Jensen used his vantage point from the stage to sneak surreptitious glances at the new blackjack dealer. Chris had told him that the dealer's name was Jared; it was an unusual name, and Jensen wondered where his parents had found it. If the rumors were true and his family was one of the scholars removed when the Queen came into power, it was probably from an old book or scroll, and Jared would be smart not to advertise that fact.
Pulling his gaze away from Jared, Jensen returned to staring vapidly at the air. Don't look at the oysters, their Jack had told them during orientation, it distracts them. Let them gaze upon you, drool over you, lust over you, but only your body. Don't let them wonder about who you actually are or about what lies behind your eyes. When his stint was over, he retreated into the dressing rooms, nodding a greeting to Tom.
Unfortunately, his recent upgrade from a Two to a Three didn't come with a more comfortable costume. He still, inevitably, got a wedgie, and he still needed help to peel himself out of the overgarment. Whoever designed the fastenings was a fucking moron.
"Hey, Eight, help me out here?" Jensen asked.
"Sure, man, if you'll get my laces, too." Jensen answered by turning around for Tom to grab his laces, and he and Tom extracted themselves from their contract-mandated costumes. "Dude, do you think they'd let us re-design these things?"
"Eight!" their Jack's voice cracked out. "Did I hear you criticizing your uniform? The uniform Carpenter designed to maximize oyster emotional response?"
"Nossir," Tom replied. "Carpenter did an amazing job, sir, our uniforms are miracles of engineering, sir."
Jack looked at them suspiciously for a moment then strode off. Jensen and Tom looked at each other; they didn't quite dare laugh, lest they catch his attention again, but Jensen rolled his eyes and Tom crossed his.
"Right, man," Tom said, "I've got to go. Mi- Five actually has a shift off tonight, so we're going to go out. See you tomorrow."
Jensen quirked a grin at Tom's almost-slip with Mike's name. Using names in the Casino was verboten - in addition to being against the Queen's increasingly stricter regulations, it gave people an entry into finding out your past, something no one working in the Casino ever wanted to talk about. However, people inevitably developed friendships, went drinking after hours, shared names, and then had to scramble to keep their supposed anonymity and interchangeability in place at the Casino. "Tell him I said hey, and see you later."
Tom left, and Jensen was alone in the dressing rooms. He donned his street clothes, put his ring back on, and gathered up the rest of his things.
"I saw you watching me, today." Jensen jumped, startled at the voice breaking the silence. He turned around and saw the cute blackjack dealer.
"Dude, what are you doing here?" Jensen hissed. "You're not supposed to be in here - it's designated Dancers only! Get out before you're busted and we both get demoted!"
"Three, we're completely safe. The Jack's gone off to attend other duties, and no one else is schedule for half an hour. Calm down," possibly-Jared replied.
Jensen looked at him, amazed at his boldness. "How the fuck do you know that? No one lower than a Ten knows the schedules. You can't guarantee that we're safe. Go! Look, I'll meet you at, umm, the Teahouse in two hours if you want to talk that badly."
Possibly-Jared grinned at him and sauntered off. Jensen let his heart calm the fuck down before exiting the dressing rooms.
Jensen slouched in his chair waiting for the dealer to show up. He wished his headache would disappear; the frenzy that ensued after Dormouse announced two new elixirs, Concupiscence and Mischief, didn't help. However, he didn't dare actually consume anything, even a pain killer, in the Teahouse that didn't come in a closed bottle with the Heart seal. He'd tripped out on Excitement once, accidentally, and had no desire to repeat the experience.
Possibly-Jared dropped down into the seat across from him. "Hi!" he said. "So, I'm Jared, and you've been watching me. Why?"
Jensen stared at him, aghast that definitely-Jared had shared his name with a fellow Casino worker so blithely. "I'm Three," he replied, "and you're delusional."
"Dude, I don't think so. I'm pretty sure that seeing your pretty green gaze on me three times in a shift, when you're not supposed to be looking at anything qualifies as watching me. So, Three -" the slight sneer Jared gave the title left no doubt about his feelings for Jensen's reticence -"I ask again, why have you been watching me."
Jensen felt the flush rising from his chest and desperately hoped that Jared wouldn't notice. "I haven't been watching you. If I were to watch you, that would be against the rules. If I were to do something against the rules, I would be fired. If I were to be fired, it would be kind of impossible to eat. If it were impossible to eat, I would be stuck on the street again. Therefore, I haven't been watching you."
Jared took a moment to respond to Jensen's speech. "Riiight," he drawled. "Okay, Mr. I-Haven't-Been-Watching-You, hypothetically speaking, if you were to be watching me, why would that be."
For a split second, Jensen considered denying everything. Then he decided the hell with it; if he went with denial he would deserve the ribbing Chris would give him given how much time he'd spent blathering about Jared lately. "If I were to be watching you, which I have not been and will not be, it might be because you have dimples. Or because the girls haven't blacklisted you for accosting them. Or because you let that ridiculous smile slip out sometimes. Or because you're ever so tall and handsome and dreamy." Jensen worked to interject as much sarcasm as he could in his last statement, but the ridiculous smile on Jared's face indicated that he might have failed.
"Right, so you think I'm cute. I think the next step is to ask me out on a date. I, being the magnificent person that I am, will count this as a date, so you can totally get a goodnight kiss and I'll ask the next time. Sound good?"
Jensen blinked. "You have a great theory there. However, if you count this as a date, my friend, you've obviously been on some piss poor ones. Tomorrow night, Dead Dog's Eye, 9 o'clock."
Jared jerked back, and Jensen couldn't decipher the look on his face. "Dead Dog's Eye," he said, "where's that?"
"Oh, sorry, I forgot that you're new. It's down at the lower levels. You go down to First and, on the southside border, there's a street called Carrol. Head into the city, and you'll see Dead Dog's Eye three down on your right." Deciding that teasing Jared was the way to go, Jensen taunted him a little. "You think you can manage First Level, or do you want an escort?"
Jared grinned, easy again after his odd rigidness. "I think that I'm not the pretty boy making my living with my looks, Mr. Three. I'll find Dead Dog's Eye, don't you worry about me. However, it would be easier if I had a name to give the maitre d'; I doubt you're going to be the only Three in the place."
"Darlin', if you think Dead Dog's Eye is going to have a maitre d' you're sadly delusional about the lower levels and should, perhaps, avoid them for your own safety," Jensen retorted. "However, if you make it down and don't act like a complete ass, I might just give you that name you're hankering for."
Jensen capped his bottle and slid it into his bag. Abruptly, Jared leaned over the table, grabbed the back of his head, and gave him a big smacking kiss on the forehead.
"What the fuck was that?" Jensen sputtered.
"That, my dearest Three, was a good night kiss. I told you I'd give you one."
"Again, my dearest Jared, if that's your idea of a goodnight kiss, you obviously have had some piss poor ones. Maybe I'll teach you what they're really about tomorrow." On that note, Jensen left the Teahouse before Jared could assault his poor forehead any further.
After completing his shift, all Jensen wanted to do was collapse in exhaustion. He hadn't realized, when the Duchess had ordered his transfer from the Spades to the Diamonds, that he'd be in for quite so much groping. Some of them will want to touch you, their Jack had told them. Let them. If they get too intimate, security will take care of it without your interference. Frankly, he wished security had to spend some time as Dancers before getting assigned to protect the Dancers; it might make them more attentive to their jobs.
However, he had a date with Jared that he didn't want to miss. Chris would give him shit if he knew, but he was looking forward to it. Jensen could relax in Dead Dog's Eye in a way he never could at the Casino. He missed the lower levels, sometimes, although he wouldn't trade his current security for his former freedom to bum around all day in ratty trousers and stained shirts.
Jensen tagged along on a flamingo to get down to Level Four; technically they were for single riders, but the suits would usually let someone ride along for a small tip. Tonight, he considered it money well spent. Luckily, he was dropped off at a point relatively close to the Eye - he only had to go down three and over two, braving a few grass patches, alleys, and streams, but no mud pits or sewage lines. Perhaps this day wasn't cursed after all.
After reaching his destination, Jensen glanced the grey and dingy street to see if Jared was waiting for him outside. He'd heard that before the Hearts came into power Wonderland was full of marvels – stairways that went nowhere but always delivered you to your destination, trees that grew upside down, flowers that changed color depending on the mood of the closest person, buildings that were bigger on the inside than the outside. However, that was before his time; he'd only known litter, collapsed stairways, and a grey-washed existence in the City. Sometimes he doubted that the stories had any truth to them at all.
Not seeing his date, he pushed in the door and was greeted by a low murmur of conversation and so-called music from the jukebox. He wound through the tables and made his way to the bar.
"Hey, Steve," he greeted the bartender. "Gin and tonic, no extras."
"Jensen," Steve nodded back. "Haven't seen you on this level for a long time."
Suddenly, a hand snaked around his waist and a chin dropped to his shoulder. Startled, Jensen shoved his elbow back, hard, and the arm and chin disappeared.
"Shit, man, what the fuck," Jared gasped.
"What the fuck? I'm sorry, I wasn't aware it was considered acceptable behavior to randomly grope people in bars when they don't know you're there. Idiot."
"Oh, sorry, I thought you saw me wave. Shit that hurt."
"Of course it hurt, you moron, that's the point."
"Well, Jensen," the way Jared drew his name out made Jensen want to smack him again, "now that we've gotten through the bodily harm portion of the evening, would you like to try the dinner and drinks portion? Perhaps with a little less pain and a little more pleasure."
Jensen snorted at Jared's absurd phrasing, then Steve interrupted their interplay. "Here, Jen, one gin and tonic, no extras, for you. What do you want, Jay?"
"Whiskey, neat, with a splash of, hmmmm, Kindness 29. An order of wings, extra sauce, and some nachos. We'll be over there," Jared gestured to the back corner. Steve nodded, concocted Jared's drink, and then told them to get lost.
They made their way to a table in the back corner. Jensen sipped his drink, and Jared munched on the complementary niblets. "Kindness 29?" Jensen asked. "I've never heard of that one, and, working at the casino, I've heard of most of 'em. And what the fuck was that, pretending like you didn't know where the Eye was when you obviously know Steve?"
Jared shrugged. "It's a hybrid, perfect for not exacting retribution when my date elbows me in the gut as I'm trying to give him a nice, normal hug hello. And I know it as the Eye, not the Dead Dog's Eye - kind of a difference in nomenclature there. For all I knew you were talking about some crazy ass discotheque or something. And what's with your lack of extras, anyway? Too good to support the industry that pays our bills?"
Jensen glared, pissed off that Jared was pushing him on this subject. "I get hangovers," he answered shortly. "If you have a problem with that, I can leave now." He started to stand up.
"Oh, sit down," Jared said. "Can we start this entire night over? Hi, I'm glad you could make it, it's good to see you outside of work and that absurd costume they lace y'all into. I'm glad you joined me tonight, and I'm looking forward to the wings - it's ridiculous what Steve does with a little borogrove and his secret spices."
Jensen decided to relax and give this date another chance. After all, if it was a loss, the entire day was a loss, as was the rather inordinate amount of time he'd already spent wondering about Jared, so he might as well make the best of it.
