“So which one’s yours?”
Jensen looks up to watch Jeff Morgan take a seat on the bench beside him. Jeff leans back, stretches his legs out in front of him, crosses his ankles. He’s dressed in casual clothes, a leather jacket, jeans and heavy working boots. He’s holding two cups of Starbucks and he hands one over to Jensen with a quirk of his eyebrows.
“That one,” Jensen answers, indicating with the coffee at the spot where Jonah is clambering up the climbing apparatus, shouting down at some other kid who’s just behind him. He gets to the top and throws himself headfirst down the slide on his front, hands outstretched to brush the dirt when he whooshes to the bottom. He gets up, brushes himself off and runs around to climb back up again.
The park is busy, Sunday morning, a lot of fathers with their kids. Jensen wonders how many of them are weekend dads. If Addie were still alive, then maybe that would be him: taking Jonah out to the park every Sunday morning for their allotted three hours together. Then again, if he’s brutally honest, it’s not like he spends a lot more time with the kid. This trip is probably the longest time he and Jonah have spent hanging out, just the two of them, since they left Dallas. Jared spends way more time with Jonah than he does – yet another thing to be grateful to Jared for.
“Attractive kid,” Jeff says, breaking into his thoughts. Jeff takes a sip on his coffee, gives Jensen a look. “I can see the resemblance.”
Jensen chuffs out a breath, though he’s pleased. He’s always pleased when people compliment Jonah, or when they comment on their resemblance. He takes a sip of his coffee: triple shot Americano, one sugar. Of course Jeff remembers how he likes it.
“You don’t know how lucky you are with a boy,” Jeff says conversationally, “girls – now girls are a nightmare. And teenage girls, oh boy.”
Jensen glances at Jeff. He’s watching the kids playing with an inscrutable look on his face. “How old are your two now?” he says. They didn’t talk about their families the other night. It was all business, well... business and negotiation and that familiar edge of sexual tension to their back and forth that’s always been there between him and Jeff. Family and kids had no place in that.
“Sandy’s thirteen and Erin’s sixteen.”
“Wow,” Jensen says. He can remember Sandy being born, Erin’s first birthday party. It’s so weird to think that he’s known Jeff for that long. Fifteen years, twice as long as he’s known Jared.
“Yup, time really flies, huh?” Jeff slants him a look.
“You’re not kidding. So, they’re, like, dating now?”
“Christ no,” Jeff says.
Jensen chuckles. “Yeah, right. That’s what you think.”
Jeff snorts but doesn’t say anything. Jensen turns his attention back to Jonah. He’s gotten bored of the slide and has moved to the mini zip-liner, barging through the kids congregating around it to get to the front. They watch him launch off, screaming out loud as he flies across the park, clinging on, his thin, denim-clad legs twined around the seat. He throws himself off when he’s done, stumbles and falls into the petey soil. Jensen’s heart skips a beat but Jonah’s entirely unconcerned. He just leaps back to his feet, brushes off the clinging bark-mulch and runs around to join the line for another go.
Jensen glances at Jeff again, watches him take another sip of his coffee. The best thing about him and Jeff was that he always knew exactly where they stood. Jeff was never going to do anything as stupid as leave his wife and daughters for him, and Jensen never expected or even wanted him to. Jeff loved his girls, was fond of his wife and he respected her. More importantly, Jeff was a pragmatist. Melinda was an heiress, she’d brought millions to the marriage, and although Jeff had made plenty since they’d been married, he was way too good a businessman to ever consider divorce. Besides, Jeff knew exactly what a divorce – and a subsequent relationship with a younger guy – would do to his standing in the Dallas social scene and Jeff would never want to jeopardize that.
Jensen occasionally used to wonder what Melinda thought about Jeff’s affairs. He knew he wasn’t the only one. Jeff enjoyed sex and he enjoyed variety, sleeping with both men and women, whenever he could, although it always pleased Jensen to know that he was the most long-lasting of Jeff’s extramarital affairs and, he suspected, the only one Jeff had any real emotional connection with. He’s pretty sure Melinda knew – still knows – about Jeff’s proclivities and about him, but she never made much of an effort to do anything about it. The entire setup just seemed to him back then to be another reason why marriage was an outdated, hypocritical and entirely pointless concept.
It’s a view that he still finds hard to shake now, though he does realize the hypocrisy. But he and Jared got married for a specific reason: for Jonah, to help them win the custody battle against Dorothy and Robert, to prove that they were a serious and responsible family unit. He saw himself as using marriage as a tool back then, as something to battle the straight people with. But despite that, he really did mean the words he said to Jared that day: ‘til death do us part. He’s always known that Jared is his only chance at a real relationship. If things don’t work with Jared, then that’s it for him, he’s never going to find anyone else who’ll put up with his bullshit. But Jared’s not like him, Jared’s a self-confessed serial monogamist. Jared had loads of boyfriends before him and he was always faithful to them. Jared always wanted them to be monogamous, he never enjoyed any of the open parts of their relationship. If they break up, if Jensen fucks up even more royally than he is currently doing and Jared leaves him, then Jared will find someone else. Not that Jensen’s going to let that happen without a fight. He’s going to cling onto Jared with every selfish, possessive bone in his body.
As if in response to his thoughts, his phone goes off with Jared’s ringtone. He fishes it out of his pocket, presses the button to decline the call and send Jared through to voicemail. He’ll call him later when Jeff isn’t hanging around. Jeff’s watching him with obvious interest though, gaze fixed on him as he takes another sip of his coffee. He lowers his cup, says, “That the little woman?”
Jensen gives him a look. “It was Jared, if that’s what you mean.”
