Jensen frowned when he walked through the door at Flowers by Ferris. A profusion of flowers in every imaginable color filled vases and refrigerated cases alike, and their combined perfume was heavy and cloying. The first whiffs went right to Jensen's sinuses, and he could swear he felt those sensitive tissues starting to swell. He kicked himself mentally for offering to handle this initial task.
Danneel was his best friend though, and as her best man, Jensen had accepted he'd be acting as her delegate. Just...flowers? Really? He was not a flower guy. That role would be better filled by someone else, someone who could rhapsodize about hues and scents for hours. Someone who could appreciate the differences between mauve and orchid. Someone like--
Someone like Jared. Jensen closed his eyes, blocking out the confusion of color that seemed to discombobulate his brain. He really didn't need to think about Jared right now.
Jensen studied the light purple flower. It was pretty enough. He looked at Jared and noted how his eyes were shining. “Sure, babe, that looks great.” He leaned over and kissed Jared's cheek lightly. “I always trust your taste, Jay.”
Jared beamed at him. “It's going to look perfect.” He took Jensen's hand and squeezed. “I just want it all to be perfect for us, Jensen.”
On the tablet, video clips played in tidy little segments, one after the other. Jared's eyes watered, his lids heavy, and he yawned as yet another chirpy DJ introduced yet another wedding reception song staple, exhorting guests to storm the dance floor. Blah. It was all repetitive and boring, and that would just not do. It was up to Jared to find the perfect entertainment and ensure the success of the wedding reception. He'd promised Genevieve that he'd help any way he could when she asked him to be her man of honor, and he was not letting some boring videos derail him.
“Well, he plays a nice mix of music at least. He just—it's just missing something.” Jensen shook his head, his face pensive.
Jared sat back in his over-stuffed armchair, vaguely aware that his lower lip was probably pooching out in dissatisfaction. “I thought he was the best DJ so far. I don't know where else to look.”
Jensen twiddled his fingers for a moment. “I think he's good, Jay, I just...” He thumbed the video player off. “What if we went in a different direction?”
The surprise Jared felt must have showed on his face, because Jensen reached over and laid a hand on his. “Just hear me out, sweetheart. I was thinking that maybe, instead of a DJ, we could get a band.”
A band? Now Jared was really surprised. “I didn't think we could afford a band.”
“Maybe we can. Chris and Steve got a couple of other guys together, and they're playing a lot of local gigs now.” Jared could hear the excitement building in Jensen's voice. “They're new enough as a group that we can probably get them cheap, and then we could have live music at the reception.” Jensen's green eyes shone eagerly. “What do you think, baby?”
Jared thought he really didn't even care who did the music, not if Jensen looked at him like this—face full of love, a smile playing on Jensen's full lips, and damn, those sparkling green eyes.
“Sounds perfect, Jen.”
“If you like it, it's bound to be fantastic!” she'd reasoned.
And so here was Jensen, about to taste ten different cake combinations in order to give Danneel a short list to choose from.
What are friends for, if not to help with wedding plans? It's what I came back for in the first place, right? he thought, and grimly entered the shop.
When Donna called, Jensen happily burbled the latest wedding details. “The cake—Jared has such a sweet tooth, I wanted him to choose it, but he said I should so it won't be too sweet for me.” He sipped his coffee, about to relate how the final choice had been lemon with hazelnut ganache, but then they changed it to raspberry jam because what if guests were allergic to nuts, when Donna spoke.
“Jensen...I have to talk to you about your father.” Her usually cheerful voice was thin and strained, and Jensen put his cup down as a chill went down his spine. “You know how he's been feeling weak lately? We went to Dr. Kripke and he had a lot of tests done on Alan, and...” Her voice broke in a sob. “Jensen, he has ALS.”
Jensen's knees gave out, in fact his whole skeleton seemed have dissolved and he collapsed onto the bar stool at the breakfast bar. “What? Are—are they sure?” His brain felt like it was pulsing inside his head, and everything looked rather swimmy. “Momma, are they sure?”