"Dude, don't get me started on those stupid ass costumes they put us in. Except we have to call them uniforms, 'cause we're all professional, you see. Never mind that you need a second person to help you get in and out of the damned things, or that I've never found a single person who didn't end up with a permanent wedgie. We have it a little better off than some of the others - at least we get underwear - but fuck, they suck."
Jared laughed. "Not a fan of the illustrious Carpenter's work, I take it."
"He does good work, obviously, and I guess the fucking things do their jobs. However, if it would be nice if someone could re-engineer the damned things so that they were actually wearable. Rumor has that people thought the Duchess would, when she took over operations, but she's been tied up with our mysteriously missing prince and hasn't been very hands on lately."
Jensen's rant sparked off an easy back and forth between them, and they meandered from topic to topic through the next few hours. Jensen noticed that neither of them talked about anything personal - any mention of family or relatives was ignored or resulted in a tangent - but they still managed to cover an astounding amount of ground ranging from economic theory to chemistry to the standby of Casino-related gossip. For someone still in his Ace trial, Jared knew a surprising amount about the ins and outs of the Casino and its workers. Jared had him in stitches with his recounting of Tom and Mike's desperate attempts not to get caught with their pants down in the break room when their Jack was doing a surprise inspection; Jensen retaliated with a version of the story about Chris, the flamingo, and a Three of Clubs.
"Hey, drunken sots," Steve interrupted their revelry. "Time to go. I've put tonight on your tabs, and now I need to close down and get ready for tomorrow's binge drinkers. Out!"
Giggling, they both stood up, leaning on each other as they made their way out the door.
"So, can I walk you home?" Jared asked.
Jensen thought about it, but he wasn't quite ready to let Jared into his home yet. "Not tonight. However, if you're a very, very good boy, I might let you take me out on my next evening off. And then, if you're a very good boy, you might get a nightcap afterwards."
"Mmm, a nightcap," Jared nuzzled him. "No extras, just one hundred percent delicious us?"
Jensen dropped some small kisses on Jared's neck. "One hundred percent delicious us. No Lust, no Stamina, no Passion. Just what we come up with. You up for it?"
Jensen put a finger on Jared's lips to keep him quiet; Jared nipped at it. "Uh-uh, only if you're a good boy. That doesn't count as being a good boy." The emu cab Steve had ordered for Jensen pulled up, and the driver hit the squawk. "Now, give me a kiss, bid me farewell, and I'll see you tomorrow."
Jared did as he was told, and Jensen flew off into the night.
"Excuse me, miss, but you rang up my fish as steak; you'll probably want to change that so you don't undercharge me." Jensen smiled his best charming smile at the flustered young Ace manning the cafeteria register; the Spades got all the grunt work, starting with the sucktastic register duty. He figured that he could at least be nice to the poor girl, who looked terrified that he'd report her and and she'd be fired. Unless she caught the eye of someone important, like Jensen had, there was no hope of a lateral transfer, and non-Casino employment opportunities were pretty damn scarce.
"Sorry, sir, let me change that, sir. Ummm, your total is twenty-three, sir, shall I charge it to your account?"
"Yes, please," he said.
Emerging from the line, he spotted Chris tucked away in a corner by the windows. Making his way over, he set his tray down and then thumped down into a seat.
"Hey, man," Chris greeted him. "How's it hanging?"
"Nothing's hanging; I'm trussed up tighter than a baby in the fireswamp and can barely breath in this get up. Stop laughing at me and mocking my plight, dammit!"
"Jen, Three, man, you totally deserve mocking. You're a fucking Dancer now, you can't tell me that all the laughing we did at Dancers last year was totally undeserved."
"Dude, that's not my fault, you fucker. The Duchess decreed that I would be a dancer, and voila, instead of having grease under my nails with you grimy sots in the mechanical workshop I'm trussed up and tied up and felt up on a regular basis. Bah."
Suddenly, Jensen felt hands drop down onto his shoulders. "But Three, baby, does that mean I can't feel you up any more?"
"You loony Ace, you can feel me up, but I won't be in this outfit when you do." Jensen smiled up at Jared, glad that Jared had come in a few minutes early and stopped by to see him before clocking in.
"You must be the blackjack dealer he keeps telling me about." Chris interrupted their mutual appreciation society (Jensen refused to call it gazing longingly - he still had some pride, dammit, even if he could privately admit that he was falling head over fucking heels for Jared). "Sit down, son, tell me a little bit about yourself. I'm Christian - chill, Jen, no one else is around - and, as my outfit makes obvious, I'm a Six of Spades. Currently, I'm in charge of the mechanical work shop that this one was transferred out of as soon as people got a look at his pretty, pretty princess face."
Jensen kicked Chris under the table, and Jared snorted in amusement and sat down. "Hi, Six, I'm Jared, your local Ace blackjack dealer. I like puppies and pancakes and one pretty, pretty princess face." Jensen swatted Jared on principle, but he was pleased by Jared's explicit declaration of affection. He didn't think they'd be declaring mutual love any time soon - it was rather early in the relationship for that - but they were definitely building a happy foundation.
"How'd you get into this gig? Aren't a lot of Aces dealing; most of 'em serve for a while to get a chance to learn how everything works before getting thrown to the wolves."
Jared shrugged. "You know how it goes. Farmboy dreams of the city, has an odd penchant for cards and math after spending entirely too many nights on birthing watch. So he meanders his way here, asks for a job, and during aptitude assessment the Jacks learn that he knows pretty card tricks and you get one blackjack dealin' Ace."
"Uh-huh." Chris finished up the last of his coffee and put the detritus of his meal on his tray. "Well, boys, I've got to go back and terrorize my minions some more. Don't get caught making out in public places and enjoy your date tonight."
Jared waited until Christian had wandered off before turning to Jensen. "Am I going to enjoy my nightcap?" he asked, smiling in a way that Jensen would bet was supposed to be lascivious but landed firmly in ridiculous instead.
"It's possible. Although if you don't treat me like the pretty, pretty princess you proclaim me to be, I might have to rethink my assessment of you, which could have a detrimental affect on your chances at nightcap enjoyment."
"Mmmm." Jared leaned in to murmur directly into Jensen's ear and his voice dropped to a whisper. "But Jensen, if I treated you like a pretty, pretty princess, would you get to enjoy this?" With a nibble and a lick, Jared bounced up and bounded away.
Jensen gazed at his exiting backside fondly, and then applied himself to actually eating his lunch before his break was over.
Jensen's day started out fabulously. His coffee was utterly perfect, and he left a gorgeous man in his bed when he went to work. He came into work wearing a simple metal and stone pendant said gorgeous man had given him last night as a courting gift, and they were getting off at the same time and could, he hoped, quickly go back to bed.
However, Jensen thought that, although his world was moving due to his flirtation with Jared, that didn't mean the entire world should actually be moving. When the floor first started rumbling, he kept dancing; he'd been reprimanded once for leaving the floor without authorization, and he didn't want it to happen again, not when he'd just become a Three. However, when the rumbles continued and upgraded to tremors, he and his fellow Diamonds decided that a swift exit was the best plan and joined the streams of people making for the ground floor doors.
"Jensen!" he heard Jared shout over the panicked discussions and thuds of boots and shoes and bodies. "Jens!"
Jensen was already on the edge of the herd, so he stepped out for a minute to locate his boyfriend.
"Jens!" Jared rushed up and seized him, hard, in a hug. "Hey," panted, "I am so incredibly glad to see you. Now, c'mon, this way."
Jared grabbed his wrist and tugged, but Jensen dug in his heels. "Where the fuck are you going?" he asked. "The exit's that way. You know, where everyone else with the survival instincts of a squire on the field are going." Jensen tried to shake Jared off, but Jared wouldn't budge. Instead, he cupped Jensen's face in his absurdly massive hands and looked straight into his eyes.
"Jensen, listen to me," he pleaded. "We need to go. I understand that going to the ground seems logical but, please, trust me and come with me. Take a leap of faith, go with your gut instinct, whatever, just please, please come with me."
Caught by Jared's stare, Jensen nodded an allowed himself to be lead deeper into the bowels of the Casino. When they came to a trap door dropping down into the earth itself, he didn't even ask, just followed Jared into the darkness.
They walked and walked and walked. Jensen's feet started to blister - dancing shoes weren't made for anything other than standing and gyrating - so he took his shoes off and let his bare feet cover the cool, compacted earth. Jared had a flashlight, so they could more-or-less see, but he wouldn't want to repeat this experience.
Eventually, they hit a dead end and a heavy metal door. He had no idea where they were - the tunnels had curved like a jabberwock's neck, and they had taken multiple branchings along the way. Jared pounded on the door, gave it a kick, and then pounded again. Finally, the door opened.
"Three inches is such a wretched height to be," said the tiny woman on the other side of the door.
"It is a very good height indeed," Jared replied. After this nonsensical exchange, they both broke into huge grins, and she threw herself into Jared's arms. After a moment, the hug broke. She stepped back from the doorway, and they stepped into a small, musty room. Books were piled up everywhere, and the tapestries on the wall might have been showing scenes of dances or libraries - the threads, except the occasional slash of scarlet, were so faded Jensen found it difficult to tell. There was a desk in the corner with a mug and the remnants of a loaf of bread on it; next to the plate lay a few knives (of the kill-people type, not the cutting-bread type) and pointy stick.
"Jared, I'm so glad you're back! How was it? Why are you back early? Did you find out what you needed?" The tiny woman fired one question after another, scarcely pausing for breath. Jensen had a strong desire to ask who the fuck she was and why the fuck she was hugging his boyfriend, but the shotgun she held casually in one hand, in conjunction with the weapons on the table, gave him a pause.
"Hey Sands," Jared replied. "It was what is was, you know? Bearding the enemy in her den, risking life and limb, et cetera and so forth! I laugh in the face of danger, however, so it's all good. And this," Jared reached over and snagged Jensen's elbow, "is Jensen. He's with me."
Sands - that had to be a nickname, didn't it? - stared at him. "Jared, he's a Dancer, and he's not one of ours. Forgive me, Jensen, but Jared, are you sure you know what you're doing?"
Jared's grin split his face, and he pulled Jensen into an exuberant hug. Jensen, tired and off balance, sort of tripped and fell into Jared's side and then left himself there until he could figure out how the girl fit. "Sandy-" Jensen mentally filed the name away- "darlin', I know exactly what I'm doing. He's with me, and now that the Casino has collapsed we're going to live a life of debauchery and fun for our happily ever after."
"The Casino is gone? Why didn't you say that in the beginning, you moron!" Sandy pushed back a tapestry, ducked through the revealed entryway, and disappeared. Jensen pulled away, gave Jared his most unimpressed look, and crossed his arms in front of his chest. He knew the strategic cut outs in his costume undermined the stern impression he was trying to give, but he'd make it work. "We're going to live a life of debauchery and a happily ever after? Really. When were you planning on asking me about this plan?"
"You don't want to?" Jared's voice became small and his happy demeanor vanished.
"I didn't say that either. However, before we do anything, I believe that I deserve to know who you are and what this place is. And then, my little jabber, we're going to have a discussion that involves questions and answers and a distinct lack of presumption about my decision. Okay?" Jensen arched his eyebrow and waited for Jared's response. He'd be perfectly happy to give happily ever after with Jared a shot; however, he had certain obligations, and he refused to let his lover make unilateral decisions.
