When Jared walked into a room, it felt like sunshine.
Not literally, of course. Jensen knew the difference between the gentle heat of sun on his skin and the honey-warm glow of Jared's emotions in the back of his mind; he was an empath, not an idiot.
And Jared didn't actually need to be in the room in order for Jensen to sense his emotions, either. Being a bonded level 5 empath meant that he could feel Jared when he was on the other side of the city. Possibly further, although they hadn't tested that yet.
To be honest, Jensen didn't really see the point in speaking metaphorically. It clearly wasn't a sufficient way to explain anything.
Except Jared had told him that people used metaphorical language to describe things that were completely foreign to their listener. And it was certainly true that Jensen had never been able to explain to anyone's satisfaction what the world looked like to him. So he was willing to give this simile stuff a try.
He didn't think he was very good at it just yet.
Fire-orange affection slipped down his spine, and Jensen looked up to see Jared leaning in the doorway of his office, his arms crossed across his chest and a smile curving his lips.
"Well hey there," Jared said, when he saw that he had Jensen's attention. The feeling of his affection intensified. "What's got you looking so cheerful this fine afternoon?"
Just about anyone on the planet would have had Jared committed for that remark, since Jensen knew for a fact that he looked the same as he always did: neutral. He wasn't capable of looking anything else.
It was typical for an empath, of course. Unless Jensen wanted to go insane from having the rest of the world's feelings in his head every moment of his life, he needed mental walls strong enough to keep them all out. And anything that kept some things out also kept other things in.
Jensen had emotions, obviously. Plenty of them. Sometimes they bubbled up so fierce and fast that he thought they'd burst right out of him and reveal to the world that he wasn't the soulless automaton that he appeared to be. But his will was made of stronger stuff and so the only person who had ever got to experience his feelings was him.
And now Jared, but even that wasn't quite even. Thanks to their bond, Jared's feelings were in Jensen's head constantly; they'd made their own space inside him, persistent and inescapable, and would only be moved when one of them died.
By contrast, Jared was a passive participant in their bond. He was Normal, not a stella, which meant that he could feel nothing of Jensen unless Jensen either shared something deliberately - which he usually forgot to do - or forgot himself enough to let something slip. Which had thus far only happened when Jensen was in the hospital after a near-death experience. So, not likely.
According to their physician, it was possible that prolonged exposure to their bond would allow Jared to become more attuned to Jensen's emotions without Jensen's input, but there were so few recorded instances of high level empaths making soul bonds that they couldn't be sure. Also not likely to be the case here.
So this was just Jared being fanciful. Nothing new there.
"You're insane," Jensen told him, because that was obviously the appropriate response.
"And you love it," Jared returned, without missing a beat. Something that Jensen had learned of Jared was that he was apparently never at a loss for words. "You ready to go or are you in the middle of something?"
Jensen had, in fact, been dithering about playing Solitaire for the last ten minutes, waiting for Jared. He wasn't quite sure when he'd started looking for good stopping points in his workload rather than carrying on until the clock ticked to five and then wrapping up after hours, but he suspected that it coincided closely with Jared's new habit of coming to fetch him at the end of the day. Jared would wait without complaining, Jensen knew, but Jensen found himself in the somewhat novel position of wanting to make Jared happy. If not starting a new project at 4:40 pm made it easier for them to go home together then, well. It was a small sacrifice, really.
Not that he intended to let Jared know that. "Give me a minute," he said, and then proceeded to look busy as he shuffled papers away and closed down his computer.
"So," Jared said, as Jensen locked his office door and they headed together towards the lobby. "Any thoughts on dinner?"
Jensen shrugged. It was a new addition to his emotive repertoire, shrugging, and he enjoyed getting the practice in. "I'm generally a fan. Why do you ask?"
Jared blinked, then chuckled. Jensen could feel his amusement, which meant that it was a good chuckle. "Smart ass. I meant, what you like to eat for dinner? You want me to cook?"
Unlike Jensen, who quite enjoyed cooking, Jared had a cheffing repertoire that consisted of about five meals. In some ways, Jensen was pleased about that because it meant that he had something to contribute to their relationship. All the books he'd read about how to have a healthy relationship indicated that sharing tasks was important.
"We can have fajitas," Jensen decided, as they reached the lobby. "You chop and I'll cook."
"I love a good compromise," Jared said. He lifted one hand in a wave. "Night, Richard."
Jensen was confused until the security guard at the desk answered with, "See you later, Jared. You too, Jensen."
"Goodbye," Jensen said automatically, not remembering that he ought to make eye contact until it was too late. The security guard looked like he was used to Jensen ignoring him, which he probably was. The familiar curl of guilt wound its way into his chest.
The sun was unhelpfully bright as they stepped outside. Jared paused to fish through the half dozen pockets on his shoulder bag to find his sunglasses. Jensen waited, his previously good mood soured.
