He saw his mom every Sunday, after church. He didn't attend church anymore, he hadn't done for a while, but his mom still went, regular as clockwork. That morning he woke and stared at the ceiling, trying to think of a reason to not go see his mom. Jensen hadn't been in touch for nearly six weeks, and Jared didn't feel like doing anything. Except, his mom didn't know about that, she knew nothing of Jensen and their relationship, and Jared not turning up at his usual time would just make her worry. She might even come by to see him, and Jared definitely didn't want that. His apartment was his space and he hated anyone else (except for Jensen) seeing it.
Jared hauled himself out of bed, and went to start the coffeemaker.
The vacuum was still going when he knocked and opened the front door to the house where he'd grown up. He toed off his shoes and called out hello.
He poked his head into the den where his stepfather, Roger, was sitting in a cloud of pipe smoke, squinting at his computer. The room had been his father's bedroom when he was too sick to use the stairs. It was the room he died in, and Jared had never set foot in there since. It was the only room that his mom didn't touch during her weekly cleaning rampage, which suited Roger just fine.
"Hello," he greeted Roger.
Roger married his mom a year after his dad died, but he'd been around all of Jared's life. He worked at the plant with his dad, and attended church along with most other people in Loampit. Many of the church people had been scandalized when his mom and Roger announced their plans to be married, saying she should feel ashamed, it was far too soon, Bert barely cold in his grave. Jared could honestly say he didn’t mind. His father would want his mom to be happy and move on with her life, and his mom needed to have someone to look after. Jared was mainly just glad she wasn’t looking to him to fulfill that role.
Roger looked up briefly and nodded at him, before turning his attention back to his game. Jared moved into the living room where his mom was using one of the many vacuum attachments to clean the couch cushions. She looked up as he came in and switched off the machine. The noise died away, and he saw her flick her gaze to the clock over the TV cabinet.
"Is it that time already?" she said.
"It's after two,” he answered.
"I'll make tea," she said.
He followed her into the kitchen where the appliances and tiles gleamed from the recently applied polish. He took a seat at the kitchen table and watched her fill the kettle and put it on the burner.
"You've cut your hair," she said.
He scrubbed his hand through his hair, feeling suddenly self-conscious. "Uh, yeah, yeah, I did."
"Looks better. So, how are you?" she asked.
Awful, he thought, I feel like I'm barely holding on.
"Okay, you know," he said. "How about you? How's work?"
She shrugged. "Fine, nothing new there."
She still worked at the hospice with the old people. When Jared was a teenager, before he got the job with Bill at the garage, he worked in the laundry room for cash because his parents never had enough to spare for a real allowance. In that laundry room, the dryers and washing machines spun every minute of every day, and the atmosphere was laced with the smells of bleach, urine and burning cotton. Every sheet and towel was washed every day, because the old people who made it to the Rose Graham Home were people who wet the bed everyday, they were people at the end of their lives and ready for it to be over. His mom had worked there for fifteen years, and one of the reasons Jared had thrown himself so completely into becoming a mechanic was so he didn't end up there too.
His mom cut a slice of peach pie and squirted some whipped cream on top. He took his time eating, because when he was done, there would be no excuse for them not to talk to each other.
Sometimes he imagined himself telling her the truth. I'm gay, I have a boyfriend called Jensen. He's a Marine, and I worry about him all the time because he does crazy shit for a living like go into warzones and lead missions through fields filled with landmines and snipers. He's smart and resourceful and as hot as hell. I love him, Mom, like I've never loved anyone else before. But he didn't say anything because he was too afraid. He wasn't sure what exactly he was afraid of. His mom was already disappointed and confused by him. She wondered why he didn't have a girlfriend at twenty five, and surely it had to have crossed her mind that it might be because he didn't like girls. But he still couldn't bring himself to so completely disappoint her.
He stayed until three, and then he left, waving goodbye to Roger through the front window. He got in his truck and drove to the cemetery.
He took the gas station bouquet from the passenger seat and laid it down on the ground as he knelt in front of the headstone. He removed the wilted flowers from last week, talking the whole while, telling Dad about his visit to Jensen's mom's salon, about the things Angie had said.
"I've probably told you this before but there's six kids, Jensen's the fourth. Angie was talking about Kevin, the second one, he works at the plant like you did, but he's in the office, doing accounts or something, I don’t know. He's got two kids and one on the way. Angie said that there's talk of layoffs, I've heard it too, it's all everyone's talking about around here. If it happens it would be… God, Dad, can you imagine Loampit without the plant? There’d be nothing here." He finished removing the cellophane, and placed the flowers gently on the ground. He took them one by one, placing each one carefully into the vase, still talking. "Jensen's dad, he's an electrician, and he wanted Jensen to follow him into it, but he never wanted that. He joined up without telling any of them, like it was a big joke. They were all so mad when he finally told them." He shook his head, smiling fondly to himself. "I probably told you that before. You must get bored of always hearing about Jensen, I talk about him so much." He sat back on his haunches when he was done, surveying his handiwork. "Man, I suck at this. Sorry, Dad, but you know that already I guess."
He put his hand on the edge of the gravestone, smoothing his fingers down to run over the letters. LOVING HUSBAND AND FATHER
"If he's not okay, Dad, if he's... I'll don't know what I'll do."
