I'll teach you how to jump on the wind's back, and then away we go.
By the time he gets to his car and turns the engine on, he’s convinced himself to go home and go back to bed. Which is why he’s fairly surprised when he makes the left turn a block too soon and finds himself driving slowly up the street, eyes straining to see into the darkness beyond the reach of the low beams.
As he comes to a stop sign, Jared catches sight of a couple of folks a few blocks down the road. A woman leans against the side of a car, a man standing close to her with his back turned toward Jared, a baseball cap turned backward on his head. Bare feet poke out beneath the cuffs of the man’s jeans.
The woman—Jared assumes it’s Sophia—pushes herself off of the car, and Jensen leans down to kiss her briefly on the mouth. He takes his hat off and places it on her head. Jared stares, chewing on the inside of his cheek as Jensen trails his hand along her arm before she turns to head up her sidewalk. It’s a familiar gesture. Intimate and close.
Jared’s mouth twists as he tries his best to shove away thoughts of Jensen’s mouth and how Jensen’s hands would feel wrapped around his upper arm. It’s jealousy through and through and Jared hates the taste of it. He’d just met this guy yesterday, has spent maybe a total of an hour’s worth of time with him, and still can’t get him out of his head.
But it isn’t as if Jensen ran hot and cold with him. It also isn’t as if Jared had covered a lot of ground with this kinda thing—he’d had a few hook-ups over the last couple years of school, and a couple of relationships that had stalled out before they’d really gotten started—but Jared likes to think that he’s aware enough to know when he’s being flirted with and when he isn’t. He touches his thigh, traces the place where Jensen had briefly slid his hand earlier this afternoon, decides Jensen runs more like hot and even hotter.
No one’s there to see it, but Jared flips his turn signal on anyway, starts the slow roll back to his street. One last glance up the road and Jared finds Jensen staring at his truck, a hand held above his eyes as he tries to see past the headlights. Jensen takes a couple of steps toward him and Jared groans. Busted. Time to fess up.
Slamming the shifter into park, he gets out and leans against the open door. Jensen waves, breaks into a slow jog, his guitar case swinging by his side.
“I’m not stalking you. Really,” Jared says once Jensen is a few yards away.
“Wouldn’t mind it if you were,” Jensen shoots back, props his guitar case on his foot and crosses his arms on the top of it.
Definitely more like hot and even hotter.
“Sorry I missed you tonight. Or earlier. Your show,” Jared says, tongue-tied and awkward all over again and wondering if Jensen has this sorta effect on everyone, or if it’s reserved for him alone.
“Best show I’ve ever played.” Jensen shrugs, casts a sly, sideways glance in his direction.
Jared groans, shoves his hat a little further down on his head.
“Epic. That’s what it was.” A slow grin lights up his face. “The band was on fire. Literally.”
“You had a band? Shit, man. I’m—“
But Jensen just keeps going, talking through him. “Yeah, we even had dancing girls and a sword swallower. And then Jimi Hendrix came up on stage and ripped apart ‘Voodoo Child.’ Ripped it apart at the seams.” Jensen’s eyes are bright, a light dancing behind them.
“You’re an ass,” Jared says, and punches Jensen lightly on the shoulder.
“You’re starting to catch on.” Jensen walks toward the passenger side of the truck, opens the back door without invitation and shoves his guitar in the back, then climbs into the passenger seat.
Jared gets into the car, looks over to Jensen and asks, “So where we going?”
“Not home. That’s for sure. I’m in no mood to lay in bed listening to Chris do...whatever it is that Chris does,” Jensen explains. Jared stares at him, watches as Jensen traces a finger along his lower lip, thinking. “Alright,” he says finally. “I got it.”
Jared’s hand is resting on the shifter in the center, and Jensen covers it with his own, pushes the car into drive. “Forward,” he says, swiping his thumb over the top of Jared’s hand for second before taking it away. “Second star to the right and straight on ‘till morning.”
“We’re going to Neverland?” Jared asks.
Jensen grins at him, full blown, all out. Without a doubt the hottest thing that Jared’s ever seen. “Thereabouts.”
“Sound’s good to me,” Jared says, gripping the steering wheel so hard with his other hand that he fully expects to see a dent in it when he lets go.
A couple of turns later, and Jared finds himself driving down the coastal road, a sand dune blocking the view of the sea to his left and low laying wetlands to his right.
Jensen keeps up a constant stream of conversation, pointing out landmarks that read like a roadmap of the time he’s spent on this small strip of land.
He leans over toward Jared, pressing a hand to Jared’s thigh for balance as he points toward a spot out of the driver’s side window. Their shoulders bump and Jared can feel Jensen’s breath on his neck and damn, Jensen smells good, like summertime, saltwater and sun warmed skin.
“That’s the place, right there in the marsh,” Jensen begins. “Steve and I went four wheeling in his old jeep this one time. Had to have been almost ten years ago. I don’t think that Steve even had his license yet. I know I didn’t. We spun out, got sucked down into the muck and all the fluff, y’know from the cattails?”
Jared nods, hums and peers at the spot where Jensen’s pointing.
“We had to hoof it all the way back into town. A tow truck driver tried to pull us out, couldn’t do it. The fire chief called in this tractor thing, and that finally did the trick. The jeep had fish swimming through it. Fucking fish, Jared. All these little minnows in the foot wells. I remember Steve just got right back into that car. Son of a bitch started up on the second try.” Jensen chuckles at the memory. “We drove it home that night. Damn, I miss that jeep.”
Jared tries to keep one eye on the road and the other on Jensen. His face is lit and shadowed by the blue glow from the car’s control panel, his smile bright as sunshine, laugh lines creeping from the corners of his eyes. He wants to reach over and touch them. Jesus, this man is beautiful.
He’s a goner. Truthfully, he never really stood a chance in the first place.
“You’re about to run out of road,” Jensen says. “Pull over here.”
“Are you sure?” Jared squints through the windshield. There isn’t a shoulder to speak of, only a soft sandy stripe that runs between the dunes and the blacktop. “It’s alright to park here?”
Jensen makes a show of looking around. “Who’s around to complain?” He gets out of the car as soon as Jared pulls to a stop and spins to face him, hands gripping the open window before shoving off. “You coming, city boy?”
