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New York Eyes, Texas Thighs

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On his first day of kindergarten, Jared wakes up early to pack and repack his dinosaur book-bag three times. His mom took him shopping for new supplies, and Jared doesn’t want to mess kindergarten up by leaving any of it at home. He makes sure he has his Han Solo folder and his pencil case, his new ruler, and his brand new 96-pack of crayons. The box has a sharpener on the back, and Jared is pretty sure everyone at his table will be jealous.

He waits for his mom by the door, shoes tied and uniform shirt tucked in. She smiles when she sees him, insists on taking a few pictures in front of the house, and though Jeff complains, Jared’s sure he stops when he notices the tears welling up in her eyes.

"My boys are growing up so fast," she says, putting a hand on Jared’s jaw.

"Come on, Mom," Jeff says, ducking when she reaches out to ruffle his hair. "We’re gonna be late."

It’s Jeff’s first day, too, but it’s not his first first day, and Jared’s stomach turns when he thinks about it. He won’t have Jeff or their new dog or even Megan, who’s too young to go to school, and Jared doesn’t want to start kindergarten anymore after all. He decides he’d trade his crayons—sharpener and all—if it means he won’t have to miss Alvin and the Chipmunks or wait until after school is over to see his Mom again.

He spends the whole drive to school looking at his sneakers and hoping his mom will turn around, that she’ll say she forgot it was Sunday and class doesn’t start until next week anyway.

No such luck.

They pull up in front of the school ,and Jeff can barely wait to get out, slamming the passenger door and offering his goodbyes before Mom’s even done telling him to have a good day.

"Jared, honey, I’m sure you’ll be fine. I know you’re nervous, but you’re gonna like it, you’ll see."

Jared shakes his head, not ready to give in.

Jared’s mom grabs his hand, assuring him that she’ll be there at 2:00 PM sharp to pick him up. Jared’s nerves calm as they walk to his class, and he finds himself thinking of all the reasons why he wanted to start school. When they get to room 18, though, the door is open and Jared can see all the kids already talking to each other. He’s sure everyone’s made friends and there won’t be anyone who wants to talk to him.

"Sweetie," Jared’s mom says, crouching down in front of him, "you’re going to make a whole class full of friends and have a great time. By the end of the week, you’ll be racing Jeff to class."

Jared’s still not fully convinced, but he knows his mom has to go to work, and it really does hurt less when you rip the whole band-aid off right away anyway. "Okay," he says. "Let’s blow this popsicle stand."

His mom smiles.

Jared’s teacher is pretty, with long brown hair, and she smiles when she sees him. "I’m Ms. Catani," she says. "Are you here for your first day of kindergarten?"

Jared blushes. "Yes, ma’am. I’m Jared."

"Oh, Jared Padalecki. I had a class list, so I’m glad to put names to faces." Jared likes her already. "You can pick any table you want to sit at," Ms. Catani tells him.

Jared looks around and spots a boy in a green shirt alone at a table in the back and bites his lip. He turns and hugs his mom goodbye, lets her kiss his cheek even though he knows he’ll have lipstick on his face.

He strides to the back of the room without turning around, before he can change his mind and beg his mom to take him home. Jared stops at the empty seat next to the boy. Once at the table Jared can see that the boy’s shirt has Yoda on it and that he’s reading a book—one with words and not just pictures, like he and his mom worked on this summer.

"Is it okay if I sit here?" Jared asks.

The boy looks up. His eyes are almost the same color as his shirt and he has freckles across his nose, like he didn’t listen to his mom when she told him to come in from the sun. "Sure," the boys says, shaking blond hair out of his eyes. "I’m Jensen."

"I’m Jared." He hangs his book bag on the back of the blue chair and sits down. "Why aren’t you sitting with anyone else?"

Jensen blushes and Jared feels his throat go tight, knows he shouldn’t have asked.

Jensen looks away as he shrugs. "I got here first and started reading. You’re the only one who wanted to talk to me."

Jared smiles. "You’re the only one I wanted to talk to."

Jensen’s face gets even redder, but he smiles, so Jared’s pretty sure he didn’t say the wrong thing again.

"I like your shirt," Jared says. "I got a Han Solo folder last week, when I went shopping with my mom. She wasn’t gonna let me get it, but I forgot to take it out of the cart, and when we got home she just let me have it."

Jensen’s eyes light up and he smile so big that Jared can see that he’s missing one of his front teeth. "Awesome. Han is way cooler than Luke."

"I know," Jared says, nodding enthusiastically. "My brother thinks Luke is cooler, because he’s a Jedi, but he doesn’t know how wrong he is."

"Brothers are like that," Jensen says. "My older brother doesn’t even like Star Wars.

Jared stops pulling his crayons out of his backpack. "How can he not like Star Wars?"

"He says it’s stupid."

"He’s stupid," Jared says before thinking. His eyes go wide when he realizes what he said. He told his mom he was gonna mess everything up. "I meant it’s stupid that he doesn’t like Star Wars. I didn’t mean—"

Jensen just nods though, speaking before Jared can finish stammering out an apology. "Josh can be super dumb. This summer, I walked in on him putting on perfume."

Jared’s pretty sure Jensen’s parents adopted an alien and just told Jensen it was his brother. "Why did he do that?"

"Well, first he went really red and closed the door in my face, but later he told me he had a girlfriend who was gonna be away at camp for forever and he wanted to smell like her."

Jared shakes his head. "At least Jeff never does weird stuff like that."

Jensen shrugs. "Josh told me I would understand one day. He thinks I think girls have cooties, but I don’t. I like Danneel. She lives next door and always plays zombie Barbies with me."

"I don’t think cooties exist," Jared says somberly.

Jensen agrees. "No matter how many times Danneel flushes her Barbie heads down the toilet I’m never gonna wanna smell like her."

"Maybe if she smelled like gummi worms. Or brownies."

Ms. Catani calls the class to attention before Jensen can answer. She tells them they’re going to be making name cards to put on their tables today and that they’ll get to color their cards.

Jensen reaches out for Jared’s crayon box when he puts them on the table, but stops himself before he touches it. When Jared looks up, Jensen’s face is red again.

"Sorry," Jensen says. "I just wanted to see if it had a crayon sharpener. My mom told me I didn’t need one, so she got me the smaller box."

Jared smiles and pushes the box closer to Jensen. "We can share."

Jensen’s answering smiles makes Jared’s whole body feel warm. Maybe his mom was right. It’s not such a bad first day after all.

**

Jared waits for Jensen in his truck after class. Coach canceled football practice, but Jared is hoping to take advantage of his parents’ ignorance on the subject and steal a couple of extra hours with Jensen. Jared catches sight of him leaving the main building and just watches, loves how Jensen is completely oblivious to the stares he gets, the whispers of excited freshmen as he walks by. Jensen’s only looking for one thing though, eyes quickly finding Jared’s truck. When Jensen smiles, Jared can’t help the answering grin that spreads across his face.

"I think I had unrealistic expectations of high school," Jensen says, throwing his bag in the bed of Jared’s red Ford and hopping in the cab. Jared remembers the day he got it, drove it straight to Jensen’s and told him they were finally moving up in the world. Jensen had given him shit—the truck was in need of a serious paint job and it wasn’t even old enough to be vintage, just beat to hell—but he didn’t hesitate to take Jared up on his offer to be his personal chauffeur.

Jared throws him a fond smile before turning his eyes to the road. "It’s all those John Hughes movies you watched. I tried to tell your Mama they’d go right to your head, give a girl like you delusions about love."

Jared feels Jensen trying to glare a hole in the side of his head, but it’s clear Jensen can’t keep the smile off his face long enough to work up any real feeling behind it.

"What were you expecting? Pink taffeta? Detention in the library? A stoner with a heart of gold?"

"I think we might already have a few of those," Jensen replies, refusing to take the bait.

"Was it John Cusack? Is that what’s missing?" Jared keeps teasing, arm reaching out to squeeze Jensen’s hip. "Don’t tell me it’s James Spader. My heart couldn’t take it."

"He is pretty sexy," Jensen says, laughing.

Jared tries very hard to look genuinely betrayed. "His hair is feathered, Jensen."

"I think maybe that’s why I like you so much."

"Is that why you bought me aviators for Christmas?"

"I bought you aviators for Christmas because you asked for them, Jay."

Jared nods. "It’s not too late to get yourself a nice Pepto prom dress."

"You gonna buy me a matching corsage?" Jensen asks, batting his eyelashes.

"Damn straight. You know my mama, know she raised me right." Jared looks over and can see the change in Jensen’s face, the slight crease in his forehead that means Jared’s struck a nerve and he’s done kidding around. Jared still tries for levity. "Does this mean you’re not gonna let me take you to prom, Jen?"

"Jared, come on. I know you don’t actually want to have this conversation."

Jared doesn’t answer at first, just stares straight out the window and pleads with his familiar streets, hoping to see something different, anything noteworthy enough to change the subject. He wants the side door to crack open, hopes the seat drops out or the Freebirds wrappers reach up and swallow him whole. But the houses stubbornly refuse to change, still the same ones he’s been looking at for eighteen years, and the road keeps rolling ahead.

"No," Jared finally says, "I guess I don’t. No point, right?"

Jensen, predictably, has no answer. Jared sees him shift around out of the corner of his eye, angling his body toward the passenger window. Jared puts his hand on the top of the steering wheel and leans back, aiming for detached and pretending he doesn’t know Jensen’s upset and trying not to show it. It’s ridiculous – Jared knows all his tells, knows to look for the right hand clenched tight around the top of his own thigh. Jared reaches out to touch, to tell Jensen he’s sorry, that he’s trying to be what Jensen needs, that he knows, in Texas, quarterbacks marry prom queens and not homecoming kings.

He feels Jensen’s thigh tense and relax under the weight of his hand.

It’s enough, for now.

"So," Jensen says, the first to break the silence. "Where are we headed?"

Jared thinks for a moment and decides not to derail his plans. "I was hoping you stayed true to form and forgot to inform your parents that Coach canceled practice."

"Yeah?" Jensen says, slow smile breaking out over his face. "What did you have in mind?"

Jared shrugs. "Didn’t really have anything planned. Was just thinking we could drive out to the Randall farm."

Jensen hums in agreement. "I guess I have nowhere better to be."

Jared wants to reply, give Jensen as good as he got, but Jensen grabs the bottom of Jared’s shirt before he can think of a retort, fingers tugging at the hem and palm playing across Jared’s side. He settles for a shaky breath instead. Jensen’s touches are supposed to be casual, all absent accidental contact, but Jared knows better. Fucker’s been working on that move for years.

Neither of them says anything, and Jared’s grateful for the silence and the occasional brush of Jensen’s fingers against the waistband of his Wranglers. There’s nothing but farmland for miles, just cotton and corn and the occasional silo. Jared parks the truck under a tree on land his father owns and lets it idle, turning to Jensen.

"Do you remember what we used to think silos were?"

"Spaceships, dude," Jensen says, grinning. He looks relieved. "I still think they’re infinitely more awesome that way."

"I kind of think they look like dicks now."

Jensen laughs, his whole body shaking. It’s not the first time he’s gotten a laugh like that out of Jensen—not the first, or the fifth, or the tenth, and he’s sure it won’t be the last—but it still makes Jared smile every time. "Possibly that was an image I could’ve done without," Jensen says.

"Come on," Jared replies. "They’re even all rounded at the top."

Jared starts to pull Jensen across the seat by his belt loops as Jensen throws his hands up in surrender. "Far be it for me to get between a boy and his farm equipment."

Jared smirks. "I got some farm equipment for you."

"Not sexy," Jensen says, shaking his head. He climbs across Jared’s lap anyway, back to the steering wheel and jeans pulled tight across his thighs.

Jared runs his hands up the outside of Jensen’s legs, tracing the seam of his pants all the way up to his hips. "Something tells me you don’t believe that."

Jensen grinds down against Jared, leaning in to speak directly into Jared’s ear. "Something tells me you might be right."

Jared grins and pulls back, chasing Jensen’s smile. He presses his lips to Jensen’s, eliciting a moan, and Jared lets his hands slip under Jensen’s shirt, mapping him from the dip in his spine to the width of his shoulders. Jared loses track of time as they kiss, but Jensen’s hands on his zipper are hard to ignore.

He groans, pulling away from Jensen’s inviting mouth. "Get this off," he says, pushing ineffectually at the shirt on Jensen’s shoulders as Jensen works his jeans open. Jensen takes his shirt off slowly, deliberately, making Jared beg for every inch of golden skin. Jared loses his patience, ripping apart the last few snaps of Jensen’s shirt. He can see the waistband of Jensen’s underwear now, a sight he’s seen more times than he can count, but it’s unbearably sexy here, a tease of what’s underneath.

Jared palms the hip on display for him, around to Jensen’s lower back, and lets his fingers dip below Jensen’s jeans, teasing the cleft of Jensen’s ass.

"Don’t start anything you can’t finish," Jensen says, hands fully in Jared’s jeans now, fingers wrapping tight around Jared’s shaft. His cock springs into Jensen’s hand, eager for contact, and Jared lets his head roll back against the seat as Jensen finds his rhythm. He reaches for the top button of Jensen jeans, but Jensen bats his hand away. Jared looks between them, watches as Jensen undoes his own fly with the hand not jerking Jared off.

Jensen shifts forward in Jared’s lap, aligning their cocks. Pre-come pearls at the tip of Jared’s dick, and Jensen collects it with his thumb, using it to slick them. He reaches his hand around both of them, and Jensen’s precise fingers, always so in control, barely making it around their combined thickness. Its quieter than usual, an illicit moment of stolen time, the only sounds in the cab their labored breaths combined with the sound of sweat-damp skin tugging against warm leather as Jensen takes them both toward the edge.

"Gonna come for me, Jared?" Jensen asks, voice low.

Jared nods, eyes squeezing shut.

"Do it, baby," Jensen says, tightening his grip. His wrist gives an extra twist when Jensen’s hand reaches the head of Jared’s cock and that’s all it takes, come spilling hot over them both. Jensen doesn’t let go, working Jared’s through his orgasm, movements just this side of too much as he works himself to completion. Jared moans when he feels Jensen’s come splash across his cock, hot on Jared’s stomach like a brand. Jared can’t resist the temptation to rub it into his skin, and Jensen hums, licking his fingers as he leans full lips, now sticky with come, in toward Jared’s mouth, sharing their combined taste between them.