"Is there something bothering you?" Jared asked, without looking up from his search. "You were fine just a minute ago."
Jensen didn't bother asking how Jared knew that something had changed. He'd found Jared baffling for pretty much all of their acquaintance thus far; having the man's feelings in his head hadn't helped as much as he would have hoped.
"The security guard," Jensen said. "Is he the same one as yesterday?"
Jared nodded. "Richard's been working here for, hmm, about three months? Does all the afternoon shifts during the week."
"Oh." Jensen hadn't realized.
Concern. "Is that a bad thing?"
"No," Jensen said. He paused, then added, "I didn't recognize him."
"Hey." Jared put a hand to Jensen's shoulder, the thick weave of Jensen's shirt blocking the worst of the emotional transference from the touch. Not that it made much difference when he could feel Jared's blue-tinged fondness through their bond, but it was easier to compartmentalize it when it wasn't compounded by skin contact. "It's not something to blame yourself for. Hell, I'd wager that a good third of our coworkers don't know his name either, and they haven't got nearly as good an excuse for it as you do."
Namely, that Jensen had trouble recognizing other people as unique individuals. One of the side effects of completely walling off his sense of empathy.
More liquid blue concern. "Can I ask why you're upset?" Jared asked. "You don't usually react like this to a little social faux pas."
Not entirely true - granted, it depended on whether or not Jensen noticed in the first place, but, when he did, he usually regretted his complete inability to make it seem like he cared about the people he met in Normal society. If Jared hadn't realized that, though, Jensen wasn't about to tell him. The foolish man already cared for Jensen more than was sensible. No need to make it worse.
"Spending time with you makes people pay attention to me more," Jensen said, which had the benefit of being the truth. "That guard-"
"Richard," Jared supplied.
"Richard knows my name, even though I've never spoken to him. It makes me want to be… better at returning the favour."
A burst of affection. "I want you to know that I'm manfully refraining from hugging you until you squeak," Jared said. "You should admire my self-control."
"It's very admirable," Jensen said, because he was used to Jared's reactions to things making no sense.
"Isn't it just?" Jared grinned. "Consider this your positive social interaction for the day."
"Whatever did I do without you?" Jensen asked rhetorically.
"I honestly have no idea," Jared said, his sincerity tinged with just a touch of melancholy and something that Jensen hoped wasn't pity. "So, you ready to go home?"
Jensen had absolutely no desire to address the emotions he was feeling in Jared's head right now, so he answered the question. "Still waiting on you to find your movie star sunglasses, princess."
"Lucky for you, I'm always worth the wait." Jared was grinning as he slipped on his unnecessarily large aviators.
"Idiot," Jensen said, rather than agreeing, and fell in step with Jared as they headed towards the parking lot. Towards home.
Jensen was 13 the first time he truly understood that people were afraid of him.
"I think that's enough," Dr. Tapping told him, and Jensen nodded, letting his hand drop away from the wrist of the helper strapped into the chair next to him. She was exhibiting no notable signs of emotional distress, which was unfortunate but not unsurprising.
Dr. Tapping picked up her clipboard. "Tamara?" Jensen had done this enough times to understand that Dr. Tapping was asking a question, even though a person's name didn't count as a question.
"Limited effect," the helper said. "A mild feeling of melancholy."
Which, considering that Jensen had been trying to make her feel tearing, wrenching, unfathomable grief, was not a positive outcome.
"Understood." Dr. Tapping wrote something down, then turned her attention to Jensen. "Are all of the emotions you're feeling right now self-created, Jensen?"
This was so embarrassing. "No," he admitted reluctantly. "I'm experiencing a feeling of delight that isn't mine."
"I see." More writing, and Jensen wished that there was enough give in the straps to let him sink further down into his chair. Why was he so bad at this?
Dr. Tapping looked at the clock. "That's the end of today's session. Jensen, you can raise your shields again."
Two more helpers immediately stepped forward to release them, but Jensen stayed sitting for a moment, trying to work past the residual emotions the physical contact had left.
"We'll keep working on it tomorrow," Dr. Tapping said. Jensen wondered if she felt as frustrated as he did.
Dr. Tapping caught him looking at her and smiled. "Don't worry, Jensen," she said. "You'll get there. It's just going to take more practice."
How much more? Jensen didn't ask. "Yes, Dr. Tapping."
"You've got a few minutes before you're expected at your next station. Go take a walk to calm down."
Jensen didn't bother protesting that he didn't need to calm down. Dr. Tapping had always been the best at reading him.
The hallways at Home were always busy, and Jensen slid into the general traffic, being careful to keep his bare hands carefully tucked away. Everyone gave him a wide berth, which Jensen was used to. He was the only level 5 stella currently in residence at Home, and it made him unavoidably memorable.
