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Ace High

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Jensen

 

In 1927, Lance Ackles had built a massive hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada, USA. Less than a year after construction of Ackles’ High-Rise had been completed, Lance had passed away. His son, Daniel Ackles, had remodeled the ground floor and opened a large casino. He renamed the business Ackles’ Ace High Hotel and Casino. It had been so successful that Daniel had made a small fortune which he’d put right back into the business and opened two other hotel and casino combinations - a second in Vegas, and one in Atlantic City. 

When Daniel had retired, his son, Alan Ackles, had taken over the business. By the time Alan was fifty-six, Ackles’ Ace High Hotel and Casino, Inc. was a Fortune 500 company, and the family was ridiculously wealthy. What had started as one hotel was now a chain of hotel and casino establishments worldwide.

Alan and his wife Donna had two sons and a daughter. Despite their wealth, the couple ensured that their family held the morals of the faith Donna was raised in, even though she had long ago stopped attending religious services. The Ackles children were helpful to those in need, generous to family and friends, and were law-abiding, respectful children who grew up to be well known and revered members of the community as adults.

Since Alan wanted his children to run the family business, he began to gradually step back, though for now, he was still ultimately in charge. Joshua, at twenty-eight, was running the chain in Europe; Jensen, at twenty-five; was running the chain in the US; and at the young age of twenty-three, the competent and tough Mackenzie was running the chain in Asia. That gave charge of four hotels to each of the Ackles children. 

In Las Vegas, other hotel and casino combinations generally had cozily-lit casinos. Ackles’ Ace High was the opposite. Ace High casinos were the brightest lit rooms in the buildings. That made it easier for dealers and croupiers to watch the players; easier for security to watch the players, dealers, and croupiers; and easier for the cameras to watch everyone.

Contrary to other hotels’ brightly-lit guest rooms, Ace High guest rooms were decorated with medium brown walls softened with pastel drapes, linen, and upholstery, except for the bathrooms - they were done in brown marble and tile with bronze fixtures, but the lighting was more than bright enough for guests to shave, apply makeup, style hair, or whatever else they needed to do. 

Rather than dark, windowless offices, Ace High offices were decorated in welcoming neutrals splashed with color in forms of upholstery, throw pillows, paintings adorning the walls, and floor-to-ceiling windows.

Where other casinos’ employees dressed scantily for distraction and pleasure, all Ace High employees dressed in black denim jeans, black running shoes, and purple polo shirts with the hotel emblem embroidered on the upper left chest.

Like his brother and sister, Jensen lived in one of the penthouses of one of the hotels he managed. He could have stayed in the family mansion just outside Vegas, but he chose to live in the bustling city, and he’d made some changes to the penthouse before he’d first moved in. There was an elevator in the back of the lobby that went to the four penthouse floors which Jensen had closed off on his floor. He’d added two private elevators to his penthouse - one to the lobby near the cage, and one to the open security office with a stop at his private office four floors below his penthouse. These elevators would only operate if a correct security code was entered. If the wrong code was entered or the correct code wasn’t entered in time, the elevators would seal and lock down until security and maintenance entered different codes to release the doors.

Alan had approved of and authorized the extravagant expense and had encouraged his other children to take similar measures. No one in the family had lived in any of their hotels before, and he wanted to ensure the safety of his children in their new homes.

To enable the security staff to better monitor the video feeds, the security surveillance office was the darkest room in the casino with the main department office decorated like all the others in the hotel. The smaller offices, the ones where suspect gamblers were questioned, were plain gray walls and floors, no windows, a steel table, and two steel chairs, and the closed circuit television could be accessed from Jensen’s office and penthouse.

Jensen was currently at his desk watching the video feeds after finishing his daily paperwork when his security chief Jeff Morgan called on a direct line from his office.

“I know; I’m watching,” Jensen said by way of answering the call.

“Want us to kick him to the curb?”

“Not yet. In fact, get men on the exits. Do not let him leave. I’m coming down.”

Jensen walked out of the elevator to find Jeff waiting for him. The two men went directly into the video surveillance room without exchanging a word. As soon as one of the staff saw the boss, the man stood up and offered his seat.

Jensen sat down and watched the monitor as a young man at the blackjack table played and won for nearly fifteen minutes. “How long has he been at it?” he asked.

Jeff answered, “Over an hour; and he seems to be settled in for a good, long run.”

Jensen huffed and asked the room at large, “You all know who that is, right?” He was pissed that no one seemed to know the answer. “That’s Jared Padalecki.”

“Holy shit!” came a voice from across the room.

Jensen stood and moved down a few monitors. He leaned over between the two techs and said, “Show me the entire area for twenty-five feet around Padalecki.”

The two techs began switching from camera to camera until Jensen said, “Stop. Right there.” He pointed to a scrawny man with spiky blonde hair. “That’s Chad Michael Murray, Padalecki’s accomplice.”

Jensen stood and turned to Jeff as he said, “Give me ten minutes and get Murray to show his tail. Throw him in the tank and then bring Padalecki upstairs to my office.”

Jeff raised his eyebrows in response to the unorthodox command and said, “You’re sure about this?”

Jensen replied, “I’m sure.”

Jeff had been working casino security for over two decades, most of that with Ackles’ Ace High. Though Jensen Ackles was a fine boss and listened to his employees, Jeff knew better than to voice further objection given the look on his boss’s face. The Ackles family was not known to be ruthless, but they were all known to not take anyone’s shit. Card counters like Padalecki were usually taken to the gray, drab rooms of the tank, given a couple of words of warning, and blacklisted from the chain or arrested if already blacklisted. For the middle Ackles heir to speak to a card counter personally was unheard of, but Jeff would do as he was told because that was what he got paid for.

He checked his watch and watched Jensen enter his private elevator. He radioed his men through their earpieces to give them instructions to prevent Padalecki and Murray from leaving, giving them descriptions to look out for since the showing from his techs made him doubt that security would recognize the pair.

Once the monitors showed that his men were in place, Jeff called out to his techs, “Jared Padalecki is the most famous casino cheat that ever worked Vegas. Murray is nearly as famous for his stunts to provide Padalecki escape time. That not one of you could answer Mr. Ackles’ question and identify these two criminals pisses us both off. Every damn one of you better be able to identify the top twenty wanted and the top twenty blacklisted gamblers by the day after tomorrow. Your damn jobs depend on it, understood?”

A chorus of “Yes, sir” filled the room as Jeff radioed Alona Tal, the head croupier. Then he leaned back and watched the monitor showing Chad Michael Murray. 

Alona took on the task herself. She bumped into Chad and spilled a tray of drinks on him. As he attempted to help her pick up the glasses, Alona screamed for security and reported that Murray had grabbed her ass. Security, as per instructions, took Murray to the tank.

At the blackjack table, Padalecki didn’t even notice what was going on behind him because he was so focused on the cards being played. 

Jeff gave the word and his men moved in on Padalecki. He met them at the door to the cage and personally escorted Padalecki to Jensen’s office where Jensen and Chris Kane, the casino’s general manager for the last decade, waited. Jeff ordered Padalecki to sit in the chair in front of Jensen’s desk and placed the bucket of chips Padalecki had won in front of Jensen.

Jeff started toward the door when Jensen said, “Stay, Jeff.”

When Jeff had taken a seat beside Chris on the overstuffed sofa, Jensen looked at the bucket of chips in front of him. He gave a low whistle and said, “This must be over half a million dollars’ worth of chips. You didn’t start your day at the blackjack table, did you?” he asked as he leaned back in his chair.

Padalecki just shook his head, his shaggy hair falling into his eyes. The young man’s knee was bouncing, his hands were shaking, and his eyes were darting everywhere except at Jensen.

Jensen asked, “Is this the first time you’ve hit an Ace High casino?”

Padalecki simply nodded without speaking, still fidgeting and refusing to meet Jensen’s eyes.

Jensen watched Padalecki for a couple of minutes before saying, “Do you have anything at all to say?”

The young man finally mumbled one word just loud enough for Jensen to hear, “Chad.”

Jensen leaned forward on his desk and asked, “Chad makes you do this?”

Shaggy hair flew wildly as Padalecki shook his head. “I need Chad.”

Jensen stared at the man before him. He was younger than Jensen by at least a few years, likely just barely old enough to gamble, though he had been on Vegas watch lists for three years. This nervous, fidgeting mess was nothing at all like the calm, cool young man Jensen’s security techs had caught counting cards at the blackjack table. 

Something was not adding up. He looked over at Jeff and nodded his head. Jeff stood and left the room so Jensen could continue to try and get Padalecki to speak.

“Listen, Mr. Padalecki,” he began.

The man responded, “Jared. I’m Jared.”

“Okay, Jared,” Jensen continued.  “Why are you in my casino counting cards today?”

Jeff stepped quietly back in and nodded at Jensen before retaking his seat.

Jensen continued, “Jared, why did you decide to hit us today?”

Jared shook his head again but said nothing.

Jensen picked up paper and a pen to write a quick note, and when he finished, he held it out to Chris. Chris stood and took the note, reading it quickly. He pulled his phone from his jacket pocket and began tapping the screen just as there was a knock at the door.

“Come in,” Jensen called out.

The door opened and closed behind Chad Michael Murray while the security detail who had brought him up waited in the hall.

Murray rushed to Jared’s side and began talking in such a low voice that no one else in the room could make out what he was saying. Jared slowly began to stop fidgeting and shaking.

Jensen spoke after a moment, “Mr. Murray, I can’t tell if this is heartwarming or frightening, but either way, I have a business to run and would like to get answers to my questions sometime today.”

Murray stood and took the seat beside Jared, never removing his hand from the young man’s shoulder.

He finally looked to Jensen and said, “Ask away, Mr. Ackles.”

“Why did the two of you decide to hustle my casino today?”

“Because it’s too dangerous to hit any of the others right now. They all know who we are. I didn’t think you would.”

Jensen huffed, “I’m surprised you haven’t hit us sooner.”

Murray shook his head. “You keep it too bright. Jared’s not crazy about bright rooms when he’s playing cards.”

Jensen smirked and asked, “Too easy to get caught?”

Again, Murray shook his head. “Too easy to tell he’s different than everyone else at the table.”

Jensen looked over at Jeff and Chris. Jeff gave a slight shake of his head to indicate he had no idea what Murray meant. Chris looked up from his phone with a barely controlled expression of surprise on his face.

Chris said, “Too easy to tell he has Asperger’s syndrome.”

Jensen jerked his head from Chris to the two men in front of him just in time to see Jared lower his head and try to hide behind his hair.

Jensen asked, “Is this true, Jared?”

Jared looked away from Jensen and stared out the window, his face expressionless.

Jensen watched as Murray squeezed Jared’s shoulder and said, “It’s okay, Jay. You can tell him.”

Jared turned to Murray and said, “You said never to tell. You said they would take you away from me and send you to jail.”

Murray nodded, “Yeah, but I’m pretty sure they know most everything already so it’s gonna happen anyway.”

Jared sat forward and started rocking, his hands over his ears, chanting, “No, no, no, no…”

Murray started trying to calm the young man. Jensen got up and came around his desk to kneel in front of Jared. He glared at Murray until the man sat back in the chair again.

Jensen began to sing softly. He didn’t even realize what he was singing until Jared looked up to Jensen’s neck and asked, “You like Pearl Jam, too?”

Jensen nodded, “I certainly do. ‘Black’ was the one song that got me through being dumped at my junior prom.”

Jared actually giggled and said, “You’re way too handsome to be dumped at all, much less at your prom.”

Jensen smiled. “It’s true, though. I took my best friend’s sister to make her ex-boyfriend jealous. They got back together right in the middle of the prom, and I was left high and dry.”

Jensen steadfastly ignored the shocked glance exchanged between Jeff and Chris.

Jared gave a bigger smile that revealed beautiful dimples and said, “You’re lying.”

Jensen smiled too. “I swear I’m not. That’s what I get for being such a good friend. I made Jason pay for it, though.”

Jared asked, “Really? How?”

Jensen chuckled and said, “I made him cover for me for the next year every time I went out with my boyfriend.”

Jared actually laughed, and Jensen would have fallen over in shock if he hadn’t still been kneeling on the floor. He didn’t know much about autism, but he did know that what he just saw from this kid was more emotion that most autistic people displayed in a year, probably longer.

Jensen took the opportunity to ask, “Jared, what did Mr. Murray want you to tell me?”

Jared took a deep breath trying not to start shaking again. He said, “My parents are good people. They just have trouble relating to me. They enrolled me in the Big Brother program. I got paired with Chad. Chad doesn’t care if I’m different.”

Jared added hesitantly, “My dad lost his job a few years ago, and my family was about to lose our home. Chad knew how good I am with numbers and cards so he suggested we go to a casino and try to make some money. We hoped to have enough soon to save my family’s home.”

Jensen glanced over to Chris who said, “Jared, your parents have owned their home for almost twenty years. Looking at this information I just got, your dad retired with full pension benefits; he didn’t lose his job. In fact, your family is better off than most families with three kids.”

Jared shook his head and looked at Murray. “Chad said we needed money. Chad wouldn’t lie to me about that.”

When Murray wouldn’t even look at Jared, Jensen asked, “Jared, how much more money do you need?”

Jared answered without hesitation, “Another two million dollars.”

Jensen stood up and ran his hand down his face. He looked at Jeff and said, “Jeff, would you have Felicia come in? I’m going to need her to keep Jared company at my place for a little while.” 

Looking back at Jared, Jensen said, “Jeff is going to introduce you to my assistant Felicia. She’s a cute little redhead who looks like a pixie. She’s pretty good at cards too. So good that I won’t let her play downstairs unless it’s a private game. Maybe you two can play while Chad and I chat, okay?”

Jared didn’t say anything, but his knee started bouncing again.

Jensen added, “I’ll tell her to play my Pearl Jam CD. Or you can play some of my other music if you like.”

Jared nodded hesitantly and slowly stood as the short redhead came in. She was chatting to Jared almost nonstop as she led him to the private elevator from Jensen’s office to the penthouse.

Jensen turned to Murray and demanded harshly, “How much have you used that sweet kid to steal from casinos?”

Murray huffed in irritation. He glared at Jensen and asked, “Do you really expect me to answer that?”

Chris said, “I’m betting it’s at least four and a half of the five million you’ve stashed away.”

Murray’s face went pale.

Chris smirked. “I’m also betting you didn’t think it would be that easy to find.”

Jensen showed every ounce of his rage on his face as he said, “You used that kid to make a small fortune. Why?”

Murray shrugged. “Why not? Casino owners have more than enough and I figured it was time for y’all to share. And Jared’s just too good at cards not to win a small fortune. What the hell else is he good for?”

Jensen growled, “You, Chad Michael Murray, are going under the damn jail.”

Jeff had held a finger to his ear as Chris had astonished Murray. Now he said, “Jensen, Samantha Smith got in touch with the Padalecki family. Turns out they live in Phoenix, Arizona. Murray was supposed to have taken the kid to the Grand Canyon on a therapeutic trip for the weekend. They had no idea the two were in Vegas. They’ll be here in a few hours.”

Jensen nodded and snarled. “That’s good. In the meantime, call the LVPD and get this scum in cuffs and out of my hotel.”

Jeff and Chris escorted Murray back to the tank to wait for the cops. Jensen, however, went to work making sure Murray would never breathe air as a free man again.

 

Jared

 

Jared Padalecki was born to Gerald and Sherri Padalecki three years after Jeff and two years before Megan. Almost any middle child will tell you that getting attention when the older and younger siblings are around is next to impossible - Jared had that to contend with from the start. If he frowned at the asparagus on his plate and indicated he didn’t like it, Gerald would say, “There are kids who would give everything they have for half of what’s on your plate. Now hush your mouth and eat.” If he jumped at the loud explosion noises on whatever show the family was watching on TV, Sherri would say, “Jared, go play in your room and stop ruining the show for the rest of us.” However, if Jeff or Megan complained, they got exactly what they wanted. Even at such a young age, Jared felt unwanted and in the way, so he began to stay away from his family more and more.

The Padalecki family had a nanny. The elderly lady would watch TV and sip her drink, which the kids were never allowed to touch, while Jeff played basketball out back with some friends; Megan talked on the phone with her friends; and Jared, having no one to talk to or play with, sat alone in his room reading books. Books became his best friends.

Early one afternoon, when Gerald came home from work sick and discovered the woman drinking, the elderly lady was fired and a new nanny was hired. The new nanny didn’t drink, but she had a passion for romance novels. Things didn’t really change with the new face in the house, especially for Jared.

He kept to himself in school and tried to focus on his work because that was what he was used to at home, but the bullying started early. Having no friends and escaping the notice of the teachers, Jared was an easy target. His family always failed to notice the bruises he never tried to hide and the tears he shed alone in his room. 

Then came the day Sherri witnessed an older boy push Jared down the steps of the school for no reason other than that he could. A month later, Jared was enrolled in a private school. Smaller class sizes, better curriculum, and nicer teachers, along with his own interest in learning new things, helped him quickly become the best student in the school. Though he still kept his focus on his work, the bullying started again. It wasn’t physical this time, but the taunting and name calling didn’t hurt any less. He still had no friends, no one who cared. He was lonelier than ever.

Jared was eight when he started paying attention to the card games his siblings played together. He didn’t mention it when he started noticing his ability to predict the next cards in the deck. When she noticed Jared’s interest, Meggie invited him to play with her and Jeff. After Jared won twelve straight hands, Jeff refused to play with him ever again; but if she wasn’t busy with her friends, Megan played with him whenever Jeff wasn’t around.

It was Megan who taught Jared the rules of blackjack and different types of poker. Jared picked up on all of it quickly and easily. When Jared was sixteen, a community charity poker tournament was scheduled in their area. Megan begged, cajoled, and pleaded with their parents to sign Jared up; and when Jared won the tournament, Megan was the only one not surprised by it. Everyone was surprised again when Jared took the $1,000 prize check made out to him and dropped it in the charity’s donation box in addition to the rest of the money raised.

It was his favorite teacher who suggested to Sherri that she enroll Jared in the Big Brother program. Jared was fourteen when he met Chad, his new Big Brother. It took months, but Jared finally began to open up to him; and it took another year for Jared to show any trust in the older boy.

Jared was sixteen when his father stopped going to work every day. He paid as little attention to Jared when they were both home as he did when he was working. Jared was seventeen when Chad told him his dad had lost his job and his family could lose their home but that Jared could help his family by winning at cards in Las Vegas. Chad was his only friend, and Jared trusted him as much as he could trust anyone. If his family needed help and Chad could show him how, Jared would help all he could. Jared was twenty-one when he was escorted into Jensen Ackles’ private office and then to the casino owner’s penthouse.

Nervous, scared, and totally unsure of what was going to happen, Jared tried his hardest not to let a panic attack consume him. The only way he could do that was to focus on Felicia.

Jared decided he liked Felicia. Though her tone of voice and excitability kept him on the edge of a panic attack for the first little while, he discovered they had a lot in common: a love of numbers; a love of graphic novels; intelligence, though Jared knew most people underestimated his own intelligence; and the occasional need for quiet time alone, something needed less by Felicia than Jared.

As promised, the first thing she did when they entered the house-like hotel suite was to play Pearl Jam on the sound system, luckily at a decent volume that didn’t set Jared’s ears ringing with pain. 

She pulled a brand new deck of Ace High playing cards from her pocket and waved them in the air while asking, “Poker or blackjack?”

As soon as Felicia had walked into Mr. Ackles office from the hallway she’d walked straight to Jared and began talking as she guided him to an elevator he had noticed earlier. He had no idea how the hyper woman had known what Mr. Ackles had promised Jared they would do, but she followed through on that and more.

As soon as they were sitting at the card table in the game room, an older woman brought a tray and placed it on a serving table near them. Sandwiches, cookies, fruit, bottles of water, cans of soda, and glasses of milk were on the tray.

Felicia smiled brightly as she said, “Thank you, Loretta. You really are Devine.”

The woman laughed and replied, “And you, my dear Felicia, are as bright as Day. Now stop wasting your time with me, and get on with entertaining our young friend, here.”

Jared said softly, “I don’t know you.”

Loretta looked at the young man and asked curiously, “I’m sorry, sweetie?”

Jared looked toward the older woman but focused on the wall beside her head. “I don’t know you so we aren’t friends.”

Loretta just smiled and said, “I guess you’re right about that, young man, but I’d certainly like to be your friend, if that’s okay with you.”

She didn’t talk down to him as though he were a child, she didn’t make assumptions about his premise, and she didn’t act offended because he told the truth. He decided he could like her if he got the chance to know her better. He nodded and said, “I think I would like that, actually.”

Loretta beamed a huge smile at him and said, “That makes me happy, Jared. Now why don’t you teach this pixie that she’s not as good at card games as she thinks?”

“How did you know my name?” Jared asked.

“Jensen called up and asked me to prepare some snacks for the two of you,” she answered.

Jared frowned slightly and said, “That wasn’t mean of him. Chad said he was a mean, selfish man.”

Loretta and Felicia both laughed. As the former shook her head and returned to her work, the latter dealt a hand of poker and said, “Jared, selfish is the last thing Jensen Ackles is. And as for mean? He’s firm and commanding when it comes to protecting his family business and the people he cares about, but there’s not a mean bone in his body.”

Jared was still frowning as he picked up his cards. He put them in order of the most likely winning combination and said, “Why would Chad lie to me about that?”

Felicia looked at him with an expression he couldn’t quite read and said, “I don’t know Jared, but I bet Jensen will find out the answer to that question.”

Jared was enjoying his time with Felicia though he wished he knew what was going on with Chad. He had been in Jensen Ackles’ private rooms for nearly four hours now with him and Felicia having progressed from card games at the table, to playing pool, to discussing superheroes while sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the electric fireplace, another tray of snacks placed between them.

“Pixie?” Jensen said softly from the door of the game room. “Could you go help Chris with some arrangements?”

Felicia could see that there was trouble by the look on her boss’s face, but she kept her cool and said, “Of course, Jensen.” She turned to Jared and said, “It was really good to meet you, Jared. I hope we can spend time together again soon.”

Jared looked at the floor and said, “Me too. You’re a good friend, Felicia.”

Jensen walked over and turned the music off. He took a deep breath and turned around to face Jared. He asked, still softly, “Are you comfortable in here, Jared, or would you rather sit and talk in another room?”

Jared stood only to walk over and sit on the comfortable sofa. His gut was clenching and his knee was bouncing again. He knew somehow that something was terribly wrong aside from being separated from Chad.

Jensen nodded and sat on the sofa near enough to touch, but far enough away to give Jared space. He said, “Jared, do you know that winning the way you do, by counting cards, is considered a crime at a professional gambling establishment?”

Jared shook his head, “No, sir, I didn’t know. Chad always said if he created a commotion. I should leave because people were getting mad that I was winning so much. He said the cops would arrest him for the commotion.”

Jared watched the man nearly snarl in anger, but he knew, somehow, that the anger wasn’t directed at him. That was unusual because Jared was seldom able to pick up on nuances like that.

He asked, “Mr. Ackles, what’s wrong?”

