The next few weeks passed in a blur. The HQ spun into buzzing, frenetic life as plans were made and attack strategies were drawn up. Large groups of up-top agents took up residence in the HQ, causing a serious issue in overcrowding. The air was tense with a jumbled mess of adrenaline, fear and excitement.
Jensen honestly didn't know the most of what was going on. He and Jared spent the majority of their time in the same exercise room that they'd always used for sparring, trying to hone Jensen's abilities as an Arbiter. It was slow going, but Jared proved himself to be as patient in this as he was in every other aspect of his life.
Eventually, Jensen got used to the hot spark of magic somewhere deep in his chest, grew comfortable with the wrenching pull of reality rewriting itself in response to his commands, learned how to struggle through the clinging fatigue that sapped his strength in the aftermath. He discovered - thanks to a single-minded Jared who thought turning a knife on himself was a good idea - that it was easier to tap into his magic when he was emotionally invested in whatever he was trying to change.
All Jensen could hope was that he'd have enough personal investment in not getting killed that it wouldn't take having Jared's life on the line again to fulfill that requirement.
The day of the coup found Jensen at Jared's side in the hallway that led to the surface, dressed in heavy body armour and trying not to let his hands shake too obviously.
"Our goal is to get to the Capitol building," Jared reminded him quietly, as though Jeff hadn't walked them both through the plan a hundred times already. "Not to fight. I'll be with you the whole time. It'll be fine."
Jensen nodded, not trusting his voice. But I'm just a legal consultant, a small voice inside his head protested. I shouldn't be here!
"You ready?" Jeff asked, coming up to them. He was likewise dressed in battle gear and, like Jared, he had a gun strapped to his hip. Jensen hadn't had the time to learn how to shoot in addition to figuring out how to Arbitrate, so he'd been able to avoid that.
He probably should have minded more than he did.
"As ready as we'll ever be," Jared answered for both of them. "You think they know we're coming?"
Jeff snorted. "If they don't, those Teller machines of theirs should be turned into scrap metal. You two keep well clear of the fighting. And Jensen," he said, catching Jensen's eyes. "We're counting on you to neutralize whatever weapon it is they've cooked up."
"No pressure," Jensen muttered.
Jared nudged him. "Jensen."
"I know, I know. I'll do everything I can," he said, and meant it.
When had this become his fight? When he had first kissed Jared? Or when he had been given the choice to run or to stand with them? Or maybe the first time he'd realized that his prophecies were never going to come true and he was doomed if anyone ever found out.
"Good. The units are in place throughout the city and are prepared to move on the hour. Wait for my mark." Jensen and Jared both nodded. Jeff clapped them each on the shoulder. "Good luck," he said, before moving away to talk to some of the other people preparing to go up.
Jensen hooked a hand around the back of Jared's neck and hauled him into a fierce kiss. "Be careful," he murmured, when they drew apart.
Jared's fingers stroked gently down the side of his face. "Same goes for you."
"Everyone in place!" Jeff yelled, and they hurriedly untangled themselves.
Jensen kept his eyes on Jeff, who had his eyes on the clock, counting down the seconds.
"On my mark… go, go, go!"
The corridor exploded into activity and Jensen found himself having to fight to keep in step with Jared as everyone surged towards the door. They poured en masse out of the restaurant and onto the street, everyone scurrying off in their designated directions to help fight.
The air was full of yelling and the sound of weapons: a sure sign that the government had indeed anticipated their attack. As Jensen stared, a military truck rolled into view and spilled a squadron of soldiers onto the street in front of them.
"Jensen!" Jared's hand wrapped around Jensen's wrist and hauled him to the side just as the soldiers opened fire.
Jensen yelped and ducked as bullets buried themselves in the building, heart pounding double time. Someone screamed on his left, and Jensen glanced over to see Alona clutching at a bloody shoulder even as she threw up a ward to protect herself.
Judging by the stunned looks on the soldiers' faces, they weren't among the members of the government privy to the truth about magic.
"They can take care of themselves!" Jared said. "We have to go!"
Jensen nodded and let Jared tug him away from the battle, towards the Capitol building.
It was like running through a nightmare. Everywhere Jensen looked, there were signs of the battle raging all around them. The air was thick with screams and the copper tang of blood, and several times they had to change direction to avoid being caught up in a firefight. There were bodies in the road, some military, some resistance, some civilians. Tumbled masonry blocked the way, the uniform yet elegant facades of the buildings turned to pulp by gunfire and magic.
