When he first decided to rent out the basement apartment in his house, it was with the idea of bringing in a little extra income to help with the mortgage. Since his mother's death just over a year ago, the apartment had sat empty; Jensen just never got around to cleaning out his mother's things, and in a way he probably thought he never would. Jensen had always been borderline agoraphobic, although he could function well enough to hold down a job. Just the thought of another person sharing his space, interfering with his routines, forcing him to socialize, usually threatened to bring on a panic attack.
But then one night when Jensen was coming home from the library, there was a man standing across the street, staring at the house, although later Jensen knew that couldn't be true. He had sunglasses on, even though it was twilight, and Jensen felt little shivers going up his spine, prickling along his scalp, along with the unmistakable feeling of being watched.
Jensen's heart raced and his palms started to sweat, and he forced himself not to look back as he crossed the lawn to the front door, slipped the key in the lock. As soon as the door was open he turned back. The man was still there. Even from this distance, Jensen had the impression of power and grace in the tall, slender frame.
Afterwards, Jensen wondered why he didn't call out, ask the guy if he needed help, ask him if there was something Jensen could do for him. But at the time, Jensen felt frozen in place by a force that was almost palpable, staring at the man while the man stared at him, while more chills ran up and down his back and neck. It felt surreal; Jensen half-expected the man to disappear into thin air or turn into a giant cat and spring suddenly toward him with fangs bared.
When the stranger did neither, Jensen finally turned away into his house and closed the door. When he went to look again out the front window, the man was gone.
Jensen ate his left-overs, took a shower and got ready for bed, trying not to think about how creeped out he felt. As he fell asleep he saw the strange man's face in his mind, without his sunglasses, staring straight into Jensen's eyes like he could see into his soul. His eyes were beautiful, green and brown and maybe a little blue, almost golden when the light hit them a certain way, and Jensen was mesmerized, unable to look away until sleep finally overcame him.
The next day as he was getting ready to leave for work, the doorbell rang. A petite brunette with big brown eyes stared up at him when he opened the door.
"Hi. I'm Genevieve," she said as she stuck out her hand. "Somebody at the library told me you have an apartment to rent."
"Uh," Jensen shook her hand, then shook his head. "Who...? I mean yeah, I do. It's not really ready to rent yet, though. Is it – is it for you?"
Genevieve smiled. "Actually, I'm asking for a friend. He's waiting in the car."
Jensen glanced behind her at the sporty little Jeep Cherokee parked on the street in front of his house. Even at this distance, Jensen recognized the man in the car as the mysterious stranger from the day before, and his spine tingled.
"I – I guess I should meet him," Jensen suggested.
"Of course," Genevieve nodded. "Come on over and I'll introduce you."
It was not exactly the way Jensen had imagined interviewing a potential tenant, and it irritated him a little because he felt like he was being asked to pay court to the strange man, which was totally inappropriate since the guy was asking to move into Jensen's house, not the other way around.
But he followed Genevieve over to the car, fighting his racing pulse and sweating palms because the guy was seriously gorgeous, with sharp-cut cheeks and a strong jaw with a perfect day's growth of beard, a high forehead and soft lips. Jensen already knew he was tall and built, so he was grateful in a way that the man was sitting in the passenger seat of the car. It made him less imposing.
He was still wearing those dark glasses, though, and Jensen really wanted to see his eyes, really needed to see if they were as beautiful as they were in his dream.
The passenger-side window was open, and the man tipped his chin up as Jensen and Genevieve approached, seemed to stare right at Jensen with that inscrutable gaze from yesterday, and Jensen stared back, trying not to freak out when the man's expression didn't change. His jaw tightened a little, and Jensen could swear his nostrils flared as Jensen put his hand out in greeting.
"Hi," he said hesitantly. "I'm Jensen."
The man lifted his eyebrows, but he didn't take Jensen's hand, and Jensen was confused. Had he offended the guy somehow without even realizing it?
"Jensen," the stranger repeated, drawing the word out on his tongue, rolling it down his throat. Jensen watched his Adam's apple bob as he swallowed. Then he reached across with his left hand and smiled. "I'm Jared."
Jared's hand stopped in mid-air, nowhere near Jensen's, and suddenly Jensen understood.
Jared was blind.
"Oh," Jensen laughed nervously, grasping Jared's hand in both of his. It was huge and powerful, the long fingers perfectly manicured, and when Jared squeezed subtly Jensen felt a rush of adrenaline surge through him, making him dizzy.
Then the moment passed and Jared was withdrawing his hand, letting those long fingers slide a little too slowly across Jensen's palm.
Things moved quickly after that first meeting. Jared wanted to move in as soon as possible and offered to pay twice the normal rent for the apartment, so after his references checked out Jensen spent the weekend cleaning out the apartment. It was a job he'd been dreading, afraid of the memories and grief it would dredge up, but somehow time had done its work and instead of collapsing on the floor in a weeping, exhausted pile of mourning, Jensen found the energy he needed by thinking about his new tenant moving in as soon as he got the work done.
