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Jared’s hands are steady on the wheel as he guides the silver shark of a car through the night traffic of Warsaw. The neighborhood is rich, old villas, older money. He spots an open space on the curb and eases the car in.

Glancing into the rear-view, he can see Ysbeth checking her lipstick. Jared checks the knife in his back pocket. Two years of this, and he still has flashes of disorientation, like part of his brain can’t quite process what’s happened in his life, what he’s become. He feels like Gilligan. A three week tour of his ancestral homeland turned into two years adrift in a foreign country after the crash of ’17 made his traveler’s checks and credit cards worthless.

“You are ready?” Ysbeth asks. His Polish is better than her English, but she likes the practice. They flash each other a smile in the mirror and he gets out to open her door for her. Her hand is tiny in his as he helps her to balance in her four-inch heels. He scans the street, looking for potential problems.

Deliver the girl.

Provide a safe work environment.

Everybody pays.

Make sure the client has a good time.

Two years ago, he’d have been ashamed of ever thinking about escorting escorts for a living. Eighteen months ago, he’d have done anything short of hurting an innocent for a meal and a warm corner to sleep in. This--this is cake by comparison. Most days he doesn’t fell like he’s doing the wrong thing. Some days, he almost feels like a hero.

It’s a living, but it’ll take him a long time to save up enough to get home. He works hard, though, to make sure he’s still the kind of man his momma wants for a son when he gets there.

Ysbeth stands on the doorstep, looking statuesque as Jared rings the bell. A butler answers, gives them less than a cursory glance before gesturing them in.

The place is huge, all dark wood and ornate carving. A man in a red satin smoking jacket stands at the head of a sweeping staircase, a snifter of brandy in one hand, cigar in the other. He’s squat and balding and significantly shorter than Ysbeth.

Jared resists laughing. It amazes him how many of these jokers think they’re Hugh fucking Hefner. Seriously.

The guy leaves his drink and cigar on the banister and sweeps down the steps, all flair and drama. He pulls Ysbeth down to his lips, savoring her like a fine wine. Jared stares into the middle ground and waits. At this rate, he might get back to the bar in time to catch the Sunbirds vs. Demons match.

The client asks Ysbeth who ‘this giant’ is, and Jared pretends to not understand the language. Keeping all the secrets he can has helped him stay out of trouble before.

“American,” Ysbeth explains, and the man’s grin widens.

“American. You will stay?”

“Only if you want me to,” Jared grins, going for sexy with a touch of dangerous. It works for his bottom line, more times than not. “I’ll watch for free,” he continues when the guy starts to nod. “Twenty for me to fuck her. Forty if you want to fuck her with me. Eighty if you want to fuck me or have me fuck you.”

Jared used to have sex for free, for the pure joy of it. It’s been two years on that one too.

“You fuck her,” Hefner says with a grin. “More, we will see.”

They get up to the guy’s bedroom. It’s decorated in a ridiculously modern style, even if it wasn’t in contrast to the ancient elegance of the rest of the house. Every surface is either black lacquer, satin or leather, frosted gold or slick mirrors. It looks like a place to fuck, not sleep, and maybe it is.

The client gestures with a remote as he sprawls his chubby self into a chair by the bed, and languid, throbbing acid jazz rolls from hidden speakers.

Ysbeth drops her coat and sways in front of the guy’s chair. Jared knows his part, stepping in behind her, matching her movement with his own. He knows how huge his hands seem on her full hips, her slip waist. He bows his head, because this guy hadn’t seemed real gay to him, and when a straight guy pays a man to fuck a woman, it’s usually because he wants to imagine himself there, young and strong and desired.

In between caressing Ysbeth, Jared slips out of his jacket and then his shirt, shoes and socks, and then his pants. This is all about her and the client and Jared’s content being a prop for the show. He slides his hands up her thighs, pushing the edge of her short black skirt up to show her garters.

The guy shifts in his seat with a squeak of leather. Jared nuzzles in under Ysbeth’s hair, breathing in the girly smells of her, trying to find the sexy in all this, because he’s gonna need to be hard soon. He brings up images of broad shoulders and the sharp rasp of stubble against insides of his thighs and that helps.

He cups one of her breasts and she makes the requisite breathy moan. He tugs her skirt higher and lets the client see the goods, the naughty girl with no panties, the way her pubes are shaved to a narrow little landing strip. He spreads her soft folds and fingers her, helping her get wet for him.

Jared dares a glance at the client. He’s not touching himself yet, but he’s tenting the robe and it probably won’t be long until he’s ready for his turn.

“You will fuck her now,” the guy says, thick accent and thicker voice.

Ysbeth leads and Jared follows. She takes the three steps up to the chair and raises one dainty, stiletto-clad foot up to the arm-rest, close enough for the client to see everything, to smell her perfume, to smell her.

Jared plucks the condom out of her bra-strap and slides it on. He bends his knees to get the right angle and pushes in, one slow stroke.

Ysbeth makes a whimpering moan, like he’s hurting her, but he’s heard her do that for guys smaller than his pinky finger, so he knows it doesn’t mean a thing.

The client reaches out, pinching her clit, making her squeal and writhe, and Jared fucks up into her, rocking her up on her toes.

“I fuck her now,” Hefner declares, standing up. Jared pulls out. “You hold, I fuck,” says the guy so he hooks one arm under Ysbeth’s knee and steadies her back while the guy pumps his cock into her three times and comes. When the client collapses back into the chair, Jared settles Ysbeth on top of him and takes the chance to roll the condom back off of his own half-hard dick.

“He is everything I said, yes?” Ysbeth’s words are almost too soft to catch.

Jared frowns. That isn’t in the script.

“American,” says ‘Hefner,’ like it’s a name now. “You are flexible, eh? You fuck her, I fuck you, all the same, yes? As long as you get paid?”

“Jared,” Jared corrects, a bad feeling building in his gut. “Yeah, I’m flexible.”

“Jared,” says the guy with a big ol’ Eastern-European grin, like they’ve been friends forever now. “I am Ivan. Ivan Brotski. I own the girls. I own the cars. I own many things.” His eyes trail up Jared’s body and he feels naked in a way that has nothing to do with clothes. “I own you.”

