Jared landed at 1-DR Station just shy of eighteen-hundred hours, half a day later than expected and scrambling. The way his ship limped into dock on her last legs he should've been grateful they made it at all with their cargo intact, but he was still swearing under his breath as the docking clamps moved sluggishly to secure them into the station.
"I've got the paperwork," he said as soon as they were docked, waving the device-of-record in Jeff's general direction as he half-walked-half-ran down the ramp.
His brother just gave him a grunt of acknowledgment before turning his attention to the offloading engineer, and Jared figured that was probably the last he would see of him before the repairs were finished and they were ready to head out again.
At this point it was going to take more than a little luck to catch up with Jimmy before he locked up for the day, but if Jared missed that window he'd be stuck waiting till morning - with all consequent late penalties - and the last thing he wanted right now was a few loose parts to cut into his profit margin any more than it had to. He'd already be paying for parts and labor; he didn't need to pay any fines on top of that.
It would be a lie to say that 1-DR Station never changed. Situated right at the crossroads of a couple dozen shipping routes it was almost like a living thing itself, a constantly shifting maze of sights and smells and sounds, home to just about every people and every trade and every business the sector had to offer, plus a few that probably couldn't be found anywhere else. Jared had spent more time here than on any other station on his route, and he could still get lost if he wasn't paying attention. But the bones of her didn't change, and Jared counted on his knowledge of those now.
Not even the smell of hot roasted meat could divert him from his path, not even the confectioner offering him a free taste on his way by. He'd never cut it this close before; either he made it with plenty of time to spare, or he wrote off the transaction before they even docked and swallowed the fees because he was already too far past deadline.
But no amount of haste could ever have kept his eyes from falling on That Guy.
"I'm late!" he said as he pushed his way through the crowd. "Come on, move, I'm late."
And yeah, Jared could relate. Story of his life. Yet there he stood, frozen, watching the guy's progress right up until he plowed into Jared's shoulder on his way past. Jared was an immovable object, and for just a second the guy turned back, pausing to really look at him. Jared thought he was even going to say something but then a buzzer went off loudly on his person and he wrenched himself away, swallowed by the crowd again a moment later.
Jared might have been in space the past few weeks with no one to look at but family and pets, but he was still pretty sure that was the best looking guy he'd ever seen.
He literally had to force himself to look away, twisting his neck so hard it hurt, but once he was on his way again nothing was going to stand in his path. He cut straight through the bazaar, raced down a corridor of shanties and slid through an abandoned maintenance duct that he knew would cut at least five minutes off his journey.
But when he reached Jimmy's door it was already locked, and no amount of stabbing the chime got him any attention. He could hear movement inside, the ching of Jimmy rigging the lockwork on his vault, but all busting down his door was going to do was get the attention of the station guards and risk the wrath of Commander Ferris. You could do a lot of kinds of business on 1-DR as long as you didn't make a scene, but call attention to yourself and Sam Ferris was going to bust your ass.
Business hours were over and there wasn't a damn thing Jared could do about it.
"Mother of fuck," he said, and kissed that extra couple of percent goodbye. So much for having a little something to sock away after this run. Story of his life.
Jimmy Beaver's place was situated at the end of a string of similar businesses, offices constructed from scrap metal and old skimmer ships and some of them even less than that, hardly more than tents with nameplates dangling out front and a cargo scanner planted somewhere in the vicinity, magnetized to the hull of the station or anything else that would keep it locked down. It was just Jared's bad luck that Jimmy was his buyer, since at least three quarters of the rest of them were still open for business.
"Mother. Of. Fuck," he said again, catching more attention for it than he expected to. Okay, maybe that was a little loud. "What?" he barked, sending everyone on their way.
Well, there was nothing to do about it now but find some way to entertain himself for the night and come back first thing in the morning. And entertaining yourself on 1-DR was never hard to do. But before he went more than a couple of steps he spotted That Guy again, emerging from Eric the Red's office and heading up the teeming corridor in the opposite direction from Jared.
Fuck it. He had nothing more important to be doing. So this time Jared followed.