They’re quiet as they clean up. The evening Texas sun shines in the window as Jared pulls his shirt back on, and Jensen is grumbling to his right about never letting Jared get him off in the truck again, a lie from the telling. It’s hot, sweat sticking to his skin and making it hard to get dressed, and the cab is humid from their fooling around, but when he catches Jensen staring, mouth gently curved and eyes crinkled, Jared knows he’s right where he needs to be.

**

The fall finds them both at the University of Florida. Scouts had been quick to recruit the quarterback-receiver duo that propelled their team to the Texas 5A championship, with offers coming in from west to east, the University of Southern California and across the Mississippi to Tennessee. Jared had wanted UT, but Jensen wanted to get a little further from home, and in the end, they chose the place that needed them both.

They settle in well, even if Jensen’s newfound fondness for jean shorts and the humidity team up to take a serious toll on Jared’s mental health.

In summer practice, Jared tears his ACL. It’s not a hit that does it, just a sudden change in direction before his legs had fully caught up with the rest of his body to make up for an underthrown pass. Jared’s on the ground before he’s really aware of what happened, but he’d heard the pop clear as day, louder than both Coach Meyer’s whistle and the pounding feet on their way across the field toward him. It’s an injury he sees more than feels, his knee swollen up to about the size of his head, and it’s little comfort that Jensen’s the first one at his side.

Jensen, to his credit, does everything right. He doesn’t apologize for the throw, even though Jared can tell he wants to, just tells Jared not to move and keeps Jared’s eyes fixated on his face so Jared can’t stare at how fucked his knee is. Jared has always known Jensen was beautiful to the point of distraction.

The trainers are hot on Jensen’s heels, and it isn’t long before he’s being carted away on a stretcher into the training room. It takes what feels like a small eternity to figure out what Jared already knew: his knee is incapable of doing any of the things it’s supposed to do, like bend or support his weight. The injury earns him one surgery and a medical redshirt, which amounts to a season on the sideline to repair the torn ligament without affecting his four years of eligibility. He’ll still get to play, even if it means his years no longer align with Jensen’s.

And, Jensen’s always quick to remind him, he can always declare a season early for the draft.

He expects to be jealous that Jensen gets to play, that he has a new number-one receiver when the job’s been Jared’s since before they had a team to play for, but the injury has little impact on their relationship, and just because he can’t play for the season doesn’t mean he’s off the practice field the whole time. True, they’re pretty much limited to the bedroom now, but shower sex in the dorms is gross anyway, and they’ve never been keen on risking any locker room hijinks. They make do.

*

The scene is familiar for a Friday night. Grog House is packed to capacity, line long the way it only gets the night before a home football game. Jared’s late—the Engineering Department’s preference for Friday night exams remains mystifying and wholly frustrating—and Jensen’s already inside with their teammates, had texted him moments earlier to say he had a pitcher waiting for them. Academically, the torn ACL was probably the best thing that could have happened to Jared. He focuses on his classes in a way he probably wouldn’t have otherwise, no bending to prodding from his teammates about ‘nerd shit.’

But for now, it’s Friday. All he has to do is walk past the bouncer and the line will disappear for him. He feels bad, momentarily, but he hasn’t seen Jensen all day, so he grabs four girls from the middle of the line and drags them in with him, all of them giggling as they head up the stairs. Jared can’t help but join in, their joy assuaging a little of his guilt.

There’s barely room to move around, but Jared knows just where to look, sees Jensen hiding out on the left side of the bar. He’s surrounded by most of the offensive line, his body guards on and off the field, and Jared doesn’t miss the crowd of girls edging their way toward Jensen under the guise of getting closer to the bar, pledge pins displayed proudly on their floral-print dresses.

This is familiar, too.

What’s unfamiliar is the extremely attractive guy that has wormed his way in next to Jensen. Jared, still having trouble making it across the dance floor, has a perfect view of the interloper offering to buy Jensen a drink, hand familiarly placed in the middle of Jensen’s back and slowly making its way downward. It looks like Jensen declines a few times before the guy insists, and Jared smiles smugly. There is nothing Jensen hates more than when people don’t listen to him.

Jensen accepts the drink graciously enough and tries to scoot away, but the guy is undeterred, leaning in toward Jensen under the pretense of being heard.

Jared hangs back close enough to hear.

"I’m Dan," the guys says. "You come here often?"

Jared can’t hear Jensen’s response, but he’s sure it was something sarcastic from the laugh Dan lets out. Dan tilts his head a little closer, and Jared isn’t content to skulk around any longer.

"You an Alabama fan?" Jared asks Dan. Jensen turns around whip fast, relieved smile slowly making its way to his face.

Dan looks confused for a second, then shakes his head. "Been a Florida fan my whole life."

"So trying to get our QB drunk the night before isn’t an intentional act of sabotage?"

It could come off as a joke, Jared thinks, in an alternate universe where Joiner says it instead, or maybe one in which he isn’t surreptitiously dating Jensen. As it stands, it sounds jealous and possessive to his own ears, and Jensen’s face tells Jared it sounded that way to everyone else too. There was nothing lost in the thump of bass.

"You’re having a beer," Dan points out.

Jared nods. "A beer I poured myself. A beer I wanted. Not a beer someone got for me even after I said I didn’t want it."

"You know," Jensen says, interrupting, "I’m real anxious ‘bout the game tomorrow, and Coach gave us curfew tonight. I think I better start heading out."

Throughout the exchange, Dan doesn’t take his eyes off Jared. Part of him, the part that started this stupid pissing contest to begin with, is tempted to stay and fight for what’s his. But his Hulk brain thankfully recedes, and Jared leaves without a backward glance to chase Jensen down the stairs out back.

"What was that, Jensen?" Jared asks, grabbing his arm.

Jensen pulls himself away forcefully, stumbling after missing the bottom step. "Me?" he asks incredulously. "What the fuck were you doing in there, Jared? At Grog, really?"

"Um, I don’t know," Jared says. "Maybe rescuing your ass?"

"We’re not having this fight here," Jensen says, pace quickening, putting more space between him and Jared. "I’m not doing this now. Come find me when you have an explanation for why you had to act like such a dick."

Jared follows close on Jensen’s heels, imagining the exasperated look on Jensen’s face. The walk to their apartment is short, but it feels like an eternity. The whole way back Jared is left to his own thoughts, going over and over what he’d said, scene more ridiculous each time it plays out in his mind.

"You want to try that again?" Jensen asks once they get back. "Preferably not like a caveman this time?"

"I don’t like the way he was looking at you," Jared says plainly.

"Clearly," Jensen says. "But people buying me drinks isn’t exactly new territory. What made you say, ‘Fuck it all! Let’s tell the whole team!’ this time?"

"I know you’re not that oblivious, Jensen. He was into you."

"You got this jealous over Dan? In the bar? The dozens of girls don’t upset you but Dan does?"

"Because he was a guy. Because he was flirting with you like I can’t."

"You flirt with me plenty," Jensen says.

His protests have sounded weak to his ears, but they make complete sense in his head. Nothing about this night is going the way he thought it would. "Jensen," he tries again, "I want to be able to be out."

Jensen stares at him, eyes narrowed. "Forget it."

Jared rolls his eyes. "I’m so glad it’s that easy for you to dismiss."

"Nothing about this is easy, Jared. Don’t put words in my mouth."

"It’s hard not to fill in the blanks when you never fucking say anything," Jared says. "So, here, let me say this for you: you’ve spent the last five years having sex with me. You don’t get to just say ‘so’ and make it all go away."

"Do you think I don’t know that?" Jensen’s not yelling anymore, nowhere close, voice low and completely controlled. Jared would be turned on if he weren’t so furious. "Don’t you think it bothers me to have to lie to everyone we know? That there isn’t a single person who actually knows what’s really important to me?

"Maybe we don’t have to lie."

It was the right thing to say, Jared thinks, just the wrong time. Jensen levels him with a glare, and Jared’s too tired to fight. This time, he doesn’t chase after Jensen.

It’s the first night they’ve slept apart since moving into this apartment, and Jared’s bed is cold and uninviting. In the morning, Jensen’s laying next to him, spread out on the opposite side of the mattress. In the pre-dawn light Jared swears he can see how raw things still are between them, but he curls up behind Jensen anyway and pretends he doesn’t feel him slipping away.

*

Almost three and a half years to the day after his first injury, Jared’s on the ground again, knocked flat from a sharp cut by a defensive back, breath punched out of his chest in a way that makes it hard to even think about getting up.

Through it all, his hands are steady, ball clutched tight to his chest by white-knuckled fingers. It’s always been Jared’s greatest strength as a receiver.

It’s a minute, an hour, a lifetime before there are trainers by his side. From his spot in the grass, Jared can see Jensen’s calves, rooted firmly in place on the Vols’ 30-yard line. There’s no Jensen by his side this time, and Jared knows he isn’t imagining the white-hot pain he hadn’t felt three summers earlier. It’s not the National Championship game or even the game-winning catch. They’ll bring him to the training room, and after subdued applause from the crowd, Jensen will throw to Percy Harvin instead. The Gators will win the game without Jared. If he’s lucky, he might rate a headline mention.

Gators pull off win against last-ranked Vols despite injury to number one receiver.

In true Padalecki fashion, this isn’t just a re-tear to his ACL. Jared manages a partial tear to his MCL as well, which explains the pain, and he doesn’t need to wait for the doctors to be told what it all means. His coaching staff doesn’t want to make any rash decisions. Ride it out. The tear happened early in the season, they say. He’s young. They’re optimistic that he’ll heal quickly. Jared wants to ask the tough questions, wants to know what happens if recovery doesn’t go as planned, but he’s stuck silent at the image of size 12 cleats dug in at the 30-yard line.

They tell him everything he wants to hear; it’s the right thing to do.

He listens to Coach Meyer and doesn’t make any decisions, does all the rehab his trainers want, and through it all, Jared remains keenly aware of the fact that he has played his last down of football.

*

On draft night, Jared watches from Jensen’s side as Jensen's phone vibrates against the coffee table, unfamiliar 212 number popping up on the screen.

"It's them," Jensen says.

The room, previously at a dull roar, stills almost completely for a moment, as if any movement at all might be enough to make the people on the other end of the line reconsider. Even Todd McShay seems to have been momentarily silenced.

But the calm passes as quickly as it came, the room exploding in a chorus of orders and celebrations, anxiety and predictions.

"Answer it, Jensen!"

"Pick up the phone!"

"What are you waiting for?"

Beside him Jensen is still. It takes Jared's full-body nudge to snap him into action. Jared smiles. "This probably isn't a call you want to miss. You know, just in case you were thinking about it."

Jensen stiff-arms Jared with the hand not currently reaching for the phone. From his sideline seat, Jared can hear every word.

"Hello?" Jensen says.

"Mr. Ackles?"

"Yes, sir?"

"How did you like Meadowlands Stadium when you visited, Jensen?"

*

With the second pick in the 2005 NFL Draft, the New York Giants select Jensen Ackles, quarterback, Florida.

*

When the first round has wrapped with the promise of return and all the sideline hats have been given out like party favors, when all the flight details have been arranged and Jensen's received enough celebratory shoulder slaps that Jared’s worrying about irreparable damage to his throwing motion, Jared pulls Jensen to a seat next to him on the couch.

He's ready to have the rest of the night—morning, whatever—to themselves. A beer, maybe two, his best friend, and the promise of a crick in his neck the next day from falling asleep on the couch.

But Jensen can’t tear himself away from ESPN.

"You know, I'm a little surprised to see him go this early."

"I'm not surprised Ackles was chosen the first round so much as I'm shocked that he continued to produce even after the injury Padalecki suffered at the beginning of the season."

"Yes, always a concern with a good quarterback-receiver combo. Real shame, too. I don’t know whether Padalecki or Fitzgerald has softer hands."

"If there's one thing I learned watching the Gators during the Ackles years, it’s that whatever Ackles does, Padalecki isn't far behind—but not this time."

"We did catch some footage from the Ackles watch party earlier. Padalecki was, of course, in attendance," Chris Berman looks all too pleased to report.

"Padalecki has a season of eligibility left under his belt, but it’s not just the ACL. There’s a history of injuries. No way he comes off the board in the first round next season."

"Mel Kiper is the world's biggest shit head," Jensen says, managing to get the television turned off before throwing the remote in disgust.

Jared turns to face Jensen, shaking his head. "What the hell does it matter what some loser with the worst dye job this century says? You got drafted. You are officially beyond reproach." Jared pauses to consider. "Well, maybe just out of range of Mel Kiper's laser eyes."

"It's not me I'm talking about," Jensen says, looking away.

That’s not something Jared needs to be told, like Jensen doesn’t need to be told that Jared knows he’s done. It’s a night of mercies.

"Point stands." Jared brings his feet up off the floor, digging his toes into Jensen's ribs. "Come on, you couldn't at least have the decency to get drafted by a better team? I mean really, Jensen. The Giants?"

Jensen smiles. "Big Blue Nation."

"Who does that? Who defines themselves by their colors like that?" Jared asks as his toes continue their merciless assault on Jensen's ribs.

Jensen struggles ineffectually to break free as his laughter starts to make it hard to breathe. "Get your feet off me, you freak."

"You know," Jared says, "for someone who just had all their dreams come true, you've been kind of a surly bastard all night."

"It's a character flaw."

"We'll have to see what we can do about that," Jared replies, grabbing Jensen's arm and pulling him across the couch.

Their lips meet like they have hundreds of times before. Jared flicks his tongue out, traces a path down Jensen's neck and across the vee of his shirt, tastes the old tree house in Jensen’s yard and the Florida locker room, the sizzle in the air right before a snap, and the hot summer sun. Jensen pops the button on Jared's jeans as Jared strips off his shirt, precision in their timing achieved only through years of practice.

Jensen's hot and hard where Jared can feel him through his boxers, and he scrambles off the couch eagerly, movements just a little more frantic than usual, an urgency in his touch that wasn't there before.

"That's it," Jensen says as Jared guides his dick out. "You know what I like."

It's true, Jared does. He's known since their sophomore year of high school, a weekend camping trip and a Jensen that just couldn't keep his hands to himself any longer. Not that Jared's complaining. They learned with each other, and the result is clear in the way Jared can set Jensen off with just a twist of his wrist and the light graze of teeth.

Jensen groans, grabbing the back of Jared's head. "Come on, Jay."

Jared opens his mouth wide and takes Jensen in, cockhead bumping the back of his throat. Jensen rises to meet Jared's face, back arching as his hips keep unforgiving time. Jared pulls away to catch a glimpse of Jensen blissed out, thick trails of spit keeping his mouth connected to Jensen's cock.

"So beautiful," Jared whispers as he takes the head of Jensen’s shaft between his lips, hand working the shaft.

