strangeallure: (dead like you)
[personal profile] strangeallure
Dead Like You, Part 3

Jared can't move, didn't move at all since that thing hit Mimi. He just watches, watches people cry for help, watches the blood drip from Mimi's head. It's not even a big wound, not even a lot of blood – she will be fine. A little damage, maybe, some time in the hospital, some rehabilitation, some scars. People live through worse stuff.

He watches as the EMTs do their job, try to resuscitate her, shoot drugs into her veins and dress her head wound. He keeps telling himself that she will be fine, that she can still be fine. It begins to sound hollow in his head.

When the medical examiner arrives, no hurry in his step, it's time to admit defeat, but he still can't move.

Why can't she live? Why didn't he see it, anticipate it? Why didn't he push her out of the way? Why did her body give out even though there's still a soul in it?

He's so afraid now. He broke the rules, and he doesn't even know most of them. What's going to happen now? Can he still cut the soul/body connection? Can he still get her out? Will she get her white lights?

He's just standing there, one chaotic thought in his head chasing the next, but then he realizes that they are getting her body ready for transport. The ME must have called the time of death. God, they're taking her away, taking her to a morgue he might never find. He has to act now.

He runs, his muscles tense and vision focused on Mimi alone, and reaches the gurney before the EMTs are finished strapping her in.

"You can't," starts one of them, but then Jared strokes along Mimi's arm, and the guy seems to lose his train of thought mid-sentence, not paying any attention to Jared anymore.

There's a loud, unnatural thud Jared feels more than he hears, and it makes his blood run cold. It's Midori's soul falling from her body like a sack of cement, landing on the ground beneath the gurney. He kneels down to look at her, to help her up, and recoils.

She doesn't look like the girl he talked to only half an hour ago. She doesn't look like any soul he's ever seen.

Her skin is thin like rice paper, the blue of her veins shining through in bizarre contrast. She's shivering, her eyes unfocussed and her lips cracked, small muscle contractions running through her body like electric shocks.

He steels himself and reaches out his hand to help her get up, but she flinches and tries to scramble away. It's painful to watch, the way she can hardly find enough strength to roll onto her stomach, the way she tries to get up on all fours, but can't keep herself up, the way she squirms and crawls away.

And he did that. He did that to her.

Jared wants to scream, wants to cry, wants to crash his fist into a wall until it bleeds, but Loretta was right. This is not about him; it never should have been.

--

He doesn't know how much time has passed with Midori cowering in a corner and him sitting a few feet away, watching, waiting. Jared's tried to shield her from the commotion on the square with police investigating and onlookers wanting to find out what happened, but he also tried to leave an escape route so she won't feel trapped. She simply pressed herself against the wall, arms crossed over her chest, feet pulled up, eyes squeezed shut. He's lost track of time, doesn't even know how many times she flinched at a loud voice, a person walking close or even just a leaf drifting by.

He doesn't know how long it took for her to open her eyes, for them to develop something like focus. Doesn't know when she started really looking at him. Her gaze is nothing like it was before – almost lifeless now, dull eyes in dark sockets slowly gaining an eerie intensity.

It's unnerving.

He wants to be there for her, to make this right, but he doesn't know how. Hell, he doesn't even know if she's still the person he was supposed to reap or if she's someone else. If he made her become something else. She seems so different.

Her stare develops into something piercing, prodding, uncomfortable.

Finally, she speaks in a papery, torn-up voice, long pauses between words. "You got me out."

Jared wants to laugh, feels it bitter and hollow in his throat. Yeah, he got her out alright. He doesn't laugh, though, or explain or apologize. He doesn't think she needs that right now. Instinctively, he scoots closer – very slowly, so he won't scare her – and reaches out his hands, palms facing upward, offering her his touch.

She just keeps looking at him in that harrowing way, but at least she's not jerking back.

Gradually, her limbs begin to relax, to unfold, until she's no longer hunched in on herself, until he can see how wiry-thin she looks now, starved and battered and worn-out.

How could this happen to a soul? How could mere minutes have this effect? What on earth did he do?

It comes as a surprise when she leans forward and he feels her boney, dry hands slide into his. There's no strength in her touch, no pressure outside the weight of her hand. Jared struggles with how this works, how she can still have a bodily presence, and how it can be so radically different from the way she was when she was still alive.

He tries not to think about this now and completely concentrates on Mimi, willing her to get better. When her gaze seems to grow more lively, her hands slowly tightening around his, he attributes it to wishful thinking at first, reluctant to believe it. He's exhausted, all bleary eyes and sluggish thoughts. His brain probably just tries to give him what he wants so he can go home and rest.

He forces his thoughts back to Mimi, makes a conscious effort to take a long, assessing look at her – and can't deny it any longer. Her skin seems less transparent, veins not standing out as much. She's not whisper-thin anymore in that way that scares him. Her eyes got some shine back, and her lips aren't as cracked.

She's getting better.

By the time she lets go of his hands, she looks almost normal, even if her complexion is more sallow than before and her face more weary.

"Thank you," she says in a slow, dry voice. "For getting me out, I mean."

He doesn't want her thanks, but if he doesn't accept it, if he tells her it's the last thing he deserves, he'd have to tell her why, so he says, "It's part of my job."

She seems to ponder this for a moment, looking at her hands in her lap, pulling at her fingers. "What's next?"

It's a question he dreads, and it's so hard to focus for Jared right now. His thoughts are not as coherent as he wants them to be, and he feels weak. After some time, he answers, "Ideally, you accept that you're dead, and then you can move on."

He feels like a liar.

She nods her head, slowly, like she's trying to make sense of something. "So … I already know I'm dead. It's not like I didn't notice when I died. It was painful," she looks at her fingernails, which are still a little blue, "and it felt like a long time." Her lips press together and her head shakes like there's a small shock going through her, but she catches herself. "I mean: I accept it. I'd rather not be dead, sure, but I'm glad I don't have to suffer through that pain anymore, that I'm no longer trapped."