As a result, the apartment was cleaned and ready earlier than Jensen had expected. He was just carrying the last load of empty bottles and cans to the recycling bin when he got that tingly feeling in his spine that told him he was being watched.
Sure enough, when he turned to gaze out across his front lawn, there was Jared, standing alone, tall and imposing as ever in a long, dark coat and dark glasses. Jensen lifted his hand in greeting, then quickly put it down again, feeling like a fool.
"Hey!" he called instead, hating how his voice cracked. He cleared his throat and tried again. "Hey, Jared!"
He hurried to dump his load, planning to cross the lawn to help the blind man, worried about him trying to cross the uneven surface without help.
But when Jensen turned back after closing the lid of the recycling bin, Jared was gone.
Jensen still had the prickly feeling of being watched, though; but once he had satisfied himself that Jared hadn't fallen somewhere in his efforts to cross the lawn or driveway, Jensen shrugged off his feeling of unease and turned to go back into the house.
Jared stood in the doorway, waiting for him.
"How did you – "
It should have freaked him out, maybe raised warning signals in Jensen's brain for all of two seconds. There was probably even a little voice screaming in his head, "Nothing moves that fast! Especially not a blind man! There's something weird going on!"
But Jared looked really good standing there, head tipped to the side, appearing to watch Jensen, a slight smile on his soft pink lips. Jensen was suddenly aware of what a sweaty mess he was, covered in dust and grime after a day spent cleaning and scrubbing. He probably smelled as bad as he looked.
"Can I see the apartment now?" Jared asked, his voice so smooth and soft, like honey with an edge of something sharp, a little hoarse. Sexy as hell.
"Uh, yeah, sure," Jensen recovered as quickly as he could, reminding himself that Jared couldn't really see him, it just seemed that way.
Jensen moved closer, and Jared moved aside to let him pass, but just barely. There was no possibility of Jared not getting a lungful of ripe Jensen as Jensen led the way into his house. It should have made him flush with embarrassment because who was he kidding? Jensen definitely found Jared attractive and hoped Jared felt the same way, even if he couldn't see him. Usually when that happened Jensen was a tongue-tied mess, flushing and stumbling and totally incoherent.
But with Jared, it was different. With Jared, he felt a kind of calm underneath the excitement of attraction, something steadying, like the big man was holding him up, making sure he didn't sprawl awkwardly on the floor at his feet like the love-sick teenager he was inside. It was like Jared knew.
Jensen had never been comfortable in his own body. As a child his mother had received continual offers for him to model for every local clothing store in town, but she had turned every one down. Donna Ackles had been a child actor, and her experience left her bitter and unhappy, if wealthy enough to be self-sufficient and able to raise her son the way she wanted. Jensen had gone to all the right schools, even though he wasn't much of a student, and he had participated in sports and social activities, even though he was painfully shy. He'd learned early to hide his unusual good looks in baggy clothes, beanies, and big thick-rimmed eyeglasses, distrusting most overtures of friendship because he assumed people were only interested in him physically.
Jared was blind.
Jensen wondered if Jared realized how gorgeous he was, decided that of course he did; even if he'd been blind since birth, the man obviously had friends. People had probably been telling him he was beautiful since forever.
But Jared couldn't know what Jensen looked like, could he? Unless that friend of his said something.
Stop, he scolded himself. Just show the man the apartment.
"It's this way," Jensen gestured, then touched Jared's arm. "Do you need me to guide you?"
"No," Jared smiled, dimples and teeth lighting up his handsome face. "You can just lead the way. Let me know if there are steps."
Jensen nodded, then remembered to say, "Okay," as he turned. "There's a separate entrance, of course. You can park your car in the driveway, then just come through the door down there." Jensen paused as he reached the top of the stairs. "But I guess you don't drive."
"No," Jared agreed, waiting patiently as Jensen began to descend the stairs into the basement.
"Stairs," Jensen remembered to say, then panicked because he'd started down automatically, without warning Jared first.
Jared didn't even stumble. He must've heard the change in Jensen's voice as he started down the stairs; at any rate, he was already following easily, one hand lightly skimming the rail, not even hesitating.
"You shouldn't ever need to come this way normally," Jensen hurried to assure him, then remembered the other hazard. "Watch your head," he warned as the stairs turned at the bottom. "I just come this way to clean or use the laundry room. We share that, but I usually do washing on Mondays and Thursdays, since I have those days off."
"You work at the public library," Jared said, and Jensen nodded.
"That's right," he said out loud as he opened the door into the apartment. "This is it."
