Jensen pushed open the door to The Wine Alcove, ducking inside quickly so the Dallas sleet didn't follow him in. He carefully wiped his shoes on the mat before stepping over the puddle that was beginning to collect on the hardwood floor just past the entrance.
The jazz piano playing on the overhead speakers quietly infiltrated his senses, and he felt his shoulders relaxing. It had been a rough week, with work not only full of deadlines for upcoming court cases, but co-workers planning special evenings with their spouses or partners or even a blind date. Jensen had never been big on Valentine's Day, but this year especially, he just wanted it over with.
Lisa was behind the counter, and Jensen walked up to her with a smile. "Evening," he said.
She gave him a nod in reply. "How're you doing, Jensen?"
"Not so bad. How 'bout you?"
"Damn sleet is going to cut into my business, that's for sure. Hope people come out tomorrow to pick up that special bottle instead."
"I'm sure they will if they want the best wine in the Metroplex," Jensen replied.
Lisa shook her head at him. "Flattery will get you nowhere, Ackles."
"Not even a special Malbec that isn't going to be released to the public till next week?"
She sighed and reached under the counter. "I might have set one aside."
Jensen grinned. "You really are the best."
He reached for the bottle, but her grip around the neck stayed tight. "You have to do something for me first."
He raised an eyebrow in query.
"A customer came in a little while ago, been wandering up and down the aisles like he doesn't quite know what he's looking for. I was hoping maybe you could help him."
Jensen frowned and turned to look around the store. "I'm not the professional here, Berry. I don't—"
Then he saw what she was up to, and he gave her a sharp look. "Really?"
She gave an elegant shrug and put the bottle under the counter again, turning back to the wine magazine she'd been reading.
Jensen sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. Like this week hadn't been hard enough.
There was silence for a moment except for the creak of feet on the hardwood floor. When Jensen looked up again, Jared was three aisles away, looking right back at him.
Jensen pasted on a friendly smile and walked across the store, heart suddenly pounding as he thought of and discarded a dozen different opening lines. When he reached the rosé aisle, he turned and stopped a respectable distance away. "Fancy meeting you here," was what he blurted out.
Jared shrugged one shoulder. "You always got our wine here. Figured it was a good place to go."
Jensen's heart thudded sideways for a moment. "You—you need wine for someone?"
There were flashes of surprise and hurt and stubbornness all in a row across Jared's face, and then he shrugged again. "Gen and I are doing a Valentine's Day dinner. She broke up with her new guy a few weeks ago, and I…well."
"Oh." The relief that flooded Jensen's system was almost overwhelming. "That—that sounds nice. I mean, I'm sorry for her, but I'm glad she has you."
Jared turned back towards the shelves. "I overheard Lisa. I know she means well, but you don't have to—I mean, I'm just picking out a rosé, it's nothing really worth drinking."
It was an off-the-cuff comment Jensen had once made, even after he knew that it was Jared's favorite kind of wine, and it was like a punch to the gut to hear it again. Jensen had to briefly close his eyes. When he opened them again, Jared was staring at the pale pink bottles like choosing the wrong one would doom the world. Jensen cleared his throat, but when he spoke, it still sounded raspy. "It should be about what you like, Jared. Not what someone else bullies you into choosing."
Jared looked at him sharply. He studied Jensen for a moment, and Jensen tried to let his apology shine through in his eyes.
It must have worked, because the corner of Jared's mouth quirked up before he turned back to the bottles. "Well, that sounds different."
"It's been a while, hasn't it?" Jensen quietly replied. "Since we did more than text each other season's greetings."
"Twelve weeks since we last talked," Jared said quickly. His cheeks might have gone slightly pink, or it might have been because the heater in the store had kicked on.
"Yeah, well, I've been talking to a professional." Jensen rubbed the back of his neck. "She's helped me think about a lot of things."
A muscle in Jared's jaw twitched, and he grabbed a bottle of wine seemingly at random from the shelf. "Funny, you wouldn't go to couples therapy with me when we were still together."
Jensen wanted to protest, to say they were still together, they were just separated. Jared was wearing his ring, after all, as was Jensen. But he knew what Jared meant. And reining in the snappy replies was something Dr. Smith was getting him to work on, so he swallowed down the harsh retort that instantly came to mind.
