It could have been five minutes or five days later when Jensen blinked his eyes and looked around to discover that he was sitting in Steve's back room at Roads. Jared was laid out on the couch, bloody and broken. Steve was leaning against a desk a few feet away, watching Jensen.
"Steve?" Jensen croaked.
Steve smiled a somber sort of smile. "Back with us, are you?"
Jensen nodded. He sat for a long moment. "Jared's dead," he said, testing the words. They fell like lead into the air.
Steve nodded. "Yes, he is. I'm sorry."
Jensen thought about that. "It's my fault."
"No, it isn't."
"Of course it is!" Jensen glared at Steve, daring him to object. "I'm the one who chased him out of the bar. Hell, I'm the reason he was here in the first place. It is my fault."
Steve's expression stayed mild. "Were you driving that car?"
"It doesn't matter!" Jensen's chair clattered to the floor and he braced his feet wide, entire body bracing for an attack that wouldn't come. He balled his hands into fists, almost shaking with tension. "I'm still the one who's got to spend the rest of his life knowing that he got into a stupid fight with his best friend and got him, got him run over by a fucking… Christ."
Jensen bit his lip hard, bringing his hand up over his mouth. "My best friend's dead. How do I even… I'm gonna have to tell his parents," he realized, and the thought shocked him cold. He stared helplessly at Steve, feeling like the whole weight of how lost he felt was reflecting in his eyes. "How the hell do I do that? I can't. I can't do that to them. I've known them since I was eleven. How can I tell them that their son's, that Jared is…?" Jensen swallowed back a sob. "This shouldn't be real. Why isn't this a nightmare?"
He shuddered hard, fighting not to panic underneath the weight of too many sharp emotions. Once he'd wrestled his breathing back under control, he lifted his eyes back to Steve's and found him staring back with an expression that was considerably closer to thoughtful than sympathetic.
Jensen swiped self-consciously at his face. "Sorry," he said, gritty and raw. "You don't want to watch me fall apart. Just, ah, give me a minute? I'll… I'll figure something out. Did you call the police?"
Christ, he hadn't even thought to check the car's plate number. Jensen was sure he was going to regret that when there was room in his mind for anything other than 'Jared, Jared, Jared'.
He squeezed his eyes shut, clenching his hands until his fingers ached and his nails dug stinging crescents in his palms. "God, Steve, what the hell am I supposed t-"
"Would you fight for him?"
"…What? The hell kind of question is that?"
Steve's calm didn't waver. "An important one. If it could bring him back, would you fight for him?"
"Of course I w-"
"Don't take this lightly," Steve warned. "I'm being very serious and I want a real answer. Not lip service, not guilt, not the kind of person you wish you were. Would you risk your life to recover Jared's?"
"Yes," Jensen said and it was an answer as easy as breathing. "Always, yes."
Steve nodded. "Good. I can fix the body," he said offhandedly, and Jensen flinched at the thought of Jared being a 'body'. "But it won't do much good without the soul. You want him back, you've got to go to the afterlife to get it."
Jensen's jaw tightened. "That's not funny."
"No, it's not," Steve agreed.
"And just how am I supposed to do that? Jump off the fucking roof and make it a murder-suicide?"
Steve snorted. "Only if you want to make it a one-way trip. And it was hardly murder. I can show you how to get there," he continued, as casually as if he was talking about the weather. "But the rest will be up to you."
Something about the patient certainty on his face drew Jensen up short. "You're serious, aren't you," he said. "Jesus Christ, you're actually serious."
"Yes, I am. And, no, I'm not crazy, before you ask. I just have a certain amount of," an amused little smile played about Steve's lips, "proficiency in this area."
"In resurrection?" Jensen demanded and cringed at the way his voice squeaked.
Steve shrugged. "Something like that."
Jensen stared at him for a long moment. "Let me get this straight. You want me to go to Heaven and get Jared's soul back?"
"Don't be so binary," Steve said. "This isn't a Heaven versus Hell debate. You're going to the afterlife. The Underworld, specifically."
"Fine. So you want me to go to the 'Underworld' to get Jared's soul back?"
"I don't actually want you to do anything. I am, however, giving you the opportunity to go the Underworld to win Jared's soul back, if you want to."
"Right." Jensen was feeling a little light-headed. He sat down heavily. "Is this going to kill me?" he asked.
"I hope not."
"Great. That's reassuring, thanks." Jensen dimly heard the way his voice was rising, edging towards hysteria. "You sure you're not crazy? I mean, not that you'd tell me if you were, but this is totally crazy. How do I know this isn't some kind of, of suicide cult or som-"
"Jensen," Steve said, in a voice that had Jensen's mouth clicking shut immediately. "Yes or no?"
Jensen swallowed hard, shoving back the panic still trying to claw its way up his throat. He looked at Steve, who was looking as steady and serene as he always did. Then he looked at where Jared was lying, eyes closed, face ashen, body lax. That was Jensen's fault. If Jensen didn't do this, it would be his fault twice over. And Jared would never wake up.
Jensen didn't think he could live in a world where Jared never woke up.
He squared his shoulders. "Yes."
"Good. Here.” Steve thrust a thin slip of paper at Jensen. “You’ll need it for the train.”
“Train?” Jensen asked, taking the paper. It was a faded green ticket with black lettering, one of those cheap tokens that arcade games spat out. He couldn't make out any of the writing besides the Admit One emblazoned across the middle and some word underneath that started with the letter 'a'.
Jensen glanced up at Steve. “What am I supposed to do with this?”
