Alona’s gasp, thin but loud, reached Jared as he was about to open the back office door. His heart racing, he ran out, mentally running through the shelter’s occupants and wondering with dread who was ill. Reaching the newly expanded veterinarian’s space, Jared clutched the doorway edge in a white-knuckled grip.
But Alona stood alone in the examination room, not a feather, fur tuft, or even turtle shell in sight.
“What’s wrong?” he blurted, still out of breath from the dash.
She smiled oddly and motioned behind her, toward her desk.
Jared approached, eyes widening at the usually pristine surface, now tiled with a riot of colorful squares. Eyebrows narrowing, it took a beat until the names on the papers registered. Krackel … Reese’s… Milky Way … His heart skipped a beat. Jensen.
Alona didn’t say anything but shook her head fondly. “Tell him thank you from me.” She laughed. “I doubt my boyfriend will be this sentimental.”
“Oh, I’m sure Eddie will come through this V-day. Last year you got roses.”
“Yeah, but we were new then, it was our first Valentine’s Day. Those are always special, you know.”
Jared didn’t say anything. He and Jensen had been separated for their first Valentine’s Day. Jensen had been in Texas with his cousin Samantha, learning about himself, trying to piece together his past. There’d been a phone call. But it had been stilted and awkward. Jensen had been working on his speech intensively. He hardly had time for romantic gestures. And Jared didn’t really know where they stood. He’d known how he felt. He loved Jensen. But Jensen had the world opening to him and Jared didn’t know why he’d ever choose Jared and his rag-tag animal shelter. He’d worried that Jared represented a time in Jensen’s life he’d rather forget.
Snatching a candy, Jared started back to his office and the many fundraising-related rejection emails he expected to find in his inbox when he heard Misha’s loud, “What the hell?”
Spinning around, Jared headed toward the shelter’s front entrance. The long, recently refinished front counter was covered with huge, red, heart-shaped baskets brimming with more candy. Misha smiled, fished around for a Kit-Kat bar which he immediately opened, despite it being barely past seven-thirty in the morning. “Someone’s been busy,” he mumbled between chocolate bites.
Jared shook his head. “Wasn’t me.” He pointed upward. When Jensen bought the building that housed the animal shelter, he’d also remodeled an apartment on the top floor. Misha teased Jared about living in Jensen’s ‘penthouse’. It was larger than anything Jared had ever lived in outside of his parent’s home back in Texas, but it was modest by any standard Jensen’d had prior to his accident. Still, a three-bedroom, two-bath apartment in the city was luxurious.
They’d converted one bedroom into an office for Jensen, where he worked on his charitable foundation responsibilities. One had been left a guest room and was filled more often than not with someone who temporarily needed a place to stay. Their bedroom, however, was safe and private and just theirs.
“If this place looks like Hallmark Central then what’s your apartment look like?” Misha asked with wide eyes when he’d licked the chocolate from his fingers.
“I don’t – I mean, it was normal when I woke up. Jen was still asleep.”
“When did he--?”
Jared wondered if Jensen had snuck out in the middle of the night to spread candy everywhere. That was the most likely answer. Either that or magic...
“What’s your office look like?” Misha asked.
“I hadn’t…“ He met Misha’s eyes and they both headed back together.
Outwardly, it looked more or less the same, sleek gray file cabinets surrounding the old desk Jared had insisted on keeping. The ergonomic desk chair was a compromise to Jensen’s desire to provide Jared with an upgraded workspace. The chair was brilliant red because that was Jared’s favorite color next to the green of Jensen’s eyes and none of the green chairs had been the right shade.
Responding to the disappointment on his face, Misha clapped Jared on the shoulder. “There’s got to be something here. Go on, check your desk.”
Jared pulled open his top desk drawer, the one where he always kept a small stash of candy. His heart skipped as he took in the contents now – an assortment of all his favorite candy bars. Full size, not minis, flush to the very edge. He reached in and pulled out a specific bar, throat thickening with emotion.
But his breath didn't hitch until he heard a soft voice.
Neither noticed Misha step away silently to return to the heart of the shelter.
