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Call Me Freedom

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After four hours in the artificially cooled van, the heat hits Jensen like a brick wall. He draws in a sharp breath that feels like it singes the insides of his lungs and coughs. Freaking Texas in freaking June.

He starts when someone slaps a hand between his shoulder blades. Chris nods at him from underneath the brim of his brown Stetson. His white t-shirt is uncomfortably bright in the glaring sunlight, and Jensen squints.

“Glad you came, eh?” Chris says with a quick smile.

Jensen grins back humorlessly. Moisture already begins to bead at his hairline, right at the edge of his Cowboys cap, and at the back of his neck. He still can’t believe he traded the hammock in his momma’s back yard for several hours in a van full of sweaty armpits and smelly feet.

But, if he’s honest, and he usually is, even that prospect is never enough to keep him away. Jensen loves the South Coast Summer Soccer Championships, or SCSSC’s – it’s two months of straight-up soccer for one. No other classes, no family, no digging around in the backyard helping his mother plant begonias. Not that Jensen cares about that. His mom is great. He doesn’t mind helping out when she asks him to. It’s just that he sometimes wishes she wouldn’t enlist his help when a Chelsea match is on.

He lifts up the cover of his messenger bag and gets out his camcorder. The thing is expensive – Jensen mowed lawns for the neighbors for a year and a half before he’d finally saved up enough – but he’s never regretted it. Filming is, besides soccer, his favorite thing in the world.

He flips the camera on and trains it on the familiar surroundings. It’s his third summer at John Hart Academy, an expensive looking private school surrounded by artificially green lawns and fields. He feels bad for the poor suckers who actually go to school here, in these posh, stuffy buildings with the only getaway three houses and a corner store two miles down the road. But for the summer, roaming around the empty school with the guys, Hart is pretty amazing. They have an almost brand new blacktop to play basketball on, a cafeteria that has food almost as good as what he gets back home, and, oh, just the best soccer field this side of Austin.

And they can use it with practically no fees.

He lets the camera swing away from the imposing double doors when the other van, white with a maroon East Austin High logo on the side, pulls up next to him.

“Jenny!” Strait calls from the passenger seat. He looks like a model, as usual, all slick hair and designer t-shirt, but his smile isn’t very nice. And now Jensen has the hated nickname on film. Great.

Tips of his ears burning, he zooms in on the back door just as it starts to slide open.

Mike covers the camera with his hand as he climbs out of the van, slapping the other one down on his shoulder. (“I swear you even film yourself taking a dump, Ackles.”) Jensen wrenches the camera away, laughing, before focusing on the next arrival. He starts at the battered sneakers, the frayed edges of his jeans, and slowly works his way upwards, past the humongous belt buckle and up the dark blue polo shirt until he gets to Jared’s face-splitting grin. He stands on the bottom step, soccer ball in one hand and the other holding his backpack slung over his shoulder. He blows his hair out of his face and strikes a pose.

Someone behind him snaps, “Get a move on, Paddywhack,” and pushes him forward. Jared stumbles towards Jensen, drops everything and hoists him up by the waist, whirling him around. Jensen’s cap goes flying and his camera records a whirl of grey and green and white stripes, but he’s grinning, too, when Jared sets him down. Jared even fetches his cap for him and brushes it off before he carefully pulls it into place over Jensen’s hair.

Jensen grins. He knows he probably sounds incredibly gay, but everything is better with Jared around. Easier. Getting his cap dusty isn’t an issue. Even the heat doesn’t bother him all that much anymore.

“Good trip?” Jared asks him. They’re pretty much standing toe to toe at this point, and there’s no way Jensen can miss Jared’s satisfied smile when he nods.

“Aside from Penn having Mexican for dinner last night,” Jensen says meaningfully.

Jared scrunches up his face in disgust but can’t help laughing at the same time, meaning he ends up snuffling like a dying pig, and Jensen can’t stop the laugh bubbling up at the sound. When Jared treats him to a daringly raised eyebrow, he nudges Jared’s shoulder. “Were you awake for any of yours?”

Jared shrugs. “The first twenty minutes or so. I woke up when we pulled up to the rest stop though.”

“That must’ve been exciting,” Jensen says.

“They had jelly bellies,” Jared says defensively.

“Oh. Well in that case…” Jensen mocks.

Jared rolls his eyes and solemnly presses his forefinger into Jensen’s nose.

Jensen manages to keep his face straight for three whole seconds before he starts laughing, and Jared smiles, going a little soft around the edges, and knocks his shoulder into Jensen’s.

“Jensen, come get your bag,” Justin calls from the back door of his van.

Jensen glances over at Jared who nods him towards Justin and winks at him before wandering off to collect his own things.

Jensen didn’t bring much. His training gear, of course, which has accumulated over the years, but other than that just a couple of jeans, shorts and t-shirts. Mostly it’s stuff he’s owned for a while and a couple of hand-me-downs from Josh. People like Strait and Hayden usually roll up with an entire wardrobe, but that’s kind of difficult when you don’t really own that much. Jensen vowed a long time ago that he’s not going to waste his mother’s precious money on clothes. So yeah, he shops at Target and outlet stores, and sometimes he gets teased about it, but it’s not like he really needs anything nicer.

He takes his bag from Justin and starts wandering over to the small huddle of his team members where their coach is flipping through paperwork. More than a few people, sleep-creased and wrinkled, wince when Morgan whistles sharply. He gestures them closer with his clipboard. “Gather round, boys,” he says.

It takes a few moments for everyone to shuffle into a loose circle. Justin prods at the last few stragglers and then they’re all paying attention to their coach, more or less awake.

“Alright,” Morgan says. “Once again, we made it to Hart without casualties. I’m proud of you all.”

His sarcastic tone gets lost in Mike’s overenthusiastic “Go Team!” but he smiles approvingly when Justin whaps Mike on the back of the head.

“Great,” he says toothily. “Dinner is at six. Newbies, if you get lost, follow the signs that say ‘Dining Hall.’ Or one of your more experienced team members, if you’re willing to put your lives in their hands.”

