Genre: J2 HS AU
Word Count: 9,800
Rating: Hard R
Notes: For flawlessglitch , who very nonchalantly said to me that she was in the mood for a High School AU with tree houses and thunderstorms, at which point I nonchalantly wrote it. Very many thanks to maichan for the fantastic beta and the feedback.
Summary: They were eleven years old when they became blood brothers. A lot has changed since then, and a lot has not.
They were eleven years old when they became blood brothers. It had been Jensen’s idea. One day he’d shown up on Jared’s doorstep, a solemn expression on his young face and a penknife he’d stolen from his dad buried in his back pocket.
Years and years later, Jared still had the scar. A jagged, thin line that had distorted and stretched as he’d grown, more pale than the rest of his skin and reaching most of the way across his palm.
He hardly ever thought about it anymore, or the kid who had put it there. But sometimes, when comparing scars with somebody, like some ritualistic throwback to an earlier era when war wounds were displayed like badges of honor, he would think about it. His thoughts would skitter around and get stuck, lodged in this ill-defined place in the back of his mind where Jensen always lingered.
And sometimes, he’d wonder what had happened.
It wasn’t a big deal now, and it hadn’t been a big deal back then either. They’d spent most of elementary school and middle school thick as thieves, and then they simply weren’t anymore. Jared blamed their move to high school, schedules that didn’t match up and new friends that replaced the old.
Jensen tried out for football, landed on JV as a freshman, while Jared buried his nose in a series of books. Greek and Roman mythology to start. Epic poetry. He’d slogged through Plato and Aristotle, didn’t really understand most of it, but still felt smarter by the end.
Jensen had yawned his way around Jared’s retelling of The Iliad, and Jared wasn’t all that interested in lines of scrimmage and field goals. It was a sort of conflict of interests, and no one was to blame.
When Jensen joined the drama club, Jared started reading biographies, fell in love with the Suffragettes and Woody Guthrie, Rita Hayworth and Teddy Roosevelt, all at once and in no particular order.
Astronomy was next on the list, and Jared spent a lot of time looking at the sky. He did odd jobs around the neighborhood and saved up enough to buy a telescope. He heard about Jensen making Varsity, and was happy for him, in a detached sort of way.
Jensen’s circle of friends became bigger as Jared’s got smaller, and they hardly overlapped. When he passed Jensen in the hall, sometimes their eyes would meet and he would smile. Sometimes Jensen would smile back, and sometimes they never looked at each other at all.
He’d stopped missing Jensen a while ago. And that was the truth. Most of the time.
It was the first day of summer break, his senior year at school looming in a far and very distant future. Jared found himself sitting on some stranger’s couch, uncomfortable and feeling more than a little out of place in this room bursting with people he barely knew. A half-full bottle of beer sweated a damp ring though his jeans, and Jared centered his concentration on peeling the label off in one whole piece.
He silently cursed Misha, who had poked and prodded him into showing up to this party, saying he needed a wingman and talking about how he didn’t want to fly solo, and pulling a dozen other aviation metaphors out of his bag, only to abandon him minutes after they got here.
The basement was packed and loud, but Jared picked out Misha easily enough. He was propped up against a wall, leaning on an elbow, a flirty smile on his face as he chatted up some girl that Jared vaguely remembered from his freshman English class back in the day.
Jared downed the rest of his beer, lips pulling back at the bitter aftertaste. He figured that his wingman obligations had been met when Misha didn’t spare him a glance as he moved past him toward the stairs.
There was a little more room to breathe on the main floor of the house, and Jared weaved between people on his way toward the door. It wasn’t as if he was anti-social. It was just that he wasn’t all that into beer that was too cheap and music that was too loud and groping that was too public. Not that he’d had a lot of experience with any of those things, particularly the groping part, but that was something else entirely.
Two guys, football player-sized, burst through the door when Jared neared it. “Dude is plastered,” one of them said to the other. “He’s quoting poetry or some shit.” The other one snickered, and Jared couldn’t get out of the place fast enough.
Jared made his way outside and immediately spotted a figure lying spread eagle on the shadowy front lawn. Jared skidded to a stop when the guy piped up. “‘You’ve just seen a prince walk by. A fine, troubled prince’.”
He’d recognize that voice anywhere. Sure, it was a little deeper than before, slurred and slow, but still undeniably familiar. “Jensen?” he said.
Jensen tried to sit up at the sound of his name, made it a few inches off of the ground and landed hard on his back again. “’We never told the truth for ten minutes in this house’," he quoted.
“Biff Loman, right?” Jared asked, kneeling on the soft grass beside him, remembering how Jensen had played the part in the community theater production of Death of a Salesman last fall. He’d meant to go see it, but had never gotten around to it. “You okay?”
“Ask me later,” Jensen answered, looking over at him with big, exaggerated blinks. “It’s you,” Jensen said. “Hey. Hi.” His second attempt at sitting up was more successful than the first, and he planted his hands on the ground, swaying some. “The ground won’t stop moving,” he said in a serious stage whisper, like he was letting Jared in on a secret.
“Give it a couple of hours,” Jared said. “It’ll even itself out.”
“You always were the smart one.”
“Can’t argue with the truth. But you always had the best ideas,” Jared shot back.
Jensen grinned at him, the smile instantaneously erasing ten years from his face. It turned him into a little kid again, all bright eyed and sloppy. He tried to clap Jared on the arm and missed, tipped forward and planted his forehead on Jared’s shoulder instead.
He still smelled the same, and for some strange reason, that wrenched Jared’s heart right out of place.
“We broke up today,” Jensen said in a very offhand, matter-of-fact sort of way. Completely out of the blue and non-sequitur. “Well, I kinda dumped her.”
Jared didn’t know who he was referring to, couldn’t help but think of how many things he didn’t know anymore. “I’m sorry,” he said. It seemed like the right thing to do.
Jensen shrugged. “It’s my fault.”
“I’ll have to take your word for it.”
Jensen merely hummed, and they sat there for a few moments, rocking slightly back and forth to some ocean-like tide only Jensen could feel. Jensen was rolling his forehead along Jared’s shoulder, and Jared wasn’t sure what to do with his hands. He wanted to touch Jensen, maybe hug him, but didn’t know if that was allowed.
