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|| Ride One → 90 (winning with the first out - won't hold) ||

Jensen sat straight up, fumbled for the alarm. Hit it, twice, grunted when something else continued to shrill. So then had to be... to be... his phone. Phone ringing, that was it. He dragged an arm across the bedside table, got nothing, hooked lower and found his jeans in a legs-knotted inside-out heap, managed to shuck the phone from the back pocket.

He grappled back onto the bed, groaned to sit upright. Jared's arm dropped from low around his hips to crossing his lap. Jensen groaned a deep yawn, cuffed Jared's wrist with his hand, concentrated on rubbing circles with his thumb at the thrum of Jared's pulse.

"Y'ello?" he muttered, thick and dry, scootched sideways back into Jared's warmth.

"Shoot, it's gone near seven and you sound like an angry bear, JR. I wake you? You gonna tell me you ain't up yet?"

Jensen tucked the phone into his shoulder and rubbed his eyes. It took a minute for the words to register, then a minute more to work out who'd done the talking. "I am now, Singer. What can I do you for?"

Singer chuckled but didn't waste time on smalltalk or warming Jensen up. "We want you to be team captain for the World Cup."

Jensen grunted. "The what for the who?" Maybe it should be the other way around; he didn't much care. Mostly, he wanted to dive back under the covers, suck a few hickeys on Jared to match the bruises earned over the weekend riding.

That idea was enough to set him drifting, and he slouched sideways and tuned Singer out while Jared stroked lazy patterns on his skin.

It was nearing halfway into the season and Jared was sitting pretty, a several-hundred-point cushion between him and the guy in second and still growing. Jensen had found he liked working the bulls and the pens, liked more being able to hitch Jared and the dogs in the truck and grind along, no different than before--with just as good a reason to be doing it as when he'd ridden, too.

Jared had kept up in taking classes, pestered him about moving into the big house on their expanded ranch that had just sat there empty since they'd bought it. As if picking up and moving into the big house would be simple, no questions asked, no different than Jared having sorta-kinda just ended up at his place between seasons. They argued on it, more than he cared to, but he worked on actually saying such instead of ignoring it. He was doing better; still hated change.

"--and you pick the team, coach them to a win."

Jensen huffed a laugh when Jared tickled his side. "Mmmhmm."

Bob paused, then laughed back--not even a huff and far too knowingly. "Boy, why'd you even answer your damn phone? At least now I know why your horses are likely hungry, the coffee's cold in the pot, and you ain't even half-awake and are paying me less attention."

"Habit," Jensen grumped, blushed red to his roots.

"Agree and we'll hang up, and I won't act smug next time we talk."

Jared rolled onto his back, tugged so Jensen followed and twisted to straddle Jared's hips, blankets tangled around them. He planted a hand on Jared's chest and smiled. Sunrise was only getting started, so their room was cool, dim, with a bare hint of something soft and lemony at the edges.

"I get to pick who rides?" Jensen curled his hand, opened it, skated it over Jared's chest. He licked his lips when Jared squirmed and tried to stay quiet. "Then we just gotta show up and win?" He could do that. He'd been doing that all his life.

"Yup. It'll be in--"

"Singer? You got your yes. Now, g'bye." Jensen snapped his phone shut and let it drop onto the floor. "Morning," he said, leaned down to grin into Jared's mouth.

"Tell me how you think you rode today, JT, and what do you think about the rumors we're starting to hear about you being on the World Cup team for Captain Ackles? After it was announced he was captaining, you riding seemed a foregone conclusion." Lauren grinned over at Jensen, had asked for a joint interview.

All he'd done so far was stand here and look stupid.

Jared cleared his throat and grinned, beguiling and charming, and there were doubtless soft sighs and appreciative flutters going on in living rooms across America. Jensen bit his lip and tried to look studious, nodded along with what Jared was saying.

"You know how it goes, Lauren. I get on my bulls, think about riding them one at a time--I want to ride my very best with each, but you can't get ahead of yourself, either. Gotta take each in the moment, go with what feels right, as well as what you've learned will work. Because learning only gets you halfway, you gotta improvise and take chances to earn the other half." Jared shrugged, nudged Jensen. "As for the World Cup, well ma'am, I can't rightly say. I'm not in charge of that and wouldn't presume."

Lauren nodded too, completely absorbed, patted Jared's arm. "But you would want to ride, wouldn't you? I mean, who doesn't want to be a part of this? It's going to be a big-time event for the PBR, first of its kind, and you and your good buddy JR here could make history in what you do together."

Jared flushed, beet red, coughed then recovered, managed a somewhat watered down grin. Jensen snickered--could they ever.

"Of course I'd love to represent the USA and ride for a team, ride for Jens-- JR. You know. It'd be an honor, but it's just like everything else. You do your best, you put in your rides, and the right thing will get to you when it's supposed to. That includes whether or not I'm put on the World Cup roster." He winked, flashed his dimples, devastated Lauren where she stood. "But you know, either way, I'll be trouble. JR's just gotta decide what kind he gets outta me."

Lauren giggled, flapped a hand in Jensen's direction, and he made the "oh him" face and smiled blandly, then pressed the heel of his boot on Jared's foot.

|| Ride Two → 87 (good, but sure can't quit) ||

The World Cup was mostly still an abstract notion everyone was getting used to and seemed a lifetime away. Tickets had just gone on sale. Fans were being introduced to the ins and outs. It'd been a thorn in Jensen's side from the moment he'd said yes.

After he'd agreed to captain, Jensen had been given a binder and a few cheat sheets and the best of luck. There were official terms and descriptions he was to use when talking about the competition so the concept was uniform and all its attendant details could be reinforced. A schedule breakdown of every benchmark promo, teaser and announcement the PBR expected him to make. The rulebook had a jaunty reminder on every other page that this wasn't a regular event, it was the World Cup.

Jensen had said no shit more times in the few evenings he'd spent reading it all than double what he'd needed in his whole life before then.

For all his grumbling, he was taking it seriously--of course he was. He felt that same determination and punishing insistence, to best, then better, thrumming in his veins. He'd always liked helping the other boys ride, talk strategy and turns and types of bulls, and here he'd be given bonus pay to do exactly that.

He'd been told to win or else, that the inaugural year in the PBR's home country demanded nothing less. But he'd also been told to be a humble and sportsmanlike ambassador for the sport and the nation. The mixed signals drove him crazy, especially given his deep personal motivations to stand with his hand-picked guys and their hard-won trophy in his hometown.

"So. Dallas."

"Yup." Jensen counted six pairs of socks from their top drawer, made baskets with all but one as he lobbed them at his and Jared's duffels open on their bed.

"Will we be staying with your folks?"

Jensen laughed. "Hell no." He kissed Jared, fleeting but heartfelt, grabbed a t-shirt, a henley and a flannel, shoved those in his bag. To this day, he felt the ghost itches of thinking he'd forgotten something when he packed, hadn't also shoved rowels and rope into a different bag. "I never stayed with them, Jared. It isn't about you--us. You know." He shrugged, didn't try to make light, ever on his work-in-progress goal of saying more, and saying it better. "We'll definitely have to meet them for dinner. And that you have no wiggle room for getting out of, so don't even try."

Jared pulled a face. "Hmmm, says you. I have my ways." But he went pink-cheeked and bright-eyed, finished packing with dorky flourish and off-key humming, pretty clear in liking what Jensen had said was suggestive of, pretty clear in it making him happy, too.

Well, if that's all it took.

"You ready?" Jensen sighed, zipped up and slung his bag over a shoulder.

Jared slapped his thighs, looked around. "Yep, I'd say."

Sadie and Harley jittered at their feet, had been excited since they'd woken, the dogs as much habituated to the riding life routine as any member of the PBR. Jensen liked that the four of them left their room, tripped down the hall and pushed into the kitchen, littered with the mingling of his and Jared's lives, charts and textbooks and bulk feed prices (for horses and these goddamn horse-sized dogs).

He slipped around Jared, who insisted on travel mugs and water bowls, snacks and dog biscuits, even if the trip wasn't more than a few hours' drive. Led into the backyard, dogs spilling out yipping and eager, whole bodies going instead of just their tails. Jensen shook his head, laughed at them and, the second he'd opened the truck door, both jumped to squeeze inside at the same time.

"I swear, you'd think we had them convinced from past experience that we're gonna try and leave them behind."

Jared only grinned, squirmed against Jensen, breathed down his neck and landed a sloppy kiss before leaping into the passenger seat after Sadie. Harley was already in the back. Jensen made a show of rolling his eyes as he slammed the door shut. Jared met him with a grin when he climbed into the truck, slung a hand onto his thigh as he settled, then Sadie fit into the curve of Jared's arm.

That was the routine, and it felt good.

This morning he'd woken far too early, but that was so he and Jared could fool around before he really had to wake. He'd had a quick shower then seen to the horses, got back inside to breakfast cooked ably. Jared kicked him into doing the dishes as trade, muttering something about there being space for a dishwasher and then-some in the big house... just sitting there sad and empty... lonely in its crescent of prairie carved into the woods.

Jensen knew Jared wanted them to move there. He also knew he was stubborn and hated change. And he'd well learned Jared was stubborn and sure of being right. But this impasse wouldn't outlast the season--it couldn't--just the nature of the beast. There was always another season to follow the last, but each was finite, meaning one day he'd run out of the excuse that they were too busy to think about it right now, and Jared would be granted the time to finally feel secure that there could be an ultimatum.

They'd gone about twenty miles out and circuited Austin when Jared snapped the radio on low and angled in the seat, turned to watch Jensen drive.

"So, what exactly is the World Cup going to be?"

Jensen fit his other wrist on the steering wheel, leaned back in a stretch. "What I understand is it's a one-shot event, three rounds total, country against country. Everyone goes to Dallas, makes a spectacle of themselves in Cowboys Stadium, and we beat them."

"Oh. Well that's easy enough."

Jensen nodded. "That's what I thought. Especially seeing as I'm coaching and you're riding."

Jared frowned. "I never signed up for that--and I'd remember if it was part of my required face time. How can you be so sure I'm riding?"

"Because, as coach, I get to pick the team. And you're for sure going to be on my team." Jensen tweaked the radio, rid it of sparks and jumps of static.

Jared squeezed his leg playfully. "Thought I already was, cowboy."

"Oh, wow. Yeah. Maybe not then, considering." Jensen grinned, corner of his mouth, dropped his hand onto Jared's, notched his fingertips over and against Jared's knuckles. "It'd be weird if I didn't pick you, considering you're beating everyone else to a pretty pulp so far this year. And you know me--ain't gonna set myself up for a situation where people can call me a fool."

"Hmmm," Jared mused, so many things unspoken zinging between them--riding stupid, just being stupid, all the times Jared could rightly have called Jensen a fool and then some--but it was nothing more than a sound, acknowledgment then moved on. Jensen pinched Jared for bothering.

Jared curved a finger to tease Jensen's palm. "We've gotten good at this like-minded thing."

"Almost scary," Jensen agreed, rubbed his thumb over the soft skin and strong tendons of Jared's wrist.

"Definitely scary." Jared settled back and closed his eyes, sang along with a pop-country tune they'd heard far too many times across back roads and between rest stops.

This was one of Jensen's favorite stretches of road, and the more familiar it got, the more he liked it, bends and barbed wire and the Mail Pouch Chewing Tobacco barn that would guide him. The highway was wide and smooth ahead, nothing but countryside in the rear view mirrors. The dogs snored, and Jared would probably start snoring too, rest up for tonight's ride after their long night spent doing what they'd woken so early to get more of this morning. They'd get there in nine hours, give or take.

Jensen flushed and grinned, remembering in their first year together how many times nine hours had been too long; drives like this parceled between forgotten motels or just getting the truck far enough off the road.

He coughed into his fist and shifted, tugged his jeans, then retrieved his coffee. Nice as that line of thinking was, today they didn't have much more than nine hours to spare.

There'd be five teams, fit nicely with the pattern of rides and riders: Brazil and Mexico, Canada and Australia their guests. Most of the guys who'd probably be chosen to ride Jensen knew from somewhere on the circuit, whether they'd made the top ranks or just rode low for steady money. There were sure to be others he'd never heard of, much less seen ride, hand-picked from their home country's bullriding system, rough and ready to prove precisely what Jensen knew he had to do instead.

Now, there was just how to make the team click to contend with. He didn't foresee problems making the adjustment from an individual mindset to a team effort, but he wasn't as sure about the individual dynamics blending to form a team.

Did he put the best rider on a decent bull knowing that guy would ride, knowing they'd get a score? Or did he hold back the best for the rankest bull, gamble for the huge score, while risking no qualified ride at all? If he made the wrong match-ups, who would complain, and who else would mutter about knowing from the start he couldn't do better?

There was bound to be at least one mistake made, and, given his druthers, he hoped it'd be one that'd rest fully on his shoulders. Knowing he could count on Jared, to ride, to be reasonable, to just be there, made a big difference. He'd try not to get personal, knowing without a doubt putting Jared on the team hindered that noble attempt almost before it got going.

Hodge, for sure, riding strong to follow-up being last year's finals winner.

Dustin, no doubt; a proven World Champ, and both he and Jared liked Dustin's style and grit, and he didn't always get the big numbers, but he always tried his damndest to get the ride. Jensen had to figure that'd play into their favor if they were doing this as a team effort.

The rest were maybes he was tossing around. Was Colin too young and new, and would that chafe the established guys? Could he count on Justin not to hit that ride-nothing streak instead of that ride-everything streak in his perplexing streaky career? Definitely not Steve or Gabe. If he put Chad M on the team, people might think it was just for Jared to buddy around with. Chad Two? Lind was still, unfairly, in Murray's shadow, but a World Cup slot could fix that and help the team besides. And any one of the veterans would probably punch him in the face for suggesting they weren't up for the challenge, especially as they could pull all that bullshit "but for God and Country" claptrap so much of their base, and even some of the riders, swooned so ardently for.

But he wasn't going to put together a crap team currying favors or making nice or placating egos. He was captain, and he'd act like it.

The piercing throb behind his eyes got a bit sharper. Jensen rubbed the bridge of his nose. What had he gotten himself into?

"You alright?" Jared peeked from under his lashes, nudged him with an outstretched foot. "I can hear your gears grinding from here. It's holding up my sleep."

Jensen tsked. "Well excuse me." He shaded sideways, touched Jared's cheek and tucked Jared's hair back, then scritched at Sadie's flopped-open belly, grinned foolish at her happy sounds and squeaky sigh. "Thinking too much already, you know."

"Hamster's on the wheel, I get it." Jared pushed up, strained and kissed Jensen, brief and sweet and true. "Now, watch the road and keep the grinding to a dull roar. I'm gonna snooze."

"Oh, yes sir. But just since you asked so nice."

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

Six weeks until the World Cup, and Jensen's headache hadn't gotten any better.

Kansas City. Waiting on the second round, and he'd just announced his team. He'd expected to give his top eight--the idea cooked up to let everyone speculate a bit longer as to who would for sure wind up riding for him, put some fire in the bellies of all the riders named but undecided. And also make it so it seemed the competition wasn't just one weekend in the July Texas heat.

But with the World Cup came network broadcasting rights. It seemed today's would-be golf programming had gotten rained out, and the network had switched to the PBR instead. Not ones to pass up opportunity, the brass had scrambled to find all five captains, told them their final five was due within the hour.

Jensen was the only captain live and in person, so he'd been asked to hang out talking with John about who'd been on his list of eight and why. Then he'd reveal each of his team members, one at a time, after the other captains had been fed in to give theirs.

Beyond making him pissy wasting his time, it put him in a tight spot.

Jared had been on a backsliding skid for weeks. He'd get a qualified ride in rounds one or two, never both, and when he made the rare short-go, it was on the strength of one high score and not many other riders faring well. He'd lost every bit of the generous points margin his commanding start had given him, now was clawing to hold first by his fingernails. Mathematically, it'd just take a single ride from any one of a handful of guys to knock him out of it.

Jensen had named Jared anyway. Had said he believed in who he'd picked or he wouldn't have picked them; knew that even if they weren't shining at the moment, that when the pressure came to bear, they'd bear down tougher and do something great.

The bind wasn't that he'd had to jokingly apologize to John for choosing Jared anyway, it was the kernel of doubt about Jared's abilities that had blossomed, put even more hype and focus on Jared that would only add to the strain. This was more than watching the board-leader lose a promising season down the drain--this was Team USA having victory snatched from their hands before they even sat a bull.

Jared was first to ride in the second round. He didn't qualify in the first and was scoreless, lowest rung, so he was relegated to start this round rolling. He had Golem, a heavy plodder that lived up to its name. On a right day, Jared could take that bull without bothering to hold on.

Mike congratulated Jared on making the team with a cheer-call, complete with claps and k-kicks, said that if Jared made this ride he'd change into the skirt.

The crowd rippled with laughter, but mostly everyone was anxious about watching Jared ride; they all wanted to see him do well, were ready for another disappointment.

Jensen had to watch from across the arena, because the network didn't want him mic'd and still able to do his job, they wanted him tethered to the side just in case there was a moment for John or Lauren to babble, ask him something witheringly inane.

Chad had Jared's rope, and Jared barely took any time in the chute, looked uncomfortable and self-conscious, called for the gate within seconds of having sat down.

Golem thumped a hard left, his wide butt swinging like a wrecking ball in follow, and Jensen winced when Jared's leg came into view, knew when the buzzer clock stopped one of the judges had seen the same.

