Once every two months, Jensen went to visit his parents. These visits were invariably stilted but well-meant, which was pretty much how things had always been between him and his family. It was expected.
They couldn't help but want Jensen to be Normal, and Jensen had no choice but to disappoint them. He'd never lived with them, never even entertained the idea once it became clear just how challenging it was for an empath of his level to function in Normal society, which had limited the amount of interaction that he had with them growing up. And Jensen loved them, really he did, but his inability to prove it made the words - the only thing he could offer them - very little comfort.
But still they tried, and had always done their best to show him as much affection as his siblings. So Jensen joined them in shouldering the awkwardness of his bi-monthly visits.
After his conversation with Chris, Jensen had considered going to visit early, but had discarded the idea almost immediately. This conversation was going to be difficult enough without throwing his parents off before he'd even started.
"Jensen," his mother greeted as she opened the door. "How nice to see you."
"Hello," Jensen greeted her, and stood obediently in the hallway as she pressed a paper-thin kiss to his cheek. A brief impression of tight, blue sadness leaked into him, then dissipated like the air.
Jensen was relieved. Before Jared, that feeling would have lingered under his skin for the better part of an hour.
"Your father's in the dining room," his mother told him. Jensen already knew that. They always sat in the dining room when he visited. After over a dozen years of visits, he would have figured his mother would have figured he'd have noticed the trend by now.
His father was reading the newspaper, his hair slightly grayer than it had been the last time Jensen had come. He looked up as Jensen and his mother walked in.
"Good to see you, son," he said, standing up to offer Jensen his hand. The clasp of their fingers revealed that it wasn't good, not really, but Jensen had learned by now not to comment.
His mother served them all tea, and then they got down to the business of trying to make their lives intersect.
They traded pleasantries and inconsequential information about their lives: Jensen talked about his new project at work; his father talked about his new project in the garden; his mother talked about his younger sister's latest project at college. Jensen wasn't sure if he had been told that his sister was in college, but he didn't dare ask, just in case he'd forgotten.
He didn't see either of his siblings very often. It wasn't surprising. His pattern of visits was very regular, which made him easy to avoid.
"Anything new going on at work?" his mother asked, after they'd exhausted their normal topics. "Made any friends?"
"Donna," his father said in an undertone, as though it was taboo to mention friends simply because Jensen wasn’t good at collecting them.
"It's a perfectly valid question," his mother said, her voice slightly louder than it had been a moment ago. "He could do with some more friends. It's not good for anyone to be alone all their lives."
Jensen stared at his mug, steam rising from his blessedly sugar-free tea, and didn't even try to suppress the way that Jared automatically came to mind. The man was in there all the time anyway, both literally and figuratively; Jensen didn't really see the point of trying to deny it to himself.
Across the table, his mother breathed a quiet little 'oh' that brought Jensen abruptly back to the present. He realized belatedly that the corner of his mouth had lifted without his conscious thought. The resulting curve looked nothing like a smile, but it was considerably more than Jensen had been able to produce before Jared.
"Jensen?" his mother asked. "Are you… smiling?"
"More or less," Jensen said. He took a breath. "I have something to tell you."
"Well?" his father asked. "What is it?"
Jensen looked at them and said, "I've got a boyfriend. His name is Jared. I want him to meet you."
Jensen drank his tea.
"What?" Jensen's mother asked finally. Her voice sounded uncommonly high and thin. Jensen suspected that it was an indication of surprise.
"Jared's my boyfriend," Jensen dully repeated. "I'm going to spend the rest of my life with him. I understand if you find this surprising."
"How did this happen?" his father wanted to know.
Based on Chris' reaction to the actual sequence of events, Jensen doubted that telling the truth was the best route to take. Normally, he didn't really care enough to bother lying, but he did try to avoid upsetting his parents any more than necessary.
"In what I assume is the usual way," he settled on. "He was persistent and I was receptive."
"But that's- we didn't think you were capable," his father said.
The words caught him like a blow to the stomach.
"Of love?" Jensen said and was, for once, glad of his preternatural calm and the way it kept his voice steady when he said, "I've always been capable. I just can't express it clearly."
Which you should know, he didn't add. It wasn't worth the effort.
"And is Jared-" his father's words trailed off.
Jensen didn't know how to finish that sentence. "Is he what?"
"What type of stella is he?" his mother filled in.
Jensen shook his head. "He's not."
His mother stilled. "Not…?"
"A stella. Jared's Normal. We work together."
Jensen looked at his parents, who were looking at him, open-mouthed. "Is everything okay?"
"You're dating a Normal?" His mother's voice still sounded too high. Jensen thought that she looked a little pale, as well.
Perhaps Chris' hyperbole about heart attacks hadn't been that far out of line.
"Yes," Jensen said. "Is that a problem?"
"It's…" His mother trailed off, then cast her eyes at his father.
"It's, erm, unexpected," his father finished.
"Ah," Jensen said. "Yes, it would be. I wasn't expecting his interest either, I must admit."
