Fandom: CW RPS
Word count: 11,200
A/N: Rather loosely based on the prompt Meet the Robinsons at j2_everafter.
Summary: It's pretty much your average boy meets boy story, except for the kid with the time machine and the fact that Jensen lives in the future.
Jared Padalecki failed at life.
If his mama had heard him saying that, she would have cuffed him upside the head, told him not to insult her son like that and promised him that things would get better. Chad would have told him to man the fuck up or, failing that, to drink until he wasn't such a pussy. Jeff would have just laughed at him, because he was a big brother and therefore an utter jackass.
But Jared's mama was back home in San Antonio, Chad was still in Europe 'experiencing life' instead of attending college like a normal person and Jeff was absolutely useless no matter where he was. Which was why, when he was feeling like a stupid, talentless hack after receiving his twenty-seventh rejection letter and a 62 on his latest assignment on the same fucking day, he was thinking of locking himself in his room forever instead of finding someone who could get him out of this funk.
It was probably also why he was standing in the middle of the park accepting a business card from some guy in a funny hat claiming to be a talent scout.
"It's a great way to get your foot in the day," the guy was saying, in that smarmy, oily voice that seemed to be the default setting of every scout Jared had ever met. "Solid paycheck, too."
"Commercials," Jared said, raising an eyebrow that he hoped conveyed just how sketchy he was finding this entire conversation.
The guy nodded. "Three of them. It's a great opportunity."
Then why are you soliciting people in the frigging park? Jared wanted to ask. He cleared his throat. "I don't think-"
"It's an open call," the guy continued, as if Jared hadn't spoken. "And it's only a couple hours of your time. What have you got to lose?"
Jared shook his head, trying to get past the hope bubbling up in his veins to think about this logically. "You can't seriously expect me to believe that you get clients this way."
"Not usually," the guy agreed. His eyes dipped unsubtly to the rejection letter sticking out of Jared's pocket and Jared felt his cheeks heat. "But you seem like a pretty sure bet." He smiled thinly and the expression made Jared's hackles rise. "And you're just the guy I was looking for. The address is on the back of the card," he said, with a wave of his hand. "Think about it."
The guy walked away without another word, leaving Jared standing alone in the middle of the path with a business card in his hand and the belated realization that he hadn't even got the guy's name.
Despite himself, Jared looked down at the card.
Robinson Reel, it said. 128 South Bank. 2pm.
His mama would have told him not to take things from strangers. Chad would have told him that he was going to laugh forever if it turned out to be some illegal porn company. Jeff would probably have agreed with Chad, for once. Then laughed at him anyway.
Which was all totally unhelpful and brought Jared no closer to making a decision.
Because the fact was, he really couldn't afford to be turning down any opportunity for an audition right now. Commercials might not have been much like actual acting, but considering that he apparently gave the shittiest auditions in the history of the entire human race, he'd do well to take whatever he could get right now.
On the other hand, it was more than a little worrying to get handed random auditions by smarmy talent scouts in the middle of a public park. And Jared really didn't want to end up kidnapped by a shady porn ring.
Torn, Jared glanced at his watch. 1:03pm. It'd take him the better part of half an hour to get to South Bank, which would leave him with just enough time to grab a quick bite and fit in the mandatory few minutes of pointless panicking. And, really, what else was he going to do with his afternoon other than sitting around being miserable?
With a vaguely rueful sigh, Jared tucked the business card in his pocket and turned left, figuring that the subway station a couple of blocks over was his best for getting downtown in good time.
Something small and compact plowed into him before he'd gone more than five steps, nearly sprawling him head over ass onto the pavement with the force of the impact.
"What do you think you're doing?" a voice demanded and Jared blinked down to find a kid with pale hair and wildly green eyes glaring up at him from under a wide-brimmed cap, wearing a scolding look that would have done Jared's mama proud.
Jared stared, nonplussed, and the kid's frown deepened. "Well?"
"Walking?" Jared said.
The kid huffed at him. "You're going the wrong way," he said, which made no sense whatsoever. He gestured off at an oblique angle. "You're supposed to be going over there."
"Ookay," said Jared. "Do I know you?"
The kid rolled his eyes. "Not yet," he said, as though it was obvious. Maybe it was to a ten-year old, Jared didn't know. "Which is why you have to go that way. To make sure you do know me later."
Jared was clearly missing something here. "Um."
"Look," the kid said. "I know you're not so good at following directions, but this is for your own good. You can't go to that audition." His expression was sober. "Trust me on this, Jared."
Jared gaped at him. "How do you know my name?"
"Because I'm clever," the kid said dryly.
If Chad had been anywhere on the continent and considerably more subtle than he actually was, Jared would have figured this for some kind of strange, vaguely humiliating practical joke. As it was, he had absolutely no idea what was going on.
"I've got absolutely no idea what's going on," he told the kid honestly. "Can you give me a hint?"
The kid sighed. "I'm from the future," he said, completely matter-of-fact. "And you're going to screw everything up if you don't listen to me."
Jared arched an eyebrow, smiling almost despite himself. "You are, huh? You don't wanna share tomorrow's lotto numbers with me, do you?"
That earned him a frustrated huff. "God, you're an annoying teenager. Look, I'll prove it to you."
With that, the kid turned and walked off the path towards a row of shrubs that looked like they could do with some attention from a very patient gardener. "Come on," he said, gesturing over one shoulder. "Got something to show you."
Jared looked at his watch. 1:10pm.
"Look, I'm sorry," he said to the kid. "But I've got to go."
The kid made a face at him. "Would you just come here already? It's like twenty steps."
It was Jared's turn to sigh as he dragged himself grudgingly forward. "You're lucky I appreciate the value of imagination," he told the kid and followed him round the edge of the copse of bushes. "Because I don't- holy shit."
The kid grinned, triumphant. "Told you I could prove it."
"Wow," Jared said. "That's-"
Actually, Jared didn't have the faintest idea what 'that' was. It looked like a cross between a race car and a spaceship, with spindly landing gear instead of wheels, neon green racing stripes and a clear domed roof through which Jared could see a regular old steering wheel and regular old seatbelts on the chairs. It was about the size of a mini, with more than enough space for at least three people.
Mostly Jared was impressed that he hadn't noticed it sooner. Even hidden behind a bush, it wasn't exactly inconspicuous.
"Come on." The kid tugged at his sleeve and Jared, more than a little bemused, let himself get dragged over. The kid pressed something on the side of the... ship thing and the whole glass hatch slid up and open. The kid clambered in immediately and, after a moment's hesitation, Jared followed.
The control panel inside was an incomprehensible mess of lights and buttons and funny switches and other appropriately space-aged thingies. Jared was starting to think there was maybe some truth in this whole time-travel theory.
"This is a time machine," he said, more a question than anything else.
The kid nodded. "The genuine article."
"And why am I standing in it?"
