So Jensen became the lounge singer special at Rome, only with less singing and more sore fingers because even his well-built calluses couldn't keep up with the non-stop playing he was doing.
To begin with, he'd played a lot of his own work - it was useful practice time, at least - but the lack of lyrics made everything feel unfinished and frustrating. He started throwing in other songs he knew, stuff from the songbooks his relatives still sent him for Christmas, things he'd memorized in long-ago music lessons, popular songs he'd added to his repertoire to alternately delight and irritate his friends.
But there was only so many times he could run through Fur Elise and Texas Flood before he was about ready to strangle himself with his guitar strings. He started trying his hand at half-remembered tunes off the radio at work, the background music from the last film he'd seen, anything and everything his mind and fingers came up with.
After a while, it started getting hard to keep track of how long he'd been playing.
The weather never shifted, Jensen never got hungry or tired or needed to piss, and there was no rhyme or reason that he could find to explain the comings and goings of the bar's patrons. His audience was eternally appreciative - at least, Jensen presumed so, what with all the staring - but the sheer uniformity of that scrutiny rendered it meaningless and easy to ignore. About the only time Jensen even noticed the shades was when they paid him for his efforts.
Even if he wasn't sure that 'paying' was quite the right word for it.
Everything in the Underworld ran on tickets, just like the one that Jensen had used to get the train. Jensen's music collected them for him. Shades handed over bright strips of paper in return for Garth Brooks, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Springsteen. Tickets piled up at his feet like confetti, unused and unwanted.
There were tickets for the food Jensen couldn't eat, tickets for a movie theatre that Chris swore was close by but Jensen had never bothered to go find, tickets for apartments, tents and houses that Jensen didn't need since he didn't sleep.
Jensen couldn't have cared less. Not when none of them actually did anything useful.
"You can't expect the one you need to fall right into your lap," Chris said, into a rare moment of silence while Jensen rotated the stiffness out of his wrists. He fixed Jensen with a look that Jensen couldn't be bothered to try and read. "You think you'd even recognize it if it did?"
'Of course,' Jensen mouthed, but it was a vague thought at best. He gave his fingers a quick flex and brought them back to the strings. The opening strains of Free Bird flowed out of his guitar and he relaxed, drifting away on the sound.
Whatever he was looking for, it could wait another day.
Though he really would have appreciated knowing why he felt so worried about it.
The realization, when it came, was sudden, unexpected and entirely not Jensen's doing.
"While I appreciate the irony," an unfamiliar voice said, and Jensen's hand jerked hard in the middle of his fourth or fiftieth rendition of Stairway to Heaven, nearly snapping his high E string. "I'm a little disappointed that that's the best you can come up with."
Jensen looked up.
The woman standing in front of him smiled. "Jensen," she said kindly. Her voice sounded like laughter dancing on the wind. Jensen couldn't see through her, so she wasn't a shade, but she didn't feel like him or Chris, either. "You've got to do better than this."
Better than what? Jensen wanted to demand, and the sheer frustration of being unable to made heat rise up his cheeks. He gritted his teeth against the sensation and turned his attention deliberately back to his guitar, picking up the tune from where he'd dropped it and doing his level best to ignore her.
She made no objection to the brush-off and Jensen let himself fall back into the music, pulling himself higher in time with the perfect croon of his guitar.
"You have still got a voice you know," the woman said offhandedly and the strings squealed in protest when Jensen's fingers clenched tight on the fretboard. "You're just not using it right."
Jensen eased his grip on the guitar and glared at this not-dead woman with the bright eyes and the hair that lit up like a halo around her face who talked like she knew anything about Jensen. 'Fuck off,' he mouthed, shaping the words with careful precision.
Despite the murderous intent that Jensen was sure was written all over his face, her expression remained calm and surprisingly gentle. "How do you expect to survive in the Underworld when you're not remembering the important things?" she asked, and cocked her head. "Why are you here, Jensen?"