"Oh. Right. We need to stay at the door until Sandy comes back, and I'll start telling you everything. Of course, you have to tell me everything, too. Like why you made good money as a Three but live in a barebones apartment. And why you act like a human being in the lower levels but a stuck-up priss elsewhere. And why you never take extras in your drinks; they're formulated against hangovers, so I think you've been hiding something from me."
Jensen nodded, agreeing to Jared's terms.
"Okay, when Sandy comes back, she's probably going to have someone with her. That someone is probably going to ask me a lot of questions; I may be allowed to stay with you for them, but I may not. If I need to go elsewhere, stay with Sandy. You can trust her, and she won't hurt you." Jared pulled him into an embrace and then leaned back far enough that he could look Jensen in the eye. "Jensen, promise me one thing: promise me that you won't start yelling or leave until we've talked about everything. After that, you can swear or rant or put me in time out or leave if you have to, but let's get everything on the table first. Okay?"
Again, Jensen nodded, agreeing to Jared's terms; this time, he added a soft kiss to seal their pact.
"Pinky swear?" Jared asked. Jensen couldn't help but laugh, and he did.
Jared smiled, let him go, and turned around to close the door. He locked it by throwing the heavy iron bolt welded to it before picking up a one of the knives left on the desk and tucking it somewhere about his person. They cleared out a space by the wall - the chair behind the desk looked like it would collapse if Jensen sat on it, he'd hate to see the rubble if Jared gave it a try - and slouched against the wall, the shotgun propped up beside Jared. Jared picked up one of Jensen's feet, began to massage it, and started talking.
"So, I'm guessing you've heard the gossip about my name," Jared stated, staring firmly at Jensen's foot in his lap. Jensen nodded, although Jared never looked up to see it, and let Jared continue uninterrupted. "Gossip is actually more right than not this time; my family were scholars in the Old Kingdom, before the Queen and the Casino. We weren't as prominent as the Siennas or the Blossoms, but we did fairly well. My father was a mathematician - I learned how to count cards from him, actually - and my mother was in love with the written word. Any written word, including contraband from Otherside, across the Looking Glass."
Jared looked up at this revelation, seeking Jensen's eyes. Jensen strove to keep his face neutral, not condemnatory; bringing things across the Glass was one of the biggest taboos in Wonderland, even though everyone knew the Queen's men did it when it suited them, but expressing shock would just make this harder. He bent forward to cover Jared's hand with his own in a wordless show of support. Jared gave him a pained twist of his lips and continued his narration.
"I was born, obviously, after the coup. My parents had already fled to the Library, and I grew up here, amongst its stacks and its refugees. Mom named me after a character in a Otherside story she liked, something about actors and monsters and hauntings - I never did quite figure out what a ghost is, although I guess it doesn't matter. Anyway, it's a pretty standard story here; your parents had to go into hiding, lest they be detained by the Tweedles or become test subjects for the elixirs, and you grew up surrounded by books but little light. Hatter comes by a lot, bringing comfits and toys and telling us about the outside world. A few of us, like myself, decided that we needed to contribute and joined the Resistance in various capacities. I was assigned-"
The door leading into the Library slammed open, and Sandy burst back in. "Jared, you need to go see Tortoise right now and report. Jensen, you need to stay here with me."
"Why Tortoise and not Dodo?" Jared queried.
"Dodo's been... indisposed for a few days," Sandy answered, "so Tortoise stepped in. She wants to know what happened at the Casino, and she wants to know what company you're keeping, so you need to go tell her, right now."
Jared leaned his head back against the wall for a second, looking exhausted. Then he moved Jensen's feet, clambered up, and pulled Jensen up after him. "I have to go talk to Tortoise," he said.
"So I gathered," Jensen replied dryly. "Something about explaining the Casino - good luck with that, by the way - and justifying my presence. I'll wait for you, babe." Jensen grabbed Jared's pinky with his own, and Jared smiled brilliantly before disappearing down the darkened corridor.
"Jared tells me that I should stay with you," Jensen told Sandy, "so I will. However, if you don't mind, I'm just going to grab one of these books and wait for him to come back." Suiting actions to words, Jensen skimmed the titles surrounding him before pulling a slim volume titled Escaping Elixirs from the stacks of books. He settled back against the wall to read while waiting for Jared. Sandy grabbed the shotgun and returned to her watch, idly sharpening her knives and occasionally munching some bread.
"Jensen," she said, interrupting his reading.
Sighing, he turned the corner of the page down to keep his place and closed his book. "Yes?"
"Tell me a little about yourself, how you met Jared."
"As I'm sure you've deduced, based upon my current outerwear, I am - was - a Diamond Dancer at the Casino. I was just promoted to Three. Jared and I met at work. The end."
Dissatisfied with his curt response, she tried again. "That doesn't tell me anything about you, the man my best friend trusts enough to bring here. So, sweetie, talk to me or I'll figure out a new approach." The sound of the metal on the whetstone underlined the vaguely ominous nature of her words, but Jensen was too tired to care.
"Look, I owe Jared information about me; hell, I want to give it to him. However, I have no idea who you are or where I am, and I don't owe you anything. Let me read my book in peace, and we can all play happy bonding times later, when Jared gets back and tells me what the fuck is going on." Seeing the disgruntled expression on her face, Jensen added, "Please."
"I could tell you what's going on, if you like."
He minded the courtesies this time, not wanting to piss her off even more. If she really was Jared's best friend - and he had no proof of that - alienating her would be really dumb. "No, thank you. I'll wait for Jared to get back and tell me what I need to know."
She made a non-committal noise and went back to sharpening her knives. Jensen, grateful that she let her interrogation drop, returned to his book and immersed himself amongst biochemical formulae and psychiatric theories.
After about fifty pages, he heard echoing footsteps. A man emerged through the entryway into the room, shorter than Jensen and with spiky hair. "Chad," Sandy acknowledged him.
"Sandy," he replied, giving Jensen the evil eye - or maybe it was just his habitual look, because it didn't change when he shifted his gaze to Sandy. "And it's Mayhem in front of strangers, even if we are at base. We need to get him to Tortoise; she wants to talk to him herself. Grab him and go; I'll watch the door in the meantime."
"There will be no grabbing, thank you very much," Jensen said, climbing to his feet. All he really wanted was a full body massage and the opportunity to get out of his damned uniform, but he doubted he'd get either very soon. The likelihood of sleeping and cuddling with Jared was seemed to be pretty fucking nil, too, dammit. "I am more than capable of walking to a different locale in order to converse with your Tortoise."
"Right, whatever," Chad retorted, taking Sandy's place behind the desk.
"Come on, Jensen, let's go." With that, she lead the way into yet another darkened corridor, Jensen following behind her. This one was lined with torches every ten or so feet: enough to keep Jensen from tripping over the uneven earth and occasional brick - it looked like there used to be a flower bed along one side, long ago - but not enough that he could tell what color the bricks actually were.
After five torches, they emerged into a huge atrium, piled high with stacked books and crammed full of people. Books to the left, books to the right, books being used to build platforms and beds, intricate tapestries used as blankets and towels, a whole little city built with people and literature and hidden from view in this giant building with its chandelier - how was the electricity still running, Jensen wondered - and marble walls and columns. Jensen wrinkled his nose at the stench and winced at the living conditions. This must have been what Jared was talking about, when he said he grew up in the Library away from the light, but dear sweet goddess, Jensen hadn't realized what those sentences has implied.
Sandy moved quickly amongst the stacks of books and debris, navigating the twisted labyrinth with ease, and Jensen, hindered by his aching feet, limped along behind her. He felt like everyone was staring at him and the diamonds on his clothes; frankly, he would wear a burlap sack at this point to be a little more inconspicuous and to be able to breath again.
Finally, they reached the opposite wall, and Sandy knocked on the door. "I have to go back to my post," she told him, "but I'm sure I'll see you later." She gave him a half-smile and left, and Jensen stood there, feeling like an idiot and wondering if the door would ever actually open. Perhaps this was simply a test, to see if he was stupid enough to stand around like a moron staring at a door. Did they want him to be a distraction, giving people a diversion from their lives - a game of laugh at the idiot Diamond, who stands there waiting for something that would never come? Jensen knew he was being ridiculous, that Jared would never put him in such a situation, but Jared wasn't here.
The door creaked open. Jensen didn't hesitate to step through, hoping that Jared would be on the other side.
The room he entered was better lit and better organized than any he'd thus far encountered in this place. The soft lights and candles left shadows, but Jensen didn't fear to walk lest he stub a toe; the books were piled to the side of the room, not architectural supplements in the middle of the floor. A tree had managed to survive the general chaos, and its leafy boughs arched over the massive oak desk that a woman, presumably Tortoise, was leaning against.
She had long brown hair shot with grey, a square jaw, and a stern expression on her face as she looked at him. Jensen would have traded his entire paycheck for her clothes, a comfortable looking outfit of dark blue trousers and a loose brown shirt. Okay, his entire paycheck if he could guarantee they'd fit him; however, the laces looked like they'd make the fit adjustable so, yeah, he was back to wanting her clothes.
Jensen heard a rustle behind him and turned around. Seeing Jared, he smiled and reached his hand out, wanting Jared's support when facing her. Jared grasped it, interlacing their fingers, and stepped alongside him. "Tortoise," he said, "this is Jensen. Jensen, this is Tortoise. She's-"
"She's wondering who you are and what you're doing here," Tortoise interrupted. "Jared, why is a Diamond Dancer in the Library, and, Jensen, what do you hope to get out of being here?"
"He's here because the Casino was collapsing around us, I told you that," Jared answered sharply. "He's here because we're dating, and I'd like to stay with him. He's here because he won't hurt any of us, he's just trying to get through the day."
"Jared, son, why wouldn't he hurt us, sell us out for more elixir? All the Dancers are addicts, you know that. You're staking your place with us and the entire Library on someone you've been with for what, a whole week?"
"Excuse me," Jensen cut in, "I'm not an addict, thank you very much."
"S'true, he doesn't even get extras when we go to bars. Hell, even the sex is all natural." Realizing what he had said, Jared stopped talking and blushed deeply. Jensen was torn between being irritated that Jared had let some strange woman know about their sex life and wanting to tease Jared, who was entirely too adorable when blushing for his exhausted mind to handle.
"Thank you for that rousing endorsement of his upright nature," she said. "However, that doesn't negate that fact that there is no one to vouch for him, other than yourself. Jared, you have to admit that you're biased. Therefore, I'm left with a dilemma."
"Ma'am, all I want is to get out of this uniform, grab my lover here, sleep for a week, and then attend to my own business. I have no idea what's going on or who you are and, frankly, I don't know anyone who would give a damn. The Casino's gone, I presume Wonderland is in chaos, and I'm only a fresh Three; no one's going to listen to me even if I do go to the Clubs blathering about conspiracies and libraries. Everyone knows the last of the scholars were stamped out by the March Hare a century ago." Jensen knew his plea was slightly loopy, but he didn't know what else to say. All he wanted was for this day to be over.
"The Dog, the Dog can vouch for him!"
"Who?" Jensen asked, taken aback by Jared's sudden and nonsensical statement.
"He would work quite well," Tortoise mused. "Jared, take Jensen to your chambers; the other residents are out on assignment, so it will be just the two of you. I'll send a messenger out to fetch the Dog. It may take a day or two to get him, if it's as chaotic out there as I think. Jared, Jensen isn't to leave your custody. Jensen, I hope that our measures prove unnecessary and that I can great you properly the next time we meet."
