Thus far, Jensen was not terribly enamoured of barbecues.
He focused on eating from the plate in his hands, hoping that it made him look unapproachable. As he'd been told more than once that he was always unapproachable, Jensen had high hopes for this plan.
The yard - owned by one of Jared's friends whose name Jensen had forgotten - was occupied by 15 other people. They were all huddled in various pockets of conversation. There was a lot of talking, smiling and laughing.
Jensen felt fairly safe in assuming that everyone was having a good time.
Jared was in a particularly loud group at the far end of the porch. For the first couple of hours, Jared had been all but glued to Jensen's side, radiating concern and soft violet optimism. He'd made it his goal to reintroduce Jensen to all of his friends - not that it helped Jensen any - which was far more social interaction than Jensen was capable of
Which was why he'd made a strategic retreat to the food table and refused to come back.
One of his hands twitched towards the collar of his shirt; Jensen restrained himself through sheer force of will, his conversation with Jared before they'd left the house playing in his head:
"You could wear a scarf if your stars are bothering you," Jared said, gesturing at Jensen's neck.
Jensen belatedly realized he was fiddling with his shirt. Three of the stars that marked him as an empath curled over the top of the collar.
"I doubt I'd make a very good hipster," was all Jensen could think to say in response.
"What? Of course you would! An artfully draped scarf, some oversized glasses with chunky frames, maybe a pair of high tops. Easy." Gentle kindness. "Would you like me to get you a scarf? Or maybe a turtleneck? I'm pretty sure I've got one upstairs."
"I don't need to hide my stars."
"Don't need or don't want?" Jared asked, with uncanny precision.
"Don't want. I like the way they keep people away," Jensen admitted. "Well, most people," he amended, with a significant look at Jared.
Jared waved a hand in the general direction of Jensen's face. "It wasn't my fault! I was distracted by all the pretty!"
"The worst part about this is that I can feel actually telling the truth."
Unexpectedly, Jared grinned. "Have I ever mentioned how much I love your sense of humour?"
Jensen was never going to understand Jared.
"Do you want to go inside?" a voice asked him suddenly, drawing Jensen out of the memory and back to the present.
He turned to see a woman with dark hair standing behind him. One of Jared's friends, obviously. She was smiling.
"Why would I want to go inside?" Jensen asked. "Jared says that barbecues are for being outside."
She shrugged. "You just look a little overwhelmed."
"No, I don't." He had an entire life's worth of experience that said he wasn't capable of looking anything.
Her smile remained. Jensen found that unusual.
"You don't," she agreed. "But Jared said you could probably use a break from the crowd. With everyone out here, it'll be nice and quiet inside."
That made more sense. Knowing Jared, he was probably timing the whole event down to the second based on his previous observations of Jensen's social interaction threshold.
Much as Jensen didn't appreciate being managed, he had to admit that escaping for a while sounded like a wise idea.
"Yes. Please," he tacked on. Manners. He could remember them. He was supposed to be making an effort here.
"Follow me," she said, turning.
Although Jensen felt fairly certain that he could find the door on his own, he didn't protest. Everyone stared at them as they walked across the lawn. Jensen ignored them.
"I'm Sandy," the woman said as she led the way into the house. "In case you forgot."
It wasn't a case of forgetting as much as not paying attention in the first place. That was probably inappropriate to admit, though.
"Sandy," Jensen repeated, doing his best to commit the name to memory. "I'm Jensen," he said, since that was the normal thing to do.
Sandy chuckled in response. "Oh, I definitely know that."
Jensen wasn't quite sure how to respond, so he remained quiet.
"Here we go," Sandy said, as they walked through the kitchen and entered the living room. "Nice and quiet. Please, sit down."
Jensen did so, and was somewhat surprised when Sandy sat down next to him, not quite far enough away to keep him from getting nervous. He didn't like being in arm's reach.
Irrationally, he found himself wishing he'd taken Jared up on that offer of a turtleneck.
"I was surprised when Jared said you were coming today," Sandy said, and Jensen shrugged.
"You and me both. Jared is persuasive."
Her smile flickered briefly before subsiding. "Look, Jensen, can I talk to you for a minute?"
"Yes," Jensen said, a little nonplussed by the fact that she felt the need to ask. Surely she could see that she was already talking to him.
"I know you don't like us," she started.