Two years ago
The funeral was supposed to be small, but everyone in Loampit Vale knew Bert Padalecki, and the crowd was five deep around the grave.
I am the resurrection and the life, said the pastor, and Jared thought how strange it was to hear those words in real life and not just on TV. The pastor's voice was thin and reedy and every so often someone coughed or shuffled like they were in church, drowning out the words. He could feel them all looking at him, and he kept his head bowed the entire time, staring down at his hands and thinking that he should've scrubbed them harder that morning because he could still see the engine grease under his fingernails.
Jared lagged behind afterward, ignoring the annoyed looks from Marj, his mom's best friend, as he followed them to the car.
"I just want to stay for a while," he said, and his mom nodded and looked back to Marj.
"We should go," she said.
Marj nodded, tight-lipped, and put a hand on his mom's shoulder to help her into the car.
Jared watched them go with the guilt gnawing at his insides. They'd spent all night preparing, sandwiches and quiches and cold cuts, chips and dips in the refrigerator ready to be poured and stirred. There would be a lot of people rolling up to his parents' house and he should be there to help out, to pour grape juice for those who didn't drink, and wine for those who did, to join in the reminisces about his dad. But the thought made him feel queasy. He'd much rather be here, with his dad, keeping him company for his first night in the ground.
He pushed his hands into the pockets of his suit jacket and watched the last of the cars draw away. He tipped his head back and squinted at the blue, blue sky. It was the wrong type of day for a funeral, the sun was shining and the air smelled of cut grass. May time and life is returning to the world, as his dad used to say. He had sayings for every month of the year, but May was his favorite.
He hadn't known he was coming, but he'd hoped. He sucked in a breath and squeezed his eyes closed. He held out his hand, extending his arm as far as he could, reaching out with questing fingers. He only let the breath go when he felt Jensen's hand slide into his, their fingers twining together.
"You're here," he said.
"I'm here," Jensen said. He squeezed Jared's hand. "You can open your eyes. I promise I won't disappear."
He choked a breath, forcing out the word. "Promise?"
"Yeah, Jay, I promise. Open your eyes."
He forced his eyes open, and turned his head. Jensen was standing beside him, holding his hand and watching him.
"I love you," Jared said. "You know that, right? That I love you."
Jensen's mouth twitched, awkward and uncomfortable with the declaration as always. "Yeah, I know that."
Jared kept looking at him, noticing for the first time that Jensen was dressed in a suit, a pinstripe in dark colors. He'd never seen Jensen in a suit before, Jensen always wore jeans and t-shirts and flannel shirts when they were together. He’d only seen him in uniform twice—once when they met and once for a funeral. Jensen must have worn a suit this time because he wanted to blend in. "Were you here? The whole time?"
"I was at the back." Jensen looked a little embarrassed. "Jay, I'm sorry, I'm really sorry. About..." He made an awkward motion with his hand, indicating the grave in front of him. "I wish I could've been there with you."
Jared kept looking at him, still not really believing it. "But you're here now. How did you…”
“I asked,” Jensen said simply. “I told my CO he was an old family friend. They won't check that. They gave me 48.”
“Oh. So you---you were there. You saw it.”
Jared felt his mouth crumple as the fight left him, everything he'd been holding onto for the past few days. "Jensen." He felt his knees give and the ground was rushing up, but Jensen was there, and his arms were around Jared. Jared held onto him, pushing his face into the unfamiliar scratchy fabric of Jensen's funeral suit.
"Hey, hey, it's okay, it's okay, Jared, I'm here," Jensen said, and Jared could feel Jensen's hands on his back and in his hair, holding him as he shook.
He looked up when he could take a breath again, and Jensen's face was right there. He cupped Jensen's face with his hands, and kissed him. He didn't think about his father's grave behind him, he didn't think about his dad being dead, and never being able to see him again. He didn't think about how he'd never told his father that he wasn't alone like his dad had always thought. He didn't think about the fact that his dad died without knowing that one big truth about his son. He pulled back, rested his forehead against Jensen's, and felt Jensen's hands go up to cradle his neck.
"C'mon," Jensen said. He guided Jared to a monument, and pulled him down into the v of his legs. Jared leaned back into Jensen's chest. Jensen wrapped his arms around him from behind and rested his chin on Jared's shoulder. He didn't say anything about them going, and Jared was grateful for it. Jared stared down the length of Jensen's legs, framing his own. Jensen's feet ended at Jared's calves. Really, Jared should be the one holding Jensen, he was so much taller, but he didn't want to move, not when Jensen was holding him like this.
"I couldn't let him be here alone tonight. Not his first night in the ground," he said at last.
"I know," Jensen said.
"He's all alone down there. In the ground. I wanted... wanted him to be cremated, but this is our patch and Mom didn't want that. And I guess he didn't want that. I don't know. Maybe I'm being selfish."
"You’re not selfish, Jared."
He hitched a breath, stared down at the place where Jensen's hand was slowly rubbing his thigh, not sexual touching for once, but comforting, soothing.
"You've seen men die, like, in combat?"
He felt Jensen stiffen, shifting like he was trying to find a comfortable position. "Yeah."