Jared can hardly take it. Suddenly, it doesn't feel like not telling her is really about her. It feels like it's about him being a coward, not owning up to what he did.

When he doesn't reply, she gives him an uncertain half-smile. "So what do I do to accept? Do I have to sign something?"

He makes a decision, but his eyes cut away when he starts talking. "It's not meant to be like this," he says, gaze fixed on the wall behind her. "I'm supposed to cut the connection between your soul and your body before you die, so when you do, your soul can just slip out." He still can't look at her, doesn't want to see her reaction. His words pick up speed, come out faster. "But you were so nice and you had all these plans, and I thought that I could save you, but you still died."

He makes himself look at her, sees the confusion on her face. "I didn't know. I honestly didn't know it would be like this for you."

When he reaches out his hand to touch her arm, she swats it away, but doesn't say anything. There's a lot happening on her face: it goes from blank to tense, her lips biting and pressing, her eyes blinking rapidly against tears, then closing for a long time.

"It was horrible," she says, every word chosen carefully. "The pain was tearing and burning everywhere, and it was dark, and I felt trapped and alone. And then my body went numb, which was almost worse."

There's a long pause. "But you got me out, you waited her with me, and your hands made me feel better." She straightens up, her face determined. "That's why I believe you – because you stayed."

His eyes burn, and his jaw is clenched tight, and he can't say anything.

He doesn't know what makes him turn around, what makes him look over to the fountain in the middle of the dark square, but there they are: Midori's white lights.

She knows what comes next, like all souls do, and gets up. Looking at Jared for a moment, she briefly touches his arm.

"For what it's worth: I think I understand." She gives him a smile. "Good luck," she says and starts running, jumping head-first into the glimmering prisms of water.

--

Jared doesn't tell Jensen that night. He only talks to Loretta the next morning, waiting for her to find the right punishment, wanting it, needing it.

She takes him to the park bench where he first woke up after he died.

"I know you want me to make you suffer," she says and looks at him earnestly. "You want it because you know you deserve it. And make no mistake – you really do."

She has her hands clamped in her lap, not touching him like she usually does. "This poor girl was in pain for reasons that had nothing to do with her and everything to do with you. You hurt a soul you were meant to take good care of."

He sits there, helpless, knowing she's right. He's embarrassed that he still has a knee-jerk reaction to defend himself, to say that he didn't mean it.

"But you also made it right." She says it as if it would make a difference. "You realized your mistake before it was too late, and you let your instincts take over."

He huffs an incredulous laugh she simply ignores.

"You got her out before it was too late, and believe me – there is a time when it is too late."

It's a horrible thought: that he could have done something worse to her, that he could have done something irreversible.

"You didn't panic when you saw a pained soul. You didn't leave her, and you didn't force your presence on her." She pauses. "That's good, Jared, that's really good."

"I was the reason she was in pain!" he shouts.

"Yes, you were, but you didn't run from your responsibility. That's the most important part of being a reaper: taking responsibility for another person's soul, never giving up on the ones you're meant to take care of."

He just shakes his head.

"You made a mistake, a big one, and you caused a lot of pain." She takes his hand for the first time today, and her touch soothes him like it always does. "But you tried to make it right. And you succeeded. She got her white lights. She's where she's meant to be now because you didn't give up on her."

"I'll leave you alone now," she says finally. "Eat and drink plenty, and make sure you get some rest. I'll take your client for today, and I'll put you back on shared assignments for a while."

He stays on the bench for a long time, thinking about what she told him.

--

A couple of weeks later, it's past midnight when Jared opens the apartment door. He expects Jensen to be in his own room already, but instead, he's sitting on the couch with a large tray of tapas, a bottle of tequila and two shot glasses.

"Hey man," Jared says with a small wave as he toes off his shoes. "I'm sorry, but I'm pooped. Can we do this another time?"

Jensen gives him a look. "You said that before – we can just do one round."

"Nah, man, it was kind of rough today and–"

Jensen gets up. "I'm not into 'talking it out', you know that, but I'm not stupid either. You've been different ever since Loretta put you back on double assignments, and if you don't want to tell me, it's cool, but stop trying to pretend it's nothing."

Jared stands still for a moment, pondering his options. He lives with Jensen, and Jensen's a pretty good roommate, a good colleague. Hell, he's a good friend – and Jared's a sharer, always has been.

He lets himself fall heavily onto the couch and hands Jensen the tequila glasses. "Make mine a double."

--

Before Jared realizes it, it's September, and he has another late shift at Bocca della Verità that simply won't end. First, a waiter called in sick, then a kitchen help needed to leave early, and finally, there was a large party of guests who seemed to be completely unaware of the concept of closing time. So now it's thirty minutes after Jared's shift is supposed to be over, and he and his boss only just started doing clean-up.

When there's a knock on the door, Jared recognizes the shadow standing in front of it right away. Jensen waits tables at the tapas bar across the street, and sometimes, when his shift ends earlier than Jared's, he drops by to pick him up – and, okay, to charm the leftovers off of Nicoletta. Today, some homemade breadsticks are all there is left, and before he gets the door, Jared puts them in a paper bag.

"Sorry, Jensen, no polenta left over today, only grissini – and we're not nearly done with clean-up." He shrugs apologetically and hands over the bag. For a moment, Jensen looks kind of disappointed, but he quickly covers it up by popping a piece of bread into his mouth.

"Oh, that's too bad," Jensen says as he turns back to the street.

"I'll try and be quiet when I get home. See you in the morning."

Almost an hour later, Jared is opening the door quietly, only to find Jensen lying on the couch. He looks pretty wiped out, a jar with dip on his belly and breadcrumbs all over his t-shirt. His eyelids are drooping, even though an Indiana Jones movie is on.

"That's my favorite," he says by way of greeting and points at the screen.

Jared grins. It's nice that Jensen's still up, even if he seems barely awake.

Walking over to the couch, Jared puts the dip jar on the coffee table before gently lifting up Jensen's feet. When Jensen doesn't protest, it's a sign of how out of it he really is.

