It was Jensen's birthday in six and a half hours.
Just the thought made him want to be him sick.
"For fuck's sake, Jen." The couch thudded back against the wall as Chris appeared from some random pocket of reality - probably the kitchen - and flung himself down on it. "Out with it already."
Jensen blinked at him, fighting to keep the slightest flicker of panic off his face at Chris' words. "Out with what?"
"Whatever's got you looking miserable enough to make the people at the funeral home feel bad about themselves. Your dick finally wither and fall off from lack of use?"
Jensen punched him on the arm. "Fuck off. There's nothing wrong with my dick - or how much I use it. Jackass."
Chris' expression made it very clear that he thought Jensen was full of shit, but was going to be nice enough not to call him on it. For once. "Then what's with the face? We're here to celebrate your birthday, not that someone ran over your puppy."
Jensen's stomach twisted at the reminder. "Maybe I'm mourning the loss of my youth," he suggested, with as much levity as he could muster. "You ever think of that?"
Chris snorted. "Don't worry princess, you're still the prettiest. You're also avoiding the question."
"Remind me again why we're friends?" Jensen asked. "Because all I can figure is momentary insanity brought on by massive brain trauma when we were in high school."
"Jensen," Chris said, in a serious tone of voice that Jensen rarely heard from his irreverent friend. "You've been jumpier than a cat in a sack for weeks. What's wrong?"
For a moment, Jensen honestly considered telling him. Chris was a good man, beneath all the jackassery, and if there was anyone Jensen could trust with his secret, it would probably be him. And it would be nice to have someone to confess to, even if it was far too late to change anything at this point.
But nearly two decades of caution held his tongue.
"S'nothing," Jensen said, deliberately gruff. He rubbed a hand against the back of his neck in what Chris would recognize as a self-conscious gesture and glanced away. "Just not looking forward to my debrief at the Ministry, is all."
Chris' eyes lit up with gleeful amusement, all trace of seriousness forgotten. "You got an embarrassing prophecy? This I gotta hear!"
"Keep dreaming," Jensen said, doing his best to sound disgruntled. "It's bad enough having to tell some office grunt; no way am I gonna give you that kind of ammunition."
Chris clutched dramatically at his heart. "You wound me! As if I'd tell people your embarrassing prophecy."
Jensen wordlessly arched an eyebrow.
"Spoilsport," Chris said good-naturedly. He leaned back into the couch and gave Jensen an understanding grin. "It's really not worth getting worked up over, you know. Everyone gets embarrassing prophecies sometimes. Did I ever tell you about the year I had to admit to breaking my leg after jumping out a window while drunk off my ass?"
"Repeatedly," Jensen said dryly. "Because you don't even know what shame is."
Chris waved a careless hand. "The point is that the people at the Ministry don't care: they're professionals. They've heard it all by now."
Jensen thought about what was written in the prophecy locked in his desk drawer and very much doubted that.
"Which means, you should quit your worrying already and try to have some fun. You've got tomorrow off, so live it up while you can!"
Jensen summoned up a smile. "Sounds like you just offered to get me another beer," he said, because Chris was more right than he realized. Jensen should make the most of tonight.
He was pretty sure it was going to be his last, after all.
Most people, Jensen knew, saw debriefing at the Ministry of Future Affairs as little more than a formality. A government hoop to jump through to earn a day off work and an obscurely worded preview of what the coming year would bring. It could be a little awkward, sure, especially if last year's prophecy had been resolved in an embarrassing way, but it was no different from any of the other myriad legal requirements of living in civilized society.
Jensen envied them all so very much.
March 1 dawned with what Jensen considered to be an entirely inappropriate amount of sun. A freak thunderstorm would have been much more in keeping with how Jensen's day was going to go.
Spared of the need to run off to work by virtue of his mandatory birthday vacation day, Jensen lay for a time in bed, staring at the ceiling and trying not to have a panic attack. He'd known this was coming since he'd first seen this year's prophecy and yet, somehow, it seemed like only yesterday that he'd read those damning words. Now that it was here, Jensen wasn't ready.
He didn't think he'd ever be ready.
Eventually, Jensen dragged himself out of bed and got washed and dressed. His appointment wasn't for a few hours yet, and he intended to spend the time until then saying goodbye to his family. Not that they would realize that that's what he was doing.
