if you want me to," he offered. Both of them looked tempted, but they were each expected at home. So it would be five for supper, then, unless Robby wanted to stay. Jensen headed back downstairs to check on the guys in the pool.
* * *
"Her little brother's a ceiver. He's been gone about six months," Mac told Jensen. The other kids had gone up to bed, and when Mac got back from seeing Sophie home, Jensen asked why she had been crying. The news sent an atavistic shiver up Jensen's back. But this wasn't, ordinarily, bad news.
"Yeah, okay," Jensen nodded. "But that doesn't seem like something that would have her so upset, unless she's just missing her brother?"
Jensen could see Mac hesitate. His kid had to know he could trust him, it wasn't that. This was Sophie's secret, and he was wrestling over whether or not he could share it.
Finally, he met Jensen's eyes. "You know they're allowed to send mail, right?"
Jensen didn't know, his experience had been different, but he nodded.
"Even email, after a while. I'm sure it's read--even censored," the kid cocked a look under his brows that was surprising in its cynicism. "But Sam and Sophie have had a code since they were little. And Sam says he's not happy. That he doesn't want to be there. He wants to come home."
Jensen's heart sank. Poor Sam. "Aw, gee, Mac. I'm sorry."
"She can't stand it, Dad. She says he sounds really bad. ...And she wants to help him, but her parents don't believe her."
Jensen hesitated. He really didn't want to get too deeply into this, but Mac needed to be aware of how implacable the Department of Reproduction was when it came to ceivers. He clasped his son's shoulder and met his eyes.
"Mackie, I don't know how much good it would do, even if they did believe her."
"What do you mean?"
Jensen's gaze slipped away. "Once Repro gets their hands on somebody, they don't let go. Not unless there's a really good reason, like bad health or something."
"But that's not right--"
"Mac, listen to me." Jensen stared straight into the boy's eyes, willing him to hear what he had to say, and he tightened the hand on his shoulder, shook him, just a little, to enforce his words. "You do not, under any circumstances, want to say anything or do anything that will get Repro's attention. Do you hear me? Mackie, people--whole families' lives have been ruined for trying to fight the Department. Once they find a ceiver, there's no getting him back."
Mac's eyes went wide, staring at Jensen. His dad was usually pretty easygoing about stuff, ready to see both sides of an issue. This intensity was completely out of character for him, and Mac couldn't help but wonder why that was.
"It's a fight you can't win, bud," Jensen's hand loosened, lifted, and clapped Mac's shoulder. "I know you care about Sophie, and I could see she's upset. But--promise me." He ducked down a little to catch Mac's eyes. "Promise me you won't get involved."
Mac wasn't sure he could keep such a promise, not when he was with Sophie again and felt how upset she was over Sam. But he had to give his dad some sign of agreement, so he nodded, and hoped it would be enough.
"Good man," his dad smiled a little, accepting the nod, and dropping the subject. "You got all your homework done?"
"Just calc left," Mac told him, and started upstairs to finish his assignment before bed. He hooked an arm around his dad's neck as he went. "Thanks, Dad."
"Love you Mackie. G'night."
* * *
The wheels barked a couple of times on the tarmac, and then Jared relaxed as they slowed to taxi. As often as he flew, landings still made him a little anxious. He'd planned to take a cab home, but Jensen was waiting, his wide grin a warm welcome. He hugged Jared and took the garment bag and briefcase, leaving Jared to shoulder the backpack and trundle the suitcase behind him. They stowed the baggage and Jensen pulled out into the stream of traffic. "Your mom called this morning."
Jared's expression was a little apprehensive. "Yeah?"
"Yeah, she called you first but you must have been in the air. Your phone was off, so she called the house. Your dad had his check-up yesterday. His numbers are great, she said."
Jared grinned. "Oh, that's good!"
"Yeah," Jensen nodded. "He played the back nine yesterday afternoon, and he's almost back to his regular handicap, she said." His husband's smile was wide, but there was a little glisten in his eyes, too. It had been a long while since Gerry had been able to play a full round of golf. He gave Jared a minute, and then while he was merging onto the expressway he asked how the job had gone.
They talked about the building progress, and the songs that were currently giving Jensen trouble, and then talk inevitably shifted to the kids. Shannon was acing all her classes, and had decided to go out for debate team again.
"Good," Jared commented. "Put that fast-talking sarcasm of hers to good use."
Jensen snickered. "JJ's shot up three inches since you left."
Jared quirked an eyebrow. "Yeah? Three whole inches?"
"Well, seems like it. The shoulders on that kid--they just keep getting broader, and Jared?" Jensen paused for dramatic effect. "He's in the shower 20-30 minutes, sometimes twice a day." His brows went up, and he waited, straight-faced, till Jared barked out a laugh and shook his head.
"Well, I guess it's about time," he grinned. Their youngest was a late bloomer, and the Ackles-Padalecki males, all four of them, had started voicing concern that puberty might have passed him by.
Jensen snickered. "Yeah, no kidding. We gotta have the talk with him, though. His room is pretty rank."
He clicked on his turn signal and checked the mirrors. "We may have to get a firehose in there to scrub those shower walls." Turn completed, he jabbed a finger at his husband. "I tell you what else, he's washing his own goddam sheets. Eugh."
JJ was in the kitchen, and he lunged at Jared for a hug, which was eagerly returned. "Hi, runt," Jared set his youngest at arm's length to look him over. "My god, you have grown."
Jensen nodded, "Told you," he said, opening the oven to check on dinner. "About ten minutes. Where is everybody?" he asked JJ.
"Nonni's in her room, practicing her debate stuff." JJ reached for an apple from the bowl on the bar, but Jared's hand tapped his knuckles: too close to supper. "Sophie called, and Mac went out. He said to tell you he'd be home early."
Jared exchanged a glance with Jensen. "He knew you'd be home," Jensen told him. He felt a little uneasy. He hadn't wanted to bring up in the car the conversation he'd had with Mac the other night, or the fact that Sophie's brother was asking to come home. They'd have to get into that before Jared saw Mac--the two of them needed to present a united front.
Jared shrugged. "It's okay. I'll see him before bed."
Dinner was fun, the kids were glad to have their Pop home, and Jared was happy to be back, so there was lots of teasing, lots of catch-up conversation, and lots of lame jokes, before the kids said goodnight and wandered off to get ready for bed.
Jared was loading the dishwasher while Jensen put leftovers away. He thought about making up a plate for Mac, but the kid had most likely eaten while he was out.
Their hands had that tendency to linger, to maintain contact, when they touched as they worked. They hip-checked each other as they passed, and finally, chores incomplete, their lips met, even as their bodies arched away from each other and toward their own unfinished tasks. "Nngah!" Jared's voice was ragged. "Finish up here. I can't wait any longer!"
Jensen was about to respond when there was a knock at the door.
There was a pair of uniformed officers on their front porch, between them, the eldest Ackles-Padalecki child.
"Mr. Ackles? Mr. Padalecki?" the larger and apparently more senior of the two asked, his hand on Mac's shoulder. Mac was trying hard to school his expression, but it wavered between apprehension, embarrassment, and anger. "Is this your son?"
Jared stepped forward with a grim sort of smile. "Yes, officer, he belongs to us."
The hand lifted and Mac stepped into the foyer, stopping between his parents and unable to meet the eyes of either of them.
"He was with a bunch of kids down at the old high school, the one they closed down a few years ago when they consolidated?" The men nodded. There hadn't been enough students to keep all the schools in the city open and over the years the older facilities had been closed, one by one, and stood abandoned, for the most part. The tennis and basketball courts were used by the surrounding neighborhoods, and occasionally some group would ask to use a theater or a cafeteria for a community play or a meeting.
"They had a bonfire going, and there were some activists down there," the officer went on. "Talking all kinds of trouble. Not the sort of place a kid like him needs to be hanging around."
The other officer, younger, blond, shifted his weight. "Kids can get into a lot of trouble listening to the kind of things they were saying out there," he sent a look at Mac, and then at each of his parents. It was neither a kind nor a pleasant look. "Anti-Repro scum."
Jensen glared at Mac; it was Jared who spoke to the officers. "Well, we appreciate you bringing him home."
"Yes, thanks," Jensen stuck out a hand for the older officer to shake. "Rest assured, we'll see it doesn't happen again." Mac cringed a little at Jensen's tone, and Jared glanced at him, surprised.
Once the door closed behind the cops, Jared grabbed Mac in a hug. "What were you thinking?"
"Hi, Pop. Glad you're home."
Jensen let them have a moment, and then he stepped in. His voice shook with anger and with fear, and he couldn't hide it completely. "Mackenzie, get upstairs. Go to bed."
Jared turned, brows raised in surprise. Jensen flashed a glance at him, and then focused back on Mac. "You come straight home from school tomorrow, no friends, no side trips."
"Not tomorrow you don't. Straight home. We'll talk about this then. Now go to bed."
Jared just stood and nodded, silently backing Jensen up. He did give his eldest a quick hug before Mac headed up the stairs to bed. He locked the front door, set the alarm, and then followed Jensen into the kitchen, where the last of the leftovers was disappearing into the fridge and the dishwasher was starting its cycle. Jared got the rest of the lights while Jensen finished up, and stood waiting until Jensen pulled a couple of beers out of the fridge.
"I wanted to talk to you before either of us said anything to him," Jensen sat down at the dining table, and Jared joined him.
"Okay," Jared agreed. "What's going on?"
"His girlfriend, Sophie? Her little brother, Sam, was taken as a ceiver a few months ago."
The back of Jared's neck prickled a little in apprehension. "And?"
"Mac says apparently Sam's teachers--trainers--whatever they are, read the kids' mail, so they can't say too much about their training. But according to Mac, Sam and Sophie have a code they've used since Sam was little, and he's getting messages to Sophie that he's not happy, and he wants to come home."
"So Mac wants to make Sophie happy and rescue her little brother?"
"Pretty much, yeah. I think that's the idea."
"Jared, I had this talk with him the other night. He promised me he would not get involved in anything that would get Repro's attention on him. He promised."
Jared's hand went out to cup the back of his husband's neck, squeezing at the tension there. "Jensen, it's gonna be okay. We'll talk to him together. We'll get the point across, how important this is."
Jensen sighed, and relaxed a little against the warmth of Jared's hand. "He's a stubborn kid."
"Yeah, but he's not stupid," was Jared's reply, and Jensen had to agree.
"Okay." He pushed back his chair and stood, hauling Jared up beside him. "Okay, tomorrow we lay down the law. But tonight?" Stretching up a little, he caught Jared's lower lip between his teeth, bit down gently and tugged a little before a quick lick and letting go. "I still have plans for you."
His hands wanted to shake as he shucked Jared out of his clothes, leaving them strewn on the floor where they would no doubt trip him, or Jared, when one of them got up to pee in the middle of the night. But once they were on warm, smooth skin, they settled, as did he, and he proceeded to take his husband apart, kissing every inch, licking all those secret spots known only to the two of them, murmuring a running torrent of filthy words and narration of what he was doing to make Jared come undone.
For his part, Jared was half-gone before Jensen ever laid a hand on him. He shouted when Jensen licked over his neck, behind his ear, huffed a scalding breath on the wet streak and then bit, hard, on the sensitized spot. He cried out when Jensen wrapped warm, strong fingers around his cock and jacked him, none too gently. And he rose off the bed to curl up and look into Jensen's face as he swallowed him down, one hand already slicked with lube and stroking the fine, soft skin behind his balls. Jared tangled his fingers in Jensen's short hair, gripping hard, tugging at his scalp, as Jensen hummed and sucked hard, two slick fingers and then three opening Jared up. Jensen pulled off and muscled up close, Jared's legs sliding up his arms to hook over his shoulders as his cock pressed against Jared's ass, and he pushed in, slow at first and then bottoming out in one long thrust. Jared shouted again, his back arched, head thrown back against the pillows while Jensen leaned over him, watching Jared's face as he fucked into him again and again.
Jensen watched him greedily, and when Jared was close, Jensen folded those clever fingers around his cock, stripping it and, eyes gleaming in the scattered streetlight, moonlight through the window, muttered, "Come on, Jared." And he did, shuddering with it, crying out again hoarsely as Jensen rode his own release.
Jensen eased out and off of him to lie, sated, beside him in the bed. Jared gathered him in close, Jensen's head on his shoulder, Jared's arms wrapped around him. "I have to leave home more often." He kissed the top of Jensen's head. "If this is the welcome home I get."
Jensen laid an arm across Jared's chest and nosed into his neck. "Or you could just stay home and have this all the time." His voice was soft and fading toward sleep. Jared smiled and closed his own eyes. It was good to be home.
The talk went about as well as expected. Mac sullenly agreed to stay away from anything having to do with anti-Repro activism, and he was grounded for a week, on pool-cleaning and laundry duties to keep him busy in his extra hours at home. Jensen grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and touched their foreheads together. "Kid. Kid." He shook Mac a little, gently. "You know we're only trying to protect you, right?"
Reluctantly, Mac nodded, and Jensen went on. "I know how wrong it feels not to act on this boy's behalf, not to be the hero for Sophie. But you gotta trust us on this." He dropped his hand and Mac pulled away, finally meeting Jensen's eyes.
"Yeah, Dad. I know."
Jared snagged Mac in for a quick hug, and then they turned him loose to go do homework. Jared sighed.
"He's a good kid. His heart's in the right place."
"He's just better off as far away from Repro as possible," Jensen responded. "All of us are."
Jensen was working on a song that had been giving him trouble for a while now. He seemed to have cracked it, and didn't want to stop while he was making progress, so Jared attended the monthly neighborhood association meeting alone. The association wasn't a formal group, just residents getting together to discuss relevant neighborhood issues, such as burnt-out or broken streetlights, broken playground equipment at the park, potholes in a street, or clogged storm drains. It was a good group, and someone always volunteered to get the matter resolved, and then report progress at the next meeting. There had been some vandalism and even a rash of break-ins in the area, and a guest had been invited to this evening's meeting to offer advice on securing your property. Jared recognized Sergeant Whitfield as one of the pair who'd brought Mac home a few weeks ago. Whitfield outlined some commonsense rules for safety and prevention, and answered a few questions, before he was thanked for coming. With no further business, the meeting was adjourned and, as usual, neighbors mingled a bit before heading home.
Jared caught the officer's eye, and went over to say hello. "Hey. Jared," he stuck out a hand.
"Malik," the man offered, shaking it. About the same height as Jensen, Malik was broad and solid, a very intimidating figure, or a reassuring one, Jared thought, depending which side of the law you were on.
"Thanks for bringing our son home a few weeks back. He's at that age, wants to be a hero for his girlfriend, fight for a cause or something."
Whitfield smiled briefly. "Yeah, it's a tough age. They think they're grown, they know everything."
Jared nodded, with an exaggerated sigh. "Adults are stupid. They don't understand."
Malik laughed out loud. "If I had a nickel for every time--"
"You could retire early," Jared grinned. "Hey, are you off-duty?" When Malik nodded, he asked, "You got some time? Want to stop for a beer or something?"
Malik looked him over, assessing. "You got something you want to talk to me about, Jared?"
"What?" Jared's confusion was genuine. "Hey--no. I just, um. Wanted to say thanks, I guess."
"You already did that," Whitfield pointed out.
Jared nodded. "Yeah. Okay, sure. Well," he stuck his hand out again. "Nice to see you again. And thanks for coming out to talk to us."
Malik shook again, briefly, and Jared turned away to say goodbye to a few other people. Odd, he thought, walking out into a rain-washed evening. He wasn't sure what he had expected an off-duty cop to be like, but Whitfield wasn't it. Maybe cops just never did turn off that part of themselves.
* * *
He hung out in the garage after supper, pretending to sort through some old stuff for donation. Sure enough, Mac left about ten minutes after excusing himself from the table. He walked quickly down the sidewalk, unencumbered with basketball, mitt, or bookbag. Jared followed him, staying well back and mostly in the shadows. He paused to let Mac get far enough ahead not to hear, and pulled his cell phone from his pocket.
"Jared? Where are you?"
"I went for a walk, but I suddenly remembered I didn't close the garage door. Sorry."
"'s okay, I'll get it." The voice held a note of concern. "You okay? You want some company?"
"Nah," Jared was quick to reassure him. "I just need to work up a sweat, do some thinking. I may be an hour or two."
"Okay," Jensen sounded fine with it. "Call me if you want me to meet you. You know, come and pick your ancient ass up and cart you home."
Jared grinned. All was well between them. "You wish. I'll see you in a while."
Mac wasn't far ahead, and Jared easily caught up enough to keep him in sight, more than curious, needing to see where his son had been spending his evenings and weekends. Once he was no longer grounded, Mac was barely at home anymore. He made it to dinner maybe two nights a week. Sophie never seemed to stop by, nor did any of his school friends. Unless he and Jensen made a point of insisting Mac be present at a weekend gathering with extended family coming, Mac was out of the house and gone all weekend, "at friends'." He neglected to specify, or wasn't sure just which friends, or exactly where he'd be. He always answered his phone, though, and came home when he or Jensen insisted, so Jared didn't suppose they needed to crack down on him. Yet.
Mac had left the familiar neighborhood and Jared followed him, keeping his distance. He was headed toward downtown, moving through an area that was increasingly industrial, where the streetlights were farther apart, some of them broken and dark. The back of Jared's neck prickled with apprehension--where was Mac going? What had the kid gotten himself into?
A glow up ahead resolved itself into an oil drum fire in an empty lot, around which a crowd had already gathered, milling as more people arrived. Jared saw Mac cross the open area at the center, heading for the far side of the fire's glow, saw him envelop Sophie in a hug, and kiss her on the forehead. The girl leaned into Mac as though he was her source of strength, and he appeared pleased and familiar with the role of support for her. Arms about each other, they turned to face the fire and the crowd that was beginning to slow the moving about and the babble of talk, the calls of welcome and recognition.
Jared sought the shadow of the building diagonally across the street from the gathering as a vantage point to watch from. Stragglers continued to arrive, joining the fringes of the crowd. Now and then someone would call out in recognition and join another person, or a smaller group, whom they obviously knew.
The crowd quieted as a man stepped out from the people around him to stand alone in the light of the fire. All eyes were on him as he started to speak.
"You all know why we're here tonight. All of us have someone--someone in our family, a friend, or maybe a friend of a friend, who's been taken into servitude."
There was a quiet murmur of agreement, a nodding of heads, from those assembled.
"This is a custom that's been going on for generations, and our nation has just accepted that this is the way things have to be."
The man was average height, nondescript in appearance. But his voice was deep and rich, and there was a compelling note in it that commanded the attention of those gathered here.
"Well, it's time to stand up and say, 'This is not the way things have to be. This is not how they should be!'"
The murmur of agreement was louder this time.
"There is a crisis, we all know it. There aren't as many babies being born as there used to be, as there should be to keep us going, to keep the world going. We need to do all we can to increase the odds in favor of the human race. We need to see to it that more babies are born. We need to do aaall we can to care for and raise our babies."
Several voices in the crowd cried agreement out loud.
Jared had seen video footage of great public speakers like JFK and Martin Luther King, Jr. He had heard tales from his parents of going to church when they visited cousins who attended every Sunday, and he'd seen old-time preachers in movies. This speaker had, whether naturally or by cultivation, adopted that cadence and rhythm to his speech. Jared had to admit, it was effective. Even from this distance, he could feel the spark of electricity among the crowd, and see the excitement that was building. Mac and Sophie stood shoulder to shoulder, her arm around his waist, his about her shoulders, and both of their faces were rapt as they listened to the speaker.
"Not just the newborns, no," the man went on. "Not just the ones born today, or yesterday, or next week. No, we need to take care of the ones born years ago. The ones that are being taken from their families and forced into a life they didn't choose. A life they have no alternative to, no power to refuse."
More voices shouted agreement, and there was sobbing, here and there among the crowd.
"We have to protect our sons, and our brothers, our neighbors, that little boy that played on the swingset in our backyard with our own kids. We have to rescue the ones who are being held as prisoners of the state, trained as slaves, and awarded to rich men who can buy the privilege of continuing the line of their genes."
Comments had grown more frequent and louder as he spoke, and in response to his last exhortation a roar came from the crowd.
"I say we take back our sons, our brothers, our neighbors!"
The crowd shouted agreement.
"I say we rescue them from the hands of the government and the rich men who buy their servitude!"
Jared was growing increasingly concerned. The mood of the crowd was escalating past agreement and into dangerous arousal. He watched as Mac started to ease Sophie toward the fringes of the group, and suddenly became aware of distant sirens, fast approaching. He started to cross the street to get to Mac, but saw him scurrying away with Sophie by the hand, urging her along the back wall of the building that edged the open lot until the pair of them disappeared around the corner into the darkness.
The crowd continued to shout and the speaker kept exhorting them to action as Jared eased backward into shadow himself, and walked back the way he had come, toward the street corner. He saw Mac and Sophie further down on the other side of the street, coming his way, and wondered why they hadn't just kept going away from the rally. But then he took a good look at the couple. They walked hand in hand under the streetlights, just a boy and a girl out for an evening stroll.
The sirens grew louder and flashing red and blue lights came into view, and the young couple watched with mild curiosity when the cop cars streaked past, obviously not at all involved in whatever was going on. They continued on their stroll, definitely unconcerned and uninvolved, and Jared was impressed at the way they'd hidden in plain sight. He didn't look back to see what became of the speaker and the crowd that had gathered to hear him. He followed a block or so behind Mac and Sophie, just to see that they got home all right.
Mac walked Sophie to her house; they lingered on the lawn just outside the reach of the porch light. If they'd stood any closer they'd have been one being, Jared thought, remembering well how strongly intoxicating that feeling was. She raised her face and Mac kissed her with, Jared noted with a little grin, pretty practiced technique. Or maybe it really was just honest emotion. They broke apart, unwillingly, and Mac waited until she'd climbed the porch steps, gone inside and closed the door behind her. Only when he saw the light come on in an upstairs window did he move toward the sidewalk.
Jared hesitated. Should he catch up to the kid and let him know he'd been followed and watched? Or would it be better to lay back and continue to observe from a distance? As much as Jared's nature wanted to have things out in the open, discretion won, for now. He'd wait. And watch.
* * *
Jared tried to be aware of Mac's comings and goings. He had a real uneasiness about letting the boy attend the rallies. He knew following him was no real kind of protection, but at least if he was there, Jared felt, he might do something to keep Mac from getting arrested.
Things went on pretty much as normal, day by day. Jensen was deep into a new album with Carlson and Kane, and he had a couple of songs he was co-writing with Manns as well. He disappeared into his studio every morning after breakfast and the kids went off to school. Jared spent his days in his office, working on plans for a new Civic Center in Montgomery, Alabama. He'd been out to survey the site, but he was having some difficulty adjusting for elevation while preserving the view, and providing accessibility, all within the budget. He couldn't take time from Jensen and the kids--especially Mac--to go back to Montgomery, so he sent an intern with the latest video gear to create a virtual tour of the site for him. So far it seemed to be working. The plans were coming more into line with his vision. Just talking the committee down from using the most top-of-the line materials list where possible would bring the project in near, if not below, budget.
Once in a while he would go upstairs and knock on Jensen's door, or Jensen would appear in the doorway of Jared's office, and they'd go for a run, or walk down to the food court for a takeout lunch. In the sun, in the park where they'd settled on a bench today to sip their coffee, Jared noticed there was a scattering of silver among the close-cropped hair at Jensen's temples. The crows feet at the edges of his eyes were deeper, but no less heart-stopping when he smiled. The years had not been unkind to the man, Jared noted, unsure if it was love, won through years of working at it, adapting to each other, accommodation and making room for each other in their lives, their plans, their hearts, that made his breath catch and his dick swell, or just pure lust. Jared suddenly hated the fact they were right out here in bright daylight in a public park. He wanted to swarm all over his husband, wrap him up in a cage of his arms and kiss him senseless, before he peeled him out of his clothes and taught Jensen what smiling like that did to Jared.