It didn't bother him, not really. Jensen was old enough now to know that personal relationships were all but impossible for an empath as powerful as he was. No one wanted to be friends with an automaton like him.
Well, except for Chris. But he was almost certainly insane, so he didn't count.
His own frustration and embarrassment at being no closer to being able to impress memories now than he had been when he'd started learning five months and three days ago accompanied Jensen as he walked alone down the crowded hall.
According to Dr. Tapping, he was having trouble with impressing emotions entirely because he was a level 5. In order to influence someone else's emotions, Jensen had to weaken his mental shields. Unfortunately, his empathy was so strong that his target's emotions kept overwhelming him before he got the chance to impress anything.
Dr. Tapping was confident that Jensen would figure it out eventually. Jensen wasn't so sure.
A pair of gliders zoomed down the hallway, their erratic movements and inability to stay off the ground for more than 15 seconds at a time making it clear that they were either new arrivals at Home, or else very low level stellae. Helpers and stellae alike swerved to avoid them, but it was already too late.
"Whoa!" one of the gliders yelled as his momentum proved too much for his balance to keep up with, and he went ass over tits (as Chris would say) directly into the half dozen people who didn't get out of the way in time.
His breath escaped in a rush as he tumbled to the floor, and it was instinct to put his hands out to break his fall.
Unfortunately, it wasn't the ground that he landed on.
"Oof!" a girl's voice said, right in his ear, as Jensen crashed down on top of her. Someone else's weight landed on him, trapping him between two immobile bodies.
"Ow," Jensen managed. He lifted his head to get a better look at the situation, only to get arrested by the way the girl's eyes widened when she saw his face.
"Oh god," she said, struggling against the combined weight of Jensen and everyone on top of him. "Not you!"
Jensen wondered if he was supposed to apologize for being himself.
Instead, he tried again to push himself upright, only to have his palm brush against her bare arm. Her emotions rushed in.
Panic. Fear. Desperation.
"Don't touch me!"
Jensen was flying the next minute, pushed by all the force that a panicked telekinetic could muster. His back hit the far wall hard enough to make sparks flash in front of his eyes, and he groaned as the pain fed into the fear coursing through his veins.
Get away, he had to get away, oh, he was so afraid.
He was only absently aware of the fact that he'd curled into a ball, his back against the wall and his knees tucked in close to his chest. All he could feel was terror, rooting him to the floor and making his breath come in short gasps. His heart was pounding, his hands felt clammy. Was this what dying felt like?
Hands dropped on him, sudden and shocking, and Jensen screamed.
"Get away!" he yelled, bucking frantically against those clutching fingers. But the hands - so many hands - didn't let go. Dimly, he could feel those hands trying to calm him down, but he was too scared to be soothed so easily. He kept right on screaming and thrashing until the hands forced his head to one side, and a needle slid into his skin, bringing oblivion with it.
Jensen learned later that his shields had dropped in his fear and he'd caused three gliders, seven telekinetics and a half dozen helpers to have panic attacks of their own. For his part, Jensen hadn't known that anybody could be that scared of anything.
He especially hadn't known that he was something that people should be scared of.
No wonder he had no friends.
Non-empaths, Jensen had gathered, had no idea just how often they conveyed their emotions through tone of voice and non-verbal communication. The entire world was full of cues and hints that everyone else took for granted, but Jensen was unable to see.
He couldn't hear the warmth in someone's voice, he couldn't feel the tension in a room. He knew what basic facial expressions meant - smiles, frowns, tears, and the like - but only through practice and exposure. He couldn't distinguish a genuine smile from a polite grimace, couldn't tell when laughter was kind and when it was derisive, couldn't differentiate between anger and embarrassment when a person blushed. Unless people told him what they were feeling, Jensen had almost no way of knowing. Which was fine, honestly. It wasn't like Jensen had ever known anything different.
Until Jared came along.
Exactly 212 days ago, Jensen had created a permanent empathic link between himself and his coworker, Jared, during a semi-delirious moment of sheer desperation brought on by the emotional backlash from a nearby car accident. The link made him constantly awareness of Jared's emotional state, and - more usefully - afforded him better control of his empathy than he'd ever have been able to manage alone. Of course, it wouldn't have been possible had he not spent much of the three months beforehand falling quietly in love with the man, which explained why so few high level empaths like Jensen ever managed to create empathic links: cutting off all emotional connections with the world wasn't exactly a good way to foster romantic relationships.
Things had progressed in several unexpected ways since then. He and Jared had started spending time together outside of work, Jensen had nearly died, Jared had learned about the bond and, shockingly, indicated that he was interested in being in a committed relationship with Jensen, and they'd moved in together.