"Do you ever... does it get better? Do you ever stop thinking about it? I just... I keep seeing it and thinking about it, that moment. When he went. I wish I couldn't see it, but I can't stop thinking about it. He didn't want to be alone, so we took turns, me and Mom, staying with him for a couple of hours. He wasn't even conscious most of the time and he wanted to go. He was ready to go, and Mom was supposed to be there with me, because we knew it was close. But she'd gone to take a shower, and that was when... Shit, Jensen, she was in the fucking bathroom, and I had to knock on the bathroom door and tell her that he'd gone. And I can't stop thinking about it, that moment when I saw him die, when I saw him just turn from this person, into nothing, into just... just a body. And I wish I could stop thinking about him like that. Is it – is that how it is for you?"
Jensen was quiet for a moment then he said, "No, it's not like that. The guys that I've seen, it's sudden. They don't know that it's happening. And you can't stop to think about it, not in the moment, you're too busy trying to save your own ass and get everyone the hell out. You don't get a chance to think about it." He paused, then added quietly, "That comes later."
He pushed a hand into Jared's hair, and turned his head so he could press kisses to Jared's cheeks. "I want to tell you that it'll get better but that would be lying. You'll always think about it, Jared, it will always be there. I'm so sorry I can't make it better for you."
"You are, I mean, just being here, it's making it better."
He felt Jensen's smile, soft and sad, against the side of his neck, and he slid his fingers into Jensen's where Jensen's hand was lying on his thigh. "When do you have to go?” he said
“My flight’s tomorrow afternoon.”
“Oh.” He let out of a breath of relief. “Then you’ll—you’ll stay with me?”
"Like I want to be anywhere else,” said Jensen, scoffing.
Jared laughed, breathy and soft. “Okay.”
“Yeah,” Jensen said, and he kissed his neck again.
Jared was standing in the aisle of Riverview's Wal-Mart, watching a guy with some impressively ripped forearms, a military haircut and tattoos chuck meat into his shopping cart when the Carpenters’ Superstar came over the in-store radio. He froze, listening blankly to Karen Carpenter sing longingly of long ago and so far away, a love lost, and now just a sad guitar on the radio, and you said you’d be coming back this way again, oh baby. He swallowed, wanting to close his eyes and ears to it because all he could think about was the look of strained tolerance and badly hidden amusement on Jensen’s face when Jared sang that song to him on the ride back from the tattoo parlor.
He put his hand to his chest, spreading his fingers over the place where the tattoo was inked into his skin. It was six weeks to the day that he’d last heard from Jensen.
“Hey, asshole! You looking at something?”
Jared blinked; the guy with the military haircut was glaring at him, eyes narrowed in contempt.
Jared swallowed, about to say something when the guy moved, ramming his cart into Jared’s as he pulled away. Jared started, frozen to the spot as he watched the guy storm off. He could feel his cheeks going red, feel the suspicious stares of the other shoppers. He turned around and hid his flushed face in the frozen meat section, hands shaking as he picked something randomly and threw it into his cart.
He was in line at the checkout when he heard the familiar voice. He spun around, heart pounding as his gaze came to rest on a guy standing a couple of places behind him in line and talking on the phone. He was in profile to Jared, and it wasn't until he pivoted a little on his heels to face Jared that Jared recognized him as Jensen's brother, Dan. He'd seen pictures of him and knew that he was the oldest of the Ackles children and that he taught chemistry at Jared's old high school.
Jared's stomach plummeted at he stared. Gulping over the lump in his throat, he forced himself to look away. He snatched another glimpse as he moved up in line. Dan was at least ten years older than Jensen, with sandy fair hair that was turning grey. He was heavier too, with a small double chin and soft jowls, his shirt pulled tight around his soft middle. He was wearing a short-sleeved shirt and a scruffy looking tie, a pen in the pocket of his shirt. He looked like a typical public school teacher. He looked nothing like Jensen, but the voice…Jared squeezed his eyes shut and half-wished, half-dreaded that he’d stop talking.
Jared fumbled his way through paying for his groceries, going through the motions, so aware of Jensen’s brother only a few feet behind him. He could go up to him, ask him about Jensen, see if they’d heard anything because if anyone knew what had happened to Jensen then it would be his family. The Corps wasn’t going to tell some random guy, but they would tell his family. He thought about Jensen saying that Dan was the one who'd taught him to ride a bike, that when Dan left home to go to college he'd cried for two days, that if he ever did tell any of his family the truth about himself, it would be Dan.
Jared idled around after he’d paid for his groceries, leafing through the magazines at the newsstand. He watched Dan heft the grocery bags into his arms and carry them out to a dark blue Toyota. He watched him get into the car, and for a brief second, he imagined himself getting into his own car and following Dan home. He pictured himself walking up the front path to Dan’s house, taking a deep breath and knocking on the door. He thought about what he could say to Dan and his wife Karen. I’m Jared, I’m a friend of Jensen’s. He thought about the kind of emphasis he could put on the word friend so Dan might get it without Jared having to actually say the words. He thought about hearing Dan’s voice again, and he wanted to be close to someone who sounded so much like Jensen.
It's like you're already dead, he thought as he watched the Toyota pull out of the parking lot.
