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Next Man Up

Chapter Text

When you win, nothing hurts.
~Joe Namath

It's two days of bright lights, impeccably pressed suits and piles of legal papers, two days of people clapping him on the back, 'Welcome to the Cowboys, Jared,' and 'You're going to be a remarkable asset to the team, son,' and 'Jared, we're looking forward to investing our future in your talent.'

It's exhilarating and exhausting, a maddening circus of which he can barely make heads or tails, too caught up in the midst of it all to really know where the ride is taking him or whether or not he's even enjoying it. He just smiles and shakes hands as he's told, tries not to think too much about the weight that has suddenly dropped down on his shoulders, settling there by the faith these men have in him. A faith of which he has yet to prove he's worthy. They smile and grip his hand and whisk him off into yet another photo-op and interview and Jared can feel the undercurrent of 'Don't you fuck this up, boy, don't you disappoint us,' that nobody needs to say out loud to be clearly understood.

Some part of him had expected this, had dreamed of it since the day he'd thrown his first spiral. But nothing he'd ever imagined had come close to this reality, not with Jerry Jones on his left and John, his agent, on the right. Not later with his parents, his father cautioning him to not sign anything until first speaking with both his agent and his lawyer, his mother straightening his tie and smoothing his suit jacket and making him promise to autograph rookie cards for all the kids in her classes.

Back in Austin, he still has interviews to give with the Statesman and KVET and KVRX and, of course, The Daily Texan. They all consist of the same ten or twenty questions and Jared does his best to answer each one like they're new and original.

"Do you think the Cowboys are hoping to make you a replacement for the faltering Jensen Ackles in the new season?"

This is the fourth sports writer Jared's talked to just today. The guy, whose name is either Dan or Dave, looks remarkably like every writer before him.

"Uh," he replies, shifting in his as he scratches a finger along his jaw. "Well, I kinda doubt it," he says honestly, trying not to show his discomfort. It's been the most frequently asked question so far, though there are several variations. "Ackles is a great quarterback, great overall player, and I think... well, I hope to learn a lot from him. I certainly don't think I'll be starting right away, but I'd obviously like to eventually."

"So, you don't think you're as good as Ackles?"

Jared laughs, shakes his head. "I know I'm not. The guy's been a pro for, like, five years. I was-- y'know, I was still in high school then. I haven't even been through minicamp yet."

"But what about pure talent and athleticism? Style and arm strength? You have youth on your side, size..." the guy continues, lips twisted in a half-grin. "Not to mention the decreasing confidence in Ackles' ability to win big games and his past performances in December."

"He still has the experience and respect of his teammates," Jared counters, "which, I think, are just as important, if not more important, than pure athleticism. And it's not like the guy's on his way to the grave, he's not even thirty and still an incredible ballplayer. He's got a lot left to give."

"But you spent your first year learning from Vince Young, arguably the best quarterback to come out of UT--"

"It's not the same," Jared interrupts, smiling despite himself. "I mean, yeah, Vince is great and I learned a lot from him, no question, but it's still a college team with college opponents. We're not playing against the Pittsburgh Steelers or New York Giants every week, you know? I don't have Ray Lewis running me down or Lito Sheppard threatening to intercept me. Jensen Ackles does and has for years. Quarterbacks always get more credit than they deserve when a team's winning, but they also get more criticism than everyone else when they're losing. It's not an excuse or anything, but it's true and I think Ackles is a truly great quarterback. I really do."

It's probably more than he should've said, certainly more than this guy had expected, but he only smiles at Jared, gives a tilt of his head. "Sound like a fan."

He doesn't know whether the guy's genuinely amused or being vaguely condescending and figures it doesn't matter either way. "Guess you could say that. I mean, I'm a Texas boy, been a Cowboys fan pretty much since birth, so it's not like I haven't been watching him. He's a good player, a good guy. I'm looking forward to being on a team with him."

"You don't think there'll be any animosity between you two given that Jerry Jones has made no secret about eventually making you the franchise quarterback?"

"Well, I hope not," Jared says, his smile open and genuine. "Just wanna be part of the team, you know? I think it'll be good."

When the guy still doesn't look convinced, Jared gives a shrug and adds, "I'm not worried."

:::

In between interviews and soundbites and posing for photo shoot after photo shoot after photo shoot, Jared still has actual schoolwork to worry about. Papers to write, tests to study for, a degree to earn. His decision to go to UT had been based on their engineering program as much as their football program and he'd made a promise to his mother and himself before even enrolling that he wouldn't leave without a degree. After further investigation into the program and talks with the coaching staff, Jared had decided to redshirt his first year, thereby extending his eligibility and starting after Vince Young's departure. He'd led the Longhorns to four straight bowl games, including the BCS National Championship his first year. There had been pressure for him to enter the draft as a junior where he would be a shoo-in as a first round pick and almost certainly receive a lucrative contract, but, as tempted as he might have been, Jared had kept good on his promise.

And now, a signature away from being a Dallas Cowboy, feels like he's truly reaping the benefits. In all honesty, he'd have been happy getting signed by any team in the league, but he can't deny that being signed by the Dallas Cowboys is like fulfilling every single childhood dream he'd ever had. He'd grown up idolizing Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith, can still remember the thrill of watching them make and break records left and right, remembers every step of them becoming the first team in NFL history to win three Super Bowls in four years.

And now he's one of them, a part of that legacy.

But he still has to worry about graduating first.

He sits hunched over his mechatronics textbook, yellow highlighter between his teeth, pen tapping idly against the pages. His eyes scan over the words, none of them making any more sense than they had hour ago, his mind too busy imagining where he'll be a year from now, the trip he's about to take, how quickly he'll have to cram in his term papers before rookie minicamp, make sure he still has time to study for his exams before heading into OTAs. It sounds overwhelming and impossible, thrilling and terrifying. Like everything he's ever wanted dangling mere centimeters out of reach.

The touch of a cool hand to the back of his neck snaps him out of his thoughts, breath catching as 110 pounds of perky girlfriend settles into his lap.

"So, I've been thinking," Sandy says, hooking her arms around his neck.

Jared grins around the highlighter and rests his hands on her hips, his mind dragged out of the clouds and back to earth. Sandy's always been good for that, at keeping him grounded and level-headed. Putting him in his place. Jared's pretty sure he doesn't know what he'd do without her. "Thinking?"

"Yeah. Thinking maybe I should become a cheerleader," she says with a sway of her hips, leaning in enough that the tip of the uncapped highlighter lightly brushes the end of her nose.

Laughing, Jared wiggles the highlighter between his teeth, swipes a faint streak of yellow against her cheek before reaching up to pull the pen out of his mouth. "A Cowboys cheerleader? That'd be pretty hot."

"I bet I'd make it," she continues, clearly joking, though Jared's enjoying the idea all the same. "Put those fifteen years of dance to good use and I bet I can wear those cute shorts and vests no problem. My legs look amazing in boots."

"Mmm," Jared agrees, sliding one hand down over the back of her shorts.

"We'll be the hottest couple in town and make everyone jealous. And," she adds, leaning in to bump her nose against his, eyes crinkling at the corners, "at the end of the year, you can take me to prom!"

Jared pulls back with a laugh, reaches his other hand up to tuck a strand of her dark hair behind her ear. He leans in for a kiss, chaste but lingering and Sandy smiles into it.

"You know I'll be comin' down here as often as I can," he promises her, because that's what this is really all about and they both know it. They've talked about Jared's transition to the NFL before and where it might take the both of them. But there's been no time to talk since his return from New York. It had always been hypothetical before, a whole lot of what-ifs that sometimes felt like little more than pipe dreams. Now it's actually happening.

Of course, getting signed by the Cowboys makes it easier with Dallas only a three hour drive from Austin. More manageable than if he'd been signed almost anywhere else.

She laughs softly, brushes another kiss against the corner of his mouth. "You better," she teases, fingers dropping to smooth over the front of his shirt. "I'm clinging to this ship until you make your first couple million. Aiming to land me a goldmine in the divorce settlement."

"That make me your sugar daddy?" Jared laughs, tugging her close to nip at her bottom lip.

"Mm-hmm," she replies and pulls him into a kiss.

Later, with Jared's homework long forgotten and Sandy naked and curled up against his side, he can't help thinking she really would look amazing in those boots.

:::

Due to a contract hold-out, Jared misses rookie minicamp. While disappointed, he spends the time forcing himself to focus on finishing his exams and getting through graduation and on enjoying a few more uninterrupted weeks with his girlfriend. It works for the most part, though he feels bad for calling John nearly every other hour to find out if anything has been settled.

It's the Monday after commencement and Jared's having dinner at his parents' house when he gets a call from Stephen Jones. Jared remembers the name, remembers meeting the man during the whirlwind of the draft and, while the face is unclear, the drawl is familiar, a comforting Texan twang as Jared excuses himself from the table and walks into the living room with his phone.

"Looks like we got it all settled, Jared. You talk to John yet?"

"No, sir, I haven't heard from him."

"My guess is he'll be callin' you real soon then."

"Yes, sir."

"What'll you say to comin' down tomorrow mornin' and gettin' all these papers here squared away? Get you out on that field."

"Yeah, absolutely," Jared says, blood pounding in his ears. "Yes, sir."

He barely hears anything else Mr. Jones tells him, but he keeps saying 'Yes, sir' and 'Thank you, sir' and promises to be there first thing the next morning. After he hangs up, he has to take a minute, pulse a rapid stutter under his skin.

Three sets of eyes greet him when he walks back into the dining room and Jared tries to play it off as casually as possible, calmly sitting down at the table as he slides his phone back into his pocket. Picks up his napkin, sets it on his lap.

"I need to be in Dallas tomorrow morning."

There's nothing but silence for a moment before his father sits back abruptly and lets out a whoop and gives a single loud clap. His sister drops her fork onto her plate with a clatter and kicks Jared's shin under the table. Jared barely flinches, already beaming at her, his momma grabbing his hand, squeezing like she's afraid he's going to leave right that second.

"Did he say...?"

"Fours years for eleven-point-seven with four million upfront," Jared says, the figures still sounding foreign. Unreal. "John's gonna fax everything over tonight."

"Oh, my good Lord," his momma gasps, clutches Jared's hand even tighter.

Megan kicks him again. "You better be buyin' me a car for Christmas, JT. A Mercedes. Convertible."

"You better start kissin' ass then, squirt."

Megan tilts her head upward, lips puckered. "You're the best brother ever."

Jared only laughs, plunges his fork into his mess of mashed potatoes and thinks about how big a house he can buy his parents with that amount of money.

:::

Prior to the draft, Jared had been flown all across the country to feel out various teams and coaches, given V.I.P. tours of a dozen practice fields and stadiums. Wined, dined and pampered like an incredibly expensive hooker. Dallas had been the easiest commute, though they'd really gone all out with it, putting him up in a five star hotel downtown and providing him with transportation both to and from Valley Ranch and Texas Stadium as well as anywhere else he had the desire to wander.

Growing up a Cowboys fan, Jared had heard the name Valley Ranch tossed around all the time and it had somehow always sounded less like a practice facility and more like an enclosed fortress hidden behind thick, opaque trees or carved into a wayward mountain, sheltered from the scorching Texan sun and prying enemy eyes. So he'd been a little surprised to find it nestled within an ordinary suburban area on the outskirts of Irving, just a small collection of buildings at the end of a winding road.

Now, only a couple months later, it looks exactly the same, albeit with a few more leaves on the trees and the grass a touch greener. After getting cleared by security, John drives them on through the entrance and, from there, it's a short stop at the receptionist desk. Minutes later they're ushered into Jerry Jones's spacious office, all smiles and warm 'Good to see you, Jared, welcome to the team,' once again. Jared's given a pen and a camera light flashes as he signs his name, another when he shakes Mr. Jones's hand.

"This mean I can practice now?" Jared asks, still beaming like he's won the lottery.

Mr. Jones laughs, claps a warm hand on Jared's shoulder. "Sure thing," he says. "Go out there and show us what you got."

He finds the locker room with little difficulty, though his stomach tightens the closer he gets, nerves crackling as he grips the strap of his bag. He takes a slow, calming breath before opening the door, the low rumble of voices quieting to a hush when he steps in.

"Well, well, well. Looks like we got some fresh blood up in here," an absolutely enormous guy near the back says and it takes a second for Jared to recognize him. Flozell Adams. Holy shit, Flozell Adams is actually talking to him. "You lookin' to pose for GQ, boy?"

Jared laughs, a quick, nervous sound as he steps further inside. "What, already?" he asks, trying to appear as casual as possible. Like he's already used to this, like the Dallas Cowboys locker room is nothing special.

"You thinkin' you got a free pass 'til training camp, boy?" another guy says and Jared glances over, recognizes him immediately as Patrick Crayton. The eyes are pretty unmistakable, dark and beady, head shaved bald. "N'aw, man. Fun starts today. To-day."

Jared smiles to himself and hitches his bag up higher on his shoulder as he scans the nameplates for his own. "Well, don't be too hard on me, guys," he says. "I'm delicate, you know."

That gets a few howls of laughter and a few dangerous-sounding promises as Jared finds his spot on the other side of the room, drops his bag to the floor. There are two practice jerseys waiting for him already, one dark and one light, both emblazoned with the number fourteen, along with two pairs of practice shorts and shoes. There's a helmet too, displayed proudly in the top cubby hole with his name written on a strip of masking tape across the front.

The tightness in his gut turns warmer for a moment as he reaches up to touch it, a finger outlining the star before he can think to stop himself.

"Hey," someone calls out from a few feet away and Jared quickly pulls his hand back, starts to unbutton the cuff links of his shirt. When he glances over, Jensen Ackles is watching him. The guy's already dressed in his practice clothes, broad shoulders filling out his jersey, grey undershirt peeking out beneath. There's an upward tilt to his chin, eyes narrowed, like some kind of silent challenge that Jared doesn't understand. "Welcome to the team, man," he says, and there's something in his voice that makes Jared question his sincerity.

Still, he flashes a smile, shrugs out of his shirt. "Yeah, thanks."

Ackles watches him for another few seconds and then gives a quick nod before grabbing his helmet and leaving the room.

Jared watches him go, curious and oddly disappointed both at once.

"Don't worry about him none," someone says and Jared looks over, eyes darting to the nameplate above the guy's head. Courtney Brown. It's a name and a face Jared doesn't immediately recognize. "He's had a big ol' stick up his ass since December. Nothing personal, man."

Smiling a little, Jared nods, though he has the nagging feeling personal is exactly what it is.

Chapter Text

One of Jared's closest friends back at UT had been Chad Michael Murray. Chad had been a year ahead of Jared in school and then had entered the draft early, but they'd managed to stay in touch throughout Jared's remaining years as a Longhorn. Jared won't ever admit to anyone out loud, but another perk to being signed with the Cowboys is sharing the field with Chad again. The guy's ego is truly overpowering, sure, but he has the skills to back it up and -- occasionally questionable ethics aside -- he's a remarkably good friend.

So, after finding himself a two-room condo a mile from the practice facility, it doesn't take much to convince Chad to help him pick out a car. They spend half an hour playing the anal game at a Ford dealership in Richardson -- "You should totally get the Anal Explorer!" "No, no, man, the Anal Expedition!" "What about the Anal Fusion?" -- before hitting up BMW, Chevrolet and Infiniti. But it's eventually the Audi R8 that grabs him.

The price tag is larger than that of his parents' house and the fact that he could handle the cost of the whole thing entirely in cash if he really wanted makes him nearly giddy and a little sick at the same time.

It's a damn nice car, though.

When not at practice or in meetings, Jared spends his time trying to settle in. He gets his new car inspected and registered and sets up all the utilities for his new place, buys furniture and calls his mom for assistance selecting the right kitchen appliances. After living off campus at UT for three years, it's nothing he's never done before, just on a slightly larger scale: a sleek, mahogany coffee table instead of something cheap from IKEA; a little hall table in the foyer instead of a growing beer pyramid; a large wooden clock in the living room instead of a poster of Jessica Alba from Sin City.

"Dude, you know you can afford to pay people to do that shit for you," Chad says when Jared mentions scheduling someone to deliver his new washer and dryer.

It's an early afternoon practice in the sweltering heat and Jared shrugs as he takes a drink of his water, sweat dripping down his face and neck. "Yeah, but this way I can save my money for hookers and blow."

Chad eyes him speculatively. "Hey, if you're serious, I know a guy who can hook you up," he says and Jared really can't tell if he's joking or not.

At home that night, he relaxes into his plush new couch and calls Sandy. She sounds exhausted, but still pleased to hear from him, her voice quiet and sleepy through the phone line.

He tells her about the work he's putting in, how different it is from college, how it's all day every day with hardly any breaks, and she tells him about Katie, a six year old with a debilitating case of shyness. He tells her about the band Cory, Marc and LD are in and his work-outs with Gary and how the other rookies are faring and she talks about how her roommate just lost her job and about little Brian who's just lost his dad in Iraq.

"I miss you," Jared confesses as the conversation starts to die down.

"I miss you, too," she replies and Jared closes her eyes, pictures her soft smile, the crinkle of her eyes.

"We get the weekend off. Thinkin' I might come see you."

"Oh, is that so?" Sandy says, voice low with amusement. "Well, I guess I'll have to tell all my other boyfriends I've got plans then."

"Or I could bring my other girlfriends up to keep them company," Jared says, grinning.

Sandy laughs again, high and gentle. "Whatever. Just don't bring Chad."

:::

The second set of OTAs is a little more grueling, particularly under the unforgiving sun. There's no playbook yet, no real game plan. More than anything, the coaches are just trying to get everyone acclimated, to get a feel for the chemistry of the team and determine possible areas for improvement.

The receivers line up for a 7-on-7 and Kripke turns to the sidelines, says, "Jensen, I want you in on this one."

Ackles' grabs a ball and jogs out into place at the scrimmage line, hunches down behind the non-existent center and waits for Kripke's instruction.

"Let's try a 20-yard curl option out of the I," Kripke says and Aldis Hodge, an off-season acquisition out of Cincinnati, lines up on the right next to Witten, Chad on the left. "Defense, I want you to try zone on this one. And Tashard, I want you to make yourself open under the middle, got it?"

Ackles calls out a pointless audible, mimes receiving the snap and drops back while Hodge sprints up the side, easily passing Newman, his defender. There's no defensive linemen to worry about, no immediate pressure aside from the secondary coverage; he has all the time in the world for his receiver to get open, but he doesn't need it. Not even a second later, the ball's flying through the air, landing perfectly in Aldis's arms. Newman's right on his heels, close but not nearly close enough.

"Good, good on offense!" Kripke shouts. "Now, let's run that again, but with better coverage this time. I want the same exact route, no changes. Terry, I expect you to be able to keep up!"

They run it again exactly the same and this time Newman gets a finger on it, a light tap that knocks it incomplete and Kripke frowns.

"Again!"

On the next go, Terry and Sterling hover a couple yards back, alert and ready as Kripke blows the whistle. Newman's immediately all over Hodge, with him step for step, blocking every chance Ackles has to get off a clear pass. He could probably force it, throw into the mess and hope for the best, but, at the last second, he aborts the route entirely, finds Tashard open in the middle just as Coach had instructed. Luckily, Tashard's ready for it, dodges the one linebacker closest to him and runs up the middle, only stopping when Kripke ends the play with a shout.

"Newman!" Kripke calls out as the players slow to a stop, hands on hips while they catch their breaths. "Good work on coverage. I wanna see you up against Hodge whenever possible, you got it? Make him work for it. Hodge, I wanna see you giving him one hell of a hard time every single damn play." Coach turns his attention to Ackles then. Ackles doesn't so much as flinch, though his eyes are wary, squinted against the sun as Coach eyes him.

"Good read," he says after a long moment and then adds: "Way to find an open and not force it. Padalecki, you're in!"

Jared blinks to attention. He tugs his helmet on, snapping the chin strap into place and jogs onto the field. "Hey, good work," he say as he passes Ackles, but the guy outright ignores him, eyes trained straight ahead.

They do a few more sets of 7-on-7 and Jared manages to only complete half of his passes. Behind him, his teammates crack jokes and egg him on, a few howling when he throws a pass two feet above Hodge's outstretched arms, a few others groaning in disappointment. Kripke's pissed, face pinched as he shouts at Jared to run the play again.

"Looks like your job's safe, old man," Jared hears someone mutter behind him and he glances back, sees Carpenter leaning in towards Jensen.

Jared nails his next three attempts.

:::

"So, I think I might get a dog."

It's over a hundred degrees out, the humidity making Jared's undershirt stick to his skin, hair already damp with sweat though they haven't actually started working yet.

Ackles turns to look at him, eyes squinting against the sun as he takes a drink from his water bottle. "Okay," he says, the word low and drawn out.

"My parents have two," Jared continues without pause, switches his helmet from one hand to the other and glances across the field to where a crowd of local media are setting up cameras. "Both mutts. Shiloh and Brigadier. They're like-- seriously, they're crazy best friends, man. Never seen two dogs get along like those two."

Ackles offers a grunt of acknowledgment and looks away again. Jared keeps talking.

"So I'm thinkin'-- well, two's probably too much, but one might be okay for now. Just worried about the traveling, y'know? My girlfriend's just down in Austin, though, so I think maybe she'll help out, like take him when we have away games, stuff like that."

Ackles tips his head back for another drink, giving Jared only a brief glance before leaning forward to spit into the grass at his feet.

"There's gotta be an animal shelter around here some place, right?" Jared continues, gaze dropping briefly to the shine of spit on Ackles' bottom lip. "I don't like the idea of getting one from a pet store when there are so many good dogs out there looking for homes, you know? I know some people think dogs from the pound are, like, damaged or something, but we got Shiloh and Brig from shelters and yeah, they have their quirks or whatever and it took some work to get them to trust us -- especially Shiloh -- but they're great dogs, amazing dogs. Not that-- I mean, every dog is good, there's no such thing as a bad dog, just--"

"Yeah, sure," Ackles says, abruptly cutting him off and Jared blinks, lips pulling into a frown as Ackles shoves his helmet on and walks away without another word.

:::

"Hey, Jared, stay here a minute, will you?" Coach Morgan says at the end of their mid-week film review.

Jared glances up, his three-ring binder packed full of loose notes and, out the corner of his eye, notices Ackles hesitate by the door. He and Coach Morgan exchange looks, a quick and silent conversation before Ackles huffs a breath and leaves, Tommy and Isaiah right behind him.

Jared's already wondering what the hell he's done wrong, going through all his on-field mistakes, when Coach says, "Look, I know Jensen's been prickly lately."

It's not at all what Jared's expecting to hear and he blinks, lips tugging into a frown, brain stuttering as it attempts to shift gear.

"Y'know, he's just... his ego's taking a bruising right now. Bad coupla years and he's got a lot to prove. Don't take it personally, alright?"

"Yeah, I'm-- I'm not," Jared says once he's finally gotten with the program, tucking the binder under one arm. "I mean, I get it. I'd probably hate me too, if I was him."

"He doesn't hate you, JT," Coach says, smiling a little even as he crosses his arms. "He hates the idea of you more than anything. Maybe what you represent."

Jared snorts, lips quirking in a half grin. "What, youth, speed, strength and amazing good looks?"

"Absolutely," Coach replies, his own smile broadening. "The youth, speed, strength and amazing good looks that are going to put him out of a job."

Jared's smile wavers then, unsure whether he's supposed to feel guilt or pity. If anything, he feels defensive.

"It's hardly been two weeks," he points out.

"Not for him," Coach Morgan says. "Jensen's known since December that his job's on the line, JT. And now you showin' up... even if you don't start right away, it's all headed in that direction. Provided you don't royally fuck up or get hurt, you're it, kid, and we all know it. Jensen more than anybody."

It's nothing Jared doesn't already know, but it sounds different coming from a coach somehow. More real.

"'Kay," he finally says, still doing nothing to hide his irritation. "So what am I supposed to do about it?"

Coach shrugs. "Back off. Give him some time to cool down and get his head on straight."

Jared wants to argue that it's not like he's being pushy, that he hasn't been trying to force the guy into liking him. Not really. Sure, he's tried starting up a conversation here and there, but he's been doing that with all the guys. They're a team, after all. Unity is supposed to be part of the package.

"I know he seems like a raging asshole right now, but that's not Jensen and he won't be able to keep it up for very long. He'll come around."

Still doubtful, Jared's silent for a moment before nodding. "Yes, sir."

Coach only smiles and Jared takes that as his cue to leave.

"Oh, Padalecki, one more thing."

Jared pauses with his hand on the doorknob, looks back over his shoulder.

"Still need to speed up your footwork on the drop back. Jensen's gonna beat your ass on that every time."

"Yes, sir," Jared says, quirking a very small smile, and lets the door shut behind him.

:::

When they're not out on the field or in meetings, they're busy in the weight room working out with Gary, the team's strength and conditioning coach. Gary's older than Coach Kripke, but has twice as much hair on his head and a neck the width of Jared's right thigh. His preference is to work one-on-one with each player right from the beginning, to customize each man's routine to fit individual body type and field position. Every player has a scheduled weight time, typically organized in blocks, the D-line and O-line all in together, followed later by the backs and then the receivers and secondary, and so on. Any additional weight training has to be team sanctioned and, while the coaches can't really control what the players do in their own homes, Gary tries to constantly stress the importance of giving the body a chance to rest.

Taking Coach Morgan's advice, Jared continues to barely say a word to Ackles unless absolutely necessary. There's no joking around on the field or locker room, no shooting the shit in the weight room. It's tense and uncomfortable, but if anyone else on the team notices, none of them say anything.

"Good, good, just--" Gary says as Jared lowers the kettlebell to his side, muscles burning pleasantly, sweat making his shirt stick to his skin. Gary steps in closer, presses a hand to Jared's lower back, forcing him to shift his weight slightly. "Keep your balance here," he says, his other hand grabbing Jared's forearm, lifting it and the kettlebell in one easy motion, "and make sure the movement is slow and smooth. If you don't, you risk injury and then Jerry will have my head on a platter."

Jared laughs, just a quiet puff of air, and does as he's told. Past Gary's shoulder, he can see Ackles spotting Tommy on the bench press. Jensen's hunched over, following the movement of Tommy's arms as he lifts and, when Jensen glances up, Jared just keeps staring. Gary's still speaking, his voice low and encouraging as Jared does his reps and Ackles glares at him, lips drawn in a thin line, something undefinable lingering behind his expression before he finally tears his gaze away to focus on Tommy.

Jared doesn't look away until Gary's hand rests on his arm.

"Great, great. Perfect," Gary says. "Now do two more sets and take a breather before starting in on the left."

Jared nods, lifts the kettledrum to his shoulder and starts over. When he glances up, Ackles is still watching him.

:::

Like the rest of the rookies, Jared's quiet during meetings, and completely focused. He takes detailed notes, his playbook covered in red and blue and black, in X's and O's and a mess of straight lines and squiggles. The coaches go over play after play, pointing out weaknesses and areas to work on while, beside him, Chad doodles a three-breasted stick person.

It seems to be tiring and monotonous work for some of the guys, but Jared gets a weird thrill out of it, enjoys the faster pace and how much he's learning already. And it doesn't take him long to realize that however much of an asshole Ackles is, the guy knows his stuff.

Coach Whitfield is detailing the various slants they want to work in over the next few weeks when Ackles says, "What about trying Hodge on first down? Try baiting the secondary, maybe get in some movement with Felix and Tashard that way. Defense won't always fall for it, but that's the point. Mix it up."

Coach Whitfield glances up and an uncomfortable silence settles. Jared considers it, drawing it out in his mind and it seems pretty reasonable. More than reasonable if they get Witten or Deon in on some blocking.

"We'll consider that later, Jensen," Coach says and there's no mistaking the tone of his voice for anything other than, Drop it and shut the hell up. Jared frowns.

But Ackles only nods, doesn't miss a beat. "Yes, sir."

The discussion finally starts wrapping up when Kripke gives out the schedule for minicamp and it's dark by the time they're released. Jared hikes his bag higher up on his shoulder and flicks through his keychain for his car fob before glancing up to find Ackles a few yards away.

He hesitates for a second and then calls out to him, voice carrying across the stretch of blacktop.

Ackles slows to a stop, lips drawn into a frown as he glances back.

"I was just-- I wanted to say that I think you had a really great idea in there," he says with a tentative smile. More likely than not Ackles doesn't give two shits what Jared thinks, but it feels important somehow that he let the guy know anyway. Just in case.

"Okay," Ackles replies like he has no idea what Jared's talking about.

"That thing about getting Hodge on first down and using him as bait. It's a good idea."

Jensen frowns. "It's not anything revolutionary."

"Yeah, well I mean... you're still the one who came up with it," Jared says, feeling his smile dim slightly. "And I think it could be really good. Maybe we could try some reverses, too. Aldis is like a bullet, man. He could run a reverse, and if we get Tashard and Witten in on some blocking, the guy would make it halfway up the field before the defense even noticed."

"Mmm," Ackles says with clear disinterest.

Jared's watches him a moment and then sighs, bag heavy on his shoulder. "Whatever. Just an idea."

He's tempted to call Ackles on his shit, to point out that he's just as much a member of the team as anyone else, that he knows full well why Jensen's being a dick. Because yeah, he understands the threat, but it's not like Jared chose to come in and steal his job. It's not his fault.

But Jensen tilts his head up, the lights from the parking lot casting a weird shadow over his face, highlighting the jut of his cheekbones and sweep of dark eyelashes. Even Jared has to admit the guy is good-looking. Pretty, even. He's also fairly sure Ackles would kick him in the nuts for so much as thinking that.

Seemingly satisfied, Ackles nods and pushes past him while Jared clamps down hard on the clench of anger in his gut. He turns back just as Ackles climbs into his truck, pastes on a smile that's so tight it's painful. "Have a nice night!" he says and barely resists flipping the guy off.


Cowboys' rookies attend league orientation in Canton
8:12 AM Sat July 25, 2009
Sophia Bush

The Cowboys' eight drafted rookies are headed to Canton, Ohio this morning, the site of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and this years' Rookie Symposium. Held annually since 1997, the symposium acts as a one-stop shop for everything a young, wet-behind-the-ears player should know about entering into the world of professional football. Everything from financial advice, player conduct and the league's illegal substance policies to information regarding sexually transmitted diseases and general life skills is covered in the four-day event. In addition, the players will spend a day reaching out to area youth and will receive advice and tales of personal experiences from veteran players within the NFL.

"We are diligent in educating them and giving and we believe the vast majority will benefit," Mike Haynes, the league's vice president of player and employee development, said of the symposium's aim. "This elevates the importance of all of these subjects. No one thing covered is more important than any other. This helps give us and them a fighting chance to cope with potential problems. And they should leave here knowing they are not alone in dealing with the challenges."

With attendance required for all 250 drafted rookies, the symposium marks the one and only occasion where the entire draft class is gathered within one common setting.


Canton isn't exactly Jared's idea of an idyllic vacation getaway, but then he gets the feeling that's probably the point.

"Last year they had this shit in San Diego," DeShawn says as he presses his forehead to the rain-streaked van window.

"Damn," Jared says, voice lightly teasing. "Knew I shoulda listened to everyone telling me to enter early."

"No shit," DeShawn continues, still staring out at the rain. "Fuck, man, they got cows out here. No beaches or hot chicks in bikinis or fucking sunshine. No, man, we got cows and corn and rain in some fuckin' podunk town in the middle of fuckin' nowhere. Shit."

"Bitch, stop your whinin'," Wiggins says from behind them. "We're supposed to be going to this thing to learn. This ain't no vacation."

"Yeah, I know," DeShawn grumbles. "But I learn better on beaches. Cows fuck up my mental process."

Their van pulls up to the Hall minutes later, one in a long line of many. Jared and his fellow teammates are dressed in matching navy polo shirts, the Cowboys emblem tastefully displayed on the pocket while all the guys from the other teams are dressed in their own team colors. Jared can't help but be reminded of every elementary school field trip he'd ever been on.

They're herded in like the cattle DeShawn had been so irritated by and Jared scans the crowd, trying to spot some of his teammates from UT. He finally picks out Milo in a white polo with 'Tampa Bay Buccaneers' stitched on the chest. They have a quick reunion, congratulating and catching up, and spend some time commiserating about their experiences since May before they're ushered into the Hall's large meeting room.

They all take their seats -- which are not only surprisingly comfortable, but also swivel and recline; metal folding chairs clearly won't do for a crowd of new millionaires -- and listen to an introduction from Kevin Mawae, president of the Players Association.

"Look around you," Mawae says as he walks across the stage, arms outstretched. "Look at this place we're in, this hall of champions, these men of honor. Every single one of you in here today has the opportunity to be placed shoulder to shoulder with these great athletes. It's not gonna happen today or this year or even this decade, but the work starts now, gentlemen. Today.

"Football is no longer a game for you," he continues, stepping off the stage and into the crowd. Chairs dip and tilt as he walks past, following his movement. "It's a job. It is not your right to play football. It is a privilege. It is a gift. You are now a part of something bigger than yourself and you cannot afford to take it for granted."

Mawae stands tall, clearly commanding respect in every movement and there isn't a single whisper in the room as he speaks.

"But you aren't in this alone," he says. "The Players Association was created for you. My job is to serve you. And I'm not the only one. Don't hesitate to get in touch with the player representative on your team; find someone who can answer your questions. You have resources, men. Use them."

They all receive pamplets and Mawae goes over the schedule, detailing the Hall tour and presentations, workshops and guest speakers for the coming days.

All-in-all, it's not entirely what Jared had been expecting, but it's a hell of a lot more enjoyable. Not to mention informative.

On the afternoon of the third day, Jared and his teammates, along with rookies from the Raiders, Bills and Vikings gather in one of the smaller rooms to listen to guest speaker, Esera Tuaolo. According to the itinerary, the session's topic is Tolerance & Diversity and Jared recognizes the guy almost immediately, feels his stomach clench in apprehension.

A quiet murmur works its way through the room and Rogers leans over to whisper, "Hey, that the fag?"

Jared feels a shock of shame flood through him, face hot with it as he glares in reply. Rogers frowns, clearly confused by the look before shrugging and leaning back in his chair.

Tuaolo is huge, standing well over six feet tall and weighing upwards of 300 pounds, still the prototypical defensive lineman even in retirement.

"Hello," he says once the door's closed, his smile warm and welcoming, belying his enormous physique. "I believe some of you already know of me, but for those of you who don't, please allow me to introduce myself.

"My name is Esera Tuaolo," he says, one large hand resting proudly against his broad chest. He pronounces it A-Sarah. "I was born and raised in Hawaii and attended Oregon State University where I set school records in sacks, quarterback pressures and tackles for a loss. I was drafted in 1991 by the Green Bay Packers, and, at the time, was the highest defensive draft pick in franchise history. I was the first rookie in NFL history to start all sixteen games and was voted onto the all-rookie team. I played nine years in the league for five different teams and I have played in the Super Bowl." He pauses then, pulls in a breath and lets it out as he drops his hand to his side. "And I'm gay."

Nobody says a word, swallowed in an uncomfortable silence until Tuaolo laughs, warm but startling.

"Yeah, bet you weren't expecting that," he says. It's enough of an ice-breaker that some of the guys chuckle and Jared hazards a glance around, silently willing his fellow draftees to not say anything horrendously offensive.

"You did a thing," one of the Vikings guys says. "On TV a while back. I remember you."

Tuaolo's smile softens and he nods as he rests back against the wall. "Yes. Weren't you about twelve when that came out?"

That draws another laugh from the room, more comfortable this time, but still quiet. "N'aw, man, I was in high school!"

"That really doesn't make me feel any less ancient, but thanks for trying," Tuaolo replies, grinning.

The discussion lasts less than an hour with Tuaolo going into detail about his experiences in the league, the fear and loneliness he'd felt both in and out of the locker room, the constant terror of having his deepest secret discovered. It sounds unfathomable to Jared, a fear and shame so entrenched, so inescapable. And, at the same time, he gets it. He knows.

"I'm not here to change you," Tuaolo says at one point, his voice still quiet and calm. "I'm not here to convert you. I'm here to educate you. Just as in life, homosexuality is a reality within the sport of professional football. Period. I know it may make some of you uncomfortable, but it's a fact and the men in your locker room, your teammates all deserve the same respect regardless of their orientation."

A low whisper of agreement works through the room, muted but seemingly sincere. Jared blinks away a memory, a photograph of a blood-caked dirt road and a mangled body and stays silent.

"In all likelihood you will go your entire career without ever knowing for certain whether or not one of your teammates is gay," Tuaolo says later in closing. "But that doesn't mean he isn't there. What it does mean is that you need to be aware of the things you say on and off the field and the activities you partake in. I know it's been said a lot these past couple days, but it should be something you all take with you: 'Choices. Decisions. Consequences.' Think before you call someone a fag or a queer or a cocksucker, before you do something to reinforce a stereotype -- any stereotype -- if only because it's harmful, unkind and unprofessional."

Tuaolo's voice softens slightly, like he's bringing them all in on a secret. "There are no reliable statistics on the percentage of gay men participating in professional sports," he says. "But, the simple fact is I am not the only one. Please keep that in mind."

After, when they're heading to their next scheduled workshop, Rogers' bumps his shoulder into Jared's, says with a grin, "So, when do we start making bets on who the team faggot is?"

Jared feels his blood go cold and he grits his teeth, tucks his book tight against his chest. Clearly not noticing Jared's irritation, Rogers continues. "I'd say Witten, but the guy's got a wife and kids, so my money's on Ackles."

Jared stops abruptly and turns, stepping up into Rogers' personal space as his voice drops to a low growl. "You need to shut the hell up."

Rogers' eyes go wide and he takes a step back, one hand lifted in mock surrender. "Whoa, dude. Chill."

Practically seething, Jared's eyes narrow and it's only Wiggins stepping in between that keeps Jared from throwing a punch.

:::

There's a voicemail from his agent waiting when he gets back to Dallas. Jared doesn't even bother listening to it, just flips open his phone as he heads through the terminal and hits speed dial.

"So. Spread for GQ," John explains after the initial hellos have been exchanged.

"GQ? Seriously?"

"Seriously. Apparently, they want to get a couple guys from a handful of teams, one vet and one rookie from each. My guess is they're going for the prettiest."

Jared snorts out a laugh and tucks the phone under his ear as he adjusts the bag on his shoulder and steps out into the open, Texas air. The sky seems huge above him; something he always manages to forget until he comes back to it, the blue stretching out to welcome him.

"They're picking you and Ackles," John continues and the pretty comment doesn't seem like such a joke anymore. It also makes his opinion of the whole thing go a little sour.

"There's no way I can say no to this, is there?"

"Absolutely not," John says. "Don't see why you'd want to anyway. It's good publicity, JT. Gets your name and face out there for possible sponsorships, maybe some TV work. Can't hurt."

It's not that Jared's averse to the idea at all, but having to spend an entire day off the field with Jensen Ackles glowering at him doesn't exactly sound like his idea of a good time.

"What if Ackles says no?"

"They've already talked to him; he's in."

"And he knows I'm part of the deal?"

"Hell if I know," John says, sounding just a little exasperated. "Why does it matter?"

Jared's lips tug into a frown and he squints against the sun, tries to remember where the hell he parked. "It doesn't," he says, looking one way and then the other. "Alright, fine. I'm in."

"Good 'cause it's already been cleared with Stephen. Shoot'll be in a week or two down in LA. They'll arrange for your transportation there and back to Oxnard and a night's stay at the W. I'll let you know when I hear more."

"Great," Jared says, not bothering to hide the sarcasm. "Thanks."

Sighing, he snaps his phone shut and continues searching for his car.

:::

Barely two days after returning from Canton, Jared's on a plane to Oxnard, California for his first day of training camp. Instead of a private plane, the team takes an ordinary American Airlines flight, albeit an ordinary American Airlines flight filled to capacity with eighty anxious football players, ten wary coaches, five gorgeous cheerleaders and a handful of front office guys standing in as the partridge in a goddamn pear tree.

They land on Point Mugu, the nearest air field, to a crowd of about a thousand people, most of whom are decked out in blue, silver and white, the rest dressed in full Navy uniforms.

It's not the first time Jared's felt like a celebrity -- being the starting quarterback for one of the best college teams in the nation had more than taken care of that -- but it's never been quite like this, walking across the tarmac to their buses while twenty service men and women stand at attention, a crowd of screaming fans just beyond. Reporters and cameramen flank one side, security guards on the other, making the walk from plane to bus a veritable obstacle course.

Luckily, Jared's had some practice; it's not entirely unlike walking the length of DKR after a game.

"Tell us, Jared, how are you adjusting to life as a Cowboy?" someone asks, shoving a microphone into his face.

Laughing, Jared shrugs, nods over to where the crowd is still cheering loudly. "Could definitely get used to that," he says. "Gotta say, this team's got some of the greatest fans in the NFL, they're already making me feel pretty good."

The reporter barely acknowledges the answer, already moving on to the next question. "And what are you looking forward to most during training camp?"

"Just workin' with the guys," he answers. "Hopin' I can prove myself, y'know? It's gonna be a lot of work, but it'll be good. Minicamp and OTAs were good, really productive, but we're divin' in now. Hopin' to really get some stuff accomplished."

"What do you think your chances are of starting this season?"

It's been three months and Jared's still no better at that one. He grimaces slightly as he slows to a stop near the barricade. "Ask me again in a few weeks," he says before putting his full focus on the kid shoving a Cowboys banner through the rungs of the metal barrier.

:::

It doesn't bother Jared at all that he has to share a room with a fellow rookie during training camp as Brock, the guy he's been paired up with, is a pretty cool guy. Jared's liked him from the start, appreciates the hard work he's put in, how obvious it is that he wants this just as badly as the rest of them, maybe more.

"Man, this is way better than summer camp," Brock says as they step into their suite at the Residence Inn.

It's not the nicest hotel room Jared's ever stayed in by any means, but it's still better than he'd expected. With a full-sized living area, kitchen and a second-floor loft, it seems more like a small apartment than a hotel suite.

Jared laughs as he walks further inside and peers up the staircase before flashing a smile. "I call top bunk!"

Brock disappears into the back room while Jared heads upstairs, dropping his bag on the bed and then pulling out his phone.

"Hey, baby," Sandy says after only the first ring.

"Just got here," he says and then proceeds to tell her about the reception they'd received at the Naval base, how crazy it'd been to walk through that many fans and reporters. He falls back onto his bed and stretches out, listens to her warm voice as she catches him up on a few things during her short break from work.

"I love you," he says before she can hang up.

"I love you, too, baby. Call me later."

"Promise," he says, waits for her to disconnect first.

Brock's at the top of the stairs when he sits up, a hand curled around the door frame and eyebrows raised expectantly.

"Girlfriend," Jared explains and Brock nods before he motions down the stairs with a tilt of his head.

"Dude, let's go grab some food. I'm friggin' starving."

:::

Practice doesn't officially begin until the following day, but there's a three-hour introductory meeting scheduled for that evening in the hotel's large ball room. Eight rows of tables sit lined up, four on each side with a walkway down the middle and, already, nearly the entire team is there, the room filled with the low murmur of excited voices. It's not like any meeting the team's had so far, atmosphere heavy with expectation. Jared takes his seat near the front and, after a quick and loud call of attention from Coach Singer, the room quiets enough for the meeting to get underway.

The whole thing is relatively painless, mostly a chance for everyone to get more familiar with what they'll be doing every day for the next month, what's expected of them both in practice and out. When Jerry Jones approaches the front of the room, everyone suddenly sits up a little straighter.

He says his hellos, smiling with a, "How y'all doin'?" that's answered with a quiet rumble and a few joking shouts from some of the braver guys. Mr. Jones takes it all in stride and finally gets down to business.

"Like every year, I have one goal and one goal only," he says, hands in his pockets as he regards them with a steely, serious gaze. He pauses, like he's waiting for someone to ask him what that goal is, but nobody says a word. And then he grins, slow and easy, looking every bit the salesman. "The Super Bowl. This year, gentlemen. I'm not talkin' next year, I'm talkin' this year and if there's anyone in this room who truly believes that ain't a possibility, he should get out now. Just get out and go home."

As expected, nobody so much as breathes and Jerry's smile broadens.

"Hell, I'll pay," he goads them further. "First class ticket to wherever you want, doesn't matter none to me."

Jared glances over to the other side of the room, his gaze catching on Ackles' left shoulder. The guy's hunched forward, bookended by Witten and Klosterman, eyes fixed on the tablecloth as he smooths a finger over his bottom lip, presses it down nervously. A moment later, he seems to catch himself, releasing it to scratch idly at his cheek, the muscles in his back shifting under the cotton of his t-shirt as he lifts his gaze to the front of the room.

My money's on Ackles, Rogers' voice echoes, unbidden, through Jared's mind. Jared starts slightly, suddenly inexplicably embarrassed, and he tears his eyes away, forces himself to look upfront. Jerry Jones smiles at him when their eyes meet and it really doesn't make Jared feel any less awkward.

"Well, alright then," Mr. Jones says with a definitive nod, still staring right at Jared and it takes Jared a second to remember what they're talking about. "That's a good start. A real good start. But we've definitely got a long road ahead yet, so let's get busy."

Another hour passes before it's Coach Kripke's turn. He stands up front, one hand in his pocket, the other loose at his side, his navy polo shirt tucked in and the top button undone. The bright fluorescent lighting reflects off the skin of his receding hairline as he scans over the faces of his potential players. At thirty-five, he's one of the youngest head coaches in NFL history and, despite the Cowboys' mediocre performance over the last couple seasons, there are few who can argue the breadth of his knowledge and natural offensive instincts. Which isn't to say there aren't more than a few people who think the team would be better off either relegating him to offensive coordinator or getting rid of him entirely. The local media and the team's multitude of fans expect much more than simple mediocrity; they expect winning at all costs. They expect a trophy. The Vince Lombardi specifically. And, after thirteen years of not winning a single playoff game, they're getting restless.

"So, as most of you already know, I'm not big on speeches," Kripke says, wandering halfway up the aisle as he talks. "But I guess if there's anytime I have to suck it up and give one, it's at the start of training camp, so I'm gonna do my best."

He pauses then, like he's trying to gather his thoughts and every player waits, quiet and respectful. It stretches out for a few more moments and then Kripke claps his hands just once, pastes on a bright smile. "Well! Now that we got that over with, let's all go out for some drinks!"

That draws a quiet laugh and Kripke wanders up to the front of the room again, leans forward against the back end of a chair, his shoulder relaxed.

"Okay, seriously," he says after the rumble of laughter has died down. "I know you're all aware of how important the next few weeks are. Both for the team and for yourselves, your future. So, let me tell you this: There's exactly one man in this room not afraid for his job right now. And it sure as hell ain't me."

There's no question who he's talking about and Jared's gaze flickers instinctively over to Jerry Jones.

"Now, what that means is we all have a lot to fight for right now, a lot to prove to other people and to ourselves," he continues, his words clear and precise, though clearly not practiced. "Each of you have to prove you're worthy of being a member of this team. Of this league. And I have to prove I'm a good coach and that I have what it takes to build more than just a good, solid team. I have to prove I can build a great team, a team that will instill fear and demand respect. I need to build a team with character. With heart. With determination. A team of men who aren't simply great athletes, but great men."

He goes quiet for a moment and Jared doesn't have to take a look around to know that all eyes are up front. Coach Kripke has a reputation for being a player's coach, for being too soft and not demanding enough from his players. But Jared's pretty sure there isn't a man in the room who doesn't respect him completely, who wouldn't, in that moment, give everything they have to stay on this team.

When Coach Kripke speaks again, his voice is softer, but firm. "Your job over the next few weeks is simple. Each one of you -- every single last one of you -- must give me your all. Now, I know I don't run the hardest camp in the league and there's a good reason for that, but that doesn't mean there's any room for fucking around and slacking off. If you think you can't be cut, you're wrong. Pure and simple. I don't give a damn how long you've been here or what your numbers were last year. I don't care what you did in college. In one month, twenty-five of you will not be here and, right now, I can't say which of you will make up that twenty-five. You have to make that decision for me. You have to prove you're worthy of being a Dallas Cowboy."

Some of it's bullshit and they all know it. The likelihood of guys like Witten or Murray or Ware getting cut is only slightly more unlikely than them making the Super Bowl, no matter what Jerry Jones seems to think. But it's still enough to make them sit up and pay attention.

It's going to be a long few weeks.

:::

Jared had paid his fair share of rookie wages during OTAs and mini-camp, largely in the form of carrying his teammates' equipment (mostly Chad's) paying for the occasional lunch here and there (mostly Chad's) and shouldering the brunt of their jokes (mostly from Chad). But training camp, much like everything else, is on a whole different level. He's heard stories of guys being herded out of bed in the middle of the night only to be pelted with eggs and flour, of being strapped to a chair and having their chests waxed and hair shaved into embarrassing patterns of waking up in the morning with words written on their faces in permanent marker. Fairly innocent stuff, but no less humiliating.

The most traditional and easily administered form of rookie hazing on the Cowboys squad is the forced cafeteria song. During each team meal a rookie is chosen at random to stand up on his chair, state his name, college and signing bonus before singing a song of his choice. Whether or not the guy can actually carry a tune makes no difference, but his performance must be stellar, he must sing like he's never sung before or risk getting pummeled with cafeteria food and losing the respect of his fellow teammates.

Brock had been the first victim and, Jared had to admit, he'd done a pretty decent job considering he hadn't had time to prepare his off-key version of 'Stand By Me'.

It's Wednesday before Jared's called out and he's had more than enough time to prepare.

"C'mon, let's hear it, Paddywhack!" Clif shouts, voice carrying above the rest of his teammates all egging him on. Jared grins and jumps up onto his chair, rolls his shoulders back. If there's one thing he's always been good at, it's making an ass of himself.

"Hey, y'all," he says, lifting his arms up and folding his fingers behind his head. "I'm Jared Padalecki from the University of Texas. My signing bonus was 4 mil and a free tour of Valley Ranch. And I'm gonna sing a true American classic for y'all right now."

With a dramatic air, he drops his arms, resting both hands on his hips as his lips curl upward and he tips his head back. When he speaks, his voice is pitched up an octave and he cocks his hip to the left.

"Oh. my. god. Becky, look at her butt. It is so big."

The reaction is immediate, half the guys busting out laughing as Jared pushes on, playing up the voice even more.

"She looks like one of those rap guy's girlfriends. Who understands those rap guys? They only talk to her because she looks like a total prostitute, okay? I mean her butt! It's just so big!"

Jared gives it a half a beat and then changes his entire demeanor, clapping his hands together and swaying his hips as he belts out, "I like big butts and I cannot lie! You other brothers can't deny! When a girl walks in with an itty bitty waist and a round thing in your face you get sprung!"

His teammates are already singing along with him, a few of them jumping out of their chairs to get into it.

"Wanna pull up tough 'cause you notice that butt was stuffed! Deep in the jeans she's wearin', I'm hooked and I can't stop starin'. Oh, bay-bee! I wanna get wit ya, and take yo' picture. My homeboys tried to warn me, but that butt you got--" The entire room joins in then, shouting over Jared, "Make me so horny!"

Jared's nearly laughing too hard to continue then, but his teammates carry the song for him and he joins eventually, still dancing on his chair, making the whole thing shudder under his weight, metal feet scraping the linoleum.

"So fellas!"

"Yeah!"

"Fellas!"

"Yeah!"

"Has your girlfriend got the butt?"

"HELL YEAH!"

Jared has his hands above his head, clapping them like a drunken flamenco dancer as he shouts, "Well, shake it, shake it, shake it, shake it, shake that healthy butt!"

Everyone's with him for the end, a hefty roar of, "BABY GOT BACK!" as Jared throws both arms in the air like he's just won the damn Super Bowl.

Nobody seems to care about him not finishing, the entire room breaking into peals of laughter and applause, some guys on their feet right along with him and Jared can't help noticing that even Ackles looks amused, though he's doing a damn good job of trying to hide it.

He jumps off the chair, exhilarated and weirdly winded as a few of his teammates smack his chest and back, throwing him high fives before he drops down into his chair.

"Seriously, dude," Chad says, shaking his head as Jared grins. "That is the single gayest thing you have ever done. And you've done some pretty gay things. Ponytails, man. Seriously."

"Awww, you're just jealous you couldn't think of anything better than 'The Eyes of Texas,'" Jared says, clapping a hand on Chad's back.

Chad glares and then pokes his fork in Jared's direction. "Your gay ass is taking me out for dinner this weekend," he says. "I want a steak. Maybe three."

It's more promise than threat and Jared's grin only brightens. "Can't," he says before stuffing his face with a bite of pizza.

"'Scuse me?" Chad balks. "This is not a choice, Padalicky."

Jared smirks around his food, swallowing only some of it before speaking again. "Interview," he says, only it comes out sounding more like, 'Ih-uh-wew.' Regardless, Chad seems to get the picture and looks simultaneously amused and mildly put out.

"Oh, right. That GQ bullshit."

Jared only grins. He knows Chad's irritated that he hadn't been chosen and Jared can't help being smug.

Chad scowls and rolls his eyes, but there's a certain amount of fondness behind it. Chad would rather drink his own piss than admit that he's happy for Jared, but the message comes through loud and clear all the same.

Chapter Text

A Town Car is sent to transport him and Jensen to LA where they're scheduled to meet up with the photographer and interviewer for the GQ piece the following morning. With traffic, it's two and a half hours of uncomfortable silence. Jared spends most of the time watching episodes of The Office on his iPod and doesn't bother to stifle his obnoxious laughter even when he catches Ackles throwing him irritated glances.

"We should go out," Jared says later as they're checking into their hotel in Westwood.

Ackles arches an eyebrow as the lady behind the high, marbled counter slides him his room key. "Out?"

"Yeah, out. Dinner or somethin'. Maybe drinks. Seems kinda lame to waste a night free from camp."

Jared doesn't know if Ackles actually considers the idea or simply pretends to. "Nah, I'm gonna get some rest," he says, heading towards the elevators.

"C'mon, man. My treat."

Ackles jabs that elevator call button and throws a glance back at Jared. The expression on his face is completely unreadable, somewhere between confused and irritated and Jared tries for a smile, hikes his bag higher up onto his shoulder.

"Not hungry," Ackles says as the doors ding and slide open.

Jared steps in right after him, reaches over to press the number for their floor and watches Ackles' lips purse into a slightly aggravated scowl. "Dude, we can do something quick. In-N-Out. Fuck, I'd kill for some In-N-Out."

"What the hell part of not hungry don't you understand?"

Jared grins. "The 'not' part."

Ackles glances up at the numbers ticking the floors away, unamused.

"Dude," he tries again. "In-N-Out."

The elevator slows to a stop on the twelfth floor and Ackles sighs. "Dude," he shoots back, tone mocking as he tosses Jared a quick glance and starts heading down the hall, "sleep."

One way or another, Jared's determined to make Ackles like him, even if it takes him all damn season. Given that their conversation hadn't ended with Ackles putting a fist through his face or shouting at him to fuck the hell off, Jared thinks the prospect is starting to look a little less hopeless.

The closest In-N-Out is only a half mile from the hotel and Jared gets himself two double-doubles and an order of fries before wandering through the UCLA campus for awhile. It's as beautiful as he remembers: the sweeping, green lawns and gorgeous architecture still as impressive as they'd been five years before when they'd been recruiting him. If he's completely honest, he'd definitely been tempted but, in the end, home and UT's engineering program had won out.

It's still fairly early when he decides to head back and he swings by Didi Reese on the way, picking up half a dozen chocolate chip cookies, two of them stacked into a delicious ice cream sandwich, which he manages to demolish on his walk back to the hotel, fingers sticky with melted vanilla ice cream.

He makes a detour to Ackles' room and the guy answers in a pair of shorts and a ratty Washington State t-shirt, wire-rimmed glasses perched on the bridge of his nose. He looks smaller in his glasses. Bookish and... alarmingly attractive. And, sure, Jared's been attracted to a couple guys before, more in the quiet acknowledgment of them being aesthetically pleasing than anything else, but there have been some exceptions. Few and far between, but they've been there.

Jared clears his throat quietly and holds up the bag. "Brought you somethin'."

Ackles arches an eyebrow, first eying the bag in Jared's hand and then his face. "You brought me cookies?"

"You can thank me later," Jared says with a wide grin, thrusting the bag into Jensen's chest and then turning to head to his room, the image of Jensen's stunned green eyes burned into his mind.

:::

The woman there to interview them, Lauren Graham, is clearly a professional and, moreover, has Jared charmed right off the bat. For the most part, the questions are pretty general they both give answers straight from the Football Cliche Rolodex when possible. Ackles only looks uncomfortable when the questions start veering from football into the more private matters and Jared can't help watching him, fascinated by the way the guy seems to so easily give nothing away with his answers.

"So what about after all this?" Lauren asks, starting to wrap up. "You ever give much thought to life after football?"

"I'm gonna buy a farm," Jensen says with a smirk. "Get some livestock, few pigs cows. Live off the land."

Jared laughs, knocks an elbow against him. "Become a true cowboy, huh?"

"No," he says, eying Jared with a bare hint of a smile. "Become a farmer."

"Well, I'm gonna go off to Hollywood," Jared announces. "Can't let these good looks go to waste."

"Oh, that'll definitely be doing the world a service," Lauren agrees with a flirty smile.

Ackles groans. "God, don't encourage him. Should see how much time this guy spends in front of a mirror, it's ridiculous."

"So jealous, baby," Jared says and purses his lips in Ackles' direction. He gets an arched eyebrow in return.

Lauren laughs again, scribbles something on her pad of paper. "You're adorable," she mutters and Jared just grins wider.

"I think Scott's got you all set up for the shoot," she says, extending a hand and Jared immediately gets to his feet. "Shouldn't take much longer than an hour or two. Depends on how quickly you two can change clothing." She leads them down the hall to a large, open room, one wall of which is lined with a dark backdrop. There are a few lights positioned in front of it and a half dozen people running around, allegedly fixing and re-fixing lighting, adjusting and re-adjusting tri-pods, taping and re-taping shit to the floor. A few yards off there's a screen set up with a mobile closet of suits hanging nearby, which a middle-aged woman is meticulously rifling through, measuring tape hanging loose around her neck.

Lauren leads them over to Scott, the photographer, who's dressed in ragged jeans and a backwards baseball cap.