"Not true. I don't know you well enough to dislike you." He looked at her curiously. "Or was I supposed to accuse you all of disliking me in return?"
"We don't dislike you."
Jensen snorted internally. "Even I can tell that was a lie."
Her fingers fidgeted with a lock of her hair. Nervousness?
"It's not dislike, exactly," she said. "It's just... I've known Jared since we were kids. And it's hard to see Jared with someone-"
"Like me?" Jensen finished.
Sandy's eyes cut away. "He's just so full of enthusiasm for everything," she told the wall behind him. "He has so much love to give."
"I know," Jensen said. Did she think he hadn't noticed? How could he not?
"Do you? Because it doesn't seem like you care much either way."
"I'm a level 5 empath," Jensen told her, feeling something halfway between irritation and amusement. "Which means I'm quite possibly the most socially inept person in the entire country."
Her eyes widened at that. "Are you… making a joke?"
Jensen shrugged. "Yes and no. I've learned to find humour in the realities of my situation. But the fact that I'm an empath makes certain things impossible for me."
Her mouth thinned. "Like love?"
"Of course not," Jensen said, disgusted. Why did people have to keep thinking that of him? "That's not what I mean at all."
The signs of nervousness were gone, replaced by evidence of what Jensen could only assume was anger or indignation. "Then what do you mean? Because, from where we're sitting, it looks like you're not capable of loving Jared the way he loves you, and that's not healthy."
Similes, Jensen reminded himself. Explain things to Normals using similes.
"I'm like a recording studio," he said, after a moment's thought.
Sandy cocked her head. "How do you figure?"
There was a pause.
"Nope, sorry, you're going to have to explain it to me. I'm not following."
Great. As if coming up with analogies wasn't difficult enough - now he had to explain them too?
The things he did for Jared.
"I'm on the inside of a recording booth," Jensen said, feeling through the idea slowly. "And I can see the hallways on the other side of the window where all the people are. But I can't hear anything they try to say to me and I'm terrible at lip reading, so it's hard to communicate."
There was a momentary silence.
"Can't anyone on the other side of the window lip-read?" Sandy asked.
Her eyes rolled. "I'm extending your metaphor. It seems like the people on the other side of the window should be able to see you trying to communicate, at least. But you're just-" She paused, obviously groping for an appropriate - and perhaps inoffensive - word. "-blank."
This is why Jensen hated figurative language. "I didn't say it was a good metaphor. I'm trying to explain something that you have no concept of."
"The fact that I have very limited access to the visual and emotional cues that most people use to express themselves; I am bad at understanding them and even worse at using them. That's why I'm so 'blank' all the time." He did air quotes around the word because Jared was a terrible influence.
"Why?" Sandy asked. "I've met other empaths who aren't… like you."
"I'm a level 5 empath," Jensen said again. "It comes with the territory."
"Hmmm," Sandy said, which meant nothing to Jensen whatsoever. Her brow furrowed at the same time, which suggested that it was most likely a sound of anger, confusion or deep thought.
Jensen put about equal odds on all three possibilities.
"I'm going to ask you something," Sandy said, after a brief silence. "And I want you to be absolutely honest when you answer it."
I don't owe you anything, Jensen wanted to say, except he did, kind of. She was trying to protect Jared, after all. "Fine."
"Do you love Jared?"
"I do," Jensen said, even though he knew it was inadequate.
"Does he know that?"
"Because you told him so?" Sandy was frowning. Apparently there was a right and a wrong answer to this question.
"I do tell him," Jensen allowed. "But I probably don't need to. He's felt it for himself."
"What," she said. Her voice didn't rise, and so it took Jensen several moments to realize that that had likely been a question.
"I don't know what you're asking me," Jensen admitted. "Can you clarify?'
"How is Jared able to feel your love for him?" She paused, then added, "if this is the setup for a dirty joke I'm going to hit you."
Jensen had no idea what she was talking about. "A what? No. Jared and I are empathically bonded. Which means that we share emotions."
Sandy's eyebrows raised. "All the time?"
"For me, yes. For Jared, only when I send him something deliberately." She should have known this already. Jared must have told his friends, mustn't he?
Jensen was never going to listen to Jared again. His friends were intolerable. "How do you propose I do that?"
"Tell me what Jared's feeling right now."