"Why did he choose you?"
"I wouldn't know. You'll have to ask Jared."
"Of course," his father said, under his breath. "Should have seen that coming."
"So," his mother said. "I assume it's serious if you're telling us about it. How long have you been dating?"
Had they ever been dating? Jensen was fairly certain that Jared's daily coffee runs could be considered courting behaviour, but he wasn't entirely convinced that dating had been a thing they did. The bond had made that largely unnecessary, and the fact that Jensen could hardly go anywhere in public made choosing some random location to spend time together seem pointless and unpleasant in the extreme.
He decided to settle on the least ambiguous answer. "It's serious. I have been in a..." What was an appropriate non-specific word to describe the empathic link? "…committed relationship with Jared for seven months and 23 days. He's moved into my house."
"And you didn't tell us sooner?"
Jensen was confused. "I wasn't aware I needed to."
"Well," his mother said finally, with what Jensen assumed was a false smile. She did that a lot when he was around. "We shall have to meet him."
"That's reasonable," Jensen told her, glad that Chris had forewarned him of this possibility. "Should I bring him with me next time?"
"Nonsense." That was Jensen's father. "We'll do this properly."
His mother nodded. "We'll go out for a nice meal, so we can get to know… Jared, was it? So we can get to know Jared. I'll look at our schedules and call you with some workable dates, shall I?"
Long practice had taught Jensen that some questions weren't actually questions. This, he suspected, was one of those times. "That would be fine."
"Good. Now, have you heard what Uncle Dorian said in his speech at your cousin Antonella's wedding?"
"I didn't know she got married," Jensen admitted honestly. A spark of mischievousness led him to add, "guess my invitation got lost in the mail."
His mother fluttered her hands. "There's no need to be resentful, Jensen. You know perfectly well why they didn't invite you."
"I'm pretty sure that you're the one who told everyone to stop inviting you to weddings anyway," his father said. He was grinning, which was presumably designed to ease the criticism. It clearly wasn't in response to Jensen's attempt at humour. Not when they so obviously hadn't recognized it as such.
Jensen sat back in his chair, scowling on the inside.
Jared would have found it funny.
Jensen returned home from visiting his parents feeling drained and melancholy, which was pretty much par for the course. He also found himself feeling somewhat anxious, which was new. His mother had left a nebulous future meeting between them and Jared hanging over his head which Jensen didn't particularly enjoy.
It was a relief to be home.
Fishing out his keys, Jensen made his weary way to the front door. The door opened without fanfare, and Jensen breathed a sigh as he stepped gratefully inside.
And walked straight into a wall of noise and emotion.
"In here, Jensen!" he heard, amid the chaos which, after the first horrifying shock, slowly resolved itself into a good eight people all crammed into his den.
Their den, he corrected himself, as Jared beamed at him from the couch.
"Grab a seat!" Jared invited, gesturing to the space beside him which was definitely already occupied by parts of three different people. Why did they all have to sit tangled up like that? "The more the merrier!"
Jensen disagreed. He suspected that Jared's friends also disagreed. They didn't like him, which Jensen couldn't blame them for. He wouldn't have liked him either, if he was them.
Normally, Jared's anchoring presence in his head would have been more than enough to let him sit there and watch Jared and his friends interact. Being stuck in the middle of a puppy pile like Jared was a ludicrous idea, obviously, but Jensen should have been able to deal with an hour in the room with a bunch of overly familiar strangers.
But he was already worn thin from the meeting with his parents, and he knew that any residual emotions that he got off Jared's guests were likely to be uncharitable. Which he absolutely did not feel like dealing with right now.
"No, thank you," he said.
Jared made the pouting face. "Why not? Come on, Jensen!"
"I'm not good company right now," Jensen said, which he had learned was a code for saying he didn't want to be forced to be social.
"Is he ever?" a voice asked, not quite quietly enough.
Jensen was not capable of putting up with this shit today.
"Enjoy yourselves. I'll be upstairs," he managed, before turning on his heel and heading back into the hallway.
Behind him, the noise from the den resumed, albeit at a lower volume than it had been when he'd walked in. He doubted very much that that would last.
Jensen climbed the stairs to the second floor, doing his best not to stomp. He charged into his - their - bedroom and then stood in the middle of the room for several moments, just breathing. Today was not a good day.
"Wow," a voice said, and Jensen whirled to find Jared standing behind him. "I didn't know you did that."
"Did what?" Jensen asked, instead of what Jared was doing there.
"You were kind of growling? If you're secretly a werewolf, this would be a great time to tell me." Jared's 'joking around' smile was on his face, but his emotions were far too red for amusement.
"Just say what you came up here to say," Jensen suggested.
Jared's nostrils flared, and Jensen watched as he visibly suppressed the impulse. "Okay. Are you pissed that I have friends over?"
'No' would have been a lie, but Jensen wasn't selfish enough to go with 'yes'. "It's fine," he said instead. "This is your home too."
