It was a depressingly sunny mid-summer's day and Jared was keeping himself busy by sweeping out the royal stables.
More or less.
"That doesn't look like working to me, Jared!" Stablemaster Jim shouted, then sighed when Jared promptly tripped over his own feet. "Less daydreaming and more sweeping!"
"Sorry!" Jared hollered back. He offered Jim a sheepish smile. "Just a little... distracted, I guess."
Jim rolled his eyes. "You and half the kingdom." He shot a dark glance at where Nick and Tom, two of the new stable hands, were huddled together amid the stacked bales of hay, making even less of an attempt of looking like they were working than Jared was. They'd staggered in a few moments ago in a flurry of giggles and hurried whispers, colour high on their cheeks and guilty fascination bright in their eyes. Jared had seen it far too many times before not to know what it meant, but he was trying not to get his hopes up.
There was no reason to believe that Jensen was coming to visit him. They could have seen him anywhere. Really.
The sound of Jim's throat clearing yanked Jared back into the present for the second time in as many minutes. "Sorry, what?"
Jim shook his head. "It's gonna be like this for the next three days, isn't it?" he asked, missing Jared's sharp flinch at the words. "Carry on then, but for god's sake, could you at least try to get some work done?"
Jared's smile was weak. "I'll do my best."
Jim walked off muttering, and Jared put broom to floor with rather more force than he had been previously. The quiet susurrus of the bristles across the hard packed floor was monotonous and soothing and Jared did his best to focus on that instead of thinking.
His brain, of course, was having none of it.
Three days, it whispered, anxiety pricking at him until he felt like he'd burst. Three days, three days, thre-
"Sounds like you're working hard," a dry voice behind him said and Jared whirled so fast nearly he impaled himself on the broom handle. Jensen smiled at him from a few feet away, casual and breathtaking in soft-looking suede. "That broom been giving you a hard time, Jared?"
Jared felt pathetically relieved by the fact that Jensen couldn't see the way he just fucking lit up at the sight of him. "It's a hard life I lead," he agreed and then, shyly, "Jensen."
Jensen cocked his head at him, amusement curling the corners of his mouth. "That's new. Usually I have to threaten to hit you to get you to call me by name in public. Who are you showing off for?"
"The new hands," Jared admitted. He cast a furtive glare at where Nick and Tom were doing a remarkably bad job at trying to look like they weren't staring. "They were talking about you earlier."
The sound of Jensen laughing did strange things to Jared's insides. "Protecting my honour, Jared?" he teased, hand twitching like he'd clap Jared on the shoulder if he could only be certain of connecting. "I'm all aflutter."
Jared coughed. "What brings you down here anyway? Sick of getting fitted for new clothes?"
"Spirits, don't remind me," Jensen groaned. "I don't know how they think I'm going to wear an entire wardrobe in a week." He shifted on the spot, tilting his head in a silent request. Obediently, Jared scuffed one foot across the floor and watched as Jensen oriented himself and stepped carefully closer. "I actually came to see if I could tempt you into letting me take Chev out for a ride."
There were all sorts of things that Jensen could tempt him into, Jared thought, but he wasn't about to admit it. "So you can break your neck and get me thrown in prison for the rest of my life?" he scoffed. "Not a chance."
Jensen's sigh was overly put-upon. "You and Chris never let me have any fun."
"That's because you're apparently suicidal. Where is he, anywhere?" Jared glanced past Jensen towards the open stable doors where there was a distinct lack of the captain of Jensen's bodyguard. "I didn't think he was supposed to let you wander around unsupervised."
"Whoreson." Jensen's hand half-raised and this time Jared took the necessary step forward to let Jensen slug his arm. He kind of deserved it for that one. "I'm not a dog, you know."
Jared couldn't help raising an eyebrow, letting the silence speak for him.
"I have no idea why we're friends." Jensen grumbled, though he was smiling as he said it. "See if I ever come out to visit you again. Chris' just round the corner," he admitted, waving a hand in the general direction of the doorway. "Said he didn't want to listen to me whine anymore."
"So I get to listen to you whine instead. Lovely."
Jensen's grin arched. "Well, I know how you pine without me."
Jared decided to ignore the way that made his cheeks heat. "You're such a giver. I'm still not letting you on a horse, though."
"Damn," Jensen said, with just enough wistfulness beneath the lightness to make Jared's stupid heart clench. "Was worth a try."
"Hey." Jared brushed a tentative hand against Jensen's arm. "Three days from now you'll be able to take yourself out riding without needing to whine to me about it first."
Jensen made a face. "Quit it with the concerned act, Jared, you sound ridiculous. I'm not really upset. Just... y'know."
Jared nodded quietly. "Yeah," he said, though he didn't know, not really. There'd never been anyone else like Jensen. And in three days, they'd have proof of it.
Spirits, Jared wasn't ready for this.