Such an imprecise request. Only a Normal would ask something like that.
Still, Jensen did his best.
"Happy," he said, because it was easiest to start with the strongest emotions.
Sandy opened her mouth to speak, but Jensen wasn't done.
"Weary, calm, nervous, concerned, protective, amused, fond, wistf-"
"He's all of those at once?" she interrupted. "I don't believe it."
Jensen looked at her. "Are your emotions ever straightforward?"
She paused. Considered. "Fair enough. And those do sound like feelings Jared might be wrestling with today. So either you're a good liar or you actually can read Jared's emotions."
"The second one takes infinitely less effort," Jensen pointed out, because sometimes people deserved it when he was snarky.
Sadly, Sandy ignored him. "But you're saying that you can do the same thing for him? That you can make him feel your emotions? And that's enough for him?"
Jensen hesitated. "I could show you," he offered.
Sandy cocked her head. "Show me what?"
"How I feel about Jared. If it would make you feel more comfortable with the fact that he and I are... us."
"You can do that?"
There were a dozen different answers to that question. "Yes," Jensen settled for. It would probably be fine. He extended a hand, waiting. "If you want."
Jensen wasn't surprised, although he had been hoping she would say no.
Deep breath. He could do this.
Automatically, he reached out for Jared and wrapped all of those jumbled emotions around himself, tying himself to reality. To who he was. Who they both were.
This wasn't the first time he'd done this since leaving Home. It wasn't even the first time he'd done it since bonding with Jared. Neither fact stopped it being any less terrifying to open himself up to a stranger.
Then he let his fingers come to rest gently on Sandy's wrist.
As expected, the maelstrom of Sandy's emotions was all around him in an instant, heavy with disapproval and a grudgingly green patience. Thankfully, his training and the tether of Jared's mind kept him firmly aware of the border of where he stopped and she started. Deliberately, he pulled out the places inside himself where his strongest feelings for Jared existed and sent the resulting swirl of sunshine and blue and gold and rose at Sandy.
She made a noise when Jensen's emotions touched her. It was wordless and therefore useless to Jensen, but she didn't pull away, which Jensen figured meant that he wasn't required to stop.
He gave her a solid thirty seconds or so, which would hopefully be enough to convince her of Jensen's sincerity where his words had failed. Then he carefully disentangled them, being careful not to leave too much residual emotion behind as he withdrew. It wouldn't do to accidentally make Sandy fall in love with Jared.
"Is your health optimal?" Jensen remembered to ask. He was pretty proud of himself for that.
"I think so?" Sandy said, voice rising on the last word.
Jensen was puzzled. "Why is that a question?"
She blinked at him, then laughed.
Confusing woman. This was why Jensen didn't talk to Normals. They made no sense. "I wasn't trying to be funny."
"Sorry," Sandy said, although Jensen didn't know what she was apologizing for. "Jared told us that you can be a bit blunt. It caught me off guard."
Ah. "I get that a lot."
"I think you're more like an interrogation room. Than a recording studio," she clarified, when Jensen stared at her, uncomprehending. "With the one way glass, you know? So you can see out, but no one else can see in. And the only way you can communicate is with the intercom system, but then you're just this disembodied voice which is weird when everyone else is used to being able to see the person they're talking to. And I don't think this," a gesture at Jensen's face, "is really what it means to see you."
How was Jensen meant to respond to that? Was an expression of gratitude appropriate? An apology?
"Thank you for letting me see the real you," Sandy said, before Jensen could make up his mind. Her eyes looked a bit shiny. "I think I understand better now."
"I'm glad," Jensen said, because it was the truth.
Mounting anxiousness. Not his.
"What are you looking at?" Sandy asked, and Jensen realized that he'd turned automatically towards the doorway.
"Jared's coming," he told her. "Presumably, he's reached his Worry about Jensen Threshold for today."
"You can feel him coming?"
"I can feel him always," Jensen answered honestly. "Feeling him come closer is easy."
"Huh," Sandy said.
"Here you are," Jared said, rounding the corner with a smile on his face. The anxiousness grew stronger as he looked at Jensen and Sandy sitting together on the couch, still much closer than Jensen usually allowed people. "I was wondering where you got to."
Jensen shrugged. "I was all barbequed out. Sandy let me sit here for a while."