Jared has known that the part of this organization he saw was only the tip, but it’s unsettling to meet the big boss like this.

Ivan’s hand strokes idly over Ysbeth’s back, up under her wisp of a dress and Jared wonders if it would be a bad time for him to put some clothes on.

“I need for you to do a job,” Ivan says, “More money, a chance to travel, see the world.”

“I’m listening,” says Jared, but he’s really trying to figure how he can get out of this if it’s too good to be true.

“You follow Rollerball?” Ivan asks. Jared nods, wondering where this is going.

“The Sunbirds? I own them too. There is one player, he is being--difficult. He needs incentive. A new source of joy. Somebody that we control.”

“Which one?” Jared asks, running the roster through in his head.

“Ackles,” says Ivan.

“The Hawk?” Jesus. Ackles isn’t ‘a player,’ Ackles is their freakin’ star.

“The Hawk,” agrees the owner, and something shivers deep in Jared’s guts. “You will be assistant to him. You will polish helmet and put on his gear. You will go with him to club and make sure he does not drown in his vodka. You will fuck when he says, and be good at it when my team wins.”

The man’s tone drops and Jared has stopped finding anything about this humorous.

“You will work for me. You will tell me if he will leave Sunbirds, if he has secret lover, if he is become no use to me.”

It’s been a long time since Jared had more than a second to mull over a life-decision. More money and travel means being years closer to getting back to Texas. That ain’t so bad for babysitting some prima donna ball-player.

“When do I start?”

Ivan laughs. “Go home, Jared. Tomorrow a driver will take you to arena.”

Jared grabs his clothes off of the floor and pulls on the pants. “Right,” he says, “I’ll be ready. And um, thanks.”

----------

 

Jared watches the game on a TV in the locker room. The crowd above him is a dull roll, like far-off thunder, more something he feels than hears. The vibration rumbles in his chest and words stream across the bottom of the television--the stats for Jensen “The Hawk” Ackles. The man’s record is pretty damn impressive, one of the highest scoring players on the circuit this year. He’s got a low number of personal fouls, spends next to no time in the penalty box. Texan, they say, but Jared’s heard a few sound bytes from interviews and he’s not sure about that.

The fans hate to love him, Jared knows from hanging out in bars. He’s got the looks and charisma of a face and the sneer and attitude of a heel. He doesn’t do autographs or charity events or smile for the camera, and he’s still the guy every man wants to be or be with, the one that women throw their panties at as he walks into the arena.

Jared watches the screen as Ackles catches the ball that’s passed to him, weaving his way between the opposing players, around the stretch and up through the rabbit hole. The opponent’s ‘cycle-man roars past as Ackles comes back into play, a second too soon to stop his last lap around the course.

The audience can see the hit coming before the players can, as a blue-clad, bull-shouldered Shark plows the last Sunbird defense. There’s nothing between him and Ackles’ right side. Jared winces as their paths collide. The monster on skates T-bones the lighter player and The Hawk is smashed off of his feet, down onto the lower level like he has no bones. For a heart-stopping second, Jared thinks maybe it’s over before it started, this job. Then Ackles turns over and pushes himself back up on his blades.

A buzzer sounds and Jared glances at the score. Sharks win by one. Ain't that a nice note to start this off.

Players start trickling into the locker room a few minutes later, some rolling, some walking. Jared stays out of their way, watching the door for his assignment. He expects Ackles to come straggling in, sore and tired. Instead, he roars in like a forest fire, hawk-shaped helmet under his arm, green eyes blazing. He’s gotta be six foot tall, but surrounded by the more massive players he looks almost slight. Damp hair clings to the edges of a face that’s full-on classical in its beauty. His lip curls in a sneer and hate makes him ugly.

“Costas!” he yells and one of the larger guys turns. “Where the fuck were you out there? Huh? You were supposed to be guarding my side!”

Ackles doesn’t even wait for an answer; his body coils and twists and he throws his helmet at the guy like he’s trying to score a point on his head. He misses by inches and the mirror behind Costas shatters with the impact.

“I was down,” the big man says, his hands up and defensive. He seems more sad at Ackles’ outburst than angry or afraid. “They took me down, Jensen, I’m sorry.”

“Don’t let it happen again,” Ackles snaps. He steps into the bigger man’s face and Jared tries to remember if keeping Jensen's team-mates from killing him was part of the deal. “It’s your god-damn job to be there when I need you!”

He turns and stalks away to his private locker area. Jared hesitates for a second, then ducks through the crowd and picks up the discarded helmet. He gets a few funny looks, but the players probably figure he couldn’t have gotten this far without clearance, so he’s safe enough.

The private dressing room is more of a niche with a massage table in the middle. For the briefest moment, Jared catches Ackles unguarded, his features not twisted by anger or whatever that had been. He looks scared, maybe, and his fingers shake as he works at the buckles of his sleek costume.

The plan clicks in Jared’s head, how to play this, how to handle this guy.

He raps on the open archway. His momma didn’t raise no stupid boys, and Jared can figure out how it would go if he snuck up on him.

Ackles' head snaps around at the sound, one hand coming up like he expects a fight.

“You dropped something,” Jared says with a lazy smile and a slow Texas drawl. He holds up the helmet, then sets it on the nearest locker.

Ackles’ lip curls. “The fuck are you?” His gaze flicks past Jared, like he’s trying to calculate if the rest of the team would help him or the intruder if they threw down.

“I’m Jared. Your new personal assistant.”

The slow up and down that Ackles gives him is nothing but calculating. “The company sent you?”

Jared smiles again, refusing to be intimidated by the cold appraisal. One show of weakness and it’s all over; it’ll be one long fight after that, trying to reclaim Ackles’ respect.

“Yessir,” Jared answers, the right amount of sarcasm in his tone. “Said to make sure you get whatever you need.” He takes a step away from the archway and nods towards the fasteners on Ackles’ leathers. “Give you a hand with that?”

The guy doesn’t relax much at all, but he does nod. Jared’s slow and easy on the approach. He unbuckles the straps and unlaces the eyelets. With care for the bruises that the fall must have left, he eases the jacket off of Ackles’ shoulders.