"Come on," he said aloud, hand lingering at Jensen's elbow. "Let's go say hello to Chev."
Jensen's answering grin could have brightened a whole room. "About time you figured out I'm only using you to get closer to my baby."
Jensen's hand raised and Jared didn't think twice before taking it in his own. Jensen knew his way around the stables well enough that he didn't really need the help, but it was a habit over a dozen years in the making for both of them. And Jared was too selfish to start complaining now.
"Hey there gorgeous," Jensen crooned as they drew up to Chev's stall, gentle as a heartbeat. He let go of Jared and reached out with sightless fingers, grinning when Chev butted her head against them. "Missed me, huh?"
She's not the only one, Jared thought as Chev nickered an affirmative and Jensen reached into his pocket for a sugar cube. It'd been a good fortnight since they'd last seen Jensen; too many opportunities for a slip-up that could easily ruin Jensen's whole life making it difficult for him to get permission to visit the stables. And it wasn't like Jared could go visit him. Not when he was just a stable boy and Jensen was, well Jensen.
"I know you're still there, Jared." Jensen tilted his head, not quite guessing the angle right and ending up facing somewhere past Jared's right shoulder. "Stop standing around and come help me brush down my baby."
Jared sighed, forcing a smile into his voice. "You royal types are always so bossy. I hate to think how bad you're gonna be when you can actually see who you're ordering around."
Jensen laughed, shoulders tilting back against the stall, and the tails of his blindfold fell brilliant and white against Chev's inky coat. It was a sight that Jared had seen a thousand times before and still he couldn't help but stare. Three more days and Jensen would never have to wear the blindfold again.
Jared had never heard worse good news in his life.
Prince Jensen of Ackles was cursed. Or blessed. It depended on who you asked.
Because his fairy godmother may not have meant it unkindly when she'd granted him the gift of love at first sight, but she probably should have considered the logistics of keeping him from falling passionately in love with the first person who walked in the door before she went ahead with that particular gift.
Luckily the queen had always been good at thinking on her feet and baby Jensen's eyes had been covered before he'd ever had the chance to open them. Unluckily, it had quickly become clear that they now had a problem that wasn't going to go away any time soon. Love at first sight only worked once, after all, and Jensen had been kind of young for falling for someone. So the blindfold stayed. And stayed. And stayed.
Personally, Jared figured that if he'd been the one who'd been essentially blinded from infancy, he'd have been pretty keen to get married as soon as humanly possible just to get the whole thing over with. Jensen, however, was either far more patient or far less bothered about seeing than Jared was, because up to this point he'd made little to no effort to find some nice princess or lord's daughter to spend the rest of his life blissfully in love with.
"Why should I?" Jensen had said, the one time Jared had cautiously dared to ask him about it. "It's not like I'm unhappy, you know? And there's no way they're going to need me to carry on the line or whatever, not when Josh's already got two kids." And then he'd grinned, private and amused and just for Jared. "Besides, if I didn't have the blindfold I'd actually have to see your ugly mug all the time instead of just imagining how hideous you are."
Sometimes, Jared thought it was ridiculously unfair just how charming Jensen could be even when he was being a jerk. Maybe it was a princely thing.
Perhaps the most surprising part of the whole ordeal, besides Jensen's apparent desire to stay blind forever, was how accommodating the king and queen had been about his refusal to settle down. Jared had never really met Jensen's parents, unsurprising really considering he was a stable boy, but he nonetheless got the impression that they'd kept from pressing the issue because they genuinely wanted Jensen to be happy on his own terms. And if Jensen was happy with the blindfold, they apparently weren't about to try and change his mind.
And so the blindfold had gone from temporary solution to permanent fixture, and most people had resigned themselves to the fact that the second prince would never see the sun or wield a sword or look himself in the mirror. Jared had been among that most.
Right up until the moment, shortly after Jensen's twenty-sixth birthday, that Jensen had gone and got betrothed after all.
The kingdom had immediately gone into paroxysms of delight when they'd heard about his engagement to the princess of Harris. Jared hadn't known how to react. Even now, with the official betrothal ceremony scarce days away, he was finding it hard to believe that this was actually happening.
It really didn't help that he'd been completely, utterly and pathetically in love with Jensen for about as long as he could remember.
Jared had been nine and apprenticed to Stablemaster Jim for all of three months the first time he saw Jensen. He'd been oiling tack at the time, nearly buried under the weight and smell of fresh leather and totally focused on not giving the Stablemaster any more occasion to yell at him.
He'd ignored the scuff of slow, careful feet to begin with - the stables were busy enough that unexpected visitors were hardly uncommon - until they stopped somewhere vaguely in front of him and a throat cleared softly.
"Um," a voice started and Jared had looked up to find a boy a few years old than him standing off to one side, dressed in fine, unadorned clothes with a crisp white blindfold wrapped snugly across his face.
