It had only been a joke.
They were fourteen years old, hormones revving up underneath pimpling skin, and they were too oblivious to notice any of the girls staring at them and wetting their already-lipglossed mouths. It was them against the world - or in this case, them against junior high - but that didn’t stop the worry that they both felt as everyone around them started dating.
“Hey, Jared?” he remembers Jensen saying, summer-lightened hair flat on his head from the pool water. He had swam up to where Jared was sitting on the edge, long and gangly legs kicking in the cool water, stone tiles hot and damp against his own floral blue swim trunks. Freckled forearms had rested on the same edge and Jensen had looked up at Jared with a serious gleam in his eyes.
“Yeah?” he remembers asking. His own hair had been falling in his face, awkwardly parted in the middle thanks to his mother’s brilliant suggestion to the barber.
“If we’re not married by thirty, I’m marrying you, okay?” It had been in the form of a question, but there was no question in the tone; Jared knew the voice Jensen used when he had a serious idea. He had heard it when Jensen suggested they sneak out for the first time or when Jensen thought it’d be a great idea to ride the Top O’ Texas Tower seven times in a row at the state fair. This had been Jensen’s serious tone and Jared remembers doing the only thing he could deem logical at the time: laughing.
“What?” he remembers sputtering. “That’s stupid.”
“Why’s it stupid?” Jensen had sounded offended.
“Well, there’s two problems with all that. One is that we’re not gay. Two is that, well, we’re both dudes. Just telling you that in case you missed the memo.”
“I’m not going to marry you because I love you or anything, dumbass. I’m going to marry you because we can’t be alone forever and I’d rather live with you than live with nobody.”
Not four minutes later, Jared had been back in the pool and they were dunking each other under, the conversation already forgotten.
It had only been a joke.
At sixteen Jensen came out to him and had done so by bringing up that chlorine-soaked conversation from two summers ago.
They were in the middle of nowhere. Jensen had just gotten a truck, a used red thing with a not-so-small dinge on the front fender, the smell of long ago smoked cigarettes infused in the cheap interior, and an air conditioner that sometimes didn’t work, and they would get in it, pop in one of Jared’s Pearl Jam CDs, and drive until the sun started to set. When that would happen they would stop, pull off to the side of some gravel road, and sit on the truck bed, ratted jean-clad legs pressed against one another.
“Hey, Jared?” he remembers Jensen saying after a few minutes of nothing but the sound of the engine cooling down assaulting their ears.
“Yeah?” he remembers asking.
“Do you remember when I said that if we weren’t married by thirty, I’d marry you?” He had sounded unsure of himself, far different than how he had sounded the first time he suggested it, and Jared’s head had whipped up to look at him. He hadn’t been able to decide what worried him most: the way Jensen was determinedly ripping at a loose thread on his plaid shirt or the way he was avoiding all eye contact.
“Yeah, I remember. You rethinking it?” He had hoped to ease the square line of Jensen’s broadening shoulders.
“A little.” A beat. “I think I’m gay.”
Jared hadn’t meant to gasp, but it had been impossible to stop the swift intake of air. Jensen’s eyes had quickly flickered to him and Jared was still haunted by the despair he saw in that millisecond glance. They hadn’t said anything else. Jensen had looked ready to vomit and Jared hadn’t been able to get any words unstuck from his throat. All too soon Jensen had hopped off the truck bed and nearly ran to the driver’s seat. Jared had followed and they drove back home to the sound of “Off He Goes” crackling in the speakers, no words exchanged over the melancholic guitar and slow lyrics.
And now he's home
And we're laughing like we always did
My same old, same old friend
Until a quarter-to-ten
I saw the strain creep in
He seems distracted and I know just what is gonna happen next
Before his first step
He's off again
Jared’s house was only a seven minute drive from Jensen’s and they had pulled up to it, brakes squeaking. When he had looked over, Jensen was staring at the resting speedometer. Jared’s hand had hovered over the door handle for a second, but he grabbed it too quickly, knuckles white, filled with a sudden need to get out of there. But three steps away from the car had him filled with an even stronger need to say something, anything, to wipe that dejected look from his best friend’s face. And so he had ran back and knocked on the window. Jensen’s startled look had only lasted a second.
“I’d still marry you,” Jared remembers saying. He had said it so fast that it came out a bit jumbled, but Jensen had followed.
“But I’m -”
“I don’t care. I’d rather live with you, my best friend, than live with nobody.” The smile on Jensen’s face had meant everything and Jared had fallen asleep that night, mind whirring.
It had only been a joke.
It had taken Jared another four years before he realized that he may be a little gay too. And by a little gay, he meant that he really liked the way Brady from his statistics class looked on his bedsheets and the way stubble felt along his neck and the inside of his thighs. He never really brought it up to Jensen though. They had been 173 miles apart after all; it wasn’t that important. Of course, it had became important when winter break snuck up on them and Brady was coming home with him and Jensen didn’t know.
