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The word Calvary comes from the name of the hill outside the walls of Jerusalem where they killed Jesus. Well, it wasn’t called Calvary exactly, but that’s what King James decided. The people of Jerusalem said the hill looked like “the skull-pan of a head,” and so Calvary basically means The Skull, Jesus’s deathbed.

The Skull used to be a temple to Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty and sex, before the Christians took over the world.

And some devout man back in the 1700s decided it sounded like the perfect name for a town in Tennessee that tip-toed right up to the Kentucky border.

Calvary, the hill of skulls that took over a shrine of love.

Calvary, a poor mining town that got lost when the mine closed in the mid-fifties and sent its miners back home, backs broken and lungs dripping black and lives shortened and bitter. Sent them home with no money and no other choices and this was the life Jacob Anthony Ackles was born into, his birthright.

Jacob’s daddy had sharp, rotgut-dark eyes and hands hard as steel and a heart as cavernous and empty as those abandoned mines. Life made Jacob’s daddy into a man who was mean when he was sober and downright sadistic when he was drunk.

And Robert Ackles raised his son up right, fearing the Lord and mean, raised him right up into a bully with a handsome devil of a face, ensuring that Jacob could get those strong, mean hands he inherited on the prettiest girl he saw.

And that girl was Mary Anne Longmire.

Mary Anne was will-o’-the-wisp of a girl with dawn-colored hair, the most fragile of blonde and with eyes like the five minutes before a storm, with wind gusting up and the sky groaning to life and dripping warm rain. She had cinnamon sprinkles of freckles that found even the secret, tender places of her body: behind her ears, on her pink top lip, between her long fingers and her soft, pale thighs. And all these places, every bit of her, is where she let Jacob Ackles in.

Jensen didn’t look enough like his daddy to be recognized as such in town, not immediately anyway. He was his mama’s spittin’ image, just as apologetically beautiful, just as delicate as a baby bird’s skeleton.

And, oh, how the school boys loved him. Loved to beat the smile right off his soft mouth, loved to grind the light right out of his dirt-green eyes -the one pretty thing his daddy ever gave him- with their newly calloused knuckles. They loved to deafen him with cruel words, to flood his ears with them: faggot and queer and pussy and girl and pansy and fuckin-die-you-piece-of-shit.

They shoved and punched and kicked and snarled their way right through him, right under his skin, leaving their poisonous hate inside of him. Breaking him.

Jensen’s secret, the thing that those careless, empty boys never knew, is that Jacob Anthony Ackles already got to Jensen’s spirit a long time ago.

 

It’s near August and hotter than hellfire, and Jared’s mouth is numb from all the popsicles he’s eaten to stay cool. Second grade starts for him in two weeks, and he’s getting antsy for it.

He pulls himself up off the couch and turns off Ren & Stimpy, licking his purple-tinged mouth as he heads for the backyard.

The backdoor sticks like crazy, and he has to use all of his muscles and grunts to pry it open. He’s red-cheeked and annoyed and he squints across the yard at his mama who is suntanning in her lounge chair, her skin shiny with Panama Jack and brown with summer.

“Mama?”

He waits and listens, only hearing the sound of the birds up in the oak tree and the faint, tinny sound of Tammy Wynette twanging from Mama’s radio.

“Mama!”

She jumps this time, shoving her sunglasses up into her hair and glaring over at where Jared is hovering in the open door.

“Jared, can’t you see I’m tryin’ to relax? This is about as close to a beach as I’m ever gonna get. What do you want?”

He shifts from one bare foot to the other, knowing before he even starts what the answer to his question is going to be.

“I just, uh.” He looks down at his feet, at the ant crawling across his big toe. “Just wonderin’ if maybe we could go down to the pool?”

“Oh, good Lord, Jared.” She sits up completely now, grabbing her pack of cigarettes out of the grass and digging one out to light one up, her automatic reaction to being irritated. “You must think money grows on that damn tree right there, don’t you? I ain’t got but seven dollars to last through to Friday, and my food stamps ain’t comin’ in ‘til the 8th. I ain’t got the money to just--”

“It’s okay, Mama,” he cuts in, trying very hard to keep the exasperation out of his voice. The sound of cicadas rise up and take over everything, obliterating every other sound for a good long while before dying back down to an ominous, familiar hum. He takes a deep breath, inhaling the green smell of mowed grass, the heavenly smell of somebody grilling out nearby. Summer’s almost over. “Can I go swimmin’ down at the crick instead?”

She’s quiet for a moment, her cheeks drawing in as she pulls in a lungful of smoke. She lets it out in a long sigh, settling back in the chair and pulling her sunglasses back down over her eyes.

“Well. I guess so.”

Jared beams for that, standing up straight and even giving a little hop. He’s about to dash back into the house for his shoes when he gets another idea. His voice is a little shrill with excitement when he yells across the yard again.

“Can I ask Jensen to go with me?”

The sunglasses come back up, and she’s looking straight at him now.

“Leave that boy out of this. Just go on down there and be careful. Be back before dark.”

“Mama, please?” He’s near tears now, the excitement of the thought of spending the afternoon with Jensen shattered by Mama telling him no.

“They ain’t gonna say yes, Jay. You ‘member last weekend, the church picnic? His daddy practically bit my damn head off when you wanted that boy to go to that, too.”

He’ll never say it out loud, but he hates the way Mama talks about Jensen, like he’s just a regular old anybody. Like he’s just somebody not important enough to remember a name. Like he’s a bother and not Jared’s very best friend in the whole entire world.

“Can I just ask? Please, Mama? Pretty please?”

“Heaven sakes, Jared. Just go on. Just leave me be for awhile. You’re drivin’ me crazy.” She dismisses him with a flick of her wrist, cigarette ash skittering over the side of the chair and into the long, dry grass.

“Thanks, Mama!” He’s off like a shot then, thundering through the house, stopping just long enough to grab two towels from the basket of clean clothes on the coffee table and to shove his feet into shoes.

The screen door clatters behind him as he takes off across the front yard and through the gravel driveway separating his house from Jensen’s. The house is quiet after he stomps up the steps and stops in front of the door, quiet like Jared is in the middle of the night when he thinks he heard something in his closet. Like it’s scared and waiting.

It’s only the thought of Jensen waiting inside that makes Jared finally feel brave enough to lift his hand and knock on the door. He takes a step back and hugs the towels to his chest, teeth sinking into his bottom lip to gnaw on it as he waits.

There’s no movement for the longest time and then the door’s opening and there’s Jensen peeking through the crack, one curious green eye, a shock of summer-blonde hair, and a dance of freckles over caramel skin.

“Jay?”

“Hey!” Jared blushes for some stupid reason, embarrassed by his own enthusiasm, for the way his heart races. He’d just been with Jensen last night, the two of them in Jared’s backyard catching lightning bugs in an old jelly jar, but he’s missed him. “Hey, um. Do you think. Uh. Well, I’m goin’ swimmin’ and I was just wonderin’ if you wanted to maybe go, too. Maybe.”

The door opens wider and Jensen comes into full view just in time for him to turn around and look back into the house, his shoulders drawing in tight, uncertainty caught up in every movement of his body. He turns to look back at Jared, his mouth already pulled into a sun-pinked frown.

“Let me ask my mama, okay?”

“Okay, Jen.” His heart thuds in his chest and he feels upset for no reason he can put his finger on. He watches on helplessly as Jensen steps back into the house and shuts the door behind him, leaving Jared standing on the porch. A car muscles its way down the road behind him, engine roaring, the sound loud and starting and making him flinch.

He hears the squeak of the door again and he snaps back to attention, arms tightening around the towels. He tries to school his face into neutrality but he can’t keep the hope out of his eyes when he smiles at Jensen who is standing in front of him again, taking the extra couple of steps to put him just on the threshold of the door and just barely out of the house. His eyes are dull and looking everywhere but at Jared, his hand on the door like he can’t wait to just get back in the house.

“You comin?” The towels slip from where they’re trapped in his arms, and he has to look away from Jensen to adjust his grip on them. When he looks back up, he catches a movement out of the corner of his eye in the window over Jensen’s left shoulder.

Jensen’s mama is standing there between the dingy lace curtains, pretty as angels and pale as a ghost. Her hair is the same gold as Jensen’s but her eyes are gray, cloudy and lifeless and empty as the expression on her face.

“I can’t.”

Jared looks back over at Jensen then, their eyes locking and Jared is searching Jensen’s, every question he can’t find the voice for right there between them. Jensen looks like he’s pleading with Jared, like he has so much more he wants to say, like he wants to say anything but no to Jared.

“But. But why? It’s just behind the house. We won’t be gone long. We haven’t been--”

“I can’t, Jared. I just can’t.” Jensen’s getting upset now, tears brightening his eyes even more and his cheeks flush pink as he looks away again. “I-I need to get back in the house. I’m sorry.”

He can only stand there, frozen in helplessness as Jensen rushes back into the house and shuts the door behind him, a soft snick of it closing quietly the only thing Jared hears.

He looks back up just in time to see Mary Anne step back from the window, the curtains closing in her wake like wings. The house falls quiet again, breath held.

Down at the creek, Jared sticks his feet in the rush of cold, cold water, letting it pool up and tickle around his ankles. The sun pours down on his naked shoulders, pinking them up and warming him straight down to his bones. It’s quiet all around him, just as quiet as Jensen’s house was, and he can’t seem to shake the feeling that he needs to go back over there, to try again, to ask questions.

That night he dreams that Jensen can’t speak, that he’s trying to tell Jared something important but he doesn’t have the words for it, just the heartbreaking plea in his eyes and his hands gripping Jared’s, bending bone and desperate to be heard.

 

Jared was eight years old the first time he broke Brad Shelby’s nose.

It was easy, too easy, really. One minute, he’d been walking beside Jensen after school, listening to the excited, quiet flutter of Jensen’s voice as he talked about the class pet praying mantis when Jensen just went down, fell straight forward onto his knees like he’d been knocked over by a sudden wave.

But it wasn’t a wave. It was Brad.

Brad barely got through his venom, his snakebitten words: “Watch where you’re going, fag--” when Jared turned around and let his fist fly, let it crunch right into Brad’s nose, splitting the skin of his knuckles on the unyielding cartilage and bone of Brad’s face. Blood exploded out of Brad like a horror movie, bursting like Jared hit a main artery, the copper-scent of it filling the air between them a single second before Brad started screaming.

Jensen had just sat there on the ground, the knees of his jeans ripped, blood oozing up from his skinned kneecaps, mixing with gravel and clay dirt and cigarette ash from the sidewalk, his eyes big as moons and locked on Jared’s bleeding hand.

He doesn’t remember how he got up, how he shook off his fear enough to grab Jared’s bloody fingers and pull him away, leaving Brad sobbing on the grass, his wails echoing on the otherwise empty street.

It was the first time Jared drew blood for Jensen, the first chapter of a long, battle-furied history of protecting his best friend. It became a part of his identity, as much a part of who he is as Charlotte’s little boy, as the tallest kid in the third grade, as the kid who reads too much and has the ghostly, quiet best friend who’s a year younger than him, too pale to be Jared’s shadow but always right there with him, tucked in against his side like Jared’s just rescued him, saved him from something bad.

Jensen is just part of who Jared is.

 

Jared’s nine and a half when he gets the full story. When he finds out all of Jensen’s secrets. And even at nearly ten he knows that little boys shouldn’t really have many secrets, except maybe about broken windows and hidden treasures under dirt and glimpsed, fleshy breasts in windows late at night. He knows even then that Jensen has more secrets than anybody should ever have, eight or ninety.

It’s just after Christmas and he’s over at Jensen’s house for the day. Jared’s mama’s at work and Jensen’s mama is, too. The air is cold even in the house, the chill of December sneaking in through the cracks under the doors and the crookedly-shut windows. The house smells a little like rotting meat, the strange, good-bad smell of pot roast in the Crockpot and like the pine tree slumped in the corner of the livingroom, drooping with red and blue and silver balls and gawdy tinsel and gold-white twinkle lights. It smells like Crown Royal and like the orange Jensen is deconstructing on a flimsy napkin beside him, one careful rip of cheerful-orange peel at a time.

Jared has brought over part of his Christmas haul, two Transformers and a Richard Petty racecar: summer-sky blue with the 43 painted proud and white on the sides and the top. He’s making really awesome car sounds, completely realistic as he drives in circles all around himself, making himself dizzy but he’s caught up in it, can’t stop, gotta finish the race, gotta beat--

“Whudderyu boys doin’?”

Jensen jumps, drops the half of the orange that he’s just gotten apart from its twin, head shooting up to look at his father there in the doorway. The smell of the Crown Royal is stronger now that its source is close by, the woody, sweet scent of whiskey clogging up all the other smells in the room, driving them all away.

Jared stops his race two laps from the end and settles in to be very quiet for a few minutes. He can feel Jacob Ackles’ eyes drift over him, fix him with an unsteady but annoyed glare before they return to Jensen.

“Ju-just playin’, Daddy.” Jensen slouches over his orange as if to hide it from his daddy, like it’s a bad thing to have. He says he’s playing even though he hasn’t played all day, hasn’t done anything but watch Jared play and talk with a patient, old-soul smile on his face, like he could watch Jared be silly forever. “Did we wake you up?”

“Haven’t even been able to go to sleep yet, what with y’all makin’ all that fuckin’ racket.” Jacob takes a step further into the room and Jared can feel Jensen tense up, can feel the small line of his arm go rigid right next to Jared’s and Jared can only hold his breath, can only press in a little closer to Jensen in the only kind of support he can think to offer.

The air feels weird, tense as a pulled rubberband. It’s not like when Jared’s mama gets mad at him, or when mama’s boyfriend comes over and gets annoyed at how Jared doesn’t clear his plate. This feels dangerous, like somebody’s going to break or get broken or scream or be dead soon. It’s so foreign to Jared, so terrifying that he feels the sudden, inexplicable urge to cry.

“Sorry, Daddy.” Jensen’s voice is the most heartbreaking of whispers, spoken down at his orange, long, sunshine falls of blonde hair covering his eyes. Jared wants, for the hundredth time, to be big, tall as an oak, to be almost too big to fit in this house but big enough to reach into it and punch Jensen’s daddy straight in the mouth. To hurt anybody and everybody who has ever hurt or scared Jensen. To yank Jensen right out of here and keep him safe.

“Git on outside. Or go on over to Jared’s house, I don’t care. Just git. Now.” Another two steps and Jared can see Jacob’s socks right in front of him, dirty and worn thin and tired. Jared’s first instinct is to speak up, to respond, but Jensen beats him to it.

“It’s. It’s snowing, Daddy. It’s real cold out. And Jared’s mama doesn’t like us to be home by ourselves, so Mama said we could--”

The slap to Jensen’s face is so sudden and so loud that Jared yelps, such a horrifically inappropriate sound for what’s just happened. Jensen shrinks back from his father’s hand, trying with every instinct in his body to get away before his daddy can hit him again but it’s like a rabbit trying to get away from a bobcat; there’s just too much of Jensen’s daddy and not enough of Jensen. Jacob catches Jensen by his hair and yanks him up.

“What’d I tell you about talkin’ back to me, boy? What did I tell you?!”

Jared can only watch, a sob caught in his throat as Jacob picks Jensen clean up off the ground by his hair and slap him some more, five hard, cruel slaps across Jensen’s tear-stained face, slaps hard enough to bring a grown man down, meant for grown-ups, if anybody. Not meant for a boy. Just a little boy. And Jensen is littler than most.

“Sorry, Daddy! I’m sorry!” It’s sobbed out, frantic and trembling with pain and fear and truth because he is sorry. His tiny, naked toes are grazing the dirty brown carpet, trying so hard to touch down but Jacob hasn’t let him go yet, hasn’t put him down. That meaty, hairy fist caught up in the spunsilk of Jensen’s hair won’t let Jared go for years and years to come.

Jacob throws Jensen down rather than just setting him down, just tosses him like Jensen’s a bag of laundry, like he’s nothing at all. Jensen hits the ground spine-first and then his head smacks back into the coffee table, right into the spindly leg of it.

Jared doesn’t realize that he’s curled up on himself, that he’s cowering down, shaking and trying so hard to hide in plain sight, right in Jacob’s view. He can hear Jensen crying now, soft, muffled sounds, tiny whimpers leaving like pleas at the end of each one. Jacob crouches down near Jared and Jared almost pees right there, right in his sweatpants, right on the floor in the middle of Jensen’s livingroom two days after Christmas. The rank, garbage smell of Jacob’s unbrushed teeth and the bitter tang of whiskey huff all over the side of his face followed by a low growl and just when Jared thinks he’s going to pass out from fear, just when he thinks he can’t take anymore, Jacob stands up, staggers back.

“Get the fuck out of my house. Both of you. You get the hell outta here and give me some peace.”

Jared doesn’t have to be told again. He gathers up his car and his Transformers with hands shaking like he’s got tremors, the bones vibrating under his skin. He holds them to his chest and then he goes to Jensen, reaching down for him, trying so hard to pull him up.

Jensen is curled into a messy ball on the floor, blood trickling down at his temple and his spine visible through his new Ninja Turtles pajamas, a tiny, delicate line of bumps down the middle of his back that Jared wants to touch, to cover and hide. He grabs Jensen’s arm and tugs him up and right up against himself, his almost-ten year old body not much but he can do this, he can shield him here.

“C’mon, Jen. C’mon. We can go to my house. Okay? We can go to my house.” He’s crying himself and he doesn’t even know if Jensen can understand him through the shuddering trembles of his breathing but he nods. His head tips up and Jared gasps, can’t help it, hasn’t seen enough bad things to learn yet to keep it in. He’ll learn.

Jensen’s face is mostly covered with bright, angry handprints, covering his cheeks and his mouth, his bottom lip busted, broken open and trickling scarlet down Jensen’s chin and right over Donatello’s head. His hair is ripped up in crazy tufts, worse than any bedhead, his scalp pink and aching from the torn out hair. His eyes are heartbreaking and begging as they search Jared’s, the living-earth green of them almost too much for Jared to handle.