“Give it to the ticket taker,” Steve said, as though that made all the sense in the world. He tilted his wrist to look at his watch. “You’d better get going. Jared's shade is way ahead of you. Don’t want to have to wait for the next train.”
“Go where?” Jensen demanded. "What train?"
Instead of answering, Steve walked over to a dilapidated old bookshelf in the corner of the room. Jensen trailed along after him, more than a little sick of this cryptic crap.
"Seriously, Steve, can you just tell me what's g-"
Steve crouched down and grabbed a thick brass ring set into the floor. The muscles in his arm flexed as he hauled upwards and Jensen felt his jaw drop when a whole section of the floor came up with it, dust flaking off the sides and pattering to the side as darkness yawned up in the space left behind. Jensen could see the sketchy outline of a set of stone stairs working its way down into the earth.
"What the hell?!"
“It’s just a trapdoor, Jensen,” Steve said, lazily amused. “The real fun hasn’t even started yet.”
“That wasn’t there a minute ago,” Jensen protested. The trapdoor was a good four feet square and made of darkly pitted wooden slats that stood out in sharp contrast to the dull linoleum flooring. There was no way Jensen could have missed it.
Steve shrugged. “Guess not. Not really your problem right now, though. Take the train to the end of the line.” He gestured at the silly strip of paper still in Jensen’s fist. “They won’t let you on without a ticket, so don’t lose it.”
Jensen’s head was spinning. "But what am I supposed to do when I get there? You can’t just walk into the Underworld and get people, can you?”
“No. You’re gonna have to convince the bossman to release Jared's shade.”
Jensen stared at him. “I’m going to go talk to the devil?!”
“Of course not," Steve said matter-of-factly. "There's only one ruler of the dead. None of this good versus evil stuff."
“So I’m meeting God?”
“You’re meeting a god. So be polite, okay? Keep a hold of that too,” Steve added, and Jensen was confused until Steve gestured at the guitar that Jensen still had slung across his back. It felt like a million years since his set. “It’ll probably come in handy.”
“Great,” Jensen muttered. “I’m going into the Underworld to get my best friend's soul back armed with the power of song. How could that possibly go wrong?”
That earned him a smile. “You might surprise yourself.”
“I'm glad one of us has faith in this plan. How long have I got before people notice I’m missing and come banging down your door and you get arrested for having a dea-… Jared on your couch?"
Steve waved a dismissive hand. "Don’t worry about that. Time works differently down there; we’ll be here when you come back."
"Right. So? Anything else?"
"Yes." Steve’s expression went grave. "The Underworld’s not a place where people's shades lament the end of life. The more time shades spend in the Underworld, the less they remember about their lives Above. Eventually, the Underworld becomes the only reality they know."
"So I've got to get to Jared before he forgets too much?"
Steve shook his head. "It's more than that. If you take too long, you're going to forget that you're alive. And if that happens, you'll forget to come back. Permanently."
Jensen swallowed. "You're serious?"
Jensen's eyes flicked over to the couch. From this angle, he could almost pretend that Jared was only sleeping, if it wasn't for the unnatural slump of his arm over the side of the couch, or the slowly rusting stains on his shirt. He turned to face the cellar door, squinting down into the darkness below like he could see what was down there if he just looked hard enough.
"Oh," Steve said, and Jensen turned towards him. "One more thing. Don't eat anything down there, no matter who gives it to you." Unexpectedly, he grinned. "Even if it's me."
"Good man." Steve's hand settled on Jensen's shoulders in quiet support. "This is it. Good luck, Jensen."
Still not entirely sure that one or both of them wasn't crazy, Jensen managed an awkward smile back. "Thanks." He turned back towards the trapdoor, took one final, deep breath and started down the stairs into the darkness.
The air beyond the trapdoor was surprisingly fresh considering that Jensen was probably heading into a cellar, and the dirt walls were cool under the brush of Jensen's fingers. His shoes made a faint scuffing sound on the worn stone steps.
Jensen had only been walking for a few minutes when the light vanished abruptly from above him. The ominous thud of the trapdoor made him shudder.
Now that the trapdoor was shut, the darkness around him was absolute. Jensen couldn’t even see his hand in front of his face, let alone where the next step was. He put one hand on the rough, packed surface of the wall and edged carefully downwards.
The sound of Jensen’s footsteps echoed loudly in the dark as he went down, down, down, one slow step at a time to keep from tripping down the stairs and breaking his neck. The strap of his guitar bit uncomfortably into his skin.
There was no warning before Jensen hit the bottom of the staircase. He stumbled on the suddenly level ground under his feet and promptly clocked his head against something solid and unpleasantly hard.
"Fucking hell," he swore, rubbing against his sore nose.
A quick inspection of the obstacle revealed a doorknob by his right hip. Jensen gave it a twist and a shove and the door's hinges groaned in protest as they followed the movement.
Light sliced through the darkness and Jensen brought up one hand to shield his eyes as he walked through the door. A touch of fresh air brushed across his face.
Gradually, his eyes adjusted to the light and Jensen blinked at his surroundings, trying to see where he’d ended up.
And immediately wondered if he’d hit his head harder than he'd thought.
He was outside, in the middle of a flat, grassy field that stretched as far as he could see in every direction. The sky overhead was blue and liberally dotted with white, idyllically fluffy clouds. Jensen was standing on a dirt path that wound its way generally forwards and disappeared into the distance. There wasn’t a soul in sight.