First up was breakfast with his parents.
"You're looking awfully pale, sweetie," his mom said, as she shoveled a truly daunting stack of pancakes onto his plate. "Are you feeling alright?"
"Fine," Jensen said, with what he considered to be passable ease. He dredged up a sheepish grin. "I was over at Chris' last night, so…"
"Ah," she said, in the tone of all-knowing mothers the world over. "So you're saying something greasy would have been better?"
Jensen shook his head. "Nothing better than your pancakes," he said firmly, both because it was true and because it wasn't like he was going to get another opportunity to suck up.
His mom ruffled his hair before sitting down. Silence reigned briefly as they tucked into breakfast.
"So, anything interesting in your prophecy this year?" his dad asked idly.
"Same old, same old," Jensen said, with hardly a pause. "Vacation and a salary raise. Still no boyfriend."
"It's good to hear you thinking about settling down," his mom said, just as Jensen had known she would. Give her something nice to believe.
"Yeah, well," he said. "M'not getting any younger."
Jensen's dad coughed, a little awkwardly. "Well, there's always next year."
Jensen nodded, keeping his eyes down. "Here's hoping. So, how're things at the gardening club?"
The rest of breakfast went pretty much the same as it always did - namely, Jensen ate while his parents filled him in on the myriad activities they'd become involved in since being retired from their jobs.
After saying goodbye to his parents, it was back home to video call his brother on his lunch break. Josh only had enough time in his daily budget for a fifteen minute call, which kept things short and sweet.
"You manage to arrange time to talk to Mac?" Josh asked, as their conversation was winding down.
Jensen shook his head. "She's in midterms right now. Couldn't requisition family time until the weekend."
Josh shrugged "Not much of a surprise. Oh, hey, you doing anything tomorrow night? A couple of the guys are coming over to watch the game, if you're interested."
Jensen had very deliberately not made plans for tomorrow evening. Or any evening after that. "I'll keep you posted," he said, and took another swallow of beer to wash down the lie.
"Cool." A burst of sound crashed through the speakers and Jensen watched as Josh looked over his shoulder at someone in his office door. "Yeah, Okay. Thanks, Tish. Duty calls, little brother," he said then, turning back to the screen. "Catch you later."
"Yeah," Jensen said, and ended the call before his expression could break.
After that, Jensen mostly sat around and breathed until it was time to catch the bus into the downtown core.
The bus arrived exactly on time, just like always, and Jensen took a seat, watching the identical faces of the buildings blur through the window as they joined the traffic. The trip took exactly 23 minutes, and Jensen and a handful of other people got off the bus in front of the Ministry of Future Affairs.
"Happy Birthday," the bus driver said to each of them as they got off, and Jensen managed to scrape together a smile in response.
The Ministry of Future Affairs was a tasteful monument to efficiency made of glass and stone, located in a towering building just down the street from the Capitol building. Jensen paused for a moment on the meticulously groomed front lawn, letting the others March Firsters go ahead of him. One of the city clocks turned towards him, black camera eyes peering at him out of the round face: a reminder both of the time and the fact that the government didn't approve of dallying. Jensen took a deep breath and marched towards the building. It wouldn't do to be late.
Jensen walked through the immense doors at 2:53pm, just enough time to check in. He pulled his Birthday Appointment S1 form out of his bag and joined the back of the line of people waiting to see the receptionist.
"Happy Birthday," she said, when it was Jensen's turn. The most optimistic person on the planet couldn't have found any actual warmth or sincerity in that voice. Her hand stretched out expectantly. "Paperwork please."
Dutifully passing over the form, Jensen waited while she fed it into the computer. To one side, he could see a young man in the 'incorrect filing' line, worry creasing his entire face.
Jensen shook his head. Everyone filled their paperwork in incorrectly sometimes, but this boy ought to have taken more care with an S1 form. The Procedural Infractions Department always came down harder on errors in major paperwork. He wondered absently if this was the boy's first time receiving a prophecy; he looked to be a few years older than 16, but appearances could be deceiving.
"Everything is in order. Please take a seat, Mr. Ackles," the receptionist said tonelessly, and Jensen nodded before stepping quickly away from the desk. Interacting with Ministry staff always gave him the creeps, so he liked to do as little of it as possible.
