"Look. This isn't working," Jared says. His knees are knocking against the table top, his shoulders are so tight he can feel the seams of his jacket pull, and his fingers are clenched on his iPhone.
Janine pulls a face, exasperated. She likes him, he likes her. It's all good, except -
"You climbed out of the window. She was gorgeous. And a red panda! Did you see her shoes? Her cute little face?" she says. "And you were downright nasty to that sun bear. Jared, you've got to put in some effort if we're going to find you a mate!"
"Did you hear yourself?" Jared says. "Red panda? She wasn't even in the same gene pool! And I don't even like honey, okay? Two hours at a honey tasting is not my idea of a good date. I'm not a bear."
"Jared, we discussed that you might have to compromise a little." Janine pushes her glasses up her nose, pinches the flesh between her plucked eyebrows. "You have to learn to date! You've been registered with us for six months now, and we've managed to find you sixteen potential mates -"
"Janine, I'm a panda," Jared says. "Werepanda. I'm rare, okay? Rare even for Distinctive Partnerships. I knew this wasn't going to be easy. But you promised me you'd find something compatible, and so far I haven't met anyone!"
"It's not like we're not trying!" Janine says, and pushes the paperwork across the desk at him. "Look. There's a guy in Dallas. His name's Brad, he's an NFL fan, drives a truck, owns his own business - he's a building contractor. Why don't you just give him a try? He's a nice guy, Jared, I spoke to him myself, and he's tired of bar hopping. He wants to have a family. You've got things in common. He's suggesting bowling - how easy can he make it? Why not at least go on one date?"
"What is he?"
Janine rolls her eyes. "Grizzly."
"No," Jared says. He stands up and pushes the papers back. "We're done. Thank you. You tried."
His mama's going to kill him if he moves to China. But it's looking like the only option if he ever wants to have a family, and Jared's itching for a son he can take fishing the same way his dad did him. Or a daughter as pretty as his brother's kids. Or he can take his daughter fishing and admire his son's tiaras - either's fine, both. He just feels like he's incomplete, marking time, without a family. He knows that's not usual for a werepanda, as slow and reluctant to reproduce as his full-blooded relatives, but nothing's been usual about Jared. So far as he knows, he's the only werepanda in Seattle. He was the only werepanda in Texas, too. No one could have predicted that the mosquito bite he got when he was six carried the were virus. Pandas! His mama had freaked, his papa had been frowning over how to grow bamboo in the back yard, and every were specialist in North America had come and gone until Jared felt as full of holes as an inside out sea urchin. He'd put his foot - paw - down in the end. He didn't need to change. He wasn't going to freak out. He still ate burgers and pizza like every regular boy. If every so often he felt like sunning himself in the yard in his fur suit, that was between him and his family alone.
The Padaleckis moved out of state, the reporters went away, and Jared's new doctor had trained in Beijing. Nothing else changed, until Jared decided it was time to get serious about dating. He wanted a mate, he wanted kids, he wanted the whole shebang with the big TV and the family room and the football runs and the Nyquil and the broken nights. He even bought a house on the strength of that want, a five-bedroom house with a big back yard, two dogs, an awesome basement with a pool table and a Wurlitzer the kids could play with when they got older. He'd planted trees. He had a hammock.
"You're never going to have biological children with someone who isn't another werepanda," Jared's doctor had said bluntly. "And even then, you're going to have the same problems as the rest of the panda population. Jared, the chance of you or your partner conceiving are so small they're virtually nonexistent. Have you looked at the statistics? Even the Chinese weres have been using an IVF program! If I were you," Jared's doctor says, "I'd be thinking about adoption. There are kids that need families out there, and you'd be a great dad."
Not on his own. He knew some awesome single parents, but what Jared wanted was another adult to share a family with. So he'd tried. He'd tried line dancing and pottery making and on-line scrabble with flirting: he'd gone on dates with his cousin's best friends and his father's fishing buddies' sons. He'd even tried hanging out in the Barnes and Noble coffee shop with a copy of The Rules. But there was no getting around the fact that Jared wasn't going to get it on - or get it up - with anyone who wasn't black and white and furry. His biological wiring was as skewed as his origins.
