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Don't Wanna Be Alone At Midnight Anymore

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Jared’s always believed that there's something about a man's dinner choices that defines who he is. He could be the humble college student who survives on ramen and canned hot dogs, or he could be the guy that actually knows how to cook without needing the fire department on standby. Instead, he’s the guy whose dinner tonight is leftovers from the leftovers from his best friend’s pot roast.

Not that Chad's aware of this.

No, Chad is too busy whining about his wedding. Jared loves the guy, he really does, but all of the wedding talk is about as interesting as watching paint dry. Flowers, catering, the damn seating. The mere thought of it all almost sends him to sleep. He's even thankful that Chad asked someone else to be best man. It saves him the hassle of having to sell another furniture item to pay for a decent suit.

"Hey, you mind spotting me a couple of bucks?" Jared interrupts whatever Chad is saying. "My landlord is breathing down my neck again about the rent." It's a crying shame that Jared's past the point where asking for handouts makes him overly self-conscious, that Chad's pitying looks don't even bother him anymore.

Or maybe he's just gotten better at pretending that they don't.

"Again?" Chad frowns. "Dude, you need to get yourself another sugar daddy. Hell, maybe you can date my boss. You know he's still refusing to budge on what's supposed to be my wedding day. How the hell am I supposed to tell Audrey that her wedding might be attended by everyone BUT the guy she's supposed to be marrying?"

Jared ignores all of that and focuses on the first part of Chad's response. "Look, I'll pay you back. I'm sure I've got something I can sell or pawn, whatever I need to do." Chad opens his mouth to reply but seems to think better and it snaps shut.

There's a long silence and Jared swears he can almost see the cogs turning in Chad's mind.

"How would you like to not worry about rent for six months?"

Jared frowns. He might have lost most of his pride but there's still a tiny piece left. Plus, the excited glint in Chad's eye is practically screaming Pretty Woman. Still, his landlord was pretty convincing when he threatened to finally boot Jared's sorry ass out of his building for good. At this point, he really can't turn down any kind of money making opportunity.

"I'm listening," he says reluctantly.

Chad practically claps his hands with unbridled glee. "So, my boss is like, super gay. His secretary is always telling me how he has to find these young dashing dates for any corporate events. And my wedding doesn't count as a high profile event, but if you were, to say, 'charm' him into falling for you and ask him to my wedding, then he'd have to come and that means he'd technically have to give me the day off. You do that and I'll cover your rent."

"Your boss is 'super gay'," Jared parrots back, because he's not quite sure which part he should be offended by. "And you want me to charm him into letting you get married. Dude, you can’t be fucking serious?"

Chad's face falls and his shoulders droop.

Jared instantly feels bad, because Chad's the one person that's always there for him. Even when Jared doesn't deserve it. Given that he can't even afford to buy Chad a reasonable wedding gift, maybe this can be his way of contributing somehow.

"Wow, I'm sorry," Chad replies with a shaky laugh. "I'm just stressing, I guess. Along with ruining my day, my boss is being a total hard ass over the project I'm working on. I'll figure it out. And, sure man, I'll help you with your rent."

And that'll be one more thing that I owe him, Jared thinks.

Suddenly, he feels tired of this; constantly asking for handouts. The way nothing ever seems to go right for him. The sick feeling in his stomach grows and he realizes that he's going to do it.

He's going to fake date Chad's boss for money.

"I'll do it."

Chad eyes him warily, the question clear on his face. Jared rolls his eyes. Despite what he's asking him to do, Chad really does have his best interests at heart. Still, Jared's not a baby; he can look after himself. "He's not...he's a good guy, right?"

Chad shakes his head. "Look, I'm not letting you do this. It was a dumb idea. I'm sorry that I even said it - I don't mind helping you out, Jared."

"I mind," Jared answers. It's true. "You've bailed me out too many times and it's my turn to help you." Chad doesn't look convinced. He's always been protective of Jared. Not that Jared deserves it; he doesn't exactly have a sob story that tugs at heart strings. Marrying a woman from a family that screwed over his own father probably wasn't good idea. Coming out after said marriage broke down seemed to be the icing on the crumbled cake. Being declared bankrupt after the divorce proceedings were through? That was the damn cherry on top.

His father won't speak to him anymore. His mom tries, but the resentment is there. Siblings? Well, they're better off without him. Two years after the bankruptcy, he ended up in a very, very messy situation involving a wealthy closeted guy that left him with even more of a damaged ego and dented pride.

So he hustles here and there and tries to pay off the large amount of debt he's accrued post-bankruptcy. He's about sixty percent of the way through, but the scars alone are enough to make sure that he tries to earn money honestly now. Still, Jared is chock full of bad ideas and maybe it's time to follow someone else's for a change.

 

The next day, Chad shows up with a very detailed plan and his less than enthused fiancée, Audrey. Audrey isn't his biggest fan. Actually Jared's fairly certain that she downright hates him and simply tolerates him for Chad's sake. Chad insists that she doesn't but he’s not an idiot. Jared knows that his friend is just trying to spare his feelings.

"Jared, it's nice to see you," she says politely. He nods back and tries not to squirm. She makes him nervous; reminds him too much of his ex-wife, Samantha. She's too polished, too all-American, too blonde. His ex-wife ended up being a manipulative person who spent much of their eighteen-month long union lying to him. He just hopes that Audrey isn't doing the same thing to Chad.

"I was just dropping Chad off because my car's being serviced and I have an appointment. So I'll see you both later." He lets out a breath that he wasn't aware he was holding, only catching himself when he sees Chad's reproachful expression.

"What? I was nice to her!" he protests. At least he acknowledged her and didn’t send her any snooty looks the way she has in the past.

"You didn't say a word to her," Chad replies, sighing as he opens the folder he came in with. Jared doesn't have a coffee table, so Chad just slaps the folder down onto the empty beer crates that make up his makeshift dinner table. "I didn't tell her about this, by the way. I just said that I needed to run some business stuff by you."

Jared laughs at that so hard that his chest hurts. "I'm sure she was tickled pink by that."

Audrey has made enough thinly veiled comments about him for Jared to deduce what she really thinks about him.

Chad frowns. "She knows about your credentials, actually. And, much like I do, she's been wondering why you don't actually put them to use." Jared rolls his eyes. He's heard this too many times. He should use his business degree to get a job in a lower position and finally finish his MBA, but he's not going to.

His father is right - he's not cutthroat enough for that world. He's too naïve and, well, you don't need any business smarts to be a decent occasional handyman.

"I'm good with painting walls, thanks," he informs Chad. "I might even make a career of it."

Chad looks like he's about to argue but Jared can see the moment that he relents. Instead, Chad turns to the folder and points at it. "So, I sat down for three hours last night and came up with the perfect plan."

For the next twenty minutes, Jared listens in disbelief as Chad basically lists out every cliché from every rom-com in existence.

"You can't seriously think this is going to work?" he asks. "You want me to accidentally on purpose pour my coffee on him and then strip my shirt off and offer it to him. In real life, that's second degree burns for him and a possible arrest for me on grounds of harassment.”

Chad leafs through his folder and lands on another page. “Fine, what about this – he happens to be cruising down a yet to be determined street and almost runs you over?”

Jared groans. “Maybe you should just leave the planning to me. Seriously, I can charm this guy by myself. That's the one thing that I don't suck at. Unless I need to.”

It's Chad's turn to groan as he holds his hands up in defeat. “Fine. But make sure you don't do anything stupid like falling in love with him. I still have to work with the guy.”

“After Mark, I think I'm done with the whole ridiculously successful boyfriend thing,” Jared says with a huffed laugh. He doesn't have any hang ups over Mark, at least not really. It was just a bad situation that spiralled out of control. Still, he made it out of there and he was safe. That's all that mattered.

“Fine, fine, but hey, I could be wrong - maybe falling for him won't be so bad,” Chad says. “He could get you a job and maybe a place---and, why are you looking at me like that?”

“Dude, do I look like Julia Roberts to you?”

Chad snorts. “You've got the same haircut as her right now. Seriously, please get a five dollar trim, at least, before you speak to Jensen.”

Jared rolls his eyes and turns to the folder. “Speaking of the illustrious Jensen, do you have a picture? And also, while your Americano scenario was stupid, it's not a bad place to start. Almost ninety percent of my meet-cute's have happened in coffee shops.”

“Of course they have,” Chad says. “Of course.”

Eventually, he and Chad agree on a plan and Jared wakes up at an ungodly hour on the next Monday morning. He showers with cold water and eats a couple of soggy slices of toast before stepping into his cleanest and newest clothes. Chad offered to send him on some kind of shopping spree but Jared just about managed to convince him that sticking to his real persona would make this a whole lot smoother.

According to Chad, this Jensen guy likes to stop off at a local coffee shop at six-thirty a.m. and order an Americano which he drinks there while talking to the owner. Following that he orders another and then makes his way to the office. Jared's plan is to somehow bump into him at the coffee shop and leave enough of in impression that Jensen remembers him when he shows up at a workplace event happening later this week. That sounds easy enough.

Of course it all goes wrong.

Jared's bike ends up with a flat tire so he's stuck half-jogging and half-walking to the coffee store and by the time he gets there, he's so flustered that he instantly bumps into someone. The sting of hot, brown liquid seeping through his shirt makes him laugh at the irony of it all. By the time he's managed to upright himself, he finds himself staring into a pair of unamused green eyes. He smiles to himself when he recognises Jensen from the blurry picture Chad showed him.

“You should watch where you're going,” Jensen says, even though he technically owes Jared an apology. Jared might be a sucker for a pretty face – and Jensen really does have one with his large green eyes, mocha coloured freckles and pouty, full lips – but still, there's no excuse for poor manners.

“And you should learn how to say sorry,” he retorts. He makes a show of looking down at his shirt and scowling. “You owe me a new shirt.”

“Like hell I do,” Jensen snaps and he moves to push past. However, Jared doesn't budge. He can hear Chad saying that Jensen's the kind of guy who likes people that cater to his every whim and he practically feels that part of his plan sailing out of the window. If anything, he might just enjoy this. Clearly Jensen is the kind of guy that needs to be taken down a peg or two.

“Dude, get outta my way.” Jensen’s tone is downright hostile and Jared's eye roll doesn't need to be faked – it's genuine.

“Fine. It's too early to be dealing with ill-mannered jerks like you anyway.”

He steps aside and watches as Jensen saunters past him, muttering angrily under his breath.

The next morning, Jared manages to wrangle a decent shirt from his closet and he makes his way over to the coffee shop. This time, Jensen's leaning across the counter, laughing and joking with the curly haired women on the other side. Her name tag reads 'Traci' and Jared greets her with a huge smile and by name, revelling silently when Jensen glares at him after he gives Traci his order.

“You know, I had to cancel a job interview yesterday because of what happened to my shirt,” he lies casually. Jensen scoffs but merely sips at his dark coffee. “I'm pretty sure that they're not going to reschedule it for me.”

“Not my problem, dude,” Jensen replies. “And do you mind waiting somewhere else, I'm trying to enjoy my coffee here.” Traci emerges from the back with Jared's lemon muffins just in time to hear Jensen's words, and she frowns.

“Sorry, sir, Jensen here can be a little grumpy in the mornings,” she says quickly. “You're welcome to wait wherever you want.” She and Jensen share some kind of weird telepathic look; a bashful expression appears on Jensen's face and he offers Jared a muttered apology.

Jared reaches into his bag and pulls out one of the muffins. He sets it next to Jensen's coffee cup and grins at him. “Maybe a little bit of sugar will make you less bitter, hmm?”

He leaves before Jensen can reply.

Chad's eyes almost bulge out of their sockets when Jared relays the events of the past two mornings. “I said charm him, not rile him up enough for him to maybe have hate-sex with you once.”

Jared shrugs. “He's a complete and utter dick, Chad. And you know how I feel about that world and the way they treat people. I'm not going to bend over and let him smack me on the ass.” He phrases it that way to get Chad to crack a smile or something, but, if anything, his friend looks even more horrified.

“I get that you think all businessmen are awful human beings, but Jensen's not a bad guy,” Chad says. “I mean, he's a dick, but I've worked with worse people. You've worked with worse, I mean – your own father was a nightmare to work with. And we can't all be cool bosses like you were.”

“Right, I was the cool boss who cost the company millions of dollars?” Jared snaps.

He doesn't like to talk about his time with his father's company. He might have been the vice-president (and his father's right-hand man) at the age of twenty-three, but it was nothing to be proud of. Not when it took him a little less than four years to go from hero to zero, from devoted husband to blindsided fool, from someone who wanted to change the world to someone who was just part of making it stagnant and cold.

If anything, this deception he's engaging in is almost his chance for revenge. He's going to charm Jensen; going to have him eating out of the palm of his hand and then he's going to take it all away from him.

“I don't like that look on your face,” Chad says worriedly. “Please promise me that you'll stick to the plan?”

“Of course. Promise.” He just doesn't specify whose plan he's sticking to.

This fancy event that Chad takes him to is some kind of charity benefit. Jared dry cleans his only suit and talks his next-door neighbour into giving him a quick haircut. She's some kind of retired stylist to the stars and sometimes they sit up until the early hours of the morning and swap stories - hers about an industry full of people who hide who they are under some of shiny, glitzy veneer, and his are about a life that's been characterised by heartbreak and disappointment.

She's always telling him he's too young to be so jaded, but he doesn't feel young. He feels old, cracked and weathered, as if some kind of invisible glue is holding him together as a punishment. He never voices that because it's silly. Even with his problems, he still has more than some people. Surely, he should be grateful.

“I hate these things,” he mutters after swiping a glass of champagne from a waiter who's probably being paid peanuts. He shakes his head as he watches people milling past him, no doubt dressed to the nines in clothes that cost more than they intend to donate. He continues in a normal tone. “Charity. Please. It's basically sponsored tax reduction. Just another way to conceal the fact that they make their money by shitting all over people.”

“And who let you into this building?” The voice that responds definitely isn't Chad.

It's Jensen.

Startled, Jared looks up and uses the split-second pause to silently appraise the man now standing beside him. Jensen looks less grumpy than he does in the morning. And he's certainly filling out his tux very nicely - not that Jared’s going to tell him that. Subtly looking around he realises that Chad is off talking to someone else. So much for sticking together.

“I was invited here by one of the guests,” Jared tells him. “Not that it's any of your business. I'm not really in the mood to deal with your crap right now.” It's partly true. This benefit is bringing up memories that Jared would rather forget. He's supposed to wow Jensen and win him over with all of his business acumen but it was a fucking stupid plan when he can’t even be in the same room as these people without wanting to throw up.