Nine-year old Jared had been even more prone to speaking without thinking than the adult version was, so the first thing that came out of his mouth was, "Did you hurt your eyes?"
And that had earned him a grin: amused, quiet and shy all at once. "Not exactly," the boy said. "I'm Jensen."
Jared had grinned back, the expression faltering only slightly when he'd realized that Jensen couldn't see it. "Uh, hi, I'm Jared. Can I help you with something? I'm kind of new, but I know my way around pretty well if you need anything?"
Later, Jared would bang his head against the wall and wonder how he'd ever been that oblivious. At the time, though, he'd been too busy being at once pleased and confused by the way Jensen's smile had softened at his words, turning real in a way he hadn't noticed the first one wasn't.
"I'm not really supposed to be here," Jensen had admitted in a hushed voice, the quirk of his mouth and the tilt of his shoulders inviting Jared to join in on a joke he didn't understand. "But I wanted to visit the horses. Think you can help me out?"
It wasn't much of a decision. Even then, before Jared had known anything, he'd known Jensen was something special.
"Sure," Jared had smiled, tack spilling from his lap as stood. "You want me to hold your hand so you don't trip?"
And it had been as easy as that.
Two days before the princess' arrival found Jared in the open grassland beyond the castle wall, running the horses in one of the closed paddocks they used for training. He'd had his nose to the grindstone since sunup, more to keep his brain and hands busy than out of fear of Jim's infamously sharp tongue, and Jim had rewarded him with some time with the horses, who wouldn't have much chance to leave the stables once the princess and her entourage arrived the day after tomorrow. Jared couldn't really say he minded; the horses were in high spirits thanks to the bright weather and he couldn't help but grin as they pranced enthusiastically around the paddock, constantly nosing into his chest and sleeves to encourage him to join in the fun.
He was in the middle of the field, laughing as Sel nuzzled at his neck, when the sound of someone hailing him caught his attention. He slid a hand up to Sel's mane to check her enthusiasm and turned around to find two very familiar figures walking down the gentle slope towards the paddock.
"J-your Highness! Chris!" Jared jogged over, Sel trotting happily along behind. "What are you doing here?"
"Getting this idiot out of my hair," Chris said, jerking a thumb and a disgruntled expression at Jensen. "You about done playing with the horses?"
"Uh," said Jared. "More or less, I guess. Why?"
"No reason. Here, hold this," Chris said, jerking Jensen up against the fence. "I'll be right back."
"Dammit Chris!" Jensen growled as Chris headed back up towards the gate. "I'm not a piece of luggage, you know!"
"You keep telling yourself that, princess!" Chris shouted back, the grin obvious in his voice as he disappeared beyond the curve of the castle wall.
Which left Jared with a prince, a horse and absolutely no idea what was going on. "Um...?"
"He's such an ass," Jensen said, the fondly amused tilt to his lips putting the lie to his disgruntled tone. He and Chris were related on Jensen's mother's side, which Jared suspected had a lot to do with just how much Jensen let Chris get away with. Well, and the fact that they usually showed their affection by insulting each other.
Jensen's head tilted. "Jared?"
"Here." Jared stepped up flush against the fence and tapped Jensen's wrist.
Jensen's smile turned his way and Jared's heart jumped despite his best intentions.
"I didn't expect to see you today," Jared admitted, too soft. He pushed his voice into what he hoped was a normal tone as he added, "Don't you have any princely duties to take care of?"
Jensen made a face, slumping down against the fence. "I've been doing nothing but princely duties all day. This getting married lark isn't all it's cracked up to be. What about you?" he asked, while Jared fought the urge to agree heartily with that sentiment. "Jim been pushing you hard?"
Jared shrugged. "I was mucking out the stalls this morning but then he caught Nick and Tom trying to sneak off to the kitchens and made them take over."
"The two from yesterday?"
"Serves 'em right." He paused, breathing deep. "Doesn't really smell like you've been mucking out stalls."
"Washed up," Jared admitted, one self-conscious hand coming up to finger the still-damp curls at the base of his neck. "Figured the horses would appreciate it."
"Well," Jensen said, with a quiet smile. "It seems to have worked. Who's your friend?" His hand reached out over Jared's shoulder and Sel nosed at his fingers.
"Sel," Jared told him, impressed as always at Jensen's skill at getting around the world without his eyes. "The white."
Jensen nodded, hands confident and gentle as they smoothed across Sel's face. Jared's stupid heart gave another helpless flutter.
"Alright," Chris' voice declared then, and Jared turned to find the man himself trudging towards them, a saddle in his arms and tack slung over one shoulder. "Jim okayed it." He draped the saddle over the paddock fence, then gave Jensen a jostle with one elbow. "You owe me forever."
Jensen's smile turned brilliant. "Thanks Chris. I appreciate it."
