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The Life and Times of Lois Lane

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For richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.

Whoever originally wrote those vows obviously never married a superhero. Same goes for people who claim their detergent can get out any stain or that their electronics are virtually indestructible. Jared destroyed three remotes during the Spurs' last losing streak.

All sorts of people have their marital problems, and Jensen's not trying to diminish them or anything, but there are some issues normal marriages just don’t have to deal with. Normal couples probably don't have to incorporate Kevlar and steel plating into their monthly budget, or have job placement agencies on speed dial for when a certain someone gets fired yet again for constantly leaving work unexpectedly.

Normal husbands do not have to watch their spouse remove his wedding band every time he suits up for work.

So yeah, those vows are great and meaningful, but Jensen's pretty sure they should be adjusted when the man you are marrying is also known as Samson.

*****

Jensen finishes off the last dregs of his beer and looks at his cell phone's clock yet again — forty five minutes after Jared promised he would be here. Happy hour is winding down, people are moving on and out the door as the day's deals expire, and Jensen has yet to even receive a damn text message.

"Don't tell me Jared's not coming," Chris says as he drops another round of longnecks on the table. "We haven't seen that boy in weeks. Tonight's supposed to be y'all's party night. One last bash before you're too good to hang out with us peons anymore."

Jensen snatches up one of the bottles and takes a long pull, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand when he’s done. "He said he'd be here. They may have given him a last-minute delivery to handle." He looks at his phone again. Forty six minutes and still counting.

"Maybe he's caught in that mess," Steve says, pointing at one of the bar's TV sets. Jensen looks at the report of EIGHT CAR PILE-UP ON CAMPBELL BRIDGE and sees a certain figure weaving through the wreckage, making his way to a flipped sedan. The figure is familiar, tall and muscular in fitted clothing. Over a gray jumpsuit that covers his entire body from head to toe, face included, the man also wears a layer of thick metal plating that rests in place like football padding, though judging by the agility with which he slaloms through the vehicles, one might think the plating was plastic and weightless.

Nearly the whole bar erupts in cheers as they watch the man rip off the car's door and lift two children from the backseat, and as several people toast to the masked man on the television screen, Jensen shoves his phone into his pocket and chugs the rest of his beer.

Jared is definitely going to be late.

*****

THEN

There are days when Jensen wishes he had left things well enough alone on the playground all those years ago. He usually ends up berating himself for it later, but he’s always so angry when they are fighting about money or work or the week-long absences Jared takes sometimes when they need his help after some disaster. Jensen cannot help but think about how life would be different if he had not come to the rescue of that poor kid whose mother had reluctantly brought him to the playground with the strict and pleading instructions of "no fighting."

Jared didn't fight that day, but Jensen did, taking on a bully who had been kicking sand in Jared's face and pulling his hair every time Jared's mother looked away. Jensen got a split lip for his trouble, but Jared had thanked him with a wide, gap-toothed grin and brought him a candy bar the next day.

Jared had followed him everywhere after that, from around the block to across the state when it came time for college. And Jensen was more than happy to let him.

Even so early in what would become a lasting friendship, Jensen had known there was something slightly off about Jared, if only by the way his parents acted around him. His mother never let him out of her sight, would not even let him go to school with the other kids, and when Jensen came over to play, she almost always insisted they only sit and watch TV with absolutely no rough-housing allowed. Jared's father wasn’t around very much, but when he was, he never said much to Jared and he kept sending untrusting looks at Jared's mother. Then there were the constant doctor's appointments, the fluctuating medications, and the weights Jared had to always wear under his clothes… it didn’t take much for Jensen's brain to decide Jared was sick.

Jared's mother had laughed herself to tears when Jensen had gathered enough courage to ask her about it. "If only, sweetie. If only."

*****

NOW

Jensen opts to walk home from the bar instead of grabbing a cab, claiming to need the air but really just wanting to delay his return a little bit longer. He can see their lights are on when he gets within view of their apartment building, and he steels himself in the elevator on the ride up.

He takes a moment to relish the lives that go on around them. The Ford's teenage son is playing his music way too loud again, and Jensen can hear it through the walls as he walks by. Misha's propping open his door with some sort of small foreign idol, and he has a countless number of plastic shopping bags draped along his right arm as he juggles his keys in his free hand, something equally foreign and oddly flat balanced on his head. The good-looking (albeit overly bearded for Jensen's taste) man who keeps visiting Ms. Ferris is just now leaving, and he and Jensen nod at each other in passing.

All of these people, with their normal, happy lives. Makes Jensen sick sometimes, and so fucking jealous.

He is at his own door before he really wants to be, and he takes a deep, fortifying breath before reaching for the knob.

The door is unlocked already, and Jensen opens it in time to see Jared slipping on his coat, his key ring clenched between his teeth. Jared whips around surprised when he hears the door, causing the keys to jangle, and Jensen is hit with the image of a puppy with a chew toy. Then, something closes in Jared's expression and all of Jensen’s anger and hurt comes rushing back.

Jared spits the keys out into his hand. "Jesus, Jensen, where have you been? I was about to come looking for you."

Jensen does not answer at first, only shrugs his own jacket off and throws it over the back of the sofa. He adjusts his sleeves, smoothes the front of his shirt, and then meets Jared's eyes dead on. "The gang says hi, and they're really sorry you got caught in that traffic jam on the bridge and missed the celebration party."

Jared has always blushed when he's been caught out, and this time is no different. "Oh shit, I knew I was forgetting… I'm sorry, but... Damn it, Jensen, the scanner reported some of the victims were critical."

"How many?" Jensen asks.

"Three," Jared answers. He’s pulling his coat off again, always so very careful when they get like this. They can't afford to replace yet another leather jacket that has once again been torn apart at the seams. "Twelve total once I got the cars separated."

"Twelve people saved." Jensen smiles, and he can tell it probably looks as fake as it feels. "That's what matters, I guess." He walks to the bedroom and shuts the door behind him, peeling off his clothes on the way to their bed. It's still way too early, just now dark, but he pulls the sheets over his head anyway.

It is fully night when Jensen wakes to the bed shifting behind him, but he doesn’t move, just keeps his face to the wall. He feels a light touch against his shoulder, but he doesn’t flinch, doesn't show any sign that he is awake or might wake soon. Jared sighs behind him, a soft, disappointed noise, and Jensen feels Jared settle on his own side of the bed, on his back with his shoulder brushing against Jensen, like nothing is the matter.

You could have thrown that bully clear across the park, Jensen thinks, and he spends the next two hours listening to Jared not sleeping.

*****

THEN

When Jensen was in fifth grade, Jared saved his life. It was the first time out of several, but definitely the most important.

It started innocently enough. They were being typical kids, getting into things they shouldn’t — namely, exploring a fenced-off lot on the edge of their neighborhood. Both Jensen and Jared's parents had said to stay out of there, but it wasn't entirely Jensen's fault that his favorite football had gone over the fence. His dad had yelled at him earlier that week about how important it was to take care of his things, so he wasn’t going to just forget about it. And Jared had to come with him, because Jensen was older and it was his responsibility to look after Jared. Couldn't do that if Jared was on the other side of the fence, now could he?

As he had expected, the lot was full of cool things; in fact, it was practically a kids' wonderland. Not two minutes into their exploration, Jared found a lost Frisbee to take home, and Jensen was trying to think of ways to sneak numerous rolls of construction tape into his room without his mom noticing.

Then Jensen must have pulled the wrong rope, because suddenly a lot of stacked pipes came loose and rolled down onto him.

He found out later that it was nearly a half-ton of steel that crashed onto him, but at the time he didn't care because all he knew was that it hurt. He cried and he couldn't move because his leg was stuck and he yelled to Jared to go get help. He didn’t even care they were going to be in so much trouble when their parents found out. Jensen just wanted help, someone who would make the pain stop.

Jared didn’t move at first, just bit his nails as he stared at the weighty pipes pinning Jensen to the ground, stared at Jensen crying and hurt.

When he finally did move, instead of running for help like Jensen expected, he removed the velcroed weights from his wrists. Then, slowly and very hesitantly, he wrapped his arms around five of the pipes, lifted them from the stack and carried them a few feet away, dropping them to the dust with a clang. Jensen could only watch, sight slightly blurred by pain, as Jared made a few more trips until all of the pipes were gone. Jared knelt beside him, white as a sheet and trembling, and in a tiny voice said, "Please don't tell Mama I did that."

Jensen wouldn’t have said anything, was trying to push past his pain and confusion to come up with an excuse for what happened, but Jared pretty much gave them away when Jared’s mother came looking for them. They were trying to find a way to get Jensen back over the fence with his hurt leg when her face popped into view. She took one look at the two of them, the scattered pipes, and Jared's flushed and guilty expression, and she sighed in resignation, cursing under her breath.

Turned out Jared's mother was pretty good at making up excuses, and for all Jensen's parents knew, he broke his leg by falling from the lot's fence while climbing it. Jensen ended up in a cast for almost two months, Jared was grounded for just as long, and Jensen suddenly had a new secret to keep.

*****

NOW

Jared’s side of the bed is already cool by the time Jensen’s alarm goes off, and the apartment is quiet. He can smell coffee, though, so he groans as he rolls out of bed and staggers into the kitchen.

The percolator is full, and his favorite coffee mug is set beside it, along with the sugar bowl and a spoon. He moves to the fridge to grab the milk and finds a note pinned there by one of the cheap magnets they got with a credit card offer.

Had an early morning delivery. I’m sorry I missed everything last night. I am so proud of you. Let me know if you need help moving the heavy things around the new office. :)

Love you,
J
P.S. Don’t bother. We’re out of milk.

Jensen rolls his eyes but can’t help smiling just a little.

It is a rewind of last night’s stroll down the hallway as Jensen leaves. Good-looking Guy is back, slightly scruffier and carrying a couple of coffees and a bag of what might be bagels. He grunts as he and Jensen pass, and Jensen thinks it might mean "good morning." This time, Jensen can hear Mr. Ford yelling at his kid to turn down the stereo and get his ass into gear before he’s late for school, again. Misha's sitting cross-legged on the hood of his car in the parking lot, murmuring something about the gods of traffic jams being merciful today. Jensen does not want to know.

The first thing Jensen hears when he gets into his own car is a recap of last night’s daring bridge rescue, and the female deejay is once again speculating on Samson’s eligibility. “So if you’re listening, Tall, Dark and Iron-clad, call me.”

He’s more in the mood for the CD player anyway.

Jensen makes it to his office building and is fully parked before he remembers he got a new parking spot yesterday. It's closer to the door, but there is no shade in this area of the lot, so he can't tell if it is a winning situation yet. Looking in the rearview mirror, he makes sure his tie is straight and takes a deep breath. Then he grabs his briefcase and suit jacket and heads inside for a brand new day.

Danneel is waiting for him at his cubicle, and she has the biggest smile on her face. “There he is!” She starts clapping, and everyone in the surrounding area joins in, some of them cheering and whistling as well. He can feel the tips of his ears turning a little pink, but he raises his hand in an acknowledging wave, and everyone settles down after a bit. Danneel keeps smiling at him as he steps into his cube and finds stacked empty boxes resting on his floor.

“Thought I’d help,” she says when he lifts an eyebrow in her direction. “Even dressed for the occasion.” She lifts up her right foot, and Jensen realizes that instead of her normal, stylish four-inch stiletto heels, she is wearing a pair of slightly tattered sneakers.

“Jesus, Dany. It’s not like I’m moving apartments or something. It’s just from one office to another.”

“A corner office,” she stresses. “Quit acting like this isn’t a big deal, Jensen. They never, ever promote internally, and here you are, one of our very own, moving up the corporate ladder to department manager.” She sniffs, wipes away an imaginary tear. “I’m so proud.”

