mya_rofki: (kingsblkdragon)
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The girl at the door was short and frail, with the largest, saddest eyes Jensen had ever seen. Her hair was red and her face was nothing like Jared’s, which was why it took Jensen until she’d introduced herself to realize who she was.

“Mr. Ackles? I’m Julie Padalecki,” she offered solemnly. “Can I come in?”

Jared’s family were supposed to check before attempting contact of any kind, but he swung the door wide and fell back to let her pass without more than a second’s thought. He’d been trying to get a Padalecki on the phone for two weeks, since Jared had come to live with him. He wondered if this was the first step in getting Jared back for them, and had to suppress ruthlessly the unhappiness that idea generated. They were Jared’s family after all, and had more real claim to him than Jensen did.

“You’re Jared’s sister?”

“Yes, I- I’m his older sister.”

“You’re... eighteen?” He thought he remembered that from studying Jared’s background. He wouldn’t even have asked except that she looked about sixteen.

“Yes.” She frowned. The expression made her look a little older. “Is he... here?”

“Doing schoolwork at the kitchen table.”

“Can I see him? I need to talk to him.”

“I don’t know. I feel like you should probably give me some idea what’s going on first."

“I see. I guess what’s going on here is that I haven’t seen my brother in almost a year and I’d like to. And I’d also like to tell him something he needs to know, that I really think he should hear face to face, not just in a letter that’s probably been inspected by some stranger.” For all Jared had kept hidden, Jensen had never seen him play for sympathy to get what he wanted. He doubted Jared had it in him. Maybe he was being cynical, but Jared’s sister seemed to have no problem doing it. He thought he’d buy the ‘poor little girl who just wants to see her brother’ thing more completely if she didn’t look like she was trying so hard to hide behind those big doe eyes.

“I’d be within my rights to report you for showing up unannounced like this,” he answered. “Family visits are supposed to be approved.”

“You would do that?”

“I want what’s best for him. Convince me that seeing you today is and we’ll go from there.”

“You want what’s best for him? You sound pretty adamant for someone who’s only know him a few weeks.”

“I’ve known him for going on eight months. I’ve only had custody of him for three weeks. I wish I’d had it from the beginning.”

“Because you know what’s best for him.”

“Yes. He’s a good kid. He doesn’t deserve to be punished any more for something that was a total accident in the first place.”

She was assessing him the same way he was assessing her, but he couldn’t tell what conclusions she was reaching, or what she was looking for exactly. In his line of work it could be important to remember that a person’s family could be the biggest danger of all.

“You know about his case?” she asked.

“I got his full file when I got custody of him, but I’d seen it before. I’m a government investigator and he’s been working in our office. We’ve all looked at his file, right down to reading the trial transcript. He got screwed. He never should’ve gotten ten years for just being present when his friend tripped and fell down the stairs.”

She ignored that to ask, “Why did you get custody of him, exactly? You said you should have had it from the beginning, but the letter we got from him said he was happy in his first placement, doing well. Then we got one saying he'd been moved. What happened? What changed?”

“Can I see some identification before we go into this any further?”

“Let me see him and he can tell you exactly who I am.”

Wordlessly he held out his hand. He didn’t take it back until she’d placed an ID in it. He had to admit there was a devil inside him that got a little satisfied to see her feathers ruffled.

“Your turn,” she said stiffly, when he was finished examining it. He obliged with his driver’s license, since his GIS badge was in the bedside drawer when he was at home.

“His first placement didn’t work out,” he said while she was still looking it over. “The guy got arrested. You can read all about it in any of the papers. Government agent that corrupt is big news.”

“What did he do?”

“Falsified evidence, took bribes, didn’t pay his taxes. He was with the FBI for eight years and then at GIS for another, and he was a very busy guy the whole time. The list of charges is as long as my arm.”

She swallowed and blinked quickly a few times. Apparently, she hadn’t been reading the papers. Jensen wondered with a sinking feeling whether Jared’s little sister had taken a turn for the worse, and the family hadn’t had time to do things like read the news.

She’d said that she had to tell Jared something that would be better face to face.

“And Jared... what... Did he... Is he alright?” This time the big worried eyes seemed more genuine.

“Why are you here?” He gentled his voice. “If you didn’t know about Speight’s arrest or anything relating to it, then why are you here now? Are your parents finally willing to talk to him?”

“I- They don’t know I’m here. I told them I was taking a day trip to check out colleges. I think maybe they suspect but... they don’t know.” He looked at her closely. He thought she was telling the truth. “Please. Let me talk to him. I think it will help him, I swear it. There’s something he needs to know.”

