daniomalley: (Ray)
Title: Amends
Fandom: CWRPS
Pairing: J2
Word Count: 18K
Warning: Bullying, homophobia.
Summary: Jensen's pretty happy with his life. He likes his job and he doesn't have to deal with people he doesn't like. Sure, his friends (okay, his one friend) and family seem to worry that Jensen must be lonely, but he's really fine. Really.

Everything changes when Jensen's mom signs him up for a make over on a reality TV show hosted by his childhood friend Jared, not knowing that Jared is also the one that made his life miserable as a teenager. But Jensen's over all that now, and it's only one week, anyway. He'll be fine.

And if he tells himself enough times, it will become true.

Author's notes: Thanks to [identity profile] birddi.livejournal.com for her fantastic art, which was such a wonderful inspiration. Thanks also to [identity profile] sylvia-locust.livejournal.com for betaing this, being endlessly patient with me and holding my hand through this whole thing. You are a star! Thanks finally to the mods for running this challenge and making it such a fun experience.
Written for [Bad username or unknown identity: spn-reversebang.livejournal.com]. Using this to fill the 'atonement' square on my [Bad username or unknown identity: hc-bingo.livejournal.com] card.
Also posted on livejournal here.

Usually, Jensen tried to avoid watching The Ugly Duckling, but every so often, morbid curiosity won over and he found himself tuning in for a few minutes. One night when he was feeling particularly spiteful and morose, he flicked the channel over just as Jared Padalecki was listening to one of that week's victims share a story about being dumped by a boyfriend because she wouldn't go on a diet more restrictive than Atkins. Jensen sneered as Jared struggled to arrange his ridiculously perfect features into a passable facsimile of concern and patted the woman on the arm with one hand.

"I'm so sorry that that happened to you, Chelsea," he crooned. "If you only take one thing away from this experience, I hope it's knowing that you are a beautiful and worthwhile person, and that you deserve to be around other people who recognise that."

"Pfffft," Jensen scoffed in his seat. "If he really knew anything about self-worth, he wouldn't be selling his for a reality TV contract."

Danneel nodded sagely from her armchair, well used to this routine of Jensen's after years of friendship. "Dignity just doesn't fetch what it used to."

On the screen Jared and the show's stylist were going through another participant’s wardrobe and dividing the contents into piles to keep, donate and throw away. The 'keep' pile consisted of two pairs of pants and a single tie.

"Wouldn't it be hilarious if one of these people told him to fuck off with his trendy clothes and refused to throw their stuff away?" Jensen asked. Danneel hummed noncommittally, which was a signal she was about to suggest changing the channel.

"And then maybe they could punch him in the face. All the stylists and contestants could point and laugh," Jensen continued wistfully.

"Okay, I think that's enough for tonight," Danneel said. "Where's the remote? We’ve got cable; one of these channels has to be showing reruns ofThe Big Bang Theory."

On the TV, The Ugly Duckling went to a commercial break, and an ad came on asking for potential contestants to send their applications in for a chance to receive a life changing makeover. Jensen grimaced and grabbed the remote, glad that he wasn't one of the poor saps who thought their life could be fixed by a cheap haircut and some skinny jeans. He put Jared out of his mind for the rest of the evening, busy laughing at Sheldon's attempts to learn to drive.

**********************

Things didn't go to hell until a week later. Jensen went to work and came home again. He spent his evenings playing computer games and watching TV with Danneel. On Friday night he accepted an invitation to have dinner at his parents' home, and made a chocolate pudding to bring for dessert.

Donna had made a chicken lasagne, which was one of Jensen's favourite foods ever, and he found it easy to talk to his parents as he always did. He was thinking that a dinner at home with them had been a really nice idea when Donna dropped her bombshell.

"Jensen," she said, "I've done something, and I don't want you to get all worked up about it."

Of course, the first thing Jensen did after hearing those words was start to get worked up. What had his mother done? It sounded sort of ominous. She must be worried that he wasn't going to take it well, if she felt the need to preface it with a disclaimer like that. So when she continued, Jensen was already predisposed to react badly.

"I'm sure you know that show they have on TTL, The Ugly Duckling," she began.

"Oh, God," Jensen groaned, burying his face in his hands.

"Now, don't be like that, darling. Of course," she continued, leaning forward and putting a hand on Jensen's arm. "You know that your father and I don't think you're an ugly duckling. Far from it; you're a very handsome young man. But darling, I just wish that you'd let the rest of the world see that now and then. You go to work, and the rest of the time, you hide yourself away in your apartment, and you don't give anyone a chance to get to know you."

"I like it that way!" Jensen protested. "I don't want to get to know other people! Other people suck!"

"Sweetie, I know you don't mean that. You've got a lot to offer the world, and what you deserve is to have people around you who appreciate that."

Jensen groaned and fought back the urge to vomit. "Please stop quoting Jared Padalecki at me."

"Honestly, Jensen, I don't know what happened between you two. You used to be such good friends. And besides, I think maybe you could learn a thing or two by listening to him."

"I doubt that very much," Jensen said. "Does he know how to repair a broken modem using only scotch tape? I don't think so. Does he know how to design a CPU that runs twice as fast but only takes up half the space? No. No he does not. There is not a thing Jared Padalecki knows that I want to learn."

Donna looked at him, her eyes sad while her mouth turned down in an expression of extreme disappointment. Jensen sighed. She was going to bring out the big guns, he knew it, and he was going to give in.

"Please don't be angry at me, Jensen," she said softly. "Sometimes, I think about you and how lonely you must be, and it just makes me feel terrible. I worry about you, you know. Your father and I won't be here forever, and I'd just like to know that when that time comes, you'll have other people around who you can lean on. Not just Danneel. I love her like a daughter, but you can't expect her to keep being your entire social life. I just want you to try putting yourself out there a bit more."

"Why didn't you just sign me up for a dating website, then?" Jensen asked desperately, because even going on the blind date from hell would be better than this.

"I considered it, but those places are full of such strange people. One of those websites had a form where you could fill out your favourite sexual positions." Donna's face screwed up with distaste, and Jensen wondered how much he'd have to drink to permanently wipe this entire conversation from his memory. "And Jared's always been such a nice boy, so I'm sure his little TV show will help you so much."

Jensen felt his resolve crumble and cursed himself for not being more of a heartless bastard. The problem with Donna was that she really did mean well, and she believed everything she was saying. Jensen was sure she lay awake at night fretting over his terminal bachelorhood and worrying that once she and Alan were no longer capable of nagging him into engaging occasionally with the outside world, he'd hide in his home until archaeologists found his fossilised corpse millennia later. He usually didn't have much trouble telling people to go to hell, but it was different with his parents, who had always supported him. Like he always did, he found himself wanting to avoid hurting them in any way.

Which was how he ended up agreeing to a TV makeover.

****************

At the start of third grade, Jensen's teacher had them studying dinosaurs, which was interesting and all, but seriously hindered Jensen's ambitions to one day be a rocket scientist. He'd pointed this out to Mrs. Johnson, but she hadn't really cared. Jensen had a lot of trouble getting people to appreciate his life goals.

So during class time Jensen would finish his work as quickly as he could to free up time to daydream about planets and spaceships. He got by with his schoolwork on the minimum amount of effort possible. That sort of thing might be alright for his classmates, who were going to be palaeontologists or firemen or whatever, but he already knew what he was going to do with his life. One such day, he'd finished drawing a stegosaurus and was adding a spaceship in the background.

"I'm not sure there would have been a spaceship there, Jensen," his teacher suggested, but Jensen was ready for this.

"It's aliens. They're looking for intelligent life, but there’s only dinosaurs, so they go away. They’ll come back in a few million years."

After that, Mrs Johnson wandered off, and Jensen happily continued his drawing. Around the classroom, other students with less lofty ambitions were colouring their dinosaurs with biologically unlikely colour combinations and illustrating gruesome battles between carnivores and herbivores. Looking around, Jensen spotted one kid who had drawn a Tyrannosaurus Rex which had picked up a person and was trying to eat him, except that his arms were too short to put the human in his mouth. A thought bubble over its head read ‘Sooo... hungry...’ Jensen giggled and the other kid looked over at him and smiled. Jensen blinked.

The other kid was named Jared. Jensen knew that because Mrs Johnson had made them play all these 'getting to know you' games in the first week of school. It hadn't helped all that much; he still wasn't really friendly with any of his classmates. The kids he'd really got along with from the year before had wound up in other classes, and Jared was someone new. Jensen didn't usually like new people, but now he thought Jared might be someone he'd like to get to know.

Rather than finishing his spaceship, Jensen used the remaining class time to contemplate the best strategy for making a friend. It was a little awkward. Jared wasn't sitting close enough for Jensen to whisper to him, and he'd get in trouble if he talked too loud. If he waited for recess, Jared might go out of the room before Jensen could talk to him and their tentative bond would be broken before it was realised. He could approach Mrs Johnson for a special exemption to the no-talking rule due to extenuating and time-sensitive circumstances, but he doubted that would work. Adults very rarely seemed to understand the importance of such matters.

Having dismissed all these options, Jensen took a blank page from the back of his workbook and started drafting a letter. He tried to remember what he'd learned about making friends. Give a compliment, share a little about himself, show that they had something in common. He thought for a minute or two and eventually wrote,

'Dear Jared P.
'I really like you alot. You're funny and nice. I hope to be your friend. I like rockets. And icecream. Vanilla is my favorite. You have a shirt with a rocket on it. Do you want to be a astronaut?
'From: Jensen A.
'If you want to be friends circle yes or no.
'Yes No'

Jensen folded up the note and glanced around the room to determine the whereabouts of Mrs Johnson. Being caught passing a note was far more serious than getting in trouble for talking, and Jensen wasn't going to let anything interfere with his awesome plan. He waited until Benny in the back row asked for help with his work, knowing that the teacher would be helping him for some time. He hefted the note cautiously in his hand, waited for just the right moment, and launched it into the air. It went up in a gentle curve, sailing across the aisle towards Jared's desk. He was sure it was just about to land perfectly when the bell rang. Twenty-eight children stood up together and raced for the door, and in the excitement Jensen never managed to see if Jared had caught the note or not. He looked over at Jared's desk, but it wasn't there. It wasn't on the floor nearby, either, so Jared probably had it. But he wasn't here anymore.

Jensen went to recess feeling dejected. He had cupcakes, which were normally his favourite, but he didn't even feel like eating. His mood didn't improve until the bell went and he trudged back into class.

A folded square of paper was sitting on his desk. It was his note, and someone had taken a red pen and circled the word 'yes'.

