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Prologue || Atlanta

Jensen took everything in. He was sitting just to the left of all the bucking chutes, butt balanced on the top rail, one foot crossed over the other stretched in front of him. He'd ridden well in round one, and that was a considerable part of his good mood, but he could also admit that sometimes it really was just a thrill to be here.

It was near the end of the second round and the arena was hopping, crowd and cowboys alike rollicking and excited to be part of the kick-off event that started another season. Rock music and pop-country blared from the sound system, bulls stomped and snorted, and riders milled and waited for their turn, watched their buddies try. Jensen preferred the rock, didn't hate pop-country, would take Merle or Johnny over whatever slick Nashville act any day.

Mike clowned around on the dirt, climbed the outer ring of fencing and jumped from barrels, had the audience in laughing confusion trying to match then follow his crazy dance-and-clap routine. He'd get John in on the act and they'd banter for the crowd, give John a chance to crack a few jokes and say hello before settling into the announcer's chair. Mike always called John Mr Schneider Sir, said it was respect for his elders and a six time all-around rodeo champ. Everyone knew he was being a shit, especially John, but then it was just Mike, so there wasn't much to really mind.

Tom had just finished his out, made the buzzer by the skin of his teeth, sideways on the bull but his hand still in the riding rope, his feet still spurring. He'd managed to squeak an 81 on Kryptonite and with that had tenuous hold of first place, the only cowboy so far to ride two bulls. It wouldn't last if anyone after covered their bull and got a better score, but like any good rider, Tom was just glad to have made it count and looked to push through to the short-go.

Jensen had admired the grit, watched the ride and determined where he'd have done different, probably better. Last to ride were the top five finishers from round one--Chris, Jensen, kept company by Chad, Gabe and Justin--and Tom's out meant it was almost time for him to go.

Jensen wasn't nervous, never had been his way to fret before or during a meet. All the jitters had a bad habit of storing up and biding quietly until it was all over, then they'd bust out of his too-tightly held seams, had him restless and aggravated late Sunday nights, hours after his last ride. He had never accepted an event as worthwhile without making the final round--he was here to ride every bull and win--so he'd get especially ornery after a weekend gone sour that ended for him ahead of the short-go.

Chris called it his 'witching hour.' Also called him pissy and too demanding, asked how he managed to ride with that pole stuck so far up his ass. Jensen didn't care or know what to call it, just knew no one wanted around him, were happy to put a several-hundred mile and six-day distance between them before they met for another weekend of bullriding.

Jensen would be in no sorts for their company besides, so after events where he didn't ride like he should, it was best he stick with quick exits and brooding solitude.

Chris used to be his travel partner and roommate--near six years gone, now--brought Jensen along when he was newly qualified to join the Professional Bull Riding circuit. He'd been taken under Chris' wing and guided through his first professional forays, 18 and fresh on scene and it'd been a blessing to have someone as seasoned and tempered to this big show as Chris. Jensen had relied on that more than he'd have expected, and Chris hadn't minded teasing and taming his rookie arrogance. In the end they'd agreed one season had been enough, when all the green was gone and Jensen's natural independence reasserted. After the finals, a lot of beer and a heartfelt thank you, he'd kept to his own, and Chris hadn't begrudged that.

Jensen and Chris each had their ideas about riding, what was vital and what could just be let go. Chris said he was uptight and Jensen thought Chris didn't have near enough try. One day Jensen would be done with this and he had plans, big plans, for where to move on. Chris was content to ride a few bulls, charm the rodeo bunnies and crash at his folks' Oklahoma ranch. But they were still close, had found good rapport and rhythm, gave each other a lot of well-intentioned shit over just about anything. Got along, had simply found going about their business separately was the better wisdom, stuck to that without need for argument.

"Ready JR?" Chris grabbed the back of Jensen's belt and hauled him from his seat then pushed him started forward.

Jensen shook his head. "Well, I expect so now." Not much choice anyway.

They walked together, made for the chutes to get ready for their rides. Chris slowed and reached out, slapped a hand on Tom's shoulder, busy tying his riding rope to one of the many fencing sections that created the bullriding set and staging area.

"Think the judges had their eyes closed those last two seconds."

Tom grinned. "You're just sore because you haven't muscled hanging on since time before last of being here." He looped his rope and gave it a tug, left it to hang in a neat knot. The cowbell tied in to weigh one end swayed and clanked into the fence. "Case you're not up to the math, that's two years ago, cowboy. You really should give this up 'fore it kills you, old man."

Chris shifted his grip and took firm hold of Tom's vest, gave Tom a good shake, cut them across the back platform to the chute where the stock handlers were loading in Chris' bull.

"That's what this one keeps hinting." He poked a thumb backwards at Jensen.

They all shared a grin, then paused to watch when Lindberg, wrapped in and good to go, yelled from his chute and shot from the gate.

Floggin' Molly darted a quick left, shouldered Lind--shortened moniker he hated but was better than Other Chad or dickhead--hard into a metal corral post. The crowd groaned and Jensen winced. Chris laughed, sharp and unapologetic, laced with the sympathy of knowing exactly how such a thing feels. Lind was peeled off in the next second, landed on his feet after a flailing, flying leap. He staggered and blindly ran to the nearest fencing he could find, clambered up and waited while the bullfighters distracted Molly and got the bull safely out of the dirt-covered arena, through the stock gate and to the back holding pens.

They shook their heads, muttered shared opinions on the likelihood of Lind not surviving the first cut at quarter-season that'd send some riders tumbling from the top ranks back to the lower circuits, then Tom nodded.

"Alright. Show us what you got, fogey."

Chris snickered. "Well shove over and make room, pretty boy."

Jensen laughed when Tom huffed then blushed, definitely a pretty boy and definitely didn't like it to be pointed out. Ever. He punched Tom's arm with a grin. "I got this one. Geezer duty's all mine, no need to worry your little head."

"Better you than me with that bull--and the rider." Best Tom could come up with, probably, so he fell back against the rail next to Justin and crossed his arms, shook his head and shooed them away.

Nice guy. About as interesting as a hunk of split firewood, but a nice guy. Jensen grinned, imagined how much worse would have been said if it weren't for the ever-present cameras that seemed to find you no matter what, especially when you least wanted them around. It wasn't that the audience couldn't handle some good-fun cussing and nonsense, but the network had asked it be kept clean. Cowboys were polite to everybody except one another, and no one else would hear different.

Steve was at Tom's other side, tipped a finger to his hat in mock salute. Jensen thunked Steve on the shoulder then followed Chris to the fourth chute.

Devil's Own stood in the tight space, whites of his eyes flashing crazy, slimy strands of spit and snot clinging to his snout that'd give fly when he thrashed. Ten outs and he'd only been ridden once, bucked mean then ran unpredictable and wild, and each time he was put in the chute that gave some cowboy the chance at being one of the few to beat him. Whenever you could manage to gather up a bull like that you stood to land one hell of a high score. Or land on the dirt then in the hospital.

Chris rolled up the sleeve of his riding arm--the right--buttoned it back then slapped his bicep and grinned. He folded his chaps back then slung his leg over the chute, caught the gate opposite with his boot, then lifted his other leg over to stand straddled above Devil's Own.

"This bull probably is gonna kill you." Jensen winked and stepped up a rung, hung over into the chute and grabbed hold of Chris' riding rope, kept it steady as Chris worked it around the bull's middle. Once in place he gave it a hard, steady pull, went up on tip-toe, shuffled his hold and pulled again.

Chris grunted then smirked from under his hat and shook a quick tilt of his head. "Likely. Least I still look good." He licked his lips and held his breath, nodded once quick. "Let's just hope I stay alive long enough to make good on the ride money. After that I can die falling off."

Jensen snorted, laughed anyway, gave a last hard tug on the rope then handed the end over to Chris. He leaned further in, wrapped his fingers at the back of Chris' vest, splayed his other hand on Chris' chest. He tapped once, right over the Skoal emblem Chris had been damned near giddy to land. "Make 'em proud now. Don't pussy out and let Devil's Own beat you."

Their eyes met and Chris held it, knew exactly what Jensen meant. Instead of anything to that he said, "After this fucker throws my ass, be a sport and get out there, scrape my hide from the dirt."

"So long as I don't have to scrape the dirt from your hide."

Chris' grin widened. "JR man, I swear." He laughed. "You're on. Asshole."

Jensen grinned and tilted back into his heels, cleared away from the chute but kept hold of Chris. Devil's Own was big, ugly and unruly, a known head-hunter. He bit his lip and hoped Chris got the ride, the ride money, then got out unscathed. Every cowboy thought it every time, and it was always worth the thinking.

They jostled forward then back and forward again, bone-jarring rattles as Devil's Own bounced and bucked in the chute. Jensen's hips bruised against the top bar and he grimaced, but didn't loosen until Gabe had gotten Devil's Own back to a standstill. Soon as Devil's Own had started making trouble other cowboys had crowded around the chute, ensured that Chris stayed safe and tried to get everything settled and good to ride.

Jensen grunted in thanks and nodded at Gabe, made his fingers open from their punishing hold and reached for Chris' rope, wanted to tighten and set it again. Chris waved him away.

"Screw it. Won't get any easier, feels good enough." Chris shifted, tugged the rope over his palm and punched his fingers bent full around it. He stuffed his mouth guard in and gave Jensen a blackened grin, then gripped the top rail of the gate, nodded and called, "Okay okay--let's go!"

Jensen stayed with Chris as the gate operators shuffled, watched the latch rope pull taut then go slack as the gate popped open. He held on as Devil's Own reared back into the chute then bolted forward, let go when the bull lurched onto open dirt. They took air almost immediately, followed on form as Jensen had expected. First a jump left into Chris' hand, then a jolt right, then Devil's Own would get into a nasty spin complete with whip-kicks at each turn to try and launch the rider as many feet as could be gained.

Thing was Chris never listened to Jensen's figuring on these bulls. "I run on instinct, boy," Jensen muttered, dark echo of Chris' sure and belligerent words. Jensen never believed instinct was enough, but couldn't argue it'd gotten Chris this far.

Devil's Own leapt and Chris was slung sideways and up the bull's back. He managed to keep his seat, didn't slap. Then the bull staggered hard and twisted and Chris still hadn't corrected from the first buck, fell more and more behind. Jensen watched every feint and heave and hoped instinct got Chris just a bit further.

Nervous sweat prickled to itch Jensen's neck and he drummed his fingers on the rail, whispered past clenched teeth, "C'mon, c'mon hold it hold it c'mon."

It wasn't even four seconds when Chris was thrown, front end over. He came off his rope and tried to bail, grimaced as his far leg was snapped over Devil's Own's neck when the bull suddenly changed direction, jerked up then bore down.

Chris hit dirt shoulder-in and he rolled into a ball. Devil's Own went after him with one nubbed horn, missed then tilted, gored Chris into the dirt with the other. Chris managed to push onto his hands, boots washing the dirt, left leg flopping uselessly with visible pain that sent him back down. Devil's Own kicked, barrel-twisted, whumped Chris solidly into the ground.

The crowd had already surged to their feet. They gasped then held it in, anxiety and fascination, and it felt like all the sound and air was sucked from the arena.

The bullfighters were doing their best to protect Chris from further harm. Scott and Sterling circled the rampage in the opposite direction, batted at the bull's horns and flanks, shouted at Chris to get moving and to distract Devil's Own. Jeff kept trying to roll in underneath and make a grab for Chris, took a hard shot to his sternum that sent him sprawled back several feet as Devil's Own reared in pursuit.

Chris' body clunked awkwardly when the bull clamored over him, hooves heavy on Chris' legs and middle. Sean galloped in from the far side of the arena, horse's ears flattened and unhappy, lasso in hand and twirling. A last stomp between Chris' shoulder blades and Devil's Own snorted, flicked his tail, then he trotted smugly towards the back stock gate.

Sean roped Devil's Own for good measure, let the rope go to be dragged out with the bull, circled back to shield the heap of broken rider and the bullfighters with the broad of his horse.

The moment Devil's Own was cleared Jensen charged into action. He ran across the platform behind the chutes and took the stairs down in a single jump, heart in his throat and the beaten, balled form of Chris burned to his eyes. Chris hadn't even tried to get away, and that was never a good sign. Rule one after going down is never stop, get up and run, even if you can't tell your head from your ass. Jim sped out ahead of him, motioned for the backboard and brace but didn't pause. Jensen rounded past the rider gate hard on Jim's heels, and as his boot scraped the dirt he swallowed down the burn of bile.

Chris wasn't moving but he was breathing, steady if unsettlingly shallow rise of chest and midsection. Jensen came close but kept to the side, absently took Chris' hat when Jeff handed it over. It'd been bent in half by a hoof print, crown crushed in and caked with dirt.

He knelt at Chris' side and waited, listened to Jim poke and prod and ask the customary battery of questions, the seamless, soothing prattle. Mike was just behind him, hands on hips, and all the bullfighters had gathered in a loose cluster to wait this out. Jeff had regained his breath and Sterling was going to have a good shiner from the tussle, but they all looked to be okay.

John talked to the audience, reminded them just how tough this sport was, but that as they all knew, each one of these cowboys here was a lot tougher. He said not to worry, because Doc Beaver was the best around, but please spare a thought or a prayer. It sounded far away and unreal, something barely heard as you traveled quickly past and kept on by.

Chris choked and coughed, and Doc held him in place with a strongly weighted hand. The rest of the medical team showed up and Jensen shuffled further back as they braced Chris' neck then rolled him onto the backboard.

"Do you know where you are? Chris, can you talk to me son? Don't try to move now we've got you, you're okay. Do you remember what day it is, why you're here? How about your back, how's that feel? Anything hurting in your spine, neck or your ribs?"

"Georgia. 'M in Georgia, bullriding." Chris blinked and slitted a wry grin. "Leastwise, that was the idea." His words were slurred and slow.

Jim pried Chris' eyelids back to check his pupils, felt carefully along Chris' shoulders. "How you feeling?"

Chris couldn't focus on Jim's finger so he tried to sit up. "Like I've been run over by a bull. Hurts a bit but I'm fine. Ain't worth all this big deal. Just let me go and help me outta here." Halfway sat up he winced, grabbed at his ribs then dropped back down.

"Second thoughts?" Jim raised a brow and smiled then shook his head. "We'll get you out of here--you just sit tight."

"Rather walk," Chris rasped, threw a pleading look Jensen's way.

Jensen pressed his palm in the air and shook his head. "Nothing doing, old man. If you'd have just stuck, you wouldn't be here like this. Take what you get."

What he meant was you scared the shit out of me, let them take care of you. Mike grasped Jensen's arm and heaved him to a stand, clear of his spurs and against the dreaded weight of fear. He nodded in thanks and went back to worrying his lip and the brim of Chris' hat.

Chris closed his eyes and let out a long sigh, wordless acquiescence. Mike leaned over and patted his arm then turned around, ran around to reassure and distract the crowd. Jensen stood in place and watched Chris get carted away. Something was said and the audience clapped, supportive and hopeful, and it was still dull and muffled in his ears.

He looked over, blinked when Jeff's hand fell heavy at his nape. "Thanks," he said, tipped Chris' hat in his hands. Jeff would have apologized for not taking a harder hit or prying Chris out of there good enough, but Jensen shook his head. No way. Sometimes it's just like this, no way.

"You still going?" Jeff walked Jensen to the side gate, hustled him clear of the dirt so everything could reset before the next cowboy went.

Jensen stared at Chris' hat and considered it, no question. "Yup." He had to. It's what they did.

Jeff pointed at Chris' hat. "Put that somewhere safe. He'll want it later." He thumped Jensen's back then pushed, set them both moving. "Get on over, then. You're second after Chad. Watch your bull, too--gonna break left when you least expect it after you're thinking he's into his spin."

Jensen managed a smile, didn't watch after Jeff's return back into the ring with the other bullfighters. That was as far as they'd risk saying outright Chris would be fine, the only acknowledgement that Chris might never be right again. He ignored the cameraman that tracked his progress and stuffed Chris' hat under his arm, willed himself up the short run of stairs and onto the platform.

Jensen focused on the chute where his bull stood waiting, cleared his mind and tried not to think of how bad it had looked, if Chris would make it or if this would be the ride when the same happened to him.

\\ // \\ // \\ // \\

"I'm here with our top finisher--and current world leader!--JR Ackles. Congratulations on winning Atlanta. That has to feel good to get such a good start on the season. This is only the second event in, and you've done well by yourself, but you also had to stand by when Chris got thrown by Devil's Own. How difficult is it to see a friend wreck like that?"

"Well, as you can guess, it's not fun. But injury is a risk we all knowingly take every time we get in the chute. Just part of the game and we all accept that."

Lauren nodded avidly and Jensen kept his hands in his pockets, stared somewhere just left of the camera lens.

"Doctor Jim Beaver's preliminary report has Chris out for a good part of the season, possibly the duration."

"Yeah well Doc does great work, as we all know. We're lucky to have him and his team looking after us. As for Chris--he's tough. He'll heal up and be ready to ride again in no time." He sounded like he meant it, shifted to try and dislodge the hand she'd rested on his arm.

"Let's talk about you for a minute, cowboy." Lauren laughed and patted Jensen. "Last year you took Vegas but finished third in the overall standings. I heard this year your eye's on the buckle. Any thoughts how you'll get there?"

Jensen cleared his throat and shrugged. "Just gotta ride my bulls. We say that every time but it's always true. You get a bull, don't matter, you gotta ride him. If I cover my bulls--especially with these great, rank ones the contractors are bringing to each event--then I'm doing my job. And if I do my job, well, I stand a good chance of winning."

"Keep it up like you handled your three this weekend and I say you'll get there!" Lauren smiled and tilted her head at the camera then looked back at Jensen. "It's been an up and down event, and this young season already filled with excitement, between your grabbing such a strong early lead, then having your good friend and one-time travel partner get so badly injured."

"Well. Yes." Jensen nodded. "Yes ma'am. That's bullriding for you."

Lauren elbowed Jensen playfully. "Of course a question on everyone's mind for this season is if Wayward Son will finally get ridden, and who'll be the first cowboy to do it! I know you two have some history, even a bit of bad blood. You've come closest of any cowboy to qualifying on Wayward Son, but even that hasn't gotten you there! Feeling any sense of vendetta?"

"Ah, I wouldn't go so far as that, though I wouldn't mind matching up with him again. Wayward Son has been just such a tough out, each and every time. I mean, he's such a great bull, and it's like he knows what you're thinking before you, and of course, that doesn't help when you're trying to ride him. Just know any cowboy who gets him stands to get a huge score."

"I'm sure you wouldn't mind being that cowboy! You matched with him twice last season, right?" Lauren raised a brow.

"Twice, yes ma'am."

"And each resulted in a buck-off, one that ended in a pretty bad wreck that made you to miss three events, which is a lot for you!" She shook her head. "That just seems to be Wayward Son's story."

Jensen opened his mouth, closed it, nodded. He swallowed. "Yes, yes ma'am. That's a lot of why he'd still unridden."

Lauren kept smiling. "Well good luck there, JR, I'll be rooting for you to get him this season."

"Well, thank you." Jensen ducked his head and blushed.

"One last thing then I'll let you go. I read that young JT Padalecki is making the jump from the qualifier circuit to join us in Worcester next weekend. You both ride for Team Chevy, don't you?"

Jensen nodded again.

"They must be loving that! Their top man and their rising star about ready to start riding together. He'll be in great company, then, and lucky to have you around to show him the ropes." Lauren leaned closer and Jensen managed a smile.

"Yes ma'am," he answered, stood still in place and waited to be told they'd cut away and he was free to go.

|| Worcester To Anaheim and Four Between ||

Jensen leaned on his truck, black and sleek with an extended cab and detailed leather interior, crossed his arms and raised a foot to rest against the front bumper. The parking lot of the hotel was quiet and subdued, morning light barely breaking through a wet winter fog that hung heavy, even denser low to the ground. It was almost too cold to be comfortable, standing here in it, but he'd soon be stuck to a seat for hours on end. Worcester to Fresno was a damn long drive and he wanted going, already, hoped the kid didn't wear his ear off talking.

Kid--he laughed for thinking it. Only 23 himself he was hardly well into his years, but after six seasons bullriding and getting beat to hell during each, he felt practically ancient. Compared to JT's bright-eyed, pink-cheeked ready humor and enthusiasm, he knocked 'practically' right out and settled on ancient, absolutely.

Jensen sighed and wondered over how he got himself into these situations.

They'd known one another all of two days, had taken stock and polite measure but not much more. JT had offered a hello and his hand--had asked on the sly for Jensen to call him Jared, please, hidden from cameras and the other cowboys--and agreeing to that had been the easiest result of the weekend.

He'd heard of JT Padalecki before, didn't have much of an opinion beyond a raised eyebrow at an apparent penchant for damn ugly shirts and knowing Jared was friends with Chad from their junior-circuit days. He didn't dislike Chad, honestly didn't much care, but there wasn't much esteem to go around either. Jensen figured it wasn't his business who Jared got along with. People were often misled when they considered a man to be the same as his friends, something he knew all too well.

Jensen snugged his hat further on his head and peered far past the stretch of the road, into the nowhere they'd go where sky meets land. The sun had crept high enough to push through the fog, and it sparked crystalline shimmers that twirled a slow square-dance in the cold, sluggish breeze. He considered getting his sunglasses, but he didn't want to move. Didn't want to look too over-calculated and cool. He rubbed his arms briskly and told himself not to check his watch just yet.

From what he'd heard buzzing the air beginning last year, both Chad and Jared had shown talented promise and were fast on the rise, but where Chad had made the jump from Qualifier to Pro, Jared had made the decision to go to college. Jensen wondered over what happened there--nineteen and a year into school, and now back to bullriding.

Could be Jared just missed the life. Every rider did, in their way, once it got down in the blood.

Whatever the reason, Jared had returned, spent only one weekend in the qualifier circuit before being able to join Chad and the rest. Jensen knew what that meant, cynical and savvy, how it'd be expected things would go--he and Jared would get along, at the very least for the crowds and cameras. Same riding team, same big sponsor, Jensen the veteran suited and able to help the new kid settle in. It'd look good to have these two tall Texas boys see to one another at events, and fans unreservedly enjoyed that their cowboys weren't simply combatants thrown together by circumstance, but outright friends.

Jensen didn't envy Jared, remembered that place, fresh up and green. Didn't envy the additional burden Jared carried, here because Chris had suffered a bad wreck, would need to prove himself all the more, work even harder.

He rolled his shoulders and saw clearly the end of the line for a solid--if overall unremarkable--career.

Chris was still in the hospital, left behind in Atlanta. Doc Beaver wasn't sure when Chris could be on his way. He'd had his femur split, busted over Devil's Own's back as the bull had continued to buck. Then there were the minor injuries to go with--cracked ribs and a punctured lung, broken collarbone and a lacerated spleen. Chris wouldn't be on a bucking bull any time soon, even a slow horse an unknown possibility for sometime on.

The unforgiving truth was Chris would never get in the chute and sit a bull again, and they all knew it, just no one would presume to say that for the cowboy who's down and out. Chris would be left to decide and tell it in his own time, given that dignity as he deserved.

Jensen shook his head. Nothing to it but how it goes, how it is, what stalked every one of them each time they hitched up to ride. Chris would tell this exactly, brittle with defeat and weariness, meant true all the same.

He buffed his truck with an elbow, dusty spot of something he couldn't identify, quit his musing. Wouldn't get him anywhere but too far in his own head--something he fell into too easy, given stubbornness and opportunity--and wouldn't change anything. Instead he breathed deep and pressed his shoulders back, tapped a tuneless riff on the grill and continued to more or less patiently wait.

It was a good morning, the kind that felt crisp and generous with promise, like you could walk for miles and not tire, walk for miles and finally find what you've always been searching. Jensen regretted someone was bound to arrive and break that, even if he'd agreed to let it happen. He didn't want to fly or drive fast or stop at home during the weeks between events this season, rather wanted to take it slow and see places he might never pass again. To Fresno he'd just have to compromise. Take Jared slow along with him, forget his want for a detour to the coast and the ocean; he just didn't know and wanted this to stay simple, never had trusted that much to Chris or Steve, so never mind a stranger, and he didn't want to explain. The boys thought him strangely sentimental--maybe just strange--and couldn't always reconcile a cowboy, same as them, given to such fancies.

Even his good buddies gave him hell for his dampened faith in the Almighty and his penchant for contemplatively appreciating the Lord's creations. The wind picked up, sudden and swift, disturbed the low-hanging banks of fog. He smiled wryly, thought yeah, I hear you.

Jensen let himself check the time--almost seven--and Jared was almost late. He didn't relish early morning starts, but experience had taught him it was an easier grind to drive by day and stop at night, make it the closest to a real, workaday schedule as one could. Not much felt worse than being gritty-eyed come dusk with fifteen hours yet to push. Besides, being at home he could only dawdle in bed so long, like it or not, what with cattle to move and his horse to feed. He preferred a sunrise after a long night instead of rising to greet it but he'd accustomed himself, like everything else, managed thanks to necessity.

He'd give the kid another five, then go in after.

Worcester had been good to him. He'd been too focused to care about anything but making his rides, thoughts a jumble of Chris' fall and Jared's emergence. Every single out was steeled with the looming specter of his personal promise that he'd damn see eight, each and every go, determined get that belt buckle. Chris had always said he was too hard on himself. Jensen had always seen it the other way around, had never been quite accepting of Chris' ease with not trying harder.

He'd covered all three of his bulls, lost the event by a solid six points. Jensen hadn't begrudged the loss, knew so long as he kept riding he'd be in good shape. Dustin had ridden better than him anyway, and he couldn't knock that. Besides, a single good ride might only be eight seconds, but bullriding itself was something you had to think about as over the long haul. He just needed his own consistency. Win a single event or not, each ride under him was a step closer to being world champ. It was early--only the third event of the season--but every ride counted and the more he rode now, the less pressure he'd have to perform as things got down to the wire.

He had a fair idea who would be the top fifteen this year, many same as last, but Jared was going to throw a wrench into that reckoning, he was sure. Jared was good, that much he'd learned and no denying it. Good with a nonsense lot of flash that rubbed Jensen the wrong way.

Jensen wore rich brown leather chaps; Jared's were dark blue with silver and turquoise accents. Jensen endured on-camera interviews, and while his pride ensured he held his own and didn't sound too much an idiot during them, he didn't ooze likeability; Jared was a natural charmer and a crowd-pleaser, cracked broad jokes that burned away Jensen's hidden, dry wit by comparison. Jensen's hat was black with black accents; he wasn't a good guy, despite his sugar looks. Jared's wide-brimmed Stetson was light tan with silver and turquoise accents to match his chaps; he was an honestly nice boy, and even the pheasant feather that flourished from his hatband didn't overwhelm his personality.

Jensen had always thought the way a cowboy rode was an accurate indicator of character. Jared showed guts and the determination to compete, hung in no matter the bull. He had a tendency to get too far back in his pockets, but never quit on a ride. Jensen wasn't often impressed, but that kind of attitude was a good place to start if you wanted to try.

Jared was also hilarious and goofy, amazingly easy to get to know and feel comfortable around. Jensen's wicked sense of wit and sardonic smiles weren't lost on Jared, and somewhere in that tall lank of goofball, he sensed there lurked a damn sharp mind. He found himself paying attention where he'd never bothered before, agreed with Jared's simple assertions that they had a lot in common, hoped for mutual respect and to get along.

Jensen hoped they got along too. Wanted it, somehow, inexplicably further than what he could quite explain, more than missing Chris and having to at least be agreeable with one another under the circumstances.

He'd given Jared a few pointers, stood one bull for the kid in round two, but had made sure it was Justin or Steve standing on his. Jared rode well, had shown some bad habits that might one day come back and bite, wasn't overly earnest or willfully brash. Then Sunday in the locker room as they were all gathering gear and themselves to get heading onto the next town, Tom had asked how Jared planned to travel.

Jared had laughed and poked a thumb in the air over a shoulder, waggled it and a brow. He had a huge, flashing grin, one that spread so wide it was impossible not to catch. Jensen was still figuring if he liked that.

As Jared had shown off his hitch-hiking stance--complete with a tug of jeans to show a flash of leg--Tom had suggested he go with Jensen. Only reasonable, and not like Jensen wouldn't be making the trip, all alone in that big black truck so why not. Jensen had found himself nodding before he'd fully realized what was going on, Jared's grin grown wider at his mumbled acceptance of Tom's goodwill offer.

He'd never have lived it down if he'd flatly refused, anyway.

M-A to Cali-fornia was a long and wearing enough drive on your own, and the wrong company could make it a painful test of endurance. Never mind that Jensen had developed certain expectations and preferences, where to stay, what to stop and see, when to push the miles harder and when to coast into an early evening.

He'd made up his mind to start with as little complication as possible, offer tolerant affability and the empty seat to his right. No one needed a babysitter, just the way there, and he knew Jared would have found that without him. He also knew an indefinable satisfaction that it'd be only the two of them, in his truck and wherever between, for the 3,000 mile haul.

Jensen closed his eyes and thought about ocean waves again, the Continental Divide, cleared his mind and quelled an inexplicable warmth.

Two minutes past when Jensen had said to meet Jared showed, tack slung over his shoulder in a leather case, medium duffel swinging from his other hand. Jensen stepped up from his lean and nodded.

"Whew, sorry I'm late. Traffic was a bitch." Jared came to a stop a few feet from the truck and smiled.

Jensen saw the hesitancy that stilted it, the wariness that lurked in Jared's eyes. He didn't want this to go poorly, either, especially not by his keeping, certainly not so early on their start. He laughed and reached out, curled his fingers in a gimme motion then took Jared's bag.

He stowed Jared's gear on the back bench seat and said, "Yeah, heard on the radio this morning that there's been a lot of congestion around the west elevator bank of late. Made sure I left a bit early to compensate." He patted everything down, made certain it was secure, then ducked back out and turned around.

"Rough going there in the lobby, too. Free continental breakfast that includes all you can eat danish always slows you down."

Jensen chuckled. "Heard that can be a problem." Nodded like when quoted the price of oats and sorghum mash. Wanted to ask if Jared's long hair got annoying, tangled up, caught in his eyes during a ride.

