“Unfortunate.” Jensen pauses in the center of the trail.
They’ve just now broken free of the tree line and the day, which had started off with the promise of mild temperatures and morning sunshine, has become gloomy and cloud covered, the wind starting to pick up and lash at the trees. The air smells like damp earth and rain.
Jared had been intent on following in Jensen’s footprints, searching the bed of the forest and keeping watch for ankle twisting roots. The ground is springy with moss, easy on the soles of his feet, but covers hidden rocks lodged in the dirt, dangerously slippery. He does look, now, and feels claws of disappointment sink into his stomach. The path they’d been following is distinct along the rock outcropping, barely wide enough for two people to walk side by side. The ledge drops off steeply to their left, a dizzying decline that crashes into the valley far below. Ahead of them, the way is blocked; large boulders have tumbled down, leaving a cleft in the stony face of the mountain.
Jensen drops his pack and approaches the rock fall cautiously, investigating the gap. Loose pebbles scatter as he climbs atop one boulder, very light on his feet and agile, and Jared’s nerves trigger. The wind has picked up, ripping at Jensen’s clothes and pushing Jared’s hair in his face. It steals the breath from his lungs. One vicious gust pushes Jared sideways and he staggers, sees Jensen doing the same above of him. He tries to holler a warning, but the wind whips his voice outside of Jensen’s earshot.
Jensen leaps down from the boulder and approaches him at a loping, easy trot. “I can’t see the other edge of the rockslide,” Jensen tells him, wiping his gritty hands on the front of his pants. “The trail’s gone for the next twenty yards at least, but then it curves around, goes out of sight.” He shrugs. “We could chance it, but with the wind the way it is…” he doesn’t finish his sentence, but rather motions toward the trail and lets the thought finish itself.
Jared’s knees pop as he crouches beside Jensen, the bedrock of the cliff jabbing at his spine. Right now, he’d kill for a hot shower and a soft bed, a pot of warm coffee and Jensen to share it with.
Diving into a pocket in his cargo shorts, Jensen spreads the map out between them. It’s upside down from his vantage point, but that doesn’t matter. He might as well be reading a mirror image, backward map of the moon for all the sense it makes to him.
“We’re right here,” Jensen says, pointing to a spot on the map, intersecting a snaking line drawn in black ink. At some point, Jensen had done his research. Jared’s impressed. Jensen traces the line as it makes a switchback and then a sharp turn toward the north. “This is where we’re going. As the crow flies, it isn’t far.”
The rock face stings Jared’s hand when he slaps it. “But we can’t blast through the mountain,” he says.
“Would if we could,” Jensen states, craning his neck to catch a glimpse of the peak. It’s impossible, lost to low hanging clouds. His dark grey shirt clings to his back, a line of sweat-darkened fabric running down his spine. The first drops of rain start to fall. “We don’t want to risk a climb in the rain.” With a pointed look at the worn soles on the bottom of Jared’s boots, he continues, “You’re not wearing the right kind of shoes, anyway.”
It’s not a dig. Jared doesn’t really take it as one anyway. Truth is truth. “What are our other options?”
“Double back,” Jensen says. “Take the loss. It took us two hours to get from here to here,” Jensen says, indicating a distance between his thumb and forefinger. “Maybe it’ll take a little less to get back—it’s downhill,” he explains. “It’ll add a day to the trip, at least.”
Jared can feel the pressure of time closing in around him. This venture was originally supposed to be a couple of days long—he had been so sure that a dead end would be staring him square in the eye when he ambled into town and has never been so off the mark in his life.
“Unless you’re in a rush,” Jensen says, as if he can read Jared’s mind. “We can head back.”
Jared squares his shoulders and sets his jaw. “We’ve come this far. I have to see it. Let’s go.”
The drizzle has morphed into a steady rain by the time they make it back to the point Jensen had indicated. Jared’s drenched to the bone. It’s not so much a drip running down his scalp as it is a steady stream, tiny rivers coursing along either side of his nose and pouring off of the point of his chin.
At first, the downhill trudge is a blessing after the last two hours spent on a slight incline that had sapped his energy and made the thin air feel even thinner. Now, it’s just as tough, his feet slipping on the mossy ground, a layer of mud just underneath. Jared’s fingers have gone oversensitive and prickly, waterlogged and wrinkled up like raisins. He pushes at his hair and plucks uselessly at his shirt, shifts at his belt where the sodden thing is rubbing a raw spot on his hip. His shoes have soaked through and his feet squelch in his socks. His back hurts and his feet hurt and this whole adventure is a lot less fun than it seemed on paper.
Jensen hasn’t fared much better. He’s gone sullen and quiet, grunting a little when his heels skid along the ground. At one point he digs his crunched up fisherman’s hat from his backpack and jams it on his head only to give up on it minutes later, wringing it out and storing it away once more. He keeps pausing, finding rock outcroppings or other sorts of landmarks and referring to the map. He doesn’t use a compass, and keeps squinting into the distance, and unleashes an impressively vile string of curses at Jared when Jared asks him if they’re lost.
After a particularly precarious trip down a steep slope, Jensen finally calls it. “This is pointless. And more so, acute torture. We’re done.”
Jared’s stuck between a deadline and his curiosity. “But we’re running out of time.”
“Time,” Jensen muses, wiping a hand across his face and impotently flicking water from his fingers. “One thing about time is that there is always more when that came from.”
Jared could point out the lack of logic in that, but he hands Jensen a pass. Early evening is falling, the sun blocked by a taller mountain range to the west and casting an eerie shadow over the forest. What little warmth the air was holding has disappeared. Jared shivers.
Jensen’s eyes tick across the tree line, seems to find what he’s looking for and makes an abrupt turn. He leads them to a tall pine tree, almost black against the darkening sky. The thing is huge, its lower branches brushing the ground in a wide arc. “Trust me,” Jensen says as he holds back one of the long branches and makes a sweeping gesture with his arm, like he’s a doorman at some five-star motel.
It takes a minute for Jared’s eyes to adjust to the dim interior. It’s still chilly, but the pine needles carpeting the ground are dry, rustling and crackling beneath his boot heels. The branches form a steep, slanted roof, the rain skitters off of their exterior, and very few drops reach them. The lower branches shoot off at about chest height on Jared at regular intervals and a clean smell fills his nose.