A pale red flare of pride. At the fact that Jensen had remembered her name?
"That was nice of her. Hey, Sands," Jared said, which confused Jensen for a moment. Who was he talking to?
"Hi, Jared," Sandy answered. Presumably, it meant more than a simple greeting the way she said it, judging by the frown Jared levelled at her.
"You guys having a good talk?" he asked. Wary protectiveness.
"Yes, actually," Sandy said. She glanced at Jensen. "Wouldn't you agree?"
Jensen wasn't entirely sure he did, honestly, but he didn't disagree, which was probably the more pressing concern. "It has been enlightening," he settled on.
"Making friends and influencing people, huh?" Jared asked, grinning as his emotions calmed. "I knew you could."
"Well," Sandy said, rising to her feet. "I'd better check on everyone else. You two can stay here as long as you need, okay?"
"Thanks," Jared told her.
"Thanks for the talk, Jensen," she said, and barely afforded him the time to say 'you're welcome' before vanishing out the door.
Jared didn't seem surprised by her sudden exit.
"You okay?" he asked, with gentle blue concern.
"Well enough," Jensen told him. "And I think Sandy hates me less now, which is good."
Jared sighed. "They don't- you know what? Never mind. I'm not getting into it right now. I'm glad you had a conversation with her, and I'm glad you think it helped. You need more friends and I'd be happy to share mine. If you want them."
"Given the fact that I don't have any friends to begin with, I hardly see how I could get more."
Exasperation. "First of all, stop being so pedantic. Second of all, what about Chris?"
"Chris is… a special case."
A strange intermingling of pleasure, jealousy and affection spread across the bond. "Like me?"
"Sort of like you," Jensen allowed. "But not really."
"Well that was amazingly informative, thank you." Jared put on a smile. "You ready to go back outside?"
"Can we sit here for a while?" Jensen asked. "My quiet time wasn't all that quiet."
Jared chuckled and settled on the couch next to him. "Sure." He was close enough to touch, but Jensen couldn't find it in himself to protest. "I'm glad you came."
"Yeah. Me too."
Someone was hurting.
At five years old, Jensen was now officially a Big Boy. Very few stellae arrived at Home as anything other than babies, so reaching five was a sign that he could control his abilities well enough to keep from hurting himself or anyone else. Jensen didn't have as much freedom as most of the others his age because of his stars - five, just like him - and how he had a lot more power than the others. By an 'order of magnitude' Dr. Tapping had tried to explain to him, but Jensen didn't know what that meant. He was trying very hard to get better though, and he was getting better.
Maybe when he got strong enough to not hurt people he'd be allowed to have his family. Some of the other kids had been talking about families. They sounded nice. And his had sent a letter that one of the helpers had read to him, so Jensen was working hard not to feel other people at all so that Dr. Tapping and the helpers would let him meet his family.
But he couldn't do that right now, because someone was very sad and it was making him very sad too.
"Jensen?" one of the helpers said. "Why are you crying?"
"I c-can't st-st-stop," Jensen stammered at her, between great, heaving gulps of air. Tears rolled fat and hot down his cheeks, an unfamiliar sensation that was nearly as scary as the sadness that was squeezing his chest until he was afraid he was going to pop.
Her hands landed on his neck, and Jensen could feel her pushing happiness and calmness at him, but it wasn't enough to drown out the sadness. He sobbed harder and hoped that no one was nearby. He didn't want to get in trouble for infecting people again.
The helper was talking into her radio. Jensen kept crying until he felt dizzy, and then cried some more.
More hands, trying to guide him down the hallway. But Jensen was shaking too hard to walk, so they carried him instead.
A door shut behind him and all the pain and sadness disappeared, leaving nothing but Jensen behind. He slumped in their arms, abruptly exhausted.
"External influence," someone said.
"We can't keep him in here forever," another voice - or was it the same one? - said.
"Jensen," a voice said. "Open your eyes, please."
It was hard, but Jensen managed to open his eyes. His eyelashes kept sticking together and his eyes felt all gummy. "I don't like crying," he told the man in front of him.
The man smiled, and Jensen felt his soft pink encouragement. "It's not much fun, is it? Do you know why you were crying?"
"Someone was sad," Jensen said. He looked down at his shoes. "I tried not to let them make me sad too, but they were really sad. I couldn’t help it."
