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What You Think it Ought to Be

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There are days that Jared knows, without the slightest doubt, that he has the best job in the world. No matter the crappy pay or the even crappier coffee, there’s no getting around the fact that he gets to spend forty hours a week teaching little kids to spell their names and add to ten. It’s something he’s always wanted to do--shamefully, maybe, when he was little and he’d line his army men up for an impromptu lesson on Dr. Seuss--but he’s a grown-ass man, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with being a first grade teacher.

Today though? Today is not one of those days.

It’s October, edging towards Halloween, but the weather hasn’t quite gotten the hint, still as hot as hell, the sun heavy and bright on his face. His cheeks are starting to burn, his left shoulder’s been practically wrenched out of the socket, and he can already feel the beginning of two blisters forming on his right heel. As far as Jared thinks, whoever decided that fifty first graders deserved a field trip to the zoo had earned the privilege to be drawn and quartered. By alligators.

Even though his class had been neatly split, each small group to be led around the zoo by a long-suffering parental chaperone, Jared still feels as though he has been given the insurmountable task of making sure his group of six, whom, in the absence of a classroom, have turned into little terrors, don’t get trampled by elephants.

“Mr. P’lecki,” Carrie whines, pulling on his hand with her too-small fingers. “Mr. P’lecki, I’m bored.” Behind her, a hippo yawns plaintively and rolls over, the most movement that they’ve seen in the five minutes they’ve spent perusing the informative signs posted at the front of the enclosure.

“Is it lunch time yet?” demands Carrie’s friend, Alyssa, who is currently enamored more-so with chewing the end of her plait than she is by the animals she’s supposed to be learning about.

“Not yet,” Jared says, as patiently as he can, even though he desperately wants it to be.

“Can we see the flamingos again?” Carries asks, still yanking Jared’s hand. “I like them. They’re pink!”

“No. Way,” butts in Ben, shoving his way in front of Alyssa so he can glare at Jared. “We’ve spent the whole mornin’ looking at girl stuff. I’m getting infurious! I want to see the lions.”

“Remember what we said about compromise, Ben,” Jared chastises lightly, holding in his sigh. Frankly, he agrees with the kid, but considering their group is made up of four girls and two boys, it’s best not to choose sides.

“I like lions,” says Erica, looking up at Jared shyly. “They’re like my cat! I can’t wait to tell Frosty about the lions!”

“The lions would eat your dumb old cat,” counters Ben. “They’re vicious.”

“Enough,” says Jared, holding up his hand as Erica’s lower lip begins to tremble. “Ben, stop being mean or I’ll take a sticker from your chart when we get back to school. Erica, the lions are perfectly nice, and I’m sure they’d love your cat.”

“Everyone loves Frosty,” Erica declares, but she looks less inclined to sobbing, which is a plus in Jared’s book.

“Mr. P’lecki,” Carrie says again, her voice hitting a dangerously high note.

“Okay,” Jared says loudly, “the cat house it is.”

“I don’t want to go there,” says Allie petulantly.

“Compromise,” Jared booms, falsely cheerful. “Grab a hold of your partner and let’s go!” Pausing just long enough to make sure that no one gets left behind, Jared brings up the rear of their rag-tag group, directing them towards the big cats from the back and breaking up fights intermittently as he goes. A headache is forming behind his eyes, and he really wishes he hadn’t forgotten his sunglasses on the bus.

They head through the enclosed portion first, looking at the smaller jungle cats, and even Jared can’t help but roll his eyes when Erica goes into paroxysms over a small South American species that apparently looks just like Frosty.

By the time they go outside, stopping to look at the tigers for barely a second before Ben is barreling on towards the lions, it’s all Jared can do to keep track of his kids, let alone take time to look at the animals. He spends a full five minutes counting heads and pushing the sweat out of his eyes once they reach the lion viewing area that he almost doesn’t think to look.

He gets to the top of the wooden platform, making sure Ben isn’t about to do something stupid with his partner-in-crime Stuart, before he lets his eyes scan quickly over the area.

“That’s not a lion,” Stuart says, and Jared furrows his eyes, because the kid’s absolutely right.

“Our lions are currently on exhibit in Houston,” a zookeeper chirps. “We have this beautiful panther out instead today.”

“I wanna see a lion,” Ben demands, but Jared doesn’t even hear him. His own question of why they’re keeping a panther in a lion exhibit dies on his tongue. The panther is standing stock still and staring--there’s no other word for it, really--absolutely staring a hole through Jared. And Jared can’t tear his eyes away.

The panther is sleek, lithe, black hair and huge paws and the greenest eyes Jared has ever seen on anything living. Jared’s transfixed, can barely move, even though Ben is about to throw a fit and start a first-grade riot that will positively ruin the day. Suddenly, the panther is running, a full sprint, skidding to a halt right before the ground drops off into the canyon that stops it from getting to the zoo guests. It’s as close as it can get to Jared.

“I’ve never seen him act like that before,” the zookeeper says, oddly plaintive, finally snapping Jared’s attention to her.

“Oh?” he says disinterestedly, but she’s looking at the panther, eyes furrowed.

“Mr. Padalecki, the monkeys are over there,” whines someone at knee level, and Jared turns to see Stuart looking up at him, wide-eyed. “We want to see the monkeys.” Behind him, Alyssa nods solemnly, and Jared can see in the distance the ape house and monkey island.

“This cat is boring,” Ben says, “and my brother said that monkeys throw poo at each other!”

“Ewww,” squeals Carrie, but she’s smiling, practically dancing on her toes. “They won’t throw it at me, right, Mr. P’lecki?”

“Of course not,” Jared says automatically.

“Let’s go,” demands Ben, taking a hold of Stuart’s wrist and pulling him off down the trail.

“No running!” Jared yells, hastens to follow them. “And don’t forget your partners!”

Even though he’s busy making sure he has all his students, he can’t help but take one last glance back at the panther. It’s still staring at him.

**

Jared makes it to the weekend by the skin of his teeth, and even though he’s been conditioned to wake up at six in the morning every day thanks to three years of elementary school hours, the prospect of having an entire day to himself settles over him. He allows himself ten extra minutes in bed, stretched out in the patch of sun that plays over his comforter, until Sadie whoofs from the door.

“Coming, girl,” Jared says, working the kinks out of his back and settling his feet on the floor. As soon as he opens the door to his bedroom, she’s streaking out into the hall and down the stairs. He knows he’ll find her right by the patio screen, habit that will never be broken, and he follows her lazily.

As soon as he unlatches the lock, he expects Sadie to bound out as she usually does, and he doesn’t even pay attention enough to track her movements. Their yard may be small, but she knows to stay inside the boundaries, so he’s not looking anywhere but up when he steps out, bare-footed, to follow her outside. And then he trips over her hulking body and nearly falls to his knees, keeping his balance at the last possible second.

“What the--” he mutters, steadying himself again. “Sadie-girl, what’s wrong?” She’s trembling, her hackles raised, but she’s not growling, and Jared follows her line of sight out across the yard. And promptly falls over, catching his feet on the raised threshold of the door as he takes a hasty step backwards

There’s a panther in his backyard.

Startled by his sudden movement, Sadie yelps and jumps over him, racing back into the safety of the house as Jared lays sprawled, half inside, half-outside, staring at the giant fucking panther that’s lazing in a patch of grass and regarding Jared with a patient look. Jared’s heart is beating so quickly that he almost feels as though he’s about to cough it up onto the ground, because what the fuck is he supposed to do with a jungle cat who’s decided to take up residence on his property?

A million ideas race through his head--animal control, the police, the fucking zoo--but he can’t move, too mesmerized, or perhaps terrified, of what has stumbled into his idyllic Saturday morning. The panther gets up and takes one step forward, and it spurs Jared into action.

“Jesus Christ,” Jared squeaks and then scrambles back into the house using his arms, immediately getting to his knees so he can slam the door and turn the lock. Without looking back, he dashes into the kitchen, grabbing his cell from where he’d left it charging the night prior, mashing the buttons until it turns on. He’s about to press the send button on a 911 call when he lets himself take one quick glance out of the window.

There’s nothing there.

**

Jared spends his weekend in a state of semi-shock, vacillating between the idea that he’s quite possibly gone bat-shit crazy or that there’s a panther wandering around his neighborhood. He’s not sure what option he prefers. Instead of grading spelling tests like he should be doing, he keeps his television on, checking all of the local news channels in case they deliver a story about an escaped animal, but there’s nothing.

It takes Sadie two entire days and several accidents indoors before she gets over the trauma of what they saw in their backyard, which is of course terrible for his poor dog but at least a point in the I’m-not-crazy list Jared’s been tallying in his head. There’s been no sign of anything out of the ordinary either--no missing pets or terrified children--so when Monday dawns, Jared rolls out of bed and gets ready for work, even though he’s still a little wary of stepping outside, even if it is just to get to his car. He forces himself to stop thinking about wild animals and the possibility that they’ve burrowed in his backyard and instead spends his commute focusing on the lesson plan he’s drafted for the day, harboring the hope that his kids spent their two-day break getting rid of their excess energy.

He lasts until lunch without thinking about his weekend, apart from the perfunctory answers he gives when his colleagues asked how it went. He’s not going to be the nutjob who regales the entire teachers’ lounge with outlandish stories, no matter how true they’d seemed at the time.

He’s on recess duty today, along with perky Kristen Bell who never shuts up, which makes her one of Jared’s best friends at school--it’s so hard to find someone who can match him word-for-word. He’s considering coming clean with her, telling her the story in a ha-ha, you’ll never believe what I thought I saw in my backyard on Saturday kind of way, but there’s someone else sitting on the wooden bench with her, smiling as she tosses her head back and laughs.

Jared is confused for the briefest of seconds--for as long as he’s worked at this school, there’s never been more than two teachers on duty--and then Kristen turns around at the sound of Jared shuffling over the gravel and raises her arm in greeting.

“Jared!” she chirps, waving him over, as if there’s anywhere else he’d go after all the time they’ve spent on that bench watching kids scream, yell, and cause as much mayhem as possible in a forty minute time period.

“Hi,” he says warmly, cocking an eyebrow at Kristen, and then the guy she’s sitting with turns fully to face him, and Jared immediately feels like he can’t breathe. His stomach has erupted into butterflies, his face is warm, and he has the inkling of an idea that if he tries to move, he’ll stumble sideways. He shouldn’t be affected by it--he absolutely shouldn’t--but this man is about the handsomest man Jared has ever seen outside of the movies. Cliche, maybe, but it doesn’t mean that Jared doesn’t spend at least five dumbstruck seconds futilely trying not to undress him in his head.

“This is Jensen,” Kristen says, gesturing, “He’s the new substitute for Mr. Singer’s third-grade class.”

Jared struggles with words for a moment before he settles on an innocuous, “Good to meet you. I’m Jared. I teach first-graders.”

Jensen smiles, warm and big and maybe a little predatory, which puts Jared on an edge of something he doesn’t want to be on. “You don’t look the type to be a first-grade teacher,” he says, but his tone is light, joking.

“He’s just fooling you,” Kristen supplies. “He’s a giant six-year old. Fits right in.”

“I’d like to tell you she’s wrong, but I’d be lying,” Jared says lamely, gingerly sitting down next to Jensen. Jensen just laughs throatily and Jared’s heart gives this little girly shudder that Jared promptly ignores.

“I didn’t know Singer was still out,” he says, directing his question to Kristen.

“I know--it’s a huge surprise,” she says, widening her eyes for effect. “He apparently resigned a couple of weeks ago, and Mrs. Ferris was keeping it under wraps until she found a replacement.”

“That’s weird,” Jared says, furrowing his brow. He was sure that Singer would outlast everyone at the school, with the way he went on about his job and his kids.

“Can’t say I’m complaining,” Jensen says. “There’s no arguing with steady employment.”

“We needed someone to bring down the average age in this place,” Jared responds, finally loosing the feeling that his tongue was too thick for his mouth. “I swear, the longer I stay here, the longer I feel like I’m going to wake up and miraculously be a sixty-year old with giant sailboat sweaters.”

“Don’t sell yourself short, Jared,” Kristen chides. “You’d have the cutest muumuus. Flowers and sequins and all.”

“Ha-ha,” Jared deadpans. “I’m not the one who found a gray hair the other day.”

“We swore we’d never talk about that again!” shrieks Kristen.

Kristen dominates the conversation--she’s anything but subtle with the way she’s going on and flipping her hair over her shoulder--and Jared takes over the job of keeping an eye on the playground, but he’s hypersensitive of how close he is to Jensen, even though he tries hard not to care. Once or twice, he catches Jensen’s eye, and he almost shudders with it, which is wholly embarrassing.