"You are," Jensen says, and he sounds wrecked, like he's just run a dozen suicides. "Do you have any idea what you look like between my legs? On your knees, so eager for my cock?"

Jared feels an unfamiliar blush heat his face as he sucks on the tip of Jensen's cock, tongue chasing the taste of pre-come as warmth rises up his neck and across his chest.

"So good, Jared. Look at that pretty mouth. Gonna come."

Jared takes all of Jensen back in his mouth, lets Jensen's come splash hot and thick down his throat. He pulls off before the last spurt, gets some on his lips and face. Jared feels himself being dragged up Jensen's body as he sits back, Jensen's tongue making quick work of the come Jared hadn't managed to swallow.

"Love tasting myself on you," Jensen says, moving down to suck Jared's neck. "Like it even better when you're all sweaty—taste all that salt on your skin."

Jensen reaches for Jared's fly, but Jared grabs his wrist. "Already took care of that."

"You never let me have any fun."

Jared raises his eyebrows. "I had no idea my technique needed so much work. You never seemed to have any complaints."

"I'm a good Southern boy, Jared. I was just trying to return the favor."

Jared strokes Jensen's hair off his forehead, meeting his eyes for the first time. "This was for you. It’s your night, Jen."

Jensen brushes a kiss across the shell of Jared's ear. "This could be our night."

It’s exactly what Jared wants to hear, but somehow it’s too much, and he struggles out of Jensen's grip. He's safer on the opposite end of the couch where he can stack pillows in between them (space space all we're gonna have is space), free to turn away from Jensen, who has always been able to disarm him with just a look.

"We’re not even going to be in the same state," Jared finally decides on.

"I don't understand what the problem is," he answers in classic Jensen fashion, leaning across the couch to drag Jared back in between the vee of his thighs. Jared can count on one hand the number of times they’ve sat like this and finds he can't help the slow smile breaking across his face or the desire to wrap Jensen up tight and never leave.

Jared lets it go. "Put ESPN back on so that I can keep building evidence that Chris Berman is more robot than human."

He knows you don't get to be teammates with the boy next door forever. But if life has taught him anything, it's that you don't get friends like Jensen but once in a lifetime.

**


Jensen Ackles reacquaints himself with receivers

The Giants have to re-learn each other this spring, and all eyes are on quarterback Jensen Ackles as a voluntary receivers training gets underway this week. Modeled on Mark Sanchez’s Jets West passing camp, Ackles reportedly invited all receivers on the Giants’ active roster to help him get back into playing shape.

The media was allowed limited access to these unofficial practices, and though there were no defensive players present, it was clear that Ackles felt free and loose, throwing deep with ease.

Both Ackles and the receivers appear to have quickly fallen into old routines, something that was clear to the players too.

"He hit me on a few back shoulder throws. You know, just doing what he does best. I’m glad to have the opportunity to be on the field with him again. Things are coming along," wide receiver Hakeem Nicks said.

Training camp in July will mark Ackles’ return to full practices for the first time since the beginning of the quarterback’s neck surgeries last spring.

Jack Davenport, the Giants’ second-string quarterback, who led the team to a 6-10 season in 2013-2014 with Ackles on injured reserve, was also in attendance.

**

There will come a day when I never have to fly out of Dallas-Fort Worth again.

Jensen remembers saying that at 14, the first time he had ever flown alone. He was off to stay with his grandparents for a summer-long football camp in the sweltering Midwest, and he’d gotten lost on the DFW’s AirTrain system. He spent two hours casing an airport bigger than the entire island of Manhattan, tracking in and out of security, and missed his flight. When he finally found his new gate, he parked himself in an already too-small seat, afraid to move for the three hours it took his next flight to board.

That summer is the only thing Jensen can think of as he races through New York’s JFK airport. Oh, the hubris of youth.

Jensen Ackles had numerous expectations for his life at 33. Wandering through an airport intensely in need of coffee and growing increasingly concerned about his ability to make it to his new gate—and therefore at some point actually get on his flight—was not one of them.

It can always get worse than DFW, he reminds himself.

At 30, Life Expectations started getting replaced with Life Lessons. This is another thing Jensen has learned.

*

He finally manages to find a Starbucks, which takes care of one problem and almost all of his symptoms, not least of which is the growing tension between his eyes that bodes badly for his belated homecoming. If he’s lucky, the barista will even be able to direct him to his gate, but Jensen tries not to set his expectations too high. Most days he’ll settle for overpriced caffeinated beverages and a pastry if he’s feeling adventurous.

"What can I get you, sir?" The barista chirps from behind the counter.

"I’ll have a medium coffee."

"Any room for cream?"

Jensen shakes his head. "No, I’ll take it black."

"Is that all?"

"That’ll do it," Jensen says. Navigating JFK has proven to be more than enough adventure for one day.

"Grande Pike," she calls.

Jensen shakes his head. "Translation?"

She grins, a quick, bright smile appearing on her face, and takes a steaming cup from her co-worker. She slaps a lid on it before placing it on the counter in front of Jensen and winks. "I promise it’s exactly what you’re looking for."

This, at least, is familiar. This Jensen can do. The NFL has prepared him for flirtatious women. "I’m sure it’ll get the job done," Jensen replies, letting the South slip in as a slow smile spreads across his face. "You wouldn’t know where I could find terminal 4, would you, sweetheart?"

"It’s probably easiest if you follow the signs for international departures. You’ll have to exit the building."

"International?"

She shrugs. "Some domestic flights leave there too."

"Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of having an international terminal?" Jensen asks, defeated. "You know, I don’t know why I keep trying to make sense of these things. Thanks for the help."

As he turns to gather his bags, she speaks again. "If I could say, quite the season the Giants had."

Jensen smiles wryly. Sarcasm is another thing Jensen is prepared for. "Something like that."

Without Jensen, the Giants went 6-10. Not quite bad enough to earn them last place in the division—they’ve got the ‘Skins around for that—but enough that Jensen’s presence was definitely missed, and it was nowhere near good enough for the playoffs. In New York, with the daily papers leading a 3-ring media circus, they might as well have been the 2011 Colts.

They may not have done well, but everyone involved learned a lot from Jensen’s injury. Jensen can tell the Giants’ general manager was happy to be able to test out Jeff Davenport’s arm, another draft success to add to his impressive resume, and six wins as a first-time starter is nothing to scoff at. It’s enough wins that Jensen knows his career has a terminal point, that the headlines will be split between questions about the health of his neck and rumors of a quarterback controversy he may or may not actually be embroiled in at the time. But teams are always in search of that Super Bowl season, and right now, as long as he can throw, Jensen’s years offer a rare benefit.

Jensen gives them the best chance for one more Lombardi trophy.

"Do you know if you’re coming back?"He

He looks at her incredulously. "Don’t you read the Post?"

Red splotches form on her cheeks, and she has the grace to look embarrassed. "I’m sorry. It’s none of my business."

This is the part he’s never been able to get used to, the one thing that hasn’t gotten easier in the ten seasons he’s been in the league and the years he spent in college before that. But Jensen remembers himself despite his discomfort, pulls it together long enough to thank her.

"Hey, no," he begins, "I practiced for the team on Wednesday. Hakeem Nicks says I look game-ready." He smiles. "You can take his word for it."

"Well, New York would miss you if you left," she says.

"Thanks," Jensen says. "New York certainly has a way of growing on you."

It’s as close to the truth as he’s willing to get in an airport Starbucks.

Jensen drops a twenty in the tip jar as he walks away.

*

One-level cervical neck fusion to repair a bulging disk.

That’s what the doctors call his most recent surgery. Jensen calls it the natural result of being tackled to the ground by three-hundred-pound men with regularity. It’s an injury that happens over time, but Jensen remembers the tackle that sealed it, a sack by the Cowboys' defensive line, and the moment he’d stood up and known that nothing was all right. He could throw, sure, but the practiced ease of a lifetime spent on the gridiron was gone, movements he’d thought were instinctive and muscle-deep no longer easy to complete.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We’d like to welcome you aboard this American Airlines flight to Dallas Love-Field. Please turn your attention to the in-seat monitors for the safety briefing.

There’s a bone-deep feeling of betrayal that unites all athletes. It’s the moment the body tries, and fails, to complete something the brain asks it to do. It’s a lesson learned the first season of Pop Warner, or maybe the first year on JV after a tackle by the future All American across the line of scrimmage. The feeling is age old but doesn’t get any easier, any less unsettling, with time.

The captain requests that you keep your seat belt fastened throughout the flight, as we may experience turbulence.

The injury landed Jensen a season on the Injured Reserve list. He became the sole beneficiary of one media circus, two separate painkiller prescriptions, three recovery setbacks, four neck surgeries, and more physicals than he can count, try though he might.

It made him think of Jared.

Please secure your oxygen mask first, then assist the person next to you.

After nearly a year of recovery, training his body to relearn the things it had always done, Jensen is finally cleared to play.

There’s just one trip to Texas for his sister’s wedding and the impending family reunion standing between him and that first, electric pre-snap moment. He hasn’t been home in eight years, and it’s been even longer since he last saw Jared, but he can do this. At least, that's what he keeps telling himself. At the moment, neck and shoulders drawn tight in anticipation of his first trip home in over a decade, he feels like he’d rather be on the receiving end of an Osi Umenyiora strip-sack.

We wish you all an enjoyable flight. Thank you again for choosing American Airlines.

Yeah, just a trip to Texas.

Jensen closes his eyes.

*

Mackenzie is waiting for him at the airport.

Jensen makes his way to baggage claim with little incident, aided by his usual disguise: a trusty Florida baseball cap, frayed brim pulled low over his eyes. He's tempted for a moment to weigh whether no one noticed him against the possibility that his awful attempt at low-key made him look like just enough of a dick that no one wanted to approach him. But it doesn't seem like a productive discussion—or at least not like one that'll allow him to avoid soul searching in an airport—and the whole thing reeks of mid-life crisis in a way Jensen has been resolutely avoiding, so he mostly doesn't question it, instead choosing to focus his energy on finding his sister.

He spots her in line with the hired car drivers, Ackles sign and all. It's exactly how Mack has always greeted him, from that first trip to his grandparents' to the homecoming welcome after the Sugar Bowl his senior season, and Jensen feels his stomach clench at the reception.

"Jesus, Mack," he says, holding her at arms length to compare this new Mackenzie to the one he remembers. Her hair is longer and lighter than it's ever been, wavy blonde and covering the Texas logo on her t-shirt. She looks older, maybe, and happier, Ackles family crow's feet visible in a way they've never been before. It looks like she's been smiling a lot.

She blushes under his scrutiny and elbows him in the diaphragm, a move she patented long ago, says, "I don't even get a hug?" and Jensen has his arms around her shoulders before he can even catch his breath. Mackenzie is bonier than she was the last time they hugged, her shoulders sharp when he pulls her in, and he vows to have a talk with her. Make sure she's eating, he thinks, and god if he isn't turning into his mother.

But she's warm and her hug is fierce and she whispers how much she missed him before she pulls away. Jensen forgets all the reasons he hasn't been home. Famous last words, he's sure.

"Much better," she says, smiling as she looks at him.

Mackenzie reaches for his bags but Jensen stops her. "I've got this."

"You just got home, you've been traveling, it's been a long time, et cetera," Mackenzie says.

The look she shoots him is pointed. He's a guest in his own home already, and he has to look away, embarrassed.

"Are we really turning this into a 'Why don't you come home more, Jensen?' moment? I just got off a plane."

"We're standing in an airport. That hasn't escaped my notice," Mackenzie says, grabbing his suitcase and wheeling it toward the double doors. "This is a 'You haven't been home in ten years' moment. Or maybe this is a 'We can't risk reinjuring Jensen's $100 million neck' moment."

"Unfair." He sounds petulant even to his own ears, but he can't help it. Jensen expected this from his mom, his dad maybe, but if Mackenzie's going to gang up on him too, he's never going to make it. "You and I have seen each other. And my contract is not worth $100 million."

Mackenzie stops walking, thankfully at a median, and jabs a single, perfectly manicured finger into his chest. "Jensen, I'm getting married."

Jensen rolls his eyes. "This has not escaped my notice," he parrots.

"No one lets me do anything anymore. I cannot even choose the font on my invitations without getting unsolicited advice from everyone from Mom to Letty, the nice woman who runs the Lotto machine at the Quick Trip. Let me roll the goddamn suitcase and drive you home."

"It seems to me you have both of these things under control."

"I’m taking that more as gracious thanks than a resignation to your fate."

Mackenzie darts back into the street. Jensen watches her walk, all purposeful strides, and shakes his head.

"To be clear," Jensen says, widening his stride to keep up with her, "is this an indication of how things are going to be all week?"

"Damn straight," she says. "I’m going to occupy my own wedding, so help me."

Jensen can live with that.

"Alright," he says, shooting her a grin. "Consider Operation Reclaim Mackenzie's Fucking Wedding to be in full effect."

"I'm glad the gravity of the situation is not lost on you," Mackenzie says, laughing.

Jensen elbows his sister as they reach the car and insists on loading his own bag into the trunk of her sedan. "I'm just trying to be a good brother."

"The jury," she says, "is still out on that one, sir."

When she peels out of the parking lot, Jensen makes a show of grabbing the dashboard to steady himself.

"Jesus. Who taught you how to drive? Recovering from a neck injury here."

Jensen is sure the glare Mackenzie sends his way could kill the uninitiated, and when she adds, "You taught me to drive, asshole. The jury may be out, but the verdict is not likely to swing in your favor," Jensen can't help but throw his head back and laugh.

*

The block Jensen's childhood house sits on is almost exactly the same as he remembers it. After Mackenzie gets off US-75, only narrowly averting wrecking the car, it all comes back to Jensen: the Walmart and the Dairy Queen and half a dozen other chains he can find in any city in the US that made up Jensen’s hot Texas nights. The houses are the same, maybe freshened with a new coat of paint, but he remembers their brick fronts and Cowboys flags, wide driveways and shiny pick-up trucks.

His parents’ own house looks the most different, but maybe it’s just because he knew it best, can catalogue the differences like counting lines on his own face. The tree he fell out of the first time he broke his ankle is gone, nothing in its place, and his view of the porch swing is unobstructed now. The rush of memories hits like an unblocked tackle on his blindside, and Jensen can see himself and Jared, superimposed and a little out of place, just like he felt at the time, first furtive kiss at 14 with the boy of his dreams. Without the tree, he and Jared are in the open, and Jensen feels weirdly exposed, like Mackenzie is reliving his indiscretions too.