Jensen turned and found himself facing a closed door that looked older than he was, standing in the middle of the path behind him like someone had dropped it out of the sky. Beyond it, grass and blue sky stretched out into infinity. There was no sign of the staircase that Jensen had taken down.
There was also no doorknob.
Jensen pounded at the door a couple of times just for the sake of it, before giving it up as a bad job. He wasn't getting out that way.
"Right then. Mysterious dirt path it is." Jensen turned away from the door, hitched his guitar into a more comfortable position, and started walking.
It wasn’t long before a smear of gray appeared on the horizon and, as Jensen drew closer, it resolved itself into a small, old-fashioned train platform. A gleaming line of tracks ran off on either side of it, incongruously bright against the dirt and placidly still grass. The platform itself was made of large, squared-off stone blocks. It sported a short set of steps, a signpost with no words on it and an uncomfortable-looking wooden bench. There was a man sat on the far end of the bench who had his hands folded neatly in his lap and his attention fixed on the horizon.
Jensen climbed up to the platform. "Hi," he said to the guy, who was maybe 30 at the most. "This place is kind of crazy, huh?"
The guy didn’t so much as twitch in Jensen’s direction, just continued staring out at nothing.
"Ookay." Jensen sat down at the opposite end of the bench, unslinging his guitar so he could lean back. The familiar weight of it was comforting in his lap and Jensen strummed a few absent chords, not trying to make a song so much as wanting to hear something other than his own voice. The smooth, melancholy notes drifted through the air, tinged with regret despite Jensen's every effort not to think about anything at all.
Gradually, Jensen became aware that the man on the bench was watching him as he played, his expression flat and his eyes fixed intently on Jensen’s hands.
"You play?" Jensen asked, but didn’t receive a response. "Hey, guy. You in there?"
The man’s expression didn’t so much as flicker and Jensen sighed.
Jensen played for a time, taking quiet comfort in the well-worn notes. Eventually, another sound intruded and Jensen glanced up to see a train traveling along the tracks, heading their way. It was painted a bright, fire-engine red and looked like an old-fashioned steam train except for the fact that there wasn't any smoke rising from the smokestack.
Jensen stopped playing and stood, shifting impatiently back and forth on his heels. As soon as he lifted his hands from the strings, the other man turned his attention away from Jensen and towards the train.
The train was impossibly quiet as it pulled to a stop, silent except for a hiss of steam from the engine. A set of automatic doors slid open to admit them and Jensen blinked.
So far, seemed like the Underworld was an existential crisis in progress.
An elderly man, stooped, gaunt and wearing a suit that was nearly as old as he was, appeared in the open doorway.
"Ticket," he said.
The other guy presented his ticket and the ticket taker fed the it into a machine set into the wall just inside the door. A green light blinked on and the guy climbed aboard.
Jensen rifled through his pocket for the green scrap of paper Steve had given him and handed it over. The ticket taker gave Jensen a long, measuring look and Jensen did his best to look dead, or whatever passed for it around here.
After a moment, the man accepted Jensen’s proffered ticket and Jensen let out a careful, quietly relieved breath. His ticket went into the machine, the light pinged green and the ticket taker stepped back to let Jensen on the train.
Jensen stepped gingerly aboard and the doors snapped shut behind him, close enough to make him jump. The ticket taker vanished through a door at the head of the car and Jensen stumbled as the train jolted into motion. The platform slid away behind them and acres of endless grass and sky filled the space beyond the windows.
There were a half dozen or so people on the train, all sat separately and staring straight ahead. Jensen couldn't tell if they were looking out the windows on the opposite side of the train or at nothing at all.
"Hello?" Jensen tried and was confused when none of them so much as twitched. "Can any of you hear me?"
The silence persisted and Jensen crouched down in front of the closest passenger – a woman in her late sixties, with silvery hair and arthritis-gnarled fingers – and waved his hand in front of her face. He got no reaction whatsoever.
He huffed out a sigh. "Look. The ticket guy could see me, so I know I’m not invisible. Enough with the ignoring me bullshit."
Jensen leaned in closer until he was practically nose-to-nose with the woman, trying to catch even the slightest dilation in her pupils to suggest that she could see him.
It was about then that Jensen realized he could see through her.
His ass hit the floor and Jensen scrabbled backwards with his hands and heels. He stared up at the woman, watching with a morbid sort of fascination at the pattern of the seat cushions showing through her arm, the hint of blue sky colouring her sallow cheeks. A quick look around revealed that all of the other people – no, not people; shades, Steve had called them – had the same solid, but not entirely there quality to them. And it wasn't just their skin: their clothes, hair, shoes, everything was faded and faint, like an underexposed photo.
"Jesus Christ," Jensen muttered to himself as he got to his feet and claimed a seat on the far side of the car. "This quest just keeps getting better and better. I can't wait to see what comes next."
What came next was a long period of Jensen staring out the window at the unchanging landscape and being really bored. The green plains slid by, mile after indistinguishable mile, and only the steady progression of the clouds across the sky let Jensen know for certain that the train was actually moving at all.
Every now and then they'd pull up alongside a platform and the ticket taker would appear to usher groups of newly-dead shades aboard the train. Jensen watched as green tickets got handed over and the train grew slowly, steadily more full. The increase in passengers and resulting decrease in personal space did nothing to encourage conversation - or eye contact - among the shades. Jensen couldn't really say he was surprised.
Jensen settled into a kind of absent daze, lulled by the rhythmic stop-start of the train and an evening full of emotional exhaustion. He felt more than heard it when the thrum of the engine grew deeper after they left one of the platforms; they were speeding up. The train started picking up speed and Jensen looked out the window, watching the clouds turn to fuzzy smears of white across the sky.
