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we dance round in a ring and suppose

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(Danni’s interlude)

Her morning shower is an odd place to ponder her best friend’s mother, but Danneel finds she can’t help herself as she lathers up with brisk strokes of her washcloth.

Truth is, there never was a time that Danni can claim she liked Jensen’s mother.

Oh, the woman had her moments. Nobody could deny Donna’s spectacular decorating skills, and Jensen’s house on Halloween was like stepping onto a horror movie set complete with fog, eerie noises, and the dead rising out of the ground.

Danni’s mother, Dana, and her clique of friends called it over-the-top and macabre when they were feeling kind. Vulgar, when they weren’t. Donna would dress in elaborate costumes and use it as an opportunity to show off a figure Dana and the rest of the neighborhood mothers could only dream about.

At brunch on Sundays after church, Danni’s mom and her cohorts would whisper conspiratorially about which new man Donna’s money was coming from. Danni pretended not to listen but absorbed it all in that quiet preteen manner.

The thing about Donna was, that for all outward appearances, she was sweet and caring – a good mother. Donna wore her virtuousness like a veneer. Though Danni knew the truth, as did her own mother.

Now before you eat them, class, thank Mrs. Ackles, for bringing in these delicious Christmas cookies.

The fourth-graders all offer their gratitude at once, crumbs flying out the corners of their overstuffed mouths. Danni nibbles at her own green and red confection, grudgingly acknowledging the superiority of the cookie over her mother’s box mix results. Jensen sits two seats away, a silver snowflake cookie on the corner of his desk.

You gonna eat that? Musta had a million at home already, right?

With a quick glance at his mother Jensen hands it over to the boy in the next seat.

They all thought Jensen had it good. Only Danni knew the fit Donna would pitch if Jensen actually ate the decorated treat. Her prohibition on sweets and candy—any sugar—was always presented as for Jensen’s own good. You don’t want to get fat, do you?

The fact that Jensen was a ten-year-old boy at the time never mattered.

Even now Jensen won’t allow Danni to speak ill of his mother. Even though Donna had stopped Jensen from doing a million things children liked to do. Even though she probably killed his puppy by ‘accidently’ letting it walk out the door.

And she still butts into things that aren’t her business.

Jensen isn’t completely blind to his mother’s faults—he admits her limitations when it comes to expressing emotions. But he defines love within the narrow bounds of his mother’s manipulations. This leaves Jensen believing that he doesn’t know how to love, that cold-bloodedness runs through his veins like a birthright. It’s what makes accepting Jared’s open-hearted love so difficult for him.

And it is also so perversely ironic because Jensen is the only person Danni knows who loves unconditionally—something he damn well didn’t learn from his mother.

All this ruminating during her morning routine is the consequence of last night’s dinner conversation with Jared, Jensen, and his mom. Of course, Danni is positive that Donna’s every word was planned to have maximum impact and to hurt Jensen as much as possible. Not that the idiot would ever allow himself to believe that. Trouble is, this time Donna hit Jared just as hard. Danni is scared for the two of them for the first time since they reconciled from their break-up last fall.

It’s clear from the second Danni emerges from her bedroom and beelines to the nearly full coffee maker that something is wrong. Jensen’s got his back to her, sitting at their breakfast counter. His posture is always good but now it’s as if someone troweled a cement pillar to his spine.

Pouring a steaming cup she aims for neutral. “Good morning.”

He nods and takes a swallow from his mug. It’s the one she gave him years ago and not the plain, dark blue one he typically uses. She reads the words printed on the cup -- Blow me. I’m hot. -- and fights the giggle that sparked her eighteen-year-old self to buy it in the first place.

The mug makes a click as it’s set on the granite and Jensen finally looks at her. His eyes are wide and shiny like sea glass, shadows lurking beneath them, and she wonders if he slept at all. The tee-shirt and jeans are fresh and his hair is perfectly styled, so at some point since last night’s marathon painting session he’d returned and showered.

“Didn’t hear you come in,” she tries again gently.

“It was late.” A rueful grin emerges. “Well, early.”

