Fandom: CW RPS
Word count: 9050
A/N: This is for dugindeep, to help combat the horrific lack of J2 in her life right now. Title is from Chris DeBurgh's Don't Pay the Ferryman.
There is a rundown of the various mythological references included herein at the end of the fic.
Summary: Heroes sure have changed since Jensen became the ferryman of the dead.
Sometimes being the ferryman of the dead was a pain in the ass.
"You can't do this!" a prissy-looking shade in the business suit shouted. There were tire tracks on his once-neatly pressed black slacks and the left sleeve of his shirt was blood-stained and conspicuously empty. He held up his one remaining hand, thumb and forefinger held an inch apart. "I am this close to closing out the deal with Briggs-Jones! I can't be dead! Are you even listening to me?"
"No," Jensen said, the bulk of his cowl making his voice come out deeper and more hollow than it really was. The shade glowered at him, mouth already opening to launch into another diatribe, and Jensen rolled his eyes. "Look buddy, whether you're dead or not has nothing to do with me. I'm just the ferryman. Go to H.R. down in the Eighth Circle if you want to put in a claim." Not that any claims actually went through, but this nitwit could probably do with a century or two of sitting around waiting for his number to be called. "Now are you getting in the boat or not?"
The shade glared at him, still looking seriously put out by his suddenly bout of mortality.
Jensen quite frankly couldn't have cared less. "Suit yourself. Next!"
"Hey," the shade started, belatedly realizing that he wasn't exactly in a position to be throwing his metaphysical weight around, but Jensen shoved him out of the way with the end of his pole and beckoned the next shade, a resigned-looking woman in her 60s, to come forward.
The businessman's shade lingered awkwardly to one side while Jensen herded a fresh batch of souls onto the boat, looking suddenly lost. Jensen figured the guy couldn't be very bright if he was only just getting to that point now.
"Good luck with the whole not being dead thing," Jensen told him, because he was kind of a jackass. "If you change your mind about crossing over, feel free to rejoin the end of the line."
The shade turned round to look at the massive swell of shades lining up and down the shoreline and his face fell. Jensen rolled his eyes again and pushed off. Idiot.
There'd been a time when a shade wouldn't have dared to talk back to him like that. Of course, there'd also been a time when Jensen had been allowed to tip a whole boatload of shades into the Acheron if he didn't like their attitude. And okay, sometimes he still pitched a shade or two overboard if they were really pissing him off, but the resulting paperwork hardly made it worth the satisfaction. Filling out forms was kind of hard while steering a boat.
But really, Jensen couldn't complain much about being the ferryman. Sure the hours sucked, but it was better than working in the pits or, Hades forbid, at a desk job. And most of the shades were too busy trying to get used to death to bother him much. Idiotic assholes in cheap suits notwithstanding.
Jensen unloaded his passengers out on the edge of the Underworld proper and pointed them in the direction of the registration desk before rolling back his shoulders to get rid of the lingering ache that came from poling a honking great boat across a river for all eternity and then headed right back across to start the whole process all over again. It didn't offer a whole lot of variety, Jensen's job.
Only, as he drew close to the opposite shore, Jensen realized that something unusual was going on.
Now, Jensen was plenty used to wailing and lamentation from the crowd of shades waiting to cross but, as a general rule, the dead didn't tend to have much to say to each other. Too busy wallowing. Which didn't at all explain the steady murmuring that was snaking through the crowd and was growing steadily louder with each pole length Jensen moved forwards. Jensen squinted, hands guiding the ferry on autopilot while he tried to figure out what was going on.
The faint tang of earth and heartbeats reached him as he neared the shore and Jensen simultaneously relaxed and stiffened as he realized who, or more appropriately what, was heading his way. The boat bumped against the shore and Jensen leaned back on his pole, his head cocked to one side in reluctantly intrigued surprise.
It had been a long time since he'd seen a hero come through.
Only when the crowd parted, it wasn't a tall, strapping wall of sword-wielding muscle that stepped forward.
"Erm," said the kid. He couldn't have been much more than ten, all wide eyes, shaggy hair and shaky determination.
Jensen's eyebrows arched right up to his hairline.
"χαῖρε, ὦ Χάρων," the kid said, voice shaking nearly as badly as his hands were. " νεκύων πορθμεύς- um…"
Jensen rolled his eyes. "Gods, your accent's horrible. Who taught you ancient Greek anyway?"
The kid blinked in blatant surprise. "Oh. You speak English."
"I speak everything," Jensen told him, which was true enough. If the kid wanted to hear it in English, that was his prerogative. "So? What do you want?"
"Oh! Um-" The kid started again, the words more comprehensible in his native tongue but no less wobbly. "H-hail, o Charon, ferryman of the dea-"
"Skip all that," Jensen said, waving a hand. "Get to the point."
The kid hesitated, obviously flustered, and Jensen was half expecting that he'd have to drag it out of him word by word.
Luckily for Jensen's patience, the kid squared his shoulders and that childishly rounded face looked squarely up at Jensen, resolve stamped all over it. "I want you to take me across the river."
Jensen nodded. "Kind of figured that. Question is, why do you think I'd do something that stupid?"
"I can pay," the kid said immediately. He dug a hand into his pocket and pulled out an honest-to-Zeus obol, the silver blackened and worn with age. Jensen had to wonder what archeological dig he'd swiped it from. Those wide eyes dipped sheepishly. "I-I know it's supposed to be in my mouth but I... f-figured it would be hard to um, talk."
That almost made Jensen want to smile; he was glad the cowl hid the twitch of his lips. "Well," he said. "At least you've done your research. But that means you also know that the living aren't allowed in the Underworld."
"Some of them were," the kid argued. "Like Hercules and Theseus."
Jensen shrugged. "They were heroes, kid. You don't look much like a hero to me."
"Psyche," the kid said, starting to sound desperate. "Orpheus."
Jensen let him have that one; if nothing else, the kid knew his mythology. He shifted to another track. "And what reason could you possibly have for wanting to go to the Underworld? You're a little young for a quest and there are much easier ways to kill yourself."