***************

Donna's guilt trip was very effective, so when TTL called Jensen, he co-operated, giving his details and agreeing to participate in filming. He was committing to one week of filming, scheduled to fit around his work commitments but expected to require around twenty hours of his time. That amount of time seemed ridiculous to Jensen; he would only appear in one week's worth of episodes, after all, and each week Jared 'made over' three people. If the time was averaged out between the three of them, for all five of a week's episodes, Jensen wouldn't even appear on TV for a full hour. But apparently, that was how things worked in TV.

Once he thought about it, Jensen decided he could cope. Twenty hours. That was less than a day. And it wasn't like Jared could do anything awful to him in front of the cameras.

If only he could convince himself that was true.

When they'd said twenty hours of filming, Jensen hadn't realised how much other stuff was going to be involved. A camera crew arrived in a van before Jensen was even home from work; Danneel had to let them in. They wandered all over the apartment setting up cameras and extra lights, because apparently the lights they already had didn't cut it. Jensen looked on as this continued, feeling bemused. He backed away from the chaos, reaching the front hallway, and there Jared ambushed him.

"Hi, Jensen," he said, sounding friendly enough. Jensen was startled. He'd been hoping that he'd see Jared coming; hadn't been too keen on the idea of Jared sneaking up on him unawares.

"Hey," he said neutrally. Jared looked good, Jensen supposed. Well, he looked just like he did on TV, but somehow even better. Jensen felt irrationally resentful. He'd been hoping that there might be some flaw, some blemish that he could focus on when Jared started dissecting his appearance, but there wasn't.

"Um." Jared hesitated, seeming lost for words. It was ridiculous, Jensen thought. There was no reason Jared should have trouble coming up with something to say. What did he have to be nervous about?

"I'm really glad that you applied to be on the show," Jared said, speaking quickly. From the living room, one of the camera crew called out to Jared and he shouted back, "Yeah, just a minute Dave!" He looked back to Jensen. "Um," he said again. "Yeah. I'm just... it's nice to get the chance to see you again."

"Yeah," Jensen said, sneering a little. He wished he could make himself say something like, "Too bad it's not mutual," but it was a lot harder to say that sort of thing when the person was standing right there.

"Listen, I wanted to say something, before we started," Jared added. "I wanted to say... I'm really sorry. I'm sorry for being so horrible to you, when we were in school. I shouldn’t have... done any of that. I owe you an apology. So, I'm sorry."

"Oh," said Jensen, for lack of a better response. That was not what he'd expected Jared to say. He'd daydreamed about Jared saying or making some big apologetic gesture, but figured he was more likely to either pretend they'd never met before, or go back to treating Jensen like something he'd scraped off his shoe. Just like he'd done when they were younger.

"I just didn't want you to feel uncomfortable, while we were filming," Jared added. "To get the most out of the show, you've got to let go and let yourself experience it." Jared had slipped back into his TV host voice a little, drawing out and emphasising some of the words in a way he probably thought sounded deep. Jensen tried to mentally distance himself from Jared a little. This public persona Jared had was completely foreign to him.

"Come on," Jared said. "They're ready for us in your kitchen. We'll go in and I'll do an interview. In the first episode, we introduce everyone and get a bit of a biography on each of you. So I'll get you to tell a bit about yourself, what you like, what you do. Anything that you really want to change - you know, things you’d like to work on while you’re on the show. And then, usually, we do a bit of hairstyling." As he talked, Jared had led them to the kitchen and invited Jensen to seat himself in one of his own chairs. Jensen sat down and his gaze was immediately drawn to the camera which was positioned a few feet away.

"Don't look at the camera," Jared said. "Just pretend it's not there."

"Sure," Jensen said. "Piece of cake." His voice was heavy with sarcasm and Jared laughed.

"We're rolling," said the cameraman, the one named Dave.

"Okay," said Jared briskly. "Jensen, I'd like you to introduce yourself - just say your name, how old you are, and what you do for a living. Something like that."

"Right," said Jensen uncertainly. "Uh, my name is Jensen Ackles. I'm twenty-eight, and I'm a computer hardware designer."

"Good," said Jared. "But let's run that again, okay? Give your first name only, not your last."

In total, Jensen had to introduce himself six times before Jared was happy. If the whole thing went like this, no wonder it took them twenty hours to get enough footage. So much for ‘reality’ TV. But once the introduction was sorted out, Jared jumped straight in with some questions, and things picked up.

He asked about why Jensen had chosen to apply for The Ugly Duckling, and Jensen explained the story about his mother, although he was careful not to say what he really thought about it all. Jared continued that topic for a while, asking questions about Jensen's family. It was weird to answer them, to tell Jared things about his family that Jensen knew he already knew, but Jensen was trying pretty hard to ignore the weirdness of the entire experience, so he didn't dwell on it.

Jared asked about his job, and Jensen talked about designing computer parts.

"Do you take a lot of pride in what you do?" Jared asked.

Jensen answered immediately, "Yeah!" because if he didn't feel that way about his job, he wouldn't be doing it. "In April, I helped design a more efficient naturally cooling aspirated system," he said eagerly, because that was one of his proudest moments.

"Oh," said Jared, looking confused. "That's, um... that's really awesome." He stopped and shook his head. "Sorry Dave," he said. "Keep rolling... Wow!" he said, now looking back at Jensen and suddenly looking far more animated. "What an accomplishment!"

"It was," Jensen agreed, feeling defensive. Non-computer techs didn't get it. They didn't understand the difference effective cooling made to computer performance and they had no understanding of how much time and work it had taken to achieve. That particular project had earned Jensen a 4% pay raise and moved him from his cubicle to an actual office with a door which closed. But all someone like Jared would understand was that it hadn't had anything to do with facebook or porn.

"It sounds like you've got a lot of very specialised knowledge," Jared continued smoothly. "Are you very picky about the sort of computers you use at home? Do you modify them yourself?"

Slightly mollified, Jensen talked a little bit about some of the ways he'd upgraded his home computer, making sure to dumb it down for the audience - and Jared. He looked suitably impressed for a short while, but after a few minutes his eyes started to glaze over and Jensen trailed off.

"And what do you do when you're not working?" was Jared's next question. Jensen was reluctant to disclose his enjoyment of World of Warcraft or building model spaceships. He wasn't ashamed of liking that stuff, but he didn't want Jared and his assistants to see that as another of his flaws to be fixed. Instead he talked about his favourite books, mostly hard sci-fi.

Next, Jared asked him about his social life, and Jensen felt himself clamming up. Jared glanced at the camera and then back again, saying, "You can tell us as much or as little as you like. Just something that gives an idea of what types of friendships you have, what you like doing socially. You don't have to tell everything."

"Danneel is my best friend, she has been for a long time," Jensen said, trying to keep his words free of emphasis. Before Danneel, he'd had Jared. He knew the remark wouldn't go unnoticed by Jared, but he didn't care. "She's a great friend, the best I could hope for," he added. Jared shifted a little in his seat, but Jensen realised that if he didn't know him, he'd never have noticed how uncomfortable Jared was. "I don't really know a whole lot of other people," he admitted softly. "There's the people I work with, and some friends of my brother's and sister's. I'm not very close to any of them. Sometimes it's hard for me to get along with other people," he added. It felt strange to speak so honestly in front of Jared. When he'd agreed to the show, Jensen had had fantasies of showing off his wonderful life and making Jared jealous. That hadn't happened, but on the other hand Jensen couldn’t deny that he was enjoying making Jared feel guilty.

Jared paused for some time, and Jensen was sure it was because he'd figured out the next logical question and didn't want to ask it. "Why do you suppose that is?" he asked finally.

"I had a rough time as a kid," Jensen said, the words coming so easily he was shocked. "Other kids my age didn't really get me. They picked on me. I guess I could be a pretty annoying kid," he added thoughtfully, then shook his head. He wasn't going to sit here and justify the way he'd been treated. "It kind of fucked with my head, actually." He stopped after the curse, looking over to Jared to see if that was something he shouldn't say. Jared didn't react, however, so he went on. "I don't trust people as easily as I used to."

Jared hesitated again, uncomfortably long, and at last he said, “Has that affected your romantic relationships?”

Jensen grimaced. He didn’t want to talk about this. “I suppose so,” he said grudgingly. “It’s not like I meet a lot of people, so no, I don’t date much.”

“Is that something you’d like to change? Find more opportunities to meet gu... uh, girls?”

“I’m gay,” Jensen said through gritted teeth, hating Jared for pretending he didn’t know that already.

“Oh,” said Jared. “Well, that’s fine. So am I.”

“I know.” The hypocritical dickbag. “I’ve seen you on TV.”

“Oh.” Jared looked surprised, like the idea that Jensen might watch him on TV had never crossed his mind. He gave his head a slight shake and moved on. "What is it you'd like to get from being on The Ugly Duckling?"

Jensen was stumped. He hadn't thought about the whole situation as anything other than something he had to survive. "Uh, well..." he said, stalling for time, "I guess..." Crap, he just had to make something up, whether he meant it or not. "I'd like to learn something new... none of this stuff really comes naturally to me." He tried to think of something to add, but Jared seemed satisfied with that.

"That's great, Jensen," he said. "I think we've got enough for the interview. Jensen, I'm going to introduce you to our hairstylist, Katie."

One of the people who had been hovering around and dashing back and forth doing... Jensen wasn’t sure what, exactly, stepped forward and held out one hand. She was a very pretty young woman with long blonde hair; standing next to her made Jensen feel like an oaf.

"Come into the living room with me, Jensen, and we'll talk about what we might do with your hair. Have you ever considered bleaching it?"

"No!" Jensen exclaimed, horrified.

"Hmmm," said Katie thoughtfully, her eyes fixed on Jensen's hair rather than his face.

"While you two do that, I'm going to have a short interview with Danneel, if she doesn't mind," said Jared.

"Really?" said Jensen, momentarily distracted from the threat of peroxide. "Danneel?"

"Oh, yeah, we always interview friends and family," said Jared cheerfully. "I talked to your parents earlier today."

"Huh," said Jensen.

"Once I'm done here, we'll all go to Katie's studio and she'll colour your hair and get you some products to use," Jared added.

Jensen nodded automatically as Katie guided him out of the room with one hand on his arm. His mom and dad had probably been thrilled to see Jared. They'd loved him when he was a kid and had never been able to understand why he'd suddenly stopped coming around. Jensen had never found a way to tell them that Jared had changed, that he didn't even act like the same person anymore, that he'd become mean and even cruel.

Jared had probably enjoyed the hell out of interviewing his parents, but Jensen would bet he wouldn't have as much fun with Danneel. He'd told her more about Jared than he'd ever shared with his parents, and while she mostly tried to distract him and calm him down when he got worked up, Jensen didn't think she'd warm up to Jared all that easily as a result. He would have enjoyed staying to watch, but he could always ask her about it later.

