"So," Jared said, into the silence of the car as they drove home. "I think that went okay."
"Do you?" Jensen asked, looking moodily out the window. "Because I don't."
Jared shrugged. "Well, I mean, it was kind of awkward, but-"
"Why don't they like you?" Jensen demanded.
The pause before Jared answered was telling. "I'm sure they're just getting used to the idea."
Jensen didn't know much about feelings, but he knew what he felt. "No. They resent you. Actively. That's not typical." Jensen looked over at Jared. He didn't seem surprised by this revelation. "I don't understand why."
Jared laughed a little, looking down at his lap. "If I had to guess, I'd say they're jealous of me."
"I think they're finding it difficult to accept that you can show me you love me, and I've only known you for a year, when they've spent your whole life never being sure."
"Of course I love them," Jensen said, stung.
Jared's affection was blue with sadness around the edges. "I know that. They know that too, deep down. But they probably wish they had proof."
"If you'll recall, I needed proof from you too, when you told me about the bond." Self-recrimination. "Thought I was just a conveniently-placed Good Samaritan, not someone you actually cared about."
"But you had no reason to think otherwise," Jensen protested. "Not like them. And you don't seem to mind that I'm not constantly proving myself."
"That's true," Jared agreed. His eyes cut over to Jensen. "But if you'd told me that you cared, I don't know how confident I would have been if you hadn't also been able to show me the truth." He shrugged. "Just something to think about."
Jensen was still puzzling through that by the time Jared pulled into the driveway. "I'm still angry at them."
"Me too," Jared surprised him by saying. Jensen looked over, and Jared grinned without amusement. "What? No one gets to treat my boyfriend like there's something wrong with him. If they hadn't been your parents, I probably would have punched someone."
In Jensen's mind, there was only one possible response to that.
He lunged across the seat and hauled Jared into a kiss.
Sex was a work in progress for them.
It wasn't easy for Jensen to be physically intimate, not when every inch of bare skin between them made it harder for him to hold onto his sense of self. Touching Jared amplified their link and filled Jensen's mind with nothing but Jared, the way he felt, the way his feelings mixed and mingled with Jensen's own. Needless to say, it wasn't a state that Jensen was willing to surrender himself to that often.
Tonight, however, he needed to be as close to Jared as he could get.
Jared's shock skittered along his nerves, but he got with the program quickly, hands settling on Jensen's shoulders as he returned the kiss with interest. It wasn't long before they were seriously making out, hands clutching and clinging. The weight of Jared’s lust was heady, like the spiced rum Jensen had tried during his one and only ill-advised foray into alcoholic beverages.
"You sure?" Jared mumbled, and Jensen could feel how much it cost him to ask.
He needn't have bothered worrying. Jared's lust was fanning the flame of Jensen's usually indifferent libido, snarling the both of them up together until all Jensen could feel was the desire to get closer, to have Jared inside him in every way possible.
Heat. Pleasure. Need. Need. Need.
Jensen groaned a 'yes' into Jared's mouth, torn between drowning in the maelstrom of their combined hunger and reveling in the slick tangle of Jared's tongue with his. Jared's fingers clutched spasmodically on his waist, pulling him closer until Jensen was half-sprawled over his lap.
Over the rush of blood in his ears, Jensen could just barely make out the wet sounds as their mouths came together and parted, over and over again. His skin was on fire, the press of Jared's body through two sets of clothing nearly too much.
Not nearly enough.
"Nngh!" Jared tore himself away, his chest heaving and his lips swollen and slick. "Inside," he panted, despite the need that was consuming them both. Jensen whimpered in protest, straining to regain contact.
"Jensen!" Hands on his forearms, holding him at bay before he could stroke his fingers down the tempting column of Jared's neck. He groaned when he felt Jared wrestling for a hold on their - his - emotions, trying to shove them all back down as though want wasn't the only air that Jensen was able to breathe into his lungs right now. "We're not stopping," Jared said. "But we can't have sex in the car."
"Can," Jensen countered, but the lack of skin contact let a sliver of calm intrude into his chaos, making him abruptly aware of the narrow space, the windows, the lack of necessary supplies at their disposal. He inhaled deeply, fighting back the swell of emotions that was threatening to drag him back down again. "You go first. I don’t want you in arm's reach until we're there."
Jared's teeth flashed in a quick smile. "Solid reasoning." He swayed forward as though to give Jensen another kiss, before clearly thinking better of the motion and backing off. Jensen's arms felt cold without the warm grip of Jared's fingers encircling them.
Jared fumbled behind him for the door handle, his eyes never leaving Jensen's face even when he nearly fell out of the car for his trouble. Jensen pressed a hand against his throbbing erection as he watched Jared struggle to get his key in the front door. The contact made him groan, all of his nerves lighting up at once. He couldn't breathe.
Jared vanished into the house, and Jensen forced himself to count to ten, closing his eyes to fend off the sight of the door gaping open in invitation.
"Fuck it," he decided when he hit seven. Close enough. He bolted out of the car and into the house on shaky legs, only just remembering to close the door behind him in his desperate race upstairs.
