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PART ONE


[Jensen]



“Hey, I’m just going to clean this, okay? So how about staying still?” Jensen says quietly as he puts a hand on the boy’s bicep, trying to stop him from thrashing around.

“No – Maddy –“

“She’s just next door. The doctors are taking good care of her. Now –“ Jensen gently pushes him back down on the pillow, “Let’s take care of you, kid. You got pretty banged up there.”

The boy acquiesces, though he glares at Jensen the whole time.

“I’m fine.”

Jensen nods as he picks up a swab with disinfectant. “Sure you are, hotshot. But the motorcycle skid marks had the paramedics a little paranoid, so bear with us overcautious types.” He faces the kid, studying the long, deep gash running from temple to cheek, torn, angry skin caked with dirt and blood. ”I don’t think you’ve looked in a mirror yet. I have to clean this, then the doctor comes and stitches it, we do an MRI on that hard head of yours and you go home with only a few broken ribs and not looking like Frankenstein. Plus, we don’t get sued. Everybody’s happy.”

The kid looks at Jensen like he’s missing a few wheels, but on the plus side, he’s stopped flailing around and trying to mow Jensen down to get to his girlfriend, so, small victories. And, after a stare-down that would have made a reputation in the Wild West, the boy lets out an annoyed huff, presumably to inform Jensen he’s staying there against his will and would very much like to be somewhere else right now.

Jensen got that memo. Repeatedly.

He starts prodding at the wound, carefully, but methodically diligent – and it must be hurting like a motherfucker, it’s a deep, nasty cut – but the kid takes it without any comment, with only an angry frown and lips pursed in a thin line.

Jensen’s kind of impressed at the dedication this kid – seventeen, leather jacket, soft blue eyes, poster child for the kind of rebellion whose only merit is its entertainment value later in life – has for the tough guy routine. It’s patently obvious who all that anger is directed at, and it’s certainly not Jensen.
But he’s happy to be a stand-in, as long as the kid gets it out.

“She’s okay, kid,” Jensen says as he works, when he’s sure that the guy won’t jump running at the words. “She has a dislocated shoulder, a broken wrist, and a whole lot of scrapes and bruises, but she’s okay. She’s up and talking, and, with any luck, you should both be discharged today.”

“She – she’s good?”

The kid’s voice cracks on the second word, and he’s searching Jensen’s eyes for the truth with a determination that doesn’t waver even as he grips Jensen’s wrist with a shaky hand, halts Jensen’s movement.

“Yeah, kid. She’s okay. You’re both okay.” Jensen repeats, this time looking straight into the boy’s eyes. He’ll do it again, as many times as the kid needs, because these are the words he doesn’t mind, these are the words he wishes he could say every time.

“Colin.”

“Huh?”

“Name’s Colin,” he smirks at Jensen, “And I’m not a kid.”

Jensen cocks his head, pretends to think about it as he finishes disinfecting the wound. “Debatable. I mean, I’m sure you have life all figured out,” Jensen muses as the kid – Colin– glares with just the right amount of righteous indignation and sprinkle of murderous intent in his eyes, “but we still had to call your dad. Laws, you know, irrelevant stuff like that.”

Jensen figured his patient wouldn’t be exactly thrilled – it doesn’t exactly look like the kid let anyone know he’d be taking the bike on a joyride. Still, the way Colin tenses up, the return of the angry frown and the surprising coldness in what were warm eyes, even in anger – that’s unexpected.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” Colin hisses.

Jensen sighs. “I’m assuming you so carefully ignored the part about laws. You’re pretty good at that, huh?”

He gets no response, so Jensen continues, “Look, I’m sure your father is very worried.”

Colin snorts. “You don’t know anything.”

True enough. Jensen lets it go. Platitudes don’t help. Especially a smart kid like this.

Jensen’s voice is a steady cadence as he cleans the wound, and, gradually, the tension seeps from the kid’s frame as he crashes after the surge of adrenaline. He sinks into the mattress at the end of a deep breath, eyes closing – and Jensen feels no satisfaction in knowing that would happen.