In order to follow he had to push past a man with a babycart that was more likely filled with junk than an actual infant, skirt around a woman with an armful of highly illegal produce, and sneak past the Qadoran Trade Commission - in actual fact just a string of what should have been terraforming habitats - on account of a slight misunderstanding last year over some misplaced engine parts.
He was right on the cusp of catching up when he was abruptly bowled over by a couple of kids and their long-suffering shepherd, and by the time he was back on his feet again That Guy had vanished.
"That's just the kind of day I'm having," he muttered, brushing himself off and making sure he hadn't had anything lifted off him while he was off his feet. When he headed on his way again, it was at a slightly more respectable pace.
He could head back to the ship, but Jeff had the offloading under control and if Jared could still lend a hand, well, he figured he'd already paid his dues today. Jeff always said he got in the way anyway so he was taking him at his word this time, and instead headed back into the bazaar.
It had already been a really fucking draining day, and he was long past ready to eat.
There was a stall near the edge of the bazaar, if the bazaar could be said to have an edge other than the limits of the station itself, that Jared always stopped at when he was on 1-DR and didn't have the time or money for a sit-down at the observation deck (the only seats in the house with an unobstructed view of something other than ships or black space). Cassidy, with her blonde hair piled up top of her head as she worked, looked up and gave him a broad grin.
"Jared," she said. "It's been too damn long. Where've you been?"
"Deep space," he said, "or what felt like it anyway. We just limped in tonight."
"Here, I'll make you up something extra special then," she said. "You look like you could use it."
"You have no idea the day I've had," he said fervently. "Make it a double."
"Whatever you say," she said, turning back to her sizzling grill. "Big guy like you, I'm sure you can handle it. Don't you worry, Jared, I'll give you everything you need."
He leaned back on the service counter on his elbows as he waited and there he was again, that guy he kept spotting in the crowd. Now that he had a moment to actually get a good look he could safely say that it was no trick of his eyes - That Guy was definitely one of the most gorgeous Jared had ever seen, and Jared had been around. And fuck it, he was only here for a couple of nights, he could live a little. He wasn't gonna let him get away this time.
"Hey Cassidy--" he got out before she was stuffing a greasy, paper-wrapped rollup in his hand.
"I told you I'd get you what you needed," she said. "Spiced to the gills and doubled up on the peppers." But Jared's eyes weren't on Cassidy or the food anymore. "Extra special, like I said."
"Yeah, thanks," he said, and stuffed the rollup in his pocket at the same time he dug out a couple of chits to pay her with. "I gotta run, Cassidy, catch you later!"
"You're always off somewhere, aren't you?" she called after him, and Jared gave her a friendly wave as he pushed his way through the crowd. "Be careful, that has some kick!"
He managed to keep That Guy in sight all the way up to a heavy maintenance door situated behind the stall of someone who sold something that was almost but not quite roast chicken. (The 'not quite' was the reason Jared had only tried it once.) He pushed right through it into almost complete darkness, and by the time his eyes adjusted That Guy was once again out of sight.
"Well, shit," he said, but when he tried to push back through the maintenance door from this side he discovered it was maglocked solid. "Double shit."
His only option was to move forward into this unfamiliar territory and hope he ran into a technician or crawlspace-rat or even a fellow nomad who could point him in the right direction. Even a station guard would be welcome. This corridor seemed bare, in stark contrast to the rest of the station, and somehow Jared found that more unsettling than the crush of people. He was used to solitude out in space, just him, his brother and his sister to keep one another company. But here on the station it was an eerie solitude.
It seemed to stretch out endlessly in front of him, almost impossibly long and straight when everything else in the general sprawl of the station was twists and turns and angles. The walls were rough, welded and riveted with visible seams everywhere, but he didn't see any openings, no doorways, no ducts. So deserted, in fact, that the rumble of his stomach echoed off those walls.
It was tempting to down the entire rollup right there on the spot, but Jared only allowed himself two huge bites, then tucked the rest away for later.
He could be lost for a long time.
