Up in the mountains of Colorado, they find a house without a tenant. It hides among the trees at the end of an overgrown gravel road. The owner isn’t hard to locate— the nearest town is small. Jared pays cash for the first month. The owner is older than them, a pensive man in jeans and a canvas jacket, named Jim. He tells them the plumbing’s spotty, there are holes in the porch roof, it’s coming on fall, season’s out and nothing’s been fixed yet. He says they can stay if they pay their rent through work. Fix the place. Earn their keep.
It’s furnished, if dusty, and there is a second, overgrown road winding away into the woods behind the house. That, if nothing else, is worthwhile.
The first night, Jared sees stars through the ceiling of the mudroom. It doesn’t matter; they find the bedroom, slap the mattress mostly clean, and sleep.
When Jared was ten, he already knew the university he wanted to go to.
It’s rainy there. He dips his fingers into his cup and flicks water into Megan’s face. Like that.
You’re stupid, she says, and hits him in the shoulder with her fist.
Ow! It’s a long shove down the steps, so Jared pushes her up onto the porch instead. She struggles onto her elbows and glares. He glares back. Eugene Oregon’s a long way from Texas. Just wait, you won’t like it when I leave.
I will so. I’ll love it. Megan sticks a dusty foot right in the middle of his white shirt. ‘Sides, Eugene Oregon’s a girly name.
You’re a girly name, Jeff says, shoving through the screen door. He pushes them aside and stomps down the porch steps. Shut up, freak, or I’ll tell Mom about your runaway baby plans when she gets back from work.
I’m not running away, jerk!
They rent a three bedroom house in the slums of San Antonio. Jared’s mom couldn’t afford U of O anyway.
Jared wakes when Jensen starts upright. The room is black and the sounds are… off. Jared’s body is ten times heavier than normal. He feels Jensen get out of bed.
“S’alright, go back to sleep.”
Fingers touch his brow; Jensen’s palm alights on his cheek, then lifts away.
Between the two of them, fixing the house isn’t difficult. There are skills they’ve picked up over the years, undercover assignments rearing out of memory. There are also tips from Jim, and common sense. The roof is easiest: Jensen gets up on it the first full day they’re there, sanding and insulating, hammering in new shingles. Jim provides the material, the tools, and lunch. He eyes Jared’s clothing a little too attentively over tuna sandwiches, so Jensen gets in the car and heads into town. He comes back with toiletries, thicker jackets and two pairs of jeans each, socks, gloves, shirts, and food for the pantry.
He brings out the pain meds once Jim is gone and gives Jared a cocktail that sends him flat on his back, staring fuzzily at the bedroom ceiling until the mix finally knocks him out.
When he wakes up, he hears Jim’s voice in the kitchen again, and Jensen describing hometowns they never lived in, friends they never had. Afterward, Jensen goes into town again and returns with sheets, blankets, pillows, and two burner cell phones.
Think it needs to air out?
Jensen looks up from the chair by the door. He’s already dressed, black coat buttoned over dark clothing, a high-necked sweater that sharpens the planes of his face. The motel is silent, but Jensen chambers a round in the Browning and checks the gun’s lines anyway. He flips the safety back on. No. Not yet.
Jared fingers the bandage around his torso and pulls the shirt down over it. Kane’s shirt. Barely fits. It’s still dark out; the parking lot is dead quiet. Hurts.
More than before?
About a seven now.
Jensen gets to his feet and approaches the bed. His hand is sinfully cool on Jared’s cheek and forehead. You’ve got a fever.
Jensen hauls Jared gently to his feet. Come on. Gotta get out of here, get you something for it.
In the cabin, Jensen’s fingers trace the edge of his wound. “Doesn’t look swollen.”
Jared cranes his head to follow Jensen’s scrutiny. “Feels like it is.”
“It’s closing neatly.” Jensen leans closer and squints at the line of knitting flesh. “No infection.”
A bare bulb glares down from the overhead light. Jared’s eyes skip to the window, a square of blackness. The crickets are a steady shree-shree beyond the glass. Jensen prods his side, kneads the flesh surrounding the wound. Jared hisses and Jensen looks up. “Where?”
“Right there, right— where you were—” He touches the exact place, takes Jensen’s fingers and guides them over. He’s conscious of his own breathing, and Jensen’s: he can feel each exhalation against the naked skin of his belly. When Jared swallows, it sounds far too loud.
“Just bruising, I think.” Jensen meets his eyes again. There’s something hollow and lingering in his face. “That’ll stick around for a while.”
Jared nods. Jensen’s hand is motionless under his, the warm lines of his fingers against Jared’s.
