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He jerked awake to the smell of antiseptic and the alien pressure of a feeding tube snaked down his nose and throat. Panic announced itself with hard, reflexive gags and shifted into overdrive when he felt his limbs restrained, immobile. Blood pounded through his head, joining in on the cacophony of his choking coughs and a high-pitched beeping marking double time with his heart rate. He blinked rapidly through spilled tears, fat drops rolling down his cheeks, and found his left leg in a cast and right arm bound tight to his chest in a sling. He tried to move it, to lift his hand, and pain shot through him, stealing the air from his lungs.

He groped at the feeding tube, left hand heavy and unwieldy, fingers uncoordinated, trailing tubes attached to his arm. His fingers finally wrapped around it when large hands stopped him, one covering his, the other on his shoulder, gentle but firm pressure pushing him back against the bed.

"-s okay, it's okay, Mr. Ackles. You're fine, you're in a hospital, and I need you to focus on your breathing. Take deep, even breaths. Can you do that for me?"

Breathe, he needed to breathe. "In... and out... there you go." His chest rose and fell, and he was able to focus on the nurse in front of him. When he looked up, the man smiled. "Good, that's good. I'm very glad to see you awake, Mr. Ackles."

He blinked, thoughts processing the information at a grindingly slow rate. Ack-les..? He was awake now. So he'd been asleep.

"How are you feeling?" He stared at the nurse. Something was missing. Something....

"Mr. Ackles, I’m going to remove your feeding tube now. I’m just going to sit you up." He picked up the remote for the bed as he spoke, pressing a button to raise him to a sitting position.

Ackles. He mouthed the word silently, tube shifting uncomfortably in his throat, and the nurse's expression flickered.

“There’s going to be some slight discomfort, but it’ll be over with quickly.” The nurse removed the tape around his nose and began to pull out the hard plastic tube as gently as he could. With most of it out, he paused and looked up. “Alright, one last pull.”

One long pull, and he gagged around it, throat convulsing even as the tube popped right out his nostril.

“There we go. Can you tell me how you’re feeling?” The nurse immediately tossed the tube into the bin and turned back, eyeing him carefully. "Are you having trouble speaking?"

"I - " His voice came out rough as gravel from disuse and soreness. "I don't - I don't know why I'm here."

The nurse pursed his lips, considering, eyed the numbers on the monitor and plucked up his chart. His voice was calm and gentle. "You were attacked, and brought to the hospital. How's your memory, Mr. Ackles? What's the last thing you can remember?"

Cold seeped through his bones. His eyes fell to where his arm lay in its sling.

"Jensen?"

Jensen. Jensen Ackles. That was his name. He knew it. He knew it was his, while simultaneously realizing that he didn't know anything else. He searched his memory and was met with a void. Black and yawning, and his chest tightened sharply as fear turned the screw. "I don't," his voice warbled. "I can't remember. I can't remember anything, I - "

A hand settled on his shoulder, and the nurse bent into his line of sight, cutting through his panic. "But you know your name?"

Jensen nodded slowly.

"Then let's start there and I'll tell you what I know. My name's David, and it's great to finally meet you, Jensen." With that, he flipped through Jensen's chart and started going over it with him, filling him in until the doctor arrived.

 

Hours later, he fingered the new, still tender skin healing on the side of his temple. They weren't sure what he was hit with, but judging by the trauma to the rest of his body, they thought it was a pipe or bat. The doctor guessed it was also what caused his ulna and proximal tibia fractures. He'd been unconscious for two weeks. Sleeping while his body healed, they said. They said ‘sleep’ but he knew they meant 'coma'. The doctor told him his blood work showed positive for Super, but couldn't tell him what his ability was. That kind of test cost too much to run on every patient.

A detective showed up to tell him he was found beaten in an alley and to ask questions he didn't know the answers to. She gave him his wallet. His cash and credit cards were still there, and an ID. His eyes flicked over the information. 'Neg' was printed where his Super class should've been. Detective Ferris informed him he was unregistered with a tone of voice that meant he'd be having a long conversation with her sometime in the near future about that.

It only half registered with him. He was too busy studying his face on the ID, reading his address, his name. Jensen Ross Ackles.

All in all, by the end of the day he was exhausted without having done more than let them remove the feeding tube and struggle to eat some jello with his left hand.

It was late by the time he was finally alone. Or maybe not late, but eight PM felt more like two in the morning and he stared mindlessly, not really seeing his sterile room.

He knew what he was called, but not who he was. And no one ever showed up to tell him. When he asked, David had told him, as softly as he could manage, that no one had showed up to visit him. No spouse. A mom and dad, and two siblings, yet no one had bothered to stop in.

His mind churned until sleep finally dragged him under.

----

It was another week before he was discharged from the hospital. An agonizing week of physical therapy and learning new limitations. He had to use a wheelchair until the leg cast could come off in another two weeks, but he could live with that. The staff gave him a referral and set up an appointment with a therapist. The detective gave him her card just in case he remembered anything, then proceeded to comment on just how interesting it was that whoever mugged him took his phone, but left his wallet intact with cash and credit cards. She had a habit of doing that. Making pointed observations without actually asking him questions that they both know he can't answer.

Jensen quickly became aware that maybe whoever he was, is, he wasn't living entirely on the up and up. In the midst of her seemingly endless stream of ‘Do you remember …’ questions, the detective’s already sharp gaze kicked up a notch when she asked about his job. Did he recall anything about his employment prior to waking up? No. Did he know anything about The Seventh Circle Casino? No. Had he ever met the owner, Mark Pellegrino? The name didn’t mean anything to him. Did he recall working as the Security Operations Director at The Seventh Circle? He blinked. No. He didn’t remember anything.

After a long, assessing silence, she leaned in, eyes unflinching. “Do yourself a favor, Mr. Ackles. Do not try to get your old job back. You ever talk to Mark Pellegrino again and we might have our next conversation when I haul you in for questioning.” She drew back. “He’s bad news. You understand?”

Not in the slightest. “Yes, ma’am.”

The look on her face told him that she was just as skeptical as he was, but she moved on to other questions just the same.

The detective didn’t say another word about Mark Pellegrino, and she never charged him with being unregistered either. He didn't know if she'd just decided to overlook it or if she was just waiting and building a bigger case against him. Either way, once he was released from the hospital, he took a taxi straight to the address on his driver's license and not down to the station, so he chalked it up as a win.

 

His home address turned out to be an apartment on the third floor. Getting into the building with his wheels was a small struggle, but when he rolled into the lobby and discovered an elevator he said a small, grateful prayer. The apartment wasn't anything fancy, but it wasn't bad either, and he liked the morning sun shining into the living room. But the sun was about the only hint of warmth in the place. The apartment showed clear signs of life: a stack of junk mail and bills, a TV with an Xbox, a closet full of what must've been his clothes. But there was no computer, no phone, and not a single photo. Pictures were what he'd wanted to see the most. But there was nothing. No family, no friends, nothing to tie him to the outside world. No one who could tell him who the fuck he was and what had happened.

The nothingness overwhelmed him. How could a person not have these things? What person didn't have a single photo in their home? An empty cell phone charger sat on the nightstand by his bed. Anger rushed over him, punching the air from his lungs. His hands clenched, fisting with the need to... the need to do something, he didn't know what, even as it scratched the back of his mind. And just like that, the anger abandoned him. It evaporated completely, leaving him helpless and lost.

His eyes started to burn. He wanted that goddamn phone. He knew there were answers on there. Knew it. Jensen shut his eyes and focused on forcing the tears away. He'd kept things together since he woke up. Not a single freak out, despite the fear and frustration that constantly seemed only a hairsbreadth away from taking over. He tamped it down ruthlessly. Shoved it to the back of his head. It wouldn't do any good. Indulging in that weakness wouldn't give him any answers.

No phone. No computer. He knew it wasn't typical. So either he was a weirdo, living a weirdo's life, or someone took them. Took them for the same reason that someone left him bleeding and beaten to an inch of his life in some alley.

But maybe it was better this way. The thought skittered through his head, like a small revelation. If that was the kind of life he was living, if he was the kind of person that this shit happened to, then maybe it was better that he didn't know. He could start with a clean slate. He was already halfway there after all, with this apartment and all its impersonal furnishings. It was a blank slate.

Jensen picked up the ID, met the eyes staring back at him from the tiny photo. "Alright, Jensen Ackles. Who are you going to be?"

----

"You have a limited range of movement in that arm and a limp in your right leg." Jeff nodded at the arm Jensen had rested on the glass counter as casually as possible. A coldness pooled in his belly. He hadn't been wearing his sling during his job search, but this was the first person to have caught on. And it would still be several weeks before he could walk without his brace.

Jeff crossed his arms across his barrel chest. "We have high shelves, heavy product, you have to be on your feet the whole time, and I'm really looking for someone that I can use on the project side, too." He paused, eyes hard on Jensen. "And you don't have a single reference of past employment. So tell me, boy. Why should I hire you on?"

Jensen swallowed past the lump in his throat. He hated this. Begging for a chance in front of a solid man like this. Jeffrey Dean Morgan, he'd introduced himself as, with a sure grip and a warm smile. A man that projected strength and self-sufficiency. The kind of man that Jensen wanted so badly to be since he woke up over a month ago. He licked his lips.

"I just need a chance, sir."

Morgan just kept on looking at him, and Jensen fought not to flinch. "Why? So you can hurt yourself while trying to push too hard?"

"No. No, sir. I was, I was in an accident, but I'm getting better. I'm healing up quick." The words hurt. They physically hurt to say, to drag his weakness out in the air. He braced himself to see pity. He didn't want it. He just wanted a job. That's it. A chance to show his worth, earn a paycheck. Jensen dragged his gaze up from where it had fallen to the counter. But all he saw on Jeff’s face was assessment.

Jeff gave a slow nod. "Alright. Tell you what. We'll start you off working the counter, some basic stocking. Give you a chance to finish healing up. Then we'll see how you're fitting in and go from there." Disbelief must've shown on Jensen's face, because the corner of Jeff's mouth twitched upwards. "Sound alright?"

Jensen blinked and threw off his shock. "Yes, sir. Absolutely."

That warm, slow grin cracked across Morgan's face again, and he uncrossed his arms to extend a hand. "Well, alright then." Jensen clasped his hand, grinning from sheer relief as a weight lifted off his shoulders.

"Thank you. I appreciate this, and I won't let you down." He couldn't keep the earnestness from his voice, even though it made him sound closer to twenty than his thirty-two.

Jeff waved it away. "Be here at six tomorrow. You'll knock out the paperwork and 'lona will show you how to open."

Jensen nodded and took his cue, feet already backing him out of the shop. "I will, thank you, sir. I'll be there."

Morgan's shout followed him out the door. "And quit calling me sir!"

----

Jensen untangled two entwined tomato vines with careful fingers. He considered the small army of unsold plants. It might be time to re-stake them. He'd give it one more weekend. Saturdays and Sundays were the busiest time for moving plants, decorative and edible plants alike. He stroked a hairy leaf one more time before bracing himself, and pushing to his feet awkwardly. His first step was more of a graceless lurch, but his bad leg loosened up as he went.

"You're like an old man, Jensen. My granddaddy moves quicker than you."

The shop was empty of customers, so he shot a middle finger in the general direction of Alona's teasing voice. When she wasn't training him how to avoid setting the place on fire or letting the customers rob them blind over the past several weeks, she mostly gave him shit like the kid sister he didn't remember having. It was comfortable and easy to slip into. Jeff didn't look like he was planning to fire him any time soon and Jensen's world has found a little solid ground.

He soaped his hands thoroughly, determined to get the stickiness off. He didn't know what it was the tomato stems and leaves secreted, but it rubbed off every time, leaving his fingers tacky. "We're down to just one row of tomatoes left," he called out.

Alona's reply drifted back from somewhere down an aisle. "Yeah, they'll deliver in a couple days. We have a standing order for all plants with a local grower. Exact product changes as the season goes on, but we can look over the typical shipments - " her voice cut off at the ring of the bell over the front door. He waited to hear her greet the customer, but her usual cheerful hello never came.

Jensen cocked his head, but heard nothing. He shut off the water and could just make out the murmur of lowered voices. Curiosity and awkwardness struck as he dried his hands. Must be someone she knew and wanted a little privacy with. Her voice rose just a bit, anger coloring it, and his hesitation evaporated. The other voice settled into a man's as he got closer. When he rounded the aisle whatever polite interruption he was going to make died on his lips.

A very solid white man leaned into Alona, pressing her back against the shelving. Packages of nails slid off the rack and clattered to the floor. Her expression was furious and her hands were up between them, defensive. The man lifted his hand, whether to grab her wrist or waist, Jensen couldn't tell, he just moved. Without thinking, he grabbed the man's wrist and wrenched it back, twisting his arm up behind him. The man shouted in surprise and pain, but before he could react Jensen already had his shoulder in a tight grip with his other hand. Using the twisted arm to steer, he forced the man back to the entrance.

"Jensen!" Alona called. "You don't have to - "

"Let go of me!" The man struggled and he had some heft, but Jensen was solid, too, and with the painful lock on his arm, the man couldn't get his footing long enough to break the hold. Jensen smashed the man against the door, the overhead bell jangling madly, using him to push it open. As soon as they cleared the entrance, Jensen shoved him, sending him stumbling across the gravel parking lot.

He waited until the man gained his footing and turned around. Jensen saw his eyes flicker to where Alona stood behind him. "Hey," he snapped, and the guy's attention shot back to him. "You don't treat people like that. Apologize and leave."

Alona snorted behind him. "Fat chance," she muttered. And if the burning red cheeks and fury all over the guy's face was any indicator, she was right.

"Who the hell do you think you are?” the guy snapped. “We were having a private discussion."

Alona slipped around Jensen to stand beside him. "Just leave, Stephen," she said, voice and eyes hard. "It's over and the next time you do something like this I'm going to call the cops."

Her words didn't sink in at all. His eyes shifted from her to Jensen and back to her again. "He your new boyfriend 'lona?" he said mockingly, jutting his chin at Jensen. "This why you were trying to leave me?"

"I left you because you're an asshole."

Stephen looked back at Jensen and stepped forward. "Please just leave - " she started, but he threw a punch at Jensen before she could get the words out.

Jensen saw it coming. If the intent on Stephen’s face hadn't tipped him off, then the drop of his shoulder was like a flashing neon sign. It was simple for Jensen to grab that wrist, twist the arm back, plant his other hand in his neck, and use Stephen's own momentum to propel him straight into the sidewalk.

Stephen groaned painfully, trying to push himself back up on his palms. Before he could get up Jensen grabbed him by the biceps and, leveraging his own body weight, pulled him back up to his feet. Pivoting, he shoved the man back towards the gravel lot once again. "You heard her," he huffed. "Just leave. Let's not do this a third time."

Stephen glared back at him, dust smeared across his shirt, arms scraped up from the fall, and Jensen tensed. But all he did was turn his head and spit in the dirt. His eyes shifted back to Alona. "I'll be seeing you, 'lona," he said before turning to leave.

"You try talking to me again and I'm gonna get a restraining order," she snapped back. He didn't acknowledge her, and Jensen watched as he climbed into a black Chevy pick-up. "He's such a prick," Alona grumbled. “Why can’t people self-identify as assholes before you start dating them?” Jensen didn't say anything. Just watched until Stephen had pulled out of the parking lot and moved on down the street. It wasn't until the truck disappeared from sight that the adrenaline and tension fled his body with a rush that left a tremor in his hands.

He turned back to find the blonde looking up at him with exasperation. "What?" he asked, wearily. "Why do I get that look?"

"You shouldn't have done that." she said, heatedly. "It didn’t need to get physical."

