Hey, Jensen. It’s uh, it’s Jared. I just wanted to let you know I had a great time last night. Um. You seemed kind of upset when you left. I hope it wasn’t something I did because I had a really good time. I guess I said that. Anyway, I hope we can do it again soon. I mean – shit – get together again soon. Not just for sex. I mean – we could – God. Nevermind. I’d just really like to get to know you better. Um. And I guess I’ll see you at practice too. Gimme a call back whenever. Bye.
Hey, Jensen. It’s Jared. I swear I’m not a crazy stalker or anything. I just wanted to make sure you got my message yesterday, ‘cause I haven’t heard from you. I mean, it’s cool. It’s only been a day, but sometimes messages get lost. So, I just wanted to make sure. Yeah. Anyway, call me back. Talk to you later.
Hey, it’s Jared again. Missed you at practice today. I had to keep rhythm all by myself. Heh. Yeah, so Chris said you were really swamped at work. Hope things get less hectic soon. Gimme a call. Bye.
Hey, Jensen. Listen, I don’t wanna sound paranoid or anything, but it kinda seems like you’re avoiding me. Could you please just call me back? Thanks.
Okay, I really am starting to feel like a crazy stalker now. But this is two practices in a row. I asked Steve and he said you’ve only missed practice once before in four years and that was because you were really sick. It’s because of me, isn’t it? Look, I’m sorry for whatever I did to upset you. If you’d just call me we could talk about it, all right? Okay, bye, Jensen.
Jensen’s fingers shake as he snaps his phone shut on Jared’s latest message. He’s clearly made a grave miscalculation. Not only isn’t Jared taking the hint, he’s hanging on with more tenacity than Jensen would have thought possible.
“Uh, is this a bad time?”
Jensen’s head snaps up, and he sees Allie hovering in the doorway.
She raises her eyebrows. “Well, you looked like you might be busy trying to crush your phone with the power of your mind.”
He looks back down at the offending piece of technology and shoves it quickly into his pocket, simultaneously shutting his tangled mental state away for later review, and looks back up with a bland smile. “It’s nothing,” he says.
She looks at him skeptically. “Uh huh, sure,” she says, but seemingly decides to let it go. “Anyway, I came to see if you were up for lunch.”
He glances at his computer screen, and, sure enough, the clock reads 12:15. He shrugs. He’s learned quickly that giving into Allie’s manic determination to socialize with him is much easier than resisting. “Sure, why not?”
“Great! I’ll grab my jacket,” she chirps.
Once they settle in at the restaurant – Chinese today – Allie picks the subject back up, dashing Jensen’s futile hope that she’d forget about it.
“So, wanna tell me what that was about earlier?”
She gives him an incredulous look. “When you were using your laser eyes on your cell phone?”
“Oh. No, not really.”
That startles a laugh from her. “Well, at least you’re honest. It might help to talk about it though.”
“Come on, try me.”
He breathes out slowly, counting to ten. “Someone keeps calling me and I want him to stop,” he says, proud of the way his voice stays even.
“Why?” Allie asks, tilting her head to the side.
“I like him.” The honest answer is out of his mouth before he realizes it. He bites his lips together, desperately wishing he could take it back.
Allie’s giving him that look again, like he’s a rare specimen she doesn’t yet understand, but clearly intends to study until she does. “You know,” she says, sounding like she’s choosing her words carefully, “When I like someone, I usually want them to call me.”
“I don’t like anybody,” he blurts out and goddammit! It’s like he has no control over what’s coming out of his mouth today. “Listen, can we just stop talking about this? Please?” He hears the edge of hysteria in his voice and cringes.
She looks puzzled. “Yeah, sure,” she says, shifting uncomfortably in her seat and looking around at other tables and the pseudo-Asian décor.
Jensen’s relieved that she doesn’t force the issue, but he doesn’t think he can sit across from her for the rest of the lunch hour either. He knows he was letting his freakishness show there a little bit. That hasn’t happened around anyone other than Chris or Steve for years. Then Jared comes along and knocks him totally off balance and it’s like he can’t quite keep his mask in place anymore. His tie feels like it’s trying to strangle him and it’s suddenly far too hot. He stands up.
“Listen, I’m sorry, but I’m really swamped today. I have to get going.”
“But we haven’t even ordered yet!”
He shrugs, grimacing apologetically. “See you back at the office.”
“Yeah, okay,” she sighs.
He walks out into the Texas sunshine and he can breathe again.
Jared snaps up his phone the second it starts to ring and flips it open without checking to see who’s calling.
“Hello?” he says breathlessly.
“Hey, sweetie,” says a feminine voice.
“Oh,” Jared says, his shoulders slumping and he knows he’s failing at keeping the disappointment out of his voice, “Hey, Sandy.”
“Wow, I feel loved.”
He sighs. “Sorry. It’s not you. It’s just, I was hoping—never mind.”
“Oh, no, you’re not getting away with that. You were hoping what? Jared,” she pauses and he can practically hear the wheels in her head turning from here, “Have you met someone?”
“No! Yes. I don’t know. Maybe?”
“You either have or you haven’t, honey. Now which is it?”
“Yes, but—“ he breaks off with a frustrated noise.
“Well, we, uh, we hooked up, but that was two weeks ago and ever since then he won’t pick up his phone or return any of my calls and I don’t know what I did or how to make it better.”