It was then that he'd gone to Distinctive Partnerships. His mama had that look in her eye, and Jerry, the condor were who owned the travel shop where she booked her cruises, had taken to bringing the little half-eaglet chicks to work. Jared's mama had asked, Jerry had told her, and an hour later Jared was walking up the steps into the discreet downtown office he'd just left.
Red pandas. Grizzlys. Sun bears. Canadian brown bears and European honey bears. He'd dated a giant sloth, a spectacled bear from Guatemala and an alarmingly slender Black Bear from Pakistan. There'd been a moment when he honestly thought Janine was going to ask him to date a zebra on the basis of color compatibility alone. "Jared," she'd said. "I've been in this business ten years, and I've never come across another panda. But I've got a lovely hyena/coyote couple. I've matched a panther and a lynx - they've just had their second litter, the kids are so cute - and my tortoise/armadillo pair just sent a wedding invite. Be flexible?"
He couldn't. It had become all too clear that what he needed was another werepanda, and as far as he knew, he was the only one in North America. The nearest one he knew of for sure was Yling-Yling, and no one had even known she was there until her mother turned up at the zoo to visit. Edinburgh Zoo had been so embarrassed they'd almost closed, although Yling-Yling had (eventually) made it more than clear that she loved her adoring public, thank you, and she'd be just fine if only they could install a phone. Her mother worried. She'd not been out of her fur since in public.
Maybe he could go to Scotland before he went to China. Maybe he could give up on the whole idea altogether. Maybe he was just meant to be alone, and that thought there was so alienating in itself Jared had to stop on the street and draw in a deep breath. He didn't want much. Just someone to come home to, someone who'd smile at him over the breakfast table and laugh softly with him about the kids he'd never have.
He can't go home like this. He's not crying, but his eyesight's blurred and his face feels hot and there's an aching hole where his heart should be. If he doesn't look, he won't see the two werecats with their daughter swinging over the cracks in the pavement or the carrier pigeons cooing at their fledgling. The whole world's reproducing. He's the only one -
"Uh, sorry -" Jared says, and stumbles over his own feet, stepping back. "I'm sorry, I wasn't looking, I was, are you o -" Oh. Oh.
"You're a were," he says, blinking. The man's tall, built, gorgeous. Gorgeous enough for Jared to notice, and he's long ago given up on any definition of attractive. The guy's got short hair and black, rounded sunglasses perched in the soft spikes of it, big eyes, and the faintest trace of a softening at his jawline and waist that's as cute as fuck. His skin's so faintly dappled that it's only something about his stance that Jared recognizes as were, that peculiar duality to the way he moves that suggests he's something other than human on weekends. "You're... oh God, you're perfect," Jared says. He's never felt like this, this amazing upsurge of recognition, happiness. He can't stop smiling. It's ridiculous. "Tell me you're single. You're not mated, right?"
"Huh?" the man says, sharp and irritated. He looks Jared up and down, and sighs. "Look, you're pretty, but I ain't ever gonna play daddy to your cubs, I ain't that kind of bear, so let's just call the whole thing off, okay?"
"What?" Jared says blankly.
"Kenneth Carstairs?" the man says.
"You're not here for a date?"
"Oh fuck," the man says, running his spare hand through his hair. There's the faintest blush under his dappled skin. "Look, I'm sorry, I thought you were someone else. I'll just -"
"No, don't go!" Jared says urgently. "At least let me buy you a drink. Tea!" he says, glancing wildly around and realizing that they're standing outside the little cafe Janet took him to once. "You have to try this place, they've got a menu and everything. And I'm not, swear to God I'm not some crazy stalker or anything, whatever it is that you thought I was, I'm not, okay?"
