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Running From Freedom

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Summer had finally broken the world open with its heat and primary colors and early dawn. Jared had itched and chafed waiting for these days, bright and endless and nothing but sprawling fields and wider skies.

He leaned into his horse's neck, curled brim of his straw cowboy hat scratching Tex's neck when he tucked in. Tex picked up speed, read his movements and the push of his knees easy and clear as control given over, ran them from the house further and further to where Jared wasn't poor or angry, bored and isolated in this small town he'd never truly fit, misunderstood or full of longing for all the wrong things.

The grass and dry air whipped past as they ran, echoing thrums, set Jared's blood racing equally quick. Clouds summited the horizon, their bellies burnished tawny and pink as sunrise advented into true day. He forgot about being raw with hunger, how Dad roamed for months without a word or concern, Jensen. It didn't matter this was all he had, because this was all he figured would be right to rely on and expect as for his taking, and living.

After jumping the broken-down fence then a gnarly stump they'd never bothered to grind in what used to be fine pasture, Tex slowed and ambled them into a broad, sloping meadow. Jared nudged them westerly to the far property line so they could enjoy the laze and dappled shelter in the stand of trees and barely wet tumble of a creek that threaded through them. Jared dismounted, patted Tex's neck and nose and ears, loosened the saddle cinch and Tex guttered contentedly in a sigh of relief.

He walked them to the water and picked a low, flat rock warmed by the sun and comfortable enough to lay back on and stare into space. Tex chuffed, nosed at his arm and he laughed, burst of affection and sweetness for the smell, the downy tickle of hair, the companionship, thumbed the bit to angle Tex away from blowing in his face. Tex nodded, clopped a short distance from him and set to stripping a vulnerable crop of foundling oaks clean from the earth.

Jared tipped his hat forward over his eyes, listened to the stream. He imagined it a river or an ocean--something grand and nowhere near this Texas back-country and far more than he'd ever see--something that held the promise of true escape beyond daydreams.

He and Jensen lived and took care of themselves, more or less, had only each other and kept each other company and Jared thought of them as pocketed, content enough to stay that way. Mom had died just after Jared had been born and Dad was rarely home, chasing rodeos and the hard living that might be earned on the back of an unbroken horse or bull. Some rodeo cowboys did better with roping or cutting, showed off ranching skills and horsemanship. Others had an innate sense of how to ride the unrideable. Dad wasn't much good at the whole lot, take your pick, stayed with it and failure all the same. Seemed Dad had lived accepting the achievements of failure for so long there was no good or sense in changing it now.

Jared tucked his hands into his jeans, stretched his feet forward, frowned when the sole of his right boot shifted and pulled with the disquiet of almost coming loose. They couldn't afford new ones anytime soon. He'd probably have to start wearing Jensen's old workboots, hope for the best with them helping these last the season.

Jensen worked at the only supermarket in town, had graduated this spring from high school and probably should be at some big university playing baseball, more than good enough at schooling and a real star at baseball, could have gotten outta here with either. But here he stuck, same as the rest.

Jared had been looking for odd jobs to keep himself busy and do his part with expenses, but so far he hadn't found anything that'd take him and could be gotten to by bike or who'd be willing to pick him up. Planting time was over, picking time not for months, and cans gathered along the roads and highways only went so far. There just wasn't much, not even in town. It wasn't a surprise his options were bleak and their situation almost bleaker.

Still, Jared had no real complaints. He liked being here with Jensen, even on the days it got too close and felt too tough to take. He liked the idea that he and Jensen had a whole summer ahead of them, no dealing with school or with anyone noticing he had five good shirts he wore in a Monday-Friday rotation, or them making fun of his hungrily eating the cafeteria lunch, his favorite jean jacket. Jensen's jacket, really, that he'd borrowed, then never gave back, wore even when it was too hot, like a security blanket or reassurance. It was faded from dark denim to white-blue and threadbare at the elbows, had a longhorn skull patch in leather stitched on the back across the shoulder blades.

Jared liked far more, about Jensen and their isolation and being so tightly coiled in one another, tried his damnedest to ignore all that.

He pried an eye sideways, found Tex serene and steadily eating those oaks down, hummed satisfied that neither of them would be going anywhere and drifted into a comfortably hazy indulgence of imagining anywhere but here, beaches or mountains or a big city and him important at its center. Imagined how the summer would forge in him any ability to be cool or even diffident, the work he'd then do that'd have universities lining up waiting for him to be able to apply. But his thoughts swirled, folded in as they always did, weighty yearnings and mixed-up fears and no idea what to do about any of it.

He finally stirred when the sun'd baked him too hot, after he'd fully, terribly tortured himself planning Jensen's marriage to Kathie the check-out girl and their three kids. He grunted and pushed himself sitting, winced at the sticky sweat that sat on his skin and soaked his tee. The clouds had been burnt away, nothing left but a robin's egg sky and blazing sun rising to noon.

Jared hefted forward onto his knees, palmed his hat to sit on the rock instead, and dunked his head into a bowled-out wash that was an inch or two deeper than the rest of the swift creek. He splashed his shoulders and neck, coaxed Tex from the shade to get a long drink. A rock floating lighter than the others gained his attention and he scooped it into a hand, hefted it to pinch between his thumb and finger, turned it around. It looked puffy and porous, like a bubble, and as if it could be easily squished--drop of once-molten something that'd wound up a geode, maybe too small for crystals--but he shoved it in a pocket to crack later and see.

After he and Tex had gulped down their fill he sat a moment, enjoyed the push of a sudden, short-lived wind, then he found his feet, stretched and yawned. Jared set Tex ready to ride again, shoved his hat on and mounted in an easy lift, Tex starting in motion before he'd even fully settled on the saddle. He looped them opposite of how they'd come, completed the circle boundary-line of the land still theirs--not sold to pay off debt and mortgage troubles and keep him and Jensen able to scrape by--back to the house.

They could have had a farm, but no one farmed here. It could have been a ranch but there was no stock and no shepherd. It was an insignificant scratch, ten acres left, and a small white clapboard house peeling its paint, one solid barn and interlacing corral with a dumpy shed looking about to keel over.

Jared felt suffocated and bound to it. It'd probably be where he spent the rest of his life.

Tex tossed his head, crow-hopped several flicking steps, grumbled at the change in Jared's mood.

"Sorry, boy," he muttered, patted Tex's neck, let the reins slither from his tightly clenched grasp.

Sometimes he'd watch Jensen as they drove through town, pass a pick-up game or two of the town's three softball teams playing against each other, and Jensen would go quiet and pensive, look anywhere but the game and the sounds of baseball, and Jared knew Jensen missed it.

He'd tried to ask, tried to see if there was some way Jensen could still have baseball, maybe pitch for the volunteer fire department or even just go out in the yard and play catch.

Jensen always laughed wry and shrugged, pretended he didn't mind or care. He'd stoically placed that part of his life behind him and acted like this one, of taking care of Jared and working thankless tasks at the grocery and getting nothing but dead-end, was the exact direction he'd wanted to go.

Tex picked up speed when they forded brambles onto the back lane to the barn and Jared leaned in, gave Tex head to run straight into the barn, blushed at feeling like getting away with something he shouldn't do; Dad or Jensen were never amused or unconcerned with it, yelled he'd get his fool head shorn off doing that.

Jared lingered in the barn for most of the afternoon, hot but breezy with the big doors open and shaded from the punishing sun. He washed and combed Tex with a gentle, thorough appreciation, took his time sluicing them both with cool water from the running hose. After a treat of oat squares he let Tex into the side paddock, ducked back into the barn and led Jensen's horse Git out next. He folded his arms on the gate after it snicked closed, watched them for awhile.

The sun had finally started to fade, leeched the world of vibrancy but left its heat behind, let a brave few clouds back into the sky to tentatively wander. When something recognizable as not being natural--wind or creaking tree branches or either horse--rattled behind him, he turned, watched Jensen biking up the driveway.

Their long-past-aged '65 blue Ford sat cold and quiet next to the house. Jared hadn't bothered to notice it this morning, wondered if it'd thrown a rod or something, wondered further how they'd pay to fix anything big wrong with the rustbucket.

He patted the gate, checked it to be sure it was good and locked securely, waved the horses goodnight then loped across the dirt and scrub of their yard onto the back porch. His stomach rumbled sourly and he toed inside, got them each a glass of water run never quite cold from the tap. Leaving Jensen's on the counter next to the sink, he pressed his to his temple, hung an arm on refrigerator door and stared into the bleak near-emptiness gloomily, tried to decide if mustard on saltines would taste any good.

Jensen clomped onto the front porch. Jared heard the drop-bounce of the bike on warped, uneven wooden slats. It was more Jared's than Jensen's these days, since Jensen had the truck and Jared had no better means of getting around. He looked at Jensen questioningly when Jensen pushed into the kitchen from the house's one narrow hall, huffed when Jensen slapped the refrigerator closed from under his arm.

"Ain't paying to cool the world, Jared."

Jensen was sweaty and clearly tired, threw a paper bag onto the table then drank the whole glass of water in a thirsty succession of long, deep swallows.

Jared tried not to stare. He scrunched his face and asked, "What were you doing?"

Jensen shook his head, gave Jared the raised brow that'd cut anyone's quick, but his voice was mild.

"Working. Then getting home." He nodded at the bag. "That's your dinner. And I'm beat." He fingered the rim of the glass and without thinking Jared reached for it, refilled it and handed it back. Jensen accepted it without much of a smile and retreated to the living room, sank onto the couch with a ragged sigh.

That meant Jensen had biked the several miles into town for the early shift, had worked a day's worth, then biked home. Jared thought about his day spent on Tex and useless abstractions, banished guilt to the back of his mind where it could gnaw and nag instead of making him crazy.

Jared poked into the bag and tried not to be disappointed. An apple and half a deli sandwich with a partially eaten container of potato salad waited, and Jared knew this had been Jensen's lunch, bolted down when Jensen wasn't stocking shelves or gathering carts or bagging groceries. Jared ate the sandwich in too few huge bites, got a spoon and walked with the potato salad into the living room.

"Why didn't you drive?"

Jared avoided the celery but tried not to be obvious about it. Jensen got pissy when he wasted food, even if it was food he hated. Before Jensen could answer, he'd finished the potato salad, tilted his spoon into the empty container, tried to look satisfied instead of starving.

Jensen rubbed his neck and rolled his throwing arm until his shoulder popped, glared at Jared askance. "No gas, that's why. Same as why there's nothing in the house to eat and that's all I could bring home."

"But didn't you get paid this week?" Jared fiddled with the spoon a moment then backtracked, escaped Jensen's gaze to leave the container on the table and grab the apple.