It was quiet in the living room, and Jensen realised that Katie had asked him a question and he'd totally missed it. "I'm sorry?" he said, feeling himself blush.

"I asked if you've ever had your hair coloured before," Katie repeated.

"Oh. No, never. I've never really bothered with anything like that. Even when I go to the hairdresser, I just get them to cut it short so it doesn't get in the way. I don't think about my hair much."

"That explains a lot," Katie said darkly. Jensen shrugged awkwardly and looked away. "Okay then," she said. "Let me have a look at you." She made Jensen move closer to the window and turn this way and that, tutting over his hair and teasing the strands with her fingers. Jensen wasn't sure what could possibly be so interesting about his hair, but after what seemed like an eternity Jared yelled to them from the living room, and Katie led him out to the car.

As they drove to the studio, with Jensen sandwiched in the middle of the backseat between Jared and Katie, she described what she was planning for Jensen's hair. Dave filmed them from the front passenger seat.

"Not a full colour," she said, "Jensen's got a really nice natural shade, but I'm thinking some highlights would do wonders, and I took the liberty of throwing away Jensen's shampoo before we left."

"Hey!" Jensen protested. He hadn't noticed that; she must have gone into the bathroom while he was being interviewed.

"I'm going to give you some proper shampoo and conditioner, which I expect you to use every day," Katie said firmly.

At the studio, Katie put a sheet over Jensen's shoulders and wet his hair in a basin. "Any allergies I should know about?" she asked, and Jensen shook his head. She washed his hair with some strongly scented shampoo and towelled it dry, before bringing out an array of different hair swatches and asking him to determine which colour he liked best. They all looked virtually identical to Jensen, so he dithered until Katie narrowed it down. When they were down to two options he selected one at random. Katie gave him a sceptical glance and went to mix up the dye.

His hair came out of it all looking... well, not that different, Jensen didn't think. When he turned his head in the mirror, he could see the highlights, and he supposed it looked pretty good. Katie had dried his hair and it sat oddly, fluffier and straighter than normal. Jensen tried to part it and slick it back like he always did, but it insisted on going every which way.

"After you've washed it tomorrow morning you'll be able to style it as you normally do," Katie said. "Do you usually use a hairdryer?"

"Only when the glue isn't drying fast enough on my model spaceships," said Jensen.

"Of course," said Katie, rolling her eyes. She snapped open a plastic bag and started loading it with bottles. “This is your new shampoo and conditioner,” she said. “They contain a dandruff treatment and moisturiser. Use them each day until I tell you otherwise. If you’re going to use gel,” here she paused and cast a sceptical eye over Jensen’s hair. “On the off chance you decide to use gel, use this,” she held up a jar, “And this only. And here is a new comb. Throw your old one away.”

“But...”

“No. Throw it away. Use the good comb, Jensen, don’t make me cross.”

Jensen met Katie’s eyes for a second and meekly agreed. He was relieved to make his getaway from the studio and return home.

************

After Jared had replied ‘yes’ to Jensen’s friendship inquiry, they had become more or less inseparable. Jared had heaps of great ideas and was a lot of fun to be around; sometimes they hung out together at Jensen’s house playing Atari or pretending they were astronauts fighting aliens on Mars. Other days they rode their bikes to the park and Jared tried to teach Jensen how to play baseball, or basketball, or football. Jensen wasn’t very good at any of them, but somehow it was fun anyway to play with Jared. He never laughed or made fun of Jensen’s clumsiness.

After a few years, they moved on to middle school together. The new school was a lot bigger than their old elementary school, and there were new people everywhere. Jensen stood back and watched from the sidelines as the other kids interacted in some complicated social rite whose rules he couldn’t understand. Jared, on the other hand, took to the new environment like it was designed especially for him. Within a couple of days, he had an entire group of new friends. Jensen was jealous, but Jared took him around and introduced him to all of them as “My best friend Jensen, he’s really smart and one day he’s going to explore alien planets.” By the time Jared was done, all his friends were Jensen’s friends as well. That was why Jared was the best.

As Jared’s best friend, Jensen went along to watch his baseball games. Jared was the best player on the team, and Jensen cheered as he scored a touchdown or something by hitting the ball really hard. Jared started to run and Jensen cheered him on.

“Go, Jared, go!” he yelled, jumping up and down on the spot.

Jared’s dad was really excited by the game too. “Go on!” he screamed. “Faster! Run faster, Jared!”

Jensen kept cheering and Jared ran around the diamond, reaching third base and stopping.

“Yes!” Jensen cried.

“Don’t stop there!” Jared’s dad yelled. “You’ve got time – keep running!” But the other team had the ball and Jared didn’t move. His dad turned and took a couple of steps away. Jensen waved to Jared, who waved back while the next batter stepped up to the plate. Jared’s dad came back to the edge of the field and stood watching with his arms crossed.

The game went on and Jared’s team lost, which was a total travesty Jensen thought. They were clearly the better team. But it still meant they had come second in the tournament and everyone on the team received a medal on a red ribbon. Jensen went out for ice-cream with Jared’s family and tried to listen quietly while Jared’s dad explained how Jared could bat better, even though it was really boring. It was still an awesome day, because he got to spend it with Jared. When Jensen looked at him, Jared suddenly seemed different somehow, not in a way that he could explain, but in a way that made his heart beat funny and his stomach feel weird.

Jensen didn’t quite understand what was going on, but he figured it only made sense that Jared made him feel something different to other people. After all, he was the funniest, nicest best kid at school. It was impossible to imagine him ever doing something mean or being not awesome in some way. Jensen still couldn’t believe how lucky he was to be Jared’s best friend.

*****************

Jared didn’t come back until Friday; he’d explained that he needed to get footage of the other subjects for that week and so Jensen had a few days to relax. But the next step would be the wardrobe, and Jensen wasn’t really looking forward to it.

When Jared arrived at the end of the week, he had someone new with him.

“This is Sam,” he said. “Sam, this is Jensen. Sam is our stylist, she’s going to advise you on your wardrobe.”

Jensen had seen Sam on the show. She’d always struck him as very intimidating, and was a big part of the reason why he’d been dreading this so much. Well, aside from Jared himself, of course.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” he said unconvincingly, and Sam just nodded at him.

“Before we get started,” she said, “I’ve got some questions for you.”

“Okay,” said Jensen nervously.

“Is this,” she indicated his clothing with a wave, “A good example of an everyday outfit for you?”

“Uh...” Jensen looked down at what he was wearing. A white button down shirt with a striped tie over navy pants and black shoes. “I guess?”

“Hmm,” said Sam. Jensen held his tongue with some difficulty and waited for her to elaborate. “This is a workday for you, yes?”

“Yeah.”

“So, does your office require you to adhere to a dress code? I want to make sure we don’t outfit you in a way that’s not appropriate to your work.”

“Oh. Uh, I don’t think there’s a dress code, actually.”

“Well, is this a typical outfit for your office culture? Does it fit in with what your co-workers tend to wear?”

Jensen paused, trying to visualise some of his co-workers in their typical outfits. He was dismayed to find the images coming out blurry and indistinct. He had no idea if his usual work clothes had much in common with theirs, or what other things he might wear without sticking out. But that didn’t seem like the sort of thing he could admit in front of Sam and Jared, while he was being filmed. This was the sort of thing he should know, right? It was surely the sort of thing any normal person would know.

“Well,” he said uncertainly, “There’s, uh, Pete, he wears, um...” he waved one hand vaguely. “Black. He wears a lot of... black. And then, um, James... er.” He remembered that James tended to wear faded t-shirts over ratty jeans, and he didn’t think that was the sort of thing Sam was going to dress him in.

“Okay, let’s not worry too much about that, then,” said Sam. “How do you prefer to dress on the weekends?”

“Um...” Jensen looked down at himself again. “Well, I usually don’t wear a tie.”

“Ah.” Sam’s face remained carefully blank, but Jensen was sure she was silently evaluating and judging him. “Well. Do you think I could see your wardrobe now?”

Once in Jensen’s bedroom, Sam threw his closet doors open and flicked through the clothing hanging up.

“Are you particularly attached to any of this?” she asked, frowning over a pair of pants that Jensen didn’t wear anymore but which he’d decided to keep in case he ever wanted to paint something.

“Well...” Jensen looked through the closet and took out a couple of things, like the shirt he’d been given for Christmas the year before and his favourite pair of shoes. “I guess there’s not a whole lot,” he said, realising with some surprise that it was really true. He had a few t-shirts in the dresser that he didn’t want to get rid of, but aside from that he didn’t exactly have any real attachment to any of his clothes. He wasn’t sure why that came as a surprise; after all, he put more thought into choosing a parking space than he did into getting dressed in the morning. But surely his clothes should mean something, his style of dress should communicate some kind of statement about the sort of person he was, something that he should be reluctant to let go of. Instead, he just felt indifferent.

“I don’t see the point of keeping any of this, then,” Sam said, sweeping every article out of the closet and arranging them on the bed. She gave his dresser drawers the same treatment, and as she stacked the clothes up, she asked Jensen what colours he liked, whether he preferred his clothes fitted or loose, and other questions that he had trouble answering because he’d never before considered things like whether he liked long sleeves or short. Long sleeves were more professional, right? The idea that it could be a preference had never really occurred to him.

By the end of the night, Jared had taken an entire page of notes on Jensen’s wardrobe, Sam’s suggestions for him and his answers to her questions. “We’ll pick you up tomorrow morning at 8:30,” Jared said. “Make sure you’re ready. And wear comfortable shoes. We’re going shopping.” He grinned hugely at Jensen, like the idea of going shopping was actually exciting to him.

“Sounds awesome,” Jensen managed, wondering to himself how he was going to survive an entire day like this.

*******************

When Jensen got to eighth grade and the other boys in his class started flirting with the girls and talking about kissing them and doing other stuff, Jensen realised he didn’t want to have a girlfriend. He didn’t want to take a girl on a date or try to get a kiss. He wanted to do all that stuff, but with Jared.

The realisation shook him at first. He didn’t know anyone who was gay and most of what he knew came from jokes his classmates liked to make, but his parents had always spoken up against homophobia so he felt comfortable enough to talk to them about it. He didn’t tell them he liked Jared because that realisation still felt too new and personal, but he told them everything else and they supported him.

He didn’t rush into it, but after thinking about it for a while Jensen figured he could probably tell Jared the truth and see if he felt the same way. After all, there was nothing about Jared that wasn’t awesome. Jensen had always told Jared everything, and Jared had never used it against him or reacted badly. Besides, sometimes they had sleepovers and stayed up all night talking about stuff. Sometimes the pretty girls at school asked Jared to go with them to movies or Pizza Hut, and Jared would turn them down because he and Jensen already had plans. Jensen thought there might be a chance that maybe Jared liked him too.