Jared was laid flat out on the bed when Jensen got there, his erection an obvious bulge in his dress pants and his hands gripping fistfuls of the bed sheets. His head was rolled towards the door, and he licked his lips at the sight of Jensen standing at the threshold.
"You waiting for an invitation?" he gasped.
Jensen was across the room in a heartbeat; he slung himself across Jared's hips, both of them groaning at the contact. Jared's hands to his hips, and Jensen fell into another kiss, shuddering in relief as Jared exploded again across his senses, drowning out everything else.
"Jensen, Jensen, Jensen," Jared was chanting, his hips rolling up into Jensen's weight and sending electricity zinging through Jensen's spine. Jensen couldn't stop kissing him long enough to think. Didn't want to.
One of Jared's hands dropped to Jensen's crotch and squeezed; Jensen nearly collapsed.
"Please," Jared gasped, mouthing at Jensen's jaw while Jensen sucked in desperate gulps of air. "Let me unzip you. I won't touch, I promise."
They had rules about sex, especially about the amount of skin contact they could have before Jensen risked going literally sex crazed. Granted, Jensen was having remembering those rules right now, but he trusted Jared to think when he couldn't.
"Jensen," Jared moaned. "Please!" Jensen could taste his desperation.
Jensen managed a shaky nod, and hissed as Jared immediately went for his belt, peeling Jensen's pants down with sloppy, hurried movements. Jared's knuckles brushed against the bare skin of Jensen's belly as he worked down the zip, and Jensen choked on the burst of mindless hunger that the touch left behind.
It took him three tries to find his words. "L-let go of me."
Confused dismay. "Wha-?"
"So I can get my pants off," Jensen explained, before Jared got the wrong idea. He stroked a deliberate hand down Jared's neck, desperate for more of that delicious hunger. "Get the lube."
Desire. Strong enough to make Jensen reel. Jared's hands vanished, and Jensen moaned with the loss.
"Hurry," Jared gasped, the word hissing out between his teeth and propelling Jensen to his feet.
He wasted an eternity wrestling his pants and underwear off. The shirt he left - it wasn't important. Then he looked back at the bed.
Jared had half-rolled to reach the side table; the muscles under his clothes rippled and flexed with the movement, leaving Jensen dry mouthed and speechless.
"I need you," he breathed. His hand found its way back to his cock, and he gave it a needy tug. "Fuck, need you so much."
"Gimme a sec!" Retrieving something from the drawer, Jared returned to his supine position. His hungry smile turned Jensen's spine to molten gold. "Get back here," he ordered.
Jensen didn't need to be told twice.
The rich fabric of Jared's pants electrified Jensen's nerves as he straddled him again; Jensen moaned and humped mindlessly down into Jared's solid warmth, the thin barrier between their cocks filling him with exquisite agony.
Jared grabbed his hand; Jensen's world narrowed down to Jared under him, inside him and around him.
"Here," Jared said, from very far away. Something cold and solid hit his palm. Jensen blinked at it, heavy-lidded and half-insensate with pleasure.
Lube. Of course. They could get even closer.
Jensen had never wanted anything so badly in his entire life.
Awkwardly, he fumbled the tube open, squeezing some onto his fingers. Jared pushed himself up onto his elbows, his rich orange anticipation making Jensen's mouth water as he behind himself and find his hole with slick fingers.
The first push was awkward, uncomfortable, but Jensen hardly noticed. Jared's excitement seeped into him where he was straddling Jared's legs, the thin barrier of Jared's clothes doing little to separate their emotions when Jensen was this overwrought. His body sagged and spread, encouraging the invasion of his fingers, first one, then two in rapid succession.
He could never manage to hit his prostrate with his own fingers: wrong angle, not enough depth. Jensen didn't care. The cocktail of need burning him up from the inside out was a far greater high than any physical pleasure could ever be.
"God," Jared whispered, as Jensen whined and thrashed on his own fingers. "Wish I could do that to you."
Jensen shook his head, open mouthed and panting. "Can't," he managed, more of a moan than a word. He wanted that too. Oh god, did he want it.
"I know." Jared's hungry smile was a sharp, biting slash of white. "Doesn't mean I can't wish anyway."
Jensen couldn't take any more of this teasing. "Get your cock out," he ordered, and felt the shudder of arousal zing through Jared's body like it was his own.
Jared's hands fumbled with his belt, tantalizing close to Jensen's bare skin. Jensen bit his lip hard enough to hurt. Sensation was all that mattered, and the glorious, throbbing ache his teeth left behind was almost enough to make him weep.
Jared made a triumphant sound when he finally managed to free his cock, twisting slightly to grab the condom that had somehow made it to the bedspread. The throbbing head of his cock twitched and leaked as he rolled it on, making Jensen yearn for a taste.
Raising himself up, Jensen paused to look at Jared, spread like a banquet beneath him. Jared's hair fanned messily across the pillow, his eyes bright and his colour high. His condom-covered cock lay thick and heavy in his hand, obscene and gorgeous. And all for Jensen.
"Jensen," Jared breathed, a plea and a demand and a prayer rolled into one.
Jensen couldn't deny either of them a moment longer.