"Yeah, Jared. But all the bills came in this week, too, including a few--things--from Dad he'd somehow forgotten about but had to be made good on." Jensen's mouth crimped tightly and he looked old, older than was fair for nineteen and carrying far too much responsibility.

Jared almost asked what that had to do with the truck and the bike riding and his still being hungry, but then Jensen snorted and Jared had a rush of realization. No gas for the truck because there wasn't enough money, and they only had food because Jensen was given lunch free from the store. He didn't want to be told that Jensen had been made to choose between keeping them fed or keeping them in a home.

He couldn't eat the apple, at that, looked at it sullenly like it was to blame. "Do you want this?" he offered, worried at what kind of trouble Dad had gotten into to need Jensen's help like that.

"Dad isn't in any trouble, he's just shit at making money or taking care of anything but himself." Jensen stood up slowly, crossed to Jared, then pushed the apple back against Jared's chest.

Jared resented that Jensen could read him so easily. Could imagine so many things except a life without Jensen by his side.

"Dad cares about us!" Jared almost stamped his foot, felt stupid for arguing because Jensen wasn't wrong. He couldn't help his compulsion to defend Dad, because defending a man they barely saw and who gave them less attention was easier to take than admitting out loud Jensen was right.

Jared hated the man who allowed them to live this way, couldn't hate the man who was their dad.

"Yeah, whatever Jared. Go to bed," Jensen said, weary and dismissive.

"Bed?" Jared said incredulously. "But it's not even six! Why do I have to go to bed?"

"Because I'm tired, and tired of dealing with you. The tv's been cut off and there's no ballgame tonight we can get on the radio, and all you're going to do now is brood and pout and make a show of pretending you're not hungry, so you might as well get outta my hair and go read a book in your room."

Jensen looked down where he still had his fingers wrapped around Jared's wrist, studied that connection for a strange moment then he shook them loose, let go and stepped away.

"You can't tell me what to do," Jared said mutinously.

Jensen busied himself in the kitchen, threw the empty potato salad container in the trash, threw Jared's spoon in the sink, then he wadded up the paper bag and threw it at the wall.

"Oh? Says who. I just did."

Jared didn't actually mind that Jensen could, and did, tell him what to do. He didn't mind that most of the time he listened. What he found himself wanting to fight against was Jensen not wanting him, here, and how it made him feel young and insignificant and just in Jensen's way.

He clutched the apple and snipped, "Yeah, well, I don't want to be with you either. So I'm going but just to get away from you, not because you told me."

"Fine. Just so you go."

Jensen's shoulders were drawn up to his ears, hands at his hips in defeated fists, the very lines of his tension and body dismal and eager for Jared to leave him alone.

Jared blushed, turned sharply away and hurried to his room, made sure to slam the door.

He dropped the apple on his dresser and left it because he'd be hungrier later than the dull feeling of wanting to eat it right now. He flipped open the cigar box where he kept his life's treasures and plunked the geode into it, poked at the contents and had a nasty moment thinking his treasures amounted to nothing, rescinded in a heartbeat then closed the lid again. He flopped onto his bed with a mean sigh and a world's woes huff, stared out the window into the yard. The final gloaming of summer sun blanketed his room, prisms of color and a melting glow, suffuse with warmth and hope and temptation.

He didn't turn on a light as it got dark, didn't feel like reading or looking at his one picture of mom or anything else. He settled in to make lists of what he'd order for dinner at the meat-and-three restaurant in town, then what he'd buy at the grocery store, fell asleep before he'd even considered what kind of cake, pie, or a slice of each.

Jared woke to the phone ringing, shrill and insistent. It wasn't even late yet but seemed it, and he scrubbed his eyes and was contrary enough to feel cheated at having snoozed instead of brooding over damning the world like Jensen had accused he'd do.

The phone rang again and Jared pretended the sound didn't shiver through him, desperate want and anticipation for it to be Dad, finally with some kind of attention or maybe even good news for them. He bit his lip when Jensen's equally expectant hello thinned with unfamiliarity and formality, and then nothing but silence as Jensen listened.

Curiosity burned and pricked, got the better of him, and he rolled carefully from bed onto the floorboards that creaked least, moved across his room and opened his door slowly as possible. He crept into the hall, holding his breath, and carefully picked up the only other phone in the house, shrouded in shadow and dread he'd be caught.

"...and I'm sure hoping you'll take a serious look at the application we've sent, Jensen, and give even more serious thought to attending our school. Our baseball program could use a player like you, Jensen. Can I call you Jensen?"

"Uh, sure, that's fine."

"Great! So tell me, Jensen, how do you feel about moving to Kansas?"

"Well, I haven't really played ball in a year, Mr Yates. Not sure I'm who you looked at when your guys came scouting last season." Jensen was reticent, somewhere between disbelief and readiness to shatter the illusion of hope.

Jared frowned and hunkered into the wall in a half-lean, twisted the phone so it hooked the wrong direction, receiver pressed against his ear, microphone over the top of his head. He could feel Jensen's surprise, the taken-aback pause, and guilt roiled in his gut that this was the closest Jensen had gotten to college ball throwing fireballs or launching homers over the center field wall.

Yates just plowed on in an impressive balance of importance and deprecation. "I'll level with you, Jensen. We're not a top-tier university and we don't run with the big division dogs. But we have a solid academic and sports program, and we want you to be a part of it, even a year out. You can come down early, get back into fighting shape, then, starting fall, get going with your classes while you train with the team."

Jared bit his lip and bowed his head. This was worse than Dad calling with nothing but excuses and checking not on them, but to see if Jensen had any money to spare, just for this one time. It was too good to be true, and everything Jensen deserved. If it happened, it would break Jared's heart.

"Talent like yours shouldn't be overlooked or wasted. We'd really like to work with you, move you from pitcher to third base. You remind Coach Beaver of Schmidt, and I know you understand that's no small amount of credit given your way."

"Mr Yates--"

"Phil, please Jensen. Go on ahead and call me Phil."

Jensen hesitated, and Jared dared to peek around the wall, strained to try and see Jensen in the kitchen. All he got was the dull thud of his elbow and almost stumbling from one foot onto the other.

"Mr Yates, I really do appreciate you taking this time, and you and Coach's thinking that about me. But I'm just not sure--I mean, I got things here that are my responsibility--I have a pretty good job and a brother to look after. Besides that I'm not really able to afford college, anywhere."

Yates tutted, placating and smooth.

"Don't be hasty, Jensen. Fill out the application, all pages, because we're extending you the opportunity for us make arrangements for your tuition. If my timing's right it arrived today or will tomorrow, so look for it. I know this is a lot for you to take in and think about, but I'm asking you to do just that. Think about this, what's best for you and your family. Maybe that brother of yours could do just as well to have a fine example set for him as to have a caretaker."

Jared clenched his jaw, held fast from wanting to run into the kitchen and hang up on Mr Yates or flip the phone back around to tell them both Jensen really had nothing going here, that bagging groceries and feeding your stupid kid brother scrambled eggs and baloney sandwiches while you went hungry was the very thing most people fought to leave, not keep.

He missed the rest of what was said, held a sharp breath when Jensen hung up, then he slipped the phone back onto the cradle. He froze when he heard Jensen coming towards his room, shot into the bathroom and half-closed the door, sat on the edge of the tub in a heavy fall and dropped his head into his hands. He hated the thought of Jensen gone, leaving him, longed for the day when they had enough space between them that he wasn't just a drain and a disappointment and could stop feeling like he did about his brother.

Jared counted to ten then he flushed, knocked the toilet lids like he'd banged them to fall, ran the water and poked back into the hall. Jensen stood there, eyebrow raised and hands on hips. Jared wanted to wrap him up, be gathered in; wanted to push and push until Jensen was forced to believe that school was the only sane option.

"Did the phone wake you?" Jensen tilted when Jared brushed past, followed Jared into the bedroom to lean on the door frame. He smiled apologetically and shrugged. "Sorry about that."

Jared studied the wall like it'd reveal every last secret and answer to anything he'd ask, knew Jensen could see him in the light that spilled in from the hall.

Jensen sighed, scratched at his neck. "There's a few things we should talk about, Jared. Stuff we gotta do--you're not gonna like all of it, but I don't know as we have a choice. But I want to talk to you first, and it's not all bad."

The wall wavered as bitter tears welled and the words punched--terrible and exactly what he expected--opened Jared up inside-out, exposing him and his certainty in Jensen's growing disillusion with him and this life and enduring being here.

"No," he forced past clenched teeth, shook his head jerkily, pushed to his feet. He wasn't going to cry in front of Jensen, was overwhelmed and terrified he'd spill the turmoil in his heart and give it all away. He was even more afraid of being sat down and gently told about the call and what it'd mean for them. What would change. That Jensen would leave. That his being left here was pretty much what he deserved.

Without thinking he walked into his jeans and buttoned them over his boxers, was uncoordinated but determined shoving his feet into his boots as he shouldered around Jensen. Jared broke into a sprint through the kitchen for the back door, which had been left yawned wide to encourage night's cool in past the screen.

Jensen gave chase, managed to hook Jared's elbow, stopped him short with a hard whip-around. Jared knocked into Jensen, grabbed out to steady himself, stood with his hands tight on Jensen's hips and his heart thundering in his throat. Awareness frissoned through him, stole his senses and made Jensen's eyes seem greener and those despised freckles look as if they'd be sweet to taste.

"Hey, c'mon. Where are you going in such a hurry, even at all? We just need to talk, you're not in trouble."

Jared swallowed roughly when Jensen peered at him questioningly, started to shake all over and twisted away, pulled at the counter to help him along. "Bad dream I don't know-- I don't want to talk. Let me go. Just let me go!" he spit, managed to wriggle free from Jensen, batted at the screen door so it swung out with its tired squeak and groan, leapt and ran into the dark.

Jensen came down the back stairs after him, pursued a short burst, then he pulled up and yelled, "Fine, you run! But we are talking, hear me? And don't you go riding Tex. It's dark and it'll get you killed. Jared, dangit!"

He swerved an immediate left, Jensen's voice fading as he headed to the barn, then scared hurt welled into anger. Just to show Jensen he wouldn't disappear into the barn like always, Jared stayed the line of the house until he was beyond the halo of the porch light flipped on behind him, all sudden flurry and clouded by moths and midges, then he charged into the distance, towards the neighbor's outlying hay bales.

Jared's breath was harsh and cutting, and he sucked wind as heat blossomed in his chest. Stifling sobs while running faster than anything made it seem like his lungs were going to burst.

He eased his pace, felt cold when he finally reached the bales and fit himself between their rounded bulk, itchy and sticking to his sweaty skin. He collapsed onto one, heels dented into the ground, and goosebumps lifted when the wind teased over him. He'd stay out here until Jensen forgot about him and whatever needed to be said. Then he'd clean the kitchen and do the laundry to apologize and not seem like such a useless nuisance.