"That's okay. Do you know who was sad?"
Jensen shook his head. "No. I'm sorry."
"There's no need to be sorry," a voice said. "Can you tell us anything about the sad person?"
"Like what?" Jensen asked, mystified.
Silence. Jensen looked up to find all the helpers looking at each other over his head.
"Never mind," the man in front of him said. "Can you stay here for a little bit longer? We don't want you to start feeling sad again as soon as you leave the room. Kelly will stay with you."
"Okay," Jensen agreed. He didn't know which one Kelly was, but that wasn't important. He'd figure it out when the rest of them left.
All of the helpers except for one left the room, then Jensen and Kelly sat around waiting until someone came back and said it was okay to go back to his room. Jensen didn't feel sad again, so everything was fine.
It was another two days before Jensen found out who the sad person was.
He'd been spending his free time in the garden, pretending that all the flowers were his friends. He could tell by what colour they were what kinds of friends they would be, and it was so much easier than understanding the other stellae who kept all their colours inside where he wasn't supposed to look at them. Also, he was allowed to touch them, which was miles better than people friends, who were too dangerous to touch.
Jensen was just reaching out to run his fingers down the waxy petals of a smiling pansy when sadness curled around his heart and tugged. It didn't make him start crying again, but it was definitely the same sad person as last time.
Probably, he should go find a helper. They'd wanted to know who the sad person was, right? But if the sad person was a stella they might get in trouble for being too emotional, and Jensen didn't think it was that easy just to stop being sad. When he'd been crying, he hadn't believed how much it hurt.
So, instead of heading off to find a helper, Jensen wandered further into the garden, following that blue wisp of sadness. At the end of it, he found a boy a few years older than him, sitting on the edge of the pond.
"Why are you so sad?" Jensen asked him, coming to a stop a few feet away.
The boy startled and nearly fell into the pond. "Where'd you come from?"
Jensen pointed. "Back there. Why are you so sad?"
Now the boy was looking at Jensen's neck, where his stars were clearly visible over the top of his shirt. "Get out of my head."
"I can't help it. You're being loud." Jensen peered at him. "Can I help you be less sad?"
"I don't want you doing anything to my head." The boy stumbled to his feet and started backing away.
"I didn't mean it like that. And I haven't learned how yet, anyway." Jensen wasn't explaining very well. He tried another tact. "I cried for you."
The boy's eyes widened. "What?"
"A couple of days ago. You were so sad that it made me cry. I've never felt sad like that before. Dr. Tapping says that there are lots of ways to make people happy. Is there anything I can do to help you?"
The boy stopped backing up. "What's your name?"
"Come sit with me." The boy sat back down on the edge of the pond and waited for Jensen to join him. "I'm new here," the boy said. "I'm sad because I miss my family."
Jensen was fascinated.
"I have a family somewhere," he said. "I haven't met them yet. Can you tell me about yours?"
The boy looked at him. "You really should ask me for my name first."
"What's your name?" Jensen parroted obediently, even though he'd forget it again right away. "Can you tell me about your family?"
He got a smile for that. "My name's Chris. And yeah, I can tell you about them."
Unfortunately for Jensen, time did not magically stop to prevent the agreed-upon date for their dinner with his parents from approaching far faster than he appreciated. A week after the not-as-bad-as-it-could-have-been barbeque with Jared's friends found him shrugging into his navy suit in preparation for their dinner with Jensen's parents. Which was almost certain to be awkward.
Jensen wasn't having the best month.
"So," Jared said, as he knotted his tie in front of the mirror. "Anything I need to know in advance?"
"Like what?" Jensen asked.
Jared shrugged. "The usual: important dates, topics to avoid, jokes to make, stuff like that."
"I… don't know any of those things. Why didn't you ask me about this in advance?" He could have prepared something.
"Guess I didn't think about the fact that you haven't done the meet the parents thing before." A pause. "You haven't, have you?"
Jensen glanced at him. "Do you really need to ask?"
"Well, I don't know, do I? You are impossibly good looking - maybe you had a whole bunch of flings in college that you didn't tell me about in case I thought you were a tramp."
"Why are you so nervous?" Jensen asked, because sometimes it was easier just to cut through the babble coming out of Jared's mouth and get straight to the heart of the matter. "Also, your tie isn't going to get any straighter. Stop tugging on it."