Hand still clutching the candy bar, Jared turned to face Jensen standing just inside the doorway. The back door no longer led directly out to the alley. They’d built an enclosed walkway that provided a shortcut to the service elevator. It let Jared get home, get to Jensen, without ever stepping outside. The door slipped closed behind Jensen as he approached Jared. His lips twitched in a small smile as he took in the still-open drawer behind Jared.
“It was time for a refill,” he said softly.
Jared knew that Jensen hadn’t intended to completely discombobulate Jared with this romantic gesture. They were only candy bars and everyone knew that Jared had a sweet tooth. The drawer had some sweets stuffed in the back even before Jensen had gotten to it … this morning, last light?
But all Jared could remember was Jensen’s filthy hand, reaching out shakily nearly two years ago, clutching desperately at the candy that had been the small morsel of food that Jared could provide.
He’d feared losing him so many times.
It was a miracle he’d ever found him in the first place.
Jensen took him in a strong hug. “I have upset you.”
“No,” Jared protested, but the death hold grip to Jensen’s shoulder gave him away.
“Today is Valentine’s Day.” Jensen’s voice was apologetic and Jared couldn’t stand him thinking he’d done anything wrong.
“Jen. It’s a lovely gesture.” He pulled back and met troubled green eyes and forced himself to crack a smile. “Thank you.” He swallowed hard, biting back emotion. “Alona and Misha thank you, too.”
“I did it for you.”
Of course he did. Everything Jensen did he always said it was for Jared. It felt uneven sometimes, it worried Jared that he didn’t do enough.
Jared had intended on surprising Jensen with dinner out, reservations had been made weeks back. But suddenly, taking Jensen out to dinner – using what was essentially Jensen’s money – didn’t seem like much.
“You’re thinking too loud,” Jensen whispered into his ear.
Jared hiccupped a tiny laugh.
Jensen pulled back, forced Jared to meet his eye. “Is it last year? How we missed our first Valentine’s Day because I was in Texas? That’s part of why I--”
“No. You needed to be in Texas. God, Jen, it did you so much good … I could never begrudge you that.” He stopped, eyes dipping back to the candy still in his grip. He’d squeezed it so hard it was likely melting beneath the wrapping. He shut his eyes and forced himself back to the present. Jensen was fine. Better than fine. Thriving.
“I do not understand,” Jensen said, palm cupping Jared’s cheek. Jared leaned into it instinctively. “I thought the candy would make you happy. You love candy.”
Jared leaned back against the desk and drew Jensen between his thighs, arms coming down to Jensen’s slim hips. “It reminded me of the day we met.”
Jensen’s eyes widened before he blinked and looked down. “Ah. The Beast.”
“You were never a beast.”
This was an old argument, which Jared knew he’d never win but he couldn’t stop himself from correcting Jensen every time it came up. Truth was, they didn’t talk about it much. He could count the conversations about Jensen’s homeless years on one hand.
Jared held up the Snickers bar and waited until Jensen met his gaze. “You were hungry and all I had was some candy.”
“Jared … “
“No, Jen, let me. You do so much. Have done so much.” He gestured around before dropping the too-warm chocolate bar on his desk. “The shelter serves twice as many animals as before. We have three vets and a real clinic; it’s practically an animal hospital. I still do fundraising, but let’s face it, you support this place. You built us a place to live … I can’t … there aren’t enough words for all that you do. Not just for me but for this entire community.”
Jensen didn’t talk about his efforts but Jared was aware of the donations to the neighborhood’s homeless facilities and the brand new shelter that arose practically overnight after Jensen had settled here. When Jensen wasn’t in his office keeping the foundation going, or at the animal shelter helping Jared, he was at the homeless shelter, walking around, quietly talking to people. Asking gentle questions. Rebuilding lives one person at a time.
Jensen squirmed uncomfortably. He still didn’t like praise.
After a few silent moments, Jensen said, “I do what I can. People need things and if I can provide them, then, it’s good.” Jensen’s brows furrowed and he pointed back to the candy. “What does that have to do with … “
“I wish I could have done more then. Do more now.”
Jensen lifted his arms to wrap around Jared’s neck. Their foreheads touched. “If you did not save me, none of this would exist. Does that not count?”
“We saved each other.”