He wraps an arm around Jensen’s shoulders just as a door down the hallway slams shut, making a cry tumble from Jensen’s lips, a hard jerk shuddering through his body as he braces for another hit.

“C’mon. Jensen, please, it’s okay. I’m right here, it’s okay.” Jared doesn’t know what he’s saying, doesn’t know if he’s even making sense but he’s mimicking what his mama says to him when he gets hurt or scared or sick, keeping his tone soft, warm as a blanket.

They find their shoes near the door, still tied and soft with wear and neither of them bother to untie them. Jared helps Jensen as much as he can, finger down the back of each shoe so Jensen can shove his bare feet in. Jensen is silent now, the tears falling without any sounds to accompany them. Jared glances back into the livingroom that’s just as quiet as Jensen is, still and contemplative and absorbing the horror of what just happened. And Jared can only wonder what else has happened here, what else this room has seen.

He spies the orange in the middle of the room on the crinkled paper towel, split in two and ready to eat. Torn strands of gold fall soft over top of them, Jensen’s hair, draping there graceful as angel hair. Three startling, red drops of blood splatter the fleshy slices of orange, standing out like someone had composed the scene, had placed them there just so, photo-ready.

He feels the hard whip of cold air as Jensen opens the front door and Jared’s trance breaks and he’s back against Jensen, pressed up right against his side as they make their way next door to his house, the snow falling pretty and lazy on their heads, the world white and quiet and ignorant around them.

Jared locks the door when they get inside, stands on his tiptoes to put the chain on and turns to watch Jensen head off to the bathroom without a word, leaving Jared helpless and shaken in his own livingroom. His own home smells so comforting, so good after what just happened, like half-sucked candy canes and his mama’s perfume and a little like kitty litter.

He sits down on the couch and waits. Watches Pee-Wee, Mama’s fat, old tabby waddle over and jump up on the couch next to him, purring and pawing around before settling in Jared’s lap. He reaches up and turns on the TV with the remote control, thumbing through the four channels they get and settling on a local show about the Knoxville Zoo.

Jensen comes out and his hair is smooth, innocent-looking against the finger stripes on his cheeks. The blood is gone from his mouth but the tears are still in his eyes, welled up there and tumbling down his full cheeks every time he blinks. Jared can only stare at him, not knowing what his expression says to Jensen, what he wants to say to him to even start to comfort him.

“He’s gotta work tonight. I shoulda been more quiet.”

Jensen toes his shoes off next to the couch and Jared does the same, his own under the coffee table. Jensen comes to sit on the other side of the couch and Pee-Wee abandons Jared for Jensen’s softer touches. Jared just stares at Jensen, lips parted in surprise, in the need to say something, to defend Jensen to himself.

“It was my fault! You weren’t doing anything! It was me. When I tell my mama, she’ll--”

Jensen jerks alive beside him, his eyes bigger than they’ve ever been. He grabs hold of Jared’s arm so hard it hurts, short, jagged nails digging into his skin.

“You can’t tell anybody. Not ever. Jared, please. Promise me.”

Jared blinks, eyelashes rushing over and over in shock.

“Are you kidding? Jensen! He. He--”

Promise me.” Jensen’s voice is low and shivering, his grip tightening. He looks beyond terrified, like a cornered animal. Like he’ll fly apart if Jared doesn’t agree, doesn’t promise. Like it will absolutely end him.

“I promise.” Jared says it just to make Jensen feel better, to get that look out of his eyes. It works because Jensen exhales in a hot rush, his body slumping right against Jared. Jared wraps an arm around him again and pulls him as close as he can, hand sliding up to soothe Jensen’s raw scalp, temple touching Jensen’s forehead.

He knows he’ll keep his promise, that he couldn’t bring that other side of Jensen back out, couldn’t betray him when Jensen has so many other things to be scared of. And Jared doesn’t even know how to start understanding this, to make sense of any of it, to marry it with the Jensen he already knows, that he’s been inseparable from for two years already, since Jared moved in next door and saw the quiet, blonde boy playing by himself with the water hose on the 4th of July.

He doesn’t know what to do with any of these thoughts, any of these feelings burning inside of him but he knows that Jensen’s secrets are now his own, too.

 

When Jared is thirteen, the man pretending to be his Daddy gives him a truck. It’s a heap of metal, a piece-a shit that gets hauled in one night and Jared sits outside with Hank (now his step-daddy, now called Dad just to make things a little easier on his mama but Jared is well-aware of his lie every time he says it; this man ain’t his Daddy, never will be) in the car-park, Hank nursing a beer and Jared drinking a warm Pepsi, staring at it.

“It’s yers, Jay,” comes the slur from the dark, Hank’s voice swirling and bending the words so that Jared has to sift through them, repeat them in his head a few times until they make sense.

“Huh?” It’s not the most intelligent reply, but he’s not the most intelligent boy. His shoes scuff over the dirty cement, lightning bugs flickering somewhere out there in the distance. It’s quiet in the neighborhood, quiet next door over there where Jensen is, where Jared can feel him, no matter how far apart they are. The heat of the summer bogs everything down, making the night seem so close, like it’s breathing right down his neck.

“That truck there, boy. It’s yers. Got’r for yer birthday. Think you can get her fixed up by the time yer sixteen?” Hank guzzles down the rest of the beer and then there’s the clink-clink of a glass bottle being dropped on top of dozens of others. Jared’s eyes are huge in the dim light from the bulb over their heads, his mouth open a little in surprise.

“Ye-yeah. Yeah. I can.” Jared sounds stunned but confident, just so sure he can get to work on her tomorrow, just as soon as he can pop the hood and see her insides. Like he was born to do this.

“Yeah?” Hank is peering at him now, squinting through the night to see Jared, see what he’s really made of. Jared sits up straight, his grip tightening on his bottle.

“Yes. Yessir.”

Hank laughs for that, standing up and shuffling over to Jared, clapping a hand down on his shoulder. “Happy birt’day, son.”

It’s not quite his birthday, and he’s not this man’s son, but he stays quiet on both accounts. Just nods and watches Hank disappear into the house, inside where his mama is doing dishes, the quiet, comforting sounds of dishes clinking, cabinet doors opening and closing filtering out to him as the screen door bangs shut.

He looks back over now that he’s alone, now that his thoughts are safe out in the open. It’s not much at all, barely wobbling on her flat tires, but she’s there. And Jared will get her running. He has to.

 

Later that night he’s sprawled out in his bed, growing legs draped over the sides, sweat gathering in the small of his back, a tiny, ineffectual fan spreading the summer heat all around the room. His window is shoved wide open and he’s awake, eyes wide and unblinking and shimmering with tears.

Jensen is getting beaten next door, his sobs echoing into the darkness, pleas going unanswered followed by his Daddy’s voice, by furniture getting slammed around, by the horrific silence that always announces it done.

Jared grips his pillow so hard it tears his nails and he vows to Jensen, to himself, that he will get that truck running if it’s the last thing he does. He’ll be the one who ends this.

Who saves his best friend.

 

The following March is Jensen’s birthday, and twelve is a big number. It’s cold as graves out that morning and the sun has barely risen but Jared is wide awake, dancing back and forth to keep warm outside of Jensen’s window as he waits for him to climb out.

Jensen has a beanie shoved down on his head and he’s wearing a flannel shirt over his normal t-shirt and he’s squirming to slide through the window. Jared gets his hands around Jensen’s waist and helps him down to the frost-crunchy grass. Jared strains up to close the window back and their eyes meet, twin smiles ghosting over their mouths before Jared lifts his head to beckon Jensen to follow him.

They walk right back over to Jared’s house, and Jensen’s posture change as soon as they step on the Padalecki property. Jared reaches over then and wraps an arm around Jensen’s thin shoulders, pulling him in close to give him any extra warmth he can.

“Happy birthday, Jen,” he says right against his ear, the cold tip of his nose brushing the pink shell of it. Jensen’s grin is to the ground and shy and it just makes Jared squeeze him as they make their way into the backyard.

“Where are we going?” Jensen is still whispering, like they’re in his house, like his Daddy could wake up at any moment and hear him. Jensen’s daddy works the early shift, the one that starts at 4am, so Jared knows they’re safe. That Jensen’s safe, at least right now.

He slides his chilled fingers up to Jensen’s shoulder, letting them touch feather-light over the bruises that dance in a ring around Jensen’s neck. A rush of sympathy pain shoots through Jared’s body, pain that he’s felt on every inch of himself for all the years that he’s known Jensen’s secret. He would never want to stop feeling it, never want Jensen to truly be alone in any of it. Jared wants to hurt right alongside him.

“It’s not far. We’ll be back soon, I promise.”

Jensen relaxes even more then, leaning heavy on Jared’s side, his head tipping over so that his temple rests on the high part of Jared’s cheek. They shuffle along just like this, awkward and not well-balanced but close and warm and together.

They come to a stop in front of the old shed at the back of Jared’s yard, right where it butts up against the edge of the woods. It’s not very big and it used to belong to Jared’s daddy, used to house all the stuff that he left in the house when he just never came back. But Mama got brave a few months ago and gave it all away to the church rummage sale and it presented Jared with the perfect opportunity.

“Why are we going into your shed? We ain’t never been in there.” Jensen takes a step back, trepidation written all over his pink-cheeked face. He glances over at Jared, eyes questioning but trusting and Jared gives him a smile that borders on adoration.

“Your birthday present’s in here. C’mon.” Jared squares his shoulders and steps forward, his hands falling from Jensen so he can grab hold of the piece of wood nailed to the door and twist it to unlock it. The door swings outward and a darkness maws inside, cold and close and silent.

Jared goes in first and it’s the only reason Jensen even considers it. The dark envelopes them like the door isn’t even open, like they’ve stepped into a whole other world before Jared finds the lighter blindly, flicking it and touching it to the wick of the old kerosene lamp his Mama had let him keep and suddenly the place is flooded with light, a warm amber-gold spreading over every inch of the tiny space, making it feel warmer immediately, making it feel not-so scary and mysterious.

Jared stands up with a bursting grin on his face and he shoulders the door closed behind them, enclosing them completely and he lets his eyes find Jensen for the first time, lets himself drink in the feeling of Jensen seeing it for the first time.

The walls are mostly bare except for a couple of X-Men posters and one for Bob Dylan that he’d recently gotten for himself. There’s a beanbag chair in the far corner and a thick pile of old wool blankets, limp, over-washed quilts and at least five ratty pillows that have seen many, many better days. A boombox sits on the floor next to the table holding the lamp with a stack of CDs beside it. The floor is concrete that Jared scrubbed with soap and rag to get clean, to make sure Jensen wouldn’t be too concerned about sitting down on it.

“What is it?” Jensen sounds a little breathless, almost like he’s in awe. His eyes look wet in the lamplight, bright and wondering and sweet and Jared leans back on the door and just smiles at him, a smile that he knows he can have when no one’s looking, when it’s just them. He’s very aware of the pace and weight of his heart under his ribcage.

“It’s ours. Our hideout. Nobody else’s. A place we can always come when we need to. And one of us just has to light the lamp to let the other one know he’s out here.” He fumbles with his words, awkward in his dance around what he really wants to say. He rubs his palms together and then wipes the sweat from them off on the butt of his jeans. He shakes his hair back from his face and holds his breath, waiting for Jensen to blink, to move, to react at all.

Those eyes slowly lower and turn and find his own and Jared is chewing hard on the inside of his cheek, eyebrows raised nervously.

“Just us?” Jensen sounds so small, so hopeful that Jared has to lift up, to get closer to him, to touch his arm. Jared just got a girlfriend recently. Diana, a friend of theirs for a long time, who is tiny but long as a summer day with pretty dark hair that touches all the way down to her elbows. Jared knows that it hurts Jensen, that it upsets him to see them together. Jared’s mama told him to make sure to go out of his way to have time just for the two of them, just him and Jensen so that Jensen doesn’t feel like Jared’s just going to leave him behind.

Jared never has to be told to spend time with Jensen.

“Just us.” He emphasizes the us, his fingertips dancing over Jensen’s palm before falling away. “Happy birthday.”

The rush of movement is tiny and short but Jensen is against him in under a blink of an eye, arms wrapped around Jared’s neck, face tucked against his shoulder. Jared returns the hug, running his hands up and down Jensen’s back as gentle as he can, trying to be aware of any possible bruises or hurts that he hasn’t seen yet.

“Thank you.” The words sound watery and strained and Jared pulls Jensen tighter to him, hugs him with all the strength he can gather, holds him so tight that Jensen never has to worry if Jared will leave him behind. Because the answer is never. Never ever ever.

 

Jared’s just finished up with dishes after dinner when he goes into his room to start on his homework. The house still smells like spaghetti and it’s warm from the newly-fixed heater and he’s almost smiling when he sits down at his desk to pull out his Algebra book.

A glance up out the window reveals his backyard spread out, distorted a little by the glare of his desklamp but shadowed and empty, just barely lit by the new moon. The shed is several yards away, a tiny thing with an even smaller window but the window is shining bright, glowing with that same gold that it was this morning when he’d lit it up for Jensen.

Jensen.

He shoots up from his chair, palms coming down hard in a loud smack on his papers and folders as he leans forward, craning as close to his window as he can to squint out there, to make sure he’s seeing it right.

The rectangle of light is still out there, standing out bright in the night, begging Jared out. Pleading with him, telling him that he’s needed out there. Jensen needs him.

His heart is racing as he digs around for his shoes, pulling his hoodie on over his pajamas.

The hallway is quiet except for the faint murmur of Mama’s TV in her room as she gets ready for bed. He can hear Hank in there, laughing at something somebody said in between bouts of canned, television laughter. He tiptoes past their door and into the living room and out of the house, pulling the door closed behind him in tiny, measured increments.

He bursts across the porch, jumping down the steps and swinging around and into the backyard, taking off at a run to the shed. He can feel it now, bright and immediate and right up against his bones, that Jensen is hurt. And suddenly he can’t run fast enough, can’t clear the space between them quick enough.

He twists the slab of wood on the shed’s door and yanks it open, practically falling inside. His cheeks are pink with exertion and cold and he glances over to the corner to see Jensen curled up on the beanbag under two of the old quilts, his body burrowed in a tight, defensive ball, like Jared could be the devil himself coming in right now.

“It’s me, Jen. It’s okay, it’s just.” Jared closes the door in a hurry after him, pulling the little table holding the lamp on it in front of the door, blocking it as best he can. He makes his way over slowly, like Jensen is a hurt animal. His own heart is jumping around in his chest, angry and afraid and worried, his eyes never leaving Jensen.

Jensen who answers by tucking in tighter, a fine tremble settling in all over his small body. He closes his eyes and exhales in a shudder, one that sounds a little stunted, like maybe it’s a little hard to breathe.

“Let me see,” Jared says quietly, crouching down now in front of Jensen, his hand finding Jensen’s knee under the blankets. Jensen shakes his head, hard and fast, eyes slamming closed like Jared will just disappear if he pretends hard enough that it’s true.

It’s rare that he gets to see Jensen like this, fresh from a beating, raw and bleeding and broken. He usually sees him in the morning, when the tears have dried and the bruises have started to set in and when he has it together enough to at least have a smile to fake for Jared as they walk to the bus stop.

“It’s okay. It’s okay, Jen. You can trust me. Right? You know I’m not gonna tell anybody. Just let me see.”

Jensen’s eyes open again, so dark in the low light but shining bright with held-in tears. Their eyes lock and Jensen battles within himself for a long moment, little hand clutching tight at the quilts from underneath them, keeping them where they are. The grip finally loosens and the blankets fall away just a little bit, giving Jared all the permission he needs.

He tugs them away as gentle as he knows how to be, revealing Jensen in a t-shirt that’s way too big for him, the collar of it stretched to show off the fresh coating of bruises in the shape of unfathomably angry fists all over his collarbone and disappearing down under faded cotton. The black eye is hiding under a long, haystack blonde lock of hair. Jensen has a hand cradled to his chest and it looks swollen, angry red and tender.

Jared doesn’t try to move him, doesn’t say a word. Just leans forward to get closer, closer to the smell of salty tears and birthday cake frosting and fear-sweat and residual malt liquor and he ducks his head to press kisses across the back of Jensen’s hurt hand, lips trembling with tenderness and the painful desire to heal by love and determination alone.

Jensen sobs, a quiet, caught sound in his throat that Jared knows he’s ashamed of. He redoubles his efforts of healing kisses, lips touching over swollen knuckles, tasting the copper of broken skin and the heat of violence on Jensen’s skin.

“It was my fault. My fault. His glass was sitting close to the cake and--”

“What kind of cake was it?”

Jensen swallows and Jared hears the sound, listens to it. Closes his eyes as he moves closer, knee pressing into the beanbag so he can curl up behind Jensen on it. He pulls the covers back up over Jensen and over himself. It’s cold in this little room, frozen as it is outside in early March in the foothills of the Appalachians but they’re warm together.

“Yellow cake. Strawberry frosting. Mama made it this morning.”

“Did you have twelve candles or just two big ones that had numbers on ‘em?”

“Twelve candles.” There’s a little bit of a smile in Jensen’s voice and it eases some of the anger built up in Jared’s chest. He wraps an arm low around Jensen’s waist, hand spreading out over his belly button. Jensen’s voice is soft, almost apologetic for being present at all, but it usually gets stronger the more it’s just the two of them. “Took me three tries to blow ‘em all out.”

“What did you wish for?”

“Mm. You know I can’t tell you, Jay. You know the rules.” Jensen sinks back against Jared little by little, welcoming his embrace, welcoming the distraction, the comfort. Jared lets his nose drag over the side of Jensen’s neck, breath rushing warm over the chilly surface of it. He smiles against his skin.

“You can tell me. You know you can tell me anything. ‘s like tellin’ yourself when you tell me.”

Jensen is quiet for so long that Jared thinks maybe he’s fallen asleep. He’s taken up rubbing Jensen’s stomach in slow circles and he keeps it up anyway even as he tightens his hold on him. When Jensen finally replies, his voice is so quiet that Jared barely hears it in the silence of the room.

“That I’d blow the candles out and when they all went out, I’d never have to see him again.”