Jensen should have realised that it was a bad idea the second he grabbed Jared after school one day and asked to talk, and Jared made an excuse and tried to leave. He’d been acting weird all day, but Jensen didn’t pay attention to that, too nervous over his impending announcement.

He stammered and mumbled for about five minutes until Jared just looked really confused. Finally, he simply blurted out, “Jared, I like you. I more than friends like you, you know?”

Since, in the previous five minutes of conversation, Jared had formed the impression that Jensen needed a kidney transplant, and then that he was about to go on the run from the mob, Jensen was prepared for Jared to need a few minutes to catch up. He didn’t, though; Jared got what he meant straight away. And he didn’t like it.

“Ugh,” he said, standing up and stepping away from Jensen. “What are you saying? I didn’t know you were, you know... like that.”

“Like what?” Jensen asked. This wasn’t turning out like he’d hoped at all.

“You’re a fairy,” Jared hissed. “I thought my Dad was wrong about you, but – no! You don’t touch me!” he snapped, because Jensen had taken a step towards Jared, hands up, trying to placate him.

“Jared...” Jensen said, already wondering if he could pretend the whole thing was a joke. Judging by Jared’s face, probably not.

“Keep away from me, Jensen!” Jared yelled, lifting his hands up. “You’re a freak!”

Jensen, shaken by this abrupt disruption to years of friendship, didn’t move away but instead froze on the spot. It happened that at that moment a group of kids Jensen vaguely knew came out of the school after some activity or another. Jared put his hands to Jensen’s shoulders and shoved him forcefully away. “Get away from me! What’s wrong with you?”

Jensen stumbled back and took a moment to steady himself on his feet before turning and running away. Behind him he could hear the other kids asking Jared “What happened?” and “What did he do?” but he didn’t stop to hear what Jared said.

Although he’d tried many times, Jensen had never managed to forget that Jared was his best friend for five years, and he’d never forgotten the day that changed.

**************

Jensen woke up the next morning and dressed in the few items of clothes which had escaped Sam’s ruthless cull. He dutifully washed his hair with the shampoo Katie had instructed him to use, even though he couldn’t tell if it made any difference, and was ready to go well before the time Jared had said he would arrive. He was nervous; that was why. He’d slept little and got through his morning routines way faster than usual because he couldn’t stand still.

He knew that Jared and Sam would both be tagging along today, along with the usual camera crew. But in addition, he would be meeting the two other subjects that were getting makeovers. Jensen coped well enough with meeting new people when he had to; he got by alright at work and everything, but this was an unusual situation. It was stupid to be so worried. He had no reason to think that anything was going to go wrong or that anyone would give him a hard time, but he couldn’t help expecting the worst.

Finally, he heard a knock at the door and went to answer it, feeling his heart beat faster. He willed himself to calm down as he pulled the door open. Jared was standing on the other side.

“Hey, Jensen,” he said with a broad grin. “You ready for today?”

Everyone else had to be waiting downstairs in the van, because Jared was alone. They hadn’t really been alone together since that first day when Jared had apologised to him. It hadn’t really occurred to Jensen before, but now he had the opportunity, he wanted to ask Jared why. Why had he changed so suddenly, why had he reacted so badly to what Jensen had said? If he’d wanted to, Jensen would have pretended it had never happened. He wanted to know why; he’d always wanted to know why. If he asked Jared, though, it would be like admitting that he still cared. It would be giving Jared power over him. He wasn’t going to do that.

“As ready as I’ll ever be?” he said, trying but failing to keep the question out of his voice.

“That’s good,” Jared answered, but his smile dimmed. “I’ve been wanting to ask...” he said, “Is everything going okay? For you? Has any of this been... helpful, at all?”

Jensen tried to come up with a flippant reply, but it was difficult, because he could hear in Jared’s voice that he really wanted to know. They weren’t being filmed, this wasn’t a question Jared was asking to get a good line from Jensen that could be sliced up and tacked in between commercials. Jensen hadn’t realised he still had that, still had the ability to know when Jared was being sincere. He didn’t like it all that much; it made it seem like Jared hadn’t changed as much as Jensen knew he had.

“I don’t know,” he hedged as they walked slowly to the elevator. “It’s been interesting. And it’s not like I don’t want to look good. But I can’t really see how this is going to make a big difference for me. I’ll still...” He clamped his mouth shut after realising that he was about to admit that, even if he was dressed like a film star, he was always going to be a socially awkward loser. It didn’t matter how nice Jared was acting, he wasn’t going to say something as completely revealing as that.

He didn’t speak after that, and the uncomfortable silence lasted until they reached the van. Jared opened the door and ushered Jensen inside.

“Well, everyone, this is Jensen,” he said brightly. “Jensen, meet this week’s other ducklings, Genevieve and Richard.”

Ducklings? Jensen thought incredulously. Was that really how the show referred to them? Yes, he thought, recalling the snippets he’d seen of other episodes. It was. He mocked Jared in his head for saying something so cheesy with no apparent irony. Jensen nodded a greeting to his fellow reality TV stars, trying to get himself quickly settled into his seat so that everyone would stop looking at him. Genevieve said, “Hey,” and seemed content to leave it at that, but Richard was a bit chattier.

“Jensen,” he said. “That’s a bit of an unusual name.”

“I guess so,” Jensen answered, shrugging. He knew it wasn’t that common, but it was just his name. He’d always had it. If his name were Richard, he wouldn’t go around pointing out that other people’s names were weird.

“What do you do with yourself, Jensen?”

This Richard guy sure was nosy. “I design parts for computers,” Jensen said.

“That’s awesome!” said Richard. “I bet you never have to deal with tech support, then?”

“Uh, well actually...” Jensen said uneasily. It was true, he kept his personal computer running by himself, but working in the computer hardware department meant spending a lot of time with tech support. Richard wasn’t really listening though, and instead had looked over to Genevieve.

“Gen here teaches middle school,” he said.

“Oh,” said Jensen. It was quiet in the van, and he felt like he should maybe add something more, but he couldn’t think of anything. That’s nice? What’s it like? He wondered how long Genevieve had been a teacher. She didn’t look very old. Some of the eighth graders were probably taller than she was.

“So, what subjects do you teach?” Richard asked after a minute.

“Math, and history,” she answered.

“I bet you never get dates wrong!” Richard said, and Gen laughed.

Jensen wanted to kick both of them, because they were talking to one another and enjoying themselves and they made it seem easy. He looked away, out of the window, but as he glanced over he realised that Jared was watching him, a slight furrow in his brow. Jensen scowled and turned to look out the opposite window, even though it meant turning his body awkwardly.

Once the van reached the mall, Sam led the way out and they followed her to their first destination. They drew a lot of glances, being followed by a cameraman and having Sam and Jared with them, both of whom were quite well known. Jensen couldn’t help but notice people pointing at them and whispering to one another, and it made him feel uneasy, even though he knew they were just curious and nothing more.

Sam stopped at a store selling women’s clothing, and she led Gen inside to start trying things on.

“Will they be long?” Jensen wondered, remembering days of being dragged along shopping with his mother and sister.

“We’re on a tight schedule,” Jared answered. “They’ll be about forty-five minutes. We can go get some coffee or something while we wait.”

That sounded like a great idea to Jensen, since it was barely nine am on a Saturday morning, which was far too early. They got coffee from the food court and wandered around the mall, Jared and Richard chatting away like they’d been friends for years.

Once Sam was satisfied with Gen’s haul of new clothes, she led them to a menswear store, and Jensen and Richard were ushered inside.

“Good luck,” Gen wished them, in a way that made sweat break out on Jensen’s palms.

It wasn’t so bad, actually. He and Richard followed Sam around the store while she pulled things off the racks and asked if they were something either of them would consider wearing. Before too long, they had both accumulated a huge stack of clothes that Sam insisted they try on.

The trying things on part was kind of tedious. Jensen got tired of doing up buttons and straightening seams. Sam made him show her what each item looked like when he was wearing it, and would then give either a headshake or a nod of approval. After that, she made him try on the clothes which had made the cut in different combinations, and then she got him to narrow it down to the clothes he did and didn’t like. That was the hardest part; most of the clothes Jensen had no particular opinion about, but that didn’t seem to be enough for Sam. He felt like he was supposed to be reacting to his favourite clothes with squeals of glee.

“Is it comfortable, Jensen?” she asked finally in exasperation. Jensen had to nod at that and admit that the clothes were, indeed, comfortable.

“That’ll do, then,” she sighed, and went to bother Richard.

They were in that store for an hour, and after that Sam took them to a shoe store. That was kind of fun. A pair of bright red sneakers caught his eye, and while Sam shook her head at him, she got him to try them on. After that, Jensen figured they were close to done, but he turned out to be wrong. They paused for lunch in the food court, but after that was another five hours of trying on clothes and shoes. Jared revealed that he’d made an appointment for Jensen with an optometrist so he could get contact lenses and some new frames for his glasses. Their last stop was a store where Sam took Gen to look at handbags, and as soon as they were gone Richard collapsed onto a bench seat. Jensen sat beside him with relief.

“That was intense,” Richard sighed.

“Mm,” Jensen agreed. “I never knew choosing a tie could be so complicated.”

They sat in exhausted silence while they waited. Jared looked every bit as fresh and energetic as he had standing at Jensen’s front door that morning. Jensen kind of resented him for it.

At last Sam and Gen came out with two new bags and Jared herded them all back to the van. Jensen felt like he could have fallen asleep in his seat, but Jared was bugging all of them with questions about the day – what they thought of their new clothes and what they wanted to try first and whether they were looking forward to the party tomorrow night.

Jensen smothered a groan when that got mentioned. He’d been happy enough just to get through the shopping trip, but he still had another full day to survive. They were going to be picked up at ten in the morning and taken to the studio to get haircuts from Katie, have Sam choose their outfits and get their makeovers completed. That evening, there would be a party where every person they knew was supposed to come and marvel over their transformation. It sounded like torture to Jensen.

Once the van dropped him off Jensen stretched out on his couch, too tired to move. Danneel was kind enough to share her dinner of macaroni and cheese, and found something mindless on TV to watch while they ate. It wasn’t until they’d finished eating and washed the dishes that Danneel asked,

“Was it as terrible as you were expecting?”

“I’m exhausted,” Jensen said. “But I got through it. Now I just have to survive tomorrow.”

“Yeah, speaking of which,” Danneel said, “Am I invited to your big fancy debut?”

“Please don’t call it that,” Jensen said. “And I hope you’ll be there. Someone’s gotta help me get through the night.”

“Well, when you put it like that, I guess I have to go. Maybe you can help me figure out what to wear with your new fashion sense. I’d hate to make you look bad by wearing stripes with polka dots, or whatever.”

