December bursts into being with the mildest weather of the year and with it comes the badly constructed arts and crafts and, even worse, Christmas carols on repeat. His kids are constantly on a candy-cane sugar high, and Jared thinks if he sees one more Claymation Christmas movie, he just might put a hole in his television set.
“I hate this stupid holiday,” he moans, trying to find another place for a drying red and green glue creation so he doesn’t find it stuck to the floor the following day. Jensen is watching him safely from the top of Jared’s desk, swinging his feet as he sucks on a bit of peppermint he found in the teacher’s lounge.
“Be more of a Grinch, why don’t you,” Jensen teases. “You have got to be the only person I know who doesn’t love Christmas.”
“Oh shut up,” Jared grumbles. “You could help, you know?”
“And miss you getting covered in glitter? I don’t think so, stud.”
Jared sighs, drawing a hand through his hair, remembering too late that he’s probably just given himself a glue mohawk. From the way Jensen snickers, he’s pretty sure he looks fairly ridiculous. “The sooner we get out of here, the sooner we eat,” he wheedles, trying in vain to use his puppy dog eyes to break Jensen’s spirit.
“A,” Jensen says, “that’s a useless argument seeing as you’re the bottomless pit, not me. B, I know for a fact that Mrs. Bridenbaugh is still around, and if she pinches my ass one more time “on accident” I just might flip out.”
“You know you like it,” Jared counters, picking up the garbage can and sweeping various scraps of paper into it. “It’s the most action you’re getting nowadays anyway.”
“And whose fault is that?” Jensen quips, but there’s something hidden behind the lightness of his words that Jared can’t quite decipher.
“What?” he asks, nonplussed, turning fully so he can look at Jensen without straining his neck. Jensen merely shrugs, an act of nonchalance that Jared can’t believe, and then hops off of Jared’s desk.
“I gotta go straighten some things up in my own room,” he says. “I’ve got garbage-bag wreaths all over the place. Meet you out front in twenty?”
“Okay,” Jared says, but he’s still confused, still wants to push the issue.
They settle into a booth at the local diner, which Jared thinks is absolutely terrible even if Jensen doesn’t. The air is warm and heavy, and Rudolph’s playing over the tiny speakers, and Jared has to try hard to dispel the feeling of...well, whatever this feeling is, as Mrs. Sanchez gives them a look and a raised eyebrow as she drops off the menus.
Jensen had already decided what he was getting before they even walked in the door, but Jared has to take a little while choosing. He glances up as their waiter takes their drink menu--two Coronas, lime yes please because it’s that kind of diner--but before he can return his attention to deciding which he feels like, pancakes or the turkey special, he catches Jensen’s eyes on him.
“What?” he asks, immediately self-conscious, especially if Jensen’s been staring at him all this time. “Do I have something on my face or something?” He immediately brushes his fingers over the corner of his mouth, but they come away clean.
Jensen smiles, that little contented smirk of his that never fails to make something twinge in Jared’s stomach, and settles back into the booth. “Nah,” he says nonchalantly. “Sorry, didn’t mean to stare. Just thinkin’, is all.”
Jared makes this small, amused exhalation, pulling his fingers through his hair and suddenly feeling stupid to think that Jensen was staring at him for some reason or other. “Anything you want to share with the class?” he asks, slow and easy, because it’s better to pretend that he’s that guy than to be his normal, awkward self.
Jensen sees through it instantly and rolls his eyes. “Don’t pull the Mr. Padalecki act on me,” he scoffs. “I can see right through it.”
Jared shrugs lightly, as if he doesn’t feel the weight of something approaching settling on his shoulders. “Seriously,” he says, trying for sincere and surprisingly hitting it straight on. “Something you want to talk about?”
Jensen quirks his lips and stares at the corner of the table for a second before responding. “I dunno, man. Just kinda dreading going home for the holidays, you know?”
Jared can’t help himself--he gapes for a second before he gains enough sense to close his mouth. Thankfully, Jensen is too engrossed with his napkin to notice, acting uncharacteristically shy and unsure. “You’re joking,” Jared says. “I thought you missed them? You talk about them all the time.” And that part’s not even a lie--Jared’s heard so much about Jensen’s family, he almost feels as if he knows them all personally.
The waiter sets down their beers and takes their dinner order before Jensen can answer, and Jensen takes a long slug from his bottle before he squares his gaze on Jared again. “I do,” he says, shrugging one shoulder. “I do miss them. Doesn’t mean I want to go home and be the center of attention.”
“I wonder how that feels,” Jared teases lightly, all too aware that things are the complete opposite for him.
Jensen laughs at this. “You should be happy your mom’s not like mine. She’s invested in every single detail of my life--I can’t get her to stop talking, even if I beg.”
“Well, what does she have to complain about?” Jared asks. “You’re employed, you have friends, you’re not addicted to drugs--”
“I’m not married,” Jensen inserts.
Jared raises an eyebrow. “I know how that goes, at least,” he says.
“It’s not the same,” Jensen says with an odd twist to his mouth. “My parents are kind of...traditionalists. Old country, you know.”
“Your dad’s from Texas,” Jared says slowly.
“It’s hard to explain,” Jensen sighs. “We’re from a really tight-knit community, you know? It’s really strange that I’m not married yet. Almost everybody I know from back home got hitched right after graduating high school.”
“I’m not going to pretend like that isn’t a little weird, but okay,” Jared says placatingly. “Doesn’t mean you have to.”
“No,” Jensen huffs. “You really don’t get it. My parents aren’t just old country--they’re the arranged-marriage kind of old country. My dad told me he’d give me some time to find someone on my own, but it’s running out.”
“That’s stupid,” Jared blurts, going beet-red as soon as he figures out that he basically just insulted Jensen’s entire family. “I mean--”
Jensen laughs then, full-bodied and loud, and it makes Jared feel like less of a jerk. “No, I know. It’s stupid. But it’s family, you know?”
“Yeah,” Jared concedes. “But that doesn’t mean you have to go back. You could just stay here until you find what you’re looking for. You’re a grown man--you don’t have to let them dictate your life.”
Jensen’s face instantly loses its humor, turning melancholy quicker than Jared could blink. “I can’t abandon them. I have to go back. I was never going to stay here forever.”
Jared can’t pretend to ignore the twist of pain Jensen’s admission causes, but he hides it well. “We’ll just have to find you a girl, then. Not that you’ve shown much interest in dating in all the time I’ve known you.”