This is the part where the loved ones come in. Where Jensen can’t do anything, because he’s strictly an onlooker. This is the part where a look, a gesture, familiarity, safety, affection counts for more than anything, where they’re okay, they’re good slams against what could have happened – and Jensen’s seen reactions ranging from hysterical sobs of relief to angry words that mask the terror a parent feels in a situation like this – the heartwarming, euphoric “I’m so glad you’re alive” part, and the epically disastrous,“You’re grounded for the next century” downward spiral after that. The consequences start to fade in – but the paralyzing fear – that’s the kind of thing that lasts forever, that’s etched into the mind against will.

Jensen’s just about to stand up, take off his gloves, when –

“Colin?!”

The voice is deep, rough and a little hoarse – a loud sound that resonates in the small room, and makes even Jensen wince at the inflection. Colin’s eyes shoot open. Jensen turns around, fully prepared to deal with a frantic parent, gearing up to make sure father and son don’t do serious harm to each other before the I love you part.

But he’s blindsided – again – when the owner of the voice turns out to be a perfectly calm, brick wall of a man standing just inside the curtain –

Fuck.

Jesus Christ, he’s gorgeous.

Fuck, that’s a uniform.

He’s a firefighter. Fuck.

Inappropriate. 

Think.

I mean, what the fuck, how – he’s not a dad – he doesn’t look like a dad –

Speak.

Jesus fucking Christ –

”Hello.” Jensen somehow manages to get out.

The man’s gaze snaps to Jensen, eyes so bright, so full of anguish and worry that it takes Jensen aback. It contrasts with everything in the steady, self-assured stance, the quiet power and strength he exudes – he looks huge in the full-padded gear, helmet in hands, smells of smoke and burnt, soot smudged in small patches on his fingers, on his cheek – and Jensen stops, stares for a moment, even if it isn’t right, even if it’s a moment that shouldn’t lend itself to that.

The man extends a hand, speaks, voice gruff.

“Padalecki, Jared. Colin’s dad.”

Jensen nods, but raises his hands, wiggles his fingers to get the point of the latex gloves across. Padalecki –Jared – nods.

“Right.” He turns his gaze towards his son, who is pointedly ignoring him, staring at the ceiling, features pinched tight. “Is he – he’s alright?”

Jensen notices he doesn’t come closer. He doesn’t touch. His eyes are telling one story, but his body language is saying a very different one. It makes it easier. Jensen slips back to professional, to what he should have been all along.

“Yes. He has some minor cuts and lacerations – I was just getting someone to stitch him up. He has a two broken ribs, presumably from the impact, and a whole lot of bruising, but otherwise, he’s fine.”

The firefighter nods again. It’s visible, that moment where he takes a deep breath, where the cord snaps – his eyes dull to a hazel muted in soft shadows of gold and brown.

“Colin –“

It’s a bit softer, when he talks to his son.

“Save it.”

The retort is not. Colin‘s response is thrown out in a harsh tone, cold voice – and he meets his father’s eyes for the first time. “I know.” He rolls his eyes. “You’re disappointed. I’m ruining my life. You didn’t raise me like this.” He smiles hollowly. “Am I close enough?”

No, the man’s eyes say.

But maybe Jensen doesn’t understand enough, because that’s not what Padalecki says.

“We’ll talk about this at home. I’ll wait outside.”

He gives his son a once over, and only fidgets a bit with the helmet in his hands as he steps out of the cubicle.

Jensen’s eyes meet Colin’s.

The boy laughs, hollow and bitter. “Piece of work, my old man, huh?”


~

 

Jensen’s putting the finishing touches on Colin Padalecki’s chart – happy to see that MRIs and scans are clear, no internal bleeding or life-threatening head trauma. He’s at the nurses’ station, and Chris is talking while Jensen writes, but Jensen just tunes him out, watches from the corner of his eye how Padalecki’s leaning against the wall at the far corner.

He’s been there a long time. He doesn’t move, only stares at a random point on the wall.

He’s dirty, disheveled, clothes lined with a fine layer of dust and ash.

He’s lost.

Jensen revises his assessment. The man looks so small.


~

 

“Mr. Padalecki?”