“Okay, back up. Start at the beginning and tell me everything.”
Sandy’s got that no bullshit allowed tone in her voice that’s always made Jared a little afraid of her, even if she is a tiny person. He settles in and tells her all about Jensen and too much liquor and everything else.
She listens along until he runs himself down, then says, “Oh, Jay, I’m sorry. That’s a bit of a mess. You really like him?”
“Well, then you definitely shouldn’t let him go without a fight. Not to mention you can’t just give up the band. If he won’t pick up the phone, go see him.”
“You really think so?” Jared feels the stirrings of hope in his chest at having a possible course of action to follow.
“I do,” Sandy says decisively.
“Okay. I’ll go see him.”
“Good. So, moving on, how’s the new job?”
“Well, being a fact checker for the Richardson Gazette is just the kind of high pressure, fast paced job I imagined getting with my Journalism major,” he says, rolling his eyes and leaning back against the couch cushions, relaxing for the first time in days. “But what about you? How are things back h—in San Antone?”
“Good, good. Everybody misses you like crazy, of course. Why’d you have to go and graduate a year early, anyway?”
He laughs. “I’m just ornery like that.”
“Anyway, I swear I don’t know what I’m going to do with Justin. I know it’s summer and everything, but he’s acting like senior year is gonna last forever. I think the real world will be a bit of a shock.”
“Yeah, no kidding. You think he’s gonna man up and propose soon?”
She sighs. “I don’t know. I love him to pieces, but I don’t think he’s ready for that kind of commitment.”
“Well, sweetheart, there’s no rush you know.”
“Yeah, I know. I guess I just had this idea that everything was going to work out perfectly, you know? I’d meet Mr. Right in college and we’d get married right out of college. Now I don’t know if that’s going to happen or if I even want it.”
“You’ll figure it out,” Jared assures her, “Just don’t forget to have a little fun, okay?”
“Well, it won’t be easy without you are your sugar induced crazy plans, but I’ll try.”
“Now I think you need to go get your man.”
“Oh, God, wish me luck!”
“Please, with the puppy eyes of doom, you won’t need it.”
“Come on, Jensen! Open the door. I know you’re in there!”
Chris rubs his temples as the banging starts again. Jared has been outside, knocking and yelling, for the last ten minutes. Clearly he isn’t going to go away until one of the neighbors calls the cops. So Chris gives in and jerks the door open.
Jared freezes mid-knock and has the good grace to look a bit chagrined. “Oh, hey, Chris,” he says.
“Look, Jared,” Chris says wearily, “He’s actually not home right now, but if he was, you’d be freaking him the hell out.”
Jared just gapes at him.
Chris sighs. “Come on, son. Let’s step outside and chat for a bit.”
Jared falls back a couple of steps as Chris crowds him out onto the tiny front porch. They sit down side by side and look out at the front yard in silence for a few moments. Finally, Chris speaks.
“Listen, what do you want from Jensen anyway?”
He feels Jared tense up beside him. When he speaks, his voice is carefully polite. “I don’t really think that’s any of your business.”
And they are so not going there. “Jensen’s been my best friend since grade school. His business is my business. You’d best just accept that here and now.”
Jared huffs out an offended breath. “Fine. Well then he could return my calls for a start.”
“All twenty-seven of them?” Chris teases gently, trying to soothe Jared’s ego so he might listen to reason.
It seems to work because Jared laughs wryly. “I guess I have been calling a lot,” he concedes.
No shit, is what Chris wants to say, but he can’t imagine that going over well. Instead, he asks again. “So, what do you want from him?”
Jared sighs, burying his head in his hands. “I really like him,” he admits. He lifts his head and pierces Chris with an anguished stare. “And I thought—“ he breaks off and looks away again. When he speaks again, it’s barely audible. “I thought he liked me too.”
Chris nods sympathetically and claps a hand on Jared’s shoulder. “You’re not the first one,” he says.
“So what should I do?”
“Look, I’m gonna be honest with you here. Like I said, Jensen’s my best friend. So he’s the one I’m looking after. But I like you, Jared. If you’ve got a lick of sense in your head, you’ll listen to what I’m saying. All right?”
He waits for Jared to nod before continuing.
“Right now, you need to back off. Jen, he’s—he’s skittish and you’re doing a really good obsessive stalker impression. Just cool it. Stop calling him. Come to practice. Hang out with us, drink some beers, take it easy. If we’re lucky we can make it work as a band. Anything more than that, well. That would be up to Jensen. All right?”
Jared’s jaw clenches momentarily and he looks ready to argue again. Then he takes a deep breath and squares his shoulders. “Yeah, I think I can do that.”
Chris manages to keep his sigh of relief internal. “All right, good. Then I’ll see you for practice in a couple days.”
“Okay. See ya, Chris.” Jared stands and heads back to his car, waving just before he gets in.
Chris waves back and then goes inside.
“Is he gone?”
Chris levels his gaze at Jensen, peeking out of his bedroom door. “Yeah, Jen, he’s gone.”
Jensen smiles in relief. “Okay, good. Thanks, Chris.”
Chris shakes his head. “It’s not right, what you’re doing to him.”
Jensen shrugs helplessly. “I know. I just can’t—it’s the only thing I know how to do.”
“I know, Jen. I hate to say I told you so, but, well, I did.”
“I had to, okay? He wasn’t like—He made me feel—He made me feel.”