When the bell rings, signaling that it’s time to start corralling the kids inside for the afternoon, Jensen claps Jared on the back and leaves him with a, “I’ll see you later, yeah?” Jared can feel Jensen’s hand on him until ten minutes into his science lesson, branded on his shoulder.

**

Jared spends the week trying his hardest not to act like a complete spaz in front of Jensen by avoiding him as much as possible. He tries not to be rude about it--is always friendly when they pass each other in the halls and when they meet each other in the teacher’s lounge--but there’s something about Jensen that puts Jared on his guard, and not in a bad way. It’s not as hard as it seems, as Kristen has put herself on Jensen-patrol, but even so, Jared can’t stop his heart from racing whenever he meets Jensen on coincidence. It’s pathetic.

Jared is juggling about a hundred pieces of loose-leaf paper and his satchel as he tries to unlock his car when he hears someone call across the parking lot. He turns, barely keeping his tenuous grasp on his first graders’ homework, squinting against the sun. Jensen is waving him down, and there’s no way Jared can ignore him now or pass him onto someone else, so he puts his most welcoming smile on before he turns to unlatch his trunk and dump his things pell-mell into it.

“What’s going on?” he asks easily as soon as Jensen comes close enough so it’s not awkward to start a conversation. “Your first week go okay?”

“Yeah, definitely,” Jensen responds, and there’s that disarming grin that still doesn’t sit well with Jared. “It’s a lot to get used to, but they’re good kids, you know?”

“It would suck if they weren’t,” Jared says, and Jensen gives him a confused head-tilt. “If they weren’t good,” Jared clarifies, but now he feels stupid.

“Guess I’m lucky then,” Jensen says, laughing a little, and Jared thinks, Guess I’m not, because he just can’t get over this feeling he gets whenever Jensen’s close, something he’s absolutely not going to think about.

“So I’m glad I caught up with you,” Jensen continues, unaware of Jared’s discomfort.

“Oh?” Jared says, raising his eyebrow. He has no clue why Jensen wanted to find him, especially not since he’s been completely out-of-character by not jumping on the Let’s-Welcome-Jensen bus with Kristen.

“Yeah, was hoping you could help me out with something,” Jensen elaborates.

“I can...try?” Jared answers, because as far as he’s concerned, the only way he could help Jensen out would be in a completely inappropriate way for an elementary school parking lot--and he’s not thinking about that, goddammit.

“So I’m kind of new here, obviously,” starts Jensen, smiling self-deprecatingly and looking up at Jared through his eyelashes. If Jared didn’t know better, he’d think Jensen was flirting with him, which was just--no. “And I was hoping you could take pity on me and show me where I should spend my Friday night. So I’m don’t become some sort of hermit, or something.”

Jared can’t help himself--he laughs, loud and open. “Nah, we wouldn’t want that,” he says, and Jensen’s still doing that smiling up at him thing that’s driving Jared crazy.

There’s a couple of seconds of silence, too still to be entirely awkward, and then Jensen prompts, “So...” in this way that shocks Jared out of his thoughts.

“Not a lot to do around here,” Jared starts, but even though he feels like he should be telling Jensen that he’s busy, plans with a girlfriend Jared definitely doesn’t have, there’s something stopping him. Maybe it’s the flash of disappointment that he caught in Jensen’s eyes at his last spoken sentence. Or maybe it’s the way that Jensen’s jeans hug his body in all the right places, and wasn’t Jared not supposed to be thinking about him like that?

“There is this run-down restaurant I like to go to,” Jared continues. “Nothing much, but the beer’s cheap and the food’s good. Pool tables too, and darts. Just what you’d expect out of a bar in the middle of Texas.”

“Sounds like my idea of a good time,” Jensen smiles, and there it is again--the smolder of fire in the pit of Jared’s stomach. It spells danger and want and Jared’s just a little bit afraid of it.

“Can’t go looking like this though,” Jared says, gesturing down at his wrinkled polo. “A little too dressy for this joint, if you catch my drift.”

“Definitely sounds like my kind of place,” Jensen concedes. “I could meet you at your house after I change and we could head over. If that’s okay, that is?”

It’s not okay. It’s definitely not okay, but Jared’s too fucked up over Jensen to know if Jensen’s being forward or if Jared’s being an idiot. But Jensen’s looking at him with this expectant look on his face, and Jared doesn’t want to say no.

“Sounds good, man,” he says as warmly as he can muster when his hands have gone sweaty and his heart’s going about a million miles a minute. “Just gimme an hour or so, yeah? Need to unwind a little after spending my day chasing six-year-olds around the classroom.”

And there’s that laugh again, and Jared really wishes that Jensen would stop doing that, because it does funny things to Jared’s ability to think whenever he hears it. “I hear you,” Jensen says, clapping his hand on Jared’s shoulder.

They exchange phone numbers, albeit a little unwillingly on Jared’s behalf, and Jared dutifully texts Jensen his address. Jensen’s gone with a little wave and the hint of a triumphant smile that Jared absolutely isn’t going to decode, and Jared watches Jensen back out of the parking lot before he thinks to get into his car and drive home.

**

Jared takes the quickest shower of his life and does not think about what he’s going to wear--just pulls on the first things he can yank out of his closet. His hair’s still dripping when he calls Adrianne, who was basically his best friend in college and the only person he can talk to when he feels like he’s having an existential crisis. His parents are still under the false impression that he and Adrianne are college sweethearts, something he doesn’t try to dissuade them of.

“Hi Jared,” she answers, picking up on the third ring, her voice low and soothing.

“Hey,” Jared says, and he can tell that he sounds off-kilter, tight and tense. Adrianne picks up on it immediately.

“You only ever call me when you have a problem,” she complains, but it’s light-hearted. “What’s wrong with you today, you big drama queen? Another panther in your backyard?”

“Worse,” Jared says.

“Worse than a jungle cat trying to break into your house?” Adrianne says dryly. “Sounds like a national emergency.”

“Just shut up and listen to me, okay,” Jared snaps, and he dives into his story, telling her all about stupid Jensen and his stupid jeans, and his stupid invitation for dinner that night. By the time he’s done, he’s practically out of breath.

“Jared. You are being an idiot. You’re going to give yourself a heart attack and I will laugh at your funeral.”

“Ha-ha,” Jared says. “This isn’t funny, Addy. I don’t know what I’m doing here.”

“Okay, I’m going to be the good Texas girl for this first part and tell you that there is a chance that he’s not gay at all and you’re just deluding yourself. Being gay in Texas is pretty much the shittiest thing ever, and I don’t know how you do it.”

“Addy,” Jared hisses, just barely managing not to do a three-sixty to make sure no one’s in the house eavesdropping on him.

Adrianne sighs, this loud, put-upon noise. “Jared, baby, you know I love you, but you really need to get out of the closet.”

“How many times have we been over this, Adrianne? I’m sick of arguing about it.”

“Yeah, but every time your father makes some off-hand remark, or you find out that the guy you’ve been crushing on is straight and homophobic, you come to me, and it’s breaking my heart.”

“Who’s being the drama queen now?” Jared grumbles. “Jesus.”

“That being said, you shouldn’t give up on this new guy because you’ve had a shitty time of things in the past.”

“Easy for you to say, Mrs. I’m-Practically-Engaged,” Jared’s smiling, but it’s small and bittersweet; he doesn’t much like it.

“Jared, honey, go out with him. If anything else, he could be a good friend. And who knows--maybe you’ll get lucky and you’ll get a big, strong boyfriend who can protect you from zoo animals who wander into your yard.”

Jared laughs, but it’s not a particularly happy sound. “Somehow, even if he is like that, which he’s definitely not, I’m sure he doesn’t want to go out with a closet case like me.”

“Don’t be so down on yourself. Go out, have a few beers, and talk with the guy. Develop some sort of a semblance of a social life.”

Adrianne always has this magic ability to calm Jared down, even when she’s being harsh. He’s still nervous--monumentally so--and he definitely is on the verge of hanging up on Addy to call Jensen and cancel, but instead he just takes a deep breath.

“Okay,” he says. “I’ll head out. Maybe I’ll get lucky and he’ll be an asshole, so I’ll have an actual reason to ignore him from now on.”

“C’mon, that’s not what you actually want. You can’t lie to me.”

“I know,” Jared sighs.

**

So, the thing about Jared is that he’s always felt like the disappointment of the family. Middle-child, not particularly smart or athletic or charming, and even though he never got in too much trouble when he was younger, he never did something particularly worthy of pride either. It’s even worse now. He came straight back to his hometown after getting his masters, is teaching at the same elementary school he attended; nothing special there. His brother is a surgeon at a top-rated hospital, married to a neurologist, and expecting his first kid, while his sister has graduated with a steady finance position in a fortune five hundred company, engaged to her well-mannered, conservative college boyfriend.

They meet up once a month at their parents’, and every time, Jared feels like he’s melting into the background. His parents have never really shown their disapproval, per se, even though Jared is woefully single with a job that’s not particularly well-renowned, but he knows he doesn’t measure up. His parents have always had high standards. And to top it all off, when he was in high school and his first girlfriend became his very last because he realized that tits and vaginas? Yeah, they weren’t really for him. Not that he could ever tell anyone here that, because he thinks his parents might just commit hari kari from the shame of having a gay son. And that really fucking sucks.

So Jared throws himself into his job and pretends he doesn’t have a sex drive, homosexual or otherwise. It’s better for everyone that way.

**

Jensen is right on time, ringing the doorbell, and even though Jared had been expecting it, it still makes his heart race a little. Sadie immediately stampedes to the front door, whoofing at the noise, and it’s not like Jared can ignore that after all the commotion she’s making, so after taking a moment for a deep breath to restore his composure, Jared pulls open the door. Sadie is out like a shot, jumping on Jensen in a completely friendly way, all big paws and happy pants, and Jensen’s laugh is startled but genuine.

“Sorry,” Jared says, pulling her back from by the collar. “Never quite got her trained to not do that when strangers come around. She’s really friendly though.”

“I can tell,” Jensen says, brushing dog hair from his t-shirt, which is just the right side of ratty for the bar they’re heading to.

“Let me just grab my wallet and my keys, and we can head out,” Jared says, pointing into his kitchen, and he immediately feels like the world’s biggest idiot, but Jensen just gives a half shrug.

“Whenever,” he says, and he’s petting Sadie’s head absently, almost as if he doesn’t realize he’s doing it.

Jared manages to lead Jensen into his car without any serious social snafus, barring the way he dropped his car keys twice before he managed to slot them into the ignition. Sadie is howling at the back door and Jensen cocks his head.

“Sounds like she’s pretty attached,” Jensen observes. “She like this every time you leave?”

Jared blushes despite himself even though he knows it’s nothing to be ashamed of. “Yeah, I’ve spoiled her pretty bad,” he admits, looking over his shoulder so he can back out of his driveway without running into a tree. “I always wanted a dog when I was little, but my mom never wanted to deal with the hassle. She was the first thing I got when I had enough money to take care of her. Adopted her from a local shelter, and now she’s kind of like my kid, I guess.”

Jensen is grinning at him, this little half smile, and Jared feels a pang of embarrassment. “And wow, I’m sure that makes me sound like a giant girl.”

Jensen makes this little amused exhalation that dispels the awkwardness Jared was feeling about his little rambling session. “Nah, man, it’s cool. Sounds like she’s lucky to have you.”

“How about you?” Jared blurts, aware that he’s dominating the conversation. “You got any pets.”

“Uh-uh. Never had the time for them, you know? My mom had cats when I was growing up, but that’s about it.”

Jared can’t help it; he wrinkles his nose. For some reason, that makes Jensen laugh shortly. “Not a cat person, I take it?” he asks, and Jared has to make sure to keep his eyes on the road rather than meet Jensen’s gaze.

“I don’t know,” Jared hedges, trying not to insult Jensen. “They always seemed kinda cold to me, you know? Not affectionate. Maybe I’ve just never met the right kind of cat.”

“Maybe not,” Jensen says, but he still sounds amused. “But I kind of agree with you there. Cats can be freakin’ fickle. My mom’s favorite used to bite every time I tried to pet her. Nicknamed her Devil-Cat.”

“And that’s my point exactly,” Jared quips

**

Jared had been utterly terrified that the evening would pass in a haze of awkward silence, but he couldn’t have been more wrong. It was almost disappointing in a way--if he had found he couldn’t talk to Jensen, his life would have gotten exponentially easier.

But, as they wait for their dinner to arrive, Jared finds that it’s super easy to talk to Jensen, which makes his attraction worse. Jensen is neither boring nor an asshole, and he’s funny to boot, making Jared choke on his beer more than once. They like the same sports but different teams, they both can’t stand the taste of mayonnaise, and Jensen has Jared in stitches telling him about his mama and how she couldn’t last more than three years in the Texan heat.