Jared can hear the tears in his voice, hear the shake of it and he just presses his face tighter into Jensen’s neck, that thick, honey-yellow hair brushing his cheek.

“Someday you won’t, Jen. Someday we’ll leave here and never come back again and you won’t ever have to think about him. Not ever again. And if he comes near you, I’ll be big enough that I’ll kill him.” They’re big words, harsh words but Jared shakes with how much he means them, with the iron-clad conviction behind them. He’s holding Jensen so tight he’s afraid he’ll bruise him even more but Jensen needs it. They both need it. “I’ll kill him.”

 

Life in Calvary stays the way it always has been, for the most part, all through their lives. Mr. Hubbard drives his car into the side of Hatcher’s Diner and kills Leila Greenway and her three-year-old two weeks before Christmas when Jared’s fourteen. Jared joins the junior varsity football team and grows three inches over the summer when he turns fifteen and gives Diana a promise ring the night of his birthday. Eddie Parton shoots sweet little Victoria, his cousin and the girl carrying his baby, right in the stomach, killing the baby inside of her and letting her bleed out before he calls the police. Jensen gets three fingers on his left hand broken and they heal a little wrong, making it look like he’s always about to close his fist when in fact, he can’t really do that at all anymore.

Jared’s fifteen and it’s fall break when he loses his virginity inside of Diana while his mom and her new boyfriend James are out to dinner and a movie. He shakes apart on top of her and takes her kisses and empties his soul into the condom and realizes this is what songs are written about.

They can’t keep their hands off each other after that, always sneaking kisses in the hallway, making out at parties after football games and Jared comes home and collapses into bed, his dick well-used in his pants from where Diana’s learning to suck him off, his fingers smelling like her seawater-honey slick.

Jensen walks home with them, same as always, his head down more often than not, eyes decidedly averted from where Jared’s holding Diana’s hand or giving her that lovesick-puppy smile or trying to be cute to make her laugh. Jared’s always aware of him, always caught between the nauseating feeling of being the reason that Jensen is upset, is withdrawn so far inside of himself and the flying-high feeling of having that much power over Jensen’s emotions, of being important enough to Jensen that this matters somehow.

 

Sophomore year, Jared decides to give baseball a try. Mama calls him Inspector Gadget on account of his ever-growing arms, and he already knows how to sprint from football. The coach is visibly relieved when Jared shuffles up the afternoon of tryouts and squints through the big bright sun at his fellow baseball hopefuls. He was the only one who caught the ball every time it was thrown to him and the first name Coach Deacon yelled out. And just like that, he’s the new first baseman for the Calvary Cougars.

Practice gets out late one night, and he’s trying staunchly not to think about homework as he gathers up his gear and his bag. His shoes are untied on his feet and his hair is wet from the shower and he has his eyes closed as he shoulders his way out of the locker room.

He opens his eyes just as a car pulls out of the parking lot, the headlights flashing in his eyes and brightening everything around him just enough that he can see the figure leaning against the side of the building. And maybe it’s the way the light catches his hair, or the curve of his shoulder, or maybe Jared’s body recognizes his effortlessly, but he knows without question that it’s Jensen there, in the dark.

“Hey, Jen,” he grins, barely able to muster the energy to smile but he gives every ounce of it to Jensen. “What’re you doin’ here?”

Jensen pushes up off the wall with an apologetic smile, his hoodie big all over on him just like it always is, just like Jensen likes it. He has his hands curled up in the long sleeves and he shifts from one foot to the other before he manages to lift his eyes to Jared.

“Just came to see you practice. He ran y’all hard tonight, huh?”

Shoving his hands in his pockets, Jared sets off across the parking lot, Jensen following along beside him without hesitation. The sky is beautiful and cold with pinprick-bright stars and a full Worm Moon, all that light working together to guide them home. Jared glances over and his eyes catch on Jensen’s face, on the curve of his bottom lip that he licks out of pure nerves because Jared’s taking so long to respond.

“Yeah, he was pissed tonight, I guess. He, uh.” Jared licks his lips too and pulls his gaze back straight ahead, listening to the sounds of stray gravel crunching under their feet as they walk. “You watched my whole practice?”

Jensen doesn’t respond which is always an admission. Jared feels more than sees Jensen blush, feels the way his body draws in on itself, trying to hide from whatever attention Jensen is getting. Even if it’s just from Jared.

“I-it’s just. It’s just I haven’t really talked to you in a couple days, I guess. I mean, I know we talked after school, but I went home and you. You went.” Jensen trails off and licks his lips again, hands kneading the cotton fabric they’re clutching.

Jared knows where he went. Straight over to Diana’s and into her jeans until he had to hurry back to school for practice.

“Anyway,” Jensen exhales, head jerking to the side to glance at Jared. “I know you’re probably going back over to her place, I just. Wanted to say hi. And goodnight.”

Jared slows to a stop just as they get to the road, his smile hidden by the dark. He looks over at Jensen and raises his eyebrows. “You walked two miles to watch me practice for almost three hours, and you just wanted to say goodnight?”

Jensen pulls fitfully at his sleeves, hands grasping at each other and he looks like he might just bolt instead of trying to talk about this. Whatever this is.

“I just missed you, okay? That’s all. I know, I’m.” He starts to shake his head, the glint of wetness in Jensen’s eyes stopping Jared from teasing Jensen anymore. He reaches out and catches Jensen by the pocket of his hoodie, tugging him closer than he was before.

“Jen. Look at me?”

“Jared, don’t. I know I’m pathetic. Believe me, I know. I’m sorry.” He’s looking down and to the side now, every single thing about him screaming for Jared to let him go, that he wants to be left alone, that he’s embarrassed by whatever story he’s got built up in his mind and he wants to go hide in it for the rest of the night.

“Hey. I was just gonna go home. I’m beat. Need to do my algebra homework. Wanna hang out with me in the shed while I do it?” He keeps his voice carefully casual, trying not to draw attention to Jensen’s shoes scuffing over the pavement as he fidgets, to the loud sound of Jensen swallowing over and over again, to the way his voice shakes. To the way he wants to bury Jensen in his ribs until he doesn’t know anything but safety.

Jensen exhales, the sound leaving him in an almost comically loud whoosh. “Um. Yeah. Yeah, that sounds.” A pause, another lick of those now chapped lips, bright green eyes finding Jared in the dark. “You sure? I can just go home if--”

“Jensen.” The smile in his voice stretches out all over the word, from the top of the J to the bottom of the N. He takes the step required to be right in front of Jensen and he reaches for one of Jensen’s balled-up hands, working it out of a fist to tug the sleeve free. He yanks on the sleeve of his own hoodie until he has enough fabric to tie it to Jensen’s, the knot of grey and faded red between them, connecting them.

He grins up at Jensen, his heart soaring when he sees the quiet, almost bashful smile on his face. “C’mon.”

He starts off down the road, their tied-together sleeves keeping them close on their walk home.

 

Later, after they’ve scrounged up some Cheetos and peach Jolly Ranchers and Jared’s started his homework, Jensen curls up right beside him on the floor, his head pillowed on Jared’s wadded-up hoodie, and falls asleep.

Jared stops trying to do equations when the numbers start swimming in his eyes. He closes his paper and pencil up in his book and puts them aside as quiet as he can, not wanting to wake Jensen. He glances down at him then, one side of his mouth tugging up in spite of himself.

He angles his body toward Jensen, a hand drifting up to touch the top of his head, fingers fanning out to sink down into all that hair. Jensen sighs in his sleep, a sound that leaves his nose quiet as blinks. Jared makes sure his nails drag over his scalp every once in awhile and he lets himself just look.

Jensen has always been beautiful. It’s not anything Jared’s ever had to even think about. It’s as true as sweet tea on a hot day and Hank Williams songs and that ache that he’ll always have in his gut where the sound of his daddy’s voice used to be. But he’s somehow even more beautiful now, every single year, every day, even. Jared knows he’s not the only one who’s noticed. He just knows it better than everybody else.

His leg is falling asleep and it’s after one in the morning, but he can’t bring himself to move. He leans back against the wall of the shed and lets his eyes drift closed, his hand sifting through gold hair, nothing but love seeping out of his fingertips.

 

It’s a late spring night when Jared comes home after having spent the evening in Diana’s bed, trapped under her while she rode him like a goddess, her firm little tits caught in his ever-growing hands. He feels drunk on sex and like he’s a fucking king and he’s not even really quiet when he opens the front door two hours after his curfew. He doesn’t step over the squeaky parts of the floor and he opens the door to his room just like normal, not bothering to turn the light on as he closes it behind him.

Someone else is in here.

He clutches the doorknob like he’s just gonna turn and run if whoever is in his bed has a weapon or superhuman strength or Jacob Ackles’ face.

But it’s Jensen.

Jensen caught up by moonlight, half-seen and half-hidden in light and in shadow. He’s awake but not looking at Jared, staring instead out the open window, the one he had to’ve climbed through to get in. The window is still cracked, letting in a warm-cool ribbon of a breeze, letting in the newly-awoken sound of crickets, the happy green smell of spring.

Moonlight catches on the tips of Jensen’s eyelashes, turning the gold into silver, reflecting cold in those normally warm-colored eyes. His mouth looks full and dry, the skin of his bottom lip busted just tonight, a scarlet line of blood congealed off to one side.

“Jen?”

Jared knows he sounds scared, hesitant. Jensen doesn’t move, doesn’t react, doesn’t even blink. His hand is resting on his chest, his shirt slipped up to reveal his flat stomach, the tiny cave of his bellybutton. Jared licks his lips.

He sees the black eye now, the one that seems like it’s always there, like it just moves from one eye to the other when one of them gets too healed. The one that the teachers ignore and the police never see and the one that has driven Jared to work tirelessly out in the garage into the early hours of the morning, hands buried deep in the guts of that truck.

He toes his shoes off and yanks his shirt over his head, leaving him bare-chested and shivering as he makes quick work of his jeans. They fall from his lean hips and he steps out of them and toward the bed, toward Jensen.

Jensen’s eyes finally close when Jared climbs into the bed in his boxers, when Jared curls up next to him. They don’t hesitate, don’t even pretend to as Jensen turns to him and tucks into Jared’s side. Jared’s arm slips down and he runs his hand up over Jensen’s thin, bare arm, up the curve of his shoulder and so tenderly over his bruised cheek.

He can feel Jensen’s tears soaking into his skin just like they always have, can feel the sweet bunny-curve of Jensen’s nose press into his neck where Jensen just breathes in deep. The inhale stops, sudden and sharp, and Jensen is pulling back a little bit.

Jared frowns and tips his head to look down at him, trying to meet Jensen’s eyes.

“What’s wrong? Jen, what is it?”

Jensen doesn’t react for a few seconds, just stays propped up on his elbow, the dark of the room hiding most of the expression on his face but Jared doesn’t need to see his face to know something’s wrong. He can feel it.

“Tell me?” He softens his voice, takes the edge of out it, makes it the tone that Jensen needs to hear all the time, from everyone. He tries to reach for him again but Jensen tenses up, his head ducking down even more. Light from the moon splashes across his face and Jared can see it then, the flush of color over Jensen’s cheeks, the shame spilled all over his battered face.

“I’m sorry. I just.” Jensen’s voice is trembling like he’s afraid, or like he knows he shouldn’t be talking and it’s taking so much in him just to get the words out. “I smell her on you.”

Jared blinks a few times, the words sinking in and he feels an overwhelming wave of guilt out of absolutely nowhere. He pushes himself up then, apologies poised right on the tip of his tongue, right behind his closed mouth.

Their eyes finally meet and Jensen looks away just as fast, hands braced on the mattress like he’s seconds from bolting.

“I’ll be right back,” Jared finally says, reaching over to press a hand flat in the middle of Jensen’s chest, the rabbit-quick beat of his heart dancing right against his palm.

He doesn’t wait for Jensen’s response, doesn’t give him a minute to argue at all. Just climbs out of bed and makes his way back across the room and out into the midnight-quiet hallway.

The bathroom light flickers a couple of times before it stays on and Jared strips his boxers off and reaches in to turn the water onto scalding. He steps under the rush of fire-hotness, letting it burn all over his skin, letting it be punishment enough for how ashamed he feels.

He doesn’t let himself think about it, doesn’t wonder why this feels like a decision. Like an important decision. He grabs the soap and the washrag and scrubs his entire body until it’s covered in wide, red scratches that burn as he rinses them clean. He washes the smell of her out of his hair and brushes his teeth three times, finishing it all off with Mama’s horrible Listerine.

He wraps a towel around his waist, doesn’t pull the boxers back on because they were there tonight, too, they smell like the powder-floral sweetness of her room and the secret scent of her pussy when she grinded on top of him and the decision’s been made and he knows it.

He knows what he’s chosen.

His hair is dripping cold water on his shoulders when he steps back into his room and locks the door behind him. Jensen is sitting up in bed, the sheet and blanket pooled in his lap, his eyes huge with worry and trained on Jared.

Jared drops his towel and digs around in his drawers for a new pair of boxers, a clean pair. He pulls them on and finally looks over at the bed, at Jensen.

Tear tracks shine down Jensen’s cheeks and Jared’s feet squeak a little on the old wood floor when he makes his way over to him. Jared climbs up into the bed and they stretch out together, their eyes holding while they get settled.

Jared relaxes back against his pillow and Jensen is on his side next to him, his hand pressed against Jared’s sternum. Jensen leans forward, his eyes slipping closed as he does and he presses his nose against Jared’s cheek and draws in a long, slow breath, breathing in all that clean, all the heat from the shower and all the smell that Jared knows is just his own. He closes his eyes and just listens to Jensen, savoring the sound of Jensen just smelling him, memorizing the weight of this moment, how this feels different than all the other times they slept beside each other.

Jensen buries himself against Jared then, face tucking into his neck, back into the warm safety of it, water droplets falling on his cheeks and making him shiver. Jared turns on his side as best as he can to cradle him, all of their arms and legs touching the other, tangling and keeping them together.

Jared wants to say make me smell like you. He wants to say I’m sorry I’m not always right here but he doesn’t know how to, doesn’t even know the words for it. He presses his lips to Jensen’s temple, kissing him there over and over again and there isn’t a bigger feeling in the world than being the very center of Jensen’s love.

He can’t even remember what Diana smells like right now, can’t remember what color her eyes even are and he’s never forgotten either of those things about Jensen, not even in the most heated of moments with Diana.

It’s that moment, that night, when it all really begins. When he knows he’s chosen Jensen in everything, over absolutely everyone. That it’s always been that way because that’s who they are.

 

He broke up with Diana on the last day of school, told her that he needs to concentrate on studying over the summer if he wants to get into a good college. She hasn’t spoken to him since that hot afternoon on the sidewalk and he hasn’t opened a single book all summer, hasn’t given a shit about anything but smoking pot and the smell of sweat on Jensen’s skin and the imagined sound of his truck’s engine running sweet and true and forever.

It’s five days before Jared’s sixteenth birthday and the truck still isn’t starting. His Uncle Bobby Joe is supposed to come over next week with a few parts to try and to help him out, but he’s starting to panic.

Too many years he’s been planning on this, counting on God and the stars and his own hands to make this happen.

Jensen sidles over late that morning, wearing jeans that are barely hanging onto his hips and a t-shirt that swallows him to hide the fact that he’s not wearing a belt.

“Jay?”

Jared grunts and glances over to see him standing there just like that, quiet and apologetic about the interruption and holding a giant glass of ice water. He has to turn away for just a second, eyes back down on the engine to refocus, to keep his stupidly huge love for this boy from bursting out of him in awkward words and long, clutching fingers.

He lifts up and wipes the sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand and a dimple winks on his cheek when he meets Jensen’s eyes.

“That for me?”

Jensen grins, immediate and shy, ducking his head even as he nods. Jared echos the nod and steps closer to him, watching Jensen’s reaction to it as he takes the glass from him, their fingers brushing over the ice-cold glass. He holds Jensen’s gaze as he drinks the entire glass down in thick gulps, water dripping from his lips when he’s done that he licks away. Jensen just watches him like he can’t help it, like he doesn’t even realize he’s doing it.

“How’s the truck?” The question is faint, like Jensen had been planning on asking it the whole way over but now he’s distracted and doesn’t even really know what he’s asking. Jared turns and sets the glass down on the table holding a few of his tools, a line of sweat snaking down out of his hair and down the side of his face.

“Piece of shit,” Jared answers automatically, turning to squint and glare at the truck. He loves it already, has loved it since Hank gave it to him nearly three years ago, has loved it through every frustrating, heartbreaking minute of trying to get her running again. He chews on his bottom lip and cuts his eyes back over to Jensen who is watching him and not the truck, whose eyes are bright and a little hopeful and maybe even a tiny bit happy. Jared can’t help but grin at him.

“Anyway, you wanna take a break? Maybe go for a swim? Seems like it’d be a good day for it.” Jared wipes his hands clean on the ass of his jeans and raises his eyebrows at Jensen.

“Ain’t gonna rain until this evenin’,” Jensen agrees, a smile pulling at both sides of his mouth, making his eyes crinkle up. “Daddy’s up in Kentucky for the day. Won’t be home ‘til later.”

“Well, what the hell are we waitin’ for, then?” Jared grabs Jensen’s wrist and gives him a tug before he takes off without warning, headed for the woods behind the shed, behind his house, to where the creek is.

The creek isn’t really that big and definitely isn’t very deep, but it’s what they’ve got and it’s cold as hell, even in July.

Jared stops right on the edge of the bank and kicks his shoes off, tugging his shirt over his head and looking over at Jensen when he gets his hands on the button of his jeans.

Jensen is watching him, his eyes a grass green in the sunlight dappling over his cheeks and he hasn’t even taken off his shoes yet. Jared cheeks burn hot but he flips the button open on his jeans and nudges the zipper down, his eyes locked with Jensen’s like a seduction, like a dare.

“You gonna join me?” He pushes the jeans down his hips and reveals his boxer briefs, the new ones that Mama got him that make him look a little older with his clothes off, just in time for nobody to see him naked. Except Jensen. Except for right now when Jensen is looking at him like he’s not even real.