“Yes, baby. They're sure. He's already lost a lot of ground. I hate to ask this, son, but—can you come home?”
The envelope was stark against the dark duvet cover. “Jared” was printed across it, black angular letters that Jared knew meant no good. “No,” he whispered. “He wouldn't...”
He reached for the envelope cautiously, like it was going to strike out at him. For all he knew, it was. He extricated the paper, unfolding it and skimming over the words inside.
I know we've been talking and talking about this, but I don't feel that we can reach a good answer. You can't come with me, and I have to go help my parents, and neither of those things is going to change.
You keep saying that we can do a long-distance relationship, but I just don't think it will work. I tried to do that years ago, when Tom and I were together and he had a year-long fellowship in Europe. Phone calls and letters and even Skype are not enough to keep things going. There is no definitive end to my being gone, as it depends on how my dad's ALS progresses.
So I think it's unrealistic for us to think we can do this, especially as I will be so tied up in my father's care. Because of that, I'm breaking this off now, and going to live at my parents immediately.
I'm not going to ask you to wait, Jared. It's not fair to you. I don't want to string you along. So I'm releasing you from us. I understand that you might want to talk about this more, but I think we're exhausted all the possibilities. I'm doing what I need to do, and I won't be changing my mind.
Be happy. No one deserves it more than you. You are the best person, other than my parents, that I've ever known.
The paper slipped from Jared's fingers, drifting to the floor in a rustle of finality.
“Uh, hey, Jared.” Jensen cringed inwardly. Could he sound any lamer? “You look...good.”
Jared's pallor made his eyes look dark and his lips a thin red line. Jensen felt hypnotized watching those lips while they opened and words came out. Then the words themselves took Jensen aback.
“'I look good? That's it? That's all you have to say to me?” Jared's pallor receded as he flushed with anger. “You dump me in a goddamn letter and now I look good?”
Jensen took a step back, reaching to stabilize a cake display table that he bumped into. “Sorry, I—I mean, you do, and it was something nice to say--”
“Fuck you, Jensen Ackles! Fuck you all the way down the fucking aisle!” Jared turned to the stunned cake clerk. “Here! Cortese-Harris wedding!” He shoved the unicorns into her hands and whirled around, stomping out the door.
Jensen and the clerk both flinched when the door clanged shut. She looked at him, clearly curious. He shrugged his shoulders and shook his head. “I, uh...”
She frowned at him, then flounced away with the unicorns. Jensen sighed.
“He has no nuts! Or a brain or a heart! He's just a dick!” Jared paced around the room a couple of more times before falling onto the couch next to Chad. “The worst thing? He looked fucking great, Chad. Just great. I coulda pounced on him right there. So not only did he not miss me for shit, I have to get exposed to all his gorgeous Jensen-ness and relive it all over again.” He kicked at the coffee table. “Son of a bitch!”
“So hit that. Then dump him. Get some payback.”
Jared slumped against the couch back. “I can't. I just don't work that way.” He sighed. “I'll just have to wait for a piano to fall on him or something. Let karma do it for me.”
“Do you think he's going to the wedding?”
“Well, yeah, Chad! He was in the wedding cake store! What else would he be doing there?”
“Could be a coincidence. Maybe someone else he knows is getting married.” Chad munched some more chips. “Hey, maybe he's getting married.”
Conversation ended abruptly when Jared kicked Chad off the couch.
“Jen, first of all, it's going to be okay. Second of all, you are not not being my best man. You two don't have to do anything that involves interacting if you want.” She poured another shot for them both. “Unless, of course, you want to work on the situation. Especially since you've decided to move back here, now that--”
“Now that Dad's passed away.” Jensen gently spun his shot glass around on the bar top. He'd come for the wedding, sure, but he'd also decided to get away from where he'd had to spend three years watching his dad decline slowly and painfully. He picked the shot glass up and clinked with Danni, closing his eyes as he drank. The minute his lids closed, he saw Jared.