“You’re more than welcome to leave,” Jensen retorts with a dry chuckle.

It winds Jared up, reminds him of those who didn’t hesitate to kick him when he was down. The sniggers and laughs as he packed up his office; the way no one was interested when he told them that he was stepping down. The moment that always sticks with him was when he overheard his father on the phone saying, ‘Don’t worry about Jared. He’s yesterday’s news. We don’t need him in order to get the business back on track.’

Yesterday's news. Sometimes, he looks in the mirror and finds it hard to disagree.

“Maybe I will,” he snaps angrily. He downs the rest of his champagne and swiftly moves past Jensen, barely stopping to dump his empty glass on the table. A few people throw curious glances his way but nobody acknowledges him as he hurries through the door. The air outside is hot and humid and he struggles to loosen his tie.

His anger finally starts to ebb away when he realises that Chad is his ride home. He also finds that he’s starting to truly regret agreeing to this. Quite why convincing someone to come to a wedding was a better alternative than going out, putting his pride aside and actually getting a damn job he was qualified for, is a mystery to him. Sure, paying Chad back for all he’s done was a huge deciding factor, but there’s absolutely no way that this is going to work. It’s clear that this Jensen guy is one shrewd motherfucker, and Jared’s not sure if he really wants to break out the Texas charm and drag him to a wedding that he’s grudgingly attending himself.

Still. He owes it to Chad.

“You’re still here.”

Jared’s head snaps up at the sound of Jensen’s voice and he stifles his eye roll in favour of a half-smirk. The heat in the air seems to rise and he struggles not to show his discomfort. He’s standing in front of the decorative shrubs placed near the entrance of the building where the event being held. Jensen comes to stand beside him, just to reinforce the fact that today is definitely not his day.

“Like, I’d let a guy like you tell me what to do,” he replies. “You’re not paying me to be here.” Why he can’t tamp down the urge to make snide comments is beyond him. There’s just something about Jensen that riles him up.

A few people spill out of the building and Jared steps aside to let them pass. Jensen smiles at them but it falls when they're gone. Suddenly, he looks so serious that Jared wonders if he's onto him and knows his true motives.

“Look, I just wanted to apologise for being rude, both here and at the coffee shop,” Jensen says. “Contrary to what you might think of me, I’m not a complete ass.” The apology seems to be sincere, and Jared feels his resolve weaken. He’s not sure why Jensen came outside or why he didn’t just ignore him, but he has three weeks to make some headway. It’s time for him to get serious.

“Apology accepted,” he says easily. “And I’m sorry if I’ve been an ass too. It’s been a stressful week.”

The idea is for Jared to stay as close to the truth as possible. No fake names, no fake occupation, just a version of the truth that can easily be proved. According to Chad, outrageous lies never end well in those rom-com movies that he clearly loves despite his frequent denials.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Jensen tells him. “I know the feeling. Actually, uh, I don’t even want to be here myself. You were right about it being bullshit, but, hey, gotta toe the party line, right?”

Jared snorts. “That’ll fuck you up in the long run. Trust me. And you’re the boss; I doubt missing a charity benefit will get you fired. It might look bad, but that’s not what they care about. They care about numbers and how close you are to achieving the perfect set.”

Jensen’s cracks a half smile. “You sound like you hate the mere thought of it.”

They’re straying into dangerous territory, so Jared steps back with a shrug. Maybe he’ll just find somewhere else to wait for Chad.

“We can’t love everything,” he says. “And on that note, I have to go.”

“I can drop you off somewhere if you need me too,” Jensen offers, surprising Jared in the process. “Noticed that your bicycle hasn’t made another appearance.”

Jared can’t tell if Jensen is merely offering him a ride or hinting at something else. Either way, he finds himself in Jensen’s black Ferrari 458 Italia within fifteen minutes. Jared would love to say that he’s thinking about strategy and how to use this to his advantage, but truly, he's wondering if wanting to sleep with someone because they have a sexy set of wheels makes him a terrible person.

“You’re quiet,” Jensen says from beside him. “There was me thinking that you’d have another twenty questions about my car.” Twenty is an exaggeration, but the car fanatic in him definitely spent a good five minutes babbling when he first saw the car. Jared lets out a low whistle as he admires the dashboard and revels in the smooth rumble of the engine.

“It’s a seriously hot car.”

Jared might be completely jaded about the corporate world, but there are parts of it that are engrained on him. The fancy suits, the fast cars and expensive restaurants. Some days, he knows that if someone were to offer him all of that, saying no wouldn’t be as easy as it should be. Despite his ability to try and moralise everything, he’s proof that it’s never black and white. That people can be two halves of a whole that clash so violently that they don't even know who they are.

“If you don’t have anywhere urgent to be, I can let you take over,” Jensen offers, surprising Jared yet again. They’ve been chatting amicably since they got into the car and this nice, funny, warm individual is at odds with the person he's encountered the last few times they crossed paths. He can’t help wondering which is the real Jensen.

“You don't seem like the kind of guy that would let a stranger drive your car.”

Not without getting something out of it.

Jensen makes a right and slows down before eventually pulling over. They're on a quiet side street and Jared finds himself aching for the hum of the vehicle.

“I'm not,” Jensen confirms. “But it seems like you could do with some fun.”

Jared tries not to take the comment personally, but he can't help his reaction.

“What makes you say that, are you a mind reader?” His tone is sharp but Jensen levels him with a smile.

“Even better, I can read people. Especially tall, dark strangers that I pour coffee on.”

Jared raises an eyebrow despite Jensen’s humorous tone, “Really?”

“Oh yeah, it's what makes me such a good negotiator.”

There's a dark look in Jensen's eyes and Jared can tell that they've breached the boundary between banter and flirting. Considering that he wasn’t fully aware they were doing the former, he can’t help feeling objectified.

“No kidding. You’re just trying to get into my pants.”

Jensen shrugs and grins at him. “Maybe.”

“I’m sorry to say that I’m not that easy,” Jared replies somewhat testily. “You might have a nice set of wheels, but, that doesn't mean that I want to sleep with you. Plus, it’s kind of shitty to being a ‘rari to a charity benefit. Just saying.”

Jensen's face crumples like a creased Kleenex and Jared can see that he's truly tripped up for the first time since they met. He wonders what the story is there. From getting his assistant to find him hot dates to picking up guys at charity benefits, it seems like Jensen is almost as screwed up as Jared is. This could be his in, although he’s sensing that he’s touched a nerve. There's an awkward silence but Jared waits it out. He's sure that Jensen will get over his rejection within seconds, hell, he hasn't even asked for a name yet.

“Fair enough,” Jensen says finally. “That was incredibly forward of me, but hey, that's how I roll.” He's so clearly trying to save face that Jared almost feels sorry for him. Almost.

“You hook up with strangers?” Jared isn't a monk himself, but he's sensing that his charm won't be sufficient here. Jensen's got commitment issues written all over him and Jared has his work cut out for him. “What happened, bad break-up?”

Jensen shrugs half-heartedly. “Something like that. I'm not exactly a huge believer in love. All of that fucking Disney vampire love crap is bullshit.”

Jared laughs. “Hell, I'm right there with you, man. It's bullshit. So are a lot of things, it doesn't mean that they're not worth it sometimes. I was married once. It... She broke my heart.”

It's the first time he's said it out loud like that, much less admitted it to himself. After he realised that he was into guys, he thought the betrayal would sting less, but it didn't. Doesn't.

“See - that look on your face right there, how is that worth it?” Jensen enquires softly. “You carry that with you every day. It's not an ideal way of living, man. I'm just saying.”

Damn, he is good at reading people.

Jared's response is caught in his throat; cruelly blocked by a sob that threatens to break free. Jensen must see something else in his face because his eyes widen with panic. Jared desperately wants to break the spell he's suddenly under but he can't. He can't find the words, can't think past the burn in his chest. There's a warm sensation on his hand and he realises that Jensen's holding it.

It's a simple gesture, but at the moment it feels like so much more.

Jared gives Chad a fabricated story about the benefit and convinces him that he's got it all under control. After two days of wallowing in his feelings and embarrassment, he decides that he can use his meltdown to his advantage. All he has to do is convince Jensen that he needs him in some capacity, and a shoulder to cry on is a pretty good place to start. That means taking another early morning venture to Traci's coffee shop. Jensen's already there when he arrives, looking far more polished than one should this early in the morning.

The sun is barely peeking over the horizon and the sky is still a dull grey save for the dusty yellow band threatening to break free.

“Hey, it's mystery man,” Jensen exclaims when he spots Jared approaching the counter. “Traci was worried that I'd scared you away.” Jared isn't an expert on Jensen by any means, but there's something wrong about him being so chirpy this early. Traci herself is wearing a bewildered look of amusement.

“Are you okay?” Jared asks him. He could laugh this off but he's still somewhat embarrassed that he ended up getting so emotional the last time he saw Jensen.

Jensen smiles at him. “All is well, my tall friend. I may have been up all night playing poker with some old college buddies. I'm just trying to sober up a little before I head into the office.” The smile is too forced; the words aren’t quite believable.

“If you say so,” Jared tells him with a shrug. “Actually, I wanted to thank you for the...other night. You didn’t have to listen to me, but you did, so...maybe I can make you dinner?”

Jared can feel himself blushing before he can comprehend what he’s just said. The original plan had been to invite Jensen out for a drink, but apparently his brain and mouth aren’t on the same wavelength. Judging by the confused expression on Jensen’s face, he wasn’t expecting a dinner invitation either. The fact that Traci is watching them both from behind the counter is another thing he didn’t factor in.

So much for smooth, he thinks.

“Uh, you don’t have to do that,” Jensen replies. He looks a little bit embarrassed, and Jared can’t help finding it cute. And then he can’t help finding the fact that it’s cute ridiculous. He decides to just go with his number one motto: fake it until you make it.

Jared grins. “Hey, I got to drive around in your amazing car. That’s nothing in comparison to dinner. Just to say thank you. No strings attached.” The last three words seem to push some tension out of Jensen’s shoulders. Jared bites back another smile. Talk about textbook commitment issues.

“Okay, fine. We can do dinner. I have to run, but here’s my number. Text me the place and time and I’ll be there.” Jared watches as Jensen scribbles his digits on a napkin and hurries out. He waves (albeit redundantly) and turns back to Traci whose eyes are shining with interest. He watches on with his own eyes wide as she writes her number on the same napkin and tells him to call her post-dinner to debrief.

The first thing Jared does when he gets back to his apartment is stare at it wordlessly. The place is a mess and the fact that he's invited Jensen back here is still surreal. With a heavy sigh, he gets to work and spends the next three hours dragging refuse bags outside. After another hour with various cleaning sprays, the vacuum cleaner and Febreze, the place actually looks presentable. Although, his spare room now resembles an episode of Hoarders, but Jensen isn’t going see that.

Next, he calls Chad and begs him to bring Audrey over for dinner tomorrow.

"What? Dude, do you want to blow our entire operation?" Chad splutters down the line. "And Audrey doesn't know about this. No. No way. You're on your own. Or you can ask Sandy to be your wingman. Or Katie. Or Aldis."

Jared groans inwardly. Theoretically he could, but they're not as understanding as Chad is when it comes to his situation. He likes them well enough but he knows that they don't get it. They don’t understand his hang ups and reluctance to be drawn back into what he's good at. To them, there’s nothing stopping him from dusting himself off and getting back to work.

And maybe they're right.

If this scheme with Jensen is going to work, he’s going to need something a lot better than, ‘Oh, I paint people’s walls’ when asked what he does for a living.

"You know what, I'll call you later, okay?" Jared says quickly, hanging up as Chad is halfway through an apology.

Shortly after his call with Chad. Jared heads over to the nearest grocery store to pick up some stuff for this dinner he’s supposed to be making. By the time he’s gotten everything that he needs, he’s dead on his feet. The long-haired guy at the counter in the small store doesn't look up when Jared approaches. In fact, he's muttering to himself and almost smashing the keys of his calculator.

This goes on for a few more minutes before Jared finally says something. It's gotten late and he still has to get up early for his morning coffee with Jensen. The fact that he's accommodating it into his routine is strange, but he tries not to think about it. He's just committed to seeing the plan through. That’s all.

"Crunching numbers?" he asks. The guy looks up and finally seems to notice him. He rubs at his eyes and smiles grimly.

"I just took over this place from my Dad and the books are a mess," the guy says. "I just got done with an English degree, so numbers aren't exactly my strong point. I haven't gotten around to hiring someone yet."

Jared's ears perk up at that.

"I might be able to help you out," he says. "I used to be work in the financial division of a major company. I'm good with numbers. How about I run through these with you now and we can call this my interview?"

Jared isn’t expecting the guy to go for it, but he shrugs and hands over the books.

"Uh, sure. We've got two more stores so I definitely need the help."

Jared smiles and accepts the offered pen.

After the impromptu job thing, an idea springs to him. It's nothing big, just an online posting offering freelance work to people who need it. It might be fruitless but it's more than he's achieved in the past couple of years.

Naturally, the excitement fades when Chad brings Audrey to the bar the next night. He desperately wants to go over his dinner plans with Chad but instead, they listen as Audrey whines incessantly about how stupid the wedding caterer is. Chad sort of listens with an awkward smile while Katie just openly stares at her.

"Maybe you should switch to a different caterer?" Aldis suggests helpfully. "When I got married, my aunt did everything for us. I can give her a call."

Audrey practically spits out her wine. "Thank you for the offer but...no, our current caterer is the best one on the East Coast. I just need to have a strong word with her."

She excuses herself soon after that, and Jared's betting that powdering her nose will turn into her summoning Chad via text within five minutes.

"You are so whipped," Aldis says four minutes later when Chad excuses himself. Chad makes a face and goes to settle his tab, leaving Jared to talk to Aldis and Katie.

Katie wrinkles her nose. "I give them three months."

Jared doesn't go for the early morning coffee on the day of his dinner date with Jensen. Not because he wants to sleep in but because he's nervous. He's halfway through getting dressed when he gets a text message from Jensen that reads 'Tonight's the night!' and promptly freaks out. Dating Jensen is one thing, but sleeping with him? Jared's not going to do that. Not even for Chad.

By the time he's reasoned that Jensen was simply referring to dinner, the damage has been done. He spends most of the day going through the accounts from the grocery store and coming up with ideas about how they can maximise their savings and cut out unnecessary purchases. By the time he's done with his spreadsheets, it's half-past-six. That gives him thirty minutes to roast a chicken perfectly, boil and steam rice, make a stew and yeah, he's screwed.

