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Ours is a Reciprocal Gravitation Orbit

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Ours is a Reciprocal Gravitation Orbit


Summer, 1989

Jared scowled as he buried his Spiderman figurine under a bucket of sand. “You’ll never defeat me, Spiderman!” he growled. “I am Sandman; your spider-powers are no match for me!” He dug his hand into the sand and brought the action figure to the surface, just the head, and changed his tone. “We’ll see about that, Sandman!” he crowed in Spiderman’s voice, and then made sound effect noises like Spiderman was casting his webbing. Spiderman pulled himself out of the sand (with accompanying grunts and straining) and swung over to the top of the railroad tie that was holding the sand in the box.

Next to the railroad tie was a foot, which definitely hadn’t been there a moment ago. There was someone standing right next to Jared, just outside the sandbox, and he looked up to see a boy who seemed a little older than Jared. He had light green eyes, freckles, floppy sandy-blond hair, and was smiling at him.

“Uh…” Jared said stupidly, feeling a blush creep up his neck. This kid looked friendly and… cool, there was no other way to describe him, and Jared felt like a total eight-and-three-quarters-year-old dork who still plays with toys.

“Hi!” the boy said, still smiling. “Is that Spiderman?” He sounded excited.

Jared looked down at the figurine in his hand, then back up at the boy, and didn’t feel so dumb anymore. “Yeah!” he grinned. “I have the Sandman and the Green Goblin, too!” Jared picked up the other action figures and lifted them up in the air to show the boy.

The kid sat down on the railroad tie, so Jared didn’t have to look up at him anymore. “Cool! I love Spiderman, but my Mom keeps getting me Transformers stuff. Which is okay, but I like Spiderman better.”

“Me, too!” Jared grinned at him and let the boy hold the Green Goblin and his Glider.

“How come you’re playing all by yourself?” the boy asked.

“My sister’s going to a birthday party,” Jared said and let out a long-suffering sigh. He pointed across the park to his Mom, who was currently surrounded by a dozen five-year-old girls who were having a tea party or playing dress-up or pretending to be My Little Ponies or whatever weird stuff little girls did at birthday parties. “My brother is old enough to get out of coming, but I couldn’t.”

“Oh,” the boy said. “I have a little sister, too, and she is so annoying sometimes.”

“Totally,” Jared agreed. He loved Meggie, but she was such a baby.

The other boy just grinned at him for a moment, then dropped down into the sandbox with Jared. “So can I hang out with you?”

Jared’s smile got even bigger. His family had just moved to New Braunsfels, Texas from San Antonio, and he hadn’t made any friends yet. His brother Jeff had quickly bonded with some older kids up the street, and Meggie had summer kindergarten and had immediately made friends with all the girls in her class, but Jared just hadn’t met any kids his age yet. And school wouldn’t start for another couple of months, so he’d been pretty lonely. Especially now that his dog Boots was gone. So Jared really wanted to be friends with this boy who seemed totally awesome. “Yeah! I’m Jared!” he exclaimed. “Jared Padalecki. What’s your name?”

The boy scowled. “I hate my name. It’s a stupid name. Who gives their kid a last name for a first name?”

Jared wasn’t sure what to say about that. “It can’t be that bad,” he tried. “This girl at my old school, Jamie? Her last name was Wilfahrt. Now that would suck to have as a first name.”

The boy sniggered, and his green eyes sparkled in the sunlight. “Wilfahrt?!” He broke into loud giggles and rolled onto his side on the railroad tie, clutching his stomach. “Will… fart!” he gasped between cackles.

Jared sniggered, grinning at the guy who was laughing so hard. “I know! She was nice, but her name was harsh.”

The kid sat back up, still chuckling a little. “Oh man, that would suck so hard to have as a first name. My first name isn’t that bad, but I like my middle name better. It’s an actual first name.”

“Alright, what’s your middle name?” Jared asked. He was still really curious, but if this boy would be his friend, then Jared would call him by whatever name he wanted.

“Ross.” Ross looked over at Jared and smiled. “Hi Jared, I’m Ross Ackles. Wanna be friends?”

Jared grinned so big he swore it hit his ears. “Yeah!” He shoved his hand out to Ross, whose face lit up with his smile.

“Awesome,” Ross said, shaking Jared’s hand.

Jared’s palm felt warm where Ross’s skin touched his, and happiness bloomed in his stomach. He suddenly felt like jumping around for joy. He finally had a new friend!

“So, where was your old school?” Ross asked.

“San Antonio,” Jared answered. “We just moved here, for my Dad’s job.”

“What does your Dad do?” Ross asked.

“He’s an engineer. He got a new job here in this city. My Mom’s a teacher, and she’s going to work at a school here. We just moved in a couple of weeks ago, and we still have stuff in boxes everywhere!”

“Well, welcome to the neighborhood!” Ross flung his arms wide as if he were the neighborhood welcoming committee. “What grade are you in?”

“I’ll be in fifth grade starting this fall,” Jared replied.

Ross frowned and slumped. “Dangit. I’ll be in seventh, so I won’t be at the same school as you. I’ll be in middle school.”

Jared scowled. He’d just made his first friend, but he wouldn’t be able to see him at school. And that meant that Ross was two years older than Jared, and in Jared’s experience, cool kids didn’t like to hang out with younger kids.

Jared was just starting to mourn the loss of his only friend, when Ross said, “We’ll just have to hang out after school.”

“You’d be okay with hanging out with me after school? Even though I’m in fifth grade?” Jared asked skeptically.

Ross gave him a look like he wasn’t making any sense. “Yeah, why wouldn’t I?”

“Well, my brother Jeff never likes to hang out with me, and he’s fourteen. And the older kids never want to play. They’re too focused on being cool.”

“Well then they’re being stupid,” Ross retorted. “I think your brother doesn’t like to hang out with you because he’s your brother. I have an older brother, Josh, and he does the same thing. All he cares about is his car and his girlfriend. He says I’m just the pipsqueak annoying little brother. It’s written somewhere in the manual of brothers that the older one has to pick on the younger one and the younger one thinks the older one is a jerk.” He nodded like he’d read this manual cover to cover and knew what he was talking about.

Jared grinned. “Yeah, that sounds about right.”

Ross grinned back at him. “Well, I think you’re pretty cool, and we just promised to be friends, so who cares if you’re younger than me?”

Jared beamed at him. “Awesome! Wanna go climb on the jungle gym?” he asked, as if it would seal the deal.

Ross looked over at the playground equipment and grinned. “Yeah. Bet I can beat you there!” he said and promptly jumped to his feet and started sprinting across the grass.

“Hey, no fair!” Jared shouted and clambered after him. It took a moment, because he’d got himself buried down in the sand a bit, but he dashed after Ross, who was laughing loudly.

Predictably, Ross beat Jared to the jungle gym, but not by much. He turned around and faced Jared, panting, and grinning smugly. “I win!”

Jared slammed into the bars right next to him. “Only because you got a head start!”

Ross giggled. “Yeah. Wanna race for real?”

Jared looked at the park. “How about to the slide and back?”

“Okay,” Ross nodded. “The one who wins is fastest runner in the park!”

Jared thought for a moment, and then grinned. “Yeah.”

“Okay. Ready?” Ross asked, then crouched into a runner’s squat.

Jared did the same, and then as one, they yelled, “Ready, set, go!”

This time Ross didn’t have a head start, but he was just a bit bigger than Jared, and had slightly longer legs. Jared ran as fast as he could, wanting to impress the older boy, and they touched the slide only a second apart.

“Come on slow poke!” Ross hollered.

“Slow poke?” Jared gasped, and put on another burst of speed, feeling his feet pound against the grass.

They crashed into the bars of the jungle gym at exactly the same time. “Ha!” Jared crowed. “Can’t be a slow poke if we tied!”

“Okay,” Ross grinned, panting.

Jared threw his arms up in the air and bounced. “And the title of Fastest Runner in the park goes to Jared and Ross!”

“Woohoo!” Ross yelled, and then broke out into song. “We are the champions, my friend!”

Jared joined him for the next verse. “And we’ll keep on fighting till the end! We are the champions, we are the champions!” They were both dancing around like dorks, but Jared didn’t care. He hadn’t been this happy since before Boots died last Christmas.

“Jared!” His mother’s voice cut into their rendition of Queen.

Jared spun around and saw his Mom walking in their direction.

“Jared, it’s time for the birthday cake and to open presents,” she said.

“Cool!” Jared grinned. That was the best thing about being dragged to this stupid birthday party. Other than meeting Ross of course. Jared never said no to cake. Especially chocolate cake. “Can Ross come, too?”

His Mom gave him a strange look and opened her mouth to speak, but then a girl shrieked at the top of her lungs. Sharon whipped around to see Meggie crying, looking like she was gearing up for a major tantrum. “Uh oh,” she sighed, heading back toward the girls to try to help prevent a meltdown. “Come on, Jared, if you want any cake,” she called over her shoulder.

“But Mom, can Ross come too?”

“Fine,” she said without looking back at him.

“All right!” Jared pumped his fist and turned to Ross. “Let’s go get some cake!”

Ross grinned and jogged with him toward the picnic tables.

Thankfully the girls had already dug into their cake and were playing with unwrapped toys, so they were preoccupied enough to not be annoying little brats to Jared and Ross. Jared’s mother was talking to another mom, so Jared just put two pieces of cake on his plate, grabbed a couple of forks, and a big cup of punch.

“Let’s go sit over there,” he said, gesturing to the next table over, one partially hidden by a tree.

They ate off the same plate, battling each other with their forks for the last globs of icing. Ross grinned at Jared with chocolate icing all over his teeth, and Jared laughed so hard he fell off the bench.

After that, Jared saw Ross every day over the summer. Ross would come to Jared’s house and they’d play in the back yard, building forts out of folding lawn chairs and having light-saber fights with foam noodles. Or they would meet at the park, and chase each other all over the jungle gyms and slides until they couldn’t breathe and would collapse on the grass. And every time that Ross would look over at him and grin, his teeth white in the sunshine and his green eyes sparkling, something in Jared’s stomach would flutter happily and Jared felt like he was never going to have a better friend than Ross.

It was even more fun because he got Ross all to himself. Meggie was at summer kindergarten, Jeff was old enough to go to his friends’ house on his own, and Erica, Jared’s babysitter while his mom and dad were at work, was content to let Jared and Ross play in the yard without bothering them except to tell him when she’d made snacks. Jared thought she was weird, because she would sit in the living room and watch Days of Our Lives and other boring daytime shows. Jared wouldn’t have minded watching cartoons or playing on the Nintendo if he could have wheedled her into giving up the television, but it was more fun to make his own adventures with Ross.

They were currently camped out on their stomachs underneath a blanket propped up by two lawn chairs, just lying together and talking. Ross was warm along Jared’s side, and they kept kicking their feet together.

“I want to get a dog,” Ross said.

“I had one, but she died,” Jared said softly, feeling a pang of loss at the memory. He hadn’t thought about Boots in a long time.

“Oh, man, that sucks,” Ross said, and bumped Jared’s shoulder with his own. “How did she die?”

“She got hit by a car,” Jared said. “We were playing Frisbee in the park, me and a bunch of kids, and she was running around in between all of us, trying to catch it. Then Ryan made a bad toss, and it flew out into the street, and she chased it and got run over.”

They were both silent for a moment, during which Ross leaned closer to Jared. “I’m sorry,” Ross said.

“She was my best friend,” Jared replied. “I was so mad at Ryan over it at first, but it was an accident, really. Ryan offered to get us a new dog, but I don’t want another dog, not yet anyway.”

“Yeah, I get that. Maybe when you’re older,” Ross suggested. “So I guess I won’t be getting you a puppy for your birthday.”

Jared laughed softly. His birthday was coming up and his family was asking him what he wanted. Just as long as they didn’t get him clothes again, he’d be happy. “Yeah, that’s probably a good idea. I think Mom would have a cow if it wasn’t something she okayed first.”

“When is your birthday party, anyway?” Ross asked.

“Next weekend. You’re coming, right?”

“I’ll have to check with my Mom, but I’ll try real hard. I wanna be there when you turn the big nine.” Ross grinned cheekily at him.

“Shut up,” Jared growled. “Not like you’re that much older and wiser, oh mighty eleven-year-old.”

Ross snickered. “Still older than you. I’ll get my driver’s license before you.”

“And you’ll get grey hair before me, too,” Jared retorted, sticking his tongue out.

Ross laughed some more. “I’ll hit puberty before you.”

“Ew, and then you’ll probably go girl-crazy like Jeff and you’ll abandon me.”

“Ew, no way,” Ross said with a scowl. “Girls are gross. Josh is girl-crazy, too, always talking about boobs, and I just don’t get it. They’re always giggling and shrieking and putting paint on their faces.” He shuddered, and Jared could feel it along his side.

Jared laughed. “Totally.”

“And you’re my best friend,” Ross said, his eyes dark green in the shade of the blanket. “You’ll always be my best friend, even if you’re a little pipsqueak.”

Jared was touched for about two seconds, before the insult set in. “Hey! I am NOT a pipsqueak! You’re only a couple inches taller than me!”

“That makes you short, pipsqueak!” Ross smirked.

Jared stuck his tongue out at Ross again. “Won’t always be that way,” he said. “All the guys in my family are tall. Jeff is already about five-eight, and he’s only fourteen. Dad is six-two. All of my uncles are over six feet tall.”

Ross looked Jared up and down dubiously. “Well, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. Until then, you’re a pipsqueak!”

Jared shoved Ross with his shoulder, and Ross burst out laughing. Jared shoved him again, and Ross rolled over, knocking the folding chair over and collapsing their fort. The blanket fell in Jared’s face, and he ended up lying with his head on Ross’s stomach, laughing so hard he couldn’t breathe.

Jared pouted all the way through his birthday party. It was just his family, and they didn’t just get him clothes—he got some more action figures and games for the Nintendo, too, which was really cool. But even though he'd had fun, Ross wasn’t there.

“What’s wrong?” his Mom asked him when he was spending more time mashing his cake up with his fork than eating it.

“Ross didn’t come,” Jared answered.

“Jared, honey, I’m worried about you,” she said. “You’re spending all your time playing with Ross, but I’ve never met him.”

Jared looked up, pole-axed. “What? Of course you have! I met him at Meggie’s friend’s party! You said he could have cake with us!”

His Mom frowned, looking thoughtful. “Yes, I remember that, but I don’t remember ever seeing another boy.”

“Mom, there were like twelve dozen little girls there,” Jared pointed out. Surely she’d just been distracted?

“Hmm…” She bit her lip. “Okay,” she conceded after a moment. “But the next time he comes over, I want to meet him.”

Jared nodded. “Sure, Mom. I just wish he’d been able to come to my party.”

His Mom gave him a gentle squeeze. “I’m sure he wanted to, if he’s as good of a friend as you say he is. Maybe something happened with his family and he couldn’t come.”

“Yeah, okay,” Jared shrugged. He hoped something wasn’t wrong and spent the rest of the party worrying about his best friend.

Jared woke up to a tapping noise. He sat up blearily in bed, thinking he’d dreamed it. But then he heard it again. Tap, tap, tap. It was coming from his window.

Jared climbed out of bed and pulled up the blinds.

“Psst! Jared!”

Jared opened the window and pressed his face to the screen. Ross was standing in the flower bed and using a stick to knock on Jared’s window.


“Hey, man!” Ross grinned with relief.

“What are you doing here?” Jared asked, though he was really happy to see him.

“I couldn’t miss your birthday, moron,” Ross whispered.

Jared looked over at his alarm clock. It read 11:47. “You just barely made it,” he grinned. “What happened today?”

“Can you come outside?” Ross asked. “I want to give you your present.”

Jared thought for a moment. His parents would be asleep; they both had to work early in the morning, and Jared was really glad that their room was on the second floor in the back of the house. “Yeah, go to the front porch. I’ll be there in a minute.”

Ross’s smile gleamed in the moonlight.

Jared pulled on pajama bottoms and socks, and then ran his hand through his hair. He carefully crept down the hall and out the front door, making sure to not let the screen door slam.

Ross was standing by the steps, holding a small box. “Hey, Jared,” he said softly, and then stepped forward to give Jared a hug. He smelled like sweat and stale car upholstery, and grass and boy. Jared squeezed him tightly for a moment before pulling back.

“I’m really sorry I missed your party, Jared,” Ross said. “Josh had a soccer tournament in another town, and that ran way long, and they won so they had a team party with all of the families at this restaurant that took forever, and then Mom wanted to do some shopping while we were there before the stores closed, and we didn’t get home until after dark, and then I had to wait for everyone to go to sleep because they didn’t want me coming over to see you this late.”

Jared just grinned stupidly at the way Ross was rambling on. It was kind of funny, like maybe Ross was nervous.

“Okay, I forgive you,” Jared said.

“Oh good,” Ross beamed and let out a huge sigh of relief. “I didn’t want you to be mad at me.”

“You’re my best friend, Ross,” Jared said. “Even if we got mad at each other, we’d make up, right?”

Ross grinned again. “Right.”

“And you came over so you wouldn’t miss my birthday. That gets you some extra best friend points,” Jared said confidently.

“Ooh, cool, does that mean I can get you to do me a favor or something? Get you to mow the lawn for me?” Ross smirked.

“No, jerk,” Jared laughed and shoved him. “It just means that you get a bonus five points on the awesome friends card. It’s how we prove how good of friends we are.”

“Oh, okay then.” Ross smiled, and then he shuffled his feet a little, suddenly looking nervous again. “I couldn’t get you anything big for your birthday, but when I saw this I thought of you. Um… happy birthday, Jared.” He shoved the small, unwrapped box into Jared’s hands.

Jared opened the box and gasped. “It’s Boots!” It was a small porcelain figurine that was a near-replica of his dog. It wasn’t exact, but it was close enough. Jared turned around and held the figurine up to the porch light so he could get a better look at it. It was a little German Shepherd that had black feet, with her tail frozen in a wag and a playful grin on her face, just like Boots always had. There was a small scratch of JRA on the bottom—Ross had marked it for him. Jared was stunned, and wondered absently for a second what the J stood for, but then Ross started rambling again.

“You showed me her picture, and I thought this would be a good way to remember her. I know it’s not something cool like a new X-Men toy or a Nintendo game, but…”

“It’s great, Ross,” Jared choked. His eyes were blurring with tears, and he took a deep breath to try to rein in his emotions. Boys don’t cry, Jared, you’re nine now, he scolded himself. “It’s awesome. I got a bunch of toys and games at the party, anyway. This is way better than any of that stuff.” He quickly wiped at his eyes and turned back around to face Ross, who was biting his lip nervously.

“Really?” Ross said, unsure.

Jared beamed at him. “Really. I’ll put her on my desk. Thank you.” Unable to stop himself, he gave Ross another hug.

“Awesome,” Ross breathed into his neck, and squeezed him back.

Jared pulled away and grinned. Ross returned the smile, his eyes glowing golden in the yellow porch light.

“I’d better get back home,” Ross said.

“Yeah, and I’d better get back inside,” Jared answered. “See you tomorrow?”

“Definitely!” Ross agreed as he hopped down their front steps. “Night!”

“Night!” Jared called softly, waving. He stood there for a long minute, watching Ross jog down the sidewalk, and then went back in the house, making sure the screen door didn’t slam.

He smiled all night in his sleep.

Every morning when he got out of bed, Jared would touch the little figurine of Boots. Ross continued to come over during the day when Jared’s parents were at work and Erica the babysitter watched who knows what on the television and talked to boys on the phone all day. Ross would be busy with his own family on the weekends, which was okay with Jared. He’d be happy to spend every day with Ross, but he understood.

Some days they hung out in Jared’s back yard, and other days they went down to the park and played catch or shared gummi bears on the swings.

“So how come you haven’t asked me about my first name?” Ross asked Jared one afternoon in early August.

It was hot, and they were both sitting on the swings, idly kicking back and forth. Jared had spun around in his swing until the chains had twisted as much as they could. He picked up his feet and the chains promptly un-twisted, spinning Jared around rapidly.

“I dunno,” he said when he stopped spinning. It took a moment for the world to stop whirling and right itself again. “You said you hated your name, and you’re my best friend, so I’m gonna call you by the name you like.” He shrugged. “If you wanna tell me, that’s cool. I promise I won’t make fun of you for it. But it’s also totally cool if you don’t tell me.”

Ross just eyed him for a moment, then started twisting his swing around like Jared had done. “You promise you won’t tease me?” he asked softly.

“Want me to pinky swear?” Jared smirked.

“Girl,” Ross retorted. “I’m serious.”

“I know,” Jared answered. “Yes, I promise,” he said, putting his hand over his chest. “I solemnly swear that I will not tease you about your first name.”

Ross lifted his feet and spun around for a minute while the chains untwisted. His feet kicked out and just grazed Jared’s knee. Jared swung around and deliberately crashed into Ross as he unwound.

“Jerk!” Ross laughed, his eyes crossing and looking like he was still dizzy.

Their swings tangled together, and it took them a moment to disentangle themselves, Jared laughing the whole time. He tugged Ross off the swings and dragged him over under a tree, sighing in relief as they reached the shade. He dropped onto the grass, and Ross flopped down next to him, still chuckling.

Jared gazed up at the branches, watching the way the light played on the leaves and how the blue of the sky fluttered through the green and brown.

“Jensen,” Ross said softly after a long moment of quiet. “My name is Jensen Ross Ackles.”

Jared turned that over in his head. “Jensen Ross,” he murmured.

He felt Ross flinch next to him, as if he was bracing for a taunt. So he rolled onto his side and propped his head up on one arm, grinning at his best friend. “Jensen Ross. I like it. It’s different, but… what’s the word? Unique. There are a lot of Jareds out there, but I bet there’s only one Jensen.”

Ross looked up at him through his lashes, green eyes soft in the shade. “Really?” he asked hesitantly.

Jared nodded. “Yeah, I really do like it. A lot. It’s different, but when I look at you, it makes perfect sense.” And it did; it felt right. Jared gazed at Ross, feeling closer to his best friend than he’d ever felt to anyone that wasn’t his mom. Warmth spread in his stomach, and he smiled. Jensen, Jared thought, feeling the name settle into his bones. “Yeah, it really suits you. But I’ll still call you Ross if you want.”

Ross looked immensely relieved, and he smiled softly at Jared. “Thanks, Jared,” he said, and Jared knew he meant thank you for being cool about it.

“No problem,” he replied.

Summer crawled along, hot and muggy, and pretty soon they were nearing the end of August. With school coming up, Jared’s mom dragged him out shopping for school clothes, complaining that he’d grown a couple of inches since summer started. Jared just grinned to himself and muttered, “pipsqueak, ha!” under his breath.

“What was that, honey?” his mom asked.

“Nothing. Just something Ross said.”

His mom frowned, but Jared didn’t understand why.

“I still haven’t met Ross,” she said eventually.

“He comes over during the day when you’re at work, but he has to go home before his parents come home. So he’s gone by the time you get back,” Jared answered, looking at a shirt with Spiderman on the front. He wasn’t sure why this bothered his mom so much.

“Huh,” she said. “Well, I’ll just have to see if I can come home early to meet him. He sounds like a good boy, and I want to know who you’re hanging out with.”

“Okay, sure, Mom,” Jared shrugged. Ross was his best friend; of course he wanted his mom to meet him and like him.

Jared and Ross were in the back yard, once again under the fort of folding chairs and blankets, this time reading a comic book together.

“Jared, your mom’s home!” Erica called from the kitchen window.

Jared looked up from the comic and over at Ross. “Oh, good. Mom’s been complaining about wanting to meet you. Maybe now she’ll quit nagging me.”

Ross grinned. “Okay.”

They clambered out of the fort and headed back into the house, Ross just behind Jared.

“Hi mom!” he said when he went into the kitchen. His mom was standing there, writing Erica a check to cover the babysitting.

“Hi honey,” she said without looking up from her checkbook.

“You’ve been wanting to meet Ross, Mom, so here he is,” Jared said, stepping to the side so she could see his best friend.

She looked up at Jared, smiling, but then her smile gradually faded. Erica looked at him like he had two heads.

“Where is he?” his mom asked.

Jared laughed, thinking she was joking. “He’s right here,” he said, grabbing Ross’s arm.

“Hi, Mrs. Padalecki,” Ross said softly.

She didn’t respond, just continued to look at Jared, concerned. Erica giggled.

“There’s no one there, Jared. Don’t play jokes on me. Tell your friend to come out of hiding.”

Jared’s jaw dropped. Ross was standing right next to him, right in front of the refrigerator. “I’m not playing jokes. Are you blind? He’s right here!” He shook Ross a little to emphasize his point.

Ross looked over at Jared, clearly distressed.

His mother’s face went from concerned to edging on panic. “Jared, the only boy in this room is you.”

Jared looked over at Erica, who was starting to appear concerned herself. “Erica, you’ve seen Ross, he comes over all the time.”

“I’ve seen you playing by yourself all day in the yard, Jared. You run around the yard and build forts, but you’re always alone,” she said softly.

Jared looked over at Ross, who was clearly just as confused as he was, and tried not to panic. “No, he’s real. He’s real and he’s right here!” Ross wrapped an arm around Jared and squeezed. He smelled like boy and grass and Ross, and he was warm and solid against Jared’s side.

“Jared…” his mother said softly, firmly, in her “let’s stay calm and reasonable” voice. “…Honey, there is no one standing next to you.” And to emphasize her point, she stepped forward, reached through Ross, and opened the refrigerator door.

Jared shrieked and jerked backwards toward the counter, the edge digging painfully into his spine. His mom pulled out a jug of sweet tea, right through Ross’s chest, and set it on the counter. She then walked through Ross and cupped Jared’s face.

“Honey, Ross isn’t there,” she said, her brown eyes worried. “He’s not real. He’s imaginary. Sweetie, you’re too old to have imaginary friends.”

Jared barely noticed the tears streaming down his cheeks. “But he’s real, he’s my best friend in the whole wide world! He has to be real!” He looked past his mom’s shoulder at Ross, who was pale and clearly in shock. Ross looked so terribly sad that Jared’s heart broke right there.

“Jared, I’m real, I know I’m real,” Ross pleaded, his voice wavering. “You’re my best friend, too, Jared!”

“No, Jared, there’s no one there,” his mom said again, her voice soothing. “He’s not real.”

Jared spent another long moment just staring at Ross, his green eyes glistening with tears as he hugged his arms to his chest. “Jared…” he whispered. And then Ross just… vanished. Dissipated. Dissolved into thin air.

Jared gaped at the empty space where Ross was just standing, for a few seconds, and then felt his heart shatter. “Ross! Ross! No! Where did you go?! Ross! He’s gone! No! He’s gone! Ross! Mom, bring him back!” He started sobbing hysterically, his whole world yanked out from underneath him.

His mother gathered him into her arms, carding her fingers through his hair. “Erica, you’d better go home,” she said softly. Jared barely heard her as he wailed his anguish into her chest. The screen door banged shut, and Jared knew he was alone with his mother.

She picked him up and carried him to his room, cooing softly into his ear as he bawled. Jared barely registered the trek, only noticing when she set him down on his bed.

“Oh baby, it’s okay,” she soothed. She pulled his shoes and socks off and tucked him under the covers, snuggling him closely. “It’s going to be okay, Jared,” she whispered into his hair. “You’re going to be okay, honey.”

Jared cried himself to sleep curled up in his mother’s arms.

When Jared woke up several hours later, his eyes felt swollen and burned, and his throat was raw. His mom wasn’t in the room anymore, but he could hear her voice in the kitchen, along with his father’s. He heard the words “psychiatrist” and “imaginary friend” and “too old,” but he couldn’t quite make out the rest of what they were saying. He could tell that they were worried from their tone.

He stared up at the ceiling, completely confused and just wrung out. He’d spent his whole summer with his best friend Ross, who wasn’t even real. Who vanished into thin air in his kitchen, right before his eyes. Was his mom right? Was Ross imaginary? Had he been so lonely for a good friend since Boots died that he just made one up?

Jared looked over at his desk, and there she was—the figurine of Boots that Ross had given him for his birthday.

Jared rolled over and buried his face into his pillow, sobs of anguish starting anew.

Chapter Text

Ours is a Reciprocal Gravitation Orbit


Autumn, 1993

Jared is in the park, standing near the sandbox. A breeze rustles his hair, and it sounds like a whisper, low and soft and familiar. He turns to his side, expecting someone to be there, but all he sees are the swings, rocking gently in the wind. He turns again—the slide and the jungle gym. He feels like he’s missing something, but doesn’t know what. He walks over to the swings, feeling the blades of grass poke up between his bare toes, and then the warmth of the sun-baked sand when he reaches the swings. He sits down on one, and instead of pushing off, he starts spinning around, twisting the chains. As he lifts his feet off the ground to whirl back around, he hears a boy’s laughter, bright and golden.

The feeling of missing something intensifies, a pull in his heart, but he can’t tell what the pull is toward. Suddenly he’s standing next to the jungle gym. He’s tall enough now to reach the top bar without climbing. He leans up against the metal bars and digs his feet down into the sand, looking up at the blue sky through the swaying leaves of the trees. The breeze brings him faint whiffs of grass, sunshine, and a spice Jared can’t name.

“We are the champions, my friends!” he hears two boys singing.

And Jared knows that it’s not a “what” that he’s missing, it’s a “who.”

“Ross,” he whispers, standing straight up.

Off by the trees at the edge of the park is a tall boy with floppy dark-blond hair and green eyes, and the pulling sensation in his chest intensifies. It’s tugging him forward, toward Ross.

“Ross!” he shouts, feeling overjoyed at seeing his friend. Jared starts to run toward him, but Ross disappears, vanishing into thin air.

Jared shouts again, desperate this time. He feels drawn to nowhere, now, and it makes his chest ache. “Ross! Where are you?!”

He reaches the spot where Ross had been standing and whirls around, searching for any sign of his friend. All he hears is the breath of the wind, the rustling of the leaves, the ba-thump of his own heartbeat. Sunlight dances on the ground, dappled by green and grey shadows.

Jared bolted upright in his bed with his heart pounding like he’d been running. His blankets were tangled up around his legs.

“Holy crap!” he breathed, willing his heart to slow down. He had dreamed of Ross occasionally in the four years since that summer, but never that vividly, and never with that sense of desperately missing him.

Jared straightened out his blankets and fell back on the bed. He still missed his friend—Ross had seemed so real—but he never talked about him anymore. Best to let his parents think he’d grown up and moved on. He didn’t need to get dragged to a shrink again, only to be pronounced fine, again, like he had then. But he still wondered about that summer a lot, wondered how he could have spent a whole summer by himself with an imaginary friend. Eventually he had given up trying to explain it, forced himself not to think about it and move on. He allowed himself to get caught up in school, his new friends, and his passion for art.

But Ross had never disappeared from Jared’s focus entirely. There were times when thinking of Ross helped Jared cope. Like when he wrecked his bike and broke his arm, he imagined Ross was there with him in the hospital room, cracking jokes and keeping his mind off the pain. Or when he got caught trying to steal a comic book—the one and only time he’d ever attempted shoplifting—and was grounded for a month, he knew that Ross would be disappointed in him, but that he would still be Jared’s friend. Or the time his mom and dad had a big fight and his dad left for a few days, Jared knew that Ross would give him a hug and tell him it would be okay, that one fight didn’t necessarily mean divorce. And then Ross would have said, “I told you not to worry!” with a big shit-eating grin when Jared’s dad came back and made up with his mom. Thinking about Ross always made him feel… comforted and loved.

And now, after that vivid dream, Ross was once again at the forefront of his thoughts. He felt a gnawing need to remember Ross, to make him more than a fleeting imaginary friend. The aching pull toward Ross he’d felt in his dreams still lingered, and Jared rubbed at his chest. In the dim, pre-dawn light shining through his blinds, Jared caught sight of the Boots figurine that Ross had given him, and with the way his fingers itched to start sketching, he knew that was a good place to start.

Jared looked at his alarm clock and groaned, snuggling into the covers. He could start properly after the sun came up.

Jared burst into his room and dropped his backpack on the desk, sending the sketch of a dog that he had been working on skittering across the faux-wood. He picked it up and looked at it, comparing it to the figurine of Boots that he kept on the shelf above his desk. It still wasn’t quite right.

A loud flump caught his attention, then, and he looked up to see his best friend Sandy McCoy flopping onto the bed behind him. She shrugged her backpack off her shoulders, dropping it to the floor with a thunk, and then ran her fingers through her long, dark hair as she freed it from the ponytail she’d been wearing. Despite her living half a mile away from him, they preferred to do their homework together at Jared’s house, so she frequently came home with him after school.

“Wow, Jared! That’s really good!” she said when she noticed the sketch in his hands.

“Thanks,” he said, frowning, “but I’m not really satisfied with it. The nose doesn’t look right.”

She stepped closer and squinted at the drawing. “You’re drawing that figurine?” she asked, pointing to Boots.

“Yeah.” Jared’s voice was soft. He always felt weird talking to people about the dog figurine, and left Ross out of the story entirely. He still wasn’t sure how he’d gotten it, imaginary friends notwithstanding. He must have found it or picked it up somewhere. He’d eventually decided that it was the universe’s way of giving him a gift.

“Cool!” She picked up the figurine and turned it around in her hands. “I like it, Jared. Where’d you get it?”

“I picked it up at a yard sale a few years ago,” he said, giving his usual story. “It looked just like my old dog Boots, the one that died before we moved here,” he said.

“Oh, wow, Jared. She was really pretty.”

“Yeah, she was. She was a good dog,” Jared said.

He’d told Sandy all about Boots when they first became friends four years ago, when Jared had finally started school after that bizarre summer with Ross. Jensen Ross, Jared thought wistfully. He’d had the exact same dream of Ross several times since that night nearly a week ago. It still left him with a sense of desperate longing to have Ross back in his life.

Sometimes he wondered if he could draw Ross’s face. He had decided that he would; he would get better and better at drawing, until he could reproduce on paper the images of Ross in his head. He could still remember Ross’s bright green eyes, the freckles dusted across his nose and cheeks, his floppy, sandy-blond hair, long on top but short in the back. The way his smile lit up a room, and his laugh made Jared feel light and happy.


He looked up, startled out of his thoughts. “Yeah?”

Sandy was looking at him curiously. “You okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” he answered, smiling at her.

“You looked like you were miles away.”

“Just remembering,” he said.

“Good memories?”

“Mostly, yeah.” He took the dog figurine from her hand and put it back on the shelf. “We’ve got work to do, though,” he said, opening up his backpack. “I can’t believe that Mr. Frasier is making us do a writing project on The Hobbit. Why not a book report?”

“I like the idea,” Sandy said. “It makes us actually think about the characters, and try to imagine what the characters would do in a different situation.”

Jared pondered this, and then shrugged. “True. Well, how should we do this?”

She hopped onto his bed and grinned, and Jared knew that she had the whole story plotted out in her head already.

Jared dribbles the basketball on the concrete driveway, focusing on passing it through his legs without bouncing it into his knees. The ball kicks up dust as it strikes the pavement, and Jared can feel sweat sliding down his spine.

“Still a pipsqueak, I see,” comes a voice to Jared’s right, and Jared spins around, surprised.

Standing next to the driveway is Ross. Ross, who looks a little older than Jared remembers him, taller now, wider across the shoulders. Still a little bowlegged, with bright green eyes and freckles sprinkled across his slightly tanned skin. His hair is shorter now, but still longer on top, looking tousled.

“Ross?” Jared asks, his jaw dropping. The ball bounces away from him onto the grass.

“Hi Jared,” Ross grins. “It’s been a while.” His voice is deeper now, too—he’s gone through puberty, obviously. Jared can see the more prominent Adam’s apple of his throat. Ross is two years older than Jared, which would make him about fifteen now. Jared is amazed at how good he looks.

“Ross?!” Jared still can’t quite believe it. “Am I dreaming?”

“Yes, this is a dream, Jay,” Ross answers, stepping closer to Jared. “Doesn’t matter, though. I’ve missed you.”

“I’ve missed you, too,” Jared answers sincerely. “Holy crap!” Jared jumps forward and grabs Ross, pulling him into a hug, noticing that yes, Ross is still taller than him, and that he’s definitely developed some muscle tone. For a moment Jared feels like an awkward thirteen-year-old, all knees and elbows, but from the way Ross is squeezing the life out of him, it’s clear that Ross doesn’t mind.

Ross laughs, and when they pull apart, they’re not in the driveway anymore, but in Jared’s room. Jared doesn’t blink at the change in scenery. He’s starting to be aware that he is dreaming, but he really doesn’t care. Ross is here, his Jensen Ross.

“How’ve you been?” Jared asks, not wanting to let him go.

Ross leads them to sit down on the bed, not letting go of Jared, either. “Good, mostly,” he said. “Just going to school, writing, playing tennis, and hanging with my friends. I start Driver’s Ed this summer, and then Josh will have to share the car with me!” He grins, and his whole face lights up, green eyes sparkling.

Jared beams right back at him. “Awesome! I can’t wait to get my driver’s license. I hate having to take the bus.”

“Yeah, my friend Chris? He’s a year older than me, so he has his license already. He has a car of his own, too, and it’s so cool to have our own wheels.”

“I bet. That’s awesome.” Jared is totally jealous. Not only is Ross getting his license, he already has friends with a car. How cool would it be to not be tied down?

“What about you, Jay?” Ross asks. They are still sitting so close their thighs are touching, and Ross’s arm is wrapped around Jared’s waist. It feels normal, natural. Jared likes it, and he puts his arm around Ross’s shoulders in return.

“I’m good. Just going to school, hanging with my friends, working on homework, drawing, playing basketball…”

“Still think you’re going to end up tall like your dad, huh pipsqueak?” Ross teases, his lips quirking up.

“Yes, damn you!” Jared shoves at Ross’s shoulder, but Ross just rocks back and knocks Jared’s shoulder with his own, laughing. “Jeff is already six foot three. I bet I’ll end up taller than you, Ross, and then you’ll be the pipsqueak!”

“We’ll have to wait and see, won’t we?” Ross says, and then his smile fades a bit.

“What is it?” Jared asks.

“Nothing,” Ross says. “Not really. It’s just that I kind of like people calling me Jensen now.”

Jared blinks. “Really? You hated your name.”

“Yeah, I did. But you liked it so much that I started thinking about it, and yeah, I kind of like it now. It’s unique. So I go by Jensen now. And it’s all your fault.”

Jared beams at him. “My fault, huh? I’ll gladly accept responsibility for that. I always liked your name. I’m just used to calling you Ross.”

“You can if you want,” Ross—no, Jensen—says. “I don’t mind. I like that you call me Ross. You were the only one who called me the name I wanted to be called back then. Everyone else called me Jensen, whether I liked it or not. Or worse, Jenny, like I was a girl. I HATED that. But you made me like ‘Jensen’. So you can call me either Ross or Jensen.”

“But not Jenny,” Jared teases.

“NOT Jenny, Jared,” Ross—Jensen—confirmed, scowling. “I hate being called Jenny.”

“Then I won’t ever call you Jenny,” Jared promises. “You’re my best friend, Jensen. I’ll call you whatever name you want me to.” He pauses. “Jensen,” he says, thinking, and then smiles to himself. “I still really like it.”

Jensen grins at him. “Thanks, Jared.”

“Just don’t be surprised if I sometimes slip and call you Ross. It’s what I’m used to calling you. That or Jensen Ross. You’ve always been Jensen Ross in my head.”

“It’s okay either way. I’m just so glad to see you again.”

“Me, too. I’ve really missed you. I’ve made some other friends since that summer—Sandy’s my best friend. She’s really cool and I like her a lot. But I’ve still missed you.”

“Same here, Jay. I have Chris and Jason and Steve and Danneel. They’re awesome, but… they’re not you.” Jensen reaches up and brushes his fingers through Jared’s bangs. “There’s something special about you…” he says softly.

A wave of something tingly flows through Jared then, making his stomach flutter and his heart skip. He doesn’t know how to describe it, but it feels good. He wants to be closer to Jensen, but he is suddenly nervous, and can’t explain why. He blushes and looks down at Jensen’s collar.

“I think you’re special, too, Jensen,” he whispers.

Jensen just stares at him, and they sit there in a comfortable silence for a moment.

“So, you’re fifteen or sixteen now?” Jared asks. “Finally in high school? Is it cool? Do you have a girlfriend?”

Jensen blushes. “I’ll turn sixteen on March first,” he says. “High school is cool. But no, I don’t have a girlfriend. Girls who are friends, yeah, like Danneel, but…” he trails off and chews on his bottom lip, looking suddenly nervous.

“What is it?” Jared asks.

“Jared, will you promise not to hate me if I tell you something?”

Jared is alarmed. “I could never hate you,” he promises.

Jensen gives him a wry smile. “Even if I told you that I murdered someone?”

Jared scowls at him. “One, you could never do that. And two, I could never hate you. I…” Jared can’t explain just how much Jensen means to him. “Just… No.” He shakes his head and then goes serious, concerned. “What is it? Are you okay?”

Jensen still looks wary. “Yeah, I think so. Maybe. I haven’t told anyone this yet, but I think you’re safe to tell.”

“Whatever it is, I’ll still be your friend, I promise.”

“Well…” Jensen takes a deep breath. “It’s just that… I don’t think I like girls all that much. I mean, I like them fine as friends, but I don’t like girls like that.”

“Oh.” Jared thinks about that for a moment. Jensen doesn’t like girls. Does that mean…? “Does that mean you like guys like that?” he asks, not pulling away from Jensen. “Because if you do, that doesn’t matter to me.” And it’s true. In fact, there is a little pleased feeling in his chest at the thought. Jared is glad that his Jensen Ross isn’t going to go all girl-crazy like Jeff did, and ignore him.

“Really?” Jensen looks up at him like he was sure Jared would get mad at him, or not want to be around him.

“Yes, really,” Jared answers. “You’re my friend, Ross—Jensen. I don’t care if you like guys.”

Jensen just gapes at him for a moment, then grabs him into a hug, squeezing Jared tightly. Jared breathes in, and yes, this is his Jensen Ross—male, grass, sweat, sandalwood, and Jensen.

“Thank you, Jared,” Jensen breathes into his hair. “I don’t think my parents will be as accepting.”

“Really? Why?” Jared blinks. He can’t imagine anyone’s parents not loving their kids no matter what.

“Well, they’re religious, and I hear my Dad talking crap about ‘queers and faggots’ sometimes, and they make fun of the Pride Parade every June. So I don’t think they’ll understand.”

“Well, if you really are gay—” It is the first time either of them have used that word, and Jared pauses to make sure it is okay with Jensen “—then they’ll have to come around. You can’t change who you are. And I’ll always be your friend, no matter what.” He gives Jensen another squeeze.

“Thanks, Jared.”

Jared grins. “So. You gonna start sporting a rainbow flag?”

“Har har,” Jensen says dryly. “Not likely any time soon. But maybe eventually. After high school. That’s not exactly something people would accept at my school.”

Jared nods in understanding. His school isn’t very tolerant of gay people, either. “Well, I’ll always support you. I’d march with you in a parade if you wanted.”

“Dork,” Jensen laughs and shoves at Jared’s shoulder, but his eyes are bright and happy.

Jared woke up and rolled over to stare at the ceiling, feeling severely disappointed. It had just been a dream. Jensen was just a dream. But it had felt so real. Ross—no, Jensen—had even grown up. He wasn’t the twelve-year-old boy Jared remembered anymore. He’d looked so good, so happy. And Jared missed him. But it had been nice to see him again, imaginary or not. He kind of liked the idea of keeping his friendship going with Jensen in his dreams, because he was somehow certain that he would be dreaming of Jensen Ross again.

With that thought accepted and settled into his gut, Jared shoved his hand into his boxers to take care of the morning wood he’d woken up with. Sometimes he hated being a teenager. On the other hand, he thought as he squeezed the head of his cock and pleasure shot through him, beating off was a lot of fun.

Only this time, it was Jensen’s face that took him over the edge.

A couple of weeks later, Sandy and Jared were at Jared’s house, working on their homework. This time they were sprawled out in the living room, alternating between homework and Sandy kicking Jared’s ass at Sonic 2 on the Sega.