He raises his gaze, and slowly, focuses on Jensen.

“I’m Jensen. I’m your son’s nurse?”

The man smiles, slightest tilt of his lips, but genuine, and Jensen’s surprised.

“Yeah. I remember. ”

So, okay, this smiling thing might be a little contagious.

Still, Jensen doesn’t allow that to get him off track. “Colin’s back from his scans. Everything seems to be in order, so we’re discharging him. I have a few papers you need to sign.”

Up close, Padalecki’s eyes change color. Or maybe Jensen’s mind’s is just playing tricks on him after being on call for twenty straight hours.

“You said he’s alright.”

He’s searching. Trying to tether himself to that reassurance. Jensen nods. “He is. But he was a little dizzy and pretty agitated when he came in, and we didn’t want to take any chances.”

A pause that stretches, hovers, anchors itself in the relief in Jared’s eyes.

“Thank you.”

Jensen laughs, small, contained, without real humor. “It’s the job.”

“Still. I – “

Padalecki stops. He doesn’t have the words. Jensen’s seen it enough to recognize it. That doesn’t mean Jensen doesn’t understand.

“Hard to see, even if it’s a scratch, right?”

Padalecki nods, grateful. “He’s my kid.” He gives a watery laugh. “How else am I supposed to feel about it?”

“Yeah.” Jensen raises an eyebrow. “That confuses me. What were you, like, twelve?”

Levity. Maybe it’ll work. Jensen likes people. He knows people, more importantly. He’s good at this, at bringing people back from the brink, then talking till they forget they were there. Admittedly, Jensen’s initial reaction to Padalecki left him a bit unsteady, but at the end of the day, he’s a professional. That’s all that really matters. And part of being a nurse for so many years comes with seeing a lot of variations of the same things. Injuries. Illness. Families. Love. Though some days he’s still trying to figure it out.

“Sixteen, actually.” Padalecki shrugs. “Still feels like that sometimes.”

But that is an admission that carries a price. Padalecki catches himself too late - he clearly hadn’t wanted to say that.

Jensen’s saved from answering when he spots Colin down the hall. He’s ducking into the room where his girlfriend is.

And then, suddenly, yelling erupts.

Loud, harsh words spit out in anger, reverberating across the hall.

“You son of a bitch! I’ll kill you. Swear to god, I’ll wring your neck, you fucking lowlife, you ever get close to her again, touch her, see –“

But the tirade is promptly cut off by Padalecki, who tears open the curtain – how the hell did he get down the hall so fast – and charges at the guy.

Fuck.

Padalecki has his elbow at the man’s throat, pinning him to the only wall the little cubicle has.

There’s a standstill, a few seconds where time stops, and there’s nothing left to do but watch. The collision, then the aftermath. Jensen thinks about intervening, thinks about something to say, but before he can do any of that, Padalecki lets go, steps back – and Jensen sees, he’s in control, he knows exactly what he’s doing – but the dangerous glint in his eyes is ringing a few alarm bells in Jensen’s mind.

“You don’t talk to my son like that.”

The man is seething. From the panicked looks on the girl’s face, the only thing stopping her from running is Colin’s grip on her uninjured hand.

Jensen gets closer to them, signals Chris and the security man that have gathered around that he can handle it. It’s past the end of a really long fucking shift, and a big scene is not the way Jensen wants to end it.

“Gentlemen –“

“Your son –“ and the word drips venom, as the girl’s dad ignores Jensen, “– your fucking son put my baby girl in the hospital.”

Yeah, Jensen’s plan to talk them down is off to a really good start.

But Padalecki is surprisingly – frankly, frighteningly, calm.

“It was an accident. It wasn’t his fault,” Jared states, no inflection at all.

Colin’s still watching, and he’s still too young to mask all the emotions like his dad. He steps closer to Maddy’s bed, mouths “Are you okay?”

The dark-haired girl nods at Colin, then resumes staring apprehensively at her father.

“The hell it was! He’s dragging her down. Ever since she met your loser son her GPA dropped, she comes home late, she talks back – “

“Those all sound like things your daughter does. Not my son.”