Jensen’s eyes flick up from where they were staring, somewhere near Jared’s collarbone, and Jared feels pinned by them. “Don’t know if you noticed,” Jensen said lowly, “but I’m not all that into girls.”
Jared’s world tips on its axis as he stares at Jensen staring back at him. For a second, he’s sure his deluded imagination is playing a trick on him, because there’s no way Jensen just admitted to being gay in the middle of a busy diner in Bumfuck, Texas. Jared swallows once, then twice, and his own confession sticks in his throat, because no matter how much he wants to say it, he can’t be that guy. He’ll never be able to be that guy.
Jensen looks nervous, and he’s shredding his napkin now, littering the table with little pieces of paper. “Jared?” he asks tentatively. “That’s okay, right? You don’t care, do you?”
“Why didn’t you tell me before?” Jared chokes out, and Jensen’s eyes dim a little.
“Isn’t it obvious?” he chuffs. “I didn’t want to risk that you were a homophobe or, I don’t know, didn’t want anything to do with me. I like you. As a friend,” he adds hastily. “It would really suck if you hated me because of something I can’t change.”
“I don’t hate you,” Jared says automatically.
“You sure?” Jensen asks cautiously, caustically.
This shocks Jared into silence for a minute as he tries to gather his thoughts. “Is that really how you think of me, Jen?” he says, so quiet he almost isn’t heard over the din of the other patrons. “I don’t hate you. I promise. I was just a little surprised, is all.”
Even though the words aren’t a lie, Jared can sense the untruthfulness behind them. Because now, thanks to that confession, he just might hate Jensen a little bit. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to make him walk away.
Things have changed between them. Imperceptibly to outsiders maybe, but Jared can feel it, even if Jensen doesn’t let on. There’s this something between them that Jared can’t explain, and it’s terrifying the shit out of him. He tries to think of an excuse--any excuse, really--to distance himself from Jensen, but whether it was planned or not, Jensen picked the perfect time to come out of the closet, because he’s entrenched himself enough in Jared’s life that it would be a dick move to push away now. Jared doesn’t want to be that homophobic asshole--he really doesn’t--and even though he knows that he’s making a mistake, he can’t help but stick close.
He’s scared to death of what’s happening.
Jen is the same as he always has been, laughing and shooting the shit with Jared, but now Jared can’t help but notice things he’d been trying to ignore before. Like, when Jensen brushes a hand over Jared’s shoulder, Jared notices that the touch lingers just a second too long, enough to make Jared’s body shiver with it.
Jared imagines leaving, going so far as to make up scenarios in his head where he tells Jensen that he tried to deal with it, he really did, but the gay thing was just a little bit too much. Every time he pictures it, he feels almost physically ill, especially when he thinks of what Jensen would look like if Jared was ever that big of a dick.
Adrianne thinks Jared has gone off the deep end, and she calls him every other day to tell him so.
“Just ask him out,” she says. “You’re halfway in love with him.”
“I am not,” Jared protests hotly, leaning against his counter as Sadie looks up at him in alarm.
“Jared,” she says, none too patiently, “I’ve known you for almost ten years now. I can tell when you’re lovesick. Hell, if I were to come visit right this second, I know I’d find little hearts flapping around your head. It’s sickening. And you’re acting like an idiot.”
“Don’t tell me how I feel,” Jared snaps, his grip on his cell going tight.
“You’re miserable, honey,” she placates, her voice soothing. “I can tell, obviously Jensen could if what you told me is true, and if your parents actually started paying attention to you for a change, they’d know too.”
“Low blow, Addy,” Jared says darkly.
“If it gets you to get your head out of your ass, it’s worth it,” she says, no-nonsense. “Jared, he came out to you. Practically gave you permission right there to molest him over the table. And you were too chicken-shit to do it. The only one making you unhappy is you. So fucking stop it.”
“He’s my friend,” Jared snarls. “And that’s fucking it.”
February has always been Jared’s least favorite month, so it’s no surprise when things go belly fucking up. He’s been surviving since Jensen’s little confession, clinging to his resolve as tightly as he can, even as things unravel around him. This February’s been gloomy, and even his kids feel it--acting up in ways they never do when they get to have recess in the sun.
The month’s winding down, heading to March, when it happens, and if Jared’s completely honest with himself, it has been a long time coming, and it certainly wasn’t unexpected.
Doesn’t mean it didn’t turn his world on its fucking side.
Jensen had wheedled him over to his house that night with the promise of bad Chinese, a basketball game on television, and the absence of his roommate for the entire evening. Jared’s always been a sucker for winding down to the weekend in such a fashion, and even though he’s been trying to go with his head and reason and not give into what he actually wants, he accepts this time, mostly because the last time he’d been strong enough to forcefully refuse, Jensen had been grumpy and morose for a week.
Jensen’s freshly showered, smelling clean with just a hint of aftershave when Jared comes to the door, and Jared almost chokes on his spit. It’s like Jensen knows what he’s doing to Jared, because he quirks his mouth and dramatically gestures Jared inside.
“Food’s on its way,” Jensen says. “Sesame chicken okay?” And damn him, because he knows that’s Jared’s favorite, but he still has to ask and pretend that he doesn’t remember.
“Sounds good,” Jared responds, priding himself on the way his voice doesn’t sound unnatural, even to his own ears.
“Figured we could start on the beer in the meantime,” Jensen says. “Sit down--I’ll grab you one.” Jared really should decline, because beer makes him stupid and clingy, but it sounds good, especially with only a little while until the game starts.
Jared’s on his third when they finally get started on the food, and he can feel the beginnings of a buzz building behind his eyes. Jensen has been matching him swallow for swallow, and Jared knows they’re heading into dangerous territory, even if Jensen doesn’t, but every time he tries to refuse another bottle, Jensen just shames him into it with friendly goading.
“I’m not going to be able to drive home,” Jared says weakly, his head spinning pleasantly.
“Idiot,” says Jensen fondly. “You know you can stay here if you need to.”
“Why is it whenever we drink, one of us ends up having to sleep over?” Jared grumbles, possibly slurring though he can’t tell. “We need to learn our limits, dude. We’re the worst role models ever.”
“Limits are no fun,” Jensen says, leaning back into the couch cushions, looking like the picture of debauchery even though he’s fully clothed. “Besides, if your first graders become little alcoholics, I doubt it’ll be your fault anyway.”