Jared squeezed Jensen's hand, quickly caressing Jensen's pinky with his own. Jensen sighed and followed Jared out of the room, back into the craziness of the Library.
Jared's rooms consisted of a tiny bathroom, a main room, and a decent sized kitchen. They weren't as spartan as Jensen's own apartment, but they also weren't as insanely cluttered as every other room in this place that Jensen had seen thus far. Two sets of bunkbeds were pushed against the wall of the main room, and some daffodils and tiger lilies were growing in one corner. There were a bunch of books, but they had been crammed onto shelves, not left on the floor for Jensen to stumble over. The walls were creamy, and the rooms were wired with that inexplicably working electricity.
Jensen collapsed into one of the two chairs and tried to stay awake while Jared dug through a chest. "Found them!" he said triumphantly. He thrust out a lump of grey fabric at Jensen. "Here, Jens, have some new clothes. They may fit a little oddly - I outgrew them - but they're clean and they're not, well, that."
Jensen held up his hand in a silent demand that Jared help him out of his chair. Laughing, Jared stepped over and leveraged him up. "C'mon," Jensen slurred, "gotta have help getting out of this stupid thing. Do the laces and help me peel, I can get the rest." Jensen yawned and stood there while Jared undid the impossible fastenings up his back. He peeled out of the outfit, halfheartedly kicking it away, and pulled on Jared's old clothes.
"Smell like you," he muttered, "'s'nice."
"Bed time for you, sleepy head." Jared smiled and guided Jensen to one of the lower bunks. "Here, this is mine, sleep well."
"Mmmm," Jensen concurred. "Sorry 'bout the pendant, 's in my locker, 's gone now."
"Jensen, baby, look at me." Jensen forced his eyes open and looked muzzily at Jared. "Listen to me, Jensen, I don't care about the necklace. I'm just happy I found you and that we're together, okay?" Jensen nodded - at least, he thought he nodded - and closed his eyes again. Jared brushed a soft kiss on his forehead, and Jensen fell into sleep.
Jensen woke up to the sounds of someone making noise in the kitchen. Yawning, he extricated himself from the sheets and stumbled into the bathroom for his morning piss and to wash his face. Jared, who Jensen mentally nominated for sainthood, had left a towel out with a note on it. I am for Jensen, it said, so that he can clean up his pretty princess ass. PS, The water is cold. Next to it were a folded pair of trousers and a shirt, and on top of them Jared had placed a note that said I am to cover Jensen's pretty princess body. Smiling, even in the face of cold water, Jensen ducked into the tiny shower and scrubbed himself down.
Jensen emerged feeling slightly better about life and made his way into the kitchen, desperately hoping that Jared had some form of caffeinated beverage.
"Hey Jens," Jared greeted him, handing him a glorious and beautiful mug of coffee. "Sleep well?"
Occupied with his caffeination ritual, Jensen just nodded.
"How many times did you ding your head in on the showerhead?"
Having finished half of his cup, Jensen ventured to speak. "Just twice," he replied. "Man, how do you fit in that thing?"
Jared shrugged. "I don't have much of a choice; we're actually incredibly lucky to have our own shower. Most people don't. These chambers are incredibly luxurious around here, and we were really lucky to get them."
Jared's words and the mysterious other inhabitants of the rooms reminded Jensen of their unfinished conversation. Jensen didn't want to work through an emotionally loaded conversation this morning, but he was pretty sure they needed to do so.
"So," he said, "I think maybe we should try that conversation again."
"Yeah," Jared agreed. "Ummm, why don't you eat whatever you want to eat and then meet me in the other room." Without waiting for Jensen's response, he ducked into the main room.
Jensen scarfed down some cheese and a roll and followed him. Jared had opted to sit down on the patch of grass amongst the flowers, so Jensen joined him, sprawling so that his head was on Jared's lap. "Why don't you start with who the 'we' is," Jensen softly suggested.
Jared started running his fingers through Jensen's hair and resumed his story.
"Right, I told you my father was a mathematician and my mother loved the written word. I'm one of three kids, the middle child. We theoretically consists of my mom and my siblings; however, my baby sister ran off a long time ago. Right now, my mom's on shift in the Library, sorting and organizing and cataloging. They run week long shifts, eating and sleeping and staying wherever they're working, and then they're off for a week. They've been working for decades trying to sort out the mess, and, although you'd never know it from the Great Hall, they have made a lot of progress. It's just... there's millennia of art and information here, you know? Too much for people to do in a lifetime.
My parents were academic brats together, they knew each other as kids before the coup. They were the last group to attend the universities before they were shut down. When March Hare started hunting down all the scholars, they'd gotten married and my mom was pregnant with my older brother. They fled and found their way here.
My brother's out there, somewhere. I don't know what he's doing, other than working for the Resistance. They usually don't tell us what others are doing - less chance of any activity being compromised that way.
Right, the Resistance. Most people, like Sandy, stay here and guard. However, a few of us, like I said, joined and got out into the world. I was assigned to the Casino. I was supposed to get hired there and funnel information this way through my contact, the Dog. You know how you were wondering about my knowledge of schedules and shifts? Well, it's because it was my job to figure out the patterns."
Jared stopped talking, and Jensen fought his urge to start yelling.
"So," he said, abruptly sitting up to face Jared and trying to keep his voice level, "was I an assignment? Get close to someone more senior, integrate yourself into the social network, become bestest buddies with anyone you could?"
"No, Jensen, no," Jared protested. "It's not like that. You... you were an accident, an absolutely wonderfully fortuitous and unexpected happening. Jensen-" Jared reached out to touch him, but Jensen jerked away- "Jensen, I didn't expect you. I didn't play you or manipulate you or seduce you. This, us, this is just one hundred percent us, how well we go together. I didn't tell you everything but, to be fair, you haven't told me everything either."
Jensen took a deep breath and told himself to calm down. Okay, Jared was a fucking spy. Jensen could sympathize with the desire to overthrow the Hearts - he wasn't exactly a huge fan of their regime and its repercussions himself - but the thought that he'd ventured out on an emotional limb for Jared, who was lying to him about something so fundamental, fucking hurt.
"Not a farm boy," he stated. Jared shook his head. "What else did you lie about?"
Jared looked distressed, but he kept his distance and started talking again. "Jensen, I didn't lie about the big stuff. I meant the courting gift, I meant the hugs, I meant this with you. I am falling for you - have fallen for you - and I haven't been lying about who I am. It's been me, big, goofy, touchy feely me, all along. I grabbed you during the exodus because I couldn't not see you again, and if you hadn't come back to me my chances of making my way out of here and back to you again were pretty fucking small. I owe a duty, and there's no way they'd let me off in the middle of chaos to check on my boyfriend. Please, Jensen, believe me."
Jensen clenched his jaw and decided that, fuck it, he might as well be honest. "You're a spy. You were sent to spy on me and mine, and, Jared, I need to some time here. Yes, I've kept some things from you too, but none of them were quite so fucking huge as working for the fucking Resistance." Jensen realized that his voice was rising and reined it back in.
"I, obviously, am not allowed out of these rooms right now. Until the Dog-"
"Steve," Jared interrupted, "the Dog is Steve. That's why I was so surprised when you suggested the Eye, I thought you might be one of us."
Taken aback, Jensen paused to digest this information. "Right. Interesting. However, that doesn't exactly change my need for some space. Jared, unless you want this to be over right now you need to find somewhere else to be, and you need to be there for several hours."
"Right." Jared responded. "I can do that. I'm sorry, Jensen, but someone's going to have to be outside the door. I'm going to arrange for it to be Sandy, okay."
Tired of all of it, Jensen simply nodded his acquiescence. However, before Jared left, he held out his hand. Jared clasped it, uncertainty written on his face. "I promised," Jensen said, "to hear you out. I'm going to abide by that promise, but right now I need time and I need space. Preferably I'd have Chris to talk to, but that's not an option right now. So, I'm not going to run away or throw the teapot at you as soon as you enter the door. Now, go."
Jared nodded and strode out of the room. Soon, Jensen heard a soft rapping on the door. Without waiting for an acknowledgment, Sandy stuck her head in.
"Hi, Jensen," she said, "I just thought I'd let you know that I'm here. If you want to talk, feel free to grab me. Otherwise I'll just stay on this side of the door, okay?"
Jensen raised an eyebrow. "Greetings, o guard," he said. "I'm ever so glad to know that you're considering my comfort. Now, please, leave me alone so that I, having nothing else to do, can get some reading done. Good day."
At his curt words Sandy retreated behind the doorway and slammed the door shut. Jensen kind of regretted being so bitchy, but he was fucking tired of being treated with suspicion due to events outside of his control. He hadn't asked to come down here, dammit; he had just wanted a steady paycheck, but somehow he ended up as a prisoner in a mythical building. Awesome.
Jensen snagged a book and began to read Unlocking Brain Chemistry.
Several hours later, he heard some knocks, a thud, and some more knocks. Recalling Jared's odd method of knocking on the door when they were initially entering the Library, he set the ladle on the counter, exited the kitchen, and opened the door.
"Jared," he said and stepped back from the doorway.
Jared entered but didn't speak.
"I'm still pissed," Jensen admitted, "but, like I said, I'm not going to bludgeon you to death with a frying pan or anything. Come in here and try the stew I put together for dinner. I'm not entirely sure what all the ingredients are, but nothing I added was fuzzy or black, so I figure we're probably okay."
Relieved, Jared grinned at him. "Can I give you a hug, or would that result in grievous bodily injury to my delicate self?"
Exasperated, Jensen replied, "Dude, did you not just hear me say that I'm still pissed?"
"I get it, you're pissed, but it's been a shitty two days and I just want to give my boyfriend a hug before we go back to fighting. Well, not-fighting, since we're not exactly fighting, we're just working through stuff. Issues. Things like that."
Conceding to Jared's dubious logic, Jensen simply opened up his arms and let Jared dive into them. He, too, just wanted a hug from his boyfriend; he wouldn't admit it to Jared, not yet, but he was feeling royally freaked out and worried about everything.
After a few minutes, Jared stepped back. "Okay, I know this probably isn't quite the right time, and it doesn't have to mean anything if you don't want it to, although it could totally be a courting gift, if you'd like, but it really doesn't have to be, but anyway, I found this for you." After that rambling introduction, Jared pulled a small box out of his pocket and thrust it out to Jensen. Jensen opened it. Taken aback by the contents, he looked up at Jared and arched an eyebrow in inquiry.
"It's not your ring, I know, but I found it when I was mucking about and thought you might like it. Yours went down with the Casino, and I thought you might miss it. The engravings on it are pretty close, although it doesn't have the inscription. If there's something specific you want, there's a jeweler or two down here who could inscribe it, or you can leave it as it is. It's up to you. So, yeah, happy new ring."
Jared pulled it out of its box and slipped it onto his right hand. Jared was right, he would miss his ring, and he was touched that Jared had thought charitably of him after being kicked out of his own home.
"I think it would make a fine courting gift," he said softly, smiling at Jared. Jared's answering grin lit up the room. "However, two things. One, I'm still cranky about this, and I reserve the right to stay cranky for a day or two. Two, we need to eat before everything in the stew disintegrates into mush. Kitchen, go!"