But when he turns to her, she’s just looking at him, face drawn in a way it hasn’t been since she picked him up.

"It’s alright, you know."

Jensen doesn’t know so he asks, still shaken from the unbidden rush of images.

Mackenzie rests a hand on his shoulder and turns off the car. "It’s alright that you haven’t been home." She shrugs. "They’re all ready to let you off the hook for your Houdini act. They come to your games, know how crazy your schedule is."

"Yeah," Jensen says, eyes focused on the porch. "But maybe they shouldn’t let me off the hook."

He’s faced defensive linemen who out weigh him by a hundred pounds week in and week out, but he can’t get up the nerve to walk up the stone path to his childhood home. Jensen spent more than half his life inside those four walls, and he can feel them closing in on him already, a heady combination of expectations he’ll never meet and regrets he’ll never finish outrunning.

"We’re your family. You’re psyching yourself out. Now get inside," Mackenzie orders. "I know Mom cooked for you. I’ve been smelling it simmering all day."

It’s true, that’s exactly what he’s doing, and Jensen files ‘can read me like a headline’ away with all the other things that are different about Mackenzie. At the mention of food, Jensen’s mouth waters. He’s starting to regret not opting for that pastry, and it’s enough to finally kick him into gear. He always knew he would leave Texas, one day for good, and he’s more than a little ashamed to admit his first consideration had been the food. He’s eaten at Peter Luger’s and Annisa, the best New York City has to offer, but there’s nothing like a Texas meal, a protein portion the size of his head and all the trimmings he can stomach.

The house smells the same, a mixture he’s never really been able to fully identify. Mr. Clean, lavender, something on the stove, and the scent of home. As soon as the door opens, he knows his mom is rushing downstairs, can hear the sound of her charm bracelet jangling, and he’s in elementary school again, sick at home on the couch while his mom runs a cool, damp towel across his forehead, just waiting for the fever to break.

She stops at the bottom of the stairs a minute, taking him in, and he starts to blush. There’s no ‘Jensen Ackles, in my home!’ or ‘Oh, lord, I’ve seen a ghost!’ comments like he expected, just the weight of her silence. Hundreds of press conferences were nothing compared to being trapped by his mom’s gaze, that knowing look and her judicious smile, and Jensen freezes up, unable to do anything but submit reluctantly to her scrutiny, afraid of what she might find.

"Jensen," she says, stopping to stand in front of him.

"Mom," he returns.

"Do people not hug in New York?" She asks.

"I had to ask him the same thing," Mackenzie adds from somewhere behind him. "Seems the boy has forgotten all his manners."

Jensen turns to glare at her, half grateful to her for breaking the moment, but she’s already gone up the stairs, so he grabs his mom tight, crushing her against his chest. Her quiet strength allows him to forget how small she really is until moments like this, top of her hair barely reaching his collarbone. The higher the hair the closer to God, he thinks.

"For what it’s worth, people do not hug in New York. No, ma’am," Jensen says as he pulls away.

His mom laughs. "I’m sure that’s true, dear. Now let’s get some food in you before I start in on the questioning." She walks toward the kitchen but pauses midway to look back at him. "You didn’t think you were just going to come back into this house silently, did you?"

Jensen strives for honesty. "Not even in my happiest fantasies about how this moment would go down."

"Good," she says, seemingly satisfied. "It’s how mothers show their love."

"So I’ve heard," Jensen says, taking a seat at the huge table that wasn’t there the last time he was home. They’ve upgraded from formica to one of those tree bark tables, just a giant slab of varnished natural wood.

Her cooking is just as delicious as he remembers, ribs that fall off the bone, and her questions are nothing he hadn’t expected. She asks about his neck, more worry about his physical health than the shoptalk he expects to get from his dad, but she asks about his physical therapy, too, and how it feels to be throwing again. She was a great sideline mom, understood the ins and the outs of the game, and he’s reminded of her years of gentle encouragement when she won’t let him get away with, "I’ve been throwing fine."

"It’s been good," Jensen says, looking her in the eye. "Really. Still got that deep ball, which is what the doctors were most afraid of. Hit Nicks on some back shoulder throws during OTAs, just trying to get the timing right again. That’s been as hard as anything, but my receivers have been real good about meeting me on their time. We’re all putting in the extra work."

His mom’s gaze narrows. "That’s a reporter answer," she chides.

Jensen rolls his eyes. "But it’s also true. I wouldn’t lie to you about my health."

"Unless you thought it might stop me from worrying, or prying," she says. "A false assumption, I might add."

"I really don’t know what to tell you."

She frowns, clearly displeased with his avoidance, but it’s nothing he wants to get into. This year has been one of the hardest years of his life, and it looks like he might finally be able to put it behind him.

"You thinking about retiring at all?"

"Minicamp starts on Monday. I’m always thinking about retiring right now."

She lets that one slide. "What do the doctors say?"

"I am medically cleared to play," he says.

"But?"

He shrugs. "I don't know. Won't be so easy to fix if it happens again. Like this was easy."

"I know you love it, Jensen. You wouldn't have made it this far if you didn't. But sometimes it’s okay to make decisions selfishly," she says, and her tone is so understanding that Jensen's heart breaks a little right there at the table. There has been no lack of selfish decisions in his life to date.

The guilt he feels is expected, too, when she presses him about his love life. There’s been a string of girls for appearances, enough models to earn him perpetual bachelor status in the eyes of the press and a few Broadway Jen headlines that still make him cringe. But there hasn’t been anyone since Jared, male or otherwise, that he wants around. It’s a bigger part of the reason he hasn’t been home than he cares to admit. If anyone knew, they'd say he was still hung up on Jared, but Jensen wouldn’t let it slide without a protest. It’s deeper than that, in his marrow, a recognition that the best relationship of his life is behind him. So, no. Jensen’s not still hung up. Jensen’s resigned. He doesn’t know which is worse.

"Most women will not say this, Jensen. They’re too vain. But I am ready to be a grandma, and you are not a young man anymore," his mom says.

"Didn’t I tell you to give up on grandchildren that time you left me to baby sit Mackenzie’s eleventh birthday party?"

"You were sixteen, Jensen. Most people change their minds about kids twenty years down the line."

"Not I," he says, grinning with pride he doesn’t feel. "I don’t want to be that guy with a relationship on the road. I’ve seen what it does to people," he adds. This is a conversation they’ve had a hundred times, and he’s almost glad for the familiar territory. "I won’t think about anything like that until I’ve settled down too."

She keeps her gaze locked with his while he talks, and she must be satisfied that he’s telling the truth, or enough of it at least, because she nods and pats his hand. "I just want you to be happy. And safe."

It takes a few more minutes of sitting at the table inhaling the food placed in front of him, not even his mom’s unsubtle prying had done it, but all the reasons Jensen hasn't been home in eight years come pouring back somewhere between her honest-to-god prize-winning peach cobbler and his own inability to keep his giant mouth shut. He must be drunk on her southern, down home cooking, all the butter and salt going to his head and removing his brain to mouth filter, because he asks about Jared. He swore he wouldn’t, and he must have been banking on his mom bringing Jared up more than he thought, because when she doesn’t, his night feels incomplete, like he can’t be home home until someone’s talking about that Padalecki boy.

"So, how's Jared doing?" Jensen asks as his mother sets a third piece of cobbler in front of him. "I really cannot eat another piece."

His mom smiles, reaching out to rub his shoulder. "I have to make sure you're eating. It's my job. And the only way I'll know for sure is if I watch you do it."

"My trainer already wants me down another five pounds before the beginning of camp. A season on IR has not been kind to me," Jensen says, but he digs into the dessert anyway, speaking around a mouthful of food. "What you need to do is feed Mackenzie. Have you seen her? What is that fiancé of hers good for if he can’t even make sure she’s eating?"

"And you think you wouldn’t make a good parent?" his mom says.

Jensen glares. "Enough."

"Oh, honey, I’m just kidding. Do people not joke in New York either?"

"No hugs and no jokes," Jensen confirms.

"Well, Jared hasn’t forgotten how to hug."

"Unsubtle," Jensen says.

Jensen’s mom returns his glare, and he realizes where he gets it from, has seen that exact face on Josh and Mackenzie, too. "You asked about him."

"To be polite."

His mom gives him a knowing look he's too tired to examine, so he loses himself in cobbler instead.

"Jared’s doing really well, honey. He’ll be at the wedding, of course. And you must know Megan is one of Mackenzie's bridesmaids."

Jensen didn’t know, because his weasel of a sister hadn’t told him, but he nods and pretends he did anyway. Not that he’s surprised—it just wasn’t something he had given any thought to, too caught up in his own homecoming.

"He’s teaching down at Pearce now, seems happy every time I see him."

"Do you see him?" Jensen asks, curiosity getting the better of him.

His mom nods. "Sure. Boy is all southern charm, and he’s never been able to resist my cooking." Some things never change. "He comes for regular feedings under the guise of updating me on how things are going."

Jensen’s been denying himself for years but this is too much, he doesn’t know how to stop drinking now that he’s started, his mom’s stories like an oasis in the dry heat of summer. "He seeing anyone?"

"Still single," she says. "Still has all the girls at the high school chasing him down too, though they’re his coworkers now. I keep thinking someone’s going to scoop him right up one day."

Jensen hopes he’s imagining the way she looks at him as she says that. He’d never told his mother about he and Jared—had never told anyone—but he’s afraid it’s written on his face, in the hands he can’t stop wringing and the too eager lilt of his voice as he asks about his old friend.

"I don’t know what happened between you," Jensen’s mom begins, voice breaking the silence. "But I do know I’ve never seen two boys take to each other like you and Jared did. Don’t you think it’s been long enough to fix it?"

And, well, that’s the crux of it, isn’t it?

Jensen places a kiss on his mom’s forehead before heading up to bed.

**


Jensen Ackles: ‘Giant’ break for the summer?

The Giants’ Jensen Ackles was spotted in the security line at New York’s Kennedy International Airport early Wednesday afternoon. The 33-year-old quarterback recently wrapped up OTAs, his first since 2012. It appears he is taking a well-deserved vacation, though rumors have circulated that he may be going under the knife again.

PHOTOS: Check out the latest airport pics of Jensen Ackles below

**

Jensen is quite a bit disoriented when he wakes up the next morning, unsure of where he is and why there’s a shrine to his past accomplishments collecting dust on every available surface. It takes a minute but he finally remembers that he’s actually at his parents’ house. His room is full of the regular stuff—stuff that was there before he moved—books and posters of singer songwriters next to a pennant memorializing the 1995 Dallas Cowboys. There are pictures of him and Jared, too, thick as thieves, mischief and summer and the innocence of lives without injury written on their faces. He barely recognizes himself, the room a size too small, and it’s clear that he has one of those rooms now, a little like a mausoleum for a life still in progress. But there’s new stuff too, proof that his parents have been updating the room, newspaper clippings from when he was drafted and cover stories of both of his Super Bowl wins.

When he heads downstairs, there’s a note on the kitchen table from his mom asking if he wants to take Mackenzie on a last-minute wedding errand. It sounds like slow torture, but it gets him out of the house, so he agrees readily enough.

Taking yesterday as an indication, Jensen is expecting Mackenzie’s anxiety about the wedding to ratchet up a notch each day, but she seems relaxed enough on their drive into town. He takes her to the florist first, to preview the table settings, and Mackenzie doesn't like one of the flower colors after all, so Jensen sits down in the bay window to wait for her.

"Well, if it isn't Jensen Ackles," a female voice says. Jensen can see feet moving from the back room to stand in front of him, and when he looks up, Genevieve Cortese is standing over him.

She prods his calf until he stands up, and pulls him into her arms. "I heard rumors you'd be back in town. Was wondering when we'd see you around here." She pulls back, assessing his face. "You look good."

"You too," Jensen says earnestly. She's wearing an ankle-length, flowy skirt and a tank top, hair long and loose around her face. It's a far cry from the girl he knew it high school, but the look suits her in a way her serious demeanor never did. She and Jared had been good friends in school, bonding over their advanced math classes while Jensen struggled to pass pre calc. "How the hell have you been? What are you doing here?"

"Oh, you know," she says, shrugging. "Went to UT, decided I hated medical research, came home and opened a flower shop. The usual."

Jensen laughs. "You never cease to surprise me, Cortese. You own this place?"

"Well, the bank owns this place," Genevieve says. "But I'm slowly paying them off."

It's meant to be self-deprecating, Jensen recognizes the signs, but he can see how happy she is in her smile and how easily it graces her face.

"Close enough," Jensen says.

"Have you been by Pearce yet?" Genevieve asks. "Everyone's real excited they made it to the championship this year."

"No shit?" Jensen asks, smiling.

Genevieve nods. "They were one game away from Texas State High School champs. They're stoked about next season."

"I can imagine," Jensen says, his own excitement rising. He remembers high school football, his first real taste of the crowd and what it felt like to have the expectations of a city on your shoulders. It's a rush, and, even in the lights of New Meadowlands, there's still nothing quite like it.

Mackenzie walks up to Jensen where he's talking with Genevieve. "Do you mind dropping me off at the airport?" she asks, then seems to remember herself. "Oh, hi, Gen. Sorry for interrupting. I'm just a little flustered."

Gen smiles and rests a hand on Mackenzie's forearm. "No, it's okay. Don't worry about it. Did Katie get everything sorted out for you?"

Mackenzie nods. "I went with the orchids instead. Sorry to change things up last minute."

"I'm just glad we had what you wanted," Genevieve replies, turning her attention to Jensen. "Take your sister to the airport. It was good seeing you, Jensen." She presses a kiss to his cheek and grabs his chin with her thumb and forefinger. "And don't forget what I said, okay? Head back to Pearce, make the time. There are some congratulations in order."

"Yeah, no problem," Jensen says, a little taken aback by the seriousness of her request. "I'm on it." He meant to go back to see Coach Jameson anyway, to express his gratitude for all he'd done for Jensen, and he's genuinely excited to hear the Mustangs made it to the state finals last season.

Jensen shoots Mackenzie a look out of the corner of his eye as soon as they're out of the shop. "The airport? Are you skipping town? Cold feet?"

"I'm a regular runaway bride," she says, climbing into the passenger seat.

"What happened to Operation Occupy Mackenzie's Fucking Wedding?" Jensen asks.

"Jensen," Mackenzie says, making sure to enunciate, "I figured you'd want the car today, and Michael is picking up his parents at Love Field, so I thought if you dropped me off, I could hang out with the in-laws and stop dragging you around with me."

"Oh," Jensen says. Mackenzie has the best ideas sometimes. "Yeah, that sounds good. Do you need me to come inside with you?"

