After a second of shocked speechlessness, Misha rolls off the bed and follows him out of the room, saying, "Whoa, Jared, what's wrong? What did I say?"
Jared's looking at the wall, the floor, his bag, anything to avoid looking at the other man as he strides for the front door. His long legs eat up the space in three steps, Misha keeping pace only by practically running alongside him. "Jared!"
Jared's hand is on the knob, and he's pulled the door open an inch before Misha's hand hits the wood above, slamming it closed again. "Jared Tristan Padalecki, you will look at me," the Dom orders, tone as firm and pointed as the hand that slides up to close over the back of Jared's neck.
Sometimes Jared hates being a sub, hates that just a solid grip can make his heart slow and his breath even out, lassitude and the desire to obey sapping the tension from his body.
"It's nothing," he lies through his teeth, and it feels bad, wrong to lie to Misha. But Jared isn't collared, is technically a free agent, so he swallows back the instinctive cringe and studies the air to the side of Misha's searching gaze.
"It's something," the man says softly. "Jared. I thought… I thought it was what you wanted. I thought we were ready."
And now guilt is lying like a lead weight on Jared's tongue, because it's not Misha's fault. None of it is. Jared's never told him, so how could he know?
"It's… complicated," he hedges.
Misha's other hand strokes down Jared's arm to encircle his wrist, another calming layer of control. "Jared," he says gently, and the instinct to fold to his knees and offer his throat is suffocating.
Jared inhales deeply, once, again, and lowers his head. "I'm sorry."
Jared grimaces, still looking anywhere but Misha's face. Compared to most of the Doms he's known, Misha's a fucking saint. He's put up with Jared's skittishness and Dom-phobia for years now, first as a friend, and for the last few months as an almost-maybe romantic partner. He should tell him. Jared owes him at least this much.
"I thought… I saw someone today."
Misha's fingers tighten around his wrist for a moment. "Another Dom?" he asks quietly.
Jared ducks his head further. "Yeah, but it wasn't like that. It wasn't…" Wasn't imprint at first sight, sub meets destined Dom and sparks fly, knees bruise.
Even though once it had been. Even though once, Jared been sure that Jensen was the sole reason he'd been born. Jared is twenty-one and has never been collared, not once, not even for practice, and whatever else he is Jensen fucking Ackles is definitely the sole reason for that.
"I saw someone from my home town." A home town he hasn't visited in three years. "It brought up some things that I'd really like to forget."
Misha is stroking a thumb along the veins at the inside of Jared's wrist, and it helps. "You know you can tell me anything," he murmurs, still looking into Jared's face.
"I know," Jared answers miserably. It might not have even been Jensen; Jared had run too quickly to be sure, straight to Misha's apartment and Misha's arms.
Misha runs the hand on his neck up into Jared's hair, petting soothingly. "This is about collaring, isn't it." It's not a question.
The funny thing is, until this afternoon Jared had actually been thinking, very vaguely, about what it might be like to ask for Misha's collar. He'd even mentioned it to his brother off-handedly during his last call home, and thoroughly enjoyed Jeff's stunned surprise. He's pictured it plenty of times, soft lighting, maybe a fancy restaurant, maybe just after closing at the bar. Misha picks Jared up from work every night without fail, opens doors and pulls out chairs because he's appallingly old fashioned. It's one of the many things Jared (loves?) about him.
But now that Misha's said it—
Anxiety crawls up his throat again and Jared chokes out, "Please. I need to go."
"Jared, don't." Misha sounds so concerned, and the sub in Jared simultaneously adores the attention and wants to do whatever it takes to erase that concern, transmute it into pride and pleasure.
"I need to go," he repeats, and pulls away.
Misha lets him. There are plenty of Doms who wouldn't, who would force Jared's obedience, who have tried. But Misha is a better friend, a better Dom than Jared deserves, and he lets him open the front door and walk out into the damp October night.
It wouldn't be inaccurate to say that Jensen Ackles has completely ruined Jared's life.
The first time he fell to his knees for Jensen, Jared was seventeen and he almost couldn't blame the man for refusing him. Jared was stupidly starry-eyed and underage, still in school, Jensen ten years older and new to the neighborhood, still feeling out his place with the other Doms on the street.
Jared had been so instantly besotted that he'd gone to his knees right there, in front of his parents and his little sister, for a man he barely knew. Jensen had stared, and stammered, until something inside Jared had curled up and died and Jared's mother, Dom of the house, had ordered Jensen out, not to return without her expressed permission.