Jared plops down on what he's come to think of as 'his end' of the couch and deposits Jensen's feet in his lap.

The truth is that Jensen's not a tactile person like Jared. He always makes sure there are at least a few inches of space between them, so Jared’s enjoying this, enjoys that Jensen's too drowsy to deny him the bodily contact.

Soon enough, Jared's engrossed in the movie, even as he feels himself going from restlessly exhausted to actually sleepy. During a commercial break, he finds that he's started stroking Jensen's ankles and feet without consciously meaning to, kneading them and applying some pressure with his thumbs. Weird. He's only ever done that for Kyle, who was a dance major and always made those low little noises when Jared gave his feet a good rubdown.

Back then, Jared always pretended that it was this big favor, that he only did it because he was a good guy and an awesome boyfriend, but they both knew that he liked it, liked the intimacy of it. That he liked being good at it, too.

But this is different. Jensen's not his boyfriend, and they don't usually cuddle up on the couch together after an exhausting day.

It's probably a bad sign that he has to remind himself of that.

For a moment, Jared considers stopping, considers waking Jensen up and kicking him out, claiming his bed for the night, but when he looks over, Jensen looks so content, comfortable. His eyes are closed, his body snuggled into the couch, and he's breathing through his mouth a little. There's a small smile on his face, and Jared likes the idea that maybe he put it there. He decides to just keep going with the foot massage until the movie is over. Jensen doesn’t seem to mind.

--

It takes a lot longer than it should for Jared to realize that there are a lot of things Jensen simply doesn't talk about. He's pretty good at distracting Jared – usually with food or Halo or even just a joke or snarky comment.

Finally, Jared catches on, though. He knows about the books and comics Jensen has read, about the movies and shows he likes and the music he listens to. He's even been privy to more than one rant on politics, society and the healthcare system – especially when Jensen has a few beers in him – but he doesn't know anything truly personal, even though they've been living together for several months.

He doesn't know about Jensen's life before he died, doesn't know about Jensen's family. Hell, he doesn't even know where Jensen's from. The guy has a generic accent that makes it hard to pin him down, though sometimes Jared thinks he hears a note of home in it. But maybe that's just Jensen mocking Jared and the 'y'all's and dropped g's that sometimes creep up in his speech.

Basically, Jared knows nothing about Jensen, and it bugs him. It bugs him because he told Jensen pretty much everything there is to know about him, he even told him a little about Mimi, and it's like Jensen's not returning his trust.

After some time of trying to get some information, of asking pseudo-casual questions Jensen always dodges and not-so-subtle prompting Jensen simply ignores, Jared can't deny anymore that Jensen's evading him.

Jared's not used to that. People usually want to open up to him.

If he's honest, Jared thinks more about this than he probably should. And somehow, he gets this idea into his head that maybe all Jensen needs is the feeling of sharing something within a group. That he would start talking about himself it he felt it was normal in the situation, that everyone was pitching in with something about themselves. It always worked for Jared. He spilled his guts many times during 'truth or dare' – or even when they were just trading secrets around the boy scouts’ campfire.

It's not like this is about highly personal details, anyway. It's just about getting something from Jensen. Anything, really.

A little encouragement – okay, so maybe you could call it peer pressure – from their colleagues is probably all it's going to take. It's not like it's a big deal.

Knowing what he does of Jensen, Jared should have realized how that plan could backfire.

--

The next morning, he brings up the topic of their deaths during the breakfast meeting. The idea actually sounded more awkward in his head than it proved to be in reality. If everyone at a table is dead, death's just not so much of a taboo anymore.

It turns out Jared's own lame-ass death is old news, and when all his colleagues snigger over Jared's inability to get out of his pants under pressure, he takes a mock bow and says, "Thank you, thank you. And thank you so much for not bruising my fragile ego when the wound was still fresh."

"No problem." Genevieve smiles. "Not all people's deaths can be as badass as mine."

Everyone around the table nods, even Loretta.

"Really, how did you go?"

"I was sky-diving when this guy flying nearby lost control of his aircraft. A Cessna, I think." She's smiling like it's a fond memory. "He pretty much tumbled through the sky and speared me with his front rotor. Turned me into sashimi on the spot. It was on national news and all."

Jared swallows and makes a face. "That is ... really, really gross. Thank you, Genevieve."

"Eh, you're just jealous, golf cart boy," she says smugly.

Jared snorts, although he personally is pretty glad he wasn't cut into pieces when he died. The person who had to pull him out of that lake probably appreciated it, too.

"You know what's a really cool way to die?" Misha asks. "Getting onto a Xerox machine in the fucking White House to make copies of your own feet, but being on so much acid that you think the copy light beneath the glass pane is a fire." He holds up his hand for emphasis before he goes on, "Then trying to stomp out that fire, thus making the pane crack and losing your balance. And finally flailing around so much that you slam your head into the lights overhead and electrocute yourself."

He finishes with a 'ta-da' kind of gesture.

Jared looks at him, stunned. "The real question here is: Why did you try to make copies of your own feet?"

Misha shrugs. "I thought I'd be faster that way."

Jared's just opening his mouth to ask more about that when Jensen shuts him off with a hand wave. "Don't ask. It only feeds into his insanity." He's probably right.

"So how about the rest of you?" Jared asks, looking at Loretta and Jensen alike, trying to not make it too obvious whose answer he's more interested in.

"Mine's simple," Loretta says. "I slipped in the bathtub and hit my head. Blacked out as soon as I hit the metal. By the time my husband found me, I had completely bled out." She gives a short sigh. "Poor Stanley."

Jared tells her he's sorry because he doesn't know what else to say.

"Don't worry, sweetheart. It was a long time ago."

When Jensen doesn't volunteer and no one else asks, Jared turns towards him. "And what about you? Yours is the only one I haven't heard yet."

Genevieve huffs out a laugh. "Yeah, and good luck with that. Jensen doesn't say." She twirls her fork around a little as she speaks. "He doesn't talk about his dark and sordid past."