He spread his hands, bewildered. "So what - I'm just supposed to let people get in your face and give you a hard time? He had you backed up and was about to grab you!"

"Jensen," she said. "That's real decent of you. But I can handle that kind of thing without you getting involved."

"I'm sure you can, but - "

"No, Jensen. I can handle it." Then she raised her hand and an electric current flew between her fingertips, crackling with power.

He couldn't help but flinch backwards. She lowered her hand back down, amused at his reaction. "Hell," he said with a chuckle. "I guess you can at that."

"Unlike some people I could mention, I try to solve my problems with words first."

Jensen shrugged. The guy had it coming. "All I did was show him out." He held the door open for her, and followed her inside.

"Yeah, about that," there was a speculative tone to her voice that made him tense up. He didn't look at her, just painfully eased to the ground to pick up the fallen product. His bum knee hadn't so much as pinged his radar while Stephen was there, but with the adrenaline fade, it was back with a vengeance.

"You looked pretty capable manhandling my ex. Stephen ain't exactly a small guy."

It wasn't a question, so he didn't answer. He set all the nail packages onto a midway shelf. Keeping a hold of it, he pushed back upright.

"You looked like you had practice doing that kind of thing before."

Still not a question. He re-settled the spoke where it hooked into the aisle wall, and started sliding the packages back into their proper places.

"You moved so fast. I mean, I saw you cross the floor, but then you had him off and out the door... And it was all just a blur." Uncertainty colored her words, and shamed licked at his insides. For not being up front about his powers. For not even knowing, what they were since he wasn't registered. For all the tiny signs that kept pointing, like a trail of breadcrumbs, back to the obvious: whoever he was, he was not a good man.   "And when you ducked that punch? And moved him the way you did... Jensen, you're a Super."

He'd long run out of things to straighten. Turning, he focused his eyes just over her shoulder and nodded. "Yeah. Looks that way."

She was silent, obviously waiting for him to say something else. Put a label to his power, give a demo, explain why one moment residual pain had him bent like an old man and the next he moved faster than the eye could track, anything.

But he didn't. His throat squeezed too tight for words.

She crossed her arms, not looking away from him for a second. "You didn't give Jeff any references when you applied for the job." A sound escaped him involuntarily, but she pressed on. "Clearly it's not because you're a poor worker. So why would a guy in his thirties not have any references?"

He had to answer. He knew he had to answer. Really, he's shocked that it hasn't come up before now. But it still hurt, like exposing an open wound for anyone to prod.

"I don't remember." The words rushed out, almost against his will. He wiped suddenly sweaty palms on his jeans and took a harsh breath before finally meeting her eyes. "I - I had an accident... and when I woke up I couldn't remember anything."

Judging by the puzzled recoil of Alona's face, it wasn't the answer she'd expected. "You're joking."

He didn't reply.

"Okay, you're not joking," she restated, voice dry. "You don't remember like... like amnesia? Bad daytime television amnesia?"

He laughed bitterly. "Yep. Just like that."

Her arms fell to her sides. "But... can't the police help you? Pull up records on past employment, family, that sort of thing?"

Jensen's stomach lurched. This was it. This was when she'd freak out - who could blame her - and tell Jeff and Jeff would fire him, and he'd be back to square one in that barren fucking apartment.

"Yeah." It came out wobbly and he cleared his throat. "The detective advised me to make a clean break. Apparently the people I was working for are... kind of shady." He paused, waiting for her to ask, to demand to know. But she didn't; she just waited.

"I tried - tried calling my family, but my sister... well, I guess we're... estranged." The word felt funny in his mouth. That a single word could take something as big as his family refusing to talk to him even when he was in the hospital, and turn it into something normalized for polite conversation. It didn't feel normal. It felt anything but. "She told me not to call back."

Alona still hadn't said anything, and at some point his eyes had fallen back to just over her shoulder. He scrubbed a hand down his face. "I- I'm sorry. I understand if you'd rather not be stuck here with me." His eyes darted to the back room, mind racing over what he'd need to pick up before he could leave, what would be the fastest way out of the shop. "If it makes you uncomfortable to work here alone with me."

She finally spoke up. "Why would you think I wouldn't want to work with you?"

He huffed. Was she being deliberately dense? "Alona, those aren't exactly good signs. They're actually big red flags."

She tilted her head, considering. "Your life sounds messy, I'll give you that. But all I can judge you by is the guy I've gotten to know these past weeks. And that guy? That guy's pretty nice. He always shows up to work on time, he's friendly with the customers, and when he thinks someone's in trouble he helps them out, even though it ain't his problem."

Gratitude pricked sharp and he blinked his eyes shut hard. "You know it isn't that simple." The words were challenging, but his voice was soft, giving her one last out.

Her mouth twitched and her brown eyes flitted toward the window. "It never is," she said, with a resigned shrug. "Now," she announced, signaling an end the heavy mood. "You're going to tell me about your power." Picking up her forgotten clipboard, she resumed the inventory she'd been working on before the whole morning turned sideways.

He couldn't believe she was letting him off the hook as easy as that. A smile crept across his face. "I thought it was obvious. How can anyone be this damn fine all by themselves?"

Her eyes flew up and caught his grin. "Shut up," she laughed.

Jensen rubbed the heel of his palm against the stubble of his job. "I'm not sure. I uh... wasn't exactly registered before the accident."

She shrugged at the misdemeanor. "So are a lot of people who can pass." She was right. Legally speaking, Supers were supposed to register with the state as soon as their ability became evident during puberty. In reality however, many of those who could pass for normal just didn't. Too wary of Big Brother.

"This is the first time I've had any kind of sign since I woke up."

"I'd suggest that maybe you have super speed or something, but we've already established that tiny grannies are faster than you are." She smirked, looking pointedly at his bad leg.

"You're a brat," he said, turning back to the shelf he was stocking.

Alona smiled wide. "Yeah, I am." And then she chucked the tape measure in her hand straight at his head. "Think fast!"

This time, even though she was watching for it, she still couldn't quite follow his movement. One second his back was turned completely to her, and the next he was twisted half around, tape measure firmly in his grip. Jensen looked at his hand as if it belonged to someone else.

"Huh," she said. "Um, enhanced reflexes?"

He tossed the tape measure back to her. "Yeah. Sounds about right." And it did. It felt right. Like smoothing a wayward feather back in place. With a soft hum, he turned back to his work.

----

Jensen found himself standing in front of the park. He passed it every time he walked from his apartment to the bar he’d discovered a few weeks back. Thick, vibrant green snagged his thoughts. Its winding, disappearing paths tugged at him. Tonight the pull was stronger than the desire for beer and a good band. With the long summer sun not quite ready to set, he stopped at the crosswalk instead of walking on past. His eyes fixed on the drooping willow trees as he waited for a break in the sea of traffic.

And… there.

“Jensen!”

His foot, mid-air and mid-step, jerked back to the sidewalk. A soft, cool hand grasped his, and his thoughts shifted gear. The woman holding onto him smiled. It was a pleased, tiny sort of smile. “Hey, stranger.”

He took in her auburn hair and flawless skin, her expensive clothes and bright, expectant eyes, and felt nothing. “I’m sorry?” His hand was limp in her grasp, but she didn’t seem to care.

She tightened her grip and gave his hand a shake. “This is where you say ‘Hello, Danneel. Sorry I’m staring at you silently like a weirdo.’”

Gently, but firmly, he pulled his hand from hers. Shock colored her features as he freed himself and her eyes flew up to his, searching.

Jensen waited for recognition to hit him. For something to resound within about this woman who obviously knew him. But there was nothing. She left him cold.

The corner of his mouth twisted down. It was like seeing his apartment all over again. The hope that seeing what should be familiar would bring all his memories rushing back turned sour on his tongue. Disappointment swelled, threatening to overtake him again. He took a shuddering breath and forced the feeling back, focusing on this woman – Danneel. It didn’t matter if he didn’t remember her, she knew him. She could tell him about his life, about who he was.  

“I’m sorry, this is going to sound kind of weird and hard to believe but – I don’t know who you are.”

She shook her head, eyes round, like he was speaking another language. “What?”

He rubbed a thumb against his temple. This was awkward as hell. “Yeah, I had an accident not too long ago, and it’s kind of messed up my memory a bit, and I don’t remember a lot from before it happened.” The words rushed out of him, bubbling with anxiety. “I don’t remember anything really.”

“You don’t know me,” she echoed, eyes hard on his, assessing, looking for the lie.

“No, I’m sorry,” he said, adamantly. “I know it must sound a little crazy.”

“An accident?” She wrapped a hand around his arm, eyes flying up and down as if checking for injury. “But you’re okay? I mean, physically?”

“I’m fine.” He caught her wrist and moved her hand away – what was this woman’s deal with touching him? Maybe they had dated. She was undeniably gorgeous. But since he’d woke up he’d been so sure that he swung the other way. And for all her beauty, it did nothing for him.

“How do we know each other?” Her eyes were glued to their hands as he removed hers, in stark disbelief. When she didn’t answer, he held her wrist and ducked his head, deliberately moving into her line of sight. “How do you know me?” he repeated.

She swallowed, wetting her lips. “We’re friends. Old friends.”

A dozen questions clamored through his head. “I… really? What – ” he struggled to focus and barked out a laugh. “God, I have no idea what to ask first.” He let go of her and scrubbed a hand through his hair. “Would you like to get something to eat so we can talk, or – ” he trailed off at the expression on her face.

“I- I don’t think so.” She was shaking her head, and took a step back. “This is… kind of overwhelming.”

He stared at her, dumbstruck. Overwhelming? She was overwhelmed?

“How about, just give me a day or two to wrap my head around this. Then I’ll give you a call, and we’ll get together, and I’ll answer any questions you got.” She offered him a half smile. “How about that? Just give me a little time to process.”

Jensen struggled to rein in his disappointment, and the emotional whiplash rolling through him. “Sure,” he murmured, automatic politeness kicking in even as he wanted to refuse her. To insist that she answer his questions now.

“Great,” she said, emphatically. “I’ll call you.” She had already started to back away, to disengage.

He began to nod, but caught himself. “Let me give you my number.”

She smiled, white teeth gleaming. “I already have it, sweetie. Old friends, remember? Or did you forget already?”

He smiled back, an automatic reaction, even as embarrassment and anger spiked through him. She was just teasing him. She wouldn’t be deliberately spiteful, right? He breathed in through his nose before managing a neutral tone. “I lost my phone in the accident.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Really?” she asked, even as she pulled out her phone, unlocked it, and handed it to him.

“Yeah, that’s why I haven’t been able to get in touch with anyone,” he said, tapping in his phone number before handing it back. “You’re the first person I’ve run into that knows me.” The second he said it, he wished he could take it back. He sounded pathetic.

Expressions flickered across her face before settling into pity. Shame burned his cheeks, the tips of his ears. Danneel suddenly smiled, the pity evaporating. “Don’t worry. We’ll get you back in the game in no time.” He swallowed and nodded as she spun on her heel, heading up the street. She tossed another smile over her shoulder. “I’ll call you,” she promised.

He nodded again, helplessly. “Sounds good,” he said, voice ragged. She didn’t hear him. She was already too far away.

Jensen shoved his hands in his jean pockets. His chest felt hollow, his stomach nauseous. A passing stranger shot him an odd look and it was enough to spur him on. A drink or four sounded pretty good right now, and he pressed on down the street, green park receding behind him, forgotten.

----

“Jensen!” Alona yelled, just audible over the classic rock wailing out of the stereo system. “Truck’s here!”

“Be right out,” he called back. Sweat dripped from his temple to the work bench, quickly absorbed in the thick dust. He was in a half squat, lining up the two layers of wood as perfectly as possible. His leg protested as he straightened. Stretching the chalk line from one end to the other, careful not to jar the wood, he plucked it gently and a fine blue line of chalk was left on the bottom layer to guide his saw.

This was the first project Jeff was letting him work solo. His arm had strengthened enough for him to convince Jeff to give him a shot at it. It was a fairly simple design for shelving, but he didn’t want to fuck it up. A satisfied smile crept out as he looked at the work he’d managed so far.

A loud thump sounded from the front. He hurriedly mopped his forehead with the bottom of his shirt, thankful he wasn’t working up front today. Most of the customers were probably the type to understand, people that sweated and worked with their hands for a living, but it still felt unprofessional to work customer service covered in dried sweat and probably smelling a little ripe.

Wiping his hands on his jeans, he hustled up front, ignoring the ache in his leg. It would work itself out eventually. Most of their deliveries were made out back, but with the majority of their plants displayed outside anyway, it made sense to find their supplier had backed the truck straight up to the landscaping section of the gravel parking lot.

It was a five-ton truck, white with sunflowers painted in the center. Over the top of the blooms was the company name ‘Green Things.’ Jensen snorted. Clearly a lot of thought went into that one. Printed underneath the blooms was the byline ‘Natural flora and original creations.’ Original creations? What did that – his thoughts stalled when he saw the man walking backwards out of the truck.

Two men were carrying a pallet of hydrangeas down the truck ramp. One of the men was tall, well over six foot, probably taller than Jensen, but it was hard to tell from here. His long hair was pulled back in a ponytail, half of it fallen out. His black tank top and khaki cargo shorts showed off miles of golden skin and a clear gym dedication. The muscles of his arms and calves flexed as he backed down the ramp with his load. The guy was gorgeous.

“-nsen.”

He blinked and found Alona looking up at him, amused. She cleared her throat exaggeratingly, making sure she had his attention. “If you wipe that drool off, I can introduce you to Jared.”

Wait – this guy was Jared? Jared, their regular supplier of all things growing, Jared? So he’d get to see him on a regular basis? Jensen quickly swiped a hand through his hair before trying and failing to get the sawdust off his shirt, suddenly wishing he was wearing something other than an old t-shirt and the only clean pair of shorts he’d been able to find in his closet.

“Um, yeah. That’d be great.” He wiped his hands on his jeans again and prayed he didn’t smell too much like sweat. “Let’s do that.”

She rolled her eyes with a fond smile before thrusting a clipboard at him. “Here, you’ll do the delivery inventory.” That was fine with him. Anything that gave him an excuse to hang around and watch this guy move heavy stuff was A-OK.

“Morning boys,” Alona greeted.

Jared didn’t look up, too careful watching his footing as they carried a load of hanging fern baskets down the ramp, but he smiled. The clipboard creaked under Jensen’s grip when he saw the flash of dimples. “Morning!” Jared replied.

“Hey, ‘lona,” his associate grunted.

“I’d like to introduce y’all to our latest addition here,” she said as they set the pallet down. Jared straightened up, brushing his dirty hands off on his shorts. “Jared, Chad, this is Jensen.”

Jared’s head shot up, seeing him for the first time, and his expression went from bright and cheerful to closed off in an instant, like a cloud blotting out the sun. He stared at Jensen, tension tightening every line of his body.

Jensen froze in the middle of extending his hand.

“You’re working here now?” Jared’s asked, voice frigid and dripping with skepticism. Alona and Chad both looked at Jared as if he’d grown a second head.

“I – yeah?” Jensen faltered. Awkwardly, he lowered his hand and shoved it in his pocket.

Jared’s eyes darted to Alona, then back to Jensen. “Is this a joke?”

“No,” Alona said firmly, frowning. “This is not a joke. Jensen’s a new employee here.”

Jared eyes flew skyward. “I can’t believe this.” He shook his head then looked back at Jensen. “You knew I had a partnership here,” he said accusingly. “Why are you doing this?”

“Wait,” Jensen stuttered, brain kicking back online. “Do you know me?”

Alona’s eyebrows shot up in realization. “You know Jensen?” she added excitedly.

