There's a noise. Some vague buzzing sound that pulls Jared out of the best REM cycle he's had all week. He rolls over in bed, legs tangled in his sheets, gropes under the pillow and knocks his phone to the floor. His t-shirt gets twisted and he loses a sock and now his phone is rattling louder, plastic case sounding hollow against the wooden floor, happily vibrating its way under his bed.
One bleary glance at his clock tells him that it's only been two hours since he'd collapsed into bed, and he's only got time for a couple more before he has to be up and at least marginally functional. And really, he has no idea what he was thinking at the beginning of the semester when he'd optimistically signed on for a seven-thirty lecture in advanced linear algebra, but whatever. His phone is still ringing and all of his blood is rushing to his head as he leans over the side of his bed to reach for it.
"Holy shit, Sophie," Jared mutters, still not opening his eyes. "It's five. In the morning."
He'd be more pissed if he didn't adore her so much. If she didn't keep him grounded and on track in that quiet, constant way she has. He'd met Sophia in a writing class all freshmen were required to take, had become friends over the hassle of having to write five paragraph essays on stanzas that were less than two hundred words long. They'd moved in together at the start of their junior year, and it had worked out so well that they let the deal slide into their senior year too. She pays the rent and all her bills on time, never drinks the last beer in a six-pack before replacing it with a new one. She doesn't throw parties or eat all of Jared's food. Sophia puts up with Jared's weird schedule and his tendency toward procrastination, and Jared puts up with her habit of locking the deadbolt and pulling the door closed behind her while her keys are still sitting in the bowl next to it.
"The spare is under the frog. Remember what we talked about? If the frog is facing the steps it means--"
Jared is cut off by a voice saying his name. Decidedly male and definitely not Sophia. He sits up fast, eyes gritty as he blinks, head spinning and feeling that vague sort of nausea that comes when he hasn't gotten enough sleep. Or any.
"What the hell, dude?" Chad says. "This is the fourth time I've called. You were passed out. Are you drunk? It's like, Wednesday or something. Impressionable young minds like yours shouldn't be getting drunk on a Wednesday."
Something hooks in Jared's stomach. Not really dread, but a kissing cousin to it. In that instant, he can keenly feel the stretch of every mile between them. All that distance between him and Jensen. Each hour it would take him to drive or fly to the left side of continent.
"Chad," Jared says, "it's Thursday."
"Roofies, then. Fucking knew it," Chad says, a sharp edge to it. "What's the last thing you remember?"
"What do roofies have to do with Thursday?" Jared drags his hand over his face, fusses with his t-shirt so it's not twisted around his neck.
On the other end of the line, Jared can hear Chad take a sharp inhale, and when he speaks again, his voice is deeper, talking through smoke. "No fucking clue. Time is a manmade construct."
"Yeah, and right now that construct is kicking my ass. What's going on?"
Chad takes another drag of his cigarette and a small amount of Jared's nerves drain away. Jensen's alright. Chad's moral compass points in a different direction than most people's, but if something irreversible had happened to Jensen, Chad would have led with that. At least that's what Jared wants to believe.
"Jensen's...he's okay," Chad says, and it's halting, stilted. "I mean. I don't fucking know. He needs you."
"Is that what he said?" Jared falls back against his headboard, kicks at the sheets. He's throat is thick and he kinda feels like crying and has no idea where any of this is coming from.
There's a pause, followed by a snick of a lighter and some more rustling. "No, I'm saying it. He needs you, Jared."
Promises and obligations are playing roulette in Jared's head. There are papers to finish and mid-terms to study for and applications for internships to figure out. His boss down at the copy shop is the most lenient dude Jared's ever worked for, but he'll only bend so far. Jared's got deadlines scattered in every direction like interstates on a roadmap and spring break is still a week and a half out.
Then there's Jensen. His oldest and very best friend. Almost two thousand miles away and nonetheless tucked so far into Jared's heart that any attempt to extract him would cause permanent damage.
"Give me fifteen hours," Jared says after a few quick calculations. He ditches his other sock as he swings his legs over the side of the bed, staggers stiff and groggy toward his desk and powers on his laptop. He has two papers to polish up and very little time to do it.
"Yeah. Sure," Chad says, with a note of relief that Jared feels even over the phone. "You got twelve."
Jensen breaks twigs off of a crooked stick, holds it like a crutch under his arm and starts to hobble around his backyard. Jared flops down in the pile of leaves they spent the last couple of hours raking, settles into the dry crunch of them and picks at a new blister the rake has given his palm.
The day is cool, and someone in their neighborhood has jumped the gun and made use of their fireplace so the air smells like woodsmoke, like a winter they really don't get around here.
Jensen's still on the move, walking in smaller and smaller circles around Jared, going between an exaggerated limp to all-out hopping along on one leg. He's getting ready to try out for the part of Tiny Tim in a local production of A Christmas Carol, keeps spouting out lines from the play, pitching his voice so it's higher, all trembling and weak.
"You're overdoing it," Jared says to him, as he plucks out a leaf from the pile, twirls it by the stem and holds it up to the light to look at the pattern of skinny veins in it. The leaf is yellow on the edges and green in the middle, a color that reminds Jared of Jensen's eyes although he'll never say that to him, not even if someone dared him. "Don't be so nervous."
"It isn't easy," Jensen says, plopping down next to Jared.
