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Stranded in Motion

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Prologue1

 

The first thing Jared sees when he blinks open heavy-lidded eyes is a face. It’s a woman’s face. Round, pretty, he thinks. Why is there a pretty woman’s face over him?

His world is hazy, like he’s in an old movie and the film is crackling around the edges. There’s a buzzing in his ears, a constant, low ringing tone that won’t go away. He tries to lift his hands to his head to press down his ears, desperate for the sound to stop so he can just think.

His arms won’t move though, tethered with what feels like weights to the…what is this he’s lying on? A bed? Why is he in a bed?

He blinks again, his eyes feeling crusty from disuse like he just woke up from the world’s longest yet most exhausting nap. He’s narrows them, trying to focus on the round pretty face of the woman, the woman trying to speak to him but the sound.

The sound is.

The ringing is.

There is no sound but the ringing.

He blinks again, the round pretty face forming more precise features. The mouth, moving wordlessly. The eyes kind, so kind, too kind.

Why is there a woman here, where is his unit, where is the captain, Chad, where is Chad, oh god, Rosey, the ringing, the dirt, oh god.

He has to get up. He has to help his friends, he has to.

He cries out as he wrenches himself forward in what is - yes, this is a bed. It’s a bed, and he forces himself forward. The woman is holding on to him now, more than just the round pretty face, now arms moving, pushing him back. Mouth still silent, his ears still ringing.

There are wires everywhere, running along the lengths of his arms like snakes and he scrapes at them, tries to get them off so he can get up. He’s trying, willing his body sideways, trying to climb his way over, but the blankets twist around him and he’s tangled, trapped, torn.

Torn, torn, torn, his hands claw at the blankets, push them aside, his ears ringing louder now, mocking him. He just needs to get the blankets off, then he can get out, he can run away, save them, save them, his friends, he has friends, they are his friends, yes, please god, just let him get free.

There are other hands on him now, two sets, three maybe, holding him back but he’s got the blankets off now, he can go, he can.

White. White. White.

He can’t breathe. His throat constricts. He can’t. Breathe.

He claws at the mattress where his left leg should be. It’s just white. White sheet, white mattress, white.

He can’t breathe. His whole body starts convulsing, muscles seizing. Hands grab at him, hold him down.

One hand smoothes over his face. It’s wet. His face is wet. The hand is wet now, too.

He tries to breathe but no longer knows why.

 

Part 11

There’s a tree in the back of the school. It’s not only the biggest tree that Jared’s ever seen, but it has a hole in one part of it that has a space just large enough for him to crawl into.

Jared’s ten, but small for his age, so he can tuck himself right up in the little tree-cave whenever he needs to get away.

Or hide.

He’s been at this school for three months now, but he doesn’t even remember the name of it because they are all the same. Same schools with bad food and teachers who talk over him and boys named Brad-Steve-Jimmy who knock him down into the same grass or concrete or dirt.

One time, a Brad-Steve-Jimmy told him kids like him were called Army brats, and Jared just shrugged his shoulders into the ground as Brad-Steve-Jimmy got one last kick in.

Jared’s hiding in his tree-cave today. It’s a Tuesday, not a special day. Brad-Steve-Jimmy gives him a funny look that morning before home room but Jared ducks into a bathroom until the bell rings.

He slips into class late. No one notices. It’s okay.

But Jared knows that Brad-Steve-Jimmy is looking for him today. He can feel it in his bones, so he takes the brown paper bag holding his peanut butter and banana sandwich and juice box and crawls into the tiny space. He folds his legs up to his chest and balances his sandwich on his knees.

He chews slowly, savoring the slightly soggy bread. It’s dark inside his tree-cave, but he’s safe here. Brad-Steve-Jimmy doesn’t know about it, and here Jared can sit and eat his lunch and pretend that it’s okay that he’s alone.

The gurgling of the last of the juice is the only sound, but it’s peaceful. His belly is full and he’s warm in the sweater his Mama knit him for his last birthday.

In the distance, he hears the bell ringing, warning him that lunch time is over.

Jared takes in a deep breath, and he smells warm earth and peanuts.

Brad-Steve-Jimmy is waiting for him as he crawls out of the only safe space he’s managed to find for himself in three months.

Jared closes his eyes and holds the crumpled paper bag to his chest as he waits for what’s coming.

==

Later, his Mama is holding him close to her chest on the couch. His face is wet. Her dress is wet now, too.

Jared’s Stepdaddy comes into the room and gives them a stern look. His Mama pulls back just enough and Jared doesn’t feel warm anymore, even in his sweater.

“Maybe we should talk to someone at the school, Charles,” Mama tells his Stepdaddy.

Jared’s Stepdaddy shakes him head curtly. His shoulders are back, as precision perfect as his crew cut. “No. Jared needs to learn out to stand up for himself if he’s every going to grow up to be a real man.”

“But he’s just a boy, Charles.” Mama’s voice is soft and it makes Jared ache.

The line of Jared’s Stepdaddy’s mouth is hard and disapproving. “That’s his problem, the way you coddle him. The other kids can probably smell the mama’s boy all over him.”

Mama, Jared thinks, wanting to be her boy. To be anyone’s boy, really.

She gets up from the couch and Jared goes to bed without supper.

 

“He’s awake, Dr. Morgan.”

Jared blinks a few times, soft fluorescent lights stinging his eyes. When his vision corrects, he sees a smiling woman leaning over him. Here face looks strangely familiar, round and pretty, dimple in her cheek.

“Welcome back, Jared,” the woman says, squeezing his shoulder lightly before taking a few steps back.

“Where am I?” he manages to croak out, throat scratchy like he’s had something stuck down it for too long. His eyes dart around as he tries to orient himself. He takes in the bed he’s lying in, a hospital bed. There is a small group of people in scrubs forming a half-circle around it.

An older man with a salt-and-pepper beard and a white coat steps forward. His face is stoic, confident. The boss then, Jared thinks. He knows that kind of face.

“Hello, Jared. I’m Dr. Jeff Morgan, and I’m the one that performed your last surgery. You’re back in the States now, at Singer Veterans Hospital just outside of Austin.”

Jared swallows a few times, blinks. “Surgery? Why did I have surgery?”

The people in scrubs dart quick glances at each other, like they know a secret that he doesn’t know. Jared swallows again, bile right there in the bottom of his throat.

Dr. Morgan seems to take a moment to steady himself before continuing. “Your unit was hit by a pair of IED devices and you sustained severe injuries to your left leg. The trauma surgeons in the field were able to save your life despite the loss of blood, but the injuries were such that I had to perform a transfemoral, otherwise known as an above-the-knee amputation when you arrived here a few days ago.”

Jared stares at the woman with the pretty round face, her brow twisted. Remembers waking up briefly, the white bed and the hands holding him down and the…

“Amputation.”

It’s not a question. Dr. Morgan seems to understand that and continues on.

“Yes, unfortunately. About six inches below the groin, so that we will eventually be able to fit you with a prosthesis. The surgery went very well, and I don’t anticipate the need for another one, as long as you let my fine staff take care of you and help mitigate some of the issues that arise with any kind of procedure like this.”

Dr. Morgan stops for a moment, cocking his head like he’s assessing Jared’s response. “You are young and healthy, Jared. I know this is not the kind of news you want to wake up to, but believe me when I say that those two things are going to help you greatly in your recovery.” He gestures to another woman with short cropped hair and a white coat. “You have a fantastic team here at Singer led by myself and Dr. Rhodes, and we are going to do everything in our power to help you get through this trauma.”

Jared just stares at him. He thinks he should feel something. Should be hysterical or panicked or terrified or something.

Something besides nothing. Right now he feels nothing and it’s the only comfort he has.

Dr. Morgan coughs a bit, his eyes darting to the other doctor with the short hair, who gives him a quick nod before he gives his excuses and leaves. The woman steps up to replace him.

“Hi Jared, I’m Dr. Rhodes. I’m the attending doctor here on this ward. I don’t want to overwhelm you with information right now because you are probably a bit groggy with that morphine we’re pumping into you, but I just want to make sure you understand the immediate procedures that we need to do to help you get better.”

She looks like she’s waiting for a response from Jared, so he gives her a curt nod.

“Okay then. First off – and I know this is going to be a pain in the ass—we need to get you doing some deep breathing exercises to keep your lungs working right and to prevent infection and atelectasis-which means the collapsing of the lung—in this case, from disuse. We’ll also need to make sure that your leg is wrapped well and elevated to prevent something called edema, which is just a fancy way of saying fluid building up in the tissue.”

“What leg?” Jared blurts out. Dr. Rhodes’ face freezes for second. He knows that she’s trying to be kind, trying to talk to him in a way he can understand, but he doesn’t care. Doesn’t care one bit.

“Jared, I can’t imagine…”

Her face softens, and for a moment, just one single moment she reminds him of his mama and he can’t stop himself from feeling. And it hurts so bad that he just wants it to stop and he wants to go back to that moment before this one when he didn’t feel anything at all.

And then his chest is tight and he can’t breathe and the lights cover his vision like the brightness of the desert sun.

“Danneel, two liters of oxygen, and then 3mg Ativan, stat.”

“Yes, Dr. Rhodes.”

Jared doesn’t know how long it is until he can breathe again, but he’s back to not particularly caring, so it doesn’t really matter.

“That’s it, honey. You’re alright now.” A voice lulls him, the hint of a drawl different than the ones before. A hand strokes his forehead and the runs down his cheek. He opens his eyes to see who it belongs to.

It’s an older lady, deep eyes and dark skin and a curling smile. “Lemme see those pretty eyes – ah, that’s better. I’m Nurse Devine, but you can call me Loretta, and that young one over there is Danneel. Don’t you let those fancy types in the lab coats fool you – we nurses run this floor.”

Jared glances over at the woman with the pretty round face, Danneel. Her hair is pulled up into a messy red ponytail and she’s wearing purple scrubs with teddy bears on them and waves at him like they are old buddies who just haven’t seen each other in a while.

“We’re gonna get you fixed up, son. We’ll do it together.”

He doesn’t know he’s crying until Loretta’s thumb is swiping the tender skin under his eyes.