Jensen's conversational patter stuttered to a stop as he faced Jared, finally, and took only an instant to decode the look in his eyes. "Or, we could race each other home," he offered, jumping to his feet and flinging his half-full coffee into the nearest trash receptacle. "And you could tear all my clothes off before the kids get home."
Jared didn't bother replying; he just surged to his feet and ran. He heard Jensen swear as he took off after him. Jared's longer legs were an advantage, but Jensen was a fast runner. And the man had stamina. They were pretty much head-to-head as they pounded up the driveway and into the house.
They were wrapped around each other, breathing each other's air and biting at lips and necks and pulling at each other's clothes almost before they got the front door closed behind them.
"Kids still at school?" Jared mouthed Jensen's jaw, and felt his swollen dick leap in response where it rubbed against Jared's hip.
"Got an hour and a half," Jensen gasped into his mouth, hands tugging frantically at his shirt, trying to pull it off him.
Jared palmed him, and pulled away, a dancing stagger toward the stairs. "Upstairs!" he gasped, as Jensen's hand dove down the front of his pants. How the man had gotten the button popped and the zipper down with Jared unaware he didn't know. But if Jensen hit bare skin, Jared would throw him down right on the flagstone floor of the foyer and teach him what lack of restraint was all about.
Oh god, he must have said that out loud. Jensen grinned, gnawing at Jared's Adam's apple and inching his fingers under the elastic of Jared's boxer briefs. "Gonna teach me? Right here on the floor?"
Jared practically lifted his husband by his clothes and hustled him toward the first step, a hard swat to his ass that turned into a squeeze as he bulled his way up after him, pushing Jensen ahead of him. "Bedroom. Now."
They made it inside the room, but not all the way to the bed. Jared pressed Jensen hard up against the dresser, planted a hand between his shoulders and bent him forward, reaching around to undo his pants and push them down past his knees. Snatching a tube of lube out of the sock drawer, Jared slicked his fingers and breached Jensen: one finger, two.
"Come on, come on, man. I'm good," Jensen panted, wiggling his ass back on Jared's hand. "Enough with the foreplay. Fuck me! Fuck me now." And Jared did, lining up and nudging into that heat, then pushing forward with one long stroke. Jensen's knees buckled at the intrusion, but Jared had a hand low on his belly, between his hips, and he held Jensen up until he got his feet under him again. Jensen grinned at him in the dresser mirror, feral, and Jared took that wild-edged grin as a challenge, pulling back and slamming in again, and again. Jensen's eyes were closed now, all his concentration on what he was feeling, what Jared was giving him, and as Jared gave and Jensen took it all, they sped toward their climax.
On the last ragged edge of control, Jared opened his eyes to see Jensen watching him, his mouth open to gasp for air, his lips round and wet. Jensen met his gaze and on Jared's next stroke, Jensen tightened down, just that little bit extra, and Jared yelled and came. Jensen's hand was flying on his own dick and he came a few seconds after, both of them blowing like racehorses at the finish line.
Jared lay forward over Jensen's back, coming down and slowing his breathing, till Jensen wiggled in protest.
"Hey. Sasquatch. Man, you weigh a ton. Stagger your happy ass over to the bed and flop there." Jared shuffled, not even bothering to remove his jeans or shoes, just flopping back, arms over his head, on top of the duvet. Jensen yanked his own underwear and pants up one-handed, high enough not to trip as he stepped into the bathroom to wash off. Tucked away and zipped, he came out of the bath with a warm washcloth, and gently wiped Jared down, planting a kiss right above his cock when he was done. "You napping or getting up?" he asked.
"What are my options?" Jared murmured, tempted toward sleep.
"Well, nap, I pull off your shoes and pants and tuck you under the covers," Jensen responded. "Getting up, I figure you can handle your own pants, right?"
"We got an hour?"
"Yeah, about that."
Jared patted the duvet beside him. "Come nap with me."
Jensen grinned and stood to fling the washcloth into the bathroom sink, pulled off Jared's shoes and pants, and then stripped down his own jeans and toed off his shoes.
"Mmm," Jared mumbled. "Set the clock. Don' want the kids thinking we sleep all day."
Jensen snickered. "Pretty sure that wouldn't be their first assumption." He set the alarm and crawled into bed, pushing the duvet aside and pulling up the top sheet to cover them both. He grinned a little at the quiet buzz of snores already coming from Jared.
* * *
It was unsettling when a voice at his shoulder spoke without warning.
"Keeping an eye on your boy?"
Jared couldn't help the startled flinch before he turned to recognize the officer, out of uniform and, Jared hoped, off-duty.
"Yeah," he agreed. "You here to arrest him?" He indicated with a nod the group gathered close around the speaker.
Whitfield smiled, dimples apparent. "Nah. Not tonight." At Jared's look of inquiry, he elaborated. "Just here to keep an eye on things. Keep things quiet and…not let 'em get out of hand."
Jared nodded, and swept the fringes of the group where the light didn't reach as well. "Your partner here?"
"Jake? Nuh-uh. Wouldn't find him here except to bash some heads." Whitfield leveled a look at Jared. "Jake's not as…tolerant…of these folks and their issues as some of us."
"And you are?" Jared's question was an invitation, and after a minute, Whitfield gave a sad little smile.
"You might put it like that."
When he didn't add any more to the reply, Jared said, "Maybe you'll tell me about it sometime."
Surveying the small crowd and not meeting Jared's eye, Whitfield nodded once. "Maybe I will."
* * *
"Where is that little friend of JJ's that used to hang around all the time?" Donna asked Jensen. "Bobby? Robby?"
"Yeah, Robby," Jensen confirmed. "I haven't seen him in a while. He and JJ have been friends since JJ started school here. I think they kind of support each other, watch each other's backs. Neither one of them is the biggest or the toughest kid in the class, and I guess having a wingman is good for avoiding pranks and stuff. " Jensen took another look around the back yard and pool, but JJ seemed to be talking with his cousins, and Robby was nowhere to be seen. "I don't know where he is today, though."
"JJ's really growing up," Jensen's mom said, a note of approval in her voice.
Jensen grinned. "Yeah, we were starting to worry a little bit, he's such a late bloomer. You watch, though. He'll wind up as tall as Jared."
Donna nodded, "You're probably right."
Gerry eased up behind them, holding out a plate for one of the burgers Jensen was just taking off the grill. "How's my granddaughter doing?" he wanted to know. "Is she still singing?"
Jensen picked out a particularly symmetrical and evenly-done patty for his father-in-law and slid it carefully onto the mustard- and ketchup-spread bun. "Not so much right now," he answered. "She seems to be concentrating on her new love for debate."
Gerry slapped on a slice of cheese and closed the bun, smiling in anticipation. "Ha! I'll bet she's good at that, fast-talking argumentative little--"
"--Independent-minded, self-sufficient, opinionated, and articulate young woman?" Jensen offered, with a smile of his own.
Gerry snorted. "Exactly so." He patted Jensen on the shoulder as he moved off toward the potato salad and deviled eggs.
Megan and her husband stopped by, and though Jeff was on call, he and his family came by to hang out for a little while, and Josh and his wife came by, too. Mackenzie was in Prague at the moment, the only family member absent. The party went on till shortly after nightfall, when the relatives began taking their leave. Mac, Shannon, and JJ stayed long enough after everyone had gone to help clean up, but once the trash was bagged and the dishwasher on its second load, JJ asked to go over to a friend's house to work on a science project. Assuming it was Robby, Jensen agreed. Jared said he was going for a run, and took off without asking Jensen if he wanted to come along. Not long afterward, Mac left to spend the evening at Sophie's.
Jensen looked across the breakfast bar at his daughter. "You taking off?"
"Jason's playing downtown. It's a supper club, I can get you in if I promise you won't drink. Want to go?"
A grown-up club? And a chance to see her courtesy uncle Jason? "Sure! Do I have time to change?"
"Half an hour. No more!"
"Okay!" Shannon raced up to her room, no doubt to try on a half-dozen outfits before she picked out one to wear. Jensen grinned. He was going to have the prettiest girl in the room on his arm tonight. And it would be great to see Jason; it had been a few months.
Chapter 2: More Than Us
MORE THAN US
Jared saw him coming this time. Most likely because Whitfield allowed him to see, but still.
Tonight's gathering was under a rarely-used overpass. There was a fine mist falling, and a little shelter was welcome. Someone had found an empty oil drum and others had scrounged for paper trash and firewood. There were streetlights, though the one nearest their spot was broken. Still, there was enough light for the people gathered to see each other, and to watch the face of tonight's speaker. He stood on a milk crate to raise him enough to be seen, and maybe heard, a little better.
"Hey, I'm Jervis."
There was a murmur of acknowledgement before he continued. "My only son was taken as a ceiver. He…he's adapted to the life, which I guess I'm glad of, for his sake, you know? But he's not the same boy I raised. And he doesn't want to have much to do with his family any more."
Again, a murmur ran through the crowd, of sympathy, fellow feeling.
"Most of us here, if not all of us, have given up somebody to Repro. Or we're worried we'll have to."
Another shifting movement and murmur of assent.
"We know all about how birth rates aren't doing too good--how mankind may be losing in the extinction sweepstakes. Our good scientists are working on ways to turn that around. The ceiver program has been a big part of the government's attempts to increase the birthrate, to prevent population numbers from falling any further, any faster. I think all of us are aware of the problem. And most of us are pretty invested in continuing to exist."
There was a shuffling of feet, and a chuckle passed among the crowd.
"They're saying now that they're getting closer to identifying fertility among girls, so we’ll know which of our daughters and sisters are able to get pregnant, and will be likely to carry to term. They're saying this is a good thing, and I guess it is."
People fell silent, waiting for Jervis to continue.
"But, well, I don't know. While our fertile boys have been a valuable resource in this time of trouble, we haven't done so well with them in other ways, now have we? I mean, we take good care of them, we see that they have the best of things, that they get excellent care. But none of them ever gets asked if this is something they want to do. They get tested, they get trained, they get assigned. And all their other choices are just immediately gone to nothing--they have no choices. Is this what we want for our kids? For our neighbors' kids? Is this the way things are supposed to be?"
He paused then, not looking out at his audience, rather appearing lost in his thoughts. The crowd waited, still and quiet, until he raised his head and spoke again.
"They tell us this is how it has to be--that we need every baby, and every ceiver capable of having babies. That we need them paired off and pregnant as often as possible. Oh, they make sure they're healthy and looked after, that they don't want for food, or shelter or warmth. Physically harming a ceiver is unheard of, because the punishment for it is instant and harsh. Ceivers are a treasure, and in this country, they're treated like valuable property, with a specific use. A whole culture of rules and behaviors has risen up, been cultivated, around these precious ceivers. It has come to seem, in the six decades since the first ceivers and the first days of the program, that these traditions are necessary, and inflexible."
He swept the crowd with a fierce and unflinching gaze. "The surrendering of a person's choices in the face of the the nation's dire need is seen as something both noble and necessary. And all of us have just accepted that this is the way things have always been."
"But when you stop for a minute and look at your history, the history of this country, and the whole world, the truth becomes clear.
"This is not a time honored custom, this is something new. We in this country have been led to accept that this is the way things have to be. One generation, that’s all it takes to not remember what freedom is, and who it belongs to. We're taught and encouraged to forget how things used to be, how they're supposed to be. And when we forget, we keep sliding deeper into darkness and injustice."
Jared listened, and found himself nodding. He glanced around at the people assembled tonight, spotting some familiar faces, though he couldn't put names to them. Mac and Sophie were to his left, Mac's arm around her shoulders as her eyes were rapt upon Jervis' face.
Jervis didn't have the charismatic speaking style of the speaker at the first rally Jared had followed Mac to, but there was an honesty about him, a restrained passion, a bedrock sense of right and wrong. What he said had the ring of truth, and as he watched the faces of the listeners, Jared felt a tug of kinship, a sense of purpose, of rightness.
He'd started this to keep an eye on his son, to pull him out of harm's way should the need arise. He'd had no intention of getting involved himself. Jervis' words helped put a new light on things for Jared: his family, the foundation it was built on, what cost had been paid, and by whom. He couldn't help the memories that rose of his and Jensen's early days together, and this new perspective wasn't very flattering to Jared.
Deep in thought as he was, Jared still noticed when Mac eased Sophie toward the edge of the crowd and away, down the street. Jared gave them a half-block's lead, and followed.
* * *
The set was fun, Jason was in fine form. He grinned when he saw Jensen and Shannon at a table near the stage, and tried to call both of them up to sing with him. Jensen shook his head, but raised an eyebrow at his daughter. She blushed, but at Jason's urging, and her dad's gesture of, "up to you," she hopped up onstage to sing harmony on Crazy Love. She and Jason had sung it often and, in spite of a sudden attack of the jitters, by the chorus she settled in and did a fine job. The crowd was welcoming and appreciative, and Jason pecked her on the cheek before she left the stage. She returned to the table flushed and excited at having performed well.
It was his last set, so Jason joined Shannon and Jensen afterward. He hadn't eaten, and the cookout was long past. They were all hungry, so when Jason mentioned a small family-run Italian place nearby with a manicotti to die for, it sounded great. Jason and Shannon were arguing the merits of cannoli vs. tiramisu for dessert when they exited the club, Jensen just a few steps behind.
His casual glance across the street fell on a young couple who reminded him of--no, it was Mac and Sophie! What were they doing in this part of town--? His attention was momentarily distracted by the sound of sirens down the street, and the flashing lights of police cars a couple of blocks away. As he glanced toward the commotion, a tall figure walking in this direction stepped between buildings and was gone. He looked back at where he'd seen Mac and his girl. They were gone, too.
His attention snapped back to Shannon and Jason, who were waiting for him to catch up.
"Yeah, guys," he flashed them a grin. "Coming." He moved in their direction, but not before throwing another searching glance at the commotion down the street. Whatever was going on, he was damned sure he'd find out later. But for now, he put his game face on and strode out for dinner with his best friend and his daughter.
JJ and Jared were watching TV in the living room. Mac was on his way home from Sophie's, Jared told him. Jensen hugged his kids and told them goodnight, and went upstairs to his studio. He was too unsettled to try and do any work, but he picked up his old acoustic and played some chords, just strumming idly to try and settle his nerves. He left the door open, though, so he heard when Mac came home, and shortly afterward, when they all headed up for bed. He heard Jared's footsteps down the hall, and he wanted--and he didn't want--to confront him. His husband lounged in the open doorway, watching Jensen with the guitar. "Hey."
Jensen lifted his chin in answer, not breaking the melody he was fingering.
"So, Shannon had a really good time." Jared grinned at him.
"Yeah," he answered, and let his fingers still on the strings. "It was good to see Jason. She tell you she got up onstage?"
"Yeah, she did." Jared's grin got even wider. "She was all stoked about it."
"You and Mac and Sophie should have stopped in." It wasn't the way he'd meant to bring it up. He'd meant to ease into it, but it just blurted out on its own.
"I saw you. Mac and Sophie across the street from the club, and you following them, about a block back. Walking away from some scene with lots of flashing lights and sirens."
He watched Jared from the corner of his eye, not meeting his gaze. And he saw how his weight shifted, saw the hand come up to scratch the back of his head, saw the changing expressions cross his features as he scrambled for something to say.
"It was a rally, wasn't it? Our kid and his girl and you at a goddam anti-Repro rally." His fingers were too numb to feel the strings, and he carefully laid the guitar aside before his tight grip on the neck damaged the wood. He walked to the far end of the studio to get some distance, and turned to face his husband. "What the hell were you thinking?"
"Mac went with Sophie," Jared began. "I went--just to keep an eye on them. Just in case."
"In case? In case of what, Jared? In case Repro swept in and arrested everybody there? Because that's what they do."
"It was a peaceful gathering. There wasn't any trouble--at least not until after we'd left."
Jensen was pacing now, shaking his head, his lips in a tight line. "How could you be so stupid? How could you let our boy be that stupid? Don't you know what could happen? How could you just ignore..?" He trailed off, clearly agitated.
Jared hadn't any idea he would be so upset. "Listen, it's fine, we're fine. What are you so afraid of, Jensen? I know--"
"You don't know, Jared! You weren't there!"
Everything stopped for a moment, Jensen clearly in more distress than Jared had expected. And then he realized: this wasn't just about tonight. "Jensen, I know you had a hard time of it, I was there for some of it--"
"People disappear, Jared. People who try to fight Repro, people who disagree, they can just be wiped out, like they never even existed."
Jared huffed out an exasperated sigh. His husband was over-reacting, as he always did whenever the subject of Repro came up. "Jensen--"
"Don't. Just don't. You don't know. When--when." His voice faltered. His knees had been shaking since he'd gotten to his feet, and now they finally gave out; he sank to sit on one end of the couch. When he swallowed and continued, it was in a near-whisper, as if he couldn't, even now, speak such things aloud.
"They came for me that day. I drove home, and they were in my driveway. They shoved a letter at my dad, and two cops grabbed me, forced me into this van, and nobody would tell me what was going on. They wouldn't tell me, and they wouldn't let me say anything to my folks--I couldn't even hug my mom, Jared."
Jared stepped closer, reached out to him, but Jensen flinched away. "They took me to that building downtown. I'd never even paid attention to it enough to wonder what it was. The cops had me by each arm and they marched me along like...I was nothing, like nothing I said or did would stop them. And you know what? It was true.
"They had all the power, Jared. They still do."
Jared eased to sit beside him on the sofa, but refrained from touching him. "But you don't belong to them anymore, Jensen. They have no power over you now."
Green eyes met his, swamped with tears. The full lips were pinched, pulled tight, as if Jensen could hold back his thoughts and not let them out, even now. "You don't get it. You still don't understand."
"Then tell me. This is eating you up, man. You have to let it out. And I need to know."
Jensen shook his head, and even though he ducked to try and hide it, Jared saw him bite his lips, saw the tears spill. Jensen swiped at them angrily, took a breath, and sat a little straighter.
"They threatened my family, they've done it to lots of others before. Take my father's business and ruin his reputation, my brother's too. Put them both in prison if I didn't do as I was told, leave my mom and Josh's family with nothing, and everybody knowing they'd tried to keep me away from Repro. They'd be shunned and nobody would be willing to help them--not if it meant standing up against Repro."
The news Jared was hearing was no less chilling because of the monotone of Jensen's voice. He was reciting facts, taking a step away from the experiences he'd lived through, attempting to protect himself from the effects, even now, years later. Jared wanted to touch him, to gather him into a reassuring hug, but he restrained his impulse. After all this time together, he knew Jensen well enough to realize he needed to get as much of this out as he could. A moment's sympathy would destroy the hard-fought-for control he was managing so far, so Jared restricted himself to a soft-voiced, "I had no idea. I'm so sorry, Jensen."
Jensen nodded, but didn't look up as he continued. "They threatened to have my sister kicked out of university, give her place to someone who wasn't related to a reluctant ceiver. They told us that if I fought, or ran, tried to make it out of the country, that they would have no mercy, no compunction about destroying the lives of anyone I was close to, anyone I cared about. Anyone who cared about me."
"I wasn't the first. And I'm certain I wasn't the last. It's still going on." Jensen looked up then. "They are invincible, Jared." It was Jensen's hand that reached to clasp Jared's wrist, and the look in his eyes was something close to hero-worship. "I have never been prouder of anything in my life than I was of you when you had my status reversed. Nobody has ever petitioned Repro for anything before, that I know of, and won." The expression faded, reverting to the grim blankness of earlier. "But they don't surrender ceivers. And they won't change their tactics."
He let go of Jared's wrist and drew back into himself. "They know who we are, Jared. They know me. If we do anything--anything--to draw their attention, if Mac gets in trouble for being involved with the anti-Repro movement, we're screwed. We're all screwed." His voice faltered, and when he continued it sounded like he could barely choke out the words. "They know who we are. They'll come after us, take everything, arrest us, arrest our families..."
And Jared couldn't hold out any longer. He moved closer and wrapped Jensen up in his arms, tucking the tearful face into his chest to hide, a hand cupping the skull as his other hand stroked Jensen's back, firm, deliberate contact meant to ground and comfort. They sat like that for a while, until Jensen shifted, raised his face and sought Jared's mouth in an urgent kiss, which Jared returned with equal urgency. The fierce gentleness of the hug turned to something else, and Jensen was insatiable, demanding, hands on Jared's skin beneath his shirt, kissing Jared like he was starving and Jared was his sustenance. They stumbled down the hall, hands grasping, groping, mouths sucking and licking at whatever skin they could reach. They got the bedroom door shut before the clothes were ripped away and there was nothing but hot, smooth skin beneath their grasping hands.
Jared pushed Jensen back onto the bed and fell on top of him, scrabbling in the bedside drawer with one hand. The click of a cap was all but lost in the gasps and half-murmured words as Jared licked a burning trail down Jensen's neck, tasted each nipple before licking down to his navel. His tongue explored its shallows before, his eyes locked on Jensen's, he swallowed him down without a teasing lick or nibble. Jensen cried out, his hips bucked hard, and Jared threw a forearm across his belly to pin him while his other hand, slicked and ready, opened Jensen up: one finger, two.
"Ngah!" Jensen gasped, writhing. "Enough. Come on, come on, I'm ready!"
Jared stalked on his hands up the length of his husband's body, the eyes of both of them locked on each other, sharing the heat and the need, till Jared nudged his dick against Jensen's opening and began to push inside. Their eyes slammed shut, both of them, at the intensity of it, but they found and locked their gaze again as Jared sheathed full-length.
"Move. Dammit, move." It came out somewhere between a command and a plea, and Jared grinned and moved. Jensen's fingers clawed at his back, and he knew there would be scratches--he didn't care. He intended to earn them. He thrust hard, again, and again, shoving Jensen up the bed each time he moved. Jensen wrapped his legs around Jared's hips, but Jared leaned up and hooked them over his arms. When he slammed back in, he lifted Jensen's hips onto his thighs, and Jensen's legs slid up over Jared's shoulders.
There was no control left, no attempt to tease or torture, no drawing this out. Jared pounded away, and Jensen clung on, both of them gasping curses and endearments interchangeably, until Jared wrapped his fist around Jensen's dick, stripping it to the rhythm of his thrusts. Jensen yelled, tightening down impossibly on Jared's cock, and Jared came like a geyser seconds after.
They lay side by side, breath slowing, coming down. Into the quiet, Jensen spoke. "We can't risk it, Jared. Mac can't risk it. It has to stop."
Jared didn't answer, and Jensen rolled onto his side, facing away from Jared.
* * *
Things were strained the next morning. Jensen announced he had plans to meet Jason and work on a couple of songs, and he packed up his guitar and left the house. JJ called and said he had that project to work on after school at his classmate's house, and he'd be home later. Shannon had debate practice and would be at school for a couple of hours. She'd call if she needed a ride. Jared wasn't really expecting to hear from Mac. Unsettled because of the argument, and the sex that hadn't really resolved anything, Jared admitted he wasn't getting any work done. He stepped outside armed with a basketball, and attacked the hoop, charging and doing layup after layup from different angles. They kept bouncing off the rim, and he was getting madder, and then suddenly things clicked and he settled into the rhythm and the ball started swishing through the hoop without touching the rim. He made another goal and started forward to grab the ball on the bounce, but a blur ran in front of him and grabbed it, dodged nimbly, sank a basket, retrieved the ball and spun away--all before Jared recovered from his momentary surprise.
"Just so you know?" Mac grinned at him. swish! "You suck at stealthy."
Jared's steps faltered and stopped. "What?"
"Did you think I wouldn't notice you? Eight feet tall trying to hide in the shadows?" Mac bounced the ball half-heartedly once or twice. "You've been following me. I can keep myself out of trouble, you know." The green eyes slanting up at him from under a tousle of dark gold curls were clear and certain. "You don't have to protect me. That's why you're doing it, right?"