Finally, he nodded. “Alright. But if you’re not going to tell me what you want to talk to him about first, and you refuse to clear it through official channels, I’m staying in there with you for this little chat.”


“Yes. It’s the only way I’ll allow it. I don’t know you at all, and there are about five people in the world I’d trust with his safety. Blood ties or not, you’re not on the list.”

“Did something... has something happened to him?”

“A lot of things have happened to him, including his own family abandoning him without giving him an explanation. If you want to ask him what he’s been going through, you can, but if he doesn’t want to talk about it I’m not going to let you push. That’s his call. And I’m going to be there to see that you don’t push. That’s non-negotiable.”

Alright. Can I just see him?”

“Alright. Come with me.”

He thought about making her wait while he went in to talk to Jared first, but he wasn’t kidding about not trusting her, and he didn’t feel like leaving her alone in his apartment for even five minutes. Anyway, he figured Jared’s face would tell him if she was a good surprise or a bad surprise.

Jared’s head was bent dutifully over his GED work, but Jensen could tell by the way his shoulders were held that he was aware of someone’s presence. Slightly behind him he heard Julie’s quick intake of breath, and it made him look at Jared with the eyes of a stranger. Jared was pale. His bangs hung into his eyes, and did nothing to disguise the dark circles under them. His cheeks looked hollow.

Jared seemed to have a block against eating anything Jensen hadn’t set in front of him. No matter how many times Jensen had told him to just help himself to anything from the fridge and the cupboards, nothing ever disappeared that could be counted or easily measured. Jensen suspected Jared might sneak things that were harder to gauge, like spoonfuls of peanutbutter and handfuls of cereal, but he only suspected that because he thought that he was going through those things at a slightly faster rate than usual. If Jared was eating them, he was being stealthy about it, because Jensen had never found so much as a dirty spoon to prove it.

There were also nightmares. They weren’t a problem when Jared was still on the stronger painkillers. Now that he’d been dropped down to Aspirin or Tylenol, few nights had gone by uninterrupted. The worst ones had left him retching into the toilet. If a night like that happened again, Jensen was going to bring Jared to the doctor for some sleeping pills or something. He didn’t think either of them could take that as a regular fixture.

Jared’s lack of sleep showed clearly on his face, as did his lack of nourishment. He looked like a strong breeze would blow him away, and as if that weren’t enough, the last of the contusion on his cheek was still fading, a stubborn shadow that hung on accusingly day after day. The rest of Jared’s body probably hadn’t entirely healed either, but the gash on his scalp was hidden under a wing of hair, and everything else was hidden under jeans and a long-sleeved shirt.

Julie stepped up level to Jensen’s shoulder when he halted just inside the doorway. Jared was still pretending with his head down, but his pencil hadn’t moved since Jensen had set eyes on him.

“Hey, Jared, there’s someone here to see you,” he said calmly. Jared looked up, and when he saw Julie his eyes got wide and round. The pencil dropped from his hand.

“Jared,” she said, soft and thick.

His mouth opened and he swallowed, then looked past her, then to Jensen and then to her again.

“Julie- Are Mom and Dad here?”

“Just me,” she said, with a little shake of her head. She stepped forward and he propelled himself out of his chair. They hugged clumsily, desperately.

Julie was the first one to pull back, though she kept a hand on his arm.“Are you alright?” she asked. Her eyes were fixed on the bruise.

“Oh. Yeah. I’m okay. Are you guys? Katie?” he asked softly, like he was preparing himself for bad news. Jensen felt his own gut clenching.

“Yeah,” Julie said. She let go of Jared’s arm and tucked her hair behind her ear nervously. “We’re all fine. Katie’s... well, she’s really good, actually. There’s actually, well, this surgery scheduled for next week and... it’s a full bone marrow transplant but it’s not... they found a really good match for her and the doctors say there’s a real chance it’ll cure her. Permanently. It’s a risk but if it works... They say no more treatments. No more recurrences.”

“That’s- that’s so amazing.” Jared’s voice was shaky. “When’s the surgery? Is she in the hospital still, or, already... I mean, I don’t know. When I left she was in, but she must be doing better if they can risk surgery?”

“Yeah, no, she’s been out for about three months now. They really went aggressive with the last treatment, so it was hard, but that was the plan, you know? They wanted to really force the remission, and then she’s been building her strength back up for the surgery. God, she looks so good, you’d hardly recognize her.” Julie’s smile dimmed. “She looks better than you do.”

