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He opened his eyes and he was lying on his back in the infirmary, breathing heavily through his mouth because his nostrils were packed with cotton. It was the first week in November and he’d been at the detention center for less than a month. It was already the second time he’d been in the infirmary. He was fourteen years and three months old, and he still had ten years to go on his sentence.

The doctor came over and told him in a dead voice that he’d almost gotten his nose broken.

He turned his head slightly and looked around. Nothing had changed since he was last there. This time he couldn’t smell anything, but he didn’t want to anyway. He could remember the bleach and urine scent of the dingy gray room from the first time.

There was a low ringing in his ears, and a pulsing pain at his temple, though he couldn’t remember actually hitting his head. He didn’t remember what had happened at all clearly, and didn’t want to try. He’d probably dream it in living color that night anyway, if he could get to sleep at all once they’d put him back in his cell. He wanted to spend the night in the infirmary, but he thought asking the doctor probably wouldn’t get him anywhere. Maybe he wouldn’t be safe in the infirmary either anyway. He didn’t know. He didn’t understand anything about this place. He didn’t understand anything about the people in it, and what they would or wouldn’t do.

The doctor hadn’t met his eyes since the guard who broke up the ‘fight’ brought him in. The doctor was about as gray and dingy as his infirmary, and seemed to have decided Jared was a lost cause. Maybe he thought they all were. Jared didn’t know why he would want to be a doctor if he didn’t care about helping people, and he didn’t understand why he would be a doctor here if he didn’t want to help kids, but everything about the doctor seemed dead, from his eyes to his voice to his limp gray hair. Jared thought maybe he didn't like anybody, and figured here was as good a place as any to carry on being miserable.

The first time Jared was brought to the infirmary he needed stitches in his arm from another boy’s plastic knife in the dining hall. Jared was scared and shaken and his arm was dripping blood, but he remembered what his parents had always taught him about being polite and stuck out his good hand.

“Hi,” he’d said. “I’m Jared Padalecki.”

The doctor hadn’t even blinked. “Get up on that cot,” he’d said with a jerk of his head. He’d ignored Jared’s tentative questions and stitched him up without once looking at his face. Then he’d shoved a couple pills at him without even telling him what they were.

It was no better this time.

“Am I alright, sir?” Jared asked warily, when the doctor had finished shining a light in his eyes and taking his blood pressure and was writing something in Jared’s chart. The doctor looked at him briefly and grunted. Then he looked back down at the chart and finished writing.

“You're fine. You can sit up now,” the doctor said, turning away.

The red phone on the wall buzzed and the doctor went to answer it without seeming to care whether Jared was feeling well enough to keep himself perched on the edge of the cot. Jared was okay levering himself upright, but once he was sitting, his head swooped and rolled. He closed his eyes and gripped the cracked orange vinyl under him. If he took a header off the cot he’d go straight into the linoleum, and there was nobody around to hold his hand or kiss it better. There were 133 beds at the Mountain Creek Youth Development Center, and 100 members on staff. As far as Jared could tell, the only people who’d learned his name so far did it so they could torment him better. But he didn't want to think about that any more. Jared forced his eyes open. The floor was a long way down, and it looked horrifyingly dirty. In an effort to distract himself from that, he looked around for the doctor. When he found him, he drew in a surprised breath.

The doctor was opening the door to let in a thin man in a suit, gray and expensive looking. He wore a pale blue silk tie that matched his pale blue eyes and the pale blue veins tracing along his temples. His hair was dirty blonde. It looked soft and well-groomed. He didn’t look at all like he belonged there.

Jared watched him come over and tried not to throw up. He thought he knew what the man had come for: the expensive suit and the cool professionalism in his gaze were big hints. He had to be another lawyer for Liam’s grandfather, there to make Jared’s life that much more miserable. What happened was an accident, but Liam’s grandfather, Mr. Fuller, didn’t see it that way at all.

The man’s brow furrowed when he caught sight of Jared.

“This is him?” he asked. His cultured voice was a perfect match for Mr. Fuller’s trial lawyer. The one who’d convinced the judge to give him ten years, and who’d tried very hard to make it ten years in an adult facility. Jared wondered if this new lawyer had succeeded where the old one had failed, and had come to inform Jared that he was about to be transferred to a place where he could face the adult versions of the guys who’d put him in the infirmary.