Jared chokes on his swallow, nearly spewing beer all over himself. “Don’t even joke about that,” he splutters, because now all he can see is his kids ruining their lives because they had the misfortune of having him as a teacher. Jesus Christ, Addy was right; he is a maudlin drunk.
By the time the game ends, Jared is too drunk to do anything but sit and let his head loll as the room spins pleasantly around him, the perfect mix of inebriated without the added downtown of unwanted nausea. Jensen is loud, color high in his cheeks, and he keeps touching Jared’s shoulder when he wants to make a point, which just makes Jared flush further.
The next morning, Jared won’t even remember the comment that spurred it, but Jensen says something so insane that Jared--drunk as he is--can’t help it this time and sprays beer as he laughs, which only makes them laugh harder. Somehow, they’re closer on the couch than Jared initially realized, and by the time he finally gets a hold of himself again, he’s practically buried in Jensen’s side in an attempt to not fall over onto the ground.
Jared immediately notices, even if Jensen doesn’t, and tries to subtly shift away so he can get himself to a more suitable position, but drunken fumbling isn’t the most un-obvious of things.
“Stop squirmin’,” Jensen says, turning his head so he can look Jared in the face accusingly.
“Your couch sucks, man,” Jared says, finally propelling himself backwards a little bit until he loses his balance and crashes into Jensen again. He’s about to laugh it off, chalk it up to him being a clumsy drunk but Jensen is looking at him strangely, serious even though they’ve spent the entire night laughing and drinking and generally having a straight guy’s dream of a Friday evening.
“What’s wrong?” Jared asks, forgetting to move away as he furrows his brow and tries to determine what Jensen is thinking.
“Nothing,” Jensen says, and here’s the moment where everything changes. Jared knows--knows for a goddamn fucking fact--that he didn’t move any closer, but god, did he want to, and some of that must have transferred onto his face, because one moment, he and Jensen are just looking at each other, trapped in whatever the fuck they were doing with one another, and then Jensen is turning his body, twisting into Jared.
The kiss is as much of a shock as it isn’t, and Jared is startled by the surge of want, need, yes, that shoots through his system as soon as Jensen’s lips, dry and catching, touch his. He can’t help it, sighing into the contact, opening his mouth, and Jensen doesn’t hesitate, far too coordinated for Jared’s liking. One hand frames his face, and Jensen makes this little inquiring noise as Jared opens his mouth further.
The touch of Jensen’s tongue to his is enough to make Jared arch into Jensen’s touch, tasting him as thoroughly as he can, spit and beer, and god, that combination shouldn’t taste as it does to him. Jensen is responding eagerly in turn, sucking on Jared’s tongue in a way that shouldn’t be legal.
It’s heat, fire, and Jared’s responding to Jensen’s touch in a way that he never has before. It takes about ten seconds for the warning bells to get past his drunken haze, and it’s another ten seconds after that before Jared can force himself to push away. He’s so overenthusiastic, he ends up on his ass on the floor, looking up at Jensen feeling as shell-shocked as Jensen looks.
Jared’s the first one to get his wits about him enough to manage words. He’s disappointed, yes, and he wants desperately, but at the same time he’s indescribably angry.
“What the fuck was that,” he demands, ignoring how his hands are shaking to glare up at Jensen.
Jensen looks abashed, blushing as he rubs the back of his neck self-consciously. “I’m sorry,” he mutters. “I didn’t think, and I thought--”
“You thought what?” Jared asks, the words sharp points as they leave his mouth. He struggles to his feet, and then he’s staring down at Jensen, using his height to all of its intimidating advantage. “You thought that because you’re my friend and because you’re gay it’s okay to kiss me? You think I’m anything like you? You think I wanted that?” His voice is rising, anger masking the shame that’s building behind his eyes. He knows he’s a hypocrite, knows he shouldn’t be saying any of these things, but he can’t help but let them spill out of his mouth.
“Stop being an asshole,” Jensen says quietly.
“I’m fucking allowed to be an asshole if I want to after my friend molests me while I’m drunk at his house,” Jared explodes, throwing his arms out to his sides.
That gets Jensen’s attention, and when he looks up, his glare is as harsh as Jared’s is. “Don’t fucking act like you were an unwilling participant in that. Or was I imagining your tongue in my mouth?”
“Fuck you,” Jared spits, and he can’t stay in this house one second long. “Just...fuck you. And stay the fuck away from me.”
He almost falls over twice getting to the front door, and he’s sure Jensen will follow him, but when he gets the courage to look back, Jensen’s just staring at the ground, angry and dejected.
Jared spends two hours in his car sobering up before he feels comfortable driving home. Jensen never comes after him.
The next few weeks are, without a doubt, complete shit. Jensen is avoiding Jared and Jared’s doing the likewise, and only now is Jared able to understand just how much time they’d been spending together in the past couple of months. To top it all off, once he’d gotten over his hangover and called Addy to recount the whole sad, sorry tale, she’d had no sympathy at all--had gone to anger, actually. So now Addy’s not talking to him either, and the rest of the teachers are all giving him odd looks in the hall. Erica, his student, even went so far as to ask him why he looked so sad the other day in class.
So yeah. Fuck Jared’s life.
Two weeks of silence and cold shoulders and baleful looks are about all Jared can stand before he really starts to feel like a complete douchebag. Now that he’s had time to cool down and remember just what he said, he knows he was out of line, which is the worst thing ever, because it’s one thing to be in a fight because of something he couldn’t help, but his words were unnecessary and said out of anger, not truth. So when it becomes obvious that Jensen is just going to ignore him until his tenure at the school comes to an end, Jared makes a decision.
He wakes up before the sun rose even though it’s Saturday, and even Sadie isn’t able to be roused to go outside, so Jared spends his morning thinking, turning things over in his head. Eventually, he comes to a decision, even if he doesn’t like it much.
Twenty minutes later find him idling in his truck outside of Jensen’s house. He nearly turns around about half a dozen times before he tells himself to stop being a pussy. He drags his feet up the front path, taking much longer than he should, and he’s about to knock, his heart in his throat, when he hears someone murmuring from the backyard.
He knows he shouldn’t, but he can’t help but sneak around back. Jared knows where their gate latches, knows where they hide the key, but he doesn’t even need to break in--the door hasn’t completely closed behind him.
