"What?" Jensen asked, a beat too slow to be believable. His heart was trying to beat right out of his chest. "That's ridiculous! I haven't done anything!"
Jared hummed thoughtfully. "Be that as it may, the Ministry believes in following every avenue of inquiry. This is a serious matter, after all."
"Don't I get to, to plead my case?"
"Now Mr. Ackles, surely you trust your government to find the truth?" Jared's expression was dangerously close to a smirk. Jensen fought the temptation to punch him.
Jensen huffed out a breath. "Of course I do. But you can't blame me for being concerned. I'm being accused of something that I haven't done!"
Deny, deny, deny.
"We're simply following up. Every citizen with an invalid prophecy has undergone the same procedure."
"What are you even looking for?" Jensen asked.
Jared shrugged. "Financial anomalies, expertise in computer programming, a suspicious lack of concern over their incipient mortality, that sort of thing."
Jensen fought to keep from relaxing too obviously. If the government was looking for something out of the ordinary in just this year, Jensen wasn't going to raise any flags. Heck, he'd even made sure to act like someone who honestly believed that this was going to be his last year on Earth: he'd updated his Last Will and Testament, gone on a vacation that he really couldn't afford and started a fund for his funeral costs. Nothing suspicious there.
"Okay," Jensen said. "So is there a problem in my financials or any of that other stuff?"
It could have been his imagination, but Jensen thought that Jared looked amused at that. "Not at all. Everything looks good."
"Then…" Jensen left the word hanging, not wanting to seem too eager to get out of here.
"Not that it matters, of course. Because there is one further thing that needs to be done to clear you of suspicion." To Jensen's surprise, Jared sighed with what sounded like genuine regret. "And it will destroy the very essence of your being."
Jensen blinked. "Come again?"
"I'm serious." Jared certainly looked serious. Jensen had to fight the urge to shy away from his intense gaze. "You're in terrible danger."
"I-if that was true, why would you tell me?" Jensen jabbed an accusing finger at Jared. "You work for the Ministry, in case you hadn't noticed."
A ghost of a smile curled the corner of Jared's mouth. "Perhaps. I'm not exactly the typical model though, am I?"
Jensen forced a scoff. "To throw me off balance. Best I can figure is that you're going to use anything I say against me."
"Which suggests that you do have something to hide, after all, doesn't it?" Jared said, sounding amused. Jensen glared at him.
"Get to the point, already."
"The point is that I want to help you. You don't have to believe me," he added, probably at the expression on Jensen's face, "but it's the truth. I think we both know that under Ministry scrutiny is the last place you want to be."
"Me and everyone else," Jensen managed, fighting hard to sound nonchalant.
"But you more than most, I should think. Which is why what's coming is so dangerous."
"What is it, then?" Jensen snapped. "Enough with the cryptic bullshit already. I get enough of that from the Teller machines."
Jared folded his hands on the table in front of him. "Tell me, Mr. Ackles, do you believe in magic?"
Jensen snorted. "What? Of course not."
"Really? Why not?"
"Uh, because there's no such thing? Why the hell are you asking?"
"It's relevant. Try to leave to the room."
Jared waved towards the door. "I just want you to try and walk out the door. Nothing simpler."
"Why?" Jensen asked, and earned an enigmatic smile in response.
"Consider it an object lesson."
Jensen eyed him sidelong. Jared didn't appear bothered by the scrutiny.
"Fine." Jensen shoved his chair back from the table and stalked over towards the door. "But I'd like a real answer somet-oof!"
His breath escaped in a rush as he walked head-first into something invisible but solid, blocking his path. "The heck?" Jensen raised both hands and felt his jaw drop when they flattened against what looked like empty air yet felt like solid steel against his palms.
"Magic," Jared said behind him.
"Technology," Jensen countered, throwing a narrow look over his shoulder. "It's a force wall, like the ones protecting the city. You activated it once we both walked in."
"Then where's the apparatus?" Jared asked, gesturing to the blank walls. He was back to sounding amused, like he was privy to some joke that Jensen hadn't been let in on. "No wires, no nodes, nothing. Technology doesn't come from thin air, you know."
"I don't know how it works; I'm a legal advisor, not a programmer. And I'm not impressed."
Letting his hands drop, Jensen turned to stalk back to his chair, only to find another force wall blocking his way. "Hey!" He tried to sidle around it, but found his way blocked again, and once again when he turned towards the far wall. There was no way back to the table or the door: he was trapped. "What have you done? Let me go!"
"It's not technology," Jared said calmly. "It's me." He lifted an eyebrow. "Want to see what I can do with it?"
"Don't-" Jensen started, only to lose the rest of his sentence in a startled curse when the walls started pressing closer, hemming him in until he felt like he was standing inside a narrow closet. Or a coffin. "Stop! Hey! Stop it!"
The invisible walls stopped encroaching, leaving Jensen trapped and squashed in the middle of the room. He could see the folds in his suit jacket where it was pressing against the invisible force.
"Ever seen a force wall that could do that?" Jared asked. "I can do something else, if you're not convinced."
