The Long and Winding Road (amypond45) wrote,
The Long and Winding Road

Stars in the Southern Sky - Part One

Flying in small private airplanes should be illegal, Jensen decides as he stumbles down the steps from the tiny six-seater which had just flown him from Midland, Texas to the tiny town of Alpine, deep in the Western part of the state. His legs are wobbly, and he grabs the flimsy handrail in a death-grip, forcing himself to take deep breaths of the surprisingly cool, dry air.

"Mr. Ackles? Jensen Ackles?"

There's a cowboy on the tarmac, shuffling forward in his boots and Stetson. Jensen swears to God the man's heels are jingling because he's got spurs on, oh yes he does, and there's an honest-to-God toothpick twirling between his teeth, pushed into the corner of his mouth as he readies himself to speak. The mother-of-pearl snap-covers on his plaid workshirt are just the finishing touches, because he's got the huge belt-buckle in the shape of a horseshoe too and the overall effect is just too perfect. Jensen glances around to be sure there are no cameras, because he could swear he's on a movie soundstage, this guy's costume is so perfect.

"Are you Jensen Ackles?" the man repeats, and Jensen nods, noticing a battered pick-up truck parked behind the man, the only vehicle in sight.

"And you're Mr. Justice?" Jensen suggests, repeating the name he's been given for the ranch-hand who was scheduled to pick him up at airport.

The man's face is so grooved with sunburn it's hard to be sure, but Jensen thinks his mouth turns up a little as he nods, so Jensen guesses that's a yes.

"Sonny," the man corrects, sticking his hand out, and Jensen takes it, noting the strength of the man's grip, calloused hands so rough it's hard to imagine he's able to feel Jensen's grip at all. "Welcome to West Texas, Mr. Ackles."

"Jensen," Jensen corrects automatically. "Thank you."

"You got any luggage, Mr. Ackles?" Sonny asks, and Jensen sees the stubborn glint in the man's eye, knows he's being tested.

"No, sir, this is it," he answers, patting the duffel strap slung across his chest with four fingers of his left hand, thumb still hooked in the strap of the messenger bag on his other shoulder.

Sonny nods, doesn't offer to take anything, turns and strides back to his truck bow-leggedly, leaving Jensen to follow as best he can.

"You can put your bags in the back," Sonny nods toward the pick-up's dusty bed, strewn with straw and half-full of heavy metal tool-boxes and a huge coil of barbed wire.

Jensen slings the duffel over the side of the truck, then holds onto the messenger bag as he climbs into the passenger seat of the cab.

"You been to West Texas before, Mr. Ackles?" Sonny asks as he turns the key in the ignition and waits the requisite minute for the diesel engine to warm up.

"No, sir," Jensen shakes his head a little, and Sonny nods.

"Didn't think so," Sonny says, twisting the toothpick in his mouth in something that looks almost like a smirk. The engine roars to life before Jensen has a chance to respond, before he can protest that he's not a total city-slicker, despite what Sonny obviously thinks.

Then they're barreling north along highway 118 toward Fort Davis, Jensen admiring the landscape in spite of himself, unable to resist the comparison between the mountainous scenery here and the flat, dusty terrain of his Dallas home. It could almost be a different country, or at least a different state, not to mention the air temperature.

"We're in the foothills of the Rockies here," Sonny explains, as if he's reading Jensen's mind. "Perfect cattle country. Climate's temperate all year. Peaks in the 80's in the summer, never much below freezing in the winter. Not a lot of rain, but you wait till you see the sky at night. Fairly bursting with starlight. University of Texas put its observatory here on account a' how clear the sky is. It's a real thing of beauty."

Jensen nods, admiring how blue the sky is, unlike the faintly grayish tint of his home-town sky. No pollution here. Not much population, he knows, from the reading he's done, and the closest town, Fort Davis, only has about 1,000 residents. Not much in the way of a school.

Which is why Jensen is here in the first place.

He takes a deep breath, lets it out as he thinks back on the past few months since he graduated from college with nothing but a bachelor's in English and a vague idea of pursuing a Ph.D. in physical therapy. He'd registered with the college's placement office as a last resort, certain there wouldn't be a job that suited his too-common degree, his limited experience working with autistic children in the summers at a local ranch. He never doubted the value of the work he did there, observing first-hand the natural way children connected to animals, often in direct opposition to their ability to connect with people. Over and over Jensen had watched the kids in his care open up with the dogs, cats, and horses on the ranch, becoming obviously affectionate, happy, able to display and express human emotions that had seemed beyond their capabilities.

But the pay was incredibly low, and Jensen had been warned that there wasn't much future in it, unless he wanted to go on to graduate school, and he just couldn't afford that. Life had played a series of tricks on Jensen through the years, starting with his parents' deaths when he was ten years old, after which he was taken in begrudgingly by his mother's brother and his family, his only living relatives. Following Jensen's uncle's untimely death two years later, his widow, overwhelmed by grief and the sudden demands of single-parenthood to her three kids, had given Jensen up to the state. The boy had floundered in the foster system for three years before finding a place with an ex-con who ran a Home for Boys just outside Dallas. The man had seen Jensen's potential, had encouraged his schooling and provided the structure and security Jensen needed to succeed. Under Christian Kane's firm hand, Jensen had thrived and flourished, had finished high school at the top of his class, had won a football scholarship to the University of Texas at Dallas, and had discovered a talent for sports journalism.

Apparently it was the combination of experiences and education that earned a job offer from Jared Padalecki, a wealthy rancher who had taken in his sister's daughter after the sister's death the previous year. The girl hadn't done well at the local school, and Mr. Padalecki needed a tutor, someone who had experience working with special children. Mr. Padalecki's emails didn't explain much about the girl's needs, but the salary offer was over three times what Jensen could hope to make as a beginning teacher at a private school, since he wasn't certified and didn't have a master's degree. It wasn't something he could pass up, and the placement office director was very clear about her inability to help him further if he turned down such an outstanding offer.

So Jensen had flown to Midland International Airport, where Padalecki's private plane had brought him to Alpine, all on Padalecki's dime. It surprised Jensen only a little that the man hadn't bothered to interview him or to meet him in person. Padalecki had a reputation for impulsive behavior, for being reckless and overbearing. Something he'd seen in Jensen's profile had convinced him that Jensen was the man for the job, and apparently that was all there was to it.