"No," she says. "We can save all introductions for the rehearsal dinner. It's not like your reputation doesn't precede you anyway."

They spend the rest of the drive discussing Mackenzie’s struggle with the reception seating arrangements and her attempt to stick the most demanding members of their family at the same table.

"Josh didn’t do it that way," Mackenzie says, "and I think we all learned from that."

"Amen to that," Jensen says. "Uncle Dick cannot sit next to Uncle Robert. And the worst part is you know they’ll try to."

Mackenzie nods. "But by the end of the night we’ll be pulling them off each other. No, sir. Not at my wedding."

At the airport, Jensen tosses Michael a wave and pulls back onto the Dallas North Tollway. Driving has always cleared his thoughts—even in traffic he feels protected in aluminum and steel, free if only for the time it takes to reach his destination.

He drives to his old high school. It'd be easy to say he did it unconsciously, but Jensen knows he's doing it, knows he's going to congratulate Coach Jameson as much as he's going to find Jared. Inside, Ms. Morton is still working the reception desk.

"Oh, goodness," she says. "We have a real, bona fide celebrity inside these here walls. What are you doing in Richardson, son?"

Jensen ducks his head, tries for aw shucks but feels more genuinely embarrassed than anything. "I'm in town for my little sister's wedding.

"Mackenzie Ackles married!" Ms. Morton exclaims. "I hate to think about what that means about how long I’ve been sitting right at this very desk."

Jensen smiles. "You don’t look like you’ve aged a day."

Ms. Morton blushes. "Oh, hush. What brings you by Pearce?"

"I heard about the football team and couldn't resist dropping by," Jensen says. "My sister has officially released me from wedding duty for the day."

"Isn't that sweet of you," Ms. Morton says. "So are you looking for Jared?"

"Maybe," Jensen replies. "I don't want to interrupt if he's teaching. I'm here to see Coach Jameson."

"Coach Jameson?" Ms. Morton says, puzzled. "Well, he's probably at home today."

"Oh," Jensen says, oddly disappointed not to have an excuse anymore.

"Jared's teaching down in the auditorium, if you care to see him. I'm sure the kids wouldn't mind," she says. "We're doing construction on the old building and his is one of the classrooms that got displaced."

Jensen nods. The thought holds real appeal. "Thanks, ma'am. I might drop on by, just to see him in action."

"Before you go," she says, Jensen hoping for anything except an invitation to give an impromptu speech, "how's that neck of yours holding up?"

"Oh, fine," he replies, underselling to get out of the conversation. "You know how the media likes to blow things out of proportion."

Her eyes go round and wide, head nodding. "Yes, I have heard that about the New York liberal media types."

At that, Jensen can't help but laugh.

"Well, don't let your head get too big," Ms. Morton says. "Wouldn't want to put any undue pressure on that neck of yours."

Jensen gives her his best smile. "I'll try my best," he says and heads out to find the auditorium.

*

Jensen slips in the back, glad for the auditorium setting because his added presence goes completely unnoticed. His first glimpse of Jared makes him wonder if this was such a good idea after all. Jared's still ostensibly perfect, long legs and his tiny waist and that hair that would look stupid on anyone else but still suits Jared even in his thirties. Jensen can't make out if the hair around his ear is graying, but it looks lighter than the rest of it, and Jensen imagines it is, a gray patch uniting them across 1,600 miles. It still curls at the bottom and Jensen remembers running his fingers through it, grip tight like he'd never let go. He has the urge to do it again, but he fists his hands in his jeans instead.

He takes a seat in the back row.

Jared is giving a lecture on integrals, from what Jensen can see of the board and the little he remembers of his classes in college. A math teacher, then. It doesn't surprise Jensen. Jared's students seem to love him, and most of them even look like they're paying attention. That does come as a surprise, even if it shouldn't. Jared was always the people person, the one who could work the crowd. Jensen got by fine, but it was forced, a survival skill built up over years that he's still working on.

Even teaching calculus Jared looks like he's in his element.

It's infuriating.

He hangs out at the back of the room until the bell rings, committing every detail from Jared's well-worn Chuck Taylors to his Pearce High School polo to memory and hating himself for it. Jensen waits until the auditorium clears out to approach Jared, who's sitting down at a makeshift desk on the stage, already grading papers. Still an overachiever, too.

Jensen must be stealthier than he gives himself credit for, because Jared startles when Jensen clears his throat, familiar full body flail followed by an actual double take.

"Jensen fucking Ackles."

Jensen kind of wants to force a laugh but can't quite make it come out. Jared's tone is unreadable and he's regretting ever leaving his parents house. At least his mom was the only one staring him down there. Instead, he holds himself still for Jared's inspection.

"It's actually you," Jared says.

"In the flesh," Jensen says, taking a step closer to the desk. "Figured, uh, you might know I was in town."

Jared stands as Jensen walks over, coming around the front and perching on the edge, like Jensen's a student coming to him after class for homework help. Don't stand so close, Jensen reminds himself, and this is a completely inappropriate time for Sting lyrics.

"I did think you might find time in that busy schedule to make it down for Mackenzie's wedding, yeah," Jared says, all southern drawl that hits Jensen straight to his bones. "But I definitely did not expect to see you here."

Jensen shrugs. "Had to escape all the wedding preparations, man."

"My condolences," Jared says, shaking his head. "It's all Megan can talk about too. She's afraid she won't fit into the dress, she can't wait to see what cake Mack ended up with, should she order the chicken or the fish. I don't even know. It's gotta be awful by you."

"Well, to be fair, I just got in yesterday, so you've probably been getting it worse than I have," Jensen says.

"Oh, yeah?" Jared asks. "How's Mackenzie holding up?"

Jensen laughs. "We put Operation Reclaim Mackenzie's Fucking Wedding into effect yesterday. I'm not 100% sure what it involves, but my support was enough. I hope."

Jared smiles knowingly. "Sometimes it's best not to ask."

"That's pretty much been my policy," Jensen agrees.

"Tell me about New York. Your team got whopped last season. 6 and 10," Jared says, and Jensen is sure he isn't imagining the pleasure he sees on Jared's face at the declaration or the warmth in his stomach that Jared knows the Giants’ record even though Jensen wasn't playing.

Jensen makes sure to exaggerate his face of distaste. "Maybe by the 'Boys. But in my defense, I had nothing to do with it. And the Cowboys still never made it out of the divisional round of the playoffs."

Jared clutches his hand to his chest, palm right over his heart. "I know you've been playing up in New York all this time, Jensen, but you're still from Texas. Still got the Cowboys in your blood. How could you dismiss them so quickly?"

Jensen smiles, leaning in conspiratorially. "When Demarcus Ware has concussed your ass, you let me know how deep that loyalty lies."

"It would be an honor," Jared says. "You bite your tongue."

"You talk a tough game," Jensen says, "but I swear it is not something the heart recovers from easily."

Jared grins wryly. "The sports injury is not one I am unfamiliar with."

And just like that Jensen's caught, pants down, deer in headlights, a wall of clichés but nothing to say to break the silence. Jared bails him out, saves Jensen from himself like he’s done countless times before.

"I'll just even the score. How's the neck? Still attached, I see," Jared says, but it's not intended to wound, words softened by a barely-there grin.

"Et tu, Padalecki?" Jensen protests, but he knows he deserves it.

"You've had lots of time to brush up on your classic lit, I see," Jared says. "Very good. What else?"

Jensen rolls his eyes. "Four surgeries. Unfathomable hours spent in physical therapy. Rehabbing the arm, making sure it all still works the way it's supposed to."

Jared lets out a low whistle. "For love of the game."

"Are we toasting to something?" Jensen says, and it's Jared's turn to roll his eyes.

"So, what does bring you to these hallowed halls?" Jared says.

Jensen shrugs. "I don't know. Had some time. Was with Mack this morning at the florist, and Genevieve Cortese told me how well the football team here was doing."

Jared smiles and it might be embarrassment that flashes across his face, but it's been too long and the look is too fleeting for Jensen to be sure. "Is that so?"

"Yeah," Jensen says. "Figured I'd come by and congratulate Coach Jameson, but Ms. Morton told me he's not working today."

"Jameson?" Jared asks.

"Yes?" Jensen replies, suddenly unsure. "Our old coach?"

Jensen knows it's the wrong thing as soon as he's said it. This is a look he remembers, Jared's face shutting down immediately, the progress Jensen thought he was making toward some as of yet unvoiced goal erased.

"What did Gen say?" Jared asks.

Jensen's embarrassed, face hot and a blush creeping up his neck, as he says, "I don't know. She told me to come to Pearce to congratulate the team. I had some time, here I am."

He wants to apologize, knows he should but doesn't know what for, and he's reminded of the last time he saw Jared, an apology on the tip of his tongue then, too, with no way to articulate the ways he'd messed up. This was a terrible, terrible idea. When Jared says nothing, Jensen starts to feel even more awkward. It’s like the ten years didn’t happen at all, and he’s still that same twentysomething that couldn’t stop fucking up this thing with Jared.

Face red and unsure of where he stands in Jared’s unwavering gaze, Jensen finds it easy to fall back on old patterns. He’ll take avoidance for a thousand, Alex.

"See you at the wedding, I guess," he manages, exiting through the side doors without a backward glance.

*

Listen, Jensen: It’s time to quit

I say what I am about to say as a lifelong football fan: it’s time for Jensen Ackles to quit before he risks an extremely serious injury.

The fact that Ackles has undergone four serious neck surgeries should give him, and his organization, pause. It appears, however, that it hasn’t, as he has been cleared by doctors—both his and the team’s—to be back on the field. Tom Coughlin, the Giants’ notoriously conservative coach, had a few words to say about how his starting quarterback proved he was ready to take his job back.

"He threw it accurately, he threw it with a good, tight spiral and he threw it with velocity," Coughlin said.

Here, the observables seem to be enough for Coughlin. But I know I’m not alone when I say that every time Ackles is on the field next season—every snap, every chase by a defender—I will be imagining the worst.

It’s been a good career for Ackles. He has two Super Bowl rings, two Super Bowl MVP titles, and as many Pro-Bowl bids under his belt. For a brief period, he even had the honor of holding the title of Highest Paid Quarterback in the NFL. He has reached the top of the mountain.

Where else is there to go but down?

**

Jared is the coach at Pearce. The thought occurs to Jensen on his way in to Mack’s rehearsal dinner. His family is all filing of out of the Ackles van, and the epiphany causes Jensen to become momentarily distracted, smacking his head on the roof of the car.

"Ow, goddamn it," Jensen says, reaching up to rub his forehead and just barely managing to exit the vehicle without further injury.

"Language, Jensen," his mom says, shaking her head.

Josh laughs. "With coordination like that, I’m surprised you’ve made it to this point in your career.

"What, warming the bench?" Mackenzie asks, same teasing smirk on her face that Jensen remembers from their childhood.

Jensen groans as his father begins to come to his defense. "Now, now. Jensen is a very highly paid benchwarmer, kids. There’s no shame in paying the bills."

Or so Jensen thought.

As he walks into the restaurant, Jensen realizes that the point of a rehearsal dinner has never been quite clear to him. It seems like an excuse to show off, one more masturbatory event in a long weekend filled with them. He suspects, traditionally, the rehearsal dinner was actually a ploy on the part of the bride's parents to finally get the groom's parents to buck up.

"The rehearsal dinner, Jensen, is a way for us to thank those guests who have flown in from out of town," Jensen's father says.

"You know, I'm not sure that's entirely right," Jensen says, though it is true that their family from Ohio is attending the dinner even though they've never been particularly close to them.

"I'm with Jensen on this one," Josh says. "Definitely to make the groom's family pick up some of the slack."

"Oh, boys," Donna says, chiding them all. "The rehearsal dinner is just way to celebrate the success of the wedding rehearsal itself."

Jensen licks his finger and touches it to the air. "Victorious."

"Admittedly so," his mom says, surprising a laugh out of them all. He expected to get reprimanded at least, but she's been a real lifesaver the entire week, knowing when tensions were running high and when to take one of Mackenzie's outbursts seriously.

After an Ackles family group hug that succeeds at sufficiently embarrassing everyone involved, Jensen heads to the bar. He can’t stop himself from scanning the small crowd of guests that have already arrived for Jared’s familiar face, increasingly sure of his earlier revelation. The signs are all there: it explains Jared’s initial excitement, the pride with which he’d spoken about the team, and his complete disappointment that Jensen had been looking for Jameson.

This is something he should’ve realized sooner—something Jensen should have known. He hopes he gets a chance to make it up to Jared, prove he’s not quite as clueless and self-involved as he’d seemed.

"You know," Mackenzie says, coming up to stand next to him, "I expected I'd be at your wedding to Jared before my own. Always thought you'd be the first Ackles to walk down the aisle."

She actually winks and nudges him in the side—logically Jensen knows there’s an element of teasing at play here. His sister was too young (and by that he means too caught up in adolescent girl drama) when he and Jared were sneaking around in their parents' house to actually know what was going on, and it's been a long time since any of that happened under his parents’ roof anyway. The look she's giving him is clearly meant to tease, too, but her eyebrows begin to crease the longer he takes to laugh at her proffered joke.

"Jensen?" she asks, unsure.

"There are so many things wrong with that sentence," Jensen settles on, unwilling to elaborate and pleased with himself for managing even that.

"I'm thinking that gay marriage was not legal a decade and a half ago is the least of them."

Jensen laughs. "Something like that." Maybe he can do this.

Throughout the night, he never has to search long for Jared, constantly aware of his presence in the room. Though he hasn’t heard that laugh in a decade, his body still remembers. But every time Jared’s conversation partner leaves and Jensen begins to make his way toward Jared, he gets intercepted.

This time it’s his mom’s brother, Richard.

"Uncle Dick," Jensen says, grinning, "it’s been years."

"Yes, sir," Uncle Dick says, giving Jensen’s shoulder a firm shake. Jensen must make a face because the next words out of his mouth are, "Guess I shouldn’t do that, huh? What with the neck injury and all."

Jensen is at an impressive 12-for-12 on people asking about his fucking neck, but Uncle Dick is the first person to actually make contact. Classic Dick.

He manages a brief laugh. "They fixed me up good as new. Might as well give it a little shake, see if I got my money’s worth."

Uncle Dick guffaws, slapping Jensen’s shoulder again. "What’s the return policy on a neck fusion these days?"

"Guess we’re about to find out," Jensen says, making the executive decision to edge out of his uncle’s grasp for his own health and wellness—and walks straight into his godmother’s open arms.