"Because I'm proving a point. Look," the kid said, jabbing a finger at a spinny-looking monitor that gave Jared a headache just looking at it. "This is today. And here's you."
"How is that squiggle me?" Jared wanted to know.
"That's an excellent question. Now this is what today is supposed to look like."
The kid twisted a knob and the mess of lines and spinny-whirly whatsits jumped around and settled into a new pattern that, while considerably less dizzying than the last one had been, meant just as little to Jared.
The kid turned to him. "See?"
"Um," said Jared.
"Never mind," said the kid, with a wave of his hand. "The point is that you're not supposed to go that way. It's going to mess up the whole future. That audition's just a decoy."
At the mention of the audition, Jared glanced automatically at his watch. 1:14pm.
He absolutely didn't have time for this. "Look, kid-"
"Luke," the kid interrupted.
"Luke, then. This is all super cool, but I really need to go." He offered Luke a gentle smile. "Some other time, okay? I promise."
"You still don't believe me," Luke said, as though this was the most ridiculous thing he'd ever heard. "Since when are you the sensible one?" He sighed. "Guess there's only one way to deal with this."
"And what's that?" Jared asked, then stared with dawning horror as Luke sat himself down in the driver's seat and started fiddling with the controls. The hum of an engine powering up rumbled through the floor and Jared started in surprise when the glass dome closed with a smooth hiss of hydraulics. "What are you doing?"
Luke threw a fierce grin at him over his shoulder. "Showing you something awesome," he said. "You might want to sit down."
Lukes put the ship-thing into gear, hit the gas and Jared actually felt the entire world dissolve around them, melting into nothing until Jared was the only thing left in existence.
And then he disappeared too.
It was over in a small eternity. Jared sucked in a gasping lungful of air as soon as he had lungs to do it with, head spinning as light and shape and texture reasserted themselves with a vengeance.
"Jesus Christ," he panted, slumping belatedly into the passenger seat. "The fuck was that?"
"Don't be such a baby," Luke said, sounding remarkably unconcerned about the whole thing. "It wasn't that bad. Now c'mon and take a look."
At what? Jared was going to ask, but a single glance up made the question pretty redundant. "Jesus Christ," he said again, in awe this time.
"You're not in Kansas anymore, Toto," Luke said, sounding terribly smug about the whole thing. Jared couldn't really blame him.
Their little time machiney-thing was gliding through the air like a mini airplane, darting in and out of traffic like cars were a totally normal thing to be avoiding while thirty stories up. A sleek red sports car flew past them and Jared caught a glimpse of a guy in a business suit driving it, his mouth moving silently as he talked to what looked like a hologram sitting in the passenger seat.
He was in some kind of city, Jared figured, but it didn't look like any city he'd ever seen. The buildings were soft-edged and looked almost like they'd been built out of marshmallow; clear pipes ran up and along the walls, weaving in and out of the building. Something pink and green flashed up one of them as they passed and Jared blinked when he realized that it was a person.
Elevators in the future were apparently fucking awesome.
"Believe me now?" Luke asked, still sounding terribly pleased with himself.
"You have a time machine," Jared said, all but pressing his face into the glass to get a better look at the colourful mess of buildings and flying cars all around them. If he squinted, he could just make out what looked like a floating McDonald's on the other side of a block of those smooshy-looking buildings. "An actual time machine. Holy shit, I'm in the future. This is crazy. What year is it?" He paused. "And where the hell are we? Are we even in the same state?"
"All excellent questions," Luke said, not looking away from the windscreen.
Jared waited a beat. "Are you going to answer them?" he asked.
Jared frowned. "Why not?"
"Because they're not important." Luke said dismissively. "All you need to know is that this," a dramatic wave around them that sent the time machine veering to the left and mashed Jared's head against the glass, "is the future. Which is why you need to listen to me instead of going to that phony audition."
"What do you mean phony?" Jared demanded, peeling himself off the window and digging down the side of his chair for a seatbelt. It seemed like he was going to need it while Luke was driving. "How would you even know that?"
Luke sighed. "Do you seriously think that talent scouts wander around in parks looking for people to give business cards to?" he asked, in a tone of voice that suggested he thought Jared was being a complete moron.
"No, actually," Jared said stiffly. "But that doesn't mean I can afford to igno-"
"That guy was a time traveler," Luke interrupted. "He was trying to get you to waste time going to that 'audition' instead of being where you needed to be. He's trying to change the future. This future."
"About that." Jared twisted round in his seat so he was looking at Luke head-on. "I still don't get what any of this," he waved an arm the same way Luke had. "Has to do with me. I'm nobody."
"I told you," Luke said, starting to sound impatient. He twisted in his chair to glare at Jared. "Everything depends on you going to th-"
"Watch out!" Jared said sharply, flinging an arm out towards a car that was zooming straight for them.
Luke jerked hard on the steering wheel and they veered abruptly, missing the car but heading straight for a far-too-close building.
"Oh shit," Luke said. He wrenched them around, not fast enough to keep them from clipping the edge of the building as they fishtailed past. A cloud of smoke burst out from under the hood, flaring up over the windscreen and making it next to impossible to see.
"What do I do?" Luke demanded, panic riding high in his voice. He tugged instinctively at the steering wheel and they went into a nose dive, spiraling towards the ground at a dizzying speed. "Help!"
Jared should absolutely have known that a ten year-old couldn't have had a driver's license.
Jared fumbling with his seatbelt and practically launched himself forward, wrapping his hands on the wheel above Luke's.
"We need to level her off!" he said, bracing himself against the floor and the back of Luke's chair. "Find us somewhere safe to land!"
Luke nodded, the back of his head bumping against Jared's chest. They hurtled downwards far too fast and Jared fought to keep the controls steady.
"There!" Luke cried, pointing towards an open patch of earth near what looked like a river.
"Got it!" Jared fought to level them off, squinting desperately through the smoke.
They threaded erratically between the buildings, the ground growing ever closer. They were still going way too fast but Jared was mostly doing his best to make sure they weren't going to go down nose first; no time to worry about the rest.
"We're going to crash!" Luke shouted.
"I know!" Jared answered, his whole body rattling with the effort of holding the wheel steady. "Hang on!"
They hit the ground with a bone-jarring thud, then bounced, hit the ground again and skidded a good fifteen feet before coming to a sudden, rough stop. Jared wound up splayed across the dashboard, the steering wheel digging painfully into his abdomen and one of his arms twisted in a way that was going to hurt like hell in a few hours. The airbags deployed and smacked him in the face, belated and unhelpful. Apparently even a world where time machines existed couldn't fix some things. Luke's seatbelt had protected him from the worst of the impact, though Jared knew he'd be sporting some pretty impressive bruising across his chest as a result.
They sat there for a long, stunned moment.
"You know," Jared said into the sudden, shocked stillness. "That's pretty much how my first driving lesson went, too."
Luke turned to him in wordless horror, nothing but wide eyes and a trembling lip beneath the brim of his cap. "My dad is going to kill me."