“A wayward pine,” Jensen tells him. “It keeps the rain off.” He drops his gear and without compunction peels his shirt off and hangs it from a branch above his head. His boots come off next, followed by his shorts.
Jared is stuck there, watching the shift of Jensen’s back in the blue-black light, the shape of his shoulders and the way his damp boxers cling to the curve of his ass.
“Do you plan to just stand there and drip?” Jensen asks when he catches Jared staring. He pulls a shirt over his head. “Cold is one thing, but cold and wet is something else entirely.”
Jared digs out a fresh set of clothes, only mildly soggy, and sets about changing while Jensen takes stock of his pack, laying out his sleeping bag and running his palms along it’s quilted surface. Jared settles onto the ground and rests his elbows on his knees.
Jensen brushes pine needles away from the knobby base of the tree, exposing a ring of dark, loamy soil. He takes his knife and busies himself at the tree trunk, his body blocking Jared’s view.
“Are you carving our initials?” Jared teases.
Without turning around, Jensen asks, “Why would I do that?”
“It’s…never mind,” Jared says.
A dim blue spark ignites and when he steps aside Jared’s surprised. A small fire now burns at a knob on the trunk, shooting out sparks that peter out harmlessly before reaching the ground. The pine smell increases, heady and thick when Jensen lights another point on the trunk. Tendrils of smoke rise close to the center of the tree, the slight heat of the fires working to force it upward like a chimney.
Stepping back to admire his handiwork, Jensen tells him, “It only lasts a couple of hours, but it’ll go long enough.”
“Does it burn the tree?”
Jensen shakes his head. “It’s the sap that burns, not the wood.” He lights a couple more spots, nearer to the ground before sitting down beside Jared. “I don’t want to risk anything more.”
A hush has fallen over their surroundings, the rain sending the inhabitants of the forest into their dens for the evening. Crackles and small pops from the fire fill the void. “Where did you learn this?” Jared asks, his voice pitched in a soft whisper.
Jensen shrugs. “It’s just one of those things that you pick up along the way. Spend enough time out in the woods and you learn this sort of stuff.”
“A real survivalist,” Jared says, and shifts over to bump his shoulder into Jensen’s.
Jensen leans into Jared and bumps him back. “If that’s what you want to call it, sure.”
Jensen crooks an eyebrow, his expression in the shape of a question. It’s odd, for all the things that Jensen knows, there are huge, puzzling gaps.
“You know, like people who can talk to dogs or horses or…” Jared makes a twirling motion with his hand.
“Ah,” Jensen says. “There was a book, right?”
“And a few TV shows.”
“I’ve never been too big on television.”
That explains a lot. “There are certain folks who say they can talk to things. Like dogs. Or ghosts or…whatever.” Jared explains. “You can talk to the forest.”
“I sort of think that everyone can. It’s just that most people have forgotten how.”
“You have a point.” Jared fiddles absently with a twig, twirling it between his fingers until it snaps.
There’s something timeless about this place, like the real world of deadlines and supervisors and modern contrivances might possibly not exist at all. It could all be science fiction, Jules Verne and men in space helmets. Here, in the middle of god’s green nowhere, it all seems artificial. Pointless and very, very far away, and right then, more than anything, Jared wants to see the world the way Jensen sees it.
“What brought you here?” Jensen says suddenly.
“At this point, I think you have a better grasp on that than I do,” Jared jokes.
“You know what I mean.”
“A misspent youth,” Jared begins. “I used to read a lot.”
“Something tells me you still do.”
“Different stuff now, but yeah. Anyway, I’d get all wrapped up in these fictional places, and want to learn more about the characters. I couldn’t get enough. At one point it sorta clicked. You can read histories. You can learn about our deeds and the things that we build, and still not get the whole picture. Our stories are what are important, the things we choose to remember. I started to study folklore in college. I liked it, so I studied it some more.”
“As for dragons...” Jensen urges him.
“The god Marduk had a dragon as a companion. It’s Sumerian, about as far back as you can go. The mythology is pervasive, widespread. It spans continents. Hell, it jumps continents. If that many people believe in something, there has to be some speck of truth to it.”
The rain has slowed, and the night has grown colder in the wake of the storm. Jensen is still very close, head lolling toward Jared’s shoulder. He leans back, ankles crossed and legs kicked out toward the center of the tree. Jared rubs at his upper arms, chilly. Jensen runs hot, and Jared can feel the heat from his skin in all the places where they almost touch.
“Continents,” Jensen parrots. “Why here, then?”
“Think about the people in Madara, and the rituals they keep. They don’t do it because of tradition, or because it’s what their grandparents did. They do it because they still believe in magic. It’s real here.”
Jensen nods slowly. “Are you glad you came?”
With a smile, Jared says, “Yeah. I mean. Last night was…” he pauses, searching for the right descriptor. Nothing seems to fit right, so he tries a few on for size. “Frightening. Amazing. Really fucking strange. I still can’t figure it out, but yeah. You?”
Jensen pats Jared’s thigh and lets his hand linger there, thumb moving in circle before drawing away. “Absolutely.”
Jared thinks about the bonfire, Veta’s slow dance across hot coals, and about how badly he wanted to kiss Jensen then. How badly he still wants to. He stares at the tiny tongues of flame on the trunk of the tree and doesn’t see any faces in them.
Pressing two fingers to Jared’s temple, Jensen says, “Are you in there?”
“I almost kissed you.” Jared’s never been so impulsive in his life.
“I know. I don’t think I would have stopped you.” Jensen sounds so calm about it, so goddamn practical.
Jared tilts into Jensen, fits the bridge of his nose against the sharp cut of his jaw and breathes in the smell of him, woodsy with an undercurrent of sweat.
Jensen places a stilling hand on Jared’s knee. “Wait. You don’t know what you’re doing.”
“You’re right. I don’t. But I don’t think I have to,” Jared says, letting his vision go blurry. Indistinct, soft around the edges. Jared curls his fingers in the sleeve of Jensen’s t-shirt, and even the thin cotton feels warm to the touch, bunched up to expose the curve of Jensen’s arm, the shape of the muscle under his skin.