Jensen felt sick to his stomach. Was this what their revolution was to be built on?
"This way!" Jared hollered, and Jensen firmly shunted his worries off to one side. There would be time for recriminations later.
There was a contingent of soldiers standing guard outside the Capitol building, and Jensen and Jared drew to a wary halt.
"Now what?" Jensen asked.
"Maybe I can help," a voice said, and Danneel appeared on Jared's other side, dressed in sleek body armour with her hair pulled back into a no-nonsense ponytail. There was a smudge of dirt on her cheek, but she appeared otherwise unharmed. "I can get Jensen in if you're willing to play bait," she said to Jared.
"Done," he said immediately.
"Wait, what?" Jensen asked. "That wasn't the plan!"
"Plans change." Jared dropped a kiss on Jensen's cheek and offered him a crooked smile. "I'll join you as soon as I can. I promise."
"Wait-" Jensen started, but Jared was already loping away, head held high and gun in hand. The soldiers took immediate notice, and Jensen tried not to panic when they raised their weapons. Jared could handle it. Jensen knew how powerful his wards were. He'd be fine.
"Come on," Danneel hissed. "We've only got about one minute, so we'd better make it count."
"One minute for-" what, Jensen didn't say, because Danneel chose that moment to grab his hand and the whole world froze in place. "Woah."
"Time Keeper," Danneel said, with a cheeky grin. "Pretty cool, huh? Now, let's move it."
Still holding tightly to his hand, Danneel led the way across the lawn to the Capitol building. Everything else was suspended in time and completely oblivious to their passage.
The space between Jensen's shoulder blades was itching like mad by the time they finally circled around the soldiers and slipped inside the building.
"The President's office is on the top floor," Danneel told him hurriedly. "I'll stay here and help Jared. Go!"
Jensen bit back his instinctive protests and nodded instead. "Be careful," he said.
Danneel laughed. "Well, that's no fun. Good luck."
Her fingers slipped away from his skin and the world burst back into motion, the sudden shift making Jensen briefly dizzy.
Danneel took a deep breath then abruptly vanished, which Jensen supposed was what her magic looked like from the outside. He looked around for the stairs and, upon finding them, took a deep breath of his own before heading off.
The trip up to the President's office was harrowing more for the tension riding high in Jensen's chest than for any difficulty getting past the guards. In fact, Jensen didn't see anyone on his trip, which only served to make him more nervous. Surely there should have been ordinary employees around here somewhere, at the very least?
When Jensen reached the top floor, there wasn't a soul in sight.
The doors to the office stood open. Inviting.
It was absolutely a trap, but Jensen didn't see that he had a whole lot of options right now. The President had a weapon and everyone was counting on Jensen to make sure it was never used. If the President wanted to meet face to face, then Jensen would have to oblige.
He swallowed hard, mentally touching the fire burning quietly in his chest as reassurance. Then he fisted his hands, raised his chin and marched determinedly through the gaping doors.
The office inside was at once opulent and austere, and Jensen suspected that the carpet cost more than his entire apartment. The space was dominated by a massive desk that gleamed in the sunlight coming through the floor to ceiling windows. The chair behind the desk was empty.
"You must be Jensen," a smooth, urbane voice said, and Jensen whirled to see a gaunt-faced man with dark, swept-back hair standing just behind him. The man's eyes were fixed on Jensen's face with a burning intensity that was immediately familar.
Jensen willed himself to stillness. "President Richings," he said calmly.
"Julian is fine," Richings said with a careless wave. "This isn't the sort of situation where one ought to stand on ceremony."
He glided forward and Jensen tensed, on guard for the first hint of an attack.
"You know," Richings said. "I had thought that Arbiters were extinct."
"Guess that makes me unique," Jensen shot back. "Apparently I've got your government to thank for that."
Richings hummed noncommittally, breezing past a confused Jensen and settling in the chair behind the desk.
"Shall I tell you a story? It's about a world that was ruled by magic, many, many years ago."
"I've already heard this story," Jensen cut in. "Any chance of moving on to you surrendering?"
Richings' lips curled into a thin smile. "While I'm sure you've heard a story, I rather doubt your friends in the resistance told you the entire story."
