"You want to come in for a while?" Alona asked, on yet another night where Jensen had opted to stay on-game rather than come to Game Central Station. "I can help you find him, if you like."
Alona had taken to Jared gratifyingly quickly after Jared's gamemates had broken the ice with their not-so-innocent meddling. Jared found her to be thoroughly likeable in all sorts of ways - not in the least her open willingness to support his efforts with Jensen.
Jared grinned at her. "Somehow, I think there's someone who might object to that."
Alona rolled her eyes. "That someone doesn't know what's good for him."
Jared shrugged. "That's up to him." He glanced up at the 'Demon Slayer Pro' sign hanging above the gate, wondering whether Jensen had retreated to his own evel or if he was actually spending time with some of his gamemates. Jared hoped it was the latter. He spent too much time on his own.
"You really like him, don't you?" Alona asked and Jared turned back to find her watching him with quiet understanding written all over her face.
"Yeah," Jared said. "Which is why I must respectfully decline your invitation."
"You have to be the nicest Bad Guy I've ever met," Alona said and, while Jared knew it was meant to be a compliment, it was a struggle not to let his face fall. He wished he knew how to explain to Good Guys that he wasn't the exception to some kind of evil Bad Guy mould.
"Well," he said, figuring an active lesson was probably the best place to start. "In that case, I think I ought to introduce you to some more." He offered Alona his arm. "Would you care to join me on a tour of the Bad side of town?"
Alona stared at him. "Are you serious?"
"I am. We're honestly pretty likeable, you know."
Alona was silent for a moment, then let out a very deliberate breath and threaded her arm through Jared's. "So?" she said, with admirable courage. "Where to?"
Jared beamed at her. "How would you like to meet the F-Zero X team?"
"I have no idea," Alona admitted. "If you think it'll go well, then go for it."
"Thank you. I promise you won't regret it." A familiar figure cut through Jared's peripheral vision and he made a split-second decision. "Let's start a little closer to home though first, yeah? Hey, Genevieve!" he called, waving her over. "You busy tonight?"
Genevieve approached warily, eyes jumping from Jared to Alona and back again. "Not yet. What's up?"
Jared had his most harmless smile ready as he silently willed Alona to agree to this. "We're heading over to F-Zero X to meet Captain Falcon and the gang. You want to come?"
Genevieve hesitated. "I don't know if-"
Genevieve blinked, openly surprised, and Jared was privately delighted when Alona offered her a smile that was hesitant but genuine. "You should come. If you want to."
"I'd like that," Genevieve said after a moment, with a tentative smile of her own.
The grin that split Jared's face was ridiculously broad, but he couldn't find it in himself to care. "You girls are fantastic."
"Which is apparently your fault. Care to try for another miracle tonight?" Genevieve asked, jerking her thumb over her shoulder.
Jared looked and caught sight of Jensen standing just within the Demon Hunter Pro gate, watching them. He had no idea how long he'd been there.
"I think that's more of a miracle than I'm capable of," Jared said to Genevieve, raising one hand to wave. Predictably, Jensen responded by turning on his heel and disappearing back down the tunnel.
Alona's grip tightened on Jared's arm. "I'm sorry," she said.
Jared shrugged. "Not to worry. One miracle a night is more than good enough for me."
"There's always tomorrow," Alona offered.
"And the day after," Genevieve said dryly, which startled a grin out of Alona.
"And the day after that," Jared agreed. He held out his other arm to Genevieve, more delighted than either she or Alona could know when she took it without hesitation. "Besides, I've already got two lovely ladies' to entertain. Shall we?"
Jared was careful to keep his wooing efforts constant but non-confrontational.
There were no attempts to coerce Jensen into agreeing to a date, no embarrassingly public declarations of affection - embarrassing for Jensen, that was; Jared had never been all that bothered with dignity - , no stalking him through Game Central Station. There was maybe the desire to do a little bit of stalking, even if only because Jensen worked in an FPS and he would probably be fun to stalk, but Jared could be patient when he needed to. And in this case, he definitely needed to.
"We're all going out to Tapper's for a couple of drinks," Jared said to Jensen, leaning around the edge of the gate to smile at him. "You wa-"
Jared allowed himself a pout that was only slightly overdone. "I haven't even told you 'we' is."