There was, literally, a light at the end of this tunnel, but after Jared felt like he'd been walking for at least an hour, the end of it seeming to move further and further away from him, he finally reached it to find nothing but a perpendicular corridor splitting into a T. If there'd ever been any signage on the wall or anywhere to indicate what could be found in either direction, it had long since been worn off.
Jared felt like he had to have missed something back at the beginning, some doorway, somewhere for the guy to have disappeared through, but he was so sure there'd been nothing. So sure. As sure as he was of anything right now.
In the absence of other options he faced with a choice between left and right. North and south or east and west or maybe another two opposing points somewhere else on the compass. He looked each way twice as he tried to decide, because they weren't identical. In fact, in one direction the corridor seemed to get larger and larger as it progressed, and in the other it grew smaller and smaller. The logical, spacegoing part of Jared's brain, a part that seemed very quiet and far away right now, insisted this was some trick of perspective. His gut told him to follow the corridor that seemed to get larger, because he'd always been a large boy.
Jared went with his gut.
He trailed his fingers along the wall as he walked, leaving a greasy streak from his lunch, but the corridor never seemed to actually get larger. And Jared was paying very, very close attention. If he could have, he might even have measured. It did finally give way to a few kiosks, though. And then a few more. And then he seemed to be in some far-flung corner of the bazaar that somehow he'd never visited before.
"Excuse me," he said to a very tall man, even taller than Jared's brother which was very tall indeed. No wonder the corridor needed to be so very large. "I was wondering if you could help me."
"It's possible," he said, then turned his attention to a customer in a broad hat.
"Excuse me," said Jared. "I was wondering if you would help me?"
"Were you talking to me?" said the woman in the hat. Jared hadn't been, but since the very tall man seemed to have vanished, to be replaced by a very average looking one, he supposed she might be the one person who was going to answer him.
"I might have been?" said Jared. "I think I've misplaced myself."
"That was careless," she said, shaking her head at him and tucking her package of whatever it was that she had just purchased in between her breasts. "I suppose you'll have to come with me."
Jared supposed that was as good an alternative as any at the moment, since his other options seemed to be limited to wandering off on his own, or finding another stranger to ask, and another stranger might not be as accommodating. It was 1-DR, after all. It wasn't a mercy mission. (There was a mercy mission, to be fair, but it was much closer to the docks.)
"Where are we going?"
"Left," she said, like it should have been perfectly obvious. "My man is waiting for me."
"Oh," said Jared, and tried to think of the few people on the station who might have a 'man' waiting for them, in the sense that she said it. "Are you an ambassador?"
"I am Sera," she said, as though that should explain everything. Jared felt like on another day it might have, but he couldn't quite place it right now, his sense of place and proportion all twisted around at the moment. "Here he is now."
Her man stood lounging against the wall in something Jared would never call 'man' fashion, but Sera seemed to think nothing of it, pulling the package from her breasts and passing it over to him wordlessly. Jared promptly sneezed.
"Are you penniless?" she asked him curtly, without even meeting his eye.
"What?" said Jared.
"I said, are you penniless?" she said. "You look penniless, and a little ill. You've got a rip in your sleeve."
"Just a small one," said Jared self-consciously. "I was trying to fix a door."
"A door," she said, as though door was a euphemism for something else entirely. What, Jared wasn't sure, but no doubt it was something no decent person would involve himself in. "I see. Misha, my purse."
Her man Misha pulled a jet black chit purse from Jared could only imagine where, some secret pocket perhaps, and handed it over to her. As soon as he did, she wandered away into the bazaar again.
"Don't be offended," said Misha, speaking for the first time once she was gone. "That's just how she works."
"I thought she was going to help me," said Jared. "I thought that's why she brought me over here."
"She did," said Misha.
"No, she didn't," said Jared. "I’m just as lost as when I started, and I can't even see the corridor I came in through anymore. I think it isn't there."
"Just because you can't see something, doesn't mean it isn't there," said Misha, holding out his hand with one finger extended. "Take this caterpillar."
"Exactly," said Misha.
"I don't see how this is helping at all," said Jared.