The rest of the night continues much the same way. The faces change, and so do the particulars of the conversations, but none of them are Jared and that’s all that matters tonight. It’s not until hours later, when the guests are finally starting to file out, that Jensen finally spots Jared alone at the bar, no one lying in wait to cut him off.

"I've wanted to talk to you all night," Jensen says, pulling a stool up next to Jared's.

"Could have fooled me," Jared says before Jensen can continue, eyes fixed on his beer. "From the way you keep running away from me."

Jensen blinks. "Running away from you? Jared, I never stopped trying to find you."

Jared resolutely does not meet his eyes. "Didn’t look that way to me."

Jensen rolls his eyes. "You can't actually think I wanted to sit here and talk about my goddamn neck all night," he says. Jared says nothing, so Jensen continues. "I know it looked like I was having fun when everyone wanted to know if I was retiring or when I was getting married or whether I’d finally remembered my loyalty to the Cowboys, but I wasn’t."

"All valid questions, I think," Jared says. "You know, in the world where tonight is about you."

Jensen tries a new tactic. "I would say I deserved that, but you know talking about myself has always been the quickest way to ruin my night."

Jared looks chastised but he holds Jensen’s gaze for the first time since their conversation started. "I wanted this to be different."

"Me too," Jensen says honestly. There’s no use in pretending he doesn’t know what Jared’s talking about.

"I think—" Jared begins.

Jensen can’t help it. He cuts Jared off. "Always your first mistake."

Jared’s eyes flick down to his now-empty drink, but there’s a small smile on his face. It doesn’t look entirely happy. "This isn’t good for me," Jared says. "I don’t think I can do this again. Not like this. I’m not who I was ten years ago, and you wouldn’t know it from the way I’ve been acting since you’ve been around."

Jensen smiles wryly. "You can’t think I’m the same dumb kid I was either."

Jared shrugs. "I’m sure you’re not."

Jensen nods, as though something profound has been said. Maybe it has. He waves the bartender over and orders a round for them both. They share their drinks in silence, but neither of them leaves. Jensen doesn’t bring up the coaching thing; it seems inappropriate now somehow, like too little much too late. It’d be a stretch to call it progress, but at least they talked. They both talked, and neither of them stormed off in a huff. Jensen can’t help but be happy about it.

*

Jensen sincerely hopes everyone is as innocent in all of this as they claim.

His mom and sister both swear they had nothing to do with it, and Jared assures him Megan has promised the same, but Jensen has no other way to explain how he and Jared get roped into assembling bags of Jordan almonds for Mackenzie and Michael's guests to take home. Alone.

"Do people actually have wedding crafting emergencies?" Jensen asks. "It’s the day before your wedding."

"You do when you give your fiancé one thing to do for his own goddamn wedding and he forgets the fucking table favors," Mackenzie says.

"I see," Jensen says. "And so we’re clear, Michael doesn’t have family that can do this?"

Mackenzie rolls her eyes. "Would you rather come pick my dress up and deal with me if it doesn’t fit again?" she asks.

"Uh, no," Jensen says, sure of that in a way he's rarely been sure of anything in his life. "But I'm not clear on why my options are dress fitting or craft time."

"Because this shit needs to get done, you're my brother so I have no qualms about ordering you around, and a little manual labor is good for someone who's been living in the lap of luxury," Mackenzie says, ticking off each point on her fingers.

Jensen tries a new tactic. "Michael isn't going to the fitting, right? Why isn't Michael stuffing his own favors?" he asks. Fighting with his sister has always brought out the best in Jensen.

"If you don't want to come watch me burn the tailor’s to the ground, then you can stay here and Jared will help you stuff the favors as soon as Megan arrives."

Jensen can't help but laugh. It's a great mental image. "Like a play date," Jensen says. "For me and Jared. Who are grown ass men."

Mackenzie nods, smiling for the first time since this conversation started. "I knew you'd see things my way."

Things start out fine, if not a little quieter than Jensen remembers an afternoon with Jared usually being. They're civil, cordial even, passing the scissors between them with ease and never fighting over the almonds when they both reach for one at the same time. Jensen even manages to crack a joke about what a brave woman Mackenzie must be to leave a candy-filled task in Jared's hands that earns a laugh from his crafting partner.

By the fifth time their hands graze, though, Jensen has had enough.

"I shouldn't have left the way I did," he says. His voice is hoarse when he says it, and it must have been even longer than he realized since he last said something aloud. "At school, when I stormed out."

Jared looks up, relieved, and tosses his favor to the side, pink and green pastel candies rolling out of their tulle bag.

"I could have remembered my words. Like a human, instead of just watching you go," Jared offers.

Jensen soldiers on. "It's about time I learn what that feels like." It's true – it's what he did to Jared ten years earlier.

"Are we having that conversation now?" Jared asks. The question could be rhetorical, but Jensen thinks it isn't, can read the genuine curiosity on Jared's face.

"Well, this is my house. Or, my parents' house," Jensen says. "So I probably won't leave this time."

Jared's smile is tentative. "And dramatic exits have never been my thing," he says. "Too clumsy."

"It's a start."

"I know, uh, we didn't exactly part on the best of terms," Jared says. "And I know a lot of that was my fault. I'm sorry I ended things the way I did. I don't think I can tell you how much I regret it. I was in a bad place. You'd just been drafted, I had no idea where I was going or what I was doing, and I didn't see any future where you didn't just end up dumping me six months down the line." He pauses then, fiddling with a spare piece of ribbon. "I needed to get my head on straight."

It's a lot for Jensen to take in. "I shouldn't have let you go without a fight," Jensen tries, but Jared just shakes his head.

"I don't think I would have been too receptive to that," he says. "I think part of me wanted nothing more than for you to try, to tell me you would make things work somehow, but I was so angry at everything, I would have just shot you down, made things worse. Like I said, bad place. I don't know how we got there, but I'm sorry."

He’s tempted to tell Jared he’s not quite sure what happened either, but the years have made things clearer, and though Jensen might not be able to pinpoint the exact moment things went to shit, he’s got a few ideas. The night of Jared’s second ACL tear is a tempting place to start, but it absolves him of too much blame. Draft night is better, more to the point, but it chafes too, makes him look like an innocent bystander, a role he no longer needs nor wants. Jared may have lit the flame, but Jensen's the one who let it burn.

Jensen remembers the longing in Jared’s kiss, knows he could taste the desperation in his sweat, in the hot hot press of Jared’s chest against his as he pushed slowly inside, like if they could finally fuse together their lives would be on the same path again. When Jensen thinks about their last few months now, he knows he should have seen the end coming, but it’s only hindsight that’s 20/20, and it's hard to tell a 22-year-old kid that the best sex of his life had been an omen of the end.

He wants to explain some of that to Jared, but Jared's still talking, Jensen can hear bits of "I'm sorry" thrown in with "I didn't know what I had," and he won't do this anymore, Jared's apology nowhere near as satisfying now that he has to see Jared's face crumble as he gives it, both of them hanging themselves on a relationship they should have known would never last.

"No one stays with the boy next door forever, right?" Jensen says.

Jared's face falls further, limbs drooping like he's been cut loose, and that was the point, Jensen thinks, but the effect was not what he imagined.

"I just meant we could stop avoiding each other, probably," Jensen explains. "Maybe work up to regular conversations."

"Yeah?" Jared says, looking up. There's a slow, tentative smile starting on his lips, and Jensen will do anything to keep it there.

"Yes," he affirms. "I missed my best friend."

Jensen watches as Jared closes his eyes. "I think that was the worst part," he says.

Jensen nods. "I, uh, figured out—Well. Congratulations?"

That went well, Jensen thinks, completely expecting the look of confusion on Jared’s face.

"You’re the coach, right? At Pearce?" Jensen hopes his face conveys the depth of his embarrassment.

"Oh. Yeah," Jared says, a small, proud smile slowly working its way across his lips. "Three seasons now. Took over after Jameson retired."

Jensen shakes his head. "I’m sorry that’s not something I knew."

"I’m just glad to see your powers of deduction have improved over the years."

"Helps to stop being a self-involved asshole," Jensen says wryly. "Tell me about the season and how the Mustangs are totally going to win State next year."

At that, Jared’s eyes light up, launching right in to the success he’s had and underplaying his contribution the whole time. Jameson left him a truckload of talent, the program runs as a well-oiled machine, the guys already knew him because he’d been working as the assistant coach for a couple seasons—Jared says anything to avoid taking the credit. But Jensen knows how hard it is to earn locker room respect and how much it takes to convince guys to see you as a leader, even if you’ve been around for a while. And when Jared gets into his hopes for the team, both personally and professionally, his passion is almost tangible. The team is Jared’s through and through, Jensen can tell, and he’s thankful for getting to see this part of his old friend, completely in his element in a way Jared hadn’t been for a lot of their last couple of months together.

After Jared finishes recounting his team’s exploits, they go back to crafting in silence. It's not as weighted as it was before, and if things are a little strained, Jensen will take it. He can see a promise and not an end for the first time in a long time. It's enough.

*

Mackenzie’s ceremony passes by in a blur. Jensen’s blaming it on denial—certainly not the tears that clouded his vision—but all he remembers is his sister walking down the aisle all in white, more beautiful than she’s ever looked, and the feeling that he’ll never get back the time he missed by staying away for so long.

As the guests make their way out after the recessional, Jensen’s mom presses against his side, leaning up to whisper in his ear.

"Thank you for coming home, Jensen," she says, pressing a kiss to his temple, and Jensen doesn’t know why he bothers being surprised at his mom’s intuition anymore.

"Sorry it’s been so long," Jensen says, voice thick with sincerity he hasn’t felt in too long.

She gives him a watery smile but manages to elbow him in the side. "I’m willing to forgive it," she says. "But just this once. Don’t want anyone to think I’m going soft in my advanced age."

Jensen’s plan for the reception basically involves staying in one place for as long as possible. He knows he’s expected to give a toast, but this is Mackenzie’s night. He knows how badly he fucked that up at her rehearsal dinner and has every intention of sitting back, eating, maybe dancing a few songs with his family, and letting things happen with Jared as they may—champagne to be applied liberally, of course.

He mostly managed to keep his thoughts from straying to Jared during the ceremony, but now that he has a couple drinks in him, Jensen can’t help but wonder whether Jared ever imagined it might be them up on the altar. Jensen can honestly say he never did, never thought it was his style and certainly never conceived of a future where it might be possible, but he thinks Jared might have. Jensen can’t help the smile that spreads across his face at the thought or the slow curl of want and need tripping up his spine to go find out.

Before he gets the chance, someone taps him on the shoulder. He turns to find Sherri Padalecki looking at him expectantly. If he hadn’t seen Jared in ten years, it’s been even longer since he’s seen Sherri, and Jensen is helpless against the impulse he has to be hugged by this woman he once considered a surrogate mother.

"Jensen fucking Ackles," she says as she pulls back from their hug.

Jensen can’t do anything but laugh. It’s pretty much the greeting he’d been expecting from everyone in Dallas, and so far, the Padalecki family is the only one that has not disappointed.

"I think your son greeted me the exact same way," Jensen says, still smiling.

"I expect nothing less," Sherri says. "I raised that boy to hold people accountable."

Jensen nods. "I hope he thanks you for that."

"He does if he knows what’s good for him," she replies.

"What can I do for you, Mrs. Padalecki?" Jensen asks.

She smiles, and Jensen would be lying if he said it didn’t look a little bit sinister. "Can I have this dance, Jensen?"

"I would be honored," Jensen says, extending his hand to hers and leading them both onto the makeshift dance floor.

"How long you been in the league, Jensen?"

"This will be my eleventh season," Jensen says. "Which, between you and me, sometimes seems like a little too long."

They dance in silence for a little while. He spots his sister and Michael dancing not far away, and he shoots them a smile when he catches Mackenzie’s eye. Upon spotting his dance partner, his sister gives him an excited thumbs up, and Jensen rolls his eyes, dancing them away from the glint in Mackenzie’s eyes.

Between songs, Sherri speaks. "Let me ask you something, Jensen. And before you spout off some mechanical answer about your injury, I am actually more interested in talking about Jared."

Jensen smirks and buys himself some time. "What was it you wanted to know?"

"It will always be a mystery to Donna and me what happened between you and Jared," Sherri replies by way of an answer. "I don’t need the specifics, and believe you me, I know exactly how pigheaded young men can be. But it seems to me that it’s time you boys fixed things, and I wanted to know if you and I were of similar minds on that point."

"I’m trying," Jensen says, finding he can’t lie to her. "I think we’re both trying. I don’t know if it’s enough, but we’re working on it."

She nods slowly. "Then I’m going to tell you something, because I think you don’t know, and I think it’s something you deserve to know, and then I promise I’ll be done meddling forever."

"Alright," Jensen says, anxiety ratcheting up by the second.

"You leaving really messed Jared up," Sherri says, and the shame must be written on Jensen’s face clear as the position of his intended receiver on every interception he’s ever thrown because she follows it up with, "but don’t look so guilty now. This isn’t about that. It’s just a statement of fact. When you moved to New York, Jared was lost. He took that extra year and finished his degree, but didn’t play, which I’m sure you knew, and wasn’t sure what he was gonna do after graduation."

Jensen’s still unsure of where this is going. "He became a teacher, right?"

Sherri nods. "Yes, sir. In New York."

He can’t help it, his feet stutter, nearly crushing Sherri’s toes, and he shakes his head, trying to clear his thoughts of the confusion that has worked its way in. "What?"

"He did a teaching fellows program, gave him an excuse to follow you to the city."

"How did I not know this?" Jensen asks, but he hasn’t actually forgotten all the reasons Jared had to never want to talk to him again.

"It wasn’t really a wonderful experience. The program gave him virtually no support, and when the hiring freezes happened, he found out there wasn’t really a job for him after all."

"So he came home," Jensen says, "and never told me a word of any of this."

"With his tail between his legs," Sherri agrees. "Swore us all to secrecy."

Jensen feels like all he can do is shake his head. He knows how ridiculous they must look. Sherri doesn’t wait for him to come up with a response before speaking again. "Like I said, I don’t need the details. But if there was ever a moment where you doubted how much Jared cares about you, I wanted you to know."

Jensen’s not sure what he’s going to do with the information, but he thanks Sherri for her insistence on telling him, still shaken up. Josh comes to find him then, telling him it’s time to give his toast, and an off-kilter Jensen makes his way to the bridal party table as Sherry beelines for Jared.

His dad hands him the microphone, and Jensen grabs a flute of champagne off a waiter’s tray.