"So let me get this straight.," Jared said, doing his level best to sound calm. They'd been walking under the midday sun for over an hour and Jared was sweating hard, his hair clinging to the back of his neck in a decidedly unpleasant fashion. Whenever the hell he was, it sure wasn't April anymore. "You stole a time machine-"
"Borrowed," Luke corrected. "It's my dad's, it doesn't count as stealing. And I'm gonna give it back."
"In pieces," Jared reminded him. Luke ignored that. Jared rolled his eyes. "Fine, you borrowed a time machine, even though you're ten and you can't drive,"
"I'm eleven and a half and I was doing fine till you distracted me."
"-went back in time to tell me not to go to an audition, took me to the future, crashed the time machine, got me stuck here and now," he let his voice raise, just to convey his mighty discontent with this whole situation. "You're expecting me to push this stupid broken time machine all the way to your house. Wherever the hell that is."
Luke shrugged, profoundly unmoved. "Pretty much."
"And why am I doing all the work?" Jared demanded. He strained against the weight of the time machine, feeling sweat slide between his shoulder blades.
"You're bigger than me," Luke said easily. "And I'm navigating."
"To where? California?" Jared wheezed, starting to feel the fatigue of half an hour of pushing a magic flying car through the summer heat. "Seriously, don't you have a teleporter or something?"
"It's the future," Luke said, with a roll of his eyes. "Not Star Trek."
Jared felt somehow obscurely pleased by the fact that Star Trek references still existed in the year four billion or whatever. "Remind me again why we're going to your house?"
"Because we wrecked the time machine-"
"We?" Jared demanded.
"-and I've got to find another way to get you back to your time."
"Can't we, you know, take it to an auto shop instead?" Jared asked. "You can show me some cool future stuff while we're waiting and your dad can pick up the bill after he's finished killing you."
Luke stopped and fixed him with a condescending look that Jared didn't think he deserved to receive from a fucking eleven year old. "This thing is one of a kind, you know. There's no such thing as a time machine repair shop."
"And we just busted it. Great." Jared wiped a tired hand across his brow, then paused as a thought struck him. "Hang on. You said that other guy was from the future too. How's that possible if this is the only time machine in the world?"
"I didn't say it was the only one. Dad's still waiting for the patent to come through so there are still a couple of competitors." Luke waved a dismissive hand. "This one's way better, anyway. You coming?"
Luke snorted. "You didn't think I just happened to have one lying around the house, did you? My dad built it."
"Your dad built a time machine?"
"He's a scientist," Luke said, pride shining clearly through the words. "He's invented all sorts of stuff."
"So we're taking this back to your house to make him fix it?" Jared asked hopefully.
"You kidding? I'll be grounded forever if my parents find out I brought you here."
"That's flattering," Jared said dryly. "So what are we going to do, then?"
"Improvise." Luke gestured to something ahead of them. "Here we are. I told you it wasn't much farther."
Jared peeked around the side of the time machine and promptly gaped.
"That's your house?" he asked. "It looks like a superhero's secret base."
Luke grinned. "Actually I think that was kind of the idea. Come on." He started across the sprawling lawn towards a low-roofed building next to the multistory piece of magic technology that was apparently his house. "We'll hide this thing in the garage for now."
"Seriously," Jared said as he forced his tired arms to start pushing again. "Why is your house so big? And why isn't it all marshmallowy like the other buildings?"
"Because my parents are crazy."
Between Jared's pushing and Luke's complete lack of help, they managed to get the broken time machine stowed away in the garage before Jared died of heat stroke. He slumped gratefully against a low workbench, reveling in the chance to be out of the sun.
"Dad's lab is in the tower," Luke said, which might have been the coolest thing Jared had ever heard somebody say. "We're going to have to go through the house to get there."
"Why does it sound like you think that's a bad thing?"
Luke made a face. "Because my dad's family's visiting and they're going to kill me a lot if they find out what happened."
Jared shrugged. "So we'll avoid 'em. Can't be that difficult in a house that big."
"Oh, you'd be surprised," Luke said, sounding surprisingly sincere about it.
"Then why don't we walk around the house?" Jared suggested. "I totally need a bottle of water before we go back out there, but it'd-"
"You kidding?" Luke asked. "That's where the race track is. And the aquaball tank. There'll be even more of them out there."
"...you've got to be making this up."
"Not even a little bit. Welcome to the future. Oh, here," he said then, pulling off his cap. "Put this on."
"Why?" Jared asked, inspecting the cap. It was blue with white stitching round the brim and there wasn't a brand label on it.
"It'll make it harder to tell that you're you."
Jared scoffed. "Don't tell me my hair makes me look like I'm from the past."
"Okay, then I won't. You finished admiring it yet? Or do you need help figuring out how to put it on?"
"Shut up." Jared turned the cap over in his hands. "It's not going to fit me, Luke."
Luke huffed. "Just put it on."
"Fine," Jared said. "But I hope you've got a Plan B because this isn't going to-" The cap slid on like a glove: a perfect fit. He took it off again and was both startled and strangely unsurprised to find that it was decidedly wider than it had been a moment before.
"One size fits all hats," Luke said. Jared was getting kind of tired of his 'smug' voice. "Now come on. I don't want to get caught by a million relatives talking about how tall I've gotten and what a handsome young man you are."
"Gosh, this is sounding like a fun adventure."
"Oh, and stick close," Luke added, leading the way to the door. "The hallways shift out of existence sometimes so you really don't want to go wandering off on your own."
"Okay, you must be making that one up," Jared said and Luke grinned at him.
"Guess you'll find out, huh?"
This was absolutely the strangest day of Jared's entire life. And he had the sneaking suspicion that it was about to get even weirder.
Despite all of Jared's expectations for a space-age superhero bastion of science-y type stuff, Luke's house turned out to be surprisingly... homey.
Oh, it was futuristic, no doubt about that. There were circuits running through the walls, funky elevator tubes sticking out through the floors and a couple home entertainment centres that would probably have made Jared weep with jealousy if he could figure out what half the machines did.
But there were also worn, comfortable-looking sofas in front of the high tech TVs, forgotten books on the coffee tables and family photos hanging on the walls next to scribbled drawings that had Luke's name written on them in bright red crayon.
Luke dragged him through without giving him a chance to look at any of the personal effects, but there was no denying the decidedly lived-in feeling the entire place gave off. Jared liked it.
He also found out quite quickly that Luke really hadn't been exaggerating about his family.
The house was full of people. Jared could hear the constant buzz of talking and laughter echoing down every hallway and they made more than one detour to avoid having a run-in with a gaggle of Luke's relatives.
"Are all these people really related to you?" Jared asked, as Luke dragged him past a room where a group of kids a few years older than Luke were playing with some kind of gravity-defying trampoline. Jared officially loved this house.
"Yep," Luke said. "Well, probably. No one's really sure about Uncle Misha. Papa thinks he just wandered in off the street one day."
