As soon as the semester is over, Jensen flies them back to the West Coast. He doesn’t even wait to see his students through graduation, isn’t finished grading papers, but he figures he can do that as easily from a beach house as he can from home.
It’s a last desperate Hail Mary pass to keep Jared before he frees him. And if it comes to that, well, Jensen had left Jared’s skin locked in a trunk in the attic. If he has to let Jared go, at least it’ll be quick here.
Jared is in good spirits as they move back into the little cottage they fell in love in, but Jensen knows better than to take that as a sign. Jared is hardly ever Jared these days, but Jensen doesn’t miss how goddamn hard he tries to convince Jensen that everything is fine, that Jensen is blowing things out of proportion, and the gloom that haunts him is just a passing sadness.
It’s the same ocean, the same house, the same cut of beach, the same rocks. It’s the same Jared and it’s the same Jensen. But when Jared follows him into the water for their first swim, Jensen hears those three dreaded words.
“Not the same.”
He leaves Jared alone for one day. Guilty at having shirked his work duties, Jensen goes to a coffee shop early in the morning, before Jared wakes up, and is gone until he’s graded each paper and sent back final thoughts, edits, advice to those he thinks should seek publishing.
When Jensen gets home, he hears nothing throughout the house, until he goes upstairs and there’s a scratching sound coming from the attic, the little pull stairs left down by whoever had last climbed them.
It’s obvious what he’s going to find, but he has no choice now. He has to see this through.
So Jensen climbs the stairs. In the attic, he finds that all the other storage has been shoved out of the way as Jared made his single-minded push to the trunk Jensen had gotten the owner of the house to let him use, promising future business if she let him store it.
Briana must have moved the trunk to the far side of the attic in order to reach something of her own, because it’s a scene of overturned antique furniture and trails on the floor where boxes had been pushed through dust. Jensen has to cross the entire length of it to find Jared.
Jared is lying on the floor next to the wooden trunk, crying hysterically as he tries to claw his way into it. It’s an especially pathetic sight, the long line of him all stretching across the floor as he tries and fails to overcome one of the many foul truths of being a selkie: if your skin is stolen, you can’t take it back. It has to be given.
It's not like Jared could have expected to be able to get into the trunk. Not like he didn't know he would be blocked from it. Jared’s the one that told Jensen about every rule of being a selkie, after all. But he’s out of his mind at the moment, no thought beyond the need to get his skin back now that he got close enough to sense it. He’s tried to get in anyway, and Jensen’s heart stops when he sees the blood and realizes Jared’s attempts to claw his way into the trunk have only worn his fingers down until they’re raw.
He seizes forward, grabbing Jared’s hands and pulling Jared until he’s sitting up in Jensen’s arms, back against Jensen’s chest. He hasn’t stopped crying.
“Jesus, Jared,” Jensen says, so worried he can’t temper his voice. “You could have just asked me for it.”
“Don’t give it to me,” Jared begs, even as he tries to launch himself at the trunk again. “Don’t give it to me, don’t give it to me.”
It’s obvious that nothing Jared says in this close of proximity to his skin is going to be reasoned, so Jensen drags them both to their feet, guiding Jared back down into the rest of the house. He sends the ladder up and pushes Jared to their bedroom. Jared is easy to lead, despite his superior size. He’s physically worn down and emotionally exhausted and it’s all Jensen’s fault.
Jensen slams the door shut behind him and by the time he turns to Jared, Jared is sitting at the edge of the bed, rocking back and forth and shaking like a wet kitten. He’s mumbling nonsense, but Jensen is able to get his attention with a few snaps in front of his face.
“Knew we shouldn’t have come back here,” Jared is saying, maybe to himself, maybe to Jensen. “I knew you’d hidden it here. Did you want me to find it? Why would you bring me here?”
He covers his ears with his hands and keeps rocking, and Jensen kneels in front of him, forcing Jared’s hands down to his lap so he can assess the damage more completely. "Where does this stop?"
Jared looks guilty, stares down at his bloody fingertips, and it clicks the moment he can't look Jensen in the eye.
"It doesn't stop, does it?" he asks. Jared is quiet, so Jensen keeps going, like pressing a bruise he knows won't heal. "You're going to kill yourself eventually."
"Jensen," Jared warns, and that just confirms it.
"You knew. You knew that's how this was going to end, and you didn't tell me? You let me take that skin and lock it away from you even though—"
"It was the only way I could be with you," Jared answers, as if that's a defense. "I made my choice."
"No," Jensen yells. Jared looks up at him, eyes wide, like he's scared, but Jensen can't calm himself for Jared's sake like he's tried so hard to do. "You fucking didn't make your choice. You made me make it. You lied to me so I would make it."
"I never lied," Jared says. "I told you it wouldn't be easy for me—"
Jensen stands, dropping Jared’s hands but gesturing to them. "You left out the part where it was going to kill you!"
"If I'd told you, you wouldn't have kept me. You would have left here without me and I would have gotten back in my skin and—and what that would have done to me, Jensen. I chose the better death."
He turns, too furious to face Jared, sick and fucking tired of only getting half-truths. "That's not true. That's not true. Why would—?"
"Because the longer I spend outside of my skin, the longer I need to return to it to stay sane. I'd already been out of it so long…Jensen, if I'd gone back into my skin, I wouldn't have come out again for so long. I would have forgotten how to be human. I would have forgotten I even could, or that I ever had, I would have forgotten…"
"Me," Jensen whispers, stumbling into the nearest seat as he realizes what Jared is trying to tell him. "If I give you your skin back, I won't ever see you again. And you," his voice cracks, but he forces himself to finish, "If you can’t hear my song, you won't even remember me?"
Jared lifts his head, squares his shoulders and narrows his animal eyes. There's a look of determination on his face that Jensen's never seen before. "I chose the better death," he says again, colder this time, and he rises to his feet. Jared walks out of the room with an air of challenge, like he's just daring Jensen to disagree with him.
Jensen can't bring himself to do that. Can't bring himself to do anything. He curls up on the bed and loses the night in his grief.