“Lemme tell you,” Jensen drawls. “I may not have grown up here, but I’m a Texan at heart.” And Jared can definitely tell, from the way Jensen hits his low southern vowels perfectly, tipping the brim of an imaginary cowboy hat as he does so.

So, yeah, Jared’s screwed. And Jensen keeps shooting Jared this look, this flash of his eyes that Jared can’t decipher even as it makes his stomach swoop with a hint of arousal.

Jared is careful not to drink too much with the double threat of Jensen being so close and the fact that he has to drive them back to his house without wrapping his car around a telephone pole, but Jensen isn’t nearly as cautious. He keeps drinking even after Jared’s switched to water, wrapping his lips around the opening of his Corona bottles in an almost obscene way. He never gets drunk-drunk, but he’s definitely tipsy by the time they divvy up the bill and retreat to one of the open pool tables.

Jared curses as he misses an incredibly easy shot, skidding the cue across the table on accident and knocking the ball he was aiming for into the wall instead of sinking it in the hole. Jensen just smirks, and sinks his shot with ease, cradling the pool stick gently.

“How did you do that?” Jared demands, because Jensen is definitely still feeling his beers and Jared’s mostly sobered up.

“I’m just that good,” Jensen says, raising his eyebrows. “Oh, and you fucking suck.” It’s said playfully, no hint of challenge, but Jared rises to the bait.

“Just because I have better things to do with my nights than play pool,” he defends, giving a smirk of his own.

Jensen’s resulting chuckle is low, dirty. “Oh really?” he asks, and he makes it sound as lewd as possible, meeting Jared’s eyes across the table instead of lining up for his next shot.

Jared can feel himself go red, and he ducks his head slightly. “Wouldn’t you like to know?” is his lame retort, but Jensen just shrugs and drops his attention back to his cue.

“So, Jared,” he says, drawing the words out as he toggles the stick back in forth before hitting the ball with a clean crack, “got a girlfriend?”

Jared wishes he knew what to think of that question because he thinks he’s taking it in a way that Jensen didn’t mean at all. “Nah,” he says, deflecting the question, leaning on the edge of the table even though it’s his turn. “Livin’ the single life right now. It’s easier.”

“You’re kidding me, right?” Jensen asks, raising one eyebrow. “You gotta have girls chasing after you left and right.”

“Pssht,” Jared says, rolling his eyes. “Not really.” His heart is hammering, but this conversation is heading into familiar, straight-guy territory.

“Oh c’mon,” Jensen scoffs. “You’re about eight feet tall and you spend your time with five-year-olds. Plus, those dimples, dude. You’re like a walking Ken doll.”

“Oh, fuck you,” Jared laughs. “Besides, I grew up here. Pretty much every girl in this town knew me when I was awkward and chubby.”

“Suit yourself,” Jensen shrugs. “If you’re gonna be picky.”

“I don’t know what you’re bitching about,” Jared says. “It just means there are more for you, right?”

“Oh, I dunno,” Jensen says, and there’s that smile again. “Not really interested, if you get my drift.” And Jared definitely doesn’t get where he’s going, unless he really is catering to Jared’s overactive libido and taking the gay-boy route. And if he is, he really needs to be more up-front about it, because Jared is not taking that chance, not here where everyone knows him, and definitely without that further confirmation.

“Hypocrite,” Jared says, finally taking his turn. Jensen’s knocked all of the solids out of play, and Jared still has three stripes left, which doesn’t bode well, but it’s better than the alternative of continuing the conversation head on. “If you’re not interested, why should I be?” Of course, distracted as he is, Jared misses spectacularly.

Jensen hasn’t stopped smiling. “Just curious,” he says, and then he lines up and knocks the eight ball into the corner pocket without so much as a how-do-you-do.

**

Jensen manages to get two more beers into him before they call it a night, and he’s staggering slightly when they leave the bar to get to Jared’s car. Jared already knows he isn’t about to let Jensen drive home like this, and he can’t decide what to do about that. Two options here, and neither of them are particularly appealing.

And sure enough, when Jensen gets out of the car, he’s stumbling enough that Jared has to let him lean on him so Jensen doesn’t fall on his face.

“C’mon in, you lightweight,” Jared grumbles, shouldering Jensen’s weight even though Jensen had so many beers that Jared’s almost afraid he’s going to be covered in bodily fluids unless he gets some water in him fast.

“I’m perfectly fine,” Jensen says, but it’s so slurred together that Jared has a hard time understanding.

“Sure you are,” Jared says, taking one step to the right so Jensen isn’t pressed up against him any longer and Jensen immediately stumbles into the grass and falls over.

“What did you do that for?” Jensen whines, moving so he’s propped up on his elbows, scowling prettily.

“To prove a point,” Jared says and extends his hand down for Jensen to use as an anchor to get back to his feet. For one disastrous moment, Jared is afraid that Jensen is going to pull him down on top of him, which would not be good for this whole denial thing Jared’s got going on, but Jensen just pulls himself up, only stumbling a little.

“You can sleep it off on my couch,” Jared says drily, fumbling in his pocket for his house keys.

“You?” Jensen says, pointing wildly at Jared and nearly poking him in the eye. “You are a good friend. We are friends, right?”

Jared can’t help but smile at that, even if he does have two hundred pounds of gorgeous guy pressed up against his side when he can’t do anything about it. “Yeah, of course,” he says, pulling them both inside while trying to avoid Sadie’s curious nose, which is a feat within himself. “Now let’s get you to a couch before you fall down and give us both concussions.

When helping Jensen onto the couch, fate decides to play her hand, and maybe Jared’s a little unsteady on his feet or maybe Jensen pulls just a little bit too hard, because Jared ends up splayed half on top of Jensen, a tangle of limbs that’s a puzzle to figure out seeing how Jensen is drunkenly pliant.

“Sorry,” Jared gasps, half because the fall knocked some of the wind out of his lungs, and half because being on top of Jensen is like touching a live electrical wire. His skin tingles with the contact, a current of static that’s making his hair stand on edge in a good way, and he knows that if he were to look in a mirror, his cheeks would be stained and his pupils would be blown. Below him, Jensen makes a low rumble, almost akin to a purr, and it takes all of Jared’s willpower not to roll over and kiss Jensen right there.

Instead, Jared does this awkward sort of roll that lands him on the floor, his head banging against the leg of his coffee table. Sadie immediately barks and comes over to investigate, sniffing at Jared’s head until he gets the wherewithal to sit up.

“Are you okay?” Jensen asks, and he sounds a whole lot less drunk and a whole lot more self-satisfied than he did just moments prior.

“Peachy,” Jared says, rubbing at the goose egg rapidly forming on his forehead. “I’m gonna get you a pillow and some blankets. You want some water?”

Jensen blinks, and he’s drunk again, making Jared doubt the moment of sobriety he just saw. “Ye-ah,” Jensen drawls. “Thirsty.”

“Okay,” Jared sighs. “Try not to get sick on my carpet, okay?”

“Not that drunk,” Jensen points out, but he’s swaying in his seat, so Jared makes a note to get an empty trash can as well. Whistling to Sadie, he gets out of his living room as fast as possible without looking like a complete spaz case.

When he comes back, Jensen is passed out on the couch, snoring lightly. Jared has to tamp down the feeling of disappointment at the sight, reminding himself that things are a whole lot more safe with Jensen unconscious.

**

When Jared wakes up and summons the courage to go downstairs the next morning, he’s relieved to see that Jensen has already vacated his couch. The bucket Jared had put next to the makeshift bed is thankfully empty of anything resembling vomit, and his couch looks intact; the blankets are even neatly folded.

He lets Sadie out and then putters around his house doing his normal Saturday chores, halfheartedly cleaning and finishing the laundry that’s been sitting around so long, he’s lucky his clothes haven’t started to mold.

It’s edging on three when his phone rings and he knocks his shin on the table trying to get to it before it goes to voicemail, not even checking the screen before he accepts the call.

“Hello?” he asks, slightly breathless, rubbing at the aching spot on his leg.

“Uh, hi,” someone says, and Jared has to take the phone away from his face to check who it is. “It’s Jensen.”
“Hi Jensen,” Jared says automatically, but his heart is pounding for some inane reason. His hand feels sweaty on his phone and he switches it to the other side of his face.

“So I kind of wanted to apologize for last night,” Jensen starts out. “Don’t really drink like that. Didn’t mean to get trashed on you, man.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Jared says, leaning against his counter. His heart has begun to slow a little now that the conversation’s heading into neutral territory; he didn’t know what he’d been expecting when he first discovered it was Jensen on the phone, but he’s entirely too glad that it’s an apology and not something else. Definitely not disappointed. Definitely not

“It’s just--” Jensen’s voice is stilted, the perfect picture of self deprecation. “You know what, never mind? I’m still sorry, but now I feel like a girl.”

“Maybe you should stop then,” Jared said, emboldened by the fact that he’s talking to Jensen without actually having to look at him. “I don’t know if I can be friends with a girl.”

“Bullshit,” Jensen says, slipping from embarrassed to amused in a heartbeat. “I’ve seen who you hang out with at school. Sometimes I wonder if you have a secret vagina, the way you get along with your crowd.”

“Maybe I’m just that attractive,” Jared jokes. “Seriously, they’re all secretly in love with me. You’re just jealous of my harem.”

By the time they get off the phone, nearly an hour has passed without Jared realizing it, and Sadie is looking at Jared with her big, brown eyes, pleading for a little bit of attention. After he lets her out and begins a furious game of fetch with a ratty, slobbery tennis ball, he realizes that his problem is about to get a whole lot worse, because it turns out that Jensen? Yeah, totally not a jerk.

**

Jared spends the entirety of his Sunday in two moods, vacillating between a light happiness whenever his mind accidentally strays to his budding friendship and pangs of worry when he spends too long focusing on Jensen in a way that is not platonic. He’s still holding out hope that the guy is secretly a puppy killer or something so he can call Addy, whine for a while, and then put everything behind him.

By the time he needs to leave to get to his parents’ house for their traditional monthly family dinner, he can’t even dredge up his normal feeling of dread because he’s entirely too busy thinking about other things that have nothing to do with the three-hour long ordeal he’s about to endure.

His parents live on the outskirts of town in the house they moved to after Jared and his siblings had officially left the nest, lavish but not extravagant. Everything is perfectly manicured, from the lawn to the paint on the shutters, and every time Jared pulls up their driveway, he feels a certain sense of not belonging. This Sunday, between his new distractions and the fact that Sadie had looked particularly pathetic before he’d left, spurring a five minute belly-rub, by the time Jared throws his car into park, he can tell that he’s the last to arrive.

His truck clicks sadly as it cools down, out-of-place next to his sister’s Prius and his brother’s new SUV, and Jared takes a second to steel his resolve and fix his posture before starting up the front walk. His mother has instituted the rule that all visitors approach the front door, no matter if they’re her children or not, and Jared always feels stupid ringing the doorbell to his parents’ house.

His mother immediately pulls open the door, almost as if she was waiting on the other side for him to arrive. “Jared,” she says warmly, standing on her toes to give him a kiss on the cheek. “We were beginning to worry.” Her smile wanes as she sees his disheveled appearance, thanks to Sadie and her enthusiasm when he was getting dressed, but for once she doesn’t say anything.

“Hi mama,” he says, equally warmly, pulling her into a quick one armed hug. As much as he hates this house, there’s always that rush of comfort he feels whenever he sees his mother, rosy cheeked and happy to see him, even if she disapproves of his life choices.

“Everyone else is here--dinner’s getting cold!” she scolds lightly. “You’re lucky we didn’t start without you.” Pausing only to kick off his shoes, Jared follows her into the dining room. Sure enough, everyone is already sitting around the polished table, drinking red wine from delicate crystal. There’s a rush of greetings when Jared enters the room, but it isn’t long before he’s sitting silently, nursing his own glass of vino as his sister talks animatedly to his sister-in-law and his parents grill Jeff on his newest promotion at the hospital.

It’s always like this--Megan and Jeff have their updates, and there’s only so much Jared can compete with, especially since Jeff has begun his rotation at the hospital with flying colors. The plates have almost been cleared of dinner before someone remembers that Jared exists apart from the occasional small input he has in their conversations.

“So, Jared,” his sister-in-law, Dee, starts, smiling encouragingly, “what’s new with you?”

And there are a million ways to answer that question, everything from an outlandish story about escaped wildlife in his backyard to an update about his kids at school; from Sadie to Jensen to everything in between.

“Not much,” he starts. “We took the students on a field trip to the--”

“Oh!” Dee exclaims, putting a hand on her belly, and Jared stops talking. “That was a hard kick. Jeff, your kid is beating me up from the inside out!”

And that’s that. His mama and papa and Megan immediately jump into asking Dee about baby news, updates that Jared swears he’s heard a million times before. He never does get to answer Dee’s question, and no one thinks to re-ask it.