Jensen stared at him, tense and unnerved.
"Oh, to you, I'm sure that a world ruled by magic sounds like a wonderful idea. So unfettered, so free." Richings' eyes were dark and intent; Jensen couldn't look away. "Of course, that was only the case for those who could use magic. The ordinary people - people like your family, or your friend Chris - they were seen as less than human. As worthless."
"For many years, this state of affairs continued," Richings said, while a chill stole down Jensen's spine. "With the chaos of magic making a mockery of the values they claimed to be upholding. Until one day, it became too much to bear, and the people rose up against their magic-wielding overlords. It was a gruesome conflict and many ordinary people were killed by the very people who'd been put in place to protect them. But, finally, the need for freedom and equality won the day and the normal people prevailed. And they removed all the magic users from power and put in a new government, built on logic and reason."
"And paperwork?" Jensen suggested, making his tone as dry as he could.
Richings smiled approvingly. "No society can function without paperwork. You, of all people, must be able to appreciate that."
"How can you think this is better?" Jensen demanded. "You've just traded one set of overlords for another! Or do you think that people who are born with magic deserve to suffer? They didn't choose it!"
"It is regretful what must be done in the name of the common good," Richings said, an agreement that was anything but. "Chaos is the enemy, Jensen, don't you see? There's nothing safe about a society that allows chaotic elements like magic users free reign. And perhaps that means that a few people suffer for the sake of order-"
"You disappear people!"
"Reallocate them," Richings said soothingly, as though that was better. "Just a few people every year - isn't that worth the health and happiness of an entire country?"
"No," Jensen said, though even he couldn't have said whether he was answering the question or rejecting the entire idea. "Everybody has the right to live."
"And of course that's what your rebellion is all about," Richings said, with suspect lightness. "Fairness and equality. Not a return to the old ways where magic equals power."
"That's not-" Jensen started, only to falter when he realized that he didn't actually know what the end goal was. Not in so much detail.
"I rather think you should have asked more questions before throwing your lot in with the likes of Jeff Morgan. They must have been delighted to find you," Richings continued, in that same mild, reasonable tone that was fucking with Jensen's brain. "An unbeatable weapon in the coup, naturally, and then, well! You'll be so much more use to them afterwards."
Jensen didn't want to hear this. "What do you mean?"
"Jensen, Jensen, Jensen," Richings sighed, shaking his head. "You have the power to change the very fabric of reality. You can be judge and jury against every man, woman and child in the country, and there's nothing anyone could do to stop you. Think about it, son! What do you think they're going to do with you after this little coup is over with? Do you really want to give a man like Jeff Morgan that power?"
"No one can make me do anything," Jensen said.
Richings' look was almost pitying. "Oh, I rather think they can. It doesn't even need to be by force. You're a principled man; I can see that. What's to stop Morgan from laying the guilt on until you do what he wants? You've already joined a rebellion after an entire life of good behaviour. What happens when they convince you that you're doing the right thing by controlling people's lives?"
Jensen stared at him, not sure how to answer.
"Oh, Jensen," Richings said, with grandfatherly gentleness. "This is why magic is dangerous. The people who possess it are only human. And it's the people who control them who are the real threat."
"Big talk from the guy with the most to lose in this situation."
"You're out of your comfort zone; I understand. But what you need to understand is that you're handing Morgan an unlimited power and he's going to use it to corrupt you."
"No, he won't," a very welcome voice said, and Jensen felt Jared step up at his side. "Because I won't let him."
"Ah, Jared," Richings said. His eyes fell to the way Jared's arm was pressed up against Jensen's, and comprehension swept across his face. "Well now. That does answer some questions. Aren't Spring-Summer romances delightful?"
"That's none of your business." Jared was caked with dirt and blood, and his gun was missing, but he showed no desire to back down from Richings' unsettling stare. "I'm sure you know what we're here for."
"Mmm," Richings said agreeably, and leaned over to open the top drawer of his desk.
Jensen tensed, nerves drawn taut.
"I'm assuming it's this." He sat back and Jensen saw a slim vial in his hand, full of a colourless liquid. "It's a pathogen," he said, in response to whatever expressions were on their faces. "Designed to kill anyone who carries the gene for magic."
The blood drained from Jensen's face.