“Oh shut up.” He drops his briefcase into his chair, grabs one of the boxes and starts packing folders from the nearest file drawer. It shouldn’t take too long to collect all of his things, unless Danneel slows the process down. Which it looks like she’s going to.

“How about these? You taking your toys to your new office?” She points at the shelf above his desk, where a small collection of Samson action figures stand in various poses. The toys started showing up in stores shortly after Samson became a household name in this city, and Jensen couldn’t resist picking up a few. Jared had cracked up, mimicking the dramatic poses of the figures Jensen chose.

Right now, it would be so easy to just sweep his arm across the shelf, knocking them all into the trash bin.

But on the same shelf rests a framed copy of one of their wedding pictures, both of them laughing at each other. In the photo, Jared has a swipe of frosting across his cheek, and Jensen is ducking to avoid the hunk of cake Jared is aiming his way. It hadn’t been one of the planned shots they had discussed with their photographer, but it has always been Jensen’s favorite.

Jensen has always kept both sides of the man he loves right where he can see them.

“Yeah, they’re coming with me.”

*****

THEN

Jared was halfway across the field in no time, and Jensen had absolutely no chance of catching up with him. "Oh come on, Jared! You know we mere mortals can't run that fast."

Jared laughed, open and free. The field was a great find, far away from the rest of the neighborhood and hidden from all roads where someone might catch them. Jared loved coming out here once Jensen got home from school, and he never missed a chance to sprint the rest of the way to what they had dubbed their lucky spot, a low-cut tree stump where Jensen found a wind-swept twenty dollar bill the first time they went there.

"It's not my fault," Jared said, not even remotely out of breath. "You're just slow." He stuck his tongue out, the ultimate insult as far as an eight-year-old like him would know.

Jensen collapsed into the tall grass, panting as he gazed up at a cloudless blue sky. "Seriously, it's not fair. I'm bigger and older than you are, I should be able to run faster."

Jared took his seat on the stump, pulled up a handful of grass and let it loose into the wind, one blade at a time. "I asked my mama about it, you know. How come I can run faster and jump higher than everyone else I know."

"What'd she say?"

"She thinks it's the same reason I'm so strong. Something to do with my muscles being hyper or something like that. She used big words that I can't remember."

It made sense to Jensen. Based on what he had learned in science class, your muscles did everything for you, lifting, running, jumping. He didn’t know how them being hyper made Jared strong — usually when Jensen was hyper, his mom made him have a time-out, but he wasn't able to lift anything more than normal — but the adults knew more than he and Jared did, and if that was what Jared's mom said, then it must be true.

It didn't mean Jensen wasn’t going to sulk about it for a little while though. He still did not think it was fair, no matter how hyper Jared's muscles were.

*****

“My mama wants me to be normal.”

Jensen was in eighth grade, still hanging out with “that weird kid,” as Phillip in his class called Jared. Jared’s mom still wouldn’t let him go to a real school, not trusting him to keep his strength a secret, and she wouldn’t let him play with any of the other neighborhood kids, so Jensen tried to spend as much time with Jared as he could, uncaring about the age difference. That night, they were sleeping outside in Jared’s backyard, ignoring their tent in favor of staring up at the stars, and Jared just started talking.

“She says she loves me no matter what, but she gets so angry when I mess up. Papa too. I hear them sometimes, fighting when they think I’m asleep. Papa thinks that because I’m like this, I’m not actually his.”

Jensen didn’t know what to say to that. He knew things weren’t easy at his friend’s home, too much stress on all of the family members. Jared remained silent for a moment, then in a voice so quiet Jensen nearly missed it, he said, “I wish I could be normal for them.”

“Normal’s overrated,” Jensen said without thinking. Jared sighed, started to turn away, but Jensen stopped him by grabbing his arm. “Seriously. I mean, look at me. I can’t even do ten push-ups in gym class without falling flat on my face and having everyone laugh at me.”

“Wimp.” Jared was at least smiling a little, so Jensen carried on.

“I have a hard time opening jars sometimes, have to deal with my Dad opening them with that stupid ‘you loosened it for me’ joke. I’m going to have to go to school for a bazillion years in order to get a job when I grow up. You could stop now and still become, like, a superhero and earn billions of dollars and people would love you.” Jensen rolled onto his side, looked Jared right in the eyes. “Normal people can’t be superheroes.”

“Oh yeah? What about Batman?”

Jensen scoffed. “He’s not normal either. He has too much money to be considered normal.”

“True.” Jared went quiet again, but the frown was gone so Jensen relaxed. He rolled onto his back, tracked the lazy blinking lights of a plane flying overhead and listened to Jared breathe softly beside him.

“Alright, I don’t want to be normal anymore,” Jared said. “It’d be nice if my mama would let me go to school though.”

“Okay, wanting to go to school? That makes you a freak.” Jared slapped him on the arm, and it stung a lot, but Jensen smiled anyway.

*****

NOW

Jensen is just finishing carrying over the last of his boxes into his new office when his phone rings. The display says “front desk,” so he picks it up with as professional a “hello” as he can manage.

“Mr. Ackles,” and that’s new. The security team has always called him by his first name. Word travels way too fast around here. “You have a delivery at the front desk.”

“I’ll be right down,” he says and chooses to leave his jacket in his office to make sure the boys downstairs realize he prefers things a little informal. It is going to be too weird if Carl and Lenny, who he has known since day one, keep calling him Mr. Ackles.

*****

THEN

“What about Superman? You could be called Superman.”

Jared looked up from where he was lying on Jensen’s floor, reading the novel his mother gave him. “I can’t be Superman. It’s not like I can fly or have x-ray vision or enhanced hearing or —”

“Okay, okay. I get it. Ix-nay the Uperman-say.”

“Plus, his costume is stupid. Way too bright.”

“You like bright,” Jensen said, nudging his foot against Jared’s shoulder, clad in a light pink polo shirt.

“Exactly. I, personally, am known for bright. If I’m going for a secret identity here, I can’t wear the same things as I normally do.”

Jensen dropped the bright blue colored pencil in his hand back into his desktop tray and reached for the duller gray instead. He had finally gotten around to picking up one of the How to Draw books, superhero edition, and Jensen had a basic outline of a male figure all set and ready for details.

“Dark colors, got it. More Batman like?”

“Yeah, but not so gimmicky. And no yellow utility belt or anything stupid like that.”

“Picky, picky. You wanna take over and sketch this yourself?”

Jared smiled. “You know that I consider myself extremely lucky if my attempt at stick figures ends up being recognizable. I’ll let the professional handle it, thank you very much.”

“That’s what I thought.” Jensen started adding color to the figure, blocky swatches of dark gray that grew to encompass the whole illustration.

“And no gloves,” Jared added.

Jensen paused, just short of coloring in below the right wrist of his figure. “Why not?”

“What’s the point of being able to lift heavy things if I can’t get a good grip on them?”

“Point taken,” and Jensen cut the shading off at just above the hands. “You know that means you’d leave fingerprints behind though, right?”

“Yeah. But I guess it would be okay as long as I never got arrested or anything like that. They’d never have something to compare it to.”

“You’re so smart,” Jensen emphasized his drawl as he said it, and Jared jabbed him in the calf. It didn’t hurt as much as it used to; Jared was getting better at his control. “Okay, details. Should I add armor? Can you be stabbed or something?”

“I don’t know.”

“Don’t kno— Jared, this is kinda critical information.”

“No duh, genius. It’s just… I tried once. Took my dad’s pocket knife and stabbed my palm with it. It cut the skin but then the blade snapped in half. But I’ve also sliced my thumb open when cutting carrots for dinner. I think…I think it depends if I see it coming, if I can flex the muscles or something.”

Jensen blinked a couple times, taking in this information. It was hard to process; here he was, thinking Jared was strong enough that nothing could hurt him, and it turned out that he was vulnerable the whole time.

“Armor plating then, definitely.” Jensen added some strong lines here and there to the sketch, depicting shielding over the torso and limbs. “Think the whole flexing thing would work with a bullet too?”

“I think that's going to require finding out the hard way, and I’d rather not have to find out, thanks.”

A few more bolder lines, and the armor plates in the sketch were suddenly a little thicker. “There. Hey, what about Tank? Might be a decent name.” Jared gave him a skeptical look. “Okay, forget Tank. I don’t see you coming up with anything.”

“I’m the brawn in this friendship. I leave all the heavy thinking up to the brains.”

"I heard a decent word on my vocab test today. Thew. Means strength."

Jared laughed. “Okay, that’s too brainy.”

“What about Samson? You know, strong guy from the Bible.”

"Hmm. That's not bad." Jared rolled to his feet from his spot on the floor. “Hey, if my mom says it’s cool, you wanna run up to the mall? I have a crazy craving for mall court fries.”

“Of course,” Jensen said, distracted. He was contemplating the head of his figure. Did he want to go with the minimal eye mask, a full hood, or something in between like a cowl?

Jared moved behind him, stood and looked over Jensen’s shoulder. “That’s awesome. I’d definitely wear that.” He grinned, and Jensen decided. Definitely a full mask, because everyone would know that smile if they ever saw it.

*****

“Tell me a secret,” Jared said, lying in the grass.

“What?”

“Come on, Jen. You know everything about me. You’ve got to have one secret good enough that I can hold over you for the rest of our lives.”

After years of asking, Jared’s mom finally relented and let him attend a normal high school. He had entered as a freshman, but thanks to his mother’s home schooling, he’d actually been ahead in most classes. Jensen had found a local college to attend, stayed at home to keep an eye on Jared as he started this new aspect of his life. After the first couple of months, Jared got over his nervousness, and he became the class favorite, Mr. Popularity if Jared’s stories were to be believed. Not that Jensen questioned his honesty on it.

Now, in the beginning of Jared’s sophomore year, they were still as close as ever. That day, they were in Jared’s backyard, enjoying a beautiful afternoon. Jensen had about six hours worth of homework waiting for him in his room, but he couldn’t be bothered for the time being, content to stare up at the clouds while he tried to come up with an answer for Jared.

“I hate my mother’s vegetarian white lasagna.”

“Dude, I’ve known that for years. I mean a decent secret.”

Jensen glanced over to where Jared lay with one arm bent behind his head as a pillow. The kid had grown so much in a year, not only physically but emotionally too. Jensen had watched him come into his own, get past his initial shyness until everyone around him saw the Jared who Jensen had known his whole life, bright and friendly. At the same time, Jared was past his gawky pre-teen years, with his coltish limbs and breaking voice. It seemed like overnight, Jared had gone from being the lost, little kid who trailed after Jensen everywhere and became this…

Jared was growing up right, and Jensen was suddenly having a hard time dispelling the flutter in his stomach every time Jared shrugged off hanging with his school friends to spend a quiet afternoon lying in his backyard with Jensen. Or waved at Jensen from across the yard. Or just fucking smiled at Jensen, for that matter.

Yeah, he wasn’t telling Jared jack.

“That’s the best I’ve got, Wonderboy. Deal with it.”

*****

Jared put the final items in his suitcase and clicked it shut. He rested his hands on the roughened plastic for a moment, his gaze a little unfocused, then patted the case twice before he turned to face Jensen.

“I think it just hit,” he said with a bit of a hitch to his voice. “I’m going to college. I’m actually going to fucking college.” He grinned, all wide with bright teeth, and that spot low in Jensen’s gut clenched up yet again.

Jensen swallowed past the knot in his throat. “You’ve known this since you got the acceptance letter, loser.”

“Yeah, but…” Jared grabbed the strap of a nearby bag and slung it over his shoulder. “This is huge, Jen. I’m going away for college. I get to go to freaking Austin. Away from home and Mom and —”

Jared started looking a little frantic, and Jensen didn’t think before stepping forward, slipping the bag off of him again, and grabbing Jared by the shoulders. “Hey, calm down. Calm down. I’ll be there, remember?”