Jared struck quickly and slapped the ball out of Mac's hands. "Started that way," he agreed, spinning and shooting. The ball slipped through silently and he caught it on the bounce.
"And now?" Mac shadowed his steps, preventing him from getting to the basket again. A lucky slap loosened the ball and Mac turned and took his own shot. Score!
Jared stopped still, regarding his eldest child, who paused and returned his gaze openly, honestly. Mac was already Jensen's height, and he probably wasn't finished growing. He had Jensen's eyes, but the curls in the fairer hair were Jared's. Jared recognized traits and attributes both physical and in Mac's personality he had inherited from Jensen or from from Jared. But much more than a blend of both his parents, Mac was his own person, with his own thoughts and opinions. He deserved the truth. "I think…I think it's more than that now."
"...Government troops moved in on another demonstration last night, at a closed high school in the southern part of the city," the newsperson spoke over footage of a bonfire and silhouettes of a moving crowd of people, arms raised and chanting. Cries of, "Down with Repro! Save our sons! End sexual slavery!" could be heard in the background as the anchor continued. "This is the fourth such gathering this week, and city officials have been in meetings with federal representatives of the Department of Reproduction to discuss stronger measures in preventing such rallies..."
Hearing footsteps along the upstairs hall, Jared clicked off the TV. He'd been listening and half-watching from the kitchen while he finished getting dinner together. Jensen's jeans-clad legs appeared on the stairs, followed by the rest of him. He came into the kitchen to retrieve plates and cutlery from the cabinets, and Jared bent to kiss his husband's neck, just behind his left ear, the spot that made him hiss and give a ticklish jerk in response. Jensen grinned and sidestepped, hands full, and went to set the table. "Kids all home?"
"Mac's finishing up his history paper. Shannon's working on that rights debate she has coming up next week. JJ's at Glenn's. They're still working on that astronomy project."
Jensen nodded. "Do we know Glenn?"
"He's new, his family just moved here, I forget from where. We'll probably see him in the next few days."
Jensen nodded, grabbing napkins from the drawer. "What happened to Robby?"
Jared shrugged, but before he could answer, Mac came down the stairs. Jensen snagged an arm around his neck and pulled him in for a loud kiss on the cheek. "Hey, kid."
Mac rolled his eyes and made a big deal of wiping his cheek dry. "Hey, Dad." He flicked a glance at Jared. "I got time to shoot a few before dinner?"
Jared nodded. "Don't get too sweaty," he told him. As Mac slipped out the sliding doors, Jared called after him, "Nothing worse than sitting down next to a sweaty kid at the dinner table."
Mac flashed a grin over his shoulder, and shortly the ponk-ponk-ponk sound of a basketball on concrete filtered through the glass.
"...and Grant says the Department has a history of repression and secrecy, which is against people's constitutional rights," Shannon delicately dabbed sauce from her lips before she reached for her glass. "He's really kind of passionate about how wrong it is. I'm not sure how much is him, and how much he's just playing up for the sake of argument."
"And you're on the opposing side?" Jared and Jensen exchanged a shuttered glance, one that gave nothing away. "You're debating in favor of Repro?"
"Well," her head tilted and she gestured with her fork. "World population is still falling. It hasn't reached critical point yet, but any advantage humans have to slow, or even reverse population decline--well, we have to use it. We can't wait till we're in danger of extinction before we act!" Her nod was emphatic, as was her tone.
"But what about individual rights, Nonni?" Mac asked. "What do you think--aside from the debate, how do you feel about Repro?"
Her expression settled into a slight frown while she thought through her reply. "I keep going back to that old saying, 'the good of the many vs. the good of the few'. Ceivers are less than four percent of the US population, but right now, they produce almost fifteen percent of all babies born in this country, the ones that survive past a year, that is. Female fertility hasn't increased--it hasn't even stabilized," her frown deepened momentarily before she continued. "Most scientists believe it's going to continue to decline, unless there's a breakthrough in finding the cause. And then it'll be years more before they discover how to reverse it.
"The country--the world--depends on the offspring of ceivers to continue to populate the planet." She took a sip of her water, and set the glass back down. "I just don't see how one person's rights can be more important than rescuing and preserving the human race."
Mac's frown deepened. "Sis, you don't have any idea what they put those boys through."
"The ceivers, you mean?"
"Shan, they're still boys. And--" He flicked a glance at Jared, and his Papa shook his head minutely. Mac took a breath and relaxed his expression and posture from the confrontational attitude. "It's not right. They give up everything."
"But look at what they get in return!" Shannon wasn't backing off from her position. "They get taken care of. They get first priority for the best quality healthcare, and they get to have babies, and raise them to be the next generation. They don't have to compete for jobs, or worry about money, or getting into the right school, or who has the best car, the biggest house--none of that. Ceivers are the salvation of the human race, Mac. Don't you see that?"
Jared glanced over to see Jensen's eyes locked on his plate, his mouth in a straight line. He reached under the table and folded his husband's hand in his, with a steadying squeeze.
"Nonni, I think you may be simplifying things a little too much," Jared said. "Do you honestly think it's right and good to separate any segment of the population, to treat them differently, because of the way they were born?"
"But Pop," his daughter shot back, voice rising with her emotion. "They're the lucky ones! They get treated better! They don't have the same worries and hardships as the rest of us. Plus--" She stopped short, looking at each of the other faces at the table, and tears were very near the surface. "You're all guys. You just don't get it!"
She threw down her napkin and scraped back her chair. Jensen reached a hand to her, "Shannon..."
"It's okay, Dad. I'm sorry I got upset. I--I need to go work on my argument, okay? May I be excused?"
Jared glanced at his son and husband, and then nodded. "Sure, hon. If I can help, give me a holler."
Jensen and Jared were together on the couch in front of the TV when Mac brought down his finished history paper to have it looked over. Jensen left Jared reading and headed toward the kitchen. "Anybody hungry? Popcorn? Bring anybody a drink?"
Shannon came down to get a soda while he waited for the microwave to do its thing. He pulled her in and kissed the curls piled on top of her head. "You smell good. Mango shampoo?"
"Smells tasty." He pretended to gnaw on her head, and she pushed him away.
"You are so weird."
"Braaaaiiinnss," he responded, lurching toward the microwave. Careful of the steam, he ripped open the bag and dumped the contents into a bowl. "Come watch teevee with the family, little girl," he invited, and she snagged a handful of popcorn and followed him, plopping down in the recliner to eat out of her hand.
"Looks good, Mac," Jared handed the pages back to their son. "Here Jensen, read it. See if he made his points."
Jensen handed over the bowl to Jared and took the report. The TV went to commercial, and since nobody had immediate custody of the remote, they just ignored it, till the sound of a yelling crowd drew their attention.
"Police broke up another anti-government rally tonight at a closed middle school in the Preston neighborhood." Footage played of officers in riot gear advancing on a group of people seated on the ground, arms linked, singing and shouting. Jensen looked away from the screen in time to catch a glance pass between his husband and son. On the screen, cops began dragging protestors out of line and into waiting police vans, and Shannon spoke.
"Serves them right. They should arrest all of them. And prosecute. They keep getting more and more pushy with this stuff. We need to put a stop to it."
Jensen had no idea what to say. He waited, but neither Mac nor Jared said anything either. He watched both of them indirectly as he read Mac's paper, but there was no repeat of that look.
* * *
Jared looked at the address again; he was in the right place. It was a dry cleaner's in a row of small businesses on a slightly rundown street. There wasn't that defeated look of dying commerce about the place, but none of the shopfronts looked like gold mines, either. He mentally hitched up his jeans, took a breath, and opened the door. A man behind the counter looked up as Jared approached.
"Anderson," Jared said, as he'd been told. "I don't have my ticket."
The man inclined his head toward the hallway that ran down the left side of the shop, to a closed door in the back. Jared thanked him with a nod, and walked toward the door.
He found a small room, with high windows on the back wall. There was a table and a few chairs, and a handful of people drinking coffee from paper cups. Malik stood and came to Jared, clapping his shoulder before turning to address the others. "This is Tom," he announced, his hand tightening on Jared's shoulder before it lifted.
The others nodded as Malik went around the table: "Sally, Arthur, Gina, Mark, and Joe."
"Hey," Jared included them all in the greeting. He recognized Mark as the speaker at the first rally he'd followed Mac to. "Call me Charles," Malik grinned beside him, pushing him toward a chair, and Jared nodded.
"Tom, good to have you." Mark glanced at him. "Charles tells us you want to help. How's your driving?"
They gave him keys and told him where he'd find a van parked two days after the meeting. He drove two hundred miles north, Gina navigating with an unmarked map. She didn't make conversation, and Jared followed her example, only responding to her quiet directions with a, "thanks," or an, "okay." His passengers were quiet, whispering among themselves. Jared would have expected some roughhousing, some shoving and name-calling with boys their ages, but there was none of that. They looked out the windows, calling softly to each other when they sighted mountains in the distance, or a an old BigBoy figure still standing outside an abandoned restaurant, or a handful of deer moving out in the open.
It was well past dark when they arrived at the rendezvous, and there was a small car and two strangers waiting to meet them. Gina moved into the driver's seat of the van, one of the strangers got in beside her, and Jared was beckoned toward the car.
"Tom?" the man standing by the car asked.
"I'm Dave. I'll drive you home." With a glance and a farewell nod to Gina, Jared got into the uncomfortably small passenger seat of the car, and both vehicles pulled away in different directions: the car back the way Jared had come, the van on the next leg of its journey.
Dave let him out three blocks from the underground lot where he'd left his car. Jared pulled into a gas station and used the restroom to wash up a little bit and change the tee and overshirt he'd worn for a polo and a casual blazer. Eyeing himself in the mirror, he rehearsed the lie he'd told Jensen--overnight in Phoenix for an early morning meeting--and trying to believe it himself so he could sell it.
What was he doing? Jensen was the man he loved, he was closer to Jared than anyone. Jensen knew him better than he knew himself sometimes. How could he lie to this man?
The sounds of the soft boys' voices as they marveled over sights most people never even noticed echoed in his ears. Yes. He could do this. He met his own eyes in the mirror. He had to.
* * *
Jensen looked down at the woebegone face, and had to deliver unwelcome news. Again. "I'm sorry, man. JJ's not home."
Robby just stood there for a minute, and Jensen could see the tears welling. "Hey, buddy, you want to come in anyway for a few minutes? There's some peanut butter cookies that aren't going to eat themselves."
Robby perked up a little at the mention of cookies, and nodded his head. Jensen stepped aside for him to come in, closing the door behind him and leading the way to the kitchen. Robby climbed up on the stool at the breakfast bar where he'd often sat with JJ, and Jensen pulled the container of cookies from the pantry and poured a glass of milk.
"So, what's up with you guys lately?"
"I don’t know," Robby's face hadn't brightened much, even with the cookies. The eyes that looked up at Jensen would have done a basset hound proud. "He's always hanging out with Glenn."
"Tell me about this Glenn." Jensen wanted to know more. JJ had been mentioning Glenn kind of a lot, recently.
"He's new. His family moved here about a month ago. He's…"
"What, dude? Tell me. Is he a bad person? Is he mean?"
"N-no." Robby didn't sound entirely sure. "I mean, he shoves other guys around sometimes. He's loud. I think he played football at his old school."
"And he's hanging out with JJ?" That didn't sound like the kid Jensen knew. His youngest was more interested games and books and movies, and in figuring out how things worked than he was in sports. And Jensen knew JJ didn't have it in him to shove other people around. Why would he be spending time with someone like that?
"Yeah." Robby's sense of defeat was obvious.
"And you and JJ didn't have a fight, or anything?" Robby shook his head no. "Well, man, I'm sorry. I don't know what to tell you."
"'S all right," Robby told him, sliding off the stool. "I'll catch him at school tomorrow."
"You want me to tell him you came by?"
"Sure," he nodded. "And thanks for the cookies."
Jensen watched Robby let himself out, wondering what JJ was thinking. He and Robby were best friends, they had gone through a lot of experiences and changes together. They'd been close since Robby befriended the new boy trying to fit in here, after years in Irish schools. They hadn't had a falling out, so why was JJ cutting Robby out? This new kid must be something special, if JJ was neglecting his best friend to hang out with him. Jensen made a note to find out more about this Glenn.
* * *
"So, how was your run?" Malik wanted to know. He'd asked Jared to meet him at a bar, a small place tucked away in a quiet block downtown.
"It was fine." Fine, for the value of being haunted ever since, both by guilt for lying to Jensen, and by the soft voices of the boys he hoped he'd helped.
"Having second thoughts?" Malik gestured at the bartender to bring Jared a beer.
"No." It came out definite, sure. "I believe in what we're doing."
Malik peered at Jared's expression as he took a pull at his longneck. "Well, something's got you twisted up. You wanting to back out?"
Jared took another pull, and looked down at the bottle in his hands. "I hate having to lie." When Malik didn't answer, Jared went on. "My husband. He's had--dealings--" he left it at that. "with Repro. It scares him to even think about resisting them."
Malik said nothing, just nodded and took another drink of his own beer. Finally, he spoke.
"My brother and his wife, they couldn't, you know?" He glanced up to check that Jared followed his meaning. "Their ceiver gave them three beautiful boys, such smart and handsome kids. Always laughing and carrying on. The eldest, Martin, played Pop Warner football. Gifted. That boy had gifted hands. He could throw the ball and hit a dime at forty yards. Ran like a deer, too. We all expected him to play high school varsity, maybe earn a scholarship. We hoped he'd play in college, and if he wanted to, only if he wanted to, go pro when he graduated."
Jared watched the reminiscent smile play over his companion's face as he talked about his nephew, and he saw the expression bleed away and blankness replace it.
"Repro took him at twelve."
Jared didn't have to say 'I'm sorry.' None of them really did, it was an understanding in common; it was why each of them had gotten into the movement. Malik continued. "The second boy, Ronald, was a musical genius. They got him a piano when he was five, and he just inhaled everything he heard. They started him on lessons, and he mastered everything his teachers threw at him. And then he started making up his own music--every style. Jazz at first, and then a little classical." Whitfield turned toward him and Jared saw the rare flare of dimples. "Can you imagine an eleven-year-old bringing the blues? That boy had it, deep down." He didn't continue, and Jared had to ask.
Whitfield nodded. "Yep. Nearly killed my sister-in-law, and my brother both." He raised his empty so the bartender would bring him another, and when it was in his hand, he went on. "So you can imagine how close they held the third boy. Eddie wasn't especially good at anything, but he was a sweetheart, a joy to have around. Never met anybody he couldn't strike up a conversation with." Malik didn't say any more, he just turned to face Jared, and the rest of the story played out on his face. After a little while, he took another sip of beer.
"Their ceiver was so despondent he tried to commit suicide. None of them wanted it, they wanted to stay together, they were family now. But my brother didn't have the heart to try for more kids, and Repro said they couldn't keep the ceiver in that case, and they took him. I guess he's been reassigned by now."
He finished his beer and set the bottle carefully on the bar, shaking his head at the bartender's inquiring look, to refuse another.
"My brother and sister-in-law are still together, but they've sold their house and moved into a one-bedroom apartment. She works at the university library, where she never sees a kid under eighteen. And my brother works two jobs, just so he doesn't have time to think. It's not fair." He met Jared's eyes. "And it's not right. So that's why I'm here."
Jared nodded. He guessed he ought to share his own reasons for wanting to help. But it was Jensen--Jensen's story, and he didn't feel he had the right to share it without Jensen's knowledge and consent. So he gave Whitfield the truth--just not all of it.
"My older boy--his girlfriend's little brother was taken. Sam had a problem communicating when he was little, and Sophie, who’s four or five years older than he is, worked out a code system so they could talk to each other." It was Jared's turn to take a drink. "I understand the boys aren't allowed to communicate freely with their families."
"Well, Sam's been using their code, and he got messages to Sophie that he was unhappy and he wanted to come home. Sophie's parents can't do anything anyway, so they're ignoring it, and Sophie's distraught, so she turned to Mac."
Jared sighed. "My kid wants to be a hero, so he started checking around to see what he could do, and I started checking up on him. And here we are."
"So you got into it just to keep an eye on your son?" Whitfield wasn't buying it, not completely. There had to be more to the story than he was being told.
Jared nodded. "Mainly." He hesitated, and finally said, "There are other reasons, too. But that story's not mine to tell, so forgive me if I don't share it. I will, when I know it's okay."
Malik gave him a hard look, and a long one, and finally smiled a little, relaxed and let it go. "Sure. I'll be interested to hear that story, when you feel like you can tell me."
"You'll be the first," Jared assured him.
* * *
The usual muted pounding of rock music filtered from upstairs, along with the voice of his daughter challenging her brother on his music tastes. There was brisket in the slow cooker and from-scratch yeast rolls from his mom's recipe in the oven. Shannon had put the salad together before she'd gone upstairs, and the green beans were ready to steam. JJ was in, for a change, upstairs in his room, and Jensen was downtown discussing backup for a local gig with Christian and Steve. He was expected home within the hour, and dinner would be ready when he came through the door. Jared was perhaps a little overly happy to have his entire family home for a meal together, all at once. It had become a rarer and rarer occasion. He sat down to check the DVR and see what could be purged without watching, what needed to be watched and erased the soonest, how much room was left, what shows were coming up that needed space. It was often a juggling match.
The upstairs voices rose, and the music flared loud for a couple of minutes and then suddenly shut off, Mac sounded pissed--no, he sounded angry, and Shannon's voice topped his in both volume and heat.
"Guys?" Jared called out. "What's going on up there?"
There was no answer, but the voices escalated, and he could pick out individual words now: stupid, and nearsighted, and ignorant, and…. And then it degenerated into name-calling.
Jared was off the sofa and up the stairs in a flash. Mac was in the doorway of his sister's room, red-faced and yelling. "You don't give a rat's ass about anybody else! All you care about is 'the way it's supposed to be,' and everybody else can just suck it up--"
Shannon was out in the hall now, backing her brother away, arguing just as hotly. "Well, sometimes people have to step up and do things they might not want to do. It's for the good of the country, for the existence of the human race, brother! You have to think past the boundaries--"
Mac wasn't giving in. "That's bullshit and you know it. They're just kids, and they're being kidnapped--"
JJ stood in the doorway of his room, gaze following the argument back and forth between them, like a tennis match. Jared called to them, "Guys--" But each intent on their own point of view, they didn't pay him any mind.
"No, they're not!" Shannon insisted. "They're being trained. To do a job nobody else can do--"
Jared stepped a little closer. "Guys, come on--"
"They're kids! Just little kids, and they're exploited, sis, used, assigned like whores--"
"Okay, that's enough!" Jared bellowed, and Shannon and Mac both looked at him in surprise.
Mac whirled on him. "Dad, she--"
"I said enough, Mackenzie." He gave his eldest a stern, quelling look, and Mac huffed and glowered a bit, but he subsided.
"Now, if you guys want to discuss this like civilized people, we can do that at the table after dinner. Your dad can join in, if he wants. You too, JJ." He shot a look at his youngest, who shrugged, his disinterest plain.
"Missy, you wash your face and see if you can't cool down," he told his daughter.
"Don't call me that!"
He just raised his eyebrows at her, and she blew out a frustrated breath and turned to do as he'd instructed. "Mac, if my mama's yeast rolls are burnt, I'm telling your dad it's your fault."
"My--!" At Jared's stink-eye, he shut up, and started downstairs to check on the rolls. Jared pinned his youngest with a no-nonsense, "JJ, wash up. Downstairs in five."
"Hey," the boy complained. "What did I do?"
"I don't know," his Papa said in a gravely serious tone of voice. "Do you want me to find something?"
"No, Pop! I'm going!"
Chapter 3: More Than Us
MORE THAN US
Jared drove under a railroad bridge, the old two-lane narrowing as he approached the underpass. His glance was caught by a word lettered in black paint on the crumbling concrete abutment: Repro, with the second 'r' crossed out. Underneath, the words, "TAKE FREEDOM BACK" were scrawled in neon orange.
Repo, huh? A sort of grim smile crossed Jared's features and was quickly gone.
The road dead-ended in a parking lot for a warehouse complex that, if not abandoned, was definitely unused and idle at the moment. It was another random place for a meeting--it would be somewhere else next time--never the same place twice.
He'd met some of the others now, who were involved for whatever reasons of their own. Henry was their internet specialist. He worked fairly closely with Wynn, who managed websites as a career. Wynn designed webpages to grab the attention and engage the interest and sympathy of the web surfing public, and build sympathy for the cause. Henry managed schedules and routing and ISP switching to get the pages on the web, and bounced to random unpredictable locations so the ISPs couldn't be tracked.
Henry nodded at Jared and met his eye. Wynn seemed intent on the screen in front of him.
"Take a look," Wynn said, and they all crowded behind him to see his screen. It was a website, a headline across the top in bright blue, articles in columns below, a couple with line art. Ceivers: The Plain Truth" the headline read, and Jared caught a couple of column headers: "What Repro Doesn't Want You To Know," "Girl Ceivers Next?" and "What Can You Do?"
"Looks good, man," Henry said, and Malik and the others nodded and agreed.
"Okay, it's ready to go live at 7:00PM, after drive time and after supper. People should be surfing then. We give it two minutes, and Haley is ready to pick it up at 7:02 and send it out to twenty sites. We go down at 7:02.01, and with luck, they won't have time to trace the ISP. Haley shuts down at 7:04.01, and we just hope it goes viral from there," Wynn said, ticking off the steps they'd organized.
"I've got about a dozen people stationed at public computers--libraries, cafés, that sort of thing, to bounce it up and keep it going. They each have lists of sites they can boost it to before they shut down and walk away."
They knew Repro had an army of techs at least as good as Henry. But so far, nobody had been pinned as more than a consumer taking a casual look. They aimed to keep it that way.
* * *
Jared was staring down a family-pack of chicken legs and thighs, determined not to give in to just chucking them on the grill again. There was beef stew for tonight's dinner, but he was considering an experiment with marinating the chicken overnight to tenderize, and then baking--or roasting, whichever--the meat and other ingredients in the remaining marinade to make a sauce. Sort of a--cassoulet? Was that the thing he was thinking of, he wondered as he flipped the pages of the cookbook. He noticed absently when the front door opened. The kids were scattered after school: Mac at Sophie's, or on some business for Malik, JJ at his new friend Glenn's. And Shannon had called to say she was going to be late. She hadn't been going out much lately, and her girlfriends didn't seem to drop by as often as they used to. Jared wondered if she was seeing somebody--someone she hadn't gotten around to telling her parents about. Jensen was upstairs in his studio, so by process of elimination, this must be his daughter.
"Yes, Papa?" he heard her backpack drop with a heavy thud onto the sofa cushions and the jingle of her keys before she came into view. He stared, a little startled.
"Honey, what did you do to your hair?"
Her hand rose self-consciously to ruffle the curls that weren't there. "I cut it." When he didn't say anything, her chin rose, readying for defiance.
He recovered, and reached out for her. "Can I touch?" When she came close enough, he ran his palm over the too-short-to-curl hair--barely an inch long, all over. It was springy and velvety, all at once, and it covered her head like a close, glossy cap. His fingertips stroked over her exposed ears and at the nape of her neck, and he gave her his best smile. "It makes your eyes look amazing!" he told her.
"Absolutely," he told her. "Now tell me what to do with this chicken."
* * *
The TV was on, and Shannon was working on homework, not really paying attention, when Jensen came down to empty the dishwasher. He started to remind her to turn it off if she wasn't going to watch, when her posture suddenly came to attention. Some news analyst was droning on, Jensen had ignored it till his daughter's tension caught his eye.
"…And in other news, the Department of Reproduction has issued some promising news, regarding research and development into the troublesome subject of human fertility. Scientists are no closer to solving the problems causing the decline in conception and live births that have plagued humankind in the last half-century and more. But they do offer hope. Testing for fertility in females is nearing reality. The Department hopes to have a standard, reliable test available for girls within the next 12 to 24 months, similar to the test that's routinely given to boys. Identifying fertile girls will give the Department a greater opportunity to insure that more healthy children are born, and will greatly increase the chances of reversing this troubling decades-long decline in births.