"I was perfectly clear," he said, and to be fair, he was. Even in Jared's befuddled state, the instruction was simple enough. Jared looked left and there was That Guy again (Jared did, in fact, mentally say the name with capital letters and all) paying for something from a vendor dressed head-to-toe in greenlace draping.
"Oh!" said Jared, stumbling after him almost immediately. It occurred to him a moment later that he was leaving his only refuge, but when he looked back he caught only the flash of Misha's smile and none of the rest of him at all. He and Sera were gone, to wherever it was they'd come from, but the smile lingered in Jared's head as he started forward again, finding his footing to follow.
He didn't really need footing, though, when every movement forward began to feel like flying, his feet lifting from the sticky, stained floor and skimming just a little bit above it, carrying Jared along with newfound determination. He caught up with That Guy at the junction of a main throughway and a narrow little side aisle, lined with closely-packed stalls. Or less caught up with him than bowled him right over.
"Hi," said Jared. "Sorry I flew into you. I'm not very good at it yet."
"It happens," he said, getting up and brushing himself off then offering Jared a hand. Jared felt impossibly large and ungainly as he did. "Are you going to live?"
"For a good long time, I hope," he said. There was another tear in his sleeve, this one with a much more suspect story behind it. Perhaps Ambassador Sera had been right about him.
That Guy cracked a smile at that. "Good to hear," he said. "I wish I didn't, but I've gotta--" He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "Things to do, places to be. I'm on a tight schedule."
"No, wait," said Jared. "What if I never see you again?"
The guy looked him up and down. "That would be a shame," he said finally. "I'm Jensen."
Jared gave him a broad and goofy smile. "I'm...." It was right there on the tip of his tongue. "Jared, I think. I don't seem to be quite myself today."
"That happens too," he said, as something vibrated on his belt. "I really do have to go. But I'll see you around Jared-I-think, and that's a promise."
"Wait," said Jared again, grasping for his sleeve a moment too late and coming up with only empty air. In the densely populated bazaar, Jensen was quickly out of sight again. The way he was feeling right now, Jared wasn't entirely certain he'd even been there in the first place.
The crazy thought was worming its way into his brain that the long, barren corridor had actually been some kind of tunnel into the afterlife, that he'd dropped dead right after docking and was somehow now doomed to wander this strange-familiar corner of the bazaar forever.
The line of stalls in front of him twisted and turned just like that worm of thought in his brain. Jared could've sworn it wasn't like that a few moments ago, but he would've sworn a lot of things around here were meant to be another way entirely. He held his arms out from his sides as he moved cautiously forward, in a gesture of both balance and self defense lest he be blindsided by a tentflap that decided to leap out at him or a path that decided to make a sudden left.
He could smell something delicious on the air, something spicy and hot and sweet, and directionless as he was, he decided that a smell was as good as anything to follow. When there were any number of smells in the bazaar ranging from rancid to delightful, going in the direction of the delightful was almost always a good choice.
After an almost-mishap with a woman and her turtle - or at least he thought it was a turtle; it might have been a purse, or a child - Jared found a round table beneath a portal, positioned just right so that you could sit down and look up at the faint stars.
"Well, just make yourself at home, why don't you?"
If Jared was going to make himself at home, he would've brought a pillow, a sleepsheath and a whole lot more food. But that probably wasn't the point.
"Something smells really good," he said, "and I don't think it's me."
He felt someone sniffing at the back of his neck, or at least he thought he did, but when he looked there was no one and nothing there.
"Well, you might as well stay then," he said. "We were just sitting down to tea." Jared didn't know who 'we' meant, since there was only one of them, but then he closed his eyes and took a deep sniff of the tea, and when he opened them again there were two of him. Well, not two of him. There was a female him.
"Oh, tea," said Jared, like suddenly it made all the sense in the world. Of course there would be a tea sitting in the middle of the bazaar. Of course there would.
"I'm Jeff," he said as he offered Jared a crooked chair.
"No you're not," said Jared. "Jeff is back at the ship. And you don't look anything like him."
"I promise you, I'm Jeff," he said. "I've always been called Jeff, except when they call me Jeffrey. But don't do that, just call me Jeff."