Jared’s smile was a little watery that time. “I know. You’re always there, Jensen. Ever since…” He straightened himself up, shook himself off. “It’s going to be great, right? Having an apartment together. You working while I’m in class. Parties, new friends, etcetera.”

“Damn right!” Jensen said, thinking about the job already waiting for him. It was the whole reason they were heading to Austin in the first place. Jensen had received the job offer the week before he graduated with his bachelor’s, partially due to a few good words from his graphics design professor. Jared had been in the middle of filling out his application for Jensen’s soon-to-be alma mater when Jensen had told him. Jared had come back from school the next day with a few applications for Austin-area schools and a hopeful look in his eyes.

Jensen patted Jared once and then moved to lift a large gift bag he’d barely managed to smuggle undetected into Jared’s room earlier. Getting it up the stairs had been a bitch, and even at that moment he struggled to lift it. “Got you something.” He passed the bag over with both hands and took pleasure in the surprised and gleeful look on Jared’s face when the heftiness of the package registered. “Call it a congratulations gift.”

Jared wasted no time tearing through the tissue paper and quickly lifting free the charcoal gray jumpsuit nestled inside. The weighty iron plates still rested at the bottom of the bag, but Jensen could tell that Jared knew exactly what he held in his hands.

“So, superheroes don’t have to go to school, but it’s really fucking awesome when they do.”

"Where did you find this?"

"I know a guy who knows a guy," Jensen smirked. "What do you think? I figured out how to sew it myself. And no cracks about that making me a woman, I'll have you know it's a bitch to stitch Lycra and Kevlar together."

Jared looked up, that wet shine rising up in his eyes again, and that was when he leaned in and kissed Jensen for the first time.

*****

Jensen’s friends in elementary and high school never understood his friendship with Jared. Growing up, all Jensen heard was how much of a loser he was to hang out with a kid who had to be incredibly stupid if he couldn’t even get into real school. No matter that Jared could run circles around them when it came to English or math. As far as they were concerned, if Jared wasn’t in school, there was obviously something wrong with him.

Because of that, Jared was never really accepted. Jensen’s friends ignored him at parties, and they wouldn’t even talk to him if they all went out to a movie or something as a group. Jared took it in stride, quiet and reserved like he really wasn’t, and Jensen couldn’t apologize enough for what assholes his friends were being . Even through college, things were tough, because no one could understand why he was hanging out with some punk who was still in high school. It didn’t stop him from inviting Jared everywhere though, because he held out the hope that one day, someone would grow up.

It all changed when Jensen took Jared with him to meet some of his new coworkers at the end of his first week. Chris had been another new hire, in accounting or something like that, and they hit it off while waiting for the Human Resources lady to return with the proper forms for them to fill out. A couple of lunch hours later, they had a nice group going of newbies and like-minded employees.

“Who’s this?” Chris asked when they walked into the bar.

“I’m Jared,” he said, holding out his hand. “Jensen’s boyfriend.”

Chris hesitated for only a moment, but shook his hand with honest force. “Didn’t know Ackles here was attached to anyone.” Then he stepped back and motioned to the rest of the crowd, already sitting and laughing at the table. “We just ordered a round. You old enough to drink, or do we have to work on getting you a fake ID in a hurry?”

And that was that.

*****

NOW

There’s a large fern sitting on the security desk, the only delivery in sight, so Jensen heads straight for it. Carl’s behind the desk and he holds out a clipboard for Jensen to sign.

“You’re going to have to tip the courier yourself, though,” he says, pointing behind Jensen with the tip of his pen.

Jensen looks over his shoulder, and Jared’s standing there. He’s wearing his normal uniform — loose basketball shorts and a polo shirt embroidered with the name of the delivery service.

To everyone else, Jared looks like your average, everyday bike courier, but only Jensen knows about the gray jumpsuit hidden underneath his clothes, the arms and legs folded up to his elbows and knees. Only Jensen knows about the metal plating Jared carries around in his canvas bag like it weighs nothing.

“I thought that might be a little manlier than a congratulatory bouquet of roses or something,” Jared says.

“I guess you forgot about my absolute lack of a green thumb. Hopefully I'll be able to keep it alive longer than a week.” Jensen smiles anyway. “So you’re expecting a tip, I take it.”

Jared shifts the bag on his shoulder. “I’d settle for a tour of your new digs, if that’s okay.”

Carl’s all too happy to sign him in. “Good to see you again, Jared,” he mentions as he passes over a visitor’s badge. It's been nearly a year since Jared was let go from his position here in the customer service department, but everyone seems to remember him fondly.

The elevator ride up is quiet, with Jensen clutching his new plant and Jared shifting his weight from one foot to the other. The doors finally open on his floor with a ding, and Danneel’s standing on the other side with a huge smile.

“Long time no see, stranger,” she says, hands on her hips. “You here to wish the boss good luck on his first day?”

“Of course, gorgeous.” He kisses her on the cheek. She giggles, like always, and swats at Jared's face ineffectually with a weak hand. It's the same routine every time.

“Shouldn’t you be at your desk drawing something?” Jensen asks her pointedly.

“Sure thing, boss,” she replies with a smirk, then she winks at Jared. “Try convincing him that this is a huge freaking deal. He won’t listen to me.”

“I’ll do my best,” Jared promises her before she pivots on her stilettos and sashays away, the sharp click of her heels on the tile echoing as she goes.

"I'm going to be around when she trips on those one of these days," Jensen mumbles as he leads the way, with Jared laughing behind him as they go.

The first thing Jared does when they enter Jensen’s office is kiss Jensen fully on the mouth, a solid, warm and familiar press of lips.

The second thing he does is lift the sofa with one hand and move it to the other side of the room.

“Jesus, Jared!” Jensen scrambles to shut the office door, knowing the frosted glass of the windows will do the rest.

“What? You prefer it when seating faces the entryway. Very feng shui, right?” Jared puts the sofa down and scoops Jensen into a hug. “Relax, I looked. No one was watching.”

“Still.” Jensen squirms out of Jared’s arms and sets the potted plant on the edge of his desk.

“We need to get you a table or something,” Jared says. “A place to keep your new plant by the sun. And new art for the walls, because seriously? Did they get this crap at a hotel garage sale?”

“Jared,” Jensen steps back, putting a little distance between them. He doesn't want to ask, but the question is necessary. “It's the middle of the day. Why are you here?”

“I can’t come by to see my husband on his big day?” Jensen stays silent, and he can see the gears turn in Jared’s head, then, “Or, I’m not allowed to when I missed your party last night, right? I said I was sorry, Jen.”

“I know you did. But why are you here?”

“I was in the area.”

“You guys don’t handle this side of town.”

Damn it, Jensen!” Jared raises his fist, sends it barreling down at the corner of the desk. Jensen flinches, anticipating the sharp sound of splintering wood, but Jared pulls up short. He’s breathing hard, his lips thin and jaw tight, and his eyes are steely when he glares at Jensen. "You can't ever make things easy, can you?"

And Jensen finally catches a good look at Jared’s left fist.

“Forget something?” He nods at Jared’s hand and his decidedly naked ring finger.

Jared looks down then runs the same hand through his hair, all anger gone in a rush and replaced by thinly veiled resignation and that guilty blush of his. “Shit.” He digs through the chest pocket of his shirt and pulls out the simple white gold band. “Okay, fine. There was a little something they needed my help with, but I really wanted to see you.”

“Go back to work, Jared.”

“Jen.” Jared takes an abortive step toward him but stops dead when he gets a good look at Jensen’s face. Jensen can only imagine what he sees. Instead, Jared turns to one of the nearby boxes, lifts one of the Samson action figures from its contents. “What happened to the time you thought all of this was cool? When did — for fuck’s sake, you practically encouraged me!”

“When we were kids! I don't know if you noticed, but we grew up a bit since then. Or, at least I did.” Jared’s face falls and Jensen deflates a bit. “I didn’t mean —”

Jared drops the toy back in the box. “This was a mistake. I shouldn't have come, you're still too mad. I’ll see you back at home.” The doorknob creaks dangerously in Jared’s grip, and the sound makes him pause, take a deep breath. “I really am proud of you, ya know.”

Jared opens the door and leaves.

*****

THEN

They had been living together for almost two months, happy with hours of making out and the occasional blow job, before they attempted to have sex for the first time. To say is was a disaster was an understatement. Jensen wore bruises for weeks, and he spent just as much time trying to figure out how to keep Jared somewhat in control.

Throes of passion? Not so good when your partner can crush concrete with his bare hands.

One Wednesday, Jensen came home from work and found Jared waiting for him at the door, bouncing on the balls of his feet.

“Okay, either you’ve had way too much sugar,” Jensen stated. “Or we’ve won the lottery. And since you would have called me if it were the latter…”

“I thought of something,” Jared said, then he rushed forward and kissed Jensen, deep and passionately, like he’d been waiting to do that all day.

Jensen sighed happily, dropped his work gear to the floor, and wrapped his arms around Jared’s neck. “This is a good welcome home surprise.”

“It’s going to get better,” Jared murmured into his ear, then he gripped Jensen’s hips and lifted him like he weighed less than a bag of feathers.

Jensen swatted ineffectually at Jared’s shoulder. “Put me down, you loser.”

“Mmmm, nope,” Jared hummed against Jensen’s chest. He tightened his hold just a little, not enough to hurt, but it stilled Jensen’s squirming. “Got you right where I want you.”

Jensen’s heartbeat sped up when he realized Jared was carrying him toward the bedroom. “Jared, we can’t. Not —”

“I told you,” Jared said softly. “I thought of something.” When they reached the bed, Jared spun them around so that he sat with Jensen straddling him, his hands now cradling Jensen’s hips. “It’s not ideal but… Jesus, Jen, I just really want you. So much.”

“I know,” Jensen said, before leaning in and effectively shutting Jared up by kissing him. At this point in the relationship, they were really good at kissing. Hours spent making out on the couch or in bed before sleeping meant they knew exactly how to get one another riled up. A lick here, a nip there, and soon they were both hard and panting against each other’s mouths.

“So, what’s this plan of yours?” Jensen breathed against Jared’s lips.

“First, we get naked.”

“Liking it already.” Jensen curled his fingers under the hem of Jared’s t-shirt, rolled it up and off, revealing bronze skin that always made Jensen’s mouth water. Jared was toned, the faint cut of muscle just now showing. Jared kept a membership at the student gym for appearances, but Jensen had been there for the weekends where they snuck away to junkyards, where Jared spent hours actually working out, bench-pressing old junkers and dead-lifting refrigerators put together like Russian nesting dolls. “What’s after naked?”

Jared turned his head away to face the head of the bed. Jensen followed his gaze and noticed the two cuffs resting on either side of the pillows. Thick, heavy chains ran from them to the floor and under the bed. “They’re attached to weights,” Jared explained.

“Jesus, Jared. How much?”

“Enough that I actually had to struggle to get them into the apartment. I shouldn’t be able to move much, so you’ll have to do most of the work, but I don’t… I don’t want to hurt you again.”

Jensen pressed himself against Jared's chest, pressing a deeper kiss to Jared’s lips, before burying his hands in Jared’s dark hair, clutching fistfuls of it, holding Jared close to him.

Jared gave a little growl, arms going fully around Jensen and pressing them together, both groaning when their cocks brushed against each other through their jeans. “Let’s finish with the naked part, first,” Jensen said, scrambling off Jared to divest himself of his work clothes. He didn’t care where everything landed, just threw articles of clothing aside in his rush. Jared was even more careless, the button of his jeans flying through the air as he ripped them open, zipper torn clean from its stitching. When they were completely bare, Jensen returned to his position, his knees on either side of Jared’s thighs, and he relished in the slide of skin against skin as he lowered himself down against Jared’s chest and retook his lips in a kiss.