"What?" Jared demanded.
"Isn't progress a funny thing?" Richings twirled the vial between his long fingers, eyes fixed on the fluid tumbling around inside. "The first piece of technology we've created that is completely free of the taint of magic, and it's designed to remove that taint permanently."
"But your whole society is built on magic-based technology!" Jensen exclaimed. "The Tellers! The clocks! The force walls! If you kill all the magic users-"
"We'll have to find a new way forward," Richings finished, not sounding particularly perturbed by the idea. He shrugged fluidly. "That's what life is. Morgan, are you quite finished lurking in the shadows?" he asked then. "It's dreadfully rude."
"Richings," Jeff said, striding into the room. "It's over."
Richings smiled thinly. "I sincerely hope you don't think that it's going to be that easy, Morgan. I'm not about to let a man like you take my place."
"A man like me, huh?" Jeff kept stalking forwards, a predator's intent in every step. "And what kind of man am I, you murderous bastard?"
Richings' eyes flashed fire. "You're a danger to the very world you say you're trying to create. You're hungry for power and you're willing to do whatever it takes to get it."
Jeff bared his teeth in something that looked more like a snarl than a smile. "Reminds me of someone else in this room."
Richings stood abruptly; Jensen let his magic surge up inside him, eyes trained on that vial.
"You have no faith in mankind," Richings said. "And so you corrupt it."
"You're right," Jeff said unexpectedly. "I'm not the one who should be in charge of this new government. I'm too wary, too jaded." He lifted his gun and pointed it directly at Richings' chest. "But you shouldn't be either."
The sound of the bullet ricocheted through the air, and Jensen gasped when Richings dodged out of the way, faster and more fluid than Jensen had expected him to be able to move. Jeff aimed again and Richings vaulted across the table to strike at Jeff.
They went down in a tumble of limbs before springing quickly to their feet and lunging for each other.
Jensen watched, heart in his throat, as they traded blows back and forth, far faster and more brutal than anything Jared had showed him. He tried to keep his attention on the vial in Richings' hand, but they were moving too fast for him to manage it.
The gun barked again and Jensen jumped when one of the windows shattered in response. Another shot and it was Jensen and Jared's turn to duck out of the way.
The scuffle dragged across the floor, neither man able to get the upper hand. Then the gun went spinning through the air at the same instant as Richings broke free, stumbling back towards the window, his hair hanging in his eyes and one of his arms hanging limp.
"Enough!" he roared, all the more terrifying for the fact that it was the first time he'd raised his voice. His right hand stretched over his head, balled into a fist.
"The vial!" Jensen shouted.
Jeff roared and launched himself at Richings, catching the man round the waist and driving them both back.
Right towards the broken window.
They teetered on the ledge for a heartbeat, and then Richings' voice escaped in a breathless laugh and his hand opened-
-to reveal absolutely nothing.
And Jensen would swear to his death that the man looked right at him with a smile in the fraction of a second before gravity took hold and he and Jeff tumbled headlong out the window.
Their screams were going to haunt Jensen's nightmares for years. Though not as much as the moment when the screaming came to an abrupt halt.
There was a moment of long, shocked silence.
"You didn't do that," Jared said finally, sounding shaken.
"Thank you for not making that a question," Jensen said, more genuinely than he tried to make it sound. "And no, I didn't."
On some unspoken agreement, they walked together towards the window, skirting around the damage that the fight had done to the furniture. Jensen stopped a hand's breath away from the window.
"I can't," he said, and then, "careful, idiot!" when Jared leaned over the edge to take a look.
"I threw up a ward," Jared said. "There's nothing to worry about." He looked down and Jensen watched his body still.
"Are they-?" he asked, even though the answer was obvious. Unless Richings had been hiding a pair of skeletal wings underneath that suit, there was no way they could have survived.
Jared nodded tightly. "Yeah," was all he said. He stepped back, away from the window, and Jensen didn't stop himself from grabbing Jared's arm.
"Shit. Is it - does that mean it's over?"
"Well," Jared started, only to have the word cut off when the door banged open and a trio of soldiers burst in. Jared's arm turned to iron under Jensen's fingers and he knew without having to ask that there would be a ward in front of them that was hard enough to shatter diamond.
Jensen drew himself up to his full height, digging around inside himself for the burn of magic. Whatever was about to happen, he was going to make sure it didn't involve any more death.