Jensen had continued to show up in Jared’s dreams several times since that first night, and every time, the dream proceeded as if it were real. In the dreams, Jared didn’t know he was dreaming or that Jensen was imaginary. It was like they were back in that summer before he learned that Ross never existed—how they just flowed together, their friendship easy and close, how they could talk about anything and everything, and how Jensen knew just what to say to make Jared laugh, and how Jensen’s whole body would light up when Jared made him laugh. And every time he woke up from a dream like this, Jared was achingly hard. This wasn’t really all that odd—he was thirteen, after all—but every time, it was images of Jensen that he jerked off to, that made him come. It was starting to make him wonder—


Sandy’s voice snapped Jared out of his thoughts. Startled, he looked up from his paper. “What?”

“I’ve been talking to you for several minutes, and you obviously haven’t heard a word of it. What’s going on?”

Jared blinked. He’d been thinking about Jensen, and about jerking off to images of Jensen in his head. And wow, that was not something he should be thinking about in front of Sandy. He blushed hotly and mumbled, “Sorry.”

She obviously could tell he was embarrassed, because she grinned evilly at him. “Jared, what were you thinking about?” she teased, poking him in the ribs. “Or should I say, who were you thinking about?”

Jared blushed even deeper. He couldn’t say ‘my imaginary friend who just came out to me and I think I like him, so what does that mean?’ He didn’t know what to say at all, and he fidgeted for a moment.

“Um… no one you know,” he managed eventually. “I was just wondering… how do you know if you like boys or girls?”

Sandy sat back, surprised by the question. “Well, I suppose you just like who you like. My aunt is a lesbian, and she said that she doesn’t hate men, she just isn’t attracted to them and likes women better. Why are you asking?”

“I had this… dream,” he muttered, squirming in his seat. God, he was probably purple by now.

“And it made you wonder?” she asked.


“Well, that’s okay. It’s okay to wonder right now. You’re thirteen.” She paused, looking nervous. “Maybe this will help. Or not, but hey…”

Jared was about to ask her what she meant, but she suddenly leaned over and kissed him.

Jared sat there in shock for a moment, completely surprised. He’d never ever imagined kissing Sandy before—she was a friend, just like one of the guys. He could feel her plump lips against his, pressing, and… shouldn’t he be excited about this? He was getting his first, non-family member kiss, and all he could think about was that it felt just like when his aunt kissed him. Nice, affectionate, but not something to feel goofy about.

She pulled back from him and blushed. “Erm… did you like that?”

Jared rubbed at his lips and thought about it. “It was okay… but… I dunno.”

“Well… what if Derek Seyler kissed you?” she asked.

Derek was a boy in Jared’s grade, but he was a bit older than Jared, and he’d hit puberty early. All the girls loved him, said he was gorgeous. Derek was the class heartthrob, and all the guys were envious. Jared sat back and imagined Derek kissing him, and his stomach fluttered excitedly. He thought again about Jensen—what if Jensen kissed him? He started getting hard in his jeans. He drew up his knees to hide the tenting in his lap.

Sandy smirked at him. “Well, that’s an answer for you,” she said, still blushing.

“Sandy… you kissed me!” Jared blurted, because it finally registered with him.

“It’s okay, Jared,” she said, dropping her eyes to her lap. “I thought you might like me, but I didn’t know for sure…”

“I do like you! You’re one of my best friends.” Jared found himself wondering if maybe he didn’t enjoy the kiss because it was Sandy, that maybe he would have liked it if it was a different girl. But he couldn’t think of any girl that he would actually want to kiss to try it out with. Maybe that meant something…

“And that’s okay, Jared,” Sandy said, interrupting his musing. “I was mostly trying to help. I like being your friend better anyway. Because if we went out, what if we broke up? I wouldn’t want to not be your friend anymore.”

Jared nodded. “Me, too. Thanks, Sandy.”

Jared is at his desk, working on a sketch of a still life: a stack of books, pens, and other random stuff from his desk. Jensen is lying on his bed, working on his homework. Jared wonders about them doing their homework in his dream, and if that’s a reflection of just how boring he is. But it’s nice to just hang with Jensen.

Jared’s hand keeps moving, scratching the pencil into the paper, but his mind wanders back to his conversation with Sandy.

“Sandy kissed me the other day,” he says.

Jensen looks up at him, grinning. “Yeah? Awesome! How was it?”

Jared frowns. “It was… fine. I dunno. Aren’t you supposed to feel fireworks or something when you kiss?”

“I haven’t ever kissed anyone who isn’t family, so I don’t know. Josh says kissing is awesome, though. And he spends hours attached at the lips to his girlfriend, so he would know.” Jensen sits up, setting his notebook aside, and moves to the edge of the bed to sit closer to Jared. “Why, wasn’t it good when Sandy kissed you?”

“It didn’t feel any different than when my aunt or my Mom kisses me,” Jared says. He puts down his pencil and turns his chair around to face Jensen. Their knees knock, and a little thrill shoots up Jared’s spine.

“Well, that sucks.”

“Yeah,” Jared replies. “I think I just don’t like Sandy like that.”

Jensen nods, seemingly taking that as an answer. But Jared has been thinking about this for a couple of days. “Have you ever kissed a guy?” he asks.

Jensen looks back up at him, his eyes wide. “No,” he says.

“But you’re gay, right? So if you haven’t ever kissed a guy, how do you know you like guys?”

Jensen frowns. “Jared…”

“I mean, I really want to know, Jensen. Sandy asked me if I would like it if a guy kissed me instead, and I… I don’t know. I thought about you, and I started wondering. How do you know if you like guys?”

Jensen takes a deep breath. “Well… it’s more than kissing. I like the way guys are shaped, the hard, broad lines of their shoulders… When I get… you know… excited,” he waves his hand around his lap, making an obscene gesture. “It’s always guys I think about. I think that girls are pretty and stuff, but they don’t make me… aroused.” Jensen’s face is an adorable shade of red by this point.

“Huh. Well, then me too,” Jared says. He isn’t going to tell Jensen that he jerks off to thoughts of him, but he can at least admit to not thinking about girls. “I don’t know. I think that maybe I might like guys, too.”

Jensen gapes at him a moment, and Jared screws up his courage. “Would you… should we…?”

“What, Jay?” Jensen asks. He’s leaning forward now, his face closer to Jared. “Would you like to try it out, see for sure?”

Jared leans forward, too, and nods. “Yeah. That way you know what it’s like to kiss a guy, and I’ll know if I like it better than kissing Sandy.”

“You sure?” Jensen asks, inching forward.

Their noses are nearly brushing, and Jared’s heart is pounding. This is already way better than kissing Sandy, and they’ve only talked about it so far. Rather than answer Jensen directly, Jared closes the distance between them, mashing their lips together. It actually hurts a little, the way his teeth bang into Jensen’s.

“Mmph!” Jensen grunts in surprise. “Whoa there, Jared,” he says, pulling back.

“Sorry!” Jared gasps, feeling his face go crimson.

“No, it’s okay,” Jensen smiles. “Let’s try that again, but softer this time.”

“Okay,” Jared agrees, and everything slows down.

Jensen’s palm comes up against Jared’s cheek, caressing softly. His thumb grazes Jared’s bottom lip, and Jared hitches in a breath, feeling his skin tingle. His groin is already starting to ache pleasantly, just from that touch. He leans forward, but decides to let Jensen take the lead this time.

Jensen stares at him for a moment, his eyes so vivid, dark and green, and Jared is amazed.

“Jay,” Jensen whispers, and then brings their mouths together.

Oh God, Jared thinks. This is incredible. Jensen’s lips press against his, soft and moist, and little sparks of sensation flicker through Jared’s body. He hums a little moan and reaches his arms around Jensen, pulling him closer. The scent of Jensen, whiffs of sandalwood, wafts over him, and it’s so arousing. He opens his mouth a little, wanting more, but not knowing quite what ‘more’ entails.

Jensen replies with a soft moan of his own, and wow, that was thrilling to hear, and opens his mouth, tonguing across Jared’s bottom lip.

“Oh God,” Jared mumbles into Jensen’s mouth, and then he continues the kiss, sliding his tongue against Jensen’s. That feels so amazing, Jared thinks, afraid he might come in his pants. Jensen’s tongue is pressing into Jared’s mouth, his hands are weaving into Jared’s hair, and holy crap, Jared might really come in his shorts.

Jensen finally pulls away, gasping, his lips swollen, wet and red. “Wow,” he says, panting.

“Yeah,” Jared agrees, also panting. He glances down and can see that Jensen’s jeans are tented, just like his own. “Holy shit, that was way better than kissing Sandy,” he says after a moment. In fact, he would love to continue kissing Jensen all day. “What did you think?” he asks.

Jensen grins at him, his eyes sparkling. “That was frickin’ awesome, Jared.”

Jared grins back at him. “Yeah, it was.” He wants to do more of it, actually. “Can we do it again?”

Jensen laughs. “Sure, Jared, it’s our dream, we can do whatever we want.” And he leans forward to bring their mouths together again.

Oh yeah, these dreams with Jensen are awesome, Jared thinks as he slides his tongue out to meet Jensen’s. And he knows for sure that he at least likes Jensen, a LOT.

Shortly after kissing Jensen in his dream, Jared hit puberty. It felt like it happened nearly overnight; one day he was still a boy, the next he had sprouted hair in strange places, his voice started cracking, and his face broke out in zits. He shot up several inches in just a few months. He’d always figured he’d end up being tall, given his Dad’s and his brother’s height, but he was really unprepared for just how fast he outgrew his clothes, and the way his shins ached all the time.

“I just bought you a new pair of jeans last month!” his mom complained when he walked out into the living room one morning with the hems of his jeans dangling a couple inches above his ankles.

“Are you sure you didn’t shrink them in the wash?” he replied, grinning. “Because there’s no way I grew two inches in a month.”

She mock-glared at him, looking him over, and then her face went soft and all motherly. “No, you’re definitely growing, Jared. God, you’re getting so big.”

“Mo-om,” he complained, blushing. And then he realized that he was looking down at her. Shit, maybe he had grown two inches in a month.

“Jared is a bean-stalk!” Megan chanted when she came into the room. “Gonna be a freaking giant, Jay-bear!” she teased.

“Shut up, Meggie!” he growled, and she sniggered when his voice broke.

“Jared the jolly green giant! All you gotta do for Halloween is paint your skin green!”

“Yeah, and then I’ll squash you like a bug!” he threatened, reaching out to swat her on the head.

His mom intervened before it could escalate. “Jared!” she scolded.

Megan stuck her tongue out at Jared, out of her mom’s field of vision.

“I saw that, Megan Leigh!” Sherry said sharply, and Jared stifled a chuckle at the look of astonishment on Megan’s face at being caught. “Quit annoying your brother!”

“Yeah, Meggie, quit being an annoying little twerp!” Jared said.

“And you,” his mom said, whirling around back and pointing a finger at Jared. “Don’t egg her on.”

Jared harrumphed, but kept his mouth shut, scowling.

“Alright, Jared, let’s go see if any of Jeff’s old jeans will fit you,” Sherry said, pulling him toward the stairs. “I kept a few pairs that he outgrew really quickly, so they should be in decent shape.”

“Aww, mom, I don’t wanna wear Jeff’s old hand-me-downs!” Jared whined.

“Just until we can get to the store and get you some new ones, Jay,” she assured, already heading up the stairs.

Megan made another face at him as he left the room, and he shot one right back at her. God, she was annoying sometimes.

Another thing about puberty that really sucked was that he was horny all the time. He still had dreams about Jensen in which they would just talk, but he had a lot of dreams that were just fuzzy, blurry dreams about random, faceless guys with hot, muscular bodies. Sometimes he would make out with these guys, and sometimes the guy would morph into Jensen. He liked those dreams the best. Jared frequently woke up with sticky boxers after the dreams with Jensen, to the point where he started keeping a roll of paper towels under the bed.

At school, Jared had to walk around with his books over his crotch to hide his semi-permanent hard-on, but he wasn’t the only guy doing that, by any means. But he was the only guy who wasn’t obsessed with girls, at least as far as he could tell. Sandy proved to be an awesome friend, because he could hang out with her and no one suspected that his interest in her was strictly platonic. He even took her to a couple of dances when she didn’t want to have to worry about some guy pawing at her blossoming body or trying to pressure her into making out with him when she wasn’t ready.

Sandy had hit puberty, too, and she was suddenly very curvy. Jared could appreciate it from an aesthetic point of view, and he even thought about trying to draw her sometimes, but he felt protective of her more than anything else. He loved that he could talk with her about guys they both thought were hot, and that she could confide in him that she wasn’t ready to get physical with anyone yet. She helped him accept that he was actually gay, that it was more than just liking Jensen. They protected each other, and everyone else thought they were going out, even Jared’s family. Neither Jared nor Sandy were inclined to tell anyone the truth just yet.

Jared continued to periodically have the vivid, almost lucid dreams with Jensen, too. In these dreams, he just talked with Jensen. Nothing else physical happened between them for a while after that first kiss. Mostly they just hung out with each other and talked a lot, about anything and everything. Jared sometimes wondered about these dreams, how Jensen seemed so real, and he liked to imagine that Jensen was real, and that they just connected in their dreams.

He learned that Jensen’s favorite classes were his English and Literature classes, and he played on the Varsity tennis team. Jensen had a small circle of close friends, but had no interest in being popular. Said it would bring too much attention to him, and he needed to stay in the closet. His close friends knew he was gay, but that was it. His two best friends, Steve Carlson and Christian Kane, both a year older than him, were in the high school band, and they were trying to start a small band of their own. Jensen complained about how his fingers hurt from learning to play the guitar, but how he loved just hanging with them and singing along. Sometimes Jared would dream of Jensen singing, imageless, shapeless dreams in which he just heard the music and Jensen’s beautiful voice, low and smooth. He loved those dreams, too, always felt calmer and grounded after hearing Jensen sing in his sleep.

And then Jensen started seeing a guy named Tyler. This drove Jared a little nuts, but he didn’t say anything. He and Jensen were only friends—that kiss had been an experiment, not the start of a romantic relationship—and as much as he felt possessive of Jensen, Jared knew he had no claim to him. He liked the idea that Jensen had a life outside of the dreams, and even though as he wanted Jensen all to himself, he preferred to pretend that Jensen was real, with his own problems and places to go when Jared wasn’t dreaming about him. So he didn’t try to control the dreams to make Jensen his and his alone.

Jensen had told him that was hoping to make it through high school before coming out to his family. He knew his parents would never approve, but he hoped he could keep up the deception until he went away to college, when they wouldn’t have as much direct control over his life. Jared was a little worried about coming out himself, but he was confident that his family would handle it better than Jensen’s family. Or he hoped so, at least. But given that there were no guys he was really interested in other than Jensen, he figured he could wait a bit to tell his family.

Jared finished his eighth grade year with an A-minus average, excelling in Art. He was thrilled to finally be moving out of middle school and into high school. He was going from being the top dog to the peon freshman, but Jared didn’t care. High school meant that he was getting older, closer to being an adult, to finally being able to do things like get a job and his driver’s license, and to having some freedom and independence, so he wouldn’t have to always rely on his parents or Jeff to drive him around.

But then Jeff left to go to college in Austin, and all of a sudden, Jared was the oldest kid in the house. It was strange at times, not having Jeff around to tease him, pick on him, play basketball with him, or teach him how to wrestle and throw a punch. Jared didn’t have an ally in keeping an eye on Megan anymore, and it was kind of scary, knowing that he had sole big-brother duties now. That was a lot of responsibility that he wasn’t used to. Sherry cried for a week when Jeff left, alternating between bouts of “I’m so proud of him” and “He’s going to eat nothing but pizza for a month!” Jared didn’t have the heart to tell her that Jeff and his two best friends Dave and Bobby were probably going to do a lot worse than eat nothing but pizza—they were going to party, get drunk, get high, and get laid. Though from the red face Jeff was sporting when he found condoms stashed in his backpack and his mother’s knowing grin, Jared suspected that she probably knew.

And then, seemingly as fast as it came on, Jared was done with the worst of puberty. His voice settled, pitched lower and smoother. His dick had gotten bigger, something he was immensely pleased with, and his shoulders were broader now. Before puberty, what little body hair he had was fine and uncolored, whereas now he had soft, dark pubic hair with a small trail up to his navel, armpit hair, and soft hair on his legs. He was starting to get a little bit of facial hair, too, but not much anywhere other than his chin. The acne breakouts on his face didn’t go away completely, but they calmed down quite a bit, something else he was really pleased with. Jared was still growing and he knew he had more growth spurts yet to come, but this spurt seemed to have slowed down. He was glad the aching in his shins had faded away.

On the night of his fourteenth birthday, Jensen surprised him by telling him that he and Tyler had split up. And then Jensen kissed Jared for the first time in months—since they had first tried it out. Kissing quickly led to heated making out, and within five minutes Jared had come in his pants, mortified. Jensen had only chuckled against Jared’s mouth, rubbed himself to completion as well, and then whispered “Happy Birthday, Jay,” in Jared’s ear. That was the first time Jared really didn’t mind waking up with his underwear glued to his pubes. Because that had been the best birthday gift ever.

Autumn, 1994

“Man, high school is awesome,” Jared says as he plops down next to Jensen on the sofa. It’s a few months into his freshman year, and Jared is really enjoying it.

“Finally made it to the big leagues, huh pipsqueak?” Jensen snarks.

Jared elbows him in the ribs, grinning.

“Small fish, big pond, yeah?” Jensen goes on, snickering.

“I had another growth spurt! I’m almost six feet tall, now!” Jared retorts.

“Almost doesn’t quite count, Jay,” Jensen smirks. “You’ve got a few inches to go before you hit six feet.”

Jared eyes Jensen over. “Doubt you’re six foot yet, either, oh mighty Junior.”

Jensen stands up. “Alright pipsqueak, let’s see who’s taller!”

Jared hops up and stands toe to toe with Jensen.

Who is still just a couple of inches taller than Jared.

“Damn,” he mutters.

Jensen grins in victory. “Ha! Still a pipsqueak!”

Jared hooks his foot behind Jensen’s knee and topples him down onto the sofa. “I’ll show you pipsqueak!” he hollers, leaping on top of Jensen, pinning him down by the wrists.

Jensen looks surprised for a couple of seconds, and then his face turns mischievous. “Think you’re tough, huh?” he says, and then suddenly Jared is on his back, Jensen on top of him, looking smug. The sofa is now a king-sized bed, and Jared grins. God, he loves these dreams with Jensen.

“Oh yeah?” Jared growls.

The resulting tussle ends when they roll off the bed and land on the floor in a heap of knees and elbows.

Jensen, who lands on top of Jared, bursts out laughing. “I am the winner!” he cheers.

Jared spends a long moment really tempted to continue the wrestling match, the competitive side of him yelling that he has to win this, but having Jensen on top of him like this is really hot. He shifts a bit—Jensen has him pinned with his wrists above his head, and he can see Jensen’s eyes darken as he realizes how hot this is, too.

“So what do I win?” Jensen asks, dropping down to his elbows and shifting to line up his body with Jared’s.

“What do you want?” Jared grins and shifts his hips, pressing up into Jensen and enjoying the feel of Jensen hard against him.

Jensen answers by kissing Jared soundly, sliding his tongue into Jared’s mouth.

Jared moans and opens his legs wider, allowing Jensen to press in deeper against him.

God, he loves this, feeling Jensen’s tongue glide against his, pleasure shooting up his spine as Jensen rocks his hips against Jared’s. Jared moans as a particularly pleasurable thrust shoots electricity down to his toes. “Fuck yeah,” Jared mumbles against Jensen’s lips.

Jensen moans in response and runs a hand down Jared’s side and just under his waistband. “Is this okay?” he asks.

They haven’t done much more than make out and rub off together in their pants at this point, but Jared wants more. This is his dream—he can do whatever he wants in it, and he wants to do so much more with Jensen. “Yeah,” he pants against Jensen’s lips. “Please.”

“Yeah, Jared,” Jensen groans. His hand curls around Jared’s cock, pulling gently, and Jensen echoes Jared’s moan of pleasure.

Jared takes advantage of his free hand and returns the favor, shoving his hand into Jensen’s shorts and squeezing Jensen’s cock tightly. He loves how it feels so soft but rock hard at the same time. How it feels similar but different from his own, thicker. He grips Jensen’s cock firmly and begins to jack him slowly.

Even now it feels like a competition. Jensen grunts and retaliates by swiping his thumb over the slit of Jared’s cock, and holy hell, that feels good. Jared rides Jensen’s hand hard and twists his palm around Jensen’s cock, squeezing the head tightly as he strokes. Jensen bucks and whines deep in his throat, and then moves his mouth to a spot behind Jared’s ear, sucking and licking. Jared can hardly breathe from how hot that is, the way Jensen is moaning and moving against him, sending sparks of fire all over him. And then Jensen’s other hand finds its way to Jared’s nipple, tugging and pinching.

The triple stimulation is more than enough to take Jared over the edge, and he comes messily into Jensen’s hand, whimpering, “Oh fuck, oh fuck, Jensen…”

When he opens his eyes, Jensen is grinning down at him, smug. “I win,” he whispers, and then ruts into Jared’s fist, coming with a groan, his face flushing beautifully.

The next thing Jared is aware of is being back in the bed, cleaned up. Jensen is curled up next to him, head resting on Jared’s shoulder, feet entangled.

“So what’s so awesome about high school, Jay?” Jensen asks after they’ve caught their breath.

Jared rolls onto his side to face Jensen, who pouts at having his pillow dislodged. He quickly snuggles back in once Jared is situated, though.

“I feel like I’m getting closer, you know? When I’m done with this school, I’m done for good.”

“Until college, of course,” Jensen says.

“Well yeah,” Jared replies. “Of course. But then I’ll be on my own. An adult. I can choose my own classes and my own schedule.”

Jensen nods, waiting for Jared to continue.

Jared thinks for a moment, listening to Jensen breathing. “Our football team is kicking ass this year. We might take our division championship. Sandy made the cheerleading squad—she’s so cute in her little outfit—and I’m going to try out for the basketball team this year. Don’t know if they’ll put me on Junior Varsity or Varsity, but I’m tall enough and good enough, hopefully, to at least make one of the teams.”

“You will,” Jensen assures. “As much time as you spend in the driveway practicing, I’m sure you’ll make the team. How is your art going?”

“It’s great,” Jared says excitedly. “I’m learning SO much, and I totally LOVE my art teacher, Mrs. Bondurant. She’s great, super talented, and she’s teaching me about oil painting. And there’s this guy in my art class that I like a little.”

Jensen cocks an eyebrow. “A guy?” he asks.

Jared blushes and nods. “His name is Aaron Sutterfield.”

“Aaron,” Jensen repeats, frowning.

“Why the frown?” Jared asks. “Are you gonna be jealous?”

Jensen shakes his head, but Jared knows he’s lying.

“Liar. You ARE jealous!” he grins, part of him secretly pleased at the thought.

Jensen scowls at him and huffs a sigh. “It’s just… I know this is a dream with you. But I can’t help but want you all to myself.”

Jared’s heart feels warm. He feels the same way. “Here, Jensen,” he says, gesturing to the dream-room that they are in, “I am all yours. But I only have you here. I gotta have a life, Jen. And I didn’t complain when you went out with Tyler.”

“I know,” Jensen grumbles, ducking his face into Jared’s shoulder. “I just wish…”

“I know, Jen. So do I,” Jared answers.

They are quiet for a moment, just lying beside each other.

“So tell me about Aaron,” Jensen says softly, resigned.

Jared sighs and shifts against Jensen, getting closer. “He’s a year older than me, and he’s an awesome artist. I can’t believe what he can do with an airbrush. His stuff looks so realistic, it’s amazing.”

“What’s he look like?” Jensen asks.

“Well, he’s got long blond hair—he keeps it in a ponytail—and he’s got these gorgeous blue eyes. He’s from California originally, so he’s got a bit of surfer dude in him. But he always wears eyeliner, and he doesn’t care if the jocks make fun of him for it. He totally does his own thing and doesn’t conform to what’s popular. I like that about him.”

“Tortured goth artist type?” Jensen asks, grinning.

“Well, not quite goth,” Jared answers. “Though he does wear a lot of black. And he does have the whole ‘suffering for my art’ thing going on. Does that make him goth?”

“I dunno. Is he obsessed with pain and death?”

Jared frowns. “I don’t think so.”

“Whatever, so he’s a not-quite goth surfer dude. That’s an interesting combination,” Jensen says, laughing. “So are you going out with him?”

“No,” Jared answers. “I don’t really know if he’s interested. Or if he’s into guys. It’s not like I can come right out and ask, ‘hey, do you like dick?’ I’d get clocked.”

“Yeah, not in Texas, for sure,” Jensen replies. “But you think he might like you?”

“I think so. I mean, he always sits by me in art class, and he’s showing me how to airbrush, and he did this awesome painting for me.”

“Was it a painting of his dick?” Jensen smirks.

Jared snorts and jabs him in the ribs. “How did you know?” he snarks. “Big eleven by seventeen painting of a huge, veiny penis, complete with hairy balls and oozing tip. I’m gonna hang it up on my wall and beat off to it every night. Mom will have a heart attack when she sees it.”

Jensen’s eyes twinkle as he bursts out laughing. “Ass,” he chuckles.

“No, Jensen, COCK,” Jared corrects, keeping his face as serious as he can.

“Is it as big as mine?” Jensen asks.

“Bigger, Jen,” Jared says, mock-seriously, and holds his hands up to demonstrate the size. “Foot and a half long, six inches thick.”

“Gosh, Jay, he must really like you if he painted you a massive dick,” Jensen says in a breathless falsetto. “That or he wants to fuck you,” he says in his normal voice.

Jared bursts out laughing and rolls his eyes. “Like that will ever happen. Jerk. No, it was a painting of a dog leaping into the air to catch a Frisbee. It was really good.”

“He knows you like dogs?” Jensen asks, sounding surprised.

“Yeah, he saw the drawings of dogs in my portfolio.”

“What kind of stuff does he draw? Does he have lots of sketches of chicks with big tits?” Jensen asks.

Jared thinks for a moment. “No, actually, he doesn’t. He does have a lot of sketches of guys on motorcycles, though.”


“Not that I know of. I hardly ever see him talking with girls outside of class discussions.”

“Does Sandy like him?” Jensen asks.

Jared frowns. He knows what Jensen is doing, and he’s half annoyed and half flattered that Jensen would try to be protective like this. It’s kind of sweet. “She doesn’t really know him,” he answers. “Totally different social circles. The other cheerleaders don’t like him much, but they’re all really snobby and stuck up. Sandy doesn’t like them much, but she has to put up with them since she’s new on the squad.”

Jensen hums, frowning. “Is Aaron a good student?” he asks, not falling for Jared’s attempt to change the topic to Sandy.

“Well, he aces art. Don’t know much about his other classes, because he’s a sophomore and we don’t have any other classes together.”

“Sounds like you don’t know anything about him other than he’s a good artist who has pretty eyes, Jay.” Jensen frowns. “Don’t let him take advantage of you.”

“He won’t do that, Jen,” Jared assures. “I won’t let him. But like I said, I don’t even know if he likes guys, or me for that matter.”

“It sounds to me like he probably is into guys, and he might like you. All the straight guys I know who are taking art all spend a lot of time doodling girls with boobs. None of them doodle guys. And if he talks to you and gives you paintings, that’s probably a good sign. Just be careful, Jay.”

“I will, worrywart. I’m a big boy now.”

“That’s for sure,” Jensen grins, squeezing Jared’s shoulder. “Been hitting the gym, pipsqueak?”

Jared nods. “I’m tired of being this scrawny, gangly guy.”

Jensen runs his fingers over Jared’s pecs and down his abs, making him shiver. “I can tell. You look good, Jay. Keep it up, and you’ll fill out eventually.”

Jared frowns. “Jeff bulked up a lot in high school. So I’m spending as much time lifting weights as I can. I’m tired of him being able to thump me.”

“Trust me, Jared, you will definitely get bigger. I expect you’ll get taller, too; you’ll definitely fill out as you get older. You’ll always be pipsqueak to me, no matter how big you get.”

Jared laughs and thwaps Jensen on the shoulder half-heartedly.

Jensen just snickers and presses his face into Jared’s neck.

Yeah, Jared really loves these dreams with Jensen.

“Good hustle out there today, Padalecki!” Coach Belnap said as Jared trudged into the locker rooms dripping sweat behind all of the other guys who had tried out for the basketball teams. His legs felt like jello after all the sprints the coaches had made them run.

“Thanks, coach!” Jared replied, wiping sweat from his forehead.

The school held one big tryout session for all grades, and then picked out the players for the Varsity and Junior Varsity teams. Jared was hoping to make the Varsity team, but knew it was a long shot because he was just a freshman, and a lot of the juniors and seniors were really good. But he had shot up a few inches since last year, so maybe…

He got to his locker and noticed all of the other guys stripping off sweaty t-shirts, and suddenly had to swallow. Skin. Lots of it, in a range of colors, all of it gorgeous. Muscles. Sweat. Nipples. Hip bones and happy trails. Christ.

Jared opened his locker and focused on his stuff, taking a deep breath. He so did not want to pop wood in a locker room full of straight guys.

“Hey man, good job out there,” came a voice beside him.

Jared turned to see a squinty-eyed guy with spiky-blond hair standing a couple of lockers over. Chad Murray, his mind supplied him. Football player. Freshman football player on the Varsity football team, he was that good. And he was popular.

“Thanks,” he said, a little unnerved that this popular jock was talking to him. Jared wasn’t exactly shunned, but he wasn’t in the popular group, either. He mostly hung out with Sandy, who, despite being a cheerleader, was still his best friend.

“You too,” he added. “Chad, right?”

“Yeah! Chad Michael Murray, at your service,” he said, sticking out a sweaty palm for Jared to shake.

“Jared Padalecki,” Jared answered as he shook Chad’s hand, grinning. “So you play basketball as well as football?”

“Yup! Football is my number one, but gotta have something to do when that’s over,” Chad answered, pulling off his shirt.

Jared quickly averted his eyes. He still noticed that Chad had some good muscle definition, though.

“Dude! I see you hanging out with that cheerleader Sandy McCoy all the time!” Chad commented, grinning, as he was stripping off his clothes.

“Um, yeah,” Jared stammered, not looking up.

“Man, she is smoking hot. You two dating?”

“No, we’re just friends,” Jared answered, pulling off his tank top. “She’s my best friend, though,” he said sternly. “So hands off.”

Chad whistled and held up his hands in a placating manner. “Ooookay, man, no problem.” He busied himself by rummaging through his locker.

The locker room was pretty empty now, with most of the guys in the shower already. Jared grabbed his towel, wrapped it around his hips, and then shimmied his shorts off from under the towel.

“Dude, what the hell?” Chad asked, looking at Jared like he was crazy. He was also standing there stark naked, and Jared couldn’t help but look—Chad was uncut, something Jared hadn’t seen in person before. It looked… strange. And then he realized what he was doing and quickly averted his eyes, blushing. Wow.

“Sorry,” Jared mumbled, thinking he’d been caught looking.

“Dude, I’m not gay. I’m not gonna check you out,” Chad said, turning to face Jared fully. “Are you homophobic or something?”

“NO!” Jared shouted, looking up. “Not at all! I just…” he trailed off, not knowing what to say, and blushing furiously.

“Oh. Ohhh,” Chad said, his voice entirely knowing. He wrapped a towel around his waist and sat down on the bench. “That explains the sneaky looks out of the corner of your eye.”

Jared was on the verge of panic. He had NO idea what to do. He had finally accepted that he was gay, but he hadn’t told anyone other than Sandy, and he definitely didn’t want to be out at school yet. And now Chad Murray, popular jock, knew.

Jared collapsed onto the bench and dropped his head in his hands. “Oh shit,” he breathed, trying not to freak out. This was… fuck… Chad could ruin his life if he wanted to.

“Dude, it’s okay, man,” Chad said softly.

“No, it’s not,” Jared gasped.

“Man, take a deep breath. I’m not going to out you.”

Jared looked up at him, surprised. He didn’t know Chad all that well, but he looked surprisingly genuine. “You’re not?” he asked.

“No way would I do that to someone. My cousin Brock is gay, and he got found out by some dick jocks, and they beat him up so bad they ruptured his spleen, man. He had to spend several days in the hospital, and he transfered to a different school, because his school wouldn’t do anything about what happened. It’s not right. I wouldn’t ever do that to someone else.”

Jared just stared at him for a moment, speechless. “Are you for real?”

Chad smirked. “Abso-fucking-lutely!” He held his arms out and patted himself on the chest. “I’m just that awesome!”

Jared snorted. “Or full of yourself,” he retorted.

“That too,” Chad replied, unconcerned. Then his face turned serious again. “So you obviously aren’t out, and don’t want to be, right?”

Jared nodded.

“Who all knows?” he asked.

“Sandy, and now you,” Jared answered. And Jensen, but he didn’t say that.

“Wow, I’m on the inside of the small Padalecki circle. I’m honored.” Chad put his hand on his heart like he was saying the pledge.

Jared laughed out loud this time, feeling a million times better. “Alright, why don’t we hit the showers before all the other guys use up the hot water?” he suggested.

At that moment, several very wet guys came back in from the shower area and began drying off, causing Jared to completely lose his train of thought. Because, dude, wet skin.

Chad shoved him toward the shower stalls, whispering in his ear, “Get a grip, Jared, not all guys are as awesome as me.”

Jared snapped out of his daze. “Thanks,” he whispered back.

“Just don’t perv on me and we’ll be golden,” Chad replied, smacking him on the ass.

“No problem,” Jared laughed and felt a weight lifted off of his chest. He’d already seen all he ever wanted of Chad, anyway.

That weekend, Jeff made the trip home from Austin. Jared’s parents were excited to have him home, and over dinner they tried to catch up on all the gossip they missed.

“Dave is moving out,” Jeff said between bites of salad. “He’s moving in with his boyfriend Anthony.”

Jared felt his ears turning red as his brain shouted, “WARNING! WARNING! WARNING!” at him. But he tried not to be noticed, focusing on his roast beef. He did not want to get in the middle of this conversation yet. Dave and Bobby were Jeff’s two best friends—they bonded almost immediately when the Padaleckis moved into this neighborhood, and ever since had done everything together, particularly getting in trouble. They had gone off to the University of Texas at Austin together the year before, and the three of them were roommates in a small apartment near campus. But Jared had never heard about Dave being gay before now.

“Aw, that’s sweet,” his Mom said. “But will the school allow that?”

“They’re getting an apartment off-campus, so the school has no say,” Jeff replied, and then stuffed his mouth full of meat. “Austin is pretty tolerant of gays, anyway, so I doubt they’d care,” he mumbled around his food. “There’s a good LGBT support community there.”

“Don’t talk with your mouth full, Jeff,” Sherri chided.

Jared couldn’t help but stare back and forth at his parents, who were decidedly not freaking out about Dave being gay or moving in with his boyfriend.

“Well, good for them,” his Dad said. “Anthony is a good kid.”

Apparently that meant that his parents had met Anthony, so Dave being gay was obviously old news.

“So what are you and Bobby going to do with Dave gone?” Sherri asked. “Are you going to find a new roommate?”

“You guys are okay with Dave being gay?” Jared blurted, interrupting the conversation and surprising himself. When his brain caught up with his mouth, he cringed. Fuck, he had NOT meant to say that.

“There’s nothing wrong with it!” Jeff shouted, immediately jumping to his friend’s defense. “Don’t tell me you’re going to be a homophobic bigot, Jared!”

“Jeff!” his Mom said sternly, as Jared stammered in shock.

“What? No!” Jared shouted. Why did people assume he was homophobic?

“BOYS!” his Dad hollered. “ENOUGH!”

Jeff and Jared both shut up mid-shout. Jared was fuming. Trust his dick brother to jump to conclusions and start calling him names before he could explain or find out what he needed to know—just how accepting his family was of gays.

“Jared,” his Mom said softly. “Of course we’re okay with Dave having a boyfriend. There is nothing wrong with being gay.”

“I know!” Jared said quickly, defending himself. “I’m not a bigot, Jeff. I was just surprised that you all are okay with it too.”

“Well, we love Dave; he’s been Jeff’s best friend for years. That wouldn’t change just because he’s gay,” his Mom reassured.

“What does it matter to you, anyway?” Jeff asked, still glaring at Jared. “Dave is my friend—it’s none of your business if he’s gay!”

“What does being gay mean?” Megan interrupted, looking shocked and confused by the sudden argument at the dinner table.

Gerry glared at both Jared and Jeff, daring them to say a word. Neither of them opened their mouths. He nodded, then, and focused his attention on Megan. “It means that a guy wants to date other guys rather than a girl, or that a girl wants to date other girls, rather than a boy,” he said.

“Oh,” Megan said, still looking confused. “But why?”

“Well, Megan,” Sherri said, “it isn’t something that they choose. You know how you think that Jonathan Brandis and the New Kids on the Block are cute?”

Megan nodded, and Jared tried not to snort. She had plastered posters of the gorgeous kid from Ladybugs and SeaQuest and the boy band all over her room, and had been absolutely devastated when New Kids broke up, complete with waterworks and hysterics that Jared had never seen out of her before. She was steadfastly believing that the band would get back together soon.

“Well, gay boys think that boys are cute, too. Not girls. It’s just how they are inside,” Mom continued.

“Oh, okay,” Megan nodded. “So there’s nothing wrong with it?”

“No,” Jared said, speaking faster than his parents. “There isn’t anything wrong with it. But some people disapprove.”

“Why?” Megan pressed.

“Well, honey,” Gerry said, “they don’t understand. They think that it’s too different, but there have always been gay people. Or they have a narrow interpretation of the Bible and think that it’s a sin. Which it isn’t.”

Megan nodded again, seeming to accept this. “Oh, okay.”

“Which still doesn’t explain why Jared is all that interested,” Jeff interjected.

Jared felt his face flush hot. “I don’t need a reason to be interested, Jeff!” he shot back.

“What, are you gay, then?” Jeff retorted.

“Jeff!” Jared’s Dad barked.

At that moment, Jared loathed his brother. He crossed his arms and looked away, fuming. “Jackass!” he muttered.

“Jared, watch your mouth!” his Mom scolded him.

There was a tense silence for a moment, until Jared couldn’t keep quiet any longer.

“What if I was?” he asked quietly, looking firmly over at the wall, away from the eyes of his family that he could feel staring at him.

Jared heard his father gasp in shock, and then there was a choking noise coming from Jeff’s area of the table. This was followed by a long silence in which Jared could hear the blood rushing in his ears. He tried not to panic. Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit…

Then his mother put her hand on his shoulder. “Are you sure, Jared?” she asked softly, concerned. “What about Sandy?”

Jared thought about his conversations with Chad, surreptitiously checking out other guys in the locker room, his dreams of Jensen, kissing Jensen…

“Yeah, I’m sure,” he whispered, still not ready to face his family. “Sandy is just a friend. She’s always only been my friend.”

“Oh honey, it’s…” his Mom said, her voice trembling, and then she took a deep breath. “It’s okay, Jared. We still love you, no matter what.”

Jared felt his father’s hand on his other shoulder. “It won’t be easy for you, Jared. This is not a very tolerant state, and people will be cruel. I… I just want you to be safe. But your mom is right; we love you and we will support you no matter who you date,” he said, squeezing Jared’s shoulder.

Jared finally looked up. His mother was giving a tremulous smile, her eyes glistening, and his father looked serious—concerned but caring. Jeff was pale and looking down at his plate.

“Jeff?” Jared asked, worried.

Jeff looked up. “I’m sorry, Jared,” he said. “I didn’t know… I didn’t mean to…” He swallowed, took a deep breath, and then started over, giving a weak smile. “Of course it’s okay with me. If anyone gives you crap for it, you just let me know, and I’ll come down and kick their asses.”

Jared grinned, relief flowing over him. Jeff was six-foot-four and still growing, so he could definitely kick someone’s ass if necessary. Sometimes it was nice to have a gigantor for an older brother, when said gigantor was picking on people other than Jared, of course.

“Do you have a… boyfriend?” his mom asked.

Jared thought first of Jensen, but then shook his head. “No. There’s a guy in my art class I kind of like, but we’re not going out. I don’t even know if he likes me.”

“Well, he’d be silly not to,” she said, patting his hand.

Jared felt so warm inside, and he struggled for a moment to avoid crying, just knowing that his family wasn’t rejecting him. He hadn’t thought they would, but there was always a niggling worry. Now, he knew he could count on them, and despite Jeff sometimes being a dick and Megan sometimes being an annoying brat, he loved them.

Megan grinned at him. “So do you think the New Kids on the Block are cute, too?” she squeaked gleefully. “Which one is your favorite? Joey? Mine is Joey!”

Emotional moment broken, everyone around the table erupted in laughter.

Jared opens his eyes and sees that he is leaning up against the trunk of a large aspen tree in the long, un-cut grass in the trees on the edge of the park. Off in the distance, through the foliage he can see the metal slide of the playground. Jared feels calm and relaxed, and he breathes in the cool, moist air, content. He plucks a long blade of grass, presses it taught between his thumbs, brings it up to his mouth, and blows firmly, which causes the grass to let out a loud honk.

Jared can feel Jensen coming closer before he sees him; he can feel the slight tug in his chest, the one that draws him to Jensen, relaxing. Sure enough, a couple of seconds later, Jensen appears, walking toward him through the trees.

Jensen grins at him as he sits down across from Jared. “Dude, a whistle is more flattering, you know,” he chuckles.

Jared just smirks and honks the grass again.

Jensen chuckles. “Alright, I’ll bite. How the hell did you do that?”

Jared laughs. “You have to hold the blade between your thumbs like this,” he says, demonstrating. “Keep tension on it, but not so much that it rips. Then when you blow through the gap between your thumbs, the blade vibrates and honks.”

Jensen tries, and he accidentally breaks the blade in half before he can even try whistling it. “Dammit,” he says, and plucks another blade to try again.

Jared snickers. He takes Jensen’s hands, helping him put his thumbs into the right position. Jensen’s hands are soft, with coarse fingertips from playing the guitar. A little thrill runs through Jared as he touches Jensen’s skin.

“There,” he says, “hold it like that. Taught, but not too tight. Then blow through there,” he says, running his fingers over Jensen’s thumbs.

Jensen looks up at him, eyes dark and glittering. “Like this?” he asks, holding his hands up to his mouth.

“Yeah, Jared replies. “Now blow.”

Jensen does, but not firmly enough, because all Jared hears is air.

“Harder than that. You have to make the grass vibrate.”

Jensen tries one more time, and the blade lets out a high-pitched squeal. “Awesome!” Jensen says, and promptly breaks the blade again in his excitement.

Jared laughs. “Dude, you suck!”

Jensen tears up a handful of grass and throws it at Jared, who just leans back and laughs even harder. Jensen is so friggin’ adorable when he pouts like that.

“So what’s up, man?” Jared asks once he’s settled down. He’s feeling so very content, in such a good mood. He plans on telling Jensen about his family, but he wants to hear about Jensen’s life first.

Jensen shoots him a mock-scowl, but then he settles onto his side, head propped up on his hand. Jared kicks out his feet, props them over Jensen’s legs, and then starts idly shredding the blades of grass Jensen tossed on him.

“Since when am I your footrest?” Jensen protests, looking like he’s trying for mock-offended, but just coming off as amused.

Jared just grins cheekily at him. “Since now. Come on, Jen, I wanna hear what’s going on with you.”

Jensen gives a long-suffering sigh, and then grins. “Things are pretty awesome right now, actually. I won an award for a short story I wrote—it was published in the school literary magazine.”

“Jensen, that’s freaking awesome, man!” Jared gushed. “Someday you’re going to write a novel. I wish I could read your stuff.”

“Yeah, that would be awesome,” Jensen replies. “And what’s even better about the award is that my parents have backed off about finding a girlfriend for a while.”

“They’re still hounding you to date?” Jared asked, shocked.