"So, you're saying that this is… magic?" Jensen asked, his breath coming short in the narrow confines of the space that Jared had trapped him in.
Jared nodded. "I am." He waved a negligent hand and Jensen nearly ended up on the floor when the walls surrounding him vanished abruptly. "And if you'll sit down again, I'll tell you why that matters to you."
A little shakily, Jensen did as he was told.
"It's more common than you think," Jared said. "Magic, that is."
"Then why haven't I heard about it before now?"
"Because our entire society is built on a world without it." Something very much like anger glittered in Jared's eyes. "Can you imagine how much the government's beloved sense of 'order' would suffer if it became known that people like me can create wards with our minds?"
"Wards?" Jensen asked. "Is that what you call-" he gestured at the spot where he'd just been standing, letting the rest of the sentence trail off.
Jared nodded. "And it's not the only type of magic out there. Some of them are much more… disruptive than what I can do."
"Why are you telling me this?" Jensen couldn't help but ask. "I mean, if the government really is-" geez, it sounded fucking bonkers to say aloud "-anti-magic, aren't you putting yourself in danger by telling me?"
Unexpectedly, Jared grinned. He seemed to do that a lot, Jensen had noticed. "I might be, except it's a problem that we happen to share."
It took Jensen a long moment to process that. "Wait. You think… I'm magic?"
"You've never had a prophecy come true, have you?" Jared asked, sudden and pointed.
Caught off guard, Jensen gaped at him. "I-I…"
"An omission is as damning as a confession," Jared said, almost gently.
"You're crazy!" Jensen burst out. He found himself on his feet again, leaning across the table into Jared's face. "None of this makes any sense!"
"It's a lot to take in, I know," Jared said, still calm. Jensen was getting rather sick of his calmness, truth be told. "Especially since your magic isn't as, hmm, obvious as mine. But you've always known that you're different, haven't you? You've done an amazing job to hide it as long as you have, and you probably could have kept it up forever, if not for that prophecy. Because it's put you on the Ministry's radar. And, no matter how clever you've been about this, that means you're out of time."
"Wh-" Jensen swallowed hard. "What are they going to do with me?"
"Same thing they've done to all the people who got that prophecy," Jared said. "Put you through Extraction."
Jensen fisted his hands to stop them trembling. "Which is?" He was almost proud of how smoothly it came out.
"It's a process that the government has developed to remove a person's magic."
"This all sounds too bizarre to be real," Jensen complained, and earned himself a rueful chuckle from Jared.
"It does, doesn't it? Like a comic book story or something." The amusement in Jared's smile didn't reach his eyes as he added, right in Jensen's ear, "I wish it was that simple."
Belatedly realizing just how close he was to Jared, Jensen sat back down with a shaky huff. "Extraction, huh? How does it work?"
"Sort of like draining blood from a wound," Jared said. Jensen blinked at him, uncomprehending, and Jared continued, "There's a bunch of technical and medical details that I won't go into, but suffice it to say that you get strapped into a machine that isolates the magic inside you and siphons it off."
"What happens if a person doesn't have any… magic?"
Jared shrugged. "Technically? Nothing."
"Are you always this cryptic?" Jensen asked, in what was most definitely not a whine.
Jared's smile flashed briefly. "How would you describe the employees of the Ministry of Future Affairs? Aside from me."
Jensen made a face without meaning to.
"Exactly," Jared said, with a nod. "Those people have all gone through Extraction."
"But… why?" Jensen demanded. "Why would anyone want to make people… like that?"
Jared sighed. "Because Extraction is very good at removing magic from a person, but it takes something fundamental to their identity along with it. And that's what left afterwards: a shadow of the person they used to be, just barely held together by bureaucracy and apathy."
"Fuck," Jensen said, shaken by the very thought.
"And that's what's going to happen to you unless you come with me right now."
"Y-you said that most people are fine," Jensen said, licking his lips nervously.
"They are." Jared's expression was utterly serious. "But that's because they haven't got any magic to lose. And I think we both know that that isn't what your fate will be if you get into that machine."
Jensen said nothing, trying to adjust to the way his entire worldview had just been tipped on his head.
"I can get you out," Jared said, and now he was the one leaning across the table, still seated but tall enough that it didn't make much difference to how close he could get. "That's why I'm here. I'm part of a group that's trying to protect magic users, trying to change this world for the better."
"Like terrorists?" Jensen asked.
A rueful grimace crossed Jared's face. "We prefer to think of ourselves as freedom fighters, but you wouldn't be completely wrong to call us that. Look, I can't promise that what comes next will be a picnic, but it beats what will happen if you don't get out."
It was too much to take in. "I-"
"Jensen," Jared said, and Jensen started at the use of his first name. "If you value your soul, I need you to trust me."
And, really, what choice did he have? Either Jared was telling the truth and Jensen had this one chance to grab a lifeline, or he was lying and Jensen was screwed anyway because he'd given too much away to play dumb now. And Jensen didn't trust people easily, but there was something about Jared that made him want to give it a try.