Jared instantly looked away.

“Um. Well, you look good,” he shrugged uncomfortably. “How are, uh, Mom and Dad? I mean, they must be really excited, huh?”

“Yeah. Yeah. Excited and just about going out of their minds trying not to be too excited. It’s not a guarantee. It’s just... the best chance we’ve had in a while.”

Jared nodded, but couldn’t seem to think of anything to say to that, and Julie’s worry hung in the air.

“You wanna have a seat?” Jensen asked, to break the awkward pause.

Jared looked at him quickly, like he’d forgotten Jensen was there, and Jensen could read the sudden questions in his eyes, the automatic ‘Is this okay?’ that Jared still hadn’t managed to break himself of. Jensen offered a smile to reassure him. “Your sister didn’t warn me she was coming, but she was pretty convincing about needing to talk to you, so I agreed to let her talk, on the condition that I be present. Does that seem fair to you, Jared?”

“Yes, sir,” Jared said quickly.

When they were alone together Jared always called him ‘Jensen’ now, and last time Misha had dropped in, Jared had seemed comfortable calling them both by their first names. In front of strangers Jared still used ‘sir’ though. It startled Jensen that he was using it in front of his sister. He wondered if Jared was even aware he was doing it.

“If you want to talk to her alone we can discuss it,” he offered, though the idea made him uneasy.

“This is- this is fine, sir. You can be here.”

“Jared, I’d really prefer to talk to you alone,” Julie broke in. She pulled out a chair on the side of the table closest to the door. She was at a ninety degree angle from Jared but her back was to Jensen, maybe hoping if she ignored him, he’d just go away. “What I’ve got to talk to you about is family business only.”

“I- I’d like him to stay. I trust him,” Jared said quietly.

Jensen moved around the table and seated himself firmly in the chair across from Julie. She opened her mouth in protest, then frowned and closed it again.

“Alright,” she said grudgingly. “If you're sure, but... I don’t think it’s the best way. I’m not even supposed to be here. If Mom and Dad...” she trailed off and bit her lip.

“Mom and Dad- they don’t know you’re here?”

“No.” She at least had the good grace to look guilty.

“I don’t understand,” Jared choked out. “Is it- Do they- Are they mad at me? They didn’t act mad during the trial, so...” He ground one hand against his eye, a gesture of upset that Jensen had never seen from him before. It made him look about eight years old. He sounded younger too, talking to his older sister. He took a deep breath and tried again. “I thought maybe someone had messed up, and I just wasn’t getting letters but... Did they write any letters at all?”

A flush crept across Julie’s cheeks. “This is why I came today, because I knew you must...” She shook her head and started again, eyes intent. “They love you, okay? They’d never think you would kill anybody and they know it was an accident, and they- they feel so guilty, Jared, for not being able to tell you. It’s just eating them up inside. But listen, okay, this is, this is probably going to be hard to hear, but you’ll understand when I’ve told you why. Mr. Fuller- he’s paying for Katie’s surgery. The day of your sentencing, right after, he came to our house with his lawyer. He made us a deal, Katie’s surgery, if we promised to cut all ties with you.”

Jared’s face was blank, his mouth slack with shock.

“The insurance company classifies it as an experimental treatment. They won’t cover it,” Julie rushed on, skin pale except for the flush in her cheeks. “He didn’t even give us time to think it over, said to decide that day, right then. We couldn’t say goodbye. We couldn’t explain to you. It was awful, it was such an awful night. As soon as he’d left, Mom started saying that they’d made the wrong choice. Dad broke their full-length mirror, slamming the bedroom door so hard. You have to understand how awful it was for them. If there’d been any other choice, any other way...”

Jensen listened to the ticking of the kitchen clock and watched Jared. Julie was watching him too.

“But after the surgery...” Jared’s voice was scratchy and wavering.

“If they try to contact you and he finds out, he said they’d owe him all the money back,” Julie said. “We’d go so far into debt... We’d lose the house... And then if Katie relapsed again...”

“So....” Jared said painfully. “I can’t ever-” He couldn’t bring himself to finish, but Julie said nothing, and the words hung forever in the stifling air.

“We had to do it,” Julie mumbled finally. “There was no other way.”

Jared nodded and gulped.

“Anyway, it won’t be forever, Jared,” she rallied. “Mr. Fuller can’t live forever. And after the surgery we can try harder to convince him.”