"There was an accident on a highway overpass this afternoon…"
The newsperson continued to talk, but Shannon had evidently tuned him out. She clicked off the TV, and just sat for several minutes, unmoving, before she gathered her books and papers to take upstairs to her room. She noticed Jensen when she headed for the stairs.
"Hey, honey. Did you have a good day at school?"
It took a minute, but she smiled, and piled her stuff on the breakfast bar to come and give him a hug. "It was fine," she said. "How was yours? You make any music?"
"Little bit," he admitted.
"Did you make us any money?" Like either of them believed that was the main focus of his work. Still.
"Well, I got little kiddies at home, you know. They gotta eat."
They shared a chuckle, and she reached to help put dishes away.
Jensen took a good, searching look at this young person in front of him. As a little girl she'd been all about the ruffled dresses and hair bows, dozens of pairs of shoes, and enough stuffed animals that they'd needed their own bed. Moving into her teens she'd kept that interest in clothes, though it had seemed gradually to swing from the latest popular thing to a wardrobe of simple lines and rich colors that seemed uniquely hers. He realized that he hadn't seen her wear a skirt for weeks, and today she was in jeans and a button-down shirt in a soft fabric, the chocolate-bronze color obviously chosen to match her eyes. Clean, well-kept, and well-fitting, the clothes didn't disguise her shape, but neither did they deliberately show it off, vying for the attention of… well, who? Jensen thought hard, but he couldn't remember, after her giggly middle-school years, his daughter even hinting at a romantic attraction to a boy--any boy.
Or girl, he acknowledged. He watched her as she moved around the kitchen, graceful, economical, fit. With her hair so short, she'd started wearing larger, dangling earrings, silver carved or cast in unusual shapes, or set with colored glass, enamel, or semi-precious stones. She wore makeup, sometimes, but just as often, not. And despite the seeming lack of friends or romantic interest, she seemed fine, upbeat, even happy.
After observing her watch the news just now, he wondered if the report had any impact on her feelings about Repro and its policies. He wasn't sure what he wanted the answer to that question to be.
* * *
"Something's going on with her," Jensen mused, once Jared had brushed his teeth and come to bed.
"She doesn't seem to be hanging out with the same girlfriends she used to," Jared nodded, half-reclining with his back against the pillows. "At least they're never over here any more. I don't know if she's going to their houses or not."
Jensen reached for him, sliding down to lie between his legs and blowing hot damp breath on what lay beneath the flimsy fabric of his sleep pants. "It's mainly debate club taking up her time. I don't see her spending a lot of time with anybody outside of that." He nosed at the swelling flesh under the pajamas, and Jared saw the muscles of Jensen's ass flex as he rubbed himself against the mattress. "And she never talks about any of her friends any more."
Jared had been trying to pay attention to the conversation, but he'd had enough. "Okay, time to stop talking about our daughter when you're doing that."
He got a glint of green eyes and a wide grin before Jensen slipped the drawstring knot, pulled down the front of the pants, took Jared in his mouth and sucked him to full hardness in about ten seconds.
* * *
Jared had been working his way through the assignments on his desk and not taking any new ones, handing one off here and there when he knew it would be handled well by another architect at the firm. He was well aware that at some point he would have to take a leave of absence, or a sabbatical; he wasn't ready yet to resign unequivocally. But he knew he wasn't pulling his weight, and the deeper he got involved with the movement, the less time and attention he could give--or wanted to give--to his job. He was filing a building plan when Mac called.
"Hey Pop, are you real busy?"
The boy's voice sounded odd. "Mac, are you all right?"
"I'm okay, Pop. I just--have you got some time?"
"Yeah, of course."
The boy sighed. "Okay, good. Can you meet me right now? At the park? I'm at the basketball court."
Jared's concern had ratcheted up a notch or two. It wasn't like Mac to be cryptic. "What's going on, son?"
"I need you to hear something, but I don't want to do it at the house. And," the agitation in the kid's voice was apparent. "I don't think Dad's--well. You need to hear it. Can you come?"
"Sure, Mac. I'll be right there. Ten minutes, maybe."
"Okay." The relief in his son's voice made Jared hurry as he shut down his computer and scribbled a note for Jensen and the other kids. He stuck it on the fridge before he left the house.
Mac sat on the bleachers at one side of the court. As Jared approached, he held out his iPhone, and Jared took it.
"Some kid got a file out." Jared looked his question, but Mac shook his head. "I don't know how. Malik said Wynn and Henry are trying to clean it up. They want to send it to the networks--or if that won't work, leak it."
Jared continued to regard his son; he could see the boy wasn't finished talking. "I listened to it. You need to hear it."
Jared agreed, and Mac nodded. "I'm--gonna take a walk. Maybe...well. After you finish, we can talk?"
"Sure, Mac." Jared had some idea of what was on the recording, and it was evident hearing it had shaken Mac up. Talking was definitely going to happen, but Jared needed to hear, first. He put in the earbuds and pressed play.
At first there was a rustling sound he guessed was clothing, and then the sound of breathing. A young voice spoke in a near whisper, close to the microphone.
"Hey, it's me. I'm supposed to see you tomorrow, at least I hope I do, so I'm going to try and sneak this back to you then. If you knew what was going on in here-- It's…not good. I guess it's for a good cause and everything, but I hate it. I hate that it has to be me in here. I don't. I don't like it. And I don't see any way out of doing what they make us do.
"We have to do everything they say. The first thing--this is so gross to tell you, but it's gross to do, too. We have to give ourselves an enema every day. Before breakfast. 'Course after that you don't want any breakfast. Once we're cleaned out, they make us stick a plug up our butt, and we get a new one, a bigger one, every few months. I've been here...more than a year, I think, and I'm on my third one. We have to wear them all the time. It's hard to walk or sit without feeling it, all the time, especially when you get a new one--" There was a hiss and a rattle. "Someone's coming," and the sound cut off.
Jared waited, trying not to react to what he'd heard, and the sound came back with a click. "What else?" the voice on the recording asked. "We have to eat what they give us--there's no burgers and fries, no pizza. We get lots of grains and nuts and fruit, and classes on why those things are good for us, and why we have to eat to prepare our bodies for--" the voice shook and dropped a half-octave. "Babies." There was a soft gasp, and a sniff. "We, uh. We can't run around and yell, you know, how guys do when we get together? Well, some adult or one of the older guys is always around and we have to always act quiet. We don't get to play sports. We swim. And they've got us doing yoga." Jared had to grin a little at the audible sneer. "But no baseball, no basketball--not even dodgeball."
There was a space where there were no sounds but breathing, and then the voice spoke in a near-whisper. "I'm sorry if this is too gross, but." He took a deep breath, and the next sentence poured out like he had to say it or lose his nerve. "We're not allowed to, you know, touch ourselves. We have. We have classes. In how to make our pere feel good. They partner each of us off with one of the guys from the older classes, and we have to--have to. Uh, practice. On them. And we get graded on--on how we do. Once a week, some other guy does us. You know, with his hand. But we're never supposed to touch our own--" Tears were evident in his voice, now, but he sniffed them back and swallowed hard. "Everything here's gross. It's wrong. It's-- I just want to go home, and be a kid. I don't want to-- I'm scared of…of… getting fucked." The boy was gulping, could barely get the words out. "Getting...p-pregnant. I don't want this..." the voice rose on the last sentence before it broke up in tears, the words garbled. Another click signified the recording had been stopped. Jared waited, but the recording ended. There wasn't anything else to hear.
He had known. He had always known. Everybody knew. It was just the way things were. These boys had a gift, and when they were the right age they were taken away and taught how to, how to use that gift. They were special, they were different, it was a good thing, the right thing. They were the hope of the future, the ones who were holding back the looming threat of human extinction. The world owed them everything, and ceivers were revered, treasured, cherished, and cared for. Everybody knew that, accepted it.
Except the ones chosen for that exalted task. Nobody had ever given them a voice. No one had asked if they wanted this role they were thrust into. They had never had a choice--they still didn't have one. Jared heard that scared kid's voice, and in it he heard his own kids', had their tests turned out differently. He heard all the boys abruptly snatched out of their lives, away from their families and all they'd known, and he couldn't accept anymore that this was the right thing to do. He didn't know how humanity was to hold off extinction--but if forcing a segment of its young into slavery generation after generation, if accepting that as the right thing and a good thing, maybe it was time for humans to die out. Jared was sickened and disgusted by his species.
Jared looked up at his elder son, tall and strong against the setting sun, and pulled the buds from his ears, coiled the wires around the iPhone, and felt for the first time the wetness on his cheeks. He wiped the tears away as he handed the phone back to Mac.
"We have to work a lot harder at this. We have to make things change, for Sam, for all those kids."
"Yeah, Mac. I think we do."
Mac sat down beside him, and Jared had to fight down the impulse to hug him. He knew Mac wouldn't appreciate it, he was trying hard to be strong and sure, a man of principle. No matter how much Jared saw a little boy in danger of being taken away by an implacable government, Jared had to let him be that man.
"It's why you took us to Ireland, isn't it? You were afraid JJ and I would be taken if we stayed here."
After a moment, Jared nodded. "Ireland has a much more relaxed policy toward ceivers. Your dad and I--and your grandparents--wanted you to have choices, if either of you tested positive."
Mac nodded. "Well, thanks for that." He stood, jammed his fists in his pockets. "But most people don't have that option."
"I know, Mac."
"Dad's a ceiver, isn't he?"
Like a punch to the gut, that question knocked all the air out of Jared's lungs. He gaped and tried to formulate a response, while his son continued.
"That's why he's so scared of Repro, so scared to do anything to make them mad. I'm right, aren't I?"
Jared was able to meet his eyes, but he wouldn't answer the question.
"Mackie, that's something you're going to have to ask your dad. I won't answer for him."
Mac held his pop's gaze for another beat, then nodded. "Okay. Can we go home? I know he doesn't want to hear this stuff, but, Pop, he can't just keep ignoring what we're doing. He has to know."
"He's not going to be okay with it," Jared warned.
"Yeah. I figured."
Jared sent Mac to his room. He wanted to be alone with Jensen for this. Both the other kids were at friends' houses for the evening, so there would be no interruptions. Mac's iPhone in hand, he knocked on the door of Jensen's studio. "'s open," Jensen called, and Jared turned the knob and went in.
Jensen didn't want to listen. Jared held out the iPhone, and Jensen made no move to take it. "That's Mac's phone, isn't it?"
"Yes. There's a file on it--"
"I don't want to know, Jared."
"I told you, I don't want him involved in anything to do with...anything." He flapped his hand as though shooing the thought away, unable to even say the word.
"Jensen, just listen."
"You're in it now, too, aren't you? You're not just keeping an eye on him, you're in it yourself." The tone was accusatory, and so was the look leveled at him from under those drawn-together brows. "You just couldn't listen to me."
"Are you listening to me?"
That was a direct hit. Jensen regarded him searchingly, and finally reached out and took the iPhone. Jared didn't hand over the earbuds; there had been enough silence and secrecy between them already. He wanted to watch his husband's reactions while the audio file played.
Jensen shot a look up at him as he realized what was on the file. As the kid's voice went on, he brought a hand up to his brow, shielding his expression. By the end of the recording, that hand was wrapped across the lower half of his face, as though to repress any sound he might make. His face crumpled, tears fell, and he'd drawn in on himself, as though he was trying to make himself small.
Jared let the silence linger a moment before he said, "You never told me. I didn't know."
Slowly, like an old man, or as if sore from a day's physical labor, Jensen moved. He uncurled from the hunched, cramped posture and swiped at the wetness on his face as he stood and crossed the room, away from Jared, to the desk. Pulling a handful of tissues from the box, he blew his nose and wiped his face before he spoke. "It was only two weeks. I didn't have it that rough."
The roughness of his voice and the expression on his face gave his words the lie, but Jared let it go with a nod. "Still. I'd just never thought of what it was like--for them. For you." Jensen said nothing, so Jared took a seat on the sofa and continued. "We all grew up knowing--we were taught--that ceivers were special, had a special gift, a quality, an ability that made them different, and…special. There were reasons for all the culture that surrounds them: for them keeping separate from society, for the clothes, for the rules." Jensen was at least looking at him now. "But they never really told us where ceivers came from. That they were just ordinary kids, with plans and dreams, and families who loved them and wanted things for them."
Jared kneaded the bridge of his nose with thumb and forefinger to ease the headache building there. "They never told us those boys were essentially kidnapped and imprisoned and...indoctrinated, trained," he almost spat the word. "To be good little broodmares--"
One of the words Jensen had used to describe himself, all those years ago, and his place in Jared's home and Jared's life.
"I'm so sorry, Jensen. I--"
"Man, stop." Jared didn't come closer, but Jensen's eyes were meeting his now. "None of us knew. I didn't know. Jared, this has been going on for sixty years. Longer, really, since the scientists and statisticians figured out the population was declining, and would likely continue to fall, since the first man wound up in a doctor's office wondering why he was having weird symptoms. And when they figured out how to screen for whatever signs a ceiver gives off at puberty? The Department of Reproduction went into high gear. The program was set up as the salvation of humankind."
He paused, pulling a couple of water bottles out of the mini fridge and tossing one to Jared. At his husband's quirked eyebrow he admitted, "Yeah, I've done some research. When it came to our boys, I needed to know more than I did when it was me." He twisted the top off his bottle and took a long drink. "You know, when we were growing up, most of our friends had a pair of regular parents: moms, dads, one of each." Jared nodded agreement. "It was just never part of our lives--not mine, anyway--that there was this whole class of people we never saw or really heard about. There's never any news about ceivers themselves. No pictures, no interviews, no quotes. It's sort of like they exist in a different world."
Jared thought about it before he nodded again. He took a swallow of water and Jensen continued.
"Repro mounted a huge scare campaign about the extinction of humans about seventy years ago, and a propaganda campaign right behind it to promote ceivers as the saviors of the human race. 'Your sons will be the founders of tomorrow' kind of thing. You know," he added wryly. "One way or the other."
"Being a ceiver was promoted as an honor, a special--god, if I never hear that word again in relation to ceivers or Repro!" It sounded like cursing.
Jared just waited, while Jensen shifted his weight, recrossed his ankles, drew a deliberate deep breath, and continued more calmly. "Ceivers were supposed to be a special class of people. Families were encouraged and expected to shove their sons into screenings hoping they'd be chosen. I guess in some cases having a ceiver son was a good thing--the families got compensation. If you were poor, life was better for you, and you knew your kid would be fed and have medical care and be taken care of. You knew you'd have grandkids someday--and that was important, still is, to a lot of people." He leaned against the desk, legs crossed at the ankles, as he took another drink of water. "But once you were chosen, you disappeared. You ceased to be a person--you became this mythic savior figure, elevated above the rest of society. It was a wonderful, special thing that only a few could do, to be a ceiver."
"But nobody asked the boys," Jared said softly.
Jensen nodded. "Nobody asked the boys. But you know what? I'll bet most of them bought the whole 'savior of humankind' thing. Most of them were glad to be heroes. A lot of them fell right into line with the training and the classes. They probably didn't even mind the training too much, once they got into the sex part of things, boys being the horny little beasts they are. Directing the sex urges was probably cake for Repro, and by the time training was over, they had kids eager to be paired up and knocked up and taken care of for life."
Jared stared at him. "But not all of them."
"No. Not all." Jensen's gaze dropped, and fell on the iPhone. "Not all," he repeated.
"It's too much to ask of kids that don't want to be there." Jared's voice was quiet, undemanding. "It breaks my heart, Jensen. We have to do something."
Jensen didn't answer, but Jared could see the tension ramping up, see his husband swallow, press his lips tight in a line, hear how his breathing quickened, shortened.
Jensen shook his head. "You don't know them, Jared. They'll put us in jail. They'll put Mac in jail. They'll take Shannon and JJ away--I don't even know if they'll let them stay with their grandparents, they may go after my dad, your dad."
"Jensen, you're overreacting."
"Am I? No, I'm not. Do you remember the Adamses? One block over?"
Jared had never met the family, but he remembered hearing them mentioned. "Yeah?"
"They tried to keep their son out of the program, have him declared medically unfit; Repro took him anyway. The dad's in prison now. He took all the blame himself for trying to keep Repro from taking the boy so his wife could stay free. She and the two little girls left town with the clothes on their backs. Repro repossessed their cars, foreclosed on their mortgage, took everything. They moved in with an aunt of the dad's, because the mom's family was afraid to take them in. Ms. Adams was a medical research assistant at Trinan; she's working on an assembly line now at a factory to help pay the bills. She was lucky to get that job, because when the diner where she'd gotten work as a waitress found out who she was, they fired her."
Jared shook his head in sympathy and unwilling belief.
"She's homeschooling the girls because they got teased and bullied in school. Jared, Repro doesn't fool around. I understand how you and Mac feel--I feel the same way, man. But look, Repro knows who I am, who you are. I'm the one that got out, and you did that. We're on their radar already. It's just too dangerous for you--either of you--to keep doing what you've been doing." He crossed to the sofa and sat close beside his husband. "Promise me you'll get out of it. Get Mac out. And stay out of it."
Jared didn't answer for a minute, then he said, "Mac knows."
Jensen's brow furrowed, puzzled. "Knows what?"
"That you were a ceiver. I think he's pretty sure you're his birth parent, for Shannon and JJ, too."
The subject had never come up, the kids hadn't ever asked; Jensen had just always been "Daddy" from the first few months he'd been in their lives. And without questions from them, neither Jared nor Jensen had felt any need to explain. "How?" Jensen asked.
"I don't know," Jared told him. "He just figured it out, I expect."
"He just--came out and asked you about it?" When Jared nodded, he asked, "What did you tell him?"
"I didn't say anything. I didn't confirm it. I told him to ask you."
Jensen sighed. "I guess I need to talk to him. Maybe if he knows what I went through, it'll scare him off of going up against Repro."
Jared nodded. "Yeah, maybe." But he didn't sound very convinced.
Mac had come home after school to drop off his backpack and change clothes. Jensen hardly ever caught him at home anymore, so he took the chance while he had it. "Mackie, come help me box up some stuff in the studio."
Mac seemed reluctant. "Dad, I've got somewhere I need to be--"
"Call and say you'll be late. This won't take long."
The boy hesitated, but finally shrugged and followed his dad up the stairs.
Once there, Jensen pointed to a stack of flat boxes and threw Mac a roll of packing tape. "Put a couple of those together," he instructed. "We shouldn't need more than that."
While Mac got to work on the boxes, Jensen pulled file folders from a stack he'd organized over the last couple of days: music he had worked on years ago. He had digital copies of all of it, but the paper copies meant something to him, too. He wasn't ready to turn loose of them. Yet. So, he was storing them in the garage for now, to see if he could get used to not having them overflowing his file drawers.
"Your pop said you had some things you wanted to ask me about," Jensen took the first box, glanced with approval at how well the seams were lined up and taped down. Mac flickered a glance up at him and away as he worked on the second box.
"You know you can ask me anything, right?"
Mac nodded, finishing taping the second box. Jensen pointed at a row of stacked folders on the console table, indicating Mac should pack them into his box. He began filling the box, and after a minute, answered. "Yeah. Well, okay. It's just--"
He stopped, and didn't seem to have the words he needed to ask what he wanted. Jensen helped him out. "This have to do with that sound file your pop played for me? The one from the ceiver boy?"
"You listened to that?"
Jensen nodded, and waited.
"Dad, you were a ceiver, weren't you? And you're not just my stepdad, me and Shannon and Jadge. You're our birth-parent." He managed to meet Jensen's eyes, and waited.
Jensen set down the files in his hands and crossed to where his son stood. He took the files out of Mac's hands, and hugged him tight, then sat them both down on the sofa. "Yes, Mackie, you're right. I was a ceiver. Does it make a difference with us? Do you think of me different, knowing that I was?"
"No." He shook his head quickly, then, "I mean--you're Dad. You've always been Dad, you know? Especially for the littler ones."
"Yeah, I do know. And that's one reason it never seemed necessary to bring it up. If any of you had wanted to know, if it had seemed important to any of you, if you'd been curious, we would have told you."
"So, how come you're not a ceiver now?"
Oh. This was a question he hadn't expected, and he wasn't prepared for it. "I, uh. I had an accident. I wasn't…useful, anymore, and when your pop asked Repro to reverse my status, they didn't have a problem with it." Jensen quickly decided this wasn't the right time to tell Mac about the little brother he'd never had the chance to know. There was enough for him to absorb as it was.
He needed to put a little distance between them; he got up and resumed packing files into the box. "You know I…didn't have the same experience other ceivers have, don't you?"
Mac just looked puzzled. "No?"
"Oh. Well." He put down the files and leaned a hip against the desk. "I was sick when I was twelve, and missed my screening. My status wasn't discovered until I was twenty-four. I was going on tour with Chris, Steve, and Jason in Europe. I hadn't been out of the country before, and the physical for the passport caught me."
"But--you were a grown man. How could they--?"
"Well, that was what my family and I thought. Our lawyer quickly found out, though, that my age was irrelevant as long as I was fit to serve, so I was taken into Repro's custody, given two weeks of prep, and assigned to your pop."
"Oh my god. You must have been…"
"It was rough for a while," Jensen agreed. "But Mackie, you know your papa, nobody can help loving him, and I did too. I fell right flat in love with him, whether I wanted to or not. So, you know, that made things a little easier."
Mac didn't say anything, and Jensen glanced over to see him wearing an expression of regret and horror. "You…you must have been so freaked out."
"Yeah, I was." Jensen wouldn't lie to the boy.
"I mean, it's awful enough when you're twelve, and, like that kid on the sound file, just taken away from home and your family, and started in training."
"Yeah," Jensen agreed. "That's pretty rough on those kids."
Mac glanced at him, and then away. "But at least they have time to get used to everything. They know what's going to happen, and they--well, they train for it. How to do it, what to expect."
Jensen said nothing while Mac thought his way through what he was feeling.
"You--you really had no idea?" Jensen shook his head, and Mac went on. "I can't even imagine. I mean, I thought about it, before my screening, tried to imagine what it would be like. But you'd already passed the age. You had--college, and dating, and, oh my god, you were going on tour--you were playing with the band. Oh, crap, Dad. You must have been--"
"Mackie, stop it. That's enough." Jensen wasn't at all comfortable at the line his son was taking. He was, truth be told, afraid there would be a change in the way Mac saw him, now that he knew. He interrupted the boy's thoughts. "Yeah, it was rough. But I adapted. And as you see, I'm here and I'm fine, so there's no point in going over this."
Mac looked at him, but didn't reply, obviously waiting for Jensen to go on. "I had some difficulty adjusting, but that's all in the past. I'm okay. I've been okay for a long time, you understand?"
"Yeah, I think I do. And I guess it doesn't really matter now. I just--I'm sorry."
"Mackie? What are you sorry for?"
"A-after…listening to that kid. I--" He took a deep breath and seemed to square his shoulders. He couldn't quite look at Jensen. "You must have hated us."
Jensen was across the room in seconds, pulling Mac to his feet and engulfing him in a tight hug. "Never," he promised. "I never hated you, not one of you, not ever."
Mac searched his expression before he allowed his head to fall, hiding the tears Jensen had seen about to spill. He patted him roughly on the shoulder and backed away to give him some space.
"I was confused, and angry--at Repro, for changing my life without warning or taking my wishes into account. For turning everything upside down." He continued to talk, giving Mac the time to regain control and resume his seat. "I was confused and scared and, yeah, really really angry. But you know what helped more than anything?"
Mac shook his head.
"Your papa." There was no way Mac could doubt the smile that hovered around his dad's lips as he remembered Jared in the early days. "He made things as easy for me as he could. He treated me like a person, rather than a servant, or…something less than a servant.