He glares in Chris’ and Steve’s direction, who happily blow him some kisses. Morgan ignores it. “That’s it for today. I know you’re all very tired and will go to bed immediately and not run around like headless chickens all night,” he says pointedly.

A couple of people laugh.

“Yeah, right,” PJ mutters by Jensen’s ear.

“Bear in mind,” Morgan says, letting his voice carry, “that the usual curfew rules apply just as always.” He nods at his assistant. “Justin has your housing assignments, so follow him; he’ll unlock your rooms for you.”

It’s a strange procession that follows Justin into the entrance hall and up a flight of stairs into the dormitory wing: fourteen slowly shuffling teenagers loaded with duffle bags and backpacks, eyes closed to slits, stopping only when Justin stops.

They lose Zac and Dan right by the staircase, then Penn and Chase, and Adam and Paul. Justin stops between another two opposing doors and points to the one on their left. “Julian, Khleo, this is you.” He takes a few steps and unlocks the other one. “Jared, Jensen, you guys are in here.”

“Same thing as every night, Pinkie,” Jensen hears Mike mutter, and he blushes.

He lets Jared go in first, waiting for Justin to remind them that dinner is in an hour and a half before he shuffles inside and closes the door. Jared has already flopped facedown onto his mattress and only groans weakly when Jensen asks him if he’s alright.

Jensen sits down on his own bed, the one farther away from their little private bathroom, and watches Jared for a moment. Then he get out his camera again – he’d packed it away for their little march down the halls – and zooms in on the slow rise and fall of Jared’s torso.

Dinner is a quiet affair. Everybody’s pretty beat from traveling and the small tables that hold groups of four each are all pretty subdued. Jensen sits at a table with Mike and Tom, waiting for the line at the buffet to shrink a little bit, but even Mike isn’t his usual chatty self.

Jared sits down in the last free chair with a groan, a plate loaded with pizza slices in each hand. Jensen would roll his eyes at him, but he’s gotten used to Jared’s insane appetite over the years. Plus, Jensen may not have the stomach of an elephant, but he’s still a teenager. After an intense match, a large pepperoni pizza is nothing.

Mike pushes himself upright. “I’ma get food,” he says. “Jensen, you want?”

Jensen nods and watches Mike amble off, Tom in tow. Next to him, Jared has already polished off the first slice and started in on the second. There’s a greasy stain on his chin, but he doesn’t even seem to notice, he’s so focused on his food. Anyone else would look ridiculous like that. Jared just looks adorable.

Jensen opens his mouth to say something about it and then shuts it again. He nudges Jared’s elbow with his own and Jared grins at him, teeth stained with tomato sauce.

Jensen? Jensen can’t help but smile back.

The light outside is starting to fade when they finally make it back to their rooms. Jared immediately strips down to his t-shirt and boxers while Jensen goes to take out his contacts and brush his teeth. He does a shamefully halfhearted job of it, spits once, and stretches out on top of his own bed.

Jared lets his head slump onto his pillow. “Ah, the joys of a school for rich fuckers,” he says.

“They’re nice enough to let us use their soccer field,” Jensen feels obliged to point out. “And it’s probably their parents that are paying tuition.”

“So it’s a school for the kids of rich fuckers. Like, Son of Richguy.” Jared lets his head loll over to give Jensen a look. “And don’t tell me anything about scholarships and full rides, okay? I don’t want to know.”

“I just think we should appreciate their generosity,” Jensen says.

Jared rolls his eyes. “Yeah, ‘cause this is totally more than a drop in the bucket for them.”

When Jensen frowns a little, Jared sighs. “They have their own bathrooms, and showers down in the gym.”

“Shared bathrooms,” Jensen points out.

“Yeah, with like, one other dude.” Jared shakes his head. “I share a bathroom with my twelve-year-old sister. This doesn’t even begin to compare.”

Jensen laughs even though the comment reminds him of Mac and how long it’s been since he’s spoken to her, making his smile turn a little rueful. “I guess we do have it pretty good,” he says.

Jared breathes a satisfied sigh and lets his eyes flutter shut. “That we do, man,” he says.

Jensen can’t help his giant yawn in reply. “I can’t believe I’m so fucking tired,” he says,

Jared grunts. “You wanna get it?” he asks.

Jensen doesn’t, not really, but he still drags his carcass off the bed and reaches for the light switch before he turns and allows himself to face plant into the comforter.

“Thanks,” Jared says.

“Sure.” Jensen tears at one corner of the blanket until it comes loose from where it’s tucked underneath the mattress and wriggles underneath. “’Night, Jay.”

“Good night,” Jared replies, sleepy enough to fall back on the old-school manners his parents like so much. They’re really sweet people, of course (anybody related to Jared kind of has to be, Jensen thinks, or the world would fall apart, or something) but the one time Jensen went over to Jared’s house for dinner, he thought all the “yes sir’s” and “no Ma’am’s” and “So kind of you’s” were going to come out of his ears.

Jared is quiet for so long Jensen starts to suspect he’s fallen asleep, even without the telltale snuffling of a Jared halfway to dreamland, when Jared stirs again.

“Hey, Jen,” he says quietly.

Jensen lifts his head.

Jared’s expression softens into something warm and undecipherable. “I’ve missed you,” he says.

“Me too,” Jensen agrees. He buries his head in the pillow, breathes in the scent of freshly-washed cotton and revels in the fuzzy feeling of being exactly where he wants to be.

It’s not even quarter to eight – Jensen’s LED alarm clock keeps him well informed – when people start whispering in front of their door. He groans into his pillow and prays to God they’ll go away, but instead their hushed conversation just gets louder and merrier. Finally, when he can almost make out whatever the hell they’re planning, there’s abruptly silence and then a quiet knock. He untangles himself from the bedding, snags his glasses from the bedside table and stumbles over to the door.

“What the hell, guys?” he says even before he recognizes Mike and Tom standing in the hallway with matching expressions of mischief on their faces.

“Hey,” Mike whispers and shoves a paper cup of ice cubes into his hand. When Jensen just stares at him blankly, he rolls his eyes and motions towards the sleeping giant in the other bed.

Jensen rubs at his eyes with his free hand. “Wuh?” he manages.