After wasting ten minutes panicking, he thinks about Mark - his very rich ex - and how some of their nicest moments were when the money was put away and they talked and made dinner together, like a normal couple - which was the furthest thing from what they were. Still, the night is salvageable at least.

Frantically, he sets up all of the dinner ingredients, seasons the chicken before putting it in the oven and he goes to get changed.

The knock on the door has Jared's hands sweating and he finds himself making sure that his hair is okay and that there's nothing untoward about his appearance. This is all so his best friend can have his dream wedding with a woman that none of his friends like. Just another normal day. He just needs to focus on getting this evening right.

Unfortunately, the first thing out of his mouth when he opens the door is, "Oh my god, you look terrible." Jensen's forced smile falls and Jared stands there wondering if it’s possible to feel like an even bigger idiot than he does now. It's one of his negative traits, his ability to just blurt out whatever is on his mind. Hell, his ex-wife hated it. And now he's thinking about her again. Great.

"Uh, come in, please," he says quickly when Jensen looks at him expectantly. "Sorry about that. My mouth never stops working." Jensen’s face is pale, his clothes are rumpled and he appears to be desperately in need of caffeine. Despite the fact that he's got sunken eyes and looks exhausted, Jensen perks up at that comment. Jared rolls his eyes before the response comes.

"I guess we'll have to put it to good use," Jensen says with a lewd wink. It comes across as forced and there's clearly something up with him. Suddenly the cutesy cooking session Jared has planned doesn't seem like a good idea.

"So, I was going to make dinner but something came up and all I have is a partially roasted chicken. Is pizza good?"

Jensen laughs softly. "Sure. And lots of beer. Lots. This has been a shitty week so far." Jared idly remembers a text from Chad about something going down at work and he wonders if that's why Jensen's in a sullen mood.

"What's going on?" he asks. Jensen regards him silently, pausing only when Jared directs him toward the couch. He grabs his cell and joins Jensen a few seconds later. Luckily for him, the app for the pizza place is one that he's very familiar with. "Are you good with meat feast and cheese crust?" There's a vague nod and he makes the order.

"I've been getting some heat from my superiors but we've been doing good, we met all of our quarterly goals and now they're talking about a merger." Jared stops to ponder this. Jensen works in insurance and typically, mergers usually mean that the company isn't doing as well as advertised. Or there's usually some kind of catch.

"Is that bad?" He decides to stick with the plan and act like he hasn't obsessively researched Jensen's company. "You work in sports insurance, right?"

Jensen nods and gives him a wry smile. "You sure remember a lot from a charity benefit you barely spent five minutes at. We handle insurance for top athletes and also sporting companies and so on. Merging isn’t the end of the world, I just...didn't think we would go down this route so soon. I...people could lose their jobs and....that's not what I want."

Shit. Jared doesn't want that either. And maybe he can do something to help, still, he has to get Jensen to trust him first.

"That sucks, man," he says easily. "But you seem like a competent guy. And considerate too - you did let me blub all over you - so I'm sure that you will find a way around this somehow."

"Yeah," Jensen replies. "Anyway, enough about work. What do you do for fun around here?"

Jared blinks owlishly. His idea of fun was to somehow charm Jensen with some conversational magic. An idea that seems like a huge misstep right now.

"I'm a terrible host," Jared finally admits. "I thought that we could just talk and stuff. You know, pick up where we left off the other night?"

Jensen grins. "Ah, well, I brought the Mercedes today. I thought we'd leave the heart to hearts for the Ferrari."

"Oh, come on," Jared scoffs. "You know all of that stuff about me. It's only fair that you tell me why you're Mr. Promiscuous."

He's not being a hundred percent serious but Chad's briefing was pretty clear. Jensen liked to date young, hotter guys and Jared's pretty young thing days are behind him, so he has to find another angle. Some other way to worm himself into Jensen's heart. The best way to do that is to confront the man's commitment issues. Make him question himself enough to consider a relationship and then hang around long enough to get through Chad's wedding. Jared may have been hasty in his previous plans to savagely break Jensen's heart, so that is one future layer of guilt banished to non-existence.

"There's not much to say," Jensen tells him. "Your situation with your ex-wife is why I don't date."

"And it has nothing to do with the fact that you're a workaholic with a penchant for pushing people away when you're busy?" The doorbell sounds and Jared leaves Jensen to go and collect the pizzas. By the time he gets back, Jensen looks irritated. Jared's about to apologize when Jensen holds up his phone and gestures towards it.

"The fun never stops," he mutters sarcastically. "Look, I'm gonna go. I'm not good company tonight and not at all the person that anyone should be talking to about love. You're right - I don't have time for any of that."

Jensen's up and out before he can say anything, leaving Jared standing there with two warm boxes in his hand. He knows that he should go after him, find some way to make things right, but for whatever reason, he's transported to a memory.

It's her. She's packing her bags; her eyes say one thing and her mouth another. All Jared hears his failure. Betrayal. Everything is crumbling around him and he just wants her to stay. If she leaves that means that there’s no coming back from this and he’s not sure if he can handle that.

Jared shakes his head hard and returns back to the present

He's not sure why Jensen's departure triggered the memory.

Two hours later, Jared finds himself on the roof of his building. He comes here quite a lot just to look at the stars. It reminds him of being a kid. The innocence he felt when he looked outside, back when the hardest thing in life was coming up with an excuse for why he his homework was incomplete. It was all so easy back then.

Sometimes he can't connect that young hopeful kid with who he is now. Sometimes he thinks that he will be broken forever.

"Jared."

The sound of his name startles him. He turns to see Jensen staring at him with wide, concerned eyes. He looks down and notices that he's right on the ledge. He moves back swiftly and levels Jensen with a questioning look.

"It was rude of me to leave like that, so I came back. Your neighbour said you were up here." He says it so simply that Jared almost laughs. Still, if he's going to somehow pull Jensen into some pseudo-relationship, he has to behave like he normally would.

"No, I get it - you don't need to hear about whatever romantic notions I have. We don't even know each other. Not really. This was a stupid idea."

"Jared, it wasn't stupid, it was...is...pretty overwhelming," Jensen admits. Jared stares at him, unsure if the other man realises that he's not doing a great job of reassuring him right now.

"What I mean is that, for some reason, we've clicked - even back at Traci's - and I admittedly figured we'd hook up and that would be that. But then you weren't interested. And then you confided in me. You told me all of that stuff and it was nice..."

Jared continues to stare at him. He tries hard to come up with some kind of witty statement, a way to laugh it off, but it doesn't happen. And that's stupid because none of this is real. All of these emotions are just for show.

“I didn't mean nice nice,” Jensen clarifies. “What you went through isn't nice. Just...someone actually confiding in me was nice. Not many people do that. I can't blame them either. I'm always busy or focused on work, but still, it's not like I don't care.”

Jared's brain finally comes back online and he smiles weakly. “So you're a shrewd business man who cares? Huh. I didn't see that coming.” It's not the best response but it's better than blubbing all over Jensen again.

Jensen rolls his eyes good naturedly. “I have to be tough at work. I just kind of wish that my friends would actually trust me enough to be there for them. My best friend moved out of state without telling me because she didn't want to bother me. How fucked up is that?”

“To play devil's advocate here, maybe you haven't made a good job of making yourself available,” Jared says. “My best friend is...he's always there for me, y'know. To the point where sometimes I wish he wasn't.”

The last part really rings true. If he wasn't friends with Chad, he wouldn't be standing here right now, with what he's pretty sure are some messed up but nonetheless romantic feelings for his friend’s boss.

“I wish I could be there for my friends, and you...wish your friends weren't there for you?” Jensen says. “What a pair we make. Seriously, though, I guess what I'm saying is that if you'd like, I'd like to be your friend.”

Friend.

It's a step forward, but Jared can't help wishing that they were a couple of steps ahead.

Friends?” Chad splutters in disbelief when Jared catches him up the next day. They're at some busy burger joint, a place that Audrey wouldn't be caught dead in thankfully. “Jared, we're not doing this just for Jensen to put you in the friend zone. The wedding is in less than two weeks. Two weeks!”

Jared sighs to himself. He's starting to think that past this wedding, Chad really hasn't thought about his life at all. This deep fixation on the wedding is starting to bother him, but at the same time, he's not Chad's mother. All he has to do is put the wheels in motion and turn up for the free food and open bar.

“Last time I checked, we're not doing this – I am.” he replies. “And considering that I finally have a job, I'm officially using my free time to help you.”

Chad's head snaps up as he takes his eyes off his burger. “A job? What? Where? Tell me everything! Is it weird that I feel like a proud parent now? Wait, wait – tell me what it is first. If you're stripping, I'm going to feel like a disgraced parent.”

Jared snorts. “Thanks, Dad. It's just a kind of freelance accounting job for a local chain of grocery stores. And I put an ad on Craigslist for people who need money managers and all of that, so maybe something will come from that.”

At first Chad just watches him curiously, but eventually he smiles slowly. “That's actually kind of perfect for you. You get to do what you're good at without the whole high pressure office climate. I'm happy for you, bud.”

“Imagine what my parents would say?” Jared says with a wry smile. He doesn’t need to imagine it, he can already picture the sneering and snide comments on his Dad’s part and his mom quietly wringing her hands in shame.

“Hell, the way I see it, this is you starting your own business,” Chad replies. “Your dad should know a thing or two about that. And...maybe you could call him?”

The mere thought has Jared tensing up so hard that his shoulders lock. He’s too stubborn to call his father, the same way his father is too stubborn to ever call him. They’ve always been alike. It was why working together was so perfect. They had the same vision, the same ideas, and they supposedly wanted the same things. Except, when Jared started to carve out his own identity, he realised that the way he and his father got the things that they wanted differed dramatically. Jared’s father let his head rule him at all times and in Jared’s case...well, it might be an uneven mixture of head and heart.

“I do call him, Chad,” he answers. “Or rather, I call my mom and ask of him. He’s the one who...said and did the things that he did. I can’t keep on giving him a chance to kick me down. It’s not healthy.”

“I just worry about you, man,” Chad tells him. “We can hang out whenever now but after the wedding things’ll be different. You’ll have the other guys, sure...but it won’t be the same.” He can hear what Chad’s hinting at, detects the unasked question.

He shrugs. “I’ll be fine on my own, Chad. Trust me.” Chad nods silently but he looks as convinced as Jared feels.

The next time Jared sees Jensen is a pure accident. Steve, the owner of the grocery chain, calls him and all but begs him to help out at the main store. There’s some kind of family emergency and it’s clear that he’s desperate enough to ask him for help, so Jared can’t say no. That’s why he finds himself glaring at a cash register at five past midnight. Luckily for him, this is the night shift and the customers are far and few between because he’s about ready to take a hammer to the damn thing. He knows that the store isn’t too well off financially, but they seriously need a major upgrade if they want to keep afloat.

He’s just about to go back to drawing up his plans for that when someone approaches the counter. He looks up and has to smile at the irony of it all. And then he remembers that he’s supposed to be portraying a particular kind of image in order to win Jensen over. Hard working cashier is probably not what he should be going for.

“What is it about us and the early hours of the morning?” Jensen asks as he sets down his items. There’s a frozen pizza, a multi pack of gum and a couple of cans of soda. Just a regular late night shopping run. Jensen’s watching him expectantly; Jared feels his face flush and he figures that he needs to do some damage control here.

“Technically, I’m here as a favour,” he says hurriedly. He laughs nervously. “I don’t actually work here.” He winces at the discomfort in his voice and can already tell that Jensen’s not going to let it slide.

“Uh, okay?” Jensen says. He looks confused for a few seconds before his expression clears up and he seems to come to a realisation. “Do I seem like the kind of guy that would judge someone for working in a grocery store?”

Judging by the way Jensen’s face darkens, Jared’s sure that any answer he gives will be redundant.

“You drive a Ferrari and I ride a bicycle…” Jared’s words sound lame even to him and he seriously has to wonder what it is about Jensen that makes him trip over his words. Why is it that after years of putting on a front with people, he somehow can’t do it when he really needs to. He ignores the voice in his head that’s saying, ‘because you actually like him, idiot’ in favour of saying, “Look, I get it. That’s the nature of what you do. You know, the evil corporate world looking down on the little guys.”

“That’s bullshit,” Jensen snaps. “You can’t just generalise everyone working in a corporate environment. Not all of us are assholes. Maybe you shouldn’t listen to everything that people tell you.”

Jared is momentarily taken aback. Technically, Jensen’s right, he shouldn’t generalise but this is stuff that he’s seen first-hand. So he’s not entirely wrong in his opinion. Despite that, he decides not to rock the boat.

“You’re right, I’m sorry for...judging you,” he says sheepishly. “I used to work in a very cutthroat environment. It was a family business kind of thing, and I made a mistake and...it got ugly. Even before that, it probably wasn’t the place for me...but you’re right. It’s not like every single business is exactly like the one I worked at.”

Jensen seems to soften upon hearing Jared’s words. He nods in understanding. “I’ve been there. Definitely not with family, though. You could not pay me enough to work with someone I actually need to be able to look in the eye outside of work. Still, yeah, we’re going to have shitty experiences - with or without family. It’s not the end of the world. It doesn’t give anyone the right to judge you.”

He makes it sound so simple. All of the emotions and self-doubt that Jared’s struggled with over the years have been related to what he perceives as failure but....it isn’t the end of the world.

“Yeah, well, when you put it like that it sounds all fine and dandy,” Jared replies. “Doesn’t feel like that.”

“It’s up to you to do something about that - and yeah, it sucks, but heck, so do a lot of things. Wait, did you just say ‘fine and dandy’?”

The fact that Jensen’s joking around makes Jared breathe a sigh of relief. At least he hasn’t pissed him off royally. He can only imagine what Chad would say if this crumbled down around him.

“I like to shake things up every now and then,” he says. “Anyway, you don’t want to be listening to my inner crisis at midnight.”

"It beats being alone at midnight." Jensen grimaces almost immediately and shakes his head. For a second he looks deeply unsure of himself, like he's a blank wall stripped of paper leaving all to see the cracks and imperfections. The mask slips back on soon and he levels Jared with a small grin. "And let's just pretend that I didn't say that. I think I'm getting wistful in my old age."

"Dude, you're not old," Jared laughs, even though he's definitely had that thought more than once. "And you're right, it does beat being alone. Speaking of alone...you still owe me a do over from the other night."