==

They move him to another room the next day, farther down in the ward. They try to get him to transfer to a wheelchair using a sliding board, but he refuses, just shaking his head and turning it to the side in a dismissive manner. They wheel his entire bed instead, the IV pole creaking as it rolls along the hallway to his new temporary home.

Home. If you can call it that. Not like he has anywhere else to go back to.

“Here we are,” says the guy pushing the bed, one of the nurses’ assistants named Osric. He’s compact but muscular, and his attempts to manhandle Jared into a sitting position earlier earned him a scowl that he proceeded to blithely ignore.

“Whatever,” Jared mumbles, burying his head into the pillow, as the bed gets wheeled into a large room and moved into position in one corner of it.

A voice from the other side of the room startles him out of his stupor.

“Fruit cocktail? Jesus, you would think a war hero would get some red meat up in this mother!”

“Chad?” Jared exclaims, ignoring the pain that shoots up his side when he attempts to get into the earlier-rejected sitting position to see if the voice is indeed from his friend.

“Is that you, Pada-diddly-do? I was wondering where these fuckers were hiding you!”

Jared barks out a laugh, the first one that he’s managed since he could still feel the taste of dust in his mouth. “Chad, it’s me. Are you okay?”

It’s then Jared really sees the man. Both eyes are covered in thick white gauze, and there are what seem to be a couple chunks out of the top of his head, marring the buzzed blond hair. But he’s smiling, that stupid, cocksure, fucked up Chad of a smile, and Jared wants to throw himself off this bed and crawl to him just to touch him and make sure it’s not a dream.

“Yeah, you know. Blew my eyes out but I’m alive, right? And if these people would give me something other than fruit cocktail and piss-flavored Jello than maybe I’d be even better.”

Jared can see it. The tremble in Chad’s hands, his tells. But it’s okay.

“How ‘bout you, Jay? Can you see my handsome face? Still jealous of my beauty?”

“You are still as ugly as sin,” Jared replies, as usual. It feels good. Normal. He ignores the first question, doesn’t want to mar this moment with reality. Chad can’t see him, so he can’t see the shell he’s become.

“Don’t be jellie.”

“Friend of yours?” Osric asks, amused, as he fusses with situating a foam block under the stump of Jared’s leg to elevate it. Jared tries not to look at it where it just sits there, trussed up tight like a dead animal and just as useless.

Jared’s just about to respond in the affirmative when the door opens again and another bed is wheeled in, trailed by two women in civilian clothes.

“Whoever you are, please tell me you have a steak with you,” Chad calls out to the newcomer.

“Murray, you sonofabitch. Nothing can kill your cockroach ass, huh?” the person in the bed calls out, and Jared is relieved to recognize it.

“Fucking Hodge,” Chad replies, grinning from ear to ear. “Who is going to torment your pansy ass if I’m not around?”

Osric snickers, as he leaves Jared’s side to help the other nurses’ assistant situate their new roommate’s bed into the last empty space in the room. Once it’s in place, Jared’s able to see the man’s full body, and is surprised to see that his right leg is an elevated stump just like Jared’s own.

The two women, who seem to be guests of Hodge, take either side of his bed and start fussing with the sheets around him. Hodge smiles up at them but shoos them away. It’s then when he sees Jared for the first time.

“Padalecki! You made it, man, thank God.”

Jared can’t help but glance down at his own leg, and then back at Hodge’s own. The man seems to notice their similar injuries at the same time that he does it, and gives a half shrug of commiseration.

“Yeah, Aldis. Guess I did.”

Hodge turns back to the women at his side then, an older lady who looks like she could be his mother, and a tall blonde woman who must be his fiancée, Adrianne, whom Hodge used to talk about constantly during security rounds. The two women hold his hands, one on either side, and there’s suddenly a calmness in his broken body that Jared wouldn’t even know how to begin to achieve.

Jared looks away, not quite understanding why his chest is aching.

==

“Something new for you today,” Danneel says, finishing wrapping the stump of his leg before pulling a stocking-like contraption over it that squeezes it and makes him wince. She sees the movement, and presses her thumbs into a few specific points, massaging until the worst pain decreases and he gives her a small nod.

He stares at her scrubs. Blue today, with yellow birds in flight, wings outstretched.

She waves a hand in front of his face to get his attention. “Did you hear me, Jared? I said you are starting physical therapy today.”

He looks up at her dumbly. “Why?”

“Because you need to get up out of this bed. The stretching exercises we’ve been doing are just the first step. Your lungs are doing well and we’ve kept the swelling down so Dr. Rhodes wants you up and walking.”

He looks at her incredulously at the word “walking”, but she just stands there with her hands on her hips.

“Not today, please. Maybe tomorrow.” Jared doesn’t think he can take any more new people. Why won’t they just let him pull the curtain around his bed and sleep?

She shakes her head firmly. “That puppy dog face might work on some people, but not me, buddy. You are four days post-op and healing well, so it’s time for you to get moving. We happen to have the best therapist in Texas working at this hospital, and you’re going to love him.”

“I heard the words ‘best in Texas’, so you have to be talking about me.”

Jared looks up quickly at the sound of a smooth whisky drawl, and almost chokes on his tongue when he sees the man bearing it.

Danneel tsks. “Ackles, you weren’t supposed to hear that. Your head is big enough as it is.”

“Nurse Harris, I resent you insulting my large cranium. You know I’m sensitive about it.”

Danneel laughs before noticing Jared looking back and forth between them helplessly and getting serious again. “Jared, this is Jensen. He’s going to be your physical therapist and help get you started on a mobility plan.”

“Hello, Jared. It’s very nice to meet you,” the man, Adonis, pagan god, ridiculous creature, whatever he is says kindly, smile tugging the skin around thecorners of his bottle-green eyes out and apart.

Jared thinks that if he had bothered to eat breakfast that morning, he might have thrown up all over himself at the sight of it.

Jensen’s face tenses a little when he sees Jared’s face, and Jared can only imagine what his expression looks like right now. It’s like he’s frozen in place, every muscle in his body including his tongue paralyzed by the thought that this man was going to be in any kind of proximity to Jared’s broken body.

“Jared, are you okay?” Danneel asks, stepping back into his space. “Are you having any specific pain?”

If Jared could laugh at that without breaking into ridiculously embarrassing sobs, he probably would. Specific pain? How can pain be specific when it’s in every fiber, every day, every moment.

Jensen puts a hand on Danneel’s forearm and nudges her back, stepping closer to the side of Jared’s bed and looking straight at Jared until Jared finally gives in and meets him eyes with his own.

“It’s okay to be scared,” he says, his voice soft, like it’s just for the two of them to hear.

“I’m not scared.”

“Yes, you are. And it’s still okay because I’m scared, too.”

Jared blinks in surprise, ignoring the wetness of his eyelashes. He doesn’t know what to say, so he says nothing.

“C’mon,” Jensen says for him. “Let’s get you into a chair and over to the playroom. You can curse me out to Danneel later, okay?”

The first touch of Jensen’s hand curled around Jared’s bicep is like an electrical current running through Jared’s entire body. Scared doesn’t seem to be a big enough word anymore.

With Jensen and Danneel’s help, they use a board to get him transferred to a wheelchair. It’s the first time he’s let them get him out of bed since he woke up after surgery, and it’s a shock to the system when they start pushing him down the hallway towards the PT center.

The ward is buzzing, people chatting, phones ringing, laughter and life and a reminder that the world is still turning as Jared sits in his bed in the corner of a room with green curtains, a TV that only gets seven channels, and two maimed comrades eating piss-lime Jello.

Jared is used to the world turning without him, so it’s almost comforting.

They finally reach the rehab center, and Jensen wheels him into a pristine room with various exercise apparatus, including a set of parallel bars and a padded massage table nearby it. Jensen wheels him directly over to that, and then helps Jared up onto the table, lying face down.

Jared feels his cheeks heating up at the feel of Jensen’s strong arms wrapped around his back. Then one of Jensen’s hands graze what’s left of his leg, and Jared pushes him away without thinking, almost falling off the table in the process.

“Easy, tiger,” Jensen says, voice still pitched low, as he ignores Jared’s twisting and helps get him back fully onto the table instead of flat on his face on the floor.

“I’m sorry,” Jared says through gritted teeth, biting the words into the table. He doesn’t know why he’s apologizing exactly, but it’s easier than admitting that the feel of Jensen’s hands are ruining whatever tiny bit of composure he has left.

“Nothing to be sorry about,” Jensen replies, voice calm. “We’re going to keep it simple for the first few days, doing some stretching exercises, and a few other exercises that are going to help keep you from getting contractures. Preventing those is why the nurses have been having you lie face down in intervals the last few days.”

“What’s that?” Jared mumbles, trying to relax into the padding of the table, but his body still a tight ball of nerves.

“That means an irreversible, permanent flexion of the joint caused by the shortening of muscle fibers, and loss of normal elasticity of connective tissue such as ligaments and tendons, in this case from disuse and from the formation of scar tissue over the joint. We don’t want that to happen because that will make wearing your prosthesis a little more difficult, and we want you up and walking again.”

Jared swallows hard, trying to take in way too much information and only understanding half of it. He stares down at the blue plastic covering of the table as he feels Jensen manipulate his limbs gently.

“What if I don’t want a prosthesis? What if I don’t think it’ll work for me?”

Jensen’s hands pause for a second, but then they are back to carefully kneading the area around Jared’s hips. Jared’s skin is tingling through the material of his hospital-issue sweats at every point that Jensen is touching him.

“And why wouldn’t you think that would work for you, Jared? We have one of the best prosthetists in the country affiliated with Singer. He’s a veteran himself, and he’s done genius work with robotics, and I think you will want to meet him.”

“What if I just don’t want to?” Jared says, feeling belligerent, wanting to reach out the only way he can to fight the fact that his entire body is burning under Jensen’s gentle touch.

“You have a few weeks before you even need to consult with him, so right now, we’re going to worry about today. And today, I’m getting you up.”

Jensen helps get him sitting upright before gesturing over at the parallel bars.