Jensen nods. “Supposedly, they’re concerned that I’m not ‘manly’ enough because I don’t play football.” He rolls his eyes. “Yeah, I know it’s the official state religion of Texas, and all, but I play first men singles on the Varsity tennis team, and I’m on the honor roll, and I’m getting awards for my writing. I really don’t see what they have to complain about. Dad just thinks I should be like every other seventeen year old out there, drinking it up and getting laid. I know he loves me, you know, but it’s like nothing I ever do is good enough. At least Mom tells him to back off about that. She would rather me be a ‘good boy’ who doesn’t get into trouble than a kid getting busted for drinking or knocking up a chick.”

“Yeah,” Jared agrees, glad that Jensen isn’t banging a bunch of girls. Jensen is his, his friend, his dream. As much as he likes the idea of Jensen having his own life, he never likes it when Jensen goes out with anyone. Jared plucks another long strand of grass and starts chewing on the end of it.

“But enough about my parents,” Jensen continues. “Chris and Steve will graduate this year, and then it will be just me and Danneel on our own for our senior year.”

“How you gonna deal with that?” Jared asks. He knows that Chris and Steve are big buffers for Jensen—they help him cope with his controlling parents.

“Pfft, I’ll be fine, Jay. Chris and Steve are gonna stay around for a year, wait for me to finish high school. They’re gonna get jobs and try to save up some money. They wanted to do a big road trip this summer, but they want me to come along, and there’s no way my parents would go for that until I’m eighteen. So they’ll stick around and save up for that, and get as many gigs as they can locally, and make demo CDs and stuff. They want to really try to make a go of their music, so they need practice and experience playing live shows. They keep swearing they’re going to drag me up to join them on backup vocals, which is cool to do when it’s just us, but I dunno about doing it at a gig. But maybe it will be fun.”

Jared beams. “I would LOVE to see that, Jen. You have such an awesome voice.”

Jensen blushes, a lovely shade of pink staining his cheeks. “I do okay, but thanks, Jay,” he says, brushing off Jared’s compliment. “Anyway, after I graduate, we’ll do the road trip, just us guys.”

“What about Danneel?” Jared asks, surprised that she won’t be tagging along. The four of them are a pretty tight-knit group, and Danneel is a friend to Jensen like Sandy is for Jared.

“Danni wants to go, too, but it depends on what college she gets into and what her family has planned for that summer. She’ll come with us if she can.”

“Oh, cool,” Jared says.

“So that’s my life at the moment. What about you, Jay?” Jensen asks.

Jared grins and pauses for dramatic effect, tossing the grass he’d been chewing on the ground. “I came out to my family,” he says softly.

Jensen bolts upright, knocking Jared’s legs off him, and scoots close to Jared, close enough that Jared can lean on him if he needs support. “Oh shit, Jay,” he breathes. “How did it go? Are you okay?”

Jared nods, smiling. “Yeah, I’m really okay. They were all awesome and supportive about it.”

“Really?” Jensen asks. “What did they say?”

Jared retells the conversation and tries not to snigger when Jensen’s mouth hangs open in surprise.

“Wow, Jared, “Jensen says. “Your family is pretty awesome. There’s no way mine would ever take that as well as yours did. I’d be hearing lectures about fags burning in hell and sin and abomination…” Jensen trails off, frowning.

Jared leans up against Jensen just because he’s near and he can. He kisses Jensen softly, then. It’s a comforting, reassuring kiss with just a little tongue.

Jensen gives a pleased hum and kisses Jared back for a long moment, his fingers sliding up into Jared’s hair. When Jensen finally pulls away, he’s smiling again. “But hey, that’s great, Jay. I’m glad they were cool about it.”

“I’m glad, too,” Jared replies. “Except for now Megan is going to expect me to join her in having a crush on all her favorite boy celebrities. She’s already looking for more posters that she can put up in MY room.”

Jensen bursts out laughing, and Jared can’t help but join him.

“Come on, Sandy,” Jared said, impatient that he had to wait for her to catch up. It was the fifteen-minute break between second and third period, and he wanted to go check the lists outside Coach Belnap’s door to see if he made the basketball team. His office was all the way on the other side of the gym, so he had to hurry if he wanted to get there and back in time for his Art class.

She finally navigated through the people blocking the hallway and scowled at him. “Alright, sasquatch, you part the waters and I’ll follow behind,” she demanded, taking hold of his belt loops and shoving him forward. “But keep in mind that I have to jog if you walk too fast.”

Jared snickered, almost called her “pipsqueak,” but quickly changed his mind—that was his nickname with Jensen. “Can’t help it if you’re a runt, Sands,” he teased as he pushed through milling crowds of students.

“Only because you’re freakishly tall, jolly green giant,” she retorted.

Jared never should have told her about Megan’s nickname for him.

When they arrived at Coach Belnap’s office, there were a few other guys standing around, looking at the lists. One of them turned around and whooped.

“Varsity!” Chad cheered and threw his hands up in the air. “I’m friggin’ awesome!” Then he saw Jared and Sandy, and his smile brightened even further, if that was possible. “Jay-man! We both made Varsity!”

“Really?” Jared asked, surprised.

“Yeah, man, your name is right here!” Chad said, pointing at the list titled Varsity—Practice Today at 3:00 pm in the Gym. Halfway down the list, Jared could see his name. J. Padalecki.

“Congratulations, Jared!” Sandy gushed, leaping up to throw her arms around his neck. “Now I’ll get to cheer at your games!”

Jared squeezed her in return, beaming. He, a lowly freshman, made Varsity basketball. Awesome.

As soon as Sandy let go of him and dropped back down to the floor, Chad was there next, giving him a manly one-armed hug. “Jared, you and I are going to show those upper-classmen how it’s done!”

Jared rolled his eyes. He seriously doubted that, but he was thrilled nonetheless, and he gladly gave Chad the high-five he was angling for.

That done, Chad smoothly segued from congratulating himself over making the team to eyeing up Sandy. “Chad Michael Murray, at your service,” he said, bowing formally to Sandy.

She giggled, but shot Jared an “is this guy for real?” look while Chad was looking at her legs. “Sandy McCoy,” she answered.

“Enchante, mademoiselle,” Chad said, taking Sandy’s hand to kiss her knuckles.

Jared was about to step in and say something, because, dammit, he’d told Chad hands off, but Sandy apparently didn’t need his help.

“Oh, such a gentleman,” she said sarcastically. “Just keep in mind, Mister Murray, that despite you being taller than me, I can and will kick you in the nose if you think your flattery will get you into my skirt.”

Chad looked simultaneously aghast and turned on by the thought, and Jared had to stifle a snort.

“Of course,” he stammered, flustered. “Wouldn’t dream of putting you in that position.”

Sandy smirked and then turned to Jared. “We’ve got five minutes to get to class, Jared,” she said.

“Oh, yeah, we should go,” he replied, looking at his watch. They had three buildings to get through before the bell.

Sandy turned around and headed down the hall, Jared and Chad trailing behind her.

“Dude, is she really that flexible?” Chad whispered to him.

Jared grinned. “Oh yeah. She could totally kick your ass, dude.” Sandy might be little, but she was strong. Jared had watched her practice tumbling for the Cheerleading squad, and he was amazed at how she could throw her body around in flips and back flips with such speed and grace.

“Christ, that’s hot,” Chad moaned softly.

“Dude!” Jared said, glaring at Chad.

“I know, I know,” Chad sighed. “Hands off. I will be the epitome of respect from here on out, I promise.”

“Alright,” Jared nodded.

“Dude, I gotta go this way,” Chad said when they reached a door to another building. “See you at practice later.”

“Later, man!” Jared said, and then caught up with Sandy, who had reached the more crowded halls.

“He is something else, isn’t he?” she said, shoving him ahead of her and hooking her fingers through his belt loops again so he could navigate through the crowds.

“Yeah, that’s one way of putting it,” Jared agreed.

She giggled. “I like him, Jared. He seems like a clown, but a nice guy underneath. Don’t think I’d ever want to go out with him, but I like him.”

Jared thought about how Chad treated him when he figured out Jared’s secret. He might come off as an arrogant douche, but Jared knew that he had a good heart. “Yeah, me too. Wouldn’t want to date him, either, though.”

Sandy laughed as she split off from Jared toward her history class. “See you at lunch, Jared!” she waved.

Jared waved back at her and dashed down the hall toward the Art room. He made it through the door just as the bell rang, and made a show of looking relieved that he made it without being tardy.

“Very cute, Jared,” Mrs. Bondurant said, smiling at him. “Take a seat.”

Jared made his way over to the empty seat next to Aaron as Mrs. Bondurant started talking about how their next project would be in pointillism.

“How’s it going, Jared?” Aaron asked softly. His eyeliner was softly smudged today, not too heavy, and he had a few strands of hair woven into braids that were tied back in his ponytail with the rest of his hair. He was wearing a hemp peace necklace and a black Metallica t-shirt, and Jared took a moment to marvel at the contrast between the hippie surfer dude and rock-not-quite-goth thing Aaron had going on. Jared really liked that Aaron didn’t fit nicely into one box.

“Awesome,” Jared replied. “I made the Varsity basketball team!”

“Right on!” Aaron grinned, sticking out his hand for Jared to slap.

Mrs. Bondurant stopped what she was saying about pointillism then and glared at them for talking while she was presenting. “Jared, Aaron, do you have something to contribute?”

Jared blushed hotly at being caught talking. “No, ma’am, sorry,” he said, just as Aaron said, “Sorry, shutting up now.”

She nodded and went back to talking about the use of ink and the pens supplied by the school.

Jared paid attention, because he didn’t want to be scolded again, but he also found what she was talking about really interesting—how it was possible to create complete drawings without using a single line. He couldn’t wait to try it out.

But he also paid closer attention to Aaron, looking for the signs that he was interested in Jared, like Jensen had said. In his peripheral vision, Jared could see that Aaron was leaning toward him, and that he looked up at him out of the corner of his eyes pretty often. Jared stretched out his foot towards Aaron’s, and when his sneaker bumped into Aaron’s boot, he looked over at Aaron to see if this was okay.

Aaron smiled and glanced back at Jared, his blue eyes sparkling. He didn’t move his foot away.

Jared beamed and returned his focus to Mrs. Bondurant’s discussion of pointillism. It appeared that Jensen was right after all, that Aaron did seem to be interested in Jared, at least a little. He wasn’t freaking out at Jared’s advances, as tiny as they were, at least. Jared wasn’t sure what he wanted to actually do about this just yet—he might be happy as a clam to make out hot and heavy with Jensen, but this was the real world, with real risks, so he wanted to take it slow. He would take the time to get to know Aaron better before doing anything else.

December, 1995

“Wow, Jared, that’s really good,” Chad said, nudging Jared out of his focus on his drawing pad. “Who is it?”

Jared turned and looked at his neighbor. Chad couldn’t draw worth crap, but took Art because it was “an easy A.”

“Just have to say you’re doing your best, and they give you a passing grade,” he’d said when Jared asked him about it. Jared definitely didn’t mind; it was nice to have a friend in this class, now that Aaron had Art during a different class period.

It was partially into Jared’s sophomore year now, and Jared was really getting good at drawing. He was currently working on a sketch of Jensen: Jensen was sitting on the edge of a bed in shorts and a tank top, bed sheets rumpled, and his long hair was hanging down over one eye. He was looking over his shoulder, laughing. It was an image from a recent dream that had burned into Jared’s psyche.

He was still dreaming of Jensen; the vivid, almost lucid dreams increased in frequency to about once a week, and in them, Jensen had become much more to him than just a friend he sometimes got off with. Jensen meant as much to him than anyone in Jared’s real life—and it felt that way even in Jared’s fuzzy, random, non-lucid dreams with Jensen. When he was really honest with himself, he acknowledged that he cared very deeply for Jensen—he sometimes wondered if this was how being in love felt like, but he was only fifteen and talking about words like “love” was scary. It sometimes still baffled Jared that he was still dreaming about one imaginary friend for all these years, but at the same time, Jared wouldn’t give it up for anything. Jared could tell Jensen anything, because he wasn’t real. It was like having his own personal diary, one who listened to him, talked with him, made him laugh, and made out with him. It was awesome. He almost always woke up with come in his shorts, fabric glued to his pubes, but Jared had grown used to soaking his underwear off in the shower. It was more than worth it for the orgasms.

Yes, he still had a bit of a crush on Aaron, liked the older boy a lot, but Aaron hadn’t been willing to risk going out together. He had wealthy, very conservative parents, and while he liked to push their boundaries with the whole eyeliner and piercings thing (he’d gotten his nipples pierced just to piss his mother off), there was a limit to how far he would go. Which frustrated Jared, because he wanted to have a real-life boyfriend.

But when he thought about it, Jared figured it was probably for the best that he and Aaron weren’t dating yet. He understood the need to keep it a secret; he didn’t exactly want the whole school to know he was gay, either. Plus, Jared wasn’t exactly chomping at the bit to jump into bed with any guy other than Jensen, so he didn’t really mind that he was just friends with Aaron for now. Jensen was more than enough to keep him satisfied sexually, even though they hadn’t progressed past mutual blow jobs.

“Jay-man, who is it?” Chad asked him again, poking him in the arm. “You aren’t using a reference picture.”

Jared jolted out of his Jensen-and-Aaron-induced trance. “Oh, it’s no one in particular. Just some guy I had a dream about.”

Chad smirked. “Oh, was this the guy you were dreaming about last weekend?”

Jared blushed. “Wh-what?” He’d stayed the night at Chad’s house on Saturday night, and they’d stayed up late playing on Chad’s Super Nintendo. Both of them had ended up passed out on the family room floor, surrounded by Cheetos and popcorn. And Jared had had a particularly hot dream about Jensen.

Chad snickered. “Dude, you’re turning purple!” he said, pointing his finger at Jared’s face.

Jared grabbed said finger and twisted it around, bending it backward. “Fucker!”

“Ow, dick! Let go!” Chad griped back, trying to remove his finger from Jared’s hand. He finally succeeded, and held his hand to his chest protectively, scowling at Jared dramatically. “Dammit, that’s my jerk-off hand. I won’t be able to pull one off tonight, damn you.”

“Use your left,” Jared said unsympathetically. If he knew anything about Chad, it was that he’d figure out a way to jerk off even if he had both hands in casts, tied behind his back.

“Chad, Jared, what’s going on?” came a voice from the front of the classroom. Mrs. Bondurant was looking over at them disapprovingly.

“Nothing,” they said in unison.

She looked like she didn’t buy it for a second, raising an eyebrow at them. “Focus on your artwork, boys. Don’t make me have to separate you.”

Jared gave her his best “I’m an innocent puppy dog” look and nodded. “Yes, ma’am,” he said.

She nodded and went back to helping Stacey Shorthall with her oil painting.

Jared looked back over at Chad and sniggered. “Get back to work.”

“Teacher’s pet,” Chad whispered back at him.

Jared stuck his tongue out at Chad and went back to shading the shadows in the rumpled sheets.

They worked in silence for a minute, before Chad piped up again, though at a whisper this time. “No really, is this the guy you were dreaming about Saturday night?”

Jared looked up at him, prepared to thump his friend on the head, but Chad looked genuinely curious.

“At first I thought you were dreaming about Aaron, but then you kept moaning the name ‘Jen,’ so I thought for a minute that you were coming back to the straight side,” Chad explained.

Jared chuckled. “Nope, I’m definitely still gay,” he whispered.

“What kind of guy dreams of a dude named Jen? Man, are you sure you’re gay?” Chad teased.

Jared rolled his eyes at him. “Dick. His name is Jensen.”

“So who is he? Someone you met sometime? Do you have a secret boyfriend at Irving, or something?” Irving was their school’s cross-town competitor, and the rivalry between the two schools sometimes got pretty heated.

“No, I’ve never met him,” Jared explained. “He isn’t a real person, as far as I know. He’s just someone I had a dream about, and he said his name was Jensen.”

“Well, he’s a looker, I’ll give you that. You’ve got a vivid imagination, Jared.”

Jared just looked at Chad askance.

“What?” Chad defended, indignant. “I might be all about the chicks, but I’ve got eyes, man. That dude right there,” he pointed at Jared’s drawing, “is pretty hot for a guy.”

Jared laughed. “Yeah, he is.”

Chad’s eyes took on a devious glint. “He put out? It sure sounded like you were having a good time, the way you were humping the blanket.”

Jared retaliated by shoving Chad out of his seat. Chad landed on the floor with a crash, laughing hysterically.

“Alright boys!” Mrs. Bondurant scolded, coming over to their desks. “Jared, you come sit over here,” she said, moving Jared’s drawing pad to a desk two seats over.

“Get up, Mr. Murray,” she scolded Chad, who was still sprawled on the floor, sniggering, “and go sit over there.” She pointed at a desk over by the sink. “Don’t make me give you two a detention.”

Jared spent the rest of the class shooting glares at Chad across the room, and Chad responded by miming kissy faces, mouthing “Oh, Jensen!” at him and swooning about in his seat.

March, 1996

Jensen storms into Jared’s room, his face red and furious.

Jared jumps up from the bed in alarm. “Jensen? What is it?”

Jensen sits down in the chair at Jared’s desk and kicks the basketball on the floor. It flies into the side of Jared’s mattress, bounces off and rolls into the closet, knocking over a pile of shoes.

“Jensen?” Jared asks again after a moment. Jensen is slumped over in the chair, his head in his hands, elbows on his knees, and for a long moment the only sound is Jensen’s heaving breaths.

Jensen eventually looks up at Jared, his eyes red. “They found out, Jared.”

“Oh shit.” Jared immediately knows what Jensen is talking about. Jensen hasn’t come out to his family yet. He’s a senior now, and he’s managed to keep his being gay from his family for this long. Jensen’s parents wouldn’t understand, they’re super religious. “What happened?”

“Well, this petition went around the school to allow a gay-straight alliance club. A lot of students signed it, not just the few of us who are gay. A lot of straight kids signed it, too. So the school agreed to let the students start the club. But some chick’s parents found out about it, and they freaked out. Somehow they saw the names on the petition, and the girl’s mom knows my mom from church. So she went and told my Mom that I signed the petition.”

“Shit, Jensen,” Jared breathes.

“Oh, it gets even better,” Jensen replies. “My mom found out about this while I was at school, and she ransacked my room while I was gone. She found my stash of gay skin mags.”

Jared hisses. “Fuck!”

“Yeah,” Jensen sighs. “She showed my Dad, and they were waiting for me with this big inquisition when I got home from tennis practice. The pastor was there, too, man.”

“God, are you okay?” Jared asks, reaching out to put his hand on Jensen’s shoulder.

Jensen shakes his head, and his hair flops into his eyes. Jared combs it back with his fingers.

“They want to send me to this anti-gay camp.”

“Fuck, you don’t have to go, do you? Can they make you? You just turned eighteen,” Jared says, alarmed. He’s seen documentaries about the kind of fucked-up shit that camps like that put people through, and he never wants Jensen to have to experience anything like it.

“No, they can’t make me go,” Jensen answers. “I’m not going to go. There’s no way. There’s nothing wrong with me. I talked with this other pastor at the Unitarian church, and they say that the Bible doesn’t condemn gays the way the Baptists think it does. But it doesn’t really matter anyway, I’m so over that religious shit. And I told my parents that. Told them I’d never step foot into their church again.”

“I bet that went over well,” Jared replies wryly.

“Oh yeah, like a lead balloon,” Jensen agrees. “They kicked me out.”

Jared reels back in shock. He just can’t imagine it. His parents were so accepting of him, so loving and supportive. He can’t fathom any parent kicking out a child for being gay. He knows it happens, has heard horror stories, but he’s always felt detached from stories like that, because it’s never happened to anyone he knows. But now, now it’s Jensen…

“Fuck, Jensen,” he breathes. “What are you going to do?”

“I’m staying with Chris through the rest of the school year,” Jensen answers, picking at his nails. “You remember, I told you that he and Steve want to move out to LA to try to make it with their music, and I think I’m going to go with them, after graduation. That road trip we were planning, d’you remember?”

Jared nods, unable to speak. Jensen looks so wrecked, his eyes red and shiny, and Jared doesn’t know what to do but listen.

“Well, Danni got into University of New Orleans, and she’s madly in love with this guy named Riley now, so she won’t be coming along. And now that this happened, the road trip pretty much turned into this moving to LA thing. That’s totally fine with me. I got into USC, anyway. So I’ll crash with Chris for the rest of the semester, and then I’ll head out to LA with him and Steve. Find a job, go to school. Get the fuck away from my parents.”

A terrible thought occurs to Jared. “Can they screw with your college funding?”

“Thankfully, no,” Jensen sighs. “The account transferred to me when I turned eighteen and they can’t touch it anymore. But USC is a private school, and I’ll be out-of-state, so it’s going to be expensive. I’ll still need to get some financial aid. And get a job.”

“What about Josh and Mackenzie? What do they think about it?” Jared asks.

“Josh doesn’t know yet, I don’t think. I should call him,” Jensen muses, biting on his lower lip. “He won’t like it, I know it. I actually told him I was gay two years ago, when he said something about one of his best college friends being gay. He was cool with it.”

“That’s good, at least. Maybe he can help talk some sense into your parents,” Jared says hopefully.

Jensen snorts. “Yeah, doubt it.”

“What about Mac?” Jared prods.

Jensen looks anguished. “I don’t think she really understands, Jay. She knows I’m leaving, but she doesn’t know why Mom and Dad are so angry at me. And I’m worried that they’ll fill her head with more shit about fags burning in hell. She’s still in middle school, Jared. She might believe them.”

“Maybe you could go talk to her after school, before she goes home?” Jared suggests.

Jensen seems to think about this for a moment. “Yeah, that’s a good idea, Jared. And I’ll talk to Josh, and have Josh talk to Mac, too.”

“She’ll never hate you, Jensen,” Jared promises. “You’re her big brother, and she adores you.”

“Thanks, Jared,” Jensen sighs, leaning forward to drop his head on Jared’s shoulder.

Jared wraps his arms around Jensen and pulls on him, making the chair wheel closer to the bed so he can pull Jensen out of the chair and next to him on the bed. Jensen allows it, falling onto the bed next to Jared.

They lie there for a few minutes, just breathing together. Jensen snuggles into Jared’s side, putting his head on Jared’s chest. Jared wraps his arms around Jensen, clutching him tight, and strokes his fingers through Jensen’s hair. He might not be able to do anything else to help, but at least he can comfort Jensen this way.

He doesn’t say anything when he feels his shirt get wet from Jensen’s tears. Just holds on tighter, feeling like his own heart is breaking along with Jensen’s.

In the weeks following Jensen being outed, Jared had a number of really disturbing nightmares. Dreams in which he watched Jensen scream in rage about his parents, but wasn’t able to actually connect to Jensen or interact with him. He just had to watch from the sidelines while Jensen punched walls, drank himself stupid, sobbed, and even wished loudly that he wasn’t gay. He waffled back and forth between being miserable about disappointing his parents, and furious that his parents had disappointed him. Jared watched (and even felt) Jensen single-mindedly practicing his tennis serves, watching him hit the ball as hard as he could, over and over again, and then play alone against the backboard until he was exhausted, dreams from which Jared woke up panting and sweating, with his forearm and thighs aching from squatting for low balls. Jared had dreams in which he didn’t even see Jensen, but just felt like he was drowning in despair made visceral, floating in churning pools of blue and black and boiling blood red. Dreams from which he woke up bawling and with his heart pounding.

It was enough to leave Jared completely drained. He felt so helpless, knowing that he was experiencing emotional bleed from Jensen’s heartbreak and not being able to do anything about it. It had to be Jensen’s emotions, because there was nothing going on in Jared’s life that made him feel that angry or depressed.

Jared sat in his first period Trigonometry class, head sagging and eyes drooping shut. Normally he was pretty attentive in this class; he actually enjoyed math. But he was so tired.

So instead of paying attention to his teacher who was explaining the difference between sine, cosine, and tangent, Jared doodled in his notebook, musing about his dream connection with Jensen. He really, really wished he would have another of what he’d come to call lucid dreams with Jensen, even though they weren’t truly lucid in the sense that he could control and direct them. He needed to talk with Jensen, to comfort him, reassure him that Jared cares. He could do something and not feel so helpless, if he would only have the right kind of dream.

In these “lucid” dreams, he was able to interact with Jensen in a mostly conscious manner, and he was peripherally aware that he was dreaming, but he couldn’t make them happen or really control them when they did. Sure, he was able to sometimes change the location from the park to his bedroom, or turn a couch into a bed, but it was like his mind preferred to let them proceed organically. He couldn’t remember ever consciously trying to control the dream while in the dream, even though he had sometimes promised himself to try before he fell asleep. Maybe he just loved the natural feel of them so much, how their interactions just flowed, that his subconscious wouldn’t let him try to direct the dreams.

But he only had these vivid, semi-lucid dreams once every week or two. That had been the pattern ever since he started having dreams of Jensen on a regular basis. Some nights his dreams were completely his own, other nights he had dreams of—or with—Jensen, but they were still very much dreams, in that they were fuzzy, disconnected, random, and shifting. The vivid dreams, the ones that played out linearly and in which they interacted as if they were both awake and really together, those dreams only happened two to three times a month.

Jared dropped his pencil and rubbed his temples. Thinking about his dreams with Jensen was enough to give him a headache. If Jensen was imaginary, how could Jared be experiencing Jensen’s emotions when they weren’t interacting? Was his subconscious that creative, that it would create an imaginary friend, create a whole other life for Jensen, and then put Jared through Imaginary Jensen’s imaginary emotions? Did this make him crazy?

And the other hypothesis that he sometimes wondered about—was Jensen actually a real person—made even less sense. Because if Jensen was actually a real, living, breathing person, how could it be possible for Jared to interact with him in his dreams? Shit like that just wasn’t physically possible.

But Jensen behaved so realistically—being possessive of Jared, acting with some jealousy when Jared talks about Aaron, and having his own life outside of the dreams… a life in which Jensen dated other people as well… and if Jensen was truly a figment of Jared’s imagination created to be Jared’s dream lover, why would his imagination allow Jensen to be unfaithful to him? Why would he be okay with that?

Jared couldn’t explain it, and he was twisting himself up in knots over it. He gave a loud sigh and flexed his wrist, stretching the aching muscles of his forearm. It had been another night of watching Jensen punish himself on the tennis court, and his arm was sore and twitchy.

The only conclusion Jared could come to was that he had a really creative subconscious. One that loved the idea of Jensen so much that he wanted Jensen to be real, to seem as if he had a real life outside of Jared’s imagination. So of course Jensen would have his own “real” life, have his own friends, his own love interests. Because he seemed more “real” that way.

But that still left Jared wondering why his subconscious would want Jensen to go through all of this. Why it would want to put Jared through watching Jensen suffer. Did it want to remind him how good he had it with his own family? Make him more aware of the plight of other gay kids? But why?

“Jared, what did you get for number four?” came Sandy’s voice to his left, startling him out of his musings.

“What?” he asked, looking up and over at her, surprised.

“Number four?” she prodded.

Jared looked around. The teacher was done lecturing, and the rest of the class was working on assigned problems, punching buttons on their calculators, and talking in small groups through the problems. He hadn’t even noticed the teacher giving them an assignment.

“Jared?” Sandy’s voice sounded concerned now.

“Sorry, I haven’t got to it yet,” he replied, flipping his textbook to the correct page.

“You haven’t even started, have you?” she asked, her voice a whisper. “Usually you’re the first one done. Are you okay?”

He nodded half-heartedly. “Just didn’t sleep well last night,” he answered.

She scooted her desk closer to him in pretense of working on the problems with him. “Why not?” she asked.

He shrugged. He really didn’t want to get into this with her, but he couldn’t really avoid it. “Bad dreams,” he answered.

Sandy’s eyebrows rose and came together. “What about?” she asked.

“Dunno. Just weird, strange dreams. I can’t really remember them very well.”

“Oh,” she replied, still obviously concerned.

“What’s the assignment?” he asked, changing the topic.

She frowned at him, but answered. “We’re supposed to do problems 1-20 on page 187.”

“Okay, thanks,” he answered. “Give me a minute, and I’ll get caught up to number four.”

“You just let me know if you need to talk about anything, Jay,” Sandy said. “I’m here if you need me.”

He shot her a smile, one she returned, and then he got to work solving trig problems.

Jared couldn’t stand it anymore, he was driving himself mad. As much as he didn’t want to talk to anyone about it, he needed a sanity check. Jared really didn’t want his parents to drag him to a shrink again, and the school counselor supposedly promised confidentiality, so…

Instead of going to Art class, he waited until the bell had rung and the halls were empty. He hovered outside the door of the counselor’s office, staring at the nameplate for what felt like ten minutes. Katherine Jerome, Counselor, it read.

A locker slammed down the hall, and Jared jumped. He so did not want to be seen at the counselor’s office. He looked around quickly, but whoever had been at their locker was going the other way. He took a deep breath, steeling his nerves, and darted quickly through the door.

The office was just a little cluttered, but looked organized. There were a number of books about psychology and adolescents on a bookshelf, and plants in the window.

“Can I help you?”

Jared jumped again, aggravated with himself for being surprised that the counselor would actually be in her office. Sitting at the desk in the center of the room was a middle aged woman, slightly plump in a way that made Jared think of snuggles with his grandma, cookies, and cake. She seemed pleasant and comfortable, and he felt a lot more at ease.

“Uh, yeah, hi, Mrs. Jerome,” Jared stammered.

“Good morning,” she said softly. “What’s your name?”

Jared opened his mouth, and after a couple of seconds, said, “Jay.”

She smiled at him softly. “Well, Jay, what can I do for you today?”

“Uh, I had a question,” he said. “Well, actually, a friend of mine has a question, and she can’t get up the courage to come ask you, so she blackmailed me into it.” Jared hoped it wouldn’t be obvious that he was lying through his teeth.

Mrs. Jerome gave him a knowing look. “Oh really? Well, then, what is your friend’s question?”

Jared couldn’t tell if she realized that he wasn’t being entirely honest, but she seemed to be humoring him regardless. So he took a deep breath, thinking about how to phrase this to sound as not-insane as possible.

“Is it normal to dream about the same person all the time?” he asked eventually.

“Well, that depends,” Mrs. Jerome said. “Is it someone she knows?”

Jared shook his head. “No, that’s why she has a question. It’s someone imaginary. But she keeps dreaming about him.”

Mrs. Jerome leaned forward. “And she knows this person is imaginary? Does she see him or talk to him when she’s awake?”

Jared shook his head again. “No, only in her dreams. She knows he isn’t real, and she doesn’t hallucinate about him during the day, or anything. But he’s a… friend in her dreams.”

“These aren’t nightmares, are they?” she asked.

Jared shook his head no, desperately trying not to blush.

“How long has she been dreaming about this guy?” the counselor continued.

Jared hedged. He did not want to admit that it had been going on for years. “Um, I don’t know for sure. A while. Like a few months? I can ask her if you want.”

“Jay,” she said, her smile even more knowing. “Our subconscious is a curious place. Very creative and imaginative. It’s normal for us to dream of people, places, and things that don’t exist. Usually these dreams and characters are random or shifting. There’s nothing unusual about that. It might be less common for the same character to show up repeatedly, but as long as that dream person stays in her dreams and she doesn’t start seeing or talking to him while she’s awake, then it’s nothing to be worried about. She probably needs something right now, maybe she’s confused about something personal, and she created this dream guy to help her with what she needs.”

Jared heaved a huge sigh of relief. “Okay, thanks,” he said, stepping back toward the door. He wanted out of this office and away from her far-too-understanding eyes.

“Jay,” Mrs. Jerome said, and Jared stopped. “If your friend is worried, tell her she can come see me anytime. I maintain strict confidentiality.”

“Okay, I’ll tell her,” he replied. He stepped toward the door again.

“Jay, don’t you want a hall pass so you don’t get a tardy?” she said just as he was opening the door.

“Oh. Yeah,” he mumbled, feeling his face flush hot.

She handed him a slip of paper, her smile turning into an amused smirk. “Have a good day, Jared,” she said.

Jared muttered a reply and bolted from the room. Christ. She knew who he was. Probably from the basketball team. He wasn’t exactly a low-profile student. And she probably knew he was a big fat liar about it being a friend. He smacked his palm over his face and willed himself to calm down. He didn’t need to walk into Art all flustered.

But at least she had told him what he needed to know—that Jared hadn’t lost his mind. It was okay for him to dream about Jensen, because he had created Jensen to meet his needs. First to have a friend when he was lonely, and then to have someone to help him figure out his sexuality. And to cope with living in a place where he couldn’t be open about his sexuality.

That made more sense than anything he’d been able to come up with on his own. So, mortifying embarrassment aside, he was glad he’d asked. He could get back to just enjoying his dreams now. Well, he’d enjoy them again when he actually had one in which he could enjoy Jensen. He hoped he had a lucid dream of him soon—he needed to make sure Jensen was okay.

Jared walked into his art class fifteen minutes late, feeling tremendously relieved. He handed Mrs. Bondurant his hall pass, and then sat down next to Chad.

“Dude, you okay?” Chad asked him, looking worried. Jared wasn’t usually late to this class.

Jared smiled. “Yeah, fine,” he said, and it was the truth. He felt a LOT better. “Just got caught up talking to a teacher.” It wasn’t exactly a lie.

Chad seemed to accept that and went back to flipping through a magazine to find a reference picture. “Hey, check out the rack on her!” he whispered, holding up a glossy ad containing a bikini-clad model with enormous tits.

Jared rolled his eyes, sniggering, and batted the magazine away. “Find me one with a dude on it and maybe I’ll be interested,” he whispered.

Chad sighed melodramatically. “You’re no fun, Jare,” he whined.

Jared just laughed and got to work on his latest piece, a pastel sketch of Jensen.

“Well, it’s done,” Jensen says softly. “I’m officially moved out of my parent’s house.”

Jared looks around and sees an unfamiliar room. There are boxes stacked up against one wall, clothes dropped in a pile in front of a closet, and tennis racquets leaning against a dresser. There is a narrow window on one wall, and it’s clear that this room is in a basement. “Is this your room at Chris’s house?” he asks.

“Yeah. This was his mom’s hobby room. She was nice enough to move her tables and stuff out of here and into the garage for a little while, until we all leave for Los Angeles,” Jensen replies.

Jared looks over at Jensen, who is slumped on his bed, the only thing in the room that has been put together. Jensen is wearing a pair of ratty jeans and a faded Bon Jovi t-shirt, and his hair is stringy. He looks like he’s been working all day, and he looks like he’s ready to fall asleep.

“You look beat,” Jared says affectionately.

Jensen gives him a weak smile. “I am. But it’s over and done now. I don’t have to deal with my parents anymore.”

Jared sits down on the corner of the bed, tucking one foot under his knee. “How’re you holding up?”

Jensen sighs. “I’m okay,” he says. “I’m pissed that they’ve been such assholes about it, but there’s not much more I can do about it. I’m out of the house, and then this summer after I graduate, I’m moving to LA.”

“But still, it’s got to hurt,” Jared prods.

Jensen scowls at him. “It does, but I’m done dwelling on it. They can suck my dick for all I care anymore.”

Jared knows it isn’t that simple. “Jensen…”

“Leave it, Jay,” Jensen interrupts. “I don’t want to think about it anymore. Can’t we just… enjoy being together now that you’re actually here?”

Jared smiles, knowing that Jensen missed him. “Yeah. It’s good to talk to you again, man.”

“Yeah,” Jensen agrees. “C’mere.” He beckons Jared up the bed.

Jared grins and crawls up next to Jensen for a kiss. He wants to comfort Jensen so much, show Jensen how much he is loved. Jensen hums into his mouth and wraps his arms around Jared, pulling him down on top of him.

For the moment, Jared is completely satisfied with just kissing Jensen, their tongues caressing languidly. He’s missed Jensen, too, and it feels good to reconnect emotionally like this. And Jensen smells even more potent than usual, with sweat and dirt overriding the usual grass and sandalwood scent that Jared is so familiar with. Jared loves it.

Jensen rolls them on their sides and curls into Jared’s chest, and they lay there quietly for a long moment, wrapped in each other’s arms. Jared finally feels whole after worrying about Jensen for several weeks, so he enjoys having Jensen here, next to him, breaths warming his shirt.

“Jared?” Jensen asks softly after a while.

“Yeah, Jensen?” Jared replies.

“I want us to have sex, for real.”

Jared jerks in surprise. “What?” he asks.

Jensen props his chin on Jared’s chest and looks up at him. “Maybe it seems like it’s not for the right reasons, but it is. I’ve been thinking about it for a while. I was originally planning on waiting until you turn sixteen in a few months, but then last night, when I was moving the last of my stuff out of the house, my Dad said all these horrible things to me about taking it up the ass and being a pillow biter and shit, and I didn’t want to tell him that I haven’t actually done that with anyone. It’s not his business, anyway.

“But it got me thinking. This is who I am, and I’m proud of it. I’m not going to let what he said make me ashamed of being gay anymore. So I want to be gay, and I want to enjoy it. I want to have sex and take it up the ass and come so hard I tear a hole in the sheets with my teeth. It’s what I want to do, and I want it to be with you first, because you’re my dream and you’re safe. And if I can do it with you, here, then I’ll know that I can be with someone out there, and I’ll be okay with it. I want to know what it feels like.”

Jared gapes at him, taking that all in. His dick is definitely interested in the idea, but still… They haven’t done full-on anal sex, yet, because, well, Jared isn’t really sure why, not if this is a dream and they can do whatever they want without worrying about any consequences. But they’ve just never quite got around to it, they settled for satisfying each other with blow jobs and hand jobs. But Jared has certainly thought about it, both in general and with Jensen specifically. And he’d like to do that with Jensen, too, for much the same reasons.

And it feels real. Jensen feels so real to him, heavy and warm beside him. “You never feel like a dream to me, Jensen,” he whispers.

“I know, Jared,” Jensen replies. “Sometimes you seem more real to me than anything else.”

Jared smiles, and he kisses Jensen softly, a slow glide of lips and tongues.

“So what do you say?” Jensen asks, pulling back from the kiss after a moment.

“You sure?” Jared asks in return.

“Absolutely,” Jensen affirms, smiling. “You’re the younger one, what do you think? I don’t want to pressure you into anything you’re not ready for. So it’s okay with me if you wanna wait.”

Jared shakes his head. “No, I wanna. It’s our dream, so we can do whatever we want. And I’m almost sixteen anyway, and half the guys in my class are having sex already, so I’m not too young. So yes, definitely. How do you wanna…?” Jared makes a gesture with his hand.

“I want you to top, Jay,” Jensen replies, sitting up and pulling his shirt off.

Jared is surprised. He’d always assumed that if they ever got to this, that Jensen would top, because he’s older and is more likely to know what he’s doing. “Really? I thought…?” he gestured toward himself.

“Oh I want to do that too, believe me,” Jensen grins at him roguishly. “But not yet. We’ll get to that when you’re a little older.”

“I’m not too young!” Jared protests.

“I know, Jay. But we can do that when you’re ready for it. For now, it won’t be as hard on you if you’re the top. And I want to know what it feels like on the bottom,” Jensen continues. He’s undoing his belt, now, and Jared’s mouth is going dry. Any further protests die on his lips, because he’s going to feel what it’s like to be inside Jensen, and holy fuck he wants that. He’ll get his turn later.

“Let me do that,” he says, reaching over to Jensen’s waist.

Jensen stills at Jared’s touch, his green eyes huge looking up at him through his hair. Jared presses Jensen back down on the bed and moves to straddle his thighs. He undoes Jensen’s belt and the fly of his jeans, tugging on the fabric.

Jensen is silent, save for his quick breaths. He lifts his hips to let Jared pull his jeans off, and then reaches to tug at Jared’s t-shirt. Jared helps him pull it off, and then Jensen sits back up to undo Jared’s fly, his fingers sliding past the zipper to caress him.

“Fuck, Jen,” Jared hisses.

“That’s the idea,” Jensen smirks. “Come on, Jared, I want you.”

Jared quickly shucks off his boxers, and now they’re both naked on the bed. Jared is achingly hard, and he’s not quite sure how to go about this. “Um…” he says, nervous.

Jensen smiles at him. “I did some research, Jay. We need lube, you need to stretch me open, and then you have to go slow until I tell you to move.”

Jared nods. “I think I can do that. Do we have lube?” he asks.

Jensen reaches under his pillow and produces a small bottle. He hands it to Jared, who fumbles with the cap and manages to get it all over his hands.

Jensen snickers. He’s rolled over on his stomach now, and he’d seen Jared cover himself in goo. Jared sticks his tongue out at him. Jensen just grins back. “Come on Jared,” he says, smiling.

Jared kisses him hard and then positions himself between Jensen’s spread legs.

“One finger first, then two, then three,” Jensen instructs.

“Okay,” Jared breathes. He takes a moment to appreciate Jensen like this, his lean form, the freckles that spill onto his buttocks, and he leans forward to kiss Jensen’s back. “You’re gorgeous, Jensen,” he whispers against Jensen’s skin.

Jensen makes a pleased noise, but growls, “Not a girl, Jay.” But he’s smiling, so Jared knows that his comment was appreciated.

He slicks the lube between Jensen’s cheeks, searching for the opening there. The skin is darker than the skin on his cheeks, wrinkled, and he can see it flex against his fingers. He plays around the opening for a moment, feeling the muscle relax, and enjoying the way that Jensen is trying not to moan. “It’s okay, Jen. Let me hear you,” he says.

Jensen lets out a small moan. “Feels good. Give me one, Jared.”

Jared does, and holy shit, Jensen is all hot and slippery inside, and tight. How is he going to fit in there? He looks down at his own cock, which is throbbing, it’s so hard. And then a thought occurs to him. “Do we need a condom?”

Jensen looks over his shoulder at him. “It’s a dream, Jared, so no. No actual risk of STDs to worry about.”

“Oh, yeah,” Jared grins sheepishly. “Heh, like I said, you feel real to me.” He emphasizes the point by pulling on Jensen’s ass a bit, stretching him open.

Jensen moans. “Okay, two now,” he says.

Jared presses another finger in, and Jensen is still pretty tight. He feels around, loving the way that Jensen is so slick and smooth inside.

And then Jensen takes a huge gulp of air. “Holy shit!” Jensen gasps.

“What?” Jared asks, halting all movement.

“Do that again!” Jensen tells him, his hips rising up to push back against Jared’s fingers, and holy fuck, that’s hot.

Jared presses down against the front of Jensen’s passage, and Jensen lets out a groan of pleasure.

“Yeah, that! God, that feels good!”

So Jared keeps at it, and adds a third finger. Jensen is riding his fingers now, and that is so fucking sexy that Jared is worried that he’ll come before he even gets inside him.

“Okay, now Jared,” Jensen pants. “Now, Jared. I need you.”

“Oh shit,” Jared breathes to himself. He’s really about to fuck Jensen. He takes a deep breath, slicks himself up, and then positions himself at Jensen’s hole.

It won’t go in at first, but he pushes until the head pops into Jensen, who flinches and tightens around Jared.

“You okay?” Jared asks, his voice strangled. Jensen is so tight around him, and God, he feels so good. Jared chants silently in his head, “dead kittens, dead kittens…” trying to stave off his orgasm.

“Yeah,” Jensen chokes. “Big. Remind me to never call you pipsqueak again. Gimme a minute.”

Jared grins at the compliment, but then continues his internal chant and barely manages to not move.

“Okay, just go slow,” Jensen instructs.

So Jared does. He presses forward slowly until he bottoms out, and then waits another long moment, gritting his teeth and trying not to come as Jensen continues to adjust. When Jensen gives him a nod, Jared pulls back out. He sets a slow pace, watching Jensen carefully. “How’s that?” he asks.

Jensen looks over his shoulder at Jared, his eyes dark. “It’s really starting to feel good. You can go faster.”

“Awesome. You feel so good, Jensen,” Jared says, picking up his pace.