It doesn't bode well that they couldn't even make it through one dinner together, but either way, that’s not what this is about.

"As friends?" Jensen queries. Jared barely refrains from exhaling deeply. Maybe it's the late hour, but he's getting a little frustrated by this back and forth thing that they're doing.

Jared shrugs. "That's up to you. I think that it's obvious that we have some kind of connection here. And I can sense that you've been hurt before, but it's like you said, shit happens. If we start something and it goes wrong, it isn't the end of the world."

"Oh, you're good," Jensen says. "Using my own words against me. Nice."

He doesn't seem upset though, more faintly amused than anything.

"I'm just keeping it real with you," Jared says. He glances down at the items on the counter. "Anyway, are you still buying this stuff? I'm gonna lock up now. We close at twelve thirty."

Jensen nods and Jared rings up the items. After going through a battle with the register, he accepts the money and hands over the receipt. Their fingers brush and all of that picturesque, electric spark shit from the movies happens.

Only this time, it's real.

Their eyes meet and Jared swallows audibly. After a brief moment he clears his throat.

"So, I'll see you..." he trails off, unsure where exactly he'll be seeing Jensen. There's no way that he's making the coffee shop in the morning. He needs his beauty sleep.

"Your place is kinda far from here. I can give you a ride home if you want." His place is twenty minutes away max, but he can read Jensen like a book. Whether or not Jensen's taking this seriously or still hoping to get lucky is the part that he's not sure about.

"That depends - will you be driving the Ferrari or the Mercedes?"

Jared mentally scolds himself for flirting so soon after their awkward moment. It’s not like their conversation can get any more uncomfortable. They’ve already reached the maximum capacity.

"Whichever one you want," Jensen says hesitantly, like he knows that his answer is slightly ridiculous.

His tongue flips out and wets his lips, and Jared's libido kicks in. He wonders if this whole charade will be worse if he gives in and at least makes out with Jensen. Just a little. Making out isn't really the problem though, it's whether or not he'll be strong enough to stop. Right now that doesn't seem likely. He practically has 'YES!' all over his forehead, like something out of an Herbal Essences commercial.

And that only means one thing.

"You told him that I had some kind of plumbing emergency. At one in the morning?" Sandy is staring at him blearily, like she thinks he's the world's biggest idiot. "And not only that, you're fake dating him so that Chad can have his dream wedding on a specific day?"

Well, when she puts it like that….

"I know, I'm an idiot." He got Jensen to drop him off here when the tension between them increased tenfold. Jensen kept shooting him these looks and Jared just panicked. That led to him faking a call and running into Sandy’s apartment at one a.m. and blurting everything out because his brain apparently stopped working momentarily.

Sandy frowns. "Actually, this isn't a bad idea. Hell, if you don't get his boss to come, then there's no wedding. That's perfect."

"No, it's not, Sandy, and remember, I've been there - the more we try to stop him, the more he'll resist." Sandy rolls her eyes as she stifles a yawn.

"Jared, I love you, but, I need you to get over yourself. Chad’s doing this for the wrong reasons. You're doing this for the wrong reasons. And yeah, you were married, she broke your heart blah, blah, blah. Honey, you're gay, it wouldn't have worked out either way. As for Chad's boss, if you want to fuck his brains out then fine. It's not too late to make this right."

"But---"

Sandy holds up a finger and waggles it. "No buts. Either you crash on the couch or go home. I'm going back to bed."

Jared pouts as she vanishes upstairs.

There's no chance to touch base with Chad before the dinner do-over so the following day, Jared takes a cab to the extremely nice neighbourhood that Jensen lives in. This part isn't unusual, hell, he did this with his ex, except he knew what he was getting out of that (mostly) and he wasn't dating him due to ulterior motives. Coming here almost feels wrong, like a step too far. His stomach is jittery and he’s nauseated.

"You look terrible." Jared's momentarily startled by Jensen's words when he opens the door before he realizes that he's merely parroting Jared's greeting from the other night.

"Terribly handsome, right?" he jokes. "It's a gift." Jensen's laugh is nervous is awkward and there's a part of him that just thinks fuck it.

There's no upside to any of this besides the attraction, and hell, what does he have to lose? He waits for the door to close behind him before he pounces, crowding Jensen by the hallway wall. He leans in slowly and kisses him. There's a lack of urgency and Jared revels in the way the sweetness clashes with the bitterness embroiled in his chest. And then Jensen presses deeper and all thoughts of guilt fly out of the window. All he can focus on the hot sting of Jensen's mouth on his.

Eventually, Jensen's the one to pull back. Jared steps back slowly.

"We should probably stop," Jensen says. He's right. They should. This is so very reckless on Jared's part, but Sandy's carefree advice sticks with him. Maybe this doesn't have to be about Chad or anyone else. Just them. He can pretend that they met each other randomly; that they're two strangers.

He can pretend but it won’t be true.

“So, that happened,” he says stupidly. “Uh, sorry. For just attacking you like that.” He genuinely means it too. Given that he actually likes Jensen, and what he knows about the man, the less emotionally scarring this situation is, the better. He doesn’t want to be the reason why Jensen never trusts anyone ever again.

“Hey, I’ve been putting the moves on you since the charity benefit,” Jensen replies smoothly. “And I’m glad to see that my hard work has finally paid off.” He’s saying the right thing, has the right amount of mirth and seriousness in his eyes, but there’s something else there. A hint of uncertainty that Jensen’s probably not aware he’s exhibiting.

“Well, all I could think about on the way over was kissing you so...yeah.” It’s not a lie, which is the worst part. That Jared’s fallen so easily isn’t even a surprise. This is what he does; he attaches himself to people and sets himself up for the inevitable fall.

“Don’t overthink it, I’m hoping for a repeat after dinner,” Jensen says before he turns and walks into his - extremely expensive looking - apartment. Jared follows silently, his eyes widening with each step that he takes. The design of the apartment is very minimalist. All white with some abstract decor. It looks good but manages to feel bereft and... sterile.

“I have this amazing kitchen that I never use, so I thought we’d eat here.” Jensen’s talking when Jared tunes back in. Jared smiles and nods, hoping that he hasn’t missed anything important. There’s a picture on the fridge that catches his eye. It’s a picture of an obscure band that Jared only knows of by chance.

“Seventies one hit wonder, ‘Fridge’, who had a hit single with their song ‘Chill’,” Jared says. “It’s super weird that you have this. My ex had a disturbing obsession with that song.”

Jensen’s eyes darken for a brief moment and Jared cringes inwardly. Jensen doesn’t comment though, just gives him a noncommittal shrug. Jared waits because it’s clear that Jensen wants to say something. So he’s content with taking a seat at the nicely laid out table as Jensen ambles around the kitchen and grabs a couple of plates.

He’s proved right when Jensen sets them down and says, “Your ex-wife is a Fridge fan?” He looks so damn curious that Jared can’t help laughing. Jensen glares at him and he sobers up quickly.

“No, not her…another ex,” Jared answers. “A guy ex.”

Mark would probably shudder in disgust if he heard Jared referring to him in such terms. It’s funny that he’s been so fixated on Jensen’s commitment issues, when he dated someone like Mark for two years.

“And there was me thinking that life ended the day you got divorced,” Jensen replies. It’s a little rude, although, Jared can’t tell how serious Jensen is due to the indifference of his tone. That doesn’t do anything to temper his instant reaction, though.

“I never said it did,” he snaps. “And I’m not the one living in an apartment that clearly was meant for someone else.”

If anything, the apartment looks like it wasn’t meant for anyone, but the words fly out before Jared can stop them.

“Just because I didn’t decorate my damn place, it doesn’t mean that someone else did,” Jensen retorts angrily. His eyes narrow, almost like he’s searching for words that will have the maximum effect possible. “Unlike you, I haven’t been hung up on an ex for almost a decade.”

“Real nice, Jensen. Use my bullshit to score points in this dumb argument we’re having,” Jared spits back. “Sounds like someone’s jealous.”

Guilt flashes in Jensen’s eyes and Jared is stunned to find that Jensen really is jealous. It’s fucking hilarious too, because Jared’s disastrous love life is nothing to be jealous of.

“Forgive me for not wanting to hear about your exes on our date,” Jensen says finally. Jared just raises an eyebrow. “And yes, I realise how ridiculous I’m being. Sorry...I’m just...not used to liking someone enough to do all of this.”

He gestures at the table and Jared sighs, shakes his head fondly before saying, “Just shut up and feed me. I’m fucking starving.”

Jensen huffs out a disbelieving laugh but he doesn’t argue.

Dinner is pretty damn amazing. It’s Chicken Fettuccine Alfredo and Jared’s torn between asking Jensen if he actually cooked or just commending him on the meal. In the end, he goes with the latter, it’s probably better that he be gracious and thankful.

“This is really good!” he says, wincing slightly when he hears the weird overexcited timbre of his voice.

“Thanks,” Jensen says. “Actually...and don’t laugh, but my mom made it. She said she didn’t want me to scare off another guy with my cold, detached, lifeless apartment, and that the least she could do was make something. I should probably be a lot more offended by that than I am.”

Jensen grins at him shyly and Jared recognises that this might be the time for them to have a moment but all he does is blink owlishly and say,

“You told your mom about me?” Jensen’s face takes on a more uncomfortable look and Jared can practically guess what he said.

He’s tempted to say, ‘Let me guess, she said something about you opening your heart and you basically told her that this was probably going to turn out like every other horrible relationship you’ve ever had?’ but he doesn’t want to make this night anymore awkward than it is already.

“Tell me more about your cold, lifeless apartment,” he says instead. “Did it really come pre furnished with all of this...interesting decor or was there another hand at work?”

Jensen shakes his head. “Seriously, there’s no guy or girl that fucked me over enough that I’d live with their influence in my own apartment. It’s just a place that I live in. It’s not that important to me.”

Jared thinks of his own misshapen apartment full of random knickknacks and all of the stuff he’s piled up over the years. He could never really live any other way, not again. However, that doesn’t mean that Jensen’s got to surround himself with junk just to prove that he’s happy.

“If I ever moved in with you, we’d have to add a splash of colour,” Jared replies eventually. “I’m just saying.”

“Yeah...it’s a good thing that I don’t believe in cohabitation then.”

Jared snorts. Fucking typical. Every time he seems to chip away a piece of the wall surrounding Jensen, it’s like an instant builder hops along and plasters over it.

“You are a tough nut to crack,” he says. “I bet you have an answer for everything. A reason not to do something. Or a reason why everyone should do something.”

Jensen shrugs. “It’s called taking charge of your life. I know what I want and what I don’t want. If I happen to share that advice with other people, that’s just me being a good citizen.”

“Telling your date that it basically won’t work out between you is not being a good citizen, it’s you being a dick.” Jared’s response is possibly too honest and sharper than what he was going for, but nowhere in Chad’s plan did it say that he has to listen to this shit.

“We seem to keep coming back to this,” Jensen replies. He pauses and swallows audibly. “And I guess that’s my fault, but you know what - fine. I’ll put aside all of my preconceived notions and give whatever the fuck we’re doing a shot on one condition. You have to call your ex-wife and finally get some closure.”

“What? First of all - hell no, and secondly, how does that make any sense. You’re setting conditions now? What if I don’t want to date you?”

“If that was the case you probably wouldn’t still be sitting here,” Jensen states with an all too knowing smirk. “I’m terrible at dating. Not many people stick around after the pre-dinner argument.”

Despite the fact that somewhere inside of him there are some really weird tenuous feelings for Jensen, right now all Jared wants to do is punch the smirk off his face. He thinks about how snappy Jensen was, even after the impromptu making out, and he slowly begins to realise something. That wasn’t Jensen being an asshole - okay, part of it was - it was mainly a defence mechanism.

Jared regards Jensen curiously and asks, “What’s your excuse?”

“My excuse for what?” Jensen picks up his glass of red wine and sips at it carefully, almost like he’s trying to hide somewhere.

“For treating people like shit.” There’s an undignified splutter and a thump as the glass hits the table. Thankfully, it lands upright, because he’s not entirely sure what would happen if Jensen spilled red on his pristine white tablecloth.

After taking a moment to regain his composure, Jensen says, “Maybe I just don’t like to do what people expect. It’s what makes me good at my job.”

“So, the idea is to disappoint people before they really get a chance to know you?” Jared’s not just flinging around accusations here - he gets it.

Jensen shrugs. “I guess so. I guess that’s what the plan is.” He looks so uncertain that Jared searches his mind desperately for a way to soften his words. He doesn’t have to look too far because he realises something. Despite the fact that Jensen is infuriating, stubborn and annoying...all he’s done is listen. Besides the whole ‘relationships are stupid’ thing, he hasn’t judged Jared once at all.

“You might want to work on it a little,” he points out, “because you’ve never disappointed me. There’s not one thing that you’ve said to me that makes me think you’re someone that isn’t worth knowing. Or being with.”

Jensen’s quiet for at least minute, with his green eyes boring into Jared’s. It’s like he’s trying to determine how full of shit he is but Jared finds that he doesn’t mind. At this point, it’s just Jensen, this is how he deals with things and... who is he to judge?

Eventually, Jensen clears his throat and says, “Thank you. That...that actually means a lot.”

After that point, the rest of the evening goes pretty well.

The next day, Sandy invites Jared for lunch or as her text puts it ‘to check that you haven’t lost your fucking mind’. He almost chickens out, but after sending an email to his ex-wife, Samantha, asking if they can talk, he decides to go just so he can focus on something else. His dinner with Jensen might have been as mentally strenuous as a two-hour hike, but actually calling Samantha in order to finally get some closure isn’t a bad idea.

And maybe he also wants to do his part of the deal that he has with Jensen. It’s not a real relationship, dumbass. Jared frowns at the thought even though it’s correct. It’s not real. It will never be real. But...maybe it’s progress. Mark was fun and dangerous and... self-destructive on his part. The various one night stands and hook ups were, while enjoyable, just part of the process of getting on with life. The fact that he actually has feelings for someone and doesn’t feel guilty about it - well, besides the whole, fake dating him so my best friend can get married thing - is progress.

After meeting Sandy at her apartment and eating three of her famous ham and cheese paninis, he tells her about said progress and regrets it instantly when she decimates everything he’s just said. And maybe eating three high-carb grilled sandwiches was a bad idea, but he can’t blame the sinking feeling in his stomach on the bloatedness.

“I’m going to kill Chad,” Sandy growls when she takes a break from yelling at him. “And forget what I said before - do not sleep with him. Not if you want to salvage this.”