Jensen spreads his hands on the vinyl of the massage table. He doesn’t speak as Jared strips him, first of the ornamental outer gear and then the protective pads at his elbows, wrists and knees, the segmented guard that runs down his spine, the hard plates on his shins.

A tattooed hawk spreads its wings across Ackles’ back, all rust and gold, every feather outlined and shadowed, like it could fly off over his right shoulder. Jared resists the urge to trace it with his fingers, to feel it breathe.

The man’s head hangs low, strands of hair falling in lank strings in front of his eyes. Jared thinks maybe he’s asleep, standing up, when Ackles says, “They told you there’d be fucking, right?”

Jared sure as hell isn’t gonna pussy out at this point. “That’s what they said.”

Ackles turns around, stares into Jared’s eyes like he could laser through him with the cold burn of that gaze. “Lose the pants.”

Jared boggles at him for a heart-beat. He’s made a life of knowing what people want, when they’re interested in getting it. Ackles? Doesn’t look like he’s interested in some make-believe love scene or a quick hard fuck. He doesn’t even look turned on, beyond the fact that his dick’s hard.

This is about power then, and Jared knows he doesn’t have any. He shucks out of his jeans and toes his sneakers off. Ackles turns him around so he’s facing the table and kicks his feet apart, bringing Jared down to the right height.

Jared leans on the table and tries to relax. There’s a rip-crinkle sound behind him, and he half-turns and sees Ackles unrolling a condom onto his dick, thank God for that. A slick finger slides along Jared’s ass and he puts his forehead on the table, resigned to wait until it’s over.

Ackles slides in, no so much slow as steady. Jared can’t quite relax enough, and then his body tenses around the invading ache and burn. Ackles stops when his pubes press Jared’s ass and waits for a second. Jared breathes out, and Ackles seems to take that as the okay to move. He takes two firm strokes then stills. His fingers close in Jared’s hair, pull his head back. Jared twists enough to see the man out of the corner of his eye.

Ackles’ face is cold, his expression so guarded it’s like looking at a wall of ice. “I’ll fuck you,” he says, “But I won’t fuck you over.” He emphasizes his point with a hard snap of his hips.

“I know who pays your paycheck and I know you aren’t working for me.”

Jared fights the urge to whip his elbow back into Ackles’ pretty face.

“One day, they’ll tell you to do something that’s not in my interest, something that’ll get me hurt or killed.” He leans in until his voice is a hiss in Jared’s ear. “Screw me over, and I’ll see you broken, boy.” He pounds into Jared again, then stills. His fingers release Jared’s hair then stroke slow down his back in a ‘See? I can be nice if you let me,’ gesture.

“You’re a tool to them, Jared. And when the job’s done, they’ve got no reason to pay you off or keep you around to make trouble.”

Ackles eases out and steps back. Jared stays where he is, half-naked and bent over a table, while the other man wraps up in a towel.

“You decide whose side you’re on.” Ackles sounds almost sad as he says it, “Get back to me on that.”

Then he just walks off, probably to shower. Jared pulls himself together. He doesn’t look at Jensen's team-mates, though he’s sure some of them have watched the whole thing through the open archway. So much for respect.

He tries not to think about what Ackles said, about Brotski fucking him over, but he knows it’s true. The way Jared figures it, he’s got two options--trust Ackles or find a way to still be useful when this is all over.

He pulls his jeans back on with a wince. Right now, both options look equally shitty.

-------------

 

Jensen takes the last shower stall in the row. The good thing about being an asshole is that nobody will come down and check that he’s okay. The good thing about being Brotski’s golden boy is that nobody wants to kick his ass enough to risk Brotski’s anger.

The good thing about being alone is that there is nobody to see as he pulls the condom off of his still-hard dick. Guilt chokes him. He fucked that boy. And yeah. It wasn’t exactly rape; Brotski had paid for his ass, and the kid hadn’t said no. Still, something had flickered behind the hazel of his eyes, a hope dying, something else taking its place.

Jensen had fucked him to say “You’re not my friend,” and to show he’s not weak, not going to leave himself open, thanks to pity or mercy.

He turns the water to as hot as it goes. The heat feels cleansing; it washes away his tears but does nothing for the filth on his soul.

This is nothing, he tries to tell himself, just the tip of the iceberg of what he’d do to get the hell out of this game, back home to Texas.

A throat clears behind him and he nearly pulls something, he turns around so quick. It’s that kid, Jared, leaning against the tile wall, watching him like he enjoys what he sees.

“Didja mean it?” he asks Jensen, “What you said, about not fucking me over?” There’s a challenge in his eyes, and Jensen answers it with a tilt of his head.

“Can I trust you?” he asks. Not that he will. Not completely.

“Much as anybody can trust anybody, ‘round here,” Jared says, and Jensen respects that.

“I won’t screw you over first,” Jensen says.

Jared smiles, wide and slow. “So. You want some company in there?” He’s already stripping before Jensen nods.

This isn’t about desire, but Jensen can’t help but appreciate Jared’s lean lines and broad shoulders. Then the kid’s stepping into the water with him. Strong hands cup around Jensen's jaw, massage down slow, neck to shoulders to arms, all the way to his wrists. He can’t suppress a moan as tired muscles ease and relax.

It’s stupid. It’s weak. Still, he loses himself in how good those hands feel on him. He doesn’t protest when Jared turns him around, pulls him back against that muscular chest. When Jared’s hands slide down his stomach and the fronts of his thighs, it feels so good, like the massage just getting better and better.

Jensen ignores the press of Jared’s arousal against his ass, and moans deep in his throat as the taller man reaches down to cup his balls. Talented, practiced, fingers wrap around his cock, pulling and stroking him as the water streams warm and soothing over both of them.

“Want to try that fucking thing again?” Jared whispers, low and sensual in his ear.

“No,” Jensen coughs out. “No, this. Keep doing this.” He’s panting and thrusting. Jared’s hand is so slick and tight. He rubs his thumb over the tip of Jensen's dick, pressing just short of painful. It’s wrong and it’s good and Jensen spills over the boy’s fist with a hoarse cry on his lips.

Jared holds him up when his knees threaten to buckle. His laugh is soft, throaty.