“I can’t,” Jared says, bluntly, staring at the bars like they have razor sharp teeth and want to devour him.

Jensen leans in like he’s going to whisper a secret, his face mere inches from Jared’s. “You can.”

Jared can’t think of a response over the thumping of his heart.

 

Alex is different.

There is nothing Brad-Steve-Jimmy about Alex. He doesn’t push Jared into the dirt or steal his lunch money or knock his head into the sinks in the bathroom.

Alex smiles at him on Jared’s first day at his new school. Offers to show him around campus and invites him to lunch. Alex shares his potato chips with Jared, and even though Jared doesn’t much like sour cream and onion, he takes one and munches happily.

Jared’s just turned fifteen and it’s his sophomore year. The end of his high school years seems impossibly far away, but that doesn’t seem like such a big deal when he knows he has Alex sitting at his side.

Alex is different in other ways, too.

Alex is beautiful.

Looking at Alex isn’t the first time Jared’s had these butterflies in his belly, but they are the first time they haven’t made him feel sick about it.

Nothing about Alex could make him feel sick, because Alex is his best friend. His only friend, if Jared is being honest with himself. Jared thinks that should bother him, but it doesn’t, not anymore. Because Alex is here and Alex is beautiful and Alex is everything that Jared wants to be and everything that Jared wants to have.

Alex is brave.

He saves Sally Jones’ cat from a tree and doesn’t even care when he falls and breaks his arm. He just uses his cast as a blank canvas to draw on, colors bursting forth with characters from the comic books he loves so much. Alex is just like the pictures on his cast, a superhero. Jared’s superhero.

Jared’s not beautiful like Alex, but he thinks he can be just as brave.

It’s late spring, the air is warm with the first brush of humidity. He’s been at this school for seven months, almost a record. Sometimes Jared thinks that it’s because he was meant to meet Alex, that all of this traveling around, all the hard times and kicks in the ribs and name calling and hiding in tree stumps was just to lead him up to this very moment. The moment when the loneliest boy stops being so alone.

Jared doesn’t know why he knows that that moment in particular is the right time. He just knows that Alex is brave and Jared will be brave and hopefully after this moment, they will be brave together.

It’s Jared’s first kiss.

He’s fifteen years old, with too-long limbs and shortly shorn hair that still manages to stick up. His nose is too pointy and he has moles on his face and bruises on the inside that are just starting to fade.

The moment lasts forever, frozen in time as his dry chapped lips touch Alex’s lips. Jared will remember this moment, the moment he was brave for a beautiful boy for the very first time.

Alex breaks Jared’s nose.

The shattering of bone is nothing compared to the shattering of Jared’s heart.

“What did you do now?” Jared’s Stepdaddy demands over dinner that night, staring at the splint the school nurse used to put Jared’s face back together again.

Jared blinks up at him, then over at his Mama. She looks away, takes a bite of her mashed potatoes.

“It doesn’t matter,” Jared replies. “It won’t happen again.”

 

 

“You boys better get decent because you have a visitor,” Loretta announces early one morning a few days after Jared’s first PT session.

“You say that like we’re not sitting here waiting to have people come wash our balls for us,” Chad replies helpfully around a spoonful of the chocolate pudding he managed to sweet talk Alona the CNA into getting him for breakfast.

Their guest clears their throat to bring them to attention, and Jared tenses and pulls himself into an automatic salute at the sight of Captain Huffman. He sees Hodge to the same thing, but Chad remains oblivious.

“What? Please tell me it’s Nurse Double Dee’s turn for the ball washing.”

“Officer Murray. Good to see you haven’t changed much,” Captain Huffman deadpans, as Chad lifts his hand to salute so fast that he gets chocolate pudding all over his forehead.

She turns to gaze at all of them, nods slightly. Her auburn bun is precision tight and there isn’t a hair out of place. “At ease, soldiers.”

Jared deflates back into the bed. There’s something tickling at the back of his mind as he watches the other two do it as well.

Captain Huffman’s spine is ramrod-straight, but her face softens just a tiny bit as she takes in their appearances. “I just wanted to come visit to see how you are, and give you the deepest gratitude and condolences from the United States Army.”

“Can you tell us about the others? Did they make it?” Hodge asks, bluntly. His face looks hopeful yet wary at the same time.

Captain Huffman looks like she’s considering what information she wants to give out, and hesitates.

“It’s our squad, our brothers. Just tell us,” Chad spits out, his countenance more tense than Jared’s seen it since he’s arrived in the room. As if he remembers himself, he throws in a, “Captain.”

Captain Huffman seems to relent, and nods her head. “Officers Abel, Cohen, Whitfield, and Kelly are all fine. Their fireteam was ahead enough from your own that they missed the blast radius.”

“And Rosey?” Hodge digs, asking about the Team Leader for their fireteam.

“Sergeant Rosenbaum is here in the hospital. He’s still unconscious, but he’s alive.”

“How did he make it? He was right near the front of the tactical.”

Captain Huffman’s mask slips a bit and Jared can see how uncomfortable the questioning is making her. “It appears Staff Sargeant Welling used himself as a shield, and Sargeant Rosenbaum has his bravery to thank for his life. He will be receiving the highest accommodation for the service he provided both his squad and his country before his unfortunate passing.”

“Tommy’s dead,” Jared croaks out, the first words he’s said since the Captain entered the room. She turns to him in surprise, almost like she’s forgotten that he was even there.

“Your squad leader was a hero, as are all of you. Your country will not let your service be in vain,” she says with practiced fervor. But her eyes betray the hollowness of the lie.

There’s a loaded silence in the room as no one knows exactly what to say. Finally, Chad speaks, but it’s with none of his normal joviality.

“Loretta, I’m tired.”

Nurse Devine is there immediately, like she had been waiting to come on in and take charge. “I bet you are, sugar. All that loud-mouthing can wear a young’un out.”

Captain Huffman stands in the middle of the room, slightly stunned. Finally, realizing that there’s nothing more she can say or do, she heads back towards the door. Right before she is about to leave, she turns back and looks at them all briefly, one by one.

“I know this doesn’t make things better, but I just want you to know that I’m sorry for your loss.”

She doesn’t wait for a response, just turns on her heels and departs.

==

“I can’t.”

Jared’s arms shake like a newborn calf, fingers turning white from their grip on the parallel bars.

“You can.”

“I said I can’t.”

“And I said you most certainly can.”

Jensen’s voice is calm, stoic. As stern yet patient as always, and it infuriates Jared. He pitches forward, forearms leaning on the bars as he yells at Jensen.

“Maybe I don’t want to. Maybe I don’t fucking want to do any of this!”

Jared gasps, stumbling back in shock at his own insolence and falling backwards, the gait belt catching him from falling to the ground. Jensen’s there immediately, but Jared feels like he’s trapped and is struggling against him.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…”

Jared doesn’t do this. Jared doesn’t speak out of turn. Jared doesn’t make noise because Jared is a good boy.

Jared doesn’t.

His entire body is shaking now, every nerve vibrating as he struggles with Jensen, until Jensen relents and unhooks him from the belt and lowers him to the ground. Jared pulls away immediately and crawls sideways to the nearest mat, dragging the stump of his leg behind him.

That hurts now too, not just from the staples the doctor recently took out or the raw red wound left behind. No, there’s other pain there, pain all the way down, invisible pain in an invisible limb that shouldn’t exist because it no longer exists, because Jared no longer exists.

“I’m sorry,” he says again, biting out the words around the tight breaths he manages to suck in. His head dips to the mat, forehead touching the cool plastic. His body twists and it aches and it’s too big to hide, but he tries. He tries so hard.

Jensen’s hands are on him then, one palm on Jared’s shoulder blade, the other on one hip. He doesn’t move or try to turn Jared, just rests his hands upon Jared’s body and lets Jared press his teeth into the floor, to bite back the sobs behind the enamel.

After a long moment, Jared steadies himself enough to sit back up. He’s too ashamed to look back at Jensen, who still hasn’t taken his hands away. Jared doesn’t know how Jensen can bear to look at him. Jared’s a soldier. He should be better than a boy crying into the ground like a child.

“Have you been having any new pains, Jared?”

Jared looks up at that, blinking a few times and ignoring the wetness of his eyelashes. “In my…in the…” He swallows hard, not knowing what to call it. It’s not his leg anymore, just an empty spot on the hanger where his uniform once hung.

“In the area where you are missing the limb?” Jensen finishes for him, dipping his head down to meet Jared’s eye-line and keeping it.

Jared slowly nods his head. “I know it’s crazy. I mean, it’s not there anymore, so how can it hurt?”

“It’s not crazy at all, Jared. In fact, it’s a very common condition in situations like this called Phantom Limb Syndrome,” Jensen explains, and he does that twisty little smile thing that he does when he’s trying to make Jared feel better. Jared’s ashamed how much he aches for it when it doesn’t appear.

“Did you tell Dr. Rhodes about it?”

“No.”

“You should. It’s important for us to treat it now so that it won’t get worse.” Jensen stops, squeezing Jared’s forearm. “Hold on a sec, let me grab something.”

Jensen jumps up, jogging over to the row of cabinets at one end of the room. Jared tries not to be jealous of the movement, the elegant stride or the line of muscle behind the material of Jensen’s pants.

He comes back a moment later with what look like a simple yellow toothbrush. He drops back down to his knees next to Jared on the mat, and gives that twisty grin again.

“Trust me?”

“Yes.”

Jared answers quickly, faster than his brain can process what he just said. He doesn’t know why he trusts this man that he’s only known for a few weeks, but he does, and right in this very moment, it’s enough.

Jensen doesn’t say anything else, just placing the toothbrush on the ground and reaching over to gently lift the stump of Jared’s leg until it’s balancing on his knees. He unpins the sweats that have been folded neatly in half and pulls the material up until it’s just the stark remnants of limb there on display, squeezed tight in its simple beige compressor stocking.

Jensen must feel the tremor in Jared’s body beginning again, because he takes one hand and puts it on Jared’s chest, right over his heart. Jensen doesn’t move, just sits there with the wreckage of Jared’s broken body braced against the solid warmth of his own perfect one, and waits for Jared’s heartbeat to calm underneath the tips of his fingertips.