"There were times when he just went along with the party line that made things even tougher for me, just assuming that was how it was supposed to be, you know? But when I objected, he listened, and we tried to fix it, as much as we could." Jensen cleared his throat. "He believed we could make something good together, and he made me believe it too.
"I wasn't at all prepared when I got pregnant, and yeah, I freaked out pretty bad. The only way I could deal with it was to not think about it, to distance myself from the whole thing."
He peered at his son, willing him to understand. "It probably wasn't the best way to handle it, but it was the only way I could do it and get through."
He took a deep breath. This confession was the hardest. "And when you were born, I backed off. It had nothing to do with you, Mackie, please understand that. But I hadn't been asked; I hadn't chosen to become a parent. It had…been done to me, and I'd had no way to stop it. I was so lost. So yeah, I resented the idea of parenting a child."
He took the steps needed to get close to his son, took Mac's face between his hands and tilted it up to meet his eyes. "It had nothing to do with you." He kissed the top of his kid's head, and crouched down so he was at eye level. "Can you believe me?"
Mac's eyes were closed tight, fighting against the tears that were leaking out, anyway. After a minute or two, he opened them and looked straight into his dad's eyes, both so alike, and nodded. "Yeah. I get it. I'd probably feel the same way."
"I always knew where you were," Jensen told him. "I knew your papa doted on you and loved you--each of you--to distraction. I knew your grandparents and aunts and uncles loved you dearly and spoiled you rotten. I knew Cecile and Leslie were loving and smart, and really good with you. I always knew you were okay. I just. I just couldn't…."
Mac reached up and squeezed Jensen's wrist. "No Dad, it's okay. I get it, I do. But, what changed your mind?"
Jensen stood, knees creaking a little, and went to get a couple of water bottles from the fridge. He tossed one to Mac and opened the second himself, taking a long drink before he spoke again. "After--the accident, and your pop getting my status reversed, I started easing back into things: driving, eating out, going to the office downtown to work. I started to feel like me again. I'd realized a long time back that I loved your pop. Suddenly I had all these possibilities open to me."
He cocked an eyebrow at Mac. "I was straight, before. You know? Your pop kind of changed my perspective on that." He grinned. "But I wasn't restricted to him, any more. I was free. And I suddenly realized, it didn't matter. I loved Jared, and I couldn't think of the future without him. So I asked him to marry me."
"Really? You asked him? He must have been thrilled, after all you guys had been through."
Jensen leveled a look at him. "He turned me down."
"Yeah. He reminded me that he had kids. He was 'a package deal,' he said. And he couldn't marry me unless I was ready to take on his kids, too. He loved me, and he wanted us to be together. But it was time for all of us to be together. So I said I'd try." He took another drink. "Mackie, do you remember the first time we met?"
A little frown furrowed the young brow. "Here in the studio?"
Jensen nodded. "Right there in the doorway. That door had been closed your whole life. That afternoon I opened it, and let you in." He watched his son absorb everything he'd heard today. "I've never had a moment's regret. Not one. I love you guys. You're my kids. I'm your dad. And your pop saw to it that we are a family."
He picked up a handful of files and started to pack the box. "There are times when I'm sorry I wasn’t there for your first tooth, your first step--for all of you."
Mac had started packing the box he had, too. "No, Dad. I get it. It's okay."
Jensen smiled a little at a burden lifted, at the gift of forgiveness he hadn't known he'd wanted. "I'm here now," he promised. "You know I'd do anything, for any of you."
"Yeah, Dad. I know." He swiped at the remnants of tears with the heel of his palm and sniffed hard before chucking a stack of files none too carefully into the box, aiming an exaggeratedly put-upon sigh at his dad. "Have you got any other revelations for me today, or can we get this done so I can go meet Sophie?"
He didn't resist when Jensen reeled him in with an arm around his neck and kissed the top of his head. "Brat."
* * *
"Tom," Jervis met Jared's eyes across the table. The planning meeting had adjourned, but Jervis had asked Jared to stay behind. "There's a man who's interested in donating to the cause. He's not sure, though, he wants to have some say in how his money will be used."
Jared wasn't sure where this was going. "Is that something we can promise? That whatever he gives will be spent the way he says? Do we have categories like that? I thought it was all just a single fund."
"Well, it has been, but I have some ideas on how we can modify the way we do things, and I'm pretty sure we can promise not to spend this man's money in ways that go against his wishes."
"Okay. But that's good then, isn't it?" Jared waited for Jervis to continue, unsure why he'd been called out by name.
Jervis met his gaze straight on. "Well, part of his deal is, he wants to talk to you."
"Wh--Me?" startled, Jared couldn't think how anybody could know he was a part of the movement. He'd been careful, he thought.
"He didn't give a name, but he described you pretty well--enough that anybody would recognize you."
Thinking furiously, Jared almost missed the rest of what Jervis had to say. "He wants to meet us, you and me, tomorrow afternoon. What do you say?"
He thought a moment. "Are you sure he's sympathetic? I mean, how did he find you?" Jared stepped back and took a breath. "Excuse me, I'm a little unsettled by the fact that someone knows me well enough to describe me, and knows I'm a part of this."
"Understandable," Jervis nodded. "He says he won't meet with anybody else, but I don't want to put you in a situation where you don't want to be." He let that set a minute before he continued. "Do you want me to cancel the meeting?"
Jared shook his head, slowly. "No, I'll come. That money will do a lot of good. I can at least manage to meet him."
Jervis smiled. "Good man."
Jared tried not to think about it, tried not to get nervous, but the fact was, he wasn't good at negotiating about money, and he had little faith he was the person this potential benefactor should be talking to. And then there were his concerns about when and where the man had seen him, and how he'd been identified with the anti-Repro movement. It was enough to keep him on edge until time for the appointment.
Jervis was where they'd arranged to meet, and they walked half a block to a discreet restaurant with a decent reputation for its food. The interior was dim, but the back wall of glass looked out into a sliver of walled garden, bright in the sun, where water flashed and sparkled over rocks in a decorative fountain.
He followed Jervis to a table by the window, and the man waiting there shook Jervis' hand. Jared accepted a handshake numbly, and watched both men for cues.
"Have a seat, Tom," the potential donor invited. "Jervis is going to take a walk for about a half hour, before he joins us for a late lunch."
"Of course, sir," Jervis smiled. He nodded at Jared, and walked away. Jared stared at the man he'd come to meet.
"Hello, son," Gerry said.
"Dad? What the hell are you doing here?"
His father raised a hand and beckoned to a waiter. "Coffee, please?" He glanced at Jared. "What'll you have?"
Jared shook his head, annoyed at the delay. "Nothing, thanks."
The waiter nodded and went away. "Aren't you supposed to be off caffeine, for your heart?"
"Don’t tell your mother," Gerry grinned conspiratorially. "I don't have it often," he was quick to forestall the argument Jared drew breath for. "Special occasion. Allow me the pleasure."
Recognizing the stalling tactic, Jared got down to the subject at hand. "Dad, what are you doing here?" The waiter brought his cup, and Gerry added sugar and milk before taking a sip, and then sat back in his seat.
"I've been thinking for a while," he told his son. "I pay attention, you know, to the news, to what goes on. I've been hearing things that make me uncomfortable with the way things are."
Jared regarded him noncommittally.
"Have you seen the graffiti?" he asked. "Repo. That's pretty clever, I thought. 'Take freedom back.' Perhaps it's time we did that." He paused, letting that thought rest between them while he sipped his coffee.
Gerald Padalecki had the ear of a number of politicians, from civic to federal levels: old school ties, business associations, political and personal favors, children having attended the same schools--whatever the ties were, they existed, and Gerry was ready to approach each one to talk to them about the movement. To plant the seeds of dissent, or nurture ones that had already taken root. Any help these people could bring to bear against the Department would help, and Jared's dad was ready to undertake that campaign. Jervis joined them, and the discussion gained some focus.
The Padaleckis were not among the wealthiest families, nor did they move in those elevated circles. But there were plenty of bankers and CEOs and company officers Gerry knew well from the golf club whose pockets were certainly deep enough to help the movement. Gerry offered to approach them. If Jervis could provide names of relatives Repro had claimed as ceivers, perhaps Gerry could find sympathetic individuals among them. And there were friends of his he was certain he could motivate to help, in similar outreach, while being careful and circumspect enough to avoid legal implication and formal charges.
They sat for another hour, Gerry continuing to call him Tom, Jared referring to his dad as "Sir," before they had the groundwork laid for a plan of action. Jared was caught between admiration for his dad's spirit and worry for his welfare--legally, and health-wise. But Gerry looked energized and pleased, and Jared was incredibly proud of him. Jared couldn't say anything anyway, without revealing their relationship, so he let it go, for now.
* * *
JJ was on his way out, over to Glenn's to work on their science project, and he'd been asked to stay for dinner, afterward. As he headed toward the door, the bell rang. He opened it, to find Robby on the mat. "Hi, JJ!"
Jensen watched as his youngest tried to be casual. "Hey, Robby."
"I just wondered if maybe you wanted to hang out? Play some X-Box, or something?"
JJ hadn't stood aside to let Robby in, and now he shook his head. "Sorry, man," he told the boy who had been his best friend for years. "I've got to meet somebody. Gotta go." He pushed out of the door and pulled it shut behind him. Jensen crossed the foyer to watch through the sidelight as JJ walked away, leaving Robby standing.
"Maybe later, huh?" Robby called after him. "Sometime soon?"
"Yeah," JJ threw up a hand, but didn't turn around as he hurried off. "Maybe."
Robby stood for another minute, and finally walked back down the driveway. Jensen felt sorry for him. He'd always been a good friend to JJ, they'd been through a lot together. Maybe it was time to have a talk with JJ about how you treated the people who cared about you.
* * *
Sophie carried a stack of flyers and a roll of tape, and Mac had the staple gun. It was late, after ten, but they had a nine-block square to cover, and they'd only gotten seven done so far. Mac stapled a flyer to a telephone pole; the stuccoed surface of the high wall surrounding a house and yard a few feet further on would require tape.
Something scraped and shuffled out of sight around the next corner, and the kids heard muffled voices. Mac snatched the flyers out of Sophie's arms and tucked them into the deep shadow of a jog in the wall, throwing the stapler and tape onto the stack to weight them. Sophie grabbed his hand and they ran quickly back down the street the way they had come, toward the light that would outline them unmistakably. He took her face between his hands and kissed her deeply. She melted against him, murmuring, "Make it good," against his lips as the owners of the voices rounded the corner and spotted them.
"Hey! You there!" Feet pounded in their direction, not quite running as the young pair continued to kiss. They broke apart just before the man's hand landed on Mac's shoulder, separating the couple completely. Mac grabbed Sophie's hand and turned to face the uniformed cops, one young and blond, the other familiar, though he showed no recognition at this moment.
Mac angled himself between the officers and Sophie, wiping his sleeve across his mouth. "Officers?" he inquired, dividing his attention between the two of them.
Blondie spoke first. "What are you guys doing out so late?" he demanded.
Sophie tucked her body up against Mac, huddling as if for protection, and he resisted the urge to pull her under his arm, just held her by the hand. "I'm, uh," Mac stammered a little, surprised and a little nervous. "Just taking my girl home," he offered. Sophie blinked up at the uniforms, but said nothing. Her big eyes shone in the lamplight, the image of aroused and rosy innocence, as she clutched tightly to her boyfriend's hand.
The second officer was idly searching back along the sidewalk, and Mac knew it wasn't by chance when he discovered the stack of flyers and the staple gun and tape. "Here now, what's this?" he demanded, scooping it all up and bringing it into the light. "This have anything to do with you two?"
Sophie started to pull back, to cringe away, but Mac quickly put a steadying arm around her shoulders as he leaned forward to peer curiously at what Malik held. "What is that?" he asked, a hand going out to pull a flyer from the stack. Blondie pushed in a little closer, watching the youngsters as Mac read the flyer, holding it so Sophie could read it too. She lifted her gaze to Malik, a picture of puzzlement and, then to Mac. Malik said nothing, leaving it to Mac to play his part.
Mac shook his head, and replaced the flyer on top of the stack. "I've never heard any of that before. That's…not legal, is it? What are those doing here?"
Malik snorted derisively. "Yeah. Like you don't know."
Blondie briefly scanned over the flyers with an expression of disgust, then gave the young couple a hard, assessing look. "I don't see anybody else around but you guys."
"Yeah." Malik shifted his weight from foot to foot. "Did you guys see anybody else out here?"
Mac peered down at Sophie, who gazed back and shook her head before dropping her gaze. He met the officers' eyes with an apologetic smile. "No, I'm sorry. We didn't see anybody."
"I guess you weren't exactly paying attention, huh?" There was a definite leer in Blondie's tone, and Malik called him on it.
"What? It's just a couple of kids looking for someplace to be alone. The guy's obviously split by now." He blew out a sigh of disgust. "You two get home. It's too late to be out…doing what you were doing. And you obviously don't have sense enough to be alert."
Malik shifted again, pushing. "Man, you sure? You don't think…?"
Jake shook his head. "Nah. We'll haul in that trash." He inclined his head toward the armful of flyers and tools. "You guys get on home."
Mac exchanged a blank look of non-acknowledgement with Malik, and he and Sophie started to walk away.
"And no more necking under streetlights!" Jake called after them.
"Whew!" Sophie started, but Mac shushed her. Better to put a block or two between them and Jake before they said anything.
Chapter 4: More Than Us
MORE THAN US
Jervis was over the moon about the meeting with Padalecki. He and Mark and Malik met to discuss the focus of the emerging public face of the movement, which was very scary to think about.
They had all been used to taking such precautions to keep their identities and their activities secret, to strike quick and disappear even more quickly in dealing with the public and with the authorities. To be able to even contemplate putting a public face on the movement was exciting, exhilarating, and full of pitfalls and dangers. What they were doing, what they were encouraging others to do, was still illegal, and still punishable by very tough penalties. Just because the movement was beginning to find public support didn't mean stepping forward and speaking out was without the real risk of consequences. Whatever could be proved against them faced full retaliation by the Department, and they and their efforts would be closely watched, thoroughly scrutinized and examined by the agencies that the Department controlled.
Still, Jared admitted, the strides they had made and the ones they were making were promising, and things looked positive for the future.
He couldn't help wondering though, how his dad had known he was involved. He asked him to lunch at the house and Jared built them sandwiches, which they ate in the shade on the patio by the pool.
"I've been keeping an ear to the ground for a while," Gerry answered his question. “It's been a slow process, I guess, probably slower than I'm proud to admit."
"But I'm proud of you." Jared was quick to insist. "So many just--don't think about it at all. It's just a fact of life, why bother about it?"
"It started with Jensen. We didn't even think about it at the time, but looking back now, he was so devastated when he first came to you. His parents could barely speak to us, and we just…were so happy about everything. I remember thinking how sour and unpleasant they were, and how sullen he seemed. It just didn’t make any sense to us, then."
Jared nodded. He had his own memories of that time.
"And the 'appearances', when he was pregnant the first time?" Gerry shook his head and sipped at his iced tea. "I thought he was aloof and hateful, because he kept himself apart, he wouldn't come and talk to us, he wasn't excited and happy, like we were. I look back now and see how truly desperately unhappy he was, and what a tight grip he was keeping on his emotions. As time has gone on, I've been terribly sorry for being so caught up in my own expectations and not even acknowledging what he was going through."
Jared nodded. "He's forgiven us, though. All of us. Even me." He met his dad's eyes. "You know he loves you, right? He's never held a grudge."
"It was a fine thing you did, getting his status reversed."
"It went a long way to make things right between us." Jared paused, and then admitted something he had never told anyone. "I've been ashamed that I waited. That I didn't have the courage to petition for his citizenship before the accident."
Gerry eyed him sharply. "You know that would never have been granted."
"I know. But it cost Repro nothing to release a ceiver who was barren. It's an almost futile gesture. I should have been braver."
"Son," his father's hand came down on his arm, tightening briefly. "It wouldn't have mattered. Not as long as he was fertile. And the fact is, you did step up and petition for his release. If you hadn't, he would still be living as a ceiver, even though he really isn't one any longer." He took another sip of tea and set down his glass. "I've wondered, is Jensen involved in this?"
"No, Dad. And he's so paranoid about Mac and me--" His father reacted, as he'd expected, and Jared explained. "Mac’s girlfriend's little brother is a ceiver, and she got him involved. I got into it just to keep an eye on him."
"How deep is he in?"
"As deep as I'll let him be, maybe deeper."
"Well, we'll pack him off to school in the fall--" he stopped, Jared's expression clue enough.
"He has to go to school, Jared."
"And he will. Just--maybe not next year. I hope he'll have his involvement and make the difference he wants to make, get some of this…crusader impulse out of his system, and be ready to go to school year after next. That's the plan."
His father looked dubious.
"Better this way than if we pack him off to school and he cuts all his classes and gets involved with the movement there, where I can't keep an eye on him and help keep him safe."
Reluctantly, Gerry nodded. "You have a point. How does Jensen feel about that?"
Jared refused to meet his dad's eyes. "He doesn't know. Yet. Honestly, Dad, after what he went through with Repro, he's so scared for any of us to go up against them. He's convinced they're going to find out and arrest us, and put us all in prison--even you and mom, and his parents. He believes Repro will take everything we have and put Shannon and JJ in foster care. He's terrified whenever the subject comes up. He won't listen when we try to talk to him. He's stopped begging us to get out of it, but he hasn't given up.
"And I have no idea how he's going to take it when he finds out Mac's not heading for college in the fall. Frankly, I'm not really sure how I feel about it. I mean, obviously I understand his reasons, but I want my kid to go to college. And I don't want him in harm's way."
Gerry shook his head. He had no good advice to offer.
"So, you got into this because of Jensen?" Jared got back to his original question.
"Initially," his father agreed. "And then a couple of men I work with have ceiver sons. One of them had a really difficult time with it. I kept discovering people who've been affected by the program, and the balance kept tipping toward the loss and sadness side, rather than to the side of joy." He sipped his iced tea and took the final bite of his pastrami on rye. "I started investigating this resistance movement, this underground, and discovered it was a lot more organized and far-reaching than I had thought. There was more to it than graffiti and flyers and speakers at rallies in parking garages and empty lots."
Jared sipped his own tea and nodded.
"I started hearing names: Jervis was the first, and the one I hear most. Names of the others aren't as well known."
"He is sort of the figurehead--the rally point for us," Jared admitted. "Though he does much more than a figurehead usually does."
"And then there was this tall guy, this man that few people could really describe, or tell me what he did, except he seemed to always be there when people needed something. Support, secretly driving runaways or rescues safely out of town. Lending a voice at planning meetings, doing what he could."
Jared ducked his head--he'd had no idea anybody had noticed him or what he tried to do for the movement. He was surprised.
"The 'tall' caught my attention," his dad said, dryly. "Since that was about the only description anybody had of any of the people involved." He moved his glass in little circles, playing with the condensation rings on the table's surface. "I have noticed your unexplained absences and being late for get-togethers. And I checked with your firm--discreetly," he assured Jared as his son reacted with quickly concealed alarm. "It appears you've all but taken a sabbatical," he went on. "It's been weeks since you sought new work, though you've been turning in projects that are finished, and finalizing details. One might think you were preparing to resign."
Gerry stopped and waited, and Jared let the pause linger a bit.
"I've thought about it," Jared said quietly. "We have enough to live on comfortably. See the kids through school, more than pay the bills."
He sighed, shifted in his chair, kicking his feet out in front of him and crossing his ankles. "What am I working for, you know? I don't get the same thrill out of seeing my plans realized in stone and glass that I used to. And…with the movement, I feel like I'm accomplishing something. Making a difference." He raised his glass and took another long swallow. "And it's something I believe in, so the work feels like…"
"A worthy crusade," his father said, raising his glass in salute.
Jared snorted in response. "Nothing that noble."
They sat in companionable silence for a while longer, and then Gerry got up to go.
Jared rose too; they walked through the house, to the front door. His dad slung an arm around his shoulders and pulled him close. "You keep me in the loop. I need to know what the both of you are up to."
"I will, Dad. Give Mom my love." He watched his father drive away, grateful for a source of support he hadn't counted on, and that he hadn't known or admitted, even to himself, that he needed.
* * *
JJ brought his new friend home from school, finally, and introduced him to Jensen. Glenn was a big kid, for his age, far closer to manhood at fifteen than JJ was. He was tall, broad-shouldered, wore his blond hair long--almost to his shoulders, and his jeans tight. They outlined muscles Jensen knew the boy had worked for, and as Jensen followed along when JJ took Glenn out to show him the gym, he saw Glenn's eyes light up when he saw the setup.
"Wow, this is great, Mr. A!" His grin was wide and white, and his blue eyes sparkled. Jensen thought they were just a little close together, but he supposed he was judging harshly. "Is it okay if JJ and I use the equipment sometime?"
"Sure," Jensen answered. "It looks like you know your way around a weight set. How much do you bench?"
Glenn launched into a detailed account of his workout regimen and the equipment he had—hand-me-downs from his brother, who had married, moved out, and was now working in another state. "But this stuff is way better than mine."
"Well, you're welcome to use it. There are a few rules, JJ can tell you," Jensen smiled and moved toward the door. "There are suits back in the shower room if you want to use the pool." He checked with his son. "JJ, you guys going to want snacks or drinks or something?"
"I can come get it, Dad. Thanks!"
The boys wound up in the pool after all, and after a shower, came into the house for snacks. They cued up a game on the TV, and were battling fiercely, talking trash and shouldering each other where they sat side-by-side on the couch. Jensen was only listening with half an ear as he put together the grocery list.
"Get me some food, bitch!" Glenn shoved JJ pretty hard, but JJ just giggled and laid his control aside, got up and headed for the kitchen.
"What do you want? We've got fruit, and there's hummus and chips, and--"
"Naw, not that girly stuff. How about nachos, you got nachos? Bring me some nachos. And soda!"
JJ came into the kitchen and started putting things together. Jensen lent a hand, saying nothing, as JJ smiled and went about assembling everything. He realized he couldn't carry it all, but rather than call Glenn to come help, he made three trips.
"Hey, where's the napkins? You forgot the napkins, dork!" Glenn scolded, and JJ ran back to the kitchen for a handful of paper napkins.
Jensen made himself keep quiet. Glenn was not his child; it wasn't his place to teach the boy manners. But it was his child Glenn was bossing around, and Jensen didn't like either his attitude or his tone of voice. Jensen regarded his youngest. JJ didn't seem to have a problem with it. In fact, he looked at Glenn with something close to hero worship.
* * *
"Honey, can we talk for a minute?" he had a mug in each hand, and raised one toward her, setting it down on the dining table when she nodded.
She looked startled, and a little apprehensive, but she came to the table and took a seat, reaching for her hot chocolate. "Sure, Dad. What's up?"
He sipped his chocolate, stalling while he tried to figure out how to ease into the subject. Finally, there was no way but to come out and ask. "Shannon, your Pop and I have noticed that you…don't seem to have friends over anymore the way you used to. Is something wrong? Something going on at school--?"
She shook her head, and didn't seem upset when she answered. "No, nothing like that."
"Did you have a fight with Polly? Or--"
"No, Dad. It's not like that." She took another sip of her chocolate, and he refrained from asking more. "I just--" Her eyes flicked up at his, and back down to the surface of her cup. "We just don't seem to have the same interests any more."
He waited, but when she didn't elaborate, he pushed a little. "Interests, like…"
She sighed, and he grinned when he saw her roll her eyes. "Boys," she said. "That's all they talk about, or think about--who they like, who they think likes them, all the time. It's--it gets boring ."
"Boys… are boring?"