According to Jensen's Relationships for Dummies book, this was a classic example of a relationship moving 'too fast'. Jensen could only disagree. Jared was it for him, literally. What point would there be to maintain separate housing when he was already in Jared's head 24/7? He hadn't thought that living together could possibly be more intimate than that.
Now, one month and two days since Jared had moved into his house, Jensen still didn't think he'd been wrong, although he could privately admit that he perhaps hadn't realized just how much of an adjustment process it would be.
Jensen wasn't used to sharing his space. He'd lived in fairly close quarters at Home, of course, but he'd still had a private set of rooms, just like all the other stellae. It was safer that way: less chance of them hurting each other in their sleep.
Since leaving Home, Jensen had lived alone. Stellae were afforded special consideration when it came to student housing, so he'd been allocated an isolated basement apartment during college. After that, a combination of government funding and a good entry-level job had allowed Jensen to afford a house of his own not long after finishing school. Voluntarily living with Jared was a novel concept on multiple levels.
Luckily, Jared presumably wasn't that hard to live with. Not having anything to compare him to, Jensen couldn't be entirely certain, but he never had to contend with loud parties, gross lack of hygiene or property theft.
The greatest challenge - aside from sharing a bed, which was its own kind of minefield - was getting used to never being alone. Granted, Jensen had never truly been alone since the moment he'd created the bond; Jared was always right there, whether he was physically present or not. It was… nice.
Even so, Jensen sometimes found the reality of constantly sharing his living space a little overwhelming. His house was a good size for two people, but they couldn't always avoid each other. And nor did they want to, really. But sometimes, Jensen missed the opportunity to be left to his own devices.
Cohabitating also interfered with his usual routines.
Ever since he'd 'joined the real world', as Chris put it, Jensen had made a successful trip to the grocery store one of his weekly goals. To pass, he had to be inside the building for a minimum of 40 minutes and couldn't use the self-checkout.
Grocery stores were inevitably full of loud families and louder feelings that jumbled into a vague gray miasma of boredom and irritation that lingered over everything. Jensen had to keep his mental walls iron-strong if he wanted to leave in anything other than a foul mood, but he felt that it was important for him to at least try to be part of society. And the grocery store didn't require him to interact with anyone other than the cashier, which made it easier to pass for Normal there than most other places he might go instead.
For most of the first year, Jensen was lucky to manage a fifteen minute sprint to get the basic necessities, after which he'd spend most of the rest of the day shaky and miserable. Even several years beyond that point, he'd still rarely managed to get a string of more than six successes in a row.
It was for this reason that Jensen had made it a habit early on to stock plenty of non-perishable goods in his house, just in case he didn't manage to buy anything that week. The television programs that Jared liked to watch made it clear that this would also make Jensen fairly well off in the event of a zombie uprising or nuclear winter, which was useful.
Since Jared had moved in, Jensen's shopping goal had become at once easier and harder to meet.
Easier because Jensen's control had never been better. The miasma of the grocery store was nothing with the colourful glow of Jared's feelings to keep it at bay.
Harder because, now that they lived together, Jared tended to offer to come with him, or do the shopping himself. Both options undoubtedly made grocery shopping much easier, but they rather invalidated Jensen's efforts to reach his goal. When Jared was around, it hardly counted as a moment of Jensen facing the big, overwhelming world on his own.
Jensen hadn’t told Jared about his weekly goals. He wasn't quite sure how to go about that.
In the meantime, he mostly tried to find excuses to go on his own.
Today, he had successfully found an opportunity to go shopping while Jared was playing some online video game that Jensen could never remember the name of. Sunday mornings were generally one of the quieter times to brave the grocery store which, coupled with Jensen's newfound Jared-centric equilibrium, meant that it was no problem to meet his goal and get the grocery shopping done well before noon.
While Jensen was on his way home, Jared's emotions went from their standard, neutral good cheer to something openly affectionate, tinged with the faintest edge of amused fondness. It was a combination that Jensen most commonly associated with Jared's reaction to him, which made it quite odd to be experiencing it now, when they weren't even in the same building.
The feeling persisted for the entire trip home, and all the way through Jensen unlocking the door to let himself into the house.
"I'm back," he called. It was redundant but, apparently, polite. And it made Jared happy.
Jensen had discovered that he was willing to do a lot of pointless things to make Jared happy.
Jared's head and torso appeared around the kitchen doorway, the phone pressed against his ear. He grinned and waved at Jensen. "Welcome home," he said. And then, "Sorry, Jensen just got back from grocery shopping."
Jensen almost asked him why he was narrating what he was doing, but then Jared turned away from the doorway, still talking, and he realized that he'd missed the obvious.
Telephone. Obviously there was someone on the other end.
Presumably, the person he was talking to was responsible for how Jared was feeling.
