Rei: Respect

With an officious sniff, Secretary Abe Hiroshi steps to the entrance of the shogun's audience chamber. His hands folded behind his back, he lifts his face to the proud splendor of the shogun, calm and forbidding as the sea on his throne. Abe clears his throat quietly, his distaste at this duty clearly evident.

"Your highness: the Dono of Takai House, honored samurai, your servant, Colonel Jensen Ackles."

At his back, the man in question steps forward, and waits to be acknowledged. When an imperious hand beckons him toward the throne, the samurai strides purposeful and strong over the wide red carpet. Arriving at the dais, he sinks to one knee - the katana he wears across his back slides gracefully to the side as the shogun looks down on him, cool and reserved. "Watanabe-sama," he says, intoning with formality.

Abe's nose wrinkles and he fades back into the jade silk drapery.

And then, the shogun's chilly demeanor falls away; his sharp face shines with a smile as he stands and comes down the stair to grasp his friend's hand. "Jensen. Welcome home."

Jensen smiles in return. "Thank you, tonosama. It is good to be back in Japan."

"Come," Watanabe says heartily. "I will see you to your rooms, make sure they feed you. How was America?"

Jensen makes a face as they turn toward the residences and start walking. "Dirty," he says, with a little scorn and a little fondness. "I had forgotten how much."

Watanabe laughs. "It's true, they don't share our culture. But you grew up there - I would imagine you would have more tolerance."

"Good people," Jensen says, in the tone of a proviso. "Don't get me wrong. San Francisco couldn't be better run; Governor Miller is a good man."

"Yes, yes," Watanabe says, waving the concern away. "I was just having some fun with you, my friend, please don't take me seriously." The shogun leans in a little, to whisper a confidence. "To be honest with you, most of these stuffed shirts wouldn't know humor if it bit them."

Jensen smiles. "Poor shogun," he says, kindly.

Watanabe snorts and shoves Jensen's shoulder, just a little. The samurai grins, his head bowed.

They arrive at Jensen's rooms. The door slides open just as Jensen's hand rises to open it; behind is a smallish man in a plain white kimono, who beams at them and bows deeply. "Ackles-dono, Watanabe-sama. I have arranged lunch and a change of clothing for Dono."

"Oh, Masi," Jensen smiles, bowing a little in return. "You're a sight for sore eyes, my friend." Watanabe looks on, indulgent.

Masi stands up and beams some more, moving to the side to usher them in.

"Will you join me for lunch, tonosama?" Jensen asks Watanabe.

The shogun shakes his head. "Thank you, but no. Places to see, things to do, you know how it is." Jensen nods, and Watanabe claps him on the shoulder. "But I will see you this evening for your selection, no?"

Jensen bows again. "Indeed."

"Rest well," the shogun grins. "Watanabe samurai are energetic!"

"I know," Jensen smiles. "I was one of them, once."

"So you were," Watanabe smiles. "I'll see you tonight, Jensen."

"Dewa mata," Jensen says, bowing.

As Masi closes the door behind him, Jensen begins to strip down. His jacket falls over the foot of the bed, only to be gathered up by Masi's solicitous hands. The guns come next - two Glock .22s - out of their holsters and onto the silk pad on the dresser. He unloads them and arranges them precisely, using a soft white cloth provided for the purpose to polish the fingerprints off them, so the black shines back at him. He unwraps the katana from his back and the wakizashi from his thigh and turns - Masi gestures over his shoulder to the daisho that waits to hold them, and Jensen goes over to place them in it, balancing them just so.

As Jensen unties the rest of his clothes and lets them fall, he imagines he can feel the weariness of the road falling away with the dust. Masi has prepared a pitcher and ewer along with some fresh, hot cloths, and Jensen pads over to them with gratitude and begins to wash, watching the sparkling water drip from his arms onto the mat.

Masi picks up his clothes and lets himself out, barely making a sound. He is truly excellent at his job, perhaps not because he is particularly obsequious or eager to please, but just the opposite. Masi allows Jensen to tell him what's required, does exactly that and then says not another word about it. Another Dono might find that disrespectful, but Jensen prizes it - perhaps it's because he grew up in the West, but Jensen values a person with self-confidence.

After the washing, he puts on a light kimono and opens the half-refrigerator. Masi has left him salmon sushi, rice balls, a few pickles and a screw-top green bottle. He smiles, as he does every time, at the memory of Masi's face when Jensen had asked him to chill and sweeten some green tea - priceless. Other items on the little wire shelves include some aspirin, which he takes two of, and some pocky, which he also takes two of.

When he's finished eating, he sleeps for a while to refresh himself. When he wakes an hour or two later, Masi has laid out a clean set of clothes for him - black and royal blue with jet embroidery, very cool, sure to impress the kids. Jensen smiles and gets up to stretch.