"Hey guys," he says, shaking first Jared's hand and then Ackles'. "Let's get this shit started, shall we?"

They spend the next three hours posing and then changing clothes and then posing again. The woman with the measuring tape is named Grace and she flirts shamelessly with Ackles, seeming to thoroughly enjoy how uncomfortable it makes him. Which, of course, Jared finds absolutely hilarious.

"Spread 'em just a little wider there, Gorgeous," she says, crouching low to measure Ackles' inseam. "Ah, there we go," she continues, her hand rising up the inside of his thigh. "No reason for a beautiful man like you to be shy."

"Yeah, loosen up there, Jenny," Jared says, knowing full well how much Ackles hates that nickname. "Don't wanna pinch that pretty little face of yours."

Jared gets a glower and raised middle finger in response.

At some point, Scott puts on music, a good mix of country and rock that seems to slowly get Ackles to relax. Jared sings along to nearly every song, making up the words to the ones he doesn't know, which seems to both annoy and amuse his teammate.

"Really?" Ackles asks when Jared starts loudly singing along to Fall Out Boy.

"Sister," Jared explains, hardly missing a beat.

Eventually, after what feels like a hundred shots of them leaning against a wall, Scott finally tells them they're done. "Thanks guys, you've been great," he says, shaking first Ackles' hand and then Jared's.

They change back into their own clothes and Grace gives Ackles' cheek a light pat before they go. And Ackles actually smiles, warm and genuine, leans in to kiss her cheek in return.

It's still early afternoon when they leave.

"So that wasn't too painful," Jared says, head tipped against the back window, his gaze locked on Ackles, who gives a half-hearted shrug.

"Yeah, I guess."

:::

No matter how soft Kripke supposedly runs his camp, two-a-days are still grueling. They get frequent rests as the coaches and trainers are adamant about everyone staying hydrated and healthy, but it's still intense, still hot as hell in pads under the harsh California sun.

By the end of practice, half the O-line is congregated in the ice tent, five 300-pound guys buried to the waist in barrels and tubs of ice water to ease aching muscles.

"C'mon in, rookie, the water's fine!" Colombo says as Jared wanders by, shoulder pads dangling from his fingertips and helmet nestled under his arm. For a second, he's actually tempted, his own sore muscles crying out for the small amount of relief the water would provide. After the initial shock of coldcoldcoldcoldCOLD, of course.

It's more fun to watch the other guys suffer, though.

"N'aw, think I'm good, thanks," Jared says, dipping his fingers into the frigid water of the nearest barrel and then flicking them in Clif's face. Clif barely flinches.

"Not afraid of shrinkage, are you, JT?"

Letting out a quick laugh, Jared grins. "Never afraid of that."

Smirking, Colombo raises both eyebrows and glances down at Jared's crotch, clearly doubtful.

"What can I say?" Jared replies with a loose grin and easy shrug. "Gift from God. I just signed for it."

Clif immediately sends a handful of ice in his direction, a few bouncing off his neck before he has the chance to duck away. "Hey now, don't be jealous!"

He catches Clif rolling his eyes as he turns to head to the locker room and then nearly walks straight into his coach.

"Ah, JT," Morgan says, clapping a hand on Jared's shoulder. "Just who I was looking for."

Despite the easy tone, Jared is immediately on edge. He's just finished one of his worst practices to date and he can't imagine Coach Morgan is at all pleased. Shame and anxiety creep their way through his veins, his brows furrowing as he prepares himself for a lecture.

"I want you staying after the special teams practice tomorrow," Morgan tells him and Jared frowns a little, feels his stomach drop. No one's ever said as much, but Jared's pretty sure the entire reason he's even on special teams is so they can keep him out on the field for just awhile longer, keep breaking him in. But special teams by itself isn't so bad; Jared's only role there is as a holder for placekicks and, considering he'd spent the vast majority of his first year at UT doing solely that, he's pretty decent.

Apparently it's still not enough.

"Why?"

"Nothing major," Coach says, giving a small smile of assurance. "Just think you could benefit with some one-on-one. No distractions. Especially with you and Jensen out last weekend."

Jared doesn't like how it sounds, the implication that he needs special treatment where Ackles, Welling and Stanback don't. And, yeah, they're all veterans, but it's not like Jared's never played football before, not like he doesn't know what the hell he's doing. However arrogant it might sound, he knows for a fact he's better than both Tommy and Isaiah.

But it's not a request.

"Yes, sir," he says, biting back his annoyance.

"Good!" Coach says, giving Jared's shoulder another slap. "Now go get changed. You smell like hell."

There are still a good number of fans waiting around, lining the walkway to the locker room and any other time, he'd consider stopping for awhile to talk, maybe sign a few autographs. But he's suddenly not in the mood and feels a slight pang of guilt as he jogs past them, ignoring the people shouting his name.

He crashes his way into the locker room, the quiet burn of humilation still rippling under his skin as he heads for his locker. He stops short when he spots Brock standing just outside the entrance to the showers, still dressed in his practice shorts and undershirt and completely soaked from head to toe. Absolutely every other guy in the room is practically rolling on the floor with laughter, the cacophony all but completely blocking out the music pumping out of the stereo in the corner.

"Oh man, the sound you made!" Marty bellows, one hand on Brock's soaked shoulder. Beside him, Miles is making a show of shaking out drops of water from an upended trash can. It doesn't take Jared long to put two and two together.

"AAAEEEEEEEEEEEAHHH!!" DeMarcus chimes in, high-pitched and mocking as he mimes a flailing hand motion. Sam stands just behind him with his video camera.

Miles reaches up to ruffle Brock's hair. "A man's voice should seriously never get that high, bro," he says as Brock ducks and shoves him away.

There's a part of Jared's that's genuinely sympathetic towards his roommate and fellow rookie, but he also can't deny his relief at not being the one to suffer this time. He's not dumb enough to think there isn't another turn for him just around the corner, but for now he can revel in someone else's humiliation for awhile. Helps him forget about the rest of his shitty day, however briefly.

"Here," he says, tossing Brock a towel, but he can't keep the grin off his face.

Brock catches it easily in one hand and shoots him a glare, but there's a small smile hidden at the corner of his lips, too. Just another day in training camp.

:::

They're first preseason game is in Baltimore and Jared sits with Brock for the flight, watching The Dark Knight on Jared's portable DVD player and then playing a few rounds of poker with Clif and Miles. Nobody of talks about the game or how many snaps they hope to get. Jared knows he'll likely get quite a few, but there's no telling what they'll throw at Brock. If he'll get any chance at all.

It's nearing midnight by the time their plane lands, but it feels earlier, everyone still accustomed to west coast time. Some of the veterans decide to head to the hotel's pool for a few hours, but Jared opts to spend any spare moment he can get poring over the playbook.

"Hot tub might help us relax," Brock points out when they step into their room. It's not as big as the one they've been sharing in Oxnard, but it's still pretty luxurious with two queen sized beds and a huge flat screen TV.

Jared shakes his head. "I don't think a morphine drip would make me relax right now," he says, pulling his cellphone out of his pocket and checking for missed calls. There are two from Sandy and he gives her a quick call back, just let her know he got in okay as Brock stretches out on one of the beds, starts flipping through the channels on the television.

"They're showing an Indiana Jones marathon on HBO," he says.

Jared lands on his own bed, stretches out and shifts until he's comfortable, one arm propping his head up. "You're not watchin'?"

"Well, there's a Golden Girls marathon on, too. Hard to choose."

Snorting a laugh, Jared glances over. Brock's still focused on the television, a grin tugging at the corner of his lips as he changes the channel. "And then there's baseball. Please, man. Don't make me watch baseball."

"Totally up to you," he says before rolling over to pull the playbook out of his bag. "Some of us have to study."

"Bea Arthur and Betty White it is," Brock says, though it's the familiar John Williams' score that issues from the speakers.

Jared settles back, the binder opened and perched on his chest. He starts on pass plays, going over every formation, route, call and option, making sure he knows them all, every variation and last-minute audible before starting in on the running plays. Wash, rinse repeat.

"Hey, man, you want a soda?" Brock asks awhile later and Jared blinks out of his haze, tilts the book back to see Harrison Ford about to step off a cliff.

"Yeah, sure," he says, groaning as he sits up. "I'll go. Need to move before I lose all feeling in my ass."

Laughing, Brock barely hesitates before settling back on his bed. "Okay, cool. Pepsi?"

"Got it," Jared says, stopping to dig a few dollar bills out of his wallet and grabbing the keycard. The vending alcove isn't very difficult to find and Jared gets a Pepsi for Brock and a Dr Pepper for himself before stealing a couple ice cubes from the dispenser for the hell of it. Popping them in his mouth and tucking the bottles under his arm, he steps out into the hall just in time to full-on collide with--

"Shit," Jared mutters, nearly choking on an ice cube as both sodas drop to the floor with dual thunks. "Sorry. Fuck, sorry, I didn't see you."

"Whoa, hey!" Ackles grips his upper arm, either to help keep Jared upright or to steady himself, Jared isn't sure.

His balance returned, Jared crouches to pick up the sodas and looks up, noticing for the first time that Ackles is damp and dressed only a white towel, very clearly just returning from the pool. His skin is tinged pink and there are tiny beads of water running down the sides of his face, his hair wet and messy, sticking up every which way. It's not the first time Jared's seen the guy half naked, but the environment is entirely different. Not to mention the vantage point and, after an awkward moment, he realizes he's staring at Ackles' belly button.

"Sorry," he says again, a heated flush working its way up his neck as he gets to his feet.

Ackles drops his hand and Jared prepares himself for a snide remark about being a stupid fucking rookie who needs to learn to look where he's going. He crunches down on the ice in his mouth.

But Ackles just smiles at him, a little strained, but not unfriendly. "This your way of tryin' to get rid of me?" he asks, head cocked to one side.

Jared blinks, surprised and confused in equal measure before he finally gets that the guy's joking. "Dude, I know how to tackle," he says with a quiet laugh. "If I wanted to take you down, trust me, you'd know it."

There's the barest flicker in the guy's expression, something off Jared can't quite place and it's gone just as quickly.

"Maybe you're just off to a weak start."

Jared isn't sure how to take that, whether it's meant as another joke or a subtle jibe at how he's been doing in practice. Swallowing the urge to ask, Jared just nods and gives a stilted smile.

"Well, guess you better watch out next time, then, huh?" he says, his voice light enough that it can't possibly be construed as an actual threat, only a teasing implication as he heads down the hall.

When Jared reaches the door to his room he glances back, just in time to see Ackles disappearing into his own with a flash of white towel and bare calf.

:::

The team has breakfast together the next morning followed by a meeting in the hotel's largest ball room. They're given a few hours in the afternoon to relax, which Jared spends watching episodes of Scooby Doo and Camp Lazlo while going over the playbook yet again, briefly getting in phone calls to Sandy and his parents. They all ask him how he's doing, if he's ready.

"I'm good. I feel good," he lies. They seem to believe him.

Two chartered buses loaded with gear, coaches, trainers and players arrives at M&T Bank Stadium two and a half hours before kick-off and minutes later, the visitor's locker room is crammed full, clearly not designed to hold thirty extra players. Jared shares a locker with Brock, the both of them hardly saying a word as they change into their gear. Brock keeps glancing at the clock on the wall as Jared goes over plays in his head, tries to remember what Kripke had mentioned in their meeting that morning.

He heads down the tunnel with Tommy for warm-ups, head tipped back as they step onto the field. It's still light out, the sun peaking just behind the far bleachers, the place eerily empty. Jared takes a second to breathe it in, imagining what it'll look like full of thousands of screaming fans. Somehow, the fact that it's smaller than DKR doesn't make the anxiety go away any and he takes a shaky breath.

"C'mon, loosen up," Tommy says, grinning knowingly as he knocks Jared's arm. "You're a first round pick, JT. They're not gonna cut you."

Jared gives a weak smile. "Doesn't mean I can't make a complete ass of myself."

"Man, you play for the Dallas Cowboys. Pretty sure making an ass of yourself is in the job description."

Jared laughs despite himself and starts warming up in the nearest end zone. He'd had a warm-up ritual at UT: stretches and then a jog around the field, followed by some short passing exercises with Lamar or Brendon or any one of the other receivers readily available. The idea of changing it up even a little seems ridiculous, and Jared goes through what he can, talks Chad into taking some short passes as he sings along to the music pumping through the tannoy system. Ackles comes out just as Jared's finishing up, and Jared watches him wander to the other side of the field to talk to Todd Heap, the Ravens' tight end. Ackles smiles easily, relaxed and genuine, even laughing a couple times and Jared finds himself staring, fascinated. It's not the first time he's seen the guy loosen up and laugh a little, but it's elusive enough to always catch him by surprise.

And Jared's starting to wonder if maybe Ackles is only so uptight around him.

:::

"Alright, everybody up!" Kripke shouts as he steps into the locker room, bringing the room to a hush. IPods, phones and Bibles get set aside as the players gather around their coach, some looking more anxious than others. Kripke looks more relaxed than Jared would've anticipated, headset draped around his neck and polo shirt tucked in.

"I'm not gonna waste my breath shouting at you all just yet, but listen up."

They do as they're told, everyone keeping respectfully quiet before Coach Kripke seems satisfied.

"I know I don't need to make any big announcements here, you all know what this game means. Scoring is great, winning is great, but we're looking at individual performance more than anything. The plays you make, the tackles you block, the pressure you put on the quarterback, the lanes you open up, whatever. How you work with the rest of the team. Some of you guys out on the first series may think you're not at risk of getting cut. That we won't be watching so closely." He pauses, looks slowly around the room and Jared shifts uncomfortably, arms crossed. "But I'm gonna tell you right now that you're wrong. We will be watching all of you and we will be ready to jump all over your ass if you make a mistake. I don't care if this is preseason, I don't care that a win means just as much as a loss. I will not tolerate laziness and I will not tolerate anyone unwilling to put their all into this. I want a hundred percent from every single one of you out there, you got me?"

There's a quiet rumble, a few thunks of plastic on wood as guys knock their helmets against locker cubbies.

"Good," Kripke says, letting the word linger for a second as he studies them all a moment longer. "Man, it sure is crowded in here," he says. "Gonna be sad to have to let some of you go, but I sure as hell won't miss the cramped quarters."

Coach's tone is light enough that he gets a few strained laughs.

"Oh, one more thing," Kripke says, holding one hand up, finger raised. He waits until he has everyone's attention and then gives a feeble sort of smile. "Don't get hurt."

The laughter is more sincere that time, hiding an undercurrent of genuine worry as everyone crowds in a little further, arms outstretched. "Cowboys on three!" someone shouts within the mass of bodies. "One-two-three-COWBOYS!"

:::

Jared spends the entire opening drive on the edge of the sidelines, arms crossed over his pads as he watches the starters march down the field. Much like the locker room, it's overly crowded, guys knocking and bumping into each other as they walk around and Jared tries to keep in one place, focused on the game.

Ackles gets stopped by the Ravens at the 23-yard line and the kicking unit gets called in and, while he doesn't look exactly pleased jogging off the field, he doesn't look too pissed either. Jared watches Ackles slip off his helmet and head for the Gatorade before a quick shove from Tommy reminds him he's supposed to be out on the field.

The count and snap go off without a hitch and Jared doesn't have time to fuck it up, just instinctively catches and turns the ball laces out before Nick's foot connects. The kick goes high and straight through the uprights and, at only three minutes into the game, the Cowboys lead.

Chad slaps him hard on the back when he gets to the sideline, grinning bright. "Way to hold that ball, JT!" he jokes, dumping a half-empty cup of Gatorade onto Jared's head.

"Fuck off," Jared laughs, shoving Chad away. It's a small play, not even one in his preferred position, and it's only preseason, but it's still his first in the NFL. It feels good.

"No, seriously," Chad says, tossing aside his empty cup and pulling Jared into a half hug, one hand roughly messing up Jared's sticky hair. "Way to not fuck it up. Maybe you'll make this damn team after all, you giant loser."

The starting defense manages to not let the Ravens get so much as a first down and Tommy's sent in for the next offensive turn, which makes Jared both anxious and relieved at the same time. He watches, trying to imagine himself in Tommy's shoes, where he'd look to read the defense, how he'd judge the potential of his own players. Felix is still putting on a good performance, as is Bennett; he might try to lean on them when he can, provided the defense doesn't pick up on it.

"You ready to head in, Padalecki?"

Jared barely glances over his shoulder, just enough to acknowledge Coach Morgan's presence before nodding. "Anytime," he says and, surprisingly, feels like he actually means it.

"Good," Coach Morgan says. "We're gonna have Tommy in for a couple more series, but I want you ready, you got it?"

Jared spends the rest of the first half anxiously pacing the sidelines as the two teams take turns with possession, back and forth and back and forth. It's tiring and frustrating, neither team apparently capable of putting more points on the board.

"Man, I'm gonna kick number ninety-five's ass, swear to God," DeShawn says as he stalks off the field, shoving his way through the mass of teammates to crash down onto the bench just behind Jared. "Don't care how fuckin' long that old-ass mothafucka's been in the league. Gonna kill that sonovabitch!"

"No, you're not," says Ratliff, stretched out and relaxed beside him. "Dude would kick your ass without even tryin'. Now chill the hell out and keep focused. Fuckin' rookie."

The score is unchanged at halftime when the team heads back into the locker room. The starters are given permission to take off their pads and the team's split between offense and defense for a quick regrouping.

"Padalecki, you're goin' in at the first opportunity," Kripke tells him and, while it doesn't come as a surprise at all, Jared feels his pulse suddenly quicken.

"Yes, sir."

"Martellus, you're gonna be taking the brunt of the short and middle, so keep your head up and stay focused; Tashard-- where's Tashard?"

"Here, Coach."

"Tashard, we're gonna be working you in a little more than normal. I'm talking blocking, running, receiving; don't be surprised by a few weird calls. We're gonna try mixing it up a little, give you guys some unorthodox plays, see what you can make of 'em." Kripke goes into some further detail with the linemen, emphasizing blocking so the quarterback has time in the pocket and they all nod and grunt in acknowledgment.

They wrap up, Kripke shouting to get their attention again, "Hey! Men! Most important thing of the game -- DON'T FUCKIN' GET HURT!" before Crayton calls them into a pump huddle. One quick cheer, break and they're running down the tunnel again, out onto the field, the Ravens' cheerleaders just making their way off.

The defense is out for the first drive and the Ravens manage a pair of first downs before getting stopped at their own 40, due in large part to a string of penalties. Brock has a decent return on the punt, placing the Cowboys at the 30 and Jared forgets how nervous he is for a second as he runs onto the field, finding his roommate and slapping him hard on the shoulder. Brock smiles up at him, bright and relieved and Jared promises to buy him a drink later as he heads for the huddle.

Hunching forward, Jared looks into the waiting faces of his offense it hits him then, like running full speed into a brick wall: he will make this team. And not just because he's a first round draft pick and not because they're paying him millions of dollars and not because Jensen Ackles is arguably an aging has-been, but because he's good.

Damnit, he's good.

The rush of relief is nearly dizzying and Jared laughs, ignores the nervous looks from his teammates and quickly relays the run play Kripke had given him. He silently double-checks that everyone knows their routes before they break and head out to the scrimmage line.

"Colt twenty-five blue poltergeist on three!" he shouts, looking first one way and then the other, checking his receivers and reading the defense. "On three! Hut, hut!" Cory snaps the ball and Jared immediately drops back and pivots right, handing the ball off to Felix and then getting the hell out of the way. Tashard gets in a good block, enabling Felix to grab a good eight yards and Kripke calls another run, this time from Tashard and where they get another six.

Within minutes they're on the 5-yard line and the closest they've been to the end zone all day. Kripke calls for a short pass up the middle to Bennett with Miles and Crayton acting as decoys deep on the sides. The call and snap go off perfectly, Jared taking a three step drop and hitting Martellus right in the chest. He doesn't even have to see the side judge to know it's a touchdown, just rushes forward to share in the excitement, pulling Marty into a hug as they head off field.

"Hey, hey, good work!" Kripke shouts as they near the sidelines and then grabs Jared by his jersey sleeve. "Where the hell you think you're goin'?"

Jared blinks, his body thrumming with pure adrenaline and Kripke gives him a shove back onto the field. "Job's not over yet, Fourteen! Get out there!"

"Ah, shit!" Jared runs back out where nearly the entire front line is laughing at him as he settles in to take the snap. Even through his embarrassment, he manages not to fuck it up and the kick sails good, putting the score at 10-0.

Back on the sidelines, Coach Nutter says, "Something you wanna tell me, Jared? Think you're too good for special teams now?"

The guy's smiling, clearly joking around, but Jared flinches all the same, shakes his head. He's still breathing hard from the excitement and he pushes the hair away from his face, says, "No, sir. Just got excited. Sorry. Won't happen again."

Nutter only laughs and gives Jared a slap on the shoulder. "Good work out there. Keep it up."

The rest of the game goes quick. The Ravens make a field goal late in the third, which ends up being their one and only score. Early in the fourth, Jared again leads the offense down the field, but they get held to three points and Kripke sends Isaiah in for the last two drives. It's not the greatest or most dramatic ending, but it's still a win. A pointless win, but a win. A win with no injuries.

It's the most any team can ask for in the preseason.

:::

They're back at training camp Monday morning and the day is filled with meetings, on-field practices, game film, drills, conditioning and more meetings. Coach Morgan goes over nearly every single play from the previous week during the quarterback film session, picking apart every failed route and missed catch.

"You're still not getting the footwork, Jared," Coach tells him, using the tip of his pen to point out Jared's feet. "Right here, your left foot should be back so you have a better view of the pass rusher hunting. Do you want to get blindsided?"

Jared quells the impulse to point out that he'd managed to complete the pass on that particular play before the defenseman had gotten anywhere near him and just shakes his head. "No, sir," he says, scribbling a note on his sheet of paper.

When he glances up again, Ackles is watching him and when Jared frowns, Ackles looks away.

The rest of the meeting is spent further picking apart Jared's mistakes one by one before moving onto Isaiah's, only breaking for dinner.

As they leave, Ackles wanders up to walk with him. Jared's really not in the mood to deal with Ackles' attitude at the moment and is about to say as much when Ackles beats him to the punch.

"He's gonna keep giving you shit until you get your footwork right," he says, voice quiet as he turns his head enough to briefly glance at Jared, eyes a flash of green. "To be honest, man, it's really not bad and you've been improving. The only reason he's harping on it so much right now is because he has so little else to bitch about. That'll change when you start getting more snaps, but you gotta show you're taking him seriously or he's just gonna get real pissed off real fast."

Jared frowns and slows to a stop in the hall, Ackles taking a few more steps before stopping to look back, gaze expectant. "What?"

"Are you kidding me?" Jared says, irritation getting the better of him. "That's the most you've said to me since I got signed months ago and you're telling me I'm not taking shit seriously? Really? What the fuck do you know, man?"

The guy looks surprised for a moment before stepping in close. "I know a hell of a lot more than you right now, rookie," he says, his voice hushed, an edge to it that sends a surprising jolt of heat through Jared's veins.

"Oh, and you're just imparting some great wisdom, is that it?"

Ackles' eyes narrow. "Something like that."

"No ulterior motive," Jared continues, voice dripping with sarcasm. "I mean, it's not like you've made it abundantly clear that you hate my entire existence or anything."

Ackles blinks, takes another step back and actually looks like he might smile for a second. "Dude. Little dramatic."

Jared rolls his eyes, but it's enough to make his anger simmer to a dull roar.

"Seriously, man," Ackles says. "I know how Jeff works; I'm just trying to help you out."

"You know, I'd be a lot more likely to believe you if you weren't such a fucking asshole." Jared manages to keep his voice almost conversational and Ackles drops his hand, shoulders slumping as he shakes his head.

"Whatever," he says and Jared watches him walk away.

:::

Minutes later, he's sitting down to dinner with Brock, Aldis and Tommy, all three of them eying him as he drops his tray of food onto the table.

"Heard you and Ackles had a brawl," Brock says over the top of his hamburger.

Jared glances up, anger still simmering under his skin as he grabs a fork. "More like a disagreement."

"Nuh-uh. Brawl sounds way better," Aldis says. "Manlier. Disagreements are for pussies and poli-sci majors."

"Guy's a dick," Jared mutters before shoveling a forkful of meatloaf into his mouth.

"Well, yeah," Brock says, shrugging one shoulder and then taking a large bite of his burger. He grunts as he chews, wiping the side of his mouth with the back of wrist. "But can you really blame him?"

"For being a dick? Yeah!"

Some of Jared's meatloaf flies out of his mouth and Aldis arches a disgusted eyebrow. "Dude."

Giving Aldis an apologetic glance, Jared sucks his bottom lip into his mouth and swallows before continuing. "Look, I get it, alright? I get it. He's wound all tight thinkin' I'm gonna take his job or whatever. Doesn't mean he has to be such a fucking pissy bitch."

"Kinda does," Brock says. Jared ignores him.

"All I've been hearing since I got here was how I need to back off, give the guy space. 'He'll come around!' 'He's a good guy, really!' 'He's having a bad couple months!' It's fucking annoying and I'm tired of having to walk on eggshells around him." Jared hunches over his food, spearing the glob of meat yet again as he glares up at Brock. "It's not my fault everyone thinks I'm better!"

He regrets it immediately, wincing at the sound of his own voice, sharp and clear in the large room. There's a silence afterward and he doesn't have to look up to know everyone's staring. So he doesn't, just keeps his head lowered and roughly cuts off another bite of meat, shoves it into his mouth and chews as he glares down at the tablecloth. However much it might be true, he knows he's way out of line, especially for a rookie. Whether or not Ackles is there doesn't matter; word will get back to him in some form or another, will leak to the coaches and they'll all start assuming he has a previously overlooked attitude problem.

Great.

He's jerked out of his thoughts by a warm hand on his shoulder and he blinks up at Chad's unsmiling face.

"Finish up."

"What the-- dude, I just got here."

Chad raises his eyebrows and nods down at him again and somehow, Jared knows he's not fucking around. "You heard me, man. Finish up."

Jared's frown deepens and he glances beyond Chad, sees half the defensive line standing behind him. With a sigh, he shoves his plate away and gets to his feet.

"You, too," Chad says, giving Brock a quick glance.

"What? Why?"

It's only then that Jared sees a hint of a smile playing at the corner of Chad's mouth and he relaxes a little. It's probably barely noticeable to anyone else, but Jared's known Chad for too long and he suddenly has a pretty clear idea of what's about to happen.

"C'mon," he says to Brock, a little exasperated but trying to sound reassuring. "Let's get this over with."

:::

"You know," Jared says, waddling into the suite behind Brock, "I feel we've shared something truly special tonight." His shoes dangle from the fingers of his right hand, covered in the yellow slime of egg yolk and he drops them in the kitchen sink with a clunk, flicks a spray of stringy goop off his fingers.

Brock laughs, one hand propped against the wall as he bends over to stip out of his own shoes. "Oh, yeah. Total bonding experience. I'm so honored, man."

"You know, I sense a certain lack of sincerity in your tone."

Brock deposits his shoes on top of Jared's and Jared gingerly runs a hand over his bare chest, which is crusted over in a mess of flour and egg. He grimaces down at it and then holds his finger up to Brock's face, wiggles it.

"Yummy."

"Ugh," Brock says, laughing as he knocks Jared's hand away.

"You sure had a pretty intense bonding experience with the goal post, anyway," Jared says as he peels the waistband of his shorts away from his skin. The congealed mix tugs at his body hair and he grimaces, slides the fabric carefully down his thighs, trying to avoid accidentally pulling at his glued-together leg hair in the process.

Once free, he drops the shorts into the sink with the rest of the mess and looks over at Brock.

Brock's watching him, expression flickering for half a second before he points a finger at Jared. "We are never speaking of this again," he says and Jared lets out a loud bark of a laugh.

"Hey, man, there's no shame in bottoming."

"Yeah, well I kinda prefer not to do it in public and covered in cake ingredients." He manages to wrestle free of his own shorts before looking up at Jared again, his face flushed red, slash of egg yolk across his left cheek. "Not my kinda kink."

There's something in the way he says it, something off somehow that gives Jared pause, eyes widening slightly in realization. Brock doesn't look away, neck and chest streaked with white and yellow as the silence stretches out between them. Jared wants to ask, but he knows he shouldn't, knows that, in this situation, it's often better not to know.

Finally, Brock shrugs, something like disappointment coloring his expression before he steps away and heads for the bathroom. "I call dibs on the shower!"

:::

On Tuesday, they go over Cleveland's game film from the previous week, picking out the areas the Cowboys can most easily exploit in the coming game. The plan is to have the starters in for the entire first quarter before bringing in Jared in the second and third, Isaiah and Tommy splitting the fourth. It's all subject to change, of course, but it's enough to get Jared's blood pumping already. No one's outright said as much, but given the arrangement, Jared can recognize that in one week he's ostensibly moved up from third QB to second.

With first cuts getting closer, practice is tense. Ackles has gone back to ignoring him both in meetings and out on the field, and Jared focuses his attention on his footwork, staying after with Coach Morgan on Wednesday to try to get it nailed down. With another cross-country flight scheduled for Friday, they're thankfully free of an ordinary two-a-day, but that doesn't make Thursday's practice any less brutal. Fights break out on the field, egos and tempers flaring, forcing coaches to step in and get things settled and, by the end, everyone's frayed and worn around the edges.

Jared calls Sandy later that night, trying to keep his voice low so he won't bother Brock.

She asks how he's doing and he tells her he's learning and getting better and that he's slotted to play at least two quarters against the Browns. As always, Sandy's nothing but supportive, her voice alone a quiet reassurance. He contemplates telling her about Brock, maybe asking her opinion on how to handle the situation -- it's the kind of issue she deals with every day with her kids -- but it feels wrong somehow, a secret that's not his to tell. Not to mention the fact that his entire suspicion is based on a few glances and one joking remark. It's nothing he knows with absolute certainty.

He falls silent for awhile, content to just listen to her breathe before she laughs, high and soft. Says, "You're doing that creepy listening-to-me-breathe thing again."

Jared smiles and rolls onto this side, phone cradled between his arm and his ear. "It's not creepy."

"It's creepy."

"It's not like I'm breathing heavy and asking you what you're wearing."

"Still creepy," Sandy says.

"It'd be creepy if I wasn't your boyfriend, maybe."

"No, it just makes you a creepy boyfriend."

"Aww, baby, you say the sweetest things."

Sandy laughs again, a quiet giggle that makes him ache all over. He suddenly isn't thinking about Cleveland anymore or Brock or practice or fuckin' Jensen Ackles, but just how much he misses spending a few hours with his girlfriend.

When Sandy speaks again, her voice has softened and Jared feels the mood shift in the span of three short words: "Baby, we should talk."

"Okay," Jared says, the word drawn out slow. "About?"

"The season," she says and Jared frowns, not understanding.

"What about it?"

"About... well, you going off with the team. Traveling. I know-- look, I know what to expect, Jared. I know that things are gonna be... what they are. I get it."

"What do you mean what they are?"

"The life, I guess," she says, her voice quiet. He can't tell what she's thinking, is pretty sure he doesn't want to work out what she's saying and, not for the first time, Jared wishes he could just see her. "You're in the NFL, JT. You're a Dallas Cowboy. I'd be an idiot to not know what that means."

"Then I guess I'm an idiot because I have no idea what you're talking about."

It comes out harsher than he'd meant and he winces as she falls silent. Because he does know what she's talking about.

"Baby, you know," she says, sounding infuriatingly calm. "You know and I'm just... it's okay. That's all I want to say. It's okay."

"We're not talking about this now," Jared says, cutting her off. It feels like a plea as much as an outright decision. "Not on the phone. Dallas, okay? After the game."

There's a silence then and Jared can picture her frown, her perfect eyebrows drawn tight and lips pinched and he wants to scream at her and pull her in close both at the same time.

"C'mon, please," he says, his voice dropping to barely a whisper. "Not like this."

Sandy's silent for awhile and then there's a muffled brush against the phone before she says, "Okay, baby. Okay."

:::

After a rocky start, including a Marion Barber fumble resulting in a Cleveland touchdown and a groin injury on Derek Mears within the first two minutes, Kripke puts the starters in for the first drive of the second quarter, perhaps hoping they'll redeem themselves. It seems to work, with Ackles and the offense marching down to the fifteen where Felix ties it all up with a touchdown run moments later.

The next offensive drive is all Jared and he seizes his opportunity, connecting with Hurd on a 20-yard pass that he then runs into the end zone. By halftime, the score is 14-9 Dallas.

The locker room, full to the brim with players, coaches, personnel and media is pure chaos during the break.

"Jared!" Coach Morgan shouts above the noise, motioning him in close with the other QBs. Jared crowds in next to Ackles and Coach drops a heavy hand on his shoulder and tugs him in. "Jensen, JT, you both had a great first half. Good read of defense, just make sure you keep an eye on number 39, they're working him at safety and corner. Switchin' it up so keep aware."

"Number 91's playing with a lot of fire," Ackles adds and Jared glances over, his nose nearly colliding with the guys temple. "Noticing a lot of desperation from him. He's nearly broken the offensive line about ten times already, bound to get through eventually."

"Smith, yeah," Coach says, glancing down at his notes. "Noticed him. I'll let Jim know, make sure his guys are keeping up on it. Jared," he continues, poking the tip of his clipboard against Jared's jersey, "we're gonna keep you in for another quarter yet. Tommy? Isaiah? I want you guys ready to go at a moment's notice."

The second half starts slow, Jared failing to get the offense close enough for even a field goal. Finally, with a minute and a half remaining in the third quarter, they break the 20-yard line. Brock misses an easy pass on the next play and Hurd nearly gets intercepted before Tashard manages to garner them a 15-yard gain. On 1-and-goal, Kripke calls for a quarterback run, which surprises the entire offense, most of all Jared.

"What's he think this is, regular season?" Hurd balks in the huddle. "Bitch is crazy."

Jared ignores it, looks each of his guards straight in the eyes. "Just try and keep me from getting my neck broken, would you? Not lookin' forward to my first concussion just yet."

It's obvious the defense is expecting a pass, their corners immediately dropping deep and Jared fakes a hand-off to Tashard and then tucks in behind Martellus, following him the last two yards into the end zone. He's immediately rushed by Marty and Miles, ball clutched tight as they slap his helmet and shoulders in celebration.

This time he even remembers to stay on for the extra kick.

:::

However meaningless the game, a win is a win and the team is in high spirits for the flight back to Oxnard. An impromptu round of a capella karaoke breaks out somewhere over Indiana and lasts clear through Colorado. Even the coaches get into it, Kripke standing up for a truly horrendous rendition of 'Black Dog' that sends the entire plane into raucous cheers.

Unfortunately, the good mood doesn't last long.

The game review Monday morning shows that, while they have definite potential, there's still a lot of work to do, particularly in regards to penalties and missed passes. Brock gets called out for his missed catch in the third quarter and Hurd for a couple of botched routes in the fourth. The news on Derek is that he'll be out for the remainder of preseason, but hopeful for the season opener, which is a blow, but not a dire one. A few guys on the O-line are sore, which is even more worrying as far as Jared's concerned, but they're all confident they'll be fine for Houston.

With first cuts only a week away, the pressure is at an all-time high, guys clamoring to show improvement any way they can, bruised egos and bruised bodies alike struggling to make a last-ditched good impression. The real test will come on Sunday, but every last effort counts.

Jared watches the receivers during his water break, the sun beating down on his shoulders as the ever-present fans cheer from a few yards away. They're split into two groups, both working with the defense on a release drill. Coach Whitfield stalks between them, blowing his whistle to signal the start of each play and then shouting up a storm when one player or another isn't quick enough off the line.

Brock's paired up against Spencer and Jared watches them block and dodge each other, watches Spencer's feet and Brock's arms, his maneuverability, before Whitfield calls for a break.

"Jesus Christ, it's hot out here," Brock says as he wanders over, tugging off his helmet. Sweat drips down the sides of his face, hair matted down to his forehead. He runs a hand through it, grumbles, "Why the hell're you just standin' around?"

"I'm observing," Jared says, grinning.

"Fuck this shit, I'm changing positions," Brock says, wiping an arm across his chin as he reaches for a cup. "You're not the only guy who knows how to throw a damn ball."

Laughing, Jared shrugs. Says, "You wanna stay after practice with me for awhile?"

Brock frowns for a second and takes another sip of his drink. "What for?" Suspicion is written all over his face and Jared can't blame him, but he sure as hell doesn't acknowledge it.

"Thinkin' I could use some extra pass work."

It's not a lie, but it's not the entire truth either and, judging by the way Brock just looks at him for a second, Jared's pretty sure he's about to be called on it. Because, sure, Jared could always use the practice, but they both know he's making the team. It's Brock's future that isn't so certain.

But Brock eyes him for a moment and then finally nods, tips his head back to finish off his cup of water. "Yeah, sure. Sounds good."

:::

Friday is the team's last day in Oxnard. They have a walk-through in the morning and a meeting in the afternoon where Kripke goes over a few more key details regarding both the game and the procedure for leaving the hotel.

And then they're free.

Jared manages to get most of his stuff packed and spends some time studying the playbook for the Houston game before Chad comes over, dragging both him and Brock out the door to a waiting taxi.

"Ventura Adventure, baby!" he shouts, practically shoving Jared into the cab. "Time to par-tay in the Hollywood of the north!"

Jared spends the drive smashed in the backseat with Chad and Brock while Aldis takes the front and it's barely twenty minutes before the cab's pulling into the parking lot of what is apparently the Ventura Harbor Village. The harbor part is obvious: planks and piers lead out into the ocean only a few hundred yards away, housing more sailboats, motorboats and tiny yachts than Jared can conceivably count. The village part is clearly in reference to the squat, stucco buildings that start on one side of the parking lot and stretch along the waterfront. Families of four and five wander the cement walkway along with couples of every age group while small, rambunctious children run around clad in various forms of swimwear.

Jared smirks. "Oh yeah, this looks real Hollywood."

"You," Chad says, pointing a finger at him. "Shut your face. Be grateful and don't ask questions. Just for that, you get to pay the driver."

"No, I'll just make you pay me back in beer."

"Oh, no no no," Chad admonishes, looping an arm over Jared's shoulders. "You're in the big time now, baby. Beer is for pussies and poor folk; it's Cristal and Courvoisier all the way."

Smirking, Jared eyes the building in front of them. An unlit blue neon sign declaring 'Carousel' is stuck to the side of it. "Somehow, I think we'll be lucky if we can wrangle some PBR in his place, man," he says just as another cab pulls up behind them, Clif climbing out the passenger's side.

"Hey, Murray, we still on for the air hockey tourney?"

"Fuck yeah!" Chad yells back. "Bring it, Kosterfuck!"

"We hitting the Greek first?" a familiar voice asks and Jared glances over to notice Ackles' presence for the first time, Tommy standing just behind him. Ackles hasn't ever struck Jared as particularly social and, even now, he doesn't look exactly thrilled to be there, hands stuffed in his pockets and forcing a smile.

"Ain't gonna fuck with tradition, man," Chad says, grinning as he starts heading toward the walkway.

They've barely gone ten feet before Chad's recognized by a pot-bellied, middle-aged guy in a wide-brimmed sun hat who excitedly requests a picture and autograph. Chad's all too happy for the attention, forcing the picture-taking duties onto Brock. Two seconds later, Pot-Belly's asking the same of Ackles, who looks slightly horrified for a split second before gamely agreeing, even going so far as to flash a quick thumbs up for the camera. Clif makes fun of them both the entire time, reminding Chad to suck in his neck fat and Ackles to hide his bad side.

"I don't have a bad side," Ackles says as he gives Pot-Belly one last handshake and pat on the arm. He turns to Clif, grinning brightly. "I am adorable."

"Right," Chad agrees with clear sarcasm. "Pretty Jenny."

Ackles rolls his eyes. "Don't make me put Nair in your jockstrap again."

Jared snorts. "Again?"

Chad shoots him a glare.

"It's a very sore subject," Ackles says with mock gravity.

Clif grins over his shoulder as he opens the door to the restaurant, adds, "And itchy," and doesn't so much as blink when Chad gives the back of his head a hard smack.

They step inside and it's immediately apparent why they're there. And it's not for the food.

The tables are arranged in a rough U-shape bracketing an open area of floor that's clearly meant to be some kind of stage. At the moment, said stage is currently occupied by a curvaceous belly dancer.

Aldis lets out a low, appreciative whistle. "Oh, I approve. I approve. Day-um."

"Well," Brock says, smirking. "Guess it's classier than a strip club."

"And cheaper," Ackles adds.

They get two tables near the back and Chad tests out nearly every seat before picking the one he seems to think has the best view of the stage area. Jared drops down next to him and spends forty dollars on a surf 'n turf combo that's worth every last penny before finishing up half of Brock's moussaka casserole and a piece of Aldis' chicken kebobs. Out the corner of his eye, he notices Jensen watching him and frowns slightly, says, "What?" around a mouthful of meat.

"Dude," Ackles says. He sounds half amazed and half disgusted. "You eat like a lineman."

"Fuck you, I don't eat like that." Clif says with a snort.

Relaxing slightly, Jared finishes chewing and gives an easy shrug. "Hey, I'm a growing boy."

Both Ackles' eyebrows raise. "God help us all."

Jared only grins and reaches for another piece of meat. Aldis smacks his hand away. "I said one, Jabba. Jesus."

Chad orders everyone another round of drinks in lieu of dessert and they spend a half hour ogling yet another gorgeous belly dancer. Or Chad does anyway, barely refraining from whooping obnoxiously and attempting to slip twenties into the dancers' pants. Jared's not even tipsy by the time they leave, just warm and content and pleasantly buzzed as they make their way to the arcade.

As far as arcade's go, Jared's seen way better. Still, it has an endearing, quirky feel to it and Jared laughs as bells ping and whirl and little clay balls roll along felt-covered metal, a chaotic overlay to the out-dated pop music pulsing through the overhead speakers.

"Alright, Kosterman, let's get this shit started!" Chad shouts, clapping his hands together and making a beeline for the token machine.

There's a basketball toss in the far corner and a stretch of skeeball machines along the back wall. The ticket cash-out area takes up one side, proudly displaying every crappy, throw-away toy imaginable, racks of plastic bead necklaces and buckets of bouncy balls hang from the racks, interspersed with enormous stuffed animals. There are kids all over the place, dodging and weaving through the arrangement of fooz ball tables, arcade games, token dispensers, pinball machines and air hockey tables. It's a warzone of over-stimulation and reminiscent of every good memory from Jared's childhood.

After acquiring twenty bucks worth of coins, he challenges Brock to a game of skeeball and they waste a half hour getting their asses handed to them by a pair of fourteen year old kids in the neighboring lane before giving up to start their own air hockey tournament. Aldis knocks him out of the second round, but Jared consoles himself by winning a shitload of tickets off an old school Mortal Kombat game, which he then exchanges for a foam alien doll for Sandy. It's about a foot and a half tall and dressed in a blue and silver hooded cape and it's both the ugliest and coolest thing Jared's ever seen.

He tucks the doll under his arm and turns to notice Ackles huddled in an alcove a few feet off. His back is to Jared and it looks almost like he's playing an ordinary game, except... not quite.

Curious, Jared wanders over, for once not expecting the guy to snap at him. Since drinks at the Greek, Ackles has been more laid-back and agreeable than Jared's ever seen him. Quick to smile and laugh and make jokes, virtually no sign of the uptight asshole Jared's grown used to.

"Hey, man," Jared says as he nears. "I think we might be headin'-- holy shit!" Ackles glances over his shoulder with a frown, and Jared can't help the laugh that bubbles out. "Dude! Zoltar!"

Ackles blinks, his tight expression smoothing into relaxed amusement and he steps aside to make room. "Coolest part of this place right here," he says, giving the glass siding a hearty thunk with the heel of his hand.

"No shit," Jared agrees, leaning forward to get a better look. "Man, I've seen Big I don't know how many times..."

"This one's actually plugged in," Ackles says with a smirk. "Still a piece of crap, though."

"You makin' a wish?"

Ackles' smile falters a little then and he looks away, scratching the side of his neck.

"Oh, you totally are!" Jared says, grinning wide before pushing his face against the glass. Zoltar's wide, unblinking eyes slide back and forth, his mechanical arm swinging as a tinny piece of music starts playing. Jared takes a step back, practically beaming, as the machine begins to shake, volume of the music rising. "This is awesome!"

Ackles snatches the small slip of paper the machine spits out before Jared can make a grab for it, barely glancing at it before shoving it into his pocket.

"Dude," Jared says, arching an eyebrow. "You gonna share with the class, or what?"

"If I tell you, it won't come true."

"That only works on birthday cakes."

"It works on everything."

"Bullshit," Jared says, laughing as he lunges forward at the same second Ackles lurches back, dodging him completely. "Damn, for an old guy, you're pretty quick."

Jared's always had a very bad habit of not thinking before speaking and the words come out before he can stop them, only realizing a second too late how they sound. But, Ackles doesn't look pissed, just grins as he backs away, hip pocket well protected.

"Better believe I can still run circles around you, rookie."

His tone is light enough that Jared immediately relaxes. "Wait, that's what you wished for, isn't it?" he says, hoping like hell he's reading the guy right, that Ackles will read him right and take it for the good-natured ribbing it's meant to be. "To be young and spry again?"

"Spry?"

"Don't worry, old man, you've still got your looks."

"Dude, no-- did you seriously just use the word spry?"

"I'm sorry, is that one you don't know? They not teach you English up in Washington?"

Ackles arches an eyebrow, still smirking. "I just didn't think anyone under the age of sixty still used that word."

"I know, man. Vocabulary. Such a crazy concept."

"Do you use swell, too? Fiddle-sticks? How 'bout nifty?"

"How 'bout fuck you?" Jared says, barely keeping back a laugh.

"Sure thing, buckaroo!"

Jared does laugh then, the sound cut off as two hundred pounds of something lands on his back. "Boys, boys, boys!" Chad shouts obnoxiously in Jared's right ear, arms wrapped around him like a boa constrictor. "No inter-team fighting or fucking. Don't make me tell Kripke on you; he'd probably stick us all in a corner and make us listen to Grateful Dead for ten hours straight. And not, like-- not a whole album or anything; just one song. That lasts ten hours. Seriously. It exists, I swear to God."

Jared groans under the weight of his wide receiver and bends forward, expecting Chad to let go once his feet leave the floor. Only Chad just hangs on tighter, nearly strangling Jared in the process.

"Dude, are you five?" Jared manages through a wheeze as Chad continues to cling.

"No, I'm six," Chad says, wrapping both legs around Jared's hips. "Six feet of awesome!"

"Six feet of douchebag, you mean," Jared says, but he can't help laughing, still clutching Sandy's alien doll toy as Chad uses him for a jungle gym. It's a struggle to keep his balance, but a pretty good work-out at the same time.

Ackles smirks. "That's a lot of douche," he says, but there's something different in his tone, something a little off that Jared can't quite place.

He's not in the mood to analyze it though, and just grins. "God, you have no idea," he says as Chad shifts against him, practically humping Jared's back and shouting, "Hi-ho, Silver! Away!"

Chapter Text

They arrive in Dallas to a throng of waiting fans. Jared tries to appear more awake than he feels as he stumbles through the terminal, signing autographs and taking pictures along the way before he's tackled from behind for the second time in twelve hours.

Two arms wrap tight around him, small hands spread wide across his chest and Jared doesn't even have to twist around to know the culprit. But he does anyway.

"What the-- What are you doing here?" he asks, unable to keep the smile off his face as he bends down lift Sand up up off the ground. "Thought you weren't gettin' in 'til tomorrow."

Her answer is a kiss, sweet and lingering, one tiny hand cupping his face before she pulls back with a smile that mirrors his own.

"I traded days with Trish," she says as he lowers her back to the floor, but keeps one arm wrapped around her. "Thought I'd sneak in an extra day with my superstar boyfriend. And I know you have a lot to focus on, so I promise I won't be too distracting."

Jared lets out a quick laugh and tugs her in for another kiss. "Think I could do with a little distraction," he says against her lips.

She lets him drive her car, but he knows it's only because she hates driving in Dallas. They talk the whole time, Jared giving her story after story about training camp, leaving out some of the more crude tales he's pretty sure she wouldn't appreciate. He's in the middle of telling her about Patrick covering Rogers' toilet seat in saran wrap when the pull up to his place.

"Wait, I don't--" she starts and Jared glances over to watch her nose wrinkle in disgust as it registers. "Oh, ew. No one did that to you?"

"Nope," he lies and then nods toward his building.

"You're a liar," she says and then ducks down to get a better look, a smile stretched across her face. "This is it?"

"This is it."

The tour is brief, Jared intent on one room and one room only and, luckily, Sandy seems to have the same idea, half dragging him in there herself, her smile coy as she drops back onto his bed.

"It's nice," she says and Jared doesn't know if she means the bed or the condo or something else entirely. Doesn't really care to ask. He runs a hand up her bare leg, fingers slipping under the hem of her skirt as her legs part and she tugs at the front of his shirt. "Thought you had a rule," she says, her fingers skimming down lower as she gives a mischievous grin.

Jared only grins and leans in closer, close enough to smell the fruit of her body wash, familiar and addictive.

"Mmm," she says, slipping her hand under his shirt, tiny fingers skidding along the waistband of his jeans. "No sex before a game."

"Games not 'til tomorrow," he says like that makes any difference. It doesn't, of course. Never has. Jared has a strict 24-hour policy regarding sex before games, something he's stood by since his sophomore year at UT and he's not planning on breaking it anytime soon. Especially not while still having a hell of a lot to prove.

Sandy smirks up at him. "Since when has that mattered?"

Jared laughs and then ducks down to press his mouth along the line of her neck, lips only brushing the smooth skin there before tasting. She sighs under the touch and Jared runs a hand down her side, feels her inhale under his palm, swell of her breast soft against his thumb. "Doesn't mean I can't do somethin' for you," he murmurs and she sighs, high and quiet, her fingers finding the leather of his belt.

It's all the encouragement Jared needs and he slides the thin fabric of her panties aside, finding her already wet. After three years, he knows her body almost as well as his own, knows just exactly how she likes to be touched, how much is too much and how much is just enough, just perfect. She arches beneath him, her head back and turned to the side, hair a mess of black against the white pillows and he reaches up with his free hand to tilt her face toward him. She moans again when their gazes lock, lips parted and cheeks flushed pink and, when he brushes a thumb to the corner of her mouth, he's rewarded by the light flick of her tongue.

She's trembling seconds later, head tipped back as Jared drags his wet thumb down the length of her throat. She has one hand in Jared's hair and the other reaching back to grab the headboard and Jared brushes a kiss over her right breast, tongue flicking along the fabric stretched over the peak of her nipple when she starts to shudder, whispering Jared's name in a broken plea. He only holds her tighter, pushing her through it until she drops a hand down to his wrist, stopping him.

He laughs then, breathless, as he gently pulls his hand free, brings his wet fingers to his mouth to lick them clean. He's hard as a damn rock in his jeans, but it's nothing he can't handle. A little frustration could do him some good, really.

Later, after dinner, Jared puts on some Tivo'd episodes of 24 and they crash on the couch, Sandy draped over him, drawing idle circles over the cotton of his shirt.

"I was serious, you know," she says during a break in the explosions.

"'Bout what?"

"The travel thing. The girls."

Jared blinks, the reminder abrupt. Every muscle in his body goes tense, but Sandy only tightens her hold on him, head tucked under his jaw.

"It's okay," she says, brushing a kiss to his collarbone, palm settled over his chest. "And it's not that I don't trust you, baby, but... I know things happen."

Jared shakes his head, frown deepening. "What are you trying to say?"

"I'm saying..." she trails off for a moment, fingers still drawing slow patterns along his skin before she shrugs. When she speaks again, her voice is quieter, but still clear. Firm and sure. "What happens on the road stays there. You can do what you want, but I don't want to know about it. Not from you and especially not from anyone else."

He pulls back sharply, vaguely insulted as he catches Sandy's wrist in a tight grip and cranes his head to look down at her. "You can't be serious."

Sandy doesn't say a word, just looks at him with clear, open eyes.

"You're-- what, you're telling me to sleep around?"

"No," Sandy says. She twists her wrist slightly and Jared immediately loosens his grip, letting her pull free and reach up to touch the juncture of his neck and shoulder. "I'm just-- I'm not naive, Jared. I've known since the minute I met you that you were born to play football. And I know what that entails, the kind of environment you'll be in--"

"And that automatically makes me a cheater? Is that it?"

"Jared," Sandy says, voice a quiet plea. "I'm not arguing with you about this, okay? I'm not assuming anything either way, but I want-- I just don't want to risk you resenting me for any reason. I don't want to lose you."

It really doesn't make him feel any better, but he lets out a breath, reaching to take her hand again, carding his fingers through hers. "You're not gonna lose me." Sandy's answering smile is much of a reassurance and he ducks slightly, gaze locked on hers. "You're not," he repeats, voice quieter as he squeezes her hand.

He sleeps fitfully that night, wrapped around Sandy's tiny frame, legs tangled under the sheets. And he wonders when he'll have the nerve to ask her to marry him.

:::

They lose against Houston and, while Jared knows he's not the only one at fault, he also knows he's not blameless. He'd had two turnovers - an interception on his very first snap and a fumble later on the fifteen yard line that had resulted in a Houston touchdown. It hadn't quite been Jared's worst performance ever, but considering he'd only been in for a little over one quarter, he figures it should count at least in the top five.

Sandy had tried to cheer him up afterward. "Blame me," she'd said. "If you hadn't done such a good job of getting me off last night, you would've kicked ass."

It'd made him smile at the time, but only a little. His entire future could very well be decided with one bad game; there's no room for fucking up.

On Monday morning, Jared pulls into the parking lot of Valley Ranch, stomach twisted up tight. It's their first time there since flying off to training camp and he's praying it won't be his last.

The team Turk, Bruce Mays, sits on a flimsy plastic chair just inside the door. He glances up when Jared walks in and Jared hesitates for a second, grip tightening on the strap of his bag, heartbeat thudding in his ears, but Bruce only smiles, gives a faint shake of his head.

He lets out a breath, relief flooding through him and walks on slightly shakier legs to the team meeting room. A sign outside the door declares 'TEMPO, URGENCY, EXECUTION, FINISH' in familiar navy type and Jared taps it as he passes, a reminder to himself that he's still here, a Cowboy for at least one more week. Even after playing one of the worst games of his life.

He's twenty minutes early, but there's already a good turn-out and Jared does a quick scan of the other faces in the room. A good chunk of the vets are already there, plus Rogers and Wiggins. He can't help noticing that there's no sign of Brock as he he takes a seat near the front.

Isaiah's next to him and he leans in, voice pitched low. "Roberts and Marsters are both gone."

Despite the still lingering relief, Jared can't help but wince in sympathy. "Any news on Kelly?"

Isaiah shakes his head.

Jared doesn't know if that's a good thing or not and tries not to analyze it too much as he sits back, pulls the playbook out of his bag.

His teammates slowly continue trickling in, everyone a little more subdued than normal, though Jared thinks that has as much to do with their loss the day before as the cuts. At least until Chad arrives.

"WHADDUP, MY BROTHAS!"

Jared glances up to see Chad boxing wildly at the air before throwing his arms up and doing what looks like a small victory tap dance. He only stops when someone's pen hits him right between the eyes and Jared twists back to see Aldis grinning from a few rows back.

"Sit your ass down, Rocky," Aldis says and reaches over to pull out a chair for Chad. "I know it's a foreign concept and all, but you should try showin' some class."

Chad take the proffered seat, relaxing back dramatically and Jared goes back to studying his playbook, giving the door fleeting glances every time he hears it open.

Ackles steps in some time later and Jared nods at him in silent acknowledgment. Jared isn't surprised to see he's still there, of course, and he highly doubts Ackles is either, but the guy still looks a little relieved. Jared imagines there's always that tiny glimmer of fear no matter how good you are. Unless you're Chad, obviously.

There's about two minutes to spare when the door creaks open again. This time it's Brock, bag slung over his shoulder and looking about as shaken as Jared had felt fifteen minutes before.

Smiling with renewed relief, Jared lifts an arm to get Brock's attention, waving him into the empty seat beside him and practically pulling the guy into a hug when he's near enough.

"Dude, I knew you'd be fine!" he says, grabbing Brock's shoulder and shaking him as he sits.

Brock laughs, high and nervous-sounding. "Glad one of us did, man. Jesus, I've never been so scared to walk into a fucking building before."

When Kripke steps in minutes later, the hushed voices of his teammates quiet into a strained silence. Their coach flips on the overhead at the front of the room and then looks up. He has his hands on his hips as he scans the room, silently demanding eye contact from every last player.

"We cut fifteen guys this morning," he says after a long moment. "Fifteen. That means there are fifteen guys packing up their stuff right now who would give their left and right testicles to be where you men are right now. Fifteen guys who, in all honesty, just got the short end of the stick in this because I can tell you right now that after yesterday's performance I could've cut nearly every last one of you. And I wouldn't have felt the least bit bad about it either."

Frowning, Jared glances down at his hands. Kripke hasn't started pointing out specific plays, hasn't named any names yet, but it's only a matter of time. An interception and a fumble, a complete inability to convert on third down, not to mention a total lack of communication between himself and the rest of his offense for his entire time on field... Jared doesn't particularly want to go over it, but he knows he will eventually.

"Now, I don't think I need to tell you what kind of expectations are in place for this season," Coach Kripke continues. "Expectations from me, from Mr. Jones and the front office. From the media and fans. I suspect they're all expectations you all hold for yourselves individually. I don't believe there's a single person in this room who doesn't want to win, who doesn't have the drive required to compete in this league. However," he adds, his volume hitching up just a notch, "there's a difference between merely wanting to win and accepting no other alternative. And yesterday... hell, yesterday, you guys didn't just accept another alternative, you embraced it. If I had only yesterday's game to go off of when making my decisions, there would be a lot fewer of you sitting here right now. And I can promise you, that if you give me a similar performance this weekend, I'll be cutting a lot more than twelve of you assholes and we'll ravage waivers to fill in the missing slots because I'd rather have another team's dregs than a dozen slapdicks not willing to put in the effort to win, you got me?"