By the time he gets home from his morning run the next day, Jared has already found the skin. Jensen left it out and a part of him hoped Jared would take it and flee—that he would never have to face Jared or what he did to him again. Jared is standing by the bed, holding the skin in his arms and crying.
When he senses Jensen in the doorway, he turns to look at him, accusing. "You don't want me anymore."
"Of course I do, but." Jensen shakes his head. "I don't want to be the thing that kills you."
"I made a choice. I would have been the thing." Jared's hand curls into a fist, even as his other one brings the skin up to his face, and he closes his eyes, an expression of peace like Jensen certainly hasn't seen from him in months. "I chose to die."
"I can't," he says, biting his lips to keep them from trembling. "I cannot let you make that choice, Jared. Not for me. I can't let you die."
Jared makes a sound that isn't quite a sob, Jensen isn't sure what it is, but he understands every single thing Jared is feeling just from that broken little crack. Defeat, sadness, but the worst of it, to Jensen's ears, is the relief.
"When I first gave this to you," Jared says, holding his skin out in front of him as he turns and plants himself on the edge of the bed. "I believed I wasn't making a choice. I heard all these stories, Jensen. I'd even seen it happen a few times. Selkies who lost their skins or had them stolen, how quickly they went mad. It always ended the same for them. Within a few weeks…no one can live with that kind of madness. But I thought…I thought I loved you so much that it wouldn't happen to me."
Jared lifts his head, and Jensen sees that there are tears running down his cheeks. It's the first time, in all the minutes, hours, days Jensen has spent staring at Jared, it's the first and only time he isn't ethereal, beautiful. He looks so real, so fragile, and Jensen wonders if he's been mishandling something delicate all this time, trying so hard to hold onto it when Jared wasn't supposed to be his. He had been so sure when they first met that he was the breakable one. It never occurred to him that Jared needed his tenderness more than he needed Jared’s.
"Not that," Jared says, fat, ugly drops of salt water rolling down his cheeks. "Never that."
"You said weeks." Jensen sits next to him but doesn't face him directly. "You said within a few weeks. It's been months since you left with me."
"I really was fine at first. I was just so happy to be with you. Sure, I felt the ocean calling me, but I could ignore it. It was easy to ignore. But, Jensen, it just kept getting stronger. I tried not to feel it."
"You should have told me. As soon as you knew it was going to be too much. You should have told me."
"Maybe," Jared says with a shrug. "But I didn't. I didn't want this." He lifts the skin as he spits out the last word. "Don't you get it? I lived for months outside the water to be with you. And…I know. I know I don't seem okay to you right now, Jensen, but I'm still nowhere near as bad as I'll get. I could live months longer with you. Isn't that better? Staying together as long as possible? You can still take it back. It's not too late to—"
"What you're asking me to do is horrible, Jared," Jensen says. "You're asking me to watch you die in agony knowing I could bring you peace."
"If you could just understand how much I—"
"Don't," Jensen says, and his tone is so sharp that Jared closes his mouth. "Don't you dare act like I just don't love you enough. Because I know how much I need you. How fucking empty I was until—I don't want to lose you, either. But what would you do? If I gave you the same choice? Tell me. What the hell would you do?"
Jared makes a face like Jensen's just shoved something bitter down his throat, and Jensen leaves it at that.
"I would save you," Jared finally admits, after neither of them has said anything for several long minutes. "No matter what you told me. I would save you."
"I would choose you," Jensen says. "Over living."
Jared laughs, and it's a sad little laugh, but it comes paired with the smile Jensen doesn't remember how to live without. "Not a good situation we're in here, is it?"
"Not really," Jensen agrees, letting his head rest on Jared's shoulder.
Jared turns his face to kiss Jensen's forehead, and he whispers, "One last time?"
“Only if you really want it,” Jensen insists. “Jared, you have to want it.”
Jared holds Jensen so that Jensen can’t look away and says, “I want you so much. Even now, like this, there’s no moment I’ve stopped wanting you. You have to at least believe that. I thought I knew something about wanting until I heard your song.”
Everything is slow this time, an obvious, unspoken attempt to put off the inevitable just a few heartbeats longer. Jared goes onto his back, deliberately holding Jensen’s eyes, not needing to say anything for the statement to be clear. Jensen takes him, face to face, their lips only breaking to whisper sweet nothings that have a violent effect, the passion and adoration in Jared’s words each like a hook dragging through the meat of Jensen’s heart.
They finish together and instead of moving things along, Jensen allows himself the cowardly comfort of drifting off in Jared’s arms.
When he wakes up again, there’s no evidence left that Jared was ever there at all. It feels so much like the early days of their love that it takes him days to accept that Jared really isn't coming back.
The summer vacation he'd planned to share with Jared, a rerun of their greatest hits from last year, becomes a nightmare in the wake of Jensen's loss. The realization that there's nothing he can do here that won't feel more like a glaring reminder of what isn't than anything else.
He waits a few weeks, he's not sure for what. For Jared to show up again. For the laws of Jared's nature to reshape themselves around the fact that Jensen needs them to be different. For just the flash of a little seal face that he recognizes, and, even if the man inside won't come out to say hello, for that face to recognize him.
When none of those things happen, he packs it in. Heads back to his house in Iowa three months early, not caring that he had already paid Briana a full season's nonrefundable rent. Losing money is nothing now that he's lost everything else.
Nothing improves when he gets home, because everything that made it home is gone. This had been home for years before Jared ever came into his life, the craftsman's cottage a point of pride for Jensen, who had gotten the mortgage and his first real job riding on the wave of modest success he'd had for a first time novelist.
It doesn't feel fair that even the things that had meaning before Jared have lost it, but now all he sees are the phantom imprints of how Jared had lived here: the dip on the other side of the mattress, bunches of sheet music with crossed out notes that no longer fill the trashcan, the shadow Jared will never cast again from standing by the window.
The weather even mourns with Jensen, rainstorms for weeks, then too-sunny days that seem to have no purpose but to mock Jensen's loneliness. Pathetic fallacy, he reminds himself with a self-pitying laugh, because damned if that one wasn't aptly named.