Today is a big day - Jensen has impressed the shogun (and, perhaps more importantly, General Mifune) enough to earn the right to choose a shudo student. It's a mark of much respect among the samurai, to be thought wise enough, skilled enough, to take a young samurai under one's wing and teach them what they must know to become great.

Jensen has thought a great deal about the young man he needs to choose. He's watched them practicing, even stopped by to help a few times, General Mifune's deep, bell-toned chuckle encouraging the young samurai: "Repel Sensei Ackles's attack, if you can."

Yes, he's thought carefully.

He's narrowed his choices down to three. The first is a very well-rounded young man, learned in poetry and philosophy. He has a calm, level head, plays a good game of Go. His sword is strong, but his marksmanship leaves something to be desired, and perhaps it is vain of Jensen to want a student who will shine, but he doesn't think his second candidate will improve much in that regard.

The second is the clear martial superior, knows his sword, his guns and his hands like an instrument. His weakness is his arrogance - he thinks he is meant to rule, a dangerous conceit. Furthermore, he is extremely racist; he believes that only the Japanese have divine authority, and all other races are meant to be subject to that rule. The young man is definitely not a favorite of the shogun for that attitude, but he steadfastly maintains it. Perhaps that's part of what makes him appealing, his determination to succeed, no matter who tells him he cannot. It's something Jensen can surely relate to, himself. The young man's ignorance is something any shudo master should be able to school him away from.

The third candidate should never have made it this far. When Jensen first met him, he dismissed the young man out of hand; he knows what people will say, should he choose a white man. But there can be no doubt that the young man's gifts are considerable, and Jensen promised himself that he would keep his mind open enough to have three candidates when he went to make his final selection - just in case fate decided to lend him a hand.

All this Jensen thinks about lying in bed, musing idly until his wakeup call arrives. When it does, he sees Masi's round face peek in to make sure he's awake, and then disappear to push his curtains back. Jensen smiles - he didn't even notice they were closed, but he's sure it helped him sleep. "Good morning, Masi," he murmurs, speaking English just out of habit, having been back in America so long.

"Good evening, Ackles-sama," Masi smiles, matching his language choice as always. "You have one hour until you should leave for the dojo. Do you need help getting dressed?"

"No," Jensen says. "Thanks, Masi, I'll manage." Masi nods and finishes pinning up the curtains, and then he's gone before Jensen's finished stretching.

He gets dressed, straps on his weapons and takes a moment to make sure he doesn't have anything dumb going on with his hair, then heads for the doors to his apartment. Boots, car keys, watch, wallet, extra clips, it all gets stashed away inside the folds of his clothes, everything in its place. When he's finished, he pulls on a stiff dress vest and calls Masi to look him over. Masi looks at him critically, tugs his collar into place, and then bows.

Outside, a valet pulls up in his Rover and bows deeply when he hands Jensen the keys.

~

He is greeted by General Mifune just inside the temple doors. "Jensen-kun!" he booms, and it makes Jensen smile.

"Toshiro-san," he bows, addressing his old friend by his first name. "Good to see you, sir."

"I've rallied the troops." The General grins, returning his bow and then clapping him heartily on the shoulder as he leads Jensen away into the samurai training house. "They await us in the courtyard. Watanabe-san is here, inspecting."

Jensen nods. "I would imagine he would be. Does he still come for Go matches as well?"

"If he had no duties, he would never leave," says Toshiro fondly. "I have always said that our shogun was stolen from the samurai by bureaucracy, and I stand by it. How was America?"

"American," Jensen says absently, tugging at his collar.

Toshiro stops in the hall and smiles at him. "Are you nervous, Jenkun?"

Jensen blushes. "A little. A shudo student... it is a great honor."

"Yes," Toshiro says wryly, a smile curving his mouth. "A great honor to invite a boy you do not know to share your house and your life. And your body."

Jensen nods and paces off a little, restless. "I have never taught anyone before, not alone."

When Toshiro speaks again, his voice is gentle. "That is not true," he says. "I learned much from you."

Jensen bows his head. "That was different. I was the student, then."

"No," says Toshiro gruffly. "You were the student, but it was not different."

Jensen turns to look at him, willing the anxiety to subside. "Of course you are right, Toshiro-san. This should be a joyous day," he pronounces, in the sharp, particular Japanese syllables. He puts a determined smile on his face and takes a deep breath, in and out.

Toshiro lays a hand on his shoulder and meets his eyes with a kind of level seriousness. "You were a good student," he says. "Respectful, eager to learn, but never too quick to give in. You cannot fail to be a good teacher."

Jensen breathes again, and then rests his hand on the General's forearm. "Thank you, sensei," he says, and the word reminds them both of a time long past. They pause there like that, in the long hall, remembering. When they are done, their eyes meet at the same time.

"Now," Toshiro says, as happy and laughing as a Buddha. "Let's go find your young student."