Jensen explained the layout of the space as he moved through it, noticing the way Jared touched the back of the couch, the kitchen chairs, running his long fingers lightly over the doors and the window frames. Jensen had left the old furniture, per Jared's request, although the bed was new. He'd had the old one replaced right after his mother died. A set of dishes and basic cutlery, glassware, and pots and pans stocked the kitchen shelves.
"Utilities are included in the rent," Jensen explained. "It's just too complicated for me otherwise."
"It's fine," Jared said, pulling a bulky envelope containing first-and-last-month's rent out of his coat pocket. "I'll take it."
Jared was a good tenant. He was quiet, did his laundry while Jensen was at work, and went in and out through the driveway door without a sound, mostly at night. It was getting colder as winter approached, and the nights were longer. Sometimes Jensen heard the door close, and he couldn't help watching as Jared walked down the driveway, off into the night. Once in a while Genevieve's jeep pulled up and Jared drove away with her. But most of the time he just walked off by himself, up the street and out of sight.
Jensen never heard him come home. He waited up one night just to see what time Jared came in, but he fell asleep close to dawn, and when he woke up he assumed Jared was already home because he could hear the water running in the pipes downstairs.
One night, about a week after Jared moved in, Jensen woke up with a start, his heart pounding. The house was quiet, and the only sound was Jensen's breathing, the echo of his own gasp in his ears. All was quiet outside as well, so Jensen decided that whatever had awakened him must be in his head, in a dream, perhaps. He struggled to grasp the last remnants, but all he came up with was the distinct impression that someone had been standing in the room, watching him sleep.
And he could swear that someone was Jared.
The next night, Jensen was awakened by the sound of a wolf howling. It was a lonely, distant sound, and Jensen lay awake a long time, listening to the mournful wailing. The sound made his chest ache, as if his heart was breaking with grief, as if he was missing someone deeply loved. His mother, he decided, as he drifted off to sleep, but even in his half-asleep state Jensen knew that couldn't be right. He was empathizing with the wolf. The wolf who was missing its mate.
In the morning Jensen's pillow was wet and he realized he'd been crying in his sleep.
Three nights later, almost two weeks after Jared moved in, Jensen dreamed about him.
They were jogging through the trees in some primordial forest where the evergreens reached to the sky over their heads and the air was cool and damp, perfect for running. Jared was taller, had a longer stride, but he was always behind Jensen, just over his shoulder, so when Jensen glanced back he could see him. Jared flashed him a grin, sweaty and flushed with exertion, eyes sparkling, his long hair tied back out of his face.
Jared could see.
As soon as Jensen looked away, Jared darted around him and took the lead, jogging away from him into the forest. Jensen followed, admiring the way Jared's muscles clenched and released as he ran, unable to tear his eyes away from the perfect curve of Jared's ass, the lines of his back. Jared wore running shorts that made his legs look particularly long and sleek, made Jensen want to bury his face between them and breathe deep.
He woke up sweating and breathing hard, dick swollen and leaking.
That day was Sunday, so Jensen didn't have to work. Usually he spent his Sundays working on the house, which was old and in need of continual maintenance, and today's carefully planned job was to clean the gutters and swap out a few window screens for storm windows in preparation for the coming winter. As he ate his breakfast and checked the news, it occurred to Jensen that the house was unusually silent. It felt empty. He couldn't remember hearing Jared come in last night, and although he knew he shouldn't worry – after all, Jared was a grown man who had a right to stay out all night if he wanted – it bothered him on some level that Jensen didn't really understand.
He couldn't help wondering about Jared. Jensen had checked his references, of course. The man was independently wealthy, lived off a family trust that was held in a bank in San Antonio, Texas. Jensen liked that; as a native Texan himself he felt a natural affinity for anyone transplanted from Texas's big, warm culture into the cold, insular climate of New England. Jared served on the boards of a couple of wildlife organizations, and had worked in a number of animal shelters as a volunteer, since he didn't really need the income. Jensen's cat had been a shelter animal, so Jensen could respect that, too.
Those activities didn't explain where Jared went at night, though, and the thought of him still being gone this morning continued to bother Jensen as he hauled the ladder and a pair of gardening gloves out of the garage and went to work on the gutters. He was still brooding about Jared, scolding himself for being so obsessed, when he became aware of being watched. It was the same tingling feeling up his spine that he recognized from two weeks ago, when he first saw Jared standing across the street. But this time Jensen was in the back of the house, which faced into a thick copse of protected woodland, part of a forty-acre nature reserve that bordered the local reservoir, unpopulated except by local wildlife.
Jensen turned toward the woods, looking back over his shoulder into the trees, and saw a flash of dark brown fur. Two amber-colored eyes stared out at him from the shadows, catching the light with a flash of pure gold. Jensen froze, aware that the animal was unusually large, probably close to Jensen's weight if not his height, and his first guess was a bear. Black bears were common in these woods, and at this time of year they were always hungry, gorging themselves for the long winter hibernation. It wasn't unusual for one to wander into his backyard, looking for trash to forage.