Jared pressed his lips into a thin line. "Not actually what I asked you. Which means that the answer's yes." He sighed. "You know, if you want me to send everyone home, I will."
"I don't want to ruin your time with your friends," Jensen said, in case Jared didn't know that.
"I know," Jared said. "And I'm not trying to make you feel like you're not welcome in your own home."
"We're both doing an excellent job, clearly," Jensen said, before he could think better of it. A spark of anger mixed into the unappealing green-brown swirl of Jared's emotions. "I'm fine," Jensen said. "You should probably go back to your guests."
Jared's face shifted into an expression that Jensen couldn't identify. "Jensen."
"What?" Jensen demanded, irritated. "I don't know what that face means. My name isn't a sentence. You want me to understand? You need to tell me what you want."
Jared's next expression was easier to guess: wide-eyed shock. "I thought you always felt what I feel."
"That doesn't make me a mind reader. Right now, you feel concerned, irritated, patient and a dozen other things. The same as you have for this entire conversation. Which doesn't tell me shit about what that particular iteration of my name was supposed to convey."
Chagrin. Guilt. Different, but still unhelpful.
"Sorry," Jared said, which, really, Jensen could have figured out on his own. "I just meant that you shouldn't feel unsafe here. I'll send everyone away."
The downstairs was unexpectedly quiet, Jensen realized belatedly. Presumably all of Jared's friends were listening at the bottom of the stairs.
Which made him all the more determined to be the bigger man here. "I told you, it's fine. This is your home too. You should get to entertain, if that's what you want."
"Not if it makes you uncomfortable," Jared said, because he was nothing if not stubborn. A fact which no one knew better than Jensen.
They were going to stand here all day at this rate.
"Jared," Jensen said. "I want you to go back to your friends and finish the afternoon like you'd planned. I am irritable but fine, so I am going to stay here until I calm down. And no, I'm not irritable because of you, before you ask. I had a trying day. This was just bad timing."
"No," Jensen said. "Seriously. This is what I want. Let's not give your friends any more reason to hate me."
"They don't hate you," Jared said immediately.
Jensen remained unconvinced. "I know they give you advice about leaving me."
Grief. Anger. Frustration. Protectiveness.
"I don't blame them for it," Jensen felt compelled to admit. "But that doesn't make it any less true. How many times have they offered you advice tonight?"
"None," Jared said, his lips pulled into a thin line.
Jensen sighed internally. "I told you, I know they do it. You don't need to lie to m-"
"None," Jared repeated, fiercely protective. "Because I told them all that I'd kick them out if they said any of that shit in our home."
Oh. Well then.
"Thank you," Jensen said, not entirely sure it was the right response but wanting to do his best anyway. "But that doesn't change the fact that you're the only one who wants all of us in one room at the same time. I'm not up to dealing with human interaction today. You'll all have a better time if I stay up here."
"Are you going to tell me what happened to make you so irritable?"
"Later." Jensen flicked his fingers towards the stairs. "Go see to your friends, before they strain something trying to overhear us."
Indecision coloured Jared's mental landscape. Thinking quickly, Jensen stepped up to him and pressed a quick kiss to Jared's mouth. His awareness of Jared went from having him in the back of his mind to drowning in the golden light of his soul for the heartbeat their lips were pressed together. Jensen made sure to express his surety and general 'fine-ness' at Jared as strongly as he could during that brief contact.
"Go," he told Jared, when they parted. Wonder of wonders, Jared actually listened this time.
"Okay," he said, with a nod. "But you'll let me know if you change your mind. Come down anytime."
Jensen nodded to make Jared happy. "I will," he said, because even he could mouth meaningless platitudes when he needed to.
He watched while Jared headed back downstairs to rejoin his guests, then took a deep breath and went to go find something to do to calm his mind.
Increased volume and a vague sense of good cheer soon permeated the house, although Jared's obvious guilt kept turning the world green.
Jensen stayed in the bedroom, noise-cancelling headphones firmly in place as he dragged his brush along the canvas. It had been 63 days since he'd last needed to do any painting - a record, for him - and he could feel tensions he hadn't been aware he was carrying slipping away with each soothing, careful brush stroke. It was at once comforting and disconcerting to see how, even after all these years, it still had that effect on him.
He was nearly finished fleshing out the intentionally rough blocks of colour with darker detailing by the time the last of Jared's guests left. Jared had been growing increasingly greener as the afternoon wore on, so it was no surprise to Jensen when Jared immediately mounted the staircase once he'd closed the door for the last time.
Jensen absently tugged his headphones off and kept working.
"Jensen?" Jared called, when he was halfway up the stairs.
"In the spare room," Jensen answered, because he'd learned that Normals liked it when he stated the obvious.
"Jensen, I-" Jared was already saying as he opened the door, only to stumble to a stop, both verbally and physically, when he saw Jensen. Surprise cut momentarily through the concern. "What are you doing?"