Half a summer Jensen does nothing day in and day out but nurse his heartbreak. He lies in bed with the computer open, picks a random file each day and is treated to some stranger's song, the compositions Jared had devoted so much of his time to. He laughs at the tinny renditions, remembering how Jared hated them, how he always dreamed of having the songs played by a real orchestra. He cries at the thought that Jared's one aspiration will never come true. He's too afraid to open the file saved under his name, to learn what Jared truly thought of him.
He lets himself miss Jared with the all-encompassing devotion of someone who can't seem to do anything else. Then, he sits down at his keyboard and starts to type.
"A moment of watercolor in a monochrome life. That was the last time Dean ever saw Sam."
The room is suddenly heavy with quiet as Jensen's voice, the only steady sound for the last twenty minutes, falls silent. He clears his throat, the sign the audience was apparently waiting for, and a polite applause breaks out through the bookstore.
He ducks his head, never as comfortable seeing a crowd respond to his work as he should be, until finally the clapping dies down and he smiles as he says, "Thank you all so much. I really appreciate all y'all coming out tonight. I hope you enjoyed that excerpt, and I'm inviting anyone who's interested to stick around. I will be signing copies at no extra charge, and, more importantly, there will be snacks," the crowd laughs at his poorly delivered joke, a sure sign that he didn't lose them while he was reading, "That's in the next room, I think these fine gentlemen will be able to direct you on where to line up. Again, the book is Seal Song, and I'm Jensen Ackles."
Jensen passes the microphone to the bookstore owner waiting to his left, and he hears as the guy—was it Rob?—begins a walkthrough of the rest of the evening's logistics. Happy to have the spotlight off him, if only for a few moments, Jensen grabs a water bottle and allows Jeff to escort him to the back area.
"You killed 'em, kid," Jeff says, slapping Jensen on the back. "Not a dry eye in the house."
"I'm never sure if they're crying because of the story or because of how bad the writing is."
Jeff barks out a laugh. "Don't be modest. It's not convincing. You have any idea the egos I have to deal with from authors whose books are selling half as well as yours is right now?"
"It's only been out for three weeks," Jensen reminds him. "It could drop off any moment."
"Could," Jeff admits. "But judging from the way your crowds are growing, it's not looking likely."
He licks his lips and nods, taking a deep breath. It's true that his name had only attracted decent turnout for the first few stops of the tour. A few prominent reviews gushing hard enough and suddenly Jensen is gazing out at standing room only every night.
A year ago, Jensen might have suspected Jeff bribed the reviewers to say all those things, but Jensen's a very different man now than he was, and the truth of it is that he knows how good this book is. He knows how raw it is; it's not like he thinks it says a whole lot about his abilities as a writer. He'd spilled his longing for Jared out on a page and somehow managed to turn that into a success.
There was a time Jensen couldn't have dreamed of anything he could ever want as much as this kind of reception for something he wrote. But it took losing Jared to write the novel, and Jensen would trade the success to have his boy back in his bed in a minute.
"Mr. Ackles?" A voice cuts into Jensen's inner monologue, which is kind of a relief. It's no fun being stuck with himself these days. "We're ready for you to start signing whenever you'd like."
Rob is polite but professional, and the message is clear. Jensen had better get a move on.
"Alright," he says. "Let's get this over with."
Another tour stop, another swanky hotel. Jensen crashes into a mattress that probably costs as much as he paid for his first car, exhausted and hardly aware anymore of what city he's in. It's a far cry from the chain hotels the agency was putting him up in when he started, and Jensen just wishes it wasn't being wasted on someone who hardly recognizes anything but the ache in his chest most days.
He's done so many press events that he has most of the book memorized by now, brings along the manuscript more for the sake of performance than because he actually needs to read from it. His arm has a permanent cramp from signing autographs. Three straight months of this and Jensen is mostly grateful that it keeps him too busy to be as truly, spectacularly pitiful as he knows he would be if left to his own devices.
Flopping onto his back, Jensen stares up at the ceiling. Thinks about jerking off, but doesn't really have the energy or the heart, not to mention his damn arm will probably fall off if he tries it. He can't remember the last time he got off, only he can, all too vividly, still imagines he can see Jared's fingerprints where they'd dug into his biceps.
Jeff had been at the reading tonight. He'd waited through Jensen's whole bit, even though he's already had to sit through the same thing more times than anyone could stand, and joked that he was just keeping an eye on his most valuable asset.
His hand had been warm on Jensen's shoulder, his voice a low rumble as he'd leaned in to talk to Jensen. He'd offered to take Jensen out to dinner after, ostensibly as a client, but intention clear in his eyes. Insanely hot had been Jared's conclusion, and Jared was not wrong.
It was a good offer, letting his agent fill him with fancy cuisine and fine wine until he was loose enough to fuck the sadness out of his bones. Jensen doesn't even think of taking him up on it. Instead he's here in a luxury hotel, the envy of the literary world. In bed by 9 P.M. Alone, alone, alone.
Sabbatical turns into a permanent arrangement. The success of his book comes at just the right time in a weird way. With Jensen too depressed to be a decent professor, he can now afford a full-time writing career without needing the teaching gig to help pay the bills. He sells the house in Iowa, too many memories of Jared there, and moves back to Dallas, where he at least has a support network in his mother and Danneel.
The problem with support networks is, of course, that they tend to delve into your problems whether you want them there or not.
They're cleaning up Sunday dinner, a tradition he and Danneel have kept up since Jensen moved back to town without a single missed week. Jensen is attempting to be a good friend, helping by washing the dishes she collects from the dining room, but every time he turns the water on, Danneel stomps back in with her arms loaded and 'one more thing' to say about Jensen's love life.
"I know you loved Jared. We all loved Jared," she's saying now as she sets down the last of the leftovers and begins taking out foil and Tupperware. "But come on. It's been three years. It's time to move on."
"We can't all be you, Danneel. Most people's ex-boyfriends don't have their girlfriends call for gift advice."
"Aldis didn't tell Beth to call me. She called because he is my friend and she and I get along and she knew I would have a good sense of his style." Danneel crosses her arms over her chest. "He and I had a really great thing. For a summer. And then we moved on with our lives. Because it was a summer fling and that's how healthy people do relationships."