Mike rolls his eyes again, more extensively this time. He jabs two fingers at Jensen, no, at the cup he’s still holding, then at Jared, then at Tom, himself, and then mimes something that looks like a roller coaster gone horrible wrong, and ends with an expectant look.

“Pretend it’s like, eight in the morning and I have no idea what you just said,” Jensen whispers. He glances over his shoulder at Jared, but the guy just snuggles deeper into his cushions with a sleepy sound of protest.

Scowling, Mike takes Jensen by the collar of his t-shirt and pulls him in close. “You,” he whispers, “are going to take an ice cube or two and slowly insert it into the back of Jared’s shirt. And then we sit back and watch the carnage.”

Jensen hands the cup back. “I don’t want to die yet,” he replies, equally quiet.

“Pussy,” Mike hisses. He nudges Tom. “You gonna show him how real Texas boys do these things?”

Tom folds his fingers over the rim of the cup, but he gives Mike a long look before he actually takes it. “If you think you’re getting out of the ass-kicking Jared’s gonna dole out, you are sorely mistaken.”

Mike pulls out the puppy eyes in reply. “Would I do that to you?”

“Yes,” Tom says.

Mike pouts but doesn’t even try to deny it, and Tom, shaking his head, shuffles over to Jared’s bed.

“Wait,” Jensen hisses. He yanks on his jeans from yesterday and fastens them quickly before he gets his camera out of its case. With the red signal blinking, Jensen bites his lip when Tom carefully fishes an ice-cube out of the cup. He can’t believe he’s actually letting this happen. He should wake Jared up, warn him, or something. Not just stand there and stare at the screen of his camera in horrified fascination.

Beside him, Mike does a gleeful little dance. Tom glares at him before he sneaks his finger underneath the collar of Jared’s t-shirt and eases it away from his skin with the precision of a surgeon. He sets the cup of ice cubes down on Jared’s bedside table and fishes one out. With a grimace, he reaches his fingers down Jared’s shirt as far as they will go (and considering the general size of Tom, that’s kind of far), lets go, and takes a step back.

For a moment, nothing really happens. Then Jared twitches and moans. Mike clamps a hand over his mouth. Jensen wishes he could do the same, but he wants both hands free to protect the camera that is about to record the coming disaster.

Jared bolts upright with an entirely unmanly shriek. He shimmies all over the bed in an attempt to reach his back, contorting himself into positions that would make even Linda Blair proud. He doesn’t even seem to notice Tom and Mike laughing their asses off, and Jensen bites his lip so he doesn’t start chuckling as well.

They’re still giggling hysterically when Jared finally gets his fingers around the half-melted ice-cube and stares at it in disbelief. “What the hell, guys,” he says.

“You don’t like our present?” Mike asks innocently.

“What do you think?” Jared retorts, sarcasm dripping from every word, and Mike shrugs.

“Free alarm clock, what’s not to like?” he says.

“You’re unbelievable,” Jared says. “You better start running now.” And of course that’s when he notices the camcorder. “Oh my God, Jensen,” he snaps, tossing his pillow and him and nearly knocking the camera out of his hand. “You are so completely dead!”

Jensen takes a hasty step backwards, but Jared focuses his glare on the quietly snickering duo by the door.

“You two,” he points his index finger at them, “had better beat it before I get out of bed.”

“Oh no, Bigfoot is coming!” Mike gripes, but when Jared merely swings his legs onto the floor, they turn tail and flee.

Jensen almost calls “Cowards” after them, but he’s not sure drawing attention to himself is really a good idea at this point.

He carefully zips his camera back into its case when Jared dashes past him with the cup of ice cubes in his hand, weighing the possibility of it getting damaged more important than what could be prime movie material, before he pads out into the hall. Khleo and Julian are standing in their open door across the way, following the mad pursuit from the safety of their room.

Jensen gives them a nod and follows the noise to the bottom of the stairs. The cup of ice cubes lies half-spilled and abandoned on the marble tiles of the entrance hall. Tom managed to get away, apparently, but Mike is currently in Jared’s stranglehold, getting a harsh scalp massage.

“Knock it off!” Mike demands shrilly. “Why aren’t you beating on Jensen?”

“Hey!” Jensen says, because what the fuck, but Jared doesn’t even look his way.

“’Cause it was totally Jensen’s idea,” he says.

Jensen isn’t sure if he’s offended that Jared doesn’t think he’s capable of coming up with such a lame prank or happy that Jared knows him so well, so he keeps his mouth shut.

“It could have been,” Mike says in his stead.

“Possible, but highly unlikely,” Jared says, and noogies Mike some more.

“Fine, uncle, whatevs,” Mike finally says.

Jared digs his knuckles in one last time before he lets go. “You sure you wanna start this prank shit again?” he asks. “’Cause as far as I remember it, Jen and I pretty much killed you last year.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Mike mutters and messes with his practically nonexistent hair. “You totally cheated, is what you did.”

“Sure,” Jared says. He picks up the cup with the ice cubes and glances back over his shoulder. “Oh, Jensen,” he sing-songs, and Jensen runs like hell.

When Jensen is done shaking the ice from his shirt and Jared wearing more than a t-shirt and boxers, they finally head towards the dining hall for breakfast.

“I can’t believe you let them do that to me,” Jared grouses on the way. “Even my parents were never that sadistic.”

Jensen shrugs. “I got some great footage out of it.”

“You bastard,” Jared says, but he sounds more affectionate than upset.

Jensen stops walking anyway, lays a hand on Jared’s chest. “I’m sorry,” he says earnestly. “I know I shouldn’t have valued a prank over you.”

He’s barely closed his mouth when Jared reaches down and wraps him up in a hug. “It’s okay,” he says into Jensen’s hair. “I’m just teasing, okay? I bet I’m gonna laugh my ass off when I see the video.”

Justin ambles past, a liberated cafeteria mug with what smells strongly like coffee in each hand, and gives them a level look. “Be on the field in twenty minutes, guys,” he warns.

“Yes, sir, Assistant Coach,” Jared says with a crisp salute, and Justin rolls his eyes.