"Well, they're not interesting to me. At least, not the same way as they are to Leila and Polly." She took a series of sips, blowing across the hot surface between each one. "I mean, Grant on the debate squad is okay. I spend a lot of time with him, and with Anna and Jack. We talk about stuff, you know? What's going on in the world, the state of the economy. Jack's dad is a stockbroker, so he has lots of ideas and opinions about what the country should be doing, versus what the government is doing."
Jensen hid his smile. "And what's the general opinion on that?"
"Dad." She shot him a grin under her brows, and then shrugged. "It changes. And a lot of the time Jack's full of shit--sorry." He let the language slide without comment. "But some of the time he makes sense. And he does make us think, with his crazy theories."
Jensen nodded and waited for her to go on.
"Anna has this way of looking at things, you know? She's so smart she makes the rest of us look like remedial class. But she also has this oblique way of seeing the truth of things, and then she's able to show you where the bullshit is in a lot of it--like advertising, or the music everybody's listening to this week, or that stupid Revolution movie that's breaking box office records right now."
"Is she pretty?" Jensen thought he was being subtle, but she took the question at face value.
"Oh, she's a knockout--red hair, big brown eyes, a gorgeous figure. She's got the male half and part of the female half of the school drooling over her behind her back." Shannon giggled. "She knows it, though. She thinks it's funny."
"And are you drooling over her?"
She gave him a blank look that faded to one he couldn't quite define. "Dad."
"What? Honey, it's perfectly okay if you like another girl--"
"No, Dad, it's not like that…" At his quirked eyebrow she went on, tentatively. "We…may have fooled around a little. Some." She flicked a glance at him, but he said nothing, just waited for her to go on, if she wanted. "But, no," she said, with a ring of finality. "No drooling. I mean, I like looking at her, but--no."
"So, no girls, either?"
She set her mug down and sat back in her chair, crossing her arms defensively. "I guess I'm really weird, huh?"
He stood, pulling her to her feet, and wrapped her tight in a hug. "You are not weird. You are my beautiful, intelligent, independent, awesome daughter." He drew back, catching the sparkle of tears, and wiped them away with the ball of a careful thumb. "And you are whatever you want to be." He hugged her again, and when she pulled away he let her go.
"Your Papa and I just worry about you. We want you to be happy."
"I am happy, Daddy." She turned those eyes on him, the same expression that reduced him to instant agreement when wielded by her Pop. He had even less defense against it with her. "I don't know yet what I do want, or will want, eventually. But right now? I'm good."
"You know you can talk to us. Me, or Pop, or both of us?"
"Always, Dad. I love you." She hugged him, quick and hard, and backed off, picking up both mugs and taking them to the sink.
"Love you too, baby girl." It was a promise.
* * *
Mac's high school graduation was almost an afterthought. He had asked, as a present, to have dinner the evening before the ceremony at a nice restaurant with his parents, Shannon and JJ, both sets of grandparents and the assorted aunts and uncles who were able to attend. Using the old "break bad news in public so they can't make a fuss" strategy, he informed everyone that he was taking a year off before heading to college.
"But what are you planning to do, Mac?" His granddad wanted to know. "Are you going to travel? See the world?" Nana started making a verbal list of relatives and acquaintances she could alert to house and feed him while he was in their city, and show him around.
He thanked her with a smile before declining the assistance. "My plans aren't firm just yet," he said. "I just feel that a year without classes before I tackle college will be good for me."
He had, actually, brought it up with Jensen the day before. His dad knew he was taking the time to work for the underground, and he begged Mac not to ruin his life, not to run the risk of getting arrested, or worse. He thought his dad was irrational about it, but he held firm, even in the face of such pleading and fear for him. Jensen had no choice but to accept it. At dinner, Jensen had nothing supportive to say, even when his parents asked if he had known about Mac's decision. But at least he didn't say anything negative.
They were all present the next afternoon to see him get his diploma and throw his cap in the air. He grinned and posed for pictures with friends he'd drifted out of touch with, suddenly reunited in the spirit of a milestone passed and shared history. But despite the smiles and hugs and mugging for photos, he doubted he'd see many of these people again, certainly not in any close or frequent way. He left with Sophie before the parties started. There were some supplies that needed to be inventoried, and he wanted to check in with Henry and Wynn, to see how the latest internet campaign had gone. Graduation parties seemed so…so high school, by comparison.
"Mac." They were snuggled on the couch not really watching the movie on TV. Sophie had been quiet all evening. He knew she was working up to something and he had a good idea what it was. "I-- I'm going to school in the fall."
He nodded. "I figured that was what's been bothering you," he said. "When did you decide?"
"I guess it's been coming for a while. Even though I went through all the motions--applications, touring, the whole thing--I didn't think I really planned to go. I was just going to stay here and work for the movement, with you." She glanced at him, hoping he would understand, but unable to meet his gaze for more than seconds at a time.
"So what happened?" He kept his voice soft, trying not to sound accusatory; he didn’t really want to be.
She shook her head. "I just--I think I need to get on with my life. I'm supposed to go to college and study and find out stuff, and learn who I am, you know? What I want to do with my life."
"And what about Sam?" he asked quietly.
"Mac, whatever we do, we're not going to get Sam out." She met his gaze then, candidly, chin firm.
"You don't think so?"
She shook her head. "Sam's already gone. I hardly hear from him any more, and when I do, he seems…fine. Changed. Almost…happy." She shrugged. "I'm tired of fighting for something that's lost already." Her expression pleaded with him to understand, for him to tell her it was all right. "I have to let go. I have to live my life, and try to find my own happiness. Is that so wrong?"
He folded his arms around her and tucked her head on his chest, beneath his chin. "Of course it isn't wrong. You deserve to be happy. You fought for him, as long as he wanted you to. I guess it's time for you to let go, now."
She snuggled in, and nodded, her face tucked against his shirt. "And what about you? Don't you get to stop fighting, too? You can still go to school--find out what's out there after high school, other than guerilla graffiti and rabble-rousing."
She felt his smile, and the little huff of a laugh. "Not this year," he answered. "Next year, probably. Without school I'll have more time to do different things, work harder, stay with a job from start to finish instead of helping around the edges on weekends and after school."
She lifted her head enough to be able to meet his eyes. "You won't take stupid risks? You'll be careful, all the time?" When he didn't answer right away, she tugged gently at his shirt. "Promise me. Promise me you won't be reckless and get yourself arrested, or worse."
He lifted her face to his and kissed her, taking his time, giving her whatever reassurance she could read from it, and tasting the bittersweet promise of goodbye..
"Sick kid," Jensen said, sliding onto the bed behind JJ, pulling the boy to lie on his side, resting back a little against Jensen's chest. His free hand stroked over the forehead, no warmer than it should be, and up into the soft hair, petting and soothing. "Poor sick kid."
"Yeah," JJ nodded a little, leaning a little heavier on his dad.
"How long has this been going on?" Jensen wanted to know.
"It started about two weeks ago." JJ reached for the ginger ale and sipped a bit before he set the can back down.
"It was just--I just felt bad when I got up. It mostly went away during the day. I figured it was something bad I'd eaten, and I'd get over it."
Jensen smoothed the hair back, and JJ flopped his head on Jensen's shoulder, enjoying being coddled, a little. "But you didn't, huh?"
The head rolled back and forth on his shoulder. "It got worse."
"It got worse. But you didn't tell anybody, did you?"
"I had exams, Dad. And I thought it would get better. I just--"
"Tough guy. You were a real tough guy."
Big sigh, and another sip of soda. "Not so much, I guess, huh?"
"And now? Is it still bad?"
A nod, and a very tired, "Everything I try to eat just comes right back up."
"Any fever?" He felt the forehead again, and laid the back of his fingers against the boy's neck. His skin was warm, but only normally so.
"Anything else bothering you? You got the runs?"
"Ew. And no."
"Well, that's good, yeah?"
"Then I guess I'd better get you an appointment with Dr. Moss. What do you think?"
He squirmed a little bit, and his voice was plaintive. "Do I have to?"
"You want to get better?"
"Okay, I'll make the call in the morning, see if he can work you in."
Big sigh. "'Kay." His voice broke a little, and when Jensen swept a palm over his face, he felt the wetness of tears.
"JJ? Does it hurt that bad?"
"No," the word came out on a little sob. "It's not that."
"Then what, kiddo?" This was killing him, Jensen couldn't stand to see his boy hurting. "What is it?"
JJ sniffled a little, and breathed out so quietly Jensen almost didn't hear. "Glenn."
"Glenn? What about him? Did he do something? Did he hurt you?"
"No!" He could feel the boy stiffen in protest. "I wanted to!"
There was a long moment, a very long moment when Jensen didn't breathe, and JJ seemed to be holding very still. "Dad? He. We. But then--since I've been sick, he said. He--" A deeper sob, and a mournful, "He said he didn't want to catch the death flu from me!" The last syllable came out on a wail, and the boy rolled away from Jensen to bury his face in his pillow and sob heartbrokenly.
And numbly, Jensen rubbed the shaking back soothingly while his mind tried to find another interpretation for what he had just heard. He was sure there had to be some other explanation. Something, surely. It wasn't what he was thinking, it wasn't. There was no way. It couldn't be.
"Jadge." Jensen’s hand kept up the soothing backrub while he struggled to keep his voice level. "JJ, come on, man. Look at me. Dude, whatever it is, we can talk about it, right? We'll figure it out, but you've got to tell me all of it. You've got to come clean with me."
Reluctantly, JJ straightened, swiped the tears from his face and grabbed a fistful of tissues from the box on the nightstand. He honked into them three or four times, and tossed the wad into the trashcan. He sipped his soda and set it back down, and finally turned to face his dad.
"Did you have sex with Glenn?" Jensen asked, outwardly calm though his heart was in his throat. JJ nodded, unable to meet his eyes. "Jadge, did he fuck you?" That got a wide-eyed glance before JJ quickly looked away again, and another nod. Jensen reached out and put a hand on the boy's shoulder to still the trembling that had begun. "Did you want to? Or did he make you?"
"No!" The denial was swift, even though he still couldn't meet Jensen's eyes. The next bit came out on a whisper. "I wanted him to."
The trembling had stopped, and Jensen nodded. "How long have you been having sex?"
"A-a few weeks," he managed to get out.
"A month?" When there was no response, he pressed. "Two?"
JJ nodded his head. "About th-that long."
"And you haven't been together since you got sick?" JJ shook his head no. "So, about two weeks?"
"Yeah. He d-didn't w-want…" The words dissolved into heartbroken sobs again, and Jensen just pulled him in and let him cry, stroking his hair and his back, murmuring comforting sounds till he finally quieted, snuffling against Jensen's shirt.
"Dude. I am so never going to wear this shirt again," Jensen told him, still holding him close.
"It'll wash," the boy said, face still smushed into the fabric.
There's my boy, he thought. That's better. "Yeah, I guess you're right." He waited until the tension had all left JJ's body, then eased him down on the bed. "You think you can sleep now?" JJ nodded. "Yeah? You want me to stay?"
"Till I fall asleep?" His voice was quiet, but a lot less troubled than it had been earlier.
"Sure. You got it." Jensen turned off all the lights but the one on the desk, and rolled the desk chair over beside the bed. Almost before he sat down, JJ's breathing evened out and he was asleep. Jensen sat for another ten minutes before he got up, replaced the desk chair, turned off the desk lamp, and left the room, pulling the door almost closed as he left.
He checked his pockets: car keys in the right-hand, cell phone in the left, wallet in the left hip. Good to go. He stopped in the kitchen and left a note on the fridge not to disturb JJ and let him sleep, that Jensen would be back in a half-hour.
The note was still there when he got back. Neither Jared nor the older kids had gotten home yet. He threw the note away, and carried the bag from the drugstore upstairs to JJ's room. He stood looking down at his sleeping child, waiting for the courage to take the next necessary step. Finally, he leaned down and shook JJ gently by the shoulder.
"Hey, sick kid. I need you to get up for a few minutes."
JJ hadn't been asleep long enough to sink deep yet; he was fairly easy to rouse. Jensen led him into the bathroom and took the boxes out of the bag, opening the first one. He took out the contents, and read the enclosed instructions aloud before handing JJ the piece of plastic. The kid's eyes were round with disbelief, and he shook his head in confusion. "We just need to be sure, bud. Do what I said."
And Jensen left him alone to get on with it. He left the door open, though, so he could hear the stream hitting the water in the bowl. There was a flush, and the water ran in the basin, briefly. JJ came out, unable to look his dad in the face. "Have a seat on the bed," Jensen told him. "It'll be a few minutes."
There was no mistake. Jensen had read the indicators for himself years ago, all four times, he knew what the double blue line meant. JJ was shaking and incoherent and heading toward either hysterics or a panic attack, and Jensen wrapped him up in his arms and rocked him like a very small child and promised he'd keep him safe, that his family loved him, they'd take care of him, and he was not to worry about this. When he had calmed down, Jensen put him to bed and sat until he was finally asleep. JJ's phone was on the dresser and Jensen hesitated less than a moment before tucking it into his own pocket. Then he went down to the garage and hunted around till he found the old baby monitor, put new batteries in it and set the transmitter up in JJ's room, taking the receiver with him, putting it on the coffee table. He woke up his laptop and hit a couple of websites, and then he turned on the TV for something mindless to do until Jared and the other kids got home.
It was almost a two-hour wait, and it was Shannon who got home first. She said goodnight, and went up to bed. He reminded her that JJ was sick, and asked her to try not to wake him. Jared eventually arrived, and told him Mac had gone home with someone from the rally they had attended. Jared was on a high with the success of the latest campaign, and full of the possibilities of the plans they were making. Jensen tried to wait him out, letting him run down and shed some of the excess energy. But, excited and happy, Jared just kept talking. "Jensen, I know how you feel about all this, but we're doing some good! We're actually making headway, Repro is actually starting to get pressure on some things. I honestly don't think--"
"Jared, sit down and listen to me." Jensen hated to use that tone. If he'd had the time to devote to it, he might share Jared's happiness. As it was, he sort of hated to deflate that exuberance, but reality had to be dealt with.
"Jensen--is something wrong?"
He took a deep breath. He'd tried to rehearse in his head what he was going to say, the words he would use to tell Jared. But now the moment was here, he just had to get it out. "I don't have time to sugarcoat this, Jared. You just have to listen to me for a minute." He had Jared's attention now, and pressed forward without taking time for preparation or soft-pedaling. "JJ's pregnant."
"What?" Jared's expression was blank, uncomprehending, as if his husband had spoken in a foreign language.
"Trust me, he's tested positive three times."
"But--how? Who? How did--he's not."
"Apparently he is. He was a late-bloomer; we all knew that. Somehow he slipped through the screening without being identified. But he and his jerk of a boyfriend have been…together, for a while now. You know JJ's been kinda off, lately. Sick and throwing up and stuff. I just--I pinned him down and asked some questions, and then I got a few tests and…they're all positive. He's pregnant."
Jared looked as dumbfounded as Jensen had felt when he first found out. "That's--um."
Jensen nodded. "About the size of it. Look." He grabbed Jared's hand, in solidarity, and also to focus Jared's attention on him. "I booked two tickets to Ireland for early tomorrow afternoon."
"Jared. He can't even see a doctor. We have no way of knowing if he's okay, if everything's all right. I take him to a doctor here, the doctor has to report it, and Repro swoops in and takes custody of him, and the baby."
"No!" Jared reacted instantly. "That's not--no. We can't let that happen."
"Right. So JJ and I are going on a visit to relatives in Ireland. I just want to get him safely out of the country, as fast as possible. Get him examined, make sure he's okay, that everything's fine with the pregnancy. Then we can figure out the next step, right?"
"I need to be there, too. He's my baby boy."
"Well, sure. But I figured you and the kids can get yourselves organized in the next few days and fly over for a vacation. Maybe our parents and the rest of the family too, in stages, maybe, and if they want to."
Jared was nodding, seeing the sense of the plan.
"But the urgent thing is getting him out of the country and getting him looked at by a doctor--getting him under a doctor's care."
"Absolutely," Jared agreed. "Where is he?"
"He's upstairs, sleeping, I hope. He's been so upset, afraid to talk to anybody about how he's been feeling physically, and feeling guilty for being in a sexual relationship, because he was afraid we wouldn't approve."
"Well, I guess it's a little late to say I disapprove." Jared reached out and pulled Jensen in for a hug. "How does he feel about it, now that he knows?"
Jensen smiled up at his husband. "Honestly? He's scared. But also a little excited, now he knows we're not going to throw him under the bus and let Repro have him."
"He didn't think--?"
"I don't know what he thought, Jared. Just that he was alone and didn't know what was happening to him, and he wasn't sure who he could ask about it, ask for help."
"God, the poor little guy. Wait--the boyfriend, Glenn. It is Glenn, right? Does he know?"
He could feel Jensen flinch, and then draw away, slowly, almost reluctantly. "I don't think he has any idea."
Jared just nodded, lost for a moment in thought before he spoke. "We can't tell him. My first instinct is to kill him, but then we'd have to explain why, and-- We just can't tell him."
Jensen met his eyes, unsmiling. "I agree. JJ's upset about it. He says it's Glenn's baby too, that he has a right to know. But you know what will happen if we tell Glenn and his folks."
Jared suspected he knew very well.
"Besides, Glenn seems to have disappeared lately, since JJ's been too sick to hang out like usual."
"I know Glenn's just a kid himself, but I--" Jared ran a hand through his hair. "I backed off and let JJ pick his own friends, tried to trust his judgment and keep my opinions to myself." He slanted a look at Jensen. "But honestly? I never liked the kid. There's just something…off, about him."
Jensen nodded. "Kinda skeevy."
Jared snorted a half-laugh.
"What? The kids don't say skeevy anymore? Perfectly good word." Jensen pulled JJ's phone from his pocket and held it out to Jared. "Take it. I didn't want him calling Glenn before--well, at all." He stood and took a couple of aimless steps, not really having a direction or an action in mind, just unable to sit still.
Jared took the phone, checked it was on mute, and slipped it into his own pocket. "You think he'll want it later?"
"Honestly? I think you should keep it here. If he has it, he's going to call this Glenn. He thinks they're in love." Jensen shot a look at Jared, skeptical but weary. "I'm not saying one or both of them isn't in love. But Jesus, they're young. What are they going to feel in five years? Ten? Plus, aside from that, I'm just terrified that if Glenn finds out, he'll tell somebody, word will get to Repro, and somehow they'll extradite JJ, even if we do get him to Ireland." Jensen rolled his shoulders and stretched his neck. The tension was taking a toll. "If the phone is on him, could they track him by GPS? How does that work, exactly?"
Jared stood and clamped down on his husband's shoulders, gripping and massaging at the knots in the muscle he could feel there
"Mmm," Jensen's head sagged forward as the massage took effect. "Should I be looking for a country that doesn't extradite? I don't know. I can't think--" he hissed as Jared hit a tender spot. Taking note, Jared worked the ball of his thumb into the spot until he could feel it soften, and Jensen flexed the muscle under Jared's hand. Jensen sighed. "And I can't stop thinking. The wheels won't stop spinning."
Jared wrapped his arms around his husband and pulled him close, Jensen's back against his chest. He put his mouth next to Jensen's ear and said, "You've done a lot of thinking tonight. Time to let it go till morning."
Jensen pushed against his hold. "But--"
Jared tightened his hug. "Enough. Come to bed. Bring the monitor thing, so we can hear if he gets sick, or gets up and starts looking for a phone." When Jensen stood immobile, evidently unpersuaded, Jared said, "I don't know when I'm going to see you again, man. Come to bed."
At that, Jensen relaxed into Jared's embrace, and nodded. "Yeah. Okay."
Jensen thought about lighting some candles, putting on some music, making this a night for them both to remember. But he could do that without the props. He took control of the kiss, and laid Jared back on their bed, slowly stripping both of them of their clothes. Jared tried to help, but Jensen kissed him deeper and rumbled into his ear, "Let me."
Naked, both of them, he made love to Jared, kissing, nibbling, caressing, until Jared was impatient, grabbing and rubbing against him. Jensen took his hands, crossed them at the wrist and pressed them to the bed above Jared's head. "No touching," he growled. Jared shuddered in reaction, and whined in protest, but Jensen bit down on a nipple and Jared arched off the mattress, seeking more contact. Jensen laid his full weight along Jared's body, and used every part of it to rub and grind and arouse. Both of them were gasping, hot breath and wet kisses, and Jensen slid low enough to kiss and bite down Jared's neck to his collarbones, then spent minutes paying his nipples due attention.
"--Jensen!" Jared curled up, seeking Jensen's mouth, and Jensen evaded him using a hand on his chest to push him flat.
"Stay," he commanded, before licking along Jared's stomach, outlining each cut of his abs with his tongue. Jared's hips bucked up off the mattress, and Jensen rolled them enough to bare one buttock, which he smacked, hard, with the flat of his hand. "Still!" he insisted, but he couldn't hide the smile in his voice.
"Mean!" Jared complained on a gasp, and Jensen went lower, licking over the cut of his hip, perfect now as it was the first time he'd done this, and into his navel. Before Jared could writhe and complain much more, Jensen opened his mouth and swallowed him whole, right to the base, and Jared yelled and went tense as a bowstring, to keep from shoving up into Jensen's mouth and choking him dead.
Jensen slid off, an inch at a time, till he held the glans on the tip of his tongue, grinning as he moved just enough to rub at the frenum.
"God. Jensen, I swear--" The rest of the words were lost as Jensen slid down again, and back up, his tongue pressing hard against the underside, his teeth scraping lightly, just enough to drive Jared crazy. Jared looked down, and the evil green eyes looking back at him were suddenly soft and brimming with love, and Jared was right on the edge. Jensen pulled off, wrapped his hand around the base of Jared's cock to help hold off his orgasm.
His fingers, already slicked, rubbed at Jared's opening: one, two. Jared lifted his hands and grasped Jensen's shoulders, pulling at him, come here, come closer. Jensen's cock replaced his fingers, and he slid in, slowly, excruciatingly slowly, and once fully sheathed, he moved back and forth in tiny, tiny increments.
"Killing me!" Jared moaned.
"Yeah? Sound pretty alive to me," Jensen teased, and then slammed in hard. He grinned, showing all his teeth, as Jared yelled again, and then settled down to ride him hard, one hand sliding on Jared's cock along with his thrusts.
Jared came. An avalanche fell on him, and he came, and then he died. Jensen chuckled, stroked once, twice, three times, stilled, and shuddered, and lay heavy on top of the body, until Jared moaned a complaint.
Jensen kissed his chin. "You're a big boy," he told him. "You can take it."
"Nuh," Jared rolled his head from side to side and wiggled under Jensen's weight.
"Killed me dead. Geddoff." When Jensen started to slide to the side, Jared caught him in both arms. "Do I need to tell you I love you?"
"Mmm," Jensen nosed behind his ear. "That's nice to know, Grampa. That's gonna keep me warm till I see you again." And then he got up, got a warm washcloth, and cleaned them both up before they settled in to sleep in each other's arms.
* * *
Jensen tapped lightly at Shannon's door. "Nonni?"
Bedclothes rustled, and after a minute, "Yeah? Wha's going on?"
"Can I come in?"
"Sure, Dad," she said on a yawn. She was sitting up, stretching, when he went and sat on the side of her bed.
"Sweetheart, we've got a little problem, and I need to ask your help."
"There's just no way to tell you this but to come out and say it, and I need you to keep a handle on your reaction, okay?"
She nodded, solemn now, eyes wide with concern.
"Your brother's gotten himself in a little fix--"
"Oh my god, did Mac get arrested? The stupid--"
Jensen put a hand on her knee to quiet her. "It's not Mac, honey, it's JJ. He's pregnant."
"I know, it's a surprise to all of us," he told her, and she nodded, wide-eyed. "Here's the thing. He can't see a doctor here, or--"
"Repro…" She was already onboard.
"They'll take him," Jensen agreed.
But she was already thinking ahead. "They'll take the baby." Her expression was grim. "It's that boyfriend of his--Glenn, right? Does he know?"