"Sure it is," Jared says off-handedly, and pays Jensen back for the sharp jab to the ribs he gets for it.
"Explain how." Jensen grabs his own leaf, this one dark brown and red, reaches over and sticks it in Jared's hair, repeats it four more times until Jared's wearing a crown like the Statue of Liberty.
"You can just make it less hard," Jared tells him with a shrug, with all of backing of a ten-year-old's faith and flawless logic.
"It's not like last time. I'll have lines, if I even get the part."
He did a really great job in the fourth grade play they did last year. Jensen was a tree and Jared was the ocean and had to kneel on the edge of the stage and wave blue streamers and it kinda sucked. After a minute his arms were tired and so were his knees and it was probably the most boring thing he'd ever done.
"You'll get the part. You made a very good tree," Jared tells him.
It's the first time Jensen will have to speak on a stage. He has a face that people like looking at, like the kids Jared sees on the commercials that cut through Saturday morning cartoons or show up in all the catalogues. To hear Jared's mother talk about it, Jensen's folks have sorta banked on him. He's done some stuff for magazines and one local commercial for a kid's dentist where he smiled pretty in the dentist chair, smiled pretty at the reception desk, and then smiled pretty on the way out the door.
Jared's heard his parents talking about them, speaking quietly at night when Jared's clearing the table and they're sitting on the couch in front of reruns on the television. They say that Jared might be the only thing that reminds Jensen that he's a kid, and more importantly, reminds his folks that he is a kid. Skinned knees and bloody palms aren't the end of the world. A boy needs a little dirt under his fingernails and behind his ears.
One week later, on a bright, sunny morning, Jensen busts into Jared's living room, bounces onto the couch and nearly topples the plate of waffles Jared has balanced on his lap. Jared's still licking syrup from his fingers as Jensen shoves a rumpled piece of paper under his nose, and Jared doesn't have to look at it to know that Jensen has gotten the part.
"That's awesome," Jared says. "Do you want a waffle?"
Jensen's eyes are wide and his smile is so huge it splits his face in half. "My mother says I shouldn't have sweets. They mess with my complexion."
Rolling his eyes, Jared says, "Screw your complexion."
For the next couple of weeks, Jared ends up stumping around the backyard behind him as Jensen perfects his limp and repeats his lines in a hundred different ways. Jared's there in the front row for the first night and all the nights that follow, off to the side in the section reserved for friends and family, stuffed into his good Sunday clothes and mouthing along with every single one of Jensen's lines. Jensen never screws up once. Neither does Jared.
"It's Jensen." Jared stuffs clothes into a suitcase, not really paying a lot of attention to what's going into it. Sophia leans in his doorway, arms and ankles crossed.
She's the only person who comes close to understanding and still doesn't know the half of it. Jared's never been the type of guy to drop Jensen's name. Doesn't see the point in it. Jensen had only visited him once at school, when Jared was a freshman and Jensen was still relatively unknown, running the circuit and getting small roles in television or working in tiny indie flicks. Anyone who had approached them when they'd been out around town had only been able to vaguely peg Jensen as that guy from that thing. A few people had asked for Jensen's autograph and Jensen had obliged graciously, with a nod and a wink, and had told them to hold onto it, that it might be worth five bucks on ebay in about twenty years.
"I know, sweetheart." Sophia pushes off of the doorframe, dodges him as he paces around his room. "Be careful. Just watch out."
"What?" Jared asks, and balls up another t-shirt to stuff into a corner of his suitcase. He spins the ring he always wears on his thumb, a narrow silver band stamped with tiny stars, worn smooth from years of messing with it. He spins it again for luck.
"So far you've packed a dozen pairs of socks and no underwear. All I'm sayin'." Her tone is even and reasonable. She grabs the shaving kit from where he'd laid it on his bed, hands it over to him, and squeezes his upper arm for a second.
The small gesture is enough to make Jared pause. "Thanks," he says, and curves his arm around the back of her neck, drops a kiss to the top of her head and breathes in the comforting smell of her lavender shampoo. "For everything. Don't know--"
"What you'd do without me," she finishes for him. Sophia extracts four pairs of socks from his suitcase and tucks them back into his drawer. When Jared raises an eyebrow at her, she says, "I'm sure Jensen has some you can borrow if you run out."
Jared snorts. "He probably has a team of paid professionals to wash them in the tears of his most devoted fans if it comes right down to it."
"You said it, not me." She straightens the couple of manila envelopes Jared has stacked on the corner of his desk, essays that Jared had rushed toward their finish lines, his professors' names and mailbox numbers printed neatly on the outside of each.
In the last few hours, Jared has emailed all of his professors and his boss, told everyone who matters that he's having a family emergency. It's not a lie. Jensen's family. More than, and he always has been. Jared had called Matt, his on-again-off-again, and begged out of their standing Saturday night date, told him in the vaguest way possible that he was going to be scarce for a while. Everything is lined up. Still, there's a lingering sort of regret like a nasty taste in his mouth that he can't wash out.
"How long will you be gone?" Sophia asks.
Jared is partially leaning on his suitcase, elbow set into it, forcing the zipper to close. Sophia takes over for him, mostly lying on top of the thing, squirming a little and trying not to laugh as Jared's knuckles brush her exposed stomach under the hem of her shirt.