"Well, I'm not moving on," Jensen tells her, for the millionth or billionth time. "I'm taken."
She brandishes a roll of aluminum foil in his face, says, "You know, he isn't coming back, right?"
He looks up at her, unable to disguise how much her words hurt him. "Please, Dani. Why don't you give me a break?"
"I gave you a break!" she insists, dragging an impeccably polished lime green nail through the leftover pool of sauce on the nearest plate and sucking it into her mouth. "Remember all those weekends I came over and we ate ice cream and watched sad movies together? And then the months and months of letting it slide when you canceled plans? How much more space can I give you? Because somewhere around year three it starts to get really hard to watch someone you love throw away their life without at least saying something every now and again."
"I'm not throwing away my life," Jensen argues. "I won a freaking Pulitzer Prize last year."
"Yeah," she says, dragging it out for a small eternity. Obviously the shine has worn off on that one, because she does not look impressed. "What was your book about again?"
"The cultural imaginary," Jensen replies. "The ineffability of love. Modern California as the haunting embodiment of the dashed hopes of American western expansion."
"Okay, professor." Danneel rolls her eyes. "It was about a man who falls in love with a guy who turns into a seal."
"Ah, right," Jensen says, as if he'd forgotten the premise of his own book. "That too."
"Now what on earth might have inspired you to link a tragic love story with a selkie myth? Gosh, not the summer you got stalked by a seal, which also happened to be the summer you met Jared. That couldn't have had anything to do with it."
Jensen continues to pretend this is all rolling off of him as he stacks plates a little too forcefully, causing them to clatter against each other. "You know, you might want to give my novel a go without spending all your intellectual effort psychoanalyzing the author. It’s actually quite an enjoyable read."
"Stop being a smartass," she says.
"It made the New York Times Best Seller list. Three times!" He smirks, watching Danneel narrow her eyes at him, but pretending, nonetheless that they don't both know she was the one to call him screaming with excitement to tell him before his agent even had the chance. "And the blurb on the back says it will, without a doubt, be one of the defining works of literature in the twenty-first century."
"Fine," Danneel says. "Make your jokes. I'm just worried about you. I mean, shit, it's not like the guy died—he fucking left you, Jensen."
"It wasn't like that," Jensen replies quietly. "You don't understand."
"Well, maybe that's because you never let me understand," she says, leaning forward to rest on the island. "You've still never told me what happened."
"And I don't plan to," he says, turning away to gather more dirty plates and start carrying them to the sink to be washed. "It's my business, not yours. So why don't you just let it go?"
"Because you're my best friend," Danneel tells him, a slight frown tugging at her mouth. "Because I want you to be happy, and instead I've watched you waste three years pining for a guy you dated for less than one. I guarantee he's not thinking about you. It's not fair that you won't let yourself care about anyone else."
Jensen concerns himself with a nasty spot of grime on a pan, scrubbing at it until he's worn through the coating, because it's easier than bearing the weight of knowing better than she does just how much Jared has moved on. Of all the things Jensen tries not to think about, this is the one he cannot confront. Any reminder that somewhere out there, Jared doesn't even miss him. Doesn't even remember.
"No one is ever going to be Jared," Jensen says, slamming the pan down in the sink. "Don't you get that? I'm always going to be lonely. You can't fill a hole like this with just anyone."
"God, you could fucking try," says Danneel.
"You think I haven't tried?" Jensen practically hisses. "You think I haven't spent every day of the last three years wishing I could stop thinking about him for one second?"
"Prove it. Let me introduce you to someone," she says. "Next Sunday. Just one time, and if it doesn't work out, I'll never bring it up again."
Jensen is about to refuse, but Danneel gives him a pretty pout and he sighs. "One blind date," he agrees. "And then never again."
She grins. "That's all I need, because I met the perfect guy for you and you're going to owe me for life."
If there was an official checklist on how to be Jensen's type, the guy Danneel shows up with the following week hits every box.
Great smile? Check.
Floppy hair? Check.
His name is Daveed Diggs, and he's a community organizer, running a theatre program for at-risk youth. A real do-gooder type, but not the kind with a saint complex.
Danneel excuses herself before dinner has even really started. She only hangs out long enough to have a couple of glasses of wine, make sure Jensen was going to give her champion a fair shot and establish a bit of a rapport before making up an excuse to leave so flimsy it's hardly worth the time it takes her to say it.
Jensen is a gentleman, so he takes it in good stride. He and Daveed talk over a plate of lemon-crusted salmon and mashed potatoes, and for dessert, there's individual chocolate lava bundt cakes that Daveed brought from some bakery a friend of his owns.
As the night wears on, it becomes evident that Danneel didn't just bring him eye candy. Daveed is smart and funny, too, and Jensen will grudgingly admit that the night is entirely pleasant. Under any other circumstances, he knows he would be on fire for this guy. But at the end of the night, when it's just him and Daveed, he can't stay in the moment.
The conversation winds down, comes to the moment at the end of a date that can go one of two ways: to the bedroom or to a friendly handshake goodbye.
Jensen just can't convince himself he's ready for the former. "Look, I—"
"Yeah," Daveed says, kind of laughing. "I've had a good time, but I can tell when someone isn't all there. Don't worry about it."
Jensen lets out a sigh of relief. "There's someone else," he admits. "I'm kind of getting over a break up."
Daveed nods. "I could tell. But hey, he's a lucky guy. And if you decide to change your mind, give me a call. I'd be happy to try this again."
An hour later, Jensen gets four text messages from Danneel in the span of two minutes, all demanding to know how things went. He silences his phone and turns the lights out.
Danneel's attempt to play cupid has the opposite of the intended effect. Rather than accepting his loss and moving on, Jensen comes out of it more sure that Jared was it for him than ever.
He takes the money he'd made selling his house, adds a few hundred thousand from his book revenue, and makes Briana an offer she can't refuse. She sells him the vacation home without putting up even token protest, "always had a fondness for you" and a hammy wink as she takes the offer Jensen makes knowing damn well he's way over market value.