Jensen winces at Padalecki’s reply. Maddy’s dad growls. Predictably, and something Jensen would have bet good money on from the start, there’s a punch. It catches Padalecki on the cheek, his head snapping back with a wince-inducing crunch. Jensen steps forward, but Padalecki’s hand splays on his chest, stops him from intervening without ever looking his way.

Padalecki licks the blood off his split lip, shakes his head. “You done?”

To his credit, Maddy’s dad seems dazed, confused about what he’s just done. And Jensen understands. What Jared’s doing, and why. If the man is focused on Jared, Colin is off the radar.

“Huh?”

“I’m asking you if you want to take another swing at me or you want to be with your daughter,” Padalecki calmly explains to the man.

He stutters a response. Shakes his head. Padalecki backs away a few steps, watches as the man stumbles towards his daughter. Colin, for all his bravado, seems to understand this is a time to stand back, let things play out.

The girl eyes her father warily but takes his hand in hers in a sign in a sign of forgiveness – she understands, too, what this is. . The man looks back, but Padalecki only has eyes for his son.

Colin’s rooted to the spot. Someone pulls the curtain closed, and Colin just stands, watches, stares at his dad.

It’s moments that must add up to seconds, but watching, Jensen feels like there’s a lifetime exchanged in those glances. Unspoken words, questions, pleas – and he’s sure, someone will voice them. They’ll talk. But Colin breaks the moment, spins on his heels and leaves without a word, without a sound.

Padalecki gives a small, hollow smile to the empty spot.

“It’s okay. He loves me. I have a Father’s day mug that says that.”

Back at the nurse’s station Jensen gives him the medical discharge papers to sign and an ice pack. He wants to ask Padalecki if he’s alright. He doesn’t. The answer’s too complicated to make the question worth it. The answer, Jensen’s pretty sure –is always I’m fine.


~

 

Chris plops down beside him, right hand outstretched, lighter in hand.

Jensen takes it, lights up, nods gratefully.

“Thanks.”

Chris hums out an unintelligible, but decidedly dismissive sound.

The concrete is cold. It’s chilly, early hour of dawn where everything is just starting to defrost.

Chris’ drawn out, “Fuck,” on the end of an exhale hovers, spreads.

“Yeah,” Jensen says simply, fiddles with the cigarette between his fingers. The taste is too bitter in his mouth. It’s a bitch of a revelation, not finding the usual relief. He doesn’t do it enough to crave it, but a night like this, he needs something.

“You good?” Chris asks, but he knows the answer. Jensen laughs humorlessly.

“Bitch of a shift.”

“Just another day at Columbia Hospital, kid.”

Jensen nudges him with his foot, knocks him in the knee. “Not a kid. Asshole.”

Chris just smirks. “Learned that from Colin, did ya, Ackles?”

Jensen arches an eyebrow. He doesn’t have the energy to be surprised.

“You know him?”

“Why’d you think security didn’t do anything about Jared?”

Jensen huffs, but there’s no heat. “Well, I thought it was because everybody believed in my excellent mediating skills, but you’re suggesting that wasn’t the case.”

Chris laughs, tired and just a little bit hollow.

When Chris doesn’t say anything else, Jensen motions with his right hand, cigarette gliding between his knuckles, smoke trailing behind.

“So, Jared?”

Chris turns to look at him, studies him for a moment. “Any particular reason you’re asking?” he challenges.

“You don’t need to worry,” Jensen dismisses. “Just curious.”

“I worry about you.”

“You shouldn’t.”

Chris huffs out an annoyed laugh. “Yeah. Keep telling me that.”

He sighs, but answers Jensen’s question.

“Jared Padalecki, firefighter out of 51. Jeff Morgan, head of trauma here is married to one of their EMTs. We hang out.”

Jensen eyes Chris dubiously.

“You do know I had already figured the firefighter bit out, by, I don’t know, the uniform he was wearing?”

“Jesus, you’re cranky.”

“So sue me, Miss Sunshine.” He crushes the cigarette butt on the crunchy gravel that covers the roof. “Just talk.”

