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The Mistake You Can't Live Without

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The phone rings yet again. The ring tone is shrill and all too loud in Jared's box apartment. He's huddled on the floor by his kitchen cabinet, desperately trying not to get angry. It doesn't work. Anger flows through his veins, courses through his blood.

This isn't what life is supposed to be like.

It seems like yesterday when Jared was sitting in his former moderately sized apartment, eating a bowl of soggy cereal and hoping that Jensen – his ex-boyfriend- was out doing something productive and not hanging around with his good for nothing brother, Johnny.

The morning that changed everything. Unknown to him, Jensen was being productive. Hell, at least partaking in ill-advised bank robbery involved doing more than sitting around and drinking until he couldn’t stand anymore.

Jared snorts to himself as his phone vibrates again. It’s not Jensen. If it was, he’d probably have picked up now just so he can utter a ‘stay the fuck out of my life’ and keep working on his shitty attempts at moving on. No one could have predicted the fallout of what Jensen and his brother Johnny did, much less Jared. From his point of view, Jensen was getting his life back on track. He’d stopped hanging around with Johnny, was trying to keep a regular job, all of the typical shit that comes after someone says ‘I’m going to change’. It was almost a cycle, one that Jared sincerely regrets remaining in for as long as he did.

In some ways, he thinks it all dates back to his childhood crush on Jensen. Admiring someone from afar for as long as he did was bound to screw with his mind somehow. He wasn’t thinking clearly. Was never thinking clearly. Still, they were friends when Jared was a kid. Jensen was at his third foster home, and Jared’s parents moved in a few days down. They got on well. It was the usual story, even though Jensen was older, he treated Jared like they were equals.

He might be jaded about it now but for the longest time, Jensen was his best friend. The person that knew him the best. The person that he knew the best.

Unfortunately for them, that’s all in the past now.

You have one new message from—

He stabs at the keypad on the phone just to get it to shut up. He doesn’t want to think about this. Not when he has to be up in three hours to get to the bakery where he works part time. It’s all he’ll be thinking about when he’s covered in flour and tired of dealing with one too many impatient customers.

It turns out that banks don’t really like it when their employee’s respective others try to steal from them, and also that they don’t really care when said employee tries to explain that they had nothing to do with it. Hell, why would they? It doesn't even sound believable. So Jared was left with crippling student loans and a huge black mark next to his name. All because fucking Johnny wanted to go and rob a bank. Well, that’s the crude way of putting it given that he never did let Jensen explain. He didn’t go to the trial, refused to give evidence for either side.

That hasn’t stopped Jensen from trying to contact with him, along with another brother of his, Chris. The thing is that he doesn’t want to hear all of that crap about how Jensen couldn’t let Johnny down. It’s all he ever heard during their long, complicated relationship. He was understanding at first, having two siblings of his own, he understood that it was natural to look out for them. That sentiment seemed to mean more when it came to Jensen and his foster brothers, and Jared understood. They were family. Family is supposed to come first.

Jensen doing what he did merely showed that after twelve years of whatever they were to each other, they clearly weren’t family. Jared was expendable. Fast forward five years and he’s still of the same mind. Even with Jensen's release date creeping closer, he focuses on believing that it's the kind of betrayal that people don't come back from.

That neither of them can come back from what happened, at least not together.

~

A few weeks later. there’s a knock on his door as he’s getting ready for work and he groans to himself as he moves to answer it. He regrets it instantly when he sees that it’s Chris.

“Look, I don’t want to hear it okay,” he snaps. Chris doesn't look happy to be standing on his doorstep, but Jared knows that he won't go anywhere until he lets him in. He remembers a time when they were actually close. Before everything got so messed up. It was so wonderful... once upon a time... all those years ago.

Sometimes, he lets himself remember and it feels like the mist has lifted and the world is full of light. And then reality filters in and he can't stay in the past for a second longer. Once upon a time this little dance with Chris was quite straightforward. They'd argue and Jensen would leave. Stay gone until Chris called and told Jared to get his fucking act together. By then, he'd have cooled off. He'd drive over, pick Jensen up, and ignore all of the red flags. Things they should have spoken about were brushed aside and eventually catapulted them to where they are today.

"He's getting out and needs somewhere to stay," Chris says. Jared snorts.

This must be a fucking joke. And it definitely isn't his problem.

Chris continues, "I can't take him. Got the kids to look after."

Jared sobers up slightly. How much of a dick would he be if he didn't take his share of the burden?

Still.

"I haven't spoken to him since it all happened," he says gently. "He probably hates me." Chris' gaze softens in response and Jared kicks himself mentally. There it is again. Insecurities. The guilt. Jensen sent him sixty-three letters and he sent one. He wasn't supportive, didn't stand by his man or any of that blind devotion bullshit.

"I don't think I can face him," Jared adds quietly. "Not after everything."

Chris tuts and runs a hand through his hair, his brow furrowed in stress. "Really? I just thought you were pissed, Jared. But are you really going to just pretend that he doesn’t exist? That you guys don’t have a long history?”

Jared sighs in frustration. It’s easy for Chris to say. He wasn’t the one who had to put up with disappointment after disappointment. Broken promise after broken promise.

“He chose Johnny over me,” Jared replies eventually. “I’ve accepted that. I owe him – or you, for that matter – nothing.”

Chris laughs bitterly, gestures towards the apartment. “Right, I forgot. It’s his fault that you’re living in poverty. He tried to make amends but you didn’t even give him a chance. You gave up on him, just like his family.” Jared bows his head down at that statement, knowing that arguing is futile. What’s the point when that’s what he tells himself every day? Sure, Jensen might have fucked up and got himself sent down but he still abandoned him. He should have been there. Right?

Jared shakes his head despondently. It’s pointless because his thoughts are still scrambled but Chris’ words have worked. He’s going to bite the bullet. Face his fears. “He can stay here for a few weeks but after that, he has to leave.”

“Look, I’m sorry to have to do this but we’re all he’s got left, Jared,” Chris explains. “You still care. You always did. Anyway, I’ll drop him off later.”

Jared nods but doesn’t respond. He’s not sure that he can. He knows that his hands will be trembling and his leg is jittery but he’s not going to let Chris see any of that.

“He says you should read the 36th letter he sent you,” Chris adds while handing over an envelope. “He said it a while ago, but I didn’t think it was worth passing the message on.” The thinly veiled slight rings through loud and clear but Jared accepts it. Chris’ loyalty lies with Jensen, always has. Always will. He’s not about to question that.

“How does he know that I haven’t already?” Jared asks curiously. Sixty-three received. One sent. Jared’s nothing if not a spectacular ex-boyfriend.

Chris scoffs. “Fuckin’ planet knows that you ain’t read them. He knows that he hurt you. Knows that he messed up. Unlike me, he doesn’t think that you owe him anything.”

“Yeah, because I don’t.”

Chris snorts this time. “You keep telling yourself that.”

~

He loses three mugs and a dinner plate after reading the letter and opening the crumpled envelope that Chris gave him. The letter was…surprisingly not full of the self-deprecating comment he thought it would be. It was mostly Jensen musing about time in prison. He was taking a business class, and finally realising that Jared’s job had been more than just crunching numbers. Still, he was going to keep going with it. Jared mentally berates himself for initially thinking, ‘hell, you’re in prison, what else is there to do?’. There’s a whole lot of waffle about him paying Jared some of what he owes him. All thoughts of the letter evaporate when he sees the check.

“Where the hell did he get forty-thousand dollars from?” Jared barks when Chris answers his phone. He can hear the sign of traffic in the background and wonders if Jensen is there now. He hadn’t thought to call and ask Chris for an ETA, hell, his boss has probably fired him already because he didn’t call into work either.