“Look, what if he just never finds out?” Jared protests. He barely manages to duck in time when Sandy throws a crust at his head. The high from the previous evening has all but evaporated, but...once they got past the awkwardness it was actually a really nice date. In some ways, the fact that they’ve gotten the ugly, unsightly stuff out of the way first made it better. It was easy for him to almost forget that it isn’t real.

“Honey, he’s going to find out,” Sandy declares as she wipes her hands on a paper napkin. “Chad is such an idiot. I don’t even want to go to his stupid wedding. Neither should you - he asked Audrey’s brother to be his best man, for Pete’s sake. What possessed you to agree to this?”

Jared blinks at her. “I’m struggling with this line of conversation because the last thing you said to me was ‘if you want to fuck his brains out then fine’.”

Sandy glares at him. “It was one in the morning and I was hungover. I would have said anything to get you to leave my apartment. Plus, you never listen to my advice. The one time I give you bad advice, you can’t wait to follow it!”

“Fine, fine, you’re right,” Jared admits. “It was a horrible idea. But...I owe it to Chad to get Jensen to his wedding and I can’t do that and be honest at the same time.”

Sandy shakes her head at him sadly. “Look, the rest of us have our opinions on Chad and the way he’s helped you, but...have you ever stopped and thought about what he’s asking you to do and why?”

It sounds like there’s something that she’s not telling him, but Jared doesn’t want to accuse anyone falsely.

He just wants this damn wedding to be over and done with.

The next time he sees Jensen, they’re meeting up for a late dinner at Jared’s favourite burger joint. It feels weird being here with Jensen and not Chad like he usually is, but it’s a good weird. Jensen’s still in his work clothes, and he looks stressed enough that Jared doesn’t ask. His job for tonight is to take Jensen’s mind off whatever’s bothering him.

“Do you come to this place often?” Jensen asks as he flips through the menu. It’s almost midnight, and luckily for them, the place isn’t too packed. It’s occupied by young people, mostly. College kids on late night food runs and high schoolers whose parents have afforded them lenient curfews. Sometimes Jared comes here with his friends or alone. It helps him when he needs to get out of his apartment and think.

“Probably a lot more often than I should,” he admits when he realises that Jensen’s waiting for an answer. “Luckily my friend Sandy has a gym at her apartment building that she lets me sneak into.”

Jensen smiles in amusement at Jared’s words. “Sandy? She’s the one that had the plumbing problem, right?” It takes Jared a while to grasp what Jensen means before he finally remembers the fake emergency call he made up when things got too heavy between them. From the mischievous glint in Jensen’s eyes, he knew that it was a lie then and he knows now.

“Stop looking at me like that,” Jared grumbles, embarrassed at being caught. “We can’t all be smooth and irresistible like you. Some of us actually get nervous. Especially in a car that expensive and awesome -- you already know how I feel about the car.”

Jared admittedly gets lost in a mental daydream involving himself, Jensen and the 458 Italia, and he only breaks out of it when Jensen sighs morosely.

“I’m beginning to think that you only like me because of that car,” he says mock-seriously. “Besides, it’s our designated heart-to-heart car. Your virtue was safe that night.”

Jared chuckles softly. “Somehow, I don’t quite believe you.” Jensen shrugs wordlessly and goes back to reading the menu. Jared already knows what he wants - large burger with medium fries and some hot wings on the side - but he’s starting to see that Jensen’s the kind of person that makes informed decisions. He doesn’t just go with his gut, he takes in all of the information and then decides.

The way he decided that doing this with Jared was worth it.

It makes Jared feel guilty, but that’s par for the course with them, it’s always going to be a dark cloud hanging over his head. What scares him the most is how comfortable he feels around Jensen. Even when they’re having tough conversations, he just has this feeling, like whatever he says is being taken in and processed. Like every word matters.

“What do you normally order when you’re here?” Jensen asks. He flips the black and red menu shut and tosses it onto the table. Jared rattles off his usual order and flags the waitress down when Jensen asks for the same. He tries not to read too much into the fact that Jensen perused the entire menu and decided that he trusted Jared’s opinion above his own. It’s just normal for people to go with what someone else knows is good.

“So, have you known Sandy for long?” Jensen queries after the server has taken their order. After the uncomfortable moment of jealousy at Jensen’s apartment, Jared decides to answer in earnest.

“I met her when I moved to Chicago,” he says. “I moved here without really knowing anyone so I sort of picked up friends along the way. You would like her. She’s got that whole sarcastic wit thing down to a tee.”

“Oh, like sarcastic wit isn’t an enviable trait,” Jensen responds when Jared’s done talking. His accompanying smirk dims as he continues, “My best friend, Danneel, moved out of town a few years back. It sucks not having her here, especially when my other friends aren’t as understanding about my fucked up hours at work.”

Jared winces sympathetically. “Sorry, man. I know how that is. When I was married, I was never there because of work and...I guess that contributed to the divorce.”

“I guess that’s just life,” Jensen replies. “A series of events that are sometimes beyond our control.”

There’s a lull in the conversation after Jared can only bring himself to nod and he’s grateful when their food finally arrives. He watches in amusement as Jensen lines up his knife and fork and waits until the other man is about to cut into his burger before he speaks,

“Dude, this isn’t exactly Acadia, no one’s going to judge you for using your hands.”

“Have you been to that place?” Jensen asks curiously. “I took my mom there for her birthday and we got the ten course meal. It was great and all, but we were there for three hours. Still, I guess it was good value for money.”

Jared tries his best not to blush because he can barely afford this place, let alone a restaurant with two Michelin stars.

“Uh, no, I haven’t. I’ve heard good things about it though.”

He can hear the weirdness in his voice and sees that Jensen is frowning slightly so he laughs nervously and adds, “Truth be told, most of my dinner choices don’t really vary too much. Ramen is my friend.”

It’s honest, more honest than he wants to be, but he can’t seem to help himself.

“Well then, I guess you and I will have to go there sometime,” Jensen says without missing a beat. He sounds genuine too, like it’s really something worth considering. Despite the dubious nature of their relationship, Jared finds that the sentiment makes him feel good. He feels wanted, and appreciated; it almost makes him sick to his stomach.

Instead, he pushes down the nausea and doubt and tries to embrace the feeling because he knows that it’s going to hurt when this is all over. When Jensen knows the truth and he sends Jared packing; the sting will be visceral and real and he’s going to deserve every single second of it.

Two days after their late night dinner, Jared’s going through his files on the store and editing the plan he has for Steve. It mostly involves basic stuff - less promotional deals on low end items and less of a Noah’s Ark approach to restocking. There's a ping from his computer and Jared automatically clicks on it. The name on top of his inbox makes him freeze. Samantha Roberts. He drags the cursor to the new email but pauses before clicking it. He's not sure if he can. Luckily, his phone rings and he's saved from potentially having his heart broken once again.

"Hey, what's up," Jensen says when Jared answers. "You free tonight?"

Free for what, Jared wonders. They've traded a few texts during the day; mostly flirty banter. Chad also texted him with, 'you asked him yet?' and the guilt returned in droves. The wedding is in under a week and he has no idea how to ask Jensen. He could just make it sound like a date but...isn't that too obvious? Chad doesn't seem to think so, and really, he's starting to annoy the fuck out of him.

"Jared?" Jensen's voice sounds in his ear again and Jared snaps out of his thoughts. "You okay?"

Jared clears his throat. "I'm good, man. And yeah, I guess I'm free. Why, did you want to do something?"

"Can I come over to your place?" Jensen asks. "Couple of friends of mine invited me out for drinks but...I'm not really in the mood."

"Sure, you can," Jared tells him softly. "I'll be here."

When his doorbell goes off five minutes later, he frowns as Sandy and Katie stand on his doorstep with a bottle of wine in tow.

"What are you doing here?" he hisses. "I'm busy." Sandy scoffs and pushes past him, with Katie hot on her heels. Jared pinches the bridge of his nose as he exhales deeply. He can tell that this is going to be a long night. He shuts his door and makes his way back into the living room to see that Sandy and Katie have made themselves at home.

"Okay, so, not only am I pissed that you didn't tell me about Chad's plan, I'm worried about you," Katie says. She stops to look around the room. "Wait. Did you actually clean up your apartment? Maybe Chad had the right idea."

"Uh, no, it is a monumentally bad idea," Sandy snaps. "This isn't some teen movie, it's real life. And Jared's actually fallen for Chad's boss."

Jared's protests die when he sees the matching sympathetic looks on both their faces. He's already lying to himself, he might as well just give it up before they dissect every single thing that he says.

"Even if I do like him, it doesn't matter," he tells them. "I just need to get him to agree to go to the wedding. That's it." It sounds incredibly hollow even to him, but neither of them understand that Chad is the only person who's been there for him.

Sandy rolls her eyes. "Chad can take the day off. Or quit if he's really dead set on that day. Did you even stop to think about why he's asking you to do this?"

It's the second time that she's hinted at an ulterior motive but Jared can't bring himself to contemplate one. Not right now. His phone buzzes before he can respond and he picks it up to see that he has a new message from Jensen. Who's on his way over.

Shit.

"Look, you guys can't be here right now," he says. "Jensen's coming over. And I know that you have good intentions, but I'm doing this. Chad might have his reasons but...he's the only family I have. I owe it to him."

Katie only knows the Cliff Notes about his past but Sandy knows it all. Jared wishes that meant she would drop it but he knows her.

Sandy is predictably relentless. "If Chad was your family, how is this any different than what your ex father-in-law did? The only question is, what do you stand to lose this time? Last time it was your wife and money. This time, your dignity seems to have gone, so...what's left, Jared?"

Her words sting deep and he just sighs and points toward the door. Sandy seems to realise what she said but Jared cuts her off with, "I think both of you should leave."

They do so silently, leaving Jared with a mess of files in front of him.

That's how Jensen finds him an hour later when he shows up with a leather folder in tow. Jared ushers him in quickly and leaves Jensen in the living room while he regains his composure in the kitchen. By the time he makes it out, Jensen's in the middle of a tense phone call. He smiles apologetically and moves to take the call in Jared's hallway.

Jared slumps onto his couch miserably. He has to somehow put a brave face on while Jensen's here. Keep things smooth enough to ensure that he's in the best position to ask him to the wedding. He leans over the table to grab his computer when his eye catches on some files spilling out of Jensen's folder. He glances at them closely for a minute and freezes when he sees the name PKI Insurance. That's...no...

Fuck.

Jensen's working with his dad's company? That's beyond him doing this to help Chad. It's fucked up.

"Hey, sorry about that. The higher ups are all over my ass because of this merger," Jensen says when he comes back in, “They don't pay me enough for this bullshit."

It’s said with a wry smile that comforts Jared somehow.

"Dude, you drive a Ferrari," he says. "You're not exactly slumming it."

It's amazing how normal he sounds when inside the nervousness and fear is churning in his stomach, just waiting to bubble over and out of the surface.

Jensen rubs at the back of his neck and drops next to Jared on the couch. It's a little too close but Jared doesn't pull away. If anything he leans in, tries to seek whatever comfort that he can. Despite their make out session the other day, intimacy has been slim in this weird relationship they've been building up to.

"Actually, my mom got me that car," Jensen admits. He looks wistful, like there's a story behind it and Jared wonders if it's bad that he really wants to hear it. He can hear Sandy in his head telling him to put a stop to this madness now, but he ignores it and decides to just listen. He owes Jensen that much. "I think it was her way of making up for my childhood."

Jared meets Jensen's eyes. "Did something bad happen?"

Jensen shakes his head and looks down. "No, uh...it was just me and her. And you know what kids are like, I was so curious about my Dad. She told me that he was this huge rock star. Y'know, the lead singer of Fridge. And she's a record exec, so I believed her. Until one day she broke down and admitted that my real dad lives in Burbank with a wife and three kids."

"That's rough," Jared replies. "Least you got a sweet car out of it. Is that why you keep that picture?"

"I think I'd take a strong role model over a car," Jensen says solemnly. "I used to be so angry with this man for leaving us. I still am in some ways. I keep that picture because it reminds me of a time when I was actually kind of proud of this idea in my head about who my father was. Sometimes I look at it and for a second, I'm less bitter. Less...damaged."

"You're not bitter and you're not damaged, you're just a guy who had a tough break," Jared says. "My Dad was around and it didn't do me much good. It's different for everyone."

He knows that it isn't the same but he's never been one to think that being brought up by a single parent means that the kid ends up damaged. Sure, it's hard, but...everyone's situation is different. From what he can see, Jensen's mom has done a pretty good job.

"Thanks," Jensen says softly. "And I'm sorry for the other night. For imposing that condition on you. That was really fucking awful of me. It's not up to me to decide when you get closure."

"Apology accepted," Jared says, immediately deciding that it’s best they change subjects lest he end up crying again.. "Should we watch a movie or something? I feel like we've used up all of our heart-to-heart quotas for today."

Jensen looks at him for a touch too long and Jared knows that he isn't done just yet.

"Something's up," Jensen says. "What is it?"

Jared moves away, finally puts some distance between them. "Just my friends ragging on me over some stuff. It's not a big deal."

Jensen doesn't look convinced but he drops the matter and they spend the rest of the evening watching the Taken series

From: Samantha <samwil@gmail.com>

To: Jared <jayp82@gmail.com>

Subject: RE: Hey

Hi Jared!

Wow. It’s been years…

I have to admit that I don’t really know what to say. I’m sorry for how things went down. I heard about you ‘coming out’ in passing and figured that you were dealing with enough things without me adding to it.

I’m glad that you’re doing well. I am sorry for the way we left things. I was young and naive back then, too busy playing the role of Daddy’s Little Girl. What we did to you and your family was wrong.

You said that you’d like to talk and I think that’s a good idea. Here’s my number if you want to call: 214-567-1614. If not, I understand.

All the best,

S

“Delete it.” That’s Chad’s terse response when Jared shows him Samantha’s email.

The response was much better than Jared expected it to be. Although, chances are that she isn’t as hung up on everything as he is, probably because she wasn’t the one who inadvertently stabbed her family in the back. Still, given the acrimonious way that things ended, her civil tone does wonders to keep Jared from freaking out. He's not sure that he wants to call, but somehow her apology is something that he needed.

"I'm not going to delete it," he informs Chad. "I'm glad that I emailed her. It beats moping around over shit that happened years ago."