There’s a constant breeze blowing off of the ocean, cool, and when Jared licks his lips he tastes salt. It whips at Jared’s t-shirt, tousles the hair that spills out from beneath his cap, tickles the back of his neck a little.
“Where are you taking us?” Jared pants as Jensen leads them up the steep dune toward the beach.
As they reach the top, Jensen says, “There,” and starts on the downward slope.
There’s a wide jetty jutting out into the ocean. Jared can see the white foam from the breakers as they crash along the rocks. At the end sands a lighthouse, an inky silhouette against the dark sky.
“Best view on the island,” Jensen says as they approach the jetty, bending to roll up the cuffs of his jeans. “Better lose the boots, though,” he goes on, nodding at Jared’s feet. “High tide. It’s a little wet out there.”
Jensen drops to his knees in front of Jared, grabs the backs of his thighs for a second and now Jared has enough material to fuel a decade’s worth of jack-off fantasies, maybe more. Jensen loosens Jared’s boots, fingers smart and quick on the laces. Jared struggles for balance as Jensen lifts one of his feet up to pull the boot off, has to place his palm on the crown of Jensen’s head to stop from toppling over, feels the spiky slip of Jensen’s hair between his fingers and adds that to the list as well.
Nimble and sure-footed, Jensen scampers up the rocks toward the lighthouse. “Pay attention to where I walk,” he tells Jared. “Follow my footsteps. Some of these are loose and I don’t want to have to explain to anyone how you wacked your head wide open. It would be a really shitty way for everybody to start out the week.”
The boulders are slippery, some covered in algae, and Jared keeps his eyes fixed on Jensen’s easy, confident movements, tries to stay only a step or two behind him. A couple of times he comes dangerously close to losing his balance, arms cartwheeling and hips tilting sideways, but then Jensen is there, a steady, strong hand on his arm to balance him out.
Jared breathes a relieved sigh when they make to the base of the lighthouse. “So they don’t light it anymore?” he asks, feeling a little dizzy as he looks up at the dark glass dome.
“Been decades since it was used.” Jensen is slowly working his way around the cylindrical building, running a hand along the large stone blocks. “Here we go,” he says, prying a stone loose with the tips of his fingers and reaching inside the hole it left behind.
“How did you know that was there?” Jared stared at him, amazed.
“When you’re a kid growing up here, you learn to make your own fun.” Jensen shrugs. “Besides, Chris has an uncle who used to work maintenance here. He told us about it years ago. Doubt he even remembers.”
They make their way back to the heavy iron door, and Jensen unlocks the weathered padlock securing it. After a few pulls the door opens with a rusty grating sound.
It’s almost pitch black inside, and Jared listens blindly to the echoes of Jensen’s bare footfalls as he moves around the small space. “Yahtzee,” Jensen says at last, his voice bouncing off of the walls as he lights a flashlight and points it upward. “After you,” Jensen holds his hand toward a narrow iron staircase that spirals up to the top.
“How many stairs are there?” Jared asks doubtfully.
“Two hundred and one.”
“Really?” Jared says, dragging his feet a little as he looks up.
Jensen flashes him a smile, and Jared decides right then and there that he’d probably circumnavigate the goddamn globe blindfolded and barefooted if Jensen’s the one leading the way. “Better get started then,” Jared says.
By the time they reach the top landing of the main gallery, Jared’s fairly confident that his lungs are legitimately on fire and that he might never walk again. As he bends at the waist and tries to catch his breath, Jensen uses the same key to unlock the door to the balcony.
Jared breathes deep as he steps out onto the metal walkway, clearing his lungs of the musty interior air as he leans heavily on the railing. His head spins some when he looks down. He’s not usually afraid of heights but he’s willing to make an exception in this case. Jensen seems unfazed, stepping up to the lower rung of the railing and leaning over.
“Hey,” Jared says, a stab of adrenaline hitting him, and he grips Jensen’s hip for a second. “Be careful.”
“Why’s everyone always telling me to be careful?” Jensen asks, looking down at him, a tiny, fond curl to his mouth. “I surf, Jared,” he explains. “Balance is the one thing I’ve got. Might be the only thing.” To prove it, he lets go of the railing and holds his arms out wide, stays like that for a few moments, as the wind pushes his shirt snug to his chest, and then easily hops down to the walkway, landing with a hollow, metallic thud.
The entire strip of land is visible from up here. In the distance, Jared can see the line of lights on the bridge leading onto the island. The glow on the horizon from the mainland turns the sky a distant rosy color. He can see faint spots of light over the water, scattered ships far out at sea.
Jared stands, arms propped on the railing, shivering a little from the chill in the wind and the early hour. Jensen comes up beside him, places a hand on the small of his back and points out a spot south of them on the beach. “See that other jetty down there? The second one to the south?”
Jared hums, squinting to see through the darkness to the telltale signs of the sea spray breaking over the rocks.
“Remember that hurricane that blew through here about ten years back? Can’t remember the name. Floyd maybe? Or maybe it was Isabelle.”
“I guess so,” Jared answers. The names sound familiar.
“The storm surge came in, washed out the entire southern end of the island, from that spot on down. It was something to see, the ocean heading right into the sound over here. It was days and days before the water went back out.”
“You were out in it?” Jared says incredulously.
“Out in it? We fucking surfed it.” He lets out a low bark of laughter. “It was Chris’s idea.”
“He sounds suicidal,” Jared says.
“He can be one crazy son of a bitch,” Jensen agrees. “He’s also one of the best people I’ve ever known, and I’ve known quite a few.”
Jared stretches, tries to stifle a yawn without much success.
“Let’s get you home,” Jensen says, turning away. “Morning shows up early around here.”
Jensen’s quieter, a bit more subdued on the drive back to their houses. Part way through the ride he leans forward, turns on the radio and mutters a curse when Fugazi punches fast and loud from the speakers.
Jared jumps, apologizes, and quickly turns it down.
“That’ll wake you up,” Jensen says. “It’ll also make your ears bleed.”
“Yeah, kinda the point. Not much for DC hardcore, huh?”