Chris waved a careless hand. "Stop gushing, you're embarrassing yourself." His eyes flicked up at Jared, who was still standing around being confused. "Better get Chev saddled up," he said. "His royal Highness over here's expected for dinner and I'll kill you both myself if I have to cover for him cause you're not back."
A glimmer of understanding fought its way through Jared's bemusement. "You want to go for a ride with him? Now?"
"No," Chris said, with exaggerated patience. "I want you to go for a ride with him. I've got better shit to do. Not to mention that I'm seriously sick of his face."
"Fuck off." Jensen threw a punch in Chris' direction that didn't quite connect. "I take it back. I'm never going to appreciate you again."
"Liar." Chris threw an arch look at Jared. "Stop standing around looking surprised Jared - we're on a schedule here."
Jared gave himself a mental shake. "Right. Sure. I'll, uh, go saddle Chev?"
"That's better," Chris said, grinning. "Now get moving. I've got some people to distract while you two shirk off."
Chris helped Jared lead the rest of the horses back to the stable, then saw them both off with a hearty wave and another promise of bloody vengeance if Jensen wasn't back on time. Jensen responded with something appropriately vulgar and Jared led Chev through the castle gates at a walk, Jensen's solid bulk nestled in the saddle in front of him.
It had always been a guilty kind of pleasure for Jared, riding a horse with Jensen. They'd been doing it since Jared's arms had grown long enough to reach the reins with Jensen between him and the pommel, guiding the horse when Jensen couldn't.
Of course, saddles weren't exactly designed for two full-sized men to share, which left Jared getting far more acquainted with Jensen's personal space than was really appropriate. Unfortunately, Jared was even less likely to tell Jensen 'no' than he was to admit just how much he enjoyed the contact, so doubling up it was.
The main road to the village was bustling with activity and Jared kept their pace steady as he threaded through the crowd, just as keen to avoid attracting attention as he was to keep from running anyone over. Jensen kept his head down, the hood of his cloak pulled up despite the warmth of the day to hide the telltale flash of his blindfold.
Jensen had always been good at judging distances by feel rather than sight, so Jared was entirely unsurprised when he twisted round in the saddle bare moments after they'd passed out of sight of the gates, challenge written in every line of his face. "Come on Jared, pick it up. We'll never get there at this rate."
Jared grinned. "Better hold on then, your Highness." A single, sharp flex of his heels had Chev practically leaping off the road, startled voices tracking after them as they veered onto the rolling grass. Jensen whooped, fingers tightening on the pommel, and Jared leaned forward, arms bracketing close on either side of Jensen's waist to keep him safe.
They plunged across the foothills on the knife edge of reckless, all reveling in the rare moment of freedom. The forest loomed steadily closer as they left the road behind and Jared relied on memory and keen eyes to steer them towards the narrow game trail that would lead them in. He checked their mad flight as they crossed the tree line, reining Chev back to a more sedate pace as the silence of the forest fell around them. There was a road further south that they could have used just as well but they never took it, preferring the thrill and anonymity of trailblazing to the better traveled route.
Jared pointed out details to Jensen as they traveled, the quiet tromp of Chev's hooves a steady counterpoint to his voice. Jensen listened quietly, as he always did, head turning from side to side in time with Jared's words and sending the tails of his blindfold trailing across Jared's shoulder.
The place they finally stopped wasn't special for any reason beyond the fact that it was theirs: a mossy rise mostly free of foliage at the bend of one of the streams that fed into the lake in the valley far below. Jensen had been the one to find it the first time, sharp ears guiding the twitch of Jared's hands on the reins towards the sound of the water while Jared did his best not to steer them into any trees. Though they'd only made the journey a handful of times since then, it was so deeply etched into Jared's memories that he thought he could probably find it while wearing one of Jensen's blindfolds.
Chev halted at a prompt from the reins and waited patiently while Jared slung himself out of the saddle and reached back up, one hand on Jensen's knee and the other tapping lightly against the back of his hand.
"My lady," he grinned and Jensen huffed at him.
"Fuck you," he said, gripping Jared's hands firmly as he dismounted. He whacked Jared on the arm as soon as he was safely on the ground. "First thing I'm going to do when I can see is punch you in the face."
Jared scoffed. "You won't be able to reach, shortie."
"I will if I cut you off at the knees." Jensen flopped down on the ground, careless of the dirt and leaves staining his clothes, and gestured imperiously at Jared. "Sit down already, Sasquatch. You're blocking the sun."
"Like you'd know," Jared said, settling at Jensen's side.
"Hey, just because I can't see it, it doesn't mean I don't know it's there."
"Guess not," Jared acknowledged. His voice was too close to wistful when he added, "Won't have to wonder either way, the next time you and Chev go out."
Jared blinked. "Huh?"
"The next time we go out with Chev," Jensen corrected, flint sharp and precise. He rounded on Jared and Jared flinched at the scowl curling his lips. "Or are you looking forward to getting out of babysitting duty once I can get around on my own?"