"I don't know. Whenever I've managed to piss out whatever's caught fire out there." It comes out harsher than he intended. Less funny.
"But school. Your internship. The fucking GRE, Jared."
The last few inches of the zipper snick closed and they both step back. Jared pulls it from the bed and it lands with a heavy thump before he rolls it toward the doorway.
"It's Jensen," Jared says again.
Sophia tilts her head back, her small smile pointed up at him. "Don't forget your toothbrush."
A couple hours ago, Chad had sent him a message with his flight information. Jared types the confirmation number into the kiosk at the luggage check. Laughs to himself when he finds out he's riding first class and there isn't a return ticket. The woman behind the counter makes a point to call him 'Mr. Padalecki' no fewer than five times, reminds him to make use of their executive lounge and enjoy their complimentary this, that and the other.
The last time he saw Jensen was a couple of years ago. Jensen had bought his parents a house on one of the Virgin Islands with some of the paycheck he'd gotten from one of his bigger movies, so even their holidays don't line up anymore. Sure, Jared was there at the arthouse theater near campus for the opening night of Jensen's first indie. He gets his tickets a week in advance for each and every feature film, reads the reviews and his heart jumps each time a critic has something nice to say. He always shoots Jensen a quick text as soon as he walks out of one of his films, always says the same thing: eh. you were alright, i guess.. Jensen always writes the same thing back: fucker.
It's rare that they talk and they never email. That doesn't mean that Jensen's not always there in a way. Jared has a gift card to Starbucks that has never run empty, and the same goes for Whataburger. In a quiet, unacknowledged way, Jensen has kept him caffeinated and fed for the entirety of his higher education. Jensen's is the sarcastic voice in Jared's head, the part-time angel and devil on his shoulder. He knows all of Jared's inside jokes and the provenience of most of Jared's scars. Their relationship is the standard to which everyone in Jared's life is compared and found wanting.
So yeah. If Jensen needs him, he's there.
Jared feels weird being a college kid in ratty blue jeans and a frayed knit hat sitting on the plane next to a businessman with gold cufflinks and a rolex on his wrist, but he can't deny that the extra legroom is close to heaven. He declines the snacks and says yes to some water, leans his head against the window. His eyes sting with exhaustion when he closes them and he's out cold before the wheels leave the ground.
Jared's balance is off and there's something fucked up happening to his left ear from the landing as he finds his way to baggage claim. He needs both hands to count the times he's landed in LAX and it never fails to strike him as off-kilter, the combination of seventies cheesiness and weird Jetson's-style space-age modernism. His first impression of Los Angeles still matches his lasting one. Nothing in this city matches, nothing makes a lick of sense.
A line of people are waiting outside baggage, a whole bunch of folks in dark suits holding up dry-erase placards with names on them. Chad is impossible to miss in his huge mirrored aviators and purposefully ripped up blue jeans, and old, stretched-out tank top with the Natty Bo logo on it. His skin is darkly tanned and his hair is sunbleached, spiked up with so much gunk that it could probably cut glass. He's holding a sign the size of a poster board that reads J-PAD in purple sparkly letters.
Chad fetches him up in a tight hug, backs off to hold him at arm's length and look him up and down. "Looking great, brother. Damn, it's good to see you."
"You look like Hollywood threw up on you," Jared observes.
Jared wriggles his pinky finger in his ear, tries to hold his nose and blow to get it to clear and nope. His ear is definitely fucked, and Chad sounds like he's underwater as he says, "Nah, man. That was last week. C'mon."
He grabs Jared's suitcase and leads him toward the garage, and Jared has to jog a few steps to catch up with him.
"Are you gonna tell me what's going on now?" Jared grills him. "What's he gotten himself into?"
"It's not something I can explain." Chad admits, and Jared's chest tightens. The familiar flare of irritation that lights up is oddly comforting, all things considered. "It was a bad night last night." He pauses at the end of a long line of cars, pushes his sunglasses on top of his head and squints more than usual. "Shit. That's right. Wrong floor." He doubles back toward the elevators, punches the button for one floor down.
The consistency with which Chad screws up even the most basic job is another thing that Jared thinks is oddly comforting.
"Define bad," Jared says once Chad is striding purposefully toward an SUV sitting dark and shiny across two parking spaces. A long time ago, Jared learned that it's best to let the guy concentrate on one thing at a time.
"Bad. As in not good." Chad hefts the suitcase into the car and opens the passenger door for him. The interior of the truck is tricked out. Moonroof, all kinds of gauges and gadgets. The seats are soft tan leather and when Chad hits a button, some lumbar spine support thing happens, hugs at the small of Jared's back.
"Okay. So define not good." Jared shoots him a pent-up look.
"I mean, Jensen isn't doing lines off of some supermodel's stomach, if that's what you're thinking." Mostly under his breath, he continues, "Fuck, if that was the problem, I'd know how to handle it."
"If that was the problem, you'd probably be lining up to do it with him," Jared points out.
Chad's gotten them out of the garage and onto the freeway. He opens the window and lights up a cigarette, and the warm, dry Los Angeles air comes flooding in, pushes Jared's hair back from his face and revives him up better than the three-hour nap he'd had on the plane. Beyond the sound barriers, houses are stacked side-by-side, as crowded as the freeway. As they drive into the hills the homes start to space further out, hidden behind tall cypress. Privacy fences and remotely controlled gates are everywhere. So are those clay-tiled roofs that Jared likes so well. It's been a while since he's been out here, and he's never driven much, so he's kinda lost.