"Hi," Jensen says, voice echoing despite the relative fullness of the room, and the guests greet him in return. "It’s so weird to hear yourself speak. I’ll never get used to it." The crowd laughs politely, and Jensen goes on. "I’m real honored that Mackenzie and Michael asked me to give a toast at their wedding. So, first, I’d like to thank all of you for being here to celebrate with our family. I know how excited my sister’s been about everyone being able to make it, and I know how much it means to me to be able to be here with you."

Jensen pauses, looking back at his sister. "See, I’ve been remiss as a brother. Playing for New York takes me to Dallas at least once a season, as I’m sure most of you know." Here Jensen waits for the expected boos—no one disappoints—before continuing. "And Mack tried harder than anyone to never let me forget that no older brother of hers was going to be able to escape completely. My sister puts family and relationships first. It’s something I’ve always admired—a trait I’m trying very hard to work on in my own life. That kind of commitment is how I know she and Michael are going to last. Mack just doesn’t give up on people." Mackenzie gives him an embarrassed smile, eyes watering, as Jensen lifts his glass. "So, to Mack and Mike, a lifetime of happiness. May we all be as fulfilled as the two of you."

There’s just one more thing Jensen has to add. "And Michael, welcome to the family," he says. "If you hurt my sister, I have a defensive line that’s pretty good at catching guys on the run."
As Jensen finishes his speech, he watches Jared leave his mother’s side and head straight for the exits. Jensen barely manages to get his last couple of words out, so distracted by Jared’s untimely departure. It suddenly feels all important that he leave with Jared, chasing after him in a way Jensen never has, the moment narrowing to the sight of Jared’s long, long legs carrying him out the side door. It’s like the decision is made for him, and Jensen’s just doing what he should have done years ago. He holds it together just to make sure that Josh has the microphone and the next toast is set to begin before trying to be as discreet as possible about leaving. When Jensen hits the hallway, he has no idea whether Jared went left or right, but he follows the red-lit exit signs and hopes for the best. His phone buzzes in his pocket. Jensen checks it, hoping against all reason that it might be Jared.

It’s Mackenzie.

Thanks for the toast. Now go get your man. :D, the text says.

Jensen rolls his eyes, the discomfort he’d felt since dancing with Sherri apparently settling in to stay, but he replies anyway. Thanks for the inspiration, Mack.

Her reply is immediate. He’s getting away.

The reminder is enough to jolt him into action, though he has to tamp down the urge to tell her to stop texting during Josh’s speech. It’s not Josh’s fault he just isn’t as engaging as Jensen is. But he swallows all annoying older brother instincts, focusing his energy on Jared and Jared alone. The way it should be. He spots a truck in the parking lot, headlights on but still idling in a spot. He knows in his bones that it’s Jared’s, even if the truck’s been upgraded from the junker they spent their formative years in. Jensen weaves through the cars, urgency fueling his movement, and when he reaches the door, he tries but fails to let himself in the passenger side. Inside the cab, Jared startles.

"Unlock the car," Jensen says, hoping Jared can hear him.

Jared looks resigned and not entirely happy, but he complies, and Jensen climbs in, not sure what to say now that he’s here.

"Take me somewhere, Jared," he finally decides on.

Jared looks like he might protest but he shakes his head at the last second instead. Jensen hopes his face tells Jared everything he needs to know. "The Randall farm?"

Jensen smiles. "Sounds perfect."

The drive out is quiet, truck rumbling beneath them as the familiar landscape blurs by. Jensen uses the time to collect his thoughts, unsure of everything except that he’s where he needs to be. In high school, the drive had seemed like a small eternity, just another obstacle standing in the way of freedom, but it races by now, seems like it’s only been a couple of minutes before Jared’s pulling off the main road.

"So, she told you," Jared says, taking the keys out of the ignition and cracking his door open, anything to avoid looking at Jensen.

"Can’t say I’m not a little upset you didn’t tell me," Jensen says, following Jared out of the truck.

He can see Jared nodding as he walks around the bed, unlocking the tailgate and hopping on. "When did you think would be a good time for that revelation?"

Jensen finds that he doesn’t know, not sure he has a right to demand anything here at all. "I just wish I’d heard it from you," he says when he finds he can’t help but push.

Jared shrugs, a full-body effort. "I didn’t move to New York because I wanted to be with you," he says, but before Jensen can begin to take offense, he continues, "I wanted to prove to myself that I could make it, that there was a place for me in your life that had nothing to do with football. But I couldn’t hack it. I came home. There was nothing to tell."

Jensen nods, knows that was Jared’s biggest concern from the day he first tore his ACL. "I will never stop regretting that I didn’t know how to show you that."

Jared waves his hand. "Only so much of it was your fault. I couldn’t expect you to be responsible for my issues and your own."

"They were legion," Jensen says knowingly.

"Were?"

Jensen shrugs. "I’m working on it."

"Yeah," Jared says, "I know the feeling. You ever think about coming out?"

"Not seriously," Jensen says, looking away. In this and so many things he still feels like he’ll always disappoint Jared. "I still don’t really think it’s anybody’s business."

"And you’re afraid," Jared says.

"Is that wrong?" Jensen asks, not sure if he’s asking for absolution.

"I think the whopping one NFL player who has come out while in the league means history sides with you on this one."

"Sanchez," Jensen says, shaking his head. "I’m still convinced he did it just to outshine the Tebow media circus. Fucker."

Jared laughs. "Tell us how you really feel, Jensen."

"No one likes the Jets. I’m hardly in the minority on this one."

Jared must decide to let him off the hook because he asks, "Wanna throw a ball around for a little while?"

Jensen feels his face light up. "Wouldn’t be a trip to the farm without it," he replies, watching Jared root around in the bed for a football.

"Go long," Jared says, and Jensen doesn’t hesitate before following his orders, just takes off at a run downfield.

The first thing Jared throws him is a can of Shiner; the football comes in a distant second. Jensen is extremely gratified to see that the boy still has his priorities in order. Jensen cracks his beer and takes a sip before grabbing the ball, taking a minute just to get used to having it in his hands again. Then he lines his fingers up with the laces and lets it fly. It’s a good throw and a better catch, Jared adjusting in all the right places for the trajectory of the ball.

"Still got those hands," Jensen says, taking a few steps in toward Jared.

Jared smiles, a little dimmed. "Still got that arm."

"Everything is in good working order," Jensen confirms.

"When’s your flight?" Jared asks as the two of them settle into a pass-and-catch rhythm. On the field, the years between them disappear and lose their meaning.

"Tomorrow night."

"Minicamp on Monday," Jared says, and it’s not the first time Jared’s shown Jensen how closely he follows the Giants, but Jensen’s reaction is still the same, warmth settling in down to his toes. It’s almost oppressive in the hot July night, and Jensen finds he likes it, a physical reminder of where he is and who he’s with. "You nervous?"

It’s a fair question, and Jensen shakes his head. "Not about playing, not really."

Jared’s smile widens. "Press still makin’ you nervous?"

"Unfair," Jensen says, aiming the ball at Jared’s chest and laughing at his friend’s inability to stop the hit. But he doesn’t deny what Jared said.

"Aww, Jenny," Jared says, "I think it’s cute. Ten seasons as a pro and you’re still afraid of an interview."

"I have always wanted the game to be like this. Just a bunch of guys, doing it for fun," Jensen says. "It’s why I liked high school better than college and college better than the pros. It just gets so…full of shit sometimes. ‘For love of the game’ is a cliché, but it’s also an attitude—one that it’s easy to lose sight of." Jensen shrugs, grinning a little. "You’re a coach, I’m sure you understand."

Jared nods his agreement, and Jensen doesn’t know when Jared got so close, but he’s firmly in Jensen’s space, face inches away and close enough that Jensen can feel the heat pouring off him.

"That’s something I’ve always counted on to be true about you," Jared says, and he leans down to catch Jensen’s mouth with his own. "Something I always loved," he adds as pulls away.

Jensen doesn’t let him get far though, chasing Jared for the second time that night. Their lips crash together this time, nothing soft about it, a little pain edged in with the effort of finally bringing them together. Jared’s tongue ghosts along Jensen’s bottom lip, begging entrance, and Jensen’s powerless to deny him, unable to stop the sigh that escapes his lips as their tongues brush against each other. Jared leads them back toward the truck, and Jensen complies, only breaking apart long enough to lose their shirts. When Jensen’s legs hit metal, he leans back against the bed and sits up on his elbows to watch Jared as he exposes each golden inch of skin, taking his time with the buttons. With his shirt off, Jared stops moving too, and Jensen feels exposed, nerve-endings raw under the heat of Jared’s gaze until Jared grins, slow and dirty, climbing in and setting his knees astride Jensen’s hips.

It’s classic Jared, predatory and claiming, and the want pooling in Jensen’s crotch is familiar, too. He grinds his hips up against Jared’s, feeling the hardness there and answering with his own. Jared groans into Jensen’s mouth, and Jensen takes the time to catalogue the lines of Jared’s back, taking inventory of the things that changed and the things that stayed the same. Jensen’s hands learn the new, wider distance between Jared’ shoulders, tracing the back that isn’t as tightly muscled as he remembers it, but still find their home in the dip of skin at the base of Jared’s spine.

They wriggle out of their suit pants and Jensen shucks his boxers, Jared taking advantage of his raised hips to flip them over.

"Better for your knees?" Jensen asks.

"And your neck," Jared replies.

It’s a reminder that makes it hard to pretend they’re still in high school—same desperate need now with battle scars to consider. Jensen finds he likes it better this way, an acknowledgement of the work it took to get them here. He gets lost in his thoughts, but Jared’s slick fingers against his hole bring him back to the moment, rocking forward to allow Jared access.

"You still keep lube in the truck?" Jensen manages to get out, gasping.

Jared smirks. "You know I’m always prepared," he says, edging a second finger in along with the first. "Mmm, hate that I can’t see you like this, see what my fingers are doing, opening you up."

Jensen can only hum in response, cock leaking against the still-tight press of Jared’s abs. Coherent speech has always been the first thing to go.

"Tell me what you want, Jen. Tell me what you need."

"More," Jensen says, and Jared presses against his prostate before adding another slick digit, spreading him wide.

"Can you still come on my fingers?" Jared can’t stop running his mouth, and Jensen has no idea what the answer is, but he’s willing to find out if it means Jared will never stop. "Save that for later," Jared says. "I wanna fuck you now."

Jensen hears the tear of a condom and feels the press of the blunt head of Jared’s cock against his opening, moaning before the head of Jared’s cock slips in. He rocks back, using his position to take Jared in slowly, inch by inch. His body burns with pleasure, and Jared moans, fully sheathed inside of him. Their position lets Jensen set the rhythm, watching Jared’s gloriously expressive face as Jensen rides his dick. He quickens his pace and Jared’s breaths follow suit, driving them closer to completion. Jensen reaches down to fist his own cock then, slicking the shaft with the moisture leaking out from the tip.

"That’s it baby," Jared says, reverent. "Come for me," and Jensen strokes faster, never breaking his rhythm. He kisses Jared as his orgasm hits, come splashing up their chests hot and sticky between them, and he takes a second to breathe before clenching down around Jared again, thrusts as fevered as before. It’s not long before Jared follows him over the edge, fingers scrabbling for purchase on Jensen’s shoulders, and Jensen can feel the force of Jared’s release through the condom, filling him up.

It takes a minute, but Jensen rolls over, wincing as Jared’s softening cock slips out of him. He lies flat on his back as Jared sits up, just managing to even his breathing when Jared hands him a tie. Jensen raises his eyebrows.

"Wipe up," Jared says. "I have a blanket, but I’d actually like to use it."

"So you want to ruin your tie?"

"Can’t say I have much use for it in my line of work."

Jensen concedes, appreciating the gesture, and does the best he can to remove the evidence from his stomach.

"Perfect," Jared says, laying down flush against Jensen’s side and tossing a blanket across them both. "And now we stargaze."

Jensen laughs. "I might start to think you had this planned, big guy."

Jared never replies but Jensen catches his smile and falls gladly into the silence, letting the night air and the press of Jared’s body lull him into sleep.

*

There is absolutely nothing pleasant about sleeping in the back of a truck.

Jensen’s stiff all over, back and neck tight, throat burning from sleeping on his back with his mouth open and body protesting the blanket in the early morning Texas sun. He uses a minute to take stock of the situation as his brain gets back on line and finds he’s still enveloped by the weight of Jared’s body against his own. He cranes his neck despite the pain it causes to catch a glimpse of Jared at dawn, face completely relaxed, the slight lines around his mouth nearly invisible now, washed out by the glow of the sun.

So maybe there’s one pleasant thing about sleeping in the back of a truck, Jensen thinks. He’s still not going to make a habit of it.

"Morning," Jared says, chest rumbling, and he presses a long kiss against Jensen’s bare shoulder.

"Take me home," Jensen says, feeling Jared stiffen against him.

"Let me just throw some pants on," Jared replies, turning his head and rolling away.

Jensen realizes his mistake almost immediately. "It’s not about last night. It’s about how I’m too old to sleep outside. In a pick-up. I’m hurtin’ this morning."

Jared starts to grin, wiggling his eyebrows. "Then I did my job."

Jensen rolls his eyes, stealing the blanket as he gets up to find the clothes he’d scattered the night before.

"You realize that getting up the morning after and leaving in my sheets totally makes you the girl, right?"

Oh, how he wishes he could glare daggers. "I am not going to dignify that with a response."

"You will if you want a ride back to your parents’ house."

Jensen groans. "My parents’ house. Oh god."

Jared smiles. "I think they’ll find it in their hearts not to ground you for breaking curfew last night."

"They’d better," Jensen says. "I have a flight to catch."

Jensen watches as Jared’s face drops immediately, and he wonders if he’s ever going to stop putting his foot in his mouth. "Jared—"

"Hey, no," Jared begins, "you don’t have to apologize to me, honestly. I know what this was."

Jensen resists the urge to bash his head in against the window, instead opting to get in the truck and wait for Jared to catch up before continuing. "I want us both to be on the same page about this."

"I’m not expecting a wedding, Jensen. I know you’re going back to New York tomorrow. I know that’s where your life is," Jared says, steering them back toward civilization.

"Right," Jensen says, still feeling uncomfortable about Jared’s take on their night together. "But that doesn’t have to mean anything."

"This again?"

"No, you’re right. It means something. It means a lot."

Jared nods. "It does. It means you’ll be 2,000 miles away, in the spotlight, and I’ll still be in Texas."

There’s nothing Jared has said that Jensen can disagree with. And yet. "When I came to Texas, I was mostly hoping we wouldn’t kill each other. I don’t want to lose you now that I have you."