Jared swears he can feel the room collectively wince and then jumps about five feet when Kripke slams his hand against the projector. "I said: YOU GOT ME?"

There's an immediate rumble of, "Yes, sir," from his teammates, low, but clear.

"We have a long week ahead of us," Kripke continues, his voice calmer. "I need every last one of you to prove to me that I didn't cut the wrong fifteen guys."

It's not until a half hour later, when they're going through some of the game film from the first quarter, that Jared realizes one of those fifteen guys is Tommy.

:::

With the shift back to Valley Ranch, training camp is officially over. The change in energy is immediately apparent with the media circus considerably smaller and no screaming fans on the sidelines, no celebrities hanging around shooting the shit with coaches and players. On the field, the coaches seem to shout louder and push harder, like they're trying to make up for the sudden lack of constant noise. A fight breaks out on Tuesday during a scrimmage drill and it takes six guys to pull it apart, only four of whom are wearing uniforms. DeShawn and Montrae get blamed for starting it, but the whole team is forced to run wind sprints as punishment.

Wednesday is more of the same and even more grueling. They spend an hour doing position-specific drills before scrimmaging. Kripke wants to try out a few more wildcat variations, which gives Jared a rest and he lingers on the sideline with Brock. They run play after play, switching between Ackles and Isaiah at quarterback and occasionally having Andre snap straight to Barber.

"Y'know," Brock says, voice quiet as they watch, "I'm pretty much just hoping I make practice squad at this point."

Jared frowns as he looks over. "Dude."

Brock's looking straight ahead at the field as he shakes his head. "Look at that," he says, but Jared doesn't, keeps his gaze locked on Brock. "They're going for a run attack this year, man, no question."

There's no point for Jared to argue. With three outstanding running backs and two quarterbacks trained and familiar in the wildcat, it's clear Brock has a point. "Doesn't mean we don't need receivers," Jared says. "Can't run the ball on every single play."

"Murray, Hodge, Crayton, Austin, Hurd." Brock lists the names like he's been keeping them in his head for months. For all Jared knows, that's exactly what he's been doing. "Hell, Witten and Bennett. All better than me."

"Hey," Jared says, abruptly grabbing Brock by the arm and pulling him a few feet away. "Man, you can't do this," he says, his voice a harsh, angry whisper. "You've been bustin' your ass out here for months, you can't just give up."

"I'm not giving up," Brock hisses, yanking his am free of Jared's grip. "But you know I'm right, man. You know there's no fuckin' way I'll beat any of those guys for a spot!"

"What, so that's it? You're gonna stop trying?"

"Dude, did I say that?" Brock snaps, looking angrier than Jared's ever seen him as steps in closer.

"Sure as hell sounded like that's what you were implying, yeah," Jared says, fighting the impulse to knock some sense into him.

Brock's eyes narrow and it's the first time Jared's seen the guy well and truly pissed off, which only makes Jared angrier. Because even if Brock's right, even if his chances of making the team are slim, it's not impossible. Anything can happen in a week, there's no telling that half those guys won't be injured during the next game or even before. Giving up isn't a fucking option.

He opens his mouth to say just that, but gets stopped by a hand wrapping around his arm, pulling him back. "Hey, hey, hey!"

It takes a second for Jared to recognize the voice, but once he does, he rips himself away, glaring daggers at both Ackles and Brock.

"Hey!" Ackles repeats, harsher this time, giving Jared a shove and standing between them. "We're done here, right?"

It's not really a question so much as an order, but he looks from Jared to Brock and back again like he's waiting for an answer. Jared's mouth goes tight, but he nods, sparing one last glare at Brock before stalking away.

There are no apologies in the locker room. Jared showers quickly, glances over at Brock for long enough while he's changing to get that the feeling's mutual. He notices Ackles watching him at one point, the guy's brow furrowed and lips turned down. Jared ignores him.

He manages to cool off some before the afternoon quarterback meeting. When he gets there, Ackles is the only one in the room and Jared just gives him a brief nod before taking a seat. He pulls out the playbook and starts up where he'd last left off, running play calls over and over in his head, committing them to memory.

"Hey," Ackles says after a long moment. "You and Brock work shit out?"

Jared shrugs and tries to ignore the resurgence of irritation. "Haven't talked to him."

"Mmm."

He can't imagine why Ackles cares; it's not like fights between teammates are in any way rare. Especially lately. But he doesn't push the subject, just turns his attention back to his playbook and goes over the audibles for the T-spread 180.

Ever since Ventura, Ackles has been more civil, even going so far as to wish Jared good luck before the Houston game, for all the good it'd done him. They're hardly best buddies, but it's a hell of a step up from where they were weeks ago. He's not entirely sure what's caused the switch, but he figures the guy's finally stopped feeling so threatened, especially with Kripke really working in the wildcat stuff and Jared's abysmal performance in the last game.

Glancing up, Jared notices that Ackles is still watching him and he frowns slightly.

"Hey, uh," Ackles says before Jared can even ask what the deal is. "I wanted-- look, I know I've been kind of a dick."

Jared blinks, more than a little surprised, but keeps his mouth shut.

"A lot," Jensen adds, looking away and scratching a hand along his neck. He looks guilty and embarrassed and Jared finds himself smiling just a little bit. Not because he's enjoying the guy's pain, but because it seems so strange and out of character. It's almost endearing, though Jared can't explain why.

"Yeah," he finally manages, letting out a quick laugh. "You have."

Ackles glances at him again, hesitates before smiling very faintly. "Yeah," he agrees. "Just-- I'm sorry. It's been a rough coupla months."

"Yeah."

"Yeah," Ackles says again and Jared does laugh then, a quiet release that seems to confuse Ackles before his lips twitch into a broader smile and he laughs along with him. "So, we're cool."

"Well, I'm cool," Jared says, resting back against his chair. "I invented cool. And you're in a room with me. Mooching my cool."

Ackles rolls his eyes, but he's still smiling and Jared dodges the pencil thrown with perfect accuracy at his forehead just as Coach Morgan walks in.

"Sure hope you throw like that on Sunday," Coach says, amusement evident in his voice as he snatches the pencil off the ground and throws it back at Ackles. "Alright, let's get down to business."

:::

The score at halftime is 14-7 Seattle and, as usual, the locker room is in chaos: bruised and battered players talking with the trainers and medical team, Misha and Ben working together to get a few of them bandaged up as quickly as possible with help from Britt and Greg. Katie and Sera take care of re-taping where needed while the specialty coaches work to get as many of their players together as possible to re-work strategies.

It's not as crowded anymore, the fifteen missing bodies immediately noticeable, though the pressure of what the game means is nearly enough to fill the space left in their absence. With final cuts on Monday, everyone knows this is the last shot to make an impression; one great play can be a guy's salvation, while one tiny screw-up could be his end. And, even if Jared's more than reasonably sure he's not going anywhere, he's feeling the pressure, too. This is their last practice run before it starts to really matter and, after last week, Jared has a lot to prove.

"Padalecki, you're in on the first drive," Kripke says, the offense huddled in as close as they can manage. Coach Singer's voice carries over from the other side of the room where he's talking to the defense, not quite loud enough to drown out the sound of Coach Campo's raspy shouts. It's only an overlay to the mess of players yelling at other other in criticism and encouragement, the crunch and clatter of padding being adjusted and appendages getting taped. The walls practically drip with testosterone, the air thick and sticky and reeking of sweat. For Jared, it feels like the closest thing to home.

"Yes, sir," he says, sharp and unquestioning.

"Depending on how the defense reads, we'll think about bringing in some of the stuff we worked on this week," Kripke adds, turning his attention to Isaiah. "We'll be doing some switching up at QB, I need you all to pay attention and communicate. Murray!"

Chad looks up, his phone in one hand before he quickly snaps it shut and grins.

"I catch you fuckin' texting during halftime even once during the season and you're getting yourself a fine, you got me?" he says, very clearly not joking. Chad's smile falters, but Kripke barely seems to notice, turning his attention on the rest of the guys again. "Look, I know this is a nerve-wracking game for some of you," he says, "but you have to keep your heads in this. Don't lose your focus, don't make any stupid mistakes and we won't have any problems."

Seattle has first possession after the half, but the Dallas defense is able to hold, forcing them to punt on their own 40. Brock smartly calls a fair catch on the 18 and Jared snaps on his helmet and heads out with the rest of the second string. He connects with Miles on his first pass, getting them a quick first down right off the bat and then proceeds to march down the field.

The Seattle defense is clearly banking on him making a mistake, covering his receivers more than rushing him head-on, hoping he'll force a pass once the O-line caves. Jared refuses to take the bait, seeking out his backs for shorter yardage, relying on Marty and Tashard when he can and, if that isn't an option, scrambling out of the pocket to throw it away. It doesn't always work. He waits too long on the Seattle 33 and gets sacked from behind by number 91, though he manages to keep hold of the ball.

"Hit you hell of a lot harder next time," the guy promises, smacking Jared's shoulder as Jared gets to his feet.

Only slightly rattled, Jared calls a slant on the next play, but, Hurd and Crayton are once again both covered. He finds Marty underneath, but it's forced and very nearly intercepted, thankfully just dropping incomplete before the field goal unit is sent out.

Seattle scores another touchdown late in the third, followed by Jared again managing to get the offense down the field, only to have to a resort to a field goal on the 25. After Seattle scores yet again, Kripke puts Isaiah in for a few plays and Jared watches from the sidelines, Ackles at his side.

"Watch how Felix fakes out the DB on this one," Jensen murmurs, looking out at the field.

Jared shifts his attention from Isaiah to Felix, watches at the guy leaps forward at the snap, taking the hand-off and running straight ahead before pivoting at the last second to leap and rush over a small handful of defensemen. He gains a good seven yards before getting dragged to the ground and Jared shoots Jensen a smirk. "Good call."

"More like observation and a little bit of statistics," Ackles says, leaning in a little closer, pointing toward the defenseman. "That guy's been covering Felix all day, trying to work out a pattern and Felix knows it. Totally played him." He glances back, flashing Jared a grin. "It's a beautiful thing."

Jared arches an eyebrow, amused. "And what does that have to do with statistics?"

"Whatever. You know what I mean," Ackles says, shoving Jared with the crook of his elbow. "Point is- watch your backs and receivers whenever possible. I don't mean just on the field, but now and in practice and on game film. Get a feel for them, get inside their heads. You want to get to the point where you know what they'll do before they do."

Smirking, Jared crosses his arms over his chest. "Sure thing, Mr. Miyagi."

"Dude, you think I'm tellin' you this shit for my health?"

"Not really telling me anything I don't already know," Jared says with a shrug.

Ackles rolls his eyes. "You're a cocky sonofabitch, you know that? You think you coulda called that?"

"Probably not," Jared admits. "Maybe you should take your act to Vegas. Could make a killing."

"See if I try and help you out ever again."

"Aww, don't be like that," Jared says, giving Ackles a nudge with one shoulder. "If it'll make you feel better, I'd love to be your grasshopper."

He gets sent back in late in the fourth and manages another good drive up the field. On second and goal, he ends up misreading the defensive end and gets hammered from the side just as he releases the ball. Landing hard on his ass, he watches the pass wobble right into the arms of the Seahawks' free safety. Flo manages to grab the guy before he gets too far, but it doesn't matter; with less than a minute left, the game is as good as over.

As expected, the locker room afterward is tense, guys dropping their helmets to the floor and swearing, some talking shit about a few Seattle players, some cursing themselves for a bad play or three. Jared keeps quiet, head down as he strips out of his gear and heads into the shower.

Tilting his head back under the spray, he wipes the sweat and grime off his face, revels in the soothing warmth of the water.

"Hey," Ackles says from the neighboring shower head and Jared blinks his eyes open, glances over. Like Jared, the guy's facing the wall and hunched far enough under the spray that it's mostly hitting the nape of his neck and trailing down his back. He's running a bar of soap under his armpit and there's some water clinging to his eyelashes as he keeps his head turned toward Jared. "You played really well today," he says, barely loud enough for Jared to make out over the sound of the showers and the echoing voices of his other teammates. "Don't let that last one get to you, okay?"

Jared isn't quite sure what to make of it, the guy's sincerity almost unnerving given that a week ago they could hardly stand each other. But he gives as much of a smile as he can, strained and unconvinced. "Yeah, thanks."

Ackles only nods and turns away again and Jared lets out a breath, the spray pounding his face.


Cowboys final cuts
3:56 PM Mon, Sep 7, 2009
Sophia Bush

No real surprises in the Cowboys' final decisions, though the number of wide receivers released seems to indicate that the team is still looking to focus on more of a running scheme this season. The final cuts, as released by sources at Valley Ranch are:

WR Danny Amendola, LB Geoff Brown, NT Aaron Castillo, LB Lamar Williams, WR Brock Kelly, OT Cory Lekkerkerker, RB Bradley Lewis, WR Todd Lowber, S Kemore Nagra, DT Julius Prado, DE DeShawn Spencer, CB Patrick Weimer.

The Cowboys' first regular season game will be this Sunday in San Diego.


On Wednesday, Coach Morgan pulls Jared aside before practice. Ackles is with him, water in hand and helmet tipped back on the top of his head.

"You men think much about the rooming situation for the season?" Coach asks, squinting against the sun.

Jared frowns, says, "What do you mean?" just as Jensen says, "I've talked to Clif."

Coach rubs a finger through his beard, eying Jared.

"I, uh," Jared starts, looking from Coach to Ackles and back again. "Well, if Brock clears waivers..."

But Coach is already shaking his head. "I think you two should consider rooming together."

Jared shares a look with Ackles. They've been getting along better since training camp, no question, but Jared's still not sure he actually wants to share a room with the guy. And, from the look Ackles is giving him, he figures the feeling's mutual.

"What's wrong with me staying with Brock?"

"Couple things," Coach says. "One-- Kelly still hasn't cleared waivers, and two-- even if he does, the likelihood of him ever playing in a game is slim. He won't ever be traveling with us."

"What about Chad?" Jared asks. It's not really a suggestion made of desperation if only because he doesn't actually want to room with Chad. But he feels he should mention it, if only for Ackles' sake.

"He's in with Aldis," Coach says. "And Clif," he adds, turning his attention to Ackles, "is with Mears."

Ackles is quiet for a moment before he lets out a breath. "So you're saying we don't actually have a choice."

"Sure you do," Coach says. "There's always a choice."

"Right," Ackles replies, unsmiling.

Coach's grin is wider then and he claps a hand on Jensen's shoulder. "I'm glad you two have enough sense to see things my way."

:::

"So are we gonna make this a thing?" Jared asks when they're checking into their room in San Diego on Saturday.

"A thing?" Ackles asks, digging through his bag.

"Yeah," Jared replies, scratches the side of his neck. "I mean, I know neither of really wanted this."

Ackles snorts, pulls his toiletry bag out and heads to the bathroom. "It's a room, Jay, not a marriage."

And it's seemingly as easy as that.

"Better not catch you trying to molest me in the middle of the night," Jared says, voice pitched loud enough for the guy to make out from the bathroom.

"Like I'd do you the favor," is his quick reply.

Chapter Text

"Jesus-- fuck!"

Kripke smacks his hand hard against his clipboard and then nearly tears off his headset, arms flailing as the crowd goes crazy, stomping and hollering to the music that floods the tannoy system. Jared manages to step aside just in time to avoid getting hit in the face by his coach's wayward elbow.

"How the fuck did Igor miss that?" Kripke bellows, turning his wrath on his defensive coordinator.

"I'll talk to him," Coach Singer says before Kripke says another word, moving quick to intercept the guy as he comes off the field.

Kripke's already reeling in the other direction, clipboard raised high in the air. "Someone wanna explain to me what the hell is going on?!" he shouts as the special team unit runs out to try and block San Diego's extra kick. "I don't know if you assholes noticed, but this shit matters now. Jesus Christ!"

The kick is good, eliciting another sharp curse from Coach Kripke before the return team heads out onto the field. Jared lingers back, arms crossed and stomach in knots. It's a far cry from preseason already, the atmosphere harsher and much more intense. The coaches stalk the sidelines, shouting at the officials and the guys on the field, the benches lined with tired players trying to catch their breaths. The trainers go from player to player, checking for muscle cramps and minor injuries, re-taping as necessary.

After another fruitless drive, the Chargers again take possession and Kripke is nearly beside himself.

"What the-- that's offensive pass interference, you jackass!" he shouts, waving in an attempt to get the referee's attention. "Are you fuckin' kidding me? Are you blind?!"

Jared glances up at the Jumbotron to see Newman clearly get a hand on the receiver with his back to the ball. It's an easy call and an easy gain for the Chargers, but it doesn't stop Kripke from arguing his point.

The focus of his anger shifts the second Newman steps off the field, Kripke grabbing his arm, eyes flashing dangerously. "That is not a mistake you can make, you got me?" he says and Terence, still struggling to catch his breath, only nods. "Do you? You just got them fifteen yards, Terry! Do you understand me?"

"Yes, Coach," Terence says, breathless but firm and Coach Kripke shoves him away.

A minute later, LaDainian Tomlinson runs five yards for another San Diego touchdown and Coach Kripke grabs Ackles by the front of his jersey, pulls him in close to say something Jared can't make out. His teammates brush past him, some going for the water and some for the benches, shoulder pads bumping in their hurry. Jared keeps his focus on the field, skin prickling with anticipation even though he knows there's virtually no likelihood of him getting a single snap. San Diego goes into prevent defense, allowing Jensen to lead the offense down the field with short passes underneath and quick runs to the outsides. A 21 yard pass to Aldis gets them a touchdown just before the two-minute warning and the mood on the sidelines immediately shifts.

"Okay, we're doing an onside," Kripke tells them during the break, sounding much calmer than he has since the half. "You guys know the drill, but just keep focused. We're still in this. Just go out there and finish it."

The onside kick doesn't work, but the defense manages to force the Chargers three-and-out, giving the Cowboys a last chance with a little less than one minute left. Down by seven points, it's a touchdown or nothing and Jensen gets the offense down to the Chargers 40-line before having to use their final timeout with three seconds remaining.

Ackles tips his helmet back when he gets to the sidelines and Jared hands him a small cup of water, gets a weary, but grateful nod in return.

"Alright, this is all hands on deck," Kripke says, hunched over as the offense gathers around. "They know it's gonna be a pass and I'm not stupid enough or ballsy enough to attempt a 30-yard run. Just get out and get open. O-line," he continues, turning his attention on Clif then, eyes still sharp, two beady points of pure intensity. "I want you protecting Ackles like you're guarding the fucking president. Or, fuck-- Angelina Jolie or someone. I don't care. Just don't let up!"

That gets a small, feeble laugh from only a few of the guys before they're jogging out onto the field again, the backs staying behind. They set and Jared tries his best to read the defense. It's harder from the sidelines, all the typical tells not nearly so noticeable.

Andre hikes the ball and Ackles drops back into the pocket, immediately searching for an open receiver. A defensive end breaks through the O-line, but Ackles manages to dodge a tackle and get off a pass, sending the ball high into the air. Patrick is clearly not open, but it's headed his way all the same and everyone on the sidelines holds their collective breath as he and the Chargers' cornerback both jump for it.

But Patrick isn't the one who comes down with it.

The sound system erupts with blaring victory music while the Chargers fans go apeshit, stomping and cheering. The offense trudges off the field toward the locker room and every player on the Cowboys sideline crosses the field to follow. It's a mess of cameras, boom mics and lights at about midfield, a controlled chaos of players, coaches, trainers, event staff and media and Jared keeps his head ducked as they push their way through. Philip Rivers, the Chargers' starting QB, gets pulled aside by Fox's field reporter, Danneel Harris, and Jared watches the guy bend forward slightly to answer her question over the noise of the stadium, his smile bright. The network crew doesn't care so much about the losers, of course. They'll get their questions in the press conference.

It's mostly silent back in the locker room and Jared shrugs out of his shoulder pads, peels his jersey off them, fabric still as unblemished as when he'd first put it on. He tosses his gear into the large athletic bag at his feet and tries to tune out his teammates' bitching. It's a shitty start to the season, that's undeniable, but half the teams scheduled to play that week will lose. It's all part of the game.

He forgoes the shower, quickly stepping into his street clothes as his teammates -- the ones who actually saw playing time -- wander in and out of the shower, brushing past coaches and trainers and the few media allowed inside the locker room. Most of the guys are headed straight back to the hotel where they'll either crash for the night or head out for a few drinks. They have an early flight in the morning and Kripke's already announced a team meeting for the afternoon, but Jared has the feeling that won't stop anyone.

Ackles steps out of the shower, a towel wrapped around his waist and Jared glances over, gaze catching on the guy's bare, flushed skin. He looks worn, but still focused as he heads to his locker and bends to gather his clothes, getting ready to join Coach Kripke for the press conference.

"Hey," Jared says, wandering over, bag already slung over his shoulder. "How long you think this is gonna take you?"

Jensen glances up, brows furrowed as he shrugs and ducks away, towel dropping as he pulls on his underwear. "Twenty minutes, maybe a half hour. Why?"

"Want me to wait up?"

He doesn't really know why he's offering except that they're both headed to the same place, the same room.

"Dude, it's fine," Jensen says, stepping into his pair of slacks. "I've got a key. Go and pick me up a sandwich or something. I'm starving."

Jared quirks a smile, immediately relaxing as he hikes the bag further up on his shoulder. "Big Mac?"

"Ugh, no. Whopper."

"With cheese?"

"There any other way?"

The first bus is already set to leave when Jared makes it out of the stadium and, like the locker room, it's nearly entirely silent, left over adrenaline and disappointment warring with each other for the entire twenty minute trip back to the hotel. Jared drops his bag off in his room and then has the hotel call him a cab for the nearest Burger King.

Jensen shows up twenty minutes after Jared gets back, groaning as he steps into the room.

"I smell grease."

Jared sits cross-legged on his bed, his own meal already half demolished and nods at Jensen's bag of fast food. "Probably cold," he admits and Jensen shrugs, immediately dropping onto his bed.

They eat in silence, the television tuned to Rush Hour 3 on TNT. Jared finishes and throws his trash out, gives Sandy a quick call. He changes for bed and brushes his teeth and Jensen does the same shortly thereafter. Seeing the guy in glasses still throws him, like watching Superman turn into Clark Kent only with less spandex.

The thought makes him laugh and Jensen glances over at the sound.

"What?"

"Nothin'," Jared says, burrowing under the covers and reaching up to flip off the light between their beds.

:::

They have a team meeting Monday afternoon to go over the mistakes made in San Diego. Brock clears waivers and is signed to the practice squad and Jared sits next to him in the meeting, taking notes as they go over every botched route and play call, every missed opportunity. It's an agonizing two hours and Kripke concludes with a detailed game plan for the next week.

"Oh, one last thing," he says as the guys start gathering their things.

He opens his binder and pulls out a magazine with a glossy cover, throws it at Jensen.

From where he's sitting, Jared can see Jensen's brows furrow, can see the exact second his expression shifts into realization, the corners of his mouth going slack and shoulders slumping.

"If any of you guys are looking for some fashion tips, seems Ackles and Padalecki here are the ones to ask."

And that's when Jared gets it, letting out a groan that melts into a laugh as his face goes hot. Jensen looks over at him, holding the magazine up for him to see -- 'The NFL's Hottest Vets and Rising Rookies' emblazoned over a photograph of about a dozen or so guys in suits -- and Jared can't quite make out himself and Jensen, but he doesn't try too hard either. Chad nearly leaps over the table to snatch it away from Jensen's grasp.

A small crowd gathers around Chad as he noisily flips to the article and Jared glances over at Jensen, who's suddenly turned an interesting shade of red.

"Man, they put you after Brady and Crawford. Lame!" Chad says and then goes quiet for a few moments, presumably to read.

Jared groans, but doesn't bother to hide a smirk. "Dude, I didn't know you could read."

"Shut the fuck up," Chad snaps and then quickly glances up, face splitting into a smile that immediately makes Jared nervous. He knows that look far too well. "Oh, man, this is--" he says and makes a show of clearing his throat as he holds the magazine out in front of him. "Here we go, here we go. Everyone listen up! 'Despite their many commonalities -- the most obvious being football, Texas and movie star good looks -- there's been much speculation within the Dallas media of an ongoing feud,'" Chad reads, darting a quick glance at Jared. "'It's perhaps unsurprising given the inherent competition, but what's more surprising is the overwhelming chemistry between the two. Any rumored animosity appears to be just that; these guys are teammates all the way and clearly friends off the field as well. How refreshing.'"

Chad barely finishes before busting out laughing and Aldis takes the opportunity to grab the magazine from him.

"Man, they just announce your engagement?" Aldis says and Jensen groans, runs a hand over his face.

"Hey, congrats!" someone else calls out and Jared can only laugh. Because he remembers that day, the interview and the photo shoot after and he can say with utmost certainty that he and Jensen really hadn't been friends. Hell, he's not sure they even are now.

"Wow, so soon?" Aldis pipes up. "Whirlwind courtship. How romantic."

Jared barks out another laugh and Jensen stands up, playbook tucked under one arm as he pushes his seat in. "We're registered at BMW and Whataburger," he says, voice gruff though there's a smile curving the corner of his lips before he turns to head for the door. "Bitches better get us something nice."

"Oh, baby, don't leave mad!" Jared calls after him and Jensen tosses a middle finger over his shoulder.

:::

Their morning practice on Tuesday is followed immediately by position meetings and game film. Coach Morgan goes over a few of the plays from the week before, both the ones that did and didn't work. His focus is largely on the film from the Eagles game, though, making sure Jensen and Jared are both aware of the defensive schemes the Eagles are likely to utilize the following week.

On Wednesday, Kripke calls an offensive meeting to iron out strategy. Philadelphia has a strong secondary, but a weaker front line and, though the Cowboys are still trying to slowly ease into the wildcat scheme, it seems as good a time as any to maybe take the plunge. There's no doubt the Eagles will be expecting it, but that doesn't necessarily mean they'll be able to counter.

Or so they hope.

They have a walk-through on Friday and, afterward, Kripke calls out Jensen, Chad, Witten, Aldis and DeMarcus to let them know they'll be doing pre-game interviews for the NBC crew later that afternoon.

"Great," Jensen mutters while Chad beats a hand against his chest and throws his other arm in the air. "Oh, that's right! They want this GQ motherfucker right here!"

"They probably want to ask about the statutory rape rumors," Aldis says.

Chad's smile falls immediately. "Man, that's not even funny."

"Just try not to be late this time, Murray," Kripke adds.

A couple guys are planning on heading out to a club later that night and Jared considers it. It could be good to relax, clear his mind for one night before buckling down for the next day. It's a home game so there's no flight to worry about and he's been studying the playbook all week.

But Brock wanders over as Jared's grabbing his bag. "You still up for forcing some baseball on me back at my place?"

"Yeah!" Jared says, only remembering right in that moment. There's a strange swell of relief that comes with it that he can't explain and hefts his bag onto his shoulder. "Yeah, definitely. Maybe grab some KFC on the way?"

"Absolutely."

They spend the evening stretched out on the couch in Brock's living room, feet propped on the coffee table as they watch the Rangers lose to the Angels. They're both buzzed on too much beer and drumsticks when Brock nudges Jared's leg with the back of his hand.

"You remember that time in camp when we got hazed?"

Jared snorts a laugh. "This one time, at training camp..."

"Fuck you," Brock laughs, smacking his leg again. "I'm trying to have a serious conversation here."

"Dude, that was, like, two weeks ago. My memory's not that shitty."

"Whatever, so you remember?"

"I'm still pickin' crusted flour outta my ass," Jared says with a smirk. "Pretty hard to forget."

Brock's laugh is quieter. Strained. Not the kind of laugh someone should have after consuming half a dozen bottles of Corona.

And then Jared gets it.

They haven't talked about it at all since that night. Not a word. And, to be honest, Jared can hardly remember if there's anything worth talking about. But the look Brock's giving him is one he remembers well enough. Hesitant and curious, almost closed-off, but with a hint of vulnerability. Jared's smile dims and a weight settles low in his stomach; there's no confirmation needed then and Jared gives a bare nod as he grips his bottle tighter.

"I'm not-- look, just promise me you won't tell anyone," Brock says and Jared's lips tug into a frown.

"So why the hell're you tellin' me?"

"Just... tired of carrying it all myself, I guess," he says, talking more to the bottle in his hand than to Jared. "I mean, it's not-- it's not a thing if that's what you're worried about. I'm not trying to hit on you."

Jared lets out a snort of a laugh. "Why the hell not?"

Brock takes it for the joke it's meant to be and glances up quickly, lips curved in a half-smile that almost looks grateful. "Not real big on arrogant assholes, for one."

"Well, that definitely leaves Chad out of the running."

"Along with about ninety-five percent of the rest of the league," Brock says, shifting his weight on the couch, head tilting back as every muscle in his body seems to relax. "Hell, I'm too old for him anyway."

Jared chuckles and brings his bottle to his lips, takes a slow drink. He wipes the back of his wrist across his mouth as he swallows.

"You're a good guy," he says, voice quiet, like it's another secret.

Jared arches an eyebrow and Brock turns his head just enough to look over at him.

"That's why I'm telling you," he explains. "You're a good guy, JT. I know you won't beat the shit out of me or rat me out. I can trust you."

Jared tips his head back to finish off his beer, picks at the label with his thumb as he pulls in another slow breath.

"I had a coach in junior high..." he starts and then trails off for a moment, lips pursed. "I was this geeky, chubby eleven year-old kid, right? No motor skills or coordination whatsoever, man, I swear. It was fuckin' embarrassing. Anyway, I tried out for the team because-- hell, I just wanted to be cool or somethin', I don't know. Wanted to be more than just the dorky chess kid and this guy -- Coach Anderson -- he just. He was incredible. Kept saying I was great, a natural talent even when I couldn't throw the ball ten fuckin' yards. He just kept sayin' it and kept pushin' me to work harder, try harder, be better. And I went from this pudgy little kid to starting QB in three years."

He pauses there, paper catching under his thumbnail. Brock is completely silent and Jared's lost in his memory anyway, chews at the inside of his cheek before pushing on.

"So, then I went off to high school. The coaches there weren't nearly as good. I mean, they weren't bad or anything and I learned a lot, but they weren't Coach Anderson. They didn't believe in me like he had. But--hell, the guy still went to every game. And I know it wasn't just for me, there were a lot of his players there, but it somehow always made me feel special, y'know? He had this-- he would always meet us right off the field at the end of the game and he'd pull me aside and wrap his arm around my neck and say, 'Killin' 'em left and right, JT. Killin' 'em left and right.' Always. Even when I sucked."

Jared laughs softly at the memory. He can practically feel his old coach's arm heavy on his shoulders, smell the tobacco that permeated the tweed coat he'd worn. He lets out a slow breath and lifts a hand to scratch at the side of his neck.

"He was killed my junior year," he finally manages, the words making his stomach knot. He'd seen the pictures only once, but he can still remember nearly every detail: a body, mangled and twisted on a dirt road, streaks of blood on the rocks and grass nearby, the face nearly unrecognizable, the torn shirt on his back with the word 'FAG' spray-painted in pink. "Your average hate crime," he scoffs bitterly. "Hell, I didn't even know he was gay. Didn't care. To this day, he's the best coach I've ever had."

It feels like a confession or maybe an apology and when he finally glances up again, Brock's watching him intently. Like maybe he's expecting Jared to completely snap or break into tears.

But Jared only gives a pained smile, lips twisting at one corner as he shrugs a shoulder. "You can trust me," he says.

:::

Chad runs off the field, cradling his left hand against his chest and ripping his helmet off with the right. Jared quickly gets the hell out of the way to let Misha swoop in and push him towards the bench.

"You have any mobility?" he asks, dropping into a kneel as Chad gingerly holds his hand out. Chad attempts to move his fingers and immediately hisses. Jared grimaces in sympathy.

Misha sighs and tugs Chad's hand closer to get a better look, starts gently feeling the bones in Chad's finger as Chad cringes with every touch. He takes the cup of water DeMarcus hands him, downing it in a few quick swallows as Misha continues to gently prod his wounded hand.

"You need x-rays," Misha decides, sitting back on his haunches. Chad slumps forward, muttering a curse and Jared reaches over to give him an encouraging thump on the back.

There's still ten minutes left in the half when Chad leaves to get his hand checked out and Jared wanders to the edge of the sidelines in time to see Philadelphia's punt returner run eighty yards down the field for a touchdown. But the Cowboys manage to hang onto their lead going into halftime and the locker room is a swirl of sweat, steam and adrenaline. There isn't dread so much this time as a hunger to hold on, to keep their lead and get their first win of the season. A win that's doubly important with the Eagles being a division rival.

Coach Kripke doesn't waste any time on a speech, but calls all the offensive players to one end of the room, Coach Singer doing the same on the opposite side with the defense. Their shouts war bouncing off the cement walls, getting lost in the clatter of guys bumping into each other, shifting gear and guzzling down water. Coach Beav is crouched in front of Clif and Andre, his voice low enough that Jared can't make out what he's saying, but both linemen are nodding at every other word as they towel the sweat off their necks and faces.

The whirlwind is over twelve minutes later and they run down the tunnel to the roar of the home crowd. Jared takes his spot beside Coach Morgan at the kickoff and hardly moves for the rest of the game. The Cowboys defense is in top form, shutting down the Eagles offense time and time again, preventing them from scoring a single point in the entire second half. Midway through the fourth quarter, after Jensen completes a 40-yard pass to Aldis for another TD, Kripke sends in Isaiah, abruptly switching to wildcat.

"Alright, let's go," Coach Morgan says to Isaiah before pushing him onto the field and clapping his hands.

Jensen wanders up a few seconds later, giving Jared a bump and handing over a cup of water. "Enjoyin' the show?" he asks, looking far more relaxed and confident than he had the week before.

"Bet your ass. I've got the best seats in the house, baby," Jared says, flashing a grin.

They watch as Isaiah marches the offense down the field, the Eagles' defense finally stopping them at the 33-yard line.

"Hey, you wanna go out for drinks after the game?" Jensen asks as Jared grabs his helmet off the hard-sided box he'd set it on, gets ready to head out to hold the field goal kick.

Jared tilts his head back, snapping his chinstrap into place. "You buyin'?"

"Depends," Jensen says. "You gonna put out?"

Jared flashes a grin and gives Jensen a quick shove. "Gotta put a ring on it first," he says and runs onto the field to take the snap, Jensen's laughter loud behind him.

:::

The bar is a dive just off LBJ called McDowell's, some place Jensen's apparently frequented since high school.

"They don't check I.D.'s," Jensen explains as they cross the gravel parking lot to the back door. "Missed the shit out of this place when I was in DC, let me tell you. No place like it, man. None."

When they step in, Jared can see what he means; any other bar has to actually adhere to health codes. The floor is covered in peanut shells and dirt and Jared's shoes stick with every step. There are three pool tables set up in the back, two of which are in use and the tables and chairs wobble on the uneven floor. The bartender's a big bald guy with a bushy mustache and sharp eyes who apparently goes by the name Herb. He recognizes Jensen the second they walk in, nudging another guy to lead them to the back where the lighting is dimmer and the noise louder. They sit hunched over a high table, the top of which becomes covered in half a dozen empty beer bottles and a jagged train of shot glasses as the night wears on. The sounds of Hank Williams and Patsy Cline filter through the speakers, loud enough to be heard through the chatter and laughter of the bar's patrons, but not so loud as to be overwhelming.

"So, he like-- he gets back up," Jared says, leaning back in his chair to spread his arms wide as he tells the story of how he and Chad had gotten drunk enough at UT to think that shooting each other in the ass with BB guns was a good idea. "And he's all, 'Fuck, you asshole! You fuckin' shot me! I can't believe you shot me!'"

Jensen laughs, loud and unrestrained and Jared can't help but grin wider. He's always loved making people laugh, but it's even more satisfying when it's Jensen for some reason. There's just something in the way the guy's eyes crinkle at the corners, the way his teeth show when it's completely genuine that makes him look about five years old and Jared can't seem to get enough of it.

"And, then, like two seconds later," he continues, dropping his hands to lean forward again, the table wobbling under the added weight, "he's all, 'Do it again! C'mon, man, do it again!' Dudes's fuckin' damaged, I swear to God."

"Too many hits to the head," Jensen says, still laughing as he lifts a hand to get Herb's attention, silently ordering them both another round.

Jared makes a sound of disagreement as he swallows another swig of beer. "No, pretty sure he was just born that way."

Jensen agrees with a tilt of his head, briefly raising his beer bottle at Jared before finishing it off in a few quick gulps. Seconds later, two more bottles have been dropped off and Jared relaxes back into his seat, head turned to watch the guys playing pool.

"You play?" Jensen asks and Jared shakes his head.

"Not well."

"Seriously? You're the freak genius engineer and you can't play pool?"

Jared snorts a laugh. "I get the basic geometry, dude, but putting it into action is a little different."

"Damn," Jensen says, grinning around the bottle rim as he takes another quick sip. "And here I thought you were full of cool party tricks."

"Oh, well if that's all you're after," Jared says, his smile widening as he takes a deep breath and leans forward again. "Three point one four one five nine two six five three five eight nine seven nine three two three eight four six two six four three three eight--"

"Dude."

"--Three two seven nine five zero two eight--"

"Dude."

"--Eight four one nine seven one six nine three nine nine three--"

"Okay, I get it. Stop."

Jared doesn't miss a beat. "Seven five one zero five eight two zero nine seven four nine four four five-- ow." He breaks off with a laugh, rubbing the side of his head where the heel of Jensen's hand had connected with it. "Okay, okay."

"That's a friggin' lame party trick, dude. I'm surprised you ever get laid."

"Should see me rock a Rubik's cube."

"Spare me."

"Hey, I can belch it," Jared says.

"A Rubik's cube?"

Jared only grins and then sits up straighter, making a show of guzzling his beer. Jensen arches an eyebrow and Jared inhales before swallowing one last time and releasing a roar of a burp, mouth shaping the numbers. Jensen doubles over laughing and Jared can't even make it through the first six digits before he's joining in, the taste of beer and peanuts heavy in his mouth, stomach turning from the sudden release of pressure.

A heavy hand on his shoulder isn't enough to make him stop and he turns his head to find an older guy with thin, greasy hair and a paunch glaring down at him. There's dark, skeevy grin playing at the corner of the guy's mouth as he says, "What you two findin' so funny?"

Confused, Jared's smile falters. He glances over to see Jensen's brow furrowing, his expression morphing right in front of Jared's eyes from openly amused to dark and guarded.

"Inside joke," Jared explains, forcing his smile to stay in place. He adds a, "Sorry, man," in the hopes that the guy will just take it and back the hell off, but it doesn't seem to work.

"Oh, you're sorry, are ya?" Greasy Hair says, an ugly smirk pulling at his lips as he glances back over his shoulder where another guy, uglier and rounder, stands scowling. "Think you got other things you should be sorry for, boy." Jared suddenly feels like he's been dropped into the middle of a bad remake of Urban Cowboy and has to fight the impulse to laugh. "You got any idea how much money I lost on that game last week?" Round 'n' Ugly says just past Greasy Hair's shoulder.

"That's what this is about?" Jared balks, a rough laugh finally bubbling past his lips. "Seriously?"

"Jared..."

He ignores the quiet warning in Jensen's voice, keeps his focus trained on the two beefy rednecks who continue glowering at him. This isn't new; Jared's taken flack from supposed fans after losses ever since UT, but it never gets any less tiring. Especially when the guys are drunk and belligerent.

"You sure are gettin' paid a lot to fuck up," Greasy Hair, the apparent leader, stepping in closer.

"I didn't even play," Jared says, a bitter smile twisting his lips again. "Did you guys even watch?"

Greasy Hair flicks a glance in Jensen's direction, eyes narrowing in silent accusation. "Saw enough," he says and Jared wastes no time in getting to his feet, sending the rickety wooden chair scraping across the floor as he stretches up to his full height. He's a good half a foot taller than both the guys, a solid wall between them and Jensen, but if they're at all intimidated, they sure as hell don't show it.

"Jared," Jensen says behind him, his voice sharper.

But Jared ignores him, taking a step closer to Greasy Hair as his voice drops low. "Look, man," he says, no hint of a joke left in his tone, "it's a game, alright? If you think we wanted to lose then you're both butt ugly and stupid."

It's absolutely the wrong thing to say, but Jared's pissed and he's had way too much to drink and the words come out unfiltered. Greasy Hair's eyes flash dark and there's a sudden flurry of movement, a crash of sound from three different directions as large arms grab him from behind and a bright flare of pain erupts in his stomach. He wheezes out a breath and roughly kicks out one leg, connecting with Greasy Hair's left thigh as he twists to get out of the hold. Unfortunately, Jared finds out real quick that Greasy Hair and Round 'n' Ugly have friends. He gets a fist to the jaw, the hit hard enough his teeth knock together and he tastes copper. He staggers to the side, someone else's knee connecting with his hip before he lashes out, getting one asshole's nose with the jut of his elbow. A weight of at least 200 pounds drops onto his back, nearly making his knees buckle and he lets out a garbled shout, reaching back to grab a fistful of fabric, yanking to tear the guy off him.

Jared has no idea how many people are involved, but he gets the impression that he's stuck right in the middle. Being crammed at the bottom of a dogpile isn't completely unfamiliar, but here there aren't any referees to call the play dead and no padding or helmets for protection. He gets a kneecap to his sternum before someone's hand wrap tights around his wrist and pulls. He fights it on impulse until he can lift his face enough to see that it's Jensen on the other end. Jensen takes a hit in the chest, but doesn't back down, grabbing the back of Jared's shirt and yanking.

"Alright, out!" someone shouts and Jared squints up to see Herb towering over the mess. He looks from Jared and Jensen to the crowd of drunken rednecks and back again, his mustache twitching. "Right the fuck now before I call the fuckin' cops!"

Jared doesn't move at all for a moment, still struggling to catch his breath, the taste of blood making his mouth slick, head pounding. Herb turns sharp eyes back on them, forceful and completely unyielding. "You, too," he says, leaving no room for argument. "Now."

Adrenaline is still pumping hot through his veins and Jared opens his mouth to argue, eager to point out that they're not the ones who started it, that they'd been minding their own fucking business. But Jensen grabs him by the sleeve and pulls him towards the door, Jared stumbling and half-heartedly trying to fight him off the whole way. The door slams shut behind them, cutting off the music and continued shouts from inside. The silence is almost deafening in comparison.

Jared turns on Jensen immediately, shoving his hand away, still itchy with stifled rage. "What the fuck!"

Jensen staggers back a half a step and then snaps forward to grab the front of Jared's shirt. "Hey! Calm down!"

"Why the fuck should I have to calm down?" Jared snarls, stepping in close. But Jensen doesn't back down, one hand flat against Jared's chest.

"Because you're acting like an ass! Jesus Christ, you're lucky Herb didn't have us arrested!"

"I didn't start it!"

"It doesn't fucking matter!" Jensen's in his face then, crowding him up against the wall, near enough that Jared can feel the puff of breath against his lips, near enough to feel how Jensen's practically shaking with fury. "You really want your face plastered on the front page of the paper tomorrow morning for getting into a goddamn bar brawl? Really? You have any idea how much shit we'd get from the league for that? Not to mention Kripke?"

Heat pulses low in Jared's belly and he swallows tightly as Jensen continues to stare at him, eyes challenging. The flimsy streetlight casts a strange shadow over Jensen's face and Christ, the guy has some incredible eyelashes.

He blinks, feeling some of the anger slip away, though Jensen still doesn't step back and Jared realizes with a jolt of clarity that he's hard inside his jeans. As a simple fact it's nothing out of the ordinary, certainly isn't the first time his body has manifested a physical reaction to an adrenaline rush. The shock comes from realizing he's not the only one.

It's just a bare brush, an accidental shift of his hips and, when his breath catches, Jensen's gaze drops, catches on his mouth. Jared's lips tingle and he takes a quick lurch to the side, nearly stumbling over his own feet in his haste to get away.

"C'mon, let's go," he mutters, not bothering to look back as he heads towards Jensen's truck.

Chapter Text

The news breaks Monday morning that Chad's likely out two to four weeks with a broken middle finger. He still shows up for practice, two fingers bandaged in a splint as he shouts and hollers from the sidelines, clearly trying to make up for his lack of presence on the field by being as loud and obnoxious as possible.

"Murray!" Kripke shouts when he's had enough. "Get the fuck off my field or you owe me a grand!"

He's forbidden from showing up for the rest of the week and put on the 'doubtful' list for the game against Washington and Brock gets called up from the practice squad. Jared's almost more excited about the news than Brock and convinces him to go out to dinner with Jared, Sandy and his family after the game. It's a Monday night one, meaning Sandy will have to drive back right after to show up at work at 8:00 the next morning, but she sounds excited about it all the same.

Brock's family can't make the game, the news far too last-minute for them to make the trek from Louisiana, but he doesn't appear too upset by it.

"They'll get a better view in HD anyway," he says with a shrug.

"You're gonna kick ass," Jared assures him as Brock gives an undignified squawk and punches at Jared's arm.

Jared finally lets him go, but not before Brock lands one last punch to Jared's stomach, making him double over in wounded laughter. He's still a little sore from the bar fight and Brock's fist barely misses a bruise.

"You're like the older brother I never wanted," Brock complains.

Jared just grins, one hand still lightly pressed against his ailing stomach as he unlocks his car with the other. "You love me."

Brock rolls his eyes and climbs into Jared's car. "Not that desperate."

:::

Monday Night Football in Dallas is no small ordeal. The prep work starts early on Saturday and lasts through the weekend, a handful of players again picked to do pre-game interviews for the network while the rest of the film crew move in, circling the stadium with white panel vans full of equipment, huge satellites thrusting up from the roofs.

It's a long Monday, the time seeming to stretch on for hours and, like every other game day, Jared's too tense to eat much more than some dry toast and fruit. The Redskins are a good team, already 2-0 compared to the Cowboys' 1-1 record. A win tonight will not only place them tied for first within the division, but make them undefeated there as well. No small accomplishment even this early in the season.

Broken finger still bandaged, Chad stands on a chair in the middle of the locker room, shouting out encouragement as the guys come in from warm-ups. Not everyone seems to notice him, a good few lost in their own headspace, hunched in front of their lockers as they listen to their iPods or read Bible passages. Not that Chad seems to care either way.

"We are gonna fuck these fuckers up!" Chad yells and a few of the guys actually paying attention shout or grunt their agreement. "They are in our house!" Chad continues, waving his undamaged hand in the air. "No way they're gonna come in here and knock us around. No way! We gotta go out there and show 'em how it's fuckin' done, am I right? AM I RIGHT?"

Chad continues railing, rattling off one over-enthusiastic cliché after another and Jared tunes him out, glances over to see Coach Morgan talking with Jensen. Jensen's lips are stretched thin, brows pulled together in something that looks halfway between irritation and concentration. Coach steps back eventually, a hand clapped over Jensen's shoulder and Jensen glances up, his gaze catching on Jared's briefly.

"Alright, everybody up!" Kripke shouts before Jared can wander over.

They get a quick speech, basically a rundown on everything they already know and then Kripke adds, "Captains! Let's go for kicking if we win the toss. Everybody ready?" He scowls when there's only a low murmur in reply. "Hey! Let's get in gear! I said: EVERYBODY READY!"

It's a full-out rumble then, Chad once again jumping into the fray to shout, "Cowboys on three. One-two-three-COWBOYS!"

The roar of the crowd welcomes them back, the sky through the hole in the dome already a muted blue, a solid void surrounded by the bright stadium lights. Jared runs through just behind Brock, smacking the hands of his fellow teammates and grinning at a cheerleader or two as the place erupts in celebration, literal fireworks going off, echoing through the stadium.

The Redskins win the coin toss and are the first to get on the board with a 33-yard field goal from Kerr Smith on their second drive. But Jensen and Aldis connect twice in the end zone before the end of the second quarter, bringing the score up to 14-3 before Smith kicks another field goal at the end of the half.

The team goes into the locker room energized and eager to finish out a win, Chad again standing on a chair in the middle of the room, bellowing and cheering as he tries to keep up the energy. Aldis, grinning from ear to ear, comes up behind Chad's chair and gives it a quick shake.

"Motherfucker!" Chad shouts, dropping to a crouch and scowling as he swats at Aldis with his good hand.

Sera's busy cleaning a faint cut on Jensen's right forearm as Kripke goes over the game plan for the second half, narrowing everything they already know into a bite-sized five-minute rant on what and what not to do before they're rushing back onto the field.

Felix scores a touchdown on their first drive, running five yards into the end zone on third down and Marion gets his own four minutes later. Near the end of the third, the Redskins' successfully pull off a trick play where their quarterback tosses a lateral behind the line of scrimmage to their fullback. The fullback, Manns, makes a run for the line of scrimmage, but stops just shy and gets off a 10-yard pass to Chris Kane, the team's tight end, who then rushes another seven yards for a touchdown.

It's the kind of play that's a potential momentum shifter and the Cowboys defense marches off the field, flustered and frustrated. Jared pats Derek on the shoulder as he passes, gives Sterling a half-hearted fist bump as, beside him, Jensen shakes his head. There's a hint of a smile playing at the corner of his lips and Jared arches an eyebrow.

"Shoulda seen that one comin'," Jensen explains. "Pure Cameron desperate attempt."

"Perfectly executed," Jared says, eying Jensen curiously.

"Oh, no doubt," Jensen agrees, glancing down at the helmet in his hands, readying the chinstrap. "Still shoulda seen it comin'."

Luckily, the Cowboys manage to hold on, not allowing another Redskins score for the remainder of the game. After Scandrick runs back an interception halfway through the fourth quarter and Tashard follows it up three minutes later with a touchdown run, the Cowboys lead 45-14.

"Padalecki!" Kripke shouts, headset hanging half off his face as Jared whips around to face him. "Get your ass warmed up, you're in!"

Jared's stomach immediately tries to crawl up into his throat, but he manages a tight nod and grabs hold of Brock, dragging him off behind the benches to get his arm warmed up. All he needs to do is keep the score in their favor and not fuck up, he tries to remind himself; it's not impossible for the Redskins to score thirty-one points in five minutes, but it's pretty damn unlikely.

Brock smirks at him from the few yards away as he tosses the ball back to Jared. "Dude, chill."

"Oh, easy for you to say."

"You're getting paid about ten times what I am," Brock says with a snort. "You can afford to fuck up a little."

It's not exactly reassuring, but Jared laughs anyway and tosses the ball back. A minute later, Brock's heading out with the rest of the return team to field the punt and Jensen comes up behind Jared, rests a hand on his shoulder pads.

"Hey, you okay?"

Jared laughs, quick and rough. "Oh, peachy."

Jensen's smile is somehow both encouraging and sympathetic at once and he claps a hand gently against the side of Jared's neck. "You're gonna be fine, man. Seriously." It's completely sincere and Jared instantly feels a little more at ease, a little more stable. "Knock 'em dead," Jensen says and gives him a quick, solid shove.

Despite the brief pep talk, Jared's heartbeat kicks up a notch as he leads the offense into a huddle at the 20-yard line. Following Kripke's game plan, he calls for a short pass under the middle to Witten and then gets lined up at scrimmage. He takes the snap and drops back into the pocket, but the defense reads the play perfectly and Witten can't even get a finger on the pass when it comes his way.

Still, it's not a turnover or a loss of yardage, so Jared figures he's not doing too badly.

They try a run on the second play, an easy draw that has Jared dropping back to pass before handing the ball off to Felix instead. It works and they get a good five yards out of it. One more run play and they get their first down and Jared hits his groove. There's no need to be flashy, no pressure to score or do anything at all other than keep possession of the ball and run down the clock.

Once they're down to just twenty seconds remaining, Jared takes the snap and drops into a kneel behind Andre, effectively ending the game.

Brock runs up ahead of everyone else, grinning bright and smacking Jared hard on the back before they make their way through the on-field chaos to head towards the locker room. He's not surprised to see Jensen wander towards the Redskins sideline, smiling bright and pulling Christian Kane into a hug. Another Redskins player stands just behind them and Jared squints to see the number: 55, linebacker Steve Carlson.

They only get in a few words before the ESPN field reporter starts dragging Jensen away for a quick interview, leaving Kane and Carlson alone, waiting. Jared has no idea what compels him to do it, but he takes a step away from Brock, says, "I'll meet you in there, 'kay?"

"Dude, make it quick," Brock says, but he's smiling. "The sooner you get your ass cleaned up, the sooner I get steak."

"Two minutes," Jared assures him. "I swear."

Kane's smile looks weirdly strained when Jared makes his way over. "Hey, I'm Jared," he says, ignoring it as he holds his hand out. "Padalecki."

The guy's hair is tied back in a ponytail, sweat making the stray strands cling to his forehead and the sides of his face and he eyes Jared's hand a moment before taking it in a solid shake.

"Whole league knows who you are, Golden Boy," he says as he takes Jared's hand. "Seen the spread."

Laughing, Jared ducks his head at the reminder, glances over to see Carlson eying him warily. "Yeah, well..."

Kane breaks the awkward moment with a jut of his chin. "Chris Kane. There somethin' I can do you for?"

"Just thought I'd, uh--" Jared falters for a moment, unsure of the answer himself. "That play you made in the third? That was awesome."

Kane's smile still looks strained and Jared begins to wonder if maybe he just has an unfortunate face.

"Yeah, that one's a beauty so long as the defense doesn't read it," he says then, seeming to relax slightly. "Tell your guys thanks, by the way."

Jared quirks a grin. "Kripke's gonna be reaming us for it tomorrow, no doubt. Probably sooner."

"Guess I've done my job, then."

The conversation drags into another awkward pause and Jared thrusts a hand at Carlson. "Hey, good to meet you," he says.

"You, too," Carlson says after a short hesitation and Jared remembers in a flash just how he knows the guy. Part of the Ackles trade in 2006 -- Jensen for a third round draft pick, Osbourne and Carlson. His smile falters, the whole situation suddenly a little more awkward.

"Did a decent job out there," Kane says.

Jared clears his throat and manages a weak smile as he cuts another glance at Carlson. "Yeah, thanks for not forcing a fumble outta me, man," he says and Carlson grins.

"Not for lack of trying."

Kane cuts in then, chin forward as he eyes Jared. "So you're lookin' to push Jen out of a job, huh?"

Jared blinks. "Excuse me?"

Kane smiles again, but this time Jared doesn't return it. "Ain't no secret what they brought you in for," he continues. "And I know it ain't your fault either. I'm just tryin' to figure how much a pain in his ass you're gonna be."

"Hey, I'm just doing my job," Jared says, forcibly curling his lips upward in a smile. He isn't sure if Kane is joking or not, but there's something about the look in his eye that Jared finds wholly unnerving all the same. Trying to ignore it, he adds, "Guessin' he probably thinks I'm a huge pain his ass though, but that's got nothin' to do with me bein' signed. Just how I am."

Kane's eyebrow twitches and he lets out a quiet breath of a laugh before nodding. "Yeah, gettin' that impression," he says, though not unkindly.

Jared grins and says, "Yeah, well, he loves it."

"Yeah," Kane says. "Bet he does."

There's something in the guy's tone that makes Jared flush inexplicably and he clears his throat abruptly. Says, "Anyway, yeah. Good game. Hopefully we can have another just like it in a few weeks."

Carlson chuckles. "Only with the scores reversed, maybe."

"Nah, why mess with a good thing?" Jared says, tossing the guy a grin.

He turns to head back and catches sight of Jensen finishing up his interview, his smile relaxed and easy as he shakes hands with the field reporter. Another few words and he's squeezing past them toward Kane and Carlson, his smile brightening with every step.

Jared watches, enthralled by how relaxed Jensen seems around them, immediately pulling Kane into a hug and slapping Carlson's back, watches until Flo bumps into him, knocking him out of his thoughts and finally makes his way to the locker room.

:::

III Forks is easily the nicest restaurant Jared's ever been to in his entire life. He feels about ten times richer and more important just being there and, judging by the look on Brock's face, he's not alone. His parents, on the other hand, are like kids in a candy store as they order a bottle of Pinot Noir to go with their filet mignon and porterhouse. Sandy seems to be the only one in her element, the epitome or grace in her light, summer dress, hair tied back away from her face and smile warm, though she keeps discreetly checking her phone as the night wears on.

After about the fifth time, Jared reaches over to gently take her hand in a light squeeze. "Need to start heading back?"

Sandy's shoulders sag and she lets out a breath, looking guilty and apologetic. Jared only gives her a smile and excuses them both from the table, Sandy saying her goodbyes to Jared's parents before they head outside.

"You were amazing out there," she says as they walk out to her car.

Jared chuckles, a comforting warmth settling in him. "I was only out there for four minutes," he says and Sandy grins up at him.

"Best four minutes of my life."

"If that's true, I'm really doing something wrong," he says as Sandy tucks in close, smooths a hand over his stomach.

When they reach her car, she shifts to lean back against the door, fingers hooked in the lapels of his jacket and Jared boxes her in, one hand on her side and the other against the cool metal of the car as she tilts up to kiss him. It's slow and sweet and not nearly long enough for how much he's missed her. She pulls away, smiling, her nose bumping his as she speaks.

"Call me tomorrow?"

Jared nods as he leans in for another kiss, coaxing her lips to part. She makes a soft sound and Jared lifts a hand, his thumb brushing the curve of her jaw, making her open further. They kiss slow and easy for awhile before she lifts a hand to his chest.

Jared backs off with a whimper, gaze dropping to the curve of her lips and he lightly brushes the corner of her mouth with his thumb, leans in for one more light kiss before forcing himself to step away and let her go.

The bill's ready when Jared makes it back to the table and he takes far too much pleasure in being able to foot the entire four hundred dollars himself.

:::

Very little time on Tuesday is spent reviewing the plays from the night before as Kripke's more interested in focusing on their next opponent and the fact that they'll be playing at five thousand feet above sea level after only five days of practice instead of their typical six.

Against doctor recommendation, Chad dresses for every practice and makes Jared stay after so he can try perfecting one-handed catches. By Sunday, he's listed as probable and Brock gets bumped back down to the practice squad.

Jared doesn't notice the thin air until warm-ups, his breath coming short by the end of his jog around the field.