It's not the house he's buying. It's proximity to memories. As suffocating as it is to live in a place that will always, in his heart, belong to Jared, it's a drug that Jensen has given up trying to kick. A part of him still hopes for a glimpse of his boy, even just the seal version, so he keeps his eyes out every time he leaves the house. Just in case.
A seal is waiting for him on the shore when he gets back from his run on the fourth day after he moves in. From a distance, he sees the brown dot on the beach and his heart picks up from more than just the cardio. He pushes himself to run as fast as he can, thinking it could be Jared.
The seal is decidedly not Jared. For starters, it's a girl, easy to tell from the size of her, and Jensen laughs, equal parts tormented and delighted that he can still hear Jared's voice so clearly in his head.
He starts calling her Ruby when she shows up a few times a week, until finally he connects the dots. He stops by the seal as he jogs to the waterline instead of just calling out a good morning greeting and waving.
She looks up at him, and Jensen knows from the intelligence in her eyes that she's no seal.
"You're a selkie," he says. She nods her little brown head. "I know who you are."
By the time he's returning from his run, the seal has been replaced by a woman. She's wearing a slick black bikini, not all that different from the shorts Jared had had on the first time Jensen saw him.
Jensen takes her in, small with big brown eyes, long brown hair, and a plump mouth worth losing sleep over. He feels no drive to put his hands on her the way he had with Jared, clear to both of them that his song is not for her and she's not here for his song, but that she's beautiful is beyond dispute.
She nods. Doesn't say anything; Jensen knew to expect that.
"Are you here because he's…?" Jensen looks out at the water, eyes skimming for what he knows he won't find. "Did Jared send you?"
She shakes her head.
Jensen can't help asking, "Does he miss me at all?"
Again, Genevieve shakes her head, but she looks deeply sad about it.
He clears his throat and forces himself to ask, "Is he happy?" even though he's afraid of the answer either way. He wants Jared to be happy. He can't stomach the thought of Jared happy without him.
Genevieve's already sad expression somehow drops even lower, her eyes getting round as she shakes her head.
"You never wanted him to speak to me," he says.
She doesn't deny it. Genevieve holds his gaze, not quite challenging, but not backing down.
He thinks of what it must have been like for the other selkies in Jared's harem, watching him disregard hallowed rules, losing him for so many months, only to get back a shadow of the man Jensen had taken from them. "You must hate me."
Genevieve shrugs, making a face like she's thinking about it before she responds. She doesn't speak out loud, but she's no idiot, and Jensen watches as she shapes her hands deliberately. She repeats two gestures over and over until he has them memorized, first mimicking holding something in her hand and dropping it, then pointing twice at the ground before pointing at Jensen.
Jensen doesn't know sign language, but he's not surprised it's one of the languages Genevieve has in her repertoire. He spends the rest of the day researching American Sign Language until he’s able to translate both of the messages.
Just because he's let his life fall apart doesn't mean he's not going to keep a good home. In order to distract himself from the constant stream of Jared in his brain, Jensen decides to clean out the attic, sort which of the things Briana left behind are worth holding onto and what needs to go.
More than anything else, there's boxes of odds and ends abandoned by the tourists who passed through the house over the many years she rented it out. Jensen finds mostly crap, forgotten phone chargers, an iPod Shuffle, four packs of playing cards with increasingly inappropriate images on the back.
And then, at the bottom of one of these boxes, he sees something familiar. Something he himself had left behind, completely forgotten, but the sight of it forces him to smile.
The wind chime is in surprisingly good condition, none of the glass cracked from all its years being tossed around this box of junk. He holds it up to the light, and it begins to sway, playing its music, despite the fact that he's inside with no fan, no open window letting in a draft.
That's when he remembers the old woman he met his first day in this little beach town. Her too-knowing gaze and the way she spoke to him, as if she knew Jared was going to hear his song. As if she heard it, too.
The long slits along her arms, which Jensen had taken for open wounds. Jared had the same marks, but Jensen learned long ago that they weren't the scars that they appear to be. That's where two skins meet and fuse human into animal.
He nearly drops the chime as it hits him—she was a selkie.
His heart does not consult his mind. Jensen is down the stairs and into the street before he realizes he's wearing socks without shoes and he doesn't even remember exactly where the shop was. They never went back there again after that first day, chased away by the strangeness of the encounter and the wind chime trauma Danneel claimed to be suffering from every time she'd been trying to win an argument with Jensen that summer.
If he was thinking clearly, he would at least have grabbed his phone on the way out so he could try googling for information, but instead, all he has on him is the fucking wind chime, which is still dangling from his fingers and singing in its airy little voice.
Jensen doesn't go back for shoes or anything. He follows his instinct, goes in the direction the wind is blowing him, causing the chime to dance in his hands.
The little shop is less than a ten minute walk from his house, and when he sees it, his first thought is that time must have stood still on this one sunny block, because nothing has changed, not the sign hanging over the door, nor the chimes in the window, and to his relief, neither has the shop owner sitting stopped in her little metal chair by the door, untangling a fishing net that may very well be the same one that was draped over her lap four years ago.
"You," he says, almost accusing, as soon as he's standing in front of her.
"Me," the old woman agrees, looking up at Jensen, her eyes squinting to see him through the sunlight. "Ah, it's you, is it?"
"I know what you are," he says.
She snorts and turns her attention back to her work. "That's nice, dear."
"Please," he says. "I need your help."
The woman shakes her head, still focusing on the net instead of on Jensen. "Oh, I bet you do. But then I did warn you that there would be trouble, didn't I?" She huffs a laugh and lifts her head only partially, as if to keep an eye on Jensen and still work on untangling the mess of ropes in her lap at the same time. "So what's her name?" she asks. "The poor selkie that heard your song?"
"There's no her," Jensen says.
"I don't know how I'm supposed to help you if you won't—"
"His name is Jared."
At that, the woman's gaze shifts up to Jensen's face much faster than someone her age should be able to move. She sets her net aside and seizes Jensen's hand instead. "Did you say Jared?"
"Yes." Jensen licks his lips. "Do you—do you know him?"
"Do I know Jared?" She smiles, but the smile isn't a happy one. "I did, once. A long time ago."