Jensen looks stricken, but Chris is suddenly filled with hope. All the guys Jensen has fucked, not one of them has gotten to him the way Jared has. If things play out just right, like a perfectly balanced house of cards, Jensen might finally be able to move on from what happened. He might finally really heal instead of just hiding.
Chris tries to quell his optimism. This isn’t a fairytale. Jensen isn’t just going to get better. But what if he did? Chris brutally cuts off his imagination as it begins to create a picture of what that might be like. It would hurt too much if it didn’t happen. But he can’t quite get rid of the stubborn little glow in his chest telling him that this time is different. Jared is different.
Jared goes home and starts unpacking, something he neglected to do while he was busy going all crazy stalker on Jensen. Well, he didn’t think he was as bad as all that, but apparently Jensen had a different opinion. As did Chris.
He reflects on the situation while he tries to determine how best to fit a lifetime of possessions into an apartment better suited to Polly Pocket than a man of Jared’s stature. His instincts tell him to keep calling and banging on doors, but clearly that’s not quite the solid plan he thought it was.
Jensen doesn’t like that. Jensen requires a different approach. Actually, if he understood Chris correctly, Jensen needs him to back off, conceal all signs of lustful feelings, and then maybe they can be friends.
Clearly Jensen has more baggage than Louis Vuitton, and it’s probably not as pretty. If Jared were a sane person, he’d cut his losses. He nods emphatically and moves his armchair for the fourth time, trying to achieve better feng shui. Or something.
Right, okay, nobody ever accused Jared of being particularly balanced. And he just can’t stop thinking about Jensen. Not just his lips, his freckles, and his body – although those thoughts are definitely present – but him. That wild creature Jared caught a glimpse of while he was drumming, shut away behind green glass eyes. His calculating seduction – for Jared now realizes that’s what happened – followed by tears and a flash of panic.
Jensen’s an enigma and Jared is hopelessly fascinated. He sighs and rearranges his dishes. He’s just going to have to take Chris’ advice and see how it goes. It’s clearly the only way he’s ever going to see Jensen again. And Jared’s a little worried by how much he wants to see Jensen. All the time preferably.
He alphabetizes DVDs while he tries to find the hidden reserve of inner calm he’s going to need to have even the slightest hope of pulling this off. Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Breakfast Club, Breakfast on Pluto . . . well, it is the most important meal of the day.
He thinks of the place he goes when he plays bass. The rhythmic rumble of the low notes as his fingers pluck the strings. It’s like solid ground. If he can just hold on to that feeling when he’s with Jensen he thinks he has a tiny chance of succeeding. Tiny, but still there.
Jared grins. He maybe even whistles a jaunty tune as he starts unrolling his posters from college to decide which, if any, of them belong on the walls of his grown-up apartment.
Chris is surprised and pleased in equal measure when Jared actually takes his advice and backs off. He stops calling and doesn’t come by the house or the Java Script for a whole week and miraculously, next band practice, Jensen actually shows up.
He’s in a foul mood, just plays his drums and stares straight ahead at the wall in front of him the rest of the time, but he’s there. Jared shuffles around uncomfortably, looking like he’s trying to take up less space. He barely even looks at Jensen, watching his hands for the beat and avoiding eye contact.
Chris tries to put the kid at ease, but after a few pained attempts at small talk, Steve gives him a look which he takes to mean, “Just shut up and play your music.” Sound advice that he takes to heart.
They manage to limp through that practice and another one just like it. The third practice since “The Incident,” as Chris refers to it in his head, the tension level decreases ever so slightly. Jensen seems to be feeling more at ease now that Jared has made it through two whole practices without jumping on top of him or humping his leg or whatever.
Now that Jensen’s no longer glaring daggers at the wall, Jared loosens up a bit as well. He still doesn’t really talk to Jensen though. He talks to Chris and Steve. Sometimes Jensen talks to Chris and Steve at the same time. It’s an awkward little dance of almost communication, but Chris isn’t about to quibble with progress, however small.
It’s half an hour from closing one Friday night when Steve’s cell phone rings unexpectedly. He leans the push broom against the wall and fishes it out of his pocket.
“Yeah. Hey, Steve.”
“Um, what’s up?”
“Oh, you know, not much. What are you doing?”
“Oh, shit! Sorry! I didn’t think.”
“Hey, no worries. We’re just getting ready to close up.”
“Uh huh. So did you need something?”
“Well. Heh. I’m about to climb the walls I’m so bored. And y’all are pretty much the only people I know. Well, the only people I know that I’d actually want to hang out with. So. I just thought I’d see what you were doing.”
Steve grins and takes pity on the kid. “Well, Chris was gonna come over and jam for a bit. You want in?”
“Oh, but aren’t y’all—I mean, I wouldn’t want to interrupt. Um, anything.”
Steve coughs in embarrassment. “Oh my god! We do other things besides have sex!”
That earns him a skeptical look from Sophia as she looks up from wiping down the counter. He glares back.
“Uh, well—“ Jared says.
“We do! Shut up! Just come over to my place in half an hour. And bring your bass.”
Jared laughs. “Fine, but if the upstairs is rockin’ I won’t come a’knockin’.”
Steve rolls his eyes and doesn’t dignify that with a response.