When it does, Jensen picks takes the same hand and picks up the toothbrush, bringing it over and starting to brush it against the surface of Jared’s stump over the bandage.

Jared hisses, but Jensen continues, and finally the rhythmic motion sets in and he is able to try and think of other things to distract him.

He lets his eyes wander over Jensen as he leans over him, brushing calmly with one hand and massaging the side of the stump at the same time with the other. Jensen’s looking down, and it gives Jared the opportunity to really take him, from the shadow of his lashes to the sprinkling of freckles across his cheeks that at just the right angle make him look more like a boy than Jared.

Jared’s eyes catch on Jensen’s forearm then, at the place where his long-sleeve uniform shirt had ridden up and the tendrils of some sort of tattoo are peaking out.

“You have a tattoo,” Jared blurts out, and Jensen looks surprised for a moment before grinning with a nod.

“I have quite a few of them, actually. My mama yells at me every time I get a new one, but I like to think of them as the scrapbook of my life.”

Jared rolls the words around in his head. Tries not to think of the permanent reminder that he himself will have the rest of his life.

“What’s the one on your arm for?”

“This one?” Jensen stops massaging with the one hand and pushes up the sleeve all the way up the other arm to reveal a majestic sea creature, squid-ink black, tentacles curling and twisting themselves down the length of Jensen’s arm.

Jared stares at it for a moment, before nodding for Jensen to continue.

“This was the first tattoo I ever got, actually,” Jensen says, smiling down at the creature like it’s an old friend. “When I was eight years old, my family went on vacation to Hawaii. It was a huge deal at the time, something my dad had promised to my mama when they were courting, but then got too expensive to make happen for a while. But one year, we all went for a couple of weeks.”

“And it’s a tribute to that trip?” Jared asks.

“Well, yes and no,” Jensen replies. “My big brother and I were learning how to surf, nothing major, of course, just basic stuff from the guys who hung out at Waikiki Beach. After about a week of being there, I thought I was a total hot shot, and tried to catch a wave all by myself. Of course, I promptly fell straight into the water.”

“Did your brother laugh at you?”

“I’m sure he did, at first, but I didn’t know it because something wrapped around my ankle under the water and was holding me down. I was so sure that it was a giant octopus monster and it was going to take me down to his octopus kingdom and feed me to his young. I mean, I was eight.”

“How did you get out?”

“My brother got me, actually. I don’t remember much except for him diving down and tugging at whatever it was that was holding on to my ankle and pulling me out of the water. I was so scared that I crawled up on the board and refused to put my arms and legs into the water, so Josh had to swim us both back to shore as I cried hysterically.”

“And so was it an octopus? Did your brother tell you what it looked like?”

Jensen grins, shaking his head. “No, it was a piece of seaweed. I know, I know. But instead of making fun of me, Josh just told me that I was brave for getting out there and trying in the first place. Told me I should be proud of catching that wave, even if it knocked me down.”

“He sounds like a pretty great guy, your brother,” Jared says, and he wonders if it was the wrong thing to say when Jensen’s smile falters.

“The best,” Jensen replies, nodding slightly. “He went with me to get the tattoo a week before he enlisted. Wanted me to remember to be brave even when he wasn’t with me.”

“Guess a seaweed tattoo was probably not as cool, huh?”

Jensen barks out a laugh, and Jared flushes at happiness at being the one to make Jensen cheer up this time. “Yeah, not quite. But back to you, how does your leg feel now? Pain still as strong?”

Jared blinks a few times, bringing himself back to the situation and realizing that the invisible pain was indeed lessened. “Huh, how about that? It worked.”

“Told you to trust me,” Jensen says with a smirk, putting the brush down on the ground and slipping Jared’s pant leg back down. “Now how about those bars? You give me two laps back and forth and I’ll bribe Danneel to steal us some gummi bears from the commissary.”

“One lap,” Jared replies, but he’s already letting Jensen help him back over to the bars.

“Two laps, and I’ll let you eat all the red ones.”

Jared’s fingers grip the bars. They are still white, but at least for the time being, they aren’t shaking.

Jensen smiles at him and Jared smiles back.

==

“So, you’re a shrink?” Jared asks. He sits in the wheelchair, shoulders slumped and uncomfortable. The room is warmly-lit and richly-colored, but he feels cold.

The woman sits across from him, legs pulled into the large chair she’s sitting on and tucked cross-legged under her. She’s slight, pretty, wide slash of mouth and dark hair pulled up into a bun. She’s wearing a sweater that looks soft to the touch and pants that show a glimpse of bare ankle. There’s a notebook balanced on her lap and a No. 2 pencil in one hand that she’s twirling between her fingers.

“My exact title is psychiatric nurse practitioner, but that’s a mouthful even for me, so I prefer you just call me Gen.”

Jared picks at a piece of lint on his pants, right over where they are pinned above what used to be his knee. He doesn’t respond, just stares down at where his leg should curve over the edge of the wheelchair seat but doesn’t. Won’t ever.

“Looks like your injuries are healing nicely. Dr. Rhodes and Dr. Morgan seem happy with your progress,” she says after a few long minutes of silence.

Jared shrugs.

“Nurse Devine reports that you haven’t been sleeping much without help this past week.”

Jared shrugs again, picking at his pants harder until he can feel the sting under the material.

“And Jensen says you’ve been having phantom pain. We should talk about how often that has recurred lately so we can work on a treatment plan.”

Jared looks up sharply at Jensen’s name. His face is flushed and there is something hot and bitter in his chest at what feels like a betrayal. “Jensen’s been talking to you about me?”

Gen puts her hands up, palms facing out in a placating gesture. The pencil remains laced between her fingers, across the knuckles. “This is a process, Jared. A scary, heavy, long process, but it’s one that we are all sharing together as we try to help you adjust to your new life.”

Jared pulls his hands up to his face, pressing the meat of his palms against his eyelids like he can keep the building pressure inside his head from spilling out across his lap and onto the soft beige carpeting.

He still doesn’t speak, doesn’t trust his tongue and vocal cords and soft palate to produce anything worth putting out into the world.

Ten more minutes of silence get a call to Osric to come get the patient.

“I’ll be here, Jared. When you’re ready,” is the last thing Gen tells him before he’s rolled out the door.

==

“I’m a pirate, bitch!” Chad announces to the room.

“Captain Chadwick of the S.S. Pencil Dick,” Aldis deadpans, pulling himself up easily from his bed onto a pair of crutches.

“Ride the wave, baby,” Chad crows, kneeling up on his bed and doing what Jared thinks might be an attempt at pelvis thrusting.

“One eye patch makes you a pirate. Two eye patches make you a skinny ass blind motherfucker,” Aldis replies with a grin, waving off Osric’s help with a nod as he crutches out of the room towards his own physical therapy session.

“I’m not skinny. Loretta, am I skinny?”

“You are a slender wisp of a human, honey,” Loretta replies from next to Chad’s bed, and demonstrates it as she knocks him back to the bed and leans in to readjust the new protective patches covering his eyes.

“Well, if I got some goddamn red meat, maybe I would fill out a bit,” Chad replies with a pout, leaning his face into Loretta’s hands as she tends to him.

“If you promise to stop ‘accidentally’ grabbing Alona by her chest as a means of saying hello, then maybe she might talk to someone about getting you a hamburger,” Loretta points out dryly, bopping Chad on the nose for good measure before backing away before he can smack at her hands.

“Misha told me I had to learn to adjust to my surroundings,” Chad says, referring to the occupational therapist that Jared has managed to avoid so far but who has been working with Chad daily.

“Yes, Misha did. And by that he meant learn how to make yourself a sandwich without getting peanut butter on the floor, not how to communicate via boob-grab.”

“You say tomato, I say give me a goddamn steak.”

“Incorrigible,” Loretta mutters, but she’s smiling fondly enough as she makes her way across the room to Jared’s bed. “And what about you, sweetness? How are we feeling this morning?”

Jared shrugs, but speaks when she gives him her usual take-no-shit look in response. “Didn’t sleep too well but it’s okay, I guess.”

“You feel well enough to get up and do a little bit of strolling down the hallway before your PT? Get all warmed up for Jensen?”

Jared’s feels his face turn bright red at that, and Loretta gives him a knowing look before leaning over and swiping a piece of hair out of his face.

“Mmmm, okay then. How about a haircut, honey? A little trim maybe. I bet you boys are used to that short hair of yours.”

“No!” he blurts out, and the violence of his response shocks the both of them.

“All of it off.”

“But, Charles, maybe leave a little…just the bangs...”

“He’ll just use to hide. Men don’t hide.”

Men don’t hide. Jared’s not a man anymore. Jared’s not –

Loretta’s tucking his hair behind his ears then, breaking him out of his reverie.

That hasn’t been possible in a long, long time.

“I think I like it longer.”

 

“Psst.”

Jared’s zoning out, staring straight ahead at the line of teenagers in gray regulation Army sweatshirts in front of him. The guy in front of him as a heat rash on the back of his neck, skin alarmingly pink.

“Dude.”

Jared edges forward defensively as a pair of knuckles nudges in between his shoulder blade. He steadies his shoulders and grits his teeth.

“No habla ingles, muchacho?”

The voice behind him chuckles and Jared’s curiosity wins out as he looks over his shoulder.

“Can I help you?” Jared asks, trying to keep the annoyance out of his voice.

The guy – a string bean of a kid who can’t weigh more than a buck fifty soaking wet with a shit-eating grin, squinty eyes, and a shockingly tall blond pompadour – looks delighted that he actually managed to get Jared to respond.

“It speaks! I was beginning to think you were a deaf-mute and I was going to have to bust out some hand signals or shit.”

Jared’s eyebrows knit together in confusion and he feels his cheeks heating up. “We’re going to get in trouble.”

The guy makes what can only be described as a rude noise, and it’s just loud enough that Private Heat Rash looks back to check out the commotion.

Jared flails at that and makes a frantic face at the guy. “Seriously, cut it out, will you?”

“Chad.”

“What?”