“Padalecki, Jared. Prisoner 24601.” The doctor read it off from the chart in his hand without looking up.

“That’s you?” The man asked Jared, then flipped open a manila file he was holding and looked at something in it, looked at Jared, looked back at the file. Comparing a photograph, Jared supposed.

“Yes, sir,” Jared mumbled and swallowed hard against rising nausea. For some reason, the man sighed. Jared guessed maybe it was the stuffy, nasal tone of his voice. With the cotton in his nose, there was no way to talk without sounding ridiculous.

“You can leave us,” he told the doctor. “And leave his chart with me.” The doctor looked startled for a second, the most life he’d ever shown in Jared's presence. Then he handed over the chart and slipped out the door without a backward glance. Given the way Jared remembered him smelling from the first time, he’d probably gone out for a smoke break.

“My name is Pellegrino. Mark Pellegrino...” the man in the suit started, then trailed off as he began to read Jared’s chart. Probably the man, Pellegrino, was memorizing the chart to report back to Mr. Fuller just how much Jared had been suffering. He thought Mr. Fuller would probably want to know.

“Someone sure has taken a real disliking to you, Jared.” Pellegrino said slowly, putting the chart down on the cot next to Jared’s hip and pinning him with a gaze so intense it felt like his mind was being x-rayed. “Who’s doing this to you?”

“I don’t remember, sir. I’m sorry.”

The man looked pensive, almost sad.

“They wouldn’t need to know you told,” Pellegrino said softly. “The way things are going, it looks like you’re headed for a lot more visits to the infirmary. Some day they could take it too far. They wouldn’t even have to mean to, it could happen by accident. You must know how easily fatal accidents can happen.”

Jared looked down at his hands.

“I’m sorry, sir. I don’t remember,” he said stiffly.

“Or is it that you want to die?” Pellegrino’s tone changed in a blink from sorrowful to aggressive.

Jared was startled by the change and kept silent, waiting for whatever was coming next, but the man just repeated angrily, “Do you want to die, Jared?”

“No sir,” Jared said quickly.

“You’ve got another ten years of this to look forward to though,” Pellegrino barked. “Do you think that you’ll be able to last another ten years of this? They’ve told you you’ll be moved to an adult facility when you turn 18, right? Come on, Jared. You think juvie’s bad, just wait til you turn eighteen. I mean, have you looked in the mirror lately? They’ll eat you alive up there.”

The words of the boys from that day suddenly rang clearly in his ears. He hadn’t wanted to remember what they’d said, what they’d promised would happen. He couldn’t think of any way to stop them if they really wanted to do what they’d said they planned to do.

Jared shut down that line of thought and saw that Pellegrino was watching him closely, like a scientist watching a bug or something. It made him angry and frightened, but if he showed it he’d be in worse trouble than he could imagine, he was sure.

“A reputation as a snitch won’t help me, sir,” he said neutrally.

“True. That’s true,” Pellegrino finally smiled, a strange, jarring smile. “What if I told you I could get you out of here? What would you say to that?”

“I’d... I don’t understand, sir.” He tried to keep his voice even, but there was a little tremble there he couldn’t smooth out. He couldn't follow Pellegrino's rapid changes in mood, and he couldn't keep himself from searching Pellegrino’s face for some sign that the man might actually mean it, even though he knew how ridiculous it would be to believe that anybody could help him at this point.

“I know you don’t,” Pellegrino smiled. “Let’s not worry about that yet. There’s something I think you could help me with, but I haven’t decided yet if you’re the right man for the job.”

He couldn’t be Fuller’s lawyer at all, but who was he then, Jared wondered? Unless he was part of some kind of trap Fuller was trying to spring on him?

“Let’s talk for a bit, while I decide if you’re what I’m looking for, and then, if I decide you are, I’ll fill you in and you can decide if the risks I’d be asking you to take seem worth it.”

The man began with basic questions: Jared’s birth date, birth place, how he did in school and how many siblings he had. It was a good thing they were easy questions. Jared’s mind was racing, trying to figure out what Pellegrino could possibly be aiming for. Unfortunately the man’s face gave very little away.