They head for the courtyard together. When they arrive on the steps, Watanabe is waiting. Eight young men stand in a line behind him, looking straight ahead, sightless. They are perfectly attired, not a hair out of place, every one standing at attention. Watanabe smiles and bows, wearing the ceremonial robes reserved for a father, or an old teacher. The words he uses are ceremonial, Jensen's heard them a dozen times, but this time they are slightly changed, and they seem fraught with meaning. "Ackles-san. It is my pleasure to give to you these samurai, that you may choose from among them one who is worthy to receive the benefit of your teachings. They are the best that my humble dojo has to offer."

Jensen stares. The shogun is usually present to look on, observe - not participate. It is a definite honor to have him act in this capacity, and Jensen bows to him deeply.

Behind him, Toshiro chuckles.

Jensen makes a mental note to punch the General as soon as is reasonable, and straightens. Watanabe is beaming, and Jensen basks in that affection for just a moment more before shifting his focus to the young men in front of him.

His first choice, Kisho, is not present - surely Toshiro is responsible for that, having excluded him for his lackluster marksmanship. Jensen makes a mental note not to punch the old man too hard.

His second choice, Raidon, stands proud in the center of the group, his haughty eyes disapproving of everything around him. He's a challenge, and Jensen is almost sure he'll be the one.

And in the interest of symmetry, he sends a glance down the row. It's instantly apparent that his third choice is there, towering half a foot over almost everyone else. Where some of the young samurai are stiff and nervous, this one is loose-limbed, standing easy. Where some faces are rigid, his has an almost bored expression. Jensen can't believe his eyes.

Toshiro, from behind him, is quietly amused. "I remember looking at a face just like that," he smiles.

Jensen shakes his head with a little snort. "I was not that arrogant," he says.

"Arrogant? No. Confident. Sure." Jensen turns slightly, giving Toshiro room to speak, and the old general continues. "That one, he was trained in meditation by Kumakichi-san."

Jensen lifts an eyebrow. "I thought Kumakichi had given up teaching meditation to the children. He told me the young ones were too impatient."

When Jensen looks back again to the row of samurai, the young man in question is looking straight at him. His white face, his height, his curly hair and his direct gaze - he stands out, that's for damn sure.

Jensen steps up to the line, straight to the white samurai. He never bothered to get the kid's name - never thought he'd make it this far. Thousands never even make it to apprentice. He reaches out to take the young man's arm in his hand, to test the muscle -

Watanabe catches his wrist before he gets there. Jensen looks at him sharply.

It's a strange smile that Watanabe gives him - genuine, but hiding something. In all the years that Jensen has known shogun Watanabe, he has never felt the need to hide anything, not like this. But the older man chuckles, just a little. "You don't want that one," he says.

"Why not, tonosama?" Jensen asks, with deference, holding his arm still.

Watanabe lets go of him gently and shrugs. "He is too frivolous. There are other things to look for in a shudo student than beauty - Jared lacks caution. Patience."

Jensen drops his hand, and shifts his gaze to the young samurai. "Is this so?"

"No sir," Jared says, in a low down homespun sprawling dialect of English that climbs inside Jensen's head and rattles around until he remembers hearing it before, when he was just a child. The student meets his gaze one-on-one, like nobody else is anywhere near them, brim-full of quiet confidence. "I'll put up against anybody in this joint, and I'll win."

Raidon snorts and relaxes his stance, his disdain evident.

"You don't think so?" Jensen asks, stepping toward him.

Raidon glances over at him and then back, almost dismissive. "No, sensei, I do not. Jared-kun is a fine samurai, but he cannot best me."

Jensen looks him over, top to toe. He's a decent looking man, curved and perfect in a dozen ways. "You feel you would be a better candidate, then?"

Another contemptuous glance at Jared. "Certainly."

Jensen glances among the remaining choices and confirms that the only two he would be interested in are the two he's already spoken to. "Raidon, Jared, please remain. The rest of you, I wish you good fortune in your studies." Jensen bows and the remaining students walk away - some a bit down at the edges. Jensen returns his eyes to the men in front of him.

Jared appears completely composed; but for the little bit of heightened color in his cheeks, you wouldn't know he was upset. Jensen folds his arms over his chest and lets his eyes flick between them. "I can't decide," he says, and Toshiro and Watanabe step up to flank him, and study the two young men in front of them.

"Raidon's family would make a fine political alliance," Watanabe muses.

Jensen nods. "Hm."

"My father is a buke daimyo," Raidon says. "That's like an aristocrat, to you."

Jensen arches one eyebrow, and so does Toshiro. The General folds his arms over his barrel chest. "Jared is a hard worker," he says. "He has sought out teachers amongst almost all samurai here - if they can teach him something, he will listen. He is forever practicing."

Watanabe huffs an amused breath. "When he is not eating," he says lazily. "This one will clean you out of home and house, Ackles-san."

Jared's face remains totally impassive, and Jensen raises the other eyebrow. "Perhaps. But Raidon here believes he is superior to me."