The sound that escaped his throat when he eased down onto Jared's cock in one long, filthy glide, was barely human. Jared's hips bucked, pushing him wonderfully deeper, and Jensen tumbled forward. His hands landed on Jared's broad chest, and he had no complaints about this position at all. It made Jared's cock press up against him in all the right ways, and it let him look straight into Jared's face and see every flicker of reaction that spread across it. It didn't matter that he didn't technically know what they meant. Jensen could feel everything that Jared was. There was no placed where he wasn't Jared. They were one, not two.
"Move!" Jared begged, and Jensen felt himself smile.
Jensen's awareness dwindled down to flashes as they moved together: the heat of Jared's cock, Jared's breathless, worshipful murmurs, the burn in his thighs as they flexed around Jared's body, the burning love and need and want that was eating him up from the inside. There was nothing in his world but Jared.
It was perfect.
It was an eternity and a heartbeat later that Jared's orgasm slammed through both of them, Jensen's own release following hard on its heels. The world went white.
When Jensen was next able to exist as something more than a creature of pure emotion, he found that he was the one lying flat on the bed. His sweat soaked shirt had been replaced by his pajamas, and his skin felt remarkably clean given what he'd just been up to. Clearly Jared had been taking care of the aftermath.
"Back with me?" Jared asked, and Jensen rolled his head laboriously to the side to see Jared standing in the doorway to the ensuite bathroom. Jared smiled when he saw Jensen looking at him, filling Jensen's mind with fondness and the vaguest hint of relief.
They were once again separate people in Jensen's brain. It was at once a comfort and a loss.
Jensen made a vague noise of agreement. His brain felt hazy, and there was a bone-deep feeling of satisfying exhaustion weighing him down to the bed.
Jared chuckled. "Guess I don't need to ask if it was good for you."
Lazily, Jensen flipped him off.
Jared chuckled. "Love you too. You know, I'm kind of glad we don't do that more often. I'm not sure my heart could take it."
"You'd never guess it from how often you masturbate," Jensen said, and definitely deserved the pillow that Jared threw at his face in retaliation.
"Seriously though, it's intense." A pause. "I can see why you don't like touching people if it magnifies everything so much."
"Yeah," Jensen said absently. When was Jared going to stop talking so they could go to sleep?
He felt the mattress shift as Jared sat down beside him.
"What would happen if…" Jared started. Awkwardness. Embarrassment. Worry.
Jensen rolled over onto his side to look at him. "If what?"
Dull red infused Jared's cheeks. "If it wasn't me. If it was someone else touching you. I know that it's my fault you get all-" a hand wave that was presumably meant to mean something, "-y'know. Would someone be able to make you do something you don't want?"
"No," Jensen said.
Jared frowned. "If you're lying to keep me from worrying-"
"I'm not," Jensen cut in. Jared's mouth shut with an audible click. The fear didn't abate.
Jensen sighed internally as he banished the muzzy feeling of pleased languor from his mind so he could answer sufficiently. "Other people's emotions are very literally foreign to me. I receive them, true, but they exist separately from my own emotions. When I was a kid, it was harder, but these days I can always tell what's me and what isn't. I don't get infected by other people." Overwhelmed, perhaps, but Jared probably wouldn't understand the difference. "Only an empath has the ability to force someone to feel an emotion that isn't theirs and believe it's their own."
Jared's forehead creased. Confusion. "But, then why-?"
"You're different." Daring greatly, Jensen hooked his hand around Jared's bare neck and pulled him in close. Jared was a quiescent wash of bone-deep satisfaction and worry, too mellow to be overwhelming. "Your emotions aren't foreign to me. They're always in my head. When we're touching, it's not you infecting me. It's me not being able to tell where I end and you begin. Which can be wonderful," he added, because Jared was starting to feel guilty, of all the stupid things. "But it's not very practical for prolonged periods of time. I thought I explained this before."
Fondness. "You did, love." Jared stroked a feather-light finger down Jensen's cheek, trailing affection in his wake. "But sometimes what makes sense to you and what makes sense to me are different things."
"Oh," Jensen said. "I apologize."
Jared shook his head. "Nothing to apologize for. Just don't blame me too much if I don't always follow your logic the first time, okay?"
"Deal." Jensen took his hand away from Jared's neck, ignoring the part of him that cried out at the loss. "Are you finished having a crisis? Because I'm exhausted."
That earned him a chuckle and another burst of affection. "It has been a long day. I think you're onto something."
"Good," Jensen said, and let the calm of Jared's emotions lull him to sleep.
Why were vegetables so expensive?
Jensen considered the display of broccoli he was standing in front of, trying to decide whether or not his appreciation of it would measure up to the cost. At Home, he'd eaten vegetables regularly, but not so much since he'd started making his own way.
Initially, it had been the sheer amount of choice that had tempted him away from the sort of diet he'd been used to all his life. He was embarrassed to admit that he'd probably gone overboard with the junk food. He still didn't think he'd ever be able to eat a marshmallow again. Far better to return to vegetables, even if they did cost more than potato chips.