Jared's smile relaxed, at that, transformed to a full-on beam. Jensen shook his head and waved at his truck, but an easy smile teased in return.

"C'mon. We need to get getting." He didn't wait for a response, just climbed in and buckled up then turned her over, made sure everything was exactly so, listened as Jared settled in with him. He rolled them from the parking lot, paused long enough without braking for a semi to roar past, then eased onto the main road that'd dump them on an interstate in not too far a drive.

He'd gotten his thermos filled at the convenience store next to the hotel, had stuck it in the seam of the bench seat before his wait. When he started messing with it one-handed Jared wordlessly took over, neatly dunked some in the cap then passed it to him.

Jensen touched the rim of the cup to his hat then worked on an experimental sip. He sighed after it'd gone down, hot and black, just a touch sweet to cut the bitterness. Perfect. "You?" he asked.

"Nah--had all I want, thanks. Brought some bottled fruity crap I can break into later."

"Okay then." Jensen balanced the heel of his hand on the steering wheel and set his coffee into it, switched on the radio to fill the silence. He found a classic rock station that wasn't overtaken by some obnoxious morning show, nodded and eased back, settled in for the long drive.

Jensen navigated them through awakening traffic and road interchanges, got onto I-84 and set his speed just above the limit. Week-old snow clung grimly to the land's hollows the road cut into, gray and dismal with dirt and wear, unspoiled patches of white visible far back in the forest they whipped past. He looked forward to Virginia and Tennessee, sweet tea with fried pork chops, coleslaw and applesauce, biscuits and gravy. After that they'd hit 40 and not see different for days on end.

Over an hour was gone and they hadn't said anything. Jared had dug around and retrieved a bottle of flavored water and Jensen was into his third cup of coffee. They'd looped into Connecticut and Jensen had resisted asking if anybody needed a potty break. He just wasn't sure how this should go, what he could tease and what would offend. He wondered if they'd arrive in Fresno and be glad never to sit this close again.

Chris had taken him snowboarding around here his rookie year and he'd almost broken his neck. He'd laughed and shoved slush in Chris' face, said never again, rather have my neck broke by a bull thank you. Chris had told him to lighten up, but stuck primarily to trying to get him drunk and laid, after.

Jensen's fond smile faded. He hoped he'd do just as good by Jared with this, made up his mind to ask if there was anything in particular Jared would like to do, maybe see. He glanced over and studied Jared, took everything in, and it all seemed long. Those long messy bangs, longer hair than he'd ever wear dented from a hat, long neck and arms and fingers, even longer legs. His eyes strayed back to Jared's lips, pink that would pull in a long smile, and Jensen thought those lashes were unfairly long too, would make any girl jealous.

Alcohol he could do, but he'd never be as big and bold as Chris, so he wasn't sure about the getting laid part. Jared's cheeks were streaked red, youth and sleepiness, and Jensen blushed to match, shifted abruptly then cleared his throat.

"Thought you'd bend my ear sideways the whole trip." He wasn't sure why he'd said that. He rubbed his eyes, stretched and was caught by a deep yawn, then laid his arm along the window. It was cold against his skin, soothed the heat of his sudden, stupid fever. He shuddered then shook his head, blinked several times until his vision cleared.

The road carried on before them, uninterrupted.

"Figured you for preferring quiet." Jared capped his drink and let it drop in the cup holder, shrugged and tilted in his seat. Back against the door, those long legs sprawled in a full diagonal, feet tucked under the dash rested on the middle hump.

Jensen tapped the wheel. "Depends."

Funny that this route would take them through so many places they'd have to return, event schedule a crazy hop-scotch across the country. Come summer Jensen would drive a more northern route, put some different views in the windshield, but so long as winter held fast he avoided areas where that could put him in peril or hem him in.

One week snowed into a vast stretch of Nebraska was enough for any lifetime.

"Depends on what?"

Jensen hummed, almost as if he'd forgotten they'd started talking. He glanced at Jared, smiled. "On what's said."

Jared's eyes narrowed. "And who's saying it?"

He tipped his head. "Depends."

Most people got frustrated at him by that point--frustrated or befuddled--either way they'd shut up and leave be. The gleam in Jared's eye turned from speculative to amused.

"On when it's said?"

Jensen bit his lip. "Yeah. Sometimes." He chewed away a smile.

Jared twisted to better face him. "How often do you get the right person saying the right things at the right time?"

He couldn't resist. "Well now--that all depends." He flicked his gaze between Jared and the road, lost the battle as he took a winding curve that swept them down into a winter-bruised valley, wide grin spreading as he gunned the truck to burn the straightaway.

"I hear you," Jared said easy and without affect, studied the world that streaked by and continued to smile.

They drove in silence, then, and Jensen wondered how long Jared would last. Wondered how long he would. Near an hour later Jensen's thermos was dry and static had infiltrated--then replaced--the country station he'd found. He switched off the radio, but neither seemed inclined to mind the quiet. A good while after he watched Jared run a fingertip over the top edge of glove compartment.

"Nice truck."

Jensen smiled. "That's what I said." He shifted both hands onto the wheel and patted it, ten-and-two. "Got it as a show of appreciation last season."

Jared's eyebrows flew up over widened eyes. "Wow. Really nice." He licked his lips and hesitated, then asked, "You won Vegas then, yeah?"

He nodded, tried not to show his disappointment that winning the final event of the season in Vegas didn't necessarily mean you were world champ, something he'd been hard on himself in accepting. Jared waited and he pushed that away, tapped the logo on the dash. "Chevy was my first big-name sponsor, took the chance on me my second year up. Come Vegas I finally made good on that--rode almost every bull, clawed myself from fifth to second in overall points, this right here on my vest for all to see. You know how it goes."

"Oh yeah." Jared's finger kept exploring. "Man, a whole truck--I remember being jazzed when I got a half-ton of rock salt and two free tows. Heck, I was jazzed I could afford to eat." He laughed and wriggled on the seat. "This is some good appreciation. Though riding like you do, not a surprise."

Jensen blushed and wasn't entirely sure why. He'd never done well with criticism, did even worse with praise. Telling him how to ride better, be shown a trick or have a weakness revealed, that he could handle. Being told anything like it felt what Jared was leading into just made him discomfited and squirmy. Or damned piss-fire difficult, according to Jeff.

He shrugged then concentrated on an unspectacular back and forth sway of the road and his hands tightened on the wheel. Jared punched his arm and he started, whipped around to glare in question.

"Dude. This is a nice truck and you won Vegas. You deserve it. Nothing more than that." Jared mimicked his shrug then concentrated on him.

Jensen did his best to be mildly diffident and cool, ended up blushing hotter. Jared chuckled and he considered returning that punch, startled himself by reaching over and giving Jared's long hair a sound yank, instead, curled ends coiling around a finger. Jared squawked and laughed, didn't push him away, and they settled back into comfortable silence.

He'd formed and discarded several attempts at conversation when Jared straightened and pointed at the exit sign they were about to pass.

"Ooh, truck stop--great. I gotta piss like a racehorse. Could use something to eat, too. That work for you?" Jared leaned forward and grinned.

Jensen blinked and just like that his tongue knots and discomfort were gone. His whole body relaxed and he breathed deep, let it out slow, took the off-ramp in answer. The place was satisfyingly huge and in spitting distance of the interstate, somewhere he'd been before, so he remembered the ins and outs and that they sold homemade pecan logs. He slotted his truck alongside an empty pump and punched Jared's arm, just because, with maybe a bit of retaliation.

"Don't be too long."

Jared's brow arched and he smirked. "You need to pee first? I can hold it and start filling her up if you really gotta go."

Jensen pursed his lips and almost didn't huff, definitely did not show his smile. He rolled his eyes then rolled out of the truck, and Jared followed. They stood at either side and looked at each other over the truck bed. "Think I can manage, Princess, thanks. Just don't want you sniping at me for having to hustle you out of the candy aisle when I'm ready to leave. I mean, I love a good truck stop same as the next guy, but we haven't got all day."

Jared's smirk lifted into a genuine smile. "I love candy." He thumped the truck with his fist and looked around. "Truck stops too. Yeah." A last flash of grin and twirl of fingers then he strode away.

It was stupid to feel relieved, but that's what this was. This sensation that had his hands shaking and him dropped back onto the truck with a whump after he'd gone through the motions of credit card, fuel selection, nozzle in and started. The tingle in his gut as he'd watched after Jared, tracked the bob of tan Stetson through the store. He tipped forward and rubbed his eyes, scent of gas and grime thick in his nose.

The pump whirred and clicked and he wondered if Jared had wanted to say more or ask him anything in particular. Jensen had always been easy to talk to once you knew him, contrasted by being almost impossible to get to know. Seemed Jared had an easy, surprisingly good start on that already.


Jensen started to, and his limbs zinged with sudden awareness like he'd been woken from a hard sleep.

Jared fanned out his hands nonthreatening and smiled. "You wanna go in? I'll finish up here, then maybe--maybe you'd like me to drive. You look like all that bad road we just covered."

"That good, hunh?" Jensen rubbed an eye and thought about wearing his glasses for the rest of the day. "Man, I'm wiped. When'd I get so damn tired?"

"Probably when you mindlessly crossed over into Pennsylvania and kept going another few hours." Jared gave him a little push.

"Wasn't actually asking," he grumbled.

Jared grinned. "Sure you were. I was right here and that sounded like a question to me. Now go on--I got this."

Jensen visited the men's room first, had definitely sat on all that coffee for too long. He washed his hands and face in cold water, leaned dripping over the sink and briefly wished them in Fresno already. He didn't like to let anyone else drive, had never learned the knack of sleeping just anywhere, and definitely not in anything moving.

He browsed a few aisles to stretch his legs, almost bought a chrome horseshoe to hang on the tailgate, didn't because then he'd have to hang it. He chose some fruity water crap for Jared, got himself plain old water and another coffee. He had groceries in the truck, but couldn't resist the ice cream treats in the cooler that sat under the counter, and after brief hesitation he snagged two cookie sandwiches, figured you couldn't go wrong with those.

Jensen got a crossword puzzle book on a whim, nodded politely and good day to the cashier. Jared was ready to go when he hopped in the truck. It felt damn strange to sit on the passenger side.

He threw an ice cream at Jared, said, "Think fast."

Jared caught it no problem, grinned. "Almost as good as candy. Thanks." He ripped the wrapper open with his teeth then eased them away from the pump and back onto the road.

They munched and didn't talk, and Jensen liked that Jared just drove, not too careful and slow, not too showy and fast. He let out a long sigh and relaxed.

Jared sang along with almost everything that came on the radio, quiet and terribly off-key. Jensen smiled and pressed his forehead to the window, figured to watch the world go by, and he drifed to sleep as wintery mountains gradually shallowed into greening hills.

\\ // \\ // \\ // \\

It was simple as that, after. They zig-zagged the country and learned things, shared what came comfortably, agreeably allowed the other to hold the rest back.

Jensen had always thought the weeks to be endless between events, got antsy and ready to ride by Wednesday, so come Friday time was brutal. Wasn't like that, with Jared. They rode past so many places, wherever, rolled into motel rooms and small towns and diners along the way. Events and rides kept racking up and neither made mention that Jared could for sure find somehow else to get there.

He hadn't realized he'd like traveling with someone, thought maybe he'd matured out of so stubbornly needing his own space. But no, that wasn't it, quite.

They were in Topeka with their knees pressed together under a table and Jared rambled happily about his family and San Antonio nachos when Jensen connected that the difference was Jared.

He turned away and watched a freight train crawl by as Jared prattled on, mouth suddenly gone dry, but his hand shook too hard for him to trust lifting his lemonade. It'd taken him awhile to cotton to what Jared was doing. Took him awhile longer to realize he'd been doing it back, but he knew it, now, well past denial. Cold like dread and hot as desire.

Looking, checking, flirting. Wanting.

Jensen was good at flirting, sure in his ability to lead someone along, better because he so often didn't care. He'd never even considered another man should be the focus of his efforts, found himself doing it so easy and fluid with Jared it scared him. Made him dig into parts of himself he'd thought long died and forgotten. Places modern-day, bullriding cowboys didn't range.

He drew in, shoulders hunched protectively, threw a twenty on the table. "Meet you outside." Jensen all but ran to the bathroom.

He stared at his reflection and wondered if it showed.

Jared wasn't perturbed, and that almost made Jensen angrier. They settled in the truck and he drove in tense silence, jaw so hard clenched his teeth might crack and both hands tight on the wheel. They were on their way from Sacramento to Albany, hundreds of miles to cover and hundreds behind them, bulk of the season still ahead of them waiting to be conquered.

Jensen nodded along to whatever Jared said without really listening, his own thoughts too loud to really let Jared in.

"And I mean, the pie was the last straw. I had no choice but to kill him. Right?"

"Right," Jensen said automatically.

Jared huffed. "You haven't heard a word I've said since we left the diner. That was two hours ago."

Jensen's brow furrowed. "Sure I have. I mean I'm not ready for the pop-quiz or anything but, yeah, sure I have."

"Bullshit." Jared laughed. "Man, tell me next time when I'm boring you and you just want me to shut it, okay?"

A glance over proved Jensen's suspicions. Jared had slid all the way to the door, embarrassed blush dark on his neck and cheeks. Words started to filter through and Jensen parsed that Jared had been talking about trail cowboys--old west dudes, roaming the great wide, untamed land with only each other as companions--and how very often those trail cowboys chose to make themselves something more to one another.

Usually such talk got snickers and shoved-off laughs, were only brought up to be made fun of. He pursed his lips and against his better sense said, "You were telling me about old west stuff. See? I listened."

"You know, it's not important. I should have just let you be."

Jensen sighed in exasperation and straightened his fingers in a helpless gesture. "What? Cowboys, right? I heard you. Lonely guys on the range."

"Not lonely. Trail cowboys." Jared was earnest, looked at Jensen, smiled and Jensen heard the undercurrent whispers of like us, trail cowboys like us.

He put it down to road hypnosis and boredom, and if he was that gone on tire drone he should really have a break. Without even knowing where it went he took the next exit, found then raced down a desolate road so straight it looked like it pierced through the horizon and on into where the stars were hidden behind the bright of the sun in the brighter blue sky. He stopped them in the middle of nowhere Kansas so he could get out and chase that unseen abyss on foot, tramped winter wheat beautiful hazel-green and dewy beneath him--like eyes he wanted to refuse to see--as he ran from what he didn't want to know.

Jensen fell into a forward lean, hands onto his knees, and the brim of his hat was tickled by the wheat in the breeze. He stood there until his heartache eased and the ache in his arms got to be too much, straightened slow with a crack of his spine then set himself, found the resolve to walk the half-acre back.

Jared had waited him out at the truck, had set a drink and a snack on the hood for when he returned. Jensen started with an apple, thought of his father, the Holy Bible, Jared's lips and the tingling burn that seemed to have taken up permanent residence in his.

He stood for a moment and had never felt more foolish. This didn't have to be any big deal. All it had to be was them.

Jared sat on the road leaned against the front bumper and Jensen eased down next to him, soaked up the warmth the sun had baked into asphalt. They chewed foxtail grass and threw rocks and even after what Jensen had discovered, he found they didn't need to have much to say. Jensen loved this country, this kind of peace, seeming endless stretch of road and his truck primed and ready, big land and bigger heaven reaching down to meet it.

He liked it better for Jared being there with him.

A Red-tailed hawk circled and swooped above them, nailed a jackrabbit after a long and patient wait. It settled on a telephone pole a few hundred feet from them, ripped into its dinner.

"Red-tail." Jared twirled a dead flute from last year's crop between his fingers, tipped it towards the hawk.

Jensen knew that already. He hunkered down and smiled, tucked an errant bit of hair back behind Jared's ear as had become his habit, watched Jared smile. He clasped his hands over his middle, their outstretched legs paralleling white lines and yellow dashes, let his shoulder rest against Jared's, knocked the toes of their boots together. If Jared hadn't of said it, Jensen would've.

That night in bed he convinced himself it'd pass. He just hadn't gotten enough good pussy or that kind of company in too long a time--hadn't even been around anyone else--lay there listening to Jared breathe and hated the calm it settled over him.

It wasn't important that he had no clue what to do about it, because that's all he'd be doing. Nothing.

They'd already crossed the entire country twice, lived every day, ate every meal and slept every bed right next to one another, risked their lives every weekend and depended on each other to see them through that. Jared was just feeling a bit too much hero-worship and admiration and Jensen had allowed himself to bask in the attention long enough. This kind of togetherness messed with a man's head, sometimes. They were on their way to being damn good friends, and for that Jensen should be glad, not let it get ruined from things they had no business becoming.

\\ // \\ // \\ // \\

"We're in Anaheim and it's time to talk to some cowboys!" Lauren grinned. "JR--you covered two bulls and got a 90-point ride this event, but still came up short. The cowboys have really been showing those bulls what for these past few weeks."

Jensen smiled blandly and nodded. "Just shows the level of competition we can all bring to the PBR. Seems for the past several events that everyone's been holding on and getting all eight. But I can't complain. I had a top ten finish, got to see Werewolf's Howl's action for the first time, came out uninjured at the end."

Lauren nodded with him. "JT came in just under you to finish 9th. You two seem to be getting along already--how do you think he's adjusting?"

"Well, obviously, the bulls up here are in a class by themselves- even the first round has rank bulls we gotta fight to hold onto. That's always a big change from the Qualifier circuit, where you aren't always guaranteed great bulls for every ride." Jensen swallowed then licked his lips. "Bit more of a grind to the PBR season, too, with the distance between the events and how many we have. But he's got the right attitude and is doing good, so far."

Lauren studied him for a moment. "Eight events into the season and you're still in first. That has to feel good."

Jensen laughed politely. "Right now it does, yeah, but it doesn't mean I can take it easy. There's a lot of riding time between me and Vegas--a lot of good cowboys, too--so no matter what I just have to keep putting my head down and sticking on my bulls."

"I'll let you get going, then. See you next week in St Louis, and continued good luck to you." Lauren smiled and waited.

Jensen returned with an aw-shucks smile. "Yes ma'am. Thank you."

They stood in place for a moment then Lauren shifted around, motioned him away so Jared could take his place.

|| St Louis ||

Jensen watched Milo fly through the air after only one second and shook his head. He counted to eight, knew the beats by rote, closed his eyes when the buzzer sounded.

St Louis was a mess--only five cowboys had qualified rides so far in round one, and none had looked good making them. Chad had been thrown and stomped, had a nice set of cracked ribs to show for it. Dustin had been launched and rolled his ankle when he landed. Tyler had a broken nose and sprained knee from being knocked around while still in the chute, had sat tight to watch the rest of the boys go and would be back to ride tomorrow.

Milo had been the last to go, and the arena seemed to let out a sigh of relief. For whatever reason the worm had turned, bulls over cowboys, and hardly anyone was able to hold on longer than a few seconds. When Tom had managed five, the crowd had actually cheered, a bit sardonic, a bit bemused. Jensen caught Jared's eye and tilted his head out-ways, smiled when Jared made to follow. It was definitely time to get the hell out of dodge.

Jensen's ride wasn't memorable, but at least he'd gotten it done, a junker aboard Sold My Soul. He'd been tossed every which way before he'd been dumped hard on the dirt. It'd knocked the air from him and he'd sat there sucking wind, wheezed while Jared held his shoulder and Jim kept prodding him with questions he couldn't make voice to answer. He'd gotten to his feet, and Jared only gripped his arm as he'd stumbled from the dirt under his own steam.

Jared's ride shortly after had been disqualified. His bull had leapt sharply and Jared had come forward sharper, slapped Dirty Deeds square on the poll. It wasn't bad riding or exactly Jared's fault, but this rule was hard and fast and something you couldn't argue. Touch a bull with anything but your legs and riding hand you were done, simple as that. Jared had thought about contesting, slapped at 7.9 seconds and hoped the replay would show him just squeaking out the eight, but Jensen had talked him out of wasting the $500 judgment fee.

They'd milled around, restless and disgruntled, made fun of each other and racked up lost beers in bets against who'd make their ride. This St Louis night was unseasonably warm, the crowd tired and it wasn't even late, and the bulls were cranky.

"Not in the mood--they've got headaches," Mike had quipped, enough innuendo for the adults to laugh on the sly, straight enough for the kids to feel like they were in on the joke.

Wasn't that just the truth.

"Sooner this night is forgotten the better." Jared managed to look pissed and forlorn all at once, matched Jensen's stride.

It didn't take long to get to his truck, heave themselves in, and whatever hypocritical crap Jensen might have said about doing your best and taking it a bull at a time was throttled when something pounded on the hood. He straightened away from Jared and they both stared out of the windshield, shock dancing down his arms and legs in numbing tingles.

Gabe stood there, arms outstretched. He grinned at them and pointed at the passenger door. It was promptly wrenched open.

"Whoooo-hoooo! Don't you ladies disappoint and tell me you're headed for your room, now." Steve stood next to Jared, bawdy, shit-eating grin matched to Gabe's.

Jensen torqued around and glared. "For Christsakes, Steve--what are you two doing?" He hadn't always taken their antics this poorly, but then, he hadn't always just wanted to go back and have an early, quiet evening with only Jared, either. Jensen shook his head, wondered where his willing humor and maybe even reason had fled to.

Steve boosted into the truck. "Shove on over there, sweetheart," he said to Jared, would have sat in Jared's lap if no one moved. "Saving you from life of boredom and regret. Of course."

Jensen rolled his eyes. "Nice I have a say in the proceedings."

Steve just grinned wider and kept scooting over so Gabe could cram in next to him. Jensen had a big truck, but it was not meant to seat four grown men.

"Oh shut it--you love us and we'll have an awesome time. Man, we are doing you a favor! Just gonna have a few drinks, blow the cobwebs back, be good to ride come tomorrow. You'll see." Gabe nodded deeply and winked at Jared.

Jensen weighed the options of arguing these assholes out of his truck or just driving them to the bar. His truck bounced and the hard slap of boots clattered in the bed. "Hey!" he yelled blindly, not enough room to turn and see who that was. "Watch the paint."

Someone thumped on the back window. "C'mon, we going or not? Get this beast moving, Ackles."

He looked at Jared. "A.J. Great."

Jared smiled. "Means at the least Travis is back there too."

"I hate you all," Jensen grumbled. He leaned forward and twisted at the hips, pointed at Jared. "Except for this one, of course." He shook his head and tutted, met Jared's eyes. "So, what do you say?"

It felt good having Jared mashed to him, calves all the way up to their shoulders. He'd lifted his arm to make room, heel of his hand on Jared's neck. Jared's arm was on his leg, hand on his knee, sharp elbow at his ribs.

"I say we go. Nothing else we can dump these morons then drive away. Fast. And you know--we could stay, might even have fun." Jared smirked and jostled into Jensen.

He nodded, ignored the boys' cursing and whining to get going. "Yeah, okay. Sounds like a plan."

Jared grinned. "That's because it is one."

Jensen laughed and bit into the center of his lower lip, then spoke louder. "All right--management has deliberated and a decision has been reached." He cranked the key and Steve woofed low with excitement. Jensen sucked in a breath and called, "Y'all in the back hold on and lie down, and if I get pulled over, I've never seen you in my life."

He gunned the truck, a surge that rocked them in place, then he peeled from the parking lot as a cheer roused from the bed. "Shit," Jensen coasted onto the road leading from the arena and took them past Busch Stadium, headed for the river then banked south so they'd see the Arch. "How many got in back there?"

Jared craned around into Jensen, warm breath in then under an ear. After a moment he said, "Yeah, I can't tell. No idea." He stayed there and Jensen smiled.

"Should just get a camper shell--a lockable one." Jared's quiet whuff of laughter tickled Jensen's skin. He eased to a stop at a deserted red light, waited a second then turned through, nudged Jared with his shoulder as they sped along. "Hey, lookit this."

They went right past the Arch, and Jared leaned across Jensen to see. At night its silver-clad skin looked burnished and soft, swirls of amber light that shone onto it and reflected from all sides.

"That's just--that's just cool," Jared said. He twisted and his mouth opened as he tilted far back to see more. "I didn't think it be that--cool--you know?"

Their eyes met when Jared sat back up and he smiled, knew the feeling. Jared smiled too and played fingers over Jensen's knee, so he bobbed it up and down. The road curved so he finally had to break away and look ahead, but he didn't stop smiling.

He drove under then turned up the 64 on-ramp, tried to keep it smooth as possible so he didn't completely rattle the brains of whoever was in the bed. Riding bulls was bad enough--he wasn't sure any of them had much left to give.

Every year when the circuit took them to this city they'd go to the same dive bar. It was dingy and raucous and perfect, across the river into Illinois and tucked between where East St Louis ended and the bedroom communities began. The place had darts and an uneven pool table, Budweiser of course, sold cheap, and terrible whiskey even cheaper.

As they rumbled over the bridge spanning the mighty Mississippi, Jensen watched Jared stare at the Arch's choppy specter in mud-churned waters.

"Let's go tomorrow morning." Jared meant it, Jensen could tell. Definitely interested, but he shrugged like no big deal. "I'd like to see it up close."

"Dude, I'm not planning on being sober by then." Gabe waved a dismissive hand. "Besides, it's just a hunk of metal. Standing there. Doing nothing."

Jared laughed. "Actually, I think it's considered a feat of engineering and representative of the indefatigable determination of the human spirit. But, I'll give that you're right about it just standing there. That was kinda the point."

Jensen coughed to squelch an awful, mean laughter in his chest, but he knocked his knee into Jared's, shook his head, and Jared understood.

"You two go if you want. Better, find your own way, slim." Steve kicked his foot into Jared's. "Your chauffeur there might have good reason to sleep in. You know what I mean."

"Who said y'all were even invited?" Jensen tried not to sound too scathing, chased his tongue over his teeth for something to keep him busy from saying worse. He couldn't explain why Steve's insinuation bothered him so much, thought he shouldn't care a whit that Jared heard it.

Gabe and Steve took it in stride without complaint, were likely relieved. Group outings that didn't involve rodeo, alcohol, girls--possibly all three--didn't fly real far with this bunch. Overall that suited Jensen just fine, though sometimes it made him question exactly what he saw in them as friends.

Jared elbowed him and he elbowed back. He pitched his voice barely above a murmur. "Their idea of an elevator is actually these painfully cramped torture chambers--I'm not convinced we'd both fit in one--but you know, we should go up in it, too. It's worth it."

"Yeah?" Jared did that beaming thing that made Jensen's chest ache.

"Yeah. I'll even unfold your lanky ass when we get back on solid ground." He left the interstate and threaded main and side streets, headed towards Kingshighway. "Sound good?" He didn't know why he felt he should ask. That smile always told him everything.

Jared just nodded, and the heat of his body and arm pressed to Jensen seemed to flare, hot and charged, and he had no desire to move. They rode the rest of the way like that, Steve singing along with the radio and Gabe not quite able to keep rhythm tapping on the dash.

Jensen chose a parking space far from the building and other trucks. Drunks just did not know how to respect a man's vehicle. He killed the engine but didn't move. "It occurs to me that we should have addressed this before we got going, but, how are you planning on getting back to the hotel? Because you do know, I'm not letting you idiots in here ripped out of your heads and overstuffed with all-you-can-eat wings."

Steve reached across Jared and punched Jensen. "Man, and here I thought you didn't care." When Jensen only raised a brow he grinned. "Talked Chad into meeting us here."

Jared snickered and he nodded. "Ah. That'll work."

Chad had some ugly behemoth SUV. Jensen had uncharitable thoughts about issues and overcompensation every time he saw that dickweed in it. He opened his door and spilled from the truck. He reached in and pried Jared loose, filled the narrow space between him and the quarterpanel with Jared, then just stood there. Jared gazed at him, seemed almost flustered, and Jensen grinned so he could watch pupils shutter tight and cheeks burn blushed.

"Two things, both simple."

Jared recovered enough to raise a brow. "Only two? From you? Find that hard to believe."

Jensen scoffed. "Yeah, yeah. Just listen." He held a finger in front of Jared's nose. "One, don't act like you're oh-so obviously 21. Be yourself and stay comfortable and no one will take notice. Right?" He waited for Jared's nod then added a second finger. "Two, I'm gonna find us a table, sit you down, and then I'll lose track of where the many beers I buy tonight wind up after I bring 'em back. Make sense?"

Jared laughed and flicked Jensen's fingers away. "I've scammed into bars before, thanks. I won't embarrass you."

He tugged Jared's hair. "Nah, that's their job." He eased them sideways and shut the door, made sure it was locked, then hooked his arm around Jared's neck. "C'mon, before they start thinking we made good on your plan and come looking."

They entered on the heels of the others. Jensen scanned the room, waved at Jeff and Sterling already sat at a different table, did his best not to be seen by Mike. Jared waved at Chad, here with Milo and Justin. Country music blared and Lind fiddled with one of the tvs that hung from the ceiling, tuned it to the rerun of tonight's event.

"Boo!" Gabe bellowed. "Ain't no one wants to see that shit."

Someone yelled out in umbrage and Lind punched him, then they got drawn into the general argument over who would open a tab.

Jensen neatly avoided that, made a beeline for the table in the far corner, shoved Jared into the L-shaped booth. "Sit tight--I'll be back in a jiff."

He bought four beers to start, just to throw off the scent, Bud in the bottle, weaved through locals and cowboys, two in each hand. Jared took one with a grin and they clinked the necks together, then Jared drained half in a long swallow. He watched the contraction of Jared's throat and adam's apple, was still staring when Jared came up for air. Jensen laughed sheepishly then threw back one of his.

Precedent set, and so the night carried on.

After he was well on his way to completely trashed and an ill-advised game of darts with Steve that almost turned his head into a pincushion, he sauntered to the table where he'd first put Jared.

"Dude!" He leaned onto his palms and grinned into Jared's face. "When I said for you to sit here I didn't mean it had to be all night. Have you done anything?"

Jared grinned back. "S'good, man. I'm doing good."

Jensen laughed. "That's because you're wasted." He pointed at Jared and considered his finger, zoomed it through the air to tap Jared's nose then zoomed it back towards the bar. "I know," he said, pushed away with a broad wink.

He ducked into the cluster of girls Milo and Chad were trying to impress. "I'm sorry, boys, I beg you excuse me but I've just found what I've been looking for all night."