Chad stirs his coffee methodically, eyes firmly on the marble countertop. They're at his place to catch a game, although, Jared doesn't particularly want to be here. He shifts from where he’s leaning against a cold wall; the ridge digs into his back but he can’t bring himself to position himself anywhere else. The only reason he accepted the invite is because Audrey isn't here and he's aware that they won't hang out as much when the wedding finally happens.

"Who told you that stirring this up would be a good idea?" Chad asks him when he finally looks up. "Have you forgotten what it does to you?" There's an odd timbre to his voice that makes Jared feel even more uncomfortable. Given all that Sandy has been inferring about Chad, he's starting to have his own suspicions.

Jared hasn't forgotten, but if anything he's finally realising that the past is the past and he can't keep living there. This isn't Castaway and he's not Tom Hanks; he doesn't have to remain trapped in a personal hell of his own making. He's starting to think that Chad enjoys seeing him flounder and move through life like he's weighed down by molasses. That Chad gets some kind of kick out of the fact that Jared always has to rely on him.

"Something Jensen said got me thinking about all of it and I decided to just, bite the bullet. Say what's on my mind. Who knows, maybe I'll fly home and try and figure things out with my family."

The thought isn't conscious until he voices it but he realizes that's exactly what he wants to do. He wants to talk through all that happened, resolve the conflict and finally put it behind him. And if that doesn't work at least he can hold his head up high and say that he tried.

"You told Jensen about your fucking life story?" Chad snaps. His coffee mug almost topples over and Jared watches as the brown liquid ripples roughly. He imagines that something similar is about to happen to him and Chad. "That wasn't what you were supposed to do!"

Jared frowns, suddenly angry at Chad 's flippant tone. "Yeah? What the fuck was I supposed to do huh? Whore myself out so that he’d come to your damn wedding?"

"You weren't supposed to fall for him!" Chad shouts. "Dammit, Jared, I won't help you through another bout of heartbreak. This was supposed to be about you helping me. Me. Your best friend. Not your fucking dick."

"Are you kidding me?" Jared snaps. Not for the first time, he wonders why he ever agreed to this. The worst part is that he only has himself to blame; he never should have agreed to this in the first place. "Jensen doesn't deserve this, Chad. But I went through with it anyway. I'm pretty sure that he'd go to your damn wedding if I asked, but before I do that, I need you to tell me what the real reason behind this is."

There's a sound of a car reversing in the driveway and the echo of voices in the background. Harmless, innocuous chatter that makes Jared wish his life was simpler. That he wasn’t standing in his best friend’s kitchen wondering if he’s been used once again.

It takes Chad a long time to answer but all he says is, "You know the reason. I just want to get married to my girl on the day that she wants." His eyes are wide and there’s a nervousness about him. He wrings his hands and smiles pathetically, like that’s a justifiable reason for any of this.

He's lying.

And Jared realises that there’s only one thing that he can do.

For their next 'date', Jensen brings him to Traci's. They initially meet up at Jensen's apartment, which, despite the awful decor, seems to have some kind of effect on Jared because there’s another make out session. It’s brought on by a mixture of guilt and dread in his case. He can almost feel himself trying to remember the trace of Jensen’s lips, the weight of his touch; the way he looks at Jared.

Like one last fleeting grasp of something that’s about to fall apart.

“Jared?” Jared snaps out of his head to see Jensen holding the door of the coffee shop open. He vaguely remembers Jensen saying something about Traci wanting to expand her business by creating a wider menu. So he’s surprised to see that the shop is completely empty except for them.

“Where’s everyone else?” he asks once he and Jensen are seated. He’s distinctly aware that this is literally something out of a dating handbook and it makes his chest throb because he did this. He convinced Jensen that relationships were worth it. He’s responsible for whatever happens when they leave Traci’s, and that makes him feel like shit.

He’s tired of disappointing people.

“Oh, I asked Traci if we could have the place to ourselves,” Jensen says. “Call it one of the perks of owning the building.”

At Jared’s enquiring look, Jensen continues, “Traci’s former landlord put this place on sale without giving her any notice. I acted rashly and kind of just bought it. My mom was so pissed. But I don’t regret it. Plus, I get all the free coffee I could possibly want.”

Considering that Jared initially thought Jensen was a total asshole, he finds it ironic that the roles have reversed so drastically.

“I…I have something to tell you,” Jared begins shakily. He clears his throat and starts shredding the napkin placed in front of him. “And before I do, I just want you to know that everything I told you was the truth.”

The smile on Jensen’s face wipes away slowly, like a broken shutter slowly giving way. He frowns and takes a sip of his water. They haven’t ordered yet, not that Jared knows what Jensen’s plans were. All he knows is that he can’t keep up with this charade anymore.

“Go on.” Jensen’s words are direct. Simple. Jared wishes that what he’s about to say is as elementary.

“I have this friend and he asked me to do something,” Jared says. He looks down at the table, eyes firmly on the chipped wood. He steels his nerves and continues, “I agreed because I owe him. Like, seriously owe him. After that business with my ex-wife, I made a lot of bad choices.”

“You don’t have to explain that to me,” Jensen interjects. “It won’t change the way I look at you.” There’s a clatter from the back of the coffee shop and Jared snorts to himself. If only he knew.

“It’s…look, just let me say this and then…you can come in,” he replies quickly. “I’m friends with Chad Michael Murray. And I guess that you know he’s getting married on Friday. He gave me this story about how you wouldn’t give him the day off. He said that if I could somehow charm you into attending that he’d help me financially. I was desperate enough to agree.”

Jensen is quiet for a long time and by the time Jared looks up, the other man’s eyes are emotionless and closed off. He braces himself for the outburst but there isn’t one. Jensen merely takes another sip of water.

Eventually he says, “I’m guessing that you’ve figured out the real reason, because Chad sure as hell sold you a line of pure premium bullshit.”

There’s no anger or malice in his tone, just quiet indifference.

Jared swallows audibly. “I had my suspicions when I saw ‘PKI Insurance’ on one of your files. That’s...my dad’s company and I know about his business dealings; he likes to get rid of people with underhanded tactics. My guess is that you’re going to be a casualty of the merger and what better reason than you messing around with the son who cost the company millions of dollars.”

“I would be a liability,” Jensen states. “You know, I would never have thought that Murray of all people was smart enough to pull off something like this.”

“I’m really sorry.”

Jared’s apology hangs limply in the air, unclaimed and lifeless. The words are meaningless, an empty gesture in the face of betrayal.

“I’m a big boy, I’ll live,” Jensen says with a shrug. “Now…dinner?”

Jared head snaps up quickly because Jensen can’t be serious. They’re not about to sit there and pretend that any of this okay. He can tell that Jensen’s hurt. It’s written in the rigid lines of his shoulders, the sharp edge of his tense jaw. Jared can’t sit here and pretend anymore.

“Aren’t you going to say anything – get mad or…I don’t know, yell at me? Hell, take a swing. I deserve it.”

Jensen smiles sadly. “My mom always used to tell me to be wary of anyone that was too honest. She said that the chances were that they were trying too hard to conceal something in particular. I know who you are. I saw you come into the charity benefit with Chad. It wasn’t hard to find out your name.

“I didn’t even think anything of it until I heard your friends mentioning Chad’s wedding that day I came over…I was on my way into your building as they were coming out. It didn’t take me too long to figure out that I was the boss that you were fake dating.”

Shit.

Even if that’s what happened, quite a chunk of time passed between Sandy and Katie’s departure and Jensen’s arrival.

Unless....

“…wait, you left those files for me to see on purpose?” Jared hates how appalled he sounds but he can’t help it.

Jensen shrugs. “I wanted to see if you would say anything. You failed the test. Now…can we eat now or are we just going to stick to water? I don’t know about you but I’m kind of hungry. Traci’s gone to all this trouble, so...I can’t just let her down.”

Jensen might not be talking about him, but Jared feels the implication of his words all the same.

Traci emerges from the back as if on cue and Jared is forced to remain silent. The last thing he needs is for her to find out about his deception. Whatever she’s cooked smells really good; he can almost taste the roasted herbs on his tongue alongside the slight tang of bitterness. Jensen makes conversation with her but Jared barely hears what they say. He’s not sure how Jensen can remain so composed after what Jared just told him.

“Are you alright, darling?” Traci asks with concern in her eyes. “You look a little peaky.”

Jared smiles dimly. “I’m just tired. I’ll be fine. Thanks.” She returns his smile and makes her way back into the kitchen area.

“Jensen, I don’t think I can sit here with you and pretend,” he hisses. “Just...tell me what you’re feeling. I don’t know. If there’s any way that I can help you with the merger. I still remember everything from my time at PKI and I can get you information.” Jensen’s eyes twitch at the mention of PKI but he merely shrugs.

“You’re free to leave, Jared. I can tell Traci that you’re not feeling well.”

Before he leaves, Jared tries to convince Jensen to say something, yell or cry, throw food at him but it’s pointless. Jensen’s closed off and not ready to listen.

Five minutes later when he’s trudging home sullenly, he realises that he’s nothing but a coward.

Later that evening, there’s a knock on his door but Jared ignores it. He’s in his worn out Power Rangers t-shirt and pyjama bottoms and not really in the correct state of mind (or dress) for visitors. The hammering continues and the thought of it being Jensen is what propels Jared towards the door.

He deflates inwardly when he sees that it’s Chad.

“Dude, you are the best buddy ever,” Chad says after he pushes past Jared and enters the apartment. “Whoa. You actually tidied this place up? I’m impressed.”

Jared bangs his head against the front door gently before he uses a socked foot to kick it shut. Chad is sprawled on his couch. He’s still in his work clothes; a ruffled navy suit and loose black tie. Jared sits on his worn out armchair gingerly. He’s not sure how to handle this conversation. Does he confront Chad or just let the other man do the talking?

“I was on my way home when Jensen called - said that I could have the day off for the wedding and that he’d come. You did it!” Chad’s enthusiasm doesn’t seem false in any way and Jared can’t help the frown that forms on his face. Is Chad fucking with him right now?

“Uh, you must be pleased,” he acknowledges dumbly. Chad rolls his eyes as if to say duh. Jared blinks at him slowly. He regards Chad for a moment as he thinks over everything that he said to Jensen. Chad was lying to him about all of this - he knows that much. He’s just not sure what part he was lying about.

“Truth be told, I’m just glad that Audrey is getting what she wants,” Chad admits. He scratches at his face and exhales. “And I can finally stop lying to you - you know how I said that she didn’t know? Well, it was her idea. She told me not to tell you because--

“--I would never have agreed.”

Audrey. Dammit. Jared should have known. His instincts have led him astray in the past, but it seems like he was right about her. He’s just not sure about her intentions toward Chad.

“She’s still working for her practice downtown, right?” he asks. If PKI are merging, they’re bound to have lawyers and... that’s how she and Chad met.

“Yeah,” Chad confirms. “Actually she’s working on something to do with the company now. I can’t ask about it. Conflict of interest and all.”

Conflict of interest.

That’s it, Jared realises. That’s how he can save Jensen’s job. If they can prove that PKI were unduly influencing anyone involved in the merger, that could give Jensen’s company leeway if they would rather remain independent. All Jared really needs to do is provide enough of a case that his Dad gets scared and backs out. There’s no way that he’d want any investigators poking through PKI company records.

“Chad, I’m happy for you, but I have to go!”

Chad snorts. “Off to see Jensen? Actually he was really weird on the phone. Is everything okay?”

No, Jared’s inner voice screams. None of this is okay.

“We’re good,” Jared utters quickly as he bends down to grab his tennis shoes. He ties up his shoes and grabs his keys.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa - I cannot let you leave the house like that,” Chad says. “Go and get changed and I’ll drop you off at Jensen’s.”

Jared agrees but only because it’ll take less time than the bus.

Jensen isn’t at home when Jared knocks, so he’s stuck waiting on the veranda by the building. A couple walk past him twenty minutes into his wait and he watches them until the become tiny blobs in the distance. After a moment of contemplation, he pulls out his phone. Samantha forwarded her number with her response, and it had been so easy to just tap it on his phone and save it to his contacts.

When they got married, Jared had inadvertently broken one of the clauses in the contract that he wrote - no emotional conflicts of interest. They all slapped him on the back for that, made their comments about greedy little wives not being able to take what wasn’t theirs. Samantha’s father had been fighting off a takeover from PKI back then and once the ink was on the marriage certificate, PKI was out $5 million and Jared was thrown into a land of disgrace.

He sits here with the streetlights glowing in the distance and wonders if he ever left.

Jared's startled awake when a door open and footsteps sound. He sits up, grimacing when his stiff muscles protest the sudden movement. The sky is a dull grey and there's a slight chill. After he cranes his neck upward and spots Jensen glaring at him, he’s not sure if the cold is weather related. He unfolds his limbs slowly and stands up. Jensen's wearing grey sweatpants and a baggy hoodie and he doesn't look impressed.

"I...I knocked but there was no answer," he says quietly. "I got here at around eleven?"

Jensen's eyes widen at Jared's words. "Have you been here all night?" Jared shrugs and Jensen swears under his breath. He gestures toward his open door and walks back in, leaving Jared to follow him. Jared catches himself eyeing the white walls as he walks in, studiously cataloguing everything like he's making a mental scrapbook of these last moments he'll have with Jensen. There are a few additions on the wall, nothing major just a few watercolour paintings. Jensen disappears into the kitchen before Jared can comment.

Jared's spotted throw pillows and a few more frames before Jensen returns with a bottle of water.

"Here, take this," he says blankly. "Use the john, grab whatever you want from the kitchen and then leave."

"Look, I'm not here to argue," Jared begins. "Chad said that you're coming to his wedding. You...gave him the day off."

Jensen rolls his eyes. "You got what you wanted didn't you? Everybody is getting what they want. It's a beautiful day."

"Chad just wanted you to be at his wedding," Jared explains. "It was Audrey who put him up to it. She’s his fiancée."

Jensen laughs bitterly. "It just gets better. I know who she is. I just didn't think she'd put the squeeze on Chad so soon."

Jared shakes his head. "They've been together for months now. I don't think it started off that way. Anyway, I think I know how I can save your job."

Jensen listens silently as Jared tells him his plan, although his eyes say it all. He clearly thinks that what he's hearing is monumentally stupid. Jared's inclined to agree. It sounded much better in his head than it did out loud.

"I appreciate what you want to do, but I came up with a simple solution. I quit."

Jared frowns. Well. That's one way to solve the problem. Still, it doesn't seem fair.

"So you're just going to let them win?" Jared asks. "You're going to let them push you out?"