He wondered sourly if that was magic too.
"Jensen?" Jared pressed. "I hate to rush you, but we're kind of short on time."
Jensen took a deep breath. "What do I need to do?" he asked.
A spark of something that could have been either triumph or relief flashed in Jared's eye. "We need to make this as convincing as possible." He shuffled his papers for a moment before pulling out a sheet and handing it over. "Give this form to the receptionist."
Jensen took the offered paper and looked at the number. "I've never even heard of a C32-7."
Jared's smile was grim. "They don't get used a lot. It'll buy us time, which is the main concern right now. Biggest thing is to act casual," he said. He slid a business card across the desk. "Once you're out of the building, you need to go to this address."
"Do I have time to go home first?" Jensen asked. Somewhere in the back of his head, a voice was screaming that he was being far too obliging about this whole situation, but Jensen didn't have time to listen to it right now.
A frown creased Jared's brow. "I wouldn't risk it. It will take some time to get a pursuit warrant for you, but not enough that I can guarantee you'll be able to avoid them. And your housing complex is the first place they'll be authorized to look."
"I'm never going to get my life back, am I?" Jensen asked sadly.
Jared's face creased with a strange mix of apology and regret. "Not until it's safe to do so, no."
"Safe for who? Me or you?"
"All of the above. I'm sorry, Jensen."
"It's fine," Jensen said, because he didn't have time to think about the fallout from this right now. "Anything else?"
Jared tapped at the card in Jensen's hands. "Just tell the first person who tries to stop you that I sent you. They'll take care of you. Oh, and don't bother trying to avoid the clocks; it'll just make you look suspicious."
"Aren't you worried me about leading people to your secret hideout?" Jensen asked.
Jared waved away his concern. "We've got it covered. Ready?"
Jensen's palms were sweating. It was an effort of will to keep from crumpling the form he was holding. "No?"
"That'll have to do." Jared stood and walked over to the door. "Come on. I'll take you back to reception."
Jensen still wasn't sure he wasn't about to be walked straight into an Extraction machine - or a prison cell - but there wasn't a lot he could do about that. "Okay," he said and, holding tightly to both his briefcase and the C32-7 form.
Jared smiled at him. "You'll be fine. I promise."
And damn every instinct in Jensen's body, because he actually wanted to believe him.
This trip through the hallways of the Ministry of Future Affairs was almost more stressful than the last one had been, which Jensen felt couldn't possibly be good for his heart. Jared's personable demeanor had fallen away the moment that they'd left the room, replaced by plastic efficiency, and Jensen was more than a little concerned by how easily he seemed to wear the placid mask of a normal Ministry employee.
Jensen wasn't sure whether he was more surprised or relieved when they rounded a corner and he found himself back in reception.
"Please sign out with the receptionist," Jared said, in a voice bare of inflection. "Have a nice day."
"Uh, thanks," Jensen said, fighting down his nerves.
Jared nodded once, briskly, and turned on his heel to leave. Jensen had to remind himself not to stare after him as he walked away. He needed to get his head in the game already.
Firming his jaw, he joined the queue at the front desk, doing his level best to radiate tired nonchalance. He kept his cool as he stepped up to the desk and handed over the form that Jared had given him.
He thought he noticed a faint stutter in the receptionist's otherwise smooth motions as she saw the number at the top of the form, but it was gone too quickly for Jensen to be able to tell whether or not it was just his nerves, jumping at nothing. He kept his face carefully composed while she input the relevant information into the computer, and had a faint smile ready for her when she dismissed him with a 'thank you'.
His heart was hammering as he stepped outside of the building without anyone chasing after him and dragging him back inside. The sun was still bright in the sky, which Jensen found momentarily strange; it felt like he'd been in there for half an eternity.
Someone coming out the door behind him nearly sent him tumbling down the stairs and Jensen jolted into motion, berating himself internally. Daydreaming on the steps of the Ministry was not the way to keep a low profile.
He hurried down the street, trying to look casual as he fumbled in his pocket for the card that Jared had given him. The address wasn't far away and, after a moment's thought, Jensen decided to walk. It would be harder to track him in the afternoon foot traffic than it would be to follow his ID if he paid for the bus. And Jared might have been confident that nothing would come of Jensen showing up at this safe house of his, but Jensen was a big fan of the bigger part of valour.
At a ruthlessly casual pace, it took Jensen less than ten minutes to reach the address. Which appeared to be a restaurant.
Not entirely sure what the protocol was for seeking asylum with rebel organizations, Jensen straightened his tie and marched into the building. The smell of frying food struck him immediately and, though he knew intellectually that he should have been hungry, the smell threatened to turn his stomach upside down.
"Table for one?" the server asked as Jensen drew up.
"Um, actually Jared sent me?" Jensen said, wincing when it came out sounding like a question. "He, uh, gave me this card."
"Of course. Your table is ready for you," the server said, without missing a beat. "This way please."
Jensen was destined to spend the majority of his day following people around, it seemed. Shoving the card back into his pocket, he followed the server as he wove through the mostly-empty restaurant and led the way to a door that was covered with a hanging curtain.