“He can for a long time though, can’t he? Long enough, anyway.”

“Don't give up hope, okay? We haven’t given up hope, so you shouldn’t either. In the meantime you- you’ll be okay... right? You’ve made it this far, and your letter said...” She looked at her brother with desperate eyes, and Jensen wondered what she’d do when Jared told her what a lie the letter he’d sent home was. She must have known it already, with his sickly look and the fading bruise on his cheek.

Jared took a deep heaving breath and let it out slowly. “You’re right. I’ll be fine, and Katie will have that surgery and she’ll get better. I mean, she’ll have to, right? It has to work, after everything. It will. I’ll be fine here, and you guys need to- to forget about me.”

“Jared, no, we're not forgetting about you. Don’t you get it? We all love you. This is killing us but it won’t be forever. Please say you know that it’s not forever.” A tear dripped off of Julie’s lashes.

“Okay,” Jared’s voice shook. “Okay, I know. It’s gonna be okay. Listen, tell them I luh-love them, okay? And tell them I understand. And make sure- make sure Katie knows I’m not mad at her or something stupid like that. Make sure she knows I undertand.”

“She- she doesn’t know, Jared. We didn’t want to tell her anything about it.”

“Oh. Oh, of course.” Jared nodded. “Okay. That’s good. Um. That’s-" Julie reached across the table and took his hand tightly. Jared pressed his lips together and stared at their hands for a long minute. His voice was low when he spoke. "You shouldn’t stay any longer than you have to. It’s dangerous, right? It’s- thank you for coming, but if you being here messes it up now... you- you can’t let it all be for nothing.”

“Jared, listen,” she held on as he tried to pull his hand away, and he stopped tugging almost instantly. “Are you sure you’ll be okay? I- I mean if I just- I can’t-”

“Of course I will,” he said. “Will you guys be okay? You don’t think he’ll... double-cross you or something like that?”

“No, he, he doesn’t seem to blame us, he just says it was you. He even came to visit Katie a couple of times in the hospital. We stayed right there the whole time, but he was nice to her. You wouldn’t have ever thought-” She cut herself off at Jared’s expression.

“Does she know he’s the one paying for her surgery?” he asked.

“Well, we had to explain why he was allowed to visit her,” Julie answered.

“Just be careful, okay?” Jared said after a minute.

She shook her head as if to say ‘What else can we do?’ and Jensen wanted to take her and shake her for the decision her family had made, but at the same time he felt pity for them.

He was also determined that they’d be the ones who had to deal with all the consequences from now on. Jared was out. He was done. He was Jensen’s now, to worry over and protect, and nothing from Jared’s old life was going to be allowed to come back and bite him later on down the line. Jensen swore it to himself.

They walked to the door together, silence thick. At the door, Julie turned to Jared and opened her mouth, but then she said nothing and it was Jared who spoke, voice soft.

“It’s going to be alright,” he promised.

“I can’t believe this has all happened to us,” she whispered. Her eyes dropped from his face to his collar.

They had a lawyer working on his case, but without Pellegrino’s cooperation everything was up in the air, and it seemed likely that Jared would be wearing it for awhile yet.

“You have to do... whatever you think is best,” Jared said in a low raspy voice. Her eyes flitted back up to his face, and almost against her will it seemed, her hand drifted out to touch lightly on the bruise.

“Jared,” she whispered, her eyes flickered to Jensen, then back to her brother. “What-”

“No. Don’t,” Jared shook his head. “I already told you, I’ll be fine. The things that happened, they’re over. They don’t matter now. I’m safe at Jensen’s, I promise, okay?”

She sighed and dropped her hand, let it go.

Julie started up her car and pulled away without stopping to look back. Jensen hoped she pulled over as soon as she was out of sight, because the way she was wiping furtively at her face, he suspected she couldn’t see much of anything.

Jared watched the end of the block where she'd turned for several long minutes. Jensen pictured his own mother and father, his little sister and his big brother. He was used to living in a different part of the country from them, after four years of college and two at GIS. He loved them dearly, but he could go a week or two without talking to any of them and not even notice. He’d always liked to think that that meant he was independant. But he couldn’t imagine looking at the phone and knowing there were none of them he could pick it up and call.

He put a tentative hand around Jared’s shoulders and drew him in a little closer, not wanting to be the one to force him to come back inside, but unable to let Jared droop there alone for a second longer. Jared twisted under his grasp. His arms wrapped around Jensen’s waist and his face pressed into Jensen’s chest. Jensen circled him in his own arms, held him tight. Jared didn’t cry.