Jeff shrugs, his mouth is curled up into a gentle smirk, his eyes alight. “Just amuses me, the thought of you married and settled, a kid, a husband. Never thought I’d see the day.”
“Yeah, well, things change,” he says. People die, he wants to add, my friends died. I almost lost my son, I almost lost Jared. Puts things into perspective.
Jeff flicks him a look, it’s lingering, penetrating, a little unnerving. “You gonna visit the Memorial before you leave? Take the kid?” He jerks his head towards Jonah who’s now on one of the swings, legs pumping as he gets higher and higher.
“I don’t know,” he says honestly. “I know I should, but, well. You know how it is.”
“If you want company, moral support, a manly shoulder to cry on, whatever – then give me a call,” Jeff says. He leans closer, nudges Jensen with his shoulder. Jensen glances up, catches his eye. He looks sympathetic, genuine, about as genuine as Jeff ever gets. He drops a hand to Jensen’s knee and Jensen stills, stares down at it, warm and solid on his thigh. He thinks about how many times he’s been touched by that hand. It should feel familiar to him, and yet, it’s not – not anymore at least. Now it just feels strange and too heavy. Jeff gives his thigh a couple of pats before he removes his hand. Jensen tries not to breathe an audible sigh of relief and looks up again. Jeff’s looking a little sad, an ironic shape to his mouth and in his gaze. “I mean it, sweetheart,” he adds.
Jensen’s heart skips a beat at the old endearment. He swallows, says, “Thanks. And yeah, yeah, I know you do.”
Jeff sighs and gets to his feet. The sun is behind him, catching the grey in his hair. He looks older, and Jensen wonders suddenly just how old he must look to Jeff. He was 21 when they first met, when Jeff agreed to be interviewed for Jensen’s undergraduate thesis. He ended that interview on his knees, sucking Jeff’s cock. He was so young back then and he looked it and Jeff loved that about him. It’s weird to think that Jared was practically that age when they met, that there was a similar power differential between him and Jared as there was between him and Jeff. The age gap had seemed like a big deal back then when Jared was the 20-year-old intern and he was the 28-year-old boss. It still feels significant now that he’s 35 (Jesus, 35), and Jared’s still only 27.
He wonders suddenly what Jeff would say if he told him about his current predicament. The fact that even if he weren’t married and had no intention of cheating on his husband, he wouldn’t be physically capable anyway. Knowing Jeff, he would probably think it was hilarious.
“Jensen, I’ve been thinking it through, and I think I’m just going to move the rail division. The rest of it is yours. Still yours,” Jeff says, meeting and keeping his gaze.
Jensen does a quick calculation in his head. The rail stuff is probably only around 20 percent of the Morgan Industries work they currently bill for. It still means they’re going to have to make some changes, and with the other accounts that have jumped ship in the last three quarters, they will definitely need to cut back more than they’re already doing. All those account managers who aren’t hitting target are going out the door for a start. But if Jeff’s being serious with this, then that means the office will survive. They’ll need to change things for sure, but still. They’ll be okay.
Jensen swallows and nods, when he speaks his voice is a little hoarse, “Thanks.”
Jeff’s mouth quirks and he nods. “You’re welcome. As you said the other night, you’ve been good for us. And really, you should see the guys at Grey and Mason, not one of them can hold a candle to you. Nowhere near as pretty.”
Jensen laughs, rolls his eyes. “Asshole.”
Jeff grins, a full-wattage special. “Be seeing you, sweetheart.”
Jensen watches him walk away, watches him toss the empty coffee cup in the trash as he makes his way out the park. Jensen lets out a long exhale of breath and finishes his own (now cold) coffee. He takes out his phone to call Jared and give him the good news.
He leaves Jonah with Dorothy and Robert for a few hours after the park. Jonah scrunches up his face and looks like he’s about to complain, but Dorothy interrupts with promises of lunch at Chuck E Cheese, and Jonah shuts up, grinning happily and barely remembering to wave goodbye when Jensen gets back into his rental.
He drives to his old loft apartment first. He pulls up on the opposite side of the street and stares out the window at it. This was the place where Jonah was conceived, or at least the place where he jerked off into a paper cup, handed it over to Carmela and Addie, along with the turkey baster, and got the hell out of there while they did whatever it was they did to create his son.
This was the first place he owned that was all his, the first place where he lived on his own. He can still remember the day the realtor showed him and Stefan and Addie around, how Stef wrinkled his nose and pointed out the many deficiencies, the exposed wires and damp, insisting Jensen was crazy to buy somewhere in this neighborhood now matter how cheap it was. In contrast, Addie was vibrating with excitement, gushing about the potential, the awesome size of the place, how this was an up and coming neighborhood and Stef knew nothing. Addie was an architectural graduate, training to be an interior decorator at the time. After he bought the place, Jensen gave her a wad of cash and told her to go to town. He smiles at the memory, and starts the engine again, turning the car in the direction of the Memorial Building.
The Memorial Building looks quiet when he pulls up outside. It opened only four months after the bombing, six months before they got the hell out of Dallas and moved east to set up the New York office. Even when they were still living in Dallas, Jensen avoided the place as much as he could. Jared used to come here for prayer meetings and group counseling sessions, but he never went. He understands why Jared used to go, he lost people too after all; his best friend, Chad, whose death still makes Jared feel guilty, despite all that counseling and praying.
Thinking of Chad still makes Jensen want to laugh – in that way you do when the situation is so fucking ridiculous you can’t do anything else. Chad wasn’t at the Center that night because he was supporting Jared or giving his all for the big gay cause or anything like that, Chad was there because he was chasing after Addie. Jensen can still remember the shit he used to give Chad for his hopeless crush on the hot married lesbian. But then, his relationship with Chad was always shaky; they never liked each other much, him and Chad. More accurately, Chad never liked him, while Jensen had a grudging respect for the guy. Chad was pretty assholish, but he looked out for Jared. That last breakup, the really fucking brutal one just before the bombing, Chad was there for Jared, and Jensen was relieved to know that Jared had someone on his side. Not that most of Jensen’s friends weren’t also on Jared’s side by that point.