For a long moment, Jensen stared at her, unsure how to answer. He was there to play music, of course, but he didn't think that that was what she was asking. He was there to collect tickets, even though none of them ever seemed to be the right one because none of them could take him to…
'Jared,' he said, only nothing came out. The inability to say that name struck a painful nerve somewhere deep inside him.
The woman smiled. "There you go." She leaned in closer, her face serious even though her eyes kept right on dancing. "So tell me, why are you wasting your voice on Led Zeppelin instead of telling everyone about the best things in your life?"
Jensen stared at her, shocked right out of the aimless fugue that he'd wrapped himself in.
Her smile turned affectionately cheeky and she winked at him. "Good luck, Jensen."
Jensen's attention snagged on the effortlessly graceful folds of her pale dress as she walked away and it wasn't until the door swung quietly shut behind her that he realized she was gone. He blinked at nothing for several long minutes, before looking down at his guitar like he'd never seen before.
Out of the corner of his eye, Jensen could see Chris leaning against the wall by the bar, watching him intently. Jensen sat for a moment longer, then gave himself a deliberate shake and set his fingers back to the strings.
And this time the music was about him.
Somewhere behind him, Chris smiled in approval.
The fog lifted from Jensen's mind at a slow but steady pace, leaving him horrified at how easily he'd fallen into it. Once he'd found himself again, he kept thoughts firmly fixed on who he was and who he was looking for, struggling to resist the forgetfulness threatening his memories.
The music helped. Jensen traded in the Top 40 and the best of the classical composers for threads and snippets of sounds that, half the time, couldn't even be called songs. He let his thoughts guide the music: he pulled out absent memories and channeled them through his guitar into all sorts of ungainly shapes that he'd never have tried giving voice to in the living world.
The shades didn't seem to mind the change. Jensen continued to receive tickets that weren't what he was looking for, but he took to using them as an impromptu guide to Asphodel. He started wandering around the city while he played, visiting the places he'd been given tickets to and giving the tickets away to shades who looked like they might appreciate them. And, as he went, he remembered.
A truly excessive amount of effort went into finding the movie theatre, where Jensen sat on the steps outside and played a ridiculous muddle of some of his favourite movie themes and the things feelings that came with them. Star Wars was mixed in with a childlike glee for the originals and the vast disappointment he and Jared had felt after lining up half the night to go to the opening of the massive disaster that was The Phantom Menace. The Lion King was Jared's twelfth birthday, Pirates of the Caribbean was fuck yeah, pirates and Mission Impossible was the simple, uncomplicated love of watching shit blow up. Jensen played until the crowd he'd gathered started blocking the doors to the theatre, then he stood and wandered off, still noodling away on the rendition of Luck Be a Lady he'd played in the school band when Jared had unwisely decided to try his hand at musical theatre to impress the senior playing Sky Masterson.
Jensen turned the housing tickets into the bone deep weariness of moving all his shit into his first real apartment, followed by a rippling arpeggio of laughter when Jared dropped a box full of cookbooks on his foot after mocking Jensen for being too sissy to carry it himself. Slow, languid trills in the lower registers sketched out lazy Sunday mornings and Jensen found himself smiling in time with the twang of laser gun fire as he duked it out with Jared in Halo.
Jensen spent ages trying to find music to fit with food - pizza while he and Jared ragged on each other's teams during the playoffs, loaded chili fries on a night out with the gang, burnt toast because Jared should never be allowed near any kitchen appliance ever - but he could never get farther than a wistful twirl of notes that reminded him how much he missed needing to eat before he gave up in disgust.
At one point during his wanderings, Jensen found a graceful marble fountain wedged in between two gothic churches, and sat himself down on the edge, letting the splash of the water fill his ears and a whole forest of mental snapshots fill his music.