Jared stared at him, clearly stunned. “Are you seriously pretending like you don’t know me right now?”

“Oh!” Chad exclaimed, like a light bulb just went on. “Jared, man, this is Jensen Jensen?”

Jared threw his hands up. “How many people named ‘Jensen’ do you know?”

Chad blinked at the misdirected anger and put his hands up in surrender.

Jensen licked his lips. “Look, I’m sorry, but there seems to be a misunderstanding,” he said in the most placid tone he could summon. Jared turned back to him, eyes flashing and an expression like solid ground with the promise of magma just under the surface.

“About a month ago, I had an accident,” he started. Jensen hated this part. No matter how many times he had to explain it, it didn’t get easier. “And something happened to my memory. I don’t – I don’t remember anything that happened before the accident.” He took a breath rushed on when Jared started to speak. “So I’m sorry if we knew each other beforehand and I… I seem to have done something to piss you off. But I’m sorry, I just don’t remember.” He spread his hands helplessly. “I don’t know you from Adam.”

For a fleeting moment an expression that looked suspiciously like hurt flew across Jared’s face, before it was tamped back down behind the barely banked anger. “You know, all your ‘I don’t remember’ and ‘I must’ve forgot’ bullshit was bad enough. But this is a whole new level, even for you.”

Jensen reeled. “What?”

“I already told you,” Jared snapped. “I am done with your shit, Jensen.”

Jensen opened and shut his mouth like a fish, his thought process staggered by Jared’s words. What was he saying? That Jensen had, had forgot things before? That this wasn’t the first time there were gaps in his memory?

He covered his mouth with his hand before gesturing toward Jared. “I don’t… I’m not sure what to say.”

“I. Don’t. Care.” Jared all but spat the words. He looked at Alona, shaking his head. “I can’t. I’m not working with him.” He turned, striding towards the cab of the truck.

“Jared!” Alona shot a bewildered look at Jensen before jogging after Jared. “Just wait a second.”

Jensen stared after them, wanting to follow, but guilt and rejection settled like concrete around his feet. A solid fist hit his bad arm and pain shot through him. “Hah!” he gasped, immediately clutching the arm.

Chad scoffed, but confusion diluted the pissed off scowl on his face. “Pussy. I didn’t hit you that hard.”

“Accident, you asshole,” Jensen grit out, slowly trying to force his arm to relax.

Chad pursed his lips, a tinge of guilt showing before he went back to glaring. “Whatever. Help me unload this stuff.”

He bit his lip. With the pain radiating through his arm, he had no idea how he was supposed to do that.

Jared’s voice suddenly shot across the parking lot. “He’s lying, Alona!” He looked up, apparently realizing that he was shouting. His eyes caught and hung on Jensen’s for a second before he deliberately turned his back, lowering his voice.

That sick feeling was back in his stomach. Had been ever since Jared had looked at him, and he’d felt about ten inches tall. It curdled in his gut. There was no way he’d ask Jared to finish unloading the truck.

He brushed past Chad to the truck ramp, mentally blocking out the sounds of Alona and Jared’s hushed voices. “Yeah, let’s do this.”

He climbed up, eyes adjusting to the darkness, grateful to see it was already half empty. Chad squatted down by a pallet of tomatoes and Jensen followed suit. They lifted together and he was inordinately thankful this one was light. Even still, his bad leg protested and his arm throbbed. They carried it off, set it with the rest of the shipment and were picking up the next pallet before Chad broke the silence.

“You’re an asshole, you know that, right?”

Jensen’s arm screamed at him as they lifted, and he gave his head a shake, trying to throw off the pain and Chad’s words.

“I mean an award-winning douche,” Chad’s mouth ran as he backed down the ramp. “Seriously, cause I have met some prize douchebags before, but I never saw one actually claim amnesia or some shit.”

Jensen let the pallet drop with a thunk. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe I’m an asshole and Jared has every reason in the world to never want to see my face again,” he growled. “But I don’t fucking remember. I don’t know him.” Chad blinked owlishly and merciful silence followed. “So can we just get this damn truck unloaded?”

Chad frowned back at him, but it wasn’t at quite the same level of hostility as before. He just turned and headed back up the ramp. Jensen followed, grateful for the reprieve.

They hefted the next pallet. This one was heavier, loaded down with more baskets of ferns. A tremor ran up his arm as he began to back down the ramp, the angle putting almost all the weight on him.

“Hold it fucking steady,” Chad cursed.

Jensen grit his teeth against the pain, but he was so focused on his arm it was his knee that betrayed him. His boot found a patch of sweat on the metal ramp and that was it. His foot slid, twisting his leg and his knee gave out. He crashed hard, bad knee hitting the ramp, pallet jerking his injured arm, and black waves of pain rolled over him. Dimly, he registered tumbling plants and Chad cursing as the pallet dropped. He blinked rapidly, dizzy, tunnel vision rapidly closing in. The world greyed out, shrinking down to just trying to breathe. Out of control, shuddering gasps that threatened to push him over into hyperventilation.

A firm, solid grip took his good arm, and another wrapped around his waist and lifted him to his feet. Fresh agony shot through his leg at the movement and a cry escaped him before he was gasping for air again, each breath almost a sob.

A low, soothing voice pierced the fog shrouding his brain as he walked down the ramp. “Hey, you’re okay. You’re fine.” The surface under his feet changed from metal ramp to gravel dirt. “C’mon, easy. Controlled breaths, in through your nose, out through your mouth.”

Another burst of pain jolted through him as he was eased to the ground, and Jensen realized the pain was beginning to recede. He dragged air into his lungs and let it out slow, shuddering but no longer out of control. “That’s it. Just like that.”

He opened his eyes to find himself sitting in the dusty gravel lot. Alona was peering at him, hands clutching each other, and even Chad was looking concerned. Which meant… his eyes flew to his left, fresh vertigo washing over him, and he met a pair of wide, hazel eyes.

“You alright?” Jared’s eyes dropped, running over his body, pausing on his leg and the arm he cradled to his chest. He looked back up, eyes unwavering. “What was that?”

Jensen’s gaze dropped to the dirt. “Like I said, I was in an accident,” he said, voice gruff. The pain slowly withdrew to a more tolerable level, and he gradually became more aware of the solid arm still curled around his waist. He couldn’t stop himself from stiffening, and his tension seemed to remind Jared that he was pissed off at Jensen.

Slowly, making sure Jensen was able to support himself again, Jared withdrew. All of the concern and warmth in those eyes vanished behind a careful neutrality.

“An accident,” Jared echoed, voice as blank and dull as his expression.

Frustration bit at him and Jensen slowly uncurled his protesting arm. Gingerly, he rested the heel of his hand against the ground, testing. Another apology was trying to force itself past his lips, anything to make things right with this man. He shoved the compulsion aside ruthlessly. At this point, it would probably just set Jared off again.

He started to get back to his feet and Alona and Jared both darted forward. Jensen took Alona’s offered hand and leveraged himself up. Upright, he felt all the strength of a day old kitten. Beaded sweat slid down his temple and he took a deliberate breath as his knee throbbed.

His face burned to have the three of them so focused on him. On his failures, a small voice whispered. He forced his jaw to unlock. “I can’t finish the truck.”

“Well, no shit,” Chad sniped.

Jared shot him a dark look before turning back. “No, no, we got it. Don’t,” he ran a hand over his hair, “Jesus, don’t worry about it. You should rest. Here let me – ” He moved haltingly, hands outstretched as if to help Jensen inside but still reluctant to get near him.

“I got it,” Alona snapped, stopping him cold.

“Alona,” Jensen rebuked softly. She didn’t reply. The blonde just slipped under his arm, wrapping her own around his hips, and began to help him back into the shop. He could manage it, limping though he was, but it was nice to have the extra support. They pressed on through to the back office and he sank gratefully into one of the chairs.

As soon as she let him go, she snatched up the cane that was resting against the wall where they hung their coats and thrust it towards him. He took it with a slight scowl. It was only there for the long days. The days he worked hard and then still had to walk home. Apparently this was one of those days.

With a sigh he watched Alona pace the small office area. She snatched up a cleaning rag and started twisting it. “Don’t be mad at Jared. He was trying to help,” Jensen said, carefully twisting and testing his arm, rotating its joints.

“I’m not mad at Jared,” she huffed. “Okay, maybe I’m a little mad at him for being a jerk. But mostly I’m mad at you.” She chucked the rag at his chest and he automatically caught it. “I’m mad because you let your stupid pride get you hurt.”

“What – ”

She cut him off. “You knew you shouldn’t’ve moved that stuff, and you did it anyway. And look what happened!” She pressed on, not letting him respond. “You got hurt, stressed your old injuries, and now it’s going to set you back again. You know that, right?”

He looked at her in all her anger and tried to hide the smile that was threatening to break out. All that anger was for him. Concern and worry over him.

“What?” she demanded. “Why are you smiling?”

“Alona,” he said, “Thank you.”

She stopped, bemused, before a faint blush crawled across her cheeks. She looked away, at the long outdated calendar on the wall. “Yeah, well. Don’t do it again. We need you fit enough to actually do work and earn your keep.”

He grinned. “Of course.”

A knock sounded on the door and Jared stuck his head in. “Finished unloading,” he said, eyes fixed on Alona. “All we need is a signature.” He raised a clipboard.

“Jensen’s handling all plant orders now,” she replied evenly. She wasn’t harsh, but her tone didn’t allow for protest. “He’ll sign. I’m going to go check on Chad.” Her voice lifted in a sudden, false perkiness. “You know you aren’t allowed to leave him unattended in my shop.” With that, she darted past Jared, leaving the two of them alone.

With obvious reluctance, Jared stepped all the way in, broad frame filling up the doorway as he went. Bracing both hands on the chair arm rest, Jensen pushed to his feet, cane in hand. It ate at his pride to have to use the cane in front of Jared, but he figured the entire day was a wash on that front. He’d be damned if he was just going to sit in that chair all helpless. Jared opened his mouth to protest him standing even as Jensen took the clipboard from him. He quickly shut it again without saying anything.

Tension was so thick it was like a third party in the room. Jensen blindly studied the paperwork, not really seeing it, before he licked his lips and took the plunge. “Listen, I understand that we may have some bad blood between us or that… something happened for me not to have your trust. And seeing me here today may have been a shock. But I’m being completely up-front with you about what happened.”

He paused, not looking up from the paperwork, and when Jared didn’t say anything he pressed on. “So I hope that in the future, we can both be, if not friends, then professionals. And maybe… maybe one day you can tell me how we know each other, and exactly what the hell I did to piss you off so much.” At that, he finally looked up, and he felt his breath seize in his chest when he met Jared’s gaze.

There was a fierce, bright light in Jared's eyes that rooted Jensen to the floor. He suddenly became deeply aware of every single inch that made up the two feet between them. The sheer force of emotion in those tip-tilted eyes was enough to leave him dizzy. Then Jared looked away, and the moment was broken.

Jared cleared his throat with an awkward cough. “What kind of accident?” he asked quietly.

Jensen blinked, momentarily thrown. Of all the possible responses, that wasn’t what he had expected. At worse, more anger. At best, an impersonal handshake. “It – I was mugged.” Unthinking, he rubbed a thumb against his eyebrow over the small scar where the skin had been split. It was hard. Telling the story. Making himself vulnerable for someone who so vehemently didn’t like him.

“They – the cop said it was probably more than one – used a bat, or maybe a pipe or something. I don’t remember. I just… woke up.”

Jared turned away, hands braced on his hips. He stared at the wall and Jensen desperately wanted to see his face. Denied that, his eyes drifted over the man’s broad shoulders, down his back to his tapered waist. Honestly, he was shocked that Jared was still even in the room with him.

Jared turned back around, crossing his arms. “Okay, so you got jumped by some guys that put you in the hospital.” His voice wavered for the slightest of moments before he reined it back under control, leaving Jensen wondering if he’d just imagined it. “You wake up, unable to remember… anything?” His voice lifted in question. Jensen nodded, and he pressed on. “And then you decided to get a new job, and ended up here completely coincidentally?”

“Basically, yeah.” The pain in his leg started ratcheting up again. As casually as possible, he hitched a hip up on the desk to relieve some weight.

“Why did you get a new job? Why not go back to your old one?”

Jensen’s mouth was as dry as the desert. He hated this part. He hated the whole damn thing, but this part especially. Hell, Jared probably already knew though. Maybe that’s why he didn’t like him. Jared’s attention was glued on him, as if his answer mattered much more than it should.

“The detective indicated that the people I worked for weren’t entirely legit. She didn’t go so far as to say that the mugging was related, but I could see it turning around in her head, you know?” He didn’t know why he was telling Jared this. He hadn’t even told Alona this much. “And it sounds like I was just doing a security job, a bouncer or something. It didn’t like a job with much… potential.”

Jared snorted. Jensen looked at him, unable to resist prodding. “What?”

For a second it looked like Jared would refuse to answer. “I said that to you once.” His eyes went from the floor, back to Jensen. “That you had more potential.” Jensen stared at him. Looking flustered, Jared quickly moved on. “So… you haven’t talked to or know anyone from before the accident?”

He shook his head. “Tried calling my family, but I think we uh… didn’t get along. My sister hung up on me.” Jared nodded as if he expected that, and Jensen felt his stomach turn over. “You’re the first person I’ve talked to that knew me. Or well, there was a woman I ran into on the street. She acted like we were friends but… I told her what happened and she kind of freaked out. Said she’d call me after she ‘processed’ it,” he said, unable to keep the bitterness from his voice. “That was a week ago and I still haven’t heard from her. She had a different kind of name… uh.. Danneel. That was it.”

The second the name was spoken, Jensen wished he could take it back. The thaw that had begun stopped dead. The sharp, tightly reined anger rushed back in. “Danneel,” Jared repeated, jaw clenched. “Of course.”

“I…” Jensen started, “You know her, too?” The need for answers, a friggin’ clue about who he was burned through him. He wanted to hear them, he wanted to know. But he wanted Jared more. Wanted to know him, wanted to know why he was so pissed off at him. Wanted to make that glimpse of dimpled smile come back. And Jared had been a hair trigger away from climbing back in his truck ever since he saw Jensen’s face.

Jared rolled right over his question. “You just ran into her on the street?” His eyebrows arched high, voice incredulous. “Complete coincidence. Just like you working here is a complete coincidence.”

Jensen shook his head. “Yes, well, no. She ran into me.”

Jared waved a hand through the air. “Just – just stop. You know what? It doesn’t matter. You want to talk to Danneel, then go right on ahead. I don’t care.”

It was a lie. Complete and utter bullshit. Jensen had known this guy for half an hour and even he could see that. Jared cared. Jared cared if he talked to Danneel quite a bit. He made a decision on the spot.

Jensen nodded slowly. “Okay,” he said evenly, not agreeing, merely acknowledging. Glancing back down at the forgotten paperwork in his hand, he checked it over. He grabbed a pen from the desk, clicked it, and scrawled his signature on the blank line. When he looked back up at Jared, he smiled. He couldn’t manage more than a small one, but it was genuine. He shoved aside all his confusion and anxiety and smiled at Jared like he’d wanted to when he first saw him.

He held the top copy out to Jared. “I’ll call you if there’s any change to the order. Otherwise I’ll see you in a few weeks.” Jared blinked at him, momentarily caught, and Jensen felt his smile go a little wider.

“That’s – yeah, alright.” Jared took the paper, looked at Jensen expectantly, like he was waiting to see what he’d do next. Recovering himself, he turned and headed out the office door. Following, Jensen leaned against the doorjamb, eyes fixed on where brown curls met tan, rock solid shoulders.