Jensen had barely sat down when the clock ticked over to 3pm and a man with close-cropped hair and a craggy face stepped into reception. "Mr. Ackles?"
"That's me." Jensen stood and reached out for a handshake.
"Frederic Lehne," the man introduced himself. His grip was firm. "Happy Birthday. Follow me please."
Wordlessly, Jensen fell into step and followed Lehne into the labyrinthine hallways of the Ministry. Even after all the years he'd been coming for his annual debriefs, Jensen still had no faith in his ability to get back to reception unaided. Good thing he'd already given up on the idea of running.
In short order, he was led into a quiet room with a potted plant in the corner and a geometric-patterned rug under the table. He sat down at a wave from Lehne's hand.
"Um," he started, because there was no choice but to be up front about this. "About my prophecy-"
“Not to worry, Mr. Ackles,” Lehne said, in a professionally pleasant voice. He sat down at the table across from Jensen and pulled out a pen. “You must be used to the routine by now. We'll just spend a few minutes documenting the resolution of your last prophecy and you can receive this year’s from one of the Tellers as soon as we're finished here.”
Jensen twisted his fingers together in his lap, fighting for calm. This was it. An entire year spent trying to figure out what excuse he could possibly use to explain this away and Jensen was just as stumped now as he had been when he first saw the printout of what the government Tellers had predicted for his future.
He was so fucked.
“Actually,” Jensen said, cursing the stammer in his voice. “I think I might have gotten someone else’s prophecy last year, or something.”
“It’s alright to be embarrassed by how a prophecy was resolved,” Lehne said. The smooth, polished way he said it made it clear that it was something people needed to hear from him often. He flashed a smile. “We've all got prophecies that we don't like to talk about. It's not my place to judge."
Jensen huffed, trying to sound frustrated and confused instead of terrified out of his fucking wits. “It’s not embarrassing; it’s wrong. My prophecy was wrong.”
Lehne’s smile was insultingly patronizing. “Now, Mr. Ackles, you know that can’t happen.” He flipped open the folder with Jensen’s name on it and picked up the top piece of paper. “Now, let’s see what y-“
His voice trailed off and Jensen was careful not to squirm when shocked eyes flew up to stare at him over the damning paper.
"See what I mean?" Jensen asked.
"I-" Lehne swallowed and set down the prophecy with careful deliberation. “If you’ll give me a moment, Mr. Ackles, I believe I need to contact my supervisor.”
“Great,” Jensen said, and slumped down further into his chair. His hair fell across his eyes and he brushed it irritably away. “I’m going to be here all day at this rate.”
Keep cool, he told himself, while Lehne practically ran out of the room. Be calm. Don’t give them any reason to think you're hiding something.
The truth was that Jensen didn't know what was going to happen to him, but he knew that any chance he had of surviving this - slim though it may be - would be lost if they suspected for a moment that an incorrect prophecy wasn't an anomaly for him.
Because government-issued prophecies always, always, always came true.
For everyone except Jensen, that is.
Jensen glared at the offending piece of paper that was the cause of all this grief. Why, oh why, couldn’t it have been a cryptic one? Some prophecies were so obtuse as to hardly qualify as English; he could have made something up to explain it, surely. But a year's worth of thinking hadn't been enough to come up with a plausible alternate resolution to this prophecy. It was just too damn straightforward.
From where he was sitting, Jensen couldn't read the single, neatly typed sentence on the page, but it hardly mattered. Seven simple words; they'd been burned into his brain the moment he'd seen them and realized that, this time, he wasn't going to be able to talk himself out of whatever happened to people whose prophecies were wrong.
This year, Jensen's prophecy read. You are going to die.
The longest ten minutes of Jensen's life passed before the door swung open again, this time on a dark-haired woman in a navy blue suit with her hair pulled back into a severe ponytail.
"Thank you for waiting," she said. "My name is Lindsey McKeon."
"Hi." Jensen stayed where he was, waiting to see how best to play this. He had no desire to be dragged away kicking and screaming if there was an option for a more dignified exit, although he wasn't taking it off the table yet.
McKeon sat at the table and looked down at the file folder. At the damning prophecy on top.
Jensen braced himself.
"Mr. Ackles," she said. "I'm so sorry for the error in your prophecy."