"After you," the server said. Jensen steeled himself as he walked through into a small room with four tables set up in the same manner as the ones in the main dining room.
"Er," he started, and flailed when strong arms grabbed him.
"Hel-" he tried, only to have a rag clamped over his mouth and noise before he could manage anything more than a startled exhale. Panic buzzed through his blood as the world started spinning, the cloying scent of the rag over his face filling his nose.
"Easy there," a voice said behind him, and Jensen wasn't enough with it to know if it was the server or someone else entirely.
Son of a bitch, he thought muzzily, and then the world went black.
Jensen woke up on a remarkably uncomfortable bed.
"Ugh," he groaned, squinting into the light. His mouth tasted like something had died in it and the beginnings of a monumental headache were lurking in his temples. "The fuck-?"
"Sorry," a voice said, and Jensen turned his head laboriously to the side to see a red-headed woman leaning against the jamb of an open door. "It's not the most fun way to wake up, but the effects don't take long to clear. Think of it like a mini-hangover without the fun of getting drunk first."
"Yay," Jensen said dryly. "Who are you?"
"Danneel," she said. "And you are?"
Jensen squinted suspiciously at her. "Shouldn't you know?"
She shrugged unconcernedly. "Never hurts to be polite. Especially after you drug someone."
"You did this? Why?" Jensen tried to lever himself into a seated position and groaned when it made his stomach lurch.
Danneel's hands were on his arm almost immediately. "Easy there," she said, steadying him. "We can't just let people walk in, now, can we? Secrets are only good when they stay secrets."
"So I can't ask where I am?"
Unexpectedly, Danneel grinned. "Oh, you're quite welcome to ask. Just don't expect exact coordinates. This is the official headquarters of the counter-revolution and your new home away from, well. Life, I guess. We're underground, before you ask."
"Huh." Once he was sure that the contents of his stomach weren't going to end up all over him, Jensen paused to take stock of the room. It wasn't much to speak of: bed, dresser, chest of drawers, writing desk, chair, mirror. The walls were stone and the door was heavy-duty steel.
When he finished his perusal, he looked back to find Danneel watching him with a sympathetic expression. "It's a lot to get used to," she said. "I know."
"That's the second time someone's said that to me today." Jensen paused before squaring his shoulders and soldiering on to say, "So, am I a prisoner or a guest?"
Danneel chuckled warmly. "More like extended family, if that's what you want. You can travel as you please through the HQ, though you'll need to get permission if you want to go up top. Which might be hard to get," she added, sounding apologetic. "Unless there's a good reason for you to need to go."
Jensen nodded, not sure what to say in response.
Luckily, Danneel seemed to have a more complete version of the script. "I can give you a tour later, if you like, but right now I'm supposed to take you to meet the man in charge. If you think you're up to it."
"Who? I - yes. That's fine."
"Alright then, sexy, let's get you on your feet. On three." Between them, they managed to get Jensen off the bed and onto his feet without any major difficulties. The doorway led to a nondescript corridor that stretched out for several feet in each direction before bending away at right angles. Danneel pulled the door closed behind them; Jensen jolted at the weighty clang as it shut.
Danneel chuckled and gestured for Jensen to follow her.
Jensen tried to keep track of their progress through the corridors, but soon gave it up as a fool's errand. It might not have been as bad as the Ministry buildings, but he wouldn't like to travel round this place without either a guide or a map anytime soon.
"It was built for the government about a million years ago," Danneel said, in response to Jensen's unspoken question. "Don't worry though; it got written off the books years ago so no one knows it's still here."
"Think I've got other stuff to worry about right now," Jensen said, not unkindly.
Danneel grinned. "Fair enough."
Eventually, they came to a hallway that dead-ended with a massive set of double doors splashed liberally with yellow paint. Danneel gave him a 'ready for this?' grin and Jensen nodded. Unless there was a talking dinosaur on the other side, he didn't think his day could get much more surreal than it already was.
The double doors opened into a small antechamber that had two other doors in it, both open. Jensen peeked through one as they walked past to see a closet-sized room stacked full of filing cabinets and boxes of what looked like file folders. The other door opened into an office dominated by a large desk.
Behind the desk sat a man who looked to be about fifteen years Jensen's senior, broad across the shoulders with a salt and pepper beard. He was scowling furiously at the document he was reading, the expression carving deep lines in his tanned face. Jensen couldn't help but notice that his hands looked awfully weathered and callused for a person who worked behind a desk.
"Ahem," Danneel said. "Earth to Jeff."
The man looked up and a smile crossed his grizzled face. It made him look startling younger.
"Thanks for bringing him, Danny." The man stood up and rounded the desk. He extended a hand. "I'm Jeff Morgan. The de facto head of the counter-government movement."
"Jensen Ackles," Jensen said, shaking his hand. "But you already knew that."
Jeff chuckled, not bothering to sound sheepish about it. "Guilty. Jared's been keeping an eye on you since your birthday debrief. I'm glad he got to you in time."