In his periphery, Jensen could sense a dozen or so other people milling around the store. If he concentrated, he could have pinpointed their exact locations, but it was hardly relevant. They drifted past him in little balls of collected emotions; he could sense where they were but not what they were feeling. Which suited him just fine. It was harder than it had been at Home, where everyone had mental shields of some sort, but he was slowly getting used to it. Two months ago, being in close contact with this many people would have been enough to have him looking frantically for an exit, and now here he was debating the cost-benefit value of broccoli.
It was amazing, what a stella could get used to.
"Hey," a voice said.
Jensen turned. There was a man standing beside him, his eyes locked on Jensen's face. As there was no one else standing in this aisle, Jensen could only assume the man was talking to him.
"What?" he asked.
"I'm Brad," the man said. "I've noticed you here before."
"That's because this is where I buy groceries," Jensen said, in case the man hadn't put that together yet. It seemed a logical enough inference to him, but who knew how Normals functioned. "Why are you talking to me?"
The guy smiled. "Because I was wondering if you wanted to get coffee with me."
That was an odd request.
"Why would I want to do that?" Jensen wondered aloud.
"Because I'm charming and good-looking?" the man said, his voice lifting at the end. Jensen had no idea why that would be a question.
Also, those didn't sound like good reasons to him. "I'm not interested in your proposal."
"Come on," the man said, still smiling. "Just coffee. Nothing else."
Jensen decided that he didn't want broccoli this much. "I'm leaving."
He turned to go, only to have his wrist caught in a careful grip. The man's - Brad's - emotions surged into him in a dizzying mix. Jensen wasn't used to touching people who didn't have the mental training to control which emotions they let him feel; everything Brad was hit him all at once, and Jensen had no hope of parsing it all.
Brad was saying something else, but Jensen wasn't listening, too busy trying to make sense of what he was feeling. The strongest emotion was a dark, cloying red that took Jensen a moment to remember: lust.
This Normal desired him, for some reason.
Coming back to himself with a start, Jensen pulled his hand out of the loose grip.
"I don't like to be touched," he said, fighting the urge to rub his skin. "Leave me alone."
Emotions were pressing in from all sides, Jensen realized, stronger and closer than they had been. He looked around, curious.
They were drawing a crowd. Suddenly, Jensen missed Home with a vehemence that startled him.
Brad was still talking.
"Come on. Just one date. Please? I promise I'm a great conversationalist."
The cloying red of Brad's lust was still smeared across the back of Jensen's mind. His insides quailed.
"I have no interest in your penis," Jensen said. "Please go away," he added after a moment's thought. He was still working on being polite.
Brad stared at him, open mouthed. "I, you that..."
Jensen moved to go about his own business again. Unfortunately, everywhere he looked, there were people watching him. Their interest made their emotions that much harder to ignore. They pressed in close, battering against his shields.
Jensen couldn't do this.
Gathering his self-control firmly around him, Jensen abandoned his half-full cart and walked with measured steps out of the building. He went straight home and spent the rest of the day trying unsuccessfully to rid himself of the tang of Brad's unwanted interest.
He didn't achieve his grocery store goal that week, too worried about what would happen if he went back to manage it.
The following week, he started shopping at a different store instead.
The day of Jensen's 'appointment' with the Stella Institute came and went without fanfare. Jensen knew better than to expect that that would be the end of it, but he had to admit that he failed to anticipate their next move, which was… unfortunate.
It came to a head on a Saturday.
Jared had convinced him to go for a run, because Jensen was a fool and loved him.
Clearly, love was just a nice word for focused insanity.
"You did great," Jared was saying, as they staggered back down the street towards home. Jared, damn him, was covered with a healthy sheen of sweat and looked like an advertisement in a healthy living magazine. Jensen was mostly a sweaty, gasping mess.
"This was a terrible idea," Jensen told him. "I am never listening to you again."
"Lies," Jared said, waving a hand. "We'll have you running marathons I'm no time."
"I fear that all the endorphins have made you delusional." Was he ever going to get his breath back? This was ridiculous.
Jared was still grinning. "I know that tone," he said, which was patently untrue. 'Tone' was something of a myth, as far as Jensen was concerned, especially when talking about his voice. "It means that you really enjoyed yourself, but you don't want to let me- huh."
"Let you huh?" Jensen repeated, confused.
"No, no," Jared said, shaking his head. He waved a hand towards their house, now only a few doors away. "I got distracted. It looks like we've got company. Possibly the FBI or the Men in Black, judging by the black suits and shades combo. What the hell do they want with us?"
"What?" Jensen looked and realized, with great resignation, that Jared was correct. His footsteps, which had been pretty glacial to begin with, slowed even further.
Jared noticed. "Jensen? Do you know why suspicious suited men are lurking on our doorstep? Please don't tell me you're involved with the mafia."
He was probably joking, Jensen decided. That was the sort of thing that Jared usually said as a joke. There was an edge of concern to his confusion though, which Jensen couldn't blame him for.
"You were closer with your first guess," Jensen told him, because Jared deserved honesty. And it wasn't as though he'd be able to hide it anymore. Not with people from Home on his fucking doorstep.
Alarm. "Seriously?" Jared hissed, giving Jensen a strange case of déjà vu. Amazing how the prospect of this conversation made him wish that he were facing off against his parents again instead. "What the hell is the FBI doing at our house?"