Halfway through summer and they’re really starting to settle in as a band – and as friends. Chris knows Jared hasn’t forgotten Jensen, though, or gotten over him or whatever. Every once in a while he’ll catch this look in Jared’s eyes. It’s always gone almost before he can catch it, but he knows he’s not imagining it.
Then one practice Jared’s all twitchy and nervous. They play hard for a couple of hours and he’s on as usual, but his eyes are shifty. As they’re cleaning up and packing up afterwards, Jared snaps his case closed and ambles up to Jensen. Chris holds his breath, unsure, but hopeful.
“Hey, Jensen?” Jared asks, shifting his feet a bit.
Jensen’s crouched down, examining some minute detail of the bass drum. He turns his head to look over his shoulder without standing up. “Yeah?”
“Umm, I was wondering if maybe you wanted to come over and hang out—“ he glances up and Chris and Chris desperately gestures sideways with his head, hoping Jared gets the message “Umm, you know, this weekend or something? Watch the game? You know, if you want.”
Chris sighs in relief. Jared caught the drift. You can’t just ask Jen to hang out. He needs time to plan and schedule. Chris waits on tenterhooks for his answer. He figures Jared can’t be any more nervous than him.
Jensen purses his lips, turns back to fiddle with the drum again. Then he shrugs. “Sure, why not?”
Jared’s grin is blinding. “Okay. Great! I’ll see you around seven?”
Jensen nods. “Seven it is.”
At 6:45 on the night that Jensen is coming over, Jared is pacing and nervous. He straightens non-existent clutter and wipes away imaginary dust. He’s long since unpacked the boxes that tripped them up on Jensen’s first visit. He shivers at the heat of that memory, then bats it away. He’s never going to make it through a whole evening in Jensen’s company if he’s thinking about that.
At 6:55 he forces himself to stop and take a few deep breaths. This is just a relaxed evening with his platonic friend. Who fucked him and then freaked out. Yeah, no pressure at all.
At 6:58 there’s no more time to freak out because the doorbell rings. Jared waits for a couple of seconds before opening the door – just long enough that it doesn’t seem like he was waiting with his hand on the doorknob.
He has to force himself not to stare. A couple of months of exposure have done nothing to dull Jared’s perception of Jensen’s hotness. It’s deeply unfair and he feels like he should have built up an immunity or something, but Jensen takes his breath away every single time.
“Hey, Jensen,” he says, nodding casually and locking all his lustful thoughts away in a tiny, dark closet at the back of his mind. Okay, all except for one or two. He’s only human.
“Hey.” Jensen nods back as he walks in. Jared watches him take in the clean and unpacked apartment. He glances at Jared like he wants to make a comment, but he doesn’t.
Jared gets it. If Jensen acknowledges that he’s been here before, he acknowledges that whole not just friends thing.
“You want a beer, man?”
Jared grabs a couple of bottles from the refrigerator and uncaps them. He hands one to Jensen and they settle in on the couch. Jensen sits on one end, leaving plenty of room, but he’s not pressed up against the arm or anything. Jared counts that as a victory. He sits down on the other end, well clear of Jensen’s personal bubble.
As the game goes on, Jared yells at the screen. Jensen doesn’t, but once or twice Jared catches a bemused expression directed at him. The fondly confused look warms Jared from the inside. It’s not much, but it gives him hope.
The next week Jared asks Jensen if he wants to come again and it feels like a small miracle when he accepts. It becomes a regular thing. Sometimes they watch whatever game happens to be on, sometimes they play video games. Jared’s a spaz when he plays video games, Jensen plays with unflappable concentration, but Jared thinks he enjoys it nonetheless.
Jared mostly enjoys Jensen. He’s trying really hard not to get his hopes up, but he’s getting that fond look from Jensen more and more often. And once, oh. Once Jared beat Jensen at Halo and he risked some light teasing. Jensen rolled his eyes and shoved Jared in the shoulder with this cute little smile on his face. Jared had to concentrate extra hard not to tackle Jensen and kiss him senseless that time.
So now, Jared and Jensen are friends. Jared has managed to worm his way past that first layer of defenses. He’s not quite sure how to go about the rest of his stealth attack and he knows that from here on out it’s going to be a lot harder – because up until now it’s been a cake walk, really – but Jensen is worth it.
Far enough into the summer that the first back-to-school sales have started popping up, Chris books them their first gig. It’s at a local bar that’ll pay them in free beer, but the place usually draws a crowd and exposure is exposure. So that’s how Collin Street Secret comes out. Metaphorically speaking.
It’s an unwritten law that every small town must have at least one twenty-four hour diner and said diner must serve breakfast for all of those hours. Richardson is no exception to this rule, which is how Jared finds himself at Mama Steve’s Pancake House with the band at 3 a.m.
They’ve just finished the gig and it was awesome. They’re all more than a little drunk and haven’t yet burned off the adrenaline of playing in front of an audience. Jared eyes his enormous stack of pancakes with unabashed delight. He liberally applies the maple syrup, then stuffs a huge bite into his mouth.
He groans in appreciation. “These are awesome,” he enthuses around his mouthful of pancake.
“Just like Mama used to make, huh, kid?” Chris says.
Jared shrugs, suddenly feeling awkward and wrong. “Yeah, I guess.”
Steve rolls his eyes and shoves a forkful of pancakes into Chris’ mouth. “Please don’t mention mothers when we are this drunk. That’s just wrong.”