One year earlier...
Jared had known Jensen for four years when he found out he owned an apartment in San Diego.
"It's near CampPen," Jensen said with a shrug. "I figured if I was going to buy a place anywhere then it may as well be somewhere around there. And San Diego's a cool city, you know?"
Jared didn't know; he'd never been to California. He'd never been out of Texas, which Jensen knew of course. Operation Enduring Freedom always seemed to fuck with them every time they planned a vacation so Jared had learned the hard way to not bother booking anything.
"I rent it out most of the time. Least this way, it covers the mortgage."
Jared blinked at him. "You have a mortgage?"
Jensen laughed and tousled his hair. Sometimes Jared forgot that Jensen was four years older than him, and then sometimes, it felt like more than four years, like a lifetime. Jensen was a Gunnery Sergeant now. During active tours, he’d regularly have 150 men under him, hanging onto his every word, men whose lives he was responsible for. People lived or died according to the choices Jensen made.
Right now though, he was lying in Jared's bed, naked and sticky, wearing three days' stubble and hickeys Jared had sucked into his chest. Right now he was all Jared's. Jared smiled at him, and Jensen grinned back, his eyes crinkling. He rolled onto his side and pushed his face into the back of Jared's neck, nuzzling at a spot on the nape that always made Jared shiver. "You're very sexy like this," he said.
Jared reached around to squeeze Jensen's ass. "Could say the same about you."
“Mmm,” Jensen pressed another kiss to Jared’s nape, rolling his hips, his cock sliding against the small of Jared’s back.
“You hard again?” Jared said, lifting his head and exhaling a breath.
“Again and again for you, baby,” said Jensen.
Jared laughed, feeling his ribcage contract, his chest rising and falling, and Jensen with it, his warm weight plastered to Jared’s back.
Jensen stretched out an arm, and Jared heard the pop of the cap on the lube, and then Jensen was leaning back and his fingers inching between Jared’s thighs. He was still sore from the last time, and he hissed as Jensen’s fingers breached him. He felt loose and slick and sloppy already, but Jensen’s fingers were working their magic and his own cock was fattening underneath him, caught between his body and the mattress.
Jensen pulled his fingers out and Jared watched him wipe them on the sheets. He squeezed Jared’s hip. “Hey, man, on your knees.”
Jared generally preferred sex face to face, he loved to watch Jensen when he came, loved to see the expression of utter concentration and pleasure. But he wasn’t exactly averse to doing it this way around, sex was sex after all, and sex with Jensen was always good. He got to his hands and knees, lifting his head to watch Jensen tear open the condom packet and slide the rubber onto his cock. Jared shuffled back until his ass bumped against Jensen’s stomach, and then Jensen’s hands were on his hips and he was guiding himself inside. Jared bit off a breath, squeezing his eyes shut as he waited for his body to adjust to the intrusion.
“Hey, you okay?” Jensen asked. “Still sore?”
“No, s’good,” Jared murmured. He clenched the muscles of his ass and felt Jensen shudder. He grinned smugly to himself. “C’mon then.”
Jensen chuckled, but he pushed all the way in, bottoming out until his balls slapped up against Jared’s ass.
He fucked Jared slowly at first, one hand on his hip and the other carding gently through his hair. Jared closed his eyes and gave into the sensation, being filled by Jensen, Jensen’s hand in his hair, caressing his neck, running down the length of his spine, Jensen all around him.
“Fuck, you feel so fucking good,” Jensen breathed, and Jared felt his body flush, his cock bobbing against his stomach and his hands fisted in the sheets.
Jensen’s hand reached around him to grab his dick, stroking him with awkward, off-key jerks of his wrist. His hips stuttered and Jared knew he would be making that face, the one Jared loved so much, the blissed-out look of pleasure that Jared couldn’t get enough of. He felt the moment Jensen came, there and then suddenly gone, Jensen pulling out and putting his hand to Jared's shoulder to roll him onto his back. Jared fell back into the mattress, and Jensen leaned down, and sucked Jared's cock into his mouth. It was too much, Jared's body shaking with over-stimulation, his ass sticky and sore and throbbing with that good hurt.
It took only seconds, and then he was gasping and coming hard down Jensen's throat. Jensen leaned back, gulping and licking his lips, beads of sweat at his hairline and Jared's come on his lips and chin. He was the most desirable thing Jared had ever seen.
“Shit,” Jensen exhaled, sitting back on his haunches, and laughing shakily. He wiped the back of his hand over his mouth and caught Jared’s eye. “You are the hottest fucking thing… Shit.” He grabbed Jared’s hand, pressing a kiss to his knuckles, before he slid off the bed. He made for the dresser and his pack of cigarettes.
Jared watched him shake one out and light up, watched him lean back against the dresser, his chest flushed, making the tattoo they shared stand out even more in its inky deep black. He watched Jensen smoke, his eyes heavy lidded as he tilted his head back to exhale. The condom was still hanging off his dick when Jensen rested his smoking butt in the ashtray and moved to the record player.
Jensen padded out of the room as the music started, the opening bars of Marvin Gaye's Let's Get It On. Jared laughed, and dropped back into the sheets, the mattress bouncing under him as he called out, "You don't need to seduce me! We’ve done that part!”