Jensen looks down and starts to take off his shoes, taking away too much care and time with them, trying to drag it out in hopes that Jared won’t look at him, won’t see him with his shirt off out of the water.

Jared sighs, a huge, teasing sound as he shuffles through the rocks and grass and twigs to get to Jensen. “Can’t even undress yourself. Like one-a them feral children, ain’tya? Don’t know how to hold a fork or write your name or talk to a girl or nothin’.”

He grins when Jensen blushes and lowers his head even more, gets his fingers caught up in the hem of the bottom of Jensen’s huge shirt and lifts it up, revealing the tiny expanse of Jensen’s stomach, the faint yellowed-purple bruises sleeping there.

“I don’t wanna talk to a girl.” It’s soft but he’s said it and it’s a lot to say, coming from Jensen. Big words. Daring ones. Jensen’s eyes are still down, long lashes hiding their color and their expression as Jensen watches Jared’s hands, watches as Jared pulls up on his shirt.

“Oh, yeah?” He pulls the shirt up even more, seeing the mirrored curves of Jensen’s ribs and the twin kisses of pink that make up his hard nipples and then the shirt is gone, tossed on the ground. Jared makes use of his small experience with flirting and cups Jensen’s thin hips where his jeans are sagging down, showing off the elastic waist of his underwear. He can see Jensen’s hipbones, rubs over them with his thumbs. He feels the shiver that rides up Jensen’s spine. “Well, who do you wanna talk to?”

“Nobody else.” A whisper, not a secret but a truth. Jensen’s arms are hanging loose at his sides and he’s so pliant in Jared’s grip, so ready to give himself up to anything Jared wants. Jared takes the time to look at him, really look at him, at his naked chest, at the weird way his bones are set on his collarbone when it got broken once, at the healed scars in straight lines, in jagged ones, in the forms of cigarette burns. At the fingerprint-shaped bruises on his upper arms, at the evidence of hands on Jensen that aren’t Jared’s. And that should never be true, not ever. Only Jared should be allowed to touch him. Only Jared can be trusted to do it right.

“Nobody else?” He’s parroting, distracted by the way his hands drift up over Jensen’s waist and around his back to the notches of his spine, by the way he pulls Jensen close and Jensen just comes, just wants to be there so much that he melts forward, warmed and fluid like honey.

“Nobody but you.”

Jared always knew this is who they are, this is what they are to each other. He always knew this is how he could love Jensen, how Jensen wants Jared to touch him. His hands move like they’ve always known, like the movements were always there in them, like they’ve been trembling for years in wait, in preparation for this.

He regrets Diana. He regrets being with anyone before this boy, regrets letting anyone into his secret self but Jensen. It was an intrusion for the both of them and he sees that now, knows it completely. But no more and never again.

He tips his head to one side and it’s just a single inch to move and then he’s tasting Jensen for the very first time, tasting the warm sweet of his insides, feeling his tongue slip-slide toward him like it’s alive on its own and needs Jared, too. It’s Jensen’s first kiss and Jared will never have to ask to know that it’s true. He runs his hands up his back, fingertips tripping over the bird-wings of Jensen’s shoulders and holding him tight, keeping them pressed together so none of the beauty of this escapes.

“Please,” Jensen says into his mouth, drips it past his lips like nectar and Jared clutches at him, arms tightening to their true strength and they stumble backwards, Jared’s hands taking the brunt of the impact on the trunk of an old oak.

Jared doesn’t ask what Jensen is begging for, doesn’t have to. Knows that Jensen won’t have the words anyway. Jensen’s hands are on him, unsure and fluttering like wings as they touch Jared’s bare stomach, as they trip over his biceps and finally hook together around his neck to pull him in tighter.

Jared kisses him with a hungry, wide mouth, drinks down Jensen’s spit and sucks on the swollen pout of his bottom lip, adoring every vein and molar and breath in Jensen’s mouth. Their hips are pressed together almost as an afterthought and Jared is already half-hard in his shorts, his big-boy dick thick and greedy where it rubs against Jensen’s belly button.

They break away after too many minutes connected, after Jensen has caught and fallen into the rhythm of their bodies, of their mouths, the wet sweeps of their tongues together, after they went deaf to anything but the sounds of each other’s breathing, the dirty slick sounds of hungry kisses held in for too many years. Jensen presses his forehead to Jared’s and keeps his eyes closed as he pants to catch his breath, his hands shaking as they pet through the wild, sweaty tangle of Jared’s hair.

Jared rubs his back in slow circles, keeping the rhythm alive between them through it, with the slow push of his hips. He kisses down the model-pretty line of Jensen’s jaw and down his neck to suck at his pulsepoint, to taste his heartbeat.

“Only you and me from here on out. I promise, Jen. I swear.”

Jensen makes a tiny sound, a soft noise of agreement that sounds too much like begging. Jared lifts his head again and they’re nuzzling and suddenly Jared’s chest is tight with emotion, with the importance of that promise. Their noses nudge at each other like cats, cheeks rubbing and Jared kisses every bit of skin he comes into contact with.

“Wanna get in the water?” The smile in Jensen’s voice makes Jared open his eyes, makes him look Jensen in the face and he grins in response when he sees the quiet happiness written all over Jensen’s face. Jared leans in and kisses him again just because he can, just to see if it’s as good as the first time and God, yes, it is, of course it is. Of course Jensen’s the sweetest thing he’s ever tasted.

“Only if you get naked with me.”

Jensen frowns for that, a playful pout pulling at his kiss-rubbed mouth. Jared grins and tugs at Jensen’s jeans, letting them puddle around Jensen’s bare feet.

“Trust me, you don’t wanna see me naked.” Jensen’s hands leave Jared’s body to slip down and cover himself up, hiding the bulge in his faded briefs, hiding the bruises on his upper thighs. Jared runs wide palms over Jensen’s stomach, soothing over hurt skin and tugging him against himself again, grinning when their mouths ghost.

“I do though. C’mon.” Jared drops his briefs, his dick springing heavy and hard from the trap of cotton, swaying toward Jensen like it knows exactly what it wants. His cheeks are red but Jensen’s are redder. “See? Can’t be any worse than me.”

Jensen sighs, breath leaving his mouth in a nervous shudder before he steels himself and shoves his underwear down, his dick softer than Jared’s and paler with a candy-pink tip that makes Jared’s mouth water. He closes his eyes and leans heavily against Jensen, shuddering at the way their dicks slide together.

“Beautiful. Look like you taste like candy.” Jared knows he’s being dirty and maybe a little premature in what he’s saying but it’s so very earnest, and it’s worth it for the way Jensen blushes even harder. Jared grins and Jensen smirks at him, giving him a playful shove toward the creek.

“I thought we were swimming, Romeo.” It’s so cute and so fragile, the way Jensen is teasing him, flirting with him. Jared’s face hurts from smiling so hard and he slips and falls all the way down into the creek just to make Jensen laugh, just to take his mind off the fact that he’s naked and they just kissed and changed absolutely everything.

 

Their swim is innocent enough, filled with splashes and water colder than ice and their laughter echoing off the trees swaying in the breeze around them. They climb out and sprawl on a patch of thick green grass to dry off in the high summer sun.

Jared turns his head to look at Jensen, studying his sun-pink cheeks and darkening freckles and the smile pulling on his mouth and God, he’s in love with him. He’s so completely in love with Jensen and he’s never felt any different than he does right now but he has words for it today, knows exactly what this emotion banding around his chest is. It’s freeing and overwhelming and he leans over and kisses Jensen’s cheek just to taste the wet and the warm and the love there.

Jensen smiles and turns to face him without opening his eyes and they’re kissing again, like this is the thousandth day they’ve done this, like they’ve known the inside of each other’s mouths all their lives. Jared finds Jensen’s hands and knits them together with his own, finger beside finger until they’re all tangled up and he’s draping himself on top of Jensen, hearts and hips and dicks lining up and he stretches Jensen as long as he can using that grip on his hands, shuddering for the way Jensen whimpers and spreads his legs for him.

He slots between Jensen’s pale, still-thin thighs and his dick is nudging behind Jensen’s balls, so close to a dangerous, secret place, so close to where he knows he will be one day, to where he knows he belongs.

Jensen’s mouth is open and panting against Jared’s as they rock together, Jensen’s dick caught between their heaving bellies and Jared’s between the soft cheeks of Jensen’s round butt. They push and rub until Jared feels like he’s drowning, until he’s not in his body but just inside of the space that doesn’t exist between them, just inside of every breath that leaves Jensen’s beautiful mouth.

“Always loved you,” Jared breathes into Jensen’s mouth when he comes, strings of pearly white dripping down the velvet-soft of Jensen’s balls and over his untouched hole. “Always loved you just like this.”

Jensen shakes his head, his eyes flying open and they’re shining and startling green with tears and Jared knows that Jensen is as overwhelmed as he is, that he’s just as in love and it feels so good it hurts.

“Jared.” He’s still shaking his head when he buries his face in Jared’s neck but it doesn’t mean no. It means why me and why did we wait so long and I’m so scared of how much this means to me. Jared knows because there’s nothing on this earth he knows better than this boy. He’s fluent in every flutter and blink and bone of him, and he’s shaking with every single second he’s shared with Jensen that has brought them to this very moment.

Jared lets go of his hands to grab hold of Jensen’s burning cheeks, to bring those eyes to focus on his own so he can see every single emotion in Jensen’s face when he finally comes, so he can see right down into him and save this moment forever, for the dark days.

The sun is drooping low in the sky, fixin’ to set when they come back out of the woods, their bodies loose from sex and secrets and they’re holding hands, their fingers twined like a braid until they get to the edge of Jared’s property and Jensen stops and looks up at him, pleading and apologizing silently.

Jared lets go of his hand without looking over because he can’t stand it, can’t handle the look on Jensen’s face. Of course they have to be a secret. Of course they can’t be who they are to each other out here, in the real world.

“It’s okay,” Jared offers in a mumble, saying what he needs to say but they both know he doesn’t mean it. They stand there together, feet still in the woods but the spell is broken. Jared looks down at his dirty shoes and he can sense it when Jensen’s entire body stiffens beside him.

He looks up, follows Jensen’s gaze and he freezes when he finally sees it.

Jensen’s daddy’s truck pulled up to the house, the engine probably still warm.

He’s back.

Jensen closes his eyes and when Jared looks over, he can see his chin trembling the tiniest bit. He reaches out for him on instinct and Jensen takes a single, decisive step away from him.

“It’s okay, Jay.”

“Maybe you can spend the night tonight? Tell your Daddy we’re gonna camp out?”

“He’s gonna want me home.” Jensen looks like a whole different person than the smiling, loose-hipped boy who Jared’s been with the last few hours. He’s tense, shoulders drawn up, the light gone from his eyes. He sounds as tired and defeated as he looks and he’s in a place that even Jared can’t reach him now.

Jensen goes to step away from him, to go home and Jared reaches out, grabs hold of his hand and pulls him back, an arm wrapping around Jensen’s waist to keep him where he is, close just like in the woods.

He kisses him, their foreheads resting together, their breath warm on each other’s cheeks, mouths wet and pressed and familiar.

“Goodnight.”

Jensen swallows, the sound dry and clicking and he’s shaking a little all over, just like he’s always done before he goes home their whole lives. He presses his forehead harder against Jared’s, so hard that it almost hurts but it’s something Jared can keep with him after Jensen pulls away and starts off for the house, something that reminds him that Jensen is real, he’s real and alive and his, no matter what.

 

He waits in the shed that night after dinner, a pile of comic books and a bottle of lotion tucked into his otherwise-empty backpack. The sun has long since set and the backyard is bright as fireworks with lightning bugs, dozens and dozens of them dancing around with their otherworldly green lights flashing, showing off for each other.

The moon rises up high and waxing, showing down cheerfully on the little shed where Jared’s hiding out, the door cracked and waiting for Jensen. Ten o’clock, eleven, midnight.

He’s sweating in fear and from the unfaltering southern summer night when he finally stands up and makes his way back over to the door. He pulls it open and squints out across the yard to try and see Jensen’s house in the dark, trying to make out any lights left on.

It’s dark on their whole street, a single streetlight still working far enough down the road that it doesn’t reveal anything near Jared at all. His heart is racing in his chest because he knows what he’s about to do.

The crickets are buzzing in the woods and the stars look like Christmas lights as he makes his way through his yard, eyes trained on Jensen’s cracked window, on that house that’s somehow containing the most beautiful, amazing boy Jared has ever met.

His footsteps turn to silence as he creeps closer, shaking fingers touching light on the house.

Jacob Ackles had spanked him once, when Jared stained the couch with his wild blackberry-dirtied hands. It wasn’t hard and it didn’t last very long, but Jared had nearly fainted from the sheer terror of it, from the too-intimate knowledge of the pain that man could inflict.

His fear of Jensen’s daddy has been constant and consuming ever since that first time he saw him hurt Jensen. And even now, when he’s getting closer to six feet tall every single day, even when he’s on the football team and has a respectable six-pack and strong arms, nothing makes him shake faster than the sound of Jacob’s voice.

And so it’s with tightly-held breath and a humiliating amount of fear that he taps his knuckles against Jensen’s window, just twice and almost too soft. He jumps back and sinks down to his knees in a crouch, trying to hide just in case. Just in case.

The silence that follows is loaded and seems to last forever and Jared jumps when he hears the sound of fingertips brushing over worn wood on a windowsill.

“Jay?”

Jared flies to his feet and stretches up onto his tiptoes, his heart thudding against the vinyl siding on the house as he reaches up for Jensen.

Jensen’s face is swollen horribly, mouth and eyes almost disfigured in their protrusions, fresh blood still glistening on his bottom lip. Jared gasps and reaches in for Jensen’s hand, pulling on it like he can just yank Jensen right out into the night, like he can just rescue him right here.

“Jensen.” It’s too loud and he knows it immediately and the sob that follows is shuddering, desperate. Jensen is shaking his head and Jared can’t hear anything, just the rush of blood in his head from his blind fury, from this helpless, overwhelming that he can’t fix this, can’t do anything about this. He’s never been able to. Not ever.

“Go home, Jared, please go home. Please. H-he saw us. Earlier. He saw us and--” Jensen cuts himself off, not enough breath in his body to keep going. A panic attack. Jared feels the tendons in his ankles stretching too far as he strains up, needing to see him, needing to make this okay.

“Jen, come outside. Come here. Please, just come here and--”

“What the hell are you doing here, you fucking queer?!”

Jared gasps, can’t help it. He lets go of Jensen to turn around and God, ohmygod, it’s Jacob, outside, right here right here right--

“Daddy, no! Please, no!”

Jared ducks when Jacob swings at him, a loose fist coming drunkenly at his head. He hears it swing right over him and he scrambles to his hands and knees to crawl past him just enough to get away from the side of the house.

“Dirty little faggot, think you can just do whatever you want? Think you can touch him with your dirty faggot hands. I’ll fuckin’ kill you, you filthy little fag. I’m gonna kill you.” Jared is frozen in fear, bile rising up hot and sour in his throat, his hands pressed too hard into gravel, hard enough to break through his skin.

He can hear Jensen sobbing, hear his crying distorted by his broken mouth and it’s all suddenly just pure, dark, dreamlike horror, all slow motion and stark and cruelly painful and Jacob is coming right for him.

Jared finally finds his feet and he pushes them into the ground so hard that he digs into it before he just takes off, running like he’s in a nightmare, running straight for the woods and not looking back, not wanting to know if Jacob is following him, if he has a gun or a knife, doesn’t want to know how close he is to death.

Doesn’t want to know how much more of a punishment Jensen is going to get for this, because of him. He runs and runs, briars slicing into his bare ankles, roots raising up to trip him in the near-total darkness and he doesn’t stop until the need to vomit is overwhelming.

The sob that accompanies the initial heave of soured food from his stomach echoes through the trees and into the silent night, the entire forest seeming to hold its breath in its own fear. He collapses down against a tree, not caring where he is or what’s around him. He’s too scared and too defeated to move, not right now. Not until the sun starts to rise and clear some of the shadows and prove to Jared that there is a world outside of the nightmare he just lived.

 

He just barely gets home and takes a shower before his mama’s awake and moving around in the house, playing her favorite country station and changing clothes three times, the smell of aerosol hairspray, Misty Menthol Light 120s, and drugstore knockoff Chanel No. 5 drifting through the whole house.

Jared sits at the table, eating the stale Cheerios and toast she puts in front of him, the smell of her burnt coffee almost making him sick again. The cereal sets like lead in his stomach and his eyes are swollen from crying and no sleep.

Mama flits around, deep in her morning routine, singing along with Reba and oblivious to anything about Jared except the milk he keeps spilling on the table and his dirty feet on the chair opposite him.

“Mama.”

She keeps moving, pouring more coffee into her mug from the ‘82 World Fair before emptying the rest of it in her travel mug. She makes a sound that’s almost a question but she doesn’t so much as glance at him.

“Babe, will you please do the dishes today? I swear, I do dishes every damn day and--”

Mama.” Tears are standing in Jared’s eyes now and he feels like a little kid again, like he really does need her to listen to him. Like it’ll matter if she does.

She stops then and looks at him for the first time all morning, her eyes growing almost comically wide when she finally sees him.

“Jay, what’s wrong? What is it? Are you okay? Is Diana okay? God, she ain’t pregnant, is she?”

“Mama! No.” He huffs, childish and impatient, his spoon clattering in the bowl when he drops it to rub his eyes, hiding the tears that almost fell. “It’s not Diana. We’re done.”

“Well.” She stands there next to him, looking as lost as he feels. She pulls the other chair at the table out, letting Jared’s feet fall from the seat of it before she sits down. “What is it? Talk.”

“It’s Jensen.” He can’t even get Jensen’s name out without his eyes filling up again and he covers his face then, shoulders drawing in tight. His voice is strained and thin as paper when he finally gathers it up to keep talking. “H-his daddy hurt him real bad last night. He. H-he.”

“Were you over there when it happened?” It’s an odd question and her tone is off, like she’s missing the whole entire point. Jared uncovers his eyes and squints at her, head tipping to one side.