"About that." Jensen took his hand back. "Why was he keeping an eye on me? I can't imagine that you've liberated a dozen people on the off chance that they were…" he still couldn't say it, and stumbled a bit before sending the sentence in another direction, "-in danger from Extraction."
"That's his job," Jeff said, with a liquid shrug. "I mostly just let him get on with it. He obviously saw something in your records worth a second look. Good news for you."
Personally, Jensen thought that that rather remained to be seen, but he didn't think it was wise to be saying so.
From the amused curl of Jeff's mouth, Jensen suspected that he might have figured out what Jensen was thinking, regardless.
"I'm afraid I've got to kick you out now, Danny," he said. "I think Jensen deserves a better explanation than he's got so far."
"Sure thing," Danneel said, not sounding put out. She turned a smile on Jensen. "Make sure this guy sends you in my direction when he's done, okay? I'll give you that tour."
"Thanks," Jensen said, and tried not to feel unexpectedly bereft as she left.
"So," Jeff said, once the door had closed behind Danneel. "How are you holding up?"
"Not really sure yet," Jensen said honestly. "I don't think it's all sunk in."
"Not a surprise, really. This can't be what you were expecting when you woke up this morning."
"Not exactly, no," Jensen said, with a wry twist of his mouth.
Jeff gestured at the chair in front of his desk. "Please, sit down. No need to stand on ceremony around here."
"So," Jensen said, as each claimed a chair. "What happens now?"
"Now?" Jeff leaned back and laced his hands in his lap. "I guess that depends. Right now you're in the heart of the counter-government movement. This building is the centre of all of our activities."
That sounded… ominous. "What kind of activities?"
"Our ultimate goal is to institute a new government that acknowledges and welcomes magic users as part of the community."
"Why don't you just invade and take over, if that's what you want? I mean, you've got magic, right?"
"A coup is all well and good, but it'll never survive without the people behind it. And I don't want to risk my men unless I'm very confident of the outcome; the government has a lot of power at its fingers."
Jensen raised an eyebrow at him. "You really don't think that your band of magic-wielding people could take out the army? Guess this magic stuff's not all it's cracked up to be."
"This is chess, not war," Jeff said, gently chiding. "We'll do much better to stick to our strengths and take this at a reasonable pace."
"So what sort of stuff do you do?"
"Disorganizing and destabilizing, mostly. Our goal is to sow discontent among the general populous. Which is most easily accomplished by throwing off the government's vaunted sense of order. Surely you've noticed that things haven't always been running smoothly in the past few years."
Jensen thought back and, yes, he could remember a few hurriedly glossed over instances of traffic accidents and clocks running behind time - the sorts of things that shouldn't have been able to happen in their highly organized society.
"I've got people in the government, the army, the civil service," Jeff continued, while Jensen thought about the implications of that. "All of them are destabilizing things in small ways that add up."
"To what end?" Jensen asked. "So some of the clocks are slow. What difference does that make?"
"In this case, a million paper cuts can do more good than a blade through the heart. It makes people question whether this government of theirs is really worth its salt, if it can't manage even the simplest parts of its routine. And that's the time for a coup."
"Uh huh." It sounded far too simplistic to Jensen's mind, but he had to admit that he'd never tried to overthrow a government, so what did he know about the best way to go about it? And it was likely that Jeff was giving him the abridged version, either to simplify the explanation or to keep him in the dark. Or both.
A knock interrupted the flow of the conversation, and Jensen twisted round in his seat to see a dark-haired man with sharp cheekbones and massive biceps leaning around the corner of the door.
"Sorry to interrupt," the guy said. He hefted a sheaf of paper. "Got those numbers you were asking about."
Jeff waved him in. "Come on in. Jensen, this is Tamoh Penikett, one of our technical experts. Tamoh, this is Jensen. Jared recruited him."
"Cool." Tamoh ambled up and gave Jensen's hand a shake. "We can always use more magic users. What's your skill?"
"Er…?" Jensen flicked a glance at Jeff. "I don't-"
"Tamoh," Jeff said, and there was something warning in his voice. "Jensen just got here."
"Right, sorry." He offered Jensen a lopsided grin. "Don't mind me."
It was too late for that. Jensen fixed Jeff with a narrow-eyed look. "So you expect me to join your merry band of freedom fighters?" he asked, not even bothering to bite back the challenge in his voice.
"Only if you want to," Jeff said, which Jensen honestly hadn't expected. "We'd be happy to have you, of course, but only if you want to be here. I think you know that you can't go home," he said, with a gruff sort of kindness in his eyes. "Not unless you want the government to pick up right where it left off."
And Jensen hadn't quite put that together in so many words, amidst all the chaos. Something heavy and cold settled in his chest at the thought. "Right," he managed. He coughed around the roughness in his voice. "Of course. So where does that leave me?"
"We can set you up a new identity in another city. As long as you don't do anything to tip off the government, you should be perfectly safe."
"You guys operate in other cities?" Jensen asked, surprised.