Jensen felt a twinge of discontent at the thought. It was a selfish, but not unreasonable response. Nearly everyone in the world would have been easier to love than he was; he wouldn't have blamed Jared if he'd finally figured that out.
He had guiltily been hoping it might have taken longer than this, though.
"Yeah," Jared was saying, as Jensen lugged all the grocery bags into the kitchen. "Meggie mentioned it the last time I spoke to her. She sounded pretty excited."
Since Jared was presumably still talking to the person on the phone - he wasn't making much sense and he wasn't looking at Jensen - Jensen busied himself with putting things away. Every now and then, Jared's long limbs appeared to take something and slot it away on a shelf.
"I don't know what our plans are yet," Jared said. "Yes, I kn- of course I do, but it's not completely my decision. No, not yet. I will! I'm waiting for the right time t-"
Jared cut himself off, his eyes darting towards Jensen.
"What?" Jensen asked.
Jared shook his head; Jensen would have liked to know if it was at him or the person on the phone. Logic dictated that it should have been directed at Jensen, since he was the one who could actually see Jared, but logic and Jared didn't always go hand in hand, as Jensen was learning.
Jared barked out a sudden laugh, amused shock painting their bond a vibrant purple. "No, I really don't think that would help. Especially not then. I'll let you know as soon as I do. Yes. Yes. M'hmm. Okay. Love you too. Bye."
"Who was that?" Jensen asked as he hung up, not even bothering to pretend he wasn't curious.
Jared put the phone back in the cradle and reached to grab some more groceries. "My mama. She says hi, by the way, although you probably guessed that."
"Your mother knows about me?" he asked, surprised.
Jared grinned. "Of course. Why wouldn't she?"
"Why would she?" Jensen countered.
"You're the guy I'm spending the rest of my life with," Jared said, shrugging. "My parents have known about you since before I moved in."
"Oh," said Jensen, taken aback.
"They want to meet you," Jared continued, as though his easy assertion that he was as committed to Jensen as Jensen was to him wasn't utterly breathtaking. "That's what all the nagging at the end of the conversation was about. They want to know what we're doing for Christmas."
Jensen wasn't following this conversation well. "Christmas?"
"I told them I'd have to talk to you first, of course. Because a Padalecki Christmas is a bit of a gong show at the best of times, so I'm not sure it's the best introduction to the family. Besides," Jared's cheeks pinked in either embarrassment, arousal or anger, "I think it might be nice to spend our first Christmas together as just the two of us, y'know?"
Ah. Probably embarrassment then. Not really Jensen's main concern at the moment.
"Why do your parents want to meet me?" he asked.
The question caught Jared off guard, judging by the surprised confusion Jensen was feeling through the bond. "Um, see previous answer? Why wouldn't they?"
Because I'm me was probably not the answer Jared was looking for. "I can't imagine that most parents would be all that pleased to have their offspring in a relationship with an empath."
"You kidding? They're delighted. My mama would have descended with a metric ton of baking and overly enthusiastic hugs the moment she found out if I'd let her." Jared made the face that he'd defined for Jensen as a 'pout', although his emotions were tending more towards pleased than upset. "I'm pretty sure she already loves you more than me."
The rapid swing of Jared's emotions in this conversation was making him dizzy. He tried to hook onto one thought and follow it through to a logical conclusion.
"They're delighted because I'm a stella?"
Fond exasperation. "No, because you're Jensen. And because I love you." Jared peered at him, his brow creasing. "Are you okay?"
Jensen thought about it. It was unexpectedly difficult. "Nominally. I should probably sit down."
Jared's hand was immediately on his arm, then recoiled. "Shit, sorry, I forgot. Is it okay if I touch you?"
Jensen nodded. "No skin contact, please. Not right now."
Jared's hand resettled again and he half-led, half-pulled Jensen out of the kitchen into the den. He sat Jensen down on the couch, then sat next to him.
"Better?" Jared's thumb was rubbing circles on Jensen's arm over his sleeve. It was unexpectedly soothing.
"Yes. Sorry," he added belatedly. He wasn't entirely sure it was the appropriate response, but it was probably close enough.
"Nothing to apologize for. I'm sorry that I sprung the idea of my family on you like that. I guess I wasn't thinking about how that might be different from what you're used to."
"What have you told them about me?" Jensen asked, not entirely sure he wanted the answer. For them to want to meet him - to be looking forward to meeting him - there must have been a great deal of information omitted.
Jared shrugged. "The usual, I guess? Whatever came to mind, really." He grinned. "My mama may have accused me of writing odes to your eyes once or twice."
His eyes? That was odd. Wasn't it? He was going to have to do more research.
"Do they know I'm a level 5 empath?" Jensen asked.
"Of course they do. And I've already told them a bunch of the rules about how not to act. They're all much less boorish than I am," Jared added, still grinning. "So I doubt any of them will make a worst first impression than I did."