"Right," Jared said, because he had no idea what to say to that.
"You think this is bad, you should see it when both sides of the family are here," Luke added nonchalantly.
Jared stared at him. "You've got more relatives?"
Luke nodded. "This is just Dad's side of the family." He threw an amused look Jared's way. "The other side's way weirder."
"Seriously. You," Luke started, only to break off with an abrupt squeak as they rounded a corner and nearly ran directly into a woman with electric green hair and a white dress that looked like something out of The Jetsons.
"Luke!" she exclaimed and tugged him into an exuberant hug that mashed his face into what looked to be a very impressive set of breasts. "Good to see you!"
"Can't breathe, Cassie," Luke managed and Cassie's grin wasn't the slightest bit repentant as she gave him a final squeeze before letting him go.
"You gotta hurry up and start growing, squirt," she said, still grinning. "Make use of those tall genes your parents gave you."
Luke made a face that was at once fond and pained. "I'll get right on that," he said dryly. He cocked his head curiously. "When did you get back? I thought you were in orbit till the end of next month."
Cassie shrugged. "Switched a couple shifts around so I could go diving for sea snails off the coast of Greece before the weather got too cold. Well hello there," she said then, catching sight of Jared and the vaguely incredulous expression he was wearing. "Am I related to you?"
Luke rolled his eyes. "No, you're not related to him. This is Tristan," her told her. Jared turned his puzzled look Luke's way, completely nonplussed by the fact that the kid apparently knew his middle name. "He's just visiting. This is my cousin Cassie," he said to Jared. "She does sky painting from the Hyperion satellite."
Jared had no idea what that meant but he nodded anyway. "Nice to meet you," he said to Cassie, extending a hand.
"Ooh, I like the manners," Cassie said, accepting the handshake. She winked at him. "Always nice to meet hot guys who aren't my cousins."
Jared felt his cheeks heat. Cassie's grin went wicked.
"Oh, I like you. You and Luke should definitely join my table at dinner."
Luke made a face. "Stop hitting on my house guests, Cassie."
"Hey, I don't hear him complaining." Cassie's attention flicked past Jared's shoulder and her expression brightened. "Josh!" she called, waving.
Luke turned with a delighted smile on his face that Jared would have sworn was genuine if he hadn't seen the way Luke's shoulders had tensed when Cassie'd called that name. "Uncle Josh!" he exclaimed as a tall guy with salt-and-pepper hair and an easy smile walked up to them.
"Hey there, Luke," Uncle Josh said, scrubbing a hand through Luke's hair and making it stick up all over the place. "Where've you been? Your dad's been looking for you. Said to let you know that the hydraulic balloon races are starting."
Luke nodded hurriedly. "Okay, I'll go find him."
"Hey now," Uncle Josh said, in a fond, chiding sort of tone. "Why are you running off so soon? Is that any way to treat your favourite uncle?"
Cassie looked amused. "I think Jeff would fight you for that title."
Uncle Josh made a dismissive noise. "I could take him." He shared a conspiratorial grin with Luke. "And your Papa's not here to tell on me, so it's not like he'll ever find out."
"Where is your Papa anyway, Luke?" Cassie asked. "I thought for sure he'd be out playing with all the kids, but I haven't seen him since I got here."
"He's away for... work," Luke said, sounding strangely awkward. "He'll be back next week."
"Too bad," Cassie said. "Bet he's sorry to be missing everyone."
"He's not the only one," Uncle Josh said. "You wouldn't believe how upset my guys are that they won't get to kick his ass at laser tag again."
Luke rolled his eyes. "They can do that any time." He made a show of checking the clock on the wall. "I'm gonna go find Dad before I miss the races. C'mon, Tristan."
"Who's this?" Uncle Josh asked, before they could make their escape. He tilted his head thoughtfully and Jared tried very hard not to fidget.. "One of your papa's relatives?"
"This is Tristan," Luke said, somehow contriving to make that sound like an agreement. "He's in town for a summer job and Papa said he could stay here."
"I thought so," Uncle Josh said, satisfied. He grinned at Jared. "You probably get really sick of getting told how much you look li-"
"Leaving now!" Luke said loudly, cutting off the rest of the sentence. He seized Jared's hand and started dragging. "Later!"
"Someone's gotta talk to your dads about teaching you some manners, brat!" Uncle Josh called after them.
"Good luck with that!" Luke answered. He steered them round the corner and out of sight, letting go of Jared's hand as soon as they were clear.
"Damn," he said. "That was close. We have got to get you back to your own time."
"I don't really see what the big deal is," Jared said. "Seemed like they believed you just fine. And why do you know my middle name?"
"Magic," Luke said distractedly. "This way."
Jared shook his head. "You're kind of a colossal pain in the ass, you know that?"
"Blame my Papa," Luke said automatically. "Everyone else does."
"Um, about that." Jared found a terribly interesting spot on the wallpaper to stare at as he asked, "Have you got... two dads?"
"Yep," Luke said easily. Jared wondered if he was so calm because the future was progressive like that or because he knew Jared was gay.
Judging by the way his day was going, Jared was figuring probably both.
"So you're adopted?"
"Well then haven't invented male pregnancy, if that's what you're talking about." Luke took a sharp left and led Jared through a door that led them into a small courtyard full of plants Jared didn't recognize even a little bit. It was like wandering into a miniature rainforest.
Jared shook his head. "This house is insane. Are you sure we're not lost?"
"I'm not," Luke said. "Which is kind of too bad. It's great fun getting lost around here. Last time I found a swimming pool."
"I'd believe it."
They left the rainforest behind, moving into considerably quieter areas of the house. Jared didn't even bother trying to trace their route; it seemed like a waste of effort. He could easily imagine people starving to death if they took a wrong turn around here.
"How much farther is this place?" he asked, feeling the effects of getting into a time machine crash, pushing very heavy things under a hot sun and walking for frigging ever. "Feels like we're halfway to Canada by now."
"Not far," Luke said. "We've been taking the long way around to avoid everyone, but it's only-"
"Luke!" a man's voice rang out and Luke froze.
"Oh hell," he muttered and Jared wondered if that sort of language was really appropriate for a kid Luke's age.
Luke turned and shoved Jared behind the curtain hanging in front of the nearest window. "Stay there and if you value my life, don't say anything."
"I think you've got that backwards," Jared whispered, and was met with a truly impressive glare.
"Shh!" Luke hissed and then he let the curtain drop as he turned to face the man heading towards him.
"There you are," the guy said, and his voice was deep and warm. Jared liked it immediately. "Your Great Aunt Jaime's quite upset that you weren't out there helping on the grills."
Jared inched carefully towards the gap in the curtains, twitching it open just far enough to get a look at the guy Luke was talking to.