Jensen had done his research, had learned everything that a good Google search could provide about Jared Padalecki. Padlock Ranch was so named because the locals apparently couldn't manage Padalecki's multisyllabic surname and (in their typical West Texas way) gave the ranch the nickname as a reminder to the Padaleckis that they were foreigners in these here parts, and therefore permanent newcomers. The Padaleckis adopted the name good-naturedly, apparently, and Padlock Ranch became its official name. The ranch is situated about twenty-five minutes west of Fort Davis, with a classic horse-shoe-shaped sign bridging two tree-trunk sized posts at the entrance. The gravel driveway looks long and hot, with a series of buildings off in the distance, and when Sonny announces he's dropping Jensen at the top of it because he has some fences to mend on the lower-forty, Jensen takes a deep breath and braces himself for an hour's walk, at least. The mid-afternoon sun beats down, and even though it's cooler and dryer here than in Dallas, Jensen's sweating after only about fifteen minutes. It's quiet on the long driveway, the only sound being the crunching of gravel under Jensen's shoes and the buzzing of the occasional fly. Off in the distance Jensen thinks he hears dogs barking, or howling, sometimes both. Three huge buzzards circle and swoop over something across the pasture to his right, and Jensen tries not to think about the hapless animal slowly dying of thirst out there.

The sound of hooves pounding up the driveway behind him starts as a low rumbling, so that it takes Jensen a minute to fully realize what he's hearing. By the time he looks over his shoulder, the huge black horse and its equally huge black-clad rider are bearing down on him at breakneck speed. Jensen starts to move aside, thinking to let the rider pass, but the horse pulls up instead, stopping so suddenly on the slippery gravel that its hooves slip and stamp, long powerful front legs pull back as the horse rears and neighs, then pivots two or three times and stamps some more as Jensen flattens himself against the fence on the side of the driveway, figuring a back full of splinters beats a chest crushed by hooves any day. The animal is panting, nostrils flaring, legs and shoulders quivering with energy as his rider calms him, speaking low and soothingly as he paces back and forth in front of Jensen, snorting and chomping on the bit, baring his huge teeth and making his bridle jangle, the whites of his eyes flashing at Jensen.

"Whoa, Pilot, whoa there," the rider soothes in a voice like nothing Jensen's ever heard; it's deep and calming, but rippling with power at the same time. It's the voice of a man who's used to being in control and likes it that way, and it sends an unexpected shiver up Jensen's spine.

The rider looks up then, and Jensen's grateful that the sun is behind him because when the rider's face tips up under his Stetson so that Jensen can get a good look at him for the first time, it's almost too much. Chiseled features, angular jaw, slanted light-colored eyes and soft pink lips form the most beautiful face Jensen has ever seen, and although Jensen has seen this face in photographs, those images can't do justice to the sheer gorgeousness looking down on him from astride the giant black horse. Not to mention the tall, muscular body, clothed simply in a black button-down rolled up to the elbows and form-fitting black jeans. Jensen's eyes fall to the man's long, slim fingers holding the reins, the other hand reaching down to pat the horse's neck, and suddenly Jensen's noticing the way the man's thigh muscles clench around the horse's body as he leans forward, the cotton of his shirt pulling tight across his well-defined chest.

Fuck if he doesn't have a sudden raging boner for his new employer, and all he can do is hope Jared Padalecki doesn't see it.

"Who the hell are you? What are you doing on my land?" The booming voice makes Jensen look up, meeting the demanding glare of the gorgeous man on the towering horse with what he hopes comes off as a more confident look than he feels.

"I'm–I'm Jensen," Jensen stammers, swallowing hard in his dry throat, reflexively pushing his glasses up his nose, knowing how nervous that makes him look, but whatever. "Jensen Ackles."

Jared frowns, holding onto his pacing, pawing horse with one hand as his other slides down his thigh and damn, if there isn't more strength in that one arm than in Jensen's entire body.

Jensen clears his throat, looks down at his shoes to avoid that piercing stare, trying to adjust himself without Jared noticing the tightness in his pants. He's wearing light-colored trousers and a white button-down, normal summer attire in Dallas but a little over-dressed for West Texas. And way more revealing than the dark clothes Jared's wearing.

"Jensen," Jared breathes his name thoughtfully, and it's too intimate, makes Jensen's skin tingle and come alive all over, even though his brain knows Jared's just trying to place him. "Oh right. The nanny."

Heat rises in Jensen's cheeks. "Tutor," he corrects. "We agreed my title would be 'tutor.'" He sucks in a breath, aware than he's coming across as stubborn and strong-willed, maybe even insubordinate. But there's something about Jared's manner, his expectation of unquestioning obedience, that just rubs Jensen the wrong way. Jensen's not a slave, and he certainly doesn't need to be treated like one.

"Tutor," Jared nods, and Jensen's relieved to see the spark of something like grudging respect in the man's gaze. He seems to be considering Jensen with less belligerance now, maybe even with the beginnings of admiration. "Well, Mr. Ackles, since we'll be seeing a lot of each other from now on, we might as well dispense with the pleasantries, right? You obviously know who I am. If I wasn't such a sweaty mess, I'd shake your hand. But as it is, Pilot here needs a good rub-down," he pats the horse's neck again, and the beast snorts, intensifies his pawing and pacing, tosses his head. "So I'll see you up at the house in about an hour. I'll let them know you're coming."

Before Jensen can respond Jared turns away, loosens the reigns and taps the horse's flanks lightly with his heels, and the horse tears off at a dead gallop again, heading away from Jensen toward the house in a cloud of dust, gravel flying everywhere. Jensen watches them go, man and horse moving as one, Jared's broad back clenching as he controls the massive beast, making it look effortless and athletic at once.

By the time Jensen crosses the lawn and climbs the steps to the front door of the house, the sun has started to dip behind the few trees lining the edge of the grounds, providing shade and a place to hang what looks like an old-fashioned wooden swing. Jensen's saved from ringing the doorbell by the opening of the door by a small, slim woman wearing a simple navy house-dress and sensible shoes, her hair pulled back tightly in a severe bun.

"Welcome to Padlock Ranch, Mr. Ackles," she welcomes him, sticking her hand out. "I'm Mrs. Fairfax, the housekeeper."

"Jensen," Jensen corrects her as he takes her hand, and she shakes her head.