They stop in the cafeteria long enough for Jensen to sneak a cup of coffee and Jared to wolf down a plate of sausages and eggs before they wander back to their room to change. Jared smothers his face in toothpaste while Jensen puts his contacts in, and when Jensen takes over at the sink, he flops down on his bed.

“We don’t have a lot of time,” Jensen warns.

“Yeah, yeah.” Jared stretches his arms above his head, flashing a line of brown skin, and yawns. He lowers himself off the bed in slow motion and finds a pair of shorts somewhere. Jensen has to dance around him when he stops right in front of the bathroom door to wedge his feet into his vans.

While Jared’s taking a piss in the bathroom, Jensen shucks his jeans and pulls on a pair of running shorts instead. Cleats in hand, he waits by the door while Jared fumbles his way through the mess on his bedside table to find a hair band. His mop is just barely long enough to form an inch-long ponytail at the back of his head. Of course, that means that the front is still free to fall merrily into his eyes.

He glares at Jensen even though Jensen never even opened his mouth. “Don’t say it,” he warns.

“Say what?” Jensen asks innocently. “That you look like a girl?”

“Yes, that,” Jared says venomously. He snags his cleats from under the bed and follows Jensen down the hallway, taking care to shove him into a water fountain on the way.

It’s already hot out.

They’re among the first ones out on the field – only the freshman are sprawled out on the grass while Justin is going through equipment a few feet away – and Morgan’s face is already dark and foreboding.

“Ackles, Padalecki. Barely on time,” he snarls, but Jensen is pretty sure he’s not actually serious.

“But on time,” Jared points out. He flops down on the ground at Morgan’s feet and smiles brightly up at the man. “How are you this awesome morning?” he asks.

Justin makes a quick cameo to press a cup of coffee into Morgan’s hand. The coach takes a deep gulp and savors it for a moment, eyes closed. “Much better now,” he says. “I heard you took it upon yourself to get everyone out of bed early this morning?”

“Yeah.” Jared smiles widely. “Thought you’d appreciate it.”

“As long as no one calls the police, I couldn’t care less what you do,” Morgan tells him.

“He’s lying,” Justin mouths behind him, and Jensen has to clamp down on a chuckle.

“What’d we miss?” Mike asks, coming up behind them with Tom in tow. There’s a steady trickle of people after that, and before long, all fourteen of them are gathered in a loose semi-circle at Morgan’s feet. Chris and Steve are the last to show up, to no one’s surprise, and Morgan tilts his imaginary hat at them.

“Thanks for joining us,” he tells them, and Chris smiles sunnily underneath his ever-present Stetson.

Morgan rolls his eyes. “Alright, everyone. Welcome back to another summer of South Coast Championships. I’m glad everyone could make it.” He holds up a finger. “First off, some housekeeping. I doubt anybody’s surprised, but…” He throws a glance and a wink in Jensen’s direction. “…our new team captain is Jensen.”

A few people clap, Jared wolf-whistles to the delight of the rest of the team, Mike claps his hand down on Jensen’s shoulder. As far as congratulations goes, it’s all pretty tame, but Jensen still wishes he could sink into the ground and disappear. He can’t stand him when Morgan puts him in the spotlight like that.

Morgan hands him the armband, and Jensen quietly, reverently, slides it up his forearm. It’s not the nice one, of course, not the one he’ll wear during games. It’s nothing more than a glorified sweatband to signify his status and get him used to the additional weight on his arm, but it feels good. Rewarding, somehow. Like all those hours spent passing balls back and forth until his feet were sore, were worth it. He lets his fingers linger on the fabric for a moment. He can’t wait to tell his mom about this.

When he looks up again, Morgan gives him a private little smile. Then he cuts a glance at Chris and Steve. “In other news, I’m sure we’re all very glad that our favorite seniors decided to join us for another semester.”

A few people laugh.

Chris smirks. “We just can’t bear to part with you, Coach,” he says. “Our lives would be miserable without you.”

Morgan rolls his eyes. “I will personally make your life miserable if you don’t lose the hat, Kane,” he says.

Chris smirks but tilts the hat off his head. Jensen can hear him mumble, “Anything for you, coach,” under his breath. The general attention quickly returns to the coach, but Jensen watches Chris a moment longer, until Chris sees him looking and throws him a wink. They’ve been friends ever since that fateful day that Steve from next door and his friend Chris – big boys, in fourth grade already and a whole year older than Jensen – kicked their soccer ball underneath Jensen’s porch. Jensen abandoned his lonely game of Super Street Fighter II Turbo to get it for them, and, encouraged by their calls of, “Kick it back, kid,” sailed it past both pairs of agile feet and the two empty paint buckets that marked the goal. After that, it had been a matter of hours before Jensen suddenly had not only friends but also a hobby. His parents had found both equally hard to believe.

They’re still friends now, even though Steve and Chris are pretty much Jensen’s polar opposites. They both smoke and regularly ditch practice to go play unpaid gigs in seedy venues. In fact, the only reason they’re still both allowed to play in the SCSSCs is because they blew off one of their finals to go play at a street festival across town and flunked the class, and have to take it again in the fall to make up for it. But they’re also loyal and protective and the best friends Jensen has, aside from Jared, so he forgives them for not taking the team as seriously as he does.

A shrill whistle yanks Jensen back into the present and to Morgan’s sadistic habits.

The coach grins down at the lot of them. “So. The first school we’ll be playing is MLH. The game is two weeks from now, on Saturday. You’ll all be relieved to hear that they’ll be coming down here and we will not have to drive the eight hours up there.”

Jensen isn’t the only one who smiles at the news. Michael Lordan High is in the middle of nowhere, their food sucks, and the field they play on is always way too damp. James Lafferty tore two ligaments in his knee there last summer and had to quit the team for good.

Morgan snaps his fingers to get them focused again. “I know you’re all thinking that playing the Beavers will be easy as pie-“

“That’s cause they play like pussies,” Hayden throws in, and everyone except Julian bursts into startled laughter. Morgan’s face doesn’t lose its serious expression, but Jensen thinks he sees the corners of his mouth twitch.

“I don’t get it,” Julian says.

“I’m sure your teammates will be willing to explain it. Later,” Morgan says. “I’m aware you’re all tempted to underestimate the MLH team, but they’ve recruited a number of talented freshmen and stepped up their training regimen, so we will not be slacking off.”