Jensen doesn’t answer, and instead he fiddles with the buttons, finds some mellow folk song broadcasting from some college radio station over on the mainland. He slides down in the seat, rests his feet up on the dashboard and sings quietly along, fingers drumming out the rhythm on his leg.
“And this will put you to sleep.” Jared rolls the window down, letting in more of the cool, early morning air.
Jensen smiles at him in a soft, easy way that makes him look ten years younger. “Yeah,” he says, “kinda the point.”
Jared’s uncle’s place is still dark when they pull up, so is Jensen’s, and the two of them walk quietly between the houses. There’s a low glow just starting to the east, a false dawn that turns the sky a shade lighter than the ocean, only a slight contrast above the water.
Jared takes a couple of reluctant steps toward the back stairs leading up to his room. “So,” he says as he leans against the railing post, “you playing again tomorrow?”
Jensen shakes his head. “No, it’s a weekend gig. Strictly part-time. Everything I do is part-time, come to think of it. I never can stand to do too much of any one thing.”
Birds are starting to sing, calling out the morning. Jared’s eyes are gritty, his limbs weighed down with sleepiness, he feels that particular brand of nausea that comes with too little sleep, and god, he doesn’t want watch Jensen walk away, even if it is only one door over. “You gonna be around the next couple of days?” he asks, afraid to lend words to this pathetic crush he’s working on.
“I’ll be here and there. I’m heading into town at some point in the next few. Pick up some stuff,” Jensen answers vaguely. “Thanks for showing up tonight,” he says, coming a little closer and staring up at Jared, an unexpected look of curiosity in his eyes.
Jared jams his hands into the pockets of his shorts, hunches his shoulders some and stares at his feet. “Yeah, late.”
“Late is fine by me.” Jensen takes another step closer, runs a hand along the back of Jared’s neck. “I…” He falters, tilts his head to the side and blinks slow. Jared’s fists clench tighter in his pockets, his fingernails digging into the flesh of his palms. His heart jumps into his throat and he licks his lips nervously. Because maybe. Maybe.
“I, ah,” Jensen tries it again and finally gives up, tugs gently on Jared’s neck, draws him down and kisses him. Chaste, warm. Just like that. He pulls back a little, dives toward Jared once more, a small taste of his tongue sliding against Jared’s own this time, sweet and shy. Jared tips a bit forward, follows Jensen with his open mouth as Jensen takes a small step backward.
Jared breathes a stuttering, quiet gasp, wonders what sorta force is keeping his knees in check, locked in place. His hands are still in his pockets and he regrets the lost opportunity, should have latched onto Jensen’s shoulders or hips or something when he’d had the chance. “So…” Jared manages.
Jensen stares at him for a handful of heartbeats, then offers up a crooked smile. “Just testing a theory,” he says. He snatches the hat from Jared’s head and shoves it onto his own, then spins on his heel and charts a course back toward his house.
It takes a second for Jared to respond, but then he calls after Jensen. “Were you right?”
“Pretty sure,” Jensen says over his shoulder, and strolls behind his house.
Jared stands rooted to the spot for a long while afterward, thumb playing along his lower lip. His feet feel funny, like they aren’t quite hitting the ground the same way they always have as he trips up the steps, flinching at the loud hollow noise.
The coast is clear, the house still quiet when Jared slips into his bedroom, tugs his shirt over his head and folds it with care, shoves all the other shirts in his drawer to the side and gives it a place of honor. It’s the shirt that he’d been wearing when Jensen kissed him and Jared indulges in some strange sorta sentimentality. His hair is tangled, wind swept and he works his fingers through the knots, wishing for some kind of rift in the time space continuum that would allow him to hit the replay button. Put the last five minutes on an endless loop.
The morning is growing brighter. He shuffles to the window to close the curtains and instead freezes, hand wrapped in the sheer fabric.
Jensen is standing on the beach, a faraway figure against the nascent rising sun, but still instantly recognizable. He stands completely still, a surfboard planted in the sand beside him, one arm across it and his hand up high, like he’s hugging the shoulders of an old friend, and Jared guesses that he is doing exactly that.
The sun rises further over the ocean, the water reflecting it in countless shifting spots of light, and when Jared closes his eyes, he sees afterimages, stars against the black of his eyelids.
Jensen tilts his head backward, straightens his back like he’s working out the kinks in his spine, broad shoulders rolling slightly. He grabs the board and runs into the surf. With a graceful, practiced move he slips atop it and duck dives past the first set of breakers. Jared watches him as the sun climbed higher on the horizon, waiting for him to catch a wave only he doesn’t. Jensen sits on the board and floats, doesn’t fight the current, rather lets it slowly carry him southward.
Yesterday, when Jared had first arrived here, two weeks had seemed like a very long time. It doesn’t anymore. It seems like hardly any time at all.
“That should do it.” Jensen unplugs the battery and drops it into Steve’s golf cart. It’s hot out today, deep summer in the Deep South. Still breezy enough though, and the air moves through the palmettos with a dry rustle that sounds like old bones. “Could I catch a lift with you? Just up to the store?”
“You don’t even have to ask,” Steve says.
“Two minutes.” Jensen dashes into the house and finds a decent shirt, one with buttons, and steps into his only pair of flip-flops. On the way out the door he does a double take and snatches Jared’s hat from the counter. He holds it up to his nose, tries to convince himself that the warm feeling he gets in his chest at the smell of Jared’s hair is less creepy than it sounds, then puts it on.
“Shoes,” Steve says as Jensen joins him again. “And a real shirt.”
“Yeah, I gotta take the bus, heading over to the mainland for a few hours.”
“Let me get this straight. You’re a-okay with going barefoot in the bar, but the bus is another story?”
“I don’t know where the bus has been,” Jensen points out. He unfastens the top two buttons of his shirt and screws around with the collar, starting to feel strangely claustrophobic under the thin layer of starched cotton.
“If you need to know where the bus has been, all you need to do is buy a map. And that still doesn’t explain the shirt.”
Steve smiles, lopsided. “It’s my only reliable character trait. What do you have going on over there? Something for the party tonight?”
“Yeah, something like that.”
“Good thing I like you,” Steve says, shaking his head. He flips the switch on the golf cart. As the electric motor turns over with a whir, Jensen slides into the passenger seat, smacks Steve away when he tries to kiss him on the cheek.
