Genre: Jared/Jensen AU
Word count: 9600
Warnings: religious themes, violence, ummm...shadow snakes?
Notes: written for the 2015 spn_reversebang. I had the amazing good luck to be able to collaborate with the supremely wonderful petite_madame. Not only is her talent mind-boggling, but she's also one of the most kind and generous folks I've had the good fortune to run across in fandom, and that's saying something, kids. Thanks also to tebtosca and cherie_morte for hanging out and writing with me one dark and dreary Saturday, and for helping me figure out what this story is actually about.
Summary: As a paranormal investigator, it's very rare that Jensen encounters the inexplicable. His typical clientele would benefit more from weekly therapy sessions than the services of an exorcist. All of this changes the moment he meets his newest client, a guy who keeps insisting that he's boring, nothing special, and turns out to be anything but ordinary.
(really. don't pay any attention to me. go look at the art)
The phone rings, muffled trilling sound and Jensen groans, blindly gropes around on the floor until his fingers brush across cold plastic.
"You've got five seconds to prove to me that is this worth waking me up at--" he rolls over, squints across the room at the clock on the wall, "--four in the morning."
"Is this Jensen? Jensen Ackles?" The guy on the other end of the line is panicked, his voice reaching an unlikely upper register.
Jensen sits up, tangles with the coat he'd thrown on the bed only a few short seconds before he'd thrown himself on top of it. That was two hours ago. There's a terrible sulphuric taste in his mouth like he's been chewing burnt matchsticks in his sleep and that's rarely a good sign.
"Now you've got three seconds. Time's a-wastin'."
"I think I'm in trouble," the guy says, whispering now. Still amped up.
"Never woulda guessed," Jensen tells him, but he's swinging his legs over the side of his bed. There's something about the guy's voice, this rumble in the key of desperation that makes his ears perk up and pushes back his exhaustion. "What seems to be the problem?"
"Maybe it's better if I show you." He starts to rattle off his address.
"I'm not coming back to your place," Jensen interrupts him, "at least not until we've had our first date." There's an all-night diner not too far, nice and public, anonymous. Jensen gives him the address, tells him to pick a booth in the back.
"Got it. Gimme half an hour," the guy says, then follows it up with, "How will I know it's you? How will you know it's me?"
With the phone propped on his shoulder, Jensen knuckles at his eyes. "I'll know."
Jensen rolls out of bed, yanks on his boots and stomps them straight on his feet, doesn't bother with the laces as he shuffles into the bathroom. He flips on the light, hisses, then turns it off again, brushes his teeth in the dark. The burnt taste in his mouth is stubborn and he brushes his teeth a second time. It still doesn't do the trick, so he ambles back out to the kitchen, finds the bottle of rum he's stored in the freezer, purely for occupational purposes of course, and swishes some around his mouth, hardly swallows a drop. It's still not entirely gone, but it is a little better.
There's a tap on his shoulder as he starts to leave his apartment, a cold sensation that spreads down his upper arm and along his back.
"Shit, yeah. Thanks, sweetheart," Jensen says, and the chill is immediately replaced by a slight warmth, pins and needles like when the feeling is coming back after his feet have been asleep. He spins, grabs his coat from the bed, shrugs it on and checks the pockets. In his line of work, there are a few things he should never leave home without.
The diner is a handful of short blocks away. Jensen takes a final long drag of his cigarette and exhales. The smoke he breathes out is rendered a wicked color from the blaring red neon sign that announces that the joint is always open. He flicks his smoke out onto the street and it hits with a tiny shower of orange sparks. For a second, Jensen closes his eyes and can see the afterimage, tries to cypher any sort of pattern in them. If there's one thing he's learned in his three decades on this planet, it's that omens can come in all shapes and sizes, and often do exactly that. The sparks fade before Jensen can work it out, but something tickles at the edge of his memory, something that's shoved back in a dark and dusty corner.
The meeting point is sparsely populated at this hour. A doctor slumps at one end of the counter, light blue scrubs with her badge still pinned to her collar, stuck in a blank stare at the television hanging on the wall playing an infomercial for acne. At this time, a couple of hours after last call and a couple of hours before the breakfast rush, it's a two man show, the waiter leaning companionably against the window that looks into the kitchen as he flips through a magazine and the cook busying himself at the grill.
Jensen likes this place. It doesn't put on airs, doesn't bother pretending it's anything it isn't. Cracked fake leather seats in the booths that over the years have soaked up the pervasive smell of old grease, flat fluorescent lighting that always makes everything take on a sickly yellow sort of color. It's the kind of light that doesn't make anyone look good, points out every flaw, each individual blemish. But the homemade pie is fantastic and the coffee's even better.
The waiter looks up as he enters, his expression a flash of recognition and he nods when Jensen tips him a salute. He goes by Ricky or Ritchie, something like that. Jensen's just gonna roll with it.
"Early morning or late night?" Ricky asks.
"A little of both," Jensen replies.
"He's in the back," Ricky tells him, thumb hiked over his shoulder, "can't miss him. You want the regular?"
Now it's Jensen's chance to nod, throw a wink in for good measure. He strides along the counter, takes a left into the back dining room, pictures of the distinctive Chicago skyline hanging on the wall to make up for the lack of windows. He digs around in his coat pockets until the fingers of his right hand wrap around the warm, tiny beads of his rosary and the ones in his left around cool silver.
His mark sits in the back corner, and Jensen's mouth turns down in an appreciative frown. The guy is hunched around a cup of coffee, big hands that make the mug look like it's something out of a kid's toy tea set. He looks like he got dressed in the dark, his pink shirt an awful striped affair topped off with one of those fringy hipster scarves as red and orange as a five-alarm fire. Another few seconds of staring at it and Jensen's eyes might actually start to bleed.
Without a word, Jensen slides into the booth across from him, draws the rosary from his pocket and places his silver flask on the table. He unscrews the lid and moistens his thumb as the guy holds his hand out, says his name is Jared. Rather than shake, Jensen takes him by the wrist, presses the crucifix to Jared's palm and his thumb damp with holy water to his forehead.