"I dunno, man." Chad steers them onto a road that climbs upward, heading away from the coast. "It's just….he gives so much and he needs to be reminded that there are people out there who don't want anything from him."
"You're qualified to do that," Jared tells him.
Jared and Jensen met Chad in high school, and he'd been a part of a lot of the stories from those days that are worth remembering and retelling. A year after Jensen moved out here, Chad followed, played a couple of parts that wound up on the cutting room floor, waited tables at a bunch of restaurants and was one shitty paycheck away from throwing in the towel when Jensen took him on as a go-fer. He sort of fell into the job. Between auditions, he runs errands and drives Jensen around, likes to think of himself as the chief bottle washer of Jensen's small entourage.
"I'm really not. Don't forget I'm on the payroll." In a moment of keen insight, Chad says, "Besides, I'm not part of the inner circle. For as long as I've known you guys, there's only been room for two of you in there. You're it for him. Always have been."
Jared hums, says quietly, mostly to himself, "Bloody knees and scuffed up palms."
"What was that?" Chad asks.
"Hold still," Jensen says, and punctuates it with a squeeze to Jared's thigh. His touch doesn't help. Not at all. "Do you want me to take your eye out?"
They're in Jensen's room, sitting knee-to-knee on the floor, cross-legged and close. Bottles, brushes and compacts spread out in a rainbow-colored arc beside them, and Jensen's staring at Jared's left eye, his brows drawn together in concentration.
"It itches," Jared complains, scratching at the back of his neck, trying to brush off all the tiny stray hairs scattered on his skin and under the collar of his shirt.
And what a fresh piece of hell that had been, sitting backward on the toilet, straddling it while Jensen brushed his hair, apologized every time he ran across a tangle, then combed his fingers through it, checked and double checked the parts in his hair at the sides before tying the top half up in a scrunchie borrowed from his sister. Pink, with little silver hearts stamped onto the fabric, because of course it would be. Then there had been the weird sensation as the clippers vibrated close to his skull, of Jensen bending his ears forward and tilting his head this way and that to get everything even, and finally how the air against his closely cropped head had felt so cold.
"I told you. You should have taken a shower." Jensen had finished with the clippers only a few minutes earlier and Jared's hand keeps creeping up to the back of his head without him thinking about it. He can't stop running his fingernail along the edge where the hair goes from being a few millimeters to the longer stuff on top. Out of nowhere, Jensen palms the back of Jared's head, scuffs the short hair through his fingers, scrunches up his face and says, "Feels a little like mine after I've had it cut."
Now it's Jared's turn to touch Jensen, cup his palm against the curve of Jensen's skull. The moment stretches out long and slow. Like taffy. Jared lets himself touch Jensen longer than he should, probably. Jensen's hair feels like crushed velvet against his hand, and Jared shivers from it, something that Jensen is obviously able to feel in all the places where they're touching.
Jensen thinks it's another squirm, and Jared doesn't know if that's good or bad that he's reading it that way. Jensen sits back, cocks his head to the side, slumps some and gives Jared a look. Long-suffering and patiently fond all at the same time. His face is so expressive, part of what makes him a good actor. Jared ducks his head, mutters a soft, "Sorry. Sorry."
"So do you want smudgy or sharp?" Jensen asks him.
"What do you think?"
"How should I know?" Jensen reaches across Jared's lap, bending so far that his stomach brushes Jared's bent knee and his elbow nudges into Jared's ribs as he grabs a tiny pot of something and a very fine brush. It's nothing. It doesn't mean anything when Jensen does stuff like this. Not all the times he lets Jared carry the majority of his weight, when he uses Jared's body to push himself off of the ground or lands across his legs reaching for something. Not when he slides his cold feet under Jared's thighs to warm them up as they watch a movie on the sofa and not now, as he thoughtlessly brushes a few stray hairs out of Jared's face that have fallen from his ponytail.
Jensen's a theater kid, has told Jared about the trust exercises his acting coaches and drama teachers have made them do. Stuff that seems mostly about blindfolds and falling into each other. Jensen's body doesn't entirely belong to him. It's a basic fact of his life.
"You have more makeup than my mother and sister put together," Jared says, "that's how you should know." His tongue feels clumsy in his mouth. Too big and awkward.
Pausing half through unscrewing the lid on a tiny pot of something thick and shiny black like ink, Jensen glances at up at him, a sardonic twist to his mouth. "I'm a professional." Jared raises his eyebrows and Jensen goes on, "I've had to practice. Anyway, here."
He takes Jared's hand and places it on his own thigh, his worn flannel pajama pants incredibly soft under Jared's touch. He gathers some of the stuff on the thin brush and paints a snake-like line on the top of Jared's hand. "The liquid gives you a sharper line." Next he uncaps a pencil with his teeth, talks around it, "The pencil is softer." The other line he draws follows the contours of the first.
"That one, I think," Jared says, indicating the line Jensen had drawn with the pencil.
Jensen scrubs Jared's hand clean with a cotton ball. "You sure? 'Cause dude, I'm only doing this once."