Jared dutifully abandoned his reflection and came over to join Jensen by the bed. "They're you're parents," he said, as though that explained something. "They're important to you, and I want them to like me."
"Everyone likes you. I like you. And I don't like anyone."
That earned him a trickle of fondness and a kiss pressed to his hair. "You'll never get me to believe that. And it's a meeting the parents sort of thing, I think. It's normal to be nervous."
Jensen considered. "Have you done this before?"
"Twice," Jared confirmed, which surprised Jensen. He would have expected that people who weren't him would have been begging to show Jared off to their parents.
"That's all? Who?"
"My first girlfriend and my second boyfriend. I never really had all that many relationships that got serious enough to be at the parent-meeting stage, to be honest." Jared offered him a smile. "Luckily, this is the last time I ever intend on doing it, so I want to get it right. It would be a shame to have my perfect parent-approval rating get damaged right when I really mean it."
"You'll be fine," Jensen told him, because he wasn't sure how to address the rest of what Jared had just said without being unnecessarily awkward. "Why wouldn't they like you?"
"It is hard to imagine," Jared agreed, a grin flirting at the edges of his mouth. He snagged Jensen's sleeve as Jensen went to move past him, being careful not to come anywhere close to Jensen's skin. "Hey."
"You know that, in the end, all I care about is what you think, right? I hope that your parents like me, but it won't change my mind about you if they don’t."
Jensen nodded. "I do. Although it's nice to hear." He paused before adding, "the same for you, obviously."
Jared's grin sparkled. "Obviously," he said, but he felt a touch relieved. He offered Jensen his arm. "Shall we?"
"Might as well get it over with," Jensen agreed. He even slipped his hand through the crook of Jared's elbow, just to feel the way it made all of Jared's emotions brighter.
The fact that it made Jared smile wider was just a bonus.
"Oh," Jared said, as they walked down the stairs. "Did you get the message on the machine? It was something about a check-up; I didn't listen to the whole thing."
In point of fact, it had been the next escalation in the Stella Institute's efforts to make him do what they wanted. The message had provided a date and time for an assessment - no mention of location, Jensen couldn't help but notice - and threatened drastic action if he ignored them again.
Jensen had deleted it.
"I got it," he told Jared. "Thanks."
"No prob. You ready for this?"
"Not really," Jensen answered, and Jared chuckled.
"Good. Me neither. So at least we're going down together."
"I'm so reassured," Jensen said, and Jared laughed all the way to the car.
If only Jensen could feel optimistic that the rest of the evening would go so smoothly.
In his parents' defense, it was a very nice looking restaurant.
Jensen had given the directions and Jared had driven them there, not questioning Jensen's lefts and rights until they'd found somewhere to park deep in the commercial part of town.
Dubiousness. "Your parents live around here?" Jared asked, which was about when Jensen realized that he had, once again, not explained thoroughly.
"We're not going to their house." He gestured to the building across the street. "They've booked us a table at Basilico. Do you really think I wear a tie to visit my parents' house?"
At his side, Jared froze and dug his fingers into Jensen's arm.
"Here?" Jared hissed in an undertone, as though the maître d' would dash out of the restaurant and clobber both of them for slander if Jared was overheard.
Jensen permitted himself an internal sigh. "They mean well."
Jared felt appalled. His shock was purple and cloying in Jensen's head. "But they must know that you'll have trouble eating here. All these people!"
"They probably felt that we'd all be more comfortable to have this meeting take place somewhere that wasn't their house. Or ours," he added, after a moment's thought. "And they always did prefer neutral ground."
"Neutr…? This isn't a land war, Jensen, it's dinner."
"I know," Jensen said, slightly mystified by the touch of pique colouring Jared's thoughts. "You're upset. Why are you upset?"
"Sorry," Jared said, and Jensen felt a blanket of deliberate calm smoothing over the jagged points of Jared's feelings. "I just don't understand how your parents, of all people, could expect you to sit in a restaurant full of loud people and loud feelings during the dinner rush. It's one thing if a stranger does it, but they should car- they should know better."
Jensen decided to ignore that abortive word. They needed to show a united front if they wanted any hope of the evening not being intolerable, which meant this was no time for squabbling. "You're overreacting. I'll be fine."
"You shouldn't have to do this!"