“Hey, Jared,” he called. Jared’s steps faltered and he looked back. “I’m not going to talk to Danneel.” Jensen shrugged with his good arm. “Just so you know.” And before Jared could figure out how to respond, Jensen pushed off the doorway and went back through to the workshop.

Jensen shut the door firmly behind him. As much to keep the noise and sawdust out of the rest of the building as to have a physical barrier between him and Jared. He let himself lean back against the door, shifting some of the weight from his leg. Just for a second, he told himself. Those clear, hazel eyes were all he could see, and he didn’t know why. How could a man he just met capture his thoughts so completely? But that was the bitch of it. He hadn’t just met him. They knew each other. His former self had done something. Fucked up colossally in some crucial way. And he was left here, trudging through an aftermath of briars and muck.

Why was it that all the people who knew him before didn’t want anything to do with him? Danneel. Jared. His own family.

Jensen found himself staring at the floor, one hand pressed to his chest, heart thudding painfully fast. He closed his eyes and focused on evening out his breathing. Heart rate slowly returning to normal, he made himself move. He crossed the room, leaning on his cane heavily, to the stereo. He turned it on, and turned it up. Way up. Turning back to the shelving unit, he lost himself in his work, letting the music drown out his thoughts.

----

Turned out that promising not to talk to Danneel was all it took to make her finally call him back. Jensen was watering the hanging baskets of petunias, tendrils of fuchsia and periwinkle blue flowers surrounding him when the trill of his phone abruptly broke the quiet morning, drowning out the birdsong. He stared at the unfamiliar number, immediately wary. Alona and Jeff were the only people he got phone calls from and he was already at work so….

“Hello?”

“Hey, there.” Jensen recognized her immediately. Her small, close-mouthed smile came through loud and clear.

“Danneel.”

“See? You do remember me.”

His jaw locked. Did she really just say that?

“Oh, don’t be angry at me,” she pouted at his silence. “It was just a little teasing. You used to like it when I teased you, Jensen.” The barest hint of innuendo colored her voice.

Yeah, he doubted that. He doubted it very much. “What do you want?”

Danneel huffed, an affronted puff of air transmitted via cell tower. “No need to be rude. I was just going to suggest we do dinner this week and talk, just like you asked.” The thought overpowered his irritation. To know, to figure out who he was. But right on its heels was Jared. Jared, whose face had been shrouded by hurt before he could cover it with anger. “We can have a few drinks, and you can pump me to your heart’s content.” There it was again. That insinuation of lewdness.

His lip curled. “No, I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

She was silent, before rushing to respond. “But – but I can tell you anything you want to know. And Jensen, you really need to come in and see Mark. When you stopped showing up, we were all so worried – ”

“Mark?” he cut in sharply. “Mark Pellegrino?”

“Who else?” she said irritably. “Yes, Mark Pell-”

“So we worked together? You and I worked together for Mark Pellegrino?”

“Of course! Why - ”

“No, this conversation is over.”

Jensen.”

“I have a new job now. And I don’t want to have dinner with you, Danneel. I don’t want anything with you.” An inarticulate, wrathful noise escaped her. “In fact, don’t call me again.” He jabbed the screen with more force than necessary, cutting off whatever rejoinder she might have made.

He stood there a moment, eyes skipping from plant to soil to shelving unit, while he concentrated on just breathing in and out. A tremor went through his hand and he hugged it to his chest. He inhaled, focusing on the dark, green scent of fresh soil.

Gradually, his pulse drifted back towards normal. With mental effort, he grabbed the hose and crouched down. Applying careful pressure to the nozzle, he gently sprayed the hostas’ green and white leaves, washing away the dust and dirt that had accumulated.

The ring of his phone sent his pulse leaping. Resisting the urge to throw the hose, he hit connect. “I told you not to fucking call me again,” he growled.

“Mr. Ackles, I don’t know who you think you’re talking to, but you will mind your damn tongue when talking to me, boy,” Detective Ferris’ husky voice sounded on the other end.

With a groan, Jensen dragged a hand down his face. “I – sorry about that, Detective. Just got in an argument is all. I didn’t realize it was you.”

“Yeah, I sort of figured,” she answered wryly.

“Is there something I can help you with?”

“Well,” she said slowly. “Some new information has surfaced that may or may not be related to your case. You have time to discuss it?”

“I’m at work right now, can it wait ‘til I get off at five?”

“Not a problem. Just come down to the station and ask for me at the front desk.”

He nodded automatically before adding, “Yes, sure, will do.”

“Great. And Mr. Ackles?”

“Yeah?”

“You need to work on your phone etiquette.”

He snorted. “Yes, ma’am.” The call disconnected and he looked at the phone for a moment before putting it back in his pocket.

One hand braced on a shelf, and most of his weight on his good leg, he pushed himself to his feet. His head hit a hoya, its vines draping over his ears and neck, embracing his shoulders. Carefully, he ducked out of its grasp. He honestly wasn’t sure if he could handle any more phone calls this morning. Jensen stroked a finger down the hoya’s waxy leaf.

“I’m just not gonna answer it anymore,” he told the plant softly. “At least not until after lunch.” He turned away and started rolling up the hose.

----

Jensen struggled to ignore the dread in his gut as he slowly made his way up the stairs of the station entrance with stilted steps. His endless desire to know more about Life Before He Woke Up was dampened by the fact that everything he found out was only more bad news.

The guy manning the front desk dragged his focus away from this computer and assessed him with a bored look. “Can I help you?”

“I’m here to see Detective Ferris. She asked me to come in.”

“Name?”

Jensen told him and then hovered awkwardly, waiting, boots squeaking on the floor every time he moved. The detective appeared through a doorway after a few minutes and waved him on over. “Mr. Ackles, come on back.” He followed her blindly through the station. “How’s the new job working out?”

“Um, great. I’ve been really lucky, I think.”

She looked at him, as if to question his definition of luck, but let it go. “You’re moving kind of slow. Leg still giving you problems?”

He blinked. He hadn’t thought it was noticeable, but it was probably her job to pick up details like that. “I had an accident at work and aggravated it a little. It’ll be fine. Just needs time.”

She stopped in front of a gray, unwelcoming door and held it open for him. It was mostly empty except for a desk and a computer with a monitor in desperate need of an upgrade. The detective pulled a disc out of her suit pocket and popped it in. While the disc drive whirled, she cast a pensive glance at him. “Mr. Ackles, this might be difficult for you to watch, but we’ve obtained footage from the night of your attack.”

His mouth went dry and his hands turned clammy. “I – ” he started, then stopped. “What – If there’s footage, why is it only coming up now?” It came out sharper than he intended.

“Feds and their jurisdictional bullshit, that’s why.” She waved her hand, pressing forward. “I’d like you to watch this for a couple reasons. First, to see if you recognize the attackers.” He raised an eyebrow and the corner of her mouth twisted in dry humor. “No, I know, but just look anyway. Try.”

His tongue darted across his lips. “Okay.”

“And second, I want you to look at your own behavior and reactions and tell me if anything sticks out at you.” She finished queuing up the video and turned back to him. “Ready?” she asked, pressing for verbal confirmation.

He nodded quickly, eyes already fixed on the frame, a frozen and grainy shot of an alleyway. Presumably, the one where he’d been found unconscious. “Yeah,” he lied.

True or not, it was good enough for the detective and she pushed play.

The first few seconds showed nothing but an empty alley, partially illuminated by a gold light from somewhere off screen. But then there was a flash of movement in the corner of the shot, and a pair of booted feet moved into the frame. It’s a reluctant, backwards dance, but they’re driven into the shot just the same. Suddenly the owner of the feet stumbled back, barely staying upright and clutching his ribs. He was in full view of the camera now, but just the back. The camera didn’t quite catch his face.

That’s when a second figured entered the screen, moving fast. His fist landed solidly on the man’s jaw, pressing his advantage, and this time the man went down. The second man paused to make sure the guy wasn’t getting back up right away, and Jensen choked. The second figure was him. That was him. And he looked strong. Strong and fierce, standing over the other man, his feet spread, hands in fists, ready and able.

But then something strange happened. He wobbled. On screen, Jensen tilted sideways before regaining his balance and shaking his head like he had water in his ears, and needed to jar it loose. He jolted, clearly hearing something, and turned bodily to face something off-screen. He turned so damn fast the camera didn’t even catch it all.

But it wasn't fast enough. Jensen completed the turn and even got his arm up before a baseball bat cracked into his forearm.

Jensen gasped, nausea churning in his stomach, even as the doctor's words came back to him. Fracture can occur when a person raises their arm in self-defense....

To his credit, the Jensen in the video didn’t go down after that hit. But two more men swarmed into view of the camera and it was clearly all over from there. He put up a fight, even while cradling one arm like a wounded bird. His reaction time was still faster than the average man, and he matched them blow for blow, but then he would falter, seeming sluggish and unsure. The fight ended when the man lifted the bat and Jensen just stood there, staring at the man, spacey and confused. It almost looked like he was… drugged? The guy hesitated, clearly thrown off by Jensen’s behavior, but then slammed the butt to Jensen’s temple. He dropped like a stone.

Two of the men stood there, guardedly, waiting, but Jensen didn’t move. The third man grabbed his buddy, who was starting to flail as he came to. The man with the bat gave it one last swing, cracking it against Jensen’s leg. And that was the blow that broke his tibia.

His body jerked with the impact, but fell still.

With Jensen down for the count, the guy dropped to a crouch beside him. Setting the bat aside, he ran his hands over Jensen’s unmoving body. Off screen, Jensen made a small noise of protest, but he was helpless to watch.

The man grew increasingly agitated, movements jerky. He pulled Jensen’s wallet from his back pocket, rifled through it and then tossed it aside, ignoring the money. He slid his hands down one of Jensen’s legs, stopping to dip his fingers into the ankle of his boot. He pulled out a folded knife, looked it over in the light, and pocketed it.

Forcefully, he pushed Jensen’s body, rolling him onto his back, his leg settling at a sickening angle. He repeated the same check on Jensen’s other leg, careful to sweep his hand up the inside of his thigh, snug against his groin. He finished up with a sweep along Jensen’s arms and side. Frustration clear in the lines of his body, he let Jensen’s arm flop back to the ground.

He titled his head up, talking to the other men. The video’s quality was such that Jensen could barely discern their mouths moving. He pushed to his feet. His partner juggled the fourth man’s weight awkwardly, body language clearly urging the guy to give it up. The man scooped up his bat, looked down at Jensen, and gave him one final kick to the ribs. Shaking his head, he turned and walked away, leaving his partners to follow after, struggling with their wounded man.

One by one, they disappeared off screen, job done.

Jensen stared at the screen, struggling to arrange his thoughts into something resembling order. “They,” he started, then turned to look at Detective Ferris, eyes wide. “They were looking for something. Something other than money.”

The detective looked steadily back at him, face and posture the image of cool professionalism, not giving away a thing. “Yup,” she said, dragging the word out. “Mr. Ackles, do you have any idea what they were looking for?”

And maybe he should’ve felt more nervous. She’d treated him with nothing but fairness in all their interactions, despite her clear frustrations with his jacked up memory. But he knew that if there was the slightest suggestion of him involved in illegal activity, the situation would be turned, very, very quickly. Instead of making him twitchy, it was calming. If it turned out that who he was – who he is – is a bad person, then she would take care of it. She would ensure he was charged to the full extent of the law, and that he ended up where he belonged.

He looked at the screen and then back at her. “I never did find my cell phone.”

The look on her face told him she’d been thinking exactly the same thing. “Well,” she popped the CD out of the player, “looks like they didn’t either.”

“Was I – ” he licked his lips, “Did the hospital say if I was on anything when I showed up? Drugs or something?”

She shook her head sharply. “There wasn’t anything in your system.” She nodded towards the blank screen. “When I saw you on that tape, I pulled your medical records again, but you’re clean. Wish I could tell you more Mr. Ackles.”

She didn’t have much to say after that. The detective had that whole gruff, close-lipped exterior down to a T.

By the time Jensen made it home the ache in his thigh had worsened from a low burn to steady throb. He stopped just long enough to pop some painkillers before collapsing on the bed. He lay starfished, eyes closed, one hand massaging his thigh. Dinner. Eating was important. He really should get up and do something about that. But there was an ache in his body that couldn’t be attributed to slow healing wounds, and there was nothing quick and easy in the kitchen anyway.

Jensen grudgingly pulled himself to a sitting position. With dull fingers he untied his laces and fumbled off his boots, letting them fall to the floor. He shrugged off his jacket, then turned and buried his face into the pillows, futilely willing sleep to come.

Behind closed eyelids, the images from the video replayed on an endless loop.

----

Jensen lifted his face up to meet the sun. The warmth was perfect and he smiled into it, vaguely wondering if it would make his freckles stand out. A child raced past him, followed by another in hot pursuit. The farmers market was bustling. It was the first Saturday he’d had off since seeing the poster for it. It was just what he needed. Sunshine, fresh air, and a small crowd of people enjoying the weekend. He’d already bought more baked goods than he could possibly ever need, and he made a beeline for the nearest produce stand.

The rows of bright greens, reds and yellows fed the happy calm the sunshine had brought on. His arm had started to become uncomfortable from the weight of his purchases, however slight it was, but he ignored it. Just this last stall, then he’d head home, pop some Motrin and take it easy for the rest of the day. He palmed a couple tomatoes, attention already moving to the brussel sprouts.

The sound of a greatly exaggerated throat clearing broke his chain of thought and Jensen looked up to find Chad standing in front of him, glaring murder.

“What are you doing here?” he asked, voice flat.

Jensen started, thrown off by the question and Chad’s presence. “Buying vegetables?”

“Here. What are you doing at this stall? Jared doesn’t want to see you.”

Jensen took a step back to look at the cheerful sign on the front of the stall. ‘Green Things.’ A pound of lead dropped in his stomach. He should’ve known, should’ve anticipated that Jared would have a stall here.

Right on cue, the small work truck behind the stall lifted as Jared jumped out the back with a small wooden crate overflowing with kale. And it was easy for him. The strength in his tanned arms. Nothing slow or clumsy about him as he absorbed the shock and straightened, already moving the crate to its place. So very unlike Jensen’s battered frame.

Jared’s expression as open and bright, like he was enjoying the morning just as much as Jensen was twenty seconds ago. The lead burst into a hundred butterflies all clamoring for escape from his insides, and Jensen hated it. Violently despised how little control he had over this emotions. The man in the video didn’t look like he’d felt since waking up. He didn’t look half crippled by bouts of anxiety and shame. But even in the midst of his anxiety, a tiny spark flared to life at the sight of Jared.

Jared looked up, seeing him, and the cheer on his face evaporated. And just like that, the spark sputtered out. Time froze for one drawn out moment of palpable awkwardness before Chad cut in with false levity. “Hey, Jare! Jensen stopped by, but he’s leaving now.” Chad stared at Jensen as he spoke, voice hard.  

Jared stood there, crate in his hands, hazel eyes swiveling to Chad and then back to Jensen.

Jensen’s eyes dropped against his own volition. “I – ” he started and stopped. He put the tomatoes back down. “Yeah, I was just… saying hi.” His eyes were glued on the peppers. On eggplant and asparagus and jars of jam. Anything but Jared.

“So you weren’t going to buy those tomatoes?” Jared’s voice stopped him in his tracks. He didn’t realize he’d been backing away until he stopped.

“Nope!” Chad answered for him. “He just enjoys bruising the merchandise.”

He was one step back from fleeing. Every part of him was telling him to turn and go, but he thought of that man in the video. The one that kept fighting, even with a busted arm and under the influence of god knew what. Jensen looked up at Jared, and Jared looked straight back at him, expression closed off and blank, waiting.