A bolt of blue flashed in Jensen's peripheral vision and he glanced up to see the green fields ahead of them being swallowed up by a massive body of sparkling water. The train barreled towards it at a truly alarming rate, showing absolutely no sign of slowing. Jensen had a brief moment of 'oh, shit' before they hit the edge of the water and he scrabbled at the closest window for a hinge or a lever or something that would get him out before he drowned.
Several tense, heart thudding moments passed before Jensen realized that the train was still moving, still above the water. He twisted round to press his face up against the window, trying to figure out what was going on.
Crystal blue water stretched out from horizon to horizon, the surface placid and calm. The train was moving easily along with only the wheels and the lower part of the carriage in the water; if Jensen rose up on his knees and turned his eyes awkwardly downwards, he could just make out the glint of the rails under the surface of the water. The dark, deep blue of the water on either side of them suggested that the rest of the water wasn't nearly so shallow, though.
The water quickly grew to be nearly as monotonous as the grass, so Jensen amused himself by watching the water surge against the sides of the train and send ripples spreading out in its wake. There were no more platforms, which made it hard for Jensen to judge how long they'd been traveling, or how far the water was stretching. His watch had stopped somewhere between Steve's back room and the train platform, which was no help at all.
The transition to the next stage of the train's journey was abrupt and striking. Darkness loomed on the horizon, approaching quickly, and Jensen had hardly turned his eyes in the right direction before they plunged into a tunnel. Everything beyond the train was pitch black and silent and Jensen slumped into his seat with a huff. At this rate, he was going to die of tedium before they got there.
Happily for Jensen's continued sanity, the tunnel portion of their trip was short-lived. Darkness turned to brilliance between one moment and the next and the engine's heartbeat hitched and slowed as they pulled up to a platform that was considerably more interesting than the other ones Jensen had seen thus far.
There was still nothing but rock on Jensen's side of the train, so he rose and crossed over to the opposite bank of windows. The platform was large and expansive, made of a pale, gleaming stone, and teeming with shades. Instead of grass, Jensen could see a mass of streets and buildings stretched out in the distance.
The automatic doors slid open.
"Asphodel!" a voice hollered somewhere outside. "Final stop!"
Jensen was the first one off the train and he blinked at the mad bustle of activity on the platform: some shades pushed past with briefcases in hand, while others clustered in groups and blocked the way for shades angling towards the ticket booths at the nearest end of the platform. The air was full of clattering footsteps, strange and jarring without the murmur of voices laid overtop. If Jensen craned his neck, he could just about see the road at the edge of the platform that led towards the buildings he'd noticed from the train.
Someone jostled him from behind and Jensen stumbled, whipping his head around.
"Hey!" he protested, but the shade who'd shoved him had already moved on. Another shade pushed past him with a particularly fierce shove of his shoulder and Jensen growled, shoving back.
He elbowed his way through the crowd towards a signpost leaning jauntily out of the ground not far from the head of the train. The number of locations it pointed towards was rather excessive for a single signpost and Jensen squinted at the words on the off chance that one of them was 'God of the Underworld's House'.
It was as he stood there, trying to figure what the hell a Phlegathon was and how it was supposed to be pronounced, that Jensen caught a glimpse of broad shoulders and brown hair in the corner of his eye and nearly sprained something when he spun around in shock.
"Jared!" he shouted. Jared didn't hear him so Jensen started running, trying to get closer. He muscled his way through the crowd as fast as he could, but shades edged in on every side, slowing him down despite his best efforts. "Dammit! Jared!"
Jared's steps didn't slow or falter, slowing carrying him further and further away from Jensen. Jensen swore.
"You don't get to walk away from me again, you fucker!" he shouted, shoving harder against the bodies in his way in his haste. "Jared!"
Jensen rebounded hard off someone's arm and tumbled to the floor, narrowly avoiding a foot in the face as he skidded belly-down across the rough paving. The crowd continued to swirl around him and Jensen pushed himself up with a ragged curse, careless of the red scratches tracking down his arms, the tender patches of skin on his thighs.
Jared was nowhere to be seen when Jensen regained his feet and, for a heart-stopping moment, Jensen thought he'd lost him. He swept his eyes from one end of the platform to the other, refusing to entertain the idea that Jared had gone out into the mess of buildings and streets not thirty feet away. Jensen would never find him if he had.
Another shade bumped into him and Jensen had half-turned to punch the guy in his goddamn face when he saw Jared vanishing round a corner at the farthest end of the platform. Desire to do physical harm forgotten in a heartbeat, Jensen settled for pushing the shade out of his way and throwing himself in pursuit again, still yelling Jared's name.
Jensen rounded the corner at full tilt, then immediately yelped and threw himself to the floor to avoid the dangerously sharp looking knife slicing through the air right towards his head. Rolling with the momentum, Jensen dusked away from another thrust and scuttled desperately backwards, wincing at the clanging protest of his guitar as the headstock scraped the floor.
His shoulder thudded against the corner of a wall and Jensen froze. The dull pain jarring down his back came a distant second to the realization that he had nowhere left to run.
"Fuck." Jensen's eyes slammed shut as his hands came up in an instinctive and utterly useless attempt to defend him from a knife through the chest.
A heartbeat passed. Then another.
Jensen cracked a cautious eye open.