"I suppose I can call you Jeff," he said, which seemed to satisfy him. And really, who was Jared to argue with what was obviously making him happy. "I like your hat."
"My hat, or his hat?" said the woman, taking a seat across from him. "I'm Sam."
"No you're not," he said. "Sam is older, and has darker hair. And she's meaner. You have to be mean, to be a Commander. It's a law."
"I promise you, I'm Sam," she said. "Tea?"
"This must be the best tea on the station," said Jared. "It must be the best tea in the sector. Where does it come from? It smells better than anything ever."
"Just drink your tea," said Jeff. "I think you'll find it enlightening."
"I think I'll find it tasty," said Jared, and wrapped his hands around the crooked mug and drank deeply without so much as a second thought. He meant to be polite about it, but before long he'd drained his entire mug.
The tea did prove both tasty and enlightening, as promised. The world suddenly seemed a little less twisting, a little less off-kilter. Suddenly it seemed like it fit again, or Jared fit again, or some combination of the two.
"And now," said Sam, "we have some advice for you."
"So listen carefully."
"Because we want you to make it home in one piece."
"Beware of people bearing gifts," said Jeff sagely, "or making offers of something special."
"But I like gifts," said Jared.
"I think you'll find you're not hungry anymore," said Sam, which seemed an odd sort of a non sequitur, even in a day of odd non sequiturs.
"Not right now," said Jared, "but if I am I've got a--" Rollup in his pocket, a very special rollup Cassidy made just for him. "Oh, shit."
"Was it everything you needed, as promised?"
"And then some," said Jared, shaking his head. Next time he so wasn't running off so fast when Cassidy offered him a little something special, without giving her a chance to elaborate. Some surprises needed to be warned for. For instance, the kind that involved well-meaning hallucinogens.
Jeff looked like he was going to say something more when a shout from somewhere nearby caught their attention, all three of them turning as one to see what it was. Of course, with the flags and towers and signs of the bazaar in their way there was nothing to be seen.
"That bears investigation," said Jeff, and indeed it did.
"Thank you," said Jared. "I wish I could thank you properly, but--"
"Go," said Jeff. "You have important people to do and things to see."
"People to see and things to do," said Jared.
"Are you sure?" said Jeff, and before Jared could say anything to that, he and Sam had turned back to their table, which was much smaller than Jared remembered, and Jeff was cleaning up while Sam was packaging something for a customer.
Jared moved on, towards the ruckus.
It turned out he'd come nearly full circle in his travels, because when he emerged from the latest corridor of stalls he began to recognize things again, the financial quarter, the cracked rotunda, the rusted signs leading to the docks. He was back again.
"Little Padalecki!" he heard, and there was really only one person who would call him that. Sure enough, out of the corner of his eye he saw the distinctly disheveled uniform of a particular station guard.
"Chad," he said, nodding his head at him. "What's going on?"
"Just a little dispute," he said. "Commander Ferris wants us to make sure it doesn't turn into a mob."
"You've got your work cut out for you," said Jared, though it was really less a mob than a mass, curious onlookers with no real investment in whatever was going on.
The source of the raised voices wasn't hard to find, for them or for anyone else, and just who the participants were wasn't too terribly much of a surprise either. Danneel wasn't known as the shipping queen for nothing; she had nerves of steel and an iron will and ran the tightest ship Jared knew of. Her profits were well-earned. Genevieve was no less well known as a thief-for-hire, though she preferred to go by other titles that carried a little more dignity. The only real thievery she had a hand in these days was just for the challenge of it.
This one was apparently a challenge she lost.
"I don't care what the law is, I want you to take her bloody head off," yelled Danneel, throwing an accusing finger in Genevieve's direction. "You think you're so clever, don't you?"
"Well, you know," said Genevieve, cocking her head to one side. "You can't actually prove I did anything."
"You stole my grandmother's emerald," said Danneel. "It was from Earth."
"I did no such thing," said Genevieve. "It's right there, around your neck."
"It is now," said Danneel, "which doesn't mean you didn't steal it. I'm just better than you are."