“Maybe. I mean...I wouldn't mind. I didn't leave because I didn't love him. But...” He shook his head. “I broke his heart. I'd hate me too.”
“Hate is very close to love, JenJen. Either way, it's a lot of emotion mixed up with a crapload of passion.” Danni's hand rested on Jensen's. “Maybe just...don't give up.”
Jared had also feared the day she would finally go off with someone and leave him alone. Because after Jensen had left him, Jared had been unable to think of anyone wanting him like that again. If he could give everything he'd been to someone, open up every bit of himself, share the vulnerable inner center of his core, and that person could just up and leave? Well, clearly he must be lacking some fundamental element somehow.
And he'd be damned if he was ever going to do that again. Jared took a long pull on his beer, half-draining the bottle.
“Thirsty? Or just drowning your sorrows?” Genevieve's tone was playful, but her dark eyes were soft as she regarded Jared. He tried to smile, but it must not have worked because she patted his hand. “Don't hurt yourself. I know this is tricky for you. I almost didn't ask, but I—I couldn't imagine doing this without you by my side, Jare. Is that okay?”
He tugged on her arm, pulled her into his lap, where she curled up and rested her head on his shoulder. “Baby, I'm honored you asked me. I confess I didn't realize how many echoes there would be; didn't fathom how painful those echoes would be. But none of that has anything to do with you and Danneel, and I promise I'll do everything I can to make this wedding special for you two.”
Someone deserves to be loved forever. Even if it's not me.
So now it was time to sample salmon tartes and stuffed mushrooms and chicken scaloppini, making the final decisions on the dinner menu for the gala reception celebrating the union of Elta Danneel Harris and Genevieve Nicole Cortese. Jensen's joy for his closest friend warred with the sorrow of losing this same sense of joy, this celebratory festiveness he'd almost claimed, and most of all, losing the person whose love had promised all of this happiness.
Just as that sorrow pierced his heart anew, like Cupid ripping the damn arrow out of Jensen's very flesh, the silver serving cart rattled over, laden with plates. The maître d' began placing them on the table, making two settings.
“Oh, no—Ms. Harris is not able to be here today. It's just me,” Jensen hastened to explain.
“No, no, Monsieur. Today I serve you and--” The maître d' was interrupted by the arrival of another guest.
A tall guest, dressed in a soft, cranberry V-neck sweater and dark jeans covering miles of long legs.
Walking in and seeing Jensen already seated, with plates being distributed onto the table? Jared was wholly unprepared for that.
“What—Jensen, I don't--” was all Jared could stammer out through stiff lips. His heart seemed undecided whether it should stop or beat like a runaway train, and the resultant irregularity was making him feel lightheaded. He grabbed the chair opposite Jensen and plopped gracelessly into it.
“I don't—there must be some mistake.” Jensen turned to the maître d', whose cart had now been emptied. Bowing at both Jensen and Jared, the maître d' spun his cart around and hastily beat a retreat, leaving the two men alone and gazing at each other over half a dozen plates of hors d'oeuvres.
“I didn't know you were going to be here.”
Silence hung heavy.
“Uh, we should...I mean, I guess you're here for the tasting too. So we should...taste.” Jensen's tone was stiff, but not angry.
“Yes. Of course.” Jared scootched his chair into the table. He looked over the dishes and counted four hot hors d'oeuvres and two appetizers. Glancing nervously at Jensen, Jared picked up a serving spoon in front of his place and served himself the first item. “Ah, would you...shall I?” He gestured toward Jensen's plate.
“Oh, no, go ahead. I'll, uh—I'll take some after.”
What, am I going to contaminate you? Jared thought snidely, pursing his lips as he served himself. He didn't wait for Jensen to help himself before digging in, tasting each dish in turn. They both ate quietly, the only sounds being silverware tapping against the china and their breathing. After making his decision about what he'd report to Genevieve, Jared wiped his mouth and crossed his arms, vowing silently that he was not going to attempt initiating any small talk. He was just fine with silence.