Soon he moved on to more complicated questions. Questions of morality, like what the correct response was to finding a twenty dollar bill on the sidewalk. Also more personal things, like which parent Jared considered himself closest to. For the twenty dollar bill question, Jared lied and said he’d ask passers-by if they’d dropped it. He couldn’t tell if Pellegrino liked that answer or not. He told the truth when he said he was equally close to both his parents, but he let slip that he hadn’t talked to them in awhile, and Pellegrino seemed very interested in that. He tried to get an explanation about that from Jared, but Jared didn’t have one to give, and just ended up red-faced, stuttering through a lame excuse about them being busy people. It was true, but it wasn’t a real excuse and Jared knew it. Eventually Pellegrino let it go and fired the next question.

After more questions than Jared could count, he sat back and reread Jared’s medical chart for a while. Then he spent some time flipping through the manila file he’d carried in with him, stopping for painfully long minutes to read over mysterious papers and study densely filled in government forms. Jared sat quietly with his hands in his lap and waited for the ax to fall. It seemed like everything that had happened to him lately had only been the worst luck. Whatever happened next, he should probably just prepare himself for it to be one more blow.

The man finally looked up and closed the file. He watched Jared for a minute, and Jared watched him right back, unnerved. Then Pellegrino smiled. When he started talking again, Jared realized that Pellegrino had moved beyond questions, and begun explaining who he was and what he was doing there. Jared listened attentively, all the while wondering whether this meant he’d actually passed Pellegrino’s test.

Pellegrino explained that he wasn’t a lawyer at all, but an FBI agent. For years Pellegrino had had his eye on another agent, one he believed to be corrupt. Recently, the corrupt agent had tranferred from the FBI to the GIS, the Government Investigative Service, and Pellegrino was afraid he’d continue to break laws at the new agency, but this time with no one around to watch him do it.

He’d been trying hard to build a case, but the man was well-insulated and all the evidence Pellegrino had managed to find was just circumstantial. He needed hard evidence, but he hadn’t found a way to get it for himself.

As he talked, Pellegrino seemed to become lost in his own frustration, and Jared wondered if he even remembered who he was talking to. He was tempted to check the wall clock, curious about how many minutes the man had been going already, but he kept his eyes dutifully fixed on Pellegrino's face instead.

He was trying to figure out why he was being told any of this at all, when Pellegrino’s eyes suddenly sharpened. “I need to get into his house,” he told Jared, tone even more urgent than it had been up to that point. “I need access to his computer files, bank account information... I need bugs in his office and his car. I need a tap on his phone lines. But even if I could get authorization to place an undercover agent near him or plant a bug or two, I don’t trust my own office to keep a lid on it for long enough to bear fruit. He’s still got plenty of friends at the bureau who’d be only too happy to shut the operation down.”

He scowled fiercely. “Which doesn’t matter, anyway, since I can’t get authorization. But if I can get that evidence first, then I can convince my boss that Speight’s been dirty all along. I can get warrants. If I can get warrants I can handpick a team of trustworthy agents, place official surveillance equipment, and finally nail the son of a bitch. But without anything concrete to get the boss on my side, I’m alone on this one.” Pellegrino scowled fiercely for a minute, then smoothed out his face and leaned close.

“I am the only one who knows that I’m talking to you today. There will be no record of this visit in the prison log. My boss doesn’t know I’m here. I took a personal day to come down here. If you decide not to help me, you can serve out the rest of your sentence in peace. I promise I won’t bother you again. If you decide to help me, and you get caught before I get authorization, I may not be able to help you. I'm going about this backwards, and what I want you to do isn't strictly legal. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir. But... I don’t understand- what is it you want me to do?”

“Have you heard of the Youthful Offender Apprenticeship Program, Jared?”

“Yes, sir?” His lawyer had mentioned it once as a way to keep him out of juvie if he was convicted. His parents hadn’t liked the sound of it. They’d still had some hope of winning the case then. It hadn’t turned out to be a possibility after all, with the way Fuller’s lawyers were baying for blood. They’d asked for all his time to be served inside, and the judge had given them that, just like he’d given Mr. Fuller everything else he’d wanted.

“Well, what is it, as you understand it?” Pellegrino prompted impatiently.

“My lawyer said if I entered the program they’d assign me to an adult to learn a trade, sir. That person would be responsible for me, and I’d have to work hard for them, not cause any trouble. He said a lot of kids would rather do that than juvie, but he said it was hard to get into. He thought I should try it. But the judge said I couldn’t, sir.”