"Looking for me." He glanced at Jared. "Although they're not exactly the FBI. I'll explain later, I promise. Can you try to calm down a little? This will be harder if we're panicked."
"Depends," Jared said. "Is there anything that I need to be panicked about? Because I am not above picking you up and running away if the need arises."
"First of all, I'd like to see you try. Secondly, they've already seen us." It was true. Also unsurprising, considering that this wasn't exactly a quiet conversation. "And finally, you probably don't need to be panicked, no."
"Probably?" Jared repeated. "That doesn't exactly fill me with confidence. Also, I can totally carry you and run at the same time. Don't tempt me."
"This is not the time. Come on, let's get this over with."
The two suited men, who had been watching them with matched dispassionate expressions while they talked, straightened as he and Jared resumed their approach. Their emotions were shielded to a degree that Jensen hadn't experienced since he was at Home, and they existed like twin holes in Jensen's perception: present but shiny and opaque, like bouncing off a curved wall.
When he got to the end of their driveway, Jensen stopped.
"You're blocking the door," he told them. "Move."
A step behind him, Jared made an odd choking sound.
Jensen glanced back at him. "Okay?"
Jared waved him off. "Don't mind me." Now that he was consciously suppressing his panic, all Jensen could feel from him was curiosity and a healthy dose of fierce protectiveness. Which was sweet, but misguided. Jensen could take care of himself.
Although, he amended to himself, with shields like that, these two might have been more easily dealt with by a fist to the face than Jensen's particular brand of persuasion.
"Jensen Ackles," one of them said. He dipped a hand into his jacket and withdrew a familiar-looking envelope. "You have been ignoring our recent correspondence."
"No, I haven't. I sent you a reply."
"Which was not accepted, as was indicated in subsequent correspondence," the other one said. "Refusal is not an option."
"Are you threatening my boyfriend?" Jared asked, stepping closer. "Because I am not putting up with that. I don't care who you are."
"This is a matter of legal requirement, Mr. Padalecki," one of them said. "Not a threat."
"Mr. Ackles is breaking the law. Surely you've been aware of his refusal to abide by a government summons?"
Frustration. The faintest stirrings of anger, presumably directed at Jensen.
Unfortunately, Jensen had more important things to do than worry about it.
"Am I expected to come with you now?" he asked.
Jared's fingers found their way to the back of Jensen's shirt and clutched tightly.
"No," one of them said, and Jared sagged a little. Relief? "We are here to encourage you strongly to comply with the precepts of the letter this time. If you choose to ignore them again, we shall be more forceful."
Translation: next time we'll take you by force.
"I understand. Now, will you vacate our doorway? I need a shower."
Wordlessly, the pair came down the steps and walked past them to the large SUV parked in the driveway. Jensen had to admire their cunning when they extended the envelope to Jared, rather than him.
"Mr. Ackles. Mr. Padalecki. Have a pleasant day," the one without the envelope said. He inclined his head. "We look forward to your return Home, Jensen."
Unhurriedly, they continued to their car, while Jensen wondered if it was worth the effort to try and remember if he'd ever crossed paths with either of them before. Probably not. Neither of them seemed the type to have made any sort of impression on him.
"Come on," Jensen said, once they'd backed out of the driveway and vanished down the street. "I don't want to have this conversation on the lawn."
"Oh, we're having a conversation now?" Jared asked, although he followed Jensen up to the door just the same. Wisps of irritation. "Cause it seems like there are a couple of things you've been keeping from me. And it might just be me, but I think it would have been nice to hear about… whatever this is before getting ambushed by suited men on our doorstep."
"Be glad they decided not to wait inside instead," Jensen said, letting them into the house. "That would have been more disconcerting."
"At this point, I think the level of disconcertion hardly makes much difference." Jared sighed. He felt strangely betrayed, which Jensen didn't like at all. "Jensen, will you please tell me what's going on?"
Jensen owed him that much. And more, probably. He'd have to see if any of his relationship books covered a situation like this.
"I will," he said. He shifted to toe off his shoes and felt a burst of disgust about the sodden state of his socks. "Can I have a shower first?"
For some reason, that made Jared's unhappiness ease slightly. "How about I whip us up some eggs while you're showering. Then I'll get washed up while you're eating and we can talk about this whole… mess when we're both in a better mood."
"I'm sorry you found out this way," Jensen offered.
Jared's answering smile didn't have much genuineness behind it. "I still don't feel like I've found out anything. I trust you, though."
"That's - thank you."
Jared's fingers twitched, but ultimately stayed at his side. "You're welcome," he said. "Now go get showered. You kind of smell."
"And whose fault is that?" Jensen asked, although he went. It wasn't like Jared was wrong.
Maybe the time in the shower would give him the opportunity to come up with the explanation that was least likely to upset Jared any further.
50 minutes later, they tried again.
Clean from his shower, Jared sat down at the kitchen table while Jensen polished off the last of his eggs. Jared was turning the envelope around in his hands almost absently; Jensen wasn't sure if he was more surprised or relieved that it was still sealed.