He'd spent a lot of time busking over the years, sometimes intentionally when he'd booked a spot with the city and sometimes when he'd been lost in his music somewhere public and had looked up to find a haphazard collection of coins and bills thrown at his feet. Perched on the fountain with shades making a loose ring around him, caught up in the music, Jensen couldn't help but remember those sunny day memories as well.
With nothing to limit it, his music went ever further into the abstract. The memory of the way the summertime threaded strands of copper fire through Jared's hair melted into a smooth, legato ripple of sound that felt like a lazy day at the beach. Jensen watched a pair of shades wandering around like they didn't have much of an idea of where they were going and added a Mediterranean flavour to the music in honour of the week he and Jared had spent getting thoroughly lost in Spain to celebrate Jensen's graduation.
At one point he threw in a bit of the Flight of the Bumblebee to echo the sheer frustration he'd felt when Jared had inexplicably got his car covered in green paint at a Pride parade. Even that memory was precious - desire to commit homicide notwithstanding - and Jensen smiled, closing his eyes on a wry little sigh. At this rate, he was going to be writing odes to Jared's smile. The worst part was that Jensen didn't think he would mind, even if Jared never let him live it down.
Jared, Jared, Jared. It all came back to Jared and Jensen reveled in it, thinking back on happier times when that had been his reality, before Jared had started pretending that Jensen didn't exist.
His song shifted then, turning tentative and jerky as Jensen remembered the new distance between them. He turned anger into a sharp cacophony of broken scales, but they inevitably gave away to a plaintive croon that ached with confusion.
Jensen followed the decline of their relationship through his music, adding little tremolos and counter melodies for every strange look Jared had given him, every time Jared had stayed silent instead of saying what was on his mind. The song twisted with the uncertainty that Jensen should have noticed the slide happening, should have done something to stop it before it got so far.
But no more. Jensen's jaw tightened and he added a decisive bend with a smooth curl of his fingers. After this was over and they were both alive again, he'd sit Jared down and make him listen. Jensen was going to find out what the hell he'd done to deserve this distance and he was going to fix it. If Jared thought Jensen was going to give him up without a fight, he was an even bigger moron than Jensen had accused him of being when he went out with fucking Patrick Tyler in his freshman year.
He'd come to the frigging Underworld for the man, and he wasn't going to be faced with the same indifference when they got back. Jared was the best part of Jensen's life, always had been, and, God, sometimes Jensen couldn't even breathe for how much he lo-…
Jensen's hands stilled abruptly as the rest of his brain caught up to that thought. The tone went suddenly sour with shock before clattering off into silence.
Holy shit, he was in love with Jared.
A pair of slippered feet intruded into the section of floor that Jensen was staring blankly at. He looked up to find the woman from before, the one with the sunshine smile, standing in front of him and smiling.
"Finally," she said, with so much gentleness in her tone that Jensen wondered if he was actually made of spun sugar and no one had told him. "That was beautiful."
Yeah, he thought sourly. Nothing like an 'I'm in love with my dead best friend' song to brighten up the afterlife.
"Do you feel better now?" she asked.
Jensen forced himself to consider the question honestly and was surprised to find that the answer was 'yes, sort of'. That'd probably change when he returned to life and had to deal with the fallout of being in ass over teakettle in love with someone who'd been treating him like shit for months, but for right now, it felt unexpectedly good to admit it.
There was a strange lightness in his chest, as though a weight had been lifted from him that he hadn't known was there. When this was all over, Jensen was going to have to take some time to figure out just how long he'd been oblivious.
The woman cleared her throat lightly and Jensen jerked out of his musings to see her holding out a blue ticket. "Here. In return for the song."
Dumbly, Jensen took the ticket and read the neat white lettering on it.
End of the line. One way only.
He looked back up at her, sure his incredulous 'seriously?' was scrawled all over his face.
"You weren't in any state to deserve it before now," she said calmly. She winked. "And I don't think the best hits of Bad Company would have been very convincing."
Jensen wasn't really sure he'd be all that much more convincing with his own music, but he could see what she was getting at. 'Thank you,' he mouthed at her.