He swallowed. “Yeah, I was. I mean,” he corrected hastily, “I am. And brussel sprouts, too. Please,” he added, painfully polite.

Some emotion flickered across Jared’s face, too quick for him to make it out, but he was pretty sure it wasn’t anger. “Great.” Jared was just as polite, not exactly warm, but not cold either. He picked up the tomatoes Jensen had put back, cradling them in his large hand, and held them out to Chad.

Chad looked from the tomatoes, back up to Jared, scowling. “Great,” he echoed, voice thick with sarcasm. Grudgingly, he took them to weigh and bag.

Jared turned his eyes back to Jensen and Jensen got a little lost for a second before his hand jerked towards the brussel sprouts. The sudden movement tweaked his arm, reminding him that he needed to hurry up and get home before he overdid it. He fumbled to fill the silence as he grabbed a handful of the small, round veggies blindly, not considering quality in the slightest. “I didn’t realize y’all had a stall here. I kept meaning to make it down here, but this is the first Saturday I’ve had off in a while.”

He forced himself to look back up, and caught Jared grimacing before he schooled his expression. Taking the veggies from Jensen, he let them roll onto the scale. “Yeah. Your first time.” The words were bitter and ill-suited. Like Jared was wearing a coat one size too small, the emotion didn’t fit him right.

And Jensen knew he was the reason. The source of that bitterness. Jared was cheerful by nature, that was obvious, but Jensen had done something to break him down. That desperate urge seized him again. He wanted to demand Jared to tell him what he'd done wrong, what they had meant to each other. Because Jensen had a pretty good idea of what he wanted to be to Jared. But Jared had made it abundantly clear that he didn’t want to talk about it.

Jared’s hands roamed over the produce, straightening here, spreading there, making the display more visually appealing. Jensen grasped for something to say, to fill the silence again, when Jared turned to a potted tomato plant. It was identical to the ones he delivered to the store. His fingers landed on a broken stem. The tiny green tomatoes on that part would never grow to maturity.

Jensen opened his mouth to say something, anything, the weather for fuck’s sake, when a faint green light surrounded Jared’s fingertips. He slid his fingers around the stem, lifting it up, back in place, before gliding over the broken junction. He took his hand away and Jensen stared, awestruck. The break was healed. There wasn’t a single mark on it to suggest it had ever been broken. Jared’s shining green fingertips slid back down the slender branch, and leaves that had already begun to droop suddenly perked up. Their color lightened to the tender green of new growth.

Jared made a quiet, thoughtful noise and Jensen jerked his eyes away from the plant. Jared watched him, face open and clear. “I guess you really don’t remember,” he said softly.

Jensen realized his mouth was open and he snapped it shut. He took a steadying breath. “You… that was incredible.” Jared flinched and he rushed to continue. “I mean it, man. That was amazing.”

A flush of red warmed Jared’s cheeks before he looked away, rapidly blinking.

Jensen frowned. “I’m sorry, did I… say something wrong?”

Jared cleared his throat and shook his head brusquely. “No, no. It’s just… that’s exactly what you said the first time around.”

Jensen chewed that over, not sure if he should be pleased or not. In the end he just shrugged. “I’m sure you get that a lot though.”

Jared laughed and again, there was that touch of bitterness, but at least it wasn’t directed at him this time. “You’d be surprised.”

It was on the tip of his tongue to ask, to probe at what Jared meant, but Jensen let it go. The last thing he wanted to do was make Jared clam up again. His eyes darted over the stall and he realized Chad was gone. Probably got pissed off and left, but Jensen was grateful for it. “So,” he wet his lips. “I can see why you got into the plant business.” He offered a smile. “You’ve got a bit of knack for it.”

The corner of Jared’s mouth twitched, like he wanted to smile back. “You could say that.” He met Jensen’s gaze and his face was still open, and some internal voice was yelling victory.

He tried to be as casual as possible. “Maybe you could take a look at the plant in my apartment sometime. Poor thing’s on its last legs.” Jared’s eyes widened and Jensen wondered if he was overstepping. “Just… you know, it didn’t get any water for a while I guess,” he finished lamely. Didn’t want to say ‘hospital.’ Didn’t want to say that there was no one in his life to visit him in the hospital, much less water his house plants. He skittered away from the thought. Knew it’d be waiting for him later that night, when he was in that white, empty apartment.

Jared blinked at him. “You still have it.”

It didn’t sound like a question, but Jensen answered anyway. “Yes…?” It had implications. Implied that, at a minimum, Jared had been over to his apartment before. Knew Jensen well enough to know that he had a plant.

“I can check it out.” Jared’s words came out rushed.

He was thrown for a second. He had no idea what he thought Jared would say, but it definitely wasn’t an offer to come over. He smiled so big it felt like it would crack his face, and he tried to temper it. Tried to school back the rush of giddiness bubbling up. “Great, that’s… great.”

Jared bit his bottom lip and started tying up the bag of brussel sprouts, before grabbing the calculator. Jensen’s brain kicked back online, and he fished his wallet out of his back pocket. He paid and waited for his change, and in the renewed quiet his nerves thrummed.

“Market days are always crazy busy for me,” Jared said slowly, and Jensen wondered if he was already regretting the offer. “So I probably won’t make it over until later this evening.”

“That’s fine,” Jensen replied hastily. “Not a problem.”

Jared looked at him like he still wasn’t sure what he was getting into, but the corner of his mouth tugged into an almost answering smile, and that was good enough for Jensen. “See you later, then.”

“Yeah.” Jensen gave up on not grinning like an idiot. “Later.” He took one last good look, absorbing the large, graceful hands and breeze tossing around long hair, before turning away, mindful of not stressing his knee. The weight of Jared’s gaze warmed his back as he walked away. His bad arm protested, nagging at him that he shouldn’t still be carrying this weight. Jensen ignored it, anticipation making his steps lighter.

He stopped and picked up a bottle of wine on his way home.  

 

He was on his second glass by the time the clock ticked over to ten PM. He hadn’t received so much as a text from Jared. Pasta sat congealing on the stove top. Jensen stood in the kitchen, staring at it before picking it up and dumping it. Noodles, sauce, and useless hope slid wetly into the trash. He dropped the pot into the sink and poured another glass of wine, wincing as he lifted his elbow. Painkillers were chased by more wine, and he drifted into the living room. He killed the bottle and watched the ceiling spin before passing out on the couch.

He dreamed in red and white.

It took him in. Surrounded him. His hands reached and clasped against his will. His arms, his legs, his torso, his mouth, rose and fell and moved without permission, pulled along by scarlet thread. Puppet on a string. Tears wet his face. He didn’t want it. Tried to stop and couldn’t. The ropes tugged and he shuddered, spilled.

----

Morning came too soon, yet not soon enough. The alarm went off like an ice pick to Jensen’s head. He slapped his phone off before the scream of his arm even registered.

He sucked air through his teeth, slowly retracting his arm and cradling it against his chest. Eyes shut tight, he breathed through the pain until it slowly receded. He wondered if maybe he was pushing things too hard. Messing things up from healing right. He absolutely did not think about Jared. Jensen opened his eyes and found himself staring at the ceiling again. He was going to have to wear his sling today. His breath whooshed out.

“Fuck.”

----

Work was long and slow, like Sundays always were, and Alona kept giving him ‘do you wanna talk about it’ eyes. But what was there to say? Thankfully she took the hint when he escaped outside to take care of the plants. Usually it was soothing. He fell into a rhythm, got dirt under his nails and fresh air in his lungs.

But not today.

Today he moved slowly, arm snug in its sling, working mostly with just the one good hand and try as he might, he couldn’t concentrate on the plants. They just made him think of Jared. That faint blush that had stained his cheeks, like he cared what Jensen thought. The way his hands had engulfed the plant, but were so gentle on the broken stem. How he must’ve thought better about coming over. He probably only made the offer out of politeness. Regretted it the second it came out of his mouth.

Jensen shoved the thoughts away but couldn’t quite shut them up. Like a burr caught on his sleeve, they scraped and tore at him, and didn’t let up when he went home. There was no work to distract him, only a half dead plant sitting in the late afternoon sun.

Jensen opened the fridge for a beer and saw the brussel sprouts instead. He plucked up the bag, pivoted and tossed them in the trash can. It didn’t matter how they were cooked, he knew they’d taste bitter.

He turned back to snag a beer but just before he touched the cool glass, he stopped. Slowly, he straightened back up and shut the fridge.

Fuck this. He was going to the gym. His arm ruled out a lot of range of motion, but anything was better than staying here and throwing another pity party for himself.

A knock at the door checked him mid-stride and for a moment he didn’t know what to do. The only people that knocked on his door were delivery guys with his food order.

He rubbed his palm over his jeans before quickly crossing the living room to get the door. He opened it and found Jared on his doorstep. He stood there with hunched shoulders in a charcoal V-neck t-shirt and faded jeans, hair hidden underneath a black beanie. His eyes darted to Jensen’s sling before quickly looking away and he shifted awkwardly in his flip-flops, both hands shoved in his pockets.

“Hey.” Jensen’s voice was gruff, strained after going all day without hardly saying a word.

“Jensen,” Jared started, then stopped, squaring his jaw. “Listen, I’m just here about the plant. Nothing… nothing else.” He said it like he expected a fight. Some insistence on Jensen’s part.

It hurt. It hurt that somehow he’d made Jared nervous. Something he’d done had made Jared feel like declarations of boundaries were necessary. And all he could say was “Okay.” He stepped out of the doorway.

Jared gave a tight nod, jaw locked, and stepped inside. He stopped and just stood in the living room like he didn’t know what to do next.

Nervous habit kicked in and Jensen rubbed the back of his neck. “Can I get you anything? Water?” He didn’t say wine, he didn’t say beer, and he was glad he didn’t when Jared forcefully shook his head no. He nodded, not really expecting anything else and gestured towards the dining room connecting the living room and kitchen, though ‘dining room’ was a bit generous for the size. But Jared was already walking over to it. Because he’d been there before, and he knows, Jensen thought. What other rooms did Jared know?

The dying plant sat on his dark tiled dining table. It was pushed toward the far end, where no one ever sat and it was closest to the window. Not that Jensen had shared his table with anyone since he came back from the hospital, but theoretically his guest would not sit there. They would sit across from one another, sharing plates of food and laughing. That was how he pictured it.

The plant was mostly dead. The curving stems that still held green leaves were surrounded by brown, dry shoots where leaves had withered and fallen. Every morning Jensen found a few more shriveled leaves lying on the table. Heat abruptly filled his cheeks and the tips of his ears. This was just a plant. Why didn’t he just throw it away, instead of asking Jared to fix it when it was obvious that just being around him made Jared uncomfortable?

Jared moved around the table. He stopped directly between the bay window and the plant. The sunlight flared around the curling edges of his long hair and the hard slope of his shoulders, and Jensen’s throat tightened.

“I can’t do anything about the dead parts,” Jared murmured, looking at the plant considering. “It doesn’t work that way. But,” he paused, cocking his head, and studying something only he could see. “I can…” He trailed off and reached out with both hands, threading his fingers through the stems surrounding the base, tips pushing into the soil. Green light flared to life, shining from his hand and reflecting across the table’s surface.

Gradually, right in front of his eyes, the tendrils that weren’t dead, were only still dying, began to stretch, to lift. To reach for the sunlight. Dusty, browning limbs turned to a deep green. Yellowed, shriveled leaves unfurled, turning green and white and a deep blushing pink.

Jensen’s eyes flickered from the plant to Jared. The muscles in his arms and face were tense, and he was breathing deeply, as if doing a light workout. Then the light faded sharply before winking out altogether. Jared pulled back and ran his fingers lightly over the stems, checking them over. He must have liked what he saw because he nodded to himself. “You’ll need to trim off all the dead growth.” His fingers slid down a dead stem, breaking it cleanly off at the base of the plant. “It should bloom in a few days.”

“Bloom?”

Wordlessly, Jared parted the leaves with long, careful fingers and Jensen saw it. A tiny, swollen bud. Shiny, the way new growth could be.

He smiled. “Wow. I had no idea that it flowered. To be honest, even after googling it, I don’t even know what kind of plant this is.” He looked up to find Jared’s hazel eyes trained on him, and nerves swooped in his stomach. “I just… like it,” he finished lamely. And just like that the awkwardness was back, thinning the air and making everything harder.

Jared didn’t reply right away, and when he did reluctance dragged on his voice. “You won’t find it on Google. I made it.” The words were forced out, grudging. “It’s mine.”

He stared dumbly. “Your – what?” The image of Jared’s truck leapt to mind, its official Green Things logo. ‘Original creations,’ it had said. “You made this?” He pointed at the revived plant. “This species. It never existed before? And you made it?”

Jared’s shoulders hitched upwards and defensiveness crept into his voice. “It’s not that uncommon. People have experimented with cross-pollination throughout history.”

He quickly shook his head. “I’m not criticizing. I think it’s awesome. Kind of mind-blowing, actually.” Red colored Jared’s cheeks. That same blush as from the day before. “Now I’m really glad I didn’t toss it out,” he said with a half-hearted laugh.

Jared didn’t respond. He brushed the dirt off his hands with the focus of a person who didn’t know what to say. Jensen swallowed. Hell, Jared was already back to not talking to him, so he might as well go for broke. “Did you give it to me?”

But Jared shook his head before Jensen even finished asking. “I gotta go,” he muttered, making a beeline to the front door.

“Is it such a hard question?” Frustration made his voice sharp.

Jared stopped in his tracks and spun around. “I don’t owe you anything,” he said fiercely.

“Yeah, not even common courtesy apparently. You know it’s pretty damned rude to say you’re going to stop by and then never show up. No call, no text, nothing.”

“Common – ” Jared stopped, every line of his body rigid. “This was a mistake. I don’t know why I thought – ” he cut himself off. “I don’t know why I even came over.”

Jensen laughed harshly. “I don’t know why you did either, when all you do is hold me accountable for some crime – god knows what cause you won’t even tell me what horrible sin I’ve committed.” A part of him tried to stop, tried to stem the flood of words pouring out, but he couldn’t. “I get that I wasn’t perfect. It’s painfully obvious to me that whoever I was, I was fucking up. But since I woke up I’ve changed. I’m trying – ”

“You didn’t change! You just forgot! That’s not change. You’re still the same person that helped Mark Pellegrino put drugs on the streets. You’re still a cheating liar,” Jared spat. Jensen felt the blood drain from his face. “Every time you had to ‘work late.’ Every time you complained about Danneel.” He huffed and looked down, shaking his head. “You even told me that you were working with the cops on Pellegrino. And I was the idiot that believed you.” Bitterness coated his words, syrupy thick. “That is why I want nothing to do with you, Jensen Ackles.”

“What?” His voice was barely audible. A sharp, piercing pain lanced through his lungs.

“You wanted to know.” A forced smile twisted Jared’s mouth. “There it is. So get a new job. Talk to Danneel or don’t talk to her. You may have conveniently forgotten all the horrible shit you did, but the rest of us don’t have that luxury. And I sure as hell don’t have to forgive you.” His voice wavered but never broke.

Jensen said nothing. His entire body felt numb. And when Jared turned and walked out, door slamming behind him, he just stood there and watched him go. The room swam and his lungs constricted. He needed to sit. He needed – his legs folded like a cheap chair. The pain that shot through his knee barely registered through the din in his head. Black spots floated across his vision. Mechanically, he shifted his weight from his shins to a sitting position, and pressed his forehead to his knees. One arm cradled in its sling and the curve of his body, the other curled over his head, hand clammy, gripping the collar of his shirt.

Dimly he thought of the anxiety prescription sitting on the counter, but he didn’t move. Couldn’t. Drugs. Mark Pellegrino sold drugs, and Jensen had helped. And cheating. Jared called him a cheater. Had they been together? Had he cheated on Jared? It didn’t make sense. None of this made sense. That wasn’t who he was. It didn’t feel right.