The guy smirks. “The name’s Chad. I figure if we’re going to get in trouble together, we should know each other’s names.”

Jared’s mouth opens and closes like a guppy.

“This is the part where you say ‘nice to meet you, Chad. My name is –‘” Chad prompts. Jared’s not used to people teasing him in a way that doesn’t hold any particular malice, but he thinks this might be what’s happening.

“Jar—Padalecki.” Jared swallows, remembers his place. Tugs the bottom of his sweatshirt down over his belly. “My name is Private Padalecki.”

Chad rolls his eyes so hard that his pompadour shakes. “Dude, why so formal? We’re gonna be defending our country and dragging our asses through mud together or whatever the fuck, right? If that ain’t some bonding shit, then nothing is, so tell me your name so I can stop calling you Sasquatch in my head.”

“Jared,” he blurts out, against his better judgment.

Chad grins, leaning over to smack Jared lightly on the face and even has the decency to ignore when Jared’s flinches. “Jayman. Jaybird. Jaypocalypto. I dig it, bro.”

As ridiculous as it all is, Jared finds he can’t help himself from grinning back in return.

“Next! Private Padalecki.” The drill sergeant barks from the front of the line and Jared scrambles forward and throws himself down into the barber’s chair.

The buzz of the electric razor is familiar, comforting almost. Shaving Jared’s head to military precision was one of the only real activities he could count on spending with his Stepdad growing up.

He sinks into now, the expectation of it, the monotony. The razor drags across his head, taking away bits of him that Jared doesn’t even know to miss.

“Next! Private Murray.”

Jared’s shooed away as Chad struts forward to take his place. He winks in Jared’s direction, and Jared ducks his head to hide the smile it inspires.

“Thank god I have such an immaculate skull,” is the last thing Jared hears Chad proclaiming before the buzz of the razor drowns him out again.

 

Part 22

“Do you need a sling or do you think you can sit on the step without slipping?” Jensen asks, arms securely around Jared’s back as he helps lower Jared into the water of the hydro-therapy tub.

“I can sit,” Jared replies, hissing a bit as the warm water hits his skin, but quickly letting out a breath as the heat starts seeping in and feeling good.

Jensen makes sure he’s steady before climbing down into the water and sliding in along Jared’s side.

It’s four weeks post-surgery and Jensen’s designed a treatment plan along with Dr. Rhodes to help combat Jared’s phantom pain issue. Jared refused medication when he found out it was the same stuff Gen is trying to shove onto him for his other ‘issues’, as she calls them.

Of course, that’s how he ended up in a hot tub with Jensen Ackles at nine o’clock in the morning, and Jared’s regretting his choices just a bit.

A soaking-wet Jensen Ackles, Jared corrects in his mind, trying to ignore the way Jensen’s tank top is clinging to the muscles of his chest as he dips into the water and then bobs back up again to help readjust Jared’s body on the step into a more comfortable position.

Jensen starts running him through a series of exercises, and they are quiet for a while. Jared tries to relax, letting the sensation of the heated water, blissful silence, and the feel of Jensen’s gracefully solid hands manipulating his body help him pretend that he’s somewhere else than this place of injury.

It doesn’t last long, like everything else in Jared’s life.

“So I’ve heard you started working with Misha,” Jensen says. His voice is pitched low, but the spell is already broken. “That’ll be really good for you.”

Jared just hums, closing his eyes and leaning his head back a bit.

“And they’ve assigned you a social worker, that’s even better,” Jensen continues on, not letting Jared’s silence deter him. “Samantha is fantastic, she’ll make sure you are set up and good to go when you leave here.”

Jared jerks at that, involuntarily reacting to the idea that there is anything out there for him after this place. That there is anywhere to go. Anyone to care, to –

“What about that one, on your shoulder. I haven’t seen that one before,” Jared says quickly, interrupting his own thoughts. Jensen’s leaned over and the back of his shirt pulled to the side enough to display part of a tattoo on his shoulder blade.

Jensen looks up at him, righting himself, but never stopping his movements. Jared can tell from his face that he knows that Jared is changing the subject, but Jensen must be used to it by now because he lets him. “That one is a beating heart with a gramophone coming out of it. Got it sophomore year of college.”

“Let me guess – tribute to your grandpa?”

Jensen chuckles. “Not quite. First time I ever fell in love was with a music major. Got a little wistful when we broke up and had it done. Wasn’t much appreciated by him –“

Jared stiffens all over at the pronoun usage, and Jensen must realize he freezes as well and glances up at Jared with mild alarm in his face. Even though he’s still processing this new information, the last thing Jared wants is for Jensen to think he has a problem with Jensen being…that way.

“Yeah, a beating heart is pretty creepy. I understand his alarm,” Jared jokes, and the relief that crashes briefly over Jensen’s face is worth every minute Jared will surely spend thinking about a young Jensen Ackles pining via body ink over his lost love in the future.

“Yeah, we medical types dig anatomical correctness more than your average jazz pianist,” Jensen replies, smile genuine and thankful.

They are just slipping back into that lovely quiet place again when Jared realizes with growing horror that he’s starting to get an erection.

Between Jensen’s hands and the thoughts and Jared being so relaxed, and oh god, Jensen’s going to think that what he just told him is the cause, and then what if he thinks Jared is a pervert and he can’t, oh god, he can’t –

“It’s alright,” Jensen says, soft, like he’s talking to a spooked horse. “It’s a perfectly normal body reaction.”

“Jensen, I –“ Jared chokes out, willing it to go down, to stop embarrassing him, to stop manifesting all these things he’s feeling every time Jensen’s hands touch his skin.

“No need to say a word. It’s a good thing that you’re regaining normal bodily function. I promise you, Jared. You never have to be ashamed with me.”

Jared shudders, realizing then that he was holding all the muscles in his body tight together into a ball of stress. He doesn’t know what to say, doesn’t know how to thank Jensen or apologize to him or even just make him understand what it feels like to want to do either of those things.

Instead, he stays silent, but lets his body relax back into Jensen’s hands.

The ones that are waiting for him, as always.

==

Sergeant Michael Rosenbaum wakes up a little over five weeks into their hospital stay. His cognitive function comes back slowly but surely, and he’s begun his own recovery.

Jared isn’t there when Rosey’s told about Tommy dying while saving his life. Isn’t there to hear the cries of anguish or to see the tears fall over his cheeks. Others are there, though, and they whisper words of sadness and empathy to each other over rounds, late at night when they don’t know Jared is only pretending to sleep and can hear every syllable.

Jared’s sitting in Rosey’s room now, body pulled into the wheelchair he uses as a life-raft and parked next to his former Team Leader’s bed. Rosey’s lying there, awake, blinking a few times at Jared and then smiling slightly when he recognizes him.

Rosey’s head, usually shaved to shiny-perfection, is covered with patches of peach fuzz over deep, jagged red slashes that will surely scar and leave a reminder of his fate to everyone he meets, including himself in the mirror.

“Padalecki,” Rosey says, his voice hoarse from disuse. “Hey, kid.”

“Hey, Rosey,” Jared replies, not knowing what to say now that he’s here. He didn’t know why he had to come see the man, but it was like something was pulling him to this room and he was too tired to keep fighting it.

Tired. Jared is so damn tired.

They sit in silence for a while, and it’s not so bad. Rosey’s breathing is a bit jagged, and the machines beep out a wordless song, but Jared is used to those things by now. It’s the melody of this strange, sheltered new life.

“Did they tell you about Tommy?” Rosey finally asks, and Jared sees that his eyes are squeezed shut tight like he’s holding something in. Jared knows that feeling.

“Yeah, Captain Huffman came last month and told us. Chad and Aldis are here, too. Never get any sleep with those two,” Jared replies, trying for a moment of levity and pleased with himself when the corner of Rosey’s mouth quirks up

“Yeah, I bet,” Rosey replies. He pauses, a long pause, eyes still closed. “I loved him, you know.”

Jared knew, they all did. There are lots of things that people know that they don’t say aloud, but that doesn’t make any of those things less true or less important.

“I know,” Jared says, simply. It doesn’t make it less important to not say it, but sometimes saying it anyway is the right thing to do.

Rosey nods, shudders out a tiny breath.

“Was it worth it? Even now, when it’s gone, when he’s gone?”

Jared has to ask it, a question about an emotion that he’s never had and doesn’t believe he ever will, especially not now. He glances down at his leg and then back up to Rosey, whose eyes are now open and clear.

“Even more now. It’s worth it even more.”

 

“My mama’s been trying to get her to agree to four babies, but Addie told her she was crazy. You should have seen the look on that old woman’s face,” Aldis nearly cackles, running a finger around the rim of his night-vision goggles to make sure they are secure.

“She should be lucky anyone lets you stick a dick in her,” Chad replies, leaning over and making lewd noises in Aldis’ face.

“Ugh, fucker, you smell like tar,” Aldis says, pushing Chad back. “Bad enough I’m stuck in this tin can with you without you breathing your rank ass tobacco breath on me.”

“You love me, bitch.”

“Like I love a stick of dynamite up my ass.”

“You think of me when you think of your ass. I’m touched, bro.”

“Touched in the head, motherfucker.”

“I fucked your mother, too. Four babies worth, holla atcha new daddy!”

Jared chuckles, trying to ignore the conversation around him as the Humvee starts around a small bend that they didn’t have the vantage of from last night’s run around this village. The goggles send the night sky into an eerie green color, a hazy sort of glow that always reminds Jared of some sort of alternate consciousness that they drift in, men shoved together in a moving box in the middle of the desert.

“Padalecki, slow down a sec so I can get out. Welling’s got something up ahead, we’re going to check it out,” Rosey commands, and Jared nods as he slows the vehicle down enough for their Team Leader to get out and go meet up with the Squad Leader. Vehicle 2 is up ahead, just managing the turn, but something must have been up for Tommy to call for his second in command.

Jared waits for Rosey to clear the area and then starts the vehicle up again, planning to maneuver it up just enough to get into a clearer –

A shockingly white light brightens up the night sky, followed almost at the same time by a deafening sound as the Humvee is thrown into the air. The front half is ripped off like the top of a tuna can, shards of jagged metal lying everywhere like confetti.