The trees are a constant echo, the ebb and flow of wind like the ocean, and fresh air as cool as mint fills every corner of the house. And yet the stillness feels absolute: the sound of a car is foreign, the clink of chains and the rattle of jackhammers— everything that ricochets around the surfaces of a city is alien, unwelcome here. The hum is of an entirely different kind: living and natural and primal.
Jared sits near the window with the Glock in his lap and tosses Jensen’s lock-picking kit from hand to hand. Thum-thump, thum-thump. Like a heartbeat. Outside, the forest waves in greens and browns. The second road, choked with grass, threads away between the trees.
The last time Jared wasn’t under the Agency’s cloak was fifteen years ago. It’s an itchy feeling and the kit in his hands drives it deeper. Lock-picking was the only thing he felt comfortable retaining from that time.
When Jared is fourteen, Chad is his only friend. He sneaks into Chad’s room the night Jeff gets arrested.
What’d he do? Chad whispers.
Stole a car. Jared shrugs. He eats the Snickers bar on Chad’s desk. Don’t know and don’t care.
Hey, that’s my last—
You want it back?
Chad glares, sullen. No.
Jared kicks the laundry basket full of wrinkled clothing. It edges away from the bed with each thump.
It’s okay, Chad says loftily. I’ll just have Milo get me more.
A friend. He can get anything he wants. He could get you anything, if you ask him nice. Chad smirks, fingering the silver chain around his throat. Jared frowns.
Is he rich?
Chad huffs and rolls his eyes. Right, Jay.
Agent Samantha Smith is pensive, blonde, and fit. She’s younger than Jared expected. Her eyes are not young at all.
The first thing she teaches him is how to block a knife thrust to the gut. The second, where to aim once he’s the one holding the blade.
She’s fluent in six languages and has a seventh level black belt in two disciplines, a fifth in three others. Her marks at the shooting range are third on a list of over sixty, and that doesn’t include anyone who has worked less than four years with the Agency.
When she looks at him, he can’t begin to guess what she’s thinking. She doesn’t speak often, but he can tell she listens. Every day for the first year, he wonders how much she knows about his past.
Jensen stops sleeping.
The fourth night at the cabin, he sits and takes their weapons apart one at a time. Cleans them. Puts them back together, all while Jared watches from the bed, trying to keep his eyes open.
He’s still hurting: deep-seated aches, a strange catch in his chest whenever he moves, a thick heaviness in the left side of his gut. He feels swollen, like things are loose and rattling around inside a much bigger space. When he wakes from a night of breathing through his mouth, his throat feels as hot and sore as if he’s been strangled anew.
Jared gets up during the day and takes over weapons maintenance. He catches Jensen asleep in the middle of the bed around noon, his face pressed into Jared’s pillow, but the repose is short-lived: Jensen gets up as if he’d never been asleep and heads to the upper floor. He brings more blankets down, curtains and rods which they remount over the windows of the lower floor.
The first year with the Agency, Jared thinks mostly of his sister. The bracelet she made him is tight and unevenly knotted. It itches. Sometimes the dye from the leather stains the inside of his wrist.
He thinks of her and is glad they aren’t together where she could look him in the eye.
With their dwindling funds, they install an alarm system in the cabin with a silent setting. Jensen sets it off as a test the first day, and Jared holds up a tiny buzzing fob in one hand. It’s so quiet that even just across the room, Jensen can’t hear it.
The fobs have cords to hang around their necks. When they’re both in the house, they make sure at least one of them has one on his person. At night, Jared watches as Jensen winds his around his wrist until the fob rests in his palm.
Jared stares at the cell phone in his hand. He has the number memorized; it only took two seconds to key it in, and now it gazes back up at him as if it has eyes, thoughts.
His finger hovers over the send button, then touches down.
“I’m sorry, you have reached a number that has been disconnected or is no longer in serv—”
He hangs up. Tosses the phone away.
Somewhere in Asia, Jared’s life comes to a screaming halt. For the first time in years, his feet have stopped moving entirely. There is a gun against his head, the recently fired barrel singeing his skin, and a bullet point-blank from his skull.
His ribs are broken and his jaw is dislocated. He’s bleeding inside. Jared sways, looks into the eyes of the man on the other side of that gun, and knows, for the first time ever, that he is truly dead.
And then his partner shoots straight through the skull of his would-be killer, splattering gray matter over Jared’s front. He fires six times. Makes six clean shots. The fourth man is dead before the first hits the ground.
Jared feels fear.
Carlson? It hurts to talk.
Abel, get down. Tinny in his ear.