"Formality keeps things running smoothly here, Mr. Ackles," she notes, not unkindly. "We all use our surnames around here, except Miss Adele, of course."

Mrs. Fairfax leads Jensen into the cool main hall, and of course Jensen is overwhelmed by the sheer size of the place, high ceilings and wealth on display everywhere, just like the grounds outside.

"Your room is on the second floor," Mrs. Fairfax explains as she climbs the central staircase, which winds around the hall. "You'll want to wash up and change before you come down to meet Mr. Jared."

"I thought you used surnames only here," Jensen ventures as he follows her up the stairs.

"He'll always be Mr. Jared to me," Mrs. Fairfax answers matter-of-factly as she leads him down the upstairs hall. "I raised him from the moment his parents died, and he was just a baby with only his big sister to look after him. Now that she's passed on too, he's all that's left of the Padalecki homestead. Him and Adele. Mr. Jared is a national treasure. Nothing can change my mind about that."

Jensen lets out a breath as Mrs. Fairfax ushers him into his room. Her loyalty, and the obvious affection in her voice when she speaks of Jared, is reassuring to Jensen, humanizes the dark knight on the black steed Jensen met in the long driveway.

The room Jensen's been given is modest but comfortable, with its own bathroom and a laptop on a small desk. The view out the back of the house from his room’s window is as stunning as the front, with lawns, tennis courts, and a swimming pool giving way to long, low stables and pasture land reaching out as far as the eye can see. Jensen takes a quick shower to wash off the day's dust and sweat, starts pulling out a rumpled shirt from his duffel when it occurs to him to open the closet.

Sure enough, there are several freshly-pressed button-downs hanging neatly, all in his size, along with a couple of pairs of equally neatly-pressed trousers, which he avoids in favor of putting his own back on, along with a clean tee-shirt. He does take one of the shirts off the hanger, weirdly curious. The cotton is fine and cool against his skin, obviously well-made and expensive, and a perfect fit, which should be creepier than it is. Of course Padalecki would know his size. The man is a multi-millionaire with hundreds of people working for him. Somebody undoubtedly interviewed Jensen's roommates, or maybe his ex-girlfriend, to get his clothing sizes. As well as his shoe size, Jensen adds to himself as he pulls out one of three pairs of soft Italian-leather dress-shoes lined neatly in the bottom of the closet.

He opens the drawers of the small dresser, finding them full of socks, underwear, even a couple of belts and a pair of swimming trunks. The bottom drawer contains three pairs of Levis blue-jeans. The room's second closet has three jackets, one of them a working-man's denim jacket, as well as a pair of cowboy boots and a hat, which Jensen can't resist trying on, checking himself out in the mirror. A couple of plaid flannel work-shirts hang beside the denim jacket.

Jensen puts away his own meager possessions in the one empty dresser drawer, finds the bathroom similarly stocked with toiletries (he's already used the shampoo and soap in the shower), leaves his toothbrush and shaving supplies there anyway.

When he finally leaves the room, shutting the door softly behind him, the sun has already dipped below the rocky bluffs on the western horizon. The hallway is silent and gloomy, the only light coming in from a tall window on the landing. As Jensen heads down the hall, walking as quietly as possible on the carpeted surface, he notices a door ajar at the end, just at the top of the stairs. Unable to control his curiosity, he peers inside, where a narrow wooden staircase leads up sharply into darkness. The air is close and thick here, as if the radiant heat of the day had stagnated and settled in this one spot, leaving the atmosphere heavy and hushed with expectation. Jensen realizes he's holding his breath, and he turns away, feeling strangely guilty, as if the discovery of the little staircase were not a complete accident, as if he had been prying.

That's when he hears it. A low, rhythmic laugh that sounds almost like sobbing echoes along the corridor. It's dark and mirthless and goes on and on, so lonely and expressionless it might be an animal, or something mechanical. It barely sounds human, that's for sure. And when it stops abruptly, cut off in mid-chuckle as if a switch had been thrown, the ensuing silence is too quiet, too complete. Jensen stands perfectly still for another moment, waiting for the laughter to start up again, trying to pinpoint its location. When the silence continues after several moments, Jensen starts down the stairs, shrugging off the uneasy feeling tickling the back of his neck.

In the gloom and quiet of early evening the house seems deserted. When Jensen reaches the foyer on the first floor without meeting anyone he starts walking toward the back of the house, down the hall to where he assumes there will be life, and people, and food. He pokes his head into large, silent rooms, first a living room, then a library or study, and finally a dining room, all still and empty. The dining room has large french doors opened onto a veranda overlooking the back lawns, and Jensen can see a lighted fire-pit flickering there, the first sign of life or even of movement since he left his room, so he steps out, immediately noticing the smell of meat grilling. His mouth waters and his stomach rumbles; he realizes he hasn't eaten since he left Dallas this morning, and suddenly he's starving.

"It's about time you came down," a voice startles him, and Jensen jumps. Jared Padalecki is seated in a lounge chair to his right, nursing a glass of amber liquid and watching the sunset, or at least Jensen imagines that's what he must've been doing. His hair is slicked back and damp, and his face looks pink and freshly scrubbed. He's changed into a clean pair of black jeans and a finely-woven white button-down shirt, sleeves rolled up to display his powerful forearms. "Figured you must've passed out up there after your long day traveling."

Jensen takes the seat Jared offers, lets Jared pour him a whiskey, feeling stupidly shy in the presence of the mountain of energy and dark passion that is Jared. The man sprawls in his chair with the grace and power of a mountain lion, his long limbs splayed casually, his piercing gaze following Jensen's movements with an expression that seems both amused and scornful.

"Wanted to wait for you before I put your steak on," Jared explains as he rises, crossing purposefully to the grill, raises the lid to turn his own steak, then turns to Jensen with the fork in his hand like a weapon. "How do you like it?"

"However you're having yours is fine," Jensen manages, fighting down the urge to fidget, to let his knee bounce as he fingers his glass.

"Bloody," Jared's grin is dimpled and gorgeous, like the rest of him, and it sends a shiver up Jensen's spine. "I like it pretty rare."

"That's fine," Jensen nods gamely. "Bloody it is."

The sky is blood-red now, and a few stars are just starting to appear to the east. Jensen admires the dark purple of the Davis Mountains against the deep red of the sky, tries not to appreciate Jared's strong, muscled shoulders as they move under his shirt, but it's a losing battle. The man is seriously built, and watching him turn the steaks on the grill is one of the hottest things Jensen can ever remember seeing in his entire life.