Jensen finished after him, likewise sitting in silence. Jared repeated his vow to himself, gritting his teeth as the silence went on and on. In reality, it was probably only a matter of minutes when the maître d' returned with his cart, fresh plates of food steaming away. He deftly piled the dirty dishes to one side, served the next round of food, and whisked the dirty dishes away. Again, they were in silence.
Jared was so acutely aware of Jensen being right across the table from him, so on edge, that when Jensen finally spoke, he jumped and dropped his fork.
“The glazed pork loin is delicious, have you tried that yet?”
Jared retrieved his silverware and stabbed the pork. Cutting it in half, he took a bite and chewed, trying to think about how it tasted instead of the shiny smear on Jensen's bottom lip. “Very nice,” he said, and reached for the next dish. “Maybe too much garlic though.”
Once again, the used plates disappeared and fresh food was placed before them. This time, Jared was able to stiltedly discuss the good with Jensen, and they debated the merits of chicken versus fish. Privately, Jared was amazed that he could not only make small talk with his ex-fiancé, but that he could even taste the food itself instead of having a mouth full of ashes.
“So I think the salmon was great, as long as they can handle serving a hundred at once, and the roasted vegetables were excellent, but I would not recommend the pork. It felt heavy compared to everything else, and when you still have wedding cake to follow? It'll be too much. Maybe filet mignons would be better.” Jensen pulled a small notebook out of his pocket and made some notes.
Notes. He's writing notes. We almost got married, but then he left and I haven't seen him in over three years, and now he is writing notes about fucking fish and fucking pork. The enormity of the last three years' pain flooded Jared; his throat swelled and his tongue thickened until he thought he'd never be able to talk again. What did any of this even matter, when his heart had been thrown on the floor, smashed in big, wet, gooshy smears? When his dream wedding had collapsed into crystallized shards of grief and despair all over the parquet floor?
Jared watched himself stand up, his linen napkin sliding off his lap onto the floor; watched himself grab the table edge and flip it over, dishes and silver falling in a cacophony of shattering bits, the food flying through the air and smacking down onto the floor in moist slaps. Watched the shock bloom on Jensen's face, heard the distressed cries of the maître d' and his minions, and all the while Jared moved like a zombie, like a sleepwalker, until he turned his back on the mess and stalked toward the door.
Jared kept moving until he got in his car and started to drive away, shifting gears and merging into traffic while on automatic pilot. Only as he saw the catering hall shrink in his rear view mirror did the sobs—great, wrenching ones--catch up to him.
“Mr. Ackles...Mr. Ackles. Please, Mr. Ackles, are you all right?”
Jensen turned his head stiffly. God, it felt like he was half-frozen in ice, with his joints stiff and his skin cold. “Yes. Yes, I'm fine.” He pushed at the table and slowly rose to his feet. “I'm terribly sorry for the—my apologies. Please just send the bill for the food and dishes to me.” He fumbled at his pocket and withdrew a business card. “Here's my contact info. I'm..I'm terribly sorry.”
He could still hear the manager twittering away behind him, but he stepped carefully through the bits of china and salmon as he walked to the door, one measured step at a time. He just wanted the whole mess behind him—the food, the dishes, the emotions ricocheting against the floor and rending his heart. Away, away, get away...
Sitting in his car, Jensen looked at himself in the mirror. Green eyes, freckles, full-lipped mouth—he looked as he always had. Funny how we can implode, and yet no one sees a thing, he thought absently. How does that happen?
He carefully drove home, then carefully walked into his still-new apartment. He undressed and carefully laid his clothes aside. Sliding under the covers, Jensen laid his head on his pillow and carefully didn't move as the tears slid from underneath his lids.
Genevieve hugged Danni, whispering to her until she finally sat down, although her fingers tapped loudly on the table. Gen turned to Jared, placing a hand on his knee and speaking calmly.
“Honey, I know something had to have upset you for you to do that. Can you talk about it? And...where's Jensen?”