Jared's spur had been lodged in his rope in the chute. That was an automatic disqualification, no second chance and no score, your ride was done. This had happened to Jared once already this season, that one not as clear, iffy and remarked upon, but uncalled because no judge had seen to be sure. This time was a different story, came at a worst time, and felt like a freight train to Jensen's solar plexus.

Spurs got caught in your riding rope sometimes, that was just the way of it. If, during the ride, you spurred just right to snag and get stuck in your rope that was fine--guys wanted their legs free to kick and dig at the bull and dress up the ride--but if your spur was stuck as you cleared the chute onto the dirt, that was another thing altogether. Having your spurs holding the rope was an obvious potential advantage, one of the only intentional cheats in bullriding that could be done.

Jared dealt with it tonight same as before, easy smiles and shrugs, shook his head and teased over something inconsequential before tipping his hat and trotting behind the chutes. Done for the night, another weekend without any good ride. He laughed it off and shrugged at Chad M, but Jensen could see the doubt, the strain. He was torn in half wondering how Jared's rowel managed to snag his rope again and wanting to tell anyone else who questioned Jared to shove it.

It troubled him. He believed in Jared, wouldn't believe for a moment Jared would cheat, but seeing it and hearing the whispers of how maybe this explained Jared's uncanny success this year early--and Jared's getting caught and subsequent decline--did something to him. Riled him all prickly and dangerous, worried him that, somewhere down deep, Jared could be worried enough to tempt it.

Right now, he could stand for Jared to do something flashy, something unnecessary and stupid, all that unorthodox mix of angles and free-wheeling that Jensen had never liked, but somehow worked. But everything like that--so vitally, ridiculously Jared's style--seemed gone.

Jensen breathed out, short and loosening. They'd get it figured and solved, and it wouldn't happen again. Simple as that.

He abandoned waiting for a chat he wasn't about to have, stepped through the fence onto the dirt and ran along the edge. He wanted to find Jared, look into Jared's eyes, get started fixing this before it could fester any deeper.

He slipped through the side gate and started for the platform stairs, but Bob intercepted, pulled him aside.

"Fuller needs to talk with you."

Jensen's gut dropped. No question what about.

"If it was up to me you know, there'd never be the need for these little talks." Bob smiled apologetically.

"This actually is supposed to be up to me, so I don't know what Fuller thinks he's gonna say." He held up a hand and turned the opposite way from where wanted to go. "I'm on my way."

Jensen's temper seethed as he stalked down the labyrinth of corridors that led to one of the side offices Fuller had taken over for the weekend. He couldn't fucking believe them, taking the disqualification so seriously. He'd bet they wouldn't so much as how-do if Jared got that DQ but was still in the lead.

He hadn't pushed to announce the finalized team today, to have network coverage instead of their usual lost-to-the-cable-stratosphere airing, to take advantage to try and drum up interest. But his team was set, it was right and the best choice, and he knew it, didn't care what they'd try.

"I don't care what," he said as he rounded into the office, hot on his tongue from his angry tussle of thoughts. He pointed at Fuller, was practically vibrating. "No one rides that I don't okay, and I'm sure as hell am not changing that."

"Hold on now, JR. Stop your firing. We just wanted you in here to have a little chat, we're not a court accusing anyone of anything."

Jensen crossed his arms over his chest and stayed where he was, tall and wide-legged and no way was he approaching the desk and sitting down and getting friendly.

"Coulda fooled me. You all might just be trotting all this out for some kinda big dog-and-pony show to get some novelty ratings and revenue, but you put me in charge of the actual team. That means the actual team is going to be good, I've guaranteed that, and I keep my word."

Fuller shook his head. "JR, there's nothing in this specifically against JT. This isn't besmirching your boy or casting aspersions at your ability to lead a team. But we have had complaints. And with JT's performance of late, along with the troubling spur foul, well, that is something we have to address and take into consideration."

"Yeah, complaints from who?"

"Mr. Pellegrino, for one." Fuller paused and, probably on cue, Mark stepped into the room.

"You wanted to see me?"

Fuller waved them both closer. "Yes, come in, thank you. This shouldn't take long."

"He's your one?" Jensen rolled his eyes. "That means it's for all, then." He glowered at Mark, and Mark glowered back. He had no respect for this guy, for the dismal slides and injury claims and temporary retirements. Mark's only consistency in returning to the PBR seemed to be when there was cash enough to enter an event or trying to earn more.

Some riders were that way, and Jensen just ignored them. But Mark rankled because he should have been good, might even have been great. That's what Jensen had seen in today's round, the steady and square economy of movements and precision timing he couldn't help but admire. What kept Jensen from even laughably entertaining the idea of putting Mark on the team was flashes and hints is all Mark had ever been, and all there'd be.

It was a damn shame, but Jensen didn't have the time for it.

"Mark has raised legitimate concerns about how he's been riding compared with some of the riders on your roster. After hearing them, I simply wanted to communicate to you that what I'm really hoping for here is for all of this to go smoothly. To be the best that it can, for everyone involved."

Jensen absorbed a sudden insight, looked at Mark. "This isn't about either of us. He's not going to replace JT with you. Not because you're riding better these days, not because of the disqualification, not at all. You see that, right?"

Mark looped his fingers in his back pockets, tipped away indolently. "Yeah, no, that's actually the whole thing in a nutshell."

"Fuller, keeping the roster as-is won't taint the Cup ambitions with any controversy. The sponsors aren't going to back out because of a DQ, the fans aren't going to send back their tickets. Okay, that's not entirely true. They might if you decide to inform them that their favorite that they're already expecting to see has been sent to bed without supper, but here's some other guy no advertiser recognizes who sometimes rides to cheer for instead."

Mark snorted at Fuller--can you believe this guy--sat on the corner of the desk. "Unknown, my ass. I've been doing this longer than you."

Jensen hummed and smirked. "True, and who in here is the retired world champ?"

"You're an arrogant son of a bitch, Ackles. I bet it eats you alive that I've been dogging JT all season, leap-frogging everybody below us and staying right up there with him, and today his little stumble let me catch him."

Jensen fisted his hands at his hips, popped his knuckles against his belt. "And you're bitter sore you've been living off dregs for years. Favoritism didn't earn JT a spot on the team. Me knowing you're due to choke and not recover cost you any slim chance of being considered. All of this was to appease you into thinking you'd had your say, that Fuller tried, but what's done is done and better keep it that way."

Mark flushed then hunched back, worked his jaw in humiliated rebuke.

Fuller cleared his throat and patted the desk mildly, but his eyes were full of warning. "I appreciate your candor, JR, and I understand why Singer recommended you for this job, but I don't like everything you're implying, here."

"Yeah? Well I don't like being used to shut other people up." Jensen waited a beat, then he went to go find Jared, ready to get out of here and put Kansas City behind them.

|| Ride Three → 79 (politics not points) ||

Jensen and his team were in Dallas, assembled and ready to ride. But first he had to take them to his folk's place for a barbecue.

All six of them were crammed in his truck, the only reason they fit because he and Jared had decided it'd be better to leave Sadie and Harley at home. The appearances and press and the riding itself presented so crazy a schedule for the upcoming week that the dogs would have done nothing but mopey in their hotel room, then guilt them for the neglect.

They'd been fitted into spiffy uniforms. Stars-and-stripes chaps with red-and-blue jerseys for the boys, and Jensen got to wear jeans and a button down. Then they'd been trotted around in their spiffy uniforms, the official photoshoot, three children's hospitals, and one too many honky-tonks trying to bring in a midday lunch crowd.

Jensen thought the guys were having fun, taking it in stride without starting to take themselves too seriously. He'd just thought too much, having to go do everything with the team on top of trying to get some gameplan set based on the bullpen they'd draw from, possible match-ups and the scores those could earn.

Sure the boys all had to ride their bulls, but it would be his decisions that cast his team's fate. He kept trying to break it down in a way that was manageable to plug into an equitable system. He kept getting only so far with it, then would be hopelessly lost or frustratingly close.

He had five riders. They'd each get a bull every round. The bulls would still be assigned by a lottery, but Jensen could match-up any of his riders with any of the bulls they'd drawn. They wouldn't ride in succession, were going in flights, each flight representing five rides, one ride per team.

Then came the hard part.

The team's points would be based on a three-ride, three-round scorecard. The best possible outcome was to get nine qualified rides--all high scoring. Everything else would aggregate down from there. To make it sporting, more exciting and fair at the same time, the team captains would have the final say on what three scores they'd keep, and what two they'd risk throwing away. But the rides had to be accepted or rejected on the spot, soon as the ride was over, and after that, no takebacks.

That meant every ride was a gamble. Do you keep any decent score and play it safe, or do you go for broke and pass up a sure thing in the hopes the next ride would be scored higher.

Jensen tried mightily not to regret having said yes to doing this.

"You're grinding again," Jared whispered, was turned into Jensen's shoulder, the two of them a bastion of calm while the others messed around.

Jensen hummed lightly. "Too much to think about and no making sense of it. And it's just a barbecue," he teased, didn't want Jared to worry.

Instead, that clouded Jared darker. "Yeah."

"What?"

Jared shook his head. "Nothing, really." He smiled and leaned the other way. "Are we almost there? I'm ready to not be folded like a pretzel."

Jensen slid his wrist on the steering wheel and pointed. "Yup--that's it."

His parents' house was nice, was tucked in a cul-de-sac surrounded by planned gardens and berms and scatters of screen trees, three stories of brick and vaults and angles. Wasn't Jensen's taste but he'd only paid for it, didn't have to live there, so considered the house nice. Perhaps fine.

As he pulled into the driveway he announced, "Okay, no shoes on the furniture, no beer in the living room, nobody fully dressed goes in the pool and nobody buck-naked is allowed in a 10-mile radius. We good?"

"Yes boss!" they answered, then they piled from the truck and stretched, waited for Jensen to lead the way.

He knocked peremptorily then opened the door. "Hey, hello? We're here!"

"Jensen! There you boys are." Donna Ackles was seated in one of the enormous leather club chairs that flanked the fireplace in the the sunken living room, stood up and smiled as she waved them in. "Your father is on the back patio trying to set fire to the dining set, the awning, and the corner planters."

The team lined up dutifully on the top step in a run of four, almost like this was another stop on the junket.

"Everyone, Mom. Mom, this is--" he pointed to each as he said their names-- "Aldis, Dustin, Justin, Jared, Lind--" he paused, grinned, "no, Chad, and--"

Colin squirmed to Jensen's side and up under Jensen's arm and smiled. "And Colin, ma'am. JR's favorite."

"Favorite?" Jensen balked, pinched Colin's side so Colin slithered and laughed painfully. He shook his head. "Don't believe it, mother. I don't like any of them." He caught Jared's eye to wink, but instead again caught a fleeting cloud of conflict darkening Jared's face.

"Wonderful to meet all of you." Donna gestured around. "We don't stand on ceremony here, so please, help yourself. There's snacks in the kitchen and the game player thingy is set up downstairs, and maybe one of you could be so kind to take pity on Mr Ackles and rescue him from the lighter fluid."

At the mention of food the boys split, leaving Jared and Jensen standing there.

Hodge conceded to a moment of couth as he called over his shoulder, "Thank you, hello, nice to meet you!"

Jensen leaned in after his mom sat back down and kissed her on the cheek. "How're things?"

"No complaints." She shrugged, glanced at Jared then back to Jensen. "And you?"

"Same." They stood a moment longer and Jared shifted uncomfortably until Jensen nudged him with an elbow. "Wanna beer? Mom, do you want one, something else?"

Donna smiled. "No thanks." She reached over to a side table. "I'm going to finish looking at this magazine of craft projects I'll think about in grand fashion but never actually do anything about. We can talk over dinner. Go on and join the others."

Jensen grabbed Jared's arm and propelled them the opposite direction from the kitchen, through the entryway and up the stairs, then into the bedroom he used when he stayed here for family reunions or holidays.

He closed the door quietly behind them and curled a lip at the nondescript decor. "No trophies or old notebooks or the one stuffed animal Mom can't part with because I'd rubbed it smooth over the years. Not even a picture of me as a little dork." He sighed. "I didn't even grow up here."

Jared wasn't quite looking at him so Jensen curved his hands on Jared's neck, pulled them into a deep kiss. Jared made a tight, needy sound and fisted his shirt, so Jensen wrapped both arms around Jared, pulled away and rested his forehead to Jared's before they got carried too far.

They swayed in place and Jensen shot his breath, laughed weakly. "I tell you what. You're the only, only person that'll ever make me so forgetful with want, and desperate for way more than a kiss, to have me standing here doing this in the same house as my parents and a bunch of cowboys."

Jared snickered, looked up at Jensen past heavy eyelids and mussed bangs. "Yeah?"

Jensen rolled his eyes. "Of course, yeah." He drew Jared back into his arms, could tell that he'd somehow managed to rid whatever had been eating at Jared. He fit his chin on Jared's shoulder and said, "Let's hide a bit longer, then I'd like you to meet my dad."

Jared slipped his hands into Jensen's back pockets and pressed closer. "Sounds good."

|| Ride Four → 83 (middlin' for a mess) ||

Cowboys Stadium was packed to the gills and hopping, literally vibrating, rocking and rolling and Mike had everyone doing the wave. There were long lines of pens set up, chutes ready to go in either direction from a main down the center of the field, and they'd gussied everything up with flags and flashing lights and multiple platforms for the cowboys and Mike to stand on and get a good look at the action while being visible in the huge space.

Jensen almost boggled. He'd been here for a few football games, but that'd seemed so different, acres of green and an army of players and everyone in the stands a unison of colored blue-and-white jerseys. Now it was a cacophony--an impressive one at that--dirt and equipment and the bulls milling in plain sight at the far, looped ends. Unlike a regular event, the bulls weren't hidden behind anything, just a few walls built in here or there to distract their direct line of sight to anything that might make them jittery or spook. It all just sprawled on and on. The stands were fuller than he'd expected, dotted with cowboy hats and muted tones and, here and there, dots of bubblegum pink he'd come to knowingly associate with the buckle bunnies swaying in wait to be noticed.

This was one of the biggest things the PBR had ever tried, staging and venue and even going to mainstream press, shopped an audience who probably hadn't even known they existed. Jensen was fiercely glad he was picked to be a part of it, was almost regretful that he wouldn't be riding. He'd spent a long night considering if maybe he could, just one more time, before Jared had slugged him and said enough, already; the boys would ride for him, do it all because it was Jensen, and that'd be glory and duty and that hard try more than good enough.

Colin pulled alongside, thunked full weight into him to gooseneck everywhere, wide-eyed. "Whoa."

That said it, alright, and they both well understood everything expressed.

"Think you're ready for this?" Jensen was sure Colin wouldn't ride, but he'd known it'd be a good experience, for learning and exposure. For the other guys too, who would look out for Colin, be distracted by that, would also be distracted by Colin's undemanding and easy demeanor and ability to give anyone and everyone absolute shit and have them feel kinda charmed for the effort.

"Man," Colin shook his head, then he flashed a wicked grin. "I was born ready. You know that."

Jensen chuckled, landed his arm slung easy on Colin's shoulders. "Yeah. True enough." He tugged them from the riser platform they'd climbed and down the entryway to the locker room. He had a last few things he should probably say, a last look at the bull sheet and his riders he needed to study, and Colin needed to gather gear and get into chaps and vest.

There was one locker room for everyone, and each team had gravitated to a certain area, but the cowboys chattered and mingled, talked smack and riding and cattle, understood and meant the same even if spoken in different languages. Around the corner from where cameras wouldn't pick it up was a watering trough filled with beer cans swimming in ice, chips and sandwiches and cookies, mostly untouched as yet, but by the end of the night, it'd be nothing but empties and picked-over crumbs.

Jensen liked that when he dragged Colin over to where his team stood jawing and rosining their ropes that everyone just kept talking, that he wasn't looked at much different simply because he suddenly had a bit of authority.

"We all good?" He waited for each to mutter something to the affirmative, measured them each in turn, then he drew up with a nod. "Right. Don't quit--better don't fall off. And let's win."

There was a brief silence then Hodge cracked a laugh, popped Jensen in the arm with the frayed end of the bandanna he'd been about to tie around his neck. "That's your idea of a pep-talk? JR, that is just, sad."

"Eh, shut it. You boys know what I expect, and I expect you know what to do." He licked the corner of his lips, then fanned both arms out, wide, made gimme with his fingertips. "Alright then, group hug, group hug everybody."

Jared snort-scarfed at that, choked and had to turn into Dustin's shoulder. Dustin kicked sawdust to cover his boots. "Ackles, you're an asshole."

Jensen mused a moment, then he grinned. "Won't ever let anyone slip by with calling you slow again, Dustin." He brought Jared into his shoulder and propelled the whole team forward with that.

They walked up the tunnel and circled to the huge banners that had been dropped, milled around and chatted with the Aussie team as the guys all shifted and stretched, bounced on their toes in anticipation. It was going to be team introductions to the crowd, instead of each rider individually like usual, another layered reminder that this was a team competition and not every cowboy for himself. As the host, USA was set to go last.

Mike finished his great moments in cinematic history impressions--a fan favorite and something Jensen never had to hear again--and was giving John a hard time as they informed the crowd of the upcoming TV schedule, the PBR's main sponsors and telling everyone how this World Cup thing was all supposed to work.

The lights dimmed and the crowd surged. Jensen closed his eyes and grinned; even not riding he loved this, couldn't deny the adrenaline and excitement. Jared found his hand, gave it a hard, fleeting squeeze, and Jensen breathed in and glanced sidelong, found Jared's smile waiting for him.