Jensen is rocking his hips with Jared’s thrusts, and Jared suddenly remembers that spot where Jensen liked his fingers and tries to find it. He grins when Jensen groans loudly, “Right there… yeah, Jay…”

And then Jared can’t keep himself in check any longer. Jensen feels so amazing, he sounds even better, and Jared starts really fucking him in earnest, trying to stay in a position that rubs that spot that Jensen likes.

“God, Jared, yeah…” Jensen mumbles, and he reaches down between his stomach and the mattress to stroke himself.

Jared decides he’d rather do that, so he tugs on Jensen’s hips, pulling both of them up on their knees. Jensen flails a little at the change in position, falling forward onto one shoulder, his face pressing into his pillow and knees spread wide. Jared grins at the moan that escapes Jensen’s mouth. He takes a couple of thrusts to re-locate the right spot, and when Jensen gasps again, Jared reaches around Jensen’s hips and bats his hand away from Jensen’s cock, taking it in his own firm grip. Jensen is hard and pulsing, fluid drooling from the slit. “Fuck, Jensen, you like this, don’t you?”

“God, yes, Jay,” Jensen moans.

“Am I going to make you come?” he asks, stroking Jensen firmly.

Jensen answers with a strangled moan and a full-body shudder. And then his entire body tightens, clenching around Jared, hot fluid spurting through Jared’s fingers.

“Holy fuck, Jensen!” Jared cries as the ripples of Jensen’s body sucks his orgasm right out of him. He lets out a groan and rides it out, still pumping into Jensen through the waves of pleasure flashing through him.

Jensen collapses onto the bed, and Jared follows him down, trying to catch his breath. They lie like that for a minute, and then Jensen shoves at him weakly. “Heavy,” he grunts.

Jared carefully disengages from Jensen and rolls onto his side. “Wow,” he says, unable to find any other words.

“Yeah,” Jensen agrees, his face buried in a pillow. “That was SO worth it.”

Jared grins. “Yeah, definitely.”

Jensen finally moves enough so he can see Jared’s face. “Yeah, we’re definitely doing that again.”

“That good?” Jared asks, grinning.

“Oh yeah,” Jensen replies, his face a picture of satisfaction, his hair mussed adorably.

Jared is feeling awesome. As far as he’s concerned, he can keep having sex with Jensen in his dreams forever.

August, 1996

The summer Jared turned sixteen was monumental: it was the summer he was finally eligible to take Driver’s Education. At the beginning of the summer, after enough wheedling, begging, promising good grades (which wasn’t that big of a promise), and pledging to work the rest of summer to pay for half of it, his dad bought him a rusty blue 1978 Ford Bronco for fifteen hundred dollars. Jared loved it. It sat parked out on the street, taunting him, until he got his license on his birthday. When Jared was finally able to drive it, he took every available excuse (and sometimes completely made up reasons) to hop behind the wheel. He would even volunteer to run shopping errands for his mom just so he could drive it. He didn’t care that it was beat up and the engine ran rough. He’d figure out how to fix it up on his own, or get help from the auto shop teacher if he had to. It was his Bronco, and it meant freedom.

It also meant that he could pick Aaron up for a date, not that anyone else knew they were dating. Aaron insisted that they keep it really quiet. He wasn’t willing to risk his parents finding out.

“So how do you like working at Blimpie’s?” Aaron asked. He was wearing black jeans with a chain belt and a black button-up shirt, his long blond hair tied back at the base of his neck. A few strands at the front weren’t quite long enough, and they kept falling into his pretty blue eyes. Jared’s fingers itched to brush the loose hair back from Aaron’s face.

They were sitting in a booth at Applebee’s, having dinner. Not a spectacular place to eat, but better than some fast food joint, or, worse, Jared’s job. Besides, they had good appetizers.

“It’s alright,” Jared answered. “My hands always smell like onions and vinegar, which is gross, but I’ve nearly paid off my half of the Bronco.” Jared had taken a job at the sandwich shop, and that was how he and Aaron reconnected. Aaron came in regularly for a sandwich, and he always picked a different one off the menu.

“Ooh, that’s attractive,” Aaron sniggered. “Lemme get you off with my smelly onion hands, Aaron,” he said, imitating Jared’s voice.

Jared laughed and flipped his straw wrapper across the table at him. “God, I know. It’s gross. Scrubbing my hands with baking soda helps, though. See? They don’t smell right now!” He reached one hand out and pinched Aaron’s nose.

Aaron laughed and batted his hand away. “Alright, you long-armed gargantuan, no fair.”

Jared laughed. Aaron had to get out of his seat to reach across the table. Of course, pretty much everyone was short by Jared’s standard—he had finally crested six feet, and looked to be still growing—but Aaron was still pretty small for a guy. Five-foot-six or something. Jared kind of liked it, how Aaron fit right under his arm.

“Not my fault you’ve got vestigial arms like the T-Rex, A,” Jared joked. He tucked his elbows into his sides and flopped his hands about at his chest, pretending his arms were too short for him to reach his food.

Aaron scowled at him, full of mock-outrage, but he couldn’t keep the snigger completely stifled. “Alright, Sasquatch, I’m gonna kick your ass. I don’t care if you’re bigger than me.”

“Ooh, promise?” Jared laughed, winking at him.

Aaron’s eyes darkened with lust, and he dropped his voice to a whisper. “Later?”

Jared grinned and ate another fry. “Awesome.”

“Don’t you use gloves when you handle food?” Aaron asked, returning to the previous discussion.

“Yeah!” Jared protested. “I don’t get it. Somehow, even though I use gloves, my fingers perpetually stink.” He shrugged.

“Are you going to keep working there after school starts?” Aaron asked, popping a fry into his mouth.

“I dunno. Doubt it. But then again it would be nice to have a little extra spending money. I have to pay for my own gas, which I could do out of my allowance, but I also want to fix the Bronco up some. Maybe I’ll take just a couple evenings and a weekend shift. I’ll have to see.”

After dinner, they went to see Independence Day, which was action-packed enough to keep Jared’s attention throughout the whole movie, despite being alone in the back row with Aaron, their fingers linked together.

“Man, Will Smith is gonna turn in to a huge box office star, now,” Aaron said as they walked across the parking lot back to Jared’s Bronco. “Big step up for the fresh prince of Bel Air.”

“Totally,” Jared agreed. “And it was so strange to see Brent Spiner as someone other than Data.”

Aaron laughed as Jared opened the passenger door for him. “Yeah, the stringy gray hair was definitely different.”

Jared climbed into the driver’s seat, and a quiet moment descended upon them. He looked at his watch; they had an hour before he had to be home for curfew. “So now what?”

“I think I promised to kick your ass,” Aaron answered, his eyes glittering in the low light.

Heat pooled low in Jared’s groin. “Yeah, I think you did.” He started the Bronco, and put it into gear. “Where you wanna go?” he asked.

“Somewhere without a lot of people,” Aaron replied.

Jared drove them to the high school parking lot. Late at night, in the middle of July—no one would be at school. He parked at the back of the lot, away from the streetlights, and turned the car off. He was a little nervous—they hadn’t yet progressed beyond some light making out. Part of him felt like he was cheating on Jensen—there was this slight ache in his chest—but Jensen was imaginary, and this was real life. He needed to have real relationships, outside of his dreams. And now he could see if what he dreamed about with Jensen would translate to reality.

“I’ll show you one advantage of me being smaller than you, Jared,” Aaron said softly, pulling off his shirt. “Scoot over here.”

Jared undid his seatbelt and shifted over to the middle of the bench seat, away from the steering wheel, his eyes pinned to Aaron’s chest. Aaron was lightly muscled, and his nipple rings glinted in the moonlight. Jared wanted to lick them, taste the metal, feel the nipples harden in his mouth.

As soon as Jared was settled, Aaron climbed into his lap, straddling his hips.

“See? Perfect fit.”

Jared had to agree. They kissed for a while, Jared enjoying being able to touch Aaron’s skin, and then Aaron started tugging on Jared’s shirt.

Jared helped him pull it off.

“Wow, Jared, you’re so hot,” Aaron breathed, eyeing Jared’s chest.

Jared preened for just a second. He’d been working out a lot, and while he wasn’t bulky by any means, he had well-defined muscles. He wasn’t quite satisfied with them, he still felt like a skinny kid, but the definition was there.

“You’re not so bad yourself, Aaron,” Jared replied, and then finally took one of Aaron’s nipples into his mouth.

The nipple peaked under Jared’s tongue, and Aaron groaned, arching into him. “Oh fuck, yeah,” Aaron breathed.

Things heated up really quickly after that, and before Jared realized it, both he and Aaron’s jeans were wide open, and Aaron was pushing his hand into Jared’s boxers.

“Oh Christ,” Jared hissed. He wasn’t about to let Aaron have all the fun, so he returned the favor, pulling down Aaron’s underwear to expose his cock fully. It wasn’t as long or thick as Jared’s dick, but it was a respectable size, and he wrapped his hand around it, squeezing.

Aaron moaned loudly, his hips bucking over Jared’s thighs. “Fuck yeah… damn… your hands… Lemme see you…” he mumbled, scrabbling at Jared’s boxers. Jared helped him pull his shorts down and groaned in relief when he was finally free of his clothes.

“Christ, Jared, I knew you’d be fucking big,” Aaron breathed.

“Shut up and touch me,” Jared ordered, squeezing Aaron’s dick again.

Aaron mashed their mouths together, and it all seemed a rush after that. It didn’t take very long before Aaron was coming on Jared’s chest, arching back with a cry.

Jared grunted and came a few moments later, biting down on Aaron’s collar bone.

Aaron collapsed onto Jared’s chest, chuckling. “You’re good at this,” he mused, sounding amazed.

Jared grinned, panting. “Just beat off a lot, I guess,” he shrugged. That had felt good, but wasn’t as intense as when he was with Jensen.

Aaron giggled. “Guess I’m just lucky then,” he smirked, and then kissed Jared again.

After cleaning up with some paper towels that Jared kept behind the seat, Jared dropped Aaron off at his house, and then headed home, musing about the evening. He’d had fun, he liked Aaron a lot, but he didn’t feel the deep connection to the other artist that he did with Jensen.

“College is awesome,” Jensen says, plopping down next to Jared on the grass.

They are once again in the trees surrounding the park by Jared’s house, sitting under Jared’s favorite aspen tree.

Jared turns to face Jensen, smiling. The pull in his chest that he always feels toward Jensen in these dreams lessens, and it’s a relief. “Yeah? Tell me what it’s like!”

Jensen kicks his feet out in front of him, hooking one foot around Jared’s ankles. “Well, Chris, Steve, and I are all sharing an apartment, so I have to put up with them practicing their music all the damned time,” he says, but he’s grinning, and Jared can tell he isn’t really complaining. “I’m just getting started on my general requirements classes, and already, it just feels like I’m free. Free from my parents telling me that I’m an abomination, free to choose my own course in life. Los Angeles is SO different, Jared, you have NO idea. They’re so liberal there—you can be out in public and no one freaks. I see gay and lesbian couples all over the place, and no one comes after them with pitchforks like they would in Texas. There’s even a Gay and Lesbian studies program at USC.”

“Wow,” Jared breathes. “I wonder what that would be like. I can’t even tell anyone that Aaron and I are dating.”

“You and Aaron are dating now?” Jensen asks, his face turning to a frown.

Jared smiles at him. “Yeah, it’s not a big deal. He can’t come out to his family, so he wants to keep it a secret.” He can tell that Jensen is trying not to show his jealousy.

“You like Aaron a lot?” Jensen asks.

“Yeah, I like him,” Jared answers. “He’s fun, but…”

“But what?”

Jared laughs. “Jensen, I know you’re fishing for me to tell you that he doesn’t mean as much to me as you do.” He smacks Jensen lightly on the head. “That should be obvious, moron. But this is a dream, and Aaron’s real. We don’t have this huge, deep, intimate relationship. I like him, yeah, but it’s high school, man. And he’s not you.”

Jensen puts his hands up in a placating manner. “Alright, that makes me feel a little better. But are you guys having sex?”

Jared turns bright red. “God, Jensen!” he laughs. “Not full-on sex, no. I really don’t know if we’re ready for that just yet. So far, I’m only doing that with you.”

Jensen grins, apparently mollified. “Well, that makes me feel even better! Just… use condoms if you do, Jay. It’s not as safe in the real world as it is in here.”

“I know, MOM,” Jared retorts. “God, I already had that conversation with my parents. Talk about scarred for life.” He shudders.

Jensen laughs again. “I can imagine. How is the Bronco shaping up?” Jensen changes the topic.

“Oh man, it’s awesome. I paid Dad off for my half of it, and now I’m going to slowly get it running better. I might not be a mechanic, but Dave, Jeff’s best friend, is really good with cars, and next time they come back into town from Austin, Dave said he’ll help me tune it up.”

“That’s awesome, Jay,” Jensen says, leaning into Jared’s shoulder. “Chris and Steve already had a few gigs at this local pub,” he shares. “They really are starting to do well. People are asking for them to come back again, at least.”

“Cool!” Jared replies. “I hope they really take off, man.”

“Yeah, me too. They’ll never stop dragging me up on stage with them, but at least with me taking classes, I don’t have to go to every gig of theirs. I go when I can, but school comes first.”

Jared laughs. “I hope you have fun sometimes, Jen,” he says. “I’d love to hear you sing with them.”

Jensen grins. “I do have fun, Jay,” Jensen promised.

The dream shifts then, and they’re not in the park anymore, but on a bed in a room with bright sunshine spilling in through the window. Jared can tell that it’s Jensen’s room—he can see Jensen’s tennis racquets and his Pearl Jam poster. There is an acoustic guitar propped up next to a desk with a backpack on it.

“This is your room?” Jared asks.

Jensen nods. “Yeah. Chris and Steve have the other rooms, but this one is mine. And now, I wanna have some fun,” he says, pushing Jared down on the bed.

Jared is SO up for that.

October, 1996

Jared walked down the hall to his locker Monday morning after a long weekend, and instead of the usual noisy chattering from all of the students in the hall, he got a lot of angry stares.

“Faggot,” came a whisper from his left.

Jared whirled around to see who said it, but he couldn’t connect the voice to a face. There were several guys on the football team standing there, glaring at him.

The noise rose around him, but it wasn’t random conversations. It was all about him.

“Queer boy.”


“He’s a homo, didn’t you hear?”

“Candy Adams saw him making out with some guy in his Bronco.”

“Oh my god, who was it?”

“She didn’t see the guy’s face, but it was definitely Jared. He’s the only one with a piece of shit blue Bronco.”

“Fucking fudge packer.”

“How d’ya know it wasn’t a girl he was making out with?”

“The guy didn’t have a shirt on, and it was definitely a guy. With nipple rings, too.”


The blood drained from Jared’s face, and he dashed down the hall toward his locker. The whispers and stares followed him, and Jared wanted nothing more than for the floor to open up and swallow him on the spot. Oh FUCK.

He stood at his locker, heart pounding, when he saw what was written in large letters across the door.


On the verge of panic, he ignored the slur as best as he could, and opened his locker anyway. He swapped out the books he needed for the first couple of periods, feeling his face flame and tears burn in his eyes. Jared wasn’t ever hugely popular, being an art geek, but he was generally well liked due to his easy smile and his skill on the basketball court. He was generally well-respected for being a good student and best friends with Sandy, a cheerleader, and Chad. He’d never felt this before, though, this seething hatred from the entire student body, and it hurt. He knew that there were a few students who were perpetually despised, and suddenly, he felt terrible for never sticking up for any of them. Not that it would help anyone now.

A loud slam startled him out of his daze, and he turned to see half a dozen of the football players surrounding him. Most of these guys also played on the basketball team with Jared.

So he tried to go for friendly. “Hey, guys, what’s up?”

“Since when are you a flaming homo, Jared?” Derek Seyler said, gritting his teeth. “You been checking us out in the locker rooms?”

“What?! No!” Jared said, shocked. The truth was that he had, of course, but after he’d had his fill of discreet looking, he didn’t bother much anymore. He knew better than to risk anything while in a room of half-naked athletes.

“You heard me!” Derek shouted, and a large, beefy guy who played on the defensive line—Jared couldn’t remember his name—slammed Jared back into the lockers. Jared was surprised at how much it actually hurt when his shoulder blades banged into the metal.

“Hey, hey! No, man!” Jared shouted.

“WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON!?” came a loud voice.

Just outside the circle of football players who had hemmed Jared in stood Chad and Sandy. Chad was wearing his letterman jacket and had his hands on his hips.

“Hey Chad!” Derek grinned, obviously happy to have backup. “Did you hear? Padalecki here is a faggot!” He obviously thought that that news would spur Chad into joining the impending Jared-bashing.

“Yeah, I heard,” Chad said, frowning.

The guys surrounding Jared sniggered in glee, clearly thinking that Chad was on their side. Chad was the starting quarterback and one of the team captains. Despite only being a Junior, he was better than any of the seniors, and one of the best quarterbacks the school had seen in years. Chad was hugely popular, largely due to the fact that he helped keep their team leading their division. He also was one of the better basketball players—though Jared was one of their top scorers—and was generally well-liked because of his fun, goofy attitude. Having Chad on their side would definitely help their cause.

But Chad surprised everyone there, including Jared, when he said, “So what? Do you think I care that he’s gay? Back the fuck away from him.”

There was a second when everyone stared at Chad dumbly in shock, and Sandy took advantage of the moment to squeeze herself between Jared and the guy pinning him to the lockers.

“What, are you gonna hit me, too, Alex?” she challenged, pushing at his chest. “Hit a girl half your size? Yeah, you’re real macho. I’m so impressed.”

The guy—Alex Bembry, Jared suddenly remembered—let go of Jared and took a step back, away from the raging five-foot-two cheerleader, and looked over to Derek for guidance.

Sandy, in the meantime, planted herself squarely in front of Jared, and he couldn’t help but take her hand, lacing their fingers together. He didn’t want her in the middle of this, but she always did what she wanted, and he really appreciated her support.

Derek quickly recovered. “Oh, I had you pegged as his fag hag, Sandy,” he said, glancing down at her dismissively and then returning his focus to Chad. “But I forgot, Jared here is your ‘friend’.” He made quotes with his fingers. “Are you queer, too, Murray? Are you and Jared here butt-buddies? Were you the guy he was making out with?”

Chad threw his head back and laughed. “You guys are pathetic. What the fuck difference would it make if I was gay? Would you all suddenly freak out because you’ve all patted my ass on more than one occasion? Because OH MY GOD GAY COOTIES ARE CONTAGIOUS!? Would I suddenly not be the best quarterback we’ve had in a decade?” Chad’s face was no longer laughing, but deadly serious now. “Would it somehow make me less than human, make it okay for you to beat me up just for existing?”

The hall was deathly quiet now, half the school just standing there, gaping at the scene around Jared’s locker.

“So you are a faggot, too?” Derek persisted.

“Oh fuck you, Seyler!” Chad exclaimed, shouting now. “It just so happens that I’m a hundred percent straight, something you KNOW because you saw me getting it on with Trisha Hartland at your birthday party, dude. But it doesn’t fucking matter. Y’all were ready to suck his dick when he kept hitting those threes at practice last week. Maybe that’s why you’re freaking out now—worried you might like him a little too much? Are you a closet case, Derek?”

Derek’s eyes went icy. “I’m no fucking faggot.”

“Wouldn’t matter if you were,” Chad continued, unconcerned by Derek’s fury. “What does matter is that you’re all a fat lot of worthless fucking hypocritical assholes if you’re gonna turn on him now, when you all liked him last week. He’s still the same person. He’s still the best goddamned basketball player we’ve got, and he is responsible for our winning record. If y’all will let him keep playing this year and not treat him like shit, I bet we’ll take the championship. Will you still want to beat him up then?”

Derek glared and looked like he very much still wanted to pound Jared into the floor. But outside the circle of football players, there was a rustling of murmurs as people processed what Chad was saying.

“He’s still a fucking homo, and I don’t want him in the locker room with me,” Derek said.

“Your dick ain’t that irresistible, Seyler, I’ve seen it,” Chad retorted. “He wouldn’t be interested in you anyway, you homophobic prick.

“But you know what else?” Chad continued, his voice echoing off the walls. “None of that matters, either. It wouldn’t be any different if Jared wasn’t on the basketball team. He’s still one of the most awesome guys I’ve ever known, and yeah, he’s my best fucking friend. And that doesn’t change just because he’s gay. If you hurt him, I guarantee that you will regret it.”

Derek scoffed. “What can you do, Murray?”

“I will refuse to play for the rest of the season. I will also quit basketball this year. Let’s see how well we do then.”

There was a collective intake of breath; that wasn’t an idle threat. Jared’s heart soared with love for Chad—not romantic love, but the best friend kind of love. He knew how much Chad loved football, he knew Chad was hoping for a football scholarship, and that he would willingly give that up for Jared… Jared decided right then that he owed Chad, BIG TIME.

“You would sacrifice the championship over this homo?!” Derek said, astonished.

“In a heartbeat,” Chad said. “Football is just a fucking game. Jared is a person. He’s my friend.” Chad took a deep breath and then shouted loud enough for everyone in the entire hall to hear. “Let me make this perfectly clear! If ANYONE hurts Jared Padalecki, I will quit the football team and the basketball team! For this year AND NEXT YEAR!” Chad’s voice echoed down the hall, and no one said a word for a long moment.

Jared knew then that it would be okay. Football was pretty much the default religion in Texas, so much more than just a sport, and no one would want to risk their chances—good chances with Chad at the helm—at the championship over Jared being gay. People might still call him names, but Jared could deal with that.

“What’s going on here? Come on people, break it up. Class starts in a few minutes!”

Jared turned his head to see Coach Belnap pushing through the crowd. It figured that a teacher showed up only after the conflict was over. Jared was pretty sure that Mr. Belnap had heard Chad’s yell, too, by the look on his face.

Students seemed to realize that the show was over, and the noise level picked back up as people went back to digging in their lockers and heading to class, talking about what just happened. Jared knew that everything would be all over the school—both about him and Chad’s threat—before lunch.

“What was that about quitting the football and basketball team, Chad?” Coach Belnap asked, coming in close to Chad, Sandy, and Jared. The football players who had surrounded Jared had quickly disappeared the second their Coach showed up.

“I was just making a promise, Coach,” Chad answered nonchalantly. “Some of the guys on the football team thought it would be okay to beat Jared up because he’s gay. I just said that if they did, I would quit the teams.”

“That was very noble of you, Mr. Murray. Are you okay, Jared?” Mr. Belnap asked, seemingly unfazed at the news that Jared was gay. “Did they hurt you?”

“No, I’m okay. They just shoved me into the lockers. I’m not hurt.”

“Okay, good. You let me know if anyone gives you any trouble.”

Jared nodded. “Thanks, Coach.”

“You’re welcome. Now get to class,” Mr. Belnap said, and then walked down the hall.

“Jay-man, are you okay?” Chad said now that they were finally by themselves.

Sandy spun around to give Jared a big hug. Jared squeezed her back and answered Chad over her shoulder, “I dunno, man. Pretty freaked at the moment. You didn’t have to do that, Chad,” he said softly.

“I goddamned well DID have to do that, Jay,” Chad retorted. “I told you what happened to Brock. There was no way I could stand by and let that happen to you.”

Sandy let go of Jared then and leaped onto Chad, giving him a huge hug. “That was AMAZING, Chad,” she said.

Chad looked shocked for a moment, then pleased as he held her to his chest. “I told you both I was awesome years ago. It’s not my fault you didn’t believe me!” he said.

Sandy gave him a soft kiss on the lips. “You totally earned that,” she said, and then dropped back down to her feet. “But don’t go getting any ideas!” she insisted, pointing her finger at Chad. “That was just a reward for standing up for Jay!”

Jared couldn’t help but laugh at the star-struck, dazed look on Chad’s face. Chad had been nursing something of a crush on Sandy for a while now, but because she had made it clear that they were only friends, he never pushed. Plus, being the quarterback of the football team, he never wanted for a girl on his arm. The guy probably got more sex than Jared did with Jensen, and that was saying something.

The warning bell for class rang then, and Jared spun around to grab the rest of his stuff. As they walked down the hall, Jared leaned over and whispered into Chad’s ear, “Dude, I totally owe you one. I’ll even blow you if you want.”

Chad choked and busted up laughing, and then playfully punched Jared’s shoulder. “I knew you had the hots for me!” he crowed. “I’m just that irresistible!”

“And the ass is back,” Jared commented.

Chad immediately got Jared into a headlock and dragged him down the hall, Sandy laughing hysterically at their antics. “I swear, you’re both still twelve!” she shouted at them.

Throughout the morning, the stares and whispering didn’t stop, though. People still glared at Jared, jostled him in the halls, and whispered slurs at him. No one outright hit him, but people he’d been really friendly with before now shunned him.

But Jared got some unexpected support, too. Some of his teachers continued to engage him in class just like before, and several of his basketball teammates came up to him and said they hoped he would still be playing this year. Hector Vasquez, a senior point guard on the basketball team, told him, “hang in there, man, we got your back.”

But the biggest blow came when he sat down in the cafeteria for lunch and saw Aaron making out with a girl Jared didn’t know at another table. She was in Aaron’s lap, playing with his hair, and he was kissing her neck as she laughed brightly.

“He’s such a coward,” Sandy hissed as she sat down next to Jared. “He must have heard the rumors over the weekend, because he’s been holding her hand all day.”

“Who is she?” Even though he hadn’t told anyone he was dating Aaron, Jared wasn’t surprised that Sandy knew.

“Jessica Carter,” Sandy answered. “She’s a senior in his homeroom. Her family is really close with his parents.”

The name finally rung a bell—he remembered Aaron mentioning that his parents wanted him to start dating some girl named Jessica. “But I am totally not interested in her that way,” Aaron had promised. “She’s nice and all, but she’s a girl and is therefore missing necessary equipment.”

It seemed that the fact that Jared had been seen with Aaron, who had somehow narrowly missed being identified, made Aaron get over his qualms about her gender.

Jared could understand—Aaron was in a no-win situation with his family. But that didn’t make it hurt any less.

That afternoon in art class, Aaron attempted to explain as he and Jared were washing their paint brushes in the sink.

“I had to, Jared,” he whispered. “It was too close a call, and I can’t risk my parents finding out.”

“I understand, Aaron,” Jared replied, voice monotone. He scrubbed his paint brushes hard into the bar of soap, probably damaging the bristles but not able to help it. Instead of yelling at Aaron like he wanted to, he watched the way the red paint left in the brush created pink bubbles.

“Maybe after a while, after the shock has died down, we could start again? See each other in secret?” Aaron asked. “I really do like you, Jared.”

Jared fumed for a moment. He had liked Aaron, but Aaron wasn’t willing to really be with him. The betrayal cut through Jared sharply. Now that everyone knew that he was gay, Jared would never escape the scrutiny, not while he was in high school, anyway. And he couldn’t help but wish that he had someone who would stand up and say, “Yeah, I’m Jared’s boyfriend, so what?” Aaron would never do that. Jared would always be Aaron’s secret.

“I’m sorry, Aaron, but no,” he replied firmly.

Aaron staggered like Jared had punched him. “Why?” he choked.

“I understand you’re in a difficult position. But I’m out now, whether I want to be or not, and at this school, I will always be under the microscope. I won’t be able to date anyone without everyone knowing. And you won’t ever risk being with me. I would always be a secret, while you publicly date a chick just to please your parents. You’re hiding who you really are just so you don’t lose their money. You’re a goddamned coward, and I deserve better than that.”

“Jared…” Aaron’s voice was plaintive, and his blue eyes watered.

“I’m sorry, Aaron,” Jared said firmly. “Enjoy your life with Jessica.” He finished rinsing his brushes, grabbed a paper towel, and walked away from Aaron and the sink.

“Wow, this place seems gloomy,” Jensen says. “Are you okay, Jared?”

Jared is lying sideways across his bed, face down, his head and feet both dangling over the side of the bed. The room is dark, shadows blue and black, and there is an air of what Jared can only call depression.

“Sort of. Not really,” he answers without looking up.

He feels the bed shift as Jensen sits down. “What’s going on, Jay?” he asks softly, putting his hand on Jared’s back.

“Everyone found out, Jen. The whole school knows I’m gay.”

Jensen hisses a deep breath. “Shit. How did that happen?”

“Some girl saw me making out with Aaron in the Bronco over Thanksgiving weekend. She didn’t recognize him, but knew it was me with another guy. And she told the whole damn school.”

“Fuck.” Jensen lies down next to Jared, propping his head up on his hands. “What happened?”

“Some guys on the football team tried to beat the shit out of me this morning.”


“I was sort of in shock, Jensen. I just stood there, unable to do anything. I mean, I used to get in fights with Jeff all the time. You know, the typical shit between brothers, wrestling and fighting. But this time, when these guys pinned me to the lockers, I had no idea what to do. I just stood there, stupid. Chad and Sandy came to my rescue, actually,” Jared says. He rolls onto his side and snuggles up next to Jensen. This is his dream, goddammit, and no one here will judge him for needing comfort. He doesn’t have to be manly here.

“Good for them!” Jensen says, rolling with Jared so they’re laying properly on the bed, head and feet no longer dangling off the edges.

“Chad was incredible,” Jared continued. “I almost dropped to my knees and sucked him off afterwards.”

Jensen chokes. “What?!”

Jared finally bursts into laughter, both at Jensen’s horrified expression and at the thought of actually giving Chad a blow job. Because, EW.

“Chad threatened to quit the football and basketball teams if anyone even touched me,” Jared explains once he’s calmed down. “He’s the starting quarterback, and a great basketball player. We really wouldn’t stand a chance in the state tournaments without him. He made this big, impressive speech in the hallway about it not mattering that I’m gay, that it wouldn’t matter if he was gay, because we’re still people. It was awesome. I offered him a blow job afterwards and he just crowed about me thinking he’s hot, and then he put me in a headlock.”

Jensen chuckles. “Sounds like an interesting guy.”

“Interesting is an understatement,” Jared answers, nuzzling into Jensen’s neck.

“And Sandy got between me and this defensive lineman who was pinning me to the lockers, too.”

“Sounds like you have awesome friends, Jay. Wish I could meet them.”

“Yeah, me too,” Jared agrees.

“But that’s not everything, is it?” Jensen prods.

Jared sighs. “No, Aaron showed up at lunch with a girlfriend.”

“That fucker!” Jensen curses, his arms tightening around Jared.

“He says he can’t risk being discovered; he’d lose his inheritance. He’s lucky the girl who saw us didn’t see his face. So he started dating this chick his parents have been trying to hook him up with for ages.”

“Jared, he’s essentially choosing his money over you,” Jensen says softly.

“Oh I know,” Jared replies. “I broke up with him for good in Art class. I told him I understood he’s in a tough position, but that I won’t be anyone’s secret. Not anymore.”

Jensen squeezes Jared tightly, pressing a kiss to his temple. “Good for you, Jay,” he whispers. “What did your family have to say?” he asks.

“They’re worried about me, of course. Dad threatened to make a fuss at the school if kids won’t leave me alone, and Mom said she’d take it through the school district if necessary. Jeff said he’d come down and thump some ass—he’s friggin’ six-foot-seven now, so he could—if I need him to. But for now, we’re gonna just wait and see what happens. See if Chad’s threat is enough to keep people off my back.”

“You would really enjoy Los Angeles, Jay. I wish you were here with me. You wouldn’t have to hide, and you and I could date openly and no one would care,” Jensen sighs and nuzzles Jared’s neck.

“I wish I were there with you, too,” Jared answers, tugging on Jensen’s shirt. He wants Jensen naked, now.

Jensen helps him take off his own shirt, then pulls Jared’s shirt out of his jeans. Jared pulls it over his head, then tugs on Jensen’s jeans, easily opening the button fly.

Jensen shimmies out of his jeans and underwear, yanks Jared’s jeans off, too, so they’re both lying there, skin to skin.

“I want you, Jay,” Jensen pants.

“Fuck yeah,” Jared agrees, slicking up his fingers with lube from his bedside table.

Jensen kisses him hard and deep for a long moment, tongue thrusting into Jared’s mouth, and Jared can’t wait until Jensen fucks him like he’s doing now with his tongue. But Jensen will only say “not yet” if Jared asks, and it’s not like fucking Jensen is a hardship.

Jensen straddles Jared’s hips, and Jared reaches between Jensen’s knees to prepare him. God, the tightness of Jensen never gets old. His fingers slide into Jensen, pressing forward on his prostate, and Jensen moans, rocking onto Jared’s hand.

“Enough,” Jensen pants, pressing on Jared’s arm.

Jared slips his fingers out of Jensen and slicks up his cock with the remaining lube on his hand.

And then Jensen sits down on him in one swift movement. “Oh FUCK!” Jared gasps, trying not to come.

Jensen groans. “God, been waiting for this,” he says. “Been wanting you for days. Want to ride you like this, Jay.”

“Christ, Jensen!” Jared moans. “God yeah, ride me.” He rocks his hips, pressing up into Jensen, needing Jensen to start moving already.

Jensen laces their fingers together and starts rocking his hips. Jared’s upper arms are on the bed, but he’s holding his forearms up, giving Jensen some leverage to move against. Jensen uses their joined hands to lift himself up, sliding almost completely off of Jared, and then slamming back down.

Jared grunts in pleasure, loving the way Jensen squeezes around him.

“Fuck, Jay, you feel so good,” Jensen moans, dropping down on him again.

“Christ, so do you,” Jared replies, thrusting up into Jensen. He can’t keep still, not with the way Jensen is riding him this hard.

Jensen gasps at Jared’s thrust, throwing his head back. He leans back, still holding Jared’s hands, and whines. “Right there, baby, God, right there!”

Jared presses his feet down into the mattress and uses them to thrust up into Jensen. Jen seems overtaken with lust, his eyes closed, head thrown back, spine arched as he bucks on top of Jared. Jensen’s cock is engorged and purple, drizzling pre-come down the length of it, bouncing with their thrusts. Jared wishes that he was flexible enough to suck Jensen’s cock while fucking him—he wants nothing more than to taste Jensen right now. And the way Jensen is moving above him, all sinuous grace, it’s the hottest thing that Jared has ever seen.

Jensen begins shaking above him; Jared can feel the tremors through their joined bodies. “Yeah, that’s it, Jen,” he whispers. Jared focuses on hitting Jensen’s prostate as he slams up into him.

Jensen has Jared’s hands in a death-grip—Jared can’t let go to stroke Jensen’s cock even though he wants to. But part of him wants to see if Jensen can come just from being fucked.

He gets his answer then, and he watches as Jensen’s cock trembles and erupts, Jensen letting out a howl of pleasure.

Holy fuck, it feels so AMAZING when Jensen comes, the way he tightens down around Jared, squeezing his dick in rhythmic pulses. Jared continues to thrust up into Jensen’s prostate, dragging it out as much as he can, and Jensen shudders violently. “Fuck, Jared!” he gasps, and his cock gives one more feeble spurt onto Jared’s stomach.

And that’s it, Jared explodes into Jensen, his entire body tightening with pleasure rocketing up his spine and down to his toes. He can still feel Jensen trembling and pulsing around him, and it sends another bright spark of electricity through his body.

Jared shivers through the aftershocks, and finally opens his eyes just as Jensen collapses onto his chest.

“Holy shit,” Jensen breathes. “That was… intense…”

“You ain’t kidding, Jen,” Jared breathes in reply.

Jensen rolls off of him and grabs a tissue of the bedside table to wipe up the mess. He then snuggles into Jared’s side, and Jared happily tangles their legs together.

“Jared?” Jensen mumbles into his chest.

“Yeah?” Jared replies sleepily, nosing Jensen’s hair.

“I love you.”

“I know, Jen,” Jared answers, squeezing Jensen tight. “I love you, too.”

Jared continued to suffer through glares, taunts, and shunning for the rest of the year. Other than being slammed and jostled in the hallways, no one laid a hand on him.

Jared continued to find his locker decorated with slurs. No matter how often the school painted over Jared’s locker, the slurs inevitably came back. Eventually, Jared decided to do something about it himself. He fetched his acrylic paints and embellished the words with color: rainbows and butterflies, plants and flowers. When someone called him a fairy, he painted a fairy on his locker. Eventually it turned into a sort of evolving fantasy mural—every time someone defaced it, Jared just turned it into art again. He actually got a sort of morbid kick out of it, to see how he could make offensive words beautiful. The school janitor stopped painting over it and let Jared handle the slurs his own way. Jared even noticed people admiring the art when they didn’t think anyone was watching, something that gave him a bizarre sense of glee.

Jared decided to stay on the basketball team, because he enjoyed it and he wanted to show the school that he wasn’t going to let them keep him down. Coach Belnap threatened to bench any player who had a problem with Jared being on the team. After a couple of instances when he had to make good on that threat, the guys who had an issue with Jared got over it, or at least put it aside for games and practices.

Jared made a point to not go in the locker rooms when the other guys were in there. It made him run later than anyone else, but he had his own vehicle now, so it wasn’t like it made him miss the bus or anything. And it kept people from freaking out about the homo checking them out while they were showering. Jared didn’t think he should have to bother, but it was one concession he was willing to make for his own sanity.

Chad, of course, continued to insist on changing and showering with Jared, just to make a point. Or to make sure that no one snuck in to beat Jared’s head into the tiles while he was alone. Whatever the reason, Jared didn’t care, and he just loved Chad all the more for it.

After they won their first few games of the season, all with Jared leading in points, the taunts and verbal abuse dwindled.

Christmas was a very welcome holiday, because he was able to spend it away from school. He hung out with his family, Sandy, and Chad, and, of course, Jensen. The rest of Jared’s junior year progressed pretty quietly. After Jared won them the basketball championship, the name-calling came to a near stop. He didn’t have to re-paint his locker as often, but Jared decided to leave it that way as a testament to what he went through.

Mostly, Jared was ignored, except for lingering glares and sneers. Jared didn’t care. He focused on his art, spent his lunches with Chad and Sandy, and aced his classes. He ignored Aaron, who was continuing to make a show of dating Jessica and pointedly ignored Jared in return. Jared didn’t care anymore. He gave up on dating—there was no way he could do that and keep his low profile, and besides, he had Jensen. He didn’t need anyone else.

Jensen flourished in college. He regaled Jared with stories about Chris and Steve’s gigs, about his classes, about the looser California lifestyle. Jensen wasn’t dating anyone seriously, either, but he hooked up occasionally, keeping his encounters limited to casual sex. Jared couldn’t deny that this drove him a little nuts, but he liked believing that Jensen had a real life, so he dealt with it, figuring he could get Jensen back for it later, when he was in college.

He worked again over the summer before his senior year, this time at a shoe store, putting the money into fixing up his Bronco and purchasing more art supplies. He went with Chad and Sandy to Six Flags, spent time floating the river, and generally had a really fun summer.

His seventeenth birthday was particularly spectacular. Or the night of it was, anyway. Jensen finally caved and made love to Jared. After so long of Jared topping, he’d wanted to bottom for Jensen for ages, but Jensen insisted they wait until Jared was at least seventeen, the legal age of consent in Texas. Jared didn’t understand why it even mattered, because it was in his dreams and wasn’t real, and no one would ever look to prosecute a figment of Jared’s imagination for imagined underage sex. Certainly every other sixteen or seventeen year old boy was dreaming about sex every night, so Jared wasn’t unique on that front.

But nevertheless, Jensen insisted. He promised he would top on Jared’s birthday, as a gift.

And what a gift it was. Jensen was so patient, stretching Jared so gently, and he tormented Jared’s prostate mercilessly, bringing him to orgasm once before the actual sex began and then once again when they were fucking. It was incredibly intimate, looking up into Jensen’s green eyes, feeling Jensen move within him, hearing Jensen’s whispered “I love you, Jay,” and saying “Love you” in return… Jared woke up from that dream feeling complete in a way he hadn’t before imagined. He wanted to find someone special to do that with in real life, someone he could open himself to, have an emotional connection with. Jared just wasn’t the type for casual sex, and he was okay with that. He was also content to wait for someone he could love like Jensen.

His senior year progressed much like the last part of his junior year, in that people tended to ignore him, except for when he was on the basketball court. Aaron and Jessica were both gone, having graduated the previous year, so that was one less stressor. Jared didn’t know if they were still together; he frankly didn’t care. People left his locker alone now, though it was still a mural. Jared changed it a little every now and then just to keep it fresh.

Though things were quiet, Jared kept busy, and he was actually quite content. He loved his life—he didn’t need to be popular to feel good about himself or have a good sense of self-worth.

When the time came for Jared to apply for college, he applied to several schools in Texas, including A&M and UT Austin, and threw in one to UCLA. He liked their art program, and it was in liberal Los Angeles. He wouldn’t have to worry about being gay there, not like in Texas. He knew that Jensen wasn’t really there, but he liked the idea of it, anyway. No matter how much his mom wanted him to stay close by, Jared felt drawn to Los Angeles. It was kind of like the way he felt in the dreams with Jensen—how there was this slight pull in his chest that drew him to Jensen. It was odd, but he felt that way now, just a little. He loved Texas, he really did, but Texas was one of the worst states to live in for gays, and Jared really felt the need to get out of the state and see what life was like in other places.

Jared and Chad led the school to another basketball championship that year, and Jared was voted Most Valuable Player. It felt like a bigger deal than it actually was—he was the top scorer—but it felt like an acknowledgment from the school that he was one of them, that he mattered.

March, 1998

One day in the week following the basketball championship, Sandy joined Jared and Chad at a table in the cafeteria with a huge smile on her face. “I got into the UCLA dance program!” she cheered.

“Holy shit, Sandy!” Jared gasped, and he stood up to twirl her around. “Congratulations!”

“That’s awesome, Sandy!” Chad cheered, also getting up to congratulate her. “You gonna go be a Laker Girl?”

“Maybe,” she teased. “Okay Jay, put me down!” she shrieked.

Jared gave her one more twirl and then set her down on her feet, only for Chad to pick her up before she could get her balance back. Chad spun her around, and she shrieked at him even more. Chad finally put her down, and they both sat at the table, giggling.

“Have you guys heard anything from the schools you applied to?” Sandy asked, breathless.

Jared shook his head no, but Chad nodded.

“You have?” Sandy gasped. Jared gaped at Chad—it was the first he’d heard of it.

“Where?” Sandy and Jared asked at the same time.

Chad gave them a huge grin. “Fucking NYU, baby! I got a FOOTBALL SCHOLARSHIP to NEW YORK UNIVERSITY!”

Sandy squealed. “New York City?! Oh my GOD, Chad, that’s AWESOME!”

“Yeah, Chad!” Jared thumped him on the shoulder. “Congratulations! But you’re going to be in New York, Sandy in LA, and I don’t know where I’m going yet.”

“I thought you got some letters already,” Sandy said, frowning. “What did they say?”

“I don’t know yet,” Jared answered. “My mom has them all. We wanted to wait until we had all the letters, and then open them all at once. And then make a decision.”

“How many letters do you have?” Chad asked.

“Three from Texas. I’m waiting to see if one comes in from UCLA,” Jared answered.

“Well, I got mine last night, so you should get yours any day now,” Sandy assured him. “And no matter where you end up going, we’ll all keep in touch. That’s what email is for, and we’ll all come back here for holidays and stuff, won’t we, Chad?”

“Absolutely, man,” Chad agreed. “I’m going to the Big Apple!”

“That’s awesome, Chad,” Jared said. “And now I’ll have an excuse to go there: to visit your ass!”

“Fucking yeah, baby!” Chad cheered.

“You’ll hear something soon, Jay,” Sandy promised. “And when you do, we’ll figure out what we’re going to do from there.”

“Thanks, Sands,” Jared replied, squeezing her hand.

After school that day, when Jared walked in the front door, his Mom was standing in the kitchen, looking like she was going to burst out of her skin.

On the counter next to her was a big, fat envelope from University of California, Los Angeles.

“Oh congratulations, sweetie!” his Mom said, grabbing him into a tight hug.

Jared beamed. “Thanks, mom! Can we look at all of the letters now?” he asked. “I want to see what my options are.”

“Let’s wait until your father comes home,” she said. “We need to make this decision together.”

Jared nodded. He definitely wanted his dad’s input. But the few hours until dinner seemed like ages.