He’s tried to drum it into Jared’s head that Chad was at the Center that night because he wanted in Addie’s pants, not because he was giving Jared moral support, or doing it for their friendship. Chad’s cause was usually related to his dick, he was a man after Jensen’s own heart that way. But Jared’s never listened to Jensen, always insisted that it was his fault, saying, “Yeah, but he only met Addie because of me. I was the one who introduced them, so he was still there because of me.”
As for Jensen, all his friends knew better than to try to involve him in any of their causes. None of them even tried to get him to attend that night.
Jensen swallows, sets his shoulders and walks through the doors. With its grey stone and hushed ponderous silence, the building has always reminded him of a church, which is probably the point. The crowd of squat white candles arrayed across the table on one side of the wall, some of them lit in memory of the dead, just lends even more to the fake, holy atmosphere.
The place symbolizes everything he hates about the American culture of sentimentality and self-indulgence in mourning. Everyone feels entitled to a piece of these people’s lives, especially all of gay America, because this is what this place is: a pilgrimage site for gay America. The Dallas Memorial Center regularly appears on the list of Top 10 Tourist Spots for LGBT Folk, or whatever the fuck those lists are called. It’s a place where their fellow lesbians and gays can go to cry and mourn for people they never met, somewhere where they can give into that mawkish, self-pitying streak that Jensen loathes about every torch song he’s ever heard. He might be an expert on playing on people’s heart-strings and getting at that deep yearning for nostalgia or envy or emptiness or whatever it is that drives society’s endless consumerism, but Jensen doesn’t do sentimental and he doesn’t do self-pity, and he hates that the people he loves have been co-opted into this.
There are a couple of guys standing over the candles in the corner, another guy and woman standing in front of the Memorial Wall, talking together in hushed tones, like they really are in church. One of the guys turns to look at him as Jensen walks over. He’s got tears in his eyes and when he locks eyes with Jensen he looks defiant, like he’s daring Jensen to say something about his show of emotion. Jensen resists the urge to roll his eyes; instead he heads for the Memorial Wall.
The Wall takes up one entire side of the main room, a plaque announcing that it’s “dedicated to the memories of our never forgotten twenty five brothers and sisters, killed on this site on February, 24th, 2009.” Framed photographs of the victims are arranged alphabetically, the vivid color of their faces a deliberate contrast to the grey stone behind, names and dates under the smiling faces in fancy copperplate. Jensen runs his eyes over them, flinching as he reaches and passes Chad Michael Murray 1983-2009 and giving himself a moment before he stops in front of Stefan Tobias Greenway 1976-2009.
The picture is from Stef’s high school yearbook, taken only months before Jensen first met him, when Stef still had those appalling bangs and God, the frosted tips, he’d forgotten about the frosted tips. Stef shaved his hair off months later, which was Ewan McGregor’s fault for looking so freaking hot in Trainspotting. Stef didn’t look like Ewan McGregor though, he looked like a cancer victim, which Jensen delighted in telling him at the time. It took months for Stef’s hair to grow back. But here he is, commemorated forever with those fucking atrocious bangs and frosted tips, back in the days when he hadn’t yet earned enough money to get his teeth fixed. Stef would be devastated if he knew how many people had seen this picture, people who now all thought of Stefan Greenway, victim of the Dallas Gay & Lesbian Center bombing, as the twinky looking dude with curtain bangs, frosted tips and crooked teeth. Maybe his parents really did hate him, as he used to dramatically proclaim, considering they chose that picture to immortalize their son forever.
At least Robert and Dorothy had been kinder to Addie. Jensen pauses in front of the two pictures of Addie and Carmela. They’re placed together, as their families had requested: Carmela Rizzi 1975-2009 and Adrianne Louise Palicki, 1977-2009. Both pictures are from their wedding. In hers, Addie’s looking away from the camera at something else, something out of focus. There’s a small, private smile on her face, and her eyelashes are half lowered. She looks so beautiful it makes his chest hurt, the way her wide, generous mouth curls, the freckles on her cheeks, her shining blue-green eyes. She looks a lot like Jonah.
He swallows down the lump in his throat and gets out of there.
The first time Jensen noticed Jared was at Stefan’s weekly creative department meeting. He never took much notice of the interns usually, unless they were hot and obviously gay, and then that was a different matter. Jensen’s main concern was the clients: account development, relationship management, selling and pitching and giving lots of verbal handjobs – that was his thing. Stef was in charge of art and creative and all that pesky HR shit that drove Jensen crazy. It’s one of the many things he misses about not having Stef around anymore, and probably one of the reasons why the company’s in the kinda shit it’s in now.
Jensen’s first impression of Jared was hot, his second impression, whoa, tall, his third impression, hmm, not just a pretty face, this kid has talent. The work Jared presented to the rest of the creative team was good: coupons he’d designed for the Turner Hosiery account, just some illustrations to go in women’s magazines, but they were good with just the right sort of appeal for the target market. Jensen ended up staying for the entire meeting, which was unusual for him; he never attended internal meetings unless he absolutely had to. He can remember the look Stef gave him afterwards, the murderous, don’t you fucking dare, gleam in his eyes as Jensen watched Jared’s ass when he left the room. Jensen just smirked at Stef and later that day he cancelled his 12 o’clock and joined the rest of the creative department at their Friday lunchtime basketball game in the parking lot.