Get a grip, Ackles, he admonishes himself sternly. Having the hots for the boss on the first day doesn't bode well for the job.

Then Jared catches him looking and Jensen ducks his head, blushing furiously and grateful for the encroaching darkness, hoping it hides the color he can feel burning his face and neck, scorching the tips of his ears.

"So, tell me why I hired you, Mr. Ackles?" Jared's smiling, his eyes twinkling mischievously. Of course the bastard knows the effect he has on people. He can't be that gorgeous and not know how to work it.

Jensen blushes harder, shakes his head a little, having trouble meeting Jared's eyes. "I don't know, exactly," he admits, hearing the shy smile in his voice and hating it. "You want me to tutor your niece. Teach her things." It sounds so lame, Jensen cringes. He clears his throat and shifts awkwardly in his seat, fingering his glass nervously.

"That's right. Adele has had a lot of trauma in her life," Jared notes as he flips the steaks. "She doesn't respond well to traditional education methods. I brought you on board because I'm hoping you can help her."

Jensen nods. "When can I meet her?" he asks, glancing around. "Is she here?"

"I sent her into town with Mrs. Fairfax to see a movie," Jared explains, spearing his steak and flipping it onto a plate. "I figured it would be easier to give you a little time to unwind after your trip. You can meet her in the morning."

"So you live here alone?" Jensen asks, then immediately blushes again. "With Adele, I mean."

Jared's eyes flash as he gives a slight nod. "Just us," he agrees, "and Mrs. Fairfax, of course, and John and Mary Hunt. John does the gardening, manages the farm. Mary's a first-rate cook, as you'll find out when you come down for breakfast in the morning. They live in the caretaker's cottage. I gave them the night off so you and I could have a chance to get to know each other."

"So nobody else is home right now?" Jensen asks, puzzled. "It's just us?"

Jared spears Jensen's steak and plops it on a plate, hands it to him, lifts his eyes to Jensen's and pauses meaningfully, and Jensen is suddenly consumed with lust so powerful he can't think straight. Jared's mouth twitches, like he knows exactly where Jensen's brain (and his dick) have gone, and he holds Jensen's gaze for another moment before turning away, reaching for a wine bottle and a couple of glasses.

"Just us, Mr. Ackles," he says with a smile as he pours rich red wine into a glass for Jensen, hands it to him. Of course their fingers brush and of course Jensen's entire body is tingling like a firecracker about ready to go off as Jared gestures toward the table. "Care to join me?"

"Jensen," Jensen chokes out as he gets to his feet, crosses to the table and sits down opposite Jared. "Please call me Jensen."

"Then you must call me Jared," Jared responds, and the flirtatious tone in his voice is unmistakable now, teasing. "My friends call me Jay."

"Okay, Jared," Jensen sees Jared's bet, raises him another hundred, returning the full volley of Jared's amused gaze with a challenge of his own. "Since you're my boss, I think I'll stick with the formal address. Mrs. Fairfax seems to think that's how it's done around here."

Jared raises his glass in salute, smiles with real warmth, and it's just devastating. "Mrs. Fairfax is a wise woman," he says, nodding. "She practically raised me, not that the result is anything to be proud of."

"I don't know about that," Jensen raises an eyebrow. "Seems like you turned out all right." He blushes again at the personal turn in the conversation, wonders if he's had a little too much to drink already.

Jared is eyeing him askance now, smile turning grim, his expressive eyes clouding with remembered grief. "That's because you don't know me," he says darkly, lowering his eyes to his plate. "My life is nothing like what you've read in the media. In fact, I'm pretty sure I'm cursed, if you want to know the truth."

Jensen watches as Jared takes a bite of his steak, swallows a sip of his wine, then reaches for the bottle. The matter-of-fact manner of Jared's tone belies the depth of the man's grief, making his words sound less melodramatic than they might have, and Jensen feels oddly protective, wishes there was something he could do to make Jared feel better about himself.

"My mom used to tell me curses were blessings in disguise," Jensen says. "You just have to know how to look at them."

Jared lifts his eyes to Jensen's and his brow clears, softens. "I didn't have a mother," he says quietly. "She died when I was a baby."

"I'm sorry," Jensen says, keeping his tone grave and sincere, and Jared nods.

"It's okay," he says. "I had my sister, and Mrs. Fairfax. She's family, actually. Her mother and my father were first cousins. They grew up together here. She became my official guardian, since my parents didn't leave a will and she was next of kin. My parents weren't exactly practical people. They were into a lot of causes, always off saving the world in their little private plane. They died doing what they believed in, helping build a school in Haiti after a hurricane. They were flying home to us when their little plane went down. The water was so deep where it went down that it took five years before they were finally located. Not much left to recover by that time."

Jensen chews his steak, trying not to enjoy it too much, but the wine and even the grilled vegetables are incredibly good so it takes him a minute to realize Jared has stopped talking, is watching him. He blushes again – just can't seem to stop doing that in Jared's presence – and gestures appreciatively at his plate.

"It's good," he says.

"Home-grown beef is always the best," Jared agrees, amusement curling up the corners of his soft, pink mouth. "How about you, Jensen? Your story isn't exactly all roses and sunshine either."

Jensen runs his tongue along his bottom lip, then pulls it between his teeth and gnaws on it for a minute, aware of Jared watching him. When he looks up, Jared's eyes are dark, hooded. Jensen reaches for his wine glass, takes a sip.

"Not much to tell, really," he answers finally. "My parents died when I was about ten. Car crash. I lived with my uncle and his family for a couple of years, until he died. Then I was on my own after that a lot till Chris Kane took me in, put me straight, helped me finish high school and get into college. But you knew all that."

Jared nods slowly. "Needed to hear you tell it," he says quietly, his expression soft, sympathetic. "Seems to me life hasn't been very kind to you, Jensen."

Jensen frowns, shakes his head. The self-pitying thing has never worked for him. It's just not worth it. "No way," he says. "I've been incredibly lucky. When Chris found me, I was drifting, really at loose ends and up to no good. Going down a dark road. But he was all about discipline, hard work, doing the job of living day to day and making something of your life. He pushed me, challenged me when I needed it. And it was tough, but I did it, I made it. You don't have to fall through the cracks just because life deals you a bum hand. But it takes somebody helping you. I couldn't have done it without him, and I'll always be grateful. I'm one of the lucky ones."