Jared doesn’t remember falling. He does remember the white hot hiss of the sniper’s bullet as it passed by, furrowed his shoulder, and hit the woman coming up behind him between the eyes.
His hair is growing back, slowly. Jared runs his hands through the fuzz, scratches the itch behind his ears. He looks in the cabin’s old bathroom mirror each morning and still doesn’t recognize himself.
Jensen eyes his head as well, as if he can’t keep his eyes off the buzz cut. But he looks at Jared’s head like he does recognize it. Him. Completely.
Jared dreams of knives and sneering faces, being trapped in a body that cannot breathe, strapped to a metal table with blazing light overhead. He dreams his lips blister and his skin peels off, and he bleeds and bleeds and can’t stop. A long blade sticks him repeatedly in the back. Every time, he knows it’s coming, and every time, he can’t stop it.
One night, he dreams of Jensen on the table in his place, himself just outside the door hammering endlessly with his fist, and wakes up bleary-eyed, upright already and gasping into the darkness. He reaches out and Jensen comes over to the bed from wherever he is. Sits down. Clasps Jared’s hand in both of his.
“You…” He swallows. “You’re alright.”
“I’m fine.” No hesitation.
Jared falls asleep and dreams of knives again.
“Who’d you call?”
It’s not accusatory. No heat of any kind. Jared turns, gives the question an answer.
Jensen’s eyes are hooded. His face is lined. He leans in the doorway with a gun dangling in one hand.
“It was my sister’s number.” Jared clears his throat. “Once.”
He shouldn’t be calling anyone. Shouldn’t take that risk, even with the burners. He stares at Jensen, almost wanting the fight. Jensen watches him, and a few seconds go by.
“Now, it’s no one,” Jared repeats.
The cabin is so quiet. The light outside the windows is cold and sharp, and it’s a long time before Jensen moves. When he passes the bed on his way to the closet, his hand brushes Jared’s arm and lingers.
Jared takes to walking, despite Jensen’s disapproval. Around the cabin, up and down the stairs. Outside within sight of the house. His side aches like his skin is overstretched, his chest feels like an enormous bruise, his throat is raw and warm, but whenever he’s still, he can feel it catching up to him, gaining ground. Years and years of it, finding a chink in the walls and pouring through, now that he’s finally holding still again.
He knows how to counsel himself. Pick apart a needless tragedy or a violent event and start putting it behind him. Acknowledge and accept. Release, if he can. Bury if he can’t.
He wonders how much he thought he released when he’s actually just buried it.
The Agency provides each agent with counseling services after a difficult mission. Agents are trained to handle the preliminaries on their own; the counselors are for clean up after. Extras, if needed. It’s all cogs and gears, not meant to solve daddy issues or broken families. It’s meant to get agents out of their heads, back on their feet, and out in the field again.
Jared has undergone Agency counseling twice. He held on by the skin of his teeth until he was sitting in that chair, in that air conditioned office. Then he just let go. Let Mark have it for one straight week.
Jensen falls asleep in his chair and wakes himself by tumbling out of it. His finger is on the Glock’s trigger, Jared’s name already out, hoarse, before Jared gets to him, wrestles the gun away. Holds Jensen’s face and stares into eyes he doesn’t know.
Jensen gets a grip on his arm and digs his fingers in. Mumbles Jared’s name again before shutting his mouth for good.
That first year, Jared tries to forget. Doesn’t think about Chad or Milo, his mother and brother. He succeeds in all but forgetting his sister. Can’t do it. Every day, she’s there. Every night, watching him as if she’s in his room.
During training, Jared works her out of his system. Hits until his knuckles bleed. Asks questions until Samantha frowns at him. Strains his muscles, adds scar tissue, and volunteers for everything Kripke offers. Every night, his sister comes back and reads his thoughts all over again.
Abel. Your new partner.
Jared sizes him up. He’s more compact than Jared, shorter, but everyone is. He has green eyes and a utilitarian haircut, and he’s older. Jared offers his hand and the man’s grip is strong.
Steve Carlson. Fuller gestures to the chairs. You know the drill. You’re on probationary assignment. After it’s completed, we’ll evaluate your work, you’ll evaluate each other’s, and the feasibility of the partnership will be determined from there.
Jared smiles. Something about Carlson makes him do it. Carlson looks back, impassive, and turns away.
Jared primes and paints the inside walls. The wound in his side is not up to anything more strenuous. Jim brings lunch again and comments on the job they’re doing. He rambles. It takes Jared too long to realize that even with all Jim’s words, he’s still not being told anything of importance.
When Jim is visiting, Jensen’s eyes track him as he hammers, as he caulks, as he insulates. Jensen’s tone is easy and welcoming, and Jared’s the only one who knows it’s not his norm.