The kid hesitated again. "I'm here to see Hades," he said finally, and there was a stubborn light in his eyes that suggested that Jensen wasn't going to get anything more definitive out of him.
Not that he was going to let that stop him. "You want to be a little more specific?"
"No." It sounded at once childish and powerful - the vestiges of childhood tantrums bolstered by an iron resolve that seemed out of place on a boy so young.
"You do realize that you're almost certain to get yourself killed."
"Only 'almost certain' is good enough for me." The kid said fisted his hands at his sides in a futile attempt to stop them shaking.
Jensen considered him for a moment. The kid met his scrutiny unhesitatingly, brave for all his fear.
What the hell, Jensen decided. It wasn't like he could get written up for giving a junior hero a lift. He gestured expansively towards the boat. "Alright then. You want to kill yourself that bad? Come on aboard."
The kid's eyes somehow managed to get even wider and he stared at Jensen in a dizzying mix of surprise and fear.
"What?" Jensen asked, being just a little mean. If the kid couldn't handle Jensen's attitude, there was no way he'd manage in the actual Underworld. "You change your mind?"
The kid swallowed hard. "No," he said and he was clambering over the gunwale immediately.
"Great. Now stay out of the way. Some of us have work to do."
The kid dealt with, Jensen turned his attention back to doing his job. The shades made their drifting way onto the boat, only the occasional murmur or absent misstep betraying the presence of the little living thing taking up space near the bow. Jensen ignored the empty complaints of the shades who were unhappy about being dead and shoved them aboard with the rest until they were practically dangling over the sides.
"Next time," he told the shades still loitering on the shore, then pushed off, handling the boat as effortlessly full as he did empty.
They were a goodly ways across the river by the time Jensen remembered to look for the boy. He was right up against the side, staring across the River Acheron as though there was something to see out there in the dark. His hands were clenched at his sides and the set of his mouth was firm, determined. It would probably be an intimidating look when the kid grew into it.
Provided, of course, that he ever returned to the world of the living.
Jensen guided the boat up to the far shore and held it steady while everyone filed out. The kid hung back, determination edged out by nerves now that he was at the point of no return.
"Registration's over that way," Jensen told him, waving a hand in the general direction. The kid jumped in surprise at being addressed. "I hope you like three-headed dogs."
The kid swallowed hard. "Cerberus. Right. Uh, thanks," he added. "For the ride."
Jensen shrugged. "Not my skin you're risking."
"Still," the kid said, with the tone of someone whose parents had taught him to be polite to his elders. "Thanks." He started to offer the obol he was still holding, then his expression went cagey. "You can have it on the way back," he said, cradling his fist close to his chest.
Jensen's cowl hid a smile. He kind of liked this kid. "Whatever you say." He made a shooing motion with both hands. "I'll be here if you survive."
Day and night meant precisely squat in the Underworld, and time itself was only slightly more relevant. Jensen couldn't have said whether it was five minutes or a year later when he rowed a boatload of shades to the Acheron's far shore and found the kid waiting for him there, looking at once sheepish and triumphant.
"Um, hi," the kid said, half-raising one hand in an aborted sort of wave.
"Well," Jensen said, after a moment. "I wasn't expecting to see you again. You wanna move so I can unload this bunch?"
"Oh!" The kid stumbled hurriedly back and nearly ended up on his ass. The shades didn't pay much attention beyond leaving him a wide berth; unsurprisingly, the living and the dead didn't mix well.
Jensen waited until the last of shades had slung itself over the side of his boat, then waited a little longer until the kid was practically squirming under his silent scrutiny.
"So I'm guessing you want to hitch a ride, huh?" Jensen asked finally, before the kid could jitter himself right into the river.
"Y-yes. Please," the kid tacked on belatedly.
"Come on then," Jensen said easily.
The kid looked startled. "Just like that?"
"Hey, if the bossman says you can leave, I'm not gonna argue. You coming or what?"
The kid scrambled into the boat in a flail of limbs and Jensen rolled his eyes. "You fall in and I'm not fishing you out," he warned, pushing the boat into motion.
"Okay," came the quiet response and Jensen glanced over to see the kid tucking himself against the side of the boat, pulling his legs in and resting his chin on his knees. He looked very young, suddenly, floppy bangs falling over tired eyes and a sad sort of contentment curving the edges of his mouth.
"You get what you wanted?" Jensen asked, even though he hadn't been interested in small talk since the Christians had shown up with all their 'there is only one God, you don't really exist' crap.
The kid glanced at him. "Does anybody actually get what they want?"
Jensen chuckled, a low, hollow sound that reverberated up out of his cowl. Judging from the expression on the kid's face, it was the creepiest thing that Jensen had done yet. "Good point. Some heroes manage better than others, though."
"I got more than I expected," was all the kid said.
"Sounds like you were one of the lucky ones, then."
The kid looked thoughtful. "Maybe."
Neither of them said any more. Jensen steered his boat with easy precision, guiding them safely to the other bank.
The kid disembarked with rather more grace than he'd climbed on, then paused, lingering by the water's edge.
"What?" Jensen asked.
"Um, well, thanks," the kid said, ducking his head so his bangs fell across his face. His cheeks were pink.
Jensen shrugged. "Don't mention it." He returned to the task of corralling the dead, throwing a careless, "Try not to get lost on the way out," over one shoulder.
The kid's answering laugh was more hysteria than humour, but that was only to be expected. Jensen wouldn't have expected to survive either, if he was in the kid's shoes.
"I'll try, thanks." There was the scuff of feet on stone as the kid turned to go, but the sound tumbled to a sudden halt and a startled 'oh!'. Jensen twisted round to look, cocking his head to the side in silent inquiry.
"Your obol!" the kid said, digging frantically in his pocket.
"Keep it," Jensen told him and the kid blinked at him, one hand still shoved in his pocket.