Attending the meeting without punching Mark Pellegrino in the face was about the harshest test of Jensen's self control he'd ever experienced. The only thing that kept him in his seat was his determination to get Jared some kind of justice. What Jared had been put through deserved far more than a bloody nose.

Director Ferris was tough to read, and as she walked Pellegrino through his explanation of events, Jensen worried that she might be primarily concerned with how the FBI would look coming out of this, with actual justice coming in a distant second.

"...So that's when I approached you, Director," Pellegrino was saying smoothly. "If you'll recall, I gave you what I had gathered up to that point, and you felt it had merit and gave me the green light on the investigation."

"I do recall that," she agreed. "But there's a part of it that you're forgetting."

Pellegrino glanced at Jensen and said, "Forgive me Director, but I don't think so."

"What you had wasn't enough for an investigation. You and I both knew it. You told me something else at that meeting, to get me to sign off," she said calmly.

"Director, if I didn't have enough for an investigation, I know you never would have signed off on one. You're too honest an agent to bend the rules that way-"

"Cut the bullshit," she interrupted. "What's discussed in this meeting can come out at trial, or not, depending on what I hear here today. I'm not ashamed of any decision I made in this mess. I'm more curious today about the decisions you made."

Pellegrino's eyes widened. "Trial, Director?"

"You came to me with your evidence, such as it was, just suspicions and a grudge, from what I could see. True suspicions, as it turned out, but they wouldn't have been enough if you hadn't brought Jared into it that day."

Pellegrino's face got very still. "I was concerned for him," he said.


"Because of- there were certain rumors I had heard, in an unofficial capacity. I had no evidence to back them up, but I'd always known there was something off about Richard Speight, and when I heard he had a powerless boy living with him, I grew very concerned about his safety. I'm sure it's clear now that I had reason to be."

Jensen curled his hands into fists and kept his eyes on Pellegrino's face. Pellegrino was watching Director Ferris.

"Yes. Quite clear," she said. "What's not clear is when exactly you decided that putting a minor into the hands of a child molestor was the way to get your evidence."

Pellegrino protested, but Ferris just ignored him and turned to Jensen.

"Where did Jared say he first met Agent Pellegrino?" she asked him innocently.

"At the detention center where he was incarcerated, ma'am," Jensen gritted out.

"And why did he say Agent Pellegrino was there?"

"To recruit him to be some kind of mole in Speight's house, ma'am."

"And when did this visit take place, exactly?"

"November 4th, ma'am."

"November 4th. A month before you came to me, asking me to push for your investigation because you were afraid a child was in danger."

"He's lying, Director," Pellegrino said. "He's a criminal, he's just trying to get out of his sentence, maybe sue the FBI or something. I'd never met him before Speight's arrest. If he says different then he's fucking lying his ass off!"

There was a long silence while Ferris glared at Pellegrino like he was something from the bottom of her shoe.

“Are you aware we have laws in this country?” She asked finally, deceptively quietly.

“Excuse me?” Pellegrino looked confused, but with a strong dose of uneasy.

“I’m just trying to understand... You are aware that we have laws in this country? I’m starting at the basics because an act of this monumental stupidity literally leaves me at a loss for how to wrap my mind about it. So, Agent Pellegrino: laws. We have them.. You’re aware of this fact?”

“Yes. Ma’am," Pellegrino gritted out. "But Director Ferris-”

“And what would you say our duty is as law enforcement officers? Before you answer, I’ll give you a hint. It’s in the name.”

“To enforce the law,” Pellegrino said sullenly, then rushed on, “Which is exactly why-”

“ARE YOU AWARE, Agent Pellegrino, of the laws prohibiting reckless endangerment of a minor? How about the ones prohibiting the procurement of other human beings to be used as chattel? Are you aware, Agent Pellegrino, that it’s not your job you need to worry about, because that’s already gone, but rather how many years in prison you’d be willing to strike a plea deal for?”

Pellegrino's face went from red to white, and it was far more satisfying than a simple punch would have been.


Jared turned 15 six weeks after coming to live with Jensen. It had been four weeks since Julie had come and gone. There had been no further word from Jared’s family, and secretly Jensen found himself thinking that it may be for the best, even if it was painful at the moment.