Jensen still hadn't managed to tell Jared that he didn't actually remember the day they met. It was normal for him, but he suspected that Jared would find it upsetting.
"They're not going to-" Jensen cursed the limitations of language. He didn't know how to explain this. "I doubt most parents want someone as… limited as I am to be in a romantic relationship with their child."
"Jensen," Jared said, wearing the expression that Chris had identified for him as 'patient'. Jared used it a lot. "All my parents care about is the fact that you make me happy. And that you're not a serial killer, probably."
"I'm probably not a serial killer?"
Jared made a face. "Not actually what I meant. But if the shoe fits…"
"Even if I was, you'd never know," Jensen said, in an attempt to 'lighten the mood'. "I hear I have an amazing poker face."
Jared, once again, proved himself all too happy to give Jensen the out he was looking for.
"Only until I find your creepy trophy room in the cellar. That would give you away." Jared waved a hand. "Then I'd probably die in some ironic and gruesome way, leaving you free to continue your killing spree."
"I think that I'm concerned that you have this all thought out."
"It's classic horror story structure! Don't tell me you haven't seen a half dozen horror flicks exactly like that."
"Horror films don't really do much for me," Jensen admitted. "I'm not good at sympathetic responses."
Chagrin with a smattering of guilt. "You just don't want to admit that horror movies make you hide behind the couch," Jared said, grinning.
Ever since bonding with Jared, Jensen had been amazed to learn just how often Jared's feelings and words didn't line up. He'd asked if that was something unique to Jared, but Jared had said that it was normal for people to feel one thing and say another. It didn't make sense to Jensen but, then, very few things in the Normal world did.
So he simply said, "That's it exactly, Jared. However did you figure it out?"
Jared tapped a finger alongside his nose. "Trade secret." He gave Jensen a look. "You feeling better?"
He was, actually. "Yes. But I don't want to go to your parents' house for Christmas."
"I didn't figure you would. I'll tell them."
"You can go without me," Jensen offered. He wasn't entirely sure he was ready to deal with Christmas at all, even just with Jared. Maybe he could ease into it slowly.
Of course, he should have realized that Jared would have none of an idea like that. "No way. I'd have to spend the entire time convincing people that you weren't a figment of my imagination. Totally not worth it, even for my mama's roast potatoes. We can do Christmas here."
There wasn't a lot Jensen could say to that. "Okay."
"They really would like to meet you sometime, though," Jared said, his voice shifting in pitch. Jensen had no idea what the change was meant to convey.
He knew the logical response, though. "I don't think that's a good idea."
"They already like you," Jared reminded him. He held up a hand to forestall Jensen's immediate response. "And no, meeting you will not change their minds." Hopefulness. "Just think about it, okay? It'd be something low-key and small. Just you, me and my parents."
There wasn't a lot that Jensen could say to that either. "I'll think about it."
Jared's grin flashed. "You're the best. Now," he levered himself to his feet. "Why don't you sit here while I finish restocking your bomb shelter pantry? I really don't think we needed more pasta, you know."
"I can help." Jensen started to rise, only to find his way blocked by Jared's hand on his shoulder and Jared's worry in his brain.
"You bought it, I can put it away. Just relax for once. I know you've probably forgotten how but I'm sure you can figure it out. I have faith."
"You're a dick," Jensen told him, purely for the purpose of making Jared grin. Jared swayed as though he was going to steal a kiss, before visibly thinking better of it and straightening again.
Jensen felt a pang of guilt.
Jared looked at him. "Everything okay?"
Hmm. Must have been broadcasting a little bit there. "Fine," Jensen said. "Go and be useful. Those groceries won't put away themselves."
"Sir, yes, sir!" Jared said, before heading into the kitchen. The sound of him digging through the bags drifted through the air along with the quiet hum of his resting emotions.
Jensen slumped back into the cushions with a head full of self-recrimination.
How could he have forgotten about parents?
Today was the day.
Jensen thought he might burst with all of the excitement inside him. Finally. He was eight years, three months and 13 days old and today was the day that he was going to meet his parents for the very first time.
He knew the story, of course. About how the hospital empath got hurt real bad by Jensen's abilities when he was born because he was too little to be able to control himself. And how he'd been taken Home right away because it was too dangerous for him to live with his family. And how his mother and father had to wait 17 whole days before they could see him again, and even then it was only on a camera because that was the only way to keep them safe.
Jensen thought he would like having parents. They sent him letters, telling him how much they missed him and talking about all the fun things they would do as a family once Jensen no longer needed to live at Home. The helpers told him that it would be a long time yet before that happened, but at least now his control was good enough to let him meet them face-to-face.