"Yeah," Jared says, "it's more punk rock. Less drag queen." He keeps his hand resting on Jensen's thigh and it slides up some as Jensen inches in a little closer. Jared can feel the warmth radiating from Jensen's skin, the tense and release of his thigh muscles as he settles.
"Hey now," Jensen tells him, "don't knock drag queens. That shit is a lot of work."
Jared takes a quick inhale at Jensen's touch to the soft skin below his right eye.
"Grey." Jensen pulls Jared's eyelid taut, and Jared tries not to flinch at the first swipe of the eyeliner pencil to his lower lid. It's not the hardest thing he's ever done, but it ranks pretty high up there.
"What?" Jared says between his clenched teeth, trying not to move.
"Your eyes are grey right now. Sometimes they're blue. I've been looking at them my whole life and I've never been able to really figure them out."
Jensen's always saying things like this, tiny observations stated off-handedly. He has no idea how easily he can rock Jared sideways, make his heart crawl into his throat and his body tingle all over. When Jensen leans forward, his face only inches away from Jared's, his breath falls on Jared's mouth. It's warm, moist, tastes a little sweet as Jared breathes it in, wondering what would happen in if he dared to push forward. Just a tiny bit.
"I'm heavy handed with this stuff. I'm used to doing stage makeup, and you usually lay that on pretty thick. Look up." Jensen commands, and Jared complies. For some reason Jared's mouth falls open when he turns his gaze toward the ceiling. He really wishes that he was still looking at Jensen, that he still had an excuse to keep looking at him.
"Everyone always does that," Jensen says, humor woven through his voice. He anchors the side of his hand on Jared's cheekbone. It's steady and sure and Jared's sitting there, feeling like his bones are about to shake loose from his skin. Jensen tells him to look down, and Jared's proud that he doesn't flinch at all when the tugging sensation starts.
Jensen does something with his thumb along Jared's upper lid and it all feels so weird. Some of the eyeliner is smudged on Jensen's thumb, into the grooves of his fingerprint, patterned whorls pronounced, and Jared doesn't know why it sends a shock through him, only that it does.
"Hey. Why didn't you try out for the play?" Jensen asks.
"Too bigtime for me. And it's a fucking musical, too. Plus, there's dancing, and...no."
It's a dinky high school production of West Side Story, and Jensen has the lead part. He's been doing commercials regularly, has flown to California a couple of times to play small parts in teen dramas, nothing huge yet. Getting there, though.
"You underestimate yourself." Jensen switches to the other eye. The tip of his tongue is trapped between his teeth, wet and sweetly pink and Jared gets preoccupied, thinking about what it might taste like.
"I skimmed your copy of the script," Jared tells him. "There wasn't a part written for the ocean. Not even a tree. Mighta tried out if there was a part for a tree."
Jensen pulls back, glares at Jared for a second, trying to keep his expression serious and failing miserably, ends up breaking with a snorting giggle. "You'd think you could at least play a dumpster or something. Maybe a clothesline. You're skinny enough for it."
He sits back to take a good look at his handiwork, stops Jared as he begins to stand up. After a quick lick to the pencil, he draws it lightly downward under each of Jared's eyes and smudges it for a second with his knuckle.
The entire time, Jared's hand has been resting on Jensen's thigh. He takes it back now, begins to touch his cheek and is pulled short with Jensen's fingers around his wrist. "Check it out before you fuck it up."
It takes a second before Jared recognizes himself in the mirror. The change in him is striking. The kohl around his eyes make them seem more pale and bright, and Jared really likes the skinny, smudged lines Jensen has drawn underneath them. The new cut and eyeliner makes him look grown-up somehow, his face more angular and defined now that it isn't lost under a sloppy mop of hair. Jensen finds a false clipon earring that he wore when he was playing a part in some play about pirates. He breaks off the clip and tells Jared to open up, hooks the ring over Jared's bottom lip, then grins at Jared's reflection. Jared grins back.
"I still think you should have tried out," Jensen says. "You're gonna come to rehearsals though, right?"
"Of course I am," Jared says, not skipping a beat.
Jensen touches the back of Jared's head again, scuffs his palm against his hair. "Good."
The car rocks to a stop in front of a locked gate and Chad leans out of the window to hit a series of buttons on a keypad. "Well, goddamn it," he says after he gets no response, and tries it again. The second time doesn't work any better than the first so he hits the speaker button. Nothing. Silence on the other end, and Chad resorts to hollering out of his window, then sitting back and chewing on his lips. "Someone changed my code. Probably Mike. He's always fucking with me."
"You could call him," Jared suggests.
"No one in that house ever picks up their phone."
"Do you know anyone else's?" Jared asks, smiling innocently into the withering look Chad directs at him.
Chad punches in another code and all the keys flash a menacing, threatening red.
"I can't believe you just tried Jensen's birthday. Jesus. Any stalker who would want to sneak in here would try that one first." On a hunch, Jared tells him, "Try mine."
"I'm about to choke on the narcissism," Chad says, which is fucking rich, coming from him.
"Big word." Jared gives him a punch to the shoulder.
"You're one to talk, college boy." Chad swats him back but tries the numbers anyway. After a beat, the gates swing open on silent hinges, and Chad mutters, "Motherfucker."
The brick driveway curves around some tall privacy hedges and the house comes into view. Jared doesn't think that Jensen knows a lot about real estate but can tell that the guy erred on the side of swanky. The place is Spanish inspired. The sun setting behind it gives the stucco a creamy glow and makes the mottled red tiled roof look like it's on fire.