He was probably somewhere around forty, Jared guessed, and he was tall, fit and almost painfully attractive. His hair - short, spiked and soft-looking - was several shades darker than Luke's, and he had his shirtsleeves rolled up, revealing a healthy summer tan over well-toned muscles. He was wearing a pair of thick-framed glasses and there was a pen tucked behind his ear, like he'd forgotten about it. There was a smear of what looked like ink on his cheek and grease stains on his well-worn jeans.
All told, he looked like a cross between a male model and a research assistant. Jared stifled the entirely unmanly urge to swoon.
“Sorry, Dad.” Luke said and Jared promptly flushed, horrified by the realization that he'd been ogling someone’s dad. Yuck. "Got busy."
"Luke," Luke's dad said, with a fond sort of indulgence. "You've really got to stop wandering off to have a sulk every time Emery kicks your ass at combat chess."
"M'not sulking," Luke said, sounding sullen. It was a pretty good act, Jared had to admit, though he mostly just wanted to ask if combat chess was as awesome as it sounded. Maybe if he whined a lot Luke would let him try it out before he went back home.
"Oh no? Then what are you doing skulking around out here when I know for a fact that Uncle Josh told you they were setting up the hydraulic balloon races?"
"Oh, you know," Luke said, in the tone of voice every kid in the world used after getting caught doing something wrong. "Just felt like taking a couple of minutes to myself."
Luke's dad didn't appear any more convinced by that tone than Jared's mama ever had been. “What have you done?” he asked.
“Nothing!" Luke protested immediately. His eyes flicked briefly to Jared's hiding place before snapping back to his dad's face.
"Uh huh," said his dad, and Jared tensed when he reached out one hand for the edge of the curtain. "So you're not going to mind if I do this."
"Wait-" Luke started, but his dad had already pulled back the curtain and Jared found himself blinking into a face that was creased with laugh lines and still somehow even more attractive up close.
"Uh, hi," Jared said, with his best sheepish grin. He held out a hand, because his mama raised him right. "I'm-"
“Jared,” Luke’s dad breathed, shock scrawled openly across his face.
Jared was pretty sure he looked nearly as shocked. "Um..."
"Luke," Luke’s dad said, rounding on his son with a hushed, horrified look. "What have you done?"
"I can explain!" Luke said, but his dad ignored him.
"When are you from?" he asked Jared, whirling back to look him over with a critical eye that made Jared flush. "Eighteen or nineteen, probably early spring judging by the short sleeves and light jac-"
He trailed off suddenly, face paling. His attention zeroed in on the rejection letter still stuffed in Jared's pocket and then shifted, bizarrely, to where Luke's hat was perched on Jared's head. "May 3, 2002," he said, with a resigned sigh. "Probably about noon."
"1:15," Jared managed weakly. "Or at least it was when I left. How did you-"
Luke's dad groaned. "You are so beyond grounded," he said to Luke, fixing him with a glare that could have flayed the paint off walls. "Do you know what you could have done? I know you're curious but you can't just-"
"It isn't my fault!" Luke wailed, hurried and defensive. "I was just trying to stop that guy and then he-" a jabbed finger in Jared's direction, "didn't believe me, so I brought him here but the time machine crashed and we needed to get to your lab to fix things and I'm sorry! I'm so sorry, Dad!"
Luke burst into loud, messy tears and the expression on his dad's face softened.
"Come 'ere, little jackal," he said, opening his arms and folding a tearful Luke up in them. "It's okay. We'll sort things out."
Jared stood there awkwardly while they hugged, one of Luke's dad's big hands smoothing gently over Luke's hair until Luke had calmed down some.
"Was gonna fix it, "Luke muttered into the front of his dad's shirt. "Only tryin' to help."
"Well next time, how about you come tell me about it first, okay?" Luke's dad's voice was soft and butterfly gentle. He shifted and gave Luke the space to back up without leaving the circle of his arms. "Start at the beginning. Why did you take the time machine?"
Luke sniffed. "I-I was looking at the chronosystrometre and it went all fuzzy, like you said it does when things are changing weird." He looked up at his dad with a wide, vulnerable expression on his face. It was the first time, Jared thought, that he'd actually looked his age. "And it was happening on the third. I knew it had something to do with-"
Luke broke off and glanced at Jared. Completely confused, Jared blinked back at him.
"Yeah," Luke's dad agreed. He turned his attention on Jared as well. "You holding up alright over there, Jared?"
"Yes?" Jared hazarded.
"Good." Luke's dad made a face. "Remind me to kick your papa in the balls if he comes home and laughs at this, okay Luke?"
Luke rolled his eyes in a reasonable facsimile of his normal really irritating-ness. "Geez, Dad. I thought you were supposed to be the responsible one."
Luke's dad laughed. "I am, remember? Let's go. You too, Jared."
They fell into step together and Jared tried not to be too obvious about staring at Luke's dad.
"So, I'm Jensen," Luke's dad said as they walked.
"Hi," Jared said, because he was apparently a colossal tool. He coughed. "I'm Jared. But I guess you already know that."
Jensen nodded. "I do." He gave Jared an apologetic smile. "I'm sorry you got caught up in all this." He cuffed Luke lightly. "This guy's heart's in the right place, but the impulse control could be better."
"That's okay," Jared said. "It's been an interesting trip. And your family seems really cool."
Jensen arched an eyebrow. "Who did you meet?"
"Um, a girl named Cassie and Luke's Uncle Josh?"
Jensen's expression sharpened. "Did Uncle Josh notice?" he demanded of Luke.
Luke shook his head. "Thought he was family," he said, with a cheeky grin that Jensen returned in spades.
"I love my brother, but he's a real idiot sometimes. Here we go," Jensen said, stopping in front of a solid-looking door with a scanner next to it. Jensen put his hand on it and the door slid open to reveal an elevator tube. Jensen gestured grandly. "After you."
Luke walked straight in and vanished between one blink and the next, sucked up into the tube like he'd been vacuumed.
"You next," Jensen said and Jared took a deep breath before stepping forward.
It was like the space-age version of a waterslide: warm air and suction rocketed him through the tube at what felt like breakneck speeds. He got the faintest glimpses of some rooms as he zipped through them, but never enough to catch more than a flash of colour and some vague shapes.
Jared nearly ended up on his ass when the tube spit him out on the other end, but considering that the laws of physics suggested that he should have fallen out headfirst he wasn't sure he could be bothered to complain about it.
Luke grinned at him from a handful of feet away. "Well?"
"That was awesome," Jared said, grinning back just as broadly. "I could do that all day."
"Too bad you've got better places to be," Jensen's voice said behind him and Jared turned around to find the man watching him with the same kind of fondly amused look he'd bestowed on Luke when he'd first caught up with them.
"Can't I stay for a little longer?" Jared asked, breaking out his best plaintive look. "There's so much stuff I want to see here and it's not like I have to worry about getting back late, or something."
"No," Jensen said, in a voice that brooked absolutely no argument. "You don't belong here, Jared."
"I know," Jared said, stung.
Jensen sighed. "It's not like that, Jared. Letting you stay, even for just a little while, could do all sorts of damage to your future."