His therapist was also getting him to do a better job of saying what he actually thought when it really mattered. So what Jensen said next was, "I was wrong about that. I was wrong about a lot of things."
Jared was pretending to read the label on the bottle, but Jensen could see that his gaze had gone unfocused. After a moment, Jared asked, "Anything that you want to share?"
Jensen drew in a deep breath. "You doing anything tonight?"
That time, Jared's gaze was even sharper, like he thought Jensen was trying to trick him somehow. "Why?"
"Sorry. I just—it was kind of a joke. There's—there's a lot of things, actually, that I might wanna share, but not standing in the middle of a wine shop." Jensen waved a hand, stomach dropping as he realized even if he was ready to talk things out, that didn't mean Jared was ready to listen. "Never mind."
"No, it's—I'm sorry." Jared carefully put the bottle back and turned towards him. He was wearing his work clothes underneath his rain jacket, the polo from his CrossFit studio stretching tight across his chest. He clearly hadn't lost any muscle tone during the time they'd been apart. "You're not—you don't have anything going on?"
"Just trying to recover from the week."
"Yeah, me too." Jared shoved his hands in the pockets of his coat. "You wanna go eat somewhere?"
Now there were butterflies running around Jensen's stomach like he hadn't felt in years. "It'd be quieter at home, if that's okay? I've got a couple of steaks marinating." He shrugged one shoulder. "I still cook for two, it just means I have leftovers."
"Me too," Jared said again. He shook his hair back from his eyes and stood up straighter. "Yeah, okay. I think that'd be good."
"So do I." Jensen tentatively smiled at Jared, and the ghost of a smile crossed Jared's face in return. "D'you need a ride?"
"Yeah, I walked here from work."
That was the whole reason Jensen had found this shop in the first place, hanging out in the Cultural District one evening waiting for Jared to finish up at his gym. When they'd separated, Jared had found an apartment close by so that he could walk everywhere. Apparently, he'd continued coming to the wine shop even if that wasn't really his thing.
Jensen gestured at the rows of wine in front of them. "Do you want to pick out a bottle for tonight?"
Jared's eyebrows shot up. "I thought rosé didn't go with steaks?"
"Did I really harp on it that much?"
"Wine is like the only thing you're interested in besides work, Jensen."
"And you," Jensen said quickly. He held his breath, sure that Jared was going to retort that he had a funny way of showing it, spending as much time at the office as he did.
Instead, the corner of Jared's mouth turned up in a shy smile. He glanced at the rows of bottles in front of him and grabbed one from the middle shelf with a French label. "This is the one I was looking at before," he said, holding the bottle out to Jensen.
"Then that's the one we'll go with."
Up at the counter, Jared set the bottle down while Jensen went digging for his wallet. "Can I have my bottle now?" Jensen mock-grumbled.
Lisa looked back and forth between the two of them, looking like the proverbial canary was already being digested. When she pulled out the Malbec, she said, "Hope you both enjoy it."
"I'll take this one, too," Jensen said, gesturing at the rosé.
"No, I can get them," Jared replied, his credit card already in his hand.
"It's okay, you don't have to do that."
"Neither do you."
"Jared, you don't even know how much it costs." Too late, Jensen noticed that Jared's nostrils were flaring, and he realized he'd fallen into an old pattern again. He tried to make up for it by saying, "We can each buy our own."
Jared held out his credit card, jaw jutting forward. "I'll pay for both."
To his credit, when Jared heard the total, he mostly managed to hold back his flinch. It wasn't until they were outside the shop, pulling their hoods up against the rain, that he called out, "I can't believe you let me buy you a $150 bottle of wine!"
Jensen was about to retort that he'd tried his best to keep Jared from doing that very thing, when he saw the exasperated but rueful smile on Jared's face. The rain was really coming down, though thankfully it was no longer freezing, and Jensen only pointed to his car in reply. Jared nodded, and they carefully made their way across the parking lot to the red BMW.
Once inside the car, Jared very cautiously laid the package on the floor in the backseat. Jensen turned on the car and put the defroster on blast. "Wasn't inside long enough for ice to form on the windshield, and it looks like it's above freezing now, but we should still wait a minute before we leave."