Things were tense for a while, but they got better. Jared's embarrassment eased and he slowly realized that even discounting the constant, magnetic pull of attraction Jared felt towards him, Jensen was a genuinely amazing person: a little shy, hard-working, funny, with a big heart and a slow smile. Even Jared's mother had come around eventually. They weren't allowed to see each other unsupervised, Jared's family being of the strongly religious and extremely traditional variety, but Jared spent the summer after his high school graduation in a golden haze of expectance and simmering lust. Stolen kisses and possessive glances made him certain that soon, he'd be claimed and could finally wholly submit to his Dom.
After his eighteenth birthday, Jared's uncollared status started raising eyebrows. In a town as small as his, sixteen was closer to the norm; by the time Jared fell to his knees for Jensen a second time, there were no other subs in his graduating class who hadn't been claimed. It didn't bother him; elsewhere, outside of midtown America, plenty of subs waited to be legal before they offered. And more importantly, Jared didn't consider himself unclaimed. He had Jensen, Jensen, who Jared was convinced was his soul mate, who made Jared's knees weaken just by looking at him. When he fell again, he was so blindly sure of his welcome, so confident that Jensen was just waiting for him to offer, so in love he could barely breathe around it.
And all Jensen had said was, "I'm sorry."
Jared left town pretty soon after that. He abandoned his plans, his parents' plans for him, and simply left. It was the hardest thing he'd ever done, and went against his every instinct, but he couldn't stay and watch Jensen claim someone else.
He'd had a basketball scholarship lined up at the local state university, where 95% of his former classmates were also going. That summer, he'd built elaborate visions of his future with Jensen; he'd imagined enduring the one-hour distance as stoically as any martyr before convincing Jensen to move to the city; they'd experiment with ball gags and breathplay in Jared's thin-walled dorm room and scene as loudly as they wanted in Jensen's apartment. When he graduated, they'd move in together, maybe stay in the city, maybe find a place in the suburbs. Get a dog. Raise a family.
Rejected again, too ashamed to meet even other subs' eyes, he'd asked his mother for permission to spend a few days checking out campus. She was too relieved he'd come out of his room for the first time in weeks to be suspicious, and immediately gave her blessing. Jeff had come with— couldn't have such a young, uncollared sub out on his own— but he was easy enough to lose, and within two hours of leaving home Jared had a one-way bus ticket north and the $524.76 from his savings account in his pocket, ready to go.
It was more difficult than he'd thought it would be, to leave Jensen behind. Even when just thinking about him tore through Jared's insides like glass knives, the thought of leaving him was salt and sandpaper in the wounds. Jared remembers wrapping his arms around his backpack, hot tears sliding down his cheeks one after the other without stopping, until they hit the Oklahoma border and he fell into an exhausted sleep, the rocking of the bus like a lullaby.
This wasn't the fifties, and unclaimed subs weren't chattel to their Dom parents until they traded them off, but Jared still got a lot of the wrong kind of attention when Doms spotted his bare throat. He'd thought he was unattractive as a sub, too big and too awkward, and that it would protect him as he made his way through the Midwest. He'd learned fairly quickly that some Doms got off on having someone of his size at their feet, at their mercy.
That was how he met Genevieve, her stumbling into the alley where Jared had been laid out with some biker Dom's foot planted in his back and fingers curled around his throat. He'd gotten lucky, because meeting Gen meant meeting her Dom Alona, who proceeded to beat the shit out of Jared's attacker, and doubly lucky because Alona was the daughter of the terrifying Ms. Samantha Ferris, who gave Jared his first job ever.
He's since moved up from being the busboy to serving drinks, but Jared still works most nights at the Ferris Pub. It's close to two am and closing time, but his feet take him to the bar automatically; Ms. Ferris and Alona, Gen and the bar regulars are his family here, and after the emotionally-charged conversation with Misha he needs that connection, the grounded feeling being there gives him.
He used to feel grounded, like nothing could shake him, with Jensen. He could almost hate Misha for making him remember so vividly what it was like, what Jared lost. Or rather, never really had.
"Oh, Jare," Alona says as he slips onto a stool across the bar from her. "You look like shit."
He grins a little despite himself. "Thanks. I appreciate all constructive criticism."
She smiles back and finishes off a mixed drink with a flourish and a lemon wedge, sliding it across the glossy wood to someone before turning back to him. "Weirdly enough, I was just going to text you."
She waves a hand at the sparse crowd still holding on, even though last call had been fifteen minutes ago. "Some Dom was in here earlier, looking for you. Late twenties, maybe thirties, green eyes. Freckles."