After they'd retrieved bowls of the stew, they ended back up in the main room. This time, Jensen took a proper chair instead of sharing the garden patch with Jared. He hadn't been kidding about his need to keep some distance between them, although he cut Jared off when Jared tried to resume his explanation while they were eating.
"Jared, you gotta eat, first. You haven't eaten all day, have you?"
Sheepishly, Jared nodded.
"That's what I thought. So, eat, eat some more, and then we'll start talking again. Okay?"
Jared nodded again and continued devouring the stew. When his bowl was clean, he leaned back and resumed his story.
"There's actually not much more to tell. This was my first assignment. I'd learned some of the schedules and the personalities involved in my little segment of the Casino and passed the info to Steve, but that's pretty much it."
"That would still be enough to earn you an encounter with the Tweedles," Jensen pointed out.
"Yeah," Jared conceded, "but they wouldn't get that much out of me. I don't know anything, Jens; the Resistance stays segmented so that none of us can hurt anyone else if - when - we're captured. I don't even know where my brother is, you know? Supposedly there was someone in place at the Casino in case of dire emergency, but I can't imagine who it would have been. So," he shrugged, "that's me and my story."
Jensen digested the additional information he'd been given. He was relieved to know that there had been some sort of contingency plans in place to get Jared out if someone had gotten vocally nosy about his odd depth of knowledge or curiosity. However, the tenuous nature of that contingency plan added to the thoughts running circles in Jensen's mind.
He was happy that Jared had survived acting against the Queen, albeit in a small and covert way, but he was still pissed that Jared had lied to him. He was freaked at the thought that Jared might have disappeared during the exodus and they would've never seen each other again, but he was worried that, despite Jared's reassurances, Jensen had been just an assignment, a gateway to meeting other employees and learning their names and identities.
Just as he was about to try to articulate his thoughts to Jared, they were once more interrupted. Chad threw open the door and entered the room.
"J-man, you gotta go to the Tortoise, now. And you," he pinned Jensen with his possibly evil eye once more, "gotta go, too."
Jensen grabbed their bowls and put them into the sink on the way out. Jared didn't hold his hand this time, but he did walk closely enough that their shoulders brushed. Chad walked behind them and kept glaring at Jensen, which he found most off-putting.
"Yes?" he inquired over his shoulder. "Does the back of my head have magical powers and the ability to entrance you?"
"I don't trust you," Chad growled.
"Chad!" Jared intervened, "Dude, he's my lover! He's accepted my courting gift, and he's not going to disappear to make you happy."
"Jared, he's a freakin' Diamond Dancer. A Diamond. A Three at that! A Diamond Three who has been the Queen's employee for years! I don't trust him, and I don't know why you do, and he's going to break you and betray us! And call me Mayhem in front of strangers, you idiot." Chad's rant over, he subsided into glaring.
Jared abruptly stopped their progress and turned around to face Chad. Jensen, curious about what was about to happen, turned around, too, and Jared leaned into him, just a little.
"Chad, I am only going to tell you this one more time. Jensen is my boyfriend. Jensen is my lover. I trust Jensen. Therefore, you are going to have to find a way to accept him. He's wearing my courting gift, and, unless he returns it to me, he and I will be together. So back the fuck off."
Throughout this speech, Jared started standing straighter and looming over Chad. Chad glared right back, not intimidated by Jared doing his best impression of a Giant.
"Fine," he huffed. "Jensen stays, true love, I wish you all the best and a non-broken heart. And call me Mayhem!"
Satisfied, Jared turned back around and started walking again. Jensen followed, but Chad zigged and disappeared into the chaos of the Library floor.
They reached Tortoise's lair; this time the door was open, and they were spared an interminable wait outside her domain. Entering, Jensen saw that she was sitting behind the desk this time and that two chairs had been added across from her.
"Boys," she said, "close the door behind you and sit down." They did so, and Jensen waited for her to pronounce his fate.
"Jensen Ackles," she said, "family of no significance. Parents dead, siblings' whereabouts unknown. Started working as a Spade in the Casino three years ago, concurrent with his siblings' disappearances. Transferred to the Diamond Dancers within the last year, recently promoted from Two to Three. No interludes spent with the Tweedles, no history of elixir dependency, no discernible goals. Intimate with Jared, codename Cockapoo, and brought to my Library yesterday after the collapse of the Casino.
So, Jensen. The Dog vouches for you, telling me that you're not enamored of the Hearts and their regime and that you wouldn't turn us in for a crust of bread or a drop of Joy. Provisionally, I'm willing to go with that assessment, taken in conjunction with Jared here staking himself on your behavior. However, I want you out of my Library and away from my people. Jared?"
"Yes, ma'am," Jared replied.
"Could you two be ready to go in an hour? You can go up the normal way, this time, and skip the tunnels."
"Yes ma'am," Jared agreed.
"Very good. Go now."
Upset that she knew anything about him but happy that she'd missed some of the big stuff, Jensen looked forward to getting the fuck out of the Library. He honestly and sincerely hoped to never be imprisoned in it again.
The normal way turned out to be a vertical ride to the lower levels in a decrepit old bus. Jensen clutched a bag full of water bottles from Jared's rooms, uncertain if his apartment was still going to have functioning water. The Casino was integrated into every aspect of the City's utilities, and its literal collapse as likely to have unexpected side affects. Jared carried a valise with some clean clothing and a few personal affects tucked away inside. Jensen was pretty sure Jared didn't expect to return to the Library any time soon and had grabbed his most prized possessions - a book, a dried flower, and a miniature of a couple wearing maroon.
When they were dropped off at the second level, Jensen turned to Jared and spoke. "We need to go to my place now, drop off our stuff. However, after that, I have somewhere I need to be. You can come, if you like, although if you want to stay at my place and sleep I'd understand."
"Of course I'll come with you. It's important to you, whatever this is, right?" Jensen nodded. "Okay then, I'll be there with bells. Although you'll have to tell me if I need to dig out the sparkly little bells or the big brass ones."
"You loon," Jensen grinned, happy that Jared had agreed to come along. It would make fulfilling his half of their bargain infinitely easier.
They made their way up to the fifth level and then cut over the three blocks to Jensen's place. The City, at least at this level, seemed deserted; it was never teeming with life, but the lack of panhandlers and junkies creeped Jensen out. He was glad to see his tidy little apartment building, blocked off behind wrought iron and steel. Then he realized that his keys, like his jewelry and his most comfortable boots, had gone down with the Casino.
"Jensen, what's wrong?" Jared's brows furrowed with worry, and Jensen, as incredibly pissed off at the universe as he was, still found him cute.
"I don't have my fucking keys, they were in my locker with everything else. Shit!" Jensen banged his hands on the gate, wishing that someone would magically appear and open it for them.
"You don't see me doing this." With that odd statement, Jared crouched in front of the gate, his tongue poking out in concentration and wielding a metal nail file and a toothpick he'd pulled from his pocket. After a few minutes of effort, the latch clicked, and the gate swung open.
Jared stood back up, bowed to Jensen, and swept his arm forward dramatically. "After you, monsieur."
"My hero!" Jensen exclaimed, batting his eyelashes at Jared. Jared snorted at his ridiculousness, and they entered the small courtyard around Jensen's apartment. Just as Jared was about to employ his lock picking skills once more, Jensen's door swung open, and they were greeted by the sight of Chris in Jensen's doorway.
"Jensen! Jared! You made it!" he exclaimed, slapping their backs as they entered. "Tom and Mike went off to the woods camping yesterday, so they should be fine. Have either of y'all seen Steve? Also, Jared, man, how did you get through that lock? I've been trying for three years now and haven't managed to crack it yet."
Jared grinned and wriggled his fingers and his ears. "Magic hands, dear Christian, magic hands. For I am Jared the Magnificent, at your service."
"Jared the Ridiculous, more like," Jensen broke in, tossing his paisley throw pillow at Jared's head. He simply smiled, snatched it out of the air, and lobbed it back.
Jensen returned to Chris' more serious inquiry. "We heard Steve's fine, although we haven't seen him yet. I'd guess he'll end up back at the Eye when things settle down; maybe we should try it tomorrow. What are you doing here, man?"
Chris shrugged. "Where else was I going to go? Tom and Mike are out, Steve wasn't at the Eye, and I was crashing in my workroom until I found a new place. Still have your spare keys, and I figured you'd show up eventually, although I was expecting you sooner. Where were you guys?"
"We were... detained," Jensen responded. "I'll fill you in later. Have you heard anything about the Hospital?"
"Not a thing, sorry, man. You gonna head out?"
"Yeah, I think we're going to go as soon as we drop our bags off." Crossing his room to the table, Jensen let his bag of water thud down on the tables. Jared had already disappeared into the bedroom, presumably to dump his clothes in a drawer. Leaving Chris in the living room, Jensen followed him and discovered him collapsed on the bed.
"Hey." Jensen kicked Jared's foot and then sprawled beside him, staring at the ceiling for a few minutes. "So, I've still got to go, even though I'd rather take a nap. Still comin' with me?"
"Yeah," Jared sighed. "Just gimme a minute to convince myself that I want to be vertical, not horizontal. My body seems to be leading a coup against me."
Jensen drug himself up and regained an upright position. "Come on, Jared, you're supposed to be the young and vigorous one. If I can do it, you can do it!" Jensen extended his hand, and Jared took it, pulling himself up.
"You go entertain Chris for a few minutes," Jensen instructed, "I'm going to dig out the comfy shoes."
Jared followed instructions, and Jensen went to his closet. It didn't contain much - he tended to cycle through a few pairs of trousers and three shirts at any given time - but Jensen's old shoes remained piled on the floor. He sighed and dug out the monstrosities that he would be wearing for the next day or two, until he located a new pair of boots worthy of breaking in properly.
Shod once more, he emerged from the bedroom to Jared's sniggers. "Comfy shoes or jester shoes?" Jared inquired. "Jens, babe, those things are utterly hideous."
"You're welcome," Chris said. "I think they're the best purchase I ever convinced him to make."
Head held high, Jensen simply raised his eyebrow and looked down his nose at Jared, who was sprawled on the small couch. "Are you coming?" he asked in the most imperious tones a man wearing bright orange and blue sneakers with green accents could muster.
"Why yes, yes I am." Dimples in evidence, Jared stood up to join Jensen, who snagged the extra keys from the bowl on the table and then lead them back into the City.
Jared stared up at the edifice in front of them, watching the giant cogs on the front of the building turn.
"This is the Hospital of Dreams," he said quietly.
"Yes," Jensen replied.
"I've never been here before, although I've heard horror stories about it. Why are we at the Hospital?"
Jensen didn't answer. Instead he grabbed Jared's pinky with his own, and they walked into the building together.
The receptionist wasn't there, which didn't surprise Jensen although it contributed to his worry. He confidently lead them back to the offices where the doctors, sorcerers, and engineers conferred with each other in their efforts to make the elixir-addicted patients of the Hospital regain normal function. Only one case in ten ever left the Hospital by the front door, but Jensen appreciated their unceasing efforts.
When they reached Morgan's door, Jensen released Jared's hand and knocked. Hearing Morgan's "Come in," he pushed the door open and stepped inside. Jared followed, staying close to his back and resting a hand on his waist.