“Some biological aunt of his who decided not to ignore the bastard child in the family when she passed,” Chris answers. “And you would know that if—“

“Yeah, okay, Chris,” Jared interrupts with a bitter laugh. “I get it. When is he coming over?”

“Couple of hours. Oh and his probation officer will swing by in a few days, so make sure you get your act together.”

Jared rolls his eyes. “This isn’t my first rodeo. Just the first time that he was dumb enough to get locked up for more than a year.”

There’s a pause and a bitten off curse as the traffic blares through the phone line.

“I know that I’m hard on you, Jared, but that’s only because I know that you need him as much as he needs you – and he’s finally free of Johnny, well for now at least, bastard will probably get easy release five years down the line and inflict his bullshit on us again.”

Jared remains silently, not sure what to say. He has no interest in talking about Johnny; not when Chris is just as bad.

“Look, I’ll see you, okay?” Chris adds.

He cuts off before Jared can say anything.

~

He calls his boss eventually, and by some miracle, he manages to keep his job. Katie, the biology student he works with apparently made up some excuse about him being sick so he texts her his thanks and promises to buy her a coffee. Once that’s out of his way, he drives to the storage unit where he put some of his – their – stuff when he had to move out of the old apartment. He grabs some of the clothes and a futon that they never used.

His fingers tap a nervous rhythm on the steering wheel as he makes his way back. Nausea pools in his stomach, his skin tingling with the faint beginnings of sweat. He barely makes it to the bathroom to throw up and the shower he takes doesn’t do much to help, the steam swirling around him, slowly suffocating him. Getting dressed is another challenge, a stupid one given that he’s not the one who’s supposed to be making amends here. He’s not supposed to be feeling so damn guilty. After a long, drawn out mental debate, he throws on an old t-shirt and sweats and settles down with the sixty-two letters that he hasn’t read. He approaches them in the order that they came.

The first letter is full of apologies, declarations, and promises that Jensen knows he’ll never be able to keep. The third wonders if Jared is even receiving them, and why he hasn’t been to visit. The fourteenth is full of anger. Fuck Jared. Fuck their relationship. Fuck everything. The fifteenth is apologetic. And there’s a passage in particular that really gets to Jared, enforcing the lump that’s been in his throat since he wrote the first one.

I don’t blame you for not writing back. Or not wanting to see me. Sometimes we can’t get past our own disappointment. I never told you this, but my birth mother got into contact with me once. When I was 16 or something. She wanted me to write back, but I was just like, ‘why?’ Why should I make the effort when she was the reason why things were the way they were. I never wrote back and that was it. Didn’t hear from her again. In some ways, I get why she didn’t. It must have been hard to send that letter to me, the way it is for me to write to you. But I guess the difference is that I know you. And I’m not ready to give up on you. She gave up on me before giving me a chance – and that might not have been her fault but it’s still the reality.

If Jared didn’t already feel like a world prize asshole, he certainly does now.

The final letter is tinged with the kind of hope that Jared hasn’t felt in years. Jensen talks about his release and how he’s hoping to put things right between them, even if means that they don’t get back together.

You and I were always best friends. And we always promised that we’d never lose sight of that. I’d like a chance to keep my end of the deal.

Jared stares at the words with his heart in his mouth. Suddenly, he’s not sure what he’s angry about. Who he’s angry with – Jensen or himself? All he knows is that he’s tired. There’s a reason why he’s still here, why he didn’t dust himself off and move on. He might not want to admit it to himself but he can accept that there is one.

He’s just not sure what to do about it.

~

Chris drops Jensen off around six in the evening but doesn’t even bother to get out of his car. Jared rolls his eyes as Chris gives him a sarcastic thumbs up and moves to direct Jensen inside the building. Apart from a subtle nod, they haven’t said anything to each other. Jared observes him quietly as they make their way up the stairs. He’s got a duffel bag, a new-ish looking jacket. His hair is dry but parted neatly, which is pretty fucking weird but probably not the strangest part of this scenario.

Given the small size of the apartment, there isn’t much to show but Jared gives him a two-cent tour anyway. He can hear his voice wavering but does his best to pretend that it’s not happening. Jensen doesn’t call him out on it and they’re left in silence when Jared directs him to the folded up futon.

“Did you check it for spiders?” Jensen asks after Jared tells him that retrieved it from storage. The question brings a small smile to his face. It never fails to amuse him that Jensen could get into fights with guys twice his size and hell, go to prison and still be so terrified of tiny spiders.

He rolls his eyes good-naturedly. “Course I did. I know what a big baby you are. Though, I’d have thought that prison would be a lot scarier than some crawlers.”

It’s maybe not fair to bring it up so soon but jokes aside, they can’t pretend that they’re not standing here in Jared’s small apartment with a huge gulf between them.

Jensen chuckles softly and looks downwards. “There’s nothing scary about jail. Well, the scariest part was waking up, seeing those four grey walls staring back at me and wondering if this was it…wondering if I’d ever see you again.” He looks up then with a careful expression. Maybe Jared’s cynical but he’d say that Jensen chose his words in order for them have maximum effect.

He’s not about to admit that it may be working. Not when the iceberg in the room has barely been chipped at, let alone broken.

“You’re lucky that I’m here now,” he informs Jensen. “I’m only letting you stay here because I don’t want Chris’ kids to stay with a convicted criminal. I haven’t forgiven you. Hell, I haven’t even forgiven myself.” The words leave his mouth before he can stop them and he wishes that he could just put himself on mute. Say nothing until all of these emotions fade away.

“None of this is your fault,” Jensen sighs wearily. “Can I…?” He gestures towards the couch, taking a seat when Jared nods. There’s yet another moment of awkwardness before Jared joins him reluctantly.

“You tried to rob my place of work and that wasn’t my fault?” Jared pick up where he left off. Jensen might appear to be softer around the edges, wiser even, but he’s fallen for this act before. Too many times. “That wasn’t me answering all of those questions you asked me a month earlier – and I actually thought you were interested.”

It’s part of the reason why he never testified – well, that and Jensen’s defense lawyer threatened to decimate him on the stand. In some ways, they didn’t need him. It turned out that Johnny’s inside help was a security guard who was having an affair with one of the senior consultants. Still, it was murky enough that he lost his job over it. Jared sighs to himself. He’s become a broken record, and the worst part is that he’s acutely aware of it. Rehashing it with Jensen isn’t what he wants to do.

“I was trying to stop him,” Jensen says, apparently not realising that the fight has left Jared. “I didn’t see it then but he didn’t like you very much.”

Jared snorts and lets it bleed into a round of hearty chuckles. “Yeah, you don’t say. I only told you a thousand times.” And well, if that was accompanied by a series of comments about Jensen potentially ditching what he perceived to be family, Jared’s got nothing to say about that. Clearly, he was right.

“Okay, and I am saying that I should have listened,” Jensen says testily. “And I’m also telling you that I was there that day to stop him. I didn’t try and rob the fucking bank. No matter what that biased jury thinks.”

Jared snorts but there’s no force to it. “Why would they believe you?” He regrets his words instantly when a familiar look falls on Jensen’s face. He remembers a time when he was one of a few people who actually had faith in Jensen. He was determined not to let his best friend end up on the proverbial scrapheap, completely written off and alone. "I don't mean that."

Jensen eyes him carefully but doesn't respond, just rubs a hand across his face. He looks worn out, devoid of colour and life. Something twinges in Jared’s chest.