"Damn straight," Jensen says with a cocky grin, but Jared knows him well enough to recognize the tension underneath.

"But you all already knew about me." Jared's a little confused. "How come y'all don't know about Jensen?"

"Yeah," Misha says, "that's because Loretta reaped you, and she told us, but Jensen's a transfer, so we know nothing."

Genevieve nods. "He won't even say where he's from or when he died."

"Because he's difficult." Misha grins.

"Naw," Jensen almost drawls, "it's just because I don't like you all." He shoots Jared a quick look before he gets up. "I'm gonna take a leak. Feel free to talk amongst yourself, class," he says jovially and walks out.

--

"A biker club? Seriously?" Jared wishes he could raise his eyebrows as high as Jensen to do the situation justice.

"Even Hell's Angels have to die." Jensen nods in the direction of a guy with an American flag across the back of his leather jacket. "And look, it's Easy Rider Remembrance Day, too."

When they first left the Waffle House today, Jared was a little worried about how Jensen had taken his earlier prodding, but Jensen's only been a little off, nothing too major, and Jared figures that as long as the guy's still joking, everything's going to be alright.

There's a barbecue going on in the club's backyard, and he and Jensen are milling about, listening in on conversations and trying to find their jobs for today. In the end, their clients turn out to be pretty much impossible to miss.

"Fuck you, Bob. How about we slug it out, on the road?" A middle-aged guy in complete biker gear, his leather jacket open to reveal an AC/DC t-shirt spanning over his beer belly, shouts at another guy who's clad much the same. Apart from the outfits, they look more like Volvo drivers than big bad motorcycle guys – but then, a lot of the people around here do.

"You think I'll be backing down?" the other guy, Bob, shouts back. "You think you can win every argument by challenging people to stupid races?" He takes a step forward, clearly furious. "Not this time, buddy. This time, it's all or nothing, Dick."

He straightens up and says, "I accept your challenge," in a weirdly formal voice.

There's some protest from people around them, but before long, they're negotiating the rules for their race. Jensen and Jared use the time to check that those guys really are their clients. They ask a woman standing at the periphery if that's really William Hopper and Roberto Wyatt, and sure enough, they are. Better safe than sorry, though.

"Just imagine us watching that race while someone's slipping on a hotdog back here," Jared says, and Jensen nods, already trying to get close to Bill.

"Good luck, buddy," he says, and claps him on the shoulder. Jared does the same with Bob. Needless to say, when a reaper claps your shoulder for luck, it's not good news.

A few minutes later, as both guys are approaching maximum speed, Bob's brakes block, his bike swerves and he drives right into the side of Bill's motorcycle. There's no explosion, no flying body parts, but the resulting mess is still not a pretty sight.

It's also a weird situation for them as reapers because at first, the guys just keep arguing like they don't even care they've just died. Apparently, the right – and wrong – way to tune up your motorbike is much more important to them right now. Jared doesn't get a word in edgewise, and he's really not sure what to do.

Jensen does a really good job, though, first letting them talk it out, and then making them calm down slowly. Jared just follows his lead. He nods a lot, and has a hand resting on Bob's shoulder throughout. That always seems to help the souls calm down. Jared wonders if it's because they're the only people who can still touch their clients at this point; because it's something special now.

After over half an hour of listening and gentle stirring into the right direction, Bob and Dick finally find a compromise. From what Jared understands, they manage to agree that it all depends on the make of your bike and on what you want out of your ride. Which – seriously?

Jared doesn't say so, but two grown men kicking the bucket over an argument that could essentially be resolved with 'different strokes for different folks' – that's even worse than dying in an artificial lake with your pants around your ankles.

After they dealt with their bike-related problems, convincing Bob and Dick that they're dead and should just accept the fact, so they can move on and go into the white lights almost seems like a piece of cake.

It winds up taking longer than Jared thought, though, because both guys finally realize that maybe this race wasn't the smartest idea they ever had. When they come to this groundbreaking conclusion, Jared hears Jensen mutter, "No shit," but he doesn't rub it in. He's good with clients like that.

After another half hour of talking and explaining and convincing, Bob and Dick at last seem ready and even give each other a hug. When they pull apart, what remains of the two motorbikes dissolves into bright, ever-shifting shades of white and they walk into the lights together. It's strangely moving, and Jared is glad they didn't just make their peace with the fact that they're dead now, but also with each other. He'd hate to see someone go into the lights with that kind of baggage.

When the lights are gone, he turns to Jensen. "Great job," he says. He wants to say something else, wants to thank Jensen for helping him out, for finding the right way to deal with two bickering biker souls, but stops when he sees the look on Jensen's face.

"Fuck off," Jensen spits and walks off.

His reaction is so unexpected that it takes Jared a moment to get moving.

He falls into a light jog to catch up and puts his hand onto Jensen's back. "Hey," he says, "what was that for?"

Jensen comes to an abrupt halt and shakes Jared's hand off. "What that was for? You're not really asking that, Jared, are you?"

"Hell yes, I'm asking," Jared says and takes a step closer. "Is this about earlier? I thought we were good."

"Yeah, sure, Jared, we're good. We're always good." Jensen frowns at him and pushes his chin up towards Jared defiantly, getting their faces closer. "You've been prodding me for the last couple of days. You keep trying to find out things you have no business knowing and you know I don't want to be telling, but hey – if Jared Padalecki wants to know, then, obviously, he has a right to know. Fuck other people's privacy, fuck what other people want."

Jared tries to cut in, but Jensen's voice only gets louder, and he takes a step closer. "And I stay nice, and I don't throw you out of my fucking apartment because I'm dumb enough to think we're friends. And I think once you really get it, you'll get over it, but no, you don't." Jensen huffs out a breath, and Jared can feel it across his mouth. It reminds him of their first argument, of the first day when he got too close, when he blew up in Jensen's face. It reminds him of their second argument, too, when he did it again. "Because – hey, why should you care what I want? Instead, you try to pry things out of me, try to make the others tell you when it's clear I don't want you to know. You're a great friend, Jared. Real great."