Jensen turns in his grip, and discovers that he wants this, wants this kid in a way he hasn’t felt for way too long. Jensen used to have finesse. He used to know how to make it nice. Those parts of him are gone, and he holds Jared by his hair, elbow pinning his shoulder to the wall. He presses up with his knee, dangerously close to Jared’s nuts.

Their eyes meet, and this is more than a challenge, it’s a dare. Jared’s still grinning. Jensen thinks the expression on his own face might be more like a snarl. Jared could fight him. The guy’s like seven feet tall. He doesn’t though. Neither one breaks the stare-down as Jensen takes Jared’s dick in his hand, teases light touches over it, then firm. He can see the effect this has, what it does to be looking him in the eye as he touches Jared like this.

He fucks Jared with his eyes and his hand, slow and steady and then harder, faster. Don’t look away, he thinks, and Jared doesn’t. When he comes, he looks surprised, and Jensen hopes, he wants to believe, that this has mattered, that this has been a little bit real.

----------

 

When they’re done in the shower, clean and sated, they head back to the lockers to dress. Most of the team has cleared out already. Some guy in a suit, promoter or something, calls Ackles over. The two of them leave up the stairs to the control booth, and Jared’s left to amuse himself.

“Hey,” somebody calls, before he can get too bored. Jared turns, and that guy that Ackles threw the helmet at is waving him out to the hall. Jared isn’t stupid, and he keeps his head up and his eyes open as he walks over. It’s just Costas though, and some little dark-haired slip of a girl. Never mind that he thinks she was the one punching the shit out of some guy Jared’s size out on the track.

“Yeah?” Jared asks, ready for anything.

“I am Costas,” the big guy says. “This is Misha. We are check that you are okay, new boy.”

Jared almost laughs. Apparently he wasn’t as ready as he thought he was. “Yeah,” he says, “I’m good. Name’s Jared, by the way.” He glances over his shoulder. Jensen's still in the ‘meeting.’

“Watch yourself,” Misha says. Her accent is all rolling r’s and half-swallowed w’s. “You are new boy because old boy is broken of arm.”

Costas frowns. “He is not bad man,” he tells Misha as much as Jared. “He is changed, and maybe one day he will change back. We are his friends and should love him until he return to himself.”

Misha rolls her eyes like she doesn’t quite buy it, but Jared leaps at the chance to learn by hearing instead of fighting. “What changed him?” Jared asks. He can see Jensen through the control booth windows, moving towards the door. “What made him different?”

“My fault,” Costas says, and he’s watching Ackles too. “Six months ago in far country. Opponents distract us on the track. Some of them, they jump Jensen, lift him and throw him over wall to their fans. It was long time before security could get to him. He was not hurt bad but never the same. His smiles are ugly now.”

“Thanks,” Jared says, and he means it. He turns to go, and Costas’ hand on his arm stops him. “Here.” He slides a piece of paper into Jared’s fingers. “Is number for me. If you need help and don’t want to call the company.”

Jensen's almost on them then. He gives Jared a sharp nod, like one would command a dog with, and Jared falls into line with him. He expects Jensen to ask, to want to know what they said, what was up, but he never does.

Outside, the crowds are still surging, a party that’ll go on half the night. Jensen leads the way to a gold-colored Porche, and Jared gets in without a word. With the engine revving and tires squealing, Ackles bullies his way through the crowd to the open road.

The lights of the stadium are still visible behind them when Jensen pulls off into a parking spot. “You drive stick?” he asks, and Jared nods. Ackles gets out, so Jared does too. Halfway around, there’s an exchange of keys, and then Jensen's stretching out as much as he can in the passenger seat.

“Drive,” he says, sounding so tired. “Anywhere, just drive.”

Jared can’t tell if Ackles is asleep or just resting, but his face is relaxed, the line of his shoulders slack for the first time.

Jared drives, out of the city and into the countryside. The car’s GPS keeps him on track, not too far to go back again when Ackles is ready for the hotel.

He drives for hours, circling around the city. “Hey man,” he says at last, then waits for Jensen to wake himself up. “Hey, I’m falling asleep at the wheel here.”

Jensen sits up and gives him directions back to the hotel, his voice rough like he’s been out all night smoking and drinking.

Even this late, there’s a valet at the door to take the keys to the Porche, but Jensen carries his own bag up the elevator. His ‘room’ is a plush suite, neoclassical lines and brown on taupe on cream color scheme.

Ackles heads straight for what Jared presumes is the bedroom. Jared follows, only to have the freakin’ door slam in his face. Jared’s tired and confused and his head’s been fucked with too many times for one day.

“Where the fuck am I supposed to sleep?” he yells at the closed door, then bangs on it with the side of his fist. The ivory-painted wood gives suddenly under his assault, and a pile of pillows and blankets are shoved at his face.

“Anywhere but with me,” Ackles snarls, and slams the door again.

“Just fucking great! Be like that!” Jared shouts, and then takes his bundle of bedding over to the sofa.

The thing’s too short, more of a curved loveseat than a proper couch and Jared knows he’ll never fit. He drags the cushions off and over to the wall by the television cabinet. “Fucking asshole,” he grumbles as he tries to make a spot where the cushions won’t slip out from under him while still leaving him room for his legs. “Power-tripping jerk.”

He turns out the lights, already knowing his night is gonna suck big-time.

------------

 

Jensen sleeps for maybe three hours in the car, the isolation and hum of the road making him feel safe. As soon as they’re back to the hotel though, his worries come crashing back on him. He’d thought that was it, out on the track, when “The Tank” had broadsided him. He’d thought today was the day they were done with him, when his bloody end would make good ratings.

He has to get out, and that’s no joke. This game will kill him surer than cancer.

The kid tries to follow him to bed, and God, as much as he’d like to not be alone, he knows the freakin’ hotel room is bugged like the car. He can’t risk Jared saying something that the company will hear.

He can’t risk becoming emotionally attached to someone the company sent him. It’d be stupid and Jensen hasn't survived this long by being an idiot.

Alone in his room, Jensen works on the plan in his head. He’s got a new asset, maybe a liability too. He wants to play fair with Jared, let him earn Jensen's trust. First, he needs to know what he has to work with.

----------

Ackles’ toes to his ribs wakes Jared up in the morning. And okay, so it’s not really a kick so much as a nudge, but Jared’s not even in the mood.