"Look, this is the reason why you staying here is a bad idea," he continues, because he might as well be honest. "But I am not going to spend the entire time throwing things into your face. Shit happened, you paid the price and you're out now. I get that you were trying to stop him but that doesn't change anything. Either way, this conversation is futile."

It's not the speech he had planned, but his big mouth seems to have a fondness for digging great big holes for him to fall into. Jensen looks at him with that same silent, assessing gaze and Jared hates how there's this huge divide between them. Hates that they can't even pin it on the last five years.

"Maybe this was a mistake," Jensen replies eventually. "I just...I just wanted you to know that I didn't choose him over you. But I see that doesn't matter now. We really are...through."

The last word is so final that Jared couldn't even respond if he tried to.

Through.

~

"So, what's it been like?" Chad asks just before launching the basketball towards the net. It bounces off the board and he curses, darting forward to retrieve it. "Have you made up for five years of celibacy?"

Jared practically spits up his Gatorade. "What? One, I have not been celibate for five years and two, we're not together. Nothing's changed since he got out."

Unlike the rest of his friends, Chad seems less appalled that Jared is allowing Jensen to stay with him. It's been a month and Sandy barely speaks to him, seemingly upset because he 'didn't see what he was like after everything happened'. He declines to point out that he certainly remembers what it was like and that he doesn't need her pity.

"You'll never be over him," Chad replies with a shrug. "And if what he says is true, it means that he went up against his brother for you. I know how that shit messes with your head."

Jared catches the ball when Chad throws to him, gripping it tighter than normal. Chad has a point. Jensen's confession that he was trying to stop Johnny has been playing on his mind. Particularly because he's known all along but it was almost like it wasn't real. Just his mind trying to absolve Jensen. Desperately coming up with scenarios that meant that Jared wasn't an idiot for trusting him, and still loving him.

"Even if you were right, Chad, nothing has happened," he says. "We're just taking it a day at a time. He's got a job at some restaurant and he's saving up for his own apartment. We don't even speak to each other past the odd greeting. I am just doing Chris a favor."

Chad shakes his head in disbelief. "Well, man, I'll be here when you realise that I'm right. All I'm saying is that you need to figure out where you stand before you end up getting hurt. Well. Any more than you have already."

~

Chad's words stick with him well into the next few weeks and finally come to a head one Friday evening. Jensen's on the couch, watching some rerun with an annoying laughter track and Jared's...tetchy. It turns out that being in close proximity to the guy that you've been in love for what seems like a lifetime isn't as easy it as seems. And Chad wasn't far off the mark with his celibacy comment. It has been a long time.

So that's probably he randomly says, "You never asked if I was seeing anyone."

The truth is that there's a lot that Jensen hasn't asked him, especially after the third time Jared lost his cool. It's not until he finds himself missing the little interaction he allowed them to have that he realises that maybe he was too harsh. It’s just a little weird to suddenly have someone else in his space, even though it shouldn't be like that.

Jensen doesn't even turn away from the television screen. "It's none of my business." However, the tenseness in his jaw gives him away and Jared knows that he's onto something here.

"Right, yet you lectured me about my job for over an hour," he counters. "So you're picking and choosing which aspects of my life are your business." This was back before Jared cut Jensen his own key. The longer Jensen sat around in the bakery waiting for Jared’s shift to end, the more agitated he got and when they arrived home, the dam had burst. Jared was too good to be in a dead end job. Why didn't he try another bank? Go back to school? In the end, it took a withering glance for Jared to convey why, and that led to more apologies that wouldn't change anything.

Jared's tired of hearing the word sorry.

"That's kind of how it works," Jensen replies blankly. "I was out of line back then. I won't overstep again."

"What if I want you to?" Jared's mouth seems to have a mind of its own today because he doesn't know where this going. He moves out of the kitchen doorway and joins Jensen on the couch, making sure that he's close but not overly so. Jensen's breathing quickens slightly and Jared almost smiles to himself. He's still got it.

"Okay, fine. Are you seeing someone?" Jensen snaps before muttering something under his breath.

Jared pulls away slightly, suddenly regretting his actions. It’s like a cold wave has washed over him and he realises that this isn’t him. He doesn’t want to be bitter and twisted up inside; doesn’t want to provoke a reaction that could get Jensen into trouble. "No, I'm not. I'm sorry, I guess it's just been a really long day. Sorry."

Jensen doesn't answer.

~

Two weeks after that, Jared whacks his head on an oven door at work and ends up with a mild concussion. He’s confined to lying in bed and watching whatever inane crap is on The Food Network.

"You can just stay here," Jared says when Jensen peeks into his room for the third time. "I'm not in any condition to get mad, yell or proposition you." The joke falls flat, but he’s too tired to try and gauge Jensen’s reaction. Hopefully, his words don’t ignite another argument.

"There's a God after all," Jensen remarks, but there's no malice in his tone. "I'll get my comforter and just crash on the floor."

Jared rolls his eyes, regretting it when there's an answering throb in his head. "Just find me something interesting to watch and get into the damn bed."

Jensen climbs in somewhat reluctantly, although he relaxes when Jared curls into him and rests his head on his shoulder. For a second it's like old times and Jared sighs to himself when the last five years start to filter into his mind.

"I'm sorry for abandoning you," he murmurs. "Never wanted to be like the others." He feels Jensen tense again and wonders if he should never say a word again. Ever. God knows that the past few months have been confusing and turbulent. The anger he was using as a crutch had dissipated, leaving him with a hollow sense of regret and sadness.

“I don’t think you abandoned me,” Jensen replies. “I’m pretty sure I put that in one of the letters but…I guess you didn’t read them.”

Jared chooses to ignore the comment and instead he says, “I wish you’d told me about your mom.”

“There was nothing to tell. She reached out. I ignored her. That was the end.”

Jared clears his throat, decides to go back on track, “Yeah, and I did the exact same thing.”

“Actually, part of me is glad that you stayed away. That you were mad. There were so many guys in jail that thought they were so damn special. One guy’s wife was burning through her savings to find lawyers dumb enough to take on his case. It turns out that he did what he was in for, but he didn’t have the heart to tell her.

“Others use it as some kind of shield. Everything is okay so long as someone’s sitting across from every two weeks. It’s bullshit. I’d rather not see you for five years and truly know that I’ve fucked up than have you coddle me.”

“Hey, I’m cuddling you now,” Jared says sleepily, just to break the tension. He feels too lightheaded to have this conversation and is just glad that Jensen doesn’t blame him.

He also doesn’t blame Jensen for asking, “Just how hard did you hit your head?”

~

It seems natural that everything goes to shit a few days later. It’s how things were before. The calm before the storm. Only this time Jared isn’t expecting it. Despite the fact that Chris calls him at least once a week to grunt ‘how’s he holding up?’ he doesn’t put much thought into it. He’s been too busy trying to rationalise his own conflicting feelings to worry about how Jensen is coping outside of prison.

It makes for a tense ride to the restaurant where Jensen works, and he’s not surprised to find his boss Sophia waiting outside with a deeply unimpressed look on her face.

“I’m so sorry,” Jared is saying before he can even lock his car. He glances around and prays that there aren’t any enthusiastic parking attendants around.

Sophia shakes her head tersely. “It’s not that big of a deal, just I’d rather he went home. He’ll get his full pay for the week and I’ll schedule him for next week.”

“What?” Jared was certainly expecting to hear worse.

“He defused a situation with an asshole customer and I called you because I couldn’t get him to cool off,” Sophia informs him. “He didn’t do anything wrong.” There’s a slightly accusatory tone in her voice or maybe Jared’s just projecting but he feels the stab of guilt all the same. He doesn’t say anything as she leads him to the backroom of the restaurant where Jensen’s sitting a table with his head bowed down.