With that, he tries to storm off again, but Jared catches his arm before he can, pulling him close, maybe too close. And that also reminds him of before. "I'm sorry for that, Jensen, okay? I really am, but you can't just tell me to fuck off and leave. You've gotta call me out on my shit, not just walk away." He looks at him insistently, strangely aware of how fast his own breath is coming, of how fast Jensen's is. "Because I am your friend, I am. That's why I told you all that stuff about me, about my life. But you don't give me anything, not the smallest thing. I know exactly as much about you as the others, like I'm just another colleague."

Somewhere in the back of his mind, Jared knows that's not entirely true. He knows that Jensen might not talk about his past, but that he still lets Jared in way more than the others. Yet it hurts to even just say it, to think about how much of his past he's shared with Jensen, getting nothing in return. "I just wanted to get something from you." He presses his lips together for a moment. Jensen's become this big part of his life, his colleague, his friend, the only person he's never really tired of. The apartment they share feels like home and the food Jensen cooks tastes like it, and Jared just wants it to be the same for Jensen. "I hoped you would trust me, at least a little."

Jensen's eyes narrow, and Jared has no clue what he's about to do, if he's going to pull loose and run, if he's going to punch Jared in the face, or if he's going to yell at him again.

Jensen just lets out a long breath.

"Okay," he nods, "okay. So you think you're different? You think I should trust you? Trust you more than the others?" The question feels strangely loaded, but Jared nods, slow and sure. "You know what? I'll give you a chance to prove yourself."

Jared knows that Jensen tries to seem unaffected, but he can see Jensen's pulse beating fast in his neck and the way sweat gathers at his hairline, even though it's not a hot day.

This is important, this is big, Jared can feel it. He wants a chance to prove to Jensen that he's trustworthy, that Jensen can count on him.

Jensen's voice comes out low and quiet. "I want out. I don't want to play by the rules anymore." His eyes fix Jared, pin him down, and Jared knows the surprise he feels must show on his face. Jensen's so good at reaping, he has a normal job, too, and an apartment – he has a whole life here. Jared would never have guessed that he wants to give it all up.

He wants to ask Jensen why?, how?, since when?, but instead he stays silent and tries to look open to whatever Jensen's saying. "I've been saving up —I want to buy a cheap car and drive over to Texas. I want to check up on my family, see if they're alright." Jensen swallows. "I know it's against the rules, I know Loretta says people who knew you won't even be able to see you and that you'll have no chance to talk to them, but I don't care. I want to make sure they're alright. I need to know."

Jared doesn't reply right away; he needs a moment to process this. So he didn't make up that down-home note in Jensen's voice he thought he heard sometimes: Jensen really is from Texas, too. And Jensen misses his family and doesn't get this stupid rule about not checking up on them either. Jensen also has the guts to say 'fuck it all', and just do what he feels is right, instead of what Loretta tells them is right.

And he told Jared. He took this huge risk and told him.

"So what?" Jensen asks, defiant. "You going to rat me out now?" The bravado is false; his eyes are too wide and he bites his lower lip too hard, like he really expects Jared to run to Loretta and do just that.

It stings that Jensen thinks he'd do that, that he suspects Jared to sell him out.

So yeah, maybe Jared's never thought about leaving before. Hell, he never even knew there was an alternative. In fact, he's still not sure there is, that it's possible to just up and leave for reapers, but he is sure of one thing: He wants to prove himself to Jensen, wants Jensen to see that Jared wouldn't let him down, would never let him down. He wants to wipe the fake defiance from Jensen's face and replace it with something better, something genuine.

Before he can really think it over, before he can weigh the pros and cons and try to start a discussion that has the potential to ruin everything, he hears himself say, "No. No, I'm not gonna rat you out." He swallows. "I'm in. If you let me."

--

Four hours later, they're on the road, Jensen's savings enough to buy an old Chevy from a guy Jensen knows, most of their belongings stuffed into the trunk – not that either of them had a lot to begin with.

At first, they're both incredibly tense, and when they reach the city limits, Jared half expects for them to hit an invisible frontier, like they're bound to the city or something, but it doesn't happen. He looks over at Jensen, and Jensen smiles at him like he was maybe thinking the same thing.

Right before they leave California, Jared's hit by the same feeling of anxiety as before, but when they cross the state border, again, nothing happens.

He didn't plan on it, but suddenly, Jared has this big urge to throw his arms up and whoop, so he does. Jensen slants him a quick look and smiles, whooping along but keeping his hands on the steering wheel.

For the most part, they don't talk. The radio works and Jensen finds a good station, humming along softly. Jared's never heard him do that before. With every mile they put between themselves and L.A., Jensen seems to relax more. It's a good look for him. The snark and smugness slowly leaving his features, making him look younger and more carefree.

At first, Jared just sneaks a look here and there, but after a while, when the sun starts setting, he leans against the car door and just keeps looking. He always liked it when he could make Jensen laugh, when Jensen seemed to loosen up a little around him, but this is so much better than anything they did in L.A.

The best moments, though, are when Jensen's eyes leave the road and he looks back over at Jared, smiling.

--

When they're already deep into Arizona, Jensen suggests that they find a motel for the night.

"As long as we find a place to eat, too, I'm all for it," Jared says, and his stomach gives a slight rumble, as if to underscore the point.

Jensen laughs. "Sure. I don't want to risk you starving to death, you bottomless pit. Did you always have that freakish metabolism or is that new?"

Jared rubs his belly gleefully and says, "It's a genetic defect, I think. You should see a regular Padalecki family dinner. It's like an all-you-can-eat buffet every time."

"Why don't I think you're joking?" Jensen asks.

Jared doesn't even bother with an answer and just sticks out his tongue at Jensen.

--

After they've had surprisingly good food at a cheap Tex-Mex place close to Phoenix, they settle in at a small, run-down motel for the night. To not dig into their funds too much (well, Jensen's funds, for the most part), they take a room together.