Jensen wondered how the kid could possibly believe that the dead still needed to pay a fee to enter the Underworld. They'd all be standing on the side of the Acheron for the rest of eternity unless Jensen took Mastercard. "Keep it," Jensen repeated, and couldn't help but let the shadow of a smile colour his tone as he added, "save it for your next visit."
The kid had a brilliant smile, Jensen discovered. "Thank you, Charon."
"Yeah, yeah," Jensen said, not bothering to correct him. "Get going, already. You're upsetting my passengers."
"Sorry," the kid said, and actually raised one hand in farewell. "Um, bye."
"Bye," Jensen answered, amused, and went back to herding shades while the kid picked his way along the shoreline, back to the world of the living.
It was too bad that he was going, really. The gods only knew how many centuries it would be before Jensen had another hero come through to break up the monotony.
Of course, when Jensen had told the kid to save the obol, he'd sort of been expecting his next visit to be rather more terminal than the last.
Which meant that he was pretty shocked to feel the thrum of a living heart echo across the Acheron some indeterminate time later, stronger now than it had been the last time and most decidedly not yet dead.
"Hail, o Charon," the kid said, with a little wave. He'd aged, Jensen could tell; his hair was still a mess and his eyes were still wide with innocence, but he was taller, skinnier, like someone had taken him by both ends and pulled.
"You know, once is usually enough for most people," Jensen said, paying no attention whatsoever to the hysterical shade that was weeping and tugging at his robes. "You don't get a discount card for repeat business."
"Oh, you… um, remember me?" the kid asked. He sounded bizarrely pleased.
Jensen rolled his eyes. "How many live ones you think I get down here? My memory's vague, but not that vague."
The kid bit his lip. "Sorry, I didn't mean to-"
"Forget about it." Jensen waved at the boat. "I got room for one more, if you're coming."
This time, the kid was apparently smart enough not to question it. He climbed aboard in a tangle of lanky limbs and then nearly fell right back out again when Jensen pushed off. Small hands shot out automatically, latching onto Jensen's robes in a frantic bid to keep the kid upright.
"Better not knock us both in," Jensen warned, though idly.
The kid's face turned red and he snatched his hands away like he'd been burned. "Oh god, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to-"
"Yeah, you can stop that. The apologies get really tired after a while. So," Jensen said then, because even the denizens of the Underworld got curious. "What are you doing here? Leave your lyre behind last time?"
"No, nothing like that. I'm ah," the kid hunched one shoulder in an awkward half-shrug, "working, I guess?"
Jensen arched an eyebrow. "You guess."
The kid nodded. "I made a deal. The… er, your boss gave me a quest to complete in exchange for-"
"For?" Jensen asked.
"For what I asked him for," the kid finished lamely. "I guess I'm on a trial run right now. I have a-" he patted his pocket, "-thing that he told me to find. If he's happy with it, then I'll get more quests until I pay off my debt."
"Huh," Jensen said. "So you're a junior hero."
The kid ducked his head. "I guess, yeah, maybe," he said, in a quiet little voice.
"Geez, kid, could you be less committal?" Jensen rolled his eyes. "Confidence is kind of important for heroes, you know."
"Mm?" Jensen asked.
"My name. It's Jared," the kid said shyly. As hero names went, it wasn't terribly impressive.
When Jensen told him as much, Jared went pink but still managed to give him a cocky little grin. "It will be by the time I'm done with it."
"Yeah?" Jensen let the boat drift for a minute, eyeing Jared up and down. "What are they gonna call you? Jared the Skinny? Headstrong Jared? Jared of the Poorly Planned Schemes?"
Jared's grin softened into something a little more relaxed. "Just you wait. Soon all the shades will be down here singing my praises."
Jensen snorted. "Hate to break it to you, but shades are normally too busy being sad that they're dead to care much for conversation."
"Does that meant you don't you have anybody to talk to?" Jared asked. He sounded sad about it.
"Besides you? Not really."
"Oh. So it's a… good thing that I'm here?" Jared said, sounding more hopeful than uncertain.
"Something like that." Jensen steered the boat neatly to shore, swaying in time with the tread of the disembarking shades. "You remember where you're going?"
"Hard to forget," Jared said. He offered Jensen a careful smile. "I'll see you soon?"
"I'm always here," Jensen said, which wasn't an answer. Somehow, though, he figured that Jared was probably right.
Jared did indeed survive his second trek into the Underworld. Jensen found him waiting on the shore with his hands in his pockets and a bashfully pleased grin on his face.
"Not dead yet?" Jensen asked him. Jared's grin widened.
"Not yet. Will you give me a ride, please? I have your obol."
Jensen made a face within the shadows of his cowl. "Oh, just get on already."
"But don't yo-"
"You really think I'd leave you here to irritate me every time I came to this side of the river, obol or no? Now hurry up."
"You're kind of grumpy," Jared said, climbing aboard.
"Well spotted. Now sit down before you fall down." Jensen pushed the boat off with one strong thrust of the pole and was only slightly disappointed when Jared sat down in time to keep from tumbling into the river.
Jared was quiet as they glided across the mirror-flat water, not that Jensen really minded. Jensen was more than used to silence.
Not that that familiarity stopped him from calling after Jared as the kid jumped down to the riverbank on the other side. "You planning on making this a routine, then?"
Jared nodded. His expression went shy again. "That okay?"
Jensen smiled privately. "I'll manage somehow."
"Good." Jared turned, took a few steps and then turned back to wave. "Bye!"
"Goodbye, Jared the Junior Hero," Jensen said, and actually mustered up a wave of his own.
Jared flashed a bright smile and practically skipped off, awkward and gangly.
Jensen had to shake his head. Heroes sure had changed in the last millennium.
"Back again, I see," Jensen said, raising his voice enough to be heard across the intervening water.
Jared was already grinning, had been since Jensen had first spotted him a dozen pole lengths back. "Sure am." He stepped back to avoid the boat. "Did you miss me?"