Jared fought sleep, fought strange dreams and imagining anything except sitting right here on a hay bale. He eventually dove gritty-eyed into heaviness, woke to a flock of noisy red-winged blackbirds squawking and chittering and fluffing the hay for seed. It was just dawn, glimmer of the new day fragile and watery at the horizon. Same as he'd started yesterday. Not at all like yesterday.

He tucked his feet up and then wrapped his hands around his bent legs, set his cheek on his knees and wondered if Jensen regretted deciding to stay and look after him, trading nonsense hopes for disappointing hardscrabble, telling Yates a cautious no. Jared thought he would, if their lives were reversed.

He startled the birds to lift, hover, then land again, when he jumped to his feet. He walked the entire perimeter of their property, ended up along the road and kicked a rock until he reached their mailbox. He figured it to be empty like usual, would check on the spider that lived inside with tenacious comfort in the back corner, blinked warily at the long, off-white envelope that greeted him.

Jared pulled it out cautiously and fingered the return address, stamped with dark ink instead of hand-written, complete with an embossed emblem, bold and sure as anything. The college Yates had called about.

His hands shook and he wanted to rip it in two, into shreds. He folded the envelope over itself four times in a burst of anger and adamant denial and stuffed it in his back pocket. Jared stood a moment, and the wind picked up as the sun charged to an angle high enough to start burning, wiped his palms on his sides then he looked around guiltily, as if anyone was out here to know what he'd done.

He wound through the untended alfalfa fields they couldn't afford to reap, and the overgrown yard they couldn't mow because the mower was broken. He plucked foxtails in the circle of his thumb as he went, strafed them between his fingers so they'd tickle his skin before crumbling apart.

The house was as he'd left it, sagging and dour and offering no refuge, only familiar drudgery. The porch steps groaned, and he skipped past the top one because it squeaked loudest. He poked into the kitchen experimentally, but everything was empty and quiet. The truck had moved and he wondered where Jensen had been, where Jensen was now, but became completely distracted when he spied several folded grocery bags wedged between the fridge and the light-lemony wash paneled wall.

There was food in the fridge and cabinets, cans of soup and frozen dinners and boxes of the snackcakes he loved. Jared went a bit overboard at first, ate a handful of chips then coiled a slice of ham on his tongue and crammed two sugar wafers in alongside. He washed it all down with milk gulped from the carton. Jensen walked in on him wiping his lips with the back of his hand.

Jared fidgeted and set the carton down, and Jensen came around the table, bore in, looked angry and relieved and like he was actually going to yell.

Jared darted into the living room, got tackled and pinned and they wrestled, fought dirty, kicks and bites and tried their best to roll the other or get squirmed away. Jared snapped and tried to bite Jensen but it was his undoing. Jensen took advantage to slam his lifted shoulder abruptly and they panted at each other. Jared tested Jensen's hold on him, growled at Jensen having him pinned flat.

"What?" he asked, tried to slide sideways so Jensen's hip wasn't pressed to his dick.

Jensen's eyes narrowed. "Where've you been?"

"You're such a mother hen, Jensen. And why should you care, when all you want is for me to leave you alone." Jared made an abortive attempt to get free but Jensen was stronger, shoved him flatter against the floor. "I'm fifteen not five. You don't gotta ride herd on me anymore."

"You ran out of here last night like your ass was on fire and I don't see you again until now, and you're gonna get smart with me?"

Jared's face twisted. He got an arm loose and they scuffled, enough for Jensen to dig into him punishingly and he bent inwards, kneed up and got Jensen in the side, and Jensen fell into him.

"You tell me all the time to just go, just leave you alone, so I did." Jared kept struggling and it continued to be frustrating and futile. "I'm old enough to take care of myself."

Jensen snorted, clamped a hand so tight around Jared's wrist it made him grunt in protest.

"Lemme up, this is stupid." Jared set his jaw, scowled. "You're stupid and you're not Dad so just--let me go."

Jensen shifted, stared at Jared so intently and moved his hand to Jared's chest, warm and steadying.

"Nope, I'm not. But I got more claim on you as anyone."

Sensation rushed back to Jared's freed hand and he hovered over Jensen's, pulse sped, wanted to touch and land and twist their fingers in a knot. They blinked at each other, close enough their noses brushed and Jensen's breath was hot, fast and wet on Jared's cheek. He watched Jensen try not to react, slid back in so Jensen fully covered him again, licked his lips and that made Jensen's tongue peek out.

Jensen lowered and Jared craned to give them room, watched cross-eyed as Jensen's face blotted the sun from the kitchen and their mouths met in a light, shattering kiss. They stayed there for a second--mouths sealed unmoving but intoxicating and real and amazing--long enough for Jared's skin to catch fire as his hand traced Jensen's cheek, before Jensen grunted impatiently and turned, held them tighter together so they didn't have to cope with actually looking at each other.

They lay like that in silence for awhile, long enough so sunbeams slanted in the windows and the kitchen door, shadows at their mid-morning posts. Jared fought to breathe and not buck and grind up into Jensen, was almost settled in the idea that they were snuggling on the living room floor and Jensen had just kissed him and seemed in no hurry to get away.

"So did you get paid again today?" It wasn't at all what he'd wanted or meant to say, but it was the first thing that popped out when he finally chanced their silence.

It was the wrong thing to say. More than enough to break that fragile truce of touching and having without fighting or quite acknowledging what had happened.

Jensen's expression shuttered and darkened. He sighed, pushed up fast and unforgiving, then grunted to his feet and turned away, left Jared on the floor.

Jared was lost in the abrupt change and swirling tides, got to his elbows then rolled over his hips to sit watching Jensen move jerkily around the kitchen. His lips tingled and his dick was half-hard and he wanted Jensen to come back, tug him to sit straddling Jensen's lap and do--he wasn't sure what all, but he was sure he wanted it to happen.

"What, did you rob the bank then bike a getaway?" Jared tried to tease but sounded strained, and earned a dour look as he teetered and ungainly clambered to his feet. He stuck his hands in his pockets, fisted them to relieve the pressure and evidence of his boner, shrugged under Jensen's continued scrutiny.

"No. I sold the horses," Jensen said plainly, no softening or going easy on this.

All the blood that'd thickened and sweetened in Jared's veins seized then rushed the opposite direction, flooding him with shock and disbelieving anger.

"What do you mean you sold the horses? You can't just sell my horse!"

He started to push outside but Jensen stopped him, held him in place.

"Tex and Git both, got a fair price for them. There's no use in you going out to check. They ain't there and it'll only make you angrier."

Jensen stared at Jared, looked braced for recrimination but unwilling to brook any real fight.

Jared stared, shook his head. "Shut up. Liar."

"I would have told you yesterday but you were too stubborn and ornery to give me the chance. Came for them this morning early, and I couldn't put 'em off waiting for you to get here and say goodbye."

Jensen's gaze flicked away and he crossed the room, plucked a rumpled rectangle of pink paper from the coffee table, shoved it under Jared's nose.

"I've had the ad out for awhile but hoped things wouldn't get so bad. But guess what, they did. We're out of options, Jared. Made more than I could possibly get no matter how many hours I put in at the store, and what good would two horses do us if we didn't have a house, a barn, money for feed and stalls to keep them?"

Jared took the paper and scanned it quickly. It was a receipt, and the address of where Tex and Git had been betrayed to taunted him. The town was vaguely familiar, more than a few hours from here, always heard about when storms were coming through because they scoured there first then made northeasterly in getting to them.

A sudden, harsh sob got the better of Jared and he hitched, tried to catch it, choked out bitter and tight, "I hate you, I hate you."

He shoved from Jensen and towards his room, escaping wanting to cry and Tex being gone.

"You think I wanted to sell them? Git too, Jared! Ain't just you making some unfair sacrifice here."

Jensen chased him down the short hall, but Jared made it to his room before he could be confronted.

He slammed the door, kicked it, was going to kick it again after Jensen growled from the other side, dared him to even try kicking it once more.

"This is what you always do, Jared, just like Dad. You fucking run and it doesn't change a fucking thing!" Jensen yelled, loud and brittle as Jared had ever heard.

Jared almost retorted--he was nothing like Dad, nothing--savagely clamped down with his jaw then he kicked the door again, twice as hard.

"You little--" Jensen got the door forced open, handle twisted in Jared's two-handed grasp stronger than he could hold onto, jammed a foot in the space and started to come after him into his room.

Jared backed up, tripped on his heels, caught himself on the edge of his bed. Jensen stepped over him, loomed astride his tangled legs, and all Jared could think about was that idea of being hauled into Jensen's lap and kissing again then doing more, whatever, so much more.

He grabbed for Jensen, started to pull Jensen down, and he'd forgive Jensen if he could just have this instead. Jensen groaned, cursed, stagger-stepped and started to shake his head.

"Jared--" he swallowed, had pressed his hand to Jared's splayed on his hip, then the rumble of an engine and a car horn interrupted whatever else he might have tried to say.

"Boys? Boys!"

Jared was more thrilled with Dad providing a reason to escape Jensen than Dad being home, but he'd take it. He rolled sideways, tipped from his bed, darted around Jensen and out into the hall.

Dad was in the kitchen, hands on hips. He smiled and nodded, took Jared in. "You look good, son."

Jared was ten pounds scrawny, cheeks gaunt, eyes sallow. He shrugged then swayed from foot-to-foot awkwardly, because anymore he didn't know if they were supposed to shake hands or hug or avoid contact altogether.

Used to be Jared would shout happily and run into the yard, get swept up and circled in a wide, flying embrace, laugh as Dad tossed then muffled him into Dad's broad chest, take in the strength and warmth and good-time cheer Dad always carried. Dad had never been short of promises or big dreams, shared them broad and unreachable as the blue sky with Jared's avid hunger for the same.

That used-to-be had faded over the years, same as the sapping of Dad's strength and cheer, and now he was just a tired old man, human and foible and full of almost more faults than Jared could forgive or contain. Promises broken, dreams forgotten.

Dad held out a downturned hand and Jared reached for it, but Dad pulled back quick and teasing.

"Ah-ah, what do you say?"

Jared huffed, but there was no getting out of this so he said, "Please."

Dad grinned and dropped a silver dollar into his outstretched palm then patted his shoulder.

"Thanks, Dad." Jared smiled back, appreciated the thick heavy loll of the coin against his skin.

He flipped it into the light, read the date stamp and mint--pretty and almost new, an '81 Anthony out of Denver--then he folded it in his knuckles, found comfort in this particular ritual. Over all the years of Dad being mostly absent from their lives the silver dollar was a rare constant, one brought back for Jared no matter how long or far away Dad had gone.