“First, I want you to call me Jensen.” When Jared nodded, Jensen continued, “Jared, Chad was breaking the law, and he was influencing you to break the law. He was using you to steal from casinos.

“Did you know your family thought you were in Arizona?”

Jared said, “Yes, sir. Chad said that the money to save my family’s home should be a surprise so we shouldn’t tell them where we were or what we were doing when we took weekend trips.”

Jensen looked away for a second before returning his gaze to Jared, saying, “A case could be made that lying to your parents equates to him kidnapping you. Do you understand that?”

“I’m of legal age, but I guess my autism would be a factor in that decision, even though I am high functioning,” Jared said, knowing intuitively that the worst was still coming in this conversation.

Jensen squirmed on the sofa before saying, “Chad’s been arrested, Jared. He’s stolen millions of dollars from casinos and used an autistic individual to do it. He’s going to be in prison for a very long time even if he’s not charged with kidnapping you.”

“He stole, he lied to me to get me to help him, and he lied to my family for the same reason. He deserves prison. I just don’t understand why he lied to me. I trusted him,” Jared said as he stared into the fire across the room.

Jensen was obviously uncomfortable when he said, “He’s a con man. When he wasn’t using you to steal money, he was going on expensive trips and cruises. We think he only joined the Big Brother program to get close to you so he could use you like this.”

After a bit of thought, Jared asked, “Do I go home now?”

“My security chief had someone calling your parents before you were even in my suite. They caught the first plane to Vegas.” Jensen paused leading to an uncomfortable silence before drawing a deep breath and continuing, “The plane crashed; there were no survivors.” Jensen said softly, “Jared, your parents are dead.” 

Jared didn’t see the tears in Jensen’s eyes because he had jumped up and started pacing the room. Dead. His parents were dead. “Dead” meant going to heaven and never coming back. “Dead” meant they wouldn’t be around to take care of him anymore. “Dead” meant Jared was truly alone now.

He paced and paced. Something began slipping into his brain through his ears. Singing. It was singing. It was Jensen singing. Jensen was singing “Sounds of Someday” by Radio Company. It was one of Jared’s favorite songs. How did Jensen know that?

Jared gradually slowed his pacing until he finally sat back down on the sofa. He hadn’t shed a tear. He didn’t even know if he was capable of crying for his parents. He’d not even cried for himself since he was a kid except when he was in physical pain.

“My brother, Jeff, doesn’t like me. My sister, Megan, is about to have a baby. I can’t deal with crying babies - hurts my ears and I have a panic attack. Chad is gone. I guess I still have the house unless Jeff and Meggie sell it, but even so, I’ve never learned to live on my own. Now I have nowhere to go. I am totally alone. What am I supposed to do?”

Jensen tentatively reached out and placed his hand lightly on Jared’s knee. “You’re not alone, Jared. I don’t understand it, but there’s something about you that makes me want to protect and help you. I’ve already spoken to your brother and sister. You were right about what you said, although Megan didn’t rule out you coming to live with her when the baby is a little older.

“I’m buying your parents’ home so Jeff and Megan can split the money. It will be there if and when you’re ready to live there again. In the meantime, if you agree, you can stay here with me. I’ll help you adjust and learn what you need to in order to be self- sufficient.”

Jared asked, his voice oddly void of emotion, “Why would you do that for me? We’re strangers.”

Jensen shrugged as if he didn’t understand it himself. “The reason I had my men bring you to my office is that I was going to offer you a job keeping an eye out for cheaters in the pit. What an owner would generally do, what I would have done with any other card counter, is blacklist you or have you arrested. Something about your talent at a card table just fascinates me. I couldn’t throw you out without at least offering you the job.”

“I’m too slow to keep a job. Not smart enough.”

“That’s not true, Jared. Just the two times we’ve spoken has shown me that you are smarter than most people I’ve ever met. You can do anything you want, whatever you want. The only issue I see is your social interaction. But I also see that you come out of your shell when you get more comfortable with someone. How much interaction do you usually have with other people?”

Jared shook his head. “Little to none. Not for a long time, anyway. People get uncomfortable around me because they think I’m rude. I just tell the truth. They think I’m joking at times when I’m just being honest. It’s hard for people to understand me, and it’s hard for me to understand people. I figured out years ago that it’s just better for me to be alone.”

Jensen offered, “You understand your brother and sister.”

“I’ve known them all my life.”

“You called Felicia your friend.”

Jared jerked his head up and looked Jensen right in the eye for just a brief moment before focusing on the window over Jensen’s head. He said, “You pay her. She was following your orders keeping me company.”

Jensen nodded as he said, “That part is true, Jared, but you connected to her. No one ordered either of you to connect and become friends.”

Jared stared at the fireplace again. Though no one looking at him would guess it, he was shocked that Jensen was right. Jared had forgotten about his autism when he and Felicia were playing games and talking. He had forgotten that he was different at all. He thought back over their visit and realized that he had actually laughed and smiled. He hadn’t done that in years, not even with Chad.

“Jared?” Jensen interrupted his thoughts.

Jared wasn’t even sure how long he’d been staring at the fireplace.

Jensen continued, “Do you want to stay here? I have a guest room right down the hall. Loretta and I will be here so you won’t be alone. Or you can take a regular guest room in the hotel. You’d still have room service if you get hungry.”

“I’d like,” Jared stopped to swallow over the lump in his throat, “I’d like to stay with you, if it’s not too much trouble.”

“It’s no trouble at all, Jared. I still have about an hour’s worth of paperwork to do downstairs, but Loretta has dinner nearly ready. Make yourself at home, okay? I’ll be back up soon.”

Jared stood when Jensen did. He wanted to say something, but he didn’t know how to put what he was feeling into words. So he just took a deep breath and reached out to shake Jensen’s hand. “Thank you,” he said quietly.



Jensen

 

Jensen walked back into his office to find most of his personal crew waiting for him: Jeff Morgan; Chris Kane; Felicia Day; Samantha Smith, his hotel manager; and his secretary, Carrie Anne Fleming.

“Jensen,” Samantha began, “far be it from us to question your decisions, but what are you doing?”

Jensen slid into his chair behind his desk and opened his laptop. “What do you mean, Samantha?”

Felicia huffed, “You know exactly what she means. Taking Jared in, as good of a deed as that is, is going to make everything busier and more difficult for all of us. And he has family back in Arizona.”

Jensen raised his head from his laptop with a look on his face that none of his employees ever wanted to see; a look that meant heads would roll if things weren’t settled quickly and in a fashion of which Jensen Ackles approved. He spoke slowly and in a low voice that was still clear as a bell in the silence of the room, “If any of my staff is incapable of handling a slightly larger workload because I might take a few hours out of the office during the day now and then, maybe it’s time for me to look into hiring new staff.”

Chris took over the conversation, “Don’t be silly, Jensen. You know we’re capable of handling things here if you take a month-long vacation. The point is, this kid’s a stranger who's going to be a handful. Babysitting isn’t really in any of our job descriptions, and the kid’s going to need more than a few hours of that. He’s not your responsibility, or ours; we all have other business to attend to.”

Jensen leaned on his desk and rubbed his temples with his fingers. “That’s the same damn reasoning his family is using to abandon him. He’s too old for child protective services to do a damn thing. Government assistance across the country is an abysmal failure. Murray was the only one who actively cared about the kid, and now he’s gone. So what do you propose, Chris? We just throw him to the wolves? How long do you think he would last?”

Carrie Anne said, “Why you, Jensen? I’m sure we could find someone else to help the young man out.”

Jensen looked her in the eye and said, “Because he’s human. Because I’m human. What good is being human if we don’t act like it? What good is my wealth if I don’t use it to help someone in need? I’m helping Jared for as long as he needs it, and that’s final. Now, did anyone find out where he was staying?”

Jeff stepped forward and handed Jensen a folder, “He and Murray had rooms at the Atlas down the street. I took the liberty of paying the bill for Jared’s room and having his things brought here. I also let them know to send Murray’s crap to the LVPD. Rosenbaum should have taken Jared’s things upstairs by now. And don’t worry, I alerted Loretta not to let Mike near Jared.”

Jensen chuckled, “Yeah, Jared would not hit it off with the flamboyant, overgrown child that is Mike Rosenbaum.”

Felicia spoke up, “Not alone, anyway, but maybe if there were a buffer to keep Rosenbaum in check until Jared gets used to him...”

“You noticed that, too, huh?” Jensen asked the redhead.

Felicia answered, “I got the feeling Jared has been isolated for a long time. I’m not sure if that was his choice or the influence of others, but I know he can adapt better than he thinks he can.”

Samantha cheekily asked Felicia, “When did you get a degree in Psychology, Pixie?”

Felicia scrunched her nose at Samantha. She would have stuck her tongue out at her friend had they not been in the boss’s office. “You know the saying ‘It takes one to know one.’ I know shyness when I see it because I used to be the shyest girl in my hometown. Jared is more shy than socially inadequate.”

Jensen deadpanned, “There’s no way in hell...there’s not a shy bone in your body, Pixie. You’re lying through your teeth.”

Felicia rolled her eyes and said, “It’s true. I was the geek girl who loved things only boys loved. I had nothing in common with the people around me so I just didn’t talk to anyone. I was afraid they wouldn’t like me because I liked different things than they did. It took three trips to Comic Con for me to open up around people. By the time I was seventeen, you couldn’t shut me up except with food. I truly believe that Jared will open up more when he gets used to being around people who don’t judge him for being different.”

Jensen sighed. “That’s what I’m hoping, but I don’t want to overwhelm him. I would like each of you, one at a time, to go up and introduce yourselves tomorrow so he knows who to ask for if he needs anything.

“I want him to understand that it’s okay if he wants to walk around, take in a show, play cards with house chips for fun, things like that. I want him to know he’s not alone in the world even though his parents are gone. But remember, shy or not, he is autistic. He absolutely will not show grief like any of us would. He likely won’t even show any emotion until he opens up more.”

Chris said, “I’ve already alerted Alona that he’s okay to play as long as it’s with house chips.”

Jeff said, “I’ve alerted my guys to help him with anything he needs if he comes downstairs.”

Carrie Anne added, “I’ll let the restaurants know to charge your account if he comes in to eat.”

Jensen, pleased, smiled brightly at his staff, his friends. “Don’t forget the shows. And thanks, guys. I really appreciate you backing me up on this.”

Felicia gave him a look that clearly asked if he was dumb and said, “There was never any doubt that we would, Jensen. We just wanted you to be sure of your decision.”

 

Jared

 

Jared was grateful when Loretta told him his bags were in the guest room. He supposed it had been easy to find out where he and Chad were staying even if Chad hadn’t told Jensen or his men. He knew he shouldn’t, but he needed to ask Jensen about seeing Chad again. He knew what Jensen said made sense, but he needed to hear what Chad had to say about using him to steal millions of dollars, and he knew that when it happened, it would not be a pleasant meeting.

With Jensen back downstairs at work and Loretta still cooking dinner, Jared decided to jump into the shower in his ensuite. He was amazed at the elegant beauty of the bathroom - none of the other hotels he and Chad had stayed at had been anywhere near as comfortable to him. In fact, other than the bright lights in the casino, Ace High was the most comfortable place Jared had ever been in.

After a shower under the perfect spray and ideal temperature, Jared dressed in a white t-shirt, black boxers and a pair of black sweats. Now, he was much more comfortable. 

He was in the game room listening to Pearl Jam and practicing his pool shots when the elevator opened. He went into the hallway expecting to see Jensen; instead he saw the shorter man with wide shoulders and shoulder length dark hair. Chris, he remembered Jensen calling him.

He hesitantly walked forward and extended his hand because it was the polite thing to do; but because he didn’t know the man, he couldn’t look him in the eye.

Chris shook Jared's hand with a smile and said, “Hi, Jared. I don’t know if you remember me from earlier. I’m Chris Kane. I run the casino here at Ace High.”

“Oh,” Jared said, now getting a bit nervous. “The chips are still in Jensen’s office. I didn’t technically steal them did I? I can’t pay that much back.”

“No, no, Jared,” Chris said reassuringly. “Don’t you worry about any of that. Can we sit and talk? Living room or game room maybe?”

“Sure,” Jared replied, still a bit nervous and wondering what was going on. He turned and walked back into the game room and perched on the edge of the sofa where he’d been sitting when he’d learned of his parents’ deaths.

Chris sat across from him in one of the recliners. “Jensen informed us that you’ll be sticking around for a while.”

“I hope that’s okay,” Jared said, unable to show his nervousness and concern.

Chris smiled. “It’s more than okay, Jared. Have you ever heard of house chips?”

Jared answered, “Some casinos use different colored chips for customers to play without actually betting money. It’s an opportunity to play for fun and get the experience without the financial risk. It’s usually reserved for family and friends or a pre-scheduled group of tourists. They’re also sometimes used in charity events so people aren’t able to slip real chips into their pockets to cash in later.”

Chris nodded, “That’s exactly right. I just want to let you know that I’ve reserved house chips for you so you can go downstairs and play whenever you want. Just go to the cage and give them your name. If you need directions or a table cleared, just ask one of the staff.”

“That’s very kind, especially after I unknowingly tried to steal from you.”

“Hey, that’s all in the past. You’re here as a guest of the boss, and you’ll be treated as a respected guest as long as I run this casino for Jensen.”

Jared had always been fascinated with what went on behind the scenes at casinos. He took advantage of the conversation to ask, “What exactly do you do? I mean, I know you handle disputes at tables and such, but I always wondered what goes into running a casino.” 

Chris leaned back in the chair and smiled, “Well, there’s a lot more to it than that. I order supplies like staff uniforms, chips - you’d be surprised how many chips walk out the door as souvenirs - booze, and anything else the pit needs. I make out the schedules and make sure we have enough staff at all times. I keep track of and order maintenance for the tables and machines. There’s a lot to keep me busy.

“Hey, would you like to spend a day with me soon so you can see for yourself? I have to warn you, it’s busy but not exciting.”

Jared said, “I would love to, but I know you’re too busy for that.” He wanted to jump at the chance, but he knew social norms required him to politely decline.

“Nonsense,” Chris said dismissively. “I’ve got to make a trip tomorrow to one of the other casinos here in town, but I’d be happy to show you around the day after.”

That was twice the offer had been made, and a reason had been given for why it couldn’t be done immediately. Jared wasn’t completely sure, but he thought the offer was genuine based on those facts. The idea of accepting and accompanying a casino manager on his duties was exciting. So he compromised. He answered, “If you think about it and decide it wouldn’t be too much trouble, I’d love to watch you work in two days.”

Chris gave him a big smile and said, “I’ll see you in two days, then. I’ll be here about 8:30 in the morning. Wear something comfortable because we’ll be doing a lot of walking.”

Chris squeezed Jared’s shoulder as he left. Surprisingly, Jared didn’t even flinch away from the contact with a stranger.

It was about an hour later that Jensen came upstairs. Jared was surprised that Jensen stopped working so early in the evening because his father had usually stayed at work until after eight or nine at night. Jensen was done just after five in the evening. Jared wasn’t sure if that was an everyday thing or just because Jensen had company.

“Evening, Jared,” Jensen said as he entered the game room. “Are you settling in okay?”

“I am. I called my sister. She said the memorial for our parents is going to be the day after tomorrow. I told her I don’t have any money to get home for it.”

Jensen offered, “I’ll get you there if you want to go.”

Jared shook his head. “She said it’s for the best. Everyone there is uncomfortable around me anyway. Well, except Meggie. But with me not there, they can mourn in peace without having to avoid me. I don’t want to make everyone even more miserable.”

Jensen ran his hand down his face. “Jared, if you want to go to your parents’ memorial, I will get you there. It’s your parents . To hell with how everyone else feels.”

“My presence won’t make anything better for my parents or me. There’s no need for me to be there.”

“That’s what you really want?”

“It is.”

Jensen sighed. “Okay then. How was the rest of your evening?”

Jared looked at the light brown tie that Jensen was wearing. He noticed how it brought out the green in Jensen’s eyes. “Chris Kane offered to show me his job in two days. I hope that’s okay.”

Jensen smiled. “Of course it is. In fact, I think it’s great. Remember, Jared, you’re not just a guest at this hotel, you’re a personal guest of the owner. So you enjoy yourself, okay?”

“Does that mean I get free drinks at the restaurant?”

Jensen gasped at the almost teasing tone. “I don’t actually own the restaurant; I just rent them the space. However, I do have an account with them, so yeah, you get free drinks and free food. Just tell them who you are and to charge it to me.”

Jared smiled and Jensen smiled, too. 

Loretta came to the door then and said, “You boys get on in here and eat some of this food. I didn’t cook just for myself.”

Jensen looked at Jared and asked, “You haven’t eaten yet, Jared?”

“Too many sandwiches earlier. I could eat now, though.”

Loretta said, “Good, now come on. I made baked chicken with broccoli and cauliflower, a salad with Italian dressing, and homemade biscuits. Even made a pitcher of lemonade.”

Jensen grinned. “Loretta, will you marry me?”

“Not in a million years, boy. You just want me for my cooking. Now get on in here.”

Jared followed Jensen into the kitchen. Loretta joined them and the three ate at the table.

Halfway through the meal, Jared asked, “Were you serious?”

Jensen looked up and asked, “Serious about what?”

“About Loretta marrying you.”

Loretta laughed and said, “No, honey. That boy just likes to tease me, and I like to tease him back.”

Jensen winked at Loretta and said, “She’s not really my type.”

Jared, curious now, asked, “What is your type?”

“I’m gay. I’m not interested in women at all.”

Jared looked up at Jensen’s chin. “You like men?”

“Does that bother you, Jared?”

“No. I just didn’t think anyone as attractive as you would be like me.”

Loretta’s eyebrow raised as she asked, “You like men too, honey?”

“I do. I’m bisexual. I also like girls, but not all girls. Mostly men.”

Jensen’s voice sounded a bit odd to Jared as he asked, “Jared, were you sleeping with Chad?”

Jared shook his head, “No. Chad’s not gay. He said if I was a girl he’d have me bent over every flat surface we came across, but he likes tits and pussy too much to fuck me.”

Jared noticed that Jensen’s hand tightened around his fork, but he had no idea why. He figured that if he’d done something wrong, Jensen would let him know.

They finished the meal with less conversation after that topic was closed.

 

Jensen

 

After dinner, they were drinking coffee in the living room. Jensen had his feet up as they watched the CCTV showing the blackjack tables downstairs. It was all Jared wanted to watch once he discovered he could.

Jared sat with his feet on the floor, cup held in both hands. Suddenly he pointed to one of the players and said, “There. She’s counting.”

Jensen forced himself to pay more attention to the TV than to Jared and quickly realized the younger man was right. He was as fascinated as Jared, but for different reasons. Just as he was about to make a call to raise hell with his security staff, two security officers approached the woman and led her away from the table. That action had taken much longer than he’d liked.

“What will happen to her?” Jared asked.

Jensen answered, “They’ll take her downstairs to what we call the tank. It’s essentially a very depressing room that puts people on edge. They’ll ask her how she was winning so much to see if she admits to counting cards.”

“She was,” Jared said.

“Yeah, no doubt about it,” Jensen replied. “While two of my guys are talking to her, another of my guys in another room will be digging up information on her. When they’re satisfied she’ll be too afraid to come back here, they’ll do one of two things: one, if she’s unknown to the casinos in Vegas, they’ll let her leave after informing her that she’s now blacklisted from all Ace High casinos; and two, if she’s a known cheater and has already been blacklisted here, they’ll call the police and have her arrested for trespassing and attempted theft.”

“That’s what Chad’s been charged with?” Jared asked, though it came out as more of a statement.

Jensen’s attention was totally on Jared now. “Yes. I’m pushing to have kidnapping added, but that may be difficult with your parents gone.”

Jared thought about that for a moment before he surprised Jensen by saying, “I can testify that my parents had no idea where I was and that I had no idea I was stealing from casinos.”

Jensen shook his head. “That’s not a good idea, Jared. If they see that you’re competent enough to testify, they may hold you accountable for the other casinos Chad took you to. They could arrest you too. As it stands now, the only casino involved is mine, and I’m not pressing charges against you. I don’t want to see you punished for what Chad did.”

“But I am guilty,” Jared said. “I should be punished as much as Chad.”

Jensen turned sideways on the couch wishing Jared would look him in the eye. “Jared, can you look at me?”

Jared turned, mimicking Jensen’s posture and looked at Jensen’s chin.

Jensen said softly, “Chad was the one who stole from other casinos and tried to steal from me. You did not walk in my doors with that intent; you only wanted to help your parents. Chad walked in here intending to take what never belonged to him. Chad is guilty; you are not. Chad deserves to be punished; you do not.”

Jared said, “I’m not sure other casino owners would agree.”

Jensen cleared his throat and said, “I'm not sure of that either. That’s why I don’t want to risk you being arrested. Of the dozens of people who own the casinos around here, most of them are good people who would agree with me, but I’ll admit there are three or four who would want to see you punished too - as an example that no one will get away with stealing from them.”

Jensen got up and walked over to his bar. He poured himself a much needed double Scotch and brought Jared a bottle of water. When he sat back down he said, “My lawyers would probably be able to get the charges dropped, or at the very least, get you off without a conviction. I just don’t want you to have to go through all that.”

Jared looked at the floor and said, “My parents always insisted that I face discipline and punishment like any other kid would have to, but I know I can't afford a lawyer and could never pay you back for having yours defend me. But, Jensen, what I did was wrong.”

Jensen shook his head and said, “What you did was try to help the people you love, Jared. That’s not wrong. It was Chad who was wrong for getting you to do it illegally and keeping the money. It was Chad who was wrong for using you to cheat. Besides, I think you’ve been punished more than enough by losing your parents because of this.”

“Is that my fault?”

Jensen couldn’t stop himself from placing his hand lightly on Jared’s shoulder. He replied softly, “No, that is not your fault. It’s Chad’s. If Chad hadn’t lied, used you, and cheated casinos then you wouldn’t have been here in Vegas and your parents wouldn’t have gotten on that plane. That’s Chad’s fault, too Jared, not yours at all.”

Loretta came into the room and collected their empty cups. She asked, “Would either of my boys like some more coffee?”

Jensen smiled at his beautiful housekeeper. Jared looked up just over her head and asked, “Your boys?”

Loretta nodded and smiled as she replied, “My boys. It may take you a while to consider me your friend, Jared, but I already consider you mine. So, coffee?”

Jensen answered, “Not for me. I’m actually hoping to sleep some tonight.”

Loretta turned to Jared, “And you, sweetie?”

“Not coffee, but…” Jared hesitated.

Loretta encouraged the young man, “What would you like, sweetie?”

Jared simply said, “Hot chocolate.”

Loretta smiled. “It just so happens I have a stash in the cabinet. I’ll bring you the best cup of hot chocolate you’ve ever had. Yes, Jensen, I’ll bring you one, too,” she said, laughing as she left the room.

Jared wore a small smile as he asked, “You like hot chocolate?”

Jensen smiled, “I do. Just don’t tell my employees - they’ll think I’m losing my edge and I’m becoming incapable of being gruff and intimidating.”

Jared’s smile grew slightly, “You’re not intimidating.”

Jensen laughed. “You seemed pretty intimidated when you first walked into my office.”