"I don't care," Jensen said, not looking at him. Jared could see the way the corner of his mouth twitched like it always did when he was unhappy and refusing to admit it.
Liar, Jared wanted to say, but he swallowed it down. "Okay. Let me know if you change your mind. Have a good game tomorrow."
It wasn't in Jared's programming to be subtle. At all. It was why he was only the semi-final Bad Guy in Dragon Fighter: he had a bad tendency to broadcast his combos before he threw them and, good as he was, that kind of handicap really wasn't appropriate for a final boss.
Off-game, Jared's complete lack of subtlety meant that it took essentially no time at all for the entire arcade to find out that he was crushing hard on the pretty, antisocial NPC from Demon Slayer Pro.
The news prompted a variety of reactions, ranging from friendly razzing and lewd gestures from the disembodied hands from Poker Night to disdain from most of the cast of Grand Theft Auto - who didn't like Jared much in the first place - and delighted cooing from the ladies from Mortal Kombat. As far as Jared could tell, they'd teamed up with Jared's gamemates and morphed into some sort of terrifying women fighters cheering squad. There was a fair smattering of disappointment from his not-quite fanclub, but Jared tried to ignore that.
He also got offers of help from a surprising number of characters from other games. Which was very rarely as useful as it sounded.
"Let me talk to him for you."
"Zangief," Jared said, fighting against the urge to sigh. "I appreciate it, but that's not really-"
"I will explain to this Jensen why it is he should go outs with you," Zangief continued, as though Jared hadn't said a word. "I am very persuasive."
Privately, Jared doubted that Jensen would be very persuaded by relationship advice from a seven foot tall Russian in a loincloth. Jared knew he wasn't. "I'm not sure that's a g-"
Zangief laughed and clapped a companionable hand on Jared's shoulder that nearly sent him to his knees. He and Zangief were about the same size and always got paired up for Dragon Fighter versus Street Fighter pick-up games for just that reason, but Zangief's careless strength still caught Jared off guard sometimes. "Never you worry, Jared. I am always happy to help. And if Jensen does not listen, I will crush his head between thighs until he say yes."
Distantly, Jared wondered if wooing was supposed to give him a headache.
If Jensen had ever shown any true objection to Jared's interests, Jared would have backed off immediately. Persistence was one thing, but harassment wasn't at all okay. Jared didn't really think it was going to be a problem, though. Jensen seemed more like someone who was a little shy, a lot wary and really bad at making friends than someone who really wanted to be left alone.
He probably had a really tragic back story, Jared figured.
"How goes the wooing?" Aldis asked, in between a vicious knee to Jared's gut and a jab to the head that Jared only barely avoided.
"Good," Jared answered, countering Aldis' next punch with his flaming fists combo. The player fumbled Aldis' next combo and Jared took advantage of the lull to grab Aldis in a headlock. "Really good."
Aldis wheezed a little as the player broke him loose. "Yeah? You finally get him to agree to a date?"
"Nope," Jared said cheerfully. "But he waited a whole half hour before telling me to go away last time."
Aldis gave him a look like he'd grown a second head. Which was totally Milo's shtick, not Jared's. "You make no sense whatsoever."
"I know," Jared said. "And that's why it's working."
Aldis shook his head and Jared set him on fire to put him and the player out of their misery.
As the weeks went on and Jared continued to do nothing to justify Jensen's distrust of him, Jensen's rejections grew progressively less brusque, though no less consistent. Once or twice, Jared caught sight of Jensen watching him like he didn't know what to make of him at all. Which was progress, albeit very slow progress, which Jared wasn't going to complain about.
"We're looking for one more player for volleyball," Jared said, pointing towards the net they were setting up between two of the information kiosks. "Six to a team. You want in?"
"No," Jensen said. Normally that would have been the end of it, so Jared was surprised and pleased when Jensen cocked his head and asked, "Why are you playing in the middle of Game Central Station? Aren't there any volleyball game consoles you could use?"
"Yeah, but this is a spectator sport, which means we need spectators." Jared grinned at him. "No need to play by the rules when we're not on the clock."