Then the animal lowered its head and Jensen's heart beat faster. This was no bear, he realized as sunlight glanced off of the creature's glossy coat. This was a canine. Too big to be a coyote or a fox. A large dog, maybe.
Or a wolf.
Jensen had never seen a wolf before, but he'd heard that they sometimes migrated this far south from Maine or even Canada. He thought those wolves had grey coats, though. This one was definitely dark brown, which is why Jensen had mistaken it for a bear at first. But unlike the black bears he was used to seeing in the area, this animal was probably unaccustomed to humans or human habitation, which maybe explained the way it stared at Jensen.
Like it was curious, perhaps. Or hungry.
Did wolves see humans as potential meals? Jensen wondered. Regardless, he knew he should move slowly, not do anything to startle or cause the wolf to feel threatened. Unlike black bears, which were naturally shy and easily scared away by loud noises, this creature was a fearless predator.
And didn't wolves travel in packs?
Jensen glanced around, adrenaline pumping at the very thought of more of these magnificent creatures hiding further back in the trees, waiting to follow the lead of this one.
Jensen was just sure this wolf was a leader, although he couldn't say why. Something about the bold way the wolf stared at him, frank and open and without fear, its multi-colored eyes glowing golden in the reflected sunlight.
For another moment, Jensen and the wolf stared at each other, and Jensen wondered what he would do if the wolf suddenly attacked. Not that that was likely, he told himself, but if the animal was rabid, anything could happen. He was still perched precariously on the ladder, his hands full of sodden leaves and branches from the gutter, so he'd probably end up throwing leaves in the hopes of distracting the animal long enough to make a leap and run for it, although it seemed unlikely he could outrun such a powerful animal if it was really set on attacking him.
But something in the animal's eyes assured him there was neither madness nor menace there. An alien intelligence, surely, and Jensen had no doubt the animal could be very dangerous when provoked. But there was no threat in those golden orbs, although Jensen couldn't explain why he was so sure of that. Like he'd suddenly developed wolfish sixth sense or something, which he knew he shouldn't trust. This was a wild animal, unpredictable and decidedly dangerous, and no manner of anthropomorphic reasoning should allow Jensen to forget that. Not if he was smart.
Just as Jensen was starting to wonder if he could very slowly climb backwards down the ladder and inch his way toward his back door, the wolf blinked, ducking its head as it turned its massive body around and disappeared into the trees, just as noiselessly as it had appeared.
Jensen stayed still as a stone for another moment, glancing around nervously for signs of other wolves. When it was clear that there were no others – at least not close enough to catch a glimpse of – he slowly climbed down the ladder and retreated to the garage on shaking legs, deciding it was probably a good time to break for lunch anyway.
It wasn't until later that day, after he had recovered his courage and finished the job on the gutters, that Jensen remembered the howling he'd heard four nights before.
Jensen decided against calling Animal Control to report the wolf sighting. He kept thinking he needed to talk to Jared first. Jared had experience with wildlife. Jared would know what to do. Plus, Jared would be fascinated to hear about a lone wolf in his own backyard, Jensen was just sure of that. Jared had probably heard the howling a few nights ago too, Jensen reasoned.
At least, that's what Jensen told himself as an excuse for not notifying the authorities.
The truth was, as Jensen knew full well if he was honest with himself, the wolf was just an excuse to go down and knock on Jared's door.
It was after dark that night when Jensen finally heard the door open and close downstairs, then the familiar and by now almost comforting sound of water running in the pipes.
The truth was, Jensen had been lonelier than he wanted to admit over the past fourteen months since his mother's death, and having someone else in the house these past few weeks had been deeply reassuring.
Jensen waited almost an hour, then descended the stairs to Jared's door and knocked.
The door opened almost immediately, startling Jensen so that he almost gasped before catching himself. Jared was wearing a pair of loose-fitting sweatpants and a tee-shirt that was so tight it was practically a second skin. The guy's ripped, was the first thought that flashed across Jensen's mind; then he took in Jared's bare feet and wet, slicked-back hair and decided he'd never seen anything more pornographic.
"Yeah? Jensen? What's up?"
Jared blinked, unfocused and unseeing, and Jensen realized he'd never seen Jared's eyes before; he'd always worn the dark glasses. They were beautiful and perfect, just like the rest of him, and Jensen was overwhelmed by an emotion so powerful he couldn't control the gust of air that escaped his lungs, an embarrassing sound that just punched out of him, completely involuntary.
"Jensen? Are you okay?" Jared reached out a hand, as if to steady him, and Jensen grabbed it without even thinking, clutched it awkwardly between his own as he nodded.
"Yeah, I'm fine," Jensen croaked. "I just – I saw a wolf," he blurted out. "And I wanted to tell you."