"I don't know how long you were gone," Jensen said honestly and was surprised when Jared looked immediately crestfallen. "But, it's uh, good to see you again?" he tried.
Something about Jensen's awkward attempt brought Jared's smile back, smaller but genuine. "It's good to see you, too. Permission to come aboard?"
"Long as you stay out of the way."
Rather than making for the bow, Jared staked out a spot on Jensen's left as the boat filled. Jensen gave him a thoughtful once-over, cataloguing the differences.
"You're taller again," he said, once they were underway. Taller than Jensen, maybe, although it was hard to tell when Jared was sitting and Jensen was stood on the till.
"A couple of inches," Jared agreed. "And I'm putting on muscle, too, thanks to this hero stuff." He flexed one arm and Jensen had to agree that he looked marginally less stringy than he had before.
There was a moment of stillness and Jensen looked up from his appraisal of Jared's arm to find Jared looking at him thoughtfully.
"You're not so good with time, huh?" Jared said.
Jensen shrugged. "It's not important for me. Nothing ever changes."
"Except me," Jared said.
"Except you," Jensen allowed.
"How do you keep track of time when I'm not here?"
Jensen shrugged again. "I don't."
"Well. I'll have to come by more often, then. Give you something to tell time by." Inexplicably, he sounded like he meant it.
"Oh yes," Jensen said dryly. "Because every junior hero wants to play alarm clock for the ferryman of the Underworld."
"Hey," Jared said, with a quiet certainty that had apparently grown along with the inches and the muscles. "You might be a little grumpy and a lot sarcastic, but I still like you, Charon."
Oh, why not. "It's Jensen," Jensen said. "Not Charon."
Jared blinked. "But, I thought… all the books said-"
"Charon retired," Jensen told him. "Centuries ago. Shacked up with one of the Muses." The shore loomed ahead of them, exactly as far away as it was supposed to be, and Jensen found himself feeling a little sad about it.
"Then why didn't you-"
"It's not really worth the effort to correct people."
"Huh." Jared looked at him. "Jensen. I like it."
"My heart swells." They hit the shore with a gentle bump. "Now get out of my boat."
"Did I say a 'little' grumpy?" Jared asked, grinning. "Because I'm thinking the word was actually invented because of you."
"I'll dump you in the river," Jensen threatened.
"No, you won't." Jared made his way out of the boat and gave Jensen a cheery wave. "Bye, Jensen!"
"I'm even willing to fill out the paperwork!" Jensen shouted after him, and spent the next hundred or so trips across the river remembering the sound of Jared's laugh echoing back at him.
Three times made a pattern and Jensen soon grew used to Jared popping in and out of the Underworld with his big smiles and his easy chatter. Jensen thought that Jared's visits had started coming more frequently since that third trip, since Jared's appearance didn't seem to change as much from one visit to the next as it had the first few times. It wasn't an easy thing for Jensen to determine - for him, it was always eternity between one visit and the next - but Jared seemed pleased that Jensen was making an effort.
Over the years, Jensen watched Jared grow into his height and his limbs, watched that stubbornness turn into determination and that kernel of confidence bloom into an easy, open charm that suited him very well. Jared graduated from junior hero into Hero at some point when Jensen wasn't paying attention and it sat so naturally on those broad shoulders that Jensen was hard pressed to remember that Jared had ever been without that magnetic personality.
Unsurprisingly, it didn't take long for Jared to become the talk of the Underworld. It had been literal ages since they'd last had a hero visit and no one had ever made a regular thing of it. Add that to the fact that Jared was ridiculously likeable and it was hardly a surprise that everyone wanted to spend time with the guy.
It made Jensen feel sort of quietly smug that he was always guaranteed to have Jared to himself for the length of two trips across the Acheron. Well, to himself and fifty or so distraught shades, but they didn't really count.
If there was one thing that Jensen could say about Jared, it was that his visits were always memorable. Even when Jensen would rather they weren't.
"It's Sisyphus' birthday!" Jared said, when he returned from the Underworld with a paper hat on his head and confetti in his hair. "He still had a shit day, what with all the pushing rocks up hills stuff, but the rest of us had an awesome time."
"Not sorry I missed that," Jensen said, eyeing the handful of balloons that Jared was carrying warily.
Jared shook his head sadly. "All work and no play, Jensen. It's bad for the undying soul. Don't worry though," he said, digging into his rucksack and pulling out a second paper hat. "I brought a hat for you, too."
The boat was nearly empty and Jensen was in the process of tossing one last reluctant shade onto the riverbank when Jared appeared at the crest of the hill between the river and the Underworld. Jensen had to laugh at the sight of him: hair going every which way and his skin and clothing liberally soaked with three-headed dog slobber.
Jensen waited patiently as Jared trudged down the path even though, by rights, he should have been back onto the water as soon as he'd offloaded his last passenger. Jared was apparently not good for Jensen's productivity.
"I told you not to bring those dog treats," Jensen said, when Jared finally reached him.
"Yeah, well," Jared graced him with a sheepish sort of smile. "Us heroes like to make our own mistakes." He shook off one hand and made a vaguely disgusted face when drool slopped off in thick, viscous strings. "I maybe should have seen this coming, though."
"I'd say so, yeah. Feeding treats to giant three-headed dogs will do that."
"Somehow the planning process didn't get as far as 'drown in the sheer love and affection of a giant three-headed dog as manifested by masses of drool'."
Jensen rolled his eyes. "Some hero. I can't believe you haven't killed yourself yet, with survival instincts like that."
"Hey now." Jared drew himself up to his full height. It wasn't particularly impressive when his hair looked like that. "How dare you impugn my heroic potential? I'm an awesome hero!"
"Well, Jared the Awesome, you're not getting in my boat until you've washed all that crap off. I am not scrubbing dog out of the wood."
Jared's face fell. "Jensen!"
"Not a chance. There's a whole river right there, moron. Just don't swallow any of it." Jensen hefted his pole again. "I'll see you when I get back. Hopefully you'll be dry by then, too."