Noise filled his ears. The rush of blood pounded through him.

He couldn’t – he couldn’t have done those things. But it fit Danneel’s weird familiarity and innuendos. His feelings for Jared, and Jared’s utter contempt. Those men that attacked him in the alley and were looking for something. Was it drugs? His chest was too tight, he couldn’t get enough – couldn’t breathe. He sucked in air, breath high-pitched and desperate. The collar of his shirt was stretched and damp from his sweaty palm. What had the doctor said? In through the nose, out through the mouth.

He forced himself to calm and breathe in a normal, deep breath and release it. It shook, it wasn’t steady, but after a moment some of the panic receded. A shiver wracked his body, and as his vision cleared he realized his knee fucking hurt. He slowly extended it, breath catching at the bright jabs of pain.

There had to be something he could do. He couldn’t be the man Jared described. Could not. But there was that voice. The one that had been dogging him ever since he woke up. You knew, it said. And he had. Every hint of his old life had pointed to a bad place. No wonder his sister wouldn’t even talk to him.

It would be easy. So easy to listen to the part of him that was listing all his faults. All the ways he’d failed and all the things that he couldn’t do, couldn’t fix.

Jensen opened his eyes and saw, again, his bland, impersonal apartment. Nothing on the walls. No clutter. No signs of life. His eyes landed on the dining table and he looked up at the plant above him. Jared had come over and fixed that plant. In spite of everything, he still came over to bring it back to life. And here he was. Still sitting on the floor of his living room.

He stared at the new growth. Move, he told himself. Get up and do something. Anything. He felt that if he didn't move right then, right that second, then he would sit there forever, lethargy and all his weaknesses holding him down. Dinner. He could make dinner. With a deep breath, Jensen levered himself up as well as he could with one arm in a sling and one bum leg. He could do this. One step at a time.

----

The first time Jensen noticed the man, he was at a bar on Grace Street. He'd been there a couple times now, and he liked it. Busy and loud but not obnoxious about it. They always had the game on, and after that live music nights. It was on one of those nights that he caught the man staring at him. Long hair, white skin, cowboy hat and boots, and with a scowl and build that reminded Jensen of a bulldog.

The guy glanced away as soon as Jensen caught him looking. He shot a couple more furtive looks his way and Jensen couldn't figure out if he was supposed to know the guy or if it was a come on. Either way the guy refused to so much as turn his head in his general direction the rest of the night, so he pushed it from his thoughts. He hadn't seen the guy at the bar again until tonight.

He spotted the man sitting with his buddies as soon as he walked into the bar. Hard to miss with that long hair and white hat. Jensen quickly looked away and took a seat at the bar. He must've been perched on a stool, watching the game and nursing a beer for a good half hour before the man walked up to the bar. He stood less than a foot away from Jensen, and ordered a drink, didn't spare him so much as a glance and Jensen wondered if this was supposed to be an intimidation tactic or if the guy was just incredibly bad at flirting.

He paid the bartender, thanked him with a slow drawl and went back to his buddies. As he pushed away from the bar, he slid a crumpled cocktail napkin over to where Jensen's forearm was resting on the bar.

Irritation flared. First the mixed signals, now he was pushing his trash into Jensen's space. He was glaring at the napkin when he saw handwriting peeking up through the folds. Curiosity teased him and he fought the urge to unwrap it, settling for eyeing what little he could readily see. At least he was until he saw his name scrawled on the paper.

He froze, staring at the napkin. Should he open it? Was this a message for him? Jared's words came back to him. Holy shit, was this a drug deal? He snuck a glance over his shoulder. Cowboy hat guy was steadfastly ignoring him. With as much subtlety as he could muster, Jensen palmed the napkin and smoothed it out.

Jensen, it read. The Royal @ 9. It wasn't signed.

He stared at the crooked handwriting, thoughts racing. The Royal. A quick search on his phone showed a bar about a twenty minute cab ride away. It was in a completely different neighborhood, and while he wasn't real familiar it hadn't seemed bad when he'd driven through it once. A little older, a little less built up. Worn in. It seemed a little out of the way if this was just an attempt to buy drugs.

He realized he was honestly considering going and bit the inside of his cheek. If it wasn't about drugs, then why the secrecy? Why not say hello right here? Either he was trying to lure him some place where it'd be easier to take advantage, or there was something about this particular bar that made the guy wary of approaching him. Anxiety slipped through him. Maybe it was one of the men from the video. Jensen chewed his lip. It had been distorted and fuzzy, but he was pretty sure none of them had long hair.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the cowboy hat move through the crowd. Under the guise of watching the game, Jensen shifted in his seat and saw the man exit the bar from his peripheral vision. He glanced at his watch. 7:48. So maybe he didn't want to be seen coming and going at the same time. Or he's setting something up to spring on you, paranoia whispered.

He watched the game, a firm grip around his beer. He definitely wasn't going. That'd just be plain stupid.

 

Turned out Jensen was as dumb as the day was long. That was the only possible reason he could think of for why he stood on the sidewalk, staring at The Royal across the street. He'd had the cabbie drop him off two blocks back, and walked the rest.

The bar was like the rest of the block. A little tired. In need of a paint job and some lightbulb replacements. From what he could see it wasn't as busy as the one they'd left, but there were enough people that the surly cowboy guy wouldn't be able to murder him without a couple dozen witnesses. He couldn't see the guy, but there were clearly areas of seating not visible from the windows.

His watch glowed 08:45. He figured it couldn't hurt to be a little early just in case the guy was planning something. He breathed in deep. Well. Here went nothing.

Jensen spotted the guy as soon as he walked in. Sure enough, he sat at a small table not visible from the street. He was watching the door and the second Jensen walked in his whole body subtlely relaxed in naked relief, before he quickly fixed a more neutral expression in place. Of course 'neutral' on this guy seemed more like a 'Beware of dog' sign, but he took it for what it was.

He didn't go straight over to the guy's table. Instead, he went to the bar, ordered a beer on tap, and took the time to look around. No one else was overtly watching or paying attention to him. Waiting to jump him. His heart thumped loudly, making its presence known, and Jensen took a deliberately slow sip, giving himself time to calm down.

Confident that his nerves weren't showing, he crossed the bar to cowboy guy's table. The guy watched him, head tilted to look up at him. When Jensen paused, gauging him, not quite committed to sitting yet, regret flickered across the man's face.

He pushed the empty chair out with his boot. "Have a seat, man. We should talk."

A part of Jensen was still telling him to leave. That nothing good could come out of this cloak and dagger bullshit. That everything he'd learned about himself had been bad and this wouldn't be any different.

And yet here he was. He sat down.

"Who are you?" He asked, sharply. Not loud, he didn't want attention, but he wanted answers.

The man's mouth twisted, blue eyes studying him. "Christian Kane," he said after a moment. "Call me Chris."

"What's with all the secrecy? Why not just talk to me where we were?"

Chris eyed him speculatively. "You know who Pellegrino is," he said, more of a statement than a question. "You've probably heard that he's bad news." Jensen nodded assent and he continued. "Well, it's true, and he's watching you."

His whole body went still and Chris nodded. "Not him but his people. He's waiting. Watching for any sign that you might remember something from before your hospital trip."

He made his dry throat work. "What do you want? Why are you telling me this?"

Chris looked down at his beer, brim of his hat obscuring his face. When he looked back up, his voice was soft. "Because we're friends, Jen. Have been for a long time."

Jensen shook his head sharply, denying the sudden emotion welling in his throat. "I don't have any friends. If we were such good buddies why didn't you visit me in the hospital?"

Chris' jaw tightened. "Pellegrino's orders. No one knew what the hell happened. Danneel had a bump the size of a goose egg on her head, and sayin' she found you passing info to the cops and you knocked her out. And she just has no idea what happened after that, being the poor bystander that she was," he said, voice dry and mocking. He snorted and sipped his beer. "She's about as helpless as a rattlesnake. Cold blooded as one, too. I'da paid money to see you knock her out."

“And in the meantime, four of her guys suddenly go missing, they just up and leave town the same night you end up in a hospital. Funny how that shit works out,” Chris sneered, and Jensen didn’t miss the quiet fury in his voice.

Jensen paused. There’d been four men in the surveillance video he saw. “Are… are you saying you think the guys that attacked me that night were working for her?”

Chris gave an ugly smile and spread out his hands. “Big coincidence otherwise.”

"She ran into me on the street one night," Jensen murmured, trying to marry the image of the woman he'd met with Chris' description.

Chris leveled a look at him. "She didn't 'run' into you. Pellegrino told her to. To test you. And he wants you back."

His brow furrowed. "Test me?"

Chris nodded. "Yup. Test your memory. See how you reacted to her." He scratched at the label on his bottle distractedly. "When you woke up saying you couldn't remember anything, no one was sure if it was real, from the fight, or if you were just making it up. Plus that detective was there sniffing around all the damn time, so our orders were to stay away."

Jensen absorbed the words as calmly as possible, ignoring the uptick in his pulse rate, and scouring his memory for anyone who might stand out. Anyone who might have been following him or watching him.

His thoughts must've been transparent, cause Chris gave a short nod. "Yeah, there ain't much he can't find out when he puts his mind to it."

"So we came out here cause he doesn't have anyone watching out here?"

"Bingo."

"If he's that bad, then why are you putting yourself at risk to tell me all this? You say you're a friend, but I've been out of the hospital for almost two months and you've never tried talking to me before tonight."

Chris grimaced. "I thought... I thought it might be better if you really did forget. It was your chance to get out of it all." He turned serious, almost pleading eyes on Jensen. "A chance at a new beginning." It was genuine, that much was obvious, but there was a hesitance to his voice.

Jensen's eyes narrowed. "I'm sensing a 'but' here."

The other man scowled. "But I need your help." The words came out like pulling teeth. "Thing is... we were working together."

He paused and Jensen arched an eyebrow. "Okay... and?"

"And," Chris gnashed his teeth. "We were feeding the DEA info about Pellegrino and I need you to come back."

Jensen stared at him, speechless.

"Better to get you back in the game this way than for Pellegrino to figure out you really aren't going to come back and decide it's safer for him to tie up loose ends." His blue eyes were somber as stone. "You get what I'm saying here, Jen?"

"What - what the hell do you mean 'tie up loose ends'," he sputtered.

"Exactly what you're thinkin'. He's a killer, man, make no mistake," Chris said, voice soft.

Jensen stared at the scratched and stained table, trying to understand what Chris was saying. Rationally, he knew he should be scared. He should be terrified. But it seemed so abstract, so far away. Like it was happening to someone else.

"Why," he started, words forming slowly as he tried to rein in his racing thoughts into some kind of logic. "Why not just kill me now? Or at the hospital? Why would he take that risk?"

Chris snorted and gave him a look as if to say that's your fucking question. And okay, that was fair. But it was still a valid question. "Because, Jen, with your power? You make a fucking awesome bodyguard." There was a small, wicked grin tugging up his mouth, like he was sharing a joke, recalling some memory that they'd knocked back drinks over. But Jensen didn't respond. Couldn't. They weren't his memories anymore.

But he could accept that answer. At least for now. His thoughts cast back over the conversation. "So... the DEA? Like the - "

"The Drug Enforcement Agency, yeah," Chris confirmed, frustration bleeding in.

"So we're cops?"

"No," he blurted out. "Jesus, no." He grabbed his hat, ran a hand through his hair and resettled it. "We were just giving them information to help bring the operation down and put that fucker behind bars ...and earn ourselves come clemency too, of course." He flashed a bright grin before finishing his beer.

Clemency. Jensen was the kind of person who struck deals with federal agents because he was facing his own jail time. Some of the disgust roiling in his gut must've showed on his face, because Chris' grin quickly gave way to another scowl.

"Hell, Jen. We didn't set out to work for some drug dealin', prostitutin', low life sonofabitch like Pellegrino. We were just dumb kids." He glared at his empty bottle. "Still are, really. ...At least, the dumb part anyway."

"Why did we start working for him?" He didn't know why he bothered to ask. There wasn't ever going to be an answer that justified it all.

Chris shrugged. "By doing an odd job here and there, and not having the sense to question why it paid so well. By the time we sussed out what was really going on, they had dirt on us." He looked up at Jensen. "You tried to leave once. They broke into your sister's place when she was out. Left her a message for her to find." Jensen felt his veins freeze over. "You never tried again," he added quietly.

So that explained that.

Silence fell between them then. And suddenly it felt impossibly late. The exhaustion after sustained adrenaline started to settle in.

Jensen wet his lips. "I gotta think about all this."

Chris nodded slowly. "Before you go." He reached back into his jacket pocket and Jensen tensed until he pulled out a black phone and set it on the table. "This is yours."

Jensen eyed it, then looked at Chris, not picking it up.

"The night you got jumped... you left this at our drop point." At his questioning look, Chris elaborated. "A spot we had. Just us. We'd use it to pass information about operations. Marked bills for the feds to track. That kinda thing." He looked at the phone, lines creasing his forehead. "I don't know why you left it. It's locked, and I never knew the code." Blue eyes found his, seeking questioning. "I didn't want to just turn it over, not knowing what you had on it."

He slid the phone close to Jensen. "You should take it."

With an unsteady hand, he did. This thing that was so important to the men that had attacked him. He tucked it inside his jacket and stood, suddenly anxious to get back home. To try and unlock it.

Chris' hand shot out, snaring his wrist. Grip solid, implacable. "Jensen," he said, voice gruff. "Just... take care of yourself, alright?"

He looked down at this man. The first person from his past that actually acted like a friend. He noticed for the first time the tired lines around his eyes, the tightness of his shoulders. The posture of a man living both tired and wary for too long.

Jensen nodded and Chris reluctantly let go. "You do the same."

He stepped out into the rapidly cooling night and called a cab, jacket collar turned up against the evening chill. Autumn had finally crept in. He shoved his hands in his pockets, grip tight over his old phone all the way home.

The second he locked the front door behind him, he rushed back to the bedroom as fast as his leg would let him.

“Ha!” A giddy, laughing shout burst out of him. He pulled the phone out of his pocket, grinning like a maniac. This was it. This would have the answers he’d been trying his damnedest to live without. Yanking open the nightstand drawer, he pulled out the charger he’d found his first day back and hastily plugged it in. His fingers were suddenly overly large and clumsy as he plugged the phone into the charger. After a beat the red charging light flicked on, and he let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding.

Staring at the black screen, he forced himself to wait a moment, let it get some power running through it. He sat on the edge of the bed, one hand restlessly massaging where thigh met busted knee. Trepidation leaked into this triumph as he watched the dark screen. Whatever answers he found, whatever old photos, forgotten friends, everything still ended the same. Right where he was with Jared’s words echoing in his head.

He squared his jaw. It makes a difference. How we try makes a difference. Jensen picked up the phone and pressed the power button until it buzzed in his hand. With a spin of lights circling around the screen, the company logo came up as it began to boot. Seconds dragged like minutes before the screen changed, and frustration crashed over him. The lock screen. How the fuck was he supposed to get past that?

With a growl he threw the phone on the bed. It bounced with a dull whump, pin pad taunting him. Jensen buried his face in his hands. It was probably the same fucking code as his safe. Whatever the hell that was.

He snatched up the phone again and typed in his birthday. Incorrect pin. He tried 1978. Nope. The plastic creaked under his grip and he forced his hand to relax. It could be any random number, or it could have meaning. What did he care about that had a numerical value and that he could still remember? There were only three things he knew from his old life. His family, Danneel and Jared. One of those things kind of gave him the creeps and the other two he wasn’t on speaking terms with. His stomach twisted unpleasantly. He knew Jared hadn’t been lying. There was no way he’d lie about something like that. But he just… couldn’t wrap his head around it. He cared about Jared. He wouldn’t just do something like that.