It’s her turn to nod and she opens a kitchen cabinet, turning her back to him. “I’m thinking pancakes. Or maybe waffles … “ Jensen doesn’t say anything so Danni proceeds to pull out the dry ingredients and her favorite mixing bowl. It’s the same deep blue as Jensen’s usual coffee mug. There’s a lot of blue in the house they share. Ocean blue.

The flour sprinkles up a faint white mist when it hits the bowl and Danni scratches at her nose as it tickles.

“Danni,” Jensen says low but firmly. “I’d like us to talk.”

Danni holds up one hand while she measures the sugar but quickly says, “Sure, Jense.”

She figures that Jared found Jensen last night at his studio and they finally worked out that Jared should return to California. Now she has to convince Jensen that he should go as well. She knows her boy enough to know that he and Jared belong together, and if anybody could get him to trade his beloved East Coast beach for another, it’s Jared.

Before she can say anything, however, Jensen drops a bomb. “I think you should move out.”

The tin measuring spoon drops to the counter with a clink. “What?”

For a moment she wonders if he means that they both should move to Santa Barbara. It’s not the wildest idea – it isn’t even a new thought. But she didn’t think that Jensen would …

“Jense … you want us both to go with Jared to southern California?”

His eyes narrow and his face pales. A hand comes up to squeeze his chin and she spots the stubble and realizes his grooming went only so far. “Jesus. I knew she was right but not how much.” Jensen stands and pushes away from the counter. His hand is rubbing the short hairs at the nape of his neck. “Danni. No, of course not. Jared’s going to go live his life. Going to finish his studies.” Jensen stops and breathes in deep. “He’s gonna live his life and we … I … am going to live mine. And you, Danni, it’s time for you to start living yours.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Danni feels like her lungs are being squeezed in a vise.

Jensen’s lips twist and he looks like he’s in physical pain. But then his features smooth and a cold chill runs up Danni’s spine because for a split second he replicates Donna’s icily calculating expression down to the bone.

Voice very calm, Jensen says, “Since you moved out of the dorms sophomore year, you and I have lived together.”

Danni raises her eyebrow as if to say, So? as her heart gives erratic little beats.

“I know this house was my idea. As soon as my art started selling and I made some money, all I wanted was to live here and paint. Walking distance to my beach, my studio. My life.”

Color heats Danni’s cheeks. “I’ve asked to pay my way. You said that it was okay, that I should spend it on trips instead … “

“No. That’s not what I … I don’t care about the money. Never have. I have more than I need and I don’t need you to … it’s not about that. Danni, I think that living here, in this town, with me. It’s held you back.”

She’s unconsciously followed him from the kitchen to their living room and now she sinks onto the sofa. This is not what she thought they’d be talking about this morning.

Or ever, actually.

“What about Jared?”

“I don’t want to talk about Jay,” Jensen dismisses.

“Like hell you don’t,” Danni flares back. “What happened? He asked you to move out west with him? And rather than face that, you attack me instead?”

Jensen doesn’t take the bait, stays maddeningly calm. “This isn’t about Jared. It’s not even about me. Danni, honey, we should have had this talk years ago. You can’t stay here anymore. You hate your job. You call it mindless and tedious. Soul sucking. All you live for are the moments you get away. Your trips. A blind person can see it. Except … I … well, there’s a difference between not seeing something and not wanting to acknowledge it. Call it my epiphany.” Jensen moves closer and stands over Danni. “I’m kicking you out.” He softens this with a crooked smile but it doesn’t help.

If her stomach could talk it would be asking for a ladder about now, because it’s fallen to her knees. She forces words out through the clog strangling her throat. “You can’t mean that.”

He’s actually smiling beatifically at her. “Don’t be scared. It will be easy. Like I said, money isn’t an issue so you won’t be in a lurch. Decide where and just go. I’ll float you until you are on your feet – no matter how long. Even if it means returning to school for a while. Whatever. Anything. Just … not here. Not with me. Not anymore.”

The laugh escapes her, bitter and rank. “I’m not scared, you fucking idiot. I’m hurt. What the hell? Where is this coming from?”