There was a man standing maybe a dozen feet away from him, directly in front of a wide staircase cut into the side of the mountain. He was a monster of a man; he towered far above Jensen's own, quite respectable, height and his entire body was sleek and firmly muscled. His clothes were like nothing Jensen had ever seen before: dark purples and grays covered him literally from head to toe, the fabrics form fit and gleaming with a faint oily slickness. A massive pair of metal guards shaped like snarling dogs' heads protected his shoulders and the bands strapped around his wrists were scarred and pitted with age.
His skin was a smooth warm bronze and his eyes shone white and strange amid the wild shadows thrown across his face by his hood. A twin scar that looked like claw marks twisted the skin around his left eye.
The knife that he'd tried to eviscerate Jensen with was thick-bladed and as long as Jensen's arm. Jensen very much didn't like the casual ease with which it fit to the grip of the man's hand.
A quick look around revealed no other ways into this area except for the one Jensen was currently plastered to and the staircase on the other side of Mr. Terrifying. Which meant that Jared had to have gone down those stairs. How Jared had managed that with that wall of scary-looking muscle in the way, Jensen had no idea, but he wasn't about to let that stop him. Probably.
Jensen looked again at the staircase. The edge of the top step was painted a bright safety-hazard yellow, which struck Jensen as being more than a little redundant. What difference did it make if the shade of a dead person fell down a set of stairs? It wasn't like it could kill itself again.
Jensen returned his attention to the man with the knife, who hadn't so much as twitched the entire time Jensen had been sitting there. He was so perfectly still that Jensen would have thought that he was carved out of stone if not for the very visceral evidence he'd recently had to the contrary. His eyes had no pupils, Jensen noticed. Somehow, Jensen still knew he was looking right at him.
Finally, Jensen climbed shakily to his feet, ready to bolt at a moment's notice. The man did nothing but watch.
Emboldened, Jensen took a hesitant step closer.
He took another, and the guy's entire body tensed, winding in like a spring waiting to release. Jensen stepped back again and the guy returned to his still, wide-legged stance.
So it was some sort of proximity thing.
Jensen took a deep breath. "Okay." All he had to do was get to the staircase before the guy gutted him. Piece of cake. It worked all the time in the movies, right?
"This is so stupid," Jensen said to himself, then dug his heels into the ground and launched himself forward.
The guy reacted immediately, his whole body blurring into sudden, deadly motion. Jensen twisted desperately out of the way as the knife came whistling towards him. He stumbled, recovered, and kept running, eyes fixed on the stairs. Just a little fur-…
Jensen staggered back hard, one hand coming up automatically to clutch at his side as the knife pulled free with a sharp, sucking jerk. Jensen's fingers met with wet warmth and he glanced down to see blood pooling between them, staining his shirt a bright, violent red.
"Oh," Jensen said faintly.
The snarling muzzle of one of the guy's shoulder guards struck Jensen's arm with deadening force. Jensen reeled, thrown off balance, and another line of pain licked across his chest as the knife scored the skin just under his collar bone. The man shifted again, winding up for another strike and Jensen muzzily realized that he'd better do something to stop that.
He wobbled back a few steps, gritting his teeth against his body's desire just to lay down and rest for a moment. As soon as he was out of range, the man drew up short and stepped back to his former position. Jensen's blood dripped off the edge of his knife to puddle on the floor.
Jensen swayed on the spot for a moment, torn between the need to press onwards and the sure knowledge that another attempt would get him killed. Finally, he found himself backing up, away from Jared, away from the staircase, away from their defender. Blank eyes tracked his every move and Jensen felt the burn of that gaze on his skin long after he'd rounded the corner and staggered away.
The world swam in and out of focus in front of Jensen's eyes and every slow, heavy step sparked pain through his veins. The smell of blood was thick in his nose and his hands were sticky-wet. He couldn't hear anything over the uneven pounding of his pulse in his ears.
"Shit," he mumbled faintly. Everything felt dizzy. Dimly, he realized that he was sinking slowly down to the floor, his whole body curling up as much as the pain in his gut would allow.
He wanted nothing more than to be able to just lie there and pass out for a while. But he didn't have time to be dying right now. Jensen panted through the pain, trying to find his arms long enough to push himself upright. One of his blood-slicked palms slipped on the floor and Jensen crashed back down with a pained moan.
The floor was cool against Jensen's cheek. He pushed his hands against the floor, getting ready to try again, but the world went fuzzy and black before he could manage it.
This time, he didn't feel himself hit the floor at all.
"Wow," said a voice from somewhere very far away. "You suck. I'm guessing you're a lover not a fighter, huh?"
Jensen swam slowly back to consciousness, letting the voice pull him out of the darkness.
"You gonna get up any time soon?"
Concentrating hard, Jensen managed to blink his eyes open and found a man leaning over him, watching him with an amused expression that seemed somehow strangely familiar. The guy's hair was brown and overlong; it hung around his face like a shaggy mane and lent an otherworldly quality to his face that Jensen thought was fairly appropriate given the circumstances. His eyes were pale and piercing enough to be unnerving, though the laugh lines creased around their edges softened the effect. When he saw Jensen looking back, the guy grinned.
"Morning, sunshine," he said. "Sleep well?"
"Wha-?" Jensen shifted up onto his elbows without thinking, realizing only after he'd done so that it shouldn't have been that easy.
Confused, he looked down only to discover that the stab wound in his stomach and the gouge across his chest had both vanished. His shirt was white again and, when Jensen twisted round to look at the ground he was lying on, he couldn't see even the slightest hint of a bloodstain.
There was a set of jagged holes in his shirt, though. Jensen wasn't sure if that made things better or worse.