No reaction. Jared doesn't pull away, even though Jensen can feel the quick hammer of his pulse in his wrist. It's a good start.
"What's that all about?" Jared asks. On the surface, it appears that he's had some time to calm down, his voice settled back into a low rasp. Jensen likes the sound of it. Calm is good.
"A precaution. Old habit, whatever you wanna call it. Can't ever be too careful."
"Are you satisfied?"
"Almost," Jensen answers, and throws a capful of holy water into Jared's coffee.
"Hey. What was that?" Jared asks, and Jensen's starting to think that he only knows how to speak in questions. It happens a lot around him.
"Good ol' Windy City tap water with a little bit of in nomine patris thrown in." To prove it, Jensen takes a swig from the flask. "Perfectly safe. Like I said, there's no such thing as too careful. Drink up."
Jared reaches across the table, snatches the flask from Jensen and takes a sip, careful to look Jensen in the eye the entire time. He picks up a drop from his lip with the pad of his thumb, says, "Did I pass the test?"
"With flying colors. So to whom, or what do I owe the pleasure?"
And it really is a pleasure. This guy's very easy to look at, beneath all the fear. His face is pale below a thin layer of sweat and he's got dark smudges under his eyes, but Jensen can really get behind how his sloppy dark hair curls around his ears and the pretty shape of his mouth, pink and puffy from the nervous way he has been chewing on his lips. He keeps pulling at the sleeves of his shirt, his button down so wrinkled that it must have been sitting at the bottom of some drawer since last Easter, but it fits him well enough that Jensen can see that something very interesting is going on underneath it, strong arms and wide shoulders, a chest that tests the structural integrity of the buttons lined down the center of it.
"I need your help."
"We've pretty much established that at this point. I'm just waiting to find out why."
With a hand that's only minutely shaking, Jared undoes the button on his sleeve and pulls it up a fraction. A couple of inches upward along his forearm there's a mark, a slim curved line leading up under his sleeve, changing from a pale yellow into orange and everything's coming up the color of fire today.
"Nice ink," Jensen says, cautious, still hedging his bets. He shoves at the cuff of his coat to reveal most of his forearm, the skull etched into him that takes up much of the space between his wrist and his elbow, with an upside down cross carved into its forehead, flowers and filler all around it. A payment of a debt he owed to a vodun spirit back in the day, it's a bit of a supernatural switchboard, a bat signal. The first time it had opened its jaw and started talking to him, issuing commands and giving him coordinates, Jensen had gone on a three-day bender. He'd resented it at first but has to admit that it's sorta grown on him over the years.
"It's not ink," Jared says, and the panic is starting to rise in his voice again, tightening it. "It's not a tattoo and…" He's quick to cover his arm when the waiter shows up and delivers Jensen's coffee and brings pie for both of them, giving the guy darting, sidelong glances even though he doesn't have to bother. Ricky just wants to get back to his magazine and its advertisements for snake oil, maybe spend the rest of his shift flirting with the pretty doctor at the counter. After the waiter shuffles out of earshot, Jared white knuckles the corner of the table, leans over it and says in a harsh whisper, "And they're everywhere."
Jensen's eyebrows climb upward at the mention of everywhere, and goddamn it, he really needs to get his head in the game here. "When did they show up?" He takes a bite of pie and now he's the one licking his lips. A little slice of heaven on cheap chinet, but the distraction doesn't last long. Jensen's getting more interested by the second. This is a few notches up from rescuing preternatural kittens out of trees, tracking down cases only to discover within minutes that they'd be better handled by a psychologist rather than a parapsychologist. He's starting to think he might have a genuine pea soup situation on his hands. It's terrible form to be happy about this. He is anyway.
Jared licks his lips again, soft pink tongue flicking out against the bottom one and leaving it wet and shiny, and Jensen's slammed with the sudden urge to do it for him, settles for licking his fork instead.
"About an hour before I called you."
"And what were you doing an hour before that? Did you trip across something you wanna tell me about? Maybe an interesting book in your local new age shop? Felt like trying out a love charm or two? Dabbling in the dark hereafter, a grudge against your boss? Perhaps thought about sticking a few pins into a doll?"
"No." Jared screws his face up like he's just smelled something terrible. "I don't
know what you're talking about." And now he's shoving his fingers through his hair and letting it fall back into his face, and well. He's kinda fucking adorable, which sadly has nothing to do with the job at hand. Jensen takes a deep breath, mentally curses his one-track heart.
"Methinks the lady doth protest too much," Jensen says, but his gears are grinding. Jared woke up at three in the morning and there's something to that. There's a lot to that, if fact.
"Listen," Jared goes on. "I didn't do anything. I'm not anybody. I work in IT, spend all day everyday listening to the people on the floors above me bitch and moan, and asking if they've tried turning it off and turning it on again. Then I come home and eat something I pulled out of the microwave. I pay my rent on time, read bestsellers, go to the gym a few times a week like you're supposed to, make sure to call my grandmother every single godforsaken Sunday. There's nothing interesting about me. I'm nobody."
"Well, there's someone out there who wouldn't agree with that. Or something. Finish your pie and we'll head back to my place."
"What?" Jared blinks, tips his head to the side and reminds Jensen of a particularly puzzled puppy.
"It's too good to waste."
"Not that," Jared gives him a sweet little smile. He's still incredibly freaked, but it seems like he's settling into it, accepting it as his new permanent state of being. Jensen can relate. "That thing you said before, about the first date."
"The pie's on me. That counts, right?" Jensen says with a shrug. "How did you get my number anyway? My services aren't the type of thing that you find in the phonebook."
"The internet," Jared supplies. "It's not just made for porn nowadays."
Belly full of pie and feeling somewhat more alert for the caffeine and the sugar, Jensen leads him toward his place. Jared walks close to his side, elbows bumping and knuckles brushing every few steps, even though the sidewalk is virtually empty. The guy's still speaking almost primarily in questions, wants to know if Jensen has seen anything like this before, how he got into the business, whether it's actually a business at all.