Coach Beav notices him panting and takes a break from supervising the O-line to wander over. "You know, there's an Olympic facility down in Colorado Springs," he says. "Just 'cause of the altitude. S'posed to help increase lung strength."

"No shit?" Jared wheezes, not finding it the least bit surprising.

Beav gives him a small, amused grin. "Maybe we should bring training camp up here next year."

"Do that and I'mma look into gettin' traded," he jokes and Coach laughs, thumps him hard on the shoulder.

"Pansy."

The game doesn't immediately go their way, but it proves to be an exciting, if frustrating, first half. The Broncos score on their first drive and, after the Cowboys offense fails to even get so much as a single first down, the Broncos again snag a field goal. Things start looking up late in the first when Marion runs in for a touchdown and, later, DeMarcus returns a fumble for sixty-nine yards for another. The Broncos counter early in the second quarter, scoring with a quarterback sneak and then Jensen manages to run in his own before the two-minute warning.

The score at the end of the half is 21-17 Dallas and it's still anyone's game.

Chad's the loudest person in the locker room during the break, but instead of trying to be encouraging, he's busy pitching a fit, kicking equipment and trashcans and walls and anything else that gets in his way.

"Anyone wanna actually win this game? Huh?! Do you, fuckers? Then give me the damn ball and I'll win us this goddamn game!"

Most everyone is used to Chad's occasionally tantrum and choose to ignore him, which only serves to make Chad even more pissed off. After he throws a chair across the room, Jared swoops in, shoving him up against the opposite wall, growling a, "Hey, man. Chill the fuck out."

Chad fights him, but Jared has both height and weight to his advantage, plus full use of all his fingers and doesn't budge an inch. As a rookie, he's way out of line and Jared knows full-well that he wouldn't get away with this with anybody else. But, as always, the rules are a little different when it comes to Chad.

"I gotta have the ball to help us win, man!" Chad grunts and Jared almost laughs.

"Dude, you gotta catch the ball first!"

"I can't fuckin' catch it if it's not thrown my way!"

"Then get your ass open, you stupid fuck! Or, better yet, wait until you're healed before--"

He's cut off by a heavy hand gripping his jersey, forcefully yanking him backward.

"HEY, HEY, HEY!" Kripke barks, visibly furious as he pushes between them. "Enough! Both of you!"

Jared lets go immediately, though he's still pissed, blood rushing hot as he glares at Chad.

"We do not have time to deal with this bullshit!" Coach shouts, thinning hair in disarray, a large vein in his neck about to pop. "Murray, you say one more fucking word and you're out for a series, you got me?"

Chad doesn't answer, chest heaving as he continues using the wall for support.

"Do you HEAR ME?!"

"Yes, sir," Chad finally says grudgingly, eyes locked on Jared.

Jared's had remarkably few shouting matches with Chad in the time he's known him and this one is largely the product of too much adrenaline and stress, but he's not about to apologize. He doubts Chad is either.

Kripke turns his attention to Jared then and Jared instinctively stands taller, shoulders back.

"You leave the discipline to the coaches and captains, Padalecki," he says, voice still hard, but lacking in the venom he'd shown Chad. "Got it?"

"Yes, sir," Jared replies, but Kripke's already shifted his attention, shouting, "Offense! Get your asses over here! Defense, find Singer. We got ten minutes to get our fucking acts together, let's get busy!"

The Cowboys receive the kick in the second half, but are forced to punt early. Kripke stalks the sideline, shouting at Jensen and his offensive line before covering his face with his laminated call sheet and muttering into his headset. Jared keeps his distance from the line, lingering back near the benches where the defense is waiting for their shot on field, a couple hanging out near the oxygen machines.

"Man, I'm goin' out for a beer after this," Rogers announces, arms crossed over his pads as he shifts his weight anxiously from foot too foot.

Jared stands next to him, squinting against the sun. "Just one?"

"'Bout all it should take, right?" Rogers replies, flashing a smile. "Up at this altitude. Gonna be a cheap date right here."

Jared actually doesn't think it sounds like a bad idea. His mood will depend almost entirely on how the game plays out, but either way, the prospect of alcohol is appealing. He idly wonders if Jensen would be up for it and then figures it doesn't matter; Jared will be happy to make the decision for him.

Jay Cutler completes an 87-yard pass to Brandon Stokely midway through the third quarter and the stadium goes fucking crazy. The Cowboys get nothing out of their next drive, but the defense manages to hold and they regain possession early in the fourth where Nick completes a 39-yard field goal to tie the score with eleven minutes left in the game.

Minutes later, Cutler again completes a pass in the end zone and Kripke paces the sidelines, clapping his hands furiously.

"Plenty of time!" he shouts. "Come on, let's move it! LET'S MOVE IT!"

Once again, the offense fails to make anything of their next possession and, when they jog off the field after another three-and-out, Kripke grabs hold of Jensen's sleeve before the guy even has a chance to take off his helmet. Jared can't make out the words, but he notices Jensen nodding along.

Luckily, their defense recovers a Broncos fumble and the Cowboys take possession just before the two-minute warning.

Kripke gathers them all in during the break, kneeling down in the huddled circle of his players. "Alright, we know what we gotta do here," he says, headset around his neck and call sheet draped over his thigh. "We still have two timeouts so we can risk a couple long passes down the middle. Otherwise, we're looking at short and to the outside. Quick plays, no huddle if we can help it. Jensen, keep a tight read on the defense and stay open to audibles. If there's ever been a time to push your limit, it's right now. Keep an eye on the markers. Cutting out inches from a first down is a surefire way to piss me off and lose us the game, so you all better damn well know where they are."

He pauses for a second as he scans the faces of the men huddled around him before finally settling on Chad.

"Murray, call us out," he says and Chad practically leaps forward, arm outstretched. "Win on three! One-two-three-WIN!"


Game-ending Ackles interception cements Cowboys' defeat
7:10 PM Sun, Oct. 4, 2009
Sophia Bush

The Cowboys put up good fight in Denver yesterday before losing to the Broncos 24-38.

Though, leading in the half, the Cowboys struggled in the third quarter, falling to a tie mid-way through the fourth. They then spent the last two minutes marching downfield, hoping to score and possibly send the game into overtime. However, with just twenty seconds left on the play clock, Jensen Ackles forced a pass to Chad Michael Murray that was picked off by Broncos cornerback, Champ Bailey, who ran it back for a touchdown.

The Broncos are now one of four teams left undefeated in the AFC while the Cowboys drop to 2-2 and are tied for second in the NFC East. Their next game is on Sunday, here against the Kansas City Chiefs.


Jared wakes up at 5:30 the next morning and blearily crawls into the shower. He lets the spray beat down on his shoulders as he lazily jerks off, thinking about nothing beyond the warm pressure of his own hand, before soaping up. When he wanders back into the room, Jensen's still passed out cold, face down on the bed and snoring softly.

Jared just watches him for a moment, taking in the smooth, faintly tanned skin of Jensen's shoulder and upper arm. It feels oddly like he's watching without permission, seeing something he shouldn't. The guy is usually so guarded and closed-off, hiding behind a nearly impenetrable wall and sometimes Jared feels like he's pushing past it, chipping the blocks away one by one to reveal the easy, laid-back guy beneath. The one who likes barbecues and card games, who watches The Deadliest Catch and repeats of Law and Order and actively participates in farting contests. Other times, he feels the walls are only getting higher and tougher to break, that the small peeks he gets are still a show and not the real thing.

And he has no idea why he so desperately wants to see the real thing.

He studies Jensen for awhile longer, gaze stuck on the sweep of dark lashes, the faint scatter of freckles. And yeah, Jared has a girlfriend he loves more than anything, but that's never stopped him from looking. It's a passive sort of admiration, he decides, even when his dick gives a feeble twitch under terry cloth.

He eventually stops staring and quietly changes into jeans and an old UT shirt, gathers his stuff from the bathroom. He doesn't notice when Jensen wakes up, but the next time he looks over, the guy's watching him, eyes heavy-lidded and hair mussed. There are red creases across his cheeks and Jensen brings a hand up to press the heel against his eye, rubbing away the sleep.

"Time?"

Jared glances at the clock. "Almost six."

Jensen answers with a grunt and swings his legs over the side of the bed, slips on his glasses.

"We have about twenty minutes to get down to the lobby. Want me to go grab you a coffee?"

Jensen disappears into the bathroom, muttering a, "Oh, fuck yes, coffee," as the door closes behind him.

Jared smirks to himself and resolutely does not think about Jensen getting naked behind the door before he grabs his keycard and heads down to the lobby. A good chunk of his teammates are already there, some clearly more awake than others as they ransack the breakfast buffet. Jared piles a mound of scrambled eggs onto a plate before grabbing a glass of orange juice and a cup of coffee.

He struggles with the load and Flo watches with idle amusement. "Ackles' got you whipped, man."

Jared laughs, gives an easy shrug. "Rookie duty," he says even if it's not entirely true.

"Shit, you a rookie for all us, boy. Where's my breakfast in bed?"

Grinning, Jared heads for the elevator. "Gotta be quicker, man."

Jensen seems mildly more awake when Jared gets back to the room, dressed in loose jeans with his hair still damp and flat against his head. He looks up the second Jared walks in and groans, makes a beeline for Jared with outstretched hands.

"Coffee," he says, cupping the mug reverently to his chest and then taking a sip.

"Yeah, I didn't know how you took it so I just went with black."

"Black is fine," Jensen says after taking a sip, his eyes closed. Jared's struck by how weirdly obscene it looks, such open, unadulterated pleasure written all over Jensen's face, imagines it wouldn't look nearly so pornographic on anyone else. "Oh god. Black is perfect."

Swallowing tightly, Jared looks away, takes two long strides to his unmade bed, plate of scrambled eggs rested on his lap.

"Better hurry," he says shoveling in a forkful. "Kripke'll have our ass if we're late."

"Mmm," Jensen says around another sip before he finally puts the mug down. "First rule: Kripke's always ten minutes late. We're fine."

:::

They're back at Valley Ranch shortly after noon and, as expected, the review meeting is brutal, particularly when they go over the final quarter.

"Ackles is gonna be the one gettin' shit for this," Kripke warns as the meeting finally starts pulling to a close. Beside him, Jensen tenses and Jared gives him a quick knock with his knee in reassurance. "But it's on all of you, I know you know that. I don't care how shitty a player is or how big a mistake he makes, it doesn't take one guy to lose a football game."

The room stays completely quiet as Kripke eyes them, like he's waiting for one person to pipe up with an objection so he can shoot them down.

"You all better give me one hundred and ten percent this week. I will not tolerate anything less."

There's a swarm of press in the locker room after practice the next day and they corner Jensen. The poor guy's still damp from his shower and Jared watches from the other side of the room in idle fascination. They question his forced pass in the Denver game as well as his play-calling and the team's outlook for the season as a whole. And Jensen pulls on a shirt, takes a seat in the nook of his locker and answers every last one, even smiling every once in awhile. It's still very much an act, but one Jared can recognize now. QB Jensen Ackles: consummate professional.

Jared wonders how long it's taken him to get it down so perfectly.

Chapter Text

Jared's parents call on Friday asking for two extra tickets to the game.

"We're bringing a surprise," his mother tells him, but Jared doesn't even have to wonder, just grins and buys a jersey from the team store in size small. They don't make any in his name and number yet, so he gets an Ackles one instead. When his doorbell rings Saturday afternoon and his arms are immediately full of one excited baby sister, he can't help grinning like a idiot.

"Oh, you like me now that I'm a millionaire," he jokes as she disentangles herself, stepping back into his condo.

"No, I've liked you since I got your room," she says. Jared bends down to give his momma a kiss as his dad claps him hard on the shoulder. He only notices Sandy when his father takes a step to the side and Jared's mouth falls open.

"I thought you couldn't make it."

"Pulled some strings," she says, stepping up on tip-toe to kiss him.

They go out for dinner that night at a seafood place Marion had suggested and Megan jokingly bitches that it's not III Forks.

"Such a miser, JT," she says around a mouthful of salmon. "Seriously."

Jared kicks her under the table and she kicks right back.

That night, his parents share the single guestroom while Megan crashes on his front couch. It's the largest number of people he's had in his place since he got it and Jared relishes the quiet chaos of too many voices in an enclosed space, the warmth of having four of the people he loves most in the world almost literally within arm's reach.

Of course, the nerves still come in full-force as the evening wears on and he heads to bed early, apologizing to his parents for being a shitty host. Sandy goes with him, kissing his forehead as they burrow under the blankets together.

"Big game tomorrow?" she asks, curling in to rest her head on his chest.

"Not really, I guess," he confesses, lightly touching her hair. "Probably won't even play, but..."

He trails off, unsure of how to finish and Sandy only nods, ducks to press a kiss to his skin. "I know, baby," she tells him. Whether she does or not, Jared isn't sure, but it's good enough for him and he pulls her in, lets himself drift into sleep.

:::

It starts drizzling in the early afternoon and doesn't let up any as game time nears. Jared puts on a long-sleeved shirt under his pads and Gabe, the team's assistant equipment manager, fits his shoes with 3/8 inch cleat studs before he heads out for warm-ups.

He lines up with Jensen to take turns passing with Patrick as a mix of rock and pop plays through the stadium speakers, singing along to a Jonas Brothers song.

Jensen eyes him warily.

"What?" Jared asks, noticing the look. But the arch of Jensen's eyebrow tells him all he needs to know and he shrugs. "I've got cousins, dude."

Jensen snorts. "Uh-huh. Cousins you see, what, maybe twice a year?"

"Fuck you," Jared laughs, catching the ball Patrick throws back their way. "You have no idea how much I see my family."

"My parents live, like, twenty minutes away and I see them about once every other month."

"Yeah, well if I was related to you, that'd be more than enough."

Jensen rolls his eyes, but he's clearly trying not to laugh and Jared throws another pass to Patrick.

"My parents are here, actually," he says, nodding up at the stands. He has no idea where they're seats are, but figures they probably aren't even there yet; there's nothing exciting about warm-ups. "Sister, too. And my girlfriend."

Jensen throws the ball then, flicking Jared a quick glance as he releases it.

"Yeah?"

"You should meet 'em. "I mean, no pressure or anything, but they'd love it. My sister especially; she might try to climb you like a jungle gym. She can get kind of excitable around hot guys."

Jensen's quiet for a moment and Jared catches the ball against his chest, cuts him a glance.

But Jensen's looking away, seemingly lost in thought before finally turning his attention back to Jared. "Yeah, sure. Love to."

:::

The first half is miserable. Despite dominating much of the playing time, the Cowboys still trail 3-6 going into the half and Kripke is not pleased.

The locker room is wet and stuffy during the break, the smell of sweat and damp permeating as guys wrestle their way out of their pads for a quick respite. Misha's on hand to check minor cuts and bruises while the other trainers frantically re-tape ankles and shins where needed. Leonard Davis, fresh off a nasty hit late in the second, is leaning against one of the walls as Dr. Edlund, the team's physician, shines a light in his eye, checking for any signs of concussion.

By pure habit, the team breaks into offense and defense, but Kripke bypasses the norm and stands smack in the middle of both and starts yelling. "There is no excuse!" he shouts, getting up in Andre's face, which is almost amusing given the size difference and the fact that Andre could probably crush him with a finger. "Absolutely no fucking excuse for the shitfest every last one of you is giving me out there! Did we bust our asses this week for this? Are you fucking shitting me?" He whips around, nearly shaking with fury. "It's a fucking joke right now is what it is. I'm gonna-- hell, I'm telling you right now that you all better start playing like the fucking professional athletes you're paid to be before I start going through the fucking classifieds looking for guys to replace you!"

Jared's ears are still ringing when they jog back onto the field, but he can't deny there's a noticeable difference in the attitude on the sideline, Chad and Marty swaggering between the benches, getting into teammates' faces and shouting encouragement.

They're in the lead by the end of the third quarter thanks to two easy touchdown passes from Jensen to Chad. Marion runs in a third seconds into the fourth quarter before they march down the field yet again and cap off the drive with a field goal.

Determined to not let the scoring go to waste, the defense holds strong through the entire half and, with three minutes left in the game and the defense seconds away from forcing the Chiefs to punt, Kripke calls for Jared.

"Padalecki! Warm it up!"

Jared's breath catches, a burst of adrenaline pulsing as Jensen slaps a hand on his shoulder, shoves him off to take a few passes with Coach Morgan.

Minutes later and Jared's deep in Chiefs territory, hunched behind his center as he makes the call. The rain's still coming down in a steady mist and he blinks the wetness from his eyes, focuses on the potential pass coverage, on the linebacker inching up on the right.

Cory hikes the ball and Jared drops back into the pocket, looking to his right for Witten who's situated just inside the end zone with a defender right on top of him. A glance to the left and he spots Chad running a hook through the middle and, with barely a thought, he throws, ball flying high and hitting Chad right in the numbers.

Chad falls to the turf with the ball clutched against his chest as Jared immediately springs toward the end zone. He doesn't hear the ref's whistle or the crowd, doesn't wait for the signal that it's good or check to see whether there any penalty flags, just launches himself at Chad, nearly knocking him down yet again.

"Fuckin' beautiful!" Chad yells as he presses the ball against Jared's chest.

Jared hears his name echo through the stadium, slowly becomes aware of the people cheering in excitement before Chad wraps an arm around the back of his neck in a half-hearted headlock and starts dragging him to the sidelines.

"Hang on, hang on," Jared laughs, ducking away to get back to the center of the field. "Extra point."

Chad smirks, grabbing the ball from Jared and then holding it up in front of his face in presentation. "Keeping this for you," he says. "Your first game ball, man." Jared smiles so wide it burns.

:::

The locker room is even louder than normal after the game, guys streaming in and out, banging their helmets against the walls as the reporters and camera crews try to duck and dodge the mayhem. Chad's the first to greet Jared when he walks in, immediately thrusting the ball into his stomach and then gripping his hair, messing it up as much as possible, though Jared can imagine it's already pretty fucked from the rain-and-helmet combination. Laughing, Jared tries to push him out of his way and Chad only stumbles back a step or two before getting distracted by Sophia Bush, who's busy interviewing Marion just outside the door.

"Dude," Chad yells as Jared starts to head inside. "Drinks later?"

"Yeah, if you're not busy getting laid," Jared replies, smirking over at the dark-haired reporter. Chad only tosses him a thumbs up and then nearly runs right into Ms. Bush, who stumbles back in surprise, but looks like she's trying to hide a small smile.

Jared gets to his locker and starts peeling off his shoulder pads, a feat made difficult by the fact that he's still drenched from head to toe, fabric sticking to his skin. He drops his jersey to the floor and tosses his pads into the locker before starting in on the pants, glancing up to see Jensen heading his way.

Jensen has only a towel around his waist, held in place with one hand at his hip and he's sporting his own case of helmet hair. But Jared's mostly trying not to start at the expanse of bare skin, the slight flush of red brought on by either cold or exertion.

"Did real good out there," he says and Jared beams, nods up up at the ball Chad had grabbed for him after the game, stashed in the cubby above his locker.

"Got my game ball."

"Gonna stuff it and mount it over your fireplace?"

"Sure," Jared says with a grin. "What the hell else am I supposed do with it?"

Jensen shrugs. "Sign it and sell it on Ebay?"

"Yeah, it'd be a real hot commodity, I'm sure."

"I'd bid."

Jared snorts out a laugh and ducks to work at the lacing on his pants.

When Jensen falls silent, Jared glances up to see the guy watching him, a weird expression on his face that immediately shifts and slides away. "Hey, so I'll meet you outside in about a half an hour?" he says and Jared suddenly remembers their earlier conversation.

"Yeah, yeah, definitely," he says, words a rush in his excitement.

Jensen's smile then seems a little strained, but Jared returns it all the same, watches him head toward the showers, gaze catching on the dip low on Jensen's spine.

:::

"Wait. Jensen Ackles?" Megan says, gaping. Jared only grins and barely flinches when his sister punches him in the arm. "Shut up! You could've told me, you jackwad. Ugh, I look like crap."

"I'm telling you right now," Jared points as he tries to avoid another punch.

He pulls Sandy in close for protection and she laughs, squirms in his arms as she says, "Oh, no. Not using me for a human shield, buddy." But Jared refuses to let her go, gripping tight to her jacket until she relents and curls in close.

"Whatever. I totally hate you," Megan pouts. But she's smiling that tiny smile that means Jared's totally her favorite brother at the moment.

They're huddled near one of the cement pillars out back, well behind the the barricade of security. Despite the overhang, it's still damp and dreary, the smell of rain hanging heavy in the air. Fans stream past, wandering toward the Corral or their cars, a few searching out the cheerleaders for pictures. A couple drunkenly yell out in victory, their swallowed in the black of night, some more entertaining than others, though most are all but completely unintelligible.

Jared's momma smiles up at him every now and then, occasionally reaching over to grab and squeeze his arm, like she's afraid he might disappear right in front of her. Or like she can't believe he's really there at all. Jared gets it; sometimes he still can't believe he's there either, wonders when that feeling will eventually wear off.

"So what's holdin' him?" his dad asks and Jared gives a brief glance toward the doors.

"Probably press."

His mother's eyes widen and she tugs at his jacket. "Oh, baby. That's gonna be you some day."

"Am I holdin' up the party?" a familiar voice calls out as if on cue and Jared turns to spot Jensen only a few feet away. Jensen's hair is still damp with gel and he has on a pair of dark slacks and a long peacoat-style jacket that drops to around mid-thigh, the front opened to reveal the white button-up underneath. It's like the guy walked right out of that damn GQ spread without the decency to give Jared ample warning and it's frankly alarming how good he looks.

Awkwardly clearing his throat, Jared steps back, one arm held out to welcome Jensen into their circle. "Hey, man. Was afraid they'd swallowed you whole in there."

"Yeah, well you and me both," says Jensen, clapping his hands together and quirking a grin. "So this is the clan, huh?" He thrusts his hand toward Jared's mom, smile broad and easy. "Hi, I'm Jensen. You must be Jared's sister."

She blinks and breaks into a laugh, clearly charmed even as she arches an eyebrow. "Yeah, nice try," she says as Jensen takes her hand. "You can call me Sherri, sweetie."

"I'm Gerald," Jared's dad says, stepping forward. "But Jerry's fine."

"Nice to meet you, sir," Jensen says, taking his hand in a firm shake.

"Hi, I'm Megan," Jared's sister says, stepping forward with her hand out just far enough that Jensen still has to reach to take it. "JT's real sister."

Jensen smirks as he takes her hand and Jared wonders how many different faces the guy has, how many acts. This is a new one, similar to what he shows to the media, but different. Damn near flirtatious.

"Yeah, Jared's talked about you," Jensen says with a soft laugh.

Megan arches an eyebrow as she cuts Jared a threatening look. "He lies," she says, voice teasing. "Unless he was talking about how he's gonna buy me a new car. That one's true."

"Yeah, keep on wishin' there, squirt," Jared says, his hand falling to the small of Sandy's back, nudging.

Taking the cue, Sandy steps forward, holding her hand out. "I'm Sandy," she says, cheerful as always. "Jared's talked a lot about you, so it's nice to finally meet you."

Jensen looks over at Jared briefly, expression entirely unreadable before he's smiling at Sandy again, that same flirtatious curve to his lips.

"Guy talks a lot about everyone," he points out, taking her hand. "I swear I'm not the asshole he's probably told you I am."

It's just a joke, sure, but Jared has called Jensen an asshole. More than once. Not in awhile, maybe, but he still goes tense at the reminder.

Sandy only laughs and shakes her head. "Only good things," she lies.

They fall into idle conversation then with Jensen asking Jared's parents about their careers and how many games they've seen so far, how many they're hoping to make in the future. Megan mentions she's studying architecture at A&M and Jared wrinkles his nose and hisses at the name of UT's rival, takes the hit Megan gives him in retaliation with a grin. Jensen seems genuinely interested as Megan talks more about the program, asking about her classes and the faculty and what her plans might be once she graduates.

"You wanna go where?" Jared balks at one point.

"San Francisco," she says, like she's challenging Jared to fight her on it. Which isn't his intention at all; it's just the first he's heard about this supposed plan. It makes him wonder what else there is that he's been too busy to notice lately. "Or maybe Seattle. Definitely west anyway. Out of Texas."

"Hey, what's wrong with Texas?"

"Nothing if you like football, beer and cattle," Megan says. "And humidity."

"I went to Washington State for three years," Jensen says. "It's really beautiful up there. Green like you wouldn't believe."

Jared sighs and gives a playful kick at Jensen's foot. "Stop encouraging her," he says, only half joking.

Megan just rolls her eyes and Jared sticks out his tongue.

The conversation picks up again, this time with his mom telling Jensen all about the politics involved within the San Antonio school system. It's nothing Jared hasn't heard a million times before, but he listens quietly anyway, revels in the warmth of his family so easily welcoming Jensen into their circle. He'd expected no less, of course, but it's still nice.

When Jensen mentions that he has to slip away to meet up with his own family, Jared feels a tiny stab of guilt for taking up so much of his time and gently disentangles himself from Sandy to walk with him a ways.

"Hey, thanks," he says, nudging Jensen's elbow as they turn away from his family. "Pretty sure my sister's now completely in love with you."

Jensen shrugs. "Woman's got good taste."

Jared breathes a laugh and nods, finds himself resting a hand on Jensen's arm. "Yeah," he says. "Yeah, she does."

The words feel strangely weighted and the look Jensen gives him makes Jared suddenly sure he's not the only one who's noticed. It's gone a blink later and Jensen has the mask back in place, easy smile that doesn't quite reach his eyes.

"See you tomorrow, Jay," he says, glancing briefly over towards Jared's family. "Go out and drink yourself stupid, 'kay? You deserve it."

:::

Jared gets a text from Coach Morgan early Monday morning: No film mtg today. Full gear tmrw @ 10:00am. Get some rest!

Considering the slow and steady pounding just behind Jared's eyeballs, it reads like a godsend. He drops his phone back onto his nightstand and crawls to bathroom where he takes a piss and then fumbles in the cabinet for aspirin, downing a small handful with a gulp of water before making his way back to his bed.

A few hours later, he wakes up to his phone buzzing yet again. Peeking one eye open, Jared groans and reaches for it, flipping it open to see Jensen's name in bright letters across the screen.

"'lo?" he answers, grimacing at the way his tongue tries to stick to the top of his mouth.

He's greeted by the low sound of Jensen's laughter and doesn't know whether to be irritated or oddly aroused.

"Oh man, you sound like hell."

"Mmm," he replies, deciding to go with irritated. "What'dya want?"

"How late did Chad keep you out?"

Jared frowns, taking a moment to try and remember and then lets out a strained breath. "Don't wanna talk about it."

"How long have you known that asshole?"

"Too long."

"Should know better by now."

Groaning, Jared rolls onto his side. His head's feeling better, the pounding from earlier dulled to a faint discomfort, but the idea of actually getting up is still wholly unappealing. "Why're you callin'?" he asks again, resting the phone against his cheek so he can drop his arm.

"No practice today."

Jared closes his eyes, willing there to be a point sometime soon. "Yep."

"Checkin' to see if you wanted to hang out."

"Liar."

Jensen's laugh is quick, but warm, reminding Jared immediately of the night before, huddled out in the rain. It makes him wonder if this is an act, too, whether anyone ever sees the real guy behind all the damn masks.

"Alright, alright," Jensen concedes, tone still one of amusement. "Checkin' to see if Chad put you into a coma."

"Right, well he didn't. Obviously. Can I go back to sleep now?"

"'Fraid not."

Jared's doorbell goes off at that exact moment and he groans again, reaches up to grab the phone as he sits up. "Fuck. Door," he says. "I'll call you back."

It's only when he reaches the living room that he realizes he's still naked and turns back to grab a pair of sweats, clumsily stepping into them before finally making it to the front door. A glance through the peephole makes him grunt a laugh and he yanks the door open. "Dude."

Jensen holds up a bag of Wendy's in one hand, the other still clutching his phone. "I come bearing grease."

Despite still feeling like warmed over death, Jared doesn't argue, just follows Jensen to the couch, dropping down onto it as Jensen empties the bag of its foiled contents, lining the burgers up one by one on Jared's coffee table and pulling out two huge cartons of fries.

Jared ends up eating nearly all of it himself and they rest back and watch ESPN for awhile, catching up on all the scores and highlights, including some from their own game.

"Goin' to Derek's tonight?" Jared asks at one point. He's stretched out on his couch, legs propped on the table, crossed at the ankle.

Jensen's at the other end, looking comfortable even if he doesn't take up nearly as much room as Jared. He gives a shrug, rolling his shoulders back into the cushions. "For the game?"

"Steelers and Ravens. Should be good."

"Dunno. You?"

Jared grunts and shakes his head. "Hell, no. That'd require actually getting dressed."

Jensen's gaze drops, skimming over Jared's bare chest and Jared shifts discreetly, relaxing when Jensen finally looks away with a shrug.

"Yeah, God forbid you put some clothes on."

It's just flippant enough that Jared can laugh and he reaches over to nudge at Jensen's hip with his foot. "Oh, I'm sorry, is my nudity making you uncomfortable?"

There's just the tiniest hesitation before Jensen cuts him a glance. "I see you full frontal on a daily basis, dude."

"Yeah, and here you are coming over for more on your day off. Just can't get enough, huh? So hungry for my manly manliness."

Jensen rolls his eyes and looks away, but there's a slight flush to his cheeks, a hint of a smile curving his lips.

"Don't worry, I won't tell anyone," Jared says and then pulls himself to his feet, hiking up his sweatpants as he heads for the kitchen. "You want a beer?"

They order pizza halfway through the second quarter and have the beer finished off before the end of the third. Which isn't too impressive a feat considering he didn't have much to begin with. It's a game of very little consequence to the Cowboys, which gives them the opportunity to watch without much investment other than checking out the schemes and patterns of a potential future opponent. As it is, the only way the Cowboys will be playing the Steelers or Ravens this year is in the Super Bowl, a fact neither of them ever outright acknowledge.

When the Ravens offense opts to run out the clock on their last possession, Jensen gets to his feet and stretches and Jared tries not to notice the bared patch of skin above the waistband of his jeans. It seems funny to him that, while he's seen the guy naked in the locker room more times than he can count, suddenly one tiny flash of skin inside his living room is still enough to make his dick take notice.

"Thanks for the beer," Jensen says, dropping his arms and tugging his shirt back into place.

"Yeah, no problem," Jared says, tearing his gaze away as he stands. "Thanks for the hangover cure."

"No problem. You want help cleanin' this up?"

The pizza box is still open on the table, the few empty bottles of Heineken standing inside it next to the single half slice left over. Jared shakes his head and scratches a hand over his stomach as a yawn catches him by surprise. "Nah, it's cool," he says, the words stretched by the shape of his mouth before he exhales a laugh.

But Jensen doesn't return it, his gaze fixed on Jared's hand for half a second too long before he looks away abruptly. "Alright, well. See you tomorrow," he says and Jared wonders if he's only imagining the strain he sees in Jensen's smile.

"Yeah," he says, not moving an inch, standing straight and awkward in the middle of his living room. "Yeah, later, man."

:::

Practice on Tuesday starts off sluggish, everyone clearly still in the mindset of the day before. They make stupid mistakes on both sides of the ball and, by the time they break, Kripke's nearly screamed himself hoarse. As punishment, he calls for a mandatory evening team meeting.

Jared spends most of the day trying not to watch Jensen too closely. Given that his main job throughout the course of the season is to essentially watch Jensen like a hawk, it's difficult to avoid without raising suspicion. He tries to keep his focus purely on football, tries to force himself to pay attention to only the decisions Jensen makes on the field, his stance and footwork.

"Dude, what's your deal?" Chad says after practice, damp towel draped around his neck as he pulls on his jeans.

Jared's bent over to tie his shoes and looks up with a frown. "What?"

"You've been acting all weird, today. Man, are you still all messed up from Sunday? Shit, I knew I was good, but I didn't know I was that good."

Snorting a laugh, Jared grabs a clean t-shirt out of his bag. "I'm fine, dude. Seriously."

"You weren't at Derek's last night."

"Didn't know my attendance was required."

"What, you suddenly anti-social now?"

"I just wanted a night in, man. What's so weird about that?"

Chad doesn't answer right away, squinting suspiciously before he lets out a huff of air. "Something weird's up with you, JT," he says, but he lets it drop when Jared drops to fit on his shoes.

The last-minute mandatory team meeting that night largely serves as a platform for another verbal beating care of their irate head coach. Jared sits near the front between Jensen and Aldis and manages to get through the whole thing without obsessing too much over how close Jensen's sitting. It's like being in high school all over again only worse. In high school, he hadn't had a girlfriend to consider. Or at least not one like Sandy. And, even if Sandy's made it annoyingly clear that she's okay with him doing whatever he needs on the road so long as she doesn't find out... he can't say he exactly likes the idea.

Not to mention Jensen's a guy. A teammate.

It's a bad idea. An incredibly, absurdly bad idea. And Jared can't stop thinking about it.

"We're pushing the walk-through out to Saturday morning," Kripke says, knocking Jared out of his thoughts. "Want you all here by 8:00am, packed and ready to catch the flight at noon. We'll have practice, get changed and then board the plane, you understand?"

Jared's teammates grunt in subdued acknowledgment, but it's Jensen's voice that catches Jared's attention, low and only a foot away.

Jared closes his eyes and tries to ignore it.

:::

With the tone set, the rest of the week proves productive, everyone buckling down to get the job done as they work to perfect Sunday's game plan. Jared does his best to keep his distance from Jensen without making it too obvious, though the curious glances Chad occasionally throws his way make him wonder if he's being at all successful.

Still, Jared feels ready when Saturday rolls around. He's one of the first in the locker room that morning, already changed and ready to go, his travel bag tucked away safe for Lindberg and Tigerman to take care of. They do the walk-through and Jared lingers on the sidelines, watching Jensen because he's supposed to and not just because he wants to. He gets a few mock plays in himself, mostly hand-offs and a few simple pass attempts before Kripke tells them all to go get changed and ready for the flight.

He sits with Chad on the plane, Jensen and Clif two aisles up and well enough out of sight so he can concentration on studying the playbook.

Upon landing in Minnesota, the team is immediately ushered to their hotel and Kripke calls for the five players for the pre-game interviews.

"Oooh, is Ms. Harris up on it this weekend?" Murray asks with a leer.

Kripke shakes his head, clearly trying not to look too amused. "Got the Moose-n-Goose team this time, Mayhem," he says and Chad's smile immediately disappears.

"How bad will I get fined if I don't show?"

"Nothing you can't afford, I bet," Kripke says as he gives Chad's arm a hefty pat. "But it sure as hell won't look good."

Jensen somehow manages to beat Jared to their room and already has his bed claimed when Jared walks in. He lays sprawled out on it, television remote in one hand, his other arm tucked back behind his head.

"Comfy?" Jared asks when he steps in and Jensen replies with what sounds like a contended grunt as he flips the channel.

Jared drops his bag to the floor and, determined to not let the awkwardness continue, says, "So, I'm thinkin' diner."

That gets Jensen's attention and Jared resolutely refuses to notice the way Jensen's legs are just slightly parted, one leg bent at the knee, making him look even more bow-legged than normal. And why Jared finds that so fucking attractive, he has no idea.

"Diner."

"Yeah."

"For?"

Jared laughs and grabs hold of Jensen's bare foot, tugging harshly. "Food, asshole. C'mon."

The full-bodied flail Jensen gives in an attempt to not end up ass-first on the carpet is entirely too rewarding.

"You're a fucking hazard," Jensen says, pushing himself up once Jared lets go. He's smiling though, just slightly, and Jared gets far too much pleasure out of knowing it's because of him.

They find a place only a few blocks from their hotel. Jensen orders a tuna melt and fries while Jared gets a double bacon cheeseburger and two orders of onion rings. They talk about everything but football and get sundaes for dessert and it's not awkward or tense at all except when Jared catches himself staring at Jensen's hands or mouth or the crinkle up by his eye.

They make it back to the hotel a half hour before curfew and Jared decides to study the playbook some more while Jensen watches TV. When the end credits start rolling, he glances over to see Jensen passed out cold, glasses still perched on his nose.

Jared barely resists the urge to reach over and slip the wire frames off of his nose and instead busies himself with memorizing plays he won't even be implementing, tries not to openly stare at the prone shape of his incredibly attractive roommate in the next bed.

A few minutes later, he glances over to see Jensen suck in a staggered breath and fumble his glasses off his face, setting them on the nightstand with a faint clink before clumsily burrowing under his covers.

It's maybe a little weird that Jared sits and stares at the lump of Jensen's body for awhile longer before finally putting the playbook away and turning off the light.

Luckily, it's nothing Jensen ever has to know about.

:::

"Ah, fuck," Chad grumbles as he and Jared watch the Vikings complete and run a killer pass into the end zone for a touchdown. It's only the third play of the game and clearly doesn't bode well for the Cowboys.

When Jensen and the offense fail to even get so much as a first down on their next drive, Kripke's steaming. Jensen keeps his head ducked as he heads to the water table, only answering in grunts and nods when Coach Morgan walks up to talk to him.

The rest of the first quarter is equally dismal, aptly coming to a close with the Vikings sacking Jensen in the end zone for a safety. The first score of the second quarter again belongs to the Vikings, though the Cowboys defense at least manages to hold them to a field goal. But again, the Cowboys go three-and-out, the situation not helped by Ackles narrowly avoiding a fumble after a rough sack with three minutes left in the half. They get a second chance however, when Igor forces a fumble on the Vikings next play and recovers on the Dallas 40-yard line.

"Let's go, let's go, let's go!" Kripke shouts as the chain crew hurries to get set for the change of possession.

Jared moves to stand next to Coach Morgan, helmet hanging from his fingertips and stomach churning. The noise in the Metrodome is a dull, muffled roar, the sinking into the high ceiling and blinding lights and Jared tries to block it all out, skin itching with the need to do something more than just scream and pray from the sidelines.

Felix garners them a good six yards on their next play, followed swiftly by a Witten completion up the middle for another eight. It's more movement than the Cowboys have had all game and, by the time they get down to the Vikings 40-yard line, nearly every player on the Cowboys sideline is on his feet.

With twenty-five seconds left in the half, they're on second down and out of timeouts. Kripke calls for one more pass play in an attempt to grab a first down and nestle into better field goal range. Nick is arguably one of the game's best kickers, but even he has difficulty with a 57-yard attempt.

Jared can tell well before the snap that the defense is reading the play perfectly and expects Jensen to change the audible and go for a quick hand-off to Marion or maybe call for Chad to do a right hook toward the sidelines, something to gain a few yards and stop the clock. But Jensen doesn't change the play and dread settles low in Jared's stomach, Kripke immediately cursing up a blue streak when Jensen drops back from the hand-off.

"Ackles! ACKLES, what the FUCK are you doing?!"

Jensen stays secure in the pocket, the O-line holding as he looks from receiver to receiver, quickly realizing just exactly what everyone else already knows: there's nothing. No open man. He has plenty of time, but it's useless with no one to throw to, but then his arm goes back and Jared holds his breath, watches as the ball flies straight toward the end zone and right into the open arms of the Vikings' free safety.

It's his third interception of the game and it's still only the second quarter.

Shaking with anger, Kripke throws his clipboard to the ground and barely refrains from stalking out onto the field. "Fuck! Fuck! Ackles! What the fuck was that?!"

Jensen's red-faced and breathless when he gets to the sidelines and yanks off his helmet.

"I read it wrong," he says, sounding more stunned than anything else.

"Damn right you read it wrong!" Kripke shouts, getting right up into Jensen's face. Jensen doesn't back down, just blinks against the rage coming off his coach in waves. "You wanna tell me where the hell your head's at 'cause it sure as fuck isn't in this game!"

Jensen's wince is barely discernible as he gives a quick nod and clearly chooses to take the question as rhetorical. Which is probably a good thing as it makes Kripke focus his ire on the rest of the offense while Coach Singer rounds up the defense, pushing them onto the field in time for the Vikings to kneel out the remainder of the half.

The locker room feels like a war zone during halftime and the first thing Jared hears upon stepping foot inside the metal doors is, "Padalecki! You're up in the third."

He blinks, confused for a second and absolutely sure he's heard that wrong. But Kripke's already turning toward Jensen, who looks just about as shaken as Jared, a fresh flush of red coloring his cheeks.

Someone knocks into him from behind and Jared takes a fumbling step to the side, the shock quickly overcome by a rush of nerves as his teammates push past him, sweaty and breathing hard. The Vikings are up by twelve points which, by itself isn't too staggering considering the turnovers, but the Cowboys have yet to score at all.

And now the offense is in Jared's hands.

"Hey," Coach Morgan says, stopping Jared before he heads down the tunnel, hands on Jared's shoulder pads and head ducked to look him straight in the eyes. "I know what you're thinkin' right now."

Jared swallows, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, skin itching with pent up adrenaline and a certain amount of fear.

"You're thinkin' it's too much," Coach continues, not giving Jared the chance to respond. "That there's too much pressure, too much expectation. You're thinking you can't do this--"

Jared cuts his coach off with a laugh, the sound rough as he shakes his head, soaked in shaky, fake bravado. "I'm thinkin' two touchdowns and we're back in this thing," he says, ignoring the swoop of dread in his gut. It clearly catches Coach Morgan by surprise, the guy's lips pulling into an awkward smirk before he lets out a rough laugh of his own, claps a hand hard against Jared's shoulder pads.

"Well, alright, then," he says and gives Jared a shove. "Go get 'em."


Vikings pillage Cowboys, Ackles benched at halftime
9:15 PM Sun, Oct. 18, 2009
Sophia Bush

With the acquisition of first round draft pick Jared Padalecki in April, it's been no secret the Ackles Era is drawing to a close here in Dallas. However, after tonight's game, it appears that curtain may be drawing quicker than anyone anticipated.

Pulled after an abysmal first half, Ackles watched from the sidelines as Padalecki threw for two touchdowns (one of them a 53-yarder to Aldis Hodge) and ran in for a two-point conversion before he was picked off midway through the fourth by Marcus McCauley, securing the Vikings win.

Ackles was 6-for-16 for 59 yards with three interceptions in the first half - a miserable 13.2 quarterback rating. By comparison, Padalecki was 13-for-20 with two touchdowns and one interception. It doesn't take a genius to work out who had the better day.

To be fair to both QBs, the Cowboys' running game provided virtually no assistance, the team's three rushers garnering a total of 72 yards for the whole game.

Coach Kripke refused to specify which quarterback would be the starter for next week's game against Chicago, but did state that the decision will be a hot subject for the coming week.

Tension is already thick between the two quarterbacks with Padalecki stating in the press conference he hasn't yet heard a word from the benched Ackles. The veteran QB was one of the first people off the field and was seen quietly leaving the locker room.

What is Dallas without the drama? As the often insufferable, but always entertaining Terrell Owens would say, better get your popcorn ready.


It's the first real press conference Jared's had to endure since the draft and, whereas that one had been something of a celebration, this one is anything but. The questions come fast and unforgiving: 'What is your opinion of Ackles' performance in today's game?' and 'What do you think your chances are of starting next week?' and 'Did you foresee Ackles being benched after that last interception in the second quarter' He answers all of them with an allusive honesty, stumbling slightly over his words as lights flash and spark in his face. His shirt sticks to his back, skin damp from his shower and new, fresh sweat and he can't seem to stop his leg from jiggling under the table.

He's just played arguably the roughest half of his life and yet it pales in comparison to the beating he's getting from the press. He can only imagine how much worse it'll be once they return to Dallas.

By the time he makes it back to the hotel room, he's more than ready to collapse and not get up again for a week. The room is dark and empty, Jensen's bag stuffed in the corner, bed untouched. Jensen had left the locker room before Jared, presumably to get back to the hotel, but there's a cocktail bar on the mezzanine level and Jared's not stupid.

Half an hour later, he's changed and spread out over his own bed, television turned to some World War II documentary on the History channel that he's not really paying any attention to. He picks up his phone to call Sandy, thumb hovering over the 'connect' button when Jensen stumbles in.

One look and one whiff verifies his earlier suspicions.

He smiles and sets his phone aside as the door closes with a click. "I know you don't got Chad to blame for this," he says, keeping his tone light.

But Jensen doesn't say a word, just feels his way towards the bathroom, fingers bumping against the jamb. Seconds later, there's the tell-tale sounds of retching and Jared grabs the ice bucket without a word. The ice machine isn't very far down the hall and Jared's reminded of Baltimore, of literally running into Jensen after getting sodas, the guy half-dressed and smelling of chlorine.

Jared pops two small cubes into his mouth and bites down with a crunch, lets the cold trickle down his throat.

Back in the room, he scoops some of the ice into a glass tumbler and fills it with water from the tap. The door to the bathroom's still shut, but the sounds have quieted and he approaches carefully, knocking lightly with the back of his knuckles.

"Got you some water," he says.

When he gets nothing in reply, he leans in closer to the door, straining for some indication that Jensen's at least still alive if not fully conscious. There's a dull thunk after a few moments and then the flush of the toilet and Jared imagines Jensen slowly getting to his feet, bracing himself against the counter. He feels a pang of sympathy coupled with quiet annoyance and knocks again.

"Dude. You livin'?"

This time he gets a muffled and pathetic, "Fuck off."

Jared ignores it, reaches for the handle of the door instead and pushes it open a crack. "Here," he says, reaching in far enough to set the glass of water on the counter, catches Jensen's gaze in the mirror. His eyes are red and glassy, face flushed and lips, the stench of alcohol and vomit lingering in the air as Jensen glares at him through the mirror.

"Thanks," Jensen says bitterly.

Jared nods, says, "Drink it," with as authoritative a tone as he can manage.

Jensen's eyes narrow as he bends over, turning on the faucet with a flick of his wrist and then cupping some water into his mouth, rinsing and spitting.

Jared refrains from rolling his eyes and pushes away from the door and drops back down onto the bed, legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles. He idly flips through the channels, watching the images on the screen flash by without really taking any of them in, the sound a quiet white noise that serves to drown out anything coming from the bathroom.

When Jensen finally steps out minutes later, he's wearing his glasses, his t-shirt balled up in a fist, giving Jared a full view of how the flush of his cheeks extends down across his shoulders and chest, blooming over tanned skin. Jensen is refusing to look at him and Jared lets his gaze wander, catching on the small trail of hair that leads south of his belly button.

He swallows tightly, trying to will away the heat of arousal that threatens to disrupt his general irritation, but stops short when he notices Jensen's gone still. And is staring directly at him.

"You done?"

"Done what?" Jared asks, feigning ignorance.

Jensen glowers, gaze knowing as the muscles in his arms twitch. But he only tosses his shirt aside and grabs his bag, hefting it with far more force than necessary before dropping it on his bed and ripping through it. Jared doesn't look away once, staring as Jensen yanks out shorts and a shirt and then starts fumbling with the top button of his jeans.

"Well, make sure you get your eyeful," he mutters, throwing his bag onto the ground when he's done with it and turning to face Jared. He throws his arms out in presentation,lips twisted into a bitter smirk. "May not get it much longer."

Jared's instantly caught between wanting to do exactly that, between just staring for as long as his heart desires and grabbing Jensen by the throat and throttling him. One bad game and the guy's reverted back to training camp, back to making it a cutthroat competition of winner-takes-all instead of focusing on making the team better, making each other better and he's suddenly so pissed off he can barely see straight.

He's on his feet half a second later, pulling up to his full height as he narrows the space between them. But Jensen doesn't back down, still standing with his arms at his sides, infuriatingly half-naked and God knows how drunk.

"It was one game," Jared says, voice quiet but harsh, forcing himself to look Jensen in the eyes, to not let his gaze wander any lower.

"One game is all it fucking takes and you know it," Jensen says without missing a beat. "Just a coupla bad passes, a couple bad calls and a handful of pissed off fans who wouldn't know a football from a zit on their ass to put me out of a job!"

"Oh, fuck that," Jared says, cutting him off. "This is a game, man. But it's also a business and when you have a shitty day--"

"It's not like you did all that much better!" Jensen snaps, stepping in closer, bringing then nearly nose to nose.

"At least I got us on the board! At least I made it a little bit respectable!"

It comes out before he can think about it, harsher and angrier than he'd intended, but Jensen still doesn't flinch.

"Oh, and you don't think I coulda done that?"

"I think you could've on any day, but today," Jared says, managing to get his tone under control, though it takes work. "It was just a bad day, okay? You're not the only one to blame here; the whole team sucked."

Jensen snorts and turns away to snatch his clothes off the bed and Jared grabs his wrist. Jensen instantly fights it, trying to pull away, eyes flashing dark. But Jared anticipates it, already reaching out with his other hand to grab at Jensen's shoulder. Skin smacks against skin and Jared finds himself being forcibly shoved backward. Jared may have size on his side, but Jensen isn't backing down in the slightest and Jared knows it's not just because of the alcohol.

"What the fuck is your deal, huh?"

Only falling back a half a step, Jared quickly recovers and presses into Jensen's space.

"What the fuck is my deal?" he shoots back, hands twitching at his sides, balling into fists before he forces himself to relax them. "I'm just trying to do my fucking job!"

"Yeah, well your fucking job is to back off and let me do mine!"

"My job is get shit done when you can't!"

He barely gets the words out before his right cheek explodes in pain, a throbbing flash that sends him reeling. He reacts with barely a thought, launching forward, one fist connecting with Jensen's stomach as the other struggles with Jensen's flailing arm. Jensen's seething, skin hot under Jared's grip and they grapple in a standstill for a few long seconds, both breathing hard as they fight the hold.

"Think you're so fuckin' great, don't you?" Jensen snarls, practically spitting the words. Jared can't help the way his eyes drop to Jensen's lips, catching on the shine left by saliva, wet and inviting. "Think you're some-- some superstar or somethin'? Gonna just-- come right in here and be God's gift to football?"

Jared's not a good fighter and never has been. He's always had pure size on his side whenever it's been an issue and he ordinarily prefers to opt out of anything physical wherever possible. Which isn't to say he's a wuss, he just likes having his face in one piece. But Jensen's clearly not at his greatest at the moment, swung off balance by too much alcohol and too much anger and all Jared has to do is twist one long leg around Jensen's and push and the guy crumbles, both of them nearly crashing into the edge of Jensen's bed in the process before the floor catches them.

"Jesus, what the--"

Jared cuts him off with a growl, one hand tight around Jensen's wrist, holding him to the floor as Jensen thrashes beneath him.

"Motherfucker! Get the fuck off me!"

Jared shifts to straddle him, knees tucked in tight around his waist as Jensen does his best to buck him off, snarling and nearly spitting with anger.

"Would you-- Jesus, calm the fuck down!" Jared snaps, but Jensen's clearly not listening, still grappling violently and Jared bears down, stretched out to hold Jensen's arms in place, leaning close enough to smell the mint-and-alcohol mix on Jensen's breath, near enough to--

He freezes the second he feels it: the hard length of Jensen's dick through their Jared's shorts and Jensen's jeans. His breath catches high in his throat and Jensen seems to get it at the same time, his eyes going wide, pupils blown dark, breath a hot puff of air against Jared's cheek.

They stay like that, panting in the silence of the room as the moment stretches, just staring at each other, Jared's heart trying to hammer its way out of his chest.

When he moves again, it's without thought, just a quick, sharp tilt of his hips, hands still wrapped around Jensen's forearms, keeping him in place. He gets a muffled groan in reply, the sound melting its way down Jared's back and settling low and he ducks forward. Jensen smells like a dark mixture of liquor, nicotine and sweat and Jared breathes it in deep as his hips move.

Jensen doesn't say a word, but Jared can feel his breath catching with each rolling movement, the answering hitch of his hips, the small strip of skin against skin where his own shirt rides up. He loosens his grip on Jensen's arms and Jensen immediately takes advantage of it, yanking one hand free. But he doesn't push Jared away at all, just reaches to grabs at the front of Jared's shirt, fingers stretching the fabric.

"Fuck," Jared grunts, lost in the sensation, his lips bumping against the shell of Jensen's ear. Beneath him, Jensen shudders and then arches upward, almost like he's fighting it except that his hand moves from Jared's shirt to his ass, forcibly keeping him there. Jared tightens his grip on Jensen's arm, fumbling to support his weight with the other as his hips begin moving of their own accord. Jensen's breathing is loud in his ear, a ragged rhythm that mixes harsh and incongruous with his own, heat building between them and Jared pulls back a little, wanting to see the look on Jensen's face for reasons he can't quite explain.

Jensen's eyes are shut, brows furrowed like he's in pain, biting down on his bottom lip and Jared's hips snap forward again as he lets out a harsh breath, barely managing to hold back from growling at Jensen to open his eyes.

Instead, he lets his body speak for him, working harder and rougher as he releases his hold, slips his hand under Jensen's shirt. Jensen's skin is hot and Jared touches greedily. Dark eyes snap open and lock on Jared's and Jared feels his breath get stuck in his throat as Jensen's fingers fumble at the waistband of his shorts. There's no real intention behind it, nothing beyond clumsy, desperate groping and Jared drops forward again, his forehead connecting with Jensen's jaw as he fights down the sounds threatening to bubble out of him at the feel of Jensen's cock, thick and hard against his own.

It's utterly quiet except for their stilted grunts and rough pants and it stays that way even when Jared's orgasm hits him, his mouth falling open in a silent moan as his body shudders, hips still pressing forward and dick pulsing in his shorts, slicking the inside like he hasn't done since high school.

Beneath him, he feels Jensen's muscles tighten, feels the second Jensen inhales, chest expanding under Jared's. And Jared's barely thinking as his hand fumbles down between them, grazing the embarrassingly wet fabric of his shorts before cupping the length of Jensen's dick through his jeans. It's like Jared's clipped a wire, Jensen's hips snapping forward into Jared's palm as he lets out a soft, ragged cry, head dropping back against the carpet, one hand gripping Jared's t-shirt, the other bruising his bicep.

There's suddenly not enough air in the room, the walls closing in as Jared wraps his fingers around the length of Jensen's dick as much as he can, feels it twitch against his palm.

"C'mon," he grunts, head ducking briefly to stare down the length of Jensen's bare skin, making out the muscles in his abdomen as they clench tight, glistening faintly with sweat. He only glances up again when Jensen whimpers, their faces mere centimeters apart. Jensen's nostrils flare and he keeps his mouth tightly shut, pinched as his hips continue to rock into Jared's palm. A drop of sweat slides down the length of Jensen's jaw and Jared leans down to taste it just as Jensen's hips surge upward, cock pulsing against Jared's hand. "Yeah," he breathes, squeezing gently as Jensen continues to ride it out.

His other arm shakes with the effort of holding his weight and Jared finally gives into it, falling away, smashed between Jensen's prone form and his bed, blinking sightlessly at the ceiling.

When he turns his head, he's not surprised so notice that Jensen still has his eyes closed, chest heaving with short, tight breaths. He looks wrecked, his hair messed in every direction, cheeks flushed and bottom lip bitten red. Jared doesn't say a word and Jensen doesn't so much as look at him as he shakily get to his feet. He stumbles back into the bathroom and, this time, Jared doesn't strain to listen for him.

Instead, he silently changes out of his shorts and uses the cloth to haphazardly wipe himself clean before putting on a clean pair.

When he slips into bed seconds later, Jensen's still not out of the bathroom.

Chapter Text

Jared sits with Chad on the plane ride back to Dallas. It's a quiet flight, the mood from the loss not yet lifted and Jared feels Chad watching him closely an hour or so into it.

"What?" he murmurs, head tipped back against his seat.

"Coupla guys heard you and Ackles goin' at it last night," Chad says, his voice low and scratchy from lack of use and Jared's pulse leaps in panic until he realizes Chad's talking about the fight.

As soon as his heart works free of this throat, Jared says, "We're fine," and, when Chad doesn't look convinced, Jared rolls his eyes. "Seriously. It's fine. Let it go."

There's still a mass of fans waiting for them when they get off the plane, some cheering as loud as always, but a handful jeering instead. Jared winces when he hears a 'Get rid of Ackles!' ring out through the crowd and can't tell if Jensen had heard it or not.

A bus takes them back to Valley Ranch where they immediately file into the building's main meeting room, Coach Kripke busy setting up the projector in the front. Coach Morgan is off to the side, leaning against the wall, arms crossed over his chest. Jared nods in his direction as he steps in and gets the tilt of a nod in return.

Kripke doesn't start the meeting with a big speech about how disappointed he is, just shows the game film with little commentary. It's not short. At the end, Kripke crosses his arms over his chest and says, "We have a long week ahead of us. If there's anybody in here not ready, tell me know now and I'll show you the door."

After a short break for lunch, they head onto the field, which is where the real punishment begins. Kripke wears them down with wind sprints and conditioning drills before breaking them off into their positions for more in-depth drills.

Tuesday is more of the same, with the added bonus of scrimmaging. The Bears' biggest weapon is running back, Gaius Charles, and Coach Singer has the defense practicing specific schemes and routes to stop him. They outfit Brock in a red number 20 jersey and slip him into the offense as they test out specific plays.

"It's like wearin' a backwards target," Brock says later, panting as he wipes at the sweat clinging to his forehead. "Like... they're all aimin' for me, right? But then, just when I'm expecting a monster hit... nothin'! Coitus interruptus, man. Seriously."

Jared chuckles, his helmet tucked under one arm. "Now you know how it feels to be a QB."

"Yeah, now I know why you guys can't take a hit for shit."

They have another position meeting later that day in which Coach Morgan pulls up film of the Bears' last game against the Eagles and they compare and contrast them with the Cowboys' offense, working out the apparent patterns and best counter strategies. Kripke's drawn up a few new play schemes for the game and Coach Morgan goes over each one meticulously, tells them they have until tomorrow to get every variation and audible memorized.

He doesn't mention which of them will be starting and Jared isn't about to ask.

Wednesday and Thursday are spent putting the new routes into action, Brock and Danny switching off wearing the redshirt while Jared spends some time with special teams, still holding for extra point kicks.

After Friday's walk-through, Kripke calls them all in, says, "You guys have practiced hard this week. Real, real hard. I'm proud of you. Impressed even. But if you can't take what we've done here and apply it to game time, it's all useless, I want you to remember that. We are not a losing team right now, but we're not a winning team either. Now I know you guys are better than what you showed me on Sunday. I know it. You just have to prove it to everyone else."