"Dallas! Are-- you-- ready!" John's voice boomed throughout the stadium, and the audience thundered in answer. "Then you got it!" Music rumbled and fireworks started to flare, cartoonish streaking contrast to the cowboys jammed back here finding their zone and groove and readying to get up. "Remember, fans, this ain't no ordinary rodeo--this is bullriding at the one and only PBR. And tonight, this bullriding is for the World Cup!"

Spotlights swirled and danced, speared the center line where two of the banners fell together. The Aussies were announced first, Brazilians then Canadians, and Jensen tipped his brim and traded an appraising smile with Esposito, captain for Team Mexico.

Hodge grabbed hold of Dustin, leaned in toward the rest of them. "I don't wanna go first and have the rest of y'all just be a disappointment, but I don't wanna go last and make everybody distracted waiting on me." He shrugged. "So maybe we should go out together, but have JR saunter at old man pace bringing up the rear."

"Think we'll fit? I mean, what with your big head and all." Justin spurred the back of Hodge's knee, shied away when Hodge made to punch him.

The music switched to something dripping with US of A patriotism and Jensen grinned, shoveled his hat into his hand and darted out onto the dirt first, raised his hat at the stadium, right then left then center, and the stadium erupted. He waggled his hat to each corner, saluted then trotted a few paces to the mark in the dirt left for them as the team managed to sputter then follow.

He couldn't see a thing past the strobe lights and sparkler plumes, the air thick with acrid smoke muffling sound and reflecting everything in a muddy haze. Colin nudged him and Jensen hummed, then nodded and cupped his hat into his hand again, lowered his head, made a fan of toe prints in the dirt while John said a quick prayer.

Soon, he was seeing floaters and afterimages as a huge shower of fireworks cascaded from the rafters, and he told himself not to flinch as rocket volleys thudded just behind them, started waving and kept waving until the lights came full and the crowd settled to a conversational buzz while the teams clustered and headed for the chutes.

Even after minding bulls and riders the past season in a polo shirt and jeans, he felt oddly naked walking the runways and taking the platform to stand with his team behind the chutes. He'd stowed a clipboard hung on a bolt up under the expensive riser seats that'd been installed so fans and VIP guests could watch the action from just above the chutes, and he snagged it as the other teams had their outs, started taking notes.

He wasn't going to nanny or nag his boys, but he hoped they'd pay half-attention at least, because some of these bulls would be theirs tomorrow or Sunday. Since there were only 25 rides per round, all were the top of the stock. There'd be no near-retirees or greenhorns here, just the head-hunters and mean buckers and dizzying pinball spinners.

Jared was discussing something with Chad and Dustin, leaned left then right and fished his hands through the air, had to be talking past rides. Or maybe the unfortunate jet-ski thing that they'd agreed never to do again. Jared looked over, caught him staring, but Jensen only shrugged artlessly and grinned.

"Whatcha doing?" Colin leaned next to him, tried to act nonchalant and cool about this, but Jensen could tell he was wavering somewhere between useless and lost.

Jensen tilted his hand so Colin could see, laughed when Colin grimaced at his messy scribbles of arrows and symbols and bull-position stick figures he used to think through all this.

He tapped his pen on the axes of grid he'd drawn as he explained. "Bulls here, riders there, then I'm filling in who rides what, the score, how the bull does, that kind of thing."

Colin nodded, fascinated and genuinely into this as much as wanting to feel part of everything. He pointed to one of the names in the list of Aussies. "Dunn's a righty."

Jensen made the note, then wrote down that Brazil earned an 84 on From Perdition and kept it.

"Why's Hodge going first? Shouldn't you keep him for last or second to last?" Colin trailed after Jensen as he went to the chute where Hodge was getting set to ride.

He passed Colin his clipboard and held up one finger. "Ender Bender is a bully, and he'll try and stomp your face in if he bucks you. My advice? Don't let him." Jensen leaned in, shuffled Hodge's rope as Justin pulled it all the way out, slowly reeled the slack as Hodge wrapped in. They'd gone over Benders' action, and Hodge had a good game plan to ride. Jensen hooked a hand at the back of Hodge's vest, gave a firm shake and said, "Okay, now you can make your entrance."

Hodge tongued his mouthguard out of the way and grinned. "You got it." Then he slapped his chest twice, started nodding, kept nodding while Justin yelled the go and the gate opened and Bender sprang free in attack.

The ride seemed like a blur, Bender small and tight with quick feet and a nasty, zigzagged stop-and-go spin. Hodge bore down, free arm sailing wide and easy. As Jensen marked the fifth second, Hodge rolled into his pockets and started to spur, silver fringe flying and white stars catching the light.

Jensen closed his eyes, counted eight. Right on time, the buzzer sounded and, when Jensen looked again, Hodge was in the dirt, waving both arms in triumph, helmet in one hand, other hand pointing to the flag on his vest, then over to the team.

They all leaned further over the chute and pointed back, and Jensen grinned as the scores tallied hot and fast. The crowd's already deafening cheer crescendoed as John announced what Jensen already knew and confetti launched to punctuate Hodge's 90-point ride.

It was a formality for Jensen to approve the ride as one of the three that'd go towards their score, but, as soon as he threw up his thumb, the stadium responded with another burst of applause.

Hodge did a quick trot around the dirt, high-fived Mike, then pushed him back up onto one of the three shark cages, and headed for the main gate gathering confetti in his hat as he ran. The team greeted him with throttling hugs, and Hodge fist-bumped each in turn. When he got to Jensen, he waggled his brows.

"Kinda like that?"

Jensen grinned. "Exactly like that."

Hodge smiled. "Thanks for giving me the first chance. It meant a lot to me to get out there, shake back the nerves, get a good thing started here for the team."

"All part of my master plan. And it was a good ride. You did good."

"Of course." Hodge side-punched Jensen's arm and he went down to stow his gear.

When Jensen returned to his spot, Colin was there waiting, had his notes and an expectant look. He wrote down Hodge's score, drew in a couple scribbly lines that would remind him how Bender bucked, crossed out the 1 next to Hodge's name, fingered over 3 and 2 and still figured that was the best order to keep Hodge riding for the following rounds.

"His best rides have always been on the first night when he's gone early in the round. He might ride great after that, but he's just as likely to have two junkers that follow. Don't know why, but I do know it's true." Jensen shrugged. "That's why I put him first. And I gave him Bender because that's the fastest bull on our draw, and I figured with everything else going in Hodge's favor, he'd probably forget that little bull is near impossible to catch up to and ride just fine."

Colin looked like he wanted a clipboard or a notebook of his own, and he smiled and slung up to sit on the rail at Jensen's elbow, tucked his feet back and surveyed the crowd. "Doesn't seem so big from here. Probably because the chutes and everything is all the same--though I bet they went looking for freakazoid bulls. Still weird how this is like five mini-rounds in one go, but that means there's plenty to do, especially since five rides doesn't really take that long so it's like, bam! Your team is riding. Then there should be a lag but next you know, bam! It's time to get your next guy set."

"Speaking of," Jensen interrupted, hastily scrawled the bad tumble Canada suffered then the solid performance Mexico put up as he watched Justin's bull shuttle from the back holding pens and into the third chute. "That'd be us."

They went over together, and Jensen basically sat on Chad to get close to Justin. Didn't usually need five guys working a pen, setting one rider to go, but the boys were enthused and motivated by this team thing, and Jensen wanted that to stay true all the way to the last right, being squished for a few minutes fair trade for camaraderie and common purpose.

Jared had hold of Justin's vest and Hodge gave a last, taut pull on the rope, handed it over and Justin tied in.

"Fallen Angel's gonna barrel-roll you to start, probably try and scrub you clear on the fencing. Take the hit--I figure you'll get commendation points for risking your pretty face--but after he's done that, he'll figure you're knocked out or almost down and get to spinning."

Justin gave him a narrowed look but nodded. "And that spin's to my hand, so I'll hold it. No problem, JR. This one's mine."

"I know it." Jensen hit the railing and stood, leaned in like you should just before the gate springs, leaned back when Fallen Angel swooped onto the dirt with a nasty twist-kick, and the whole team flinched as Justin was washboarded over a section of fencing. They bunched together, swayed this way and that following the ride when the bull planted, then looped ungainly leaps in place.

Justin did hold on, all eight then some, got spilled in a backflip when he worked loose and scrabbled clear of Fallen Angel's horns and hooves as the bull stamped and churned after him, pissed that he'd managed the ride.

The bullfighters swarmed, Sterling protecting Justin while Jeff and Scott distracted the bull to chase them instead, well past where Justin had bounced in the dirt and on out the stock gate. Soon as it clicked shut, Sterling hauled Justin up and Justin grinned, tossed his hat and crowed when his score was announced.

Jensen wrote it down--87--gave the thumbs-up for this ride to be another keeper. He nodded when Justin joined them, stayed close to Jared.

"So what are you going to score me?" Jared teased, poked the backside of the clipboard to jar and jag Jensen's pen.

Jensen grumped, twirled the pen into his palm. "Nothing yet."

"Nothing!" Jared put his hand on his heart, feigned hurt and indignation. "Not even a guess?"

"Never did much like chickens. Counting 'em or waiting for them to hatch."

Jared went blank, blinked, then his dimples showed when he laughed and he pressed his wrist to his mouth to hide them. "Shit. That's not even funny, I don't know why I'm laughing so hard."

"Sucking up? Trying to get in good with the coach? Ingratiating yourself?" Jensen turned in towards Jared, forgot to pay attention to the rides.

"Is it working?" Jared ran his hand on the railing until their fingertips touched.

Jensen nodded slowly and his toes curled in his boots. "You're making headway."

"Hey! JT's next." Hodge stood over the chute and waved his hands around like a presenting spokesmodel at Mortal Coil in there already waiting.

Jared skipped down the platform to get his riding glove and Jensen dropped his notes, joined Hodge, and stood while Jared used his shoulder to handhold into the chute. Jared passed him the rope and he pulled, shuffled, pulled again as Jared got the grip situated, high and on the right side of the bull, just behind the joint.

Jensen grunted, strained to hold the rope stretched tight, let go when Jared nodded and held Jared's vest instead. "Do that arm-wheeling floppy thing and he'll have you dunked in a second."

"Yup." Jared chewed his mouthguard in, reached for the gate.

"Do that other arm-wheeling floppy thing and he'll have you dunked in two."

Jared smirked. "Yup."

"He's a-"

"Hard eight, I know."

Mortal Coil was tall and long, had a huge barrel and narrow hips, tended to overpower the small riders or outrun the heavier ones. He ran a loop then would backstep, buck and change directions, run another loop in the opposite direction. Gave his action something of a figure-eight effect. Jared was tall enough to stay with those turns, had enough leg to stretch full and just make that last second, even if he got behind.

Jensen didn't say that, didn't add that Jared was tall, but not so big that his body-momentum could get used against him. Jared still didn't want to hear it, no matter the bull or the warning, and Jensen still couldn't keep from reminding him.

He flexed his hand at Jared's nape when Jared lifted, widened the press of his hand at Jared's chest when Jared dug in hard to the bull's sides with both heels, then Jared nodded.

"Okay, he's set, let's go!"

The ride was good, nothing spectacular, but it didn't have to be. Jared did lose ground, did cheat his legs, slipped to his fingertips around his rope, for two breathless seconds, but the buzzer didn't betray them. Then Jared's riding hand broke hold and he flew sideways, landed and rolled ass over teakettle, but Jensen wasn't going to squabble this.

Jared had gotten his ride.

The team started making noise like maybe this competition was over and done already, before it'd even started. He couldn't agree, not aloud, and he knew better besides. He'd figured the ride would be 85, maybe as low as 83 if they felt they had to hold some points in reserve since this was only the first round.

Jensen was looking for Jared to emerge up the steps when Colin groaned, tugged his sleeve. There wasn't a score yet from judge four, just an accusing blank under a column of otherwise solid numbers. The whole team went sharp and still, watched in anxious disbelief as a graphic twirled to signal there was going to be a review.

Jensen barked a defiant yell when DQ flashed as Jared's ride was replayed on the jumbotron. He pushed Colin behind him, stormed to the far end of the platform to get some answers, Justin at his shoulder; there in support rather than to try and stay him.

Shawn Reis was a good guy. He and Jensen had been around one another for years, and being in the PBR was like living in a small town much as anything, so it was easy to think about all the times they'd talked, laughed, or balked at something the other did. Which meant that Jensen had no hesitation cutting to the chase.

"What the fuck you mean disqualified?" Jensen slung down over the top rail, hips over him almost bent half, didn't care or think a moment on falling face-first just wanted a look in Reis' eyes. Lucky that Justin was there to mash the small of his back, fingers curled in his waistband, and he figured it was Chad holding onto his belt loop. Jared wouldn't have come with them--might seem like sour grapes if the rider argued--but Jensen wasn't about to take this quiet.

Reis tracked the replay and raised his hand, palm flat to Jensen, cool and calm and wait a moment, son. Just made Jensen madder.

"JT's spur was in his rope before the bull cleared the chute. Sorry JR, that's an automatic DQ, and we both know it." Reis was sorry, but didn't regret making the call, probably thought it was all fair and doing his job to the utmost.

Jensen grabbed hold of the second rung lower with one hand, flapped at Justin and Chad with his other hand, then he slither-spun and dropped from the platform into the side judge's station. He narrowed his gaze and crossed his arms. "Yeah? Show me."

Prove it.

He didn't care that the whole stadium was riveted by his temper and all the riding ground to a halt by him making sure this was square. Abstractly, he heard music crank and Mike start to chatter, keeping the audience distracted and entertained with a "get up and dance" t-shirt giveaway.

"Problem here, cowboy?" John had sidled over from the announcer's table, spoke low and almost in warning, even though he'd left his mic behind. It was easy to see he was torn between the bureaucrat who had to soothe egos and move this along, and the rider who'd fight this just as hard as Jensen planned.

Reis tapped his monitor with a pen, circled the frozen image of Jared's left foot, hovering indistinctly at the bull's side. "Saw it during the ride, had to see the replays to be sure, but he's caught in, before the ride started. No doubt in my mind."

John patted Jensen's back. "It was a good ride, and no taking anything from Jared. Not like anyone will want to think this was on purpose, and it does just happen sometimes, no fault or accounting it. If Reis is sure, then that's the call, JR." He swiveled enough to peer under Jensen's hat brim, raised a brow. "Don't you think?"

Jensen's knuckles creaked and he made his jaw release so he could smile. It was more of a teeth-showing sneer. "I expect I do," he said, and there was nothing but trouble for him and his team if he put up any more fuss. He left John and Reis in one dismissive nod, climbed right back over the fencing and onto the platform. Chad and Justin had waited him out, flanked him as he strode back over to where the team had gathered.

Jared was red-faced, anger and embarrassment, looked as young as Jensen remembered seeing in years.

"Jensen, I--" He swallowed hard and blinked a few times, fast, looked away. "I'm sorry. Real sorry."

"Just be glad this here is a team effort and the other boys can pick you up, otherwise I'd take that sorry." Jensen sucked his teeth thoughtfully then grinned. "But, no. You rode good, Jared, put your best into it and I know that. We all know that. I ain't gonna chase it further, and that's that."

It had to be or this would distract them too much, eat away at their confidence and momentum, and that'd have them skidding to lose this whole thing, not just one ride.

"Twenty bucks says I don't get a 96 on Freaking Menace?" Chad broke the silence and grinned past his mouthguard, had a leg propped on the railing so he could rebuckle his chaps.

Hodge tilted past the opposite rail, leaned into the chute to start setting Chad's rope. "Fool bet, son. Besides, you don't have twenty bucks."

Dustin crossed the chute, hung his butt over the dirt, grabbed the end of Chad's rope from Hodge, and they hitched and resettled it lower on the bull.

Chad's face wrinkled in confusion. "You saying I'm gonna get a 96?"

"No. I'm saying you don't have twenty bucks." Hodge waved off like it was all too clear and aggravating. He turned to Jensen. "Any words of wisdom to dispense to Chad-Two while I tie him to the bull?"

"How about hold on all eight?" Jensen thumped Chad's back, nodded his thanks, and Chad winked and climbed into the chute. He followed, hunkered down a rung so he could talk while the boys worked Chad's rope. "Menace can be a good ride, but he's got a heavy backend, so watch you don't get dunked when he swings wide and lands hard first out." Jensen gestured while he talked, his right hand the bull. The bull decided to try and sit, so Jensen grunted, started to jostle Menace's horns, make it so sitting would feel uncomfortable and like a bad idea.

"After he gets a pace under him, he kinda tips around uselessly, won't spin until six seconds in or so," Colin said, peeked around from the other side of Hodge, got a leg over and poked at the bull's butt while Hodge steadied Chad.

Jensen smiled. "Yup, that's right."

Colin grinned, then scowled and shot across the chute to snag Dustin when Menace sagged purposefully to knock the chute, Dustin almost spilled from where he had his toes looped in a rung and the end of Chad's rope stretched to its furthest.

Jensen anchored his far heel at the corner beam, crossed his leg up and over to kick at the horn, easier and more soundly felt by the bull than him just tugging useless would do, still wouldn't hurt the ornery fucker. With a grunt Menace righted and Jensen was held steady instead of falling, knew that was Jared's arm wrapped around his middle, let Jared stand him upright. Dustin let Chad have the rope and walked back over, dropped onto the platform and shouldered in at the end behind Colin. Jared leaned sideways into the rail, stayed pressed close, tilted so Jensen could get in and talk to Chad.