The petite brunette laughed. "Oh, and what is that?"

Jensen grinned. "You." He grabbed her and the busty blonde, dosie-doed them to the table then presented them to Jared with flourish. "Jared, this is-" he looked the blonde up and down and said, "Mine, and this-" he picked up the brunette and she giggled when he sat her on the table, "is Yours."

Jared stared at Jensen, dumbfounded, then blushed crimson as she wriggled across the table then fell onto the seat, bounced out more giggles and plastered herself to him.

Jensen scooted into the other side of the L, kept going until his knees ran into Jared's. He pulled blondie into his lap, maneuvered them so her legs tapered off the short end of the bench. "This is Jared. He's a damn good bullrider and wears a surprising lot of pink. You can call him J-T."

"Hello there J-T." She smiled and wrapped her arms around Jensen's neck. "And hello you, J-R."

He grinned. "Hey, that is me! How'd you know that?"

"Maybe she asked." Jared had snaked an arm around whatshername. She barely came to his armpit. "Or you know, heard it on the T-V."

Jensen tsked. "Smartass." He kicked Jared under the table and Jared grinned, kicked back. They played footsie until blondie lost her patience, pushed full into him for a kiss, tits and hip and sweet swell of her bottom teasing his cock.

Jensen kept his eyes open and Jared watched, fascinated, hands beginning to roam over the girl draped over him, their feet a tangle that started to play again.

Blondie tilted her head and Jensen grumbled, angled her further so he could still see Jared.

Jared's gal pushed in for a kiss next and Jared coiled an arm behind her, pulled her in his lap, back to Jensen. She giggled and they kissed, Jared's hand huge on her cheek, eyes avid on Jensen.

Jensen's hips stuttered when Jared skimmed his hand down her neck, cupped her breast and thumbed her nipple to hardness.

"Atta boy," he breathed and bit at his girl's ear. She hummed and let him slip a hand under her dress.

New precedent set, and so they carried on.

Steve came by once, smiled at the girls and somehow made calling them "Mine and His" utterly charming. He had a shot for Jensen--apology for the darts--and a beer for Jared.

Jared's hand had found its way high up on Jensen's thigh, the other still busy with lush curves. Jensen reasoned that was the only empty place for Jared to put it, what with all that lively girl in his arms. He drew endless figure-eights over the back of Jared's hand, hidden beneath a flounce of silky skirt.

A fuzzy while later Jared's forehead landed on his shoulder.

"Jensen? 'm thinking and I need going home."

He peered down at Jared. "You not feeling okay?"

"I'm fine. I'm wasted. Gotta ride tomorrow. Tired." He slouched fully into Jensen, lips opening soft and warm on Jensen's neck with a sigh.

Jensen nodded. His eyelids felt like sandpaper and his tongue had grown that uncomfortable size too big. "All right then." He patted his girl's leg and gently dislodged her, not quite coordinated enough to prevent her tumbling from his lap. He offered an apologetic smile and unfocused gaze. "Sorry darlin'. M'boy here just hit the wall."

Her brow crinkled and Jensen laughed. "I mean I hafta go."

"Aw man, no. That's dumb. You stay here, have a good time. 'm fine, said so, even." Jared patted Jensen's chest.

He looked down and grinned, wide and goofy. "I know. I was here." Jensen teetered to a stand and drew Jared up with him. He absolutely could not feel his feet, knew exactly where his boner was, added his teeth to the things that had gone numb. "I gotta ride tomorrow too. Reckon that makes it my time to leave. Too."

The girl Jared had been pulled from was already shifted on the seat, leaned heavy into Chad. Jensen found their hats and tipped them at everyone and nobody in particular.

"Ma'am." He nodded seriously at his girl, covered his heart with a hand. She giggled and kissed him a last time. He swayed, smiled when Jared's arm gathered him in.

It took awhile to navigate the parking lot, and by the time they were to his truck Jensen was out of breath and disoriented. He'd climbed into the driver's seat but was stuck, one leg dangled out of the door, the other bent under him where he hunched onto the bench. Jared swatted his rump.

"Get on in--I'll drive."

Jensen pushed himself around and got nowhere. "Think you can? Man, I can't even fucking see." He fumbled onto his hands and crawled further in. "Did you just hit my ass? And don't tell me your skinny hide holds it better'n me. No way."

Jared laughed and dug into Jensen's pocket for the key. He didn't remember shoving it back in there after he'd unlocked the door.

"I only had beer. You had beer and shots." Jared sounded very knowing and important.

"Ooooooh, right." Jensen grinned and grappled around until he was sitting more or less on the passenger side. "Whew then, that puts me down easy."

Jared protested and punched him, an awkward, glancing blow, then started the truck. "Okay, let's be quiet so you can tell me how to get there."

Jensen turned on the a/c and the radio to help keep Jared honest. "Simple. Left, then right onto the interstate. Over the bridge. Follow the signs to the airport. Can see the hotel from the road."

Jared did as he said, went left out of the parking lot, crept back along Kingshighway then slowly merged onto I-64.

Jensen smiled and let his head fall back. "Mmmmmmm," he breathed, hand a warm, loose hold cupped over his crotch. "You have fun tonight? I had fun." He lolled sideways to look at Jared, watched as streetlamps molded and warped the line of hat, nose, cheeks and chin in slow strobe waves.

He felt good, buzzed but not too far gone, that girl's kisses a syrupy sense-memory that tingled his lips. Jared didn't answer so he leaned, prodded Jared's thigh with his other hand.

"You okay? I didn't getcha sick, did I?"

Jared laughed. "No, 'm fine. Just--I'm the more soberer. The morer less drunk. No, I mean, you know, I'm driving. But, still, ain't all the all sober." He huffed. "I'm concentratin'."

Jensen left his hand where it was. "Concentratin'. Good thinking." He closed his eyes and smiled. "Real good."

He stroked lazy lines on Jared's thigh and hummed tunelessly to the country song on the radio he wasn't with it enough to recognize. Jared yawned and stretched towards him, and his fingers tipped around to bump the inside seam in Jared's jeans. Jensen slid his hand higher, tightened his hold and kept it there, and his cock throbbed hot and happy beneath his other hand.

The road and strange whip-by lights and radio blurred and Jensen traced the seam with his thumbnail, pictured Jared's intense stare slanted at him as he'd nuzzled blondie's neck.


He grunted.

"Hey. We're here." Jared patted Jensen's wrist and he lifted his head, looked around.

He let go of Jared's leg and wiped his eyes. "Oh, right. Still hafta ride tomorrow." He'd been mostly out, drifted in the expectation they'd just keep on going.

Jensen smothered a yawn with his fist and shook himself, waist up, clicked the door open and slid from the truck. He staggered and laughed, got interrupted by a rough belch. He reached over, caught himself on the hood, then remembered to close the door. He thunked his head onto the truck, appreciated the cool metal on his skin, decided maybe standing here a moment would be a wise move.

"Whoa--I'm drunker than I remember." He wobbled forward, hand over hand, and Jared came around to meet him. They stumbled to their room together, arm in arm, and Jensen pushed his face into Jared's hair as they worked the keycard.

Jensen thought stupid things, like how even after smoke and sweat and beer Jared's hair smelled nice. That it was a good thing cowboys didn't go to sleep with their spurs on. Being shorter, for once, and how that wasn't so bad at all. He rounded his hips into Jared and Jared let him, pressed a leg into the long furrow created by his.

The small light on the lock finally blinked green and Jared let out a quiet whoop, pushed the keycard into Jensen's back pocket then them into the room. He kicked the door shut and they turned round one another in an unsteady waltz, Jared's hand still in Jensen's pocket, Jensen's face still pushed into Jared's neck. Their feet knotted up and they tripped, tumbled onto a bed, and Jared was a near-irresistible weight of boneless sprawl and laughter.

Jensen lay there a time, hovered on the verge of passed-out sleep, Jared's hand an uncomfortable lump under his butt. His head spun but he made himself sit up, dragged Jared with him, and he ignored Jared's pout as he disentangled them then rolled to a stand. He shuffled across the room and filled every glass he could find with water, let the tap run as he sloshed his way back and forth to the flimsy bed stand.

"Here. Drink this. Makes the morning easier." He said that after each delivery, including refills, and with every one he braced his knees to the bed and drank it down in a messy swallow while Jared scowled up at him before doing the same.

After he'd lost count he decided that was sure to be enough. He nodded and turned off the water, then couldn't figure why the light was still on. He stared up at it, thought it through, then punched at the switch over the sink, grunted in satisfaction when it went dark. He pushed from the small counter, pivoted, wheeled forward then landed heavy on the empty bed. Jensen groaned and rolled on his back, spread his legs wide, feet on the floor.

Dots of blurry light and color danced in front of him--even with his eyes closed, he discovered--and he pushed his arms overhead, crinkled the comforter in his hands. Jared still sat there near the middle of the bed, elbows on his thighs and head dropped forward, lost in a tired, sodden stupor. The room was nice and quiet, muted blend of faraway light spillover and dark shadows.

"Hey." Jensen let one hand wander, edge of the mattress and down, down. He opened his eyes to find the dots faded and mostly gone.

Jared listed onto his side facing Jensen and mumbled something indistinct.

"Never did say."

"Was I supposed to?" Jared's bed creaked as he tucked his legs up onto it and he yawned again. "Wait--say, what'd I say?"

Jensen chuckled and looked over. "Nothing, s'why I'm asking."

"Oh." Silence, then Jared yawned out, "What was my answer?"

"Dude, you're drunker than I remember too. Wonder how you got us here without killing somebody." Jensen imagined waking up tomorrow choked by his shirt and frowned, tugged the buttons and sighed with pleasure as they popped open, easy-like, one after the other.

All buttons undone but he heard more tinny shuck-snaps, frowned, then realized Jared had taken his cue. Jensen's eyes had adjusted enough so he could watch, Jared's tall leanness washed over in yellowish-blue and gray.

Jared shrugged and twisted, one shoulder up then the other, didn't get either freed from his undone shirt. He huffed and quit, stretched full onto his back then untucked his tank, slid a hand under the hem. He scratched at certain places and sighed happily. "Talent."

Jensen waited to know what that meant, then he snorted. "Stupid."

"You let me drive." Jared toed out of his boots and kicked them off the bed, undid his belt, then his jeans.

Jensen could make out Jared's belt buckle, an oval gleam dangling at the end of Jared's belt off the side of the mattress. He flushed over with heat, muttered and did likewise, stuck a hand in his boxer-briefs to rest on his tummy. "'m drunk."

"'m underage." Jared's voice was heavy and warm with laughter.

Jensen crept his hand further. "Yeah well. Yeah." His memories of tonight were hazy and only of Jared, big hand curved around that girl's breast, cheeks flushed red with arousal and alcohol, everything long spread so wide it bumped into Jensen everywhere.

He eased out a full, deep breath, moved his hand carefully trying not to make a rustle, then he circled his cock in hand and gave it a squeeze. His toes cramped in the carpet and he thought about the color of Jared's eyes, not quite green, not quite brown, definitely not blue. His were green, never brown, and he'd been staring at Jared's hands scritch-scratching lower and lower this whole time.

Jensen cleared his throat and looked away hastily. There was a halo around the door and the window, tiny triangles of light formed by the up-down poke of the curtain top. The walls were dimensionless, could be near enough to touch or several feet away.

"Yeah," Jared echoed on an indrawn breath, wet and ripe and infused with heat.

Jensen had to see.

What Jensen could make out both frustrated and tantalized. Jensen could discern the sleek highlight of skin from dull fabric, could tell parts from parts, but there were no true colors, no details. Jared had his elbow planted on the bed and his forearm was a blur of motion. His up-down pulls let Jensen picture the length of his cock--long, long, everything long--matched his strained legs and arched back, tangled hair and busy hands.

It stole his breath, and the sharp ache to see more was stronger than his shame.

Jensen's cock twitched and he groaned. Jared's breath stuttered and he dragged his gaze up Jared's body, knew despite shadow that Jared looked at him, too. He grunted and thought fuck it, thrust his hips into his fist with a greedy sigh and peeled his boxers back with his other hand. He bit his lip and jacked faster, hoped he wasn't so drunk this would just get him nowhere, and Jared paced his stroke and speed.

Feathered fingertip swipes across the head, solid grind of palm at the base, twisted pull up and start again.

Sweat beaded on his forehead and started to tickle his back and the backs of his knees. The muscles of his thighs were hot, rippled and strained, and he felt the heat against the damp on his wrist, cock and hand. Jared whimpered and Jensen cursed, riveted by the frantic desperation of Jared's arm and hips, the whispers and slap of their skin, that he'd been given this to watch and Jared's eyes were on him.

He tried to think of something to say--she was really into you, you knew that right--c'mon feels good don't it c'mon--but even the syllables of Jared's name eluded him.

Jared tensed and wrenched sideways, and Jensen knew he'd come. He gurgled and gasped then subsided with a deep sigh, lay there and watched Jensen hurry to follow. Jared palmed then tugged his cock, slow and easy, whimpered and shifted almost uncomfortably but didn't stop.

Jensen came from the sight, the idea, the sensory overload. It wasn't mind-blowing but it didn't disappoint, and he drowsed there after, thumbed and rubbed his cock until it hurt. He listened to Jared pant and licked his lips, smiled, bunched his hand in his shirttail and dragged it clumsily over his middle.

His eyes pulled shut and he let them stay down. "Hey Jared?"


Jensen pushed against the floor and scootched enough to get his legs all the way on the bed. "Didja have fun tonight?" He curled on his side and stuffed his hand under his cheek, nose twitching at the sour odor of his spunk and skin too long steeped in a seedy bar.


He whuffed breath past a smile. "Good. Me too, so, good." With that he reeled away, languid and dizzy, Jared's low snore a pleasant vibration so comfortingly nearby.

\\ // \\ // \\ // \\

There was light in his eyes, over-bright and harsh. His arm was swollen deadweight pinned under him and his bladder screamed at near-bursting. Jensen levered up and the comforter stuck to his face, glued there by a mix of dried sweat and drool. He peeled it away and grimaced, rubbed at the crick in his neck then promptly fell on the floor. His head didn't quite feel like it would cave in, his tongue wouldn't pry from the roof of his mouth and he stank.

Somehow it seemed easier to get back on the bed and go over, and he was halfway crawled across, knotted in blankets, when he realized the flaws of that logic. He rolled onto his butt and pushed onto his feet, then shuffled to the bathroom.

Jensen smacked the shower on and stripped, left his clothes right where he stepped from them into the water. It wasn't warm yet, stung cold on his skin, and he winced but didn't have the energy to move.

He stuck his head in the spray and closed his eyes, relaxed, pissed and groaned with relief. He reveled in the heat that built in the water and pounded his scalp and shoulders. He pointedly didn't think overmuch about last night, muzzily convinced himself nothing out of the ordinary for a couple of drunk, horny guys had happened.

He grabbed the soap from the tiling ledge and held it, stood there replaying the needy sounds Jared had made, didn't do anything about the dried come slowly loosening from his skin.

"Jensen?" Jared croaked, and it echoed hollowly around the bathroom.

He grumbled incoherently.

"Man. My teeth are wearing sweaters. Like, heavy wool ones. Bleh."

Jensen grumbled again and absently lathered the soap then spread the foam behind his ears and down. He listened to Jared piss, thought flushing would probably be okay because this was a big hotel, and big hotels had a lot of water to go around. Maybe he should mind but he hadn't exactly shut the door, and there was no good reason for Jared to suffer when all he was using was the tub.

Jared did flush, said whoops belatedly. Jensen opened his mouth under the spray and swished, spit it out. The water hadn't even cooled. He stayed in until the annoying arena country song in his head unraveled, then he stepped on the shower stop and closed the tap. He reached out, knocked over all the neatly folded and stacked towels, plucked one from the floor and scrubbed himself dry as he walked back into the room.

Jared just stood there, looked lost and bleary as he felt. Jensen sat on his haunches and dug out a pair of sweats then worked them on, gave his hair a brisk chafing then threw the towel towards the bathroom. He kneed onto the bed and set the alarm, gave them twenty minutes before they'd have to leave, then collapsed with a labored whump.

A few minutes later Jensen cracked an eyelid and Jared was still there, stupidly standing and swaying on his feet.

Jensen clambered onto his elbow and stretched, snagged Jared's wrist. "C'mere." He pulled Jared onto the bed then dropped on the far side. "Plenty of time. Get some more sleep."

Jared sighed gratefully and tanked, quickly faded once more into oblivion. Jensen stayed awake a bit longer, smiled as he watched Jared sleep.

\\ // \\ // \\ // \\

They'd slept through the alarm but made it to the arena in time to sit hung on a rail and watch the others stagger in. The second round had gone about as good as the first, and that wasn't saying much of anything. Chad wasn't riding today and Dustin could barely walk.

Jensen had spent the time telling himself he wasn't avoiding Jared's easy glances and casual touch.

He tuned out Mike and John's banter as they talked to the crowd, stood at Jared's side and got ready with the rest of the cowboys who'd made the short-go.

Jensen had drawn Silver Bullet, felt his chances were pretty good. He'd seen this bull go out several times and ridden once, 5.6 and ass in the dirt his result. He sighed and grinned ruefully. "Should give the top boys a rest tonight--don't seem we need the rank ones today."

Steve puffed out his chest and planted his hands on his hips. "Speak for yourself, JR. I'm doing just fine, thanks."

"Yeah, you're hungover and Serious Business is gonna have his way with you, same as always. You were just lucky your second round bull was half-asleep." Tyler smiled from under his bandaged nose and greenish-black bruises. He'd made it to the short-go and was cleared to ride, would probably bail and land in a nervous lump, pick a direction, roll and hope for the best.

Jensen had done the same a time or two; they all had. Riding--no matter your condition--still gave you the chance to rack up points and dollars. Don't ride and you get what you went after, nothing for nothing. There were cowboys who sat out a round or rested an event or two when injured. It was their call and Jensen respected it, insofar as and knowing it was their right to decide. Definitely considered them pussies who gave up the fight too easy.

He was the first out of the fifteen who'd made it into the short-go, and Jeff waved from the dirt to signal the all-clear.

Jensen nodded and Jared followed him to the chute. He settled in, then they worked his rope. He punched his hand in a firm grip, tucked his toes under and rolled his hips, rocked forward then back and grabbed hold of the gate. He started to nod, felt Jared slap him once on the shoulder--good luck, keep safe.

Silver Bullet knelt under him and Jensen turned his heel to dig a spur into the bull's neck. One of the stock handlers leaned into the chute and tugged Silver Bullet's horn, yelled nonsense to urge the bull stand back up. Jared had hold of Jensen the whole time, saw him through a precarious tip sideways then a sudden, violent spring forward.

When Silver Bullet grumbled to a half-stand then sprang to kick up onto the chute, Jensen dug in and made up his mind. Go now or get and wait on another bull. He could take Silver Bullet, decided he would, right now.

"Don't gotta go, Jensen. This bull isn't going to stand--they'll give you the reride option." Jared pushed close and yelled in Jensen's ear to be heard over the general noise of the event. His breath was moist and warm.

Jensen suppressed a shudder and gritted his teeth. "Gotta go sometime," he argued, shook his head when Jared would have said more. "Either this or Mayhem--would rather go now, against this one."

"Yeah, yeah, fine. Just don't bitch about it 'round me after you're scrubbed loose when this bastard decides to undo himself." Jared waited until Jensen huffed, then nodded and leaned back. "He's going!" he called to the gate team.

Jensen licked his lips and flipped his chaps back over his thighs. He chewed his mouthguard into place and tightened his hand around his rope, then fixed his stare over the bull's nose. The gate opened and he listed far to the left. Silver Bullet held steady, motionless, then sprang from the chute with a sudden, ungainly jerk.

They cleared the gate by enough so there'd be no foul to give him a reride. Jensen was over-weighted to the left and he felt his rope go slack and his knees locked, then his shoulder got slammed into the railing. He stayed put while Silver Bullet bolted forward, sharp pain rattling all the way down his arm as he was dragged along the fence, and after he was pulled from atop the bull he crumpled to the ground.

On pure instinct he scrambled to his feet and back into the chute. He didn't even pause, just climbed the rails, rope slithered from around Silver Bullet's girth still in hand. He hefted over the chute back onto the platform, then brushed past Jared without a word. He wouldn't have bitched anyway, not for something this stupid, this stupidly his fault.

His jaw set, and his fingers and hand tingled as he bunched it into a fist. He could never feel his hand the first few seconds after a ride. Having his hand ripped from the rope increased that by about ten. He stormed across the platform and charged down the stairs, hunched his shoulders, clear in showing he was in no damn mood for anything.

Jensen sped in angry retreat down the shadowed back corridor, cursed and walked faster, jerked his rope so it'd snap then clang the cowbell against the wall. He spit his mouthguard into his hand, stuffed it into the pocket on his vest, could hear the cameraman's footsteps hard on his heels, wanted only to get away and be left alone.

Wasn't good enough. Not enough. That bull should have stayed under him, easy; he should have stuck, easier. He replayed their two-second tumble, didn't allow that being scrubbed along the gate just as Jared predicted was any excuse for not correcting and getting the job done. He should have rode, should have fucking rode.

He coiled his rope as he went, listened to the harsh scrape of metal over concrete then caught up the bell and slung the bundle in a pile at the end of the hall, pushed out the back door and just kept walking. The cameraman let him go.

He was angry, all-fire pissed off, hated that all his work from the other two rounds counted for nothing, here. Sure he'd get the points, would likely maintain overall lead, but it wasn't about only that for him.

Behind him every familiar sound fell into its place, rhythm he'd learned long ago then learned to ignore, muffled within the arena he didn't want back into until sometime far else. Strains of rock music, encouraging cheers, bolt of the gate. Jensen counted--closed his eyes and imagined, hips following the bull, eyes locked on a horn--and at exactly eight the buzzer called then was drowned by the crowd.

Jensen rolled his shoulders and pushed to stand, leaned back on his heels to stare at the stars. Same here as anywhere, as home, grounded him with that comfort. He'd pointed that out to Chris, once, got a look that suggested he'd sprouted a second head for the trouble. He didn't know why he'd chanced it again with Jared, couldn't fault or deny his pleasure at the quiet understanding he'd gotten in response.

It was cooler tonight, and after several rides Jensen started to feel it a bit too much, sweat evaporated and adrenaline gone. He tugged his vest open and after a last nod to Orion turned around. Of course he had to go back in, settle his tack then collect his stuff, hopefully not have to endure an interview. All the loose gravel seemed to find him to choke his spurs, flung wide to dust the trailing ends of his chaps. Jensen grumbled and hobbled the remaining distance, duck-walk preferable to almost falling over.

He looked up when someone whistled, grimaced and threw the bird at the unmistakable chuckle that followed.

"Aw now, don't be like that." Jared emerged from the shadows, an easy pull of his long frame from its lean on the wall. His hands were deep in pockets, glinting white of his grin teasing and infectious.

Jensen threw his arm and tilted his head, hid the crook of his answering grin under his hat. He came to a stop because Jared simply stood there, going on inside with or without the scrap never occurring to him. They shuffled and shifted, ended up closer together than they probably should be, and Jensen's gut tightened enough for his heart to pit-pat erratically then pause before thundering on.

"Figured you'd still be out here."

He nodded, thumb hooked in his belt, point of his elbow brushing Jared's side.

Jared reached out, paused, then braved the distance and wrapped a hand around his upper arm. "Can't ride 'em all, Jensen."

"Should." He swallowed a sigh and the want to shake Jared off. Should, he thought, no excuse other than he hadn't. Jared's fingers worked in light massage and Jensen suddenly felt suffocated, too hot and too close to the surface. He twisted loose, grabbed for the door.

He got as far as spun around, Jared in his face, shoulders pinned to the wall.

"I know we're cowboys and what we do is grit up, stoic and never a complaint, but damnit you don't have to be this hard on yourself." Jared's face fell, soft lines of worry and affection. "Know you always have been, for reasons I've yet to figure that go way deeper than this ride'em tall bullshit. But man--you don't gotta. I mean-"

Jared blinked and shook his head in a tense pull, quit on it, turned and kept blinking into the darkness, and the parking lot lamps limned his face in a muddy halo. Jensen listened for the sounds inside, wanted to reconnect to that safe familiar rhythm, only heard Jared's ragged breathing.

He started when a warm hand slid to cup his cheek, went wide-eyed as he watched Jared's close. His heart throttled his adam's apple and he choked in the attempt to demand the telling of what the hell was going on. Jared's lips ghosted over his, stayed a moment barely touching, then pressed a dry, cool kiss to the corner.

Jensen shot to a stand and filled his fist with a knot of Jared's collar. He straightened his arm, forcing Jared back a pace. His whole body tingled and his free hand shook. Jensen curled it, reared and punched Jared with fury and everything behind it.

His knuckles cracked in sickly answer to the pop of Jared's jaw. Jensen drew back--hit again or in horror, he couldn't tell--didn't let go of Jared's shirt. His fist raised higher and he had a stupid flash of relief this was his free hand, wouldn't be swollen and stiff next time he had to ride. Jared met his glare, held it defiantly, lips that had kissed him so gentle and sweetly tentative punished in a compressed line. Disappointment, matched anger, fear.

The fear is what got Jensen, what shucked his hand to slap harmlessly at then hold Jared's neck. His palm throbbed with Jared's pulse and it shocked awareness and crazy exhilaration he couldn't put name on into his veins, made him want things he'd never before allow himself to admit. He twisted his other hand further, used practiced leverage to spin them around once more, kneed Jared into the door.

They stared at each other, Jared's eyes watery and squinted in pain, and Jensen struggled with what next, what now. He stepped nearer then leaned, slammed Jared into the door again, put them level. The brim of Jared's hat bent too far, had to give, and it fell to the ground.

Jensen watched after it, as if it mattered, rubbed tiny circles on Jared's neck with his thumb, willed whatever was gumming up his brain to get unstuck and tell him what to do. Jared's legs were footed far apart, jeans bunched under belt buckle and chaps. It stole Jensen's breath when he recognized and could trace the hard line of Jared's cock, wondered over what part of this kept Jared excited, wondered more that his cock jumped with sudden life.

He didn't want a kiss. None of that crap--he wasn't that kinda man--but somehow he sure liked the idea of getting closer and smelling only Jared, feeling only that telling hard length snugged to his.

Jensen kept hold of Jared's neck, liked the track of pulse that told him so many things against his skin. He let go with his other hand, skimmed it down, curled three fingers into Jared's waistband and tugged them, pressed forward, and their buckles clattered together. He strained onto his tiptoes and his spurs jangled over Jared's boots, turned in to scoot under his feet. Jared gasped, went rigid, then a long arm coiled to fit at the rise of Jensen's butt, dragged him impossibly closer with the force of the punch Jared hadn't even attempted.

It was strange and he was sure he'd lost his mind but his hips needed no learning or getting used to this idea. They canted, pulled away then thrust wildly, ground around chasing friction and the almost-reachable pressure of enough. Jared's head tipped onto his shoulder and Jensen's face screwed up, eyes clenched tight and he bit into his lip to stay silent, blush and sweat sticking his cheek to Jared's vest.

Hands bigger than Jensen had ever known grappled with him, not quite overcome in strength, more than capable to wrap around his thighs and maneuver him, heft the force of his thrusts. Jared panted and chewed out a long string of curses under Jensen's ear. He shivered and something white-hot flared in his belly when Jared said his name. This was runaway and easily the stupidest thing he'd ever done, and no bull could compare to the high this surged into him or the terror it menaced.

Jared's hands kneaded his ass, all gentleness gone, and Jensen liked it but wasn't sure it felt good. He didn't know what to do with his hands, held too tight around Jared's neck, the other still snared in Jared's belt. They rucked and twisted, and that place where they'd finish and collapse into was frustratingly just out of reach. Jensen wanted to give this up in favor of falling back and fucking his fist. He tilted and Jared squirmed then his knuckles were smeared hot and wet with the tip of Jared's cock.

He went stock-still, shuddered, and Jared's hands gripped so hard Jensen groaned in protest. His hand ached from punching Jared and the slippery anticipation over it was just like he'd draw from himself. He braced his knees and wanted more, to climb Jared and find whatever it was that taunted at the edges, fumbled his hand deeper, pinched by buckle and buttons, then Jared's come slicked up his wrist and into his palm.

Jensen gaped and then he was coming, too, hard and anything but easy, cranked up into Jared and leaned too far back at the hips, teeth in the flesh under his lip and clenched-shut eyes that'd betray him bloodshot in the morning.

Jared's arms slackened, useless and shaking, and Jensen almost fell onto his backside. He was tripped by Jared's toe, landed into Jared's sturdy chest and let himself be held, loose but close, head on Jared's shoulder as he tried to chase his breath, hat tilted far back on his head.

He wanted to shrug and laugh and no big deal take themselves back inside. He wanted to turn tail and run, scared and yellow. He wanted Jared to kiss the other corner of his mouth, weightless and fleeting, nothing but for the sweet symmetry and need to know this was gonna be okay. Instead he remained firmly planted, feet staggered with Jared's, and regretted the mess in his jeans but not the heat that'd brought it.

They listened through the last few rides--gate clang and the crowd cheer, buzzer sing and the crowd's response--stayed tucked near to each other but didn't push for more. Jensen smiled at the tentative landing of Jared's hands on his waist, then thumbs absently kneading his sides in long, slow passes, and he tried not to shiver.

"Cold?" Jared's voice wasn't even a whisper, cracking and wrecked.

Jensen nodded. Better reason than trying to fight wanting things he couldn't even name, here. "Expect so," he said, planted a hand on Jared's shoulder and levered to a stand. He teetered and Jared's fingers lowered and tightened around his hips. When Jensen didn't meet Jared's eyes they started to open and slide away. He let them.

They straightened their clothes and gear, and Jensen grimaced at the uncomfortable squishing that was soon to stick going on in his jeans. Not the brightest of moves, this. He tugged at the zipper placket and wriggled, tried to make room between balls, wet and skin. He moved his head so his hat dropped off then caught it, fit his fingers in the dent and held it in front of him.

Jared bent over to get his hat, dangled it on his thumb and a finger in front of his groin. He stood and wriggled same as Jensen, high-stepping to get slack in denim. He looked ridiculous; this was ridiculous.