“You’re cold and tired and this has been a waste of a day.”
“It hasn’t been a complete waste.”
Jared skims his knuckles along the curve of Jensen’s ear and kisses him, a slow drag of his mouth against Jensen’s. Jensen’s lips are soft, a little chapped, and his mouth gives some under the press of Jared’s. A quiet noise in the back of his throat makes the seam of his mouth vibrate a little, and a small shudder buzzes up Jared’s spine.
Jared’s scalp feels prickly, as if he’s run across some sort of electric shock, and he seeks out the ground with the heel of his hand, cushioned by the pine needles beneath them. When he pulls back, Jensen’s mouth is slightly parted. Jensen’s still, very slow to blink his eyes open, and as he finally does, his glance is dark and heated. A rush of blood tints his cheeks into bright high color. Something about Jensen seems different, though, and Jared can’t quite hit the mark of it.
Jared moves closer only a few inches, but Jensen matches the movement and retreats, keeping a distance between the two of them.
Jensen stammers, “It’s. This is not a good idea.”
“Depends on who you ask,” Jared says and sits back, but leaves his hand tangled in the sleeve of Jensen’s shirt.
“I didn’t say it was a bad idea. Just not a good one. Not yet.” Something seems to bend in Jensen then, maybe his willpower or maybe his heart, and he shoves into the space between them, thumbs at Jared’s chin to tip him in a very specific direction and kisses him again, more urgent this time, sucking at Jared’s bottom lip and licking at it with slow deliberate swipes of his tongue. The touch of it is thrilling.
When they break, Jared asks, “Not yet? Then when?”
Jensen clenches his jaw, teeth a white glint in the darkness, then shakes his head. “Forget what I said.” He lunges forward, reaches out to Jared and buries his hands in Jared’s hair. “Forget it,” and then he’s kissing Jared in earnest, nipping at his mouth in a way that’s almost too rough, sharp pinpricks of pain where his canine teeth sink in. Jensen’s skin is so hot, bordering on feverish, and he hisses when Jared fumbles with the hem of his shirt and spreads his cold hands on the small of his back.
He shifts his weight and pulls Jared forward, toppling himself to his back and yanking Jared over him like a blanket. Jensen’s chest is solid and strong beneath him and Jared curls his hands around Jensen’s shoulders, slots their legs together and rocks down hard.
In the tiniest part of his head that’s not filled with Jensen, the way he bucks up and the urgent shift of hips against hips, Jared wonders what will become of them. He’s not like this. His life up to this point has been steady, laser guided and so damn careful. He’s not one to jump into something blind, and yet here he is.
Jared loses track as they rock together, Jensen’s body fitting alongside his in all the right ways, the hiss of sap burning drowned out by their panting breaths as they roll and rut against each other. Jensen starts mumbling something low, unintelligible, but Jared catches the gist of it as Jensen moans, hoarse and rough.
With a quick movement, Jensen shoves at him and Jared lets loose a startled laugh. Jensen’s not small, not by any stretch of the imagination, but Jared has a few inches on him and at least twenty pounds. It comes as a surprise, Jensen sturdy frame hiding an underlying and unexpected strength.
Jared grabs at him, hooking a leg over Jensen’s hip and digging his heel in to pull him even closer. He tugs at their clothes, impatient and wanting, his cock hard and sticky, restricted in his pants. Jared’s close, so goddamn close, and Jensen has barely even touched him.
Jensen’s urgent movements stop, some sort of light dancing in his eyes. He touches Jared’s face, fingertips barely a hint as they skim across Jared’s lips, down the bridge of his nose, along his forehead, like merely seeing him isn’t enough. “Everything fits,” Jensen pants, and he sounds surprised, like the thought has hit him off guard. “Perfect.”
Jared pulls him down for another kiss. Jensen isn’t making any sense, but Jared gets it, somehow.
Momentary panic greets Jared when he wakes up alone, one arm flung out in place where Jensen ought to be. It fades quickly enough. Jensen’s gear is still stowed a few feet away, his shirt and shoes in a rumpled pile in front of his pack. The interior of the pine is green tinged.
Jared rises slowly, ducking a wrist-thick branch and stretching, jaw popping on a yawn. Yesterday’s deluge has left the forest damp, leaves covered in drops of water form crystalline points of brilliant light and leave Jared’s vision spotty. Jared picks a direction and starts walking, working the kinks out of his back and picking pine needles out of his hair as he ambles. The day is just now starting to get its land legs, the forest waking up with the chatter of birds.
Last night, he’d been so intent on following Jensen and not sliding in the mud that he’d failed to take note of his surroundings. The elevation offers a view of the valley, the river a thin green thread hundreds of feet below. A wisp of wood smoke hits Jared and he follows the smell. A small fire burns, a pot of hot water steaming on a rock set in the middle of it. He finds Jensen standing on the edge of a deep gully, barefooted and naked from the waist up, cradling a tin mug between his hands.
Jared sidles up to him, drags his hand down the dip of Jensen’s spine, finds a belt loop and tugs him in close, hooks his chin over Jensen’s shoulder. Jensen tips backward, rocks on his heels and hums a little as Jared clasps his hands in front of his stomach, wrists rubbing along bare skin.
Over analysis is second nature to Jared; he can hardly get out of bed in the morning without a carefully drawn up game plan, and this thing with Jensen has an expiration date that’s fast approaching. Jared’s not going to look at it too closely. He can’t.
“I made a mistake,” Jensen says.
It sends a cold needle of doubt into Jared’s chest. He hugs Jensen tighter, and waits for it to hit. For all Jared’s logic and careful consideration, of course Jensen would be the one to have his head on straight right now.
The ice in Jared’s veins melts just as fast as Jensen clarifies, “We went the wrong way. Last night,” Gazing across the valley stretched out beneath them, he continues. “We’re closer to…” he stops. “We’ll figure it out.”
A jangling sound echoes across the gully and someone comes into view. He’s got a fishing pole propped on his shoulder and a basket slung across his chest, held with a wide leather strap. A strip of white cloth is tied to his upper arm. He notices them and pauses, raising his hand in salute. Jared is immediately reminded of the children they saw beside the railroad tracks.