It's a short speech and quietly given, but it seems to get through before Kripke nods at Chad.

"Cowboys on three!" Chad shouts, fist in the air. "One-two-three-COWBOYS!"

:::

They leave for Chicago early Saturday morning. They're nearing the half of the season with a 3-3 record, which isn't yet catastrophic, but it certainly isn't good. They need to do a hell of a lot better if they have any hope of reaching the playoffs. The energy on the flight is slightly subdued, though a few guys -- namely Hurd and Tashard -- try their best to rouse spirits. Hurd wanders the aisles of the plane with his camcorder in hand, doing impromptu interviews that are far too vulgar to ever make their way to the public while Tashard demonstrates the nuances of Slide, a game of his own invention that basically consists of sneaking up on and tapping a teammate in various different modes and scenarios.

Once in Chicago, Kripke rattles off the names for the network interviews. "Alright, we got Ackles, Murray, Ware, Padalecki and Choice," he says and then glances up, eyes locking on Jared's. Jared's stunned quiet, surprised to hear his name, but listens attentively. "They're gonna ask you who's starting," and Jared nods. It's been all local media can talk about for the past week and Kripke's been tight-lipped in his answers. If he's completely honest, Jared wants to know, too and Kripke just eyes him for a second and finally says, "It's Ackles. Feel free to share."

The interviews are set to start in the late afternoon, which gives Jared enough time to drop off his stuff and grab lunch. He takes the elevator up with Jensen, the tension between them still nearly palpable.

When Jared's had enough, he tips his head back to watch the numbers tick upward. "I'm glad it's you, y'know," he says.

Jensen glances over at him, but doesn't say anything, just exits when the elevator slows to a stop and the doors slide open.

Their room is at the very end of the hall and Jared keeps his distance as Jensen slots in the keycard. Once inside, Jensen heads straight for the bed nearest the window, sets his bag on the bedspread.

"There's a pretty decent Thai place not far from here," Jensen says after a moment or two of silence, the sound of his voice catching Jared by surprise.

Given the choice between Thai and something huge and greasy from any number of burger joints, Jared's going to choose the million calories any day, but he can recognize an olive branch when he sees one and his lips twitch into a bare smile, says, "Sounds good."

They get their food to go and eat on their beds with the television tuned to the World Series. It's the fourth game and the Phillies are up by three in the fifth and, for the first time all week, it's comfortable. Even in complete silence.

"'s good," Jared says between a mouthful of noodles.

"Gotta do pizza here later," Jensen says after he's swallowed his own bite. "Maybe dinner?"

"Dude, I'm all over that," Jared says, face stretching into a grin. Jeter hits a ball to left field and makes it to first and Jensen punches the air in celebration and, if Jared tries hard enough, he can almost forget how Jensen had looked while coming apart beneath him.

At the top of the 7th, Chad bangs on their door. "Jaybird! Jennybean! Stop jerkin' each other off and get out here!"

It's just Chad being Chad, but it hits way too close to the truth and he nearly chokes on his Coke. But Jensen hardly seems to notice, quickly flipping off the television and answering the door with a, "Dude, if you call me that one more time, I swear to God you will never see your sac again."

"No way in hell you could catch me," Chad says and then peeks over Jensen's shoulder. "JT! My man! You ready to get this bullshit started?"

"Hell yeah," Jared says even as his stomach does an uncomfortable flip.

"You know who's gonna be there, right?" Chad says as he presses the button for the mezzanine level.

Jared doesn't. He never knows he sees the field reporter or until someone else mentions what's airing on television. It's not like it ever has any bearing on the game anyway.

"Aikman," Chad says with a knowing tilt of his head and Jared's eyes go wide.

"Shit. Seriously?"

"Try not to act like too big a tool, 'kay? Think you can do that?"

"Fuck you," Jared says with a rough, strained laugh as his stomach threatens to drop out.

Chad gives him a hard smack on the back. "There's the spirit!"

Tashard is waiting outside the door when they get there, sitting in a chair just outside the room. Chad's up next and he runs a hand down the front of his shirt, pressing out the non-existent wrinkles before checking his hair in the reflection of the framed picture on the wall.

"Dude," Jared snorts.

Chad throws him a quick glance. Says, "Hey, I have an image to uphold," as he slicks one eyebrow and then the other. "Can't go in there and disappoint."

DeMarcus comes out smiling a few minutes later and fills them in on a few of the questions they'd thrown his way. "Pretty much the usual. Lotta shit about last week, but that's about it. Wanna know if we have anything planned to take care of Charles."

It doesn't sound too intimidating, nothing Jared can't handle. Chad heads in next and Jensen makes a show of leaning back in his chair, legs stretched out and head tipped back.

"How long does he usually take?" Jared asks as he takes his own seat.

"Oh, only an hour or two."

"Got Ms. Harris in there," Tashard says, lips curved in a smirk.

Jensen groans then and shakes his head. "Right. Okay, maybe a little longer. In fact, we should probably go ahead and call for that pizza."

As predicted, Chad takes his sweet time. While waiting, Jared, Jensen and Tashard discuss the merits of Tarantino which leads into a heavier discussion on Uma Thurman's acting abilities.

"Okay, you're gonna laugh, but I really liked that one she did with Janeane Garofalo," Jared admits and Tashard lets out a howl of laughter.

"That gay-ass one when were she tells people not to fuck their pets?"

"Hey, it was cute," Jared says, realizing a second too late that it's not the best way of defending himself.

Jensen proves him right, smirking as he says, "Yeah, if you're a thirteen year old girl."

"I liked the dog?"

Thankfully, Chad steps out then, all smiles as he holds the door open.

"Next!" he calls out and Jensen gets to his feet. "Please remember to keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times and your seats in an upright and locked position," Chad continues, ducking as Jensen tries to shove him.

"So?" Jared asks once the door's closed, looking up at Chad expectantly.

"Dude, she is smokin' hot, Jesus Christ."

Jared refrains from rolling his eyes. "What'd they ask?"

"You mean aside from my phone number?"

"I really don't need to picture Troy Aikman asking you out on a date, but thanks."

"Or Joe Buck," Tashard adds.

"Or Joe Buck," Jared agrees.

"Fuck you both," Chad says, but there's no heat in his words and he nods toward the door. "Not like it fuckin' matters anyway. Chick's got it bad for Jenny."

Jared frowns, confused and Chad shrugs, lifts one hand to unsnap the top button of his shirt. "Yeah, I don't get it either, but she's totally wet for him. Like, Troy and Joe are asking about our formations and shit, our playoff outlook and all that bullshit and with Danneel it's all, 'Will we see any action from Ackles on the field today?' and 'And what does Ackles think about blahblahblah?' " He punctuates the comment with a lewd flick of his wrist.

"You're pathetic," Jared says and Chad flips him off.

"Seriously. I wouldn't be surprised if she's asking him to marry her right now. With a ring and everything."

"Dude would be stupid to say no," Tashard points out and Jared feels a startling spike of jealousy, blood rushing hot in his veins. It makes his smile falter and slip away a half a second before he can catch himself.

"I know, right?" Chad says. "Shit ain't fair." He looks at Jared again and nods down the hall. "I'm gonna head out. You think you can handle yourself here, JT or do I need to stay and hold your dick for you?"

"Wow, thanks," Tashard mutters. "Really coulda done without that mental image."

"I'm fine," Jared says and Chad gives him a skeptical look. "Dude, go. Seriously. Loser."

Chad tosses him another loose grin before finally leaving and Jared relaxes back again.

"Hey, man, just between you and me," Tashard says after a few quiet moments, "I liked that movie, too. Jeanine Garofalo's kinda hot in a weird way."

Jared smirks, but Tashard doesn't look at him, shame clear in his profile. "Thanks, man," he says with a low chuckle.

Jensen doesn't take nearly as long as Chad had, stepping out around twenty minutes later. "Tashard?"

Tashard takes a deep breath and gives Jared a salute before ducking behind Jensen into the room.

Jared sits up on the edge of his seat, palms rubbing over the knees of his slacks as the door closes.

"It's really not a big deal," he says and when Jared can only nod, Jensen laughs and crosses his arms over his chest, gives Jared a scrutinizing look. "What're you so worried about anyway? You're the team's golden boy, Jay. And after last week..."

It still feels like a touchy subject, the mention of it making Jared hesitate, waiting to see just exactly how Jensen plans on finishing that sentence.

But Jensen only smiles and takes a seat in the chair beside Jared as he lets out a breath. "They'll probably just ask you the same shit you've been gettin' all week."

"Yeah, I know," Jared says because he does. On an intellectual level anyway. It's not the interview he's nervous about so much as sitting in the same room as one of his boyhood idols. It's more than a little surreal.

They fall into silence and Jared takes a breath, says, "So, you and Danneel Harris..."

He doesn't really know where it comes from, but he can't deny he wants to know and he looks over, sees a muscle in Jensen's jaw twitch.

"Danny's a friend."

"Uh-huh," Jared says.

"She knows more about this game and this business than just about anyone. Utterly professional and incredibly good at what she does."

"Oh yeah?" Jared says in a knowing, teasing one, his smile strained. "And what exactly does she do?"

"Dude. You need to stop listening to Chad."

Jared shrugs, smile still pasted on his face. There's something there, something Jensen isn't telling him and he's determined to get it eventually. "Hey, there's a little truth to every rumor. Just sayin'."

Jensen huffs a laugh and leans forward, elbows on his knees. "Like I said: she's a good friend and a true professional," he says, turning to look at Jared straight on. "Getting both in one package is a rare thing in this league. Shouldn't be taken lightly."

"Oh, that's not cryptic or anything," Jared says with a snort, propping his elbows on his knees to rest his chin on his knuckles. "Spill it, dude. You bangin' her?"

He gets an arched eyebrow in reply, Jensen's lips thinning into an unamused frown.

Jared knows better than to keep pressing, but he does it anyway, a slow smile curving his lips, twisted and fake. "Isn't there a rule about mixing with the media?" he says. "I mean-- maybe not official or anything, but it seems kinda skeevy."

"Dude, are you listening to me at all?"

There's just enough irritation in Jensen's tone to make Jared finally give it a rest, his smile faltering.

"She's a friend, man. That's it. And yeah, she's done what she can to help my career and I've done what little I can to help hers. Because that's what friends do. You think it's been easy for her to get where she is? She's surrounded all day by jackasses like fuckin' Chad Michael Murray who only care how far she can spread her legs and not the fact that she could probably accurately predict right now who the top two seeds of the league will be for the playoffs. She knows what the fuck she's talking about and ninety-nine percent of the league doesn't care purely because she has an extra X chromosome."

Jared swallows, feeling properly chastised, clears his throat before looking away again.

"Seriously, man," Jensen says. "Figured you of all people wouldn't be like that."

"That's not--," Jared says quickly, but stops himself with a huff. "I was just curious is all. Alright? I've seen her stuff, man. I know she's good."

Jensen doesn't look entirely convinced, but his expression softens.

There's another long stretch of silence before Jensen says, "Gotta admit, it's kinda fun watching Chad get rejected over and over again."

They settle into another silence, the kind that balances on the line between comfortable and awkward and Jared can't keep his mind from wandering to the things Jensen had carefully not said when talking about Danneel Harris, the areas he'd left nice and ambiguous. It's frustrating and a little infuriating, but Jared can't ask now. Jensen's made it absolutely clear that the topic isn't open for discussion.

He doesn't have much time to dwell on it as Tashard steps out minutes later.

"All yours, Jay," he says, holding the door open.

The room is smaller than Jared had imagined, less official-looking. There's a single long table in the middle, chairs lining either side with one empty seat that Jared presumes is meant for him.

"Hey," he says, smiling nervously as he closes the door.

"Hiya, Jared," Troy Aikman says -- Troy Aikman -- lips twisting in that familiar half-smile as he nods at the chair. "Please take a seat."

Jared manages to do so without humiliating himself, knees knocking briefly against the edge of the table as he scoots forward. There are a few people there Jared doesn't recognizes and he assumes they're the directors or producers, the guys behind the cameras that nobody ever really sees or talks about. Danneel's the only woman and she's writes furiously on her pad of paper before glancing up, catching him watching her.

She flashes a smile, cocks her head to one side. "Well, hey, there, Boy Wonder."

Jared flushes, breathing a laugh as he leans forward.

It reminds Jared of a more formal and less demeaning press conference where they actually give him time to answer the questions and don't interrupt by waving their hands in the air or flashing a camera light into his face. They ask all the expected questions, wanting to know about their miserable performance against the Vikings, Jared's first serious shot at leading the offense in a game that matters, the mistakes he thinks he made that week, the things he's learned. Jared surprises himself with how quickly he becomes comfortable with the whole thing and, by the time they get to the question about who'll start against the Bears, Jared tells them.

"He's still the leader of this team," he says. "And I still have a lot to learn, you know? Honestly, I don't think there was any question this week; Kripke just likes messin' with you guys. Keeps it interesting."

Joe and Troy both chuckle and Jared is once again suddenly reminded that he's being interviewed by arguably the best quarterback in franchise history.

"Well, I think that should do it," says one of the other men, straightening his stack of papers. "Thank you, Jared. And good luck tomorrow."

Relieved to not have made an enormous ass of himself, Jared stands and reaches across the table to shake the man's hand. "Thank you, sir," he says and then makes his way around the table. Troy Aikman's standing when Jared gets to him and Jared refrains from asking for his autograph before moving onto Danneel. Her hand is small in his grip, but firm and her lips twitch into a coy grin.

"I have a feeling I'll be talking to you on the field soon," she says and Jared grins.

"Next year."


Ackles back in the saddle, Cowboys stomp Bears
4:06 PM Sun, Oct. 25, 2009
Sophia Bush

Despite his lackluster performance in the first half of last week's game and subsequent benching, Jensen Ackles was again in the starting spot today as the Cowboys took on the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. And, while the first quarter seemed to be a sad repeat of Minnesota, it appears as though someone managed to remind the sixth year veteran to eat his Wheaties before the start of the second quarter. Two drives downfield resulted in a Chicago lead of only four points instead of fourteen by the end of the half.

While the third quarter was dominated by the defense all around, the fourth quarter garnered a total of 25 points. A 14-yard run by Felix Jones, followed by a successful two-point conversion courtesy of Ackles and Chad Michael Murray brought the Cowboys to a lead for the first time all afternoon. A Marion Barber run shortly before the two-minute warning broadened their lead and the last nail in the coffin occurred less than a minute later with a 14-yard pass from Ackles to Hodge, bringing the final score to 35-14. With Nick Folk's field goal earlier in the fourth, the Cowboys scored a franchise record of 25 points in a single quarter.

Ackles finished the game completing 19 of 23 passes, including one for a touchdown and one for a two-point conversion and had a single interception. Despite not scoring, Murray had his first 100+ yard game of the season while Felix Jones ran for 92 yards, bringing his total for the season up to 616.

While undoubtedly a solid and much-needed win for the Cowboys, it's unlikely the Ackles/Padalecki controversy will die down anytime soon. If nothing else, this latest game only serves to reinforce Ackles' inconsistency. How badly must the Cowboys lose next time before Kripke finally benches him for good?


Jared has absolutely no idea what time it is when he and Jensen leave the bar to stumble back to the hotel. They laugh the entire way through the elevator ride, Jensen having to block the buttons when Jared attempts to make good on his threat to press every single one.

"But they light up!" he says, lunging for them again only to be stopped by Jensen's quick hipcheck.

"Dude, does booze make you regress?"

Jared laughs and rests back against the wall. "Oooh, regress. Good word!" he says, giggling as he makes another feeble lurch toward the buttons as the bell dings and the doors open.

Jensen's groan sounds half amused and half exasperated as he grabs hold of Jared's shoulders and shoves him into the hall.

"Oops," Jared says as he nearly knocks over the large potted plant just outside the elevator. He stops to catch it as Jensen sways down the hall and, once sure that the plant isn't going anywhere, he follows, catching up just as Jensen manages to get the door to their room open.

"Dude, seriously, stupidest place to put a plant ever," he says, flicking the light switch as Jensen falls back onto his bed. "Bet they get knocked over all the time. By, like... kids." He leans over, using the wall for support as he tries to kicks his shoes off. "Or dogs. Bet dogs knock 'em over all the time. Like. With their tails and stuff."

"This isn't the kinda hotel that allows pets, Jay," Jensen murmurs, the words slow and lazy. Jared lifts his head to look at him and feels a familiar surge of warmth at the way Jensen's stretched out, arms spread across the mattress and eyes closed. "Fuck, the room's spinning."

"Every place allows pets," Jared says, grunting when he manages to get his second shoe off and then stumbles forward. "Just gotta have enough money."

He bypasses his own bed and drops down onto Jensen's instead, face first and half sprawled over Jensen's prone form.

Jensen grunt, lifts a hand to punch at Jared's arm, but it's weak and ineffective.

"Got your own," Jensen points out, his hand lying over Jared's arm once he gives up on the punching.

"Better here," Jared says, words muffled against the mattress.

"It's 'cause of me, right?" Jensen says. "'Cause I'm so awesome."

"Mmm," Jared replies. It doesn't come out sounding like confirmation even if that's exactly what it is and he groans as he tries to shift his weight, head turning to look at Jensen. The overhead light casts a strange shadow over Jensen's face, making his lashes look even longer than normal, freckles standing out against his cheeks. Jared tries counting them, but gets lost after the first ten and instead follows the slant of Jensen's nose down to his lips. "Better view," he decides and, realizing how stupid that sounds, starts laughing.

Jensen snorts out his own giggle and Jared stares at his lips, fascinated. They curve upward and, when Jensen tips his head back to let out a bright laugh, Jared's gaze trips down to the line of Jensen's throat, the bob of his Adam's apple.

"So drunk," he says once he's stopped laughing and Jared grunts another agreement, shifts to get more comfortable. Jensen's left arm is an unpleasant bump in the middle of his chest and he tries to maneuver around it with no luck.

"Dude," Jensen grumbles and Jared ignores him, still shifting with little care, a hand rested on Jensen's chest.

"You're lumpy," he says.

"Yeah, well you're fuckin' heavy," Jensen says, the words melting off into a groan as Jared continues to maneuver himself. The sound is shockingly familiar and sends a jolt of heat down Jared's spine. God, he loves that sound.

One leg slips in between Jensen's, which works well for Jared. Especially when Jensen groans again. He decides to stay there.

"Don't make a very good blanket," Jensen tells him, swatting uselessly at Jared's arm. But Jared's finally found a comfortable position and he sighs, lips hovering near the skin of Jensen's ear. He can smell cigarettes and booze and Jensen's cologne and he breathes it in deep, Jensen's hair tickling his nose.

"Jay..."

Jensen's voice is a whisper and Jared's not sure if it's a warning or a plea and doesn't really care either way. Jensen's body trembles beneath him when he exhales and that's all the answer he needs, his parted lips finally meeting warm, slightly stubbled skin. His tongue rasps over the small hairs to the salty skin just beneath and Jensen lets out a quiet, strained gasp.

"Jared."

Jared decides he really likes the way Jensen says his name.

His lips work up the length of Jensen's neck, stopping just below his ear before two rough hands work their way to his chest and shove. Jared lets out a strangled, disappointed grunt as he finds himself pushed away, hard enough that he nearly falls off the side of the bed, half catching himself by grappling with the bedspread.

"Jens--" The word gets cut off when the mattress lifts slightly and the comforter shifts, Jared's weight pulling it down as Jensen gets up and stumbles towards the bathroom. Jared's knee slides and crashes against the floor on the other side of the bed and he groans as a dull pain shoots up his leg, the sound swiftly rolling into helpless laughter yet again. His fingers grip the comforter and he's sure he's brought half of it down with him, which, in his current state, seems absolutely hilarious.

"Jensen!" he calls out as he tries to climb his way back up. "Jensen, come back!"

With no small amount of difficulty, he crawls his way back onto Jensen's bed, heaving a sigh as he sprawls out on his back, arms spread wide. The room dips and sways beneath him when he closes his eyes and he quickly blinks them open again, stares up at the ceiling.

Jesus, he's drunk.

He's drunk and he just kind of tried to make out with Jensen's neck. Or maybe his ear. He's not really sure.

Snorting a laugh, he rubs a hand over his face and tries not to break out into embarrassing giggles again. "Jenseeeeeen," he whines, the sound muffled behind his palm. "Man, I'm sorry, kay? Just-- really drunk. Come back. Come back and sleep! Sleep with me! Jensen!"

Getting nothing in response, Jared's voice gradually quiets and he lets his eyes slip shut again.

"Jensen?" he tries again after a few moments of silence, lips tugging into a frown, worry starting to sneak in through the nausea.

Opening his eyes, he tries to push himself onto his elbows, groaning from the effort, face breaking into a relieved smile when he sees Jensen leaning against the door frame of the bathroom.

"Oh good," he says. "Thought you were pullin', like a... a Chris Farley or somethin'."

There are at least two Jensens weaving back and forth in front of him, but he's pretty sure both of them are scowling.

"You're really drunk," they say.

"Yep," Jared replies with a grin before he drops back down, head bouncing against the mattress. He shuts his eyes. "Really drunk. It's awesome, Jen. We're awesome. And you!" he adds, lifting an arm to point in what he thinks is Jensen's general direction, "you are awesome. With the-- you showed 'em, y'know? Showed 'em how awesome you are. So totally awesome."

His arm drops back down, landing heavy on his stomach and the room starts to spin again.

"You drunk, Jen?" he asks, his words getting lazier. He pulls in a slow breath that manages to calm his stomach for a moment, lets it out slow through his nose. "You should be drunk. We have-- minibar. We have a minibar. You should have more to drink, Jen. Celebration."

Again, there's only silence, but it doesn't worry him this time. He breathes in and then out, the room still spinning, but not so violently anymore. He doesn't know how much time has passed when he feels a slight dip in the mattress, a press of warmth along his side.

"Mmm," he says, squirming lethargically as he turns his head. "Jen?"

"Shhh."

Jared snorts at the sound and finally manages to get his eyes open, lips curving upward again when he sees Jensen's silhouette leaning over him. Jensen had apparently turned the lights off at some point because it's dark now, too dark for Jared to really make out Jensen's face even with him so close. And that kinda sucks.

"You drunk?" he asks again, managing to move one heavy arm, fingers catching in the fabric of Jensen's shirt and pulling. It's not a very hard tug, but it gets the job done, Jensen dropping onto him with an undignified ooomphf.

Jensen's laugh sounds a little off, but Jared doesn't focus on it long, instead using all his energy to slip his hand under Jensen's shirt, skimming over the warm skin underneath.

"Yeah," he hears Jensen say, breath hitching quietly on the word. "Yeah, I'm pretty drunk."

"Good," Jared replies and slides his hand higher up Jensen's side, feeling when Jensen inhales. "That mean I can blow you?"

Jensen answers with a sharp groan, hips arching against him. Jared can't tell if Jensen's hard or not, but he's hoping.

"Fuck," Jensen breathes on an exhale, warm air brushing Jared's neck, making him tip his head back.

His grin only widens. "Mmm. I'mma take that as a yes," he says.

And then everything goes black.

:::

The phone wakes him the next morning, a sharp ring that stabs through his skull with the force of approximately forty steak knives.

He growls in retaliation and flails one arm out, knocking the phone off its cradle, the other reaching up to rub at his face. He smells like cigarettes and his mouth tastes like ass and he just lies there for awhile, praying for his own death before realizing he's in the wrong bed. And also mostly unclothed.

Glancing over, he notices Jensen passed out on the other bed -- his bed -- his hair peaking out in unruly tufts above the comforter, back to Jared.

Jared pulls in another deep breath and tries to ignore the slow, steady pounding inside his cranium as he sits up, takes care of the morning itch inside his shorts and swings his feet to the floor. Everything starts to come back to him in dulled, hazy flashes as he makes his way to the bathroom: the bar with Chad and Aldis and a few of the other guys, stumbling back early with Jensen, nearly knocking over the stupid plant. And then-- then the taste of Jensen's neck under his mouth, the weight of him, the slurred words.

That mean I can blow you?

Oh God.

His stomach does an abrupt turn and Jared stumbles into the bathroom, the door shutting behind him with a click. And, okay, he doesn't think he'd gotten that far -- he's pretty sure he'd remember getting Jensen's cock in his mouth no matter how drunk -- but that he'd actually said it at all is what gets him. He'd said it and Jensen had... fuck. What had Jensen done?

It probably shouldn't be that surprising considering what they've already done, but Jared had been able to chalk that up to the fight, to two guys with too much anger and nowhere to funnel it.

Nevermind the fact that Jared's been in countless screaming matches before that never once ended with him coming in his shorts, but whatever. That's not the point.

The point is he'd actually offered to blow Jensen. And Jensen had-- well, that parts hazy, but he's pretty sure Jensen hadn't said no.

Suddenly, Jared doesn't know if he's grateful for passing out or angry for not being aware enough to seize the chance while he'd had it.

A larger part is trying not to imagine the stricken, sickened look on Sandy's face if she were to ever find out.

He tries to force that thought out of his head as he steps out of his boxers and takes a leak, his bladder emptying what feels like a week's worth of liquid. After, he avoids looking at himself in the mirror and steps into the hotel's generously-sized shower, turning the water on as hot as it will go, the streams pounding into his sore muscles, making him feel a tiny bit more alive.

After just standing under the spray for a long few minutes, he finally gets around to washing, his dick gives a subtle interested twitch when he runs the soapy washcloth over himself. He contemplates it for only a second and then leans forward, forearm braced against the tiled wall. Water sluices down his back as he drops the washcloth over the faucet and takes himself in hand.

It doesn't make his head feel any better at all, but he frankly doesn't care. He takes his time, lets his hips get into the action as the pleasure builds low in his spine. He closes his eyes and sees Jensen beneath him, his spit-slick, opened lips and dark green eyes, the dark flutter of his eyelashes against reddened cheeks. Jensen on his knees, his mouth wrapped around Jared's dick. The both of them against a wall, grappling at clothing, tearing at each other, Jensen's hand in Jared's hair, Jared's hand down the front of Jensen's pants. Heated, bruising kisses. Jensen's teeth on his skin. Jared's tongue on the crease of Jensen's hipbone.

Biting down on his bottom lip, he quickens the pace, wrist twisting as his fingers brush back, skimming over the swell of his balls, drawn up tight. He clings to the sensation, holding it in tight before surrendering completely, his mouth falling open on a soundless moan as he shoots, hot and stringy against the blue tile.

He blinks his eyes open, water dripping off the end of his nose and jaw. The pounding inside his skull resumes seconds later and he reluctantly lets go of his dick and stands up straight, water beating over his shoulders and his chest. He rinses his hand and then the wall, making sure to leave no evidence before turning off the spray.

He dries off with a towel that was clearly made for someone half his size and, when he glances up again, catches sight of himself in the mirror. The light in the room is glaring, too bright. His reflection frowns back at him. It's not the first time he's jerked off thinking about another guy, but it still feels different. For one thing, Jensen's a teammate and they've already crossed some kind of line. A line Jared's definitely never crossed with a guy before, teammate or no. Whether or not it'll happen again is yet to be determined, but Jared can't deny that he wants to. God, does he want to. Which is wrong on a number of levels, the least of which has anything to do with him being mostly straight.

Clutching the towel in one fist, he drags it over his chest and up his neck, forces himself to think of his girlfriend, her soft curves and bright smile; her laugh and the way she has to stand on tip-toe to kiss him. She's gorgeous and perfect and everything Jared's ever wanted and Jensen... Jensen's just a distraction, he knows that. Mysterious and forbidden. Sandy is his future.

When Jared finally steps out of the bathroom, Jensen's still asleep, curled up facing the window.

"Hey," Jared says as he reaches out to try and locate Jensen's leg through the covers. "Hey, c'mon, man. Time to get up. Gotta be downstairs in twenty."

Only getting a grunt in reply, Jared gives another shake and Jensen finally opens his eyes, pulls in an abrupt breath. He blinks against the sun peeking in through the curtains and then turns his face toward Jared, squinting.

"Got about twenty minutes," Jared tells him as he goes to get his bag, pulls out jeans and a t-shirt.

He hears when Jensen grabs his glasses off the nightstand and pads his way to the bathroom, but doesn't risk looking, afraid of the mirrored recognition he'll see on Jensen's face. There's always the chance that Jensen won't remember anything and a bigger chance that, even if he does, he won't ever mention it.

Jared changes in silence, listening to the sound of the shower through the wall and leaves before he hears it stop.

He's one of the first to reach the lobby and immediately snaps his cellphone open, hits 2 on his speed dial. It rings twice before she picks up.

"Hey, baby, you leave yet?"

Chapter Text

Kripke awards them the day off when they reach Dallas, instructing everyone to go home and get some rest. Jared's so grateful, he barely refrains from dropping to his knees and kissing his coach's feet.

He spends the rest of his day lounging on the couch, playing X-box and catching up on Tivo. He makes himself two boxes of mac & cheese for dinner and calls his parents to get updated on their lives before calling Sandy again and listening to her talk about how Brian's coming along in his sessions and how fascinating her evolutionary psychology course is. She talks until Jared can barely keep his eyes open any longer and doesn't once think of Jensen.

He feels better the next morning and Coach Beaver brings in about twenty pounds of donuts for everyone to eat during the morning meeting. They're all completely demolished within the first hour.

Jared sits near the front with Jensen on one side and Chad on the other, which turns out to be a mistake when he finds he can barely concentrate on anything Kripke's saying, too focused on how Jensen's leg keeps brushing against his under the table. It's ridiculous and embarrassing, but he can't seem to stop himself.

As far as he can tell, Jensen's not having the same problem. Whenever Jared hazards a glance in his direction -- which he at least manages to keep to a minimum -- Jensen's staring straight ahead, chewing on the edge of his pen as Kripke goes over the plays they plan to use against San Francisco.

When they break for lunch, Jared stuffs his playbook and the few loose papers hanging out of it into his bag. He catches Jensen watching him for a second and pastes on the most genuine smile he can muster before ducking away.

Brock meets him near the double-doors, head cocked and lips curled in a loose grin. "Whataburger?" he says and Jared lets out a rush of a breath.

"God, yes."

They eat in Jared's car, parked just outside the restaurant, Jared with his usual -- double meat, double cheese with fries and a vanilla shake -- while Brock gets an order of chicken strips and onion rings and a large Diet Coke. Jared washes down a mouthful of fries and says, "So have you ever, uh..."

He trails off when he realizes he doesn't know exactly what he's asking or even why.

Brock eyes him curiously over his straw. "What?" he asks after he swallows, lips twitching into a near smile.

Jared hesitates again and then shakes his head. "Naw, man, forget it. Just thinkin' too much."

"No, what?" Brock says, still smiling, like he's expecting Jared to tell him a joke.

Jared's smile twists slightly and he glances down at the spread of fries in his lap, dips two of them in to the puddle of ketchup. "You ever, uh," he starts, glancing up to look out at the wall of the store across the street. It's grey and chipped, a bramble of weeds crawling up the side like an infestation. "Like, with a teammate?" he finally manages to finish.

He darts a glance at Brock in time to catch the slow realization creep in, the guy's smile dropping as the entire mood shifts.

"Uhm."

"Yeah, nevermind. Stupid question," Jared says quickly, ignoring the flush of heat that spreads over his cheeks. "You been keepin' up on the baseball playoffs? I'm kinda hopin' for the Mariners."

It's an obvious, awkward attempt to shift the subject and Brock doesn't say anything. Jared stuffs the ketchup-dipped fries in his mouth and returns to staring out the window.

"No," Brock says after a long, agonizing moment. "Never with a teammate."

He watches Jared with large, too-green eyes and Jared notices for the first time how similar he looks to Jensen with his long lashes and full lips, all Jensen's features bizarrely exaggerated.

He swallows his bite, wipes a hand across his mouth and tries to appear nonchalant. "You ever thought about it?"

Brock's lips twitch into a near smile. "You worried about me checkin' you out in the locker room, man?"

Giving a quiet, self-conscious laugh, Jared shakes his head. "Just-- you ever been on a team with a guy and... I dunno. Stuff happened?"

Brock appears to think about it for a moment and Jared tries not to fidget, takes another large drink of his shake.

"Well, there was college," Brock says, looking slightly more nervous. "Nothing, uh... nothing major. Nothing nobody ever needs to talk about, y'know?"

Jared isn't entirely certain what that means, unsure on what's considered major and he keeps his mouth shut.

"Look, this isn't..." Brock says and then stops himself abruptly, rubs a hand over his forehead. "It's-- kinda like bein' two different people. Only one of them doesn't really get out all that much and I spend most of my time hiding the fact that he exists at all. Not because-- I mean, not because I'm ashamed or whatever. Not because I don't know what I like or what I want, but because I love football more than anything and always have and getting caught with some guy's dick in my mouth is the fastest way to ensure I never play again."

Jared winces a little and looks away, staring guiltily at the dashboard.

"I haven't been with anyone in two years," Brock continues, voice quieter. "Can't risk it."

Somehow, Jared isn't surprised by that, but actually hearing it laid out, stark and real and depressing, makes something heavy settle in his bones.

"So what?" he asks after a long moment. "You just... stay celibate the whole time you're playing?"

Brock laughs then, but it's stilted, something about it not quite right. "Dude, I'm on the practice squad," he says, picking up an onion ring. "I'm takin' what I can get right now. Coupla years from now I'll be out... I dunno. Workin' as a car salesman back home or somethin'. Maybe not even that long."

"And what if you're not? What if you get signed somewhere and find your stride? What if it's not just a couple years?"

Brocks snorts. "Those are some big ifs."

"It's possible," Jared argues. "It's absolutely possible, man. And then what? You really tellin' me you can go without sex for however long you're in the league? Seriously?"

"Dude, my right hand is good for more than just catching."

"It's so not the same thing."

"That's what porn is for."

"Are you secretly a monk?"

Brock laughs then, sharp and bright and Jared can't help but smile. Just a little. "You know many monks with porn collections?"

Jared shrugs, relaxing slightly. "Well, you're the first, but I haven't met too many monks in general. Could be more."

He gets another laugh at that before Brock takes a sip of his drink and they slip into an easier silence.

"Why'd you ask anyway?" Brock asks after a few quiet moments and Jared feels something inside clench tight as he shakes his head.

"No reason," he says, dipping another fry into his ketchup.

He doesn't check to see if Brock believes him, just shoves the fry into his mouth and starts chewing.

"Are you hitting on me?"

Jared's eyes go wide and he sputters, heat flushing his cheeks as he immediately shakes his head. "No! No, I'm-- dude, what? No!" Brock frowns, like he's trying to work out whether or not Jared's lying. "Seriously, I'm not-- I mean, I don't think there's anything wrong with-- I just don't--"

Brock's expression shifts then, clears into open amusement. "Okay, chill," he says, reaching over to pat Jared's knee. "Not gonna lie, though. You kinda got my hopes up," he adds with a teasing wink.

:::

With the 49ers currently the league's only winless team, the Cowboys are heavily favored. But Coach Kripke, as always, refuses to let his players think of their opponent as anything less than legitimate Super Bowl contenders. Coach Morgan shows them tapes of their strongest defensive ends, the two guys most likely to beat the O-line and force the quarterback to pass. They study habits and patterns, change the formations just slightly to accommodate and counter, relearn a slew of new audibles. It's a long week like any other, but with the constant reminder to not underestimate the enemy.

There's a team Halloween party Friday at Chad's and, as far as Jared knows, most of the guys are going, along with a few significant others, though Sandy can't make it as she's promised to help out with the center's own Halloween party.

"Should go as the Incredible Hulk," Jensen tells him as they're leaving practice that afternoon.

Grinning, Jared shakes his head. "Way too much green paint involved."

"Sure you could manage."

"I have sensitive skin."

Jensen snorts and turns a smile on Jared that he should really be used to by now, blinding and uninhibited. It still always manages to catch him off guard. "Right. Well, as long as you remember to exfoliate, I'm sure you'll be fine."

"N'aw, I got my costume already picked out," he says, but refuses to divulge anything else even when Jensen arches an inquisitive eyebrow. "Better show up, man. You don't, I'll come and hunt you down and drag you there myself."

"How very caveman," Jensen says dryly, but he nods as he pulls open the door of his truck. "I'll be there."

Later, at the party, Chad answers the door dressed in an over-sized plain white t-shirt and baggy jeans. He has a chunk of gold wrapped around his neck and a baseball cap turned backward and Jared smirks. "Again?"

"Shut up, it never gets old."

"Dude, Eminem hasn't been relevant in years."

"Whatever, Hasselhoff," Chad says, reaching forward to tug at the patch of clearly fake hair on Jared's chest.

Jared bats Chad's hand away and smooths over the fur almost reverently adjusts the red flotation device looped over his shoulder as he steps inside. "Just jealous you didn't think of it first."

Jensen shows up half an hour later dressed in leather pants, a mesh shirt, and huge boots. And sporting a truly impressive blue mohawk and bad British accent.

"Let me guess," Jared says, cradling a bottle of Coors against his chest. "Johnny Rotten."

"Fuck you," Jensen spits, clearly trying to hide a smile. "Rotten's a pissant."

Jensen keeps up the act for about fifteen more minutes as he works his way through the crowd of ridiculously-dressed teammates (Jared really wants to find out where the hell Sam got a Spongebob Squarepants outfit big enough to fit him) before finally dropping it. The transformation is apparent in the slope of Jensen's shoulders as he relaxes, melting back into himself and Jared's bizarrely relieved and disappointed at the same time.

By midnight, Jared's pleasantly buzzed. He's lost his red floaty thing and Jensen's stripped free of his mohawk. With the more alcohol Jared consumes, the more incapable he is of keeping his eyes off Jensen, his gaze consistently straying to the muscles just visible under Jensen's ridiculous see-through shirt.

It's well past three in the morning when the party starts to wind down and Jared grabs Jensen by the wrist, drags him back into Chad's laundry room, which is likely the only room in Chad's entire house left unoccupied. Jensen doesn't put up any real fight, a half empty bottle of Corona pressed to his lips as Jared shuts the door behind him and crowds him up against the washing machine.

"Jay," Jensen says with a laugh, like he doesn't understand what's going on, like it's some joke Jared hasn't let him in on yet.

"God, you look hot," Jared says, the words spilling out before passing through his brain first and Jensen immediately goes tense underneath him, leans back like he's trying to get away. And that's really not what Jared wants at all. He slides a hand between them, fingers gripping at the mesh of Jensen's shirt as he leans in closer, ducks his head into Jensen's neck.

"Jared--" There's an edge to his voice this time, half warning and half plea and Jared doesn't waste any time in pressing his mouth to Jensen's neck as he rocks forward, feels the flex of Jensen's stomach against his fingertips.

It's like Chicago all over again, only this time Jared's determined to not pass out before the interesting part.

He's never given a blowjob in his life, but he's received more than a few and he's pretty sure he knows the basics. His hand slides down, fumbling with the top button of Jensen's leather pants as he drops to his knees. The sudden shift in equilibrium makes his stomach lurch, blood pounding through his veins and he rests his head against Jensen's stomach, breath coming quick as he tries to get his bearings and struggle with Jensen's pants at the same time. But the pants are too fucking tight and he's in too much of a hurry, his movements stilted and clumsy. But the sounds Jensen makes above him is all the impetus Jared needs to keep going.

It feels like forever before he finally manages to get Jensen's pants open far enough to slip his hand inside and Jensen hisses sharply, reaches down to push Jared's hand out of the way. Jared answers with a growl, but quiets down as he watches Jensen's hand disappear behind the dark fabric of his underwear and pull himself out.

Jared's breath catches in his throat then, gaze focused on the jut of Jensen's cock, hard and gleaming at the tip. Without giving a thought to what he's doing or how he's doing it, he wraps his lips around the head and sucks him down. There's absolutely no finesse involved and Jared pulls back with a gag half a second later, staring at the way Jensen's dick shines with Jared's saliva, a tiny trail of spit and pre-come clinging from his lip.

"Jay--" Jensen murmurs, a low, muffled whisper in the dark that Jared barely hears at all.

He grabs hold of Jensen's hip and leans in again, taking in less this time, letting his mouth get used to being filled. Jensen's dick slides over his tongue, thick and full and there's more skin than Jared had been anticipating, but it's not unpleasant.

Hell, it's anything but unpleasant.

He keeps one hand on Jensen's hip and wraps the other around the root, pulls back to watch, fascinated, as the tip disappears under the hood of skin with every stroke before reappearing shiny and purple. Instinctively, Jared flicks his tongue out for a taste and is rewarded by Jensen's sharp hitch of breath, the restrained buck of his hips.

Jared keeps his hand in constant motion, blood pounding in his ears and glances up to see Jensen leaning back, fingers curled around the edge of the washing machine. Their gazes lock briefly, Jensen's pupils blown wide, cheeks flushed, lips wet and parted. Jared doesn't look away for a long moment, can't look away, his hand still tugging Jensen from base to tip, the smell of beer and sweat and detergent heavy in the air.

Jensen is the first one to look away, his head falling back as he lets out a quiet, strained sound and Jared takes a ragged breath and quickly swallows him down again, humming hungrily at the weight of Jensen's cock on his tongue. It's still sloppy, still uncoordinated and clumsy, with Jared's hand working where his mouth can't reach, teeth occasionally scraping.

There's no warning before Jensen comes, nothing beyond Jensen's grip faltering on the washing machine, fingers curling into Jared's hair in a half-hearted tug. Jared pulls back with a soft sputter, Jensen's come bitter on his tongue, dripping down his bottom lip as he strokes Jensen through it, feeling every pulse against his palm as Jensen keeps shooting, come landing warm on Jared's bare shoulder and neck, trickling.

He only stops when Jensen reaches down to still his hand and he feels like he's run a marathon, heart pounding behind his ribcage, breath fast and ragged, his dick achingly hard inside his red swim trunks.

"Fuck," he says after a long moment, unable to hide the awe in his voice.

He pulls back, wipes his hand over his thigh. His knees pop as he gets to his feet and he ignores the cramp and tingle of his legs. There's a pile of Chad's dirty clothes an arm's length away and Jared pulls out a t-shirt, uses it to wipe off the mess and then crams it back under the rest. He can hear the rustle of fabric as Jensen tucks himself back into his pants and zips up.

"I, uh. I'm gonna get back," he says, voice a whisper. Like a question.

Jared manages a nod, pointedly ignoring his own hard-on. "Yeah-- yeah, good idea," he says.

"Yeah," Jensen agrees, returning the nod. He opens his mouth, like there's something more he wants to say, glances down at Jared's shorts. And Jared waits for it, heart still pounding as he watches the way Jensen's expression shifts and shuts down right in front of him.

And then he's gone, slipping out and away, the door closing with a quick click.

Jared takes the bottle of beer left behind, washes away the taste of Jensen's come with two gulps.

:::

Refusing to let shit get weird, Jared makes a point of sitting next to Jensen through the Saturday meetings. Jensen eyes him at first, predictably tense, but Jared doesn't mention the party once and, eventually, he relaxes.

Afterward, they go out for dinner at Dickey's with Clif and Aldis, filling up on barbecue and french fries since none of them will be able to stomach much the next day. It's easy and relaxed and just like every other dinner they've ever had, Jared eating every last bite of his ribs and half of Aldis's.

He gets a call from his parents an hour later, letting him know they're almost to Dallas and he quickly drops enough cash to pay for his portion and says his goodbyes before rushing home. His parents stay in his guest room that night and give him a present Sandy had insisted they deliver in her absence. It's a stuffed bear in a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader outfit, the name 'Sandy' written in tiny rhinestones along the back of her vest. Jared takes her with him into the locker room the next day, stuffs her in the cubby just above his locker.

"What, no Barbie?" Witten remarks.

"Eh," he says, lips curling in a grin. "Left her at home. Didn't want her gettin' jealous."

Jared catches Jensen's watching him a moment later, a quick glance before he turns his back. Jared forces himself not to stare at the way Jensen's muscles shift and flex under his skin as he tugs his shirt off over his head.

:::

Danneel Harris is out on the field during warm-ups. She's dressed in a sleek black pantsuit with a blue shirt underneath, her dark red hair blowing in what little breeze there is within the stadium, arms crossed over her chest as she talks with Jensen. She cocks her head to the side, lips twisted in that coy smile as she tucks her hair behind her ear and, not for the first time, Jared wonders what they're relationship is, what more Jensen isn't telling him.

He refuses to watch for long, tearing his eyes away to search for a receiver to help him get his arm warmed up. Witten's off to the side, stretching on the 20-yard line and Jared flags him down, gets in a good fifteen or twenty passes before heading back.

The mood in the locker room before the game is largely optimistic. Chad climbs up on a chair and starts waving a towel above his head like a lunatic before Coach Beav walks by and pushes him off, to the delight of just about everyone.

"Alright, everybody up!" Kripke shouts, quieting the racket.

He doesn't give much of a speech, but more of a reiteration of everything they've already spent the past week discussing and minutes later they're running onto the field, the pulse of pumping music and cheering fans reverberating through the tunnel as the starting offense is announced over the tannoy system, punctuated by the occasional bang of a firework. The rest of the team rushes out just after, jogging through the lane of gorgeous cheerleaders and teammates and Chad gives Rowdy a leaping high-five before heading over with the rest of the captains for the coin toss.

San Francisco gets first possession, but the Dallas defense holds strong, forcing them to punt early. Unfortunately, Jensen and the rest of the offense have the same luck minutes later. When the 49ers manage to tackle Felix Jones in the end zone, the game has its first score and the mood on the Dallas sidelines sours.

"Jesus Christ, what have I been saying all goddamn week?" Kripke grumbles to himself, loud enough to be overheard without actually yelling at anyone.

When the Cowboys then go three-and-out on their next drive -- largely due to an offsides call on Flozell and an offensive pass interference on Crayton -- Kripke lets loose. "Goddamnit!" he yells, grabbing hold of Crayton as he comes onto the sidelines. "What the hell was that?"

"He was all over me, Coach," Patrick insists. "I was just tryin' to get to the damn ball!"

Unamused and unconvinced, Kripke gives him a shove, scowling. "This is not how we play the game!" he shouts and stalks up the sideline. "Someone here wanna show me how we do play this game? Huh? COME ON!"

The 49ers march down the field on their next possession, though the defense holds them to a field goal and the first quarter ends 5-0. It's not insurmountable, but, in a game the Cowboys should be dominating, it's certainly embarrassing.

"We're weak on the left side," Jensen says as the return unit heads out onto the field.

Kripke frowns up at him. "Flo and Clif?"

Jensen nods, looking uncomfortable as he nods as he runs a hand over his scraped elbow. "Number 99 is rushing me every time," he continues. "I'm scrambling in the backfield, can barely get the ball off."

Coach seems to consider it for a moment and Jared hazards a glance toward the bench, to where half the offensive line is taking a quick break, guzzling down water as they catch their breaths. Clif's frowning, gaze locked on Jensen.

"Alright," Kripke says with a short nod.

When the offense heads out onto the field minutes later, Kripke has Flo and Clif hang back, sending in Larry Wiggins and Doug Free instead.

The difference is immediately apparent and Jared watches as number 99, Taylor Kitsch, is blocked time and time again by the fresh second stringers. Jensen marches the team down the field and into the red zone before firing off a 10-yard pass to Miles for a touchdown. The hometown crowd goes crazy and, even though the attempted pass from Jensen to Aldis is ruled incomplete for the two-point conversion, they still lead 6-5.

They extend the lead by three more points when Nick Folk kicks a field goal seven minutes later, but the 49ers counter with a touchdown immediately after, bringing the score to 12-9 shortly before the two minute warning.

With two time-outs still under their belt and desperation as a motivator, Jensen leads the offense down the field for one final drive. Unfortunately, the 49ers still manage to hold them to a field goal and, with just three seconds left, Nick Folk kicks off a 30-yarder, tying the game at the half.

During the break, Misha and the rest of the trainers run around the locker room, patching up cuts and checking on bruises and sore spots. Winded and aching players take the few minutes to catch their breaths and chug down water or Gatorade, wiping the sweat off their faces with towels as coaches scream out everything they're doing wrong.

There's a loud bang across the room, metal against metal and the muffled sounds of shouting and Jared rushes into the chaos to see that Clif has Jensen against the wall. Jensen looks startled, two hands gripping Clif's jersey, trying to shove him away. Jared can't hear the words they're screaming at each other above the voices of his other teammates grappling to separate the two, but, remembering Clif's hardened look from earlier, he's fairly sure he can figure it out.

Coach Singer's there within seconds, swearing up a storm as he pushes his way through the sea of players, yanking Clif back by the collar of his pads.

Clif goes with little fight, but he's still glaring daggers at Jensen, who's busy straightening his pads, fingers grazing his neck as though checking for bruises.

"Hey," Jared says once the crowd's dissipated some, sidling up next to Jensen as they break into groups. "You okay?"

Jensen frowns, brow furrowed before giving an abrupt shake of his head. "I'm fine."

Jared isn't entirely convinced, but it seems to be the end of the conversation as far as Jensen's concerned, swiftly pushing past Jared to focus on Kripke. Any other time, Jared would be pissed by the brush-off, but here he knows it's not personal. Here they have a job to do and Jensen is nothing if not utterly focused.

Kripke spends the remainder of the short time they have furiously scrawling re-worked plays on his clipboard as he shouts out instructions and things to look out for. He singles out Flozell, Crayton and Marc for their penalties, promising punishment in the following week for anyone who continues the trend in the second half and then calls Chad up to send them out. There's a quick and dirty chorus of, "One-two-three-WIN!" before they're running out onto the field again for the second half, mood a far cry from what it'd been at the start of the game.

Despite Kripke's threat, their first drive suffers from two 5-yard penalties from which they never recover and they're forced to punt. They luck out when the 49ers fail to get so much as a first down and, on the next Dallas possession, Jensen steadily leads the offense down to the San Francisco 10-yard line.

A Felix run on first down garners them two yards and they try something similar with Barber on second that comes up empty. On third, Jensen drops back into the pocket and has to fire off a quick pass as the left side of the O-line breaks down again and, despite being well covered, Chad manages to come down with the ball in the end zone.

"Ackles, what've I said about forcing those passes!" Kripke shouts, but there's a hint of a smile on his face as Chad springs to his feet and throws his arms in the air, spurring on the crowd.

Jared's right with the rest of them in celebration, shouting and clapping, until his gaze trails back towards the line of scrimmage and finds Jensen still sitting on the turf, face twisted in a grimace of pain with one hand on his leg. There's a 49er player, number 99, hovering next to him without a helmet, his long, straggly hair sticking to his face as he places his hands on his hips, lips curved into a worried frown.

Jared can't even remember the hit, doesn't know exactly what had happened, but he suddenly knows he wants to punch the guy in the face.

Misha's already on his way out, Britt and Greg fast on his heels and Jared's stomach sinks. It's impossible to know exactly what's going on, but Jared can see Misha checking Jensen's legs as he talks to him, first one and then the other as the crowd quiets.

Half the Dallas squad is crowded against the sidelines, pushing up the slight slope of the field as they all try to get some clue as to what's going on while, aside from a handful of players and a coach or two, much of the San Francisco side is treating the injury as a bonus timeout. Intellectually, Jared knows he can't blame them, that, if the situation were reversed, the Cowboys would be doing the same thing. It still doesn't stop the spike of fury that only intensifies when he sees Jensen struggle to his feet.

Misha's ducked under one arm, a hand low on Jensen's back as Greg takes the other side and, for a moment, Jared's just grateful they're not wheeling him off on a stretcher.

A smattering of applause flows through the stadium as the trainers ease Jensen to the sidelines and Jared's only two steps away from running over before Coach Morgan grabs his arm.

"Hey," he says, voice clipped and head ducked to make Jared look him in the eye. "You focused here?"

It hits him then, just what Jensen's injury means and his blood goes cold. They don't know yet what the full damage is, but it's obvious Jensen will be out at least for the rest of the game. And Jared's next man up.

Swallowing, Jared forces a nod. "Yeah," he says, amazed at how calm he's able to make his voice sound. "Yeah, I'm good."

Coach Morgan's eyes narrow, speculative before he says, "Good," and grabs a ball from the bag by his feet, shoves it against Jared's chest. "Go get warmed up."

Jared hazards one last glance in Jensen's direction before heading to the area behind the benches, grabbing Chad as he goes. This won't be the first time he's played in a regular season game, not the second either, but it's entirely different now. More real in a way he can't quite explain. The words more permanent drift to mind and Jared quickly dismisses them, not wanting to acknowledge that as even a possibility.

As soon as Jensen's off the field, the game is underway again and Jared can't help glancing over at the field with every rise in crowd volume. After a few throws with Chad, he makes a place for himself beside Coach Morgan and watches with a sinking feeling as the defense breaks down and allows an 18-yard pass straight into the end zone, yet again tying the game.

The defense files off the field, angry and frustrated, helmets thrown aside as Coach Singer directs a few of them to the phones to talk with the coaches up in the booth. Kripke's pacing and hurrying the return team onto the field as Coach Morgan grabs Jared again, dark eyes utterly serious as they search Jared's, a broad hand heavy on his shoulder pads.

"You can do this, JT," Coach Morgan tells him as the 49ers kick the ball downfield, Miles catching it on the 18 and running it up another ten yards. It's not bad field positioning, but it doesn't stop the flutter of nerves in the least and Coach Morgan grabs Jared by the facemask, forcing him to look away from the field. "Hey," he says, voice sharper. "You with me here?"

"Yes, sir," Jared says immediately. It's only partially a lie.

Coach Morgan doesn't say another word, his eyes narrowing for a long moment, making Jared feel like he's being stared into before Coach finally pulls back, smacking Jared hard on the helmet. "Get your ass out there."

Jared sucks in a breath and runs onto the field, adjusting the chin strap as he ducks into the huddle. His teammates eye him as he hunches forward, regarding him with a wary trust.

"Alright, let's go for Tessa Sulfur Lawrence with a trickster red on three," he says and waits for his teammates' nods of understanding. "Listen up at the line, I don't know what kind of reading they're gonna get off me." There's another wave of nodding before they break and head toward the scrimmage line.

Crouching behind Cory, Jared shouts out a gibberish audible as he scans the defense, looking for a scheme that might screw up their play. Not seeing anything too worrying, he gives the hut as planned and Cory snaps. He drops back and glances to the right, can hear the footsteps coming up on his left. His own breathing is loud in his ears, overpowering the clash of plastic against plastic, the grunts and the pound of feet against turf. A lineback breaks through the line and Jared tries to dodge, moving quick to the right, eyes straight ahead, scanning the field for an open receiver. There isn't one, but Witten's cutting up the middle with only one defender on his back and Jared has half a second to get rid of the ball before he's hammered to the ground, curling right at the last moment to prevent his head from smacking into the unforgiving turf.

The roar of the crowd swells and dies off abruptly before he even hits the ground and he knows without having to look that it hadn't worked.

When he gets to his feet, he finds it's worse than he'd thought, a swarm of 49ers cheering a circle around one of their own, the guy holding the ball up high.

It's not his first interception and Jared knows it won't be his last, but that doesn't make it any easier to head back to the sidelines.

"Goddamnit, Padalecki!" Kripke's immediately shouts into his face, beady eyes shining with fury as Jared tugs his helmet off. "How many fucking times have I told you guys not to force a pass? How many!? That was a first down! There is no fucking reason to force a pass on a fucking first down!"

"No, sir," Jared agrees as he unfastens his chin strap, but it does little to calm his coach.

"Sit the fuck down! Jesus Christ!"

Jared does as he's told, ducking his way back to the bench. His teammates watch him, accusatory and sympathetic, and grabs a cup of Gatorade, his hand shaking slightly as he brings it to his lips, the liquid immediately cooling its way down his throat.

"It's his ankle," Misha says, holding a roll of athletic tape in one hand and a towel in the other. For the first time, Jared notices there's no sign of Jensen nearby and the worry comes back in full force. "Edlund's taking a look at him right now, but he's gonna need an MRI."

Jared swallows his drink and wipes a hand over his chin. He doesn't know what to say, what to ask.

"Doesn't look good," Misha adds then, touching Jared's arm briefly before he moves past, hurrying to where Coach Beaver is calling him over.

Jared finishes his drink and moves to the bench, dropping down onto it and leaning forward, the weight of his body keeping his legs from jittering. Jensen's absence feels like a palpable void on the sidelines, like a cancer scare nobody wants to outright acknowledge for fear of hearing the worst.

After the defense forces the 49ers to punt, it's Jared's turn on the field again. He manages to not throw any interceptions, but also fails in getting the offense anywhere near the red zone and they punt minutes later, placing the ball once again into San Francisco's hands with more than five minutes on the clock.

The minute San Francisco takes possession, it's clear they plan on eating up as much time as possible. They run the ball up the middle and make sure to keep their players in-bounds, stretching out the play clock before every snap. It forces Dallas to use their remaining timeouts in the hope that, even after the 49ers score, they'll still have some time to get back down the field themselves. Still, the effort is a waste when, on fourth-and-one at the Cowboys' 45-yard line, the 49ers fail to convert, giving Dallas great field position and less than a minute to make something of it.

Less than a minute with no timeouts.

There's no time to stop and over-think anything as Jared slaps on his helmet and runs onto the field. With the score still tied, the pressure isn't as great as it could be. Barring a turnover, the worst that can happen is they fail to score and the game gets sent into overtime.

Of course, that doesn't mean they're about to roll over and let it happen.

As Jared doesn't have a communications helmet, his connection to the coaches is limited. Coach Morgan uses hand signals that are more general than specific and it quickly becomes apparent that Jared's the one at the helm here, the one in charge of making decisions that are usually largely left to the head coach or offensive coordinator.

It's all on him.

It's both terrifying and freeing and Jared pops into the huddle with renewed, somewhat shaky confidence.

A quick completion to Witten up the right side gives them five yards and stops the clock and they get their first down on the next play with a Barber run. They go for another run on the start of the next down, this time with Felix, but he gets tackled only inches from the line of scrimmage and the clock keeps ticking.

It's a race down the field, players on both sides of the ball scrambling to get into position after each play. Jared is forced to throw it away once, deliberately taking an incomplete to stop the clock so they can squeeze in a huddle and regroup.