Jared smiles, takes another sip of his wine, reaches for the bottle again. "You sound like my sister," he notes. "Those are the kinds of things she used to say to me, especially when I started whining about not having a mom and dad like everybody else. She'd tell me to buck up and be grateful for what I did have." He tops off Jensen's wine glass, then sits back in his chair, gazing into the darkness beyond the fire pit. "I miss her," he confesses softly.

Jensen nods. "That never stops," he agrees, letting himself remember his mother's fond smile, his father's warm hand on his shoulder.

"Hey, okay, enough crying into our wine," Jared announces with a huffed breath that sounds like something between a laugh and a sob. He brushes irritably at his eyes with the back of his hand as he surges up, gathers the plates and dumps them into the sink. "Dessert?" he asks as he turns back, but Jensen shakes his head.

"I'm good with the whiskey," Jensen answers, more than a little moved by Jared's teary-eyed countenance. The man has run the emotional gauntlet tonight, that's for sure. And every single expression is as fascinating and attractive as the last.

Jensen is in such deep shit.

But at least he's relaxed by now, so that when Jared moves back to the lounge chairs it's easy for Jensen to join him, to smoke the evil-smelling cigar Jared offers, to sit in companionable silence and gaze at the show that is the brilliantly starlit West Texas sky. And when Jared finally suggests they turn in so they can start fresh the next day, Jensen's able to take the strong, warm hand Jared offers without blushing, to look into the man's eyes without collapsing into a gooey puddle on the stone patio at Jared's feet.

Yes, there's no doubt Jensen is powerfully attracted to his new boss, but he's starting to think maybe they can be friends, too. At least, he hopes so.


Jensen's awakened in the early hours of the morning by a low moaning, and it's such an inhuman sound that at first Jensen thinks it's a cow giving birth. His sleep-addled mind provides that thought as the only possible explanation, and since it's a ranch and there are cattle, it seems more plausible than anything else. Except that the sound is coming from inside the house, Jensen's pretty sure as he comes to consciousness. Then it stops abruptly, almost as if a switch was flipped, and Jensen finds himself lying awake, blinking into the darkness of the room, waiting for the sound to start up again. When it doesn't, Jensen lets himself drift off to sleep with the uneasy memory of the odd laughter he heard earlier, and he promises himself he'll ask Mrs. Fairfax about it in the morning.

But when he comes down later in the morning – deliberately waiting until the cock stops crowing and he can hear activity in the house so he's sure he's not the first one up – there's a little girl sitting at the dining room table, coloring. She's a pretty, delicate little thing with big dark eyes and silky dark ringlets framing her sharp little face, and Jensen recognizes a little of Jared in her features right away, softened and feminized, but definitely there. She'll be a real beauty someday, Jensen thinks as she looks up, stares at him with an open frankness couched in more sorrow than a child this age should ever feel, and his heart just melts.

"Hey," he smiles at her, going for an easy charm that usually works with kids. "You must be Adele. I'm Jensen."

Her eyes widen just a little, in apprehension maybe, but she doesn't answer, just looks down and keeps coloring. But at least she doesn't run away, so Jensen figures it's a good start.

"What are you coloring?" he asks as he moves toward her, slowly so that he doesn't frighten her. She glances at him as he closes in, standing over her shoulder to look down at her work. She's drawn a house with three people and an animal, maybe a dog, Jensen's not clear about that, but he nods encouragingly. "Not bad," he says. "Is that you?" he points to the smallest figure in the picture.

Adele still says nothing, but she gives a little nod, so Jensen knows she heard him.

"And these two?" he goes on, pointing to the other figures in the drawing. "Is this your mom and dad?"

Adele tenses, shakes her head a little, then pushes the picture away, scoots sideways on her chair as if she means to make a run for it, so Jensen backs up a little, gives her more space, putting his hands up.

"Hey, that's okay," he murmurs soothingly. "It's a sensitive subject. I get it. I lost my parents when I was about your age, so believe me, I get it."

She looks up at him then, eyes wide, and Jensen gives a little rueful smile, nods, and Adele seems to consider him for the first time, frowning thoughtfully.

"I see you've met your young charge," Mrs. Fairfax's voice rings out from the doorway as she bustles into the room, carrying a tray of steaming coffee and a plate piled with eggs, bacon and toast. "Adele's already had her breakfast in the kitchen earlier, but you can eat yours in here."

"Jared–?" Jensen starts to ask, but Mrs. Fairfax cuts him off.

"Mr. Jared went out with Sonny to check on the cattle this morning," she tells him. "We have five head that are ready to calve, and we don't want to lose them."

"No," Jensen agrees cluelessly. "We wouldn't want that."

"You and Adele can spend the morning together," Mrs. Fairfax directs. "After breakfast John will take you down to the stables so you can get acquainted with the horses. Milly is Adele's mare; she'll show you. And Mr. Jared suggested you could ride Charger, if you're up to it, or Scoot, if you need something a little more sedate. Charger can be a bit of a handful."

"I'm sure I can manage," Jensen nods, grateful that he dressed for the outdoors today. His jeans and plaid flannel are almost a match for Adele's, although she's wearing sneakers instead of boots.

She changes before they go down to the stables, though, slipping out of her sneakers and into her cowboy boots in the little mudroom out back of the kitchen. Jensen left his Stetson upstairs, so Adele hands him a cowboy hat off the hook by the door as she grabs one for herself. It's a little big, and Jensen feels a stupid thrill as he puts it on, knowing without asking that it's Jared's. John Hunt meets them at the gate, after they cross the huge expanse of lawn behind the house, passing tennis courts and the swimming pool. He shakes Jensen's hand, but doesn't say much; Jensen's beginning to think there must be an unspoken no-talking-unless-absolutely-necessary rule at Padlock Ranch. At any rate, John displays enough kindness toward Adele to assure Jensen that his social reticence doesn't apply to the little girl. He's already brought the horses in from the pasture for them, helps them saddle and bridle, straps a lunch pack to the back of Jensen's saddle, then gives Jensen brief directions for a good three-hour ride.

Jensen's not sure it's the best idea for him to take Adele on a long horseback ride first thing, but one glance at the girl's enraptured face as she feeds a carrot to her gentle mount, stroking the mare's broad neck with loving hands, and Jensen's convinced.