"Not yet. And he can't know. Not ever, you know that, right?"
Shocked, she looked back at him, and then things fell into place, unavoidable consequences, and she nodded. He didn't let her worry long.
"I've got tickets for a flight this afternoon, I'm taking him to Ireland--"
She nodded, and threw back the covers, scrambled out of bed and went to her closet. "Book another ticket," she told him. "I'm coming too."
"Daddy, you know how he gets. You can't keep an eye on him every minute. He'll get to a phone--"
"Papa has his phone," Jensen assured her.
"Public phone," she snapped, and he had to admit he hadn't thought of that, while she was pulling out her backpack and opening dresser drawers. "They still have them in the airport. He'll call Glenn, and word will eventually get to Repro. Even if you get him out, they can extradite him. Two of us can watch him better than one, and he may be less upset if I'm along, too."
Jensen had to concede on a couple of her points. Still--
"Ticket, Dad! Get me on the same flight!" The bag was nearly packed, she found the pair of shoes she'd been pawing around on the floor for, and threw them into the bag. She started the shower. "I'll watch him as soon as I'm dressed. Call the airline now!"
He looked at the closed door she'd disappeared behind, feeling a bit steamrollered, but also like he had a partner in this unexpected venture. He checked the hall, but JJ's door was as he had left it last night. He stood where he could see if his youngest emerged, pulled out his own phone and redialed the airline.
It took some fancy footwork, and an extortionate amount of cash, but he not only booked Shannon a seat, but got them all in the same row. Not many folks flying to Ireland on a weekday afternoon, apparently. He left her to watch JJ's door while he went to let Jared know two of his kids were going to Ireland.
"She's so sharp," Jensen told him, raiding the cupboards for a sleeve of saltines. "She was on it in an instant."
"Well, she's right," Jared pulled him in for a hug, chest snugged up against Jensen's back, swaying slightly in place. He was going to miss this. Miss Jensen. Miss being able to touch him, talk to him, hear and see and smell him. He tucked his nose into Jensen's neck and inhaled. He wanted to save this moment. "He'll be a lot easier to keep calm and distracted with her than without her."
Jensen nodded. "I wonder what this does to her opinions about Repro, though. She--she's worried about them taking the baby, as well as JJ."
"I don't know, but I'm proud of her right now."
They decided to let JJ sleep a little longer--the less time he had to think and worry before they got him safely out of the country, the better. Jensen headed back upstairs with the crackers, to send Shannon down for breakfast.
In the end, it went relatively well. Jared drove them to the airport, left the truck in short-term parking and waited with them until they went through security. JJ mentioned, a couple of times, calling Glenn, but they managed to distract him. Shannon chattered at him about their old place in Ireland, whether their friends from the village would be there, and would they be glad to see them.
"How long are we going to stay, Dad?" he wanted to know.
He and Jared had decided to wait until he was safely on Irish soil to tell their youngest that he wouldn't be coming home. They couldn't help a quick conspiratorial glance between them, but Shannon covered. "Well, a few days, anyway. We'll want to visit, spend some time with friends. Do you remember…?" And she was away with memories of escapades and friends they'd shared them with.
It was time to go, and Jared grabbed his daughter, wrapping her in a fierce, tight hug. "So proud of you, Nonni," he whispered.
Her fingers clutched in his shirt and she muttered, on the edge of tears, "Love you, Papa. See you soon!" before she let go and gave place to JJ.
"Okay, runt. You stay out of trouble, okay? Don't make your sister crazy and run your Dad ragged. I'll miss you."
JJ clutched at him, reluctant to turn loose, but Jared hugged him hard and set him back, smiling into the face that was fighting back tears. "I love you, Pop."
"Love you too, Jadge."
The kids walked toward the scanners. Worried, Jensen had done some quick online research last night. The scanners weren't detailed enough to detect an early pregnancy, and the radiation of one scan was negligible. Shannon pulled off her shoes and set her backpack in the tray, and JJ followed suit.
Jensen hugged Jared hard. "Stay safe. Tell Mac we love him."
"You too," Jared hugged back. "I will. You call when you get there."
Jensen nodded. "We'll see you both next week?"
"As soon as we can," Jared agreed. It was hard to let go, but Jared watched as Jensen went through the scanner without a hitch, and met the kids on the other side. They waved, and he waved back, and watched until they were out of sight.
Chapter 5: More Than Us - Epilogue
MORE THAN US
chapters 9-10, epilogue
Jensen was up early the next morning. Jet lag wasn't fun, but there were things that had to happen, so he forged through it. He contacted the local solicitor the family had worked with before about their dual citizenship. The man had a few moments he could spare, so Jensen went to his office, briefly discussed JJ's situation, and the solicitor agreed it would be best to file JJ's Irish citizenship quickly, voluntarily relinquishing his US citizenship at the same time. Jensen called his dad's cousin Mairead, who lived in a town to the south. She was happy to hear from him, and wasn't fazed at all by his inviting himself for a visit just before lunch.
The family had gotten to know her, and she them, when they had lived here. She was a very pretty woman, about his mother's age or a little younger, and she welcomed him with a hug and insisted he stay for lunch. He was frank with her, presenting JJ's situation, and the fact that having a resident citizen of Ireland as his legal guardian would smooth possible bumps in JJ's path. She thought about it over tuna sandwiches and tea, and gave her agreement, along with the chocolate biscuits for dessert. Jensen told her the solicitor would soon have papers for her to sign, and left her with a promise he and his children would bring them by themselves and have a visit.
He drove the rental car back to their little hotel to find both his kids just finishing lunch in the dining room. Shannon rolled her eyes, as the first words out of JJ's mouth were, "Dad! I need to call Glenn!" Apparently this wasn't the first time she'd heard those words today.
Jensen managed to both stall and soothe JJ, recommending he wait until he had seen a doctor and they were sure he was pregnant, how far along, and had a better idea of how they should proceed from there. JJ wasn't happy with that plan, but lunch began to disagree with him, so Jensen took him up to their room and sent Shannon to shop for saltines. JJ managed to keep his lunch, but he was tired and jet-lagged, and Jensen made him lie down for a nap. When Shannon returned with the crackers, he asked her to keep an eye on her brother and left the room so he could look up doctors in the local directory.
The family doctor they had all seen before was still in practice, and Jensen managed to get him on the phone. Dr. Farrell didn't think an obstetric specialist was necessary for an initial exam, or even for early care as long as there were no problems. And certainly he could see JJ in the next day or two.
Just as Jensen disconnected with Dr. Farrell, his phone rang. It was Jared.
Reassured they had all arrived well, JJ was fine, and the wheels were in motion to instate his citizenship, Jared had news of his own.
"I got your parents and mine, and Jeff and your sister Mac over here for supper after you left, and told them about JJ."
"How'd they take it?"
"Well, they're excited. They're also worried Repro's going to snatch him. I told them our plans so far, and they're all on board. Your mom and mine were working out a visiting roster when they left."
"Sort of a rotation calendar, where everybody visits for a week or two, so there's always somebody there to help out."
"I…huh. I don't know what to say to that. I don't think we're actually going to need help…"
"Well, I think a lot of it is them not wanting to lose touch with JJ, and wanting to meet the new baby. Surrounding them--and you--with family. At least that was the feeling I got about it."
Jensen's eyes stung with unexpected tears. He cleared his throat. "That's really sweet," he said.
"Yeah," Jared agreed. "It really is." He changed the subject. "So, Mac and I are flying out tonight; we have a rental car booked, and we should be there by morning."
Jensen's sense of relief was palpable. He swayed where he stood, just knowing Jared would soon be here to help get through this.
"I'm glad," was all he said. And then, "How'd Mac take the news?"
It was Jared's turn to clear his throat. "He wasn't actually surprised, once he had some time to think about it. But he's gotten really grim and protective. I had to call him off going after Glenn, and make him promise to stay away from him."
"Oh lord, that's all we need."
Jared huffed out an ironic laugh, "I know, right? It was kind of scary there for a minute, but he simmered down pretty quickly when I reminded him what would happen if Glenn reported him and why, and Repro got involved. He backed right down."
"Good," Jensen was relieved.
"Yeah, really. I'd suspect he might do something underhanded and anonymous--only then Glenn wouldn't know why he was getting the crap beat out of him."
Jared was quick to reassure. "It won't happen, Jensen." He changed the subject. "Listen, we'll be there tomorrow. I miss you. It's only been a day, but you're a long way away, and I miss you. The kids too, but I miss you."
Jensen couldn't speak for a second, the distance between them looming wide. "Tomorrow, man. We'll see you both tomorrow. Love you, Jared."
"Yeah." The voice in his ear was suddenly a little hoarse. "Love you too. Kiss the kids."
"You can kiss them yourself, tomorrow."
"Do it anyway," Jared insisted.
Jensen grinned. "I will. Safe flight. Get here soon." He had to hang up, but it was hard to let go.
* * *
Jensen woke the next morning with a warm body snugged up behind him. The beds were narrow, two to a room, and JJ slept in the other one. Jensen stretched a little and pushed back against the solid, warm weight.
"When did you get in?"
"Not long. Half an hour," Jared murmured into the nape of his neck.
Jensen turned in place to face Jared, whose eyelids had started to droop. "Nuh uh," he scolded gently. "None of that. Jet-lag's a monster, but we can nap this afternoon while the kids are out."
Jared rubbed his nose along Jensen's. "Mmm," he said, with a happy note and a lazy thrust of his hips that promised more than sleep. "Nap."
"Pop?" came a voice from the other bed.
"Yeah, bud, it's me."
JJ started to sit up, but Jensen reminded him, "Crackers, Jadge. On the nightstand."
"Sucks," JJ complained, but there was the rattle of the plastic wrapper as he got a couple of saltines to munch.
Jared rolled out of bed and went over to give him a kiss and sit while he finished the crackers. Jensen put a can of ginger ale in his hand and, so fortified, JJ sat up and hugged his papa.
Being in the village was familiar and comfortable, like old times. At a nod from their parents, Mac and Shannon decided to take a walk and see if they could run across old friends, which left Jared and Jensen alone with JJ.
They went back to the room Jensen and JJ were sharing. This was going to be a difficult discussion, and they needed some privacy.
Jared began. "Robby came by yesterday to check on you. He said to tell you hi."
"Okay." JJ didn’t sound interested; that wasn't the person he wanted to hear from. "Did Glenn come by? Did he call? Did you find my phone, 'cause I need to call him."
Jared exchanged a glance with Jensen, who nodded his agreement. Now was the time to give JJ the hard truth.
"JJ, you can't call Glenn."
"Jadge, he's right," Jensen said. "Listen to him."
"I know you want to tell him about the baby," Jared began, and JJ nodded. "I know you think it's his right to know, and maybe under other circumstances, it would be. But as things stand, you can't tell him. Ever."
JJ blanched, the color drained from his face. "Pop? What are you saying--?" He turned a puzzled, pleading look on Jensen. "Dad?"
"He's right, Jadge, and I'm sorry," Jensen agreed. "But this is the way it has to be.
"Glenn's the father, so he will have sole custody when the baby's born--or, actually, his parents will, since Glenn's not legally an adult. You, well, Repro will take you for training. You won't see your baby, you won't see us, except when we're allowed to visit. And when you're trained you'll be assigned to a stranger who'll be your pere."
"JJ, if this is what you want," Jared said when Jensen stopped. "If this is the life you want, then we'll go home. We'll call Glenn and you can tell him, and he'll tell his parents, and they'll call Repro, and they will come and get you and keep you somewhere comfortable and safe till the baby's born."
Jensen added, "If Glenn and his family don't want the responsibility of raising the baby, Repro will adopt it out to a couple who can't have their own children. This baby will be loved and well taken care of, but he or she will never know you, or our family. We'll never see your baby."
"But why can't you keep her?" JJ sobbed. "You could raise her--you're the baby's family!"
Jared sat down on the bed beside his son and hugged him. "JJ, we would be so glad to, but the law says children belong to the father. As far as the Department's concerned, you're an undeclared ceiver, which is against the law. As your family, we've been helping you break the law, and they would never allow us to keep your baby."
"It's not fair!" he wailed, and Jared rocked him like the little boy he'd been not so long ago.
"No, Jadge, it's not," Jensen agreed. "But it is what it is, and we can't change it."
"I don't want to give her up!" JJ sobbed. "It's my baby, I don't want to give her up."
Jared stroked the sweat-damp hair off JJ's forehead and brushed the tears away. "We don't want that either," he assured his son.
"But Jadge," Jensen persisted. "If you tell Glenn, that's what's going to happen."
The boy was silent for a few minutes, thinking hard. Jensen reached for the box of tissues on the nightstand and offered it to JJ, who blew his nose and wiped his eyes, and took a deep breath. He gulped back more sobs, and nodded, meeting Jensen's eyes.
"Okay," he said. "Okay."
"We have to stay here," Jensen told him. "We're moving here to live. I've already filed to make you an Irish citizen and relinquish your US citizenship. They can't touch you once that's official."
"I can't go back?"
"Not now," Jared told him. "Maybe someday. We're working on it. But not yet."
Jared hugged him tighter, then got off the bed and went to the mini-fridge for water, poured it into one of the plastic courtesy cups for JJ, and offered what was left in the bottle to Jensen. Jensen waved him off, so Jared finished the bottle.
Jensen took note how drained JJ was. "Okay, how about you take a little nap?" he suggested. "You'll feel better when you wake up."
There was no resistance. JJ was done, for now. "Okay," he nodded.
Jensen flipped the pillow over so his face would rest on the dry, cool side. He pulled the light blanket up over him and kissed his forehead. "We'll be right downstairs when you wake up," he promised. JJ nodded, and was probably asleep before his parents left the room.
* * *
It was lunch time, and though neither of them felt hungry, when the food arrived Jared realized he was famished. Talking to JJ had taken a lot out of him. As they were finishing up over lagers, Mac and Shannon arrived, and joined them for lunch. They had run into several people they knew, and had walked by their old house just for old times' sake. New people were living there now.
"Where do we want to live, Dad?" Shannon asked, and Jensen realized he hadn't even thought about it.
"Probably something similar to our old place," he began, but Mac cleared his throat.
"I won't need a room," he said, his chin coming up in anticipation of a fight. "So you can look for a smaller place."
"Mac? What are you talking about?"
"I'm not staying," he said, simply. "Pop? What are you going to do?"
Jared took his time, but he finally nodded. He had a little trouble meeting Jensen's eyes. "I think I have to go home, Jensen. Back to the states."
"What?" Jensen was completely blindsided. "I thought we were moving back here, as a family, for JJ." His voice registered how upset he was with this turn of events. "What are you guys--" He shook his head. "No," he said, the word coming out with explosive force. "No way. You two are not going back to get deeper involved and get yourselves arrested! Or hurt! Or both!"
He stood and threw his napkin down on the table. Jared reached out and clamped a hand on his arm. "Jensen, calm down. We're just talking. This is the first chance we've had for all of us to talk about this. You've been running on high to get JJ safe. Well, now he is, so we have to figure out where we go from here."
Jensen resisted for another moment, but Shannon said, "Dad?" He relented, and took his seat, and met his daughter's eyes. "I want to stay," she said. "I'm staying with JJ."
"Okay," he told her. "Good." He looked daggers at his husband and elder son, waiting for either of them to say something.
"Jensen, we have to go. Things are starting to happen at home, Repro's grip is starting to crack. We're at the point of maybe being able to force changes in the law, if we can't topple the Department entirely. And if I can help make that happen, I can't walk away."
"Jared, he's your son. He's pregnant, he's never going to see his lover and the father of his kid again, he's away from home, he's scared, he's confused. He needs his family, he needs both of you. And you're going to leave him?"
"If I do this, then maybe someday my son can come home. Maybe everybody's sons can have a better life."
"We have to try, Dad," Mac said. "I love JJ, but I have to work for his chance to live the way he wants to. Him and all the others."
Jensen looked at both of them. "So the two of you are going back, and Shannon and I are supposed to let you? Somebody has to be with JJ, he's going to need his family."
"You'll be here for him, Jensen." Jared said, and smiled at his daughter. "You both will. And the grandparents and aunts and uncles will be coming, too. You guys won't be by yourselves."
"Jared." Jensen could hardly speak. "This is our son. He needs you. I need you."
One look at his husband's face, and words deserted Jared. Jensen waited a moment, and then stood. Without a word, he walked out of the restaurant, out of the hotel, into the bright afternoon, and just kept walking.
They booked another room for Mac and Jared. Jared assumed Mac would share with JJ and Jensen would move into his room, for as long as they were staying, but Jensen refused.
"Somebody needs to be with JJ."
"Mac will be with JJ." Jared moved up behind his husband, pressing his chest close against his back, rubbing his groin against Jensen's ass. He wrapped his arms around Jensen and nuzzled into his neck below his ear, that spot that always made him gasp and press back against Jared. Not this time. Jensen eeled quickly out of Jared's grasp and out of reach.
"Mac won't know what to do if he's sick," Jensen said. "He won't make him eat crackers before he gets up, or bring him ginger ale. I need to take care of JJ."
Jared reached and caught his arm. "Jensen." Jensen pulled loose and moved away again, not meeting Jared's eyes, not even looking at him.
"Are you mad?" Jared had the nerve to be surprised. "Is that what this is? You're mad at me? What, you're punishing me now because I decided not to stay here?"
"You made up your own mind. I had nothing to say about that. I'm just trying to get things settled for my kids. A place to live, JJ has to see the doctor tomorrow. We have to get the papers for Mairead to sign from the solicitor and go visit her in the next day or two. I'm busy, Jared," Jensen snapped.
"I can see that," Jared said. He wanted to respond in kind, but he held himself back. Jensen had a right to be upset. "It's going to be okay, you know. JJ's going to be fine. You and Nonni will be happy here, too. You don't need us to help you cope, Jensen."
"No." Jensen's eyes did meet his, then, a laser-flare of green. "No, what I need is to be deserted. For me and our son to be left to get through this huge life event by ourselves, and to have my husband and my son on the other side of an ocean, getting involved with illegal activities and putting themselves at risk. Dear Santa, take a note, that's exactly what I want." As Jared reached for him again, the ice in his voice would have frozen a lesser man. "Get your hands off me, Padalecki. You're already gone."
And Jared would not let that stand. He grabbed Jensen and pulled him in tight as Jensen struggled. He leaned down and growled in Jensen's ear, "Do you want me to let Mac go back alone, then?"
That had the intended effect. Jensen stopped still. Jared didn't let go. "He will go whether we let him, or not. He's in it, Jensen. He wants it, he's a believer, and he won't be stopped."
Jensen wriggled. "He can't--"
"He will. No matter what we do, short of locking him up. Now, do you want to let him go alone? Or do you want me to go and keep an eye on him? Try to keep him out of the worst of it, keep him safe?"
He could feel it as Jensen relaxed, as he relented and let Jared take some of his weight. "I don't want you to go," Jensen said.
"I know." Jared loosened his grip and Jensen's arms went around him.
Jared and Mac went with them to see Mairead and have her sign as JJ's guardian. Jensen and Jared retained their dual citizenship, as did Mac and Shannon. "The only real Irishman of the bunch!" Mairead smiled and hugged JJ.
Jared went with JJ and Jensen to his doctor's appointment. "Everything's perfectly normal," Dr. Farrell assured them. He gave JJ a list of vitamins and supplements to start taking, and told him to rest and avoid foods that triggered the nausea. That should ease up when he reached his second trimester, he told JJ, welcome news.
Mac and Jared left at the end of the week. Mac spent the last night in JJ's room, and it was questionable whether any of the kids slept, since Shannon joined them and they talked late into the night.
Jensen laid Jared out and kissed him from neck to knees, making sure to hit the ticklish spots. He lay between Jared's legs and took him in hand, licking over the head of his cock and blowing a cool stream of air over the wet skin before swallowing him down, teasing him with tongue and teeth and a slow, tantalizing slide till his chin brushed Jared's balls. When Jared was hissing and groaning between clenched teeth and Jensen could feel he was on the edge, he pulled off and climbed up to straddle Jared, reaching back to set the head of Jared's cock against his entrance, pre-slicked for just this moment. Eyes locked on Jared's, Jensen lowered himself by inches, grinding down in slow circles. Jared groaned and put hands on Jensen's hips, begging him to move, to take more, but letting Jensen move at his own pace. Soon enough, he was bottomed out, and Jared started rutting up into him, as Jensen ground down and pulled up an inch, and back down, again, and again. Gazes locked, breath pumping in and out of each other's lungs, they each held back as long as they could, and then Jared groaned and pulled Jensen down hard on his cock and held him there. Jensen felt him spurt and ground down harder, riding him until he too came all over Jared's belly. Careless of the mess, he sank to lie on top of Jared, both of them breathless, hearts slowing.
Jared opened his lips to say, "I love you." But Jensen stopped the words with his fingers. He eased off and used his boxers to clean them up, rolled Jared onto his side and snugged up against his back, his arm around Jared and his hand on Jared's chest. He could feel Jared's heartbeat--or maybe it was his own--pressed hard against Jared's back. It didn't matter which; they breathed in the same rhythm, and slid silently into sleep.
* * *
Jensen hugged his eldest tight the next morning, whispering, "Stay safe." He watched as Shannon and JJ hugged their papa. He and Jared shared a quick hug, and no words. They already knew everything the other would have had to say, and both of them were on the edge of tears. Father and son piled into Jensen's rental and headed for the airport and home.
Home. Jensen and the kids looked for a house, and found one on the outskirts of the village, an older place, full of drafts and charm. But it was comfortable for three, and there was space for visitors, so they took it. Jensen and the kids started lists of things they wanted shipped from their house in the states, and things they could likely pick up locally, secondhand. Jensen bought a car, just a small thing that would carry three people, an eventual car seat, and groceries on narrow country lanes.
They settled into village life.
* * *
The weeks flew by, filled with getting reacquainted with their friends and neighbors, the shipments of things from the stateside house, and visiting relatives. Both sets of grandparents came, and stayed for a while. Jared's mom and Jensen's had gotten together and worked out a loose schedule so that someone would be visiting almost continuously. It gave Jensen adult company, someone to talk to about his fears and frustrations and worries over the kids, over Jared, over Mac, and someone to relieve his constant attention to JJ. It also gave the kids someone to complain to besides Dad, a second source of opinion or advice. Fall approached, and time to get Shannon registered for school. He asked her, was she sure she didn't want to go back to the school in the states for her senior year? Donna was spending the afternoon with JJ, so Jensen and Shannon went for a walk outside the village.
"We'll be okay, Nonni, Jadge and I, if you want to go back." Jensen told his daughter.
Shannon found a seat on a rock wall, and gazed off across a hilly pasture, giving him her profile. "I'm scared to go back there, Dad," she said, her voice small, weighted with a confession she'd held onto for a while.
"Scared? Why scared, honey?"
"They're getting closer to testing girls. I..." Her lashes were glazed with tears; he tracked one down the cheek closest to him. "I wanted babies, I thought."
He nodded. He'd been aware of her interest in children.
"I thought I was jealous of ceivers, because they could have babies. I hoped, someday, far away in the future, I could have my own when I got married. But I don't know if I can."
She glanced at him and quickly away again. "If they start testing girls, and I find out I can have babies--I wanted to be happy, if that was true." She hiccupped on a sob, pulled a tissue from her pocket and blew her nose.
"But I don't want--" She gulped, and swallowed down a sob. "I don't want to be handed to some stranger to make babies, Daddy. I don't want to!" And there were the sobs, and the flood of tears. He sat beside her and pulled her in against him, wrapping her up and rocking her in his arms.
"Shh, shh, baby girl. It's all right. It's okay." He murmured comforting nonsense at her until she'd cried herself out a little. She stirred and pulled back, and he let her go. She wiped her face and blew her nose again.
"I'm a terrible coward," she hiccupped. Her gaze met his. "I know about you, Dad. I know you're my birth parent. I kind of guessed some of it, and when Mac and I were talking, I asked and he told me the rest."