“Roma,” Jensen mutters, his lips barely moving. “Their camp must be nearby.”
“Gypsies?” Jared asks.
Jensen hums. He raises his hand and returns the greeting. The man across the gully nods and continues along his path.
Jensen spins in the circle of Jared’s arms, and clasps the back of Jared’s neck, pulling him down for a slow kiss that tastes like coffee. He takes one last sip and presses the mug into Jared’s hand. It’s instant, muddy and thick with too much powder and not enough water. Hot though, and caffeinated.
“Finish waking up,” Jensen says. “I’ll get us packed.”
“Miles to go,” Jared calls after him.
Over his shoulder, Jensen hollers, “And promises to keep.”
Jared smiles into his coffee cup. This is a hell of a way to fall in love.
Jared can hear the signs of human occupation twenty minutes before the first visible evidence of it: a flash of rowdy laughter, the ringing bang of a hammer against metal, a snippet of a low, drawn out melody from some kind of stringed instrument.
Jensen has kept up a steady monologue since they broke camp and started walking. "Most of what you've heard is probably true," he says. "They're not very welcoming to strangers. I think they’ll know me.”
“How?” Jared asks.
“From Sofia,” Jensen answers vaguely. “There was a big protest a month or so ago, and I…I got involved. Stick close and you'll be fine." He stops suddenly, pulling Jared up short by his collar. "Don't turn into Margaret Mead while you're here. They're people, not specimens."
"Aye, aye, captain," Jared replies with a nod. It's a rare opportunity, this visit with the Romani. The first leg of his journey had taken him past a gypsy encampment on the outskirts of Sofia. A terrible place, a shantytown if Jared had ever seen one, small huts crouching together behind their government enforced borders, crowded with hollowed-out shells of a population, beggars lining the tall fence that marked the boundary. It had left a bad taste in his mouth, acidic and just plain wrong.
Flashes of color come next, a flicker of red in the distance, a reflection of something metallic in the sunlight, until the camp swims into view.
"What's the plan? Are we just gonna walk on in?" He's done his fair share of ethnography, embedded anthropology and studying of cultures different from his own, but his studies have always been planned things, set up months in advance with prior communication with a contact in a particular village or city. "They don't know we're coming."
"Oh, they know we're here. For the last half hour at least," Jensen says.
A young girl comes dashing toward them, jumping over a fallen branch and swerving past tree trunks. She's no more than five or six, pink ribbons holding her dark hair in pigtails, a definite widow's peak pointing straight at her nose. Hot on her heels is a boy of similar age, and he rams into her as the girl freezes in her tracks, nearly toppling both of them over. They're so similar that there has to be some shared blood, both with skin the color of coffee and cream, and shiny black hair that matches the color of their eyes. These children regard Jared and Jensen with twin expressions of curious caution, then both make a turn, nearly synchronized and head toward the camp, feet flying and small fists pumping.
They've made it barely another three yards when a man appears from behind a broad tree trunk. He carries a dark grained walking stick, shoulder tall and wrist thick. He's thin as a rail, like a strong enough wind might send him toppling, most of his face hidden behind a scraggly beard and chin length hair. A white band adorns his bowler hat, and the dark blue of his jacket is broken with another strip of white cloth tied high around his arm.
"Wait here," Jensen says and walks ahead. The man's face breaks as Jensen approaches, his grin splitting bright white through the dark beard. He pulls Jensen to him, and they clasp each other’s forearms. It's not a stranger’s greeting, more like a welcome to an old friend, and Jared thinks that there's much more to all of this than Jensen is letting on.
Introductions are made and the two of them are led into the camp. It's a small caravan, wagons, carts and campers drawn into a horseshoe shape, tents, lean-to's, and bright canvas pavilions filling in the spaces between them. A few dogs wander the area, mangy with ribs visible through their skin. Hangers on, looking for scraps.
At first inspection, the tribe looks to be about twenty strong. They are all slowly emerging from their trailers and tents to gather in the open space in the center, children hiding behind the adults, small hands tangled in parents' skirts and trousers, their clothes bright splashes of color against the dingy backdrop of road dusty campers and tents. A fire burns there, ringed with logs for seats. Over the fire stands a rigged scaffold built of scavenged metal, a large cast iron pot steaming away.
When Jensen joins him again, he expression is stormy. "They were kicked out," he says. "I was wondering what had brought them this far."
"I thought they were travelers," Jared says. "Nomadic."
"Not all of them. They had a camp in Sofia. It was on municipal property, sure, but some of them had lived there for decades." He waves a hand in the direction of the children who they'd run into on the way here. They're now hunkered on a log near the fire, playing some sort of game that involves hand slapping and a whole lot of laughter. "The city government is planning to raze it. No one likes to be forced out of their home."
A woman sits alone in a rocking chair set on the forest floor, hands folded in her lap and holding a very small book. She's all in white, her dark hair a stark contrast as it spills glossy and curled over her shoulders. Her feet are bare, mud stained, and she casts an empty stare into the distance.
"There she is," Jensen breathes, quiet. He dives into a side pocket of his pack and retrieves a small, cloth wrapped bundle. "She’s in mourning.” He gestures around the area. See all the white?”
With a nod, Jared asks, "Her husband?"
"Yes," he says simply, then drops his pack at Jared's feet. "When a member of the tribe passes away, they burn all of his or her possessions. It doesn't make sense."
"Traditions don't need to make sense," Jared points out.
"Think of this man's family," Jensen says. "They're left with nothing."
"Security isn't nothing. This is an area where my study is admittedly lax," Jared starts, trying to reign back the professor in him and failing miserably. He's going into lecture mode and he knows it. "Why do they burn his stuff? It has to have something to do with fear. His spirit can be tied to his worldly possessions, right?"
"Then it's security. Ghosts are real."
"This, coming from the guy who believes in dragons."
"Roll with me, here. They believe in them, so they're real. Burn his belongings and it releases him from this world. His family won't be haunted."
"Superstition trumps economy," Jensen says, musing.
“You do realize that you’re biased, right?”
“Never said I wasn’t,” Jared replies. “You have to admit that it makes sense.”