And then, just like that, she knows.

“What did she say to you?”

One would have to know Jensen very well to see the slight tick along his jaw. Danni has known him since she was five years old.

His voice is all innocence. “Who?”

“Quit the shit. This has Donna written all over it. It’s not even the first time. I’m not in love with you. And I’m not wasting my life away waiting for you to turn straight!”

The green glint in Jensen’s eyes froths like the sea. “Want to know something about my mother? She may be an evil bitch who never takes anything from anyone. But she knows truth like nobody’s business. You’ve wanted the impossible since we were both thirteen. Only even then I was staring at Bruce’s chest way more than yours.”

Danni sucks in air, heart thundering and tears welling over despite herself. Goddamn that woman. And goddamn him. She knows all that, she’s not stupid. Twenty fucking years and, really, it shouldn’t stab any longer, should it? That ghost was surrendered a very long time ago.

“You hate your job. This town is for losers and asinine tourists. Your words, not mine.” He’s closer now and he’s holding out a tissue which she grabs and swipes her eyes helplessly. “Danni. Why are you still here?”

“That’s not tr—“

“Danni … why are you still here?”

Jensen stares at her intently and it’s like hitting a wall – relentless and unyielding. Green ice that can only reflect, never absorb. “I hate you,” she growls, hiccupping back a sob. “I hate you. And I can’t … c-can’t stop.”

He perches beside her and she’s drawn into his chest and held tight. His breathing is steady and it helps her control her own. He smells like salt but Danni thinks maybe she’s inhaling her own tears. “I’m sorry. It’s okay now. It’s going to be fine,” he murmurs against her hair. “You’ll be fine.”

It takes several minutes, but then Danni pulls back and reins it all in, locks the runaway emotions back deep inside. “Okay,” she whispers. And firms her voice. “Maybe you have a point. Maybe it’s time I made some changes. But, Jense, it’s not the same with Jay … “

“Danni, I don’t want—“

“No. You don’t get to do that. You can’t just make me face up to—you have to deal with your shit, too. Jay and you are too special to fuck up. His grad school is only a couple of years and like you said, finances are fine. You don’t have to carry me … I’ll find work. I always do. So just go and find yourself a nice place with Jay on the West Coast and, well, if you both decide to return, this place will be waiting for you. I’ll help you rent it out in the meantime.”

Cold eyes meet hers again. “I made a decision about that and Jared knows. He’s transferring. Two years is too long to wait. So, that’s that.”

Danni jumps up and towers over Jensen. It gives a small measure of satisfaction to watch him jerk back instinctively. “Coward! I have to move and you don’t?”

“It’s my fucking house,” he yells.

She feels slapped. Never has he thrown the house’s ownership around like that. In fact, less than five minutes ago, he was saying he didn’t care about it.

“Yes, it is,“ she agrees icily.

“Dan … I didn’t mean … “

“You know what? I don’t give a damn. You don’t want me. You don’t want Jay. Fine. Be alone. Just you and dear ol’ Mom, eh? Like that won’t be a shitfest.”

She stalks to her room and starts tossing clothing into a suitcase. There’s the slightest moment of satisfaction as Jensen follows her. “C’mon, Danni, you know I didn’t mean it like that. You don’t have to move immediately. Where will—?”

“I’m going to stay with my folks for a while. Get my head together. And give us some space because clearly we need it.”

The bag is packed before she realizes that Jensen has left the room. It rankles like a snake loose under her skin. She wheels the heavy suitcase clumsily into the main part of the house and sees Jensen is back at the counter, fresh cup of coffee in the novelty mug.

“So that’s it?” she barks out, voice edged with grit.

“Yep.” He has the decency to turn and face her. “Made a decision. Sometimes it’s that simple.”

Danni yanks her handbag strap over her shoulder and looks at her house keys sitting in the ceramic dish by the door. It’s shaped like a fish and Danni remembers making it in pottery class and giving it to Jensen. A stupid smile split his face as he took it and said it was good even though it looked like someone had already cooked the poor fish.