"Nonni--" He hardly knew what to say.
"I'm so sorry, Dad, that they could do that to you. I don't know how you got through it. I hate them. I hate them for doing that to you--for doing it to boys whether they want it or not, making them have babies no matter what they want to do." The tears were giving way to anger now. "I don't want to live someplace where they make people do that. It makes me so mad, and I don't know what to do with all that anger. I just. I just want to be a person, and love my family, and find out what I'm good at."
He hugged her again, and she blew her nose and mopped her face. The storm seemed to be over. "So," he ventured. "Local school, then?"
She managed a laugh. "Yes, please."
"Well, all right."
JJ decided he didn't want to attend school. He was already showing a little, and the thought of the boys in his class playing soccer and field hockey and roughhousing the way they did both scared him a little, and made him sad that he wouldn't be joining in on their games. Jensen got him set up with correspondence courses. He wasn't ready to trust JJ on the internet. Email to Glenn or other friends from the states was still too tempting. Jensen would download worksheets for him to work on and send the completed work back himself.
Jared and Mac emailed fairly regularly. They had yet to set up Skype, but they were taking that one slowly. Jason was on a tour of the UK, and he stopped by to visit for a few days. Life was settling into a new pattern.
The phone rang in the dark of very early morning. Jensen managed to find it on the bedside table. "H'lo?"
"Jensen? This is Gerry. I'm sorry to have to tell you this, but Jared's been injured."
He sat bolt upright in the dark, every nerve awake.
"It's bad. I'm calling from the hospital. He's going into surgery, and they think his chances are pretty good, but there are no guarantees. I thought you might want to be here."
"Thanks. Thanks for calling. I'm on the next plane."
"If--if he's awake, tell him I'm coming."
He found the light switch, called the airline, got a seat on the first available flight out. He threw some socks and underwear into a backpack, the shaving kit with travel-sized toiletries, jeans, shirts. He threw on some clothes and shoes and as he was easing out of the bedroom, the door down the hall opened.
"Hey Mom. Jared's dad just called. Jared's been hurt."
She started to ask questions, and he told her, "No, I don't know exactly how. He's going into surgery right now, and I've got a flight out in two hours, so I'm going to drive myself to the airport. I'll let you guys know something when I get there. Look after the kids--"
His dad joined his mom in the doorway. "Dad, Mom will tell you--"
"I heard. Let me get dressed and I'll drive you. We'll have use of the car and you won't pay parking." Alan disappeared back into the gloom, and dim lamplight flooded the doorway.
"I'll make coffee," his mom said, passing him to head down the stairs.
* * *
Bleachers collapsed, Mac told him, hours later at Jared's bedside. There had been twice as many as they had anticipated at the rally the night before. The weight had caused the supports to buckle. Jared had seen it happen, and had rushed to pull people out of the fallen stands. While he was working to free the trapped leg of a spectator, the rest of the bleachers had fallen on him. Broken leg, broken collarbone, concussion, broken ribs, and collapsed lung. By the time Mac and Robby had gotten Jared free of the rubble, he was not lucid, and was having difficulty breathing. They loaded him in Robby's car and broke land speeds getting him to an ER on the opposite side of town. "Fell off a roof," was the accident of record. Thank god nobody had bothered to ask what Jared had been doing on a roof at ten o'clock at night.
When Jared finally opened his eyes, both bruised black and swollen, Jensen didn't know whether to kiss him or pound him for being heroic and getting hurt.
"Jensen! You're here!"
"Jared. You're a numbskull," Jensen parroted. "Be still," as Jared tried to sit up and reach for him. Jensen moved closer and bent over Jared to kiss him.
"Mm, ow." Jared winced as the kiss pressed on his cut lip.
"The hell were you thinking?" Jensen wanted to know. "Are you trying to get yourself killed? You scared the crap out of me."
"Sorry?" Jared looked like a ten-year-old after a schoolyard scrap. In a small voice, he asked, "What happened?"
He got to go home a couple of days later. Jensen looked around at the house he had left just months prior. It looked--empty.
He rolled the rented wheelchair over to the sofa and helped Jared transfer, propping him up with cushions behind his back. When he was settled satisfactorily, Jensen put the TV remote in his hand and went to look at the rest of the house.
Mac's room was much the same. The bed was slept in, the closet and hamper were both in use. Everything else in the room looked ignored or abandoned. JJ's room and Shannon's had been stripped of almost everything but furniture. Jared and Mac had packed and shipped everything they had written on their lists to them in their new lives in Ireland. The guest room was immaculate and cold, unused for months. The suite he shared with Jared was stripped as well, except for a few pairs of Jared's jeans, a couple of jackets, some tee shirts, socks, underwear.
His studio was as he had left it. He would have to box up the things he wanted to keep and have them shipped so he could have them to work with. He hadn't been doing much work since they'd been in Ireland, but that would have to change. His old bedroom behind the studio was as cold and uninhabited as it had been since he had opened the door to the rest of his life. There was nothing there that he wanted.
He paused at the top of the stairs, wondering how to get Jared up to bed.
"Yeah." He went down the stairs, not pausing on the landing.
"I'm just going to sleep down here on the sofa. I don't think I'm going to be able to get up and down those stairs. At least not for a while."
"There's no shower down here. Is your cast going to fit in the half-bath so you can use the toilet?"
"I don't know." Jared reached out a hand for him, and he came closer, sat on the edge of the couch beside Jared's hip. "I don't care. Right now I just want to sleep. And to know where you are." His hand tightened, drew Jensen down for a kiss.
"Missed you so much," Jared whispered. "Wanted you here, in our bed, spread out underneath me." He lifted their clasped hands and kissed Jensen's knuckles, one by one. "Your skin, all freckly and warm. Your breath, that noise you make when I take you. Your heartbeat." He'd managed to slip his hand under the hem of Jensen's shirt and now he pressed his palm to the warm skin of Jensen's chest and left it there, feeling that heartbeat in reality.
"Now you're here," he whispered, the pain meds dragging him down. "And I can't do anything. Want you," he murmured plaintively, nearly asleep. "Want my Jensen."
Jensen smoothed the sweaty hair back from his face with his free hand, still holding Jared's against his heartbeat with the other. "Got me, you ginormous dork. Just give it a couple of days. We'll figure something out."
* * *
The phone rang in the afternoon while Jared was sleeping and Jensen was packing up his studio.
"Hi Gerry. Everything go okay with the flight?"
"Yeah, we landed a couple of hours ago and Shannon picked us up at the airport. You know your daughter is a daredevil driver?" Gerry chuckled. "She wins at chicken on one-lane roads. We didn't have to reverse once."
"Well, I'm glad you got there okay. How's JJ?"
"He's fine. He's really fine. He's in good spirits and he was glad to see us. How's Jared?"
"Better every day."
They talked for a few minutes more, and then signed off. It was good to know Jared's parents were with the kids.
* * *
Jared had exchanged the heavy cast for a walking cast and a cane. The ribs were almost healed, and even the collarbone--the injury that had hurt the most--was better. He had moved upstairs to sleep at night, and as Jensen had promised, they had worked around his injuries to find ways to kiss, and stroke, and finger, and fuck. And Jared was getting stronger and more himself every day.
He and Mac were talking in the kitchen when Jensen came down from boxing up the last of his studio, and Jensen caught just the end of the conversation.
"It's tonight? I didn't realize--"
"Hi yourself. What's going on?" He pulled sandwich fixings and a couple of bottles of lemon soda out of the fridge.
Jared and Mac exchanged a glance, and Jared was obviously trying to find something to say.
"Out with it. No secrets. What's going on tonight?"
"There's a big rally, Dad."
"Yeah. Jervis promised a special speaker, and there will be press there." He tried to gauge his dad's reaction. "It's a big deal, and Pop and I need to be there."
Jensen looked up from his sandwich-making. "Oh, no. Your pop is in no shape to be crowd surfing again. Look what happened last time."
Jared huffed in annoyance. "I'll stand somewhere safe, okay? I really want to be at this rally. It's important. I'm going."
Jensen slapped a sandwich down in front of Jared and another before Mac. "Okay," he said, working on a third sandwich. "Count me in. Maybe I can keep you out of the way of falling bleachers."
* * *
There were no bleachers. There was only the graffiti-strewn concrete of a neglected highway underpass, surrounded by scrubby trees, opportunistic nature in a nearly abandoned urban landscape.
A young man, appearing in the flicker of firelight to be somewhere between twenty-five and thirty, stepped out of the crowd. The light and shadow played across his pleasant features and smooth cocoa colored skin, and the silver frames of his glasses glinted as he moved. Though handsome, there was nothing about him that marked him as different than anyone else, nothing that made him special. His posture and body language were a little reserved, without the swagger most men in their late twenties have by habit and culture. He seemed somewhat more diffident than a man his age should be.
He took the step up onto the milk crate podium, and surveyed the people assembled around the fire. "Hi," he said, and the crowd mumbled "Hi," back. His voice matched his manner: quiet, unassuming. He cleared his throat and looked out over the crowd, waiting till the murmurs died down.
"I'm Matthew," he told them. "And I'm a ceiver. Or I used to be." The crowd waited, in a hush that felt like a held breath. "I was screened at twelve and taken away to start my training. My parents were sad to see me go; my mom cried. I know she missed me. My dad was brave about it. I had a younger sister, and my grandparents lived with us. Things were tough, and I knew the stipend they got for me would help."
There was a little stirring, a nod or two of affirmation. Others had similar stories to tell. "I learned all I could, worked hard at my classes, did everything that was expected of me, and when I turned eighteen, I met the man of my dreams."
He smiled a little reminiscent smile, but it was edged with sadness. "He was wonderful. Larger than life, an important businessman, wealthy enough to have a home with room for lots of kids. He took such good care of me." Tears clouded his eyes and he paused for a moment to recompose himself. "We were in love. Every day was wonderful, every night even more so. I could not have been happier. I was doing what I had been told was my job, what I'd been trained to do, and I was doing well at it. And then, it got even better. I got pregnant."
Matthew's eyes gleamed, and the smile he shared with everyone was broad and happy. "It was a little boy, the handsomest little boy that anybody ever saw, and two years later, we gave him a beautiful little sister. We were the happiest family. I had no idea anything could ever go wrong." He regarded them all somberly. "But it did."
"My pere fell in love with an executive at his firm. They were excited to be together, they were completely caught up in each other, and…well, he started staying away from home. He'd come home to see the kids, and give me a peck on the cheek, ask how everything was going with the house, leave me money for bills and groceries, and take off again for another week or two."
Tears threatened to spill, but he took a deep breath and blinked them back, and willed the quaver out of his voice. "Then he came home all excited and told me his lover was coming to live with us--and bringing his ceiver, Paul, and their child. We were…all…going to live together. Like…a family."
A babble arose at this turn in his story, and Matthew waited till it died down. "Let me make this short and as painless as possible. In a few months, my pere and his lover were both sleeping with Paul--a threesome, in the bed I used to share with my pere. Paul was soon pregnant, and neither of the peres seemed to care who the father was. Paul had taken over most of the tasks that used to be mine--bill-paying, laundry, cleaning, planning and cooking meals. He even treated my children like his own. Most of the outings and activities were planned for all three kids together. Gradually, he took over my place. My children looked first to him, then to their father, then to his lover, before they came to me.
"And then one afternoon Paul's pere took him and the kids out for the afternoon. My pere called me to him. I was so happy--I thought he'd changed his mind, remembered how good we'd been together, remembered how he'd wanted me. I thought he'd sent everyone else away so we could be alone together." Matthew barked out a hoarse and bitter laugh, and the tears were falling now, unheeded as he shook his head.
"I had never been with anyone but my pere--he was my first, and my only, the only one I ever wanted. Since I'd first been told they were moving into our house, I had dreaded being asked to sleep with Paul's pere. By this time, I would gladly have done that, if it meant that I was part of their family, that I got to stay. But that was never asked of me. My pere told me he was sending me back to Repro to stay until they found another pere for me. That Paul would continue to serve him and his lover, that they would parent the children, and any others to be born, together. That I was no longer wanted. That I was a good ceiver, and it would be no time until someone wanted me, and I would go to a new home and do as well there as I had done for him. And then he dismissed me, without so much as a kiss on the cheek, a hug, or a handshake."
"I had done everything I had been taught to do, willingly, happily. I had given my pere and my children my whole self. And now they were taking my life, my children from me, and I was expected to just--accept it, and walk away. I was to be gone before the kids got back, I had no chance to say goodbye, to tell them I loved them--that might be too upsetting for them. Paul and the peres would tell them when I was gone. I was instructed to call a taxi and go straight to the Repro offices, by myself. He couldn't even be bothered to take me there and say goodbye."
"He gave me cabfare, and I had some cash I'd kept on hand for tips for deliveries and little things for the kids. I got into the cab and rode away, but once I reached downtown, I had the cab stop, and I got out. The cabbie really didn't want to let me get out alone, but I promised him I had an important errand for my pere, just inside the building we'd stopped in front of, so he let me go."
Matthew wiped at his face, clearing the tears away, and faced the crowd again. "I found the nearest thrift shop, bought a pair of jeans, a couple of shirts, tee shirts, socks, a jacket, shoes, and a backpack, dressed in the alcove in the back that functioned as a changing room, and bundled the extra clothes and my ceiver clothes into the backpack. I don't know why the people at the shop didn't challenge me, didn't ask any questions. Maybe they'd had other runaways shop there. Maybe they were sympathizers. But they didn't say anything, didn't ask me any questions I couldn't answer. I just paid in cash, picked up the backpack, and walked out."
"I had no idea what I was going to do next. I thought about trying to contact my parents, but if they were going to be able to keep seeing my kids, I thought I'd better not. I wandered around, spent almost the last money I had on a cheeseburger and coffee--"
There was a ripple of laughter through the crowd at the food choices. "And wandered out on the street with no plans, and nowhere to go. All I knew was, I couldn't go through being used like that again. I couldn't invest everything I had in a pere, in a home, in children, that could all be taken away from me in the blink of an eye at someone else's whim. I had no recourse. There was no court I could appeal to to get my kids back, to be compensated for the work I'd done, the--the--life. I had." Matthew stuttered to a stop, his face hidden in his palm. His emotions shook his frame, and another man stepped out of the crowd, wrapped an arm around Matthew and spoke into his ear. Matthew leaned against the man for a few moments, then seemed to settle. He nodded. Again he wiped tears off his face with his fingers, and he raised his face to the crowd and took a deep breath.
"Sorry." He tried to smile, but it was more of a grimace. A murmur of sympathy encouraged him to continue. "I wandered around till after dark, and I was trying to decide whether to pay one of the two dollars I had left for a bed in a flophouse, find a men's shelter and risk being discovered and turned in as a runaway, or find some reasonably safe hiding place to spend the night. I saw a bunch of people gathered around an oil drum fire in a vacant lot, and more seemed to be arriving, in ones and twos. In a while, someone stepped out of the crowd and started talking about Repro, and about the movement to shut it down. To liberate the ceivers and end the power the Department holds over the country, the citizens, even the federal government. I stayed to listen, and was shocked, and immensely heartened, to realize that I wasn't really alone, after all.
"I found some friends that night, and have been with them, or others like them, ever since. It's been hard, and some of us have been caught. But I can't do anything else but fight. I have two kids I haven't seen in three years, being raised by someone else in a house where I used to live. I want my kids back--" The crowd yelled out agreement, and Matthew raised his voice and went on. "But I wouldn't take that life back for anything. I want my kids to be proud of the man I've become." Another shout went up from the crowd. Matthew smiled, and continued, his voice growing stronger. "I want to teach them things, and help them stand on their own feet. And if my son turns out to be a ceiver, I want him to have the power to choose what sort of life he's going to have." This time the yell was a roar, and Matthew stood, basking in the crowd's support and approval.
* * *
Jensen was shaking, as the crowd surged and roared around them. He wasn't really aware of the tears that flooded his eyes and streaked his face where it was turned into Jared's shoulder. Jared's arm was around him, holding him tight. "It's okay, Jensen," Jared murmured reassurance against his temple. "It's okay."
Jensen shrugged and moved back so he could look Jared in the face. He scrubbed the tears away with the heels of both palms. "No, it's not," he said. "It's not okay. It never was. Damn Repro. Damn them to hell." When their eyes met, Jared saw a light of battle and determination in Jensen's he'd never seen there before. "I'm tired of being scared, Jared. I'm tired of them ruining people's lives. It's time I stopped being so damned frightened of the bogeyman and started fighting back."
* * *
The three of them finished packing up the house. They stored some things at Jared's parents', and some at Jensen's parents', and shipped the rest to Ireland.
"I have to go back, Jared. I have to be there with JJ. I know what he's going through, being pregnant. I may be the only one who does know, the only one he can talk to, anyway. And I worry about him. He's fine, I know he's fine. Your mom called and told me how he's doing. I know they're taking good care of him, but I need to be there."
"Don't apologize, man," Jared told him. "If anybody feels guilty for not being there it's me. When are you leaving?"
"I thought on Monday?"
"Can't you and Mac come too? You know he wants to see you. He misses you both."
"In a few weeks. There's some stuff I started with the movement that I need to see through to the next step, and then I can hand it off to somebody else. If I do that, my conscience is clear, and I can stay till the baby comes, and for a while after."
"You think Mac will come?"
"Will Mac come where?" The person in question carried in a couple of bags of takeout. They'd cleaned out the fridge and the freezer; this would be their last meal in the house. They gathered around the breakfast bar to eat.
"I'll come if I can," Mac said, around a bite of cheeseburger. "I want to be there to welcome my niece or nephew. Don't want to miss it."
They packed up the trash from the takeout and stood looking out at the quarter court, the pool, and around the interior. Everything that showed they'd ever lived here was gone. It felt empty, like they'd already left, already moved on in life. Jared had a room at a residential hotel downtown. It wasn't great, but it was clean enough, and there was a couch for Mac, when he wasn't staying elsewhere, with other people in the movement. There wasn't really anything of value left here. They left through the door to the garage and locked the door. They would drop the keys off at AE in the morning. Tonight there was a rally they didn't want to miss.
* * *
Jensen and Jared stood together at the back of the crowd, in the shadows. Mark addressed the gathering, welcoming all who had come out, and providing some news on recent progress the movement was making. He introduced a new speaker, "Someone we haven't heard from before. But he has some important things to say, so let's give him a warm welcome."
A young man came out of the crowd and stepped up onto the milk crate to speak. Tall, broad-shouldered, with sandy brown hair that curled a little, even cut short, and vivid green eyes looking around at the crowd, he seemed self-possessed and sure of himself beyond his obvious youth. He waited till the crowd quieted, giving him their attention, before he started to speak.
"I'm here for my dad, and the life he had taken away from him by Repro. I'm grateful to be here, I'm grateful for my siblings, and for the wonderful dad he's been. But he should have been free to choose this life, or not.
"I'm here for my pop, who's done everything he ever could to support his family, no matter what we needed, or what we wanted to do. None of us would have made it through some pretty tough times without my pop.
"I'm here for my little brother, who I don't know when I'll ever see again, and the niece or nephew I may never get to meet. I want that child--and all children--to grow up in a world where they're free to work toward whatever they want to be in life, free to be with their families.
"I want families not to be torn apart by a government juggernaut that cares nothing for the lives of citizens, only that those lives increase. I want children to grow up in their homes, not to be taken and trained, and awarded like trophies to people the Department chooses." The crowd had started to murmur. The gathered voices rose like waves after each new exhortation. Mac raised his voice to be heard above the crowd.
"And I don't want to wait any longer for it. Things have to change--they're already changing. Let's not be discouraged or turned aside in our work, let's continue to insist on change, on making things right. Let's not fail in our fight! We have to keep working for freedom!"
A background noise grew slowly above the crowd noise, and Mac was shouting to be heard. Suddenly a wind swirled through the underpass, throwing dust and trash into the air, and the sound resolved as a helicopter when a brilliant light speared down from the sky. "This is the police!" a loudspeaker grated out, while people ducked and scattered in all directions. Jared and Jensen saw Mac scurry away into dark shadows beyond the searchlight as they hurried in the opposite direction. "Everyone here, stay right where you are!" the loudspeaker growled again, and now the sound of sirens was growing loud and close.
"Here!" Jared said, pulling Jensen after him into an alley, at the end of which was a door that looked as though it had been locked and left for a long time. Jared twisted the handle, and it gave with an oiled smoothness; the two of them ducked into velvet darkness, and a quiet that belied the noise and confusion outside.
"Where?" Jensen wanted to know.
"Stay here,"Jared said. Jensen could hear him limping a few steps on his cane, and then there was the scratch of a match, and the sputter and glow of a candle.
"Looks like we're safe," Jared said. He raised the candle to reveal a row of cots, neatly made with sheets, blankets and pillows.
"What is this place?"
"Way station for rescues and runaways," Jared told him. "Looks like we have a couple of hours before we can make it back to the car." He set the candle down and walked close to Jensen, right up in his space, breathing his air. "Got any ideas how we can pass the time?"
* * *
three years later
Shannon chased Seamus around the garden, both of them doing a bad job of hiding, but enjoying the pounce of "finding" the hider. Seamus had the best giggle: it lit up his bright blue eyes, and scrunched up his nose with the freckles scattered across it. Shannon was convinced there had never been a cuter nephew. She tickled him and his giggles turned to shouts of glee. She swooped him up from his hiding place behind the rosebush and was about to carry him inside for bathtime and supper, when someone cleared their throat.
There was a young man at the gate, a stranger. Tall, with brown hair and eyes, a day's worth of sparse, unshaven scruff. He was nice enough looking, dressed in good walking clothes, rather than in a suit and tie. "Hello," he said.
"You're Shannon, aren't you? I remember you. Is JJ here?"
He had an American accent, and Shannon felt a faint buzz of alarm. Why would a strange American appear out of nowhere at their doorstep?
"Do I know you?" she asked. Seamus wiggled where she held him on her hip, and peeked around her to look at the stranger.
"Shannon, it's me. I'm Robby," he smiled a little hesitantly.
"Robby?" JJ's little friend from school? The one he'd been inseparable friends with until--
"Yeah, it's me."
"Oh!" She set Seamus down and moved to open the gate, pulling Robby in for a hug. "My, it's been awhile," she said.
He grinned. "Yeah, I know. And I've grown."
"You sure have."
"So," he asked again. "Is JJ here? I've kind of come a long way to see him."
Author's note: First of all, I have to thank wendy and thehighwaywoman for all their dedicated hard work organizing this challenge and cat-herding the participants. It's an effort far above and beyond duty, and you make it look easy.
I couldn't ask for a more patient and supportive beta than spn_j2fan. From the moment, back in the dark days of January, when I got an itch to write a little more, to explore "what next," she was there to kick around ideas, directions, and possible plot points. It was her extrapolation and brainstorming that gave me the courage to sign up for BB this year, with the idea in mind I could always default on the first draft if it didn't pan out. Her tough calls, honest opinion, and unflagging encouragement that never gave up on the story, or on me, even when I didn't know what the next word would be, made this story possible. Me: when in doubt, list things. spn_j2fan: No lists! You should all be grateful.
My thanks to a small choir of cheerleaders--and yes I know cheerleaders don't come in choirs, I don't care--you know who you are. Also to meus_venator for a last-minute emergency tech assist. Thanks!
My fabulous artist bflyw did the art for my Big Bang last year, and I know her work was a strong visual connection for the story--people have even remarked on remembering the story by her amazing art. I was so incredibly lucky she was eager to work with me again. She's outdone herself; her art this year is completely different, unique, evocative, and perfectly in key with this particular story. I'm so grateful. Please check her art post and tell her how wonderful she is!
And if you've got this far, thank you for reading! I always felt that More Than Words was at heart Jensen's story. More Than Us is Jared's.
Masterpost LJ | Comments?