Jensen snorted and Jared glanced over. He shook his head and grinned, then Jared grinned and then they laughed, full-out and loud. It felt good, released the coil of tension that had begun to wind between them, righted their loss of equilibrium. It lasted almost too long, weak and a trace hysterical, but then it gentled to warm burbles and peaks of silly chortles.

Jared bit his lip and leaned into the door, held it open for them. Jensen slipped past, paused because he thought there was something else he needed to do, then remembered and gathered his riding rope. He cursed as he stooped over, tugged at his jeans and made a face as he got back up.

Jared started to laugh again and Jensen managed a glare. "Can it," he muttered. When Jared kept laughing he stopped short, hip-checked sideways. Jared squawked, hat now crushed into wet jeans, wet jeans now crushed in a bunch.

"Jerk," Jared breathed.

Jensen laughed then yelped when Jared came after him. They jostled down the hall, half-wrestling and giddy, ended sprawled through the door into the locker room with the other cowboys, Jared heavy on top of Jensen.

"Figured you'd still be spitting fire, JR." Justin walked over and stood next to them.

"Or pissing it," A.J. called from across the room.

Jensen waved a dismissive hand, figured it would probably be good if he moved about now.

Justin toed his shoulder. "Just glad someone finally got along who could talk you outta being the asshole you usually are when you don't ride."

"Wait--Silver Bullet got the better of JR? Say that again, think I missed it." Chad grinned and flicked a chunk of dirt from his spur their way.

"Aw shut it," Jensen said. He met Jared's eyes, this time, and his lips twitched then were teased into an answering smile. It didn't seem as bad, and for the first time after not making his ride, his pique was settled by thinking the next time and the next bull would be his.

Jared held him a moment longer then rolled back, hefted him to stand. Jensen decided he'd sit and fiddle at getting undone, wait out the rest of the boys so he didn't have to try and dart out of here with crusty jeans and a look of distaste. Jared settled on the bench alongside, clearly intent to wait it out with him.

Jensen hid behind his hat, threw Jared a warm grin and a wink, made a show of untying the lacings on his chaps. Jared nudged him then started to clean mud-clogged rowels.

They sat in easy silence until everyone else had gone. Then they gathered their tack and Jared followed him outside to his truck without a word. Once seated Jensen looked over, nodded as he cranked the engine. Jared nodded back and stretched into the seat.

It felt good.

The drive went quick and Jensen was glad to see another shower. He waited on Jared's then turned off the tv, and they lay in silence, listened to each other relax, breathe.

"Tomorrow before heading out of town--we should actually go see the Arch."

Jensen smiled. "Yeah. Was just thinking the same." Couldn't think of anything better.

\\ // \\ // \\ // \\

"JR, I'm not surprised to report that you're still in the points lead, but wow, this was a rough weekend. Those bulls really seemed to have their way with you guys!" Lauren smiled sympathetically.

Jensen laughed shortly. "Yeah, sure seemed that way. Maybe we used it all up last week, you know, it's hard to tell. Those bulls are competitors same as us, so maybe they got together and decided they'd had enough of being ridden."

"Well I hope you have better luck next week. We did have some good news on the day, however. I'm sure it meant a lot to you to hear that Chris is up and around and getting better every day."

"Oh yes ma'am. Of course I'm very glad for that and, you know, thank the Lord for always looking out for us." Jensen smiled and resisted scratching the back of his neck.

Lauren nodded. "Any last thoughts before I let you disappear and get on your way to Baltimore?"

Jensen had plenty, and none he'd ever share. "I'd just like to thank my sponsors, and even with the success I've had, I'm like every other cowboy here, grateful for all the support I get."

"Nice--who's your top sponsor these days?" Lauren grinned, handed that to Jensen on a silver platter.

Jensen forced a wide grin and said right into the camera, "Chevy. Best trucks in America."

|| Baltimore To Omaha and Five Between ||

The Atlantic gave way to land, crab cakes to sweet-sauced ribs, much as it had when all this began. Jared made them stop to see Chimney Rock, asked after Devil's Tower, and Jensen had found himself agreeing before he'd been able to protest it was nowhere near along the way. They were deep into the grind of the season and miles and days flew by without much to distinguish them, one end of the country to the other in too short a stretch. The Pacific followed on hard, found them tired at its shore, three days of bullriding in two states quick behind them.

Tacoma to Albuquerque afforded them a breather and over a week to get from one to the next. They'd burned four of the days sleeping and messing around somewhere in Utah, visited salt flats and the Arches as they'd pushed southerly. Nampa was ahead of them, back the way they came, and they were satisfied in one another and exhausted from the wear and tear. Jensen held fast to the points lead, figured he'd had a decent run making the short-go four-of-four. Jared had gained in comfort and confidence, improved with all these top bulls to ride and Jensen's help, and both were onto the notion they preferred the quiet weeks to the excitement of the weekend events.

Jensen was sorry to put Albuquerque behind them. He liked New Mexico, always had, and it'd been a good weekend, all in. Jared had won the event, he'd been right after in second, and no one got stomped. They'd spent Sunday night in Albuquerque, stayed today to take in the city then Santa Fe, were on their way to Idaho via wherever Jared wanted in Colorado, then Jackson Hole.

He liked the sound of that, hoped they had time to stop and stare at the Grand Tetons, not be pressed and have to settle for simply driving by.

Jared was elated with his first PBR win, sat next to Jensen still smiling about it. Jensen was proud of him, so of course had told Jared not to get the big head.

Jensen kicked the small cooler that had taken up residence on the hump between the footwells. "This is just beyond reproach." He shook his head sadly when Jared turned to look at him.

"What? It's smart is what it is. Candy would melt from the engine heat if it wasn't in there."

Jensen sighed. "No, that I let you do it."

Jared sparkled, at that, happy, near-abashed blush Jensen delighted in seeing.

"Hmm," Jared breathed then got himself some sour gummi things, partly for show, knew Jensen liked them just as much.

He held out his hand and Jared snorted, so he reached over and dug into Jared's side until Jared relented, tumbled his palm filled with candy. They munched companionably, Jared singing along to whatever country song, while the pale, brilliant sense of this place streaked past. Another hour and they'd be in Colorado.

"What'll you do with yourself when you're done riding?"

Jensen smiled inscrutably, wiped the sugar stuck to his hand on his jeans. "Who said that'll ever happen?"

Jared was unimpressed. "Your balky knee. Your aching back. Maybe that noggin' of yours--one more hit and you're woo-woo." He looped a finger next to his temple.

"Throw that in my face. Nice." Jensen breathed shortly. "Never should have told you."

Toward the end of last season he'd been knocked out cold, laid there in the dirt unmoving for longer than was good, his latest in a career of bad concussions. Doc Jim had made Jensen go for an MRI, then warned him on no uncertain terms another that bad might be his last--either it'd kill him on the spot or scramble important parts into gray soup. Jensen kept riding anyway, needed the money, not quite ready to say done. Over the holidays he'd decided that this season would be his last, leave with the buckle and his dignity intact, keep his intention to retire good and secret until after he was gone.

"Jim said your head wasn't as hard as your mule stubbornness. I promised I'd look out for you, make sure you didn't act any stupider than usual. Said if that started happening, something might be wrong." Jared nudged Jensen's leg.

"Oh?" If it'd been anyone but Doc and Jared, he'd have minded. As like this, he was just fondly amused. That and a mite annoyed.

"Yeah, after Buckshot trampled you under in Tacoma. And don't blame Jim--someone had to make sure you didn't suddenly go off your nut after that--who's a likelier choice than me?" Jared chuckled. "Don't worry. I won't let on that I'm paying you special attention. Not even with these still bothering you." He tapped the line of stitches that went from eyebrow and back into Jensen's hair.

Jensen winced. He wouldn't admit it, but they hurt a bit, mostly drove him crazy with itch. Jared's thumb landed just below the first stitch and Jensen tilted his head and grunted as Jared rubbed soothing circles at each suture.


"Hmm?" Jensen tilted the other way to encourage Jared to continue down the other side.

"You were going to tell me if you're moving to Florida or Arizona when you retire. Maybe get an RV, some lawn flamingos."

"Oh yeah, now you're talking. Kick back, grow a beer gut, learn how to spit sunflower seeds into a cup."

"Humph." Jared tugged the thin skin around the last stitch. "Bull. Shit."

Jensen shrugged. "What? You started it." He caught Jared's hand and pulled it onto his leg, set their palms together. "Expecting something else? Never have been a hobby man--don't figure I'll become one just because I'm no longer riding."

Jared straightened up. "So you have thought about it."

Jensen measured their fingers, the length of his thumb along Jared's. "Only in the sense that it's better than the alternative." He looked at Jared meaningfully.

"Hmm, yeah, ain't that the truth." Jared squinted at a road sign as they sped past. "A year ago I was flipped over the front of a bull--little squirt, almost dragged my feet when he bucked--but he was strong. And mean. Winded me clean when I landed and my hand twisted in the rope. Broke my hand and wrist through, cracked the ulna. Didn't see without spots in front of me for three days." He looked at Jensen and grinned. "Pissed blood for less than that, though, so figure I was lucky."

"Was it your riding hand?"

"Nope." Jared flexed the one under Jensen's.

"Definitely lucky." He felt over Jared's nails with the pad of his thumb. "You rode real good in Albuquerque. I still don't like the way you handle your free arm, or that get-off flying whatever crap you do, but your rides were good."

Jared scratched him. "I think that's almost a compliment, save for the part where I'm wanting to check with you before I decide, make sure."

Jensen tightened his grip when Jared tried to pull away. "I hardly ever tell anyone their riding is good so plainly, so quit your bitching." He rattled Jared's hand. "You never take the parts I want you to hear to heart, just get grouchy over the rest that don't matter."

"What about telling me I almost rode good for once doesn't matter?"

"I've always thought New Mexico was one of the prettiest states I've ever seen. Not even sure what it is about it--amazing blue sky, so many colors, the peace of being here. Should be burnt-out and brown like the desert it is, but it's not, gets you at every turn, like the fire inside an opal."

Jared choked in disbelief, and this time when Jared's hand tugged sharply from his, Jensen let go. He curled his into a fist, pressed it to his lips.

There was so much he wanted to say, words in all directions that collided and tangled then frayed, made no sense. No one had ever expected this much of him before, and he had nothing to go on for how to tell someone all that mixed-up everything that filled his heart and head.

Maybe it'd be best if after this stretch he told Jared he had to go home and check on the ranch. There was nothing but dust and scrub there so far, but Jared didn't know that and it might be good for them to take a break, have some space.

They passed ponderosa pines, so rich green to be almost black, stood against vivid persimmon and tallow rocks. He wanted to point them out, prove his meaning.

"Did you see Chris' wreck?"

Jared didn't answer.

Jensen clenched his jaw and glared at the sunset, hated its sudden profusion of brilliance, that it painted them through the windshield in mauve and orange and dying purple. He hated that Jared didn't even seem to see it, maybe didn't want to, and that was likely the fault of his making, somehow. He hated most that he just couldn't up and say well hey knock me down, but this whole two cocks things is pretty damn great. I have no idea what the hell I'm doing and I'm scared outta my mind, but I'm doing my best so just stay with me awhile longer. Stay with me.

He punched the steering wheel so hard the truck swerved and numbing vibration twinged his arm. Jensen felt the last hold of his temper snap, then all those words broke from him in a jumbled tirade.

"There are parts here, okay? Important parts. I just--I think you could be one of the best riders the PBR's ever seen, but you're careless and foolish and act like you don't have anything to learn. That wasn't the first Chris had nearly killed himself, and with each I could tell why, knew it, but he never wanted to listen to me, couldn't give me the credit or the time. So what's he do? Same as always, gets himself busted open, same as always. I'll be damned, but the stupid bastard deserved it.

"You throw your arm and tuck your leg when you bail--so you can wave fancy or always land on your feet, hell I don't know--and you're gonna get tossed up and over, just like Chris. But your better instincts will get you in more trouble, so much so there likely won't be a second time. And I don't how I'd-

"I don't always know what I'm doing. I try real hard to make it seem like it, but outside of riding bulls I'm as big a mess as anyone else. Riding's what I have, the best thing I do, and even that I'm afraid will start to slip.

"Don't you understand that no one else would sit in some nowhere place with me and tell me about whatever book they're reading, their dogs, or know how to let me say nothing and appreciate everything about simply being, let me say something as dumb as comparing the desert to an opal?"

Jensen thundered to a halt and his lungs heaved like he'd just run a mile's worth of wind sprints. Saliva flooded his mouth and for an agonizing minute he thought he was going to puke. Instead he breathed deep, shaky and slow, held it in then pushed it out again even slower. Then he fumbled the cap on the fruity water crap Jared had gotten him hooked on, cursed when it wouldn't just open.

He made himself drink it in careful sips, bravely ignored Jared's complete silence.

"Well." Jensen dented the emptied bottle with his fingers, kept squeezing so it'd inexorably crush in his grip. "Now you know why I just as soon keep things to myself."

The sun was nearly gone, nothing more than a brassy glint along the faraway lines of a Chinle formation. Jensen blinked at the cracked eggshell moon that had appeared to loom over the road, sighed because he'd just fucked up everything trying to fix this by explaining what couldn't be defined.

Jared gently pried the bottle from Jensen's hand and calmly tossed it in the back. "I'm gonna get back to school, finish my degree. That's what I want, way more than a career bullriding." He pressed his thumb into Jensen's palm and rubbed until fingers relaxed and opened, then he laid the back of Jensen's hand on his thigh, covered it with his so their palms fit together again.

"I actually had a bullriding scholarship--a few piddling academic ones too--but it wasn't enough. After my freshman year I'd figured out that if I did it right, I could ride pro for a time, earn everything through a PhD and then some. You saying I'm good at all makes me feel I might have a chance." Jared followed the veins in Jensen's wrist with a finger. "Even with all that I had to tell my parents that I'd quit, listen to them lie that they weren't disappointed. I don't think they believe I'll ever make it back."

Jared smiled sadly then sighed, shook himself and their hands. "I hear what you say, Jensen. Not just--not just when you're telling me things."

Jensen stared into the distance, watched the last of the sun disappear. "I want to raise bucking bulls, make a mint without giving this up completely or risking my hide." He tightened his hand around Jared's. "I have this notion, nothing I've told anyone before. Maybe it's effort thrown after waste, I don't know."

"I bet it's at least worth a try." Jared took it in stride, strain gone from his smile edging his dimples back.

"Hmmm," Jensen breathed, smiled too. "I've been thinking on blending Iberian stock into a proven Brahma line--you know, a corrida bull--just enough to introduce their stamina and shit-kicking attitude to a good bucker."

Jared nodded. "That's not so crazy. Either that or it's so crazy it might work." He grinned. "Got plenty of competition, so I can see that making for an interesting edge. We'll be able to come up with better names for the bulls, though, that's for damn sure."

Jensen tutted. "We?" It was a relief to say normal things and tease, sound normal saying them.

Jared stretched then leaned against the door, their hands a knot in his lap. "Hey, even being young and spry, I like to plan ahead too. And what if I decide I want a double PhD?" His smile faded, became clouded with something Jensen didn't quite understand. "I'll have to admit defeat some time."

"We all will," Jensen offered, twisted to knuckle Jared in the leg and tried to coax back that warm and generous acceptance he hadn't been sure he'd see again.

"We?" Jared repeated, dark undercurrents that made Jensen feel the water he was hustling to tread just got faster and deeper.

He nodded, tickled Jared's hip with a finger. "Yeah. Neither of us are ready to toss in our hats just yet. I've got a buckle to claim and you've got all that natural instinct to make good on, and schooling money to earn."

Jared still didn't smile, just nodded slowly then looked back outside.

Jensen bit his lip and lightly slapped the seat. "So, yeah. We."

"Moon is nice tonight. Huge. Like we could just drive right into it. Disappear." Jared caught Jensen's wrist again, slid their hands beneath his shirts.

It shot sudden, needy fire through Jensen, warmed him with foolish things that felt like plenty enough for now, plenty to keep going on.

"Is there a town nearby?"

"Hm, why, hungry?" Jensen started to move so he could dig around the back seat. "Know there's some jerky here somewhere."

Jared caught Jensen's elbow and nipped at the sensitive inner skin, tightened his hold so Jensen's hand stayed in place. "Not for food."

"Oh. Um--if you gotta go I could just pull over."

"Not that either."

Jensen licked his lips. "What are you thinking then?" He shuddered as Jared's teeth progressed down his arm then bit deep into the heel of his hand.

"Thinking we need a room."

Jensen didn't hesitate. "Then there's a town nearby."

He drove fast enough to make sure.

The next exit appeared in ten miles. He took it, relieved to see buildings and signs of life just off the interstate, slipped his hand from Jared's and put it firmly on the steering wheel. He stopped at the end of the off-ramp, looked both directions, wheeled them left towards Stay Rite Here's flashing red vacancy sign.

Jensen turned in the lot and slowed down, no need to spray gravel and cause any fuss. He drove around back of the motel and to the far end away from the office, reversed until the tailgate was under the small cedar-shingled awning. He killed the engine, snagged his hat then jumped out and turned around.

"Uh, why don't you just wait here. I'll be right back." He smiled then let the door half-close by itself, jammed his hat on and strode determinedly away.

The office door had been decorated to look like a Christmas gift, fat Santas and reindeer on old wrapping paper completely leeched of color. Jingle bells clanged against the glass as he entered, and he nodded at the desk clerk, told the guy the same lie he'd just run past himself after bolting from Jared.

"Got some good tack and equipment in my truck, so I'd rather not have it facing the road. Went ahead and pulled her 'round back, tucked in by room 12. Hope that's okay."

Easier to say that than admit part of him still felt an overwhelming pressure to stay hidden, just pretend this wasn't happening.

"I can certainly understand that. You ride?"

Jensen forced a grin. "Yup. Bucking bulls."

"You don't say." The guy smiled and stuck his hand out over the counter. "Well, then, my every respect for that, sir, and welcome to the Stay Rite. I'm Harmon--owner-operator--room 12 is all yours, it's twenty-four even per night, check-out's at two and you can pay me then. That sound good by you?"

Jensen took Harmon's hand and shook it, figured this guy for a once-rancher and still a horsemen, given the calluses and easy strength but being here and on in years. "That sounds perfect." He tried not to fidget.

Harmon nodded and pulled a key from a beat-up tool chest that sat beside him. "Catch the bullriding sometimes on the tee-vee. Have to say, always thought you boys were crazy."

"That's because we are." Jensen winked and threw the key up, caught it again, then started to turn away.

Harmon laughed. "Yeah well, I expect so, considering." He scratched his cheek and shook his head. "You be needing anything else?"

Jensen paused, held onto the open door. "No, thank you kindly."

"Have a good night, then. There's a list of restaurants on the table next to the phone, if you're wanting." Harmon waved as Jensen backed out and nearly bolted.

Cold sweat broke on his forehead and Jensen wished he'd just pulled the truck to sit on some deserted lane and got this out of their systems that way. He'd been foolishly terrified Harmon would recognize him, ask what it was like to be on tv then somehow realize he had Jared waiting on him, who Jared was, know everything about what they were here to do.

Jared reclined in the truck, eyes closed, and Jensen stood there several minutes and tried not to be afraid. Then he took a deep breath, opened the door.

"That went fast." Jared perked a brow but otherwise didn't move.

Jensen looked down at the key. "Not much to say." He sighed sharply and grabbed behind Jared for his bag, then walked along the truck to their room. This was too damn hard, too much work, going from out of his mind horny to irrationally scared then savagely disappointed in the space of a few minutes.

Should have just jerked-off in the truck and been done with it.

Jensen unlocked the door then squawked when Jared plowed into him, near full tackle, landed him on the bed then tugged him to sit, feet on the floor. He lost hold of his bag, bounced and blinked. "What the-"

The rest choked under the curl of his tongue when Jared dropped between his legs and fumbled with his jeans. Jensen lifted his butt and batted Jared's hands aside, had the button, zip and his shorts opened then down at his ankles in record speed.

Jared reached for Jensen's cock, and it hardened quickly in his hand. He stroked once firmly then looked up, licked his lips, heat-drowsy eyes more black than color. "Can I?" He trembled, stroked Jensen again, wanted to.

All Jensen could do was nod.

He cupped his hands over Jared's cheeks, flushed so hot they made his palms sweat. He grinned when Jared moaned greedily, hissed when Jared ducked lower and nibbled the head of his cock. Jensen bit into his tongue to stop himself from coming. He'd had this before, plenty of times, but he couldn't even remember them to compare to Jared's experimental licks and intermittent, breathy suction.

Jared fingered the slit and Jensen's hips jerked involuntarily. He felt Jared tense and try to muffle a gag.

"Sss-sssrr," he said, close to words as he could get, combed Jared's hair to soothe and encourage.

Jared went down again, thumbed the underside of Jensen's cock and rubbed his tongue over the tip. He opened wider and sucked the head in, hint of teeth that Jensen didn't mind, then he pressed his knuckles into Jensen's balls and pulled off in an unpracticed, sensuous drag of mouth, all wet and hot.

Jensen shuddered at the sight Jared presented--mussed hair, shiny pink lips, tongue in reach for another taste. He grunted, couldn't take any more. He closed his hand over Jared's and jacked them roughly over his cock, almost stood up when he came. He shouted--could barely even breathe--then fell back onto the bed.

It seemed like the bed spun beneath him. Jensen panted, swallowed, and when Jared moved he mumbled indistinct, sweet sounds, lightly caressed Jared's cheek, remembered. He drew Jared's head to rest on his knee, asked, "You?" Wasn't sure he could do anything about it if Jared still had need.

Jared muttered and wrapped an arm around his leg, and Jensen took that to mean it was all good.

He sighed and lay there calming down, watched the digital clock, fingers lost in the silky slide of Jared's hair. The top of the hour flipped round into quarter-past, and he patted Jared and tried to gather his senses.

"How'd you like pizza for dinner?" Inane, practical, what else was he supposed to say.

Jared chuckled, turned to flop against the bed, rested his head back on Jensen's knee. "Yeah. Pizza sounds good."

Jensen grunted and thought any minute now he'd get up, find that list, send Jared in to enjoy first shower.

\\ // \\ // \\ // \\

"Not much to get into today, JR. I just know all the ladies back home enjoy getting a good look at you--and, have to say I don't mind it much either." Lauren grinned and actually did the wink-elbow thing when she nodded at the camera.

Jensen adjusted his hat, waited a beat then said, "Well then, guess that means I can go."

"Not quite so fast!" Lauren laughed, snagged his arm just in case. "These past several weeks you've really seemed on the offensive. You're really attacking your bulls, getting after those big rides, holding onto some really rank bulls. Your third-place finish here in Omaha puts you almost a thousand points above the cowboy sitting at number two! How do you do it?"

Jensen smiled humbly and rested a hand on his hip. "I just never give up. If a bull wants to be tough, I'll be tough. If I gotta hold on sideways and with one leg, well, I hold on. That's the way I take every ride."

"I'd say by how you're going, that's a good way to be." Lauren grinned.

He touched his hat again and nodded. "We're gonna see, but I sure enough hope so."

|| Billings ||

Jensen had been on the early draw this evening, earned an 84.25 on Silver Bullet, good score for the first round that kept him in contention. It'd been satisfying to get the rematch and the better of that bull, and the way the cowboys were flying around tonight, he might even squeak into the short-go without a ride in round two. Wouldn't please him to get it that way, but he'd take it, all the same.

He looked around the arena, nodded at other guys and soaked in the general air. He enjoyed riding in Billings. The crowd was enthusiastic but laid back, smartly appreciative, clapped just as hard for the cowboy with gumption as they did for the showy rides.

Jared had ridden Change Your Evil Ways and was sitting on an 89. That was the highest so far and Jensen figured him to win the round. If he did, come round two tomorrow Jared would get a shot at the five-thousand-dollar bonus ride, would earn it if he stuck tight all eight on the bull.

Jensen grinned. "Looking like our next steak dinner's gonna be your treat."

Jared laughed and shoved him over, then sprawled in a widely pitched lean on the rail to block Jensen from getting back close. "Nothing says I'll gather my next bull up for a qualified ride. And you know, plenty of cowboys left to go tonight that could do better than me."

Jensen acted like he didn't want close, anyway, twirled on his heels to rest his elbows on the railing opposite Jared on the platform walkway. "Says you," he teased, poked at Jared's toe with his spur.

They never said anything more than they'd do their best, usually with a healthy dose of self-depreciation thrown in for good measure. It was bad manners to boast otherwise, bad mojo too, even if they'd never fess up to being superstitious.

Jensen patted his belly. "Looking forward to it. Mmm, huge sirloin cooked rare, baked tater swimming in butter, tasting all the better because I don't have to pay for it."

Jared kicked him in the shin and he yelped, pulled his leg back then stamped his foot to chase away skitters of tickly hurt. To make up for it Jared wriggled left, drew his arm to his body, smiled from under his hat. Jensen fell forward and knocked into place alongside, their shoulders touching, hands clasped in front of them, same position.

It'd started in Kansas City. Jensen had gotten the chance on an amazing ride, then won the bonus money with another. When they'd stopped for dinner the next night Jared had suggested a nicer restaurant for once, ordered a monstrous steak, told the waitress it was on Jensen, his world famous bullrider friend, don't you recognize him.

She hadn't, but the family in the opposite booth had, asked for a picture they'd been happy to stand for and take.

Every bonus ride made since they had themselves a steak dinner, went out of habit or a tradition created or to ensure the mojo kept rolling. A bit and all of each. Mostly they were happy to share this, tease and take advantage.

Jensen watched Mike, painted face and dorky shenanigans, was glad he only ever had to ride. Nothing wrong with being the entertainer and barrel man, of course, far from it, but Jensen didn't have it in him to entertain the crowd during the lulls between rides. Mike was in the middle of one of his signature favorites--a Michael Jackson medley, limbs akimbo everywhere with a punctuated crotch grab as he danced around--and the strains of Billie Jean were drowned out by applause as Mike moon-walked to then up on the shark cage.

"I can forgive the dancing. The make-up I understand. I even allow that Mike's good at what he does, can get in there and distract the bull if need be. All that almost gave me hope for the guy. But for fuck's sake--Michael Jackson?" Jensen sounded genuinely pained.

Jared threw his head back and laughed, so hard that at first he only spasmed soundlessly, then he collapsed into helpless giggles and finally choked hiccups. Jensen grinned and slapped Jared on the back. He'd gotten over minding being close to such a big personality and the attention it drew, even started to like how it made people realize that yes, he had a sense of humor, and a damn good one at that.

He chuckled when Jared landed to wheeze on his shoulder, winked and waved at a little cutie in the audience who stared at them raptly while being danced on her daddy's legs. She was maybe three, wore a tiny pink cowboy hat, beamed just like Jared did whenever he took notice.

Jared coughed and hip-checked him. "Man." He tipped his face into his hands and wiped the tears from his cheeks and eyes.

Jensen shrugged and cleaned his vest of invisible smudges. "Man what?"

"You are such an asshole."

"Hasn't sent you running yet."

Jared grinned and leaned close. "Won't."

Jensen accepted that almost as a challenge. He narrowed his eyes. "We'll see."

Mike had finished and was giving John a hard time as they informed the crowd of the upcoming tv schedule, the PBR's main sponsors and how many cowboys were left to ride. All four chutes were reset, and Lind was about to go for the third rematch of the night. The opening riff of Crazy Train screeched over the loudspeakers and everyone cheered, knew that meant it'd be Flogging Molly on the out.

Jared nodded at the chute where the bull snorted and pawed. "Doesn't stand a chance."

Jensen watched Lind grab onto the gate and nod, buff-colored hat going up-down while the bull created choppy swells. "Nope."

The gate swung wide and Molly charged the dirt, slung around hard, flipped Lind sideways after three seconds, too far back in his pockets to hold on. He'd been further undermined when his free arm dropped and wheeled him the opposite direction of Molly's tight spin, ran so far behind to literally lose his seat.

"Bull tipped right first on the jump then ran."

"Hit a spin soon as he was clear--to the left." Jensen nodded.

"Did that the last two times out." Jared zigged his finger though the air. "A few spins and he bucks, always clears both feet but usually goes straight up."

"After the buck he settles into another spin, now and again decides to run. Nothing too hard to handle."

Jared nodded. "Yup."

"Yup." Jensen grinned.

It was just more of what they did, he and Jared, compared notes on how they saw the bull, strategized for the times they'd be facing those beasts.

Jared nudged Jensen. "To the left would be into your hand."

He smiled. "Yeah. But away from yours."

Jared looked at him--almost too intimate for right here in the middle of everything--smiled back.

Lind pushed through the gate, shook his head and swore good-naturedly then grinned at the group of cowboys that waited to give him a ration of grief. Jensen had often wondered what exactly was wrong with that guy. He and Jared turned, leaned on the top rail to stare down from the platform at Lind, red-faced and covered over with dirt, chaps askew and hat flattened on one side.

"Got something on your cheek there, buddy," Chad offered.

Lind nodded and brushed at it absently. The brownish muck didn't budge.

"In your hair, too." Gabe flicked Lind's brim. "And on your hat."

Lind whipped it off and searched it, and his grin fell into a pout. "My hat? Dang, hate getting my hat dirty." He cuffed a smear around on the hat, only made it worse.

Jensen didn't say anyone fool enough to wear a nubbly, chamois hat deserved what they got. He smiled then did say, "You know, ain't the dirt that sticks."

He caught Jared's eye and a bubble of laughter welled up in his chest. Jensen sucked back and tried not to show it, but too soon Jared was grinning full out, and it escaped him in a rough bark that threatened to turn into more. He studied his boots and bit his lip, listened to the other boys chuckle, kept watch of Jared in his periphery.

Lind spit a messy wad of chaw and barely missed Jensen's toe--probably not on purpose, either way--and frowned. "Well shit-"

"Exactly," Jared pointed out reasonably, snark hidden under matter of fact.

No one could hold it in after that, and Lind threw his hands at them and turned on a heel, stalked away and grumbled as he disappeared along the back corridor.

Jensen steadied himself and sobered enough to catch his breath. "Too bad he couldn't have spit on your shirt. Could use some improvement."