All in all, it’s a typical Sunday night dinner in the Padalecki household.

**

Even though things shouldn’t feel different at school, they inevitably do. Jared’s kids are the same bundles of energy they always were, and there’s still that little kid drama that Jared has to deal with day-in-day-out, but now the whole dynamic of his social life outside of children has changed. Jensen has seamlessly situated himself in Jared’s bubble, and the distinction between hot stranger and good friend has been unmistakably obliterated.

Addy thinks it’s funny, calling Jared a smitten fifth-grader, but although he’s gotten used to being around Jensen, he’s still afraid he’ll say or do something that will leak his big, gay secret. Jensen always acts like the typical Texan boy--all sports and beer and a drawl that comes out when he’s tired or distracted--and he’s quickly becoming one of Jared’s best friends in town, even though Jared has a whole slew of people in his social circle he’s known since he could talk.

He tries to integrate Jensen into his group of friends, which doesn’t go as smoothly as anticipated. Sure, he gets on with Kristen, who still holds an unmistakable torch for him even though Jensen’s given her no indication that he’s interested, and Tom, the gym teacher, will occasionally join them for a beer after work, but aside from that, Jensen just seems to set people on edge, which Jared honestly doesn’t get. Chad declares that he’s an asshole from the get-go, which is kind of amusing considering that Chad is decidedly the biggest douchebag Jared has ever met, and even though Mike gets on well enough with him, it’s obvious that he’s not entirely comfortable, which Jared just doesn’t get. However, if anything, it just means that he and Jensen hang out alone more often than not. There’s just something about them that clicks.

Before he knows it, October has swept away into November, Halloween leaving a wake of sugar-high children for at least two weeks, and the short Thanksgiving holiday is looming on the calendar. Jared busies himself with turkey crafts and introductions to Indians and Pilgrim; and for a week he leaves class with finger-paint all over his shirts. Jensen has been given the slightly harder task of actually teaching his kids about the historical implications of the holiday, and whenever Jared hears him complain, he is inordinately glad that he decided to teach first-graders.

Jensen is sprawled out on Jared’s couch, watching Will Smith blow shit up on Jared’s TV, and Jared is almost lulled into sleep by the comfort of it all. He forces himself to stay awake in case he reverts to childhood habits in his sleep, insensible mumbling and all, and instead focuses on the play of light on Jensen’s face.

“What are you doing for Thanksgiving?” he says lazily, watching the movie only peripherally.

“Hmm?” Jensen asks, distracted by the movie.

“Thanksgiving,” Jared elaborates. “You know, the holiday that’s coming up where we eat a lot of turkey and pie while we watch football? Maybe you’ve heard of it.”

“Nah, you hillbillies celebrate the weirdest things,” Jensen says, smirking, but then he shrugs carelessly. “Nothing, man. It’s not exactly worth it to go home for three days. I figured I’d get Chinese or something.”

“You can’t get Chinese on Thanksgiving,” Jared said, scandalized. “What kind of American are you?”

“A poor one,” Jensen says. “I think Danny’s staying around too, so we’ll probably go together.”

That makes Jared bristle--he’s met Jensen’s hometown friend maybe once or twice, and she’s stacked and gorgeous, a perfect southern belle. Jensen maintains that they’ve been friends since elementary school and when he decided to move to Texas for a job, she followed him because she didn’t have anything better to do. She and Jensen are renting this two-bedroom house about ten miles from the school, and she’s sweet, funny. In a word, she’s perfect. Girlfriend material for a man that Jared does not want to see attached.

In short, Jared hates her just a little bit.

“That kind of sucks for you guys,” Jared says, but his smile feels a little strained. “Hey, why don’t you come to my family’s house? Make it so I actually have guests for once instead of being the odd one out.”

“Oh, c’mon, we’re not going to impose on your family holiday. Don’t be stupid,” Jensen scoffs.

“You’re the one being stupid. I mean, c’mon, Chinese? My mom makes the best pecan pie in the county. If you seriously want to give that up for fortune cookies and questionable chicken, be my guest. Just thought it would be nice, that’s all.”

Jensen studies him for a second, the movie forgotten, before his customary smile blooms on his face. “I don’t know,” he hedges, but Jared can sense he’s close. Even though he doesn’t necessarily want Danneel to come to his parents’ house and prove that the only girls Jared can be friends with are definitely not interested in him, she’ll bring Jensen and that’s what Jared wants.

“I wouldn’t offer if it wasn’t okay,” he says. “My mama would be thrilled. She’ll fatten you up before the night’s done if you let her.”

“Sold,” Jensen says, leaning back against the couch even though his eyes are still on Jared’s face. “I haven’t had a home-cooked meal in forever.”

“I cooked dinner for us last week, you liar,” Jared said.

“That was not dinner,” Jensen said. “That was barbeque. Not even I can fuck up barbeque.”

“Next time I won’t bother then,” Jared says.

Jensen’s eyes flick back to the movie for a second. “But seriously, it’d be great if we could crash your Thanksgiving.”

“Dude, you didn’t even need to ask,” Jared says warmly, settling back himself.

**

Jensen is early before Jared’s due to drive them to his parents’ house, and Jared’s still buttoning up his shirt when he answers the door. He’s conspicuously alone, and Jared quirks an eyebrow as he peeks outside to make sure that Danneel isn’t just waiting in the truck or something.

“Where’s Danny?” he asks, drawing Jensen’s attention from somewhere below face level. “I thought she was coming too?”

“Dude, I’m so sorry,” Jensen says, taking the step into Jared’s house and giving Sadie her customary ear rub. “She cancelled last minute--found some guy at work to crash with, I think. She’s trying to get in his pants, and she figured her chances would be better if she buttered up his family. She only just told me, or I woulda let you know before.”

Jared’s stomach does a little happy dance that he hopes doesn’t show on his face. “Nah, don’t worry about it. My mom always makes too much food anyway. She won’t care.” He carefully keeps his face as carefree and understanding as he can, but inside, his jealousy has soothed a little, and not just because Danneel’s skipped out. He’s a little wary as to how his family’s going to react to him bringing along a friend for a holiday without the added buffer of a hot girl to keep things from getting too awkward, but he’ll cross that bridge if he ever comes to it.

The car ride over to Jared’s parents passes in an easy haze of conversation, as things always seem to whenever Jensen and Jared are alone together. Jensen waxes poetic about his mama’s sweet potato pie, and Jared warns Jensen which football teams to cheer for if he wants to avoid a full-blown conflict, and by the time they’re rolling down his parents’ street, Jared has forgotten to feel the same little hint of dread he usually does before events like these.

Jensen’s swagger is easy as he walks with Jared to the front door, carefully holding a bottle of wine Jared told him not to bring but he did anyways. When his mama pulls open the door, her smile is as genuine as ever as she pulls Jared into a hug and kisses his cheek.

“And you must be Jensen,” she says warmly when she steps away, not giving Jared the chance to introduce him. “I’ve heard so much about you.” She hasn’t, of course, never thought to ask, but she’s always had that strict southern charm about her.

“Likewise, ma’am,” Jensen says, shaking her hand; another lie, and it looks like Jensen’s going to lay it on as thick as Jared’s mother.

Jared’s mama titters, shaking her head. “Oh, don’t call me ma’am,” she admonishes lightly. “You’ll make me feel like a schoolmarm. Sherri’s fine, dear. Don’t let Jared make you think I’m the strict dictator he’s obviously made me out to be.”

Jensen laughs good-naturedly, but it’s not the same laugh Jared always hears from him--it’s a little more reserved, maybe, a little cautious. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he says. “Jared’s never said a bad word against you. He’s been a perfect gentlemen.”

“I don’t believe that for a second,” Sherri jokes, and then ushers them inside. “Well don’t dally all day! You’ll let the bugs in. But, Jared, dear, didn’t you say someone else was coming?”

“She couldn’t make it after all,” Jared says. “Sorry, mama. I would’ve told you but it was a last minute thing.”

“It was entirely my fault,” Jensen apologizes, sliding off his shoes as Jared does the same. “I never warned Jared that Danneel is about the flakiest girl I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing.”

“Oh, never you mind,” Sherri says, leading them into the family room, where Jared’s father is already watching football while his sister sits on the couch and texts on her phone. His mama excuses herself, heading for the kitchen, and for an hour, Jared ignores everything except the game on the television and the way Jensen’s pressed against him on the couch.

Thanksgiving dinner is how it always is--early and delicious and quiet, at least on Jared’s end. He talks to Jensen, and his family talks to each other, and for a second, Jared feels like as much of an outsider as Jensen must.

They’re in the middle of seconds when Sherri puts on her nosy face and starts grilling Jensen. They cover all the basics, with small supplements from Jared, including where Jensen grew up and why he moved to teach in their town.

“Actually, I’m really glad to be here,” Jensen supplements. “For a while, I thought I was never going to find a job, but then the substitute part at the elementary opened up. I’m really glad for it--I wouldn’t have met Jared otherwise.”

Jared can feel his entire face flush, down to the neck, and he hopes that no one else notices, if only for the reason that he can’t tell his family just why he’s so affected by Jensen’s praise.

“And the job can’t be too unwelcome either,” Jared’s father says boisterously. “Not with the economy how it is!”

“No, I can’t complain,” Jensen continues. “But I would’ve pulled through with something eventually. I’ve done a lot of odd jobs in my life. But I’ve been really isolated since I came down here--Danneel is always busy--so Jared’s been really great at welcoming me to the town.” Jared wants to protest--he hasn’t done much besides show Jensen to the local park and pointing out the best restaurants within driving distance, but he can’t think of a way to word it.

True to form, his parents don’t even notice what Jensen’s saying about Jared; they only focus in on the unknown.

“So Jensen,” his mama continues, “is this Danneel your girlfriend? She must be if you moved down together, all the way from Vermont!”

“Oh, no, not at all,” Jensen says. “We’ve been friends since we were kids, but I couldn’t think about her like that, you know? Every time I see her, all I can think about is the little tomboy who used to go searching in the mud for toads with me.”

“Oh,” Sherri says, deflating slightly. “I just thought--well, never you mind. Do you have a girlfriend?”
“Mama,” Megan says, “leave him alone already. You’re embarrassing Jared.”

“Shut up, Meggie,” Jared says, even though she’s right.

“No, it’s okay,” Jensen says, laughing slightly. “My mama acts the same way whenever I bring someone home. To answer your question, Mrs. Padalecki, no. I’m currently unattached.”

“I’m sure Jared can help you out there,” Jared’s papa says, and Jared chokes on his peas. “He knows about half the pretty women around these parts. Grew up with them and everything.”

“And still, he continues to break my heart by staying a bachelor,” Sherri sighs. “Sometimes I think he’ll never give me grandchildren.”

“That’s what Jeff’s for,” Jared says, annoyed. “Can we stop this line of questioning, please?”

Jensen just laughs, low and sure. “Don’t worry about it,” he says. “Like I said, you sound just like my mama, Mrs. Padalecki.”

“Your mama sounds like a smart woman,” Sherri concedes, and that’s that.

**

The ride home is quiet but not uncomfortably so, and Jared is content just steering the car on the back roads he takes to get to his house. Jensen is the one to break the silence and Jared catches his eye for a second before he turns his attention back to the road.

“Are they always like that?” Jensen asks, soft and plaintive and something about his voice is deeply intimate, making Jared’s heart beat quicker in his chest.

“Always like what?” Jared asks.

“I dunno,” Jensen hedges. “I don’t mean anything bad by it, you know.”

“Bad by what?” Jared says, instantly cautious.

“It’s just--it kind of felt like your mom didn’t really talk to you that much? She wasn’t really interested in much besides your bachelor status.”

“Oh,” Jared says, shrugging but carefully not looking at Jensen out of the corner of his eye. “I mean, yeah. I’m used to it though. You know, my brother and my sister are kind of more...impressive, I guess. It’s always been like that. They’re kind of disappointed I wasn’t more ambitious.”

“That’s silly,” says Jensen, still quiet. “You’re just as successful as the rest of your family.”

“Oh, come on, I know I’m not. It’s okay. I’ve accepted it, and I’m happy.”

“Don’t act like that,” Jensen says, putting on of his hands on Jared’s shoulder. Jared can feel it burn through his shirt and he has to suppress a shudder. “Don’t pretend you’re not as good as the rest of them, because you are.”

Jared swallows a few times and doesn’t answer. Jensen continues talking as though things haven’t just gotten a tad awkward.

“I’m not going to go all girly and shit on you,” Jensen says. “But you’re my friend--one of my best ones, probably, and sometimes I feel like you aren’t happy.”

“I’m perfectly happy,” Jared protests.

“No you aren’t,” Jensen says. “It’s just sometimes--I feel like you’re hiding something, maybe? And it’s okay, you don’t need to tell me.”