"Ah," Jared nodded, smiling so that his dimples were on full display. He pulled his hand away, and Jensen immediately missed it. "My friend Tristan. You've met him, then."
"Your – your friend?" Jensen stammered. "You know him? A wolf? You know a wolf?" He knew he sounded like an idiot, but something about being in Jared's presence just did that to him.
Jared nodded. "Big guy, shaggy dark hair, eyes about the same color as mine, right?"
Jensen nodded, then remembered. "Yeah, that's him."
"We've been tracking him coming down from Canada over the past few months," Jared explained. "He's sort of why I'm here, actually."
"I didn't – I didn't know wolves ever traveled this far south." Jensen was fascinated by the way Jared's face transformed when he talked about his favorite subject, how alive and engaged he seemed. Not to mention those beautiful, mesmerizing eyes...
"Yeah," Jared nodded. "He's looking for his mate, we're pretty sure."
Jensen remembered the mournful howling from the other night, how Jensen's first thought had been exactly that, that the wolf was missing his mate.
"But there aren't any other wolves around here," Jensen shook his head. "At least, not that I've ever heard of."
Jared shrugged. "Weird, I know," he agreed. "That's exactly what we thought. But it's definitely what brings him here. Wolves mate for life. Tristan knows what he's doing, even if it doesn't make any sense to us. If I've learned anything in all my years working with wild animals, it's to trust their instincts to solve their problems for them. There's really nothing humans can do for them except stand aside and let them be."
Jensen shuddered, remembering the alien intelligence in the way the wolf regarded him. Like the wolf knew something he didn't. Like its untamed mind harbored some secret wisdom that Jensen couldn't possibly understand.
"He's not safe," Jensen said. "Humans will try to capture him, or kill him. At the very least, they'll try to relocate him to somewhere he's not a danger to humans."
"He's not a danger to humans," Jared scoffed. "He just wants to be left alone to live his life."
Jensen shook his head. "Humans won't leave him alone," he said. "He should run before he's caught."
Jared smiled, shaking his head a little. "He won't go anywhere without his mate," he said, and it was pure coincidence, Jensen knew that, but when Jared raised his eyes suddenly he was staring straight into Jensen's eyes.
It only lasted a moment, then Jared's gaze wandered again, leaving Jensen with the distinct impression that Jared had meant to say something else, then thought better of it.
"Well, anyway, I guess I should – maybe I – I mean, I should probably go," Jensen stammered, suddenly shy again. "I just wanted to tell you, that's all."
"Thank you, Jensen," Jared said softly. "Let me know if you see him again, all right?"
Jensen nodded. "Sure thing."
He turned to go as Jared put his hand on the door. "And don't worry," he said. "He won't hurt you. You don't need to be afraid of him."
Jensen felt a shiver of something that definitely wasn't fear go up his spine.
"Okay," he agreed.
Jared nodded. "Good night, Jensen," he said in his lovely, soft voice, making another shiver go up Jensen's spine.
"Good night," Jensen breathed, glancing back over his shoulder as he started to climb the stairs. Jared was still standing in the doorway, a slight smile on his lips, listening to Jensen's retreating steps for a moment before closing the door.
That night, Jensen had another running-with-Jared dream, and when he woke up he could swear he heard an animal under his window, panting and snuffling. A dog, was his first thought, until he realized it must be the wolf. Tristan.
But when he got up to look, pulling the blind up and gazing out into the back yard, illuminated by the silver light of an almost-full moon, there was nothing there.
"I think I heard your wolf in the back yard last night," he told Jared the next morning. It was Monday, the library was closed, and it was laundry day, so Jensen had an excuse to be downstairs. Jared opened his door almost before Jensen knocked, dressed casually in jeans that hung low on his slim hips and a black v-neck tee-shirt. He looked freshly scrubbed again, pink-cheeked and smooth-shaven, hair wet and slicked back as it was last night. Jensen guessed he must have been up early, maybe exercising, since it was obvious he'd showered again.
"That so?" Jared leaned against the doorframe, crossing his powerful arms over his chest. "Huh."
"You didn't hear him?" Jensen asked, surprised. He imagined Jared's hearing was pretty keen; he'd heard somewhere that when one sense was lost, the others became more acute to compensate.
"Oh, I heard him," Jared smiled, dimples on display. "I'm a little surprised that you could, that's all. He's pretty quiet."
The now-familiar tingle of excitement shot up Jensen's spine, giving him courage.
"Hey, you wanna come up for a cup of coffee?" he asked in a rush, then flushed to the tips of his ears at his own audacity. "I just – I just put on a fresh pot."
Jared smiled broadly, his eyes sweeping the floor sightlessly, then lifted so Jensen caught a glimpse of them, struck again by how beautiful they were.