“Good thing I know how to fix everything that you break,” Jensen shoots back.
The golf cart isn’t exactly street legal, and Steve takes a roundabout way to the main road, following a series of twisted paths no wider than alleyways. There’s more shade a couple of blocks from the ocean front, the sunlight filtered into a dappled green color. Branches from scrub trees and cycads rake against the side of the vehicle, and a small white flower lands in Jensen’s lap. He reaches over, tucks it behind Steve’s ear. Folks from the other side of the island are heading toward the washout, jeeps and pick-ups with surf boards piled in the back, snatches of music as they drive past.
“You should try and get an hour or two in,” Jensen says. “The marine forecast sounds ace. Even you might be able to catch a few.”
“Yeah?” Steve’s kicked back in his seat, one foot notched beside the wheel, steering with his wrist. He glances over, and Jensen can see his own reflection mirrored in Steve’s sunglasses. “How about you? Seems to me you could catch some yourself. Or at least one in particular.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Did Jared ever catch up with you the other night?”
“Yeah, he did.” Jensen chews on his thumbnail, tries to stop the dopey smile that threatens to take over his face. “We hung out. It was…it was nice.” An understatement, because nice doesn’t even scratch the surface, doesn’t even start to leave a mark. The guy’s something else, smart and interesting, takes Jensen’s peculiarity in stride and hands it right back to him. There’s a calmness to him that makes it easier for Jensen to pay attention, to concentrate on one thing at a time. It doesn’t hurt that Jensen could probably stare at him for days on end and never get bored.
“Nice?” Steve parrots. “He seems like a lot more than that.”
“He’s also temporary.” Jensen will readily admit to a history of shoddy judgment, a tendency for split-second decisions that have mostly been forgivable, or at least didn’t result in any sort of collateral damage. Some of them haven’t been forgivable though, not ever, and those are the reasons Jensen hardly sleeps for more than a couple of hours at a time, has spent the last several years of his life living off of catnaps and caffeine.
Steve’s gaze ticks down to Jensen’s hands. They’re shaking, but Steve doesn’t mention it, not when Jensen ineffectually balls them into fists nor when he tucks them under his thighs. He just keeps on talking, doesn’t miss a beat.
“You’ve never been all that great with permanent stuff anyway. Besides, little bit of fun never hurt anyone.”
“That’s not entirely true,” Jensen counters.
“And it’s not entirely false. Happiness is in short supply, and you should get it while the getting’s good. You deserve it.”
Jensen grunts, and it’s enough to make Steve shut his mouth. They pull onto the side of the road in front of the store, beside a Honda with surfboard racks fixed to the roof. Jensen wrinkles his nose and runs a hand along the rails of the stranger’s board. The thing’s in bad shape, could use a good stripping and some decent wax.
“People should take care of what’s theirs,” Jensen says.
Steve nods, shoves at Jensen’s shoulder and says, “I’m trying. I’m always trying.”
There isn’t a grocery store on the island, so to speak. Only a hole in the wall nestled between a diner and the surf shop a block back from the main road. It’s sort of a catch-all, part convenience store and part liquor store, the sorta place where a person can buy a jug of paint and a box of nails if need be, a gallon of milk and a fifth of vodka.
Jared juggles a couple of paper bags, pushing the door open with a hip and spots Steve getting out of a golf cart parked in front of the store. Jensen’s walking down the block, shoes on his feet for the first time since Jared met him, hair hidden beneath a dark knit hat.
“My hat,” Jared says as Steve holds the door wider for him. When Steve just raises an eyebrow at him, Jared elaborates. “That’s my hat. Jensen stole it from me a couple of days ago.”
“Huh, I thought he’d taken it from Chris. So what is it? Like the guy’s version of leaving your underwear in some dude’s bed, only to have an excuse to get it back?”
“What?” Jared’s voice registers an octave higher than nature intended, so high it makes his throat hurt. He clears it, tries again. “No.”
“Methinks the lady doth protest too much.” Steve grins and reaches up to knuckle at Jared’s hair.
“It’s no big deal,” Jared says, hoping the comment comes off as nonchalant as he’s intending. He’s thinking that he’s missed his mark by about a thousand miles.
Steve doesn’t say anything, only squints at him for a beat and takes the bags from his arms. He stuffs them into the back of the golf cart.
“You play golf?” Jared asks.
“Naw, man. I surf,” Steve says, as if that might be the answer to every question Jared could ever ask. “Glad you’re here, actually,” he continues, “I’ll trade you a lift home if you help me carry.”
Jared follows him back into the store, grinning as Steve loads him up with just about one of most things and two of everything else.
“Are you restocking the bar or something?” Jared asks as he stacks three twelve packs of beer in the back and climbs into the passenger seat of the cart.
The electric motor hums as Steve pulls out into the road. “There’s a small shindig on the beach at Chris and Jensen’s place tonight,” he explains. “Didn’t Jensen tell you?”
Jared feels this crazy pang of disappointment and shakes his head, zeros in on the frayed cuff of his shorts and twists a loose strand between his thumb and first finger. It’s been a couple of days since he’s seen Jensen, since that strange early morning. Jeff’s kept him busy with the renovations, and the last two days has been all about work and food and sleep. And maybe spending an embarrassing amount of time leaning over the railing on the back porch, listening for signs of life next door and feeling like a fucking freak because of it. Besides, Jensen doesn’t have a phone and showing up on his doorstep seems a little clingy.
Steve gives him a sidelong glance. “Well, obviously you’re coming.”
“Why obviously? I wasn’t invited.”
“I’m inviting you, unless you need some sorta engraved affair. Good stationary, and maybe a courier?”
“Don’t put yourself out on my account,” Jared teases.
“Anyway, it’s my beer, my call. That’s why obviously.” Steve heaves a loud sigh, heavy on the dramatics. “I have to do everything around here. Buy the beer, chop the wood, try and get the two of you to get your heads out of your asses.”
Jared’s teeth click together when he realizes that he’s staring at Steve with his jaw wide open. He tries to wipe the grin from his face and gives up, figures there’s no point. He wants to do something ridiculous, prepubescent, like pass Steve a note that says Does Jensen like me? Check the box for yes or no.