"If you're not playing by the rules, why do you need another player?"
"I didn't say we needed one, I said we're looking for one. It's more fun with full teams. Helpful for the shorter characters, too."
"I'll pass," Jensen said, though the refusal didn't come out as short as it had when Jared had asked him to join their hide and seek marathon a few weeks ago.
"Okay, but you're missing out," Jared said. He winked. "I've got a wicked serve."
"Go away," Jensen said and Jared could have sworn it came out almost fond. Mostly exasperated, true, but there was definitely a hint of fond in there somewhere.
Jared fought the urge to do a victory pose. "Okay. Let me know if you change your mind."
"I won't," Jensen said. Jared could feel his eyes on him all the way across the floor.
Interactive spectator volleyball was one of Jared's favourite sports to play in his off time. Characters from all over the arcade joined in - some with more success than others, of course, but all with equal enthusiasm. There were always fewer Bad Guys than Good Guys but Jared was far from the only one representing the Bad side, which was always nice to see.
Jared's team spent most of the evening losing, probably - it was hard to tell without proper rules - but Jared didn't really mind. The spectators were wonderfully enthusiastic: they cheered and yelled about scores and slid onto the court to save the ball and tripped players who were doing too well and generally did whatever they wanted to keep things interesting.
At one point, Jared hoisted Tails from Sonic the Hedgehog onto his shoulders to give the kid the extra boost he needed to spike the ball down hard on Sonic's head. Rings flew everywhere and Jared promptly got tackled by his own teammates because they were blocking the view. Everyone went down like a ton of blocks and the other team took the opportunity to retaliate; the ball ricocheted off the floor hard enough to take out two spectators from the baseball game at the far end of the arcade that Jared could never remember the name of. Someone in the crowd ran off with the ball - Jared didn't see who - and the match dissolved into giggles and good-natured genre slurs on all sides. Jared wormed his way out from under three of his teammates and hauled himself upright to find Jensen leaning against the wall near the Tetris gate, watching them play.
Jared grinned and beckoned him over with one hand. "Come give it a try!" he yelled.
Jensen shook his head and stayed right where he was, rather than running off like he usually did when Jared caught him staring. Jared felt rather pleased about that.
"You ever going to do anything about that?" Flynn from Tron asked, with a nod in Jensen's direction.
"I am," Jared said, grinning brightly, then promptly oofed when Q*bert landed on him with a surprised squawk. It looked like the game was on again.
On the whole, Jared thought that things were going very well indeed.
Things with Jensen finally came to a head while Jared was in the middle of an intense game of Snap with Ness and a few of the other characters from Earthbound. He was losing. A lot.
"You're terrible at this game," Jensen's voice said unexpectedly and Jared nearly dislocated something when he whirled to find Jensen standing a few feet away, hips and shoulders cocked akimbo as he looked at the lot of them sprawled across the floor.
"Yes, I am," Jared agreed. He pushed himself up onto his knees and waved at the cards. "You want to show these guys how it's done? You can have my spot."
Jensen shook his head. "I'll pass." A pause and then, "Why are you playing games you're terrible at?"
Jared shrugged. "Because that's what everybody wanted to play. I'm better at UNO," he confided in an undertone. "But I feel bad if I win too much."
"Uh huh," Jensen said, sounding unconvinced. His eyes were fixed on Jared's face, assessing in a way that Jared couldn't quite parse. It left Jared feeling something somewhere between nervous and buoyantly hopeful.
"So," Jared said, when Jensen did nothing but stare. "If I can't tempt you with a rousing game of Snap, was there something else you wanted to do tonight? There's a racers versus fighters football game going on, if that's more your speed."
Jensen arched an eyebrow. "If it's racers versus fighters, shouldn't you be participating?"
Jared shrugged again. "Already had a Snap tournament to play. Right guys?" he asked Ness and the others, who'd all been playing suspiciously slowly since Jensen had shown up.
"Yeah. You have to book Jared in advance," Ness said, the cheeky brat. Jared mimed a lazy swing at him and Ness stuck out his tongue.
Jensen cleared his throat unsubtly, and Jared left off squabbling with Ness to blink up at him. "Sorry," he said. "So did you want to go? I can probably get you subbed in on the fighter team if you want to play."