"Which doesn't mean that I can't." Jensen looked up into Jared's eyes. "I don't need rescuing from my parents. Or from a restaurant. It isn't the first time I've eaten in one, and it won't be the last. Besides, I've got you here. That should make things easier on a number of fronts. Okay?"
Jared smiled, a touch of ruefulness colouring his thoughts. "You know, it's awfully hard to argue with you when you're being all logical like that. You should stop."
"I'll get right on that," Jensen said, relieved that Jared was going to follow his lead on this. He started towards the restaurant, then paused as something occurred to him. "You should probably know that I haven't told them about the car accident or the empathic link. It seemed unwise."
"Gotcha," Jared said, thankfully not pursuing it. "And you should probably know that I'm here for whatever you need tonight, okay? No matter what. Even if it's a hasty getaway out the window."
"Thank you," Jensen said. And then, because they were going to stand on the side of the road all night otherwise, "Let's go."
"I shall be guided by you," Jared said, falling into step and positively radiating determination.
His parents were already seated and waiting for them when they were shown to their table. Jensen kept the introductions brief and to the point, trying to ignore the gray nervousness that Jared was spreading everywhere.
"So, Jared," Jensen's mother said, once they were seated and the waiter had taken their drink orders. "You and Jensen work together?"
Jared nodded. "Yes, ma'am. Well, not together exactly, since we're in different departments, but in the same company, yes. He's a brilliant designer."
"They already know that," Jensen told him.
Jared grinned at him. "Doesn't make it any less true." His attention turned back to Jensen's parents. "I met Jensen on my first day." Another grin in Jensen's direction. "He didn't like me much."
Which meant it was fine to tease. "Not true," Jensen corrected. "I didn't care
one way or the other."
Jared winked at him. "Which is much better."
Jensen's parents were looking at them with expressions that were similar to Chris or Jared watching a sporting event.
"How long have you been dating?" Jensen's mother asked.
"Officially?" Jared asked, whatever that meant. "Four and half months. But I was gone on him long before that."
"Really?" Jensen's mother asked, eyebrows raised. "How unusual."
Something in Jared stilled. "How so?"
His father cleared his throat. "You'll forgive us if we're still find your relationship with Jensen a little surprising. His… condition has always made it difficult for him to connect with others."
Anger. "I guess that makes that just makes me lucky," Jared said, with a big smile. "If people were less foolish and judgmental, someone else would have had the sense to snap him up ages ago."
Jensen's parents laughed, although Jensen didn't know why. Jared was still smiling, even though he was seething on the inside.
Luckily, the waiter chose that moment to return, and everyone's attention turned to the menus. Jensen made sure to steer the conversation to something neutral as soon as the waiter left, not about to let the previous topic get resurrected.
This was going to be a long night.
Dinner passed in a stilted manner that Jensen was familiar with: he experienced it pretty much every time he talked to his parents. Jared was doing his best to keep things moving smoothly, but Jensen suspected that it was a losing battle.
His research - and Jared's comments - had indicated that 'meeting the parents' was invariably an awkward situation, so he would have considered it par for the course, except for one thing.
Jared was upset.
He was doing a good job of keeping his emotions under control, but Jensen had spent enough time with Jared in his head to know when things weren't right.
Suspicious, Jensen looked across the table at his parents.
There was nothing that Jensen could glean from their behaviour to suggest what the problem was. They looked at Jared when he spoke and smiled in response to his words. Their questions seemed innocuous.
But he could feel Jared getting increasingly uncomfortable, could tell that the unhappy blue film over Jared's emotions was because of the parts of this conversation that Jensen couldn't access. And his parents had to be doing it that way deliberately.
In the silence of his own head, Jensen growled.
"Okay?" Jared asked in an undertone, the single word enough to pull Jensen out of his thoughts. He realized that the entire table was looking at him, presumably waiting for a response to a question he hadn't been listening to.
"I should be asking you that," Jensen whispered back, which made a slight frown briefly crease Jared's brow before he smoothed it out.
"I'll tell you later," he promised, which Jensen doubted. Now was not the time to bicker about it, though.
Jensen glanced at his parents. "Can you repeat the question?"
Conversation turned to his siblings, and Jensen was obliged to listen and respond with appropriate noises for the remainder of the main course. It wasn't until the plates had been cleared and Jared and his parents started deliberating dessert that Jensen could return to his previous line of inquiry.