"Got that one in Colorado, special, there for a roping and cutting event." Dad puffed out further. "Didn't do too bad, neither."

"Not too bad as in you didn't lose everything? Or not too bad as in you almost broke even?"

Dad tensed and shifted at Jensen's tone, didn't have it in him anymore to tell Jensen to mind and not sass. Jared's heart sunk into his belly and he bit his lip, wanted to warn Jensen to shut up, wanted to tell Dad to get real.

"Let the boy enjoy his dollar, Jensen. Let me at least get in a hello. We can speak more on it later." Dad was falsely hearty, nodded at Jared again.

"This the same conversation where you'll be asking me for entry fee money and gas money and drinking money?" Jensen crossed his arms over his chest, hipped into the kitchen table, a triangle point anchoring Jared and Dad.

"You been taking good care of the place? The horses and everything?" Dad tried valiantly to change the mood and avoid Jensen's resentment and challenge, sounded loose and indulgent, as if everything here was at his largess, and the boys at their leisure.

Jared's throat clicked dryly and he looked away, winced when Jensen pushed on ahead, cold and sharp and suppressed fury.

"Or maybe our talk's gonna be you asking for a small loan to tide you over. I'm good at that talk, by now, but you should know there ain't nothing to spare." Jensen advanced, stepped in front of Jared a pace, was tall enough now to stand over Dad.

Dad chuckled and waved a hand. "You do know how I am, Jensen."

He winked at Jared as if, just between the two of them, Jensen was a mite testy.

Jared colored acutely in a rush of humiliation and stupidly divided loyalty, was sure Jensen deserved his backing but hadn't ever been able to quite give up on Dad.

It was ridiculous and so hard-punishing that this man they barely saw could upend what little stability and ground they managed to gain, that Dad could pay them no mind for them for months, then control them so completely just from darkening their door.

"You boys seem to be doing fine." Dad twisted around to peek in the refrigerator, fingered a cupboard open, then let it drop closed, nodded in musing satisfaction. "Plenty to eat, both of you dressed and kept in home."

"That's 'cause--"

"Shut it until after I've talked to your brother," Dad snapped at Jensen, had reached the end of his tether. "I just got here, is it too much to ask to be let alone and allowed to have a pleasant talk with my kid?"

Jared worked his jaw, felt the anger coming off Jensen, lifted the silver dollar pinched in his thumb and finger.

"Did you see it?" he asked Jensen, voice rough and uncertain, sounded so young. "It's a Denver, still nice and shiny, too."

Jensen stared at Jared a moment, distant and unimpressed, didn't look at the silver dollar, just shook his head tiredly and looked away. It was near enough to push Jared to tears.

"You're all good and fine, Jared, right? Plenty to feed up on and just fine. Bet you are." Dad had found the beer, held a can one-handed and pried the tab with a finger.

Jared licked his lips and nodded miserably. "I am fine, sir." He wasn't hungry, at least not today.

Dad made a short noise, a meanly pleased pounce, drank half the beer then saluted it towards Jensen.

"And you always find a way to see to that, Jensen, don't you? Got that good job at the store--he wouldn't ever rodeo with me, though, no matter how many times I asked." Dad tsk'd sadly at Jared, finished the beer.

When Dad fished in the fridge for another, Jensen cut him off. He whapped the door closed with a hand, almost trapped Dad's arm in without pause or flinching.

"We haven't heard from you or seen you in months, I don't even know why you come back anymore. Like you said, we don't need you." Jensen's nostrils flared and he had a fist balled at his hip, ratcheted the tension in the room another several notches.

Dad ignored Jensen but didn't fight trying for a beer, more lack of bother than ruffled dignity. He turned and smiled. "Jared, we were gonna talk about you and your horse, weren't we."

"Ain't no horses to take care of, Dad. I sold 'em."

Blistering quiet pressed into the kitchen, awful and serious, wouldn't be charmed away or resolved with a pretty coin and passivity.

Dad rounded on Jensen, sputtered and started to turn that fickle, impotent, blushed red that Jared recognized would soon lead to blustering before he turned heel and stormed out of here.

"Whaddya mean you sold them? Jared loved his horse! A Texas boy needs his horse." Dad rummaged into his back pocket and slammed his wallet on the table defiantly, pried it open for show. "How much you need to get Tex back?"

Not Tex and Git, just Tex. Jared's lower lip started to tremble and he opened his hand, stared at the glint off the Capitol building etched on the dollar. Once, he'd thought Jensen was terrible and didn't understand, didn't want to, when it came to Dad. Since then, Jared had learned it was Dad who didn't understand and probably never would.

Jensen shot his breath contemptuously. "You don't even have close to enough and you never will. We both know it, Dad." He tipped forward on his feet, narrowed his gaze. "It was sell the horses or sell the house."

Dad scoffed, started to laugh. "Sell the house? C'mon now, Jensen, it ain't that bad--never been that bad. Besides, you couldn't anyway."

"No?" Jensen's brow arched, but he paused, glanced at Jared then back to Dad. "Deed's in my name too now, remember? In case you up and got yourself busted open or killed out there. If I'd wanted to sell it, I could."

"Then maybe you should take your uppity self and sell off some of your land, make enough to buy Tex back for Jared." Dad leaned forward too, poked Jensen center in the chest with one squared, wizened finger.

Jared couldn't stand for them to fight even though Jensen was absolutely right that Dad was a loser, and they'd suffered this same benign neglect for so long.

"This is always what happens, this is always what you both do." Jared insinuated between them, tried to marshal their argument into just being able to talk, so that Dad would stay even a few hours and be with them. Their voices just got louder as they overlapped. "Can't you guys just--"

"You ain't head of this household or his father, Jensen, it's not for you to--"

Dad kept poking at Jensen, and Jensen's fury finally broke.

"Yeah? Well someone damn well should be! And I've always been his brother even if you ain't ever been his real father!"

Silence exploded around them. Jared's ears rang. He looked from Jensen to Dad and back again, saw the blood drain from their faces. It choked something in him and he knew absolutely it was absolutely true.

Jensen started forward, eyes full of remorse, reached for him. "Jared, I'm sorry, I didn't mean--"

Jared slapped at Jensen, evaded that reach. "What did you mean?" he demanded, lower lip now pushing into an anguished curl as his breath started to hiccup.

Dad sighed, slid into his sadsack, apologetic and life-beaten tone so easily. "Don't you worry. It's just. Your mom and me were so young when we met, and I was off rodeoing. She was lonely, made some--other decisions is all. But you've always been mine much as anything, Jared."

The silver dollar bit into his palm when he made an aching fist. No one moved.

Jared started when the clock chimed, slip-skidded into a run and dove into his bedroom. He locked the door and launched into a frenetic, shaky grabbing of everything important he should take with him because there wasn't anything left or reason to even stay.

He tore his backpack open, stuffed the silver dollar in his cigar box with the rest then stuffed that into his bag along with Jensen's jacket, a notebook and a paperback and a few pens. He jerked and tripped into his best jeans and a thicker tee-shirt, wadded a flannel into the pocket of his backpack and jammed his hat on. No hesitation--couldn't risk being in here longer, just couldn't be here at all--Jared angled into the hall then ran straight and true toward the front door.

Jensen was waiting, ran after him, across the porch then into the yard, yelled and yelled. He finally caught Jared under the tired elm that'd held tenaciously to growing despite a lightning strike years ago and no kindness after.

"Leave me alone!" Jared ground out angrily, cursed the tears and the warble that shuddered his voice.

"Jared--fuck." Jensen stepped closer, grabbed at Jared's shirt. "For once stop long enough and listen to me!"

"No! Fuck you Jensen. Fuck you and Dad and everything! Why don't you just get it all over with? Call that school and tell them you're in, then leave this place. Leave me here because I don't want you! I don't want you here anymore, and I don't want to ever see you again or think about you or kis--"

Jared twisted loose, and they grappled briefly before he got free, ran into an abrupt end because there was nowhere but open acres to go. He reared and counter-weighted, and when Jensen tried to stop him again, punched Jensen smart in the jaw, used the surprise that he'd actually done so to his advantage and shoved away. His knuckles felt crumpled and his eyes itched--he hadn't even hit Jensen that hard--hated Jensen and Dad and his whole goddamn life, hated himself for it even more.

Dad's truck was parked angled in the driveway and Jared wrenched inside. It was stifling and airless and sun-blistered in the cab. He locked the doors, ignored Jensen pounding on the window next to him. He pulled the visor down and the keys clunked against his head then fell into his lap. Jared shook as he fumbled them, taking three tries to get the starter into the ignition. He gunned the engine, then tore through the yard, rumble-rattled over tree roots and grassy ruts, found the driveway again and shot towards the road.

He turned wildly, almost put the truck in an irrigation ditch, stamped the accelerator even faster. He was too scared and angry to slow down or consider repercussions or cry.

Jared roared miles of country road towards town, changed his mind last minute at a crossroad that'd take him in one way to the familiar or the other to gone and away, really away. He ended up twisting the steering wheel one too many times, and the truck fishtailed, then started to spin erratically. The tires scraped the shoulder, spit gravel and lost traction, and he spiraled further into milkweed and grass. The truck's bed slammed into a fencepost so hard it rattled his bones and the chassis while the tires ate turf. On instinct, Jared stood on the brakes.

Everything went suddenly still, just the low hum of the engine and a few startled crows. Jared fingered and twisted the ignition off, hurriedly stuffed the keys in the visor pocket, sat there shocky and feeling sick. He wrapped his hands around the steering wheel and made himself breathe, blinked at an annoying trickle of sweat that had plastered his hair to his forehead, had no good notion of what to do.

The heat won out, and he opened the door and dropped into the field, staggered to his feet, clawed his backpack to his chest then left the truck behind. He was far enough he figured he had a fair head start, and maybe Jensen wouldn't even come after him, anyway. Here wasn't gone so far or lost that he couldn't just go home--but, no--right here was where Jensen could help Dad find the truck after they'd realized he wasn't coming back.

He boosted fences and cut through pastures and scrub, got to a main road, took stock of his bearings and started walking determinedly south. He would find Tex, make sure his horse was okay, and then he'd know at least one thing for sure.

It seemed several miles and hours later when a stand of cottonwoods appeared, beckoned, and he made his way between them. Jared sank to the ground, took a short rest. He re-situated his backpack, counted his money, thumbed Jensen's application. He pulled up and bounced the geode back into the cigar box, then drew out and fiddled a necklace Jensen had given him, clasped it closed around his neck.

Jensen had teased it was a gift from some girl but he didn't like it. Jared wasn't sure of that. He had gotten an unerring sense it had been for him, and only his, the moment their fingers had sparked when Jensen had handed it over.