The bells in the Santa Maria church tower started to ring from a mile away, the sound traveling clearly in the humid air. Marking the hour. Jared counted.
“Twelve o’clock, and all is well,” Jensen said, his voice muffled against Jared’s shirt.
“Eleven, actually,” Jared corrected him.
“I must have lost track.”
“It’s easy to do.”
“C’mon,” Jared said, “we’ll get you home.” He hauled Jensen to his feet.
The walk back to Jensen’s house took twice as long as it should have. They weaved down the sidewalk in a zigzag of tangled together feet. Jensen kept wanting to sit down, and Jared kept an arm snugly circling his waist, gamely bearing both of their weight.
They came to a stop at the foot of Jensen’s sidewalk, Jensen listing to starboard, leaning heavily against Jared’s side. It was still and hot out, despite the hour, and their clammy skin stuck together wherever they touched. Jared didn’t mind too much.
The night looked surreal, not entirely there; the sky a muggy sort of purple color from the town lights. Jensen’s face was pale and wide-eyed under the glow of the street lamps. Jared felt detached, a little lightheaded, maybe drunk by association.
“I can’t go in there,” Jensen said. He wiped his hand over his mouth and pointed to the living room window. A blue television light flickered behind the sheer curtains. “Someone’s awake. I don’t have my key.”
“Let’s go.” Jared tugged Jensen along by an elbow. “You can crash at my place.”
“Is it alright?” Jensen looked up at him hopefully.
“I don’t mind,” Jared said, leading the way.
It was a well-trodden path. They cut across old Mrs. MacSorley’s front lawn, the same as they always had. Her dog still barked at them, high pitched, a different dog nowadays, but the same tiny breed. Jensen gripped the road sign at the corner, spun himself twice around it in a wide arc, his free arm flung out straight, just like he’d always done. Jared smiled and kept out of his way.
Jared’s house was dark and thankfully sleeping when he let them in through the kitchen door. Jensen went to the counter, hoisted himself up to sit next to the sink and gratefully took the glass of water Jared offered.
Jared peered into the refrigerator. “Hungry?” he asked.
“I don’t wanna press my luck,” Jensen slurred, filling his glass up at the sink for a second round.
They both stepped over the third riser on the way up the stairs; it was the one that creaked.
Jensen kicked off his shoes into the corner of Jared’s bedroom, stumbling a little and tipping out of balance. Jared helped to right him again and then poured him into bed face down, his arm dripping over the side. He grabbed the trashcan and set it beside the bed, since a little bit of planning ahead never hurt anybody.
Jared went back into the hall, winced when the closet door gave a squawk. Spare pillow and blankets in hand, he returned to his room and settled onto the floor.
He jumped when Jensen said, “Just like old times, huh?”
Jensen’s face was scrunched out of shape from the pillow, one open eye gleaming slightly in the dark.
“You could say that,” Jared said, and chuckled. “But I don’t think that you were quite so drunk when we were ten.”
“I could hold my liquor a little better back then. I never let it show.”
Jared could smell the booze on his breath, wondered if he should have offered his toothbrush as well. The conversation was heading in a direction that Jared didn’t want to think too much about. “Go to sleep,” he urged, closing his eyes and shifting around on the blankets.
A few minutes later he heard a shuffle as Jensen slid clumsy and awkward off of the bed. He half crawled and half rolled over to Jared, and came to a stop on his back beside him. Their shoulders touched and their feet brushed together. Jensen held up his left hand, tracing along his palm, and when he spoke he sounded mostly asleep. “You’ve always been right here, Jared.”
“I know,” Jared said, the drive to match up their hands very, very strong. To put scar to scar and stay that way. He closed his eyes instead, buried his hands in the blanket beneath him. “You too, Jensen.”
There was a note from Jensen when Jared woke up in the morning. Thanks. I owe you one. –J. It was written on the back of a receipt that Jensen had fished out of the trashcan and left on the pillow of Jared’s barely slept-in bed.
He was tired; his mind working slow from staying up last night, listening to the sound of Jensen muttering nonsense in his sleep, jumping every time Jensen shifted beside him.
He’d been stuck in a circular pattern of comparing nows to back thens, and making plans for the morning. Whether or not Jensen drank coffee, or if cold pizza and oatmeal cookies would be good enough for breakfast. Things they could talk about to keep them on neutral ground. Whether Jensen was back again. Really back again.
He was always one to chew apart a thing until it was no longer recognizable. It was a bad habit, and a waste of time besides.
But lawns needed to be mowed, and his neighbor’s garden wasn’t going to suddenly learn to weed itself, so Jared bit back the disappointment of finding himself alone in his room and got started on the day.
His mind kept wandering as he finished working on Mr. Wilson’s back garden and started in on the flowerbeds in the front yard. He turned the music up, adjusted his headphones and concentrated on the sound to stop his thoughts from turning to Jensen. The things he’d said, the way he looked, how Jared’s heart had kicked up a notch when Jensen had wrapped a hand around his upper arm in his sleep, his thumb swiping back and forth for a few seconds before stilling once more. The vague sort of ache that he was feeling and didn’t have a name for.
The day was already hot as hell, the sun shining down from a hazy colorless sky. In no time, Jared’s thin shirt was clinging to the skin on his back, and he could feel the prickle of sweat running down his temples.
Something cold landed on his neck and Jared jumped, yanking the headphones out of his ears and shrinking back from the touch.
Jensen was smiling down at him, a bottle of water in his hand and a donut bitten between his teeth. He had mirrored sunglasses resting on the tip of his nose, and Jared could see his own startled face doubled in the reflection.
Jared sat back on his knees, taking the bottle of water. Jensen tossed a paper bag with two donuts into his lap and said, “Breakfast.”
“How you feeling?” Jared asked with a grin.
“Partly cloudy,” Jensen replied. He pulled a toothbrush out of his back pocket, still in it’s wrapper. “I hope you didn’t brush your teeth this morning,” he said, handing it over.
Jared made a face.