If he had thought Jensen looked hurt four years ago, that was nothing compared to the jarring pain that had crossed his face when he walked in the Padalecki’s front door and saw Jared’s arm wrapped around a guy’s waist. Jared doesn’t remember if he moved first or if Jensen did, but it hadn’t been thirty seconds before they were both standing on the front porch, Jensen’s eyes blazing and Jared’s hands up in a plea.
“I meant to tell you,” he remembers rushing out, but Jensen had always been quick.
“Meant to tell me? Meant to tell me? We talk every week, you think you having a fucking boyfriend would have been mentioned once.”
“I didn’t know how to bring it up.”
“Oh, so you could bring it up to your family, but not your best friend who’s gay?” Yeah, Jared could see why that had upset him.
“If you knew then you should have told me.”
“Stop with the “I know.” And fuck you. I risked everything telling you and you didn’t even have the balls to give me the same consideration.”
“I know....I’m sorry, okay? I didn’t deliberately keep it from you, I just...I wanted to know where it was going and it got serious so fast that suddenly I was worried about how I was going to explain bringing a guy home to my dad. I wasn’t worried about you.”
“Yeah, nice try, but you’re not getting off the hook that easily.”
“What if I told you that I got you a really cool present for Christmas and I can’t give it to you without you being in the Christmas-spirit?”
Jensen had smiled for the first time at that. It had been a small smile, a barely-there quirk of his lips, but Jared had known he was already getting through to him.
“Is it a really really cool present?”
They had started to walk back in, but Jared stopped when he felt strong fingers curl around his arm.
“You’re not…you don’t....love him? Do you?”
Jared had looked through the Kentucky window on the front door at Brady leaning against the stairrail and it had been surprising easy, too easy, to answer.
“Why’s that good?” he remembers asking, but he hadn’t felt insulted.
“We have a pact. I can’t have you falling in love while I’m still stuck embarrassingly single.”
“That’s right, we have a pact.” The memory was never far back in his mind.
“Don’t go falling in love before me.”
He had bought Jensen a new case for his guitar and tickets to see Sturgill Simpson. He and Brady had broken up less than two weeks later. Jensen had comforted him by packing up a lunch and driving them in his same beaten red truck with Pearl Jam crooning out the speakers.
“At least our pact is safe.”
It had only been a joke.
College graduation had been in May less than two years later. The feeling of walking across that stage after four grueling years and getting a measly piece of paper (and not even the real piece of paper, just a prop until the real one came in the mail) was anticlimactic to say the least, but it did set new things in motion, like Jared getting his first salary job and Jensen moving back to Austin to start his residency. They were together again and it had been thanks to that that Jared realized the most terrifying thing of his life: he was in love.
There hadn’t been an epiphany of any kind. Angels didn’t sing and birds didn’t fly in with a banner held in their beaks and a glowing light didn’t shine down from the heavens. Instead, he had driven to Jensen’s new apartment at seven in the morning to help him unpack all of his moving boxes and discovered that he liked a lot of things. He liked watching Jensen smile and he liked being the reason Jensen was smiling. He liked the way Jensen’s eyes crinkled at the corners when he laughed. He liked Jensen’s laugh. He liked how when Jensen would get frustrated he would drop his shoulders and take in a breath like he’d just finished a marathon. He liked the way Jensen stopped every hour to drink a cup of coffee. He liked the view of Jensen bending down to pick up a box. He liked the feeling of Jensen’s hand touching his own. He liked the feelings Jensen made him feel.
It had been an absolutely terrifying day of realizations. He was in love. He was in love with Jensen.
The realization had came a month too late though. Jensen had just started seeing this guy, Austin, and it hadn’t seemed like it was going to end any time soon.
Austin. A guy named Austin living in Austin, how original. Jared could remember feeling jealous in a way he never had before when Austin had came into the picture.
Austin had been, for lack of a better word, perfect. He had been handsome, a tall specimen with dark hair, muscled arms, a dimple on his chin, and all the things Jared didn’t have in common with Jensen. Austin and Jensen had worked together, played guitar together, went sailing together, and Jared had been able to feel Jensen slipping away from him.
When they were twenty-three, a year into Jensen and Austin’s relationship, Jared had shown up to Jensen’s apartment without warning.
“Hey, Jared,” he remembers Jensen saying when he pulled open the door. One look inside the apartment had shown Jared that things were more serious with Austin and Jensen than he had thought. There had been clothes he knew weren’t Jensen’s scattered in the bedroom, two dirty coffee cups from the morning on the counter, and an extra toothbrush in the bathroom.
“Looks like Austin’s been here a lot lately.”
“My apartment is closer to the clinic.”
“Yeah, that makes sense.”
“You don’t love him, do you?”
Jensen had hesitated. “I don’t know.”
“I think our pact is still something we need to remember though,” Jensen had smiled.
“Yeah, I don’t know if Austin is too keen on staying forever and I’m not going to end up alone.”
It had only been a joke, but this time it felt like the final time they would joke about it.