"Okay," Jared said, like always. "Let me know if you change y-"
"I came looking for you for a reason, you know," Jensen interrupted. The words tumbled out fast and awkward, like Jensen had practiced them but couldn't get them to sit comfortably on his tongue.
"You came looking for me?" Jared asked, unreasonably delighted. "That's- ow!"
Jared glared at Ness, shin smarting from the kick. Ness gave him a pointed look, glanced deliberately at Jensen and made a shooing gesture.
Jared took the hint and climbed to his feet to lead Jensen off a few steps, not far enough for any sort of real privacy - which didn't really exist in Game Central Station - but enough to offer the illusion of it.
"So, um," Jared said. "Why were you looking for me?"
"Funny thing," Jensen said, in a tone that seemed to indicate the exact opposite. "I've had a lot of characters come talk to me recently. About you."
"About me?" Jared said, with a sinking feeling in his stomach.
"Oh, yes. Specifically about what a nice Bad Guy you are and how I ought to give you a chance."
Jared winced. "I told them not to do that."
"Well, clearly you did a bang up job there. Princess Peach came up to me tonight to tell me that you are, and I quote, a real catch. Princess Peach!"
"Yeeah, she can be kind of pushy. Look, I'm really sorry, Jens-"
"Don't bother." Jensen crossed his arms over his chest. "Got any ideas about why the entire frigging arcade thinks we should be dating?"
"Cammy's not so keen on the idea," Jared offered. "I think she's got a crush on you."
"Jared," Jensen said warningly.
Jared stared. "You know my name," he breathed, wondering.
"It's hard to miss, considering how many times a night I hear it." Jensen sighed, defensive stance dropping. "What do you want from me?"
"To be your boyfriend," Jared said promptly.
"Why?" Jensen looked honestly confused.
"Because I like you, remember?"
"You hardly know me."
"And whose fault is that?" Jared asked, not unkindly. "I've got to know you a little bit, you know, and I'd like to know you better. I think we'd be good together. If you'd rather be friends, I'm cool with that too," he continued. "Even though the way you've been checking me out recently makes me think you'd probably be okay with dating. Or I can leave you alone."
Jensen opened his mouth on what was clearly a disbelieving retort, but Jared cut him off with a raised hand.
"Honestly," Jared said, with all the sincerity he could muster. "You want me to stop and I'll stop. I never wanted to make you uncomfortable. I'll get everyone else to lay off, too. No muss, no fuss."
Jensen was silent, his expression unreadable.
"So?" Jared asked, heart in his throat. "What do you want from me, Jensen?"
"You busy tomorrow?" Jensen asked suddenly, which wasn't really an answer except for the fact that it totally was.
Jared beamed at him. "Nothing I can't miss."
Jensen nodded. "Right. Here's your chance then." The curled amusement in his voice turned into a challenging smirk. "You'd better hope you impress me, Mr. Nice Bad Guy."
"Clearly I-" already have, Jared was going to say, but Jensen was gone before he got the chance.
Jared stared blankly after Jensen for a long moment, then caught himself and looked back at the others, who'd given up the pretence of even pretending to play. "Uh, can I have a rain check on the game?" he asked. "I've got to-"
"It's fine," Ness said, openly grinning. "You go get ready for your date. You big girl."
"Jackass," Jared said absently. "Thanks."
Ness waved a hand. "Whatever. Let me know how it goes, okay? I've got a bet going with some of the guys from Gauntlet."
"Everyone around here is way too invested in me and Jensen," Jared said, though he couldn't muster anything even close to indignation about it. "I'll, uh, later."
The sound of Ness' laughter followed after him as Jared struck out across the station, his head whirling. He had a date. He. Had a date. With Jensen. He…
He needed some serious help.
Jared practically flew back to Dragon Fighter, heart beating double time and nerves jangling. Danneel was chatting with Yuni and Emi from Dance Dance Revolution in the yacht zone when Jared finally tracked her down.
"Danneel!" he gasped, wild-eyed and out of breath. "Help!"
"Whoa!" Danneel said. She smirked. "Where's the fire?"