He lifted the pendant, traced a fingertip around a thunderbird in turquoise and silver--what Jared thought was silver--on a black cord, knotted in the back with two orange turquoise beads. Maybe it was silly to wear it, but it felt good to have it on; it gave the same sense of contact and security as the jacket that was too hot to wear. Jensen had given it to him, had thought and cared enough to, even if he had no want or use for Jared in the ways Jared imagined.

The wind shurred and whispered the leaves, creak of the thin and spindly cottonwood trunks a soft undercurrent beneath. Jared wanted to sit here longer but didn't let himself.

He walked the day through, feet aching and all his joints protesting every step as miles blended into darkness and he pushed on and on. There were no stars, no moon, nothing to guide him except the faded, almost gone, yellow line painted along the shoulder crumbling into the dirt. The clouds spit a misting rain, hindrance and insult but not enough to soak. Jared found himself greedily wiping his cheeks and licking his fingers to quench his parched tongue.

Jared passed a grain bin built right on the road, empty and wrapped in flapping loose chicken wire. He crashed into it so weary he didn't notice the bite of its uneven concrete floor or lying there in the teeth of a whipping, past-midnight squall.

Dawn found him stumbling to his hands and knees, balky and reluctant but he had to keep moving because he didn't know what else to do. Jared clutched the straps of his backpack, couldn't see anything but the address on the receipt for Tex and Git, Jensen's application folded and hidden in the cigar box, the disappointed shock in Jensen's eyes after Jared had landed that parting punch. Dawn didn't relent. He hunched his body, said almost there out loud, kept himself busy with calculations of if he had enough money for a bus ticket and how he'd even get to a bus station to find out.

Semis thundered past, bore in from behind with menacing whop-a-whop gear grinds and air shuttling through their hydraulics. They sped by in a blink, way faster than Jared could hope to catch to even try and flag down. It gave him the idea to turn around soon as he could hear any engine, tug a thumb at his shoulder--at a station wagon, then a floating sofa of a Cadillac, then a buggy looking little hatchback. All of them ignored him and Jared sensed them doing it, knew they weren't willing to chance picking up some stray walking ragged and suspiciously too-early on the highway.

The sun had risen enough so its heat was beginning to sizzle the air and pavement and punish Jared, last night's storm not even a trace to be forgotten. He shielded his eyes with a hand, the horizon a rippling mirage despite the brim of his hat, saw a low and promising-seeming pick-up huddled in the draft of a four-semi convoy.

Jared waggled his thumb through all four big rigs, almost doubled in half with relief when the truck slowed, then came to a squeaky halt just a bit ahead of him. He ducked down, ran for it, snagged the opening passenger door to peer hopefully into the cab at who'd stopped.

The guy was craggy but friendly looking, into his years but bright-eyed. Every inch of his visible skin was tanned somewhere between mahogany and old boot, with wrinkles deeper than plow furrows. He could be nothing but a rancher, maybe had his own spread, maybe had only ever been hired help, but easy enough knowing he was a cowboy. He gave Jared a long, assessing look, then curled his fingers in, back-forth.

"C'mon up son, I've no mind to sit here cooking. Going to Bonnie, can get you that far. Sound good?"

Jared nodded gratefully and stepped into the truck, whoosh of a tired sigh untethering helplessly as he sank onto the bench seat. He had no idea where Bonnie was, but it was better than walking.

"Alright then." The guy gunned the gas with a foot on the break, massaged the engine, then they steadied into motion with a chortling throttle that shushed into a pleasant rip-rap rhythm. "Name's Lee. And just to be upfront, I don't take to smoking or chaw, but you can have this."

Lee handed over a huge plastic cup nearly sloshing over with Coke-cola, studied Jared until Jared nodded quickly and muttered a quiet yessir. Jared fingered the lid loose and sucked half the Coke down in choking swallows, sat back when the burn and urgency of his thirst had been appeased, managed to mostly hold in a hugely wet belch.

"Thank you, Lee," he croaked, steadied his breath, then he made the best and most of the rest of the cola.

Country music crooned on the radio, and Lee wasn't a creep, let Jared be. It took awhile for his hands not to shake and his head not to buzz, but once quieted, he dug in his backpack for the college application and a pen. Balancing a book on his lap, he filled out the form, all pages, painfully careful with his lettering and pausing over every blank to be doubly, triply, sure of the answer. Even things he knew absolutely about Jensen--birthday, home address, high school attended--he wasn't about to get wrong.

It was all he had to give or could do.

Jared pored meticulously over providing Jensen's best opportunity for better, to get out. He did his best with all the questions, was relieved to realize just how much about Jensen he knew and felt he could answer. He talked about hobbies and rated academics a slightly inflated nine on a ten-point scale, put playing baseball at an absolute ten.

He got so absorbed in the essay question on the back that, by the time he'd reread it for the hundredth time, they were pulling into Bonnie. It was bigger than home, nicer seeming, but no big city.

"Somewhere around here, kid?"

Lee lifted his chin vaguely at the town square, a line of storefronts, a motel visible down a side street, and, in the distance the silver line and sun-chased cars glinting on an interstate.

The application stared up at him, and Jared licked his lips. "Is there a post office nearby?"

Lee considered him then nodded. He had seemed to be thinking about asking Jared if everything was okay, sighed and let go, because Jared wasn't his problem.

The post office was down a different street than the motel, but not far, a low, orange-red brick building that looked sharp and stained against the bright, over-blue sky. Jared hopped from the truck and held the door briefly, nodded.

"Thanks for the ride." He shouldered his pack and shut the door firmly, before any questions or hesitance could assert.

Lee didn't waste time on second-guessing, sketched a short wave, then coaxed his truck from the curb and drove away.

Jared followed the line of shade from a spindly growing tree that slanted across the sidewalk into the post office. It smelled like a post office, stupid as that was, paper and cardboard and an indefinable shifting of here, there, settled dust and ceaseless movement, same time. He got in line--first really, just someone at the counter already--checked the application over a final time.

"Next?"

The postal worker smiled at him and Jared smiled back. "I need an envelope and a stamp for this, please."

"First class okay?" Tammi, with a heart over the I on her nametag, asked.

Jared nodded, and Tammi produced a flat envelope, held out for the application. He passed it over, watched as she addressed the envelope and slid it in. She metered it quickly, stickered the corner, then wrote out the postage due as paid on it. He watched her, every step, and she laughed and let him inspect the address and stamp, didn't slide the envelope to the bin behind her to be on its journey until he'd nodded the okay.

He wanted it as close to hand-delivered and assured of getting there as was possible. Then he'd do one better than staying a night in some stupid haystacks. He'd stay gone, absolutely all the way gone, until the college answered and took Jensen away.

"How long will that take to get there?"

Tammi smiled. "No more than a couple days, sweetie. I bet you're already anxious to hear back."

"Yes ma'am," he answered automatically, tapped the counter and nodded. He flickered a final glance at the envelope, gleaming white and full of expectation for Jensen and the last of his foolish dreams. "Thank you."

Tammi grinned brightly. "I'm sure it'll work out just fine. You take care now, and have a good day."

Jared nodded absently, drummed his fingers on the counter a moment, then he asked, "Is there a bus station in town?"

"Oh, well, yes. It's out by the interstate overpass, about a mile from here." Tammi sounded a bit unsure and lost her smile, had narrowed in on Jared like she'd start clucking and fussing.

"Just that my folks are over at the tractor supply store everyone comes to Bonnie to shop at, and I needed to get this sent so they dropped me off. We agreed I'd go somewhere easy for them to find me soon as they're done shopping, is all. That seemed a good place, you know? A bus station will have payphones and a bathroom and won't mind me waiting."

Jared grinned and tried not to white-knuckle the edge of the countertop. "Uh--" he nodded behind him at the front doors, "right or left?"

He'd seen billboards for nothing but the seven-county famous Bonnie Tractor Supply & Best Mercantile his whole walk, then drive with Lee, prayed it'd pass and Tammi wouldn't meddle.

Tammi frowned and moved the pen she had stuck in her hair to the other side of her bun, was definitely stalling, but Jared just kept grinning until she sighed.

"Left, and stay on Main Street all the way through town. That'll turn into Route 40, and it's not too long and you'll be there." She shook her head then smiled, didn't test Jared's guile.

Jared made himself spring away, laughed and said easy, "Thank you again, ma'am," charged from the post office, then left, and all the way through town like he actually had someone to meet and somewhere to be.

It was a Greyhound station, low-roofed and shaped like a weird vee, metal bracers and window panes meeting a white-rock and tarred roof overhang. Jared slipped inside, blissfully cool, and found a seat in the corner out of the ticket booth's line of sight, thought about what he'd do for the next several days.

At least now he had a solid plan, and a solid plan felt good, oddly reassuring. He'd find Tex. He'd stay away until certain the application had arrived and for Mr Yates to call Jensen back. By the time Jared found a way home, Jensen would be gone for Kansas.

After he'd soaked in the decadent arctic luxury of the air conditioning to the point where he no longer thought he'd faint, Jared dug the receipt from his bag and carried it to the ticket window. He decided the lesser of the evils would be to splurge on a bus ride, get to Tex safe and sure, and with a place sleep until then. They couldn't get rid of him for loitering if he had a ticket.

He studied the destination and fare board, tried to hearten himself that it was actually to his benefit that the only ticket he could afford was a secondary line making lots of stops that wouldn't leave until the morning.

The ticket lady wasn't put out or even fazed by his stack of silver dollars. She made a pittance in change and handed him his ticket, wished him a pleasant trip.

Jared sucked down enough from the drinking fountain so he felt it sloshing in his stomach. He went to the bathroom, washed his face and neck and arms, watched dirt-blackened water swirl down the drain. He pissed, then felt a whelm of reluctance to park himself on a chair out in the station, so he spent an inordinate amount of time locked in a stall boosted up onto the toilet, shoulder shoved into the corner, slept fitfully.

After napping himself into a headache he ventured back out. He was relieved that it was almost dark outside, and the ticket agent wasn't the same lady to remember that he'd been here this whole time. He bought a bag of pretzel sticks from the vending machine because that seemed like it'd be the most filling, went back to the empty row of connected plastic chairs way out of the way. He made a meal of the pretzels and his apple, ate with thoroughness and deliberate savoring of each bite.

The bus station got quiet after that. The ticket booth was shuttered and closed, and the janitor only shrugged at seeing him heaped in a few of the seats and left him alone.

He tried to read his paperback, but the words wouldn't make sense. He started to write in his notebook but flushed with annoyed shame that he wrote Jensen's name and doodled a picture of the barn and corral beside it. He tilted his heels on the floor and clapped his toes together, then leaned over and folded his arms around his legs. He did his best to not hear the tick of the clock or notice how the hours until he could go turned to molasses.