Jared thought of his growing stack of rejection letters, his crummy student apartment, his complete lack of a social life. "It's not a good future, anyway," he muttered.
Jensen's expression shifted into something Jared couldn't decipher. "You won't know that until you get there," he said, gentle but firm. "Now come on. Let's get this sorted out."
"Goodie," Jared said flatly, but he followed obediently as Jensen led the way into his lab.
Which turned out to be a great distraction from his increasingly maudlin thoughts. Jared paused in the middle of the room, taking in the massive machines, the swirling knobs and flickering switches, the half-finished... things scattered across every available surface, the tables full of plans and rulers and pencils.
"This is just the first floor," Luke told him. "The more explosive stuff's upstairs."
"This is awesome," Jared said, still looking around. "What does all this stuff do?"
"That one over there's a coffee maker," Luke said, pointing at something that Jared would probably have identified as a small rocket ship. "And that one's going to be a zero-g hover car if Dad can ever get it working."
"Cool." Jared continued his slow circuit of the room and blinked when he caught movement on the other side of a massive machine covered in tubes full of multi-coloured liquid. "Is that-"
"Yes, it's a robot and no, you can't play with it," Jensen said, coming back into the room with something in his hands.
Jared made a face at him. "You are so no fun."
Luke snickered. "Good to know that hasn't changed."
"Hush, you," Jensen said, apparently to both of them. He glanced at Jared. "You ready?"
"I still don't understand," Jared said mulishly, aware he was being childish and not caring. "Why is it so important that I go back?"
Jensen tilted his head at him, his expression thoughtful. When he spoke, it was with a gravity that made Jared think that whatever was coming was going to be very important.
"They targeted you because my history is directly connected to yours and you're going to make a decision soon that could change my timeline."
"And if Dad's timeline changes," Luke added. "It's going to screw everything up since he won't be able to invent all the stuff in this future."
"What stuff?" Jared asked. "The time machine?"
Luke snorted. "All the stuff. He invented everything."
Jared blinked and turned to Jensen, who had gone a little pink. "Seriously?"
"He's exaggerating," Jensen said, sounding awkward and a little shy. "But yeah, mostly."
"Like the flying cars?" Jared asked.
"My husband's idea," Jensen said.
"How about the zippy elevator tubes?"
Jensen nodded. "Yeah."
"The crazy smooshy-looking buildings?"
"We'd just got custody of Luke," Jensen explained. "I was feeling smooshy. And they're great for transport."
"For- never mind." Jared thought about it. "The robot listening in to our conversation over there?"
"Her name's Molly. I only finished her a couple of months ago."
"You've got no idea what that is," Jensen said with a grin. "But yeah."
"You are super awesome," Jared said frankly. Jensen was looking smug now so Jared gathered his breath and arched an eyebrow at him. "All this and you haven't invented a teleporter yet?" he asked, and felt a warm glow spreading through him when it made Jensen laugh.
"I'm still working on it," Jensen said, with a wink. "The flying car companies aren't particularly pleased with the idea, though."
Jared wondered if things were ever going to start making sense again and whether he'd be happy if they did. "Okay," he said. "I get that you're a crazy amazing inventor and that, somehow, that's got something to do with me, but I don't see what the connection is. Can you give me a hint?"
"You can't change the past without making ripples," Jensen explained. "And the bigger the change, the bigger the recoil. Things like murder or," Jensen cut a glance at a sheepish-looking Luke, "taking people out of their time make very obvious waves. And the law's very strict about preventing that kind of thing. So my competitors wanted me out of the way, but they couldn't just kill me. Too obvious. But handing out a business card?" He shrugged. "Hardly even a blip on the radar. If Luke hadn't been looking at that date specifically, I doubt if anyone would have even noticed before it was too late."
"But what's so important about that day?" Jared pressed. "What difference does a random day a million years ago have to do with you?"
Jensen pursed his lips thoughtfully. "What year do you think this is?" he asked.
Jared shrugged helplessly. "Oh hell, I dunno. 2500 or something? Why?"
"Because it's 2021," Jensen said, with an amused little grin.
"What?" Jared said blankly. "But that's only..."
"Nineteen years in your future," Jensen confirmed.
"How? Everything's so different!"
Jensen shrugged. "A lot can happen in a couple decades."
"But you have flying cars!"
Jensen grinned. "You would not believe how many walls we ran into testing them out. Totally worth the bruises, though."
Jared was getting a headache. "But I'm nobody."
"Not true," Jensen said calmly. "This world literally can't exist without you in its past."
"But how?" Jared demanded. "I'm not a scientist or a rich patron or, or... a fucking genie; what difference can I possibly make?"
"Was he always this thick?" Luke piped up, with a roll of his eyes. "Cause I'm starting to worry about your taste in men, Dad."
"Behave yourself, Luke," Jensen said mildly. "Before he decides not to adopt you after all."
"Would one of you just tell me what's going on?" Jared gritted.
"I'd forgotten how impatient you were," Jensen said. "Though considering how hard it was to convince me to eat and sleep back then that's probably a good thing. Come on, Jared," he said then, reaching out to catch Jared's wrist in a gentle grip. "Think about it. It's 2021. In your time, I was 24. I'm married and I haven't told you my last name. Luke probably hasn't called you by your first name since you got here." Jared hadn't even noticed that. "We've both been very careful to keep you away from my relatives, even though it's very obvious that no one's going to notice a random addition to the party."
"Your hair's even weirder now," Luke added innocently.
"Wait." Jared blinked at Jensen." I'm your husband?"
Jensen grinned and stuck out a hand. "Dr. Jensen Padalecki at your service. This is my son, Luke. My Jared's away on business right now, but he's going to be so sorry that he missed you."
"Jesus," Jared said dumbly. "Just when I thought my day couldn't get any weirder. I'm married?"
Jensen shrugged. "Not yet, you're not. And not ever if we don't get you back to your own time."
Jared glanced at Luke. "No wonder you're such a menace. My mama must laugh at me a lot for having a kid as irritating as I was."
Luke shrugged. "Dad usually gets that more than Papa does, actually. Papa usually helps."
"I'd be embarrassed at myself if he didn't."
"Here," Jensen said, and held out a seriously retro-looking watch. Jared hoped that that look hadn't come back into style in the past nineteen years. "Put this on."
Jared took it warily. "What's this?"
"One way time shifter," Jensen said.
Jared stared at him. "What?"
Jensen rolled his eyes. "A miniature time machine," he said. He grinned. "Like Captain Jack's vortex manipulator."
"Captain Jack?" Jared asked, more confused than ever.
Jensen looked puzzled for a moment, then his expression cleared. "Oh. You're still too early for that reference, sorry."
"Sorry?" Jared tried.
"Don't worry about it," Jensen said, waving a hand. He winked. "Just make sure you introduce me to Doctor Who when it comes out. I'll love you for it."