Later, Jensen would have no idea how he managed to keep from giving the game away right then and there. Somehow, he throttled down his complete shock and offered her a passably calm, "So you admit that there's been a mistake."
She nodded. "One of our Teller machines developed a fault last spring." Her smile was plastic and utterly unconvincing. A corner of Jensen's mind that wasn't blank with shock wondered if the government trained its employees to act like robots. "Unfortunately, a few citizens received prophecies from this machine before the issue was dealt with."
"Including me," Jensen said, and tried not to wince when it came out as more of a question than a statement.
McKeon nodded. "We apologize for any trouble this error has caused. And for what has undoubtedly been a very stressful year."
Jensen made a sound sort of like agreement, his mind racing. How could this be real? He'd never heard of a Teller machine giving incorrect prophecies. But what reason would she have to lie? They had him dead to rights. Why wasn't he being carted off right now?
"Do you have any questions?" McKeon asked.
Jensen bit back a hysterical laugh as he tried to think of something safe to ask.
"How-" Jensen cleared his throat and tried again. "How is this going to appear in my file?"
"Mechanical error," McKeon said. After a quick rifle through the folder, she produced a familiar-looking form. "Here's your A7183 form for completing this year's debrief," she said, sliding the paper across the table.
"Just like that?" Jensen asked, baffled. "I thought, I mean… prophecies can't be wrong. And you're still going to keep it in my file?"
"There's no need to worry, Mr. Ackles. Even a perfect system can have a blip every now and then. I'll need you to sign here and here," she continued, a pen appearing as if by magic in her hand.
In a daze, Jensen took the pen. His hands were shaking. McKeon didn't seem to notice anything amiss as Jensen scrawled a wobbly rendition of his signature and handed it back.
"Thank you, Mr. Ackles. And here's your blue Teller services requisition form. If you bring both of these up to the front, the receptionist will get you added to the queue." She stood, gathering up all the papers in his file before heading for the door.
"Thanks," Jensen said dumbly.
"Just doing my job. Oh." She paused with one hand on the doorknob and Jensen froze halfway out of his chair. "The Ministry would ask you to keep this little mix-up to yourself." The empty smile made another appearance; this one sent a wary shiver down Jensen's spine. "It wouldn't do to start worrying people, now would it?"
"Of course," Jensen said, because he wasn't an idiot.
"Thank you. If you'll follow me, please. Mr. Ackles." She smiled at him. "And Happy Birthday."
Twenty minutes later, Jensen was outside on the front lawn of the building with a new prophecy clutched like a lifeline in his shaking hands and no idea what had just happened.
Jensen had settled into a numb sort of shock by the time he got back to his housing complex. He'd read his new prophecy on the bus ride home - no predictions of death this year, thank fuck - and he locked it in his bedroom drawer on autopilot. Once that was done, he went into the kitchen and, very deliberately, poured himself a stiff drink.
The restraint that had been holding him together cracked open along with his first, desperate swallow. His profound relief escaped in a nervous giggle that soon morphed into an almost frantic laughter that went on long enough that Jensen would have committed himself if he'd been watching from the outside.
"Fucking hell," he managed finally, tears leaking from his eyes and his whole body trembling with shaky aftershocks. "I can't believe that worked."
Honestly, it shouldn't have. Jensen had tried to remain optimistic, but, deep down, he'd been able to admit to himself that this was the end of the line. Because there was no room in a society built on order and efficiency for people who didn't fit the mold.
And the government was very good at making sure of it.
It wasn't overt. The police force didn't go around breaking down doors in the middle of the night or gunning people down in the street. In fact, all Jensen knew - all anyone knew - was that some people just… vanished. No muss, no fuss. It wasn't a regular occurrence by any stretch of the imagination, but everyone knew at least one person who'd been there one day and gone the next.
For Jensen, it had been the older sister of a boy from school. Jensen's father had described her as a square peg in a round hole. Jensen had never learned exactly what it was about her that hadn't fit - perhaps she had refused to get a job, or she'd been late to work once too often - but it had hardly mattered. Square pegs were dangerous, his father told him, and so the government took care of them. Best to leave it at that.
Which Jensen hadn't understood at the time, but had come to appreciate a great deal since then. Especially once he'd got his first prophecy and realized that he was himself the very definition of a square peg.
Which was why he'd spent his entire adult life coming up with the most convincing fake resolutions to his prophecies that he could manage. The consequences of the government discovering the truth didn't bear thinking about.