“Why are you such an asshole?” he whines and stretches his aching limbs. Floors suck. Sleeping on floors sucks even more.

Ackles hands him a plain black helmet. “You skate?”

Jared can totally see why they needed to hire somebody to keep this guy alive. If it wasn’t his job, Jared would kill him himself.

“Now?”

Ackles reaches down and grabs Jared’s hand, hauling him up to his feet. “Now. Do you skate?”

Jared scrubs a hand over his face. “A little. Not like you guys.”

Ackles steers him over to the couch and starts strapping protective gear to his knees and elbows and wrists. There’s something hot about another man touching him like that, all business but in his personal space. Jared hasn’t even lost his morning wood, and Jensen on his knees at Jared’s feet isn’t helping--the thin tank-top and loose, low-slung pants either.

Sure, strong hands tape Jared’s ankles with white sports tape. “You’ll have less sensitivity this way, but I can’t afford to have you out with a sprain.” Then he puts a pair of heavy rollerblades on Jared’s feet, lacing them up so tight he thinks his feet will be numb in minutes.

Ackles puts on his own skates and a pair of gloves. Jared feels stupidly over-protected as they clomp out of the room and to the elevator. Wheels and carpet don’t work so well together and he catches himself on the brass rail to keep from going down. The lobby’s worse, the waxed and polished marble too-slick under his wheels.

“Come on,” Ackles says, surprisingly patient, “You can’t walk, you have to push, glide.”

“What am I doing here?” Jared asks when they hit the outside. The sun is just starting to lighten the horizon and the streetlights are still on. The rough cement of the sidewalk gives him enough friction to get his balance, and he starts to move better.

Jensen glances behind them, and Jared follows his gaze to a big black car, slowly pulling away from the curb at their hotel. Jared knows a tail when he sees one.

“We losin’ them?” he asks without looking over at Ackles.

“Not yet. I work out every morning; they’re used to this. Get your feet under you; I want to see what you can do.”

So they skate, Jared scuttling along while Ackles glides around him. He moves like the hawk he’s nicknamed for, swooshing up and down the street, sliding down rails and bouncing off of walls on his wheels. Just killing time and trying not to be bored out of his head keeping the pace so slow. Jared wonders what the usual morning workout looks like without a noob to slow him down.

Jared doesn’t even realize how Ackles is herding him, guiding him, until they slip down an alley too narrow for the car.

“Move,” Jensen says, pointing the way, and Jared goes, doing his best. He hasn’t felt this awkward since he was twelve and hit that growth spurt. They roll through alleyways and down sidewalks and through a tiny little park. At a deep doorway, Ackles grabs Jared’s arm and stops them, swinging Jared around and up against the wall.

They stand there for a moment, Ackles’ head cocked to the side like he’s listening for their pursuit.

“We can talk now,” Ackles says when he’s decided they’re in the clear. “What do you want? What are they offering you, what do I have to trump to get your loyalty?”

Jared shivers. Jensen's so close, up in his personal space. He’s so direct, not playing the games everyone else does in this new world. He’s never seen eyes like Jensen's, burning in their intensity.

“I want to go home,” Jared says before he can stop himself, before he can figure out what his opening bid should be for the haggling. “I want to get back to the states. Back to Texas.”

Jensen's eyes narrow. “They tell you to say that?”

Jared’s skates and safety gear suddenly feel more dangerous than protective as Ackles leans in against his chest. If they fight here, he’s not going to be able to keep his feet, never mind getting enough balance to throw much of a punch. Jensen fights on skates for a living.

“No, man. They don’t even know that’s what I want their money for.” He tries to push every bit of earnestness he has out through his eyes, to force Ackles to believe him. “I got stuck here during the crash, no money to get back; my parents lost their house, their jobs, nobody can afford to send me a ticket.” He fights back the stupid display of emotion that threatens to choke him.

“I haven’t--I haven’t even spoken to them in a year. I just want to go home.”

He expects Ackles to laugh at him or deck him. Instead, he steps back, the permafrost thawed in his eyes. “Okay,” he says, like he’s come to some great conclusion, “Okay. I can work with that.”

-------

Istanbul

“Here,” Ackles whispers in the arena parking lot as he slides a cell-phone into Jared’s hand. “Don’t use it in the hotel room or the car or anywhere the company has control over the security cameras.”

Jared looks down at the phone, a quick glance before he hides it in his pocket. It’s got the logo of one of the pre-paid companies. Virtually untraceable.

“Do you understand?” Ackles asks, impatient. Jared bobbles his head in agreement.

“No problem. Jensen, where did you get this?” They’ve been together all day every day since the first time they met. Except when Jensen closed the bedroom door at night, which Jared still didn’t get, and who the heck tips whores with expensive cell-phones when they’re not even fucking?

“It doesn’t matter,” he whispers back, waving for the flashing cameras of his fans. His smile is hard and fake, but it’ll make good posters, good television stills. “There’s five hundred US minutes on there. Don’t let it go to waste.”

A part of Jared feels sick, knowing this stupid phone cost half what it would take to get home. Ackles could just send him home; he’s apparently got the money to do it. He doesn’t know why this particular customer’s selfishness pisses him off so bad, but it does.

Jared’s angry all through the game, through helping Jensen dress before and undress after. He’s angry as Ackles drives them back to the hotel. He’s pissed off when Ackles gets off the elevator at their floor, and points Jared down the hall. “Switch to the service elevator, go up on the roof. Make sure they don’t follow you.”

In a corner of the roof, between some air conditioner thing and the wall, he calls information and fights the long-distance phone codes. The last time he talked to his family, they were losing the house, and he’s not surprised the home phone number is long gone. He goes through his memories, trying to think of where his parents would have gone, who would give them shelter. He hits dead ends--friends who haven’t heard from them in months, disconnected lines. Finally, finally he gets a number for his great-aunt Betty that rings through.

He hates Ackles, right up until the moment Betty hands his mom the phone. Her voice is scratchy and hollow over all that distance, but still his momma’s.

“JT? Jared! Oh, God, we’d been so worried.”