"Shouldn't I be dead?" he asked.
The guy's grin turned smugly self-satisfied. "You're welcome," he said, and shifted back to allow Jensen to sit up properly.
Jensen pulled himself upright, giving his rescuer an appraising look. The guy was wearing a yellow vest over a collared shirt and a pair of well-fitted pants that looked about a century out of date. His clothes were lived-in but well cared for and there was a red flower pinned to his vest over his heart. He looked, Jensen thought, like a cross between a big game hunter and a member of the landed gentry.
Unlike every other shade Jensen had seen so far, this guy wasn't even a little bit transparent.
The guy arched an eyebrow. "You really think staring at me is the most productive use of your time right now?"
"Sorry," Jensen said automatically. "Uh, thank you. For the…" Jensen made an absent gesture at himself that was meant to convey 'disappearing the big damn holes in my guts'.
"Don't mention it," the guy said. "Healing's not really my forte down here, but I manage well enough."
Jensen wondered if things were ever going to start making sense around here. "That's good, uh…"
"Oh," the guy said. "You can call me Chris down here, if you like. Less confusing."
"Less confusing than what? Rocket science?" Jensen didn't even try to disguise his incredulity. "What part of this insanity is supposed to be 'less confusing'?"
Chris rolled his eyes, patently unimpressed. "You're lucky you're talented enough to make the Muses jealous, because you're kind of a pain in my ass. Come on." Chris clapped a hand on Jensen's shoulder, then levered himself to his feet. "No point hanging around the station all day."
"Where are we going?" Jensen asked, though he was already rising to his feet. It wasn't like he had anywhere better to be, not when there was a murderous behemoth with a big ass knife guarding the way forward.
"My place," Chris said. He tossed a grin over his shoulder as they walked. "Figure I'd better keep a closer eye on you so you don't end up dead ahead of schedule."
"Speaking of dying…" They reached the edge of the platform and Chris stepped easily into the street. Jensen followed after him, taking care not to lose sight of him in the sudden crush of dead people. "Who was that guy? And why did he try to kill me?"
"Trust me, if he'd actually tried to kill you, you'd be dead ten times over by now. You can think of him like a guard dog," Chris said, which wasn't really an answer. "It's his job to keep all sorts of personae non gratae out of the Underworld."
"You mean people who aren't dead."
"Give the boy a prize."
"But I'm already in the Underworld. Why not hack me up on the train?"
"There's the Underworld and there's the Underworld," Chris said as though the difference was obvious. He was, Jensen thought, quite possibly the most irritating person he'd ever met, and that was saying something. "It doesn't matter so much if you're stuck here."
Jensen glanced around at the buildings starting to crowd around them. They all looked to have been made out of bricks that were older than time, but there was no uniformity to the designs at all. Glass-walled condos stood alongside French villas while hovels made of mud and straw blocked the entrances to rows of Chinese pagodas. Jensen raised his eyebrows at a roller rink that was flanked on either side by a round-roofed chalet and what looked like an army recruiting base.
"Uh huh," he said. "And where is here, exactly?"
"Asphodel City," Chris answered. He tossed Jensen a grin. "The final resting place of the generally uninspired."
Jensen pursed his lips thoughtfully. "Like limbo?"
Chris shook his head in obvious despair. "You know, this Heaven versus Hell thing you've got going on is really kind of embarrassing. You don't have to earn your way into the great ever after," he explained. "Asphodel isn't God's waiting room. Each shade gets a ticket to the part of the Underworld they belong in. But a lot of people aren't truly good or truly evil; they're just kind of middling. So they end up here."
"What, all of them?" Jensen looked around. "Kind of close quarters, aren't they?"
"I wouldn't worry about the physics of it," Chris advised. "You'll just make your head hurt. This way."
Chris led the way deeper into the city and Jensen's first impression was that he didn't have the faintest idea how anyone could navigate this place without getting lost a dozen times over. Roads went off seemingly wherever they liked, forking and winding around as though right angles were something to be avoided at all costs. The roads were full of shades going about their business in total silence, and Jensen marveled at all the different types of people mixed in together, not just from different cultures, but from different times in history. It was beyond bizarre to see a wild west cowboy walking down the street with a heavily tattooed fakir and an Eskimo, but he supposed it kind of explained the décor.
The longer they walked, however; the more Jensen noticed that there was something… strange about some of the shades.
"Uh," he said, his attention fixed on a woman in a shawl riding down the street on a goddamn tiger. She looked more like a shadow than a person, her features so faint as to be nearly indistinguishable. "Why are some of them more… see-through than others?"
"Depends on how much they remember about their lives," Chris said. "Hard to care what you're supposed to look like when you don't remember who you used to be."
Jensen tried to imagine a Jared who was nothing but a faded outline, a Jared who couldn't remember his own name, let alone what his life with Jensen had been like, and felt sick.
"How… how long till they, um, vanish? Forever?"
"They don't," Chris said, and Jensen let out a relieved breath he hadn't realized he was holding. "Just because they don't remember being alive it doesn't mean they don't exist anymore." Chris gestured around them. "They look like they're pining for the fjords to you?"
Jensen decided to ignore the foray into modern pop culture. "Why aren't you see-through, then?"
"Because I'm not dead," Chris said, as though Jensen should have realized that right away. Maybe he should have; Chris certainly wasn't anything like the other shades. He could talk, for starters. "And no, I'm not like you, before you ask."