Jensen grunts his way through the answers, doesn't want to let loose too much information. There are ears everywhere, seen and unseen, and if he has some hardwired paranoid tendencies, it's not without reason.
"This is you? I've seen this place from the train. Always thought it was condemned." Jared says when they stop in front of an iron gate and Jensen punches in his code on a small box on the wall. It's nondescript, a big brick box of a building with chipped up, unreadable lettering on the side of it. Used to be a factory where they refined sugar and made candy before the city slid from blue collar to white. Jensen sometimes thinks he can still smell it in the air, sickly sweet.
Jensen sniffs, opens the gate and sweeps his arm, welcoming Jared through the entrance. "It's nicer on the inside. Well. A bit nicer." The factory offers little in the way of creature comforts, but Jensen's always been a fan of exposed brick and it's solidly built, thick floors and metal bones underneath it all, soundproofed so there's no bothering the neighbors with his odd hours.
The city is only starting to wake up and the sun is a vague hint on the horizon, a hazy reflection on the metal and glass of those distant, towering cathedrals to human ingenuity in the financial district. Jensen lives on the shorter, not so ritzy side of town, although he could probably afford better by now. He's more comfortable in the places they don't put in the guidebooks, likes to stay closer to his usual clientele. Always has been more at home in the back rooms and dive bars, all those places where they don't ask for identification and aren't interested in his story.
He ushers Jared into a dinosaur of an elevator, punches in another key code, clangs shut the gate and yanks on an ancient lever to take them to the third floor. The steel door to his apartment is a riveted iron original. It's also warded, layers and layers of symbols that are invisible unless you know the right way to look.
Jared pauses, tents his fingers on the door for a second like he's got a hunch that there's more to it than what is readily apparent, then steps into his apartment. He spins in a slow pirouette, takes in the stacks of books piled high in the corners, the herbs and potions lined up like soldiers on the counters, Jensen's collection of spell boxes collecting dust on his shelves. Even though the room is big, all open space sectioned off with knee walls here and there, and windows as tall as Jensen, it seems smaller with Jared in it. More crowded than it should.
"How are you doing?" Jensen asks. "Lightheaded? Nauseated? Feeling the sudden urge to speak in tongues?"
"No," Jared says, impatient. "I mean, I'm tired and I don't think my pulse has dropped below one-fifty in the last three hours, but other than that..."
"I know how you feel," Jensen tells him honestly. "You get used to it."
There's a stand mirror on one wall that has nothing to do with vanity. If anything, Jensen usually avoids his own reflection, doesn't like the way things tend to shift and morph in the background. It's useful though, serves to show him stuff he might otherwise miss. He waves Jared over to it, settles onto the arm of his couch and taps out a cigarette from his pack, holds it out and offers one to Jared.
"I don't smoke," Jared tells him.
"Yeah, me neither," Jensen lies and lights one up, spends a few moments staring at the flame from his lighter before snapping it closed. "Alright, show me the goods."
Jared faces the mirror while Jensen looks on, drops his scarf and his outer layer then picks up his undershirt at the hip and stretches it across his body. Strange symbols are etched all over his chest, more of them on his back. A sigil made of three intersecting lines curl around his navel. Lines and lines of archaic script follow the curve of his hipbones. Others are scrawled along his right bicep, and one in particular scratches at the edges of Jensen's memory, just out of reach. His left arm has remained curiously unmarked. He unhooks his belt and drops his pants. More script lines up along his thighs, disappears under the leg of his boxers. Two symbols take up the tops of his feet. There's no order to them, no discernable pattern. They're horrifying. Morbidly fascinating. Beautiful.
"Wait a minute, it gets worse." Jared paces across the room, switches off the lights and now his skin is downright pyrotechnic. The layers of script pulse gently, silver and red and orange, like the kid has fireflies under his skin, glow sticks instead of blood.
Jensen whistles low as he sweeps his gaze across Jared's form. It's a hell of a show, heavy on the hell part. He says it because he has to, because sarcasm is his default, just as much as paranoia and precaution. "Did you try turning it off and turning it on again?"
Shoulders slumped, Jared turns to him. So very tired, incredibly lost, and Jensen feels his heart snag in his chest.
"I have some valium around here somewhere. You should get some sleep." Jensen crosses the room, keeps his eyes fixed doggedly on Jared and tries to ignore the mirror, and more specifically the shifting blue aura he sees all around Jared, small tendrils of color branching out like solar flares, reaching toward him. He digs his fingers into Jared's upper arms. "Don't worry. I'm gonna help you."
Jared sorta falls into him, a positive magnet caught in the pull of a negative one. His skin is hot under Jensen's hands and his nose is cold where it's buried into Jensen's neck. Jensen is awkward, out of his element while holds Jared close, pats him on the back.
"We'll figure it out," Jensen assures him, holds him at arm's length for another long look, then goes to find his sketchpad.
"Yeah, yeah," Jensen says, distracted. His deck of tarot cards has fallen, scattered all over and he picks them up, gives them an idle shuffle and drops them to the table. Before Jensen's even a couple of steps away, three cards are whisked from the top and land on the floor. The one closest to him depicts a heart floating against a dangerous sky, three swords pierced through the center of it. The next is the tower, never a good sign. Jensen flips over the third to find the lovers, all hand-holding and flower crowns.
"That's very funny," Jensen says to thin air and feels something skitter down his neck, soft and hardly there, akin to warm spider webs. "Why don't you make yourself useful?"
"Who are you talking to?" Jared's leaning against the wall, his voice a sleepy, dry croak. His hair is corkscrewed and his jeans are rumpled. He's squinting into the late afternoon sunlight and lines from Jensen's pillow criss-cross his face. He's a fucking mess and he's gorgeous in an infuriating, effortless way.
Jensen's knee-jerk reaction is to lie. "No one," followed a breath later by, "My ghost."