This kiss was hard, their mouths moving in perfect sync together; their tongues twisted and wrapped and seeking, frantic. Jensen tore his lips from the kiss only to begin nibbling down Jared's jaw.

Jared swore, and Jensen felt Jared’s cock twitch against him at the sensations.

Hand spanning Jensen's back, Jared's fingers trailed down and down until Jensen felt them ghosting over his cheeks, hesitating for a second. Jensen moaned into Jared's shoulder and pushed back against the fingers.

“You going to prep me first before I have to chain you down? Before I have you completely at my mercy?”

Jared gave his own groan, twisted his torso so he could reach the nightstand drawer, where they discarded the tube from their previous disastrous attempt. Jensen heard the cap click and then Jared’s fingers were back, slicker and cold, and Jared recaptured Jensen’s lips before slowly and carefully insinuating a finger inside.

Jensen mewled embarrassingly, arching his back, before he lowered himself roughly on the finger, gasping and not giving himself the time to adjust. “Another.”

“Jen, you haven't… ”

“I have waited too damn long for this. Another!”

Jared gaped, gasped, breathless and beautiful. “I have too, but I’m not going to hurt you.” But he forced another finger inside of Jensen, slowly and carefully. He scissored his fingers, stretching Jensen, and his brow was furrowed in such a way that Jensen could tell Jared was concentrating, trying so hard to keep his strength in check.

Desperation rose in Jensen as he attacked Jared’s mouth again. Reaching behind himself, Jensen wrapped his hand around Jared’s cock, jacking him hard and fast. The position was awkward, but Jared was panting and nearly hiccupping with need, and he was so fucking gorgeous.

Jensen pushed back against Jared’s fingers, shamelessly fucking himself on the digits, body trembling with desire. “Jared.”

Jared pulled his fingers free and flung his upper body backwards so he was flat on his back, nearly unseating Jensen in the process. Jensen had barely a moment to mourn the loss of Jared’s fingers twisting and filling inside him before he heard the first snap of the cuff being locked. Jared tried to reach across and shut the other cuff, but the chains snapped taut, unmoving, and Jensen realized that this was it. Leaning forward, he pinned Jared’s other wrist in place, shut the cuff with a solid click. Then he moved back, brought one hand between them to align Jared’s cock and lowered himself in one swift movement.

“Oh, fuck!” Jensen whimpered, falling forward to hide his face in the curve of Jared’s neck, biting down on his own bottom lip as Jared struggled against the chains, his fingers straining out to touch and grab. It took a moment to get used to the feel of Jared filling him so completely, then Jensen forced his hips to move, up and down, up and down, nearly lifting himself off of Jared only to shove down to the hilt once more. To counter Jared’s immobility, Jensen let his hands wander everywhere, ghosting over Jared’s abs and shoulders to his face and neck, leaning down and back, running the range of sensations.

The chains rattled with every move Jared made to hold him, and Jensen took pity, finally trailing his hands up Jared’s arms until he could thread his fingers through Jared’s. The grip on his hands was instant and too tight, almost punishing. With both of them anchored, Jared started thrusting shallowly into Jensen, sharp, short jerks of his hips in time with Jensen’s own movements. Jensen twisted and arched as much as he could with his arms held in place, then the angle shifted and Jared was hitting a spot that made Jensen see stars. Jensen half-choked on his own cry as Jared’s dick rubbed that point over and over again.

He was going insane.

It was too good...too new...too much...too...

“Christ, Jen. Love — god, love you…”

Jensen let out a sound he'd never heard before as suddenly his whole body was shaking uncontrollably with his orgasm, Jared still thrusting underneath him throughout it, prolonging the intense, agonizingly wonderful feeling before climaxing with a shout as well.

Jensen rested his forehead against Jared's shoulder, smiling softly as he could feel Jared twitching in him, tiny aftershocks that squeezed soft grunts from Jared. The hold on his fingers was still tight, but he refused to move, both of them panting desperately, sated and boneless. Happy.

Finally.

Reaching up to undo the cuffs, he pressed lazy kisses to the side of Jared’s face and his neck. “Mmmm, best idea you ever had.”

Jared smiled, bright and flawless, even though his wrists looked red and angry from his struggling. “I definitely agree.”

*****

NOW

Turns out Jared’s “little something” that he had to handle before he came to see Jensen hadn’t been so little.

Jensen wakes up the next morning, stiff and tight from another restless night of non-sleep. Jared’s already gone, yet again, but at least there’s milk in the fridge. Jensen will take the wins where he can find them.

He’s skimming through the morning paper, tackling the comics first because it’s the section that Jared always leaves on top. He finally turns to the Local section, and there, in bold black and white, is a picture of Jared, decked out in his Samson costume, lifting a pallet full of boxes out through the crumbled wall of an old warehouse. The headline stretches across the page — SAMSON HELPS COPS AT MAJOR DRUG BUST. It’s a clear picture, one of the best they’ve ever taken of Jared, and Jensen’s fingers are itching for a pair of scissors, to preserve it for the days when they can look back on this and laugh.

Instead, he grabs his cell phone and taps out a quick text. Nice Glamour Shot. He keeps it cryptic enough that anyone who might see Jared’s messages wouldn’t know the difference, but he’s certain Jared will know exactly what he means.

He’s brushing his teeth when his phone chimes, letting him know he’s received a message. Jared’s texting is as atrocious as ever. Cn we tlk bout it l8r? Wanted 2 tll u ystrday.

Jensen replies in the affirmative and finishes getting ready for his day, already anxious for it to be over with. The story is going to be good, he can already tell, if Jared's been wanting to tell him for so long. It's going to be a bitch to sit through his meetings today, anxiously knowing what is in store for him when he gets home.

*****

“Then these guys ran into the back room, where they had this giant sliding door. You know, one of those huge, industrial, metal fuckers. So by the time I get there, the cops have been pounding on this thing for, like, thirty minutes, trying to get it open. And it’s not budging. They welded it shut or something, barricaded themselves inside. I don't even know if they had an escape plan.”

For all that Jensen hates this part of Jared for the strain it puts on their relationship, it’s worth the trouble when he gets to see the way Jared’s eyes light up when he’s talking about another job well done.

As the day had gone on, more and more news came out about the evidence police were able to retrieve from the scene, and it’s become clearer that this is a case people are going to remember for years. They're talking about connections with international cartels and interstate trafficking. And Samson is a huge part of this take down.

So, Jensen listens, with a plate of pasta going cold in front of him and a small smile on his face as he gets to hear the details from Jared’s point of view. He is the only person in the world who gets to experience the story in this way.

“So, I tell a bunch of the officers to come with me, leave the other ones there still banging on the door so that the suspects don’t know something is up. We sneak around to the back of the building, as quiet as half a squadron can be, and there’s no one back there. Not even a freaking lookout or security camera. They all take position, I get a running start and basically bulldoze through the brick wall. The dumbasses inside are so shocked, they totally forget about their weapons and just stand there, all slackjawed.”

The smile slips a little on Jensen’s face. “They were armed? It didn’t say that in the news article.”

“Well, not for long,” Jared says. “Cops moved in too fast after I brought the wall down.” He takes a huge bite of his own dinner, waving his fork around to indicate he wasn’t done. “And before you ask,” he continues after swallowing, “I ducked behind a stack of boxes the moment I was inside, just in case. I do know how to take care of myself, you know.”

“I know,” Jensen replies, staring down at his plate and pushing his pasta around with his fork. “I just worry, that’s all.”

Jared’s hand on his stops Jensen’s movement, and Jensen looks up to see Jared smiling softly at him. “I know you do.” He gives Jensen’s hand a reassuring squeeze. “And I know it’s hard, for us, especially when I’m…”

“Yeah.”

Jensen draws his hand back, and that tense silence is back, broken only when one of their forks scrape against their plate.

“You want to watch TV?” Jensen chances asking, a small peace offering.

“Absolutely.” Jared wipes his mouth with his napkin and jumps up, grabs both of their plates to put in the sink. He beats Jensen back to the sofa and flips on the TV.

The newscaster is in the middle of his weather report, and Jensen’s just about to tell Jared to change the channel to something more interesting, something more appropriate for their night in, when it cuts to a breaking news report.

Jared goes stiff beside him.

The reporter on the scene is either new or genuinely emotionally involved in the goings-on, because she can’t get through a sentence without stumbling over her words, a far cry from the usual disconnect their local news team presents to their viewers. Behind her, flames lick across the roof of a house, and Jensen can see the moment the house next door catches aflame as well.

“Go,” he tells Jared, who’s started fidgeting in his seat and looking over in the direction of the police scanner they have hidden in their apartment, the one Jensen made him turn off before they sat down for dinner. Jensen can tell he’s regretting doing so, considering this is what they missed.

“But…”

“Go, damn it. Help them.”

Without wasting another moment, Jared’s off the couch, shucking off clothing as he runs into their bedroom. He comes back out in record time, sheathed head-to-toe in his Kevlar-lined suit, strapping the last of the armor into place.

“Just,” Jensen pleads, “be careful.”

“I will.” He leans over the couch to kiss Jensen, then pulls his mask fully over his face. “I love you.” He’s out the window before Jensen can reply, starting his run across the rooftops to get to the scene.

Jensen sits back on the sofa, eyes glued to the television, and waits to see Jared arrive on the screen.

*****

THEN

"Because it's a bad idea, that's why."

Jared came home one day early in his freshman year of college and announced that he was going to sign up for intramural football. Jensen stared at him like he was insane for a moment, and then definitively said no.

Jared really didn't want to take that as an answer.

"It's not a bad idea," Jared said, pacing the already threadbare carpet of their off-campus apartment. It wasn't the most luxurious place in the world, too many students had lived there for it to have any shine left, but the rent was cheap, which made it easier for them, considering they were living on Jensen's single salary; Jared's paycheck from his work-study job was instantly squirreled away into a savings account for paying off student loans. "It's not like I can't control myself anymore. I know how to be careful. And for once, my mother isn't here to deny me something I really want to do."

"You're right, she's not here," Jensen said, running his hands through his hair. He hated disagreeing with Jared, but there were so many ways this could go wrong, and Jared had to realize it. "And since she's not, it's up to me to keep an eye on you."

Jared glared, making Jensen backtrack. "Geez, I mean. Think about it, Jared. You've never competed in anything physical, never played a sport in your life. It's a totally different experience than anything you've ever done, and yes, your control is better now than it was when we were kids, but it doesn't change the fact that a person loses a little bit of their self control when they're in a competitive mode. You may not want to hurt anyone, but what happens if you forget to hold back a bit when tackling someone, or if you put on just a little too much speed running for a touchdown?"

Jared slumped into one of the mismatched chairs in their living-slash-dining room, and he pulled an application from his bag and tore it in half, quarters, eighths. "Fine, you’re right. I didn't think about it that way. I just wanted..."

"I know." Jensen kissed him on the crown of his head. "And believe me, it hurts to have to say these things to you. But I just want to keep you safe. I think I'm allowed to do that, right?"

"Since when do you have to ask? You always have. Like my trusty sidekick."

"Sidekick? Oh, now it is on, Padalecki."

The following wrestling match ended with a smashed end table, Jared easily pinning Jensen to the floor by only using the first three fingers on each hand, and their downstairs neighbors banging on the ceiling beneath them, and it took way too long for either of them to stop laughing.

"You know I say that with love," Jared said, still breathless from giggling.

"Yeah," Jensen replied. "I love you too, you big loser."