Chris does, grudgingly, while glaring at Jensen.  Seems to be the theme today. “Jeff, Steve, and I, a few others from the firehouse – we’re friends. That is, outside these fucking walls. So we hang out. Have nice dinners where we use the same fork for three courses and shit like that.  Jeff’s wife Gen came in a package with the guys at 51. They’re all pretty decent.”

Which is Chris’ way of saying, yeah, I’d die for one of them and not blink an eye. God, they’ve known each other way too long.

Chris further demonstrates that when he doesn’t even let Jensen ask his question a second time.

“Jared … fuck, man, I don’t know. He’s been around five or six years, I still have no idea. Steve tells me he’s a crazy fucker. But you know, Steve’s barometer of crazy is kind of fucked, the guy runs into burning buildings for a living, so, take what you will.” He shrugs. “My own thoughts? The guy lives for his son. Mother’s not in the picture, hasn’t been ever since I’ve known him. Keeps to himself enough that nobody says much about him.”

Jensen thought something like that. First impressions and all.

But, it doesn’t matter. Not even when Chris asks,

“You interested in him? After one look?”

There’s an edge in his voice, something Jensen wouldn’t notice if he didn’t know Chris as well as he does. Chris doesn’t look at Jensen. He’s trying not to judge. Jensen appreciates it.

“I don’t know him, Chris. And from what you’re saying, looks like I won’t really get a chance.”


[Jared]


He can’t see.

Can’t breathe. Smoke. Dark.

Someone’s crying. Screaming, scratching, clawing at the walls of his mind.

Crushed. Breaking. Bones, snapping, loud, vicious. Cracking.

Ashes, dust. Air, not enough.

Jared wakes up.

Eyes see the off-white tile of the ceiling, calming familiarity, all the fissures and cracks where they belong. He breathes, forced cadence until he stops remembering, until he anchors himself back to reality.

Jared rubs a hand over his face, wills himself to get up.

He hears laughter, probably Hodge’s, and he relaxes. Slowly, gradually, till he believes. Believes that dreams are just memories twisted, that they’re just failings of his own mind. It’s why he crashes here as often as he does – the station is familiar, good for dissolving the fog of his dreams, in absorbing all his fears, comforting even if only by the monotony of it.

He makes his way down to the living area where Mike greets him way too enthusiastically.

“Finally,” Mike says, while none too subtly shoving Jared in the direction of the kitchen.

Jared arches an eyebrow.

Mike shrugs unapologetically. “We’re hungry.”

Jared steals a glance over the counter – all that separates the kitchen from a space filled with a huge dinner table, an old, tattered and lumpy couch, and a TV that has a sickly yellow-green game going, making it the primary cause for violence on the job – the color of the football jerseys does seem to play an important part in all the betting stuff.

On the couch are Steve and Tom, while Aldis is at the table and, from what it looks like, losing all his money playing cards with Danneel.

Everyone looks up at the sound of Jared entering – and Mike’s declaration starts to make a terrifying amount of sense, seeing how each and every one of his teammates has a pleading expression on their face, all wide and sheepish smiles that scream, feed us in bright neon pink letters.

Jared sighs. “Thought that’s why we have a candidate.”

 Danneel snorts, collects another little pile of money while Aldis looks on, pained expression on his face. “Welling’s not allowed to go near the stove anymore.”

Jared laughs. “That bad?”

“Remember that blue pan?”

Jared nods.

“It’s a flower pot now.”

Jared snickers while he dutifully starts preparing all the stuff he needs. He looks up. “Mashed potatoes and steak?”

Mike looks like he wants to kiss Jared. “You’re a God among men, Padalecki.”

Danneel giggles. “All it takes is for someone to cook and Rosie’s coming in his pants.”

Mike shrugs while he walks away, plops down on the couch with the latest edition of Babes on Wheels in his hand. “What can I say, Jay’s pot roast tickles all my sweet spots.”

Steve groans. “Really? Did you have to say that?”

Mike just grins.

“You’re on cleaning duty for a month.”, Steve says, and Mike’s still sputtering and trying to come up with a valid reply while Steve gets up, makes his way towards Jared.