Jared just stands there, reactionless. Jensen figures that waking up with your body covered in day-glow tattoos probably makes a person not particularly sweat the small stuff.
"No, not my ghost. A ghost. The ghost. She came with the place, and right now she's being singularly unhelpful. Anyway," Jensen goes on, waving an arm toward the kitchen, "coffee. Orange juice. Day old lo mein."
"Can you see her?" Jared asks after a beat.
"Not particularly. Only the occasional shimmer." Jensen shrugs, shoves at his sleeves. Jared makes him run hot. "Mostly she comes across as an idea. Like…a thought process, a nudge, reminding me of things I might otherwise forget."
"How do you know it's a woman?"
"Sometimes I come home and the house smells like rosewater, and most of the time she's smarter than me in every single way. That's how."
Jared hums, stands frozen for a while, staring at the mess of books and charts strewn all over, at the whiteboard Jensen set up a few hours ago and subsequently filled with scribble, the tangled web of red string connecting the dots.
"I didn't know that people actually used those things in the real world. Thought they only showed up in police procedurals."
Under his breath, Jensen says, "The real world just got a little stranger, and that's saying something." Louder, he continues, "Spare toothbrush in the medicine chest. Towels, whatever. I'd like to go back to your place later, take a look around." As Jared turns toward the bathroom, he calls after him, "Where were you born, anyhow?"
"San Antonio," Jared answers.
"Anywhere close to the Alamo?"
"No. The suburbs. The other side of town. Why?"
"I thought it might give us a clue. The Alamo's got some bad juju."
Jared circles around him, steaming cups of coffee in each hand. Jensen takes the one in his left, some strange superstition at work that he doesn't want to think too closely about. The coffee tastes different, stronger than Jensen usually makes it, yet sweeter somehow.
Spotting Jensen's raised eyebrow, Jared says, "Cinnamon. Or at least I hope it was cinnamon. You've got a lot of weird stuff in there. That one jar, ah, those aren't really eyes of newt, are they?"
"Frogs," Jensen corrects him. "Don't believe the hype. You didn't…" he trails off, peering into his coffee.
Jared grins, bright and full out and Jensen wishes he'd met him years ago, before all this.
"No. Just cinnamon. Makes it less bitter." Jared combs his fingers through his hair, slicks it back from his face but a few stubborn damp strands still fall forward and Jensen itches to tuck them back for him. Jensen's gotta hold it together, can't seem to get over the smell of his soap on Jared's skin. It wakes up something possessive and protective that he'd thought had shriveled away from disuse a long time ago. "Have you gotten anywhere?"
"You're not gonna like it."
"I already don't like it. What could make it worse?"
"Alright, first rule. Never ask that question. It can always get worse."
"What's the second rule?"
"Eh. We'll find out. I kinda make them up as I go along. You can say they're sort of a customized, case-by-case thing. Anyway, c'mere." He taps Jared's hip and Jared goes with it immediately, lifts his shirt over his head and keeps his arms up to expose the long stretch of his torso. Jensen brushes his fingers along the lines of the symbol on Jared's ribs, and it seems to respond to his touch, glow a little brighter. Jensen snaps his hand back fast.
"Do that again," Jared says, and when Jensen does as he's told, he whispers, "It's warm."
"Say again? My hand?"
"Yeah, that, but it's more. Like I can feel it inside somehow. Under my skin, right below the surface."
"Interesting," Jensen muses. He touches Jared's thigh, fingers spread wide, feels Jared's muscles jump through his jeans. "How about now?"
"There has to be direct contact. And this is even more interesting," Jensen continues, flipping through a couple of pages on his table and handing a sheet of parchment over to Jared. "Look familiar?"
"I really wish it didn't." Jared's eyes go wide and he subconsciously scratches at his stomach, directly over the same mark on his skin.
"Have you noticed anyone fighting more around you? Folks acting out of character? Dogs yapping, cats hissing?"
Jared shakes his head. "Why?"
Tracing the mark on Jared's stomach again, Jensen says, "That's Phaleg. Bringer of Discontent, and one mean-spirited sonofabitch. The small one on the back of your shoulder is Zablah, pretty low in the hierarchy. Half the texts say that he's a lawyer of Hell and the other half say he's in love with Orion. They all say he's a real snappy dresser, though." Jensen fans out a few more papers, follows a long red thread running from an open page of a bestiary to his whiteboard and taps his knuckle on one of the drawings he's made from Jared's forearm. "Zepar. You should probably stay away from pregnant women." He double-checks a few notes on the board. "The good news is I don't think you're ever gonna get sick again. Or at least you'll never run a fever."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Jared says, a soft vibration in his voice. He hugs his arms snug across his chest and it's not because he's cold. "And I really, really need to know what you're talking about."
"They're sigils, Jared. Very, very old sigils. Haven't figured out the script yet. Nothing I have around here matches the alphabets, but it looks repetitive." He sucks in a deep breath, wishes that the info he's about to deliver didn't leave such a shitty taste in his mouth. "What we're looking at is a sort of demonic message board."
"So much for candy-coating it," Jared says, and follows it up with a high-pitched giggle that sounds manic, nearly unhinged.
"Candy-coating never did anyone any good," Jensen points out. "No matter what, it still tastes like medicine on the inside."
"Is it all real?"
With most of his cases, Jensen likes to tiptoe around this question, spoon-feed facts and figures, but when he looks at Jared he sees a six and a half foot deadline.
"Yeah," Jensen says. "Most of it anyway. There are things out there that you can't even imagine. More that you don't even want to imagine, and some of those things have hooked themselves to you."
"Why not?" Jensen shoots back. "That's the thing about people—they're always trying to shoehorn sense into a situation that is never going to make any. They're demons, they don't need a reason. There's hardly ever a why, but there's almost always a what, and sometimes a when. Now we just have to figure out what they want or what they're trying to say."