"What? No, Jensen." Jared could hear the hurt in his own voice. "How could you think that?"
Jensen's fierce expression crumpled abruptly. "Sorry," he muttered, flopping down onto his back. "Didn't mean that."
Which sounded like a lie to Jared, but he wasn't about to call him on it. "Jensen?" he asked instead, tentative. "Are you... okay?"
Jensen laughed then, a weary sort of sound. "Sure. Why wouldn't I be?"
"I don't know," Jared admitted softly. "Maybe you could tell me."
Jensen didn’t say anything, blindfolded eyes turned up to the sky. Jared leaned back on the heels of his hands and tilted his own head back, watching the branches rustle and shift in the breeze. They sat in silence for a long while, listening to the murmur of the stream and the quiet sound of Chev grazing on the sparse grass.
"I was never going to," Jensen said suddenly. "Get married. Lose the blindfold. I was never going to do any of it."
Jensen sighed. "Just felt, I dunno. Like cheating or something. Like I'd only be falling in love to get the blindfold off, instead of because I'd found someone worth falling in love with." He stretched out, fingers tangling in the undergrowth above his head. "I was so mad that I'd never get the chance to do it the right way."
"That's-" Jared tried but Jensen wasn't done.
"I know there's no point in thinking like that. I mean, it's not like I'm going to be able to tell the difference once it happens." Jensen's mouth twisted. "Even if I don't get to know her first, I'm still going to be in love. And it's not exactly a huge sacrifice to pay for getting to use my eyes. But I-"
He broke off with a frustrated sound and when he spoke again the words tumbled out of his mouth like he was forcing them loose. "I didn't want to marry some girl never knowing if I'd have loved her without the spell. And I hate the idea of marrying someone who doesn't love me."
"Jensen," Jared breathed.
Jensen's shoulders hunched defensively. "I know it's stupid. And selfish. Whether it's real or not, I'll be in love. And it probably won't even matter to me if she doesn't love me - s'not like it'd change anything."
It was a long moment before Jared could find his voice, the words raw as he dragged them past the lump in his throat. "Jensen. What makes you think she won't love you?"
"Look at me, Jared," Jensen sighed, tone not dull enough to hide the pain hiding behind the resignation. "I'm not exactly anyone's idea of an ideal husband. I've never learned half the things I should have and even once I get my eyes back I'm probably never going to be normal. I've had to stay away from people my whole life, I don't know how to act around them."
"You've never had a problem with me," Jared couldn't help but point out.
Jensen's head rolled. "You're Jared. It's different."
"Doesn't have to be," Jared said, fighting not to get distracted by that. This wasn't about him. "You just need to give yourself some time, that's all."
Jensen shrugged. "Doesn't matter, I guess. I've already said yes. And it's not like there's any better option besides wearing the blindfold forever."
He sighed again and Jared looked down at him, sprawled out like a banquet across the grass with sunlight glinting gold in his hair. A tingle of anticipation dragged down Jared's spine as he realized just how isolated they were, how easy it would be to reach out, to give that blindfold a pull. He could give Jensen the love he wanted, just like that. One simple tug. It would be so, so easy. And Jensen would forgive him for it.
Because Jensen would love him. Almost the way Jared loved him.
He wet his lips. "Jensen..."
Jensen's head tilted towards him. "Yeah?"
Jared reached out with a shaky hand. His fingers skimmed the tail of Jensen's blindfold, trailing up towards his face. Jensen didn't move, the boneless sprawl of his limbs radiating nothing but trust.
And Jared couldn't do this.
His hand settled on Jensen's shoulder instead. "You shouldn't worry so much," he said, squeezing gently. "Of course she'll love you."
"You can't know that, Jared."
"She'll love you," Jared repeated, with as much conviction as he could muster. "Because you're Jensen. And you're worth falling in love with. Now come on," he said, before Jensen could find the words that went with the way his mouth was gaping open in surprise. "We should probably start heading back or Chris is going to skin me alive."
"Jared," Jensen tried, as Jared hauled him to his feet.
"You're going to be just fine," Jared told him, giving Jensen two hands and a leg up onto Chev's back. "You and the princess will love each other. You're going to see so many things, Jensen. It'll be so worth the wait. And you'll have your parents and Chris and me to look out for you."
"Sappy bastard," Jensen said, with a fair attempt at his usual dryness. Jared hoisted himself into the saddle behind Jensen and had to bite his lip when Jensen leaned back against him, his head tilting onto Jared's shoulder.
"You don't think I'm making a mistake?" asked Jensen in a quiet voice.
"No," Jared said, hoping it sounded more honest than it felt. "Not if it's what you want." He smiled down at Jensen as he turned them back up the trail towards the castle. "I know you, Jensen. You wouldn't have changed your mind about getting married without a damn good reason."
"Yeah," Jensen said, his voice heavy with something Jared couldn’t identify. "I guess not. Thanks," he said then. "For listening."