Jensen stuck his head around the doorway, eyebrows raised and hands full of wine and two glasses. "What?"
"Nothing." Jared said.
Jensen stepped inside, the condom now discarded, thank God. He paused by the dresser to pick up his cigarette, resting it in the corner of his mouth as he uncorked the wine and poured two glasses. He carried the glass over to Jared's side of the bed, singing and swaying his hips. "C'mon, c'mon... ooh, let's get it on..."
“Please don’t sing,” said Jared.
Jensen broke off with a laugh, holding out Jared’s glass. Jared took the glass from him and took a sip, leaning to place the glass on the nightstand. Jensen moved to stub out his cigarette and sank to the edge of the bed. He put a hand on the side of Jared’s neck and Jared turned to look at him.
“What?" he said.
Jensen was looking serious, watching him intently. "Listen, man, don't take this the wrong way, but I think you should get out of here. This place isn't good for you."
Jared frowned, a little blindsided by the sudden change in mood. "Huh?"
Jensen sighed then got to his feet. Jared followed him with his gaze, watching his ass as he moved to the dresser to retrieve his own glass.
"Jensen?" he prompted.
"My apartment in San Diego," Jensen said. "You could stay there. I'll give you a good deal on the rent." He smiled, though it was a little uncertain. Jared stared at him, wondering if this was Jensen's way of asking him to move in. "I know you don’t want to leave your folks but this place is dying, your job—it’ll close eventually. You know it will. You got to start being selfish. You got to think about what you want.”
I just want you, he thought, like this, all the time. But he couldn’t say that because it would never happen. Jensen was career. He wouldn’t leave the Corps until he was forced to, and Jared didn’t want to think about the sort of thing that would force him out.
"Jared," said Jensen, and Jared looked at him again, meeting his gaze.
"You're going to Iraq," he said at last.
He could deal with Jensen being away in a dangerous warzone when he was here, in his hometown, surrounded by people he'd known all his life, doing a job that was easy and uncomplicated, seeing his mom every week and keeping his dad's grave nice. San Diego was a big city; he didn't know how to be in a big city.
"But I'll come back," Jensen said.
On Thursday, Mr. Peterson came by the garage. Jared knew something was wrong because he asked Jared to stop working on Marj Braithwaite’s station wagon and invited him to take a seat at the desk. The picture of Jensen and him taped to the side of his computer was in his eyeline, and he tilted the screen when Mr Peterson wasn't looking, making sure his boss couldn't see it. It was one of his favorite pictures of Jensen. They were lying in bed, sharing a pillow and Jared had held the camera at arm’s length to take the picture, the two of them squashed together with Jared's hair in his eyes and Jensen's face turned to press a kiss to Jared's jaw.
"I'm sorry, Jared, you've done a great job here these past few years," said Mr. Peterson.
Jared's heart sank. He'd been expecting it for years, ever since they'd opened that big chain place out on the highway. But despite all that, hearing Mr. Peterson actually say the words was still a shock.
"I'm selling the land to a developer," said Mr. Peterson, and Jared wondered who exactly would bother to develop anything in Loampit Vale. The threats to close the aerosol plant were getting louder and harder to ignore. It would happen eventually, and then there really would be nothing here.
Mr. Peterson wasn't closing straight away. Jared would have a couple of months to close things down, to sell the stock they had, finish any jobs that were booked in, and get the news out there. He'd be paid for three months and then that was it; he would have to find a new job.
After Mr. Peterson left, Jared went back to working on Marj's station-wagon.
He went to the diner for his lunch, and thought about telling Greta the news. If he told people then it would become real and then maybe he would actually have to do something. He thought about Jensen's mysterious apartment in San Diego and Jensen's invitation a year ago for him to live there. He thought about what might happen to Jensen's apartment now, with him being gone, but that train of thought only led to places he really wasn't prepared to go, so he stopped thinking.
He ordered a slice of blueberry pie, but he couldn't finish it. He thanked Greta, tipped her generously, and walked back to the garage. There was an unfamiliar car sitting outside the garage when he got back, and as he approached a guy climbed out of the driver's side.
Jared stopped, his heart quickening as he recognized the guy. It was Dan, Jensen's brother.
He made it as far as the door, telling himself that Jensen's brother being here at Peterson's Auto Repairs was nothing to worry about. Hell, he hadn’t been sleeping, he was probably hallucinating. It didn’t mean anything.
"Jared? Jared Padalecki?"
Dan’s voice dispelled that illusion, and Jared stopped again, clutching the door with both hands.
"No," he whispered under his breath, and then again, "no, no, no, no..."
Dan approached, holding out both hands, placating. "Jared? It is Jared. It's okay, Jared..."
"No," Jared said, his voice a little stronger. "No, no, don't say anything… Please...”
He was shaking his head, the tears blurring his vision. He could feel his knees start to give, and then the ground was rearing up and he wasn’t clutching the door anymore, but his palms were scraping gravel instead. He felt warm hands close around his shoulders, someone kneeling beside him, putting their hand on his arm. Dan was saying something, and he sounded so much like Jensen that Jared wanted to scream.