Jared was one of five passengers bright and bushy and ready to ride at seven. He climbed aboard the bus, settled in, was so glad for a seat all to himself and to finally be going somewhere that mattered. He watched the world as they trundled along, landscape an endless kaleidoscope of wheat fields melting into fencelines melting into longhorn clusters and back again. He thought that's how he was, now, drifting away with no memory of how many days he'd been gone or any way to demarcate where he'd been.

Getting from little town to little town and guttering the roads in between took forever. Jared was too tall and gangly for the seat--faced forward his knees were cracked in half, not enough space to angle to the side. He forcibly did not think about his impatience or dismay that the day was rapidly diminishing, and no way would he make it to Tex before dark.

Jared spent another uneasy night in the bus station at the other end of his trip. He tried to disappear, yet carry a certain aplomb that no, this is where he was supposed to be. He didn't let himself get anything to eat, asked the ticket agent for directions to the address on the receipt, then started walking again when the clock in the station ticked exactly nine.

The house was on the far side of town from the bus station, and was mighty intimidating. It was a sprawling ranch-style and huge looking to Jared, brick and siding in dark red colors with actual growing bushes and flowers all around. Expensive, finer than he'd ever known. He sweated over with prickles of apprehension and knew he was out of place. There were two barns and a separate outbuilding, a group of horses in the distant paddock with one looking a lot like Git. In the close corral, someone was riding Tex.

Jared prevaricated in the grass one step from the road, watched for a while as Tex plodded circles for a little girl to learn posting. He could taste his heart in his throat and was so anxious to greet Tex, was so afraid they'd harass him or yell and send him away. He shook himself with a tight huff, braved going over and even leaned on the fence railing, worried about Tex feeling lonely or out of place or something.

The little girl spotted him immediately, neat as a pin in riding boots and black velvet cap, even carried a short crop she kept tucked against her leg. She smiled and tugged Tex's reins so they stopped next to Jared, looked down at him.

"Hi. I'm Nina and this is Gentleman. Who are you?" Nina patted Tex's head fondly, had no concern or distrust of Jared having suddenly appeared.

Tex grumbled, snorted a bit at Jared, was mild and accepting of his hand, but not overjoyed in glorious reunion.

It stung, all the deeper thanks to how far disappointment had rooted hold inside, and he stumbled back and nodded. It was so bitingly mundane and bluntly real it shattered him. It'd taken so long to get here--most of his money and past exhaustion--and this was all there was to be found, to get in return.

"Gentleman, that's--. That's real nice." Jared forced a smile, then chewed at his lip, blinked rapidly and nodded, moved away from the fence when Nina's mother joined them, crossed from the barn and over to check on things. He kept smiling blandly.

"Just driving by and saw the riding, had my brother drop me off so I could get a peek. Looked like a horse I used to own, made me miss him and want to come and say hi, watch for just a little bit." He was babbling, struggled to stem the flow of inane words, felt foolish. "Y'know?"

Nina's mother was kindly, relaxed as he explained himself. She could see he wasn't anything more than as he'd said--a forlorn kid who'd longed for a glimpse of something lost for good, that could maybe be felt again, if only for a moment. She nodded and her eyes said she did know, and that she didn't mind at all.

"Would you like to stay for lunch? Nina's almost finished with her lesson. You could help her groom Gentleman, if you wanted?" She asked it with a bend and a lift in her tone, implicitly sought his name and to intervene and tend to the dust and fatigue and defeat that weighed him so heavily.

Jared swallowed and his smile was so brittle it hurt, but he laughed past it and reached a hand through the fence to scratch Tex's nose. "No, thanks, my brother is waiting for me in town at the diner. He hates eating alone, and I don't want to make him worry."

Tex had grown restless and had enough of putting up with this break in the familiar pattern, snorted and started him and Nina moving again. Nina tilted back to catch Jared's eye and smiled. Then she straightened and put all her little-girl focus on the horse and riding absolutely perfectly.

Jared remembered being that small, trying that hard to be so good once astride.

"Well, okay, if you're sure. You and your brother could come back--?"

"Um no, no ma'am, thanks. We're getting on right after we eat so, that won't work. But it's awful nice of you. Thanks for letting me look in." He grimaced and blanched feeling suddenly so hungry at the thought of food, turned away and no one stopped him.

Jared started walking again, heartsick and defeated. His feet were swollen and tired and the sole on one of his boots had started to pull away, slapped dully against the road then back again on his foot.

There was no one waiting for him, no one even knowing where he was, maybe even who he was when it was all said and done. Not his would-be father, not Tex, not even Jensen.

Jared rambled long enough to make it into town, stopped at a quickmart and bought a lemonade and a candy bar. He sat on a concrete berm and drank it down, ate slowly to make the candy bar last. He sat long enough to watch several people come and go, for the shift to change from the guy who'd sold him his dinner to a middle-aged lady who looked like she'd rather be anywhere else, and the sun to march all the way down to alight on the rim of the world.

He had no idea what to do next, where to go, how to get there. Jared was so tired he couldn't think, no processing any order of decisions about whether to stay right here or how to get home. He counted his silver dollars, had six left, resolutely refused to break one into change that'd let him just pick up the phone and call Jensen and temporary salvation.

He got angrier and angrier the longer he sat. He was filthy and starving and so pissed he seethed. Jared watched bugs cloud and get blown apart by an electric-blue zapper, apathetic and roiling with so much he'd become sure he'd never get past or could tame. Well into the night he stopped a disinterested guy going in, convinced them to buy him a six-pack, anything so long as it was beer and six dollars was enough.

The guy he'd conscripted came back out and gave him an already damp paper bag and a wink, told him to have fun. Jared rambled away from the lights and activity of the mini-mart, turned here then there, following whichever direction looked darker, found a tiny park in this wherever-he-was place and dropped heavily onto one of its four benches.

Jared coughed the first drink down, yucked at its awful taste, then swallowed all six, one after the other after the next, until he was hazy and blurred and nothing even occurred to him to matter anymore. The beer didn't taste good but it felt good, fed his anger and bitterness.

With barely anything to eat and the enduring heat for so many days the alcohol hit him fast. It churned in his gut and let him forget and give in to wanting to yell and laugh maniacally and rage.

Jared tore into his backpack and shouldered clumsily into his jacket. He climbed onto the bench seat and spread his arms, swayed precariously, then shouted, "Fuck you! Fuck you and Jensen and Dad--" He heaved forward with a violent shake of his shoulders after Dad, grabbed the top slat of the bench back and snickered. "No fuck you Not My Dad--just fuckity fucking fuck fuck!"

He over-balanced then over-corrected, fell backwards off the bench, landed on his ass, crashed flat and stayed there. From the ground, he started singing a weird mash of Waylon and Johnny and Journey.

When a police searchlight blinded him he only squinted and turned sideways.

"Son? You doing alright?"

Jared didn't answer. Wasn't nobody's son.

The officer approached slowly, crouched to get a look at Jared. "Hey there, kid. You okay?"

Jared clamped his mouth shut and scowled at some point lost between the moon and the milky way.

"Want to tell me what you're out here on your own for?" The officer's voice had an edge, now, alert and wary.

Jared lost hold of the last, near-empty can of beer, fumbled slow and useless after it then gave up. It bounced on the footpath then teetered pitifully onto its side, started a slow seep bleed of the dregs onto the ground.

"Think it'd be best you come with me. And if you pick that up, I won't cite you for littering."

"Fuck you," Jared slurred. "Fuck everybody."

He threw his hand and pushed to stand because this was bullshit and he was out of here. He got nowhere but hauled in the officer's grip and propelled into the backseat of the squad car. Blinking at the felted roof, completely disconcerted, Jared thought how comfy and warm and faraway everything could be, like this, as the car lurched into motion.

Once at the station house, Jared didn't give them much to go on. His being drunk helped none, and he couldn't make himself ask for Jensen. The cop who'd hauled him in didn't seem overly mad, more annoyed and resigned to him being a dumb kid. After a rapid set of questions Jared couldn't even remember soon as they'd been asked, he'd been left alone. The desk sergeant's pity went so far as to have him kept company in the corner of the empty drunk tank by a trash can at one foot and a steaming cup of coffee at the other.

He curled miserably on the cot facing the wall, whole world swimmy and confusing and just out of reach, blamed the coursing run of hotly thin tears that wouldn't quit on exhaustion and not being able to feel his fingertips to wipe them away.

"Jared?"

He burrowed into bed, muttered refusals about chores or getting ready for school or facing their uncertain future.

"Jared, c'mon man. Wake up."

Someone warm and strong held his shoulder and gave it a hard shake, kept shaking when he whapped at the annoying intrusion. Finally he cracked one eye and squinted reluctantly, took in the cell bars and chalk-green walls and Jensen crouched in front of him, everything coated with the blip of a fluorescent bulb on its last and the painful distortion of a hangover.

Jensen gave him a once-over and straightened, had been near enough so their noses touched, so briefly, after Jared had uncurled in reaction to Jensen's rousing.

"You gonna hurl?"

Jared must have looked green as the walls. He considered it, decided no, peeled his cheek from the scratchy pillow and came away with a smear of drool down to his chin. Jensen nodded shortly, tugged him to a wobbly stand before they lost momentum, had his hat and backpack hanging from a hand. It must be morning, though Jared had no sense of time, but the station was quiet with that getting started buzz, and a dawn-new orange sun glazed the glass-fronted doors.

He hunched into his shoulders, let Jensen lead him past the front desk, paid careful attention to the patterned linoleum floor and not falling over his feet and trying not to meet anyone's eye. All he earned for such trouble was being thrust unceremoniously out of the station and towards the truck parked right in front, with no one giving them any mind.

Tangled wisps of fog coiled and clung to the shadows under trees and in the run-off culvert that was cut beside the road, air crisp and cool as it'd ever be in summer. Jared was glad he'd fallen asleep in his jacket, crossed his arms and gripped into the open plackets, couldn't look at Jensen when the truck thunk-started and slid from between sheriff's squad cars then from the parking lot onto the deserted highway.

They didn't talk. Jared didn't want to and Jensen didn't make him, didn't provide forgiving nothings to fill the silence, either. Jensen had the driver's window rolled all the way down, leaned into the wind, an elbow poked out with the other arm a casual hand slung over the steering wheel, furthest from Jared as could be gotten in the cab of the truck.

Jared kept his hands fisted in his coat and stared at the cracked sole of his boot.

They circuited the town where Jared had come aground, so different than his dark-hour binge, soft at the edges and gearing into its morning. Jensen pulled over, let Jared piss long and with abrupt need into roadside grass, then pulled them through a fast-food place. Ordered and paid then shoved greasy hashbrown cakes and sausage patties and heavily sugared and creamed coffee at him, quick as that because no one else was here so early. Jared didn't dare protest eating what his gut was trying to keep him from even smelling.