Raidon instantly bows. "Sensei, if I have given offense, I beg your forgiveness."

Jensen smiles. "Do you really want it? Or would you prefer that I stay angry at you, so you could maintain you tried your best, but the gaijin would not be reasoned with?"

With a deep breath, Raidon stands back up, at attention. The blush stains his cheeks, and his voice wavers a little, but he speaks the uncomfortable truth: "Yes, sensei. I would."

The three older men laugh together. "You see," Jensen says, putting his hand deliberately on Raidon's shoulder. "He has spirit."

Jensen turns to his third choice, who is still staring calmly forward. "Have you nothing to say on your own behalf?" Jensen asks.

"Why?" Jared asks softly, lowering his eyes, but not his chin. "Honored sensei has made his decision."

Raidon bows his head.

Jensen glowers at Jared a little. "You think you know my mind, young samurai."

"I do, Nihonjiro-sama," Jared says softly. "You have chosen me."

There is a gasp - who it has come from, Jensen can't quite tell, but he turns to Toshiro and finds an amused smile on the general's face. "You see, Jen-kun," Toshiro says, deep and rumbling. "Jared-san is many things, but one of them most definitely is deserving of a good teacher."

Raidon's face is angry. His eyes flash as he holds his chin up, proud, and Jensen hates to leave him, but at the end of the day, it seems someone else will have to teach him how to be smart and strong, because Jared is right.

Jensen has chosen.

"Padalecki-san," he says formally. "Samurai of the Kyoto Gosho, shogun's ward, I offer you a place in my home as my student."

Jared turns to Watanabe and bows his head. "Shogun Watanabe-sama, I petition that I may be allowed to accept the honorable sensei's offer."

Watanabe's face, perhaps strangely, looks tight and upset. Jensen worries instantly that he has made the wrong decision, but before he can speak, Watanabe clears his throat. "As your shogun, as the head of your dojo and as your guardian, I give you leave. Do honor to the names you carry."

It's a strange admonishment, and Jared looks a little confused for a moment, echoing the feeling in Jensen's gut. But he bows, as it is almost always safe to do, and holds it low. "You have my word."

The shogun turns to Jensen and fixes him with a serious look. The set of his brows and the depth of his black eyes makes Jensen stand a little straighter; Ken Watanabe is not a man to be treated lightly, and would not be no matter if he were Emperor or farmer. "I entrust my ward to you," Watanabe says. "At your feet he will learn the arts of the samurai. Through his deeds you will be famed, and so I will be famed. The Empire will know, when your student shows what he is capable of, that honor knows no breed and wisdom is no respecter of birthplace."

Watanabe puts a hand on Jensen's shoulder and holds it, firm. "Go with my blessings. The whole world watches you."

Jensen bows his head, and out of the corner of his eye sees Jared do the same.

He feels Toshiro's heavy hand pat his shoulder, and with it, he can almost feel the weight of responsibility settling onto his shoulders. It's not a new feeling for Jensen - being the white samurai comes with its share of extra pressure - but perhaps this time, it's a little heavier.

He turns to look at Jared, and his gaze is met with steadiness and uncertainty. Jared bows, and Jensen does as well. "Gather your things," he says. "I have some preparations to make. In three days, I will send a car to fetch you."

"Yes, Nihonjiro-sama," Jared says, bowing deeply, then stands and hurries away.

The shogun takes his leave as well, his serious demeanor giving way to the more relaxed (if more tired) man that Jensen knows well. He has work, he says, a shogun's job is never done.

When they've all shaken hands and congratulated each other, Toshiro throws an arm around Jensen's shoulders and wrestles him back and forth a little, making Jensen laugh. "A student of your own!" Toshiro exclaims, and of course it is a cause for celebration - a mark in Jensen's life as a samurai, as a man. "Come," says the old general, gruffly. "It has been too long since you've been to the Kyoto Dojo. Have some sake with your old friends."

Jensen laughs and allows himself to be wrestled into the main mess hall, where a few old friends are indeed lurking. He greets them warmly as they laugh and make ribald jokes at his expense, the not-so-old master with his not-so-young shudo student, the soul deep bonds that will be forged when the student arrives at master's rooms. Jensen went through his early training with most of these men, and so he laughs and pushes them, drinks with them, teases them about their own wives and students.

One face he had not expected to see appears halfway through the night - the reclusive Kumakichi, one of Jensen's oldest acquaintances and another of Toshiro's students. "I heard they'd let an old fox into the henhouse," Kumakichi grins, and Jensen stands up and pounds him into a hug, beating on his shoulders like the brother he is.

"Kumakun," Jensen beams, guiding him to the table and motioning the samurai to pour some sake. "It has been too long. How is your wife, pregnant yet?"

"Not yet," Kumakichi says, smiling gently.

Jensen grins. "Well, you'll just have to try harder, then, won't you?" He says, and the whole table catcalls, even Toshiro.