"C'mon, c'mon," Dan muttered, and he was helping Jared to his feet, guiding him through the door and into the shop. He steered Jared to the same seat he sat in only three hours before when Mr. Peterson fired him.
Jared watched Dan sit down on the other chair; the one Mr Peterson had used what seemed like lifetimes ago. "How did it happen?" he said at last.
Dan licked his lips and Jared thought of Jensen licking his lips. He thought of Jensen tilting his head in that considering way, cutting a look to Jared that was heavy-lidded and provocative, licking his lips in that way that never failed to send Jared reeling. The memory punched the breath out of him and he gagged, not daring to look up.
"Jared, he's not dead," said Dan.
At first, Jared wasn't sure he’d heard right. He snapped his head up so quickly his vision swam. "What?"
"He's not dead," Dan repeated. "He's busted up pretty bad, but he's not dead. He'll need some rehab and serious R and R, and then he'll be back in the Corps like nothing happened. You know Jensen; a couple of bullets aren't going to stop him."
"He... he got shot?"
"A couple of times while they were getting him out of there."
"Out of where?"
"The camp. The prison camp where those bastards were keeping him. God, ever since we heard, these past few weeks, knowing he was there, that he might be..." he broke off at the look on Jared's face. "You didn't know."
Jared shook his head. He could feel the tears again, welling up and spilling over, running down his cheeks unchecked. Jensen had been taken prisoner and he hadn't known.
"Oh God, I'm so sorry," said Dan. His face creased in sympathy, and he reached across the table, covering Jared's hand with his own. Jared had the brief picture of him comforting high school teenagers; he probably made a good counselor. "I'm so fucking sorry," he said, voice low and deep, and God, he sounded like Jensen, so damn much like him.
"Shit," Jared said. He tugged his hand away from Dan and wiped it across his face, smearing the tears. Dan got up and looked around him, gaze finally alighting on the box of wet wipes Jared used to clean his hands after working on an engine. He walked over to gather them up and held the packet out to Jared. Jared took one and scrunched it up in his fist.
"You must've been going crazy," Dan said.
Jared shrugged. He couldn't speak, his chest felt tight, his throat ached. He wasn't sure he could say anything. He was shaking, hands not functioning properly as he swiped at his face with the wet wipe.
"If I'd known about you, then believe me, I would've told you straight away," Dan said, and Jared thought that he probably would. Jensen always said that Dan was a good guy. They fell silent, and Jared listened to the familiar sounds of the fan in the corner and the buzzing of the fly zapper.
Dan exhaled and looked around him again. "I don't know about you, but I could do with a drink. You got anything here, or should we go someplace else?"
Jared looked at him. The corner of Dan's mouth was twitching, half-embarrassed, half-amused, and for the first time, Jared thought that Dan maybe did look a little like his brother.
He took Dan back to his place; closing up shop, even though it was only just past two. Marj wasn't coming until tomorrow to pick up her car, and Jared figured that it didn’t matter anyway; it wasn't like Mr. Peterson could fire him now. Dan drove them there. It was only a few blocks, but Jared wasn't sure he was capable of walking all the way. As soon as he let Dan inside, he made straight for the kitchen and the cupboard where he kept the bottle of single malt he'd been saving for Jensen's return.
Dan followed him into the kitchen, and paused by the refrigerator, looking at the photos Jared had pinned to the front. Jared watched him, thinking that this was the first time anyone except Jensen had set foot in the place since he met Jensen. The photos were of Jensen or the two of them together. The most prominent one, Jared's favorite, was of Jensen sitting up in Jared's bed, naked to the waist and smoking a cigarette, his hair disheveled and a wicked smile on his face as he stared at Jared taking the picture. Jared blushed, and Dan looked at him, and then back at the picture.
"I can't believe he never told me. He's always been kind of... closed off and secretive. When he enlisted he didn't tell anyone for a couple of weeks. When Mom and Dad found out they went crazy."
"I know, he told me," Jared said.
Dan cut him another look. "Right, yeah." He looked down at the bottle in Jared's hand. "That's his favorite."
"Yeah, I was saving it, but I guess..." he shook his head. "Never mind. Do you want some?"
Dan sighed, "Most definitely."
Dan was a talkative drunk, talking mainly about Jensen, so Jared didn't stop him, listening to this new perspective on Jensen, the one he'd only really gotten from snatched mentions by Jensen's mom when she cut his hair. It wasn't long until Dan started talking about what happened. The family had heard weeks ago about Jensen's team being ambushed, about the group that had taken them, hardcore, nasty sonsofbitches that hated the US military. They executed half of Jensen's team and didn’t bother asking for ransoms. Jared listened, the horror eating at his insides, making his throat close and his breathing get tight. In a way, he felt grateful for not knowing any of it. The idea of trying to get on with his life, of working and eating and sleeping while Jensen was being held prisoner and tortured - Dan wasn't saying that, but Jared could read between the words he wasn't saying - was a complete anathema to him.
"His Commanding Officer called us to let us know he'd been rescued. After they got Jensen out, he led them back in to rescue the rest of his guys. He insisted on it, saying he knew the compound better than they did. Jensen helped get them out, but that’s when he was shot. They got him twice, here," he put his hand to his shoulder, then dropped it to his thigh, "and here. He lost a lot of blood before they got him to the evac team."