"The armed forces and the government have surrendered to your forces," the woman in front said, which Jensen had absolutely not been expecting. "The interim leaders of both sides are currently in the board room." She looked at Jensen. "They've asked you to be present as a mediator."
"Me?" Jensen shared a quick, startled glance with Jared. "Why me?"
"The, ah, resistance forces believe it would be beneficial, given your-"
"Ability?" Jared suggested, while the woman staggered around for a word besides 'magic'. "Aren't your bosses worried about that giving our side the advantage?"
She shook her head. "President Richings gave a similar order previously."
Jensen's eyes darted without his permission towards the window, thinking of the man who'd stood in front of it and talked of order and chaos a bare half hour ago. Perhaps he had seen the value of change, after all.
"Alright," Jensen said. "I'm ready. Lead on."
"You ready for this?" Jared asked in an undertone.
"No," Jensen admitted. When Jared's hand snuck into his own, he didn't even consider protesting. "But that seems to be the order of the day."
Jared grinned. "Thatta boy. Let's go broker a peace treaty, shall we?"
Behind them, safely on the desk, a single vial glinted innocuously in the light.
Six months later
Coups, Jensen decided, created entirely too much paperwork.
"You know," Jared's voice said, and Jensen looked up to find the man striding into his office with a sheaf of paper in one hand and a beaming grin on his face. "We really need to talk about this hard-on you have for paperwork."
"You kidding?" Jensen asked, most of his attention on the latest draft of the policy reform he was working on. "If paperwork got me horny, you'd get laid a hell of a lot more often. I can't imagine you'd complain."
Not that Jared didn't get laid on an awfully regular basis already, mind. Honestly, Jensen didn't think they had the time to get it on any more often than they currently did.
Jared sighed. "That is a shame. Chris would probably cut my balls off if he thought we were having sex every time I came in here."
When Chris found out that Jensen was alive, he hugged him hard enough to make him squeak, then punched him in the face.
When he met Jared, he threatened to dismember him if he hurt Jensen. It was nice to have friends who cared.
"What are you doing here, anyway?" Jensen asked. "I thought you had a proper job these days."
Jared sniffed haughtily. "I always had a proper job. Technically, I had two. Until you got me fired."
"Sure, Jared. If that's what it takes for you to sleep through the night. Stop getting me off track. Why. Are. You. Here?"
"Because I finally found it."
"Congratulations," Jensen said, as Jared stopped in front of his desk, beaming from ear to ear. "I'm very happy for you. What have you found?"
In answer, Jared slapped a sheaf of paper down on top of Jensen's work. "It was a car accident," he said.
Jensen sighed. "One day, we're going to get the hang of how conversations work," he said. "I have faith in us."
Jared stuck his tongue out at him.
"What are you, twelve?"
"Shut up and listen." Jared flattened his hand over the stack of papers, neatly preventing Jensen from being able to read any of it. "Your death prophecy. It was supposed to be a car accident."
Jensen frowned. "I wasn't in any car accidents." He tugged the papers out from under Jared's fingers and flipped through them curiously.
"But you were supposed to be. That's why so many people with no magic ability also had prophecies that didn't come true: they were meant to be caught up in an accident that you prevented without realizing."
"But shouldn’t someone have noticed if we were all in the same place at the same time? I mean, isn't that the sort of connection that you guys were looking for?"
"But you weren't exactly. See?" Jared flipped through the pages to a series of hand drawn diagrams that were presumably meant to depict a city street.
Jensen raised an eyebrow. "I've met clods of dirt that could draw a better car."
Jared swatted him. "Don't exaggerate. It's not sexy. Ahem. This is you here, on the bus-"
"If you needed a ruler to help you draw stick men, all you had to do was ask. I have one you could have borrowed."
"You're supremely unfunny, I hope you know that."
"We're gonna have to agree to disagree on that one, I bet."
"Anyway. The reason no one made the connection is because it's not just people in the bus who would have died, or them and the car that would have hit it." Jared tapped at a terrible rendering of a blue van. "It looks like it would have been a doozy of an accident - a lot of vehicles would have been involved. And, as far as I can tell, some of the casualties would probably have been pedestrians; none of them were registered to cars at that time."