"Believe me," Kumakichi replies, smiling as he will only do when he is with very close friends. "If I try much harder, there won't be any children." He lifts his glass, and the table catcalls again, louder, pointing at Jensen's beaming face.

They trade quips for a bit - Jensen is egged about becoming a mountain hermit who never wants to meet a wife - and then settle back into relaxed talking. "Truthfully," Kumakichi says, brandishing the tiny sake cup in his heavy fingers. "There were some very long faces in the barracks when word came in that you were to choose a shudo partner. The boys gloated and the girls sulked. We even had a fight break out over it, isn't that right, Toshiro-san?"

Toshiro nods, pulling a long face of his own. "You've decimated my students, Jenkun. Nobody will confirm for me, but I know they have a betting pool on who you will marry."

Jensen rolls his eyes.

"What do you know of your student?" Kumakichi asks, a little later. "Aside from his looks and his sword arm, I mean."

"Not much," Jensen tells him, lounging back against one of the cushions, pleasantly buzzed with sake. "To be frank, I'd thought I would choose another."

"Kisho," Kumakichi guesses.

Jensen spreads his hands.

One of the other samurai looks at him quizzically. "Kisho? He can't hit the broad side of a barn."

"Well, he didn't get chosen, did he?" Jensen says, feeling fairly philosophical about it just now. Later, he's sure, the fact that he's chosen the white man will weigh on him, but just now it seems like a fine choice.

"Well," Kumakichi says. "I had the honor of training your young student in meditation - after he bullied me into it, of course. I know a thing or two about him that might interest you."

The other samurai lean in, tell, tell. Jensen waves a vague hand, and Kumakichi pours himself some more sake. "When your young student was a boy," he says in a storytelling tone, "he moved with his mother to the palace. She came as a tutor at the direction of the shogun himself; her boy worked as a servant. Well, it seems young Padalecki-san was fond of certain sweets, as boys will be, and by many means, widely varied, found himself with a key to the pantry." Everyone, including Jensen, smiles and nods - the pantry keys could be instrumental in one's social life when one lived with a large family, as many of them know.

"So early one morning, just after his 16th birthday, in the midst of some harmless pilfering, one of the palace guardsmen happens by." The samurai ooh and make faces - nobody likes the guardsmen, bunch of rent-a-cops. Kumakichi nods and gestures. "I know, I know. So, here's this kid with a fistful of pocky, what would you do? You'd slap him on the ass with the flat of your sword and send him to bed, right?"

The assembly nods and grumbles. Toshiro thumps a fist down on the table. "I might even help him!"

Jensen laughs with the crowd, because it's easy to picture the heavy, sanguine man playing lookout as the kid stuffs his pockets.

"Well," Kumakichi says, direly. "This was no samurai. This was a guardsman. And palace guardsmen, as everyone knows, are a bunch of cocks." The group laughs, but Kumakichi hushes them. "This particular bastard was more so than most. He gave our young samurai two choices: accept punishment for thievery, or accept. Well. Other forms of punishment more personal, if you follow."

The men quiet on their own now. Theft from the shogun's stores carries a hefty fine which, if it cannot be paid, involves indentured servitude. And the other, well. For something like that to have happened to one of their own is, of course, unacceptable. Jensen, particularly, feels his stomach sinking, and his hands want a sword.

But Kumakichi smiles. "So. What do you imagine our young samurai does? At sixteen years old, deep in the night, with one of these bastards staring him down - he's got a sword and our young man has pocky. What would you do?"

The samurai look at each other. Jensen looks at Kumakichi.

"Well. Padalecki-san beat the shit out of him, of course."

There is a full second's silence before Jensen can breathe again, and before the group of drunk friends is hammering the table and howling into the night. Kumakichi is beaming at them. "Man still has a scar from it!" He hollers, and everyone laughs again, beat to hell by a little boy, oh, oh.

Jensen can see it clearly in his mind's eye, just as if he were there. He can see the guardsman fall under the hard fists, see the rage in his student's eyes. Perhaps, he muses, he was wrong to imagine that Jared was passionless. Perhaps the young samurai might be more determined than Jensen gave him credit for. As he sips his sake, something else crosses his mind. "Kumakun," he says. "What in hell happened to him? You can't just go beat up a palace guardsman just cause you please and everything's hunky dory after."

Toshiro laughs a little. "Speak Japanese, Jenkun. You always forget when you're drunk."

"Apologies," Jensen grins. "Your sake should be less amnesia-inducing."

Kumakichi's brow furrows a little. "That's strange, actually. The weasel would have dealt with it, but the shogun heard the story from somewhere and stepped in. Watanabe said if the boy could best a guardsman at such a young age, his talents were being wasted on dusting and he ought to be sent to the samurai. His mother was being sent back to America, so they moved him into the dojo barracks and that was that, so far as I recall."

The men trade glances. Toshiro studies the bottom of his sake cup. "Is that where we got him? I don't even remember, it was six years ago."