A collective groan answers him. Army boot camp is nothing compared to two weeks of training with Morgan on a mission.

The man in question glances down at his notepad. “Provided you lot get your act together, we’ll be playing the next team two weeks after MLH, then one two weeks after that, and semi-finals two weeks after that. Third place will be decided one week later, and then the finale is a week after that.”

He winks at Jensen, who seems to be the only one whose eyes haven’t glazed over. “That means that you’ll have three weeks to be fat and lazy before I have you back in my clutches.”

“At least,” Justin throws in.

Coach points a finger at him. “Precisely. As always, we’ll be going home the day after our last game.” He turns around to give them all a quelling look. “That means that, if you screw up against the Beavers, this will be the shortest soccer summer camp in the history of East Austin High, which will be extremely humiliating for all of you. No pressure.”

He signals Justin to pass him a large white notepad and hunkers down in the middle of their circle. “Now, he says, “down to business. I’ve made some changes in the formation. Most of you are going to keep doing what you’re doing, but there’ve been some adjustments, so if you’d all huddle up for a moment…”

Mike throws himself down in the chair across from Jensen and groans theatrically. “I’m dying,” he says. When he gets no reply, he blinks his eyes open and peers at him. “Didn’t you hear me?” he asks. “I’m dying.”

Jared glances from Mike to Jensen and laughs. “Don’t mind him,” he says, reaching up to pat Jensen’s shoulder. “I think Coach broke him.”

Jensen shakes his head to clear it. It is so blissfully cool in the dining hall that he completely zoned out the minute he sat down to wait for lunch to be brought out. Now he remembers that his thighs ache and his neck prickles, probably lobster red by now. He reaches for his glass of water and turns to Jared. “I think we should move to Antarctica,” he says. He takes a long gulp of water, stopping only when the ice cubes press against his lips. When he puts the glass down, Jared pushes his own over.

“We can do that,” he agrees easily. “A couple more years of global warming, and we can get a pool put in.”

Jensen buries his head in his hands. He looks up when Tom sits down in the last empty seat at their table, neck and arms glistening with moisture. “This may be the first time I was okay with the fact that the locker room showers here only have cold water,” he says.

Mike grins ruefully. “Remind me why I’m doing this to myself again?”

“Because you love it,” Jared says. He reaches over and lets his hand rest on the back of Jensen’s neck. “You okay, man?” he asks quietly.

Jensen groans at the feel of Jared’s fingers, ice-cold and damp from being wrapped around his condensation-covered glass, against his heated skin. “I’m fine,” he says after a moment. “Not sure how I’ll handle another three hours of this, but I’ll be fine.”

“I believe in you,” Jared says with a grin.

“You’re an idiot,” Jensen retorts, but with the way Jared’s smiling at him, he can’t really say he means it.

If anything, the drills Morgan puts them through after lunch are even more painful than the ones before. Jensen’s starting to suspect that his toned runner’s legs have secretly been exchanged for jelly-filled ones, and Morgan’s definitely not one to show mercy. Over and over, they do push-ups, sprint all over the field in the craziest formations, and try to outwit each other feinting left and right. They haven’t touched a ball since this morning and Jensen still feels like he’s just gone through an extra-heavy spin cycle.

At least he’s not the only one. Once Morgan declares them done for the day half the team practically runs from the field. The other half follows at snail pace, too exhausted to do more than shuffle along. Jensen’s somewhere in between, getting to the locker room when it’s about half-full. He sits down and groans, fumbling with the laces of his cleats, but he can still hear Strait whisper to Chase, “How did such a wimp ever get to be our captain?”

Apparently Jensen’s not the only one who’s heard it, because the noise level in the room immediately plummets. Even Strait notices. “What?” he asks without meeting Jensen’s eyes. “You don’t think it’s ridiculous how he can barely even walk after a single day of work-outs?”

Jensen tries not to curl up into a ball and die. His face feels flaming red. At least Jared isn’t here, because he’d probably beat Strait to a pulp and then feel horrible after.

“Will you put a sock in it already?” Chris calls over. “Blablabla, you guys are awesome, everybody else sucks, we’ve heard it all and we don’t care. There’s a reason Jensen is team captain and not you, you know?”

Strait scowls and mutters something under his breath, probably something about what Jensen really did to get the armband, but he’s wise enough not to say it out loud.

Jensen avoids Chris and Steve after dinner. It’s not that he doesn’t appreciate their protectiveness, it’s part of why he likes hanging out with them, but sometimes he just wishes they’d be a bit more… subtle. He’s not mad or embarrassed or anything. He just doesn’t want them to go on some epic rant about Strait (again), doesn’t want to hear it, that’s all, so he keeps his distance for a little bit.

Jared sticks close, of course, so somehow they end up in one of the hallways, one with armchairs and couches off to the side, talking to PJ, Penn and Adam.

PJ lies sprawled out sideways on one of the chairs, jeans button undone over his little potbelly. Sometimes the way he can shovel food into his mouth puts even Jared to shame. “Wish my old lady could cook this good,” he moans, patting his inflated belly.

“This is better than your momma’s cooking?” Jared asks dubiously.

PJ gives him a look. “My momma burns salad,” he says.

“I don’t know why you’re pretending to care,” Adam throws in from behind the newest issue of Ultimate Spiderman, one with – surprise! – Spidey and a barely dressed blonde bombshell on the cover. “You’d eat anything.”

“That’s a lie, man,” PJ says. He twists his head around to glare at him. “Total lie.”

Jared reaches over to nudge Jensen and share a grin before they both settle more comfortably into their seats to enjoy the show.

Adam rests his comic book on his stomach. “You eat cockroaches,” he says.

“That was in kindergarten,” PJ protests.

“You ate a raw oyster in seventh grade biology,” Penn, the last of their little round, chips in.

“Got twenty dollars for it, too,” PJ says, more proud than anything.

“That’s kinda gross,” Jensen says before he can stop himself, and earns himself a round of eye-rolls.