"S'why I'm here," Jared answered and they said nothing else on the subject for the rest of the ride.
When he didn't catch so much a glimpse of Jensen the next day, Jared didn't even bother trying to pretend he wasn't disappointed.
Tomorrow, he couldn't help but think, feeling young and tired and lost.
The day of Jensen's engagement dawned obnoxiously bright and cloudless and Jared was torn between resentment that even the weather was conspiring to make the day perfect and delight that Jensen's first look at the world was going to be so beautiful. Provided he could tear his eyes away from his new fiancée long enough to look out the window, of course.
It was possible that Jared wasn't handling this well.
Luckily for Jared's nerves, the princess' entourage was large enough to keep him up to his eyebrows in work for the better part of the morning. Not that this had much impact on Jared's stupid, stupid heart, but he'd take what he could get.
"You may as well give it a rest, son," Jim said to him, sometime in the mid-afternoon. "You're only going to do yourself a damage if you keep on like this."
"Huh?" asked Jared disingenuously, hands rubbing self-consciously at the bruise spreading on his thigh where he'd tripped over a bale of hay trying to avoid a shying horse earlier. "It's nothing, Jim, really-"
"Save it," Jim said. "You haven't fumbled with a horse like that since you were ten." Jared ducked his head, abashed, and Jim sighed. "You might be able to fool yourself into thinking you're okay with today, but the horses know better. And so do I. Now sit the hell down."
Not about to disagree, Jared sank down onto the bench next to Jim, fighting the urge to fidget. "So...?"
Jim ran a hand through his thinning hair, eyes fixed on a spot halfway to the stable doors. "It's hard," he said after a moment. "To watch hope die." His eyes slanted Jared's way. "Especially when you'd convinced yourself that you'd already given up on it."
"I..." Jared's voice caught in his throat. He coughed and tried again. "I don't..."
Jim silenced the rest of that sentence with a look. "Jared. Don't treat me like a fool. I know what love looks like."
Jared deflated. "I never meant to," he said, halfway to entreating. "And I'm happy for him, Jim, I am, but I can't... I can't-"
Jim's hand settled on his shoulder. "I'm sorry, lad. Wish I had something to say that would help."
Jared tried on a smile. It didn't fit very well. "It's okay," he said, dangerously wobbly. "I guess stable boys aren't really cut out for fairy tale endings, anyway."
"Maybe, maybe not. Whatever else, you've got a true friend in our prince. Don't forget that."
"...yeah. Jim, I-"
The herald's horn chose that moment to sound, marking both the sun's zenith and the beginning of the official betrothal ceremony.
Jared abruptly felt like he was going to be sick.
Jim took one look at Jared's stricken expression and shook his head. "Saddle up one of the mares and take yourself for a ride, will ya?" he said. "You're done for the day."
Busy staring dully at his hands, Jared caught only belatedly onto what he was being told. "I- what?"
"You're no good to me like this," Jim said, not unkindly. "And I expect you're just going to worry your fool self to death if you have to wait this out." He levered himself ponderously to his feet, waving a hand over his shoulder as he went. "Go spend the night in the village or something. Visit your folks. Figure out how you're going to handle this."
"Get out of here before I tie you to the damn horse myself. I'll see you in the morning."
Argentum was a solid, dependable horse, without as much fire as Chev, but patient and quicksilver fast. He and Jared set out from the castle gates under Jim's watchful eye, half a loaf of bread and a hunk of cheese in a satchel on Jared's back and a heavy blanket tied onto the saddle.
In no real hurry, Jared set an easy pace along the busy road, scraping together the facsimile of a smile for anyone who looked his way. He followed the main road all the way to the edge of the village and there he stopped, looking out across the clustered houses and the brown stretch of the fields further off while the wind tugged at his hair and sent Argentum's mane to dancing.
His father and brother would be out in the fields right now, Jared knew, his mother and his sister-in-law taking care of the household chores. It had been a good few months since he'd seen them last; work at the stable tended to keep him away from the village at the best of times, and he'd been more than a little distracted in the recent weeks. It made guilt pang in his chest to think how delighted they'd be to see him, his own sense of homesickness resonating in sympathy.
Which didn't at all explain why he turned Argentum away from the village and towards the path leading towards the forest, but Jared knew it was the right decision regardless. It wasn't a day for family.
He rode aimlessly for a long while, letting the never-still silence of the forest drown out all but the loudest thoughts buzzing around in his head. The novelty of taking the main road kept him occupied for a time, before he eventually veered off into the thicker brush, trusting half a lifetime of exploring these woods to keep him from getting too turned around.
The world was dimming into dusk by the time Jared finally found his way to their spot by the stream. He left Argentum to graze while he settled in for the night, clearing some space for his bedroll and digging a small fire pit. The forest whispered quietly around him but Jared wasn't much concerned; only small game lived this close to the tree line and the light from the fire would frighten away most everything except the bugs.