Jared's leg twitched so hard that Gen's hand slid off. “Uh, he left. I guess he went home, I don't really know.” Jared stood up and began to pace around nervously. “I'm sorry for ruining things for you. I didn't mean to, I just--”
“Just what, Jare? Tell me.” Gen moved to sit next to Danni, taking her hand and stroking it slowly while they listened to Jared.
“He was taking notes!” Jared exclaimed, the heat of disbelief running through him anew. “Notes about the fucking salmon, and the—the fucking food, like it mattered! Like any of it mattered a fucking rat's ass!” Teas began coursing down his cheeks, and he rubbed the back of one hand over them. “I haven't seen him in three years, did you know that? We almost got married, but he left, and now it's been three years and we're making small talk about flowers and Djs and all this stupid wedding shit!” He caught a ragged breath.
“Jared...I'm sorry, we shouldn't have—we never should have asked you to do all this. It was stupid and insensitive of us.” Danni's voice surprised him—she sounded sad now, and when he turned to look at her, he saw tears standing in her eyes. “I had no idea it was still so fresh for you. We just thought it was all, I don't know, all in the past or something. I mean, it's been three years.”
“We never meant to hurt you, honey,” added Gen, wrapping her arms around him. Danni got up and joined her, hugging Jared. He closed his eyes and gritted his teeth; he knew they meant to reassure him, forgive him, and he appreciated it but he needed to get the hell out of there.
Fortunately, as soon as he shifted, they released him, stepping back hand-in-hand. “Thanks,” he choked out. “I'm sorry, I'll take care of everything at the caterer's, but I...I have to go for now.”
He stumbled to the door and practically fell out onto the sidewalk, gulping in lungfuls of fresh air.
Riching's Regal Formalwear had his tux ready to try on when he walked in. They'd been ordered months ago, so at least there was no decision-making necessary today. Jensen took the garment bag into the fitting booth, stripped his jeans and t-shirt off, and put the tux on. The waistcoat and bow tie were a bold scarlet, and with the black tux and snow-white shirt, it made for a very crisp and snappy outfit.
Jensen had protested against the deep purple waistcoats at first, preferring a subtler shade. Jared had won him over though, and as Jensen looked in the mirror, he could appreciate the rich tone with the black jacket.
The mist of memory cleared from Jensen's vision, the red bleeding in over the purple from the past. Jensen shook his head and stepped out of the booth to the pleased reaction of Julian Richings himself as well as some other customers looking on. “She's a lucky girl,” said one mama roguishly. “When's the wedding?”
“I'm the best man, not the groom,” replied Jensen stiffly. “And I wouldn't be marrying a girl.”
The mama's eyes went blank while her mouth pursed, and she hustled off to join the rest of her party. Jensen rolled his eyes. Whatever. None of it mattered anyway.
“I think you are all set, sir. You look very distinguished. I'm sure your wedding party and your date will be most pleased.” Julian smiled pleasantly as he helped Jensen take the jacket off.
“Yeah. Pretty sure most of them aren't speaking to me right now.” Jensen was surprised as the words left his lips. What did Julian Richings care? His only concern was getting everyone dressed to their taste and budget, not listening to sad sacks like Jensen. But when he looked at Julia, he saw sympathy in those wise, deep-set eyes.
“Tensions run very high around a wedding,” Julian said, his elegant accent modulating his words. “So many emotions flying around. Old feelings re-emerge, new ones are born. It makes for dramatic times.”
Jensen barked a laugh. “You are not kidding, my man. You hit the nail right on the head.” He went back into the booth to finish changing. Handing the pants, shirt, and waistcoat out to Julian;s assistant, Jensen asked, “And in the end, how do you see it all coming out? More toward the upside, the downside, what?”
Julian paused to consider for a moment. “The upside. More things are fixed or restored than broken or destroyed.” He drew the garment bag over Jensen's tux and zipped it closed. “I think that, in the end, you really can't underestimate the power of love.” He patted the bag smooth and handed it to Jensen. “It's a terribly powerful thing, love is.”