“Hey,” Jared says gently. “You wanna get out of here.”

Jensen snorts dryly. “I’ve called Chris. He’s coming to get me. I’m sorry that you had to come all this way but…yeah. I can’t. Can’t stay with you anymore.”

“What? Why?” Jared’s really not sure what any of this has to do with him.

“I fucking lied that’s why,” Jensen snaps. He rubs at neck, the way he used to when he needed a drink. Jared swallows down a bitter thought. “That crap I wrote about being friends and not losing sight? Yeah, not what I meant. I thought I’d get out. Show you I’ve changed and make everything right again but I can’t. You’ve changed. I’ve changed. Things are too different.”

“What are you saying?”

“That I can’t do this. Pretend to be completely normal and whatever. I can’t deal with you right now.”

“So it’s my fault now?” Jared retorts bitterly. “I’m responsible for the mess that we’re in?”

Jensen huffs, “No, I am. I know that. But you didn’t make it easy. And I can’t keep living in the past. I can’t allow anything or anyone to take me back to a dark place. Make me doing anything that ends up with me staring at those damn walls.”

“That’s not what I want for you either,” Jared replies, suddenly unsure about what he’s arguing over. This is what he wanted right? A clean break. A final separation. So why does the mere notion hurt so much? “Did…did something happen while you were away?”

“It was jail, Jared,” Jensen spits out. “You can say it, okay? And fuck, yeah, a lot of shit happened. I don’t want to talk about it.”

“It sounds like you need to,” Jared tells him.

“Yeah, and he can to me, not you.” They both look up at the sound of a third voice. Jared barely refrains from rolling his eyes. Chris.

Within seconds, he has Jared backed up against the beige wallpaper, with anger blazing in his eyes. The fight – if it was ever in – leaves Jared quickly and he sags under Chris’ grip.

He’s just tired.

With Chris, it’s always going to be his fault. With Johnny, it was always his fault. He’s the part of the equation that doesn’t fit and maybe it’s time that somebody substituted him. Hey, they can play trial and error until they make it work.

“Hey, man, let go of him,” Jensen growls as he gets between the two of them and shoves Chris backwards. “How many times do I need to tell you not to speak to him like that? Or do I need to remind you of how I saved your ass?”

Jared frowns. He gets that uncomfortable sense that he’s intruding but he thinks he knows what Jensen is implying.

“I was trying to stop him – just like you were,” Chris snaps angrily. “Don’t even fucking try it.”

Jensen shakes his head in disgust. “I know what you told the DA.”

Jared has never seen the colour drain out of a person so quickly. He even has to reach out to steady Chris. He almost laughs at the irony.

“And I wasn’t mad, I’m not mad. But if you keep this shit up with Jared, I will be, Chris. You got that?” Chris can only nod, and Jared guesses that Jensen will be coming with him after all.

~

Jared realises that for the past few months he's been starring a feature-length film entitled 'Self-pitying bullshit'. He's the lead and supporting actor. Hell, he's even the fucking soundtrack accentuated by the darkness of his own self-loathing. No matter what Jensen's done, he doesn't need to be dragged into this moving picture.

"I'm sorry for being an ass," he says over dinner, two days after Jensen's incident at the restaurant. There’s been a quiet, almost unspoken truce over the past few days although Jared’s not sure what they’re sorry for. Jensen for his outburst or Jared for not seeing the storm brewing in front of him. “For the past five years. I should have heard you out. Come to see you. And I know you said it’s cool but I feel guilty about it. Nothing you say will change that.”

Jensen half shrugs and pushes food across his plate but makes no move to take another bite. Jared can feel the uneasiness pouring off him in waves; he can almost sense that Jensen’s just thinking here we go again. So he changes subjects, picks up a previously abandoned threat and tries to weave it back into the tattered fabric. “So what was it like – prison, jail or whatever – I’m guessing a five-year stretch is a lot different from lock up and juvie?”

To say that the look he gets in return is contemptuous would be an understatement. Jensen looks downright murderous. Jared meets his gaze head on and doesn’t waver. Clearly, they need to talk about this before something happens that neither of them can come back from.

“I get enough of this shit at the stupid support group my parole officer claims is mandatory,” Jensen growls. “I gotta talk about it here too?”

“I’m letting you stay here rent-free,” Jared counters. “So yeah. You do.” It’s a shitty card to play but this isn’t the time to play nice. Right now he just needs a straight answer.

Jensen sighs and looks up. “Like I told you before. It’s just…staring at the same four walls for hours on end. It wasn’t exactly Super Max. It wasn’t Oz levels of bullshit. I did okay once I learned the rules.”

“What rules?” Jared asks feeling annoyed at the cryptic answer he’s getting.

Jensen smiles bitterly, leans back and lifts up his shirt. Jared gasps when he catches sight off a six-inch long scar on the side of his torso. It’s faded but he can tell that it must have been nasty, the slightly dark pink line standing out amongst a stark expanse of pale skin.

“Well, the main one is that you don’t bring common sense to a knife fight.” The joke falls flat but Jensen cracks a smile. Jared just feels absolutely nauseated. That this happened. That he didn’t know. What if…

“How bad was it?” he asks around the lump in his throat.

“Was in the infirmary for three weeks before they let me go,” Jensen replies. “And when I was fit enough I beat the shit out of the guy that did it. He didn’t come near me again.” There’s something defiant in his tone, almost as if he’s daring Jared to take issue with it but with the visual of the scar still vivid in his mind he can’t.

“Good,” he answers. “I…why didn’t anyone tell me? I would have…”

“Come to see me?” Jensen asks. “Like I would let that happen. Besides, you wanted nothing to do with me and I wasn’t exactly at death’s door. It wasn’t that serious.”

Jared doesn’t respond to that comment.

Instead, he asks, “What else happened while you were in there? Did you…?” He blushes, suddenly able to get the question out.

Jensen seems to get what he means and he practically spits his response out. “Did I fuck anyone? No. After I got stabbed, I got protection. The second fucking rule is that misery really fucking loves company. That one I knew beforehand.”

“Sorry, I shouldn’t have asked that,” Jared replies, suddenly feeling ashamed of himself. “I’m glad you had protection. And just because I’ve been a self-absorbed asshole, it doesn’t mean that I don’t care. That I stopped caring.”

“Is that why you’ve spent the past five years wasting away in dead end jobs and this apartment?” Jensen asks, revisiting a loose thread of his own. Jared guesses that he deserves it. “Because it would have taken what a year or two for the dust to settle. But according to Sandy – who still hates me, by the way – you gave up after one crappy interview?”

Jared scoffs. Figures that Sandy would find a way to run her mouth to Jensen even though she isn’t speaking to him. She means well but she can be a little overbearing at times, hence why he hasn’t reached out to her yet.

“Maybe it is,” he answers. “I guess I felt like I was trapped too. Just in four walls of my own making. In here,” he taps his head, “You were too ingrained in my life for me to just dust myself off and keep going. Despite all of the arguing and…tension, you’re still that one constant that I’ve always had. So yeah, that’s why I’ve been here. Hiding away from the truth, wallowing in my own shit. We could do the last five years again and it would happen the same way.”

“Yeah, probably,” Jensen mutters. He wipes his hand across his face and stands slowly. “I have a headache.” The unspoken this conversation is over is loud and clear and Jared rises as well and leans over to grab the plates.

“Guess I’ll see you in the morning then. There’s some Tylenol in the bathroom if you need it.”

Despite Jensen saying that he had to leave that night at the restaurant, it hasn’t come up again since. Jared figures that he’s probably the better of two very bad choices; clearly, it doesn’t mean anything.