*****

NOW

The story the next morning is pretty cut and dry: drought-like weather and a negligent smoker led to a brush fire that destroyed eleven homes before the fire department was able to get it under control. Samson had arrived on the scene in time to get the families free from six of the homes, carrying four or five members out at a time before moving on to the next house. The remaining houses already had been evacuated. In a press conference, the mayor publicly thanked Samson for his service yet again and wished the brave superhero would come forward to receive gratitude for his actions from the city in person.

The shit doesn’t hit the fan until around lunch, when one of the girls in Jensen’s department starts cursing up a blue streak. Jensen ignores it, since everyone in their department has a mouth that would make a sailor blush, and chalks it up to whatever it can be that makes a woman swear like it’s going out of style, until Danneel lets out a few choice words of her own.

“What the hell is going on?” Jensen yells through the open door of his office, his eyes still trained on the order sheet that came through this morning.

“Oh, nothing,” Danneel calls back, sarcasm absolutely dripping in her voice. “Just every single woman in the greater Austin area is crying out in agony right now.”

“Why the hell would they be doing that?” The spreadsheet doesn’t make sense — the client is asking for something that only needs a spot Pantone at most but is quoting it as a 4-color job. He hates it when people with no graphic sense start sticking their nose in his business.

“Samson’s married!”

Jensen’s blood runs ice cold, his fingers go numb, and he swears he can feel his heart stop for an instant. “What?”

“See for yourself.” A new email from Danneel appears in his inbox, and Jensen forgets about his spreadsheet and opens it immediately, revealing a link to one of those trashy gossip websites the girls in his department keep visiting on their breaks. His eyes are assaulted by flashing fluorescent graphics as the page loads, then he focuses entirely on the article at hand.

Superhero Super Hitched

Brace yourselves, bitches. I’ve got the mother of all bad news. Looks like Tall, Dark and Spandex-clad is off the market. Yes, folks, I’m talking about heavy-lifting hunk Samson. A reader witness on the scene of the fires in Austin, TX, last night sent us this photo of Mr. Desirable unfortunately rocking a band on that all-important finger. Whoever you are, Delilah, know that there are a lot of single folks out there gunning for you, snatching him from our grasp like that.

The article is accompanied by a slightly blurry shot of Samson carrying an elderly woman over to a nearby ambulance. An inset picture is a close-up of his hands, his wedding band definitely on display for the world to see.

Jensen can’t breathe. He’s going to be sick.

That was the one thing they agreed on when Jared decided he was going to be serious about the whole hero business, still adamant about not wearing gloves: the ring comes off. Jared rarely went up against bad guys in person, preferred a more passive role in keeping their city safe for everyone. But they both knew that when he did, he couldn’t be wearing his wedding ring. A ring means he has a life other than fighting crime or saving people from things like house fires. It means there’s someone waiting for him, someone he cares about. It means he has to be cautious about his choices.

That ring makes them both vulnerable.

And there it is, showcased bright and shiny on the homepage of a gossip columnist. Hell, knowing their luck, it’ll probably be broadcast on tonight’s news report.

Fuck.

*****

THEN

Jared’s college had an Earth Day celebration every year. It was a chance for the environmentally-conscious students to stand on their soapboxes and tell their fellow attendees about the horrors of deep sea drilling and how long it takes for non-organic food to pass through their bodies. Vendors set up booths, selling everything from old-fashioned hemp bracelets to investments in wind turbines, and they usually put up a stage for acoustic bands to strut their stuff.

Jensen thought it was a little over the top sometimes, but Jared loved it, so they made it a point to go every year. Usually, Jared would weave his way through all of the stalls, spending a few moments at each one, while Jensen found a open patch of grass, sat with his long-neglected sketch book, and people-watched for a couple of hours.

Jared’s senior year, everything was about the same. The ecology club was giving out free herbs to anyone interested, one of the local eateries had a stall where they were selling vegan food, and mostly it was loud and crowded and Jared was already grinning from ear to ear.

“You go have fun,” Jensen told him as soon as he spotted an inviting spot to sit. “I’ll just be over there.”

“Aww, come on,” Jared whined, taking hold of Jensen’s hand and tugging gently. “Stay with me this time. I heard there are some really cool new additions this year.”

He tugged again then broke out the puppy-dog eyes, exaggerating the jut of his bottom lip and making it quiver slightly. It was foul play, and Jensen resigned himself to the fact that his sketch book was going to remain forgotten this year.

The new additions were minimal, but Jensen had to admit that it was rather nice to be walking hand-in-hand with Jared through the crowd, watching his eyes light up as he caught sight of something that interested him. Jared would run up to the booth, chattering excitedly with the stall owner over how something was made or gathered, and then he’d turn to Jensen with a huge grin and repeat the information back to him, as if he hadn’t been listening.

After the fourth time it happened, Jensen started laughing. “You’re adorable, you know that?”

“Of course,” Jared answered, then his face brightened even more. “Oh look, geodes!” Jensen couldn’t even blink before Jared was pulling him across the way to the next stall, where rows upon rows of already cracked geodes and nodules, polished bright and colorful, sat for everyone to examine.

Jared picked up a half, tipped it left and right so the light caught on the ribbons of blue on the flat surface. “I always loved these as a kid.”

He’d had a huge one sitting on his bedroom shelf, Jensen remembered. Something his mom had picked up for Jared’s eighth birthday. That one had been hollow instead of solid like the one Jared was holding now, with amethyst crystals running throughout the interior. Even Jensen had to admit it had been really damn cool.

“I like these, the ones you can see. It’s buying the uncracked ones I don’t get,” Jensen explained, nodding toward a nearby basket filled with round, boring gray stones about the size of a softball.

“What’s wrong with the uncracked ones?”

“You don’t know what you’re getting. I’m not going to spend fifteen bucks on a rock without actually seeing it first. I mean, you could break that thing open, and it might be just as dull as the outside.”

“I don’t know. I think picking the right one is all a matter of instincts.” Jared grabbed one of the rocks from the basket, tossed it back and forth between his hands. “Like this one. I have a feeling this one is absolutely gorgeous inside.”

“What makes you think that?”

Jared shrugged. “Just a hunch.” He looked around, making sure no one was watching, then, “Wanna see?” He placed the geode between both hands and squeezed, and the rock cracked and crumbled between his palms with a loud pop.

Jensen glanced around frantically, trying to tell who may have heard that, and then turned back to yell at Jared for doing something so stupid in public. But Jared was smiling at him, holding up his cupped hands for Jensen.

Nestled amid the purple crystalline shards was a ring, a simple silverish band that caught the sunlight and shined. “See,” Jared whispered, suddenly much closer than Jensen realized. “It’s gorgeous.”

Jared picked the ring up and shook the rest of the debris to the ground. Then, he dropped to one knee and held it up to Jensen. That got everyone’s attention.

*****

They gave geodes to everyone in their wedding party, bright and polished in every color. He and Jared had cracked them open themselves, though Jensen insisted they do it the old-fashioned way with a mallet and chisel.

*****

NOW

Jared doesn’t answer his phone all day, doesn’t answer any of the texts that Jensen sends him, but he’s already home and pacing by the time Jensen walks in the door.

“How mad are you?” is the first thing Jared asks him.

“I’m not mad.”

“You’re not?”

“No,” Jensen says, dropping his briefcase by the door and loosening the tie that started feeling more like a noose as the day went on. “In fact, I’m a bit relieved. At least now I don’t need to listen to the radio DJ talk about how nice your ass is and practically propose over the air anymore.”

“This isn’t a joke, Jensen.” Jared’s glaring, a bad sign to begin with, and there’s a dangerous creaking noise coming from where he’s standing.

“Let go of the sofa, Jared.” Jared does so with a curse, tries to smooth out the seams that look close to popping from the pressure he’d applied. Jensen can only imagine how the wooden frame of it must look now. “And I know it’s not a joke,” he continues. “Hell, as much as I hate seeing you take off that ring every single day, every time you suit up, I know how important it is. But it’s done. There’s nothing we can do to change it. So now we just need to figure out what we do from here.”

Jared deflates, the tension visibly draining out of him as he sinks to the floor, bracing himself up with his back to the couch. “It was such a stupid, stupid mistake. I was just in so much of a rush that I didn’t even check. If I’d just looked…”

Jensen shushes him, crouches down beside him on the floor. “We’ll just need to be extra careful from now on. You keep an eye out for suspicious characters who might mean to do us harm, and I’ll try hard not to let anyone know that I’m the one who snagged the town’s most eligible bachelor.”

Jared sniffles, which Jensen chooses to ignore, and then smiles wanly, which Jensen does acknowledge with his own small grin. “Most eligible bachelor, huh? Were the girls at work upset?”

“Oh, absolutely inconsolable. Even Danneel.”

“They just want me for my body.”

“And who says I don’t?” Jared finally laughs, and Jensen feels a whole lot better. He wraps his arm around Jared’s shoulders, tips him sideways so that Jared’s head is now resting on his shoulder. Their floor isn’t the most comfortable thing in the world and Jensen can already feel his leg falling asleep, but Jared’s calming down, breathing deeply and less panicked, and Jensen wouldn’t move even if he could. “Seriously, just be careful and we’ll be fine.”

*****

THEN

The day Jared truly put on the suit for the first time was the same day he lost his first job. It turned out that the retail company he was working didn’t appreciate him taking a three-hour extended lunch without informing his supervisor first.

The family in the runaway minivan that Jared had intercepted was extremely appreciative, however. Jared left them with a stern warning about the importance of vehicle maintenance, and then pulled himself up the side of the nearest building and escaped the scene by way of jumping from roof to roof.

Within a few hours, the whole city was in an uproar. The evening news anchors were at a loss, reporting the same known facts over and over again without providing any new information. All they knew was that a guy came out of nowhere, completely covered from head-to-toe in gray and black, grabbed the bumper of the van as it was about to speed past him, holding it in place until the single mom and her two kids were able to climb out, then he carried the van to a nearby empty lot and tipped on its side where it could safely run until it was out of gas. He didn’t say much besides making sure they were all okay and imparting his safety tip, and then he was gone.

Jared watched the entire news report with a huge, beaming grin on his face, poking Jensen in the ribs and pointing at the screen every time the interviewer panned back to the family in an attempt to get more information from them.

Jared's mother called that night, and Jensen could hear her screaming at her son over the line, asking him what the hell he was thinking and didn't they raise him better than that and how could he be so damn irresponsible. Jared calmly talked her down, explaining to her that he had this strength for a reason, and it was either going to be for superhero work or for an act in a sideshow at a travelling carnival. She wasn't completely won over by the end of the conversation, but she understood his feelings and told him to be careful.

Jensen clipped out the news article on the front page of the following morning’s paper for safe keeping — MYSTERIOUS FIGURE SAVES FAMILY — and then he flipped to the classifieds section and started looking for a new job for Jared. He found the placement agency's number and told Jared to call them as soon as possible so they could help too.

He did the same after jobs two and three were lost, though his options were dwindling each time. After job four, he started to get annoyed.

*****

NOW

“Hey, Ackles. You with me?”

Jensen starts out of his daydream, and find that Chris is leaning against his desk with a look on his face that makes it apparent he’s been trying to get Jensen’s attention for a while now.

“Shit, sorry. I’ve got sixteen million things running through my head.” Jensen spins his chair around so he’s facing Chris and clears away a stack of papers from the edge of the desk, giving Chris his traditional perching spot. “What’s going on, man?”

Chris hops up on the desk, smooth and cool. “Like I said, I was checking if you and Jared were up for grabbing a few cold ones after work, seeing as he couldn’t make it last time. Maybe play a bit of pool, see if I could beat your sharking ass this time. The bar’ll probably have the game on, too.”

Jensen doesn’t even know who’s playing.

“I’ll check with Jared,” he says, already reaching for his phone. Maybe a night out is something they both need. Just one evening where they can forget everything else and enjoy some beer and few laughs with their friends.

And he’ll make Jared promise upon his life that he’ll actually be there.