The other man's definitely blushing now. "Dude," he says. "I'm really sorry. It's just that I get these guys wanting to mate all the time, you know, and it ain't ever gonna work for me and I can get a bit defensive about the whole thing, because."
Jared says slowly, "Is that a book on pandas under your arm?" He's never felt like this before. He's dizzy with it, the unexpected hope, the way everything's suddenly brighter, full of potential, possible.
"And is that bamboo in your bag?"
"We have to talk," Jared says. He holds the door to the cafe open invitingly, although his fingers cramp around the glass and his knees wobble, and he summons up his best grin. "I mean, seriously. It's my life and happiness we're talking about here. You can spare ten minutes." He bats his eyelashes hopefully. It works on Janine.
Panda guy, though, is laughing, a kind of reluctant ducked-down laughter that makes Jared want to see him laugh out loud. "Do people really fall for that?" he asks, and he's glancing at the mismatched couches and the junk store tables and the lanterns, and he's taken a step forward. Another one.
Jared smiles to himself, letting the door swing in behind them. "Sometimes," he says, and sits down at the table where Panda Guy is already stacking his books.
"It's just that... I was practicing the same moves in the mirror when I was five, you know? It sure as hell didn't work on my mom, and it's not working on me either. Made me smile, that's all."
Shrugging, still smiling himself, Jared pushes across the menu. "Page three," he offers, "China green tea." Panda Guy's head is already bent over the choices. Jared leans back in his chair. "I'm Jared," he says. "Jared Padalecki. I'm were."
"Jensen Ackles," Panda Guy says, without even looking up. "And me too. But let's not talk about it, because it kind of sucks."
"Actually..." Jared says, and then bites his tongue, because he could be so wrong, and just because Panda Guy Jensen Ackles has bamboo and books and feels right doesn't mean he's exactly what Jared's spent most of his life trying to find. "Try the snow bud," he says.
"Okay," Jensen says, and looks up. He's got extraordinary eyes, focused, like he's absolutely there in the moment, like he's actually interested. "So," he says. "Your life and happiness. That's a pretty big remit."
"It kind of is," Jared says. He looks around for the waitress. "Two... uh, two of the Xue Ya?" he asks. "Thanks." When he looks back, Jensen's sitting back in his seat, looking back with his head tipped just a little to one side.
"I was six," Jared says. "I got bitten by a mosquito. It was carrying the virus. No one knew where it got the infection - I mean, by the time I changed, it was three weeks later. They think it maybe came out of a fruit shipment at the zoo."
"Rough," Jensen says.
"Not so much, at first. My sister's friends thought I was the cutest thing ever. I used to get the best hugs. Nothing like a real live fluffy cub, yeah? Then..."
"Go on," Jensen says. He's the sort of man who says thank you to the waitress. Jared likes that.
"Then I grew up," Jared says. "And it turns out I'm one of those weres who are species specific. Made dating feel more than stupid. It's not like I'm a wolf, seventeen different pack lines to pick or whatever. I've never met another were like me."
"Huh," Jensen says. He stirs his tea thoughtfully, smells it. His thumbs are flexible, double-jointed. "I was... it was six months ago. I was working in San Francisco. Night on the freeway. There was an accident, blood all over the place. I was first on the scene." He shrugs. "It's more than ironic the only other were I know for sure is like me is dead," he says. "You're not the only one who's species specific. And, dude, this sucks big time. I keep trying, you know, but no matter how furry the people I date, it's just not enough. Even signed up with some agency - that's why I thought you were someone else." He raises an eyebrow, ironic and mocking. "All I want to do is get laid. Which is..." He taps his fingers against one of the books, looks down, smiles to himself so briefly Jared wants to reach out and touch. Some kind of reassurance thing, maybe, although the lurch in his stomach is new, and he's a little shaky himself.
"I mean, I can't even get it up with another bear, you know? And I know what I'm missing. I can't even..." He looks away. "Dude, I even tried whacking off to the Discovery Channel."