“No. Not. Not when it happened, but I went over last night because. Because I was worried about him, and--”

“Jared, Jesus, boy. I thought you knew better than that by now. Just stay out of it! It’s not your business. And it’s sure as hell not my business.” She’s up again, snatching Jared’s bowl as she goes and dumping the milk out into the sink, the drain stopper catching the last of the bloated Cheerios from getting sucked down.

“It is my business! Jensen’s my best friend! Of course it’s my business!” He stands up and feels empowered by how much taller he is than her now, like maybe she’ll listen to him now. Like maybe what he says matters.

“Jared Tristan Padalecki, you listen to me.” She’s in his face, her finger long and pointed, a fruit punch pink nail nearly touching his nose. “Jacob Ackles has been a bully and a drunk for as long as I known him, and it only got worse when he met Mary Anne and they had that boy. Ain’t nothin’ you or me can do about it ‘cause there ain’t nothin’ to do about it. His cousin Jack’s the deputy, and you know nobody’s gonna do nothin’ even if you do call the police, you hear me?”

“But--”

“Where’s that spineless mama of his? Huh? Where’s Little Miss Perfect Mary Anne? Why can’t she protect her own boy?”

“She never has! Never! She just sits back and lets him do it! She lies to everybody and pretends everything is okay and so nobody knows.” He shoves his hair back out of his eyes, teeth gritted so hard it hurts. His mama is scrubbing at the counter with her sponge, her entire body tense.

“Well. It don’t matter. It’s her problem. Their problem. It ain’t mine.”

“Jensen’s hurt! He just hurts him more and more every day and if nobody does anything--”

“That ‘somebody’ ain’t gonna be you! I am not gonna get a phonecall at work one day, tellin’ me you done been shot by that son of a bitch. You drop it and you stay out of it, or so help me God, Jared, I’ll tan yer hide myself. You got that?” She’s at least four inches shorter than him, but she’s fierce with anger and she’s practically screaming right in Jared’s face, the bitterness of coffee and cigarettes scalding over his skin.

He’s crying openly now and can’t even bring himself to say anything to her, to scream at her right back, to tuck tail and apologize, to lie to buy himself some time. He just stares at her like it’s the last time he’s ever gonna see her and he wants her to know it before he turns and leaves the kitchen, not stopping until he’s in his room with the door slammed shut behind him.

He’s exhausted and feeling an alarming need to hit something, to feel bone crunch under his knuckles, to feel skin break and see blood spill. He paces his room, his heart pounding in his ears and God, he needs to get outside to his truck, needs to get under her hood and try again, figure out the last couple of things that could be wrong so he can get her running.

Sixteen tomorrow. Uncle Bobby Joe is coming over this afternoon and it’s his last chance. He’ll get her running by dawn on July 10th or die trying.

 

The sound of a fist on the front door is so loud that Jared gasps himself awake, arms fighting against blankets so he can get upright and to the door. He doesn’t know what time it is but he guesses from the light spilling through the windows that it’s some time around noon.

Uncle Bobby Joe is early.

He scratches a hand through the wilderness of his hair, trying to look awake and together enough to communicate as he pulls the door open.

It’s like a horrible, vivid flashback.

Flash back to that first time, to the day he found out. Snow on the ground and falling from the sky, the smell of pine and cinnamon still in the air, the excitement of Christmas still making him antsy to wake up in the mornings. Eight years old. He was eight.

He was eight and Jensen was nearly seven when Jacob first beat Jensen in front of Jared, hit him like it was nothing, like it happened every day. And it did. It always has.

Jared still has nightmares about that afternoon, can still see it so clearly even though there have been hundreds more afternoons like it. Mornings and nights, too, when Jensen had to stay as quiet as possible while his daddy unleashed his disease and fury on his huddled, small body. Years and years of it and Jared has borne witness to so many of them, but that first time still sticks with him.

Jacob’s fist in Jensen’s hair, the gross, hairy meat of his calloused hand in the soft, golden thick of Jensen’s little boy hair. Startling, horrifying imagery. An image that will never leave Jared as long as he lives.

It’s like a cruel joke, a mocking reenactment when he opens the door and he sees them.

Jensen is barely standing anymore, most of his body braced on the doorframe but his daddy’s holding him up, his hand tight and wound in Jensen’s hair to ensure he doesn’t just hit the porch.

His hair’s a little darker, a burnished gold instead of spungold, more wave to it now than when he was six but it’s all so similar, so startling that Jared can’t move.

“You listen to me, boy, and listen good. I ain’t ever gonna say this again. You hearin’ me? You say ‘yessir’ if you do.” Jacob Ackles is staring right at him and Jared can’t even draw in a full breath. He’s nodding before he can even process the words, instinct taking over to protect him from what could possibly happen to him if he did anything different.

“Ye-yessir.”

Jared dares to glance over at Jensen and he whimpers, low and tiny and lost. Jensen’s head is lolled to one side, temple resting heavy on the old wood of the doorframe. He’s wearing a t-shirt and there’s a burn on his right forearm that looks like the coil of a stove eye, bright and angry and new-looking. His face is an abstract painting of pink and red and purple and black, swollen and broken in all the wrong places. He looks heavy and inanimate, his bare feet planted even as he sways under every movement of his daddy’s arm, head getting jerked around like a puppet on a string.

“You say yer goodbyes right now. Right now. Cause you ain’t ever gonna see him again. I’m gonna make sure of that.” Jacob thrusts Jensen forward so fast and so sudden that Jensen stumbles, knees heading right for the porch.

Jared reaches out on instinct and grabs him, still mindful somehow of the burn as he helps him upright again. Jacob rips Jensen back to standing by the hair, pulling his head back on his neck so fast Jared’s afraid it’s gonna snap off.

“Stop,” Jared breathes, but it only sounds like a gasp, his hands fluttering in the air between him and Jensen. Jensen barely seems to be conscious, couldn’t meet Jared’s eyes even if he wanted to.

“Say goodbye,” Jacob bellows, his voice giant and shaking the air between their two houses, sending echoes up into the sunny sky above. He shakes Jensen hard by the hair, over and over like the movement’s going to make him talk, going to wake him up.

Jared’s face is streaked with tears and he’s holding onto the doorframe to keep his hands off Jensen, to try and get this over with as soon as he can. He’s the reason Jensen looks like this, the reason Jensen is nearly half-dead in front of him. This is his fault. He can’t do any more to make it worse. Can’t get Jensen hurt anymore.

“Bye,” he whispers, his chin trembling and his eyes never leave Jensen, never quit seeking out those beautiful eyes, needing them to find his own. Jensen’s response is just a sound, a mumble that doesn’t sound like a word. Jacob lets go of Jensen’s hair and Jensen hits the ground, his body falling limp on the wood slats of the porch like he was just dropped.

“Get up.” Jacob stands over him, hands in balled fists at his sides, daring Jensen to disobey. Jared can only hold his breath and pray for Jensen to get up, please, please get up, just get up so he won’t hurt you anymore.

The sound of a car rumbles up Jared’s short driveway and he and Jacob both turn to look. Uncle Bobby Joe climbs out after parking and killing the engine, stepping up to the house, not realizing what he’s walking up on until he’s two steps up the porch.

“Ackles, what are you doin’ on our porch?” Bobby Joe’s a scrawny man but he’s meaner than hell, muscles pulled tight and long from fights with cars and other mean men. Jared has never been more grateful to see his uncle in his entire life.

“Jensen and me was just payin’ Jay here a visit. Wasn’t we, Jenny?” He reaches down and wraps a big hand around Jensen’s arm so he can jerk him back up onto his feet, guiding him away from Jared and Bobby Joe.

Bobby Joe glances at Jared, spotting the tears and the tremor settled all over his body before he looks back at Jacob, his face screwed up into a scowl that would make the devil hide.

“You best be on your way. Now.”

Jacob sneers at Bobby Joe before he looks back at Jared, his eyes brimming with barely contained hatred. “You remember, boy. That was goodbye. That was final.”

Jared can only watch Jensen, can only look at every single inch of his body and think about what it looks like when it’s safe and healed and untouched, think about the hundreds of freckles under the bruises, think about the smile under the busted lip, about the light in Jensen’s eyes that belongs to Jared and Jared alone.

He thinks about all the years that they’ve been friends, about all the handmade Christmas presents, the burnt marshmallows they shared with chubby, sticky fingers, the altered report cards, their races from the edge of the street down to the church basketball court, the flashlight games in the dark and the ghost stories and the coordinating Halloween costumes and shared lunches and the countless nights they’ve fallen asleep beside each other, closer than most people will ever be to another person in their whole entire lives.

He thinks about how in love he is with his best friend, about how this is the last time, the very last time that Jacob Ackles will have the last word.

 

Uncle Bobby Joe doesn’t ask any questions about Jacob or Jensen, so Jared doesn’t volunteer anything.

Bobby Joe is content with being bent under the hood and scooted up underneath Jared’s truck, asking Jared to hand him this or that tool, and Jared is content to let him. His eyes are on the house next door standing like a silent sentinel, watchful and watching for Jared to finally get brave enough, to make a move.

“Did you beat that boy up?”

Jared’s head whips down so fast that he feels a twinge in his neck. He stares at Bobby Joe’s scrawny legs poking out from under the truck, mouth parted to gape at him in shock.

“No!” Just the thought, just the idea of it has his eyes blurring with even more stupid tears. He rubs them away and grits his teeth, jaw protruding hard. “No. Jacob did that. His daddy did. Jensen is. Is.”

Bobby Joe rolls out then, grunting and wiping the sweat from his forehead with a greasy rag before he squints up at Jared, head tipped to the side.

“He’s what?”

“H-he’s. He’s my best friend.” Jared’s throat feels so tight that he can’t even swallow and he stares down at his dirty hands, defeat written on every bone in his body.

“Yer best friend, huh?”

Jared meets his eyes only because he’s surprised, only because he never thought anybody’s mind would just go there on its own, not without seeing some physical proof, like Jacob seeing Jared kissing Jensen last night. Bobby Joe is staring at him like he already knows, like he doesn’t need to see their mouths together, like. Like he can just see it in the way Jared talks about him, maybe in the way his eyes look when he thinks about Jensen, the strain that pulls at his voice when he says his name.

When Jared doesn’t say anything for a minute, Bobby Joe stands up and saunters over to the tool bench against the house to grab his can of beer. Mama’s new boyfriend likes cans instead of bottles, and Jared likes to help him crunch them under his shoes when it comes time to take the trash out on Monday nights. He tries to offer some to Jared but Jared just shakes his head, can’t look over at him now that his secret is all but out.

“How long’s it been this way?” Bobby Joe is looking up, out into the bright afternoon sun that seems ignorant of the pain all around here today, over at the house holding the boy in question. Jared can’t look at anything but his shoes, at the place on it where Jensen wrote his name on the white tip of his Converse in blue ballpoint. It reminds him of Jensen’s old denim jacket that he just outgrew this year, the one that is faded to almost white in some places, worn-soft and comfortable.

When Jared turned fourteen and August came and he had to go to the high school, Jensen was going into the eighth grade, still stuck down at the middle school. He had panic attacks about it that he tried to keep from Jared, was an absolute wreck by the time school started. Boys were always mean to Jensen, always bullied him, and it only ever got worse. The older Jensen got, the prettier he got.

And Jared had broken up so many fights, unfair, five-boys-against-Jensen fights, had kicked and punched and drawn blood from so many assholes that his knuckles were thick with fight-calluses by the time he was a freshman. And now Jensen was going to be alone with them, with no chance of Jared coming around the corner to find them, to help him. And no amount of Jared pleading with Jensen to stand up for himself, with trying to teach him how to sucker-punch like Hank had showed him once, did anything.

Jensen has been raised to just take violence, just absorb it and survive it. He cowers like a beat dog, a magnet for boys who need to prove they’re men and who don’t like the look of someone as beautiful as Jensen.

So Jared, the night before school that year, had taken Jensen’s denim jacket and written inside of it with a Sharpie, scrawled his own name right under the tag at the back of Jensen’s neck: Jared Tristan Padalecki.

So you don’t feel all alone. You know? So I’m right there with you. And. And I got your back.

They’d hugged up tight together after that, the combined scents of their bodies seeping into the denim, giving Jensen the sense of home all the way through that nightmare first day back at school.

The place that Jensen wrote his name on his shoe is dirty, starting to fade away. He needs Jensen to trace over it, to rewrite it. To claim his space again, just like Jared did himself with Jensen’s jacket. Protective and comforting and secret.

“Since always,” Jared finally says back, his voice low, a little hesitant. He glances over at Bobby Joe to try and gauge his reaction, to see if he’s about to get punched for admitting that he’s. He’s what? In love with Jensen? That they’re together? Boyfriends? That they were born and raised to belong to each other?

Yes. All of it. Yes, yes.

“Hm,” Bobby Joe grunts and finishes off his beer in a long guzzle before tossing it into the garbage can under the bench without crunching it up. He wipes his hands off on his jeans and turns back to the car, grabbing up a socket wrench and busying himself with changing out the socket. “Well, my sister, uh. Yer Aunt Kelly. She’s gay.”

Jared balks at him, actually turning to look at him, his cheeks flushed pink just from talking about this. For Bobby Joe saying the word out loud.

“What? Really?”

“Yep.” Bobby Joe leans in under the hood and fiddles with the fuel injection lines, anything to keep busy while they’re talking about this. “Had a girlfriend for awhile now. You know that woman she brings with her on Thanksgivin’ and barbeques?”

“Carol, yeah,” Jared breathes, all the pieces coming together perfectly in his head. Wow. Bobby Joe is totally right. Carol is just part of the family now, just there with no explanation and no label. Has been for years. How had Jared not realized?

“So.” Bobby Joe shrugs, walking away for a minute to grab a pair of pliers. “I known you and Jensen over there for all yer lives, or most of ‘em, since you and Charlotte moved in here. You boys’ve been tight as a tick for as long as I can ‘member.” A pause. “Yer mama know?”

Jared laughs, a exhale more than anything, one that eases some of the tension in his chest. He reaches up to rub at it distractedly, right over his heart. “No. She told me not to get involved. Like Jensen getting hurt ain’t my business. It’s been this way forever, Uncle Bobby Joe. Jacob’s. He’s. It’s always been like this.”

He hates that he’s finally given away Jensen’s secret but he can’t hold it in anymore, can’t not tell Bobby Joe. Now all the cards are on the table. Jared is one part relieved and one part so nervous he could puke.

Bobby Joe just watches him, storm-cloud grey eyes too knowing to be on a redneck. “What’re you gonna do about it?”

Jared just stares right back at him, his heart thudding in his chest like a fist on a door. His words come out like an oath.

“Tomorrow, I’m gonna get up and go to the DMV and get my license when the doors open at eight-thirty. Got an appointment. Then I’m gonna come back and go over there and walk in that front door and get him. And we’re gonna leave.”

Bobby Joe nods, just once, respectful and believing, like he’s listening to a man speak, not a boy.

“Where you goin’?”

“I don’t know,” Jared breathes out, averting his eyes in a bit of shame. He has never let himself think that far. He’s just been saving his money the last three years from mowing yards and babysitting and helping out here or there around town and focused on getting parts for this truck to get it running. Hasn’t thought past that. “Just. Just not here.”

A car door shuts way down the road and it makes Jared jump, makes his head shoot up but it’s still quiet next door. He swallows, hard and painful.

“Tell you what.” Bobby Joe’s hand comes down on Jared’s shoulder and squeezes, making Jared look up to meet his eyes again. “I’ll call yer Aunt Kelly tonight. She lives over in Asheville, yanno. That’s just a couple hours away. They just got ‘em a new place, and I know fer a fact they’ve gotta spare room. Maybe y’all can stay there for a little bit. ‘Til you figger out what yer gonna do.”

Jared hesitates for a single second before he throws himself against Bobby Joe, surprised at how they’re the same height now as he wraps his arms around him, clutching him in a desperate hug. He closes his eyes and smells the beer-sweat on Bobby Joe, the bitter brown scent of Marlboros. Right now it’s the smell of freedom.

“Thank you.”

Bobby Joe pats him on the back and lets out a low laugh before pulling back from Jared, giving him a little smile and a shake of his head. “You’re gonna be a giant, kid. When’d you grow up so much?”

Jared just smiles, big and helpless and a little bashful. He shoves his hands into his back pockets and shifts from one foot to the other, trying to figure out how to voice his next words.

“Just. Can you not tell anybody. Please? Not even Mama. I just can’t risk him finding Jen again. Just. Just please?”

“Christ, boy, why would I get myself in trouble, too? There’s gotta be ‘bout ten laws yer gonna be breakin’ here. Secret’s safe. Now, c’mon. Quit yer poutin’ and let’s get this truck runnin’ for yer boy.”

Jared beams then, his whole face hot just at the thought. Yeah. His boy.

He looks over at that house again, at Jensen’s window with the broken blinds pulled down and feels hopeful for the first time in a long time.

 

It’s almost ten pm, and Bobby Joe’s still buried under the hood, Jared slumped in the driver’s seat with his head on the steering wheel. The tears in his eyes are tired and hopeless, every bone in his body aching with defeat.

“Try’er agin.”

“It’s not gonna work!” Jared knows he sounds like a child, that his voice is cracking with emotion but he doesn’t have it in him to car anymore. They’ve been trying for hours, and the only thing they have to show for it is five whole seconds of the engine turning over and the truck starting before promptly sputtering to a stop again. “We should just give up, Bobby Joe. It ain’t no use. I don’t know why I thought I could do it. I don’t know why I thought--”

He almost falls out of the car when the door gets yanked open all a sudden, and Bobby Joe’s strong hand wraps around his arm, keeping him upright and bruising his tired muscles.

“You shut up with that, Jay. Just stop it right now. You know what that boy over there’s been through? Huh? Do ya?”

Jared’s eyes flood with tears and he shoves the heels of his hands into them, digging in as he sucks in a quick, shuddery breath. “I know! I know.”