Jensen stared into his mostly-empty tea mug, unsure where to begin.
Jared, as usual, came to his rescue. "You know, I think I prefer pushy owls as a delivery technique."
Jensen blinked at him, nonplussed. "What do owls have to do with anything?"
Jared chuckled, even though his emotions were nowhere even close to mirthful. "I guess it shouldn't surprise me that you're not a Harry Potter fan. What I mean is that that was the most intimidating pair of mailmen I've ever had the misfortune of meeting."
"It's not their day job." Jensen eyed the envelope in Jared's hands with a weary resignation. "They're employees at Home."
"Your parents are sending you mail via the FBI?" Jared asked, cocking his head to the side the way he did when he was confused. "I didn't think dinner went that badly."
It was Jensen's turn to be perplexed. "What?"
"You said those guys worked at your parents' house, right? Are they more upset than I thought?"
Oh. Of course. Jensen should have anticipated that interpretation of his words.
"Not my parents' house. Home. The place where I grew up."
Sudden spike of interest. "You told me that you grew up in a government facility," Jared said, leaning forward.
Jensen nodded. "At Home. That's what we were told to call it. It was the only one I had until-"
"You bought this place?"
"I bonded with you," Jensen corrected, and felt his face warm in response to the sheer amount of mushy affection that simple phrase prompted in Jared.
"I always pictured you in something like a foster home," Jared said. "Just run by stellae. Am I wrong?"
"Very. It was more like a… a military boarding school, I suppose." He considered. "Or possibly a medical lab."
Jared frowned. "Why do I get the impression that you deliberately downplayed that part of it when you explained last time?"
"No, it's not- that wasn't intentional." Jensen tried a small shrug. "You know how I get."
"You didn't realize it required explaining?"
"Until I left Home and started working, I didn't realize that my childhood was anything out of the ordinary."
Jared's mouth twisted. "Jesus, Jensen," he said. He felt strangely sad. "I know you needed help making sure you could control your powers, but that's not a good environment for anyone to grow up in, especially not a kid."
Jensen shrugged. "If you say so."
"Do you miss it?"
"No," Jensen said immediately. Some of his vehemence must have been obvious even without any visual cues, because Jared simply nodded and changed the subject.
"So the jerks in suits, they work for this Home place."
"And what is it that they want from you?"
"They want me to be reassessed."
Curiosity. "For what?"
"Does that usually change?" Jared gestured at Jensen's stars. "I mean, you were born a level 5. Isn't that pretty set in stone?"
"Yes and no. Most stellae come into their full strength once they go through puberty. Their strength as children is usually not an accurate representation of their full potential."
"Okay," Jared said slowly. "That still doesn't explain why they want you reassessed. You're hardly a teenager."
"They want to see how much stronger I am now that I've bonded with you."
A brief surge of possessive pride, followed by confusion. Jensen found that a rather odd reaction.
Jared didn't give him long to dwell on it. "What do I have to do with anything?" he asked. "Does being bonded make empaths stronger?"
"It improves my control, as you know. I don't have to guard myself so closely because I have you to ground me. The Stella Institute wants to see what I can do with level 5 powers now that I don't have to worry quite so much about getting my brain scrambled when I touch people."
"Huh." Jared held up the envelope. "So this is-?"
"A summons for an aptitude test, basically. Like a doctor's appointment. I tried to say no, but apparently that's not an option."
Jared's eyes narrowed. "Why did you try to say no?"
Jensen looked down at the table. "I don't want to tell you."
Jared sighed. "I won't try and force you to tell me anything you don't want to. If you'd rather keep it to yourself, then that's fine." His mind was a grey-white wash of resignation and patience, tinged just faintly with hope.
"But you want me to tell you anyway," Jensen guessed.
"I want you to be happy and safe," Jared said. He looked down at his hands, the envelope still tipped on its corners between his fingers. "I will certainly admit to being curious - not that I need to, I'm sure." He didn't: Jensen could easily feel that for himself. "But it's not just about what I want, is it?"
"I don't want to give you up," Jensen blurted, and was immediately horrified with himself.
Shock. "I'm not going anywhere." Concern. "Why would you think I would?"
"Not you," Jensen tried to explain. "Me. I don't want them to take me away."
The shock redoubled, turning protective green around the edges. "No one's taking you away. I wouldn't let them."
"I suppose they might take you too," Jensen said, turning the idea over in his mind. "Depending on where they want me to go. That wouldn't be so bad."
Jared's hand landed on his sleeve, and Jensen started. He hadn't noticed Jared standing up and coming to crouch by his side.
Jared's thoughts were gentle. "Jensen," he said. "You're starting to frighten me."
"The yoga's definitely working," was all Jensen could think to say. "You don't feel frightened at all."
Jared smiled. "Only because I'm trying very hard to be calm. It won't do us any good if we're both scared. But I really need you to explain to me what you're talking about. In small words, if necessary."
Jensen took a moment to order himself. "You know that most high level stellae work for the government."
"Much of our education was designed to supplement this. I told you learned how to identify and block emotions. They also trained me to manipulate them. It's a pretty standard technique for empaths, and they had high hopes for the work I'd be able to take on as a government employee."