Jensen shrugs. "I'm not gonna lie, I enjoy the work. Hell, the money is good. I just don't want to spend the rest of my life sucking up to a bunch of bigwigs in fancier suits than mine. I'm also not the kind of guy to stay where I'm not wanted."

It makes sense. It's a good enough reason to quit a job, but Jared's not convinced.

"I can talk to my dad maybe, get him to see reason."

"What you can do is leave me alone," Jensen snaps. He rubs his forehead gently and drags his hand across his face. He leans against a wall and props his foot up. "I can handle being pushed out of my job and having to deal with my bosses, but what I don't get is you. You came in and said all of that stuff about trusting people. And you seemed so fucking sincere too, but it was all bullshit. Just lies you told so that your best friend could have the day off?

"There are a million ways you could have charmed me. Heck, jumping into bed with me might just have gotten you what you were after. Instead you dug down deep and made me go places that I never go. You made me question myself and I can’t forgive you for that.”

Jared doesn’t really know how to respond to that. Whether or not he should plead his case one more time or just accept Jensen’s words for what they are. A final goodbye; the nail in the coffin that holds the charred remains of their ‘relationship’.

In the end, he whispers yet another apology and he leaves,

It’s the morning of the wedding and Jared’s stuck pre-gaming with alcohol-free Bloody Marys at Sandy’s apartment. Technically, he should be with Chad and make sure that he’s okay but he can’t bring himself to do it. So he sits at Sandy’s breakfast bar and lets her and Katie scold him so more. It’s annoying but nothing that he doesn’t deserve. Plus it finally gives him a chance to ask Sandy what she was hinting at with all of her cryptic statements.

“Wait, you kept hinting at Chad having some kind of ulterior motive,” he says. “If it wasn’t about Jensen what was it?”

Sandy looks up from her phone briefly. “I thought he was after a promotion. And I still maintain that it would make more sense than whatever the hell Audrey was planning to do. Couldn’t they just fire Jensen?”

“Nope,“ Aldis’ voice chimes in from where he’s on loudspeaker. “That’s an unfair dismissal lawsuit right there. I’m still pissed off that neither Chad or Jared told me about this, by the way. I’m good at planning stuff.”

Katie rolls her eyes. “None of us have forgotten about the lack of open bar at your wedding. That screams poor planning to me.”

“My wife made that choice, not me,” Aldis replies. “And based on how much I’ve seen you drink in the past, I think it was the right one.”

Jared laughs despite his otherwise gloomy demeanour. “Are you sure you can’t come, Aldis? Chad might need our moral support.”

Aldis snorts. “I’ve told you all about the comment Audrey made at my wedding, man. Corrinne was not feeling it at all. Besides, you white folks don’t know how to throw a good party anyway.”

“I’ll drink to that,” Katie says along with a mock salute. Her drink sloshes against the side of the glass and Jared almost wishes that it’ll spill on her white cocktail dress, just so that they’re late to the wedding. “Alcohol stinginess aside, your wedding is in my top three of awesome weddings that I have attended.”

“It’s just a fact,” Sandy agrees. She looks up from a phone and glances at the clock. “And we should get going if we don’t want to be late.”

Jared groans inwardly; he can already tell that this is going to be a long day.

They arrive at the hotel, where the ceremony is being held, at around midday. Chad is nowhere to be seen and he hasn't answered any of Jared's texts so they simply tell the ushers their names and are escorted to their seats in the courtyard. Jared’s been to his fair share of wedding since his divorce, and in some ways he’s grateful that he and Samantha only ever had a small ceremony. Chad and Audrey seem to be going in the opposite direction because the courtyard is decorated very nicely.

There are white orchids strewn everywhere and an arch at the front that is illuminated by glowing fairy lights. The aisle is littered with a mixture of red and white flowers, which lie above a long white carpet leading up to the altar. The seating is standard, two columns of ten by ten rows. Jared wonders where the hell Chad and Audrey found so many people to invite. Knowing Audrey, she's probably invited her entire phone book just so she can hand out business cards. He's shaking his head to himself when he finally notices that sitting at the end of the row they were directed to is Jensen.

Unfortunately for him, he’s already more than halfway across the row and Jensen’s already spotted him. The guilt burns even brighter in his stomach because he’s so much of a coward that he hasn’t called, or even texted. He’s been secretly hoping that his betrayal will just melt away so that he never has to face up to what he’s done.

However, he knows that it won’t be that easy.

"Hi," he says stupidly as he takes his seat. Jensen looks good; he's wearing a pale grey suit and slim black tie along with an off-white shirt and silver cufflinks. Jared's also in grey, which is a bitter coincidence. Sandy and Katie start nudging him and he turns to glare at them.

"This is your chance to apologise," Sandy hisses. Katie gives him a thumbs up and he rolls his eyes. Jared really needs to find some friends that are subtle and don’t ask him to whore himself out so they can have a dream wedding.

"He can hear and see you," he says. They both turn to where Jensen is and wave at him unabashedly. Jensen, to his credit, waves back and manages to not look like he wishes he could shoot lasers out of his eyes.

Sandy and Katie start people watching after that and commenting on people’s outfits. Jared’s pretty sure the old man behind them is on a mental ‘young people these days…’ tirade, but he does his best to pretend that he’s not extremely uncomfortable and offers the man a smile. He checks his phone a few times but there’s still nothing from Chad. It’s twenty minutes until the ceremony so maybe Chad’s just got other priorities past checking his notifications.

“So, I take it that you didn’t tell Chad that I quit,” Jensen says from his left. He’s been quiet since they arrived and his voice startles Jared. “Some friend you are.”

“Hey, isn’t that your job,” Jared snaps. “Plus I’ve barely seen him over the past few days. Audrey hates me so I guess I’m officially persona non grata.”

There’s some commotion from the back of the courtyard before Jensen can respond and Jared looks back to see a flash of white. He looks back forward and realises that some of the wedding party are up there. There’s a best man and a...groom that isn’t Chad.

Sandy’s eyes are wide as she says, “Is it me or is there a completely random groom standing up there?”

“What?” Katie blurts out. “Are you telling me that I wasted good money buying a white dress just to piss Audrey off?”

“Okay, how did we miss that?” he asks because it’s a little weird. “Are we at the wrong wedding?” He unlocks his phone and tries to call Chad again but there’s no answer - again.

“No, it looks like I am,” a voice says just as Jensen leans forward and exclaims, “Wait, isn’t that Tom Welling? Oh, wow. It is Tom.”

Jared looks up to see Chad standing by their row, dressed in...jeans and a baggy hoodie. His eyes widen as the bridal march begins to play and the four of them swivel around to watch the procession. The bridesmaids walk up the aisle, closely followed by the flower girls and then...Audrey makes her grand appearance.

Before any of them can say anything, a security guard appears beside Chad and says something into a walkie-talkie.

“Yeah, so, we should probably go…” Jared says when he catches Chad glaring at the farce currently taking place upfront. “Like, now.” He has no idea who this Tom is, but it’s probably better for them to leave quietly.

However, Jensen shakes his head. “Oh, we’re staying for this. I was tricked into attending this wedding so I’m gonna see it through.” He reaches into his jacket pocket and extracts a hundred-dollar bill. The security guard is all too happy to take it and disappear. Jensen scooches towards Jared and allows Chad to drop onto his chair. Jared’s first thought is ‘God, he smells good’ but then he slaps himself mentally and looks over at Chad. He gives his friend a questioning look but Chad shakes his head tiredly.

“Look, Chad, you might not be able to do anything, but Katie and I are ready to fuck Audrey up,” Sandy intones. “This is bullshit. You can’t let her marry someone else on your wedding day.”

Katie sighs wistfully. “Aldis is going to be so mad that he missed this.”

They all turn to look at her.

“What?” she asks nonchalantly. “I’m just saying.”

Jensen leans into Jared slightly, but he doesn’t say anything, just watches on silently. The rest of them seem to follow suit, at least until the minister says:

“Should anyone here present know of any reason that this couple should not be joined in holy matrimony, speak now or forever hold your peace.”

And then all hell breaks loose.

Bizarrely enough, it’s Jensen who stands up first and says, “I know a reason. Just yesterday, I was under the impression that Audrey was marrying a guy called Chad. He went to a lot of trouble to get me to come to this thing.”

“He also paid for the imported chandelier that’s hanging above the happy couple right now,” Chad adds when he joins Jensen. “I’d like it back.”

“I also don’t think this marriage should go ahead because I have it on good authority that Audrey is a lying b--”

Jared jumps up and interjects before that sentence finds its end. “I think what Sandy is trying to say is that, Audrey agreed to marry Chad Michael Murray and...none of us can understand why she’s up there marrying someone else.”

There’s absolute silence from the guests and minister once he’s done talking. Audrey is looking in their direction but there’s a bridal veil on her face so it’s hard to tell what she makes of this. The groom - Tom - looks confused and Jared’s guessing that he’s not fully aware of the truth either.

In the end, the old man from earlier taps his arm and when Jared turns around he says, “I guess this explains why it said ‘You Are Invited to Audrey’s Wedding’ on the invitation.”

Jensen looks back also, his head cocked to one side as he says, ‘Now that you say that, it was kind of weird that Chad’s name wasn’t on the invite.”

Chad glares at them. “Can we leave the Columbo work until after we get the fuck out of here? There’s an open bar that I paid for.”

He turns and leaves with a huff, muttering under his breath as the rest of the guests watch him openly.

Katie zips up her purse and finally stands, smoothing her hands down her dress. “First we’re all going to get drinks and then we’re going to shut down the rest of the wedding.” She moves past Jared and Jensen and follows Chad. Sandy does the same, although she stops long enough to mouth ‘Fix it’ at Jared when Jensen turns away.

“How’s all of that financial help working out for you?” Jensen snarls somewhat cruelly. It’s not undeserved but it’s not like Jared planned any of this. Jensen leaves too and Jared exhales as he watches him go.

He looks back to see Tom and Audrey arguing furiously and he lets his shoulders sag.

“I hope you can live with yourself, Audrey,” he calls out. “I suggest that you leave Chad alone from this point forward. Have a nice life.”

Three hours later, Jared finds himself propping up the bar at the hotel’s dining room. The guests have gone, along with Katie, because she has to work tomorrow and can’t quote-unquote ‘deal with all of this double emotional betrayal bullshit right now’. Sandy sticks around and has been consoling Chad while Jared tries to cancel things and see what the hell Chad can get back. That proves to be kind of difficult when he realises just how ridiculous this entire day was. Returning all of the ‘A&C’ marked napkins is probably not a viable option.

So he gives up on that and orders himself a stiff drink. That’s how Jensen finds him. They haven’t spoken at all since Jensen left the courtyard and Jared’s surprised that he’s still there. After this, Jensen doesn’t really have any reason to stick around.

“I sold my Ferrari.” It’s a little out of left field but part of Jared is just happy that Jensen’s talking to him. And then he realises what Jensen said and oh.

“Uh, I’m sorry, I guess?” Jared’s response is more of a question although he has no idea what he’s asking.

Jensen smiles grimly. “Actually, it was put up for auction on the night of the charity event. We had a silent auction and...someone bought it.”

“Oh.” Jared can tell that he’s not exactly making a case for himself here but he’s not sure if Jensen even wants him to.

“I thought maybe you wanted to join me for one last ride,” Jensen says. “I have to get it to the new owner by next week.”

Jared looks away and practically mumbles. “Are you sure that you’re not getting rid of it because of us. This. What happened.” He stops talking because apparently today is the one day that he’s going to be perpetually tongue-tied.

“No, no, that’s not it,” Jensen denies. “It’s not really me. I mean, I know my mom meant well and she loves flashy things but...I felt embarrassed by it? But I won’t lie, it definitely gave me some cred at work but...sometimes that’s not always a good thing.”

Jared nods, not quite trusting himself to speak. He’s contemplating the offer. One last ride in their heart-to-heart Ferrari. He considers it but he knows that he’s not going to accept.

Once Jensen leaves the hotel, that’s it for them. It’s over.

“You’re not coming for the ride are you?” Jensen correctly states. “I get that. If it helps, I’m not mad at you. From watching you and Chad, I can tell that you didn’t do it for the money. And he also explained a few things to me so.... I’m just hoping that you’ve at least pulled yourself out of your slump. Your dad and your ex are out there living their lives. You should do the same.”

“Thank you,” Jared responds. There’s so much that he wants to say; he wants to beg and plead and tell Jensen that he really likes him. He likes the way that Jensen challenges him on everything, likes how headstrong he is. He needs someone like that, someone that gives it to him straight. Still, there’s no way that he’s going to put that kind of pressure on Jensen. Not after this mess. The threadbare wire between them is about to snag, and there’s no taping it back together. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.

“Actually, I’d like to thank you,” Jensen replies with a small grin. “Betrayal aside, you saw the real me. Not many people do that. So, thanks.”

He stands up from the bar stool and pats Jared’s shoulder in a conciliatory manner. After one last lingering look, he turns and walks away. Jared watches after him and does everything in his power to keep himself firmly glued to his seat.

He’s never been good at letting things go but this time he has to. For Jensen’s sake.

“Aren’t you going with him?” Sandy asks when she and Chad approach him. “Please tell me that you kissed and made up.” Jared looks at them both, frowning when he sees that Chad can barely meet his eyes.

“I think that I’m probably the last thing he needs right now,” Jared tells her. “And the last thing I need is a relationship to get in the way of my progress.” Sandy sighs a little but she rubs a comforting circle into his back.

Chad clears his throat and gestures towards the A&C napkins. “What did the company say about these?”

“No take-backs,” Jared says apologetically. “But I might know a way that you can get your money back. Or some of it. Steve and I are planning some promotional stands for the store. Just to generate a bit of a buzz. We’re going to need some cut-price napkins.”

“What about the food?” Sandy asks. “Did it even turn up here?”

Chad rolls his eyes. “Luckily for me her family were taking care of that. I can’t believe that you guys were right about her.”

Sandy rolls her eyes. “Seriously. The nerve of it. Not only was she sneaking around behind your back but with someone that you work with? And who the hell was that guy?”

“Tom is kind of like, Jensen’s second in command at work,” Chad says with a grimace. “Would you believe that he introduced me to Audrey? I guess she would have known about the rumored takeover and I fell right into her hands by giving her Jared’s life story.”

Jared supposes that he should feel aggrieved but he doesn’t. He knows that it’s easy to be taken in by someone when you have feelings for them. The same way Samantha led him to believe that she loved him; the same way that he tricked Jensen into thinking they actually had something.