The brickwork extends around a cluster of palm trees, the tiny garden dotted with a few boulders, and there are a half dozen cars parked around it. A big-ass Hummer is hulking over one of those tiny smart cars and as Chad walks between the two of them toward the front entrance, he waves at them and says, "Yep. That about sums things up nicely."
It fucks with Jared to think that Jensen lives in a place that he's never seen before. That there are too many things they don't know about each other and too many months since he and Jensen have breathed the same air.
A trippy chandelier hangs in the entranceway, made of hand blown glass, hundreds of squirmy components in different reds, magentas and oranges and it's as if the whole decor of the place has been based on those colors. A number of people are in one of the rooms toward the back, voices blended in an unintelligible drone and Jensen's isn't one of them. Jared could pick up his voice from a mile away.
The room has high ceilings, everything the same colors as the chandelier that greeted them. Natural colored leather sofas draped with expensive-looking throw blankets, tasteful decorations and a tiled fireplace that most likely never gets used. Not a speck of dust is given the time to fall on anything, and the whole place has some designer's fingerprint on it, somebody who very much knows what they're doing. There isn't a trace of Jensen anywhere. This place could belong to anyone.
"Nice digs," Jared says low, leaning toward Chad.
Chad sniffs, looking around like it's his first time seeing it too. "Yeah. Maybe. I liked the other place better."
The people in Jensen's living room are clearly used to folks coming in and out of the house, pay no attention at all to Jared and Chad as they pass through. Jared recognizes some of the faces, recognizes the dollar signs printed all over their designer wardrobes, the thin crystal stemware and the wine sloshing around inside of it.
Chad gives Jared the nickel tour of the lower level, and the rest of the house is more of the same. It's clear that Jensen doesn't spend a lot of time here, or if he does, he doesn't care much about it. One wall in the kitchen is made entirely of glass, a wide veranda outside of it and views of the canyon and a small lake beyond. The house is built into the side of a terraced hill. There's a pool and another landing with a gazebo constructed out of the same stucco and tile work as the house. Through another line of privacy shrubs is a smaller bungalow, and Chad tells him that's where he'll be staying. Smaller, but still swanky.
As they're staring out the window, Jensen comes stumbling down the stairs, heels of his palms pressed to his eyes, stops at the second to last step and stares at Jared. Blinks and stretches and acts like he might not be completely with it, as if he's trying to wake up. Jared stares back steadily, probably wouldn't be able to look away even if the roof was about to cave in on him.
Jensen's hair is longer than the last time Jared saw him and is standing up in soft spikes and whorls, sleep-sloppy. His skin is pale, but sun-spotted with the freckles that Jensen hates and Jared could never get enough of. His lips are parted slightly, small flash of white teeth behind them like he can't figure out whether or not to smile. His t-shirt is rumpled and pulled out at the collar. Underneath the shirt it's plain that he's bulked up some, wide shoulders that taper down to his slender waist and hips, and the board shorts he's wearing are hanging crooked on him.
"Jared," he says, eyes wide, surprise through and through.
"Heya," Jared says. There's a catch in his throat and he's considering himself fortunate that at least that much came out. He keeps expecting that one day he'll get used to this. That a day will come when the sight of Jensen won't make his lungs freeze up and his stomach drop like a cannon ball has landed in it and his knees forget how to be knees. He keeps waiting for the shine to wear off, but for now it's still there. Brighter than ever.
"Jared," he repeats, stronger the second time, and he closes the space between them in a couple of huge strides. The force of it as he slams into Jared trips them both a couple of steps to the side. Jared has to widen his stance to keep them upright as Jensen throws all of his weight into him, arms flung tight around Jared's neck and his own feet barely on the floor. He buries his sleep-warmed face into the crook of Jared's neck for a short moment and Jared wishes it was longer. The muscles in Jensen's back bunch and shift under Jared's hands, more defined and leaner than they've ever been before. He still smells the same, though.
Jensen backs off, puts his hand to Jared's chest, precisely over his heart. He eyes the suitcase beside them, keeps his hand there. "I didn't...what are you doing here?"
Over Jensen's shoulder, Chad is glaring daggers at him, teeth bared and dragging a thumb over his throat.
"Thought you could use some company," Jared says, sure to keep it vague. It's not a lie. Okay, so it might be adjacent to one. Not like it matters. They've never needed excuses to be together. Never needed a reason. "Talked to Chad. Thanks for the airplane ticket, by the way."
Although it's clear that this is the first Jensen's heard of it, he waves it away. "Of course. No problem." He hugs Jared again, cheek pressed to Jared's ear and the rush of Jared's blood sounds like the ocean. "I missed you," he says, voice pitched low and soft. Something for only the two of them. "How long are you here?" Jensen asks, then shakes his head. "No. Don't tell me. I don't wanna know, 'cause then I'll be counting and I don't wanna do that."
It's a quirk, something so incredibly characteristic of Jensen and it makes Jared's heart speed up and bang in his chest, makes him smile no matter how hard he tries to fight it. "I'll let you know two days before I leave."
"Good. That's good."
The people in the other room have gone quiet, begin to filter into the kitchen when they hear Jensen's voice. Mike wanders in and he hasn't changed a bit since Jared first met him a couple of years ago. He's all grand Hollywood manager, talks too loud through a smile that's too big. Schmoozing is his default. He's been in the game so long that it's not even an act any longer.