Jensen didn’t make him talk about it. He tried his best not to bring up family around Jared at all, though it was impossible to avoid the subject completely. Since he’d taken Jared in, his mother had called at least once a week for updates, and he’d fielded more frequent calls from his brother and sister as well. He tried to be casual about the calls, but it was hard to misread the look in Jared’s eyes when they came in. He didn’t know exactly how to get that look out of Jared’s eyes, but he knew he was going to try his hardest to do it. He was already working with his Mom to get his parents to come visit soon. If there was any way he could swing it, he’d get his siblings there for it too, make it a proper introduction into the Ackles family.

The other thing he hoped would help, in time, was the family he was already including in Jared’s life.

He watched his cousin Samantha, Charles’ wife, as she carried a bowl of potato salad out to the table in the shade of an ancient oak tree. Jared trailed at her heels with a full pitcher of something. Her voice carried across the yard as she thanked him for the help. Jared ducked his head and mumbled ‘You’re welcome.’ Jensen wished he weren’t still so shy around her, but he followed her back into the house without hesitation, and she was still pretty new to him.

“Penny for your thoughts,” Cassidy said. She grinned, but her eyes were sharp.

“He looks like he’s doing okay to you, right?” Jensen asked. He didn’t mean to, but sometimes he needed reassurance from an outside observer that he wasn’t visibly screwing everything up.

“Better than I would’ve said was possible,” Cassidy answered promptly. Jensen relaxed. “You’re doing a good job. You’re helping him a lot, probably more than you know.”

“He’s strong,” Jensen shook his head. “It’s not me. I’m just treating him like anybody would. The rest is all him.”

Cassidy wrinkled her nose. “Whatever you say. Just don’t go testing that theory by passing him off to someone else.”

It was Jensen’s turn to wrinkle his nose. “Are you serious?”

“Just don’t get all ‘I need my freedom. He’ll be fine now,’ or some bullshit like that when he’s just getting comfortable,” she lectured.

For a minute, Jensen was honestly too stunned to be angry. His mother had hinted at the same kind of worry, but that was his mother. Cassidy was his friend, and she was his teammate. She’d seen him handle things his mother never had, and never would. And she wasn’t that much older than him, and all set to make a lifetime commitment herself in just a few more months.

“Fuck you,” he snapped. “After everything he’s been through, you think I’m just going to abandon him? When he’s finally in a safe place where no one’s abusing him or fucking using him for their own personal gain-”

“Jensen- Shit, I’m sorry, okay?”

“I just... Why does everybody keep expecting me to give up? I’m not going to stick him in a sack and throw him in the river, you know? Jesus. He’s-” He just barely caught himself from finishing that sentence. ‘He’s mine now,’ he was going to say. The sentiment was pure, but out loud it would probably hang strangely in the air. “He’s an amazing kid,” he said instead. “And I could give a shit whether you believe me or not, but I’m not going to abandon him. Ever.”

He got up before he said something to her that he regretted.

He headed inside the house. The house was cool and dim after the late afternoon heat of the yard. From upstairs he heard the excited murmur of young voices mixing with Charles’s low rumble. Lucy and Jane had some kind of surprise for Jared, and they’d claimed Charles’s help to get it finished.

The doorbell rang as he was heading for the kitchen. Samantha crossed in front of him and Jensen slipped into the kitchen behind her. Jared was there, holding an apple in one hand and a paring knife in the other. He was looking down at the apple and he seemed lost in thought. Jensen wondered what he was thinking to make him look so serious, and was deeply glad it wasn’t the knife he was regarding so intently.

His shoe must have made a scuffing noise on the linoleum, because Jared flinched and looked up, eyes wide like Jensen hadn’t seen them in a while.

“Hey,” he said, and Jared took a half-step back, bumping into the counter. “Woah, Jared, it’s alright. Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you. Sorry. It’s just me.”

Jared just stared at him, eyes murky with fear.

“I should’ve called out, let you know I was coming,” Jensen said uncertainly. Jared seemed to relax a little bit. He stopped staring at Jensen and looked at the items in his hands again instead.

“I’m supposed to cut this,” he told Jensen. He bit his lip and Jensen thought he was probably embarrassed by his minor freak out.

“So why don’t you?” He kept his voice light.

“I- I don’t know how,” Jared said. It would’ve almost made Jensen laugh, if Jared didn’t suddenly look like he were on the verge of tears.

“Um. Did she have a special way you’re supposed to do it?”

“I don’t know,” Jared repeated.

From the hallway, Jensen could hear Hodge chatting with Samantha. They had a mutual interest in technology, and they could be on the subject for a while.

“Well did she say what it was for?”