"Shut up." Jared scowled, held an affronted hand over his heart. "Shirt's just fine, thank you."

Jensen gave it a long, hard stare, pink and white checked with tiny brown horses prancing in the whites. He rolled his eyes and decided not to argue, rapped his knuckles on Jared's vest then snagged a belt loop loose at Jared's hip with his finger. "C'mon. Steve's to go and I promised I'd stand on the bull."

Jared huffed but followed easy as that, the two in matched stride as they went back towards the chutes, shoulders knocking as they wove between the other cowboys and sundry that crowded back here.

Steve was on Zombie, and that bull was gonna eat him alive.

Jensen had managed Zombie once this season, almost had his shoulder dislocated for the effort. Jared whapped his arm and stood away, left Jensen to wade into the chute. He leaned against the top bar and swung a leg over, dug his spur into the bull's crest. Zombie was tucked in, only grunted then tucked in further. Jensen grimaced, bounced his heel off a horn to straighten Zombie's head, then brought his leg back over.

They got Steve's rope cinched and set, but it was clear Zombie wasn't looking to budge into much better position. Steve had a hand around the gate, taut, bloodless knuckles and sudden jerk in his wrist when Zombie staggered.

Jensen strained to hold Steve upright, one hand pressed in front, the other wrapped around at the nape. "You good? Want to set again?"

Steve lifted and resituated, gripped his riding rope harder and nodded vigorously. "Yeah, yeah. S'fine. Let's go!"

Jensen tilted at his hips as the gate flashed open, let his hands slide from Steve's vest as Zombie bucked up then bolted away. 1.6 seconds and Steve was ass over teakettle in the dirt, never had been ahead or even with the bull. He shook his head and straightened his chaps, turned to lean and keep company with Jared.

They both knew Zombie was a rideable bull, that they'd have stayed with it and gone all eight or busted something trying. Steve had given up after one and bailed, doffed his hat and shrugged at the crowd as he dusted himself off. Jensen let out a long sigh but didn't say anything. They weren't all the same kinda cowboy. Couldn't be.

Jared heard all the same, pointed at Dustin scrubbing dirt from his face and hands. He'd spurred and hustled but had been denied after a heartbreaking 7.8 seconds.

"Good ride. Didn't make the whistle but-"

"-he couldn't be faulted for trying." Jensen smiled at Jared and they understood one another, that easy. No shame in being bucked when the ride was given everything you had.

The crowd showed their appreciation and disappointment, and Dustin waved and nodded in acknowledgement, headed on back to be finished with this night, eyes on the ground, neatly evaded the cameras and Lauren's waiting microphone.

Chad was out next and gutted sticking Two Times Possessed. Jared clapped and whistled and Jensen didn't pass comment. That boy never would make it in style points, but he'd been continually surprised by Chad's grit and ready. He couldn't take that away just because they didn't quite get along, even if he secretly knew without a doubt Chad would never be world champ or top finisher.

After Chad's ride Jared slid close and whispered in his ear. "Let's get outta here."

Jensen quirked a brow but didn't comment, kept watching as cowboys set themselves then gave their try. Round one and everyone was getting the feel for this dirt and some new bulls, brought in by local stock contractors to give the circuit bulls a rest before the later rounds. So far Jensen had been reasonably impressed. So far he was still convinced he could breed better.

"Round's nearly done. We've both ridden. C'mon--why not." Jared slid away again but kept watch of Jensen.

After a moment's consideration Jensen bit his lip, stood and started to walk towards the side pens in answer. He went past the chutes and jumped down, led them around the long way. Easier like this, let them avoid friends and explanations. He felt Jared just behind him, not crowding or obvious as anything but tagging along, felt the hidden flare of heat and eagerness palpably sharp as well.

They'd already taken care of their tack and were shedding their vests, only had to pause to strip their chaps and bundle into their coats. Both were meticulous in that, part how they were taught, part what habits they'd come into of their own deciding. Nothing Jensen hated more than a long night made longer because he hadn't done the simple chore of boxing his vest, rope and rosin. Not much he liked better than Jared holding to the same.

Jensen didn't ask where to. He didn't know himself, was comfortable thinking for now they'd just drive. His let them into his truck and it growled to instant life when he turned the key. Jared laughed when he lovingly patted the dash and Jensen ignored it.

Billings wasn't long in filling his rearview. He looped through the center of the city west, sped along 302 towards Big Lake. The halo of the city was a glowing dome in the distance, peach-pink and crisp at the edges. Jensen thought about humidity and how it made light look soft, bled-over and indistinct, but this night was just sharp and cold.

Jared unsnapped his seatbelt and slid closer, just enough so their knees touched, put them in easy reach. Dark as it was, they were still two cowboys in a truck, and Jensen wasn't about to take Jared under his arm and snuggle them together.

He turned on the radio and found a station without static, soft old country that twanged and hummed, and let his hand drop just beside Jared's leg. It radiated warmth and invitation and he smiled at having it so near, at the permission the nearness implied. He pivoted on the heel of his hand until his knuckles dusted Jared's jeans. Jared's fingers drummed on the door frame along with the slow-sway song that murmured from the radio.

A car passed in the other direction, drag of headlights spearing into the cab that threw them in a spin of relief. It was the only other soul they encountered, all Jensen expected to see. He lowered his window a crack and breathed the cold air in deep, relaxed his arm over the steering wheel, sat back and drove with easy movements of his wrist. Jared sighed and pushed further against Jensen's hand.

Jensen got them down a county road cradled in the crag of a valley, rolled to a stop and idled. He patted Jared lightly then moved away, killed the engine, snicked the radio quiet then the lights, sat awkwardly tapping his thighs. He pulled his hands into fists, opened them slow, then brushed his palms over his jeans and shot out a short breath. He shook his head and tipped out of the truck and onto the road, grabbed a blanket from the back seat.

"Leave your hat in here--will just blow away, otherwise." He wadded the blanket under his arm and shut the door.

The stars here were glorious, countless and mesmerizing. He'd drive out to see them whenever he traveled this part of the country, would wait for a sunrise after trying to fathom the depths of the Milky Way. It was another something he didn't tell any of the boys about, couldn't figure they'd get why or even pretend to understand. It was something his belly danced with silly, excited heat to share with Jared.

Jensen lowered the tailgate and threw the blanket down to sit on, boosted up then let his heels knock while his toes dangled and scraped the ground. He slumped his elbows onto his knees and stared at his hands, the dark shadows cupped in his palms, laughed at himself for bringing Jared out here to stargaze then do nothing more than study his boots.

The truck wobbled as Jared got out and closed the door. Jensen twiddled his thumbs and squinted towards the edge of the world, black then purple with a band of icy blue that ran along a mountain ridge.

Jared sidled next to him, sat so their thighs and hips pressed tight together. He dropped his head back and craned his neck around, breathed appreciatively at the calm serenity of the night and the star-scattered view. "Nice."

The wind picked up, gusted cold and scented with alpine snow, swept the last drift of clouds from the sky. It was so dark out here, and the stars almost day-like bright, as if space was close enough to touch. It made the looming immensity of perfect rides and how to handle what was going on between him and Jared seem insignificant.

Jensen sighed and started forward, turned when Jared's hand wrapped around his arm.

"We going already?"

He shrugged and had half-dozen excuses, ended up cleaning his tongue of them to ask plainly, "You want to stay?"

Jared tugged his arm. That and the grin he swore he could feel was all the answer Jensen needed.

They sat and pointed out planets, found constellations, north from true-north, until Jensen could feel Jared shiver. His jeans were stiff as he moved, denim cold and shocking on skin as he stretched to stand. "C'mon, before you freeze."

He heaved Jared up and wrapped them in the blanket, slammed the tailgate shut then pulled them around to hop in the truck. Jensen turned the engine over and revved the gas, ran the heater full blast.

Jared grinned at him, somehow in the driver's seat where Jensen had moved into the middle, shimmied out of then shoved the blanket behind Jensen and pushed him against the far door.

Jensen went eagerly, licked his lips and grinned back. The handle dug into his shoulder, window cold on his scalp, and he jarred his elbow as he shrugged from his coat. Jared unclipped Jensen's belt then popped open his button fly, and Jensen wriggled his hips then hissed as Jared reached into the flap of his boxer-briefs.

"You okay?" Jared thumbed the slit of Jensen's cock, tried to get Jensen out of his shirt with one hand.

Jensen nodded. "Cold," he said, squeezed Jared's wrist and his eyes fluttered when Jared's whole hand wrapped around him. He grabbed Jared's shirt, forgot about snaps and went for expedience, peeled Jared's coat away then got every shirt untucked in one harsh yank. He shoved his hands up Jared's many layers, curved his fingers around Jared's ribs.

Jared's breath caught, and Jensen smiled. "See?"

Jensen plucked Jared's nipples and braced a foot on the dash, let Jared lift the other to hook over the seat back. Jared boosted over him, broad shoulders nearly blocking all the dome light's watery amber cast, pretty, slanted eyes intense and wanting. So pretty, brighter than the stars.

"Damn there's a lot of you," Jensen whispered, traced his touch over Jared's skin, marveled at the picture this made.

Jared licked his lips and stroked Jensen's cock. "I was just thinking the same."

Jensen freed a hand to cuff Jared, ended up combing his fingers through Jared's soft hair. "You shut up," he murmured, tugged at a tangle then circled his thumb at the corner of Jared's mouth.

"Hm, okay." Jared grinned and leaned close, then the dome light clicked off.

Jared nuzzled under Jensen's ear and along his jaw, mouthed across his cheek then paused. Jensen sucked in a breath, waited, but Jared only nipped him once and nosed down along chin then neck, respected what Jensen couldn't give. Jared pressed an ear and a splayed hand over Jensen's heart, started to jack Jensen's cock lazy and slow. Jensen wondered if his heartbeat was deafening, wondered if Jared could hear how it yearned.

He rubbed his hand in aimless patterns, teased the dimple at the small of Jared's back and the stretch of muscle that curved up from Jared's hip, palmed Jared's ass and gave it a firm squeeze. Jared laughed, low and rumbly, burrowed under Jensen's shirt to bite his flank.

Jensen shied away, ticklish there, hummed when Jared replaced teeth with tongue. He rolled his hips and dragged his cock over Jared's neck, painted slick trails, pushed up with his hip to lift Jared's head and threaded his fingers in Jared's hair.

He waited, insides churned up with anticipation as Jared turned into his inner thigh then sucked a painful hickey to bruise his skin. Jensen gathered then smeared his precome on Jared's cheek with his thumb, rubbed the same circle again and again until the wet soaked in.

"Jared-" He could barely speak, voice thick and rough with need. Jared moved closer and began to swallow him down, lick of tongue then silken lips over his cock. Jensen curled his fingers under Jared's jaw and pulled, forced his hips down. "No--no--c'mere."

He wrapped a hand in belt and waistbands and shoved as Jared moved, got everything hastily undone, ripped open Jared's boxers and pulled Jared to him again, hard cock in hand. Jared groaned and Jensen wished he could see, wanted to know every detail, but reveled in the abandon the darkness gave him.

Jensen's foot slipped under the dash against the floorboard and he jacked Jared's cock with determined speed, closed his eyes when Jared's forehead pressed to his. One of Jared's hand joined his, wrapped around both their cocks and he groaned, said, "Long, long--long," had no idea if Jared even understood what he'd mean.

They began to thrust into their fists, and Jared stuttered, "Yeah? 'm long, you're per--just right." His voice stuttered with small, needy sounds. "So good--feels good."

Jensen whuffed, like a breathy smile, fit his nose to Jared's and whispered, "Yeah," then he moaned. He pushed his hips up and Jared bore down and they smashed their hands between them, rutted hard and fast.

Jared grunted and moved, freed their hands, set Jensen's hips pressed back and wide, then fucked the groove of muscle there. He arched back and back, enough so his head smacked the roof, slid his arms to get Jensen's waist framed with his wrists, butt rested on the tilt of his hands.

Jensen just lay there and let him, surrendered to Jared's desperation.

Jared twisted his hold and hefted, gripped Jensen's ass in both hands, curled them both near in half. His head fell forward, and his mouth gasped open over Jensen's cheek.

Jensen's legs straightened with abrupt tension when Jared's tongue laved his skin, caught the corner of his mouth. He wrenched enough to grab his cock, kicked the far door as he tightened his hand, cursed then came, kept fisting himself until utterly spent. All tension cut as euphoria rippled through him and completion burned away strain, and Jensen smeared his come back against the oversensitive slit and shuddered, huskily begged Jared to follow.

Jared whined and pushed into him, did as he'd asked, and Jensen let go to hold Jared's face to his as Jared came. Jared muttered and bit his earlobe, dropped into his arms, come hot and slick mingling with his on their skin. They stayed tucked together and breathed, and Jensen lost all sense of time, brushed the sweat and snags from Jared's hair with his fingers.

He blinked and looked up, Jared's head cradled under his chin, stars fuzzy blots through the steamed-up windows. Jensen smiled at them, eventually remembered that the truck was running and the heater panted full blast. Probably didn't need that so much, anymore.

Jensen squirmed from under Jared and it was protested. Jared tried to hold him with useless, floppy arms. He laughed and gave Jared's cock a tug, was let go quick as that.

He pushed and pulled himself sat up, swayed in place while he set everything to low. Jensen frowned and argued with the pack of wet-wipes he kept in the glove compartment, used one to get them more or less clean. He tossed it onto the floor and pulled Jared's shearling-lined coat with him as he lay back down.

"Can't sleep too late--run outta gas."

They shifted onto their sides, snared the blanket down to use as a pillow. Jared nodded and slipped a hand into Jensen's shirt, eased the other down Jensen's pants, and Jensen fit his cheek on the rise of Jared's collarbone. He figured worse-case the dawn would wake them with just enough left in the tank to limp them back to Billings, no one the wiser.

\\ // \\ // \\ // \\

"JR! You boys sure looked good this weekend."

Jensen fingered his hat and nodded. "Ma'am. Thank you. Just doing our best."

Lauren smiled. "You got Silver Bullet back--I know you have to like that."

"Yes ma'am. Not so sure about the rest of the weekend, but at least I got that right."

"It's true you seem to have hit a bit of a rough patch here of late, but you're getting enough qualified rides to stay in the mix, only slipped to just behind Dustin in the overall points lead, and we all know you'll find your stride again." Lauren nodded encouragingly.

"I appreciate that, Lauren. I do." Jensen smiled tightly.

Lauren tilted her head and nodded thoughtfully. "I saw your old nemesis was back at it, but this time gave Bret more than he could handle. Wayward Son tossed him around like he didn't weigh anything! It's always so scary when a cowboy lands head-first in the dirt, but of course that bull had to go back for a little more, so that makes it worse." She paused. "Insult to injury! Still, I say, it's a darn good thing Bret chooses to wear a helmet when he rides. Could have been much worse."

Jensen bit his lip. "Yeah, I saw that too. And it is always scary, but it's just part of what you have to accept if you're going to do this with your life. Mostly I'm glad Bret's going to be okay."

"Yes, Doc Beaver has already reported back Bret's awake and responding, and we're all thankful for that." She frowned. "Funny what we think of as lucky--I was just talking with Doc Jim and we were saying how it was good this was only a cracked T-1, concussion and broken his nose. Where else do you get to say that?"

Jensen didn't know. "Shoot Lauren--probably the Marines. Maybe boarding school."

She laughed, didn't quite get the joke. "We all wish him well, of course. And all the rest of you, naturally. Better luck in Chicago, JR, and safe travels getting there."

"Ma'am." Jensen nodded. "Thank you, looking forward to seeing you there."

|| Chicago To Glendale and Six Between ||

In Chicago he'd almost killed Jared, almost certainly did kill whatever they had going between them. Jared had stolen Wayward Son out from under him, and Jensen had taken some girl back to their bed.

Normally a cowboy rode the bull he'd been given, every round a blind draw, but for Chicago the PBR tried out something different. Instead of a lottery to determine the match-ups, the top rider from round two picked his bull for the short-go, could challenge himself and prove something or match with a bull he felt sure he could ride.

Jared had been fifth going into the short-go, picked Wayward Son and guaranteed a ride.

The crowd had oohed and ahhed appreciatively, but other cowboys had given Jensen long, measuring looks from askance. He'd barely scraped by with one good ride in the first round, made the short-go clawed into fifteenth place, stood last to choose. John had talked to all the riders as they announced their pick, had razzed Jared for so eagerly taking a no-win bull, had ribbed Jensen saying he'd get to see that bull again like they all knew he wanted, just not from its back.

Jensen had tried for good-sport and easy, ended up just sounding flat.

He'd been last to pick and first to ride, had been butchered by Hellhound in under two seconds. Jared had waited for him at the side gate, tried to get his attention. Jensen's ears had rung and fury clotted his veins. Not that easy, kid, he'd thought. You don't deserve it that damn easy. He'd brushed Jared aside, grabbed up his gear and left then and there, snagged a sweet little redheaded rodeo bunny in his arm along the way.

She'd been more than half drunk and he'd taken advantage, opened the door to the hotel room hours later, freshly showered, towel wrapped low-slung around his hips, the girl a passed out lump on the bed. Jared had taken one look and stalked off without a word. They hadn't spoken to one another since. Now he near into to San Antonio, buzzed with anticipation and dread because Jared hadn't shut up for weeks about having them in his hometown and here he was, them seemingly without anything left to say.

Jensen turned on the radio, turned it back off again. Everything was a goddamned mess, and he shouldn't be so hurt, definitely shouldn't be this surprised. Chicago was already three weekends behind him, had been followed by Des Moines. All the long weeks between events Jensen had traveled alone, wondered where the hell Jared was, wanted Jared there with him. Those days had been nothing but a punishing blur, leftover anger and cigarettes he'd quit long ago burnt in his mouth, tasteless food eaten where he sat and numbing, endless driving because he couldn't stand to stop.

Two weeks and he was like this. Jensen laughed at himself, at how he figured to manage the brutal endurance run that'd make the rest of the season--the rest of his days--in the same condition. He had no want or idea how to do it alone anymore, knew he might not be given the chance to make different.

His riding had hit a slump so deep he was starting to lose sight of the sky. His one score of 89 in Chicago had been the best he'd done in too long, sat spectator more short-goes than he cared to count. There was no ready explaining it and he wished he could blame the change in habits, that Jared was a distraction and the sex too good, robbed him of some mythical edge. Truth was he'd developed a huge blindspot, couldn't see past it as he rode, and anytime a bull started away from his hand he felt himself slip, had to fight the urge to bail before they even got going.

Jensen never bailed.

He had the usual mid-season aches and pains, nothing spectacular or worth complaint. Bruise here, bruise there, riding arm sore with a spasming bicep, weak ankle from being stepped on during a dismount in Des Moines. None of this kept him from riding, shouldn't have kept him from making those rides, but setting in to focus and hear nothing but silence wasn't working and he didn't have an idea as to why.

Jared said being this hard on himself wouldn't do any good, that it'd only been a few weeks and no matter what Jensen argued, no one could ride them all. They'd figure it out, find a few practice bulls, get Jensen back on track. It had felt good to hear, but Jensen hadn't wanted to let himself off that easy.

Lauren still pestered him, wanted updates on how he was feeling and doing and thought each weekend would go. Jensen tried to be civil and not piss off his sponsors or alienate his fans, but the veneer was running thin and the pleasant changes and ability to command an easier charm that everyone had attributed to Jared's buoyant influence was all but gone. The longer his skid wore on the more it wore him down, made worse by the commanding surge Jared had come into, butt like velcro that'd been glued down these days.

Jared had crept to tenth while he'd slipped to second in overall points, wasn't behind by but a few hundred, but every missed ride meant that another opportunity to make up that gap was gone. Jared was streaky while he'd always been Mr Consistency; it seemed like that'd flip-flopped, left him bewildered, unsure and angry.

Jensen might never get anything else right, but riding he knew. That being slowly eaten away put a hole in him, worked him over like a beating after a mean punch to the gut.

He'd tried to explain the blindspot--before Chicago--had blundered through a few disjointed sentences then given up. Jared had coaxed it from him, long hands teasing him in bed, long silences waiting while they traveled. No matter, Jared had gotten all from him, gently persuaded more--stuff like emotional states and if it'd ever happened before--helped him think through how to fix this.

It was all catching him, hooking deeper to make him feel he'd been turning inside out. This was the time every season he wanted to tell Lauren to shove it, wanted to be left alone to put his head down and just ride. He'd been near to telling Jared to shove it a few times, hadn't, not quite able to. He'd known Jared would ride Wayward Son, had almost put his fist through the television watching the 93.5 score and Jared's celebration. Not much for style but Jared had managed it and Jensen hadn't been there, stood in the hotel room half-decided to get in his truck and go back, land a right hook, then land Jared in his arms.

Didn't seem fair, somehow. He'd been working at this the better part of life, had it all fixed in his head how it should go, what he had to do. Then Jared arrived, not the worst rider, not the best, changed the entire game and how Jensen had always known to play it. Charmed him while doing it, besides.

Jensen turned the radio back on and left it, sang along with Mr Robbins, couldn't keep from imagining Jared doing the same. What wasn't fair was blaming Jared, not even for realizing he'd been lonely all this time and wasn't sure he could stand to be anymore. He shook his head, tried not to think so damn much.

He pushed into San Antonio within the hour, remembered the way to the arena easily enough. He didn't look for Jared, probably be just a waste of time, so he checked in, signed the roster list and unloaded his gear. The locker room was quiet, earlier on a Friday than most of the cowboys started to roll in. Jensen tied his rope in the same spot on the railing he always did, fingered over Jared's already knotted there next to it, as if waiting, something told to him in its presence exactly right there as he'd come to expect.

When he got back outside, Jared stood next to his truck. Jensen cursed the happy, bent-over rush of his heart.

He walked slowly, dug in his pocket for his keys. Jared straightened and they stared at each other.

"Did you get a room yet?"

"Yes," Jensen lied. He flipped his keys around a finger and caught them in his palm.

Jared sighed, looked away briefly, then took a step closer, resolve in every line of his body. "It can be cancelled no problem though, right? I want you to meet my family. I want you to stay with me, you know, at my house."

Jensen gaped. He made a fist and let his keys dig into him. The sharp pain felt good, kept him from doing anything stupid. "That's too-" Jared wouldn't break eye contact and he found himself stepping back, shaking his head.

Nice of you, he'd been about to say. Understanding, desperate, yes please. He didn't know. Last they'd spoken Jensen had some floozy in their bed and Jared's kicked-puppy expression in front of him. How could someone go from that to this without even a word?

"That's too much," he finished lamely.

"What? This is my home, man, and you're my friend and Mom has been asking about you. She watches every week, sees us together all the time and wants to cook you dinner and feed you pie. She's not likely to take no for an answer, either and. I want you to, want to show you around. Talk to you." Jared's confident push gave out, there, and his face crumpled, made him look far younger than nineteen. "Are you still mad at me?"

Jensen snorted incredulously. "And you're not at me? Not even a little? You're the one who had the hissy fit, stalked off and said you'd find your own way." He wiped his face with a hand and shook his head. Great, Ackles, real great. Get caught with some girl after losing your temper over a goddamn bull then pin all of it on the other guy.

Jared became interested in the ground, and Jensen studied Jared for a moment. He was scared of what Jared wanted to tell him, more afraid of letting Jared get away again. He sighed, reached out and tugged an unruly lank of Jared's hair. "Do you want to go now? I'd guess I'm driving."

"Oh." Jared looked up so Jensen smiled. He nodded. "I figured that just made good sense. Only one of us knows how to get there and-" Jared bit his lip and rosy color crept uncomfortably onto his cheeks from his neck.

"Your mama make good sweet tea?" Jensen unlocked the truck and held the door open for Jared.

Jared sighed gratefully and climbed in, stopped Jensen from closing the door. He smiled. "Yeah. Real good."

Jensen drummed the outside of the window with his nails. "Alright then. Good."

Jared let him shut the door, then, and he walked the long way around, checked the truck for any dings, kicked the tires as he went. The top corner of the license plate frame had cracked and it wouldn't be long before that broke away. He made a note to get a new one, maybe something rodeo themed. Maybe two cursive Js with a big old heart around them. He snorted and tipped back to stare into the sky.

He breathed, thought about the empty parking lot and Jared's rope and this didn't have to end here, admitted he'd have waited however long was required to see Jared again, too.

They rode in silence, Jensen following Jared's easy directions of turn here, go there. The short trip made him feel better, so good to have Jared right there with him again, even if he didn't understand where they'd go after this. They pulled into the driveway at the house Jared indicated and sat there. Jared's family didn't ranch, didn't even have much of a yard. They lived in a nice split-level on a nice street in a nice neighborhood. Jensen pictured garage sales, pick-up football and jello molds.

He thought about turning the truck back over and getting that hotel room he didn't have.

"My folks are disappointed I'm not studying to be a bioengineer, Jensen. Bringing you here to be with me this weekend is gonna be the least of their worries."

Jensen laughed nervously. "Yeah. Okay."

They got out of the truck, argued over who would carry his bags, then Jensen followed Jared inside.

"Mom! I found him." Jared turned and grinned over his shoulder. "C'mon in. Can leave your bag on the stairs--Mom already put the air mattress in my room for you so, no problem there. It's not even that bad." He smiled and tugged at his cuff. "I keep telling Dad that if they want to move, you know, get a bigger place or move to the country, that I'd help, I mean, not that I don't love this place I grew up here and everything, but-"

Jensen stepped close and put a hand on Jared's waist. He tilted his head so his hat shielded them under it, fit his cheek next to Jared's. "And I thought I was nervous." He stayed there, a breath, then two, probably longer than he should. Then he patted Jared's side and straightened away. "It's fine, Jared. This is great. Unless you were lying about your Mama's sweet tea."

"Of course he wasn't!"

They sprang apart as Jared's mom came into the living room. She beamed at them--so that's where Jared got it--gave Jared a quick hug then hustled them into the kitchen.

Jensen took off his hat and hung it on a chair spindle, was pointed to a bar stool tucked under the counter top that separated the kitchen from the dining room. It reminded him of his mom's kitchen, just with the gloss of Dallas stripped away. Muted colors, sunflower motif, bandannas in a stack to be used as napkins. He didn't drum his fingers or fidget and convinced himself this wasn't completely crazy-weird and that everything would be just fine.

"Are you hungry? Don't let Jared bully you around if you want a nap or a shower or something. I understand you took the long way to get here, and you're more than welcome to just make yourself right at home. We finally convinced Jared to fly in last Monday, spend the week with us. Not to say he's minded at all taking the long way with you, JR-"

Jared laughed. "Mom, slow down a minute." He smiled sheepishly, looked at them both like this was the start of something important, voice respectful, a trace hesitant and warm. "This is JR--Jensen. Jensen, this is my Mom."

Jensen took her hand and nodded. "Ma'am." She shook his firmly, smiled nice, nothing going on here that shouldn't be. He held on a moment longer, gave her a light squeeze, smiled too. It was important.

"Why don't you call me Sherry. That way I'll know who you're talking to."

"Yes ma'am," he answered promptly.

Sherry rolled her eyes and smiled wider. "Well, it's a start--Jensen." She served their tea in cut-glass jelly jars and set a plate of lemon cookies between them, let them sit a moment in her cozy kitchen.

It should be uncomfortable, Jensen knowing all of what he did about Jared, Jared looking at him, sloe-eyed, secretive with the same. Sherry maintained casual conversation that was gently inquisitive, unconcernedly let them stare their fill. She had no idea and Jensen thought he should feel guilty, but more he was glad to just be with Jared again, was scared he wouldn't know what to do once Sherry was gone.

She refilled their tea then slapped both hands on the counter. "Oh, I almost forgot. Just look what I found at Walmart!"

Jared started to blush, and that only made Jensen doubly curious.

"I couldn't resist!" Sherry held out a small package and set it next to Jensen. "Saw that and thought, why, that man will be in my house this very day! Imagine." Her laughter wasn't star-struck, and her eyes twinkled with familiar, mischievous humor.

Jared groaned. "Oh Mom."

"What? I think it's cute."

Jared groaned louder.

Jensen grinned. "I don't know--I think it's adorable."

Sherry beamed again. "See?" She nodded approvingly and turned to fuss with the pile of fresh-cut flowers that lay in colorful confusion next to the sink.

It was an action figure of Jensen from his rookie year. JR and First Born Son, mini replica of himself and a bull, each only a few inches tall. He'd been sent several when they'd been issued, and his mom kept one in a curio cabinet. He preferred to pretend they didn't exist. There were blankets and t-shirts out there with his face on them, too, and those were the things he really just didn't think about.

Jensen tapped the plastic blister. "First Born Son was my best ride that year. My big one. Made me think I had a shot at this bullriding thing, for real." He tipped the package towards Jared. Behind the figures was a still photo of him, First Born Son bucking wild but gathered up sure and under him as he rode. "This is Wayward Son's brother, you know."

"Hadn't been ridden until you showed up." Jared leaned in and looked more at Jensen's hand than the figures.

Jensen nodded. "Yup. I didn't know any better. Wasn't even trying to prove anything. Just thought, this is my bull for today, I'd better ride." He shook his head. "They retired him a year later, now living the good life sleeping in the shade, eating too much and going to stud."

Jared put a finger underneath Jensen's palm, traced patterns on the label. "D'you want--maybe feel like going for a walk? I can unleash the hounds, take them along, let you meet them."

Jensen set his tiny self down then drained his tea, stood with a nod. "Yeah. Sounds good." He put on his hat, watched Jared lean across the counter.

"Taking Jensen around a bit, Mama. Won't wear him too far, and we'll be back for dinner, so don't nag." He huffed when Sherry landed a wet kiss on his cheek, tugged Jensen after him towards the garage.

"Don't get anything while you're out, either, Jared. I'm making chicken-fried steak--hope that's okay with you Jensen--and you're not ruining that with a half-dozen candy bars."

Jared paused, let Jensen under his arm as he held the door. He grinned. "Oh, my favorite. One of Jensen's too, especially with gravy, don't worry. I'll only eat four, then." He laughed, pushed Jensen faster and shut the door before they heard anything more.

Jensen was detoured into the backyard, and they stood and let the dogs excitedly thump against and twine in Jared's long legs then give Jensen a good once-over. He ignored them enough to keep everything calm, and when both were standing politely he introduced himself, back of his hand to sniff then light touches under their ears.