Chris cut abruptly across a busy plaza that kind of reminded Jensen of pictures of Trafalgar Square, and Jensen was forced to drop the question in favour of jogging after him. A trio of shades got in his way and Jensen twisted past them only to collide hard with the shoulder of an African guy whose skin was so weathered he looked like he was made out of tanned leather.
Jensen staggered heavily, lurching forward a handful of steps until he caught his balance.
"Watch it!" he shouted after the guy, mostly to make himself feel better. The guy, of course, ignored him entirely.
"Still getting on well with the locals, I see," Chris said.
"Why can't they see me?" Jensen asked him.
"Oh, they can all see you," Chris said. "They just don't care."
"Well that's nice."
"Jensen, they're dead. What possible reason could they have to care about you?"
"I don't know," Jensen shot back. "What possible reason do you have to care about me?"
Chris shrugged. "I've got a personal investment, don't I?"
"What's that supposed t-" Jensen broke off when he realized that he recognized the building they were heading towards.
"That's Steve's bar!" The street itself was unfamiliar, which Jensen couldn't appreciate enough - he didn't think he could have handled it if it was a mirror of the place where Jared… - but the building was absolutely Roads.
"More or less," Chris agreed. He gestured up and Jensen followed his gaze to the sign hanging above the door.
"Rome?" Jensen read. He looked back at Chris. "There a reference there I'm not getting?"
Chris smirked. "Almost certainly. Don't worry though, you'll get there eventually. Everybody does. Come on."
Aside from the name, the biggest difference between this bar and Steve's was immediately apparent the moment Jensen walked through the door: there was no roof.
"I've always been a fan of the courtyard look," Chris said, carrying on past Jensen and towards the bar. "And it's not like there's weather around here to worry about."
Jensen followed after him, skirting around the tables where clustered groups of shades were sitting and not talking. There was the shade of an older woman pouring drinks behind the bar. None of them played the slightest bit of attention to either Jensen or Chris.
"Take a seat," Chris invited. He hauled over a bar stool of his own and straddled it. "So," he said as Jensen sat down. "Where do you want to start?"
"Where's Jared?" Jensen asked immediately.
Chris shrugged. "He's not here, if that's what you're asking."
Jensen bit back the first three responses that came to mind. "I kind of figured that. So where is he?"
"He's further in. Which shouldn't surprise you either. He's a good guy, your Jared."
"Yeah," Jensen said, softer than he'd intended. He shook himself out of it brusquely. "So I've got to figure out how to get past the scary guy with the knife so I can go find Jared."
"Yes and no. You've got to go past him, but you're not here to find Jared."
Jensen started up out of his chair. "Wh-"
Chris held up a hand to forestall Jensen's instinctive protest. "Sit down. You're not here to find Jared," he repeated. "You're here to convince the lord of the Underworld to let Jared's shade return to the land of the living."
"Then why I am here?"
"Because one does not simply walk into Mordor," Chris said gravely.
Jensen gave him a flat stare.
"Wow, you have no sense of humour at all, do you?" Jensen continued glaring and Chris sighed. "Getting past the guard dog doesn't mean you've got a key to the front door. You've got to get permission to meet with him first."
"Great." Jensen resisted the urge to bury his head in his hands. "Don't suppose you've got any good news for me, do you?"
"Hey, you're the one who decided to go against the natural order of everything to get your friend back from the dead. It was never going to be a cakewalk."
Jensen took a deep breath. "Okay. So how do I get permission to visit the boss of the Underworld?"
Chris grinned and held out a yellowing piece of paper covered in swirling black cursive. "You earn it."
Curious, Jensen took the page and skimmed it quickly. "You want me to play at your bar?" he said, confused. "What for?"
"Two reasons. One, living souls can't stay in the Underworld long-term unless they're under contract."
"There are rules about living people in the afterlife? What the hell for?"
Chris pinched at the bridge of his nose, shutting his eyes. "Gods, save me from self-centred humans. Do you honestly believe that you're the only person in all of human history to get given the chance to regain the soul of a loved one?"
Jensen blinked. "I… hadn't really thought about it."
"Of course you hadn't."
"Okay, what gives?" Jensen narrowed his eyes at Chris' innocent expression. "One minute you're helping and the next you're insulting me. What are you getting out of all this? Shouldn't you be kicking me to the curb for daring to enter the Underworld?"
"After I went to the effort of getting you here in the first place? You really are as dumb as you are pretty, aren't you?"
Jensen was getting really fucking tired of this. "I've never seen you before."
"Unbelievable." Chris rolled his eyes. "I would have thought the bar would've tipped you off, but you mortals are always so resistant to the extraordinary. Look. A god doesn't have to wear the same face all the time, Jensen."
"You're a god?" Jensen asked, fighting his voice's urge to crack on the last word.
"If that's how you want to phrase it, yeah." Chris shrugged again, that naggingly familiar gesture. It sparked a twinge of recognition in Jensen and he realized with a sudden jolt who else always shrugged like that. "I'm a busy guy, you know," Chris continued. "No time to waste running back and forth between jobs every ten seconds."
"But you just- wait." Jensen ran that through his head one more time. "Are you seriously telling me that you're-"
"Steve," Chris agreed. "Sometimes. Well, all the time, but also never. He's a lot more laid back, though, so don't expect any of that west coast surfer vibe from me."
Jensen shook his head. "I don't believe this."
"You've traveled to the Underworld to find your dead best friend and convince the overlord of said Underworld to let him come back to life and the part you're having trouble with is that I can exist in more than one place at the same time? I think you gotta get your priorities straight there, buddy."