“No, ya don’t. Y’know what you see. And he ain’t ever gonna tell you all his nightmares. Not ever. He’s done been through more than you’ll ever know, and yer doin’ this for him, right?” Bobby Joe’s breath is sour with beer and he’s dripping with summer sweat, but it all just smells like fight to Jared tonight, like strength.

“Yeah.” Jared sits up and wipes his eyes on his shirt, blinking his vision clear and focusing on Jensen’s bedroom window. “For him.”

“Well, then guess what, boy? You don’t git to give up. It ain’t your place to. If he ain’t give up yet, you can’t give up yet. You hear me?”

“Yes, Uncle Bobby Joe. Yes. I hear you.” He takes a deep breath to calm down, letting it push through his body to the tips of his fingers and down into his toes. He’s fighting for somebody else, for the boy he loves. It’s not about giving up. “O-okay. Let’s try her again.”

Bobby Joe nods, his face set in grim, drawn lines, like he’s just as determined as Jared is. He slams the door back and makes his way back under the hood just as Jared turns the key in the ignition.

The engine sputters and whines and Jared holds his breath, eyes clamped shut tight, praying to Jensen’s God for help.

It doesn’t start.

“Wait, Jay, hold on. Just hold on a minute.”

Jared slouches back in the seat, sweat dripping from his hair in salty lines, stinging his eyes and soaking into his shirt. The breeze from outside trickles in through the window in thin, pathetic drifts, and the cicadas lift their song up high into the night, overtaking the sounds of Bobby Joe’s tools clinking and clattering and Jared almost falls asleep right there, exhaustion taking over.

“Arrite, try’r agin! Think I got it this time.”

Jared doesn’t open his eyes, just reaches up and fumbles blind for the key, turning it just like he’s done a dozen other times tonight.

Except it starts this time.

The engine roars to life like a lion out of a cage, like it’s been waiting without patience for just this second to break free. The cicadas are drowned under the sound, under the growling rumble of it, and Jared’s eyes fly open.

Uncle Bobby Joe drops the hood, letting it slam shut, and their eyes meet in the dim light overhead. Bobby Joe’s grin is eerie white and wide as oceans and they both pause the same amount of time before letting out identical whoops of triumph.

“Ohmygod,” Jared whispers to himself, looking down at the steering wheel, at the dashboard, at the radio playing Willie Nelson soft and low under the racket of the engine. “Jensen.”

The passenger door opens and Bobby Joe jumps in, pulling it slammed shut behind him.

“What the hell’r you waitin’ for, kid? Let’s take ‘er out and see what she can do!”

Putting the truck into drive and pushing his foot down on the gas for the first time changes something in Jared. It fortifies him, validates all of his work the last few years, gives him a little hope for tomorrow. For him and Jensen.

Not long now.

 

Jared wakes with a start in the middle of the night when he hears the sound of a truck roaring to life. He flies from his bed and into the kitchen, straining up over the sink to look out the window and sure enough, there it is.

Jacob Ackles in his mean old Chevy Silverado, headlights shining as he turns around in the overgrown driveway, gravel spitting up under the tires as he peels out.

He’s gone.

Jared’s practically shaking as he sprints through the silent house and undoes the chain on the door to yank it open. He flies across the porch and into the yard in his bare feet, the grass under them just starting to get damp with morning.

He pauses near Jensen’s house, undeniable, engrained fear making him stop in his tracks, triggers every fight-or-flight instinct in his body.

“He’s gone,” he whispers to himself through burning huffs of breath. “It’s okay, he’s gone.”

Stretching up to reach his window is easier than ever and he lets his knuckles rap against the dingy glass before his hand spreads out on it, pleading silently with everything in him for Jensen to please get up, to please come to the window. Please.

He feels the windowpane move under his hand and he jumps to life, feet stretching as long as they can to get him closer. The window creaks open and Jensen pokes his head out over the side and Jared reaches up for him, letting the tips of his fingers dance over Jensen’s jaw as his breath shudders around in his chest.

“Jen. Jen, I’m sorry. God, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know. I didn’t know he seen us. I didn’t--”

Jensen just shakes his head and lets his eyes fall closed, tipping his head to get closer to Jared’s touch. Jared whimpers, can’t get close enough, can’t touch him like he needs to. He backs off, lowering back down to his flat feet. “Hold on. Just. Just a second.”

He disappears around the back of the house, eyes flying over the few tools and junk collecting dirt and tangled in the grass next to the back patio. He spies a bucket Jacob uses to wash his truck and he grabs it, dumping out the fungus-ridden rainwater collected in the bottom of it and rushes back to Jensen, turning the bucket upside down and climbing up onto it.

It gives him just enough height to almost be eye level with Jensen and he reaches in for him immediately, greedy and desperate and in love. He cups Jensen’s face in the most careful hands possible, studying his swollen-shut eyes and the bruises all over his face.

“Jen.” His voice trembles as a hot tear rushes down his cheek and he leans in, licking his dry lips before he presses them to the side of Jensen’s face, just beside his mouth. Jensen swallows and a breathy sound shudders against Jared’s cheek, just making Jared continue his kisses all over that face, keeping them as tender as possible.

“I thought you were gonna listen. That. That you were just gonna say goodbye, and. And I didn’t know what I was gonna do, Jay. How could I’ve just lived with that? I just--”

“Shh.” The sound bristles between them, right between their mouths that are touching now, Jared’s lips soft and careful not to break open any healing skin. “Never. Okay? I’m not goin’ anywhere. Not without you.”

“Just been prayin’ all day. Ever since last night. Just wanted. Just wanted to see you one more time. Just to feel. F-feel how you touch me.” Jensen’s chin is trembling and Jared can feel it and it destroys him. Jared breaks his own rule for being careful and he kisses Jensen, firm and lets his tongue dance over that split mouth, tasting Jensen’s blood on his tongue, one of countless times over their lives.

“Don’t need to pray. Ain’t nobody gonna keep me from you and ain’t nobody gonna make me come after you until the day I die but me. Because I love you. God don’t got nothin’ to do with how much I love you.” He sucks Jensen’s bottom lip into his mouth and feels the broken skin split apart there as he starts to suck on it. Jensen just whimpers, just pushes closer, the windowsill digging against his bruised ribs, his weak hands clutching at the front of Jared’s Pearl Jam shirt and it seems like the night is nothing but a whisper now, shrouding them and keeping quiet so they can have their moment, have each other, just for a little while.

“Jay.” Jensen pulls back and when Jared opens his eyes to look at him, he almost goes back in for more because God, Jensen’s mouth ruined with kisses and red with blood from inside and out, those bright eyes still shining even under all the hurt.

“Hmm?” Jared reaches for his hands and tangles them up with his own, brings them up to his mouth to kiss over raw knuckles, to lick at Jensen’s torn fingernails.

“It’s your birthday.” Jensen’s voice is almost a whisper, not to stay quiet but because it’s scraped raw, because of tears and prayers and Jared cranes forward to kiss at Jensen’s throat, at the dark shadows all across his neck in the shapes of two hands. He falls a little more in love with the way Jensen shivers, with how he pushes in even closer, like he wants to find a way to hide against Jared’s body for awhile.

“Yeah.” He pulls Jensen’s hands to his chest again and just breathes him in, the way he smells on the collar of his t-shirt. The way he smells behind his ear. The dirty tang of his unbrushed teeth but Jared loves it anyway, kisses him in spite of it. Because of it. Because every single thing about Jensen is familiar and all on the list of reasons he loves him.

“Happy birthday.”

They pause and just breathe into each other’s mouths, their foreheads pressed together. Jared smiles, tiny and almost sad and he kisses Jensen again just because.

“Get some sleep. I’ll see you in the morning.”

Jensen pulls back, his eyelashes tickling over Jared’s cheeks before he does. His eyebrows are raised, confused and hesitantly hopeful.

“You will?”

Jared reaches up and pushes the long, tangled hair off Jensen’s forehead, revealing a nearly-fresh cut there that runs almost down to his temple. He kisses it, tastes more blood. Licks his lips.

“Night, Jen.”

He steps down off the bucket as careful and quiet as he can, their hands staying clasped all the while. He looks up at Jensen who is leaned out of the window again, elbows braced on the sill. He manages a tiny smile for Jared and presses a kiss to the inside of one of his wrists before he finally lets him go.

“Goodnight, Jared.”

He doesn’t know how he manages to turn around, to walk away, to leave Jensen standing there in his open window, watching him leave. The tug on his chest feels real, like there’s an actual band around his ribs that pulls tighter every step he takes away from Jensen. But it’s happening so soon now. So soon.

He passes by the truck, his truck, the one that he and Bobby Joe got started up just a few hours ago, that they took out for a test drive and took down the highway going eighty. She’s ready. She’s ready for them.

 

When he wakes up again at 5:30, he knows he’s not getting back to sleep again. He climbs out of his bed and turns to look at it, at the rumpled mess of sheets, at his pillows bunched up against the headboard. He’s never gonna sleep in it again.

He’s sixteen now and he knows that today’s the day he has to grow up.

He empties his backpack of the remnants of school, of graded papers and broken pencils and an empty bag of Combos and starts to throw clothes in: bunch of t-shirts and underwear and his other pair of jeans and as many socks as he can cram in. He grabs his Daddy’s old duffel bag he saved from the shed years ago and fills it with books and CDs and pictures: one of him and his Mama before eighth grade prom, his tie crooked and his hair already sweaty but he’s smiling. One of his Daddy, tall and sturdy and handsome, his dark eyes trained on the camera but his mouth is soft, not quite smiling but thoughtful. Jared can’t even picture him looking any other way, can’t remember what his actual smile looks like. His Daddy is just a picture now, just a memory. But he’s not gonna let it go anyway. Another picture of him and Jensen when they were young, Jensen about eight and Jared nine, sitting under the crabapple tree in Jared’s backyard, both of them barefoot and filthy with dirt and summer, both of them beaming at the camera. No toys, no music, nobody else, just the two of them and their twin-mind imaginations, and it’s always been like that. Never needed anything else.

He smiles, encouraged and fortified by the thought. Tucks the pictures into Call of the Wild and zips the bag up. There. Done.

Seven forty-five and he’s showered and dressed and ready to go. He’s got all the money he’s earned in three years tucked in his back pocket: $478 and his mama’s still asleep. She took the day off to spend his birthday with him.

He stops in the dark hallway and stares at her closed door. He knows he should go in and say goodbye, at least kiss her on the forehead, but he can’t risk it. Can’t have her waking up, asking too many questions. He touches the cheap wood of her door, fingers dancing over feet of the Dollar Store angel she has nailed to it.

He locks the door to the house behind him when he leaves. Tucks his two bags into the bed of the truck and glances at the shiny new license plate with up-to-date tags that Uncle Bobby Joe helped him get. He climbs into the truck and pulls the door closed, checks the sun visor for his Aunt Kelly’s address.

Starts her up and pulls out of the driveway, not daring to look back to see if the sound of the engine echoing in the carpark woke Mama up. Can’t look over at Jensen’s house. Today is a step-by-step process. He’s already packed and got the truck started up. Step two is getting his license.

The sun’s is up and ready for him as he ambles down the road towards town. He’s hungry but he’ll wait. Wait until he’s got Jensen beside him and they’ll decide where they want to go. He has to fight to keep the grin off his face.

The parking lot at the DMV is empty except for one car. He kills the engine and steps in, a bell overhead announcing him. A man sits behind the counter clutching a Weigel’s coffee cup, dark circles heavy under his eyes. Mr. Hamilton, his sixth grade science teacher who works here during the summers. Jared grins at him.

“Why this early, Padalecki? Why do you hate me?”

“It’s my birthday!” He sounds like a little kid but he doesn’t care. He holds up all the paperwork he was told he needed to get his license, a twenty dollar bill on top of the stack. Mr. Hamilton groans and motions him forward, takes the papers and starts to sift through them.

“You here alone?” It’s a trick question and Jared knows it. He shoves his hands into his pockets and tries to look trustworthy.

“Well, I am now. Mama got her friend Debra to follow us here. She had to go to work, and Debra’s gave her a ride.”

Mr. Hamilton lifts an eyebrow at the story, the smirk on his face telling Jared he wasn’t falling for it but didn’t care enough to call him out on it. “Uh-huh. Alright, you little shit. Everything’s here. You ready to go scare me awake in that monster truck you brought with you?”

Jared lifts up onto the tips of his toes and lowers back down to keep from hopping. “Yep!”

“God help us all,” Hamilton mutters before he stands up, coffee still clutched firmly in his hand. “Let’s get this over with.”

 

Forty minutes later, Jared is beaming for his driver’s license photo and signing his name on the little electronic thing to get his signature printed on it. Hamilton hands the little laminated card over to him ten minutes later, trying his best to hide his amused smile.

“You look like you’re on drugs in this picture, kid.”

Jared looks down at it, sees his massive, giddy eyes and the smile that pulls out the deep trenches of both his dimples, his bright pink cheeks and hair messed up by the wind that came in from the rolled-down windows. He barks out a laugh and tucks it into his pocket.

“Thanks, Ham-bone.”

“Happy birthday, Padalecki. Now, I’m going back home and going the hell to bed. Try not to run over any old ladies.”

“Just old men. Got it. See ya!” He practically runs out of the building and jumps off the sidewalk to land beside his truck, Step two, complete.

He takes a deep breath that he lets out slowly after he starts the truck again. Reality is seeping in at the edges of his brain, reminding him of what he’s about to go do. What’s about to change. His heart is already racing, adrenaline making his hands shake on the wheel as he backs out of the space.

There’s no turning back now.

 

He turns into Jensen’s driveway and slams on the brakes when he sees Jacob’s truck.

“Fuck,” he breathes, terrified tears burning in his eyes. Jacob’s home. He’s going to be in there. Jared’s gonna have to go through him to get to Jensen. He closes his eyes and rests his forehead on the steering wheel, taking a few measured breaths to try and calm down.

He always expected this, always pictured it playing out just like this. Always knew it wasn’t gonna be easy. This is just part of the plan that he always knew would happen. Just deal with it.

He turns off the truck and climbs out of it, letting the door close quiet behind him. Maybe he can put off a confrontation long enough to--

Just long enough.

The front door’s unlocked like it always is, and it squeaks when Jared pushes it open. He’s so tense it hurts to move as he slips inside, leaving the door ajar instead of closing it back all the way. It occurs to him only now that he should have brought something in with him, something to protect himself, something to intimidate with. He’s got nothing. Even left the keys in the car.

He’s a goddamn idiot.

Jensen’s mama’s at work at the library. Her little Civic was gone from the driveway, and he can smell the weak flower scent of her perfume. He thinks sometimes that he hates her almost as much as he hates Jacob, hates her fear, her cowardice, her failure to ever, ever protect her son from that monster. Jared’s dreamt of her before, of Mary Anne Ackles sitting in her favorite chair in the livingroom, the pale yellow one near the window, where her bird feeders are. In the dreams she’s always sitting there with no bones in her body, a spineless husk of a once-beautiful woman, oblivious to Jensen’s cries.

She never tries to stop Jacob, never goes into Jensen’s room to comfort him afterwards. She just makes sure she has his lunch packed the next morning, makes sure he has clean socks, makes sure he gets a haircut every few months. Like it makes up for it. Like that’s what being a mama is.

He’s glad she’s not going to get to say goodbye to him, that she’s going to feel guilty for the rest of her life that she wasn’t the one to put a stop to all of this.

But that’s always been Jared’s role in this, the one he took up years ago. That is the natural ending to this story.

The carpet muffles the sound of his trek to the hallway, to Jensen’s room. He can count on two hands the number of times he’s been inside his room his entire life. Jensen’s always preferred Jared’s house, Jared’s room, the haven they made out in the shed, the woods behind their houses. Anywhere. Anywhere but here.

Jensen’s door is cracked open and Jared isn’t breathing when he pushes it open wide enough to step inside.

He closes the door behind him and turns to face the room and Jensen is wide awake, sitting on his bed and his eyes are huge, staring right at Jared like he’s a ghost.

“Jay?” He sounds like he’s about to cry, like he can barely breathe enough to say anything at all. Jensen’s body is wound as tight as a guitar string, his hands gripping the blankets beside him. “What are you doing? What--”

Jared puts a finger to his mouth, his eyes begging Jensen not to say anything else. He crosses the room and kneels down in front of him, grabbing those hands in his own again, just like last night. Just like he will forever, from here on out.

“Jen, listen to me,” he says as soft as he can, barely loud enough to be heard. Jensen leans forward to hear him, tears standing in his eyes already. “Get up. Get some clothes packed. Just a few things, just what you need. Put your shoes on. Don’t say anything else. And be as quiet as you can. Okay?”

Jensen nods, a lump caught in his throat that he can’t seem to swallow past. He blinks a few times, his eyes glassy and that living green Jared loves so much under the swollen, raised skin. Jared stands up to let Jensen do the same, and he goes to stand guard at the door while Jensen packs.

He empties his school bag just like Jared had and stuffs an almost identical bunch of clothes in. Jared watches him, chewing nervously on the inside of his mouth, breaking skin as he does and licking at the blood. His mind flies over everything Jensen owns, over all his shirts and hoodies and comic books. He’s going to miss all of Jensen’s left-behind shirts, even the plain, faded black ones, going to miss seeing them on him.

He goes to Jensen’s clothes and roots around through the pile of clothes on the floor inside of it, grabbing that denim jacket, folding it up and handing it over to Jensen who takes it, looking a little bewildered and wondering but he stuffs it into his bag. He changes out of his sweatpants and into a pair of jeans, and Jared can’t keep his eyes off the high, round swell of his butt as it disappears under denim.

Jensen stuffs his feet into tennis shoes and hoists the bag onto his shoulder, not looking around to see if he missed anything, not getting any books or videos or anything. He looks up at Jared, worried and expectant and ready, and Jared suddenly can’t move.

A door crashes open down the hall.

Jensen crouches immediately, self-preservation kicking in and Jared goes to him, his heart in his throat, lifts him back to his feet.

“Jen, listen to me. Listen.” He pushes Jensen’s hair back from his face and forces him to meet his eyes. “Go on outside. Get in my truck. Roll up the windows and lock the doors. You hear me?”