Jared heart sinks, bottoming out somewhere in his shoes. So it had been Jensen, and even though Jared had run the moment he spotted him, Jensen must have seen him. But how the hell had he found Ferris so quickly?
"What did he want?"
She shrugs. "He asked if anyone had seen you, passed around a picture like you were some kind of milk carton sub. I tried to play it off, but then Gen came over and was all, 'Oh, is that Jared? He looks so good with short hair, why doesn't he cut it short more often?'" Here Alona gives an eyeroll, but her expression is still more fond than exasperated. "Of course, the guy was all over that."
"What did you tell him?" Jared asks warily.
"I didn't tell him anything," Alona snaps back, too defensively.
Jared sighs, lets his head fall into his hands. "And what did Gen tell him?"
"I managed to stop her from giving out your address," she says dryly. "It was a close thing. Who is this guy, Jare?"
Jared closes his eyes. "A mistake. One I don't intend to repeat."
After the bar closes, Jared finds himself huddled on the plastic bench Ms. Ferris set out for smoke breaks, turning his phone in his hands and sinking deeper into a kind of edgy, depressed anxiety.
He doesn't know what Jensen wants, how he found Jared, why he's asking after him. He made it very plain that he didn't want and was never interested in Jared as a sub, despite what the whole town thought. Despite what Jared believed with his whole heart. It is over and done with, Jared tells himself fiercely. That chapter of his life is closed.
He has a much better life here—real friends instead of a handful of people who happen to be the same age, freedom to do what he wants instead of conforming to the town's and his mother's expectations. He has a job.
He has Misha.
Jared's finger hovers over the call button, Misha's name lit up on the screen. Even if it makes him feel almost sick with nervousness, the idea that he could, in theory, make one phone call right now and come into work the tomorrow collared is heady. He could even fool himself into believing it's what he wants; hell, he's halfway there already. He could do it.
Of course, it's just then that a voice behind him breaths, "Jared," so tenderly that tears prick Jared's eyes before he rapidly blinks them away.
He turns, because it's impossible not to. He's always been helplessly drawn to Jensen, lodestone to a magnet, flower to the sun.
"Jared," Jensen says again, reverently, and steps forward into the light.
In the dim orange glow of the streetlamp, it's impossible to see the sharp green of his eyes, the light dusting of cinnamon-colored freckles across his nose, the threads of red and gold working outdoors always brought out in his hair, but Jared's mind recreates them in loving detail; in his mind's eye, Jensen is always a vigorous twenty-eight, laughing at him from a bright, eternal summer afternoon.
At thirty one, the crow's feet are a little deeper but his frame is still broad and strong. His jaw is rough with stubble and there are dark circles under his eyes, but he's smiling that molasses-slow grin that was always Jared's favorite. "Jared," he says a third time. It's a invocation, a summons.
Three years is a long time. A long time, but apparently not long enough, because Jared looks at Jensen's beautifully familiar face and he stills sees his best friend, his Dom. The love of his life. Jensen is still coming closer, and Jared is distantly glad he's already sitting down, because the other man's expression alone would probably have sent him to his knees. The Dom looks awed, wrecked, hopeful, his smile almost too brilliant to look at. Jared can't stand it.
"Why are you here?" he asks, and doesn't care that it sounds hostile.
Jensen stops short, a few feet shy of where Jared's sitting. "What?"
Jared lifts his head to look directly at him, challenging the way no sub should be. "Why. Are. You. Here?"
The man parts his lips, confusion wrinkling across his forehead, and it suddenly occurs to Jared that Jensen doesn't understand. He does not understand why Jared would not want to see him.
All the wounded anger Jared has been bottling up is transmuting itself into a cold, clear rage, building up behind his teeth like icy venom, so that when Jensen lifts a hand to touch hiss shoulder Jared jerks away so hard that the bench topples, Jared shooting to his feet with an arm flung up between them.
"Why are you here?" he yells, and it echoes oddly between buildings in the wet night. It's probably close to four now and the downtown area's deserted, for which Jared can only be grateful.
"Calm down," Jensen says curtly, and that's one place Misha and Jensen have never been alike. If Jared pushes and tests the boundaries, Jensen will damn well push back, and it wasn't something Jared realized he'd missed, or wanted. Needed.
Jensen's reaching for him again and Jared steps away, but his back is to the bar and in a few more feet there's nowhere left to go. Jensen crowds him back against the brick and brackets Jared's body with his forearms against the building. He's not touching him yet, but he's not leaving Jared any room to move or maneuver, either.