"This one's Sadie--she's part dingo, which is kinda cool. I think so, anyway. The dumb one's Harley." Jared patted them affectionately, bent himself in half to give Sadie a hug then whapped their sides. "Sweet dumb one." Jared smiled.

Jensen wiped a crust from Harley's eye and Sadie snuffled at it then licked it away. He laughed so Harley grinned, rolled and grumbled as Jensen scritch-scratched here and there. "Agreed," he said.

Jared leaned close to Jensen. "I think you're in." He smiled and took Sadie's head in his hand. She licked Jensen again, then turned, poised in wait to get beyond the fence and explore outside. Jared clipped them into leashes but just let them run, and Jensen liked the way it felt to have the dogs ramble around them, kept near to their heels and always circled in to check on how the humans were coming along.

They walked slowly, didn't speak as Jared wound them through his neighborhood and into a nearby park. Jensen appreciated their seamless fit--here and with one another--cowboy hats and boots and shiny buckles nothing to make notice of. They gravitated to the banks of a lazy pond interconnected to another with cut-in brooks, settled onto the grass, knees just touching. The dogs chuffed excitedly and Jared told them to go on, run a bit, and they chased the ground-up tennis ball that was a clear favorite. After several hard goes the dogs returned and flopped down, slumped into his and Jared's legs and panted, waited impatiently to be given proper attention.

Jared stroked Sadie's head, stared into the distance, took in a deep breath then didn't waste any further time. "I thought I was helping. Knew you'd pick that bull if we all let you, know how you've been struggling with bulls not even half Wayward's get. I didn't want to see you lose that too. Or worse." He shook his head. "Yeah, I know. Stupid. Went about it all wrong, got you nothing but riled up--rightly so. Then you--" Jared clenched his jaw, waved a hand. "After, you wouldn't talk to me and I wasn't sure if you ever would, was too afraid to ask lessen you wouldn't."

Jensen was caught between bewildered affection and complete aggravation. "You took that bull to protect me?"

"That and maybe--I don't know--get you going again. You always ride better when you think you have something to prove." Jared smiled sadly. "Not like that isn't all the time, for you." He fiddled with his hair then sighed, started playing with Sadie's ear, dozing and happy with her head laid in his lap. "Soon as I said it I knew it was a mistake, couldn't take it back. Couldn't just not ride him, either."

Jensen sighed, thought about the one place good intentions always seemed to lead. Jeff had said a few weeks after Jared had arrived it'd seemed to light a fire under him, getting beneath his skin far enough to actually figure becoming his friend. Jensen had been fighting so hard not to show how brightly that fire burned. Maybe too hard.

"I just wanted--well, it's not important." Jared traced the soft whorls of fur along Sadie's muzzle. "Jensen, I'm-"

"I wanted you to fight me." Jensen cut Jared off, wouldn't let an apology for it stand, not with the worse thing he'd lashed back with in retaliation. He tucked a flyaway bit of hair behind Jared's ear, stroked his thumb over the lobe, said his best apology in return.

Jared laughed, then after several minutes nudged into Jensen. "I wanted you to pick a fight so I could bust your nose."

Jensen smiled ruefully and shook his head. "Why didn't you?"

"Because I figured out easy you didn't sleep with that girl."

"What makes you so sure?"

Jared narrowed his eyes. "Because you just wanted me to pick the fight."

Jensen scoffed and smiled wryly. "Bioengineer, hunh?" Harley licked his hand and he turned it, let the dog grub into his palm.

"Well. Not like you've thought this whole time that I'm just a dumb cowboy."

Jensen murmured in agreement, reached behind him and snagged a crop of sorrel, twiddled it with his fingers and watched bits of green fall away until all he had left was the tiny yellow blossom. "Jared?"


"Don't do that again."

Jared laughed. "I know. I won't. Riding Wayward Son for you was--bad idea, good execution."

Jensen threw the sorrel at Jared and grunted with disgust, still had to grin. "You little pissant." He rolled sideways, set a hand in the grass and pushed so he could look Jared in the eye. "I mean it."

Don't take off again, don't let me get so stupid angry, don't stay gone so long.

"I heard you." Jared untangled the flower from his hair, pirouetted it thoughtfully against the tip of his nose, and the corners of his mouth curled up to tease his dimples into showing.

Jensen let out a breath and nodded decisively, stretched his legs around Harley and rested back on his elbows. "All right then."

"Did you at least get a blow-job out of it?"

Jensen jack-knifed sat straight again, and Harley glared then resettled across his ankles. "What?" Jared just should not ask him that, shouldn't want to know. Shouldn't be a turn-on. Jensen stammered and his face drained of color.

Jared grinned. "If I minded all that terrible much, you can be damn sure I wouldn't ask."

"It's just." Jensen huffed and really didn't want to talk about this with Jared, for so many reasons. "Best left alone." He had gotten one, nothing more. She'd been too drunk, sloppy and awful, and he'd had to take control and finish, incredibly dirty and well-learned images of Jared what finally turned him over.

"Then you did." Jared smirked. "Though, I expect all the more you got was to lay there thinking I'd do better."

Jensen elbowed him, hard. "I should-" Jensen trailed off, stared at Jared's mouth.

Jared's smirk softened and he licked his lips. "What?"

He shook his head and thought about all the things he didn't do, with that girl. With Jared, especially. It left him without words, just an urgent wanting he couldn't run in and tie down.

Jared stared at Jensen's mouth too, sucked in his lip and a shaken breath. "Maybe better if you don't give up your room after all."

Jensen blinked. "Why?"

"Not to presume but. Well. Much as I want to right here, now--much as I'm not gonna--I for sure won't be able to later. Not in my house. My bedroom." Jared blushed.

Jensen wanted to tease and ask what cowboy Jared used to lay in there dreaming about, couldn't, because he understood too well. "It'll keep," he whispered. "Trust me, it'll keep." He tugged Jared to sit closer, left his fingers snagged in beltloops. The dogs yawned and lolled, squirmed into them again. "You going to ride with me to Glendale?"

Jared raised a brow. "You planning on skipping the four between now and then?"

"Oh, well. I meant with any stops we decided to make along the way." He fixed Harley's collar, put on that he wasn't desperate to have Jared's answer, to have Jared with him.

"I see. Hmmm." Jared didn't call him on it. "You going to let my mom grill you with twenty-billion questions today over dinner?"

Jensen smiled. "I like your mom."

"Yeah well, she likes you."

"How can you tell?"

"She wants to grill you with twenty-billion questions."

Jensen jostled Jared and stopped smiling. "You know I won't again either. Right?"

Jared nodded. "I know."

"Okay--okay. Good." Jensen swept a thumb beneath his eye and let out a long sigh, splayed his hand on Sadie's warm belly. "So. Are you?"

Jared smiled shyly, face dusted with pleased-pink color, nudged his hand just under Jensen's and dragged a hot line into Jensen's palm with a knuckle. "How about I ride with you all the way to Vegas."

Jensen pretended to consider. "I reckon that'll work." He ducked his head, scratched Harley's chin with his other hand, grinned bright enough to light up the entire Strip.

\\ // \\ // \\ // \\

Jensen finished ninth in San Antonio. They'd spent the weekend unsuccessfully trying to broker ways to take the dogs with them, finally said thank you and his goodbyes to Jared's whole family, Sadie and Harley left moping behind. Sherry sent his action figure with them and Jared stuck it to the dash, set it up with little-him literally riding along. Jensen had sighed, long-suffering, hadn't unstuck it to cram somewhere unseen.

They threw rocks in the ocean near Orlando, lazed long naps on the beach warmed by the early summer sun. Jensen got more freckles than points that weekend, didn't make the short-go, stayed and stood fast and gave Jared his hands and best tips for riding, watched Jared get thrown anyway.

There were longer weeks to spend before they had to be in Dallas, and Jensen drove them slow and easy, hugged the gentle sways and interstices of the Gulf. They went to a gator farm then ate one, deep-fried, succulent and spicy, served from someone's back porch that they'd happened by. Jared had laughed, said nothing like chicken, really, and they'd barely avoided being eaten alive by mosquitoes when they'd sat in the truck and groped then dozed leaned together for hours as the sunset drenched the bayou in colors Jensen couldn't even name.

On the way to Dallas Jensen had been tempted to take Jared to his ranch, spend a day or two learning his bed. But he'd known the questions that would follow he wasn't ready to answer, didn't know if he'd be able to stand that bed empty, after. He drove them to north into Shreveport then over instead.

They got a nice hotel room in Dallas, made a mess of the sunken tub after a drunken night on the town with the boys, met his parents the next evening for dinner at a fancy steakhouse his father always teased he could well afford. He gritted out a third-place finish, didn't fully let down the hometown crowd, was glad to put all that behind them. Jared's family might be disappointed, but Jensen's father lived his bullriding disappointments through his son. It kept him away, a distance he didn't know how to bridge, wasn't enough to see them estranged.

He'd introduced Jared, similarly but not the same, wanted with equal need for his own to accept Jared. They'd taken Jared under an arm, enjoyed the spark brought to the mix and Jensen not having to be alone. His mom had sent them on with light kisses and murmured words to take care.

The road reclaimed what it'd become for them, a safe, welcome haven that kept them company in a world-apart, truck stops and Waffle Houses and those flavorful places at the side of the road that'd never be found again. There was near a month between Dallas and the following event in Tulsa, and he and Jared plotted routes to nowhere that looped them through national parks and waterfalls and a far stretch of Route 66. They lingered for three days sheltered in concrete tepees, didn't stray to see daylight or check on the stars.

They breathed deep and rambled, talked about the everything-nothing that fit them so natural, motel rooms and stops along the way whenever they felt so inclined. An inclination that struck more and more often. Jared sucked Jensen off so many times, wicked smile, warm body against his, still learning but able to prove how it should be done. Jensen had no complaints, did his best within his bounds to make certain Jared was just as well satisfied.

Tulsa had been almost like home, and Chris had hobbled into the arena, waved for the crowd. Jensen fought every ride, managed two and finished eleventh, didn't feel quite so far from matching a bull's wicked corners with answers. After that was the crazy four-day push to Edmonton where coffee didn't ever taste quite right, and those nights they'd droned straight through, one sleeping tucked into the other as they drove. It wasn't so crazy back to Arizona, and they made up for lost rest--and longer nights of willing restlessness--skirted the Rockies, perched themselves on the Continental Divide, Jared understanding exactly his thoughtful fascinations with the very idea of it, then crept past the silent sentry of endless saguaro.

In Glendale Jensen rediscovered his clarity, saw past his blindspot, watched as it burned away. He'd been on Zombie, first round, had that bull gathered up to something more than blinders and silence. Not the crowd, not the music. Not the chatter of the bullfighters or the relentless temper of the bull. Jared. He'd heard Jared. Behind his ear, right there--in his heart, his hand--urgent and thrilled and what he'd needed to find the way.

You got it--you got it Jensen--just hang on. He'd counted it, waited for the buzzer, no hurry and made it. All eight as if easy, spurring and pretty. He'd held on and rode Zombie another two, then three seconds more, just to hear Jared laugh.

He'd placed fourth in Glendale, rode all three bulls, fourth because it'd been a great week for the cowboys. Jared had landed third, gave him hell over it, so Jensen had knocked him down, stolen it away with a wicked smile--and then some--of his own.

\\ // \\ // \\ // \\

"JR. Good to see you. We haven't had the chance to talk much these past few weeks." Lauren smiled and almost didn’t sound accusing.

"Well, just figured I wouldn't be the one you'd want to talk to, all considered."

Lauren cupped his elbow and gave him a little shake. "Always happy to say hello. Just so long as you haven't been avoiding me."

Jensen smiled. "No, no ma'am," he lied.

"Good! And something else that’s good--you seem back to usual form, what with making the short-go and managing a win here in Glendale, and getting in some very JR-looking rides over the past few weeks. Was a rough bit there for you, wasn't it?"

"Yeah, wasn't easy, but it wasn’t the worst. I wasn't bad injured or anything like that, so I guess I'll take a few week scuffle to that. And--that's just how this goes. We're in the last stretch now and you know, just gotta hold on, ride your very best. That's what I've been trying to do. Seems it's working out, again."

Lauren beamed. "We're all so glad to see it, too! The arena just doesn't feel the same without your patented, easy perfection we've all been spoiled by and got accustomed to." She nudged his arm. "You really seemed to come back into it in Tulsa, haven't lost it since."

Jensen blushed and managed not to stammer. "Had a few things click for me, figured out a few others I'd been doing wrong. You know how it goes."

"Well, best of luck that you keep it going. Good riding today, JR."

"Thank you, ma'am." Jensen touched his hat, smiled at the camera.

|| Nashville ||

Jensen grinned at Jared and reached over, grabbed the gate. He'd drawn Wayward Son for the short-go fair and square, was going to best this fucker if it was the last thing he ever did. He licked his lips and set his heels, visualized the initial sideways heave, the bolt upwards, the jarring bucks that would tighten into a punishing spin. Jensen met Jared's eyes and smiled, nodded once.

Jared massaged his neck, boosted and yelled, "Ready, c'mon he's ready let's go!"

He leaned into Jared's steadying hand then leaned into the lead of the bull, kept his sights locked between the horns as the gate sprang wide. Wayward Son snorted and chopped, slung them around in a wrenching whip then started bucking.

Jensen bore down and stayed with the bull, twisted and darted his free arm through the air, more for preservation than show. Wayward Son crow-hopped, bucked near vertical, then settled into a tight, dizzying spin. It was away from Jensen's hand, pressure felt in his elbow and shoulder as he kicked and spurred and fought to hold on, both joints popping under the strain.

His spine cracked at the base when Wayward Son sharply changed directions, curt haul sideways that had him nearly unseated. Jensen pushed against momentum and corrected, knee almost to the bull's neck, then he risked it all and opened his leg, started to spur. He let himself slide back when they bucked, spurred harder, slid all the way to the hock as his free arm wheeled.

Jensen watched the dirt through Wayward Son's horns, the shadows and pocks a blurred kaleidoscope, the clots of it sprayed around them by churning hooves. He sucked in and set his jaw and knew it was almost there, searched for and heard Jared's voice calling, telling him you've got it hold on--

--then the buzzer broke through and he released, willed his hand to open from his rope then was thrown skyward and back, gained a steep rise of air then hit his stoop just as quick. He landed several feet away, managed to catch himself on his feet, clunked to his knees and tipped forward onto his palms.

As soon as he was down Jensen crab-walked then gained a stand, ran and tossed his hat with a loud whoop of triumph. He listened for the bull, heard the stock gate clang then Sterling called the all-clear. He climbed the fence and raised both arms, kept yelling and pumped his fists at the crowd. They stood with him, stamped their feet and whistled and Jensen waved, both arms, then dropped back onto the dirt.

Mike ran to him and pummeled his vest, gave him a throttling hug and shook him hard. Jensen grinned, already past rattled.

"Damn boy! Awright! That was one hell of a sweet ride!" Mike released Jensen and he stumbled, shouldered into Jeff and accepted his hat back with a nod of thanks. He lifted it, too, and the crowd's cheering grew wilder.

Jeff slung an arm around him, gave him a devouring bear hug. "Showboat."

Jensen punched Jeff in the arm. "Damn right. I deserved that."

Jeff nodded and patted his head. "You're gonna win the event with that."

They grinned and hit their fists together then Jensen tipped his hat, settled it back on his head. The black was streaked over with dirt and grayed with dust. He left it, liked the silly notion that he'd earned wearing it.

The loudspeaker blared and he couldn't make it out, ran from the dirt under a shower of confetti that exploded high above then fluttered down all around. He knew what that meant--a 90 point score at least--and just riding Wayward Son was reward enough. The crowd's excitement and appreciation surged and he felt it, the thunder of their applause and voices that sang.

His veins buzzed and his limbs jittered. Jensen's whole body vibrated with the adrenaline rush. He didn't take himself aside to savor the moment, instead ran through the main gate and up the short set up steps, was hauled onto the platform by the others then pushed along to where Jared waited to ride.

They beamed at each other and Jared punched his shoulder, flipped his hat off to scrub at his hair then cupped his nape, drew him close for a quick, crushing hug. Jensen couldn't stop grinning, heard over the delighted roar of the crowd that his effort had just earned himself a sweet, near-unbelievable 95 points.

Jared grabbed into his vest and shook him then whooped. "Hear that? Nine-ty-five! Highest score of the season! Whoooooo-wheeee!"

He whooped too, then they both threw their heads back and yipped, and Jensen held onto Jared's arms tight.

Steve mashed Jensen's hat back on his head. "This one's yours JR. All yours."

Jensen laughed and shook his head but knew it was true--this event was his, no one left who could best that and take it away. He and Jared stood another second, appreciated each other, then Jensen nodded. "All right, cowboy. Your turn."

Jared smiled and cuffed his neck, nodded back then moved them sideways through the others to where Bad Moon jostled and waited impatiently.

Jensen steadied Jared's climb into the chute and tried to slow himself down, bowed his head and breathed. He swallowed a few times and wondered if the crowd was still clapping so loud or if that was just his heart. He opened his eyes then shook his head at Jared, just sat on the bull, grinning like a loon. Jensen snicked and climbed across to the other side so he could better handle the rope, reached down and took it in both hands. He leaned far back and pulled, kept it strung taut as Jared worked rosin onto it.

Bad Moon lunged suddenly and Jensen let go of the rope, darted forward and barely caught Jared with an arm.

"Okay?" He kept his arm wrapped around Jared's front as Bad Moon pawed and snorted.

Jared nodded. "Okay."

They shifted the rope and repositioned it just right at the bull's girth, then Jensen fed the slack and stretched it tight again. He tugged the rope up in a sharp snap, minded the end as Jared wrapped it around a hand.

"Think you can beat that?" he teased, pushed at Bad Moon's horn with his toe through the chute rungs. Bad Moon grunted belligerently, then huffed and straightened to a better stand.

"This one hasn't been ridden at all. Figure that gives me a chance." Jared tilted and peered up at the scoreboard, flipped his chaps into place over his legs then flashed a cheeky grin. "Only 95? Hell yeah. I can beat that easy."

Jensen shook his head and climbed back over, turned and kneed into the top rail. He hunkered down and pressed his hand to Jared's front, hooked his fingers at the back of Jared's vest. "What gave you that notion? The easy part, I mean."

Jared smirked and mashed his fingers into a trapped grip of the rope. "You got the precision and technique, I got style."

"Style my ass," he scoffed. Jensen hesitated then said, "Don't mess with Bad Moon doing that crap dismount of yours. Hear me? It'll get you killed on this one. After a go this asshole always stays on the dirt looking for someone to hit."

"You just let me ride like I know how to ride, Jensen. I got this." Jared stuffed his mouthguard in, rocked forward and reached for the gate.

Jensen held tighter and said harshly, "I'm serious. Way this bull goes, what with your get? You will find yourself hung up then hung out to dry. I'm not saying you don't know what you're doing, Jared. Don't mean that."

This bull was one nasty fuck, and Jensen had seen more than his needed share of harrowing wrecks aboard Bad Moon because of it.

"All I'm saying is-"

"I hear you. But I got this one." Jared grinned. "You haven't yet, so, just sit back and see what I can do for a change."

With that Jared looked away and his grin hardened into a determined grimace. He barked that he was ready, counter-weighted back into the chute as the gate opened in answer. Jensen let go as Bad Moon ripped into a mad dash. They staggered a sudden left and Jared pitched forward but managed to recover, then Bad Moon went into a fly-away, corkscrew spin to the right.

Jared was a half-pace behind but the bull was short, so he was able to make up the distance in body length.

Jensen counted it off, and each spin and second seemed to take forever, held his breath until the buzzer sounded. Jared grinned and tucked his free arm in, stayed on another few tumbling seconds, then curled back in an abbreviated start at his usual dismount.

Bad Moon caught the movement and charged sideways, twisted at the middle then jumped. Jared's leg got caught halfway over and his hand flattened, pinned him under his riding rope at Bad Moon's shoulder. They bucked and he was dumped, hand still caught in his rope, got hung up just like Jensen had always been afraid of.

Jared was forced into a washboard run next to the bull as Bad Moon continued to buck and weave in maniac quarter-spins. He tried to yank his hand loose and the bullfighters tried to grab the end of his rope. Bad Moon's horn caught Jared in the chin and he and got tangled in the drag of his riding rope, lost his feet enough so when Bad Moon spun again, he was tossed like a rag-doll.

"No," Jensen breathed, was already halfway up the rails.

Jared snapped at the end of his rope as Bad Moon spun, then was drawn clean back, and he pushed his free hand onto the bull. His arm bent funny, collapsed, and he sailed up and over the other side, was jerked loose from his rope. He thudded into the dirt and Bad Moon trampled him, last shot a vicious kick to the head.

"No," Jensen repeated, again and again. Without thinking he threw himself across the chute, leapt from one side to the other, then he jumped from the closed gate onto the dirt, hit the ground running.

"Jared!" His hat flew off behind him and Jensen didn't care that the bull was still out here, rampaging and spoiling for another soft target. Jared lay motionless and twisted all wrong, hatless and face-first in the dirt, one long arm angled behind him.

Jensen saw Jeff dart towards Jared, shouted in wordless rage and held up a hand. "No--me you let me--if he's--he's-" He ran harder. It was his job to check if Jared still breathed, his right to know before anyone else.

He honestly couldn't tell, imagined every sort of gruesome detail to prepare him for what he'd find, knew there'd be nothing to get him over the shock if Jared was bad hurt or worse, gone.

Jensen stumbled onto his knees, almost to Jared, had to crawl the last reach. He blinked rapidly and sucked in, didn't give himself a second to hesitate. He brushed Jared's hair aside, careful not to move anything, then wrapped a hand under Jared's neck and pressed two fingers at the jut of Jared's jaw and pushed, hard.

He closed his eyes and still couldn't breathe, tried even to hold back his heartbeat. He shifted his hold, cold with terror when there was nothing, nothing. His thumb dragged along Jared's throat and he found it, thready but there, and his head dropped, eyes closed. He stayed a moment, held fast, just to be able to feel Jared's pulse throb into his hand.

Jensen nodded, did not choke back a sob, jerked sharply to his feet so he wasn't in the way. He stared at Jared, staggered numbly without knowing where to go.

"Whooooa, steady there, JR. I've got you." Jeff caught him, held his shoulders, kept him from falling over. "Doc Jim's coming--JT's gonna be alright, you'll see. Whoa now, I got you."

\\ // \\ // \\ // \\

"Watched the late rerun of the event last night. Um--they replayed your leap a few times, too. You know, after. That was, wow."

Jensen hummed but didn't turn around. Yeah, not going there.

"Watched you win." Jared paused. "Man, you have got to work on actually looking happy to take those stupid over-sized checks."

"Maybe I wasn't in the mood." Jensen upended his ditty bag onto the table.

Jared chuckled. "People are always in the mood to accept thirty-six thousand dollars."

He poked through his stuff and sighed. "Well, I wasn't."

"What are you looking for?"

"My pocket knife." Jensen frowned.


"I want it." Jensen told himself good job for not adding duh.

"Why do you want it?"

Jensen shook his head. "Because I can't find it."

Jared laughed. "I got better. Why don't you just leap over here and sit with me instead?"

Jensen wanted to resist, glanced over, regretted it. Jared's pout matched those plaintive tones. When he stood Jared grinned, patted the mattress.

"Should have told them to keep you another night," Jensen grumbled. He'd decided they weren't going to talk about this. He sat on the edge of the bed, oofed when Jared yanked him closer. "Careful there stud--your arm?"

Jared snickered. "Relax, it's the other one, alllll the way over here." He lifted his right arm from the pillow then let it back down. "Besides, just a fracture. Hair-line at that. No big."

Jensen pulled his knee up and swiveled, pressed his thigh along Jared's side. He lightly patted Jared's chest and tried to smile. "Hair-line fracture of your free arm. Definitely lucky. Thinking it means we can still work in a visit to the Parthenon tomorrow, if you're wanting."

"I'd like that. Might be the closest I get to the real thing." Jared put his hand on Jensen's. "I'm glad you stayed, got your win. I mean, I wouldn't expect anything less."

"Almost didn't." Jensen studied how their hands overlapped, Jared's long, tapered fingers, rough and calloused like his were. He flicked his gaze up, shrugged, looked back down, tried for casual. "They wouldn't let me go in the ambulance and you weren't even conscious, so I said forget it."

That'd been as near as he'd come in his entire career to willingly walking right out of an event on the verge of victory. He'd been so shaken after what had happened to Jared he'd gone out to sit in his truck, crumpled onto his side and lay on the seat. He'd blinked unseeingly for several hours after it was all over, stared in the half-dark at the muddy footprint Jared had put on the carpet after they'd stopped for a swim in a sparkling, unnamed pond on their way from Arizona.

"You rode Wayward Son so much better than me. I'd been bound and determined just to gut it out holding on--you owned him." Jared put Jensen's hand over his heart. "It was good. Man. Best I've ever seen."

Jensen smiled. "They scored you a 91 on Bad Moon. Course, I think the one was a sympathy point. Probably could have gotten even more if you hadn't fucked up your finish, gave them that mess as the last look to end a good ride. But, all the same, earned you sixth place." His smile faded and he shuddered, saw it all again, every detail, every fear.

"Hey," Jared whispered, pushed Jensen's hand to him harder then reached up, dusted a knuckle down Jensen's cheek. "Hey. Doc J said I'd be good to ride by Oakland in two weeks. Mild concussion, my arm, few bumps and bruises--like you said, definitely lucky."

Jensen turned his hand so Jared's t-shirt would pinwheel between his fingers. "I ah. I am glad you got released tonight. Last night was just. Too quiet. Too quiet and long."

"I'm glad too. This bed is way more comfortable." Jared tapped Jensen's nose. "Company's pretty good, too."

Jensen fiddled with the blanket edge that folded under Jared's arm then slanted towards the floor. "This is like some crap romance novel."

Jared laughed. "Um, okay?"

He tugged the blanket and huffed. "Just, you know. Something like this is what it'd take for me to-" Jensen blinked and caught himself, pulled the words back.

They sat for a good while, at that, Jared watching and waiting on Jensen as he paid careful attention to the carpet and a fuzz of blue lint under the other bed. He thought about getting up and excusing himself, wanted to lean in and fit his body alongside Jared's, feel heat and breath and be reassured they were both here and okay.

Time stretched on and Jensen wondered if fetching coffee or something sweet to distract Jared with was too telling an escape plan, had gotten halfway through convincing himself nothing of the sort when Jared's finger skimmed over his hand.

"So. You've read romance novels?"

Jensen garbled something between a cough and a chuckle. It hurt his throat, stuck there, and he finally met the waiting gaze Jared had kept on him this whole time. His lip curled up and his eyebrows scrunched under in question.

Jared was laughing at him, was amused at this. Jensen set his chin and figured no coffee, then, just up and leave.

Another finger joined the first, bumped down then circled around to hold Jensen's wrist, long thumb settled easy underneath. He pretended not to notice how it fluttered his nerves and made him want even more the heat of Jared's breath against his skin.

Jared squeezed, motionless tug. "I'm jerking your chain, that's all. But, you know, if this is some secret you'd like to get off your chest, I'm good for listening. Can even be circumspect, given the right incentive."

He hated Jared's smirk and wink and that it made his lips tingle. Jensen's hand tightened to a fist but he managed to calm, liked that Jared would feel the warning flex of tendons. "Had a gal once, she read them. Nothing but. For a whole week it was me and a motel room, my busted ankle and our stuff. I read everything we had, including all dozen of her damn romances."

"Did you like them?"

Jensen laughed. "No." He chewed on his lip, knew Jared heard the something more he hadn't said. "Not really--I mean, not my thing but they weren't the worst."

"Where was your girl?"

He remembered her, pretty and dumb and nonthreatening. Jensen smiled wryly. "She'd left me and her suitcase behind the weekend before." He hadn't had taken anyone along with him since, hadn't thought he ever would, before this.

Jared nodded and smiled tightly, but his eyes darkened with displeasure. He didn't say more about it than that. "My sister had her romance novel phase. I read a stack of them through to see what all the fuss was about--and because she dared me to, then said I wouldn't. Most I got from it was figuring you can read the first chapter then the last, no need to bother with the rest." He blushed, suddenly, but didn't look away, said bolder than that blush should allow, "So--this is like that?"

"No." Jensen didn't laugh, this time.

He wanted to say yes kinda, you know what I mean, wasn't sure Jared did. Definitely wasn't sure if he was ready for Jared to understand. He swallowed and counted his teeth with his tongue, stalled for time and the inability to say more. When Jared made to let go of his wrist Jensen's head snapped up and he rolled his arm, enough to pin Jared's hand, couldn't let that touch get away.

"Scared me to death, Jared." His voice was stupidly unsteady and he grimaced, ducked his chin so he wasn't so exposed. He didn't like fear, wasn't comfortable with it, and the hot flare of anger in defense wasn't unexpected or wholly fair.

"Told you to quit. Told you that flashy shit of yours was gonna get you killed. Even right then in the goddamned chute, and you nod and lip at me and act like you know, learned it already. Then out you go and oh, no fucking surprise, you're finally on a bull that won't just let you get away with it, and next I know you're being thrown, then you drop then I can't feel or hear a thing and you're just lying there, lettin' Bad Moon spin and rout you and-"

Jensen's rush stilted when he caught the quirk of Jared's mouth, saw triumph barely hidden in shining eyes. He gritted and yanked his hand free, knotted his fingers in Jared's hair, angled Jared's face. He bore in, snapped biting punishment around that smile. Jared yelped and grabbed Jensen's shirt and their eyes met--elation, not triumph--and there Jensen's fire banked, spread through him a wanting ember.

He gasped and gentled his hold, leaned back to really see. It felt like maybe he was looking at Jared for the first time, felt like he could have closed his eyes and remembered Jared to the last detail. Jensen touched the busted vein at Jared's temple, then followed each line in Jared's face with a fingertip, took his time soothing bruised and tender skin. He swept underneath Jared's mouth, held his finger in the dimples at either corner, dragged it slowly over Jared's lip with thorough awakening.