"You are a terrible person," Jared informed him matter-of-factly. His amused grin rendered the sentiment largely irrelevant.
"That's fine," Jensen said. He raised one hand in a wave, just to make Jared laugh. "Bye."
"Check it out!" Jared said, waving something with a truly terrifying amount of enthusiasm.
"Busy," Jensen said, most of his attention on the scroll he was trying to fill out against the side of his leg.
He felt the boat rock as Jared stepped aboard. "What's that?"
"ADDI form," Jensen told him. "Threw someone in the river. Need to report it."
"You really need to fill out paperwork for that? I thought you were joking." There was a pause. "Wait. You threw someone in the river?"
Jensen nodded. "Stupid prick." The tip of his reed punctured the parchment and Jensen hissed a particularly nasty curse. The shade in the river was not going to enjoy being the recipient. "Fucking bureaucracy. This would be so much easier with an iPad."
"Here," Jared said suddenly, and Jensen found himself summarily divested of both scroll and reed. "I'll do it. Hold this," he said, shoving something at Jensen.
"What?" Jensen accepted Jared's scroll without bothering to look at it. "You're going to write my report?"
"Sure," Jared said, with an easy smile. "You talk, I'll fill in. As long as it's okay to write in English, of course."
Jensen snorted. "You could write it in Linear A for all the difference it makes to the Minor Tortures department. It's all language."
"The more you know." Jared sat down and spread the scroll out next to him. "Wow, your penmanship is terrible."
"I'd like to see you steer a boat and write at the same time." Jensen frowned at the rather ragged-looking scroll that Jared had shoved into his hand. "What's this?"
"Interdepartmental newsletter," Jared said. "Told Aello in P.R. that I'd bring you a copy. You're welcome."
"Looks like Cerberus has been chewing on it," Jensen said, as he poled them away from the shore.
"He only chewed on it a little bit. Check out the personnel section."
Jensen rolled open the scroll one-handed, got to the personnel section and promptly frowned. "You've been named Most Beloved Denizen of the Underworld."
"Third year running," Jared said cheerfully. "I really thought Thanatos would beat me this time around, though."
"You do realize that you're not actually a denizen of the Underworld, right?" Jensen asked. Where Jared was concerned, Jensen had learned that it was always a good idea to confirm these sorts of things.
That earned him a beaming grin. "The voting public disagrees with you, Jensen."
"You don't live here."
Jared shrugged. "I'm alive and I spend time in the Underworld while also being alive. It's close enough." He gave Jensen a cheeky wink. "I expect you to vote for me next year."
"Whatever you say, Jared the Delusional." Jensen gestured at the form that Jared was most definitely not filling out. "I thought you were supposed to be helping me."
"Not if you're going to be mean, I'm not," Jared said, though he turned his attention downwards all the same. "Type of torture?" he asked.
"Immersion in the River Acheron."
Jared wrote that down on the relevant line. "Reason for torture?"
Jensen shrugged. "He deserved it."
Jared favoured him with an amused grin. "That's it? He deserved it?"
"You know," Jensen said. "For a 'denizen of the Underworld', you don't really know much about how things work down here." Jensen paused, then added a quiet, "Congratulations, by the way. Loopholes aside, I can see why you won."
Jared's smile went soft. "Thanks, Jensen. Duration of torture?"
Jensen thought about it. "Undecided. I'll maybe pick him up again in a decade or four."
"Of course it is."
"How many of these quests do you have?" Jensen asked, doing nothing whatsoever to help as Jared lugged a massive, canvas-covered shape onto his boat. "Seems like you're here every time I turn around."
Jared laughed. "Maybe you should turn around more often then."
"That first time," Jared said at some point, when he was broadening through the shoulders and his skin was honey brown even in the dim of the Underworld. He was looking out across the river, his eyes far away and his mouth unsmiling. "I came here for my mother."
Jensen nodded gravely. His silence was all the response Jared needed. Jensen found himself liking the fact that he knew Jared that well.
"Well," Jensen said, eyeing the spectacle in front of him. "This is different."
Jensen didn't think he'd ever seen Jared look so smug. "I told you the shades would all be singing my praises one day."
Jared was surrounded by shades who, rather than avoiding him and his excessive vitality, were actively clustering around him and babbling excitedly.
"So you did," Jensen said dryly.
He left Jared to commune with his fans and continued to funnel shades onto his boat. When it was full, Jensen turned to face Jared, not-so-incidentally blocking his way when Jared went to climb on.
"Oh gee, sorry, Jared the Universally Adored. Looks like I can't fit your ego on the boat. I'll catch you on the next trip."
"But-" Jared said, with a comically shocked face.
"Bye!" Jensen called. He was still laughing when he reached the other side of the river.
The fallout from Jared's ill-conceived attempt to join the three judges of the Underworld for their quinquennial poker game was going to keep Jensen entertained for millennia.
"What have you got there?" Jensen asked, when Jared climbed aboard with a cloth bag carefully cradled in his hands.
"A present," Jared said, sinking down heavily onto the wooden planking. He looked as though he wasn't entirely sure it wasn't going to attack him.
Jensen arched an eyebrow. "A present."
"From the Graeae." Jared pulled open the bag to reveal a jumble of decidedly charred looking cookies. "They're macadamia nut. I think."
A quiet sort of rage took hold of Jensen's chest. He was going to make the Graeae suffer for this.
"Calm down there," Jared said, reading Jensen's body language in a way that Jensen hadn't realized he could. "They weren't trying to hurt me. I think they see me as an honourary grandson or something. They pinch my cheeks and knit me ugly scarves too."
"You haven't eaten any," Jensen said, almost an order.
Jared made a face at him. "What kind of idiot do you think I am, Jensen? Of course I didn't. I know my mythology. I've got no desire to become trapped in the Underworld for eternity because I ate a damn cookie."
A different sort of ache left Jensen momentarily breathless. "Oh," he said faintly. "Good. That's… good."