He can remember how Jared watched him during the game and how he was aware of it the whole time. He tried a little harder, hustled a little more, playing with more edge than usual. He can remember facing Jared down, remember snatching the ball from the kid’s hands, remember how Jared retaliated and intercepted a pass. He was impressed, pleased that Jared wasn’t too chicken-shit to take on the boss. Afterwards, he shook Jared’s hand, holding on for just a little too long, while he complimented him on a good game. Jared flushed with pleasure and grinned at him, the dimples popping in his cheeks, and Jensen can still recall the physical effect of that smile on him, the way his fingers tingled when he finally dropped Jared’s hand and the way his dick swelled in his sweatpants. He watched Jared walk away, naked torso gleaming with sweat, shirt tucked into the back of his shorts, and he felt an overwhelming urge to get down on his knees and lick the backs of Jared’s long, muscled calves.
He ran into Jared about 30 minutes later outside the washrooms. Jared was waiting his turn for the shower, still in his basketball shorts and hi-tops, t-shirt slung around his neck, hair damp with sweat and all which ways. He stuttered out an apology on seeing Jensen, stammering something about how there was a line and the guys said there was an order and he was new, so he had to shower last, which was gross because who knew how many of them had gone before him and what they’d been doing in there. Jensen took pity on him. Already groomed and showered himself, he held out the key to the executive bathroom, saying, “Consider yourself upgraded. And don’t tell anyone I let you use it.”
Jared took the key from him, giving Jensen another glimpse of that dazzling grin before he hurried away. He stopped by Jensen’s office about ten minutes later, his hair flattened to his scalp and shirt sticking to his chest where he hadn’t dried off properly. He knocked on the door of Jensen’s office and came in, all apologies, holding out the key. Jensen looked up from his computer, and he can still remember the feeling of want that overwhelmed him, of pure lust and heady arousal. He stretched out his hand over the desk and caught hold of Jared’s wrist. The key fell from Jared’s fingers onto a pile of spreadsheets. He could feel the throb of Jared’s pulse under his fingertips and he watched Jared swallow, watched him slowly raise his eyes from the place where Jensen was touching him, to Jensen’s face. He licked his lips nervously, and Jensen traced the path of that velvety pink tongue.
“So, what are you doing later, after work? Do you have any plans?” Jensen asked.
Jared shook his head vigorously. “No, no plans.”
“Okay.” Jensen smiled at him, his most winning, most predatory smile. “Then, I think we should get a drink together. Would you like that?”
Jared nodded and then he was smiling again, the dimples back as the smile broadened. “Yeah, yeah. I’d really like to. I mean, yes that sounds good.”
They did go for a drink, two drinks in fact, before Jensen invited Jared back to his place for a third. Jared didn’t hesitate, just gazed at him over the rim of his glass and nodded. Jensen can still remember the feeling of anticipation curling in his gut as he drove them back to his loft. He’d done this so many times before, picked up so many guys and taken them back to his place. It didn’t feel any different with Jared than all those other times, but he can remember how much he wanted Jared, how his gaze kept flicking to Jared’s long, long legs, to his tousled hair and the glimmer of sweat on his upper lip.
Jared was still wearing his work shirt and he looked like an overgrown kid in it, the sleeves too short, exposing long bony wrists. Jensen wanted to lick over his wrists, bite down on the meat of his palm and taste the sweaty, salty skin under his leather watch strap. He watched Jared’s hands when the car stopped at a red light, seeing them tap out a restless beat on his long, muscled thighs. Jensen had never been with a guy with hands that big before, and he couldn’t wait to feel them against his skin.
He didn’t even bother offering Jared a drink when they got to his place. He slung off his jacket, unknotted his tie, and kicked off his shoes and socks, making himself comfortable. Jared was gazing around him with a look that was something like awe. He blinked when he saw Jensen approach, looking a little like a deer in the headlights, but he stood his ground. Jensen stopped directly in front of him, curled his hand around Jared’s neck, and pulled him down into a kiss.
Jared sunk into it, his own hands sliding up to cup Jensen’s face, kissing him back with a ferocity that took Jensen by surprise and made him clutch at Jared harder. He twisted his fingers in Jared’s shirt, tugging it out of his pants, suddenly desperate to get at his bare skin. The shirt-tails flapped free and Jensen pushed his hand underneath the thin cotton to sweep over the small of Jared’s back, feeling him tremble and arch into Jensen as Jensen’s hand crawled up his back. Jared’s skin was smooth and hot, his spine knobby under Jensen’s fingers. He pulled out of the kiss and ducked his head, breath coming hot and fast against Jensen’s cheek.
“Hey, you okay?”Jensen whispered into the side of Jared’s mouth.
“Yeah, I. Yeah.”
“You want to carry on?”
“God, yes,” Jared breathed.
Jensen chuckled and tilted his head back, meeting Jared’s heavy-lidded gaze. “Good, ‘cause I’m not stopping now.”
He tangled their fingers together and tugged Jared towards the spiral stairs which led up to the balcony bedroom suite. Once upstairs, he stood by the bed and watched Jared wander towards the balcony, peering over it, down at the rest of the loft below: the couches and TV, the huge corner kitchen, the corner office, the glass dining table where he never actually entertained anyone.
“God, this place is amazing,” Jared said, turning around.
Jensen smirked and pulled his shirt out of his dress pants. He could feel Jared’s eyes on him, gaze rolling down his chest as he slowly unbuttoned his shirt. He unfastened his cufflinks carefully, placed them on the nightstand, and shrugged the shirt off his shoulders until he was just in his undershirt. He pulled that off over his head and tossed it to the floor in one smooth motion, leaving him half-naked. Jared was still staring at him, his eyes dark and face flushed.