Finally, dinner was cleared, and Jared, Megan, and their parents sat around the table with all four of the letters from the various colleges. They were all thick, so Jared knew all of them were acceptance letters. The question was: did he get any scholarships?

“Okay, let’s all take one letter and read what it says,” Sherry said.

Jared snatched up the UCLA letter and tore into it, hearing everyone else rip open the other letters.

“Accepted, blah blah blah…” he mumbled, turning the page. “I got a scholarship to UCLA,” he said aloud, feeling momentarily dumb. “It isn’t a full-ride, but they’ll waive the out-of-state charges, and it should cover three-quarters of my tuition.”

“Accepted, but no scholarship to A&M,” his dad reported.

“You got a partial scholarship to Texas Tech,” Megan reported.

“Full-ride basketball scholarship to UT Austin!” his mom squeaked. “Jared, honey, that’s amazing! And it’s so close, you can come home on the weekends!” She handed Jared the letter.

Jared placed the UT Austin letter next to the UCLA letter to compare them. In so many ways the full-ride to Austin would be so much better; it would cost his family less, make his college fund stretch out longer, he would be close to home…

But there was this ache in Jared’s chest, pulling him toward UCLA. It was the same gravitational pull toward Jensen that he felt in his dreams. Maybe he was being fanciful, but he felt that he needed to go to Los Angeles.

“I’m taking the UCLA offer,” he announced.

“Why?” Gerry asked at the same time as his wife. Only his dad sounded curious, not distraught like his mother.

“Because I don’t want to make basketball my life,” Jared answered. “I love basketball, don’t get me wrong, and I’ll never stop playing, but I don’t want to make that the focus of college. I want to focus on my art. That’s what I want to do with my life, not be a basketball star.”

His dad nodded, smiling, but his mother didn’t seem placated yet. “But Jared, honey, UCLA is so far away!”

“Exactly, Mom,” Jared insisted. “You all have been so supportive, and I love y’all for it. But the fact remains that I’m gay, and Texas is a dangerous place for gay folks. I’m lucky. Do you know how many queer kids are bashed in this state every year? Los Angeles, on the other hand, is liberal, progressive. They have a huge LGBT community. And it’s a place for creative people—artists, actors, musicians, writers. I need that kind of support. I need to be somewhere I can find a partner that I can be open and out with. That won’t happen in Texas easily, and you know it.”

Sherry nodded in understanding. “Alright, that makes sense, Jared. I’ll miss you so much, but I’m SO very proud of you!”

“I’ll come home on the holidays, Mom, I promise. And you guys can come visit me, see the Pacific Ocean,” Jared said.

“That sounds like a fun family trip,” his dad said, smiling. “And I’m proud of you, too, Jared.”

Jared beamed. He was going to UCLA. With Sandy. In Los Angeles, where Jensen was majoring in English-Lit at USC. Or where Jensen was going to school in his dreams, anyway. It felt right, the ache in his chest lessened just a bit, and Jared’s heart soared.

May, 1998

“Jay-man, what are your plans for prom?” Chad asked, sliding into place beside Jared, who was standing at his locker.

Jared shrugged. “Dunno. Sandy already has a date, so I was thinking about skipping it, actually. I don’t want to go stag, so…”

“No way, dude. You are NOT missing your senior prom. It’s a fucking rite of passage, man. This is non-negotiable.”

Jared raised an eyebrow at him. “I don’t have a date, man,” he said.

“Yes, you do,” Chad grinned at him.

“Who?” Jared asked, surprised. “Man, did you set me up with one of your flings? I don’t want to go with some girl as my beard, Chad.”

“Nah, man, it’s not a chick.” He was grinning, like he had some big secret surprise.

Jared started to feel nervous. “Then who?” he asked again.

“Yours truly!” Chad said, beaming.

“What?” Jared was baffled. He must have stepped into some alternate reality. “Chad, you aren’t gay.”

“Dude, I KNOW that.”

“Then why are you asking me out?” Jared said, exasperated. He slammed his locker shut and started walking down the hall.

“Okay, listen to me for a minute,” Chad said, walking beside Jared. “It’s the last big thing of the year, other than graduation. You really should go and have a good time. And the people at this school have been such moronically stupid assholes to you, you shouldn’t let them ruin your year.”

“Chad, I haven’t let them ruin my year. I’ve had a great year, man. I don’t need their approval.”

“I KNOW that, dude. Let me finish!” Chad rolled his eyes like Jared was an idiot.

Jared laughed. “Okay, what’s your big plan, then, because I can tell you have one!”

“Okay, Jay, you’ll come to the prom as my date. People have pretty much been glossing over the fact that you’re gay, right?”

Jared nodded.

“Well, if you go as my date, you’ll rub their noses in it, and show them that you’re proud of it, too! And everyone will get in a big tizzy over it, and it will be hilarious. You’ll be showing them that they didn’t push you down, that you’re not afraid of them, and that you’re cool enough to be seen with me.”

“Chad,” Jared said, trying not to shake the stupid out of his friend. “They’ll think you’re gay if you take me as your date.”

“Whoop-de-fucking-do! I don’t give a rat’s ass what they think about me, Jared. You and I both know the truth. Their ignorant opinions don’t matter, and I’m getting the hell out of here for college, anyway. I really would love the opportunity to make them uncomfortable, particularly after everything they did to you, you know?”

Jared took a moment to wonder just how miserable his high school experience would have been without Chad to stand up for him. It wasn’t a pretty picture. He probably would have been beat to hell, or had to transfer to a different school, or withdraw from school completely. Chad had made a huge difference in his life here, made it tolerable. Jared owed Chad, and more than that, he loved Chad, in a totally platonic, brotherly way, of course. He couldn’t deny his best friend a bit of fun. And it was actually a pretty good idea.

“Okay, then, I’ll go as your date. But it should be a date date, man, with dinner and everything. And can I give you a kiss goodnight afterwards?”

Chad made a face and shoved him. “In no universe is your tongue to ever come within a foot of mine,” he said, shuddering. “But definitely yes on dinner, man.”

Jared laughed and punched Chad on the shoulder. “All right man. You asked me, so you’re buying.”

Chad grinned back at him. “You got it.”

Chad and Jared arrived at the swanky hotel where the school was holding the prom dressed in matching tuxes, and stuffed full of a steak dinner. Jared was wearing a rainbow striped tie, while Chad went with a pale pink. Every time Jared looked at it, he couldn’t help but chuckle. Chad was the gayest, most flamboyant straight dude Jared knew.

Behind them were Sandy and her date, Mark Woodson, a guy in her AP English class that she’d been casually seeing for a few months now. Mark seemed like a nice guy, and he never showed any sign of being uncomfortable around Jared, nor did he seem to be jealous of Sandy’s friendship with Jared. The four of them were double-dating for the night.

The guy taking the tickets at the door blinked and stared when Chad and Jared reached the front of the line. Jared had his arm looped with Chad’s and was batting his eyelashes coyly, deliberately acting campy because it was making Sandy laugh hysterically.

“What?” Chad challenged the guard, smirking. “Got a problem?”

“School policy is that only normal couples—a guy and a girl—are allowed to attend the Prom,” the security guard said.

Chad sighed. “Or singles without a date, right?” he asked.

“Yes, but all singles have to have their own ticket.”

“Well, we are completely within school policy,” Chad said, rifling through his jacket pocket and producing two tickets. He handed one to Jared, who freed his arm from Chad’s. “Here are two ‘single’ tickets. We are two guys going stag,” he said.

The guy scowled, obviously trying to come up with a way to deny them entrance. “Alright,” he said eventually. He made Chad and Jared come through separately, stamping their hands one at a time with the mark that would allow them re-entry, scowling the whole time. “Enjoy your evening.”

“Oh, we intend to,” Jared said, batting his eyelashes at the guard. This was actually a lot of fun, making him squirm.

“Dude,” he hissed at Chad the moment they walked through the door. “You had to buy two ‘single’ tickets for this instead of a ‘couple’ ticket?”

“Yeah. Stupid homophobic school policy. But at least I knew about it ahead of time.” Chad didn’t seem bothered by this at all.

“Did it cost more that way? I’ll pay you back for my ticket if it was,” Jared promised.

Chad shook his head dismissively. “Naw, it was the same price for two singles as one couple. Don’t worry about it. I asked you to be my date, so it’s on me.”

Sandy and Mark appeared behind them, and Sandy was fuming. “I can’t believe they tried to keep you from coming in! Just because you’re two guys! That SO isn’t fair!”

“No, it isn’t fair,” Mark agreed.

“Whatever, it’s dealt with now, so let’s have some fun!” Chad crowed, grinning jubilantly. “We have arrived, the party can now begin!”

Jared laughed as Chad dragged him over to the refreshments table. “Dammit, not spiked,” Chad groused. “Oh well. We don’t need alcohol to have a blast, do we, Jay?”

Chad’s enthusiasm was truly infectious. “Nope!” Jared agreed.

And they did have a blast. Chad insisted on dancing obscenely with Jared in the middle of the dance floor just to see the looks on other people’s faces, and Jared could barely keep a straight face the entire time. Jared got in a couple of dances with Sandy, too, who looked drop-dead gorgeous in her blue satin dress. And the four of them danced together for most of the night, save when they claimed a table and descended on the refreshments.

Jared and Chad received a number of scowls and dirty looks, but Jared didn’t care, and neither did Chad. They also received some respectful nods, as if people admired them for their gumption. But no one said anything outright.

It was the best night that Jared had had in a very long time, and he was so glad that Chad had talked him into it.

The rest of the year was a blur of preparations for graduation, and before he knew it, Jared was walking up the ramp to the stage at the graduation ceremony. He couldn’t help but feel like he was finally going somewhere, moving closer to where he needed to be—Los Angeles. When Jared walked across the stage to collect his diploma, listening to his family and friends cheer as his name was announced, he knew that his life was just getting started.

Chapter Text

Ours is a Reciprocal Gravitation Orbit


May, 2001

Green. All Jared can see is green, flashes of soft, light green, deep, dark green, bright yellow green. Then flashes of white and blue, and gold, and of course, more green. Things gradually come into focus, and he realizes that he’s lying on the ground, looking up through the leaves of a beech tree. He can feel the moss and dirt under his fingertips, and he can smell the grass and wild, earthy freshness of a forest.

Jensen is standing next to him, studying the white-black bark of the tree, his face focused, intent. Light dapples across his bare shoulders, shadows flickering across his skin as the breeze shifts the leaves. Jared takes another deep breath, and he catches a whiff of Jensen intermixed with the grass and the earth. He feels comfortable, lying on the mossy ground, safe.

“They sometimes call it a marriage tree when it joins like this,” Jensen says, still looking at the tree, running his hands across the bark.

Jared shifts his focus to Jensen’s hands, following them with his gaze, and notices how it isn’t one tree, but two. Two trees that grew very close to each other, and have grown together at the trunk, joining together in an elegant twist, in what resembles an embrace.

“The two trees become one organism when they join like this,” Jensen says. “No longer two separate trees, but now one. Merged lives. Husband and wife trees, they’re called sometimes. Marriage trees.” He caresses the joint between the trees, where it looks like one tree is penetrating the other in a surprisingly sexual manner.

“Of course, I like to think of them as husband trees,” Jensen says, and he finally turns to look at Jared with eyes greener than the foliage all around them. “No wife necessary,” he continues.

Jared suddenly is standing next to Jensen, and the cocoon of leaves seems to grow closer around them. He places his hand over Jensen’s, feels the joining of the trees with him, their fingers sliding together over the smooth and rough bark. He cups his other hand around Jensen’s cheek, feels the softness of his skin, feels the muscle of his cheek flex as Jensen quirks his lips into a smile.

“No, no wife necessary,” he agrees, watching the sunlight reflect in Jensen’s eyes. “Just husbands,” he murmurs, and brings his mouth to Jensen’s.

Jensen hums into the kiss, slipping his tongue into Jared’s mouth, and Jared is awash in a green haze of pleasure.

“Hey Jared! You’ve got an appointment at 3:00,” Tom said from behind the counter as Jared came through the doors of the gym where he worked.

“Awesome!” Jared smiled as he waved his staff ID badge at the reader, which beeped and opened the gate for him. “Who’ve I got?” he asked.

“New client, her name is Anna Silvas,” Tom replied, grinning at Jared. Tom Welling was a fellow Art major at UCLA—most of the employees at the gym were students—but Tom was focusing on photography, whereas Jared was focusing on painting. He and Jared had quickly become friends and study partners when they had discovered that they had randomly ended up with four classes together one semester in Jared’s second year. Tom was nearly as tall as Jared (who was now just shy of six-foot-five), but he was much broader across the chest and shoulders. He had wavy dark brown hair, light blue eyes, and a charming smile that made Jared think he would be perfect to play a superhero. Tom was a few years older than Jared, but they were in the same year because Tom had worked a few years after high school to save up money for college.

“Alright,” Jared said. Anna Silvas was not one of Jared’s regular clients, which meant that he had to go through an assessment with her before they got to work on her exercise routine. Jared actually enjoyed that part of the job, customizing an exercise regimen to help people meet their individual goals.

Jared worked at the gym as a personal trainer, and he taught a few classes—circuit training and spinning, primarily. It was an awesome job that allowed him to work out and get paid for it. He’d had another growth spurt when he turned eighteen, and it had taken him a few years to build the muscle onto his lanky frame. But finally, he no longer felt like the scrawny kid he was in middle school. He wasn’t really bulky yet, not as buff as Tom by any means, but Jared was pleased with how he was developing physically.

“Mike is on the treadmills!” Tom called as Jared walked down the hall toward the locker room. “Smack him on the ass for me!”

Jared waved backwards in acknowledgment, chuckling. He stuffed his bag in his locker and took a few minutes to stretch before he headed back out onto the floor to get his own workout in before clocking in on his shift. He wanted to warm up for a bit on a treadmill before switching to the weights. Spotting Mike across the room, Jared grinned and maneuvered around the various machines until he was stepping onto the treadmill next to Mike.

“How’s it going, Rosey?” Jared asked as he set the controls on the treadmill to the program he wanted.

He noticed that he still had green paint in his fingernails—after that dream he’d had of Jensen the other night, he’d spent all of his spare time the last couple of days painting a large landscape of trees, some of the trunks grown together like Jensen had talked about. Husband trees, no wife necessary, Jared thought. What an interesting notion. He’d actually exhausted his supply of blue, yellow, and various green paints, so he needed to stop by the art supply store for more. It wasn’t remotely the first time he had made art inspired by his dreams with Jensen—Jared had more sketches and paintings of or inspired by Jensen than he could count. He wondered absently why Jensen was so focused on joined trees, but then Mike re-caught his attention by smacking Jared’s ass. How he managed to reach over the bars of two treadmills to do that while still running and not topple off the back of the machine, Jared had no idea.

“Awesome, gigantor, how about you?” Mike grinned at him, panting. His short brown hair was dripping with sweat, and Jared could see that he’d been running for nearly an hour.

Mike was Tom’s boyfriend, and he was a guy who reminded Jared a lot of Chad, only gayer. Mike Rosenbaum was a goofy, crazy guy who had a huge flair for the dramatic, though he wasn’t quite effeminate. Jared thought it was totally fitting that Mike was a Drama major.

“This quarter is kicking my ass, man,” Jared complained as he started jogging. “I am SO looking forward to the summer break.”

Mike punched a button on his treadmill and slowed to a brisk walk, and then threw him a curious look. “I thought all you had left was studio work and your senior project,” he said, still breathing heavily.

“For my major, mostly yeah,” Jared clarified. “It’s the classes for my minor that are killing me. Man, I never imagined that there was so much that went into teaching.”

Mike chuckled. “Got used to all your Art stuff and now the serious academic classes are making you work hard?”

“God, no shit,” Jared replied. He was starting to breathe heavily now, and the treadmill ramped up to a slight incline.

He’d done all the general requirements his first couple of years, and then focused heavily on the Art classes. It was just this past Winter Quarter, in the middle of his junior year, that he’d decided to add on the Education minor, so he’d have the ability to teach Art if he ended up having trouble making money as an artist. This was his first quarter since that involved more Education than Art classes, and Jared had to shift mental gears to get through it. But he liked the challenge, liked thinking about ways to inspire artistic creativity in children. He didn’t like the exams so much, though. And with only a couple of weeks left before finals, he was really starting to feel the pressure.

Adding the Education minor also added a year to his degree—it would take him five years to finish instead of the usual four. But Jared didn’t mind that so much. He loved it here—well, there were some things about Los Angeles that really sucked, like the smog and the fucking traffic, but living near campus and riding his bike to class and his job allowed him to avoid driving for the most part. Jared loved being a student, he loved UCLA, he loved the people that he’d met and the friends he’d made, Tom and Mike in particular.

Tom was… serene. Calm. Still waters run deep, always with a zen-like clarity that made him a fabulous person to go to for advice. Jared sometimes thought that Tom would do better in psychology. Mike, on the other hand, was… an adventure. Upon learning that Jared was still a gay sex newbie (because Jared’s nighttime sexcapades with Jensen didn’t count in the real world, not that Jared mentioned that to Mike), he had insisted that he and Tom “educate” Jared in the techniques of gay love.

It had been a complete shock to Jared that Mike and Tom would do that—have sex with other people when they were practically married, but it was something they did occasionally as a couple, “to keep things exciting,” as Mike put it. Jared had never seen two people as devoted to each other as Mike and Tom, and their relationship seemed to work well. So being invited into a three-way with them had spun Jared’s world around for a little bit.

He talked it over with Jensen—he was very curious about having sex in the real world, he felt that he shouldn’t technically be a virgin anymore, not at 20, and he wanted to get that rite of passage out of the way. Plus, Tom and Mike were good friends, safe, and he knew that things with them wouldn’t get messy or complicated. But, that would mean he would be going against his general rule of no casual sex. Eventually, after a long conversation, Jensen had grudgingly acquiesced, saying, “Every gay man should have a threesome at least once in their life, Jay. Just keep it casual.” Only then did Jared agree, on the condition that it would be one time only, casual, no obligations, and that it wouldn’t affect their friendship.

Having sex with Mike and Tom had been quite educational. And fucking hot, though still not as amazing as sex with Jensen. Jared learned a lot about his own preferences, and had realized in astonishment that his dreams with Jensen were pretty damned accurate, something that still boggled Jared’s mind. How could he have gotten the physical feeling of fucking and being fucked exactly right in his dreams, when he hadn’t ever done it before in real life? Jared couldn’t explain it, and by this point in his life, he’d pretty much given up trying to figure out or explain his dreams with Jensen at all. They just were.

As agreed, the tryst with Tom and Mike had only happened once. It was fun, but he much preferred his relationships less complicated. He had come to understand that monogamy wasn’t always the norm in the gay community, but he still felt personally that he was a one-man-at-a-time kind of guy. If he ever found someone in real life that he loved like he loved Jensen, he wouldn’t ever want anyone else.

He had recently started dating Justin Hartley, a mechanical engineering major that he’d met here at the gym. They’d been dating casually for a couple of months, and only just decided to be exclusive a few weeks ago. Jared liked Justin a lot, and while he was a long way from being in love with him, he was enjoying getting to know Justin and was optimistic about them as a couple. The sex was good, too, though not as good as with Jensen.

“Shit, man, I think I’m fucking done,” Mike said beside him, yanking Jared out of his thoughts again. He tended to disappear into his own head when he ran—it gave him lots of time to think.

Jared looked over to see Mike pressing the stop button on the treadmill. Mike stood there for a moment, wiping his face with a towel.

“You and Justin got plans tonight?” Mike asked.

“Not that I know of,” Jared answered. “Why?”

“There’s this bar that’s got live music, local bands, cheap beer and cheap cover charge. Thought it would be fun if we checked it out,” Mike said.

“It’s someplace laid-back, right?” Jared asked, panting. He’d had his fill of dance clubs his first couple of years here, and had found out the hard way that he preferred smaller, down-to-earth bars and pubs he could relax in over the glitzy, glamorous LA clubs. Live music with a local band was better than electronic techno-pop, re-mixed dance tracks any day.

“Yeah,” Mike answered. “Definitely. I’m in the mood for beer, music, and a pool table.”

“Awesome,” Jared said. “I’ll run it by Justin this afternoon.”

“Cool!” Mike said, stepping off the treadmill. “Tell Sandy and the girls that they’re invited, too. Call me later and I’ll give you the info!”

Jared nodded at him and flashed a thumbs-up.

Mike laughed and swatted Jared on the ass. “See you tonight, hot stuff!”

Jared laughed and kept on jogging, watching Mike’s ass as he walked away. He might be dating Justin now, but that didn’t mean he was dead, and it certainly didn’t make him forget Mike’s incredible ass.

Justin was waiting outside his apartment building for Jared when he pulled up out front. He smiled widely as he climbed into the seat, slamming the door shut before leaning over to collect a kiss from Jared.

“Hey, babe!” Justin said when they pulled apart, his brown eyes twinkling. “So where are we headed again?” he asked.

Justin’s blond hair was stylishly messy, and Jared had the urge to run his hands through it and make it actually messy. He loved the way Justin’s soft hair slid through his fingers. Justin was also wearing a very flattering pair of jeans and a white t-shirt under a black button-up. Jared eyed him appreciatively, giving him a salacious grin, tempted to shove him in the back of the Bronco for a fuck.

Justin obviously could tell what was on Jared’s mind, and his eyes grew darker. “You look pretty awesome yourself, Jare. I’ll definitely take you up on that later.”

“Sounds like a plan to me,” Jared replied as he put the Bronco in gear and pulled away from the curb. “We should break the truck in properly, after all.”

“Wow, sex in the back of a beat up Bronco. You’re so romantic, Jare,” Justin teased, smiling.

“You like it and you know it,” Jared retorted. “And my baby isn’t beat up,” he pouted, patting the dash. “She’s in lots better shape now than she was when I got her.” Which was entirely true. He had slowly been fixing his Bronco up a little at a time. His parents had helped him pay to get the engine tuned up and running really smoothly. They’d insisted on it before Jared drove himself and Sandy out to LA when they started school, and his parents wanted to make sure the truck wouldn’t break down on them on the way. Jared had subsequently had the 351 motor rebuilt with aftermarket heads, and she was pretty gutsy now. Still rusty, but Jared just thought that added to her character. He cared less about having a glitzy exterior and more about it running reliably. Plus, it made it less likely that anyone would try to steal it—who would want a run-down looking Bronco?

Justin gave him an amused smile.

“I didn’t hear you say no, either,” Jared teased.

Justin scoffed. “Like I’d ever say no to sex with you.”

Jared chuckled. “Such a slut for my cock, Hartley.”

“Goddamned right,” Justin nodded. “So where are we going again?”

“This bar Mike heard of that has a live local band playing tonight. He gave me directions,” Jared said, and then handed the paper with the directions over to Justin. “Here, shotgun, you navigate.” The bar was in a different part of town, closer to the USC campus than UCLA, and he wasn’t familiar with the area, so having Justin read off the directions was easier than trying to drive in the crazy LA traffic while reading from a piece of paper.

“Roger, captain,” Justin chuckled. “Head toward 405.”

That Jared could do without instructions, and he headed toward the highway.

When they arrived at the bar, Jared slung his arm around Justin’s shoulders as they walked toward the entrance. Justin was tall, but still a bit shorter than Jared—because few people were as tall as he was. But Jared felt that Justin was a better fit for him than Aaron ever was. They were more physically compatible.

As they walked through the door, Jared noticed a flyer advertising the band. Friday Night Live Music: KANE! $4 Cover, $2 Draft Beer!

Something about it nagged at Jared’s brain, but he couldn’t really figure out what it was. He spotted his friends in a large corner booth and dismissed the thought as he bought a couple of beers at the bar and navigated around tables to get to the table, one hand in Justin’s back pocket.

The band was playing a rowdy mix of country and rock, and Jared could tell that the two front guys were really good. The guy singing had shoulder-length brown hair, and he was built like a fighter. The other guy was had shaggy blonde hair and a scruffy goatee. Jared liked their sound right away.

Once they reached the booth, they were greeted with a chorus of “Hey, Jared! Justin!” and “Jay-Man!” as they squeezed into the booth.

Mike and Tom were squashed in the middle, Mike nearly in Tom’s lap, and next to them were Sandy and her two best girl friends, Sophia and Genevieve. They were all in the dance program together, and had quickly become an inseparable trio, or “the Brunette Squad,” as Jared liked to call them. Sandy was eyeing the band with interest, and whispered something to Sophia, who giggled.

“Sands, what’ya talking about over there?” Jared teased.

Sandy grinned at him, blushing. “How hot the lead singer is!” she replied, pointing at the band.

“What are we? Road kill?” Mike objected, mock-offended.

“Like you need your ego stroked, Rosey,” Sophia retorted. “But you’re all gay, and you’re all taken.”

“Jared, you and Justin are together now?” Genevieve asked, surprised. She had always seemed to have a bit of a crush on Jared, which made him a little uncomfortable. He liked her well enough, she seemed to be a genuinely sweet girl, but Jared was not remotely attracted to her. Sandy had explained it to Genevieve a few times over the last couple of years, but she had continued carrying a torch for Jared.

Justin answered for him. “Yup, he’s mine now,” he grinned, wrapping his arm around Jared possessively.

Jared pushed down the slight annoyance at Justin’s territorial display. He wasn’t remotely ready to say he was Justin’s. Yes, they were officially boyfriends, but he still felt privately like he belonged to Jensen. But he nodded and gave Justin the kiss he was angling for, because maybe seeing him with his boyfriend would finally encourage Genevieve to give up.

“Oh, that’s cool,” she said, putting on a fake-looking smile. “Congratulations.”

Jared smiled politely and changed the topic. “So, you gals gonna try to hook up with the band?”

Sandy grinned and ran with it. “If possible. I mean, how could they resist us?” she said, waving at herself and her friends.

“Honey, no straight guy in his right mind would turn you gorgeous ladies down,” Tom said, and Jared nodded in agreement.

The song came to an end, and in the middle of all of the cheers and clapping, Tom prodded the girls. “Better go make your move! Gotta let them see you if you want any chance!”

“Wish us luck!” Sophia said, grinning and running her fingers through her hair. The girls shuffled out of the booth and Sandy wrapped an arm around Gen’s shoulder, whispering in her ear.

“These guys are pretty awesome, right?” Mike prodded. People were taking advantage of the break between songs to head to the bar, and Jared could barely hear Mike or the band over the noise.

“Yeah!” Jared agreed enthusiastically.

“Too much country for my tastes,” Justin said, frowning.

Jared felt another surge of annoyance; country music was not his favorite type of music, he preferred rock and alternative, but he still liked country, and being from Texas, country music was a part of his heritage. Justin slamming it felt a little personal.

Justin apparently clocked onto Jared’s thoughts, because he followed up quickly with, “But they’re obviously very talented, and they have good lyrics.”

“You guys want another round?” Tom asked, interrupting them, a slightly concerned look on his face.

“Sure!” Justin answered and handed Tom a five.

Jared smiled at Tom to indicate that he was fine.

Tom took the money and shuffled himself and Mike out of the booth. “Be right back,” he said.

Justin took the opportunity of having the booth to themselves to kiss Jared properly, tongue sliding into Jared’s mouth. Jared smiled into the kiss, because, damn, Justin was a good kisser. He felt his annoyance slip away as Justin’s fingers carded through his hair.

“Sorry, babe,” Justin whispered into Jared’s mouth.

“It’s alright,” Jared replied. “I’ll just put on a country station when I fuck you tonight in the Bronco.”

Justin’s eyes glinted, darkening, and he snickered before kissing Jared again.

The band members were talking to the audience, and Jared caught a few sentences over the noise in the room. “Too bad Jen is working tonight,” one guy said.

The other guy said something that Jared didn’t quite catch—he wasn’t really paying attention because Justin’s tongue was really distracting—followed by, “but next weekend we promise to drag Jenny up here to sing with us!”

Mike and Tom showed back up then, with a pitcher of beer and a stack of glasses. “Damn, that’s hot,” Mike whistled, and Jared broke away from Justin’s mouth, laughing.

“Pervs,” he said with mock disgust.

“Takes one to know one,” Mike sing-songed, grinning and eyes twinkling.

Jared laughed, and then laughed even harder at Justin’s slightly confused expression, throwing his head back in delight. He obviously knew he was missing some sort of inside joke, but Jared wasn’t going to enlighten him just then. He pinched Justin on the hip, grinning.

The girls didn’t reappear for at least an hour, and the guys slowly worked on the pitcher of beer and caught up on each other’s lives as the band went through another couple of sets. Justin was a little bit the odd man out, being an engineer in the middle of three artists, but he didn’t seem to mind, and the conversation flowed smoothly around sports and plans for the summer break.

Jared quit drinking after a beer and a half because he was tired enough already and still had to drive home, but he enjoyed watching Justin get tipsy. Sandy, Sophia, and Gen appeared, giggling about the lead singer asking Sandy for her number.

“Good for you, Sands!” Jared said, grinning. “Get you some!” She hadn’t had a lot of luck with guys here. Some of them hadn’t been able to get past her very close friendship with Jared, or her fiercely independent personality. She could use a good fuck, at the very least.

She grinned at him, smirking. “We’ll see!”

“We’re gonna call it a night,” Sophia said, pulling out her keys. “Saturday morning rehearsals suck.”

There was a flurry of hugs and kisses as the Brunette Squad made their exit, and upon seeing the time, Jared decided he wanted to leave, too.

Justin pouted, but Jared whispered in his ear, “I believe I was gonna fuck you in the Bronco.”

His brown eyes darkened, and he slammed down his glass on the table. “G’night Mike, Tom,” he said, shoving Jared toward the door.

Jared laughed and waved behind him at Mike and Tom, Mike hooting at his back, “if the Bronco’s a buckin’, don’t bother knockin’!”

“Damn straight,” Justin muttered, pulling Jared out the door and toward the parking lot.

Jared quickly found a dark spot in the alley to park in, not having the patience to drive across town to a make-out spot. He made sure to crank up the radio on a country station before bending Justin over the back bench seat.

“Come on, Jare, fuck me,” Justin prodded when Jared was fingering him open. “Don’t need all the prep, just want your dick.”

Jared grunted and slid on the condom, adding a little extra lube. “Such a slut for my cock, Justin,” he said, pressing into his boyfriend. “Fuck, you’re tight.”

“God, yes,” Justin grunted and pushed back against him, forcing him in faster.

“So that’s how you want it?” Jared asked, pulling out and slamming back in. “Hard and fast?”

“Fuck yeah,” Justin groaned.

So Jared gave it to him hard and fast. Justin let out a whine as he came against the vinyl upholstery, his shudders rocking through Jared and tipping him over the edge as well.

“Christ, Justin,” Jared panted as he pulled out.

Justin had a lazy, satiated smile on his face as he collapsed sideways onto the bench seat. “I do believe I have a new appreciation for country music,” he smirked.

Jared laughed and slapped his bare thigh.

Afterward, Jared dropped Justin off at his apartment.

“Come up?” Justin asked, smiling sweetly at him.

Jared felt like maybe he should, but part of him just wanted to go back to his own place. He still didn’t like spending the night with anyone, just in case he dreamed of Jensen. The dreams happened less often if he wasn’t in his own bed, but still. Jared wasn’t ready to share that with anyone yet. “I’ve got a six a.m. shift tomorrow morning,” he said, hedging, knowing that it would discourage Justin, who loathed early mornings.

Predictably, Justin scowled. “Dammit,” he said. “Oh well, call you tomorrow?”

“Sure,” Jared answered, smiling. He leaned over for a kiss goodnight, humming into Justin’s mouth.

“G’night, Jare,” Justin said, opening the car door.

Driving home to the apartment he shared with Sandy, Jared wondered why he didn’t feel satisfied. Justin was his boyfriend, and the sex had been hot and fun, but it was missing something.

As he let himself into the apartment, he snorted. Of course he knew what was missing: Jensen.

Sandy came out into the living room when Jared shut the door. She was wearing a tank top and pajama bottoms and looked ready for bed. Taking in his disheveled appearance, she waggled her eyebrows at him. “Ooh, did you have a good time with Justin?”

Jared grinned. “Yeah.”

“Tell me you christened the Bronco,” she said, bouncing eagerly.

“You, my dear,” he said, kissing her on the forehead, “are far too interested in my sex life.”

He loved rooming with Sandy; they had shared this small, two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment since halfway through his first year, when it had become painfully obvious that living in the dorms was NOT going to work with his dreams of Jensen. Even when they were first figuring out how to live together without parents there to cook and clean and Sandy kicked his ass about her “not being the housewife in this relationship,” he loved living with her. They each had their own room, and she usually slept with a white noise machine and ear plugs to drown out the sounds of the city, so Jared never had to worry about her overhearing him when he was dreaming of Jensen. But sometimes, she was way too curious about his love life.

She pouted, and then broke into a grin. “Come on, Jay-bear! I bet you and Justin are so hot together! Give a girl some details!”

He laughed and walked past her toward his bedroom. “Sandy, with your imagination, you don’t need any help from me.”

He could hear her whine behind him, and decided to throw her a bone. “Yes we christened the Bronco,” he teased. “Vinyl seats are so easy to clean up.”

“Ew! I’m never sitting in your back seat again!” she screeched at him, wrinkling her nose.

Jared threw his head back and cackled in glee. “If you don’t wanna know, don’t ask! G’night, Sands!”

Jared opens his eyes to see Jensen at his desk in his bedroom, typing furiously. He feels an overwhelming sense of relief—it’s been a couple weeks since his last lucid dream of Jensen, and he has missed talking to his lover.

“What’ya doin’?” he asks, stepping up behind Jensen and placing his hands on his shoulders.

Jensen spins around in the chair and looks up at him with a wide smile. “Jared!” he says, and he stands up to wrap Jared in a tight hug.

Jared squeezes him back, burying his face in Jensen’s neck. That’s his favorite smell in the whole world: the smell of Jensen right here, where his throat meets his shoulder.

“Christ, Jared, where have you been?” Jensen says into his hair.

“Missed you, too, Jen,” Jared replies. “Just been busy with school and work. Got finals this week. This quarter is kicking my ass.”

Jensen chuckles, pulling back just enough to slot his mouth over Jared’s.

Yes, this, this is what Jared has been missing.

Jensen kisses him for another long moment, tongues stroking, until Jared breaks away, panting.

“Hey,” he whispers, smiling.

Jensen smiles back, putting their foreheads together. “Hey,” he says.

“What about you?” Jared asks, sitting down on the bed.

Jensen sits down in the chair, wheeling it over so their knees are touching.

“You know that story I wrote for my senior project last year?” he asks.

Jared nods.

“Well, my graduate advisor thinks it’s good enough to publish,” Jensen continues.

“Jen, that’s so amazing!” Jared gushes, feeling enormously proud.

Jensen beams at him, a huge grin that makes his eyes crinkle and his face light up. “So I’m working really hard on that. I’m completely re-writing it, essentially. I’m changing the setting to an orchard. I have to have it finished to submit to the publisher by August.”

Well, that explains his focus on trees. “Have they agreed to publish it?” Jared asks, sliding their fingers together.

“Yeah, they have, Jay,” Jensen says, and his smile gets impossibly bigger.

“Oh my God!” Jared shouts. “That’s incredible!”

Jensen apparently can’t keep still anymore, and he launches off the chair at Jared, throwing him back onto the bed, laughing as their mouths come together again. “I can’t believe it, either,” he says, nipping at Jared’s jaw.

“What shall we do to celebrate?” Jared asks, waggling his eyebrows.

“I know what I want to do,” Jensen grins, his eyes darkening. He gets up on his knees and tugs off Jared’s pajama bottoms.

Jared grins and pulls his t-shirt over his head, and then fists Jensen’s shirt, yanking. “Off,” he says.

Jensen pulls his shirt off, then his pants. The moment he’s naked, Jensen digs in his bedside table for lube and then climbs on top of Jared, straddling his hips.

“Oh yeah,” Jared gasps, knowing where this is going. He holds out his hand out eagerly. “Let me?”

Jensen grins at him and squeezes lube over Jared’s fingers. He tosses the bottle to the bed and gets up on his knees. Jared sits up and scoots back on the bed so he’s sitting up against the headboard. “C’mere,” he says, crooking his finger.

Jensen grins and walks up the bed on his knees, until he is once again straddling Jared’s hips.

“Yeah,” Jared breathes. “Wanna hold you.” He reaches his hand around Jensen’s thighs, and presses his fingers into Jensen, stretching him quickly.

Jen groans and pushes down onto Jared’s hand. “Yeah, Jay,” he gasps. “More.”

Jared works in a third finger, pressing forward into his prostate.

Jensen throws his head back and whines. Christ, he’s beautiful. Jared licks at his neck, sucking gently on the muscles beneath his ear.

“Okay, okay…” Jensen bats at Jared’s arm.

Jared wipes the excess slick onto his cock, then lines up with his lover, pressing upward as Jensen drops down.

“Oh fuck, Jen,” Jared gasps.

Jensen hooks his arms around Jared’s neck and brings their foreheads together. “Love you, Jay,” he whispers, and then he starts to move.

Jared pulls him forward into a kiss, one hand on his hip and the other in the back of his hair. Jared rocks up into Jensen as he pushes down, and licks his tongue into Jensen’s mouth. “Love you,” he murmurs against Jensen’s lips.

It’s slow and deep, Jensen riding Jared in a smooth, rolling buck, and Jared has never felt so deeply connected to him. His eyes are locked on Jensen’s, entranced by the gold and green.

They continue to kiss, eyes open, and Jared can feel Jensen’s entire body tightening. He wraps one hand around Jen’s cock, squeezing and stroking.

“Ah, fuck, Jay!” Jensen moans, arching back as the pleasure washes over him. One of his hands is in Jared’s hair, and he fists it, pulling gently on the strands. It feels amazing.

Jared can feel Jensen’s orgasm, feel him trembling with the waves, feel him go rigid, eyes clenched shut as he shudders against him.

He’s beautiful.

Jared comes with a grunt, the pleasure deep and devastating, flashing throughout his body, white-hot. His arms tighten around Jensen, clenching his lover close to him as they both continue to tremble.

Jared doesn’t have words to describe how intense that was. He continues to cling to Jensen, not wanting to let him go. Ever.

Jensen kisses him languidly, disentangling his fingers from Jared’s hair.

Eventually they wiggle down into the sheets, Jensen climbing off of Jared to lie next to him, head resting on his chest.

Jared can feel their breathing sync up, and he strokes Jensen’s hair, just enjoying their closeness.

“So we got sidetracked before I could ask how you’re doing,” Jensen says.

“I’m good,” Jared says. “These classes for my Education minor are hard, though. But it’s interesting, and I like it, even though I really have to work at it.”

“You’ll do fine, Jay,” Jensen assures him. “What about personally? You still seeing Justin?”

Jared can feel Jensen tense slightly as he asks this and gives a mental sigh. Jensen doesn’t like Justin very much. Or rather, he doesn’t like that Jared is dating Justin. Jared understands; he doesn’t like it when Jensen dates anyone, either. Jensen hasn’t dated in a while, actually, limiting himself to casual hook-ups. It still drives Jared a little nuts, but it’s better than the commitment of a relationship.

“Yeah. Things are pretty good,” he says.

“You guys getting serious?” Jensen asks, propping his chin on Jared’s chest to look him in the eye, his voice low.

Jared sighs. “We’re dating now, not just seeing each other casually anymore.”

Jensen tenses. “Do you love him?”

Jared stares at him for a long moment. “Honestly? No, I’m not in love with him. I like him a lot, though, and I want to see where we go. Maybe I could love him, I don’t know. But I have to find out.”

Jensen’s arms tighten around him.

“Jen,” Jared says firmly. “What are you going to do if I do fall in love with someone? Are you ever going to think anyone is good enough for me?”

He frowns. “I don’t know, Jay. I’ll probably go insane with jealousy and hate every second of it, no matter who it is. Not like I could actually do anything about it,” he grumbles, dropping his head back down on Jared’s shoulder.

Jared shifts, rolling onto his side so he’s facing Jensen nose to nose. “At this point in my life, Jen, I don’t know if I actually could fall in love with someone. Because I love you so much. But what am I supposed to do?”

“I know,” Jensen sighs, defeated. “Doesn’t mean I have to like it.”

December, 2001

Jared trudged up the stairs to his boyfriend’s apartment, completely exhausted. His last final of Fall Quarter was over, and all he wanted to do was snuggle up with Justin on the sofa and watch some crappy TV. He was leaving in a couple of days to go back to Texas for the Christmas holidays, and he could use some quality time with Justin before going home. His last Education exam had taken half the time he’d thought it would; all the extra cramming had totally paid off.

He had just finished the first Quarter of his fourth year at UCLA, and his classes, both in his major and his minor, were getting more and more difficult. His Art classes were more demanding, and he had to produce more pieces than he used to, focusing on starting to build his senior portfolio. He was also starting senior level classes in the Education minor, an area that tapped into a very different part of his brain than Art. Jared loved it, but it was all quite challenging.

He reached Justin’s apartment door and let himself in with his key. He was halfway through dropping his bag to the floor when he looked over and saw Justin on the sofa, with some guy’s head in his lap, blowing him for all he was worth. Music was playing and Justin’s eyes were closed, and he obviously hadn’t noticed Jared come in.

“Yeah, Byron, suck it,” Justin moaned.

“Yeah, Byron, suck him real good,” Jared said loudly. His heart pounded in his chest, and all he could feel was an overwhelming disappointment. Yeah, he wasn’t in love with Justin, not yet, but they’d been good together, had good chemistry, and Jared had thought that maybe they would gradually move on to something more serious.

Jensen would never do something like this to me, Jared thought, wishing to himself once again that Jensen existed outside of his dreams.

“Jared!” Justin squeaked, jerking in surprise.

Byron choked and scrambled away from Justin, his lips puffy and slick with saliva. He looked back and forth between Jared and Justin, and Jared rather detachedly noticed that Byron was pretty damn hot. Dark hair, bright blue eyes, fairly well muscled—yeah, he could see why Justin would fuck him.

“I hope Byron here was worth it, Justin,” Jared said to Justin. “Merry fucking Christmas to you, too.”

“Jared, wait, I can explain…” Justin said as he zipped himself back up.

“Don’t bother. Thanks at least for waiting until AFTER I finished my exams to pull this shit.” He stalked down the hall to Justin’s room and quickly collected the few pieces of clothing and personal items that had made their way here. It wasn’t much, and Jared was profoundly grateful that he hadn’t been comfortable moving his stuff over here. Well, better to know now than after he’d become more emotionally invested.

“Jared!” Justin met him in the hall as he was heading for the front door. “Let me explain.”

“Sure, Justin,” Jared sneered. “Tell me why you had someone sucking you off while I was taking a test. When we’d agreed to be exclusive. When it’s been just you and me for eight months. What can you possibly say that will make that okay?”

Justin just gaped at him, lost for words. “It was just… Byron was just…”

“That’s what I thought. Well, fuck you very much, Justin, and have a nice life.” He pushed past Justin and saw Byron in the living room, putting his clothes back on and looking terribly hurt and embarrassed. Standing, it was clear that Jared was quite a bit larger than him. “You didn’t know about me, did you?” he asked.

Byron shook his head. “No, man, and I wouldn’t have if I knew he had a boyfriend.” He seemed nervous, like he was worried that Jared was going to beat him into a pulp and smoosh his oozing remains into the carpet.

Jared was surprised at how incredibly not violent he was feeling right now. He wasn’t a violent guy by nature, despite his size, but he’d been in his share of fights—mostly with Jeff, and then a couple of bar brawls that Mike had started. But now, even though he was angry, he felt no desire to hit anyone or anything. Certainly he had no interest in hurting Byron, who was a victim of Justin’s dishonesty as much as Jared was. “It’s not your fault he lied, Byron,” Jared said, holding his hands up in a placating manner.

Byron nodded, looking relieved.

Justin came back out into the living room, his face red. “This isn’t all my fault, Jared!” he shouted. “You—”

“I what?” Jared cut in. “I didn’t fuck you enough? What, five times a week isn’t enough? Oh, or was it that I didn’t bottom enough for you? Did you want to be the fucker and not the fuckee more often? You could have just said, Justin!”