“Perhaps,” Jensen admitted. He’d heard that sentiment from Jared many times before. He looked like he was trying to formulate something to say. His speech, while sometimes a little formal, was nearly flawless, but there were times he stumbled. After a long moment he reached behind Jared and picked up the chocolate bar.
“Before you … it had been a long time that I had been offered food. I found what I ate. I tried not to steal but sometimes I did. It is fuzzy now. Like a memory of a story you have heard, rather than one you have experienced.” He paused again, gathering his thoughts. “I know you do not like to think about the Beast, so I will explain it this way.” His eyes burned like a forest fire. “Even if I was human all along, you gave me back my humanity. So no matter what you say I did for you. Nothing can ever compare with that.”
Jared didn’t fight the swell of tears. He took the Snickers bar from Jensen and opened it solemnly, splitting it in two and sharing half with the love of his life. They both took a bite before bringing their lips together and sharing a chocolate-caramel smeared kiss. Jared licked until he no longer tasted chocolate, only Jensen’s natural sweetness beneath it all. Kissing Jensen always left him light headed. Buzzing with golden starbursts that flickered behind his shut eyes.
“I love you so much,” he murmured into Jensen’s neck before nibbling there until Jensen’s skin felt hot. Then he kissed the spot gently, soothing away any sting from his love bite. Usually, it was Jensen who got possessive and enjoyed leaving marks behind. But sometimes, Jared felt the need to stake a claim, as caveman as that sounded.
Jensen tilted his head up and whispered, “I love you, too,” into Jared’s mouth before devouring him in another crushing kiss.
They pulled back for air, breathing heavily and unconsciously shifting their hips toward each other. Jared blurted out his surprise. “I made us reservations for tonight. That new restaurant Sam emailed about. I thought we’d try it out and then when she’s here next we’ll know if it’s worth it.”
Jensen looked at Jared with surprise. “There’s like a month waiting list for that place.”
“So? I can think ahead.”
“You planned our Valentine’s Day dinner in January?” Jared nodded as Jensen’s smile brightened. “Sap.”
Jared pouted. “I’m not the sap. You planted candy all over the shelter.”
“Not just the shelter.”
Jared’s dimples appeared as he contemplated finding secret candy stashes for weeks. He locked eyes with Jensen again trying not to get too lost in the golden flecks buried within the green. “How’d you do it? I mean, we fell asleep together and you were still sleeping when I woke up this morning.”
“That would be telling.”
“Someone help you?”
Jensen looked insulted at the thought. “I’m perfectly capable of handling my own grand romantic gestures.”
Like any good fairy tale prince, Jared thought, but didn’t say. “C’mon,” he cajoled. “How’d you do it?”
They’d fixed the flickering florescent light ages ago so Jared had no reasonable explanation for the sparkles that bounced off Jensen’s blond highlights. “Trade secrets,” Jensen answered enigmatically.
Jared let it go. Some mysteries were meant to stay unresolved. “Wear the gray suit tonight, okay?”
“The Armani? You really like that one?”
He liked peeling it off Jensen almost as much as he loved the way it hugged his leanly muscled build. “There’s not much I don’t love you in.”
“I will. If it’s clean.”
“It is. I picked it up from the dry cleaner myself.”
A dog bark burst through their staring bubble. Jared reluctantly looked toward the door, knowing that he really needed to start his day. That’s when he noticed the empty wrapper still in his hand, once more triggering the memory of a ravenous Jensen, devouring the candy, wrappers and all. It was sometimes impossible to reconcile the images. Jensen looked like a movie star when he dressed up, clothes fitting him like he was coming off a runway, slick fabrics and perfect cuts. And in the same eye blink Jared could still see the brave hero hiding in his filthy hoodie. Having nothing but still making a difference.
“Jared, you look sad again,” Jensen said, concern darkening his face.
“I’m not. I don’t …“ He took a deep breath and told himself to look ahead to a lovely dinner and stop this backward nonsense. Jensen was healthy and beautiful and his. Shaking his head to both figuratively and literally snap himself out of this, Jared stepped away and walked around the desk to dispose of the candy wrapper and go see what the shelter’s charges needed today.