"Jensen, it's good to see you," Morgan said, pushing the sleeve of his tatterdemalion coat up and holding his hand out for Jensen to shake. "And who is this with you?"
"Jared, this is Dr. Morgan. Dr. Morgan, this is Jared. He works - worked - with me. I'm here to introduce him to my mother." Jensen conducted the introductions, wishing he could see Jared's face to know his reaction to Jensen's little bombshell about his supposedly dead mother. Jared's hand tightened on his hip, but he stuck out his other hand for Morgan to shake without hesitation.
"Okay, follow me," Morgan said. While they traversed the corridors, he and Jensen talked about his mother's treatment. "We've got her stabilized to some degree. She's no longer physically dependent on the Euphoria, and she seems to have hit a plateau with its psychosomatic effects. She's still floating, but she's not rising any more, just hovering."
"That's good, right?" Jensen asked. "A sign that she's returning to normal and may get to leave?"
"Jensen, I want to say that yes, it's a good sign and that she'll be out of here soon. However, we just don't know. Each case is unique; each biochemical interaction between elixir and individual results in a completely idiosyncratic response. Your mother drank Euphoria and started floating. We got her before the Carpenter and the Walrus did, so she has a chance of recovery, but I can't guarantee anything. I'm sorry."
Jensen knew that Morgan's response would be noncommittal at best - it always had been before - but he'd held a sliver of hope that the transition from floating upwards to hovering would have bettered her prognosis. Apparently not.
Jared's hand ghosted along the small of Jensen's back, and he gave his boyfriend a quick look, silently thanking him for his presence, before returning to his conversation with Morgan.
"What about funding? I've paid up through the year for room and board, but what about treatments?"
They reached his mother's cell, and Jensen gazed upon her through the glass observation wall. She was about two feet off the ceiling, floating and giggling at the air. It was an improvement from last time, when the room had been constantly moving to compensate for her upwards trajectory, but it still fucking hurt to see her, entranced by nothing tangible with her skirt floating softly around her legs.
"As you can see she's reached a plateau," Morgan stated. "We have no treatments planned at this time; we hope that she'll start coming down on her own, now that she's no longer receiving any additional Euphoria. However, I assume the standard arrangement is still in place? We are allowed to treat without additional authorization as long as she remains paid in full for six months of additional room and board?"
Jensen nodded and then had a horrid thought. "Make it eight months," he said, "in case things don't settle down quickly. I anticipate visiting more, so we'll be able to stay in closer contact in case you do find a promising treatment and I need to authorize the expenditure."
"Excuse me, doctor," Jared interjected, "but what about the recent turmoil? Will the fall of the Casino and the new King change anything?"
Jensen looked sharply at Jared, not having realized that Jared was privy to information Jensen didn't have. He must have gotten an update after Jensen had kicked him out, but it burned that he hadn't shared the news about a new King right away. In all fairness, Jensen knew that there hadn't been a chance - the "are you sleeping with me because of me or because it's your job" conversation had precedence - but it still torqued him.
"Hmmm, that's a good question. We don't know yet," Morgan replied. "Our new King has always been sympathetic to our aims here, which has helped us throughout the Queen's reign; she would have preferred that everyone with adverse reactions became part of the distillation experiments. We're continuing our operations in the interim, and we will, of course, tell you any information we learn upon your next visit."
Jensen felt the need to escape the oppressive walls of the Hospital. He was glad they existed, glad he'd gotten his mother to them, but he hated being here and what it said about Wonderlander society. "Thank you for the information, Doctor," he said. "I'll come by next week to see if anything has changed. Good day."
Jared added a farewell, and then they left behind the grim specter of Jensen's mother's cell. As they walked past other cells to exit the building, Jensen veered close enough to Jared that their arms brushed.
Exiting into the gloomy evening light, they paused on the Hospital's steps.
"I suggest that we go home and get very, very drunk," Jensen said. "It's been a bitch of a day, and I just want to relax and sleep. Does that work for you?"
"Jensen, I'd love to, but I'd really kind of like to know what's going on here. After that, the sleep part sounds really, really good."
Jensen looked at Jared. "Fine. Booze, then conversation, then sleeping."
"I can agree to that arrangement," Jared replied, "on one condition."
"What?" Jensen asked warily. He wasn't entirely certain that he could take much more today; the world was grating on his last nerve.
Jared drew Jensen into a hug. "My condition is," he murmured into Jensen's ear, "that you eat before you imbibe and that you show me where the painkillers are for tomorrow morning."
"Technically that's two conditions," Jensen pointed out, "but I can live with them. Let's go home."
Luckily, Chris had already vacated the premises. Gone to the Eye, his note read, going to see if Steve's around. Jensen, you need to acquire another bouncy ball. Your latest one joined the colony under the couch. I'll come by tomorrow, so you need to get out of bed sometime. And get dressed, you fuckers, I don't need to see that!
Jensen snagged the whiskey from his kitchen, took a swig, and pointed at the couch. "Sit," he said, "and let me get this out before you get all touchy feely. Cuddle the pillow if you need to touch something."
Jared mockingly saluted him and grabbed the pillow as instructed as Jensen put the whiskey on the table. He paced across the living room and back around again; the five steps it took to cross it didn't make for very satisfactory pacing, but it was the best he could do at the moment.
"Right, my mother. Twenty years ago my father disappeared. We assumed he was picked up for some reason and lost in the system. We never saw him again. My mom moved us down to the lower levels because it was cheaper there, and Kenzie, my sister, and I basically grew up there - she was just a baby when Dad disappeared, and I was too young to really remember him."
Jensen snuck a glance at Jared, who was hugging the pillow tight but, obedient to Jensen's instructions, not infringing on Jensen's space.
"Eventually, my older brother went to work in the Casino. Kenzie and I loafed around the lower levels until about three years ago. Then, she and Josh disappeared at about the same time. I'd like to think they got out and went over the mountains or through the Glass or something. Kenzie'd always talk about getting out, getting away, but she'd change her mind about what to eat in the middle of cooking dinner, so I didn't pay much attention.
"With Dad gone, then Josh and Kenzie, Mom lost it. Before, she'd tried a few elixirs lightly – who hasn't? But after that she got hooked on Euphoria and, well, you saw the results."
His recitation over, Jensen joined Jared on the couch, sitting rigidly, palms sweating. When Jared slung an arm around his shoulder, Jensen curled into him, relieved that Jared was still there.
"So, you took a job at the Casino to pay for your mother's treatment," Jared filled in. Jensen nodded. "You don't have any flowers or fripperies in your apartment because all your money goes to taking care of her. Your father's probably dead, your siblings left you behind, you hate your job, but you still make sure your mother gets the best treatment Wonderland has available." Wincing at the bleakness of Jared's summary, Jensen nodded again, his hair rustling against Jared's shirt.
"Okay, here's what we're going to do. First, in fulfillment of our earlier verbal agreement, we're going to eat. Then, we're going to get hammered and toast the downfall of the Queen of Hearts and her Casino. Finally, we're going to pass out in your comfy, comfy bed and not wake up until tomorrow. If Chris gets an eyeful and it scars his delicate psyche, he'll live. Sound good to you?"
"That, my brilliant Jared, sounds fabulous. Stay put." Extricating himself from Jared's embrace, Jensen went into the kitchen, a little shocked that Jared hadn't followed him. Digging through the cupboards, he found some dried fruits and some cheese that looked fit for human consumption. After putting them on a plate, he pulled two glasses out of the cabinet and, balancing carefully, got everything back into the main room without disaster.
"Okay," he said, "food as requested. Glasses so that we can drink like civilized people. And, if you reach into my pocket, you'll find the packet of painkillers for tomorrow, as required per the strictures of our agreement."
"Mmmm, dig into your pocketses, huh?" Jared waggled his eyebrows, and Jensen cracked up. "Sounds dirty, I like it!"
"Shut up and eat, you idiot," Jensen said fondly, stuffing some cheese in Jared's mouth. Jared just grinned at him, and then they both applied themselves to killing the whiskey bottle.
Jensen woke up with Jared carding his fingers through his hair.
"Mornin'," he mumbled, burying his face in Jared's chest.
"Hey, you," Jared said. They lay there in peaceful silence for a while before Jensen broached the obvious question.
"So, what now? We're both unemployed, I still have to support my mother, your Resistance has become superfluous with the crowning of the new king. Hey, what's the story on that anyway, o spymaster?" Jensen poked his finger lightly into Jared's side. It was quite enough to tickle and make Jared squirm away, just a gesture to the tickling potential inherent in the situation.
Jensen felt Jared's shrug. "Not much to tell. Sam told me that the Queen was imprisoned and that the Jack of Hearts was now the King of Hearts. The old King apparently went down the Casino. Nobody knows what happened to the Tweedles or March Hare, but people saw the Carpenter getting shot and Hatter gallivanting with some crazy oyster chick wearing blue. That's absolutely, positively all I know, although I suspect Steve'll fill in some of the blanks later, if we ask."
Jared squirmed. "Oh, Sam is Tortoise. Except we should probably pretend I didn't tell you that, 'cause it's one thing to breach protocol with Chad, who never gets out of the Library anyway, but Tortoise is Tortoise and Tortoise could kick my ass."
Jensen propped himself up on his elbows so that he could see Jared's face. "You, sir, make a terrible spy and secret keeper. Whatever were they thinking when they set you loose upon the world?"
Jared stuck his tongue out in retaliation for Jensen's teasing, but he didn't seem truly hurt by it. Jensen collapsed back onto Jared's chest and reiterated his earlier question. "So, what now?"
"That is a very good question. What do you want?"
"Coffee, world peace, and to never see another oyster ever again. Those all sound good to me."
"You're avoiding the question," Jared gently pointed out.
"I know," Jensen admitted, "but I have no idea how to answer it. I have a responsibility to my mother that I can't meet without a job, no way to get a job because our primary employer just collapsed. I don't know if you've noticed, buried in the Library, but very few places actually have survived the Queen's reign. The Teahouse has, although who knows what pies he's been dabbling in to keep it running, and the Eye has stayed in business. Everywhere else is here then gone. That storefront beside the Eye's been a discotheque, a stool shop, a second hand clothing store, a gourmet restaurant, and a hearty fare restaurant in the past six months. The longest occupant was a bookie before he was decreed illegal competition."
"The Resistance supplemented the Eye," Jared confessed, "so I don't think it really counts."
Jensen groaned, rolled onto his back, and pulled the pillow over his head. After a minute, he got tired of not being able to breathe and sacrificed his melodramatics for oxygen. "So there's not a single solitary employer left in Wonderland. Fabulous."
"What if," Jared started, and then a loud banging on the door interrupted them.
"Lovebugs!" Chris shouted. "Get out of bed already! New day, places to see, people to go! And get dressed, you fuckers!"
Jensen reached over the side of the bed, grabbed his shoe from where it had landed the night before, and tossed it at the door. "Fuck off!" he shouted after the thump. "We'll be out in a minute."
Chris didn't subject them to any more commentary, so Jensen assumed he'd retreated back to the couch or was rummaging through the kitchen. "Right," he said, looking at Jared, "hold that thought. I guess it's time to get up now and leave the existential worries for later."