Jared’s response — u bet — is nearly instantaneous, which is a rarity when they have him riding across the city delivering packages. Jensen passes along Jared’s acceptance, and they plan to meet at a bar close to Jensen’s apartment about an hour after work.

“By the way,” Chris says. “You might want to have a word with your team out there.”

Jensen leans over to glance through the door, and nothing looks too out of the ordinary. A few of his coworkers are standing up at their desks, chatting with their neighbors over the cubicle walls, but nothing’s broken, on fire or in any other state that would normally draw Chris’s concern.

“Seems fine to me. Why? You overhear them plotting world domination or something?”

“Just about.” Chris pushes himself from the desk, straightening his shirt with a quick brush of his hands. “From what I heard, they seem to think it’s a great idea to find out who Samson is married to, kidnap her for seven years, and then swoop in to heal his broken heart when she’s declared dead in absentia.”

Jensen groans and drops his head back so it’s hanging between his shoulders. It’s been like this all day — even when there are actual, important events and news happening around the world, everyone is absolutely obsessed with gossip, and right now it’s all about his husband. Just on the ride into work this morning, Jensen heard every possible theory he could think of, from the picture being Photoshopped by some kid in a basement lair somewhere to speculation about who their favorite superhero was actually married to (Jensen prefers the suggestion posed by the local shock jock. He may have been crude about it, but at least he got the gender right).

And everyone has an opinion. Hell, even Carl and Lenny downstairs were more than eager to share their opinions on the matter when Jensen greeted them this morning in passing.

“Just thought you’d like to know,” Chris chuckles. “See you tonight. Don’t forget about it, and chain that boy to yourself if you have to. Drag his ass along. I’m not putting up with any more B.S. reasons why he can’t be seen out with us.”

Chris leaves, and Jensen gets up from his chair to have a long conversation with his employees about the inappropriateness of planning felonies on company time.

*****

Jared’s already at the apartment when Jensen gets home, and judging by the state of the living room, he’s been there for a while. Jensen takes in the sight of the empty pint of ice cream tipped over on the coffee table and the stack of DVDs resting on the floor, and suddenly it makes a whole lot more sense why Jared has been so easy to contact today.

“You’re back early. I was going to clean up a bit,” Jared says, his voice unsettled and dripping guilt, and it cements all of the suspicions Jensen’s had since he stepped in the door.

“The benefit of being the department boss now,” he says, not warmly. “I get to leave pretty much whenever I want.” His briefcase makes a hollow thud when it hits the ground; Jensen rubs his temples with both hands. “I don’t want to get mad again. Just tell me that you being here already doesn’t mean what I think it does.”

Jared’s silence is confirmation enough.

“God damn it!” He’s glad he put his briefcase down, because he really wants to throw something, anything. “When?”

“A couple days ago.”

“Days?” Jensen repeats, because there’s no way he heard that right. “You’ve been without a job all this time and didn’t tell me?”

“I was hoping I wouldn’t have to.” Jared moves from his spot, gathering the empty carton and carrying it to the kitchen. The spoon makes a noise when Jared pulls it free from where it’s stuck to the bottom of the pint, a testament to how long it’s been sitting there, and Jared lets it clatter into the sink. “I’ve been spending the time looking for something new, something better even. You know, when I haven't been...” He waves his hand around, vaguely. "Busy."

“You. Promised. No more jobs lost because of this, that’s what you said.”

“I know what I fucking said!”

“Then we shouldn’t even be having this fucking conversation! For Christ’s sake, Jared, it was a delivery service! It’s not like you had to be in an office all day or anything. How the hell do you get fired when there’s no one around to actually notice if you’re gone?” He’s at the point where he’s going to start pulling out hair, and Jared doesn’t look to be in much better shape. “You know what, I’m done.”

Jared pales and opens his mouth to reply, but Jensen cuts him off. “I mean, I can’t take this two lives thing anymore. You have to make a choice: are you Jared or Samson?”

“You can’t be serious.”

“Oh, I really am.”

Jared steps away from the sink, and Jensen spots small indentations in the metal in the shape of Jared’s fingers from where he has been gripping the counter. “I help people almost every single day, save lives. And you want me to choose to give that up?”

“Yes, Jared, I’m being selfish for once in our lives. I can’t keep doing this on my own, and I hate being the sole provider in this relationship. I sit here, watching you waste your degree and potential while you work minimum wage jobs just because they give you the opportunity to run off and play fucking superhero!”

Play,” Jared growls, and he stalks up to right in front of Jensen, furious and fuming. He grabs Jensen’s arm, his grip vice-like and commanding. “Is that what you really think of all this?” He clenches tighter as he speaks, punctuating his question with a shake that rocks Jensen’s whole body, and Jensen winces but he doesn’t think Jared notices. “That I’m fucking playing at this?”

The grip gets too tight, and Jensen cries out, “Fuck,” and slaps at Jared’s hand. The red haze visibly fades from Jared’s eyes for a moment; his fingers shoot open, releasing Jensen immediately. Jensen can feel the bruise already forming, nothing broken that he can tell, but the damage is definitely done. Jared quickly takes three steps backwards, stumbles over the stack of movies and causes them to scatter across the floor, some of the cases crushed beneath his feet.

“I’m getting some air,” he says once he gathers his footing, pointedly avoiding looking Jensen in the eye. “I need to calm down.” He doesn’t even bother to grab a jacket, just stomps out the door and slams it in his wake. At least the doorjamb doesn’t splinter this time.

Jensen stands in the middle of the suddenly way too quiet apartment, cradling his arm. This has all gone so wrong so fast, and he’s in a bit of a tailspin with no hope of pulling out of it without some kind of help. Tipping his head back, Jensen closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. “Anything else you want to throw my way?” he asks whoever is listening.

He nearly jumps out of his skin when someone knocks at the door.

Ms. Ferris is standing on the other side when he opens it, concern written all over her face. “Sorry to stick my nose in where it probably isn’t wanted, but are you okay, Jensen?”

It triggers that little thread of worry that pops up whenever he and Jared fight about a certain alter-ego. “You heard that?”

“Just the raised voices and, of course, the door slamming. I thought it’d been knocked clean off its hinges from the noise it made.”

Jensen sighs a sharp gust of air and tries to smile as apologetically as possible. “I’m sorry about that. Please, come in.” He steps aside to let her enter and makes it a point to shut the door carefully. “Thanks for your concern, but it really wasn’t anything to be worried about.”

“Lovers’ spat?” she attempts.

“We’re not even at our five year anniversary, and we’re fighting like an old married couple already.” She smiles at the joke, at least, so Jensen feels a little bit more at ease. “Can I get you something to drink while you’re here, Ms. Ferris?”

“How many times do I have to tell you to call me Samantha?” But she declines the offer, and Jensen makes his way over to the scattered DVDs. They’re all over the floor, and Jensen has to bend and reach to grab them before putting them back, one-by-one, in their spots in the media case. A little bit of tidying is soothing, and he’ll probably pull out the vacuum once his guest leaves. Something to keep him occupied until Jared comes back, when they can hopefully continue the conversation calmly like the adults they are.

He's going to have to call Chris too in a moment, let him know that they're not going to make it tonight.

“So it was a bad one, I take it?” Samantha asks from behind him, and Jensen nods.

“Yeah. We both said things that we…probably shouldn’t have. Honestly, I was probably a little irrational. But he’ll be out cooling off for a while, so at least I have time to think of an apology, right?”

“Okay then,” she responds, oddly. Jensen begins to turn around to call her out on it, but a cloth is slapped over his mouth and nose. He takes a breath in order to protest, and everything goes fuzzy, gray, and then completely black.

*****

THEN

At his and Jared’s wedding reception, Jared’s mother pulled Jensen aside, away from prying ears, and hugged him within an inch of his life.

It took him a moment to realize she was crying.

“You’ll understand someday,” she said, dabbing delicately under her eyes, trying valiantly not to smear her eyeliner, “if you two ever decide to look into having kids. When they’re born… You want so much for them; you want them to have the perfect life. We both know Jared’s wasn’t easy and by no means perfect, mostly because of how we raised him, but —”

She stepped back, fanned her face a couple times with her hands, before attempting a smile that was a little tearful but sincere. “Jared’s father and I look back all the time and realize how lucky we were for God bringing you into our little boy’s life. We couldn’t have done it without you, Jensen.”

She hugged him one more time, and then headed back to her table, where she took her husband’s hand and whispered something in his ear.

“What was that about?” Strong arms wrapped around Jensen’s waist from behind as Jared leaned over his shoulder to give him a peck on the cheek.

“She was saying thanks, I think.” Jensen rested his hands over Jared’s and watched as the older couple got up and made their way to the dance floor.

*****

NOW

When Jensen comes to, he’s muzzy and disoriented, and his hands won’t cooperate when he tries to wipe his eyes clear of their blurriness. It takes him far longer than he would like to realize they’re not working because they’re tied down to the arms of a chair. He struggles in his spot, feels the pull of duct tape across the hair of his arms.

“Morning,” a gruff voice greets him from somewhere in the room, and Jensen blinks rapidly to clear his vision and see exactly who put him in this position. They’re in someone’s living room; the layout looks familiar from his first look, and as his sight clears, he recognizes it as his neighbor’s apartment. Ms. Ferris — Samantha — is sitting on a sofa across from him, nonchalantly working a crossword puzzle from the looks of things. Next to her is her good-looking beau, who is staring directly at Jensen with a slightly amused but assessing look.

“The hell…?” Jensen starts, voice slurred from the drugs and additional weariness. His tongue is dry and sticking to the roof of his mouth. “Who are you? What do you want?”

“We never did actually meet officially,” the guy says, settling back on the couch and resting one ankle on his other knee. “You can call me Jeffrey. I think you know Sam, here.” She lifts her pencil in acknowledgement, never looking up from her paper. “As for what I want, well, that’s a simple answer. Money.”

Jensen’s heart leaps into his throat. “You’re not going to get much of a ransom for me,” he chokes out. “We’re not rich.”

“Oh, I know,” Jeffrey says. “But you could be, and that’s where things get interesting.”

He waves a phone around in his hand — Jensen’s — as he pushes himself up from the sofa. “You’ve been popular while you were out cold. This thing has been buzzing and chiming off the hook almost all night.” As Jensen watches, he flips it open and scrolls through the text messages. “A few in here from someone named Chris.” He paces as he reads them aloud. “‘You’re late. You’d better not have forgotten.’ ‘Seriously, man, where are you?’ ‘Answer me, dude, or I’m calling Jared.’ I take it you had plans for last night?”

He presses a couple buttons, hits the speaker phone, and the automated voice tells them all that Jensen has six unheard messages.

The first one’s from Chris, and he’s yelling to be heard over the rush of bar noise in the background. “Answer your damn phone! I’m serious, dude, I’ll call Jared.”

The next one from Jared is perfectly clear, and he still sounds angry. “Call your damn friend back. I’m not your fucking switchboard.”

Chris again. “You guys fighting or something? Just call me back and let me know if you’re actually going to make it so that I don’t start panicking.”

Jared. “Chris called me again. He sounds worried that you haven’t gotten back to him. I take it you skipped out on the bar. I’m home now. I’ll see you when you’re done sulking or whatever.”

“Okay, it’s eleven o’clock and you’re not home yet. Just…call me, alright? Chris has got me all paranoid.”

“It’s two a.m., and I’m really fucking worried. Call me! Even if it’s to tell me to go fuck myself or that you're leaving me, whatever. I just need to know you’re okay. Please, Jen.”

That’s the end of the messages, and Jeffrey fiddles with the phone a little bit more. “Sounds like he’s a bit of a worrier. Call logs say he called another dozen times without leaving a message. He stopped by this morning too, asked if we’d seen you since last night. If only we’d opened the door just a little bit wider.”