Chris grabs Steve’s syrup-sticky fingers and licks them playfully. “You love it, baby.”
Jensen rolls his eyes and swallows his bite before speaking. “Geez, get a room,” he teases.
The weird tension leaves Jared as the other three banter around him. He loves how easy Jensen is with Chris. He’s always at his most natural with his best friend and now, loose limbed with alcohol and weariness, he’s much less carefully controlled than usual. Jared hopes it means that Jensen is coming to trust him that he’s allowed to see this.
Chris tosses a bit of pancake at Jensen, hitting him squarely in the nose. Jensen retaliates, but accidentally hits Steve instead. Before long, pancake missiles are flying indiscriminately across the table and all four of them are laughing uproariously.
Okay. Jared, Steve, and Chris are laughing uproariously. Jensen is merely grinning, but that’s sort of his version of uproarious laughter anyway.
They leave a ridiculously large tip to make up for the mess and the disturbance and Jared goes home thinking this is the best night he’s ever had. Okay, on up there on the list anyway. He’s always been a fan of hyperbole.
Jensen is getting uncomfortably comfortable with hanging out at Jared’s. He’s emotionally damaged, not stupid. He catches more of the longing looks on his new friend’s face than Jared probably realizes. He knows Jared is still into him, but Jared isn’t saying so. Jensen is deeply familiar with the land of “if you don’t say it, it doesn’t exist,” so he lets it go. It’s for the good of the band. At least that’s what he tells himself.
“I need a new couch,” Jared announces out of the blue, right in the middle of a round of Madden.
“Um, yeah,” Jensen agrees easily, “The frat house reject is not a good look.”
“Ouch! You could have said something.”
Jensen rolls his eyes. “It’s rude to insult your host’s furniture.”
Jared laughs. “Please. I think we’re past the overly polite crap. So you wanna help me pick out a new one?”
“Dude, you’re just as gay as me. Can’t you be your own interior design consultant?”
“Have you seen my apartment? The one you’re sitting in the middle of?”
“Good point. Okay, we’ll go to Ikea.”
“Awesome! Next Saturday?”
“How ‘bout tomorrow?”
Jensen freezes for a second after the words leave his mouth. He’s more likely to make plans for next year than the next day. What the hell? Apparently Jared’s thinking the same thing because there’s a long pause before he responds.
“Yeah, sure, tomorrow. I guess it’s a big enough home furnishings emergency,” he says, sounding perfectly normal. Maybe he didn’t catch the weirdness after all. Yeah, right. But Jensen’s more concerned about why he said it in the first place. Jared makes him do the strangest things.
Which is how he finds himself staring down Chris’ look of offended cowboy dignity at quarter ‘till way too fucking early the next morning.
“A man’s truck is an extension of his soul,” Chris says incredulously.
Jensen hasn’t had his coffee yet and he can barely summon the energy for an eye roll. “Well your soul is great for hauling couches. Come on, gimme the keys. You can take my car if you need to go anywhere.”
Chris draws back with a look of horror on his face. “Oh, no. I’m not going anywhere in a Ford fucking Focus.”
“It’s a perfectly respectable vehicle.”
“Yeah, whatever you have to tell yourself to get to sleep at night.” He refuses to take the keys Jensen holds out and Jensen leaves them on the counter. He does, however, grudgingly dig up the keys to his F150 and hand them over.
“If there’s a single molecule of paint out of place when you bring her back, there’ll be hell to pay!”
“Yes, mother,” Jensen answers as he heads for the door, keys in one hand, enormous travel mug of coffee in the other.
He picks Jared up and they make the half hour drive north to Frisco. When they climb out in front of the giant blue and yellow building, Jared shakes himself like a dog shaking off excess water.
“Seriously? The President George Bush Turnpike? I think I need a shower.”
Jensen shakes his head, stifling a laugh and Jared’s antics. “This is Texas, Jay. You might wanna get used to it.”
Jared gives one last shake of his shaggy head. “Whatever, dude. Let’s just find me a sofa.”
They walk inside and Jared’s eyes widen comically. He spins around, taking in the entranceway. “Oh my God. I’m already lost!”
“No, you’re not,” Jensen tells him and steers him in the direction of the escalator.
When they get up to the display floor, Jared seriously looks like he might hyperventilate.
“Relax, Jared. It’s just furniture.”
“A lot of furniture.”
“That’s the general idea. Just stay with me. You’re man enough to handle this, okay?”
Jared nods, looking about five. “Yeah, okay.”
They find their way into a vast sea of sofas and Jared’s panic dissipates. He starts running around and bouncing on the cushions of every single one, yelling for Jensen to, “Come try this one! It’s awesome!”
Jensen claps a hand over his eyes, kind of wishing he could disappear. But at the same time, it’s maybe the cutest thing he’s ever seen.
“Come on, Jen! You’re going to be using it almost as much as me. Help me out,” Jared insists.
Jensen waves a mental white flag and helps Jared try out couches, although much more calmly. After a considerable amount of cushion bouncing, they settle on a simple, but comfortable model. Jared tries to convince him that the horrendous floral print is a good idea, but Jensen holds firm and talks him down to a jaunty, yet masculine black and white stripe.
Jensen also talks him out of all the lamps and knick-knacks Jared picks up and insists he has to have.
“It only takes special Ikea light bulbs, Jared,” he points out.
“Oh. But it’s so cute!”