Jared’s crying like a baby, and he’s almost glad he couldn’t make this call in the hotel room or anywhere that anybody might see him like this. “I’m okay,” he says. “I’m okay, momma. I’m trying to get home.”

---------

There’s a bar in the flashier part of the city. There’s always a bar.

It’s a game, pretending to drink, pretending to laugh and have a good time. Some of the others know he’s faking--Costas, probably Misha. Those who almost knew him, before. They’re way on the other side of the club though.

Jared’s standing a few feet away, leaning against the wall, trying to be a bodyguard without looking like he’s squashing Jensen's good time.

There’s a dark haired girl grinding in Jensen’s lap, pretty enough, for a girl. It’s what people expect of him, the fans, the hard-partying crowd around them. Her eyes are dark and her lips too red, but she reminds him of home, of the sweet Latinas he knew there. There’s a similarity in their exoticness, and he tries to lose himself in her body rocking against his, tries to forget the tall man beside him who makes him ache for Texas.

Not-thinking about Jared forces him to think of him. Jensen can’t help but look up, and Jesus, how did the kid survive this long with that crappy a poker face. Everything Jared’s feeling is written in the lines of his face--his anger, jealousy, pain. It hurts just to look at him and Jensen's stomach twists. This--it can’t mean what the kid wants it to, but Jensen isn’t in the mood to kick puppies tonight. It’s not worth it, too much work, too much fallout, just to get his rocks off.

“Get off me,” he says to the girl, and when she smiles and grinds down against him, he pushes her off his lap.

“I said, go away,” he tells her, shooing her off with an imperious wave of his hand. Fuck this. If they’re gonna call him an asshole anyway, he can get away with being one. The chick finds her footing, standing and screaming in Jensen's face in whatever foreign language they speak around here.

Then Jared’s there between them, all “Look, I’m really sorry, but you need to leave now,” his voice all reasonable and calm, and she goes.

“The hell was that?” Jared asks, leaning in to be heard over the pounding bass of the club.

“No fucking style,” Jensen hollers back, knowing that neither of them believe it.

“Anyone tell you you’re picky as shit?” Jared teases, but there’s an edge to it, and Jensen figures he’s been taking all those nights with the bedroom door shut and all those days spent not-fucking to heart.

He can’t say “I want you so bad it’s dangerous” or “I can’t afford to fuck someone I care about,” so he snickers and waves the comment off, promising himself that when this is all over, he’ll do something, anything to make it up to the kid.

-------

 

Jensen gets fucked up in Prague. One second he’s flying across the track in a pack of his team, and the next, Misha’s going down under his wheels. He dodges desperately to the inside. An opponent’s motorcycle roars by, clipping his shoulder as it passes, spinning him around and dumping him like road kill against the wall.

It hurts like hell--he can’t even figure what’s fucked up, he hurts so much all over, but he stands and grins that ‘fuck you’ grin that the sponsors love. Fuck you for making money on my pain, fuck you for not letting me out, fuck you and your control and your spies and your tempting Texas-boy piece of ass.

The crowd roars to see him back on his feet. He manages to keep grinning, keep skating, through the last minutes of the game and the god-damn victory lap. His left arm’s screwed; he can’t bring that hand up past his shoulder. There’s a sharp pain in his chest when he breathes too hard and he’s never been so grateful for the dark tunnel heading back to the locker room.

Costas guides him to where Jared’s waiting, helps him up onto the table.

“Keys,” Jensen says before Jared can start making the fuss he’s drawing a breath for. “Keys. To the car, they’re in my bag. Gotta get out of here.”

“Ackles--” says Jared, frustration dripping from the word. “You’re hurt, man, you need a medic.”

“Shut up,” Jensen says under his breath. “Shut up. Get me out of here. They can’t know, they can’t see.” One foot in front of the other, he can do this. He has to. He’s too close to stop now.

He stares at Jared, waiting to see if this is when he turns, if this is when he gives Jensen up.

“You’re crazy,” Jared whispers as he bends down and gets Jensen out of the roller blades and into a pair of boots. “If you fucking die and I’m left here alone, I’m screwed, man.”

“Not gonna die,” Jensen says as he stands up again, although it hurts so bad that death seems like a damn viable option.

------

Jared gets Ackles back to the hotel, up a back elevator to avoid the eager eyes of the fans that loiter in the lobby. He swears the man almost passes out with the pain of getting out of the car. He’s so pale he’s almost grey, and Jared wonders if his teeth hurt, his jaw’s clamped so tight the muscle keeps twitching

In Ackles’ room, Jared slowly strips the flashy leathers and sturdy safety gear off Ackles’ bruised body. This--this isn’t what he signed up for. He’s not a doctor, damn it. “Look--” he starts, but Ackles shakes his head and points over to the radio. Paranoid fuck.

Once there’s some background noise going, Jared comes closer and whispers his unprofessional diagnosis.

“You need a doctor, you stupid shit.”

Ackles smirks that death’s head grin, no humor in it at all.

“Can’t be out,” he says back, “Two weeks, the beginning of the South American tour. Mexico City. If they pull me from the track, we’ll miss the best chance we have of getting to the states. If they know I’m hurt, they might wreck me and cash in on the ratings spike.”

Jared, to his shame, doesn’t argue right off. “Dude, I think your collarbone’s broken. You really think you can play?”

Jensen nods, his hair sweaty against the pillow. “You’ll wrap it for me. I’ll rest. One more game in the Med and one in Mexico. Then we’ll slip across the border and home.”

“You’re crazy,” Jared says, even as his stomach twists. He wants this, has wanted it for two years.

 

-------

Watching Ackles play with a broken bone is the most horrible thing Jared’s seen, and he’s witnessed a lot in the recent past. The mask shadows Ackles’ eyes, and he tries to hide the pain behind his usual cocky posture, but Jared can see it in the hesitation taking the ball, the crooked landing after he scores a point.

Their coach sees it too, and Jensen's waved back to the bench twice, but each time he grins and shakes his head and goes right back out again.

Brotski notices too, and Jared’s called up to the box seats in the middle of the game.

“What is this shit?”

Brotski is even scarier in a suit than he had been in his smoking jacket. At least Jared doesn’t have to see him naked this time.

Jared plays stupid at first. “It’s um--what?”