Jared reaches out a hand, taps it on the pile of books. Jensen's got a Pinyin dictionary to go with his travel guides "I'm a panda," he says, and watches Jensen's eyes widen.
"You're kidding," he says.
"Straight up," Jared says.
"Did you know?" Jensen says. He's leaning forward, and his mouth's just a little open with the shock, and there's the tiniest flick of his tongue against his teeth as if he's nervous. "Did someone set me up?"
"You are too," Jared says. He can't stop smiling. He lets himself look, now, at the breadth of Jensen's shoulders and the shape of his hands, the laughter lines by his eyes and the sweet rounded curve of his ears. There's a comfortable, warming heat in his belly that's absolutely new. "I couldn't believe it. What are the chances?"
"I was all set to go to China," Jensen says. He's looking back so hard. As if he likes Jared. Likes likes. "Never thought..." And for the first time, ever, Jared's glad of his broad shoulders and his messy hair and his hands and his stupid, different, ugly face, because Jensen's looking at him as if he's worth looking at, and that's amazing.
"I'd just about given up," Jared confesses.
"That'd be a waste," Jensen says. He's still looking. He's straightened up in his seat. Now, he looks confident, sure of himself, and Jared's suddenly glad that at least one of them knows what they'll be doing. If Jensen's interested. If Jensen's really interested. And for the first time on any date, Jared's not thinking about his two empty bedrooms, he's thinking about what it would feel like to feel someone else's skin against his, wondering if Jensen's mouth is as soft as he thinks it might be and his skin as smooth.
"So, wait," Jensen says. He reaches out and takes Jared's hand, an instant shock of warmth, and cups it in his own. His fingers are shorter, stubbier, strong, and his thumb fits perfectly into Jared's palm. "You've never...?"
"No," Jared says. "I kind of gave up trying after a while." He doesn't mention sixteen disastrous dates. He can imagine telling those stories later, both of them curled up on his couch. He could maybe make Jensen laugh. He'd like that.
Jensen's hand tightens. For a moment, Jared feels the phantom prick of claws and the soft brush of fur against his own skin, and it's enough to make him gasp. His cock's hardening in his jeans, swelling, so unexpectedly demanding he has to hold onto Jensen's hand against the disorientating, consuming changes in his own body. He's a were, he should be used to becoming something else, but as a panda Jared likes lounging around in the sun and occasional forays into sugar cane to vary the bamboo diet. Nothing, nothing, has ever felt like this, his skin fever sensitive, his knees trembling under the table.
"I'm not the kinda guy should be anyone's first," Jensen says. There's a frown line between his eyes, but he's not letting go.
"I don't care," Jared says.
"You can do better," Jensen says, painfully honest, but his thumb's pushing little circles into Jared's palm, sweetly erotic.
"Dude, I'm the only chance you got to get laid this side of the Pacific," Jared says. "Are you really gonna say no?" Under the table, his knee's pressed against Jensen's. They're both shaking. "One of us needs to know the score, and it's not me."
"When you put it like that..." Jensen says, smiling, just a little. He's looking at Jared's mouth, not his eyes, and the drop of his eyelashes makes Jared shiver. When Jensen looks back up, his eyes are dark. "I'm sorry you don't get a choice," he says. "But I'll do my best by you, swear to God."
"I'll take that chance," Jared says. He stands up, holds out his hand, and although he's holding his breath Jensen doesn't even hesitate.
"You sure?" he asks, although his hand is as tightly clasped around Jared's as Jared's around his.
Jensen leaves his books on the cafe table. When Jared asks, later, much later - the moon's bright and low through his open bedroom windows and Jensen's head is heavy and warm against his shoulder - Jensen says, "Figured I wasn't going to need them. One of us knows what they're doing, even if it ain't me."
"I don't speak Chinese," Jared says.
"You speak panda," Jensen says, and, slow and tired, his fingernails scratch at the perfect spot behind Jared's ear. "You'll do."