Jensen slipped his foot from the gas and coasted to idle just past the pick-up window. He killed one coffee and threw the cup at Jared's feet, popped the lid on a second and snugged it between his legs then rolled two pancakes around several strips of bacon. He considered it but didn't take a bite, seemed to be mulling what the hell to do about all of this.

"I promised them you wouldn't do anything this stupid again so they let me just take you. Don't make me regret that."

Jared nodded and briefly squeezed his eyes closed, nibbled at his hashbrowns for something to occupy his hands and miserable thoughts. Jensen nodded in his periphery, ate the pancake-bacon roll in a few dense chews, and Jared retreated to the corner of the cab and watched the sepia and sand Texas countryside blur by.

He imagined Jensen getting a call to come collect his fuck-up half brother and having to do it, on top of everything else, middle of the night. He burned with shame and relief that Jensen had found him, was so damned relieved that Jensen had come and gotten him and they were going home. It would be hours until they were there, and Jared leaned into the door, trying to hide and be unobtrusive and settle his stomach, from nerves and the leftover lurch of all that beer he'd drained.

"How'd they know to call you?"

For a while there was nothing to indicate Jensen had even heard him or wasn't simply ignoring his very existence, only the hum of the tires and the rattle-trap noises the truck had earned during its hard years his answer. Jared crammed the last of the hashbrown in, had to chew mouth-open around it then uncomfortably swallow too-big pieces, fought a gag after the last one was tough going down. At least it kept him from babbling anything else equally useless.

When the road widened to follow a slow sloping curve, Jensen cursed and pulled the truck onto the shoulder, cut the engine and twisted to glare at him. His tone was that biting cold fury that he'd only before used with Dad, and it made Jared feel a hundred times smaller and a million times worse.

"Because I've been calling every goddamn police and sheriff station here to the border and back looking for you. Because they had your description and name and instructions to call me even if it meant I had to come collect a corpse. You're just lucky I'm more relieved at finding you than still angry that you ran away and stayed gone so long that I haven't wrung your neck."

Jared shivered, hadn't once thought about Jensen missing him like that, pacing or preoccupied or even much worried. He nodded hastily, clenched his hands and sucked in a breath, then braved looking at Jensen.

"What about Dad?" Jared said it so easily--Dad--and the lie of it wounded past reproach.

Jensen's eyes dimmed and he shifted focus, shrugged and watched a semi approach from the opposite direction. "He had to go, money to be made up north bronc busting. He uh, he said to say something about not wanting you gone and to come home--that of course it's still your home--once I'd found you."

That was as much a lie, Jared knew outright, felt it in his bones. Dad had gone and the only reaction to Jared's storming out had probably been self-pity and excuses, leaving Jensen with all the responsibility and every worry. Again. Like always. Same as Jared had his life over resented past reason in his father, then so callously had up and done.

Jared wrenched his door open and burst from the truck, stumbled a heavy step into the grass then dropped to his knees, absolutely did puke. He gagged violently after dry heaving one too many times, spit, crawled along the shoulder to get away from the mess. He dropped onto his ass and sat there, head hung between his veed legs and his arms slung on his knees, gave up and despised everything.

"Here."

Jensen pressed their shared and battered, gunmetal gray thermos into his hand, watched and waited while Jared took several small, experimental sips of water. He huffed, managed to take a deeper drink, set the thermos beside him and nodded that he'd be alright.

"You want my last pancake?" Jensen settled onto the asphalt next to Jared, quirked a tired half-grin, eyes bloodshot and distant and the first thing Jared had thought to ask about was Dad.

Jared started to cry, to outright bawl, clawed at Jensen and snuffled in close, snotted Jensen's shoulder and chest as he fought to breathe and apologize and make Jensen maybe not hate him as much as he hated himself.

"I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm so sorry Jensen, I--"

"Shhhhh," Jensen soothed, let him ramble and apologize on a demented loop. "We're gonna get home, figure this out. It's okay. I was just worried but I'm glad--we're going to be okay. It's fine."

It wasn't, hardly, and he'd gone and run and left Jensen to find something that didn't even exist, Tex and worthless dreams and the fantasy that out there was a place he could find to belong that didn't bother or burden anyone.

The thought of Tex, the impersonal betrayal and mundane reality, bent Jared's sobs into defeated whimpers. He clutched Jensen's tee and waited to be abandoned, couldn't figure the world would be so kind as to open up beneath them and let him disappear whole.

"You can go," he whispered. "You should go."

Jensen massaged his neck, drew him in for a tighter hug, rocked them and sighed. "Came all this way, Jared, going home just the same. No reason not to take you with me."

Jared didn't correct or say that wasn't what he meant. Jensen seemed clear in knowing it. Jensen dragged them standing and got Jared back in the truck, stood in the open door for a long while then nodded.

"It's always been my job to take care of you, and I aim to, no matter what else. Hear me?"

Jared couldn't stand an argument or having to say anything more so he bit his lip, nodded back at Jensen abstractly, and then Jensen slammed the door firmly shut and got them going again.

Morning bent and heated into noon then afternoon, and the distance and hours home seemed protracted but all too brief, because once home he couldn't stare straight ahead and not deal with reality or Jensen's disapproval. Jared counted mile markers and road signs avidly, couldn't shake the idea that this was the last he and Jensen would have together, even while he was desperate to shower and get into clean clothes and pretend everything was the same as it'd always been, wouldn't change.

Probably not an hour left of the day and half that long until sunset, they pulled up the drive. Jensen didn't even get the truck into park before Jared had grabbed his backpack and hat, then hurried inside, thoughts a delirious mix of furiously planning ahead for when Jensen was gone and too wrung-out to be able to focus on any one thing. He stripped while walking to the bathroom, endured a scalding shower downbent and leaning apathetically against the wall, wished whatever he was soon to lose and had done could be solved as easily as the funk and grime of the past several days washed away.

He plodded to his room and forced boxers and a worn-thin tee over his wet skin, threw himself exhaustedly into bed and curled in a ball, watched the sun as it set without any reluctance. He left the door open, just in case Jensen wanted to check on him, and so he could still hear Jensen knocking around the house.

Jared always fancied the world could change when the sun was like this, some kinda magic after the harsh truth of a normal day but before the ending of it with night. He'd stopped thinking it could actually happen other than his imagination, watched how the sky forgot and abandoned blue in a warped-over thickening of orange and blush-pink and high-lofted beams while the sun gave its last and the moon presented, and nothing changed.

The slanted bands of the next day's sun found him without remorse, was intrusive for no better reason than Jared had no interest in getting up and pretending, in watching as Jensen pulled away from him--here or gone to school he resonated with surety it'd happen, either way. He'd slept until eight, not nearly enough, grimaced at his comfortable assumption to saddle up Tex and go for a ride.

The phone rang and he flashed over with dire premonition. Jared snuck into the hall and on the phone, listened long enough to hear Mr Yates greet Jensen booming and big, then launch into extolling the college's virtues and beginning to warm Jensen up to the idea of saying yes.

He hung up, resigned, didn't want to hear any more. He went back to bed and shut the door, wondered how to make it work so he could stay here alone without social services interfering.

Jared instinctively wanted to break outside, to the hidden, hay-scented dark of the barn, but he stayed. This time, don't run. Not like Dad--that man--always did, and Jared had always tried to emulate so blindly. If Jensen was leaving, Jared had no choice but to stay, because there'd be nowhere from there to go and no reason to hide.

The agony of following Jensen's muffled conversation absorbed him completely in sad resolution, so it was almost a surprise when he heard Jensen's polite goodbye and the plastic clack of the phone falling into its cradle. He sighed, curled into a tighter ball when Jensen approached, footsteps light but carrying a certainty in action.

He pushed his forehead to the wall and pretended not to notice when the bed dipped under Jensen's weight. But he was helpless to stay passive when Jensen's arm fell around his waist and the warmth of Jensen flushed true and all against behind him. Jared willingly let himself be dragged into Jensen, tipped his head forward into his pillow as a last show of defiance.

"You should have listened to the whole call." Jensen whuffed soft laughter under Jared's ear, and it made them both shiver.

Jared stiffened and tried to squirm free, but Jensen only used his movement to an advantage, got them grappled around so Jared was laid out and Jensen could fit over him. Jensen grinned at Jared, red-faced and pouting.

He stopped grinning when their eyes met and he saw Jared's desolation. The whole of Jensen softened, and he cupped Jared's cheek in one hand, lowering at the same time, drew them into a side-by-side embrace and just breathed against Jared's forehead for awhile.

Jared waited to be told the news. He braced himself for impact, searched for then readied words into responses that would make sense and not sound petulant or needy or scared shitless. Jensen rubbed slow circles on his back and he relaxed despite himself, ended up drowsing in Jensen's steady absorption and his words unraveled.

"Jared?"

He nodded, didn't want to leave the security or hide of being tucked into Jensen's chest. Didn't want to move and have it be the last time he'd be held like this. Jensen let him be but kept talking.

"Yates said he got my application, that my being accepted is just a formality--it's a done deal. He also said Black Beauty had always been a favorite book of his, too, really liked my essay on it. But it's funny because I don't remember sending the application. Don't think I ever even read that book, either."

Jared hummed noncommittally, wouldn't meet Jensen's eyes during a thoughtful, ominous pause.

"I said yes. And it's a full ride--I get to play ball again." Jensen smiled to tease, knew Jared had done this for him, was brimming over with excited anticipation and pride.

Jared pulled his arms into his chest and forced some separation between them. He shook his head, laughed low and hollow with sadness and regret and all he'd never be able to offer Jensen to entice Jensen to stay.

"I can get my driver's license soon and Da--" He ate the word back, huffed, impatient with himself. "Maybe you can, I don't know, work something out so someone can check on me, and since you showed me how to make tuna casserole I'll be fine." Jared smiled tremulously. "I can even do laundry, so, no big deal."

He couldn't say he was happy for Jensen, couldn't quite contain the heavy certainty that this was exactly what Jensen should be doing.

Jensen frowned and reached for him, but Jared evaded, hiccuped short and strange. He sat up, fought to get up and over Jensen's hip so he could escape. Always escaping--even his resolve fleeing his inner reserves--running and running, because that's all he knew or had learned.

But Jensen wasn't in the mood, wouldn't brook Jared's by rote habit to run any more. Proved to be the only person strong and important and tied to all this, powerfully enough, could finally overcome this wild and stubborn insistence into relenting. Jensen smothered him down onto the bed squashed and helpless in two breathless moves.

Jared got an arm loose and wheeled it weakly, landed it against the wall and used it as leverage, pushed at Jensen futilely with his hips and trapped hand. He grunted, strained, then subsided when his air ran out.