“I’m not hiding anything,” Jared says, another protest, but this one he knows is a lie.

Jensen shakes his head--Jared barely catches the movement--and takes his hand off of Jared’s shoulder. Jared immediately misses his presence.

“Didn’t mean to pry,” he explains.

“I’m fine,” Jared says. “My family--they mean well, and I have nothing to complain about. I have a job, a house, a dog--friends!”

“Forget I said anything,” Jensen says, but Jared can see his wan smile. “In any case, I’ve had enough wine to last me about a year and a half, and somewhere in the country, a football game’s gotta be going on. What do you say--wanna finish up the evening with some bad beer and even worse company?”

And, really, Jared can’t argue with that.

**

December bursts into being with the mildest weather of the year and with it comes the badly constructed arts and crafts and, even worse, Christmas carols on repeat. His kids are constantly on a candy-cane sugar high, and Jared thinks if he sees one more Claymation Christmas movie, he just might put a hole in his television set.

“I hate this stupid holiday,” he moans, trying to find another place for a drying red and green glue creation so he doesn’t find it stuck to the floor the following day. Jensen is watching him safely from the top of Jared’s desk, swinging his feet as he sucks on a bit of peppermint he found in the teacher’s lounge.

“Be more of a Grinch, why don’t you,” Jensen teases. “You have got to be the only person I know who doesn’t love Christmas.”

“Oh shut up,” Jared grumbles. “You could help, you know?”

“And miss you getting covered in glitter? I don’t think so, stud.”

Jared sighs, drawing a hand through his hair, remembering too late that he’s probably just given himself a glue mohawk. From the way Jensen snickers, he’s pretty sure he looks fairly ridiculous. “The sooner we get out of here, the sooner we eat,” he wheedles, trying in vain to use his puppy dog eyes to break Jensen’s spirit.

“A,” Jensen says, “that’s a useless argument seeing as you’re the bottomless pit, not me. B, I know for a fact that Mrs. Bridenbaugh is still around, and if she pinches my ass one more time “on accident” I just might flip out.”

“You know you like it,” Jared counters, picking up the garbage can and sweeping various scraps of paper into it. “It’s the most action you’re getting nowadays anyway.”

“And whose fault is that?” Jensen quips, but there’s something hidden behind the lightness of his words that Jared can’t quite decipher.

“What?” he asks, nonplussed, turning fully so he can look at Jensen without straining his neck. Jensen merely shrugs, an act of nonchalance that Jared can’t believe, and then hops off of Jared’s desk.

“I gotta go straighten some things up in my own room,” he says. “I’ve got garbage-bag wreaths all over the place. Meet you out front in twenty?”

“Okay,” Jared says, but he’s still confused, still wants to push the issue.

**

They settle into a booth at the local diner, which Jared thinks is absolutely terrible even if Jensen doesn’t. The air is warm and heavy, and Rudolph’s playing over the tiny speakers, and Jared has to try hard to dispel the feeling of...well, whatever this feeling is, as Mrs. Sanchez gives them a look and a raised eyebrow as she drops off the menus.

Jensen had already decided what he was getting before they even walked in the door, but Jared has to take a little while choosing. He glances up as their waiter takes their drink menu--two Coronas, lime yes please because it’s that kind of diner--but before he can return his attention to deciding which he feels like, pancakes or the turkey special, he catches Jensen’s eyes on him.

“What?” he asks, immediately self-conscious, especially if Jensen’s been staring at him all this time. “Do I have something on my face or something?” He immediately brushes his fingers over the corner of his mouth, but they come away clean.

Jensen smiles, that little contented smirk of his that never fails to make something twinge in Jared’s stomach, and settles back into the booth. “Nah,” he says nonchalantly. “Sorry, didn’t mean to stare. Just thinkin’, is all.”

Jared makes this small, amused exhalation, pulling his fingers through his hair and suddenly feeling stupid to think that Jensen was staring at him for some reason or other. “Anything you want to share with the class?” he asks, slow and easy, because it’s better to pretend that he’s that guy than to be his normal, awkward self.

Jensen sees through it instantly and rolls his eyes. “Don’t pull the Mr. Padalecki act on me,” he scoffs. “I can see right through it.”

Jared shrugs lightly, as if he doesn’t feel the weight of something approaching settling on his shoulders. “Seriously,” he says, trying for sincere and surprisingly hitting it straight on. “Something you want to talk about?”

Jensen quirks his lips and stares at the corner of the table for a second before responding. “I dunno, man. Just kinda dreading going home for the holidays, you know?”

Jared can’t help himself--he gapes for a second before he gains enough sense to close his mouth. Thankfully, Jensen is too engrossed with his napkin to notice, acting uncharacteristically shy and unsure. “You’re joking,” Jared says. “I thought you missed them? You talk about them all the time.” And that part’s not even a lie--Jared’s heard so much about Jensen’s family, he almost feels as if he knows them all personally.

The waiter sets down their beers and takes their dinner order before Jensen can answer, and Jensen takes a long slug from his bottle before he squares his gaze on Jared again. “I do,” he says, shrugging one shoulder. “I do miss them. Doesn’t mean I want to go home and be the center of attention.”

“I wonder how that feels,” Jared teases lightly, all too aware that things are the complete opposite for him.

Jensen laughs at this. “You should be happy your mom’s not like mine. She’s invested in every single detail of my life--I can’t get her to stop talking, even if I beg.”

“Well, what does she have to complain about?” Jared asks. “You’re employed, you have friends, you’re not addicted to drugs--”

“I’m not married,” Jensen inserts.

Jared raises an eyebrow. “I know how that goes, at least,” he says.

“It’s not the same,” Jensen says with an odd twist to his mouth. “My parents are kind of...traditionalists. Old country, you know.”

“Your dad’s from Texas,” Jared says slowly.

“It’s hard to explain,” Jensen sighs. “We’re from a really tight-knit community, you know? It’s really strange that I’m not married yet. Almost everybody I know from back home got hitched right after graduating high school.”

“I’m not going to pretend like that isn’t a little weird, but okay,” Jared says placatingly. “Doesn’t mean you have to.”

“No,” Jensen huffs. “You really don’t get it. My parents aren’t just old country--they’re the arranged-marriage kind of old country. My dad told me he’d give me some time to find someone on my own, but it’s running out.”

“That’s stupid,” Jared blurts, going beet-red as soon as he figures out that he basically just insulted Jensen’s entire family. “I mean--”

Jensen laughs then, full-bodied and loud, and it makes Jared feel like less of a jerk. “No, I know. It’s stupid. But it’s family, you know?”

“Yeah,” Jared concedes. “But that doesn’t mean you have to go back. You could just stay here until you find what you’re looking for. You’re a grown man--you don’t have to let them dictate your life.”

Jensen’s face instantly loses its humor, turning melancholy quicker than Jared could blink. “I can’t abandon them. I have to go back. I was never going to stay here forever.”

Jared can’t pretend to ignore the twist of pain Jensen’s admission causes, but he hides it well. “We’ll just have to find you a girl, then. Not that you’ve shown much interest in dating in all the time I’ve known you.”

Jensen’s eyes flick up from where they were staring, somewhere near Jared’s collarbone, and Jared feels pinned by them. “Don’t know if you noticed,” Jensen said lowly, “but I’m not all that into girls.”

Jared’s world tips on its axis as he stares at Jensen staring back at him. For a second, he’s sure his deluded imagination is playing a trick on him, because there’s no way Jensen just admitted to being gay in the middle of a busy diner in Bumfuck, Texas. Jared swallows once, then twice, and his own confession sticks in his throat, because no matter how much he wants to say it, he can’t be that guy. He’ll never be able to be that guy.

Jensen looks nervous, and he’s shredding his napkin now, littering the table with little pieces of paper. “Jared?” he asks tentatively. “That’s okay, right? You don’t care, do you?”

“Why didn’t you tell me before?” Jared chokes out, and Jensen’s eyes dim a little.

“Isn’t it obvious?” he chuffs. “I didn’t want to risk that you were a homophobe or, I don’t know, didn’t want anything to do with me. I like you. As a friend,” he adds hastily. “It would really suck if you hated me because of something I can’t change.”

“I don’t hate you,” Jared says automatically.

“You sure?” Jensen asks cautiously, caustically.

This shocks Jared into silence for a minute as he tries to gather his thoughts. “Is that really how you think of me, Jen?” he says, so quiet he almost isn’t heard over the din of the other patrons. “I don’t hate you. I promise. I was just a little surprised, is all.”

Even though the words aren’t a lie, Jared can sense the untruthfulness behind them. Because now, thanks to that confession, he just might hate Jensen a little bit. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to make him walk away.

**

Things have changed between them. Imperceptibly to outsiders maybe, but Jared can feel it, even if Jensen doesn’t let on. There’s this something between them that Jared can’t explain, and it’s terrifying the shit out of him. He tries to think of an excuse--any excuse, really--to distance himself from Jensen, but whether it was planned or not, Jensen picked the perfect time to come out of the closet, because he’s entrenched himself enough in Jared’s life that it would be a dick move to push away now. Jared doesn’t want to be that homophobic asshole--he really doesn’t--and even though he knows that he’s making a mistake, he can’t help but stick close.

He’s scared to death of what’s happening.

Jen is the same as he always has been, laughing and shooting the shit with Jared, but now Jared can’t help but notice things he’d been trying to ignore before. Like, when Jensen brushes a hand over Jared’s shoulder, Jared notices that the touch lingers just a second too long, enough to make Jared’s body shiver with it.

Jared imagines leaving, going so far as to make up scenarios in his head where he tells Jensen that he tried to deal with it, he really did, but the gay thing was just a little bit too much. Every time he pictures it, he feels almost physically ill, especially when he thinks of what Jensen would look like if Jared was ever that big of a dick.

Adrianne thinks Jared has gone off the deep end, and she calls him every other day to tell him so.

“Just ask him out,” she says. “You’re halfway in love with him.”

“I am not,” Jared protests hotly, leaning against his counter as Sadie looks up at him in alarm.

“Jared,” she says, none too patiently, “I’ve known you for almost ten years now. I can tell when you’re lovesick. Hell, if I were to come visit right this second, I know I’d find little hearts flapping around your head. It’s sickening. And you’re acting like an idiot.”

“Don’t tell me how I feel,” Jared snaps, his grip on his cell going tight.

“You’re miserable, honey,” she placates, her voice soothing. “I can tell, obviously Jensen could if what you told me is true, and if your parents actually started paying attention to you for a change, they’d know too.”
“Low blow, Addy,” Jared says darkly.

“If it gets you to get your head out of your ass, it’s worth it,” she says, no-nonsense. “Jared, he came out to you. Practically gave you permission right there to molest him over the table. And you were too chicken-shit to do it. The only one making you unhappy is you. So fucking stop it.”

“He’s my friend,” Jared snarls. “And that’s fucking it.”

**

February has always been Jared’s least favorite month, so it’s no surprise when things go belly fucking up. He’s been surviving since Jensen’s little confession, clinging to his resolve as tightly as he can, even as things unravel around him. This February’s been gloomy, and even his kids feel it--acting up in ways they never do when they get to have recess in the sun.

The month’s winding down, heading to March, when it happens, and if Jared’s completely honest with himself, it has been a long time coming, and it certainly wasn’t unexpected.

Doesn’t mean it didn’t turn his world on its fucking side.

Jensen had wheedled him over to his house that night with the promise of bad Chinese, a basketball game on television, and the absence of his roommate for the entire evening. Jared’s always been a sucker for winding down to the weekend in such a fashion, and even though he’s been trying to go with his head and reason and not give into what he actually wants, he accepts this time, mostly because the last time he’d been strong enough to forcefully refuse, Jensen had been grumpy and morose for a week.

Jensen’s freshly showered, smelling clean with just a hint of aftershave when Jared comes to the door, and Jared almost chokes on his spit. It’s like Jensen knows what he’s doing to Jared, because he quirks his mouth and dramatically gestures Jared inside.

“Food’s on its way,” Jensen says. “Sesame chicken okay?” And damn him, because he knows that’s Jared’s favorite, but he still has to ask and pretend that he doesn’t remember.

“Sounds good,” Jared responds, priding himself on the way his voice doesn’t sound unnatural, even to his own ears.

“Figured we could start on the beer in the meantime,” Jensen says. “Sit down--I’ll grab you one.” Jared really should decline, because beer makes him stupid and clingy, but it sounds good, especially with only a little while until the game starts.

Jared’s on his third when they finally get started on the food, and he can feel the beginnings of a buzz building behind his eyes. Jensen has been matching him swallow for swallow, and Jared knows they’re heading into dangerous territory, even if Jensen doesn’t, but every time he tries to refuse another bottle, Jensen just shames him into it with friendly goading.

“I’m not going to be able to drive home,” Jared says weakly, his head spinning pleasantly.