Jared shook his head, then blurted, “She mentioned fruit salad, but- I don’t- I don’t know. I don’t remember. She said but I didn’t-” he pressed his lips together, and Jensen was amazed to see that his chest was heaving. Jared turned around and put the apple on the cutting board. His shoulders were up around his ears.

“Jared.” He cautiously approached the hunched back. “Did something happen? Did someone say something? This can’t all be for an apple you don’t know how to cut.”

“It is,” Jared asserted, without turning around. “It is. I don’t know how to do it, and I don’t want to mess it up. I can’t cook, but I wanted to help her. I just- wanted to help her, but she's gone now and I don’t know if she told me how to do it or not, and even if she didn’t I should know. I should know how to cut a stupid apple.”

“Jared,” he said helplessly.

Jared clattered the knife down onto the cutting board and curled over on himself, his forehead coming down to press on his fists on the counter. Jensen lifted his hand to put it on Jared’s back, but something about the taut bowstring curve of it forbade contact.

He didn’t know what to say. Jared hated to be asked what was wrong. The question made him clam up. But without understanding what was wrong, Jensen felt completely helpless to fix it. Maybe Cassidy and his mother and all the other concerned observers were right to worry. Maybe it was the height of foolishness to think that he was old enough and wise enough in any way to give Jared the support he needed.

He desperately wanted Samantha or Charles, or even Cassidy, to come in right then and start asking Jared whatever magic questions would work on him. At that moment, he was sure that anyone else would have a better way of handling this crisis than he did. But no one else appeared, and he had to do something.

Carefully, he reached around Jared and snagged the knife and the apple. He moved down the counter a few feet and started chopping, making big messy chunks because his hands weren’t entirely steady.

After a little while, he thought he could feel Jared watching him, though he was afraid to stop and check. Eventually, Jared straightened up. He surreptitiously wiped his eyes on his sleeves.

“How do they look?” Jensen asked. Jared studied them carefully, but he didn't say anything. Jensen focused back on the chopping. Jared drifted in closer, little by little.

“They’re, uh, kind of not even,” he offered from Jensen’s elbow.

“Yeah, yeah, everyone's a critic,” Jensen said, trying hard to mask his relief. He finished chopping the last pieces and dropped the knife with a triumphant clatter. “Done.”

Jared bent in towards the apple chunks. Jensen noticed that he was leaning up against Jensen’s side. He casually freed his arm to loop it around Jared’s shoulders. “See that?” he said. “Nothing but the best for the birthday boy. Seriously, this is going to be the tastiest fruit salad you’ve ever had in your life, and you know why?”

Jared looked up at him and shook his head.

“Variety. You’ve got big chunks and then all these little chunks, so every mouthful will be a completely new experience. Fruit salad is usually so boring, that’s its main failing, but this one, this one is going to be completely unpredictable.” Jared rolled his eyes, but he was smiling now.

“Hey, hope we’re not interrupting anything,” Samantha called from the doorway. “Is there a cooking lesson underway here?”

“Yup,” Jensen wheeled them both around. “I was just showing Jared how a professional cuts apples-”

“Jared, hey!” Hodge followed Samantha into the kitchen. “Happy Birthday, man!” He handed Jared a book-sized present messily wrapped in newspaper. Jared grinned and Hodge grinned right back.

“Thank you,” Jared said.

“How a professional cuts apples, Jensen?” Samantha turned back from inspecting the pile with an eyebrow raised.

“It’s going to be the best fruit salad ever,” Jared told her. He didn't say 'ma'am.'

It did end up being a damn good fruit salad. Jared had three helpings, more than he ate of anything else. Jensen tried not to feel ridiculously pleased by that. But Jared was still too damn skinny. He’d grown a full inch in the weeks Jensen’d had him, and that seemed to have made it harder to get any kind of fat layer on him. If Jensen contributed in some small way to any food that Jared ate three helpings of, he couldn’t help feeling a little smug about it.

After dinner, Jared opened his presents. The girls gave him a decorated picture frame with a picture of the Whitfield-Smith family in it. Jared was clearly touched. The girls, who could be hellions when they put their minds to it, were gentle and sweet when Jared gave them a thank you hug. The first time they’d met Jared, he was still recovering from his injuries, and they’d been sternly warned against being too rough with him. Though he was physically recovered, they still treated him like he was made of porcelain. Charles thought it was amusing. Jensen remembered Jared’s hunched shoulders in the kitchen less than an hour ago, and thought they were probably more right than they knew.