“You’re a girl,” Adam says, all matter-of-fact, and of course, that’s when Jensen’s phone rings. He digs it out of his pocket, bright red, and flips it the right side up. Mom, the display reads. Jensen untangles himself from Jared’s legs and stands. “I gotta take this,” he says.

“Oh, is that your mommy calling?” Adam asks with a syrupy smile on his face.

Jensen flushes bright red, of course, but the most intelligent comeback he can come up with is a scowl.

“Leave him be, Adam,” Jared says.

“What are you, his babysitter?” PJ rolls his eyes. “What’re you gonna do if I don’t? Pout at me?”

“Maybe.” Jared plasters an evil smirk on his face. “Or maybe I’ll just tell everyone where you hid your teddy bear.”

That’s bullshit, of course – no one is suicidal enough to take a stuffed animal to a camp full of high school age guys, but everybody jeers and laughs anyway, and Jensen can slip away to take his phone call unnoticed.

He rounds the first corner and flips his phone open. “Hi momma,” he says. Despite PJ’s teasing, it feels good to hear from her. He doesn’t like the thought of her all alone without him.

“Hi baby,” his mother says. “Is this a bad time? I can call back later if you want.”

“It’s fine,” Jensen says quickly, before she can hang up. “We’re done for the day.”

“That’s good to hear,” she says. “Did you get settled in alright?”

“Uh-huh,” Jensen says. He texted her the night before to tell her exactly that, of course, but it’s not the same as actually saying it. “It’s been great so far.” He bites his lip. “I made captain,” he adds.

“Oh honey, that’s great,” she immediately gushes. The proud note in her voice makes Jensen stand up a little straighter. “Not that it’s a surprise, of course, but that’s great.”

“It’s not like anything was decided,” Jensen says quickly. There had been a fairly high possibility, of course, especially with all the hints Coach kept dropping at practice, but he hadn’t wanted to assume anything.

“I know, darling,” she says. “But anything else wouldn’t have been fair. And don’t you tell me ‘no’, I’ve been a soccer mom for God knows how many years now.”

“No, ma’am,” Jensen says.

She laughs at that, bright and bubbly, the way she only ever does for Jensen or her plants. Everyone else gets a polite, chirpy little giggle, but with Jensen, she sounds like she means it. He swallows heavily. Who’s going to be there this summer, to make her laugh? To make sure she does something besides watch bad soaps and shop for crazily expensive roses that she saw in a magazine somewhere?

“Mac asked about you, you know,” his mother says, utterly unaware of the depressing turn his thoughts have taken. “Last time I talked to her. She wanted to know why you never call her.”

It takes Jensen several attempts to swallow past the lump in his throat. “She can call me, then,” he says. “She has a phone.”

“Jensen…” his mom sighs.

“I tried calling her,” he says.

“Once,” she throws in, but Jensen just keeps on talking.

“If she’s gonna be busy all the time, she’s gonna have to be the one calling me.”

“It’s not like you have all the free time in the world,” his mother reminds him.

“Yeah, but I’m actually doing shit,” Jensen says. “You know, practicing. She’s just busy painting her nails.”

“Don’t talk about your sister like that,” she says.

“Oh, like she doesn’t talk that way about me.”

“That’s enough with the attitude, young man,” his momma says, and Jensen flushes.

“I’m sorry,” he says, because he is, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to actually call Mac now.

From the sigh he gets in return, his mother knows that full well. “Just take care of yourself, okay, honey?” she says.

“I will, momma. Bye,” he says, and hangs up before they can get into a full-blown fight. They never used to argue like this. Before the divorce, Jensen was his mother’s darling, and afterwards they grew even closer. The arguments didn’t start until the money issues did. They still don’t fight much, but more than they used to. More than Jensen likes.

He slips his phone into his pocket and turns to head back to the others, only to almost bump into Jared as he rounds the corner. His friend lifts his hands defensively, but he’s smiling.

“There you are,” Jared says. “Thought you might have died.”

“Funny,” Jensen says, scowling. He’s really not in the mood to joke around.

Jared just gives him a surprised look. “What crawled up your ass and died?” he asks, half-chuckling.

For some reason, his nonchalant attitude just annoys Jensen even more. “I’m glad you find my problems so amusing,”

Jared blinks. Slowly, the wide smile melts from his face. “Dude,” he says slowly. “It’s like, the first day. What are you so pissed about already?”

And that’s kinda the thing, isn’t it? There’s nothing to be pissed about. There’s just Jensen and his issues, and they’re already ruining things for Jared, too.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

“Why?” Jared asks.

Jensen sighs and drops his head. “’Cause I’m a grouch.”

“Yeah, but you’re my grouch.” Jared slings an arm around Jensen’s shoulders. When Jensen doesn’t even crack a smile, he shakes his head. “I’m gonna go chill out for a bit,” he says. “You?”

“Sure,” Jensen says.

“Sweet,” Jared crows. “Come on. I got candy.”

They’re both lying on their beds, Jensen replaying the day’s events on his camcorder and Jared munching his way through a bag of gummy worms when Jared suddenly asks, “Have you started applying to colleges yet?”

Jensen pauses the video and turns to look at him. “Nah,” he says, trying for casual and probably failing. “You?”

Jared shakes his head slowly. “My dad keeps bugging me about it though. Wants me to go to Georgetown, ‘cause he’s an alum.” He rolls his eyes. “’I play soccer at Georgetown’,” he says. “I’m sure that’ll impress people.”

“I’m sure college wouldn’t be so bad,” Jensen says.

He flushes when Jared rises up on one elbow to give him an incredulous look. “Excuse me,” he says. “Are you nuts? Jensen, your only goal in life is to play pro. If your parents stuck you in some stuffy old private school, you would wither and die.” He flops onto his back and glowers at the ceiling. “And so would I.”

Jensen turns off the camera and rolls over to face him. “At least you have an alternative,” he says. “I’m not sure my dad even knows I’m starting my senior year.”

“He hasn’t said anything?” Jared asks quietly.

“Nah.” Jensen shakes his head and pretends his voice doesn’t go high and tight when he says, “We haven’t been talking lately.”

Jared looks at him for a moment. Jensen can see all kinds of emotion in his eyes – compassion, wariness, a bit of ‘I’m so glad that’s not me’. Finally he reaches over and offers his bag of gummy worms.