"Y'all got this?" he asks, his smile wide with exhilaration. He still feels itchy with nerves, like his stomach could give out at any second, but the adrenaline is carrying him high and he's suddenly sure they can do this, they can win this. He finds it returned to him by a few of the guys, a couple others noticeably worried and worn out. He crouches down to call for another pass down the side. If it works, it should be enough to put them in decent field goal range and it leaves just enough open for a breakout play, something that could garner them six points instead of just three, which will look nicer in the record books.

It doesn't work.

Instead, the ball is tipped and nearly intercepted before being ruled incomplete. It stops the clock, but with only nine seconds left, they only have time for one more play and a kick, something quick up the middle so they can down the ball and bring in the kicking unit. In the huddle, Jared calls for a long hook from Chad, but changes it at the scrimmage line when he notices the San Francisco secondary settling deep. Jared drops back at the snap and fires off a quick pass to Marion, who again runs up the side, grabbing a first down, but not managing to get out of bounds and stop the clock.

Jared doesn't even wait for the ref's whistle before rushing forward, waving his arms to hurry his offense and get lined up where the referee is marking the ball. It's a chaotic flurry of movement, everyone running to get into formation as the seconds tick down and Jared manages to spike the ball just as the game clock drops down to 00:01.

They're on the San Francisco 30-yard line, making it a 47-yard kick attempt. It's no chip shot, but it's within Nick's range and Jared stays on the field to hold the ball, wipes his palms off on the towel hanging from the waistband of his pants. He doesn't have to look to know that every single player on both teams is standing. He kneels seven yards behind L.P. and breathes hot into his palms, rubbing them together and then wiping them over his thighs before awaiting the snap. The whistle blows and the ball flies at him, Jared catching it in a firm grip, turning it laces out and holding the tip to the turf a second before Nick's foot connects and sends it flying high and straight and right through the uprights.

The crowd goes crazy and Jared jumps up, spins around to wrap his arm around Nick and lift him up off the ground as their teammates flood the field. High above, Jared can see the score board, the numbers in red declaring the final score of 19-22.

"Holy shit, you did it," Coach Morgan says as Jared lets go of Nick, grabs his arm and pulls him into a rough hug.

Jared laughs, loud and bright, hand warm on his coach's shoulder. "Hey, don't sound so damn surprised," he says.

"Way you were lookin' earlier, man. Thought you were gonna piss your pants."

Jared laughs and then feels a tap against his shoulder pad. Turning, he sees Danneel Harris just behind him, a microphone in one hand and notes in the other, her two-man film crew in tow.

"Think we could get a few seconds with you, Jared?"

Only then does his smile falter, the surreal reality of it all hitting him like a wall. He's out here now, celebrating their victory, their near escape from an embarrassing loss against a shitty team and Jensen's in the bowels of the stadium somewhere, having his leg poked and prodded, his future uncertain.

It's entirely sobering and suddenly Jared doesn't want to be anywhere except wherever the hell Jensen is. Wants to know the outlook, how bad it is, wants some assurance that he's okay.

But he nods instead, letting Danneel and her crew lead him a few feet to the side.

"So tell me," she says, one artfully plucked eyebrow raised and he leans forward a bit to hear her above the noise. "What was going through your mind when you saw Jensen Ackles being led off the field?"

It's the first time Jared realizes he hadn't been thinking about football at all.

:::

The MRI on Monday shows a high ankle sprain. The good news is that the syndesmotic ligament isn't completely torn, meaning surgery won't be necessary. The bad news is Jensen will most likely be out at least six weeks.

"They're putting me on the PUP list," Jensen says on the phone late that night. "Re-evaluate after the six weeks. Maybe be good for the playoffs."

Jared frowns, picks at a loose string on his boxer shorts. The 'If we get that far,' going unsaid before he sighs quietly. "You gonna get a second opinion?"

"Fuck, you kidding?" Jensen says with a snort. "Mike's got me lined up to get, like, six of 'em tomorrow. Not that it'll make any damn difference."

He doesn't know from experience yet, but Jared's heard horror stories of the shit pulled between teams and players when it comes to injuries. One medical opinion versus another and another until it isn't so much about a guy recovering than it is about money spent and wasted, filling roster spots. The harsh reality of the business side of things is never more apparent.

They fall into a silence then, just the wrong side of uncomfortable and Jared clears his throat after a minute to break it.

"You did good, you know."

It takes him a second to figure out what Jensen's talking about before he lets out a quick laugh, shaking his head even if Jensen can't see it. "Yeah, that interception was pretty epic."

"Dude, you find me an NFL quarterback who's never thrown an interception and I'll resurrect Jesus for you."

"Wait, again?"

"... Yes. Again."

A slow grin curves Jared's lips upward, voice tinged in near laughter. "You do know the dude didn't die twice, right? There was only the one time."

"Shut up. I'm on a lotta drugs right now."

"Doesn't your dad, like, work for a church or something?"

"Shut up."

"What kinda drugs you on, anyway? Do I need to tell the league? You know, at the orientation thing, they had this big presentation about the substance abuse policy. You better check up on that, man. Don't wanna be the next Ricky Williams or somethin'."

"God, shut up," Jensen groans, but Jared hears the lilt of affectionate amusement in the tone.

"This whole injury is really just an excuse to retire and fly off to India, isn't it?"

"I'm hanging up now."

"You're gonna come back, like, covered in henna and talkin' shit about herbs and holistic medicine."

"Later, Jay."

As far as Jared can remember, Jensen's the only person who's ever called him Jay. Glancing down at his phone as the line goes dead, he decides he kind of likes it that way.

:::

Practice is strange without Jensen. Tougher. And not just because the entire offense has to suddenly shift to fit Jared's style. Jared isn't as mobile as Jensen, doesn't dodge and weave so much as stubbornly withstand the blows, using his sheer size to protect himself as he studies the field. It's a small difference, maybe, but one the O-line has to get accustomed to. Not to mention the general differences in timing and the formation variations.

On Wednesday morning, the team signs Blake Henson, a fifth-year veteran QB off San Diego's practice squad to be their second string. He's in Dallas later that night, in time to sit in on the quarterback meeting with Jared and Isaiah. Kripke and Morgan still plan on using Isaiah for the wildcat plays, but Henson is more of a traditional I-formation QB, someone more like Jared, but with actual league experience under his belt.

For the most part, Jared does his best to pretend Henson's not even there. Not because he dislikes the guy for any specific reason, but because he hates the situation, hates the fact that every time he sees a flash of short, slightly spiky blond-ish hair on top of broad shoulders out the corner of his eye, it's not Jensen. Hates how weirdly wrong it feels.

The team lands in Newark on Saturday and Jared's again chosen for a pre-game interview. This one's with another Fox team: Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnston and Tony Siragusa. Or, as Kripke likes to call them, 'The Moose & Goose' team, alluding to the nicknames attributed to Johnston and Siragusa respectively.

Jared's not as nervous this time, less worried about protocol as he sits at the end of the table in the hotel conference room. They ask all the questions he expects: his opinion on Jensen's recovery, how confident he feels in leading the team, whether he thinks they still have a shot at the playoffs. Tony pokes a little fun and Jared plays along easily, able to push aside his nerves and feign confidence.

Afterward, he shakes their hands. Meeting Daryl isn't quite as nerve-wracking as meeting Troy Aikman had been, but it still makes his stomach dip, makes his smile a little shakier and stupid.

"The Cowboys are lucky to have you," Daryl tells him as he pats Jared's shoulder, his smile warm, blue eyes sparkling.

Jared laughs a little. "Yeah, well, I hope you still hold that opinion after tomorrow."

He arrives at the stadium early on Sunday so Lindberg can fit him with a communications helmet and the locker room is still mostly empty by the time he gets there, only a couple coaches around and a handful of his teammates. Henson isn't one of them, which makes Jared oddly grateful. He nods at Sam and starts changing in silence, looking up when the door of the locker room bangs open fifteen minutes later and a wave of players trails in.

There's a buzz in the atmosphere, a subdued kind of anxiousness heavy in the air. The Giants are currently leading the division, favorites to take the entire NFC. A loss against them won't be devastating or unsurprising by any means, but win, will make people stand up and take notice. A win will force people to acknowledge that the Cowboys can't be so easily dismissed. In a sixteen-game season, every single win is important, but a win in this kind of situation will be sweeter than most. And not just because of the division rivalry.

Jared takes in the feel of the stadium as he goes through his typical warm-up routine, looking up over the stretch of seats, the curve of the wall behind the end zones. For as long as he's a Cowboy, he'll be playing in the Meadowlands at least once every year; he figures it's a good idea to get comfortable with it. There's a rough wind coming in, a good wind cold enough to make Jared's cheeks and nose pink. He contemplates getting a hand warmer to tie around his waist during the game, but figures it shouldn't be too bad for the first half at least.

Back in the locker room, the air is still thrumming with energy and Jared pulls a book out of his locker, some disposable John Clancy novel he'd picked up at DFW before leaving. His eyes scan the words, but he doesn't really process any of them, mind wandering and the time minutes pass.

As it gets closer to game time, he puts the book away and starts gathering the rest of this things: helmet and towel, wrist cuffs, the left one covered in a small cheat sheet of coded plays.

His phone blinks at him from his cubby hole and he opens it to a text from Jensen.

Don't fuck up.

Jared smirks, his thumb hovers over the keypad. He imagines Jensen laid back on his bed in his glasses and boxer shorts with his leg up in the air and a beer in hand, television tuned to the game. It's both amusing and disheartening. Jensen isn't supposed to be stuck back in Dallas and Jared can only imagine how it must feel, to see his team playing without him, thousands of miles away and unable to do anything. The smile on his face falters and he hesitates a moment before eventually typing: 'Shut up and heal.'

He turns his phone off, tucks it back into the cubby.

Kripke's pre-game speech is a short one and he doesn't mention Jensen once. Everyone listens attentively, even the guys still getting taped or adjusting their gear. After Chad brings them in for their chant, Kripke pulls Jared aside.

"Let New York decide to kick or receive," he says and Jared blinks, remembering only then that he's a captain now. He has to go up for the coin toss.

When they run out onto the field for the start of the game, the first thing Jared notices is that the wind's picked up. Most of the fans -- the vast majority of whom wear red and blue -- are wrapped in jackets, heads already covered in wool caps. Not, all of course. There are still the requisite crazy guys in the first few rows dressed only in paint, trying to attract the cameras.

Chad goes out with him and they head to midfield where DeMarcus is already smiling and chatting with the refs and the three New York captains. They all shake hands and exchange brief smiles before the referee pulls out the coin.

"Visiting team's captain will make the call," he says, showing off the coin in his hand, displaying first one side and then the other. "Please call it in the air," he adds and then flips it.

"Tails," Jared says as it falls to the ground.

"Tails," the ref repeats. "Dallas captain calls tails and it is... tails," he says as he picks the coin up off the ground, holds it out in the palm of his hand. Jared points to the end of the field they want to defend and New York's quarterback, Eli Manning leans in, says, "We wanna receive."

"New York to receive." The ref's voice rings through the tannoy system before being drowned out by the cheering fans. He flips off the intercom on his set and gives the players a nod. "Let's have a good game, gentlemen."

The Giants score on their first drive, a 15-yard pass from Manning to Kevin Boss, which the defense completely fails to read. It's a rough start to what everyone is trying not to think of as an impossible game and, when Jared and the offense get onto the field seconds later, they fail to make it any better.

Jared comes off after the first drive frustrated, but not defeated, heading immediately for the water bench as the defense takes the field. Minutes later, the Giants have another score though, this time, it's only a field goal.

"They're stacking on the right," Coach Morgan says as Jared slips on his helmet, pops the chinstrap in place. "Their weakness is with Planck on the left. Use that."

"Got it," Jared says and runs out toward the huddle, Coach Morgan smacking his ass with the clipboard on the way.

Coach Kripke's voice statics through the tiny speakers in his helmet, calling for a reverse left and Jared passes it on in the huddle before breaking and getting them lined up on scrimmage. It turns out to be a long drive, stretching out over the rest of the quarter before the Giants finally hold them on the 11-yard line, forcing the Cowboys to call in the kicking unit.

It's no momentum shift, but the defense manages better on their next turn, forcing the Giants to punt at midfield. Kripke holds Jared back when the offense next takes the field, sending in Isaiah instead to helm the wildcat, hoping to disrupt the Giants' defense. It works for the first couple plays before they again decide to change track and send Jared out.

A minute later, he completes a 30-yard pass to Aldis for their first touchdown of the game. It's not like scoring at home, the roar of the crowd not nearly as loud, but it still feels damn good.

They go into halftime with a tied score. A good half of the team is aching and Misha and his crew have their work cut out for them as they rush around the locker room checking out cuts and bruises, passing out pain pills and administering shots where necessary. A solid hit early in the second quarter on Jason Witten has aggravated his already aching rib injury and Misha works at making his shoulder pads more comfortable, trying to take the pressure off the sore area.

"You're doing good out there!" Kripke shouts above the din, not splitting them up between offense and defense for once, but choosing to address them as a whole. "Better than a lot of people expected, I know. Not better than I expected, but that's because I know you guys. I know what you're capable of, I know how much serious ass you can kick when you get riled up."

That pulls out a round of shouts and hollers, a few guys banging their helmets against the walls.

"Well, you're not riled enough yet!" Kripke continues, his voice rising slightly. "Do you wanna win this game? Do you wanna show this team and the rest of the league what riled looks like?"

The shouts rise to a roar then, a pounding rage of plastic on metal and cement. Even Jared gets into it, yelling out a, "Damn right!" as Chad gives a deafening whoop next to him.

"Alright then!" Kripke shouts, turning red in the face. "Let's get out there and WIN THIS SHIT!"

It's the most pumped Jared's seen the team all season, guys jumping and sprinting their way down the tunnel onto the field.

The Cowboys have first possession in the half and they manage to get to the Giants 40-yard line before a sack loses them a good seven yards and a conversion. It's not the first time Jared's found himself on his ass, but it's one of the harder hits he's taken in his life, leaving him dazed on the turf for a second or two, clutching the ball weakly.

There's a face above him, a blue helmet and jersey with the number 92 across the chest. Jared blinks, putting the number with a name and matching it to the grinning, mocking face he can somewhat make out through the facemask. 'Zack Hall,' he thinks, groaning as he pushes to sit up.

"How you like that? Like taking a pounding, sweetie?" the guy sneers, barely stepping back as Jared staggers to his feet.

Jared smirks a little, finding the guy a good couple inches shorter than him, but a good forty pounds heavier. "Not a big fan," he admits, which only makes Hall smile wider.

"Guess I just gotta try harder next time," he says. "Make you like it."

It's typical trash talk and really not the worst Jared's ever heard by a long shot and Jared only rolls his eyes before heading to the sidelines. He tosses the ball to the ref on his way as his teammates step aside to let him walk past.

Misha's the first one to greet him as he approaches the benches. "How's the ass?"

Snorting a laugh, Jared shakes his head. "Fine. Might be a little bruised tomorrow, but nothing major."

"No broken tailbone?"

"No broken tailbone," Jared assures him, grabbing a cup of water. His fingers are getting cold and he clenches his free hand into a fist to try to warm them.

Misha's eyes narrow skeptically. "You're sure?"

"Dude," Jared says with a quick laugh, one arm out in surrender. "You want me to bend over right here and show you?"

Misha visibly grimaces before a smile curves his lips and he shakes his head. "Just let me know if you feel any soreness or spikes of pain."

"Will do," Jared assures him.

"We can get Katie or Sera to check you out."

Jared's grin broadens a little then as he starts to relax. "Aww, I wouldn't wanna deny you the pleasure."

It's not too long before Jared's out on the field again, this time after another Giants field goal. Special teams doesn't do them any favors when Crayton decides to run the catch out of the end zone. He gets tackled at the 18, but not before one guy in the Giants' wedge manages to get him to choke up the ball. It bounces free onto the turf and it's a matter of pure luck that Lenny is there to land on it. In the madness, they lose a good five yards, placing them at their own 13-yard line, with 87 yards to the other end zone.

Jared follows Kripke's playcalling, altering a few at the line when he thinks the defense might be onto them. The drive is slow-going and Hall makes good on his promise, managing to get Jared onto his back yet again around midfield. At least this time it's not a sack.

"Damn, that ass looks good on the ground," he says, voice booming over the wind and the screaming crowd as he looms over Jared.

Jared pushes to his feet, gives the guy a leer and a winks as he wipes his hand over his towel. "Bet your's'd look even better, hot stuff."

They try a run on the next play, Tashard grabbing them three yards, which isn't nearly enough for a first down. Kripke calls for a comeback pass to Chad down the left side and Jared relays it in the huddle.

"Winchester 83 Demon Star on two," he says, glancing briefly at Chad to make sure he's got it.

It's clear the Giants know it'll be a pass, their secondary edging back during the hut. But Jared follows the plan, dropping back after the snap, faking to the right and then firing to the left before Chad's even turned around. It's a timing play all the way, relying completely on Chad's speed and ability to turn at the right moment. If off even by a tenth of a second, it could all go horribly wrong.

But the second Jared lets the ball go, he knows it's perfect.

Chad turns at the just the right moment, catching the ball against his chest, the defending cornerback leaping and grazing Chad's jersey with his fingertips as Chad lands and turns to sprint towards the end zone, another defender right on his heels.

Jared watches the whole time, even when Hall bumps into him again, making him stumble back. It's not hard enough to get any attention as a foul and Jared doesn't try for it, too busy watching Chad break the plane and checking to make sure there aren't any penalty flags lingering on the turf. When the side judge throws his arms up in the air to signal the touchdown, Jared runs forward at full speed, careening into a pile of his teammates as they celebrate the score, leading for the first time.

From there it's like San Francisco all over again. The Giants come back to tie the score on the next drive, but they have the decency to do so seconds before the two minute warning, which gives the Cowboys two minutes and three timeouts to get within field goal range. Unfortunately, the Giants don't making it easy on them, forcing them to fight for every last yard before they get stopped completely at the 34-yard line. From that spot, it's a 51-yard field goal for Nick which, under normal, stable conditions is difficult enough, one that could be easily picked off if not given just enough leverage.

With the wind like it is, it's even worse.

The game clock reads 00:12 when the kicking unit jogs onto the field, Jared taking his usual spot behind L.P. And, once again, Nick proves himself as one of the best kickers in the league, his foot connecting with the backside of the ball, sending it over the fingertips of the defenders and spinning down the field. The trajectory leans dangerously to the right, but it still manages to clear the uprights.

"Holy shit!" Jared says, letting out a startled laugh of disbelief as Nick does a full-bodied fist pump behind him. "Holy shit!"

"How 'bout it, QB?" Nick agrees as their teammates rush the field, the stadium around them stunned to near silence.

It's their third win in a row and Jared's first as a starter. What's more, they remain undefeated within their division, a feat no other team in their division can claim. And, as the media swoops in to grab post-game interviews, Jared still can't shake the feeling that Jensen should be here. That it should've been his game to win.

Chapter Text

It's dark by the time Jared gets back to his room and he can barely make out the lump of Henson's body beneath the sheets. He quietly changes into his boxers and grabs his cellphone and shuts himself in the bathroom. He flips open his phone while taking a piss, scrolling through his text messages to re-read the one he'd received hours earlier from Jensen.

Good game.

Jared's thumb brushes over the keypad as he does the math in his head; it's still only 10:00 in Dallas.

Shaking off and tucking his dick back into his shorts, he closes the lid and flushes before dropping down onto it. Jensen is conveniently at the top of Jared's contacts and it rings only twice.

"Jay?"

"Hey. How you holdin' up?"

"What the hell're you callin' me for? Shouldn't Chad be gettin' you drunk?"

"Partied out," Jared says, runs a hand over his thigh as he shifts on the toilet seat. "Thought I'd check in on the invalid."

Jensen groans and Jared can picture him rolling his eyes, the tiny upward curve of his lips that he gets when he's trying not to smile. "Har har. I'll have you know you're interrupting my valuable TV-viewing time. I just got to the vampire polar bears."

It takes a second for Jared to follow and then he laughs, voice still quiet. "Isn't that from the first season?"

"I have no idea, but the hobbit's still alive."

"You're kinda behind."

"Yeah, well I hear I got a lotta time to catch up. So."

Jared grimaces a little at the reminder, the harsh finality of it. In less than a second, Jensen had gone from starting QB to out for at least six weeks and, while Jared knows he should be happy for the opportunity, he can't quite get there just yet.

"You did good out there," Jensen says then, breaking the silence. "Even the guys on SportsCenter agree."

"Yeah, did a lotta good on my ass."

Jensen laughs. "Yeah, saw Hall got you a couple times. Gotta watch out for him."

"Thanks for the warning."

"He's a good guy. Tell him hi for me in December, would you?"

Jared snorts, but doesn't comment. Considering how big a dick the guy had been to Jared through the whole game, he's fairly sure Jensen's being facetious.

"This kinda sucks without you," he says instead, realizing belatedly that it probably sounds a little weird. Maybe more than a little weird.

But Jensen only laughs. Says, "Suck it up, Hotshot. I'll be back kickin' your ass in no time, so you better enjoy the spotlight while it lasts."

It's a fake bravado and they both know it. Jared smiles, the expression pained and forced even though Jensen can't see it. He brushes his thumb over the bottom hem of his shorts.

"We got the next two days off," he says after a moment. "Thought I could come by, maybe bring some pizza, a few movies. You game?"

"Oh god," Jensen groans. "You're making me put up with your giant ass in my feeble state?"

"I'll throw in some porn."

It's meant as a joke, but there's enough of a hesitation in Jensen's answer to make Jared reconsider. They haven't talked about this thing between them and, if Jared's completely honest, he doesn't really want to. It is what it is. Doesn't mean anything.

"Whatever, just don't bring Chad."

"No Chad," Jared says, forcing himself to relax a little. "Got it."

They talk for a few more minutes, mostly about the game. Jensen won't admit to missing it, but Jared can hear it in his voice all the same, the slight strain in every word.

After they hang up, Jared shoots off a text to Sandy. 'Love you,' it says. Short and simple.

He doesn't wait to see if she replies.

:::

Jared spends a few hours filming Salvation Army ads with Chad, Aldis and DeMarcus for the Thanksgiving game and then heads over to Jensen's place. They watch the first Godfather and the latest Die Hard before switching to a game of Halo. Jared calls Jensen's attempt at a beard hobo chic and Jensen says, "Dude, at least I can grow one." They eat pizza and fried chicken and Jared makes sure that Jensen ices his leg every four hours or so and practically carries him to and from the bathroom, which Jensen bitches about, but doesn't fight too hard. He lies sprawled out on his couch, right leg propped up on the arm as Jared ignores the recliner to sit on the floor, not caring that his ass goes numb.

It's back to practice on Wednesday, a slow and easy one, mostly meetings and a little bit of conditioning. They have a bye week, their next game not scheduled until the following Sunday in D.C. so Kripke's starting them in slow. On Thursday, they do some field work, focusing on the trouble areas that had been made apparent in the Giants game, the things they need to fix if they want to win against Washington. It's still low-key, as is Friday's practice and Saturday is nothing but meetings.

"We could try working me in on a few plays," Henson says in the middle of their QB meeting.

Coach Morgan pauses, pen tip lingering over the image on the screen where he's outlining one of Jared's weaker areas. "You're back-up," he says, lips curving into a frown.

"Yeah, well," Henson says as he nods up at the screen, "I'm not a back-up who makes stupid mistakes like that."

Jared blinks, blood turning hot under his skin as he looks from Henson to Coach Morgan.

"I've got the experience," the guy continues, undeterred. "And, let's face it, that's what this team needs. Someone with experience, who actually knows what the fuck they're doing out there."

"Dude, we won," Jared says, almost wanting to laugh. The guy can't be serious.

"By a field goal," Henson replies. "Folk saved your ass, man. Again. Guy's not gonna be able to do that every time."

"Yeah, and I'm the one who got us down the field!"

"Hey!" Morgan interjects before Henson can get in another word. Jared doesn't even give him a glance, still busy glaring daggers at Henson, his fingers itching. The silence stretches for a moment until Isaiah quietly clears his throat and shifts uncomfortably.

"I think we're good," Coach Morgan says, his voice low and calm. "Nobody here has made your role unclear," he says, his voice slightly harder. "You're back-up for Jared. Isaiah is our trick play guy. You have a problem with that, you talk to Player Relations, you got it?"

Henson doesn't say anything, lips drawing into a thin line and Coach Morgan gets back to business, the air thick and tense for the rest of the meeting.

Jared calls up Jensen on his way home afterward, driving through the suburban streets of Valley Ranch.

"Guy's a dick. Thinks he can just walk into this place and be handed the starting spot."

Jensen gives a quiet laugh. "Oh, this sounds alarmingly familiar."

"Huh?"

"Nothin'. Hey, how good a cook are you?"

"Uh," Jared says, breaking off into a huff of a laugh as he makes a right turn. "I make a decent grilled cheese?"

"Perfect. Get your ass over here and cook for me, bitch. And bring some beer."

Jared shows up at Jensen's place an hour later with two cases of Corona and two movies from Blockbuster. It takes a few minutes for Jensen to get to the door and Jared laughs when he sees the cane he's using.

"I think this elevates you to pimp status."

"Just a little side business," Jensen replies, already hobbling his way back to the living room.

Jared makes them dinner while Jensen decides between Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Clerks, eventually choosing Matthew Broderick over Kevin Smith, though neither of them really spend much time watching it. Jensen wants to hear more about how big an asshole Blake Henson is and Jared's all too eager to tell him.

"So, long story short," Jensen says with a grin when Jared brings him two sandwiches and a bottle of beer, "you miss me."

Jared laughs it off as he heads back to the kitchen. "Whole team misses you, man," he says. It's not a lie by any means, but he doesn't feel like it's totally the truth either. "It's just- kinda weird, you know? The guys don't trust me like they trust you."

"Comes with time," Jensen calls back, words muffled with food. "Give it awhile, you'll be fine."

Unconvinced, Jared grunts a reply and finishes making himself his dinner.

They switch the channel to ESPN after the movie finishes and get caught up on the rest of the league, the drama happening in front of and behind the cameras. The Steelers' running back is involved in a paternity suit and Pacman Jones, who's now playing for Miami, is once again in danger of getting kicked out of the league.

When Jared's ass starts to go numb again from sitting on the floor, he finally decides to move to the couch. Gingerly, he lifts Jensen's leg up off the stack of pillows and takes a seat before just as carefully laying Jensen's leg back down over his lap.

Jensen arches an eyebrow at him, amused. "I haven't bathed in, like, four days."

"Pretty sure Proctor hasn't bathed in four months," Jared replies, shifting a little to get more comfortable. "Trust me, I can handle it."

They stay like that for the rest of the night, Jensen's leg in Jared's lap, Jared's hand resting lightly over Jensen's shin, careful not to touch anything that might hurt. He only gets up to take a piss or help Jensen take a piss or get more beer.

Jensen falls asleep shortly after midnight and Jared shuts off the television before carefully disentangling himself and cleaning up the mess. He collects empty bottles and dirtied napkins and deposits them in the trash, Jensen still out cold out when he gets back. Jared considers just heading out for the night, not wanting to disturb him, Jensen's breath slow and steady, the rise and fall of his chest strangely hypnotic in the still room and Jared steps closer, careful to not make a sound. Even with a week and a half's worth of scruff, Jensen's beautiful, the beard bringing out the scatter of freckles across his cheeks while not hiding the fullness of his lips. The threadbare t-shirt he's wearing is tight across his shoulders and chest, highlighting the muscle underneath, every curve and bulge.

Without even really thinking about it, Jared finds himself standing right over him, lightly touching his shoulder, skin warm through the cotton of his shirt.

"Hey," he says, quiet, but hopefully loud enough to wake Jensen. "Hey, c'mon, man. Let's get you to bed."

Jensen blinks his eyes open, squints and then blinks again before bringing a hand up to rub at his face. "Contacts," he says and Jared nods, giving Jensen's shoulder a nudge as he leans down.

Taking the hint, Jensen sits up, allowing Jared to get an arm behind his back and carefully ease him onto his feet. Thankfully, Jensen's bedroom is on the ground floor and they take it slow, Jensen still bleary with sleep and putting most of his weight onto Jared's shoulders. Jared leads him to the attached bathroom, waiting just outside it as Jensen takes a leak and then takes care of his contacts. When he comes back out again, he's stripped out of his t-shirt and Jared's mouth goes a little dry.

"Pretty sure I can take it from here," he says and Jared blinks, confused for a second.

"Oh," Jared says, face flushing dark. "Right. Yeah."

Jensen slowly starts limping towards his bed, but he only gets a step and a half before Jared's hooking an arm around his waist and helping him the rest of the way.

"Fuck, you're a pain in the ass, you know that?" Jensen says. Jared ignores him, only pulling away to help turn Jensen and guide him onto the bed, Jensen grumbling the whole time. "I'm not friggin' elderly."

"Sure smell like it," Jared says as Jensen drops back onto the bed and shoots him a glare. "Want me to give you a sponge bath?"

Jensen groans, using his good leg to shift into the center of his bed and Jared grabs a few pillows, building a pile for Jensen to rest his leg on. "Yeah, I bet you'd like that," he says grumpily.

Jared glances up and shrugs. It's neither an agreement nor a denial and Jensen's eyes narrow, like he's trying to distinguish which it might be.

"Can think of a few better things," he finally admits, realizing belatedly that they're basically flirting. It's not too shocking considering Jared pretty much flirts with anything that breathes, as his momma's always said. What's weird is that he's pretty sure Jensen's flirting back. A drunken blowjob and angry grinding session is one thing, but flirting is a little something else.

"Sorry, dude," Jensen says, reaching up to take his glasses off. "No sponge baths on the first date."

Jared smirks. "Well," he says, lips curved upward in amusement as he heads towards the door. "Guess we're gonna have to have a few more dates then."

"Guess so," Jensen says and Jared flips off the light.

:::

Jared misses an easy timing pass to Witten during Tuesday morning's practice and Henson gives a one minute speech on how it should be done, how he would get it right and Jared nearly gives into the impulse to pummel the guy into the dirt. It's only Brock that holds him back, his grip on Jared's arm surprisingly strong.

And it's not that Henson's wrong; Jared needs work and he knows it. He's not quite up to speed with the rest of the league and is still making mistakes that no experienced quarterback ever would, but there's no need for the guy to be such a raging asshole about it.

The situation is only made worse when Jared realizes that he'll have to once again room with the guy for the Washington game. It's a fact he studiously ignores for most of the week until Saturday rolls around and he can't any longer.

"Dude, just make sure you don't kill the guy," Chad advises as they step off the plane in D.C. "Pretty sure Goodell isn't big on homicide."

"Unless you're Ray Lewis," Aldis mutters.

After the team gets checked in and Jared deposits his bag in the room, he decides to spend as little time there as possible. He's not on the list to do a pre-game interview this week, but he waits outside the closed doors for Chad and Aldis and they head out to dinner. It's still relatively early by the time they finish, but Jared knows he has to get back sooner or later and he needs to study the playbook anyway.

He's not surprised to find Henson still awake when he walks in, but he is surprised to see the guy with his shorts down around his knees and his dick out, jerking himself off with the hotel's pay-per-view porn channel blaring.

"Jesus--," Jared sputters as the door closes behind him. "Seriously?"

Henson doesn't even have the decency to look ashamed, lips twisting into a slow smile as he looks over at Jared. Jared really, really doesn't want to see what all's there, but he kind of can't help himself, his gaze dropping to where Henson's still working himself. And sure, the guy isn't entirely unattractive, but that doesn't mean Jared particularly wants to see the guy masturbating. Especially not in the room Jared has to sleep in.

"Dude," Jared tries again when Henson still doesn't stop.

"What, man?" he asks, his voice hitching in a way that makes Jared's skin crawl. "You wanna join in?"

Jared cringes, but otherwise doesn't answer. He stalks over to where his bag is lying on the floor, quickly rifling through it for his playbook. Refusing to give the bed another glance, he tucks the book under his arm and leaves, slamming the door shut behind him.

There's an all-night diner three blocks from the hotel and Jared slides into a booth in the back and flips open his phone. A waitress comes to take his order seconds later. She looks barely old enough to be out of high school, her hair tied back and introduces herself as Kristy. Jared orders a coffee and a slice of pie, waits for the call to connect on Jensen's end.

"Shouldn't you be sleeping?"

"Yes," Jared says, making sure to keep his voice quiet. "Kinda hard to do, though, when my roommate is busy watching porn and waving his dick around."

He gets a long silence in reply, one that stretches for a good four or five seconds and then he has to pull the phone away from his ear at the sound of Jensen's laughter.

"Dude, this really isn't funny," Jared hisses except he can't help the way he's already starting to smile. Because it kind of is. Ridiculous and disgusting and stupidly funny.

"You kiddin' me? It's hysterical. He's seriously jerking off right now?"

"Yes."

"In your room."

Jared sighs. "Yes."

"Put him on the phone."

"I left, asshole," Jared laughs.

"Why the hell'd you do that? Go find Sam; he can put that shit on YouTube."

"Good way to get him thrown out of the league."

"There, see? Now you're thinkin'."

When Kristy comes back with his coffee and slice of pie, Jared's still on the phone, though they've gone from talking about the sexual exploits of Jared's roommate to some of Jensen's more memorable roommate experiences. For the first time, he talks about Kane and there's something in his voice that makes Jared again wonder how much Jensen isn't telling him. It's not the time to ask and he's not sure it ever will be, but it makes him wonder all the same.

It's only when his phone starts to run low on power that Jared realizes he should get back. He pulls out a sizable tip for Kristy and tucks his playbook under his arm as he gets up to leave.

"Hey," Jensen says as the conversation winds down, his voice low and warm. Jared doesn't know why, but it makes his heartbeat kick up a notch. "Good luck tomorrow."


Cowboys beat 'Skins, collect fourth straight win
7:02 AM Mon, Nov. 23, 2009
Sophia Bush

In a highly anticipated, nationally televised game, the Cowboys traveled east to play division rivals, the Washington Redskins. In only his second game as a starter, Jared Padalecki had a modest showing, completing 17 of 24 passes and one interception. Both teams had strong defenses, particularly the Cowboys, who held the Redskins to zero points in both the first and fourth quarters. Rookie cornerback Jason Rogers scored his first NFL touchdown in the third quarter when he picked off a pass intended for Santana Moss. The star of the game was, undoubtedly, Marion Barber who had 83 yards on 12 carries and scored twice in the fourth quarter.

With the rest of the NFC East losing this weekend, the Cowboys are now tied with the New York Giants for first place in the NFC East, and tied for second place in the entire NFC. The Cowboys' chances of winning the division, and possibly a first-round bye in the playoffs are suddenly much brighter, especially with the Philadelphia Eagles possibly losing Donovan McNabb for the season.

Then again, the Cowboys have yet to prove they can win a game in December. It's anyone's guess.


NBC's field reporter, Genevieve Cortese gives Jared a cute little pout when he dodges her after the game. He hadn't had all that great a game and doesn't particularly feel like going into detail yet again on how he's adjusting or how long he thinks Jensen will be out. He just wants to get to shower and change and maybe go out for dinner. Luckily, when Genevieve spots Marion, Jared seizes his opportunity to slip away.

He doesn't get far before someone's tugging him back by the arm. "Hey, man, what's the rush?"

Jared turns to face familiar blue eyes and a pinched smile. The guy's long hair is damp with sweat and sticking to the sides of his face and Carlson stands just behind him, frowning in such a way that makes Jared nervous.

"Relax," Kane says, clapping a hand on his shoulder. "I just wanna check in on my boy."

Jared doesn't relax, but he knows instantly who Kane's referring to. "Jensen."

Kane smirks, gives the side of Jared's neck a light pat in confirmation.

Scowling slightly, Jared twists away from it just as a few of his teammates walk by, a few slapping him hard on the back as they pass on their way to the locker room. "Careful what you say to the enemy, Fourteen," Carpenter says as he passes, his joking.

Carlson grins at him. "Oh, like you're one to talk."

"Fuck you, Turncoat," Carpenter shoots back, walking backwards a few steps. "We still on for O'Connell's?"

"Winner pays."

"Happy to," Carpenter says, flashing one last smile before he turns to disappear into the crowd.

Kane watches Jared through the whole exchange, waits until the guys head off to say, "I'm not askin' as a Redskin."

"So why don't you ask him yourself?" Jared asks, not missing a beat.

Kane frowns. It's amazing to Jared how little difference there is between that and when the guy smiles and he abruptly steps in closer, voice dropping like he's telling a secret.

"Let me ask you somethin', boy," he says. "How well you think you know Jenny?" Jared has the feeling the question is meant to be rhetorical and keeps his mouth shut. A small part of him wants to say that he knows Jensen better than Kane ever could even if it might not be true. "You know, I'm thinkin' it can't be too well. 'Cause if you did, you'd know that he ain't likely to tell me jackshit and, whatever he does decide to tell me is only gonna be what he thinks I wanna hear. And I'm aimin' to get the truth."

Kane has a point, Jared can admit that. In the short time Jared's known Jensen, he's figured out that the guy hates to appear weak in any way whatsoever and his injury has only made that more acute. But at the same time, Jared really isn't sure how much he should tell this guy and not just because they're team rivals. Jared has a loyalty to Jensen that's already deeper than merely being teammates.

"You can catch the updates on SportsCenter," he says.

Kane actually laughs then. "Yeah, 'cause the media always knows what the hell they're talkin' about."

"Look, man," Jared says, suddenly losing his patience, "he's hurt, yeah, but he'll get through it. You know as much as the rest of us."

"He stayin' off it?"

"Yeah," Jared says, still exasperated. "I mean-- not happily, but yeah. Keepin' it elevated and iced and all that shit. Hasn't left his place basically since it happened, just stays on his couch and watches TV all day."

The more Jared says, the more Kane seems to relax, lips again twitching into that weird smile of his. "Fuck, bet he's goin' outta his mind."

"Could say that," Jared says, managing a small smile himself. "They're startin' up PT in a week."

"Good," Kane says, nodding before he takes in a breath and then squints up at Jared again. "He's really doin' okay? Me and him... we don't talk a whole anymore, things bein' like they are..."

"Yeah, he's okay," Jared says. He wants to ask what Kane means by that, but he manages to, for once, keep his mouth shut.

"Now you're not just sayin' that to get rid of me, are you?" Kane says, arching an eyebrow, still half-smiling. "'Cause I'll find out if you are."

Jared snorts a laugh. "Why the hell would I lie?"

Kane shrugs and then steps in closer again, eyes piercing. Scrutinizing. Jared fights the impulse to take a step back.

"You really lookin' out for him, man?" Before Jared can answer, Kane continues, "Jenny thinks he's real good at lookin' out for himself, but the truth is, he needs someone. Used to be me before he went and got his ass traded. Think it was Jeff for awhile after that. Now I reckon it might be you. Which, I gotta tell you, makes me nervous as hell seein' as you're in there to take his job and all."

Jared's lips twitch into a scowl. Carlson remains quiet, alternately watching them and looking over his shoulder, like he's afraid someone might be listening in. "Dude, he got hurt. That's not my fault."

"Maybe not," Kane concedes, not backing down in the slightest. "Still doesn't change anything. Just makin' it happen quicker is all."

"You think I wanted him to get hurt?"

"I think it's pretty fuckin' convenient."

Jared snaps then, taking a step forward before he's intercepted by Carlson, the guy putting himself between Jared and Kane, but Jared doesn't back down. "You're full of shit, you know that? Have no fuckin' idea what you're talkin' about. I wasn't even on the goddamn field!"

Kane's eyes narrow, but he lets Carlson push him back a step, his gaze never leaving Jared. "Just watch yourself," he says. "I find out about anything you might be doin' or even thinkin' 'bout doin' and I'll make you regret it."

Fuming, Jared shoves Carlson's hand off him, hand curling into a fist as Kane gives him one last glare and turns to walk away. Jared glares after him, looking away only when Carlson blocks his line of sight and offers a hand. "Good talkin' with you again," he says, easy as anything. Like he hasn't just witnessed Jared itching to tear his friend limb from limb.

"Whatever," Jared sneers, ignoring the proffered handshake and heading to the locker room.

:::

He goes out to dinner and drinks with some of the guys afterward, but he doesn't feel particularly celebratory. Downing his third bottle of cheap beer, he scans through the texts on his phone: three from Sandy and one from Jensen. Sandy's are all congratulatory, while Jensen's only says, 'Still need to work on your timing.'

He decides not to call either of them.

It's well past midnight when he gets back to the hotel. The room is dark and quiet and Henson is, thankfully, an immobile lump under the covers. Jared changes quietly and crawls into his bed, lies awake thinking over the conversation with Chris Kane and deliberating whether or not he should mention it to Jensen. Wonders if Jensen would even care. There has to be something, though; guys like Kane don't get ridiculously protective of another guy unless there's a good reason for it and Jensen isn't the kind of guy that exactly needs protecting, even with a gimp leg.

Sleep comes fitfully and he's awoken the next morning to the sound of Henson slamming the bathroom door shut. He forgoes a shower in favor of breakfast and catches a couple more hours of sleep on the plane ride home.

"I hate this holiday," Chad grumbles before their Monday meeting. He still has sunglasses on despite the fact that they're indoors and it's November and slumps down low in his chair.

Jared only sighs, still too tired to do much else. It's going to be a long fucking week.

There's a voicemail from Sandy waiting for him when he gets out. He doesn't listen to it before calling her back, bag slung over his shoulder as he walks to his car.

Her voice is a comfort, low and sweet. He gives her his schedule for the week and they make arrangements for Thanksgiving. Nearly Jared's entire family is planning on coming up for the game - his parents and brother and sister and their respective significant others. Not to mention a handful of aunts and uncles. And Sandy, of course. Jared's simultaneously excited and dreading the whole thing and knows Sandy can hear it in his voice.

Tuesday's practice is brutal as they try to fit three days of work into one, tempers flaring to the point where the coaches have to separate a few guys more than once. Wednesday is easier with a couple meetings in the morning and a walk-through in the afternoon before Kripke tells them to get home and get rested.

"Go easy on the turkey until after the game," he reminds them. Not that anyone needs to hear it.

He calls Jensen on his way home and gets voicemail. "Hey, man," he says into the machine as he pulls out onto the main drive. "Just callin' to check in, make sure you're still alive and all. Guessin' you'll be spending tomorrow with your family, but let me know if you need anyone to swing by and bring you turkey or somethin'." He doesn't mention the game, figuring it's still weird for Jensen to not be out there. "I'll talk to you later, dude."

He disconnects and stares down at his phone for a long moment, trying to not think about why he feels so disappointed.

:::

The last seconds of the game clock tick down to zero and Jared stands, lobbing the ball off to the ref before taking off his helmet. Sweat trickles down the sides of his face and his undershirt sticks to his skin as he wipes his hand across the towel tucked into his waistband. The players on both sidelines jog onto the field as the music swells inside the stadium, the crowd's cheering overpowering it when the final score is announced, declaring the Cowboys' winning score of 38-10.

There's no escaping the network's film crew this time and Jared honestly doesn't even try, blood still thrumming with adrenaline as Chad slings an arm around his neck.

"Man, I want whatever the hell you had for breakfast this morning," he says, leaning his weight into Jared.

Laughing, Jared lets himself be pushed, a smile still plastered across his face when Danneel Harris and Robert Wisdom walk up, both holding microphones.

"Jared, come this way," Robert says, motioning with a tilt of his head towards the far end of the field as he brings up a hand to adjust his earpiece. Jared glances from him to Danneel and back again, curious.

Danneel only smiles, says, "It won't take too long. Just a quick minute or two."

"Oh dude," Chad says, letting Jared go then and nudging him forward. "Dude! Gobbler!"

"What?" Jared starts and then realizes, a laugh pushing free as he looks at Danneel for confirmation. "Wait, seriously?"

"Seriously," she says, nodding up ahead. Jared looks, sees a table draped with a white cloth arranged at the corner of the end zone, a small crowd gathered around. As they draw nearer, the crowd parts and one of Fox's tech guys hurries over, handing Jared a headset.

He puts it on, adjusting the mouthpiece as Danneel steps in close, her body tilted to face the camera while still able to talk with Jared, Robert hovering just behind her, a smile stretching his face.

"Wow," Jared says, laughing as he eyes the copper, turkey-shaped statue in the middle of the table. "So this is mine, huh?"

"This is yours," Danneel says, smiling up at him and then glancing at the camera.

In his headset, Jared hears Troy Aikman and Joe Buck talking with each other and the television audience before Joe says, "Not bad for a rookie there, Jared."

"Well, you know," Jared says, looking ahead, out into the crowd that's still gathered in their seats to watch the presentation. He never looks directly into the camera during these interviews, always a little weirded out by seeing his own reflection in the lens. "We have a really great crowd here and it's-- this is our day, y'know? We came in here to win and that's what we did. I'm just glad I could contribute."

"Your five touchdown passes beat a Dallas Thanksgiving Day record, are you aware of that?" Danneel says and Jared's eyes widen briefly.

"Really?"

Danneel smirks and Jared glances back down at the turkey statue as she nudges his arm. "You have anything you want to say to that?"

"Do you have a speech prepared, Jared?" Joe Buck adds.

Jared shakes his head a second before looking up, smiling at Danneel. "Can I touch it?"

All three of them laugh then and Danneel grabs it with one gloved hand, drops it into Jared's. It's lighter than he'd thought it'd be and it looks even more ridiculous close up.

It's still pretty awesome.

:::

After the game, Jared's entire extended family and about a dozen friends cram into his condo where Sandy had arranged for dinner to be catered. It feels strangely extravagant and not entirely comfortable at first, with two complete strangers setting out vats of food in his kitchen. They do a quick job of it, though, in and out within twenty minutes despite Jared inviting them to stay awhile and partake of the food they'd brought. Jared takes it upon himself to eat a good fifth of the dinner while the evening's Packers-Ravens game blares from the television. Around him, his family talks and laughs, everyone getting caught up on each others' lives, his father offering automobile advice while his brother tells ER horror stories.

His golden turkey statue sits on the shelf above his flat screen TV next to the 'Most Improved' trophy he'd gotten in sixth grade and he brushes a finger over its hard feathers.

"Can you eat it?" Jensen asks him.

Jared grins, changes the phone from one hand to the other and starts to head toward the room where it's not so loud. "I could probably find a way."

"Not much of a prize if you can't eat it."

It almost sounds like a double entendre, but Jared doesn't call him on it.

"You watchin' the game?"

"Packers?" Jensen replies, the question rhetorical. Jared can hear voices in the background on Jensen's end and wonders how many people are over there. Wonders if Jensen's family is bigger or smaller than his own. And then wonders why he cares. "Yeah, just saw Joey Flacco get nailed to the ground. Pretty awesome."

Jared snorts a laugh. "Nice."

"He can take it. Fucker."

"So, uh. You wanna hang tomorrow?"

Jensen doesn't answer right away and Jared feels a weird spike of panic. However random it probably seems, it's still meant casually. There's absolutely no reason it wouldn't be anything but them just hanging out, maybe this time with Jensen able to hobble around a little.

"Can't," Jensen finally says. "Got this family thing goin' all weekend. How 'bout Monday after practice. You can come by and make me another grilled cheese like a good little bitch."

Laughing, Jared leans back against the wall. "Dude, I only offer my mad culinary skills when you're bedridden and pathetic."

"That right?" Jensen says. Jared can hear his smirk. "Well. Guess I'll just have to make sure I'm bedridden and pathetic when you get here."

"Right, because my grilled cheese is just that good."

"Better than what they got at Hooters."

"Good thing people don't go to Hooters for the grilled cheese."

Jensen laughs, quiet. Almost subdued. "I do."

It doesn't sound like a confirmation exactly, but Jared thinks it's the closest he'll ever get and he's not about to press the issue.

"Monday then," he says, his voice sounding overly loud even to his own ears.

"Misha's makin' me go in for some PT," Jensen says. "Which, you know. Should be nice and torturous."

"Ahh," Jared says, once again slowly relaxing into somewhat safer territory. "So maybe you'll be legitimately bedridden and pathetic."

"Might be beggin' you to pull the trigger."

"Because you're a pussy."

"Because I'm a pussy."

"You even own a gun?"

"Dude. I was born and raised here. Practically crawled out of the womb with one in my hand."

"Yeah? What kind?"

Jared has no idea how long they keep talking, but Sandy pokes her head in some time later and Jared tucks the phone against his chest for a second as he mouths Jensen's name.

She smiles, nods back over her shoulder as she whispers, "Think your parents are heading out soon."

Jared nods and brings the phone back up. "Hey, man," he says, interrupting Jensen's story of time he'd mistaken a glob of wasabi for guacamole. "Sorry. My parents are about to jet. I gotta go play the good son and at least say goodbye."

Jensen chuckles, low and warm. "Yeah, why the hell're you even talkin' to me? Go, dude. I'll speak at you Monday."

"Yeah," Jared says, watching Sandy sneak back out of the room, leaving the door open a crack. "Happy Thanksgiving, man."

"Yeah, yeah, Golden Boy," Jensen says before his voice drops just slightly in pitch to add, "Happy Thanksgiving."

Ackles on the mend and on the prowl?
5:45 PM Sun, Nov. 29, 2009
Sophia Bush

After suffering a high ankle sprain three weeks ago against San Francisco, Jensen Ackles has been absent from Valley Ranch, presumably resting his injured leg. However, sources close to the quarterback have revealed he hasn't been spending all time strictly adhering to the PRICE regime. In fact, word is Ackles spent a good chunk of his time Saturday hobbling around downtown Dallas with an as yet unidentified dark-haired young woman. And, no, it's not his sister; we've already checked.

Ackles, who has previously been romantically linked with actress, Jessica Alba and Fox analyst, Danneel Harris, was unsurprisingly tight-lipped when asked about the matter, stating that the woman was only a friend.

Is it possible Dallas' veteran QB is getting a little tender, loving care while he heals? Is one of the NFL's most eligible bachelors off the market? Depending on how well or how poorly the Cowboys do in December, this might be a hot topic in the weeks to come.


A loud round of gobbling greets Jared when he walks into the meeting room Monday morning. Laughing, he gives an exaggerated bow and takes a seat next to Brock, passing a particularly pissy-looking Henson along the way.

"Dude, my Sophia's been spying on your boy," Chad says, leaning across the table to hand Jared a folded up spread of newspaper.

Jared's smile slips a little, confusion taking its place as he reaches back to grab the paper.

Chad drops his chin down onto his hands, watching Jared. "When's she gonna start spying on me, man? That's what I wanna know."

"Maybe when you start getting interesting," Brock supplies.

"Har har," Chad says dully. "My left nipple's more interesting than your entire existence, kid."

"Dude, you're not the only person in the world with three nipples. Get over it."

Jared's only half-listening to the exchange, eyes scanning over the printed words on the paper, a frown tugging at his lips. Jensen hadn't mentioned a girl the last time they'd spoken. In fact, Jensen's never really mentioned girls at all aside from very brief allusions to past girlfriends. Nothing recent. Unless Jared counts Danneel and he's still not sure he can.

The article doesn't actually say anything at all and there's no picture to go with it. He's almost surprised there's enough there for it to have made the paper at all, but then he considers that it's Jensen Ackles, the until-very-recently starting QB of the Dallas Cowboys. The guy could probably fart and it'd make a headline. Besides, if there's one thing Jared's learned since joining the league, it's that the media will make a story out of nothing at all just to get people talking. It's annoying, but there's no escaping it. Especially in Dallas, it seems.

"Huh," Jared says, giving the article one last read-through and then handing it back to Chad.

Looking disappointed by the lack of response, Chad slides the paper back toward him. "You're not wondering who it is?"

"Not really," Jared lies, shrugging.

"But it's Jensen. Guy's not exactly a playboy, you know? I bet she's hot, though. Like, model hot. I wonder if she's got hot friends. Hot chicks always have hot friends. Except for the token fat chick." He hesitates a second and then breaks into a smile. "Unless she is the fat chick..."

"Dude, you're trying to get yourself hooked up with a friend of a girl who may or may not actually exist."

"Not if she's the fat chick."

Jared laughs despite himself and shakes his head. "Christ, you're pathetic."

"Morning, men." Kripke's voice puts a sudden halt to the conversation as he heads to the front of the room, a wad of papers in one hand. A round of grumbling greets him and he stops near the projector, arching an eyebrow. There's another rumble then mixed with the sound of chairs creaking as sixty 200-plus pound guys suddenly sit up straighter. Kripke nods his approval.

The Detroit Lions are their next opponent and, as with San Francisco and Oakland, people are expecting an easy win. Coach Kripke quickly gets down to business, rolling through game film of the previous Detroit-Giants game. Since the Giants are a familiar opponent, it gives them a fair idea of what to expect and what to prepare for, though with some adjustments. Kripke goes over the projected game plan, highlighting some possible wildcat plays in addition to their typical I-formation that should trip up the Lions defense.

In the afternoon, they go through some of the plays they'd only sketched out in the meetings. It's a long practice, doubly tiring given that they've had the past three days off and Jared loses himself in the work. When he's not busy letting his mind wander through a list of dark-haired famous women anyway.

They break before dinner. Jared takes a quick shower and changes into a clean pair of lounge pants and a t-shirt and heads out to his car, bag slung over his shoulder. Brock stops him out in the parking lot and when Jared turns around, the guy's smiling, wide and bright.

"I'm thinkin' barbecue."

Jared winces just a little as opens his car door and tosses his bag inside. "Sorry, dude. I'm headin' over to Jensen's."

Brock nods, like he'd expected as much. Like he's not surprised in the slightest. "You gonna ask about the secret hottie?"

"Paper said she's just a friend."

"They're never just friends," Brock says and there's something in his tone that gives Jared pause. Something he's pretty sure he doesn't want to look at too closely.

"Rain check?" he says instead.

Brock still looks vaguely amused and curious, but he nods. "Yeah, sure. Tomorrow?"

"Tomorrow," Jared agrees with an apologetic nod.

He shows up at Jensen's twenty minutes later. Jensen's managed to shave since the last time Jared had seen him and he's not favoring either leg. They finish up the leftover ham and turkey that Jensen's mother had forced on him after the holiday, swallowing it down with what little beer Jensen has in his fridge as they flip between the Steelers-Bucs Monday Night game and Jack Bauer blowing shit up on 24. Jensen doesn't once mention that he's even casually seeing anyone and, after about three hours, Jared's curiosity gets the better of him.

"So," he says, relaxing back into the couch, eyes fixed on the television. He watches the images flip by as Jensen scans through the channels. "Heard a rumor."

"No, I have never accidentally set any part of my body on fire."

Jared snorts out a laugh.

"The key word there being 'accidentally,'" Jensen adds, a grin curving the corner of his lips.

"Do I wanna know?"

"I was young and reckless," Jensen says, not once looking away from the television. "Also, drunk and stupid."

"Are you dating someone?"

That manages to get Jensen's attention. He glances over, thumb stilling on the remote. He doesn't look shocked by the question so much as intensely uncomfortable.

"There was a thing in the paper," Jared explains. "Chad brought it in."

"Mmm," Jensen says, brow furrowing for a second before his expression relaxes and he lets out a quiet laugh, shaking his head. "Slow news day?"

"Dude, you're the star quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys, it's not--"

"No, you're the star quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys," Jensen interrupts, voice slightly sharper. "And not just because I got..." he trails off, motioning vaguely at his right leg. "You've been the star of this team since you walked in and I'm not-- it doesn't bother me, alright? Not anymore. But that doesn't make it not true."

Jared blinks, stunned to silence for a second before he quietly clears his throat. "So you are?"

Jensen frowns. "I'm what?"

"You're dating someone."

Jensen looks even more confused for a second before his lips twitch into a smile. It's not a good smile, though. Pained and almost bitter. "Does it matter?"

And that's the thing, it does matter. And Jared has no idea why.

"Coulda told me," he says, shrugging as he runs a hand over his thigh and frowns at the television.

"Why?"

"I don't know, because I'm your friend, maybe?"

Jensen actually laughs at him then, a short, rough sound as he runs a hand over his face. "Jesus Christ, dude. We gonna start braiding each others' hair and reading Cosmos together, too?"

"Look, it's just-- I figured you might've mentioned it or something," Jared says, lips twisting into a scowl.

"Why, because you've had my dick in your mouth?"

Jared feels a rush of heat flood his cheeks and his stomach leaps up into his throat.

"Whatever, man." Jensen's voice has softened some, but there's still an edge to it, still clearly pisse. "It's just media bullshit. You should know better by now."

"Maybe," Jared says. He watches Jensen carefully, staring at the way the muscle in Jensen's jaw twitches, the harsh roll of his throat when he swallows. There's a mountain of things Jensen won't tell him, but Jared's started to learn that a lot of it isn't all that hidden. Jensen doesn't explain things with words, but with movements, a tense roll of his shoulders and a quick glance to the side. And, no, maybe Jensen's never outright clarified anything, but Jared knows, he gets it even if Jensen would really rather he didn't. "Maybe I should know better," he says, voice quiet, making it clear the pieces have fallen into place, "but everyone else..."

Jensen doesn't say a word, doesn't even look at him.

And Jared lets out a rough laugh, runs a hand over his mouth and jaw, lips pursing. "Seriously?" he says when he's had enough of the silence. He makes no effort to hide the irritation in his tone. "I've sucked you off and you're still not gonna say it."

"What the hell do you want me to say?" Jensen snaps, finally turning to look at him. His green eyes are narrowed and there's a flush to his cheeks and Jared's slightly shaken by what that manages to do to him.

"The truth."

"Why?" There's an edge of panic in his voice and, for the first time, Jared feels guilty for pushing.

Not quite guilty enough to back down, though.

"Because you owe me--"

"I don't owe you jackshit!"

"I'm your friend, man! Do you really think I care whether or not you're gay?"

Jensen reels at the word, flinching away like he's been slapped. Jared shifts abruptly on the couch, turning his full attention on Jensen even though Jensen refuses to look at him.

"Seriously, what part of me sucking your dick made you think I'm in any way homophobic?"

Jensen still doesn't answer, one hand clutching the television remote, the other curled in a tight fist and tucked between his leg and the couch.