It's not like Jared hates the idea. And they've played video games or watched movies together pretty much every single night since Jared moved in, so spending so much time together seems natural anyway.

It's still different, somehow, to think that he'll be sleeping in the same room as Jensen, not even a thin wall between them like usual.

When they check in after dinner, it turns out that the TV set is a bust, so they can neither hook up Jensen's Xbox nor watch TV.

They agree that it's probably not a bad idea to go to bed soon anyway, get an early start tomorrow.

Jared's the first to take a shower. When he's done, he leaves the bedside light on and crawls under the covers. He's not really tired yet, but the sheets are nice and clean, and he'd feel weird sitting around in just his underwear.

When Jensen comes out of the bathroom, only a towel slung around his hips, Jared has to bite his lip, hard. He can't stop looking. He's never seen Jensen in less than a tee and some boxers before, and yes, okay, that's already a pretty distracting sight, but he's also used to it by now and has learned to hide his thoughts pretty well, he likes to think. With Jensen basically naked in front of him, though, it's a completely different ballgame.

No wonder that Jensen catches him staring. "What?" he says, tucking at the fabric of the towel. "Don't you like the rose pattern? I think it's delightful." He grins like he expects Jared to joke back, but Jared can't, he can't even stop looking.

Jensen's not broad like he is, built lithe instead, but strong. And Jared already knew that, yet it's so different to see it like this, to see his torso with the square shoulders and narrow hips. To see how sinewy Jensen is with lean muscles all over, not a six pack, but his whole body taut and powerful, his skin so pale in the dim light of the room. No wonder he could pin Jared against the wall so easily that one night at the apartment, back when Jared was still in a different body.

It's obvious that Jared's gaze starts making Jensen uncomfortable, shows in the way he draws his shoulders up a little and tries to keep from fidgeting, but Jared still can't look away. He doesn't know what's wrong with him.

Jensen cocks his head and rubs his neck. "Sorry if I insult your aesthetic sensibilities, man, but I didn't buy those towels, they came with the room." He goes for a smile, but his voice comes out a little uneven. "Let me just grab some clothes."

Jensen quickly gets a tee from his duffle bag and stretches to put it on, arms high above his head, showing off his chest, accentuating every muscle.

"Fuck," Jared says, his voice rough. "I mean, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to, it's just that ..." He feels himself blush and, finally, he's able to tear his eyes away.

"Yeah, I know I'm pretty scrawny." Jensen laughs, but it sounds slightly shaky. "I tried to put on weight, but apparently, these bodies can't gain or lose any. Which is probably good for you, you pig."

Another awkward moment, another joke to lighten the mood. Another opportunity for Jared to catch on and make this okay. He wants to say something, he does. Something about the Padalecki curse and how it's really not his fault he has to eat his own weight in candy every day, but he can't, because honestly, he wants to say something else entirely.

"You shouldn't worry about your weight. You're not scrawny." He swallows and adds, "You look great." Which: yeah. Lame. Super lame. And a really great idea, too, when you've just established that you're friends with the guy. Not to mention that Jared never officially came out to Jensen, so he might really be freaking him out with this now. Way to go.

Jensen just draws his eyebrows together and gives a laugh that would sound self-deprecating if that weren't completely ridiculous. "Yeah, right."

And, seriously? He can't mean that. They have this whole flying-under-the-radar, the-living-don't-really-notice-them-like-they-do-other-people thing going, and still every other person they meet gives Jensen at least a look of appreciation – if they don't outright flirt with him, like their waitress did earlier.

"Come on, Jensen," Jared says, his voice a little raspy, even in his own ears. "Don't front. I bet you were a real player when you were alive. I mean, hell, you're dead now – or undead, whatever – and people still hit on you. You could probably get laid more dead than I did alive." Jared doesn't want to come across as completely insecure here, so he amends, "And I'm not ugly."

Jensen looks at him intensely, his expression impossible to read.

"No," he says quietly, "you're not. You're really not." The look on his face becomes slightly wistful, but he smiles through it. "So you think I'm hot, huh?"

In spite of the smile, there's an odd weight to the question, Jared can feel it, like Jensen isn't quite sure, like he's testing out the waters.

"Yeah," Jared says, "you're … gorgeous." Which, again: lame. He can't leave it there, can't let the word gain too much meaning, so he prattles on, "Not to mention the snark and your taste in music and in movies. That's really important. I couldn't be friends with someone who's into Maroon 5 or doesn't know Easy Rider. And you can cook, too."

It's an out for Jensen this time. Nothing great, just something to keep them in friendship territory. Enough to make a joke about Jared's never-ending appetite or the fact that he could sing along to that Taylor Swift song earlier. (Hey, Jared knew a redneck heartbreak once, who was also really bad at lying.)

But Jensen looks at him like maybe he doesn't want to make a joke. Slowly, he walks towards Jared's bed, and Jared gets up, so they face each other.

"This is serious, right, Jared?" Jensen says, and it's such a weird question, like Jared could maybe just be playing him. Like Jared would even try to play someone like Jensen. Like he even could.

"Yeah," he breathes out, nods. "For me it is."

Jensen raises his hand, and his fingertips brush across Jared's jaw, but before Jared can lean into the touch, Jensen pulls away again and goes to sit down heavily on his own bed.

"There's something I should probably tell you," he says, and he's not looking at Jared.

Jared doesn't think Jensen wants to be touched right now, so he sits down on his own bed, right across from Jensen, and waits.

"This," Jensen gestures down along his body awkwardly, "this isn't really me. This isn't what I used to look like at all." He smiles a strange, far-away smile that Jared doesn't understand, but that seems wrong somehow. Yet Jared keeps quiet, keeps waiting for Jensen to make sense for him.

"I was nine when I got sick for the first time," Jensen says, and it seems like such a non-sequitur. "The doctors didn't think I'd ever get to be thirteen, but I proved them wrong." He smiles for a moment. "I was almost twenty-two when I died."