Jensen and Austin had stayed together for another four years. Jared had been sure they were thinking about marriage and it had even been brought up at Jensen’s birthday.
“Austin, you’ve bought him a set of suits and a trip to the Bahamas, when are you going to buy him a ring?” Donna, Jensen’s mom, had joked after two glasses of red wine.
“Well, Donna, I’m just waiting for the right moment,” Austin has winked, taking the question in stride. Jensen had turned to look at him, wide-eyed and a little flustered, and Austin had swept that all away with a kiss. Jared had to pinch himself to come back to reality.
It had only always been a joke.
Austin had left suddenly by the fall. Last any of them knew, he was now married to a woman named Taryn and she was pregnant with their first child.
Jared didn’t know exactly what happened and, if he were being honest, he didn’t think Jensen knew either.
Less than two years after Austin’s departure they were here, side-by-side on a truck bed. It was their go-to, always had been and probably always will be. This time the truck was nicer, a white Chevy with a fully functioning air conditioner. They brought a blanket and draped it across the bed so they could lie there and stare at the uniquely Texan sky. Their jeans were nicer too and so was the speaker they had brought with them that was quietly playing a newly downloaded Pearl Jam greatest hits album.
“We’re twenty-nine years old,” Jensen said, breaking the long-sitting silence.
“We’re twenty-nine years old and we’re still driving out to the middle of nowhere to sit in a truck bed and listen to the same Pearl Jam songs.”
Jared sat up, elbows uncomfortable in the grooves of the bed, and turned to look at Jensen, breath already tight in his chest. Jensen looked more beautiful now than he ever had. He’d grown into his shoulders, broad and strong, and his bowed legs gave him a characteristic gait. The summer sun, just like from when they were kids, had lightened up the natural blond in his hair and brought out the multitude of cinnamon spots freckled on his nose and the tops of his shoulders and even down to his hands. Green eyes, greener than any eyes Jared had ever seen (and he looked for those exact eyes in others, but never found them, not in color or shape or in the spark they ignited in his own soul) glittered in the moonlight and matched the Henley that was riding up ever so slightly at the waist. He blamed Jensen, and Jensen solely, for what he was about to say. After all, it was Jensen’s fault he’d fallen in love, it was Jensen’s fault they had a stupid pact anyway.
“We’re twenty-nine years old,” Jared said.
“I just said that, but thanks for reiterating.”
“We should get married.”
Jensen snorted. “Oh yeah, our pact.”
“This isn’t about the pact. I’m serious.”
Jensen turned to look at him, eyebrows by his hairline and mouth, a gorgeous mouth, parted.
“Jared, that’s stupid.”
“Why’s it stupid?” It was Jared’s turn to be offended.
“We can’t just get married, we haven’t even dated!”
“Jensen, we’ve known each other since we were nine years old, I don’t think there’s a whole lot we don’t know about each other.”
“That’s not the point.”
“Then what is the point?”
“The point is that -” Jensen stopped to groan “- we’ve never been romantically involved.”
Jared lurched forward, hand coming up to find the cut of Jensen’s jaw and pull him in and kiss him soundly and surely, more surely than he’d ever done anything in his life. And Jensen melted just as surely, shoulders falling from their set line, until he fell into the kiss, a wounded noise, a whimper that Jared had dreamed of for years, escaping his throat.
Jared felt alive and like he was dying all at once. Jensen was in arms and it was setting his nerves on fire and his breath was stopped in his lungs, but he was living in a way he never had, never thought he would. And Jensen was clutching him, callused fingers wrapped tight around his bicep and it burned so good. When his lungs began to burn in the same way, he pulled back, chest heaving with his intake of oxygen and he looked at Jensen and felt that Jensen was really looking at him too.
“We’re almost thirty, Jen, and you told me we would get married if we were still single. And, Jensen? I want to. I’ve wanted to marry you since you moved back here for your residency and, hell, I probably wanted to marry you before that and didn’t know it yet. So maybe I’m crazy. Actually, I know I am, but that doesn’t change that I know I’d be happy with you. And I think I could make you happy. Or, at least, make sure you’re not alone.”
“I mean, you’re easily the craziest person I’ve ever met.”
“Stop with the “I know.” And fuck you.”
“You waited this long to tell me? You waited over five years to tell me you seriously want to marry me?”
“You were with Austin.”
“I never loved Austin.”
“But you were with him.”
“I didn’t think you loved me.”
“I’ve loved you for as long as I can remember.”
“Not as long as I’ve loved you.”
Jensen kissed him this time. They were already only centimeters apart, breath mingling as they talked, whispered, to each other and Jensen hardly had to move. Jared could feel the flutter of Jensen’s lashes on his cheeks and it was the final puzzle piece falling into place. Jensen licked into his mouth, intimate and sure, like he’d known just how to make Jared’s blood boil his entire life and Jared smiled as they separated, kiss-swollen lips a stark contrast to his white teeth.
“I want to marry you.”
It wasn’t a joke.