Jared’s strong hands digging in the soil, handling the stem and leaves so gently. Coaxing them to do his will. He blinked. Yeah, he cared about Jared. The synapses of his brain fired, and he was up, limping across the room to his abandoned new phone. He grabbed it, already thumbing through the contacts as he took it back over to the bed. He sat, and with a shaky hand he tapped four digits into his old phone. 3305. The last four digits of Jared’s phone number.

The phone unlocked and disbelief scratched his throat as he stared dumbly at the Spurs logo background of his main screen. It actually worked. The tip of his index finger hovered awkwardly over the menu, eyes jumping from contacts to phone log to texts to images. Jensen tapped the messages icon, pulling up threads of conversations with people he’d never met. He’d have to go through all of them, he realized. If he really wanted to piece everything together. But three names caught his eye right away: Jared, Mark Pellegrino and Danneel Harris.

Denying his first impulse, he brought up his conversation with Pellegrino. Glancing through was dissatisfying. It was mostly brief texts about when meetings and appointments were to be, asking him to make arrangements for them – things security personnel would need to know. He quickly flipped through, looking for something more. With a huff, he stopped and rolled his eyes at himself. “What’d you expect?” he grumbled. “Drug deals via text message?”

He moved on to the thread with Danneel, already dreading what he’d find. But again, he was disappointed. Their texts were just more meeting times, with vaguely inappropriate responses from Danneel, which he apparently stonily ignored. Again, he berated himself, solid evidence of drugs or an affair? Not likely. It didn’t really confirm or deny anything either way. He started to move back a screen when his thumb caught mid-motion.

Jensen stared at the date and time of his last message.

It was the morning of the day before he’d been admitted to the hospital. A fact he only knew from his medical records. Danneel was asking to meet him that evening at the casino, and he’d agreed. His breath caught, thoughts racing. She may have been the last one to see him before the attack. If Pellegrino was known for dealing and Jensen was known for working with him, it wasn’t a huge leap that maybe it was intended to be a mugging. If he’d just left the casino, they might’ve thought he’d be carrying drugs.

Or… maybe Chris was right. Danneel had something to do with the guys that attacked him. Maybe she’d already been planning something when she texted him, asking him to meet her.

He was going to have to tell Detective Ferris. The thought hit him like a sledgehammer. He wasn’t a moron. If they really were selling drugs at the casino, then, at a minimum, Jensen had to have known about it, being head of security. Even if he hadn’t touched the stuff himself, he’d enabled it. He didn’t really know what that translated to crime-wise, but it wouldn’t be pretty.

He should call her right now. Just go down to the station. Jensen swallowed past the rock lodged in his throat. He would. After he finished going through the phone, he’d go down there.

With a deep breath he refocused on the message. Danneel didn’t say what she wanted to meet for, but a quick glance through their conversations told him that wasn’t unusual. Short of that last date and time, there wasn’t anything else particularly revelatory.

Anticipation hummed through him as he flipped back and tapped Jared’s name. It died as quickly as it came when he saw the conversation. It was all one-sided.

Jensen begging Jared to talk to him. Swearing he hadn’t, would never, cheat. Telling Jared he loved him. Then the last one: I’m going to find out what’s going on, and I’m going to fix it. I’m sorry.

Jensen stared at the screen, uncomprehending. What the hell did that mean? A small part of him was gratified to see his past self denying that he’d cheated. But obviously something had happened. And apparently he’d been just as clueless then as he was now.

He worried his bottom lip between his teeth before decisively closing out of the text messages. Pulling up his media, he paused. Pictures, videos and… audio recordings? The first two were expected, but audio was a little different. Delaying his curiosity, he opened the photos. The smiles from a dozen tiny images hit him like a fist to the gut. It was a smile he’d seen for one fleeting moment before Alona introduced him. Gleaming white teeth in an open, tanned face. Dimples like happy punctuation on both sides. Beauty mark next to a swoop of a nose.

Jared.

Smiling into his camera, sometimes with an arm swung around Jensen. One with a crooked grin as they kissed for a selfie. Jensen was taking it. Jared’s hands were on him. One gripping his jacket, pullet him close, the other cupping his jaw, long fingers possessive.

Jensen thumbed through the photos, drinking them in. The expressions on their faces, the happiness. The suggestive, close-mouthed smiles. The trust. And he knew what he’d known the second he’d laid eyes on Jared outside the store. Jared was his. And Jensen belonged, lock and key, to Jared.

The photos blurred before him and he blinked, surprised at the wetness he found. With a swallow, he forced himself away and onto the videos. There was a whole list of them. Apparently he liked doing that sort of thing. Pulling up the first one, he saw a frozen image of himself. He was standing in a batting cage, sun setting in the distance, dressed in jeans, jacket and a dark-colored Henley. Jensen pressed play and a low buzz of white noise emitted from the tiny speakers.

“Jen?” Jared’s voice, warm and cautious. He must’ve been the one recording. “You sure this is safe?”

Jensen glanced toward him before shrugging out of his jacket. “Yeah, it’s fine.” He tossed it out of the way, somewhere off camera, and pushed his sleeves up to his elbows.

“Just,” Jared tried again. “You set it pretty fast.”

Jensen paused, looked at him, and smiled. “I know. That’s kind of the point,” he said gently. “Trust me on this.” He must see something in Jared’s face, because he nodded and picked up the metal baseball bat at his feet. The camera wobbled as Jared resettled his grip. Jensen warmed up with a few practice swings, shirt stretched across broad shoulders as his whole body pivoted fluidly with each swing.

Jensen shot Jared a grin over his shoulder and hit the button. He moved into a ready position, waited, and then the first ball shot out. His body moved in a graceful arc, powerful arms swinging, and he hit the ball off into the distance. He moved back into position and hit the next ball so fast, if you blinked you’d miss it.

Looking down at his phone, Jensen’s eyebrows shot up. He got why Jared sounded cautious. This was fast.

On the slightly fuzzy screen, Jensen hit ball after ball, moving faster than a man had any right to. Resetting his stance after every swing with preternatural speed. The camera moved to the pitching machine before flying back to Jensen, completely failing to catch the whole thing on video. Jensen had already hit the ball by the time the camera got there.

After ten balls the machine stopped. Jensen punched the off button before turning back to Jared, breath coming fast, but hardly with exertion. “Holy shit,” Jared muttered as Jensen walked over, bat resting on his shoulder. “That – Jen! That was…”

Jensen smiled, cocky, and the video tipped sideways, framing one of Jensen’s shoulders and a whole lot of sky. “Seeing is believing, huh?” Jensen’s voice echoed from the speaker, followed by a muffled nose before the video stopped.

He quickly thumbed to the next video and pressed play. An image of a park filled the screen, and the video zoomed in on Jared surrounded by two large dogs. He was laughing, holding a Frisbee just out of their reach as they jumped for it. With a twist, he threw the disc and the dogs took off like a shot. The camera started to follow their pursuit before dragging back to Jared.

He stood there, watching the dogs and looking windblown. Twin spots of color high on his cheeks. His eyes flicked to the camera and a smile tugged at his mouth. “Jensen. You’re supposed to be taping the dogs.”

“Yup,” Jensen replied from off screen. The camera didn’t budge.

Jared began to walk toward the camera, a promise in the gleam of his eyes and the roll of his gait. “You’re really bad at your job,” he said matter-of-factly. The video zoomed out as Jared came closer, before his hand shot out and the screen went dark, pressed up against the blue fabric of Jared’s button-down. Sound reduced to deadened thumps and the indistinct murmur of a low voice for a few long seconds before sunlight erupted across the screen again.

“Shit!” Jared cried, followed by Jensen’s laughter, and the video stopped its crazy movement. Settled on Jared, on his back in the grass, with the dogs crawling all over him, fending off slobbery, if enthusiastic, kisses.

The video stopped and Jensen stared down at the freeze-frame, stomach twisted in knots, body running hot and cold at the same damn time before finally settling on cold, cold, cold. The deep freeze of loss.

He moved on to the next video, an open pit in his stomach at the thought of having to watch another happy moment. He pressed play, but this time was different. It was of his bedroom. The very room he sat in. In the video, Jensen sat on the edge of the bed, looking into the camera. The shot was a little off – the phone evidently propped up on something.

Jensen’s eyes dropped to his clasped hands before lifting to the camera. He cleared his throat, clearly at a loss. “I – ” He laughed humorlessly and scrubbed a hand through his hair. “Okay, I’m going to sound like a jackass, but…” He met the camera straight on. “Today is August 2nd. And I think that I uh… I’ve been losing my memory.”

Ice trickled down Jensen’s spine and the world shrank rapidly as a wave of dizziness hit him. He swayed where he sat.

Onscreen, his gaze shifted, almost dropped, before he squared his shoulders. “There have been gaps in time. Hours missing in my day that I can’t account for.”

He turned his head, studying the floor. “When it started it was just small things, normal things. I’d be talking with someone and the word I wanted wouldn’t come to mind. It’d be on the tip of my tongue. And then it became more than that. I’m forgetting entire conversations. At least, I think I am. At first I got so frustrated with Jared… He kept insisting that he’d told me things, that we’d made plans…” He fell silent, still staring at the carpet, hands white knuckled. “Jared thinks I stood him up,” he said finally, unhappily. “We fought.”

Jensen swallowed and pressed on. “But then it wasn’t just Jared. I started forgetting meetings at work. Danneel texts me reminders all the time now.” He heaved a sigh. “I missed one of Chris’ gigs. I was supposed to play a set with him.”

His mouth twisted downwards. “I was supposed to be there.” He pushed off the bed, pacing with tight, jerking movements. “And now I’m losing whole hours. I- I don’t know how. How it’s even possible. But I suddenly… come back to myself, like waking up after falling asleep or something, and realize I have no fucking clue how I got home or where I was before that.”

He stopped and abruptly sat back on the bed like all his strings had been cut. “It scares me. And I hate… I hate fighting with Jared about it. He doesn’t believe me. Neither did Chris. Danneel’s the only one that hasn’t acted like I’m crazy.” He snorted. “That ice queen’s been surprisingly helpful for once.”

Jensen shook his head and looked back at the camera. “I’m going to figure this out. Starting with going to the doctor. Who knows, maybe I’ll be the first thirty-year-old with Alzheimer’s.” His voice went up, like it was a joke, but there was a desperate edge to the smile he faked. The smile faded but the desperation remained. “Whatever it is, it has to fucking stop.” Onscreen, Jensen reached out to the phone, and the video stopped.

Heart racing in his chest, Jensen pressed a fist to his temple. He’d been forgetting things before the attack, before the coma. He’d had friends, he’d had a relationship, and this… whatever it was had stolen everything away. His chest constricted as thoughts flew, scattered. What if it was still happening? Was he going to forget again? He tried to breathe, gasping for air. Was he going to wake up one day, not even knowing his own name all over again?

The tightness in his chest sharpened into a starburst of pain and Jensen lurched off the bed. The phone fell from his fingers as he staggered to the bathroom. His palms hit the sink and he dragged his eyes up to the mirror. Sweat rolled down his pasty white skin. He forced himself to reach for the cabinet, an extra twenty pounds dragging on his limbs. He grabbed a pill bottle and shook the diazepam out onto his sweaty palm then slammed them back. Fumbling with the faucet, he slurped down a couple handfuls of water before his knees quit.

Jensen fell to the floor, back thudding against the tub, tap still running. He pressed his forehead to his knees, eyes shut, and struggled to do what the nurse had told him the first time this happened. He thought back to her voice, low and soothing, regulating his breathing and slowing his heart until it was no longer the nurse he was remembering, but Jared. Jared’s warmth and strength when his knee gave out on the truck. Jared who had the power to heal withered things.

He slowly exhaled, breath shuddering, and blinked against the daylight, wondering how much time had passed. He rubbed his sweaty hands against his jeans and forced himself to stand, ignoring the twinge of his bad knee. His hand shook as he turned off the tap. Jensen turned back to the bedroom and immediately saw the black phone in the middle of the floor, waiting for him. With clenched teeth, he picked up it up. He tapped out Jared’s last four again, unlocking it. There were two more videos to be played, and his heart thumped in warning.

Jensen let himself slide down the foot of the bed until he sat on the floor, bed frame digging into his back. He tapped the next video and it pulled the freeze frame. There he was again. Old Jensen. Before Coma Jensen. Sitting in his bedroom, just like he’d been in the last one. Just like he was doing today.

The video date made his breath catch. 23 August. Three days before the attack. He pressed play.

On screen, Jensen looked like shit. Dark circles ringed his eyes, and even on the tiny video it was obvious they were bloodshot. About a week’s worth of growth covered his jaw and neck.

“I think it’s Danneel.” He said it without preamble, voice deep and rough. His shoulders were slumped and he didn’t bother looking at the camera. “She always said she didn’t have powers. But I think she’s lying, I think –” His jaw clenched.

“Jared thinks I’m cheating on him.” He blurted it out, like he couldn’t keep it in anymore. The words spilled out of him, thick and heavy. “I came home from work a couple days ago and he was here. He’d made dinner. But he said he could… could smell perfume on my shirt. And he went off. He started saying how I was suddenly staying late at work and missing our plans and that I never had a good excuse. Could never give him a reason.” He choked over the words and pressed his face into his palms, but when his hands fell away his eyes were still dry.

“And he’s right,” he said with a helpless shrug. “I could smell it. That same floral bullshit I keep catching on my clothes. I told him that I hadn’t, I would never – ” he swallowed. “But what reason can I give him? I tried telling him that I was having problems remembering things. That I didn’t know what was going on and for a second, I thought he was going to hit me. But he just left.”

Jensen stopped and covered his mouth. He sat, unmoving and face blank, then let his hand fall. “Thing is. I don’t think he’s wrong.” A tremor ran through his body. “When I… came back to myself, I was sitting in my truck. I had no idea how long I’d been sitting there. But it felt like my – ” his voice seized, and he looked a thousand miles away. Completely detached. “It felt like I had had sex.”

The words dropped like a ten pound weight in his stomach.

“After Jared left, I got undressed and I found a hair clinging to my shirt. Long and red. I’ve never gotten close enough to Danneel for that to happen.” His mouth twisted and the blank look was washed away. “It’s her. She’s been lying. She has a power and I’m going to prove it.” Steel rang in his words, and for the first time he looked at the camera, eyes alight with purpose. It was a promise of violence. “I’m going to prove it.”

The video reached the end and Jensen didn’t let himself stop.   Didn’t let himself think before he thumbed to the next one, Danneel’s name screaming in his blood, rushing from heart to fingertips.

August 26. The night of his attack.

The screen was dark. Dark with moving shapes and muffled, too close noise. There was a door knock, a pause, and then a woman’s voice. “-nsen!”

The phone was in his pocket, Jensen realized. He must’ve pushed record, dropped it in his pocket and just let it run.

“Got your message. What do you want, Danneel?”

“Not even a ‘hello’ first? You’ll hurt my feelings.”

A sharp, indecipherable noise. “You don’t have feelings to hurt. Tell me what you want or I’m leaving.”

“Relax,” an edged slipped into her voice. “We just need to go over the exchange with Welling.”

Again? No. No. It’s covered.”

“See, this is exactly the attitude that Mark was talking about.”

“Attitude? …Mark? What are you -”

“You’ve changed, Jensen. This past month you’ve been… off. Distracted.”

“I’m fine. I - ”

“Is it because of Jared?”

“Excuse me?”

“You’ve been for what? Six months, now? You two really hit it off.”