Personally, Jensen thought that was fairly self-evident. "Painting," he said anyway.
"I didn't know you could paint." Jared paused. Thoughtfulness. "Although, considering how amazing your blueprints always are, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised."
Personally, Jensen didn't see what the two skills had in common.
"Are you feeling better?" Jared asked, after a moment of silence.
"Yes," Jensen said. "I find painting relaxing."
"That's good." A pause. "Are you going to tell me what had you so strung out?"
Somehow, Jensen didn't think this was the appropriate time to bring up his conversation with his parents. Better to wait for a less emotionally fraught moment.
"Eventually," he said. "Not now though."
"Okay," Jared said. He seemed vaguely dissatisfied with the response. Jensen wasn't sure how to make him feel better.
"I appreciate you leaving me in peace to recover," he tried.
Chagrin. Obviously not the correct approach. "Not a good thing to be thanking me for, Jensen. This is your house."
"Our house," Jensen corrected. "Which means that you have equal right to use it."
Jared sighed. "I'm not denying that, I'm just…" In lieu of a chair, Jared sat down on one of the many still-not-unpacked boxes on the floor. "We probably should have had this conversation before I moved in."
Jensen stilled. "What conversation is that?" he asked, looking away from the canvas to focus on Jared.
"House rules. You know," Jared continued, when Jensen stared at him, uncomprehending, "Division of chores, acceptable behaviours, visitor policies."
"That sounds unnecessary," Jensen said. "We've handled all of that without rules."
"Obviously not very well," Jared answered back, with a touch of amber asperity colouring his words. "How about this: from now on, if I want to invite people over, I have to check with you first."
"I don't want to-"
"You don't know what I was going to say," Jensen protested. "You can't refute something I haven't said yet."
"I know you, Jensen," Jared said. "I think my guess is going to be close enough. So no, you're not being unreasonable or putting me out. This is my idea, remember?"
"You don't need my permission to have people over."
"Clearly I do." Jared ran a hand through his hair, which he often did when he was working through a difficult problem. "Look," he said. "I'm not saying that I shouldn't invite people over. I'm saying that I should tell you first, so that you know they're here. And if it's a real problem, then you tell me and I'll uninvite them."
"This is a very unbalanced rule."
A grin curled the edges of Jared's mouth. "That's mostly because I don't care if Chris comes over." Jensen didn't bother suggesting that he might invite someone other than Chris over to the house - the very thought was ridiculous. "But let's make it a general guideline: no one shall enter this house without both of us knowing about it."
"This still seems unnecessary."
Amusement. "I've had this sort of rule with roommates before, you know," Jared said. "So it's not unusual."
"I don't believe you," Jensen said. "Why would you need to know when someone came over?"
Jared felt at once exasperated and ruefully amused. "Because my roommate's girlfriend at the time was kind of a nudist. It's the sort of thing it's nice to get forewarned about."
"Not as much as I did. So? Are we agreed?"
"You're not going to drop this until I agree, are you?" Jensen said, resigned.
For some odd reason, the question made Jared feel pleased. "Nope."
"Fine," Jensen surrendered. "Are there any other 'house rules' you want to institute while we're at it?"
Jared rubbed his neck with one hand. Jensen had noticed that this usually happened when he was uncertain about something. "It's not a rule, but…"
Jensen so hated dissembling. "Just tell me already, Jared."
"Can you at least try to get to know my friends?" Jared said, all in a rush.
Jensen felt abruptly weary. "I'm not sure that's a good idea."
"Please, Jensen?" Jared asked, wide-eyed and sincere. Damn his earnestness. "I'd like it if you could be friends with them too."
"Your friends don't like me, Jared. There's no need to be delusional about it."
Protectiveness. Jensen wondered whom it was far. "Only because they don't know you."
"I hardly think getting to know me will help," Jensen said. "I'm not exactly the type to improve with prolonged exposure."
"It made me like you more," Jared pointed out.
"Yes, but you make no sense."
"And you don't think that I would have friends who were equally nonsensical?" Jared asked. "I think you'll like them."
Jensen shook his head. "You're friends with Chad. Your ability to judge character is clearly lacking."
That made Jared laugh. "You can't hold Chad against me. No judging my taste due to idiotic high school friends; it's in the dating rule book."
"Is it?" Jensen asked, interested. He must have bought the wrong one. "Which version?"
A yellow sort of sadness flared abruptly across their bond. Jensen could only assume it was because of him, but he had no idea what he might have said to cause it.
He blinked up at Jared. "Did I say something wrong?"
Jared shook his head. "Not all of my friends are like Chad," he said, rather than answering. And then, quieter, "I really do think you'll like them, if you give them a chance."
Jensen was baffled by this conversation. "Why do you care so much? It doesn't affect how we all feel about you."
More yellow. And frustration, oddly. "Sometimes, I'd like to spend time with you and them all at once, rather than feeling like a kid shuffling between two homes." Sincerity. "I want you in my entire life, Jensen. Not just bits. And that means not making excuses when my friends are over."