“Why? Would that not be good?” Jensen asked.

Danneel laughed and shook her head. “Jensen. It’s nice to know that, even after your remarkable transformation, you’re still the same guy deep down.”

“Oh, fuck you.”

Danneel laughed briefly before becoming more serious. “So, I take it Jared’s been behaving himself? You haven’t been complaining about him nearly as much as I would have expected.”

“He’s been fine.” Jensen examined Danneel’s face. “You wouldn’t have had anything to do with that, would you? You never did tell me what you said when he interviewed you.”

“And I’m not going to. You’ll have to wait and see.” Jensen huffed, and Danneel laughed at him. “Besides,” she went on, “I didn’t say much at all. I think, if Jared’s being nice to you, maybe... well, maybe he’s changed.”

“Maybe,” said Jensen, unconvinced.

“I mean, I know he was an asshole teenager and he made your life hell, but people can change.”

Jensen shook his head. “It’s not even that he did anything terrible to me,” he said. “Sure, there was that time in gym he deliberately knocked me over, and once he broke my calculator and pretended it was an accident. But most of the really shitty stuff was other kids, not him. He didn’t ever tell anyone I was gay, and he could have. If he had, I think that would have been... not good.” He met Danneel’s gaze and saw her looking back at him sadly. “It was just that – he helped me fit in. When we were friends, the other kids left me alone... he got them to like me. I don’t know how.” Jensen gave a nasty little laugh. “I was a stuck up little know-it-all.”

“Don’t say that about yourself.”

“But once we stopped being friends, it was like being thrown to the wolves. The things he said about me turned all the other kids against me, and he never stood up for me. He joined in, helped them along.” As Jensen brought his memories more clearly to the surface, he could feel his eyes prickling and his throat closing up. “So, maybe he has changed, and that’s great. It’s wonderful that everything worked out for him.”

Danneel chewed her lip as she considered what to say. “What would make it better, then?” she asked. “Knowing that he felt terrible and really hated himself because of what he did?”

Jensen hesitated. “I used to think that,” he said. “I thought it would be great if he realised how... how hard he made things for me. And if he felt really bad about it.” He turned away from Danneel and picked up the newspaper, holding it in front of his face for show. “But after all this, I think maybe he does actually feel really badly about it. And I still don’t feel any better.”

“That hardly seems fair,” Danneel said thoughtfully.

“I know, right?” Jensen snapped, throwing the paper down onto the table. “This sucks. I still feel like crap, and Jared still feels shitty even though he’s got the perfect life. I’d prefer it if he’d go back to being an asshole.” He realised as he was saying it that he really meant it, even though it didn’t make sense.

“You do?” Danneel asked, astonished. “Why?”

That was harder to figure out, but Jensen wanted to know too. “Because...” He thought back over the way Jared had acted towards him this week. “He’s being nice and acting like he wants to be friends, but... I can’t trust him. And I don’t want to be his friend if I can’t trust him, and I can’t tell him that I feel that way because I don’t want him to know that I care that much. It’s all his fault. If he wasn’t acting like a decent person I wouldn’t have to worry about this so much.”

Danneel nodded. “Yes. Clearly, by being nice to you, he’s actually being meaner than if he were actually being mean.”

Jensen glared. “You’re making fun of me.”

Danneel tried to look serious, but she couldn’t quite pull it off. “You’ve only got to put up with him for one more day,” she said consolingly. “And after that you’ll never have to see him again. You can do it.”

“Yeah,” Jensen replied. “I can do it.” But what Danneel had said stuck with him. Tomorrow could be the last time he ever saw Jared, ever. It could be his last chance to get the answers he still wanted. And if he wasn’t going to ever see Jared again, it didn’t matter if he revealed a bit of himself to do it.

****************

It wasn’t that Jensen hadn’t tried to get those answers from Jared before. At the end of tenth grade Jared had gone from tormenting him to ignoring him and most of the other students were leaving Jensen alone as well. Jensen started to think there might be a way to make everything better, so that he and Jared could be friends again.

Some of his teachers had given him suggestions on ways to get the other kids to leave him alone. Unfortunately, it turned out that Jensen might be smart, but he wasn’t very good at being friendly, or funny, or standing up for himself, or ignoring people long enough to make them go away. When he pointed that out, his teachers looked uncomfortable and didn’t suggest anything else.

Jensen didn’t see it that way at the time, but his experiences at school had changed him. He’d gone from being a little withdrawn to being deeply uncomfortable in social situations. He didn’t like talking to people because he never knew when he might say something that sounded perfectly ordinary inside his own head but which sent his peers into fits of laughter. The idea of confronting Jared in person was overwhelming, so instead Jensen decided to write him a letter.

‘Jared,
‘I know it was a long time ago, but I wanted to say sorry for what I said to you when we were in middle school. I shouldn’t have said that and it wasn’t fair to you. I’d take it back if I could.
‘I don’t know if you want to, and if you don’t it’s okay, but I’d like us to be friends again. You were a good friend. I can try harder to be a good friend if you give me a chance, just as long as you tell me what you want me to do.
‘Jensen’


He wasn’t sure how best to give the note to Jared. He couldn’t do it at school, where the wrong person might get hold of it. Eventually he resolved to take it to Jared’s house. It was a little way from Jensen’s, but he had his driver’s license now so he borrowed his mom’s car and drove around there one afternoon. He made sure to pick an afternoon when he knew Jared would be home alone. He dropped the note on the doormat, rang the bell and ran back to his car. He didn’t wait around to see if Jared answered the door.

The next day at school, Jared cornered Jensen when he was coming out of the science lab, the one at the far end of the corridor where it tended to be quiet. He shoved Jensen up against the wall, and when Jensen looked down he could see his note scrunched up in Jared’s hand.

“You shouldn’t have come by my house,” Jared hissed, his hand on Jensen’s shoulder trembling just a little.

“I’m... sorry?” Jensen said uncertainly, because he understood what Jared was saying, but he was acting strange, so twitchy and nervous.

“I want you to stay away from me,” Jared added angrily.

“Fine,” Jensen answered, kind of sullen, angry with himself for believing he could fix things. He couldn’t help but notice, though, that Jared didn’t move away. He’d told Jensen that he wanted nothing to do with him, but he was the one pinning Jensen to the wall.

“I don’t like you,” Jared insisted. “And – and I never did. So leave me alone.” Jensen would have found that more convincing if Jared’s voice hadn’t cracked a little bit on the last words. If Jared didn’t look as though he was in physical pain when he said them.

Jensen put a hand out and touched Jared’s shoulder. “Listen-” he began, but Jared abruptly scowled and slapped his hand away.

“Don’t!” he said. “I told you.” And this time he finally stepped away, flicking the note at Jensen’s head before he turned.

Jensen picked the note up, intending to get rid of it somewhere where no one else could find it. But he couldn’t help but notice that, although it had been crumpled up, the original creases had softened too, as though it had been unfolded and refolded again many times. Inside, there were slightly dirty fingerprints on the bottom of the page.

Still, it was the last time Jensen bothered writing any notes.

*************

The next morning did not go the same way as the previous one. It was a struggle to get out of bed, even though Jensen didn’t have to be up as early as the day before. He came out of the shower and abruptly realised that he had an entirely new selection of clothes to choose from. He went to his closet where they were all hanging up, and tried to figure out what he should put on. Theoretically, it didn’t matter. Sam had already decided what he was going to wear to the party, and those clothes were hanging in a garment bag on the back of the door. But if he put a stupid outfit together everyone who looked at him would know that he was a loser who couldn’t be trusted to dress himself, even with a wardrobe full of nice clothes to choose from.

He was half dressed when the knock came at the door. Jensen panicked a little, although he could hear Danneel letting Jared in, and he grabbed the first shirt he could, dragging it over his shoulders. He was still buttoning it up as he stumbled into the living room, flustered, and found Jared waiting there.

“Sorry,” he said. “Sorry, I slept in. And I can’t remember where I put my fucking shoes.”

Jared was looking at him intently, but didn’t seem to have quite heard what he was saying. “Jared?”

“Uh? Oh. Sorry. Um...” Jared waved a hand at his chest. “Your shirt is, uh... crooked.”

“What? Oh, fuck.” Jensen flushed and started unbuttoning and rebuttoning his shirt. He wasn’t sure, but he thought Jared’s eyes glazed over a little bit.

“You left your shoes by the front door,” Danneel said helpfully. “I told you to put them away so you’d know where to find them later, but you didn’t listen to me. As usual.”

“Yeah, right. Thanks Danneel.” Jensen tried to squeeze his feet into the shoes without undoing the laces. At a raised eyebrow from Jared, though, he took them over to the couch and put them on properly.

“Here,” said Danneel once he was done, handing over a travel mug full of coffee.

“Oh, my God, thank you,” he said, a lot more sincerely this time.

“You can pay me back by introducing me to someone famous tonight,” she called as they walked out the door.

***************

Once they all arrived at the studio, Richard, Gen and Jensen were all ushered in to have their haircuts done. Katie’s assistant, Alona, washed their hair while Katie handled the styling. She cut Gen’s hair first, and Jensen was stunned to see how it changed her. The drab, heavy hairstyle was changed into something softer and lighter which framed her face instead of hiding it. It was like magic. And then Katie did the same thing to Richard, getting rid of all the stray strands that made him look scruffy and styling the remainder with gel so that it looked like he’d just woken up with perfect hair. Jensen was awed, but doubted that she would be able to pull the same thing off with him.

Sitting in the hairdresser’s chair was kind of dull. Jensen watched in the mirror as Katie snipped away with her scissors, wondering how it would turn out. His hair had been pretty short to begin with, and he had a hard time imagining what Katie could do that would make a big difference.

Because he wasn’t expecting much, it came as a huge shock when Katie finally finished cutting and styling and prompted him to look in the mirror. He didn’t look like a dweeb anymore. He suddenly looked... stylish, Jensen supposed. Trendy. Attractive. Like someone who could hang out in a bar and get hit on by heaps of people. Assuming, of course, he managed to speak to them.

It was past midday by the time Katie was happy with their haircuts. She sent them off to have lunch, which was laid out buffet style in a conference room.

“Your haircut looks great, Jensen,” Richard said enthusiastically over sandwiches.

“Oh, thanks,” said Jensen, surprised at the compliment. “Uh, yours, too.” He felt like he should add more, but he was out of ideas.

“Ah, well, I guess Katie did the best she could with the materials she had,” he answered self-deprecatingly. It was the first inkling Jensen had had that Richard wasn’t as self-confident as he appeared, that he doubted himself just like Jensen did. It probably shouldn’t have been so surprising considering that Richard was taking part in a reality TV makeover show, but he never appeared anything less than completely self-confident.