"But he's okay," Jared repeated, saying the words like a mantra, his head bowed and his fingers locked around his glass.
"Yeah he's okay. I’ve seen him, Jared, and he’s okay. He’s in bad shape, but those injuries, the bullet wounds, they’re not the worse. He’d been there for weeks; he has bruises and burns all over him. He looks like they’d been using him as their fucking punching bag all that time, though he wouldn’t talk about. And still, despite all that, he still went back for the rest of his team. His CO said he was recommending him for it, for some sort of honor, a medal or something. If he hadn't gone back for them then three of them would be dead."
Jared throat closed, ducking his head and breathing out hard. Godammnit, Jensen. He didn't care about the other guys, about the fucking recommendation or medal. Jensen had people who loved him so much, he had people who needed him, and it was selfish, he knew that, but Jared didn't care about anyone else. He didn’t care about the fucking Marine Corps or the fucking mission. Fuck all of them.
"I'm sorry." He jumped when Dan's hand dropped to his arm again, careful and reassuring. "I know this must be hard to hear all this, to just have me tell it."
Jared swallowed and forced himself to look up and meet Dan's gaze. Slowly, the implication of what else Dan had said dawned on him. “You said you’ve seen him.”
“Yeah,” Dan nodded.
“So he’s here?” He stared at Dan, heart pounding. “Here, in the US?”
“Yeah, he’s at the military hospital in the city.”
Oh God, oh God… Jared wanted to bow his head and laugh, filled with such ridiculous relief and anger at Jensen for being so close all this time.
"I’ve only seen him one time, Jared. He asked to see me on my own especially, just me and him. Soon as I sat down, all he could talk about was you. He was desperate for me to let you know that he was okay. Tell Jared, he said, you have to make sure Jared knows I'm okay. Go and see him and tell him."
"Oh," Jared said. He turned his head away from what Dan was saying, feeling the tears again, burning behind his eye sockets.
“I’ve never seen my brother like that about anyone. I always wondered if he might be… Well, you know. He never had serious girlfriends and it wasn’t for lack of interest from girls.” He huffed out a breath, rolling his eyes in a way that reminded Jared of Jensen again. “The girls always loved Jensen. But I always assumed he was too much into the Marine thing to have any kind of relationship, but now I know about you… well it makes so much sense.” He broke off, raising his eyes to meet Jared’s. “You know, it’s not exactly how I’d like this to have gone down, but I’m really pleased to meet you. I know my brother, and I can tell he really cares about you.”
Jared blinked again, feeling a tear escape and roll down his cheek. He didn’t care. “Can I go see him?”
“I’m sure we can arrange something,” said Dan.
Six months later
Jared finished the Prius just after five pm. He went out to the front to let Carlos know that he was done. Carlos saluted him with his Chargers mug, and Jared waved back at him before he went to get changed. He stripped out of the Henderson’s Autos branded coveralls they were forced to wear and grabbed his phone from his locker. There was a text from Jensen.
Back about 6. I'll get food. x.
He changed into his jeans and t-shirt, slid on the leather jacket Jensen had gotten him for his twenty sixth birthday, and walked out to the parking lot.
He’d been working at Henderson’s for three months now. After he finished with all his responsibilities to Mr. Peterson he packed his truck, gave noticed on his apartment, and drove to San Diego. Jensen was still in rehab at the center, but he’d be joining him as soon as he got out, so Jared spent his first two weeks in San Diego fixing up the apartment and looking for work. The job at Henderson’s was the first one he applied for, and he was hired on the spot.
Jensen’s mom insisted on driving Jensen to San Diego and the two days she spent at the apartment were some of the most awkward days of Jared’s life. Jensen had told her he was gay, and she’d apparently been okay with it. What she wasn’t okay with was Jared, though she never actually came out and said it. It wasn’t just his visits to her hairdressing salon and what she probably saw as his deception there, it was simply that she didn’t think he was good enough.
“You’re being paranoid,” Jensen said when Jared told him. “She likes you as much as she’d like anyone I was serious about. I’m her favorite, remember? And now that we’re living together it means I’m going to be here all the time and not in Texas. She’s pissed about that.”
Jensen was probably right, but Jared thought it was more than that. Jared was a mechanic, the son of a factory worker and a hospice carer. Both Angie and her husband owned their own businesses. All the Ackles kids, except Jensen and Steve had gone to college, and Steve was the top salesman at the local Ford dealership and Jensen was a decorated NCO with the USMC.
“She’ll get over it. She’ll have to,” Jensen added with a significant look at Jared, which did make him feel marginally better. Luckily, Jensen thought the whole deal with Jared visiting his mom’s salon while he was on deployment was hilarious. “You missed me so fucking much that you had to get my mom to cut your hair just to get close to me. It’s fucking precious, Jared.”
At least Jensen’s mom did know now, even if she wasn’t happy about it. Jared still hadn't plucked up the courage to tell his own mom. He couldn't exactly say why that was, but every time he played the scene in his head, he felt sick to his stomach. Sometimes, he wished that she'd just ask, that she'd just come out and ask about the guy he talked about as his "landlord" or "roommate." He felt like he could do it if she said that.