Jared screams – or he thinks he does, he can’t hear it. He paws at his head, the helmet half off and the strap cutting off his airstream. He feels wetness everywhere, coming from his ears, down his nose and across the goggles that feel like they are melted onto his face.

He can’t think, just claws at his head until the helmet is off and he can huff in great gasps of air. His goggles won’t come off and everything is still that eerie green, but it’s pure venom now. Danger and pain.

He looks around, screaming again. He can feel his throat working, contracting, knows that some kind of sound is coming out, but there is blood pouring from his ears and he can’t make any of the noise enter his consciousness.

He’s on the ground, dirt packed under him, road not metal. He feels dust in his mouth, coating his tongue and teeth as he tries to spit and get rid of it. There’s too much, so he spits again. There’s something else coating his teeth now, too.

A figure comes into his view, an alien shape, green like the sky, like poison. The figure drops down in front of him, hands pressed to the top of its face, mouth open in a wordless howl that Jared can’t hear.

“Chad!” Jared yells, the figure coming into relief, but the man doesn’t reply, can’t reply, just holds his head.

There are metal shapes between Chad’s green-tinted fingers, emerald blood running down his arms like snakes. His mouth is wide, gaping, teeth stained. A portrait of horror.

Jared tries to reach for him, tries to move his body, but it is sluggish. Frustrated, he starts to drag himself across the dirt, but when he looks down to see why his legs won’t work, he is met with nothing.

Nothing. There’s nothing there.

The pain comes then, searing, unbidden, toxic-green. Jared doesn’t feel the pain. Jared is the pain.

Too stunned to try anymore, Jared’s body seizes up and collapses, face hitting the dirt.

He swallows the dust of the desert like a communion.

 

Get out.

Just get out.

Get the fuck out.

Door. There’s a door. A door.

Open the door.

Get in.

Just get in.

Get the fuck in.

Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

No, no, no.

The door. Shut the door. Shut it.

Down, sit down. Sit here. Behind the door.

Shut it out. Keep it out.

Breathe, Jared. Breathe. Breathe.

Dark. Keep the dark. The dark.

Black. Black. Black not green. Black. Dark.

Breathe, Jared. Breathe. Breathe.

Green. Green. Green.

Breathe, Jared. Breathe.

Green, poison, vile, blood, smoke, death.

No.

Green, good, kind, eyes, Jensen’s eyes.

Breathe, Jared. Breathe.

Jensen’s good. Kind. Jensen.

Breathe, Jared. Breathe.

Jensen.

“Breathe, Jared. That’s it, just breathe.”

Jensen? Jared wants to say but he can’t breathe, can’t suck in the right amount of air. His lungs don’t work, his chest is constricting, he’s dying.

He’s dying, he thinks he’s dying, he’s ready to die, he doesn’t want to die.

Jensen’s hands are curved around Jared’s neck. Jensen’s forehead is pressing against Jared’s forehead. Jensen’s eyes are looking into Jared’s eyes. Jensen’s breathing breaths for Jared, breathing together.

“Breathe, Jared,” Jensen says, in and out, in and out.

Jared’s mouth is open but no words come out. Jensen breathes the silent words back into the space between them. Breathes air, in and out, in and out.

Jensen breathes. Jensen breathes until Jared breathes.

“Jensen,” Jared spits out.

Breathes, he breathes. He can breathe. Jared can breathe.

“That’s it, Jared. That’s it,” Jensen coos, smiling, forehead crinkling with it and pressed against Jared so hard that Jared can feel it through his skin.

“Where,” Jared wheezes, pauses. Takes a breath. “Where am I?”

Jensen’s forehead goes away and Jared already misses the pressure of it. He swipes one of his hands over Jared’s face, damp with sweat. “You gave us a bit of a scare there, Jared. Don’t know why you decided to hide out in a storage closet, although it is pretty cozy in here.”

“I…” Jared looks up at Jensen and then around, finally just noticing his surroundings. He realizes he’s sprawled out on the floor in his pajamas, the crutches he usually rejects in favor of the wheelchair lying at his side. Next to him is a shelf full of cleaning supplies and boxes of latex gloves.

“Did something happen?” Jensen asks, sitting back on his haunches but not taking his hands off of Jared. The contract grounds Jared.

“I had a dream,” Jared whispers. Nightmare, not a dream. Say the word, Jared. Say the fucking word.

“Do you have these dreams a lot?”

I’m so scared. I’ve always been scared. I’ll always be scared.

“Jensen,” is what Jared says instead, and Jensen seems to get it. Jensen always seems to get it.

“How about we get you up and back to your room before Loretta starts blaming Chad for you being gone,” Jensen says, smiling, and it earns him a shaky laugh out of Jared.

“Chad probably deserves it,” Jared replies, letting Jensen lift him up under his armpits and brace him up against the wall so Jensen can retrieve the crutches. He get Jared situated on them, and Jared makes a few tentative steps forward towards the door.

“You’re getting better on those things. Been holding out on me?” Jensen asks, no condemnation in his voice, but Jared’s face heats up anyway. He knows he relies on the wheelchair too much, but it’s easier that way and sometimes Jared wants to hang on to easy.

Jared doesn’t answer, and Jensen lets it go, following alongside Jared as he crutches back towards the room he fled.

==

“Maybe I’ll just stay here,” Jared insists, running his hands through the ever-longer tangle of chestnut hair on his head.

Danneel’s hands are immediately on her hips. Red scrubs today, with green Christmas trees on them. Her auburn hair is in a long braid down her back and she has mascara on for once. “Nope! I told my daughter that there was a dimpled puppy dog named Jared in the hospital and she’s so excited about it that if you don’t come you’ll break her heart.”

Jared’s cheeks pinken at the description. “I’m not a puppy dog.”

Danneel leans forward and pinches his cheeks before he can pull away. “Ah, look at those big puppy eyes. Don’t you try and deny it.”

Jared laughs, and knocks her hands away. “Who do you think you are, Loretta?”

“Hey, Loretta does not get dibs on those cheeks, Mister,” Danneel replies, with a wink.

“But I don’t have anything to give…” Jared trails off, realizing how stupid his sudden thought is.

“Give what?” she prods.

“I don’t have anything to give Jensen. Um, you know, for Christmas. A present. Um, for that.” His face is absolutely on fire now and he tries to ignore the knowing looks she’s giving him.

“Well, we can solve that one easy enough, no?” She heads over to the door and shouts “Os!” out into the hallway. Osric comes jogging in a second later and follows her back to Jared’s bed.

“Jared needs a present for someone special,” Danneel says, emphasizing the last words. Osric raises his eyebrows in understanding and Jared is left wondering exactly what the hell he has missed here.

“I’ll run downstairs to the gift shop and see what I can find,” Osric offers with a grin, before taking off again.

“What just happened?” Jared asks, a little dazed, but Danneel just waves him off.

“You are coming to the Christmas party, no excuses. I’m going to send Alona in to fix that hair of yours and get you into something presentable, and then you are going to come downstairs to the lounge and help me laugh at Dr. Morgan in his Santa costume.”

Jared laughs, an honest, delighted laugh. It feels kind of good. “This I have to see.”

Danneel grins. “It’s definitely a sight.” She leans down and squeezes his forearm, before departing. Alona comes in and starts fussing with his hair and he just lets her. It’s weird to even have this much hair, but her fingers feel kind of nice and the worsening fog that has been creeping over his brain lately seems lifted just a bit.

Osric comes back just as Alona is helping him into a simple but clean pair of pants and brushing invisible lint off his t-shirt.

“Okay, bear with me,” Osric starts, hiding something behind his back.

“Bear with you about what?” Jared asks, a little tentatively because Osric’s face looks too amused.

Osric whips out something from its hiding place and thrusts it into Jared’s space. “No, really, bear with me. Get it?”

Jared looks down at what he’s holding, which turns out to be a small brown teddy bear wearing a pale blue doctor’s coat. “Oh my god, that joke was worse than one of Chad’s.”

“Hey, at least it didn’t have the words ‘bitch’ or ‘diddly-do’ in it,” Osric pouts, before tossing the teddy bear into Jared’s lap and saluting Alona. With a grin, he jogs back out the way he came.

“He’s right, you know,” Alona says. “Nothing is worse than Chad.”

“I heard that, bitches!” comes Chad’s voice from across the room.

Jared just laughs.

==

Jared’s had three cups of fruit punch and has watched Chad unknowingly grind up on Zablah the night janitor for the past twenty minutes by the time he decides he wants to go back to bed. He’s starting to feel ridiculous, parked in the corner of the lounge, decked out in streamers and plastic reindeer, and he really needs to pee before he manages to wet himself and become even more mortified by the situation.

He starts steering himself towards the side exit, staying along the wall so that no one will notice him. He’s just about there when Dr. Morgan, dressed in full-out Santa Claus regalia, comes ho-ho-hoing his way into the room. The other corner explodes with excitement, as a horde of kids belonging to patients and staff alike run over to Dr. Morgan and start pulling him down to the floor to climb all over him.

Jared’s watching in amazement at the spectacle and is distracted enough to not notice a little girl bound right into him and climb onto his lap before he even knows to stop her.

Thankfully, she’s careful with his injury, and shifts herself around at just the right angle to throw her arms around his neck. “Hi, Jared!”

Jared, dumbfounded, looks at the little creature invading his space. She’s young, maybe six or seven, with bright red hair tied into two pigtails and a spray of freckles across her cheeks. She smiles wide, and he sees one tooth missing.

“I’m Amy. Mama said you looked like my puppy and you totally do!”

“Mama?” Jared says, and follows Amy’s gaze over to Danneel, who is standing against the far wall laughing even as she mouths “I’m sorry” towards him.

“Where’s your robot leg?” Amy asks, and Jared doesn’t know what to say to that, so he just shakes his head until she continues. “Your robot leg, you know! My daddy has two of them and they are pretty cool. He takes them off sometimes and I put them on my knees but they don’t fit because I’m too little.”

It dawns on Jared that not only is she talking about her father’s prosthetics, but that also means that Danneel is married to a double amputee. He looks over at her, and she’s smiling fondly at the two of them now, no longer laughing.