"This is like the parent thing," Jensen realized. "Isn't it?"
Hopefulness. "If I say yes, will you agree to meet my friends properly?" Jared asked, with a smile.
Honestly, Jensen still had only the vaguest idea why this was so important to Jared, but he could feel how much Jared wanted him to agree. And, as uncomfortable as the idea made him, he would rather his own discomfort to Jared's unhappiness.
So he surrendered. "Fine. But not in a public venue."
Jared put on an overly exaggerated expression that Jensen assumed was meant to convey horror. "Dude, of course not! How insensitive do you think I am?"
"I'm not going to answer that," Jensen decided.
Jared sniffed. "Meanie," he said, though he didn't feel particularly upset. "My friend Sandy's having a barbeque in two weeks. Maybe 20 people. Think you can manage that?"
Dammit. They both knew the answer to that one.
"Have I been invited?" Jensen asked, in lieu of an actual response.
"I'll let her know you're coming," Jared said, which wasn't an answer either.
"Okay," Jensen said. "But you're not allowed to blame me when they still hate me at the end of it." Odds were good that they'd probably dislike him even more, to be honest.
"As long as you don't deliberately antagonize them - don't even start, yes, you would - then we're in agreement."
"Awesome." Jared cocked his head to one side, and something tentative limned their bond. "Are we good?"
Jensen had assumed they were already 'good', Jared's attempts to expand Jensen's social circle aside, but he wasn't entirely surprised to be proven wrong. He was glad that the matter had been resolved to Jared's satisfaction, though. "Yes."
"Awesome. Because I am dying of curiosity right now." Jared started to walk towards him, then paused. "Do you mind?"
Jensen was confused. "Do I mind what?"
Jared gestured at the canvas. "If I take a look."
No one had looked at Jensen's art since he was at Home. The thought of Jared, in particular, looking at it, made something flutter in his chest. It was a squirmy kind of feeling; Jensen couldn't tell whether it was good or bad.
Jared was definitely feeling hopeful at him, though, so Jensen decided to err on the side of making him happy. He sat back, setting his brush aside and working the tension out of his fingers. "Go ahead."
Jared wasted no time in drawing up to Jensen's shoulder and peering at the painting. His breath sucked in sharply. "Wow." He flicked through a rapid series of emotions, the resulting mess too complex for Jensen to get a clear read on him.
"Was that a good sound?" Jensen asked.
"I think it was more complicated than 'good'," Jared said, still staring at the canvas. "I'm - Jesus, Jensen, I'm not sure what to think. It's amazing."
Embarrassment. "It's a little, um, haunting. I'm not really sure how to react to it."
Jensen shrugged. "It's just a picture."
"Is that what people look like to you?" Jared asked.
Jensen looked back at the painting. It depicted a bustling street, full of people and foreshortened storefronts. The faces peered out at him, as bland and unhelpful as they always were. "Yes."
"Wow," Jared said again, although his feelings in the back of Jensen's head had coalesced enough to suggest that it was a distinctly different kind of 'wow'. "They barely have any facial features at all."
Well, obviously. "Level 5 empath," he reminded Jared.
Jared winced. "Right, yeah. Sorry."
Jensen waved off the apology.
Jared was still staring at the painting.
"What?" Jensen asked.
"What's all the greenish-gray stuff?" Jared asked, using his fingers to mimic the spiky undulation of the green-gray mist that Jensen had peppered over the picture.
"Oh, that's you," Jensen told him.
Jared blinked. "What?"
"That's how you've been feeling today," Jensen said.
A sudden pulse of interest. "You perceive emotions as colours?"
Confusion. "Then how can I feel green?"
How long had it been since he'd last tried to explain this? "Because the limitations of spoken-" Jensen glanced at the painting "-and visual mediums make it difficult to find another way to describe it. Colours are the closest approximation."
"Huh," Jared said. "So what feeling does green represent?"
"It's not a binary connection," Jensen protested. "No one is ever feeling only one emotion."
"Then tell me what I've been feeling that makes me seem green," Jared said, undeterred.
Jensen sighed. "Concerned. Content. Exasperated. Amused. Guilty. Should I go on?"
Jensen shrugged. "Like I said, green."
That earned him a laugh. "Fair enough," Jared said. "Do I seem less green now, at least?"
Jensen nodded. "You do."
"Well, that's good, at least. You hungry? I was going to throw together a snack, if you want some."
"No," Jensen decided, after a moment's thought. He picked up his brush again, then paused as a thought occurred. "Will it displease you if I continue working? I can join you downstairs if you prefer."
Jared waved a hand. "You go right ahead and paint. Far be it from me to interrupt the creative process."
Taking him at his word, Jensen washed the drying paint off his brush and chose a new colour. Despite his words about a snack, Jared stood and watched him for several long minutes instead of leaving.
"Are you just going to stand there?" Jensen asked finally.
"Does it bother you?"