After they’d eaten Jared got them organised for the next stage. “Okay, Gen,” he began. “This is Sandy, and she’s going to do your make-up. Richard, you can go with Sam – she wants to alter some of the clothes you picked up, and then get your outfit sorted out. And, uh, Jensen...” Jared glanced at him quickly over his clipboard. “Uh. This afternoon, you’ll be working with me.”

That piece of news sent an uneasy jolt through Jensen. It wasn’t just that he found it strange, but Jared also seemed really uncomfortable. There had to be a reason for that, and it didn’t exactly bode well for the rest of the day.

Jensen went with Jared into a cosy little studio set up with comfortable armchairs and sofas. They sat down while Dave filmed them from the corner. Jensen looked at Jared expectantly and waited for an explanation.

“So, Jensen,” said Jared nervously. “This time just before the party is usually used for the last minute preparations. It’s when we do make-up, for the women, and anything else that needs extra time, like adjusting any of the clothes to make an awesome outfit for the party.”

“Right,” said Jensen, because none of this was news to him.

“But as you probably know, Jensen, what really bothers you isn’t so much the fashion stuff.”

“Right,” Jensen agreed. He didn’t really give a shit about the fashion stuff.

“It’s more that you struggle with social situations.”

“Oh.” Jensen could feel himself flush. “So what? You’re supposed to, like... help me learn how to talk to people?” That was a fucking joke. As far as Jensen could remember, Jared’s idea of a friendly conversation was insulting the other person until they cried.

“Uh, yeah.” At least Jared had the decency to look embarrassed about it. Only a little – Jensen doubted it would be obvious to anyone who didn’t know Jared, but it was to him. “So...” Jared added, “We might start by figuring out exactly what you find difficult when interacting with people.”

“Okay...” said Jensen.

“Yeah, so... imagine it’s the party tonight, and there are people around, and you want to talk to them. What would you talk to them about?”

“Oh, right.” Jensen gave that a moment’s thought. “See... I think my interests are pretty boring to most people. So I’d try to avoid, like, model spaceships and MMORPG’s, but then I don’t pay attention much to things that most people like, such as... uh...stuff.” He tried to think of normal interests, and failed. He tried to block out the little voice that told him he was making himself look like a loser in front of Jared. It was one more day, and then he’d never have to see him again.

“Okay,” said Jared. “That’s... well, something you might try is asking people questions about their lives. Like about their jobs or anything else you know about them. People love to talk about themselves.”

“Sure,” said Jensen a little hesitantly.

“We can try it now. It’s the party, and I’m some person you’re trying to talk to. So you say...?”

Jensen looked around the room for inspiration. It felt stupid asking Jared about his job when he already knew what it was. “So...” he said, “Do you, have, um... a job?”

“Okay,” Jared said after a pause. “That’s a good start. How about, this time, instead of asking if I have a job, you can try, ‘what do you do for a living,’ or, ‘what kind of work do you do,’ or even ‘what do you do all day,’ something like that.”

“Right,” said Jensen. “What do you do... for work?”

Jared nodded encouragingly. “I’m a doctor,” he answered.

“Oh,” said Jensen. God, this was the worst role-playing ever. If Jared’s pretend job was being an orc barbarian, he’d know what to say. “That sounds...” Hard. Boring. Stressful. Sad. “Um... interesting.”

“Right,” said Jared, barely suppressing a sigh. Jensen felt sort of bad, but really, it wasn’t his fault he was no good at this. “Was that what you were going to say at first? That it sounded interesting?”

“Well, no...” said Jensen. He would have stopped there, but Jared nodded as though he wanted Jensen to continue. “I was going to say it would be a hard job.”

“But you changed your mind?”

“Yeah...”

“Why?”

“I just thought it would sound stupid. Like, of course it’s hard. If being a doctor was easy everyone would do it.”

“Hm,” Jared said thoughtfully. “Well, I mean... not that I’m agreeing it would be a stupid thing to say, mind you, but so what if it was?”

“Huh?”

“Really. So what if you said something that was kind of dumb? What’s the worst thing that could happen?”

“Uh...” Jensen looked at Jared, trying to figure out if he was being asked a trick question. “They’d think I was a moron?”

“So?”

“So...” Maybe Jared was just dense. “I don’t really want everyone around me to think that I’m an idiot.”

“Well, fair enough.” Jared quirked a faint smile. “But most people aren’t going to decide you’re stupid based on one thing that you say.”

“Really?” Jensen asked doubtfully.

“Not unless they’re a complete jerk.”

Jensen thought about that. He’d heard the same thing before, from his parents and from Danneel, but it was interesting to hear Jared say it. It struck him as profoundly hypocritical. Jared was the one who, in high school, had taken every opportunity to mock every word that came out of Jensen’s mouth, regardless of whether it was stupid or not. He had to realise that he was a big part of the reason why Jensen was so reluctant to talk to new people.

“Why don’t we try it again?” Jared said. “I’m standing at the refreshments table, drinking a martini.”

“Okay. Um. So, what do you do for a living?”

“I’m the most successful porn star in Texas.”

Jensen held in his laughter and tried to recite the words Jared had given him. “Well, um... is that... hard?”

Jared looked back at him, his expression blank but his lips twitching. He managed to hold it together until Jensen started to snicker, and they both collapsed into laughter until their eyes watered.

“That was not fair,” Jensen gasped. “You jerk.”

Jared gave one last chortle and took a deep breath. “Right, sorry. Serious now. Go again.”

“What sort of work do you do?”

“I’m a bank teller.”

“Oh... cool.” Jared looked at him for a moment without saying anything, and Jensen felt like a failure. “Which bank?”

“That’s more like it,” said Jared with a smile.

“I feel like a complete dickhead,” Jensen pointed out. He looked away from Jared, which meant his gaze fell on the camera which he’d managed to forget was in the room. He blushed bright red and looked at the floor. Jared shifted in his chair and drew Jensen’s attention back to him.

“Can you figure out why it is that you’re so worried about what other people think of you?” Jared asked, and Jensen had to try not to laugh at him.

He figured Jared was asking that question because it would look strange if he didn’t, and not because he didn’t know the answer. It had occurred to him already that Jared must not have mentioned knowing Jensen to the studio; he didn’t think they’d have let him come on the show if they knew. There had to be some kind of rule about it. So Jared must be really invested in this pretence that he and Jensen were strangers, and that meant pretending that he had no idea where Jensen’s issues came from. It was starting to piss Jensen off.

“You can say that people don’t care if I say something stupid, and that they’re not just waiting for me to screw up, but I don’t believe you,” he said forcefully. “That’s not how it’s gone for me in the past. People have treated me like shit over one stupid thing I’ve said. Not even that much, sometimes. Sometimes it was just enough that I was there.”

Jared’s expression turned miserable. “That’s horrible,” he said, “And I’m sorry.” Jensen wouldn’t let himself react to the apology. “But I think that... when people treated you like that, what was really going on – probably – was just that they had their own issues. It wasn’t actually anything to do with you, or anything you did. It was just... they were the ones who had a problem, and they took it out on you. It wasn’t your fault.”

That got Jensen to react. He blinked rapidly, because he absolutely refused to cry on camera. “That’s not much comfort to me now,” he rasped.

“I know. But, listen... the party, tonight? No one who comes to it is going to give you a hard time. And if they do, they’re not welcome. We won’t have them here. I took this job to help people, not set them up for bullies to knock down. So I want you to try to put yourself out there, and see that things can be different.”

Jensen nodded reluctantly. “I’m blaming you if it goes wrong,” he joked half heartedly.

“Yeah, fair enough,” Jared replied seriously. “Listen, it’s getting late. Sam’s probably looking for you to get you dressed.”

“Oh, right.” Jensen hadn’t realised how much time had passed. He felt pretty drained, and wished that the day could just be over already.

“Why don’t you go get some coffee first, though,” Jared suggested, and Jensen thought it was the best idea he’d heard all day.

After that, Sam did track him down and herded him off to get dressed and ready for the party. It didn’t take all that long, and then there was nothing to do but wait for the guests to arrive.

“Once it’s time, you’ll come into the room through this door,” she said, showing him where to go. “That way, everyone will be able to see the new you and we can get footage of all their reactions.”

“Sounds awesome,” said Jensen with a complete lack of sincerity.

After a while, he could hear people starting to arrive, and chattering in the other room. Eventually, there was a hush, and Sam came in.

“Okay,” she said, “You first, Richard.”

Richard grinned nervously at them as he headed out the door. It closed behind him, and Jensen could hear quiet for a moment, followed by loud exclamations. It went on for a few minutes, and then Sam said, “Your turn, Gen.”

Jensen waited some more as a similar hum of conversation erupted when Genevieve went through the door. His hands were sweaty and he rubbed them against his pants.

“Don’t do that, you’ll crease them,” said Sam. “Here, use a napkin.”

So Jensen took the napkin and wiped his hands, then shredded the defenceless paper into tiny scraps because it made him feel better. At last, Sam said, “Okay, it’s time for you to go in now,” and Jensen said,

“Oh, God, I can’t do this.”

“For God’s sake. Yes you can.” Sam put a hand to his shoulder and firmly pushed him through the door. “Just go out there, smile, and have fun,” she ordered, and then he was through the door and every single light in the room was shining on him. Every single person was looking at him.

Jensen tried to smile. His face felt strange, as though his expression was a sticker someone had stuck on upside down. He realised that people were talking. They were saying things like ‘Gosh’ and ‘Wow’ and he was pretty sure someone whistled, which nearly made him trip over his own feet. He was sure they had to be talking about someone else... but they were all looking at him.

“Oh, Jensen,” he heard, and then suddenly Donna was there, hugging him and kissing his cheek.

“Hey, Mom,” he answered, feeling sheepish.

“Oh, my baby,” she said, patting his shoulder and straightening his collar. “You look so handsome.”

“You look good, son,” said Alan, standing on his other side.

“Thanks, Dad.”

“Hey, Jensen, you don’t look completely horrible.”

“Aw, thanks Mackenzie. It’s not so awful to see you here, either.”

Jensen let his parents and sister hug and fuss over him for a minute or two, and then tried to gently pry them off. Donna pulled out a handkerchief and wiped her eyes.

“Aw, geez, Mom,” Jensen said. “It’s just some clothes and a new hairstyle. I’m still just the same old Jensen.”

“I’m just so happy for you,” she sniffled.

“Oh my God,” he heard a familiar voice say over the general noise in the room. “Can that really be Jensen? Somebody catch me, I feel faint!”

“Shut up, Danneel,” Jensen said, trying to keep the grin from his face. “See if I invite you to my next party.”

“Danneel, doesn’t he look so handsome? My baby boy.”

Danneel looked him up and down, and gave an approving nod. “He sure does,” she said.