"You're very welcome. I have one more thing to give you." She leaned in close enough that her hair brushed against Jensen's collar and Jensen breathed in the scent of earth and rain.
"There," she said, stepping back, and Jensen looked down to see a yellow flower threaded through one of the buttonholes on his jacket. "For soothing the savage beast. The rest is up to you now."
What's your name? Jensen wanted to ask her, but of course he couldn't.
Something in his expression made her smile, at least. "Good luck, Jensen," she said. "I'm sure you'll be just fine."
"Fucking finally," Chris said, when Jensen burst into Rome a handful of moments later with the ticket in one hand and the neck of his guitar in the other. "I thought you were never going to get your act together."
Jensen glared at him, hoping that his scowl aptly conveyed his exasperation.
"Of course I knew," Chris said, in answer to Jensen's unspoken question. "God, remember? S'not my fault you took so long to get with the program."
Chris turned fully towards him, leaning his hip against the bar. The shift drew Jensen's attention to the flash of colour at the man's lapel and he realized that the red flower he usually wore had been replaced by a yellow one. A yellow one that looked just like the one Jensen was now sporting on his own jacket, in fact.
Chris followed his gaze. "What, you thought I got it from around here? The Underworld's a static place; nothing dies, nothing grows. We've got our lady for that."
'Who is she?' Jensen mouthed.
"Guess that means it's time for you to move on," Chris said instead of answering. "You're on your own from here on in."
Jensen wanted to protest, wanted to claim that he wasn't ready for this, but he knew that staying in Asphodel was more dangerous than the alternative. Even if he was about to go meet the king of the Underworld. So he nodded and held out his hand.
Chris smiled and grasped his hand firmly. " Good luck, Jensen. I'll see you on the other side."
It wasn't until Jensen was halfway across the central platform and heading for the stairs down to the next train that he remembered the not-insignificant issue of the hulking terror with the big knife blocking his way.
Shit, Jensen thought, freezing mid-step. I'm gonna get shanked. Again.
A shade crashed into him from behind and Jensen elbowed her absently in the gut before starting forward again. The fuck was he supposed to do now?
Jensen's first thought was that maybe the ticket in his pocket would be enough to convince the guy to let him pass, but he wasn't any less alive now than he had been the first time so he wasn't exactly holding his breath. His second thought involved overpowering the guy, which seemed all kinds of impossible considering he still had no idea how to fight and couldn't exactly defend himself with a guitar.
Somehow, he doubted that playing a lullaby would help much.
Far too soon for his comfort, Jensen rounded the corner and found things just how he'd left them: staircase leading down into the mountain and big scary guy just waiting for Jensen to come close enough to stab. Jensen edged carefully forward, feeling his heart hammering hard in his chest. He got right up to the edge of the guy's bubble, then stopped. White eyes watched him silently.
Jensen rubbed a hand across his face and tried to think. There had to be a way out of this. Chris and the lady wouldn't have just let him wander to his death after all this effort, would they?
For soothing the savage beast, the voice of the lady echoed in the back of his head.
Jensen blinked. He glanced down at the flower on his shirt, back up at the solid wall of muscle blocking his way and down at the flower again.
Fuck. I really hope this works, he thought to himself. Jensen closed his eyes and, before he could lose his nerve, took a long, deliberate step forward.
Jensen cracked one eye open. Mr. Guard Dog hadn't so much as twitched a muscle and, while his attention was still fixed on Jensen, he seemed in no hurry to do anything about getting him out of his bubble.
If it was possible to melt with relief, Jensen would have been a puddle on the fucking floor.
Despite the fairly clear evidence that Jensen wasn't about to get disemboweled today, traveling the rest of the distance to the staircase was still one of the most nerve-wracking things Jensen had ever done. He kept an eye on the guard the entire time, just in case he decided to take a swing, after all. Nothing continued to happen and Jensen couldn't help a shaky, relieved breath when he finally reached the stairs.