“No!” Justin stomped his foot. “It’s just, you never felt like you were really mine, Jared. Yeah, we’ve been together for nearly a year now, and I kept waiting for you to fully open up to me, and it just never happened. It was supposed to be you and me, just you and me since June, and I fucking loved you, but you always held yourself at a distance. You liked me just fine, enjoyed fucking me, but you don’t love me, Jared.”

Jared was floored, and he stood there dumbfounded for a moment. Because, goddamn it, Justin was fucking right. He didn’t love him. Jared couldn’t love Justin, not when his heart belonged to Jensen. God, Jared was so fucked.

“You still should have talked to me, Justin,” he insisted. “Or broke up with me, if you were tired of waiting. Not cheated on me behind my back. I was trying, Justin. I’m sorry I wasn’t moving fast enough for you, but goddamn it, I was trying. I would have understood if you’d just talked to me about it.”

After that outburst, Jared couldn’t stick around any longer. He made sure he had his bag and his stuff, taking one last scan around the room, and walked out of the apartment without another word.

“He doesn’t deserve you,” Jensen says, nuzzling into Jared’s neck. “Cheating fucker.”

Jared hums in agreement and curls around Jensen more tightly, pressing his knee between Jensen’s thighs. He knows he is dreaming this time, feels that niggling awareness of a lucid dream, and smiles. He loves dreaming of Jensen, but he loves it even more when he knows he’s dreaming, because he can control it. And he knows what he wants tonight. “You don’t think anyone I date is good enough for me,” he says.

“This is true,” Jensen replies. “That’s because you’re mine.”

“Can’t say I disagree with you there,” Jared murmurs, rubbing his palm down Jensen’s ribs and over his hip. He is quiet for a moment, simply enjoying Jensen’s skin. Jensen feels so real and solid next to him, and Jared wants him, wants him to be real, to wake up from this dream and have Jensen there next to him. “At least I didn’t have to deal with this in the middle of finals,” he says a minute later.

“Well, the guy has timing, I suppose,” Jensen replies sardonically. “But let’s not talk about him anymore.” Jensen rocks into Jared and lips across his collar bone.

“Deal,” Jared whispers, throwing himself into the dream fully. He palms Jensen’s buttock, letting his fingers graze lightly through his crack, and then caresses down Jensen’s thigh, pulling his leg up to wrap around Jared’s hips.

Jensen turns into Jared’s body, bringing them together face to face, their erections slotting into place beside each other. Like matching puzzle pieces. Jensen groans and brings their mouths together, tongue slipping in to caress Jared’s.

God, Jared loves this, Jensen taking the lead, directing the kiss. He gives a soft whine and kisses back, rocking his hips into Jensen’s, searching for friction.

Jensen grins against Jared’s lips and rolls them over so he’s on top of Jared, weight pressing him down into the mattress. Jensen rocks forcefully into him, their cocks rubbing together, sending sparks up Jared’s spine.

“Fuck!” Jared curses, arching up to meet Jensen.

“That turn you on, Jay?” Jensen asks, white teeth flashing in a roguish grin. “You like it when I take charge?” He grabs Jared’s wrists and pins them to the mattress above Jared’s head. He moves Jared’s hands up to the headboard. “Hold on, and don’t let go,” he says softly, and it’s an order and holy fuck, that’s hot.

Jared grips the slots of the headboard, nodding. “Fuck, Jensen! God, you drive me crazy!”

Jensen grins at him like a shark, and begins biting his way down Jared’s chest. Jared writhes as Jensen’s teeth close around a nipple. “Come on, Jensen,” he pleads.

Jensen ignores him in favor of tonguing his navel. “God, you taste so good,” Jensen mumbles. “Wanna taste all of you.”

“Please, yes.”

Jensen drags his tongue down Jared’s happy trail, dives to the right, around his cock, and licks the crease where his thigh joins his hip. Jared opens his legs wider, wanting to give Jensen better access.

“Mmm, you want it, Jared?” Jensen asks as he nuzzles Jared’s balls with his nose.

Jared doesn’t even know what ‘it’ refers to, but he’s pretty sure he wants it. “God, please, Jensen.”

Jensen presses his palms under Jared’s knees and pushes them up to Jared’s chest. “Let go of the headboard and hold yourself open for me,” he orders softly.

“Christ, yes,” Jared answers and complies, rocking his hips up.

“Fuck, look at you,” Jensen breathes, his eyes dark. “You have no idea, Jared… what you do to me…” And then he drops his head down and licks over Jared’s exposed hole.

All Jared is capable of saying is something that sounds like, “Nnnmmnnhhggnngffuh!” He bucks upward into Jensen’s tongue, wanting more, wanting it deeper.

Jensen tongues around his rim, over it, barely pressing in, then licking lightly, teasing. Pleasure shoots up Jared’s spine and his cock gives a violent throb as Jensen begins pressing in with his tongue, hot, wet, velvet laving into him, lapping at the edge and darting in and out.

Jared lets out a loud groan and begins babbling. “Fuck… Jensen…oh god…fuckfeelssogooood…”

Jensen hums and presses his tongue in deeper, using his lips to suck and tease at the puckered edge.

Jared is going insane. He can hear rustling in the bedside table, feel the bed jiggle as Jensen gropes blindly for the lube, but his tongue stays firmly planted in Jared’s ass, and after another moment, is joined by a slick finger, then two.

Jensen massages his fingers around Jared’s prostate, and Jared thinks he could come from this alone. “Fuck yes, Jensen! More, please!” He writhes into Jensen’s face, unable to keep his hips still.

Jensen groans and the sound vibrates into Jared’s bones, ratcheting Jared’s arousal even higher. “Fuck me fuck me fuckmefuckmefuckme,” he pants.

Jensen withdraws his tongue and replaces it with a third finger, rising up to his knees as he uses his other hand to smear lube on his cock. Jared can see it between his thighs, thick, purple, leaking, and he wants it.

“You want my cock, Jared?” Jensen asks, pressing his fingers firmly into Jared’s prostate.

Jared bucks and writhes, riding Jensen’s fingers hard. “Please, Jensen. Want you.”

“You are so fucking pretty when you beg,” Jensen says, his voice wrecked. “Can’t deny you anything.” And then Jensen’s fingers are gone, but are immediately replaced with the blunt head of his cock.

Jared hisses in pleasure as Jensen drives into him, loving the not-quite-painful stretch, the pressure. “Yes, oh yes…” he breathes as Jensen pushes in as deep as he can go, loving the feeling of Jensen’s balls on his ass.

Jensen takes a moment to breathe, moaning, “Fuck, so tight, Jared.” He runs one hand down Jared’s arm, pulling it off of his leg and moving it back up to the headboard. “Want these gorgeous long legs wrapped around me, Jared, and your hands back on the headboard. Don’t let go.”

Jared complies, his hips feeling a little relief as he moves his legs to curl around Jensen’s hips. He looks up into Jensen’s face, sees him watching him hungrily, and arches his body up into Jensen’s. “Fuck me, Jensen, please,” he moans. “Fucking move.”

“Oh I’m gonna fuck you, alright,” Jensen says as he begins a long, slow thrust. Then he drops to his elbows to plunge his tongue into Jared’s mouth.

Jared kisses Jensen back eagerly, loving the languid yet firm pace Jensen is setting. He curls his tongue against Jensen’s, moaning into his mouth as Jensen thrusts again, harder this time, pleasure skittering along his spine.

“Fuck yes, Jensen,” Jared mumbles against Jensen’s lips. He can’t concentrate on kissing anymore, because the way Jensen is sliding into him is just blowing his fucking mind. He writhes under Jensen, using his grip on the headboard to push up into Jensen as he rocks into him.

Jensen moans and his hips pick up speed. “No one gets to have you like this, like I do, do they, Jared?” Jensen asks, fucking into Jared hard.

“No one but you,” Jared replies, and it’s the truth. No one owns him like Jensen does. Jared belongs to Jensen, heart, mind, soul. No one has ever come close to making him feel like Jensen makes him feel. Jared lifts his hips to meet Jensen’s thrusts, squeezing down on his cock.

“God, fuck, Jay!” Jensen curses, and thrusts into him brutally, making Jared’s head hit the headboard. His cock slams into Jared’s prostate, and Jared keens, arching and writhing at the pleasure shooting up his spine and down his legs.

“Oh fuck, Jensen, right there,” he begs, hands still clenching the headboard, legs wrapped tightly around Jensen’s hips.

“Like that?” Jensen thrusts in again at the same angle, hard, then draws out slowly.

Jared whines. “Fuck, yes. Jensen…” Jared’s eyes lock onto Jensen’s, watching Jensen’s face. His eyes. It feels so intense, so deeply intimate, watching and feeling Jensen this way. “More, Jensen,” he whispers.

Jensen leans down onto his elbows and thrusts his tongue into Jared’s mouth. Jared kisses him back eagerly, saying with his tongue everything that’s in his heart. Jensen swallows Jared’s moans, and fucks into him hard, once again at the perfect angle.

“So close, Jen,” Jared murmurs, “please…”

“I’m going to make you come on my cock alone, Jared,” Jensen says. He pulls himself away from Jared and leans back on his knees, bringing Jared’s hips up into his lap, making Jared’s back arch and shifting the angle to put even more pressure on Jared’s prostate.

Jared whines again, incoherent with lust. Pleasure is spreading out from his pelvis, radiating up his back and pooling in his balls. It feels SO good, consuming Jared from the inside out.

“God, look at you,” Jensen breathes, his eyes dark and devouring all of Jared. He grips Jared’s thighs and lifts his feet over his shoulders. “So gorgeous, these long legs wrapped around me.”

“Please, Jen…” Jared gasps again, not caring that he’s begging.

“Come on, Jared, come for me,” Jensen commands, fucking hard into Jared’s prostate. “Yeah, I can feel you getting tighter… you’re so close, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, Jensen…” Jared is writhing with it. “Fuck, yeah!” he gasps.

“Come for me, Jay,” Jensen whispers, and Jared is just done. His body goes rigid with it, his back arching off the bed, and he jerks with the contractions of pleasure that are rocking through him.

“Fuck yeah!” Jensen shouts, and he palms Jared’s dick again, squeezing and pulling as Jared continues to shake through his orgasm. Jared lets out a low whine, unable to speak through the white noise and stars in his head.

It gradually fades, and Jared feels Jensen collapse next to him, sweaty and spent. He can feel Jensen’s release inside his body, his cock softening. Their bodies are still joined, and Jared smiles. He deliberately squeezes his muscles around Jensen, who gasps and tweaks one of Jared’s nipples in retaliation.

Jared laughs and swats at Jensen’s hand. “Wow,” he says.

“Yeah,” Jensen answers, grinning. He pulls out, and Jared rearranges himself so he can snuggle into Jensen’s chest.

“I think I’m not going to worry about dating for a while,” Jared says into Jensen’s neck after several minutes of silence. Their breathing is nearly normal now.

Jensen pulls away from him just far enough to look him in the eye. “What do you mean?” he asks, no judgment in his voice.

“I know that love is out there for me, Jensen. I know it. But I’m in love with you. I can’t give anyone else my heart because it belongs to you. It’s not fair to date someone when I can’t commit. I learned that the hard way with Justin. So I’m not going to worry about it anymore. I’ve got school to focus on right now, my friends, and I’ve got you. I want to be single for a while, focus on just living my life. And I’m okay with being on my own right now. Eventually I will find someone that I can give my heart to, but until then… Love will come when it comes, and I’ll be ready for it.”

Jensen smiles at him. “I like that idea.”

Jared smirks. “Of course you do. It means you get me all to yourself.”

“I’m not denying it,” Jensen smirks back at him. “But you’re never alone.”

“I know, Jen,” Jared answers. “I love you.”

“Love you, too.” Jensen’s eyes are bright, and Jared’s heart skips. He tucks himself back into Jensen’s chest, pressing his nose into Jensen’s skin, trying to breathe Jensen in, make him real.

April, 2002

His first day back at school after spring break, Jared met Sandy on the steps of one of the lecture halls for their shared 9:00 a.m. class.

“Jaybear!” she squealed, and jumped into his arms for a hug. “You were already passed out when I got home last night, so I didn’t get to talk to you!” she scolded him. “How was your spring break?”

Jared had spent his spring break up to his elbows in paint. Jensen must have had something good happen, because Jared had several very blurry dreams in which all he could sense from Jensen was a feeling of drunken jubilation. It had made Jared feel impossibly happy, and he simply had to try to express it on canvas. He was also desperately curious to find out what had happened, and was hoping to have another waking dream in which he could actually talk to Jensen really soon.

Tom had interrupted Jared’s fervent painting and forcibly dragged him out to the beach in Santa Monica for a couple of days. Mike had gone home to visit his family, so poor Tom was bored and lonely. Jared had taken the chance to paint the waves and the sunset, exhausting his supplies of various blue paints. Tom had complained loudly that he’d brought Jared here to get him away from his painting, and physically hauled him into the water just to prove the point. After that, Jared relaxed a bit and had some fun, and he’d managed to get a nice tan.

“Good, Sands, how was yours?” he asked as he squeezed her tightly before putting her down. He’d got up early that morning to go to the gym, so this was the first time he’d seen her since the end of last quarter.

“It was AMAZING! The Brunette Squad conquered Malibu Beach!” She posed, showing off her darkly tanned arms. “Got you a souvenir! It’s back in my room, though.”

“Awesome!” Jared grinned. Together they walked into the building toward their class. Sandy had talked him into taking Lit 347: Gay and Lesbian Literature with her—just for fun and to be a part of the LGBT community. It wasn’t a class he needed to take for either his major or his minor, but he was actually looking forward to it, because it would be a way for him to learn about and support his own community better. Sandy was excited about it because she prided herself on being a staunch LGBT ally, and she volunteered at the LGBT Campus Resource Center. She could out-talk a homophobe about LGBT issues in a heartbeat. It was actually kind of fun to watch.

“Welcome to Queer Lit,” the professor said as they were taking their seats. “Otherwise known as Lit 347, Gay and Lesbian Studies. My name is Jeff Morgan.” He fiddled with the equipment at the front of the room for a moment, and then the projector turned on, showing the class syllabus. “We’ll be taking a serious, academic look at gay and lesbian issues, so if you’re going to be immature or homophobic, I suggest you leave now and drop the class. This isn’t high school anymore, but then you should know that, juniors and seniors.”

Jared watched as his professor handed copies of the syllabus to the front row to be passed out. Jeff Morgan was tall, gruff looking, with dark hair and a salt-and-pepper beard.

“Ooh, he’s hot,” Sandy muttered beside him.

Jared snickered at her and took the syllabus she handed to him. “Yeah, he’s attractive,” he said.

“And good odds that he’s gay, if he’s teaching this class,” she whispered back to him.

Jared looked over at Professor Morgan and gave him a bemused once-over. Yes, his gaydar was pinging a little, and the man was certainly handsome, but Jared wasn’t attracted. “Who knows?” he said. “Not interested myself.”

Sandy cocked an eyebrow at him. “You’re not still moping over Justin, are you? That was months ago, Jay.”

“No,” Jared answered honestly. “I’m not even angry about it anymore. I’m just…” he struggled to explain exactly how okay he really was and shrugged. “If I end up finding love, then awesome, but for now, I’m completely happy with being single.”

She looked at him shrewdly for a moment. “You are happy, aren’t you?”

Jared grinned at her. “Yeah, I really am.” And he was telling the truth. He was very content with his life right now—he’d spent a lot of time thinking about things since breaking up with Justin, and he’d decided that he was right where he needed to be. He still felt like love was out there for him—someone somewhere, but for once he didn’t feel like he had to go searching for it. He loved what he was doing right now, loved his art and being a student, just being himself and hanging with his friends, spending his nights with Jensen.

“You’re in for a treat this semester,” Professor Morgan said loudly, grabbing Jared’s attention. “We’re going to spend some time on what are considered ‘classic’ queer literature, and then we’re also going to look at contemporary work as well. A good friend of mine, J. P. Eastland, recently published a book, Growing the Husband Tree, which, it was just announced last month, is a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award for Gay Men’s Fiction. He’s starting a promotional book tour, and he’s agreed to come in for a guest lecture next week.”

There was a murmur of excitement in the classroom—apparently this guy was well-known in this crowd, and Jared couldn’t help but have his interest piqued. How often did you get a chance to talk philosophy with an author of a book you’re reading? He looked down at the syllabus to see the details, and his eyes caught on the title. Growing the Husband Tree. Husband tree? His pulse quickened and the hair stood up on the back of his neck. What were the odds that it had the same meaning as the phrase he’d first heard from Jensen? The one that inspired the painting of trees that Jared had titled Husband Trees?

“If you haven’t already bought your books for this class, I suggest you do so quickly, because Mr. Eastland will be here next Monday. The rest of this week I have some lecture topics to cover, but be prepared on Monday to discuss Mr. Eastland’s book with him,” Morgan continued, and then jumped right into his lecture. “So why study ‘queer lit’?”

After class, Jared looked over at Sandy as they were collecting their notes. “What do you have next?”

“I’ve got another class across the quad,” she said, stuffing her notebook in her bag. “You?”

“I’ve got a meeting with my advisor to talk about my projects this quarter,” Jared said, zipping up his backpack.

“Do you have the books for this class yet?” Sandy asked as they walked out of the room.

“Not yet,” Jared said. “I won’t have time to go to the bookstore until Thursday, though. You?” Jared had meetings and studio time with his advisor this afternoon, and with his other classes and his shifts at the gym, he didn’t have a spare block of time until Thursday afternoon. Which annoyed him, because he wanted to get his hands on that book as soon as possible.

“Ugh,” Sandy frowned. “I was going to ask you to pick me up some copies, but I have to have them before Wednesday, because we have to leave Wednesday afternoon for a dance workshop in San Diego that will take all weekend. But if you can’t, that means I’ll have to go to the bookstore.”

She looked so distressed by this that Jared had to hide a smile.

Obviously, he failed, because she scowled at him. “You know I absolutely HATE going into the bookstore at the beginning of a semester. I nearly got trampled once!”

“But you’d rope me into it if you could, huh?” he asked, teasing.

“As if you’d ever get trampled, Jaybear! You’re big enough to be the trampler, not the tramplee.”

“That’s not even a word,” he sniggered.

“Doesn’t matter,” she said. “I’ll have to brave the hordes.”

“If you grab me copies, I’ll pay you back,” Jared said. “And I’ll give you a foot rub after you get back from your dance workshop,” he promised. She always complained about her feet aching after long dance sessions and was forever trying to get Jared to rub them. He didn’t mind, sometimes, but knew it was a great way to wheedle her into doing favors for him.

“Ooh! SOLD!” she grinned. “I’ll go tomorrow, maybe it won’t be quite as busy the second day of the quarter.”

“Good luck with that,” Jared said wryly. In his experience, the bookstore was mobbed for the first two weeks of the quarter. He was glad to avoid it this time.

“Okay, got to get to my next class!” Sandy said.

“Right. See you this evening,” Jared said, slinging his bag over his shoulder.

Sandy gave him a squeeze and called out a quick “Bye, Jay!” before darting down the hall.

It was Thursday afternoon, and Jared had ended up having to make the trip to the bookstore anyway—he needed to pick up books for his Education classes, and when Sandy had come on Tuesday, the store had only had one of Eastland’s book left. According to Sandy, the store had promised that more would be in by Thursday. Jared was really hoping they were right. He didn’t want to have to search in all the bookstores in the greater LA area for one book that he had to read before Monday.

The campus bookstore was always a zoo for the first two weeks of the semester: the store was a case of trying to squeeze eighty pounds of shit in a ten pound bag, with shelves to the ceiling along the dingy concrete walls and pallets of books on the floor arranged in a haphazard grid, leaving just enough room between them for a person to maneuver through. Well, a person half of Jared’s size, anyway. Jared waded through the crush of people heading towards the shelves with the pink flyer hanging over them labeled English/Lit.

He shuffled through an aisle sideways, squeezing past anthropology and biology textbooks, and then he had to step over a pallet of books that had been depleted just enough for his long legs to stretch across the corner of the pile. He scowled at the clerk with bright green hair who was stocking a shelf and thus blocking the way, headphones on and humming along with the music, oblivious to the students milling about.

Once more, Jared wished he’d thought to order his books online over spring break. But he’d been caught up in his painting muses and enjoying his time on the beach, and hadn’t even thought about ordering books before classes started. And now it was too late—even if he sprung for overnight shipping, they wouldn’t arrive in time for him to read before the next class. So he continued his circuitous path toward the English/Lit sign, hoping that all the books he needed would still be in stock.

At least for his Art classes, he had finished most of the classes that required books, and when books were required, the number he had to purchase dropped substantially. He mostly just had studio work left. For art, he spent most of his money on canvas, paint, clay, and blocks of stone. And brushes and power tools, too of course. Jared loved his Dremel zip tool to an almost unhealthy degree, and he was always on the lookout for cool bits and attachments for it, anticipating the way each piece would cut into marble or soapstone. And he loved building his own frames and stretching his own canvas. It made him feel…manly to channel his inner Tim Allen.

But he was looking forward to reading the books for this class, if he could ever get his hands on them.

Finally, Jared made it to the stack of books he was aiming for, and he heaved a sigh of relief when he saw that there were plenty of books left. He consulted the copy of his syllabus and grabbed every book listed, dropping them into the puke-orange basket hanging off his forearm, and then went to find his way to the books under the Education section. Luckily, they weren’t that far away, and he only had to climb over one pallet of books. After adding those books to his basket—Christ, it was getting heavy—he turned around head back to the front of the store.

And promptly groaned. There had to be 75 people between him and the two open registers, all standing in line. Fuck, he really hated going to the bookstore the first week of school, and he promised himself that next semester, he would definitely order his books online. Resigned to his fate, Jared shuffled back through the maze of shelves and pallets and got in line.

After ten minutes and moving forward only five feet, Jared picked up the book on the top of the pile in his basket and flipped it over. Might as well do something productive and not stand here for an hour, bored out of his mind. “Growing the Husband Tree, by J. P. Eastland,” he mumbled softly to himself, noticing the large tree on the front cover, the trunk thick, twisted, and gnarled, like it was two separate trunks that grew together. Again the hair raised on the back of his neck. He flipped it over to read the blurb on the back.

‘Did you know that you can grow an apple from a pear tree? You can, if you join an apple tree and a pear tree together as they grow.’ The Carlisle family has owned and operated Carlisle Orchards for four generations—growing fruit trees is in their blood. Young Jonathan Carlisle is the next in line to run the family business, and he is eagerly looking forward to taking over operation of the orchards that he loves so much. His other love is his best friend turned lover, Jason Clarksen, the son of the Carlisle’s accountant, and a boy that Jon grew up with. However, once Jon’s family discovers the nature of his relationship with Jason, their reaction forces him to choose between his two loves. But like joined trees that become one organism, Jon and Jason have bonded so deeply that, despite circumstances that try to pull them apart, they cannot be permanently separated without harm to them both.

Jared’s skin was prickling now. He knew it wasn’t a unique storyline—so many gay teenagers have families who reject them—but joined trees? How likely was that to be a topic of a book, a book with the phrase Husband Tree in the title? This had to be a big coincidence. There was no other way. He glanced back at his course syllabus and confirmed that this was the first book on the list, the one they had to read for Monday. This J. P. Eastland was the author who Professor Morgan had been talking about, the friend who just recently was published and nominated for an award. He flipped the book open and started to read.

Within another ten minutes (and another five feet forward), Jared’s heart was racing. It felt like he’d read this before. The character of Jason seemed to be a spitting image of Jared, with only some small differences. Jason was tall, had hazel eyes, floppy brown hair, and loved playing basketball. And the story had moments of feeling very similar to Jared’s dream-life with Jensen, such as when Jason and Jon sat talking under a tree in the orchard while Jason used Jon as a foot-rest. Jared couldn’t remember how many times he and Jensen had done that exact same thing in his dreams. But Jared supposed it was pretty common for couples to sit together and talk while under trees, so he tried to convince himself that it was just a fluke. But nevertheless, it gave him a distinct feeling of being watched, and it weirded him out.

But the writing was superb, descriptive without being frilly or overdone, evocative and deft. And Jared was hooked. He had to see what happened to Jason and Jon, if they managed to stay together despite everything.

“Sir, your books?”

Jared looked up, startled. He’d finally made it to the register, and he turned around, baffled at how far he’d progressed through the line without really being aware of it, his nose buried in the book.

He turned back to face the register and the spiky-haired girl standing behind the counter, looking annoyed at the way he was holding up the line. “Oh, sorry,” Jared said, sheepish, and held up the book in his hand. He’d managed to get through the first three chapters without even realizing it, and couldn’t bear to put it down. “Was bored standing in line, so I started reading, and got caught up in it.” He grinned, trying to make her smile.

Her lips twitched up at the corners, and Jared mentally cheered himself. The dimples did it every time.

“That’s a good book,” she said. “But I’ve got to ring it up if you want to keep it.”

“Oh, yeah. Of course.” He plunked his basket of books down on the counter and began lifting them out of the basket for the cashier. He folded the syllabus in half and slid it into the book as a bookmark, and reluctantly put it down on his pile.

The clerk started ringing up the stack. Jared noticed a rack of candy above the counter and grabbed a bag of gummy worms and jelly beans, because, well, just because. Gummy worms were AWESOME, and he wanted a snack to munch on while he finished that book. Because he was going to finish it the moment he got home.

The next afternoon, Jared sat on the sofa, staring at the book lying on the coffee table, trying to understand. There were some things about this story that were so close… the story about Jason and Jon was so similar to Jared’s experiences with Jensen. Jason seemed to be so similar to Jared in both looks in personality; Jon bore a passing resemblance to Jensen, but it was more due to similarities in their personality than appearances. Of course, there were a lot of things that were different about the book from Jared’s life: Jared had not grown up near an orchard, for one, and Jensen’s family did not own an orchard. Set in high school, Jason sang in the choir, whereas Jared couldn’t carry a tune and was instead always in the art rooms, covered in charcoal or paint. Jensen had played tennis; Jon played lacrosse. Jon also sang in the choir—it was one of the few classes that Jon and Jason shared. Jared knew that Jensen could sing beautifully, but Jared didn’t recall Jensen being in any choir in high school. Jason was an only child; Jared was the middle of three kids.

But the differences were superficial and unimportant. What was throwing Jared’s head for a loop were the conversations between Jason and Jon. Jared didn’t remember every dream-conversation with Jensen word for word—who did?—but he did remember the gist of their discussions over the years, and some conversations he recalled nearly verbatim. And there was still something so very familiar about Jason and Jon’s interactions…

Suddenly Jared remembered a discussion with Jensen the previous summer. Jensen was re-writing a story for publication, changing the setting to an orchard. A story he had written for his senior project, about two gay boys who were deeply in love with each other and were able to find their way back to each other despite one boy’s family pulling them apart. That was the plot of this story in one sentence. And it was set in an orchard.

“Holy shit,” Jared breathed. He was on a knife’s edge here, hovering over a major freak-out, and he had no idea what to do.

And then there was the one conversation in the book that had sent chills all over Jared’s body. Jon and Jason were sitting under one of the trees in the orchard, and Jon was explaining to Jason the process of joining two trees together. It was called pleaching, and could be done with a number of different types of trees.

“Did you know that you can grow an apple from a pear tree?” Jon asked.

“Yeah, right!” Jason chuckled and tossed a handful of grass at him.

Jon laughed and flipped the blades away. “I’m serious, Jason. You can.”

“Really?” Jason was curious now. “How?”

“You have to join an apple tree and a pear tree together as they grow. It will become one tree, with half of it producing apples, and the other half growing pears. They even have different color blossoms,” Jon explained. “We actually have a tree like that here in the orchard. I can show it to you, if you’d like.”

“That would be cool,” Jason agreed. “But maybe later. I don’t wanna move; you’re too comfortable.” He pressed into Jon’s side more firmly. “I wonder who first figured out that you can do that with trees,” Jason mused.

“It happens in nature all the time,” Jon explained, shifting so he could wrap his arm around Jason. “They sometimes call it a marriage tree, because the two trees become one organism when they join like that. Or they call it a husband and wife tree. Of course, I like to think of them as husband trees,” Jon said, looking at Jason and wanting nothing more than to be with him forever. “No wife necessary.”

“No, no wife necessary,” Jason agreed, sunlight reflecting in his eyes. “Just husbands,” he murmured, and brought their mouths together.

That line, that line about husband trees, no wife necessary, Jared definitely remembered having that exact conversation with Jensen. That line had inspired his painting of joined trees—Jared still had it in his studio.

Jared stood up from the sofa and started to pace.

How the fuck was this possible? That wasn’t some common phrase… husband trees, no wife necessary. That wasn’t something that just anyone would say, that it would be easy to explain away as coincidence. Did this Jesse P. Eastland guy have some sort of psychic connection to Jared’s brain?

Jared desperately needed to talk to someone about this. But Sandy was in San Diego and wouldn’t be back until late Sunday night. There was no one else that knew about Jensen even in passing, save for Chad. He could email Chad, he needed to talk to him anyway, it had been a while since they last caught up, but Jared didn’t want to freak out at Chad about this. He didn’t even know where to start.

He sat down at his computer, thinking about emailing Chad, but decided first to Google the author.

Jared typed in “Jesse P. Eastland” OR “J. P. Eastland” in the search field and launched the search.

After ten minutes of sifting through the results, Jared was even more frustrated.

He could only find information about this book and Eastland’s Lambda Award nomination, which had happened just before spring break. There was no trace of anything with that name before last summer. Jared doubted he had killer Google-fu, but still, he could only find the same information that was in the “About the Author” blurb in the book, which wasn’t all that informative. There wasn’t even a picture of the man, anywhere. Eastland was gay, originally from Texas, and lived in Alameda. Well, maybe Jared could track the guy down that way.

The only other thing he could think of doing was calling Professor Morgan. Morgan had said this Eastland guy was a friend, so maybe he could give Jared some information that would help.

However, Jared’s attempt to get information from Professor Morgan proved futile. “Mr. Eastland receives fan email through his publishing company, you can contact him about his book that way,” the professor said. “Otherwise, I suggest you wait until he comes to lecture on Monday.”

“But Professor Morgan, I really need to ask him some questions…” Jared insisted, clutching his phone tightly while pinching the bridge of his nose with his other hand.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Padalecki. Mr. Eastland is a friend, and I’ve promised him that I will not give out any of his personal information,” Morgan said, and Jared could hear rustling paper over the phone as Morgan did something at his desk.

“He’s really private?” Jared tried. “I respect that, I really do. It’s just that this book… there’s something about it that is very personal to me…”

“You are not the first person to say that, Jared,” Professor Morgan said, his tone more gentle. “Mr. Eastland has been overwhelmed with people gushing about this book, something he was not prepared for, and I assure you that he’s heard whatever you have to say to him more than once already. Send him an email through the publisher, or wait until he comes to lecture. Really Jared, you’ll see him on Monday. This isn’t part of his book tour; it’s a huge favor he’s doing for me. We are really lucky that he’s agreed to come. And if he gets swarmed by fan affection before he even shows up, he might cancel on me. So, I’m sorry, but I can’t give you any more information than that. And I have a class that I’m already late for, so I have to go, Jared. See you on Monday.” And the professor hung up, leaving Jared gaping at his phone.

“I can guarantee you that he’s never heard what I have to say to him,” Jared muttered to himself.

So Jared couldn’t do anything but wait. It was only one weekend, but somehow it felt like a month. And with Sandy out of town, he was on his own this weekend. His other options were Mike and Tom, but no matter how much he enjoyed hanging with them, there was no way he wanted to open up to them about this.

He sent an email to Eastland through the publisher’s website, but it ended up sounding very much like a fan letter, because he really didn’t want to accuse the man of stealing from his dreams in an email that the publisher would read. And all he got back from that was a canned reply from the publishing company, thanking Jared for his feedback and assuring him that his email would be forwarded to the author.

He also ended up sending an email to Chad, but it turned into a generic “how’ve you been” email, without any hint at Jared’s current near-panic. He just didn’t know how to put it into words.

Jared was restless all weekend, and he didn’t even have a dream with Jensen to help him relax and deal with the wait. All he had were dreams that he couldn’t remember anything of, other than a general feeling of nervousness. He ended up running for a couple of hours on Sunday, hoping that the runner’s high would help distract him. Or at least help him burn off some of his nerves. But it didn’t really help at all.

Sandy showed back up late Sunday night completely dead on her feet, dropping her bag on the floor by the front door. “We totally rocked that workshop,” she mumbled, her eyes half shut as she hugged Jared. “My feet are killing me.”

Jared squeezed her gently. “Awesome, Sands! Do you want that foot rub?” he offered, hoping she would perk back up. He desperately wanted to talk to her about all of this.

But she slumped against him, face in his chest, her breaths slow and regular.

“Sandy?” he asked, peering down at her. She was practically asleep. “Crap,” he mumbled. So much for that idea. Jared hefted her up and hooked an arm under her knees, lifting her up to his chest. He carried her down the hall and into her room, placing her gently on her bed. He pulled off her sneakers and covered her with her blanket. “Night, Sands,” he said softly, kissing her on the forehead.

“Mmm, g’night Jay,” she mumbled back to him, and then she snuggled down under the blanket until all Jared could see was her hair.

He turned on her noise machine and closed the door behind him as he left her room. Standing in the hall, Jared sighed. It was after 11:00 pm, so he might as well try to go to sleep himself. There was nothing else he could do until he saw Eastland the next day, anyway, and he’d angsted enough over it all weekend already.

Unfortunately, his mind refused to shut up and let him fall asleep. He tossed and turned until after 4:00 am, when he finally succumbed to exhaustion.

He woke up to his phone chirruping at him. Blearily, he looked at the texts from Sandy.

Where r u? Class starts in 10 mins!

OMG, Jared, I don’t believe it. Get your ass to class ASAP.


Jared looked over at his clock, which read 9:17 am. His class—the class with Eastland doing his guest lecture—had started seventeen minutes ago.

“FUCK!” Jared launched himself out of bed and began scrambling to get dressed, throwing on his longhorn t-shirt and his baggy Diesel jeans, momentarily grateful that they were clean and not too terribly wrinkled. Not only had he slept through his alarm, but he’d also slept through Sandy getting up and going to her 8:00 am class. She usually banged on his door to make sure he was up before she left.

He ran a comb through his hair with one hand while brushing his teeth with the other, something he found surprisingly difficult to coordinate, as the hand with the comb kept trying to comb in circles. He didn’t even bother thinking about shaving, and hoped that his scraggly almost-goatee didn’t look grungy. He stepped into his sneakers, grabbed his backpack, and texted Sandy back as he was dashing down the hall towards the stairs.

On my way. Pls dnt let him leave. Stall if u hv 2.

If he wanted to meet this mysterious Jesse Eastland who had a direct connection to his brain, he still had to get across campus. Mentally he cursed the distance from his apartment to the lecture hall. Once he reached the stairs, he ran down them two at a time, and flew out the door to the bike rack. Usually he walked, but if he walked or even ran now, he wouldn’t be sure to get there before the class let out. On his bike, he should be able to get there with a little time to spare.

As he was hopping on his bicycle, his phone chirruped at him again. Sandy had replied to him.

Okay. Hurry, J. U need to see this guy.

“I know, Sandy, believe me, I know,” he muttered to himself, pocketing the phone without replying to her.

Jared sped across campus and arrived at the English Building about five minutes before his class let out. He parked and locked his bike, then ran into a restroom to make sure that he wasn’t too gross-looking or sweaty, not really sure why he even cared. Pulling out his phone, he texted Sandy back.

Im here, will wait outside the door and come in when class gets out.

After a minute, he got a reply.

OK. I will talk to him and keep him here for u.

“Thanks, Sandy,” Jared muttered to himself. “You’re a lifesaver.”

He made his way to the door of the classroom and peeked through the slot window in the door. Whoever was speaking had his back to the door, and Jared couldn’t see any details other than short light brown hair and broad shoulders.

“Dammit,” Jared mumbled to himself. He stood and watched as Professor Morgan got up and spoke, saying something about Mr. Eastland’s lecture being included on the exam, and then dismissing the class. Jared still hadn’t been able to get a glimpse of Jesse Eastland, and with all of the students standing up, his view of the front of the classroom was further obscured.

He stood back to the side of the door and waited as the students began spilling out. Once it looked like most of the class had passed, Jared took a deep breath, ran his hand through his hair, feeling suddenly crazily nervous. He was about to meet the man who had somehow taken Jared’s dreams, the details of which he’d never written down anywhere, and put them almost word-for-word into his book with characters that were similar enough to himself and his Jensen Ross that it was eerie. Jared had to know, had to understand.

He stepped into the room and walked down the aisle toward the front of the room. He could see Sandy talking to a man who had to be Jesse Eastland and Professor Morgan. He still couldn’t see Jesse’s face, but his body stance and hairstyle was so similar to Jensen’s that the hairs began standing up on the back of Jared’s neck.

“You just look so familiar,” he could hear Sandy say. “You’re sure you’ve never posed for any photo shoots or paintings?”

“I’m pretty sure I’d remember doing something like that,” the guy said, and Jared froze, halfway to the lectern.

That was Jensen’s voice.

“Why do you ask?” Jesse continued.

Sandy noticed Jared then, her eyes wide. “Well…” she said, and nodded toward Jared.

Eastland turned around then, looking toward where Sandy was gesturing, and Jared…

Jared’s world came to a screeching halt.

“Jensen?” he gasped. He dropped his backpack on the floor, and his knees went wobbly. He reached his hand out to clutch at the back of a chair for support.

Eastland seemed to be in a similar state of shock. His green eyes widened and his freckled face went white, and he staggered backwards into Sandy, who let out an “Oomph!” and pressed her hands into his back to keep him from toppling over.

“Jared?” Eastland choked.

“Jensen Ross?” Jared asked, needing to understand. It was Jensen, standing right in front of him, the guy who had been in his dreams most of his life. Jared couldn’t make sense of it, he couldn’t think, couldn’t comprehend. “H-how?”

“Am I dreaming?” Eastland asked, his voice strained.

“No, you’re not dreaming,” Sandy said, still propping the man up. “You’re heavy.”

“What is it?” Professor Morgan interjected, clearly concerned about how his friend and student had just simultaneously freaked out. “Jensen, what’s wrong?”

And Jared nearly collapsed. He could not wrap his brain around this.

“Jeff…” Jesse—Jensen—turned to Professor Morgan, his face pleading, and pointed toward Jared. “It’s Jared, Jeff. My dream, the one I based my character Jason on, come to life right in front of me. Please tell me I’m dreaming… or hallucinating…”

The professor looked up at Jared, his face stunned. “Jensen, no, that’s Jared Padalecki, he’s one of my students.”

Jensen’s knees buckled then, and Morgan hooked his arms around Jensen’s waist to keep him from collapsing onto Sandy, who helped prop Jensen up from the other side.

“Jared Tristan Padalecki?” Jensen asked, his eyes pinned to Jared, who still could not move. His fingers dug into the fabric on the back of the seat, his arm vibrating with the effort to hold himself up, and Jared prayed he wouldn’t just crumple to the floor.

His mouth was hanging open in shock, but Jared couldn’t do anything about it. Jesse Eastland, a man who was a spitting image of Jensen, down to the tiny crook in his nose that Jensen had gotten when he’d had a fistfight with Chris in eleventh grade, and whom Jared had never, ever, met, knew his middle name?

“Jared!” Sandy snapped. Her eyes were still huge—she was obviously bewildered.

“Y-yeah,” Jared managed. “My name is Jared Tristan Padalecki. And you’re Jensen Ross Ackles?” he asked, not sure if he wanted to be right or wrong.

Jensen—Jesse—whoever he was—choked. “Oh my god,” he gasped, his face white, freckles standing out in sharp contrast.

“What is going on?” Professor Morgan asked again, his voice alarmed.

“I can’t…” Eastland jerked away from Sandy and Professor Morgan. “This isn’t happening.” His panicked green eyes darted from Jared to Sandy to the professor and back to Jared again…

And then he bolted, practically running up the aisle. “I’m losing my goddamned mind,” he muttered as he stormed past Jared, giving him a wide berth.

“Jensen!” Professor Morgan called, chasing after him.

Jared stared at the door both men had disappeared through. He wanted desperately to chase after them, to find out what the hell was going on, but his legs wouldn’t work.

“Jared, what the hell was that all about?” Sandy appeared in front of him, her bag over her shoulder, her face concerned. She placed her hand on his arm. “Jesus, Jared, you’re shaking. You okay?”

Jared continued to clutch at the seat back with one hand, but took her hand with the other. “I… Can I get back to you on that?” he said.

She looked around the classroom, and Jared slowly became aware that there were other people in the room, students coming in for the next class, people who were looking at him curiously. They had just seen his and Eastland’s mutual freak-out.

“Come on, Jared, let’s go,” Sandy said, picking up Jared’s backpack and handing it to him. “C’mon, Jared, get it together,” she said. “Take your bag, and let’s go somewhere to talk.”

Jared finally felt his body unlock from the rigid stupor he’d been in. “O-okay, yeah,” he breathed. He still felt shaky, but he took his backpack from her and hefted it over his shoulder.

She took his hand again and pulled him out of the classroom. “Okay, spill,” she said the moment they reached the hall.

He shook his head. “Not here.” He did not want to talk about his imaginary dream lover anywhere that anyone else could overhear him.

“Alright, let’s go home, then,” she said, looping her arm around his as they walked down the hall. “I’ll just get notes from Sophia for my next class.”

Jared and Sandy walked back to their apartment in silence, Jared pushing his bike, while he tried to figure out how to explain everything. They made it home before he even realized it, and the next thing he knew, Sandy was pushing him down on the sofa.

“Sit. I’ll get you a glass of water,” she said, going into the kitchen.

She reappeared a moment later, two glasses of water in her hand. She sat down on the other end of the sofa and curled her legs up, facing him. “So talk to me, Jared. What the hell happened in class with Mr. Eastland?”

Jared reached into his bag and dug out Eastland’s book. “This book…” He struggled for a moment to figure out what to say. “Sandy, this book…”

“I know it’s a good book, Jared, but what does it have to do with this?”

“Well, you know about Jensen?” he asked.

Sandy nodded. “Yeah, the guy you said you dream about sometimes, the one you draw and paint all the time? The one who looks exactly like Jesse Eastland?” Her voice sounded suspicious.

“Okay, I have never met Jesse Eastland before today, I swear to God. And you know I can’t lie worth crap, so…” He gave her his best earnest face.

She looked at him shrewdly for a moment. “No, you aren’t lying. But how do you explain that Jesse Eastland looks exactly like the guy you’ve been drawing all your life?”

“God, I don’t even know,” he said, running his hand over his face. “I guess I had better start from the beginning.”

She settled back against the cushions and waited for him to start.

Jared took a deep breath. “Sandy, what you don’t know is that I’ve been dreaming of Jensen since I was eight years old. I grew up with him, like he was one of my best friends, but he only lived in my dreams. I know it sounds crazy, and I’ve always known that he isn’t real, he’s just a figment of my overactive imagination, and he’s never shown up in my real life, my awake life. So don’t look at me like you’re worried about my sanity.”

“But Jared, you must admit it’s weird,” she said, frowning.

“Oh, believe me, I know it’s weird,” Jared agreed. “I figured that out a long time ago. I even asked a school counselor about it in high school. I just asked her if it was normal to dream about someone you’ve never met over and over, and the lady said that it might be a little different for the same imaginary character to show up in dreams repeatedly, but that it wasn’t a problem or sign of any underlying mental illness, as long as I knew he wasn’t real and wasn’t hallucinating about him when I was awake.”

“Wow,” Sandy said. “Okay… You’re still dreaming of him now?”