All evidence pointed to that, actually, but Jared bit his tongue. Especially when he spotted, among Danneel's employees lingering in the background to back her up, a certain young man he'd had his eye on all day. That Guy. Jensen.
"Well fuck me," he said.
"Do I have to?" said Chad. "I hate to break it to you, but I'm sort of into chicks."
"Not you," said Jared, elbowing him without even looking. With other station guards he might not dare, but Chad was Chad. Jared had known him since he was barely old enough to haul cargo and Chad was barely old enough to...well, he didn't do much back then, was pretty much just a station rat until he got recruited into the guard.
"You have no reason to arrest me," said Genevieve calmly, "just because someone decides to throw baseless accusations in my direction. You know, you really ought to consider using your power for good--"
"Baseless accusations?" said Danneel. "I caught you with it in your shirt!"
"Would've liked to have seen that," muttered Chad.
"Can you prove it?" said Genevieve, to indignant silence. "I thought not. Must have been a figment of your imagination. You really should take a vacation. Poor dear, you work so hard."
"How about we sort this out with Sam?" said one of the much-better-uniformed station guards nearby. "If you'll come with us, miss?"
Genevieve lifted her chin, and went with surprisingly little fuss.
"They're not really going to try her, are they?" said Jared, and Chad shook his head.
"They just wanted to make a good show of it for the masses. They'll take her up to the command tower and then tomorrow there'll be a footnote on the news scroll that she was released due to lack of evidence."
"Figured," said Jared. "1-DR wouldn't be the same without Genny lurking around, ready to lift your chits or your ship, whichever one was better guarded."
"She'll go after Danny again too," said Chad. "Shit, I gotta go. Sam'll throw a fit if I'm not at my post on time, and if you think Danneel's fits are a menace, you should see Sam's."
Chad was slapping his collar on and ducking around a couple of dock workers before Jared could even say goodbye, but he'd see him around again. Somehow he always did.
The crowd was clearing now that all the excitement was over, melting back to their jobs and their business and their illicit relations. And in the midst of it there Jensen suddenly was, standing still and looking right back at Jared.
It was like a sign. Or a revelation. Or something equally momentous.
"Oh," Jared said cleverly. "Hi."
Jensen lifted his hand and waved. "You look a little bit more with-it this time," he said.
"Yeah, uh," said Jared, letting his unkempt bangs fall in his eyes as he ducked his head. "I'm not usually...a friend thought I could use something to loosen up. My friends occasionally have inappropriate ideas of what makes a good surprise."
"It worked," said Jensen wryly. "You were definitely loose."
"So you are actually named Jensen, right?" said Jared. "And I didn't just imagine that we met and held something resembling a conversation?"
"No, you really did run into me like a freight shuttle," said Jensen. "That's all right, though. I'm not sure I was quite myself either. Danneel gets me all turned around when she gets it in her head she needs something done. I'm kind of her go-to guy."
"And did you get-to?"
"In the end," said Jensen, "which means I'm not on the clock anymore."
"That," said Jared, "is very good to know."
"So where were you going anyway?" Jensen asked him. "You were in an awful hurry earlier. Seemed like you were everywhere I was."
"You noticed that?"
"Of course I noticed that," said Jensen. "I'm not sure if you know this, but you're kind of hard to miss."
If Jared was the blushing type, he would have blushed right then. But he wasn't, and he didn't. Which didn't mean he didn't suddenly have a stupid, goofy smile on his face.
"I brought in a shipment for Jimmy Beaver," he said. "Needed him to sign off on receipt. Didn't quite make it." The device-of-record was still safely stashed in his inside pocket, all but forgotten.
"He's going to ding you hard for being late," said Jensen, but Jared couldn't care less at this point. He'd pay twice that and happily for the chance to meet Jensen. "He closed up hours ago."
"I'll catch him in the morning," Jared said with an indifferent shrug. "Unless I'm still high and dreaming up this whole thing, I'm pretty sure I've got better things to do tonight. Off the clock."
Jensen just grinned at him. "You have no idea," he said. "Come on, Jared-I-think. It's about time we finally got to know one another."