"He's gonna be tired out and sore mad at you, now. I say risk it and spur soon as you get out, maybe manage dressing up his dumpy ass."

Chad slapped the top of his head to get his hat shoved tighter, stared forward for a moment then looked at Jensen. "I won't take it personal if this bull's get is gone and, even if I make the ride, you don't keep it." He nodded and punched the gate, yelled, "Okay ready! C'mon!" and out he went, pitched in a hard drop left, just as Jensen had figured, spurred and sloshed in his seat but managed to hold on as Menace ran two paces then ducked into an opposing spin.

Jensen put a hand on Jared's shoulder so he could climb a rung higher than was probably advisable, watched each move the bull made and Chad followed. The whole team strained past the chute, cheering and willing Chad to stick and make this. He had the count in his rhythm, breathed in on six--and there was Menace's spin--breathed out and that was seven, then Chad was tugging loose and pinwheeling to the ground. Made the buzzer.

Jensen punched both hands in the air, whooped and clapped, and the boys high-fived over him while he pulled Chad into the chute and cuffed him in celebration. "Damn right, Chad," he yelled above the crowd, lowered his elbow so Chad could grab in, climb up and stand with the team while they waited on the score.

Hodge noogied Chad in, rapped Chad's vest hard enough to stagger him. "Maybe not the prettiest, but you did better with that ogre than I expected." He mimicked Jensen, "Good effort, good try."

"Least twenty-dollar's worth," Chad said dryly, pulled his vest open.

Chad's score posted--the dull thud of an 80--and the crowd jeered in answer. Mike worked to cajole them, prattled and reminded even though this was the first round there'd been a lot of rides, and the judges got weary and snuck naps wherever they could to try and hold their strength.

Jensen closed his eyes, thought about it all. Chad risking to spur and doing a good job of it. Jared's DQ and his arguing it probably the difference between Chad maybe having gotten an 84 instead. Did he hold the 80 knowing it was the best they'd get or put it all on Dustin.

He wasn't sure if it was more temper or righteousness that had him passing up a solid three to start, but his blood surged and he wouldn't regret it. Fine. They'd earn better--or worse--so long as it was earned. None of this punitive points-shaved crap. Decision made he nodded, considered flipping the bird, gave the thumbs-down instead, and the audience hooted and cheered their approval.

That put Dustin under the gun and Jensen understood that, but Dustin had understood this could happen when he'd agreed to ride. Still, Jensen didn't see the need to press, grabbed his clipboard and pretended to study the match-up and watch the other teams take their final rides for the round, gave Dustin some breathing space.

"So he's gotta ride or we're screwed. Right?" Colin mirrored his stance, laid back against the railing, peered over his arm at his notes.

"Either way we'll still be in contention. There's two more rounds after this, and nothing saying the boys won't go out there and get a 90 on all the rest." Jensen nudged Colin and grinned. "Don't fret over it--that's my job."

"Yeah, but someday they'll want someone to do this even better than you, so that means it'll be mine." Colin spanned his hands in front of them importantly. "I have to plan ahead and think of the future, here."

Jensen marked down Australia's 82, watched Brazil get 85. He chewed on his lip and jotted another diagram for the bull's out, tapped his pen and decided it'd be a perfect fit for Justin when they got that bull tomorrow. Justin being taller and lankier on that little bull might even fool an 87 out of the ride on looks alone.

Colin pointed at his notation. "You gonna put Chad on him?"

"Nope." He knew Colin was going to pester him on that, hid the paper against his chest and elbowed Colin away. "I'll tell you tomorrow. Go help Dustin get ready--I think Hodge tied his chaps wrong ends together when he wasn't looking."

Colin harrumphed, not really all that put out, did as he was told. Jensen watched down the platform to check on Jared, wasn't sure if leaving Jared be was causing him to stew, but thought he read it right that Jared was okay, just needed a bit of space and to be left alone, at least for now.

Canada answered with an 87 for their third ride. Mexico had a buck-off, no penalty as Esposito had taken the first three rides without hesitation. Jensen twiddled his pen but didn't have anything more to write, stayed looking busy so Dustin and the boys could set things going without him.

Dustin had ridden Crossroads before, and they'd gone over the strengths and weakness before the round began, so Jensen wasn't all that concerned. He glanced back at Jared, caught Jared's eye, surreptitiously patted the railing next to him, grinned into his shoulder as Jared bee-lined over to join him.

"I'm hoping for an 82."

Jared shook his head. "Be lucky if they break it an even 80, again," he said, wry but not bitter.

That was a good sign.

Dustin was all set and he signaled go. The gate clanged and Jensen stayed hawk-eyed, watched everything--how to improve Dustin's body position and movements on the next ride, whether anyone else on this bull in the subsequent rounds could do better because Crossroads had action and made the rider work for every wicked corner, kept damn sure Dustin didn't slap or lose his rope or do anything that could be challenged. He shot his breath from his nose when Dustin barely made the buzzer, heel hooked on the bull's back and the rest of him dangling and flopping at the bull's side.

On a normal given day, he'd have been impressed with Dustin's determination to hold on. He saw the very thing he'd wanted Dustin on his team for, all that bear down and try. But he knew today that effort wouldn't be rewarded, wasn't surprised when Dustin was given a 79.

Dustin raised his hat for the crowd and they cheered loudly, then went back to booing the score while the music soared until the bass pumped enough to vibrate in Jensen's bones. Confetti popped and fluttered and it seemed mocking, done to celebrate the end of the first round of the first ever World Cup, not because that'd been the ride the whole team had been hoping for.

Jensen shot his breath but wasn't going to take this out on the team. He flapped his arms to loosen his shoulders, pushed Jared along the rail to go meet Dustin coming up the stairs. Before an apology or litany of reasons could be offered, Jensen grabbed Dustin's vest, shook him in that manly, satisfying way cowboys did when proud of one another.

"You did good, Dust. Only a point off what we'd be if I'd kept Chad's. Damn, you did better than good just by staying on. Got me?" Jensen looked to make sure his team agreed, wanted them to. They were subdued but not hangdog, more determined than demoralized.

Dustin wrapped a hand around Jensen's forearm. "Thanks, coach. I'll do even better tomorrow. Promise." He laughed and twisted to get away as the others forced their hats stuffed atop his and tugged at the fringe on his chaps.

Jensen nodded, pushed Dustin back a pace. "You'd better." He clapped once then waved both arms, out and away. "Now, everybody hit the showers then you're all going back to the hotel."

Hodge grumbled and Justin stood from his lean against Hodge. "What? But there's the after-party. I think it's in my contract to go sign autographs and make the fans happy." Justin looked at Hodge. "Isn't that right? That's in our contracts, yeah?"

"Absofuckinlutely it is," Hodge deadpanned, stared at Jensen like he was crazy.

Jensen wasn't moved. "It's in your contract to ride bulls and win and --so long as it's the World Cup--to do what I say. I want you all tucked in nice and snug within the next hour. After we win on Sunday we'll go to the after-party, drinks on me."

Hodge snapped his fingers and pointed at Jensen. "Contract obligation duly overridden by your abridgment. Gotcha." He turned with Justin and tripped Colin along, Chad and Dustin trailing behind, unsticking and sorting hats.

Jared hung back, raised a brow at him.

"What?"

"Not like you to turn down free beer or watching the guys drink twice as much." Jared leaned in. "Does this mean I have to go to bed early too?"

Jensen flicked the brim of Jared's hat. "No, this means I wasn't up for babysitting tonight, I really do want them rested for tomorrow, I don't need free beer but I do need some time with you." He grinned when Jared's cheeks pinked deliciously. "Don't tell anyone, but I'm taking you for dinner or something tonight. Breaking my own rules."

"I like that I can make you do bad things." Jared's eyes danced and he knuckled Jensen's ribs, took a half-step away. "So I'm changing into something less comfortable?"

"Nah. Now get on." Jensen followed Jared, made a few quick notes as he walked before he got too distracted to remember them. He looked up expecting Jared when a hand caught his elbow, but was confronted with Fuller, instead.

"Not taking the 80, ballsy call JR. Definitely interesting!"

Jensen managed an easy shrug. "That's what you're paying me for." He started away again but Fuller didn't let go. Swallowing back something he shouldn't say, Jensen looked pointedly at Fuller's hold on him.

Fuller ignored him placidly, nodded and smiled as Snyder passed, slapped Team Canada's captain on the shoulder with his free hand. "Great showing today, Cole! Your boys are looking good. It's fixing to be quite the exciting rivalry to the finish!"

"Yes sir. Thank you." Snyder paused more than stopped, shared a look with Jensen and hid a smirk behind his hat, escaped before Fuller could continue to waste both of their time.

"Was there something else?" Jensen shifted his weight back into his heels warily.

Fuller merely closed the gap, tightened his grip. "I just don't want there to be regrets about any of this, JR, that's all. Of course everyone is rooting for you, but it has to be said, we're all very anxious about how this is going to turn out."

"No matter the outcome, it'll be your choice to ask if I do this again." Jensen gritted his teeth, said anyway clenched past them, "Nothing saying I'll agree, of course, but anything you think to regret here is on me."

"I understand that, JR. And you understand me." Fuller loosened, patted him on the shoulder, smiled and said louder, "Young Ford's showing quite some promise, isn't he? A very interesting choice, you including him as the alternate. It'd be something if it happens that he's got to step up and ride, wouldn't it?"

Jensen's nostrils flared and he flushed, temper that'd been simmering tempted to churn hotter, and he considered the irony of how laying Fuller flat with a punch would overshadow the comparatively minor controversy of Jared's questionable spur foul. He thumbed his fist, glared at Fuller and didn't try to hide it, turned on his heel and strode away without another word. The itch in his hackles told him Fuller just stood there and watched him leave.

He was given a wide berth as he stormed past riders and their families, then the TV crew, kept walking and turning every time he saw someone. Finally, he found a back hallway somewhere, dim and almost silent. The cinder block wall was cool to the touch as he scraped his knuckles against it, stood a moment, then ripped his hat off and threw it. It barely sailed a foot, so he stomped it, chased it, then kicked over a stack of folding chairs, kicked them again for good measure. They slithered and clattered apart, echoed up and down the deserted corridor so loudly for a minute it just made him madder. Jensen pitched forward and snagged the corner of a chair, flip-flung it as hard away from him as he could. He fell into the wall sucking wind, braced his hands on his thighs and reminded himself not to march back out there and make an ass of himself.

If it was just him involved, he'd have thrown Lauren for a loop and asked for an interview, said some clipped and cryptic things. But he wouldn't do that to the guys. Wouldn't allow their fans to doubt for a moment that he believed in them and their team's ability to win. He closed his eyes, hung his head, listened to the roar of his pulse in his ears and throat.

"You okay?"

Jensen spooked, both hands slapping back to the wall to catch him. Jared leaned against the opposite wall, feet staggered to where there was floor instead of a chair, waited for him to recover.

"I'm fine. It's fine."

Jared stalled his attempt to brush off and stand, quirked a smile and toed one of the battered chairs. "Oooh yeah, I can see that. Real fine."

Jensen huffed and rolled his eyes. "Okay so I'll be fine in just a minute. You can go grab a shower, tell the guys I'll be along." He wasn't willing to spell it out, say aloud that he'd flashed back to Mark's perfect ride and Jared's slump, to Fuller's condescension of weeks ago rearing its ugly head again today, to the responsibility he felt towards the team and the protective belief he had in Jared.

"Hmmm." Jared crowded in, shook his head, didn't let Jensen escape. "Snyder already warned us that Fuller was being a dick. It's not a big deal, Jensen. I don't like it, sure, but it's just people messing, like always." Jared trailed his hands up Jensen's arms and shoulders, light and soothing, then ran gentle fingers through Jensen's hair. "Thanks for sticking by me, though. That I do like."

Jensen blushed, heat of Jared so warm next to him, and resisted getting his itching hands anywhere on Jared's tempting, lean length. He slid a bit sideways and sat heavily on a pile of folded tables lining the wall, hooked the belt loops at Jared's hips with both hands, tipped his head forward not-quite weighted on Jared's middle.

"I'm sorry I made it so you had to."

Jensen rubbed his thumbs along the groove of Jared's thighs, shushed quietly.

Jared leaned away enough to make him look up, frowned thoughtfully. "No, I mean it. I haven't been riding anything but this slump for weeks and still I'm here. And the disqualification, it's something we both know I didn't do on purpose, but it's more than enough to make other people wonder, why, after all that, I'm here, except for they know we're close. I hate that I'm putting you in that bind, not doing good enough for--"

"The first round, and so what. We're still in contention and no team was perfect, so it's useless to worry." When Jared would have argued further Jensen shook him, glared. "And you're not just here because of--well, anything. You always have the best ride of anyone in you, Jared. Always have. You're here because I know that, even if no one else does."

Jared's mouth worked and he choked up for a moment, swallowed hard, then laughed weakly, blinking several times while staring at the wall.

Jensen tugged Jared to stand closer in the vee of his legs. "Okay?"

"Yeah. Yes." Jared smiled, thumbed Jensen's cheek. "Okay."

"Hey, JT! That you?" Hodge's voice carried down the hall to them. "You find him or what?"

"We're here." Jared took a step back but Jensen only tightened his hold, kept them like they were, the discordant thud-slap of several pairs of boots already almost upon them.

Jensen shrugged. "What's the difference?" he asked, smiled, and Jared laughed at him. True enough, given how Jensen had held Jared in place like this since they'd met to try and talk sense or reason into the kid, and plenty of other cowboys saw the benefit in belt loops and proximity for managing private conversations on the crowded platforms.

"So what are we talking here? A seven? Still an eight?" Chad eased around Jared, stepped right on the chairs, then hopped onto the tables next to Jensen. He thunked into Jensen with a grin. "Hiya, boss. Been looking for ya."

Jared patted Jensen's head. "Believe it or not, I'd say a five. Maybe even a four."

"Four! No way." Hodge crossed his arms. "You're just trying to win that beer outta me, JT." He tilted his head and studied Jensen, shook his head. "It's too dark back here to tell but just from the vibes I'm going with five-and-not-quite-half."

Chad rested the back of his hand against Jensen's cheek and snickered. "Still hot to the touch! You just might be right, Hodge."

Jensen whapped Chad back and scowled. "What the fuck are you assholes talking about?"

"Ooooh, pushing the half again." Colin whistled, then he lazed against the wall at Jensen's other side. "It's our JR-o-meter--how pissed you are on a scale of one to ten." He grinned. "Ten being the highest."

"Dustin had you at a six, and Justin guessed seven. They're both on the other side of the arena trying to suss out if you'd run to hide in the ladies' room." Chad hummed philosophically. "Would have been a good choice, I mean, there's a lot in ladies' rooms that can be torn off the walls and stomped on or thrown around."

"Chad?"

"Yeah, boss."

Jensen sighed and jumped to his feet. "Find my hat." He squeezed Jared's side then turned away, called over a shoulder, "It was most definitely an eight."

|| Ride Five → 84 (kept in contention) ||

Dallas was a big place, so no worry there'd be media attention or social overlaps. He and Jared weren't exactly celebrities to anyone beyond the PBR, and he didn't figure that anyone in the PBR would be where he'd planned on going. Dallas was also home, in its ways. Texas in its blood and roots, even if its big-city slick had long ago made it into so much more.

He forcibly quit on worrying who'd ride what bull in tomorrow's round, knew the best way to ease Jared out from obsessing on the spur foul was to outright never mind it. When he grabbed his gear, he ignored the pang of thinking he should have tack as well, emerged from the locker room. Western-style dress shirt neatly tucked in, dress boots comfy and his buckle a smaller version of the cowboy-usual. Jared was dressed in regular not-riding-Jared gear: jeans, a white fitted tee that Jensen couldn't help but appreciate, layered over with a flannel shirt and that Texas belt buckle Jared couldn't seem to budge without.

Jensen smiled, stared his fill at Jared sitting there in the empty hall waiting for him, all that sinuous length drawn in on itself, pensive and quiet. Yeah, Jared was definitely going to need distraction from that.

"Coming?"

Jared looked him up and down, pushed into an easy stand and grinned. "Thinking maybe best we don't even bother, head back to the hotel instead."

Jensen laughed. "Nope. We're doing this. Let's get."

Jared gave him the eye but didn't question it, wrapped a hand around his shoulder from behind as he made for the door. Jensen whapped his hat on his head as they stepped into the hall. Jared had taken to going without, and that was fine by Jensen; he liked that flyaway hair, liked reining it back in, better.

They wound through quiet corridors and into the cleared-out back parking lot without running into anyone else, slipped into his truck and he drove them out into the night. It felt so comfortable and right being like this together, something elemental and signature and such a part of how they'd become, and what they were, that Jensen was half-tempted to just keep on driving, find take-out then lose them far into the dark shelter of boundless prairie under the stars.

No one would ever ask, that was for sure. They'd be old, their families older, and maybe, at some point, it'd all be figured out and put together, but no one would ever say. That suited Jensen just fine, so long as he wasn't pushed into something different, wordless or subtle presses or otherwise. He just wanted to have this with Jared, as long as it'd run, and be respected to be left the hell alone for doing it.

But what if Jared one day wanted them to be something more than so insular, known beyond the two of them? Would Jensen be any good with that or would he freak and bolt and do more damage than good just for trying? Jensen had decided to approach the question like every other problem he'd tackled in life. Basically, get on the bull and see. No better way to find out than to wrap in and ride. He trusted that between them, the worst of it would be a few bruises.