"Okay," Jared says, then under his breath, "They never covered this sort of stuff in vacation bible school." He straightens his spine, puts some steel into it and Jensen's heart cracks a little. Hairline fractures everywhere. "Whatever I need to do, I'll do it."
"First, I'd like you to take me back to your place. Then we gotta go see a lady about a thing."
As Jared pulls his shirt on, Jensen's eyes catch on one of the marks on his arm. Two crescent moons attached by a thin, tenuous cross. It's Jensen's Rosetta stone, the symbol that showed him the path to unlocking the rest, and nothing but bad news. Through and through.
Two people get into a shouting match over a seat in an almost empty train.
Jared and Jensen walk down the sidewalk to Jared's apartment to the discordant yowl of car horns.
As soon as they enter the building, they hear the sound of breaking glass and the incessant yap of some small dog on the ground floor.
"They're always so quiet," Jared says. "I didn't know that anyone even had a dog."
"Hate to break it to you, but—" Jensen starts as he follows Jared into the stairwell.
Jared cuts him off. "It's me. The marks. I get it. They're getting stronger. I feel it, like a…a pulse. What I don't get is why it doesn't seem to have any effect on you."
"To tell you the truth, beats me. But if that changes, feel free to take me down. Knock me out. I won't hold it against you." Jared's got a few inches and at least twenty pounds on him, arms like a goddamn prizefighter. It wouldn't take much.
"Nah. Reckon I'd tie you down instead. Don't wanna damage that pretty face of yours."
"Yeah, you say that now," Jensen says, tries to laugh it off, but there's something inside of him that wants it to be true, is scared to death that it might be.
It looks like Jared was right. Everything about his place is almost astoundingly normal, boring as Wonder bread; drab beige walls and unassuming neutral carpet, a place for everything and everything in its place. Jared keeps a clean house, has a huge television like most other red-blooded American men and every stick of furniture looks like it was ordered out of an IKEA catalogue. A poster of the Chicago transit system hangs on his wall and photos of family on his shelves sit beside his library of Grisham, Cussler and King. The same young woman appears over and over again in the photographs, and Jensen nurses a small stab of regret until he realizes that she and Jared share a smile, the same swoop of a nose.
"Have you called your sister yet?" Jensen asks.
"No way. Not gonna," Jared answers in a way that sounds like he's half scared of her. "She'd think I've gone nuts, or worse, wanna fly out here to check me out herself."
Jensen pokes around the place, under couch cushions and around the windowsills, turns on the water in the kitchen and takes a taste, then rifles through the collection of khakis in Jared's closet. Demons can manifest in a thousand different ways. He's not sure exactly what he's looking for, only knows that he's not finding it.
The entire time, Jared is his shadow, uncomfortable in his own home, twitchy and jumping at every small noise, every creak in the floor, each muffled, muted shout from his neighbors.
"Do you have rooftop access?" Jensen asks. He's grasping at thin air, looking for a pattern, however unlikely.
"Jensen, turn around," Jared says from behind him, and there's something about his inflection, something slow and careful that makes the hair stand up on the back of Jensen's neck.
He spins to find Jared a few steps away, clammy sweat shiny on his skin. Jared's got his sight fixed on the floor, on a patch of nothing at Jensen's feet.
"Tell me what you're seeing," Jensen whispers, and the taste of burnt matchsticks is back, stronger than ever.
"I'm not sure." Jared licks his lips, breathes through his mouth, nostrils flared like there's not enough air in the room. "It's like I can't see it if I'm looking straight at it."
"Then look away," Jensen tells him, walking slowly into Jared's bedroom. He needs a different way of looking at the situation. A new angle to see what Jared can see.
"Don't worry about me," Jensen insists. "And don't be scared. Something is just coming out to play."
Jared's following him, matching him step for painfully slow step. "Yeah, 'cause that's not freaky at all."
Jensen edges toward the mirror on Jared's closet door. Years ago, when Jensen was still very wet behind the ears, he'd spent a few months hanging around an old druid, a genuine tree-hugger, brown cloak and rope belt, the whole nine. Stereotypical in nearly every way, but the old guy had taught him a few neat tricks. Jensen pulls one of them out of his bag, stares into the mirror and lets his eyes focus in a different way, looks through it rather than into it and what he sees isn't pretty.
Jared's behind him, still zeroed in on his feet and now Jensen knows why. There's something slithering around them, between them, a shadow cutting a path in a figure-eight. As Jensen stares, it gets thicker, more opaque, a huge black snake moving in the shape of infinity. Out of the corner of his eye, Jensen sees another long, thin shadow drip from under the blankets on Jared's bed and it joins with the first, gets absorbed, and the swirling mass around Jensen's feet doubles in size, reaches up to his ankles, moves with him as he widens his feet.
"There's more," Jared says, throat working as he swallows. "Three. No…no. Five coming your way."
"Look at me. Don't look at anything but me," Jensen says.
It doesn't get any better when he meets Jared's eyes in the mirror. A form is twined all around Jared, the mass of it at his back. It's hazy but gaining strength, becoming more corporeal. It looks less like a demon and more like someone's idea of a demon, a head like a goat, claws for fingers clutched into the meat of Jared's shoulders, a tail as long as its body wrapped around one of his legs, prehensile feet gripping him at the hips. As Jensen watches, it shifts, smooth and serpentine. It sniffs at Jared's upper arm, opens its mouth and flicks its long, forked tongue against the symbol on his bicep.
It's all the information Jensen needs. He reaches into his pocket, finds a small, slim vial, uncaps it, gets his fingers wet, glances at Jared's skin for reference and starts to paint. A starburst pattern. Crosses. Small circles.
"What is that?" Jared asks between gritted teeth, his jaw locked down tight. He scratches at the symbol on his arm, evidently unaware of the tongue slipping between his fingers.
"It's my blood, with a little bit of this and that mixed in. Keep looking at me."
"No, not that. The smell. It's like…like my grandmother's attic. Something I can almost remember. I can taste it."