The rest of Jensen’s family was still in the dark too. “And it’s going to stay that way,” Jensen said during his mom’s visit. “Dad's a homophobe. And Kev, Steve and Jamie are just as bad. There's a reason why I never came out to y'all. Soph would probably be okay with it, but she's got a big mouth, so…”
"Jensen," his mom admonished, but there was no real recrimination in her tone as she leaned over to pat his arm.
They drove her to the airport for an awkward goodbye. Jensen exchanged a look with Jared after she’d passed through the gate, blowing out a relieved breath, eyebrows raised.
“God, I don’t know about you, Jare, but I am so ready to go home, like, our home. Just us.” He reached for Jared’s hand and squeezed. He didn't let go all the way through the departures hall and out to short-term parking. It was the first time they’d ever held hands in public, and Jared felt bold and heady and completely and utterly in love.
He got back to the apartment by 5.30pm, and grabbed a beer from the fridge to settle down in front of the TV while he waited for Jensen.
Jensen's voice stirred Jared from his place on the sofa about forty minutes later. He switched off the sports news bulletin, and got to his feet as Jensen strode into the room, carrying a bag of take-out in one hand.
"I got Thai," he said, raising the bag. "Can you get the plates?"
Jared hurried into the kitchen, gathering plates and forks, and another two bottles of beer from the fridge. He took it all through to the living room and dumped the lot on the coffee table, where Jensen was already kneeling and unwrapping the food.
"How'd it go?" he asked once they'd gotten the food on their plates and started eating.
Jensen laid his chopsticks down and grinned at Jared. “It's good to be back."
Jared smiled, ignoring the twinge in his chest. "Good, that's good. I'm pleased for you."
Jensen swallowed his mouthful of noodles and gave him a look from the corner of his eye. "You know you can't lie for shit."
"I wasn't lying," he insisted. "I'm happy that you're happy, Jensen, it's just..." he broke off and sighed, dropping his chopsticks into the now unappetizing plate of food.
"Hey, it's okay," Jensen said. He reached forward to deposit his half-eaten food on the coffee table and got to his knees, shuffling across the carpet toward Jared. "But you knew this about me when you met me. You've always known what I am. I’m never gonna change."
Jared looked down at him, thinking of the past few months. Jensen had pushed himself so damn hard, putting himself through so much pain and torture in his desire to get back to his old fitness again. He hadn't managed it yet--it would be another few months, probably a couple of years, until Jensen was completely back to the prime fighting shape he'd been in before he was captured. But last week when he texted Jensen to say his CO had passed him fit for duty, Jared's stomach plummeted with worry and disappointment, and he knew that he'd have to hide it from Jensen.
"Yeah, I know. I'm sorry," he said.
Jensen pursed his lips and nodded. "Okay," he said, but he didn't sound convinced.
They watched the late game after eating. It was nice, companionable, and Jared found himself relaxing as he sank down into the couch, his gaze drifting more toward Jensen on the other sofa than to the TV. This was worth a lot, being able to hang out with Jensen like this, just being together and normal, like regular couples.
Jensen lifted his head and turned to peer at Jared. "You know, man, I was speaking to my CO, and he told me that the Spouse's Club at the base has to let in same sex spouses now. Apparently, it's come all the way from the top."
Jared blinked at him, trying to pick through Jensen's words. "What?"
"Well I figure that all that bullshit about Don't Ask Don't Tell is gone now. So even the Corps gotta get with the modern times."
"I'm not your spouse," Jared pointed out.
Jensen gave an awkward sort of a shrug, that slightly self-deprecating smile pulling at the corner of his mouth. "Well you could be, if we wanted. It is legal in California now."
Jared stared at him, watching the flush creep into Jensen's cheeks. "Jensen, are you... is this... are you proposing to me?"
Jensen rolled his eyes. "I don't know. Would you want me to?"
Jared burst out laughing, and rolled off the couch. He slid across the floor toward Jensen and put his hands on Jensen's knees, parting his thighs. "You're serious?"
"If it makes it easier for us to be together. If it gives us the same rights as regular married people, and if the Corps recognize that then... why the fuck not?"
"But you'd have to tell all the guys...."
"Most of them know already," Jensen interrupted.
"Oh." Jared sat back on his heels and stared at Jensen. He still looked a little unsure, taking a swig of his beer and passing the back of his hand over his mouth, eyes hovering somewhere above Jared's shoulder.
"If you don't want to or if..."
"Jensen! I do! I mean, yeah, course I fucking do, you idiot," Jared said. He put his hands on Jensen's neck, forcibly turning his head so their gazes met. "Why would you ever think that I wouldn't?"
Jensen blushed, squirming a little. "I don't know," he said at last.
Jared exhaled a laugh. He was grinning so hard his face was aching. "Kiss me," he said. "C'mon Gunnery Sergeant Ackles, give me a kiss."
Jensen rolled his eyes, but he leaned in, dropping a kiss to Jared's cheek. Jared laughed, and pulled Jensen's beer out of his hand. He put it on the coffee table and climbed on top of Jensen, forcing him down in the chair. "You know," he said conversationally, placing a kiss on the edge of Jensen's jaw. "I guess this makes me your military wife."
"I guess it does," said Jensen.