"Do you need any help climbing on?" he asks, and she shoots him a look of such patent disdain, reminding him that she's probably been riding since she was two, that he shrugs and nods. "Okay, then. Let's get going before it gets any hotter."

Adele grabs hold of the back of the saddle with one hand, the horn with the other, hoists herself up enough to reach the stirrup, then slings her small body gracefully into the saddle. Her patient horse sidesteps only a little to accommodate Adele's slight weight, but she's got the reins in one hand, leans down to pat the horse's neck with the other before settling back, looking small but totally at ease as she waits for Jensen to mount.

Charger is clearly not a horse who suffers fools gladly. He's got a mind of his own, and Jensen can tell right away that Charger is a horse that needs a firm hand.

"Whoa there, Charger," Jensen coaxes as he pats the animal's neck, moves to his left side with the reins clutched loosely in one hand. As soon as he puts his boot-clad foot into the stirrup Charger sidesteps, then starts to pivot toward Jensen, so that if he hadn't grabbed the saddle and practically jumped across the animal's back he would've easily been shaken loose. Charger's in a serious pivot by the time Jensen swings his leg over, wrangles control with a firm grip on the reins, then gives the animal a sharp tug back, his thighs clenching to let Charger feel his weight and determination.

"Whoa there, Charger," he says again, putting the weight of command and warning into his voice that makes Charger's ears flatten at first, then flick forward again. "That's it, boy. Settle down, now."

Charger snorts, paws the ground, and Jensen lets the reins go a little so he can toss his head, then pulls him back in again firmly. When he feels sure Charger has accepted him, however tentatively, he glances at Adele, finds her grinning widely, eyes sparkling.

"Didn't think I could do it, didja?" Jensen raises an eyebrow at her. "You figured I'd get tossed, am I right?"

Adele nods, smiling even broader, and Jensen lets his face relax into a smile too, shaking his head. "You ain't seen nothin' yet, monkey-girl."

The smile drops so abruptly from Adele's face it's like a curtain came down. She lowers her eyes and turns away, her horse obeying her like it's part of her, turning to walk out of the corral and down the trail to the creek. Jensen follows, stupefied, wondering what he'd said that shut her down so sharply.

"What?" he calls after her. "What did I say? Adele? What's wrong?" It occurs to him, as a stroke of pure intuition, that the endearment he used was probably one Adele had heard before, a nickname her father had probably used. Of course, with Adele's lithe little gymnast's body, it would've been a comparison she was accustomed to, and Jensen makes a mental note to avoid using any nicknames that refer to Adele's natural athletic ability, however obliquely. He can still remember the nick-names his parents used for him as a child, and he's pretty sure that if his aunt or uncle had ever used them it would've infuriated him. Luckily, they were never very fond of him in the first place, so the notion of using an endearment when addressing Jensen would never have occurred to either one of them.

They ride in silence for almost an hour, Jensen following on Charger as Adele's mare leads the way down the trail to the creek bed. They mosey along it for some time as Jensen admires the view, giving thanks to whatever pagan god of watery passages that there are no bugs, since he's always been a magnet for mosquitoes and other biting insects. The trees and shrubs along the water provide shade, and the cool air temperature over the water is soothing, gives Jensen time to reflect on last night's introductory dinner with his employer. He tries not to dwell on how easy it felt to talk to Jared, after the initial embarrassment due to his obvious inability to control his own attraction to the man. The fact is, Jensen has never been so intensely attracted to anyone in his life, and it's more than a little disconcerting. He tries to forget the fact that he jerked off to the memory of Jared's lips sucking smoke from his cigar, or Jared's hands holding the wine bottle, of Jared's back muscles straining under his shirt as he flipped the steaks on the grill.

Not to mention Jared's dimpled smile, his easy manner once he loosened up, dropped the brooding self-pity. The man's gorgeousness became positively explosive when he smiled, and Jensen's long past thinking this is his life's mission, right here, to make Jared Padalecki smile, as much as possible.

He's deep in his own thoughts, dick already at least at half-mast, when there's a sound of rustling bushes ahead of them on the trail and suddenly Jared is there, astride that massive black beast he was riding yesterday, bearing down on them from the hillside.

"Hey," Jared huffs, pulling Pilot up sharply so he's in the creek-bed, facing Jensen and Adele like a mountainous barrier, unable to be breached without first being confronted.

"Hey," Jensen greets his boss, not sure what kind of look Adele is giving because her back is to him. She pulls Milly up quick, though, waits as Jared gives her a little half-smile, then lifts his eyes to Jensen, and the world falls away. Because in that look, just that one glance, Jensen can see that Jared's spent the previous night thinking about him, too. There's a desperate, haunted look in Jared's eyes when he looks at Jensen, and Jensen just knows. Doesn't have a doubt in his mind about Jared's feelings, and it's the craziest, most intense thing he's ever felt.

"Thought we could ride together," Jared says, his glance fluttering over Jensen, over Adele, unable to land anywhere.

"How'd the calving go?" Jensen asks, suddenly more sure of himself because this isn't so new for him, he's been feeling it since at least yesterday mid-afternoon, and he's more than slightly amused that Jared has only just begun to face it, this thing between them.

"Good," Jared raises his chin, but still can't seem to look Jensen in the eye. "It's all good. Two of the cows are ready, so we were able to herd them into the barn. The other three have got a way to go yet, but we'll keep an eye on them. It's all under control."

"Good," Jensen agrees. "So, where to, boss?"

Jared raises his eyes then, looks directly into Jensen's eyes, and the intent is so raw, so direct, that it takes Jensen's breath away.

"Jared," Jared demands tersely. "Call me Jared."

Jensen nods."Okay, then. Where to, Jared?"

Jared looks at him again, and it's the same dark, haunted gaze that threatens to take his breath away, permanently. Instead of answering, Jared pivots his horse and starts back up the embankment the way he came. Adele guides Milly to follow, and Jensen takes up the rear, trying not to watch the way Jared's massive back muscles move under his shirt.

Once they're out of the creek-bed, the midday heat hits them like a wall. Jensen is struck again by how much drier the air is; he's guessing the temperature is in the upper eighties, but without humidity it's almost bearable. They climb higher along the hillside, and Jensen wonders about the lack of fencing, since they've traveled at least five miles from the house by now and haven't run into so much as a barbed-wire. He keeps his hat tipped low, cursing himself for not applying sunscreen this morning. His fair skin will be hurting this evening, he just knows it.