There’s no winner here.

Sandy frowns. “Do you think this was just all Jared’s father’s way of getting his attention? I mean, this seems like a lot of trouble.”

Jared shakes his head vigorously. “Please. This is his way of saying that I’m still a screw up and that he can try and control what happens to me, the way he did in the past. My own father smeared my standing in the industry over money. He enjoyed every second of this scheme. Trust me.”

“And I let him,” Chad says. “I let her. Even when I knew there was something off about her asking me about you, I thought it was just the usual girlfriend/best friend rivalry. Like, maybe she was jealous. I wasn’t. I didn’t think that she was lying.”

He looks so crestfallen that Jared decides to try and lighten the mood. They can talk about this later.

“You’ll get over it,” he says as he shoves Chad playfully. “Provided that you don’t have the same inner crisis that I did. And hey, look on the bright side -- she didn’t bankrupt you!”

Technically, Samantha wasn’t solely responsible for his financial issues, but Jared still gets a chill when he thinks about the divorce proceedings. Despite that, the fact that he’s joking about it now speaks volumes. He looks at Chad and Sandy and he grins suddenly. Oddly enough, he actually feels light for once. Like someone’s yanked a wrecking ball off him and now he’s floating mid-air.

“Oh god,” Sandy says. “Is this the beginning of one of your weird hyper moods? Seriously, go after Jensen and kiss and make up.”

Chad shrugs and nods. “Yeah. I mean, I know I said all of that stuff about him being a player but he seems genuinely disappointed by what happened between you guys.”

“I’m disappointed too, but Jensen and I barely had a relationship,” Jared confesses, his smile dimming slightly. Jensen is the one part of this that he doesn’t want to think about. “It was a whole lot of talking and some light making out. I don’t know about you but I think we’ve kind of reached our capacity for relationships that are based on lies.”

Chad cracks a smile at that and silently concedes the point. For a second they stand there in silence, just slowly taking in the events of the day. Eventually they’re going to have to sit down and figure out what the hell really happened with Audrey, but right now, Jared just wants to hang out with his friends.

So he does.

Two months later

Jared’s smiles to himself as he watches Aldis and his wife depart the bar. He’s just missed them on account of work, but he always enjoys seeing them together. Whether it’s because their happiness is infectious or he wants what they have some day, he doesn’t know. They wave to him as they’re walking to their car and he reciprocates.

Following a brief half-exchange in which they agree to catch up later, he makes his way into the bar. He grins when he sees Chad goofing around with Katie and Sandy. It’s been a tough month for both of them, what with Audrey’s betrayal and Jared finally confronting all of his unpaid credit card bills. Along with his job at the store, he’s taken an entry-level gig at a small pet insurance firm just to get a feel for it again. The idea is to eventually open up his own business but his friends wisely counsel him to stick to baby steps first.

Things with his parents are still rough, although he’s spoken to his mom twice in the last couple of weeks. Jensen seems to be the only area of Jared’s life where there’s a major question mark. Not to say that his life is perfect, but agreeing to date Jensen seems to have been his wake-up call. In the past month, he’s realized that he’s not been very fair to Chad. Not just in a being a terrible friend sense, but on a human level.

He’s spent a long time projecting every single doubt and esteem issue onto Chad (and the rest of his friends) and he’s finally starting to see the real impact. It was easy to tell himself that he was a fuck up; to use that to justify his slump and financial situation but while he knew he was being selfish on some level, he has never stopped to think about it.

Not until he saw Chad, on what was supposed to be the happiest day of his life, wondering how the hell he was going to pay for everything that couldn’t be returned.

So by some unspoken promise to himself, he’s spent the last month trying to help in whatever way he could. He clears out his spare room and finally throws away all of the junk he has no need for. The rest goes into storage and he casts his mind to how he judged Jensen so harshly for his bare apartment. He doesn’t dwell on those watercolour paintings that appeared the last time he was there. He offers his spare room to Chad, who graciously accepts even though it’s Jared who should be thanking him. Chad ended up quitting as well, which is probably for the best.

“Eaaaaaaaaarth to Jared,” Katie’s voice cuts into his mental diatribe, and he blinks and looks up at her. “We’re talking about going to see a movie later, are you in?” He shrug-nods and pulls off his jacket. There’s a beer waiting for him and he picks it up, grimacing slightly when the beads of condensation melt onto his fingertips.

“Sandy was just telling us about her awful date last week,” Chad informs him. “Apparently the guy was all eyebrows and no charm?”

“He really was,” Sandy insists indignantly. “I think he was enough to make me swear off men for eternity. Solitude has got to be better than what Tinder currently has to offer.”

Katie shakes her head. “I met my soon-to-be boyfriend in Jared’s store. You just need to be patient. And also less picky, less judgemental and less everything.”

Sandy glares at her and Katie mimes pulling a zipper across her mouth.

The comment about the store has Jared thinking about Jensen again. Despite his denials when Chad brings it up, his weird non-relationship with Jensen pops into his mind more often than not. Right now he’s remembering that night Jensen came to the store. The way Jensen had been so offended by Jared’s insinuation, and the way he’d uttered ‘it beats being alone at midnight’ almost before he knew what he was saying. It’s funny to him that so many of their moments happened early in the morning or late at night. There were never any days (besides some text exchanges) and that makes him feel disappointed.

“What about you, Jared?” Sandy asks. “Have you also sworn off dating?” He can see Chad shoot her a warning look but he’s not too bothered by the question. While the rest of his friends have kept quiet on the matter, Sandy has badgered him almost relentlessly. What the rest of the group don’t know is that he called her out on it a few weeks ago.

Why won’t you just drop this?!” he snapped. He regretted coming over here, especially when she’d been a damn record for the past few days.

Sandy sighed and placed her hand on her hips, like some kind of angry headmistress. “Because you came to my apartment at one in the morning all freaked out because he was actually into you. Do you remember that? I haven’t seen you like that...ever. You really liked him and... you’re never going to forgive yourself if you don’t try and make it work,”

Jared didn’t really need Sandy to tell him that, but she’s right. Hell, look at him now, he’s thinking about it instead of doing something and---

“Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god,” Sandy’s shrieking snaps Jared out of his head and he looks up, annoyed that he can’t just have his inner turmoil without any interruptions. He sees Sandy staring at a point behind him and turns to see Jensen standing by their booth. For a moment, oxygen seems to escape him and he’s stuck staring wordlessly while he pushes down the bubble of questions that seems intent on bursting. Jensen looks good; he’s dressed in a soft blue sweater and dark jeans, with scuffed boots stick out beneath the denim. His hair is a little lighter and his skin tanned slightly, like he’s been on vacation somewhere warm.

“Uh, hi,” Jensen says nervously. “The guy at the store - Steve? - he said I’d find you here. And here I am.”

The soft rock blasting from the bar’s speakers seems to fade out and the chatter of the other patrons floats away softly. All he can focus on is the fact that Jensen’s here.

Jared wonders if they should maybe take this outside but he doesn’t want to throw Jensen off his rhythm. Instead he waits. The way he’s been subconsciously waiting for the past two months.

“I know that I said that I wasn’t mad at you but the truth is that I was. I was so angry. When I flew down to L.A. to visit my mom, she suggested that I write a damn song, like I’m Taylor Swift or something. But funnily enough, everything got so jumbled up in my head that I did write something. I wrote about how much I hated you---”

Chad interrupts at that point, his face suddenly twisted with annoyance. “Hey, man, there’s no need for that.”

Jared looks up, only just remembering where they are. The noise blares suddenly, all chatter and clinking glasses. Still, he frowns at Chad and says, “Let him finish.”

Jensen’s eyeing Chad warily but he continues without commenting on the interjection; kind of like he’s so terrified that he can’t break script or do anything that isn’t what he planned. “I wrote about how much I hated you. And it was like a dam burst ‘cause there were so many things that I hate, Jared. I hate how I fell for your trap.

“I hate how I just…lost my walls whenever I was with you. I hate that you made me question everything. I hate the way that you slipped under my armour and saw the real me. I hate that I let you, and most of all I hate the fact that I don’t hate you at all. Quite the opposite. So, yeah. I just wanted you to know that.”

He stops talking and just stands there, leaving Jared to stare at him wordlessly. His heart is beating so fast in his chest that he’s not sure if it’s normal. The sound of his blood pumping seems to roar in his ears and his mouth his dry, his palms are clammy. This is it. The moment he’s been silently wishing for over the past few months.

This is their moment and he has no idea what to say.

“Maybe you should both talk to each other outside?” This time Jared’s grateful for Sandy’s intervention. He nods and Jensen nods back, their eyes catching briefly before Jared turns to grab his jacket. Jensen heads toward the exit just as Katie gives him a thumbs up and makes a lewd comment about him getting laid.

“We really need to work on your social skills,” Sandy says wryly.

Chad snorts, “This coming from the woman who dumped a guy for having too much eyebrow?”

“Shut up,” Sandy snaps, although it’s free of any anger. Jared huffs out a laugh because no matter what happens with him and Jensen, he knows that his friends will have his back.

They will always be here for him, the way that his family isn’t.

Jensen’s leaning against a wall a couple of paces from the bar. It’s just started to dim outside and the green light from the illuminated O’Riley’s sign lighting up his face. Jared smiles to himself as he joins him.

“What….?” Jensen asks him. “You look like you’ve just realised something.” Jared leans on the wall beside him, his body facing outward. A couple of cars pass by and then it’s quiet.

“I’ll tell you later,” Jared replies. “Right now I want to say that I’m glad that you don’t hate me. And I could say an entire speech and everything but I think we’ve said enough. I’d like a chance to do this for real.”

People spill out of the bar and music sounds briefly but then the door closes and it’s back to the near silence they were in before.

Jensen smiles, although it’s nervous. Given his stance on relationships, Jared gets it. It won’t be easy but at least they’re here at last.

“I’d like that,” he says. “Just as long as you promise not to accept any money. I’m probably not going to be the world’s greatest boyfriend.”

Jared’s ashamed to say that his mind stutters on the word boyfriend. In his world of adored child turned disgraced son, relationships have never fit into a perfect mould. Sure, there was Sam and Mark and all of the other flings but never a boyfriend. Someone that he was with because he liked them and they liked him and they actually wanted to have something meaningful.

This is kind of big.

“Maybe we should take it slow,” he suggests, “What with our rocky start and all.” He scratches at his chin nervously and tries to ignore the way his neck muscles begin to tense.

Jensen shoulder bumps him, forcing Jared to finally look at him. His eyes are clear and determined. “We did that last time. And I don’t know about you, but I’m done talking about how we met - I just want us to start afresh and forget about it. Can we do that?”

He makes it sound so simple and Jared wants to believe. He wants to just go with it and see where they end up.

“We can do that,” he confirms. He doesn’t wait for Jensen to initiate anything, just leans forward and kisses him gently, trying to memorize and capture the moment so that he can replay it later.

Once they pull apart, Jensen grins at him, his eyes shining brighter than they were before. “Do you wanna grab some coffee? I know a place.”

Jared smiles back, laughing slightly when their noses bump. He steps back and nods, “I’d love to.”

It turns out that they really aren’t going to do the moving slow thing. They’re halfway through some crappy Lifetime movie when Jensen slides a hand down his pants and Jared finally stops freaking out and goes with it. They end up in his bedroom with Jared mentally high-fiving himself for doing laundry. Thankfully, Chad’s out with Aldis, so they’re free to make as much noise as they want.

So they do.

Now, they’re lying naked in bed as they regain their breath. Jared’s just about to start dozing off when he remembers something. He ignores Jensen’s protests as he untangles himself and gets out of the bed. He pads over to a drawer and rummages through it quickly before he pulls out a small box. He feels a little bit exposed but he leaves his boxers where they are and walks back over the bed.

Jensen’s in the middle of sitting up and he looks Jared up and down before muttering. “Can you put some pants on, please? Before you blind me with that thing.” His grumpy expression melts into a smile before Jared can even protest.

Instead, he smirks and waggles his eyebrows. “Oh, like you wouldn’t enjoy that.” He grabs his boxers anyway and tugs them on, before he locates Jensen’s discarded pair and throws them at his head,

“You’ll pay for that,” Jensen warns him, even though he still has that stupid grin on their face. Things are still tentative between them. Jared’s still got some residual guilt and Jensen’s still got his reservations about relationships, so they’ve been taking it one step at a time. Coffee, text messages, the odd phone call. As much as they can both get away with in two weeks without coming off as overeager.

Still, Jared really wants to give Jensen something. Call it an apology gift, or whatever. Just something to show that he’s all in. He stands there awkwardly as Jensen does a weird shimmy thing under the comforter and slides his underwear on.

“What’s in the box?” Jensen asks when he’s done. They look at each other and immediately crack up. Jared begins to feel a little skittish. Perhaps it’s too soon for him to give Jensen a gift. What if Jensen feels like he has to get him something in return? What if he hates it?

“Okay, stop thinking whatever you freaking out about and hand me the box.”

Jared smiles despite himself. “So, you’re still good at reading people, then?”

“Baby, I’m an expert,” Jensen fires back. “Now, gimme the box.” Jared hands it to him and perches on the edge of the bed. He watches as Jensen pops it open, removes the black drawstring bag, and takes out the small object inside it.

There’s absolute silence for a moment as Jensen looks it at. Jared can practically hear the staccato of his heartbeat as he sits there and waits for a response.

“This is...the Fridge guitar,” Jensen breathes in wonderment. “It’s got the scratch on it and the stupid Sharpie heart. Jared, this is amazing. Seriously. Thank you.”

Ideally, Jared would have bought Jensen the actual guitar, but at any rate, it was way above his price range. He got the idea of the miniature guitar when he was selling a bunch of his old trinkets on Etsy.

“You really like it?” Jared asks. “I know you got rid of the actual guitar but...you seemed kind of disappointed that you didn’t have it anymore.”

“This is way better,” Jensen says enthusiastically. “It’s small enough that I can just hold it in my hand on those days that I need to and it’s from you. I love it. I love...you. And that scares me.”

From looking at the now surprised look on Jensen’s face, Jared knows that last part slipped out unintended. And he could panic, he could freak out but all he wants to do is reassure him.

“I love you too,” he replies. “And that scares the crap out of me too, so...I guess we can just be scared together?”

Jensen puts the box aside and crawls over to the edge where Jared is. He leans over and grabs Jared’s hand. He squeezes it gently as he says, “I like the sound of that.”

This time, there’s nothing gentle about their kiss.

Fin.