In a rare moment of patience, Jared rides it out, never once looking away from Jensen's face as he waits. When Jensen finally gets there, his voice is dulled, but firm. "You're straight, Jared," he says and Jared laughs, sounding a little hysterical as he shakes his head.

"I don't know what the fuck I am right now, but pretty sure straight ain't it."

He's not prepared for the expression on Jensen's face then. It morphs from shocked to hopeful to pissed off in less than half a second, his lips curling into a sneer. "Man, you think sucking cock once lands you a pass on the queer train? Really?"

"You think draggin' some poor girl around town to stir up media attention makes you straight?"

"No, it makes me smart!" Jensen replies. Jared can see the way the guy practically shakes with anger, his hand pressed high up on his hurt leg, not anywhere near the injury, just keeping it still. Jared gets the impression that Jensen's barely restraining himself from throwing a punch. "And it keeps me employed, Jared. Jesus Christ, you think it's easy being a fag? You think I like choosing between my career and a shot at really being happy? Do you have any idea--"

There isn't much space between them before Jared narrows it completely, one hand palming Jensen's cheek, holding him there as Jared crashes their mouths together. He doesn't even think about it, just knows that he doesn't need to hear anything else Jensen has to say.

Jensen's lips are parted from words left unspoken and Jared wastes no time in licking into his mouth, tongue catching the sharp edges of his teeth. Jensen doesn't react at all for a few terrifying seconds and Jared almost pulls back with an apology he knows damn well he won't mean. But then Jensen's hand is on his wrist, tight enough to bruise as his tongue slides along Jared's, just as demanding. It's heated and brutal, a fight in and of itself. Jared's fingertips nudge over the lobe of Jensen's ear before sliding back into his hair, curling into the strands as he drags himself closer, his thigh against Jensen's, body, pinning Jensen between himself and the arm of the couch. And then Jensen's reaching up, two hands pressing against Jared's chest and shoving.

"Jay-- Jared, fuck--"

Jared ignores him, teeth catching his lips before forcing his tongue between them for more. His hand slides down to the nape of Jensen's neck, forcing him to tilt his face up into the kiss. Jensen's fingers curl into the front of his shirt, tugging briefly before pressing flat and pushing.

"Fuck-- Stop!"

Jared lets out a pant when they part, gaze immediately dropping to Jensen's reddened lips. His own are already sore, tingling faintly and Jared's fingers twitch, drag across the smooth skin at the back of Jensen's neck.

In a flash, Jensen cringes and bats Jared's hand away, already struggling to slide out from between Jared and the side of the couch. The effort is obvious, Jensen's face screwing up into a grimace when he puts too much weight on his right leg and tries to make up for it by grabbing onto the arm of the sofa.

"You need to leave," he says, wiping a hand across his mouth as he gives Jared a sharp look.

Jared blinks. He hasn't moved at all from his spot, heart pounding a deafening rhythm inside his ribcage.

"What?"

"You need to leave," Jensen says, slower and louder. Jared thinks he might be shaking. "Now."

And Jared just stares for a long moment, taking in the puffy redness of Jensen's sore lips, his flushed cheeks and hunched shoulders. Like a cornered animal, he thinks guiltily. He swallows tightly and nods. Gets to his feet and leaves without another word.

:::

They don't see each other again until Friday. They're doing walk-throughs inside, voices echoing in the huge, enclosed space of the indoor practice field as they go through route after route and formation after formation at half speed. Jensen stands off to the side, dressed in loose pants and a t-shirt. Jared bites back the impulse to tell him to sit down for awhile as he throws a pass to Witten down the side. He spends the rest of practice dutifully ignoring Jensen's presence as much as possible.

Later, in Jared's pre-game interview, Joe and Troy both tease him about the Gobbler trophy and Jared's eight year-old self is practically giddy when Troy calls him the most gifted rookie quarterback in the game.

"In terms of raw talent," he explains further.

"That's-- you know, that's-- I still have a lot of work to do," Jared says, words tripping and falling over each other. "A lot yet to learn. Raw talent will only get you so far."

"It looks like there's a good chance you'll be starting next season."

"Yeah, maybe," Jared says, managing to not cringe. "It kinda depends on Jensen's recovery, though, and where we are as a team. What direction we take in the off-season. All kinds of things. Should probably talk to Coach Kripke about it," he adds with a hint of a teasing smile.

Danneel arches an eyebrow at his answer, full lips pursing as she taps her pen against her notepad.

They all shake his hand at the end and wish him a good game and there's something in the way Danneel looks at him that's just a little unnerving. "We'll talk after the game," she says and Jared wonders if it's a threat.

:::

The Cowboys lead by only three points at halftime and Spencer, one of their strongest defensemen, goes down at the start of the second with a knee injury. While they still don't have immediate confirmation on how bad it is, it doesn't look promising. Very little changes in the third quarter on either side of the ball and, once again, it's Nick Folk who comes to the rescue with a 46-yard field goal on the very last play. Jared finishes with zero touchdown passes and two interceptions and completes eighteen out of his thirty pass attempts. It's not exactly his best game ever.

Thankfully, Danneel doesn't hunt him down after the game and Jared quietly makes his way to the locker room. The mood there isn't celebratory so much as heavy with relief. In many ways, it'd been a game they'd seemingly done their best to lose against a team everyone had assumed they'd easily beat. Jared takes his uniform and pads off in silence, muscles aching from four hours of frustration and physical exertion and spends a good few minutes under the warm spray of the shower and changing into his street clothes.

He skips out on the press conference and heads home, calling Sandy as soon as he gets there.

"Everyone has their bad days, baby," she tells him as he falls onto his couch with a heavy sigh. "And you still won. Isn't that's what's important?"

It is and it isn't and he knows Sandy's aware of that; she's only trying to help.

"You comin' up for the Giants game?" he says instead.

"I have an early meeting on Monday I can't miss," she says, the apology clear in her tone before she quickly adds: "I'll be there for the one after, though. Promise. Couldn't miss Christmas."

"Yeah," Jared says, managing a small smile. They have the Saturday game that week, the day after Christmas. And, like Thanksgiving, nearly all of Jared's extended family will be in attendance, a thought that makes him anxious on a number of levels.

Their conversation is cut short by Jared's doorbell. They rush their goodbyes, Jared promising to call her back later that night before he opens the door to see Jensen standing in the hall, cane in one hand and a six pack in the other. They've barely spoken in a week, so Jared's pretty sure he can't be blamed for being surprised.

"Thought you could use the pick-me-up," Jensen says, lifting the beer and Jared smiles despite himself.

Jensen gets himself settled in the living room and Jared calls for a pizza and wings.

"What, no grilled cheese?" Jensen asks as Jared flops onto the couch, props one leg up on his coffee table.

"Can't have gourmet every night," Jared says, snapping open a can.

"Well, that's bullshit."

Jared laughs before he takes a sip, Jensen watching him with a small smile and, just like that, everything feels normal again, watching the Redskins-Chargers game until the pizza shows up.

It isn't until later, when Jared's cleaning up the food mess and crunching an empty can of beer with one hand that Jensen says, "So I'm gay."

Jared blinks, holding the empty pizza box in one hand a beer in the other. "Yeah, uhm. I kinda figured."

"This gonna be a problem?"

Jared shrugs. "I already told you man, I don't--"

"No, I mean--" Jensen cuts himself off with a sigh and rubs a hand against his jaw as Jared watches, waiting it out. "Can I trust you?"

It's eerily reminiscent of his conversation with Brock and Jared idly wonders what the odds are of having two gay guys on the same team. And then he remembers Esera Tuaolo and thinks it's probably not all that unheard of; it's just Jared's knowledge of them that probably makes it unique.

And he can't help wondering how he fits into the mix. If he can be considered one of them after sucking Jensen off and liking it or if he's something else entirely. Not fully gay, but not fully straight either.

"No one would believe me," he says, trying to lighten the mood somewhat, but Jensen only shakes his head.

"You'd be surprised. C'mon, Jay," he continues, fingers twitching against his thigh. "Can I trust you?"

Jared considers telling Jensen about Coach Anderson, but decides against it. It doesn't feel relevant, an entirely different situation.

"What would I tell people?" he says instead, leaning forward to set down the trash in his hands before crossing his arms loosely over his chest. "I mean, I'm the one who did the cocksucking, right? If we're going by deeds alone, I'm way gayer than you, dude."

It's meant to be a joke, but Jensen doesn't laugh. Barely even cracks a smile.

"You have a girlfriend," he says. "People can accuse you all they want, but you have a girlfriend and you're a starter and that's what matters. Stupid, maybe, but it's true."

"The only reason you're not starting is because you're hurt."

"Doesn't matter. People talk, Jay. All the media's gotta do is put the question out there because all people see right now is a crippled has-been. From there, it's not too much of a stretch to picture the guy bent over taking it up the ass."

A crude image springs to Jared's mind then of Jensen bent over the back of his couch, legs spread wide and jeans gathered to his knees as some nameless, faceless guy fucks him from behind. It's startling and unpleasant and Jared cringes, feels a flush bloom across his cheeks.

"So I need to know I can trust you, okay? Just-- fuck, man. Just give me that much."

Jared thinks of the hotel carpet in Chicago, the scrape of it under his hands. He thinks of the hard tile of Chad's laundry room and the hot, heavy weight of Jensen in his mouth. He thinks about how soft Jensen's hair is at the nape of his neck and the sounds he made when Jared had kissed him. He thinks of Jensen bent over his couch, Jared's hands on his hips as presses in, filling him and thinks maybe he's not so different at all. Even with Sandy.

"Yeah," he says, voice tight in his throat. "You can trust me."

:::

"Now, normally I'd give you today off," Kripke explains at the start of their meeting Tuesday morning. He paces across the front of the room, hands on his hips, team cap firmly planted on his balding head. "It's the second half of the season and I know you're all getting tired. We still got a long road ahead, guys, and if you can barely manage a win against the Lions, I frankly worry about you taking on the Giants. And Philly. And Green Bay." The Packers are their next opponent and, while the Cowboys are currently ahead of them in the standings, there are still four games left to play and the Packers are only looking stronger.

The room remains utterly quiet as Kripke continues, heads lowered in something like shame. Jared flips his pen through his fingers as Brock draws pointless circles on a sheet of paper.

When Kripke starts going over game film, Jared grows more uncomfortable. His name is brought up frequently, Kripke singling out his mistakes over and over again as he details every botched play. Glancing over, Jared notices a smirk curling Henson's lips and his hand balls into a fist.

It pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the week. Jared works with Coach Morgan on his timing issues and stays late after practice to throw a few more passes with Brock and does what he can to ignore Henson wherever possible. It's difficult and awkward and Jared feels a little bad for Isaiah, who often has to play middleman during the QB meetings, but Jared figures it's either that or Henson suffering a bloodied lip.

On Thursday, Coach Morgan pulls Jared aside before field practice, dark, warm eyes assessing him curiously.

"Jensen's gotten the okay from Edlund to go with us to Green Bay," he says.

"Great," Jared says, face splitting into a smile. "That's great. Did he, uh.... did he say anything about him coming back?"

Coach Morgan's expression looks pinched at the question and he shakes his head. "Official reassessment will take place Monday," he says, which doesn't really answer Jared's question at all, but Jared decides not to press the issue. "He'll be coming for moral support. Plus, we're pretty he was gonna try stowing away with the athletic equipment if we tried to keep him away. So. Now, I know this is gonna sound like a stupid question, but I wanted to pass it by you anyway. You know what they say about assumptions."

Jared nods his understanding, brow furrowed in curiosity before Coach Morgan continues. "Having you room with Henson was kind of an experiment and I'm not sure it really worked--"

Jared cuts him off with a laugh. "Yeah, this is a stupid question."

"Hey, I had to be sure," Coach Morgan says, grinning.

"You really thought I'd pick that asshole over Jensen?"

Coach shrugs and rubs a hand over his salt-and-pepper beard. "Not really. But now we have to find someone who will room with that asshole."

"Could just leave him on the bus."

Morgan snorts a laugh. "Tempting," he says and then gives Jared a hard shove toward the field.

:::

Jared learns exactly two things upon stepping foot in Wisconsin. The first is that it's freezing, the kind of bone-chilling cold he's only read about in stories. The second is that there is absolutely nothing there besides the Packers. The team stays in a town forty minutes away from Green Bay itself, in a hotel that proves to be the largest and possibly newest building in the downtown area.

"Man, I've seen some pretty small towns in my life, but this is just weird," Jared says, dropping his bag on one of the beds.

Jensen smirks as the door closes behind them. "Aww, that mean you don't wanna go to the children's museum with me?"

Jared snorts out a laugh as he lands on his bed, stretching out with a leisurely groan. "Could see if there's a bowling alley around. Isn't that all they have out here? Churches and bowling alleys?"

"Shut up and study your playbook," Jensen says as he takes a seat on his own bed, pulls the television remote out of the nightstand drawer.

Jared groans a response and pushes himself up the length of the bed so his head can rest on the pillows. He idly watches Jensen flip between channels for awhile before pulling out his playbook.

Chad bangs on their door an hour or so later with a, "Stop blowing each other's tiny dicks and get your prissy asses to IHOP!"

It turns out Chad's apparently said the same to nearly half the team as they practically fill the place with hungry football players who eat a truly horrendous amount of pancakes and omelets and french toast.

It's impossibly colder when they leave hours later and Jared wraps his coat tighter around himself, his breath a puff of white in front of his face. There seem to be a total of five cabs in the entire town and he and Jensen wait with Aldis to catch one back to the hotel. Jared climbs in first, Jensen sliding in right after as Aldis takes the front. It's blissfully warm inside the car and Jared relaxes back, watches the buildings and few lights blur past.

Later, he notices Jensen watching him, the street lights casting an eerie glow over his face, lips pulled into a warm smile. Before he can really think about it, he's answering with his own smile and, as his blood starts to heat in his veins, he knows it's not because of the shelter of the car.

Jensen pays for the cab fare and they make their way up the four floors to their room, Aldis waving as he heads to his own.

The room is eerily quiet when Jared shuts the door and Jensen shuffles towards the restroom.

"Dude, I'm beat," Jared says, just to break the silence.

"So go to bed," Jensen offers. There's a tantalizing stretch of light from where Jensen's left the bathroom door open and Jared finds himself staring at it and listening to the sounds coming from the small room.

When Jensen finally steps out minutes later, he's wearing his glasses and Jared's stomach tightens with want.

Pointedly ignoring it, he says, "You think we have a shot in hell of winning tomorrow?"

Jensen answers with a shrug and then reaches back to tug his shirt off. "Tough to win in Lambeau," he says as Jared stares. "Sure as hell doesn't mean it's impossible."

"Yeah," Jared agrees and winces at the strain in his voice. When Jensen arches an eyebrow in his direction, Jared quickly looks away.

Nothing's happened between them since Jared practically attacked Jensen with his mouth. And Jared really isn't sure he knows how to read that or if he should even try. He knows he shouldn't be hoping for something, especially with Sandy to consider, but... well, the truth is, he hasn't stopped wondering. He's already debated whether or not the situation really counts as cheating and, even though the idea of Sandy ever finding out makes him ill, he can't deny that he wants it. He already knows what Jensen sounds like when he comes, what he looks and tastes like. And all he wants is more.

But he has a game to worry about. Whether or not Jensen would be okay with Jared tackling him to the bed and licking every inch of him doesn't make any difference at the moment.

So he keeps his mouth shut and eyes turned away as he changes, pulling on a ratty pair of boxers to sleep in for the night and disappearing into the bathroom to brush his teeth.

When he gets back, Jensen's already in his bed, covers draped over his legs as he reads through the playbook.

"Gonna quiz me?" Jared asks, forcing himself not to stare.

"Fuck no," Jensen says, quirking a grin as he shuts the binder. "Don't need you blamin' me if you lose."

"Wow," Jared says with a laugh, snatching the book from Jensen before he drops down onto his own bed. "Thanks for the vote of confidence, buddy."

Jensen reaches for the remote and flips the television on. "What are friends for?"

Jared ends up studying to the sounds of Adult Swim for a couple hours before his eyelids start to droop. He shuts the book, drop it on the floor between the two beds and Jensen glances over at him.

"Bed?" he asks and Jared nods as he nestles deeper under the covers.

Jensen switches off the television and then reaches over to turn off the light on the nightstand. Jared keeps his eyes open, listens for the sound of Jensen setting his glasses aside, the shuffle of skin on sheets as he settles.

Neither of them have talked about what Dr. Edlund will decide on Monday, about how it will decide Jensen's future for the season. Maybe because there's nothing to say. Jensen's getting better by the day, no question, but whether or not he's capable of playing right away seems fairly doubtful. The team could decide to sacrifice a roster spot until Jensen gets better, but with the playoffs only a few weeks away, that doesn't seem likely.

The alternative is that the Cowboys decide to put Jensen on IR, keep Henson and trust Jared to carry them into the playoffs. Just the idea makes Jared's blood run cold.

He stares across the darkness, at the dulled outline of Jensen's shoulder and thinks maybe tomorrow will tell him what he needs to know. The Packers are a good team, number one in their division and certainly playoff-bound. If Jared can manage to lead the Cowboys to win in Green Bay then maybe he is capable of carrying the Cowboys. Even as a rookie.

An if not... well, he won't be surprised. He'll just hope that the team does all it can to get Jensen back in the line-up as quickly as possible.

Chapter Text

Felix scores the first touchdown of the game, a 77-yard run that should set the tone. Only it doesn't.

They fail to score again in the first half while the Packers run rampant over the Cowboys' defense, collecting three touchdowns in the second quarter alone. The players bundle themselves in coats between plays, exhaling puffs of misty white with every breath as Coach Kripke fumes and stalks the sidelines.

"You staying focused?" Jensen says, voice rough, as they watch the defense continue to crumble on the field. He's covered head to toe in team gear, coat hood pulled up over his head, cheeks red with cold.

Jared only nods, nerves jittery as he adjusts his own ear warmers. Jensen abruptly grabs him by the collar of his pads and pulls him forward, shouts "Are you focused?" and Jared stares at him, wide-eyed.

"Yeah," he says, heartbeat picking up its pace. Jensen's eyes narrow.

"Fuckin' better be," he snaps and releases Jared with a shove.

It rattles Jared and, when they all jog off the field seconds later for halftime, he makes sure to avoid Jensen entirely.

The second half is only mildly better. The Cowboys manage a field goal early in the third, but the Packers counter with yet another touchdown, lengthening their lead. Frustrated and growing increasingly desperate, the Cowboys start committing debilitating and inexcusable penalties that set them further and further away from gaining any ground. Their only touchdown comes midway through the third quarter in a pass from Jared to Chad. It's very nearly picked off by Packers' linebacker, Bob Bryar, which is made all the more embarrassing by the fact that the guy is playing with a broken arm.

It only gets worse from there on out, the Packers squeezing in two more touchdowns by the end of the game, making the score a painful 42-17 as the game clock ticks down the final seconds.

The chill of the Wisconsin weather follows them into the locker room where Kripke is shouting up a storm, guys tossing their helmets to the floor and cursing. Jared's right there with them, dropping his helmet with a clatter before he struggles out of his shoulder pads, already mentally going over every bad play in his head, every missed opportunity and botched pass. Too many mistakes today. Way too fucking many.

"Anybody wanna tell me what the hell happened out there?!" Kripke screams, red-faced. "Anyone? Because you sure as fuck weren't out there to play football, I can tell you that much right now! Looked more like table tennis, Jesus Christ!"

Any other time it might be funny, but here nobody's laughing.

Jared's skin is red with cold as he strips down, dirt and grass stuck to him with drying sweat. The hot shower isn't nearly as soothing as he'd hoped and the chill returns the second he steps out, hair matted to his forehead and the sides of his face as he changes into jeans and a t-shirt and gets ushered into the post-game press conference.

'How does it feel to lose your first game as an NFL starter?'

'Do you think Kripke should've called for a few wildcat plays in the fourth?'

'What is your opinion of the team's defense at this time?'

'What is your outlook for the rest of the season?'

'What do you think is the likelihood of Jensen Ackles returning?'

Jared answers every question that comes at him, some with honesty and others with the best-sounding bullshit he can come up with. Does he think the Cowboys still have a shot at the playoffs? Absolutely. Does he think this game is indicative of his true talents at quarterback? In some ways, yes. He has a lot yet to learn and the Packers are a great team, blahblahblah bullshit bullshit bullshit. He gives them what he knows they want to hear, what he hopes will make good sound clips without incriminating or isolating anyone.

"It's only one game," he says near the end. "And, you know, whether we win or lose, we just gotta go into next week with a clean slate and try and get the job done. One game at a time. That's the most we can do."

And, while he means it, it doesn't make this particular loss any easier to handle.

He checks his messages on the bus ride back to the hotel - one from his parents and two from Sandy. He knows they won't expect to hear from him, but he texts Sandy anyway, a simple, 'Ill be fine. Call you tmrw.'

Jensen's already in the room when Jared gets back, stretched out on the bed with the television turned to the Redskins-Cardinals game.

"Hey," he says as Jared toes off his shoes.

Jared barely looks at him and doesn't glance at the television either. He doesn't need to see how the Redskins are doing right now, doesn't need to know if the loss is going to be even worse than it already is. His skin still feels drawn too tight around his bones, nerves thrumming with a rage he hasn't yet been able to release. Jared's never taken losing very well and it feels worse now that he's getting paid. He's getting paid and it's December and if there's ever been a time where he needs to prove himself, it's now.

He needs to get out. Needs to find a bar, somewhere loud and dirty with cheap beer and stale chips. Except they're stuck in Buttfuck, Wisconsin where the bars are probably run by the town's mayor's cousin and a 6'5" pissed-off stranger walking into the place would likely make them call the cops purely as a precautionary measure.

He wrestles out of his coat and tosses it aside and has no idea how or when Jensen got up, but suddenly he's right there.

Jared blinks.

"What?" he asks, the word coming out sharper than he'd intended, though it feels good. Focused.

"Okay, you need to chill the fuck out," Jensen says, tone clipped and not moving an inch.

"You need to back the hell off," Jared snaps and tries to push past him. He has a clean shirt in his bag, a button-up that doesn't smell like dried sweat, but Jensen's hand wraps around him before he can get very far, grip surprisingly firm.

"One game," Jensen says, voice quiet, but clear. "Dude, even you said as much, I saw you."

Jared shrugs Jensen's hand off his arm, anger flaring sharply through his veins. "Right, and you know as well as I do that one game is all it takes."

"What, you actually think they're gonna bench you for this?" Jensen says, his tone sounding suspiciously amused, like he's just fighting the impulse to laugh. "Seriously? It's one game, Jay! And there's no fuckin' way they're gonna put in Henson when you're perfectly healthy! He's just a fallback, man. Fuck, you know that."

"They did it to you!"

"Yeah, because they had you, you moron! You think all that talk about you bein' the future of the franchise is bullshit? Are you fuckin' stupid?"

Jared frowns darkly, shoulders hunched even as Jensen steps in closer. He looks irritated, but also almost pitying. Or like he's just figuring out something, only Jared has no idea what it might be.

"Christ, man. Is that really what you think? That you're still competing for this job?"

"It's not mine," Jared says, not even having to think about it. "This is your team! I'm just here filling in a spot until you get better and maybe next year--"

"Fuck next year," Jensen snaps, practically snarling. "You really think they're gonna put me back in the starting spot after a month and a half when they were already shaky on my playing to begin with?"

Jared blinks, lips parted in a soundless retort because-- well, because that's exactly what he's been thinking. They could bring Jensen back onto the roster, letting him get fully recovered while Jared just tried to get them as far as the playoffs. And then Jensen could carry them the rest of the way. The idea that he could be it hadn't ever really occurred to him.

And he's not ready.

"Yes, you are," Jensen says and it's only then that Jared realized he'd spoken aloud. "Jesus, Jay. Yes, you are. Everybody has bad days, but this is your team, man. And, yeah, you're still learning, but you're a rookie! Cut yourself some goddamn slack and man the fuck up!"

Jensen isn't quite yelling, but he may as well be for the impact the words are having on Jared, each one a blow.

"Jared," Jensen says, voice still firm, but quieter as his hands come up to grab hold of Jared's face.

He suddenly feels ridiculous, like he's five years old all over again, his momma wiping the tears off his cheeks with her thumbs. At least Jared isn't actually crying this time. Feels like there's an overwhelming weight crushing down on him, covering his mouth and nose and suffocating him, sure. But he's not crying.

"Jared, come on," Jensen says again, his voice sounding weirdly muffled and far away. "Jared, you really need to calm down."

He steps forward blindly, fingers curling in the threadbare cotton of Jensen's t-shirt as his head drops forward. Jensen smells like sweat and cool air and, somewhat bizarrely, of hot dogs and Jared leans into it, nose bumping the stubble along Jensen's jaw as he inhales shakily. Jensen's still touching his face, light but sure, fingers skimming along the curve of his jaw. It's both grounding and terrifying at once and Jared shudders, willing the ground to stop spinning and the ringing in his ears to quiet.

"Okay," he manages a few moments later, nodding as he pulls back with a shaky breath. His hands have settled low on Jensen's hips and he keeps them there as Jensen ducks his head, meeting his eyes.

"You can do this," Jensen whispers and Jared feels a small, renewed spike of panic until one of Jensen's hands slides to the back of his neck and then it's something else entirely.

He doesn't know which of them moves first, doesn't care. All he knows is that Jensen's lips are warm against his own and they open easily, hot tongue pushing into his mouth. His fingers tangle with the hem of Jensen's t-shirt as he presses closer, feels hot skin under his palm and a shudder against his fingertips as Jensen's teeth catch his bottom lip.

"Fuck," he groans before Jensen's tongue muffles the sound, licking the soft of his mouth and holding onto him like Jared would actually consider pulling away. Jensen's hands are everywhere, fingers trailing down the side of Jared's neck and then over his shoulder, slipping just under the sleeve of his t-shirt and then grabbing at the front, fighting with the fabric.

When Jared takes a step forward, Jensen breaks the kiss with a soft, strangled sound. But he doesn't pull away, his hands gripping Jared's t-shirt, stretching the shape as Jared ducks into his neck, finds the ragged beat of Jensen's pulse under his tongue and latches on. The scratch of stubble is a slightly foreign sensation, but he welcomes it, hips rocking forward to grind against the hard line of Jensen's hip before Jensen groans and pulls back.

"Jay--" His voice sounds shot, breathless as he brings a hand up to touch his lips, like he can't believe they're still there.

Jared fights every impulse to lunge forward and tackle him to the floor, to get that plush, reddened mouth on his again and kiss him until neither of them can breathe.

Instead, he keeps still, letting Jensen put more space between them, heart pounding painfully in his chest and fingers itching.

Jensen takes one more step back and then lifts his arms to tug his shirt off and Jared's breath gets locked in his throat, body nearly lurching forward. He's seen Jensen shirtless more times than he could possibly count, but this is different. This time it's a display and it's all for Jared.

He lets out a shuddered breath, lightheaded from unknowingly holding it in and Jensen's lips twitch into a smirk.

There's no more waiting then as Jared closes the space between them in two easy strides, one hand reaching up to palm the side of Jensen's neck, crashing their mouths together once more as the other slides over the smooth expanse of Jensen's bared skin. His fingers graze over the grooves and lines of muscle, follow the light trail of hair below his navel.

Jensen arches into the touch when Jared hooks a thumb in the waistband of his jeans, exhales a shaky breath into Jared's mouth and then pulls away again.

"Off," he says, two hands grappling at Jared's shirt. Obeying, Jared makes quick work of his shirt, discarding it somewhere behind him as Jensen's hands grip at his sides, tugging him closer. Jensen hisses again when Jared arches forward, their mouths meeting in a heated, demanding clash as Jensen gets a hand settled on Jared's ass.

"Fuck--" Jensen grunts, hand lifting to grip at Jared's hair on just the right side of painful, lips trailing down the curve of his jaw, teeth scraping. "Any idea, Jay?" he continues, breath hot on Jared's skin. "Any fuckin' idea?"

Jared answers with a rock of his hips, seeking more friction. "Yeah," he groans and then tilts his head to catch the shell of Jensen's ear, tongue darting out a for a brief taste. "God, let me."

What exactly he wants Jensen to let him do, he's not sure, but Jensen doesn't ask. Just gives a moan and a stilted nod and pulls away again, falling onto the bed behind him gracelessly, hissing slightly as he tries to maneuver his injured leg. Below the burning arousal, Jared feels a pang of concern as he watches Jensen slide along the bed, chest heaving with every breath, head tipped back against the pillows and legs spread.

"Jen, your leg--"

"It's fine," Jensen says, already dropping a hand to the front of his jeans, snapping open the top button.

Jared hesitates for exactly two seconds and then quickly toes off his shoes and struggles out of his socks. When he looks up again, Jensen looks eager and anxious all at once, every emotion visible in the crinkle of his eyes and the curve of his lips and Jared kneels his way onto the bed, watches with warm satisfaction as Jensen's gaze drops to his chest. Lower.

Resting back on his haunches, he lets his hands drop to the front of his jeans, following Jensen's lead and snapping open the top two buttons.

Jensen groans and fresh heat spikes up Jared's spine as he sits up to slide the denim down his hips, thumbs hooking into the waistband of his boxer-briefs to drag them along. There's nothing graceful about it, but Jensen's watching him with hungry eyes, sitting up and leaning in to reach forward and Jared stills when Jensen's hand finds Jared's skin, rough, callused fingers sliding down into his underwear, tugging his cock free.

"Fuck," he exhales, denim and cotton binding his thighs as Jensen strokes him from base to tip. His hips jerk as his body folds forward, one hand catching his weight on Jensen's bare side.

"Wanted this," Jensen murmurs, barely loud enough for Jared to hear at all and he lets out a strangled whine in response, the sound melting into a heady groan when he feels the slick flick of Jensen's tongue. Jensen's grip is sure, jerking him slow, breath teasingly hot against the purpled crown. And Jared can't stop watching, bats the hair away from his eyes and then reaches down to tip Jensen's head back slightly, to get the view of Jensen's hand on him, mouth hovering.

"Yeah," he breathes, hungry with it as his hips try to roll forward again. "Yeah, c'mon, Jen. C'mon..."

Jensen looks up at him, the green of his eyes only a sliver around the blown black of his pupils, lips slick and wet. It's almost obscene, better than any piece of porn Jared's ever seen and he groans all over again, hips twitching forward. The head of his cock bumps against the swell of Jensen's bottom lip and Jensen's answering grin is wicked, his eyes locked on Jared as he takes him briefly into his mouth and releases with a pop.

"You wanna fuck my mouth, Jay?" he asks, stroking him again, thumb flicking over the tip as Jared whines, thigh muscles burning.

"God, yeah," he admits, his hand moving from Jensen's hair to his face, thumb brushing over his cheekbone and down stubble, tracing and discovering before slipping into Jensen's parted lips. He feels Jensen's groan more than he hears it, a low vibration that shoots through his palm and up his arm as Jensen's lips wrap around him, tongue fluttering under the flat of Jared's thumb. "Wanna-- everything. Want everything."

Jensen pulls back abruptly, leaving Jared's thumb wet as he turns his head and swallows Jared's dick down with no warning. Jared's body crumples forward once more, his thumb leaving a streak of spit along Jensen's cheek as he cradles his face. It's immediately clear that Jensen knows what he's doing, his cheeks hollowing as he sucks Jared down further, gripping him firmly at the base before letting go to skim his fingers over Jared's balls, rolling them against his palm. He starts up a rhythm, steady and maddening and Jared arches, thighs aching. He lets go of Jensen's side to catch himself, nearly losing his balance completely before his fingers clutch and grab at the comforter. His other hand never leaves Jensen's face, traces the bone of his temple and down his jaw to where his lips are wrapped obscenely tight around Jared's dick, slick and sloppy with spit.

"Jensen," he whines, muscles tightening and Jensen only answers with his tongue, a flutter along the underside of Jared's dick before his cheeks hollow and that's it. That's it.

Jared bites down on his bottom lip as he comes, keeping back the sounds that want to scream out of him as his cock pulses, as-- fuck, as Jensen swallows. He can feel the slip-slide of Jensen's mouth still working him, the tiny mewls that break away only when he pulls off to breathe, replaced by a puff of heated air.

Groaning, he looks down to where Jensen's head is still ducked, lips brushing over the length of his shaft, licking up the drops, slow and thorough and he shudders all over again.

Jared breathes Jensen's name, a shaky whine and Jensen finally glances up, his parted lips, red and sore-looking. "Jesus... fuck," he says and Jensen laughs, a strained chuckle that trips down Jared's spine as the guy pulls back and lifts the back of his wrist to his mouth.

"Owed you," he says as Jared just continues to stare.

It takes a few more minutes for him to recover as Jensen uncurls his body to lay back. Jared's sweating all over again, feels the trickling beads on the sides of his face and his neck, the backs of his knees where his jeans still have him trapped.

It's a bitch to wrestle out of his clothes and his muscles protest every movement, but it's worth it for the way Jensen watches him the entire time. He leaves his jeans and boxer-briefs abandoned on the floor and crawls onto the bed again, stretches out parallel to Jensen and props his head up with one hand. Jensen never moves, one hand tucked behind his head, the other inside the gap of his opened jeans.

"Hey," Jared says, feeling more relaxed than he has all day, muscles heavy and sated.

Jensen's lips twitch into a half grin and he arches slightly, breath catching on a gasp as his gaze darts between Jared's eyes and his mouth. And Jared lets himself look, follows the flush of Jensen's cheeks down his neck and chest, over every line of muscle in his stomach, made even more pronounced now as Jensen jerks himself.

"Fuck, you're..." Jared's voice trails off as he reaches forward, fingers sliding down Jensen's forearm, feeling the muscles twitch as he gets to his wrist and settles there. "Want me to suck you?" he asks, barely a whisper and Jensen shakes his head.

"No, just-- This. This is good."

It is good, but it's not all Jared wants and he slides his hand down lower to pull Jensen's jeans open. "'Least let me see," he murmurs and Jensen's breath hitches again as Jared slips his hand in to cover Jensen's.

"Jay--" Jensen groans, his hand working faster. Jared glances up to see Jensen biting down on his bottom lip, eyes screwed tight and he leans in, their noses bumping. The kiss is rough and uncoordinated, little more than sharing air as Jensen's breath quickens. "Gonna-- fuck, 'm gonna--"

Jared's tongue flicks into his mouth, tasting himself behind Jensen's front teeth as Jensen suddenly shudders, mouth opened in a strangled moan as his hips rock into his fist. Jared feels the spread of warmth along his fingers where they're draped over Jensen's and it's enough to make his own cock twitch with renewed interest, even moreso when he sees the look on Jensen's face, mouth wide and eyelashes dark against his cheek.

Instinctively, Jared steals another kiss, sloppy and needy as Jensen groans, wearily returning it.

After, they lay together for a long time, not saying a word, slick and sticky. Once Jared's sure his muscles can handle it, he wets a washcloth in the bathroom and cleans off the come already drying on his skin. When he walks back into the room, Jensen's finally gotten rid of his own jeans and lies sprawled back on the bed, eyes closed. Jared has to clamp down on a whole new flare of lust.

"Here," he says, holding out the cloth and Jensen peaks his eyes open, holds Jared's gaze before taking it.

They sleep in their respective beds that night and Jensen bitches about crusty contacts in the morning. Jared brings him coffee and a bagel after he showers and they head out to the bus together, sit side by side on the plane.

And when Jared gets home on Monday, the first thing he does is call Sandy.

:::

Jared gets a call from Brock late Monday night. He's been picked up by Minnesota, signed to their 53 and Jared's stuck between selfish disappointment and sincere happiness for the guy.

"Might have to buy yourself a parka," Jared says with a laugh that doesn't quite feel as hearty as normal.

Brock groans. "God, don't remind me. It's been below freezing since I got here, man. I don't know how people live like this."

Jared's smile lets out a quiet breath. "Take care of yourself, okay? Keep in touch."

He doesn't have a particularly good practice on Tuesday and doesn't bother to stay after like normal. That'd been his and Brock's thing; feels weird otherwise.

Jensen's waiting by his car after practice, arms crossed over his chest and bag by his feet and Jared slows to a stop in front of him.

"So they put me on IR," he says and Jared nods, tries to gauge what exactly Jensen's thinking and not saying that moment, whether he's relieved or disappointed. But Jensen's giving nothing away, looking straight at Jared with a detached sort of scrutiny. "You remember what I said, right?"

Jared frowns then, not following and Jensen stands up straighter. "This is your team," he says, bends over to pick up his bag. "Has been for weeks, you just need to start believin' it."

The headline on the Dallas Morning News sports page Wednesday morning is 'Too early to herald the Dallas' December curse?' Jensen's delegation to IR is seen by some as a sign of hope and others as definitive proof that Dallas will suffer another harsh December. Kripke does his best to convince the team to ignore the brewing local and national debate, but with reporters and cameras filling the locker room before and after every practice, it's a little difficult to avoid.

"Just tune 'em out and stay focused," Jensen says at Dickey's on Thursday.

Jared's fingers are messy with barbecue sauce and he licks them clean, shaking his head. "Tryin'," he says, glances up to see a brief flash of hunger in Jensen's gaze that's more than a little distracting. He can't help a small grin as he sucks the tip of his thumb and shrugs. "Be nice if we could put a gag on 'em."

"I've considered it," Jensen says, laughing as he looks down at his own plate again. "Wish I had some better advice, man, but that's all I got. Just keep the TV and radio off and don't read the paper. Can't really ignore 'em when they're right in your face asking stupid questions, but you do what you can, y'know?"

"Can I punch 'em? I bet a few of those guys'd go down real pretty."

"Like a house of cards."

"No, somethin' heavier. Bag of bricks, maybe."

"Except for Ms. Bush," Jensen says, pointing a fry at Jared.

Jared laughs. "Well, Chad would save her. Fucker's hopeless."

Afterward, Jared drops Jensen off at his house, puts the car into idle as they finish their conversation.

"New York's gonna be a tough one," Jensen says, fingers drumming an indiscernible rhythm on his thigh.

Quirking a smile, Jared tears his gaze away from Jensen's hand. "You got any tips, I'm all ears."

Jensen smirks as he opens the passenger side door. "Yeah, throw to the guys in the white jerseys," he says as climbs out.

"So helpful!" Jared says, laughing as Jensen shuts the door and gives him a wave.

He's chosen for a pre-game interviews on Friday and, as expected, they ask him many of the same questions the rest of the media's been tossing around all week, the ones none of the team has been able to avoid. Jared does what he can to deflect them, smiles wide and easy and tells them he just wants to do his best and play a good game. They don't exactly look satisfied, but Jared refuses to feel bad for it, just shakes their hands as it draws to a close.

"Hope to talk to you more at the end of the game," Genevieve Cortese says, her smile veering on flirtatious. Jared's all too happy to return it as he takes her hand.

"Lookin' forward to it."

His parents drive up on Saturday with Jeff, Maggie and Megan all in tow. Megan and his mother are both on winter break and the rest of the family is taking the week to catch the Giants game on Sunday and then the Falcons game the day after Christmas, staying in a hotel nearby in the meantime. Jared treats them all to dinner at Nick & Sam's and apologizes again for not having a bigger place for them to stay. After, his parents drive off with Jeff and Maggie to check into their hotel and Jared drags Megan back to his place, puts her up in his guest room.

"You washed the sheets, right?" she says, eying the bed dubiously.

"Couple months ago, yeah," Jared says, playing along. "Then I pissed all over 'em. Marked my territory."

Megan wrinkles her nose and gives him a hard punch in the shoulder. "Too far. You got any ice cream?"

They catch Overboard on TBS for about the millionth time while she demolishes what's left of his chocolate mint ice cream and steers the conversation to Jensen because she's always been about as good at subtlety as the rest of the family.

"He really have a girlfriend?" she says around a mouthful of green ice cream.

Jared thinks of the newspaper article and the fact that Jensen's still never really indicated one way or the other and nods. "Haven't met her yet, but he talks about her a lot," he says, gives her a small smirk. "Sorry, Megs."

She only rolls her eyes and takes another spoonful. "Whatever, he's too pretty anyway. Probably give me a complex."

Jared heads to bed shortly after the movie ends, leaning over the back of the couch to press an upside-down kiss to her forehead. "Make sure you turn everything off," he says and pats the top of her head.

"Yeah, yeah, got it," she says, shoving and waving him away. "Go away."

Grinning, he heads down the hall, turning back once to see her nestling deeper into the couch, head propped on the arm just like she used to do when she was twelve.


Second straight loss sends Cowboys slipping in standings
7:10 AM Mon, Dec. 21, 2009
Sophia Bush

With a disappointing loss this week against the Giants, it seems there's more to the Dallas December Curse than just idle worry as the Cowboys drop from first in the NFC to second with the Donovan McNabb-less Philadelphia Eagles still hot on their tail.

The Giants led the game early with Eli Manning completing a 7-yard pass to Amani Toomer and lengthened their lead in the second quarter when Chase Blackburn intercepted a Jared Padalecki pass on the Cowboys 41-yard line and ran it back for a touchdown. To be fair, the Cowboys put up a good fight in the second and third quarters, with Padalecki clearly trying to make up for his earlier interception by scoring four touchdown passes. Their last score, a pretty trick play made even prettier with Jason Witten standing proud in the end zone put them briefly in the lead. The true disappointment was the lackluster performance in the fourth quarter. With the Giants leading by only three points the Cowboys had ample opportunity to come back for a win, but failed to get even within field goal range. The Giants locked in the win with their fifth touchdown of the night shortly before the two-minute warning, making the ending score 38-28 and all but cementing themselves a spot in the playoffs.

The Cowboys' next game is Saturday at home against the Atlanta Falcons. It will be aired on NFL Network and, locally, on channel 33.


Jared's one of the first to leave the locker room after the game. He takes the shortest shower he can manage, just enough to get off the sweat and grime and silently changes into his street clothes. There's a heaviness in the room, the suffocating weight of failure and he shoves his dirty uniform and pads into his locker cubby before pulling on his coat and grabbing his bag, all too anxious to get the hell out of there.

He's stopped by a beefy hand on his arm before he even reaches security and turns to see a familiar, gruff face. The guy's dressed in camo shorts and a black t-shirt, a blue Giants bag hanging low off his shoulder and Jared has no difficulty recognizing him.

"Hey," he says, wariness creeping into his tone.

When the guy smiles, Jared's a little surprised by how friendly it appears.

"Missed grabbin' you out on the field," Hall says and holds out a hand. "Just wanted to say good game."

Jared blinks and slowly takes the guy's hand. "Uhm," he says and then quirks a lame smile. "Yeah, thanks. You, too. Did a good job of kickin' our ass."

"Well, you know. Payback's a bitch."

He's still not entirely sure if the guy's being sincere or just trying to fuck with him, but then Hall's smile fades a little and he ducks his head in like he's sharing a secret. "How's Jensen holdin' up?"

It's not a question Jared's expecting by any means, but the guy seems genuinely curious, maybe even concerned. And it's only then that Jared remembers what Jensen had said to him a month before, the off-hand remark that Jared had taken as a joke.

"Y'know, he's good," Jared says. "Or as good as he can be right now."

Hall frowns slightly, still seemingly utterly sincere. "No offense, man, but I was hopin' to see him out there today."

Jared smiles, lets out a breath of a laugh. "You and me both.

The guy looks a little surprised by that, but he smiles all the same and then glances over to where some of his teammates are heading to the buses.

"Let him know I said hi, would you?" he asks and Jared nods, taking the guy's hand in one last shake before he turns away.

Jared's family is waiting for him outside, bundled in coats and shivering in the cold as the other fans behind the barricade stream past looking for their cars.

"Hey there, Hotshot," Jeff says, giving Jared a smile that doesn't quite reach his eyes.

Jared grimaces, slapping his brother's hand and holding on for a second or two. "Save that for when we actually win, huh?"

"You played a good game, baby," his mother says, reaching forward over the barricade to pull him down into a kiss, cold fingers smoothing over his cheeks. It's like being in high school all over again, coming off the field after a disappointing loss to his mother's warm embrace and the promise of his favorite meal back at home.

"You game for a few drinks?" his brother asks and Jared considers for a second before shaking his head.

"Think I'm gonna call it in early."

Megan sighs is quietly disapproving. "You're a lame host," she says, but she doesn't look upset.

"And you're an ungrateful little brat," he shoots back as he tugs her towards his car.

:::

With only two games left in the season -- and both against teams with winning records -- their future is anything but certain. They aren't out of the race by any means, but they're getting down to the wire and the weight of apprehension is almost oppressive.

"I don't know what the hell everyone's so worried about," Kripke says in their review meeting on Wednesday. "As long as you guys win, we're fine. Shouldn't be a difficult feat now should it? Or is there something you guys wanna tell me?" Kripke paces the area at the front of the room with his hands on his hips, beady eyes narrowed as he looks over the faces of his players and adjusts the cap on his head. "Now I know there's a few of you in here who can actually do math and have worked out all the ways we can still get in even if we lose," he continues, pausing in front of them, jaw tilted upward. "But I'm tellin' you right now I don't wanna hear it. Losing is not an option, you got me? If we want to make the playoffs, we cannot and will not lose. I don't want excuses or 'what ifs' or 'well, maybes' or any of that bullshit. I want winning. I want there to be no doubt that we will be there. Do I make myself clear?"

A rumble of 'yes, sirs' make their way through the room, Jared adding in his own. Whether they win or lose has a lot to do with how he plays and, the truth is Jared doesn't know if he can step up. Two straight losses in a row and, sure, he'd had four touchdowns against the Giants, but it still hadn't been enough. Admitting that his confidence is wavering isn't an option, but he gets the feeling the rest of the team can sense it all the same.

Jensen nudges his elbow and gives Jared a worried look, a tiny crease forming between his eyebrows.

"Come over after practice," he says and Jared thinks of Sandy and Megan and his mom all at his place, the three of them planning dinner for Friday and going out shopping. He barely hesitates.

"Yeah, okay."

Jensen's place is a quiet relief compared to the current madhouse of Jared's condo and he relaxes with a groan into the couch, props his legs up on the table, relishing the near silence. He breathes in slow, through his nose and out through his mouth, circular and calming. He doesn't think about the team, doesn't think about winning or losing or where he'll be in a month, doesn't think about Christmas or how much shopping he still has to do or about trying to keep his family entertained for a week. Doesn't think about anything but breathing.

Jensen walks in from the kitchen a few moments later, holding out an opened beer bottle for Jared as he sucks on his own.

"You figure out what you're getting the guys for Christmas?" Jensen asks, dropping onto the couch. There's plenty of space for the both of them, but Jensen still takes the spot right next to Jared, close enough that their thighs bump. Jared doesn't complain.

"Gift certificates to Hooters," he says and Jensen snorts a laugh, tips his head back for a sip.

Jared finds himself smiling as he watches Jensen, gaze lingering on the curve of the guy's full lips around the rim of the bottle, the glisten of liquid that lingers as he swallows. Jensen arches an eyebrow and Jared reaches up, pries the bottle from Jensen's grip to set it aside along with his own.

He doesn't know what it is, why he feels so much calmer around Jensen than he does anywhere else. It's not entirely unlike how he feels around Sandy, but Sandy fits a certain part of him, a part he can't and doesn't want to live without and Jensen... he doesn't know for sure what Jensen is yet, but he knows he wants to find out.

"Dude, you okay?" Jensen says, looking curious and cautious, head cocked.

Jared manages only a bare nod and then leans in, boxing Jensen in with the breadth of his arms, seeks Jensen's mouth out with his own. He keeps it soft, a bare brush of lips, and when he pulls back, Jensen's eyes are wide. Jared laughs, bumps their noses together.

"Man, this is so why you invited me over; don't even front."

Jensen lets out a rough laugh, his hands coming up to rest on Jared's sides. "You seriously need to stop hangin' out with Mayhem."

"Yeah?" Jared says, grinning as he presses in to the seam of Jensen's lips, making them part for him. "Who should I be hangin' out with then? Gonna need someone to be a bad influence."

Jensen's only answer is to suck Jared's tongue into his mouth.

They end up naked on Jensen's bed awhile later, too hurried to bother getting under the sheets, Jensen on his back as Jared grinds against him, biting at his shoulder and neck, Jensen's hands sliding down to grip his ass.

"Goddamnit," Jensen shudders as his hips rock upward.

Jared pants against him, hair hanging over his eyes as he balances his weight on one arm and reaches down with the other, wraps his hand around the both of them. He watches as Jensen's head drops back, exposing the long line of his throat, skin rolling as he swallows.

"Fuck me," Jensen grunts through gritted teeth and Jared's breath catches, his hand tightening to keep himself from coming all over the both of them.

"Jesus," he answers, ducking into the curve of Jensen's neck, stares down the length of their bodies, sweat highlighting every line of muscle in Jensen's stomach.

"God, Jay-- do it. I have--" he breaks off with another groan, a hand reaching up to tangle in Jared's hair and yanking. "Have stuff. Nightstand."

Jared stares at him, Jensen's green eyes blown dark with want, mouth parted in quick, harsh breaths as Jared rocks against him, body trembling. And yeah, so Jared's never fucked another guy before, but he's pretty sure he can figure out the logistics. And there isn't a single part of him that wants to say no.

"Yeah," he breathes, muffling a quick, hysterical-sounding laugh against Jensen's mouth. "God, yeah."

Jensen's fingers grip Jared's hair as their tongues push and slide together, Jensen's teeth catching his bottom lip as he pulls back, growls, "Fuck're you waitin' for?"

There's a buzz just under Jared's skin, a rush of blood roaring through him. It's not unlike what he feels running down the tunnel and onto the field, anxiety and fear and hunger all mixed together. Crawling over to the side of Jensen's bed, he scrambles through the top drawer of the nightstand, pulling out a condom and a half empty bottle of lube as Jensen shifts beside him, impatient hands working over the muscles in Jared's back.

"You need me to give you directions or somethin'?" Jensen asks, voice gruffly teasing and Jared laughs as he sits back again, tosses the condom onto Jensen's chest as he pops open the lube.

"Maybe," he says, drizzling some of the slick into the palm of his hand.

Jensen laughs, a broken, wrecked sound and wraps his hand around Jared's dick. It's more fondling than touching with any real intent, fingers reaching down and back to skim along Jared's balls as he sits up.

"Gotta open me up," he says, his other hand dropping to Jared's thighs, nudging him to pull off. "Been a long time since I've done this."

Jared shifts back at Jensen's urging and kneels between his spread legs, still cradling a puddle of lube in his palm. "Do I... what, just go slow?"

Jensen laughs again and tugs on Jared's wrist, drawing him closer. "One step at a time, Cowboy," he says, fingers sliding up over Jared's hand to dip into the slick and spreading it over Jared's fingers. "Gonna break me in half if you stick that thing in me dry."

Jared feels his face go hot, partly in embarrassment, but mostly at the thought that he's minutes away from shoving his dick inside Jensen's ass. Jensen spreads the lube generously over Jared's fingers and then shifts back. Jared sees a wince flicker across Jensen's face and he adjusts his legs, laying his right one out straight, the left bent at the knee and spread wide as he guides Jared's hand down between his thighs, hips titled.

"Gotta-- just give me one," he says, voice choked off as he sucks in a quick breath, his dick curved back hard against his belly.

Jared nods, suddenly not trusting his voice, as he lets the tip of one finger skim along the soft skin just behind Jensen's balls. It's-- well, weird is the first word that comes to mind, but it's not a bad kind of weird. He bites down on his bottom lip, his gaze lowered to watch his finger slide back to the ring of Jensen's hole, not penetrating, but tracing the muscle and both feels and hears the hitch of Jensen's breath. He glances up briefly to see Jensen staring down at him, bottom lip caught between his teeth.

"C'mon," he says on a rough exhale. "I can take it, man. Promise."

Jared nods again and pulls in a shaky breath as he slides his finger in, stilling the second Jensen tenses.

"Mm-mm," Jensen grunts, letting out a harsh breath through his nose as he grabs hold of Jared's wrist again. "Don't stop. Don't."

After a slight hesitation, Jared presses in again, beyond the first knuckle, his breath catching roughly at how Jensen's body clenches around him, holds him there in tight heat. "Jesus," he groans, gently crooking his finger and then sliding it in deeper, wrist curved and thumb nudging the soft skin just behind Jensen's balls.

Jensen whines, a high, choked sound, his hips undulating before Jared slowly slides his finger partway out and then back in again, slick and smooth. "'s good," he murmurs and Jared glances up in time to see Jensen's tongue flick out to wet his bottom lip. "Real... real fuckin' good."

"Yeah?" Jared says, lips quirking in a grin as he presses in deeper. "Should I, uh... more? Can I do more?"

The muscles in Jensen's stomach flutter and then clench tight, his left foot sliding across the covers as he nods. "Yeah. Another one, just-- slow. Keep it slow."

Jared does just that, sliding in a second along with the first. It's a tighter fight and he can't help the sound he makes as he watches Jensen's body take it, already imagining his cock in there. Gaze trailing upward, he notices Jensen's dick has softened and he stills, fingers buried to the second knuckle.

"Fuck, does it hurt?" he asks and Jensen gives an immediate, rough shake of his head.

"Just keep goin'."

Frowning just a little, Jared hesitates and then slowly presses in further, uncurling his fingers beneath to press his palm flat against skin. When Jensen's tight groans melt into high gasps and his body gives a sudden jerk, Jared feels he must've done something right and he tries it again, gently stabbing his fingers forward.

"Oh, Jesus!" Jensen says, the sound melting into a breathless sort of laugh seconds later. "Yeah-- god, I hate you. Fuckin'-- fuckin' natural at everything, aren't you? Jesus Christ."

Jared quirks a grin at the affection in Jensen's tone and slides his fingers nearly all the way out before plunging them in again, reveling in the way Jensen's body shudders.

"Fuck it," Jensen says abruptly and Jared goes still, glances up to see Jensen staring straight at him. "Fuck it, just-- get in me. Now.

Jared feels the room spin a little, heartbeat skipping, and he stares down at his hand, slowly sliding his fingers free and Jensen thrusts the condom packet at him. He grimaces at the mess of his fingers and Jensen huffs out a frustrated breath, sits up and opens the condom packet with a fierce rip.

"C'mere," he mutters and, when Jared shifts forward, Jensen curls a hand around his dick and slides the condom onto him with practiced determination. Jared trembles under the touch and Jensen glances up, still breathing hard through reddened, parted lips and grabs Jared by the back of the neck, crushing their mouths together. The whimper Jared lets out is almost embarrassing, but he really doesn't have it in him to care, especially not with the way Jensen's tongue slides in, rough and demanding.

It's Jensen who pulls back first, eyes even darker as he grabs the tube of lube again and shoves it into Jared's hand. Jared doesn't move, lips still tingling before Jensen says, "Gonna need more." He trails a hand over Jared's arm and then turns over onto his stomach, arms out to either side and legs parted as he hitches his hips upward, ass in the air.

"Jesus..." Jared breathes, fingers slick and fumbling uselessly with the tube before he manages to spill some into his palm. He works clumsily, nerves getting the better of him as he coats the latex with it and then falls forward, bracing himself on one arm over the length of Jensen's body. "God, you have... no fuckin' idea," he says, lips hovering over the curve of Jensen's shoulder before he takes a taste, Jensen's skin salty with sweat.

Jensen shifts beneath him, a slow roll as he presses back, head turned. "Bettin' I do, actually," he says.

Jared grins and slides a hand down Jensen's side then, smearing extra lube over his skin and Jensen arches up to it, rocks back.

"Fuck, I swear if you don't fuck me soon, man..."

"Yeah. Yeah, okay," Jared breathes, nosing the hair at the back of Jensen's neck. He places an open-mouthed kiss there and curls a hand around the jut of Jensen's hip as he settles back, guides himself to the pucker of muscle, shaking slightly. Jensen's name falls from his lips in a quiet whine as he leans in, nudging just the tip of his cock along the tender-looking skin, testing again and Jensen shivers, shifts to push himself up onto his elbows, gripping the covers tight.

"God, do it," Jensen says, voice raw and Jared sucks in a breath as he pushes forward, watches in awe as Jensen's body swallows him, obscene and intoxicating. He doesn't get far, Jensen's body going rigid before Jared remembers to exhale.

"Good?" he asks, voice tight, thumb brushing along the sweat-slick skin of Jensen's hip.

Jensen answers with another whine and hitches back again, forcing Jared in just a tiny bit deeper. Jared groans at the sensation and slowly presses in further, overwhelmed by how unbelievably tight Jensen is around him. There's no stopping at that point and Jared leans into it helplessly, letting Jensen's body take him up to the hilt and stilling, balls deep inside him.

"Oh, Jesus," he groans, both hands smoothing over Jensen's back, absorbing every shake and shudder of Jensen's body with his palms. "I gotta-- fuck, Jen, I gotta move."

He doesn't wait for an acknowledgment or permission, just slowly eases back, head ducked to watch before he slides in again with a slow roll, feels Jensen's answering moan when he gets that spot again. His weight shifts as he starts up a rhythm and he curves himself over Jensen's back, catching his weight on one arm, hair dropping over his eyes and breath ragged. Beneath him, the muscles of Jensen's back ripple and clench and Jared's mouth waters with the desire to taste, but the angle is awkward and he's too caught up in the feel of Jensen rocking back into him, taking him deeper, fucking himself on Jared's dick.

It's only when he notices the tilt of Jensen's hips, the rough, stilted movement of Jensen's arm that he moves to tuck his free arm between Jensen and the bed, pulling him upward as his hips slam in harder.

"God, can you come like this?" Jared asks, words a dark whisper against Jensen's shoulder. He can feel Jensen struggling to keep himself up, hesitant to let Jared carry his weight and fuck him at the same time.

"Fuckin-- fuckin' kiddin' me?" Jensen grunts, head dropping forward as he continues to jerk himself. Jared can feel every desperate movement and shoves forward again, breaking Jensen's rhythm and ripping a sharp gasp out of him.

"Do it," Jared says, ignoring the growing knot in his spine as he licks at a bead of sweat clinging to Jensen's neck. "Fuck, Jensen-- do it. Wanna feel it. Wanna feel you come while I'm in you."