~

Jensen’s late for his home session with his parole officer. This is weird considering that he’s scheduled to work evenings this week. Now it’s two in the afternoon and Jared’s sitting across from Danneel Harris uncomfortably. She’s eyeing him curiously and Jared silently curses Jensen in his head. The last thing either of them needs is for Jared to be involved in any aspect of his parole conditions or meetings. Hell, he’d been on his way out when she pulled up and couldn’t duck without her seeing him.

“I’m sure he’ll be here soon,” Jared says just to break the awkward silence. “He must have popped out to get something.” Or at least that’s what Jared’s hoping. He’s been here before. Waiting into the late afternoon for Jensen to show up after a night of heavy drinking. The slurred apologies, kisses that reek of stale alcohol breath. After a few minutes, that would descend into an argument.

Jared’s so entrenched in memory lane that he almost misses the jingle of keys in the door. Jensen rushes into the front room, all red-faced and full of apologies. It takes a while for Jared to disconnect from the past and return to the present but when he does, it’s obvious that Jensen just lost track of time. He looks healthy, alert and…like the man Jared always knew he could be. He gives Jensen a small smile and stands up.

“I’ll leave you to it if that’s okay?”

Danneel glances at him before shaking her head.

“Actually, I have a few questions I need to ask both of you,” she tells him. “Just routine stuff. I won’t keep you for too long.”

When she leaves it takes everything Jared has in him not to punch a wall. Jensen eyes him warily and he forces himself to calm down. This has got to stop. Johnny is one thing, but each run in with Chris makes him remember how the situation with Johnny got so out of hand that Jensen went to jail for it.

“Was I really that horrible over the past few years?” he asks. “’Cause I don’t get any of this. Johnny’s weird hatred and now Chris. And I’ve put up with it for years because they’re your family but…I just, I can’t anymore.”

“Are you asking me to choose between you and Chris?” Jensen asks. That’s not what Jared’s saying but at the same time, it kind of is. All he knows is that it’s stress that he doesn’t need. He can’t force Chris to like him, to accept that he has no ulterior motive. Chris was the one that came to him for help and suddenly he’s ‘stunting Jensen’s progress and not a good influence’? It’s bullshit.

He shakes his head despondently. “No…I just…I don’t want to do all of this back and forth arguing anymore. I took you in and that’s not good enough. If I say, ‘fuck it, stay somewhere else’, that’ll be a big issue. I don’t know what his deal is.”

“Cathy asked for a divorce.” Oh. Jared’s not sure how to feel about that but sympathy is definitely not on his bus route today.

“I told her what he did,” Jensen continues. “So this is probably about me. He was there that day. He helped Johnny with the plan. I still remember him laughing when I told him that he was about to ruin your life. And…the worst part is that I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t leave them – they’re my family.”

“So you took the fall for Chris,” Jared concludes. They touched on this previously the other night be he hadn’t thought to bring it up again.

“Nah, I deserved to go down,” Jensen admits. “I could have told you or the cops but I didn’t. But I am not going to make the same mistake again and…it was obvious the other night that Chris doesn’t appreciate what I did for him, for his family. So I told his wife everything. I…she and the kids deserve better. Chris is a walking…he’s an accident waiting to happen and I’ll be damned if I let more innocent people get hurt because of our actions at the bank that day.”

Jared finds that he’s speechless.

~

“That’s fucking crazy, man,” Chad says over beers later that day. Jensen’s at home and Jared’s been nursing a flat lemonade for the past few hours out of some kind of unspoken solidarity. Part of Jensen’s parole conditions includes no drink or alcohol, a by-product of his defense lawyer’s claims in court about impaired judgment. “Why not tell you this from the start? This is messed up.”

“He was trying to protect him.” Chad and Jared both swivel and eye Sandy in surprise. She’s finally gotten over her issue and joined them, and although he batted off her apology he appreciates it all the same. “I’ve spoken to him a few times and I admit that I was a little too quick to judge when I found out that you were going to let him move in. He…he loves you. After all of these years. And no matter what’s happened, I can see how someone wouldn’t be able to walk away from that.”

Jared swallows, his throat suddenly dry. He sips at the lemonade, grimacing when he doesn’t feel the kick of the gas. He wishes he had something stronger but doesn’t make a move to order anything.

Chad’s been hinting at the relationship since Jensen got back, and yes, he’s had a couple of hiccups himself. Moments where he’s close to instigating something before fear makes him pull back. Things are shaky enough as it is without the added weight of rekindling their relationship but if Sandy of all people is coming around then…

This isn’t something that he can ignore anymore.

~

In the end, he comes to a decision. In some ways, even though Jensen’s the one who left prison, Jared feels liberated. He might have harboured ill-thought about how Jensen was the one holding him back but now he realises that it was him all along. And after so many years of perpetuating things that he ought to have nipped in the bud long before.

“So what did you decide?” Chad asks as he twirls the paper bag containing the muffins he’s just bought from the bakery. “Are you done with this,” he gestures at the display shelves, “and ready to rekindle things with Jensen and move on?”

“I told you that I’d made up my mind,” Jared retorts. “Not that I’d tell you what I’d decided on.”

“Jackass,” Chad calls good-naturedly. “See if I listen to your emo-whining again.” Jared laughs and shakes his head, ignoring the way he definitely isn’t laughing on the inside.

Two hours later, when his shift is over, it’s time to face up to everything he’s been running away from for the past five years.

They’re supposed to be having dinner, nothing special, just takeout from the Thai place that Jensen loves. Jared’s not really a fan but he’s never voiced that out loud. That’s kind of reflective of his issues. Always bottling stuff up. Never saying what’s in his heart.

They’re almost done eating when Jared finally can’t take it anymore. This. Them. Pretending that things aren’t awkward – different. It’s finally reaching a climax that Jared won’t be able to come down from.

Jensen sets his fork down and raises an eyebrow. “You wanna maybe say what you’ve been dying to since you got back?” Jared clears his throat. Right. He’s never been subtle.

“I’ve been thinking about everything – us, everything you put in your letters. Johnny, Chris, everything and you know, Chad and Sandy were saying that it was just a matter of time before we went back to how we used to be. Back together…”

Jared trails off, suddenly unable to find the words.

“And?” Jensen prompts him, his face still passive. His eyes tell a different story and Jared hates himself for what he’s about to do.

“And it sounded great. Go back to what we used to be. I’d forgive you and we’d be happy again, right? Except, even before the robbery we weren’t happy, we were? Things were messy and I had to deal with your…indiscretions, your crappy behaviour and…that’s not what I want.”

There’s a stark silence when the last word falls from his lips and he looks down at the ground, unable to meet Jensen’s eyes.

Chris is somewhere, hopefully bettering himself, and Jared hopes that he and Jensen can patch things up. There’s no use in them falling out over someone who’s going to be out of the picture.

“I also spoke to Danneel about our living arrangements,” he adds when there’s no response. “You can stay here until you find something and I’ll stay with Chad. I just think that some space is best.”

“So, that’s it?” Jensen asks finally. “Everything is just done and dusted?” He doesn’t seem angry which doesn’t help Jared’s increasing guilt. Anger would be so much easier. This quiet acceptance is a harder pill to swallow.

“You wrote something in that last letter that was important. The last part. Did you mean it?” It takes him a second to recall but Jared can see the moment of realisation when he does, followed by the disappointment and finally, the return of that passive expression he can never quite read.

You and I were always best friends. And we always promised that we’d never lose sight of that. I’d like a chance to keep my end of the deal.

“I’d like a chance to keep my end of the deal,” Jensen recalls with a nod. “Yes, I meant it. And I accept everything that you’re saying. You don’t need to move out because of me, though. I should be the one to go.”