Dinner was a quiet affair, Jared's mind an almost-pleasant hum of absent thoughts and the crackle of the fire. He left the fire to burn down while he checked on Argentum, then lay down with his blanket.
The sky beyond the canopy of leaves was filled with stars and Jared sighed as he watched them shine, wondering if Jensen was looking up at them right now.
The fire popped loudly in the stillness and Jared firmly told himself to stop thinking so hard and go to sleep. The world would still be there tomorrow. And so, for good and bad, would Jensen.
Jared focused on the murmur of the stream to soothe his rapid pulse and, when he finally let it lull him to sleep, he dreamed of riding through the trees with a laughing Jensen at his side, not a blindfold in sight.
Jared's sleep was fitful at best and he woke the next morning with a rock poking him in the kidney and Argentum nibbling at his hair.
"Hey," he protested sleepily, doing a remarkably poor job of batting him away. "M'not a haystack."
Argentum nickered at him, obviously not interested in letting Jared sleep any longer, and Jared hauled himself upright with a sigh, wincing when his back protested.
"M'not used to this," he admitted aloud, smoothing a fond hand down Argentum's flank. "Don't think I've ever missed the hayloft so much."
The combination of aches, kinks and dirt left over from a night of sleeping in the forest prompted Jared to venture into the pond for a quick swim before heading back. He manfully resisted the urge to shriek at the shock of cold as he dunked himself under the water, thankful when it didn't take long for his body to grow numb enough to tolerate the chill. The overhead sky faded from rosy dawn to a rich summertime blue while he lazed around in the water, Argentum waiting patiently on the shore.
He was pink and shivering by the time he hauled himself out and he and Argentum split the rest of the bread and cheese while the rising heat of the day dried him off. The meager meal didn't do much more than shave the edge off the hunger Jared could feel rising in his stomach, which he figured was about his cue to be getting back. He cleared up the last of his fire pit and saddled Argentum, giving the clearing one last wistful look before heading off.
Since the day was getting on and it was actually impossible to make a quick visit to see his family, Jared forewent heading back towards the village in favour of taking his and Jensen's normal route along the game trails. Sure that the main road would be clogged with the bustle of guests and well-wishers, he rode instead through the foothills, making no real attempt to hurry.
Of course, when he finally reached the castle gates, Jared started to wonder if he maybe should have come back sooner after all.
Where he had expected busy roads, jubilant lords, excited workers and gravely pleased dignitaries, he found only stillness; a meager scatter of servants hustling across the cobblestones and stopping to share quick, hurried whispers before continuing on their way. No crowds. No celebrations. He didn't think he'd ever seen the castle so quiet.
Mystified, Jared urged Argentum forwards at a faster pace, trying to ignore the way the soldiers at the gate watched him go with wary eyes. Jim would be able to tell him what was going on.
When he got to the stable, he found Jim pacing in front of the doors, looking more frazzled than Jared had ever seen him. Confusion shifted belatedly into concern as Jared dismounted and stepped cautiously closer.
"Jim?" he asked. "What's-"
"Jared?" Jim's head jerked up and he breathed out a noisy exhale. "About damn time you showed up!"
Jared was lost. "Huh?"
"He's back!" Jim hollered over his shoulder then, at Jared, "Where you been, boy? Marron's sake, the next time I tell you to go to your parents, you do it, y'hear me?"
"I-" Jared started, only to stutter to a stop when Chris strode out of the stable with four armed guardsmen behind him. "Chris?" he demanded. "What're you-"
"Not now." Chris hooked a hand in Jared's sleeve and started dragging, the guardsmen forming up around them. "Come on."
"Chris - wait, what..." Jared flailed, staggering in Chris' wake. "Spirits, Chris, would you just-!"
Chris ignored him entirely, striding across the flagstones like he was at the head of a conquering army. The shadow of the castle wall loomed over them and Jared faltered, nearly falling on his face when Chris' pace didn't so much as hitch.
"Chris!" Jared squawked, voice several octaves too high. "What's going on?"
"Jensen's an idiot," Chris shot back over one shoulder, as though this was any kind of answer. "Now would you move it already?"
Jared wrenched his arm free and glared. "Not until you tell me where in the nine kingdoms we're going!"
Chris shrugged. "To see Jensen. If you hadn't run off, you'd know that."
"I did not - augh!"
"You may as well stop arguing," Chris said, far too cheerful for the way he was hauling Jared through the heavy door into the castle proper. "You're coming whether you like it or not."
"Stable boys aren't supposed to go into the ca-fuck!" Jared tripped over an expensive looking rug and nearly ended up on his face.
"Pick it up, Sasquatch! If I have to carry you, I'm gonna be pissed!"