“Too late now, I guess.” Jensen snickered. “Working?”
“Looks like it,” Jared said around a mouthful. The first donut bit the dust and he started in on the other. “I’m saving up to buy my brother’s old car.”
“That thing’s still running?”
“Most of the time.”
“Want some help?”
“Yeah, okay. I’ll give you half of what they pay me.”
“Sure thing, Tom Sawyer.” Jensen grabbed the bucket Jared had been using for weeds and put it in between them.
“Seems like you’re missing the point of that story,” Jared pointed out.
“Maybe. But it sure sounded cool.”
It was odd, or perhaps it wasn’t, the way that Jensen simply fit back into Jared’s everyday life, and how nobody ever talked about it. He showed up every day that week, helped Jared clean out gutters, paint shutters and mow lawns. Afterwards, they’d argue about which movie to rent or which game to play. They recast the first X-Men movie, agreed that all the other ones sort of sucked ass. Jensen talked about starting up football practice at the end of next month, and Jared listened. When Jared talked about which colleges he was going to apply for in the fall, Jensen listened right back.
Jensen stayed for dinner more times than not that week, and Jared’s mother didn’t say a word about Jensen’s sudden reappearance. She simply set out another plate next to Jared’s, pulled the extra chair from the corner in the dining room. On Thursday she made bread pudding with raisins and candied pecans, because that was the way that Jensen liked it. Jared picked the nuts out and put them on Jensen’s plate.
Simple. Easy. Just like that.
“You know how to drive a stick?”
Jared was dousing his head under the hose in his backyard. “Not that great, but yeah,” he said slowly.
Jensen bent over, shaking his head and spraying water all over Jared. He’d gotten a series of sunburns over the week and his nose was red and peeling, covered in shiny looking new skin. “My folks went this morning to go visit my aunt for the week. They left the keys to the jeep. I guess they thought I wouldn’t take it out.”
“So it’s your job to prove them wrong,” Jared guessed.
“Naturally.” Jensen tugged at the damp collar of his t-shirt. “I was thinking we could drive down to the river, since we finished early. Go swimming?”
“You don’t think your parents would mind?”
“Of course they’d mind,” Jensen scoffed, and started to walk away. “That’s exactly why we’re not gonna tell them,” he called over his shoulder.
Jared found himself knocking on Jensen’s door twenty minutes later, swim trunks in hand, a towel hanging around his neck.
Jensen answered, already making a face. “Dude. You don’t have to knock. You gained entry privileges a decade ago.”
He led Jared through the house and into the kitchen. Jensen started throwing stuff into an open cooler on the counter. “My brother has some beer in the fridge. You wanna?”
“Sure,” Jared said, reaching for the handle only to stop short. There was a photo of them, faded now and curling at the edges. They were maybe six or seven years old, in front of the Alamo, matching grins and matching Davy Crockett hats, not a front tooth among them. “Look at us,” Jared said.
“I know,” Jensen answered. He raked his eyes up and down Jared’s tall frame in a way that made Jared’s skin feel a little hot, then cleared his throat. “It was the last time I was actually taller than you.”
“Are you still ticked about that?” Jared asked with a smile.
Jensen sniffed. “I’m working on getting over it. It’s a process.” He started packing the bottles into the cooler, grabbed an opener from a drawer and tossed that in on top. “You sure you know how to drive stick? I don’t want to have to explain to my dad why the transmission is laying in the middle of the driveway.”
“Famous last words.”
Jared followed him out of the kitchen door, and helped him unbind the tarp covering the car. The thing was ancient and basic. The canvas roof had torn years ago and been removed but never replaced. There was no radio, not a lick of air conditioning and the ripped seats gave off an unpleasant musty odor.
Impressively, it started on the first try.
Jensen couldn’t hide his wry grin when Jared gunned the engine and ground the jeep into reverse, then laughed outright when Jared grunted and had to double clutch it into first gear.
“The thing’s older than we are,” Jared grumbled as the car bucked and jerked down the block to the sound of screaming tires. “The clutch is temperamental.”
“The two of you should make a good match then.”
“Fuck off,” Jared said without any real heat.
“Exactly.” Jensen sounded satisfied. He leaned back, propped his feet on the slope of the dash and shoved his sunglasses up the bridge of his nose.
They drove down the two lane state road, the wind rushing around them to make up for the lack of air conditioning. Jensen directed them to a dirt road that cut through the woods. It was narrow, barely more than two muddy wheel ruts riddled with tire-busting potholes. “Don’t worry,” Jensen said, “the Jeep can take it.” The swampy smell of damp earth closed in around them, bugs striking the windshield. The air felt thick, sticky.
“Isn’t this old Mr. Neil’s land?” Jared asked dubiously. The man had a reputation for being a mean, old shotgun-toting son of a bitch with an ingrained dislike of anyone under the age of twenty-five.
Jensen nodded. “He’s not so bad. I worked for him last summer. Two months of abject torture, sure, but he said I could come down here whenever I wanted.”
They stopped at a dilapidated gate, crooked and rusty, more like a suggestion than a requirement. Through the thick green of the woods, Jared could see the bright white reflection of the sun on the water. They walked the rest of the way, the cooler swinging between them.
A dock jutted out into the river, cobbled together and full of holes where planks had rotted away. Gaps like missing teeth. Jensen kicked off his shoes and made a dash for it, tearing his shirt over his head and jumping in with a forward flipping cannon ball, water splashing up around him in a huge arc. He emerged a few seconds later, spitting river water and clearing out his nose.
Jared took it slow, cautious of the way the wood shifted and groaned beneath his feet. He sat down at the end, trying to see through the green murk to the riverbed, skimming his toes along the surface. It felt chilly.
Jensen was treading, blinking water out of his eyes and grinning up at Jared from several feet away. “Best to just jump. Like ripping off a Band-Aid. Get it over with.”
Jared pinched his nose and jumped in feet first, the shock of cold knocking the air out of his lungs. He came up just in time to get a face full of saltwater as Jensen swam away from him, his kicks sending a spray in his wake. Jared tried to touch bottom. His feet found nothing and he took off after Jensen.