The bar he'd decided on was lowkey, no pulsing techno or a hub of grinding bodies, because, yeah, he was okay with chancing this and seeing how it'd be, but he didn't want to go completely crazy and step into something neither of them would enjoy just by definition. It was lodge-style, nothing showing to give it away as anything but a bar, just darkened windows and doors, trucks and SUVs, equally nondescript, staggered outside.

Jensen didn't wait for Jared to ask where they'd wound up, killed the engine, then circled the truck, opened the passenger door and tugged Jared to him, stood there a moment, their thighs bunching and hot pressed together, Jared mildly confused but so willing. Jensen blushed and grinned, ducked his head, nudged Jared to start walking.

Going in was easy enough; Jensen had worried he'd lose his nerve. He wasn't looking to make a presentation or any huge deal here, but he did rest his hand at the small of Jared's back, ignoring the bemused look that earned him. Jensen got them through the heavy double doors, through the vestibule, into the dim, noveau-country-saturated air filled with flickering candles and brown and maroon and iron and wood--some crazy mix of "come hither boys" and "don't worry, this is unquestionably masculine."

The hulk of a guy at the door waved them past when he paused, so Jensen propelled them to a table, same as they'd gravitate to in any setting. Once Jared was seated, Jensen stood a second--would not fidget--nodded sharply, strode to the bar and ordered them beers, hoping they'd come with a side of nerves. He craned to watch Jared askance and smiled into his shoulder that Jared had clearly cottoned to the kind of place Jensen had chosen to bring them. Jared took in a deep, easy breath, then sprawled in wait, finally relaxing like Jensen had hoped, curve and spread of that long, long lean body just ready and perfect for Jensen to get back to, tuck alongside.

Jensen left a hundred on the bartop--open tab or a very generous tip, depending on how this went--and grabbed a beer in each hand. But as he turned to head back to the table, he faltered, so momentarily disembodied he didn't even feel the biting cold of the bottles. There was a love song playing, a few people dancing, some lonely at the bar, some in a private clutch in a corner, and, for all its low-key neutrality, this wasn't like every other bar he'd been to. Would their regular talk be okay? Did he need to try and romance Jared a little? Was there expectation that they'd make out or mingle or--what, even, he didn't know. It's not quite that Jensen was ashamed, or afraid, but it's not like he couldn't honestly say he wasn't well out of his depth.

He was on the verge of slapping the beers on the bar and bustling them up to leave when Jared found him, raised a brow and smiled, and Jensen was grounded again.

"Special occasion?" Jared teased when Jensen handed over a beer. He'd gone for the better stuff, not the standard cheap and fast pisswater they usually guzzled without complaint.

"Better be," he shot back, grinned as he sank into the booth opposite Jared. He licked his lips, hesitated, then he hitched left and kept hitching, all the way around the u-shaped bench until he was sat tucked seamlessly next to Jared, kicked their feet to tangle.

Jared snickered, sucked back a long pull, still snickering after he'd swallowed. "Coulda just sat here, you know." He nodded at his other side, plenty of space for Jensen to have done simply that. "Just saying."

"Impossible. That've been too easy."

They shared a chuckle, shrugged and drifted, then drifted further into something more like disquiet than easy silence.

Jensen had a drink, started to methodically peel the label from the bottle, wondered if he could get it off whole and maybe paste it to Jared's forehead or the underside of the table, while Jared's thumbs twiddled and they pretended not to notice that this had gotten suddenly, inexplicably, awkward.

Something quick and country started to play. Jared elbowed his side. "Wanna dance?"

Jensen laughed. "Fuck no." He coughed, peered around, tried to play it like he hadn't just had a hit of panic that maybe Jared would grab him out of this booth to do exactly that.

The silence reasserted, persisted, both of them seeming to wonder what to do next or even with each other. They sat and shared a beer in lazy, warm companionship at home all the time. Wasn't like this was so very different. Here, even knowing they could cuddle or neck or whatever, they just sat, sides close together, making pitiful attempts at conversation while the candles flickered and the music played and guys at the bar checked them out, one at a time, and some, to Jensen's amused realization, as a pair.

Finally, Jared stretched, braved laying a tentative arm across Jensen's shoulders, jostled them with a few playful back-forths. "Are you having fun?"

Jensen nodded. "This is fine."

"But not fun?" Jared smiled. He ran fingertip on the slice of skin at the bottom of Jensen's cuff, tickled and teased. "It is fine, and I like being able to do this, but I like going out with the guys in the kinds of places we usually go just as much. Or, maybe better, staying in."

"I just figured, I mean, this was worth doing. And." Jensen swallowed, nudged a bit closer, turned his hand on the table so Jared could tease into his palm. It was nice, and he liked that too.

Jared whuffed, happy and amused. "I know. But what we do already--what we are--that's more than fine. Always has been. Yeah?"

Jensen suffused warm, glad and almost overwhelmed how, sometimes, Jared could so surprise him by being so smart and insightful and fair. Yeah, good for now and again, good to touch sitting a table like this having a simple drink, but better in the overall to just be who they were, nothing more, nothing less.

"So, we'll leave doing this kinda thing to the off days?" Jensen grinned, chanced everything and swallowed past his heart to lean in, give Jared a quick kiss.

Jared cupped his jaw, hummed and kept him close, nodded. "Definitely. When we're not busy at home--gonna have a lot to do, eventually. How about that?"

A lot to do because they should be in the big house, solid but with plenty to tinker and improve, Jensen knew that's what was meant. He shook his head fondly. They weren't going to argue, tonight, and he wasn't going to give in on the strength of a giddy, room-full-of-strangers kiss. "How about you find something to do now, and go get us another drink."

"Hmm, okay. I'm going." Jared let it go, didn't want to argue either. He kissed Jensen's knuckles, then winked. "You're lucky I like you, you know that?"

Jensen smiled, all goofy and smug, watched Jared walk away. He knew he wasn't the only one watching, puffed up like a damn banty rooster at the idea that Jared walked from him, and would be returning to him, and this whole bar could do nothing more than be jealous about that.

Jared hipped into the bar, glanced over at him, gave a tiny wave and Jensen blushed like a lovedrunk kid. Jared caught it, followed the wave with a relatively discreet ca-ching fistpump, so Jensen dismissed him with wry grin and made a show of getting lost in studying the ugly mural of mountains and running elk covering the wall.

"My, my, hello to you, cowboy--a real live one, at that. And pretty enough to eat."

Jensen twisted around to find a decent-looking guy leaned into the booth, dressed hyper-casually in tailored jeans and a tailored jacket over a splashy logo tee, one arm up on the seat almost behind him, the other descending to land on the table not too far from his hands.

Jensen shook his head and smiled. "Sorry, friend, but you've got the wrong idea."

"How so?" The guy smiled, slick and confident and clearly used to a different response. "You're in here, aren't you? Or maybe you're the one with the wrong idea. Are you maybe a little lost?" The guy winked then narrowed down, sharp and almost unkindly, drew a slow study up from Jensen's hands loose on the table, past Jensen's chest, lingered on his lips, insolent and almost palpably lewd with intent, then met his gaze again.

Jensen blushed, but he didn't stammer, said, "No, I-"

"--Just meant in you thinking you're welcome to be over here, talking to him like this." Jared crowded the guy's space, right on in, then through, sidled into the booth. He fit his hand on Jensen's leg, tight and sure, and let it slide until the heel hit bunched denim at Jensen's groin, let the two beer bottles drop from the long, tapered wingspan of his other hand to sit perfectly upright on the table. It was so matter-of-fact, not even a challenge sizzling on Jared's unruffled skin, only dismissive surety.

The guy blinked, did stammer. "I see that I did, then. Gentlemen." He stood and his smile cracked, but he didn't argue, all his leering bravado withdrawn and dried up under Jared's confident stare. He gave Jensen a regretful once-over then was gone.

Jared watched after, stared hard and just kept watching, then let out a long breath, whoosh of sound, "Whoooo, hey." He chewed his lip then loosened his grip and patted Jensen's leg. "Yeah, um, I should probably say sorry about that? I didn't mean anything by it. I mean, I know you probably didn't like me being all caveman-like, but it wasn't a power play and I trust you, you know, and--"

"Jared?" Jensen waited a beat, boosted up so he could get faced sideways, and settled himself facing Jared with a grin. He closed them in together with the drop of his arm on Jared's shoulder. "You're babbling." He curled his hand, feathered and tugged at Jared's hair, stroked and teased Jared's nape.

Jared swallowed, hard, surrounded Jensen's ribs with his hands and pressed them closer, instinct and relief. "I, yeah. Guess so." He tilted his head, smiled soft and interested, but not quite settled. "Not even a little bit? I mean it's okay if you wanna tell me not to do that ever again or something, if maybe that was threatening to your machismo or independence or something."

Jensen shook his head, was amazed by--but heady with--the rush and thrill and want that had torn through him at Jared's calm, controlled, implacable claiming. The idea that Jared would make claim. It mirrored his own restless needs to sometimes show more than being good buddies. He rested his forehead on Jared's shoulder, sucked in a deep breath, let it out to rumble, "Thinking instead I'll tell you to get me back to the hotel, have you assert yourself just a mite bit more forcefully."

"Uh." Jared ghosted white, then flushed blood-red, gaze exploding with color and lust before hooding so heavy his eyes were barely open. He fumbled his beer to down it in two solid, almost-choking glugs. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve, scooted backwards out of the booth, kept hold of Jensen but still almost landed on his ass, and pried Jensen out after him. "Right, then. I can do that. I can most definitely, certainly, happily do that."

Jensen didn't even bother with drinking his beer, recognized Jared was in something of a misfiring bind, brain and body not quite connecting, snagged Jared's Texas buckle and led them through the bar. Everything was a blur but the guy at the door, who now gave them one of those looks that said something like "I know where you're going and what you're planning to do there, and hope you have as much fun as it looks to promise." Jensen tipped his hat, then pushed Jared out the door.

They tripped, almost tangled to fall as they hurried to the truck. Jensen spun Jared, shoved him against the side, pushed in hard and kissed him, humid night air clammy, slick and swirling in the muted floods from the bar and distant streetlights.

Jared's throat clicked, then he hummed, ripped Jensen's shirt rucked up on one side to searchingly trace and feel skin, slid down to fill his palms with Jensen's ass and pulled roughly, got them even closer.

Jensen shivered, tore away while Jared chased his mouth, planted a firm hand on Jared's chest and shook his head. Not here, not open and like this, and not when they had a perfectly good bed waiting. He sidestepped enough to get the door unlocked, trembled and climbed right up in, crawled across the seat and cranked the key. Jared clambered in after Jensen, uncoordinated in his hurry, as Jensen peeled from the parking lot, Jared still on all-fours and the door barely shut behind him.

Jensen clenched his jaw and tried to concentrate on driving, watching his speed while still trying to go fast and remember how to get to their hotel. Jared just laughed, nosed at his neck and laid a broad hand on his thigh, breathed there while he worked at not coming in his jeans or shaking clean apart.

Their hotel was big, nice, and housed the whole World Cup contingent. Team USA shared a floor--Jensen had slyly gotten them into the corner room without a connecting door--and as they tumbled from the truck and fought to control their hands, they shushed each other, again and again. They skirted the edge of the lobby, eerie with its bright desertion, forcibly stood at either ends of the elevator past fourteen excruciating floors, and Jared leaned against Jensen's back and snickered as he all but tip-toed down their hall.

"Shhhhst," he hissed, and Jared held his wrist while he swiped the keycard. "Someone'll hear us." Jared bit his ear instead of snickering and that wasn't any help, so Jensen shouldered free then darted inside, let Jared fall in after. He straightened Jared against the door, knocked his knees to frame Jared's legs, grinned. "They'd have been pissed if they knew we went out after I'd made them turn in early to get lots of good shuteye."

Jared stared at him for a moment, flushed all pleased and pretty then kissed him, for that, soft and searching, gratitude and desire coiling then strengthening again to make demands.

Jensen sighed and gave over, flipped his hat to the floor and toed from his boots, backed to the far bed and toppled onto his elbows, Jared landing between his legs in steady pursuit. He wove his fingers in Jared's hair, nipped Jared's chin. He stretched his arms flung back, wiggled his fingers and grinned in open invitation.

Jared kissed his eyelids, whuffed a hushed laugh at making them flutter, then Jared picked him up at the hips and tossed him further onto the bed, still unmade from that morning. He laughed, closed his eyes as Jared lay over him, loved the heat and weight, how their bodies shifted and strained, then just fit.

He peeled Jared's shirts in a knotty mess, tossed them aside without regard. He ran his hands down Jared's sides and back, soaked in the warmth and scars and strength. Jared pushed to draw his legs up, hooked his socks off, cupped his dick--so hard and trapped in his jeans--and squeezed until he winced and bit his lip to keep from begging. Jared kept massaging him, other hand busy with Jensen's belt and fly, leaned away and got everything off in two short, jerky tugs.

Jensen ripped the buttons of his shirt open and rolled onto his shoulders, twisted but couldn't get free of it completely, gave up with a frustrated curse and left it on.

Jared returned to him, jacked his cock with one hand while Jared's long fingers found his mouth. He hummed approval and sucked them down, licked and wetted them, wasn't given nearly enough time to enjoy them. He groaned as Jared's fingers trailed down his center, smeared the wet leaking from his cock, then rimmed his hole.

Jensen whined, kicked out and got an ankle around the swell of Jared's thigh, gasped and squirmed while Jared flicked and teased without doing more. Soon, Jared worked one finger in him with a single, steady push, but when he reared and wanted to push down, Jared heeled a hand to his sternum, forced him to stay in place.

He panted and clenched around Jared's finger, laughed dirty and throaty when Jared groaned. Short-lived triumph, undone when a second finger slid into him, and Jensen forgot his hazy search for the lube somewhere in the mountain of pillows when Jared let go of his cock, pinned his wrist to the bed and stared at him until he nodded.

Jared grinned and reached just a bit further, snicked then sat back on his heels, wrapped an arm around Jensen's waist and dragged him to rest splayed across his thighs, two fingers still deep and curling and making Jensen shudder in anxious need. Jared was messy with the lube, and Jensen watched as he torqued his belt, jeans and boxers until they gave and opened. Their eyes met again as Jared slicked himself, then lowered, hands moving to bracket Jensen's hips.

Zipper teeth snagged Jensen's skin and Jared's jeans chafed deliciously as Jared sank into him, and he bit his tongue and bruised Jared's arms with his grip as the cold of Jared's buckle dug into his ass. He put his knees near to Jared's armpits and arched his back, rode his hips, moaned with breathless satisfaction when Jared finally started fucking him, full-out full-in, fast and unrelenting and hard.

Jensen twisted until he had the press and drag of Jared's belly on his cock. He clawed at Jared's shoulder blades and Jared bit into his collarbone. Rutted so hard that they moved across the bed, and his joints rattled and the pinch of Jared's buckle hurt--so exquisitely--just added to his pleasure. His head fell back and his legs clamped tight when he came, sudden and skitteringly sharp, every nerve ending sparking then shorting-out as raw fire burnt from his core and spread to his limbs.

"Yeah, yeah," Jared chanted, chased him, pounded them all the way to the headboard, then still kept moving, desperately on edge and shaking.

Jensen pried a hand from Jared's back, down into Jared's jeans, sweat and heat easing his way as he wriggled his fingers to stroke deeply along Jared's cleft, and he strained far enough to get a fingertip inside.

Jared cursed, guttural sounds more than words, and bottomed out, shoulders rounding as he finished in a final run of short, quick thrusts. He straightened his arms when he came, heaved a long breath and went taut and still for a moment. He blinked slowly, smiled down at Jensen, then turned his hands and gathered Jensen up and in, fell forward with an unfurling sigh.

It took a good while for Jensen to recover, longer for them both to ease apart and untangle. Jensen's hand was numb and Jared fingered the groove dented into his flesh from the buckle--skin not broken but already starting to bruise. Jared tottered to his feet and shucked his jeans, tossed his boxers at Jensen's head then dove back into the bed, and they burrowed under the covers.

"You're giggling," Jensen accused, pinched Jared's side.

"Nope. Think that's you." Jared smiled, cupped Jensen's jaw, and they lost far longer than a few minutes to kisses and exploring hands and coming down from such a brutal intoxication.

Jensen finally pulled away, set both hands on Jared's chest, savored the quickened thump of Jared's heart. "God, that--" He shook his head, didn't have the words.

"Made you starved for a burger and fries and a pie to split?" Jared smiled, mischievous and happy and settled. "Me too."

"JR, tell me about that second round that just happened. I'm not sure I believe it! Low scores and bad wrecks and even a few pretty bad injuries. What's all this falling apart coming from?"

"Well, Lauren, I think it's a combination of nerves and maybe trying too hard." Jensen nodded, tried to look earnest. Exhaustion and over-expectation more likely, all the teams run ragged cycling through radio spots and autograph signings and having to shill at the PBR Mobile all over town.

Today was ugly and if no one did better, heads were gonna roll.

Lauren patted his arm consolingly. "I would think so." She nodded, then blithely asked, "How did JT's disqualification affect the team's already dampened morale?"

Jensen almost swallowed his tongue. "It didn't at all, and we're doing fine."

"Oh, well. I... I'm glad. That's great." Lauren recovered a bit of her color and smiled perkily. "Okay better luck to everyone tomorrow. JR, thanks for taking a moment with me here."

"Thank you, Lauren." Jensen nodded and left, didn't wait for them to cut away.

|| Ride Six → 80 (it'll do) ||

It was almost the final ride of the last flight of rides in the championship round.