Jensen's nearly done. One more quick check to be sure and his stomach lurches as the beast licks up Jared's throat, long black tongue winding around his neck. "I want you to turn around," he says calmly. "There's something on your back."
Jared meets his eyes in the mirror, sharp and piercing and it hits Jensen like a physical blow, a punch to the jaw that he didn’t see coming. Jared’s hands are clenched into fists at his sides and the tendons in his neck are standing out. "I know," Jared says, voice flat, then spins on his heels as neat as a parade day soldier. "Go ahead. Do it."
"I'm addressing the entity," Jensen starts, but pulls up short. The shadowy snakes around his legs are gaining momentum, spinning faster and faster and reaching half-way to his knees. Jensen thinks he hears the dry rasp of their scales, feels a chill along his lower legs. "You know what? Fuck it. I know your name, and that doesn't usually turn well for you, does it?"
The thing swivels its head around until it's regarding Jensen upside down, a dead reptilian stare and its tongue still flicking, tasting the air. Jensen pulls out his zippo, gets distracted by the perfect reproduction of his bloody thumbprint on its scratched silver surface, then snaps it open.
"Are you paying attention?" Jensen says. All it takes is a small shower of sparks to ignite the sigil. Jensen's disoriented, for a few moments can't tell the difference between reality and mirage, gets stuck in the sliver of space between the actuality of the flames and the reflection of them, but the tearing wail of the creature is real enough and so is the cold stab as the long, ropy shadows are yanked up from around Jensen's legs. The beast is flung from Jared's back as if caught in a very specific whirlwind that sucks it toward the mirror, narrows it down to the diameter of the sigil. A sound like a huge sucking vaccuum that makes the fillings in Jensen's teeth rattle then there's nothing. Silence. Even the yapping dog has shut up. There's a flicker inside of the mirror and Jensen elbows it hard to splinter it, trap the thing on the other side.
The lighter is still burning and starting to heat up, so Jensen makes use of it, rummages in his jacket for a smoke, lights it and takes a deep drag. The whole thing has taken less than ten seconds. Feels a lot longer than that.
"You knew," Jensen says.
Jared's bent at the waist, breathing fast. "Yeah, almost from the start. I think...I think it followed us in," he pants.
"That's why you were so jumpy," Jensen says. It's not a question.
Lifting one shoulder up, Jared says, "Dunno."
"Why didn't you say anything?"
Another shrug. "I'm not worried about me. I don't matter. You're important. I wanted to make sure you were okay."
"You keep saying that," Jensen says, filter of his cigarette stuck between his lips, "and I'm gonna keep telling you it isn't true."
"We know who's saying it, now we need to know what they're saying." Jensen dashes along the sidewalk, long strides eating up territory, leading Jared with one hand wrapped around his elbow.
"Snakemaster, " Jared says, bent in close. His breath tickles the soft skin below Jensen’s ear, makes Jensen strengthen his grip.
"Good to know that you were paying attention." Jensen guides them through an intersection, notices how everyone on the crowded street parts in front of them, as if some base instinct to avoid them is at play. "Mid-level demon. You can compare it to some junior representative in congress. Not a lot of clout, pretty easy to take down, all things considered."
It's fully dark now, the air thick with humidity, hard to breathe. Jensen's coat is heavy on his shoulders and his skin is vaguely damp. His head is sluggish, bones filled with lead and it reminds him that he's only slept a few hours in the last couple of days.
A used bookstore takes up some prime real estate on the corner and Jensen steers them inside, locks the door behind him and flips the sign over to tell the world that it's closed. An older man is buried behind a book at the register, his scalp shiny in the low light beneath a thinning shock of white hair. He barely acknowledges them, turns up the volume on an old transistor radio at his elbow.
At the back of the store, a creaking iron staircase leads to the basement level and here the smell of old paper is even stronger than it was above. Jensen skims his hand along the brick wall to their right and his fingertips come back wet, slightly slimy. The basement is expansive, lit by a series of bare bulbs and Jensen weaves his way between shelves and stacks of boxes.
"The librarian isn't what you'd expect," Jensen warns Jared in low tones. "She's the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter. A very, very old soul."
"Howdy stranger." Jensen hears her before he sees her, follows the sound of her voice past a couple more bookshelves to a far corner of the basement. "Been wondering when you'd darken my doorstep again."
She's sitting cross-legged on the floor, one earbud in and the other dangling into her lap and the tinny sound of music blares out of it. She snaps her gum, blows an enormous pink bubble then sucks it back in again.
"Heya, kiddo," Jensen says, more a term of endearment than a nod to her age, although this particular incarnation is still very young, barely old enough to drive. He extends his hand to help her stand and immediately she steps close to Jared, abandons the scatter of manga and Teen Vogue she's left on the floor.
Glancing over her shoulder she mouths, "Score," to Jensen, then brushes off the seat of her bright sweatpants, glittery 'pink' sequined across the ass as if there could be any doubt of the color. "I'm the librarian," she says with a soft punch to Jared's shoulder and a flirty tilt to her head. "You can call me Libby."
Jared introduces himself, manages to look amazed and intimidated at the same time. Smart man.
"Got a job for you, Lib," Jensen says, and bends to draw a coin out of his boot. It's a denarius, the image of Marcus Arelius nearly rubbed off over time. Priceless, but Jensen learned long ago to never approach her without a suitable token. He flips it to her and she catches it, tucks it safely into her tank top.
"I'm all yours," Libby says with a coy little curve to her mouth. "Where is it?"
"Right here," Jared says, already unbuttoning his shirt enough to pull it over his head.
As more and more of Jared's skin is exposed, Libby's expression changes, becomes blank. Clinical. She circles around him slowly, touches lines of script here and there on Jared's chest, his hips. She blinks and for a second her eyes flash silver and when she speaks it's with at least three distinct voices, all in unison.
"Do you know what these are?" Libby asks.
"Demon signs," Jensen provides.
"Hmm." She's still pacing around Jared, toying with the end of her blond ponytail. "I was afraid you might say that."