“You’re so pathetic,” someone says, honey-thick and sweet, but it doesn’t sound condemning, just sad. It’s Danneel’s voice, and even though she has every right to be there, Jared can’t help but feel a flash of jealousy that she’s the one comforting Jensen, not Jared. And then he remembers that she’s mothering Jensen because of Jared and he feels like even more of an asshole.
Jared means to announce himself, but he doesn’t, just slips inside the gate and winds his way around the house. He expects to see Danneel and Jensen there, sitting on the two lawn chairs that they had rescued from a yard sale, so when that isn’t what presents himself, it takes Jared a couple seconds to process what he’s seeing.
And then he promptly falls over in shock, because yes, Danneel’s there, looking just as pretty and perfect as usual, but she’s not sitting next to Jensen. She’s not even sitting next to a human. Nope, she’s lounging in the grass, sitting next to a fully grown panther that is looking at Jared in an almost amusing pantomime of shock.
Danneel’s saying something, maybe warning him off or maybe explaining why she’s petting a fucking jungle cat, but all Jared can hear is white noise. He knows he should scramble back, run out of the gate, but he can’t move. He knows--he knows-- that this is the same cat he saw in his lawn the weekend before he met Jensen, and things aren’t computing.
Danneel gets up, making like she’s going to come over to snap Jared out of his daze, but the cat runs in front of her, fast as lightning, stopping her in her tracks. All of sudden, it shifts--no longer panther but something in between, its muscles rippling under it’s fur as everything smoothes out, and then Jensen’s crouching in the grass, startlingly human and completely naked.
Beside himself, all Jared can do is gape, trying to process what the fuck he just saw, and then he realizes what he’s staring at and his cheeks go red-hot with a blush.
“Wait,” Jensen says, almost desperately. “Wait, don’t go.” And then he’s darting inside the house, hopefully to get clothing, because this conversation is already going to be fucking awful even without one of them being naked.
He doesn’t look at Danneel even though he can feel her attention on him because he needs to figure out what the fuck is going on before Jensen gets back outside so he can get a grip on himself. Slowly, he pulls himself to his feet again, brushing the grass off of his pants, looking everywhere but at the door to the house and at Danneel, who still hasn’t said a word. Maybe she doesn’t know what to say, because now that Jared’s slightly lucid, he thinks that he just saw her roommate, his best friend, turn from a panther into a human being, and that just isn’t right. It can’t be, and Jared is thinking that maybe he took something on accident, or got really drunk on some psychedelic moonshine without realizing it, because things like this do not happen in real life.
When Jensen reappears, he looks completely disheveled; his pants are done up but his shirt isn’t buttoned, gaping and showing off the planes of his chest. He’s pale but determined, his jaw set, and something goes stony in Jared’s stomach.
“Inside, please, Danneel,” he says quietly.
Danneel shoots Jared a glare that could melt stone before she responds. “Are you sure, Jensen? I can stay here and play mediator.” The because Jared is an asshole remains unspoken, but Jared hears it as plainly as if it was spoken aloud.
“I’m okay,” Jensen says firmly in his don’t fuck with me voice, and Danneel hesitates for a second, but something about the way Jensen’s standing convinces her that she shouldn’t stick around because she’s gone without another word. Jared doesn’t know how he feels about this, because she would have been a welcome buffer to the fucked up conversation that’s about to happen.
The slam of the back door is enough to spur Jared to action. “What the fuck,” he says, and it comes out more weak than he would have liked. “What the fuck is going on?”
“What are you doing here, Jared?” returns Jensen, completely ignoring what was just said.
“I came to apologize!” Jared explodes, waving his arms like a deranged songbird. “And I heard Danneel so I came out back to see if you were here, and you--” The words are strangled off in his throat by the absurdity of what he was going to say.
Jensen, if possible, blanches even further, but it only makes him look angrier. “You were going to apologize,” he says to himself and then laughs this little disbelieving laugh. “And what now? Now you think I’m a freak, don’t you?”
It’s a valid question, one that Jared isn’t sure he can answer. “Jensen, what the fuck is going on?” he asks again in lieu of an answer.
Jensen shrugs, a little aborted hitch of his shoulders. “Just what you saw,” he says.
“What I saw isn’t physically possible,” Jared shoots back. “What I saw was you as a fucking panther. One, I might add, that scared the shit out of me in October by hiding in my backyard. And then you--it--just turned back into human. That isn’t possible. This is real life.”
“I hate to tell you,” Jensen says, his eyes glittering angrily, “but it is, because that’s exactly what I did.”
“I don’t believe you,” says Jared, even though he does because he saw it with his own two eyes.
“Yes you do,” Jensen bites out. “You just don’t want to. Truth is, I’ve always been like this. My parents are shifters, and so is my brother. It runs in our family and in my community, and everyone told me I was crazy to leave like I did to try my hand in the real world. And turns out they were right, because it fucking sucks out here.”
“There are more of you?” Jared asks weakly. “More panther-human-werewolf people?”
That makes Jensen every more enraged and he stalks forward, stopping just a pace or two from Jared’s feet. Jared takes an aborted step back, and for the briefest second he can see a flash of hurt in Jensen’s face before it’s tampered down.
“Don’t worry,” Jensen snarls. “It’s not catching. And I’m not a fucking werewolf. So if you’re done gawping at me, you can just go back to where you fucking came from. Don’t worry. I won’t bother you again.” He turns to go back inside the house, and the thought that this is the last time that Jared will see Jensen rips through his chest.
“Wait, don’t--” he says, and Jensen whirls around.
“Don’t what? You’ve made it clear that everything about me disgusts you. You should be fucking happy.”
“I’m not happy,” Jared says quietly. “I’m not. You’re my friend, and I acted like a complete asshole because hey, guess what, I’m completely fucked up. But why didn’t you tell me? Why did you come here anyway? What’s going on?”
Jensen laughs again, that rough, unforgiving sound. “I didn’t tell you because I knew you would freak the fuck out. And why am I here? Easy answer, Jared. I came here because of you. You’re the only reason I moved to this town.”
That sends Jared reeling. “Me? What the fuck? Why the fuck are you here for me? That doesn’t make any sense, Jensen!”
Jensen’s smile is sardonic and biting. “Funny thing,” he starts, and Jared’s heart is pounding and he can’t figure out if he’s scared or not. “It’s kind of a legend in our tribe, you know. Oh, and we call ourselves a tribe, but we’re not a fucking group of animals, so don’t you dare judge me.”