“Yeah. It’s not every night, only one or two times every couple of weeks. Sometimes I have the same kinds of dreams as everyone else—random, stupid dreams about everyday stuff, weird dreams that I don’t remember, whatever. But the dreams of Jensen, sometimes I know I’m dreaming, and sometimes I don’t. They’re always so vivid, though, and I always remember them really well. I just always figured that I’ve always been this really creative person, always been artistic. The first time Jensen showed up, he was actually my imaginary friend, and I really believed he was a real person. But then I was eight, so… It wasn’t until after I figured out that he was imaginary that he started being a part of my dreams. Anyway, my point is that I’ve had this long friendship and more with him in my dreams—”

Sandy smirked at him. “More? Jared, is Jensen your dream lover?”

Jared blushed, giving Sandy her answer.

“No wonder you’re okay with being single right now, if you’re having awesome sex in your dreams!” she said, poking him in the ribs. “It is good sex, isn’t it?”

Jared blushed harder, chuckling. “Yeah… yeah, it’s usually pretty amazing.”

“You lucky dog. You probably have to change the sheets every day, don’t you?” She seemed to be much more interested in this than Jared thought she should be. And the truth was that he did have to wash his sheets pretty frequently, but he wasn’t about to tell her that.

She took his silence as an answer and grinned gleefully. “I always wake up from my sex dreams vaguely turned on and unsatisfied, so I have to finish myself off. Thankfully I keep trusty Mr. Rabbit handy.”

“Sands! TMI!” Jared screeched. God, this was way more information than Jared ever wanted to know about Sandy.

She shrieked a laugh, truly delighted with Jared’s horror.

ANYWAY,” he said, trying to change the subject. “My point, the one that I was trying to make before you sidetracked onto you masturbation habits, is this: I’ve had this friendship and more with Jensen ever since I was eight, and I feel like I know him as well as I know you. We’re still that close.”

“Okay,” she said, still smiling. “But what does dream-lover-Jensen have to do with this book and Jesse Eastland? And why you’re upset? Is it more than just coincidence that Jesse looks like Jensen?”

“Well, I went to the bookstore on Thursday to buy it, and once I started reading it, I couldn’t stop. I just came back here and read. I finished it Friday afternoon.”

“And?” Sandy prodded.

“And this book is so similar to my dream-life with Jensen, it’s eerie. I mean, it’s not exactly the same, and actually there are a lot of differences—I certainly didn’t grow up next to an orchard, but some of the conversations that the two characters have—Jason and Jon—they are the same. Maybe not verbatim, and not in exactly the same context, but I had a LOT of the same conversations with Jensen that Jason has with Jon in that book.”

“Couldn’t that just be a coincidence?” she asked.

“Sandy, in that scene in the book where Jon is telling Jason about how trees can be joined together, the line that Jon uses, about liking to call marriage trees ‘husband trees’ because no wife is necessary? You know, when Jason and Jon were standing under a joined tree? Jensen said the exact same thing to me in one of my dreams. He and I were even standing under a joined tree in the dream. Now tell me, is that something that people just talk about all the time, something that could be coincidence? Oh! And you know that landscape painting I did last year, of all the trees that were grown together? The one I titled HUSBAND TREES? That was based on that dream I had with Jensen.”

Sandy seemed dumbfounded by this news and didn’t say anything for a long moment, her mouth hanging open in shock.

“I know, I can’t explain it, either,” Jared said, shrugging.

“Did you ever write your dreams down somewhere that someone could get a hold of them? Is it possible that this guy J.P. Eastland is somehow plagiarizing you?”

“I would say yes, Sandy, except that I never did write down our conversations. I kept most of my life with Jensen completely to myself. After seeing how my parents freaked out that I had an imaginary friend when I was nine and supposedly too old to still have those, I didn’t tell anyone about him. When people like you and Chad asked me about my drawings, I just said that he was someone I dreamed about. Everything else, the details, the discussions, I kept to myself. Jensen was mine. Only now it’s published in this book, and I feel… violated? Having my dreams put into someone else’s book like this, for everyone to read, and for it to get awards…”

Jared pulled his knees up to his chest. “Sandy, we’re going to be discussing this book in class—we’ll be talking about my dreams with Jensen in class. How am I supposed to take that? And now, on top of that, now I find out the author of this book, Jesse Eastland, looks EXACTLY like MY Jensen Ross, and he recognizes me, too. I can’t explain it.”

She seemed to finally understand just how freaked out Jared was about this. “Oh wow, Jay, and you had planned on asking Mr. Eastland about it after class?” she asked.

Jared nodded. “But I was so nervous about it I couldn’t sleep last night, and I slept through my alarm this morning. Thanks for the texts, by the way. I might have slept through class completely.”

“I banged on your door this morning, and you moaned that you were getting up,” she said, shrugging. “And I was running late myself so I didn’t make sure you were actually up. But when I saw that he looked like your drawings, I knew that you needed to be there. But I had no idea about any of the rest of this. Why didn’t you ever tell me?” she asked.

“Well, I was going to talk to you about it last night, but you passed out standing up,” he replied.

“God, I was so tired,” she sighed. “That workshop kicked my ass. Thanks for putting me to bed, Jay.”

Jared nodded. “It’s okay, I understood. And I DID tell you about him before, Sandy. I told you he was a guy I dreamed about. As for the rest, well, that was private. Do you tell me about your dreams? In detail?”

She frowned. “Good point. I just… it’s like you’ve had this whole other best friend that I didn’t know about.”

“He was imaginary, Sands, or I thought he was, anyway, so don’t be jealous. You are still my best friend.”

She leaned over and hugged him. “God, no wonder you’re freaking out.”

Jared gave a sarcastic chuckle, and then focused on breathing as he hugged her back. But then a thought occurred to him. “Didn’t Professor Morgan call Jesse Eastland Jensen? Or was I just hearing things?”

“No, he definitely called Eastland Jensen,” she answered, sitting up and moving back to the corner of the sofa. “Maybe Jesse Eastland is a pseudonym.”

“If J.P. Eastland is a pseudonym, then is this guy really Jensen Ross Ackles?” Jared asked. “When I said that name, that was when Eastland flipped and left, right?”

Sandy nodded. “Yeah, that was when he left,” she answered. “Ackles?”

“It was Jensen’s last name. He went by Ross when I first met him, because he didn’t like his first name. But by high school, he was going by Jensen. I always thought of him as my Jensen Ross. But how could he possibly be the same guy as my Jensen Ross?” Jared asked.

“Wow, Jared, I have no idea. Maybe you guys have some freaky psychic connection.”

Jared looked at Sandy askance. “Do I seem like the psychic type to you, Sandy? I’ve never had premonitions or could tell what other people were thinking. I have never thought that I was remotely… what’s the word, clairvoyant? Yeah. Never have I had any feelings of knowing what was coming or anything like that. And shit like that isn’t really even possible, is it?”

“I don’t know,” Sandy answered, stretching her legs out to rest her feet in Jared’s lap. “Maybe. I like to think that it is, in special cases. And maybe you aren’t generally psychic, but just have a connection to him.”

“Maybe,” Jared hedged. “I don’t know what to think anymore. I don’t even know if I’ll ever see Eastland again, so maybe I won’t ever know what’s really going on.”

Sandy reached out and squeezed his hand. “He sure seemed really stunned to see you, too, Jay, and he knew your name. I really doubt he’d take off without resolving this somehow.”

Jared just looked at her, doubtful.

But at that moment, his cell phone rang. He dug it out of the case on his belt and looked at the number—it seemed familiar but he couldn’t place it right away.

“It’s a campus number,” he said dumbly.

“Answer it, Jared,” Sandy instructed.

Jared pressed the call button and put the phone to his ear. “Hello?”

“Is this Jared Padalecki?” a guy said, a guy who sounded an awful lot like Professor Morgan.

“Yeah,” Jared answered.

“This is Jeff Morgan, your LGBT Lit professor.”

“Hi professor,” Jared replied, his heart jumping into his throat.

“Hi Jared,” Jeff said, and then there was a short pause. “Are you available this evening?”

“What?!” Jared asked, surprised.

“No, that’s not what I meant,” Morgan said. “I’m not asking you out or anything. It’s just… what happened today between you and Jesse Eastland…”

“Yeah?” Jared prodded.

“I’ve talked with Mr. Eastland about it some, and he and I both think that it would be a good idea for the two of you to meet and talk. When are you available?”

“Hang on,” he said, then put his hand over the microphone.

“It’s Professor Morgan!” he hissed to Sandy. “Jesse Eastland wants to meet and talk with me! What do I do?”

She smacked his leg. “You say yes, doofus!” she hissed right back.

“He wants to meet this evening. Will you come with me?” he asked.

She nodded and then gestured at his phone.

He put the phone back up to his ear. “Yeah, Professor, I’m available this evening.” It was the day he usually spent all afternoon in his studio, and he didn’t have to work until tomorrow, so it wouldn’t conflict with anything else. “Where does he want to meet?”

“How about my office? I’ll be there, as will one of Mr. Eastland’s friends.”

“Can I bring Sandy?” Jared asked.

“Sure, if her being there will help you,” Morgan answered.

“Okay, what time?” Jared asked.

“Well, Mr. Eastland has some other commitments this afternoon, but how about after dinner? Say seven o’clock?”

Jared looked at his watch. It was nearly noon. That meant he had to wait seven hours until he could start getting some answers. Part of him wanted to insist on meeting right goddamned now, and part of him wanted to never meet. He didn’t want to lose what he had in his dreams with Jensen, and this whole thing was really terrifying. “Okay, yeah, that’s fine,” he answered after a moment.

“Okay, good. You know where my office is, right?” the professor asked.

“Yes,” Jared answered. It was on the syllabus, and if he couldn’t find it, Sandy could, as she was minoring in writing and knew that building pretty well.

“How did you know my number?” Jared blurted, surprising himself.

“You called me on Friday, Jared. I have Caller ID.”

“Oh, yeah,” Jared answered, feeling stupid.

“Saved me the trouble of having to look you up in the student directory, actually,” Morgan said.

Jared gave a nervous laugh. “So… seven o’clock then?”

“Yes, seven. See you this evening, Jared.”

“Okay, bye Professor.”

The line went dead, and Jared stared at his phone for a moment.

“We’re going to Professor Morgan’s office at seven tonight,” he said. “Is that okay with you?”

“It will be fine, Jared. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be there for you no matter what.”

He squeezed her hand, unable to say the words of gratitude that filled his heart at that moment.

“Okay, Jared, you are going to go take a nap,” she said, getting up from the sofa and tugging on his hand.

“What? No, Sandy—”

She glared at him. “Yes, Jared. You took care of me last night, now it’s my turn to take care of you. You’re freaked out and you’re exhausted because you didn’t sleep more than a few hours last night. Do you really want to go meet Jesse Eastland all wiped out? Or do you want to make a good impression, in case he really is your Jensen?”

“Good point,” he conceded. He was more than tired, he was emotionally exhausted. And he hadn’t showered, and he definitely wanted to be wearing nicer clothes than his ratty jeans and t-shirt…

“Come on, sasquatch,” Sandy said, pulling him toward his bedroom. “Take a nap. Things will make more sense when you wake up.”

Jared had doubts about actually being able to sleep, but as soon as his head hit the pillow, he felt all his energy drain out of him, and he was asleep within moments.

Jared woke up to fingers carding through his hair and the smell of coffee.

Groaning, he rolled over to see Sandy sitting on the edge of his bed, a mug of coffee in one hand, the other in his hair.

“Time to get up, Jared,” she said softly.

“What time is it?” he asked, sitting up and taking the coffee from her.

“Five-thirty,” she said. “You need to shower and eat something.”

Jared’s stomach gave a loud rumble in agreement, and he realized that he hadn’t eaten anything all day; he’d been too caught up in the drama of meeting Jesse Eastland.

“Yeah, that sounds like a good idea,” he chuckled.

She smiled at him. “Come on, it’s gonna be a big night, Jay. Up and at ‘em!”

He climbed off his bed, feeling sluggish, his mind taking a few seconds to catch up. Long naps always did that to him. “Okay,” he said. “Shower and food.” He shooed at Sandy, who smiled and headed toward the door.

“And I did some research while you were sleeping. I’ll tell you about it in a few,” she said, closing the door behind her.

Jared scrubbed his hand across his face. Christ, was this really happening? He chugged down his coffee, white and sweet, just like he liked it, and went into the bathroom to shower.

He stood in the stream of water for a long moment, just letting the water hit his face. Part of him wondered if he’d dreamed what happened that morning. Part of him felt completely bewildered. Part of him felt hopeful and excited. Part of him was terrified that he would lose Jensen somehow. And another part of him felt irrationally angry for reasons he couldn’t even name. And that was a lot of parts.

“Christ, get it together, Jared,” he muttered to himself. He shook himself hard, and finally felt that he was ready and determined to find out what was going on. He quickly washed, and after toweling himself off, he shaved off his two-day scruff.

And now he had to decide what to wear. Fuck. He stared at his closet, perplexed and momentarily overwhelmed. This wasn’t a date, but he wanted to look good, and what was he supposed to wear to meet a guy who just might be the man of his dreams?

“SANDY!” he screeched. He definitely needed help.

She came in the room to see him standing in his boxers in front of his closet and burst out laughing. “Seriously, Jay, you never needed fashion help before, why now?”

He just stared at her.

“Yeah, alright,” she said, smiling as she dug into his closet.

“Thanks,” he said softly.

“No problem,” she answered, shoving a pair of jeans and a white button-up shirt at him. “Here, your ass looks amazing in these jeans, and that shirt shows off your chest and arms.”

“Are you sure this isn’t too casual?” he asked as he pulled the jeans on.

“No, these are nice. Not too formal, not slobby,” she replied. “Come to the kitchen. I made you a sandwich.”

“God, I love you,” Jared gushed. He was starved.

“I know, Jay,” she beamed at him.

Fully dressed, Jared joined Sandy in the kitchen, and immediately began inhaling the sandwich she’d put on the table for him.

Sandy laughed. “Hungry, Jay?”

His mouth completely full, he just nodded, humming, “Mmm-hmm,” and making appreciative noises.

She handed him a glass of water, which he gulped down.

“So, you said research?” he asked between bites.

Sandy picked up a stack of papers. “You said you Googled Jesse Eastland, right?”

“Yeah. There was hardly anything about him anywhere,” Jared answered, and then took another bite.

“Did you ever Google Jensen Ackles?” she asked.

Jared blinked at her, his mouth hanging open. No, he’d never even thought about doing that.

“I’ll take that as a no,” she sniggered. “God, Jared, close your mouth; that’s gross.”

Jared quickly swallowed his mouthful. “Well, why would I ever do that? He’s imaginary. Why would I ever have reason to search for him?” he defended.

She shrugged. “I suppose so, until now anyway. So while you were asleep, I Googled him, just to see if I could find anything.”

Jared gulped down the last bite of his sandwich. “What did you find?”

“A lot, actually,” she said, handing Jared the stack of papers she’d printed off from the internet.

On the top was a picture of Jensen from high school, next to an article about him winning an award for writing. There were articles about him playing tennis. There were pictures of him taken out of a yearbook, the usual yearbook portrait and another photo in which he was in a group hug with two guys and a girl. The caption read: Steve Carlson and Christian Kane, seniors, and Jensen Ackles and Danneel Harris, juniors, at the Homecoming Bonfire, September 27, 1994. Jared felt like his heart was going to either stop or beat right out of his chest.

“He was born March first, 1978, and grew up in Richardson, Texas,” Sandy said as Jared gaped at the picture. “He was a good student, got awards for writing, and played on the Varsity tennis team. He went to USC and majored in English/Lit, focusing on creative writing, and he had a number of short stories published in the school literary magazine. He graduated with a 3.8 g.p.a. and is currently working on his Master’s degree.”

“Holy shit,” Jared breathed. “This is him, Sandy. This is my Jensen. How…? What does this mean?”

“I don’t know,” she answered. “But that guy looks just like the Jesse Eastland we met in class today. I think that Jesse Eastland is a pseudonym. It would make sense.”

“None of this makes sense,” Jared replied.

“Well, we’re gonna start figuring it out soon,” Sandy said, patting him on the arm. “We need to leave if you want to have time to find a place to park.”

Jared suddenly felt sick to his stomach.

Jared was literally bouncing with nervous energy as he and Sandy approached Professor Morgan’s office door.

“You okay, Jared?” Sandy asked softly, looking up at him with concern.

He took a deep breath and nodded, then reached out and rapped his knuckles on the door.

“Come in,” came Professor Morgan’s voice.

Jared was rooted to the floor for a moment, but Sandy took his hand and then opened the door.

“Hi, Professor Morgan,” she said, tugging Jared into the office.

“Sandy, right?” he asked.

“Yes,” she nodded.

“Please, everyone call me Jeff, at least for now,” Morgan asked. “We’re not here on school business, and we don’t need the formality.”

Jared barely heard this. His attention was locked onto the man who was standing at the window, back to the room. Broad shoulders, freckles on his neck, slight bow-legged stance, short-cropped light brown hair that was a little messy on top, and an amazing ass. He couldn’t keep his eyes off of the guy, of his dream made flesh right in front of him. His dreams were scarily accurate. It was Jensen, and Jared had to remember how to breathe.

“Are you Jensen Ross Ackles?” he asked Jensen. “Or Jesse Eastland?”

“Jesse Eastland is my penname,” Jensen answered, still facing the window. “My real name is Jensen Ross Ackles.”

Jared’s heart thudded in his chest. He had a million more questions, but at least he knew that it was really Jensen. Whether he was his Jensen Ross was another story.

Jensen finally turned around and looked at Jared, then Sandy. “And you’re Sandy McCoy?” he asked. “The Sandy McCoy who gave Jared his first kiss?”

Jared could feel Sandy jerk in surprise. She looked up at Jared, then back at Jensen. “Yes. How do you know that?”

Jensen just shrugged. “I have no idea,” he said. “I mean, I do know, Jared told me, but I have no idea how that really happened.” His green eyes were wide, wary, and his arms were crossed across his chest. Jared recognized the silver ring on his right hand and the watch on his wrist—they were his Jensen’s watch and ring.

“Jared, Sandy, have a seat,” Jeff said, gesturing to the two chairs along the wall.

Sitting down definitely sounded like a good idea to Jared, and he pulled Sandy over to sit next to him. He’d rather not fall over in shock.

Jensen sat down in another chair next to Dr. Morgan’s desk. There was one last empty chair next to Jensen, just across from Jared, and he wondered who it was for.

His question was quickly answered, as at that moment a guy walked into the room. He was shorter than Jared by quite a bit, with long brown hair and a seriously scary frown on his face. Jared immediately knew that this was Christian Kane, Jensen’s best friend, and he looked vaguely familiar.

“Sorry I’m late, Jenny, don’t know this side of town that well. What’s happened?” Chris asked, scowling. He turned to look at the two people he didn’t know, and did a double take on Sandy. “Sandy?” he asked, surprised.

“Christian?” she squeaked. “What are you doing here?”

“Wait, you two know each other?” Jared asked. “How?”

“You remember that time last year, it was just before finals, spring quarter, that we all went to this bar where there was live music playing?” Sandy asked.

“Yeah,” Jared said, impatient.

“Christian was the lead singer of the band. I gave him my number, but he never called me,” she said, shooting Christian a glare.

“Oh my god,” Jared gasped, just as Christian was stammering something about wanting to call her but losing her number. Jared didn’t care about that, because a bunch of pieces were coming together in his mind. He was remembering seeing the flyer for the band… “Kane. I knew I knew that name, but I never even imagined it could be you and Steve,” he said. “The other guy was Steve Carlson, right? The blonde?”

“Yes.” It was Jensen speaking now. “You saw Kane playing at a bar?”

“Yeah, last June,” Jared answered. “And holy shit, they were talking about wishing Jenny was there to sing with them. That was you, right?”

Jensen nodded. “That was when I was working on my book. I didn’t surface for a month.”

“Shit,” Jared breathed. He’d just barely missed Jensen back then, had been so close to connecting with Jensen and he didn’t even know it. Christ, he’d fucked Justin in the alley behind the bar… Jared barely resisted the urge to facepalm.

“Okay, okay, hold up, people,” Jeff interrupted. “I think the rest of us need to get up to speed.”

“Yeah, that would be a good idea,” Christian added, frowning and looking lost. “What the hell is going on?”

Jensen pointed at Jared. “Christian, I’d like to introduce you to Jared Padalecki.”

Chris whirled around to stare at Jared with wide eyes. “You’re joking,” he said.

“‘Fraid not,” Jensen replied.

This is the dude who you’ve been dreaming about all your life? The one you based your book on?”

Jared gave a feeble wave. “Uh, hi, Christian,” he mumbled.

Christian spun back around to face Jensen. “I thought you said he was imaginary!”

“I thought he was, until he walked into the classroom today,” Jensen answered. He still looked like he didn’t quite believe it.

“Hence this meeting,” Jeff interjected.

Chris seemed to be at a loss.

“Sit down, Chris,” Jeff said, pointing at the one free chair. “That way you won’t fall over.”

“Holy fucking shit,” Chris breathed as he slumped down into the chair next to Jared.

There was a long moment of silence, and then Jeff prodded, “Okay, Jensen, you go first.”

Jensen gave a little jerk and looked away from Jared over to the professor. “I don’t even know where to start,” he said, laughing a little. “I mean, I’ve dreamed of Jared since I was eleven years old. I always just thought I had a very creative but consistent subconscious, that it would create a character, a friend for me when I was alone and then keep him with me all my life. I based my book on my dreams of him. I changed the names and some of the details, but this is my Jared, and I can’t explain it.”

He looked over at Jared, his green eyes full of hope as they assessed him. Jared felt his heart thump wildly.

“I mean, it’s like you walked out of my head into the real world,” Jensen continued. “I’m completely baffled. My little pipsqueak friend who grew into a friggin giant, with floppy hair and moles on your face, everything is exactly right…”

Jared was floored. “I did end up taller than you, didn’t I?” he grinned. “I told you I wouldn’t stay a pipsqueak.”

Jensen gaped at him. “Yeah, you did.”

“Wait, when?” Sandy asked?

“When I was eight or nine,” Jared answered.

“And you’ve never met each other before?” Chris asked.

“No,” they both said in unison.

“Okay, Jared, your turn,” Jeff interjected.

Jared took a deep breath. He had no idea where to even begin, but just started talking, hoping it would make sense. “I told Sandy about all of this earlier today,” he said. “But I’ll go through it again. I have been dreaming of Jensen since I was eight. Just like what Jensen said, I just thought I was really creative. I mean, I was drawing when I was nine, and I’ve been drawing Jensen since I first learned how to draw.”

“Really?” Jensen asked.

Sandy jumped in then. “Jared and I have been friends since middle school, and you know how he’s an art major? Well, he’s always drawn this guy that he called Jensen, but always said he was just someone he dreamed about, someone imaginary. All of those drawings and paintings of Jensen… well, they look exactly like you, Jensen. That’s why I was asking you after class if you’d ever sat for a photo shoot or painting, because I couldn’t believe it.”

“So Jared has been dreaming of Jensen since junior high?” Morgan asked, nodding toward Jensen.

Jared nodded. “And as far as I knew, until this morning, Jensen was a figment of my imagination.” He turned to face Jensen. “You’re exactly like what I dreamed, too.”

Christian leaned over toward Jared and poked him in the shoulder. “Dude, you feel pretty damn real to me.” He eyeballed Jared pretty hard, looking him up and down. “And you’re sure this isn’t some elaborate prank? Jensen didn’t pay you to con me, or get me on Candid Camera, did he?” Chris made a point of looking around the room for a hidden camera.

“Chris!” Jensen snapped. “For Christ’s sake, no!”

Christian seemed to be nearly a foot shorter than Jared, it was hard to tell with them both sitting down, but the man was scary. He glared back at Chris, thinking about everything that Jensen had told him about Chris over the years.

And then Jared smirked. “You let Jensen kiss you in tenth grade, because you were curious. You thought it was ‘beyond gross’ and nearly threw up. And you made Jensen swear never to tell anyone because you were so embarrassed.”

Chris choked and rounded on Jensen. “You fucker! You promised!”

Jensen held up his hands. “I never told a living soul! I swear! I just talked to the dude in my dreams about it! I didn’t know he was real!” Jensen glared at Jared.

“Wait, wait, wait a second!” Jeff interrupted, pointing at Jared and Jensen with each hand. “Let me get this straight. Not only have the two of you been dreaming about each other for most of your lives, but you had the same dreams? You remember things you told each other, and you’re right? Right about the facts?”

Jared stopped for a second and realized that Jeff was correct. Did that mean that Jensen knew that they fucked in Jared’s dreams? That they were in love? He felt his face heating up and glanced over at Jensen.

Jensen nodded at Jeff. “I think so… Jared?” He looked over at Jared for confirmation, then smirked when he saw Jared’s blush.

Oh fuck, Jensen knew. Jared looked down at his lap and tried not to wring his hands.

“Jared?” Sandy asked.

“Yeah?” He looked up at her, grateful for the distraction.

“So you guys have the same dreams?” she asked again.

“It looks like. I don’t know, I can’t explain it. I just know that I’ve known Jensen all my life. He called me pipsqueak until I was eighteen, even after I hit my growth spurt and was finally taller than him. He helped me figure out that I was gay, and helped me deal with Justin cheating on me. Do you remember all of that, Jensen?”

Jensen nodded, then looked around the room. “He’s right, and none of that is in the book, so he couldn’t have known from that.”

“Holy fucking shit,” Chris breathed.

Everyone was silent for a long moment, just processing all of this. Jared didn’t know what to say or do. He was completely flabbergasted, and excited, and thrilled, and he could tell that he was on the verge freaking the fuck out.

“So now what?” Jared asked the room.

“I have no fucking idea,” Jensen said.

“You need to talk to Steve, Jen,” Chris said sternly.

Surprised at the seeming non sequitur, Jared looked at Chris and Jensen, who seemed to be having a silent conversation with their eyebrows. “Yeah, alright,” Jensen caved a moment later.

“Steve?” Jared asked. As far as he knew, Steve was a friend who played music with Chris. He wasn’t aware of any other reason why it would be so important for Jensen to talk to him.

Jensen frowned. “I’ll explain later, Jay,” he said.

Jared’s heart gave a little thrill at the nickname.

“So, I think that you and I need to talk, too,” Jared said. “I mean… I still can’t believe this isn’t a dream.”

Chris punched Jared in the shoulder. “That hurt?”

“Ow! Fucker!” Jared cussed and rubbed his shoulder.

Chris grinned. “Then you ain’t dreamin, son. We have ourselves a bona fide mystery here, wherein the two of you seem to have some bizarre psychic dream connection.”

“That makes some sort of weird sense,” Jensen said.

“Or no sense at all,” Sandy added. “But something obviously is going on between you…”

“I can’t explain it,” Jeff said. “But there are people out there who do research on paranormal or parapsychology stuff like telepathy and telekinesis. I can try to get in touch with some of them, if you’d like. See if they have any insight.”

Jared frowned, not sure if he wanted anyone analyzing this connection he had with Jensen.

“Jeff, I don’t know if I want anyone to try to solve it,” Jensen said, his words oddly echoing Jared’s thoughts. “Give us some time to come to terms with it and try to figure it out for ourselves. Let us think about it for a while. If we want to do some research on it, we’ll let you know.”

“Yeah,” Jared nodded. “What he said.”

“Okay,” Jeff said, raising his hands in surrender. “Just let me know if you want my help.”

“I will,” Jensen said, giving Jeff a small smile, and then turning to look at Jared again. “So, that means you and I need to talk, and it’s getting late now. When are you available?”

“My classes are Mondays-Wednesdays-Fridays,” Jared answered. “On Tuesdays and Thursdays I work in the mornings, and then I’m in my studio all afternoon, just working on art. So I can talk anytime.” He didn’t want to let Jensen out of his sight.

“Crap. I have a book promotional thing tomorrow afternoon, at the LGBT Campus Resource center, and then a meeting with my advisor. And I have classes Mondays-Wednesdays-Fridays, too, and on Thursday I have another book promo in Irvine.” Jensen frowned.

“So should we plan on talking this week on the phone, and maybe getting together or something this weekend?” Jared asked. Suddenly, he hated that he was in school and had to work. He needed to spend more time with Jensen, and he didn’t want to have to wait until the weekend.

“Yeah, that will have to do,” Jensen sighed. “So, can I get your number, then?” he asked, standing up and handing Jared his phone.

“Yeah!” He took the phone, a fancy Motorola, and then handed Jensen his phone as well. “Give me your number, too?”

“Sure,” Jensen said, then began typing into the phone.

Jared did the same, writing his name as Jared Pipsqueak Padalecki.

Everyone was standing up then; apparently the meeting was over. Jeff herded them out into the hall while Jared and Jensen were playing with their phones.

“I’ve got to get home,” Jeff said. “It’s getting late. You boys let me know if you need my help with anything, okay?”

“Okay, Jeff,” Jensen said. “I’ll call you.”

Jeff gave Jensen a one-armed squeeze and then nodded to Jared and Sandy. “See you two in class on Wednesday.”

“Bye, Professor,” Sandy said.

Jeff bumped Christian on the shoulder, and then walked away down the hall, leaving the four of them standing there in a semi-awkward silence.

Christian looked at Sandy. “I really meant to call you, but I lost your number,” he said. “So I hoped you’d come to another gig, but I didn’t see you again. Would you be willing to give me another chance?”

Sandy looked thoughtful for a moment, and then glanced over at Jared. “Give me a minute, Jay?” she asked.

“Sure, Sands,” he said, smiling.

She grinned at him and then pulled Chris down the hall a bit, talking to him softly. Christian finally dropped the scowl he’d been wearing most of the evening and looked delighted.

“She was so bummed when he never called,” Jared mused. “She even yelled at me for not telling her to get his number.”

Jensen chuckled. “Man, you should have seen him when he realized he’d lost her number. The guy was so distraught. She’s been the one that got away ever since.”

“Well, maybe they’ll get somewhere now,” Jared laughed.

“Well, so I’ll call you?” Jensen asked.

“Yeah,” Jared answered. “Oh, you might want your phone back.”

They swapped phones again, and their hands brushed. It sent a jolt of sensation through Jared unlike anything he’d ever felt before, and he found himself shaking Jensen’s hand.

Jensen looked pained, like he didn’t want to leave. “Fuck, Jay…” he breathed, and then suddenly Jared had his arms full of Jensen.

Jared squeezed him back tightly, still amazed that this man was real, alive, and in his arms, and that this wasn’t a dream. Oh, God, he even smelled like Jared remembered… sandalwood and grass and Jensen. Jared buried his face in his neck, into his favorite spot where throat met shoulder.

“You even smell like I dreamed,” Jensen mumbled into Jared’s shoulder. “How is that even possible?”

Jared gave a laugh that was half sob, feeling like he was going to cry. “I have no fucking idea,” he said, and clutched Jensen more firmly to his chest. This man felt so right in his arms and Jared never wanted to let him go.

Jensen pulled away from Jared slightly, his eyes sweeping over Jared’s face and lingering on his mouth. For a moment, Jared swore that Jensen was going to kiss him. And fuck, he wanted it. He wanted everything with Jensen.

“Talk to you tomorrow, Jay?” Jensen asked softly.

“You can count on it. I’ll be calling you if I don’t hear from you by five.”

“Oh God, I’m going to puke,” Chris muttered.

Jared looked up to see Chris and Sandy standing there. Sandy was beaming at him, and Chris looked amused.

Jensen swatted at Chris’s head, connecting without even looking. “Quit being a dick, Christian,” he said, but he let his arm drop from Jared’s torso and stepped back. “Bye, Jay.”

“See ya,” Jared replied.

Jared stood there dumbly as he watched Jensen and Chris walk down the hall. Jensen gave him one last wave as they turned into the stairwell, and Jared waved back. He was sure he had a sappy, dorky grin on his face.

“Wow. Just… wow,” Sandy said beside him, and Jared jumped. He’d completely forgotten that she was there. He gaped at her for a long moment, completely dumbfounded.

“Did that really just happen, Sands?” he asked, begging.

“Yeah, Jared, it did. Are you okay?”

It seemed that the shock finally caught up with him then, because his legs completely gave out on him. Slumping to the floor, he breathed, “Holy fucking shit, oh my god…”

“Shit, Jared, just breathe,” Sandy instructed, crouching down next to him.

He leaned his back against the wall and dropped his head between his knees, heaving great gulps of air. “Jensen… that was really Jensen?”

“I don’t believe it, either, Jay,” Sandy said softly, carding her fingers through Jared’s hair. “But yes, that was Jensen, and holy shit do the two of you have chemistry. That was some serious eye-fucking you were doing to each other.”

Jared choked and burst out laughing, and then laughed even harder when he saw the smug look on her face. He rolled onto his side on the floor, laughing hysterically, while she snickered beside him.

“Well, I’m serious,” she said, still laughing. I think if it had just been the two of you, you would have ended up screwing on Morgan’s desk!”

Jared groaned even as he continued laughing. Fuck, that was a hot idea.

“We have a lot to work through first, but yeah, probably,” he answered honestly.

“Come on, Sasquatch. It’s late and I still have some reading to do before I go to bed.” She pulled on his shoulder, trying to get him to stand up.

“Okay, yeah.” She was right, too. Despite his nap, Jared was still pretty wrung out, and he had some reading to do for one of his Education classes. They needed to go home. He stood up, took a deep breath, and hooked his arm around Sandy’s shoulders, tucking him in to his side. As they walked down the hall, he fished out his phone, scrolling to the new contact. Your Jensen Ross, it read.

Jensen didn’t call on Tuesday. Or on Wednesday. Or on Thursday. Jared tried calling him, but just got his voice mail. After leaving him several messages and getting no reply, Jared gave up.

And to make matters worse, Jared wasn’t having any dreams of Jensen. None, not even the blurry, non-lucid ones. He was on the verge of panicking. How could he have finally met Jensen in person, only for Jensen to back away? After they seemed to connect so quickly on Monday? Jared struggled to not wallow in despair.

On Friday night, Jared and Sandy were spread out in the living room on both ends of the sofa, books, notes, and highlighters scattered about them and all over the coffee table, supposedly studying. They both had exams coming up, and Sandy was fervently writing out notes on 3x5 flash cards to quiz herself with. Jared should have been doing something similar. But instead he was complaining about Jensen and Sandy was unsuccessfully trying to tune him out.

“Why won’t he talk to me?” Jared whined to Sandy for the fifteenth time. “What is Chris saying about it?” Maybe because she was talking to Chris now—they were getting to know each other and he suspected they’d start dating soon—maybe Chris had said something?

Sandy gave a long-suffering sigh and set her textbook down. “One, that he’s really busy. He’s in grad school, Jay, which takes a LOT of work. And on top of that, he’s got all of this promotional stuff he has to do for his book, stuff he’s obligated to do because of his contract with his publisher. And two, he’s freaking out.”

“Well so am I, but I’m not ignoring him!” Jared pouted.

“Oh my God, Jared, when did you turn into an insecure thirteen year old girl?” Sandy snapped at him.

Jared shrunk back into the sofa cushions at that, hurt.

Sandy’s shoulders drooped as her face morphed into an expression of remorse. She put her book aside and scooted over closer to him, taking his hand. “I’m sorry, Jared. I didn’t mean that. But, look. This thing between you and Jensen, this strange psychic dream connection? It’s a big fucking deal. I mean, it’s cosmic. It’s not something that is just going to vanish now that you discovered each other, right?”

“I don’t know, Sands,” Jared hedged. “I haven’t had a dream of him since.”

“Because you’re both in shock, Jared,” she insisted. “This isn’t a situation where you find each other and it’s suddenly happily ever after, you know. That shit doesn’t happen in real life. Look, you and Jensen both have spent over a decade believing that you were imaginary. Finding out otherwise isn’t like discovering a hundred dollar bill on the sidewalk, or something easy like that. It’s not a lucky happenstance. It’s a paradigm shift, Jay. Your whole world has to re-orient itself to the fact that he’s real. Same for him. And that’s something that will take you both a little time to come to terms with. So he’s freaking out. So are you. And it’s okay, Jared. Give yourselves the time to deal with this. He’ll call you once he’s really wrapped his head around it all.”

Jared just stared at her. She was making a scary amount of sense. “Have you been hanging out with Tom? Because I swear, you just channeled him,” he joked.

Sandy laughed and swatted him on the leg. “Can we get back to actually studying now?” she asked, scooting back over to the corner of the sofa.

Jared smiled at her. “Yeah, I think we can. I’ll shut up now at least.”

She gave him a wry smile. “Fabulous.”

To Jared’s surprise, he was actually able to focus on his reading now.

So Jared waited. Well, he didn’t wait very patiently. He sent Jensen a text, just to reassure him.

I’ll wait for you, Jen. Call me when you’re ready to talk.

He actually got a reply to that a day later, something that made him giddy.

Miss you, J. Super busy & just need some time. Will call u soon, tho. Promise.

Jared spent the next week and a half focused on school. He planned out his Senior portfolio with his advisor, he got ahead on his reading for his education classes, and he spent as much time in his studio as he could, exercising his favorite coping skill: painting. He threw all of his anxiety, confusion, joy, and hope up on his canvasses in large swaths of abstract color. He made another painting of Jensen, using an impressionist style, trying to illustrate the depth of his eyes. And it really made him feel better.

He continued to not dream of Jensen, though, which was something he was not used to at all. He’d never gone more than a week without at least a blurry, fuzzy, non-lucid dream of Jensen. It bothered him; he felt disconnected from Jensen, and he started to feel the ache in his chest that was sometimes there in his dreams, the slight pull that drew him to Jensen. Jared longed to connect with Jensen, but he was going to keep his word and give him the time and space he needed.

Finally, Jared found with Jensen in his sleep, only this time it felt less like a dream and more like it was real.

Jared shifts, pressing into the warmth at his back. A strong arm wraps around Jared’s chest, pulling him in close. Jared knows that it’s Jensen, and he smiles. He stretches his legs out, twining them with Jensen’s, feeling Jensen’s knee slide between his thighs. Jensen gives a sleepy hum of pleasure and presses in closer, rubbing his face into Jared’s shoulder blades. Jared runs his hand across Jensen’s arm, feeling the soft hairs on his skin.

Jared rolls over in Jensen’s arms to face his lover, who mumbles a mostly-asleep “love you,” as he curls into Jared’s chest. Jared whispers, “love you, too,” tucking his nose into Jensen’s hair. Breathing in Jensen, wrapped safely in his warmth, Jared drifts away.

The day after that dream, Jared felt a lot better. Less worried, and he knew that his connection with Jensen wasn’t going away. He felt relieved, like he could breathe again. And that evening, Jensen finally called.

When Jared saw Your Jensen Ross flash on his cell display, his heart fluttered madly in his chest. “Hello?”

“Hey, Jared,” Jensen said, his voice soft. “How are you?”

“Better now,” Jared answered. He didn’t know what to say, so he just took a deep breath and waited.

“I’m sorry it took me so long,” Jensen said. “I just…”

“It’s okay, Jen,” Jared interrupted. “I understand. It’s a big deal.”

“Yeah, it is,” Jensen sighed, sounding relieved that Jared wasn’t angry at him. “Would you… can we meet?”

Jared’s grin nearly split his face. “Absolutely. When?”

“What’s your schedule like tomorrow?” Jensen asked.

Jared barely restrained himself from bouncing around the room in glee. “I have work in the morning, and then I’ll be in my studio all afternoon. But I don’t have any classes, so I can meet you anytime. Just tell me where.”

“Can I come to your studio? I’d like to see your artwork,” Jensen asked.

“That would be awesome. What time?”

“How about two? That way I can avoid the worst of the lunch traffic.”

“Two is perfect. See you tomorrow then?” Jared asked.

“Jay, I need to know where your studio is if I’m gonna meet you there.” Jensen’s voice was both sarcastic and amused.

Jared blushed and slapped his palm to his face. “Hahaha, yeah, DUH.” He laughed nervously. “Sorry.”

Jensen gave an affectionate chuckle. “S’okay,” he said, the smile plainly obvious in his voice.

Jared grinned and gave Jensen directions. He didn’t want to get off the phone, but Jensen had to meet with some other students for one of his classes.

“So I’ll see you tomorrow at two?” Jared asked, just to be sure. Part of him still couldn’t believe that all of this was real.

“Count on it, Jay,” Jensen replied. “Bye.”

“G’bye,” Jared whispered back, and then the call ended.

Jared gave a loud whoop and threw his hands up in the air, spinning around.

“Oh my god, you are so adorable!”

Jared whipped around to see Sandy standing in the kitchen, watching him with an enormous smile on her face.

He was too thrilled to be embarrassed, and he ran over and hauled her up into a bear hug. “He’s coming over tomorrow!” Jared gushed, spinning her around.

Sandy shrieked with laughter and swatted his shoulder. “I heard! Put me down, you overgrown teddy bear!”

He set her down and did a little victory dance. He didn’t care if he was being ridiculous. He was going to see Jensen tomorrow.

Jared paced in the studio the next day. He hadn’t been able to concentrate on anything since his conversation with Jensen. So he cleaned his brushes, blew sandstone dust out of his Dremel, stretched canvas over a few frames, and just organized things in his section of the studio. While doing so, he found his old figurine of Boots, the one that Jensen had given him—the one that Jared had thought Jensen had given him. Jared still had no idea how he’d gotten a hold of it, and he wondered if Jensen would remember it. So he just set it on the desk and resumed pacing.

Jensen had said he’d come by at 2:00. They could talk and then maybe go have a coffee.

“Fuck, this is insane,” Jared said to himself.

“You’re not kidding, Jay,” came Jensen’s voice from behind Jared.

Jared spun around. Jensen was standing in the doorway, looking hugely nervous. And fucking gorgeous. Wearing jeans that looked butter soft and a snug dark green t-shirt, Jensen looked amazing.

“Hi!” Jared gasped.

“Sorry to surprise you,” Jensen said. “I know I’m a bit early, but I couldn’t wait.”

“It’s not a problem,” Jared answered. “I wasn’t working, anyway. Come in.”

“So this is your art studio?” Jensen asked politely.

“Yeah, this is where most of the art happens,” Jared said, leading Jensen into the room. He shoved his hands into his pockets, both because he was nervous and he didn’t want to touch Jensen yet, not if it wasn’t welcome. “I share with a couple of other students—they aren’t here, obviously—and the stone sculpture work goes on in a different room, though. It helps contain the dust. But this area,” he gestured to his corner of the room, “is where I work.”

“That makes sense,” Jensen said. “All of this is your work?” he said, gesturing to several stacks of canvasses that were propped up against the wall.

“Yeah, it’s all mine,” Jared answered. There were a number of paintings there that were of Jensen. He was anxious about showing them to him. What would he think when he saw himself?

“Can I see them?” Jensen asked.

Well, that resolved that issue. “Sure, help yourself.” Jared tried to sound casual, like he didn’t care. “They’re all dry and complete.”

Jensen sorted through the frames, looking at each one. When he came to a painting of himself, Jensen gasped.

“Sandy wasn’t kidding, was she?” he said softly, lifting the painting up to look more closely at it.

“No, she wasn’t,” Jared answered. “I’ve been drawing you since I learned how to draw. You were my inspiration to start drawing, actually.”

“I remember sitting on your bed, watching you sketch, and working on my own homework,” Jensen mused. “This is incredible, Jared. You’re amazing.”

“Thanks,” Jared said, trying to contain his smile.

Jensen continued looking through the stack of paintings, humming with pleasure at each one. Then he gave a gasp. “Oh my god, Jared—you painted husband trees?” he said, holding up the landscape of trees Jared had painted a year ago.

“Yeah, I did. I had some dreams where you were just focused on trees, and I remember you telling me about the way they join sometimes into marriage trees. So I had to paint them.”

Jensen looked over at him, his eyes shining. “I like to call them husband trees,” he quoted.

“No wife necessary,” Jared finished, smiling. “That was the line in the book that really freaked me out,” he added.

Jensen chuckled. “Yeah, I bet. This is better than the cover art for my book,” he said, pointing at the painting.

Jared beamed. “Thanks!”

Jensen smiled and went back to looking at the paintings, and a long silence dragged out.

Jared had no idea what to say. And wasn’t that odd? They had never not been able to come up with something to talk about. After a long moment of silence, Jared gave it a stab.