Jared smiles at him weakly. “Tell you what, how about we both stay here until you find somewhere?”

Jensen’s clearly hurt and Jared’s already in compromise mode. That’s just another reason why it wouldn’t work.

“Sure, I mean, what are friends for, right?” Jensen mutters. “Actually, I have a headache, so I might turn it in. Are you good to clear all of this up or do you need help?”

Jared shakes his head. “I’m good. I hope you feel better in the morning.” It sounds too much like a cloaked way of saying I’m sorry and he feels bad for breathing a sigh of relief when Jensen disappears into the bathroom.

~

Six months later

Jared’s on his way out of the convenience store when he walks smack bang into someone. After brushing his hair out of his eyes he’s surprised to find himself staring up at Chris, who he hasn’t seen for months now.

“You’re still a clumsy fucker,” Chris growls as he brushes off his jacket.

“Sorry,” Jared replies as unapologetically as possible. “How’s Cathy? The kids?” From Jensen, he knows that his wife took him back eventually. Apart from that, he didn’t pry any further. Chris isn’t his business anymore.

“They’re alright,” Chris says. “You?” Jared’s taken aback. He and Chris might have been on friendlier terms at the start but it’s been dark looks and harsh words for years.

“Since when did you care how I am?” He’s also not one to be fake for longer than necessary.

“Since I realised that I was a complete dick to you, okay? And I owe you an apology. So, I’m sorry. For treating you the way I did. For forcing you to take Jensen once he got out.”

“You didn’t force me,” Jared says. He really doesn’t want to say anything contentious that might get back to Jensen. “Anyway, apology accepted. Guess, I’ll be seeing you.”

Chris regards him silently, his expression unreadable. “Heard you picked yourself up a little boyfriend.” Jared rolls his eyes and pushes past Chris. That didn’t take long.

“I’m not doing this with you.” Chris grabs his arm before he can go too far, instantly letting go when Jared gives him a dark look.

“I didn’t mean it in a bad way,” Chris says softly, in a tone that Jared hasn’t heard in a long time. “Look, you and I have some bad blood between us and it’s probably my fault, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t care about you. Are you happy?”

“I—I’m fine, Chris,” Jared stammers, not really liking where any of this is going. “Did Jensen put you up to this?”

Jared did have a boyfriend. Ben; who dumped him unceremoniously after four months of what Jared thought were happy times. At least that’s the version he’ll tell people when he gets around to telling them. This doesn’t explain why Chris is eyeing him shrewdly as if he knows something.

“Yeah, Jensen and I secretly plotted to ambush you outside a Kwik-E-Mart,” Chris retorts sarcastically. “I’m just asking. As a friend.”

“Like I said, I’m fine,” Jared says hurriedly. “And I have to go.”

Chris nods and offers him a small smile. “Nice seeing you.” Jared returns the nod and walks away briskly, ninety-nine percent sure that Chris is possessed somehow.

~

Jared doesn’t mean to keep the Ben thing away from his friends, but given that he tends to hang out with Jensen, Chad, and Sandy at the same time, he finds that it’s never the right time. What he doesn’t count on is Ben showing up at the same restaurant they’re in – with someone else. There’s an awkward moment when Ben catches a glimpse of them and looks away hastily.

Jared looks up to see three sets of eyes on him.

“Aren’t you going to and say hello?” Sandy asks. “We haven’t seen him for weeks.”

Jared coughs uncomfortably. “That’s because we broke up.” Sandy and Chad turn to share a look and he’s pretty sure he hears Chad utter ‘now things make sense’. He doesn’t really care about their reaction. He focuses on Jensen who looks genuinely disappointed but also unsurprised.

“Did you know?” he can’t stop himself from blurting out the question. Jensen just shrugs noncommittally and mouths ‘not here’ which isn’t the no that Jared was hoping to hear.

~

After finishing an extremely awkward dinner, Jared heads home and remains silent when Jensen follows him. Clearly, no-one is going to let him just pretend that Ben never happened. Especially Jensen.

“Do you want a drink?” Jared asks when they walk through the door. “Or do you want to interrogate me first?” They end up on the couch, their positional stances mirroring each other. It almost reminds Jared of old times, definitely reminds him of their much improved recent friendship.

Jensen laughs humourlessly and says: “I’m not here to interrogate you. Just to be your friend. And to answer your question, I did know. Your boyfriend made sure of that. He really wanted me to know that I was a nasty piece of work.”

Jared winces. Dammit. “He should not have done that. I only told him what happened because he wanted to know why there was such a huge gap on my financial resume. I managed to hold off on telling him and you know, I got that internship because of him. We got talking about it again and he asked and I told him.”

“So, what he dumped you because you’re friends with a criminal?” Jensen asks angrily.

Jared sighs. If only that was how it went down.

“No…it’s because I’m friends with you. He didn’t understand why I was okay with being around you and then…he wanted me to choose,” Jared admits. In some ways, it was nice that Ben was looking out for him but asking him to pick four months of something that might not even last over Jensen was never going to end well for him.

“And you chose me,” Jensen states. “That explains why he looked like he wanted to deck me. He came to the restaurant, causing a stink – and you know that I work at the order desk now. Sophia wasn’t happy.”

“I’m really sorry.” Jared doesn’t know what else to say.

“If I’m being honest, I never really liked him anyway,” Jensen says with a smile. “He was kind of judgemental.” Jared huffs out a laugh. Try and as he might, he can’t really find any humour in this. He can’t understand why the only thing he’s hurt by is the fact that, for a brief moment, he’d considered not having Jensen in his life at all.

“I’m sorry that you got dragged into this, Jensen,” Jared says. “Next time, I’ll make sure you stay anonymous. Cross my heart.”

“Next time, don’t pick me over anyone,” Jensen replies with something akin to sadness in his voice. “I’m always going to be here. Even if we have to secretly meet up like we’re twelve-year-olds.” He’s smiling towards the end of his words but Jared can see it for what it is.

Chris’ words sound in his ear. Are you happy?

He can’t lie and say that he didn’t think about what kind of impact the truth would have on Jensen, and Ben clearly wasn’t going to admit that Jared had chosen Jensen over him. Why couldn’t he have just lied?

You wanted him to know. Jared frowns at the voice in his head and its unhelpful words. Maybe he did, but to what end? So they can restart the same cycle that Jared fought to break them out of? Jared’s not sure if either of them can handle that.

“How are you doing anyway?” he asks Jensen. “You still doing those classes?”

Jensen pulls a face and nods. “Actually, I might need your help again with a couple of questions. School still ain’t for dullards like me.” Jared swats him over the head gently.

“Don’t speak about yourself like that,” he chides him. “And sure, I’ll be happy to help. But…how are you really?”

Jensen rubs his hand over his face. “I’m good. Better than I have been for years. It’s nice to wake up and not wonder how I fucked up the day before. I miss having you clean up after me, though. My apartment is a mess.”

“My days as your Betty Crocker are over, good sir,” Jared replies jokingly. “Sorry to disappoint.”

Jensen grins at him, “Such a shame. I think you’d look good in an apron.”

“Just good?” Jared replies with a mock-affronted one. “You wound me.”

The moment seems to shift then from playful to charged and suddenly Jared needs this conversation to be over.

“I should get going,” Jensen tells him.

Jared nods, not trusting himself to speak. Not for the first time, he lets him go.

~

“Wait, so you told him you chose him over that asshole Ben and he didn’t try to, you know, see if there was anything left for you guys?” Katie asks over lunch. It’s been a week since Jared told his friends about Ben and thing have been awkward between him and Jensen.