“Jesus, you’re like. I knew you were hot before, at work. But you’re, like, crazy hot,” Jared said at last.
Jensen forced back the urge to laugh. “So people tell me.”
“Right, yeah, course.” Jared bit his lip and dragged his hand through his hair. “I’m not normally this much of an incoherent dork, but. You’re really attractive, and you’re the boss, and I don’t want to. I mean, I like working at Providence and I don’t want to screw things up, but I really don’t want to go home right now.”
Jensen chuckled. “Hey, relax. This is my call. I’m not going to fire you or give you a shitty grade or do anything to fuck up your career, okay? This is,” he waved a hand between them, “this is just us. Pretend you met me in a club. Pretend you don’t know I’m the boss. Can you do that?”
Slowly Jared nodded, eyes locked on Jensen’s face. “Yes, yeah. I can do that.”
“Good boy.” Jensen flicked open his fly and let his pants slide down his legs to pool around his feet. He stepped out of them, leaving him in just in his boxer briefs. “Now get your ass over here.”
They fell to the bed, Jensen stripping Jared of his cheap cotton shirt and badly-fitting suit, layering kisses over every new strip of skin as it was exposed. Jared shuddered and clutched at him, ground his leaking cock against Jensen’s hip and begged for it. He begged so damn well that Jensen was really fucking close by the time he rolled the condom on and plunged his cock into Jared’s perfect ass.
He fucked Jared twice that night, once wasn’t nearly enough to satisfy them, and he found himself pushing inside Jared again, needing to feel him, to watch him fall apart again. The next morning, it was just the same: the two of them in the shower together, his mouth on Jared’s neck, his hand on Jared’s cock. Jared was no virgin, that was for damn sure. He knew what he was doing with those long, long limbs and huge clever hands. And he was so responsive, surrendering himself completely to Jensen in a way that was intoxicating. And Jensen couldn’t get enough of him.
It was only three days later that Jared came home with him again. It was a Tuesday night this time, and this time not at the office. They were at Guy’s Bar, him and Stefan and some of the old crowd, just hanging out, moaning about the lack of hot bodies, about all the freaking college kids that had started to invade their favorite bar.
Jensen went to the bathroom at one point, taking the opportunity to properly cruise the crowd. He froze when he spotted the familiar profile: Jared. Jared hanging out with a group of college kids, playing pool, Jared wearing a paint-spattered t-shirt, frayed jeans and flip-flops, Jared with his hair wild and falling in his eyes, Jared completely at ease, laughing and joking with his friends and just – having a good time. Jensen stopped to watch, caught by the tantalizing curve of Jared’s spine as he leaned over the table to take his shot, by the uninhibited, enthusiastic way he threw his hands up in the air to cheer when he potted the ball, exposing a strip of skin at his waist and the waistband of his boxer briefs.
He can remember the jolt of want to his gut when Jared looked over and saw him watching, when their gazes collided and locked. He can remember the way the heat flooded into Jared’s already pink cheeks, the way his eyes darkened and he licked his lips involuntarily. Jensen smirked and turned back towards the men’s room, and he knew without looking back that Jared was following him.
They crowded into a stall, Jensen pushing Jared up against the wall and fisting a handful of his shirt. Jared thrust his hips into Jensen’s, grabbed his face in his big hands and mashed their mouths together. It was heated and desperate and they left together five minutes later with sticky gross jeans.
After that, Jared was staying at his place, two… three… sometimes even four nights a week. After that, there were late nights in the office where Jared sunk to his knees under Jensen’s desk and sucked him off, times when they tested the integrity of the tables in every conference room. After that Jared was getting to know Addie and Stef and the rest of the guys, tagging along when they went out and turning up at Jensen’s place without prior arrangement. Of course, there were also nights when Jensen kicked him out, when he told him he had other plans. He was still involved with Jeff Morgan after all, and there were other guys, other hookups, and he really wasn’t ready to get all exclusive with some freaking college kid, no matter how hot he was or how awesome the sex was.
But despite Jensen’s best intentions, Jared’s paint-spattered hoodies and ancient jeans and cheap-ass suits kept getting mixed up with Jensen’s Gucci and Armani. Jared had his own toothbrush in Jensen’s bathroom cabinet, sitting alongside his own stick of deodorant and razor (not that the kid needed to shave that often). They had their own particular brand of lube and condoms which Jensen never used with anyone else.
Jensen’s had a lot of sex with a lot of people, but he’s willing to admit that Jared’s the only person he’s never managed to get over. Every time they broke up and Jared walked away from him, fed up with Jensen’s bullshit and not getting the real relationship he always wanted, Jensen always ended up going after him, talking him back into his life and into his bed. In retrospect, it was probably unfair of him, he hadn’t been prepared to compromise or give into Jared’s demands for them to be exclusive, but he was even less prepared to let Jared go for good.
He can remember Stef sighing and shaking his head at him, saying, “Why him, man? Sure, he’s easy on the eye, but you could have anyone, so why him? He’s just a kid, what’s the big friggin’ deal about him?” And Jensen would shrug and feel uncomfortable and never find the words to explain to Stef just what it was Jared did to him, how he made him feel when they were together. But there’s something so damn endearing about Jared, something more than the perfect body or big smile or dorky sense of humor. Something that cuts right through all the armor Jensen’s spent his entire life building up and just gets to him and gets at him. So even after they broke up the first… second… third… fourth time, all of Jared’s crap just seemed to stay in Jensen’s apartment, as if they both always knew it was inevitable.
After Jensen collects Jonah from his grandparents’ place, there’s one more stop they have to make before they can set off for the airport. Jensen drives the short, familiar route from Dorothy and Robert’s house to his own childhood home, feeling painfully nostalgic. He pulls the rental car up outside the house and sits there for a few seconds, staring out at the place where he grew up.