After one more orbit, Libby stops in front of him. Her smile is warm and the hand she raises to Jared's cheek is gentle, maternal. "Oh dear, you are something else, aren't you? I'm sorry. I’m so sorry."
"It's repetitive. I got that much," Jensen says.
"A conversation, yes. But they're all saying the same thing. I am coming. Over and over and over in different handwriting. I am coming." Libby touches the writing surrounding one pictogram. Two crescent moons connected with a cross. "Except this one," she says, talking faster, the layers of her voices peeling away until only Libby's original one is left. "This one just changed. I have arrived. I have arrived. I have arrived."
Jensen's blood freezes. "We're leaving."
"I can hide you," Libby says, and curls her fists into Jensen's coat.
"You are a treasure, Lib," Jensen tells her, and plants a kiss on her forehead. "Go underground. We can't lose you."
"We can't lose him. He's knowledge, and that's something that we're going to need very, very badly," she says, urgent. Rising up on her tiptoes, she whispers into Jensen's ear, "That blank spot in the center of his back…"
"I'm well aware."
They're so close. Two blocks away. If they'd left sooner they would have made it. If they'd run faster.
Jensen feels it before he sees it. A blast like a concussion, like breaking the sound barrier and he only just registers Jared's "What the…" before he's flung into the wall of the alleyway and barely manages to roll into the fall. Gravity can't seem to make up its mind. Jensen struggles to his feet and grapples blindly for something to steady himself, finds the solid, warm scaffold of Jared's arms on either side of his body, caging him in.
It takes a few for his vision to clear and his ears to stop ringing, and when they do, Jared's talking to him, repeating his name, a fraction above a whisper. A hollow footfall echoes in the alley and that's something that makes it through loud and clear.
"It's lovely to see you again." It's a voice that sounds like it's been dragged over gravel, one that Jensen recognizes immediately. All at once it shoots him backward ten years. All he can see is an attic room and a girl with a torn-up, filthy nightgown crouching in the rafters. Her hair had been so black it almost looked blue, her eyes too green to be real.
"How is she, anyhow?" The thing is approaching, footsteps getting closer. "I miss her. I really wish you'd given me the chance to finish what I'd started. Do you miss her?"
"There's nothing left to miss," Jensen mutters, although it makes no sense. She'd been his first exorcism, a young girl that Jensen had managed to save but ended up not doing her any favors at all. She's still alive, institutionalized since the age of eleven. Basic motor functions but anything more than that has been turned to mush. His biggest mistake.
"Come back," Jared says, palming Jensen's jaw with his huge hands, swiping his thumbs beneath his eyes. He shoots a glance over his shoulder. "Another congressman?"
Shaking his head, Jensen croaks, "More like a secretary of defense. Fucking Rumsfeld." He catches sight of it and goddamn the thing's playing dirty. Long black hair. Bright green eyes. A wicked smile that splits her small face in half. It's enough to bring Jensen back to the here and now and he pats down his pockets. Holy water will only piss it off, like trying to take an eight hundred pound gorilla down with a slingshot. It can turn a rosary into dust with a blink. Jensen knows from experience.
"Do you think about her?" the thing's saying. "I bet you think about her all the time." It fixes its sight on Jared and it grins harder, impossibly wide. "Thanks for the announcement by the way. Very kind of you."
It's closer now. Almost close enough to touch. Jensen's all outta tricks. There's nothing up his sleeve.
"Stop," Jared says, palm forward like some kind of insane traffic cop and the other arm thrown protectively across Jensen's chest.
"Oh, he's cute. Fucking adorable. I can't wait to introduce him to the rest of the gang. Once they arrive, of course."
It's a last ditch effort, a hail mary throw if ever there was one. The spell is the oldest Jensen's ever come across. Provenience and language unknown, the last words of a dying man. Jensen had eaten the man's sins in payment, added them to his collection and secured the man a spot in a heaven that Jensen has never truly believed in. He wavers through the first few phrases, presses his forehead to Jared's spine, eyes squeezed shut as he struggles to remember the series of nonsense sounds, scared beyond measure that he doesn't have the juice to pull it off.
The demon stops its approach, cocks its head to the side, takes a hesitant step backward because Jared has taken over where Jensen faltered, strong and commanding, tongue tripping across the phrases as if the language is a living, breathing thing. The demon tries to speak but there's only smooth skin where its pretty bow of a mouth used to be. It shakes its little girl's head, tries to scream then tries to run. Jared's got it wrapped up tight, though, has it bound within the spellwork.
Jensen finds his place within the litany and joins Jared, their pace and inflection a perfect match. The air around them crackles, blue-white sparks the color of lightning that makes the fine hair all over his body stand on end, then finally a thunderclap so strong that Jensen's teeth click together.
"Fuck me, I think it worked," Jensen says. "It's ours now."
Jared's peering at the demon, newly rendered puny and weak, thrashing against invisible bonds. A dark curiosity shines in his eyes and a slow grin spreads across his face and Jensen's higher thought processes are misfiring because he doesn't think he's every encountered someone so beautiful in his life.
"What should we do with it?" Jared asks, and taps his finger thoughtfully on his lips.
"It's Stygal. The bringer of death. I think it needs to go back to where it came from. Maybe spend a little time doing its job."
Jared circles his arm around Jensen's waist, and strangely enough, Jensen's fine with that. Sorta likes Jared propping him up. "You heard the guy."
There's a bright red flash, a momentary afterimage and a soft pop, and just like that, it's gone.
"Well," Jared chuckles, "that was anticlimactic."
Jensen spends the short two-block walk back to his apartment shoving Jared off, knocking his hands away. Jared spends it poking and prodding at Jensen's ribs, checking his skull for lumps, asking him repeatedly if he's alright.
Jensen gives Jared a snarl that he doesn't really mean and tells him to punch the code into the box.
"It's my birthday," Jared says with a lopsided smile.