“Strangers brought me there and Chad was nowhere around. Didn’t know what would happen.” Jared got more comfortable on the couch before asking, “How did you know I was counting?”

“You were winning too many hands, just like that woman earlier. My techs that monitor the CCTV downstairs noticed. When they let me know, I recognized your face because Chad’s gotten you both blacklisted from every casino in Vegas.”

“Chad said it was best to win as much as possible as fast as possible so we could get in and out. Just one more thing he lied about.”

“I’m sorry someone you thought was a friend treated you that way, Jared. You deserve better.”

“Maybe. My family didn’t deserve an autistic child, so I guess we don’t always get what we deserve.”

When Loretta brought the hot chocolate, Jensen suggested they go to the game room. Jared jumped up and started in that direction before Jensen had even finished speaking. 

They drank their hot chocolate and then Jensen helped Jared learn the angles to shoot a decent game of pool. Jared was a quick learner, and it wasn’t long before Jared was winning every game.

Smiling brightly, Jensen said, “Damn, man. Are you even going to let me get a shot in?”

Jared said, “I’ll let you break next game,” sinking the eight ball for the win. “But you should run the table if you want to win.”

Jensen chuckled and shook his head. Intentional or not, Jared’s dry remarks were hilarious to Jensen because they fit his own deadpan humor perfectly. “Just don’t let anyone goad you to play pool for money downstairs. Last thing I need is a reputation for having a pool shark on my payroll.”

Jared stood straight from racking the balls for the next game. He said, “Is being too good at playing pool against the law?”

Jensen shook his head quickly. “It’s not, but it can lead to a physical altercation if the loser thinks he’s been tricked into shooting against a better player for money.”

“Why would someone trick another player?” Jared asked.

“Same reason someone would count cards; quick and easy money,” Jensen answered. “If you were at a private game and counted cards to win, it wouldn’t be illegal, but other players would still consider it cheating and might start a fight to take back the money they lost.”

Jared finished racking the balls and indicated for Jensen to break. He said, “I won a Texas Hold’em poker tournament once. Gave the prize money to charity. Never cared about winning money; just wanted to play. Until I thought playing for money would help my family.”

The more Jensen thought about how that scumbag Murray had used Jared, the more he wanted to drag Murray from his jail cell and beat him half to death. This kid deserved better - so much better.

Jensen hesitated to mention it, but said, “Ace High is sponsoring a charity tournament in a couple of months. Twenty players with a buy-in of $100,000. The grand prize is one million, and the other million goes to charity. Would you be interested?”

Jared’s eyes had gotten visibly wider as Jensen spoke, but he said, “I’d love to watch, but I can’t afford to play. Besides, I don’t want to cheat anymore.”

Jensen nodded. He wished he could find a reasonable way for Jared to play in the tournament, but he knew there wasn’t one. So he settled for the next best thing. “As a sponsor, I get a reserved seating section for a few friends. Would you like to join us? It’s just us and my parents right now.”

Jared nodded and said, “I’d like that.”

Jensen got close to winning the last game, but he missed on his last ball before the eight ball. Jared, of course, took over and ran the table to win.

Jensen said, “I want to see you and Chris play a game. He might be the only one I know who has a chance to beat you.”

Jared gave Jensen a small smile and then yawned.

“So,” Jensen began, “is your room okay? Do you need anything?”

Jared thought about it and said, “My room is fine. I’m running low on toothpaste, though.”

Jensen grinned, “Easy fix, my friend. Are you ready for bed now?”

Jared shook his head and said, “I normally don’t go to bed this early, but I’m more tired than usual.”

“You’ve had a long day. You can go to bed whenever you’re ready, okay?”

“I like routine. It keeps me settled. I usually don’t go to bed this early.”

“Whatever you want to do, Jared. You can start a new routine if you like. You said you’re going to shadow Chris the day after tomorrow, right?”

“Yes,” Jared nodded.

“Well, for now, maybe your new routine is to try new things and do older things differently for a while to see if you find a more comfortable routine.”

“So my new routine would be no routine?”

“Until you get settled in here, yeah,” Jensen replied.

Jared said, “I don’t know how well that will work, but I will give it a try.” Then he turned and walked to his room.

When Jensen peeked in twenty minutes later, Jared was fast asleep.

Jensen returned to the living room, picked up his computer from the table by the elevator, and got comfortable in the kitchen to work. He’d just pulled up the report on the woman Jared had spotted when Loretta joined him at the table, bearing a tray laden with coffee and pound cake.

“You know good and well that report or whatever it is you’re looking at will be there in the morning,” Loretta mildly scolded him.

“I’ll be spending the morning in meetings about Chad Michael Murray. I might as well get this out of the way tonight since I already know about it.”

“What are you going to do about Murray?” Loretta asked.

Jensen glanced up at her as he was writing notes about the woman counting cards. He corrected, “You mean what is the court going to do with Murray.”

“No, Jensen Ackles. I meant what I said, and I said what I meant. We both know the Ackles family relationship with the legal system in this town. So, what are you going to do about Murray?”

Jensen huffed. “You make us sound like mobsters when all we’ve ever done is support the police and assist them and the DA when we could.”

“I know that. I’ve worked for this family since before you were born, so stop avoiding answering my question.”

“I’m hoping I don’t have to do anything. These meetings tomorrow are to see what the DA and the judge are likely to do. If I’m not satisfied, I’m going to urge them to make sure Murray never sets foot outside of a correctional facility again.”

Loretta patted Jensen’s arm and said, “Good. That’s what I was hoping to hear.”

Jensen looked at his housekeeper and second sister. “He’s gotten under your skin too, hasn’t he?”

“He cried, you know,” Loretta said. “When he was alone in the game room and didn’t know I was at the door. He sat there with a book in his hands, but he was staring at the fireplace with tears running silently down his face. I don’t think he even realized he was crying.”

“People with Asperger’s don’t generally cry unless it’s from severe physical pain,” Jensen said, his brows creased in thought.

“Are there other things you’ve noticed?” Loretta asked.

“Inflection in his tone. Sometimes it’s hard to catch, but it’s there. And there’s the way he talks to people he’s just met. He’s distant and shy, but he will still talk to them. Never known anyone with autism to do that.”

“You’re suggesting he’s faking?” Loretta asked.

Jensen shook his head, “No way. If he’s not autistic, there’s no way he could have hidden his grief when he learned his parents were killed. Or if he hated them enough that their deaths didn’t phase him, he surely couldn’t have hidden his feelings about his best friend going to prison.”

“When things settle down a bit for him, maybe that boy should see a doctor.”

“No doubt about it,” Jensen said. Then he opened his email account and clicked to compose a new one. He informed his personal attorney Mark Sheppard of the situation, requesting that Mark attempt to get a copy of Jared’s medical records and draw up some paperwork ASAP.

After emailing Mark, Jensen emailed Felicia to ask that she or someone she trusted check through Jared’s things and get whatever the young man needed. He mentioned the toothpaste Jared had asked for and also suggested she check the state of Jared’s clothing and footwear.

By the time Jensen was done for the night, Loretta had the kitchen spotless and was just going to bed. Jensen was still wide awake wondering if he was right about Jared’s diagnosis and how that could have happened. The biggest issue was how to address it with Jared, but if Mark succeeded with the paperwork, Jensen’s task would be easier.

It was 2:00 A.M. before Jensen Ackles finally fell asleep.

 

Jared

 

The next morning. Jared woke at 5:45. He was momentarily thrown because he usually didn’t wake until 6:30. Then he remembered where he was and why. He guessed he could count this as part of his new routine of no routine. He just had no idea what to do with an extra forty-five minutes.

He decided to lie there until at least 6:00, but ended up climbing out of bed at 5:55. He went into the bathroom and started getting ready for the day. For the first time since he was a teenager, he took a long, hot shower rather than quickly cleaning himself to move on with his day.

He was excited about tomorrow and getting to spend the day with Chris Kane. Today, however, he had nothing interesting to look forward to. Maybe he could ask Jensen if he could sit quietly in his office and learn how a casino owner spends his day. He decided against that because Jensen was being very nice to him considering the circumstances, and he didn’t want to push his luck.

Since he didn’t want to wake Jensen or Loretta, he walked quietly from his room to the kitchen. He was actually glad to see that both were already there and Loretta was just about to serve breakfast.

She smiled at Jared and said, “Have a seat, sweetie. I didn’t know what you like to eat for breakfast so I made a little of everything just to be sure there’d be something you like. I’ll have the coffee and fixings there in just a second.”

Jared was amazed at the amount of food on the table. There were serving plates full of sausage patties, sausage links, bacon, ham, pancakes, a serving bowl of grits, and another of scrambled eggs ready to be piled on a plate to eat. Loretta had also placed a plate of fruit and cheese and a basket of biscuits there. A pitcher of orange juice and a quart of milk were there along with maple syrup, chocolate syrup, and butter.

Jensen said, “Dig in, Jared,” as he started to pile food onto his own plate.

Jared put a slice of cheese in the small bowl beside his plate then filled it with grits and stirred to mix it. He took two pancakes and layered them with butter and maple syrup. Then he took some of the bacon, sausage patties, and eggs. He grabbed a couple of strawberries, a slice of cantaloupe, and a biscuit. By the time he poured himself a cup of milk and stirred in chocolate syrup, Loretta brought over a tray laden with a pot of coffee, sugar, and creamer.

They were mostly silent while they ate, with Jared filling his plate with a second serving - this time including some ham and sausage links instead of sausage patties and bacon.

While he poured himself a rare second cup of coffee, Jared asked, “Do you eat like this every day?”

Jensen chuckled. “Not at all. Loretta was serious about making sure there would be something you like to eat.”

Jared looked down at his lap and said, “I’m sorry you went to so much trouble, Miss Loretta.”

Loretta frowned. “Nonsense, boy. I enjoy cooking, and it does my heart good to see growing boys eat. I’d cook breakfast like this all the time if this one here,” she indicated Jensen, “would eat. It’s an odd day that he has more for breakfast than a pot of coffee and toast.”

Jared looked toward Jensen and said, “You should eat a good breakfast. You’ll feel better through the day.”

“See?” Loretta said as she poked Jensen in the ribs. “Listen to this boy. He knows what he’s talking about.”

Jensen rubbed his ribs in mock pain and said, “I think we’re a little off subject here.”

Loretta spoke again, “That may be, but this is a subject we will be returning to. Jared, tell me what foods you like so I can plan better meals for you boys.”

Jared washed a mouthful of grits down with some milk and said, “There’s not much I won’t eat. We ate what was in front of us as kids or we didn’t eat at all. I learned to try anything at least once. The only things I know I won’t eat are asparagus, liver, and sushi.”

“Well now, that makes things much easier. How about a nice grilled chicken salad for lunch?” Loretta asked.

Jared almost smiled as he said, “That sounds delicious.”

Jensen huffed. “Good thing I have a lunch meeting. Pizzas have already been ordered.”

Loretta lightly smacked Jensen’s arm. Jensen was shocked into laughter when Jared did the same thing. “You two need to stop ganging up on me!”

Jared scolded Jensen, “You need to listen more to Miss Loretta. She cooks for you because you pay her, but she cares about you all on her own.”

Jensen smiled and said, “I’ve known Loretta all my life; I don’t remember a time when I didn’t care about her as though she’s my second sister.”

“Good thing too,” Loretta said as she carried the empty plates to the sink, “because no one else could tolerate you.”

“Loretta!” Jensen exclaimed, “that hurt!”

Loretta turned around and grinned at him as she placed her hands on her hips, “The truth does that sometimes.”

Jensen threw a napkin at her; Jared threw a strawberry at Jensen.

Jensen stood from the table and said, “I see how it is. You two think you’re going to double team me. Well, good luck with that since I’m going to the office.”

Jared spoke immediately, his eyes wide and worried as he said, “I didn’t mean to offend you.” His knee started bouncing.

Jensen was shocked again at the display of emotion Jared showed. He sat back down, turning his chair to face Jared, and said, “Hey, Jared, no. You didn’t offend me. We’re all playing and teasing. I’m not upset or angry. You didn’t do anything wrong, and this is the best morning I’ve had in a long time. I promise you, it’s okay.”

Jared looked at Jensen’s nose and asked, “You’re not leaving because of me?”

“No, Jared, I’m leaving because I have an early meeting. Honestly, I’d rather stay here and keep teasing with you and Loretta, but this is a pretty important meeting and I have to be there.”

Jared settled down and said, “Okay. I just worried I’d upset you. You’ve been so good to me. I don’t want to get out of line.”

“Jared, this is your home now,” Jensen said. “You say what you want. If it makes someone angry, we’ll deal with it together.”

“Home?” Jared repeated.

Jensen smiled. “Home. For as long as you want or need.” Jensen’s smile widened as he said, “I really need to go now, but I need to know you’re okay.”

Jared smiled slightly and said, “I’m okay. I’ll be here at home when you get back.”

Jensen left the penthouse with a huge smile on his face.

Jared got up and began helping Loretta clean the kitchen.

“You don’t have to do that, sweetie,” she said. “It’s what I get paid for.”

Jared shrugged. “I don’t really have anything better to do. I don’t mind helping, especially since you’ve already done more work than usual this morning.”

“You don’t have to help, you sweet boy, but I won’t turn down the company,” Loretta said with a smile.

Jared insisted on helping clean, but when Loretta started preparing a roast for dinner, he sat, watched, and talked with her. He did help her wash potatoes and carrots to bake around the roast, and she made a large pitcher of sweet, iced tea.

Jared said, “I didn’t think anyone in Vegas drank tea that way.”

“I’m originally from Alabama. I grew up drinking tea like this. Didn’t take long to get the entire Ackles family drinking it too. They still have hot tea now and then; I’ll drink a cup occasionally, not that I let the older Ackles know it.”

“Why not let them know?”

Loretta chuckled. “You’ve seen that Jensen loves to tease me. Well, his parents are even worse. I’d never live it down if they caught me drinking a cup of hot tea, even if I’m sick.”

“Have you always had a good relationship with the Ackles?”

“Yes, sir, I have. Could never work for a family I didn’t like personally. Left a couple of jobs for that very reason before. Then I got hired on at the Ackles mansion just outside of Vegas. Been with the family ever since. Donna raised a fuss at Jensen for luring me to work for him here.”

Jared said, “We had a nanny as kids. A couple actually. They never paid us much attention. I always wondered why they were even there.”

“There’s nothing worse than a lazy bum that just wants a paycheck without working for it. People just have no self-respect anymore.”

They heard the elevator ding indicating someone was coming in. 

“It’s far too early for Jensen,” Loretta said, checking the time. “Would you be a doll and see who it is, Jared?”

“Sure,” Jared said as he hopped off the stool at the bar that divided the seating area from the prep area of the kitchen.

He walked into the living room and saw the tall, muscular man with salt and pepper hair who’d escorted him to Jensen’s office yesterday. Jared asked, “Can I help you?”

“Hi, Jared,” the man said with a smile. “We haven’t been properly introduced. I’m Jeff Morgan; I’m the head of security for the hotel and casino.”

“Is there a problem?” Jared asked, having no idea why Jeff Morgan would be here without Jensen present.

“Not at all,” Jeff said as he continued to smile. “I wanted to see how you’re doing today. Do you need anything?”

“I told Jensen last night that I need toothpaste.”

“I believe either Felicia or Samantha will be bringing that up to you later.”

Loretta walked into the living room. “Jeffrey Dean, you gorgeous specimen, how are you?”

Jeff walked to Loretta and hugged her. “I’m good. I just came up to let Jared know that if he wants to roam around the casino or the hotel, all he has to do is ask security if he needs anything.”

Jeff smiled again at Jared and continued speaking to Loretta, “How about you, my beautiful southern belle? Are you ready to run off with me yet?”

Loretta lightly slapped Jeff on his chest and said, “Knock it off, you charmer. You know I’m not going anywhere without my boy.”

Jared said, “That would defeat the purpose, if I’m not mistaken. It seems Jeff would prefer your company to Jensen’s.”

Jeff laughed and said, “That I would, Jared. Can you blame me? Look at this beautiful woman.”

“Don’t you let Jeffrey Dean fool you, Jared. He’s full of charm and something a little stinkier.”

People around here had been open to it so far so Jared decided to attempt a joke. He said, “You could always buy him a laxative for that.”

Jeff bent over laughing as Loretta covered her mouth because she couldn’t stop her own laugh.

Jeff finally said, “I like you, Jared. You’ve got a damn good sense of humor.”

Jared shrugged. “Jensen seems to find me quite funny. Maybe he’s right. I wouldn’t have thought that remark was anything but honest before, but I see the humor in it now.”

Jeff said, “I heard about you throwing a strawberry at him this morning. Couldn’t you have thrown a spoon instead?”

Jared gave a small smile. “No. I couldn’t hurt him. He’s been too nice to me. You all have. I know I don’t deserve it.”

Jeff scoffed, “I have to disagree with you on that. For the first time in years, Jensen Ackles came to work this morning with a smile on his face. I’d say you deserve all the nice you can get.”

It was Jared’s turn to scoff. “That’s because he was playing around with Miss Loretta.”

“Oh no,” Loretta said. “I try playing around with that boy to lighten his mood all the time. You’re the one who had him smiling this morning, Jared.”

Jeff said, “I tend to agree with Loretta, Jared. The only thing different in his life right now is you. There’s no doubt you’re the reason he was smiling.”

Jared frowned slightly. “I’m nothing special. How could I make him smile when people who’ve known him all his life can’t?”

Loretta smiled and cupped Jared’s cheek in her hand. “Some people are just born to make others smile, sweetie. If I’m not mistaken, you’re one of them.”

Jeff told Jared again that he was welcome to go downstairs and that he should feel free to seek help from any staff member if he needed it while he was there. The older man hugged Loretta again, wished them both a good day, and went back to work.

Jared wanted to go back to the kitchen with Loretta, especially since she had told him she liked the company, but he needed time to himself. He smiled shyly at Loretta and went to the game room.

He spent the next half hour at the foosball table. He decided he didn’t like that one as much as he had thought he would. He moved to the pool table and practiced different shots. 

During the couple of hours he’d been there, he’d been thinking about the things he’d learned since he’d gotten caught counting cards yesterday. Not one person had been angry at him after they’d learned why he’d done what he had. None of them had treated him with anything less than respect. He’d never experienced that before, and he definitely wasn’t used to it.

Then he’d thought about how he’d responded. He’d smiled and laughed more than he ever had with anyone, even his own parents. He’d shown emotion he’d been so sure he couldn’t show. He’d even found tears on his face as he’d been thinking about losing his parents. Why were things so different here? Why was he so different here?

He’d just decided to watch something on TV when the elevator dinged again. He heard Miss Loretta speaking to a woman and figured everything was okay, so he turned his attention back to the TV. He was just about to change it to the CCTV and watch the games going on downstairs when a blonde woman knocked on the door of the room.

“Hi, Jared. I’m Samantha Smith. I manage the hotel section of Ace High. Jensen asked me to bring you this.” She held up a paper bag. “He also wanted me to help you go through your clothes to see if you need new items.”

Jared got up and accepted the bag, “Thank you.” He didn’t know what else to say so he just walked toward his room hoping she’d follow. She did. “My clothes are in my bag.” Jared pointed at the duffle on the floor by the nightstand and then took his toothpaste into the bathroom.

He returned to his bedroom to find she had spread out his meager amount of clothing on his bed. 

Samantha smiled at him and asked, “This is all you have with you?”

“Yes, ma’am. Just stuff fit to get into a casino and sweats and t-shirts to sleep in. The rest of my stuff is in Arizona, but I don’t know how I’ll get it.”

“Your sister is going to pack your things, and one of Jensen’s friends will bring them to you. However, she won’t be able to get it done for a couple of weeks.” Samantha pulled a pen and notepad from her back pocket. “Tell me your sizes, and I’ll send someone to get you some clothes. No one should be stuck with four changes of clothes for weeks. We’ll get you some shoes, socks, and underwear too.”

Jared shook his head, “I appreciate it, Miss Samantha, but I can’t afford new clothes.”

In a soft and friendly voice, Samantha said, “Jared, my boss ordered me to get you new clothes. He didn’t order me to demand payment from you. So I am going to get you new clothes. Got it?”

Jared’s cheeks flushed slightly in the cozily lit room. “Yes, ma’am, I got it.”

“Good,” Samantha smiled again. “Now how about toiletries. Do you need anything besides toothpaste?”

“I forgot to pack my deodorant. Chad gave me his old one, but I hate the smell.”

“What kind would you like?”

“Something light and airy. Chad’s is too heavy,” Jared said as he wrinkled his nose.

“I know just the one to get for you. Anything else you need, Jared? What have you been doing the past couple of days?”

“I’ve been watching TV, playing cards, and shooting pool. I’ve spent some time talking to Miss Loretta. I can’t think of anything else I need.”

“What else do you like to do?”

“I like to read. I tried to get some books on my phone, but I haven’t found a site I like.”

Samantha nearly bounced on her feet as she gave him the brightest smile yet. “Come with me, Jared.”

When they reached the living room, Samantha called out, “Loretta, Jared likes to read.”

Loretta rushed into the living room and said, “Jared, why didn’t you say so, honey? Come down this hallway.” 

Jared followed the women down a hallway beside the kitchen. There was an open door revealing a half bath that Jared hadn’t been aware of until now. Another closed door was beside it; if he guessed right, this was Loretta’s room, since she came in this direction each night at bedtime. At the end of the hall was another room the size of his room. This room however was void of any furniture other than two wingback chairs in burgundy leather and two adjustable floor lamps. The rest of the room, with the exception of the fireplace the chairs were placed in front of, was filled floor to ceiling with shelves full of books.

There were classics like Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare. There were modern authors like Stephen King and Dean Koontz. Jared felt like he’d died and gone to heaven. He said, “There must be over a thousand books here.”

Loretta smiled and said, “Three-thousand, four-hundred, and fifty-eight books at last count.”

Samantha said, “It’s not as big as a city library, but it should be enough to tide you over for a while. And you don’t have to return them in two weeks.”

Jared said, “I may never leave this room,” as he chose Psychic Warrior by David Morehouse, an author he’d never heard of.

Loretta said, “We don’t want that, sweetheart. We want to see your handsome face. Why don’t you bring that book right into the kitchen and sit with me while you read?”

Jared shook his head, “No, ma’am. Books are to be respected. I would never take a book to the kitchen or the bath because it could get damaged too easily. I guess I could read in the living room though, if that’s better for you.”

Loretta chuckled, “That’s much better, Jared. Now you come along to the living room while I get you a snack.”

As Jared settled on the couch, Samantha asked, “Jared, tell me the truth now; is there anything else you need?”

Jared took a second before responding, “No, ma’am, I can’t think of anything.”

Samantha left as Loretta brought Jared some fruit and a glass of milk. Jared read until she came back to tell him lunch was ready.

Normally, Jared would hurry through his meal to return to reading. It didn’t even cross his mind as he ate and chatted with Loretta. It didn’t even cross his mind as he helped her clean the kitchen or as he did what little he could to help prepare the rest of dinner. It was when she reminded him his book was waiting that he returned to the living room to resume the fascinating tale of astral projection.