Jared leads them onto the plateau at the top of the ridge, and from there Jensen can see back over the valley they climbed out of, all the way across the fields and pastures they crossed. Jared doesn't stop, though, until they've reached a grove of scrubby trees, then he stops and climbs down, loops his reins over a tree branch and rubs Pilot's sweaty neck.

"We can eat here," he announces as he helps Adele down, then loosens the pack on the back of her saddle.

Of course Adele lets him, defers to her uncle, the only family she has left. Jensen keeps a wary eye on her as she leads Milly over to another tree branch, loops her reins over it, then pulls a carrot from her little knapsack and feeds it to the horse. Pilot tosses his head and snorts jealously, so she digs out another one for him, then a third for Charger, who has calmed down so much in the presence of the alpha horse it's almost comical. Jensen dismounts and leaves Charger tied up next to Milly, unstraps his pack.

Jared spreads the picnic blanket on the hard ground, in the shade under the trees, and Adele helps unpack, handing out sandwiches and water bottles. Jensen finds he's genuinely hungry after the long ride. Jared sits down on a rock next to the blanket while Jensen and Adele stretch out in the shade.

"This is good," Jensen comments admiringly around a bite of sandwich.

"Told you Mary's a good cook," Jared smirks, swallowing his bite and following it with a long pull from his water bottle. Jensen tries not to watch his adam's apple bobbing in his long neck, tries not to notice the enticing little mole on his collarbone, the matching one on his chin. Jared lowers the bottle from his pink lips and nods toward the horses. "So you can ride," he comments approvingly. "I told John to have Scoot ready too, just in case."

"Perks of having a summer job at a ranch," Jensen nods. "Lots of riding. Plus, my dad worked weekends at a ranch, so I spent a lot of time around horses as a kid."

Jensen has the distinct feeling he's being watched as closely by Jared as he’s watching Jared, and it makes his belly flutter and his palms sweat. Jared's ten years older than Jensen, and his boss, and this thing has come on so fast between them, but it feels intense and real and unlike anything Jensen has ever felt for someone before. The thought that Jared is feeling it too is almost surreal, especially since Jensen hasn't exactly figured out what "it" is yet. Sexual attraction, for sure, and in spades; every time Jared leans forward and stretches one of his long arms out to pick up another sandwich, Jensen can't keep his eyes off the tan, muscled skin, the long, slender fingers, follows them up to Jared's pink mouth and just wants that with every fiber of his being.

But there's something else, something deeper than mere lust. Or the lust is part of something more, Jensen isn't sure which. The tired plot of every romance novel ever written screaming ‘love at first sight!’ into his brain just won't stop, and it's almost comical except that it's really disturbing because he doesn't believe in that shit.

By the time they finish and start the ride back down the ridge, storm clouds are gathering on the horizon. The valley looks hushed and heavy in the impending gloom, and they're still an hour out when the clouds just open with a rush of cool wind and a crash of thunder. The rain comes down so hard and loud there's no way to talk over it, and all they can do is tip their hats down, huddle on their saddles, and let the horses find their way home. Luckily, they're off the rocky hillside and on the plain by this time, and the horses pick their way sure-footedly homeward, even without a trail. They're soaked to the bone within a few minutes, and the pelting rain muffles any other sound, so they don't bother to try to talk, not that there's much to talk about.

Jared pulls up alongside Adele's mount and speaks into her ear; Adele nods, and Jared pulls her off her horse and onto his, tucking her against his huge frame so that she disappears in front of Jared's body, providing warmth and a modicum of shelter. He shoots a glance at Jensen under his hat, and his face takes Jensen's breath away. Jensen's already taken his glasses off because it's impossible to see in the rain with them on, so Jared's features are a little blurred, but there's something so predatory and considering in his gaze, something direct and open but unfathomable at the same time, and it makes the blood pound in Jensen's ears, makes him sweat under his soaked shirt.

Jared turns away, holding Adele against him with one arm, Milly's reins in the other hand, and Jensen watches his back, muscles moving under the wet fabric of his shirt, thinking stupidly that he'd follow this man off a cliff if Jared wanted to lead him there. There's something of the mountain lion in Jared, Jensen decides; his big body so tightly wound, all coiled like he's ready to spring. Even his features are leonine, with his high cheekbones and slanted eyes, sharp nose and chin. Hawk-like, maybe, too, Jensen decides. The man definitely seems at least half beast, and it makes Jensen shiver to imagine those long, powerful fingers on his skin, to remember the electrical charge he's pretty sure they both felt when they touched.

Damn it all to hell anyway. He's literally never had it this bad for someone, and certainly not somebody he's known barely twenty-four hours. Get a grip, Ackles, he scolds himself for what feels like the hundredth time, forcing himself to look down, just to get his eyes off the muscled frame on the big horse, letting Charger follow freely as Jensen knows he will.

By the time they reach the home pasture they're soaked so thoroughly Jensen feels like a proverbial drowned rat. He can feel water squelching inside his boots, even though they're tucked inside his heavy, wet jeans. John meets them at the door to the stables, reaches for Adele with a warm dry blanket, pulls her off Jared's saddle and wraps her up, then hurries her toward the house for cocoa and fresh-baked biscuits, leaving Jared and Jensen to tend to the horses. The two men keep busy for several minutes, silently unsaddling and brushing the horses down, then stabling them with fresh hay and water. Jensen speaks softly to the horse as he finishes, then turns to find Jared staring at him, arms crossed and leaning against the doorframe. He's been standing there for at least a minute, watching Jensen, and Jensen knows it because he could feel it. Lightning flashes, leaving an afterimage like a camera flash in the stable, throwing Jared's strong features into even sharper relief. Jensen puts down the brush, moves out of the stall as thunder crashes a minute after the lightning, running his hand down Charger's back, patting his flank as he looks up at Jared expectantly.

Okay, now what?

Now, we fuck, his dick-brain supplies helpfully as he meets Jared's eyes. Now we crash together like a fuckin' train wreck, tearing off long strips of sodden clothing, bruising each other with our mouths and our hands, finally falling into an empty stall on a pile of soft, sweet-smelling hay in a desperate, half-naked scramble of lips and fingers and rutting hips, dry-humping until we come, half-uttered moans and stuttered gasps barely audible above the crash of the thunder and the roar of the rain outside.