Jensen nods but his eyes are wild, searching Jared’s face like he doesn’t recognize him, like he’s lost. Jared kisses him, hungry and fast and he takes a deep breath, not prepared for this moment at all but this is what his whole life has been heading towards. This is it. Right now.

He pulls the door open and steps into the hallway and finds himself face-to-face with Jacob Allen Ackles. His hair is matted from sleep, his eyes swollen with it, but he looks murderous. Awake enough to focus immediately on Jared.

“What are you doin’ in my house? Disgusting piece of shit!” Jacob grabs the front of Jared’s shirt and yanks him to him, the rotting-animal smell of his breath almost making Jared gag.

“Jensen, now! Go!” He watches Jacob’s eyes fly to where Jensen is behind Jared, bag clutched in his hands. Jared feels Jensen hesitate for a second and he holds his breath, waits for him to move. He closes his eyes in relief when he does, when he feels Jensen brush his back as he flies past him, when he hears him rushing through the house to the front door where it’s still cracked, waiting for him.

“Oh, no, you don’t. Oh, no, you don’t, boy.” Jacob pushes Jared back away from him to go after Jensen but Jared moves back to him, getting right in his path, their eyes locking and this time, Jared is ready.

“You ain’t gonna touch him. Not now, not ever again. It’s over.”

Jacob sneers, head jerking back on his neck in surprise. “What’d you say to me, faggot? You tellin’ me what to do? Tellin’ me how to raise my kid? Tellin’ me what to do in my own house?”

“I’m telling you what you’re not going to do to my best friend. To the person I love.” Jared’s voice is shaking in the stale air between them but it doesn’t break. He watches Jacob’s fist rear back but it all happens in slow motion, like a movie. He feels it connect with his mouth, feels the bright, hot wash of pain spread over his jaw, feels the skin of his mouth break open immediately, blood rushing eagerly to the surface.

“Shut yer fag mouth! Yer disgusting, you fuckin’ dirty queer. Goin’ straight to hell, the both of you. I’m gonna beat it right out of you, gonna beat the faggot right out of you, then I’m gonna do it to him. Again. And you ain’t gonna stop me.” Jacob shoves him and, this time, Jared goes. Slams right into the wall while his head spins. He forces his eyes to focus, forces himself to ignore the pain, to not worry about broken bones and the blood dripping down his chin.

He curls his hand into a fist, keeps his thumb on the outside just like Uncle Bobby Joe taught him so it doesn’t get broken as he rears back and lets go with all the strength in him, letting his fist connect with Jacob’s nose, just like he did with Brad Shelby that first time. Breaks Jensen’s daddy’s nose just the same way.

Jacob stumbles back, clutching his face like he’s not used to being hit back. Jared doesn’t wait for a reaction, doesn’t wait for another hit. He slips right past Jacob and just runs.

He bolts out the door and pulls it shut behind him and leaps off the side of the porch. He hears the door opening behind him, hears Jacob Ackles screaming after him and it feels like that night all over again, like he’s being chased by a monster, by wolves. But it’s different this time.

This time, the sun’s out. This time, Jared’s the one with the plan. This time, he’s gonna win.

He can see Jensen in the truck when he gets closer to it, can see the honey-bright of his hair and his beautiful, broken face. He hears the rumble of the engine from where Jensen’s already got her started and he watches when Jensen reaches across the seat and yanks the lock up just in time for Jared to rip the door open.

He pulls the door closed and slams his palm down on the lock just as Jacob’s fist comes down on the window, rattling it and making Jensen cry out next to him but it doesn’t break.

“I’ll kill you both. I’m gonna kill you both, you fuckin’ faggots!” Fists fall like hail on the window and Jared throws the truck into drive and slams his foot down on the gas, sending her lurching forward. He yanks the wheel to the left and starts to get her turned around, heading for the road.

His mama comes running out of her house just as he drives past, and he’ll never forget how she looks: hair sticking up in stubborn dark curls from when she’d fallen asleep with hairspray in it, eyeliner smudged around her eyes, wearing just a big t-shirt, her legs scrawny and vulnerable as she runs down the porch steps and toward the truck. He can’t hear her words, can’t hear what she’s saying but she’s yelling, her voice is high, a panicked screech that overpowers Jacob’s hateful bark.

Jensen is about to lose it beside him, about to pass out from fear, his entire body shaking hard enough for Jared to see it out of the corner of his eyes. He reaches over to grab one of Jensen’s hands, gripping it tight in his own as he roars out of the space between their yards and out onto the road, not daring to look back in the rearview.

He goes about sixty down the lifelong-familiar streets of Calvary, ignoring all posted speed limit signs, ignoring everything but the signs for the interstate and the way his thumb strokes over Jensen’s knuckles.

He takes the right onto I-40 East and guns it onto the exit and merges with traffic, the fear leaving his body in tiny bursts of relief. His heart is still pounding, his eyes impossibly wide and on the lookout for police cars, for Jacob’s good ol’ boy pals who would come after them, run them off the road and tumbling over a hill without thinking twice.

The truck rumbles loud, the bench seat squeaking with every pothole but the engine doesn’t miss, doesn’t hesitate. Like she’s been waiting for this day just as long as Jared has.

Jensen doesn’t move beside him until they cross into Anderson County. He eases his grip on Jared’s hand and just turns to stare at him, mouth parted for a long moment before he speaks.

“Where are we goin’?”

“Asheville.” Jared glances over at him, catches his eyes and tries to give him a smile before he has to look back at the road. “My Aunt Kelly lives there with her girlfriend. You remember them?”

Jensen nods and gives Jared’s hand a squeeze, a movement so comforting that Jared’s throat tightens. “They always bring potato casserole on the 4th of July.”

“Mm-hm. That’s them. Anyway, Uncle Bobby Joe called her yesterday. They’re gonna let us stay with them for. For awhile. Until we figure out what we wanna do.” He sounds so sure of himself, like this is a real plan, like he’s strong enough to take care of them both. Like he isn’t terrified.

Jensen doesn’t say anything for a long time. Jared can see him on the edge of his vision, can feel the weight of thoughts between them and it goes on for so long that Jared can’t stand it, has to look over.

Jensen’s crying, tears spilling down his cheeks but his cheeks are apple-round with a smile. He crawls across the seat and wraps his arms around Jared’s neck, letting his face bury in against it. Jared reaches up and rests a hand on Jensen’s head, keeps him tucked right where he is. He feels the warm spill of tears and the dampness of Jensen’s breath on his skin. He tips his head to the side and kisses the top of Jensen’s head, his fingers stroking through his hair, nails running over his scalp.

Jared’s hands are still shaking but his eyes are focused straight ahead, determination making his focus sharp, clearing his mind. This could have gone so wrong today, could have ended badly. He might not have succeeded. Could just as easily be sitting at home, clutching his license and staring out the window at that damn house, Jensen’s prison, wondering where he went wrong.

But he’s not. And Jensen’s here, right here. Soft and still small, smelling of salty tears and the earthy tang of unwashed skin, his fingers flexing and clutching at Jared’s shirt. Alive and okay and here.

“Been plannin’ this for years, Jen. Had to get this truck runnin’ because I had to get you out of there. Been savin’ money for us. Got my license this morning and came straight back to get you. I just. I just always known this was what we was gonna do. Just you and me.”

It’s quiet between them again but it’s comfortable this time. The sun is hotter than the hinges of hell overhead, and they roll down the windows to let the wind flood in. But they come back together, curled around each other as Jared guns it down the highway, headed east and away from that town that was gonna just swallow them up, gonna break every bone in their back until they just couldn’t leave.

“Thank you,” Jensen says finally, all the other words he can’t find tucked into those two. Jared tightens his arm around him and grins, grins so hard it splits his lip all over again and damn, it’s starting to hurt like a bitch. But right now, he doesn’t give a flying fuck.

 

They stop for lunch outside of Knoxville, get a bag of burgers and fries from Central Park and giant cups of soda and stop in an abandoned shopping center parking lot, parking under a huge shady tree and climbing into the bed of the truck to eat.

Jared wolfs down two burgers and Jensen eats one and a whole thing of fries, dipping them in ranch dressing and licking grease off his fingers. The salt stings Jared’s lip so he guzzles down half his drink and burps loud enough for it to echo off all the empty buildings around them. Jensen laughs and tucks all their food off to one side and they both take off their shoes and stretch out in the relative shade of the unkempt tree in front of them.

Jensen wraps himself around Jared and doesn’t waste any time in pressing his warm mouth to Jared’s. They make out for a good half hour, hands running all over each other, indulgent and eager with their newfound freedom. Jensen tenders Jared’s bottom lip in his mouth, sucking at the broken skin, silently apologizing for it.

“Bobby Joe told me Asheville’s real cool. That, um. That they have a ton of gay people and nobody even looks twice when two guys walk down the street holding hands.” Jared’s blushing a little as he gives his little speech, and he glances up to find Jensen smiling at him in what can only be called adoration.

“That sounds perfect.” Jensen looks drunk, like nothing could be better than this, than them full on cheap fast food, melting in the July heat in the back of Jared’s rusty old truck, headed away from Calvary. Jared grins and they meet in the middle for another kiss, and then another.

“We should go,” Jared mumbles against Jensen’s mouth, a little apologetic and a lot hesitant to break this up. “It’s about two hours to Asheville. And you can sleep on the way.”

Jensen shakes his head, sneaking in one more kiss before he sits up. “I don’t wanna miss a second of this.”

They close the bags of food up tight and climb back into the cabin of the truck, Jensen stretched out long across the bench with his head pillowed in Jared’s lap, his bare feet hanging out the open window. Their clasped hands rest on Jensen’s chest and they ramble back onto the highway, traffic more sparse now in the middle of the day.

It’s the hottest part of the day in the middle of summer with not a single cloud to be seen. The sun spreads out over the windshield and seeps in under the glass, warming even the tiny hairs on his fingers and the quiet boy curled up against him.

Jared looks down, taking a split-second but clinically accurate inventory of Jensen’s injuries and cataloging it away with every other aftermath of a beating that he’s witnessed over the years.

He’s terrified. He’s terrified that they’re going to get caught, get found. Get dragged back to Cavalry. That Jensen will be locked up in that house until he stops fighting, until there’s nothing left in him to fight with. He’s terrified that Aunt Kelly won’t really want them to stay, that he’ll run out of money. He’s scared that maybe he won’t graduate. That Jensen won’t. That Jensen will change his mind in the middle of the night and leave, run away back home, back to the only thing he’s ever really known.

“What’re you thinkin’bout?”

Jared blinks back into reality and casts his eyes down to meet Jensen’s there in his lap. The bright of the sun is spread gold and forever across his face, absolutely lighting him up, every shade of green in his eyes and every variation of purple-black and red on his beautiful face. Jared can’t help but smile as he looks back up at the road.

“Your ass.”

He tenses for the slap that Jensen gives him on the side of his thigh, but it’s gentle and partnered with a pretty flush of Jensen’s already warm cheeks.

“Ha-ha. Seriously, Jay. I know that look. Talk to me?”

Jared dares another glance down and meets Jensen’s eyes again and somehow, every single worry on his mental list just washes away, easy as you please. Because Jensen’s safe. And it really is just that simple. Every single step he took to make sure they got here, to make sure he got Jensen here, every single second of it was worth it.

“Nothin’, Jen. Promise. Just wanna make you happy.”

He starts at Jensen’s forehead and strokes up over that sun-warmed skin and into his hair, pushing it back in slow, tender drags until Jensen relaxes against him.

“Always made me happy,” Jensen sighs, his eyelashes dragging against the soft inside of Jared’s wrist as Jensen’s eyes fall closed. Jared chews on his grin until he tastes the sweet metallic tang of blood on his tongue and he sinks back against the rickety bench seat, letting his eyes rest on the horizon, even his bones focused on going west, on going away.

 

They’re quiet, the radio on the country station low under the rush of the wind. After about an hour, after they’ve stopped and gotten more gas and gotten back out onto the road again, Jensen’s voice breaks the silence.

“I thought he was finally gonna kill me. He’s never done what he did yesterday. That night. He. He really could’ve killed me. I don’t know what stopped him. Why he didn’t.” He reaches up to touch his neck, tracing over the bruised remains of handprints there, his eyes closed. Jared looks down at him, the threat of tears hovering behind his eyes. He rubs Jensen’s chest in slow circles, soothing the tension still pent up there. He stays quiet, lets Jensen think, lets him get this out. Because he knows him, knows there’s still more.

“I just thought about you, Jay. Just thought about the day we had. How it felt when you finally kissed me. After all the years I’ve dreamed about you doin’ just that. Thought about the way you always touch me, even when you was datin’ Diana. Thought about your hands and how good they always felt, even when you was touchin’ me and I just hurt all over, hurt so bad. It always felt good when it was you.

“And I just. I just knew I couldn’t let myself die, because I just now got you. Because you just finally looked at me like I always wanted you to and there’s so much we ain’t done yet. So many things I want to do and things I need to say to you. Like. Like how I love you back. How I always loved you back. Loved you more than anybody else in the whole world.”

Tears slip down Jared’s cheeks unnoticed and he hates how much he cries around Jensen, because of Jensen. He always has, and nobody else ever sees it. Always talks about what a tough boy he is, how strong. He’s raw inside for Jensen, always too tender when it comes to him. He pulls Jensen’s hand up to his mouth and presses a dozen kisses to it, on his fingers and his palm and his knuckles and all over the back and down to his skinny-boy wrist. He nuzzles it with his face and Jensen’s spreads his fingers out and runs them over Jared’s now-scratchy cheeks, over his kissing lips until they both calm down, until all the words spend out between them through their skin.

An empty church parking lot reveals itself seemingly out of nowhere to Jared’s right, surrounded by nothing but trees. He licks his lips as he flips on his signal and eases off the highway, his cheeks pinking a little but he doesn’t look at Jensen, doesn’t meet those eyes that are big with questions and staring straight at him.

When he kills the engine it seems like the entire world falls quiet, settles around them like blankets. Jared closes his eyes for a single second, just long enough to take a breath before he turns to Jensen, all of his movements slow and deliberate and so careful (he learned too long ago how careful to be with him) as he cups Jensen’s cheeks and melts their mouths together.

Jensen grapples for him then, fluttering fingers finding Jared’s shirt to twist and hold onto as he submits, parts his lips for Jared’s tongue and spreads his legs for the rest of him.

Jared’s hand tumbles through blond and gold and honey to find the back of Jensen’s head so he can cradle it as he turns them completely, lowering Jensen down to spread him out on the seat. He pulls back and braces himself up over Jensen to look down at him, to take in the sight of his hard nipples under second-hand cotton, his eyelashes dancing in soft falls as he looks right back at Jared.

He spreads one of his hands over Jensen’s stomach as he shifts lower, his butt hitting the driver’s side door just as his fingers span Jensen’s little belly. Jensen’s breath is hot and low and loud in the air around them and Jared curls his fingers to catch the shirt up in them, to pull it up and away and reveal the pale gold expanse of skin, the little secret hiding place of Jensen’s belly button.

A car ambles by down the road the second Jared slides his hands down to Jensen’s waist, when he pulls him up into a gentle arch to offer Jensen’s body up to himself. He kisses his belly tongue-first, lips coming down as almost an afterthought to suck a line of kisses from ribs to navel.

Jensen’s dick is straining against his jeans, pushing up desperate and instinctively needing Jared’s mouth. He runs his thumbs up along entire side of his belly button as he slips his tongue down inside of it, licking around until he knows how he tastes there, too.

“Can I have you later?” His voice is a hush over skin, thumbs spreading and rubbing over the knots of Jensen’s hipbones on his skinny waist. Jensen arches up even more, his ass coming up off the seat and Jared rains worship down on him, licking and kissing his stomach until it’s shining wet with his spit. “Really have you? Take my time with you? Please, Jen?”

Jensen is swallowing hard over and over again, his eyes squeezed shut tight but his mouth is parted and an illegal shade of pink that matches his cheeks, that matches the color now working its way down his body until he’s blushing practically everywhere. He nods though, fast and frantic and he drops his hands into the wilds of Jared’s hair, holding on as tight as he’ll let himself.

Jared smiles, pressing one last kiss to Jensen’s stomach before his fingers close in on the button of his jeans, flipping it open in under a second before he’s working the well-worn zipper down just enough so the jeans are loose on those little hips and ready to come off.

He smoothes them down right along with Jensen’s briefs, hands running hungry over the tight swell of his ass. Jensen’s dick falls heavy against his belly, completely hard and the tip that same hungry pink as his mouth. His shirt is tugged up just enough to show off one hard little nipple, and Jared runs his hand up Jensen’s body to pull and rub at it, just wanting to feel him arch up even higher.

“Jesus, Jen, look at you,” he whispers, eyes running everywhere, caught up in a sensory overload, from the pink-green-gold of Jensen’s body to the earth and salt smell of him to the rose-petal soft of his skin to the sweet rosary of sounds leaving his mouth.

He curls down then and wraps his lips around just the head of Jensen’s dick, his mouth flooding with saliva. Jensen gasps so hard it makes them both jump, his hands tightening in a painful clutch at Jared’s hair.

“Jay! JayJayJayJay.” Jensen’s mindless now, babbling with all the breath left in him, the whites of his eyes peeking through under a rush of lashes. Jared moans for it, for how beautiful Jensen is just like this, for how good his unwashed, virgin dick tastes, for how much this feels like everything he’s ever wanted.

He takes more dick into his mouth, trying to remember everything important: a lot of spit and no teeth and just breathe, those same words he’d recited to Diana what seems like years ago now. Jensen is petting him now, little whimpers leaving his mouth every time he lifts his hips to rut at Jared’s mouth. Jared touches him right back, runs soothing fingers over Jensen’s stomach and harder over his nipples while Jensen fucks his mouth, the movements shallow and stuttering, the hard ridge of Jensen’s dick catching on his lips every pull out.

Jared runs a hand down past his dick, rubbing at his balls but not wasting any time to get to what he really wants. His forefinger is dry and calloused and stained with grease but Jensen cries out when it rubs over his asshole for the first time, when it bumps over all the tight, tiny wrinkles there.