“No, he didn’t,” Jared says. “But he wasn’t supposed to. I…It’s just weird. We were together for so long that I guess I really just felt like I needed to reclaim my identity. I didn’t want to be always looking out for him.”

Katie snorts. “Is that you dramatizing the whole thing or did you really spend ten plus years looking out for him?

Jared smiles despite himself. “He used to live a few doors down from me, and my parents bought me this car for when I got my permit. As far as they knew, he was teaching me how to drive for a couple of bucks per week. In reality, his friends used to drive us around and I let them use it to go on booze and snack runs. I thought I was a big shot with my older friends. He ended up totalling the car somehow.

“My parents were pissed. And he was 18, and one more issue and his foster parents would have tossed him out. So I took the blame for it. I got grounded for like, a year but it was worth it because I was finally in with the cool kids. He finally considered me his friend and not some punk he had to ride with.”

“So you were looking out for him from the jump,” Katie says. “And now he doesn’t need you anymore. I could tell you to forget it and save yourself the heartache, but despite that – maybe now that he’s finally in a good place you can focus on the good. What made you stay with him even after everything?

“I wasn’t perfect either,” Jared points out. He knows that he has a tendency to block things out. The way he took out his frustration on Jensen, hounded him to get particular jobs, hounded him about Johnny.

Katie clicks her fingers. “That’s a start. You need to figure out where you both went wrong if you want a chance to sort things out.”

She’s right but Jared’s not sure if he’s ready to dig any deeper. Maybe it’s time to just let sleeping dogs lie.

~

Jensen gets discharged from his parole early due to his good behaviour since being out of prison. Danneel is all smiles when she leaves his place and Jared wonders if it was a coincidence that he happened to be here when she popped by. It’s about the same size as Jared’s tiny apartment but still kind of nice. Bigger bathroom than his too which he’s not at all jealous about. It’s a far cry from the messy, scattered apartment that he spent most of his time cleaning up and he realises that he’s proud.

“This means that you can have a celebratory drink,” Jared says when Jensen gets back from seeing Danneel to her car. “If that’s okay?”

Jensen snorts. “Yeah, that’s fine. I won’t go overboard if that’s what you’re worried about.”

He seems a little peeved and Jared flounders for a brief moment before replying with:

“Okay. My place at 8. Just you and me having a drink like old times.”

Words that he finds himself regretting when they’re giggling like idiots on his couch. Shit. Thankfully he only bought the one bottle of tequila but still, if he wasn’t pleasantly numb from the alcohol he’s sure that he’d be feeling much, much guiltier.

“It was not a good idea to do shots after months of club soda,” Jensen says. He drops his head onto Jared’s shoulder. Jared waits for that uncomfortable, tense feeling to hit him but it doesn’t. It just feels like it’s the most natural thing in the world.

~

Even though Jared’s internship is going pretty well, he often finds that he barely has enough time to wipe his ass let alone hang out with friends. He ends up keeping Jensen company at the restaurant. Sitting at the order desk and talking to him when there’s a lull in customers and answering work emails when it’s busy. Wednesday nights tend to be quieter than the rest and one evening, Sophia comes out from the back and asks if they’ll sample a new couple's special the chef is working on. Jared immediately smells a rat but Jensen’s all for it. At least until they’re sitting in the center of the restaurant with a candle burning between them.

“You know, now that I think about it, the chef has never asked anyone to sample a meal before. At least not just before closing.” Jensen looks so puzzled that Jared can’t help chuckling at him. Sophia winks at him from a distance and he rolls his eyes.

“I think we’re being set up,” he tells Jensen. “We can go if you’d like to. I’m sure Sophia would understand, right?” He makes sure that his voice carries over the restaurant and grins when she flips him the bird.

“No, I’m good, and hey, it beats ramen, right?” Jensen says. “Unless you mind?”

“Oh, no, no,” Jared says a little too quickly if Jensen’s raised eyebrow is anything to go by. “This is great.”

Dinner is nice. They talk and joke around, almost like old times. Jared tries his hardest not to fall into that nostalgic snare, but he can feel his resolve slipping away as each second flies by.

They end up walking home together. Side by side. The way they always did because Jensen wasn’t into that ‘romantic hand-holding bullshit’. They don’t talk much and it’s quiet out. The odd car drives by and the city lights glow in the dark. If Jared tries hard enough he could probably pretend that it’s just them.

There’s no outside interference, no static nor thorns in their side.

It’s just them.

And…that’s what he wants. What he’s always wanted.

“Have you heard from Johnny since you got out?” he finds himself asking.

Jensen’s shoulders tense visibly, his jaw suddenly a rigid line. “He’s called a few times. I heard him out. Told him I wanted nothing to do with him.”

There’s a note of sadness in Jensen’s voice and despite his own tangles with Johnny, Jared finds that he’s upset on Jensen’s behalf. “I’m sorry.”

There’s a snort and then Jensen says, “No, you’re not.”

“I am,” Jared insists. “He’s your brother and he…he let you down. It’s got to suck. And for what it’s worth I’m sorry that I always nagged you about him. I…I should have never have put you in a position where you were bouncing between us.”

“You said that you didn’t want to dwell on the past,” Jensen snaps. “Can we just drop this?”

“Yeah, sure. Sorry.”

They walk in silence for a few more minutes before Jensen clears his throat and says, “He said that he was jealous of you. That you wanted me to be something that I wasn’t – better than him. He apologized. And…the fact that all of that animosity grew from something so stupid makes me so fucking angry and—“

Jared grabs his hand, inadvertently silencing him. “Come back to my place?” Jensen swallows hard and nods.

They don't do much talking when they reach Jared's apartment. He kisses Jensen, breathing an inward sigh of relief when Jensen kisses him back. It seems like nanosecond passes before he feels that white hot spark he always did when they came together. Jensen kisses him like he's starved for air and desperately needs more and Jared just holds on, doing his best to give as good as he gets.

One of them pulls back long enough for Jared to murmur 'bedroom' and soon they're stumbling towards the room, jackets discarded and shirt buttons halfway down. Somehow they manage to get their clothes off and Jared finds himself looming over Jensen his bed. There's a note of uncertainty in his eyes and Jared asks, “You sure you want to do this?”

'Yeah,' Jensen whispers. Jared leans back into kissing him again, once on the mouth and then fleeting kisses down the side of his neck. His hands roam freely, brushing against hard nipples and then...slightly raised skin. He pulls up and catches the faint line of Jensen's scar. Jensen gasps gently but doesn’t protest. Jared traces the scar gently, once more feeling a stab of regret that he didn’t know about this until Jensen got out.

“Forget about it,” Jensen murmurs. “Focus on the now.” Without warning, he flips them over, grinding down into Jared as he kisses him again. Jared can tell that neither of them are going to last so he responds eagerly to the kiss, snaking a hand between their sweat-slicked torsos and grabs both of their cocks in one hand, running down the combined length hard and fast. Their tongues are still intertwined as they come and it feels like all of his nerve endings are on fire; it feels like home. They fall asleep like that, bodies pressed together and lips bruised.

Jensen’s gone when he wakes up.

~

The next time Jared sees him he finds himself snatching a cigarette from Jensen’s lips. He grinds it under his boot and turns to look up at a sheepish looking Jensen. It’s late – a whole twelve hours has passed since he woke up to a cold spot beside him and no explanation.

Jensen even has the nerve to say: “I’m guessing that you want to talk?”

“No, I just called you seven times because I wanted to talk to fucking thin air.” Yes, he’s pissed. Even if it’s just a freakout – he gets it. After everything that’s happened, last night was a big step. One that they can’t climb down from. One that he doesn’t want to climb down from. Well, not if Jensen has a valid reason for his disappearance.