"Sure," Jared nodded. "Just let me put some shoes on."
The next couple of hours flew by. They talked about everything and nothing. Jared asked endless questions about Jensen's life, his upbringing, his job, what he did for fun. Jensen found himself relaxing in Jared's company, letting down his natural reserve in the face of Jared's sincere interest, encouraged by Jared's thoughtful, genuine concern. When Jensen put a second cup of coffee in Jared's hands their fingers brushed, and Jared let his tangle briefly with Jensen's, squeezing, making Jensen's breath catch.
"Thank you," Jared murmured, suddenly so serious it made Jensen's head spin.
"Uh, yeah," Jensen stammered, pulling his hand back once he was sure Jared had the mug firmly in his large hands. "Sure, man."
That night, Jensen had his first real sex dream about Jared, mostly involving those big hands touching him all over, making him shake with need. He woke up sweating, hard as a rock, and he barely had to touch himself before he came, the force of his release almost blinding him.
Jensen knew Jared was getting under his skin, knew his interest and attraction bordered on obsession, but it didn't seem to be something he could control.
It wasn't really something he wanted to control, if he was honest with himself. He thought about Jared all the time, fantasized about him while he was at work, looked for him when he came home. He brought Jared gifts of fruit from the farmer's market and bread from the local bakery, just to have an excuse to talk to him, to touch him. Jared was usually out when Jensen came home, and he was still sleeping when Jensen left for work in the morning, so it wasn't easy to connect, but Jensen found ways.
Then one night the wolf came back.
Jensen had come home late from his shift at the library, one of two nights a week when he had to work until 9:00 p.m. He'd been sitting behind the circulation desk for much of the past few hours, and he needed to move. When he got home, he checked for a moment to be sure Jared was out, which it seemed that he was since Jensen could hear no sound from downstairs and it was Jared's usual habit to be gone after dark. Then he bundled up and started walking.
The air was brisk with the promise of winter but the moon was bright, so that the street was lit even in places where it was usually pitch dark. Living on the edge of a nature reserve had its advantages; the neighborhood was quiet after dark on a weekday, and Jensen could smell the smoky scent of someone burning a fire in their fireplace. It occurred to him that he could do the same, maybe invite Jared up for steaks and red wine some night, sit in front of the fire with him and –
A low growl in the woods off to Jensen's left sent chills up his spine, made him stop in his tracks. A rustle of underbrush close to the road made Jensen wonder if he should've brought something more dangerous than a flashlight to protect himself. Then a dark shadow moved out of the woods, slow and steady, and Jensen held his breath.
This close, the powerful wolf was at least as tall as Jensen's chest, probably taller. His shaggy dark head was bowed, eyes flashing moonlight as he stared at Jensen and paced back and forth, right on the edge of the road. Jensen had the feeling the wolf might bound back into the trees if Jensen so much as moved, and he was dimly aware that he should move, should scare the wolf into running away.
But he doubted the animal would scare easily. He'd probably just be mildly offended at Jensen's attempts to shoo him away. He'd probably just laugh at him.
The wolf stopped its pacing then, almost as if it knew what Jensen was thinking, and stared at him, mouth hanging open a little in what looked like a canine version of a grin, big tongue lolling out as he panted. He waited for a moment, almost as if he expected Jensen to say something, then with a small whine that sounded almost like a whimper, the wolf lay down, front paws first, then rear haunches, then laid his massive head on his front paws.
It was a gesture of submission, like a dog who wanted to be petted, and Jensen sucked in a breath of surprise, not quite able to believe that this huge predator was lying down at his feet. The wolf stared up at him from his new prone position, and now there was something almost pleading in his eyes as he watched Jensen, so that Jensen had the idea that the wolf might actually roll over to present his belly in a moment if Jensen didn't at least acknowledge him.
"Tristan," Jensen heard himself speak, almost tentatively. The wolf's ears twitched and he scooted forward just an inch, so that his front paws almost reached Jensen's feet.
"That's your name, isn't it, boy?" Jensen said, like he was talking to a friendly dog.
This animal is not a dog, he reminded himself sternly. It's a lethal killing machine.
"What's going on here, Tristan?" Jensen asked softly, and Tristan gave another little whimper, another twitch of his ears. "Why won't you go home where you'll be safe? Why are you hanging around here?"
The wolf's gnashed his powerful jaws, flashing sharp teeth as his big tongue lolled out again.
Jensen shook his head, the temptation to reach out and scratch the wolf behind its ears almost overwhelming. "I think you're laughing at me," he commented dryly, and the wolf's jaws widened slightly. "You think this is all a big joke. Scare the lonely human to death. Ha ha."
The wolf closed its mouth, stared up at Jensen in that pleading, mournful way for a moment, then promptly rolled its big body onto its side.