Jensen was the last stella in his cohort to get to meet his parents. It was because he was a higher level than all the others, he'd been told, but it hadn't been easy to wait.
"Calmly, Jensen," Dr. Tapping said, as she walked with him to the meeting room.
"Yes, Dr. Tapping," Jensen said. He was fizzing up inside, but he tried to keep that to himself. He was supposed to be in control.
"Well done," she said, then reached out her hand for the lock on the door.
The door whooshed open, and Jensen stepped carefully through.
There were two people sitting on chairs inside the room: his parents. His father's hair was darker than Jensen's, and cut short. He was taller than Jensen had expected.
His mother, Jensen decided, was the prettiest lady in the world. Her face split open on a wide smile as soon as she saw him. "Jensen!" she said, jumping out of her chair. She moved towards him, arms open in a gesture that Jensen didn't recognize.
He shifted instinctively away from her bare fingers.
"I'm afraid I'll have to remind you not to hug him," Dr. Tapping said. "Physical contact increases his empathic ability."
Jensen's mother stopped. "O-of course." She crouched down and smiled at him. "Hello, Jensen. I'm your mama."
"Hello," Jensen said, just like he'd been taught. "It's nice to finally meet you."
His mother's smile shifted a little. Jensen couldn't tell what the difference was.
"Jensen has been very excited about today's meeting," Dr. Tapping said. She smiled down at Jensen. "Isn't that right?"
"Yes," Jensen agreed. He was a little embarrassed that Dr. Tapping had noticed, but mostly he was too busy feeling excited to mind that much. "Everyone else already got to meet their parents, but I had to wait longer because I'm a level 5. I didn't like waiting."
"We didn't like waiting either," Jensen's father said, which made a flush of happiness go through Jensen. His father looked up over Jensen's shoulder. "I'm sorry, Dr. Tapping, is it? We thought the extra time would ensure that he was more..."
"Your son is a level 5 empath, Mr. Ackles," Dr. Tapping said, when Jensen's father didn't finish his sentence. "As such, he requires a great deal of mental fortitude in order to function in society, which translates to a limited range of expression. This has been explained to you."
"Yes, but-" Jensen's mother said. Her voice got quieter, almost like whispering. "We didn't think he'd be so..."
Jensen wasn't sure what was going on. "I've kept all of your letters," he told his parents. "Thank you for sending them."
"You're welcome," his mother said, as she stood up and went to sit down next to his father again. She wasn't smiling anymore.
Jensen had practiced very hard for today. His mental defenses were as strong as he could make them so that there would be no reason for Dr. Tapping to think that he wasn't ready to meet his parents. And yes, eight years, three months and 13 days was a long time to have kept his parents waiting, but he'd been sure that they would be proud of his control, even so.
Except the swirling emotions in the room that Jensen was trying so hard to block out didn't feel like pride. And Jensen knew that something, somehow, had gone terribly wrong with today.
Jensen wasn't sure what to do. And there was only person who he knew he could talk to who might be able to help him figure it out.
"Well, that's a relief," Chris said, eyeing Jensen up and down.
"What is?" Jensen asked, stepping aside to let Chris into the house.
"Oh, you know," Chris said. "Just pleased to see that you're not missing a limb or something equally traumatic. I figured that there had to be a disaster afoot for you to call me."
"Jackass. Water?" Alcohol wasn't the best idea for stellae.
Chris nodded. "Please," he said, and waited until Jensen had fetched them each a glass of water and they were ensconced on the couch in the den before speaking again. "Where's the old ball and chain?"
Jensen blinked at him. "The what?"
Chris rolled his eyes. "Jared. Usually you two are attached at the hip."
"Oh. He's at yoga."
Chris made a noise like he'd just choked on air. "What?"
"Yoga? What the hell for? Can't really picture Jared as a yoga buff."
"Apparently it's good for calming the mind and the spirit," Jensen said. "Which is ridiculous, but Jared thinks it's a good idea anyway. He doesn't listen to me."
"He's trying to keep you safe," Chris said. He gestured broadly with one hand. "In a totally hippie, New Age way, granted, but at least he's trying. The last thing we need is you going into emotional overload again because Jared can't keep a lid on his feelings."
"I didn't ask him to," Jensen said, without thinking.
"Ah," Chris said.
"What do you mean, 'ah'?"
"This has something to do with Jared." Chris sat back, shaking his head. "I should have guessed in the first place, honestly; all your problems are Jared-related these days."
"He's not a problem," Jensen protested.
Chris pointed a finger at him - for emphasis? "But he is your main priority these days, and he's completely restructuring how your life works. It only makes sense that it would cause short-term problems."
"I don't like that word," Jensen said. "Isn't there something better?"
"I'm not going to sit here and debate with you about how to define Jared's presence in your life. You're deliriously happy, I get it. Would you tell me what it is he's done already?"