"O...kay?" Jared looked down again at the not-watch in his hand. "So, what do I do with this?"
"All you have to do is wear it. I'll punch in the coordinates for you. One way only, though. No going on joy rides through the time stream."
Jared frowned. "A one way time machine? Isn't that kind of impractical?"
"Hey," Jensen said. "Even time machines need prototypes. Now hurry up and put that on. The sooner we get you back to where you belong, the sooner things can go back to normal."
"There's a normal round here?" Jared asked, buckling the wide strap around his wrist.
Luke snorted. "If you think this is weird, you should see what Christmas looks like. Uncle Misha has his own flying sleigh."
"He'll get there soon enough," Jensen reminded Luke. He glanced at Jared. "Any time now would be good, Jared."
"Oh," Jared said suddenly, fumbling for the cap he was still wearing. "Luke, your hat-"
"Keep it," Luke said. He grinned, with an irreverent sort of cheek that reminded Jared a great deal of himself. Which made sense, in a brain bending sort of way. "It's yours anyway. Just don't forget to give it back on my birthday, okay?"
"Oh," Jared said again, though for an entirely different reason. "Is that okay?" he asked Jensen. "Me bringing a crazy size-changing hat back to my time? Seems like it could cause trouble."
"It's fine," Jensen said, surprising him. "I've always wondered where that hat came from, anyway."
"Huh?" Jared said, before giving it up as a wasted effort. "I'll find out someday, right?"
Jensen grinned. "Probably. Here, let me put the coordinates in."
"Wait," Jared said, holding out a hand. Jensen paused and Jared fought to bite back his nervousness when he asked, "You said that your hus... that I was away on business. What, what kind of business?"
He felt like do I ever become an actor was emblazoned across his forehead in five foot, glowing neon letters. Judging by the knowing look on Jensen's face, it very well could have been.
"I think that's something you're going to have to find out for yourself," Jensen said carefully.
"You're infuriating," Jared told him.
Jensen chuckled. "I learned from a master. Come on," he said then. "Let's get you back to your own time." He reached for Jared's wrist again and this time Jared let him take it, fighting not to fidget at the sudden close proximity.
"You should probably break this once you get back," Jensen said, his fingers shockingly warm when they brushed against Jared's wrist. "It won't work again, but it's not really the sort of technology that I want lying around nineteen years ago."
"Right. Okay." Jared lifted his arm with an unintentionally shaky grin. "Here I go, I guess."
"Oh, and Jared?"
Jared glanced up to find Jensen still standing very close and looking at him with a grin that was equal parts impish and fond. It was a very good look for him. "One more thing."
Jared pulled himself away from studying Jensen's freckles with an effort. "Yeah?"
Jensen's grin widened. "I hate to beat myself to it, but there's no way I'm passing this up. And it's gonna be a while for you anyway, so consider this an incentive to tide you over till then." Then he leaned forward and kissed him.
Jared kind of gurgled, shocked, and Jensen's answering chuckle puffed against his lips. One of Jensen's hands hooked around the back of Jared's neck, angling him where Jensen wanted, and Jared got with the program enough to bring his own hand up to cup Jensen's cheek and give back as good as he was getting.
Or try to, at least. Apparently years of being married to future him meant that Jensen was more than capable of seriously kissing the pants off him.
"Ahem," Luke said, after Jared had spent several blissful minutes at Jensen's mercy. "You do realize that you look like a pervert, right Dad?"
"Hush," Jensen said, pulling away still wearing that smile. Jared still thought it was a terribly good look on him. "He's legal and I've married him once already. He's just getting a sneak preview."
Luke huffed. "Whatever. It's gross enough watching you and Papa kiss when he's old too. Can you send him home now?"
Jared tilted a disapproving frown his way. "Is that any way to talk about your father? We're going to have words when I grow up, young man."
Luke huffed. "Having two dads is enough, Papa. I don't need another one. Go home already."
Jared grinned at him, then turned to Jensen. "So all I have to do is not go to that audition?"
"That'll put you on the right path," Jensen said. "But you're not static, so neither is the future. You still have all the choices you'd have had originally. There's no guarantee that you'll make the same decisions you did in my past."
Jensen sighed. "Just go with your gut, Jared," he advised. "And try not to worry about how you might be changing the future."
"Right, cause that's easy," Jared grumbled. "What about the guy? Won't he just try again?"
"Don't worry about him." There was steel in Jensen's voice. "We'll take care of it."
"I hope future me's included in that we or I'm going to be very disappointed." There was a rather expectant pause and Jared gave the pair of them a slightly watery grin as his fingers sought out the button on his time machine wristband. "I guess this is goodbye, then."
"More like a see you soon," Jensen promised. "We are your family, after all."
"I am making fun of you forever if you cry," Luke told him, so Jared stuck his tongue out at him.
"Later, pipsqueak," he said and then, shyly, "Jensen."
Then he hit the button and the world went white.
Everything snapped back into focus like someone had flicked on a switch and Jared staggered, momentarily overwhelmed by the sudden massive bombardment on his freshly recovered senses. He felt considerably more woozy than he had the first time, though he figured that might have been part and parcel of the whole prototype time machine thing.
Once he'd come to the conclusion that he was not going to vomit or fall over if he moved, Jared glanced down at his wrist. The wristband was still there, though the display was opaque and dull. Fiddling with the buttons and knobs did absolutely nothing and Jared acknowledged that Jensen had been right about the limited life span.
He just hoped it had brought him back in time for whatever it was he was supposed to be doing.
Everything looked to be about the same as he'd left it, but Jared wasted no time in jogging over to a girl to check. She looked at him more than a little strangely when he asked for the date as well as the time, but she duly informed him that it was 1:18 pm on Friday May 3, 2002. He'd been gone for less than five minutes. Jared couldn't help a relieved laugh. Clearly Jensen was pretty damn good at what he did.
Not that that helped Jared know what he was supposed to be doing now.
For want of a better option, Jared headed in the direction that Luke had told him he was meant to be going. It would lead him towards the college if he went far enough, which was a place he really didn't want to be right now, but at least there was a bus stop on the way. As he walked, Jared considered what he was going to do next.
The first step was obviously finding Jensen. If Jensen was 24 that meant that he'd be out of college by now, but Jared figured that he probably worked for some big inventing company thing. Not that Jared knew what Jensen's last name before he'd married him. Married, Jesus. He didn't know what state Jensen lived in, either.
Hopefully there weren't too many junior researchers in the world named Jensen.
Jared ambled through the park towards the main road, his brain coming up with all sorts of increasingly improbable schemes for finding his future husband. The foot traffic started to fill out as he got closer to the campus, though it was nowhere near the volume it would be at the next class change. Luckily, the next bus ought to come by before that happened, so Jared would hopefully be able to escape the all too-common experience of getting sardined among the crush of students shoving aboard.