They lay in silence, Jared buried under Jensen's weight trying not to notice the bend of Jensen's thigh against his crotch and the span of Jensen's hand on his hip. The clock in the living room chimed the half-hour.

"You done?" Jensen asked, steely with resolve, moved enough to let Jared nod. Then he dunked to the side again, and gathered Jared back to him.

Jared was done. Tired of this, of their fighting without fighting, and no longer seeming to know or understand Jensen anymore--lost to being the burden, the outsider and the object--rather than a brother or even a friend. He was tired of not knowing if he'd ever be more to Jensen or if that very idea would horrify Jensen, the way Jared thought it probably should him but simply didn't.

Did Jensen obsess about their kiss? About the way Jared slotted so perfectly to Jensen's rangy frame? About how even, when taunting and pissed at each other, they were a better fit than anything or anyone else Jared had ever known? Jared did. The way his lips still burned, the way his body ached to its core when they weren't together, the reasons he was inexorably bound to everything Jensen, all messed up and push-pull.

"Good. You gonna listen to me now?"

"Mmmmph," Jared offered, stayed there right next to Jensen, nerveless and immobile with fear and frantic attempts to cocoon himself from this.

Jensen sighed, outlined the ridge of Jared's ear, moved in and turned funny until Jared had to look at him.

"How do you feel about moving to Kansas?"

Jared's lips finally forgot that burn because they went numb. His pulse stuttered and he started, thump-thump throbbing back to life again, then stared wide-eyed.

"What?" he asked eventually, almost no sound to his voice, remembered Yates saying the very same to Jensen, fanned his hands on Jensen's chest and was amazed that Jensen's heartbeat was so steady.

"Yates didn't call me out of the blue," Jensen began to explain, conciliatory and realizing Jared needed more.

"We all got lucky on this one. This was one of the schools I'd applied to end of my senior year--they couldn't compete with the big universities that'd tried to recruit me I had to turn down--but things have changed and they're still interested. And I'm still interested."

Jensen tickled along Jared's fallen bangs, combed them back, gaze so warm and glad to share these disappointments amended, made disbelievingly whole.

"Kansas is far enough away to get outta here without going across the world, and I like the baseball coach and the numbers their team put up over the years. Even being smaller, it gets its fair share of league scouting. I also liked that they have an equestrian program--something I was sure to ask about the first time around."

Jared could only continue to stare.

"I thought then, like I told Yates on the phone, that I had responsibilities I couldn't just forget about. A brother who'd come with me, and I'd have to find something to keep him outta trouble." Jensen started to smile again, leaned in expectantly like he thought Jared would have an answer. "You always have been good with horses, and for whatever reason they seem to like you, too."

Jared curled his fingers in Jensen's tee, waited for the inevitable drop. Jensen rolled his eyes.

"I'm taking you with me and you're going to have a job this summer, then after school, helping in the stables or whatever. I told Yates that's the only way I'd accept, and he said okay. We'll sell this place--I don't care what Dad thinks otherwise--find an apartment or a trailer or even a house, doesn't matter. And I'll go to class and play ball and take care of you, 'cause you're only all mine."

They watched one another in silence, a beat, then longer, then Jensen finally jostled Jared.

"Geeze Jared, do you get what I'm saying or not?"

Jensen sounded so normal and exasperated it kicked into Jared, made him laugh, pried into his disbelief until it started to fall away.

"When do we leave?" was all he could think to say, but it seemed to be right--finally so right--because Jensen's eyes danced. Then they were kissing, just like that, hot and feverish, and Jensen's hands tugged furiously at Jared's shirt.

Jared whined, tilted onto his back and their kiss pulled, separated far enough so their mouths barely brushed. Jared bent and twisted out of his shirt, left it knotted around his wrist so he could flick his tongue out and stroke the bow of Jensen's top lip.

He shuddered when Jensen hummed happily and slicked them into a deeper, angled kiss, widened his legs to invite Jensen in. When Jensen didn't immediately sidle close, Jared fumbled his arm up and knuckled Jensen's shirt and grunted a protest into his mouth.

Jensen only laughed, traced the lines of Jared's ribs and collarbone, slinked the snagged tee free from Jared's wrist then shouldered his own shirt off and tossed them to the floor. He boosted and thumbed from his sweats, Jared not able to do anything but stare at Jensen's cock, hard and wet and mouth watering.

It was going to go too fast, way too fast, and Jared could only go with it at speed, didn't fight the roar in his ears or the urgent throb of his veins. He dug his fingers into Jensen's shoulders and arched up, ground them together and into a bruising kiss. He furled his hand through Jensen's hair, skimmed down to get a handful of Jensen's ass, huffed impatiently when Jensen's hips lifted and at the idea that Jensen would go slow with getting Jared's shorts off.

He kept a restive hand skimming and searching Jensen's back, wrenched sideways enough to rip the snaps on his boxers, pushed his head back and moaned when their dicks and his hand and their bodies mashed all together, sweaty and sticky and trembly-perfect. Jared tore his hand free then started thrusting against Jensen, bit Jensen's lip and groaned, threw his legs to loop Jensen's thighs, tightened them impossibly closer with the hook of his heels.

Jensen didn't try to slow him now, just answered his thrusts and bites and thrumming readiness, tipped back to press and hold his hips in place on the mattress so they could rut into each other harder. The bed thwacked the wall, bobbled the rickety little table Jared had beside it, knocked his reading lamp to the floor.

Jared's whole body wracked on edge and he wanted to come, needed to come, did when Jensen teethed the too-tight skin on his jaw and told him to come. He jerked and twitched and came in a bending rush and glorious freefall mess, felt raw, over-sensitive, wonderfully strafed and exposed beneath Jensen's touch. He wasn't afraid that this was already spent, didn't have to be, the only desperation they'd share now the desire to do it again.

He panted and held onto Jensen's shoulders, forced his eyes open so he could watch Jensen come, clacked their teeth together when he couldn't wait for Jensen to finish before they kissed again. Jensen came just as messy and ragged as Jared had, coiled into stillness for a tightly sprung moment, then he let out a rush of breath, landed into Jared's arms. Jared pulled him in, so much to offer, his own power of acceptance and embrace, so much more besides.

The clock eventually interrupted again, long and sonorous telling them it was eleven. It felt later--felt like days had passed--distortion of time a welcome refuge at last. Jared was deliciously content and breathless and Jensen rubbed at his lip with a thumb, stared at him heavy-lidded and settled. Jared smiled, replete, in no hurry.

Jensen's focus landed on the necklace Jared still wore, and his smile grew. He tapped the thunderbird, blushed and skimmed his fingers over the leather cord, confirmed for Jared everything about how it'd been given.

Jared blushed, too.

He imagined differently. What was real. Packing the bits and pieces they might want from here, that nobody would miss them or argue their leaving or demand to know where they'd venture. After they'd gone they'd be more or less forgotten, and that was probably for the best. Dad wasn't a bad guy but he'd never been any sort of father, either, aside from having one indiscretion with their mother and tolerating her second as his own.

He thought about them in the old truck, cozy and rumbling country roads as they made their way to Kansas; the motel they'd stay in while they looked for somewhere to live, the actual house he decided he wanted them to find; then the routine they'd settle into while they settled into each other, better and what both of them deserved.

Jared would do more than like working with the horses. He'd make good on Jensen's pride, trust, need for him.

"I have to be there in ten days. Think you'd be ready by then?"

Jensen looked worried, and like always, as if he'd change the world around if Jared wasn't sure.

"We could go now," Jared offered, had discovered that whole new place to be he'd so long yearned for, confident and heady and sweet. Somewhere good, safe with triumph and no reason for pity, Jensen wholly belonging to him same as he was Jensen's. He slid his leg so it teased up then over Jensen's, let it hang on the rise of Jensen's hip.

Jensen chuckled, brushed Jared's hair this way and that, nosed Jared's temple and shook his head.

"We gotta at least take the time to pack my cleats and your books. Then we can go."

"When you said you had more claim--that's what you meant, wasn't it? About Dad, but us being brothers."

Jared's blush deepened, changed; he still hadn't quite reasoned that they were, and yet how he craved that Jensen would stay exactly that and be anything but brotherly. Wasn't certain of Jensen wanting it, too, but there it seemed to be, more sure than anything Jared had ever felt.

"That, and how I want to have the most claim on you. If you'd just stayed to hear me out on all this a few days ago, we would've skipped you running and making me near out of my mind. But I don't plan to hold it against you, seeing as it's ending like I want."

Jensen tilted into Jared and closed their eyes together, faces tucked so intimately, never to let go. "Couldn't ever just leave you here, couldn't leave without being able to keep you with me. It's more than I should want from you, but it's the honest truth."

Jared lost his breath, captured every last bit of his heart, crowded in for another long kiss. Jensen indulged, wanted so much too, kissed him back.

-*_*_*_*_*-

Two days later and Jared was ready to go, wouldn't be running this time.

They'd spent those days eating the frozen dinners and defining their goodbyes to this place. Made out on the couch, the back porch, Jensen's bigger bed.

Jensen didn't know what it'd take to sell the house but said he didn't worry. He would list it and leave it and whatever happened, happened. The only responsibility he had anymore was coming with him, and he wouldn't tell Dad until they were long gone. Jared couldn't even be afraid or think it unfair--might never fully reconcile knowing that wasn't his father or who his father even was--and how, with everything changed, he didn't have it in him to care.

It took them all of a day to pack, and they covered the truck bed with a tarp tied down, filled with their best double mattress set and dresser, drawers stuffed with quilts and blankets and pots and pans, their old bike and the one side table Jared had always liked. The pittance of what remained that was truly theirs, in clothes and collections, needed the least space, tucked neatly in one box each.

Jensen walked the property, locked up the barn and outbuildings and shut off the water main, made sure it was a place that could be forgotten. Jared made sandwiches and sliced apples, put them along with snackcakes and cookies in a plastic bag. Then he shoved all the remainder of their food into a few sacks and waited at the counter, almost breathless, nervy and restless with excitement and hope.

Jensen found him, slung a gentle, strong arm across Jared's shoulders and turned him, stayed so they stood in the kitchen staring into the living room, and their bedrooms beyond. A moment later Jared nodded, turned in to kiss the soft skin under the line of Jensen's jaw with a blush and a low laugh, moved from Jensen to collect what was left to carry to the truck.

When they stepped off the porch Jared felt no urge to look back.

The truck revved without complaint as the driveway gave into road, straight-shot past fields and acres of bored cattle. It led to a T-intersection they'd never been to before. Jensen glanced at Jared, grinned and reached over to snag Jared's jeans, tugged them closer together, and Jared grinned to match. Then Jensen underhanded the steering wheel, gave it a 5-to-11 spin, and took them to Kansas.

by maichan ♥