“To be young again,” Jeff tells him as Jared emerges from his bedroom.
“C’mon, you’re not old,” Jared says. He rakes his hands through his damp hair, screws around with the collar of his t-shirt and scrunches his toes as he stomps his boots straight on his feet but doesn’t bother with the laces.
Jeff yanks a drop cloth off of one of the overstuffed chairs in the living room and lowers himself into it with a slight wince. “Tell that to my back.” He stretches his legs out, flings one arm over his face. “Hey, not to contribute to your delinquency, but there’s a bottle of bourbon on top of the fridge. It’s all yours.”
“I think they have plenty,” Jared tells him. “I carried most of the liquor store to the beach a few hours ago.”
“You’re in the south, boy-o. There’s a certain way of doing things down here. We don’t show up to a person’s house empty handed in this neck of the woods. Take it.”
“Don’t wait up.” Jared flashes a smile at his uncle as he grabs the bottle.
“Trust me, I won’t.” Jeff peeks out from under his arm.
The smell of a wood fire hits Jared as soon as he’s outside. He follows his nose between the two houses and out onto the beach.
A small group of people is gathered around the bonfire, forms silhouetted in shadow against the tall fire and Jared hesitates, nervous.
He’s never been very good at making friends, has always felt like he needs to hold back a little, not let anyone really get to know him. Because sure, girls are great and he has a objective sort of appreciation for the swing of a woman’s hips and the silky slip of a her hair through his fingers, and the one time he had a sorta-but-not-really-we’re-just-friends-g
He’s never told anyone any of this, not his folks or his uncle or the handful of roommates he’s had in college, because he’s learned that there are some secrets that can’t be shared, not even with his best friend and maybe particularly not with his best friend, who knows his mother and father well enough to call them Ma and Pop, who always had a spot at his supper table and for a lot of years an even bigger spot in his heart. Better to not think about it. Potholes and pitfalls all the way down that line of thought. Goddamn landmines.
Jensen sits Indian-style on the beach, tucked between the legs of the woman Jared recognizes from the other night. His hand rests around her ankle and she keeps nudging him with her knee, rocking him back and forth to the music that pipes out of the house’s open windows.
Jared has never experienced that sort of physical familiarity with anyone before, wonders what it would feel like to have free reign over someone else’s body like that. He doesn’t get it, how Jensen is able to focus all of his attention on him, make him feel like he is the only person who matters, and then turn around and do the same thing with someone else. He’s still wearing Jared’s hat, though, and that has to mean something.
The usual suspects are gathered, and Jared picks out the familiar form of Steve, who has stationed himself in front of a folding table and is performing complex chemistry with shakers, soda water and muddled mint. He sees the dark haired guy with the pale blue eyes and assumes it has to be Chris, so the woman standing close beside him with the light hair and sharp smile has to be Beth. There are a couple of others he doesn’t recognize, a guy with short dark hair who looks out of place, looks like he’s stepped out onto the beach directly from some corporate boardroom, his tie loose around his neck and his collar unbuttoned, the cuffs of his trousers rolled up to his knees.
Jared steps into the ring of light around the fire and Jensen leaps up right away, using the woman’s knees for leverage.
“Hello, the stranger,” he says around a broad grin, thunks Jared on the back and leads him toward the fire with an arm hooked around his neck.
Introductions are made, and Jared learns that the guy in the business suit is Misha, Jensen’s guru for all things surfing related, taught Jensen everything he knows about riding and how to read waves.
“Did he just come from work?” Jared says, picking up the guy’s suit jacket and shaking the sand from it before placing it over the back of an empty chair.
“Nope,” Jensen replies. “He builds boards nowadays, ever since he retired from the competitive loop. Works outta that shack that you pass on the main road. The one near the marshes with all those spray painted waves.”
“Then why the—“ Jared says, with a general gesture in his direction.
“Beats me. Last time he came to one of these, he showed up in one of those wrap around dresses. All those flowers and that gut-wrenching shade of orange didn’t do him any favors.”
Jensen tells him that the dark haired woman is in fact Sophia, who first came to the island a few years ago to study turtles when she is doing fieldwork for her graduate degree. She’d left to finish it, but the place had already sunk its hooks in nice and deep. She came back as soon as she was finished and hasn’t left since.
Jared whispers to Jensen, “How long have Chris and Beth been together?”
“Sure looks that way, though.”
“Chris has a reputation,” Jensen explains, “and Beth has a different kinda reputation. You look at them and know it’s there, sure, but it’s one of those things we aren’t gonna talk about.”
“What aren’t we supposed to talk about?” Steve says from a short distance behind them.
Jensen jumps in for a smooth save. “What sorta unspeakable things you’re going to do to this bottle of bourbon, that’s what we’re not supposed to talk about.” He takes it from Jared’s hand and passes it over to Steve, who tips it toward the light to read the label.
“Four Roses,” he says, and holds the cut glass bottle up to the light. “Would you look at that? Almost too pretty to drink.” He cracks it open, holds it under his nose then takes a sip, right from the bottle. “Single barrel. Rye. Goddamn, it’s like sex in a bottle. Who’d you have to screw to get it?”
Jared opens his mouth to answer, but Steve talks right over him.
“Never mind. I don’t wanna know. Jensen sure as hell doesn’t want to know.”
“Don’t bother me much,” Jensen cuts in with a tug at Jared’s hip. “A bottle of rye like that…well, man’s gotta do whatever it takes.”
Sophia wanders over to them and formally introduces herself with a warm hug, rises up to her tiptoes to plant a kiss on Jared’s cheek, and Jared gets a nose full of vanilla and flowery jasmine.
“Why don’t you go inside,” she tells Jensen. “Grab us those nice glasses that Chris has in the cupboard. It would be a sin to drink that stuff out of a plastic cup.”
Jensen bows with a flourish and scoots off, and Sophia turns her attention fully on Jared. A minute of talking to her and he can tell she’s brilliant in a very down to earth way.
“So turtles,” Jared leads.
“Yep. I’m studying migratory patterns of marine life, but I like the Loggerhead turtles the best, mostly because they introduced me to this place. Besides, they seemed like a good subject. They move slow. It’s really easy to keep up.”