Jensen leaned down and rested his forehead on Jared's, moved his hand so he could press it to Jared's pulse, then he started to kiss everywhere his finger had traveled. Jared's hand skimmed up his arm then pulled at his hair, tugged him closer, and Jensen gasped when Jared's finger came to rest on his mouth.

He opened his eyes and Jared stared, curled his thumb along the curve of Jensen's smile. He'd told himself he'd have no idea what to do, kissing a man, wouldn't want to suffer such indignity. But that thin veneer of assurance stripped away like all the other lies he'd spent his life telling when he nipped Jared's thumb away so he could touch their lips together at last. Jared hummed and Jensen tilted and licked, hummed back when Jared's mouth opened. He kissed Jared with all he was worth, sweet and agonizingly slow.

Jared pushed close with a broken, needy gasp, almost frantic with his kisses that wanted to claim and not allow this to ever get away. Jensen stayed there, let Jared take his fill.

He savored the heat of Jared's mouth--so hot, slick and sweet--how wide and accepting it opened for him. He stroked his tongue far in, bumped over gums and the roof of Jared's mouth, then flicked and flirted at the edges. Jensen sighed and rolled his hips forward, had that carry him to lever further above, settled into the vee of Jared's legs. He teased with his teeth and fit his lips around Jared's chin, swirled and teased, made Jared give chase then opened his mouth wide in surrender.

Jared grinned, bit at then indulged in a long, sucking kiss over Jensen's lower lip. Jensen moaned and started to thrust into Jared, wanted his hands everywhere and them for definitely naked, was breathless and swollen when Jared finally turned to press wet kisses along his jaw.

Jensen worked at Jared's tee and mouthed the mole next to Jared's nose, pinched nipples and teased ribs after the shirt was bunched at Jared's collarbone. Jared hissed and Jensen grinned, scraped over the mole with his teeth, traced its outline with the tip of his tongue. He swept his hands down Jared's sides, pulled the blanket away then planted his palms on the mattress.

He straightened his arms and grunted, almost pitched from the bed when he tried to get Jared's shirt and his sweats off at the same time. Jared cupped his cheek and steadied him, pulled him back close and Jensen laughed, dove in for another long, wet kiss.

Jared tugged at Jensen's shirt, could only get it halfway then his arm ran out of reach. He grumbled in frustration so Jensen kissed him, short and hard, then put a finger on Jared's lips.

Jensen slid back onto his heels, hooked his arms behind his shoulders and had his shirt peeled away in a single pull. Jared gazed up at him, eyes heavy-lidded and hungry, batted the shirt to the floor.

"These," Jensen said, snagged a finger in the band of Jared's pajama pants. He scooted forward and draped Jared's legs over his thighs, then he anchored the heel of his hand at the small of Jared's back and pushed.

Jared tucked his knees and curled, lifted his butt in the air, caught his thumb in the waistband, and as Jensen eased Jared back down his pants slithered along his legs, left to fall away. He checked Jared's other arm, kissed the bridge of shoulder-to-arm, the cup of elbow, at the edge of Jared's cast along each knuckle.

Jensen canted back and slid his hand around Jared's ass then smooth inner thigh, hung Jared's knee from the crook of his thumb and pushed it towards the bed. He grinned wickedly and leaned down, bit the fleshy rise of Jared's calf, then he found another mole to suck at the bend in Jared's leg.

Jared talked to him in wordless babble and breathy moans, told him what was enjoyed in fingers clenched on his arm or tangled in his hair. Jensen listened to it all, would suck longer if Jared moaned louder, moved on if Jared's hand let go.

Jensen nibbled back up the line of muscle in Jared's thigh, nosed into the crease of Jared's hip, mouthed spit onto the sleek skin then bit sharply, sucked hard and deep. He pulled back and admired his mark, watched it darken and glisten, fingered its blood-hazy edge. It reminded him of stormclouds. Jensen grunted, weighted Jared's hip with his hand and stayed there, chewed and licked at it until Jared begged him away.

"Shhhh," he promised, rubbed his thumb over the bruise as he shifted up then levered onto his other hand. He stared at Jared, smiled, ran his thumbnail in light scratches across the hickey that wouldn't lose color for days.

Jared's hips moved restively, tried to find anything to rub against. He was flushed and sweaty, mouth opened in a continual pant, so Jensen tipped forward, licked them into a kiss, and Jared almost shot off the bed when Jensen fisted his cock.

Jensen murmured happily, jacked in the firm, steady pulls he knew Jared liked. Jared pushed at his shoulder and whimpered, and Jensen heard what was wanted.

He swallowed and tilted his head onto Jared's sternum and looked down between them. The box he made above Jared, knees to hips, hips to ribs, his cock visibly heavy leaking a damp stain on his sweats. He cast angled shadows over Jared's flushed-pink skin, the purple blossom of bruise he'd made, the red tip enclosed in the curl of his hand.

Tension gripped him and coiled in his belly as he moved down Jared's body. He remembered all the times Jared had done this for him, how satisfied he was with just tongue and lips, Jared's obvious pleasure after when Jensen was a content and blissed-out wreck.

Jensen tipped his head back and nodded. He could do this. Wanted to do this.

He kneaded Jared's cock with his thumb, watched as precome leaked from the slit. Jared legs were drawn up, feet dangled on Jensen's back, hot-moist skin of his thighs stuck to Jensen's sides. Jensen wiped the precome on his lips and closed his eyes, licked them, didn't think it was salty or bitter, didn't taste like much of anything, not good but not really all that bad.

Jared tugged his wrist and Jensen hummed as if in question. He looked up and held Jared's gaze, shifted so he was far back on his heels, could gaze up the length of Jared and smile. He stroked Jared's cock, smeared the head back and forth over his lips, then got a faceful of come.

His eyes slammed shut and he spluttered, felt strangely disappointed.

"Oh my God--Jensen. 'm sorry--oh man, 'm so sorry. Oh, damn. I-"

Jensen burst out laughing. He boosted forward again and grinned, found Jared's hand without opening his eyes, kissed each fingertip. "S'okay, shhh--it's okay. So long as you clean it up." When Jared started to hastily wipe it away Jensen murmured, "No, use your mouth."

Jared shuddered, groaned with anticipation and guided Jensen's head closer. Jensen stuck his hand down his pants and fumbled for, grabbed then jacked his cock, came hard and fast before Jared had even begun. He gasped and shuddered and let Jared dunk him to the side. They lay together in a somewhat overwhelmed daze, laughed with and at each other, tangled, then cuddled close.

Jensen woke up sometime later, face mashed in Jared's armpit. He cracked an eye open and his lashes were stuck together. "Eeeeugh," he breathed, then he pushed away from Jared and tried to sit up. "Washcloth. Complete with water."

"Mmmhmmm." Jared, clearly, was still asleep.

Jensen rolled wobbily off the far side of the bed and stumbled to the bathroom. His sweats were baggy around his knees and tripped him as he walked. He wriggled out of them at the threshold, took a step and winced at how cold the tiles were, kicked his sweats in front of him and stepped on those instead.

He turned on the water and shoved his face into the sink, propped his forehead on the far swell of the bowl, stood there half-asleep. After a few minutes he groped for a towel, punched the water off and scrubbed most of the awful mix of come and sweat away. He decided the rest could wait, for things like more sleep and awareness and a hot shower.

Jensen returned to the bed and smiled at the empty, him-shaped space that Jared was curled around. He crawled in, leaned over Jared and fought with the lamp until it went dark, then fell back into his space and deep, dreamless sleep.

\\ // \\ // \\ // \\

"How's JT holding up?"

"Oh, about as good as can be expected. Doc said he'd probably be a bit dizzy for another few days," Jensen grinned, "but then, I don't see how you'd tell the difference, with that."

Lauren tsked and laughed. "I would think it's been quite an up and down weekend for you."

Jensen dialed back his smile and nodded. "Yes ma'am, it has."

"Yeah, me too!" Lauren huffed sympathetically. "What with Chris being back and looking so much better, then announcing his plans to retire so he can pursue his singing full time, then your amazing ride on Wayward Son! And finally JT's wreck on Bad Moon. That was terrifying! We all know what great friends you two have become over the course of this season. That must have been awful for you to have to watch, JR."

Jensen's lips flattened and he nodded again.

Lauren nodded too and said thoughtfully, "I mean, I always know how helpless I feel, I can't imagine how much worse it must be for you guys, watching your good buddies getting hurt like that, knowing too exactly what it feels like to be out there on the bad side of a bull."

"Um, yes. Yes ma'am." Jensen managed a tight smile. "That's about it."

She brightened. "And of course I can't forget to congratulate you on winning the event here in Nashville! Some good money and it got you back in good shape, once more top of the leader board. Are you going to be able to hold onto that all the way to Vegas? It's not that far off now!"

Jensen blushed and laughed shortly. "Well, no it ain't. But I can't think about it like that yet. I just have to take it a bull at a time, keep doing my best. The rest will take care of itself."

Lauren leaned into him and raised a brow. She grinned and raised a hand, indicated the arena all around.

Jensen nodded once broadly, touched his hat and said, "Oh, and thank you. Thank you."

|| Grand Rapids To Las Vegas and Five Between ||

Michigan to Florida, sling wide for California, then back again into Ohio. It should take ages, but they didn't have the luxury of time, and Jensen felt himself falling apart as they pushed themselves to the last and the season wound down. Usually by now he was chomping to get at Vegas; these days he couldn't stand to see the remaining several weeks fall wayside. Everywhere--each event, meal shared, bed they slept in--he'd thought, this is my last time here, my last ride in this arena, the last time I'll see Jared under a paper moon or the turquoise oceanside sunshine.

He struggled against himself, constant arguments that kept him from throwing Jared down, telling everything, and giving his heart free rein. It could have happened so many times--long morning kisses, Jared adorable with chipmunk cheeks across a diner booth from him, all the silent miles they drove--but Jensen didn't even so much as say that after Vegas he'd be turning in, had to be done. He knew he couldn't answer the questions, then demands, that would follow. He'd admitted he didn't want to leave, couldn't see how they'd make it work if he stayed.

At least his riding had hit back into its right stride, what he'd always claimed to best understand again holding him in good stead. If he'd continued to scuffle along with all the rest of this nonsense he couldn't reconcile, Jensen wasn't sure what he'd do.

His mind played tricks on him, showed him the horizon and clouds in negative relief, inveigled that this too could be ridden out and gathered in, worth the hard try. Jensen had spent too many hours fighting to make right of the world. Would abandon Jared and he'd have to be coaxed into a return, always smiled and tried to soothe Jared's apprehensions away. He always wished to offer more. That this--this nowhere in his truck, events and places they roamed--could be the place they remained.

Jensen sighed and rubbed his eyes.

"Need me to spell you?" Jared rubbed his hand over Jensen's thigh, warm spot from the hours it'd held him made suddenly cold.

"Nah, I'm good." Jensen glanced over when Jared squeezed, smiled. "I'll tell you when that changes. Promise."

Jared held his gaze a beat then nodded, turned back to watch beyond the windshield. They sped through the Badlands on I-90, had stopped to see the giant prairie dog at the Ranch Store Giftshop. Jared had another garish belt buckle purchased from Wall Drug, tried and convinced Jensen to get the same, pulled over much later so they could lean on the truck and track the dusty plume that followed a herd of buffalo. After this they'd tangle around Chicago, eventually wind all the way back to I-84 and Connecticut. Jared wanted to stay again at a Bed and Breakfast they'd happened upon, months behind, and Jensen hadn't forestalled that request even though before now he'd always held to thinking B&Bs as being a trifle beyond his ken.

"It's creepy here. Beautiful."

Jensen studied the otherworldly scenery, ripples of shapes and bands of color, umber and ocher and red. "Both."

Jared smiled. "Yeah." He twiddled his fingers over Jensen's leg, something he always did when he wanted to ask a question.

Jensen waited for it, didn't have to be patient because it wouldn't take long.

"How'd you get into bullriding?"

It seemed like something they should just know, after so much shared, and it startled Jensen to think there were things about Jared for him yet unlearned. He closed his hand around Jared's wrist. "How did you?"

Jared pulled a face. "Asked you first."

"Asked you last."

"Meanie." Jared huffed and poked Jensen's hip, relented easily enough. "I was out one night with some friends. They entered me in a contest at a fair. Mechanical bull riding. I won, liked it, made me want to see about real thing." He shrugged and blushed. "No upbringing to the life or rodeo glory for me--just, more luck, I guess."

Jensen ran his palm along Jared's forearm then linked their fingers together. "Mechanical bulls aren't quite like what you get here, but if you weren't raised to it and still won? Means you had to be pretty good, even then."

Jared shrugged and chewed on his lip, washed deeper red. Uncomfortably so.

"Hey." Jensen bounced his leg, quick checks of the road, paid Jared most of his attention. "You made the PBR, got here on your own. And." He tugged, grinned when Jared was forced around to look at him. "You're better than pretty good, now."

"Yeah, but-"

"You ride fair and square, don't you? Same as everybody else. What means the most is the try you give, every bull, not where you started." He laughed. "Even if being talked into a mechanical bull riding contest is a damn pitiful shame."

Jared sighed and rolled his eyes. "Yeah, I know. Not exactly the greatest comparison, okay? I feel dumb out there, a lot of the time, probably look it, too. Y'all were born in a saddle, rode calves and birthed sheep and took your first steps at the rodeo, whatever. I just feel--I don't like to talk about it."

Jensen gentled his hold and rubbed his thumb in slow circles over Jared's palm. "Dad was a bullrider, when he was young. Never amounted to much, still had a few great moments, stayed with it longer than you'd imagine. He met Mom, they got married, had my older brother and on from there. I don't know what they think of me riding. Not even quite sure how I fell into myself, other than people knowing Dad and Dad knowing to ride then me giving it a go. And, so you know, I've never birthed a lamb."


"Hmm. Maybe." Jensen snicked. "What's it matter? At this point it's a wash, Jared. Not even Chris being a dumbass handed you the way up, and nothing but your riding keeps you here."

Jared's blush softened from pained to unaccustomed praise, and he tilted and hawed and played with his hair.

"Right?" Jensen put Jared's hand firm on his thigh, reached over and combed mussed hair into place, smoothed his knuckles along Jared's jaw. He knew the feeling, was humbled, proprietary, amazed to have put it there in Jared. To have been shown and trusted with such a sore, tender weakness.

"Then you have birthed a horse. Figures. Damn know-it-all," Jared sidestepped, huffed lightly and smiled. He nuzzled into Jensen's hand, kept going and hunched, leaned his head on the seat back. He stared at Jensen, thought it over, wriggled closer. "Does your dad like that you ride too? I couldn't honest much tell."

Jensen looked at Jared looking at him, almost said they were near the end, this season and his riding, and how could they find another way. He wanted to ask if Jared had meant all the months they'd been together, if he was stupid to be so afraid, stupider to have let Jared become so much and still feel so lost.

"Dad's fine with it. We're not ranching people anymore, weren't for most of my life." Jensen raised a brow and Jared's mouth turned up at one corner, somewhat abashed. "But I think he likes that I decided to do this, know he likes how well I've done." He didn't have to say that past bitterness, anymore, accepted it for what it was worth, forgave the rest awhile ago.


"It's just." Jensen shook his head, not at all surprised Jared knew that to ask. He licked his lips, tried to put this fair as he knew. "Dad was a decent bullrider, nothing more, and his being perfectly content with halfway isn't somewhere I could live." He smiled tightly. "Hard day when you wake up and realize your old man is a disappointment, and I thought, if I do this, I'm not gonna wake up to that same hard day."

Probably made no sense. Jensen tilted his wrist on the wheel and opened his fingers into the air, all the rest he couldn't fit into words.

Jared smiled. "You won't."

Jensen wanted to tell him not to be so sure, that such a day would probably be soon upon him for reasons far different than determination built against a father's legacy. He nodded, squinted into the sun-blinded horizon. "You about ready for dinner?"

"I could eat." Jared pushed in, pecked a kiss on Jensen's cheek.

He grumbled but didn't mind. They started the search for somewhere good to stop, stretch their legs, fill the hollow voids Jensen swore were in Jared's.

\\ // \\ // \\ // \\

One weekend remained.

They'd ridden last weekend in Vegas--the first of two, the season's culminating, most grueling and exciting event--and the World Championship was Jensen's to lose. Jared had ridden his first bull for 90.25 points, and that seemed to tip him into one of those velcro-butt hot streaks that couldn't be shaken.

Vegas crowds were different from any other. Bigger, for starters, looser and wilder and more varied. The mainstays came to watch their favorites compete for higher and higher dollars as the ranks thinned to the cowboys that rode, were joined by tourists and thrill-seekers and people who shrugged and said why not, no clue as to what they were getting into when they bought tickets.

The rounds started same as always--the national anthem and a prayer--was revved with additional pyrotechnics as the boys were introduced into the arena. The bulls got their own introduction here, stampeded across the dirt then were funneled to the holding pens. Jensen stood leaned on the back rail with the other boys, Jared at his elbow pressed to his side.

After the first weekend of rounds had ended, he and had Jared driven to Death Valley, rented a little place, stayed cloistered, tucked away from everything but their last days together. They'd returned, refreshed and somewhat reluctant to see their hidden time broken. Everything was set to ride again starting tomorrow, and reality beat a persistent reminder and an ache in the back of Jensen's head. They'd met up with the boys tonight to raise some hell, chase the fantastical debauchery and good times Vegas so generously put on offer then always turned round to call.

They strayed far from the event arena, wild and reckless, immersed in the sweet high of success and each other. They threaded their way down the Strip, pulsating lights and stretch-limo Hummers, girls and guys both in barely anything at all. Jared gawked and grinned, insisted they stop at everything--Bellagio fountains, the Mirage's erupting Volcano, the cheesy siren show at Treasure Island.

Jensen had seen it all before, didn't feign being bored because with Jared he wasn't; it felt brand new and worth exploration, full of spark like the current that thrummed between them.

"Man, look at that one." Chad pointed into the crowd at a bleach-blonde gal, young and sweet and nearly out of her top as she danced down the street.

Gabe snorted and shoved Chad's hand. "That one's better. And legal." The new find was dark and curvy with showy red lips and a baseball hat with a red-sequined heart on it.

Chad went back to watching blondie. "Eh," he scoffed. "She's gotta be at least eighteen--right?"

Jensen coughed. "Man, leave her be. Gross."

Jared covered his snickering with a fist. When the call was raised to charge in and ransack yet another nightclub, Jared pulled Jensen aside, held them back. Jensen stayed close, waited, no problem ditching the rest.

He directed them north and they ducked past old and fading casinos and seedy gambling halls, and Jensen absolutely did not let Jared step into the world's largest gift shop for even one minute. Vegas never quit but the night would end, and Jensen was insistent they'd stand beneath Fremont Street so Jared could ogle the lights, and he could ogle Jared unobserved.

Light, easy contact kindled and teased him as they walked, Jared's hand brushing his, hip-checks when he'd make a joke or smile, fingertip on his neck chasing a drop of sweat in its slow descent. They parted and joined again and again, allowing for enormous planters, clutches of giggling girls and haggard families. When girls of any age giggled harder at seeing them, took the two of them in with flirty gazes, Jensen grinned and touched his hat, was mirrored exactly by Jared at his side.

The crowd became a crazy jumble as they neared the white canopy. Jensen pushed down his discomfort at being completely surrounded, hooked his hand in Jared's belt to drag them towards the middle.

Jared did just as Jensen had wanted--stood there, head back, face painted with rippling movement of color and shadow. Jensen did just as he'd wanted--stood there and gazed at Jared, took in his fill.

He didn't see anyone else, forgot to care, put bulls and the buckle to the back of his mind and worked at simply being here, he and Jared, left the rest behind.

They moved with the crowd, strange clockwise shifts that attuned to the dazzle of lights overhead.

"God it's--amazing! Ain't nothing like I've seen before. You could say that for this whole damn place though, really, so not sure it's a fair assessment." Jared grinned against Jensen's neck. "But-"

Jensen tipped his head to the side, gave Jared a tad more room. "But?" He hadn't realized Jared had closed in on him, now stood there with Jared nearly wrapped around him and just to his side. He still didn't think about it, still didn't mind. Their eyes met and Jared's grin hazed, softened and hardened same time with smoltry intent.

"I like Billings better."

He nodded dumbly and Jensen knew they were about to kiss, tracked Jared's hungry rake of attention from his lips to his chest then the buckle that rode low at his waist and back up again. He told himself not to freak out--tried to find the grit and will that put him on a bull time and again despite it having a good chance of killing him--found his palm pressed to Jared's chest and pushing them apart anyway.

Jared frowned and Jensen curled a knot of shirt into his hand. "Not--not here," he stuttered, fought the frantic need to search the crowd for anyone that could give them away. Wouldn't matter who was out there. This wasn't him and wanting that kiss bad as he did, Jensen knew he couldn't let it take him, out here in front of Vegas and everybody. A lifetime of hiding in repressed fear couldn't be undone so easy, not even by Jared and the time-out-of-time fever that this place taunted and enchanted.

He pulled and Jared stumbled after, eager to abandon anything for the promise Jensen couldn't keep from his hips and hold and eyes.

The forgotten back end of this place wasn't far or difficult to find. Jensen sped them a block and a half, maybe, pushed Jared against a dark streetlamp. "Just stay here. Only take a minute." He almost laughed at Jared's sudden bewilderment, patted Jared's chest to soothe the strong hands that had taken desperate hold of his upper arms. "Sure as hell ain't doing what I wasn't willing to under those lights here. I'm coming right back."

He was good as his word. It only took a minute to throw down a fifty and get a room for the remainder of this night at the no-tell dive he'd walked them to. Jensen stepped from the dilapidated office and dangled the key, jerked his head over his shoulder and started up the set of wobbly metal stairs, grinned stupid-giddy when Jared let out a resounding yee-haw and chased him up, then along the narrow concrete balcony.

It was the end room, dank and squat and ready for business. Reeked of past business, cigarettes and sex and cheap pine cleaner. Jensen stood in the doorway and almost bolted, ready to swear it'd all been a mistake. He shook his head, started then stopped again, and Jared waited for him to make up his mind.


He frowned, pushed his thumb into the bend of Jared's elbow and held on. "Shouldn't it be--I mean." He scratched his neck, felt an idiot, asked anyway, "D'you want nicer?"

Jared laughed, got that pleased-pink flush that made Jensen forget his own name. Then he forgot everything when Jared spun him into the door to close it and held him there, pushed between his legs, knocked off their hats then set about making good on that kiss that'd been neglected far too long.

Jensen sighed when Jared pulled away, tangled his fingers in Jared's hair. "Guess not, then."

Jared smiled and set his cheek alongside Jensen's, breathed in deep and kissed behind Jensen's ear. "What's nicer than this?" He nipped a trail to Jensen's chin, grinned and dropped to his knees, fiddled Jensen's buckle and cupped his hand around Jensen's crotch.

Jensen grinned back and tugged at Jared's shirt then shoulders, got them stood up and together to stumble towards the bed, toed from their boots as they tangled. He lifted Jared's arms, managed to slip his shirt off next. They landed hard and the frame creaked but didn't give.

As Jared shucked his jeans Jensen fumbled in the pockets, spilled condoms and lube packets onto the bed. Jared raised an amused brow, picked a bright blue condom snug in its clear wrap between his fingers and waggled it in front of Jensen's face. Jensen shrugged and looked away, nauseous with shame and quivering anticipation.

"Came with the room," he mumbled, wanted to roll onto his side, curl up and maybe get swallowed into the threadbare carpeting.

Jared dropped the condom and shoveled the small pile under a pillow, got Jensen's jeans, boxers then socks stripped, dunked onto his shoulder and wriggled from his own clothes. He grabbed Jensen's hip and grappled them together, nosed Jensen's cheek then sucked them into another kiss, hands busy with Jensen's button-up and undershirt.

"We gonna need those? I mean, I've never. You know." Jared's aroused blush darkened crimson but he didn't relent, licked a swath down Jensen's chest to his cock.

Jensen looked Jared in the eye. "I haven't either--I mean not, like this. But." He shook his head. "We best, if we do. Just--you know."

He closed his eyes, pivoted then boosted so he straddled Jared's waist, tugged Jared's shirt and tee and tank off in one pull. Jared sank back onto the bed, hair everywhere, smiled up at him. He let his fingers wander, needed to feel and relearn and memorize every last detail, texture and structure and how Jared fit into his hands. Jensen laughed when Jared pushed him, landed on his butt between Jared's legs.

Jared bent his knees and drew his feet up, set them wide enough so his toes could grip the mattress edges. He rooted around and found a condom--this one pink--set it on his belly with a packet of lube. "Jensen, I want this--want you to." He circled his ankles with his fingers and slid himself wider, stared at Jensen with determination and sweet vulnerability Jensen almost couldn't stand.

So much and so beautiful, so beautifully long. The tension in Jared's corded limbs, strain of cock and blown-black eyes, that open furl of body that gave everything simply by lying there. Jensen grazed his fingertips along Jared's calves, inner thighs, cut of muscle at hips and abs. He leaned forward and traced Jared's ribs, watched the quickening of Jared's breath, the tattoo of heartbeat that fluttered just beneath Jared's skin. He kissed Jared's brow, nose, lips, rested his forehead in the cup of Jared's collarbone.

He listened, couldn't hear above the roar in his ears, bracketed suddenly onto his elbows and jerked away.

Jared frowned at him, chewed his lips and started to move, humiliated and crestfallen. "Forget it, just, never mind. 'm sorry. Was stupid, I'm stupid, don't know why you'd want-"

Jensen gathered Jared up, all that length pulled into his lap, twined his arms around and kissed, kissed, kissed until Jared sighed, settled, relaxed again to his touch. He couldn't take this from Jared, didn't deserve for it to be given, wasn't sure that he could overcome the mix of revulsion and desperate want that drove him back, held him fast. Jensen imagined Jared taking instead, shook uncontrollably with his need to have that, to feel that, at last something to give beyond his inability to stay.

He shouldered under Jared's chin, turned sinuously so he was the one sat in Jared's lap, surrounded by strength and heat and trembling arms. He reared back and let himself fall, grabbed Jared's hand and pressed it splayed over his middle, gasped when Jared's cock smeared wet and hot over his leg, didn't know how else to beg please.

Jared groaned and pushed into him, undid his balance so his face mashed against the mattress and his arm bent under. He slapped at the bed and Jared canted away, gripped his hips so he'd match every move. Jared's hands tightened, held then waited, and Jensen nodded.

He squirmed and almost giggled when Jared's finger poked into him, cold and smooth with lube. He coughed and let out a short breath, reached back and held Jared's wrist, lay there in uncomfortable silence until he'd adjusted and Jared's finger slid deeper. He didn't want Jared to ask if he was all right, if this was okay, because he honestly didn't know. Then another long finger slicked into him and Jensen shuddered and moaned, bit into the pillow and rounded his hips, wanted more.

It seemed to take forever and he felt like those fingers were teasing up into him so far he could taste them on his tongue. Jared left him and Jensen sighed, listened as another packet crinkled then was ripped apart. He chuckled and pressed his cheek into the mattress, bobbed back and forth into his hips, smiled and licked his lips when Jared cursed at the sight.

There was nothing good about it, at first, not like those gentle, sure fingers that had stretched and supplicated. Jensen huffed then held his breath, groaned appreciatively when Jared's wetted thumb rubbed firm circles over where they were pushing together. Jared went as patiently as could be expected, slow increments that tortured Jensen with the need to be slammed furious and dirty and the want for it to be gone and get the hell away.

Jared stilled, all the way in, and Jensen heaved and his lungs wracked when he fought a stutter of pain. Jared jerked, let go of his hips and massaged the small of his back, kissed the point of his shoulderblades, the dip between their wings. He hummed roughly when Jared bit and sucked the knobs of his vertebrae, wrenched back to sharp-need awareness when Jared's hand fisted his cock, long pulls that drew it hard and wanting again.

Jensen started to move, let his knees drag further apart, arched his back and into Jared's touch. They warmed to each other, a rhythm, soon picked up urgency and speed.

Jared fucked him fast, edged raw, and Jensen dug his toes into the bedding, was pitched forward with every thrust until he had to brace his forearm on the wall and tuck his head under. Jared lifted his hips higher and Jensen squeaked when he was stroked, white-hot inside out that made him twist and kick, babbled for Jared to find and get and own that again.

He shoved his free arm beneath him and fisted his cock, jerked his hips in opposite pulls of Jared's, clenched tight and took Jared deep, chewed on the corner of the pillow and came. His orgasm shivered over him, rocked him hard sideways, left without breath or the sensation of anything beyond where he and Jared were joined, the throb of his pulse and the heat of Jared's down in him. Part of him.

Jensen choked back a yell, Jared's name, then his limbs all gave way and he went slack, tumbled into the bed.

Jared growled and pulled out, twisted and lifted and Jensen raised one leg, let himself be flipped. He wrapped weak legs around Jared's hips and clawed uselessly, searched and circled his body until Jared filled him again, moaned with raw satisfaction and surrender when Jared held him down, hand heavy and bruising on his sternum.

Jensen kept his eyes open, lay there loose and willing, watched Jared's concentration and driving need to fuck him, to forge something more. He could tell Jared was close, grinned and jacked his cock, whimpered as his spine coiled and he contracted. No way he'd get hard or come again, so soon--it hurt, felt so good--relaxed him so that Jared pushed impossibly further, hipbones sharp and barely able to move pressed tight against his ass. Jared's eyes slammed shut and Jensen moved his other hand to Jared's jaw, tugged sweaty hair, could smile again when their eyes met.

Jared's mouth worked and with a last snap of his hips he came, collapsed onto the brace of his arms surrounding Jensen, then Jensen hauled him down.

It took longer to recover than it had to get ready. They uncoupled awkwardly, laughed at their almost delicate, ginger movements, as if this was where they'd falter, turn shy. Jared stripped the condom and held it a moment, searched, then let it drop in the plastic cup on the bed stand. Jensen laughed harder and pulled them back together, winced when he wrapped his legs around Jared again. Tomorrow on a bull after this--not at all wise--but he'd ridden through worse.

They kissed and caressed and dozed, took turns staring while the other slept. Jensen listened to Jared breathe, tried not to think about this as goodbye.