Part of Jared wants to reach out and touch Jensen, wants to say 'I'm sorry' or 'Thank you for your trust' – something, anything – but Jensen seems like he's not even really with him right now, like he's in a space deep inside his own head.

When he speaks next, Jensen's voice comes out calm, almost detached. "The last time I ate real food, I was fifteen. The last time I left the hospital was on the day I turned eighteen and the doctors allowed me to go home for a party where I couldn't even eat my own damn cake." He shrugs, like that didn't matter, though it clearly did.

"So this." Jensen grabs the hem of his shirt and pulls it up to his neck. "This isn't me. What you see here, it's just not me. It doesn't feel like me, either. There's no pain, not even a little bit." He looks down on himself, as if examining his own chest. He still sounds weirdly composed, muted. "And there are no tubes and incisions, either, no holes and scars from where they cut the tumors out and the melanomas and the metastases."

There's so much tension in Jensen's body, and Jared can see how it builds and builds. How tight his shoulders are set, how his knuckles go white with the fists he's making. "And there are all these muscles." Jensen's laugh startles Jared. It sounds metallic, almost hysteric. "In the end, I had muscular atrophy, you know? I don't even know where all these muscles come from." He's chuckling, and it's a strange, strange sound. "This just doesn't look like it's me. It doesn’t feel like it's me. It's like a stranger, like I've been conned into the wrong body and living in it for four years now." Slowly, he lifts up his chin to look at Jared and lets the shirt fall from his hand.

And wow, that's a lot. A lot of information, a lot of truth.

It's a lot for Jared to take in, but even more for Jensen to tell him. It's a lot for Jensen to live with without telling anyone – too much. Jared takes a deep breath, tries to think.

"Can I come over, Jensen?" he asks, voice soft and hesitant, like he's talking to a scared animal or a child. He doesn't want to belittle Jensen, but he doesn't want to risk spooking him, either.

Jensen nods, and Jared sits down next to him, close, but not touching. He carefully takes Jensen's one wrist and starts stroking over his clenched fist until it begins to relax. When Jensen's fingers finally grow slack beneath Jared's, he slides his palm into Jensen's, squeezing.

Jared moves his thumb slowly, drawing small circles on the back of Jensen's hand as he tries to gather his thoughts, to find the right words.

"I want to be honest with you, Jensen," he says, and even at those generic words, he feels Jensen's hand tense up again. "I don't really know what to say to that." He takes a deep breath, his eyes fixed on Jensen's hand in his. "I'm sorry you had to go through all this. I'm sorry you feel like a stranger in your own body. And I'm sorry you didn't have anyone to talk to." He looks up, but Jensen doesn't meet his eye. "But I'm glad you told me, and I want to help you, if I can."

It feels like he's saying the completely wrong thing, like every word only increases the tension in Jensen's body, coils him tighter.

When Jensen speaks, his voice comes out in a monotone, like he's closing-up again, retreating. "You don't owe me anything, Jared, seriously. I don't need your pity," he says and tries to pull his hand away.

Jared looks at him, shocked, but manages to hold on to Jensen's hand. Why is this going so wrong? "This is not pity, Jensen." He feels insulted, and he knows it comes through in his voice. "I like you. I like you more than I have liked someone in a long time. Maybe more than I ever liked a guy. And you tell me that you've felt awful for years, that you've been sick for much, much longer." He catches Jensen's other hand, too, and pulls both into his lap, forcing their bodies closer. "I feel bad for you. Not because I pity you, but because that's what you do when you like someone."

Slowly, carefully, Jensen's eyes travel from their entwined hands up to Jared's face. At first he just looks, but then he begins to smile, small but definitely there. "Yeah," he nods, as if confirming it for himself, "I guess you do."

Jared slides his arm around Jensen's shoulder and waits until he feels Jensen relax into the touch before he pulls him closer, pressing a kiss to Jensen's temple.

Slowly, the tension seeps from Jensen's body, and he curls further into Jared, almost burrowing himself into Jared's side.

After a while, Jensen says quietly, "I never even kissed someone, you know?" He chuckles. "There's a sad lack of hot gay guys hanging out around hospital wards – and the one male nurse that I had wasn't even hot. Not to mention married."

Jared smiles and briefly squeezes Jensen's shoulder. He shifts a little and brings a few inches of space between them, so they can look at each other.

"I'd like to be your first kiss, if you'll let me," he says earnestly.

Jensen's eyes slant away for a second, and he might be blushing, but then he smiles, a softer version of his regular, snarky smile, and he says, "Yeah, that was kind of why I brought it up, genius."

Jared laughs, throwing up his hands. "Okay, okay. Just making sure here."

He brings his one hand up to hold Jensen's jaw and cocks his head, moving in slowly, giving Jensen time to pull back, time to change his mind.

Jensen's mouth is soft and warm and minty fresh, and Jared would be content to just slide their lips together, not really opening their mouths or getting their tongues involved. But Jensen seems to have other ideas. Soon his hands travel up Jared's chest, and he holds Jared's face as his tongue licks into Jared's mouth, playful and exploring.

Jared's not complaining.

When they pull apart, both flushed and a little out of breath, Jared chuckles. "I can't believe I fell for the 'I've never even been kissed before' line. You've clearly done this before."

"Hey," Jensen says, and slaps his shoulder, "stop it with your outrageous accusations." He grins, a little smugly, and his eyes are shining. "It's not my fault I'm a natural at this."

"And so modest, too." Jared smirks. "Come here, you natural." He pulls at Jensen's shirt to draw him closer. "I need further data for testing. Find out if that was just a fluke."

Jensen rolls his eyes and blows out a long-suffering breath, but he can't keep himself from grinning when he says, "If you insist."

Turns out he really is a natural at this.

--

By nine o'clock the next day, they're already back on the I-10, heading in the direction of Dallas. They had a good breakfast – no waffles – and have the windows rolled down and the music turned up.

They're both more relaxed than they were yesterday, and they maybe sing along with the radio a little louder. The goofy smile Jared sometimes feels on his face is also new. Just like the one he gets when he watches Jensen, sees how the morning sun paints the tips of his hair gold and makes the few freckles on his nose stand out.