'Right,' he said not-quite aloud, because it didn't count as talking to himself when he couldn't actually talk. 'Let's do this'.
The staircase was lit with fluorescent lights and each wall had blue stripes painted along the top and bottom. Each step was wide enough for three people to walk abreast and edged with that same cautionary yellow. All in all, it reminded Jensen a lot of taking the subway in the real world, which was a nice change from all the eclectic crazy. After a couple of flights, however, the light started to flicker and dim and he swore to himself. He should have known it wouldn't be that easy.
The air grew progressively darker the further Jensen went, to the point that he had to put a hand up against the wall to make sure he kept his footing in the dark. Falling down the stairs and breaking his neck was still not high on his list of fun things to do while visiting the Underworld.
Between one step and the next, the stairs abruptly melted into a steady, sharp incline and the wall under his hand became rough, uneven stone instead of slick tile.
It was too dark to see much of the way back, but Jensen backed up a few experimental steps and was not as surprised as he maybe should have been when he failed to encounter the bottom of the staircase he'd just been walking down.
Honestly, Jensen was starting to think that half of the madness down here was someone showing off.
The sound of the train reached Jensen's ears long before he saw it, echoing hollowly in the dark. Jensen hurried eagerly towards the sound, more than ready to be on his way. Light started filtering into the tunnel, growing steadily brighter as Jensen advanced.
The tunnel opened onto a cave that was dominated by the waiting train and a platform that looked like it had been carved wholesale out of the bedrock. The rails went off at an oblique angle from where Jensen was standing, running in front of the train and vanishing into an arched tunnel. Chinese paper lanterns hung from the ceiling in bright, variegated colours.
Shades were already filing onto the train and Jensen hurriedly joined the back of the line, ticket fisted tightly in his hand. The ticket taker accepted it without a word of protest, but Jensen couldn't quite help the way he lingered by the door, discomfited despite himself by the heavy atmosphere on the train. The shades around him were so faint as to be practically invisible; Jensen nearly sat on the shade of a woman in a dress that might have been red or might just have been getting saturated by the colour of the seat cushion beneath.
Jensen decided to stand instead.
The doors slid shut and Jensen wobbled slightly as the train jerked to life. They passed under the heavy stone arch into the darkness beyond and Jensen braced himself for another endless tunnel winding through the mountain. He was immediately and pleasantly surprised when the blackness on the other side of the arch turned out to be not a tunnel at all, but some strange, shifting mass that seemed entirely at odds with the eternal daylight that Jensen had seen in the rest of the Underworld. The lights inside the train threw his reflection up against the window and Jensen leaned in close, pressing his face against the glass and cupping his hands around his eyes to try and get a better look.
It was a forest, tangled and overgrown and more like something from a Grimm fairy tale than anything he'd ever seen in real life. He craned his neck as far as he could and realized that part of the reason why it was so dark was because the trees stretched up like a canopy above them, their branches twining together and hiding the sky. It was impossible to tell if there was any daylight beyond the leaves.
The train slid to a stop and a good dozen shades got up; Jensen shifted hurriedly out of their way before he got swept off the train as they filed off en masse. Jensen pressed his face back to the window to watch them go but their blurry outlines were all but invisible against the darkness.
The doors snicked shut and the train pulled away from the platform to continue on its way. Jensen watched the trees for a while, but the cloaking darkness and the fact that trees didn't do much at the best of times soon left him staring blankly at his reflection in the glass instead. He briefly entertained the thought of playing something to fill the silence, but he was tense enough that he figured he'd be more likely to snap a string than anything.
So Jensen settled for standing there and being bored, though he was careful not to let his mind drift too far from the present. They made a few more stops and Jensen watched the train grow progressively emptier and the darkness outside grow progressively deeper. Unlike the first train, where shades only ever got on the train, on this one they all got off. Never on.
Jensen sincerely hoped that he was going to be an exception to that rule.
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