Jeffrey drops the phone onto the end table by the sofa, where the roll of duct tape is sitting. “I apologize in advance for this, but it’s a necessary precaution,” he says as he tears off a strip of the tape. Jensen renews his struggle when Jeffrey steps forward, whips his head this way and that, but his captor manages to secure the tape over his mouth anyway.

Jeffrey grabs the phone back up. “Say cheese,” he quips, and Jensen hears the click of his camera phone.

Less than a minute later, Jeffrey smiles as Jensen’s phone starts ringing. “Let’s answer this on speaker phone, okay?” There’s a hiss as the line opens, and then Jeffrey answers, “Jensen’s phone. His friendly, neighborhood kidnapper speaking.”

“Where the hell is he?” Jared’s voice is like a sonic boom, comes out of the phone speaker sudden, loud and vicious. “If you’ve hurt him, I swear to God —”

“Let’s avoid the clichés, shall we?” Jeffrey cuts him off. “Here’s the deal, Jared. Can I call you Samson, Jared? It would be so much easier.”

Jensen freezes, and Jared’s silent far too long to make any future denials even a little bit credible. A wider grin slowly slides over Jeffrey’s face, bright and creepy, hidden within his salt-and-pepper beard. “Here’s my problem, Samson. That little stunt of yours at the warehouse the other day cost me a lot of money. A lot of money. I was going to get a hefty cut of all of that merchandise.

“Now, I’m not petty enough to demand revenge or retribution for the men lost in that raid. It was their own damn fault for being stupid enough to get caught. But I do want to get paid. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“I can’t afford ransom,” Jared practically repeats what Jensen said, but this time Jeffrey laughs.

“Oh please, what’re a few bank vault walls to the great and powerful Samson?”

There’s silence for a few moments on both ends, then Jared asks, now quiet and fearful, “And you won’t hurt him?”

“Not a hair on his pretty little head.” Jeffrey says it while running his hand over Jensen’s hair, and Jensen flinches away from the contact. “Expect a text this evening with the address for your first drop location. A couple hundred thousand should be a good start.” He claps the phone closed and lets it fall to the floor, crushing it underfoot.

“You never know if he’ll do something stupid, like try to get the cops to track your cell.” Jeffrey’s attention is entirely on Jensen now. "Though, I think he'd have an interesting time trying to explain why it was his husband that was kidnapped. Unless he gives away one crucial detail.” Jensen can only glare back and attempt to make his curse words understandable through the tape.

“I think he has something to say,” Samantha chimes in from the couch, still filling in the damned crossword, like having someone bound and gagged in her living room is an everyday occurrence.

“Remember,” Jeffrey tells him. “I did already apologize.” And he rips the tape off Jensen’s face with one quick yank.

“Fuck!” The skin around his mouth is on fire, and it takes more than a few seconds for the sensation to fade. “How the hell did you know?”

“About your husband?” Jeffrey shrugs. “Little things. The number of times you’ve needed the maintenance guy to fix things in your apartment. The fact that my girlfriend has street-facing windows in her apartment and has seen his costumed ass hanging around here a lot more than necessary. It was enough to raise suspicion.”

He takes his seat back on the sofa, settles, and then pulls an alarmingly large caliber revolver out from between the cushions. Jensen recognizes it for the threat it is and rethinks his idea of screaming for help. “And then,” Jeffrey continues, “last night I get a call from Sam, telling me her neighbors are having an incredibly interesting argument that she can overhear even over the music that brat down the hall keeps playing. If you two are so set on this whole secret identity thing, you really should learn to keep your voices down.”

“We’ll keep that in mind.”

“I’m sure you will.”

Jensen takes another look at the revolver in Jeffrey’s hand. “You actually going to let me go?”

“Well,” he shrugs again. “We’ll see what happens.”

*****

“Wake up. You don’t want to miss this.”

Jensen’s roused from his dozing by the barrel of Jeffrey’s gun poking him in the ribs, and he jerks away from it. His back muscles are extremely tense and aching from sitting for who knows how many hours, his stomach is growling and throat parched, and judging by the grin on Jeffrey’s face, he doesn’t want to see what’s about to happen.

Jeffrey grabs either side of Jensen’s chair and turns it around so that Jensen’s now facing the television. The introduction to the local news is on the screen, and the dread settles in Jensen’s stomach like a hunk of lead. He knows immediately what this is all about.

The female anchor doesn’t waste any time. “We have breaking news, coming from the First National Bank branch on Palmer Lane, where police are responding to a burglary in progress call. Our own Matt Dunn is on the scene. Matt, what can you tell us?”

The screen cuts to a suited reporter standing in front of a brick building that Jensen recognizes. It’s on the other side of town, far enough away that Jensen knows Jared chose it on purpose. “Thanks, Gloria. Details are a little sketchy right now, but the initial reports tell us that a hole approximately four feet wide has been broken through the vault wall.”

“Do the police have a theory on what happened?” the anchor asks off-screen.

“They are reviewing the security footage as we speak, but a source inside has told us they saw someone who looked and dressed like Samson lifting several duffle bags filled with money out through the hole shortly before the police arrived.”

“That’s a disturbing thought.”

“Agreed,” Matt continues. “They’re not currently releasing how much was stolen, only that no one was injured in the invasion and police have agreed to investigate all theories. We’ll report more as details come to light.”

“Thanks, Matt.” It cuts back to Gloria, and the screen goes black as the television is turned off.

Jensen looks over his shoulder to see Jeffrey drop the remote to the table with wide eyes and his lips pursed. He looks impressed. “In and out with no problems. Didn’t think it would be that easy for him.” He pulls another phone from his pocket, a cheap model that will most likely also be trashed at the end of a single conversation. His thumbs fly over the keys as he types a message, and then sure enough, he stomps this one into pieces too.

“Well, I’m off,” he says as he gets back up from the sofa. “I told him to leave the cash and walk away. I hope he’s good at following instructions, because if I even see a shadow of him, all it’s going to take is a phone call.” He places the gun on the coffee table and leans in to kiss Samantha. “Keep your phone by you, honey.”

She smiles up at him. “Be careful.”

“Will do.” He whistles his way out the door, winks at Jensen just before he’s out of sight.

Samantha glances over at Jensen. “Are you going to behave while he’s gone, or do I have to get up and tape your mouth shut again?” She holds up the silver roll, twists it about in the air.

Jensen clenches his jaw shut and refuses to answer her, just turns to face the darkened television once again and tries to figure a way out of this.

*****

Jeffrey comes back with two large bags, struggling with the weight of them as he stumbles through the door. Samantha's beside herself with excitement and damn near pounces on Jeffrey before he can get fully inside and close the door.

Jensen spends most of the night struggling against his bonds and trying to ignore the sound of them “celebrating” their good fortune in the nearby bedroom. He’d yell at them to keep it down, but they taped his mouth shut again before retiring for the night.

The next morning, Jeff sends another text message to Jared, this time directing him to a specific bank. "I wanna see how he does with a place he probably hasn't cased yet. Improv is good in this line of work." They finally get around to giving Jensen something to eat and drink, and even though it’s nothing more than plain toast and anemic coffee, Jensen inhales it and tries to ignore his stomach begging for more.

Once it gets dark and the news reports another robbery, this time with a witness confirming that it was definitely Samson who climbed through their smashed-in walls and took nearly fifty thousand dollars from their vault, Jeff leaves to go claim his next round of ransom money and Jensen is left alone with Samantha yet again.

She tapes his mouth shut again. “I don’t want to hear you yammering while I’m concentrating on my novel.” She lays out on the sofa, book in hand, and Jensen wonders how he never knew he lived next door to such a heinous bitch.

Thirty minutes after Jeffrey leaves, it's still so quiet that Jensen's able to hear it when footsteps come down the hallway outside of her apartment. They're slow and dragging, and Jensen fully expects a laden Jeff to come through the door, but they pass right by, continue on toward Jensen's place. Jared. The footsteps go quiet for a moment, then with resounding force they are replaced by the noise of Jared kicking and pounding on his own door, crying out in frustration as he does so. Jensen can imagine the splintering wood and plaster that must be raining down in the hallway, and his own heart aches to hear the hurt in Jared's voice outside.

"He sounds pretty damn upset," Samantha finally looks up from her book, and she smirks at Jensen, cold and cruel. "Maybe I should be a good neighbor and make sure he's okay." She places the novel on the table, picks up the gun instead. "You be good, got it?"

Jensen can only hope his "fuck you" is distinguishable.

She keeps the gun trained on him as she opens the door just a crack, wide enough that she can see out but no one can see in. "Are you okay out here?" she asks, her voice all saccharine-sweet.

Jensen can't see out from where he's sitting, but he can hear Jared just on the other side, already apologetic.

"Sorry," he says. "Sorry. Really bad day. I didn't mean to disturb you."

Gun be damned, Jensen can't sit there doing nothing while Jared apologizes without a clue. He rocks in place, left and right, until he's tipping onto two chair legs precariously. A quick shift in balance, and his whole chair crashes to the floor with a bang. He winces as all of his weight crashes onto his left arm when he hits the floor, and he can’t tell if he’s broken it, but it gets the result he wanted: he has Jared's attention and now the couch is between him and the gun.

"Are you okay in there?" he hears Jared ask.

"Oh yeah," Samantha says, but now there's a bit of nervousness lacing her voice. Please pick up on it, Jared. Please. Jensen thinks. "It's just my cat getting into something he probably shouldn't be. If you're sure you're okay, I'm just going to go check on him."

Jensen can hear the door closing, his only chance disappearing with the squeak of hinges, so without thought as to what might happen, he lets out the loudest scream he can. It's still a little muffled by the tape, but there's no way anyone could have mistaken it for anything other than what it is.

Samantha swears and slams the door shut, but the next moment it's knocked clear off its hinges and crashes into the far wall. Jensen ducks his head as shards of wood veneer blast through the room, and Samantha screams a sharp, short yelp that is cut off by the smack of skin on skin.

Then Jared's there, sliding to the floor beside him. "Oh Jesus, Jen! Jensen. Oh god." Jared can't seem to coordinate anything more than running his hand over Jensen's shoulder, his face, as if he's trying to convince himself that Jensen's actually real. "Right here. You were right fucking here."

Jensen hums behind the tape, struggles against the restraints on his wrists, and Jared finally snaps out of it enough to get the hint. "Fuck, sorry. Hold on." Even going slowly, the tape still stings when Jared peels it off his skin, and Jensen can't hold back a yelp when his mouth is free. The last piece is barely off his wrists when Jared wraps his arms around him and squeezes tight. Jensen doesn't care if he can't breathe deeply in the stronghold, he hugs back just as fiercely, closing his eyes against the tears when Jared starts petting down his back and crooning in his ear. "You're okay. Thank god you're okay. I found you."

Jensen opens his eyes, ready to reassure Jared that he's fine, just a little bruised and hungry, but he immediately sees they're no longer alone. Jeffrey's back, his new duffle abandoned at his feet, and he has the gun trained on both of them.

"No!" Jensen clutches at Jared, who tenses up in Jensen's hold, and the gun is damn near deafening when it goes off.

*****

THEN

The third time Jared saved someone's life while wearing the suit, he actually stuck around. For weeks, the press in every media form had been scrambling to get an interview with him, begging in print and on the air for him to answer a few questions, to let the people of Austin know who was looking out for them. The why and how of superhero business.

It just so happened that the girl he'd saved from being run over by a drunk driver was actually on her school newspaper team.

The next day, every news station in the area was re-airing the amateur taping of her exclusive interview with the mysterious superhero. The girl's mother had set up the family video recorder on a tripod, and it was trained on Jared, still completely suited up, looking extremely out of place on their khaki-colored sofa with a calico cat winding around his ankles.