"This is not the time for puns," Jared said seriously. "I'm in trouble."
Danneel's expression shifted immediately into concern. "What's wrong?"
Jared took a deep breath. "I have a date with Jensen."
Danneel made a delighted little squeal at a volume Jared hadn't known she could reach. "That's fantastic!"
"Yeah," Jared agreed, still a little numb with exultation but mostly stressed. "But I need your help. I don't know what to wear or what to say or where to go or, or anything!"
She stared at him. "You've been trying to convince this guy to go out with you for months and you don't have your first date planned?"
"I wasn't really thinking about that part," Jared defended, cheeks heating. "I've never done this before!"
"You must have thought about it a little," Danneel pressed. "Or did you skip straight onto the 'until Game Over do you part' stage?"
Jared stared at her helplessly. Danneel shook her head.
"You are such an idiot," she said, but fondly. "I can help you get ready to go-"
"We'll help!" Yuni and Emi chimed in.
"-but there's no way I'm planning your date for you."
"But-" Jared protested.
"It's your date, Jared," Danneel said firmly. "You know him better than we do. It's not that hard. Pick somewhere you'll both enjoy. Somewhere he hasn't been before."
"I don't know what-" Jared stopped mid-sentence as a thought occurred to him. "Never mind, yes I do." He spun on his heel and started jogging back towards the power cord.
"And just where do you think you're going?" Danneel called after him.
"To call in some favours," Jared yelled over his shoulder. "I'll be right back."
Jared could sense Danneel shaking her head at him but he didn't let it bother him. He had a date to plan. And it was going to kick ass.
Because if it didn't, Jared was going to cry. And that would just be embarrassing.
Jared spent most of the next day positively vibrating with nerves which, if nothing else, was at least good for his win ratio.
"Dial it down a little," Beth told him as he gave her a hand up. The scent of burning flesh lingered a little in her hair, but it would fade soon enough. "I know you're excited but don't be so combo happy. The players'll stop coming if they think it's unbeatable."
"Sorry," Jared said, sheepishly. "I'm just-"
"I know," Beth said good-naturedly. "But listen up. That was my second KO, so you're off the hook until the next player Starts. Go run around in circles or something until you've burned off some of that energy, tiger."
Jared gave her a shove. "Screw you," he grumbled and Beth laughed at him as she walked off. Jared made faces at her back for a while, then sighed to himself and went to run around in circles for a while. Good advice was still good advice.
The rest of the day positively dragged, right up until Jared started getting ready, at which point it seemed to catch up to itself all at once and Jared could hardly believe where the time had gone.
If he'd been a character in another genre of game, Jared would have had to wait until the arcade closed before heading to Game Central Station; a missing character glitch was far too easy for players to notice and they didn't want to end up Out of Order. Luckily, Jared's gamemates were awesome and they agreed to cover for him so he could slip out early. Misha did something with the game's coding to remove Jared temporarily from the roster for multi-player mode and the rest of them worked out a system of ignoring player instructions and fighting above their difficulty level to make sure that no players got to Jared's zone in single-player mode. Which wasn't particularly fair, but it was only this once and it was for a good cause.
Getting ready for his date was easier than Jared had expected. The girls from Dance Dance Revolution had helped him code something to wear that was a little fancier than his normal ripped jeans and white wifebeater combo. Chris gave him some tips on how to keep his hair from looking too much of a mess, which Jared appreciated even if he refused to consider the ponytail a good fashion choice. Danneel put the final touches on Jared's outfit while Milo, of all characters, gave him a quick pep talk about calming the hell down and just being himself.
When Jared was as presentable as he was going to get, his gamemates all wished him luck and herded him off to the power cord before heading back to get ready for the next player. Jared resolved to hug the hell out of them when he got back. Right now, though, they had a game to play and he had a Jensen to impress.
Game Central Station was deserted when Jared got to Game Central Station, which was one of the most unnerving things Jared had ever experienced. Game Central Station was never empty when the arcade was closed. Jared's footfalls echoed loudly in the quiet and he felt his nerves sneaking back with every step. The call for the end of day went just as he reached the Demon Slayer Pro gate, and was a relief when other characters started trickling into the station, filling in the silence.