"When he was a child?" Jensen asks.
She laughs. "When we both were. He was my brother."
Jensen balks. "Brother?"
The old woman lifts an eyebrow. "Does that surprise you?"
"Well, uh, you're a little…" Jensen casts around for something to say that isn't offensive and she looks like she's having the best time of her life.
"Younger than him," she finally tells him, just to put him out of his misery. "I'm his little sister Meg."
"But then, you've been out of your skin for…" Jensen shakes his head. "It's not possible."
"Some people would say selkies are impossible," she replies. "I've always thought impossible tends to be a debatable concept."
When Jensen doesn't say anything to that, she rises to her feet and gestures for Jensen to follow her somewhere less public. "How is my big brother?"
"I…I don't know," he admits. "I haven't seen him in years."
"Hmm," she responds. "Yes, well. I knew from the moment you walked in here. You wouldn't be an easy fix like most boys, no no. Your song was much deeper than that. Much sadder, for you and your selkie."
"You could hear it?"
"Not the way I might have when I was young." She sighs longingly. "I haven't heard a person's song in so decades. But I still tend to be able to tell, especially around here. People gravitate towards chimes that make songs similar to their own. The one you picked was almost beyond help. I wish it hadn't been for poor Jared to answer."
"He loved my song," Jensen whispers.
She nods. "Oh, I loved every song I made a chime for. Wouldn't have wasted my time on it otherwise. Doesn't mean they were all easy to listen to."
"You make chimes to record people's songs," Jensen says, his heart giving a leap at the family resemblance, at the fondness he feels remembering Jared giving every moment that he wasn't focusing on Jensen to the same task. "Jared composed music."
Meg smiles at that, and it makes her look young, gives Jensen a glimpse into how radiant she must have been as a selkie. "Did he? Yes, that sounds like him."
"I don't understand," Jensen says. "Why are you talking about him like you haven't seen him? If you've been here this whole time—Jared never mentioned a sister."
By now, Jensen has followed Meg through the back room of the shop and up a small staircase. The landing isn't quite a second story, but it's a small attic loft tucked above the shop, and it's covered floor to ceiling with knickknacks like the ones sold in the store downstairs.
"I suppose he wouldn't have," she says, sounding a little put out. "It a very hard thing for our harems, losing one of our own. It doesn't happen often. I broke rules and I left and I can't imagine that was any easier on them than it was on me."
"But you're right here." Jensen watches as Meg takes a seat on a low couch and follows suit once she's settled. "You've been right here the whole time. Why didn't you at least go down to see them?"
"No selkie would ask such a question," she says. "I can't expect you to understand. Not being able to speak to your own kin. The torture it is to step into the sea and not be a part of it. Feeling separate from all the life in the water, like one little human intruding on a whole other world."
Jensen nods, repeating the words he heard Jared speak so many times. "It's just not the same."
"No, it isn't," Meg agrees. She sighs. "I made a choice. I won't play victim. I severed myself from my second skin. But I couldn't bring myself to return to the water, or to visit the family I left behind."
He's quiet, watching her as she absently begins to skim her thumbs up and down the slices on her arms, the way a person might try to rub themselves to stay warm.
"My poor idiot brother," she says fondly after a long silence. "Obviously didn't learn from my mistakes. Went and spoke to his human." She tsks and shakes her head. "Jensen, I haven't seen Jared since…since I was a pretty, young little thing."
This time, Jensen knows better than to wonder how she knows his name. It irks him a bit, thinking of how much Jared learned from his song. Somehow, it didn't feel like a violation when Jared could read him, but this is different. Even if she didn't hear his song, she was obviously able to glean plenty about him from whatever selkie insight she still has.
Perhaps she senses his discomfort. As if in an effort to share as much as she's taken, she holds her arms out to show Jensen the marks.
"How?" he asks, taking her wrist in his palm and trying so hard not to think of the way Jared would smile when Jensen kissed him there. "How can you possibly have lived this long outside of the water?"
Meg frowns and snatches her arms back. "Why should I help you? How do I know you aren't just trying to trap him?"
"Please," Jensen begs. "Look at me. Do I look like I'm lying?" She does, and Jensen keeps his eyes locked on hers. "If you can see or hear anything about me, you must know how much I love him. I can't imagine my tired song says anything else. I'd give my life just to see him again. Just to see him, in either form. Just to have him remember me."
She looks disappointed, either in Jensen or in the whole situation. "You took him from the ocean, didn't you?"
"I didn't know," Jensen confesses. "He gave me his skin, I didn't steal it. I didn't know how much it would hurt him. I didn't want to know. I just needed him so much. He gave it to me and I didn't question it."
"Foolish boy, my brother." She bites her cheek and tilts her head, like she's still reading Jensen, testing his answers to make sure they hold up. "How many days?"
"Days?" Jensen repeats. "He lived with me outside his skin for eight months."
"Eight months?" Meg draws back from Jensen as if he just attacked her. "No selkie could live away from the sea that long. The longest I've ever heard of any surviving is six months and she—it didn't end well for her. How could Jared have survived that?"
"I don't know. I don't know how any of this works. He said—he told me he thought he loved me enough to never have to go back, but he was so lost. I had to return him. I couldn't bear to watch him fade away." Jensen wipes at his cheek and hopes Meg didn't see the tear. "I can't bear this either. It's been years. You thought I was lonely before I knew him, but it was nothing compared to what it feels like to have lost him."
She looks him square in the eye. "You came to ask me for something. So ask."
"Tell me how you're alive. Tell me how you're sane." He takes her hand and squeezes it. "I promise not to trap him. I would never do anything to hurt him, but he said he wanted to be with me. I just need to know how a selkie can live like this."
"I haven't been a selkie in nearly a hundred years, Jensen." When that makes Jensen's face contort, she continues, "You see how much older I am. I'm a human now."
"But how?" he asks. "How can you just decide to be human?"
She smiles, tossing her hair over her shoulder like a much younger woman would to flirt. "I heard a song once, a song just like yours. I met a man, back when this town was just a few little cottages pioneers built. I loved him desperately. I spoke to him, just to know what his voice sounded like. Our harem was furious. Your Jared—oh, if I could get my hands on him now. He was so upset with me for speaking to a human. Now he's gone and done the same damn thing."