“Is that when you met Jensen?” Jared asks. He tries to keep it light, disguise the gentle prod for information, but she sees right through it.
“Yeah, it was in the middle of my survey. I’d gone around knocking on doors and asking everyone to keep the lights in their ocean-facing rooms turned off. It screws with the hatchlings’ sense of direction. They think that someone’s motion detector spotlight is the moon and they crawl toward the road instead of the ocean.”
Chris passes by with a nod to Jared and clinks their beer bottles together, and Sophia pats his cheek and holds his hand for a second, fingers trailing as he moves along. Jared is starting to figure out that it’s simply how she operates. She learns and trusts by touch. Jensen seems to be the same way. They’re perfectly matched in that regard. Jared kinda hates that, loves it twice as much.
She goes on, “Jensen answered the door, said a buddy of his had dropped off a few dozen crabs and the suckers had gotten out of the basket.” She laughs, a light tittering sound. “Next thing I know I was chasing the things all over the house. Under the table. Behind the refrigerator. One of them got me.” She holds her hand up and shows Jared a narrow little scar in the web of flesh between her thumb and her first finger, and pinches it with her other hand to demonstrate. “This happened before Jensen could give me a set of oven mitts.”
“Ouch,” Jared says with a wince.
“Eh, it wasn’t so bad. Makes for a good story and a battle scar. Little bastard sure did taste good afterward.”
There is a loud burst of laughter and Jared looks over to see Jensen trip down the steps with his arms full of glasses, do a spot on impersonation W.C. Fields and manages to not drop a single one.
“Has he stopped surprising you yet?” Jared asks.
“No,” she says, pure affection pouring from her soft smile. “Don’t think he ever will.” She turns her gaze to Jared, direct in a way that makes his skin too tight and makes the collar of his shirt feel too small. “I know what you’re thinking, and it isn’t like that. I love him entirely, with every ounce of everything that I have, and I know he’d say the same way about me, but.”
“Yeah?” Jared urges her on, and goddamn but it seems like he’s about to lay down the whole farm on a bet that he’s sure to lose.
“He’s not wearing my hat,” she points out.
“But you’re wearing his.”
She touches the brim, spins it around so that it faces backward. “You got it.”
“Never knew that there would be this much politics surrounding the thievery and usage of other people’s hats,” Jared teases. There’s a metaphor in there, and a pretty heavy handed one at that.
“Oh, sweetheart, you have no idea. Don’t even get me started on varsity letter jackets.”
The night wears on, the moon trudges across the sky. Every once in a while someone adds more wood to the fire and sparks fly up, carried on the constant ocean breeze. There’s an ease in how Jensen’s friends interact, the way they revolve around each other, the way they take him in immediately and without question and make him one of their own, like he’s always been there, like he’s never going to leave.
“I’m starting to get it,” Jared tells Chris. They’re sitting in a matched pair of low beach chairs and Jared’s ditched the boots, is buried up to his ankles in cool sand. “It’s like things can grow still here. Everywhere else feels like time’s speeding up, but not here.”
Chris takes his time replying. He makes a see-sawing motion with his hand. “Stuff changes. Slowly. The topography, mostly. There was this storm that blew through here years back. Can’t remember the name…” Chris trails off. His voice carries a familiar inflection. Jared can hear Jensen in it, different and the same all at once, and can tell right away that the two of them grew up together. So much history there, and Jared wishes he knew even half of it.
“Floyd,” Jared supplies, “or maybe Isabel.” He grins, knows exactly where this is going.
“Yeah, that’s right. It tore up the north end of the island. After the storm passed, I hardly knew my way around up there.”
“Jensen told me that you guys surfed it.”
“Fuck yeah, we did. It had been Jensen’s idea.”
“Jensen said it was yours.”
Chris snorts, salutes Jensen with his bottle although the guy isn’t paying attention, is fully wrapped up in talking to Beth and Misha, telling tall tales if his animated, wild gestures are anything to go by. “Fucker,” he mutters. “Don’t believe half of what he says, and always be sure to look the other half up. Of course it had been Jensen’s idea. He’s always been on the right side of crazy.” He cuts off before the sentence has finished clearing his mouth, and the silence stretches out for a few long moments.
“Do you need to get a permit to have fires on the beach?” Jared says, just to fill it up.
“Naw,” Chris slurs, the south in his voice coming out front and center. “Got a cousin who works for the city council whose sister-in-law is married to the fire marshal. And anyway, isn’t not like the neighbors are gonna complain, right?”
“You’re related to everyone around here.”
“It’s a small island. Everyone’s family, and there are no such things as secrets.” Chris stands, takes Jared’s hand in a strong grip and pulls him to his feet. “Get you another?”
Jared shakes his head. The beer is a warm slosh in his stomach, his fingers, toes, and the crown of his head pleasantly tingling and he’s teetering on the knife-edge of just enough.
“So architecture, huh?” Misha circles around him. He’s not dressed for the beach and the night is warm, small trickles of sweat draw streaks down his temples. “How much do you know about fiberglass construction?”
“Enough to know you shouldn’t build houses out of it. I mean, it’s light and it’s cheap, but unless you’re trying to build some kinda underground bunker, it’s not very practical.”
“I was wondering if any of your training could be applied to constructing the perfect surfboard, although it’s useful to know how to build a really great hobbit hole.”
Jensen passes by them, dodges Jared as he makes a play to steal back his hat, then snugs in close anyway, curls his fingers against the small of Jared’s back, tugging at his t-shirt. He rocks against Jared, a slow back and forth sway, and Jared is obliged to rock along with him. His palms find Jensen’s hipbones and their forearms line up and notch them together and it’s as if he’s been waiting forever to do exactly this. Waiting a lifetime for the chance. Maybe longer.
“Is it bad?” Jensen whispers directly into Jared’s ear and traces the shell of the other one with his thumb. “Is it terrible that I want everyone to leave except you?” He backs off, sucks on his bottom lip and draws it slowly between his teeth.
It would be such bad form to ditch everybody right now. Misha’s looking at them, watching unabashedly, like he has every right to, one corner of his mouth tugged upward in a thoughtful smile. Jared hardly cares, drops his head to Jensen’s shoulder and strengthens his grip on Jensen’s hipbones as Jensen starts to move away.