Jensen forces a smile and pops one into his mouth. “Don’t worry about it,” he says. “We’ve got a summer of soccer waiting for us. Why stress about the ‘rents, eh?”

Jared grins, a grin that doesn’t quite reach his eyes, and takes his sweets back. “Yeah,” he says slowly. “You wanna go film some stuff?”

His soft tone makes Jensen’s throat close up. He sits up and starts rummaging in his backpack, looking for anything that will give him an excuse not to look at Jared’s wide brown eyes anymore. “Only if you’re going to do a striptease,” he says.

“You wish,” Jared retorts. It’s not quite their usual banter, but it’s close enough that Jensen can smile a bit more easily.

Every morning, the changing rooms turn into a giant mess. There’s not even that much to change, just sneakers to stash away and cleats to lace up, but afterwards it still looks like Armageddon hit. Jensen doesn’t usually talk much while he’s putting on his shoes, but Jared always bounds over to Strait, Hayden and Chase like he hasn’t seen them in years. Jensen feels bad sometimes for hogging all of Jared’s time. But then it’s the terrible trio that Jensen is keeping Jared from, so it’s only sometimes. Very, very sometimes.

Even now, at quarter to nine, Strait already has something to complain about. “How are we ever supposed to get laid when we have to wear these socks?” he grouses, plucking at the offending piece of clothing.

“I don’t think the problem is really the socks,” Jared says.

Strait gives him a puzzled look.

Jared grins at him. “I’d say it’s your face.”

Strait scowls and tosses his cleat at him, but Jared catches it a few inches from his face.

“Oh man,” he protests. “That’s gross.”

“Your dick’s gross,” Strait retorts.

A couple of people join in, but Jensen tries not to get involved in the rapidly deteriorating insult war. He and Strait have never been on the best of terms, not since Strait got it into his head that Jensen was being a douche to Jared, and beyond soccer strategies, they don’t have a whole lot to say to each other.

It still bugs Jensen, to be honest. Not enough to ever bring it up (also, he’s pretty sure Strait would either laugh or punch his face in if he ever mentioned it) but every once in a while, he wishes Strait hadn’t gotten such a bad impression of him, because Jensen really tries to be a decent guy.

Jared’s and Jensen’s very first meeting went something like this:

The Monday after Jensen, flushed red with pride and embarrassment, had told his parents that he had been recruited into the soccer team and endured the motherly kisses and fatherly handshakes he got in return, he edged into the locker room at 3:24 exactly. He was one of the first ones there, blushing under the scrutiny of the two older guys comparing text messages and the babyfaced kid with the red mohawk and withdrawing into a shady corner.

The room filled quickly. Some of the people he recognized. He nodded to Chris and Steve who thankfully sat down next to him but (just as thankfully) didn’t try to involve him in their conversation. There were a couple of others that he recognized from the try-outs: the stoned-looking kid with the torn jeans, the tall, skinny one, the dark haired one with the pouty lips. The rest were unfamiliar, some joking and pushing at each other, others fidgeting by themselves.

Jensen definitely belonged in the latter category. He loves soccer, he does, but he’s not good around people. The only reason he’d even tried out was because Chris and Steve had physically dragged him to the sign-up table, introduced him to assistant coach Justin Hartley and hovered over him until he scrawled his name – “Your real name, Jen” – down on the piece of paper.

Then the coach came in, followed closely by the assistant coach who was all smiles and embarrassing little waves, and holy shit, the guy was huge. The little dude next to Jensen looked like he was about to pee his pants. Jensen understood the impulse. The coach looked like an army drill sergeant, maybe worse, with his white t-shirt tight across his chest and a scar on his stubbly cheek.

He stopped in the middle of the room and crossed his arms, letting his eyes scan over each of them. “Welcome,” he said, and Jensen half expected him to add, ‘to hell.’
Instead he said, “I’m Coach Morgan, for those who haven’t met me personally yet. This is my assistant coach Justin. You’re all here because you don’t know any better.”
He grinned evilly. “Yet.”

The kid next to Jensen whimpered a little. Jensen tilted his head to the side, because Chris and Steve, they didn’t look bothered at all. Neither did the junior with the strangely blue eyes, or any of what Jensen had dubbed his posse. And Justin Hartley just stood behind the coach with his face twitching like he was trying so very, very hard not to laugh.

Jensen was starting to get the feeling that Morgan was getting a kick out of it. Not an evil-dictator power trip, but a ‘let’s see how gullible this year’s freshmen really are’ kind of thing.

He tried to remember everything Morgan told them about school policy, home and away games, insurance, practice times, where his office was, how to keep your body healthy, but it was a lot to take in. Chris and Steve were playing tic-tac-toe on the bench between them with a sharpie, and when Jensen frowned at them, Chris winked.
“They give you a hand-out at the end,” he whispered.

And, true enough, when his speech was winding down, Morgan pointed at Justin and grinned. “Oh, and since I know half of you weren’t really paying attention, Justin here will have it all on a hand-out for you to take home.”

The squeaky kid next to Jensen, who had been taking notes, put his pen down and sighed.

“Now for the fun part,” Coach Morgan said. He did look just a little bit evil when he grinned like that. “You all get to battle over your favorite numbers. Obviously, some are already taken by our older members, so if you’re a returning player, please stay clear of the clipboard. You don’t want to be involved, trust me.”

There was a metal table underneath the whiteboard, with a single clipboard on it. Jensen eyed it, trying not to look too excited. Steve had told him about this part, and Jensen had spent all summer trying to decide on a number (when he wasn’t busy telling them he wasn’t going to try out, of course). He’d finally found the perfect one: Number 13, like Christine Lilly. Jensen had practically been in love with her since the first time he saw her play. And yes, Chris would forever make fun of him for picking a number from a girl player, so he firmly planned to tell him it was because of Michael Ballack, the German midfielder from the 2006 World Cup. He was still a bit pissed about how that had turned out. If the States weren’t going to win it, then at least Germany could have.