"He wants me to meet his parents," Jensen confessed.
Chris started laughing.
"This isn't helpful," Jensen told him, in case Chris didn't realize.
Chris shrugged, still laughing, which meant that he probably did. Why was Jensen's only friend a jackass?
"Honestly, I'm kind of surprised the poor guy waited this long," Chris said, when he'd finally caught his breath. "If it was up to him, y'all would have been married and getting ready to adopt by now."
"Don't even joke about that," Jensen said. Him, with children? No one would ever allow it.
"I'm gonna be saying 'I told you so' someday, and you're not going to have a leg to stand on."
"Could we get back to the point?" Jensen asked, irked.
"Which is what?" Chris asked. "You can't tell me that all your research on relationships didn't suggest this would happen. Boy meets boy, boy meets boy's parents and pretends to like them. You know this is normal."
"Then what's the big deal?"
"I never factored in a situation where 'meeting the parents' would be something that happened to me," he admitted. "It's a little overwhelming to consider."
Something about that seemed to sober Chris' amusement. "No one would blame you for that," he said. "What did Jared say, exactly?"
"He told me to think about it. Said I didn't have to, but that his parents were excited to meet me." Jensen scoffed internally. "I doubt anyone in my entire life has ever been excited to meet me."
"No bet. And of course they're excited. You're brain-married to their son."
"Why is that a reason for them to want to meet me? Jared seemed to think it was entirely self-evident."
"Because it kind of is," Chris said. "Unless you're you, apparently. He'll have told them how to behave, you know. They're not going to be expecting you to act like a Normal."
"I find myself in the strange position of wanting them to like me," Jensen confessed. He considered that statement, and added, "which is obviously a fruitless hope."
"Maybe," Chris said, which could have meant anything at all. "What are you going to do?"
Jensen shrugged. "Meet them, I suppose. And hope that things go well."
"You sound like you've already made up your mind."
"Then why did you invite me over? Because I might have been exaggerating before, but you do pretty much require hell to freeze over before you invite people into your house."
Jensen looked at him. It wasn't a woebegone look, nor a piteous one. It was just a look.
Luckily, Chris had known him more than long enough to recognize that Jensen's face was never the place to look for answers and, more than that, knew what problems Jensen was likely to have with this situation.
"You've finally decided to tell them about Jared, then?" he asked. "Your parents?"
"I don't know."
Chris took a long drink, obviously taking the time to think. Jensen waited.
Finally he spoke. "You want my advice?"
"Yes," Jensen said.
"I think you should tell them. They'll want to know. And probably meet him."
Somehow, this was actually more shocking than the revelation that Jared's parents wanted to meet him. "Really?"
"God save me," Chris said, under his breath. "Yes, really. For about the same reason that his parents want to meet you. Besides, don't you want to show Jared off to them?"
"Why would I want to do that?" Jensen said.
Not that he fooled Chris. "You want equality in your relationship? Well, this is the sort of stuff you need to do. And I'm sure he wants to meet them, too."
That derailed Jensen again. "What? Why?"
Chris rolled his eyes. "Because he cares about you, you idiot. Which means that he cares about the people in your life. Few and far between though they are."
"But I don't-"
"You can't hold yourself to the same standard," Chris cut in. He was wearing what Jensen had gathered was the face he made when he was being serious. Jared said it made him look like he was about to murder someone with his bare hands. Jensen had reminded him that Chris was a telekinetic so he didn't need his hands - bare or otherwise - to kill someone, to which Jared had responded that he was going to have nightmares forever, thanks so much, Jensen.
Jensen loved Jared, but he really didn't understand him most of the time.
"Jared's a Normal," Chris continued. "Do you expect him to be able to feel your emotions or float or throw things with his mind?"
"Of course not."
"Then you shouldn't expect yourself to be able to do the things that Jared can. Jared's the type who cares about stray kittens and homeless people he passes on the street. He doesn't think any less of you because you can't do that."
"That's logical," Jensen admitted.
"So suck it up and go tell your folks that you're in love. If they don't die of shock, they'll probably be happy for you."
"You're kind of a terrible person," Jensen told him. "You know that."
Chris grinned. "Course I do. It's not my fault you haven't got any other friends to go to for advice."
Well. Jensen couldn't really argue with that.
It was later that week that the first letter arrived.
Though he hadn't been expecting it, per se, Jensen could only be surprised that it had taken the Stella Institute so long to find out about his empathic bond with Jared.
From the outside, it looked like nothing so much as a form letter from the IRS. Jensen could appreciate the subtlety, if not what the letter itself signified.
The letter was equally unambiguous in both its demands and its expectation that Jensen would obey the summons without question. Considering that Jensen had had nothing to do with the stella program in 15 years, he thought that somewhat presumptuous of them.
He burned it instead.