But what was he supposed to think now that his secret had been exposed in the most undeniable way possible and he was still alive?
Jensen couldn't bring himself to believe that a mechanical fault had anything to do with it. That was too convenient. But then why had the Ministry let him go?
"Fuck it," Jensen decided, downing the rest of his glass. "Nothing I can do about it now."
Which wouldn't stop him from jumping at every shadow between now and whenever the catch showed up, but he'd deal.
After all these years, he was getting good at that.
Three slightly paranoid weeks later, the catch showed up. In the mail at work, to be precise.
"What's that?" Genevieve asked, pausing by Jensen's desk to gesture at the form in his hands. She leaned in to read the top of the page. "A 637C Recall Form? What for?"
Jensen, who'd been staring at the thing in resigned horror for longer than was probably wise in a public place, set it deliberately down and turned a vaguely irritated frown on Genevieve.
"Dunno," he said easily. He'd had a lot of practice at casual in his life. "Probably someone forgot to dot the 'I's and cross the 'T's on my A7183 so they need me to come and sign another one. Because I clearly haven't got anything better to do."
Genevieve swatted him, grinning. "They're not that bad. Don't be such a downer."
"Your completely irrational desire to think the best of people is a source of constant delight for me, I hope you know."
"Stuff it. You're just a pessimist. What time have you got to be there?"
Jensen glanced at the clock in his cubicle. "43 minutes."
"Plenty of time to stop for a quick lunch on the way. Go on," she said. "I'll cover for you."
And Jensen had to smile despite the way his stomach was tying itself in knots. "Thanks, Gen."
"Don't mention it." She stood to one side so that Jensen could get up, and Jensen fought to keep his expression neutral as he tucked the summons in his briefcase and logged out of his computer for the last time.
"See you," he said, for want of anything better to say.
"Hey, Jensen," Genevieve called after him, and Jensen turned back to see her smiling kindly. "I'm sure it's nothing."
"Yeah," he said, after a moment. "I'm sure you're right."
The very idea of food made Jensen want to hurl, so he forwent eating lunch in favour of sitting down on a bench not far from the Ministry of Future Affairs and trying very hard to think of nothing at all. Besides, having street meat as his last meal was possibly the only thing that could make this situation more depressing.
When the clocks ticked over to 1:26pm, Jensen stood, clutching his briefcase with white-knuckled hands.
"Courage," he told himself, which was a total waste of breath that did nothing to prevent his legs from shaking as he walked into the building and up to the reception desk. Dimly, Jensen was impressed when he managed to hand over his recall form without his hand shaking, though he suspected that his face was pale enough to put paid to any idea that he wasn't sweating straight through his very expensive suit.
His nerves weren't helped by the fact that, instead of telling Jensen to take a seat in the waiting area, the receptionist himself stood up.
"Follow me," he said, stepping away from the desk as another person appeared from nowhere to replace him.
Jensen swallowed hard and did as he was told.
Jensen was guided through the hallways, well past the parts of the building that he recognized from a lifetime of Tellings and debriefs. They walked for what felt like an eternity. He was just beginning to entertain images of being thrown into a hidden dungeon deep in the bowels of the building when his guide stopped in front of a non-descript door.
He opened the door to reveal a room that wasn't much bigger than Jensen's closet, furnished with two chairs and a plain white table. There were no windows.
Jensen had officially moved past nervous and straight into freaked out.
"Wait here," the man said, without inflection. "Someone will be with you shortly."
"Thanks," Jensen said, and then it was just him and the nearly-empty room. The latch clicked quietly as the receptionist shut the door and, left without anything better to do, Jensen sat down. The clock on the wall tilted to look at him.
He wasn't kept waiting long.
Hardly a minute had passed before the door opened again, this time on a tower of a man in a perfectly tailored suit and the most boring tie known to mankind.
The guy shut the door behind him, turned, and looked Jensen straight in the eyes. "Come with me if you want to live."
Jensen's heart stopped.
"What?" he managed, after a too-long pause.
To his utter shock, the man's mouth quirked into a grin. "Eh, I'm just messing with you," he said, with an unexpected lightness that left Jensen reeling at the sudden attitude shift. "I've just always wanted to say that."