God, Jared had forgotten what being surrounded by Jensen feels like, how the heat soaks through his skin into his bones. He feels trapped. He feels safe. "How did you even find me?" he asks, and it comes out on a whisper.
"Your brother told me where you'd gone," Jensen rasps. His voice is lower than Jared remembers, but it's just as familiar as his smile. "I've known for a while, Jay."
"You—what?" Jared says blankly. "He told you? Why—?" Didn't you come before, Jared wants to ask, but he knows the answer to that. "Wait, how long is a while?"
Jensen's watching him, gaze soft and more intimate than it has any right to be. "Pretty much since the beginning."
That's… utterly crushing. Sometimes, in his darkest moments, Jared had clung to the idea that if Jensen had known where he was, he would have come. They'd been at the very least friends, once, even if Jared had assumed so much more.
But Jensen had known. He'd known, and done nothing, and the knowledge hurts so badly Jared almost completely misses what he says next.
"I'd have gone crazy, otherwise. But Jeff said you were happy here, and I thought— well. I wanted you to decide, when you were ready, if you still wanted me," Jensen says, reaching up to stroke Jared's cheek and hesitating just before his fingers brush skin. "Jay."
The sheer ludicrousness of the statement is enough to shock Jared out of his stupor. "Jen," he responds, disbelief and fury warring in his tone, "I did decide. I offered myself to you twice. You rejected me, twice."
"I know," and suddenly Jensen sounds so desperate. "God, Jay, I know, and I know I hurt you, but please, you have to believe me. It damn near killed me to say no to you, you can't do this to me—"
"Can't—what? What are you talking about?" Jared asks, floundering.
"Jeff told me that you'd found someone else," Jensen says in a rush, and his hand drops to fist in Jared's shirt. His eyes are pleading. "Last week, when you called him. I couldn't— I can't let you, Jay."
Misha. He's talking about Misha, and Jared's half-joking comment to his brother, and if anything could make Jared feel worse at this moment it's being reminded of that. "Jeff told you," Jared says slowly, trying to work out what Jensen's getting at. "What do you mean, you can't let me?"
"Moron," Jensen says roughly, and gives him a little shake. "I would have claimed you the day I met you if your momma hadn't sent me packing. I'd never felt the urge that strongly before. Jesus, it was crazy how much I wanted you."
It didn't make sense. None of it made sense. "Then, why? Jensen, why?"
"It was your father."
Of all the possible answers Jared has thought of over the years, this is one option that has honestly never occurred to him. "My… dad?" he repeats, stunned.
Jensen flattened his hand across Jared's chest and slid it upwards, until his palm rested at the base of Jared's throat. "He talked to me, after that first time. He's always wanted more for you than he had, Jay, your mom claiming him so young. I wanted more for you, too. I wanted to explain, but you disappeared so quickly I never got the chance. After that, I figured… I thought I'd hurt you enough. I thought it would be better for you if I let you do what you wanted. But," and here Jensen caught Jared's eyes and held them, his own eyes fever-bright and fervent, "Jay, please. I know I don't deserve another chance, but I can't lose you. I love you."
"You… love me?" Jared parrots dumbly back, because it's almost too much information to take in at once: Jensen's here, Jensen was waiting, Jensen loves him, Jensen, Jensen, Jensen.
He finally lets himself slump forward until his head is resting on the other man's shoulder, and Jensen braces himself against the extra weight with a low grunt, wrapping his arms around Jared without hesitation. His grip is so tight it almost hurts.
"Damn. Swear you got even bigger."
"Two inches," Jared mumbles, nuzzling further into Jensen's neck and breathing him in. "Say it again."
"I'll do better."
The Dom lets go of him to fumble something out of his jacket pocket. It's a dark wooden case, too long and thin for a ring, Jared notes with a kind of detached shock.
"I've been carrying this for three years," Jensen says with the tiniest of catches in his voice, and opens the case.
Jared stares down at the slim leather band lying in Jensen's hands. It's finely tooled and lined with bloodred silk, and it's making Jared's knees shake just looking at it.
"Oh, God," he says faintly, and Jensen laughs a little brokenly.
Right there, onto wet cement and dead leaves, Jared Padalecki goes to his knees for Jensen Ackles. It's the third time.
Jensen's fingers (they're trembling almost violently, and Jared thinks, I love you, I love you) slide the collar into place around his neck, fastening it at the back. It's the first time.
It fits perfectly.