Chris wove them through a maze of hallways and corridors until Jared's head was spinning at both the speed and the opulence. They earned more than a few odd looks as they charged through and Jared felt like his sheepishly apologetic expression was permanently stuck on his face by the time Chris finally drew to a halt in front of a large pair of double doors.
"Here we go," Chris said, almost conversationally. He reached out to straighten Jared's collar, which was quite possibly the most concerning part of this entire ordeal. "Now I'd tell you not to be too much of an idiot, but I think it'd be better if you acted like yourself. Congratulations by the way. Now let's go," he said then, and Jared nearly died of panic when he realized that they were walking into the throne room, which was full of very important people who looked nearly as confused at the interruption as Jared felt.
At the dais at the other end of the room stood the king and queen, an older woman Jared didn't recognize and Jensen, standing with his back to the room. Jared's heart jolted sharply in his chest at the sight of him and nearly stopped all together when he realized that he couldn't see the tails of Jensen's blindfold trailing against the dark blue of his tunic.
Jared glanced around quickly, but wherever the princess was, she apparently wasn't that easy to spot in a room full of extremely well dressed nobles.
Jensen clearly hadn't noticed their arrival, preoccupied as he was with arguing with his father. "I already told you," he was saying, voice on the thin end of patience. "That it's just not possible. You think I've been blind for the last twenty six years for kicks?"
"We can't know what happened," the king shot back. "And since the only other option is completely ludicrous-"
Jensen growled. " And this isn't? Cause I think I'd have noticed suddenly seeing dad. Kind of hard to miss."
The king sighed. "Jensen..."
"He's right, you know," the woman interrupted, calmly polite. "My spell's still intact."
"Thank you!" Jensen said, throwing his arms in the air.
"Then how do you explain this, Samantha?" Jensen's father demanded. "What's going on here?"
The woman, Samantha, smiled. "I think we're about to find out," she said and lifted her hand to gesture past Jensen's shoulder.
Towards Jared. Who was standing, alone, out of his depth and six leagues beyond confused, in the middle of the throne room. He was going to kill Chris.
Jensen turned to follow the gesture and Jared felt a shock rock through him when his eyes flashed up to find Jensen staring at him, eyes meeting for the very first time. Jensen's eyes were the deep green of the forest, bright as chipped jade, and Jared couldn't have stopped staring if he'd tried.
As he watched, rapt, Jensen's expression shifted from frustrated to confused, carried right on into shocked and finally settled on something that Jared didn't even begin to know how to read.
"Oh that makes so much sense," Jensen said, almost to himself, and then he was off the dais and in front of Jared, his naked face disconcertingly new.
"Jared," he said, voice rich with satisfaction. His head tilted to one side in a way that was nothing but familiar. "Where have you been?"
"You've got green eyes," Jared blurted, brain still trying to process what he was seeing.
Jensen's answering chuckle slid warm and oh so welcome down Jared's spine. "Apparently. Your hair is even worse than I was expecting."
"Shut up, I'm gorgeous," Jared's mouth shot back automatically and he flushed, abruptly appalled at himself. "No, wait... that's, I didn't-"
Jensen didn't appear bothered by Jared's fumbling. His eyes dragged slowly down from Jared's face to the soles of his boots, then back up again. "Yeah," he said, and Jared squirmed under his steady regard. "I can see that. Finally."
Jared had to be hearing things. "What?"
"So I'm not engaged anymore," Jensen said, ignoring the way Jared just about swallowed his tongue in surprise. "Seems as though there was a bit of a loophole in the gift my godmother gave me." Jensen glanced at Samantha and she beamed at him while the king and queen stood beside her looking regally confused. Jared couldn't really say he blamed them.
"What kind of loophole?" he asked, vaguely aware of the fact that the entire room was listening to him sound like an idiot.
"Funny thing," Jensen said, in a careless tone of voice that was anything but. "Apparently love at first sight doesn't work so well if you're already in love."
Jared could almost feel the hope spreading across his face, knew it had to be completely obvious to Jensen and anyone else who was watching. Which was everybody. "Jensen?"
"Guess I should probably have figured it out earlier," Jensen admitted, nonchalant if you didn't know to read the nervousness written in every nuance of the way he held himself. He met Jared's eyes and took a deep breath. "Seeing as how I changed my mind about getting married because I was tired of not knowing what you looked like."
"Spirits, Jensen," Jared breathed, unable to help himself. "I am so in love with you."
Jared had thought Jensen's smile was wonderful even with the blindfold; it was nothing to compare to how it looked now, those green, green eyes lighting up like the whole sky was shining through them. "Good," Jensen said, hand curling in the front of Jared's shirt and dragging him down. "Because I've apparently been wanting to do this for a long damn time."
And Jared knew it couldn't be this easy, not for a stable boy and a prince, but it was hard to bring himself to care when he had Jensen in his arms, kissing him like he'd never wanted anything more. Which was just about the best kind of happily ever after Jared could have wished for.
For him, it had always been love at first sight.