"Whatever you want. I'm just glad I'm not driving in this mess."
"Yeah, winter in Dallas." Jensen shook his head. "You remember that winter when it actually snowed, and we built a snowman in the condo courtyard?"
"I think it took all the snow in that courtyard to build it, and it was still only waist high," Jared chuckled. "It was fun, though."
"Yeah, it was." Jensen remembered the way Jared's cheeks had gone pink with the cold, the way his eyes sparkled as he revealed he'd set aside just enough snow to form one perfect snowball that he then fired at Jensen.
He also remembered how they'd warmed each other up inside afterwards, and he had to clear his throat to bring himself back to the present. "Jared, I can pay you back for the wine."
"No, you were right. We always fell into this pattern. You'd want to buy me things, and I'd resist at first, but you'd insist on it, and then I'd just give up and let you. You were older, you made more money, whatever the reason. It was easier to just let you."
"I just wanted to take care of you, Jay. I still do."
"I know that." Jared's voice was soft as he turned to look at Jensen. "But I realized I wasn't making my own decisions anymore. Where to live, what to eat, how to dress when I wasn't at work. It felt like I had really lost something, and I didn't know how to get it back for myself."
Jensen stared at him, stricken. "Did I really try to control you like that?"
Jared quickly shook his head, a few stray droplets flying from the ends. "Not like that. It's not like it was—it wasn't bullying. You didn't do it on purpose. It's like you said, we'd fall into this habit, and it was easier to go along."
Jensen still had a sick feeling in his stomach. "I'm sorry, Jared. I—I can't believe I treated you like that."
Jared took a deep breath. "It's the reason I wanted to separate. I know I said it was because you were working too much, but I needed to remind myself I could still make all those decisions on my own. So that when we got back together, I'd push back a little more. Decide what I wanted some times."
"Like buying a bottle of wine for—for your husband."
Jared nodded, biting his lower lip.
Then something else Jared had said struck Jensen, and he turned sideways in his seat. "Wait. You said when we got back together."
"Yeah. You—" Jared's voice cracked, but he plowed on. "You thought this was going to be permanent?"
Jensen took in the same mixture of hurt and surprise he'd seen on Jared's face when he asked him if he was buying the bottle for someone else. "No! No, I didn't want it to be. Of course not."
"Okay. Um." Jared fidgeted with the edge of a pocket on his cargo pants. "Because that was the fourth time I've been to the Alcove in the past month. Before Christmas, I went to get something to bring home to my parents, and Lisa mentioned you still stopped in sometimes even though it was all the way across town. So I kept dropping in, hoping to run into you."
Jensen's voice was so soft, he would be surprised if Jared could hear it over the roar of the defroster. "Really?"
Jared nodded, eyes fixed on where his fingers were picking at the fabric of his pants.
There was silence for a moment except the blasting of the heater. Jensen reached out and switched it off, his heart suddenly thumping. Then he kept on reaching until his fingers were lightly resting on the back of Jared's hand.
The only sound was the rain pattering on the outside of the car. Jared's fingers had gone still, and for a moment, Jensen was afraid that he'd done the wrong thing, that Jared was interpreting it as Jensen trying to get him to stop fidgeting, controlling him once again.
He was about to draw back when Jared shifted his hand just enough to entangle his long fingers with Jensen's.
Instantly, Jensen tightened his grip on Jared's hand, and Jared curled his fingers around Jensen's in response.
They sat there, both staring at their joined hands, at the way Jared's wedding band caught the glimmer of the streetlights in the parking lot, shining between two of Jensen's fingers. Jensen felt a lump come into his throat, and he had to close his eyes for a moment.
When he finally looked at Jared, there was telltale redness in his eyes as well. But he gave Jensen a watery smile, the biggest one so far of the night, and he squeezed Jensen's fingers more tightly. "Looking forward to those steaks," Jared said softly.
"Yeah," Jensen replied hoarsely. He was so tempted to lean across the center console and kiss Jared, but he was determined to take this as slow as they both needed. Now that he knew they were both hoping for the same outcome, he could take the time to do it right.
So he gave Jared's hand a light squeeze and extricated his fingers. "Seat belts on," he said, reaching for his.
Jared clicked his belt into place and then smiled at Jensen. "Let's go home."