“I’m not,” Jared protests.
Jensen makes a little disbelieving sound but continues his story. “So, us, shifters, we’re supposed to have our one true soul-mate or whatever. We call them bond pairs, and it’s said that when you know, you know. Only there hasn’t been a mated pair in over a century, so no one believed it anymore, you know? So when my dad tried to marry me off, I asked him for a year to try and find mine. So I left, and I came here randomly because my father used to talk about growing up in Texas after his original tribe disbanded, and look. There you were. Not even in the zoo for three fucking weeks, and I see you with a gaggle of children. And they were right, because I knew.”
Jensen’s stance is challenging, and his shoulders are shaking from pent-up emotion. Jared doesn’t know what to think.
“You saw me,” he says dumbly. “At the zoo? How the fuck did you get out of the zoo? How did you find me? How did you get a job where I work? What the fuck is going on?”
“My mother has connections with the Dallas zoo,” Jensen says, ticking one finger up in a pantomime of teaching. “I found you here because I can smell you, because I can turn into a fucking animal. And because you’re my fucking bond-mate, apparently. And I got a job out of the school thanks to dumb luck. Turns out Danneel knows a hacker who was good enough to find out where you work, see if there were any vacant positions, and fake a teaching certification, and I’m a good charmer.”
“You’ve been teaching even though you’re not qualified?” Jared asks, even though that’s the least of his worries.
“Oh, who fucking cares?” Jensen spits. “I know what I’m doing, and it’s not like I’m screwing them up.”
“You could be!” Jared says hotly. “You don’t even know how to teach like you're supposed to.”
Jensen throws his hands up in the air. “Fine. I can see when I’m not wanted. I’m just going to go home. I know my place there. I know how I fit.”
“Wait,” Jared says again, going so far as to catch his hand on Jensen’s bicep.
Jensen moves, faster than Jared can track, and then he’s being kissed again, practically fucking mauled. He melts into it, the sensation not muddled by alcohol this time, as his skin comes alive with electricity. Jensen’s hands frame his face possessively and he just lets himself be taken. There’s promise behind the kiss, and something deeper that Jared doesn’t want to understand.
Just as quickly as it started, Jensen pulls away, panting, and Jared chases after him for the briefest of seconds before he remembers what he’s doing and then he physically recoils.
Jensen laughs, a third time, only now he sounds upset. “I can’t do this,” he says. “If you can’t have the courage to take what you want, to stand up to a family who doesn’t notice you, I can’t make you. I won’t, Jared. You have to come to the decision yourself. And I can’t promise I’ll be around when you do.”
Jensen stalks away, and this time Jared doesn’t try to stop him.
Jared honestly doesn’t know how he makes it through the next two weeks at work, because things are honestly a blur. He begs off dinner at his parent’s, blaming a non-existent stomach flu, and it goes so bad that Kristen has to sit him down at work and ask him if everything’s okay. He has to lie, tell her that he’s just feeling a little blue, and no, he doesn’t know why, and he can tell she doesn’t buy it. He thought he could get through this, but truth is, he really, really can’t.
And then Jensen up and disappears completely. Mrs. Ferris tells the staff at a morning meeting that he had a family emergency and had to leave the position, which means the third graders are going to get their third teacher in under a year. Jared feels physically ill from the news, because it wasn’t like he’d sought Jensen out and begged him to stay, but he definitely wasn’t ready for him to leave, as much as he wished the opposite was true. Jared had been doing his best, actually, to pretend that Jensen didn’t exist. He’s still trying to convince himself that Jensen’s a deranged psycho who was lying to fuck Jared up.
It doesn’t work.
Time passes, and even though Jared gets up the courage to call Jensen’s cell, he finds out that it’s been disconnected, and he has to come to terms that he’s probably never going to see Jensen again. Ironically enough, this thought that’s supposed to be comforting is nothing but completely devastating.
Jared’s in for another Friday night doing nothing but moping around his house in his sweats, trying to pretend that he doesn’t care that Jensen has made good on his promise of leaving and never coming back when his doorbell rings. He considers ignoring it, but the person outside his house is damn persistent, because the knocking begins shortly thereafter, sharp bangs that make Sadie yelp.
Jared doesn’t care that he looks like a hobo; he wrenches the door open without looking out the peephole, ready to tell his unwanted visitor off in no uncertain terms, but the sight of Danneel on his porch renders him speechless.
“Don’t invite me inside,” she says, irritated. “It’s not like I’m doing you a huge favor or anything.”
“What--” he starts, but she cuts him off, pushing him through the threshold and slamming the door behind her.
“No,” she says. “No talking. You’ve fucked things up enough as it is anyways, and I’m here to make them right.”
“This is my--” Jared starts again, and he gets interrupted again.
“Jensen left,” she says, “partly because of you and partly because his dad had a heart attack.” That shuts Jared up all right. “And he’s fine, but the doctors don’t think he’ll live much longer, and since he’s one of our town’s leaders, he needs someone to take over his position. Someone he trusts. Someone who’s a known genetic pack leader, like Jensen. Someone who’s mated.”
“But Jensen isn’t,” Jared starts, stopping before she can do it for him.
“I know he isn’t, idiot,” she huffs. “But he’s going to be. The city council’s meeting tomorrow morning to arrange for a wife for him.”
“Jensen’s gay,” Jared says blankly.
“But he’ll marry a girl if the council says to,” she says, rolling her eyes. “He’s obedient like that.”
“So let him,” Jared says petulantly.
“You don’t fucking mean that,” Danneel says flatly. “And don’t lie to me. I’m a girl; I can see right through you. You love him. It’s in your genetic code as his bond-mate.”
“That’s a fairy tale,” Jared protests. “Things like that don’t exist in real life.”
“You’ve seen that they do,” she says. “And Jensen was right--this is your decision, and I can’t make it for you. But the council is meeting tomorrow, and if I get you in front of them, they’ll acquiesce to letting you marry Jensen. I know they will; they’re a sucker for happy endings.”
“I’m not,” Jared says, swallowing thickly. “I can’t.”
“You can,” Danneel says. She presses something into his hand--an envelope. “Here--it’s a ticket to my hometown. Last one of the weekend, because I’m going home and you’ll never find it without me. Private jet and all. It leaves in four hours. So make your decision, Jared, because come Sunday, Jensen will be married and mated, and we mate for life.”