Jared shakes his head at his teammates’ antics. It’s good. He forgets. He gets out of his own head.

Steve comes up beside him, leans against the counter, arms crossed, and watches Jared working on the meat.

 He’s making sure Jared’s alright. That’s what Steve does. And that’s why he’ll make such a good Lieutenant.

But Jared doesn’t need it. He hates that Steve can read him, can see when he’s off kilter, the way he has been the last week.

“You left your phone in the truck,” Steve says, and Jared breathes out, relieved.

He’s stupidly grateful that Steve doesn’t ask him to talk about it. He probably knows, Jared wouldn’t be good at it.

“Colin called,” Steve continues, and Jared’s head snaps up, because, yeah, he’s pissed beyond belief at the kid, but he still can’t quite temper that knee-jerk reaction, that moment when all the things that almost went wrong run through his mind.

But Steve sees that, too, because he hurries to add, “He’s okay, Jay, he’s okay.” He smiles a little. “Just ranted about the keys to the truck.”

Jared waits till his chest doesn’t feel too tight, till he can breathe properly before he talks.

“Yeah, sorry about that.”

He doesn’t look up, just continues the same mechanical motion with the heavy knife.

“That’s not – fuck,” Steve huffs out, and Jared hears the irritation in his voice, but he can’t really figure out the reason behind it, especially when the next words out of Steve’s mouth are, “Just – everything okay?”

Jared nods, somewhat distractedly. He doesn’t want to meet Steve’s gaze. He doesn’t know what he’ll see – worse, he doesn’t know what he’ll do, worried that too many words could come tumbling out of him.

“Yeah, Colin’s healing. It was more the scare than anything else. He’s pissed at me ‘cause I took away everything but his phone and house keys, but hey, what’s new in the Padalecki household this week?”

There’s a pause, only sound the muted voice of the announcer on the TV and Danneel’s laugh, before Steve talks again.

“That’s not what I asked.”

It’s a choice, it’s by design –Jared can’t let himself think about any other answer than that.

It’s a few more seconds before Steve sighs in defeat, drops Jared’s phone on the counter, and leaves.

Jared shoots a quick text to Colin, Are you okay? that will remain unanswered.

Jared doesn’t have time to think about all the ways he screwed up – the alarm sounds.

Fire. Everyone scrambles to their places.

Jared’s almost grateful for the interruption it brings.


~

 

This time it’s not a dream.

It’s an old frame house, two stories and an attic, and flames are coming out the roof as the trucks screech around the corner. Hoses secure, teamwork without need for orders, ax to the front door, encompassing heat upon entering.

The mother, by the engine, clutching one baby in her arms, is screaming that her toddler is still in the building.

They hear. They search, quickly, efficiently. Jared pulls open closet doors, looking in the places a child thinks will be safe. They’re not, the only safety is outdoors, but children instinctively hide, not flee.

The flaring light from the fire is increasing but its strobe-like quality makes checking the hiding spots harder.

Aldis’ voice sounds out from the hallway, calm, but urgent, authoritative.

“Jared! Hurry! We gotta go, the roof’s gonna give!”

He can’t leave.

“Jared! Now!”

And he sees it, finally, a little foot sticking out from under the bed. Jared lifts the bedframe with one hand just enough to seize the tiny body with the other, and he bolts from the house with Aldis’ frantic order sounding in his ears.

The child’s sobbing in his arms – alive.

The cries are muffled, bitten off as he buries his head in Jared’s jacket, clings to him, shaking, hands clawing at his back.

Jared doesn’t feel it.

He shushes gently, he utters useless words, fills the deafening silence with worthless sound.

Katie pries the child out of his arms, worried look in her beautiful blue eyes.

Gen yells at him, gestures wildly, but he can’t think, can’t –

Darkness is closing in on him, black spots dancing, flashing defiantly no matter how many times he blinks, and he’s floating, weightless, he could just fall –

Padalecki – fucking look at me!” Gen’s voice sounds, loud, determined, stubbornly, and Jared claws his way back, breathes, finally.

She checks on him while Katie works on the kid.