Pellegrino nodded. “Looking through your file I noted at least ten points that mark you an ideal candidate, psychologically speaking. These same things are the traits I was looking for when I thought of this plan. Unfortunately for you, you were never considered for the program due to the judge’s recommendation. Bad luck for you that it was Kurt Fuller’s grandson you killed. My sources say Judge Reynolds has been in his pocket his entire career.”

Pellegrino studied Jared’s face and his eyes softened. “Except you didn’t kill him, did you? I could see it from your file. It was an accident, right?” Jared nodded. “You really shouldn’t have been convicted at all,” he continued, in a low tone. “But all too often that’s the way it goes isn’t it? The corruption running rampant at every level makes me sick. You shouldn’t have been convicted, you shouldn’t have gotten the sentence you got, and you should’ve been the first on the list for the YOAP. You got screwed here, three times over.” He sighed, then straightened his shoulders.

“Jared, I’m glad I found your file. I’m glad I can give you this chance, because you really deserve it. I can see you’re not a criminal, Jared. You’re an innocent kid who got railroaded by our corrupt system. You have as much reason to want to take this agent I told you about down as I do. It’s people like him that take the bribes and look the other way so that people like you don’t stand a chance.”

Jared suddenly found himself blinking back tears. It was the first time since his sentencing that Jared felt like there was somebody on his side. He ran a finger convulsively over a rough tear in the vinyl next to his thigh and took some deep breaths.

“Hey, kiddo, it’s all right,” Pellegrino said. He reached out and gave Jared’s shoulder a squeeze. “It’s gonna be alright. You’re the one I want for this job, okay? You know, I was gonna interview a couple other candidates after this, but I’m really hoping you’ll say ‘yes’ and that won’t be necessary. There’s not a person in our entire correctional system that deserves this chance more. So what do you say?”

“I’m still not sure, uh, what you want me to agree to do, exactly,” Jared said apologetically.

“Can you guess?” Pellegrino asked, with a curious smile.

“I think... you want me to sign up for the program, sir? And be the apprentice to the corrupt agent, and uh, gather you information on him, from the inside?”

“Good, Jared. Once again, your test scores didn’t lie. That is precisely what I need you to do. You’ll live with this guy, work with him, pretend like you’re nothing more than a simple apprentice, and all the while you’ll be gathering information on him, working towards your freedom. You get me enough to get a real investigation going, and then we’ll see how long it takes before he’s being led away in handcuffs.” Pellegrino’s eyes danced at the idea.

“It’ll take time.” Pellegrino’s voice got hard and solemn, but his eyes didn’t stop snapping with excitement. “I’ll need hard evidence, it can’t just be your word about what you saw, and it won’t be easy. If he treats you badly, not that I think he will, but if he does, well, your options are limited. Your word against his is not what I’m going for. I want to bring everything he’s built up crashing down. I need evidence hard enough to stick, nothing less. Look, he’s never struck me as a violent guy, I don’t think he’ll treat you wrong, but I don’t know. He’s not a good guy. He’s greedy and corrupt. Some of his friends are nasty pieces of work. If there’s a problem with how he treats you you can come to me and I’ll get you pulled, but that’s the best I can promise. I can’t promise you’ll end up anywhere but right back here if that happens. You get me? This is all or nothing. You get me that evidence and I can help you, Jared, you don’t, and there’s not much I can do for you. Do you understand?”

Jared nodded and swallowed. Pellegrino’s smile came creeping back. “But Jared... Jared, kiddo, if we bring him down... If we bring them all down, there’s not a judge in this country that won’t say ‘Hey, this kid doesn’t belong in prison. This kid built our case for us.’ And you’ll have me fighting for you. I’ll get you the best damn deal anyone’s ever heard of for your part in this. You won’t spend another day in here.”

“I understand, sir,” he said quietly. The throbbing and spinning in his head had little to do with the lump on it anymore, and everything to do with the excitement swelling up in his chest. He wasn't sure he understood how Pellegrino thought that a juvenile offender gathering evidence illegally was the best way to build a case, but he wasn't an FBI agent himself. Pellegrino seemed to think it would work, and surely he would know. Jared took a deep breath. “I want to do it, sir.”

Chapter Two

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December 2011

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