Jared was nearly done with the book when Jensen came home at 5:30. He was surprised to see Jensen followed by Samantha and Felicia, all of them carrying shopping bags. 

Jensen smiled at Jared and said, “Come on, pal. We carried it, you get to unpack it.”

Jared followed them to his room. The ladies and Jensen watched as Jared pulled each new item from the bags and put it away. When he saw the Hawaiian shirt, he paused and wrinkled his nose. He put it to the side and continued with the rest of the new clothing and toiletries.

When he was done, he turned to the group and said, “Thank you, but this is all too much.”

Jensen shook his head. “No it’s not. It’s not enough, actually, though I tend to agree with you on that shirt.”

Jared handed it to Jensen and smiled, “I just can’t see myself wearing that.”

Jensen turned to Samantha. “Really, Sam?”

Samantha gave Jensen a look and said, “Hey, I wasn’t the one who did the actual shopping.”

Jensen asked, “Who did you send? Rosenbaum?”

Samantha only nodded.

Jensen growled. “I’m going to kill that man one of these days.” Then he turned to Jared, “I don’t blame you, Jared. I wouldn’t wear this either.”

Jared laughed before saying, “Jensen, this really is too much. You should have that Rosen guy take most of it back.”

For the first time since he’d left Jensen’s office, Jared saw the businessman underneath the generous man he’d seen so far.

“Jared Padalecki,” Jensen said firmly, “if I hadn’t wanted to get these clothes for you, I wouldn’t have. Now deal with it and wear them because they are not going back.”

Whereas most men would have backed away from Jensen at that moment, Jared smiled and asked, “Was that supposed to be intimidating, Jensen? Because I’ve seen more intimidating men on daytime TV.”

All their mouths dropped open in shock, even Loretta who had just come to the doorway. Then Jensen burst out laughing.

The women all let out relieved sighs as Jensen pulled himself together and said, “No other damn person in this town would have dared say a word to me in that moment, Jared Padalecki. They would have pissed their pants. You, on the other hand, made me laugh until I almost pissed my pants.”

Jared pointed at the ugly shirt Jensen was holding and said, “You can use that as a diaper if you need to.”

They all burst into laughter that time.

When they settled down, Jensen asked, “Jared, is there anything else that you need? I’m serious. Whatever it is, I’ll have someone pick it up right now.”

Jared looked around the room. “You got me new clothes, new shoes, toiletries...what else could I need?”

“What about something to pass the time during the day?”

Jared looked Jensen in the eye for several seconds and said, “Loretta and Samantha showed me the library. I really don’t need anything else.”

Felicia asked, “Jensen, do you need us for anything else?”

Jensen turned to his employees and said, “No, thank you, Pixie. You too Samantha. I really appreciate your help.”

They both smiled and nodded as they wished him and Jared a goodnight and left.

Loretta chose that moment to say, “Dinner is ready when you boys are. I’ll be setting the table.”

When they were alone, Jared looked at Jensen’s forehead and asked, “Why?”

Jensen looked confused as he asked, “Why what?”

“Why are you so good to me? You didn’t have me arrested when I tried to steal from you. You’ve given me a place to stay when I would’ve been out on the street in a strange city. You’re buying my parents home so I don’t lose it. You bought me clothes because I can’t get my own from home anytime soon. I’m a stranger to you. I don’t understand why you’re doing all of this for someone like me.”

Jensen guided Jared from the room into his own. Inside, there were framed photos all around. Some were family; some were employees; a lot were of Jensen and a young man. Jensen picked up one of the photos and sat on the bed. Jared sat beside him.

Jensen began, “This is Austin. This is the last photograph taken of him. He was about your age here.

“He and I were engaged. His family didn’t have much money. He worked as a dealer at a casino down the strip to put himself through college. When my dad decided to start gradually giving my siblings and me more responsibility for the business, the four of us had to take a trip overseas. Austin was in school and couldn’t go with me.

“There was a home invasion, and his parents were killed. I didn’t get the message when I should have so I couldn’t get back in time. Austin intentionally overdosed in the back of a casino surrounded by drugs, drug dealers, and strippers.

“He left a note saying how alone he was without his parents; how he knew he would just let me down eventually; how he didn’t want to live anymore.

“I swore then that I’d never deny help to someone in need. When I realized that it wasn’t you who was trying to steal from me and then found out why you were here to start with, I knew I had to help you like I wish someone had helped Austin.”

Jared briefly touched Jensen’s arm and said, “I’m sorry, Jensen.”

Jensen put the framed photo back where it had been. He kept his back to Jared and said, “You really should stop apologizing for things you’re not responsible for. What Chad did was not your fault. What I do is not your fault. What Austin did was not your fault.”

Jared couldn’t imagine such pain. Jensen had lost the person he’d planned to spend his life with. How could that not leave a normal person dead inside? Yet here Jensen was doing everything he could think of to help a stranger. Jared had never met a better man. 

He swallowed and said, “That doesn’t mean I don’t feel bad for my part in hurting you or that you weren’t hurt by Austin’s death. I’m sorry you had to hurt at all.”

Jensen took a deep breath and turned around. “If we don’t get to the table soon, Loretta is going to tan our hides.”

Jared smiled and agreed, then the men went to the kitchen for dinner.

 

Jensen

 

It had been another good breakfast, and Jensen had come to work again with a smile on his face. He’d gotten the night reports done easily and was about to call Mark Sheppard when his private line rang. Few people had that number: only his parents, his siblings, Loretta, Jeff, Chris, Samantha, and his personal attorney.

“Hello?” he answered.

“It’s Chris. Does Jared still want to shadow me today?”

“It’s all he talked about at breakfast. If it’s inconvenient for you, just call and let him know.”

“No, it’s fine. I just didn’t want him to feel pressured if I show up and he’s changed his mind.”

“He’s bouncing all over the place and not from stress this time. Whenever you’re ready to get him, I’m sure he’ll be waiting.”

“Is there anything in particular you want me to show him or avoid?”

“Just remember he’s not good with sudden, loud noises. He expects it in the casino, but elsewhere it might send him into a panic attack.”

“Got it. I’ll bring him with me when I drop off reports later.”

“I’ll see you then.” 

Jensen disconnected the call and picked up his other phone. He didn’t have to wait long for Mark Sheppard to pick up.

“Jensen, how are you, lad?” Mark asked in his British accent.

“I’m good, Mark. How are you?”

“Never better. You, on the other hand, are about to be in a very bad mood.”

“What’s going on?”

“I believe this is a conversation better had in person. Do you have a half hour today?”

“I do if you can come in the next hour.”

“I’ll see you shortly.” Sheppard disconnected the call.

Jensen wasn’t at all sure he liked the way that had gone.

Between his meeting with Mark and the end of his work day, Jensen spent the majority of his time on the phone with three medical specialists, two mental health specialists, the Arizona Medical Board, and three additional attorneys. He’d also made a phone call to his personal pilot.

 

Jared

 

Chris came to get Jared at 8:30. Jared was so excited, the only way he could sit still was to read a book. Loretta mildly scolded him for keeping his nose stuck in a book until she realized he was reading so he wouldn’t stare at the clock hoping Chris hadn’t changed his mind.

Jared was on his feet as soon as the elevator dinged.

Chris took one look at Jared and said with a smile, “I guess I don’t have to ask if you’re ready to go.”

Jared shook his head. “I was hoping you hadn’t changed your mind.”

“No chance of that, kid. I’m looking forward to it.”

Jared looked at the uniform Chris was wearing, then down at himself. He was wearing white sneakers, black denim jeans, and a blue polo shirt.  “Am I dressed okay? I tried to get as close to the uniform as I could without looking like I’m trying to pass myself off as an employee.”

“You look fine, Jared. I brought you a trainee badge to wear. It will let you into secure areas with me so you don’t have to wait on me anywhere. And if you need a break, just say so. Feel free to grab some food or a show. You’re not obligated to stick with me all day.”

Loretta had just entered the living room. She said, “I take it you boys won’t be here for lunch?”

Chris smiled at the older woman, “As much as I love your cooking, Loretta, I was thinking Jared and I could chow down at Osric’s place. Jared might just be amused by The Land of Oz.”

Loretta huffed. “I would think you’d have more sense than that, Chris Kane. Jared doesn't need to be around drunk idiots fighting over casino games.”

Chris smirked. “It’s not that bad at lunch time. If I see anything that looks ready to escalate, I’ll get him out of there.”

Jared said, “I’ll be okay, Miss Loretta. Now that I know what might happen, it won’t get to me as much. It’s just unexpected loud noises I have trouble with.”

Loretta held her hands up in surrender. “Just remember you can come right back up here if you get tired or upset.”

“Yes, ma’am. I’ll remember,” Jared promised.

They stopped at Chris’s office first. Jared sat patiently as Chris went through reports from the evening and night before. Chris explained what each report was and what he had to do with it. Jared appreciated Chris explaining everything instead of just ignoring him while doing the job. 

After half an hour of that, Chris made out the schedule for the next week. It was Jared who spotted a hole in coverage on Friday night.

Chris said, “Damn, man. That would have fucked the whole night up and left us with a huge profit drop. I can’t believe I missed that. Thanks for catching it.”

Though Jared glowed at the praise, he asked, “Am I distracting you?”

“Absolutely not. I remembered that Alona needed Friday off, but I forgot to add Lauren in. Alona doesn’t usually ask for particular days off. That’s why it slipped my mind.”

Jared helped Chris make copies of a dozen reports and the schedule, then they left the casino office and headed to the cage.

Jared showed the guard the badge Chris had given him and was let in without question. The cage was very bright so the cashiers could easily count money and fill out paperwork. Jared wasn’t crazy about it, but he focused on Chris’s job and pushed it out of his mind.

Chris greeted the staff. He then accepted another handful of reports and signed some paperwork that stayed in the cage. From there, they entered the security office. Jeff greeted them and gave Chris more reports.

Chris explained to Jared, “I pick up everyone’s report copies that go to Jensen. No need for all of us to be running up and down from his office.”

Jeff patted Chris on the head and added, “Chris here makes all our lives easier.”

Chris punched Jeff in the arm before saying, “That was Jared’s job today. I almost fucked up Friday’s schedule for the pit. Jared caught it. Saved our asses big time.”

Jeff looked impressed as he asked, “Is that true?”

Jared looked down shyly and shrugged. “The numbers didn’t look right, so I looked closer.”

Jeff chuckled. “We need to talk to Jensen about putting you on the payroll.”

“Hell no,” Chris said. “Put Jared on the payroll, and we’ll all be out of work. The kid can already almost run this place.”

At Jeff’s raised eyebrows, Jared said, “Chris has been explaining things as we go along. It all makes sense to me for some reason.”

Chris added, “I’ll throw different scenarios at him from my job, and the kid will tell me exactly the right way to handle it. He ain’t been wrong once.”

Jeff looked at Chris and said, “Remember the woman counting cards the other night? Jensen said he and Jared were watching the CCTV and Jared spotted her before our guys did. So yeah, put Jared on the payroll and we’re all in the unemployment line.”

Chris ran a hand through his hair and asked Jeff, “Why do I feel like Jared is going to be running this place one day soon?”

Jeff patted Chris on the shoulder and went back to work. Chris and Jared left security and went back to the lobby through the cage. On the way to the bank of elevators, Jared excused himself to use the restroom. Chris pointed them out and waited where he was.

Jared was just drying his hands when a tall man with dark hair and the name “Tom” on his name tag walked up to Jared. He got right in Jared’s face and said, “You must be the feeb the boss thinks we should all bow down to.”

Jared moved sideways in an effort to leave the restroom. Tom blocked him and kept talking, “I ain’t kissing no retard’s ass. You hear me, little boy? You ain’t no better than me because you only got half a brain. What makes you special to the boss and not me? Why’s he willing to be your sugar daddy and not mine? I sure as hell could please him better than you can. Do you swallow when you suck him off? I would. Or do you not suck good enough to get him to come?”

Jared tried again to get around the vulgar man. Tom shoved him back against the wall, and Jared lost it. He shoved Tom hard and started to walk away rapidly. Tom grabbed Jared from behind and shoved him face first into the wall. Jared jabbed his elbow into Tom’s stomach. He turned quickly and slammed his fist into Tom’s face.

The punch landed right on Tom’s eye which immediately started bleeding and swelling as Tom hit the floor. It was then that, having heard the commotion and called for assistance, Chris and two security guys came running into the restroom. Jared moved back away from them and stood against the far wall. He was shaking his hands but gave no other indication of being upset.

Chris growled, “What the ever-loving fuck are you doing, Tom?”

Tom slid up the wall from where he had fallen to the floor and yelled, “Damn feeb attacked me for no reason.”

The security personnel moved toward Jared. Chris held up a hand to stop them as he said, “I don’t believe that for a damn second. I’ve spent the entire morning with Jared and he hasn’t once raised his voice, much less been physically aggressive.”

“How do you explain this then?” Tom asked as he pointed to his own eye.

Chris snarled, “That’s what I’m waiting for you to do.”

When Tom didn’t say anything else, Chris turned to Jared and asked in a softer tone, “What happened, Jared?”

Jared had been looking at the floor since the door opened and the three men entered the restroom. He looked at Chris’s chin and said, “This guy got in my face and called me names. He asked me if I suck Jensen well enough to get him off. I tried to leave. He wouldn’t let me. He shoved me against the wall. I shoved him back and tried to leave again. He grabbed me, and I punched him in the face. I’m sorry this happened, but I won’t be beat up anymore without defending myself.”

Chris turned to Tom and said, “Well? What’s your story now?”

Tom yelled, “He’s just a damn retard! Why do you believe him and not me?”

Chris looked at the security guys and said, “Take his ass to the tank until I see how Jensen wants to handle this. And, Tom, when you leave here, in cuffs or not, don’t ever set foot in an Ace High casino or hotel again. Your last paycheck will be in the mail.”

The two security men dragged Tom, kicking and screaming the entire way, to the tank.

With a calm, steady voice, Chris said, “Come on, Jared. Jensen is going to want to hear about this.” 

As they left the restroom, Chris used the radio on his side to contact Samantha. “Something’s come up. Can you take your reports upstairs today?”

“Of course I can. Is there anything I can do to help?”

“No; but for your own sanity, avoid Jensen at all costs for a while.”

“Copy that.”

Rather than use the guest elevators as they would have, Chris led them back through the cage so they could go straight to Jensen’s office in the security elevator.

Jensen looked up when the elevator dinged announcing a visitor. Jared could see Jensen was pleased to see them, but he knew that wouldn’t last long.

As Chris laid the reports he had on Jensen’s desk, he said, “I just fired Tom Welling.”

Jensen replied, “That’s been a long time coming. What was the straw that broke the camel’s back?”

Chris backed away as he said, “He attacked Jared.”

Even Jared wanted to back away from the look on Jensen’s face and the tone of his voice as he stood and said to Chris, “What did you just say?”

Chris said again, “He attacked Jared in the men’s restroom near the elevators downstairs.”

Jensen was around the desk before Jared or Chris could blink. He went to Jared and began checking him for visible injuries as he asked, “Are you okay, Jared.”

“I’m fine. Tom is the one who’s going to have a black eye.”

Jensen actually released a deep breath as he chuckled. He guided Jared to the couch and they sat down. Chris propped himself against Jensen’s desk.

Jensen said, “Tell me everything.”

Jared repeated the story to Jensen, including what Tom had asked about Jared sucking Jensen.

Jensen turned to Chris, but before he could ask, Chris said, “Tom’s in the tank. I fired him, but I wasn’t sure if you or Jared wanted to press charges. There’s no camera in the restroom so it’s a ‘he said/he said’ deal for the cops. But Tom said some very nasty things in front of me, Aldis, and Tahmoh, so I’d say it’s a fifty-fifty chance in court.”

Jensen nodded and turned back to Jared. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

Jared nodded and then looked Jensen in the eye and said, “I’m okay.” Jared dropped his gaze to Jensen’s nose again and continued, “He never actually hit me, only shoved me against the wall. But I knew he was going to and the only way I could avoid that was to punch him first.”

“Do you want the cops involved?” Jensen asked.

“No, but if I don’t report him, he’s going to press charges against me because he’s the one injured.”

Jensen nodded and turned to Chris.

Chris picked up the phone and called for a police officer.

Jensen stood and picked up his other phone. Jared heard him say, “Jeff, check the video outside the guest elevators for the last half-hour. I want to know if Tom Welling followed Jared in or if he was already in there.”

By the time two officers arrived, Jensen was able to show them the video of Tom, a very angry look on his face, checking to see if anyone was watching and then following Jared into the restroom.

The officers, Jared, Jensen, and Chris went down to the tank. Jared was allowed to watch through a two-way mirror as Jensen sat in while the officers interrogated Tom. A couple of well-timed remarks from Jensen had Tom slipping up and accidentally admitting to waiting for a chance to kick Jared’s ass. Jared smiled as Tom was cuffed and read his rights.

A month later, it was the DA who was a friend of Jensen’s; the security video; and Tom’s own mouth that got him convicted of assault without Jared even having to testify.

After the incident with Tom, Chris wasn’t sure Jared would be up to any more work-related activities. Before he could ask about it, Jared surprised him and said, “Did you say lunch was next? I’d really like to see this restaurant you were talking about.”

Jensen smiled and nodded at Chris. He told Jared he’d see him at home, and Chris took Jared to lunch at The Land of Oz.

Jared was amazed at the variety of items on the menu. Chad had never taken him anywhere like this. It was always fast food chains or food carts when they were in Vegas. Jared ordered something he’d never tried before: beef brisket noodles, egg tarts, and milk tea. The portions were larger than he expected, but Jared finished every bite. It was delicious. He almost resented Chad for not exposing him to this when he was using Jared to steal money.

As they finished eating, Chris said, “I wasn’t sure you’d want to do more today after what happened with Tom.”

Jared shrugged. “I don’t understand it either. A week ago something like that would have me hiding for days. It just...it didn’t bother me like it usually would. I can’t explain it.”

“Well, I’m glad of that. Jared, I want you to know that Tom’s an ass, but I don’t think he would have even said anything to you if he wasn’t so obsessed with Jensen. Hell, when Tom’s asked him out, Jensen’s turned him down again and again. It pissed Tom off more each time.”

“I can’t blame Tom for wanting to go out with Jensen, but I’m glad Jensen has better taste. Tom is only interested in Jensen’s money. I didn’t mention it before but Tom asked me why Jensen would be my sugar daddy and not his.”

Chris whistled low and long. “I’m so glad you didn’t tell Jensen that. He probably would have killed Tom before the cops even got here.”

“I wasn’t about to mention it after I saw the rage on his face when you told him what happened.”

Chris grabbed the book the check was in. Jared said, “Jensen said to charge my meals to him.”

Chris shook his head, “Way I see it, I owe you at least lunch. I should have gone with you to the restroom.”

“You don’t get paid to babysit me.”

“I don’t get paid to let you get hurt either.”

“You didn’t let me get hurt. You were right there when I needed you.”

“Needed me?” Chris huffed and smiled. “From where I was standing, it looked more like Tom was the one who needed help.” 

Jared said self-consciously, “I used to get beat up all the time when I was a kid. I got tired of it and took a self-defense course. I haven’t been beaten up since, but I don’t make a habit of beating anyone else up either.”

As Loretta had predicted, two drunk tourists began fighting over the winnings from the slot machines. Not only did Jared not flinch, he joined Chris in separating the men until security arrived. He backed off then so the employees could do their jobs. He got to watch again as the men were questioned in the tank. He knew Chris and Jeff were talking across the room; he didn’t know they were talking about him.

The rest of the day was uneventful until dinner that evening. Jensen actually beat Jared back to the penthouse since Jared had stayed to help Chris with paperwork he’d fallen behind on because of the two security incidents.

It was over dinner that Jensen announced he would be flying out of state on business the next morning and likely wouldn’t be back until late.

After saying that, Jensen said, “Jeff asked if I thought you’d like to shadow him tomorrow like you did Chris today.”

“I’d love to,” Jared said.

“Jensen Ackles,” Loretta scolded, “stop trying to groom this boy to work in your casino.”

Jensen huffed. “That is not what I’m doing, Loretta. If Jared isn’t interested, he doesn’t have to do it. Besides, shadowing Chris today was their arrangement, not mine.”

Loretta didn’t budge. She said, “He had to deal with two security incidents and work late to catch up on paperwork, and you’re trying to arrange another day tomorrow.”

Jared spoke up, “None of that was Jensen’s doing, Miss Loretta, and I actually enjoyed it. I really would like to shadow Jeff tomorrow. Seeing the inner workings of a casino fascinates me.”

“Fine,” Loretta said, “but I want you and Jeff to come up here for lunch.”

Jared and Jensen said in unison. “Jeff will love that.” 

“Oh hush, the both of you.”

 

Jensen

 

Jensen was heading back to his private plane to return home when he texted Jeff to call him in private. Less than ten minutes later, his cell rang.

“You alone?” Jensen asked by way of greeting.

“Yeah. What’s up?”

“I told Loretta and Jared that I would be back late tonight, but I’ll be back just after 4:00. I need you to keep Jared from finding out I’m back until I can make a few arrangements.”

“Were Chris and I right about Jared? Is he faking?”

“Not even close. In fact, you’re going to hit the roof when you learn what I found out today.”

“Care to elaborate on that?”

“Not yet. Once I take care of a couple of things, a few of us are going to have a serious meeting.”

“That sounds ominous.”

“It is. All I’ll say right now is that Jared is even more a victim than I thought.”

“I’m going to want to hurt someone, aren’t I?”

“You’re going to want to kill a few people.”

“I better get back to the kid. I’ll keep him downstairs as long as I can.”

“Thanks, Jeff.”

Jensen was at his desk when Jeff entered the office at 5:30. Jeff dropped a couple of folders on Jensen’s desk and waited patiently while Jensen finished typing.

When Jensen looked up at him, Jeff asked, “Ready to fill me in?”

Jensen pointed at the chair across from him, leaned on his desk, and ran his hand down his face. “Gerald and Sherri Padalecki should be glad they’re dead so I can’t kill them myself.”

“What the hell, Jensen?”

“You read Jared’s file. You know about the lack of attention they gave him, the inattentive nannies, and the bullying he suffered at school. What’s not in the file is that the Padaleckis paid Jared’s doctor to diagnose him with Asperger’s syndrome.”

What ? Why the hell would they do that?”

“A different doctor friend suggested they do it to get Jared into a drug trial. The friend at least made sure Jared got the placebo. The drug trial paid them more than enough for nannies, private school for Jared and Megan that Jeff refused, Gerald’s early retirement, a bribe to Jared’s physician, and an early mortgage payoff while still leaving them with a nice chunk of savings.”

“Drug trials don’t pay that much.”

“They do when the pharmaceutical company is desperate to beat out the competition that’s steadily developing better medications.”

“Son of a bitch,” Jeff said. “Is Jared autistic at all ?”

“No, he’s not. He was very shy as a toddler and preschooler. The rest of his symptoms are learned behavior. His parents would read all about ‘his symptoms’ in front of him until he started mimicking them.”

Jeff said, “I’m going to need the names and addresses of those doctors. I can’t kill the Padaleckis again, but I can kill these damn doctors.”