Jared’s only able to stare at her dumbfounded as she fixes him with a tough stare and flounces back outside.
Jared stands there for a second looking at the door, dumbfounded. For a second, he thinks he accidentally fell asleep on the couch, because there’s no way that that actually happened.
He flops down into the nearest chair, and Sadie immediately comes to investigate, but he can’t even make his head work enough to give her a reassuring head-pat, and she whines low in her throat. It puts Jared on edge, his stomach churning as he thinks of what’s about to happen.
Deciding that he should just stay, live his life in Texas with his family and his steady job, is the sensible answer. He mulls it over in his head, but then he sees Jensen marrying a little petite blonde, and he feels like vomiting. He’s feeling possessive--Jensen does not belong to some nameless girl--and even though he wants to, he knows that he can’t deny things much longer.
Truth is...truth is he’s pretty much been in love with Jensen since day one, hasn’t he? He remembers that first week, avoiding Jensen like being with him would cause the end of the world. The way his heart would race, how his skin warmed whenever Jensen touched him in that casual way of his.
And he’s wanted Jensen since the first night they hung out after school, when Jensen was drunk and Jared fell on top of him, and even as the facade of friendship continued, Jared can’t help but think of all the times he stared just a little too long, woke up with a fantasy Jensen still lingering from his dreams.
His parents will be disappointed, and his friends might hate him, and there’s every reason in the world why he should stay here. There’s no good excuse for marrying someone you’ve known for only a couple of months. It’s reckless--stupid, even--and the potential for everything ending in disaster is so great, it’s almost destructive.
It doesn’t matter though. He can’t just sit here and wait for Jensen to get married. He can’t. Jensen is his friend, more than by now, and Jared knows his decision even before he’s done deliberating on it.
So he goes.
Kristen comes over to take Sadie from him, giving him a flurry of questions he doesn’t answer as he struggles outside with a hastily packed suitcase, and then he’s flying down the road to the address Danneel printed on the envelope, which turns out to be a small airfield.
Danneel’s not surprised when he walks into the hangar. She just quirks her mouth, looking wholly relieved.
“I’m glad you finally came to your senses,” she says.
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” he says. “But I can’t...I can’t just let him go through with marrying someone he doesn’t want to. But I don’t know if I can be what he needs.”
“You are,” she says, lying one small hand on his forearm. “He knew when he saw you. Don’t throw this away.”
“This is so fucked up,” Jared says, shaking his head.
“That’s Jensen for you,” she says. “Fucking everything up. But you’re here. You followed me for a reason.”
Jared can’t lie to her, not when his life is falling apart in front of his eyes. Everything he’s believed, everything he’s tried to hide his entire life, is coming unraveled. “Because I can’t just let him go,” he says. “I’ve tried, and this is crazy, but when I think about him marrying someone else, I feel like I’m going insane.”
“Come on then,” she says. “Because we don’t have much time, and I don’t feel ashamed in telling you that it will probably ruin his life if he has to marry someone else after he’s already found you.”
Jared laughs, a little shakily. “Now or never, I guess,” he says.
The plane ride is a whirl of emotion that Jared doesn’t remember and if it weren’t for Danneel, he would’ve drank himself into a hangover. “The council needs to be impressed,” she says sternly. “You have to be at your best.”
“I thought you said they were suckers for happy endings,” he hiccupped.
“They are, but that doesn’t mean you can sabotage yourself,” she hisses. “Just relax.”
And Jared tries, he really does, but when they touch down in the middle of Nowhere, Vermont on a field that really shouldn’t classify as a runway, he feels like he’s going to be sick. It’s nearing one in the morning, and Danneel takes him back to her apartment, which is practically as big as his house.
“We have money,” she says, shrugging. “We all do. We’re kind of lucky that way.”
“It also helps that you can scare the shit out of people by turning into huge predatory cats,” Jared says in a weak attempt at a joke.
Danneel just raises an eyebrow. “That too,” she agrees, and shows Jared to his room, in which Jared spends a whole six hours not sleeping before Danneel comes in and forces him into the shower. When he gets out, he finds that she’s laid out clothes for him, and he doesn’t question where they came from or why they fit exactly right because he’s trying too hard to not vomit.
Danneel leaves him in some sort of a waiting room of a small, one room courthouse-type building as she goes to talk to someone. When she comes back, she looks both angry and nervous, a combination that sets Jared’s heart racing.
“What’s wrong?” he asks preemptively.
“I can’t go in with you,” she says shortly. “The council’s forbidden it. They want to get to know you without me influencing their decision.”
Jared swallows hard. “What if I fuck this up?” he asks, terrified. “What if I can’t convince them I’m what Jensen needs?”
“Stop being a wussy, and just go.” Danneel says. “They’re not going to separate bond-mates. I know they won’t.”
Jared’s scared he’s about to go into cardiac arrest as Danneel pushes him through the big oaken doors, waving him on encouragingly as they close behind him. He’s half-expecting judges with powdered wigs and stern expressions, but it’s just a group of middle-aged people, four men and three women, and Jared can pick out Jensen’s father from the pictures Jensen had had on display in his house.
“Jared Padalecki?” the first one asks, not rising from his chair. Jared gets the distinct impression that this is an interrogation, not a meet-and-greet, so he just nods weakly.
Another woman speaks up, eyeing him critically. “You are asking to marry Jensen Ackles, a powerful member of our clan, as he ascends to his rightful role as one of the town leaders.”
Jared’s voice is croaky when he answers and he has to clear his throat to get a semblance of credibility. “Yes.”
“What are your qualifications?”
This is like the hardest job interview Jared’s ever been on, and for a moment he panics before the answer comes to him. “I’m his bond-mate,” he says, the first time he’s ever voiced the words aloud. They feel right, warm in his throat.
The council exchanges glances with one another and whisper amongst themselves, which Jared takes as a good sign.
“How do you know?” another asks.
“He told me,” Jared says simply. “He said he felt it the moment he saw me. And I felt something too, but I didn’t know it at the time.” The confession is hugely hard to make, but once he says it, his chest feels lighter.
“But he left you,” the first one says harshly. “He came back for a proper wedding.”
“I was scared,” Jared admits. “He’s not what I’m used to, and my family...they won’t understand. I’ll lose everything for him.”
Jensen’s father speaks up then, strong and steady. “Why would you give up your life for my son?”