"Oh," Jensen said, trying without success to convince his tense muscles to relax.
"Actually, it looks like this room was double-booked for this hour, so I'm hoping that you don't mind relocating."
Personally, Jensen would rather have run in the opposite direction as fast as his legs could carry him, but he was still trying for some plausible denial here, so that wasn't the best option. He swallowed. "Okay."
"Sorry about trouble," the guy said smoothly, holding the door open for Jensen.
"It's fine," Jensen said, because it wasn't like he had a whole lot of say in the matter in the first place.
The guy led the way down the hall and Jensen followed wordlessly after him.
"Here we go." The door opened on a room that looked identical to the one they'd just left, except for the conspicuous absence of the clock. Jensen didn't remember the last time he'd been in a room without a clock.
This day just kept getting worse.
"Come on, sit down." the guy followed his own advice and waved a hand at the other chair as he sat. "The sooner we get started, the sooner we'll be done."
Jensen wished he could consider that a good thing.
Once Jensen was settled, the guy held out a hand with a big, beaming smile that was almost more unsettling than the rest of the situation put together. Since when did government employees smile like they meant it? The man even had dimples, for Christ's sake. "I'm Jared. And you must be Mr. Ackles."
"Must I?" Jensen couldn't help but ask. This whole debacle had him dangerously off-balance. "Just, it hasn't really been going so well for me today."
Jared chuckled. "I can see why you might think so. But I'm hoping that things are gong to start looking up for you from here on out, so you might want to stick with it for now."
"Does that mean I can leave?" Jensen asked, without much hope.
"Why, you sick of my company already?" Jared sighed dramatically. "The trials of being a government drone: everyone's always much happier to see you leave."
Jensen said nothing, not sure what his line was supposed to be. He wasn't used to government officials going off-script.
"Well then," Jared said. He looked Jensen square in the face. "Do you know why you're here, Mr. Ackles?"
It was a dangerous question.
"I received a 637C Recall Form?" Jensen tried.
Jared made an encouraging sound. "And why do you think you received a recall summons?"
"Just give it your best try, Mr. Ackles. It's not a test."
Oh, really? Jensen wanted to ask, but didn't dare. No matter how not-normal this Jared was, he was still a government employee, just like the rest of them. Maybe they were trying to lull him into a false sense of security.
Arranging his face into an expression of mild confusion, Jensen shrugged. "If I had to guess, I'd say that there was something in my birthday debrief that needs reviewing." He permitted himself a slight smile. "It was a bit… outside the norm this year."
Jared chuckled. "That's putting it lightly. You're absolutely right, of course." He looked down at the file folder in front of him. "Did you know that you're not the only person who received an incorrect prophecy last year?"
Jared shook his head. "Including yourself, there are 17 people who have received incorrect prophecies in the past year. All the same incorrect prophecy, as a matter of fact."
"R-really?" Jensen asked, fighting the urge to swallow around the nervousness in his throat. "This is a common thing, then?"
"Oh, not at all." Jared's eyes flicked away from his paperwork and up to Jensen's face. "In fact, this is the first time since the Teller system was implemented that we've had an error on this scale."
"Wow, uh. That's weird. The woman who did my debrief said that one of the Teller machines was faulty?" Jensen tried, more for the sake of having something to say than anything else. Stop looking at me.
"Hmm, yes, she would have said that. Got to keep to the party line, you know." Jared took a deep breath and folded his large hands together over top of his folder. "The truth, however, is that there was no mechanical fault. This is the fault of something else. Or, more accurately, someone else."
Jensen's breath caught in his throat. "W-why are you telling me this?" he asked, voice cracking despite his best efforts to sound calm.
Jared tilted his head curiously. "Because you don't seem to know why you were issued a 637C."
"You still haven't told me that."
"I'm getting to it. The Ministry of Future Affairs is currently treating this as a criminal investigation. It's a crime to interfere with the collection of government-mandated data, as you know." Jared shifted, slumping back in his chair like he didn't have a care in the world. "It's why you received a recall summons rather than having this whole mess dealt with during your birthday debrief. Our agents have spent the past three weeks going through all of your finances, your major paperwork and, especially, your prophecies."
Jared's smile was a thin, warning sort of thing.
"They're trying to find out who's responsible for this error in the Teller system. And you, Mr. Ackles, are officially a suspect."