Donna whipped out her camera, taking a few photos to send to Jensen’s brother, who hadn’t been able to come to the party. Jensen put up with this for a good ten seconds before sending a pleading glance Danneel’s way. She smirked and stubbornly refused to rescue him. The traitor.

Jensen heard someone standing behind him clear his throat, and turned around to see Jared. “Jensen,” he said, “Can I get you and your guests to come over and answer a few questions about your new look?”

They went over to where Dave’s camera was set up, and Jared asked, “So, are you happy with how this has turned out, Jensen?”

Jensen reflected that it would have taken a lot to make him unhappy, considering his lack of investment in this whole venture, but he knew better than to say that. “Yeah,” he said instead. “It’s awesome. Uh, I feel like a whole new person.”

“Donna, do you like what you see?”

“Oh, Jared, I just can’t believe it’s my Jensen. Thank you!” She reached out and kissed Jared on the cheek. Jared froze and then backed away, blushing deeply. “You’ve turned my son into such a good looking man.”

“Hey!” Jensen protested, but his heart wasn’t in it. Donna was so happy. She’d been happy when he got that promotion at work, but not like this. He didn’t want to spoil it for her.

Eventually they got away from Jared and the cameras, and waiters brought out drinks and finger food. Jensen nibbled on some hors d’oeurves, feeling suddenly hungry.

“Do you feel relieved, now it’s nearly over?” Danneel asked, leaning in to whisper to him.

“Yeah, of course,” said Jensen. “It wasn’t so bad, but I can’t say I’d want to do it again.”

“And Jared? Are things still okay with him?”

Jensen looked over to where Jared was talking to Gen and her family. “Yeah, it’s fine,” he said. He hadn’t managed to talk to Jared like he’d sort of wanted to, and now he probably wasn’t going to get the chance, but he couldn’t worry too much about that. “It doesn’t matter, right? I won’t have to see him again after tonight. I can put it all behind me.” He said it confidently, trying not to think that he’d spent the last ten years trying and failing to put it behind him. That was life. There were some things that couldn’t be fixed, and the only thing to be done was put up with them.

Jensen didn’t really make any effort to, but he found himself circulating and talking to most people at the party. Gen and Richard both came to talk to him and introduced him to their guests. They were all lovely people and Jensen found that he didn’t have to worry about thinking of things to say if he just stood on the edge of the group and listened. No one seemed to mind that he was being quiet.

Near the end of the night, he ran into Jared again, and he asked, “Have you had a good time?”

“Yeah,” Jensen answered honestly. “It’s actually... gone a lot better than I expected.”

“That’s good. Your mom and dad seemed really happy with your makeover.”

“Yeah. Man, I can’t believe my mom. I guess I should be used to her, I mean, you know...” Jensen stammered to a halt. “You... you know what she’s like.”

“Yeah,” said Jared. “I guess I do. I’ve, I’ve missed your parents, actually. It was good to see them again.”

Jensen snorted. “Oh, really? You can’t count on your own parents to show up and embarrass you in the middle of a party?”

“Oh, well.” Jared looked away. “I don’t have contact with them anymore.”

“Oh.” Jensen shifted his weight, feeling awkward. He couldn’t help feeling like he’d stuck his foot in his mouth. He wondered what had happened between Jared and his parents. When he was a kid, he’d never spent much time at Jared’s house. They’d always played outside, where there were things that Jared liked to do, or gone to Jensen’s house, where there were awesome science-y things that Jensen liked to do. At the time, he’d figured that Jared liked being outdoors too much, but as he’d grown older he’d come to realise that Jared’s dad wasn’t exactly fun to be around. When Jared had come out and started to advocate for gay rights in the local media, Jensen had never considered whether that would cause him problems with his parents. Maybe he should have.

Of course, it really wasn’t the time right then to go into it, so Jensen said, “I’m sorry,” and let it go. He wished now that he’d asked all those questions before, when he’d had the chance. But it was too late, and he’d just have to deal with that.

“Thanks,” Jared said, and a moment later he made an excuse and left to talk to someone else.

For the rest of the night, Jensen alternated between avoiding Jared and trying to work up the nerve to talk to him some more. Unfortunately, the night was over before he could manage that, and he wound up collecting his coat and going out to his parents’ car without seeing Jared again.

It was a tight squeeze in the back seat with Mackenzie and Danneel, but they managed. The two girls chatted excitedly about the party and Jensen watched the city lights flash past through the window. He should have been happy; the end of the show should have been a weight lifted from his shoulders, but he just felt empty. He sighed and leaned against the car door. Something in his jacket pocket crinkled, and he reached in to see what it was.

It was a piece of paper, folded into a square and tucked deep into the pocket. Jensen could feel the shape of it but didn’t want to take it out. It was too dark to see it properly and he didn’t want anyone else to notice it. It was probably nothing anyway, just a bit of rubbish that had got put in there by mistake.

He waited until he and Danneel were dropped off at home and he was able to seclude himself in his room before taking it out. It was a lined piece of paper from a notepad, and Jensen’s name was written on it. Jensen’s name in Jared’s handwriting. He stared at it, half expecting that if he looked for long enough, it would vanish like the illusion it had to be.

That didn’t happen, though. Jensen unfolded the note quickly, opening it and wondering what it could say. He sat on his bed clutching the note and started to read.

‘Jensen,
‘I guess it’s pretty cowardly of me to tell you all this in a note, when I owe you an explanation face to face. I don’t think we’re going to get a chance to do that, though, so this is all I can offer.
‘There’s nothing in my life I regret as much as screwing up our friendship. You might not believe that, and I can’t blame you if you don’t, but it’s true.
‘I’ve never had another friend who cared about me like you did, who I could trust as much as I trusted you, who was as smart and funny and kind. Being your friend was one of the best times of my life.
‘I still remember the day you said you liked me. You know what I mean. I’m sorry. It scared the hell out of me because it meant it didn’t matter how hard I worked to be good at sports and act tough. It meant Dad was right about me, and all those things he said were true. So I panicked and I tried to pretend I didn’t feel the same way and I turned on you, and I got everyone else to do the same. I’m sorry. I wish I could change it.
‘You’ve got every right to hate me. You can just throw this away if you want to. But I’m putting my cell number on here, just in case. I think maybe you coming on the show was like a second chance for me, and I’m trying really hard not to mess up second chances when I get them. So you can call me if you want, any time. I’ll do anything I can to make it right.
‘Jared’


Jensen looked down at the bottom of the page to where Jared had neatly printed his cell number, and he wondered what he was supposed to do now.

**************

“It’s not like I even wanted to hear his sob story about how Daddy was mean to him and he’s really, really, sorry. He just dumped it on me without even wondering whether I cared or not.”

“That inconsiderate bastard.”

“But on the other hand... I always wondered if he’d been eaten up with guilt this whole time, and I guess it looks like he was. So it’s kind of like proof that he cares, I guess, and that I am important to him.”

“That’s a good point.”

“But then, it’s pretty arrogant of him to not even consider that I might have moved on. He just assumed that I’d still want to hear what he had to say. Danneel, what should I do?”

“My God, I’m so confused.” Danneel put a hand over her face and collapsed backwards onto the couch.

“He gave me his cell number,” Jensen mused, running his fingers over the figures written on the note. “So he obviously wants me to call him. And I’ve always thought about, well...” He looked up at Danneel, feeling awkward. “I’ve always wondered if we might be able to get past what happened and be friends again. Because he was such a good friend. Until he wasn’t. I’ve never stopped wanting that, and now it might even be possible. So this should be an easy decision. I’m just afraid of getting disappointed or hurt again.”

“I can see how that would make things difficult. Jensen, you don’t owe him a damn thing, so if you decide to go ahead and call him, make sure you’re doing it for you, not for him.”

Jensen thought that over. “You’re right, of course,” he said. “Even if we did both want to try, it would be hard to put everything behind us and start over. If we both tried, though, it might work out.”

“You should give him a call, then,” Danneel suggested, smiling up at him supportively.

“Yeah, maybe I should,” said Jensen, looking across the room to the phone. “But suppose I did,” he went on, “And things weren’t okay? What if it turns out Jared’s still an asshole, and he’s just been pretending for the past week, and by calling him I give him another opportunity to treat me like crap?”

Danneel stood up from the couch with sharp movements. “Okay, Jensen, listen to me,” she said firmly. “I know Jared put you through a lot and I’m not suggesting that you should cut him any slack. But everything else you’re talking about... what if this, and what if that, that’s just a normal part of dealing with people. And you pretty much avoid dealing with people at every turn, so you’ve never had to learn that, but trust me, okay? That’s how it is. Sometimes people suck, and sometimes what the other person wants is different to what you want, and then someone gets hurt. So you can hide in here and wonder what you should do for the next fifty years, but there’s only one way to get the answers to your questions.”

“Okay.” Jensen nodded, thinking over what Danneel had said. “You’re right.”

“Of course I am.”

“I’m not going to call him.”

“Fine.”

“He’s already had one chance to ruin my life, why should I give him another?”

“You shouldn’t.”

“That would be stupid.” Jensen looked down at the note he was holding. “I’m going to go put this... away.”

He walked out of the room, but he could feel Danneel’s gaze on his back, silently judging him for not throwing the note away like a smart person would.

***********

Life went on remarkably unchanged after that. Jensen’s co-workers commented on his new look, but didn’t take that much notice. Two weeks passed and Jensen stopped waiting for lightning to strike, stopped waiting for a new personality to be delivered to match his new appearance. It was like he’d told Jared. He was still the same person, he just looked different.

They’d started playing commercials for Jensen’s episodes of The Ugly Duckling, featuring Katie asking him about bleaching his hair and him being horrified in response. The ads also showed Richard talking about wanting to start dating again after ending his first marriage, and Genevieve talking about how she put so much time into teaching that she felt like she never managed to do anything for herself. Jensen couldn’t help but feel like he was being set up to be the comic relief.

They sat down to watch the first episode. Gen and Richard’s interviews were played, where they talked in more detail about the things that had been mentioned in the commercials. From Jensen’s interview, they’d used the bit where he talked about his mom signing him up for the show, and then the bit where he’d talked about his totally innovative and not at all boring fan design. Only, they’d kept Jared’s first reaction where he looked confused, instead of the enthusiastic one. The rest was a mash of ‘Sometimes it's hard for me to get along with other people’ and ‘Other kids my age didn't really get me. I guess I could be a pretty annoying kid’ and ‘I don’t date much.’ Jensen grimaced at the TV, and Danneel was silent.

There was a short clip of Danneel saying “Jensen’s the best friend I’ve ever had. I’d be a fool to ever let anything mess that up,” while giving Jared a sweet smile. That was quickly followed by “If Jensen ever saw an epilator, he’d probably assume it was a miniature vacuum cleaner or something.”