Jensen laughs. "If it helps, he seemed pretty annoyed with himself about it. At least at first."
She seems lighter when she answers, "My husband was a clever one. And the women around here used to know all kinds of things, things we selkies don't even know. His mother taught him how to catch one of us. Not steal our skin. How to truly catch a selkie. He made a special net and he captured me in it and," she spreads her palms out, showing Jensen the matching seven pointed star tattoos he had only vaguely taken note of the first time he met her, "This changed me. It took away my second self. Made me fully human, so I could be with him, but never be with the ocean again. What he did to me—it's a terrible thing, Jensen. I gave him permission. I wanted him to. But it's not an easy thing to ask of someone."
"I don't want Jared to change," Jensen says. "I love that he's a selkie. I know how happy the ocean makes him. I could only dream of making him that happy."
"It would have to be his choice," she says, expression stern. "That's all I ask from you. You can't do this to him unless he agrees to it."
Jensen's heart drops. "I can't get him to agree. I fucked it up. I took him from the ocean while he was still a selkie and when he returned—"
"He's wild now," she guesses.
Jensen nods. "He said he would be an animal. That he wouldn't change again—not for anybody. He'd never hear another song. And now I can't ever have him back."
"Eh," she says, shrugging.
Jensen lifts his eyes, angry. "Eh?" he demands. "That's your response?"
She purses her lips, letting Jensen suffer for a few more long seconds before she teases, "I know something you don't know."
"Tell me," he says. "I'll buy every wind chime in your store."
She lets her head fall back on a laugh and then she gives Jensen a frisky look. "How true have you been to my brother since he returned to the sea?"
Jensen blanches, not really wanting to discuss his sex life, or absolute lack thereof, with anyone, let alone with a nice old lady, let alone with a nice old lady who also happens to be Jared's little sister.
"It's important," she assures him. "I'm not just trying to pry."
"I haven't," he says, feeling his entire body, up to his ears, burning bright red. "I haven't been with anyone since."
"Not even a kiss?" she asks.
"Almost. I tried." He shakes his head. "It felt like cheating. Worse than that, it felt like…I don't want anyone else. I can't make myself want anyone else. If I could, maybe I wouldn't be so damn lonely. But Jared was all I ever wanted."
"Good," she says. "That means there's still hope, then."
"What?" Jensen asks. "You're not making any sense."
"Jared is wild now, it's true. There are songs out there he might have heard, had he not lived outside the water so long, people he might have gone to. But the creature he is is too far removed to hear weak songs like that. There's only one song strong enough to call him."
"Mine?" Jensen guesses. He looks down at his lap. "But I had him already. I blew it. He got back into his skin after we'd already been together. He'll never hear my song again."
Meg grins, her teeth smoothing over her bottom lip as she shakes her head. "No one has ever survived as long out of water as Jared did, and not many humans stay completely true once their selkies have left them. So it doesn't happen often. But if you truly haven't been with anyone, your song is still his. It's not easy, but it's possible."
“I could really make him hear my song again?”
She nods. "You'll have to time it right. You'll have to be in great distress for your song to be strong enough to reach him. And you'll need one of these."
Jensen watches her turn in her seat, reaching back enough to grab something. It's another net, but this one looks much older than the ones she'd been untangling downstairs.
"My dear husband made this himself," she says. "After we met. He worked on it for months and months while I waited for him, wondering at first why he didn't come to see me anymore, thinking he'd grown tired of me. I couldn't hear anyone else's song, he was the only one I cared about, but I thought he'd found someone else, someone he could really be with."
She smiles wistfully as she wraps the ropes around her hands and then lets them fall from her fingers. "Then one night he showed up with this rope he'd put his blood and sweat and tears into. The net was much larger than this then. Most of it," she spreads her palms, "is part of me now. He asked if I would be his, forever, even if it meant becoming human. I didn't hesitate."
Jensen looks around, sees no evidence of a second person living in this space with her. He softens his tone before asking, "When did he pass?"
Meg's smile slips and she turns her face from Jensen's.
"I'm sorry," he says. "If it was recent, if you're not ready to—"
"Three weeks after I gave up the sea," she says. "We'd been married for twelve days. There was a terrible storm—I used to think sometimes that the sea was angry with me for leaving. That it took him to punish me." She shrugs. "Now I think it was just bad luck."
Jensen tries to imagine that, the loss and how bitter it must have felt, giving up so much for a love that lasted so briefly. "Do you regret it?"
"I wouldn't have told you how to catch my brother if I did," she responds.
"But why?" Jensen asks. "If it bought you so little time?"
"It was a risk I took. Any risk is worth it, right? For that kind of love." She pats Jensen on the hand. "We had three perfect weeks, my sailor and I. That's a lifetime more than most people get."
Jensen nods, can't help agreeing, but his stomach tangles into knots at the thought of asking Jared to make a sacrifice like that, to risk everything for him when he could die the next day.
Accepting that Jared is lost to him, that's even more impossible. He has to at least try, offer Jared the choice and let it be his decision. Jensen's made his.
"Teach me what I need to do," he asks Meg.
Jared's sister smiles with the same dimples Jensen fell in love with, and a century of lines seem to disappear from her face.
For the first time since finishing his book, Jensen's life has a purpose.
He wakes every morning and runs, takes his materials out to the beach, where he sits and talks to Ruby as he creates loops and tightens them, a wide net slowly growing out. Sometimes visits Meg all day, laughing at the stories she tells about Jared in his youth, sharing his own memories of the man he became after she left. She looks on approving when he's on the right track, slaps at his hands and repositions his fingers if he's getting sloppy.
It's not fun and it's not easy, but it is steady, centering to finally have a goal, and at the end of it, the possibility of true completeness again. Jensen remembers for the first time since Jared left what it is to feel happiness and hope.
He works and he waits and he watches the clouds. He knows what he needs to make Jared hear him.
Jensen buys a boat just to wreck it.
It seems like a shame, in all honesty, taking a perfectly good vessel out to sea in these conditions, but a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do.