Jared simply looked at him quietly and then rolled out of bed. Jensen allowed himself to get distracted by his smooth back, and then Jared turned around and thwapped him with a pillow. "C'mon lazy bones," he chided, "time to get up now. After all, if we ruin Chris' life, he may never repair that persnickety coffee machine of yours again."
Affronted, Jensen tossed the pillow back at Jared. It hit his ass and then slid to the floor. "I fix my own coffee machine, thank you very much. I'll have you know I was a fabulous Spade until the Duchess transferred me. Besides, it's not like I can run to Chris at dawn because my coffee machine is spraying grounds and dripping water - he'd strangle me with the cord."
Laughing, Jared left the room, and Jensen threw on the first clothes he found that passed the sniff test. It wasn't like anyone would care that he was wearing a shirt with a big pink bicorn on it.
"Awww, Jensen, you still have your birthday gift!" Chris exclaimed when he emerged from his bedroom. Jensen raised an eloquent middle finger in answer, and Jared looked between them, a puzzled little furrow between his eyebrows.
"Dude," he said, "any particular reason you're always giving my boyfriend clothes?"
"Because it entertains me," Chris responded. "He always forgets to do laundry or something and ends up digging them out of the back of his closet and then Steve and I get to mock him for his dubious fashion choices."
"I would think," Jensen interjected, "that since you're were the one providing the garments, it would be your fashion choices you should be mocking, you fucker. I'm just the poor sod who runs out of clean clothes – usually as a result of some tomfoolery you get up to."
"Hey, it's not my fault my plans are so inspired that you feel the need to contribute to them. It's my inner brilliance shining through. Therefore, your fashion choices, your mockery."
Jensen stared blankly at Chris. He knew there was a hole in the logic, somewhere, but until his coffee kicked in he wouldn't find it. He shook his head and padded to the kitchen. Jared, being a prince amongst men, had already started the coffee pot, so he just had to stand there and wait for it to finish brewing.
"Morning, Jens." Jared came up behind him and slipped his arms around his waist. "Listen, I need to go try and find someone who can tell me what's going on with the Resistance. I'm going to start at the Eye and then work my way out. You wanna come with?"
Jensen leaned back into the embrace, mentally debating with himself. However, he knew Jared would share anything of interest, and he needed to try to take care of his mother.
"Why don't you go ahead," he replied. "I'll try and find out what happened to some of our coworkers. I'm definitely going to keep an ear out for the Toms, Michael, and Jessica. Anyone you want to add to that list?"
Jared contemplated Jensen's coffee cup for a moment and then shook his head. "I don't even know who to ask about – tall, redhair, took care of the craps tables? A Four, I think?"
Jensen ran through his index of the people he knew well enough to assign a name. "Sorry, babe. I think I know who you're talking about, but I don't think I ever even had a conversation with her. Chris might know – he talked to a lot of people while attending to all of the mechanical foul ups and maintenance." He popped his head out of the kitchen and saw Chris playing a game of solitaire. "Dude, didn't you get enough cards to last you a lifetime?"
"What else am I supposed to do while waiting for you to de-zombify and you lovebirds to finish your secret conference in there?"
"Bah, it wasn't a secret conference. Just wakin' up." Jensen dropped down on the couch beside Chris, and Jared landed at his feet, leaning back against his legs. Jensen jostled him on principle, but he didn't try terribly hard to regain the freedom of his limbs. "You know a Four who worked with Jared? Tall, redheaded woman?"
"Hmmm, either Nicky, Danny, or Lexie. Got anything else?"
"She was in charge of the craps tables," Jared offered. "I think she was tight with a Two of Clubs; her work schedule never quite aligned with when she was working, and she was in an awful lot of meetings for a Four. Has a wicked sense of humor, can flay a strip off of you when you do something dumb, but will back you to the Jacks when they're being dicks?"
"Has to be Danny, Danneel," Chris answered. "Most people just scraped and bowed to our former overlords."
"Oh, please, like you wouldn't have been a Jack if they didn't keep busting you for shit like the flamingos."
"Yes, but I would have made an awesome Jack, not like those power-hungry card trippers."
"Uh-huh. I remain skeptical," Jensen replied. "Anyway, I'll keep an ear out for Danneel, too."
"Oh?" Chris asked. "What are you up to today, my former peon?"
"I was never a peon; I was a partner in crime, and don't you forget it," Jensen retorted. "However, I'm going to go wander around the lower levels and see what gets kicked up."
"He-" Chris lightly kicked Jared, who smacked him in response- "going with you, princess?"
"I think I'm capable of taking care of myself on the lower levels. I did do it for about five years there," Jensen said drily.
"I've got to deal with my own shit. Sorry, dude, princess is going to have to be his own prince charming today."
Chris just stared at Jared. "Right. Okay then, boys, you have fun. I'll join your merry little band and check out the upper levels. A few people up there owe me favors; I'll see if I can collect in news." He slanted a look at Jensen. "Usual suspects plus Danny?" Jensen nodded, happy that Chris was going to poke around, too. It made him feel slightly less guilty about the skiving off he had planned.
Jensen set his mug down on the floor to the side of the couch and extricated his legs from Jared's use; Jared made a disgruntled noise in protest. "Okay people," he said, pulling on his shoes, "I'm kicking us all out of my apartment now. Go forth and conquer, young squires!"
Chris rolled his eyes but left without further banter. Jared, in contrast, sprawled out on the floor. "Do I have to?" he whined.
"That's what you get for being a super secret spymaster." Jensen nudged Jared's ribs with his toe. "You have to go gather intelligence lest they strip you of your title."
"Humbug. I should have become a simple farmer boy." Heaving himself up, Jared grabbed his own shoes and pulled them on. Dropping a kiss on the tip of Jensen's nose, he left, pulling the door shut behind him.
Jensen slung his bag over his shoulder and took a moment to psyche himself up for what he was about to do. "You can do this, Jensen," he muttered to himself. "There's nothing to lose. Go forth and conquer, then come home and kiss Jared. Right." Taking deep breaths, he, too, left his cozy apartment.
Footsteps still echoed in the corridors of the Hospital of Dreams, but there were significantly more of them today than yesterday. Jensen went to the offices; not seeing Morgan, he then simply started wandering the halls, avoiding the section of the Hospital devoted to containment and treatment. After half an hour of fruitless meandering, he made his way back to Morgan's office and simply plunked himself down in front of it, leaning against the door.
An indeterminate amount of time later, a cleared throat and a rough "Jensen?" woke him up. He scrambled to his feet and blinked at Morgan for a few moments.
"Jensen, are you okay?" Morgan inquired.
"Yes, thank you. I have a proposition for you."
"Why don't we go into my office to discuss it?" Digging into a pouch around his neck, Morgan produced a skeleton key and unlocked the door. He gestured for Jensen to precede him into the office. Jensen, familiar with its layout from his numerous visits to discuss his mother's treatment, stepped down onto the ladder instead of tripping into it this time, and then descended into Morgan's office. The foxglove Morgan occasionally tried to plant never really established itself, but the ivy had done quite well and lined the floor and the chairs around Morgan's glass desk. Jensen plunked himself onto one and waited for Morgan to finish his post-patient ritual of watering the ivy, adding the patient files back into the correct stacks, and adjusting his tie so that it was neither too low nor too high.
Finally, Morgan settled into his own chair and gave Jensen a level look. "What is the proposition that you're proposing."
Steeling himself for rejection, Jensen began his spiel. "The Casino's collapsed, we all know that. As a consequence, elixir production has ceased – all the facilities were in the Casino's building, and the oysters escaped the thrall that held them while Carpenter and Walrus siphoned off their emotional responses." Morgan nodded, and Jensen continued. "Doctor, I think that the Hospital is going to have many more cases soon, when people stop being able to access elixirs. I know of at least three people who stay steady just by mixing and matching; as soon as they can't, their dominant idiosyncratic responses will start manifesting. You are going to be overwhelmed with cases and counseling and the Hospital is going to transform from an unfortunate relict into a center of Wonderlander life for a while."
Somberly, Morgan nodded. "That's true, and we've considered that. However, I'm not sure how that connects to your current presence in my office. We aren't going to neglect your mother just because we have new cases; you know that progress is always irregular, due to the need for inspiration for new treatment plans."
"Yes, sir," Jensen responded, meeting Morgan's gaze. "My proposal is this: in exchange for my mother's room, board, and treatments, I will work here and help manage the incoming caseload and free the doctors up from some of the necessary grunt work of managing the Hospital and dealing with concerned relatives, patients, and friends." When Morgan's expression didn't discernibly change, Jensen continued with his arguments. "I have experience in the workshop as a Spade, so I can attend to minor upkeep and issues without having to call a specialist in to see to every grimy gear and blocked pipe. As a Diamond, I gained a facility working with and directing people's emotions; although that experience had a particular application, I believe that the skill set is flexible and more broadly applicable. Finally, my personal experience with people consuming the elixirs at the Casino and as a relative of an afflicted Wonderlander would allow me to empathize and talk with patients and their families from a human, rather than medical, perspective."
Jensen held his breath waiting for Morgan to reply. Morgan chuckled and chided him, "Breathe, Jensen, we can't have any unconscious orderlies around here." Ecstatic, Jensen started to speak, but Morgan held up a hand to stop him. "Understand, this will be a trial period. If, after a month, the Council of Doctors, Sorcerers, and Engineers agree that your services are not facilitating our mission, we will let you go on that date. If, after a month, we deem the upswing in cases insufficient to justify additional hires, we will let you go. At that time, we would, of course, rate your service for additional time for your mother in treatment. Does that sound fair?"
Jensen nodded, keeping a sober demeanor even though he wanted to laugh in relief. "That sounds perfectly fair, sir. Shall I start tomorrow?"
"Be here at dawn," Morgan answered. "Excessive elixir usage has always been grounds for dismissal. In light of new events, that policy is likely to change to any elixir usage being grounds for dismissal." Morgan reached over to the pile of paper by his window and pulled out a packet from about halfway through the stack. "Read this. These are the rules and regulations which you agree to abide by as an employee of this facility and a photostat of the contract. When you come back tomorrow I'll have obtained the contract for you to sign. As your hiring sponsor, your decisions and actions reflect upon me during your probationary period. If, after reading the rules and regulations, you opt not to join our staff I won't tell anyone, no one will hold it against you, and you have my word that it won't affect the treatment of your mother."
Jensen nodded again. After a brief exchange of courtesies, he left, clutching the papers so hard that his hand started to sweat. When he reached the courtyard, he tucked them into his bag and then descended into the lower levels.
Jensen made his way back to his apartment ask dusk fell. Throwing the locks behind him, it dawned on him that he'd never given Jared a key and that Jared had no way back into the apartment. "Fuck," he muttered to himself, tossing his shoulder bag onto the couch and then going into the kitchen to see what could be scrounged for dinner. He didn't have great expectations, but when he pulled open the cabinets he saw that they were unexpectedly full of comestibles and munchables. There was a note folded and propped up on the middle shelf.
I found someone willing to trade supplies for some maintenance work, so I grabbed some for all of us. I'm going to crash at the Eye with Steve for a few days, so we took half and I left you and loverboy half. However, my innate miraculous awesomeness doesn't end there. Because I, unlike yourself, remember important shit, I made an extra copy of your keys and gave them to Jared when I ran into him this afternoon. You can thank me by never, ever getting googly eyed in front of each other again.