“Thanks a lot! Some friend you are,” Jensen snapped.

“They cut the whole bit where I talked about how I’d stalk and murder anyone who ever hurt you,” Danneel said, put out. “They’ve got a bunch of hacks running this show.”

“The biggest,” Jensen agreed. He looked back to the TV, where Genevieve was trying to choose a new hair colour. “What’s an epilator?”

***************

The next day’s episode continued in a very similar fashion. There was clip where Richard held up a shirt from his closet and explained that he couldn’t wear it anymore because it reminded him of his ex-wife, but he couldn’t bear to part with it for the same reason.

When the episode moved on to Gen, they saw her go through her own closet saying things like, “Bought this shirt three years ago, this dress five years ago. Here’s a new one, I only bought it this year. Oh, wait, no, it was last year. God, when was the last time I even went shopping for myself?”

And then there was Jensen, stammering like an idiot when asked to describe a normal outfit that he might see in his office, and completely unable to express a preference about his clothes in any way. Watching himself, Jensen was amazed he had the brains to do everyday things like have a job and feed himself. He was coming across like someone who couldn’t be trusted with a butter knife.

Day three, and Richard and Gen’s stories continued to unfold, with Gen gleeful over her new selection of clothes. “When my students see me dressed in something stylish, I bet they’ll all die of shock!” Richard was more contemplative. “I don’t know if I’m ready to start dating again, but I’ve got one less excuse not to now.”

When Jensen appeared on the screen, it was to completely fail to identify different items of clothing or to grouchily declare that he didn’t care which colour shirt he took home. He kind of wanted to stop watching entirely, but he figured it was best to know what they were showing rather than being unaware.

“I guess Jared really hasn’t changed at all,” Danneel mused.

“Jared probably has nothing to do with how it’s all edited together,” Jensen said, just to be fair.

“Yeah, I know,” Danneel admitted. “But this still sucks.”

They sat down to watch the next evening with a feeling of dread. Gen and Richard talked during their segments about what they hoped to be able to do after the show. They played a few clips from Jared and Jensen’s role playing, from ‘do you have a job?’ to ‘I don’t want everyone to think I’m stupid’ to his impassioned speech to Jared about how he didn’t believe that people would excuse his mistakes. Jensen curled up on the couch and covered his face with his hands.

“It’s not so bad, Jensen,” Danneel said encouragingly.

“It is so bad, Danneel,” Jensen argued. “I have to go to work tomorrow, and talk to people about how I have no social skills because when I was a kid, some other kids were mean to me. I should never have done this.”

“It’ll be fine,” Danneel argued, but the phone rang then and she went to answer it. “It’s your mom,” she said, extending the phone to Jensen.

Jensen took the phone reluctantly. “Hey,” he said into the mouthpiece.

“Jensen, oh my God, why did you never tell me about any of this?” Donna exclaimed. She sounded upset. Jensen sighed.

“Mom, come on, it wasn’t even that bad,” Jensen tried. Donna sniffled and he went on, “They’re making it sound way worse than it actually was. You know. TV.”

“I always thought you just didn’t like other people. I had to watch a TV show to find out you were being bullied.”

“I just didn’t want to make you worry about it, Mom, that’s all.”

“Now you listen to me, Jensen Ross Ackles.” Jensen hadn’t lived in his mother’s house for ten years, but that tone of voice could still make him sit up and pay attention. “I am your mother. Worrying about you is my job. Protecting you is my job. It’s not your job to protect me. You’re my son.”

Donna sounded a little choked up, and Jensen’s own throat felt a little tight as he replied. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know how to tell you, but I should have.”

“Was Jared one of them?” she asked. Jensen didn’t answer, and she sighed. “I would never have signed you up for this if I’d known. Next time I see him, I’m going to stick my foot right up...”

“It doesn’t matter anymore,” Jensen said, finding to his surprise that he meant it. “Work is going to suck tomorrow, but I don’t think that’s Jared’s fault.”

“I’m sorry this didn’t turn out better for you.”

“It’s no big deal.”

After Jensen had hung up the phone, he turned to Danneel and said, “Do you think it will look suspicious if I call in sick tomorrow?”

***********

“There was a group hug,” Jensen growled as he walked through the door the next evening. “I had to tell Pete that I was allergic to the fibre in his sweater to get away. Milo from accounting told me all about how the kids at his middle school forced him to eat sand. Our lunch hour was practically a group therapy session.”

“So it wasn’t as bad as you thought?” Danneel asked.

Jensen scowled. “Everyone kept talking to me,” he said. “And touching me. And I think they all expected me to cry.”

“It could have been worse.”

“Being an inspiration for the bullied masses isn’t exactly my lifelong dream.” Jensen shrugged out of his jacket and slumped down at the table.

“Come on, Jensen, isn’t it nice to know you’re not alone? Those people have all been through similar things. They know how you feel. They want to be there for you.”

Jensen shrugged, looking down at his hands. “I guess,” he admitted. “It was nice to have people there who listened.”

“Well there you go, then. I found something interesting today, too.”

“What?”

“A news article. I emailed you the link.”

Jensen booted up his computer and found the email Danneel was referring to. The article was headlined ‘Reality TV Host to Leave Makeover Show’.

‘Jared Padalecki, host of the successful TTL reality show The Ugly Duckling, has announced that he will not be renewing his contract for the upcoming season. TTL could not be reached for comment on this surprising turn of events. We asked Padalecki about his sudden decision, and he said “It’s really important to know when it’s time to make a change, and for me that time has come.”
‘Padalecki said he did not have concrete plans for his next career move, but did say, “There are a lot of opportunities out there, and I’m very excited to see what’s around the corner for me next.”
The Ugly Duckling will run for two more weeks before the current season ends. TTL have not yet announced whether they will continue the show with a different host.’


“He quit?” said Jensen in shock. “Why did he quit?”

“You read the same article I did, right?” Danneel asked, following him into the study.

“But that doesn’t say anything. It’s all this ‘time for change’ bullshit. That could mean anything.”

“It is pretty vague,” Danneel agreed.

“What if...” Jensen began, and then trailed off, shaking his head.

“What if what?”

“Nothing. It’s stupid.”

“I’m sure it isn’t.”

Jensen looked at her, thinking hard. “Do you think it could be because of me?” he wondered. “I mean, it’s probably not. It’s probably incredibly self-centred of me to even consider it.”

“I don’t think you’re being self-centred,” Danneel said. “That could be it. We don’t know.”

“Yeah. We don’t.”

“You could find out, though,” Danneel suggested. “You’ve still got his phone number.”

Jensen thought about that, but put off making the decision. “Come on. If we’re going to get dinner made before the show comes on, we have to start now.”

They sat down in front of the TV with lamb chops and ate their meal as clips played from the party night. There was lots of gushing from different people over the dramatically changed appearances of Jensen, Richard and Gen. Every person who attended must have been interviewed, because there were lots of people talking about how much their friend or relative had changed. There was one clip of Mackenzie saying “Before this, Jensen’s idea of dressing up was brushing his hair,” which made Jensen snort.

“That’s so untrue!” he protested. “I always kept my hair neat.”

“That’s right,” Danneel agreed. “You had the neatest hair this side of the fifties.”

“Somehow, I think you’re making fun of me,” Jensen grumbled, but he didn’t really care.

Jared had been interviewed too, to predict how things would turn out for each of them. “It’s really tough to pick yourself up and get out there again after ending a serious relationship,” he said. “I think Richard’s very self aware, though, and won’t do anything he’s not ready for.”

About Genevieve, he said, “I hope we’ve helped her realise that it’s okay to spend a little time on yourself once in a while. It’s really admirable to give so much of yourself to others, but that can only last as long as you take care of yourself.”

Finally, they must have asked him about Jensen. Jensen braced himself. “I think the hardest part for Jensen is still to come. We can try to give people the confidence to be more open around others, but it’s still very hard to do that when your past experiences haven’t been so great. I hope that Jensen gives the people around him a chance, and that he realises that they’re better than maybe he assumes they are.” Jared looked right at the camera, and Jensen would have described his expression as troubled. “It’s so rewarding to do this job and be able to help people with it, but sometimes I worry that I’m setting them up just for other people to knock down.”

There were a few more minutes left of the episode, but Jensen paid little attention to them, being too busy thinking over what Jared had said.

“Jensen?” Danneel asked him some time later, and he realised that CSI was on and he had apparently been sitting in a fugue for thirty minutes.

“I need the phone,” he said abruptly. Danneel held out her arm, and Jensen realised she was clutching the phone. He gave her a suspicious look, but she just raised her eyebrows and waggled the phone at him.

“I have to go,” he said, taking the phone from her grip. “Me and the phone have to go to my room now.”

“Say hi to Jared for me,” Danneel called cheekily.

Jensen entered the phone number nervously. As he waited for it to dial a horrible thought occurred to him. What if Jared’s phone was one the network had given him and they’d taken it back because he was quitting? He waited anxiously as it rang and rang, until he finally heard the click of it being answered.

“Jared speaking.”

It took a second for Jensen to be able to speak. “Hey. Jared? Um, hi. This is Jensen.”

**************

A few months later, Jared Padalecki featured in another article, headlined: ‘Padalecki to host new reality show’.

‘Reality TV host Jared Padalecki was recently confirmed as the creator and host of an upcoming IGTV reality series,
‘The show will be titled Young Champions and will film the lives of ordinary young people who do extraordinary things.
‘Padalecki said, “In our society, we recognise only certain types of achievement, and only certain types of achievers. I hope to be able to use Young Champions to show that we’re all capable of amazing things, and that we all deserve recognition for them. I want to explore the idea that, sure, kids are out there playing sports and auditioning for American Idol or whatever, and that’s great, but at the same time, there are kids out there learning to build things, or make art, and even just doing little things to help the people around them, and that’s worth celebrating too.”
'Young Champions will accept applications from young people aged 16 to 25, and will follow a relatively casual format.
‘“I don’t want to be too constrained by the structure of the show,” Padalecki said. “I don’t want this to be a heavily edited show which forces its participants into narrow stereotypes. My goal is to overcome that type of thinking. To show that it doesn’t matter if you’re different to other people, you can still be a good and talented person.”
'Young Champions is set to start filming in August, and applications can be submitted through the network website.’


Jared read the article, and smiled, and put the newspaper away before going to read more applications. He had a lot of work to do.

Jensen read the article, and smiled, and cut it out to keep, so he could show it to Jared whenever he forgot that someone could make mistakes, and still be a good and talented person.

The following year, when Young Champions was nominated for an Emmy, Jensen agreed to attend the ceremony as Jared’s plus one.

He declined the stylist appointment.

Jared didn’t care.

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