Jeff gave him a look that made him feel like a moron. "Of course. This is the main HQ, since we're in the capital, but we've got chapters all over the country."
"Oh. You can actually give me a new identity? What about the paperwork?"
"Paperwork's the easy part. It'll require a continuous supply of blood resequencers and a facelift to make it work, but it can be done. Right, Tamoh?"
"It'd be a shame to mess with that face," Tamoh said, waving a wistful hand at Jensen. Jensen felt his cheeks prickling. "But yeah. I could do it."
Jensen tried to think about it. A new life, with literally no ties to the one he'd been living up until just a few hours ago. Was that really all the time it had been? This day already felt like it had lasted an eternity.
"I'll never be able to come home?"
"If we succeed in our efforts, then yes, you will be able to, one day. Until then, you'd be as good as dead to try it."
"And," Jensen wet his lips, nervously, "what would you expect of me if I stayed?"
Triumph flashed in Jeff's eyes, although his demeanor was still calm as he answered, "Hopefully, you'll be able to use your magic to help our efforts to destabilize the government."
"But I don't even know if I have magic," Jensen protested. "All I have is Jared's word for it and, honestly, I don't know how much I trust that."
Jeff chuckled. "Actually, you can probably trust it more than most things in your life. Jared's very good at what he does."
"If you say so," Jensen said, unconvinced.
"Up until now, you've been using your magic without realizing it. A little bit of time with a good teacher will teach you how to wield it consciously." He gestured at the folder on his desk. "Based on your profile, it's most likely that you're a Teller; we could use another one of those."
"Wait, wait, wait." Jensen held up a hand, trying to put his thoughts in order. "I'm a what? That's a machine."
Jeff looked a little rueful. "I'm guessing that Jared didn't get to that part of the explanation."
"No, he did not. Care to enlighten me?"
"What the hell, we might as well make it an object lesson." Jeff rose from his chair. "Come with me. You too, Tamoh."
"Glad I haven't got anything better to do," Tamoh said dryly, even as he fell in step.
Jensen followed the both of them out of Jeff's office and back into the mess of corridors beyond. His head felt clearer than it had on the way down - Danneel had been right about the drugs clearing out of his system quickly - and he set about memorizing the route they took. If he was going to be here for the next who the fuck knew how long, he'd better start getting used to the place.
They stopped in front of a door with a splash of red paint streaking down the middle. Jeff lifted his hand to knock.
"The rooms are colour-coordinated," Tamoh said to Jensen. "Makes it easier to keep track of everything."
"What does red stand for?"
Tamoh's grin sparkled. "Magic at work," he said, just as a voice from the other side of the door called out 'come in!'.
The room they walked into looked like an office supplies store that had been hit by a hurricane. Every available surface was littered with sheets of paper covered in a clear, blocky script. Jensen couldn't remember the last time he'd seen so much writing done by hand.
There were three desks set up against the far wall. One was empty - though still covered in paper - while the other two had people sat behind them, working away on Jensen didn't know what.
"Jeff," the woman at the desk said, not looking up from her work. "If you're here for the prophecy about the President's speech, I must cordially ask you to fuck off. I'm not done. Try me in another three days."
"Not actually why I'm here, but I appreciate the concise update." Jeff gestured at Jensen and her head jerked up. "This is Jensen. He just arrived."
"Hi," Jensen said, with an incredibly dorky wave. Hopefully first impressions were overrated.
"Well," she said, giving him a frank once-over. "Aren't you a gorgeous piece of work? Rwar. I'm Felicia," she continued, while Jensen found himself blushing hotly. "Head Teller of the resistance. There's a sign somewhere, but it's hard to see with all the paper around."
Jensen didn't have any idea if his input was even necessary for this conversation, so he settled for a nod.
"Think you could give him a go?" Jeff asked, ignoring the way that it made Jensen sputter.
"My pleasure. Sit down," she told Jensen, gesturing at a chair that was likewise covered in paper. "Just shove that stuff in that box over there. That's it, thanks. Now give me your hand."
"Uh, what are you-" Jensen started.
"Quiet now. Working." Felicia took his hand between calloused fingers and pressed her thumbs into Jensen's palm. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes.
Jensen darted a confused glance at Jeff and Tamoh, but they both just gave him encouraging smiles, so he resigned himself to getting no help from that quarter.
"Three times countered," Felicia said suddenly, her voice somehow deeper and more cavernous than it had been before. "And turning back to go forwards-"
Jensen listened in startled silence as she rattled off the awkward phrases without pause or stutter. And they were very familiar phrases.
Felicia uttered the final phrase and fell silent. The room was quiet for a long moment before she shook herself and opened her eyes.
"Alright?" Jeff asked her.
She nodded. "Just peachy, thanks." She let go of Jensen's hand. "And how are you? It can be a little freaky the first time you hear it from a person instead of one of those damn machines."
"That's… my prophecy from this year. Well, mostly." He narrowed his eyes at Jeff. "What kind of scam are you pulling here?"