“They’re taken care of, Jeff. That’s what I’ve been doing since I got back.”

“You sure I can’t just kill them?” Jeff growled.

“Jared’s doctor will be suspended and lose his license. He will also do jail time. The doctor friend is going to jail for life because Jared’s not the only non-autistic child that was in that drug trial; unfortunately three others actually got the drug being tested and died from it. The pharmaceutical company is going bankrupt. They’ll face federal charges, medical ethics inquiries, and definite public humiliation. The directors and the entire board will likely face jail time.”

“How did you manage all this in such a short time?”

“For the first time in my life, I’ve used every connection my family has, called in every favor owed to me, and threw some money into the pot to get papers processed faster. Hell, I even got mom and dad involved. I’ve never done anything like that before, but this called for it.”

“How and when are you going to tell Jared?”

“I have no idea how, but I’m telling him tonight. I’m waiting for some papers to be faxed to me so I can show him proof of it all.”

“And the meeting you were talking about?”

“This will take a hell of a lot of getting used to for Jared. Hell, he may even need therapy to come to terms with it and break some of his life-long habits. I’m telling the staff after I get Jared’s permission to because I don’t want them treating him differently. He’ll still need to be spoken to more softly than most people, he’ll still startle at confrontation and loud noises, and he’ll still have issues looking people in the eye.”

“You need to have Jared shadow you before you have that meeting.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Having spent today with that kid, I can tell you that he’s already shedding a lot of those learned behaviors. There were two more incidents today. One was a normal cheating and denial incident, and it got damn loud. Jared handled it beautifully. He’s actually the one who caught on first and went with me to confront the guy.

“The second was a hooker trying to hide in the casino from her pimp. Jared was right in it with us. The pimp tried to throw a punch at Jared, but Jared blocked it and put the guy on the floor with one punch to the gut. He also looked the cops in the eye as he gave his statement.

“The cops wanted to give him hell for hitting the guy rather than using a hold on him until we told them that he’s pit staff in training. Then they told me in no uncertain terms to get him trained on holds immediately. Jared? He was laughing afterward and asking ‘What’s next?’”

Jensen chuckled. “He was always ignored and bullied. I guess being around people who don’t treat him like shit is having a positive effect on him.”

“It certainly looks that way.”

Jensen was about to speak when his private phone rang. Worried it was Loretta calling about Jared, Jensen held his finger up to Jeff and answered the phone. He let out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding when he heard Mark Sheppard on the line.

“Hi, Mark. What can I do for you?”

“You can pay me my fee and maybe a small bonus. I just got a call from a friend at the courthouse. Chad Michael Murray pleaded guilty today. He was sentenced to fifty years in federal prison. One of the charges he pled guilty to was kidnapping.”

“Not that I’m not ready to do cartwheels, but why did he plead guilty?” Jensen asked as he put Mark on speaker-phone.

“Seems a little birdie discovered that Murray owes the mob quite a large sum of money for a loan they gave him a number of years ago - a loan he took off without paying back. Seems the same little birdie offered to send an anonymous tip to said mobsters regarding Murray’s whereabouts.”

“Mark, you’re a damn genius.”

“That is an undisputed fact, my young friend. We’ll talk more later.”

“Thanks, Mark,” Jensen said and hung up the phone.

Jeff said, “Well, well, well. Guess there actually is someone Murray is afraid of.”

Jensen checked the time on his phone. It was 6:15. He wondered aloud, “It could be 8:00 before the last papers are faxed to me. Should I tell Jared tonight or wait until tomorrow?”

Jeff knew it was a rhetorical question, but he spoke in response anyway, “That depends on whether you want to give him a sleepless night or a miserable day.”

Jensen got up and walked over to the bar behind his desk as he said, “Fuck if I want either.” He poured two drinks and brought one to Jeff. “I don’t want to be like the rest of the assholes in his life and hide things from him, treating him like he can’t handle anything. Yet when he learns about this betrayal, I want to be there if he needs me.”

Jeff said, “Let Carrie Anne know you’ll be taking the day off tomorrow. You can tell Jared tonight and stay up with him as late as he needs you to. Hell, you can get your dad to come in for a couple of days if you want.”

Jensen chuckled. “If I didn’t know better, Jeff Morgan, I’d say you feel guilty.”

“Damn right I do. I can’t believe Chris and I thought the kid was faking it. He was just too open and involved the last couple of days; we didn’t understand it. Chris is gonna go off on someone, probably me for suggesting it.”

“It’s your job to be suspicious, Jeff. It’s in Chris’s job description too. I don’t fault either of you for questioning Jared’s behavior. Just don’t forget, until this sinks in and he accepts the truth, he will still essentially be autistic as far as his behavior goes. The psychiatrist I spoke with said he may even revert to basic Asperger behavior to deny the truth. All I can do is tell him and hope it doesn’t destroy him.”

The fax machine in the corner of the office sounded a notification that something was coming through.

“That’s my cue to leave,” Jeff said. “Let me know if you need me.”

Jensen got the paperwork together and left his office to go and destroy Jared’s image of himself. For this conversation, he wondered if he should have a psychiatrist on stand-by.

 

Jared

 

Jared was sitting with Loretta about to begin eating dinner when the elevator dinged in the living room. Just as Loretta was standing to see who it was, Jensen called out, “I’m home.”

Jared smiled as Jensen walked into the kitchen, saying, “Got done a little sooner than expected. Damn, I’m starving.”

Loretta jumped up and grabbed another plate and glass for Jensen. He joined them at the table as the three discussed Jared’s day.

While she was starting to gather the dirty plates, Loretta said to Jared, “I’m glad to see you opening up and getting so involved. Such a difference from the young man who would hardly look in my direction five days ago.”

Jared considered that for a moment, then said, “I’ve never been as comfortable before. Never felt as welcome to be part of something. Makes it easy to get involved.”

Jared saw Jensen drop his head and squeeze his eyes shut. He asked, “Jensen, is something wrong?”

Jensen rubbed his hand down his face before he said, “Jared, we have to talk. I need you to be in the most comfortable place you can think of here, so where should we sit?”

 

Jensen

 

When Jared said he was fine at the table, Loretta stopped what she was doing and started to leave the room.

Jared said, “Wait, Miss Loretta. Jensen, would it be okay if Miss Loretta stays?”

“Some of this is confidential medical information, but if you’re okay with Loretta hearing it, so am I.”

Jared frowned and said, “Miss Loretta is my friend. I would just tell her about it later anyway so I don’t mind if she stays.”

Loretta looked at the men’s faces and knew this was not going to be good. Rather than take her usual seat beside Jensen and across from Jared, she walked around the table and sat beside Jared.

Jensen began moving the remaining plates aside, Loretta helping as soon as she saw what he was doing. He reached into his briefcase beside his chair and removed a file nearly an inch thick. He placed the file in front of Jared but kept his hand on top of it.

When Jared looked Jensen in the eye, his face glowing with curiosity, Jensen said, “I’m about to tell you some things you won’t want to believe; things that will hurt you to learn. It’s all true and documented right here in this file. I want you to hear it from me before you read it yourself, okay?”

Jared could only swallow and nod.

Jensen lightly placed his other hand on Jared’s arm and said, “Jared, you do not have Asperger’s syndrome. You’re not autistic at all.”

When Jared’s eyes widened, Jensen’s heart clenched in direct proportion. Loretta gasped.

“Wh - what do you mean?” Jared stammered.

Jensen told Jared everything slowly and in more detail than he’d given Jeff Morgan. Jensen watched Jared closely as he explained what the young man’s parents had done. He saw Jared’s expression morph from curiosity at what Jensen had to say to denial of it being true to anger that his parents would do this to him. Loretta had taken Jared’s hand and held it through the entire tale.

Jared didn’t interrupt until Jensen was done. Then he asked, “What did I ever do to them that they would ruin my life this way?”

Jensen answered, “There are notes in this file from your mother’s psychiatrist. I think the answer to that question is in there.”

“You know it, Jensen. Tell me.”

Jensen rubbed his eyes and said, “You were shy, Jared. You were painfully shy. For some stupid reason, it embarrassed your parents. When an opportunity came along to make a lot of money, one that also gave their friends an acceptable reason for your extreme shyness, they jumped on it.”

Jensen’s heart clenched and Loretta’s tears finally fell as they watched a single tear escape Jared’s eye.

“I was lonely,” Jared said. “Even my siblings ignored me. I was different so no one wanted to be around me. Of course I was shy. That didn’t give them the right to lie to me my whole life.”

“It certainly didn’t,” Loretta said. “But you know now, Jared, and you have us.”

Jared said flatly, “I’m glad they’re dead.”

It was the first harsh thing Jared had ever said about anyone. Jensen figured Jared earned the right to feel and say that and worse. He took his hand off the folder and said, “It’s all here, Jared. The last paper in the folder is an authorization for Mark Sheppard to file civil lawsuits against everyone that was involved. You don’t have to sign it. If you do, you don’t have to pay Mark. As a favor to me, he’s willing to do this on a win/lose basis. That means if you win, Mark gets ten percent of whatever settlement you’re awarded. If you lose, you still don’t have to pay him. But it’s your choice.”

Jared asked, “How did you find out about all of this?”

Jensen took a deep breath hoping Jared wouldn’t get angry as he said, “You’re here in Vegas with no family nearby. If something happened to you, I wanted to have the authority to oversee your medical treatment. I figured I might as well look into limited power of attorney so I could help you with anything that might come up. Mark started looking into that for me and saw that some things didn’t make sense, so he started digging deeper and found the truth.”

“How do I get this false diagnosis reversed?” Jared asked.

Jensen answered honestly, “We’ll get you an appointment with the best specialist in the country. A few appointments and this paperwork should be enough to get that done.”.

Jared picked up the folder and said, “I think I need to be alone for a while.”

Jensen’s tears fell as he watched Jared walk down the hall to the library.

Loretta wiped her eyes and began cleaning the dinner table. Jensen silently helped her. Each of them kept taking furtive glances down the hall.

When there was nothing left to do, Jensen went to the game room. After downing a couple of whiskeys, he started shooting pool. He was hitting the balls so hard that one of them cracked.

He poured another drink and sat down, not bothering to wipe the tears from his eyes. It was Austin all over again. It had been three days before Austin’s death that a guilt-ridden cousin had stepped up and admitted to hiring a couple of gang members to steal whatever they could from the family. Austin’s parents weren’t supposed to be home at the time but they’d gotten back early from vacation. They’d gone to bed while Austin had gone to his night class. He had been the one to find his parents after he’d gotten home from class. He never went to another class again.

Jensen was terrified something similar would happen with Jared. He was determined that Jared would not feel as lonely and alone as Austin had. Of course he couldn’t be sure Jared would handle things the same way Austin had, but he was sure he couldn’t handle losing Jared too.

That was when it hit him and hit him hard. He had fallen in love with Jared in less than a week. The young man’s humor, his generous heart, his opening personality, everything about Jared had tugged at Jensen’s heart. He decided right then that, no, he wouldn’t allow Jared to go through anything alone - ever.

“Jensen?” Jared spoke softly from the door.

Jensen wiped the tears from his face with one hand and reached out to Jared with the other.

Jared came to sit down, accepting Jensen’s hand and holding it on his thigh. He asked, “It’s 2:00 in the morning. Why are you still up? You’ve got work in the morning.”

Jensen squeezed Jared’s hand and said, “You just found out that your entire life has been based on a lie and that your parents hurt you in the worst possible way, yet here you are worried about me. And you wonder why I’m so good to you.”

Jared smiled softly and said, “You didn’t answer my question.”

Jensen ran a hand down his face and said, “I want to be here for you when you need me. I left a message for Carrie Anne that I won’t be in the office tomorrow.”

“You’re skipping work for me?”

“I won’t have you thinking you have to go through this alone. I’m going to make sure you know I’m here for anything you need.”

“Why?”

“Because I see in you what your parents never took the time to look for: joy, generosity, concern for others, a zest for life, and so much more.”

Jared looked down at their hands on his thigh. He asked softly, “Do you think I can ever act like a normal person?”

“Jared, there’s no such thing as normal. We’re all unique; we just happen to share some things with other people. Pizza is one of the most popular foods in this country, but not everyone likes pizza. Some people even hate it. That doesn't mean they’re not normal. They just don’t like pizza.

“If you’re asking if I think you’ll ever fit in, you already do. Chris and Jeff would never have allowed you to shadow them if you didn’t. They’re busy men; they don’t have time to babysit. They took you along because they knew you were interested and wanted to learn - and they wouldn’t be babysitting all day.”

“Sometimes I felt like I was in the way.”

Jensen laughed and said, “I think the entire security section would disagree. From what I’ve heard, you kicked ass the last two days.”

Jared blushed and looked away shyly. He said, “I actually enjoy being involved in the casino. Maybe someday I can work in one.”

Jensen said, “There’s something else you should know, Jared. I didn’t mention it earlier because I didn’t want to throw too much on you at once. Murray pled guilty to all charges, including kidnapping you. He was sentenced to fifty years in prison.”

“What made him do that?”

“Turns out he’d rather spend fifty years alive in a Nevada prison than be killed by the New York mob boss he owes hundreds of thousands of dollars to.”

“Son of a bitch!”

It was the first time Jensen had heard Jared swear with such emotion. He couldn’t help laughing. He said, “At least he’s out of your life and won’t be using you anymore.”

Jared nodded and stood up. He walked to the bar in the room and started to pour a glass of water before he hesitated and asked, “Jensen, what does beer taste like?”

Jensen pointed to the bar and said, “Find out for yourself.”

“What if I don’t like it and don’t finish it?”

Jensen said airily, “I don’t let good beer go to waste. I’ll finish it if you don’t.”

Jared popped the top on a bottle of beer that bore the label “Family Business Beer Company” and tasted it. After a second, he took another drink. As he walked back to the couch, he said, “It’s satisfactory.”

Jensen laughed. Jared gave him a dirty look before laughing too.

They sat in comfortable silence for a while before Jared asked, “Should I sign that paper?”

Jensen didn’t bother asking which paper. He said, “That’s your choice, Jared. I can’t and won’t tell you what to do.”

“Would you sign it if you were me?”

“Yeah, I think I would.”

“What happens if I do?”

“You’ll meet with Mark. He can answer that question better than I can. I do know that you’ll have to see several doctors and psychiatrists, give statements on legal record before any court hearing is set, and probably testify in court about your life. It could be a long process if the other parties involved don’t decide to settle with you out of court. But, if you do it, you can trust Mark to help you. He knows he’ll lose me as a client if he doesn’t, but he would help you anyway.”

“Megan and Jeff will have to give affidavits too?”

“Yeah, and your former teachers, those who Mark can contact; former classmates; maybe even Murray.”

“Will I have to see Chad?”

“Only if he has to testify in court.”

“I thought I wanted to see him and confront him about using me, but I realized that it won’t make any difference. He did what he did, and nothing he says can make up for it.”

“I was hoping you felt that way.” Jensen growled, “Murray doesn’t deserve to have you even thinking about him.”

“I think I’m going to sign the paper. I’m broke. I know you said you’re buying my old house; but even after learning the truth, I doubt Jeff and Meggie will split the money with me. This could get me some money so I don’t have to keep relying on you. Maybe, in the meantime, I could get a job so I can afford personal items and such.”

“Jared, there is no rush to do anything, okay? I like having you here and taking care of you. I didn’t realize how empty my life had become until I met you. All I ever did was work, eat, and sleep. Now I find reasons to leave work early. I spend time playing games in here with you instead of pouring over paperwork downstairs. My life is better with you in it.”

Jared said, “I don’t think I’ve ever trusted or taken to anyone as fast as I did to you. From the second I heard you singing to calm me down in your office, I knew you would never hurt me. How did you know to do that?”

“I met one of our European employees who has an autistic child. He said the only thing that ever calms his son down is someone singing softly to him. When you got so upset, I thought I’d give it a try.”

“Why did that work if I’m not autistic?”

“Ever heard that old saying ‘music soothes the savage beast?’ Music calms most people when they’re upset. Usually not hard metal, mind you, but softer songs generally work with most people.”

“Would you sing for me now?”

Jensen did. He sang song after song even after Jared fell asleep. Jensen fell asleep in the middle of singing a song.

The next morning, Loretta found them there still resting against each other when she went to tell them breakfast was ready.

 

Jared

 

When Loretta knocked on the game room door, Jared was somewhat embarrassed at waking up lying against Jensen’s chest. He got up quickly and walked out of the room to wash up and get dressed for breakfast. He hesitated outside the kitchen door as he heard Loretta and Jensen talking about him.

Loretta asked, “How’s he taking all of this?”

Jensen answered, “Better than I would, that’s for sure.”

Jared came in and sat down. He said, “I’m doing fine, Miss Loretta. I keep my emotions under control pretty well.”

Loretta said, “Honey, just because you keep them under control doesn't mean you don’t feel them. You don’t have to hide from us, you know that right? If you’re hurting enough to cry, then you just go right ahead and cry.”

“I cried last night after reading that file. I can’t understand why my parents hated me but not Jeff and Megan. Jeff was always outgoing, Megan was always pretty, and I was always just in the way I guess. Nothing I ever did was right or enough. I stopped trying at a young age. Honestly, I consider myself lucky that they didn’t insist I get the damn drug.”

Jared took a sip of the coffee Loretta placed in front of him before continuing, “If not for the two of you and the others I’ve met here, I would wish they had so I’d be dead and not have to know any of this.”

Jensen reached over and took Jared’s hand in his. “Whether they loved you or not, you are loved, Jared. There’s not one person here who’s met you who wouldn’t do damn near anything for you. And that has nothing to do with me.”

Loretta added, “You have friends now, Jared.”

Jared shook his head and replied, “No, ma’am. I have something here I’ve never had before - a real family.”

Jared found himself in a tangle of arms. He was being hugged on one side by Jensen and on the other side by Loretta. He didn’t mind it at all.

When they were all settled and eating, Jensen wiped his mouth with his napkin and said, “Jared, if you still want to file those lawsuits, I need that paper once you’ve signed it.”

Jared nodded. “It’s on top of the file on the living room table. I signed it on my way in here. Is there anything else I need to do?”

“I’ll call and make an appointment for you with Mark as soon as he has an open timeslot. You want to spend today with me? See what the real boss does with his time?”

“Sure,” Jared answered, “I could use something to put me to sleep later.”

“Hey!” Jensen exclaimed as Loretta laughed.

“What?” Jared asked innocently. “You sit behind a desk all day. The real action is downstairs.”

Loretta said, “Jensen Ackles, you said you were taking the day off. Why don’t you take Jared out for some fun - maybe an air tour or the Canyon tour? Get him out of here and both of you get some fresh air.”

Jensen looked at his friend. “What do you think, Jared? There’s just about anything you can think of to do. Golf, amusement parks, horseback riding, sightseeing...anything you want to do?”

Jared shrugged. “Chad never let us go out when we came to Vegas. He said he didn’t want to chance us getting spotted. That didn’t stop him from picking up hookers though. I just stayed in my room, looking through brochures and reading.”

Jensen kept a tight rein on his anger at Murray because he didn’t want to upset Jared more after last night. He said, “Now’s your chance. Whatever you want to do, we’ll do it. Just name it.”

Jared bowed his head. “I’ve always thought it would be fun to ride horses, but those animals are big. I’m not sure I wouldn’t be too afraid if I actually got near one.”

“How about this,” Jensen said. “We’ll just take off with a couple of changes of clothes in the trunk. We’ll go see about riding some horses; if you can’t or don’t want to, then we’ll go do something else.”

Jared said, “That sounds like a lot of hassle.”

Loretta reached across the table and put her hand on Jared’s. “Sweetheart, what’s wrong? You were laughing and joking minutes ago; now you’re almost that sweet kid who was scared he was going to jail with his friend.”

Jared couldn’t seem to lift his eyes to either of them. “I don’t know how to explain it. I never was comfortable anywhere before. I wasn’t even comfortable with Chad taking me places, but for some reason I trusted him. Here at the hotel and in the casino I feel comfortable. I don’t know if I will be anywhere else. It makes me nervous to think about going outside.”

Jensen said, “Jared, look at me for a second.”

Jared fought his rising panic and looked Jensen in the eye.

Jensen smiled as he said, “Will you try going out with me? Just give it a shot? If you’re too anxious and can’t calm down, we’ll come back home, okay? I wouldn’t intentionally put you in a situation you can’t handle, but you really don’t know what you can handle until you try. You know now that you are perfectly capable of doing whatever you make up your mind to do.”

Jared thought about Jensen’s words and remembered again that he’d never really been autistic. There was no reason he couldn’t do this, and Jensen would be right beside him. He nodded and said, “I’ll try. I really would like to see a horse up close and maybe ride one.”

So they did. Jensen shrugged off his chauffeur and guided Jared to a beautiful black 1967 Chevy Impala that looked like new. He smiled at Jared’s questioning gaze but said nothing. Jared couldn’t help running his hands over the dash and seat of the classic car.

Jensen took him to Horses4Heroes Family Equestrian Center. Jared was surprised how easily he took to being around horses. When he first climbed on the back of a beautiful chestnut and white Appaloosa, he felt accepted, almost welcomed. He wished he’d been able to connect to the people in his life so easily. Maybe then his parents wouldn’t have betrayed him so horribly.

After a morning with the horses, Jensen took Jared to a local waterpark to cool off. They swam and had lunch by the pool. No one treated Jared as though he didn’t belong. No one stared at him pityingly. He was able to look the clerk in the eye as he ordered lunch. After showering, they left the waterpark and drove nearly to the desert. 

Just as Jared was about to ask where they were going, Jensen pulled into a paved driveway with an overhanging arch that read Ackles. They stopped at a gate that required a code for entry. Jensen entered the code and drove through when the gate rolled open.

Jared asked, “Is this your home?”

Jensen smiled and answered, “It was for most of my life. Home is the penthouse now.”

Jared couldn’t figure out why they were here or determine a way to ask so he just sat back as Jensen drove down the long driveway.

Jensen must have sensed his question because he said, “My dad’s been after me to sign some papers finalizing transfer of ownership of my hotels. I figured since we’re out and about today, I might as well get it done.”

As they got out of the Impala in front of what Jared could only describe as a mansion, he said, “Maybe I should wait for you out here.”

“Nonsense,” Jensen said. “My friends have always been welcomed by my parents. I seriously doubt that’s going to change with you. Come on, Jay. I think you’ll like my parents.”

Jared braced himself and walked inside with Jensen. Though it was Jensen’s family home, Jared still couldn’t help feeling like he’d just broken in and was about to be in serious trouble. He pushed that feeling down and followed Jensen through the house to a family room near the back. Two older people were sitting in armchairs near the fireplace; the man was reading and the woman was crocheting.

Jensen called out, “Hey, Mom, Dad. This is Jared.”

The couple stood and approached Jensen and Jared. Jensen said, “Jared, this is my mother Donna Ackles.”

Jared extended his hand as he said, “Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Ackles.”

Donna eased his hand aside and gave him a hug as she said, “Forget the formality, darling. I’m Donna. And it’s so good to finally meet you.”