Jensen didn't have any defense whatsoever against that so he coughed and changed the subject. "You said there were two reasons?"
Chris smirked, but didn't press the issue. "You need to do something to prove you deserve the chance to plead for Jared's soul. Music is your heart. If it can't earn you an audience, nothing will."
"Great." Jensen looked down at the contract. "So all I gotta do is sign this?"
"Mostly. But I need something in trade."
Jensen fought the urge to sigh. "Of course you do. Alright, lay it on me. What do you want?"
"…I really hope that's another pop culture reference."
Chris grinned and stabbed a finger at the extremely small fine print at the bottom of the page. "'Fraid not. Points for creativity, though."
"This is crazy!" Jensen was on his feet again, gesturing broadly to convey the sheer idiocy of this idea. "How the hell am I supposed to convince the King of the Underworld to let Jared go if I can't talk or sing? A frigging PowerPoint presentation? Charades?"
"You'll figure it out," Chris said, sounding supremely unconcerned.
"The hell I will!"
Chris gave him a bored look. "It really shouldn't bother you that much. How much help has your voice been up to now? Seems like you should be happy to have an excuse not to rely on it."
The words were like a punch in the gut. Jensen's heart gave a sickening lurch and his tirade faltered as his mind flooded with memories.
All of his anger and hurt boiling up between them until they were both yelling and Jared was striding out of the bar to get away from him.
The sickening smack of Jared's body hitting the hood because he didn't recognize Jensen's shouted warning for what it was.
Shades everywhere, blocking Jensen's path, and all the hollering in the world wasn't enough to stop Jared's soul from walking away from him into the afterlife.
"That's…" Jensen tried. He deflated, overwhelmed by the realization of just how badly he'd let Jared down.
Chris said nothing, apparently content to wait.
"Could I even leave now?" Jensen asked finally, even though he was pretty sure he'd already made his decision. "If I decided not to sign? Or am I stuck in the Underworld forever?"
Chris' stare turned assessing. Jensen did his best not to fidget. "I could work something out," he said finally, in a tone that didn't mean anything at all.
Jensen nodded. "And what happens if I do this, then can't-" Jensen swallowed. "Can't get Jared back?"
"Contract doesn't say anything about Jared," Chris said, which was as much an answer as Jensen needed.
"Right." Jensen's jaw firmed. "You got a pen?"
Wordlessly, Chris handed him a pen with a ridiculous foofy feather on the end; it tickled against the side of Jensen's face as he leaned down to sign his name at the bottom of the contract.
The moment he finished the final flourish on the 's', Jensen felt a cold snap of air around him, sharp enough to make his ears pop and his lungs seize in his chest. The sensation only lasted a fraction of a second but still left him gasping, frantically sucking in great mouthfuls of air.
'That's it?' he tried to say once he'd recovered, but didn't manage anything more than a breathy exhale.
He tried again with just as little success, despite the fact that Jensen could feel his throat contracting around the syllables; laughing and wheezing were just as impossible as speaking, apparently.
"Excellent." Chris rolled up the contract, then clapped Jensen on the shoulder. "Nice doing business with you. Now that that's sorted, you want a drink? On the house."
Jensen very much wanted a drink; he damn well deserved one. But his instinctive 'hell, yes' turned into nothing but empty air when he tried to voice it and Jensen huffed in silent frustration. He was about ready to climb over the bar to help himself if Chris didn't get the hint when he abruptly remembered the last thing Steve had said to him:
"Don't eat anything down there, no matter who gives it to you. Even if it's me."
Fuck everything, Jensen thought to himself. But he wasn't about to screw himself over now, so he very reluctantly shook his head and sat back down.
Chris grinned, looking unexpectedly pleased. "Good. At least you're listening to some of what I say. Keep it up. That's one of the most important rules: if you eat or drink anything down here, you'll never be able to leave. Not even the bossman himself could get you home again."
Holy shit. Jensen shuddered at the near miss. Then he glared at Chris for putting him in the situation in the first place.
"Hey, better to get the reminder from me now than to screw yourself over later. You ready to get to work?"
Jensen raised an eyebrow at him. 'Now?' he mouthed.
"You got anything better to do?" Chris asked. It was an unfortunately good point. "Go on, then. Play us some magic."
Jensen did a sharp double take at the phrasing and Chris grinned.
"Thought you'd like that. I'll be enjoying it Above too, don't you worry." He made a shooing motion with one hand. "Go ahead."
Jensen sighed and shuffled over to the chair Chris had pointed out. The entire room ignored him while he checked the tuning on his guitar - making faces over the scratches in the finish - and Jensen couldn't help but think this was a far cry from Steve's bar topside.
But he wasn't going to get any closer to Jared by sitting around doing nothing, so Jensen dutifully organized his thoughts and struck the opening chord to Hotel California. It seemed an appropriate choice given the situation.
The first note rang cleanly through the air but Jensen faltered when every head in the room swiveled immediately towards him. He managed to turn the fumble into a flourish as he led into the song, but nearly lost the plot entirely when he opened his mouth to sing the first lines and got silence instead of dark desert highways. He kept right on singing the lyrics anyway, because he was nothing if not a stubborn son of a bitch.
The weight of empty eyes was on Jensen as he worked his way through the song, surprisingly disconcerting considering how often he played in public. When he brought the song to a close, the shades all started moving again, like they'd just woken up from a trance. A few of them kept looking at him for a moment longer, as if hoping that he'd play something else.
Jensen threw a questioning look Chris' way.
Chris just shrugged. "Music always touches the soul. That's what it's for."
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