“Later,” Jensen says. “Promise.” He disappears behind the house again, and Jared’s left shivery, with an odd, hollow sensation in his stomach, half hard and wondering whether or not he’s supposed to be following behind.
“He’s a good guy,” Misha says once Jensen’s out of sight. “I think he’s doing alright for himself, all things considered.”
“All things considered?” Jared repeats, hazy and curious.
“That’s right,” Misha muses. He clears his throat and rubs at the back of his neck. “You’re new, and Jensen can be cagey. Forget I said anything.”
“That’s unlikely,” Jared says.
“Some secrets are Jensen’s to keep, and they aren’t mine to tell.”
The fire is starting to burn down, a deep, shifting red glow of burning embers, and no one has added any extra wood for a while. Jensen steps out of the shadows from around the corner of the house, toting a long metal rake. He attempts some sorta acrobatic move, an ill-conceived and even more terribly executed pole vault across picnic table, and lands in a clumsy heap on Sophia and half of Chris. They take it in stride, get him set back up and on his feet again.
“Looks like someone has been self-medicating,” Misha observes, wry. “I don’t know how that boy manages to surf the way he does. Right now he can hardly handle solid ground.”
“It’s an act,” Jared says. He doesn’t know how he knows it, only knows that it’s true. He thinks about Jensen up at the lighthouse, his toes curling around the iron railing as he’d flung his arms straight out, and the how he hadn’t even swayed, not one inch.
The look Misha gives him is sharp, probing. “I do believe that you might be onto something.”
Jensen starts to rake the embers, spreading them out in an even layer. Everyone’s gone silent, nursing their drinks as they watch him work. There is something almost ritualistic about it, and this whole night Jared hadn’t gotten the vibe that he is an outsider, but he’s kinda getting it now.
“What’s going on?” Jared asks in a whisper. Misha’s at his shoulder, feet set wide apart and rocking slightly to the slow, sluggish sound of the waves as they roll onto the beach.
“We’ve hit high tide,” Misha tells him, bent in close to Jared’s ear. “It’s time to take off our shoes and face our fears.”
“I don’t know what that means.” The night is taking on a very surreal bend, a doglegged turn, and Jared feels a muddy panic start to creep up.
“You will. You trust Jensen, right?”
“Yeah,” Jared says, and he’s surprised to find that it’s the truth entire.
“Good. Good. He’s very good at this. He won’t let you get hurt.”
Chris is first to go, staring down the bed of coals with single-minded determination before taking one step. Sparks swirl around his ankles and Jared catches the distinct smell of burning hair, but he makes it to the other side among the rousing whoops and cat-calls of his friends.
Jared begins to realize that the way each person approaches the challenge is an insight into their personality. Sophia hops in a step behind Beth, arms wrapped around each other’s waists to stay on course and in balance. Misha threatens to do a handstand then thinks better of it, and Steve crosses the fire with a series of strange, see-sawing two-steps.
“You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to.”
Jared startles a little when Jensen speaks low into his ear. He presses up against Jared’s back, chest plastered tight to Jared’s shoulders and draws his fingers along the inside of his arms. Jared leans into it, feels more than hears the soft noise that Jensen makes, Jensen’s breath on the back of his neck, so warm and close that Jensen’s mouth has to be right there, a fraction of an inch away.
He swallows. His tongue feels swollen and his throat is dry, and the mouthful of beer he sucks down doesn’t do anything to make it go away. “No,” Jared says, and his voice sounds foreign to his own ears. “I’ll do it. I wanna do it.”
“That’s my boy,” Jensen says with a minute push. “Follow my lead and do what I say, and you’ll be fine.”
“It’s the power of positive thinking, huh?” Jared jokes. His stomach is knotted and heart is banging in his chest and it’s a likely possibility that his head is attached to the rest of his body by a thin, tenuous string.
Jensen laughs, and Jared thinks, not for the first time, that he could really get used to the sound of Jensen’s laugh. “All those self-proclaimed motivational gurus are full of crap. It’s physics,” he explains, and urges Jared toward the coals. “It’s hot, sure, but there’s a layer of ash on top, and ash is a poor conductor.”
“So is wood,” Jared says, and kicks his shoes off. Folks are lined up along the edge of the bed of coals, their faces lit up red, watching them closely but silently.
It seems big, significant somehow. Not just a parlor trick. The air wavers above the shifting glowing coals, and heat pushes at Jared’s face. Sweat trickles down his back, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is the way that Jensen nudges the back of his hand against his, fingers searching. What matters is how Jensen tangles his fingers into Jared’s when Jared reaches out and rubs their thumbs together.
“Yeah, you get it,” Jensen says. “Don’t rush. If you rush, that’ll make your feet dig in and you’ll sink past the layer of ash. Walk flat-footed, because if you tip-toe or walk on your heels, it’ll make you push in. Think about how cool the sand will feel on the other side. Think about this,” he says, and he squeezes Jared’s hand. “And one more thing.”
“Yeah?” Jared asks.
“That’s a good philosophy.”
“Exactly. That’s it. That’s the point. You ready?”
Jared nods, and together they take the first step.
A few years ago, when Jared had been more of a kid than he is now, he and a couple of friends from his high school chess club had decided to travel across the great state of Texas to see a chess tournament that had been held in Dallas. They never made it, and rather than watch Gefland soundly kick Andand’s ass, they managed to break down on the chunk of highway between Tyler and Taylor. It had been hot in the way that only Texas in August can get hot, a three-week stretch of time when the temperature didn’t dip below a hundred degrees, even in the middle of the night. Not a lick of shade in sight beside that godforsaken highway, and Jared had gotten the worst sunburn in his life as he paced along the shoulder waiting for a tow truck. So hot that the tar they used to patch up the cracks in the pavement had melted to the soles of his shoes. That hadn’t even come close to this.
Sparks shoot up between their feet, little embers that bite at Jared’s ankles and creep between his toes. Jensen matches his steps has no reaction that Jared can find, not a waver in the steady grip of his hand or the calm measure of his footsteps. He doesn’t wince or grimace, keeps his eyes fixed on Jared the whole time, a small, encouraging curl to his mouth.