"I’ll give you that. It still won't stop me from helping," Jensen says, and walks over to the woman. He places a kiss on her temple, smoothes back her hair in a way that's familiar and intimate. She finally focuses on him, touches his face and gives him a small and watery smile. Her eyes are shining, tears on the verge of spilling over, but she puts on a brave face as Jensen crouches down in front of her. He presses the cloth wrapped gift into her hands.
It's difficult to see from this distance, and Jared can’t make out what they’re saying, but her expression looks like thank you when she unwraps the gift. It's a bracelet, a bangle fashioned out of pale green jade. Jensen takes her hand and slips it onto her wrist where it joins a few others, all hammered out of silver, then tangles his fingers in hers and squeezes. He rises and kisses her cheek again.
The afternoon passes slowly. The two of them are given a tour of the camp by the man who first greeted them in the forest. His Bulgarian is spotty, but a combination of hand gestures and broken language sees them through.
Meals are a communal thing, eaten out of mismatched bowls, from fine delicate china to utilitarian earthenware. Jared gratefully accepts a mug of coffee, black as tar and nearly as thick, boiling hot and the best thing he's ever had the opportunity to drink. The stew he's handed is equally hot and has an earthy flavor to it, chock full of root vegetables and spices.
"We're going to have to talk about this eventually, you know." Jared leans over toward Jensen, nudging his widespread leg with a knee.
"There's nothing to talk about," Jensen says, turning away to talk with another member of the tribe. There's been an endless parade of people coming up to him, whispered conversations and significant looks over his shoulder at Jared.
The evening wears on and a few members pick up instruments, a drum, a violin and a flute fashioned out of wood. They start up a song, lively and energetic. Jared leans back on the log and stretches his feet toward the fire, watches the lazy swirl of sparks caught in the updraft. A full stomach combined with a few pulls off of a jug of thick syrupy liquor has his mind drifting and has dropped lead weights on his eyelids. Jensen is by his side, calm, relaxed and laughing, clapping along when the music. He's as at home here as anywhere else.
A hand on his shoulder brings Jared fully awake. He's not sure how much time has passed, but it has to have been a while. The fire has burned down and the camp has mostly gone to bed, a few men sitting on the opposite side of the fire linger over a bottle of wine.
"Hey," Jensen says as he hovers over him. He takes both of Jared's hands in his and presses a kiss to the inside of Jared's wrist, then leans and kisses him on the mouth. "You awake?"
"Almost," Jared says, rubbing the heels of his hands into his eyes. They're gritty, stinging when the wind changes direction and blows wood smoke into them. "Is it time to leave?" His voice sounds very young in his ears.
"Soon, yeah," Jensen says. "But first, there's something for you to do."
He offers a hand and pulls Jared to his feet. He starts to let go, fingernails skirting the edge of Jared's palm, but on impulse Jared grabs at them, tangling them together. Jensen misses a step and Jared nearly lets go, but Jensen quickly recovers from the small stutter and holds on tightly.
"She's the matriarch of the tribe. If anyone here is the leader, it's her," Jensen tells him, head cocked closed to Jared's ear and breath tickling his skin. "She's still in mourning. It lasts a year. She's going to do a reading for you. Work is prohibited to her, but she wants to do this. It's a gift. She's incredibly talented."
Jensen leads them behind the circle of wagons and tents. The widow sits at a square table, the center of it lit by an oil lamp. She's still all in white, a ghostly glow in the surrounding gloom. Jared takes the chair opposite her. This is the closest he's been to her, and at first he'd thought she was much younger. Now, he can see that her dark hair is threaded with coarse silver strands, and her face is delicately wrinkled, shallow lines branching out from the corners of her eyes and around her mouth. Her dark eyes are striking and her gaze makes Jared want to squirm. She reaches out and clasps Jared's hand in a strong grip, the tendons in her wrist straining. "Are you the next?" she asks. Jared can feel Jensen grow tense beside him.
Not really getting her meaning, Jared says, "I suppose so."
"Good," she says, satisfied, glancing between the two of them with a smile.
Jared is expecting tarot, perhaps tea leaves or some sort of palmistry. Instead, she pulls a deck of playing card from a deep pocket in her shirt, tied together with a thin, criss-crossed leather strap, the cards dog eared and frayed. She shuffles them with a practiced ease, then places the cards in a neat stack on the table and motions to Jared to cut the deck.
She picks them up, balancing them on the palm of her hand and laying her other hand on top of them. Jensen stands behind her and touches her shoulder deliberately.
Jared shivers, fine hairs on the back of his neck rising to attention and he feels something wispy brush across his face, like he's just now walked headlong into a spider web.
Plucking the first card, the fortune teller places it face down on the table. Two more follow suit. Pointing at each one in succession, she says, "Past, present and future. These are indicators. They set the theme."
She flips the first one over to reveal the six of spades, the markings worn nearly to the point of being indistinct. "Spades," she says. "Not a good way to start. Bad luck all around. A lot of work with little result." Below that she places the jack of hearts. "A dark haired man," she says with a nod. "He knows how to flatter, but not how to praise."
The center card is flipped over, the three of hearts. "An unwise decision," she says as she taps the card with a fingernail. The next to fall is a seven of clubs. "A card of good luck. So not unwise so much as unplanned." Behind her, Jensen's smiling, slow and soft, rubbing his finger along his bottom lip.
The eight of hearts follows. "Something is being planned as we speak."
"Can you tell me what?" Jared asks.
She waves her hand over the cards. "Some sort of event. A celebration. Perhaps a ceremony? Something that will take you by surprise."
"It's not my birthday." This earns a snort of laughter from Jensen.
Future comes next, and she deals the cards in quick succession. She sits back in order to take in the full spread of cards, then with an abrupt motion, sweeps them all away. Three more cards are dealt and she brushes them off the table as well before Jared can even see what they are. She flips over one last card and places it in the center of the table. It’s the king of clubs.
“Make your decision,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s yes or no. Make it and never look back. But remember that you can trust him.” She gathers her cards and hides them away in her pocket. “Go. Sleep. Tomorrow is an important day.”
"Thank you," Jared kisses her hand.