“He’s a nice old guy.”
Jensen snorts. His hands fly over the cutting board, vegetables and tomatoes, sourdough bread. “Yeah.”
Jared grabs chipped plates and mismatched silverware. “Don’t really like him around. If they—”
“They won’t.” Jensen catches his eye. There’s a light there that has been dulled for several days. Jensen’s gaze flicks down to Jared’s side and back up. “Don’t know where we are.”
For how long? Jared knows it’s on both their minds.
Jensen’s hand slips and his finger bleeds. He curses, sticks the digit in his mouth and sucks. There are more lines around his eyes and mouth.
Jared takes the knife and finishes without comment.
At night, Jared wakes to the sound of Jensen cleaning guns. Click. Slide. Thunk. Click. Slide. Thunk.
Did it upset you when Carlson shot them?
Jared shifts. I didn’t know them.
Mark just watches him, legs crossed, hands folded across his thigh. Jake, they broke your jaw. Beat you up. Threatened your life. It’s logical to feel anger. To want to take revenge.
I didn’t have to.
Because Carlson did it for you.
Jared remembers the sound of each shot as it hit. He eyes the clock and wishes he were fixed already. They died. I didn’t.
How did you feel when you knew they were dead? Relentless. Eyes boring.
Jared swallows. I felt relieved.
Mark can see straight into his soul. And how do you feel about your partner now that he’s done this?
Jared’s afraid of him. Fascinated by him. Relieved he’s on their side. Aroused, and he’s not sure what that says about him. It’s complicated.
I’m sure it is.
Jared’s also in Carlson’s debt, and a significant part of him likes being there. Likes knowing he’s finally safe.
But mostly he wants to even the score.
Jensen stops talking to him. Just watches Jared as he moves about the cabin, carves him apart with his eyes and doesn’t explain why his gaze burns so sharply.
There was a time Jared didn’t want to be seen.
It was right after Chad, right after his sister, Milo, and his first encounter with the Agency. In that room, under that light, they look at him too keenly. For too long. Jared can’t feel any of his secrets inside anymore, nothing that’s purely his. It’s all bared for their gaze. They know him, all his parts, every thought. It’s irrational, but Jared hasn’t eaten in days. Hasn’t slept for longer than that.
Afterward, Samantha Smith watches him. Fuller watches him. Kripke watches him. Brown watches him, and makes Jared’s skin crawl over his bones.
And then Carlson— Jensen— watches him. For the first time, Jared feels ready to be seen again.
It’s cold out, dark at six instead of six fifteen. The light is too bright in the kitchen— no shade for that bulb either— and Jensen leaves as soon as he finishes not eating. Jared goes after him. Catches up in the defunct dining room and gets in his way because Jensen is heading for his guns again, his chair by the window.
The house has been silent for two days. Jared can no longer not speak.
Jensen falters, cuts his eyes sideways, and Jared grabs his elbow. Jensen jerks back and begins a steady twisting, working to get free. Jared closes his hands around Jensen’s upper arms and pulls him in.
“Look at me. Jensen.”
“Let go.” Monotonal. Jared winces.
“You have to sleep,” he says. “Jen, what are you doing?”
Jensen pushes on Jared’s chest with a flat palm. “What I need to do.”
“No.” He grips Jensen more tightly. “No, you’re going to kill yourself.”
Jensen’s hand fists slowly in his shirt. Jared can feel the contained energy vibrating through his grip. “If I could sleep, I fucking would, Jared, let go of me.”
The rims of his eyes are pink, his mouth bitten at. His face looks sallow in the light. He’s lost weight. Jared looks down and finds Jensen’s hand trembling, the tendons whip-tight in his forearm.
He reels Jensen in and feels fingers twist further in his shirt. Jensen shoves, then pulls, pushes again, and Jared steps into the tide of motion. He slides his hands to Jensen’s face, the slope of his neck, and holds him still. Jensen forces him away hard, but Jared sees the cracks as they appear across his features. Each one knocks into Jared’s lungs like a fist. It’s difficult to move.
Jensen gets free at last and Jared goes after him, catches his arm again and pulls him around. If Jensen was in top form, Jared could never do this.
“Don’t,” Jensen warns.
“No, you don’t,” he snaps. “Don’t do this, don’t pretend I don’t see you.”
“Fuck you,” Jensen grates. Jared’s never seen him so agitated.
He drags Jensen close, nose to nose. “What did I do? What the hell did I—”
It rings in the silence. Jensen lists in his grasp, as if those two words tugged the strength right out of him. He’s so much thinner than before, staring at Jared with eyes that are hell bent on not seeing more than they already have. They’re stuck at that moment, witnessing over and over, each time stabbing deeper.