Jared’s quiet for a long time before he continues. "I won’t leave, Jen. I can’t."

Jensen shakes his head. "That’s not what I want, Jay. Not when you have a championship to win."

"What do you want?" Jared’s still looking at the road, but Jensen knows exactly the expectant face he must be making.

"I wanna be friends," Jensen says. "I don’t—I don’t expect you to wait for me. But I want to be able to call you when camp sucks, when Coughlin’s giving me the third degree, and when Mike Garofolo at the Star-Ledger can’t ask about anything except how quickly Davenport’s going to take my job."

Jared nods. "You have to call."

"I will," Jensen promises.

"You’ll break my heart if you don’t," Jared says. His tone is light, and it’s accompanied by a grin, but Jensen can tell how serious Jared is in the tense line of his back and the clench of knuckles around the wheel.

"You’ll be number one on my speed dial."

"Well, you know me," Jared says, and Jensen does. "I’ll try anything once."

He laughs as Jared pulls into his driveway. "I remember that about you."

Jared’s smile is just for him, the two of them cocooned from the world for as long as it takes Jensen to climb out of the truck and up his parents’ walkway. "Take care, Jen."

"Thanks," Jensen says, reaching out to squeeze Jared’s shoulder. "You too."

**


2014 New York Giants Minicamp: Quarterback controversy brews as Ackles, Davenport take first-team reps

Quarterbacks Jensen Ackles and Jack Davenport both practiced with the Giants’ first string team today, with Ackles taking a majority of the snaps.

Davenport, who was available for comment after this afternoon’s practice, denied any allegations of a controversy between himself and Ackles.

"Jensen’s a great guy. His work ethic inspires me to push myself every day. He’s never been anything but welcoming to me. He’s going to make an amazing coach one day," Davenport said.

The quote is being interpreted by some as a jab at Ackles’s utility on the active roster.

"Davenport’s being glib. He’s upset about losing the starting job. If Ackles is coaching, he’s not playing," Skip Bayless said on ESPN’s First Take this morning.

Minicamp continues today at the TIMEX Performance Center in East Rutherford, NJ.

**

Minicamp is, somehow, more tedious this year than it usually is. The point is to regroup and let their rookies get acquainted with the team, and that’s the part that Jensen likes, appreciating the urgency they all come in with. It is, after all, do or die. It’s just three days, but Jensen feels each and every one like a lifetime. They’re not even really practicing at full speed, so there is no excuse. He chalks part of it up to being back in the grind, back in New York City after a week in Texas, and part of it up to not being used to the pace of practice anymore after a season on the bench. The lights seem brighter now, the questions more invasive.

He tries, and fails, not to think about the part of him that misses Jared. But true to his word, Jensen calls Jared every night. It’s nice to know there’s someone there, even over a phone line, consistency he hadn’t realized he’d missed. And if Jared sounds a little shocked to hear Jensen’s voice every night, Jensen just knows he’s doing something right, that he has to work harder for Jared. They talk about everything, but Jensen tries as often as he can to deflect questions about himself, preferring instead to focus on Jared and the stories he comes back with from the first couple of practices with his boys.

"How did Marquian throw today?" Jensen asks. He’s already invested in the ups and downs of Jared’s senior quarterback, inspired by his unadulterated love of the sport.

"Not bad," Jared says, and Jensen swears he can hear his smile through the phone. "Rob was back today, and I think that makes all the difference for him."

Jensen nods even though Jared can’t see him, taking a seat on his couch. "A condition I am not unfamiliar with."

"The best case scenario if both players are healthy, absolutely," Jared says. "But since that’s not a guarantee, we gotta get him throwing to someone else."

"I wouldn’t dream of questioning your expertise, Coach."

Jared laughs, warm and deep, and Jensen feels it low in his stomach. "Just because you won’t doesn’t mean you don’t dream of it."

"Coaching’s your thing. I just wanna watch it happen," Jensen says, struck by the truth of his words. He wants to be able to see, to be by Jared’s side.

"I’ll take it," Jared says. "How was your day?"

"Not bad," Jensen says. "Garofalo’s right, Davenport will have my job in no time."

"I saw him ask you about it," Jared admits.

"Wasn’t the worst I got today."

"No?"

"Nope," Jensen replies. "I would never deny that honor to the fan who approached me after practice today."

"Oh, oh. This sounds good. What’d she say?"

"Why do you assume it was a she?"

"Was it?"

"Yes," Jensen says slowly.

"You’re just being contrary. What’d she say?"

"Now you’ve built it up too much."

Jensen perfectly pictures Jared rolling his eyes. "Out with it."

"Well, first she told me I better not suck this year."

"Boring," Jared says. "She’s right, you’d better not."

"Then she threatened bodily harm if I did."

"Getting warmer."

"Then she told me her son would be honored to help me with a neck transplant, should that become necessary." Jensen pauses. "I’m not sure that was a joke."

Jared laughs. "And that was worse than getting asked if you’re ready for retirement?"

"No, it was the autograph she demanded that really did it. My hand was tired."

"What are we going to do with you, Jen?"

"Let me ask you something," Jensen tries.

"Anything."

"Do you think it’s true that you can never really go home again?"

Jared takes his time answering, and Jensen’s content to sit in the silence, considering how he’d answer his own question. "For certain values of the word home, yeah, I guess," Jared finally says. "Why?"

Jensen ignores Jared’s question. "For what values?"

"Home is never the place you remember it as," Jared says. "Logically, I’ve always known that."

"I was counting on it," Jensen replies.

"Right. So, no, I don’t think you can go home again, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing," Jared says. "I had a lot of time to think about this when I moved back from New York. So many things had already gone wrong that I felt like if I ended up back in Richardson that meant I was a failure."

"You haven’t failed at anything, Jay."

"No, I’ve failed plenty. But the sum total of my life isn’t failure, and that was the best thing I learned. I wasn’t going home—I was going back to people I called home. Richardson hadn’t been home in years, and it wasn’t the same place I left it anyway."

Jensen’s sure that Jared has no idea what he’s sparked, but he thinks he’s starting to get it. "And you weren’t the same person who left Richardson."

"Yeah, that," Jared says. "I don’t even know if I answered your question."

"You did," Jensen assures him.

"Are we done with tough questions for the night? I don’t think I’ve had nearly enough to drink if we’re not."

Jensen can’t stop the smile that takes over his face. "We’re done. Tell me more about practice today."

Jared does, and Jensen listens, attention rapt. This is the best he’s felt in months.

Before heading to New Meadowlands the next morning, Jensen books a flight to Texas. He’s going home.

**

Giants Minicamp Practice Report: Day 3
A Conclusion to the Big Blue View Minicamp Series

Tying up loose ends on the Giants' three-day minicamp, which concluded Wednesday, here are the three biggest things we learned:

(3) The Giants drafted well (and I don’t mean in 2014): Jerry Reese continues to be the best GM in the league at finding talent. After drafting Mark Brewer in the second round last year, minicamp taught us that Brewer is primed to step right into the spot left by center David Baas’s departure. Does this mean the Giants’ offensive line woes are coming to an end? Don’t count on it. Left guard continues to be a major weakness, as evidenced by the four sacks allowed during today’s final practice.

(2) The Jets have lost their title as off-season media kings: Can’t say I’m too excited about this one, but between the birth of Victor Cruz’s second child, rookie wide receiver Justin Harris’s arrest, and the oft-hyped quarterback situation, the Giants have brought the media circus straight to the men in blue. Which brings me to my next point...

(1) The Giants’ potential quarterback controversy has come to an end: Things didn’t shake out the way most people expected: Jack Davenport will begin the season as the Giants’ first-string quarterback after Jensen Ackles announced his retirement in a press conference last night. The two-time Super Bowl MVP was as tight-lipped as usual about his motivations, and though the move comes as a surprise after his reassurances that he would be on the field this Fall, Ackles’s health concerns make his actions understandable.

Fans are fortunate that the Giants had someone to step into the role, and Davenport showed great promise during all 18 of his starts in the 2013-2014 season.

**

Epilogue


One Two-Step Blind Vice

Oh, young love! In Hell-ay, we know all that glitters isn’t gold. But underneath all that proudly bared cynicism, there’s nothing we love more than a fairy tale romance—while we wait for true love to be intercepted on its course, natch.

You all remember Namath Andre, the sports star whose America’s Sweetheart billing never lined up shall we say straight with his legendary bachelor status. But Andre has been flying pretty low under the radar lately—a far cry from his history of divalicious contract negotiations. Looks like our little Namath is all grown up. Or out.

Yes, Awful Truth readers, we’ve hooked a story.

See, after further review, it appears Andre is a bachelor no longer and that things are just starting to heat up between he and Jake Kingmaker, who’s starting to gain attention of his own in certain national circles of athletic Americans. Looks like the two have been shacking up for quite some time now. And, as it so rarely happens, it’s Kingmaker’s newfound fame that’s helped keep these two on the DL.

Wondering why Kingmaker’s name sounds so familiar? He’s a figure from Andre’s past, but the way we heard it, the two hadn’t talked in quite some time, after their “in all kinds of weather” vow turned out to have an “as long as there isn’t a storm” clause. For those of you following along at home, love is not for the accident-prone. But right about the time Andre was getting ready to do some George Strait at karaoke, he remembered Kingmaker hung the moon and the rest is, well, in this week’s Blind Vice.

Looks like they’re giving it the old college try. Here’s hoping this time it’s for F-O-R-E-V-E-R.

AND IT AIN’T: Tom Brady and Wes Welker, Jordan Shipley and Colt McCoy, or Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte

*

The alarm begins blaring too early. Jensen waits for Jared to turn it off, but he never does, and the beeping is only getting louder. Jensen rolls over to slap at it until he hits the right button and notes that the sun is, predictably, not fully raised in the sky. He doesn't even bother to look at the clock. It doesn't matter what time it is. Morning will always be too early for Jensen.

When he rolls clear to the other side of the bed, Jensen spares a thought for his missing boyfriend. The bed is still warm where Jared left it, so he can't have gone too far.

On the nightstand, there's a still steaming cup of coffee with a piece of paper on top.

J –

That's your alarm going off. :) Thought you could use some caffeine for your first day. I made you lunch too. It's on the kitchen counter. Play nice in the sandbox, don't let the other kids push you around. I want to hear all about it when I get home.

See you tonight –

Jay

Jensen can’t stop the slow, pleased smile that finds its way onto his face.

In the fall they had kept busy. Jared had been running himself and his boys into the ground—practices, drills, and film reviews scheduled in every minute the parents would allow while Jensen tied up his loose ends in New York. He had an apartment to sell, furniture to put in storage, and not an insignificant number of questions to field from the press. When he was finally settled in at Jared's house, it took all of two weeks for him to get bored of having nothing to do and to start feeling caged in, too afraid the neighbors might start to ask why he was always coming and going. He started running late at night, after the block closed their blinds, and only leaving early in the morning. He joked with Jared that his mom would call him a lady of the night if she knew.

Neither he nor Jared were home too often during the first few months, and Jensen thinks it probably saved them, gave them a little more time to get used to being in each other's space all the time again.

In December, under Jared, the Mustangs won the 5A Texas High School Football Championship. It was a victory that was hard earned—and all the better for it. Those first few weeks after the championship were the hardest, when Jared was in high demand and Jensen had to stay hidden, afraid in equal measures of stealing Jared's spotlight and being asked why he was there to begin with.

Since then, retirement has been treating Jensen fairly well – other than having to wake up at ungodly hours, of course. After football season, while Jared was still teaching, Jensen looked for something to do, anything that might occupy his time. He started looking into physical therapy graduate programs, thinking about maybe putting that sports medicine degree his parents had insisted he finish before he declared for the draft to good use. He figured he'd been through enough therapy of his own that he at least had the bedside manner down and could probably recognize a number of injuries when he saw them.

Jensen checked out programs all over the state of Texas, sure only of the fact that he wanted to be within driving distance of Jared. When Jared was told the Longhorns might have an opening at the position of receivers coach and were mighty interested in a certain hotshot from Richardson, Jensen's agent made some phone calls.

Jared had started work as soon as the school year was over, and Jensen took over coordinating move duties. He's had the summer to settle in Austin, and he's grateful to be back in the relative anonymity of a new city. The days have progressively gotten shorter though, and Jensen's first day of class has sort of snuck up on him. If he's being truthful, he hasn't been so nervous since the first time he played in the Super Bowl. He can’t quite remember what he was thinking when he registered.

Jensen hears Jared come up the stairs and stop in their doorway, pulling Jensen from his thoughts.

"You were thinking you're going to rock. That injuries don't necessarily have to mean the end of a career with good care. That it's time for you to stop sitting on your ass all day," Jared says, smile wide.

Jensen just chucks a pillow at his head without looking over, choosing instead to focus on his delicious coffee. Coffee, at least, shows him the proper respect. Coffee is always there for him. Unlike some people he knows.

The pillow misses its mark, making a soft thunking sound as it slides down the wall.

"I see that accuracy is still your biggest question mark," Jared says through barely contained laughter. Jensen doesn't have to look over to know there's a shit-eating grin taking up half of Jared's face.

"Mouthy today," Jensen says. "You're supposed to be supportive."

"See you at home?" Jared asks, that grin still firmly in place. He's refusing to indulge Jensen's attitude. Jared, as always, seems to know exactly what Jensen needs.

"Mmm," Jensen agrees, mouth full of coffee. He looks up at Jared, who's lounging in the doorway, one hip propped against the frame, aviators pulling his hair back. He's wearing khakis and a white polo that hugs his pecs, Longhorns logo embroidered on the chest. The outfit accentuates his long, lean lines, and Jensen can't help himself. He gets out of bed, comforter around his shoulders and coffee mug cupped protectively in his hands, padding toward Jared.

"Come on, Jared. Come back to bed," Jensen says, pressing his nose into Jared's neck.

Jared groans, searching for Jensen's mouth. "Not fair," he says. "I have to go to work. No distracting me."

Jensen smiles, overcome by Jared, and wraps the blanket around Jared too. If it were up to him, he’d keep them wrapped up together forever. He and Jared are finally in the same place, and Jensen takes a minute to appreciate it. "I wanted you to know you were more important to me than 10 more minutes of sleep."

"I know," Jared says. "But not more important than that cup of coffee."

"You wouldn't make me choose."

"Never," Jared says, suddenly serious.

"I know," Jensen repeats. He places his hands on Jared's pecs, looking up to meet his eyes. "See you after work, Coach."

"I'll never get tired of hearing you say that," Jared says, slapping Jensen's ass on his way out the door.

end.