Jared produced another ugly drawing, this one showing the extent of the damage that the crash would have caused. Jensen looked at it and whistled.
"Yikes. Looks like it was a good thing me and my magic power I didn't know how to use were in the neighbourhood. This would have been nasty."
"Yeah," Jared said, sounding a little subdued.
"Have you been looking for this since my birthday?" Jensen asked. "It's really not that important."
Jared shrugged, a little awkwardly. "I wanted to know. If it weren't for that prophecy, the government never would have caught on to you. And we, we would probably never have met."
"Sap," Jensen said, but paused when he finally recognized the emotion on Jared's face: guilt. "What is it?"
"It was us."
Jensen blinked at him. "Care to try that once more and actually make sense?"
Jared ran a hand through his hair. "The accident. I went back through Jeff's records. We planned that accident. Nobody noticed because, well-" he waved at Jensen, who made a face at him, "-y'know, but it was still on file. If it wasn't for you, we would have killed all those people."
"Hey," Jensen said, rounding his desk and wrapping Jared up in a hug. Jared clung to him, so far removed from the gregarious, dauntless undercover agent that Jensen could hardly fathom it. The last six months had changed all of them. "Nobody got hurt, okay?"
"But they should have been," Jared said, in a small voice.
"But they weren't. And you were doing what you thought was best. You all were." Jensen paused. "Even Jeff. And sometimes you really do have to make hard decisions for the greater good."
Jared's arms tightened, and Jensen knew that they were both thinking of a broken window and the echoing horror of twin screams still rattling in the air. "How do we know they're the right decisions to make?"
Jensen shrugged awkwardly. "Wait and see, I guess. And be willing to try and fix it if they're the wrong ones."
"When did you get so wise?" Jared lifted his head, fond smile firmly in place. Jensen could tell that the moment of vulnerability was over.
"I've always been wise. You just weren't paying attention." Jensen let Jared go, not at all reluctantly, and returned to his chair. He looked at the mess of paper all over his desk - the norm, these days - and stifled a sigh.
"How you holding up?" Jared asked. He nudged a stack of books aside with his hip and sat on the edge of the desk. "You've been go, go, go for days."
Jensen waved a hand at the draft on his desk. "This one's going in for secondary negotiation in a couple days and I need to get the draft finished so the review committee can look it over ahead of time."
Jared shook his head. "This rebuilding a government thing is more complicated than I thought."
"Really? It's exactly as complicated as I figured it'd be. Remind me which of us has been working towards this for years?"
"Smart ass. Seriously, though. You've taken a lot of responsibility on with this. With not a lot of recognition, either."
"I'm good at this stuff," Jensen said, a little awkwardly. "And the people we've got hammering out the laws are better at it than I would be."
It wasn't a perfect system by any stretch of the imagination. There was a great deal of suspicion and fear held by a lot of the population against magic users. People were slow to come forward with magic abilities. The new government - which was a mix of employees from the former government and members of the resistance - seemed to be torn between creating a system that required even more paperwork than the last one had or encouraging everyone to run off into the wilderness and give up on civilization entirely.
No one could decide what to do with the government employees who'd gone through Extraction. They couldn't return their magic to them - it had all been consumed by the machines that had relied on it - and so they would be soulless automatons for the rest of their lives. Particularly well suited to working for the government, some pointed out caustically, and what else could they do with them? Kill them? Put them in homes?
Jensen was very carefully staying out of as much as he could, lest he be accused of changing fate to suit his own purposes.
"It's early days yet," Jared said. "Better to take the time now and get things sorted out properly so that things work better in the long run."
Jensen sighed. "I know. It just seems like all we've done is create chaos."
"You ever cleaned a messy room? You have to make twice as much chaos to make sure that there's room to put things back where they belong."
"Thank you for that stunning analogy, Jared, what would I do without you?"
Jared grinned. "Drown in paperwork, unnoticed and unloved probably. You ready for lunch?"
Jensen blinked at the clock. It didn't blink back at him, which he could only see as an improvement. "I hadn't realized it was so late."
"And, we're back to your disturbing obsession with paperwork."
"Hey," Jensen protested, marking his place on the page before standing. "I'm creating a new world, here."
"I know," Jared said. He leaned in for a kiss and, when he pulled back, his eyes were shining. "And I can't think of anyone else I'd trust to do it more."