He remembers the first time he brought Jared here, which was Addie’s fault for blabbing to his sister, Diana, about the cute intern Jensen was totally in love with and kept taking home with him. Naturally, Diana wasn’t able to let that one go. So Jensen brought Jared here one Sunday afternoon about nine months after they’d met. Of course, Diana fell totally in love with him and fussed over him while Jared laughed at all her lame jokes and embarrassing stories about Jensen’s childhood.
“I never thought it would be so – normal,” Jared said afterwards, which made Jensen laugh. But it was strange to think that while his own childhood was relatively mundane (save for his mom running off with the piano tuner when he was eight), Jared’s childhood was anything but: moving from city to city, state to state, even country to country, tagging along after Agnes as she chased her fading dreams of stardom and success. It’s probably why Jared’s always wanted the marriage and kids thing so much, craving that family stability he missed out on when he was a kid.
“Dad! Can I get out?”
Jonah’s voice jolts him from his thoughts and Jensen looks over to see him snapping off his seatbelt and reaching for the door handle. His teenage nephews, Dan and Shane, are shooting hoops in the front yard, and he watches them stop their game when they notice the car. Dan picks up the ball, tucks it under his arm as they wander over to say hello.
“Hi, Uncle Jensen! Hey, short-stuff!” they call out to Jonah who jumps out of the car and bounds over towards them. They’re both tall, Dan looking like he’s topping six feet, taller than Jensen now. He bends over to ruffle Jonah’s hair and show him some confusing handshake, which Jonah watches avidly, brow furrowed in concentration. Dan’s got to be 18 or 19 now, he graduated high school the year before and Jensen remembers Diana saying something about him attending catering college, training to be a chef. Shane’s a couple of years younger, in his junior year at the same high school Jensen attended. Christ, it makes him feel old, he can remember them being born, remember babysitting them with Addie, remember studying for his SATs wearing headphones, trying to block out the noise of one of the damn babies crying.
He shades his eyes and sees his sister’s shadow take form through the screen door of the house. She thrusts it open, and stands there, arms folded, a smile on her face.
“There’s my boy,” she says.
He rolls his eyes but he’s smiling when he steps onto the porch and pulls her into a hug. She pats his back a couple of times, smoothes her hands over his shirt.
“So what’s this? Cashmere? Silk?” she says.
“Like you would know,” he scoffs.
She throws her head back and laughs, full and throaty, her eyes glinting at him as she says, “Meow. My little brother, still such a bitch.” He tugs on his arm, pulling him inside, turning to yell over her shoulder, “Boys! Don’t stay out for too long!” Jensen glances at Jonah, sees the kid’s already got Shane tossing the ball to him, Dan standing back and twiddling with his phone. “C’mon, he’ll be fine,” Diana says. “You and me need to talk.”
He lets her pull him inside, to the kitchen with its whirring loud refrigerator and even louder AC unit. He takes a seat at the same kitchen table he sat at when he was growing up. There are new tiles around the stove, but apart from that, nothing is changed, same linoleum, same color paint on the walls, same ancient clanking refrigerator and equally ancient stove.
Diana yanks the door of the refrigerator open and takes out an enormous pitcher of ice tea. She pours a glass and sets it down in front of him before taking the seat opposite him.
“Talk to me. How are things?” she asks.
He blows out a breath. “Things are… okay.” He doesn’t bother lying. He’s never been able to lie to his big sister, not when he was eight years old and trying to hide his nighttime accidents, not when he was thirty two and miserable because Jared had left him that last horrible time and he didn’t know what to do with his life without him. She was the one who told him to go after Jared, to swallow his stupid pride and his stupid ideas about what gay men are supposed to want out of life, and just go for what he really wanted.
“Okay, huh?” She raises her eyebrows at him. “I guess that’s better than nothing.”
“Well, I guess it could be worse.” He makes a face at her and she laughs and leans over the table to brush her fingers over his wrist. “Oh, baby,” she says. “Tell me what’s really bothering you. And I’m not just talking about what’s going on with the business, because I know you, and I know there’s something else.”
He rolls his eyes self-deprecatingly, feeling vaguely ridiculous. Of all the people he knows, Diana is probably the one person he can talk to about this. For a starter, she’s been a nurse for 25 years, she’s seen about every embarrassing ailment it’s possible to see. Then there’s also the fact that Diana is probably the most accepting, most tolerant and most easy-going person he’s ever known – which, considering all the crap she’s been through, is pretty fucking amazing. And finally, there’s the part where Diana loves him and challenges him and pushes him and is the only person who doesn’t let him get away with anything.
“I’ve been having some problems. With, uh, sexual performance,” he says at last, staring down into his ice tea. He watches the ice chunks float and crash against the sides of the glass, the segment of lemon bob up and down. “And it’s not Jared’s fault. It’s me. It’s all me.”
“How long’s it been going on?” she asks. She sounds completely unfazed, and it’s such a fucking relief to hear the matter-of-factness in her voice that he finally feels capable of raising his head and looking at her. She’s not looking sympathetic, thank God, she’s just looking mildly interested. Hell, she’s looking professional.
He clears his throat, says, “About three months.”
“Have you seen anyone about this? Spoken to anyone?”
“No, not exactly,” he admits. “I’ve read stuff online. I read that it can be something physical. So I went for an exam. I was due for my annual check-up anyway, you know, for the insurance. But I got a clean bill, pretty much. My blood pressure’s a little high – which wasn’t that surprising.”
“No, it’s not,” she says, giving him a look.
He smiles sheepishly. “Yeah, well, they said it’s pretty normal for someone my age with a stressful job and coffee and booze and… Quit looking at me like that, I’m cutting down. I promise.”