As the older man stepped forward, Jensen said, “And this is my father Alan Ackles. You can blame my personality on him.”

Alan said, “Boy, I’d ground your tail for that if you still lived at home. Welcome, Jared. Any friend of Jensen’s is welcome here anytime.” Alan shook Jared’s hand.

Jared said, “Thank you, Mr. Ackles. I appreciate that.”

Alan clapped Jared on the shoulder and said, “There you go with the formality again. It’s Alan, son.”

Jared nodded and said, “Yes, sir, Alan.”

Donna put her arm around the crook of Jared’s elbow and guided him to the large sofa in the room. She said, “What have you boys been up to today?”

As they sat down Jared said, “Jensen has been showing me around Vegas. I particularly loved going horseback riding.”

Alan said, “Jared, you’re telling me that you actually got my son, Jensen Ross Ackles, on a horse? A large living animal? And it wasn’t at gunpoint?”

“Dad!” Jensen exclaimed.

Jared looked between father and son, puzzled at what was happening.

Donna laughed and explained, “Alan used to try to get Jensen to go riding with him all the time. Jensen was always coming up with one excuse after another why he couldn’t.”

The words were out of his mouth before Jared could even think about the consequences of saying them to Jensen’s father, “Maybe you should have tried actually using a gun.”

Alan and Donna burst out laughing as Jensen growled, “For God’s sake, don’t give that old man any ideas!”

“I like this young man, Jensen,” Alan said. “I think he’s already figured out how to handle you.”

Jensen rolled his eyes and said, “Don't you want me to sign some papers, Dad?”

Alan stood and said, “Yeah, kiddo, I do. Let’s go into my office and take care of that.”

When the Ackles men had left the room, Donna said, “Jared, Jensen has told us who you are and what happened. He filled us in that you were misdiagnosed. I realize I’m overstepping here, but I just want you to know that if you need anything, Alan and I are happy to help.”

Jared sighed in relief before saying, “Thank you, Donna. That means a lot to me. I don’t know what I would have done this past week if not for Jensen. He’s been a big help to me.”

Donna said, “You know, in just these few short minutes since we’ve met, I’ve seen a look in my son's eyes that I haven’t seen in years, not since Austin killed himself. I have no doubt in my mind that Jensen will do absolutely anything for you, but it’s going to be hard for him to admit to himself that he cares about you as much as, if not more than, he cared about Austin. And he loved that young man more than his own life. Be patient with him, okay?

“And when he finally gets up the nerve to tell you he loves you, don’t you dare feel you owe him your love out of obligation. That would only hurt you both. But if you do find that you love him, I’ll be one very happy lady.”

Jared’s jaw dropped open in pure shock. He tried to speak only to find his throat was too dry. Donna brought him a glass of cold water. He drank half of it before he was able to even sputter out, “No…he...I...no, ma’am.” He drank the rest of the water so he could make an effort to complete his thought. “Jensen doesn’t…he just...he feels sorry for me.”

Donna chuckled and patted Jared’s knee. She looked him in the eye as she spoke seriously, “Jared, if that’s all it was, Jensen would have bought your siblings’ shares of your house for you and shipped you right back to Arizona. He’s a generous man, my son, but he does the most for the people he cares the most about.”

The rest of the day passed by in a blur for Jared. He didn’t even remember getting back to the penthouse; it was like he was suddenly just there. He didn’t fully come back to himself until, at the dinner table, Loretta snapped, “Jared Padalecki, what’s wrong with you baby?”

Jared took a swallow of his tea and said, “I’m...I’m fine. Just overwhelmed, I guess.”

Jensen spoke softly as he asked, “Jared, you’ve been on autopilot since I came out of my dad’s office. What the hell did my mom say to you?”

Jared looked down at his plate as he said, “Nothing. Really. Like I said, I guess I’m just overwhelmed. I’ve done more today and interacted with more people than I have in the last ten years.” Jared hated lying to Jensen, but there was no way he could tell Jensen what Donna had said.

Loretta said, “Looks like I’m going to be on the phone with Donna Ackles first thing in the morning to find out what she said that hurt my boy.”

“No, Miss Loretta, I swear. Donna didn’t say anything that hurt me. She was nothing but sweet and charming. There’s no need for you to call her about me.”

Loretta looked to Jensen for his opinion. Jensen said, “I don’t think she insulted him. I think she probably brought up Austin.”

Jared nodded and said, “She did mention how much you loved him.”

Jensen narrowed his eyes at Jared, “Did she pull the, ‘hurt my son and they’ll never find your body’ bit?”

Jared laughed. “If she’d said that, I’d still be running east through the desert.”

Loretta still wasn’t satisfied. “Are you sure you’re okay, Jared?”

“I’m fine, I promise. I just need to rest.”

Jared used those last words to excuse himself to his room after dinner was over. He spent the rest of the night going over things in his head to see why Donna had made the assumption that Jensen was in love with him. Jared wasn’t sure he saw it, but then he’d never been around normal relationships. He’d been asking himself why Jensen was so good to him and why he hadn’t thrown him in jail with Chad. He saw that it was entirely possible Donna was right. But how could Jared know for sure?

He didn’t get much sleep that night.

Jensen and Loretta talked Jared into another day of sightseeing with the promise that this one would be more subdued. Jensen called Felicia and told her what he’d like to do. She called back twenty minutes later and gave him the details.

Jared was delighted when Jensen laid out their day.

They were essentially taking the West Rim bus tour of the Grand Canyon without being on the crowded bus. Jensen’s chauffeur drove them to their destination, stopping at the Hoover Dam shortly after the bus had departed. Jared insisted on a dozen photos of the scenery and the two of them, going so far as to beg Jensen’s chauffeur, Mitch Pileggi, to take a couple with them.

From the dam they went to the Grand Canyon. Not being officially with the tour, they could walk where they wanted when they wanted and avoid the crowds so Jared was more comfortable. They sat near the edge of the Canyon and ate the picnic lunch Loretta had packed for the three of them.

Jared asked Mitch, “Is this the first time you’ve interacted with Jensen this long?”

Jensen shook his head as Mitch laughed before answering Jared, “Jensen never treats me with less than the utmost respect. He confides in me when I drive him around. Aside from Carrie Anne and Felicia, I probably know more about his business than anyone. But this is the first time we’ve had a picnic together.”

“He usually leaves you waiting in the car?” Jared asked, giving Jensen a dirty look.

“No!” Jensen exclaimed.

Mitch said, “He seldom goes on excursions like this. I’m usually driving him to business meetings and such. I keep my ereader, drinks, and snacks in the car so I’m comfortable while I’m waiting for him. Not sure how his business associates would feel about his chauffeur attending meetings with him.”

Jared nodded and said, “That’s good.”

Mitch, though somewhat amused, was confused and asked, “May I ask what made you think Jensen wasn’t good to me?”

Jensen said, “He thinks he’s distracting me by trying to give me hell, but I’m on to him.”

Jared turned his face away from Jensen trying to hide his grin.

“What in the world,” Mitch laughed, “would he be trying to distract you from?”

All Jensen said was, “He met my parents yesterday.”

It was Mitch nodding now. “That explains it. What did Donna say, Jared?”

Jared jerked his head around to look at Mitch. “Why does everyone think she said something to me?”

Mitch said, “Jensen’s mother is one of the sweetest, most loving women on the planet, but she has a bluntness that can and has made grown men cry.”

Jared said, “She was nothing but polite to me. She even told me that if I need anything I should let her know.”

Jensen smiled, “That’s my mom. She definitely likes you, Jared, but I still think she said something that upset you. I’m not going to push you about it, but I will make sure it doesn’t happen again if you want me to.”

Jared let out an exasperated sigh. “Jensen.”

Mitch said, “You might as well tell him, Jared. If you don’t, he’ll give her hell until she does.”

Jared shook his head and looked away as he said, “She told me I shouldn’t feel obligated to be with you when you finally tell me you love me.”

Mitch tried unsuccessfully to hide his laughter.

Jensen said, “I’m going to kill her,” before getting up and stalking off.

Jared started to go after him, but Mitch stopped him. “Let him walk it off, Jared. He’s had this kind of trouble with his mother before. She has a habit of putting him in uncomfortable situations to make him face his feelings. But you know what? She’s usually right, and I think she is this time too.”

“What makes you think that?”

“I’ve worked for this family nearly as long as Loretta has. This is the first time since he started taking over the US casinos that Jensen Ackles has gone on a picnic during a business day. That’s because he wanted to do it for you and with you.”

 

Jensen

 

Jensen was furious. No wonder Jared was acting so odd. After everything he’d been through and everything he’d learned about his family, she’d turned around and thrown this at him. Jensen wouldn’t blame him if Jared did start running east and never looked back. 

He pulled his cell from his pocket and hit number six on his speed dial. His mother answered on the second ring.

“Jensen, how are you, darling?”

“What the hell did you do, Mother?”

“What do you mean, Jensen?”

“Tell me exactly what you said to Jared.”

“I simply told him the truth that you and I both know. And I told him not to let a sense of obligation color his feelings for you.”

Jensen snapped, “Damn it, Mom. He didn’t need that right now. You know what he’s been through, but you don't know how hard it’s been on him. He’s just now learning that he’s good enough to be loved for who he is. You can’t just throw something like this at a man who’s only ever thought himself barely good enough to exist.”

His mother spoke calmly and coolly, much like Jensen had spoken to Jared at the start. “Jensen, I think you’re underestimating Jared, and I’m certain you’re underestimating yourself.”

Jensen was only mildly calmer as he replied, “The man you saw yesterday looked you in the eye. You saw the calm façade. You didn’t see how nervous he was to even walk through the door of your house for fear of you rejecting him and sending him away. He’s not ready to even think about relationships yet, much less have one pushed in his face.”

“You told me yourself that he’s doing better.”

“Yeah, I said he’s doing better. I didn’t say he’d overcome everything he’s been through. I also didn’t say that he still fights panic attacks. I also didn’t say he still fights to look people in the eye when he’s talking to them. I didn’t say all that because I didn’t think I needed to.

“Mom, he was so shaken up that he didn’t even realize when we got home. I had to nudge him and tell him to get out of the car. Then I had to guide him inside and to the elevator like he didn’t even know where he was. It was like he was in a fugue state, and I’m betting he had a panic attack with you, didn’t he?”

“He...well he seemed to have some trouble getting his words out; I got him some water, but he still had some trouble. But he managed to tell me you’re not in love with him but feel sorry for him. I know better than that. You love that boy, Jensen.”

“Yes, I do, but that’s not the topic of discussion, is it? You just had to set him up to confront me so I’d confront myself. You didn’t even stop to think that less than two weeks ago that man thought he had Asperger’s syndrome and lived an essentially solitary and lonely life, prone to panic attacks and extraordinary shyness around even people he knew!”

“Oh my God! Son, you’re right. I’m so sorry. I don’t know why I didn’t consider that. He just seemed so confident and, well, normal. Is he okay?”

“He started to snap out of it at dinner last night but he wouldn’t tell me what you said until just a while ago. He asked that we not be around too many people today, but at least he’s talking and making eye contact again.”

“I am so sorry, Jensen. I know Jared is the one I should apologize to, but I doubt you’re going to let me anywhere near him for a while.”

“Right on all counts, Mom. I love you, and always will, but I’m so upset with you right now that I could damn near consider selling my shares of Ace High and leaving Vegas for good.”

“Jensen, please.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll calm down. Just don’t expect to hear from me for a while. I love you.”

Jensen disconnected the call and ran his hand down his face. He knew he needed to control his anger and get back to Jared so he could try to fix this mess somehow. He just wasn’t sure he could; he’d never had so much trouble getting control of his emotions, and he wasn't sure he could fix things with Jared.

 

Jared

 

Jared and Jensen were quiet at dinner, both stuck in their own heads with their thoughts.

Loretta finally broke the silence. “Neither one of you boys is eating much. Did you stop for dinner on the way home?”

“No, ma’am, Miss Loretta,” Jared said softly.

“Well then, which one of you am I going to scold for hurting the other’s feelings?”

They both looked at her with surprise on their faces.

She huffed and ordered, “Don’t give me that look, either of you. You both know what I’m talking about. Something’s wrong, and neither of you is talking about it so I can only conclude that one of you said or did something that hurt the other.”

Jensen put his fork down on his plate. “My mother, being her usual helpful self,” he began sarcastically, “told Jared that I’m in love with him. That’s why he had a panic attack at my parents’ house and was walking around like he was in a trance for hours yesterday. She scared the fuck out of him.”

“No, she didn’t,” Jared said. “I mean, yeah, she told me that you...she didn’t scare me, just shocked me.”

Jensen made an abortive move to touch Jared’s arm before he said, “Jared, I’m so sorry she did that. She’s not usually so insensitive, but she’s really never dealt with an autistic person. No, you’re not autistic, but you’ve lived your whole life as though you are. She has no idea how that has affected you.

“I called her when I walked away from our picnic today. I raised hell at her for what she said to you. She had no idea what effect her words would have, and she’s sorry. I know that doesn’t make it better. I have no idea how to fix things between us, but I want to try if you’ll let me.”

Jared was surprised. He said, “There’s nothing to fix, Jensen. I’m sorry I scared you and that I’m the reason you argued with your mother. It’s just...you know I’ve wondered why you’re so good to me. When she said you love me, it felt like I had fallen into Wonderland with Alice. That anyone, especially someone as amazing as you, could possibly love me is something I’ve never thought possible.

“When she said it, I started thinking about every conversation, every action, just - everything since security brought me up to your office. Your mom talked about a look that was on your face yesterday; she said that she hadn’t seen that expression since Austin. Mitch told me this was the first day you’ve been on a picnic since you started taking over the casinos from your dad. I realized what your mom said is possible. I just don’t know if it’s true.”

“It’s true,” Jensen said. “Given all you’ve been through and had to face, I had no intention of telling you any time soon. You’ve got enough to deal with. And don’t feel guilty about my mom and me arguing. That’s been coming for a while. I love her, and she loves me, but she has a habit of trying to manipulate situations to produce the outcome she feels is inevitable. It’s like she has some aversion to letting things unfold on their own.”

Jared glanced up to see Loretta sitting back in her chair smiling. Jensen noticed and asked, “What are you smiling at, woman?”

She replied, “As much as I hate that Donna didn’t take into consideration Jared’s mental and emotional states, it looks like she’s done it again.”

Jensen snarled, “You’re almost as bad as she is. And I admitted I love Jared, but it seems to have escaped your notice that he hasn’t reciprocated.”

Jared spoke up, “That’s because she already knows I love you.”

Loretta laughed at the flabbergasted look on Jensen’s face. “What did you think we talked about while you were at work, Jensen?”

“I assumed you talked about books or cards or Alabama. How was I supposed to know you were talking about me?”

Jared chuckled softly. “I had a lot of questions about you. Even more about me. Loretta helped me realize that what I feel isn’t gratitude or obligation. If those things could influence my feelings, I would have been in love with Chad since he was the first person to take time with me.”

Jensen growled at the thought of Jared loving Murray. He took deep breaths to calm himself down as Loretta and Jared laughed at him.

He finally calmed himself down and asked, “You really love me, Jay?”

Jared took Jensen’s hand and said, “I really do, Jen.”

“Most people would say we’re moving too fast here.”

Jared huffed. “Considering Loretta, Mitch, and your own mother are in favor of it, I’d tell most people to screw off.”

Jensen laughed and said, “You’ve been spending entirely too much time with my employees.”

Jared replied, “I spent entirely too much time with Chad. Thank God that’s over.”

Jensen’s smile could have outshone the sun. Jared wanted to lean over and kiss him, but he wouldn’t do that in front of Loretta. Instead he asked, “So what excitement are we in for tomorrow?”

“How would you like to be a temporary employee at the casino tomorrow?”

Jared was nearly bouncing in his seat with excitement. “Really? I’m not qualified for it.”

Loretta demanded, “Jensen Ackles, what are you up to?”

“Well,” Jensen said, “Jared enjoyed shadowing Chris and Jeff so I thought I might show him what roamers do. The only reason I’d have to put him on the payroll as a temp is because he’ll be interacting with guests.”

Jared asked, “You’re just going to send me out on my own?”

“No way would I do that to you,” Jensen said. “I’ll be with you, training you.”

“Then I’m all for it,” Jared said.

Jensen took his cell phone from his pocket and dialed a number. When it was answered on the other end, he said, “I need a uniform shirt in Jared’s size and a name tag for him sent up as soon as possible...Thanks, And could you tell Jeff to send Jared’s file to HR and get paperwork started?...Good. I’m starting him as a temp roamer today...I don’t know yet. He may not even want to do it after one shift...No, I’ll be training him so I need you to do what paperwork you can...Thanks, Carrie Anne, you’re the best.”

“Jensen Ackles!” Loretta scolded.

“What? He’s just a roamer. Besides, he may not like it at all.”

Jared asked, “What’s a roamer?”

Loretta answered before Jensen could and didn’t stop staring at him even as she spoke to Jared, “Essentially they’re an assistant general manager over all operations who takes all the crap guests want to dish out.”

“They are not,” Jensen argued. “Jared, a roamer walks the hotel from top to bottom and keeps an eye open for anything out of place: too many people in rooms, people too drunk in any area, an employee breaking rules, things like that. If and when they spot anything, they use their radio to call the person in charge of that area. They only get directly involved if they are certain it won’t escalate beyond their ability to handle, like a couple arguing in the hallway. An hour before shift is over, they fill out reports on incidents and fill in the next shift about ongoing incidents.”

Jared nearly bounced in his chair. “I can handle that.”

Loretta spoke up again. “What Jensen is leaving out is that roamers are the first ones to get yelled at by guests, the only ones unable to pacify guests with so much as a free drink or extra towels, and the ones blamed when incidents aren’t caught in time to prevent situations for which law enforcement needs to be called.”

Jensen countered, “First, every employee gets yelled at by guests sooner or later, and Jared has already proven he can handle that. Second, roamers need to roam, they don’t have time to fetch extra towels and such. That’s why they call Samantha, Chris, Alona, or whomever is appropriate. Third, the only time a roamer is blamed for escalated incidents in my casinos is if they haven’t been doing their jobs. And that was one time because that roamer was in the restroom smoking pot instead of walking the building.”

Jared sat back in his chair and smiled. He could sit and watch these two argue all day long. It was a loving, never-ending back and forth if someone or something didn’t interrupt them.

Jared cleared his throat and said, “First, why not give the roamer coupons or cards for free drinks to give the guests? And shouldn’t a good roamer be able to calm a guest by calling for extra linen right in front of them? Second, why not be a little more selective during the hiring process and give the position a bit more authority? Then they would be able to throw out unruly guests, even if they need security for back up. Or they could give the final word they know managers or you would.”

Jensen looked at Loretta and said, “Still think it’s a bad idea?”

“I swear you two are gonna give this old woman a heart attack, but I need to stop being overprotective of you both,” she said as she shook her head.

Jared said earnestly, "We love you just the way you are, Miss Loretta. We don't want you to change at all. But if you're that worried about it then I won’t do it."

Jensen agreed, saying "Jared's right Loretta. We love you to death and we don’t want to worry you over nothing."

“Oh hush, you two. You're gonna make this old woman cry. Jared, I don't care what rules and regulations say, you hit first if there’s trouble down there, you hear me?”

“Yes, ma’am, Miss Loretta,” he answered with a big smile.

The next morning, Jared and Jensen went downstairs to Jensen's office. Carrie Anne had a bag from HR waiting for Jared; it contained a name tag and a uniform shirt for him. He went into Jensen's private bathroom to get changed while Jensen made a phone call to Mark Sheppard. Once Jared had signed the paperwork Carrie Anne had brought in with his uniform, he and Jensen left the office to start his training as a roamer.

The morning was uneventful other than a few employees staring covertly because they weren’t used to seeing Jensen roaming the building. Jared was actually enjoying himself, and Jensen seemed to be as well. They decided to eat lunch at The Land of Oz because Jared had enjoyed it so much when he’d gone with Chris. Osric Chau owned the restaurant, and when he heard Jensen was eating lunch there, he went above and beyond the call of duty serving him and Jared.

In the rare moment no one was at or approaching their table, Jared asked, “Do you get treated like this all the time?”

Jensen chuckled and answered, “Hardly. I usually get treated well anywhere I go in Vegas, but Os goes overboard. He’s afraid I’m going to make him close the restaurant.”

“Why does he think that?”

“Because I told him I was going to if I ever caught him hitting on my sister again,” Jensen said nonchalantly.

“Good grief, Jensen. Why would you scare the poor guy like that?”

Jensen just shrugged. “She’s my sister.”

Jared wasn’t sure he understood that. He knew he would feel that way about Jensen and Loretta, and even Chris and Felicia. He just wasn’t sure he would be at all protective of Megan or Jeff. He probably would have when he was younger, but now? Now he’d be more likely to encourage Os just to make his siblings uncomfortable.

Jared flashed back to how angry Jensen had been when he’d learned what Tom had done in the restroom. He felt a warm flush as he realized Jensen would protect him just as he would his sister. After twenty-one years, it was an odd experience to finally feel loved after feeling so unwanted.

After lunch, they went to the pit. They split up and walked the room after Jensen was sure Jared knew what to watch for. Jared didn’t have an earpiece so he couldn’t call when he saw the croupier at one of the poker tables deal a player two cards at once, one of which was an ace. 

He looked around the area; there wasn’t one employee in sight. Jared spotted a security camera up in one corner. He turned his back to the table and stared at the camera until he knew someone had to have spotted him. Then, overtly, keeping his hand between his body and the camera, he pointed at the table behind him.

It was a friend of the player who saw what he did because he was suddenly pushed from behind. When he turned around, he was facing both the player and a man who looked like he could block the entire offensive line of the Dallas Cowboys.

The player shoved at his chest and demanded, “What the hell do you think you’re doing trying to narc us out to the casino? You trying to get your ass kicked or what?”

Jared rose to his full height. He remembered what Loretta said about him hitting first, but he wasn’t sure that would help. It was two against one, and each of the men facing him was easily twice his size in mass. He scanned the area, but there was still no sign of assistance.

Just two weeks ago, this was the kind of situation that would have sent Jared running to safety as fast as his legs would take him. Now, there was no way in hell he was letting these assholes get away with stealing from the casino and from Jensen.

He spoke with a rougher tone of voice than he’d ever used in his life as he said, “Sir, if you’ll take a good look at me, you’ll realize that I work for the casino, and you’ve already been caught. Now, if you’ll please follow me, I’m sure we can get this settled at the cage.” Where security is, Jared didn’t add.

The player puffed out his own chest and said, “I been playing in this casino for years, and I ain’t never seen you, boy. You wanna try me? I know the owner, and he’ll damn well side with me over some punk kid his little boy just hired.”

Jensen spoke up from behind Jared, “I seriously doubt that since we’ve got you and Katherine on video cheating, Uncle Aleks.”

Jared looked around to see Jensen, Chris, Jeff, and a half dozen security guys surrounding him and the two men.

Jensen continued speaking, “I’ve put up with you since I took over, but now, thanks to my friend here,” he moved to stand shoulder to shoulder with Jared, “I’ve got all the proof I need.”