Unfamiliar as it was to be the recipient of this kind of scrutiny, Jensen had to admit, "No."
Pleasure. "Then, yes. I think I am. You're really good, you know. Not that I know much about art, but I can still tell it's good. Did you take lessons?"
Jensen considered. "After a fashion."
Jared chuckled. "Because that wasn't mysterious at all."
And Jensen had no desire to explain further, so he simply shrugged and kept painting, Jared's regard warming him from the inside.
All in all, a far superior experience than he was used to.
"This is meant to be a calming exercise, Jensen," Dr. Tapping said. She put a hand on Jensen's shoulder, and he felt the rush of her encouragement drowning out his previous frustration. "Relax."
"Tyler said it was wrong," Jensen told her. He tried to recall the devastated sense of inadequacy that the comment had inspired in him, but it was gone. He quietly mourned the loss of that emotion. "He said that faces don't look like that, but they do. I can't fix them if I don't understand what's wrong."
Dr. Tapping turned to look at where Tyler was working on his own painting a few easels down. "Tyler should be focusing on his own calming exercises," Dr. Tapping said. Her voice was loud enough for Tyler to hear, and Jensen could only assume that something in the way she said the words was responsible for making Tyler's face pale.
"Sorry, Dr. Tapping," Tyler mumbled.
"We'll talk about appropriate behaviour later," she said. Her eyes shifted down to Jensen to let him know that she was talking to him now. "Tyler sees people differently to you, because he's a glider and you're an empath. He was basing his opinion on limited information."
Unconvinced, Jensen looked at his painting. It was a scene in the training ground, full of novice gliders being watched by the helpers. Jensen had worked very hard to show the fluid way they moved when they weren't on the ground. He hadn't thought there was anything wrong with the faces.
"That's quite enough of that." Dr. Tapping crouched down at Jensen's side and looked at his painting. "I think it's a lovely painting, Jensen. Do you believe me?"
Jensen had no reason not to. "Yes."
"Then you shouldn't let Tyler's opinion upset you. One person's opinion doesn't make you right or wrong. Besides," a smile, accompanied by a burst of yellow kindness, "this is meant to be relaxing. Don't try so hard to be perfect."
Well, that was strange. "Why not?" Jensen asked, twisting around in his chair to get a better look at her. He and the other empaths had all been taught how important it was to make eye contact when talking to people - apparently they weren't very good at it, but he was 10 now, and he'd had enough practice to know better. "We're supposed to be perfect at everything else. Why is this different?"
Without warning, a wrenching, twisting emotion slammed into him. Jensen gasped, reeling back in his chair, only absently aware of the cries from the people around him as they suffered the backlash of that feeling too. Several of the helpers were there in a heartbeat, their hands pressed to his exposed cheeks and hands as they pumped calm, ease, acquiescence into him. Jensen relaxed immediately.
The whole process had taken maybe 30 seconds.
"Sorry," Jensen said automatically. He looked around to check the damage.
The helpers had turned away from him as soon as he was stable, moving their attention on to the seven or so other stella who had been affected by him. Not so bad. The last time he'd lost control, he'd infected nearly 50 people, some of whom had also been empaths who'd only spread the emotions along.
"It wasn't entirely your fault," Dr. Tapping said. "I caught you off guard. I'm sorry as well. I think we're going to end this session a little early, everyone," she said, speaking loudly so that everyone could hear her. "Anyone who is still in need of support, please stay behind until we can see to you. Everyone else, please proceed to your next stations."
Everyone nodded, and Jensen winced at the sudden scrape of dozens of chairs on the hard floors as the room stood as one. The paintings were left to dry on their easels as each stella busied about cleaning off brushes and palettes and stacking them neatly away.
Jensen lingered. "Dr. Tapping?"
She glanced at him. "We'll discuss your consequence later, Jensen."
Obvious and not what Jensen wanted to know. "What emotion was that?" he asked. "I haven't learned it yet."
Dr. Tapping's mouth thinned out into a line. "Don't worry about that for now. That's a lesson for another day. Off you go."
"Yes, Dr. Tapping." Jensen took one last look at his unfinished painting before joining the lineup shuffling out of the room.
He consoled himself that he would have plenty of time to practice his faces over the next few weeks after they confined him to quarters for his mental slip.
Regret. Guilt. Jensen was very familiar with them now. Even to this day, they left a grey, oily feeling on his mind.
Jensen probably shouldn't have been surprised by the arrival of the second letter - exactly 14 days after the first. This time, Jensen wrote a terse letter of his own in response - his blocky, draftsman's handwriting as unambiguous as he could make it - cordially asking them to die in a fire.
He felt a sort of vicious satisfaction in dropping it in the mailbox.
Jensen's mother called him at work a few days later with a handful of 'suitable' dates to choose from. Jensen told her that he would ask Jared and get back to her.
Of course, that meant that he actually had to tell Jared, which he hadn't managed to get around to yet.