“Idiot,” says Jensen fondly. “You know you can stay here if you need to.”

“Why is it whenever we drink, one of us ends up having to sleep over?” Jared grumbles, possibly slurring though he can’t tell. “We need to learn our limits, dude. We’re the worst role models ever.”

“Limits are no fun,” Jensen says, leaning back into the couch cushions, looking like the picture of debauchery even though he’s fully clothed. “Besides, if your first graders become little alcoholics, I doubt it’ll be your fault anyway.”

Jared chokes on his swallow, nearly spewing beer all over himself. “Don’t even joke about that,” he splutters, because now all he can see is his kids ruining their lives because they had the misfortune of having him as a teacher. Jesus Christ, Addy was right; he is a maudlin drunk.

By the time the game ends, Jared is too drunk to do anything but sit and let his head loll as the room spins pleasantly around him, the perfect mix of inebriated without the added downtown of unwanted nausea. Jensen is loud, color high in his cheeks, and he keeps touching Jared’s shoulder when he wants to make a point, which just makes Jared flush further.

The next morning, Jared won’t even remember the comment that spurred it, but Jensen says something so insane that Jared--drunk as he is--can’t help it this time and sprays beer as he laughs, which only makes them laugh harder. Somehow, they’re closer on the couch than Jared initially realized, and by the time he finally gets a hold of himself again, he’s practically buried in Jensen’s side in an attempt to not fall over onto the ground.

Jared immediately notices, even if Jensen doesn’t, and tries to subtly shift away so he can get himself to a more suitable position, but drunken fumbling isn’t the most un-obvious of things.

“Stop squirmin’,” Jensen says, turning his head so he can look Jared in the face accusingly.

“Your couch sucks, man,” Jared says, finally propelling himself backwards a little bit until he loses his balance and crashes into Jensen again. He’s about to laugh it off, chalk it up to him being a clumsy drunk but Jensen is looking at him strangely, serious even though they’ve spent the entire night laughing and drinking and generally having a straight guy’s dream of a Friday evening.

“What’s wrong?” Jared asks, forgetting to move away as he furrows his brow and tries to determine what Jensen is thinking.

“Nothing,” Jensen says, and here’s the moment where everything changes. Jared knows--knows for a goddamn fucking fact--that he didn’t move any closer, but god, did he want to, and some of that must have transferred onto his face, because one moment, he and Jensen are just looking at each other, trapped in whatever the fuck they were doing with one another, and then Jensen is turning his body, twisting into Jared.

The kiss is as much of a shock as it isn’t, and Jared is startled by the surge of want, need, yes, that shoots through his system as soon as Jensen’s lips, dry and catching, touch his. He can’t help it, sighing into the contact, opening his mouth, and Jensen doesn’t hesitate, far too coordinated for Jared’s liking. One hand frames his face, and Jensen makes this little inquiring noise as Jared opens his mouth further.

The touch of Jensen’s tongue to his is enough to make Jared arch into Jensen’s touch, tasting him as thoroughly as he can, spit and beer, and god, that combination shouldn’t taste as it does to him. Jensen is responding eagerly in turn, sucking on Jared’s tongue in a way that shouldn’t be legal.

It’s heat, fire, and Jared’s responding to Jensen’s touch in a way that he never has before. It takes about ten seconds for the warning bells to get past his drunken haze, and it’s another ten seconds after that before Jared can force himself to push away. He’s so overenthusiastic, he ends up on his ass on the floor, looking up at Jensen feeling as shell-shocked as Jensen looks.

Jared’s the first one to get his wits about him enough to manage words. He’s disappointed, yes, and he wants desperately, but at the same time he’s indescribably angry.

“What the fuck was that,” he demands, ignoring how his hands are shaking to glare up at Jensen.

Jensen looks abashed, blushing as he rubs the back of his neck self-consciously. “I’m sorry,” he mutters. “I didn’t think, and I thought--”

“You thought what?” Jared asks, the words sharp points as they leave his mouth. He struggles to his feet, and then he’s staring down at Jensen, using his height to all of its intimidating advantage. “You thought that because you’re my friend and because you’re gay it’s okay to kiss me? You think I’m anything like you? You think I wanted that?” His voice is rising, anger masking the shame that’s building behind his eyes. He knows he’s a hypocrite, knows he shouldn’t be saying any of these things, but he can’t help but let them spill out of his mouth.

“Stop being an asshole,” Jensen says quietly.

“I’m fucking allowed to be an asshole if I want to after my friend molests me while I’m drunk at his house,” Jared explodes, throwing his arms out to his sides.

That gets Jensen’s attention, and when he looks up, his glare is as harsh as Jared’s is. “Don’t fucking act like you were an unwilling participant in that. Or was I imagining your tongue in my mouth?”

“Fuck you,” Jared spits, and he can’t stay in this house one second long. “Just...fuck you. And stay the fuck away from me.”

He almost falls over twice getting to the front door, and he’s sure Jensen will follow him, but when he gets the courage to look back, Jensen’s just staring at the ground, angry and dejected.

Jared spends two hours in his car sobering up before he feels comfortable driving home. Jensen never comes after him.

**

The next few weeks are, without a doubt, complete shit. Jensen is avoiding Jared and Jared’s doing the likewise, and only now is Jared able to understand just how much time they’d been spending together in the past couple of months. To top it all off, once he’d gotten over his hangover and called Addy to recount the whole sad, sorry tale, she’d had no sympathy at all--had gone to anger, actually. So now Addy’s not talking to him either, and the rest of the teachers are all giving him odd looks in the hall. Erica, his student, even went so far as to ask him why he looked so sad the other day in class.

So yeah. Fuck Jared’s life.

 

Two weeks of silence and cold shoulders and baleful looks are about all Jared can stand before he really starts to feel like a complete douchebag. Now that he’s had time to cool down and remember just what he said, he knows he was out of line, which is the worst thing ever, because it’s one thing to be in a fight because of something he couldn’t help, but his words were unnecessary and said out of anger, not truth. So when it becomes obvious that Jensen is just going to ignore him until his tenure at the school comes to an end, Jared makes a decision.

He wakes up before the sun rose even though it’s Saturday, and even Sadie isn’t able to be roused to go outside, so Jared spends his morning thinking, turning things over in his head. Eventually, he comes to a decision, even if he doesn’t like it much.

Twenty minutes later find him idling in his truck outside of Jensen’s house. He nearly turns around about half a dozen times before he tells himself to stop being a pussy. He drags his feet up the front path, taking much longer than he should, and he’s about to knock, his heart in his throat, when he hears someone murmuring from the backyard.

He knows he shouldn’t, but he can’t help but sneak around back. Jared knows where their gate latches, knows where they hide the key, but he doesn’t even need to break in--the door hasn’t completely closed behind him.

“You’re so pathetic,” someone says, honey-thick and sweet, but it doesn’t sound condemning, just sad. It’s Danneel’s voice, and even though she has every right to be there, Jared can’t help but feel a flash of jealousy that she’s the one comforting Jensen, not Jared. And then he remembers that she’s mothering Jensen because of Jared and he feels like even more of an asshole.

Jared means to announce himself, but he doesn’t, just slips inside the gate and winds his way around the house. He expects to see Danneel and Jensen there, sitting on the two lawn chairs that they had rescued from a yard sale, so when that isn’t what presents himself, it takes Jared a couple seconds to process what he’s seeing.

And then he promptly falls over in shock, because yes, Danneel’s there, looking just as pretty and perfect as usual, but she’s not sitting next to Jensen. She’s not even sitting next to a human. Nope, she’s lounging in the grass, sitting next to a fully grown panther that is looking at Jared in an almost amusing pantomime of shock.

Danneel’s saying something, maybe warning him off or maybe explaining why she’s petting a fucking jungle cat, but all Jared can hear is white noise. He knows he should scramble back, run out of the gate, but he can’t move. He knows--he knows-- that this is the same cat he saw in his lawn the weekend before he met Jensen, and things aren’t computing.

Danneel gets up, making like she’s going to come over to snap Jared out of his daze, but the cat runs in front of her, fast as lightning, stopping her in her tracks. All of sudden, it shifts--no longer panther but something in between, its muscles rippling under it’s fur as everything smoothes out, and then Jensen’s crouching in the grass, startlingly human and completely naked.

Beside himself, all Jared can do is gape, trying to process what the fuck he just saw, and then he realizes what he’s staring at and his cheeks go red-hot with a blush.

“Wait,” Jensen says, almost desperately. “Wait, don’t go.” And then he’s darting inside the house, hopefully to get clothing, because this conversation is already going to be fucking awful even without one of them being naked.

He doesn’t look at Danneel even though he can feel her attention on him because he needs to figure out what the fuck is going on before Jensen gets back outside so he can get a grip on himself. Slowly, he pulls himself to his feet again, brushing the grass off of his pants, looking everywhere but at the door to the house and at Danneel, who still hasn’t said a word. Maybe she doesn’t know what to say, because now that Jared’s slightly lucid, he thinks that he just saw her roommate, his best friend, turn from a panther into a human being, and that just isn’t right. It can’t be, and Jared is thinking that maybe he took something on accident, or got really drunk on some psychedelic moonshine without realizing it, because things like this do not happen in real life.

When Jensen reappears, he looks completely disheveled; his pants are done up but his shirt isn’t buttoned, gaping and showing off the planes of his chest. He’s pale but determined, his jaw set, and something goes stony in Jared’s stomach.

“Inside, please, Danneel,” he says quietly.

Danneel shoots Jared a glare that could melt stone before she responds. “Are you sure, Jensen? I can stay here and play mediator.” The because Jared is an asshole remains unspoken, but Jared hears it as plainly as if it was spoken aloud.

“I’m okay,” Jensen says firmly in his don’t fuck with me voice, and Danneel hesitates for a second, but something about the way Jensen’s standing convinces her that she shouldn’t stick around because she’s gone without another word. Jared doesn’t know how he feels about this, because she would have been a welcome buffer to the fucked up conversation that’s about to happen.

The slam of the back door is enough to spur Jared to action. “What the fuck,” he says, and it comes out more weak than he would have liked. “What the fuck is going on?”

“What are you doing here, Jared?” returns Jensen, completely ignoring what was just said.

“I came to apologize!” Jared explodes, waving his arms like a deranged songbird. “And I heard Danneel so I came out back to see if you were here, and you--” The words are strangled off in his throat by the absurdity of what he was going to say.

Jensen, if possible, blanches even further, but it only makes him look angrier. “You were going to apologize,” he says to himself and then laughs this little disbelieving laugh. “And what now? Now you think I’m a freak, don’t you?”

It’s a valid question, one that Jared isn’t sure he can answer. “Jensen, what the fuck is going on?” he asks again in lieu of an answer.

Jensen shrugs, a little aborted hitch of his shoulders. “Just what you saw,” he says.

“What I saw isn’t physically possible,” Jared shoots back. “What I saw was you as a fucking panther. One, I might add, that scared the shit out of me in October by hiding in my backyard. And then you--it--just turned back into human. That isn’t possible. This is real life.”

“I hate to tell you,” Jensen says, his eyes glittering angrily, “but it is, because that’s exactly what I did.”

“I don’t believe you,” says Jared, even though he does because he saw it with his own two eyes.

“Yes you do,” Jensen bites out. “You just don’t want to. Truth is, I’ve always been like this. My parents are shifters, and so is my brother. It runs in our family and in my community, and everyone told me I was crazy to leave like I did to try my hand in the real world. And turns out they were right, because it fucking sucks out here.”

“There are more of you?” Jared asks weakly. “More panther-human-werewolf people?”

That makes Jensen every more enraged and he stalks forward, stopping just a pace or two from Jared’s feet. Jared takes an aborted step back, and for the briefest second he can see a flash of hurt in Jensen’s face before it’s tampered down.

“Don’t worry,” Jensen snarls. “It’s not catching. And I’m not a fucking werewolf. So if you’re done gawping at me, you can just go back to where you fucking came from. Don’t worry. I won’t bother you again.” He turns to go back inside the house, and the thought that this is the last time that Jared will see Jensen rips through his chest.

“Wait, don’t--” he says, and Jensen whirls around.

“Don’t what? You’ve made it clear that everything about me disgusts you. You should be fucking happy.”

“I’m not happy,” Jared says quietly. “I’m not. You’re my friend, and I acted like a complete asshole because hey, guess what, I’m completely fucked up. But why didn’t you tell me? Why did you come here anyway? What’s going on?”
Jensen laughs again, that rough, unforgiving sound. “I didn’t tell you because I knew you would freak the fuck out. And why am I here? Easy answer, Jared. I came here because of you. You’re the only reason I moved to this town.”

That sends Jared reeling. “Me? What the fuck? Why the fuck are you here for me? That doesn’t make any sense, Jensen!”