The light was red when he got there, so Jared paused at the curb, rocking idly on the balls of his feet. The opposing traffic light flicked over to yellow and Jared glanced down the street to make sure that he wouldn't have to run for his bus. A flash of white caught his eye and he stared at a heavy delivery truck that was barreling down the far lane, moving way too fast for the driver to have noticed the changing light.
Jared's attention snapped to the opposite sidewalk, where a student with a massive backpack over his shoulder and an entire tree's worth of paper in his arms was waiting for the light to change. The guy had his nose buried in a book and he clearly wasn't paying the slightest attention to his surroundings.
The crosswalk sign chimed and the guy stepped off the curb without looking up from his book, straight into the path of the truck.
Jared didn't think. He shoved himself through the crowd and practically flew across the crosswalk, hitting the guy with a tackle that his high school football coach would have been proud of. They went flying towards the sidewalk and hit the pavement with a jarring thud mere seconds before the truck flashed past, papers and books flying everywhere.
Jared wound up sprawled across the guy's chest in a boneless lump, his heart pounding wildly and his face mashed into the guy's neck. The belated squeal of brakes filled the air as the truck driver finally got with the program and Jared just barely registered the too-loud babbling of the bystanders: an endless chorus of 'were they okay's, and 'that driver should lose his fucking license's, and 'did they need an ambulance's, and 'oh, my god's.
"Jesus Christ," Jared managed, which he thought summed up the whole situation quite nicely.
"Um?" a voice squeaked from somewhere near his right ear and Jared belatedly remembered what he was doing lying on the floor in the first place.
He forced himself up on shaky arms. "Sorry about that," he said, gaze shifting downward as he sat back. "Are you-" okay, he meant to say, but the question stuck in his throat before he could voice it.
"I-" the guy who was absolutely Jensen said, eyes wide and colour high. He blinked at Jared, looking like he'd like nothing better than to sink right into the sidewalk. "I'm okay. Thanks."
Jared caught himself staring and looked away with an effort, because intense creepy guy was not the kind of first impression he really wanted to make.
His eyes lit on a pair of wire-rimmed glasses lying a few feet away, thankfully untrampled despite the foot traffic.
"One sec," he said, and clambered off Jensen to grab them.
Free of Jared's bulk, Jensen sat up and reached one hand to the back of his head. His fingers came back blood-free and Jared breathed a quiet sigh of relief that he hadn't done him a damage when he was meant to be rescuing him.
He held out the glasses to Jensen. "Here. Doesn't look like they're cracked or anything."
Jensen accepted them, looking unbearably awkward. "Thanks."
Someone's leg brushed Jared's elbow and he realized that sitting in the middle of the sidewalk was maybe not the best place for this.
"Here," he said, snatching up a sheet of paper he was practically kneeling on. "Let's get this all cleaned up."
"That's-" Jensen started but Jared was already gathering up paper and surreptitiously smoothing out some of the more wrinkled ones.
A handful of people who were standing around bent down to help and it wasn't long before Jared and Jensen were both safely esconced on the lawn of the building just beyond the crosswalk with an untidy spill of papers trying to fall out of Jensen's arms and several uneven stacks of very heavy-looking books on the grass between them.
Jensen blinked at his things like he wasn't entirely sure where they'd come from and Jared took a moment to catalogue the differences in him: the overlong hair slanting across Jensen's forehead, blonder than he would have expected; the lack of laugh lines around his eyes; and the sheer nervous tension radiating off him in waves.
"Um," Jensen started, one hand twisting in the hem of his jacket though he was obviously trying not to look like he was freaking out.
Jared thought he was rather going to enjoy watching Jensen find the confidence he was going to have in the future.
"You sure you're okay?" Jared asked when it didn't look like Jensen had anything to add to that attempt at speech.
Jensen nodded hurriedly. "Fine," he said again. "Thanks for..." Jensen waved a hand at the street. "That."
Jared smiled his best smile. "You're welcome," he said, and watched Jensen's ears turn pink.
"I should-" Jensen said, then glanced a little helplessly at the piles of books all around them. The seam on his backpack had obviously split during the fall, though Jared was pretty sure that the mini-library Jensen had been carting around in it was more to blame than hitting the ground was, and Jensen was obviously trying and failing to figure out the logistics of carrying all those books in his arms on top of the papers already tucked in the crook of his elbow.
Jared knew a golden opportunity when he saw one.
"Here, let me help," he said, picking up a nearby stack before Jensen could protest.
Jared flashed a sheepish grin. "I'm the one who broke your backpack. It's only fair."
Jensen shook his head. "It was my fault. I wasn't paying attention."
"Well," Jared said, daring a cheeky wink. "In that case I'd better help you out to make sure you don't step out in front of any other trucks on your way home."
That startled an involuntary laugh out of Jensen. "Well I'm not going home anymore," he said, which Jared was absolutely going to take as a tacit surrender. "Way too many books to take on the bus."
"Okay," Jared said easily. "Where to, then?"
"My office," Jensen answered. "Back on campus." He bent at the waist, reaching for the last few books Jared hadn't managed to grab, then paused, head cocking curiously.
"Your hat?" he asked, and Jared followed his gaze to see Luke's blue cap lying innocuously on the edge of the sidewalk a few feet away.
"Yeah, thanks." Jared started towards it, then faltered when he realized that his chances of being able to pick it up while loaded down with an encyclopedia's worth of paper were pretty much none.
He offered Jensen a hopeful smile. "Don't suppose you could give me a hand?"
"Oh! Yeah, um, here." Jensen picked up the hat and shuffled over to Jared, shifting his papers to one side so he could reach up and place the hat carefully on Jared's head.
"Thanks," Jared said, his eyes following the smattering of freckles across Jensen's nose despite his best efforts to behave.
Jensen swallowed hard. "No problem. Come on," he said then, scooping up the last of the books and heading right. "It's this way."
"Sounds good." Jared fell into step beside Jensen, aiming desperately for casual when he said, "I'm Jared, by the way."
"Jensen. Ackles," Jensen added, almost as an afterthought.
"Well, it's very nice to meet you, Jensen Ackles," Jared said, smiling broadly just to watch Jensen flush again. "So if you've got an office does that mean you're a teacher here?"
Jensen shook his head. "Grad school." He darted a glance at Jared. "Sophomore?"
"Freshman," Jared corrected. He grinned. "They grow 'em big in my family."
"I can see that," Jensen said, almost dryly. "What are you studying?"
"Economics," Jared said. "With drama on the side."
Jared watched Jensen's eyes flick down to the damn letter still sticking out of his pocket, but Jensen didn't comment, for which Jared was grateful.
"What about you?" Jared asked.
And Jared had no idea what that meant, but he figured he'd have plenty of time to learn. "Cool. So if I ever need to build a robot, I'm guessing you're the guy to ask?"
"Something like that," Jensen agreed, with a shy little smile, and Jared had never looked forward to anything more than getting to know this man better.
Because he might have had one hell of a future to look forward to, but the present was looking pretty damn sweet too.