It was nearly dawn when Jared propped his chin on Jensen's chest, trailed over lines of dried sweat and come with his fingertips. "You said you didn't always know what you were doing. Remember?"

Jensen nodded. He remembered, for sure. That'd felt like the most he'd said to anyone in years.

Jared moved along, ran his fingers over Jensen's forearm, studied their survey of musculature and skin. "I used to worry all the time what everyone thought. How I looked, how I rode, if people assumed I was stupid or could tell I wasn't. But, I've realized something."

Jensen raised a brow.

"You told me it didn't matter which way the bull would spin. Not even into my hand, making sure the ride's easier to get. That I had to give it the same try, every time, and no matter what they'd start counting." Jared smiled, tilted and tugged so he could kiss Jensen's palm. "Remember that?"

Jensen laughed softly and kissed the bridge of Jared's nose. He trusted Jared had a reason to fit these parts together. "Yeah, I remember. Sounds like a load of crap--both of 'em--but it's still true." He drew back and tapped Jared's dimple. "Why?"

"You were so pissed that even Wayward Son would spin into my hand, pissed that my draw on him tomorrow will be easier 'cause of that, probably win me Vegas." Jensen blushed but Jared grinned. "Said it was just your damn luck that I'd be so lucky. But it isn't luck, or knowing every little thing, isn't anyone else. Just. Holding on, how hard you try."

Jensen knew what Jared was telling him. He hummed and nodded and kissed Jared, wanted to distract this, didn't want to have to look into Jared's eyes and pretend he didn't understand or agree, pretend this wasn't almost over. Jared followed his lead--right into his hand--sighed with contented belief when Jensen rolled them together and deepened their kiss.

\\ // \\ // \\ // \\

Jensen's heart knocked so hard it felt like a jackhammer, staggered him a step. He looked over at Jared, young and brash and clearly ready for more. Jensen screwed down fast his decision to up and leave and force this thing between them as done. They stood on the center platform cage, held up the world champ buckle, the finals trophy, and Jared grinned and mooned adoringly like the huge doofus he was.

Huge lovable doofus.

Vegas made good on everything Jensen had strived so hard to gain, was going to be the last of the only thing he'd found to want. Jared had won the biggest event of the year, and Jensen had won it all.

His heart didn't pound from adrenaline or success. It surged too fast on the verge of breaking.

He'd made up his mind about a few things, hadn't told a soul about any of it. A hard rattle to his head in Columbus had been the last he could take, mild concussion that had affected him far worse than he'd let on. Doc Jim had suspected, angry and resigned to Jensen's determination getting in the way of better sense and self-preservation, pulled him aside and warned him not to be so willfully stupid. Everyone knew he'd been riding under the gun for the year--every cowboy did--but not even Jared understood the extent of what he'd risked pushing to since, then all the way through Vegas.

Jensen had earned enough in his riding career to retire and do right well, but there wasn't enough to make a go at raising quality bull stock from scratch. He'd told himself it was the buckle and the million or nothing at all. What he'd have wouldn't be worth keeping if he hadn't tried, and he wouldn't have lived easy with himself if he hadn't.

All or nothing and he would walk away, free and clear, exactly as he'd decided from the start.

They clambered off the shark's cage, jostled each other and shook hands, shoulders, hugged their friends and fellow cowboys. It'd been a foregone conclusion that Jensen couldn't lose, so far ahead in points that by the second weekend he had it all but gift-wrapped and set at his feet. He hadn't considered that as reason to slack, and everyone here respected that he'd rode just as tough and with all his try, no matter. That had won him a few rounds besides, and Jensen couldn't see that winning the buckle would mean as much if he'd shrugged and just let it come.

Jared grabbed his neck and gave him a firm shake. Jensen closed his eyes, wrapped his hands around Jared's arms, took in all he was about to deny.

"We did it! Fuck, I don't even care about what I got--you did it! Jensen, hear that? Hear them? For you, man--for you--and you damn deserve it and I'm so proud. God, I just. Wow!"

Jensen nodded, squeezed tight, tilted like he was listening to avoid Jared's eyes.

Jared's grin was bright and trusting, more than Jensen could bear. He leaned in, yelled against Jensen's ear, "When I can hear myself think and we're outta here I'll tell you better. Show you better. Yeah?"

"That'd be--yeah," Jensen whispered, meant it and here couldn't lie even if it wasn't the truth Jared expected, caught Jared's hair in his fingers and gave it a tug, smiled and held on a minute then allowed himself to get dragged away from Jared's hands.

The crowd hadn't thinned, were on their feet, rocked and cheered their heroes, every cowboy who'd made it this far tipping their hats, grinning not to be stopped and making the rounds to sign autographs. Jensen endured flashbulbs, a few long interviews after. He posed with the top three finishers and people who stuck their heads through the rails and begged for a snap. He managed to appear more than in the mood to accept his stupid over-sized check, held tenuously to a smile that masked his desperation to stay and the need to flee.

He searched the haphazard mix of riders and fans, for what he didn't know, stared until tears pricked behind his eyes.

Jared had a heavy arm thrown over Chad's shoulders, seemed so far away out across the dirt, gestured and moved all crazy and without care as he recounted one of his rides to Lauren as everyone around them laughed. Not just up-and-coming, anymore, not second to JR Ackles or anyone else. Jensen recognized the look in Jared's eyes, that fire and hunger. It'd turn into just one more season, then one more, then just one more. Turn into what Jensen no longer had in him to give, and he refused to stand by just to clutch and claw at something doomed to fade.

Jensen couldn't fit into that, wouldn't fight to try. Jared's folks were probably right--seasons from now Jared would look back, find his life nothing but the ride--and from here on Jensen would only be in the way. Jensen had fought with himself not to tell Jared anything. He didn't know how to explain, would not be talked into giving what couldn't be, couldn't stand to outright say goodbye.

He said to himself there that Jared was gonna be fine. Better than, free and clear, same as him. Jared didn't need him to keep that smile shining or that talent to seat any bull, didn't need the complication of a has-been rider hanging on to where only questions would be raised.

Wayward Son won bull of the year--definitely helped see Jared win Vegas, maybe the best ride of Jensen's career--and after Jensen stood in front of the honorary pen for pictures and a few words he slipped away to the locker room. He sat and listened to the muffled din, knew at first Jared would want to kill him for this, decision and favor, then would one day thank him for his inability to compromise.

Jensen tore himself from the frenzy and stayed low, moved quick, snuck unseen along the chutes and corridors. He stood in the empty locker room and unknotted his rope, kicked out of his spurs. He rolled his chaps into his tack bag then shouldered it, glad for the moment to be alone. Instead of joining back with the others to head to the after-party he ducked out the back, hovered at the periphery, safe in shadow for too many long minutes and watched Jared, happy smile and glad hand for anybody, nodded his head in a silent goodbye then turned and walked away.

It was easy to evade and disappear, dark parking lot and his quiet truck. He rested his head on the steering wheel and swallowed the want to run back inside, tightened his hands and lifted his shoulders to his ears, held them there then let them down slow, opened each finger, one by one. He sighed and nodded then cranked the engine, left the radio off and told the silence he wasn't a coward.

The letter he'd written to announce his retirement would be delivered to a select few tomorrow, and he had no doubt it'd find widespread release in a matter of hours. He'd call his sponsors in the morning, wanted to tell them before they heard from anyone but him that he just couldn't ride anymore. There was no letter for Jared, no words that could contain everything he wanted to say and wouldn't let himself have.

Yeah. Definitely not a coward.

He pushed through the night and kept on driving. It wasn't an arduous trip home but Jensen took it slow, glad for the familiar routine and solitude, told himself not to miss what wasn't here. Thinking of it as home didn't feel right, anymore, absent of Jared and full of the same disappointment and anger that riddled the sum of his failures. World champ, best bullrider in the world, million-dollar liar.

Didn't matter. There was no one to make proud or suffer judgment. He knew by the time he had his brood of bulls together and returned to the circuit Jared would long have moved on from what they'd been, the rash, boyish infatuation with him not even a regret to be forgotten.

Stars opened into dawn as the desert gave way to green, and as flat undulations rose into hills he fancied idling a detour to the Grand Canyon, dismissed the idea just as quick. He had to go back to the ranch eventually, no better time than the present to tackle the long, hard chore of life ahead of him.

Jensen didn't waste energy speculating on what'd just been given up he'd have to distract himself from with sixteen-hour days of pushing, pushing more, and nonstop work. He pretended that his long-decided plans that had nothing to do with, had been made without and before Jared, would somehow reward him as they'd always seemed to promise.

\\ // \\ // \\ // \\

"What an amazing first weekend here in Vegas, JR! So exciting, and every cowboy just seems right on his game, here. You know, they've got it--there's nothing quite like this place." Lauren was dressed up, wore fancy tooled and rhinestone-studded chaps over pressed blue jeans.

Jensen smiled. "That sure enough is true. Vegas started as a cowtown, but these days? It's just surreal, being here to buck some bulls. Guess it's testing your luck same as anything, though, so maybe not that strange."

Lauren blinked. "I never thought of it that way. I like it! When I talk to Dustin next I'm going to see what he has to say about that." She grinned.

"Yes ma'am." Jensen tucked his fingers in his belt, waited.

"What are you planning for the days off? Going to gamble a bit of the money you've already earned from your rides?"

Jensen licked his lips and shook his head. "Just not sure about that yet. Figure I'll see what comes along, go with what sounds best."

"JR, if you sneak away to do work at home and get on some practice bulls, I'm going to hunt you down and drag you back here for some fun. Hear me?" Lauren raised a brow then bapped Jensen with the microphone.

He blushed. "Yes ma'am. And, uh, no. Wasn't planning on doing that, just yet." Jensen winked. "Promise."

Lauren nodded. "Mmm-hm. Now, you won't like me saying what I'm thinking about you and a certain few things like points, a special belt buckle..." She drew out her syllables and leaned into him meaningfully. "So I won't. I'll just say, have yourself a fine few days, see you back here Thursday, and best of luck!"

Jensen touched his hat. "Thank you--much obliged. I will. Appreciate it."

|| Travis County, Texas ||

Jensen tossed a hay bale from the loft, watched it thud against the others down below then bounce away, dead grass bent and brown underneath. He took off his work hat, wiped his forehead with a bandanna tugged from his back pocket, hay and dirt prickly over his skin, pushed the hat back on. Two more, then he'd sweep the chaff into a pile, leave it for the mice that he left for the farm cats that seemed to grow thicker than weeds.

He stood in the wide loft door and studied the distance, the land that he could call his, let the easterly wind cut through him. He wondered if he'd miss the ride, the excitement and familiarity, even the grind. He'd left without a backward glance, knew that was the best way to have his break. Now and again the phone rang and he'd give a bit here and there in answer to the people and questions that came his way. Other riders, asking after him, just making sure all was as it should be and he'd made his right mind for good reasons; PBR media, wanting quips to tell the fans. He did well with the boys, did his best with the press, didn't say much to any.

He read the paper over morning coffee-as-breakfast sat in the kitchen, thought about getting some dogs to keep him company. He'd reasoned a border collie-dingo would be a good mix, laughed at himself and added another kind of idiot he could be called to the list. Lunch was nothing much and he couldn't make a better dinner, grimaced after proving a few too many times Mike calling beer a meal in a can. Jensen figured he was ten pounds down and wearing thinner, refused to admit he was off his feed for anything more than too little care to shop and too much hard work.

His ranch wasn't so remote that no one came by this way, wasn't close enough to anywhere to have regular traffic. He'd learned not to pay attention to each car that drove past, let them go without a thought. When he'd first gotten out here it'd seemed so quiet--deafeningly so--and each truck that rumbled close had sounded like a roar. He'd longed for each one to turn up the drive and be the deliverance from his unforgiving choice of loneliness, despised that longing.

Anymore he didn't even hear them and had decided that was that. Jensen sighed and pushed useless things aside, straightened then dumped the last two bales over. He nodded, grabbed the broom, thought about how it'd be nice when this place had more than his horse in the corral and someone else's cattle leasing the land.

Fresno. The boys would ride in Fresno over the coming weekend, and he told himself to make better plans for that time than simply ignoring it. Jensen had followed only the results of the events so far, hadn't let himself watch anything on tv. He knew that Jared was in the overall lead, earliest clear contender for world champ and a buckle to match the one he'd locked in a drawer and pretended to forget.

Jensen toed the tidy pile he'd made. "Come and get it," he muttered, propped the broom tucked into a truss then slid down the wooden straight ladder tied into the wall.

Steve had told him Wayward Son had been put to pasture, first out of this season in New York City, and that damn bull had just shrugged Dustin off then stood there as if to say, yeah, make me. Some bulls were like that, near impossible to catch, but once they were they had no interest in getting away. It seemed fitting, dovetailed neatly with everything else from that part of his life that had run so hard and reckless then crashed to a standstill.

Jensen walked the width of the barn and decided on a break, went to lean in the narrow gap he'd left open in the sliding door. He propped a hip on the wall and crossed his right foot sideways in front of him and the fresh air felt good, relieved the itch of dust and hay. A truck crawled past the house, slowed to a near stop then turned up the drive, approached in no particular hurry. A Chevy same as his but newer, bright red and shiny like an apple. Next year's model, probably. The driver was tall and wore a cowboy hat, and all of that told him a whole lot of nothing.

He considered letting whoever this was park by the house to ring the bell and find no one home, then see if the man would wander. Instead he raised a hand and waved, figured it was easier getting this whatever business done with so he could get on with things here.

When the driver stepped out of the truck Jensen regretted waving. He thought about going full charge to tackle them to the ground.

Jared stood and held the truck door, visibly uncertain, stared at Jensen so that he swore he felt it from across the yard. Jensen swallowed and pulled his hands from his pockets, straightened tall, hoped he appeared unconcerned.

He was cold, sweat evaporated in the dry air, wore only a thermal shirt and a flannel. Jensen blamed his sudden shivers on it, let out a long sigh and hooked his elbow to carry his hand towards him, loose indication for Jared to come with.

He heeled back into the barn and stopped, strained then almost burst with relief when he heard the truck door clunk shut and footsteps sure and even crunch in approach. Then he moved again, didn't want to be right here when Jared ducked inside, had to busy himself against seeming anxious, desperately wanting or as invested as he knew he'd become.

Jared was better looking than he'd remembered, tanned and lean and strong. He hadn't forgotten his desire for that nor the yearning he'd convinced himself he could survive carrying somewhere buried deep inside.

Jared caught up to Jensen with his long, easy stride, and they walked together to his workbench in prickly silence.

Jensen stopped, hips to the rough salvage barn wood he'd built the bench from, and Jared came too close so he couldn't retreat too far. Jensen started tinkered inconsequentially and Jared turned, half-sat on the workbench, watched him. They shared body heat across the small space. Jensen ached from feeling it.

He worked and Jared simply waited, let him trim a lounge line then tool a clip onto an end. It was unnerving and exquisite. Jensen passed the leather through his hands to give him something to do, nipped away burrs and smoothed snags, but this was mostly for show and they both knew it.

It took him a fair bit and they stayed silent the whole time. Eventually Jensen slowly coiled the finished length on the bench and stared at it. "Nice truck," he said, tried for politely conversational.

Jared whuffed a soft laugh, sounded more sad than anything. "Yeah, well. I won Vegas last year and their golden boy had just suddenly up and quit. They needed someone else to appreciate."

Jensen snicked in annoyance and turned his head, fingers clenched to tangle and creak in leather. He didn't care that Chevy had no want for a retired bullrider--others had called, others still would--what he hated was Jared's newfound cynicism, hated most knowing this was exactly as he'd made.

"New hat," he said, all he had besides the muddle of foolery and clamoring need all twisted up inside. Jared's hat was dark chestnut, simple leather band holding the pheasant feather, similar in shape to the other.

Jared took it off slowly, looked it over then set it crown-down on the back corner of the workbench. "Some things are best changed."

Pointed words but who knew what they meant. They pierced Jensen, pride and outright pain, all the same. He sighed wearily and nodded, shrugged back the touch he sensed Jared was reaching. He spun carefully, hung his thumbs from his belt and studied the void of space made by the curve of Jared's neck and shoulder.

"Why are you here?" Raw and sounded it, ragged and unreasonable, as if he was the one licking wounds.

Jared's brows wrinkled. "Depends."

He huffed and jerked his head in annoyance. He didn't need this, didn't want to be reminded. Jensen crossed his arms and eased his hips to a deceptively causal tilt, didn't ask.

"How'd you find the place?"


Jensen tensed. "What?"

Jared rolled his eyes. "I said I asked Chris. Was easy, obviously he told me, and he doesn't think anything more than I'm an idiot who lost the unlosable place I put the directions I said you'd given me." He pursed his lips and glared at the far wall. "You think Chris would figure why I'm here? Hell Jensen--I don't think you even know."

Quiet and resigned and Jensen thought that this might be where they'd finally, completely break, accepted that, hopeless and lost and darkly satisfied.

"How many acres all in?"

Jensen blinked and pulled a rueful smile, figured he deserved that. "Near twelve-hundred. Nothing much." He licked his lips. "House needs to be gutted and started from scratch. It's a nightmare of half-assed improvement projects. Rooms are good-sized, and there's a fireplace and a finished storm cellar."

He'd bought the place end of his third year bullriding, and after had done a lot of thinking on it, plenty of road time filled planning what all he'd redo and how he'd go about the job. Now, he wasn't so sure he cared enough to change anything, used only the back bedroom and the kitchen, ignored the rust-orange gingham curtains and uneven goldenrod and avocado floors.

Jared turned so he could look out the small window that Jensen had hung over the workbench. "How's your grazing yield?"

"Decent. Have some good flats, even a creek. Won't be running too many head, but it's more than enough for me and a couple of bulls." Jensen shook his head. Shouldn't have said that last bit. He pushed his hat back, left it tilted there, wiped his arm across his brow.

Jared nodded. "So this is what you want--just this, here. What you worked all those years for?"

"Yup." He'd believed that, once.

"When did you know you were going to retire?"

"Start of last year," Jensen said baldly.

Jared straightened and shifted away. "I figured." He looked back, measured Jensen with a long stare. "Why?"

Jensen sucked in a breath and his smile was bleak. "Because. It would have killed me if I stayed. Almost pushed it too far gutting out one more season--you know that."

The wind howled through the barn and Jensen figured it'd hard frost overnight. He should stack wood on the back porch and shutter the work shed.

"Jared, what do you want?"

"To win the the buckle this season, start school in the spring."

Jensen stabbed the air with a finger. "I meant here. Why are you here."

"Same answer."

"That--that doesn't make any sense." Jensen shook his head. "What, you came this far out of your way to tell me? You're gonna win the buckle this year, well good for you. Just like that, just that easy."

Jared's eyes narrowed dangerously. "Think I won't?"

"No, no--I'd put the ranch on that you will." It'd be a good bet. Jensen pinched the bridge of his nose, wasn't surprised that Jared's unpredictable stubbornness hadn't changed. "Okay then. Fine. Where you thinking about schooling?"

"UT Austin."

"Jared," he admonished, so quiet, tried to hide the needy pull of want that blindsided and almost knocked him flat. That'd be close enough to the ranch to drive every day, even easier if Jared only had classes a few times a week.

Jensen imagined them living in and fixing his ugly shag-carpet, salmon-pink-tiled ranch house. He envisioned predawn coffee stood leaned on the counter hip to hip, him about to saddle up and move the herd, Jared bleary and beautiful and needing a shower before leaving for school. He shut away the heat from picturing Jared spread naked in front of the fireplace, warm and inviting, and for that he'd have to get a sheepskin rug.

"You're only nineteen, Jared. This can't last--you won't want this for good and always--not stuck with me, here. This isn't like on the road, and we can't pick up and leave or keep driving when things don't feel right. Maybe-" Jensen sighed. "In time something will itch and you'll think about having a kid, the gal to make him with and share with your family, anything but-"

"Don't you belittle me. Don't you pretend that my age dictates what I'm allowed to want. You respect that I can risk my life every time I get on a bull--you have to respect I know what I want to do with the rest of it!" Jared's jaw set and he loomed closer. "And don't you even think you can decide what I don't know, like I'm gonna accept that you were just some directionless scruff at nineteen."

Jensen huffed. "Isn't the same. I-"

"The fuck it isn't! Five years later and you're doing exactly what you'd set yourself to, knew for sure back then same as I do now. Like I know we'd be just as happy sitting still right here next to each other as eating up miles of highway. Unless, what? In five more when you're tired and your back hurts and you don't wanna wake at the asscrack of dawn, you'll shrug and walk away from everything? Again."

"Retiring isn't giving up. Leaving 'cause I had to isn't giving up. I don't give up, never." Jensen's hands curled to fists and he came up onto the balls of his feet. "Hear me? I don't."

Jared blinked once, face blank. "Yeah? Well, you're gonna have to pardon that this cowboy knows different."

That hurt, stove and twisted through him like a fiery branding iron. Jensen swallowed what he wouldn't admit was a wounded cry, stepped back and lifted his hands in warning when Jared reached out for him. He was so tired of fighting, couldn't take anymore that his very best only seemed to do nothing but harm. He thought about bolting--wanted to, desperately--but what would that prove. Nothing but Jared being exactly right.

Jensen knuckled his forehead and spoke from behind his hand, cup of thumb against his nose, palm out in surrender. "I'm trying to tell you, Jared. I just--I don't hold you to anything, won't." His chest turned in on itself like his ribs were bending round and round.

Jared laughed, arms that would have held Jensen defeated at his sides. "Could have fooled me." Nothing but sharp and bitter and Jensen wanted to shake that out, tell Jared never to let it back close.

He rapped his forehead and shook his head, denied it. "I don't know what you mean," he lied.

"You look me in the eye and tell me you'd take this shit treatment lying down, swear to me that you'd just stay and watch and do nothing as the best thing in your life was taken away."

Jensen didn't even bother. "It's not that easy."

"No shit, Jensen." Jared was angry, incredulous. "When did I ever ask you for easy? When'd I ever ask for anything at all? You think I don't realize? That I'm young and just full-up on hopeful flush and dumb bluster?"

Jared stepped forward and Jensen made himself hold ground. He let his hand drop, kept it in a tight fist drawn next to his hip. "My estimation you've asked me for a mighty damn lot. Then didn't stop asking soon as I gave."

"I only wanted-" Jared staggered backwards, suddenly. His shoulders drooped and hot color rushed up his neck and cheeks. He was motionless for a long time, something eating him from inside out, then with a nod he started to fiddle the coil of lounge line. His eyes shimmered, rimmed red. "You're right."

Jensen floundered and his hands wheeled uselessly at his sides. He'd expected they'd get to yelling, maybe even trade punches, had wanted that, needed somewhere to channel all his pent-up confusion of desire and rage.

"I did ask for a lot. Maybe too much." Tears spilled over to skid down Jared's cheeks. He huffed then dashed them away with a violent swipe, tilted his shoulders and head so Jensen couldn't see. "It won't be easy. Ever. Can't be, not with who I am and the kind of life I've chosen to lead. And that's not even anything to do with this."

Jensen started to move away but Jared's hand caught him, wrapped around his jaw, drew him back again. His lips burned and his insides flip-flopped and he was distracted by the potency of how perfectly his cheek fit in Jared's palm.

"Just--it'd be easier with you, Jensen. Worth it."

Jensen wrenched free and his breath stuck. "Dammit, Jared-"

"Tell me I'm wrong. That it didn't make all the difference to finally have that one person who understands, both what we are and wanting to buck bulls then raise them. Tell me it didn't make it okay to be like this, even if it has to stay hidden from everyone else. You tell me that so I can believe it." Jared's mouth trembled then compressed in a determined line.

This was the part where Jensen had to shut Jared up somehow, interrupt before he took the bit again and started running this time, bundle all his length back in that cherry red truck and demand that Jared get and not return.

Instead he just stood there and closed his eyes, imagined he could still feel the heat of Jared's touch on his face.

"Two years I'll have a degree in animal husbandry--heck, bioengineering, make everybody happy--even faster if I put my mind to it. You can come see me ride when the event's an easy drive, mind the place when they're not. Three years, maybe, and that'll be my Master's, if I want, and in that time we'll have gone to Mexico--shorter trip than Spain, cheaper too--get you your Toro, start breeding them into some Brahma stock."

Jensen shook his head. "Jared, for God's sake-"

"-I like the sound of The Double J Ranch. Something like that, you know. All good ranches have a double."

Jensen knotted his hands in Jared's shirt but Jared wouldn't stop.

"See, Jensen. Thing is? I'm not gonna let you get away with this--won't let you just get rid of me that easy." Jared pushed in close, held Jensen by the shoulders, gave them a shake. "I'm in love with you something awful. Have been since you first looked me in the eye and without saying a word told me not to fuck up, I didn't deserve to be here. This plan? These things I'm saying that I can't quit on thinking? They're driving me crazy, and you're just going to have to share this or I will go outta my mind. It isn't for me, isn't mine. It's ours. Like it or not. Ours, as in-"

"Jared! Jared dammit shut up. Just shut the hell up." Jensen swung Jared around into the workbench then fell forward, dropped his head on his hands that still clutched Jared tight. It sounded so good, so true, here within his grasp. It scared the life out of him.

"You know, maybe you're right." Jared took careful hold of Jensen's forearms. "We could give it five good years and still fail. Your daddy could find out and shoot me where I stand. I could lose my mind and go knock up some young pretty thing, have to make an honest woman out of her, leave all this and you to marry her and play make-believe."

Jensen reared back, eyes widened with outrage.

"That what you're thinking?" Jared pressed in, gathered Jensen's arms again. "What you're so afraid of?"

"No. Yes--I don't know. No, I mean, not like that." He huffed and looked at Jared's fingers wrapped knuckle-white around his bicep.

"Then like what."

"I don't know what you'll do. Not my place to say. You might turn 23 and freak out, quit everything everyone thought you should be doing and run away." Jensen bit his lip when his smile warbled and threatened to spread into a sob. He shrugged. "Don't think anything, Jared. Just--don't want that."

He braved glancing up and Jared leaned in, rested their foreheads together.

"Me neither. I swear." He sighed, ran his hand up Jensen's arm then neck to slide into Jensen's hair, dislodged Jensen's hat, and they let it fall. "All we have is doing our best, and all I want is to do my best by you." He eased out a shaky breath. "Jensen. Please."

Jensen had learned early that people saw what they wanted. He'd used it to his advantage, been disappointed by it more than a million times, knew this was more than worth risking that people always would.

He and Jared were good friends, two tall Texas boys who would raise bucking bulls because that's who they were, what they did. He'd been right from almost the first, just hadn't let himself wholly trust that faith. This didn't have to be any big deal. All it had to be was them.

"So you're gonna live here? Help run the place and get your schooling, let me take care of you?" Jensen blushed at that, stammered, but Jared wouldn't have it.

Jared held Jensen to him, thumbs at the corners of Jensen's mouth, long fingers cupping Jensen's skull, palms warm on flushed skin. "Yeah," he whispered, gaze steady and sure that lovingly drank Jensen down. "Just like that."

Jensen nodded and nuzzled into Jared's hand. The restlessness inside him settled, found the peace he'd always chased and had so long been denied.

They stood and swayed and Jared laughed, release of nerves and emotion, banded a fierce embrace around Jensen like he'd never let go. Jensen snagged Jared's belt and lined up their hips, pressed close, burrowed into flannel and cotton until he could feel Jared, skin to skin.

"Yeah well. Okay. So long as we're agreed it won't be easy."

Jared tilted Jensen sideways, angled in for a kiss, chased it with another, and another. They were wet and greedy, bordered on savage, wide unending, left Jensen shaking in Jared's arms.

Jared feathered his lips against Jensen's when he breathed. "Don't need easy. Just need to hold on."

Jensen understood.

He grinned, scratched the hidden places he knew would make Jared purr, got another kiss when Jared did. "Hope you like grilled chicken and grits, then. I'm a shit cook, otherwise."

Jared only laughed, kissed him harder.

\\ // \\ // \\ // \\

"Wow, and welcome to Fresno! So how about Chris singing the National Anthem, JR? Wasn't that inspiring?" Lauren beamed at him and he beamed back.

"Why yes, Lauren, it sure was. I think I'd go so far as to say that gave me goosebumps."

She laughed and nodded agreeably. "Sure is nice to have both of you still around--we took a real hit with both of you deciding on retirement after last season. It's hard to believe that only a little over a year ago it was questionable if he'd survive that awful wreck. And now, he's healed up and walking, working on his debut country album. Very exciting."

"Exciting is just the word for it." Jensen kept smiling. Chris was so gonna kick his ass.

Lauren nodded then leaned close and said archly, "I hear that being retired means you can finally say exactly what you think of all the cowboys here, let me in on how the season is going to turn out."

Jensen thought about it, then thought better. "Shoot Lauren, you know, every cowboy's just gotta show up ready to ride. They're all great or they wouldn't be here, but that doesn't mean they can quit trying. We say that every season but it's always true--if cowboys cover their bulls then they're doing their job to compete. And if they do that, well, they stand a good chance of winning."

She frowned. "Hmmm, well. That is true. But we're going to see you again next week in Sacramento, then later in Anaheim, right?"

Jensen hooked his thumbs in his pockets. "Yep, that's right."

"Then you look out Mister, because I'll be asking you again!" Lauren jabbed Jensen's side and he covered the area with his hand in mock outrage. "And after that?"

"Oh, here and there." Jensen smiled blandly. Albuquerque, San Antonio, Dallas, maybe more if he could spare a weekend from the ranch when the time apart got to killing him and Jared.

"I have to tell you, everyone is quite intrigued by the kind of bull JT's been promising will make an impressive showing from the Double J in a few seasons." Lauren sidled in. "Any secrets you want to share?"

Jensen bent down and said, "It's never been a secret JT talks too much."

She giggled then held a grin. "But tell me really--are you regretting having to go back to plain old hard work after all those years 'off' bullriding?"

Jensen shook his head. "I don't regret a thing."

Lauren beamed. "Good to hear! Thank you, JR. I know John is anxiously waiting for you to join him at the announcer's table, so I won't keep you longer. You have fun calling the rides, and don't be too hard on the cowboys."

"Thank you Lauren. I will." Jensen nodded, waved at the camera then stepped away.