“It’s a light fixture, not a puppy.”
“Exactly! I won’t have to feed it or walk it or get it fixed.”
“You’ll have to feed it Ikea light bulbs.”
Jared pouts at him. “You’re no fun.”
Jensen rolls his eyes. “I’m just trying to keep you from spending your rent money.”
However, Jared absolutely cannot be talked out of Swedish meatballs, Swedish coffee, and Swedish chocolate at the checkout.
“I’m expanding my horizons,” he insists.
Jensen throws up his hands. “Oh, fine. At least it’s not a lamp.”
“I’ll share,” Jared says, grinning.
Jensen rolls his eyes, but he feels an inexplicable flush creeping up his neck. He goes to pull the truck around while Jared finishes paying. They get the couch strapped into the bed and head home.
“So, doing anything this weekend besides helping out interior decorating challenged friends?”
Jensen shrugs comfortably. “Nothing much. I have to go to Sunday dinner with my parents.”
“Oh, that sounds like fun,” Jared says.
Jensen grunts. “Not really.”
“It’s just like a weekly inquisition. Am I eating? How’s work? How’s Chris? Make any new friends?”
Jared doesn’t answer right away and when Jensen glances over he’s staring at his lap, biting his lips together.
“You should be grateful they care about you that much,” he says softly.
Jensen is stung by his accusatory tone. “I don’t think that’s any of your business,” he says.
Jared shrugs, a stubborn tension about his mouth. “Whatever. Forget I said anything.” He turns slightly away from Jensen and stares out the window.
The silence in the cab is distinctly uncomfortable for a few minutes as they rolls down the highway. Jensen feels inexplicably guilty, like he should apologize to Jared. But he doesn’t even know what he’d be apologizing for. Finally he settles on making a comment about some stupid reality show they watched a couple of weeks ago.
Jared accepts the peace offering and by the time they’re manhandling the couch up the stairs to Jared’s apartment, it seems like everything’s back to normal.
It’s a busy day at the Java Script and Steve is sure he’s walked five miles back and forth across the relatively small interior. Jared came in a couple of hours ago with a morose expression that looked out of place on his usually sunny face. He ordered his usual cardiac arrest in a cup with whipped cream and sprinkles and took up residence in one of the most isolated corners of the shop.
Steve’s been watching him with concern for most of the afternoon, but he’s honestly been too swamped to go over and talk to his friend. Finally, business dies down enough that Sophia can handle it on her own. Steve makes a beeline for Jared’s corner. He pulls a chair right up in front of Jared, who looks up, seeming startled to be faced with another human being.
“So, you want to tell me what’s got you looking like somebody ran over your puppy?” he asks.
“Umm?” Jared replies.
“Oh, come on, Jared. You’ve been camped out here for over two hours and all you’ve done is look at your cell phone and put it away about a million times.” Steve pauses, then asks, “Is this about Jensen?”
Jared’s bewildered expression changes to a sullen glare. “No. Not everything is about Jensen, okay?”
Steve sighs, feeling like an ass. “Sorry, man. I just thought—“
“Yeah, it’s cool,” Jared says, his expression softening.
“Well then, what’s going on?”
Jared eyes slide away. “It’s nothing,” he mumbles.
Steve just stares until Jared is forced to meet his eyes again. “It’s clearly something, so why don’t you just go ahead and tell me about it and save us both the runaround?”
A wry smile lights Jared’s face for a second. “Yeah, all right.”
Steve waits expectantly and Jared sighs and shifts in his seat. Finally, he says, “It’s my mom’s birthday.”
Steve cocks his head in confusion. He doesn’t know exactly what he was expecting, but it wasn’t that. “Umm, okay?” When Jared doesn’t volunteer any further information, he wracks his brain. “Did you forget to send her a present or something?”
“Well, the day’s not over, so I know you didn’t forget to call her.”
“You can’t call her? Why?”
Jared’s silent a long time. Steve’s almost decided to prod him again when he speaks so softly Steve has to strain to catch the words. “My parents kicked me out. And, um, disowned me. When I told them I was gay.”
Something tightens in Steve’s chest. He places a hand on Jared’s arm, trying to offer comfort. “Shit, I’m sorry.”
Jared shrugs like it doesn’t matter, but his eyes tell the real story. “I knew they would. Or, I was pretty sure anyway. That’s why I didn’t tell them till I already had a job and an apartment here.”
Now that he’s started talking, it’s like the floodgates are open. Steve listens, his heart breaking for Jared. This is Texas and it’s not like his story is that unusual, but that doesn’t make it any less awful. Steve’s own parents are liberal Californians and he can’t imagine what it must be like to have the people who raised you hate you just because of who you love.
“I hoped maybe they’d surprise me, but I didn’t want to take a chance. And I was right. I just couldn’t keep it a secret anymore, you know? I knew since I was fifteen or so. All my friends knew. Even Jeff and Megan – my brother and sister – knew. Jeff helped me move my stuff up here, but I don’t wanna cause trouble for either of them with our parents. So I figure I’ll just disappear. It’s for the best.”
Jared looks at him with sad eyes, seeming very young.
“God, Jay,” Steve says softly, “I’m sorry.”
“Listen, this is your family now, okay?”
“Steve, you barely know me.”
Steve shakes his head. “Sometimes that doesn’t matter.”
Jared nods, his eyes suspiciously shiny. “Thank you.”