Coming in, Brazil had been leading, Mexico going with the fingernails approach, while Australia continued to rely on skin-of-the-teeth. Canada had come completely unglued yesterday, wheels rattling off by their second ride and conditions hadn't improved.

After the first round, USA had been in second place. After the second round, they'd fallen to third. Jensen didn't know anything more than that, and he didn't want to. He hadn't paid attention to anything beyond how his boys had done, didn't care. He hadn't taken notes, hadn't watched the other teams, hadn't kept track of the mounting scores.

Before they'd hit the dirt for the intro parade and fanfare, Jensen had told them, "There's no crowd. There's no competition. There's us and five bulls."

Yesterday had been the doldrums, exhilaration from the novelty and scope and crowd energy spent or accustomed, no feeling the push of desperation backed to the wall. Then the last set of five had become the witching hour, all five cowboys getting bucked and bashed--a concussion for Mexico, a run of cracked ribs for Canada and Dustin's black eye to show for it.

Today, he reminded them, there was nothing but that bull, right now. Wanted them loose but focused, win because they were the best or lose because someone else managed to be better. More than anything he wanted them to ride contained--as a team, for the team. He wanted to see them push and try.

So far, so good.

Justin had gone first, earned an 81. Jensen figured if it wasn't more than 85, it wasn't worth keeping--they had to make points to win this, not just baseline--and he'd turned the ride down. Justin had grinned, told Hodge to do better.

Hodge had. Jensen had turned it down. 84 was a solid score, nothing to be ashamed of and Hodge had ridden well. But it wasn't enough.

Dustin had been happy to ride with his shiner, put up an 86 and Jensen put it in the books. Then Chad had paid-off Jensen's hunch, rode Ashes to Ashes--a wild-eyed beast that no cowboy wanted or liked, either put guys in the hospital or off in a second--held on with conviction for a game-changing 89.

Jensen'd believed it'd put them in the best position by deciding things this way. He really did believe it, which might be why it'd worked.

One ride left, one last big chance. If Jared got a qualified ride, they could win it all. If Jared didn't win the round, they would out-and-out lose. It was a lot of pressure to have put on Jared, but Jensen knew it'd pay dividends. He also knew that everyone but his team, right here, were nervous and giving him the hairy eyeball. They were all sure that in another ten minutes, he'd be offering bluffs of apology while eating crow.

Jensen's heart had been in his throat, choked to stillness, during Dustin's and Chad's rides. They were all-or-nothing, building one to the next, seat-of-the-pants gameplan. It was riskier and far more brazen than Jensen had so carefully plotted if they should put this all together for a win. But he and the team hadn't let each other down yet.

"90." Colin bashfully showed Jensen the clipboard, then traced the notes he'd taken, the odds and margins he'd tallied, and he grinned. "If Jared rides for 90, we win."

"What will put us in third?"

Colin looked at him blankly. "I don't know. I didn't bother with third."

"Excellent call." Jensen grabbed hold of Colin's nape, joggled the kid and grinned.

He left Colin behind with a nod because it was time to get Jared to the chute. But first, he snagged Jared's belt loops, let them stand together a moment. The crowd dimmed, the milling cowboys on the platform and gangways all jostling back here faded, the music stopped. All washed into the background, then further away.

"You're gonna ride this bull. I know it."

Jared grinned. "That makes two of us."

Jensen let his thumbs flick, short but firm, the line of Jared's pockets. "Good." He nodded, satisfied at that, and that was more than enough. He blinked, everything rushing back over him in a wave.

Chad bounced next to the chute, handed Jared's rope up in, over, and Jared settled on the bull, while Justin started hitching the slack.

Jensen leaned into the chute, held Jared's mouthguard. He glanced at the bull, then back to Jared.

Amor de Diablo was a nasty fucker. Had everything you wanted in a bull, which meant there were nine ways from Sunday he could whip you, then beat you again a tenth. Smart and mean and wicked strong, a hulking stance with a powerful chest, long rounded-off horns that distracted the rider's point of reference, a sloping rise to his carriage that lent to bursts of speed. He was unridden on the season.

"Saved this one special." Jensen spread his hand on Jared's vest. "He'll-"

"Be all mine." Jared nodded, smiled. "It's okay, I got this one. I know."

Jensen paused, and Jared tensed, a mix of nerves and readiness and hint of worry that he wouldn't brook the rebellion. Jensen thought about Diablo; how every other rider who'd gotten thrown, then insulted, had tried to ride the bull with meticulous perfection. Thought what a better rider Jared had become in the three years they'd been doing this--all this--together. Thought about the morass Jared had fallen into these past few months, but still clawed and fought against going completely under.

He thumped Jared's chest, once, leaned away again and patted the top rail. "You're right. You do."

Jared beamed at him, so open and unaffected and bright, cut through all the crap. He laughed, slotted a hand in the back of Jared's vest and held on.

This was bullriding.

Justin gave a last tug and Jared wrapped down, grabbed the gate. "Ready, go, go!"

The gate clanged. Jared and Diablo launched. Jensen held steady while time stopped.

He didn't scrutinize Jared's free arm or style points or posture or anything to critique. He just wanted this ride, wanted it for the team and all the people here cheering for them. Wanted it for his guys against the bureaucracy who'd taken them for granted and churned them until pulpy during this whole thing.

Most of all, he wanted it for Jared.

There was no sound, and the ride was endless. Jensen stayed like he'd been when Jared had slipped from his hands, watched as though that's what would keep Jared on Diablo. Jared did just as Jensen always used to warn against, but it was smooth and easy, different than Jensen's way being right and Jared's being not-quite.

Everything got tightly thin, pulled and pulled. Colin had hold of his arm and Justin was up a rung then another, arms outstretched, both of them shouting and shouting. Then the buzzer sounded, and the thinness snapped, sent everything charging back.

The scores filled in almost instantaneously, no hesitation and no doubt at all Jared had ridden clean. High forties for Diablo, higher forties for Jared, and Jensen leapt from the top into the chute when the total flashed on the big screens.

94.

Dustin leapt from the railing to divebomb Chad, and Hodge sailed his hat into the arena.

The crowd roared, so deafening that it wasn't Jensen blocking it out this time, it was just that loud. It thundered, and already the other teams were telling each other good job, next year, were being sporting and offering Jensen and Team USA their hands.

Jared found Jensen, grinned wide and lopsided and pretty and so easy, pointed at the team, then he tugged loose of the rope, rolled back, and landed on the dirt.

It was so good to see, such a relief after Jared's onerous dry spell. More than that. It was Jared's style--found again but somehow refined--talent no longer raw but suddenly fluid and palpably real.

Soon as Diablo cleared the stock gate, Jensen slipped from chute to run across the dirt, met Jared halfway, lifted him up in a crushing bear hug. Jared laughed, giddy and triumphant, smacked his back then they staggered apart. They stared at each other, both smiling so goofy and wide that it was a wonder people didn't think different, now and again, even if long ago Jensen realized no one here ever would.

"Did that one all wrong, didn't I?" Jared smiled, waited for Jensen to agree.

Jensen shook his head, wrapped his hand tighter on Jared's neck. "No. You did that one just like you should. I'd have ridden neater, of course, but for you, that was just right." He grinned dirty, shook Jared by the shoulders. "You're going to do that in Vegas, right?"

Jared cuffed Jensen's neck, massaged a thumb at the soft, tickly spot beneath Jensen's ear with his thumb. He looked at Jensen, stared and smiled, eyes twinkling as confetti fell and the guys celebrated around them. "Fuck Vegas--who needs that? I just won the world."

Not a trophy, or a country's honor, that was clear. Jensen, right here, Jared's world and most definitely won.

Jensen reached to hold onto Jared's forearm, dug in hard because he wanted to do so much more--oh God, everything, so much more--but he grinned instead, couldn't stop. He tugged them to where Chad and Hodge were dancing to the whump-thump techno-rock crap that almost drowned out the crowd.

Chad climbed onto the shark's cage where the Cup had been displayed, stared at it reverently. "Guys, you just, don't know what this means to me." He sniffed and closed his eyes.

"Are you crying?" Hodge planted a hand on his hip and turned to Jensen. "Is there crying in bullriding? I don't think so. I think that particular rule applies here, as well."

"Hey, maybe he's just overwhelmed. We did just win the World Cup." Dustin stepped up to the cage, reached up so he could pat Chad's leg. "You okay, buddy?"

Chad suddenly leaned back, lifted his arms in front of him and yelled, "Chad Michael Murray is hereby demoted and stripped of his Chadhood, for I now claim The Chad as my sole domain of entitled sanctity. I am a world-class, World Cup-winning bullrider of stature and great acclaim, hand-pick chosen by the legendary J-R-Ack-kles to ride to victory and everlasting glory! And I shall reign as the one-and-only-true Chad forever more."

Dustin quickly retreated to not-very-coolly hide behind where Colin and Justin stared in bemused disbelief.

Hodge just shrugged. "Well, answers that definitively. Wasn't crying. You know why?" He nodded. "'cause crying ain't allowed."

Jensen shook his head and laughed, had to let go of Jared so he could tug at Chad's chaps. "Well, The Chad, I acknowledge your claim and we'll call him Murray or something. Now c'mon down so we can go get our picture taken. Then, we're gonna go to some ramshackle dive with sticky floors and murky air, make it our mission to--God help us--get Colin fucking hammered."

|| Ride Seven → 86 (got a fighting chance) ||

Jensen boosted to sit on the back bumper and marveled that not even ten in the morning and it was already muggy enough to carve the air or maybe chew on it a bit, if taken the mind. He rolled his heels, watched the door for Jared, knew they wouldn't see anyone else so early.

The team captains had been called to a press conference to officially close the proceedings, one last duty of polite nods and printable quotes, otherwise Jensen would be dead to the world. He'd woken a few hours ago, grudging and cranky and still drunk, fumbled through a shower and a pot of coffee, and when he'd kissed Jared goodbye, Jared had slurred promises to get up too, shower and pack, meet him and they could just be on their way.

Dallas had other ideas about slow starts and clinging to slumber, droned and buzzed busy as a manic hive, thick with commuters starting their week. It all had its own carry and sensibility, nearby highways cutting across the horizon throttled with standstill cars, side roads and off-ramps like slingshots, punctuated by the steady rumble of planes banking in flight patterns to and from the airport, sky nothing but contrails and murky blue.

The sun was hot and Jensen wished he had his work hat, white straw instead of black woolen felt, kept it on because relative shade was better than none. He'd sit here and sweat for ten more minutes, then he was going back inside.

Jensen used to wonder if he'd miss this place, its size and sprawl and figure out how to turn himself into an appreciative city boy in the end. The wind kicked, pulled water from the fountain in front of the hotel into a candyfloss prism, shivered the landscaped trees to thrush their leaves then shush one another. Only thing he missed was home, looked forward to getting back to what was normal for them--the grind of weekly events, the rhythm being on the road, at the ranch, and gone again--even the dogs.

Sitting here missing that instead, knowing it for sure, inspired a gut-deep serenity. Calm in realizing what you have isn't just what you need, but what you want. Something so true it had no description, save for somehow no longer aching, when before you hadn't known you were hurting.

Jared emerged, haggard, ballcap pulled low and sunglasses jammed close, one arm loaded with their bags and gear and the other curled around an army of coffee cups. Jensen pulled up, stared and thought that--that right there--is what he'd always miss the most. He scoffed at having turned into such an irredeemable sap, but just stood and stared. Jared tried to wave and he flat out grinned, grinned like an idiot and a fool and a fool in love. He scratched the back of his neck, shook his head, really didn't give a damn.

He popped the passenger side open, took the bags from Jared and tossed everything on the back bench, hummed gratefully when one of the coffee cups was shoved at him while Jared stumbled into the truck. He shut Jared in, had a long drink while he walked around then paused and flattened his hand on the hood, scalded his tongue to finish it with a second greedy swallow. He belched, crushed the cup and threw it between the seats, snickered at Jared's wince when he slammed the door closed and cranked the engine.

"You're looking fine today, sunshine." Jensen snapped Jared's seatbelt done because Jared was getting nowhere with it, carefully worked open a tangle that dusted Jared's collar. "Thanks for the coffee. This one for me, too?"

Jared had a cup in each hand, and there was a third in the cup holder. Jared grunted, "Shaddup," a bit delayed in his reaction time.

Jensen took that as a yes, made himself sip it slow, eased on the gas and rolled them from the parking lot to join the rat maze. He clicked the radio on, tapped the steering wheel. Jared usually had him beat by three-quarters when it came to mornings, taunted his more-sluggish-than-angry bear thaw into the day, so he wasn't above enjoying this rare slice.

Jared sighed, dropped his hat and shades into the footwell and lofted an emptied cup into the back and cradled the other, toed out of his sneakers then curled and stretched sideways, hopefully poked at Jensen's thigh with his feet.

"Hmm, what's that?" Jensen ignored the instinctive itch in his hands to touch.

Jared muttered and poked him again.

He bit his cheek to keep from smiling. "I'm sorry, didn't catch that. You're going to have to use your words."

"C'mon, you dick, you know."

"No, I really don't."

Jared rocked the balls of his feet on the top of Jensen's thighs. "Dammit, gimme a massage. Jerk."

"Oh, oh. You want a massage."

Jared huffed, "Yes. I want a massage."

"Sure!" Jensen said brightly, cupped Jared's ankle in his fingers, rubbed hard circles on Jared's heel then arch with his thumb. "But in trade, you have to work on waking up. We're stopping for breakfast."

Jared yawned and shuddered, squirmed to a more comfortable position and smiled at him sleepily. "Hah. I win."

Jensen turned the radio up and shrugged. "Whatever you need to tell yourself, cowboy."

Traffic wasn't as bad exiting the city, and after Jensen had pushed past a few bottlenecked interchanges they were zipping along. Jared dozed while he drove, and about forty minutes later he banked them into his parents' subdivision.

He tickled Jared awake again. "Hey, we're almost there."

Jared scrubbed his eyes and groaned, righted and got his shoes back on, finished his coffee with a grimace as Jensen pulled into the driveway. The engine clicked rapidly as it cooled, and without the pavement hum and the radio it sounded loud as hailstones, made Jared's sudden quiet even quieter.

"Not quite Waffle House, but Mom will cook your eggs to order." Jensen leaned towards Jared and raised a brow, waited, waited longer, then he cleared his throat, reached for the keys to start the truck back up.

That actually managed to go worse than all the ways he'd imagined it could.

"No, hey." Jared shook himself head to feet then laughed, looked at Jensen and beamed, surprised and expectant and glad. "I'm hungover, and half-asleep, and had you making me all relaxed and crazy there for the past hour. If she'll make me eggs-in-a-basket with bacon and a slice of cheese, I'm in. But cut me some slack."

Jensen blushed, pocketed the keys instead. "Bacon might be pushing it." He opened the door and tipped out of the truck, wiped his sweaty palms on his jeans, nervous but not regretting they were here.

Jared matched Jensen's stride and they walked to the front door together. He hipped into Jensen. "Hear tell I'm good at being pushy."

Persistent in braving even this with him, pushed to have more, then pushed that it had to end if more couldn't happen, kept pushing to prevent Jensen from letting them drift apart. Jensen licked his lips, was on the verge of offering something about just where and how good Jared pushed when the door opened, his mom greeting them with a welcoming smile.

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

Jensen wrestled the mattress onto its side and shoved. It wobbled at the corners, whapped him in the head and knocked him into the wall. He kept shoving.

"When you know something, you don't need more time to decide if you need more time to decide," he snipped as he wedged the mattress in the door and couldn't move it. Bent his fingernails back when he grabbed the ticked edges and yanked it towards him, skidded to angle it further, then through the door again.

"So, if your mom makes good on that threat to visit, I guess I can just go sleep in the barn." He panted, stumbled and got pinned to the door frame, crawl-stroked the air futilely until his foot found purchase and he shouldered forward.

It'd been a week since Dallas and the reasonably enjoyable day they'd spent with his parents. Jared had taken it just as Jensen intended--a promise, a quietly resonant declaration--assumed that meant Jensen was ready to let go of this old place and move.

"Maybe I'll sleep there anyway," he mimicked, ripped pictures loose careening down the hall. He used the wainscoting as something of a track, made it all the way to the kitchen at a near-run before the fucker mattress sagged at the middle and sighed, almost flattened him beneath it.

Jensen wedged past where the lower corner had decided to bond with the open doorway wall, almost stripped his kneecap climbing through the curl. He toppled a chair and dragged the table along with the mattress several feet, batted at the screen door and got enough of the mattress poked out so it'd stay open. He ran to the opposite end, braced low, pushed and pushed until the mattress belly-flopped into the yard.

He landed in a hard kneel, grimaced and blinked sweat from his eyes. When he could breathe easier, he grabbed the cabinet and levered standing again.

Couldn't just ask him something simple about moving, wouldn't just answer his own easy questions, and their discussion degenerated into misunderstanding, which twisted into yelling, until Jared had cracked, stood from the table and abandoned breakfast, went outside then after a minute had screamed yes that's what I want!.

Jensen had snarked--Finally!--was going to somehow lord it over Jared that Jared wanted to move, wouldn't say so outright because he worried about upsetting Jensen. Jensen had pointed out if Jared really wanted it he should really say it so they'd both really know it, then, finally, Jared had, exactly as he'd asked and said he needed.

The two twin-sized box springs were much easier, much more satisfying to just zip and crash and wheel around. Jensen carried them to his truck, stomped right out onto and over the mattress, flung them in the truc kbed.