“Wait,” Jensen said, a hand suddenly gripping Jared’s wrist. “Don’t throw that out yet.”
Jared looked at Jensen confused, the wrapper crumpled in his fist.
“When I came back from Texas you made me promise something. Remember?”
Jared met Jensen’s eyes, tried to puzzle out what this was about. When Jensen returned to him, Jared had made him say they’d live happily ever after. Jensen had teased him about it, called him a sap. But it wasn’t every day one’s prince came back to them. Jared nodded yes.
Jensen continued, “I’ve been working on that. It … it wasn’t made lightly even if I did tease you.”
Jared nodded again. He knew that. Everything Jensen did, he did for Jared.
“You said my mother would have wanted that. Well, my mother’s stories always ended one way.”
Jensen picked up Jared’s closed fist. “Read it,” he said in almost a whisper.
Jared opened his palm and flattened out the wrapper before opening it with slightly shaky fingers. Printed on the wrapper’s inside were the words: ‘Marry me?’ in a flowery black script with shiny gold edging.
Jared’s heart felt two sizes too big for his chest. It beat like it wanted to escape. “J-Jen … I … oh my god.”
“Is that a ‘yes’?”
“What? Yes. Of course. Oh my god! Jen.” He pulled Jensen to him in a crunching hug. His fist tightened around the wrapper again. “How did you—what if I hadn’t taken that candy out? What if I chose another one—oh my god. You really are magic.”
Jensen laughed. “Jay … they all say that.”
“Every candy bar asks the same question.”
Jared’s smile was so huge his cheeks actually ached a little. “And I’m going to say yes. Every single time.”
Jensen’s eyes were watery as he leaned in to kiss Jared tenderly. “I love you. You’ve made me so very happy. Never doubt what you’ve given me, Jared.”
One more kiss, then reluctantly, Jared let Jensen go back upstairs. He felt Jensen’s love like a warm balm covering him from head to toe. He wanted to shout their engagement from the rooftop but he knew that Jensen would want them to tell their friends together so he’d wait. Jensen’s shyness was a part of him. When Jen was ready, they’d let people know.
Misha had finished processing a stray. The little dog had a collar and Jared hoped he’d be reunited with his owner soon. That was best case, of course. Sometimes the pets were abandoned and then Jared had to work to find a new home. What he never had to do anymore was send an animal away to a shelter that didn’t share Jared’s non-kill policy.
Jared stayed out front and took in a litter of kittens, ushered a sick poodle back to Alona and advised a new hamster owner on best practices to keep the pet healthy. Misha came back out after a while and they alternated between personal topics and shop talk. Jared couldn’t help smiling like a loon, causing Misha to joke about sugar highs while grabbing one mini Three Musketeers for himself and one for Jared.
“Jensen sure likes to go all out,” Misha said, between chews.
Jared slid the wrapper open between two fingers and popped the candy into his mouth. He nodded his agreement to Misha since his mouth was full. He was about to dispose of the wrapper when something caught the corner of his eye. The words ‘Marry me?’ in tiny black and gold script appeared along the inside. He crushed it in his hand and leaned into the wastebasket to peer through the wrappers that Misha had discarded earlier.
“Jay?” Misha questioned as one by one Jared studied them.
Only Jared’s wrapper had the question.
“Jay?” Misha asked again. “What’s wrong? You went pale.”
“But he said they all had it.”
“Who said they all had what?”
Jared’s eyes traveled the length of the long counter. “There must be pounds of candy here.”
Misha smiled. “Yeah. I called Jensen earlier to thank him and tell him that I was going to take some of the extra to his shelter. ‘Cause otherwise we’d all weigh three hundred pounds by tomorrow.”
Slipping the empty wrapper into his jeans pocket, Jared smiled back at Misha.
“He’s magical, you know,” he told Misha, needing to share something important, even if he wasn’t yet able to reveal all.
A high pitched laugh filled the air. “Thought we’d established that a long time ago.”
“We did,” Jared acknowledged. “I forget sometimes. But then—“
“He reminds us?”
Jared smiled, dimples deep. Because Jensen reminded him every day, sometimes in fairy tale script. With the occasional gold embellishment.