“Jay,” Jensen gasps, his voice wrecked and stuttering as he pulls pleadingly on Jared’s hair. “D-do it. Please, just a little bit. Just gimme a little bit. Please.

Jared is breathing hard all over the light brown nest of hair around Jensen’s dick, throat working to swallow the gush of slick Jensen just squeezed out over his tongue. Spit is dripping out of his mouth and all over Jensen’s balls, and Jared runs his finger through it, getting it just wet enough that he knows he won’t hurt Jensen.

The first little push in is harder than he expects, Jensen tighter than he could have ever, ever imagined. He rubs his thumb around the rim, trying to relax it looser, his mind spinning with all the things he’s trying to do here.

“Just a little more, Jay, just a little more. God, I’m. I’m.”

Jared whines in the back of his throat as he gives another push, his finger slipping inside of Jensen to the second knuckle. He shoves his hips down hard against the seat, thrusting down hard because he can imagine how that would feel around his dick, how fucking good Jensen would feel.

Jensen wraps a hand around the base of his dick, the part that Jared’s mouth isn’t talented enough yet to take and he jacks himself hard, desperate, still thrusting up into Jared’s mouth. Jared just lets him, just forces his eyes to stay open so he can watch Jensen as he starts to shake apart, as he starts to pump his dick and spill hot into Jared’s mouth.

He wiggles his finger inside of Jensen, fucks him with it as much as he’ll let himself, pushing it in all the way as Jensen contracts around him, milking at him as much as he can, little hole clutching, greedy.

Jared swallows over and over, finally moving his mouth again when he stops focusing on Jensen’s tempting little asshole, drawing out the harsh, sobbing pleas that Jensen just can’t seem to stop making. He pulls off only when Jensen makes him, when he pushes at Jared’s head with a whine and tries to shyly twist his hips away.

Jared licks his puffy lips as he examines the mess he’s made of Jensen, eyes zeroing in on his still-twitching hole. He leans down then, trying to push Jensen’s legs apart as wide as he can while he’s still got his jeans around his knees so he can lick out and taste him, prodding curiously with the tip of his tongue.

Jensen gasps, sounding almost surprised before it settles into a breathless, tired little laugh.

“Guess I know what you want,” he murmurs, a heavy hand petting through Jared’s hair as he tries to give him more room, letting Jared get as much of a taste as he wants.

“Later.” It’s barely a grunt, for him more than Jensen but it’s a promise. He presses in tighter between Jensen’s trapped thighs so he can get his lips around that hole, getting in one good, sloppy kiss and a hard suck before he pulls back, sitting up on his haunches and panting down at Jensen spread out below him.

“Let me make it better.” Jensen’s hands are working at Jared’s pants, drawing attention to the fact that Jared is so hard that it brings tears to his eyes the second he feels the firm press of Jensen’s fingers. He just watches as Jensen gets his pants open and pulls them down, watches his face with a dark, lustful pride as Jensen takes in the sight of Jared’s dick that’s so hard it’s dripping, swaying heavy and tipped toward Jensen’s hovering hand.

“Gonna have to work to get that in me,” Jensen says, his voice so soft that Jared barely hears him over the sound of his own panting but he growls when he does, his hand moving back between Jensen’s still spread legs, fingers moving right up against his ass again.

Jensen spits in his hand as quiet and inconspicuous as he can and wraps it around Jared’s dick, giving him one good stroke down and he actually smiles when Jared thrusts his hips into that grip.

“Can I,” Jared gasps, his dick so hard he’s seeing spots in his vision and he knows that it’s going to be an embarrassingly short amount of time before he comes all over Jensen’s pretty face. “Can I finger you while you. Y-you do this?”

Jensen answers by blushing even more, shifting around on the seat to make his jeans slide down to his ankles. Jared kneads at the inside of one of his thighs before he wets his fingers in his mouth, pressing against Jensen’s asshole with his middle and ring fingers just as Jensen strains up to get both fists around Jared’s dick.

Jared moans, low and rumbling in his chest as he lets his head fall back, hips straining forward as he starts to fuck Jensen’s hands like he means it, balls slapping against his wrist, everything about his grip perfect, so fucking good.

He tips his fingers forward and nudges at that hole with both of them, pushing and pushing and not stopping until it just gives, petals open around the tips of them and lets them into the painfully tight clutch of heat Jensen keeps inside of him.

Jensen whines, pushing down onto those fingers until they both slip down to the second knuckle.

“Fuck yeah, Jen. Ohmygod.” Jared curls down then, opening his eyes just enough to find Jensen’s mouth so he can kiss him, so he can thrust into that mouth just like he’s fucking his ass and his hands. “Gonna come. I can’t wait any more. I need to.”

He stops kissing him then, their lips just rubbing together as he humps at Jensen’s fists, fucking at them hard as he starts to come, shooting thick and hot all over Jensen’s stomach. He fucks Jensen with his fingers, digs in as deep as he can get until it feels like he’s buried inside of him and nothing has ever felt this good, nothing at all.

He collapses back in his seat, fingers still lodged obsessively inside of Jensen’s ass, his head spinning as he tries to breathe normally. When he comes to again, Jensen is already wiping up the come all over himself with the napkins from Central Park. Jared cracks an eye open and Jensen looks up at him, grinning even as his cheeks flood red.

“Jay, um. Can you get your fingers out of me? I, um. I just feel. I just want my pants back up.” Jensen is busying himself with wadding up the napkins, with looking anywhere but at Jared as he talks. Jared grins lazily and thrusts into Jensen again, apparently hitting something good inside of him because Jensen’s eyes fly open wide, dragging a hot gasp from his lungs.

“Sorry. New obsession.” He gives him one last rub inside, one last little push before he pulls his fingers out, watching with relish as Jensen tries to pull himself together and get his pants back together. Jensen fixes Jared’s pants next, leaning over to press a warm, sweet kiss to Jared’s mouth as he does up the button again.

“I’m obsessed with you being in there, too.” Jensen smiles against his lips, pressing their foreheads together for just a second before he’s back in his seat, the smile never once leaving his face. Jared can’t help that he’s grinning like an absolute fool as he gets the truck started up again and gets back out onto the highway.

 

Jensen does fall asleep, finally, just as Jared starts through the Smoky Mountains, his arms wrapped around Jared’s right arm, cheek resting in the ditch inside of Jared’s elbow. His arm falls asleep eventually but he doesn’t dare move it, doesn’t want to wake Jensen for anything in the world.

He gets lost in Asheville and has to stop at a gas station to ask for directions. He climbs back in the car, armed with more specific directions to Sawyer Street and an ice-cold bottle of Sundrop for Jensen, the sun still blazing bright above. Jensen looks sleep-soft and groggy, and Jared grins as he leans over to kiss him before handing him the Sundrop.

“Almost there. How you feelin’?”

Jensen grunts and lifts the bottle to his mouth, drinking down a couple of gulps. He hums, sounding a little bit happier, even managing a smile aimed right at Jared’s heart. Jared goes back to see what Jensen tastes like when he’s had pop before he starts up the truck again and eases back out onto the road.

They pull into the driveway not even ten minutes later, pulling in right beside an Accord that’s only a couple years old. The house is small but well-kept, a pretty garden bubbling over with flowers of all kinds of colors, a big old dog hanging out on the front porch when they make it up there, armed with their bags and looking like the runaways they are.

Jared rings the doorbell and listens to its muffled song inside the house. The lock turns inside a few seconds later, and the dog jumps up, seizing the opportunity to go inside an air-conditioned house away from the July heat.

Aunt Kelly smiles out at them as she opens the storm door for them to come inside, and she gasps when she sees Jared’s face.

“That sonuvabitch.” She reaches up and cups Jared’s face without even a hello and he stands still and lets her, head turning this way and that as she examines him with a scowl. “Oh, I’m gonna kill that motherfucker. You just wait until--”

She gasps when she sees Jensen, letting go of Jared like he’s an afterthought. She walks over to him slowly, her hands up to her mouth as she stares at him.

Jensen ducks his head, shoulders pulling in. He clutches his bags in his fists, his voice a quiet mumble. “I’m okay, Aunt Kelly. It’s okay.”

“Sweet boy. Ohmygod. Jared.” She turns to Jared like he can give her some answers, like there’s an explanation for this besides the fact that Jensen’s daddy is a horror of a father, besides the fact that sometimes life is just like this, and Jensen’s life has always just been like this.

“I know,” Jared whispers, his tired eyes burning again with tears but he refuses them this time. He drops his bag and goes to Jensen, wrapping an arm around him just as Aunt Kelly steps in and kisses Jensen’s forehead, the movement of both of them at once making Jensen jump before he relaxes between them.

“It’s alright. You’re safe now. You hear me? That bastard ain’t gonna touch you again. I’ve got a shotgun in my bedroom, and I’m a perfect shot. And Carol works at the courthouse. She knows all kinds of lawyers, if we need ‘em, Jen. So don’t you worry about a thing.” Aunt Kelly shakes her head, her curls moving with her, the wrinkles around her eyes deepening before she sighs.

“Thank you, m’am. I-I mean, Aunt Kelly. Thank you.” Jensen honestly looks relieved, looks even more tired by the minute, the weight of the day crashing down heavy on his shoulders.

“I’m sorry, baby. Lord, I bet you both are exhausted. Listen, go take a shower, you two. Afterwards, I’m gonna take pictures of both of you, head to toe. Especially you, Jen. You never know when you’re gonna need evidence. Jared, y’all’s room is the first one upstairs. Why don’t you take your bags up there, and I’ll show Jensen where the shower is?”

They all head up the stairs, and Jared steps into the bedroom while Jen and Kelly keep going down the hall, toward the bathroom. The room is simple, a full-sized bed covered in Mamaw’s old quilts and the white curtains pushed back to let the sun in and giving a view of the little backyard and the mountains beyond.

He remembers with a start their little shed behind his house, all of the things they left inside of it, lost forever. Their blankets and his CDs and their comic books, gone. Their haven just lost. He drops the bags and sits down on the bed to bring his hands up to his face, fingers pushing in hard against his eyes. He should have remembered. Should have thought of it. Now it’s gone.

“Jay, honey?” Aunt Kelly knocks on the open door before she steps in and makes her way over to him. She sits down next to him on the bed and falls quiet, lets him pull himself together. He looks up at her finally and she gives him a sad smile, her arm falling around his shoulders. “You two have had a long day, huh?”

“Long life,” he mumbles, rubbing at his eyes over and over as she rubs his shoulder, his tense neck. He sniffles and grits his teeth for how young he sounds. “This has been happening since we were little.”

She goes stiff beside him, her hand pausing for a second before starting up again. “How long has he been beating Jensen?”

“For as long as I known him. Jen said he remembers his daddy smackin’ him when he spilled his baby food in his high chair. Since he was little.”

“Sweet boys. God, I’m just.” She shakes her head and Jared closes her eyes when he feels her kiss the side of his head. “Nevermind. Just nevermind. There’s plenty of time to talk about this. Look, let me get some pictures of your face before he gets out of the shower. I’ll take some of him when he gets out.”

Jared lets her position him in the light of the room and closes his eyes when she takes the first few pictures on her digital camera. She makes him open his eyes and look right at the camera when she takes a couple more and he glares at it, glares right at Jacob Ackles, defiant and tiredly victorious. A big ol’ fuck you because they got away. He got Jensen away.

There’s the soft sound of a throat being cleared from the door, and they both look over to see Jensen standing there, a towel wrapped around him like a girl does, his hair dripping wet and plastered to his forehead, leaving him looking small and cold and lost.

Jared jumps up and goes to Jensen’s bag, pulling out a pair of underwear for him and turning his back with Aunt Kelly to let him change into them.

“I’m gonna jump in next. Aunt Kelly’s gonna--”

Jensen’s hand wraps around Jared’s wrist and he stops talking and looks over at him, blinking at the plea in those eyes.

“Just. Can you be in here, please? While. While she.” He looks down, probably ashamed for being so needy but Jared just nods, pulling out all of his courage as he dips down to kiss Jensen on the cheek. He glances over to see if Aunt Kelly is angry about it but she’s just watching them, tears bright in her eyes, a sad smile on her lips.

“I’ll be fast, Jensen. Then you two can relax while I make dinner, okay?”

Jensen nods and takes a deep breath, stepping away from Jared and standing on his own in the middle of the room, his arms at his sides, shoulders drawn in still.

Aunt Kelly just starts, taking photo after photo of the assault to Jensen’s body: both black eyes, the gash on his forehead, his busted, tender mouth, the too-big handprints on his neck, the horrifying sprawl of bruises on his chest and arms and back, some of them from fists, some from boots. The angry oven-eye burn on his arm, his crookedly-healed fingers, the slight misshape of his badly-healed collarbone. The history of Jensen’s life told in scars and bones and blood and skin, in the dull green of his eyes, in the apologetic, downward tip of his head.

She turns the camera off when it's all catalogued and she steps back, looking a little lost when she does.

“Y’all can do whatever you want before dinner. We got a hammock in the backyard between those two big oaks that’s perfect for naps. Do y’all like fried chicken?”

Jared breaks some of the tension by laughing, shuffling across the wood floor to wrap his arms around Kelly’s neck. “We’re teenagers. I promise if you ask us if we eat something, the answers’ gonna be ‘yes.’ And lots of it.”

She swats at Jared’s butt as she laughs, shaking her head when she meets his eyes. “Alright, smartass. Go take a shower. You smell like a teenager, too.”

She leaves with that, turning around in the doorway to look at them. “And boys? This is your home, too, you hear me? You do what you want, you help clean, you eat what you want. And just keep it down in here. I don’t care what you do, I just don’t wanna hear it. Got it?”

“Yes’m,” they both mumble, Jared grinning and Jensen blushing up a storm. She winks at them and pulls the door closed behind them, leaving them alone.

“I’m sorry, Jen, but I just.” He turns to him and wraps his arms around him as soon as the door clicks shut, pulling him in tight, his mouth pressed to Jensen’s temple. “God. I’ve just been needin’ to do this for two days.”

Jensen doesn’t say anything back, just wraps his arms around Jared’s waist and holds on, hides against his neck like he always does. They sway there for a long time, in the middle of the bedroom on Jared’s birthday, hundreds of miles from home. But this will be home soon. Jared can feel it.

He lets go just enough to kiss Jensen, just a soft, calming kiss to the pillow of his mouth and he has to pull back because he knows if he doesn’t that he’s just gonna guide Jensen over to the bed and take advantage of the fact that Jensen is safe and mostly naked.

“Gonna go shower. See you in a minute.”

Jensen nods and meets his eyes with a tiny smile, only letting go of Jared when Jared pulls away.

His shower takes a little longer than they usually do because the hot water feels so good on his back, on his shoulders, beating down on top of his head. He scrubs the grime of driving and summertime off his skin and rubs good-smelling shampoo into his hair until it squeaks clean. He brushes his teeth in the shower with the new toothbrush Aunt Kelly had waiting on the sink for him, and he’s so full of love and gratitude by the time that he gets out that he’s gonna cry again. Damnit.

Jensen’s not in the room when he goes back in, so he dresses quick and unpacks their bags, tucking their clothes away in two drawers and shoving the books onto the little bookcase under the window. He sets their pictures up on the dresser, lining them up beside each other carefully. He pulls a pair of socks over his chilly feet and skids gleefully to the door and down the hall.

He’s smiling by the time he jogs down the stairs, an eyebrow raising when he see Aunt Kelly at the counter, beating eggs in a bowl and Jensen sitting on the floor next to the kitchen table, scratching the neck of Aunt Kelly’s dog. He’s got a big Band-Aid on his forehead over the cut there and a bandage over the burn on his arm.

Their eyes meet the second Jensen looks up at him and Jared can’t help but grin. He crosses the room and crouches down next to him, rubbing at one of the dog’s ears.

“She said his name is Macgyver,” Jensen explains, laughing a little when the dog lifts his head at the sound of his name. “They named him that because he was real creative with the ways he managed to always get in the trash can when he was a puppy. Right, Aunt Kelly?”

“Jesus Christ, that dog.” Kelly drops a fork in the sink and turns to grin at them, giving a playful roll of her eyes. “He’ll love havin’ you two around. Don’t blame me when he comes to sleep in your room.”

Jared and Jensen look up at each other at the same time, both of them realizing at the same time that they have a room now, that they have a bed. Jensen’s cheeks pink a little before he looks away and Jared wants to growl with how fucking beautiful he is.

“We’re gonna go find that hammock, I think,” Jared announces, pushing up to his feet again. He reaches down to help Jensen up, letting their fingers lace together.

“Just go out that door there,” she nods over to the sliding glass door that leads out to the backyard as she sprinkles flour on Saran wrap on the counter. “I’ll come find you when dinner’s ready. Oh, Jensen, grab those root beers!”

Jensen gathers the two bottles of root beer waiting for them on the counter and they head outside, the sun mostly obscured by the trees growing up wild and giant in the backyard. They cross the yard to the two big trees growing close together with a pink hammock set up between them with a purple blanket tossed on it.

Jared climbs in first, keeping one socked foot on the grass to keep it steady while Jensen climbs in after him, the root beers held tight against his chest while they settle in. They both take big drinks and set the bottles on the grass beneath them. Jared burps, loud and annoying and Jensen elbows him a little when they curl up together.

Jensen rests back against Jared’s chest, the hammock cradling them and keeping them close together. Jared spreads the blanket out over Jensen a little before he wraps an arm around Jensen’s warm body, their hands finding each other again on Jensen’s chest.

They sigh in tandem and let their eyes fall closed, a lazy breeze rushing through the yard, stirring up the trees and dancing right over their tired bodies.

“Can life really be like this?” Jensen sounds like he’s half-asleep already, his voice drowsy and soft. Jared runs his thumb over Jensen’s palm, leaving the ghost of his fingerprints over Jensen’s lifeline as he opens his eyes to gaze out over the expanse of the yard.

Jared doesn’t respond, doesn’t even know how to answer. The answer is yes, because they want it bad enough. Because they’ve earned it. Because Jensen’s paid for it in blood over too many years. It’s their turn.