Jensen is fiddling absently with his drumsticks, sitting next to Chris on the couch in the basement. Steve asked them to show up early to practice, said it was something about Jared, but so far he’s just pacing and looking really upset.
“Steve,” he says carefully, drawing out the single syllable, “You have to actually tell us what the problem is before we can talk about it.”
Steve stops pacing and looks at him for a long moment. Finally he sighs. “It’s Jared. He’s not—he’s not—“ He starts pacing again.
“He’s not what?” Chris asks, clutching the arm of the couch and sounding like he’s at the end of his rope.
Steve throws up his hands. “He’s not sparkly anymore!”
Chris raises an eyebrow. “Did you just describe our 6’4” bass player with arms the size of tree trunks as ‘sparkly?’”
Steve glares at his boyfriend. “No, I said he’s not sparkly. We have to do something!”
“Okay, first of all, like five fewer espressos for you tomorrow. Secondly, it’s not like we have any idea what’s wrong.” Steve gets a shifty look on his face and Chris raises an eyebrow. “You know what’s wrong?”
Steve’s shoulders slump. “Yeah, but it’s not really my place to tell you.”
“Then how are we supposed to fix it?”
“We can’t. We just need to get his mind off it or something.”
“Well, shit. That’s easy enough. We’ll just take him out and buy him shots ‘till he can’t tell which way is up. That’ll be plenty distracting.”
Steve eyes Chris skeptically. “I’m not sure that’s the best idea.”
“Why not? He tell you he’s an alcoholic or something?”
“Dude, no! Nothing like that.”
“Then it’s a problem that liquor can solve. At least for tonight.” Chris looks over at Jensen, who has been watching the back and forth and keeping his mouth shut. “What do you say, Jen? Up for ditching practice and hitting the bar?”
And now that Jensen stops to think about it, he realizes he hasn’t gone out to the bars in weeks. Maybe longer. Good enough reason as any to agree. Not that he’s particularly invested in Steve’s plan to cheer Jared up. Honestly, the guy is far too cheery as it is. He’s just really into the liquor portion of the plan. And hey, if he’s lucky maybe he’ll find a hot guy who bats for the home team while he’s at it. “Sure, that’s cool.”
When Jared arrived a few minutes later, Chris shoves him right back out the door. “Change of plans. We’re going out.”
Jared shoots him a confused look as he’s shoved up the basement steps. “What about practice?”
“Playing hooky,” Steve chimes in helpfully.
Jensen suppresses a laugh and Jared’s bewildered expression.
It’s pretty early by bar standards when they get to one of Chris’ favorite dives, but there’s a pretty good crowd already. They snag a table and a pitcher of beer and just shoot the shit for a couple of hours. Jared seems all right to Jensen, if a bit more subdued than usual. He hopes this means Chris’ plan was a good one. Not that he was worried, because he wasn’t.
As they sit and empty one pitcher of beer and then another the bar fills up around them. Jensen gets up to go to the bathroom. On his way back he catches a guy at the bar giving him the once over. He returns the look, a cocky smirk settling on his lips out of habit. Looks like it’s his lucky night.
He snags an empty stool next to the guy. “Hey, buy you a drink?” he says.
The guy smiles not-at-all innocently. “Sure.”
Jensen settles into the flirting easily. He’s about to suggest they go “someplace quieter” when suddenly Chris shoves his way in between Jensen and his soon-to-be conquest.
“Umm, Chris?” he asks, raising his eyebrows expectantly.
“Yeah, Jen?” Chris responds, not moving.
“We were kind of in the middle of something.”
“No we weren’t.” Chris says, then turns to signal the bartender. “Can we get another pitcher?”
“Not you and me, Chris. Me and—“ damn it, he’s forgotten the guy’s name already.
“Luke,” the guy supplies, looking annoyed.
“Right, Luke. So, if you don’t mind,” he trails off.
“Oh, yeah, sure. No problem,” Chris says, but makes no move to take the pitcher that the bartender just placed in front of him. “So, I was thinking, you remember that new song I played for you last week? I think we really need to clean up the bridge.”
Jensen takes a deep, calming breath. “That’s great, Chris, and I’d be happy to work on it. Later.”
“Right, so I think if we went to C instead of D from the G it would really give it a different feel.”
Jensen looks over towards their table, hoping for some help. Jared is staring dejectedly at the table, Steve is looking straight at him with an expression like he just heard Jensen enjoys drowning kittens, and there’s still a half-full pitcher of beer on the table. He sighs.
Honestly, one night stands take an awful lot of effort. It’s been a long week and his friends are acting really weird. Jensen figures he can hook up with somebody next weekend just as easily. “Listen, Luke, I’ll catch you later, okay?”
Luke looks at him like he’s grown a third eye. “Umm, okay.”
Jensen follows Chris back to their table and the tension lifts noticeably. Steve goes back to drinking his beer and groping his boyfriend, acting for all the world like the weirdness never happened. Jared’s still a little twitchy, but he offers Jensen a small smile he can’t quite decipher. Everyone is on crack, he decides and has another beer.
Allie has been bugging Jensen about meeting his other friends.
“I feel like the friend outcast!” she complains.
“We’re office buddies,” Jensen reminds her, not unkindly.
“Yeah, which means friends!”
She sighs dramatically. “You’re ashamed of me! That’s it, isn’t it? You don’t want your cool friends to meet me.”