The sand hits his feet like some form of salvation, soothing and cool on his soles and he digs into it, squirms until his toes are buried. There are more war-whoops and pats on the back from everyone, and Chris pulls Jared down with a hand wrapped around the base of his skull, brings their foreheads together.
Thick smell of whiskey on his breath and he says, inexplicably, “I might have been wrong about you. You passed. You made it to the other side. Impressive.”
Before Jared can wrap his head around that, Misha starts peeling his clothes off, wetsuit shorts underneath his dress pants. “Friends and neighbors,” he says, “we made it through the fire. Now lets go walk on water.”
Everyone starts to strip and poke around in the rack of surfboards, but Jared stays back, and Jensen stays with him.
“Don’t you want to go?” Jared asks.
“There’s more than one kinda miracle. I can go surfing anytime. I’d rather be with you.”
They walk down near the water line where the sand is damp and compacted, away from the spot where everyone is diving past the breakers. The moon is high in the sky, a cold blue light that makes Jensen look pale, like a ghost.
They’re close together, elbows bumping. Jared’s wondering whether he should reach out and take his hand again, or if that sort of thing is only reserved for life-threatening scenarios when Jensen says, “Am I coming on too strong? I have a tendency to come on too strong.”
“So about that theory,” Jared starts, a reckless thing happening in his chest because he wants to kiss Jensen again, has wanted to do basically nothing but kiss Jensen for the past couple of days and the last ten minutes has only made it worse. Or better. Anyone’s guess.
“Yeah, about that.” Jensen pulls a face. “I guess I should have called it a hypothesis, because theories aren’t something that you usually test, right? They’ve already been tested and proved or disproved, or at least that’s what I remember from geometry.”
“I didn’t bring it up to discuss semantics.”
“Oh. Oh. Then what did you—“
Jared cuts him off. “Be quiet,” he urges, and grabs Jensen’s hips, pulls him near. Jensen just goes with it, allows himself to be guided. His mouth is already open when Jared gets there and he smiles around the kiss, reaches up to cradle Jared’s face and notch his thumbs into the hollows beneath Jared’s eyes. It’s soft, tentative and all the better because of it, the way that Jensen flicks his tongue and slides it into Jared’s mouth. Jared tastes mint and whiskey, feels the warmth of Jensen in all the places that they touch, can’t get enough of the press of Jensen’s chest against his, how his whole body melts into the kiss, and all those soft, happy noises that he breathes into Jared’s mouth.
Jensen breaks away, squints at Jared through his lashes, head tilted back and he pushes up onto his tiptoes, buries his hands in Jared’s hair and kisses him proper. Deeper than before and with a whole lot more intent, sucks on Jared’s tongue and nudges at his jaw until he’s found the angle he wants.
About the time that Jared starts to think that something is actually going to happen, that he’ll have something to show for this trip outside of a new interior in his uncle’s house and a ceiling that isn’t about to collapse, Jensen makes a frustrated, wrenched out noise and stumbles a step backward. He presses another kiss to the corner of Jared’s mouth, quick like punctuation, a full stop at the end of a sentence.
“Fuck, I like that.” He swipes his thumb along the dip of Jared’s bottom lip. “Why aren’t we doing that all the time?”
Jared’s reeling a little, dizzy and it might not be the best time to trust his senses, because he thinks that Jensen has grown a couple of inches in the last few minutes, at least until he looks down, realizes that he’s been rooted to the same spot long enough to sink past his ankles in the sand, and that Jensen’s had the presence of mind to stay on top.
The ragged edges of his shorts are getting wet every time there is a slightly larger wave in the set and in another few minutes, Jared will be shorter than him. Interesting, getting to see the world from this angle, from Jensen’s point of view.
“You’re very good at that,” Jensen’s saying and Jared is about to make another joke about testing theories or hypotheses, about how some things are still unproven, and maybe something about Pythagoras in the bathtub, but Jensen rips his shirt over his head then yanks Jared’s off as well.
“As much as I’d like to get to know you a little--scratch that, a lot--better, screwing around on the beach really isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Sand everywhere.” He lets his eyes wander over Jared’s chest, then rips the hat off of his head, balls it up in their shirts and throws everything clear of the water. “Besides, we haven’t even had our first date yet.”
Water swirls around their ankles with foamy, insistent tugs, and there’s an odd pattern to the waves foaming about twenty feet out to shore.
“Sand bar,” Jensen says when he notices Jared’s stare. “The water barely comes up to your knees out there. They’re all over the place here. Maybe we could swim out to it.”
“It’s a date,” Jared says, voice pitched low, weighty implication through and through.
“I like the way you think,” Jensen tells him, then takes a few loping strides and dives into the water, surfaces several yards away and begins a lazy backstroke, waiting to make sure that Jared’s following.
It takes Jared a full minute longer than Jensen to make it out to the sand bar as he fights to swim against the current. Jensen hauls him in for the last couple of feet, arms like a longshoreman and Jared scrambles to his upright, heaving huge gasps.
“I’ve been here for four days, and this is the first time I’ve gone for a swim.” He regrets his lack of swimsuit; his shorts hang heavy on his hips and cling to him uncomfortably.
“That’s fucking criminal. What have you been doing all this time?”
“The ocean trumps work. And here I thought you were smart.”
They can hear the shouts coming from Jensen’s friends some distance away, over the rhythmic wash of the water. “They’re good people,” Jared observes.
“My tribe of lost boys,” Jensen says, soft and musing.
“And you’re their captain,” Jared teases.
“I wish. I’ve grown up, or at least I’m halfway there.”
Jensen stands close to Jared, soaking in the quiet, swaying with the current that laps against their lower legs. He’s got slippery wet skin and spikes in his hair and Jared really wishes that it could be brighter out, that the sun could be shining because he wants to be able to watch his hands slide across Jensen’s shoulders, see it when Jensen throws his arms around his neck.
“What do you think about temporary?” Jensen asks.
“Temporary is a hell of a lot better than not at all.”
“That’s the spirit,” Jensen says, quiet and thoughtful, underlined with uncertainty. “Just. Promise you won’t let me fuck this up,” Jensen goes on, and it doesn’t make any sense, but Jared is about to promise him anything and everything anyway. Promise him things that he doesn’t even have, things that aren’t his to give.