"What's got you so wound up?" Jared asked. "Worried you'd be stuck with me forever?" There was something strange about his tone but, with no one to talk to except Jared, Jensen didn't have any frame of reference for figuring out what it meant.
"Worried you'd turn into a lost shade before you'd even got around to killing yourself properly," Jensen snapped. It was a cold, terrifying thought. "I wouldn't forgive you for that, Jared. Not ever."
Jared held up his hands. "Okay, okay, sorry I asked." He fell silent then, and Jensen was too full of fury, slow-fading fear and a creeping sense of loss to want to pick up the slack.
Jared was going to die one day. Jensen knew this. It was what mortals did. Safe in the shadows of his cowl, Jensen squinted at Jared, trying to figure out how soon that was likely to happen.
Jared looked to be in the prime of his life, from what Jensen knew of it. His muscles were firm, his face was unlined, his hands were strong and his eyes were clear. There was no gray in his hair or weakness in his stride. Old age was far away. Probably he'd live a long while yet, as long as one of his quests didn't kill him.
Jensen had time with him yet.
Not enough, obviously. But Jensen had always known that that would be the case.
The bump of the boat against the far shore came almost as a surprise. It jolted Jensen out of his musings and his face burned with embarrassment when Jared looked his way with a questioning tilt of his head.
"All ashore who's going ashore," Jensen managed, making sure that there was absolutely no trace of unease in his voice. "Get out of my boat, Only Sort of Suicidal Jared."
"Ridiculed on every side," Jared said sadly. He pulled a tragic face, complete with an overly dramatic hand to his brow, and Jensen hoped that Jared wasn't forcing that lightness. He didn't want to upset him.
"Ever think that maybe you deserve it?" Jensen asked, as Jared jumped out.
Jared stuck his tongue out at him. "Next time I'm bringing my own ride. A canoe, maybe."
"Now that would be entertaining." Jensen glanced at the sack of cookies that Jared had left in his boat. "What do you want me to do with those?"
"You can have them, if you like," Jared said carelessly.
Jensen snorted. "If you think I'm going to eat something baked by three old women who only have one eye between them, you've got another thing coming."
Jared's laugh sounded thankfully genuine. "Aw, come on, Jensen. Where's your sense of adventure?"
"Standing in front of my boat making stupid faces at me. Adventurousness by proxy."
"No fun at all," Jared said, with a shake of his head. "Don't worry. I promise to have plenty of adventuring to tell you about next time."
"Finish leaving before you start threatening to come back, Jared the Adventurous."
Jared threw off a salute. "Ay, ay, captain." The salute turned into a familiar wave. "Bye, Jensen."
"Bye," Jensen said, and felt the weight of that word sit heavily inside of him until Jared next returned, alive and smiling, for the time being.
So Jensen was in love with Jared. He was okay with it. It wasn't like it had taken him long to figure it out and there were worse feelings to have.
The best part was that nothing needed to be done about it. Just so long as Jared kept coming back.
There was something wrong.
"What's wrong with you?" Jensen said. It was an order, not a question.
Jared blinked at him with a false innocence that wouldn't have fooled a blind goat. "What do you mean? I'm fine."
Jensen snorted. "And I'm Aphrodite. Don't treat me like an idiot, Jared of the Poor Acting Skills. Usually I can't get a word in edgewise when you're around; you haven't said more than five sentences today."
"I wasn't aware that you missed my riveting conversation so m-"
"Your smile's on sideways," Jensen continued, steamrolling right over him. "You look about as happy to be here as everyone else does." Jensen waved expansively at the collection of dour-faced shades weighing down his boat. "You didn't even fucking wave."
A small smile that Jensen didn't like at all curved Jared's mouth. "I didn't mean to worry you," Jared said. "Just got a lot on my mind right now."
Jensen thought about that. "You can- I don't mind listening," he said gruffly. "If you need to. Talk. Or whatever."
"Thanks," Jared said, with a fondness that surprised Jensen. "Really. You're always here when I need you."
"I'm always here," Jensen corrected, counting on lifetimes of muscle memory to guide the boat while he kept his attention on Jared where it belonged. "Can't cross the river without the ferryman."
"Lucky us." Jared was still looking at him. Assessing him, in ways that Jensen didn't understand.
Jensen scowled at him beneath his cowl. "What?"
"What did you do before you were the ferryman?" Jared asked, obviously picking his words carefully.
Jensen paused with the pole halfway out of the water. "I don't know."
"You don't… know?" Jared repeated slowly. Judging by the shock on his face, that hadn't been on the shortlist of answers that he'd been expecting. "How do you not know?"
"I just don't," Jensen said. He shifted uncomfortably. "It wasn't important."
"So you forgot about it?" Jared asked. It sounded like an accusation.
"I guess?" Jensen said.
Something in Jared's face closed off. "Oh." He sat back, no longer inclining every inch of himself towards Jensen.
Jensen didn't know what had just happened. "You know, it really doesn't do much good asking me about stuff I don't know," he tried.
"Yeah," Jared said. He smiled a tired sort of smile. "I guess you're right. Might want to get moving again though," he added, before Jensen could parse what in the nine hells that was supposed to mean. "Looks like the not-natives are getting restless."
Jensen hadn't even realized that he'd stopped poling. "Oh, knock it off," he told the shades, who were indeed starting to shift unhappily in their seats. "You're fucking dead. It's not like you're in any hurry."
"Remind me why they decided to make you the welcoming committee?" Jared said, with a smile that was still subdued but thankfully more familiar.
"I'm not," Jensen said, setting the boat back in motion. "That's Cerberus' job. And if you tell me that I'm less welcoming than the giant three-headed dog that eats people, I am throwing you in the river."
"You'll have to fill in all the paperwork yourself," Jared pointed out.
"It would be worth it."
A slightly awkward silence fell between them. It was one that Jensen didn't know how to break, so he left it alone and concentrated instead on the smoothly-worn haft of his pole and the steady glide of his boat through the water. They reached land right on schedule - the river was accommodating like that - and Jensen stared at the boards under his feet while the shades disembarked.