“You need to shut your mouth,” he snapped, voice low with cold fury.

“He’s become an issue. Everyone has noticed your little attention-span problem.” Her voice was louder, clearer, like she’d crossed the room. “Even Mark’s noticed, and we just can’t have that.”

“Don’t touch me. Did Mark say something to you?”

“It’s bringing up too many questions, too much attention,” she went on, ignoring him. “So I’ve figured out a solution.”

“What are you talking about?” Frustration clipped his words. “Hey - You touch me again and this conversation’s over.”

“It won’t be too hard. Just a little snip, and then you won’t remember a thing. It’ll be like you never met, and we can have one last hurrah before you have to go away.”

“You’re fucking psychotic, aren’t you?” He said caustically, voice slowing midway, like he’d been asked a difficult question. “Told you. Don’t - ” he stumbled, “Don’t touch me.”

Men. Always calling women crazy. I’m not crazy, Jensen.” Her voice dipped, throaty and intimate. “I’m just getting what I want. You didn’t have all these nasty side effects before Jared came along. He’s ruined you.”

“Get… get off,” he slurred, the phone barely picking it up.

“So I’m going to take him away.” Muffled noise swept over the speaker, the sound of rustling clothes. “What do you think that’s going to feel like?” The low burn of satisfaction in her voice. “To erase a human being?” she pressed. “Like he’d never been there at all?”

“I won’t – I won’t let you - ” He sounded drunk.

“To take all that love, cause you do love him, don’t you? You love Jared.”

“I love -” he faltered.

“Think of your first kiss! Quick, before it’s gone!”

“Won’t forget.” Words ground out through sheer force of will.

“Forget what, Jensen?”

Silence, and then laughter. “There we go,” she purred. Danneel’s laughter, smug and pleased, bubbling through the speaker, and then a heavy whump. The jacket and phone in its pocket hit the floor and the video abruptly ended.

-----

Jensen stared at the phone in his hand, numb. With nerveless fingers, he navigated through the menu and pressed it to his ear. The screen was hot, slick against his cheek and he realized he was crying.

Jared picked up after three rings, angry and tired. “Why are you calling me?”

“Jared.” It rushed out before he could stop it. “I - ” his voice broke. He swiped at the tears running messily down his face and forced his throat clear and open. This was the last step. The last quarter mile before giving it all up and going down to the station. “I found it. My phone. I figured it all out. Why I was forgetting, why I forgot.”

Silence buzzed back at him.

“And you were right. About everything. I slept with Danneel while we were together.” A small pitiful noise on the other end made Jensen flinch. His throat closed up and all the other words he had lined up crumbled like so much ash in his mouth. This time he couldn’t keep the tremble from his voice. “You don’t have to worry about seeing me at the store, or… or the farmer’s market anymore. I’m not going to be in your way.”

“What?” Jared blurted out. “Jensen, what are you – ”

“I’m sorry,” he gasped through the tears. “I’m so damned sorry.” He hung up and dropped the phone. Jensen buried his face in his hands, shoulders bowed, Danneel’s laughter echoing in his head, trapping him, holding him in place. Get up. Get up getupgetupgetup.

Classic rock ripped through his fugue and he was on his feet, phone in hand and out the bedroom in the blink of an eye. Jensen glanced at the screen and his stomach flipped in warning. Jared. He snatched up his jacket, quickly pocketed the phone and went out the door.

Autumn air hit his damp cheeks with a slap of cold. Jensen scrubbed the tear tracks away with the heel of his palm and set off down the sidewalk. The sun had started to set. The detective may have left the station already, but someone would be there. They’d call her.

Long shadows lined the street and the evening air was colder than it had any right to be. He pulled up his collar and followed the path before him.

-----

Jensen liked Dr. Huffman. Or rather, he liked her in comparison to Dr. Sheppard. She came out from behind her desk for their sessions, sitting in a chair across from him. Her long legs crossed, red hair pinned up. She'd worn it down one day and he nearly crawled out of his skin. She'd never worn it like that again.

“Have you had any more thoughts about self-harm since we spoke last week?” Alright, so maybe 'like' was too strong a word. He grimaced and shook his head, staring at the floor.

"I’m very happy to hear that. It’s been several months now since you reported feeling that way."

He glanced up and found her solemn, but with genuine kindness the corners of her mouth.

"Are you still experiencing persistent feelings of guilt?"

"Yes." It came out in a dry croak, and he cleared his throat. "Yes." He didn't talk a lot these days.

"What specifically do you feel guilty about?"

He looked back at her silently. They'd already talked about this, too.

"You feel guilty about your association with possible criminal activity at the Seventh Circle casino?"

"About my work. I worked there. For them. I wasn't there just to gamble."

"Yes, as the head of their security operations. A perfectly honest occupation."

He shook his head. "Maybe at other places. But not there."

"Yes, that much was shown in the Harris trial," she conceded. "But the investigation and subsequent charges never found evidence of your involvement in those activities."

He rubbed his thumb against the palm of his hand. "Just because they didn't find anything they could make stick doesn't mean I didn't do it."

"How do you know that you did? Have you remembered anything before the assault?"

"No. I just - " frustration raised his voice and he breathed deep, reining it back in. "I just know," he finished quietly.

He could feel her weighing whether or not to keep pushing. "And beyond illegal activity that may or may not have taken place... do you still feel guilt over your relationship with Jared?"

He didn't answer her. He made himself move his hands to the armrests.

"Jensen, the trial made it very clear that when Danneel Harris exerted her powers, manipulating memory with physical touch, the victims were wide open to mental suggestion. She took away your ability to act or think independently while she maintained contact." For all her professional tone, her brown eyes were kind. "You're not the only one she did this to. But your repeated exposure and her manipulation is what led to your forgetfulness before the night of the last assault, and the onset of retrograde amnesia afterwards."

They'd talked about this, too. Nowadays he could think about it without risking a panic attack, and he was satisfied with that. But the doctors weren't. They wanted him to pretend he was innocent of it all.

"She took away your agency. You were literally incapable of independent thought and action."

Jensen looked at the various degrees and pictures on the wall, anywhere but her. "Doesn't change what I did."

She was silent for a moment, waiting for him to continue, before giving up. "Jensen, in terms of sexual relationships, do you understand what 'consent' means - "

"No." It came out too loud. Too loud for the small office. "No," he said again, and unclenched his grip on the armrests. Quietly, but firmly ending the conversation.

----

"Ackles, you have a visitor."

Jensen grunted, mid-rep. He sat up from the bench, letting the weight thud to the floor, and squinted at the orderly. He wasn't expecting anyone. Alona just came two weeks ago, so he still had another two before she came back.

"Who is it?"

The orderly shrugged, looking bored. "You'll find out when you get there, c'mon."

He wiped the towel over his face and got up, putting the weights back. He plucked his t-shirt to sit smoothly and hitched up his jeans. Good behavior had earned back his regular clothes, but they still didn't trust him with belts or even shoelaces. They wouldn’t give them back until he checked out. Same as for everyone else.

Worry curled through him as he followed the orderly out to the visiting room. Maybe the detective finally found something against him. Maybe there were new charges. He stepped into the bustling room, looking around for his lawyer, Ms. Cohen. So many people. Families visiting all the other misfit toys stranded here, just like him, thanks to a court order. He hated this room.

He looked out over the room and froze, heart stopping. Sitting at a table off to the side, in a too small chair, and looking distinctly uncomfortable with his surroundings, was Jared. He hadn't seen Jensen come in. He was watching the families.

Jensen's feet felt rooted to the floor. "There's been a mistake," he said, voice barely above a whisper.

The orderly pulled a face. "What? No mistake. That's him," he said, jerking a thumb at Jared.

Jensen shook his head. "No. It's a mix-up. He wouldn't - " Jared looked up, and their eyes locked. Emotions slid like mercury across his face before Jared carefully schooled them back. His expression settled on unhappy, the finer points inscrutable.

Jensen's feet carried him the rest of the way, until he stood at the table, wary and uncertain and more fragile than flesh and blood should be. Long brown hair curling out from under a black beanie unlocked his voice. "Why are you here?"

Jared jutted his chin to the chair opposite him. "Will you sit?" He phrased it as if Jensen actually had a choice. He didn't.

Jensen pulled out the chair and sat. Both hands flat on the table until he thought better and hid them fisted in his lap. His eyes darted from Jared's to the scarred formica tabletop to Jared's big hands, clasped, fingers woven, not sure where he was allowed to look but wanting to. Wanting to look everywhere.

"Jensen - " He flinched and Jared stopped. Biting the inside of his cheek, he forced his eyes up. Jared was looking back and the corner of his mouth twitched up. "Hey." A beat of silence, and his mouth dropped again.

Jensen felt a pang, eyes falling before he forced them back up. "You - " he struggled for a voice. "Why are you here?"

Jared licked his lips. "To say I'm sorry."

Jensen's shoulders hit the back of the chair. "No," he ground out. "You don't get to say that."

Jared looked stricken. "Jensen, I - "

But Jensen was shaking his head, hands fisting on his thighs. "Don't you act like you did anything wrong. Don't act like, like this wasn't all on me."

Confusion swept the hurt away, and then short-lived relief flashed over Jared's face. "You think that - You still think you're to blame for all this?"

Jensen swallowed. "There ain't no one else."

Jared sputtered, one hand clenching. "The hell there isn't," his voice rose sharply and the din of conversation around them momentarily dropped. Hazel eyes shifted before refocusing firmly on Jensen. "I mean, I got your message, but I thought - " he cut off, one hand pushing the beanie off, the other raking through his hair. "I thought you'd work through it." He looked just as lost as Jensen suddenly felt.

"Jensen," he said firmly, tone leaving no doubt. "I'm sorry for not listening to you. For not believing you when you tried to tell me something was wrong."

Jensen's eyes fell shut. He couldn't listen to this. His heart throbbed in his chest. A black and purple bruise of a muscle.

"Is that it?" One clenched hand on the edge of the table, ready to push away. To get back to his empty room. He chanced a look up. Jared was looking at him like he was a desperate, crucial riddle that needed solving.

"It was all over the news," he said slowly, hesitantly. "The whole nation freaking out that someone with a power like hers was out there, unregistered. Just doing whatever she wanted." Jared laughed. A short, bitter sound. "People said we're lucky she was just working with Mark Pellegrino, and not with someone bigger, someone worse."

Jensen didn't know what to say. He didn't feel lucky.

"I read the court transcripts." The words came out in a rush, like ripping off a band-aid, and a frisson of warning slid down Jensen's spine. Jared's shoulders squared just a fraction, his hands spread out palm down on the table, and he looked up at him. "So I could know everything that happened."

Jensen's pulse kicked up a notch and sweat broke out on his palms.

Jared licked his lip. "Jensen, they... they're helping you out here, right?"

There were moments, sometimes whole days, where Jensen felt whole again. Like one day he could go back to the hardware store. Maybe get a new apartment. Maybe just move away entirely. But right now he felt every inch the broken, shell of a man he knew he was. Sitting next to Jared. Tan and strong and beautiful.

He shrugged and looked away. "That's why I'm here." Forced levity in his voice.

"Don't - " Jared started, pained and frustrated before he bit it off. He took a deep breath, nose flaring. “The news said you tried to ki-" his voice cracked.

Terror and shame gripped Jensen tight. Wrapped him up like a straitjacket. He’d had nightmares about having this conversation.

Jared let out a trembling breath before clearing his throat. “They said I shouldn’t talk about that.” He swallowed. "When I think about... the things I said to you… I accused you of cheating." Self-recrimination dripped from his words.

"And you were right." They burned his mouth and a tiny, vicious part of him was glad for the pain. "You knew before I did."

An abortive sound snagged in Jared's throat and Jensen looked up. Jared was looking at him with something like horror in his eyes. "No," he said, shocked and forceful. "No, I was very, very wrong." He raked a hand through his hair, gripping it then releasing. "Jesus, it's not cheating when you don’t have a choice, when it's - "

"I had a choice," Jensen snapped, voice a harsh whisper, struggling to pretend at privacy. "I had sex with - " he stumbled, "I did that. And I'm fucking sick of everyone trying to tell me it wasn't my fault, when it was. It is." Jared stared at him, mouth open and speechless. "I am responsible for my actions."

"Jensen." He flinched. Jared sounded like his heart was breaking. "You're not responsible. She took away your ability to say no."

He braced a hand against the table to push away. He wouldn't listen to this. Couldn't.  

Jared's hand clamped down over his, fingers wrapped over his wrist. His eyes caught Jensen just as sure as his grip did. "It's not cheating when it's rape, Jensen." His voice gentle and firm, like you'd talk down a wild horse, but Jensen wasn't. He wasn't. "You were raped."

Something crucial tore in his chest. Some critical thing that he'd been holding onto ever since he watched the videos. The world collapsed into itself, narrowing down into just this one, inescapable thing. He had to - he had -

"I have to go," he forced out, not sure if he'd said it right or loud enough, or if he'd spoken at all. He tried to move, tried to get away, but his limbs weren't listening.

"No, stay. Jensen. Please stay." Quiet and pleading. Wanted.

He tried to tell him it was pointless. His feet weren't moving, his body wasn't taking any more requests. A drop fell on the tabletop and he realized he was crying. But he had no right. No right to feel this way. "I don't remember it." Somehow he got the words out, around the void in his chest. "And I don't..." His tongue felt thick in his mouth. "I don't know what I'm supposed to do anymore." Tears caught his voice.

A warm, calloused hand lay heavy on the back of his neck, pulling him forward until their foreheads touched. "That's okay." Jared's breath fluttered over his skin. "We're gonna figure it out." His thumb moved, tucked itself up against Jensen's ear. "I'm going to be here this time. You don't have to do it all by yourself."

It was supposed to be a comfort, Jensen knew it was. But he broke down and cried just the same.

-----

"You can still change your mind, you know."

Jensen looked up from the box he was taping shut. Jared was folding a bed sheet with far more care than the task required. A piece of hair had escaped his messy bun and was plastered to the sweat that slid down his temple. Sweat from already clearing all the furniture out of the living room. He wore what was usually his gardening clothes. Black tank top, khaki shorts frayed at the edges, and his boots.

"I'm not changing my mind, Jared." Hazel eyes finally rose to meet his. Jared twisted the sheet in his hands, undoing his own work.

"I just - " he started unhappily. "If you want to live on your own," Jared spoke deliberately, determined to find the right words. "If this is something... you need to do by yourself, I'd understand."

When Jared had first suggested that Jensen should move in with him when he left the institute, he'd definitely had reservations. Self-doubt.

Abandoning the tape and box, he pushed up from his crouch and crossed the room. He took the sheet from his boyfriend's hands and tossed it on top of the others they were donating. Jared looked down at him, worry and concern written all over. In the downturn of his mouth, the slope of his shoulders. "I already tried doing it by myself, Jay. I didn't care for it too much."

Jared opened his mouth, agitated, doubtless to say that he should've been there. Should have been there when Jensen was in the hospital. Should’ve been there when he was transitioning from wheelchair to crutches to cane. Should’ve been there for him when he tried to find a new job. But they'd gone over this for six months now. Poured out their doubts and 'should haves' and talked them to death.

He reached up, cupping his palm against Jared's jaw. "Since the hospital... I haven't really known what to do, who I am. But when I saw you... I knew you. I've had a lot of doubts, but you ain't ever been one of them."

Love chased away the worry from Jared's eyes, sweeping them clear and bright. They hadn't said it yet. Each wanting to take it slow. Both the owner of too many open wounds. Wounds they were steadily healing over. Together.

So he did what he'd been doing since he woke up. Jensen listened to the beat of his heart and leaned in.

 

End.