Jeff, whose eyebrows had gone up at the word 'mostly', remained calm. "No scam. Felicia's a Teller. That's her magic. The machines that the Ministry of Future Affairs uses are… based on Teller magic."
Felicia snorted inelegantly. "That's one way of phrasing it." She turned to Jensen and said, bluntly, "Teller machines are what happen when the government steals the magic essence of some poor schmuck and tries to find another use for it."
"The ghost in the machine," Tamoh chimed in. His expression was thick with distaste as he added, "Pretty literally, too."
"Haven't you ever wondered why prophecies are so obscurely worded?" Felicia asked. "If the government had its way, nothing that imprecise would ever be used. But magic isn't orderly and they can't do it with just machinery, so they work with what they've got."
"Wait." Jensen stared at the sober faces around him. "You're saying that the Teller machines are… are… powered by human magic?"
"And the city walls," Felicia said. "And the clocks, and-"
"Well, the eyes, anyway. They don't seem to have figured out how to cannibalize Time Keepers yet, thank goodness." She cocked her head. "Have you met any Farseers, yet?"
Dazed, Jensen shook his head.
"You're the type to rip the Band-Aid right off, huh, Felicia?" Tamoh said, sounding amused.
"I don't know how to handle this," Jensen admitted, feeling totally out of his depth.
"Deep breaths," Tamoh suggested. "And try not to think about the fact that you've been lied to for your entire life."
"Gee, thanks," Jensen said sourly.
Tamoh grinned. "Anytime."
"The fact is," Jeff said, drawing his attention back to the conversation at hand, "that a great number of the structures that our government depends on for its survival are inferior, mechanical copies of magical abilities. The Tellers are the most obvious example, but Felicia's right that they're not the only ones."
Jensen swallowed around the panic in his throat. "What other types of magic are there?"
"There are four main types of magic. In additional to Tellers, there are Wardens who can make mental walls-"
"Like Jared?" Jensen asked, and Jeff nodded.
"Exactly. Farseers - who can do pretty much what it sounds like - and Time Keepers who can freeze time for short intervals."
Jensen's eyebrows rose. "That sounds handy."
"It can be," Jeff agreed. "Although most Time Keepers can't manage it for long periods."
"Still." Jensen shook his head. "This is crazy."
"Just a little," Tamoh agreed. "Doesn't make it any less true, though."
"Geez." He turned his attention towards Jeff. "And you think that I'm a Teller?"
"Oh!" Felicia said, with sudden delight. Jensen jerked around to look and found her beaming from ear to ear. "Have you finally found me a new recruit, Jeff?"
"We think so," Jeff said. "Jensen's never had a prophecy come true, isn't that right?"
"You know, I hate it when people ask questions that they already know the answer to. No, none of my prophecies have ever come true." Jensen looked at them warily. Felicia was practically vibrating in her seat, while Jeff was mostly looking smugly self-satisfied. "Care to tell me why that's so important?"
"Can I?" Felicia waited for Jeff's nod before turning her enthusiasm on Jensen. "Magic users of the same type cancel each other out. Which means that, if you give a Teller a prophecy, it won't have any hold over them."
"So if none of your prophecies have come true, that's good evidence to suggest that you're a Teller," Jeff finished.
"And we're so painfully understaffed right now, you have no idea." Felicia sighed happily. "It's like an early birthday present."
"This is where the Tellers do their work," Jeff said, gesturing around the chaotic space. "In case you hadn't guessed. Their ability to predict what's coming is vital for keeping our people safe and avoiding unnecessary risks."
"And you think that I can do this, too," Jensen said, almost a question. "I've never told a prophecy before."
"It takes some practice to get used to it," Felicia said. She nodded at the guy at the other desk, who hadn't so much as looked up during their conversation. "We'll help you. Don't worry. We'll have you spouting off cryptic proclamations in no time."
"Goodie," Jensen said dryly.
"You'll get used to it," Felicia promised.
Jensen wasn't so sure he wanted to.
"So?" Danneel asked, as they walked down the hallway together. "How'd it go?"
Jeff and the others had finished cramming information into his brain for the moment, and Danneel had come to pick him up for the promised tour of the HQ. So far, Jensen was mostly just lost. He wasn't used to buildings that spread out instead of up and this place seemed big enough to cover at least an entire city block.
And Danneel had just asked him a question, hadn't she?
Jensen shrugged. "Good, I guess? I'm not really sure what the benchmark is for a situation like this."
Danneel smiled kindly. "Stick with being glad you're still you, for now. The rest will come. Are you staying?"
"Yeah," Jensen nodded. "And I'm going to start training with Felicia tomorrow."
"You're a Teller? That's awesome!"
"That's what Jeff thinks," Jensen said, unwilling to be more committal than that. "Why is that awesome?"
"Because Felicia and DJ are totally overworked, and Tellers are really useful." She winked at him. "Besides, how cool is it to be able to tell the future?"
"I guess." They turned another corner and Jensen looked around helplessly. "I hope you realize that I am completely lost."
Danneel's laughter sparkled in the air. "Is it mean to say that I'm not surprised? Which is why-" she dug into her pocket and pulled out a piece of folded paper, "-I got you this."