Jensen studied the mattress warily and went for the jugular. Knotted his fists into the edge and hauled it in a crazy backwards shimmy then tossed it, landed half against the side of the truck. He crawled under it and shoved it the rest of the way up, left it balanced precariously.

After Jared had driven away in a frustrated storm, Jensen sparked into immediate, violent action. He'd thought fine. Great. Fine. Now I know. You want to move? We'll move, and this temporary insanity had taken hold. He didn't go back in for the bed frame--that he'd broken after the mattress had gotten stuck and he'd refused to take no for an answer.

Now, he was all wound in the desperate logic that since he knew for-sure that Jared for-sure wanted to move, then he did too. And he was going to prove it.

It took maybe ten minutes for him to drive to the big house, and he reversed up to and almost on the porch. Jensen was running out of steam but he wasn't beaten yet. He corner-walked the mattress to flump on the living room floor, then bam! Rack! with the box springs and he slid them together, dragged the mattress mostly on top. Then he sat with his head in his hands and tried to catch his breath.

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

There are places that get so paradoxically dark at night, the stars make everything brighter. Billings was like that. The big house was like that, too.

"Jensen, I was serious. I just need to go to bed."

"I heard you," Jensen answered mildly. He dropped out of Jared's truck and popped the half-door so Sadie and Harley could slink into the grass, had left water and carpet scraps on the porch for them and didn't expect to see them until morning. "So, c'mon."

Jared stayed in the truck while Jensen walked through the yard. The quiet here matched the darkness, made it easy to hear things like the thrush of foxglove against his jeans and the river that tickled the land a quarter-mile away, the controlled thowck of the passenger door closing and Jared's sigh.

After their fight, Jared hadn't come home, nothing dramatic or terrible, just kept going to Austin and the airport then all the way to Tampa for that weekend's riding. He'd called to tell Jensen he was okay, wanted to make sure Jensen was too, promised he'd switch to a Saturday night redeye if he didn't make the short-go.

East coast trips had discretionary terms and options to pass for the west coast stock guys, and same in the reverse, on account of the distance and the disadvantage of dealing with unfamiliar breeders trying to put together pens from local stock. Jensen went to every event out of choice, not contract. For once, he'd stayed home.

Jensen had watched the event on TV and slept on the couch, not because of desolation or hating their empty bed, but because it was at the big house. Jared had done fine, finished second. This morning, Jensen had hitched a ride with a neighbor into Austin, bussed it to the airport, sat in Jared's truck and waited to drive them back here. To the big house.

Jared hung back as Jensen climbed the stairs and crossed the porch to the front door, wary like there might be a punchline in this somewhere. Jensen shook his head, went down the stairs, grabbed Jared's hand, tugged them back up again.

"Watched you ride--you looked good." Jensen maneuvered them inside, guided Jared from the foyer into the living room by memory. It was dark shadowed darker in the house, windows nothing more than vibrantly black rectangles, seemed to float and follow where they moved.

"I had to borrow Hodge's rope and Justin's spurs. I don't know, but somehow managed to forget mine." Jared cuffed his hand to circle Jensen's wrist, asked tiredly, "Jensen, where are we going?"

"To bed." Jensen smiled, leaned into Jared's neck and nipped a haphazard path as he shouldered from his coat, worked Jared's off next. By the time they got to the mattress at the center of the room, he had them down to skins, socks and jeans.

"This'll probably sound like a complaint, but-"

Jensen hooked Jared's ankles with his leg, kicked Jared over to land on the mattress, laughed at Jared's panicked yelp that mellowed into a hum of pleasant surprise.

"Oh."

"That's right, oh." Jensen grinned. "Told you."

He'd made the bed on Saturday, too achy and sore to get it up the stairs into the gabled bedroom that ran the width of the house he'd decided would be theirs. Seemed foolish to bring anything else over, but after he'd gotten all the layers of sheets and quilts and worn-soft afghans, it'd struck him as maybe equally foolish to have a sumptuously made bed so ripe with invitation and comfort in an otherwise barren house.

When Jared grabbed him, moaned greedily and hauled him into a bruising, blood-blazing kiss, he knew he'd gotten this right.

He slowed their kiss with licks and bites and pulling away just far enough that their tongues could no longer meet but their mouths shared heat, lazed there for what felt like hours. His hands were languorous and unrelenting, stroked and tickled and drew shivery lines from Jared's neck, to Jared's wide shoulders, down Jared's chest to the tapering of Jared's hips.

"Good?" he breathed, pushed Jared's legs apart and skimmed his hands on the tops of Jared's thighs.

"Ooh, it's better." Jared laughed low, breathed fast and wet, held Jensen's elbows in his palms. "We should just keep the place this way. I like it. 'sa good look for us."

Jensen shifted heavier onto a knee and tipped in to teethe at Jared's shoulder, sucked the mark darker and peeled Jared's jeans off. He rested his forehead on Jared's shin and tugged Jared's socks loose, then fumbled his own jeans undone, kicked out of them and his boxers as he kissed his way back to center.

He flattened his hands on Jared's middle. "I like this look on us, too." He grinned and Jared snickered--still could barely see a thing.

Jensen flexed his fingers and walked them to knuckle in the band of Jared's boxers, nosed at the dampness, grunted when Jared tugged his hair and pushed a shoulder and whined. He worked Jared's shorts off with one hand, cupped Jared's balls with the other, then he leaned into the back of Jared's leg and splayed him open to his touch and tongue.

Jared moaned, twitched and twisted restively while Jensen licked Jared's hole and slowly worked one finger, then a second, then a third inside.

Jensen humped at the bed, so hard and heavy with need, loved torturing Jared with thorough and slow, but that meant he also had to be denied. He curled his tongue and fit it on the groove between his fingers, then stretched them in a vee, skated his hand away to find the lube they kept stashed in a pillowcase.

Jensen's reach was an active tell, and Jared huffed impatiently, dropped onto his back and hooked Jensen with one leg, squirmed down so he could bracket Jensen's sides with his thighs and gather their cocks in one hand. He jacked them, slow like Jensen had done but with rough insistence, until Jensen's shivers were deepened into helpless trembling. He let go, tilted his hips, palmed Jensen's cock again and smeared his hole with the tip.

"C'mon, please, Jensen c'mon." Jared dug his other hand into Jensen's wrist, sucked Jensen's fingers into his mouth, still hitched tiny, desperate movements where Jensen's cock pressed against him.

Jensen flicked the lube open, hands shaking so badly he just squeezed a glob of it in the groove of Jared's hip, drew fingerfuls away and slicked himself, scraped the rest into his hand and shoved his fingers inside Jared, crooked them and stroked Jared's prostate then pushed hard against it, fucked into Jared as he pulled his hand free.

He didn't go slowly now, couldn't. Dropped forward and pounded a steady, breathless rhythm, knitted their fingers together when Jared reached for his hand, then stretched their arms out alongside them.

Jensen rolled his forehead on Jared's chest, bit Jared's collarbone, loved the almost painful knock of Jared's fist against his ribs as Jared jerked off while he pushed them into oblivion.

He came as hard as he was fucking Jared, gripped the sheets in his toes so he could get deeper as he finished. Felt like he was going to split from his skin when Jared clamped around him while coming, a few breaths and one even deeper push after, and he collapsed in a surrendered heap, the black enveloping them now impenetrable.

Jensen started to breathe, to return, but when he started to push away Jared just wrapped him in closer, held him surrounded and buried so completely, wouldn't let go. He rumbled throatily, very easy in meeting this demand. Tilted his hips and settled back and fit his nose alongside Jared's cheek, got the perfect match of tension and sway so he could rock them gently without strain until hard again, and then they'd start all this all over.

|| Ride Eight → 89 (this one'll be the difference) ||

Jensen slid the latch into place on the cattle trailer, thumped the back, watched the truck shudder then pull away. Bulls all loaded, accounted for, and on their way home for some rest and recovery, which meant he got to be on his way home too. He scribbled a note on his clipboard--Supernova had a nasty horn infection, wouldn't be up to competing for a few weeks--then he turned and headed up the gangway and back into the arena.

It'd been another good weekend, another sell-out crowd, and Jared finished a respectable third. He'd hit a stride after Dallas, hadn't stumbled, managed to overtake Mark in the points standings, bore down to methodically widen his lead. To lose the World Champ buckle now he'd probably have to fall off the planet, not a bull.

Jensen threaded past stacks of metal gating and the Cats scraping and clearing away the dirt, thought about the different stock contractors he'd have to call in the next week to put together a good pen for when they were up in Oregon. He flipped his clipboard into his bag, waved around the arena at the crew breaking everything down, turned into the hall leading to the back locker rooms.

"-and JT's doing jack shit while I'm doing nothing but putting away round winning rides, and what's it get me? Have to watch that lucky prick screw the pooch on two rides in front of the whole damn world then manage to scrape out a winner. Just how it goes when you're a golden boy who can't do no wrong, even when you're fucking everything sideways."

Jensen narrowed in on Mark and advanced, this time wasn't going to let this go. Mark stood in the hall with Brock and Tyler, each with a beer in their hand, clearly wasn't their first. More like fifth or sixth.

Mark wheeled his arms. "Does anyone remember when I was riding high? Hell no. Now it's all slump this, saw it coming that, but no one talks about when JT had to use his spurs then still ate dirt."

"That's because he's always been a better rider than you, always will be. It's simple as that."

The trio split, Brock and Tyler flanking Mark, and when Jensen didn't budge or make light they took a step back, left Mark to stand alone.

Jensen spread his hands in invitation, had no concern about following Mark into the locker room and doing this in front of several of the guys. "You want to keep pushing this, fine, but push at me, not Jared. Today I'd pick him for the team, a month ago I would, his rookie year I'd have been glad to have him."

"Like you have any idea how it is, one of their golden boys yourself. And JT your little pet." Mark retreated as he talked, walked them towards the locker room. "Tell me what, though, 'cause I've been dying to know- d'you keep him on a leash?"

Jensen laughed in answer, couldn't help it, so ridiculous and Mark so insignificant.

"Fuck you, Ackles. Fuck your little bitch, harder." Mark threw his half-empty can towards Jensen, too much on it so it bounced off the wall, sprayed and popped then rattled to the floor. He sneered. "One day soon he's gonna think no one's watching anymore, go back to using that spur trick, but he's wrong. I'll be watching. I'll be watching when he has to tug his spur loose during a ride and his rope maybe just happens to break-"

Somebody whistled, warned Mark from saying anything more, but it was too late. The implication itself was terrible. But the idea that someone would even dare to think of threatening Jared was what made Jensen see red and launch in attack.

He punched Mark, no hesitation, snarled with grim satisfaction at how much it hurt, how much that meant it had to fucking pulverize Mark. Reared back then punched again, this time giving Mark a black eye to go with the broken nose, drew his fist ready for another hit, barely landed contact as Mark's knees buckled.

Jensen booted Mark square in the sternum, not hard enough to do damage, definitely hard enough to knock the wind from his sails and send him the rest of the way down. Jensen stepped in to loom over Mark, one leg at Mark's hip, the other at Mark's ribs. He hissed and showed his teeth.

"Far as I'm concerned this is done, and you and I don't ever have to speak to each other again. And so far as I know, that mess on your face happened during a practice ride gone wrong." He tipped his toe into Mark's side. "What do you say?"

Mark chuffed contemptuously and Jensen just kept staring, implacable and fathomless with clear willingness to beat Mark into the concrete. Mark coughed, had to hock up a spitload of blood, curled onto a shoulder and pushed up to cup his nose in his hand. When he moved without Jensen giving immediate chase he squirmed like a pitiful worm.

Jensen didn't give him the time or dignity to stand.

He looked around the locker room, and no one offered any challenge or trouble, only silence and a few respectful nods. He stayed to his word--done and done--spun on his heel and made his way outside.

Jared waited for him by the truck, Sadie and Harley tired from a long day and curled on the pavement to soak in what was left of the sun's heat. Jared dealt with the dogs while Jensen managed the bulls then they'd meet in the middle. That was their routine.

Jensen sidearmed his bag onto the hood. "So. I'm gonna need you to drive." He tipped sideways, tried to pry the keys from his right pocket with his left hand.

Jared fished them out instead, opened the door to let Jensen into the cab, but then leaned in before the door shut. Jared took hold of Jensen's wrist, moved his hand this way and that.

His finger knuckles were swollen in blood-burst knots, bruised bone-deep discolored black and inky purple and watery blue, puffy and rigid and ugly. The middle one was probably busted. His base knuckles hadn't fared much better, the two most prominent tipped pink from blood getting between bone and skin, and there was definitely a smashed capillary or few turning his whole hand sickly green.

"Did you get stepped on? Decide you could win a stubbornness competition with a bull not wanting to budge?" Jared scowled. "Why don't you have even an ice pack? Shit, Jensen." He rolled his eyes and told the dogs to stay then trotted away, disappeared back inside for a spell.

Jensen grimaced and leaned back, closed his eyes. So much for making a clean getaway.

He dozed lightly, listened to the dying chorus of cicadas and the rustle of drying leaves hearkening fall. Beating the snot out of Mark had taken more out of him than he realized, adrenaline rush and rage so completely spent his nerves were shot, or maybe it was the intense pain that made him feel hollow and floaty.

The door opened back up, cool night air shifting in, and his hand was taken again, but there wasn't any ice. Once Jared had mentioned it, he'd thought that sounded good, wanted some now so he grunted in question.

"Well son, at least it's not your fool head." Doc Beaver's deep voice spooked Jensen, and he jerked upright, pinched his neck when he spun around. "And what'd you do that for?" Doc caught his nape too, massaged it, tilted him all the way forward, then middle, then side to side, then Doc slapped an ice pack on Jensen's neck and went back to examining his hand. Jensen winced and sucked in a sharp breath, shied back when his middle finger was barely grazed.

"That bad? Umhmm." Doc looked Jensen in the eye. "This is gonna hurt, but I wanna see if it's broken or just outta socket, so you just ready yourself because I'm going to poke around the joint a bit. Okay?"

Jensen nodded.

"Good. In five, four-" Doc stopped there, reset Jensen's finger in one quick, forceful move and a sickening burst-crunch, grinned when Jensen gaped at him. "Works every time." He had a splint and some tape in a pocket, started dressing Jensen's three middle fingers together. "By the way, it's for sure broken."

"Gee, thanks Doc." Jensen looked over Doc's shoulder to glare at Jared.

Jared shrugged. "What. Should have taken care of this yourself. Get you home with a busted hand then you can't do anything but whine and suddenly I'm taking care of everything only because you're mule-headed? I don't think so."

Doc popped a chemical pac and slushed it, molded it to Jensen's palm then taped it in place. "Think he's got your number, JR." He tossed several more into the truck to bounce on the seat at Jensen's far side. "Now, I'm going to watch you take two of these, because I know that hurts and it'll just keep hurting worse until the swelling goes down since I reset it. And the swelling won't go down near as well if you don't take these. Kind of a one-two punch. If you know what I mean."

They shared a look, and Jensen's tongued his teeth. "I just might."

"Good." Doc grinned. "Here."

Jensen took the two chalky horse-pills, took a bottle of water next, dutifully swallowed both down, even let Doc squeeze his lower jaw to make sure.

"I'm giving JT the rest of your scrip, and I'm telling him, not you, how many of these I want you to take and how often." Doc patted his shoulder. "You'll live. And remember to change the cold packs when they get to room temperature, would ya?"

Jared held out a hand. "I'll remember. Thanks, Doc."

They shook on it and Doc smiled. "It's no trouble. Don't let him lift anything heavy for awhile, no alcohol, and if it gets tetchy try elevating it. See me about it next week. Worst-case, I'll hack it off."

Jensen grumbled and Jared laughed, laughed harder when Jensen cursed after trying to flip the bird and instead wound up knocking his whole hand against the door.

"Yeah, maybe don't do that again." Doc gave them both a stern glare. "Take care now-- doctor's orders."

"Yup, 'course," Jensen muttered, yawned sleepily, whatever powerful stuff Doc had given him already spreading like syrup in his veins.

Doc's footsteps pattered away, left them to go quiet in the nearly empty parking lot.

"Did you break your hand breaking Mark's nose?"

Jensen hummed, not quite saying yes, but he wasn't going to deny it. He guessed Jared knew that he had and the reasons why, someone having something to say about it when Jared had gone to find Doc. Jared's long fingers encircled his wrist, and a softer touch feathered his cheek. Jensen opened his eyes and Jared smiled, kissed his knuckles.

"Thank you."

Jared carefully bent Jensen's arm, tucked it folded across his chest, closed the door with a light click. Jensen sat there bemused, watched Jared gather their stuff, settle both dogs in the back, then climb into the driver's side.

Jensen nodded, wouldn't say you're welcome because it hadn't been done to earn himself anything. Wasn't even to show Mark up or shut Mark down. Done to show Jared--and everyone else--that he'd meant it when he'd said he'd always believed in Jared. That he always would.

Might come back to bite him in the ass, but he didn't think so. Jensen would never be good at the politics, would never care for it either, but what he cared about were the riders and the sport itself, so it didn't much matter that he'd always put his foot in it and piss someone off who might be a lead to advancement. He was never going to be the guy they sent for glad-handing appearances and he sure as hell wasn't going to be in a reality show. But he'd keep coaching, running stock, his stupid twitter thing. That he actually liked, direct line to fans, even the ones who were certain he and they were on the verge of marrying.

He wanted to sleep, should be able to easy, Jared driving an arm's reach away and the dogs' light snores burring alongside the schurr of the tires, nothing more comfortable than this right here. But he sensed Jared's tension, couldn't ignore it, had to be a worry he couldn't define since it'd been established Jared wasn't pissed at him for defending Jared so blatantly with Mark. That bothered him.