They swam to a shallow sandbar close to the opposite shore, fighting against the slow current of the river. The silt felt slippery on the soles of Jared’s feet, seaweed tickling at his ankles and making him jumpy. Jensen stood up to his full height, the current swirling around his stomach. Water rolled off his back, beaded up on his suntanned and freckled skin. Jared found his sight stuck there, watching the movement of Jensen’s shoulders, the defined shape of his arms as Jensen squeezed water out of his hair.
Jared wanted to touch him, almost needed to run his fingers down the dip of Jensen’s spine, and let his hands learn the shape of Jensen’s hipbones, the way they’d fit just perfectly in his palms. He wondered if Jensen might let him, and thought that maybe he would.
The idea sent a shock through him, his skin suddenly too tight. He couldn’t think this way. He shouldn’t. Jensen had been his best friend; he was maybe inching his way back to that again. It was a tightrope walk, one small shift in any direction might send them toppling over and Jared wasn’t going to risk it.
Jensen took the decision out of his hands when he flung himself backward, his back making a solid impact with Jared’s chest. Jared took a quick step to steady himself, his heel coming down on a sharp rock, pain so immediate and deep that he was sure it had drawn blood. They both almost tumbled under, but Jared worked to balance them, his hands slipping along Jensen’s upper arms.
Jensen seemed unaware, had his eyes fixed on a spot of water close to the riverbank. “Snake,” Jensen said, pointing. “Big fuckin’ snake.”
“What?” Jared said, already backing up, pulling the two of them toward the dock.
“What don’t you understand about ‘snake’?” Jensen said, still pointing and still scrambling to stand up. “It just dropped off that branch over there.”
“Did you see where it went?”
“Lost track of it.”
“What kind is it?”
Jensen gained his footing and turned toward Jared, both hands finding Jared’s chest and pushing. “Doesn’t matter. They all have fangs.”
Jared took off, Jensen swimming fast by his side. He was fairly sure that they cut any world record in half on the way back to the pier. Jared yanked himself up and collapsed on his back, the air burning its way into his lungs as he panted.
Jensen staggered toward the shore, dug out a couple of beers from the cooler, threw a towel at Jared’s head and flopped down beside him. Jensen toasted him. “Big fuckin’ snake,” he repeated with a chuckle, his eyes still wide and his chest moving up and down fast.
The sun baked the water off of them, warming their skin as they drank to the bottom of their bottles. Jensen’s hair was saltwater stiff, sticking up in every direction. Jared stared at the water, trying to ignore the shape of Jensen’s mouth, and the way he touched his tongue to the lip of the bottle before taking a sip.
Jensen was beautiful. Anyone with eyes to see could tell you that, and Jared had always recognized it in a somewhat detached way. He’d never allowed himself think too much on it. It wasn’t something he was supposed to do. Only now it felt like some sort of switch had been flipped and he found himself unable to turn it off. More so, he wasn’t really sure he wanted to.
“Chris is having a party tomorrow night at his place,” Jensen said.
“I don’t know,” Jared dodged the inherent suggestion. He’d never had an in with the jocks at the school, always got tired of them asking him why he didn’t play basketball just because he was tall. “It’s not my scene, exactly.”
“The guys aren’t too bad.” Jensen frowned. “All you have to do is ignore half the stuff they say and most of the stuff they do.”
“I heard Katie’s gonna be there,” Jensen said. “You two had a thing, right?”
“I wouldn’t call it a thing.” Jared thought about her, how light she’d felt on his lap at the school lunch table, how small her hand had been in his, the taste of her those few times they’d kissed. Strawberry-flavored lip gloss. The way things with her had never quite felt right, always a little off, like a syncopated beat.
“What would you call it?” Jensen asked, eyeing him sideways. He sounded almost too nonchalant.
Jared floundered for a few seconds. “A conflict of interests.”
Jensen peered at him closely, chewing on his bottom lip. “I’m gonna just keep on living my life as if what you just said made any sense at all,” he said finally.
“Whatever you have to do to make it through the day,” Jared replied.
Jensen lay back on the pier, eyes closed, resting his head on his folded arms, his mouth set in a small smile.
Jared allowed himself a glance at Jensen, followed the dip of his stomach and stared at the water clinging to the fine, soft-looking trail of hair leading into the waist of his swim trunks.
“You’re coming tomorrow,” Jensen said.
“Of course I am.”
The front yard of Chris’ place was choked with cars parked in every direction and a deep bass thud could be heard from blocks away. Jared had no choice but to triple park the Jeep. People were everywhere: crammed into the living room and spilling out onto the lawn.
Jensen was different here. It was in the squared off set of his shoulders and the cocky upturn of his jaw. In the way that he spoke, his voice pitched a few registers lower and in the way he moved through the place like he owned the joint.
It was as if Jensen was two different people occupying the same skin, and it left Jared wondering which one was real: the guy who he’d spent every waking minute with this past week, or this new version, who looked a lot like that other guy but wasn’t quite the same.
Jared quickly lost track of Jensen, got distracted by a couple of people playing guitars on the front porch, ran in to a handful of people he knew from school and got roped into being the fourth for some sort of drinking game involving Ping-Pong balls and red plastic cups.
He finally found Jensen again, sitting in the backyard in a low lawn chair. A fire burned in a stone-ringed pit, painting Jensen’s skin a hazy orange color. A girl that Jared didn’t recognize was sitting on the ground between Jensen’s legs, a casual hand wrapped around his ankle. She was pretty, dark haired and curvy, had on too much make up for Jared’s taste. “There you are.” Jensen’s voice rose above the noise of the party, a slur to his words and a slightly unfocused quality to his eyes. He was grinning, Hollywood big and just as false. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you.”
“It seems that way,” Jared said pointedly, swallowing against the abrupt dry and bitter taste in his mouth.
“Jared,” Jensen said, “Meet Connie.”
The girl glared up at Jensen for a second. “Cory,” she corrected him with a playful slap to his leg.
Jensen gestured with his cup. “Cory.”