Jared waited by Jensen's gate, feeling big and awkward and conspicuous. He wondered if he should have brought flowers. Or maybe some Pac-Man cherries. Everyone liked cherries.
"Look at you, all nervous and huggable," Alona said and Jared turned to find her and Genevieve holding hands and grinning at him. They'd been nigh inseparable since Jared had properly introduced them to each other; Jared had given himself several pats on the back for that. "Can't believe I ever thought you were a bad guy. "
"By which she means, your fidgeting is adorable but you shouldn't worry so much," Genevieve offered.
Jared laughed, a little awkwardly. "Easy for you to say."
Alona gave him a fondly exasperated look. "Jared. You'll be fine. Jensen said yes, didn't he?"
"To one date," Jared reminded her. "Plenty of time for him to change his mind."
"He won't. And hey," Genevieve clapped him on the shoulder. "If he turns you down, you can always join us. We're willing to share, right Alona?"
"Oh, yes," Alona said, with a decidedly wicked-looking grin.
"Ahem," a voice said then, and Jared looked round to see Jensen standing at the mouth of the gate. Jensen's clothes were similar to what he usually wore, though Jared couldn't help but notice that his black shirt was definitely new, his pants fit just a little bit more snugly and his shoulder holster was conspicuously absent. Jared was a lot more touched by the last detail than he probably should have been. "I think you'll find I've booked Jared for the night."
"Hi there," Jared said warmly. "Making me wait again, I see."
Jensen shrugged. "Thought you'd be used to it by now." His expression went almost bashful as he added, "I didn't expect you here so early."
"Cheated a little bit," Jared admitted. "Bad Guy prerogative. My gamemates helped."
Over Jensen's shoulder, Jared saw Alona and Genevieve giving him an entirely not-subtle matched set of thumbs up and he couldn't help but grin at them. Jensen followed his gaze and rolled his eyes.
"My gamemates are conspiring against me," Jensen said, not sounding entirely put out by it.
"That's okay, they're conspiring with me," Jared said. He made a face at the pair of them. "And right now they're being kind of voyeuristic. Ready to go?"
Jensen gestured for him to go ahead. "Lead the way."
Jared waved goodbye to the girls and he and Jensen headed off into the bustle.
"Is that your fault?" Jensen asked as they walked.
"Is what my fault?" Jared asked.
"Alona and Genevieve."
Jared shrugged. "I just gave them an excuse to find out that they like each other. Doesn't usually take much, once you get past the whole Good Guy, Bad Guy thing."
Sonic and Tails called out a greeting from across the station and Jared waved back, well aware that he was grinning like a fool. He turned back to Jensen and found him staring, again. "What?"
"Nothing," Jensen said after a beat. "So what oh, so exciting activity do you have planned for tonight? Burger-eating contest? Running tour through House of the Dead? Tron Frisbee tournament?"
"That last one is a lot of fun," Jared said. "But I actually thought we'd try that one." He pointed and watched the surprise flash across Jensen's face.
"Mario Kart?" Jensen asked. "Seriously?"
Jared grinned. "Best idea ever or best idea ever?"
"It's certainly something," Jensen said.
"Would you rather I start composing odes to you instead? Because I can do that. They'd be awful," Jared admitted, after a moment's thought. "But I could still do that."
"That's okay," Jensen said, and Jared was delighted when he saw the hint of a smile curve the corner of Jensen's mouth. "I trust your judgement."
A warm, cozy sort of feeling took up residence in Jared's stomach. He grinned his way through it in order to say, "You'll have a great time, I promise. I gotta warn you though, I'm a pretty good racer."
Jensen arched an eyebrow at him. "You planning on humiliating me? Cause I gotta say, that's not gonna win you any points."
"I dunno," Jared said. "You planning on letting me humiliate you?"
Jensen's eyes flashed. "Bring it on."
Jared grinned. "My pleasure." He gestured at the gate. "After you."
The characters from Mario Kart were still piling out of the game when Jared and Jensen arrived at the power cord, and the pair of them earned a gratifying but slightly embarrassing number of well-wishes as they waited for the rail cars to empty.