Jared rose gracefully to his feet. "Thanks, Jensen," he said, just like always. "Oh, and…" He dug one hand in his pocket and turned a smile on Jensen. "Here. This is for you."
Jared opened his hand, palm up. There, looking much smaller in his big hand than it had when he was a child, was the tarnished obol that Jared had tried to pay him with all that long time ago.
"You do realize that I haven't got much use for an obol," Jensen said.
Jared shrugged. "Yeah. But I want you to have it anyway." He stepped forward and gently pulled one of Jensen's hands away from the pole so that he could press the coin into it.
The metal was warm from Jared's pocket and Jensen instinctively curled his fingers around it, chasing that heat. It wasn't exactly common round these parts.
"Why now?" he asked, because Jared had to have a reason. Jared always had a reason.
"I-" Jared started, with a lightness that faltered almost immediately. He swallowed hard and offered Jensen a weak smile. "I've paid off my debt."
Jensen blinked. "You what?"
"The deal I made. My help in return for what I wanted, remember? Well, I've fulfilled my side of the bargain." Jared hunched his shoulders, looking so much like the child he'd been at the beginning that Jensen had to do a double-take. "Today makes it exactly twenty years since that day. I've spent two thirds of my life going on quests. Becoming a hero. Getting to know you and everyone else in the Underworld. Earning my reward."
"So," Jensen started, and then had to take a minute to collect himself. "So this is your last trip." He paused. "Besides the obvious."
Jared nodded. "Looks like. But none of it would have happened if you hadn't let a skinny ten year old with more grief and stubbornness than good sense onto your boat." He gestured at Jensen's clenched fist. "So, I want you to have the obol. To help you remember me."
"You do realize that I've got no reason to give you back to the living world, now," Jensen said, and it was supposed to be a joke but it came out a little too raw to count.
Jared's face made a funny combination of softening and crinkling with concern. "You said you wouldn't maroon me in the Underworld because you didn't want to listen to me complaining every time you offloaded a boatful of shades."
Jensen's shrug was an awkward thing. "Yeah, well. Even in the Underworld, things change."
Jared looked somewhat taken aback, which Jensen didn't think was fair. How could Jared not know? Did he think that Jensen talked to just any hero who wandered through?
"Oh," Jared said.
They stared at each other for a long moment. Jared coughed awkwardly. "Well, guess I'd better go. Shouldn't keep the bossman waiting." He stepped down to the riverbank with an air of terrifying finality.
"Jared, wait," Jensen said, making Jared pause in the act of turning away. "I don't want the obol."
He watched Jared flinch. "Not worth remembering, huh?" Jared's smile wasn't convincing. "Guess the job's more important."
"That's not it." Jensen took a deep, steadying breath and, for the first time since he'd become the ferryman, lifted his pole out of the water and laid it flat in the bottom of the boat.
Jared sucked in a sharp breath. "Jensen?"
A giddy sort of fear filled Jensen as he took a step away from the till and then another, until he was standing right against the gunwale. Jared was staring, wide-eyed, with an emotion that Jensen didn't want to parse, just in case.
"I can't leave the boat," Jensen said. "But-"
It took every ounce of courage Jensen had to reach up and push back the heavy folds of his cowl, letting it fall away from his face and spill across his shoulders. The still air was a gentle caress on his cheeks, unfamiliar and long-forgotten, but all Jensen cared for was the shocked happiness on Jared's face as Jensen met him face to face for the first time.
"-but I'll be waiting when you get back," Jensen said. He smiled. Hoped the expression said everything he needed it to. "I'll always be waiting. That's why I don't want the obol. Because I'd rather have you."
"Jensen…" Jared breathed, and it sounded like reverence and blasphemy rolled into one.
Jensen shocked himself entirely by bending down to plant a gentle kiss on Jared's lips before fleeing back to the till in horrified embarrassment, already fumbling with his cowl.
"Wait," it was Jared's turn to say. "Jensen, please."
Jensen paused with his face half-obscured, sure that his every emotion was painted in broad strokes across his skin. It wasn't like he was used to having to hide them. His hands were shaking.
Jared was back on the boat in an instant and Jensen flinched in surprise when Jared wrapped arms like steel bands around him in a bone-crushing hug. "Wha-"
"You- I can't believe that you…" Jared pressed a gentle hand to the curve of Jensen's cheek and tilted his head up into a kiss. Apparently he was taller than Jensen, after all.
"Oh," Jensen breathed into Jared's mouth. He was glad that both of his hands were free because it meant that he could fist them in Jared's shirt and pull him even closer. He pressed harder, wanting nothing more but to climb inside Jared and never come out.
Only Jared was shaking his head and pulling back. "Mm, wait," he said.
"But you started it," Jensen protested, not letting go.
Jared made a sound that was somewhere between a chuckle and a groan. "I know and I really don't want to stop, trust me, but I've got to go talk to Hades first. He's expecting me."
Jensen's heart fell somewhere around the vicinity of his sandals. "You can't just leave m-"
"I'm not," Jared promised. "I'll go see Hades and come right back and then we can talk about this and-" he stopped and a smile that was so radiantly happy that it made Jensen's cheeks flame crossed his face.
"And?" Jensen prompted.
"And it's going to be awesome. Fuck, we should have done this years ago."
"Probably," Jensen agreed. He quirked a little grin. "Not that I would know."
"Always have to have the last word." Jared carefully pried Jensen's hands away from his shirt. "I really have to go. Wait for me?"
Jensen rolled his eyes. "I'm going to start calling you Jared the Deaf. Of course I will. I always will."
"Right," Jared said, with a truly goofy looking expression. "Of course, right."
"Go already, if you're going," Jensen said, with the shooing motion he'd used a thousand times before. "I'm not taking the blame if you're late."
"Sweet talk already. I'm so spoiled."
"And I'm a grumpy bastard, remember? This is as romantic as I get. Now move it."