Jared suddenly wanted to go home. Very badly. “You can find a ride back, right?” Jared asked, trying to sound easygoing and missing the mark by a country mile. He spun on his heel and started heading toward the car, the keys to the Jeep biting into the palm of his hand as he squeezed it into a fist.
A cool breeze blew Jared’s hair from his face, a low, indistinct drum roll of thunder reached his ears. It sounded far away.
His hand was on the car door handle when Jensen caught up with him, wrapped an arm around his elbow and spun him around. “You’re gonna strand me here? What gives?” Jensen said, a concerned crease forming between his eyebrows.
“You just needed a ride tonight,” Jared said, exasperated. “It’s okay. I get it. Go. Have fun.”
Jensen circled the car, hauled himself into the passenger seat and sat staring at Jared. “If you’re not gonna be here, then I don’t want to be here. Besides, I want pancakes.”
Jared got in the car, ran his fingers along the knobby steering wheel. “Aren’t you going to say goodbye to Chris? Thank him or something?”
Jensen snorted a laugh. “Hell, I don’t even think the son of a bitch is home.”
They were about twenty minutes into a forty-minute drive when the wind kicked up, a cold breeze that sliced through the humid, hot air and set the thick woods lining both sides of the road in motion. Five minutes later, lightning was stabbing across the sky, accompanying cracks of thunder so loud it rattled Jared’s teeth. He slammed on the gas, urging the Jeep faster, its frame vibrating so badly that Jared was sure it was going to shake its own bolts loose.
“I don’t think we’re gonna make it,” Jensen pointed out, his voice incongruently calm.
As if on cue, the first huge drops of rain fell, splattering on the windshield and onto them. They had made it a minute farther down the road when the sky opened up in a blinding deluge. Jared thumbed the windshield wipers, uttered a low “Obviously,” when they didn’t come on. He pulled off to the side of the narrow road and onto the gravelly shoulder.
A clap of thunder broke directly over their heads and Jensen started to laugh, this half-crazy sound coming from his throat. “You know where we are? C’mon.” Jensen spilled out of the car and started running into the woods, a quick glance over his shoulder to make sure Jared was following.
The ground was soft beneath Jared’s feet, mud splashing onto his legs and low hanging branches threatening to hit him as he ran. The white of Jensen’s t-shirt was barely visible in the darkness. He was a couple of hundred feet into the tree line when Jared realized where they were headed. He started grinning so hard his face hurt with it. “How do you know it’s still there?” Jared shouted to Jensen over the sound of the driving rain.
“Give yourself credit,” Jensen hollered back, and then pulled up short, so quickly that Jared nearly ran into the back of him. Jensen pointed off to the left, at a darkened spot among the tree branches, about ten feet up. He was breathing heavily when he spoke, a note of wonder in his voice. “How long’s it been? Four years?”
Jared looked up at their tree house, abandoned several summers ago. “I’ll be damned.”
Jensen clapped him on the back. “You were one hell of an architect.”
“You think it’ll still hold us?” Jared asked. “We’re a bit heavier now.”
“One way to find out.”
The ladder-like rungs they'd hammered into the tree trunk were loose, half rotten and hanging lopsided on rusty old nails. Jared's feet slipped on the wet wood, and he gripped the branch harder. Jensen was beneath him with a quick grasp on Jared's feet and he started pushing upward. Jared was bigger than he used to be, twice as tall. Didn't need the help, but he supposed old habits died hard, after all.
He glanced down to tell Jensen just that and stopped. Jensen was looking at him, blinking through the rain falling on his upturned face. His palm bore the mark of Jared's muddy heel print, and he was laughing. Laughing as carelessly as a kid, his smile all lit up. It froze Jared in his tracks, made him wonder how he'd managed to live the last few years of his life without seeing Jensen smile every single day. And he wanted to laugh right back. Or maybe cry, scream–ask Jensen what the fuck had ever happened and tell him how much time they'd wasted.
Instead he said, "Hey. Watch the third rung. It's a doozie." He shouldered open the trap door, pulled himself inside and offered a hand down to Jensen.
The motley floor of plywood and warped wooden planks creaked and gave some under the weight of both of them. Moldering leaves clogged the corners. Water was leaking through the slapdash roof and blowing in through the opening in one of the walls that served as a window. A gust of wind had them both holding their breath and hoping for the best as the whole thing shook.
“This place used to be so much bigger,” Jared pointed out, reaching up to touch one of the misshapen rafters.
“Remember that one time we told our folks we were staying at each other’s houses, and we spent the night here instead?” Jensen said. “What were we? Eleven?”
Jared smiled at the memory. He hadn’t slept at all that night, kept jumping at the tiniest of sounds. “Yeah,” Jared nodded. “I was scared to death.”
“Me too,” Jensen confided. “I stayed up all night looking through the cracks between the boards. I thought every tree trunk I saw was a serial killer sneaking up on us.” He folded his legs close to his body and wrapped his arms around his knees. “I didn’t want to wake you up. I thought that if someone was gonna come get us, it would be better to let you sleep through it. I had this idea to fight him off with my dad’s army flashlight.”
Jared cupped his hands in front of him, a leak from the roof puddling rainwater into his palms. “It was a good plan.”
“We were invincible. Back then.”
“Maybe we still are.”
Jensen picked at his t-shirt, trying to pull the soaking thing away from his skin. He gave up a minute later, leaned over to look out of the window. “How long do you think it’ll last?”
He was talking about the storm, it was obvious, but Jared looked at the question differently anyway. “What are we doing?” he asked.
Jensen considered, head cocked sideways and squinting at him, taking his time with an answer. He slowly licked his lips. “We’re sitting in a fucking tree in the middle of a thunderstorm.” Jensen’s words were slow and deliberate. “On purpose. In retrospect, probably not the smartest idea we’ve ever had.”
“Don’t make it into a joke. You know what I mean,” Jared snapped impatiently.
“Can we just not look at it too closely?” Jensen said, shoving a hand through his wet hair and not making eye contact, his whole body suddenly pulled taut.
“It’s only.” Jared held his hands up in a futile gesture, letting them fall limply into his lap. “You were my best friend.”