Tommy and Michael are fine – they were out scaring jabberwocks when the Casino came down (don't ask – apparently it involved streamers and sparkles and dear deities make the mental images stop!), so they waited for the crashing and the banging and the clouds of dust to stop before meandering their way back into the City. Other Tom has disappeared, Addy's ably bossing around her corner of the city, and haven't heard about Danny.
Word is that the old King went down with the Casino, the Queen's found her new accommodations not to her liking, and that the new King is either going to marry the Duchess or some oyster that was involved in everything (half of my sources are telling me one thing, half of my sources are telling me something else – if I were the oyster girl, I'd get far away from the Duchess before she heard).
I've got to get Steve eating and sleeping and shit, so I'm going to sit on him for a day or two. I'll see you in a few.
Jensen set the note aside and grabbed the packet of jerky it had been obscuring. It looked like the Eye's special blend, which mean that Chris was a lying liar who lied about stumbling upon someone willing to share goods and that he and Steve were passing on their personal stashes. However, Jensen wasn't in a position to protest the generosity, so he shrugged his guilt off and chewed appreciably.
Taking the jerky and a bottle of water into the main room, he plopped down on the couch and pulled the papers Morgan had given him out from his bag. He started reading through them, grateful that they were in relatively clear language instead of the byzantine structure of clauses and sub clauses and wheretofors that his Casino contract had been.
He was on the second to last page when he heard the locks clicking and Jared stepping into the apartment. Holding up his hand for silence, he finished reading before looking up. The fondness and small smile on Jared's face warmed him, but he really wanted to know where the black eye had come from.
"Is it safe to venture in?" Jared asked.
"Venture away, o intrepid explorer. However, you must pay the toll."
"And what might that be, o guardian of the couch? A kiss of true love?" Bringing his hand out from behind his back, he extended it and showed the delicious object he'd been. "A perfect apple, red and juicy?" Dropping to one knee, he gazed up at Jensen. "A vow of obedience and fealty?"
Jensen cracked up. "No, you loon," he got out between snickers. "Where the fuck did that black eye come from? And give me that!" He snatched the apple out of Jared's hand, halved it with his pocket knife, and then held out one half to Jared while crunching down on the other half himself. The juice dribbled down his chin, but it was utterly delicious and worth the residual stickiness.
Suddenly, Jared was crouched in front of him and licking his face. "Mmm, Jensen-y apple juice. Delicious!"
"Eww, get off!" Exaggeratedly wiping his face, Jensen shoved Jared aside. A tussling match ensued, but Jared claimed decisive victory when he started tickling Jensen. Out of breath, Jensen held up his hands. "A truce, a truce!"
"Very good, sir, I accept your surrender. In recognition of your gallant, albeit futile, battle, I shall tell you what you wish to know." Sprawling out on the couch, Jared wedged himself underneath Jensen and intertwined their legs. There still wasn't enough room, but Jensen wasn't going to complain about their precarious position; besides, if they fell Jared would be on the bottom.
"I stumbled across Danneel when she was defending herself from some jackasses who thought they were entitled to her supplies. She was managing just fine, but I threw myself in on her behalf; she socked me before she recognized me."
"Good for her," Jensen murmured. "Eventually, you're going to learn to announce yourself before startling people who can kick your ass."
"I'm pretty sure someone's going to start a betting pool about how many more black eyes it'll take me," Jared said wryly. "Anyway, she's doing okay, which makes me happy. She's the only other dealer who would talk to me; most of them were upset that I had made it to the tables even though I was only an Ace."
Content to lie there and listen to Jared's heart beat, Jensen waited before broaching his next question. "Did you find anyone to ask about the Resistance?"
"Yeah, I found Steve on the third level. I, ummm, well actually I have an employment opportunity."
Startled, Jensen propped himself up on his elbows so that he could look at Jared. "Explain this statement. Who's hiring?"
"The King," Jared replied. "He's hiring most of the people in the Library. The entire infrastructure of Wonderland has to be re-built, and we're some of the only people left with knowledge, however theoretical, about agriculture and civil engineering and how to make the damned utilities work properly with gaping holes in the middle of the grids from the Casino's fall."
"How, exactly, is he going to pay you?" Jensen asked suspiciously. "The treasury went down with the Casino."
"He and Tortoise-" Jensen choked- "yeah, I know, apparently there was a massive meeting last night; rumor has that there was some yelling and throwing of things, but they both came out intact and without visible bruising, so who knows. Anyway, he and Sam came to an agreement. The Resistance has a backlog in its coffers; we inherited the treasury of the Old Kingdom, and we've been hoarding it ever since. We've had to support ourselves when on assignment, and most of the supplies are acquired in various ways that don't require direct expenditure. So she's opening up the Resistance's coffers until a new system can be concocted. It won't be much," he warned, "but it should be enough to keep us fed."
"What, exactly, are you going to be doing?"
"Engineering and structural integrity," Jared said promptly. "Based on my ability to juggle numbers they figured it was a logical fit. I've at least read engineering books, both Wonderlander and Otherside, so we should be fine. With the drop in abilities in the last few generations, we're probably going to need the straightforward, prosaic Otherside techniques instead of Wonderlandish techniques, but if I do it right we'll have the basics and then the embellishment can happen later."
"Oh." Jensen didn't have anything to add, so he laid back down on Jared's chest.
"Hey, what about you?" Jared asked.
"I talked my way into a job. It's not paid, it's at the Hospital. I'm exchanging my work for my mom's treatment." Abruptly Jensen went from laying on top of Jared to sitting more-or-less up and being squeezed in Jared's arms.
"That's great!" Jared enthused. "I'll keep us fed, at least for a while, and you can keep your mom fed. Brilliant!"
"It's a probationary period," Jensen said cautiously. "I may not be there more than a month."
Jared touched his forehead to Jensen's and looked into his eyes; although returning his gaze made Jensen's eyes cross, he didn't look away. "Hey, we can do this. I've never been an engineer before, you've never worked in the Hospital before, but I'd never been out of the Library before, either, and look at where I am now. We can do this, and it'll be fabulous."
Jensen smiled. "Yeah, yeah we can." He tilted his head upwards and captured Jared's lips in a kiss.
Epilogue: Two Years Later, Coronation Anniversary
Jensen leaned over the bar and shouted near Steve's ear. "One gin and tonic, extra lime, and one whiskey, neat." Steve gave him a thumbs up, not even trying to be heard over the din in the Eye. He was glad that business had picked up after Wonderland had re-established its trade in horticulture and whimsy, but sometimes he missed being able to have a long conversation that didn't leave him with a sore throat.
Suddenly, a hand snaked around his waist and a chin dropped to his shoulder. Jensen leaned back into Jared's embrace and tilted his head for his kiss. "Hey you," he said, placing his hand over Jared's so that their rings clinked together.
"Hey hero," Jared replied. "Any brilliant insights into Wonderlander physiology and extra-corporal chemistry today?"
Jensen flushed, grateful that Steve slid their drinks over at that moment and spared him the need to reply. Jensen grabbed the remaining free chair at the tables their raucous friends had taken over, and Jared went in search of another one to appropriate.
Chris slugged his shoulder in greeting. "Hey, man, what's up?"
"Not much, just another exciting day of equations and formulae and adding serum A to serums B, F, and H to see which makes the smallest boom," he replied.
"You love that shit and you know it. Jared!" Chris exclaimed when Jared dropped a chair on the other side of Jensen.
"A toast!" Chris called. "To the man who fixed the floor so that the kegs stopped falling through it!" Everyone raised their glasses in their direction, and Jared bowed before collapsing into his seat.
"It's worse than the Library's atrium in here," he said. "We should send Sandy out for everything we need, she's tiny enough to have a chance of getting through the crowd."
"Hey, at least the group formerly known as the Resistance doesn't have to supplement this place anymore," Chris responded. "Having a system where people actually, know, venture further than the Casino let your coffers off the hook. Where is Sands, anyway?"
"She's at the Teahouse tonight, teaching accounting to all our budding horticulturists. She should be here soon, assuming that she doesn't get sidetracked into demonstrating her trick throws for Alice's night class. I think she said that she was dragging along Addy, too," Jared offered.
"Addy! Oooh, is our flower lady's beautimous partner Evie also schedule to show?"
"Dude, I don't care how drunk you are, she's going to kick your ass if you keep calling her Evie. Say it after me, gen-ie-vieve." Jensen over-enunciated her name, knowing that Chris would gleefully call her Evie until one of them was dead.
"Bah, whatever! She's Evie!" After this exuberant pronouncement, Chris returned to hounding the Toms to drink more liquor quicker.
Jostled from behind, Jensen ended up sprawled on Jared. "Ooops," Sandy giggled, "sorry 'bout that Jen-jen."
Rolling his eyes at the nickname, which Sandy only employed after two tequilas, he snuck a quick grope of Jared before righting himself. "Sure you are, babe," he replied.
"Terribly sorry," she affirmed, "although, you know, if you wanted to go back to groping Jared I would be totally okay with that. You could even sit in his lap if you wanted, it wouldn't make me cry."
"You just want my seat," Jensen accused. Unrepentant, she shrugged and grinned at him. "Not going to happen, I'd put his leg to sleep and then he'd cry and then there would be no sex tonight. You have to agree that state of affairs would be quite a tragic one."
She nodded enthusiastically. "Completely tragickal, I concur." She plopped herself down in Jared's lap. "I, however, would not do that with my dainty and ladylike figure."
Jared's arms came around her waist to hold her steady, and Jensen grinned at her playfulness. "Sandy, how much have you had to drink tonight?"
"There was maaaaaaaaaaaaaybe a libation or two at the Teahouse. Did you know that there's a liquor that tastes like orange? Alice brought it over from Otherside, and it was delicious!"
Frowning, Jensen started making calculations in his head. "Sandy, you know Otherside beverages can do strange things to us. How much did you drink? What color was it? Did it taste of anything other than orange?"
"Oh, don't worry Jen-jen. The King cleared it, he had some when he was sojourning over there. No adverse effects on Wonderlander physiology at all! Besides, Hatter was drinking it, too, and Alice isn't going to do anything that could hurt Hatter."
Sandy was probably right, but he'd pick up a sample tomorrow to check out just in case. At least, he would if there were any left. Knowing Sandy and Addy, it was entirely possible that the bottle was gone.
"Oh! That reminds me," Sandy said and stood up. "A toast!" she shouted. "To the man who figured out what makes Wonderlanders Wonderlandish! May the madness soar and the King be faced with the most stubborn, creative Wonderlandish Wonderlanders ever!"
Embarrassed by the praise, Jensen hid behind his glass, finishing his gin and tonic and then downing the second one that Danneel, the most prescient barkeep ever, shoved into his hands as she passed by with a tray of drinks.
"Hey now, none of that," Jared said when everyone else was diverted by the spectacle of Michael drinking something sunshine yellow. "Who figured out the correlation between people like Hatter having a hammer hand and the damned Tweedles getting within and without peoples' heads and their lack of consumption of elixir? Who figured out the formula for people's inherent Wonderlandishness interacting with elixirs to create the side effects y'all are trying to treat in the Hospital? Who saw that the newborns were bending the world in a way we haven't seen in a century? That would be you, love, so drink up and enjoy the celebration."
And he did.