"'m still awake but fading fast, so you best tell me quick." Jensen twisted so he could see Jared, low-hanging moon sculpting Jared's profile with a silvery dun, glow from the dashboard flickering blue-bright in Jared's eyes.

Jared patted the steering wheel, frowned, clenched his jaw, bought a bit more time.

"Hey, that's my thing." Jensen snickered, drew his leg onto the bench and rested his hand on his knee, let his head fall heavily onto the seatback. "Stars are nice tonight. Shame I'm so stoned that if you took me gazing I'd just end up drooling on you." He tugged Jared's hair, let his hand linger.

"I'm just-- I dunno. Maybe this year is it, I'm thinking that yeah, this year is gonna be it." Jared nodded, worried at his lip.

Jensen whuffed a laugh, light and soft and painfully understanding. "You don't have to, Jared. You don't even have to know right now or decide. This year isn't even decided. You could bust your ass, get it busted, win the champ title, lose it by a handful of points. Don't do this to yourself now."

"Yeah but-"

"It doesn't matter. You'll know when it's time. Until then?" Jensen shrugged. "I'll be there, we'll drag the dogs along, you'll get bucked doing something stupid, maybe even ride a few bulls. All good."

Jared almost harrumphed, lost it completely to a goofy grin. "Sometimes, you know, now and again, there's the rare time you get something like this just perfect and--it reminds me I kinda love you."

Jensen blazed over with heat and triumph, was loose enough to start rattling off endless purple declarations of his own. Instead he flicked Jared's earlobe and scoffed. "I'm almost inclined to agree. Save for all that part you got wrong about me only being this perfect sometimes. Try that one again, see where it gets ya." He knuckled Jared's arm, retreated further than Jared's reach, plastered to the door.

Jared turned, smiled at him, soft and exactly perfect. "I love you."

"Jared." Jensen lost his breath, shook his head. "Goddamnit." He slid the rest of the way, thunked his head on Jared's shoulder, pressed, breathed in, whispered, "Yeah, me too. I love you too. So much--I swear."

"I know." Jared looped Jensen's arm around his front, made sure to prop Jensen's tender hand on his leg, shifted back so Jensen had more room to lean into him. He kissed the top of Jensen's head and snickered. "I'm thinking I like you stoned. Either that or surrounded by thousands of strangers. Brings the best out in you."

Jensen closed his eyes, nodded in muzzy agreement, and feel asleep.

|| Ride Nine → 94 (94! all or nothing -- got it all) ||

Jensen let the stack of boxes he was carrying thump onto the floor then stood with a creak, winced and rubbed his back. He was reminded of all the good rides and bad gets and stupid wrecks by the snap-crackle of his spine. Sucked getting old; sucked living in an old body that wasn't even thirty, yet.

They probably should have hired movers, or at least thrown a barbecue and beer weekend, made all their buddies show to help haul crap from the ranch to the big house. But Jensen was determined and stubborn as ever, and Jared and he both a bit guarded against the idea of their friends poking through one house to set up the other, seeing what all there'd be to see. Jensen had argued they could make do over the course of several weekends with their trucks, and Jared had agreed.

They'd been sleeping here for months since he'd moved the beds--theirs and the dogs'--the crazy declaration Jensen made that Jared simply understood, in that way of theirs. It'd been strange but nicely so, to sleep in an echoing house and nothing to hide behind.

From there Jensen just wanted something to sit on and a plate or two, didn't really fuss the details, while Jared was saying things like "accent pillows" and "coffee mugs big enough to require a two-handed hold."

Jensen tipped to lean against the wall and stretched, surveyed the progress and their future. The big house really was big, and he was chagrined that his ratty couch and recliner would barely make a dent in filling the sprawling living room. Jared had said they should use the back dining room as the den, eat in the giant kitchen with the huge split-plank harvest table no one had come back to claim and both had taken a shine to, leave the living room and parlor spanning the front of the house open and airy and uncluttered with a television and its noise, littered instead with buckles and trophies and retired ropes too busted down to use any longer, too steeped in memory to part with. Then adding stuff they were apparently going to find at estate sales and antique shops as time went by.

Jensen wasn't simply amenable because he had to bend here and there, give Jared space and the right for decisions and wants, too. He outright liked the idea, had only stipulated that there'd be a new tv--giant and dominating with surround-sound and who knew what all glorious gadgets attached. Wasn't exactly a tough sell, but he'd been sure in making the point. Especially after so easily agreeing to antiquing. They might go stroll around barns and flea markets, find upright chairs and urns and old farm equipment and whatever the fuck all, but he was getting a ridiculously expensive entertainment beast and some kind of lounging, big-enough-to-sleep-on-with-Jared-while-they-watched-a-movie-couch. And that was that.

They hadn't exactly told anyone they were moving. They hadn't exactly said they weren't. Just somewhere between, noises and suggestions, and Jensen was good with letting it naturally reveal itself, here and there in bits and pieces. By the time it was fully realized, everyone would be convinced this is how it'd always been. No one would think anything of it or find it unusual, anyway, given they'd fallen into being considered a matched set.

A truck rattled up the gravel drive--Jensen made yet another mental note to see about getting it graded, maybe even shell out for a few ton of rock, fill in the holes so they could wash out again next spring--then Jared was hollering for him to hurry on up and get outside.

He went and grumbled the whole way, wondered if there was trouble or if Jared had made good on the threat to call up Chad Murray and drag that sorry ass out here for a visit or if--

Jared stood in the yard a few feet away, eyes sparkling, something fidgety and small and definitely alive cupped in his hands. He held it up and said, "Surprise!"

Jensen stopped short, planted himself at the top step on their generous, widely spread front porch, and his hands settled naturally on his hips. Made Jared come to him, ended up meeting in the middle, him on the bottom step and Jared still in the grass.

"What in the name..." Jensen closed his eyes, shook his head slowly. "You couldn't even let us be moved in for a little while, soothe my ego after your victory of getting me here, before you brought all of that home too? You didn't even campaign for this or try and butter me up."

Jared didn't look abashed and his face didn't change, he just grinned and shoved an armful of squirming puppy at Jensen, leaned in to follow with a kiss. "He's for you! He's a smaller breed too, can sit in your lap when you drive, bet he'll like standing there with his little paws on the steering wheel, you know, kind of like our mascot and he'll be all styling and great."

Jensen sighed. The pup was tiny, nothing but a white powder-puff that barely filled his palm. It was--cute. "So tell me. This the only dog they had?"

"Nope. But it is the perfect dog for you." Jared grinned, fluffed the dog's ears. "Look good with bows, wouldn't he? Red ones, match your official officiating PBR shirt."

"This isn't a dog. This is an-" He sighed, pinched the bridge of his nose when the pup looked at him lopsided. Wanted to say insult, didn't have the heart. Not to break Jared's, and not like he'd actually hurt this little thing. The dog shifted comfortably in his hand, nipped his fingertips then pitched forward in an ungainly, roly-poly dive, thunked against his chest. After a surprised moment, the pup decided this was actually better, snuggled in with a tiny puppy sigh.

Jared fit their foreheads together, wrapped his hand over Jensen's, over the dog. "You love him, right? Of course you do."

Jensen sighed too, scritched the pup's delicate neck lost under all those white curls, shook his head. His fiddled with a paw and the pup flexed, caught his fingers, then shuddered into a hard, trusting sleep. His heart did that bend-funny thing that only Jared had somehow mastered being able to find. "Guess I do, at that."

"Hah, see? I knew you would." He stared at Jensen, kept staring, waited and waited until Jensen broke out in a grin.

"If nothing else, this surprise earns you the right to carry all the heavy boxes upstairs." Jensen smirked. "And scrub down all the extra bathrooms. Only fair."

"Oh right, so. About that." Jared flushed then bit his lip.

Jensen narrowed his eyes. "Mr Fluffy here distracted you from remembering anything else, didn't he."

Jared didn't answer, darted a look from Jensen to the house a few times then back again, seemed caught between little-boy bashful and wicked pleased. When Jared's gaze wandered again, something prickled at the back of Jensen's neck.

"I sent you to town for cleaning supplies and pizza. You came home with a dog and...?" He just let that hang, pinned Jared with a stare. Jared fidgeted then kissed him again, and Jensen knew that meant they were in trouble.

"Just a few cats--no big deal--thought they'd be nice to have rambling around the place. We had them at the other house but not like we were gonna transplant barn cats. They don't have to be indoor, but they can visit inside. And yeah, I was always going to surprise you with the dog--your dog, no, more like our dog--but then I learned the cats were gonna be destroyed today and-"

"How many?"

Jared shrugged anemically and pointed, and Jensen now caught sight of tabbies and calicos stretched out, in a star-pattern run spread from Jared's truck, already lazing on sun-warmed rocks or exploring the front porch or pouncing in the grass.

"Ahh. Six?"

Jensen frowned, not even near as aggravated as he should be, was fighting so hard not to smile. "Just please tell me they're fixed."

"Oh hey Jensen, I have some news, guess what! I got us some cats, but don't worry they're all fixed, isn't that great! They're litter mates, so they'll get along. Look at them, sniffing things out and happy and settling in, they already know they're at home." Jared nudged his nose over Jensen's cheeks, hummed and fit them close together, pup wedged in the vee of their bodies. "Just. Wanted a little something more than furniture or cooking dinner here the first time, wanted a little guy for you." He shrugged.

Jensen blushed, slid his hands down to sink into Jared's hips. They might never get more than that, and he understood what Jared meant, understood too how important Sadie and Harley were to Jared's everything--sometimes seeming even moreso than what they had together--and he teased about that, too. He closed his eyes, nodded.

"Well, in that case. Thank you."

Jared gathered him in, held them together, and Jensen thought it over.

"This is the final nail, you know that. You've ruined me." He meant it as a barb, said it lowly sweet and rough instead. Let Jared kiss him after, got so far carried in it the pup yelped and squirmed in complaint. Jensen huffed a short laugh and spun away, left Jared groaning after him.

He crouched and tipped the pup into the grass, watched it totter then yawn then list sideways and back to sleep again. He couldn't resist its fat puppy belly, the stretch of its tiny limbs, the stupid giddy idea that Jared had gotten it, for him.

Jared sauntered to the house, leaned into the front door and whistled to rouse the big dogs from their likely slumber sprawled on the cool, slate kitchen floor. He greeted each in turn and looked over at Jensen, still lying there in the grass with the wee pup, grinned like this was just the very best thing, ever.

Jensen tugged his ballcap off, scrubbed the sweat and itch from his scalp. Evening was fast on, darkened and soothed the world, put a chill in the air that would, in a few weeks, turn frost. The pup peeled back one eyelid and gave him a long, assessing stare. "What?" he asked, let his hat fall to the side, then almost as a compulsion starting tickling and stroking its downy fur again.

He sighed. "Yup, ruined."

Jared shouted a warning--maybe a battle-cry, Jensen was never quite certain in such cases--so he braced himself on a knee, was ready for the enthusiastic launch of Harley into his center, Jared next just the barest subdued in comparison, then Sadie last, snuffling at the wreckage. The dogs acquainted themselves, and Jensen didn't tense or interfere--the pup would live with these monsters, and the sooner met and accepted, the better.

Harley bowed then nosed at the pup, and after a thorough sniff and tongue-bath treatment, he ruffed and plopped alongside, lolled a lazy grin. Sadie circled them twice, circled in place, then sat in a dainty curl with her muzzle at the pup's middle. The pup bapped playfully, left his paw on her whiskers, and she gave them a baleful look but let him stay.

Jared settled into the grass too, tossed a long-sleeved thermal at him. "Want me to go back? Get you some dinner, get me the instruments of my penance?"

"Naw." Jensen shivered, shouldered into the extra layer. "Tomorrow's soon enough."

"But I'm hungry." Jared pouted.

Jensen rolled his eyes. "So then sleep it off, slim. You're the one who forgot."

"And what about my penance?" Jared asked suggestively, waggled his brows. "Do we get to sleep that off too?"

"Sounds good. You wanna sleep with the dogs tonight as punishment, I won't stop you." Jensen laughed when Jared squawked, outraged, then he squeaked and rolled into a protective ball when Jared shoved him down, flattened him with all that long, long heat and limbs and beauty.

They wrestled a turn, wound up Jensen cradling Jared's head on his chest, the both of them in a wide vee, tracking the sun's decline into a smother of rippling molasses and amber lines.

Jensen fiddled with Jared's hair, twirled it between his finger and thumb, drew it to its ends then started over again. "I'll go with you tomorrow. Make sure you aren't distracted again. Maybe put an order in for some corral fencing." Jared grunted, some in question some in encouragement, tilted further into his touch. The horses had a fine stable and plenty of room to run, and Jensen quirked a grin. "I haven't forgotten that I want a winning bull, some day. Was thinking maybe just cut to the chase, buy a few calves from good stock, start that way instead of clear from scratch."

Jared hummed in soft agreement, spread his hand over Jensen's heart. "Mom thinks we're coming over for Thanksgiving. Like, the whole long weekend."

"That's fine. I told mine we'd be available for the Christmas Eve party and nothing else." He'd never explain why Jared would always be there with him, but no one would ever be able to tell him it had to be different.

The sun winked its last, all brilliance suddenly gone, dusted a halo of mellow half-light and a gentle rose glowing against the low-slung clouds that wouldn't obscure the waking stars.

This is how it'd be. This was going to be far more than enough.

"Maybe we'll get lucky and your mom will be all that's left, so when we're old coots she can come here, let us take care of her and bake us stuff." He breathed in, found Venus all cold and blue at the far horizon, wondered if she was teasing Mars by hiding behind the rising Moon.

Jared lifted up, stared at Jensen for a hard minute. "You think we're gonna be old coots together?"

"Well yeah. Unless you go and get your fool self killed, riding dumb like you do or-"

Jensen was cut off mid-word, gave himself without hesitation to a hard and fierce breath-stealing kiss.

Then Jared fit his cheek to Jensen's, stayed there for a long time, nuzzled into him with light sounds of contented pleasure. "Hey."

"Hey, back." Jensen smiled back carefully, wrinkled his brow, wasn't sure exactly what this was from or where it was going.

Jared answered his tentative smile in a split-wide amazing grin, that full-on beaming that had stolen Jensen's breath--and heart--just after they'd first met. That still did.

"We're gonna grow old together." Jared said it, out loud and strong, like a pronouncement and a secret and a promise. He threaded his fingers between Jensen's, turned on his side in the grass to look at the house and the thick-growing trees rising behind Jensen's shoulder, just kept beaming.

"Uh, yeah?" Jensen propped on his side, too, saw the other side of their ranch, endless acres and the mile-long thread of driveway that disappeared over a creek then around a gentle curve.

Jared grinned wider, softer. "Good."

The lights went up and Lauren smiled, and Jensen told himself to relax, then smile, then smile and relax. No one was interested in him anyway.

"JT, first of all, congratulations to you! It's been a banner year, giving the USA the winning ride in the World Cup, and now here in Vegas, winning the Champ buckle at last."

Jared blushed, showed his dimples when he smiled. "Thank you, Lauren. And you know, you're so right, it has been a good year. Not sure it tops my rookie season, but I'm just as proud of what I've put together this season. I was fortunate to have been given a lot of great chances with a really great, rank pen, and I made good on that." He knocked sideways into Jensen and laughed. "And it helped I got more than a little incentive from this guy here. He's made sure I appreciate and do my best with every opportunity given to me, so not like I'd have wanted to let him down."

Lauren looked like a bobblehead, grinning and nodding along with everything Jared said. When he finally shut up she shoved the mic at Jensen. "So what do you think, JR. Would you captain the World Cup again next year?"

Jensen did the pocket-shrug thing that was pleasantly ambiguous. "If they ask, of course. It's an honor, and an honest-to-goodness challenge. I was glad to represent our great Nation, had a real good time doing it."

He already knew he was going to. Fuller had been the one to ask him, this time.

Lauren's grin went high-watt and she laid a hand on Jensen's arm. "I like when I manage to talk to you both at the same time. Makes you more talkative, JR."

He opted to just nod along with her.

"What are your plans for next year, JT? You've got Vegas under your belt. Now the Champ buckle to add to it. And you headed the first team to compete for the Cup. I mean, where do you go from here?"

Jared grinned. "Oh that's easy--the real hat trick. See if I can live up to what I've accomplished so far by getting all at once."

Lauren blinked expressionlessly for a moment, then she gathered it in. "Ah-ha! Now that's what the fans want to hear! A man with big plans for the coming season. What do you think, JR, can he put something like that together?"

"He's got as good a chance as anyone, Lauren. If he sticks with doing things right, holding onto his bulls, manages to stay healthy." Jensen glanced at Jared, corners of his lips flirting and wanting a broad, besotted grin, but he held it to a light smile instead. "You know making it from one event to the next can sometimes be hard enough, but I believe JT stands as equal chance as any of the best of them to get there."

Jared had no such inhibitions and did grin stupidly wide, but no one had ever seemed to notice it from him. He flung an arm around Jensen, waist first to squeeze then riding up to land over Jensen's shoulders. "I figure I have to now, with confidence like that!"

Lauren watched them with a smile. "Good luck to you, JT." She leaned in close and said conspiratorially, "If it's any difference, I think you can too." She winked then looked into the camera. "And I know we'll all look forward to seeing you try--and watching you behind the pens again, JR."

They both nodded, smiled, touched their hats in salute and thanks.