“I love him,” Jared says without thinking, the absolute truth. “I can’t have him marry someone else. I can’t. I want to be that for him. It’s worth it to me.”
The council dismisses him, and Jared fears that he made an awful impression in his extremely short meeting. Danneel is a little more confident, and they pace the waiting room until one council member comes back with a verdict, like Jared is a criminal waiting his sentence.
In the end, she tells him, even though he isn’t clan, they cannot break the ties of bond-mates, and they can feel the connection even though Jensen is across town. He’s given the go-ahead to attend Jensen’s wedding tomorrow. As the other groom, obviously, and not just a guest.
Jared doesn’t know if he should feel relieved or scared out of his mind.
Sunday morning dawns early, with Jared completely ready for a wedding he’s only known about for twenty-four hours. He’s been ritually cleaned--which was incredibly awkward--and he’s dressed in finery. He’s also been thoroughly briefed on the consummation ceremony that will take place after he’s been properly married, which is probably the scariest part.
“It’s very important to not let Jensen catch you too soon,” Danneel says as she smoothes the wrinkles in his shirt.
“I’m going to be sick,” Jared says. “Why am I doing this?”
Danneel just gives him a look and keeps on instructing. “If he finds you too quickly, the tribe will think you’re not strong enough for him. But if he doesn’t find you, the council will consider it to be an unwise match and they will annul the marriage.”
“How am I supposed to not let him catch me?” Jared asks, horrified. “He’s a fucking panther. He found me with his nose all the way from the fucking zoo.”
“You’ll know what to do,” she says.
“You shouldn’t be helping me,” he says. “I’m going to fuck this up.”
“If you leave him at the altar,” she says threateningly, “I will find you and kill you myself. Jensen’s been my friend since we were cubs, and I am not going to let you ruin him.”
“I can’t promise that,” Jared says. “Danneel--I can’t.”
“You can, and in any case, it’s showtime. You’ve missed your chance to get out of here--we’re pretty isolated. And we’ll find you.” Her tone is scary, but she’s smiling, and Jared takes a deep, fortifying breath.
She leads him out to the partition that separates him from the audience. There’s nothing frilly like flowers or a string quartet, and Jared can hear the murmur of a hundred different voices. It does nothing for his nerves.
All of a sudden everything goes quiet. “It’s time,” Danneel whispers, and she gives Jared a little shove. He sort of stumbles out into the aisle, and then there’s no turning back because Jensen has gone stock-still. Everyone around him is muttering, but Jared can’t think of anything except what he’s about to do. He’s still terrified, but some sort of calm settles over him as he meets Jensen’s eyes.
Jensen looks like shit, even though someone obviously tried to clean him up, pale and gaunt with a tired look to his face, and Jared doesn’t care. All of a sudden, this feeling hits him, low in the gut, and he feels like an idiot, because this is where he’s supposed to be. He fumbles a little as he starts walking, but Jensen’s face has lit up with this disbelieving joy that Jared can’t quantify, and when he slips into his place at the altar, he shakily holds his hands out for Jensen to take.
The contact is like fire, instant and hot, and Jared can’t help himself; he begins to shake.
Why, Jensen mouths at him, ignoring the pastor as he intones the rights of marriage, and Jared bites his lower lip.
I’m stupid, he mouths back. I’m sorry.
It doesn’t feel as crazy anymore, not now that he’s here. He should feel like he’s making the biggest mistake of his life, marrying someone he barely knows. But it’s not like that because he does know Jensen, has been glued to his side for the past four months.
It feels natural.
So Jared says I do when he should, and when they kiss, Jensen is the one to pull away, smiling this little smile that, like always, makes Jared’s stomach flutter with butterflies. There’s not time for words, not when people are congratulating Jensen and checking Jared out, and then Jared’s being pulled away because the real show’s about to begin.
Jared’s blindfolded and led into the forest, tripping over roots in a way that makes his escort titter disbelievingly. He’s left in a clearing and before he can even rip the blindfold away, the man who came with him is gone, bounding away into the trees.
Jared is so screwed.
He takes a second to think about things, and then, going with what he’s learned from the Discovery Channel, he starts running. He finds a wide stream, and without thinking about it, he jumps in with the theory that the water will mask his scent. He swims upstream against the current, which thankfully isn’t strong, for as long as he can, before he pulls himself out of the water and smears himself with mud. And then he’s running again.
He doesn’t know how long he lasts, but the sun has been down for a long time and he’s been running for what feels like forever, tripping over branches and thrush. And then he just stops, because he can see the ghostly glow of eyes in the distance, and he knows it’s Jensen. Knows he’s been found.
And he doesn’t even know if he’s passed the test or not, but Jensen is coming up to him, practically stalking him, and it makes a thrill of something go through Jared’s bones. He stands there, stock-still, as Jensen circles him, and then Jensen is up close, butting against his leg like the biggest kitten ever. He feels Jensen’s tongue laving the scrape he got on his elbow for running into a tree trunk and then Jensen is batting his hand and gesturing to follow. So Jared does.
They walk for just under an hour before a small, crudely made house comes into view. A thrill runs through Jared’s stomach, because he knows they’ve reached their destination, buoyed on by the fact that Jensen shifts as soon as he hits the clearing.
“You came,” he says, the first real words they’ve been able to exchange.
“I couldn’t not come,” Jared says helplessly.
“You came,” Jensen said again, and Jared takes the first step, kissing him. It was meant to be chaste, a small reassurance, but Jensen takes lead, plundering Jared’s mouth. It’s definitely a promise of what’s to come.
“I came,” Jared says.
“Inside,” Jensen demands, pulling him by the wrist.
Jared knows the protocol, has been well-versed in it, so when Jensen manhandles him into the shower, he doesn’t resist. Jensen is naked anyway, and the ring on Jared’s finger is a blatant reminder that he is, in fact, married, so he only blushes a little bit as Jensen peels the clothes from his body.
Jared isn’t allowed to touch as Jensen cleans him under the water. It’s not supposed to be sexual; it’s a purification before the consummation is supposed to occur, but every swipe of Jensen’s hands lingers, pulling shudders from Jared’s body. His touch is sensual, calming, and it’s winding Jared up tighter than a drum. He feels something settle around him, something deep and foreign and binding, something he can’t explain, but he recognizes the tie. With every second that passes, he feels like even more of an idiot for trying to resist Jensen, because he knows now. There was never any escaping this.