The moan Jensen releases is almost startling and Jared's teeth scrape over sweaty skin, hips bucking forward, driving into Jensen with renewed hunger, skin slapping against skin. Seconds later he feels Jensen's muscles clamp and squeeze tight as Jensen cries out, shuddering all around him. Jared feels like he can barely breathe, like the walls are crowding them in and he fumbles a hand down, fingers dropping over Jensen's, slick and sticky with Jensen's come. It's just a bare touch and then he's gripping Jensen's hips with both hands and thrusting once, twice-- and then collapsing forward, his orgasm erupting through him, cock pulsing inside Jensen's ass.

Jared has no idea how long he stays like that, heart hammering an unsteady beat inside his chest as his breathing slows, the sweat on his skin cooling. Eventually, Jensen shifts and grunts uncomfortably and Jared has just enough energy to slowly slip free and discard of the condom before flopping back down onto the bed again.

"Think you killed me," Jensen mutters, words muffled against the bed and Jared chuckles, the sound melting into a lazy cough.

"My plan all along," he says, his fingertips brushing Jensen's flank as he slips into sleep.

Later, he steals Jensen's shower and finds all his clothes scattered between the bedroom and the living room. He gets distracted a few times by Jensen's mouth before finally managing to force himself out the door.

When he walks into his place a half hour later, his four favorite women are all gathered around the table, laughing as they devour a sheet of gingerbread cookies. They all stop and glance up as he walks in and Jared has a hard time ignoring the flare of guilt in his gut as Sandy comes over to wrap herself around him.

"Hey, baby, where you been?"

Jared tenses instinctively, suddenly sure she'll will be able to see right through any lie. Which means he can only give the truth. "Jensen's," he says, swallowing tightly and offering a quick smile. "Needed to relax after practice and I figured you guys might want some time together." It's not the whole truth, but it's enough that he can pretend he's not breaking his girlfriend's heart. Enough that she'll hopefully never wonder otherwise.

"So thoughtful," Sandy says, smirking playfully as she leans up to kiss his chin.

Later, after grabbing some left-over dinner and watching television with his dad and brother, he heads to bed. He stares at his reflection in the bathroom mirror as he brushes his teeth, leans over to spit and stares harder. He can't say he looks any different, no more or less gay, no more or less like a cheater. A liar.

But standing there in just a t-shirt and shorts, slightly unshaven, he doesn't know if he looks like an NFL quarterback either.

:::

Coach Kripke runs them hard on Thursday, a day and a half's worth of work crammed into a single morning. It's worth it when Jared gets home early to the smell of his mother's cooking. Sandy greets him just outside the kitchen and he pulls her into a kiss, lips lingering before he says, "Wanna get outta here for awhile?"

"You still need to buy presents, don't you?" she says, grinning.

They head out to the Galleria and Jared picks up the electronic organizer his mom's been blatantly hinting at wanting for months and a nice leather briefcase for her to carry around her class plans. For his dad, he buys a Canon EOS camera and, in the same store, gets an XBox 360 and about a dozen games for Jensen. It's a gift that, if he's completely honest, isn't entirely selfless. Sandy rifles through the games while they wait in line and says, "These can be from both of us," and he ignores the flair of discomfort and smiles instead, nods his agreement.

They go to midnight service that night at a church Jared's never been to before. It's small and cozy, the service mostly consisting of hymns and a short sermon before ending in a candlelight rendition of "Silent Night." They fill up half a pew near the back and Jared doesn't get away with not being noticed. The parishioners are good about it, though, all wishing him a happy holiday before giving him a good-natured ribbing to play well on Saturday.

"Don't wanna ruin Christmas for us, now do you?" one gray-haired lady with a kind smile says after the service.

Jared laughs, shakes his head. "No, Ma'am. I really don't."

They all head back to Jared's afterward where they sit around in the living room drinking spiked eggnog and sharing stories they've all told each other a million times before. As far as Christmases go, it's one of the smaller ones Jared's ever had; no grandparents or aunts and uncles or distant cousins around, just the immediate family. And, he has to admit, it's kind of nice. Not something he'd want to do every year, but it's good this time. Just about perfect.

It's nearly two in the morning when he says goodnight to his parents and brother, walking them to the door.

"Now be sure to leave the tree on all night or Santa won't know where to find you," his mother says before leaning up to give him a kiss on the cheek.

"I got it, Momma," Jared tells her, wrapping her in a tight hug before doing the same with his dad. "You guys still got the key, right?"

"Oh, we'll be usin' it bright and early," his father assures him.

He goes to bed that night wrapped around Sandy, his hand settled low on her belly, over the thin fabric of her nightgown, her hair tickling his nose and it's almost exactly where he wants to be.

:::

He wakes to a sharp, familiar sound the next morning. Breathing in a somewhat startled breath, his hand finds cool sheets beside him, the bed empty. The clock on the nightstand tells him it's only 6:16 and he rubs a hand over his eyes, lips tugging into a frown when he hears the sound again, followed by hushed giggles.

He slips into a t-shirt and steps out of the room, the flickering lights of the Christmas tree helping light his way down the hall.

"Sandy?" he calls out and immediately hears a scuffle, quick muted thuds against the hardwood floor, tiny scraping of... claws?

When he rounds the corner, Sandy's standing a few feet away, still in her pajamas and ramrod straight. Megan's huddled just behind her and they both look guilty as sin.

Jared's lips tug into a confused, wary smile, but he doesn't get the chance to ask what the hell's going on before he hears the sound again, a sharp, high yap of a bark and he instantly goes still.

Sandy's staring at him, her smile flickering from cautious to bright in an instant.

"It was supposed to be a surprise," she said, finally taking a step forward, revealing the bundle of brown and black fur wriggling in Megan's arms.

"Oh, I'm surprised," Jared assures her, letting out a breath of a laugh.

Megan beams at him and walks forward, puppy cradled in her arms and Jared looks from her to Sandy and back again as he takes a hesitant step forward. "For me?"

Sandy laughs, stepping close to twist her fingers in the fabric of his t-shirt. "Got her from the pound earlier this week. You've been wanting a dog for years and I thought... I mean, I know you're busy with the season still, but I figure I can watch her during your away games and--"

Jared cuts her off with a kiss, fingertips grazing the curve of her jaw before letting out another laugh, resting her forehead against hers.

"God, I love you," he breathes.

"You gonna take this wiggling thing or just swap spit for a few more hours?" Megan interrupts, eyebrow arched.

Jared laughs again and pulls Sandy with him as Megan deposits the writhing mass of puppy into his arms. He gets a quick swipe of a slobbery tongue across his chin and a hard thwack of a tail against his chest as he lifts her high in the air. She yips, high and happy-sounding, her bottom legs flailing for purchase and tail wagging before he draws her in close to his chest.

It's pretty much love at first sight.

He and Sandy take her out for a walk twenty minutes later, Jared not even bothering to shower because he doesn't want to be away from her that long, though he doesn't admit to that. They bat around names while the puppy gnaws at her leash and gets distracted by every single post, fire hydrant, tree and blade of grass they pass.

"Penelope?" Sandy says and Jared wrinkles his nose.

"Gracie?"

"Cute, but I'm not sure it fits her," Sandy says, watching as the puppy pulls at her leash, trying desperately to examine a crack in the sidewalk. "Nala?"

Jared snorts. "What, like the lion?"

"Hey, she could be fierce!" Sandy says, bumping Jared with her hip.

By the end of the walk, they settle on Sadie and Jared can't even remember which of them had suggested it first. The rest of the day is a blur of wrapping paper (for which Sadie has an immediate affection), hot chocolate, tamales, viewings of A Christmas Story and National Lampoons and yet more story telling. It all passes in a flash and by evening, the familiar nerves start crawling up his spine.

Sadie sleeps with him and Sandy that night, nestled comfortably against his feet, but when she proves to be a little too restless for Jared to get any rest, Sandy carries her out to Megan in the guest room.

"Think she'll be okay?" he asks guiltily when Sandy crawls back into bed with him minutes later.

She gives him a tired, but amused smirk and curls into the circle of his arms. "She'll be fine, baby," she says pressing a kiss to the tip of his nose.

:::

Jared hates night games and this one is worse than normal. His stomach is in knots all day, making it virtually impossible for him to eat despite how good the leftover tamales smell. He tries to pass the time in the morning and afternoon by playing with Sadie, taking her on walks and then out to the nearest pet store which, because it's the day after Christmas, is completely swarming with people.

Which is how Jared finds out that Sadie doesn't react well to a lot of people all at once, her tail curling between her legs and ears going back as she whines and desperately tries to hide behind Jared with every step. He scoops her into his arms after only a couple minutes and they don't stay long, just enough time to grab her some more Puppy Chow and a few toys.

"Sorry, baby girl," he tells her as they leave, pressing a kiss to the top of her head. "Won't do that again, I promise."

A thought occurs to him as they're driving back to his place and he frowns over at Sandy. "Where's she going during the game?"

Sandy has Sadie curled up on her lap and she pats the puppy's side like a drum. "Megan already volunteered."

"Oh. Good," Jared says, relaxing as he thinks of what he can get his sister to pay her back for the favor. Though, he's willing to bet Megan would rather spend the evening with Sadie than go to the game anyway.

He leaves earlier than normal for the stadium, car packed with the boxes of bourbon he'd bought for his offensive linemen along with individual gifts he'd gotten for Chad and Aldis and a few of the other guys. He leaves Jensen's at home for later. Though he's one of the first players in the locker room, he still hurries to get the gifts in place, smiling with mock innocence when DeMarcus walks in and eyes him suspiciously.

"Yeah, real smooth," he says and Jared just grins and starts to change into his gear.

The mood inside the locker room is different that night, still edged in the same anticipation and anxiety that's present before every other game, but there's also the warmth that only Christmas can bring, guys eager to share stories of their holiday, the gifts they'd received and the hilarious shit their kids had said and done. Clif's the first guy to see Jared's gift and he gives a low whistle as he rips off the paper and stares at the label.

"Damn, this is the good shit, isn't it?" he says, smoothing a hand over the glass in admiration.

"Better believe it," Jared says. "No drinkin' before the game, though, man. Still gotta protect my ass tonight."

"What, you don't think I can do that after a little drinky-drinky?" Clif says, smirking as he sets the bottle aside. "You underestimate me, rookie."

The locker room is bustling half an hour later, voices echoing off the walls, guys anxious and eager to get on the field. Hurd bumps his way through the bodies of his teammates, camera in hand, videotaping as much of the action as he can get.

"Say Merry Christmas to the SamCam, baby!" he says, zooming in on Jared's face before he can flinch away. "For the fans, dude. For the fans."

Jared laughs, raises his hand in an awkward wave and Sam goes on to assault the next guy to bump into him, demanding the same thing.

Jensen steps into the locker room a few minutes later, dressed in dark slacks and a button-up shirt, an overcoat hanging open over his shoulders. Jared's reminded of the GQ photo shoot from ages back and can't help thinking Jensen looks incredibly out of place amongst their half-naked, rowdy teammates. And disgustingly good-looking.

"Hey, man," he says, taking a seat on the bench in front of his locker, shoulder pads rested on his knees. "Sure you should be back here? Might get your hair all messed up."

Jensen arches an eyebrow, lips tugging into a half smile. "Thought I'd come by and wish you luck."

"You think I'm gonna need it?" Jared says, voice teasing, though there's a certain ounce of genuine apprehension in it.

"Atlanta's a good team," Jensen replies, pushing aside his coat to slip his hands into the pockets of his slacks. "Little luck never hurt anyone, Jay. Just remember to keep your eyes on their outside linebackers. Porter in particular is a quick fucker."

Smirking, Jared nods as he stands, holding his pads in one hand. He tries not to laugh at the very obvious way Jensen's not checking him out and says, "Thanks, Coach."

Jensen laughs, pulls one hand out of his pocket to give Jared a shove. "Fuck you. See if I try and give you anymore sage advice."

They wander out onto the field together for warm-ups, Jensen lingering on the sidelines as Jared takes his jog around the field and does his stretches. It's cold out, their breaths visible with every exhale, but the stadium is thankfully keeping out most of the heavier winds.

"You should come over after the game," Jared says, looking up at Jensen from the turf as he stretches his hamstrings. "You need to meet Sadie."

"Sadie?"

"Oh man, I forgot to tell you!" Jared says, face stretching into a smile. "Sandy got me a puppy for Christmas. This little Shepard mix from the pound. Sweetest thing in the world, man, swear to God."

"Ah," Jensen says and his smile then is suddenly strained even as he adds, "Yeah, man, I'd love to meet her."

It's not genuine. Not really. But out on the field, an hour before kickoff is not the time or place for Jared to question it, so he lets it go. "Yeah, you kinda don't have a choice. 'Less you don't want your present."

When Jensen smirks and rolls his eyes, it almost feels like everything's back to normal.

Almost.

:::

The locker room is significantly less cheerful after the game.

Jared throws his helmet on the floor of the locker room with a force nearly hard enough to split it straight down the middle. Not that he particularly cares at the moment. His hair is slick with sweat, sticking to his face and curling annoyingly, his face flushed and fingers still chilled as he tries to wrestle out of his pads.

His side aches from a hard blow he'd taken late in the third. Fucking Porter. After hobbling to the sidelines, he'd promptly been bitched out by Kripke for holding onto the ball and making it a sack instead of just throwing it away and taking the penalty.

It really hadn't made him feel any better at the time. Doesn't help much now either.

Grimacing, he lifts his undershirt and gingerly touches the bruised area, flinching at the dull pain that rises to the surface.

"Gonna need it looked at?" a low voice asks from directly behind him and Jared winces, dropping his shirt as he shakes his head.

"It's fine," he says and Misha raises an eyebrow, clearly unconvinced.

"Can't help what we don't know about, Jared. Don't put me out of a job."

"It's fine," Jared says again, but Misha continues to only stare at him unnervingly until Jared lets out a sigh and lifts his shirt again.

"Looks like a bruised rib," Misha says, leaning in and skating his fingers lightly over the skin. "Doesn't look too serious, but we'll get you set up for some X-rays."

"Fine," Jared says, huffing out an irritated breath

Undeterred, Misha only arches an eyebrow. "Anything else hurting? How's your back?"

"Fine."

"Neck and shoulders?"

"Fine."

"Ballsac?"

Jared opens his mouth and then catches himself, eyes narrowing even as he starts to smile a little.

"Just covering all the bases," Misha says, already moving to check on someone else.

Jared goes back to peeling off his uniform, wincing every time he has to bend over. It only exacerbates his already pretty foul mood and he grumbles a few expletives as he wrestles his shoes off. Chad glances over once, wiping the sweat off his face with a towel as he arches an eyebrow in Jared's direction. Jared only shakes his head and looks away, carefully stepping out of his pants and jock and making his way to the showers.

The media are still hovering like vultures, cameras and reporters hanging out both in and outside the locker room, pointing lights and microphones around while muttering pointless questions that Jared does his best to ignore. He's normally friendly, cracking jokes where he can and staying optimistic, but his mood's changed significantly over the past few weeks. The upside of that is they all seem to give him a wider berth this go around.

He all but tries to drown himself in the shower, the heat of the spray pounding onto his aching muscles, soothing some of the more minor pains. Shutting his eyes, he sees every last mistake he'd made on the field: the bad timing on a route to Aldis in the first, the botched call at the scrimmage line shortly thereafter, the total misread of the defense that resulted in his second interception of the game, another incomplete due to him fucking up the timing on the second drive of the third... the list feels endless, mistake after mistake after mistake. Warm water pounds against his face, washing away sweat and blood and dirt and leaving every regret.

The press conference is as grueling as Jared had expected, the questions accusatory and pessimistic. They again bring up the supposed curse, question his confidence and ability and Jared grows increasingly defensive.

"We had a good game against New York," he points out, forcing his voice to stay calm. "We moved the ball, got into the end zone and kept the penalties to a minimum. The better team still won, but I don't feel like ya'll are giving us enough credit for what we did accomplish." It comes off uncharacteristically snappish for him and Jared feels instantly guilty, but he doesn't amend the comment any, just turns to answer another question about the team's playoff prospects.

The locker room is all but completely empty by the time Jared makes it back to gather his stuff and he can't deny the sting of disappointment when he notices Jensen isn't there waiting for him.

Chapter Text

Despite the embarrassing loss, Kripke gives them Sunday off, which Jared spends getting in a last few hours with his family. His parents and sister leave in the early afternoon, his brother and sister-in-law shortly thereafter and he and Sandy soon take advantage of the alone time. It's the first they've had all week since Jared doesn't consider having his sister in the next room as really ever being alone and he's determined to make up for it.

They lie on the bed for awhile afterward, sweaty and sated, Sandy drawing idle circles on his chest.

"You think she'll even remember me in a week?" he asks, his hand sliding over the gentle curve of Sandy's shoulder.

Sandy laughs and props her chin on Jared's chest. "You're pretty difficult to forget, baby."

"Are you sure I can't just drive her down before I leave?"

"And what's she going to do all day while you're at practice this week?"

"I can come back between meetings," Jared says, frowning as Sandy shifts against him.

"I'll take her into the Center with me," Sandy says, crawling on top of him and leaning up to bump her nose against his, lips curved into a sweet smile. "She'll be good for the kids, Jared. And they'll be good for her."

"Just not too many at once," Jared says, putting on an exaggerated pout as he pulls her further onto him, a thigh on either side of his waist. He slides his hands over her hips. "She gets overwhelmed."

Sandy laughs again as she rocks forward, presses a kiss to Jared's bottom lip. "I know, I'll be careful," she whispers and then ducks to suck a kiss to his neck, the peaks of her nipples brushing over his bare chest.

It's so easy to slide into her again minutes later, Sandy's hands braced against his chest as she sinks down onto him, her hips rocking in a rhythm they've perfected over three years. He winces when she accidentally puts too much pressure on his lower ribs, but the pain soon fades under the pleasure as Sandy rolls her hips and arches her back, her breasts on full display.

She comes before he does, muscles fluttering tight around him and he ignores the stab of pain in his side as he lunges upward, curls an arm around her waist and flips them over. Sandy reaches up with one arm to brace herself against the headboard as Jared pounds into her, chasing his orgasm over the brink while Sandy's voice spurs him on, whimpering his name over and over again, high and breathy and nothing like Jensen at all. Not even close.

There's a new ache afterward, deeper and throbbing just under his skin. He ignores it.


Padalecki injured, probable for Philadelphia
9:12 AM Mon, Dec. 28, 2009
Sophia Bush

According to sources inside Valley Ranch, Jared Padalecki had chest X-rays taken today after suffering a rough blow during Saturday's game against Atlanta and was later seen practicing without pads. There has been no confirmation yet on on the specifics of Padalecki's injury, but our sources assured us he will be activated for Sunday's game against Philadelphia.

The Cowboys' two other healthy quarterbacks, Blake Henson and Isaiah Stanback, were seen picking up the slack, both getting in significantly more passes than normal.

With a current record of 9-6 and hovering at tied for second place in the NFC East, the Cowboys still have a chance of making the playoffs, though it won't come easy. Not only must they win against Philadelphia, but their advancement also depends on the Minnesota Vikings losing to the Buffalo Bills and the New Orleans Saints losing to the Seattle Seahawks. Given the Cowboys' performance throughout December, winning will be the toughest battle.


On Wednesday, Jared's back to practicing in full gear. Misha and Lindberg manage to fit him with a set of shoulder pads that put less pressure on his ribs and that, along with a good dose of painkillers, get him through with only mild discomfort. Jensen's been watching every practice, hanging back and offering advice and critique wherever it's needed like a second Coach Morgan. And, Jared never says as much, but it helps.

After a meeting later, Jared nudges Jensen with his elbow, says, "Hey, you got plans tonight?"

Jensen glances over, bag slung over his shoulder. "Yeah, got a hot date with Project Runway."

"Should come by and get your present, man," Jared says. "Before I decide to keep it for myself."

Jensen arches an eyebrow at that, seemingly thinking it over before finally nodding, a smile curving his lips that doesn't look at all convincing.

When they get to Jared's place, Jensen says, "So where's the mutt?"

"With Sandy," Jared says as they walk through to the kitchen and kicks aside a beaver-shaped stuffed squeak toy. "I'm gonna drive down and pick her up as soon as we get back from Philly, so you can meet her then."

"Cool," Jensen says, hands shoved into the pockets of his jeans.

Jared frowns at how tense Jensen's standing, almost formal or like he hasn't been inside Jared's house hundreds of times before. "Dude, what's up with you?"

Jensen blinks and looks at him with a blank expression, innocent and utterly fake and for a flash of a second Jared's pissed that Jensen doesn't think Jared can see right through the bullshit anymore. But there's something else there, something just behind the facade that Jensen can't hide no matter how many masks he puts on. It's quiet and vulnerable, a sad set in his eyes and Jared can't feel anything but inexplicably guilty.

"Nothing, nevermind," he mutters, shaking his head as he walks towards the living room.

Jensen follows, saying, "You know, you didn't have to do this," but Jared ignores him, ducking under the tree to pull out the only few remaining gifts, his hair getting caught for a second in the fake branches.

He blows the hair out of his face and thrusts the larger of the boxes against Jensen's chest. "Whatever, I wanted to, so shut the hell up," he says, his tone an apology.

Jensen's smirk then is finally genuine and Jared relaxes, cradling the other boxes as Jensen sets the big one down on the coffee table and starts ripping through the wrapping.

"Dude," he says once he realizes what it is and immediately lets out a loud laugh. "This your way of saying my DVD player isn't entertaining enough for you?"

"Well, you have pretty shitty taste in movies," Jared teases and then holds out the other boxes. "Here, now these."

Jensen rolls his eyes and then opens them one by one, his smile growing with each game revealed. "God, you're trying to sabotage me, aren't you?" he says, turning over the BioShock case to scan the back. "Gonna hole myself up in the living room and do nothing but play video games all day. Suffer a tragic thumb sprain."

"Well, I can think of a couple better ways to injure your thumb," Jared says without thinking.

He expects Jensen's reaction to be a nervous laugh or a snide remark, possibly both. What he doesn't expect is Jensen's smile to slip away completely, replaced by that shuddered look he'd caught only a glimmer of minutes before. But then Jensen turns his head, clearing his throat quietly and it's gone, replaced with another smile.

"You goin' to the party tomorrow?" he asks.

"Party," Jared says, blinking as he tries to keep up.

"At Al's?"

"Right. New Year's," he says, nodding awkwardly as he scratches at his neck. "Yeah, wouldn't miss it."

"Sandy comin'?"

And that's when he gets it, when all the pieces slide into place. Jensen's jealous. Fuck, of course he's jealous. Jared doesn't know whether to be guilty or angry, whether to apologize or scream that it's not his fault, that he doesn't know what the hell he's doing anymore or if ever really did. He wants to say he's not choosing between them, that he shouldn't have to, that it's different. Complicated.

But he knows it's not all entirely true. In a lot of ways he's already made his decision and Jensen knows it. Of course Jensen knows it.

"No," he finally manages, the answer tight in his throat.

Jensen only nods, but he doesn't look any more relaxed or less resigned.

"Well, maybe next time, yeah?"

Jared doesn't know how he should respond, so he doesn't, just stands there stupidly in front of him holding copies of Madden 10 and Splatterhouse.

"Jensen..." he starts, but Jensen cuts him off with an abrupt shake of his head and reaches to take the games.

"Thanks for these," he says, offering Jared a thin smile. "Bet your ass I'll be practicin' now, though, so you better be prepared for a good whoopin' next time."

"Yeah," Jared says, quiet as he follows Jensen to the front door. "See ya, Jen."

Just outside the door, Jensen turns to face him, his lips parted like he wants to say something and Jared waits for it, unsure whether he wants to hear it or not, but waiting all the same. And then Jensen smiles again, give a half-assed salute with the games in his hand, says, "Later, Jay."

:::

Aldis's parties are way better than Chad's. Which is something Jared will never admit out loud because, even if Chad is kind of an obnoxious douchebag with ambiguous morals, Jared still considers him a friend and he refuses to crush the delicate delusions of said friend purely for the sake of truth. Not unless someone pays him.

Also, he doesn't want to deal with Chad attempting to challenge Aldis to a party-off or something equally ridiculous that would likely end up Chad hiring a circus, a mariachi band and a dozen naked midgets.

Al's party, manages to straddle the line between tasteful and raucous. The pumping bass beat of dance music sets a nice rhythm for the throng of teammates, significant others and random beautiful women that fill the place, guys in bowties weaving through with plates of appetizers. Though, the appetizers aren't stuffed mushrooms or bite-sized pieces of something Jared can't pronounce, but chicken strips and mozzarella sticks and Doritos. There's a bar with an actual bartender behind it, some guy in his 50s with a loud, warm laugh who makes a damn good Brandy Alexander and admits to being a Chiefs fan.

Sipping on his third drink of the night, Jared relaxes back in one of the recliners in Aldis's spacious living room, grinning fondly as Marty and Chad have a contest of best and worst pick-up lines, using several of their teammates' girlfriends and wives as judges.

"Wait, wait, wait--" Marty says, cocking a grin as he slides up alongside Bobby's girlfriend, Heather. "Your name must be Visa," he says with a smarmy grin, wrapping an arm around her waist. "'Cuz I can tell you baby, you're everywhere I want to be."

He gets a round of groans in reply with some laughter mixed in just as Chad starts shaking his head and sets down his beer. "Nuh-uh, I can totally beat that!"

It's weird being there without Sandy, but it's not unpleasant or uncomfortable. Jared doesn't really feel lonely or bored. Though, to be fair, boredom is difficult with guys like Martellus and Chad around.

It doesn't get weird until Jensen shows up awhile later, a tall, gorgeous blonde Jared's never seen before at his side. The woman laughs and smiles and Jensen even smiles back at her, smiles like he genuinely enjoys her presence. Smiles like he does when he's alone with Jared.

There's no doubt in Jared's mind that it's an act, but that doesn't stop him from walking over, hand shoved out and smile pasted on. Because Jensen's not the only one who knows how to fake it when it matters.

"Hi, I'm Jared," he says, sounding over-eager even to his own, slightly-drunken ears.

The woman smiles up at him, light eyes blinking behind way too much make-up. "Hi," she replies, looking only a little shy as she takes his hand. "I'm Joanna."

"Joanna," Jared says slowly, rolling it over his tongue. "Jo-anna. Hmmm." He purses his lips then and shakes his head. "Yeah, no. I don't think Jensen's ever mentioned you. Did you two just meet?"

Joanna's smile stills then, perfectly-plucked eyebrows furrowing as she looks from Jared to Jensen and back again. "No, we've been friends for... what, three years?" she says, turning to Jensen for confirmation.

"About right," Jensen replies, watching Jared warily.

Jared snorts. "Huh. Dunno why he hasn't talked about you before. That's weird."

"Well, he probably doesn't--"

"Jared, can I talk to you for a second?" Jensen says abruptly and doesn't wait for a response before turning to the blonde, one hand resting lightly on her shoulder. "Sorry, baby; I'll be right back."

The woman looks a little dumbfounded, but Jared doesn't spare a second of guilt, just takes another gulp of his drink and follows Jensen down the hall, weaving their way through teammates and coaches into a back room. Jared wonders if it's the only room in the entire house that's empty at the moment and wonders idly how Jensen had known it would be. Jensen closes the door with a quiet click and then rounds on Jared, eyes dark. Not the good kind of dark, not the kind that makes Jared think of warm sheets and naked skin and rough hands.

"What the fuck do you think you're doing?"

Jared takes a step back before giving a shrug. "Thought I was meeting your girlfriend."

"No, you're being an asshole."

"What, did you not want me to meet her? Is that it? Were you parading her around for everyone but me?"

"I'm not parading her around!"

"Did you hire her from somewhere? She one of those high-class escort service girls or something? Tell me, what's your story, Jen? Did you two have to sit down and come up with a history and shit before you got here?"

Jensen laughs then, sharp and bitter and it puts Jared even more on edge, makes his shoulders hunch and fingers itch.

"Jesus, is it so difficult for you to believe that I have friends? I was fucking born here, Jared! I grew up here! I know it may come as a shock, but I know people outside of this fucking team, man. I have a fucking life here!"

"I'm not saying you don't!"

"That's exactly what you're saying!"

"No, it's not," Jared snaps as he steps forward, voice lowering. He has no idea how thin the walls are and kind of doubts anyone would hear them about the music anyway, but he doesn't need to shout anymore. "I'm saying... fuck, Jen. You're not fooling anyone, okay? You think you can hide what you are behind a beautiful blonde? You think that's all it takes?"

"Oh, fuck you," Jensen says, face screwing up into something ugly. "You have no fucking idea what my life is like so stop pretending you do."

"I know she isn't part of it!"

"She's my friend, Jared. And, yeah, maybe I'm an asshole for letting her and everyone else think it might be something more than that, but you know what? I don't have a fucking choice!"

"Jen--"

"No! Shut the fuck up and listen to me for one goddamn minute! Not all of us are as lucky as you are, man. Not all of us get the adoring family and brand new puppy and millions of dollars and beautiful fucking girlfriend. Some of us have to fight just to look normal, alright? You have no fucking idea what it's like to deal with what I have to deal with every single goddamn day, to hide this-- huge part of who you are all the fucking time! You think I want to pretend I'm into her? You think I like using her that way?"

Jensen pauses and Jared seizes the opportunity. "I know--"

"No, you don't," Jensen snaps. "You don't know, Jared! Sticking your dick in my ass didn't suddenly make you gay!"

"Then what the hell did it make me? If you're the fucking expert here, what did it make me!?"

Jensen hesitates, just for a second and when he speaks again, his voice is quieter. Cold. "It made you a cheater."

It hits like a slap, leaving Jared gaping and there's no guilt in Jensen's eyes, no pity. Just lingering anger and resentment and a shaken vulnerability that makes Jared want to pull him in close and shove a fist through his face at the same time.

When he finally manages to speak again, Jared's voice sounds weak. "It's not that simple," he says and Jensen snorts a laugh.

"No, actually," he says, his tone one of mocking disbelief. "Sometimes it really is."

Jared doesn't try to stop Jensen from leaving. He hears the wave of sound as Jensen opens the door, followed by the near silence when it closes behind him. Jared stands staring into the darkness for a long few minutes before following.

He leaves the party shortly after midnight, just long enough to get in a few more drinks, long enough to count down the seconds and watch as Jensen pulls Joanna in close, his lips pressing to hers at the stroke of midnight.

He calls Sandy in the cab on the way home. She's sounds happy and a little tipsy and Jared can hear the voices of her friends in the background.

"I kissed Sadie at midnight," she tells him and Jared aches.

:::

Philadelphia is bitterly cold, the sky a dark blanket of grey on top of more grey on top of smog grey. The weather is only one reason to loathe playing in Philly, but it reinforces the general mood, making everyone quiet and anxious on the bus ride to the hotel, the full meaning of Sunday's game hanging as heavy as the impending downpour.

Per normal, Jared and Jensen are roomed together. Requesting anything different for what could very well be their last game of the year would've looked far too suspicious and Jared, for one, hadn't been up to the task of trying to make up some bullshit reason. Particularly since it likely would've meant rooming with Henson and even a pissed-off Jensen is preferable to risking another presentation of Henson's masturbatory skills.

But they've barely spoken in days and, frankly, Jared thinks it's getting a little ridiculous. He's never been good at patience.

"So," he says as he drops his bag to the floor and nudges it against the bed with his foot, stretches his arms up above his head. "You wanna do dinner or somethin'?"

Jensen glances up only briefly from where he's busy rifling through his bag, his gaze catching somewhere around the vicinity of Jared's stomach before he shakes his head. "Got an interview."

"Oh, right," Jared says, not bothering to mask his disappointment. "After?"

Jensen cuts him a look then, gaze hard and knowing and Jared sighs.

"Dude, you really wanna waste your energy being pissed at me all weekend?" he says, dropping the over-eager act to get straight to the point. "I mean, I think we got bigger things to be worryin' about right now."

"I'm not pissed at you," Jensen says, tone utterly bland as he heads for the bathroom, toiletry bag in hand.

"Bullshit," Jared snorts, taking the few short steps to follow. "You've been pissed at me since the party. And you know what? I get it. I'm an asshole, I totally get it. So can we just drop it and move on?"

Jensen glares at him through the reflection in the mirror and then turns his head to glare at him face to face. Jared doesn't crumble under the weight of it and Jensen doesn't hold out for very long, eventually letting out a breath as he shakes his head, lips twisted in a bitter half-grin. "Yeah, sure."

Jared doesn't believe him for a second, but he can't help latching onto the tiny spark of hope. "Do you want an apology?"

"No," Jensen says immediately. "I don't want anything from you."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

Jensen groans, the case for his contacts hitting the marbled counter top with a smack as he leans forward, bracing his weight on his arms and eyes straight ahead, looking at Jared through the mirror. "It means exactly what it sounds like, okay? It means you don't owe me a goddamn thing. You wanna go back to being best buds and pretend this whole thing never happened? Fine. You got it. Wanna just wipe the slate clean and start over, that's cool too. Whatever. I don't fuckin' care."

It's a lie, Jared doesn't have to be a genius to figure that out. Jensen does care and that's the worst part of the whole thing, that's the part where Jared really fucked up.

"I'm still sorry," he says a moment later, watches Jensen's gaze flicker upward and then away.

They go out to dinner with Chad, Clif and Aldis after the interviews, to a little diner in Center City that serves amazing cheesesteaks. Jared eats two and a half of them before they head back and still tastes onions on his breath when he crawls into bed hours later.

Jensen's a shapeless lump under the sheets of his own bed and Jared watches him for a long while, knows just by the sound of his breathing that he isn't asleep. He's not sure if they're back to normal or if they ever will be and he lets out a slow breath as he looks up at the ceiling.

"Hey," he says into the stillness, tips his head to look in Jensen's direction again. "Think we'll win tomorrow?"

Jensen doesn't say anything for a long moment, long enough that Jared starts to wonder if he's really asleep after all. Up until he hears an equally quiet, "Stranger things've happened."

Quirking a small grin, Jared rolls onto his side, facing Jensen but still not able to see him very clearly. "What do you think our odds are?"

"Odds are bullshit, you know that."

"Pretend you're in Vegas or something. How much money would you stake on us winning?"

"Two bucks."

Jared snorts a laugh, tucks a hand under his chin. "No, really. How much?"

"Go to sleep, Jay."

"I'm not talking about making the playoffs here. Just winning this one game."

"Jay."

"I bet there are people out there having this exact conversation right now."

"Oh, I doubt it."

"I wonder how much people have riding on this. I mean, it's a big game. Not just for us."

"Jared."

"Actually, you'd probably be a pretty shitty gambler. No offense, dude, you just don't strike me as the kinda guy that takes a lot of chances."

"Jared."

"Hmm?"

"Sleep. Or I swear to God, I will smother you to death with your pillow. Slowly and very very painfully."

"A painful pillow death?"

Jensen groans. "Jesus Christ."

Jared grins, quiet and secret and pulls in a slow breath. "Night, Jen."

:::

"Alright, let's try Yellow Fever Side Step Hellhound Rapture Red on two," Jared says, Kripke's voice a quiet murmur in his helmet. His teammates grunt in acknowledgment and Jared breaks the huddle. Stepping towards the scrimmage line, he breathes hot into his hands, trying to warm his fingers in the bitter cold and then gets into position behind Andre. The fans in Philly are brutal, amping up the sound as Jared gives the gibberish audible, his eyes on the defense, trying to read their scheme and praying he won't have to change the play since it's likely nobody would be able to hear him over the noise of the crowd.

The snap goes off without a hitch -- no whistle to signal a false start, which is a miracle all by itself -- and Jared drops back, fakes a pass to Witten on the right and then fires it off to the left almost without looking first. It finds Crayton just inside the end zone, cradling it tight to his chest as the defenseman drags him to the turf. The ref's arms fly up to signal the touchdown and Jared pumps a fist in the air as his teammates celebrate, crashing into him on one side and then the other. He stays on the field to hold for the extra point and, as it sails clean through the uprights, they're finally in the lead with two minutes left to play in the half.

"Good, good, good," Kripke rattles off, slapping Jared on the hip as he jogs off the field. Jared tugs off his helmet as he makes his way to the bench, grabbing a cup of water and pulling a knit cap on over his head to keep his ears from falling off in the cold.

"Good play," Coach Morgan says from behind him. "You gotta keep a look-out for their left cornerback, though. He almost got under that one."

Nodding, Jared swallows a gulp of water, blood still pumping hard through his veins, the sweat on his skin bringing in the chill now that he's no longer moving. "Almost, but didn't," he says, unable to help a small grin. It's more relief than cockiness, like he can breathe for the first time in weeks.

It doesn't last.

The Eagles come back with another touchdown two seconds before the end of the half, sending the stadium into uproar as Jared and the rest of his team trudge to the locker room, Eagles fans shouting abuse and hurling pieces of trash down on them the entire way.

"Take that, Padasucky!" one man yells and Jared ducks the empty water bottle thrown at him, stuck between amusement and mounting rage.

"Hey, that's a pretty good one," Chad says as they head up the tunnel. "Padasucky-sucky-sucky."

Jared snorts and rolls his eyes, gives Chad a rough shove. "Shut the fuck up, Mishap."

With Aldis's help, he gets his shoulder pads off in the locker room and has Misha examine the state of his bruising, sweat-soaked undershirt pushed up to his armpits.

"How's it feel?" Misha asks, skimming his finger over the skin and Jared grimaces.

"Sore," he says, having learned there's no point in lying about pain just to save face.

"Scale of one to ten. One being you could handle me doing jumping jacks on your ribcage, ten being Tim Roth in Reservoir Dogs."

Jared breathes out a soft laugh, lips twitching into a smile. "Five-point-five?" Just over Misha's shoulder he catches Jensen watching him, brows furrowed in concern and feels something in the pit of his stomach warm slightly before he looks away again, amending his answer. "Maybe a six."

"Want some more Toradol?"

"No, I'm good," Jared says, shoving his shirt back down as he takes another stilted breath. When Misha doesn't look entirely convinced, Jared repeats himself with more conviction and gets to his feet, grabbing his pads from off the bench. He gingerly slips back into them, ignoring the dull stab of pain that spikes through him when the hardened plastic nudges briefly against the bruise and focuses on Kripke, who's knelt in front of the rest of the offense, quickly sketching out rehashed plays on his clipboard.

"They're almost completely shutting down the run," Jensen says, nodding down at Kripke, arms over his chest. Technically, Jensen doesn't even have to be there, but he's been on the sidelines the entire time, pulling guys aside during breaks like a coach, muttering words of encouragement or critique. It's not quite like having him as their quarterback, but it helps.

Helps Jared too, even if he's not about to admit as much.

"Mmm," Kripke says, hand sweeping over his clipboard again as he pulls up another play, scribbling route lines and Xs and then glancing up at Jared. "You good to try a few trick plays if we need it?" he asks and Jared nods.

"Good to try anything, Coach."

It feels like a different game when they head back onto the field. The crowd's still as obnoxious as ever, chanting and jeering every time the Cowboys have possession. They get in two decent drives, one resulting in a field goal and another in a touchdown, the combined efforts of which put them in the lead again by four points.

"Lookin' good out there," Jensen says as they stand on the sidelines, watching the defense struggle against Philadelphia's march downfield. Jensen's bundled in a coat, hood up and hands shoved in his pockets. Jared feels absolutely huge standing next to him in full gear, like Rocky and Bullwinkle. "Thinkin' maybe I shoulda laid down some bets after all."

Jared smirks, glancing at him briefly before nodding up at the game clock. "Still got a whole quarter to go yet."

"Yep," Jensen says, heaving an exaggerated breath. "So don't fuck it up, alright?"

It quickly becomes apparent that the defense is trying to do the fucking up for him when, minutes later, they let the Eagles score again, bringing the Eagles to a six-point lead. Jared slaps his helmet back on after the kick, adrenaline and desperation pumping through his veins. Kripke grabs hold of his face mask before he makes it onto the field, pulls him in close.

"Keep calm," he says, his voice low. "Keep calm and listen to my calls, you got me? Keep calm and we got this thing."

Swallowing tightly, Jared nods and Kripke releases him, giving him a light shove before clapping his clipboard. "Alright, let's go! We got six minutes to win this thing! Let's do it!"

The game clock declares 4:24 remaining in the game when Miles catches a 10-yard pass and runs eleven more into the end zone. The celebration is kept brief, everyone still anxious and all too aware of how much time is still left.

Jared stays on the field, ready to hold for the extra kick, but has to change gears when Kripke starts ushering the offense back onto the field. A two-point conversion is a risky call, the kind that, if it doesn't work, could very well have Kripke's neck on the chopping block back in Dallas.

"You with me, Padalecki?" Kripke's voice crackles through the tiny speaker in Jared's helmet and he nods as he heads to the huddle. "Just stay calm. We got this."

He calls for a fake hand-off to Barber and pass to the back of the end zone where, presumably, Chad will be waiting. It's a pure timing play and they're banking on the defense either anticipating a run or quick drop up the middle to Witten. But the second he gets the snap, Jared knows it won't work. Dropping back, he goes for the fake and then twists around to the far left corner only to find Chad double-teamed. The offensive line breaks on the right and Jared barely manages to get the ball out before he's slammed in the side, chest immediately flaring with pain as he crashes to the ground.

The noise of the crowd is enough to give away the outcome of the play and Jared doesn't know which is worse, the fact that they're still down by one or the fact that he's having trouble breathing.

Wheezing, he blinks up to see the guy that knocked him onto his ass grinning down at him, one front tooth glinting gold. He fights the impulse to flip him off.

Barber helps him up a few seconds later and he winces his way to the sidelines where Misha immediately shoves him onto the bench, Jensen hovering just behind him.

"How bad?" Misha says, pushing Jared's jersey up out the way to get to the pads beneath, gently easing them away from Jared's ribs to relieve the pressure.

"The pain or that last play?" Misha glances up at him, unamused and Jared flashes a tight smile before letting out a quiet laugh. "I'd say it's moved up to an eight."

"That's getting dangerously close to X-ray level, Jared."

"Mmm," Jared says, quickly shaking his head. "'m good."

"You take another hit like that and you will have a break."

"Well, if I take another hit like that, we'll worry about it then," Jared snaps. "Someone fuckin' talk to my O-line about covering my ass, huh?"

Misha falls quiet, but he doesn't look too pleased about it, brow furrowing as he takes another look at the bruise and then adjusts the tightness of the lacing on Jared's pads. Jared grumbles, the pads looser around his middle than he's used to, but Misha only shoots him a dark look and he shuts up.

Amazingly, the defense manages to hold the Eagles on the next drive, forcing them to punt shortly after the two-minute warning. Jared grimaces in discomfort as he takes the field again, but the pain quickly slides away under pure desperation.

"Stay calm," Kripke repeats through Jared's helmet and Jared wonders for a moment which one of them he's trying to convince.

The Eagles have moved into prevent defense, which allows Jared to get off short passes under the middle that steadily move them further and further down the field. They only need to get within field goal range and, with just enough time on the clock to get in one more play, they have exactly that. Better than, even. They're stopped at the 15-yard line, making it a 32 yard field goal for Nick, which Jared's pretty sure the guy can do in his sleep.

Still, there are exactly three seconds left on the clock and their entire season is on the line. Sure, Nick's made tougher, longer kicks in his life, but there's something to be said for pressure.

"You got this?" Jared asks as Nick jogs onto the field.

He gets a grin in reply. "Oh, I got this."

It's a swell of confidence Jared hadn't been expecting and he's suddenly sure, suddenly positive that they've got this one in the bag.

He kneels in his spot behind L.P. and waits, the stadium suddenly eerily quiet. The snap comes, a little high but easily catchable and Jared reaches for it, feels the stubbled leather brush his cold fingers and slip, turn and twist away. It's not a fumble and it's barely even a second's disruption, but it's enough to throw off the timing completely. Nick's already taking his steps and his right leg comes down, falters as Jared fails to put the ball in the right spot. And Jared has exactly no time to think, just tucks the ball up against his side and lurches to his feet before running along the backfield and praying the O-line holds. He breaks the line of scrimmage and keeps going, hears the footsteps of the defense pounding toward him, getting closer and closer.

Jared's never been a mobile quarterback. His skills are in the pocket, in reading the defense and thinking quick, not speed or escapability. Put in a sprint race against any defensive back and he'll lose every single time.

Every single time but this one.

The pile-on is still a yard away when he lunges, arms outstretched as the defender crashes into him from the side, knocking him to the ground with another bright flare of blinding pain.

It doesn't matter when he opens his eyes, sees the ref standing off to the side, arms raised high. Doesn't matter when he sees Chad's face a second later, the screams of his teammates on the far sideline overpowering the suddenly deathly quiet of the Philadelphia crowd.

It doesn't matter. They've won.

:::

"You know, technically, it's January," Sandy says later.

Jared's still holed up in the locker room, laid out on a stretch of metal in the back room, stripped down to his uniform pants, the metal cool under his sweaty skin. He can still hear the rest of his team through the wall, the excited, relieved shouts of celebration. There's still two games to be played that will decide their true fate, but they've cleared the biggest hurdle, the only one they had any control over.

And they've broken the supposed December curse.

Jared laughs, the sound cut off abruptly when the movement sends another quick jab of pain through his upper body. "What-- whatever. It counts."

"Baby, you sure you're gonna be able to drive down here tomorrow?"

"Positive," Jared says and glances up just in case Dr. Edlund has super-human hearing and can hear Sandy's side of the conversation. "Driving isn't exactly strenuous."

As expected, the doctor looks up, arching a suspicious eyebrow behind his large glasses before sighing quietly and shaking his head.

Jared only grins and continues his conversation, cutting it short when his mom beeps in on the other line, sounding happy about the win, but far more worried. As with Sandy, he assures her it's fine, that it's only a bruising and he'll be good to go after a couple days' rest. Hopefully less. When he hangs up, Edlund's hovering over him, one eyebrow arched and X-rays in hand.

"Really hope you're not thinking of driving anywhere," he says as he sets down the prints and gently tries to help Jared sit up, one hand high on his back, the other rested against his good side.

Wincing at both the pain and the stiffness in his joints, Jared tries for a laugh, though it sounds more like a soft wheeze. "Just down to Austin," he says.

"Wouldn't advise it," Edlund says, patting Jared's shoulder warmly before crossing over to stand in front of him, arms over his chest. "You're looking at least a few weeks of recovery here, Jared. It's gonna be sore even without you taking any heavy hits on the field and spending hours in a car on bumpy roads isn't gonna do you any favors."

It's not an order exactly, but Jared gets the gist.

Most of the guys are already gone when he gets back to the locker room, likely on their way to the hotel or out to party and Jared takes his time changing if only because he doesn't really have much choice in the matter.

When he gets back from his shower, the room is all but completely empty save for Jensen sitting outside one of the lockers, leaning back with his legs stretched out in front of him. Jared arches an eyebrow in his direction, one hand holding his towel closed.

"Shouldn't you be out drinking?" he says, hiding a grimace as he bends over to drag his bag up onto the bench.

"Nah," Jensen replies and Jared doesn't have to glance over to know he's being watched. His skin prickles under the stare, but he doesn't turn to look, too afraid of what he might see in Jensen's eyes. "Figured someone had to be around to carry your wounded, sorry ass back to the hotel."

Jared snorts a laugh, just a bare, weak sound that doesn't put too much strain on his ribs. "Not my ass that's wounded," he says, glancing over just in time to see Jensen's expression flicker. It's barely there at all and Jared doubts anyone else would've noticed, but it sparks something within Jared, makes his stomach briefly clench.

"Seahawks were up 17-10 last I looked," Jensen says, pushing himself to his feet and wandering over. "I'm thinkin' we head back, empty the minibar, call in some room service and watch the Saints get the shit kicked outta them. You in?"

Jared stands there, still holding his towel with one hand, the other paused in tugging his jeans free of his bag, "That sounds pretty awesome, actually."

:::

They miss the last bus back to the hotel, so cab it instead and Jared immediately understands what Dr. Edlund had been talking about as he winces over every single bump and sharp turn.

"Booze'll fix you right up," Jensen assures him on the way and Jared groans in an effort to not laugh.

By the time they make it back to the hotel, the Saints game is almost over and, with a score of 42-23, the outcome looks pretty apparent.

"Well, how 'bout that," Jensen says, grinning at the television as Jared carefully sets down his bag, trying to move as little as possible in the process. "Man, you better get your rest; we're one step closer to what this game's all about."

Jared grunts and takes a seat on the bed, back as straight as he can make it, though there's really no position that doesn't feel uncomfortable. "Was hopin' to go to Austin when we got back," he says. It feels like a confession and his voice softens as he adds, "Miss my girls."

It's not meant as anything other than a statement of fact, not meant to show off how blessedly normal he supposedly is, but he watches the way Jensen's expression shifts from carefree to guarded in an instant and knows he's made another misstep.

He takes a breath, ignoring a new flash of pain and shakes his head, suddenly overwhelmingly tired. "God, where's the beer?"

Jensen frowns, watching Jared as he runs a hand along his face and takes a rough breath. "I'll go get you some ice."

He waits until Jensen's left the room with the ice bucket before trying to slip out of his shirt. It's slow work and not a little painful with the Toradol slowly wearing off and his muscles stiffening. He doesn't really succeed at all before Jensen returns, barely even raising an eyebrow as he sets the bucket aside.

"Okay, careful," he says, grabbing hold of Jared's sleeves. "How high can you lift your arms?"

"High enough to flip you off," Jared grumbles, but he can't help a small smile as Jensen rolls his eyes.

"Dude, you want help or not?"

Jared reluctantly complies, grimacing as he straightens his back and raises his arms to let Jensen slide the fabric up and off, the neck catching on Jared's chin until Jensen wrestles it free.

"Gonna help me with my pants, too?" he says as Jensen balls up Jared's shirt and tosses it aside.

It's meant as a joke, but if Jared's totally honest, it's not completely innocent. And it's worth it when Jensen glances at him, a familiar heat behind his eyes. Jensen's gaze drops, settling on Jared's bare chest for a long moment and Jared feels his dick twitch before he realizes Jensen's staring at the bruise blossoming across his skin.

He doesn't get an answer and doesn't push for one as Jensen grabs the ice bucket and disappears into the bathroom. Stuck between arousal and self-pity, Jared stays sitting on the edge of the bed where he toes his shoes off and turns to watch the last few seconds of the Saints game wind down, the outcome finally official.

It's clear Jensen still wants him and, no matter how fucked up it is, Jared can't deny that he wants Jensen. He's never really tried to deny it and he's not entirely sure why. The closest he's come has only been in trying to rationalize it with what he feels for Sandy. If he's completely honest with himself, it's not something he really wants to try and work out. He's not in love with Jensen, he knows that. He's in love with Sandy and this thing with Jensen... it's just a means for release with someone he trusts.

That's all it could ever be.

"You goin'--" His voice catches and he clears his throat quietly, pitching his voice higher so Jensen can hear him from bathroom. "You goin' over to Clif's tomorrow for the Vikings game?"

Jensen's cradling the wadded towel as he steps out, says, "Probably," and gestures for Jared to lift his arms again. Obeying the silent command, Jared sits up straighter, arms raised slightly as Jensen wraps the cooled cloth around his middle with careful hands, tying it tight enough on Jared's opposite side to make him flinch. "Good?"

Jared exhales, wincing as the wrap tightens further. It's sore and cold, but Jared's too busy staring at Jensen, his lips just a breath away and Jared's hand drops to the front of Jensen's shirt and tugs.

He's braced for the impact, for Jensen to topple him onto the bed. It'll hurt like hell, but he's pretty sure he can take it.

But Jensen surprises him, angles his head just enough to catch Jared's mouth with his own, one hand on Jared's shoulder and the other hovering just over his side, but not touching. It's brief, but shockingly intimate, mouths barely moving against each other before Jared tightens his grip and pulls him closer, his lips forcing Jensen's to part, slipping his tongue inside. He gets a groan in response as Jensen caves, a brush of cold fingers on Jared's skin sending a shock through his nerves.

He breaks the kiss with a shiver, his eyes snapping open to lock on deep green as they breathe each other in.

"Come over tomorrow," Jared says, a whisper against Jensen's still parted lips. Jensen's bent over him awkwardly, eyes wide and breath slightly ragged and Jared leans in again to lightly suck at Jensen's full bottom lip, feels the answering tremble in Jensen's touch. "Edlund'll kill me if I go anywhere. Come over and we'll watch the game and you can make me grilled cheese for a change."

Jensen smiles then, small and hesitant, says, "Still have your Christmas present."

"You got me somethin'?" Jared says, honestly surprised as a smile splits his face.

Jensen laughs, low and quiet and nips at Jared's bottom lip. "What kinda friend you think I am, man?"

"You really want me to answer that?" Jared replies, voice teasing before it's muffled by Jensen's mouth on his again, Jensen's hand sliding into his hair, fingers curling in the strands and tugging for a better angle. It feels like an assault, like Jensen's finally just taking what he wants and Jared groans, feels his dick swell in the confines of his jeans as he grabs onto Jensen's hips and pulls him closer.

"I'm a fucking awesome friend," Jensen says, voice rough as he abruptly breaks the kiss, ducks to lick a line up the length of Jared's throat.

Jared whimpers at the loss, lips sore and unsatisfied, but he doesn't have any time to argue the point when Jensen's mouth latches onto his again, reducing him to another moan.

:::

The Minnesota Vikings beat the Buffalo Bills 33-27 on Monday Night Football, officially knocking the Cowboys out of the playoffs. Jared and Jensen watch the game together in Jared's living room, Jared stretched out on the couch, shirtless and bandaged with his legs draped over Jensen's lap and a beer in hand.

"Man, that fucker," Jared says in quiet amusement as the the Vikings celebrate their victory.

"Hmm?" Jensen replies, head tipped back as he finishes off his Corona.

Jared glances over, gaze catching on the roll of Jensen's throat and he smiles faintly. "Brock. Dude changed teams just in time."

"Oh, right," Jensen says before snorting a laugh. He tips his empty beer bottle towards the television screen, gives a nod. "Well, good luck, Kelly."

And the weird thing is... the weird thing is Jared doesn't feel all that upset. Sure, he's disappointed, to get so close and still miss out on the next big step. But it's not crushing. Next year is a new season, a whole new opportunity. He has time.

By the look on Jensen's face, the sentiment isn't exactly shared and Jared isn't stupid enough to have to ask why.

"Hey," he says, just loud enough to be heard above the television. Jensen glances over, expression unreadable and Jared shifts on the couch, legs heavy on Jensen's thighs. "We should go golfing or something. Maybe bowling."

"Right now?"

Jared snorts a laugh. "No, not right now. Just... sometime. I mean, we're actually gonna have some free time now, right? We should do something."

"Not as much as you think," Jensen points out, his hand heavy and warm on Jared's ankle and Jared reaches out, fingers lightly brushing the curve of Jensen's elbow. Anything can happen in the NFL, preseason, regular season, off-season. Doesn't matter. People get hurt, get cut, get traded, get shifted around from team to team, position to position. It's part sport and part business and all ruthless.

And none of them have any idea how much time they really have.

"C'mon," Jared says, giving another tug and Jensen looks at him, doesn't say a word. He just looks and Jared gets it. Just like that. Nothing is ever certain in football, there are no guarantees, but this thing... whatever it is he and Jensen have found with each other... it has nothing to do with football. Jared thinks maybe it never really did.

The realization catches him by surprise, not a little bit overwhelming and his fingers curl in the sleeve of Jensen's shirt, holding tight despite the dull throb in his ribs. And Jensen must see something in Jared's eyes because he smiles then, slow, but sure -- a smile Jared's only ever seen off the field, beyond the glare of flashbulbs and screaming fans -- and glances down at where Jared's legs rest in his lap.

Says, "Yeah. Yeah, we should."

:::

Taking his doctor's advice, Jared sleeps in late on Tuesday and spends the day stretched out on his couch, flipping between daytime soap operas and whatever snippets of mildly interesting movies he manages to catch on HBO and Showtime.

He's in the middle of watching Event Horizon for about the millionth time, right at that part where that one dude's getting his entrails ripped out, when his doorbell rings.

"Coming!" he calls out, grimacing as he pulls himself off the couch.

He answers the door dressed only his Scooby Doo boxer shorts and ratty Madison Mustangs t-shirt and Jensen's standing on the step, a small, wary smile on his face, arms occupied by a familiar lump of squirming puppy.

Jared gapes.

"Hey," Jensen says after an extended, awkward silence.

"Hey," Jared replies, releasing a quick breath. "Hi. What're you..."

He trails off when Jensen holds Sadie out to him. She wiggles during the hand-off, head tilted back to give Jensen's chin one last lick as Jared reaches for her.

"Figured you could use the company," Jensen says, slipping his hands into his pockets.

Sadie gives a quick yip then, her tail wagging as she squirms in Jared's arms and Jared cringes as she kicks a little too close to his bruise, takes a step back into his place to set her down. He still can't bring himself to say anything, just nods for Jensen to follow him inside, shutting the door behind him as Sadie yips sharply and skitters across the floor.

"How...?" he finally manages as Jensen stands awkwardly just inside the entryway.

"Called Sandy last night," he says with a shrug. "Made some arrangements."

"How the hell'd you get her number?"

Jensen grins then, a slow flush high on cheeks. "Off your phone."

"Asshole," Jared replies, laughing.

"We met up in Waco. She says hi, by the way. You should call her."

There's no bitterness in the tone at all, no hidden resentment in the smile Jensen gives him and Jared wonders what the hell he did in a past life to get so goddamn lucky.

"I'm thinkin' you saved a half dozen orphans from a burning building or something," Jensen says and Jared realizes he'd actually said that aloud. "Or maybe they were kittens."

He laughs again, quick and sharp and ignores the pain that courses through his chest to curl his fingers in the front of Jensen's shirt and tug him in close. "Yeah, maybe."

Jensen grins against him, lips already parted when Jared presses in for a kiss, slow and intimate, a bare flick of tongue.

When he pulls back, Jensen's giving him that smile again, bright and boyish and he slaps a hand against Jared's hip. "Call Sandy," he says, heading for the kitchen. "And please tell me you haven't devoured all the beer."

As Jensen rounds the corner, he shoots Jared one last glance, eyes crinkled at the corners and Jared knows this is the Jensen he's been aching to see since the moment they met. This is finally the real thing.

end.