There's a moment more silence as the men think and then someone shrugs. "Well, we have him now. Or, rather, Jenkun does." The samurai raises his glass and smiles, and Jensen feels it slide from his mind as the conversation turns to who the next samurai to select a student will be.

They talk deep into the night.

In the morning, between cups of very strong coffee, Jensen vaguely recalls sliding down a hallway with his arm around Kumakichi's shoulders, singing as loud as he could. He's a decent singer when he's sober, but when drunk, well, the talent gets submerged. He packs up and puts on a pair of sunglasses before going out to the courtyard to bid farewell to Toshiro, who, for reasons surely rooted in the very secret samurai arts, never gets a hangover. It's fond and pleasant, and Jensen sends good wishes to Kumakichi, who apparently is still in bed.

He's on the road out of Kyoto inside an hour with a bag of horrendous fast food in the passenger seat.

~

Rinko Kikuchi, Kanrei of the Watanabe shogunate, storms into the offices of his Excellency's secretary. "Abe-san," she calls, pushing open the door to his little office.

He looks up from his paperwork, surprise on his face. "Honored Kanrei. How nice to see you, please, come... in." She's throwing herself into the chair facing his desk before he's even finished talking, so he stands to fetch some tea. "What brings you by today?"

"What else?" She grumbles, picking at her fingernails. "Ackles returned today."

Abe pauses in the transfer of tea from brew pot to serving pot. "Ah."

"Can't you do something?" she asks. "Keep him assigned to the provinces? I can't keep coming up with minor fires for him to put out - there are too many things I have to do."

"The life of a shogun's right hand is a difficult one," Abe says softly, as he sets the porcelain lid into the pot. "Some tea?"

"Please," she sighs. Her hakama is rumpled from a difficult day - the Gosho requires long hours of everyone who works there, and it isn't easy for either of them to manage all the administrative details, the near-endless meetings and briefings and takeovers. Unlike the traveling samurai, a bureaucrat's formal uniform sees constant use.

Because Abe is a secretary instead of an official, he is allowed more liberty with the uniform – he folds the long sleeve of his jacket around his wrist, to get it out of the way, and pours two cups of tea. He gives Rinko hers without ceremony; they are used to one another enough by now to be comfortable together, if not companionable.

"I was in all day with reps from the Han provinces. No matter how hard they bitch that it's prejudice, it won't change the fact that North Columbia has better salmon runs than they do. I can't change the quality of Chinese fish, prefect, I'm sorry." She laughs a little, but there's no real mirth in it.

Abe seats himself behind the desk and makes sympathetic sounds as he clears a spot amidst the paperwork for his tea. "It can be difficult to do our best."

"I know," she mutters. "I'm trying to be taken seriously by these people with a gaijin to back me up. Why not a cat as our next samurai! Or the sofa!"

Abe smiles, and then sips his tea. "We must make the most of what we have," he offers, philosophically. "I think I have a matter in the Thai fruit markets that could use addressing - perhaps we can see if the good colonel is free, hm? I hear he has been allowed to take a student, so -"

Rinko's snort cuts him off, but he forges on, determined. "So, this assignment ought to be relaxed enough for him to cut his student's teeth."

"I hear he chose the temple's other gaijin," Rinko sneers. "And turned down Raidon Satoko for it. Everyone knows he's the best young samurai to come out of Kyoto Dojo in years."

"Raidon?" Abe asks, surprised. "I'm surprised he allowed Ackles to even look at him."

Rinko smiles into her tea. "His ambition sometimes outweighs his sense. But he is young."

"Indeed," Abe replies absently, and pulls out the papers for the new assignment. He will submit them to the shogun first thing in the morning.

~

The highest peak in the Hira mountain range is Mount Bunaga. Sixteen miles from Kyoto, give or take, the mountain tops out at roughly twelve thousand feet, touching the sky above blue Lake Biwa. At its feet a hundred villages freckle the lakeshore, but only a few can persist along the road through the Hiras.

There can be only a few reasons to live such a life, and the villagers of Takai have just such a reason - the power station nearby keeps roads and houses lit all along the Hiras, and the citizens of Takai are, by and large, responsible for keeping it operable.

High above them, near the peak of Mount Bunaga itself, is a house.

Kasho Takai, which is best translated as high house, was once the ancestral home of the Takai family. It was built on the ruins of an old Shinto temple, and some of the stonework was incorporated into the design of the house. It had long since fallen into disrepair, the area abandoned to the care of an elderly groundskeeper, and then one day came a letter bearing the shogun's seal. The tiny principality of Takai was to be removed from under the care of the neighboring districts and put once more under the care of a samurai.

It had been years since a real samurai lived in the house, and given the state of it, the villagers couldn't imagine what sort of samurai it would be that would accept the dubious honor of so long neglected an estate.

These days, the people of the village refer to the resident of that house as the samurai-sama of Takai - it's a word game, a popular pastime in Japan.