Jensen’s smile is sardonic and biting. “Funny thing,” he starts, and Jared’s heart is pounding and he can’t figure out if he’s scared or not. “It’s kind of a legend in our tribe, you know. Oh, and we call ourselves a tribe, but we’re not a fucking group of animals, so don’t you dare judge me.”

“I’m not,” Jared protests.

Jensen makes a little disbelieving sound but continues his story. “So, us, shifters, we’re supposed to have our one true soul-mate or whatever. We call them bond pairs, and it’s said that when you know, you know. Only there hasn’t been a mated pair in over a century, so no one believed it anymore, you know? So when my dad tried to marry me off, I asked him for a year to try and find mine. So I left, and I came here randomly because my father used to talk about growing up in Texas after his original tribe disbanded, and look. There you were. Not even in the zoo for three fucking weeks, and I see you with a gaggle of children. And they were right, because I knew.”

Jensen’s stance is challenging, and his shoulders are shaking from pent-up emotion. Jared doesn’t know what to think.

“You saw me,” he says dumbly. “At the zoo? How the fuck did you get out of the zoo? How did you find me? How did you get a job where I work? What the fuck is going on?”

“My mother has connections with the Dallas zoo,” Jensen says, ticking one finger up in a pantomime of teaching. “I found you here because I can smell you, because I can turn into a fucking animal. And because you’re my fucking bond-mate, apparently. And I got a job out of the school thanks to dumb luck. Turns out Danneel knows a hacker who was good enough to find out where you work, see if there were any vacant positions, and fake a teaching certification, and I’m a good charmer.”

“You’ve been teaching even though you’re not qualified?” Jared asks, even though that’s the least of his worries.

“Oh, who fucking cares?” Jensen spits. “I know what I’m doing, and it’s not like I’m screwing them up.”

“You could be!” Jared says hotly. “You don’t even know how to teach like you're supposed to.”

Jensen throws his hands up in the air. “Fine. I can see when I’m not wanted. I’m just going to go home. I know my place there. I know how I fit.”

“Wait,” Jared says again, going so far as to catch his hand on Jensen’s bicep.

Jensen moves, faster than Jared can track, and then he’s being kissed again, practically fucking mauled. He melts into it, the sensation not muddled by alcohol this time, as his skin comes alive with electricity. Jensen’s hands frame his face possessively and he just lets himself be taken. There’s promise behind the kiss, and something deeper that Jared doesn’t want to understand.

Just as quickly as it started, Jensen pulls away, panting, and Jared chases after him for the briefest of seconds before he remembers what he’s doing and then he physically recoils.

Jensen laughs, a third time, only now he sounds upset. “I can’t do this,” he says. “If you can’t have the courage to take what you want, to stand up to a family who doesn’t notice you, I can’t make you. I won’t, Jared. You have to come to the decision yourself. And I can’t promise I’ll be around when you do.”

Jensen stalks away, and this time Jared doesn’t try to stop him.

**

Jared honestly doesn’t know how he makes it through the next two weeks at work, because things are honestly a blur. He begs off dinner at his parent’s, blaming a non-existent stomach flu, and it goes so bad that Kristen has to sit him down at work and ask him if everything’s okay. He has to lie, tell her that he’s just feeling a little blue, and no, he doesn’t know why, and he can tell she doesn’t buy it. He thought he could get through this, but truth is, he really, really can’t.

And then Jensen up and disappears completely. Mrs. Ferris tells the staff at a morning meeting that he had a family emergency and had to leave the position, which means the third graders are going to get their third teacher in under a year. Jared feels physically ill from the news, because it wasn’t like he’d sought Jensen out and begged him to stay, but he definitely wasn’t ready for him to leave, as much as he wished the opposite was true. Jared had been doing his best, actually, to pretend that Jensen didn’t exist. He’s still trying to convince himself that Jensen’s a deranged psycho who was lying to fuck Jared up.

It doesn’t work.
**
Time passes, and even though Jared gets up the courage to call Jensen’s cell, he finds out that it’s been disconnected, and he has to come to terms that he’s probably never going to see Jensen again. Ironically enough, this thought that’s supposed to be comforting is nothing but completely devastating.

Jared’s in for another Friday night doing nothing but moping around his house in his sweats, trying to pretend that he doesn’t care that Jensen has made good on his promise of leaving and never coming back when his doorbell rings. He considers ignoring it, but the person outside his house is damn persistent, because the knocking begins shortly thereafter, sharp bangs that make Sadie yelp.

Jared doesn’t care that he looks like a hobo; he wrenches the door open without looking out the peephole, ready to tell his unwanted visitor off in no uncertain terms, but the sight of Danneel on his porch renders him speechless.

“Don’t invite me inside,” she says, irritated. “It’s not like I’m doing you a huge favor or anything.”

“What--” he starts, but she cuts him off, pushing him through the threshold and slamming the door behind her.

“No,” she says. “No talking. You’ve fucked things up enough as it is anyways, and I’m here to make them right.”

“This is my--” Jared starts again, and he gets interrupted again.

“Jensen left,” she says, “partly because of you and partly because his dad had a heart attack.” That shuts Jared up all right. “And he’s fine, but the doctors don’t think he’ll live much longer, and since he’s one of our town’s leaders, he needs someone to take over his position. Someone he trusts. Someone who’s a known genetic pack leader, like Jensen. Someone who’s mated.”

“But Jensen isn’t,” Jared starts, stopping before she can do it for him.

“I know he isn’t, idiot,” she huffs. “But he’s going to be. The city council’s meeting tomorrow morning to arrange for a wife for him.”

“Jensen’s gay,” Jared says blankly.

“But he’ll marry a girl if the council says to,” she says, rolling her eyes. “He’s obedient like that.”

“So let him,” Jared says petulantly.

“You don’t fucking mean that,” Danneel says flatly. “And don’t lie to me. I’m a girl; I can see right through you. You love him. It’s in your genetic code as his bond-mate.”

“That’s a fairy tale,” Jared protests. “Things like that don’t exist in real life.”

“You’ve seen that they do,” she says. “And Jensen was right--this is your decision, and I can’t make it for you. But the council is meeting tomorrow, and if I get you in front of them, they’ll acquiesce to letting you marry Jensen. I know they will; they’re a sucker for happy endings.”

“I’m not,” Jared says, swallowing thickly. “I can’t.”

“You can,” Danneel says. She presses something into his hand--an envelope. “Here--it’s a ticket to my hometown. Last one of the weekend, because I’m going home and you’ll never find it without me. Private jet and all. It leaves in four hours. So make your decision, Jared, because come Sunday, Jensen will be married and mated, and we mate for life.”

Jared’s only able to stare at her dumbfounded as she fixes him with a tough stare and flounces back outside.

**
Jared stands there for a second looking at the door, dumbfounded. For a second, he thinks he accidentally fell asleep on the couch, because there’s no way that that actually happened.

He flops down into the nearest chair, and Sadie immediately comes to investigate, but he can’t even make his head work enough to give her a reassuring head-pat, and she whines low in her throat. It puts Jared on edge, his stomach churning as he thinks of what’s about to happen.

Deciding that he should just stay, live his life in Texas with his family and his steady job, is the sensible answer. He mulls it over in his head, but then he sees Jensen marrying a little petite blonde, and he feels like vomiting. He’s feeling possessive--Jensen does not belong to some nameless girl--and even though he wants to, he knows that he can’t deny things much longer.

Truth is...truth is he’s pretty much been in love with Jensen since day one, hasn’t he? He remembers that first week, avoiding Jensen like being with him would cause the end of the world. The way his heart would race, how his skin warmed whenever Jensen touched him in that casual way of his.

And he’s wanted Jensen since the first night they hung out after school, when Jensen was drunk and Jared fell on top of him, and even as the facade of friendship continued, Jared can’t help but think of all the times he stared just a little too long, woke up with a fantasy Jensen still lingering from his dreams.

His parents will be disappointed, and his friends might hate him, and there’s every reason in the world why he should stay here. There’s no good excuse for marrying someone you’ve known for only a couple of months. It’s reckless--stupid, even--and the potential for everything ending in disaster is so great, it’s almost destructive.

It doesn’t matter though. He can’t just sit here and wait for Jensen to get married. He can’t. Jensen is his friend, more than by now, and Jared knows his decision even before he’s done deliberating on it.

So he goes.

**

Kristen comes over to take Sadie from him, giving him a flurry of questions he doesn’t answer as he struggles outside with a hastily packed suitcase, and then he’s flying down the road to the address Danneel printed on the envelope, which turns out to be a small airfield.

Danneel’s not surprised when he walks into the hangar. She just quirks her mouth, looking wholly relieved.

“I’m glad you finally came to your senses,” she says.

“I don’t know what I’m doing,” he says. “But I can’t...I can’t just let him go through with marrying someone he doesn’t want to. But I don’t know if I can be what he needs.”

“You are,” she says, lying one small hand on his forearm. “He knew when he saw you. Don’t throw this away.”

“This is so fucked up,” Jared says, shaking his head.

“That’s Jensen for you,” she says. “Fucking everything up. But you’re here. You followed me for a reason.”

Jared can’t lie to her, not when his life is falling apart in front of his eyes. Everything he’s believed, everything he’s tried to hide his entire life, is coming unraveled. “Because I can’t just let him go,” he says. “I’ve tried, and this is crazy, but when I think about him marrying someone else, I feel like I’m going insane.”

“Come on then,” she says. “Because we don’t have much time, and I don’t feel ashamed in telling you that it will probably ruin his life if he has to marry someone else after he’s already found you.”

Jared laughs, a little shakily. “Now or never, I guess,” he says.

**

The plane ride is a whirl of emotion that Jared doesn’t remember and if it weren’t for Danneel, he would’ve drank himself into a hangover. “The council needs to be impressed,” she says sternly. “You have to be at your best.”

“I thought you said they were suckers for happy endings,” he hiccupped.

“They are, but that doesn’t mean you can sabotage yourself,” she hisses. “Just relax.”

And Jared tries, he really does, but when they touch down in the middle of Nowhere, Vermont on a field that really shouldn’t classify as a runway, he feels like he’s going to be sick. It’s nearing one in the morning, and Danneel takes him back to her apartment, which is practically as big as his house.

“We have money,” she says, shrugging. “We all do. We’re kind of lucky that way.”

“It also helps that you can scare the shit out of people by turning into huge predatory cats,” Jared says in a weak attempt at a joke.

Danneel just raises an eyebrow. “That too,” she agrees, and shows Jared to his room, in which Jared spends a whole six hours not sleeping before Danneel comes in and forces him into the shower. When he gets out, he finds that she’s laid out clothes for him, and he doesn’t question where they came from or why they fit exactly right because he’s trying too hard to not vomit.
**
Danneel leaves him in some sort of a waiting room of a small, one room courthouse-type building as she goes to talk to someone. When she comes back, she looks both angry and nervous, a combination that sets Jared’s heart racing.

“What’s wrong?” he asks preemptively.

“I can’t go in with you,” she says shortly. “The council’s forbidden it. They want to get to know you without me influencing their decision.”

Jared swallows hard. “What if I fuck this up?” he asks, terrified. “What if I can’t convince them I’m what Jensen needs?”

“Stop being a wussy, and just go.” Danneel says. “They’re not going to separate bond-mates. I know they won’t.”

Jared’s scared he’s about to go into cardiac arrest as Danneel pushes him through the big oaken doors, waving him on encouragingly as they close behind him. He’s half-expecting judges with powdered wigs and stern expressions, but it’s just a group of middle-aged people, four men and three women, and Jared can pick out Jensen’s father from the pictures Jensen had had on display in his house.

“Jared Padalecki?” the first one asks, not rising from his chair. Jared gets the distinct impression that this is an interrogation, not a meet-and-greet, so he just nods weakly.

Another woman speaks up, eyeing him critically. “You are asking to marry Jensen Ackles, a powerful member of our clan, as he ascends to his rightful role as one of the town leaders.”

Jared’s voice is croaky when he answers and he has to clear his throat to get a semblance of credibility. “Yes.”

“What are your qualifications?”

This is like the hardest job interview Jared’s ever been on, and for a moment he panics before the answer comes to him. “I’m his bond-mate,” he says, the first time he’s ever voiced the words aloud. They feel right, warm in his throat.

The council exchanges glances with one another and whisper amongst themselves, which Jared takes as a good sign.

“How do you know?” another asks.

“He told me,” Jared says simply. “He said he felt it the moment he saw me. And I felt something too, but I didn’t know it at the time.” The confession is hugely hard to make, but once he says it, his chest feels lighter.

“But he left you,” the first one says harshly. “He came back for a proper wedding.”

“I was scared,” Jared admits. “He’s not what I’m used to, and my family...they won’t understand. I’ll lose everything for him.”