“No, that’s not it,” he says, starting to feel frustrated.
“Okay, then when can I meet them?”
Jensen waves a little white flag of surrender in his mind.
“Fine, fine. How ‘bout Saturday?”
“Absolutely. Name a place and I’ll be there!”
Steve does a double take when Jensen walks into the Java Script with a girl. He walks up to them, looking rather awkward. The girl, however, looks delighted.
“Hey, guys,” Jensen says.
Steve’s sitting with Jared and Chris. They’ve just been waiting for Jensen for their semi-regular Saturday night Java Script hangout.
“Hey, Jensen,” Chris says, “Who’s your friend?”
There’s an edge of hostility in Chris’ voice and Steve cringes inwardly. He gets Chris’ protectiveness, but at the same time he’s always trying to pounce on totally innocent people just for infringing on Jensen’s personal bubble.
“This is Allison. We work together.”
She sketches a wave beside him. “Call me Allie,” she says, still smiling, but starting to look slightly uncomfortable when Chris’ forbidding expression doesn’t dissipate.
Steve glances around and is startled to see that Jared has joined Chris with the scowling. He sighs. Clearly it’s up to him to show some manners to the poor girl who’s done nothing wrong other than show up with Jensen.
He holds out a hand to shake. “Hey, I’m Steve. Can I get you a drink?”
She darts a glance at Chris and Jared. “You have anything stronger than coffee?” she asks softly.
Steve chuckles. “I think what you need is the Java Script’s specialty. One Irish Coffee coming right up!”
She looks ridiculously grateful. “Thanks. Umm, are they always like that?”
Steve shrugs. “Well, Chris is. I don’t know what’s up with Jared, though.”
He realizes that’s a lie the second it leaves his mouth. Jared is still completely infatuated with Jensen, even if he’s managed to conceal that from the man himself, and they’ve been stuck in friends gear going nowhere fast for months now. He passes behind Jared’s chair on his way to get Allie’s drink and drops down to whisper in his ear. “He’s gay, you idiot. And if you don’t screw up he might even be gay for you. So, play nice.”
Jared jumps a little and whips his head around to face Steve. He opens his mouth to say something, but Steve shakes his head and keeps on walking. By the time Steve gets back to the table, Jared has left Chris alone on the scowling brigade and is tentatively engaging Allie in conversation.
As it turns out, they share a love of hyperactivity and talking like ferrets on speed. That lessens the conversational burden on everyone else considerably and Steve, Jensen, and Chris look on like it’s a fast paced ping pong match for a little while.
Steve is relieved to have averted a catastrophe of indeterminate nature. Jensen’s gone from looking terrified to almost relaxed and Chris seems to have decided that this girl isn’t Satan’s little sister, so all in all Steve counts the night a success. As everyone is standing and stretching, preparing to go home, he casually invites Allie to come by again sometime. Jared nods enthusiastically and after a moment, Chris shrugs casually.
“Sure, yeah,” he says.
Steve grins at that, fully prepared to reward his boyfriend properly for his restraint.
It’s Friday night and Jensen is at Jared’s, of course. He’s not quite sure why he keeps coming. Being around Jared make him feel twitchy and restless, like he doesn’t fit right in his skin. He doesn’t like it except that, obscurely, he kind of does. He’s not really comfortable admitting that to himself, so he pushes the thought away.
Tonight they’re not watching sports or playing video games. They’re watching the premiere of the 875th cycle of America’s Next Top Model. Jensen’s eyebrows hit his hairline when Jared announces his plan.
Jared looks at him reproachfully. “Jensen, Jensen, Jensen,” he intones, shaking his head, “You call yourself a gay man and you don’t know the wonders of Tyra and her minions?”
Jensen tries the single eyebrow raise, but Jared just keeps giving him this baleful look. He sighs, his shoulders slumping in defeat. “Fine, supermodel wannabes it is.”
A thousand-watt grin lights Jared’s face. “Awesome! I’ll make the popcorn.”
Jensen spends more time watching Jared than the TV. He tells himself this is because anything would be more amusing than Tyra Banks telling prepubescent girls how to be models, but really he just likes watching Jared. That fact is getting harder and harder to ignore.
Sure, Jared is gorgeous. But Jensen has fucked a lot of gorgeous guys. It’s not just that. Jared is funny and caring and talented. And he’s smart – way smarter than most people give him credit for because of that whole goofy, hyper puppy thing. But he is, and the diploma from UT San Antonio with Magna Cum Laude scrawled across it backs up Jensen’s assertion.
Steve said something recently about Jared’s family being less than supportive. Said they should pick up the slack. He wouldn’t give any more details than that - it wasn’t his place, but Jensen figures it probably has something to do with Jared being gay. Even with all his problems, he’s glad he has parents who love him for who he is.
Of course, Steve had really meant he and Chris should pick up the slack, because nobody expected Jensen to take care of anybody but himself. He knows it’s true. Hell, half the time he can’t even manage that, but for Jared, he wishes he could.
Oh, god. I’m in love with him.
The thought pops into his mind uninvited and stops Jensen cold. It’s not true. It can’t be true. Except that it is. Without warning Jensen is suddenly having trouble getting a full breath. He feels the blood rushing to his head. Jared is looking at him with concern. His mouth is moving, but Jensen can’t understand the words. That’s the last thing he remembers before blacking out.