“And then I wasn’t.” Jensen finished for him. “God, Jared,” he pleaded, his mood turning on a dime, “don’t make me. Don’t do this. Please.” His voice sounded reedy, thin to the point of transparency.
“No one can make you do anything.”
“You always could.”
A flash of lightning lit up the sky, highlighting Jensen’s face in bright relief. He looked so scared, and Jared wanted to take it all back, erase the last few minutes of their life, erase the whole botched night, truth be told. He reached across the short distance between them but Jensen shrank back, avoiding his touch.
“You’re so fucking smart,” Jensen hissed, “but you don’t understand a goddamned thing. It’s right in front of your face.” Jensen was getting more agitated, jittery. “I was thirteen years old and I was scared out of my mind.” He started to rock a little. “Don’t you get it? I couldn’t look at you anymore. And…so I stopped. I stopped showing up.”
“So why did you start again?”
“Because I don’t think I had a choice. I don’t think I ever have.”
This time Jensen let Jared touch him. He palmed Jensen’s neck, slid his hand up to touch his face, Jensen’s skin soaking wet and feeling feverish beneath Jared’s chilly fingers. Jensen leaned into it, and Jared thought his heart was going to break, right then and there. He could feel Jensen’s breath on the damp skin of his wrist. He couldn’t stop the shaking in his hand, and was equal parts frightened and exhilarated that Jensen could feel it too.
Jensen closed his eyes tight, made a face like he was in some sort of pain, and slid his hand along Jared’s, tangling their fingers together for a second. He turned a little and pressed his mouth to Jared’s wrist, tongue darting out in a quick flash before he kissed the thin skin there.
A rock landed in Jared’s stomach and started to slingshot around, and before Jared really knew what was happening, he found himself yanking his hand back, quickly as if he’d been bitten. He scrambled toward the trap door, skidding back down the ladder toward the ground. The wind tossed his soaked hair into his eyes and tore at his clothes.
His knees were about to give and he slid through mud and underbrush. “Fuck,” he hissed when he lost his footing to a pile of wet leaves and landed heavily on the ground, a hot jolt shooting up the length of his arm. Everything clicked into place so resoundingly that he was surprised that it wasn’t clearly audible.
There were a lot of things he wanted to do at that moment. He wanted to fall apart, pull some invisible plug inside of his body and just run out. And suddenly he was pissed at himself for doing everything halfway, always pulling back at the last possible second. Sick and tired of always doing what he was supposed to do, and not what he wanted to do.
Study hard. Get good grades. Work every goddamned day of summer vacation and barely spend a cent of what he earned. Smile nice for his mother’s camera as he stifled in his Homecoming suit and tie, his palm damp, clasping at his date’s hand. Spend night after night lying in bed trying to figure out the nicest way to let her down easy. Because it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, really, that the way he’d felt with her pressed up against him in the back seat of his mother’s four-door was a drop in the ocean compared to the bolt of electricity that shot through him every time Jensen so much as smiled.
Mud coated his hands and soaked into his jeans as the rain pelted him. Icy hail stuck in his hair and stabbed him like a hundred pinpricks. The lightning made him flinch with every flash, and not a single one of those things mattered at all. Not even a little.
The trap door still stood open. Jensen could have closed it and shut Jared off, but he hadn’t. Of course he hadn’t.
Jensen was still curled into himself, his legs hugged close to his chest and his forehead resting on his knees. He didn’t look up when Jared awkwardly climbed back into the tree house and kneeled in front of him. “I fucked up. I get it,” Jensen sounded manic. “You don’t have to feel sorry for me. Just don’t tell anyone, okay?”
“Who would I tell?” Another light touch to the back of Jensen’s neck had him trying to flinch away.
“I don’t know,” Jensen said. “Anyone. Everyone.” Jensen lashed out, fisted his hands in Jared’s shirt and tried to push him back, but Jared just held on tighter.
Jared’s heart was hammering, lodged somewhere in his throat and blocking his airways. A kind of sense memory kicked in of an ages ago family vacation to the Grand Canyon. He and Jensen standing on the south rim on one of those observation decks made of Plexiglas, and the way that his big brother had made fun of him, and the way that Jensen had stayed glued to his side, urging him forward with words like ‘look at me’ and ‘don’t look down.’ He’d been scared out of his mind back then, and this right here was a thousand times worse.
“Listen to me,” Jared urged. “Jensen, please. Look at me.”
Jensen finally did, eyes wide, whites all around. He was breathing heavily through his open mouth. A new leak sprung in the roof, rainwater dripping in a steady stream onto Jared’s hunched back. He ignored it.
The seconds stretched out, long and thin. Jared tried to swallow. His skin was wringing wet but his mouth was desert dry, his voice was hoarse when he spoke. “I never said no.”
Something lit up in Jensen’s expression, some terrifying, guttering flicker of hope. “You ran,” he mumbled.
Jared tried to put more strength behind his voice. “But I never said no.” He leaned forward, foreheads together and their noses brushing. When he spoke again, his bottom lip snagged on the corner of Jensen’s mouth. Not a kiss, but close. “I won’t.”
“You can’t...” Jensen started, his hands finding their way to Jared’s knees. “You can’t say something like that and not mean it.”
The rain was slacking off, the storm moving on as quickly as it had started and leaving a kind of hush in its wake. A siren caterwauled in the distance. Indistinct but spell breaking.
Jared backed off to get a full view of Jensen’s face, his eyes tracing the shadowed and particular geometry of it. The shape of Jensen’s jaw set rigidly, the unconscious pout of his bottom lip, the freckles on the tops of his ears. Invisible in the lack of light, but Jared knew they were there. He covered Jensen’s hands with his own. “I always say what I mean,” Jared said.
“I hardly ever do,” Jensen replied, his breath leaving his body in a harsh bark of laughter, a release of nervous energy.
“You do when it’s important,” Jared pointed out, squeezing Jensen’s fingers.
Jensen brushed off the remark, dislodged his hands, pressed the heels of his palms to his eyes and took a huge, shaky breath. “I still want pancakes,” he said, sliding past Jared and lowering himself through the trap door. “I’ll buy, if you let me hitch a ride.”