"We've been invited to stay," Jensen says as they walk away from the table. In the distance, someone is playing music again, a single violin harping out a slow and sleepy song. "Tomorrow we’ll make it to the cave. It isn't far from here."
Jared considers it. The prospect of good hot coffee and a warm breakfast beats out the need to put in another few miles before making a cold camp.
A wagon has been set up for him a small distance away from the rest, his pack stowed behind one of the large, rickety wheels. The bed of the wagon is piled with patchwork quilts, their bright colors muted by night. Jared sits on the edge and unlaces his boots. Jensen lingers, smacks at Jared's shirt when Jared flings it in his direction, then settles his body between Jared's spread knees.
He grabs Jared by the back of his neck and kisses him soundly, breaking off with a small nip to Jared's bottom lip. "See you in the morning," he says. "I'll be right over there if you need me." He indicates a similar wagon on the other side of the circular set up.
"You can stay," Jared says, then clarifies. "I want you to stay."
"Yeah," Jared says, a thrill shooting through him at the coy tilt to Jensen's head.
"Then I'll stay."
Jensen ditches his boots and settles onto his back in the wagon, shifting the blankets and building himself a nest in the center. Jared slides in beside him, winds his arm behind Jensen's neck and strokes his hand along Jensen's upper arm. A break in the trees is directly overhead, the sky a pincushion of stars, more stars than Jared's ever seen.
"Who was it...was it the Lilliputians that spent all their time looking up at the sky? So much time that they never noticed when they walked off the edge of the earth?" Jensen whispers.
"It was the Laputians,” Jared corrects him. “From Laputa. Spanish for whore."
"I never made that connection."
Jared shifts. "Yeah, it was allegorical. Something about the deism movement at the time."
Jensen shrugs. "Satire," he says. "I prefer to take it at face value."
"It's important to not look too far into things sometimes," Jared agrees.
"I knew you were smart."
"Pretty well rounded too."
"I get that," Jensen says and crowds in closer, pushing up to kiss Jared's neck. "I've wanted to do this all day," he mutters, shoving at Jared until he's flat on his back then covering Jared's body with his own. “It’s all I can think about.” He slips his thigh between Jared's and presses into him, making Jared's breath catch in his throat. He's not sure where their closest neighbor is sleeping: the camp is quiet, not a hint of movement and he wants to keep it that way, but it's impossibly hard to stay quiet with Jensen’s mouth on his throat.
Jared wants to laugh, poke fun at himself for the wreck that Jensen has made of him. He's love struck, dopey as a teenager with it and just as reckless. It's unlike him to fall so hard and so fast, and some small part of him keeps expecting to hit bedrock, crash and split wide open and just bleed out. But right now, with Jensen covering him so completely, the tickle of Jensen's hair against his cheek and the feel of him so heavy and hot and perfect, Jared can think of no better way to go.
Jensen ruts against him, cuts off a hissing breath with a frustrated sound, and fumbles at the button of Jared's pants. He gets his hand wrapped around Jared's cock and tugs it out, the cool night air a shock to Jared's overheated skin. With another long, lingering kiss, he slides down Jared's body, pulling and tugging at Jared's jeans. He pushes Jared's legs further apart and settles between them, his back curving in a way that's almost feral and completely alluring. He teases at Jared's cock with tentative licks, flicks his tongue against the slit, and rubs the head against his mouth until his lips are slick and shiny with precome. His fingers dig in along Jared's hipbone, his palm a perfect fit over the protrusion of bone there.
Jared squirms at the teasing pressure of Jensen's tongue. Jensen snaps the elastic of his boxers, pulling them behind Jared's balls and forcing them up, then rolls them between his fingers and gives a gentle tug. Jensen flattens his tongue on the underside of Jared's cock and licks a slow path upward, humming a little at the taste and Jared sinks his hips into the thick mass of blankets beneath them, fighting the urge to push up into the welcoming heat of Jensen's mouth. He flings an arm across his face, biting at the crook of his elbow to stifle his moan.
It’s utterly debauched, the sight of Jensen with his mouth stretched wide around the width of Jared’s dick, the strain in his neck, cords of muscle in his arms as he holds himself up and works his mouth up and down the length of him, his chin sloppy and wet with spit. It’s the sight of it that tips Jared over, his orgasm toe-curling and intense. He tips his head backward and lets his hips snap forward, shooting down Jensen’s throat.
The way that Jensen swipes at the corners of his mouth is almost delicate, gathering Jared’s spunk and licking his fingers. Jared pulls him close, tastes himself when they kiss, and trails his hands down Jensen’s stomach. He’s a gentleman, after all, and it’s only fair that he repay the favor.
“I’m good,” Jensen pants, his mouth swollen and flushed. His chest rises and falls fast.
Jared works past the loose waistband of Jensen’s shorts, sticky and slick with come. “Fuck,” Jared says. He’s slow, sex drunk and sloppy.
“Yeah,” Jensen says, turning his face into Jared’s neck, hiding an embarrassed flush so bright that he almost glows with it.
“I barely even touched you.”
“That’s fucking hot,” Jared mumbles, and flips Jensen over, shoving Jensen’s arms over his head and trailing his fingers down the inside of them until Jensen snickers.
He yanks Jensen’s shorts down barely past his hips, Jensen’s come a slick mess on his lower stomach, his cock half hard and curving toward his belly button. He licks at it, gathering the bitter taste of Jensen’s come onto his tongue and pressing it to the roof of his mouth, rolling it around.
Jensen gasps his name above him and his cock gives a feeble, spent twitch. He sucks on it, small kitten licks and feels Jensen start to harden in his mouth, growing heavy and blood hot against his tongue. He moans against the feel of it, releases it with a wet sounding pop, and gives it a few experimental tugs.
“You ready to go again?” Jared asks.
Jensen hitches his hips in response, digs his hand into Jared’s hair and slips it through his fingers. “What you do to me…” He doesn’t finish the thought, cutting off when Jared sucks his cock in, curls his tongue along the ridge on the underside and takes him down deep.
A sound in the woods makes Jared freeze, some dry snap nearby. Fanciful scenarios flip through Jared’s mind, every slasher flick he’s ever seen, swamp monsters and big dudes in hockey masks.