Takai means the next world, which can be anything from heaven to the spirit world - a reference to the temple. But if you change the character, it becomes any of expensive, high up, or tall. Put the accent on the first syllable, instead of the second, and it means mountain.

Samurai of the holy, samurai of the mountain, warrior of undisputed honor. Samurai who stands out like a sore thumb amidst his shorter subjects, samurai who got the best house in the whole of Japan, wink wink nudge nudge.

Jensen pretends not to know about this little game, but privately, he's amused by it.

In the calm, peaceful garden, Jensen is planting fern seedlings. It's warm enough now. Gardening is a favorite hobby of his, and time spent in the garden, nestled in the crook of Bunaga's neck, is never less than beautiful. The mountain curves around Kasho Takai, holds it warm in a little valley that's reachable only by dirt track. The sky is brilliant and clear, and Jensen has an unlimited stretch of wilderness before him to cultivate and nurture into crops, herbs, flowers and vines. There is a long stretch of Zen rock garden alongside the little brook that leads away from the hot spring beside the bathhouse, and whenever he's in residence, Jensen takes over the upkeep of it.

Samurai are expected to know several of the liberal arts, and of the ones he knows, gardening is possibly Jensen's favorite. It's pleasant to feel the raw earth against his hands, to eat food he grew with time and patience. It makes him feel connected every time he pushes his fingers into the soil of Japan and coaxes something green from it.

He takes a deep breath of clean mountain air and holds it deep in his chest. Soon, his student will arrive from the dojo, and he wants to be prepared.

At just that moment, the heavy door to the house slides open, and Kaori steps out onto the mat. Jensen doesn't need to turn around to distinguish her small, sure footsteps, a grace born of age and practice. He turns and smiles at her just as she bows to him, the sun shining off the silver strands at her temples.

"Ackles-sama," she murmurs. "The young man from the Gosho has arrived. You asked to be notified."

Jensen plants the trowel in the loose bag of dirt, stands up and dusts off his hands. "Thank you, Kaori-san, I will find him myself. Please inform Takashi that there will be two of us at dinner."

She makes a little face and bows before disappearing into the house. Jensen smiles to himself at the scene that will inevitably result – Takashi serves as both cook and majordomo, and he believes his duties give him the authority to bully every other member of the house, including Jensen himself. But, as there is no bigger heart than Takashi's, and as he is Kaori's stepson, and as there is no human being capable of making a better maki roll, Jensen is forced to keep him. Sure enough, when he comes into the house, there is the faintest distant sound of good-natured yelling about notice and entrees, and the clang of lids and pots.

Jensen smiles to himself, and turns toward the other end of the house, where the front entrance lies.

He moves silently through the halls, the tatami mats not even rustling under his bare feet. Perhaps he should have put on some socks, he thinks, perhaps this isn't exactly proper attire to be greeting his new student. But his loose belted black shirt and casual canvas skirt are standard wear when he's not training, and if Jared is going to live here, he should get used to it. So Jensen decides it'll be fine. A little unnerving, perhaps, but it's not like he won't already be unnerved by the whole situation, so hardly noticeable.

He passes doorways to the dojo, the study and the library, and just before he rounds the door to the entry hall, he hears a familiar pair of voices. Carefully, he stops to listen - it never hurts to know what you're walking into, and he'd like to assess his student's mood.

"It truly is," Masi is saying with enthusiasm. "Ackles-sama did a great deal of restoration when he arrived."

"It's really something," Jared says. His voice is quiet, reserved, and Jensen nods - that's about what he expected.

Masi is bubbling. "Ackles-sama is a good master, if san will permit me to say. You have rooms in the honden." Almost at once, Masi pauses. Jensen can see, in his mind's eye, one hand go over the mouth to catch the words back. "O, forgive our little joke," Masi hastens to add. "I'm sure you see from our guardian statues, the kasho was once a shrine. Tonosama has his rooms in the back, a connected building, and so we have taken the joke a little farther."

"It's fine," Jared assures him, calm and amused.

There is a brief lull, during which Jensen assumes that Masi smiles his giant smile, and they bow to each other. Then Masi again: "Do you have any, ah, things you will need? We have a full staff, kitchen. A library, many gardens. Tonosama's office has a computer and television...?"

"No, no," Jared tells him, and Jensen hears the sound of faraway plains and hills in that voice, sharp and smooth in all the wrong places. It makes Jensen smile - that's how his parents sound now. "I'm fine," Jared continues. "There's anything I need, though, you'll be my first call, how's that?"

"Very good!" Masi enthuses. "You will like it here, Padalecki-san. Takai is most beautiful."

Jared's talking over him immediately. "If we're gonna be friends here, little buddy, you're gonna have to call me Jared."

"And you must call me Masi, Jared-san," Masi replies, with a bright smile in his voice. Jensen bristles a little. He's tried a dozen times to get his staff to call him by his given name but they insist on calling him not only Ackles, but Ackles-sama, like he's the damn Emperor.