"What? Today?" Jensen asks and fuck it, he must have fallen in deep when he wasn't paying attention, because on top of everything else, he's wondering if he has the stuff to make a goddamn birthday cake. Full-time dabbler in the netherworld, part-time exorcist and now he might as well add happy homemaker to his resume.
"No. Your code."
"Hell of a coincidence," Jensen says, collapsing against the wall of the elevator.
"I'm starting to think that there's no such thing."
Yanking the gate open and letting them into his place, Jensen says, "So. Back there. How did you know the incantation?" He chooses the door to collapse against this time, flips the light switch, groans and turns it off again.
"I knew it because you knew it," Jared tells him. Easy, like it's the simplest thing in the world. He steps close to Jensen and his tattoos pulsate, bright to dim then bright again under the thin material of his shirt. "You're in my head. I like you in there."
"Sounds kinda dirty," Jensen says. Their boots knock together. An inch of space separates them and it must be the free fall from the adrenaline rush, but even that seems like too much right now.
"It isn't." Jared slides his hand up along the side of Jensen's neck, traces the angle of his jaw. "It could be." He dips his head down, breathes out into Jensen's mouth as Jensen breathes in.
Time stretches out, long and thin as Jared brushes their noses together. It snaps back into place fast as soon as Jensen pushes up against him and pulls him down the rest of the way, snags their mouths together and licks inside, kisses him deep and filthy right from the start.
It's fumbling and needy, the way that Jensen shoves at Jared's shirt, pops the buttons off and sends them skittering across the floor. He's desperate to get his hands on more of Jared's skin, this time with an entirely new kind of intent. Jared moans into Jensen's mouth, sucks at his lips and sets his teeth into them, sharp little stabs that have Jensen's head swimming, his dick thick and damp in his shorts.
"Warm," Jared murmurs when Jensen gets his hands up his shirt, splays them wide on Jared's lower back.
A thought floats to the surface through the haze that's taken over Jensen's head. "Earlier, with the librarian. Was it warm for her, too?"
Jared's smile is small, handed over like a secret. "No. It only works with you."
That sends a shock through Jensen's system, a wave of heat all over his skin, beneath his skin, and he wonders if that's what Jared feels, if it's even close.
He can't get Jared to his bed fast enough, trips across his apartment in a tangle of boots and jeans, only stops kissing Jared long enough to pull his own shirt over his head. The bed groans as Jensen falls into it, groans again when he yanks Jared down on top of him.
Jared's heavy in his lap, a perfect weight pinning him down on the mattress. The sigils are glowing brighter, faster. Jensen hugs him tight and keeps him there so he can press his tongue against the pulse point in Jared's throat, tries to time it to the glow of the symbols on his skin. It's not a perfect match, more like syncopation, one beat the shadow of the other.
Pressing his thumb against Jensen's wrist, Jared says, "It's your heartbeat. Not mine." He kisses Jensen's palm, places it on his belly and lines it up against the intersecting half-circles there. He starts in on a slow grind, rubs his ass up and down along the hard length of Jensen's cock and Jensen bucks up, strains against Jared's weight.
The angle is terrible, but Jensen yanks at Jared's boxers, manages to get them down enough to get a hand on Jared's dick, long and curved and obscenely wet. Jensen works him, feels Jared become even harder as his hips work more urgently, hitch unevenly forward and back.
Jared arches his spine and writhes against Jensen's cock, heat bleeding through the thin cotton of his boxers. His head's thrown back and his throat's on vulnerable display, sweat coursing down his temples as he offers himself entirely to Jensen, like he has from the start. His dick twitches massively in Jensen's hand as he comes, shoots thick strings of spunk all over Jensen's chest, his mouth slack and his throat working with a long, low sigh.
He falls forward and kisses Jensen again, rubs his cock alongside Jensen's, perfectly filthy and wet until Jensen's shivering through his orgasm, clutching at the small of Jared's back, blissfully lost.
The bed coils trill as Jared flops down on his back, an arm dangling over the edge of the mattress. Jensen catches his breath long enough to light a smoke, and Jared steals it from between his lips.
"You don't smoke," Jensen says and lights himself another.
"Extenuating circumstances," Jared explains. "Besides, neither do you."
Jared's flat out on his stomach, the near constant lines of worry that have made their mark as definitely as the brands on his skin are smooth for now. Nothing has disappeared. Jensen straddles his thighs, gets off on the strong feel of them beneath his own and spends time tracing the marks on Jared's back with his fingertip, watches as the sun rises and paints Jared's skin golden all over.
Jensen's waiting, holding a one-man vigil, a strange, insomniac sharpness to everything. As Jensen looks on, a new mark starts to form, and Jensen's fascinated by it, watches it cut into Jared's skin while Jared sleeps on, unaffected and unaware. It's coming. It's a big one. End times big.
By the time the sun has reached the top of Jensen's window, Jared is starting to stir, stretching massively. Jensen buries his nose in Jared's shoulder before handing him a cup of coffee and for one stretched out moment in time everything seems normal. Serene. Like any other day.
Jensen doesn't tell him about the recent addition. Let him drink his coffee, maybe have some pancakes. They deserve an hour off.
Jared joins him at the window, hooks his chin over Jensen's shoulder and curls one arm around his middle, finds Jensen's hand and loosely links their fingers together. Jensen's never been the type to hold hands, usually that's a hanging offense, but Jensen's feeling charitable this morning, so he lets it slide.
All too soon, the bizarreness kicks in as Jared says, "At least they haven't shown up on my forehead or anything."
"I don't think they're going to. Demons crave attention. I mean, they also like a little bit of destruction to go along with it of course, but how are you supposed to pay attention to them if your face is all marked up and you can't leave the apartment?" Softer, he goes on, "If I could take your place, I would."
"I like you right where you are." Jared's sigh falls on Jensen's neck, and a moment later so does his mouth. "It's a brave new world out there."
"You don't know that half of it," Jensen says, and leans back against Jared's chest, lets the warmth of Jared's skin overtake him. "And you just might be the one to save it."
Thanks for reading. Now go look at the effing astounding art again.