Brotski’s hand comes down hard on the table in front of him, making Jared jump like he’s shot. “Ackles plays like the shit. Like the bad shit. This costs me money. I want to know why.”

Jared tries to crush down the fear the little man instills in him, but power is power, and this guy doesn’t have to be big to make Jared disappear off the face of the earth.

“I’m sorry,” says Jared, going for contrite, “I’m sorry. We stayed up a little late, partied a little hard. He wanted an exciting night before the game and I wanted to make sure he’s having a good time.” He leaves the ‘how else can I be there to screw him up when it’s time?’ unspoken.

Brotski’s eyes narrow, and guys like that are used to far better liars than Jared will ever be. Still, he seems to believe it. “He is pleased with you, yes?”

“Yeah,” Jared nods. “He’s all into the sex and everything. And he hasn’t fucked anybody else since I came around.” At least it’s half the truth.

“Good!” says Brotski. “This is excellent to hear. Soon, there may be a thing we need for him to do. We will call you when we need for you to influence him.”

And that’s--it. Jared leaves the box and heads down to the locker room to be there for Ackles and he wonders, Can it really be that easy?

-----------

The move to Mexico City is mind-boggling. Everything goes--the ring, the players, the cars, the gear. The Sunbirds take three cargo planes and a chartered 747 across the Atlantic.

Jared ignores the procession except when it affects him directly. He only has eyes for Ackles. The guy looks like hell. The constant pain is taking its toll, and the meager pills Misha and Costas have been able to score don’t seem to make much difference. He’s not running a fever, but his collar bone is a deep angry purple and Jared’s sure its healing crooked. Eating’s a joke, not gonna happen. Jared has enough work talking him into drinking some water on a regular basis.

“One more game,” Ackles whispers to Jared whenever they’re alone. “I need you. One more game and we’re out of this forever, both of us.” He doesn’t have the energy to kick Jared out of the bedroom anymore. Jared sleeps on his good side, one hand flat on Jensen's stomach, just feeling him breathe.

Jared’s pretty sure he trusts Jensen. They’ve lived this far, Jensen's paid his passage with pain and Jared’s paid him back with trust, lying to Brotski, risking his life. Still, he’s not sure the guy’s gonna be able to pull it off in the end, and if he hides in the alley behind the hotel and makes a few calls, who the hell can blame him, huh?

-----------

 

“Here.” Jensen puts the roll of bills in Jared’s hand. Getting cash wasn’t easy. Getting cash with some actual value in these parts was even trickier, but he’s had a long time to plan this.

“On the way to the ring, I’ll stage a diversion. You get out of the arena and get us a car. Buy it, steal it, rent it, I don’t care.” Jared nods, but he looks shaky, nervous. It’s too late now, if the kid’s screwing him over. He’s got no choice but to trust him or give up. He can’t do it on his own now, not with the bad arm.

He takes the last of the pain pills in the locker room as Jared suits him up for the match. His shoulder’s taped to hell and back, but he knows it’s not gonna be much use. All he has to do is stay in the ring until the game is over. All he has to do is not get carried out on a stretcher.

On the way to the arena, just in sight of the cameras and the seats nearest the entry, Costas comes up and bumps him, right on schedule. Jensen shoves him back, cursing and shouting and Jared slips off past security.

Right on plan.

Everything stays on plan too, through the first quarter. Then the coach calls Jensen back to the bench, and when he goes, an earpiece with a tiny microphone is slipped up inside his helmet and the coach points up to the owner’s box.

“You thought you could fool me?” Brotski’s voice is like honey-covered razor blades in the ear. “You and your pretty boy.”

And there’s Jared, standing next to Brotski. There’s blood on his face and a gun to his head and Jensen's world slips sideways.

“What do you want?” His voice is a feeble whisper. It’s over; it’s all over and he’s out of plans, out of ideas.

“It is too late for you, Hawk. For you to leave would be bad precedent for others.”

Jared flinches away from the muzzle of the gun and Jensen can see, even over the distance that he hurts.

“Just let him go,” Jensen pleads, knowing it’s weakening his stance but unable to stop himself. “He never had any power in all this.” And even if it’s a ruse, even if Jared’s chosen now to betray him, even if the blood is fake, Jensen can’t find it in himself to hate him.

“You will play the game,” Brotski answers. “You will score points. You will fight hard. You will not quit.”

Jensen swallows hard. It’s funny, how distant he feels from his own death sentence. At least he’s moved most of his money to his family’s account. All his loose ends are tied up, all but Jared. “And you’ll let him go.”

“Sure.” Says Brotski, but it sounds like a joke.

-----------

 

Ackles plays the game. He scores points. He fights hard and he doesn’t quit.

His face is bloody and his arm hangs limp.

Jared’s heart bleeds for him.

If he wasn’t waiting, if he didn’t have hope, he’d put up the fight now, make Brotski shoot him in the head, make Brotski kill him before Jensen tortures himself to death on the track instead of after.

There’s a disruption at the door; a shotgun goes off in the small space, deafening Jared for a second. The guard falls back, shirt and flesh in tatters. In Brotski’s moment of confusion, Jared twists the gun away from him and snaps his elbow the wrong way in one sharp motion.

Brotski’s screaming and holding his arm to himself, and Jared thinks of Jensen, walking around with a fucking broken collar bone for two weeks. The gun’s a good weight in Jared’s hand and he hits Brotski in the face with it, hits him until he’s not moving anymore.

Jared stares down at what he’s done for long moments. Then he looks to the door and god-damn if there’s anything better than a familiar face.

“C’mon,” he says, “We gotta get down there. They’re killin’ him.”

------

Jensen plays the game. He scores points. He fights hard and he doesn’t quit. He’s not sure where his helmet has gone. He hopes they find it to bury him in.

Every punch he takes, every fall to the unforgiving floor of the track is another breath for Jared, another moment of life. When he can, when he’s not busy getting the shit kicked out of him, Jensen looks up at the owner’s box and sees Jared there with the gun pointed at him.

On the next pass, Jared’s gone. Brotski’s gone. There’s nothing but a dull chant of the crowd, “Tejas! Tejas!” Spanish for Texas, and he’s not sure why that’s the cry the crowd has picked up, and he really needs to find Jared, but the gap the players came in through was filled by a piece of wall at the beginning of the match, bolted into place to provide a smooth surface to skate against.