All those thoughts dissolve when Jensen says his name in a voice deep and harsh with need. It hits Jared hard, like a sucker punch to the gut. Jensen whines low and angles his hips upward when he swallows Jensen down even deeper, the head of Jensen’s cock fitting against the roof of his mouth and sliding in further to nudge at the back of his throat. Jared backs off, gasping for air but then takes his right back in. His cock grows impossibly harder, a thick pulsing heat hitting the back of his throat as Jensen comes. Jared licks and sucks him through it, his jaw cracked wide and his eyes watering.
He crawls up along the length of Jensen’s body and settles in close. His sweaty skin pebbles as it cools, still slick and hot in all the places that they’re touching. Jensen tangles their legs together and notches his chin against the crook of Jared’s neck.
His voice is a wrecked think when he speaks. Hoarse and painful. He licks his lips, tastes the faint traces of Jensen still remaining and tries again. “Tomorrow. We’ll get there tomorrow.”
Already mostly dozing, Jensen hums an affirmative. “Not long now.”
He’s sure that Jensen is mostly asleep when he speaks again. It’s quiet, a secret. “I don’t want it to end.”
Jensen sits part of the way up, propping himself on his elbow and hovering over Jared. The look he gives him is a searching one, wide-awake and startlingly clear. “What did you say?”
“Nothing,” Jared lies. “It wasn’t important.” It’s Jared’s turn to blush, caught out in the open this way.
“Something tells me it was.” Jensen drops it, kisses Jared’s cheekbone and tucks his hair behind his ear.
The touch is so close and so familiar that Jared’s heart aches with it, and in that instant, the real world, his life, the university, his research seems like a life lived by somebody else, someone who looks and talks a lot like him but is different in a million fundamental ways. Jensen is here. Tangible. Close. That’s what matters.
Right before he nods off, just as he’s balancing on the knife edge between awake and asleep, Jensen’s voice breaks through. Less than a whisper and quiet as a shared thought. In the morning, Jared will think it was a dream.
“It doesn’t have to end,” Jensen says. “There’s a place for you with me. You never have to go.”
Jared’s panting. He’s had a rock in his shoe for the last half a mile, the thing rolling around near his toes and digging past his sock. They’re close though, and it would be a sin to break the inertia they’ve built up over the course of the morning.
A steady upward trudge eats the miles and works loose the stiff muscles Jared had earned sleeping in the wooden wagon. The tribe had seen them off well, stocking them with dried meat and a loaf of crusty dense bread.
Jensen hasn't stopped to check the map once, as if the place they're heading is a magnetic north and Jensen is wired to respond. He forges ahead, confidently stepping over roots and loose rock, the forest growing thinner and thinner until just a few craggy trees dot the landscape. The path they walk is well worn, a rut in the springy loam of the forest floor, moss creeping in around the edges.
Jared's chin is tucked close to his chest, thumbs looped into the straps of his backpack and his refilled canteen bouncing on his hip. He doesn't notice when Jensen stops, and runs into Jensen's outstretched arm.
"We're here," Jensen says.
Jared does look up then. The opening of the cave looks like some enormous axe has cleaved the stone in two, a triangular gaping hole in the wall of rock. It had to have been some cataclysmic event a few thousand years ago that created this cavern, striation in the rock matching up perfectly on both sides.
Evidence of past visitors lines the rock wall. Dried flowers, scraps of cloth that once held food before forest dwellers made off with it. A brass pitcher now corroded. A porceline doll with blank blue eyes that Jared finds particularly disturbing. Some of it has been here for mere months and most of it for years, perhaps decades. Jared stoops in front of a pyramid built out of shiny purple stones, a cairn built in miniature.
"No. Don't," Jensen orders. "This wasn't left here for you."
More offerings have been placed in the entranceway to the cave, artifacts that are older, more dirt clogged and riddled with debris. Jared steps around them carefully.
A few feet past the entrance, and Jared starts to feel jumpy. He's never been claustrophobic, has spent much of his adult life in windowless libraries and more recently in an office made of cinderblock, so small that he didn't have to fully extend his arms in any direction to be able to place his hands flat on each wall. He's not sure what it is now, equal parts anticipation and nervous energy, but he's keenly aware of the sheer pressure of rock inches above his head.
The tunnel is small, and there are places where his shoulders touch on either side and he needs to slide through sideways. Jensen is close behind him, flashlight illuminating the way, a solid and constant presence all along his back. Jared feels his chest start to constrict, an iron band wrapped around his ribs that grows tighter with each step. His vision narrows down and black spots starting to swim around the corners. He can't get a deep breath and his head floats, his gravity upended. He stumbles, jabbing his arm painfully against a sharp protrusion rock. His fingertips start to go numb and he can't feel his toes, can't feel anything below his knees if he’s honest, and his blood pounds in his ears.
Jensen's there immediately, a dry palm on his sweaty neck. "Jared," he whispers. "Hey, Jared," he tries again, with more urgency the second time around. He wheels Jared, manhandling him easily so that his back rests against the cool wall of the cave. He touches Jared's cheek. "You're okay."
It's the last thing Jared hears before he comes back to reality with a gasp. He's horizontal, rough stone digging into his back and his ass. Something must be wrong with his eyesight because he catches a glimpse of a pale blue light that disappears as soon as he moves slightly, and is replaced with the orange glow of Jensen's flashlight.
His head is in Jensen's lap, and Jensen absently brushes his hair away from his sweaty forehead.
"What happened?" he asks, groggy.
"I think you hyperventilated," Jensen says.
"Then you passed out," Jensen says, adding, "for an hour."
"Did you try and stop me?"
"Didn't have a paper bag handy," Jensen explains, offhanded. "I read somewhere that it's best to just let the person faint. Breathing goes normal again if you're conked out cold."
"Thanks," Jared says, struggling to sit up and situate himself beside Jensen, his back to the wall.
Jared tries to stand, but Jensen grabs his elbow, holding him back. "Look," he says, shining his flashlight onto the opposite wall. "Best seats in the house."
The pounding in Jared's head and the pain in his lower back are both forgotten. A tableau has been drawn on the cave wall, in white and black and the vibrant color of deep red ochre.