“Look, not here, okay?” Jensen says, his voice strained. “I’ll come by your place after work. I promise.” The emphasis is a response to Jared’s raised eyebrow. He bites back a comment about previous broken promises because this has to be about them leaving the past behind.

“Don't bother, just—just leave me alone, okay?" He shakes his head, more at his own naivety than anything. "We'll chalk this up as my mistake." It seems stupid that he's spent most of the day trying to figure out how to get Jensen to listen to him and now that he's here, he just feels like an idiot. It feels like five years ago when he was always chasing, always trying to fix them and it feels as one-sided now as it did then.

"Dammit—that's not—just wait here, okay?" Jensen disappears before Jared can respond.

Jared doesn't wait.

Twenty minutes later, he finds himself regretting not taking his spare key back when Jensen walks into his apartment unannounced. Jared's standing by his kitchen sink, lost in thought when Jensen emerges in the doorway.

"I'm an idiot," he states. He looks apologetic but they've been here before, they've done this before. Too many times. "I'm sorry. For leaving and for my reaction at the restaurant. You...caught me off guard."

Jared doesn't respond; he rubs his hand across his face, suddenly feeling the weight of his emotions. He's tired and right now he just wants to stop thinking about all of this. Maybe this is the part where it's on him. He's always going to be looking over his shoulder, wondering what is going to go wrong next.

"Look, I know that I'm the bad guy here," Jensen continues. "I left without saying anything. That was shitty of me, I admit that but...you said there was nothing there and I had to—after five years of hope—I had to get over that and be your friend at the same time. And then you chose me over whatshisname and that was an extra added layer of stuff. It was—it's been—the hardest thing, so yes, I panicked. I wasn't sure if last night was the start of something or just a blip. If it's the latter then, I'd rather we nip it in the bud now."

Jared finally turns to look at him. He gets it. He feels the same way – the fear of this going pear-shaped has him wondering if it's worth messing up the decent friendship they've been able to rebuild.

"You were always shit at talking," he grumbles. "I woke up that morning and you were gone then too. The time you went to juve – you were gone then too. When your dumb brother took a spill on his bike and you bashed your head – you were gone then too. I'm sorry if that's a sore point for me."

Jensen scoffs and shakes his head. "We're both different people now, Jared. And if you can't separate the past from the present then there's no point."

"I know that and I agree but...at the same time, 12 years is a long time for me to just wipe from memory, man. I'm not asking you to spend the rest of your life apologising but...I am who I am. I went through all of that shit with you, stood by you and...it's shaped who I am. We might be different now but that doesn't erase the past."

"So, what are you saying?" Jensen retorts. "I can't make any mistakes?"

Jared sighs. "No, just that, you can't leave me hanging like that again. I had five years of that. Waking up every day, wondering how you were surviving. Waking up alone. Not knowing where I stood. So, if you can't make an attempt to communicate then maybe we should nip this in the bud, to use your words."

Jensen scratches at the back of his head and leans against the door frame. He looks pensive but Jared can tell that he knows exactly what he wants to say.

"You know, I used to do certain things just to piss you off, just to see if maybe you'd just up and leave like you should have done."

Jared rolls his eyes, "Yeah, I know, you weren't exactly subtle."

"All I'm saying is that I left because I realised that we've been doing this for so long and...if you're worried about being another person who leaves – don't be. I might not have been able to cope without you before, but I can now. You finally walked away and I had to learn how to deal with that. I'm not going to---"

"I kissed you, I brought you back to my apartment – I chose you over my ex, I let you back into my life, my heart—I even trust you again, after all that you've done," Jared interrupts. "Whatever issue you have is on you. If you can't trust yourself not to fuck up – that's on you. Sorry."

"You don't sound too sorry about it," Jensen replies with a snort. Jared smiles despite himself, feeling some of the tension finally start to ebb away. In hindsight, it seems natural that both of them would panic somehow. And it's interesting to see that they still react the same way. They might be different people, as Jensen keeps saying, but maybe not by much.

"You said that you can't keep apologising, and I'm saying that you can't keep projecting on me," Jared says with a shrug. "Clean slate. That's what I would have said this morning. I don't care about the past. Am I going to forget it? No, but...don't give me a reason to keep going back there and I'll never give you a reason to believe that I'm here out of some misguided sense of obligation."

"Clean slate."

Jared nods.

He wonders where this is headed next.

~

"So, you're together?" Chad asks when Jared meets him for drinks the next day. "When's the party?" Jared laughs. Given that their truce has led to an awkward first few days of rekindling, he's not sure that there will be a party. Jared suspects that Jensen's embarrassed about his reaction and he knows that he's definitely embarrassed that he wasn't as over everything as he's been claiming to be. Either way, something needs to give. Fast.

"That good, huh?" Chad continues when Jared doesn't answer. "Break up with him then."

"What?" Jared practically yells. A few people in the next booth turn to look at him and he smiles apologetically. "I don't want to do that, I mean – I love him. I never stopped. We just need to get past our own stupid shit."

Chad rolls his eyes. "If I know you, then you probably gave him shit for leaving. My advice? Forget about the first twelve years. He had family chirping away in his ear that made him make some fucked up choices. They're mostly not here now, so...this is your chance to figure out if you can make it work."

Jared empties his bottle as he stews of Chad's words. "What if I'm making a mistake?"

"Right now it's a mistake that you can't live without," Chad replies. "When he was in jail, you were...lost. Look at you now."

Jared supposes that his friend has a point, although he's not sure if that reflects well on him. Is it that he can't function properly without Jensen around or...is that he needed to forgive him. To finally accept what happened and move on.

"This is you life, man," Chad adds. "You have to do what makes you happy either way. Twelve or however many years means nothing if you're not happy."

Jared exhales deeply, it's time for him and Jensen to come to a decision at last.

~

"I think you should move back in here," he tells Jensen the next day when he's lounging on his couch, idly watching some late night rerun.

Jensen emerges from the bathroom with a damp facecloth. "Is that wise?

"We did okay before and things weren't as balanced as they are now," Jared explains. "Plus...I love you. I...I want you here. Always have."

"Always?" Jensen parrots back with a slight smirk. Jared rolls his eyes and turns away. The laughter track from the sitcom is too loud, too brash. Still, he knows that Jensen's just stalling as he considers Jared's suggestion.

"Hell, why not?" Jensen says when he drops down onto the vacant spot next to Jared. "It's not like my place is a fortress and you know, it's missing some giant sized décor."

"I'm too pretty to be décor," Jared shoots back. "I'm the main attraction."

"Can't argue with that," Jensen says as he shifts closer. "Are we sure about this. Shouldn't we have a long drawn out conversation first?"

Jared snorts. "I think we've done that. Said all we need to say. Now we just need to give ourselves a little room to breathe. Just see where this goes."

"What about Johnny, Chris...and your parents, Jared? You need to call them." He sounds genuinely worried and maybe he should be. The standoff with his parents is unfortunate but now he's wondering if he didn't deliberately put it off until they got their shit together. His mother probably would not have been delighted with Ben.

Jared shrugs. "One thing at a time. I'm not in love with them. I'm in love with you. And I want to be with you. Everything else is secondary."

"You really mean that?" Jensen asks.

"Yeah, I do," he says. "I'm willing to put everything aside and try. Are you with me?"

Jensen's breathing hitches and he smiles shakily. "Like you even need to ask."

A thought comes to Jared as they close the space between them and seal their words with a kiss.

Even if this is a mistake, it's always going to be one that he can't live without and for now, he's okay with that.

Fin