Jared’s disappearance gives him a second wind--more like a fourth or fifth if he’s being honest with himself, but who’s counting? He slides between opponent and friend alike. Nobody swings at him. Around the back pass, there’s a shape at the top of the plexi-glass wall, a hand reaching down for him. He stumbles and almost falls. Jared. Jesus, Jared’s out, Jared’s there.

He’s too far past by the time he gathers his senses, and he makes a second loop around. Nobody stops him, nobody reaches for him.

There’s silence, like the entire crowd took a collective breath, and then his hand catches around Jared’s wrist, and Jared’s fingers close around his and the crowd roars its approval.

For one sickening moment, it feels like Jared’s tilting into the ring, but then he catches his balance and Jensen's being lifted up, out of the track, over the wall. A spike of fear stabs through his heart at the thought. The crowd is like an angry sea, eager to crush him, drown him, tear him against the reef.

“Tejas! Tejas!” they chant.

“I’ve got you,” Jared promises.

“Go and be safe,” Costas urges. The big guy bends down, grabs Jensen around the knees and lifts him up to Jared.

The fight’s gone out of him and Jensen lets himself be lifted. He can’t struggle as he’s handed down on the other side. Jared and another tall guy cradle him between them and the crowd parts just enough to let them past. The noise has fallen to a breeze-like murmur. The fingertips of hundreds of strangers trail over his body as he’s carried out the door to a waiting pickup truck.

--------

 

The world moves under Jensen, an unsteady bump and rattle that makes him think again of the ocean, of being carried away, churned under. Fear of the mob makes him open his eyes, and he sees a canvas stretched a few feet over his face. A filthy mattress is under him, and the walls of a pickup truck bed to either side. Looking down by his feet, he can see the lights of the city growing smaller in the distance.

Even in the shadow of the tarp and the breeze from their travel, the dry heat swirls around him, feeling like home.

Jared is beside him, stretched out asleep. His face has been cleaned up but the cut over his eye is crusted black with dried blood. He looks to be at peace. His broad hand is splayed out on Jensen's stomach, holding him down, keeping him safe.

It’s enough. Jensen lets himself fade out again, the trails of his thoughts dissipating like smoke.

The next time Jensen is really aware, he’s waking up in a hotel room. He has vague recollections of the time between the truck and now--switching vehicles, taking pills, Jared holding him down while somebody else does something really shitty to Jensen's bad shoulder.

He remembers tears, and he opens his eyes, searching for Jared.

“Hey,” Jared murmurs, low and calming. A strong hand rests on Jensen's chest. “Don’t move if you don’t have to. It’s okay. We’re safe now.”

Jensen blinks up, catching sight of three other men in the room.

“Who--” he asks, his voice dry and gritty. “How--”

Jared grins, this big beaming smile that Jensen's never seen on him before. “This is my brother Jeff, and his friends Alan and Frank.” The guys nod their greetings. Jared shrugs, sheepish. “I thought we needed a plan B.”

“Yeah,” says Jensen, because obviously his plan sucked. “You got caught.” He wishes he was making more sense, but his thoughts won’t organize themselves into anything like logic.

Jared gets up and brings him a small cup of water before he answers. “Misha. She told Brotski about the drugs, about the cash.”

And probably caused the wreck on the track on purpose.

Jensen closes his eyes, processing that. He knows he should be angry but he doesn’t have the energy for it.

“Where are we?” He’s already starting to plan the next steps. “Brotski--”

“Brotski’s dead,” Jared says, and he doesn’t sound sorry at all. “We’re halfway to San Antonio. Figured we’d stay here a day and let you get some strength back. Alan set your shoulder, but it’s not gonna be a fun drive.”

“Okay,” says Jensen, because Jared seems to be waiting for some sort of answer.

“I gave them the money,” Jared confesses. “Instead of buying a car or something.”

Jensen's amazed that even now, Jared’s worried about seeming like he ripped Jensen off. “It’s okay,” he says again, and covers Jared’s hand with his good one.

Jared lays his long body out beside Jensen, and it seems so strange to be resting like this in front of Jared’s brother and his friends, but unless somebody’s throwing punches Jensen can’t bring himself to care.

-------

San Antonio

Jared’s glad to see his family welcome Jensen in with open arms. He’s the guy who brought their son home, the hero. Jared laughs at that and says he did at least half the rescuing but he knows they couldn’t have done it without each other.

Nobody says anything when they share a room, share a bed. Not even Jensen, thank god. Jared never planned on having anything to do with the guy when it was all over, but those last two weeks had changed him, changed them.

Jensen “Not-The-Hawk” Ackles is a different man, quiet, introspective, polite. Jared takes the weeks of Jensen's recuperation to get to know him, to talk about life in Texas and growing up and who they are. Jensen tells him the story of how the skate-punk he’d been was seduced by the bright lights and big paychecks, how he’d loved it until he realized he couldn’t leave the game alive. Jared tells Jensen how he got stuck in Europe in the crash, the things he did to keep off the streets.

Jensen doesn’t ask for much, for anything really, so when he wants a ride to the bank, Jared borrows a car and drives him himself. Jensen's inside for a long time, and when he comes out, he presses an envelope into Jared’s hand.

“This is for you,” he says, his eyes staring out the passenger side window.

Jared opens the flap with numb fingers. Inside, in Euros, is enough cash to pay for that college education he would have been getting if everything hadn’t gone wrong with the world.

It feels like goodbye.

“Jensen, man--I can’t take this,” he says, even as he knows what it can do for him, for his family.

Jensen shrugs and looks down at his hands. “You deserve it. You kept me sane when I would have lost my mind. You gave me something to live for. You don’t--you don’t have to pretend anymore.”

Jared blinks. “Pretend? What the hell?” He restrains himself from shaking Jensen by his shoulders. He wants to smack him, but Jensen looks too beaten already, so he gently turns the other man’s face to look at him.

“I love you, you asshole. Jesus.” He leans in and brushes their lips together. Jensen's breath hitches and he shivers. Then he’s kissing Jared back and it’s more than Jared ever thought it would be.