The diner was crowded, given the hour. Jensen had been silent on the drive to the place. He kept his legs propped on the dashboard while Jared dodged fallen debris in the road, stewing in a puddle of water in the seat, his feet slipping on the wet rubber of the pedals until he gave up and kicked his shoes off for a better grip.
The bell over the door clanged as they walked in, turning a few heads and earning a some puzzled expressions over their soaked and mud splattered clothes. They tucked themselves into an anonymous back-corner booth. Jensen stared at the menu and Jared stared at Jensen.
Jensen pulled swagger and confidence over himself like a shroud when the waitress showed up. All smiles and easy flirting, and Jared felt like he’d just stepped out of one world and into another: a parallel universe where Jensen hadn’t turned their lives upside down with a few rushed words and a quick press of lips to Jared’s wrist.
It didn’t make any sense when Jensen told him that the young waitress stationed behind the counter kept staring at him. Jared kicked Jensen’s shin and refused to look over, but quickly grew silent and still when Jensen hooked their ankles together. He kept them that way, and that didn’t make any sense either.
Their food came, and Jensen poured maple syrup over everything within a three-foot radius, including Jared’s eggs. Jared shot hot sauce all over Jensen’s short stack, splatters of red dissolving into sugar, and Jensen snickered and claimed he liked them that way, liked a little kick to his pancakes.
Jensen sniffed and spoke around a mouthful, stabbing his fork in Jared’s direction. “We should fix that place up. Renovate it.” His tone was nonchalant, making the remark one that would be easy to dismiss or laugh off as ridiculous.
Jared stretched, pleasantly full. He arched his back and dislodged his damp skin from the plastic upholstery of the booth, his t-shirt riding partway up his stomach. Jared noticed the way Jensen froze, mid-bite, then cleared his throat and stole a fork full of eggs from Jared’s plate. Jared frowned in thought, nodding. “We could probably talk old man Mercer out of some scrap lumber,” he said.
“Just like the old days.” Jensen grinned at him.
Their neighborhood was asleep, the rattle and clang of the Jeep’s old engine loud and echoing between the houses. It cut off with a backfire when Jared pulled into the driveway. A dog a few doors down started barking.
Jared got out, tossed the keys to Jensen through the open cab of the car. He stood there, considering Jensen, waiting for him to say or do something. Trying to make sense of the last couple of hours, but it was all twisted up in his stomach and in his head. Finally Jared said, “I’ll see you tomorrow? We can get started.”
Jensen kicked at a fallen branch in his driveway, wrist thick with leaves still attached. “Bright and early,” he said. “Donuts?”
“Sure,” Jared replied, and started toward the street. His feet had just landed on the sidewalk when Jensen called his name, his voice cracking, breaking the word clean in two.
He closed in on Jared with a few loping strides. “About what I said,” Jensen started.
Jared’s heart started skipping beats, his ribcage suddenly too small, and this feeling shooting through him that was almost claustrophobic. He wasn’t sure if it got better or worse when Jensen pulled him down by his neck and kissed him, pressed their mouths together too hard, mashing Jared’s lips against his teeth. Painful and exhilarating all at once.
Jared rocked back on his heels as Jensen canted his body closer, his tongue a gentle tease along the seam of Jared’s lips. Jared’s hands found Jensen’s shoulders and he balanced for the both of them, closing his eyes against the dizzying thrill that came with the slip of Jensen’s mouth against his own, the sensation of Jensen licking inside.
Jensen’s lips were softer than he’d imagined. His hands were rougher, though. Stronger, when he captured Jared’s face between them, work-roughened thumbs swiping along the thin skin beneath Jared’s eyes.
Jared reeled with it, was just starting to settle into the reality of what was happening, and then Jensen broke free with a staggering step backward. Jared blinked, took in the blush riding high on Jensen’s cheekbones and the wet shine of his mouth.
“Are you okay?” Jensen asked.
Momentarily struck mute, Jared could only nod. His fingers were numb, and his feet weren’t quite hitting the ground.
“Good,” Jensen said, nodding himself and backing toward the door.
Jared remembered nothing of the walk back to his house. He flew up the stairs, giving obligatory answers to his father’s obligatory questions. Yes, I had fun… No, I didn’t drink… Yes, I saw the storm. Closing himself behind the safety of the locked bathroom door, Jared gripped the sink and stared at his reflection in the stark light, not too sure of what to expect. He thought that perhaps he’d look different now, older or something, like what happened tonight would leave some sort of visible mark. It hadn’t, of course. He sucked his bottom lip into his mouth, tasted a trace maple syrup, and smiled.
Nothing changed much. Jensen was still Jared’s best friend. They relived their greatest hits, told and retold old stories, only slightly embellished: those times they almost got caught stealing stop signs or sneaking into movie theaters, all the while lugging dubiously appropriated lumber and hardware through the woods. Jensen still made fun of him, criticized his taste in music, called him a geek for knowing all the presidents in order of appearance, and shoved wet leaves down the back of Jared’s shorts given half the chance. He ribbed him mercilessly when Jared bought one of those Guatemalan masks from the flea market, all bright paint and feathers, and hung it from peak of the newly replaced roof, declaring it the god of the tree house.
Things were very much the same, except now Jensen would sometimes kiss him good night or good morning, or would let his gaze linger overlong on Jared’s mouth as he chewed on his thumbnail. Not often, but enough.
Jared couldn’t deny the shock of want that shot through him every time he thought about Jensen’s mouth on his, and he also couldn’t ignore Jensen’s hesitation. The way he cracked jokes when Jared got too close to actually talking about what was going on, and how he turned away whenever Jared held on too tight. The weighted, tense silence that met Jared’s teasing remark that they should hang a sign that read ‘no girls allowed’ on the side of the tree house.
Jared sat cross-legged in the center of the tree house, putting the final knots into the new rope ladder. The place still smelled like sawdust and newly cut plywood. He heard Jensen long before he saw him through the large window, crashing through the underbrush and breaking twigs. His stomach dropped in a familiar swoop at the sight of Jensen, baseball hat on backwards, his shoulders pulled back and squared off under the weight of his backpack.
Peering through the trap door, Jared said, “What’s the password?”