Other folks begin to enter into the room, form a circle around the two of them, like they're in orbit and Jensen's the center of everyone's gravity.
"It's so good to finally meet you," a woman says. Her voice is warm and so are her dark eyes as Jensen introduces her as Sandy. She says, "Now I understand what all the fuss is about."
"The fuss?" Jared asks, distracted by the flush creeping up Jensen's cheeks and down his neck, how he turns away a little so he doesn't have to look Jared in the eye.
"Most of Jensen's stories start with 'This one time Jared and I.' It's good to lay eyes on the headliner."
Jared hums, feeling a prickle of regret that it doesn't go both ways. He might not talk about Jensen much, that doesn't mean that he thinks about him any less.
"Y'all hungry?" Jensen looks around at the ring of people surrounding him, and Mike gives him some crap about the slurred Texas coming out in his voice after just a few minutes with someone from back home.
The refrigerator is basically empty. A bunch of bottles of fancy vitamin water and a couple of open bottles of white wine. Jensen digs into his pocket, finds a credit card and throws it on the counter. "Order whatever you want," he says, then pushes Jared toward the living room to collapse on the couch, everyone following behind them like a well-dressed conga line.
Jensen is everyone's best friend. He used to just be Jared's.
"I don't actually care what you say. You're coming, and if you're coming, we're gonna do it right." Jensen's propped up on his kitchen counter, looking way too awake and perky for a guy Jared knows for a fact went to bed at about five in the morning.
"A premiere? It's not my scene." Jet lag has gotten one over on Jared, his sleep cycle set into a weird spiral of cat-naps. He's been awake and pacing around for about three hours, after only sleeping for two, waiting for the sun to catch up with him.
"It's not really mine either. Standing around getting my picture taken while the fashion police pick apart my suit. I mean, really. It's a suit. How much can you say about a fucking suit?" He steals Jared's coffee cup from his hand and takes a gulp of it before passing it back over. "If I have to suffer through it, so should you."
"I don't even have a suit for them to pick apart," Jared tells him. He holds up one foot, points out the worn, scuffed leather of his Doc Martens. "Besides, I brought exactly one pair of shoes with me." He'd unpacked this morning, shoved stuff into drawers in the bigger of the two bedrooms in the guesthouse and had discovered he really must have been half asleep and out of his mind when he'd packed. Only two pairs of underwear had made it into his suitcase, seven pairs of socks and innumerable t-shirts.
Sandy is curled up in one of the big, overstuffed chairs in the living room. Her painfully spiked shoes are on the floor and she has her legs tucked under her. Jared's not sure what she does, and when he'd asked Jensen about her last night, he'd described her as someone who's job is everything. Her phone is pressed to her ear and she's typing away on a tablet resting on her knee. She clears her throat pointedly and arches an eyebrow at them.
"Where's Chad?" Jensen says to no one in particular, and they both chuckle. It's an inside joke, provenance lost years ago. Jensen digs his phone out of his pocket, hits the screen a couple of times and makes a face. "No one ever picks up their phone in this house."
"You could always go knock on his door," Jared suggests and Jensen shoots him a dead-eyed look.
"No fucking way," Jensen says and they crack up again.
"Alright. Let's talk about mechanics." Sandy cuts in. She stands and does a graceful flamingo move to put her shoes on. Even with the boost, she still hardly comes up to Jared's shoulder. "The limo's rented for tomorrow evening. Walk the red carpet, smile smile smile, the movie is less than two hours long."
"Yeah, and I'm a barely more than a cameo. Might be in twenty minutes of it, and that's if half of it didn't get edited out," Jensen grumbles.
"Whatever. It's a memorable twenty minutes. Or ten. At least I bartered your way out of the press junket," Mike says as he enters the room. He's in Underarmor from head to toe, damn well a walking billboard for the stuff. Ear buds dangle over his neck and his phone is strapped to his arm. He's a stereotype of a stereotype. "And you don't have to fly to New York, and probably shouldn't be complaining about the paycheck."
"Anyway," Sandy talks right over him, "you have an appointment in…" she grabs Jared's wrist and turns it, "forty minutes at Battaglia. For both of you." Sandy gives Jared's arm a squeeze before letting it go.
The French door to the patio opens up and Chad comes limping in. He's wearing the same clothes he had on yesterday and is screwing with a new bend in his sunglasses, curses as he puts them on and finds one of the lenses cracked down the middle. He tosses them into the sink, goes into a drawer and pulls out an identical pair. "Who the fuck let me fall asleep on the ground last night?" He rubs at the small of his back. "My spine hurts. And so does my ass."
Jensen hooks him around the neck and pulls him in to scuff his knuckles into Chad's hair. "I'm not gonna get within a mile of that."
"Steve's cleared his book for you," Sandy says, glancing between them and her phone. "Head on over there after you're done getting suited up."
"We're going to Steve's?" Chad pipes up. He pats down his pockets, starts mumbling about his keys. "I'm gonna get a facial."
Jared wipes at his mouth, trying to hold back his grin. He meets Jensen's eyes and it's as if they latch onto each other, something which has been asleep for a while starting up again. It's like a heartbeat, thready and weak but still there. "I'm not gonna get within a mile of that one, either."