“Tell me.” Jared touches his face again, cradles Jensen’s jaw in his hand and holds him there. “Jen, please, please tell me.”
Jensen’s fingers grip Jared’s nape. He shakes his head. A tear squeezes from tightly shut eyes. “Don’t, Jared.”
Same dead tone, as if all other words have been erased. But Jared doesn’t need them. He gets it.
He knows his heart stopped at least once. Jensen broke one of his ribs bringing him back. He touches Jensen’s cheeks with his thumbs. It’s poison in Jensen’s veins. Like any poison, Jared wants to suck it out of him. “Tell me, Jensen. Just…”
Jensen is becoming more and more of a statue. Jared grabs his hand and presses it to his own chest, right over the rib that gave, and Jensen shudders, full-bodied. His eyes open, lashes ringed with stubborn tears.
“Jared, don’t make me.” He whispers fast, words running together. “Don’t make me?”
It’s the question in it that breaks Jared’s resolve to know, to leech the toxins out of Jensen at any cost. Jensen Ackles is shaking apart right in front of him and he can’t… he won’t.
He loves Jensen. He’ll do anything for Jensen. He’ll use every one of his talents, every last skill to lie and steal, to kill, to fucking die if it means Jensen stays alive.
He fumbles, finds Jensen’s other hand and lifts it. Tucks it gently against his side, palm flat over the line of stitches. Jensen breathes in, sharp. Broken. He jerks free and Jared’s pulse skips into double-time, but Jensen only slides his hand back up over Jared’s nape. Tugs him down and stops. The hand over Jared’s heart tenses; Jensen’s fingers curl into his shirt and his eyes squeeze shut. Each breath trips out in sharps, skittering across Jared’s throat.
He’s alive but Jensen’s holding him like he’s about to die in his arms.
“I’m right here,” Jared hisses, and yanks Jensen the last few inches.
Jensen kisses like he doesn’t want to and like he can’t stop at the same time, but finally one gives way and he hauls Jared in, clacking their teeth, rolling his whole body up into him, even his lips are trembling against Jared’s. Jensen’s thumb trips over Jared’s mouth and Jared catches it, holds it between his teeth. Laves the tip with his tongue. Jensen’s fingers tighten so hard in his hair his scalp aches.
“Jared,” he breathes out, a hiss across his mouth.
Jared gathers him in, squeezes him too hard, and does everything he can to drag the venom out of him.
He won’t— can’t voice it. For so long, he needed Jensen to be Jensen. His partner, his friend, the one who threw his whole damn life away and came after him. But now, what he needs Jensen to be defies the boundaries he thought he’d set. He’ll never be ready to let Jensen head down this path. He wishes he could wipe whatever Jensen saw from his memory. It’s sucking the man he knows away, night by sleepless night, piece by piece.
Jensen tastes the same as he did that night in the bunker. So brief a touch in comparison, and Jared doesn’t see the hole it has carved in him until Jensen’s hands dig into his back, Jensen forces them closer, shapes himself against Jared and folds him into his air, his space, the scent of him and the flavor.
It takes them less than five seconds to get their shirts off.
A reptilian part of Jared’s brain warns: Not wise, not safe, pay attention. He backs Jensen to the bed and twists him down onto it, harsh light and cheap sheets, scratchy blankets. The frame creaks. He yanks at Jensen’s belt, wrenches his pants open and then his own. Jensen winds fingers back into his hair and bites at his neck, tongue pressed to the vein. He mouths Jared’s chin, jaw, upper lip, and slams his own head back into the pillow when Jared gets them together at last, no fabric between, jeans dragged down to mid-thigh.
Jensen chokes out his name. He shoves Jared’s pants down further with one hand. Kicks his own off, curls his hips up into Jared’s and stretches his hand freely over the line of Jared’s scar.
Jared grabs his hand and holds it there for as long as he can.
He breathes words: Jensen’s name, endearments, proof of life, doesn’t know any other way to show he’s alive except this, bodies together, heat together, Jensen’s hand over his heart where he can feel it beating. Jared tries to be careful and isn’t sure he succeeds. But his own pain slips to the side in the face of Jensen’s; he pulls their hips tightly together, slides his hands up Jensen’s bare sides, licks into Jensen’s mouth. Has to breathe to keep from passing out.
“Not leaving you,” he forces out, “never leaving you, I swear it.”
He catches a tear with the tip of his thumb and wipes it from Jensen’s cheek. Jensen whispers his name. It sounds almost whole.