The invitation was clear, the position of submission nearly complete, and Jensen couldn't help himself. He knelt beside the big shaggy beast and reached out until his hand almost touched the wolf's snout. Tristan leaned his head into Jensen's hand, not even sniffing first, like he already knew Jensen's smell. He closed his eyes as Jensen's hand slipped into the fur of his head, between his ears.
"Okay now, okay there," Jensen soothed.
The wolf's coat was thick and coarse, and when Jensen dug his fingers into it he could feel the animal's warmth. He kept his movements slow and steady as he scratched carefully behind Tristan's ears, murmuring reassuring words in a low voice. The beast lay still, eyes closed as Jensen pet him first with one hand, then carefully lay his other hand on the wolf's heaving side.
"That's it. That's it, buddy. Nice and easy."
Suddenly and without any warning, Tristan's head whipped up, the movement so unexpected it sent Jensen sprawling backwards on the road, scrambling in the loose gravel. Then he heard it: a low growl in the woods from which Tristan had emerged moments before. Jensen had only a moment to recover, then Tristan was growling too, lips pulled back to reveal scissor-sharp incisors, ears laid flat on his head. Jensen held as still as he could, heart pounding, as he glimpsed movement in the trees, caught the flash of something white.
Then Jensen saw them. A group of wolves – a pack, Jensen remembered the term – huddled together just inside the tree line. Two white, one very dark, darker than Tristan. All three were smaller, more the size of large dogs than wolves, and all three were growling.
Jensen kept still, barely moving his eyes enough to follow Tristan's movements as the wolf pushed himself to his feet, positioning himself protectively between Jensen and the growling wolves. The big wolf kept his teeth bared and growled louder, deeper, clearly threatening. The other wolves backed off immediately, bowing their heads in submission, shifting side to side and not meeting Tristan's stare, their growls turning to whimpers as they backed into the woods.
When it was obvious the threat was past, Jensen climbed slowly to his feet, careful not to make any sudden movements, brushing gravel off his hands and backside.
"Hey, are those your friends?" he asked and the wolf turned his head, bucked his nose up playfully under Jensen's hand, tongue lolling again as though he was laughing.
"Hey! Okay! I get it!" Jensen laughed as he scratched behind Tristan's ears. The wolf leaned his body against Jensen's as the other wolves made breathy barking sounds, clearly coaxing Tristan to join them. "You gotta go, is that it? Time to go?"
Tristan bucked his head against Jensen's hand again, then leaned so hard against Jensen he almost stumbled as he struggled to support the wolf's weight. When he turned up his eyes to Jensen they had that pleading, mournful look in them again, and Jensen's chest clenched.
"Hey, you're okay now, right?" Jensen frowned, burying both hands in the wolf's thick fur so he could give him a good scratch. "You've got your friends, right? Is one of them your mate? Huh? Did you find her?"
Tristan wrenched his big head away, almost as if he was shaking it "no." He made a half-whining, half-panting sound as he pulled away from Jensen, leaving the man feeling strangely bereft.
"You gotta go," Jensen nodded. "I get it. Go on. Go with your friends."
Tristan took a few steps, then stopped and looked back over his shoulder at Jensen, mournful eyes glowing strangely in the moonlight. The other wolves were making excited half-barking sounds as they circled back and forth, clearly urging Tristan to hurry up and join them.
"Go on now," Jensen tipped his chin toward the other wolves, and Tristan bobbed his head, almost like a nod. Then the big wolf turned slowly, clearly reluctant, before he bounded into the trees after his pack.
Jensen stood still for several seconds, listening to the sounds of the wolves as they ran off across the hillside, their playful howls and half-barks making Jensen smile even as his chest ached with loneliness and a keen desire to belong, to be part of a family. To be free.
It had only just started to hit him that he had communed with a wild wolf, and the feelings he was having couldn't possibly be his, when Jensen heard the howling. It was far off, probably miles away by now, but it was the same sorrowful sound he'd heard before, long and loud and so sad it made Jensen want to cry. The howling went on and on, until Jensen worried the whole neighborhood would be up and out of their houses to listen, then to report wolves in the area, which he was just sure would not be a good thing.
Then the howling stopped, leaving the night unnaturally quiet, leaving Jensen feeling unutterably sad.
He slept dreamlessly that night, but when he got up in the morning he went right down to Jared's apartment, not even stopping to consider that Jared was probably still sleeping.
"He let me touch him," Jensen gushed when Jared finally opened the door, making Jensen gasp because he had obviously been sleeping and had only managed to pull on a pair of sweat-pants before opening the door. The sight of Jared all sleep-mussed and half-naked was definitely the hottest thing Jensen had ever seen, hands down.
"Yeah?" Jared leaned one long arm on the open door, used the other hand to push back his uncombed hair. He seemed to understand exactly what Jensen was talking about, which should have been weird, but Jensen was too excited to care.