"My parents want to have dinner with us," Jensen blurted, when Jared arrived with his daily offering of Chai tea.
Jared paused in the act of handing the paper cup over. "What?"
"No, sorry, I heard you the first time. I was just a little… never mind. Do you mean today?"
Jensen shook his head. "My mother has provided a list of possible dates to choose from." He extended his free hand to pass over the copy he'd made while on the phone. "Let me know which one works best for you."
"Okay?" Jared said. He didn't feel very sure.
Jensen paused. "Do you not want to go?" he asked. That eventuality hadn't occurred to him.
"Wha- yes, of course I'd like to meet your parents." Jared smiled, and Jensen could feel his sincerity.
"Right. Good." At least that was out of the way. Jensen took a sip of his drink and looked at Jared over the rim of the cup. "Shouldn't you be working?"
Vague bemusement. "Probably, yes. Is that… it?"
It was Jensen's turn to feel a touch confused. "I assume so. Have I forgotten something?"
"No, no, it's fine. I'll, uh, look at those dates and get back to you?"
"That would be appreciated." Presuming the conversation to have reached its logical conclusion, Jensen returned his attention to his work. Jared, who was used to him, only stood there for a few seconds before chuckling, shaking his head and leaving.
It wasn't until a few days later that it occurred to Jensen that he might owe Jared a more detailed explanation than that.
This time, Jensen waited until they were home and had some free time after dinner before he broached the topic. He dropped down on the couch next to him; Jared immediately shifted over to make room.
"You need to tell me when I don't explain things sufficiently," Jensen told him. "I can't actually read your mind."
"I dunno," Jared said, with fondness behind his smile. "You seem to do a pretty good job of it, if you ask me. What didn't you explain sufficiently?"
"About my parents. You seemed surprised."
"It did come sort of out of left field," Jared admitted.
"That's not it, though. You were unreasonably surprised. Why?"
Jared looked away with a laugh that felt more embarrassed than amused. "Geez, Jensen, I kind of thought your parents were dead."
"Dead?" Jensen repeated. "Why?"
Jared's answering shrug meant absolutely nothing to him.
"That does not help."
Jared ran a hand through his hair. "I dunno. You never talk about them. No shopping for birthday presents or fielding phone calls from your mama. I guess now I know that you do talk to them given the whole joining them for dinner thing, but it's not even on your calendar that you ever see them."
It was at about this point that Jensen realized that Jared was functioning under a rather large misapprehension: namely, that Jensen would be normal in at least one aspect of his life.
He's tried not to wonder if Jared would ever get tired of being let down in that respect.
"Jensen?" Jared's voice broke through his thoughts. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to upset you."
"You didn't," Jensen replied honestly. "I just realized something that should have been more obvious to me. You think I had a normal childhood."
Jared frowned. "Okay, that's one of the more ominous sentences I've ever heard. Was your childhood really that unusual?"
"By your standards, yes. What do you know about how stellae are raised?" Jensen asked.
Jared's head cocked as he considered the question. "Not much," he admitted finally. "I know that they went to separate schools in Texas, but I don't think that's the norm everywhere."
"It depends on the strength of the child," Jensen told him. "US law requires the segregation of stellae from society until such time as they can be considered in control of their abilities." He sent Jared a short twist of wryness through their bond. "Which, for highly ranked stellae, can take rather a while."
He felt the shock of that settling into Jared's mind.
"So," Jared said. "Is this your way of telling me that you went to a private school?"
Eye contact was important when conveying potentially shocking information. Jensen remembered this. "I was raised in a government-regulated facility until the age of 18, at which point I progressed directly to college."
Jared's mouth gaped. "I, you… seriously?"
Jensen found it a puzzling question. "Of course. Why wouldn't I be serious?"
"So you," Jared paused, wet his lips and started over. "How old were you went you first went to this… facility?"
"A day or two old, I believe. I don't remember it, unsurprisingly."
A feeling of horror rose to the surface of Jared's mind before he suppressed it.
"You're getting better at that," Jensen told him.
"Why? It was a compliment."
"Never mind," Jared said.
He did that sometimes, shrugging off Jensen's confusion instead of answering him. Jensen had to admit it was frustrating. How would he ever learn if Jared didn't explain these things to him? Jared's expression held none of the usual clues that Jensen could have used to start figuring out what he meant, and his mental landscape was shifting too quickly to get a handle on it. Irksome.
Jared was clearly still focused on what Jensen had told him.
"Why did you have to grow up there?"
"So I could learn how to control my empathy," Jensen said, although he would have thought that was obvious. "I was a danger to myself and others."
"What kind of a place was it?" There was an odd sort of urgency to Jared's emotions.
"I'm not sure I understand the question," Jensen admitted.
A strangely silvery mesh of frustrated worry and horror spread across the bond. "Were you treated well?"
"Of course." Something about the taut line of Jared's shoulders suggested that he wasn't satisfied with his response, so Jensen tried to explain in more detail. "Our physical and emotional needs were adequately cared for, and there were many doctors and helpers on hand to oversee the development of our abilities."