Jared's brow furrowed. "You make it sound like a mandatory thing."
Jensen shrugged. "It doesn't really matter. Despite practicing for years, I never managed to figure out how to keep my own emotions balanced when I touched another person. There's not much call for an agent who compromises himself every time he tries to do his job. I wasn't considered appropriate for government service, so they allowed me to choose my own schooling and career."
"And also because forced service is illegal these days," Jared said, obviously trying to lighten the mood.
Jensen looked at him. He said nothing.
Jared's smile fell. "What?" White horror. "Tell me you're joking."
"The government can't technically force any stella to work for it, but the issue becomes more technical the more powerful the stella in question is. You wondered why I was just an architect; I know you did."
"Hardly 'just', love," Jared said. Pride in Jensen pulsed behind his words. "You're the best drafter in the company."
"Not really the point I was making. But thank you."
Jared flashed him a smile, then sobered. "Okay, I can admit that I was somewhat surprised to meet a high level stella working in an office, yes. But it sounds like you're afraid that they'll retest you and force you to, what? Become some kind of professional interrogator whether you want to or not?"
"I- yes," Jensen admitted. "That's pretty much it."
More anger, darkening to panic near the centre. At least this time, it didn't seem to be directed at Jensen.
Jared hand a hand through his hair. "Do you really think they can make you do that? I mean, this is America, for Christ's sake. We have laws about this kind of stuff."
Jensen didn't know what they were capable of, to be honest, but, "I'm afraid they won't apply to me. You know that there are separate laws concerning stellae, and I'm the only level 5 empath currently alive on this continent. I'm not sure I want to know what they'll be willing to do if they think I'm worth having."
"I won't let them," Jared promised. "You hear me? I won't."
His hand reached up and just barely brushed Jensen's cheek. Jensen jolted away, gasping as the full, suffocating weight of Jared's protective fury flooded into him.
Jared jerked his hand back like he'd been burnt. "I need to go calm down," he said, standing up quickly. He started to walk away, then turned back over one shoulder. "If I can't control myself, you have my permission to knock me out. Those sedatives that Dr. Aziz gave us are in the bathroom."
"Jared, that's not-"
"I'm not hurting you again," Jared said. His entire body was trembling with the force of keeping himself calm, Jensen noticed. "Please don't let me hurt you."
"Okay," Jensen agreed reluctantly.
Jared flashed him a smile. "When I calm down," he said. "We're going to figure this out."
"Sure," Jensen agreed, and tried not to feel like the past year had been an all-too-fleeting dream as he watched Jared walk away from him.
The thing was.
When he'd lived at Home, Jensen had seen nothing wrong with the life they'd given him. It hadn't necessarily been enjoyable, but it had been necessary. He wouldn't have been alive today if not for the training he'd received there. And Jensen could even admit that he missed it sometimes, not just because of the white-washing impact of nostalgia.
Since Jensen had left Home, he'd learned what it meant to be part of the human race. He'd built his own life, complete with his own goals, his own successes and his own joys. And Jared.
He'd be damned before he let them take that away from him again. And he'd do a hell of a lot more damage than that if they tried to drag Jared down with him.
"You are not going to be submitted to the government training program next year," Dr. Tapping said.
A burst of relief swept through Jensen. Hard on its heels came the expected shame: he was a failure. He'd let everyone down.
But it meant a freedom that he had scarcely dared to dream about.
Jensen kept his thoughts to himself, the way they'd taught him. "I understand."
"A list of suitable alternative occupations has been compiled," Dr. Tapping said. She waved a hand, and one of the helpers stepped forward with a piece of paper. "Take some time to consider which ones you have interest in."
The knowledge of exactly what he'd be squandering if he didn't take this chance made Jensen brave.
"Do I have to choose off the list?" he ventured.
As was her wont, Dr. Tapping answered his question with one of her own. "Did
you have something in mind?"
Was Jensen meant to take that as an opportunity to speak? Not for the first time, he regretted the fact that Chris had left Home three years ago; he'd always been able to tell Jensen when Dr. Tapping was using what Chris called her 'warning voice'. Some questions, Jensen had learned, had specific answers.
Apparently, Jensen was taking too long. "Tell me."
"I want to work in design," Jensen admitted.
Jensen had never told anyone before. "Buildings."
The skin around Dr. Tapping's eyes did something strange. Why did faces have to have so many permutations? He didn't dare ask what it meant, though. It would just be another reminder of his failure, and he desperately wanted Dr. Tapping not to be so disappointed with him that she refused out of hand.
"That's called architecture," Dr. Tapping told him.
Jensen nodded. He knew that.
"It will require external schooling, so we'll have to ask for approval," Dr. Tapping said. She smiled suddenly, and Jensen wished he could smile back. Some of the low-level empaths could do it. He liked it when Dr. Tapping smiled. "But I'll see what I can do."
That was more than Jensen had hoped for. "Thank you," he said, trying to ignore the excitement rising up inside him.
"You do know that you won't be like the other students," Dr. Tapping said. Her voice didn't rise at the end, which meant that it wasn't a question.
"I do," Jensen agreed.