At the tailor's urging, Jared lifts his arms higher, holds them perpendicular to his body while the guy measures his wingspan from a third, or perhaps fourth angle, prattles off numbers to an assistant holding a clipboard. He and Jensen have been trussed up and trotted around, measured and remeasured.
Jared has tried on a dozen different combinations of waistcoats, button down shirts and suit jackets. There has been talk of clean lines, collars and lapels, and whether or not Jared is willing to wear a bowtie. For the record, the answer is no. He's also managed to talk everyone out of a morning jacket, no matter how well it would show off his height. It's a movie premiere, not a wedding or a funeral. And fuck no to the fedora.
Jensen's taken the whole thing in stride, the way he always does. Tells a few stories about wardrobe fittings and does some impersonations of directors and costume designers that make Jared laugh so hard his sides ache and he pisses off the poor guy who's job it is to bring him the next coat, belt, glass of wine or a virgin sacrifice as far as Jared can tell.
Finally, they settle on a pinstripe ordeal, with slim-fitting trousers and a waistcoat. He's not sure what Jensen ends up choosing, and really, Jensen's acting like he has a lot less invested in the whole thing, would much rather go to the event in a comfortable grandpa sweater and his favorite blue jeans. Maybe a pair of flip-flops to really pull the look together.
"Okay, so your life is literally a movie montage," Jared says through the fitting room door while Jensen changes back into his street clothes.
The door opens and Jensen comes out, his t-shirt rucked up under his arms and still fixing his belt, and that's another thing Jensen's lost all compunction over. To hear him talk of it, all notions of self-consciousness have been burned out of him during his years of theater productions, running back stage and stripping down to his underwear while a wardrobe assistant is standing there with his costume for the next scene.
"I guess that means I should postpone our trip to the park, then, huh? Cancel the double bicycle that I rented. It's a shame. I was really looking forward to sharing that ice cream cone with you."
"Fucker." Jared shoves his shoulder then pulls Jensen close, gets a thrill when Jensen melts against him for a moment, conforms to Jared's side.
"You know it."
The salon is a few doors away, up three flights of stairs. A big bouquet of flowers greets them and the whole place smells like spicy incense rather than chemicals and burned hair. The door hasn't had time to close before a guy is dashing from the back to greet them. His blonde hair is up in a sloppy bun and as far as Jared can tell, he hasn't bothered to finish buttoning up his striped pink and blue shirt, instead having thrown on no fewer than four scarves in various widths, lengths and colors. His smile is wide as he takes Jensen's face in his hands. All but two fingers are carrying huge turquoise rings, and more of the stuff dangles from his wrists, a big chunk of it nestled among all the scarves. He kisses each of Jensen's cheeks, then turns to Chad to give him the same treatment.
"Break out the cucumbers, Steve," Chad says and throws himself into one of the salon chairs. He finds the electronic controls, makes a pornographic noise as hits the button for the massage setting.
"Where on earth did you pick this one up?" Steve asks, forcing Jared to spin around and running his hands through Jared's tangled curls.
"He's Texas grown," Jensen says as Steve steers Jared toward one of the chairs and pushes him down into it.
Steve nods, says, "Must be why his skin is so dry." He bends down to kiss Jared's cheek. "Let's get you plumped up again, cactus."
They're the only people in the shop, and Steve is the only one working. He keeps making the rounds, puts some sorta gunk on Chad's face that's the color of seaweed, bitches about how he needs to exfoliate, moves on to a conditioning treatment for Jensen, sets his fingernails to soak before turning his attention back to Jared.
"You people must be swimming around in a hell of a gene pool down there," Steve says. He starts messing with Jared's hair again, scritching his fingernails along Jared's scalp. "Let's take just a little off of the front, get some of those sloppy curls out of those pretty eyes of yours."
The shop has a balcony, and Jared and Jensen wind up out there, sipping the cucumber water Steve got them as they wait for the stuff in their hair to percolate long enough.
"Hell of a flirt, isn't he?" Jared asks.
"Steve?" Jensen says, then laughs a little. "Don't take him seriously. He's the gayest straight guy I know."
Two days ago, Jared was running on three hours of sleep, sucking down coffee to stay awake through his early morning lectures. He was studying for the GRE, feeling confident about the math and shaky as hell on the verbal. Five years ago, Jared and Jensen were scrounging change out of the seat cushions and asking Jared's older brother to buy them six-packs of cheap beer. Now Jensen is sprawled in one of those fancy anti-gravity chairs on a balcony overlooking Rodeo Drive, with a mud mask on his face that probably costs about a hundred bucks an ounce. His life has turned into this strange wonderland while Jared has been spending his days and nights in the engineering lab or with his nose buried in a series of books.
"This is every single day for you, isn't it?" Jared says.
Jensen takes a second to answer. "Nowhere near it. Most days..."
"Most days I'm not here," Jared says when Jensen trails off, teasing.
Jensen's response is less sarcastic than Jared's expecting. "Yeah. Exactly." He kicks back and closes his eyes, fingers woven loosely over his stomach. If he feels Jared's gaze on him, he doesn't let on.
It's a lot different than when they were sitting on the floor of Jensen's bedroom and Jensen was putting eyeliner on him. Jared had been so in love with him back then. So in love. Maybe he shouldn't be thinking about this in the past tense.