The boy’s stopped crying, and Jared still doesn’t feel a thing.


~

 

Jared doesn’t remember if it’s been a long day or a long week.

Hell, it could be years.

He carefully deposits the food in the fridge, small Tupperware containers labeled Colin – Jared is insanely grateful Katie saved some of the food – it’s about the only peace offering his son responds to.

Jared hopes he will this time, too.

He doesn’t know what to do with one more day like the last few. The call, your son’s been in an accident – he’d swear his heart stopped and didn’t start to beat again until he’d seen Colin glaring at him from the ER bed. He would have taken care of Colin’s recovery – but the kid had just  grabbed the pharmacy bag from Jared’s hands, snarked I know how to take a pill, Dad, in a tone Jared knows all too well by now, and limped to his room, slamming the door behind him.

So Colin didn’t want any coddling. That was alright. Jared knows how to do this, too. And no amount of relief at Colin being mostly okay can spare the kid the consequences. Jared tells him through the door that Colin will be taking the bus tomorrow, he is grounded for a month, and he will be expected to pay for the bike repairs with his summer job earnings.

Pointless. That’s how it feels, talking to the door. But he has to do something.

It feels like he’s a bystander, helpless, lost, watching a spectacular crash – and it goes against every fiber of his being, all that he was taught, everything that he is now – he wants, he needs to make it better, to help, to fix it.

But he can’t.

And it’s so hard to understand.

It seems like Colin woke up angry one day, and has been that way ever since. Jared wishes he had words good enough to ask him why, but he doesn’t know the right ones and so he watches, tries to stay calm in the face of provocation until Colin pushes too far - and then Jared says other things instead, things that Colin uses with military precision when he yells them back in the middle of a fight.

Jared wanted to tell Steve he’s tired.

That he’s tired of arguing, tired of stepping into landmines time and time again, of everything just beingwrong – but he can’t. He doesn’t allow himself to say it, to think it – because the moment he does that, everything will come crashing down.

He’ll give in, he’ll let himself truly feel, and then –

Jared’s made it this far.

He can do it.

One more day. And then the one after that. Seconds, hours, one breath at a time.

He realizes he’s still standing in the same spot, staring without seeing at the same point on the wall.

He closes his eyes, but it doesn’t matter – it’s already dark.


~

 

Jared stops to check on Colin before he leaves for his shift in the morning.

He sees his son’s gangly legs twisted in the blankets, and in his sleep the permanent look of disdain Colin wears when awake is replaced by the vulnerable face of a little boy.

Something settles in Jared’s chest, and for a brief second, for a moment that passes all too fast and leaves him with an empty feeling in the aftermath – he smiles.

Small, genuine, full of love.

It’s perfect.

It aches, bone-deep pain that spreads, and it’s perfect – his son is safe, sound. His son is still the little guy that said “dada” and looked at Jared like he could touch the stars in the sky.

But it’s not.

It’s a reflection, splintered, broken, perfectly imperfect.

Colin’s not that little guy. Colin is the stubborn, headstrong young man that gives Jared heart attacks on a daily basis, and makes no apologies for that. He’s a kid that’s hurting, and Jared wishes he could take that pain with a sweep of his hands, take it upon himself, if only he could see his son happy again.

Smiling, carefree, genuine.

He should be able to give him that. He should be able to find a way to make it right again. That’s his job.

It’s hard to leave.

He’d watch Colin sleeping, he’d get annoyed at the tattoo peeking out under his sleeve t-shirt where his arm is sneaking under the pillow – he’d watch, he’d be happy, because it’s the silent moments he has, where he can pretend he isn’t failing, like his world isn’t one wrong word, one heated fight away from crumbling.

It’s hard to leave, but Jared does, and he hopes, like he does every day, that it’s not the last time he’ll see peace on his boy’s face.

~

Jared drops by the hospital before his shift to check on the kid he had saved yesterday.

It isn’t until after he reaches the nurse’s desk, staring at the bold, emblazoned letters on the wall that readColumbia Medical Center that he realizes he’s looking forward to seeing the man with beautiful green eyes.

Jensen, Jared thinks his name was.