The girl, Sarah, sat off camera, and she hesitated before asking each question, like she wasn't sure if it was appropriate. "Thanks for agreeing to speak with me. I really appreciate it. My teacher's going to flip when he sees this."

Jared laughed, and those people watching the tape could probably see the outline of his smile through the mask. Jensen was glad he went with the full hood when designing the costume. "It's my pleasure, Sarah. I hope he gives you extra credit." Jared's voice was muffled and disguised enough by the fabric of his mask, but Jensen could tell he was trying hard to force his accent more, sound as little like himself as possible.

"Me too. Okay, um, first question. Why are you helping people? You don't have to."

"But I can," he answers. "That should be reason enough. If you're capable of helping someone, even if it's just lending a hand with something, then go for it! I don't think there's enough people in the world willing to take a few moments out of their day to help their fellow man."

"Even if you might get hurt while doing it?"

"It's a little different for me. People should never put themselves in a position where they might hurt themselves or others, but what could hurt you might not hurt me quite as much. Therefore, I'm a little more willing to stick my neck out, so to speak."
"So you're like Superman?"

Again Jared laughed. "Not quite, though he was a big inspiration for me. I grew up like everyone else, reading about his adventures in helping people and picturing myself in his shoes. I guess I just had a better chance at it than other folks."

Over the tape, the sound of Sarah rustling through notes was evident. "Oh!" she squeaked out. "I should have asked this first. What's your name?"

Jared looked straight at the camera, calm and collected, and said, "A very good friend of mine named me years ago. You can call me Samson."

*****

NOW

When the police arrive at the scene of the disturbance, a man and a woman are out cold on the floor. The man is clutching a revolver, one chamber of the cylinder empty, and there's a darkening bruise forming on his face. A brief search of their apartment reveals bags full of stolen money and a gray jumpsuit and gloves similar to the ones the police noticed the supposed-Samson wearing in all of the security footage at the banks.

In the parking lot, the canvassing team finds a car with its front end smashed in nearly to the engine block, like it had been used repeatedly to slam into a wall or two.

The police interview the suspects' neighbors, all of whom were too scared to even open their doors until the cops knocked. They all report hearing yelling, struggling and a gunshot at some point. The Ford kid turns down the music enough to answer all of their questions, and Misha gives some sort of cryptic fortune-cookie advice before saying, "They've always given off a feeling of imminent bad karma." When an officer knocks on their door, Jared opens it and explains he's been home all day taking care of his sick husband. They heard it all, down to the gunshot and the hurried footsteps of someone running away from the scene.

Jensen can't wait until they run Jeffrey's prints and find they fit some of the unknowns from the warehouse bust.

Jared closes the door and slumps against it in relief. He starts laughing, a sudden and weak giggle that only comes out when he's stressed. "Holy shit, Jensen. How the hell did you think of a cover story that quickly?"

Jensen looks up from his spot on the couch, where he's been playing the part of the ill husband with conviction. It helps that he's so hungry he's weak and every muscle in his body, especially in his left arm, has been screaming at him since Jared picked him up off the floor in the other apartment. "You were the one smart enough to wear gloves on the bank jobs."

"I was, wasn't I?" Jared says as he takes his spot on next cushion. "I was just thinking, it's one thing when I leave my prints at the scene of where I helped. I didn't want to sully all of that." He wraps his arm around Jensen and pulls him in, so that Jensen's head rests on his shoulder. "They're going to talk, you know. Tell people who I am."

"Let them. Chances are no one's going to believe them; there's enough evidence stacked against them. You just be careful, and no one will know the truth."

Jared's quiet for a moment. "Or I could just quit."

Jensen jerks up and hisses when the movement twinges already sore muscles. "Look, Jared. I didn’t mean…"

Jared shakes his head, effectively cutting Jensen off. "I'm serious. Because of this, I almost lost you. In every single way. I couldn't handle that, Jen. You say the word, and I'll quit."

Jared's eyes are a little sad as he says it, but Jensen can see the sincerity in them, and it takes his breath away. In this instant, he loves this man even more than he ever has, knowing that Jared would give it all up, this aspect of his life that he adores so much, just to make Jensen happy. It's more than Jensen could have ever hoped to hear.

He doesn't answer; instead, he digs into his pocket and pulls out a small item — a larger caliber bullet, its tip squashed flat from where it had hit Jared earlier. The three of them had been frozen in place, speechless, when the bullet stopped dead as it hit the clenched muscles in Jared's back, and fortunately Jared had been the one to recover first and react, knocking Jeffrey halfway across the room with a well-deserved punch, where he landed completely out for the count.

Jensen stares at the bullet in his hand and remembers a conversation from a long time ago. Finding out the hard way really sucks, he thinks.

*****

The media is awash with speculation and conspiracy theories for the next few days. It hits the local and national news feeds, radio reports, online blogs. People everywhere were talking about what did or might have happened.

"The suspect, Mr. Morgan, denies any involvement with the burglaries and says it was his neighbor, whose name was not revealed but who he claims is actually Samson, who committed the crimes."

"I guess I could have been mistaken when I said I definitely saw Samson in the vault. I mean, watching the tapes again, it does look like he's a little shorter than normal and not as well built or anything, and with that hood over his face... Yeah, it could have been that other guy in the suit."

"Though tests have found unidentified DNA inside of the gloves along with Morgan's, the bags did not have any other fingerprints on them but Morgan's own and those of his accomplice, Ms. Samantha Ferris. Police report Morgan's fingerprints also match some found on the scene of a drug bust that occurred last week."

"While the banks are relieved by the return of their stolen funds, they are still busy with repairs to their property and wish to know where to lay blame."

"Samson doesn't wear gloves and never has, and his fingerprints have been left all over the place. We all know that. So the fact that 'he' is wearing them in the bank tapes, actually making an attempt to mask his fingerprints for once, pretty much proves it wasn't actually him that did it. Whoever was impersonating him knew that the prints wouldn't match up when tested."

"The disturbance report says that a gun was fired, but have they found the bullet yet? No! Either our city has the crappiest forensics team in the nation, or someone took it from the scene. Who would do something like that and why? And come on, they really want us to believe that Morgan was able to drive a Nissan through a bank wall? There's definitely something more to this story that everyone is ignoring."

"This *bleep*er tried to frame a *bleeeeep* hero, someone who has put his *bleep*ing life on the line countless times for the people of this *bleep bleep* city. I say throw the *bleeeeeep* book at him. Or better yet, let me and my buddies loose on him, we'll *bleep* him up good. *Bleeep*, you can edit all that, right?"

*****

Life back at the office is... boring after his brush with the seedy underbelly of the city. For the first few hours Jensen is back, he keeps expecting someone to jump out at him, waving some sort of weapon or pointing their finger in an "a-ha!" moment.

Instead, he gets an official notice from Human Resources about his failure to follow proper out-sick procedures for the time he missed and a stern talking down from his supervisors about never doing it again.

All in all, he gets away scot-free. They both do.

As Jensen had predicted, no one takes Jeffrey's claims about Jared being Samson seriously, writing it off instead as the last ditch effort of a desperate man, even with Samantha backing him up. Sure, there’s an occasional cameraman sitting outside of their apartment building, but he and Jared make it a point to smile and wave, hamming it up for their supposed fifteen minutes of fame. A cop shows up later in the week for a follow-up interview with them both, just to make sure all of the facts are accurate, but no one accuses Jared of anything.

Life goes on without incident.

Chris invites them out for drinks yet again, accepting Jensen's explanation of the missed texts and calls with a story about how he'd gotten so sick that he passed out and remained unconscious for practically the whole time. Jared sits by his side the entire night, but he's not really there. Sure, he looks to be enjoying his beer, and he's chuckling and nodding at the right points, but he's not his normal exuberant self, the Jared that monopolizes the conversation whenever they're out and makes everyone laugh along with him. He's lost somewhere in his own head.

It probably doesn't help that Jensen hasn't given him an answer yet.

The only spark of the real Jared he sees all night is when the television in the corner of the bar flashes to a story about a collapsing building a few streets over. Jared's halfway out of the booth, an excuse on his tongue, before every emotion on his face shuts down and he heads to the bathroom instead.

"What was that all about?" Chris asks before tipping his bottle back.

Jensen shrugs, reaching into his jeans pocket and fingering the bullet that he hasn't taken off his person since that day.

He had asked Jared to make a choice: was he Jared or Samson? He never expected to have that choice turned back around onto him.

*****

THEN

"Psst, Jensen. You 'wake?"

Jared had begged his mom to let Jensen stay the night, and she agreed, provided that they followed the rules all night, which meant no rough housing whatsoever. Jensen hadn't stayed away from home before, but he was a big boy now, and besides, this was Jared's place. Nothing to be scared of here. Jared's mom had called lights out about thirty minutes ago, but Jared didn't go to sleep, kept squirming in his sleeping bag on the floor and keeping Jensen up.

"Yeah. Whatcha need, Jared?" He rolled over in his own sleeping bag to look at Jared, and the other boy's eyes were wide and shining in the tiny glow of the nightlight beside the bed.

"You're my bestest friend, did you know that?"

"Well, yeah," Jensen said. "I think I'm your only friend. But you're my best friend too."

"I have a secret," Jared whispered. "But Mama doesn't want me to tell you."

Jensen fidgeted a little himself; secrets were always pretty cool, and he didn't really know much about Jared beside the fact that his parents were weird sometimes with their rules. But it was remembering Jared's parents that made up Jensen's mind. "Don't tell me. I don't want your mom and dad mad because you were bad and told me."

"You're right," Jared said. "They’d be really mad. I'll tell you someday though, when I'm a little older. Because we're going to be friends forever, right?"

"Absolutely forever. Can I go to sleep now? I'm tired."

*****

NOW

Jared's quiet and still but definitely not sleeping. His breathing rhythm is all wrong for how he sleeps.

Jensen listens to the silence, tries to quiet his mind so he can get to sleep himself, but it's not working. Thoughts are speeding through his head at a million miles an hour, and if it keeps up at this pace, he'll never get any rest. Again.

Jared sighs suddenly, deep and shaky, and a brief moment of clarity rushes through Jensen.

In the dark, he reaches for his bedside table, grabbing by memory for the item he left there before crawling under the covers. Beside him, Jared stirs immediately, giving up the pretense of sleep to investigate. "Jen?"

Jensen rolls over and faces him, pressing his hand into Jared's and releasing the ruined bullet into Jared's palm before curling Jared's fingers around it. "Here's the deal. Find a job first, something solid. Then we'll sit down and really talk about this, no yelling or fighting. This is a decision that neither one of us can make alone. We need to make it together."

*****

Jensen finally has his office exactly as he wants it. There's a small end table beside his sofa underneath the window, and the surprisingly hearty fern that he may or may not have forgotten to water a couple of times is basking in the sunlight. Behind his desk, on a shelf he had the maintenance crew put up specifically for him, are his action figures, strategically placed. He's received a couple of odd looks from the other directors when they've come to see how he's settling in, but he just smiles when they ask, tell them it's a guilty pleasure. Gen from Purchasing even admitted to having a couple of her own at home.

He looks at his wall clock, and it's about the time Jared's usually getting up for work. While not the most glamorous job in the world, Jared's new position as night watchman has been the most stable he's had since he graduated. The hours are taking a little bit of getting used to, but it's freed up Jared's afternoons for his more extracurricular activities.

Speaking of, Danneel's voice blasts through the office. "Breaking news, folks! Major accident on I-30, more than ten cars involved. And Samson is confirmed on the scene!"

Almost everyone in the office cheers, and Jensen's not going to call them out for getting off task. He gets up from his chair and walks to his windows overlooking the city.

Somewhere out there, his husband is saving someone's life.

And damn it, Jensen is proud of him.

END