Jensen’s teeth on the nape of Jared’s neck are primally arousing, and he has to physically stop himself from turning around to claim Jensen’s mouth. Danneel was very adamant about following the ritual.
Jared’s heartbeat ratchets up as Jensen dries him off and leads him to the bed. He knows what’s coming. He knows he wants it. And now he’s allowed to touch, so he does.
Jared’s first kiss is sweet, short, but Jensen isn’t taking that, and Jared lets the kiss devolve into something baser, more needy. Jensen’s tongue is tangling with his, fucking into his mouth wetly, and Jared just moans encouragingly, because now that he’s allowed himself this, he can’t keep pretending he doesn’t want it. He slides his hands up Jensen’s arms, holding on to his biceps, and lets Jensen press them together, slick skin against slick skin. He’s trying his best to defer to Jensen while at the same time trying to memorize everything he can now that he has it. The ridges of Jensen’s teeth, the feel of his tongue, the corded muscle underneath his smooth skin. It’s heady and overwhelming, and if Jensen wasn’t anchoring Jared, he almost thinks his knees would buckle.
Jared lets himself be led onto the bed, and Jensen settles on top of him, his weight making it almost hard to breathe. Jared thinks things are going to progress, but Jensen seems content just making out, and Jared’s brain is misfiring, because he can’t even think straight.
By the time Jensen graduates to mapping the rest of Jared’s skin with his mouth, Jared’s lips are swollen and bruised. He feels utterly debauched, and it’s perfect, Jensen’s bow mouth tracing trails down Jared’s throat and chest. He stops, gives Jared an impish smile, and then bites down lightly on Jared’s nipple before gently sucking the hurt away. If Jared wasn’t hard before (and he definitely, definitely was), he absolutely is now, thick and straining.
“Oh,” he gasps. “Oh.”
Jensen stops what he’s doing, earning a whine from deep in Jared’s throat. “Feel good, baby?” he asks, his voice sex rough.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” Jared responds, his voice throaty and fucked out. “Don’t you dare stop.”
“Language,” Jensen chides, far too together for someone in his position, and he bites down again.
“Not my mother,” Jared manages, even though he absolutely needs Jensen to stop that before things escalate.
“Thank God for small favors,” Jensen says, punctuating his words with another wide swipe of his tongue across Jared’s chest.
“Get up here,” Jared chokes, because he needs to distract Jensen before he falls apart for good, and Jensen obliges, kissing Jared deeply.
“Normally,” Jensen says between kisses, “I’d take this slow. I’d kiss you and suck you, and make you crazy for me because you’re mine.” He catches both of Jared’s wrists and holds them down against the bed, startlingly strong.
“Don’t be so sure,” Jared sighs, but that’s an utter lie that Jensen immediately catches.
“I am that sure,” he says, nipping at Jared’s throat and laughing at the breathy sigh that Jared can’t hold back. “You came to me. You married me. And I’m going to mate you so good.”
Jared wants to protest, he really does. “Please,” he says instead, startled by the begging quality his voice has taken on. “I’ve been waiting so--oh Jesus--so fucking long.”
“Coulda fooled me,” Jensen growls, holding Jared’s wrists tighter. “Acted like the little ice queen when I first rolled into town.”
“I knew the first time I saw you,” Jared says, throwing his head to the right so he doesn’t have to look Jensen in the face. “Knew I wanted you and it scared me shitless.”
“I’ve got you now,” Jensen says. “I’ve got you and I’m going to make you good and mine.”
Abruptly, Jensen lets go of Jared’s hands and slithers down the bed. Jared thinks he’s going to make good on his promise about the sucking but instead Jensen retrieves something from the floor and slicks his fingers with it.
Jared knows what’s going to happen, but he can’t stop the punched exhale of breath he lets out when Jensen slips a finger inside of him. It doesn’t feel anything but weird for a minute, too full, but after Jensen’s given Jared the chance to get used to it, he pulls a dirty trick, pressing on Jared’s prostrate until Jared thinks he’ll pass out from it. His cock is dribbling precome, thick and sticky onto his stomach, and Jensen doesn’t let up for a second, even after he slips another finger inside.
It lasts forever and a second at the same time, and Jared’s shaking by the time Jensen’s done. He’s so ready for it, and he tells Jensen as much.
Jensen kisses Jared the entire time as he pushes inside, making Jared come apart from sensory overload. He’s never felt like this, felt like he could explode with feeling and sensation, and he keeps hiccuping little moans like a goddamn girl into Jensen’s mouth, things like please and oh God and more, don’t stop. Jensen’s moving inside of him, rhythmic and perfect, and Jared can feel every point of connection between them.
When Jared comes it’s a surprise, like a freight train hitting him. Jensen never touched him, and Jared knew he wasn’t allowed to touch himself, and he didn’t even know he was wired to come without a reach-around, split open on Jensen’s cock.
He figures that’s why they’re soul-mates.
Jensen follows him over with a shout and as he bites down on Jared’s neck, Jared’s sure he broke the skin. The rush of that contact makes him shudder with something that’s like a second orgasm.
“Mine,” Jensen says again, and it’s a benediction.
Later, they’re curled together in the bed, Jared tracing patterns on Jensen’s chest.
“I was so certain you wouldn’t come back,” Jensen confessed. “I thought I lost you forever.”
“I almost didn’t,” Jared admits. “But Danneel made me realize I was being an idiot.”
“And now you’re stuck with me for life,” Jensen says. “There’s no way I’m letting you go. I’ll go to the ends of the world to find you. That’s a promise. You can’t run.”
“Okay, now I’m scared,” Jared says, but he’s joking. He sighs and then looks Jensen in the eye. “I came back because thinking about you up here marrying someone you didn’t know scared me shitless. I couldn’t do it.”
“Is that the only reason?” Jensen asks.
“Idiot,” Jared chuffs. “You know it isn’t.”
“You have to say it,” Jensen says, and there’s a command in his voice that makes a shiver go down Jared’s spine.
“I love you,” he says so quietly he almost doesn’t hear himself. It’s the first time he’s said it to Jensen, and this makes it feel more real. “I’ve been a little bit in love with you since the first time I saw you.”
Jensen smiles. “And now you’re stuck with me.” His I love you doesn’t need to be said. Jared can feel it.
“I guess I am,” Jared says, and the feeling thrums within him.
“Forever,” Jensen clarifies.
“I promise,” Jared responds, and their bond settles, and it’s the truth.