Jensen's radio is screeching a storm alert, directing all ships to immediately return to port. Instead of complying, Jensen, who doesn't know a damn thing about sailing, is proving himself very capable at sinking.
It takes less than an hour for the winds to overturn him. Jensen hits the waves as they shatter the Impala into more pieces than a boat should be in, ideally. He watches this all with a sort of weird detachment. It was the plan, after all, but the plan has a better chance of getting him killed than anything.
Well, he thinks as a wave shoves him under, too late to change my mind now.
The water is bitterly cold and the current is unforgiving. It occurs to Jensen only after he's been pulled under that he never was an especially strong swimmer. Having a net in his hands doesn't really help his chances.
Good. If he isn't on the brink of dying, none of this is going to work.
Instead of focusing on holding his breath, figuring out which way is up and swimming in that direction as much as possible, Jensen surrenders to a memory:
Jared standing tall, almost naked, a storm even more violent than this one raining down on him. And Jensen running out, trying to help him. The heavy spell that he was under, the need to touch. Jared's voice and the way it broke him. The first time he met his selkie face to face, human skin on human skin.
It's a good way to go.
The shifting of the tide jostles him so much that Jensen doesn't realize there are arms wrapped around him, pushing him to the surface, until he hits the crest of a wave and his lungs fill instinctively, desperate for oxygen. It's only then that he realizes he was drowning. It's only then that he realizes he's been saved.
It's his heart that tells him what saved him.
"Jared?" he asks.
The strong body holding him pushes forward, and there's no response until Jensen feels sand scraping his knees and suddenly he's crawling onto the shore, still gasping for breath.
"You idiot," he hears as a body slams into him, pulling him farther up onto the bank. Jensen feels overwhelming joy, despite the anger in Jared's voice. "Were you trying to drown?"
Now on his back, Jensen is finally able to get a glimpse of Jared looming over him, checking him for injuries. He gives Jared a cocky grin and tries to sound self-assured, but his voice is hoarse from all the saltwater he swallowed, and he ends up coughing for several seconds before he manages, "Trying to get rescued, actually."
"I could kill you," Jared yells, directly into Jensen's face. "I could fucking kill you."
"You could," Jensen admits. "But then you just wasted so much effort saving me."
Jared puts one hand on each of Jensen's shoulders and shakes him hard. "What were you thinking? What the hell were you—?" He breaks from his anger briefly to pull Jensen into a tight hug, and his voice is so much softer, worried, as he begins to stroke his hand through Jensen's wet hair. "What were you thinking? You could have died. You almost died. I almost didn't hear it in time."
"You heard it," Jensen says, turning his face to press his lips against Jared's neck. He tastes like everything else around them—salt—and Jensen decides it's his favorite flavor. "I had to be at risk for it to work. And it did. You heard me, Jared. You remembered me."
"Yeah, baby," he says, pulling away from Jensen enough to get a look at his face. "I remember you. Fuck, Jensen. I remember you."
Jensen can't tell if Jared is crying or if his face is just covered in rain. Come to think of it, Jensen isn't really sure if he's crying or not, all he can focus on is Jared. Jared saved him. Jared is here and Jared remembers.
"Do you still love me?" Jensen asks.
Jared laughs, exasperated, and lets his head drop. Jensen realizes then the absurdity of their situation as he listens to Jared hysterically cracking up in his ear.
His selkie is lying over him, still submerged in his seal skin. His entire bottom half appears to belong to a seal. Jared didn't have time to fully remove it before grabbing for Jensen and pulling him to shore.
The weather alone should be enough to shelve a conversation like the one Jensen just began, and Jared’s response is the rational one, "Are you kidding me right now?"
"I know," Jensen says, rolling his eyes a little. "But I swear it's important. Do you love me?"
"Of course," Jared replies. "Even when you're a moron."
"Do you still want to be with me?"
Jared's expression loses its mirth. "You know I would give anything. You know how hard I tried."
"I have a way," Jensen tells him. "But. It's…Jared, it's not perfect. You would have to give up a huge part of who you are. You would have to become human."
"I tried," Jared says, loosening his hold on Jensen. "Why don't you remember?"
Jensen lifts his hand, pulling up the net that tangled around him not long ago, made it impossible to swim against the storm he'd been thrown into. But he held onto it. He didn't lose the damn net.
"I could die tomorrow," Jensen says. "If I do what I came here to do, I could die tomorrow and it won't change a thing. You'll be stuck. Human. You'll age like one of us, without me. And you won't ever be able to shift again."
"I don't care," Jared says. "I tried to die to be with you. You wouldn't let me."
"You could live. One fleeting human life with me. However long that gets us. But you have to promise me it's what you want."
Jared scoops Jensen into his arms and pulls him hard against his chest. When he kisses Jensen, Jensen remembers what it feels like to be alive.
"I was nothing," Jared whispers when he breaks away. The rain and the wind rage on around them, but in Jared's arms, the elements have stilled, as if Jared is the eye of this storm. "All these years, I was just an animal. I couldn't remember you. I couldn’t even miss you. But everything that made me me was missing. I need you so much more than a seal skin. So much more than a thousand years alone."
That's good enough for Jensen.
He lifts his arms and wraps the net around Jared. The ropes begin to glow a soft blue, tightening until they're pressing against Jared’s skin, and then disappearing in it. Jared gives a quick cry of pain and holds his palms out as all of the energy focuses there, burning into an almost blinding blue light and sinking down.
As he changes, the clouds above them stop pouring down rain, the sea's waves relax until they're no longer beating against the shore. Jared's palms glow only a few seconds longer than the rest of him, until the light burns out.
Jensen is left holding each of Jared's hands in his own, and all that remains of Jared’s past are two long cuts down his arms, mirror images of a seven pointed star burnt into each of his palms, and the empty skin of a seal Jensen once loved curled on the sand by Jared's feet.
Jared looks down at Jensen with a mystified expression after he finishes inspecting his new tattoos, and his slanted eyes hold Jensen's gaze. He doesn't look any different, but Jensen can tell somehow. Jared is human now. Jared is his.
Jensen says, "Caught 'ya."