“Is your daddy a soldier, Amy?” Jared asks, readjusting the little girl a little bit on his lap so he can look her in the face better.

She nods happily. “Yes, he has a uniform and he came to my school and talked to my friends and showed them his robot legs, too. Are you a soldier, Jared?”

He looks at her, not knowing what to answer. Jared’s been a soldier his whole life, really, in a way. And yet, he’s never really figured out what he’s been fighting for, or against.

“I think I’m just a guy now, Amy.”

Amy leans over and presses a kiss to his cheek before climbing down off his lap. “You’re still cool to me,” she says, smiling that bright gap-toothed smile before she joins the crowd running after Dr. Morgan and his bag of treats.

Jared touches the patch of skin where the tiny little mouth just was, and feels something weird welling up in his chest. Before he can give it much thought, he continues rolling himself to the side exit.

“Oh no, you are not allowed to leave when I just got here.”

Jared halfway through the doorway but steers sideways when he hears Jensen’s voice. Something else is building in his chest now, something different and terrifying.

“Merry Christmas, Jared,” Jensen says. His hair is gelled, he’s freshly shaven, and he’s wearing the most ridiculous red and white sweater with “Merry Christmas, Ya Filthy Animal” written in block letters.

He’s so stupidly beautiful and Jared wants to flee as much as he wants to stay right here in front of Jensen forever.

“I have something for you-”

“I got you a present-“

They laugh as they speak in unison, saying the same thing.

“You first,” Jared says, watching as Jensen pulls out a small brown teddy bear wearing an army uniform from behind his back and places it gently in Jared’s lap.

Jared starts laughing and Jensen’s face gets that worried crinkled forehead expression of his. “Oh god, it’s dumb, right? I’m so sorry, I mean, it was in the gift shop and it was last minute and I thought it was cute, and—“

Jared shuts him up by reaching over to the bag hanging from the handle of the wheelchair and handing over his own gift shop Dr. Teddy. Jensen’s face softens, and he reaches up to take it. He holds it to his chest and closes his eyes for a moment, and Jared doesn’t know what to do but sit there and stare up at him.

Jared doesn’t have to do anything, because one second he’s just sitting there and the next second Jensen’s leaning down over him and pressing his mouth to Jared’s mouth.

It’s Jared’s second kiss.

He’s twenty two years old, with one shortened limb and no-longer shorn hair that still manages to stick up. His nose is still pointy and he still has moles on his face and bruises on the inside that never really began to fade but maybe one day will.

Maybe.

Jensen pulls back, a panicked look on his face. “I’m sorry, Jared, that was inappropriate and I would never do anything to–“

“I liked it.”

Jared’s second kiss is nothing like his first kiss, and right now, in this moment, that’s the only thing in the world he needs to know.

“You liked it?” Jensen repeats, slowly, like he’s trying to confirm what Jared just said to him.

Jared’s smiling then, a real smile, the best kind of smile, his Jensen smile. “I really did.”

Jensen’s turning red now, practically matching his sweater, but the corners of his mouth are tilting up to match the little starbursts around his eyes. “It was the mistletoe. Loretta puts it in all the doorways to try and catch Dr. Morgan.”

Jared’s grinning now, and he didn’t even know the muscles in his cheeks worked like this.

“Does it work?”

Jensen grins back.

“Every time.”

wheelchair kiss

==

Aldis gets transferred to a rehab hospital closer to his family home in Dallas nine weeks into their stay. He had his cast made of his prosthesis done two weeks earlier, and is the star patient of the ward, walking easily on crutches and adapting well in his occupational therapy sessions with Misha.

Jared would be jealous but that’s an emotion that he got trained out of himself at a young age. It never did much good anyway.

The prosthetics specialist had tried to come to see him the same day, but Jared still refused. He doesn’t know why exactly. It’s not apathy, not laziness. Maybe he’s scared, but that’s not ground-breaking for any of them.

Sometimes, at night, when the ward is quiet and the lights are low and there’s only the sound of Chad snoring to keep him company, he’ll admit to himself that the broken outside of his body keeps him grounded. It reminds him, in the darker moments, that the inside is the same. The mirror is ugly, but it’s the mirror he’s looked into his entire life.

They all try so hard, this group around him. Loretta with her kind smile, and Danneel with her yellow scrubs with the black bumblebees. Misha with his fake kitchen and Samantha with her home visit plans and Gen with her prescription pad that says “we can make you feel better, Jared, let us make you feel better.”

And Jensen.

Jared feels. He feels too much. He feels things that he doesn’t think he deserves to feel and it’s okay. It’s okay and it’s not okay, but it’s what he has to work with.

Two days after Aldis leaves is when the screaming starts.

It’s early, the sun just starting to rise from the low light in the room. Jared’s finally gotten to sleep, a real sleep, after hours of staring at the ceiling.

Jared’s just managed to get himself sitting up when he sees where the commotion is coming from.

It’s Chad, fallen off his bed, sitting on the cold tile with his back against the wall under the window. He’s clawed his eye coverings off and is pressing his fingers against the red scarred patches where his eyes used to be. His mouth is open, face a rictus mask, and the sound that is emanating from him is unlike any sound Jared’s heard in his life.

Jared realizes, with stunning clarity, that this is the sound that he would have heard that night if the blast hadn’t wrecked his ear drums, if blood hadn’t been streaming from his orifices and down into the dust.

Chad screams and screams and Jared wants to turn it off, all of it. His ears and his brain and the memory and the smell.

Danneel comes running in, shouting something behind her as she does. She looks half-asleep herself, hair half pulled up into a bun like she heard the noise while fixing it and came running anyway.

She drops to her knees in front of Chad, who is still screaming like a wild thing, the only thing moving on him is the fingers pressing into lost hidden places. There’s urine draining out from underneath him, from where he’s pissed his pants in some invisible terror, and Danneel smoothly moves to avoid it.

“Hey there, handsome,” she starts, voice soft, that tone they must train into all of them the minute they step into the building. She puts her hands out towards him, going slowly to see if he’s likely to strike her. He doesn’t, staying in the same frozen position as she reaches out and places her own palms around his fists. Carefully, she pulls his fingers one-by-one away from the exposed wounds and holds his hands in her own.

The screaming stops then, changing over in a split second to great, heaving, hiccupping sobs.

“I can’t see, Sarge. I can’t see. I can’t see anything, why can’t I see?”

“Chad, it’s Danneel, you are with me now, okay? You are back at the hospital with us, and you are safe. You are safe, Chad.” She puts his hands on her own cheeks, moves his fingers around until he has touched every one of her features. “You are with me, Chad. You are with us now. We have you, Chad. We have you.”

“It’s so dark. Mom, it’s dark. I can’t see.” Chad’s mumbling now, slumping to the side until he’s curled up in a ball. Danneel holds his hands, keeping contact, until Loretta comes rushing in with a syringe that she hands over. Danneel injects it right into Chad’s bicep and then sits back on her heels, handing the now-empty syringe back to Loretta. The medicine eventually works, and they lift Chad up and put him back into bed.

“It had to happen sooner or later,” Jared hears Loretta whispering to Danneel, who just nods, before they move out of the room.

After the commotion, Jared just sits there and stares at Chad’s unmoving form.

Chad, probably the best friend Jared’s ever had. Chad, the loudest, brightest, happiest sonovabitch Jared knows. Chad, a broken toy soldier just like Jared.

Just like Jared.

Jared can feel tears running down his cheeks. He hasn’t cried in weeks but he’s crying now. Now when he realizes that there’s someone else out there just like him, that he’s not alone in this, that even someone as loud and bright and happy as Chad can reach the point where they can’t be loud and bright and happy anymore.

Jared cries until he can’t cry anymore. Chad never stirs.

==

“You’re tall,” Gen says, slightly startled. She’s standing in the doorway, looking up at Jared.

He’s never used his crutches to come to her before. Just the chair, his real crutch. This is the first time that’s he’s stood in front of her. This is also the first time that he’s knocked first.

“I’m ready.”

His words are simple and she cocks her head.

“What are you ready for, Jared?”

He doesn’t really know what comes next, but he knows he finally wants to try.

“I’m ready to be helped.”

Gen smiles up at him, and holds the door open so he can come inside and begin.

==

Ten weeks into his stay in the hospital, Jared gets the cast done for his prosthetic device. The specialist, a veteran named Tahmoh, gets introduced to Jared during a session with Jensen. He’s an old friend of Jensen’s, a member of his brother Josh’s unit in Iraq. They’d grieved together after Josh’s passing, and grown close, working together after Tahmoh left the service and went into developing better prosthetic devices for the particular traumatic injuries seen during the current wars.

Jared’s almost ashamed that it took him this long to agree to this, especially after meeting Tahmoh and realizing how genuine and supportive he is of Jared’s recovery. But like Gen would tell him, there’s no use being ashamed of not being ready. Everyone is different, but no one is worse. Jared’s starting to get that now, day-by-day. It’s a process, but one that he’s finally willing to start actively participating in.

Jensen’s there every step of the way, literally and figuratively. There’s a lot that goes into fitting the device, even though the first prosthetic is only going to last him about six months until he gets a more permanent one. Tahmoh comes twice a week for the next four weeks, perfecting the fit.

It hurts, and it’s exhausting. There are days that Jared doesn’t want to get out of bed, but he does anyway because he knows at the end of the hallway will be Jensen, and with him and through him the promise of a life that will be different, but better than before.

The first time Tahmoh presents the completed Ottobock X-3 C-leg to Jared, it’s terrifying. He holds the long piece of engineering, sleek metal and hard plastic, a machine built to order to give him the chance to walk, to run, to be someone new.

Tahmoh teaches him how to attach it. Jared does nothing but sit there with it, getting used to the weight, to the way it curves around the socket of his lost limb, forming a new one.

It’s another two weeks before Jared attempts what he’s about to attempt. Two weeks of daily therapy, of learning how to put it on and how to clean it and how to limp along the parallel bars with Jensen and a sling holding him up. The first time he puts his body weight on it, he feels like he’s going to collapse.