"You sure you aren't trying to humiliate me?" Jensen asked as they waited out the crush of bodies.
"Unfortunate side effect. Come on."
They climbed into the closest rail car and settled in for the trip.
"You sure we're going to be able to find karts big enough?" Jensen asked as they flashed down the power cord. "Mario only comes up to, like, my waist. And you're even bigger than I am."
Jared grinned. "No kidding. I nearly knocked myself out with my own knee while changing gears the one time I borrowed Mario's."
"I'm assuming you have a solution."
"Oh, Bowser and Donkey Kong said we can use theirs," Jared said, as they rattled to a stop at the other end. "Much easier."
Another crowd of characters was waiting for their turn on the rail cars and Jared and Jensen had to fend off more enthusiastic greetings as they waded their way off the platform. Jared dealt with it as hurriedly as he could and couldn't help a relieved sigh when they were finally left alone in front of Princess Peach's castle.
"Sorry," Jared said, rubbing sheepishly at the back of his neck. "I should have realized that was going to happen."
There was silence beside him, and Jared turned his head to find Jensen biting his lip uncertainly.
"Sorry," Jensen said, looking self-consciously pink. "It's just… the karts."
Jared blinked. "What about them?"
Jensen hunched one shoulder in the most uncertain display Jared had ever seen from him. "It's, ah, hard to imagine Bowser lending someone else his go-kart."
It was a challenge to resist the urge to growl, but Jared managed it. Barely. "Bowser's a nice guy. You shouldn't judge him by the job, you know?"
"I'm starting to get that," Jensen said. He sounded surprisingly sincere, which did a lot to soothe Jared's irritation.
It was too late to stop the flow of words rolling out of Jared's mouth though. "We've gotten used to relying on each other. Bad Guys, I mean." Jensen probably didn't care to hear this, Jared realized, but there were some things that were worth being said. "Since it's hard to convince other characters to give us a chance. I mean, I don't have too much trouble, but well," he offered Jensen a rueful kind of smile, "you know what kind of prejudices we've got to deal with."
"Yeah," Jensen said after a moment. His expression was sober, honest. "I do."
"So!" Jared said loudly, wanting off this topic already. He couldn't help the way his smile was slightly shaky when he asked, "How am I doing with the impressing you thing so far?"
"Surprisingly well." Jensen cocked an expectant eyebrow. "Although I've never driven a go-kart before, so you'd better hope you're a good teacher."
"You leave it to me," Jared said. He grinned and felt his pulse jump when Jensen met it with a tentative smile of his own. "We'll have you zipping around like a pro in no time. We can only race on the tracks that have guard rails along the edges, though," he added. "Lakitu's helping out at Sugar Rush tonight so there's no one to stop us from falling off stuff and Game Over-ing."
Jensen stared at him for a moment, then threw back his head and laughed, open and honest and amazing. Jared wanted to hear him do it again. Immediately, if possible. "I take it back. You're absolutely insane and I'm not at all impressed by a date that might get me killed."
"Yes, you are," Jared said confidently. Jensen rolled his eyes but didn't contradict him, which was awesome. "Come on then. We've got some racing to do!"
The date was a resounding success, even if Jared said so himself. Most of the Mario Kart characters had cleared out to give him and Jensen some privacy, and Jared found himself enjoying Jensen's company immensely once the guy relaxed enough to enjoy himself. Which was exactly what he'd been hoping for, and it was nice to know that Alona had been right about what was hiding under all Jensen's prickly reticence.
Jared had spent a not-inconsiderable amount of time in Mario Kart in the past and was more than capable of guiding Jensen through the mechanics of driving. Jensen proved to be a quick study, especially for an FPS character who'd never touched anything with wheels before, and remarkably receptive to Jared's suggestions and advice.
It wasn't long before they were out on the tracks for some friendly one-on-one races. Jensen got the hang of the stick shift in no time, but trying to fire turtle shells and drive at the same time had a tendency to make him run into hedges, cacti and, memorably, the empty stands at Luigi Stadium. That one took a while to clean up after.
Jared refused to go easy on him - well, too easy - but, luckily, Jensen learned quickly enough that Jared never quite got the level of humiliating him. Mostly, Jared was very glad that Jensen wasn't a sore loser.