Jensen stepped even closer to the men, security keeping a tight line moving in with him, and said slowly and distinctly, “You are out of here for good. You are not to set foot in any Ace High franchise in any country. If you do, you’re going to jail. Am I clear?”

The one Jensen had called Aleks said, “Boy, you ain’t got no say over me. I’ll kick yours and your lover boy’s faggot asses, you hear me?”

Jared had had enough. He said, “Jeff, call the police. I’m not tolerating threats on my watch.”

The other, bigger man tried to take a swing at Jared. Jared ducked low, braced his hands on the floor, and kicked up. His kick landed on the big man’s knee, and the big man dropped like a rock. Jared stood as security restrained the fallen bully.

While the big man on the floor struggled with security behind his friend, Jared faced Aleks and said, “You want to take your shot now?”

It turned out that Aleks did indeed want to take his shot, but not at Jared. Aleks threw a punch at Jensen. Before Jensen could react, Jared grabbed Aleks’s fist in the air and bent the man’s arm backward. Now that the big man on the floor was under control, three security guards swarmed them and took Aleks to the floor to restrain him.

That’s when Jensen's earlier words sank in: “Uncle Aleks.” Oh, shit! Jared thought. I nearly broke Jensen’s uncle’s arm! He turned to Jensen and couldn’t look him in the eye after an entire morning of doing just that.

Jensen took Jared’s arm and guided him away from the crowds and into the large entryway of the hotel. They walked to a fairly isolated area. Jared saw Katherine being escorted out even as the police arrived to arrest Aleks and his friend. Jared started breathing heavily, his hands started shaking, and he couldn’t stand still.

Jensen ran his hand up and down Jared’s arm softly and said, “I know what you’re thinking, Jared. Calm down. Aleks is not really my uncle. I never could stand the man. He was my dad’s college roommate. That’s all. Everything you did in the last half hour was the right thing.”

Jared finally looked Jensen in the eye and asked, “You aren’t angry at me?”

“Hell no,” Jensen said. “You gave me what I needed to finally stop that bastard from coming here again. Angry? I’m grateful and proud, Jared. Thank you.”

Jared finally calmed down and asked, “So what do we do now?”

“We give our statements to the police and then finish our shift. We’ll write up reports later and they’ll go to my office. Are you okay to do that or would you rather call it a day?”

Jared shook his head. “I’m fine now. I want to finish my shift.”

While Jensen was getting an earpiece for Jared, he asked, “Jared wasn’t there an earpiece with your shirt?”

“There was nothing in the bag but the shirt and nametag. I even shook the shirt by the hem to make it easier to put on. Nothing fell out or off of it.”

“Well, you’ve got one now. Let’s get a cold drink before we get back to work,” he suggested.

Jensen didn’t leave Jared’s side for the rest of the day.

Word spread fast about the incident. Some employees gave Jared dirty looks for getting a croupier fired, others looked at him with open admiration and respect, but none of them dared piss him off.

After Jensen taught him how to do the reports, Jared said, “I want to see Jeff before I go home. I’ll meet you there, okay?”

It was obvious that Jensen was curious, but he agreed. Jared knocked on Jeff’s door.

“Come in,” Jeff said as he looked up from writing his own reports. “Jared, good to see you. You did a good job out there today.”

“Thanks,” Jared said as he walked further into the office. “I wanted to apologize to you.”

Jeff indicated the chair across from his desk so Jared sat down and said, “I overstepped my bounds today. I ordered you to call the police even though I’m well aware I have no authority over you. I was just so pissed.”

Jeff smiled as he said, “I appreciate that you respect my position, but I’m not the only one who can make the decision to involve the police. You were there on the scene before the rest of us. You knew how far the bastard had already escalated things. You were the one he was being an ass to. In that situation, you damn well did have the authority to order police involvement.

“We have a chain of command, and we use it, but we also realize that extenuating circumstances occasionally call for a different order in the chain. We work as a team. That’s what makes us good. We failed you today, and not for the first time. Jensen’s ordered a meeting of all security personnel tomorrow, and I know he’s going to raise hell at all of us for it.”

“Over me?” Jared asked.

“Over the lapses we’ve had in just the last two weeks. Those lapses just happen to involve you. I have to admit that’s another thing I’m grateful to you for. We might not have seen it if not for you.”

Jared nodded and stood to go. He said, “I just didn’t want you to think I was using Jensen’s friendship to get my own way. I wanted you to know how much I respect you and the job you do. So if I ever do step over the line, don’t hesitate to put me back in my place, okay?”

Jeff chuckled. “I’ve seen absolutely nothing to indicate you would do that, Jared. You’ve had a long day. Go home and get some food and a good night’s rest.”

Jared was smiling as he left Jeff’s office.

 

Jensen

 

Jensen grinned when Jared came to breakfast dressed in his uniform. They had discussed it the evening before at dinner, to which Loretta had been furious, not that Jensen hadn’t been, but she’d had different reasons. Jensen had no doubt Alan Ackles would be getting a call from an irate Loretta Divine sometime during the morning.

Jensen, however, was furious at his employees and was planning to bring down the wrath of god on them this morning. Jared had no idea what was coming, and Jensen had no intention of frightening him off.

As they left the cage heading to a conference room for the meeting, Jared said, “Jensen, why don’t I recognize any of the staff today?”

“They all work at the other casinos in town. I asked for volunteers to work here for a few hours in exchange for a full day’s pay. I want all the staff from this building in this meeting.”

Jared was stunned. Jensen had slipped into work mode as soon as the elevator doors opened in security, but now he was downright frightening. He followed his boss to the conference room without further conversation. Jared started to take a seat in the back of the room, but Jensen ushered him closer to the front. He did, however, give Jared the comfort of sitting to the side of the room rather than the center.

Jensen took the dais and said, “Good morning. I want to thank you all for being here on very short notice. I have good news and bad news.

“The good news is that from now on, things are going to be much better around here. Operations are going to run more smoothly than ever before, security is going to be tightened, and guests are going to feel safer and happier.

“The bad news is that achieving this means making some big changes. For some of you, those changes will be accompanied by severance pay.”

There was murmuring all through the crowd. Jensen held his hand up for quiet.

“As many of you are aware, I have a house guest who’s been with me for the past week or so. Some of the changes about to be enacted are due to things I’ve seen since his arrival. Let me make this perfectly clear: he is not to be blamed for any of my decisions. He is not responsible. It could easily have been my sister, cousin, parents, or a stranger to bring these things to light. Just because things have happened since he’s been here doesn't mean any of it is his fault. Anyone who blames him for the changes about to occur might as well turn in your notice at the end of this meeting because mouthing off about him or treating him with anything less than the respect you would treat me will get you fired.

“I asked yesterday for a uniform for a roamer to be delivered to my office. I’d like to know who sent it.”

A young woman in the back of the room stood.

“Why didn’t you send an earpiece with the roamer’s uniform?”

The young woman stuttered as she spoke, “There wasn’t one with it on the shelf.”

Jensen asked calmly, “Did you not know to get one from the supply closet?”

“No, sir. No one told me.”

Jensen looked around the room and asked, “Who didn’t train this employee on which uniforms always get earpieces and show her where they’re stored?”

A middle-aged man on the other side of the room stood nervously.

“What’s your name, sir?” Jensen asked.

“Fred Lehne, Mr. Ackles.”

“Mr. Lehne,” Jensen said. “Why wasn’t staff trained correctly regarding earpieces for roamers?”

Lehne said, “Usually whoever picks up uniforms checks to make sure everything required is there.”

Jensen’s eyes narrowed as he asked, “Are you aware of a security incident that took place in the poker area of the pit yesterday?”

Lehne said, “I heard bits and pieces about it. I don’t know everything or if what I heard is accurate.”

“Well, let me fill you in,” Jensen said. “I personally hired a new roamer yesterday. His uniform was sent to my office. Trusting my staff as I do, I didn’t feel the need to check it. Turns out there was no earpiece with the uniform. The new roamer, first day on the job, found himself in a faceoff in the pit with two men twice his size and no way to call for assistance. That is totally unacceptable. Mr. Lehne, as you are unable to properly do your job and train staff correctly, your services are no longer required. You can pick up your severance pay from Miss Fleming at the door on your way out.”

Lehne stormed out of the room as Jensen pretended to look at his notes while waiting for the chatter to die down.

He raised his head and his voice to be heard. “From now on there will be a list of required items for each position in this building. It will be posted in the storage rooms by the uniforms, posted in HR, distributed to managers and supervisors, and given to new employees so they don’t face anything like what happened yesterday. There will be a form that will be filled out and signed by the employee issuing and the employee receiving a uniform. Failure to do so is now a terminable offense.”

Jensen stared at face after face around the conference room. “This isn’t me being a cocky bastard. This is me trying to protect my employees, all of my employees, and my guests. It’s a matter of safety for everyone. If those two players had assaulted the new roamer before assistance arrived, the employee could have been badly hurt, and so could guests. Anyone willing to see that happen can get your severance and leave my property right now.”

When no one moved, Jensen continued, “In the same incident with the new roamer, a dealer was caught cheating the house for a player; she was terminated immediately. Overnight review of the last week of security footage revealed more cheating croupiers. Brianna Buckmaster, James Patrick Stewart, Travis Aaron Wade, Brit Sheridan, and Misha Collins, your names and video have been submitted to the state licensing board. Pick up your severance pay and leave.”

Only Sheridan’s posture revealed shame at her actions. The rest left the room clearly angry.

Jensen continued, “Again, I’m not trying to be a cocky bastard. Fair play keeps our guests returning which keeps you employed. Cheating hurts us all, and I won’t have it.

“While doing some roaming of my own yesterday, I noticed quite a number of hotel staff lunching at the same time. Ms. Smith, are you aware of this?”

Samantha stood and said, “Yes, sir, Mr. Ackles. One of our own just retired; yesterday was her last day. I made sure to schedule extra staff so that those who had worked with her the longest could join her for one last lunch to wish her well.”

Jensen smiled and said, “That’s the kind of report I like to hear. Are you having any issues in the hotel, Ms. Smith?”

Samantha nodded her head. “In fact, I am. We have a thief. Bed linen and towels are vanishing from supply. An inventory done two days ago shows we’re short three dozen towels, a dozen spreads, and two dozen sets of sheets as well as multiple cleaning supplies.”

“Any idea where they’re going?”

“Oh, major idea; zero proof as of yet.”

Jensen looked in Jeff’s direction and said, “Mr. Morgan?”

Jeff stood and answered the unspoken question. “I’ve ordered the installation of a dozen new cameras in the hotel area: two in each of the three storage areas, one in each of the two break areas, one in each of the three loading docks, and the last one on the employee parking lot.”

Jensen nodded and said, “That’s good. I don’t want to restrict what employees can bring to work, but I will if necessary. For now, it’s a request that no one brings large bags, or if you need them for lunch or street clothes, please use clear bags.

“I sincerely hope whoever is stealing is feeling pretty shitty right now because of what your coworkers are going to have to endure due to your behavior. I don’t want thieves or dishonest people working for me. I want us to be a family that can and does rely on each other. Please remember, your chance for severance is now, not later. If this is not the job for you, no one will think less of you for leaving now.”

Three people in the back of the room got up, took their severance from Carrie Anne, and left.

“The same goes for anyone who would corner another person in the restroom and assault them. Yes, that also happened this week. If you feel something like that can be at all justified, please take your severance now because you’re not wanted here.”

Tom Welling’s best friend David Paetkau got up and walked out with his severance.

“Now for the last item on my list: security. Where the hell were you people and why was an entire section of the pit vacant of any employees except dealers?”

When no one dared speak, Jeff stood and growled, “You know what’s going to happen if you don’t answer the man now.”

Conner Stanhope and Tyler Johnston finally stood in the center of the room. Conner said, “We were watching the show across the hall.”

Jensen’s jaw began to visibly tic, “So because you were fascinated by half-naked women, there was an incident that could have led to guest injuries that you weren’t even aware of until it was over?”

Tyler stammered, “Y - yes, sir.”

Jensen shook his head. “You are two very lucky young men. If anyone had been injured, you could personally have been sued for negligence of duty. And I damn sure would have helped the injured party with their case.”

Both young men went very pale, very fast.

“Get your severance and get out,” Jensen told them.

They nearly ran from the room.

“Is there anything any of you would like to discuss while we’re all here? I mean it, anything you want to talk about, I’m ready to listen,” Jensen said.

A young woman, barely old enough to work in a casino, stood timidly and said, “Mr. Ackles, since quite a few people left or were fired today, would it be okay if I bring an application home to my dad? He’s a good, dependable worker, but he’s having trouble finding a job. He’d do anything you need him to.”

Jensen asked, “What’s your name?”

“Madison McLaughlin, sir.”

“Ms. McLaughlin, what was your dad’s last job?”

“He was a researcher for a local private detective, but he got hurt in a hunting accident. Before he was well enough to return to work, the PI had hired someone else.”

Jensen looked at Chris who was sitting near Jared. Chris nodded at Jensen.

Jensen nodded at the young woman and said, “You take him an application and tell him to ask for Chris Kane when he brings it back. If there’s anything he can do, Chris will do it.”

Madison let out a huge sigh and said, “Thank you, Mr. Ackles.”

Jensen looked around and asked, “Anyone else?”

Jensen was shocked when Jared stood up and asked, “Mr. Ackles, have you given any thought to adjusting the duties of roamers after yesterday?”

Jensen replied, “I actually have. I’m working on those modifications and plan to implement them as soon as we’ve hired a couple of new roamers.”

Chris stood up next and asked, “Would you like us to go ahead and review applications on file to fill the empty positions or would you prefer we wait and advertise for more applicants?”

“I think we should review current applications given the current number of vacant positions.”

When all the questions were asked and answered, Jensen said, “Okay, everyone, take a half hour break and get back to work. Those of you who came in on your day off will receive time and a half for this meeting. Thank you all for being part of our family.”

Jensen and Jared left the meeting together. They didn’t speak a word until they reached the security office and had coffee in their hands.

Jared asked, “How often do you do something like that?”

Jensen shook his head and answered, “That was the first time. I honestly expected to lose more than twelve people.”

“I have to admit,” Jared said, “I finally found you intimidating.”

Jensen laughed and felt some of the tension leave his body. “I hope I never have to do anything like that again. You know I lied to you in there, right?”

“You haven’t even thought about roamer duties at all,” Jared said with a grin.

“I have,” Jensen objected strongly. “I just haven’t had time to sit down and work them out. But if you have time, you could make a list of suggestions for me.”

“Are you really going to hire new roamers?”

“I have to. Three just walked, including the supervisor. That leaves us with four, counting you. I see now that I need at least ten, if not twelve.”

“So who’s my current supervisor?” Jared asked.

Jeff joined them, saying, “That would be me. The roamer supervisor reports to me, so in the absence of one, I’m it.”

Jensen said to Jared, “You don’t have to keep doing this just because we’re short. I can always pull a couple from the other casinos.”

Jared snorted. “It sounds like you may have to do that anyway. And, Jeff, if I can help you at all, just let me know.”

Jeff just patted Jared on the shoulder and smiled before walking to his office.

Jensen said, “I’d better get to my own office and get some work done. Loretta will kick my tail if I work all night.”

“Yeah, I’ve got to get to work too. My bosses are real slave drivers.”

Jensen went to the elevator laughing while Jared went roaming.

 

Jared

 

Jared started with the cage, went through the pit, and then worked his way upstairs. He was stopped by a couple of guests along the way, and he was actually able to answer the question the first guest asked. He had to call Samantha for the second’s request for more towels and received the gratitude of a young couple.

Working his way back downstairs, he encountered a man using a screwdriver to try to get into a room.

“May I help you, sir?” he asked.

The man jumped at the sound of Jared’s voice. His eyes darted everywhere as he said, “I was just trying to get into my room; I can’t seem to find my key.”

“I believe I can help you with that,” Jared said in a friendly manner. He pushed the small button on his earpiece and said, “Code Thirteen, Room Eighteen-twenty-four.”

The man asked, “What’s Code Thirteen?”

“It’s a request for assistance at a guest’s room,” Jared stated a half truth. Code Thirteen was actually a request for security. After Jensen’s performance at the staff meeting, it didn’t take long at all for Jeff and two other security men to arrive from different directions.

The man said, “What the hell is going on?”

Jared answered with his own question, “Sir, why would you use a screwdriver to try breaking into your room rather than going downstairs to get a new key?”

The man dropped the screwdriver and ran. Security had him down in seconds. It turned out the man was trying to get into his ex-wife’s room to plant drugs so he could get custody of their kid.

Jared left Jeff and his men to it and continued his rounds.

When he made it back down to the pit, Jared encountered some strange looks from some of the dealers, but nothing that struck him as hostile. He continued through to the blackjack area and saw that there was no security in the room. He radioed Jeff to meet him there.

“Hey, Jared, what’s up?” Jeff asked as he joined Jared at the side of the room.

Jared said, “I didn’t want to say this over the radio, but there’s no security in here; hasn’t been since I came in just before I radioed you.”

Jeff was furious. “I just assigned a man to the area less than an hour ago.”

Jared tried to calm him down. “Maybe he needed a restroom break.”

“He should have gotten someone to fill in if that were the case.”

“Is anyone available with us short staffed?”

“Yeah, I’ve always got a floater on duty just for that reason.”

“Maybe he got sick and didn’t have time to call?” Jared suggested.

Alona walked up to them and handed Jeff a note. “This was left for you at one of the tables.”

Jeff said, “Thanks, Al.”

Jeff opened the note and read it. He said, "Son of a bitch! The bastard up and quit."

“What? Why would he do that now when he could have gotten the severance this morning?” Jared asked.

“Considering he’s a smart-ass little punk who thinks he’s better than all of us, he probably did it just to piss me off. He didn’t even care that it cost him the severance or that he’s going to have a hard time finding another job.”

“Go do whatever you have to do, Jeff. I’ll stay here until you can get a replacement for him.”

Jeff patted Jared’s shoulder and said, “Thanks, man. I’ll be as quick as I can.”

Jeff got a guy to come in on his day off, but the man wasn’t there before Jared had to intervene at a table.

A cocktail server was refusing to continue serving a man, and Jared could easily see why. The tall stranger was slurring his words, swaying harshly in his seat, and reaching for a drink on the server’s tray but missing because he was seeing at least double, if not triple; and he was escalating - his voice was getting louder and angrier as he demanded another drink.

Jared calmly walked over and said to the man, “Hey, guy, forget this. I know a place with even better drinks and less hassle.”

The server looked at Jared like he was crazy, but the man just nodded and loudly agreed to go with him. Jared led the man to the tank and put a cup of strong coffee in front of the guy. He let Tahmoh Penikett, the security guy who had met them at the cage door, know what was going on and returned to the blackjack tables to find the call-in already in position.

Jared walked up to the man and said, “I’m sorry you had to come in on your day off. Thank you for that.”

The guy, his name tag read Alex Calvert, snidely said, “Yeah, you appreciate it so much that you weren’t even covering the position until I got here like you said you would.”

Jared rose to his full height and deepened his voice as he said, “That’s a hell of an assumption to make, Mr. Calvert, and an erroneous one, at that. It just so happens that I had to get a drunk to the tank and am now just returning. This job sometimes requires the ability to make judgement calls; it sometimes requires the ability to get the facts. I suggest you learn when to judge and when to ask. Anyway, as I said, thanks for coming in on your day off.”

Jared turned to walk away and nearly ran into Jensen.

“Jen, I mean, Mr. Ackles, how are you sir? Is there something you need?”

Jensen nodded at Jared and said, “Mr. Padalecki,” as he walked past him to Calvert. Jensen was calm and professional as he said, “Mr. Calvert, I couldn’t help overhearing part of the conversation you and Mr. Padalecki were having. Do you have an issue I can help with?”

Calvert calmly said, “No, sir, Mr. Ackles. I misjudged a situation, and Mr. Padalecki cleared it up for me. I apologize to you both for the misunderstanding.”

Jared could see that the young man was sincere. He didn’t want anything more to come of this, but he couldn’t say anything without being unprofessional. Fortunately, Jensen sensed the same thing.

Nodding, Jensen said, “That’s good. And I add my appreciation to Mr. Padalecki’s. Thank you for coming in on short notice, Mr. Calvert.”

With all three men smiling at the positive outcome of the conversation, Jared excused himself. He finished his shift without further incident before going back to an empty cubicle in the security office to begin writing his shift report.

He was home and sitting at the dinner table with a plate full of delicious food when Jensen brought up a subject that surprised Jared.

Jensen said, “You’ve come quite a long way in less than two weeks, Jared.”

Jared looked up at him, a bite of roasted potato paused between his plate and mouth. “I...really?”

Jensen tried to hide his smile by taking a bite of pot roast. Loretta fastidiously took a bite of salad.

Flashes of memory flew through Jared’s head: Jeff throwing a toy car at him to make him go away; Megan shooing him away when she was on the phone with her friend; his mom pushing him out of the kitchen when she was cooking; his dad yelling at him to stay out of his office; Chad telling him the only thing he was good for was cards so he might as well do something good with it; Jensen, a stranger, singing to calm him down; Loretta talking to him as she prepared him a snack, even though Jared didn’t respond much; Chris telling him what a good thing it was that he found the hole in coverage; Jeff not being angry that he ordered the police called; Felicia spending hours patiently playing games with him and chatting away; Jensen’s gratitude for helping catch Aleks; the feeling of being unwanted; the feeling of being respected. 

Jared realized that since he’d been here he’d smiled, laughed, cried, sworn, and, most important to him, he’d been looking people in the eye. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d looked at someone’s chin or nose when talking to them. He really had come a long way. It shocked him to realize it.

He said, “Yeah, I guess I have,” and ate his roasted potato.

Loretta said, “Damn right you have, baby.”

Jensen chuckled as Jared gasped at Loretta’s word choice.

Jared asked, “Since when do you use words like that?”

She replied, “I use them on occasion when I want to emphasize my point.”

Jensen added, “Don’t ever doubt or push her if an unladylike word comes out of her mouth. She won’t be lying, and she won’t change her mind. It’s my understanding that she used more than a few choice words with my dad about Aleks.”

Loretta was still angry about that and said, “Alan Ackles should have banned that bastard years ago.”

“See?” Jensen grinned at Jared.

Jared could only laugh.

Jensen said, “Are you satisfied with what Alex Calvert said to me, Jared?”

Jared nodded, “Yeah, I am. I would probably have been unhappy in his position too. I mean, he got called in on his day off only to find the person he was told would be there waiting for relief wasn’t there. Plus it was me, and the entire staff knows by now that you and I are close. He made an assumption without having all the facts. That’s all. When he realized it, he changed his attitude immediately.”

Jensen asked, “I didn’t hear the first part of the conversation. Did you get called away?”

“I escorted an escalating drunk to the tank for security to deal with. I was only gone for a few minutes, but I thought it better to coax the guy away than end up with a fight in the pit.”

Jensen shook his head in wonder and asked, “How do you always know exactly what to do?”

Jared shrugged. “I just follow my gut. I try not to let anything happen in front of guests that would make me uncomfortable as a guest. I try to keep guests calm and happy because that’s just good for any business.”