Or not.

"Come on," Jared gestures, lowering his eyes and shrugging his big body off the doorframe. "Let's hit the showers. Get some dry clothes on. Mary'll have supper on in an hour." He's turning away from Jensen as he speaks, leading the way out of the stables and back to the house.

Jensen follows, manfully stilling his pounding heart, scolding himself sharply for his stupid little daydream. Even if Jared's thoughts have gone there – and with the looks Jared's been giving him all day, Jensen's pretty sure he's been thinking about it – Jared's common sense and greater wisdom have clearly won out, at least for now. Jensen breaks into a jog and then a sprint as he follows his boss across the lawns to the house, holding his hat and trying not to admire Jared's long-legged dash, all lean-muscled movements and tight, firm ass. They burst through the mudroom door almost side by side, laughing and panting and all but pressed up against each other, dripping and sloshing, their boots making squelching noises on the stone floor. They hang their hats, kick off their boots, catching their breaths and stealing glances at each other, making each other grin stupidly each time their eyes meet because everything just seems so funny, and it feels so good, just being together.

"Well, you'd think two grown men would have more sense than to go so far out on a day when they're predicting a rainstorm," Mrs. Fairfax's no-nonsense voice brings them both up short, and a hot flush burns up Jensen's chest all the way to his ears, as if he and Jared had been caught kissing. She's standing in the doorway from the hall, her arms full of dry towels, which she hands out to each of them, shaking her head and pursing her lips and frowning at them. Jensen takes the towel she offers and rubs his head with it, wipes his face, catches Jared's eye and grins all over himself again, trying not to laugh because the feeling of being naughty schoolboys caught doing something they're not supposed to is just too damn hilarious.

Jared barks out a laugh as he towels himself off, and Mrs. Fairfax shakes her head again.

"I don't know what you think is so funny about exposing that little girl to the elements this way, Mr. Jared," she scolds. "She's likely to catch cold, as soaked and shivering as she was when John brought her in."

"No, no, you're right," Jared agrees, not very convincingly. "We won't do it again, will we, Jensen?"

"No, sir," Jensen deadpans, as Mrs. Fairfax tsks her tongue.

"You can leave your wet clothes here," she points at a basket in the corner. "I don't need you tracking all that mud and water all over my clean house." She turns to leave, putting down the rest of the towels on the chair by the door.

That sobers them up. Jensen's suddenly shivering, and it's not from being wet and cold. Not entirely, anyway.

"She wants us to–" he hesitates, and Jared cuts him off, not looking at him.

"Yeah," he clears his throat nervously, fingering his towel and frowning after Mrs. Fairfax's retreating form.

Jensen takes a deep breath. "Okay, then," he mutters, almost to himself. He drops the towel, reaches up and unbuttons his shirt, the cuffs last, focusing on keeping his eyes down, not looking as he feels Jared's eyes on him. He's pulling off his tee-shirt before he looks up, raises his eyebrows at Jared, who's staring at him like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming truck. "What?"

Jared gaze darts down, over Jensen's bare chest, and he swallows hard. "Nothing," he mutters, frowning as he starts to unbutton his own shirt, and even though Jensen can't help sneaking a glance at him as he starts to unbutton his jeans, Jared seems to be keeping his eyes on his own body now. It's hard not to stare as miles of lean, hard muscle magically appear beside him, but Jensen does it, keeps his eyes down, doesn't watch as Jared unbuttons his jeans, pushes them and his boxers down over his perfect ass.

Except that he keeps catching glimpses. Fuck. When Jared finally tosses his jeans, socks, and underwear into the basket on top of Jensen's, Jensen's as hard as a rock. He grabs the towel off the floor to cover his groin, then reaches awkwardly around Jared to grab another towel off the chair. And of course he can't help noticing that Jared is hard too, has in fact the largest erect penis Jensen has probably ever seen. No, definitely. He's never, ever seen a bigger one, except maybe on a horse. Maybe.

"Sorry, sorry," Jensen mutters as his arm accidentally brushes against Jared's hip. Jared makes a funny high-pitched noise in the back of his throat that sounds suspiciously like a whimper, and Jensen busies himself wrapping the towel around his waist, keeping hold of the other towel to hide the obvious tent pointed straight at Jared.

"I'll just–" Jensen tries to brush past Jared toward the door, but there really isn't room in the small space without crowding into each other. And touching. Jared finally figures it out and grabs a towel to wrap around his own waist, turning to present that amazing ass as he does it, and Jensen practically comes untouched.

"No, I'll go," Jared manages, because he really is closer to the door and as long as he heads out first there won't need to be any brushing of chests or rubbing of asses...

Oh shit, Jensen just needs a cold shower.

He follows Jared wordlessly, fighting to control the throbbing in his dick as he watches all that tan skin moving down the hall and up the stairs ahead of him, tries not to notice how his back muscles ripple as they move, how his calf muscles are covered with a layer of fine, dark hair. Even the backs of his knees...okay, especially the backs of his knees...seem to be inviting Jensen to dip his tongue, to suckle at the sensitive, warm skin...

Shower. Need that shower. Shit, shit, shit.

When Jensen's finally in his room with the door closed – and yes, for a heart-stopping moment he'd wondered if Jared would invite him into his room, which just happens to be right next door, but he just goes in and shuts it with barely a glance at Jensen, muttering, "See you in an hour" – he breathes a sigh of relief, letting the towels drop to the floor and closing his eyes for a minute, just to get a hand on himself. Because his dick is painfully hard right now and he can't possibly wait till he gets into the shower. He comes almost immediately, with only a few short jerks, standing with his back against the door, images of Jared's perfect ass and monster dick and beautiful slender hands and pink mouth replaying in his head in a continuous feedback loop.

It occurs to him that Jared might very possibly be doing the same thing, which makes him hard again in record time. He makes it to the shower this time, comes again to thoughts of Jared, makes sure he's good and relaxed before he gets out to dress for dinner. The fluttery feeling in his belly at the thought of seeing Jared again just won't quit, and he's relieved to find someone has left a tray with whiskey and water on the dresser. He pours himself a double, sips it as he gets dressed, then pours himself another one and swallows it down before he leaves his room.

NEXT CHAPTER - Back to Masterpost

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