“Glad to hear it,” she says approvingly.
“Yeah, yeah, okay, whatever. But anyway, the point is I don’t have diabetes or a heart condition or any of those things that can be a cause of – of it. And I’m not on any medication or anything like that. So…” he breaks off, sighs. “I know it’s all up here.” He taps the side of his head with his finger. “If you say anything about how damn normal this is, or how many guys will suffer from this in their lifetimes then I’ll. Well, I don’t know what I’ll do, but hey, fratricide, that covers annoying older sisters who give crappy advice, right?”
She snorts at him and shakes her head. The unimpressed look on her face is uncannily like his own – it’s weird, though also, weirdly comforting. “You brought this up. Now, tell me. Does this only happen when it’s you and Jared together, or do you experience the same problem when you’re on your own?”
He resists the urge to groan and hide his head in his hands and never look up again. Seriously, what the hell was he thinking when he decided to discuss this with Diana of all people? Sure, she’s a nurse, and sure, they do have history with these kinds of embarrassing discussions, she has the double distinction of being the person who gave him The Talk and being the first person he came out to. Without her, he’s not even sure he would ever have survived his adolescence.
“It depends,” he says at last.
“So you can still masturbate?” she says.
“Yes, Di, I can still masturbate.”
“Then you probably also know that that means it’s likely to be a psychological problem?”
“Yup, I pretty much figured that out. Like I told you. Not that it helps much.”
“Sure it does!” She leans forward over the table, drops her hands onto his again. “Listen, there are tons of reasons men experience this problem, and some of them are things we don’t even want to consider. Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, diabetes. Jensen, it could be a lot worse. You just need to talk to someone. Hell, you should’ve done that years ago, after everything that happened. Plus, have you never heard of Viagra?”
“Of course I’ve heard of it!” he says exasperatedly. “I’ve tried it too. Years ago. There was all this bullshit going around about how it makes sex better and how it makes your dick look bigger – which was all total crap, of course. Didn’t seem to make much of a difference to me.”
“Well, no, of course it wouldn’t. Not when everything’s functioning properly. It’s not supposed to make your dick look bigger, honey, it’s supposed to help you maintain an erection.” She sits back in her chair and sighs. “Promise me you’ll go see a doctor. Soon as you get home. Ask them for a referral to a therapist and ask them for a prescription for a PDE5 inhibitor. That’s the fancy medical term for what Viagra is. And don’t feel embarrassed, they prescribe it all the damn time.”
He meets her eyes, sees her mouth curl up into one of her characteristic sideways smiles. “Okay,” he says, feeling his own mouth start to curl upwards too. “Okay, if you say so.”
“Good boy,” she says and pats his hand. She gets up from the table. “Now, I’m gonna call them all in. They shouldn’t be out so long in this heat.”
He wanders around downstairs while Jonah goes through an enormous pile of Dan and Shane’s old toys that Diana’s hauled down from the attic.
“You do realize we’re flying back!” he calls up the stairs to where she’s presenting toys to Jonah who excitedly nods yes to every one and tosses them into a growing pile. “I’m not paying for extra luggage space!”
“Quit being such a buzzkill!” she calls back, and he hears Jonah snicker.
He rolls his eyes and strolls into the living room. Just like the kitchen, it hasn’t changed much. Still the same wallpaper, same carpet, same soft furnishings. Diana’s not the kind of woman who’s overly house-proud; she doesn’t make enough money or have enough time for it, and what she does make goes towards feeding and clothing the two boys, keeping her car on the road and paying the mortgage and other bills. She’s always refused to take any money from him, saying that what he pays for their father’s care at the hospice is enough.
There’s a baby grand piano in the corner of the living room, one that belonged to their mom before she walked out on them when he was eight years old. It probably hasn’t been played since she left. Certainly, he and Di never learned to play, and Dan and Shane don’t either. It’s more of a dust collector, an interesting kooky shelf for all of Diana’s many photographs. There are ones of them as kids, not that many of them both together as kids given the 12 year age gap, but there’s teenage Di and toddler Jensen amongst them, Boy Scout Jensen and trainee nurse Diana. There’s his senior prom portrait: him and Addie in their formalwear, his baseball team photo and high school yearbook photo. There are photos of him and Stefan from their college days, him and Addie and new-born baby Jonah, him and Jared on their wedding day, though Diana’s own wedding picture is glaringly absent. There are lots of pictures of the kids, of Jonah and Dan and Shane over the years. There are pictures of their father and both sets of grandparents. There are no pictures of their mom.
He picks up the picture of Addie and him at Senior Prom. He brushes his thumb over Addie’s face. A sound startles him and he jerks his head up to see Diana enter the room. She comes up to him and puts her hand on his arm, looking down at the picture in his hands.
“She really was beautiful,” she says. “I remember the first time you brought her round here, the two of you were working on a project together?”
“Journalism. We were supposed to write a local-interest story. I wanted to do one about a couple who had a murder suicide pact that went wrong. The guy died but the woman ended up looking like a ghoul with a horrific head injury and tons of plastic surgery. Addie was against it, she said it was too morbid.”
“She was right.” She gives him a fond look. “God, you were such a strange child. I did worry about you. Addie was so good for you – she came along at just the right time, got you out of that teenage funk.” She takes the photo from him and puts it back carefully onto the piano. “You know she’s not really gone, honey. She’s still here. In Jonah, and in our memories, even in photographs. That’s what happens. People die, but parts of them live on.”
“Right, yeah, the circle of life,” he says bitterly.
“You know, you really are far too cynical. There’s no reason for it.”
“Right,” he says under his breath.