Jared grinned at him. "Sir, yes sir."
For the first time, Jensen didn't go back across the water while Jared was gone. His boat stayed right where it was and Jensen stood on the till, cowl firmly back in place and fingers clenched white-knuckled on his pole as he waited. Time was as unreliable as ever, but Jensen bravely weathered the eternity that passed before Jared reappeared, walking towards the shoreline with his head low to his chest and his hands in his pockets.
Jensen smiled, struck more deeply by the familiar sight than he would have expected. "What took you so long?" he called and his smile widened when Jared's head jerked up immediately.
Jared's hands came out of his pockets and he started running, not slowing until he'd jumped onto the boat nearly hard enough to dislodge it from the bank.
"Watch it, you great-" Jensen started, only to have the rest squeezed out of him when Jared dragged him into another hug. Jensen returned the hug one-handed.
Jared mumbled something into the juncture of Jensen's neck.
"What?" Jensen asked. His heart was trying to pound out of his chest.
"I said-" Jared lifted his head without relaxing his hold, "-how do you feel about taking some time off?"
Well. That was unexpected. "What?" Jensen asked again, just a little breathless from the lack of oxygen..
"I lied, before," Jared said. He flushed a little. "I mean, not completely but-"
"Jared," Jensen said. "Less trying to suffocate the undying and more explaining what in Tartarus is going on."
"Oh!" Jared pulled away at a truly comical speed, leaving his hands on Jensen's arms but giving him some much-appreciated breathing room. "Sorry. Excited, I guess."
"So I see," Jensen said, though it lacked his usual dryness. He rested his free hand over the one that Jared had on his arm. Jared twined their fingers together. "Care to explain what you lied about?"
"I finished paying off my debt years ago," Jared said, in one quick jumble of letters.
Jared shrugged a little sheepishly. "That's what happens when you complete quests as quickly as you receive them, I guess."
"But… you kept coming. You get carried away with being a mighty hero or something?"
The openly fond look Jared gave him made Jensen feel suddenly moronic. "I kept coming because I'm in love with you, Jensen, Ferryman of the Dead. Have been since I was a kid, really. I've never so much as looked at another person the way I look at you." Jared laughed, a little incredulously. "And that was before I found out that you're smoking hot. I mean, really smoking hot; no one else compares. And I've met Adonis."
Jensen more or less ignored the second half of what Jared said, preoccupied by the first. "You're in love with me?"
Jared nodded. His face softened. "And I've got the sneaking suspicion that you feel the same."
"Really," Jensen said, with a decent attempt at a deadpan. "How do you figure that?"
"Don't even try to front, Mr. Ferryman," Jared said. "I'm onto you. But yeah, so I've basically been doing all this hero work for free since I was twenty-three, so Hades offered to give me a reward at twenty years. That's why I needed to see him."
"And?" Jensen said, when Jared didn't continue.
"And what?" Jared asked, with suspect nonchalance.
Jensen growled at him. "I'm bound to have a riot waiting for me on the other bank as is without you dragging things out just because you can. Stop it with the dramatic pauses already and tell me what you asked Hades for."
"Always such a grump," Jared said, with a teasing little grin. "You're damn lucky that grumpy does it for me."
Jensen gave Jared's fingers a warning twist.
"Ow! Fine, fine. Sadist." Jared took a deep breath. "I decided to go for becoming an official denizen of the Underworld."
The world stopped.
"You what?" Jensen asked weakly.
"Not a dead one, obviously," Jared hurried to add. "Not a shade. Not a demi-god or a minor demon either. Just me. For the rest of eternity." He shrugged a little awkwardly. "Hopefully with you."
"Couldn't have told me about this forever ago." Jensen muttered, not really meaning it.
"So what do you say?" Jared said, with a look that said that he knew exactly what Jensen's decision was going to be and yet was still somehow nervous. "Ready to hand off the boating duties to someone else for a while? Put up with me and my talking on a more permanent basis?"
In answer, Jensen brought their joined hands up to his face and let Jared push his cowl away so that Jensen's broad, happy smile was openly visible. "I'll manage somehow," he said. "Jared."
Jared's other hand slid round to the small of Jensen's back and dragged him in. "Good."
"Yeah," Jensen agreed, breath fanning across Jared's skin. "But you're filling out the paperwork."
Greek mythology crib sheet:
Charon - The ferryman who transported the dead into the Underworld proper. His description varies, but he is often depicted as an old, withered, bearded man in black robes.
The River Acheron - The river that divided the world of the living from the Underworld. In several ancient accounts, it is the River Styx that fulfills this role, however the majority of sources indicate that Charon transported the dead over the Acheron.
Hades - The God of the Underworld (meaning all of the land of the dead, not just the 'hell' part). Also known as Pluto to the Romans.
Obol (or obolus) - A small silver coin that was placed in a dead person's mouth so that they could pay Charon the fare to cross into the Underworld. Shades who did not have a coin to pay were doomed to wander the shores of the river for eternity, since it was impossible to swim across.
Cerberus - The giant three-headed dog that guarded the gates to the Underworld. His job was to prevent the living from entering the Underworld and the dead from leaving.
Sisyphus - One of the damned souls in Tartarus (Hell, more or less). He was forced to spend eternity trying to roll a massive boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down every time he neared the top.
Aello - One of the harpies: winged women who carried the wicked to the Underworld and tortured them. Because I think that the idea of them being in charge of P.R. is hilarious.
The Graeae (or Grey Ones) - Three sisters who shared one eye and one tooth between the three of them.
The thing with the cookies - Any living being who ate or drank the food of the Underworld was unable to leave. This, incidentally, is how Hades got his wife, Persephone, to stay with him in the Underworld (mostly).
Nine Circles of Hell - Not actually Greek mythology. Dante's Inferno subdivided the Underworld into nine different sections. Because I'm easily entertained, H.R. is located in the Eighth Circle: Fraud.
Did I miss anything? Probably I missed something. Let me know if there's anything that you'd like to know more about!
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