"Yeah, and he had a pack with him. Three other wolves, all smaller. He must be their leader."
Jared smiled, dimpling so beautifully it took Jensen's remaining breath away.
"It was amazing, Jared. I wish you could've seen him. I mean – I wish you could've been there," Jensen stammered. "He let me pet him – he practically pushed my hand up to have his ears scratched!"
"He's a little demanding," Jared noted, grinning broadly as he rubbed his eyes, yawned.
"Yeah," Jensen laughed. "He's – he's amazing."
"You think so?" Jared was blushing, Jensen realized. His cheeks were the prettiest dusky rose color, and his nose almost looked like it was sunburned.
"Yeah," Jensen breathed, suddenly too distracted to remember what he was about to say. He stared helplessly at Jared for another moment as Jared scrubbed his hand over his unshaven cheeks, shifting awkwardly, like he was nervous.
Then they both spoke at the same time.
"Jensen, would you – "
"Hey, do you wanna – "
Jared huffed out a laugh. "You first," he insisted.
Jensen took a deep breath. "I was just going to ask if you wanna come up for steaks tonight," he said. "I was going to put a fire on, and I thought – " He stopped because he could feel himself blushing all the way to the tips of his ears and was grateful Jared couldn't see him. "That is, if you're not busy."
"Sounds great." Jared smiled warmly, looking relieved.
"Great," Jensen nodded. "I'll be home around six. You can come up any time. I'll just leave the door unlocked at the top of the stairs."
"Okay," Jared agreed and started to shut the door as he heard Jensen begin to turn away.
"Oh!" Jensen turned back, and Jared waited expectantly. "What were you going to ask me?"
Jared flushed again, and this time Jensen noticed his chest was pink too. Then he couldn't take his eyes off Jared's body and was grateful for the second time that morning that Jared couldn't see him, which was just wrong on too many levels, he knew.
"I was hoping you'd ask," Jared shrugged. "I think it's time for us to get to know each other better."
Jensen smiled so broadly it hurt. "Me, too," he agreed, heart pounding, hoping beyond hope that he was getting Jared's signals right.
Work that day was torturous. Jensen obsessed about Jared as he shelved books. He researched wolves during his shift on the circulation desk. He decided that Tristan must be some kind of mutant, since the majority of wolves native to this part of the country were gray wolves, with the occasional red wolf. Tristan was too dark and too large to be categorized as either.
At around four o'clock that afternoon, Genevieve appeared in front of him at the Information Desk. She glared at him, huge dark eyes steady and accusing, and it made Jensen think of the wolves, particularly the small dark one that was growling at him on the road last night.
"Hey," he greeted her, and she frowned.
"He's really into you," she stated flatly. "I just hope you're worth it."
"Wow," Jensen breathed, shocked by her words as much as her tone. "Okay then. Thanks for the heads up."
Genevieve shook her head. "You didn't know? You couldn't tell?"
"Well, I mean, I guess I was sorta hoping, maybe, you know..."
"Just don't hurt him," Genevieve interrupted. "He's got a really big heart, and it gets him in trouble sometimes. He's too generous for his own good. So just go easy on him. He's not good at recognizing when he's being played."
"I'm not – I would never – wow, this is all kinda – I'm kinda out of my league here," Jensen stammered awkwardly.
Genevieve regarded him thoughtfully for a moment, then she shook her head. "I just don't see what he sees in you," she admitted. "Other than the obvious, of course, which he can't even see, so that doesn't make any sense. He's really gregarious, used to having lots of people around him. And you... Do you even have any friends?"
"I have friends!" Jensen huffed out a breath, indignant.
Genevieve crossed her arms over her chest and raised an eyebrow skeptically. "You work in a library," she said. "You have a cat."
"I have friends!" Jensen insisted again. "I'm not a stereotype!"
"Okay." Genevieve nodded, like she was accepting a challenge. "My house, tomorrow night at seven. For dinner. Bring a friend."
Then she was gone, flipping her hair dismissively, leaving Jensen staring helplessly after her.
"Who was that?" Danneel Harris, the Circulation Manager and Jensen's boss, had come up behind him while he was chatting with Genevieve – chatting? Is that what they were doing? – and was now staring after the little dark-haired minx as she stalked brazenly out of the library.
"Nobody," Jensen shrugged. "I mean, she's a friend of a friend. She wants me to come to her house tomorrow night for dinner."
"I'll bet she does," Danneel huffed.
"No," Jensen hastened to correct her obvious misconception. "No, she's not interested in – I mean, she wants me to bring a friend."
"Oh," Danneel frowned for a minute, then brightened. "I'll go."
Jensen's mouth dropped open, but no sound came out. "I – really? I mean, I didn't even say I'd go. I need to check with my housemate first. This is so weird."
"Well, if you decide to go, I'll be your plus one," Danneel shrugged. "She's cute."