But he doesn’t collapse. And he’s here now. Standing.

Tahmoh’s hands are on his waist from behind, steadying Jared’s body. He wobbles, unsteady of on new, foreign feet. He’s a newborn, in every way imaginable, and suddenly all those same possibilities are before him.

Tahmoh takes his hands slowly off of Jared’s body. Jared’s standing, all by himself. He’s standing.

Breathe, Jared. Breathe.

Jared looks up at what is waiting for him a few feet away. Jensen smiles, just for him.

Jared takes the first step towards his future, knowing Jensen will be there to catch him when he falls.

 

Two Years Later

“This house smells like garlic,” Jensen announces as he comes into the kitchen, pulling off the leather jacket over his work shirt. He comes up behind Jared at the stove and presses a quick kiss to the side of his neck before heading back into the hall to put the jacket in the closet.

“You love garlic,” Jared replies, chuckling as he stirs the chili in the dutch oven on the stovetop.

“I do,” Jensen calls from the hallway. He pops his head back into the kitchen, grinning. “I love you more though.”

“Sap,” Jared murmurs, but his cheeks are heating up. Two years later, and he still sometimes can’t believe how his life turned out.

Happy yipping comes from the next room and Jared puts the wooden spoon down to go in and check it out. He walks cautiously, smoother on his new leg than he was six months ago when he got the updated version from Tahmoh, but there’s always a learning curve and Jared takes it one day at time.

Jensen’s lying flat on the floor with his limbs askew, like he’s making snow angels on the rug. Their dog, Sadie, a big ball of brown love, is pouncing on top of him and making sure his face is showered in kisses.

Jared looks at them fondly from where he’s leaning on the doorframe. They’ve had Sadie for a little over six months, getting her right around the time Jared got his latest prosthesis. She’s really Jared’s dog, trained as a service dog for veterans with PTSD, but he likes to think that she’s made their entire household the home that it was meant to be.

Getting her has also recently inspired Jared to start looking into learning how to train service dogs himself, as a possible long-term career goal. Jensen’s never pushed him to work and is more than happy to let Jared play home-maker, but Jared knows that giving back is something that he wants – no, needs to do, and service dogs are a wonderful way to start.

“Sadie, stop stealing all my kisses!” Jared calls out to her, and the dog stand immediately on alert with her ears straight up in the air. She trots over to him and walks close alongside him as he heads to the couch and sink down into it, stretching out his C-leg a few times before settling in. With a quick lick to the shin part of the prosthetic, she curls into a ball on the ground next to him.

Jensen crawls up onto the couch then, wrapping an arm around Jared’s shoulders and pressing a kiss to his temple. “Jealous of the dog now, huh?”

Jared shifts his head just enough so that he can nose against Jensen’s nose and steals a quick kiss on the mouth. “The dog doesn’t know how to make Mama Ackles’ Texas Chili, so I don’t think I have anything to be worried about.”

Jensen just grins at him, but his face is so close that he ends up cross-eyed and Jared starts laughing before Jensen can finish kissing him senseless.

“Chad called,” Jared says later, as he’s scrapping the bowl of the last bit of chili and popping it in his mouth. “Invited us to the opening event on his speaking tour.”

Jensen licks his spoon and makes a satisfied sound before answering. “I really hope that there’s an NC-17 warning sticker on tickets to those things, or else he’ll leave a lot of scandalized matrons in his wake.”

Jared laughs, getting up to take his bowl to the sink to rinse before putting it in the dishwasher. He steadies himself on the counter with one hand, and takes his time.

“Chad’s book was a hit with teenagers, which, in a way is probably expected considering his mental age is around sixteen.”

Jensen’s up and next to him then, rinsing his own bowl himself and handing it to Jared to put alongside his in the dishwasher. “I mean, who would have thought Chad of all people would be a best-selling author and motivational speaker? These people have obviously never met Chad.”

“Stop being mean to Chad. His best friend is the only one allowed to do that, “Jared teases, wrapping his arms around Jensen’s neck and pulling him in for a spicy, garlicky smooch.

They pull away after a long moment and head into the living room to snuggle on the couch and catch up on their DVR.

It’s the quiet nights like these that Jared loves. When it’s just the two of them in their warm little house, with their dog and their TV and the food Jared’s been learning to make, recipe by recipe. Even better is later, when Jensen lays Jared down on their king size bed and helps take off the prosthesis and sets it in its spot next to the nightstand.

The first time they had sex had been a bit of a disaster. Jared was a virgin, in pretty much every way a person could be a virgin. Jensen was, of course, an absolute gentleman, kind and loving, attentive and worshipful in a way that Jared just couldn’t understand back then. Finding a position that didn’t hurt was a challenge, and then afterwards, Jared burst into tears.

So yeah, not their finest intimate moment. But it was the beginning, and they were in it together even then.

Jared’s worked on himself a lot since those early days. He can’t change who he is, or the things that have happened to him. He’s still scarred and bruised from the occasional tumble. Still starts shaking uncontrollably at the sound of thunder or the crashing of a dropped plate. His panic attacks have lessened, but they’re not gone, and even with Sadie here to sense them coming on and warn him to get help, he knows that he’s never going to be a perfectly whole person, because he never was one to begin with.

Now though, it’s a Tuesday, any Tuesday. Jensen’s home from work and he smells like sandalwood soap and is warm from the shower. His skin is bare and decorated and Jared runs his hands over the last tattoo Jensen got on their first anniversary – a bird sitting atop it’s cage, not knowing whether it’s going to sing or fly, but having the wonderfully freeing option to one or both or neither. Jared’s name is spelled out in cursive next to it, outside the cage, just like the bird. Part of the scrapbook of Jensen’s life now and forever.

Jared leans in and presses a kiss to the writing, right there on Jensen’s side. Jared can feel the tender line of Jensen’s ribs beneath it, and the heat emanating from his skin.

He lies back then, letting Jensen’s nude form crawl over him. Jared’s naked too now, bare and exposed and even now the goosebumps on his flesh rise up not from the cold but from anticipation.

Jensen kisses a pathway down Jared’s body. Starts on his forehead, brushing the newly long bangs off to the side with his nose. He kisses downwards, one on each cheekbones, dips in each dimple, in the cleft in Jared’s chin. Runs the tip of his tongue down the damp, warm line of Jared’s throat, circling down to run along the clavicle and not stopping until he’s dragged the pad of it along the tight pink buds of Jared’s nipples.

Jensen bites a pathway down Jared’s belly, which constricts under his touch. He drags his teeth along the line of Jared’s hipbone, and just barely brushes Jared’s dick with the side of his nose before starting down the path of what’s left of his left leg.

Jared had been horrified at first at even the thought of Jensen wanting to see his stump during sex, much less touching it. He’d devised plans in his head of how he could drape the sheet over it or how he could wear shorts that he just pulled down just so. It’s ridiculous in hindsight, considering that Jensen had been one of his first caretakers, and had seen both his wound and the aftermath of it at it’s worse.

But the thing was, Jared had wanted to feel desired. Wanted to feel beautiful and sexy and all these weird foreign things that he had never felt before. He didn’t think it was possible for his broken body to exist in that context.

But then Jensen happened. Always Jensen.

Jared moans low in his throat as Jensen starts kissing around the jagged scar tissue along the stump. It doesn’t hurt anymore, and a lot of the nerve endings have been damaged irreparably, but there is something so intimate about the way Jensen moves his soft, wet mouth along the curve that makes Jared feel things deeper than any other physical sensation.

Jensen turns him over then, until Jared is lying sprawled out on his belly on their cool cotton sheets. Jensen kisses the back of his thigh, nosing up until he’s peppering little butterfly kisses to the underside of Jared’s ass. He pulls back just enough then, hands coming up to crack open the cheeks just enough so that he can dip back down and press the flat of his tongue to Jared’s tight pink hole.

Jared moans again, can’t help himself. His face is pressed into the pillow and his arm are curled around his head, just holding on. Letting the weight of Jensen’s tongue breaking him open ground him in this moment.

Jensen’s making noises behind him, filthy, obscene noises that make Jared pant and writhe in unison to. There’s a rhythm there, Jensen’s body connecting to Jared’s body via one tiny little muscle in one tiny little space.

Jared barely knows how much time has passed before he feels Jensen’s tongue pull away, quickly replaced by two fingers, slick and chilled with lube. Jared hisses at the first instruction, but Jensen shushes him, kissing his lower back and the dip of his spine while telling him how beautiful he is and how thankful he is that Jared lets him have this.

After he’s prepared, after Jared feels his muscles loosen till they are begging Jensen for something bigger, something harder, something more, Jensen turns Jared to his side with his stump side facing out and slides up along his back.

Jensen enters him like this, spooned up alongside of him, his face against Jared’s head so that his mouth is right there to whisper filthy beautiful things into Jared’s ear as he presses inside.

Jensen curls one arm around Jared’s head, letting Jared use his bicep like a pillow, and with the other hand, Jensen slides down along the skin of his stump. He holds it there, as balance, as leverage as he thrusts in deep, so deep. But it’s also for comfort, for acceptance, to let Jared know that every single part of him is a part that Jensen cherishes.

They don’t last long, Jensen rutting into him and biting kisses into Jared’s neck as Jared strokes himself to the same pounding rhythm.

“Come, baby. I want to feel you come,” Jensen whispers in his ear, and that’s enough for Jared. Four more strokes and he’s spilling white all over his hand and the sheets, his ass clenching so hard around Jensen’s cock that Jensen follows almost immediately afterwards. Jared’s ass spasms again from the remnants of his orgasm, milking the jizz from Jensen’s dick until there’s nothing left.

Jensen pulls out, put doesn’t move. Just settles his body against Jared’s and breathes in the same humid air that smells like them. Jared can feel Jensen’s come dripping out of him, and it feels delicious, used and branded and connected in the most amazing way.

Jensen pushes his fingers back inside of Jared, the way slicked with Jensen’s own come. Jared just hums, lets him in, pushes back into it.

Today is Tuesday, any Tuesday. For the first time in his life, Jared is looking forward to Wednesday.

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