Jensen held up a bag, grease stains bleeding through the paper. “Dinner,” he said.
They tore through their take out, Jensen claiming that mustard on hamburgers was downright un-American, and Jared pointing out that ketchup was unimaginative. The nighttime noises of the woods grew louder as they finished, and Jensen dug his dad’s army flashlight out of his backpack.
“I feel safer already,” Jared deadpanned.
Jensen ignored him. “Where are you staying tonight?” he asked. “In case we need to get our story straight.”
“Misha’s,” Jared replied. “You?”
“Mike’s.” Jensen leaned against the wall, kicked his legs out in front of him.
Jared wrapped a hand around Jensen’s ankle. Easy affection. “What are we doing?”
Jensen crossed his arms over his chest and squinted at him. “You asked me this before. I’m pretty sure it didn’t go well.”
“I’m also pretty sure it got me kissed, so I wouldn’t chalk it up to a total loss.” The urge to touch Jensen came on impossibly strong. So far, he’d allowed Jensen to set the rules. But they were alone, completely alone and a half mile away from the nearest streetlight. He crawled up Jensen’s body, framed Jensen’s hips with his thighs and watched the flash of heat that made Jensen’s eyes widen. Jared kissed him slow, fingertips teasing along the back of Jensen’s neck, sneaking under the collar of his shirt.
Jensen made a small, needy noise, shifting beneath Jared as their tongues curled together. He pulled away and tore at Jared’s shirt. Skin pebbling, Jared shivered under Jensen’s touch when Jensen lightly skidded his palms on his chest, along his ribs and around his waist. Of their own volition, Jared’s hips shot forward when Jensen mouthed along his skin, teeth grazing his collarbone. Small bites at the crook of his neck.
Pausing, Jensen looked up at him. “I want—“ he cut off, and Jared wished the light was better. He wanted to see Jensen clearly: the expression on his face and the blush on the tips of his ears that he knew would be there, every line and angle of his ridiculously perfect face. “I never would have thought,” Jensen started again. “When we knew each other back then. I never would have thought that you’d end up being the brave one. And if this happens, then it’ll all be real.”
Jared tried to make sense out of Jensen through the pounding of blood in his ears. “I’m not brave,” he said. “Just honest.” Struggling to simplify his thoughts into words, he said, “It’s just…If you want me to walk down Main Street holding your hand then I will. Or if you want me to act like we barely know each other when you hang out with your friends or we get back to school, then I’d do that too. I just don’t want you to go away again. I missed you. And I don’t what to have to miss you anymore.”
A hint of a smile twisted Jensen’s mouth, and he looked up at Jared. “I missed you, too. It wasn’t any fun.”
“Good to know.”
With a hand to Jared’s chest, Jensen toppled him backward, rough wood digging into his hands and scratching his back. The short flash of pain was completely forgotten when Jensen yanked his own shirt over his head and blanketed Jared’s body with his own. Sweat and humid air clung to their skin, the taste of salt on his tongue as he licked along Jensen’s throat.
Jensen slotted a leg between Jared’s and rocked them together. He could feel the press of Jensen’s cock against him and it shocked his pulse into overdrive, the knowledge that Jensen wanted him. It was thrilling, frightening, and made Jared’s breath catch. His hands on Jensen’s back grew still, fingernails digging in, the splintered wood of the floor biting into his shoulders as he arched into Jensen.
This was unknown territory, and Jared was completely off of the map. Jensen let him know he was on the right path as Jared reached between their bodies to palm Jensen’s cock. Jensen canted his hips to make room and kissed Jared, open mouthed and desperate.
“C’mere,” Jensen said, rolling them to their sides and hooking his leg high on Jared’s hip. He skated his hand low on Jared’s belly, fumbled with the waistband of his shorts and hooked his fingers around Jared’s cock. Squeezed. “Fuck, you’re so hard,” Jensen said, as if he was surprised.
“Can you blame me? Have you seen yourself recently?”
“Who’s cracking jokes now?” Jensen shut up when Jared shoved his pants crookedly past his hips. Heat exploded across Jared’s skin at the sight of Jensen, lips slack and hips moving impatiently, his cock flushed dark and arching toward his belly. A gripping picture of the known and unknown.
Everything narrowed down. Became fragmented. Jensen’s hand wrapped tight and perfect around him so different than his own hand and so much better. The damp, pulsing heat of Jensen’s cock in his fist. The way Jensen fucked into his hand, jagged thrusts, biting at Jared’s lips. He came with a long, soft moan, his leg wrapped so tightly around Jared’s hip, and come streaking on Jared’s stomach and spilling over his hand.
“God,” Jensen gasped, his hand stuttering on Jared’s cock. “You feel so good.” Jared pressed his finger to Jensen’s lips, and sucked on it, a graze of teeth on the pad of his finger, his tongue swirling around it. With a flash of light behind his closed eyelids, Jared came so hard it almost hurt, muscles tense and clutching Jensen to him, grabbing on tight.
He came down slowly, breath evening out and the rush of blood in his ears replaced by forest noises. Buzzing cicadas and mouthy crickets. Jared rested on his back and pulled Jensen close to him. There was a second’s worth of hesitation from Jensen, but then he shifted, rested his head on Jared’s shoulder. His short hair tickled some, but Jared didn’t mind.
Lightning flashed, dim and far away. Jared counted the seconds, waiting for the thunder, made it to twenty and gave up.
“Heat lightning,” Jensen said.
“There’s no such thing,” Jared told him.
“You always were the smart one.”
Jared took Jensen by the wrist and ran his fingertip along the scar on Jensen’s palm. Barely visible in the dark, but Jared could have hit the mark with his eyes closed. He remembered the slicing, fast flash of pain and the feeling of Jensen’s palm against his, all those years ago. He matched their hands up, scar to scar. “Maybe, but I still think that you always had the best ideas.” A thought struck him. “Is this why you wanted to fix this place up? So you could get your hand in my pants?”
Jensen laughed, deep, low, and a little bit wicked. “I wanted an excuse to see you everyday.”
“You don't need an excuse. You never have.”
Thanks for reading.