Jensen looked up at him and grinned. “Yeah. I can’t believe it’s this awkward. We always had something to talk about, didn’t we?”

Jared grinned. “God, how do you know what I’m thinking?” he asked.

Jensen smiled back at him. “I have no idea, Jared. This whole situation has thrown me for a loop.”

“Yeah, you and me both. Are you sure I’m not dreaming? You always seemed so real to me in my dreams.”

Jensen looked thoughtful. “Did any of our dreams ever include Sandy? Or Chris? Or anyone else besides just you and me alone?”

“No, it was always just you and me,” Jared answered.

“So no, we’re not dreaming. Because Chris is out in the hall, ready to rescue me if this becomes too much.”

Jared laughed. “Sandy told me that she’d come running if I don’t get in touch with her by four.”

Jensen chuckled. He turned away from the stack of paintings and just stood there, across the room from Jared, looking slightly uncomfortable.

The distance between them felt wrong to Jared. Jensen needed to be in his arms, but this was still so new, he was still wrapping his head around it.

“So how do we deal with this?” Jared asked.

“I don’t know, Jay,” Jensen sighed. “I think I’ve finally accepted that you really are real, so now we have to decide what we want to do about it.”

“Were we… in your dreams, were we together?”

“Do you mean, did we have sex, Jared?” Jensen asked, his eyes darkening.

Jared nodded, feeling his face heating up.

Jensen took a step toward him, looking like he was restraining himself from coming even closer. “Jared, our sex life was so amazing that no one else ever even compared.”

Jared felt himself flush hot then cold. “Yeah,” he agreed. Sex with Justin, with anyone, was never as incredible as it was with Jensen.

“So what now?” Jared asked again.

Jensen frowned and shoved his hands in his pockets. He turned away from Jared and walked toward the window. “Well, it’s complicated,” he said.

“You’re with someone?” Jared asked, shocked. He hadn’t known that Jensen was dating anyone. He knew that Jensen sometimes hooked up casually, but it was never actual dating.

“Well, sort of,” Jensen replied.

“What does that mean? And why did you never tell me?” he asked, feeling wounded.

Fuck, this was so crazy. Here he was getting jealous of a man whom he hadn’t known existed until now.

Jensen turned back around to face him. “I’ve been hooking up with Steve, every now and then,” he said. “It was always casual. And you never wanted to hear details about my casual hookups, so…”

Suddenly Chris’s comment from the meeting in Morgan’s office made sense. “Oh, so that’s why Chris said you need to talk to Steve,” Jared said.

“Yeah,” Jensen answered. “Chris knows that I’ve always loved you, even though he never really understood how I could be in love with someone who was a figment of my imagination. He never liked that I was seeing Steve, even though Steve and I both knew it was casual.”

“But wait,” Jared said, confused. “I thought Steve was straight. Back in high school, you mentioned him having girlfriends.”

Jensen gives a little chuckle. “I think he’s bi. He claims to be ‘mostly straight.’” Jensen did little air quotes when he said this. “But he doesn’t mind a little male action when he doesn’t have a girl. So in my book, that’s bi.”

“So what are you going to do?” Jared asked, leaning against his desk.

“Well…” Jensen frowned.

“Are you going to call it off with him?” Jared clarified.

“Maybe. Probably. It depends on what happens between you and me.”

Jealousy surged up Jared’s spine, and he struggled to push it down. “Okay, so what about us?”

“Well, Jared, that’s up to you as much as it is me,” Jensen said, coming closer.

Jared stood up and paced a bit. “Well… this is so crazy. I want to be with you, for real. I have wanted that for a long time—I can’t tell you how many times I wished for you to be real. And now you are real, and I…” He took a deep breath, trying to figure out what he was feeling, and then gave a soft chuckle. “Part of me wants to fuck you over my desk, but I really think we need to take it slow, take the time to figure this out and adjust. So that might be moving a bit fast.”

Jensen looked at his desk, apparently considering the idea. And then his face transformed into shock. “Jared… is that…?” he said, pointing at the desk.

“What?” Jared asked, surprised.

Jensen walked over to the desk and picked up the figurine of Boots. He held it up for Jared to see, his face one of confusion. “Jared, I gave this to you for your ninth birthday.”

Jared froze. “Yeah, you did. You woke me up late at night because your family had been in another town for one of Josh’s soccer tournaments, and you missed my party.”

“Jared…” Jensen choked. “How is it possible that you actually, physically have this?”

Jared shrugged. “I have asked myself that question ever since that summer. You were gone, but Boots stayed. I can’t explain it. I eventually talked myself into believing that I had picked it up somewhere and attributed it to you.”

Jensen sat down hard on the desk, turning the figurine over in his hands. “It even has the mark on the bottom that I put there… the JRA.”

“I know,” Jared answered.

“What does this mean?” Jensen pleaded softly.

“I know what I want it to mean,” Jared answered.

Jensen pinned him with bright green eyes. “What do you want it to mean, Jay?”

Jared stepped closer, keeping his hands in his pocket so he wouldn’t just grab Jensen and pull him into his arms. “I want it to mean that we are supposed to be together. That the universe, God, what-the-fuck-ever wants us to be together. I’ve loved you since I first saw you in that sandbox, when you were going by the name Ross.”

Jensen smiled. “You were the one who made me actually like my name.”

Jared nodded, grinning. “See? I’ve been in love with you for most of my life, and I always felt like it was this huge unfair thing that you were only a figment of my imagination. I kept hoping to meet someone who would compare to you, who I could love like I love you, but I couldn’t imagine that it would ever happen. So I settled for what I could find, telling myself that it was okay, because you would always be in my dreams. But that didn’t work, so I just gave up on having a real life relationship.”

Jensen was nodding along with Jared. “Yeah, exactly. I feel exactly the same way.”

“We probably shouldn’t just jump right into a relationship, though,” Jared said again. “This is still a huge shock that we need to adjust to.”

“I agree. But Jay, let’s not let our shock get in the way of this any longer. I’ve already taken a couple of weeks to deal with it, and I don’t want to avoid you anymore. I get this ache in my chest, this pull that draws me to you, I’ve felt it my whole life, and I don’t want to go without you any longer.”

Jared choked and tapped his fingers on his sternum. “Oh my god, Jensen, me too… I’ve always had the same feeling. It’s like gravity. It made me want to come to Los Angeles, because it would be near you, and I didn’t care that you weren’t real. Holy fuck…”

Jensen gaped at him. “Oh my god,” he gasped, and then floundered for words for a moment. “This… you… are this huge gift from the universe, that you’re actually real, that you’re here. Let’s not let anything get in the way of us.” Jensen’s voice was pleading, his eyes bright.

Jared could feel his eyes watering, his body shaking. “Do you honestly think that I’d let you go, now that I finally know you’re real?” he asked. “It’s only my every dream come true, Jen.”

And Jensen launched himself toward Jared, crushing their mouths together. Jared wrapped his arms around Jensen, squeezing him tightly, picking him up off the ground as they kissed, and oh God, it was Jensen, it was home, it was perfect.

Jensen finally broke the kiss, laughing with joy. He buried his face in Jared’s neck, not complaining that Jared was still holding him off the ground.

Jared set him down, loving that he only had to lower him a couple of inches. Jensen was only a little shorter than he was, and he fit perfectly against his body.

They stood there for a long moment, wrapped tightly around each other, just breathing together. Jared could feel Jensen’s heartbeat against his chest, the warmth of his body, and he never wanted to let go.

And then a random thought popped into his head, making him chuckle.

Jensen leaned back to look him in the eyes, smiling. “What?”

“My stupid brain,” Jared joked. “Just was wondering about something.”

“And what’s that?” Jensen asked, stroking his hand into Jared’s hair.

“What’s with the name Jesse Eastland?” Jared asked.

Jensen gave a surprised laugh and blushed, and he seemed nervous all of a sudden. “Well, I wanted to write under a pseudonym, because I didn’t want it to get back to my family that I was writing gay fiction, and I couldn’t figure out what name I wanted to use,” he said, still twining his fingers in Jared’s hair. “It took me a while, but eventually, I took all the letters of your name and all the letters of my name, and scrambled them up. From that, I made the name Jesse Patrick Eastland. The rest of the letters became Jason Reid Clarksen, the name of the character in the book that I based on you. I really like the name Jason, too; my parents actually considered it as my name before they decided on Jensen. For a long time, I wished they’d gone with Jason. So it really felt good to give that name to the character I based on you.”

“Oh my God, Jensen,” Jared breathed. “You’re fucking amazing.”

Jensen laughed again. “That’s why I freaked when I heard your name was Jared Tristan Padalecki. I couldn’t believe it.”

“I love you,” Jared said, unable to say anything else.

Jensen answered by bringing their mouths together again.

Jared waited outside on the sidewalk for Jensen, trying not to fidget. It was their first official date, and Jared was going out of his skin. They’d talked on the phone since their meeting in Jared’s studio, but this was the first time he’d seen Jensen since they’d decided to give this a shot.

Jensen pulled up then in a shiny black classic car, a long four-door; Jared didn’t immediately recognize the model. But it had a throaty rumble to the engine, and it made him smile.

Jensen reached over and unlocked the passenger door, smiling up at him through the open window. “Hey, Jay!” he grinned.

“Wow, I didn’t know you’d gotten a car like this,” Jared said as he climbed in.

“I just got her,” Jensen said, grinning. “Sixty-seven Chevy Impala.”

“Awesome,” Jared replied. “She’s gorgeous. Why a classic car?”

Jensen put the car into gear and pulled away from the curb. “I know, why not get a little, plastic, fuel-efficient car? Especially in California. I thought about it, really, but I’ve always liked the older cars. And when I got the advance from the publisher, I couldn’t help but treat myself.”

“That’s awesome,” Jared said.

Jensen sent him another grin.

They lapsed into silence, and Jared struggled to find something to talk about. After a minute, Jensen turned on the radio, and then they occupied themselves by singing along to the music.

“So, I figured dinner and then a walk on the beach?” Jensen asked as they pulled up into the parking lot of a steakhouse.

“That sounds great,” Jared replied as he got out of the car.

Jensen had made reservations, and they didn’t have to wait more than a minute to be seated. Once they were at the table, there was another long silence.

“This is stupid,” Jared said impatiently. “We normally can’t stop talking.”

Jensen chuckled. “I know. It’s just… still a little weird,” he said.

Just then, the waiter appeared at their table, looking down at his notepad. “Hi, my name is Justin and I’ll—”

Jared choked. “Justin?”

Justin stared back at him, stunned. “Uh… Hi, Jared.”

Jensen’s eyes darted back and forth between Jared and Justin, a frown on his face. “This is Justin?” he asked, pointing at the blond.

Jared nodded. “Er, I didn’t know you worked here,” he said. God, this was awkward.

“I’ve been here a couple of months,” Justin said, fidgeting. “Wow. Oh, you’re on a date?” His face was bright red, and Jared knew that this could easily turn nasty.

Jared decided to head it off, and he stood up. “I’ll be right back,” he said to Jensen, and he took Justin’s elbow and walked them over to the foyer. “Look, I can be polite, Justin,” he said. “I probably needed to see you, though now is not the best time. But that’s life.”

Justin bit his lower lip, looking wary and nervous. “Well, shit, I don’t know what to say. Are you going to cause me trouble? I need this job, Jared.”

Jared shook his head. “No, man. I just wanted to say that you were right about one thing. I wasn’t able to commit to you, and I’m sorry about that. It wasn’t fair to you.”

Justin looked astonished; he’d obviously not expected Jared to apologize. “Wow. Okay, thanks,” he said.

Jared continued. “But this guy I’m with tonight, this is the real thing, Justin. Are you going to make a scene in front of him or be nasty to him? Do we need to go to another restaurant?”

Justin shook his head. “No, don’t worry. I’ll get Brandon to cover your table.”

“Okay,” Jared nodded, feeling relieved.

“I hope you’re happy with him,” Justin said, giving Jared a regretful smile.

Jared couldn’t help but grin widely at the thought of Jensen. “We’re just getting started, but… yeah.”

“I can tell, Jared,” Justin said softly. “You never smiled that way about me. And for what it’s worth, I’m sorry, too. There’s a lot of things I wish I’d done differently.”

Jared felt whatever residual anger he had toward Justin fade away. “Thanks, Justin. It’s over with now, and I’m not the type to hold a grudge. So…” he shrugged. “I guess that’s it, then?”

Justin nodded. “Yeah. I’m glad you came in.”

“Me, too,” Jared agreed. It felt good to resolve his relationship with Justin like this. “Good luck with everything, man.”

“Yeah, you too,” Justin replied. “I’ll just go tell Brandon to cover your table. See you around, Jare.” And then he walked into the kitchen.

Jared went back to the table with a sheepish grin on his face. “That was awkward,” he said as he sat down.

“Is everything okay?” Jensen asked. He was still frowning, and Jared could tell that he was holding himself back.

“Yeah, it’s fine, Jen,” Jared replied. “He’s going to get someone else to be our waiter.”

“That’s probably a good idea,” Jensen grumbled. “He’d probably spit in our food.”

Jared sniggered. “Oh, ew. But no, he wouldn’t do that.”

At Jensen’s skeptical look, Jared reassured him. “Justin’s not like that. He and I just apologized to each other for how our relationship broke up, and it was a good conversation. It was nice to get closure. He said he hopes we are happy together.”

“Wow, you’re scarily well adjusted, Jared,” Jensen said, looking surprised. “I wanted to smack him for cheating on you. But I’m glad that worked out.”

“Yeah, I am too.” Jared replied, smiling. “Think we can get back to our date now?” Jared grinned.

Brandon, their new waiter, showed up then to get their drink orders. He was friendly and made no mention of Justin. After he left, there was another long silence as they looked over their menus.

Jared decided to fill it by asking something he’d been dying to know. “So, speaking of exes, what happened between you and Steve?”

Jensen scowled and dropped his menu to the table. “Well, I told him I was going to date you seriously, so there won’t be anything more between him and me. I thought he’d be happy for me. Him and Chris, they’ve been after me to have an actual relationship for a long time. But he got upset.”

Jared got a sinking feeling in his stomach. “Why?” he asked.

“Seems it started being something more serious for him a while ago,” Jensen said, giving him a sad smile. “I told him from the start that it was just casual, but he…” Jensen broke off for a moment, looking out the window. “I don’t know if our friendship will be the same now. Seems Christian was right about that.”

“I’m sorry, Jen,” Jared said softly.

“Not your fault, Jay,” Jensen said. “Anyway, I’m hungry. What are you having?”

Jared let the change of subject go without comment. What could he say, anyway? “Steak,” he answered, grinning. “Love me a good steak.”

Jensen grinned at him. When Brandon returned with their beers, they both ordered steaks, Jared’s with potatoes, Jensen’s with a salad.

“So, my publisher wants me to go to the awards ceremony in New York City in two weeks,” Jensen said after the waiter left. “And next week, I have promo gigs up in San Francisco, so I’m going to be gone for that.”

It took Jared’s mind a second to process that. “What?”

“The Lambda Literary Awards?” Jensen prodded.

Oh, that was right. Jensen’s book had been nominated for a Lambda award for Gay Men’s Fiction. Jared frowned, feeling uncomfortable.

“What is it?” Jensen asked.

Jared took a deep breath, trying to figure out what he was feeling. He’d had this uneasiness about Jensen’s book for a while now, ever since he read it. “It’s just…” he started, then struggled for words. “Your book, Jensen. I love it, really I do. It’s so well-written; it really deserves to be recognized for outstanding fiction. And I’m happy for you that it’s such a success. But…”

Jensen frowned, looking concerned. “But what?” he said, sounding a little defensive.

Fuck, Jared hadn’t meant to get into this. But the words just poured out of him. “It’s got so much of me in it, Jensen. My thoughts, my words, my dreams. Out there for anyone to read. We spent a week on it in class, talking about me. I mean, I know that no one knows that but a handful of people, but still. It feels like someone published my private journal.”

Jensen’s shoulders were tense, and he leaned back in the chair. “Well how do you think I feel when I see your drawings and paintings of me, particularly the ones where I’m half-naked? You show those to people, you sell them, for fuck’s sake. I never signed on to be an art model, Jared.”

And of course, that was when their food showed up. Brandon glanced between them, obviously noticing the sudden chill in the air. He politely placed their dishes on the table and removed himself.

Jared seethed in silence for a moment. Fuck. Jensen had a good point. “Look, I wasn’t trying to start a fight,” he said eventually. “Really. I understand. You didn’t know about me. I didn’t know about you. There was no way we could have predicted this. I just needed you to know how I feel about the book.”

Jensen’s shoulders sagged and he looked away, quiet.

Jared’s heart ached at the distance between them. “Okay, look,” he said, placating. “You have a good point. I will take out all of the paintings of you from my portfolio, Jensen. I won’t show them, not without your approval first. But I’ve never sold any paintings of you. They were too personal and I didn’t want to part with them.”

Jensen nodded, accepting that. “Okay. But I can’t do anything about the book now, Jared,” Jensen said softly. “It’s published. I can’t undo that. But I am sorry that you feel violated. I never meant to do that.”

“I know,” Jared said. “And I never meant to make you feel exposed with my paintings, either. So I’m sorry about that, too. I’m not angry at you, Jensen. Really. I guess I just needed to tell you how I feel about it, and it all came out at once.”

Jensen finally looked at him again, his face soft. “It’s okay. We need to talk about these things, I know. It’s just weird now, with you being real. Things I never had to worry about before. I never had to wonder about whether my school or promotional schedule would affect you, because we could always connect in our dreams no matter what I was doing.”

“Yeah, I know,” Jared agreed. “I prefer you real, though.”

Jensen smiled at him, his face lighting up. “Ditto.”

“So wow, this has been a rockin’ first date, hasn’t it?” Jared joked, trying to lighten the mood. “Ex boyfriends and an argument. Feels more like our forty-third date than our first.”

Jensen smirked, then chuckled. “Yeah. Kind of hard to do the whole ‘let’s-get-to-know-each-other’ thing when we really do know each other already.”

And that was it, that was what felt so weird about this, Jared realized. “Do you think maybe we’re trying too hard?” he asked.

Jensen smiled, his green eyes sparkling. “Probably, yeah. I mean, our situation is so different than anything else, so it doesn’t make sense for us to try to follow the usual first-date pattern.”

“Maybe we should pretend that this isn’t a first date, then? Just try to act like we do together in our dreams?” Jared asked.

“Yeah, that would probably work,” Jensen said, and then his face took on a mischievous glint. “But then we always end up fucking in our dreams.”

Jared choked and burst into laughter. “God, no shit,” he chuckled. “We are still waiting on that front, right?”

“It’s probably a good idea,” Jensen said. “But I don’t want to wait too long.”

Jared bit his lip and nodded. “Yeah. But we should be good for now.”

Jensen winked at him.

The rest of the night went much smoother after that.

The next two weeks flew by. It was a busy time for Jared; his classes were more challenging than ever. Jensen spent a week in San Francisco promoting his book, and then they only had one night together before he had to leave again to go to New York City for the Lambda Awards. Jared wished he could have gone with Jensen, to be there for him at this hugely important event in his life, but there was just no way he could take the time away from school and work. And he didn’t have the money to drop on a cross-country ticket at such short notice. So Jared stayed behind in LA while Jensen left for New York.

After Jared dropped Jensen off at the airport, he ended up sitting in the Bronco on the parking lot that should have been Interstate 405, cursing LA traffic. Bored and having nothing to do but watch other drivers, he wondered idly why he hadn’t had any dreams with Jensen in a while. Maybe it was because they were talking in real life now? He hoped that they hadn’t lost their dream connection, now that they’d found each other. He missed the easy flow to their relationship in their dreams, the flow that wasn’t quite right just yet in their face-to-face interactions. They were getting there, but it was still so new, and strange to see Jensen in his conscious life.

Jared really hoped they would continue to have shared dreams. It was such a deep part of who they were, how they found each other. But then again, Jared would happily never share a dream with Jensen again as long as Jensen stayed real and in his life. How many times had he wished, prayed, begged for Jensen to be real? How often had he felt the slight tug in his chest, telling him that Jensen was there, if only Jared could find him? And now he had, and Jared was beyond grateful.

As the traffic finally started moving, Jared decided he would just have to wait and see what happened.

“Okay, I’ve got to go soon,” Jensen said, sounding terribly anxious.

It was the night of the Lambda Awards ceremony, and Jared was talking Jensen through his nerves on the phone. “You’ll do fine, Jen,” he assured. “Just the fact that you were nominated means they recognize how amazing you are.”

“Are you sure you’re okay with this, Jay?” Jensen asked softly.

“Yeah, Jensen, I am.” It was the truth. Once Jared had told Jensen how he felt about the book, the anger and feelings of violation had faded. All he felt now was respect for Jensen. He was so proud of Jensen, that he was able to create a story so amazing, even if it drew on aspects of Jared’s life.

“Really?” Jensen asked.

Jared stretched his legs out onto his desk and leaned back in his chair. “Yes, really, Jensen. I’m honored.”

Jensen gave a soft sigh. “Okay, then.” He sounded a lot more put together now.

“Call me after?” Jared asked. “I want to know how it goes.” This wasn’t a ceremony that would be televised—no network would show a LGBT event like this, so Jared wouldn’t hear what happened until Jensen told him.

“Promise,” Jensen said, and Jared could hear the smile in his voice. “Okay, I’ve got to go. I’ll talk to you later.”

“Bye,” Jared whispered when the line went dead.

He wondered if he was more nervous than Jensen. Looking over at the easel with his current work in progress, Jared knew he wouldn’t be able to concentrate at all.

So he went home and wasted time kicking ass at HALO on the Playstation 2. Sandy showed up after a bit and joined him, swearing playfully at him as they battled each other.

Jared lost track of time then, and jumped when his phone went off.

“HAHA!” Sandy shouted, taking advantage of his distraction. “Take that, Jay!” she said, pressing the buttons on the controller.

Jared looked up to see that his character had just died a bloody death. Oh well. That didn’t matter. “It’s a text from Jensen,” he said dumbly.

She hit pause and dropped the controller. “What’s it say?” she asked eagerly.

Jared opened the message.

OMG. I WON. \o/ Crazy after party, too noisy to call. Will call you later, or 2mrw.

Jared whooped loudly. “HE WON!” he shouted, jumping to his feet and throwing his hands in the air.

Sandy shrieked, “Oh my god!” and jumped up to give Jared a hug.

He spun her around, too excited to care that he knocked over a lamp with her foot.

“Put me down, you big oaf,” she laughed.

He set her down, and she immediately put the lamp back on the table. “We have to celebrate!” she gushed, and fetched a bottle of wine from the fridge.

Jared blinks. He’s in an unfamiliar hotel room, and for a moment he wonders how he got here. But then he recognizes the feeling, the sleepy sense of awareness. He’s dreaming. He remembers splitting a bottle of wine with Sandy, and he must have fallen asleep on the sofa, waiting for Jensen to call. And now he’s dreaming. He feels overjoyed for a moment, relieved that their connection is still here.

He spins around, following the slight tug in his chest that orients him to Jensen, looking for his boyfriend. “Jensen?” he asks the room.

Jensen comes out of the bathroom, a dazed look on his face. He’s wearing a tuxedo, the bowtie unknotted, and holy fuck he’s gorgeous. Jared’s mouth waters.

“Jared?” Jensen asks, a surprised look on his face. And then he beams, his whole face lighting up with the force of his smile. “JARED! Oh my god, Jay!”

Jared runs over to him and wraps his arms around him. “Congratulations, Jen!” he whispers in his ear. “I’m so proud of you!”

Jensen shudders in his arms. “I can’t believe it, Jay,” he says, pulling back to look him in the eye. “I am SO glad to see you,” he adds. “Makes the whole night perfect.”

Jared grins and kisses him, soft strokes of his tongue that quickly turn heated. “Me, too,” he whispers against Jensen’s lips. “God, I’ve missed you.”

Jensen nods. “Missed you too. Missed these dreams.”

“I know. I was worried we wouldn’t have them anymore,” Jared says, brushing his nose along Jensen’s cheek.

Jensen hums and presses into Jared again, tucking his face in Jared’s neck.

Jared wants him. It’s been so long, they haven’t sex in real life yet, and they haven’t had a dream like this in what feels like months. “We should celebrate,” he suggests, rocking his hips into Jensen’s.

Jensen gives a soft moan. “No,” he says.

Jared pulls back, surprised. “What? Why?”

Jensen gives him a sheepish smile. “I want you, too,” he says. “But I want you for real, Jay.”

Yeah, Jared can get on board with that idea. He grins, nodding. “Okay,” he says. “When you get home, then?”

Jensen nods. “Tomorrow night, Jared.”

Jared smiles and kisses Jensen again, thrilled. “So tell me about the award ceremony,” he asks.

Jensen goes over to the table and picks up a square, cut glass award etched with his name, his face nearly splitting with the force of his grin, and tells him.

They couldn’t get back to Jared’s apartment fast enough, after he picked Jensen up from LAX. Luckily, the traffic gods were feeling generous, and it only took him twenty minutes to get to his apartment.

“Is Sandy home?” Jensen asked as they headed up the stairs toward Jared’s front door.

“No,” Jared answered, grinning. “She knew we were coming back here, so she went to Sophia’s place. They’ve got an early morning rehearsal across tomorrow anyway, and she’ll carpool with Soph.”

“Good,” Jensen replied, his eyes dark.

Jared nearly fumbled the keys when he opened the door.

“Living room, kitchen,” he pointed as he dragged Jensen through the apartment. “Sandy’s room, bathroom, and this is my room,” he breathed, pulling Jensen in his room and closing the door behind them.

And suddenly, it felt a lot less rushed and excited and a lot more serious. “We ready for this?” he asked.

Jensen looked at him for a long moment. “Yeah,” he whispered. “It’s time.”

Jared nodded, his heart thudding in his chest, and he pulled his shirt over his head.

Jensen’s eyes caressed Jared’s chest. “God, you are so gorgeous, Jay,” he breathed.

Jared just smiled and tugged at Jensen’s shirt. “Wanna see you, too.”

Things sped up again as they scrambled to undress. On the bed now, naked, Jared couldn’t keep his hands to himself, rubbing down Jensen’s back to caress his ass. God, that ass… “Well, mister award-winning author, how do you want to do this? Your choice.”

“I want to fuck you, Jared,” Jensen answered, his voice a low growl that shot straight to Jared’s groin.

“Yeah,” he grinned. “God yeah.” He wanted nothing more than to feel Jensen inside him, for real.

Jared detached his hands from Jensen and reached into his bedside table, fishing out lube and a condom.

And then he gasped. Jensen had taken the moment to suck Jared’s cock into his mouth.

“Oh fuck, Jen,” Jared groaned at the wet heat and suction. “God, your mouth…” Christ, Jensen’s tongue was amazing.

Jensen chuckled around his mouthful and reached up with one hand, gesturing for the supplies. Jared handed them over eagerly, and then dropped his head back to the mattress, swept up in the sensations. He could feel himself sliding down Jensen’s throat, and holy hell that was incredible.

Jensen pressed on the back of Jared’s thighs, pushing them up. Jared hooked his hands behind his knees and held himself open.

Slipping off of his cock with a wet pop, Jensen groaned. “Fuck, that’s hot, Jay.”

“Want you, Jen,” Jared said.

Jensen answered that by pressing a slick finger into him.

Jared could hardly believe this was finally happening. “Come on, yeah,” he groaned, pushing down on Jensen’s finger. He could feel another one push in, adding to the stretch. It had been a while since he’d bottomed, and while part of him wanted Jensen to fuck him right the fuck now, he appreciated the prep. “Gimme another,” he said.

Jensen complied, and this time when he pressed in, he pushed up against Jared’s prostate, circling it with the tips of his fingers.

“Oh fuck, yeah,” Jared moaned. “Please.”

Jensen continued assaulting that spot, and Jared could feel himself shaking. A long moment later, he could hear the crinkle of plastic, and Jensen’s fingers withdrew.

“Do you want to stay like this, or roll over?” Jensen asked.

“Like this,” Jared breathed. “I need to see you.”

Jensen nodded. His eyes were blown with lust, and Jared couldn’t look away as Jensen slowly thrust inside him.

They both groaned when Jensen was all the way in, and Jensen dropped down to his elbows as Jared wrapped his legs around his hips.

Face-to-face, Jared could barely breathe for how intense it was, finally having Jensen inside him. It was more vibrant than in his dreams, more real, just more everything. The ache of his body stretching around Jensen, the hitching in Jensen’s breath, feeling the other man’s heartbeat against his chest, the way he could read every emotion in those green eyes, how it was obvious that Jensen was feeling overwhelmed.

Jared touched Jensen’s face gently, stroking his fingers across freckled cheekbones, tracing his ear. “Hi,” he whispered.

Jensen cracked a grin. “Hi, Jay.”

“Finally,” he breathed, and then pulled Jensen’s face to his, bringing their mouths together.

Jensen’s tongue slid into his mouth as he began slowly thrusting into Jared.

God, this. This was what Jared needed.


Jensen rocked into Jared, kissing him the same way he was fucking him, deep and slow, making him feel everything, every sensation, the friction, the pressure, the sparks rising along his spine as Jensen grazed his prostate, pleasure building from deep inside. Jared moaned around his tongue and squeezed his hips with his knees. One hand in Jensen’s hair, the other on his ass, he could feel every tremor in Jensen’s body, every shuddering breath.

“God, Jay,” Jensen whispered, lifting his head just enough to look Jared in the eyes.

“I know,” Jared said. He didn’t have any other words, couldn’t…

Jensen shifted then, dug his knees deeper into the mattress, changed his angle slightly, and Jared gasped.

“There?” Jensen asked.

“Fuck yeah,” he breathed. He lifted his hips to meet Jensen’s thrusts, moaning as the pleasure deepened, spreading, getting just enough friction on his cock rubbing between their stomachs to tease but not put him over the edge.

The slow pace was driving Jared crazy, winding him higher. Half of him wanted Jensen to speed up, harder, faster, get them there quicker, but the other half was loving the sense of delirium this was creating.

“Yeah, Jay, that’s it,” Jen groaned. “You feel so good.”

Jared’s eyes slipped shut as electricity sparked over him, drowning in Jensen. “Oh fuck, Jen,” he whined. “Please.”

His lover shifted above him, and a hand closed around his cock, squeezing gently.

Jared arched, bucking into Jensen’s fist. Half-formed words spilled from his mouth, unable to form a coherent phrase. A glorious ache was spreading through him, flowing down his legs to his toes, up his spine, sharpening.

“Oh fuck!” Jensen gasped above him. “Come on, Jay. Look at me. I want to see your eyes when you come.”

Jared did as he was asked and was amazed at how intent Jensen looked above him, the way his lust-blown eyes caressed Jared’s face. Sweat was darkening the hair at his temples, now. “Jen, fuck,” he breathed, and then everything compressed in him as his orgasm hit him, rushing up from deep inside, rocking him in hard jolts.

“Oh my god, Jared,” Jensen cried above him, his pace increasing, continuing to batter Jared’s prostate. Jared could feel him shudder, the tremors that rocked through him echoing in his own body.

Jensen collapsed onto him then, and they just lay there, panting. Jared’s legs flopped down onto the bed, and he wrapped his arms around Jensen, clutching at him desperately.

“Fucking hell,” Jensen moaned after a long moment. He picked up his head again to gaze at Jared’s face.

“I love you,” Jared breathed.

Jensen kissed him gently on the forehead, then on the lips. “I love you, too, Jared.”

Jared deepened the kiss, languidly stroking his tongue into Jensen’s mouth.

The sweat on their bodies was starting to cool, and Jensen finally shifted off of Jared, holding onto the condom until he was free of Jared’s body. “I liked that we didn’t have to use these in our dreams,” he said as he tied the rubber off and dropped it in the garbage.

“Mmm, yeah, me too,” Jared agreed. “We’ll have to get tested, and then we can stop using them.”

Jensen looked up at him, smiling. “I’d like that,” he said. “Is there a washrag in your bathroom?”

“Yeah.” Jared could still barely move, but he gestured toward the bathroom door. “Help yourself.”

Jensen walked nude into the bathroom, and Jared heard the water running. A moment later, Jensen returned with a wet cloth and wiped Jared down.

“So tired,” Jensen mumbled, flopping down on the bed next to Jared. “Was up way too late last night, and then a five-hour flight today…”

Jared forced his body to move, and he struggled with the covers for a moment until he was able to pull them over him and Jensen. “Sleep, Jen. We’ll figure out what’s next in the morning.”

Jensen hummed a pleased sound and curled up next to Jared, head on Jared’s shoulder, arm draped across his chest.

Jared felt himself falling into sleep, and he shifted so he could hold Jensen better, pressing his face into his lover’s hair, unable to stop smiling.

Chapter Text

Ours is a Reciprocal Gravitation Orbit


October, 2002

“Jay, a little help!” Jensen called from the door.

Jared abandoned the pasta salad he was stirring and ran to the door, and nearly burst out laughing. Jensen was struggling with two cases of beer, a couple of 24-packs of soda, and a large grocery bag of chips and crackers about ready to topple off the top of the stack of boxes in his arms. Jared relieved him of the two larger cases, teasing, “That’s right, you need your man to help you with the heavy stuff.”

Jensen glared at him, and Jared knew that if Jensen had a free arm, he’d be getting punched right about now. “There’s a whole trunk full of groceries still in the car, He-Man, and now you get to bring them all in.”

Jared broke out his best puppy-dog eyes and pout.

“Nope, not working,” Jensen said and strolled past him toward the kitchen.

Jared followed him with the beer, setting it down next to the cooler. “But Jen…”

“Nope, you said I need my man to help me with the heavy stuff, so go get to helping. Show me what all those muscles are good for.”

As soon as Jensen put his arm-load of soda on the counter, Jared lifted him up onto the counter as well, ignoring his squawk of protest. “I’ll show you what my muscles are good for,” he said, palms squeezing Jensen’s thighs as he inserted himself between Jensen’s knees and pressed him up against the cupboard.

Jensen looked about to protest again, so Jared cut him off with a kiss, sliding his hands up the back of Jensen’s shirt. Jensen reciprocated easily, sliding into the kiss with a soft moan, caressing Jared’s tongue gently with his own and arching into Jared’s body, and fucking hell, that was hot. Jared squeezed Jensen tighter, pressed in closer, bringing their groins together.

Jared was just beginning to contemplate the mechanics of how to go about fucking in a kitchen with food all over the table and counters—maybe the floor?—when Jensen pulled away. “Fuck, Jared, we can’t. There’s food sitting out in the car that needs to go into the fridge, and everyone will be here soon. No time for fun.”

“Dammit,” Jared cursed, knowing Jensen was right. He leaned back in for one more kiss anyway.

Jensen laughed into the kiss, then pushed him away. “Food in the car, Jared. Sexy times later.”

“Oh alright,” Jared said and let out a long-suffering sigh as he turned to go out and fetch the groceries. Jensen hopped off the counter and smacked him on the ass as he walked away.

Just for that, Jared pushed his jeans down a touch, rucked up his shirt so a nice strip of his torso was showing, and made sure to load his arms up with grocery bags so his biceps bulged right out of his sleeves. The hungry look on Jensen’s face when he came back into the house was supremely rewarding.

“Got it all in one trip,” he bragged.

“That’s my He-Man,” Jensen said appreciatively.

Jared grinned. His life was fucking awesome.

Everyone gradually spilled in the door, and the house-warming party to celebrate Jared and Jensen moving in with each other was officially on. Said “everyone” included Mike, Tom, Sandy, Sophia, Genevieve, Chris, Steve, and Jeff Morgan, the professor who had become their mutual friend ever since that day in April when Jared and Jensen found each other in his classroom. He had once again offered to get in touch with some parapsychology researchers, but Jared and Jensen had finally decided that they were perfectly happy with their gift from the universe, and they did not want to have their psychic dream connection investigated further. They were satisfied with leaving it a mystery, and Jeff was content to see them so happy, so he never pushed the idea.

They still shared dreams sometimes, though nowhere near as often as they had before they met. Usually it was when they were apart, like when Jensen was on the road for his book tour. Jensen had graduated with his Master’s degree, and Jared had just started his fifth and final year for his Bachelor’s degree. Growing the Husband Tree was selling really well, and the publisher was pushing him for another book. And just the other day, Jensen had received a message from the producers of the Oprah Winfrey show about possibly featuring his book in her book club.

Jared had sold a few pieces of art for a lot more money than he ever expected, and an art gallery in Hollywood wanted to feature him as an upcoming local artist. With both of their careers taking off, they wanted to establish a foundation, a joint home base. A home, together. So they bought a house.

Jared handed out another round of beers, smirking at Sandy who was sitting on Christian’s lap. They’d started dating not long after Jared and Jensen got together. With Jared moving in with Jensen, Sandy had moved in with the rest of the Brunette Squad. She winked at him and tipped her shoulders toward Chris coyly.

Jared laughed and moved on to hand Steve another beer. It had taken Steve a couple of months, but he’d gotten past the breakup with Jensen eventually, and their friendship was mending. And from the way he was eyeballing Genevieve, Jared suspected that he was moving on.

The door flew open, then, and Jared spun around to see who was crashing the party, because everyone he cared about in LA was there already.

“What’s up, bitches?!” Chad shouted, throwing up his arms.

Jared nearly dropped the beers he was carrying. “Holy fuck, CHAD!” he shouted.

“Jay-Man!” Chad shouted back, dropping his duffel bag on the floor. “Holy fuck, gigantor, did you get even TALLER? And turn into the fucking HULK?” he said, pointing at Jared’s biceps.

Jared put the beers down on the coffee table and sprinted over to his friend, picking him up and giving him a bear hug. “What the fuck are you doing here?” he asked, spinning Chad around.

“Oof, you giant oaf, put me down!” Chad huffed, but he was grinning.

Jared spun him around once more and then put him down. “Dude! Why didn’t you tell me you were coming?” he asked.

“That’s why it’s called a surprise,” Chad smirked. “Surprise!” he said, waving his hands.

“I told him to come to the party to surprise you,” Sandy said from Jared’s left.

He turned around to see her grinning and blushing furiously.

“It wasn’t all her idea,” Chad said. “I’ve been dying to come see you since you said that Jensen was a real person, because I needed to make sure that you haven’t lost your mind. But Sandy promised he was real, so when she told me about the party, I booked a flight.”

Jared was now squeezing the life out of Sandy. “You guys are awesome!” he said.

“Pssht, we know that,” Chad said, while Sandy screeched at Jared to put her down.

“So let me meet this Jensen dude,” Chad said. “I need to see him with my own two eyes.”

Jared put Sandy down and blushed. He turned to the rest of the room, and everyone else was just watching the reunion with amusement. “Er, yeah, introductions!” he said. “Chad, this is Jeff Morgan, Steve Carlson, Christian Kane, Mike Rosenbaum, Tom Welling, Sandy’s friends Sophia Bush and Genevieve Cortese. And this,” Jared said, pulling Jensen over to him, lacing their fingers together, “is my Jensen, Jensen Ackles. Everyone, this is my high school friend, Chad Michael Murray.”

There was a chorus of greetings, but Chad was staring, dumbfounded, at Jensen. “Holy shit,” he said, and then looked up at Jared through squinted eyes. “You weren’t fucking kidding, were you?”

Jared laughed, winking at Jensen. “Nope. It’s really Jensen, the guy I’ve been dreaming about since middle school. And he’s been dreaming about me his whole life, too.”

“Nice to finally meet you, Chad,” Jensen said, offering his hand.

Chad shook Jensen’s hand, still gaping stupidly at him.

“I know, man, it’s weird, but you get used to it,” Chris said. “You should have seen them both when they finally ran into each other at the college. That was some crazy shit.”

“It is some weird fucking shit,” Chad agreed. “But it’s awesome, too.”

“Definitely awesome,” Jared agreed. “Okay, everyone, let’s go out into the back yard. It’s too crowded in here!”

The group milled out onto the deck and spread out onto the patio furniture, talking and laughing.

“Tell us again how you guys met?” Genevieve asked. Once she’d seen just how smitten Jared was with Jensen, she’d gone from carrying a torch for Jared to living vicariously through his romance with Jensen.

Jared laughed. “Which story do you want? The really long one, or the one that started this year?”

“Give us the long one,” Mike prodded, looking comfy on Tom’s lap. “I need to hear it again to believe it.”

Jared sat down next to Jensen on the swing, and began the tale.

“…and then, my mom was freaking out, thinking I was having some bizarre psychotic breakdown or something, because I was standing there, introducing her to a kid who wasn’t there,” Jared said, and everyone laughed. “It’s funny now, but then, man, she was so worried. Dragged me to a psychiatrist and everything. But when Jensen vanished out of my kitchen, I knew he was imaginary.”

“Whoa, hold up,” Jensen interrupted. “You were the one who vanished, Jay. Your mom was standing there, telling you I wasn’t real, and then you both just disappeared, and I was standing by myself in my kitchen.”

Jared gave a shocked laugh. He’d wondered how Jensen had experienced that summer.

“Wow,” Tom said. “Why do you think that happened? I mean, why did you guys connect like that?”

“I think it was because I was lonely,” Jensen said. “Both of my parents were working, my brother is five years older than me, so he was always off doing things with his friends, and my sister was in daycare, and I was pretty much on my own all summer.”

“Yeah, it was similar for me,” Jared said. “We’d just moved to New Braunfels from San Antonio, my brother made friends right away, and Megan was in daycare. I had a babysitter, but there weren’t any kids my age around my neighborhood. I didn’t meet Sandy until school started, so I had no friends.”

“And you started dreaming of each other four years later?” Tom prodded.

“Yeah,” they said in unison. “The dreams continued right up until we met this year. And we still have them sometimes,” Jared grinned.

“Wow,” Genevieve sighed dreamily. “So romantic.”

“Fuck romance,” Mike said. “It’s epic. Like you guys are psychically connected somehow. How is that possible?”

“No idea,” Jensen said.

“Me either. Do I seem like the psychic type to any of you?” Jared asked. “I don’t get premonitions or anything like that. But I share dreams with Jensen. Can’t explain it.”

“You know,” Jeff said in his “professor” voice, “I’ve been looking into the parapsychology research since I first found out about you, and there are some cases of people performing better than would be expected due to chance alone. It’s doesn’t usually happen on unimportant things like reading thoughts about random cards, but for things that are deeply, personally meaningful, like when parents know their children are in trouble, there have been some cases that can’t be explained scientifically. It’s fascinating.”

“Maybe you were both abducted by aliens as children and they did some crazy experiment on your brains that made you mentally connected, or something,” Mike suggested.

There was a long beat of silence, and then everyone exploded into laughter at Mike’s random detour into science-fiction. Jared nearly fell out of the swing, he was laughing so hard. Jensen was shaking beside him, tears leaking out of his eyes.

Mike looked affronted. “Well, I was going to say twins separated at birth, but Jensen’s two years older, so that’s not possible, either.”

“No more alcohol for you,” Tom said affectionately, taking Mike’s beer out of his hand.

Mike gave Tom an epic pout, which caused another round of hysterical laughter.

Chad, who had been flirting relentlessly with Sophia, chimed in once they’d all calmed down. “It’s like you guys are some crazy sort of psychic soul mates, you know? Meant for each other shit, like you couldn’t bear to be apart, so you found a way to be together even though you didn’t know each other existed. That is some crazy universal magic, there.”

“That makes complete sense,” Sandy said.

“And you can tell just by looking at them, right?” Chris said. “They’re fucking disgusting the way they love each other. Makes me want to throw up.”

But Jared wasn’t listening to Chris’s griping. He was thinking about what Chad had said. It rocked him, and it resonated in him. It made perfect sense, and it was like the last piece of the puzzle of him and Jensen finally fell into place. “Soul mates,” Jared said softly, looking over at Jensen.

Jensen smiled at him, his green eyes glistening, his face alight with joy. “Yeah, I like that idea,” he said.

Jared pulled Jensen in for a kiss, loving the feel of his mouth, ignoring the cheers and groans around him.