"And that doesn't frighten you?"
Not unduly. "Should it?"
Dr. Tapping made a face that Jensen couldn't parse. "That remains to be seen."
"I've been thinking about this stuff with Home," Jared said, out of the blue several days later.
Jensen paused in the act of making sandwiches for lunch. "You have."
Jared nodded. "I think you need to let them retest you."
So this was what betrayal felt like. They'd never quite been able to convey it to Jensen's satisfaction at Home. It felt bitter in his mouth.
"You do," he managed. "That surprises me."
"They're not going to leave us alone," Jared said, disgustingly logical. "Better to meet them on your own terms before they escalate the situation. If you force their hand, they're probably going to be a lot harder to reason with when we tell them to stuff their government job up their asses."
"You-" Jensen took a moment to process that. "You really think I'll be able to come back here after they retest me?"
Jared nodded. "I'm not letting anyone take you away." He frowned. "I'm very upset that you thought I meant something else, but I get that this is difficult for you. Once we've dealt with this mess, we're going to have a long talk with face-touching and lots of emotional transference about just how much I adore you. Okay?"
There wasn't much Jensen could say to that. "Okay."
"Good. So. I think we should deal with this head-on."
"Such a massive conversation. You have no idea. There will be embarrassing confessions involved. I might cry a little. Of course 'we'. We-" a hand waving gesture at the space between them, "-are now and forever a we. We are also separate mes, but that doesn't make us any less of a we."
"You're starting to confuse me."
Jared waved a hand. "Whatever, the words aren't important. Mostly, we're going to kick this thing in the balls together."
"You did hear the part where the government can kind of force me to work for it, yes?" Jensen asked. "I think you're being overoptimistic."
Jared pursed his lips. "I don't think so."
"They'll be willing to use extreme persuasion," Jensen said. "Which, from what I understand, is a euphemism for violence."
"If they hurt you, they won't be able to employ you. They kind of need you in one piece, both physically and mentally. Violence will only make it harder for you to stay in control, and they can't afford that."
Jared was missing the obvious here.
"They've got a lot of leverage," Jensen reminded him. "I'm bonded to you. They can get me to do whatever they want if they threaten you." The very words tasted like bile in his mouth.
"Yeah, I guess," Jared said, unconcerned. "But they wouldn't actually hurt me."
Jensen felt a surge of exasperation. "Your faith in our government is overdeveloped."
"I'll put my faith in you first, actually. It's not faith in the government. It's just practicality."
That gave Jensen pause. "How so?"
"I've been reading up on empathic bonds," Jared said. "Did you know that, in the few documented cases they've got, bonded empaths don't outlive their partner by more than a couple of months?"
"Yes," Jensen said. "So?"
"You rely on my mental well-being for your own, right? So anything that does lasting damage to me or my mental landscape directly affects the use they can get out of you. Even if someone threatens to hurt me, they can't actually do anything unless they want to risk rendering you useless to them. It's not a winning situation."
"I'm not willing to risk your safety on a logical technicality," Jensen said. He could feel a protective sort of fury simmering at the back of his head; he wasn't sure which of them was to blame for it. Probably himself.
"Which is why we're also going to lawyer up and make sure that everything is recorded in goddamn triplicate before we go anywhere near that damn place. Paper trails will make it harder for them to vanish either of us. Besides, you do know that they're probably going to be a little terrified of you, right?"
Jensen blinked. "What? Why?"
Exasperated fondness. "You're a level 5 empath with a flourishing empathic bond and a protective instinct a mile wide. If they're not afraid of getting on your bad side, they haven't got two brain cells to rub together." Determination. "We are going to deal with this together, and then we are going to come back to our lives and keep right on living them. I promise."
"You shouldn't promise things you can't guarantee," Jensen said, although he couldn't deny the flash of hope that Jared's words prompted.
"I would move the world itself to keep you safe," Jared said. "And it just so happens that I know a guy who can literally move the world with his mind who's also totally on board with this plan, if push comes to shove. Name's Chris. You may have heard of him. He's kind of pissed that you never mentioned the letters, by the way."
Of course he is, Jensen was going to say. "I love you," is what came out instead.
Fondness. Devotion. Affection. All the variations of an emotion that Jensen had never needed to understand the subtle nuances of before Jared had walked into his life. He was looking forward to learning each and every one.
"Right back at you. I'm going to hug you now." Jared suited action to his words and wrapped Jensen up in his long arms. Jensen let his head drop to the front of Jared's shoulder, enjoying the dual sensation of being enveloped by Jared's body and mind all at once. Jared pressed a feather-light kiss to his hair. "We good?"
Jensen nodded. "We're good."
And the people at Home had another thing coming if they thought Jensen was going to let them change that.
"Don't forget that we still need to meet my parents for lunch after all this shit is dealt with," Jared said, interrupting Jensen's pleasantly vengeful thoughts. "After I survived meeting yours, there is no way I'm letting you weasel out of returning the favour."
Well, hell. "You're a cruel and unusual person," Jensen muttered.
Love. Pure, unadulterated love. "I sure am. And you're stuck with me forever."
Which worked out well, because that was just how Jensen wanted it.