Something in this seemed to mollify Jared. "And you received training to do… what? Build your shields?"
Jensen nodded. "Among other things. Much of my early education was focused on being able to recognize and identify myriad emotions."
A spark of interest. "How did you do that?"
"Practice," Jensen said. "Lots and lots of practice."
"In any event," Jensen said, since they'd got rather off topic. "I don't have the same relationship a Normal would have with their parents because I had very limited access to them while growing up."
A green spike of sorrowful understanding. "And that's why you never talk about them."
"My parents are my parents," Jensen said. "But they were essentially well-meaning strangers to me as a child." And as a teenager, and as an adult. "I don't have the same relationship with them as Normal do. But, still, we make the best of the connection we do have." He looked at Jared, whose face was set in an expression that Jensen couldn't parse. He wondered what in the maelstrom of his emotions it was expressing. "Does that explain the situation better?"
Jared nodded. He still felt vaguely uneasy, but the worst of his worry seemed to be gone. "Can I ask you one thing?"
"What is it?"
"Were you… happy there?"
"Sometimes," Jensen answered, smirking internally at his joke. He felt relief from Jared rather than amusement, which he found odd. Perhaps it was too dark a joke for Jared to be entertained by.
"Okay." Jared looked at him. "Is this conversation over?"
Jensen shrugged. "Unless you have something to add."
"I'm sure I'll think of something eventually, but for now I'm good. Netflix?" Jared invited.
And really, sitting on the couch and watching TV with Jared sounded like a perfect way to spend the evening.
"Don't mind if I do." Cautiously, Jensen sidled closer so their thighs touched. Taking place as it did through two layers of fabric, the contact wasn't overwhelming.
Jared's fingers twitched in a not-unfamiliar desire to touch, before falling quiescent against the back of the couch.
Jensen did his best to ignore the swirl of Jared's emotions - contentment, wistfulness, quiet sadness - as they both turned their attention to the television.
"Are you ready to go again?" Dr. Tapping asked him.
Jensen wasn't, not really, but he nodded anyway.
A helper came forward and pressed his large hand to Jensen's neck. Feelings that weren't his slithered into Jensen's mind: amorphous and yellow.
He knew this one.
"Happiness," Jensen said, and the helper stopped touching him. The happiness dwindled to a sense of gentle euphoria that was easily ignored.
"Good," Dr. Tapping said. "This next one will be a bit more complicated. Ben?"
Jensen didn't know who Ben was, but it didn't really matter when the helper touched him and a new feeling invaded.
Jensen almost said happiness again, because it was still yellow, still made his heart lift and his mood rise. But Dr. Tapping had said this one was harder, so he probed deeper. There was something coppery about it, he decided, something that reminded him of pride, but also superiority. Sort of like how he felt when he did something well. Which would make sense for something like-
"Triumph?" he guessed, and was rewarded by his own version of the feeling when Dr. Tapping nodded. The helper let go again.
"Very good," Dr. Tapping said. She consulted her copy of Jensen's file, and everyone waited while she made a note. "This next one may be challenging," she said, which could have meant anything. "But it's important that you are able to recognize all kinds of emotions. Do your best."
Jensen waited, idly flexing his hands within the arm straps while a different helper stepped up. Her hand connected with Jensen's neck and he jolted sharply, slamming his head back against the chair hard enough that it would have hurt if he had any mental capacity to spare for anything except the seething, boiling emotion rolling into him. Everything was red, so dark it was almost purple, and sparking like a million bursting filaments. Jensen wanted to, he wanted to… hurt someone. Yes, this was an emotion about hurting people, making them hurt the way he'd been hurt, making them pay because they were everything that was wrong with the world and he, he-
-he didn't like this feeling.
Jensen's mental defenses slammed down, blocking out that barrage of emotion. He could feel it still, beating against his skin, looking for a way in. He let out a keening sort of whine, trying to curl away from the feeling.
The hand left, leaving Jensen hollowed out and sweating in the aftermath.
"Well?" Dr. Tapping asked. "Do you know what it was?"
"I know I never want to feel it again," Jensen said, even though that wasn't what she had asked him.
She smiled. "Not an option, I'm afraid. You won't be at Home forever, and the world is full of all kinds of emotions. The stronger ones are the most dangerous to you, so you need to know them, even if they're unpleasant."
"So?" Jensen panted. "What is it? Anger, rage, but more than that."
"Hatred," Dr. Tapping told him. "Extreme hostility towards someone or something else."
Jensen nodded, and carefully put a name to the violent tangle still snared in the back of his head. Dr. Tapping would have him experience it at every session from now until he could prove that he definitely knew it. Jensen doubted that it would take long. He didn't think he'd ever forget that emotion.
Dr. Tapping made another note. "If you'll lower your mental shields again, Jensen, we'll continue."
And if Jensen's sigh as he did as he asked was entirely internal, at least that meant his control was improving.