Morgan waited for the brief surge of noise to die down again. “To make things easier, there will only be one pen. Whoever has the pen gets to choose. Everyone else has to wait their turn.” He smiled widely at them all, took a large step backwards, and said, “Go for it.”

Jensen rose, earning himself an encouraging smile from Steve, but he hadn’t expected half the locker room to rush towards the table. Everyone was yelling and shoving each other, scrabbling for the pen, and Jensen sat back down. He was perfectly okay with waiting until everybody else was done. Maybe 13 would still be open then. After all, superstitious people would definitely not want it, and maybe people had other numbers that meant something to them, and didn’t just want something that sounded cool?

He stated when Chris, scowling, suddenly bolted for the table, and before Jensen knew it, he held both pen and clipboard in the air. “Jen,” he called over the squabble . “Come on, Jen, get in here.”

Somebody in the crowd said, “No fair,” something Jensen totally understood, but Steve snagged the sleeve of his t-shirt and pulled him bodily into the fray. Chris pressed the pen into Jensen’s fingers and pulled his hand away. “Pick a number, Jen,” he said.

Jensen was pretty sure his face was flaming red at this point, but he clicked the pen on anyway. The embarrassment might as well be worth it.

He had just set the tip of the pen down next to the box reading 13 when someone at his right shoulder said, “You can’t do that.”

He had almost dropped the pen in horror. He’d been on the team for less than twelve minutes, officially, and he was already screwing things up. Eyes wide, he stared at torn-jeans kid who met his look with an even glare. He looked a bit like a supermodel, so maybe the attitude was allowed. The tall and skinny one stood behind him, an unreadable expression on his face.

“I can’t?” he asked, hoping to God they didn’t hear the squeak in his voice. “Coach said to sign up for whatever’s free.”

“Thirteen isn’t free,” Supermodel protested. “It’s JT’s number.”

Jensen immediately let go of the sign-up board. He hadn’t realized that people had claim to certain numbers even if they were listed as free on the sheet. Had the coach said that? He was pretty sure he hadn’t. He really needed to pay more attention in the future.

He took a step back to let Supermodel and Tall&Skinny get to the clipboard, but before Supermodel could lay a hand on it, Chris reached over Jensen’s shoulder and plucked it off the table.

He scanned the paper and frowned. “Thirteen’s not anybody’s number,” he said. “What are you clowns talking about?”

Tall&Skinny shrugged and looked away, but Supermodel took a step forward. “JT’s been number thirteen since the third grade,” he said. “It’s his number.”

Chris made a show of looking the paper over again.

Jensen wished he could just sink into the ground and stay there for all eternity. His face felt hot enough to roast eggs.

“Doesn’t say ‘Thirteen is JT’s number’ anywhere,” Chris announced. “Guess that means Jen here can take it if he wants. Too bad for you.” He held the clipboard out to them. “Pick something else.”

Supermodel opened his mouth, but Tall&Skinny nudged his shoulder and shook his head. “It doesn’t matter, Strait,” he said quietly. “I’ll take thirty-one. He can be thirteen if he wants.”

“Whatever, man,” Supermodel said after a moment. He glared at Jensen, who tried hard not to back into the nearest wall.

“What’s the hold-up?” someone from the back asked.

“Chill out,” Chris called in the speaker’s direction. He held out the pen to Jensen, but Jensen just shook his head frantically. For a moment, Chris looked… disappointed, maybe, but before Jensen could figure out what that meant, Chris had quietly, neatly, written down Jensen Ackles next to number 13.

Jensen tried to stay away from Jared – JT – after that. Supermodel (his real name was Steven, went by Strait) too. Jared seemed like a decent guy, but he was always more reserved around Jensen than any of the other guys. During practice and in the locker rooms, he would wrestle and play pranks and cackle in delight at others’ misfortune, but he always stayed clear of Jensen, and Jensen tried to extend him the same courtesy. It didn’t matter that he kind of wished Jared would try to grapple with him, wrap his arms around Jensen’s waist and lift him bodily into the air the way he did with Mike and Chase.

Still, it wasn’t until that summer break that Jared’s polite façade ever cracked. Jensen’s van got in way later than the other one because one of the guys apparently couldn’t handle his fish tacos and spent an hour puking at the side of the road, so whoever his roommate was had already dumped his stuff next to the door and scrammed. Jensen kind of wanted to do the same, but if he didn’t unpack right away, he would definitely regret it later.

He looked back and forth between the two beds. He should probably take the one by the bed, just in case he had to get up in the middle of the night. He didn’t want to wake his unknown roommate up if he ever had to use the bathroom at night. But maybe his roommate had some kind of bladder problem and wanted to be close to the bathroom himself?

With a sigh, Jensen threw his backpack down on the bed closest to the bathroom and unzipped it. He pulled out a handful of magazines and one of his summer reading assignment, and that’s when the door opened and Jared walked in.

“What are you doing on my bed, dude?” he asked.

Jensen looked over at the nightstand, and yes, of course, there was an alarm clock, half-hidden behind the lamp stand. God, he was such an idiot.
Jared frowned at him. “First you steal my number, then you steal my bed?”

Jensen dropped his eyes to the mattress. What a great way to start this summer. He just hoped Jared wasn’t about to clock him in the face. “I’m sorry,” he said.

Jared wrinkled his nose. He tilted his head at Jensen, then he suddenly shrugged, grinned. “Oh well,” he said. “Next time I get that one.”

“I’m really sorry,” Jensen said again.

“Dude,” Jared said. “Would you relax? I don’t care about the fricking bed, it’s not a big deal.”

“But you care about the number,” Jensen said.

“Not enough to beat you up about it,” Jared said. “So stop acting like I’m about to kick your ass, okay?”

Jensen looked up at him from underneath his bangs. Jared didn’t look like he was about to kick Jensen’s ass. If anything, he looked a bit exasperated.

“Sorry,” Jensen repeated.

For a moment, Jared’s expression was all frustration. Then, suddenly, he smiled. He threw himself onto the bed next to Jensen, wrapped an arm around his shoulders and didn’t even say anything when Jensen flinched. “You need to stop apologizing, dude,” he said. “’Cause I’m really not all that scary. All bark. And you need to know shit like that if we’re gonna be friends.”