Jared snags the flashlight from Jensen and moves the light slowly from right to left. Some of the drawings have been covered over by others, the technical accuracy improving with time. The first scene is a ring of people with one in the center, humanoid for sure, and probably female, her arms drawn in tiny arcs, inaccurately long and stretched away from her body. Red splashes of color in the shape of wings sprout from her sides. There's a procession beside it, a line of people all holding what looks to be leashes attached to the neck of a kneeling person. Next is a representation of the cave where the two of them now sit, highly stylized and etched in straight lines, the opening painted as a gaping triangle in black. Three unrecognizable beasts float above it, long horned and long legged.
Further along the wall is the figure of a man. White rays of light surround him,
It tells a story and Jared studies it, trying to fit the pieces together. “It’s real,” he says pointing to a spot on the wall. It’s a man, disproportionately tall with white rays of light surrounding him. There’s a smaller figure by his side, and their arms form one continuous line. Connected.
“They’re bonded,” Jared says.
The scene would appear benevolent, were it not for what follows: a huge fire drawn in red swirls that grow looser and looser as they arch toward the roof of the cave. Beyond the fire is a depiction of a terrible monster, a three-headed serpent. Before him a crowd of people bow down in supplication.
Jared is astounded. “I can’t believe we found it. Proof.”
Jensen stands, dusting off the seat of his pants. “It doesn’t prove a thing.”
“It proves everything.”
Jared hardly remembers the first hour of the trek back toward the village. He’s chattering away and making plans. Phone calls need to be made to the university back home. Regardless of his personal validation, this is a significant archaeological find. Permits need to be granted and researchers called, the area needs to be secured and readied for preservation.
Jensen is quiet, offering the occasional noncommittal grunt.
“This is huge, you know?” Jared says. “Groundbreaking. It could change the way we—“
Jensen cuts him off. “Sure it could. But should it?”
This makes Jared pull up short. “What do you mean?”
“All those stories. It’s like those lost Amazonian tribes who have lived their lives the same way for thousands of years. One day, someone happens to trip across them in some sort of helicopter flyover, and the next thing you know they’re wearing t-shirts that have the Pepsi logo on them and selling trinkets at the closest tourist dive so that they can pay for a color television, and who they were—the people that they were—has become something else.”
Jensen has a point. Jared hates that Jensen has a point. Without slowing his forward movement, Jared hazards a backward glance. “Culture isn’t static. It’s dynamic.”
“Stop making excuses,” Jensen says, then flings his hands out in front with a shout. “Look out!”
Jared spins in time to catch a fallen log in just the wrong way. Arms pinwheeling, he dives into a forward lunge, the strap of his backpack ripping off at the seam as he falls. It’s steep, terribly so. The world turns into flashes of bright blue sky and dirt as Jared tumbles into a rolling fall, takes flight for a second and catches a sapling in the ribs. It isn’t enough to break his momentum, however, and he topples further, his feet catching on a ridge of rock with a steep drop-off beneath him. He pants, takes a quick assessment of his body. A thin sapling is jammed into his armpit and he’s pretty sure he’s bleeding from a dozen different cuts all over his body, and at some point he’s taken a decent blow to the head, but no bones are broken.
The rock at his feet gives away and again he’s falling, scrambling for the ledge that’s rapidly crumbling beneath his fingers. It’s not a free fall. He slams against the rock face and skids down it, seeking purchase on sharp outcroppings of rock and digging in against the scrub trees that stick out of cracks in the stone.
Jared looks up and sees Jensen there. Time seems slip into slow motion, stretching out long. He’s not sure what to expect, although the life flashing before his eyes thing is definitely not happening. Jensen. Jensen is all he can see, the last face before the end, and it’s not what he’d thought it would be. He doesn’t look panicked or surprised or even sad. It doesn’t make sense. The guy looks almost resigned, perhaps a little frustrated. A shade resentful as well.
Something bright flashes and Jensen snaps his fingers. Jared comes to a shuttering stop, nothing but emptiness filling the three feet between him and the rocky ledge below him. He tries to fling his elbow backward and meets some invisible resistance, a slight give like he’s landed on some sort of mattress, a little giving but definitely a barrier. His head is held steady, pillowed on thin air.
Very slowly, he’s lowered to the ground, heart beating so fast that he reckons he can see it banging against his chest, and he suffers a few terrible seconds when he’s fairly sure that he’s about to trade one narrowly averted death for another by heart attack. The palms of his hands are scraped up, long gashes on his shins and he lost a shoe at one point.
Jensen bounds downward on the rock face, showing an agility and a strength that no normal human should possess. Reaching the bottom, he regards Jared with a closed off, guarded expression then kneels beside him.
“You’re fine. Shit,” Jensen says, fast. “That was close. Too close. You’re fine,” he repeats, as if he’s trying to assure both of them of the fact. His touch is a blaze on Jared’s torn up legs, a searing heat accompanied by another blue glow. The air around them crackles with invisible energy, something like static electricity coursing through Jared’s veins. Jensen removes his hands and the skin there is perfect once more. Pristine. The hairs on his legs stand up on end.
Jensen moves to take Jared’s hands, but Jared snatches them back, scuttling backward in an awkward shuffle to put a few feet of space between them. His back hits the cliff and he crawls upward along it, struggling to stand. “What are you?” Jared asks, shaking, amped into overdrive with fear and adrenaline. “Are you the companion? Are you bonded?”
Jensen leans back, folds his hands in his lap. The way he tilts his head back is a challenge.
“No,” he says, calm but defiant. “I’m the dragon.”
Jared’s awestruck. His joints go loose and he collapses toward the ground, but again Jensen eases the fall. His throat goes dry, he tries to swallow and he can’t. He tries to think and he can’t seem to do that either.
Jensen rises and spins on his heel. He’s a few feet away before Jared calls out to him.
“Where are you going?”
Jensen pauses. He turns back, and Jared doesn’t think he’s ever seen so much loneliness in his entire life. It’s a punch to the gut that carries all the force of a wrecking ball. “Home, Jared. I’m finally going home.”
“Wait,” Jared says, his voice a cracked up, splintered thing. “Can I come with you?”
Jensen’s answering smile is like the sun coming out. ‘You would want to?”
“Of course. I’ve been looking for you my whole life.”