“I wish all my employees looked at things that way.”

“I think they just need better training from the start. Samantha has the best staff of any section because she personally trains each new employee to her standards. Chris and Jeff don’t have that kind of time.”

“They will soon,” Jensen said. “I’ve hired a guy out of New York as the new general manager. His name is Kim Manners, and he starts Monday. He’ll take over hiring, firing, supply requisitions, and eighty percent of the paperwork from section managers and from me.”

Loretta grinned and said, “Bout damn time.”

Jared grinned at Loretta before asking Jensen, “What brought this on?”

Jensen answered, “You mean aside from all the crap we’ve discovered in the past week or so? I didn't have a reason before not to work all the time, so I ran this place and did oversight for my other three locations. I didn’t see the need for a general manager when I’m here all the time anyway. But I can’t do all that work and still have a life, so I hired Kim. Once Kim has settled in, I’ll only be doing oversight, things a general manager has no legal right to do. I’ll be working just six to eight hours a day instead of sixteen to eighteen.”

Jensen took a swallow of coffee and said, “There’s a position I’d like to create. I want a walker. I want someone to do the same things as roamers, but more focused on staff than guests. Someone to essentially do what roamers do but with the same authority over staff as Kim or me. Someone who would work closely with Kim but with a focus on the floor so Kim can focus on actually running the business.”

Jared nodded and said, “That sounds like a good idea.”

Jensen smirked and asked, “So, you want the job?”

“Me?”

Loretta asked, “Who better?”

“Anyone,” Jared said.

Jensen huffed at that, “Jared, you’ve worked two days in this casino and shadowed section managers for two days. During that shadowing, you actively assisted employees. You’re better with casino work after four days than most people are after years working in one. Like Loretta said, who better?”

“Jensen, you can’t hire me just because we’re friends.”

“I hope we’re more than friends, but that’s not why I want to hire you. This is just a good business decision. With you on the floor, Kim will have more time for his other work, Jeff and Chris will be more comfortable knowing you have their backs, and you get to work a job you like. You don’t have to answer right now, but I want you to think about it.”

Jared just nodded. He didn’t know what to say.

Loretta changed the subject and asked, “When do you see Mark Sheppard about the lawsuits, honey?”

Jared cleared his throat and said, “He called me today. We’re meeting at Oz for lunch tomorrow. He said my childhood physician has already made a settlement offer. If I accept it, two-hundred-and-fifty-thousand, minus Mark’s fee, will be in an account Mark will set up for me by Friday.”

“That was quick,” Loretta said.

Jared replied, “Yeah, he’s going to lose everything, but he wants to keep it as quiet as possible.”

Jensen asked, “Are you going to push him for more?”

Jared shook his head. “No, I'm going to accept it, especially since Mark said my parents’ doctor friend has also offered to settle. He just hasn’t offered an amount yet. Mark also said that both doctors settling out of court makes it two strikes against the pharmaceutical company and pushes them to settle too. Mark is optimistic that I won’t even have to see one doctor before this is over.”

Loretta sighed with relief. “I was worried they would try to turn everything around on you and make you look like a fake.”

Jensen said, “Mark wouldn’t let that happen. That’s one reason I trust him to handle this case.”

Jared said, "I'm grateful that he's handling it. I hate the thought of what my parents did to me, but I'm glad at least something good will come of it and these guys won't hurt anyone else."

After helping Loretta clean the table and load the dishwasher, Jared and Jensen went to the game room and started shooting a game of pool with the new balls Jensen had bought. 

As he racked the new set, Jared said, “I still can’t believe you hit these things hard enough to break one nearly in half.”

Jensen shrugged. “It must have been defective.”

“You must have been Hulk-level furious.”

“You were hurting. I don’t like it when you’re hurting.”

Jared walked around the table to where Jensen was waiting to break and hugged the older man. He smiled when he felt Jensen return the hug.

Jensen said softly, “I’ve wanted to do this since the day I met you.”

Jared pulled back just enough to look Jensen in the eye and asked, “What else have you wanted to do?”

Jensen slowly moved his face closer to Jared’s. He whispered, “This,” just before their lips met.

Chills covered Jared’s body from head to toe at the first sensation of Jensen’s warm lips touching his. He clung to Jensen for fear of his weakening legs giving way, refusing to keep him upright. He didn’t hesitate to open his mouth immediately at the first hint of tongue sliding across his lips. It was minutes, hours, or even days later, he honestly had no idea how long, that he pulled back for breath.

Shooting pool was forgotten; and with lips again connected, they made their way to the couch across the room. Everything else was forgotten then except the feeling of the man in his arms.

Loretta found them there again the next morning. They had fallen asleep kissing.

 

Jensen

 

Jensen had an office full of people: Samantha Smith, hotel manager; Jeff Morgan, security manager; Chris Kane, casino manager; Alona Tal, pit boss; DJ Qualls, valet manager; Erica Cerra, rental manager over restaurants and show rooms; Jake Abel, maintenance and landscaping manager; Steven Williams, cage supervisor; Alan Ackles, his father; Kim Manners, the new GM; Carrie Ann Fleming, Jensen’s secretary; Felicia Day, Jensen’s personal assistant; and Jared Padalecki, the new walker.

“Okay, gang. This is a serious meeting, but it doesn’t require a stuffy attitude. So no ‘Mr. Ackles’ unless you’re talking to my dad, okay? And don’t worry about him; he’s just here to hear the changes I’m about to announce.”

Since Alan’s presence usually meant serious trouble for someone, Jensen was amused to watch the relief on their faces as they acknowledged his statement. He continued, “What we’ve been doing hasn’t been working. We’ve had entirely too much rowdy behavior and too many serious incidents lately, not to mention unacceptable employee behavior. So I’m going to reorganize this entire system.”

He grinned at his dad as they watched furtive glances exchanged among his staff. “I know I worried everyone at the meeting last week, but you can all relax. None of you is going to lose your job. And I promise you, no changes that will be made to your job description mean we’re in any way dissatisfied with you. If your workload is cut back, it’s to ease the pressure on you, not to phase you out or hint at distrust. This group is the best of the best, and I want to keep you all around for a long time.

“I want to introduce Kim Manners. He is now our general manager.”

Everyone nodded at Kim. Jensen continued, “Kim will be taking over the day to day for me so I can handle all my obligations at each hotel without losing my mind.”

“What mind?” was mumbled from the far side of the office.

Everyone chuckled and Jensen said, “I heard that, Chris Kane. Just for that, I’m demoting you to restroom janitor.”

The laughter relieved the remaining tension in the room.

The meeting was much easier after that as Jensen laid out their new responsibilities and introduced Jared into his new position.

“Jensen,” Jeff said, “I don’t think you could have done better than to create this position and hire Jared for it. He’s got a real knack for this business.”

There was a chorus of agreement around the room that had Jared blushing as he nodded his head in thanks.

Kim spoke then. “Jensen, pardon me, but is this the same Jared Padalecki that has been blacklisted from every casino in Las Vegas?”

Jensen nodded. “He is. There were unknown extenuating circumstances. It’s not my place to speak of it, but Jared’s fairly open about it if you want to discuss it with him later. Let me just say this, I trust him, and my trust doesn't come easily.”

Kim looked around the room and saw every person there nod in agreement with Jensen. He looked at Jared and smiled as he said, “That’s good enough for me.”

Jensen saw Jared release a held breath and smiled at his friend. Jared’s return smile showed those dimples Jensen secretly loved.

Jensen asked, “Does anyone else have any issues?”

When no one spoke, Alan cleared his throat and asked, “Jensen, I like this new setup you’re initiating, but I do have a couple of suggestions.”

“What are you thinking, Dad?”

Alan said, “I think maybe, since he’ll be on the floor most of the time, Jared should get trained and licensed in everything; restraining drunk and unruly guests, dealing, firearms, the works.”

“Firearms?” Jared asked. “Mr. Ackles, I’m not sure I’d be comfortable with that.”

Alan replied, “I empathize with you, Jared. I felt the same way when my father insisted I take the training. But consider two things before you say no: one, the training will make you more comfortable with various weapons; and two, it’s better to be trained and never need to use that training than to need the training and not have it.”

Jared nodded so Alan continued, “I also hope you’ll do something I should have done a long time ago - change the uniform colors.”

Jensen laughed and said, “But I like purple.”

Everyone laughed.

“I have a suggestion,” Jared said, “if you don’t mind that I say it.”

Jensen smiled. “Please, Jared, go right ahead.”

“Well, it might make it easier for guests if the staff of different sections wore different colors. I suggest keeping the pants and footwear, but adapting the shirts. The hotel should be soothing, so maybe their color should be a medium blue. The casino should be fun and exciting, so maybe they should wear something bold like red or orange. Roamers and I will be into everything, so maybe our shirts could be striped vertically with all the colors.”

Jensen smiled. “I like that. Security in black, maintenance in green, and clerical staff in white.”

Steven Williams suggested, “Cage in gold and valet in silver.”

“This is good,” Alan said. “I always thought about doing it, but I never got around to it.”

Kim joked, “I guess my first task is ordering uniform shirts. Good to know.”

DJ asked, “What about the shirts we already have? Do we turn them back in?”

Jensen said, “Yeah Once everyone has the new ones, I’d like to get all the old ones back that we can. I know a lady who will patiently remove the embroidery so we can donate them to a nearby homeless shelter.”

DJ smiled and nodded. “That’s what I was going to suggest. There’s no sense in good clothing going to waste.”

Kim said, “If we’re going with new colors why not leave them as is? It’s free PR for the hotel and casino.”

Jensen said, “It is, and it would be seen that way. I don’t even want the shelter to be certain of where the shirts came from. I want to do this because it’s the right thing, not because it gets us something.”

Kim nodded and smiled with approval. “I knew I was right to accept this job. It’s going to be a pleasure working for you, Jensen.”

Jensen looked at his assistant and said, “Pixie, would you…”

Felicia interrupted, barely glancing up from her phone, “...make the necessary arrangements for Jared’s training? Already on it, boss. I’ll get you the schedule as soon as it’s finalized.”

Chris snickered and said, “You didn’t really think you needed to ask her to do that, did you?”

Jensen glared at Chris. “It’s better to show her the respect of asking than to take her for granted.”

Carrie Anne popped in with, “That must be why you can’t keep an assistant, Chris.”

“Hey!” Chris exclaimed. “I was just pointing out how good she is at her job and how well she knows Jensen.” Chris turned to Jensen’s dad. “Alan, help me out here.”

Alan said “Don’t put me in the middle of this. I’ve already done my time refereeing adult children.”

Kim leaned over toward Jared and asked quietly, “Is it always like this?”

Jared replied, “They’re actually on good behavior today with Alan here.”

“Dear God. No wonder this staff is having problems,” Kim said.

Jensen, being trained to listen to multiple conversations at once, heard what Kim and Jared had said. As the group continued their friendly banter, he said quietly, “That’s not on them. Every last bit of it is on me. I’ve been spread too thin to see that they needed more help. This is one hell of a crew. The staff respects them, I respect them, and guests respect them. The only one not living up to standard is me. That’s why I’m pulling back a bit, so I can get my own ass in line.”

Kim asked, "Jensen, since we have Jared already there, do you even want me to walk the building?"

Jensen said, "You're the manager, Kim. You walk whenever you need or want to. Jared is your eyes, ears, and voice on the floor. I know your reputation and how you prefer to handle things, and I like it. I've seen with my own eyes how Jared handles things, and I think the two of you will work well together."

"In that case," Kim said, "I think we should change Jared's title to assistant manager in charge of guest and staff relations."

Jared asked in surprise, "Assistant manager?"

Jensen laughed and pointed at Jared as he said, "That reaction is the reason I didn't say that from the start."

Kim chuckled and said, "Get used to it, kiddo. I don't think you realize yet how much authority you have now."

Jared didn't say anything because he had no idea what to say. He didn't even know what to think. Being a walker responsible for informing Chris, Jeff, and the others of issues he spotted was one thing; having authority over a staff that had been working here for years was quite another.

“Jared,” Jensen said, “the announcement has already been made. Everyone in this room is your friend, and each one of them knows what your job is now. They already know they answer to you. You didn’t hear a single one of them object, did you?”

Jared said, “They wouldn’t. You’re their boss, and your mind is made up. They wouldn’t risk their jobs by telling you they hate answering to a feeb who’s only been here a couple of weeks.”

“Shut your damn mouth, Jared Padalecki,” Jake Abel said. “Assistant manager or not, if I hear you say anything like that about yourself again, I’m gonna kick your big ass. And none of us has a problem reporting to you.”

Chris spoke, “You see me taking pot shots at Jensen all the time. You really think I wouldn’t voice an objection if I think he’s made a bad decision?”

Jeff added, “We’ve seen you handle different situations around here, Jared. There’s no doubt in our minds that you’re the right man for this job.”

Jared blushed and turned to look out the window.

Jensen said, “Sorry to do this to you right off the bat, Kim, but I’m stealing Pixie from you. There’s no one I trust more as my personal assistant.”

Kim nodded. “That’s fine with me. I’m bringing in an old friend from New York anyway.”

“Does no one care what I have to say about it?” Felicia asked. 

There was a discordant volley of voices saying, “Not really,” “Shut up, Pixie,” and “Nope.”

Felicia sat back in an obvious pretend pout and showed Jensen the polish on her middle finger.

Jensen laughed and said, “If there’s nothing else, I suggest we all get the hell out of Kim’s office so the man can get to work.”

As they all piled out of Kim’s new office, Jared asked Jensen, “Where will you be working.”

Jensen said, “I’m moving all my stuff to my office in the penthouse.”

“You’ll go crazy being in there all the time.”

“No, I won’t. When I’m not working there, checking in on my other casinos, or visiting my parents, I’ll likely be roaming this place with you.”

“I certainly would expect no less,” Alan said from behind them.

“Alan,” Jared began, “you’ve already finalized the papers giving Jensen the hotels. Why were you really here for this meeting?”

“Honestly, Jared,” Alan smiled as he spoke, “to show you my support. After what my wife threw at you recently, I wanted to make sure the enormity of this job didn’t throw you over the edge.”

Jared said, “It didn’t - at least not yet. However there’s always tomorrow.”

Alan laughed and hugged his son and Jared goodbye.

Jensen turned and took Jared’s hands into his as he said, “I told you, Jay, you can be and do whatever you want. If you get bored with the hotel, we'll find something else to keep you excited.”

Jared held Jensen’s hands and said, “All I need to be excited is you.”

 

Jared

 

A week after the meeting, Jared was working half-days, afternoons in the casino, while completing his training courses in the mornings. This had been the worst day he’d experienced at the casino - physically, at least.

He’d spent the morning practicing restraining rowdy, drunken guests. The people he was practicing with weren’t actually drunk, of course, but they damn sure knew how to struggle out of restraint holds and fight dirty without hurting the trainees. 

After training was work. Jared was called to an incident outside - on the one day it had rained all year. It took four people to restrain a drunk man determined to drive his car to another hotel. They ended up rolling around the parking lot and getting covered in rain, dirt, and grease. They were all so dirty after wrestling with one man that the cops laughed at them.

As he walked out of the elevator and into the penthouse, all Jared wanted was a hot shower and a clean change of clothes. He went straight to his room only to find it had been cleared of all his things.

He went to Jensen’s office and knocked on the door out of habit, but he uncharacteristically walked right in without waiting for a response.

Jensen was on the phone and said into the receiver, “Kim, I’m going to have to call you back. Looks like something is very wrong here.”

As he hung up the phone, Jensen said, “Jay, honey, what happened?”

Jared was shaking with fear, hurt, and anger. He was shaking from head to toe and clenching and unclenching his hands into fists. “Are you kicking me out?”

Jensen, jaw dropped open, eyes widened, and eyebrows lifted nearly to his hairline before he could compose himself, said, “Never! Why would you even ask that?”

Seeing Jensen’s reaction calmed Jared, but only slightly because he was still exhausted and unsure of what was happening. He shakily said, “It’s been a damn rough day. I just wanted a shower and clean clothes, but all my things are gone from my room.”

Loretta had heard the raised voices and was now standing at the open doorway. She calmly said, “That’s because I moved them all to Jensen’s room.”

“Loretta?” Jared said, half a dozen questions running through his mind and across his face.

“Don’t either of you bother trying to argue. One morning this past week, just one, I’ve found you in your own beds. Every other morning, you’ve been curled up, asleep on the couch together in the game room. If you’re gonna sleep cuddled in each other’s arms, you might as well do it in a bed where it’s more comfortable.”

Loretta looked Jared over from head to toe and said, “I don’t know what’s happened to you, baby, but you’re gonna tell us all about it right after you get cleaned up. Now go on and get yourself a good hot shower.”

Jensen asked, “Jared, are you okay? Do you need a doctor?”

“No. I just need a shower and clean clothes.”

Loretta said, “He better be okay. If Jeff or Chris let him come home when he needs medical attention, I’ll tan all their hides down there.”

Jared chuckled slightly, drained now that the adrenaline rush was ebbing. “I really am fine. I guess I’ll be in Jensen’s room getting cleaned up.” Jared turned and started for the door when Jensen spoke.

Our room, Jay.”

Jared turned to look at his boyfriend. “I’m sorry for barging in here like that. I…”

Jensen was at his side before he could finish the sentence. “Don’t you dare apologize for that. If you ever need me, you come right in here and get me. I don’t care if I’m on the phone with the president or the pope, understand?”

Jared smiled and nodded. It was all he had the strength to do at the moment. As he left the office and started toward their bedroom, he heard Jensen and Loretta start bickering. Dinner was going to be fun tonight.

As he entered the kitchen after his shower, he felt better but he was still tired. As he expected, Jensen and Loretta were still bickering.

Jensen said, “I’m just saying you could have given us a little warning, Loretta. You didn’t see Jared’s face when he came into the office. He thought I was kicking him out.”

“I will admit to bad timing on my part,” Loretta countered, “but that boy knows good and well you wouldn’t do that. Such a thought wouldn’t have crossed his mind if he hadn’t had such an obviously bad day.”

“You sound just like my mother. You start acting like her, and I’m shipping you back to the desert with her and hiring a new housekeeper.”

“Like anybody else would put up with you.”

“She has a point there,” Jared said as he sat down.

“Don’t you take her side,” Jensen growled. “It scared the shit out of you to find all your things missing from your room.”

“She’s got a point with that too. If I hadn’t been so exhausted, I wouldn’t have gotten so worked up without asking what was happening first.”

Jensen complained, “I cannot win with you two.”

“Do you not want me in your room?” Jared asked.

“Of course I do, Jay. I’m just upset she didn’t warn us about moving your things. You know how I hate seeing you hurt and upset.”

“You think I like it?” Loretta asked. “The very day I decide to do something good for my boys, and my baby comes home looking like he got thrown from a bull at a rodeo and gets all upset cause he didn’t know what I did for him.”

Jared reached across the table and held Loretta’s hand as he said, “Thank you, Miss Loretta. I appreciate you doing that for us.”

Jensen ran his hand down his face before starting, “Loretta…”

“I know, Jensen,” Loretta cut him off, “I worry about him too.”

Loretta looked at Jared and said, “Now, tell us why you came home looking like death warmed over, honey.”

Jared gave a tired smile. “It really was just an exhausting day. I spent the morning learning how to restrain drunk and unruly guests. I thought the instructors were just giving us hell for the fun of it. I found out the hard way that they were actually taking it easy on us.

“This afternoon, we had a drunken idiot trying to get in his car and drive to another casino. Guy could hardly stand up, much less walk a straight line. We had to restrain him by his car in the driveway. It took Jeff, Tahmoh, Chris, and me, and we all looked like I did when it was over.”

Jensen asked, “Why did the valet even bring his car around?”

“Apparently the guy called down and asked for it to be waiting for him, and the valet had no idea how drunk he was. Maybe he got someone else to make the call for him, I don’t know. What I do know is that I’m grateful to have two days off from the hotel and from training.”

Jensen smirked and asked, “So no hike through the mountains tomorrow?”

Jared gave Jensen a dirty look. “Don’t even expect me to get out of bed tomorrow.”

Loretta said, “Well, now, that gives me an idea. You haven’t had any real time alone in a while. You two should turn off and disconnect all the phones and lock the elevator doors and I’ll take the day off. It’ll be good for you.”

Jensen smiled and said, “That sounds like a perfect idea.”

That’s exactly what they did.

 

Epilogue

 

Jared had finished his training and had settled in as an assistant manager, feeling better able to handle it now. After a few months, and since he was on the floor with them anyway, Jared suggested to Kim that roamers start reporting to him in order to free Jeff for other tasks. Jeff supported the idea, and it was approved and enacted before Jensen was even aware of it. 

Jared wasn’t the only one who became more comfortable. With Kim settled in too, Jared’s keen eye, and the section managers better able to perform their duties, Ace High’s main hotel and casino quickly became known as the safest and most enjoyable casino in Vegas. Reservations increased; the number of walk-in gamblers increased; and profits skyrocketed.

It only took Mark Sheppard four months to intimidate all parties to settle with Jared. When Mark was done, Jared had almost two million dollars of his own in the bank, but the money didn’t matter to him. Jensen insisted he not worry about rent, utilities, or food, so he used his paycheck for things like clothing, footwear and toiletries. But having that money and the independence that it represented, for the first time in his life, was nearly euphoric. 

On the one year anniversary of their meeting, Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki said their wedding vows in front of family and friends in the huge backyard of the Ackles family home. Jensen bought a young black and white Appaloosa as a wedding present for Jared. Donna and Alan gave them lifetime boarding for the horse as their wedding present.

Jeff wouldn’t even consider it, but Megan and her family came at Jensen’s personal invitation. She couldn’t get over the difference in her brother and spent hours crying and apologizing to Jared.

Jared was finally able to meet Josh and Mackenzie Ackles. They were just as respectful and welcoming to Jared as their parents were. His siblings-in-law worked together to give the newlyweds their honeymoon: two weeks on a private island in the Caribbean.

Two years after they were married, they began discussing children. Mackenzie volunteered to be their surrogate. Megan volunteered to donate her eggs. The boys decided to use Jensen’s sperm. Dalton Everette and Lina Nicole Ackles-Padalecki were Christmas babies who were spoiled by family, friends, staff, and guests alike.

The twins were twelve when Loretta retired to return to Alabama and care for her elderly mother and a new housekeeper was hired. It took six months and three different housekeepers to find the right person, but Amy Acker found the balance between loving them to excess and taking none of their crap. The penthouse was a home again though Loretta would always be missed.

Jared and Jensen were happier than either man ever thought he could be. There were ups and downs personally and professionally, but they never gave up on themselves, each other, or their family.

Jared was there the day Chad came up for parole. The board was ready to release Chad - he’d been a model prisoner - upon a good word from Jared. 

Jared sat patiently until he was asked to speak. He looked Chad in the eye and said, “The only good thing you ever did, Chad, was take me to the Ace High Hotel and Casino. It changed my life for the better, and I learned the truth about myself, my family, and you. You’re where you deserve to be.” Jared then nodded at the board members and left the hearing without looking back. Chad was denied parole.

Jared’s husband and children were outside waiting and supporting him, as they always would be.