When ten o'clock rolls around – the time they usually meet up at the Waffle House – they both grow a little quiet.

After a while, Jared can't help it any longer, he has to ask, "What do you think – how long will it take for them to realize we left? That we're not just late or passed out drunk in a ditch somewhere or maybe stuck in traffic?"

Jensen shrugs. "I don’t know. A couple of hours maybe. Something tells me Loretta is going to catch on pretty quick."

"Yeah," Jared agrees. "Doesn't mean she can do a lot about it," he adds to reassure himself as much as Jensen. "I mean, we left Cali fifteen hours ago without a problem."

"True," Jensen says and keeps driving.

They don't stop for a real lunch, just get some burgers and fries at a drive-through – okay, so Jared also gets a milkshake and some pie – and keep going east. They make good time, and when three o'clock ticks by and nothing happens, they slowly relax again.

As they pass through Midland – proud home of the former president and his first lady – the sun begins setting, and they both decide that it'll be best to call it a day soon.

They find another motel, The Heartland Inn, and the receptionist recommends a local barbecue place for dinner.

It's good. It's really, really good. Huge portions, lots of cheese on the nachos and the meat basically melting off the ribs, just like it should be.

Their waitress is a nice-looking girl with a weird name Jared immediately forgets, and when she suggests they try 'the best garlic potato salad in the state', Jared's so there. Only when Jensen gives him that look he has sometimes does Jared realize that garlic might not be the best option to be having tonight.

In his hurry to catch the waitress's attention, Jared nearly jumps out of his seat and flails his arms pretty wildly.

When the girl comes back to their table, he tells her to hold the salad and make it a baked potato instead, and Jensen almost busts a gut laughing. Okay, so maybe Jared's not exactly subtle.

"Aw, baby," Jensen chokes out between laughs. "The things you sacrifice for me. I really appreciate it."

When Jensen has himself back under control, he signals for the poor waitress to come over again. "You know," he tells her with a big smile, "on second thought, I'd really like to try that garlic potato salad. And don’t go easy on the garlic. Thank you." He manages to keep a straight face, too, while he orders. Once the girl's left, though, Jensen explodes into another fit of laughter, pointing at Jared, whose dumbfounded facial expression seems to be very entertaining.

Naturally, Jared has to kick him for that under the table. But Jensen lets him have half of the salad, so it all works out.

--

They sleep in a little and make it to Richardson by two o'clock the next day. The closer they get to the house of Jensen's parents, the slower Jensen drives. He's clearly stalling and Jared lets him. This is Jensen's thing; he should do it in his own time.

"You want to grab something to eat first? Maybe find a motel, take a shower?" Jensen asks, his fingers drumming a fast rhythm on the steering wheel.

"Sure, whatever," Jared says.

There's a small strip mall, and Jensen pulls over into one of the parking spaces right in front of a Starbucks. He lets his eyes travel along the different store fronts, studying the signs and names of the shops like they actually mean something to him, before he finally looks over at Jared.

"Do you think it was a lie?" He swallows, then clarifies, "That they won't recognize me, I mean? That I won't be able to talk to them?"

Jared presses his lips together. He's thought about that, too. "I don't know," he replies. "I really don't. I mean, it could be true. As a precaution, you know, something like a safety measure. Just like the unnoticeability thing once you cut the soul/body connection."

Jensen nods in agreement. "Yeah, that's what I thought." He's quiet for another moment or two. "But I don't really have to talk to them, do I? I mean, I just want to see them again, want to know that they're alright, you know?"

Jared just smiles at him in what he hopes comes across as an encouraging and supportive way.

Suddenly, and with a lot of force, Jensen pushes both his hands against the steering wheel. "I'm just so on edge, you know? Maybe they don't even live here anymore. Maybe they're on vacation. Or maybe," he says quietly, "something happened to them."

Jared hums in reply and puts his hand on Jensen's thigh, slowly rubbing up and down.

"The worst thing is that I say I want to make sure that they're alright, but it's not true. What I really want is to know that they still miss me." Jensen bites his lip, hard, like he does sometimes. "That they weren't just glad to get rid off me. That I wasn't just a burden."

For a moment, Jared has to close his eyes. He figured from the start that there was something beneath Jensen's snarkiness and distant behavior, but he never would have guesses that it was that. That someone as clever and funny and kind (and yeah, okay, extremely good at hiding his kindness) would think like that about himself.

He understands, though. It's painful and he'd bet that Jensen's completely wrong, but he understands.

Jared puts his arm around Jensen's shoulder, scooting as close as the car seats will allow.

"I get it, Jensen," he says, voice low, "but I'm sure it wasn't like that. I know it wasn't like that. No one could ever think that about you, especially not anyone who really knows you, not your family. But I get it." He rubs Jensen's shoulder. "If you want to wait, if you want to find a motel room first, take a shower, maybe Facebook-stalk them, check online where they are now, we can do that. Or we can go back to Cali. Or we can go somewhere else. We can do this whichever way you want."

Jensen doesn't react at first, just takes one breath after another, deeper and calmer each time. After a while, he looks over at Jared.

"Thanks," he says, and moves his hand back to the ignition. "I don't think I want to wait, though."

Jared moves away a little, sitting back in the passenger's seat as Jensen turns the key. "Let's do this."

| Part 2 | Masterpost | Part 4 |

Date: 2010-08-23 07:37 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] sadritsuka12.livejournal.com
awwwe.. love it..

Date: 2010-08-28 09:44 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] strangeallure.livejournal.com
Thanks so much!

Date: 2010-08-28 08:34 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mittaines.livejournal.com
Oh pooor Jensen :(

Date: 2010-08-28 10:23 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] strangeallure.livejournal.com
Yeah, poor baby. I hope you'll like how it's resolved.

Date: 2010-08-28 12:27 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mittaines.livejournal.com
Yes I love the end and all 4 parts of the story :)

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