Jensen’s father speaks up then, strong and steady. “Why would you give up your life for my son?”

“I love him,” Jared says without thinking, the absolute truth. “I can’t have him marry someone else. I can’t. I want to be that for him. It’s worth it to me.”

The council dismisses him, and Jared fears that he made an awful impression in his extremely short meeting. Danneel is a little more confident, and they pace the waiting room until one council member comes back with a verdict, like Jared is a criminal waiting his sentence.

In the end, she tells him, even though he isn’t clan, they cannot break the ties of bond-mates, and they can feel the connection even though Jensen is across town. He’s given the go-ahead to attend Jensen’s wedding tomorrow. As the other groom, obviously, and not just a guest.

Jared doesn’t know if he should feel relieved or scared out of his mind.

**

Sunday morning dawns early, with Jared completely ready for a wedding he’s only known about for twenty-four hours. He’s been ritually cleaned--which was incredibly awkward--and he’s dressed in finery. He’s also been thoroughly briefed on the consummation ceremony that will take place after he’s been properly married, which is probably the scariest part.

“It’s very important to not let Jensen catch you too soon,” Danneel says as she smoothes the wrinkles in his shirt.

“I’m going to be sick,” Jared says. “Why am I doing this?”

Danneel just gives him a look and keeps on instructing. “If he finds you too quickly, the tribe will think you’re not strong enough for him. But if he doesn’t find you, the council will consider it to be an unwise match and they will annul the marriage.”

“How am I supposed to not let him catch me?” Jared asks, horrified. “He’s a fucking panther. He found me with his nose all the way from the fucking zoo.”

“You’ll know what to do,” she says.

“You shouldn’t be helping me,” he says. “I’m going to fuck this up.”

“If you leave him at the altar,” she says threateningly, “I will find you and kill you myself. Jensen’s been my friend since we were cubs, and I am not going to let you ruin him.”

“I can’t promise that,” Jared says. “Danneel--I can’t.”

“You can, and in any case, it’s showtime. You’ve missed your chance to get out of here--we’re pretty isolated. And we’ll find you.” Her tone is scary, but she’s smiling, and Jared takes a deep, fortifying breath.

She leads him out to the partition that separates him from the audience. There’s nothing frilly like flowers or a string quartet, and Jared can hear the murmur of a hundred different voices. It does nothing for his nerves.

All of a sudden everything goes quiet. “It’s time,” Danneel whispers, and she gives Jared a little shove. He sort of stumbles out into the aisle, and then there’s no turning back because Jensen has gone stock-still. Everyone around him is muttering, but Jared can’t think of anything except what he’s about to do. He’s still terrified, but some sort of calm settles over him as he meets Jensen’s eyes.

Jensen looks like shit, even though someone obviously tried to clean him up, pale and gaunt with a tired look to his face, and Jared doesn’t care. All of a sudden, this feeling hits him, low in the gut, and he feels like an idiot, because this is where he’s supposed to be. He fumbles a little as he starts walking, but Jensen’s face has lit up with this disbelieving joy that Jared can’t quantify, and when he slips into his place at the altar, he shakily holds his hands out for Jensen to take.

The contact is like fire, instant and hot, and Jared can’t help himself; he begins to shake.

Why, Jensen mouths at him, ignoring the pastor as he intones the rights of marriage, and Jared bites his lower lip.

I’m stupid, he mouths back. I’m sorry.

It doesn’t feel as crazy anymore, not now that he’s here. He should feel like he’s making the biggest mistake of his life, marrying someone he barely knows. But it’s not like that because he does know Jensen, has been glued to his side for the past four months.

It feels natural.

So Jared says I do when he should, and when they kiss, Jensen is the one to pull away, smiling this little smile that, like always, makes Jared’s stomach flutter with butterflies. There’s not time for words, not when people are congratulating Jensen and checking Jared out, and then Jared’s being pulled away because the real show’s about to begin.

**

Jared’s blindfolded and led into the forest, tripping over roots in a way that makes his escort titter disbelievingly. He’s left in a clearing and before he can even rip the blindfold away, the man who came with him is gone, bounding away into the trees.

Jared is so screwed.

He takes a second to think about things, and then, going with what he’s learned from the Discovery Channel, he starts running. He finds a wide stream, and without thinking about it, he jumps in with the theory that the water will mask his scent. He swims upstream against the current, which thankfully isn’t strong, for as long as he can, before he pulls himself out of the water and smears himself with mud. And then he’s running again.

He doesn’t know how long he lasts, but the sun has been down for a long time and he’s been running for what feels like forever, tripping over branches and thrush. And then he just stops, because he can see the ghostly glow of eyes in the distance, and he knows it’s Jensen. Knows he’s been found.

And he doesn’t even know if he’s passed the test or not, but Jensen is coming up to him, practically stalking him, and it makes a thrill of something go through Jared’s bones. He stands there, stock-still, as Jensen circles him, and then Jensen is up close, butting against his leg like the biggest kitten ever. He feels Jensen’s tongue laving the scrape he got on his elbow for running into a tree trunk and then Jensen is batting his hand and gesturing to follow. So Jared does.

They walk for just under an hour before a small, crudely made house comes into view. A thrill runs through Jared’s stomach, because he knows they’ve reached their destination, buoyed on by the fact that Jensen shifts as soon as he hits the clearing.

“You came,” he says, the first real words they’ve been able to exchange.

“I couldn’t not come,” Jared says helplessly.

“You came,” Jensen said again, and Jared takes the first step, kissing him. It was meant to be chaste, a small reassurance, but Jensen takes lead, plundering Jared’s mouth. It’s definitely a promise of what’s to come.

“I came,” Jared says.

“Inside,” Jensen demands, pulling him by the wrist.

Jared knows the protocol, has been well-versed in it, so when Jensen manhandles him into the shower, he doesn’t resist. Jensen is naked anyway, and the ring on Jared’s finger is a blatant reminder that he is, in fact, married, so he only blushes a little bit as Jensen peels the clothes from his body.

Jared isn’t allowed to touch as Jensen cleans him under the water. It’s not supposed to be sexual; it’s a purification before the consummation is supposed to occur, but every swipe of Jensen’s hands lingers, pulling shudders from Jared’s body. His touch is sensual, calming, and it’s winding Jared up tighter than a drum. He feels something settle around him, something deep and foreign and binding, something he can’t explain, but he recognizes the tie. With every second that passes, he feels like even more of an idiot for trying to resist Jensen, because he knows now. There was never any escaping this.

Jensen’s teeth on the nape of Jared’s neck are primally arousing, and he has to physically stop himself from turning around to claim Jensen’s mouth. Danneel was very adamant about following the ritual.

Jared’s heartbeat ratchets up as Jensen dries him off and leads him to the bed. He knows what’s coming. He knows he wants it. And now he’s allowed to touch, so he does.

Jared’s first kiss is sweet, short, but Jensen isn’t taking that, and Jared lets the kiss devolve into something baser, more needy. Jensen’s tongue is tangling with his, fucking into his mouth wetly, and Jared just moans encouragingly, because now that he’s allowed himself this, he can’t keep pretending he doesn’t want it. He slides his hands up Jensen’s arms, holding on to his biceps, and lets Jensen press them together, slick skin against slick skin. He’s trying his best to defer to Jensen while at the same time trying to memorize everything he can now that he has it. The ridges of Jensen’s teeth, the feel of his tongue, the corded muscle underneath his smooth skin. It’s heady and overwhelming, and if Jensen wasn’t anchoring Jared, he almost thinks his knees would buckle.

Jared lets himself be led onto the bed, and Jensen settles on top of him, his weight making it almost hard to breathe. Jared thinks things are going to progress, but Jensen seems content just making out, and Jared’s brain is misfiring, because he can’t even think straight.

By the time Jensen graduates to mapping the rest of Jared’s skin with his mouth, Jared’s lips are swollen and bruised. He feels utterly debauched, and it’s perfect, Jensen’s bow mouth tracing trails down Jared’s throat and chest. He stops, gives Jared an impish smile, and then bites down lightly on Jared’s nipple before gently sucking the hurt away. If Jared wasn’t hard before (and he definitely, definitely was), he absolutely is now, thick and straining.
“Oh,” he gasps. “Oh.”

Jensen stops what he’s doing, earning a whine from deep in Jared’s throat. “Feel good, baby?” he asks, his voice sex rough.

“Jesus fucking Christ,” Jared responds, his voice throaty and fucked out. “Don’t you dare stop.”

“Language,” Jensen chides, far too together for someone in his position, and he bites down again.

“Not my mother,” Jared manages, even though he absolutely needs Jensen to stop that before things escalate.

“Thank God for small favors,” Jensen says, punctuating his words with another wide swipe of his tongue across Jared’s chest.

“Get up here,” Jared chokes, because he needs to distract Jensen before he falls apart for good, and Jensen obliges, kissing Jared deeply.

“Normally,” Jensen says between kisses, “I’d take this slow. I’d kiss you and suck you, and make you crazy for me because you’re mine.” He catches both of Jared’s wrists and holds them down against the bed, startlingly strong.

“Don’t be so sure,” Jared sighs, but that’s an utter lie that Jensen immediately catches.

“I am that sure,” he says, nipping at Jared’s throat and laughing at the breathy sigh that Jared can’t hold back. “You came to me. You married me. And I’m going to mate you so good.”

Jared wants to protest, he really does. “Please,” he says instead, startled by the begging quality his voice has taken on. “I’ve been waiting so--oh Jesus--so fucking long.”

“Coulda fooled me,” Jensen growls, holding Jared’s wrists tighter. “Acted like the little ice queen when I first rolled into town.”

“I knew the first time I saw you,” Jared says, throwing his head to the right so he doesn’t have to look Jensen in the face. “Knew I wanted you and it scared me shitless.”

“I’ve got you now,” Jensen says. “I’ve got you and I’m going to make you good and mine.”

Abruptly, Jensen lets go of Jared’s hands and slithers down the bed. Jared thinks he’s going to make good on his promise about the sucking but instead Jensen retrieves something from the floor and slicks his fingers with it.

Jared knows what’s going to happen, but he can’t stop the punched exhale of breath he lets out when Jensen slips a finger inside of him. It doesn’t feel anything but weird for a minute, too full, but after Jensen’s given Jared the chance to get used to it, he pulls a dirty trick, pressing on Jared’s prostrate until Jared thinks he’ll pass out from it. His cock is dribbling precome, thick and sticky onto his stomach, and Jensen doesn’t let up for a second, even after he slips another finger inside.

It lasts forever and a second at the same time, and Jared’s shaking by the time Jensen’s done. He’s so ready for it, and he tells Jensen as much.

Jensen kisses Jared the entire time as he pushes inside, making Jared come apart from sensory overload. He’s never felt like this, felt like he could explode with feeling and sensation, and he keeps hiccuping little moans like a goddamn girl into Jensen’s mouth, things like please and oh God and more, don’t stop. Jensen’s moving inside of him, rhythmic and perfect, and Jared can feel every point of connection between them.

When Jared comes it’s a surprise, like a freight train hitting him. Jensen never touched him, and Jared knew he wasn’t allowed to touch himself, and he didn’t even know he was wired to come without a reach-around, split open on Jensen’s cock.

He figures that’s why they’re soul-mates.

Jensen follows him over with a shout and as he bites down on Jared’s neck, Jared’s sure he broke the skin. The rush of that contact makes him shudder with something that’s like a second orgasm.

“Mine,” Jensen says again, and it’s a benediction.

**

Later, they’re curled together in the bed, Jared tracing patterns on Jensen’s chest.

“I was so certain you wouldn’t come back,” Jensen confessed. “I thought I lost you forever.”

“I almost didn’t,” Jared admits. “But Danneel made me realize I was being an idiot.”

“And now you’re stuck with me for life,” Jensen says. “There’s no way I’m letting you go. I’ll go to the ends of the world to find you. That’s a promise. You can’t run.”

“Okay, now I’m scared,” Jared says, but he’s joking. He sighs and then looks Jensen in the eye. “I came back because thinking about you up here marrying someone you didn’t know scared me shitless. I couldn’t do it.”

“Is that the only reason?” Jensen asks.

“Idiot,” Jared chuffs. “You know it isn’t.”

“You have to say it,” Jensen says, and there’s a command in his voice that makes a shiver go down Jared’s spine.

“I love you,” he says so quietly he almost doesn’t hear himself. It’s the first time he’s said it to Jensen, and this makes it feel more real. “I’ve been a little bit in love with you since the first time I saw you.”

Jensen smiles. “And now you’re stuck with me.” His I love you doesn’t need to be said. Jared can feel it.

“I guess I am,” Jared says, and the feeling thrums within him.

“Forever,” Jensen clarifies.

“I promise,” Jared responds, and their bond settles, and it’s the truth.

**

END