From everybody else Jared got books and movies. He appeared delighted by every one of them. Jensen waited until all the other presents had been unwrapped before taking a deep breath and pulling a folded square of paper out of his pocket.

“There’s one more thing, Jared,” he said, keeping his gaze firmly away from everybody else at the table. He wasn’t sure anyone else here would understand or approve of what he’d done. If Cassidy thought he was biting off more than he could chew, then probably Hodge agreed. And if his mother also thought so, then probably Samantha had her doubts as well. Charles had helped him put his current plan into motion, but he probably had his own reservations that he’d decided not to share.

At the moment though, even Charles’ opinion didn’t matter. This wasn’t about any of them. And Jensen had always followed the path he’d set out for himself before, from learning to fly a plane when he was sixteen, to entering GIS straight out of college and moving out to the East coast. He’d never let anybody’s doubts stop him, not even his own. He held onto that thought as he began to speak.

“Listen, I had a long talk with Misha the other day, and nothing’s set in stone, nothing can be set in stone completely with this situation. But then, nothing in this life is set in stone, you know? So, I mean, all we can do is set things up the way we want them to be and then fight our hardest to keep them that way, right?”

Jared nodded at him, wide-eyed.

“So, Misha said that as far as he can tell there’s no reason you can’t stay with me as long as you need to, til we get your sentence overturned, til your sentence is up, til... whenever. You’ll come back to work at GIS like before. I’ll be your official guardian. If you want me to, I mean. Do you?”

Jared nodded without hesitation.

Jensen held the paper out to Jared. “You can’t keep sleeping on my couch though. Misha said that’s a dealbreaker. We need more space, so. That’s a copy of the deed to a house out here. About ten minutes from Charles and Samantha’s, actually. I thought we could go look at it tonight, and if you like it, well, tomorrow morning I’ll go sign the deed and it can be... ours. What do you think?”

Jared had taken the paper and unfolded it, but he wasn’t reading it. He was looking up at Jensen. Tears shone in his eyes, and Jensen knew his own were not quite dry. He was just glad he’d made it all the way through the speech.

“Yeah,” Jared husked. “Okay. Yeah. I- I don’t need to see the house even. I uh, I-” Jared’s voice wobbled. He looked back down at the paper. “I want you sign it.”

There was silence around the table.

Samantha broke it finally, saying “Well, if that was the last present, I guess we’re ready for dessert,” in a shell-shocked voice.

“Unless someone has something to beat a house,” Hodge joked. “Like, I don’t know, a submarine or something? I mean, c’mon Jensen, I hope you’re already planning how to top this next year. It’s not going to be easy.”

“A pony,” Cassidy offered.

“Only if it comes with a barn,” Hodge answered. “And it's made of solid gold.”

Samantha got up to get dessert. Charles began fending off his daughters' demands for a pony, while Cassidy egged them on. Jensen tuned them all out when Jared glanced up at him and said quietly, “Thank you, Jensen. I-” Then he got choked up and shook his head. Jensen crammed all his doubts into the back of his mind as hard as he could. Jared didn’t ever need to know just how in over his head he was.

“No need to thank me,” he said with a grin. “This is all self-interest. I only used to get invited here for dinner once a month before you moved in.”

Jared smiled.

Samantha stepped out of the door and everybody’s attention focused on the cake like lasers zeroing in. It was German chocolate, Jared's favorite, and the way Jared's eyes shone when he caught sight of it made Jensen wish for a camera.

Hodge led everybody in singing Happy Birthday at the top of their lungs. The girls slipped out of their seats and squirmed up on either side of Jared, gently but determinedly. They had prime positions for cake as Samantha set it down. Their eyes widened and flickered in the glow of the fifteen candles. So did Jared’s.

“Make a wish,” said Lucy.

“But don’t tell us what it is,” added Jane.

Jared nodded and closed his eyes tightly.

For just a second, the candles guttered and the way the shadows fell hit him exactly wrong. Jensen saw Jared in the closet, face half-hidden, dark blood dripping. The next instant the flames flared, and the image vanished. In the golden glow that was left, Jensen could see his eyes squeezed shut and his lips moving as though he were praying. It made Jared look young, too young to have been through everything he’d been through. And there were still the trials to go, and no way of telling what else could go wrong in the future. It made Jensen’s stomach hurt.

The candles settled and Jared’s face smoothed out. His lips stopped moving and tugged up into a tiny secret smile. Then he sucked in a strong gulp of air, opened his eyes, and blew all the flames out in one breath.

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December 2011

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