His mother was nodding along to some story that Jared was telling about why he couldn't eat cheesecake anymore, by all accounts alert and engaged. His father didn't appear to be paying the same amount of attention, but he wasn't exhibiting any of the signs that Jensen had learned to associate with cruelty or hostility.
So what was wrong?
One of Jared's hands fell to his lap during the course of his story; Jensen didn't give himself time to second-guess himself before reaching over and dropping his own hand down on top of it.
Jared darted a look at him, his surprise painted across Jensen's senses in brilliant, bold pink. Jared raised an eyebrow, a silent question that Jensen had no trouble understanding when they were touching.
In response, Jensen deliberately threaded their fingers together. "Keep them busy," he said quietly.
Fortified by the grounding weight of Jared's emotions, he dared to drop his mental walls, just slightly. The entire room exploded into Technicolor: joy, boredom, guilt, giddiness, fear, love, anticipation washing through him in a ruthless swirling mass that had no beginning, end or source. Gritting his teeth, Jensen waded through the chaos, seeking his parents' familiar presence. He managed only a brief glimpse of what they were feeling, but it was enough to snap him back to himself, shocked beyond all telling.
Frustration. Resentment. Dislike.
It didn't make sense.
Jensen shored up his walls almost as an afterthought, most of his attention on what he'd just discovered.
His first reaction was disbelief. Then anger.
How could they not like Jared?
Jared chose that moment to squeeze his hand, drawing Jensen out of his ire.
"Hey," Jared said, with a smile that Jensen could feel the gentleness of. "Where did you go, just now?"
Are you okay?
Jensen nodded. "Nowhere important," he said, and managed a small smile before he carefully disentangled their hands. Jared released him without protest, and Jensen's awareness of him faded from all-encompassing to return to the back of his head. Jensen surprised himself by missing it.
Jensen glanced back at his parents, who were showing some fairly obvious indicators of shock. He felt a vicious sort of satisfaction at that. Let them see how Jared made it possible for him to smile. Maybe that would teach them to be kinder.
"I, uh," Jared said, glancing back and forth between Jensen and his parents. "I think I'm going to go to the little boy's room before we choose dessert. Excuse me."
His hand dropped briefly onto Jensen's shoulder in passing, and the warmth of his encouragement was something that Jensen could bask in forever. He waited until Jared was out of earshot, then turned back to his parents.
"I don't appreciate you treating Jared like that," he said. "Stop it now."
"Stop overreacting, Jensen," his father said. "We're treating him just fine."
Jensen persisted. "You're deliberately making him uncomfortable."
His mother laughed. "Don't be silly. Of course we're not. And how would you know how he feels, anyway? He seems fine to me, if a bit nervous."
Anger was burning under his skin, seething and red. Not that either of them had the faintest idea.
"He's not what I expected," his mother continued, tapping one finger against her chin. "I'm not sure he's right for you."
"It's not your choice," he said. "It's mine. And, for the record, he is the only choice for me. If you don't approve, you don't need to see me anymore. Ever."
His mother blinked. "Calm down, Jensen," she said, as though he was simply being petulant rather than exerting all of his effort to keep from storming out right now.
Jensen wondered sometimes if people would be more comfortable with his anger if he could express it non-verbally. Logic dictated that people shouldn't appreciate being confronted by someone who was visibly angry, and yet the fact that he never lost his temper, never raised his voice, never punched or threw things, seemed to create consternation. It was as though angry words delivered calmly lost some of their efficacy, no matter how scathing the words themselves might be. Most curious.
"So!" Jared said, interrupting with his usual impeccable timing. He sat down and immediately placed his hand on Jensen's leg. Jensen didn't shift away from it, and the uncertain tension in Jared's arm eased. "Have we made any decisions about dessert?"
"I have," Jensen said, turning to look for the waiter. "I don't want any."
His mother tsked. "Really, Jensen. You're being childish."
"Oh, I don't think it's him who should be accused of that," Jared said, smiling. His fingers started rubbing slow, soothing circles on Jensen's leg. "It looks like we'll have to take a raincheck on dessert. It's been a lovely evening."
If his parents made any response to that particular lie, Jensen didn't bother listening for it. Focusing on Jared was much preferable.