She puts her hand on his arm again, tugs him around. “Yeah, right. Listen to me, you have a job you love, even when it drives you mad, your own company, something you created. You have a gorgeous little boy, a fantastic and unfairly attractive husband who for some reason thinks you hung the moon. So, you’ve lost some people, so has everybody.”
“They’re not just some people,” he grits out.
Her expression softens; she strokes her hand down his arm. “I know. I know, baby. But at some point, you’re going to have to start thinking about what you do have and not about what you’ve lost. You have to let them go. Think about your future, about Jared and Jonah and what’s good for them. I thought that was what you wanted when you moved east. It’s why I didn’t object to losing you. Much,” she amends, with a curl to her lip.
He closes his eyes, breathes in and out for a couple of seconds. He wants to be mad at her, can feel the irritation niggling under his skin, the urge to shake her and tell her that she doesn’t fucking know, she has no fucking idea. She doesn’t know what happened that night; she doesn’t know how long they were trapped before they died. She doesn’t know how long they were suffering, how fucking terrified they must have been in the dark, choking on smoke and dust, crushed by the weight of all that concrete and stone and glass, knowing they were going to die.
He and Jared weren’t there. They should’ve been there, but they weren’t. And Jared would’ve been there if Jensen hadn’t had his big fat gay revelation earlier that evening, the punch in the gut that was: I’m miserable, I miss him, I don’t want to live without him, I want him back. The one fucking time in his life he went out and laid everything on the line, that night when he turned up at Jared’s doorstep and did what his big sister told him to do, telling Jared the big fat truth: I love you, I can’t live without you. I’m sorry, please, take me back. Please tell me you love me.
And Jared was supposed to be at the Center with the others, he should’ve been there, but he wasn’t, because Jared stepped back to let him inside, the door thudding closed behind Jensen as he crowded up into Jared’s body, reaching to cup his face, his perfect fucking face, and they kissed right there, right on the freaking doormat. Jared led him up the stairs to his tiny studio apartment, every inch of space covered in paint supplies and half-finished canvasses, one skinny single bed in the corner that was too small for Jared, never mind both of them, so they lay out on top of paint-spattered dust sheets and made love. Jared whispered in his ear: say it again, please, say it again, Jensen, tell me again... and so he had, again and again, saying the words he’d always been too chicken shit to tell him: I love you, I can’t live without you, please, Jared, I’m miserable without you, I love you....
They ignored everything, their phones switched off and forgotten, just the two of them, no outside world, just him and Jared fucking on the floor of a dirty studio apartment. And then after the second time, Jared got up to fetch beer and Jensen turned on the black and white portable TV, and the world fell apart.
He feels Diana draw away from him, saying, “I’ll see if I’ve got a suitcase for all those toys you’re taking back with you.”
“Okay,” he mumbles. He’s not looking at her, eyes fixed on the photo of Addie and him at Prom. He can remember how he held her close and she laid her head on his shoulder when they danced to Smashing Pumpkins’ Landslide. He can remember thinking about how much he loved her and how beautiful she was and how good they looked together and what a shame it was that the thought of going down on her made him want to barf.
“Are you going to stop by and see Dad on your way out of town?” Diana asks.
He whips his head around and the memories fall away. He swallows over the lie: “No. We won’t have time if we want to catch our flight.”
She gives him her disappointed look. “I’ll pass on your love to him next time I see him then?”
Don’t bother, he wants to say, but he nods at her instead. “Okay. Yeah. Do that.”
Jensen leans back in his airplane seat, plastic tumbler of whiskey on the drinks tray in front of him. Beside him, Jonah has his head bent over Jensen’s tablet, watching The Lion King and wearing Jensen’s expensive Bose headphones, which are so big on him they look like they’re swallowing his head.
Jensen peers over his shoulder and watches the movie for a few seconds. The circle of freaking life, he thinks, except, that kinda crap might work for a load of animals but real life isn’t like that. He lost his best friends and Jonah lost his mom and they’re never going to see them again. They died in one of the most horrible ways there is to die because some fucked-up, evil sonofabitch hated gay people. She’s never going to see her son grow up, and Jonah’s never going to know his mom, and Jensen will never see her again or talk to her again. Never. Because he might’ve been raised nominally Baptist, but he doesn’t believe in the afterlife or heaven. When you die, you die and that’s it. There’s nothing else. All there is is what you leave behind: kids, art, business, people who care about you.
He swallows back the bitter flood of thoughts with a long swig of whiskey, and turns his head to look at his son. Jonah’s paused the video and pulled off the headphones. He’s regarding Jensen solemnly.
“Do you think Jared would be mad if I called him dad too?” Jonah says.
Jensen blinks, surprised. “No. No, course he won’t be mad. Why’d you ask that?”
Jonah looks thoughtful. “I was thinking that it wasn’t fair to Jared that I didn’t call him something else,” he says, like it’s an obvious explanation.
“Okay,” Jensen says slowly, “and that means?”
“Because your name is Jensen, but you’re Dad, ‘cause you’re, like, my dad. But Jared’s like my dad too, but he’s just called Jared. It’s not fair. He should have another name, too.”
“I see what you mean,” Jensen says, nodding. “So, what are you going to call him? You could call him Papa or something like that, so you don’t get us mixed up?”
“Papa sounds stupid,” Jonah says dismissively. “Jared doesn’t look like that, he’s too tall. I’m going to call him Dad. Like you.” He looks up at Jensen and frowns. “Is that okay with you?”
Jensen smiles down at him and leans over to kiss the top of his head. “Of course it is. I think Jared will be very pleased that you have another name to call him.”
“That’s what I thought,” Jonah says, looking happy. He elbows Jensen away – kid has really skinny elbows – and slips the headphones back on.
On to Chapter Four