They aren’t her house keys any longer. Fighting the burn in her eyes she sees Jensen looking at the same spot. He starts to speak but then seems to think better of it.

His face is taunt but locked. In that moment Danni hates Donna more than she’s ever hated anything or anyone.

“Could you box up my bathroom stuff and maybe drop it off at my folks?”

“Of course,” he says. “Danni, you can take the keys. It’s still … it’ll always be your place, too.”

“You did this to Jay?” she asks because Jared is her friend too and no matter how hard it is, she has to know.

Jensen evades an answer. “He never lived here.”

“But you made the decision?” Danni repeats.

A curt nod is all the reply she gets.

She’s sad for herself but also resigned and part of her knows that moving out is something that will probably be in her best interest in the long run. But Jay. He deserves better. It’s not the same thing, except she knows that to Jensen it is.

Donna’s hand in this is way too entrenched to undo easily. Saying anything else about that will only make it worse and make Jensen shut down completely.

Stopping at the door she turns back around. “Maybe loving you did stop me from some things. But Jensen … why isn’t that also true for you and Jay? Why not take your own advice?”

“You don’t get it,” he says in a soft, patient tone. “I didn’t let it stop me. I acted.”

“By cutting yourself off from the man you love?”

“By letting him go.”

“Like your mom?” Danni asks and bites her lower lip hard because she swore to herself she’d never talk about this. But Jensen is ruining his life on a lie.

It’s the first day of summer and Danni is leaning against the large oak in her backyard, book on her lap, but the words are not registering because she’s eavesdropping on her mother gossiping around the wrought iron table on the deck.

Well, it can’t have been easy bringing up the boy by herself.

Maybe that’s why he turned out gay.

Don’t be silly. It doesn’t work that way, Mags, he was born that way.

You remember the father?

Barely. Very handsome.

Like Jensen. Poor boy.

No heart, to leave like that. I mean, I get Donna is a handful. Still, it’s not right to leave her in that condition to manage alone.

That’s if he knew.

What?! Dana, do you mean the boy’s father didn’t know she was pregnant?

I don’t know for sure. Donna always makes it seem like he did. But I’m not so sure.

What do you know?

The voices soften, but Danni still hears all.

Once, years ago, when the old woman was still alive …

Old lady Ackles? Donna’s mother?

Mm … I heard her say to Donna that there was still time. That the Jensen needs his father to become a man. And Donna said that it was too late. That he had a chance to choose her but he didn’t. Then her mother says ‘but he didn’t know’ … And then Donna says that didn’t matter. Says that was the point – if he didn’t want her for herself … well, then he didn’t matter.

Danni had sat by that tree for a long time that day. She’d pondered what to make of that and worried herself sick over whether Jensen should know. In the end, she decided to never say anything. And truthfully the conversation had scared her.

But Danni isn’t thirteen any longer.

Jensen stiffens upon hearing his mother mentioned. “No matter what you and Jared think, Mom doesn’t have anything to do with—“

Letting out a breath, Danni interrupts. “Ask Donna about that decision she’s so proud of … to let your dad go.”

She knows she’s surprised Jensen because Danni has never suggested he go to Donna for anything.

“What do you—?“

“Ask her if making the decision for the three of you turned out like she wished. And ask if it was fair to you.”

Jensen is staring at her, mouth slightly open and Danni chokes on the fear of the secret she holds. This may be a terrible mistake and for all she knows her mother was wrong all those years ago. And if not, what will this do to her best friend?

She doesn’t know and she wants to cry but she’s out of tears. The door snicks shut behind her and she stands on the porch stoop a long moment before thumping the suitcase down the three steps to her car.

All she can think of is getting to her mother and asking for a hug. Later, when she’s ensconced in her old room she’ll allow the past to visit her. She’ll walk to the spot the firefly took her all those years ago and she’ll find it in herself to forgive that mop-topped, rigid little boy.

But before she allows herself any of those luxuries she has a call to make. Because the man that boy became is a fucking idiot that needs to get the hell out of his own way.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The Secret Sits
By Robert Frost

We dance round in a ring and suppose,
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.