Jensen took it and was relieved beyond all measure to discover that it was a colour-coded map of the HQ.
"Thank you," he started, only to have her wave him off.
"Saves me from having to hold your hand every time you need to go potty." She smirked and added, "and Jeff will yell at me if I let another new recruit get lost and starve to death."
"Well, then, I appreciate your selfishness." Jensen saluted her with the map, finding a smile of his own to offer her.
"Any time, hot stuff. Now come on."
"Where are we going?" Jensen asked, trying to place them on his new map while Danneel hooked an arm through his and started dragging.
She grinned. "Time to eat! You must be starving."
Actually, Jensen still wasn't sure if throwing up everything in his stomach wasn't the most appropriate response to this situation, but he didn't protest. He hadn't seen a clock since he'd arrived and therefore had no idea what time it was, but even at a reasonable estimate for how long he'd been knocked out, it'd been a good 12 hours since the last time he'd eaten. Starving himself was not going to make things better, whether he wanted to eat or not.
"This is the mess hall," Danneel said, when they emerged into a large room filled with rows of tables several moments later. "The food is surprisingly edible."
"Joy," Jensen said dryly, and let her herd him into the canteen area.
There were several handfuls of people scattered around and Danneel made sure to introduce him to everyone who walked past their table. Jensen gave up on remembering names after the third person, falling back on nodding and shaking hands. The food was making him feel heavy and lethargic, the chaos of the day catching up to him in a rush. He slumped down against the table, one hand propping up his chin to keep him from faceplanting as he let the wash of conversation lull him into a half-doze.
A hand landed on his shoulder, making him jolt.
"Hnh?" he slurred, trying unsuccessfully to look alert.
An amused chuckle came from somewhere above his head. "I think it's time you called it a day."
He knew that voice. "Jared?" he asked, blinking until the dark blot above him resolved into Jared's face.
"In the flesh. Come on," Jared said, getting a hand under Jensen's arm and hauling him upright. "Bedtime."
"You need help?" Danneel asked from… somewhere nearby. Jensen was a little fuzzy on the details.
"I got him. And you can stop thinking whatever's put that look on your face, Danneel Harris."
"I've got no idea what you're talking about," Danneel said breezily. "Also, ha."
"Shaddup," Jared said, though he sounded like he was smiling. Jensen's head was too heavy for him to lift it up to check. "You still with me, Jensen?"
"Hmm?" Jensen asked.
Jared chuckled again and the world whirled briefly as Jared propelled them both into motion.
"See you tomorrow, Jensen!" Danneel called after him, and Jensen managed some vague noise in response.
The trip through the endless corridors helped him wake up some, and Jensen flushed as he stopped leaning on Jared and focused on walking under his own strength.
"Okay?" Jared asked, with an ease that Jensen wasn't really sure he deserved.
"Yeah," Jensen said. "Sorry for, y'know."
"No worries. Everything go okay today?"
Jensen nodded and then, before his tired brain could think better of it, said, "Surprised I didn't see you sooner."
He immediately wanted to bash his head against the wall a couple of times, but Jared didn't appear to see anything untoward in the comment.
"Well I had to finish work first. And it's never a good idea to be out after curfew, so I couldn't come last night. I live in the city," Jared explained, when Jensen looked confused. "Most of the team does."
"What?" Jensen demanded. "How come you get to live topside while I'm cooling my heels here?"
"Because you're on the government's radar as a potential threat and I'm not," Jared said calmly.
Jensen had to give him that one. It didn't mean he had to like it, though.
"Just do your best," Jared advised. "You'll be okay. Here we are," he said then, stopping in front of a door that had Jensen's name written on it in green paint. "Home sweet home."
"Great," Jensen said, trying not to wince when it fell flat. He doubted he'd ever be able to think of this as home, and spared a wistful thought for his familiar housing unit. He scraped together most of a smile for Jared as he reached for the door. "Guess this is goodnight, then."
"Before that! I brought you something."
Jensen perked up. "Yeah?"
Jared held out a bulging duffle bag with a hopeful little smile. "I couldn't take a lot, not without it raising the wrong kind of flags, but I figured you might like some clothes of your own."
"These are mine?" Jensen asked, a little numbly.
It might have been his tired mind playing tricks on him, but Jensen thought that Jared looked a little bashful at that. "Hey, it's the least I could do after pulling you away from your whole life without even giving you the time to pack an overnight bag. Of course, it wasn't easy to find stuff in your closet that wasn't suits. You own way too many ties, I hope you know."
Jared paused. "Yeah?"
"Thanks." He hefted the bag. "For my things."
It wasn't the only thing that Jensen was thanking him for. The smile that creased Jared's face in response made it pretty clear that Jared knew it.
"Don't mention it. I'll… see you later."
Jensen nodded. "Good night," he said, and resisted the urge to wave dorkily as Jared turned and ambled back the way they had come. Jensen took a deep breath that turned into a yawn partway through, then let himself into his new room, trying very hard not to think about anything at all.