By the time they finally packed it in and headed back to Game Central Station, they were both windswept and rumpled and smelled more than a little of motor oil. Jared had banana in his hair and an already swelling bruise on his cheek from where he'd met the business end of a spiny shell, and Jensen wasn't looking much better. The thrum of the engine hadn't quite left Jared's veins yet and he knew his grin was more than a little manic.
"You alright there, Jared?" Jensen asked as they jolted and sparked down the power cord.
"That was awesome," Jared said, grinning a mile wide. "Wasn't that awesome?"
Jensen looked amused. "Pretty awesome," he agreed.
The rail cars rattled up to the platform and Jared jumped when a pair of gloved hands landed on his shoulders.
"I'm not going to ask how it went because I'm sure it was wonderful," Princess Peach said. She pulled him down for a kiss on the cheek and Jared failed utterly at not blushing under the amused scrutiny of the other characters standing on the platform. "You come talk to me soon, you hear me?"
"Yes, dear," Jared parroted and ducked away from the smack she sent his way. "We've got to get back to our games," he said, climbing out of the rail car with an urgent gesture at Jensen to do the same.
"Wait!" Peach moved far faster than she should have been able to in a skirt that wide and it was Jensen's turn to flush when she took his face in her hands and dropped a matching kiss on his cheek. "I'm so happy for both of you."
"Definitely leaving now!" Jared grabbed Jensen's hand and tugged him away. "Have a good game!" he called over his shoulder.
"You too!" Peach called after them with laughter in her voice.
"Worried she's going to scare me off?" Jensen asked. His colour was still high but the tone of his voice still managed to be amused.
"Shut up," Jared muttered at him, though he didn't sound put out even to himself. "Next time I'll leave you to her mercy."
They exited the Mario Kart gate and Jared reluctantly let go of Jensen's hand when he felt his muscles tense at the sudden scrutiny around them.
"So," Jared said as they walked back through the station, shoulders brushing intermittently. "Still impressed?"
Jensen shrugged in a poor display of nonchalance. Maybe if he hadn't been smiling, just slightly, it would have been more convincing. "You didn't do so badly, for a Bad Guy."
"Impressed enough for a second date?" Jared pressed.
"Maybe," Jensen said, openly teasing now. He hesitated for a moment, then added, "or maybe next time I should take you out."
"Yeah?" Jared asked, smiling. His whole body felt like it was sparking with energy and he wondered not-entirely absently if one of the Surge Protectors was about to come by and tell him off for overloading the circuits.
It would be absolutely worth it for the cautiously happy expression on Jensen's face. "Yeah. Course, you've probably already tried out every game in the arcade, haven't you?"
"Maybe," Jared said, in the same teasing tone Jensen had used earlier. "But don't let that stop you. I'll look forward to seeing what you pick."
They reached Demon Slayer Pro's gate and Jensen stopped, turning to face Jared. "So."
"So." Jared agreed. "Is it cliché to say that I had a good time?"
"It's a dreadful pun, if nothing else."
Jared chuckled. "Maybe. Still true."
"For me too," Jensen admitted, then shocked Jared entirely when he leaned up to press a light kiss to Jared's lips.
Jensen pulled back, looking unexpectedly shy. "That's traditional for the first date, right?" he asked.
Jared thought he might Game Over right then and there from sheer happiness. "Wow, that's, I- yes, Jensen…"
Jensen's grin broadened into something distinctly self-satisfied. "Good. I'll see you tomorrow?"
Jared nodded fervently. "Definitely. Have a good game."
"You too," Jensen said and disappeared through the gate. Jared watched him go, not caring that he was going to have to run across the station to get to work on time.
Jared's life rocked.
The next day, Jared managed to get himself eviscerated, frozen solid, blown up - twice - and beheaded within the first two hours of the arcade opening.
"Is this you needing to be put on suicide watch, or what?" Aldis asked. "Cause I gotta say, this sort of behaviour does not suggest 'successful date' to me."
Jared's answering grin was dopey enough that not even hardcore Bad Guy haters would have been able to find fault with it. "Are you kidding? I am so totally in love, it's not even funny."