And then Jared laughs.

Jensen has to lean back against the wall, it's so familiar. It's like Jared thinks that nobody can hear him, like Toshiro laughs, with no fear or hesitation. It's like an open sky, like nothing but sky for miles and miles anywhere you look, touching the sides of the world and disappearing up into infinity. Jensen allows himself a moment of fancy, and imagines that he has learned everything he'll ever know about his student in that one sound - that everything after this will just be variations on a theme.

He smiles to hear it.

Then he composes himself - how strange to think these things about a young man he's barely even met - and turns the corner. Masi immediately bows, as does Jared, very deep and respectful. Jensen bows in return, and when they each raise up, Jensen comes forward to take Jared's hand. They grip forearms like knights, and Jensen looks him straight in the eyes.

There is nothing of a child in his look. It is firm, calm, steady. Jensen feels a pull in his chest, something heavy and solid. I made the right choice, he thinks.

"Come," he says formally. "I'll show you your room."

Jared bows again, shorter, and dark curls slide over his eyes. Jensen notices those curls, which is odd for him - he doesn't usually find men attractive - but he chooses not to think on it too much, and leads Jared into the house.

As they walk through the halls, he catches his student sneaking long glances at the art and calligraphy on the walls, trying to covertly glance into the rooms they pass. There is appreciation in Jared's eyes, and curiosity.

Jensen mentally frames himself back into objectivity, and thinks carefully. It is good, he decides, that his student likes his house. It means... he'll settle in well. Already, Jensen plans for what he will teach his student first - perhaps Go. Jensen is very fond of Go.

Masi follows along behind them, his slippers shushing on the polished floors. He carries Jared's bags - a knapsack of Japanese make, and a western canvas duffel bag covered in bulging pockets. Jared's sword is strapped across his back, as for a long journey, and Jensen can see the patterns and bunches of fabric that mean he's carrying guns under his jacket.

Good, he thinks. Keep your weapons close, no matter what.

They don't talk again until they arrive at the door. Jensen opens the doors and Masi runs in to lay Jared's bags on the foot of the bed. Jared follows after, looking around at the cherry wood and the spartan design. He picks up the lid up off a carved jade box, and then puts it down again like he's worried he'll break it. After a moment, he turns to Jensen and gives him a polite smile and bow.

Jensen has to suppress the urge to laugh. "So it's not really your style, is what you're saying."

Jared bows again. "I'm grateful to you for sharing your home with me," he replies, and Jensen can't escape at least a little chuckle. Masi looks at him like he's grown a third head.

"It's your home now too," he says gently. "You should make it your own."

Jared moves forward and unzips a pocket on the duffel. From it he retrieves a small wrapped package, and turns to Jensen to present it. "For my honorable host, a humble gift."

Jensen takes the package in his hands, makes the customary denials - "My guest is too kind, it is a pleasure to serve" - and unwraps it.

Inside is a leather-bound book, small and sturdy and brown. It is wrapped several times with a length of cord, and the front cover is stamped with a lotus blossom. Jensen opens the book to find it blank - a journal. "It is beautiful," he says, touching the intricate print work. "It will surely see my use. Thank you, my student."

Jared bows yet again, making little noises that mean denial, but Jensen is pleased to see a happy smile hovering around his lips. "I'll call you for dinner in an hour or two," Jensen says with a smile. "In the meantime, I'll leave you to rest. I know it's been a long journey."

A promising start, he thinks, on his way down the hall.

~

They eat together that night. Jensen has worried in the intervening time that Jared was offended, thought that Jensen was laughing at him for not liking the spartan décor. He is determined not to allow that to happen again.

Therefore, dinner is strained and difficult, at a long table with the kitchen servants tiptoeing in and out. Jared insists that the food is exceptional when Jensen asks, and there is some discussion of the weather in the mountains being cooler than in the lowlands, where the palace is.

After, Jensen asks if Jared would like to walk in the gardens. Jared agrees and folds his hands together under the sleeves of his kimono jacket, so formal. It's nighttime by now, this early in the spring, and the moonlight falls over the rocks in the garden just so. Jensen asks Jared about where he comes from and Jared bows his head and says that when he was a boy, he lived with his mother in the Caribbean Republic, on the mainland. What he actually says is me'n mama lived in the, and Jensen's mind trips over that - parsing out what it means, and why he feels it in his chest.

When Jensen stops, Jared gives him a concerned look and asks in a more formal tone if he's said something wrong.

Jensen assures him he didn't, and steps in a little closer, reaches up and slides a hand around the back of Jared's neck.

His student's eyes go wide and he stiffens, so Jensen lets go. "It's late," he says. "You must be tired."

Jared nods and backs up a pace. Just one. Jensen does him the courtesy of looking away and, seeing the deep, heavy bow out of the corner of his eye, listens to Jared thank him for dinner and then leave.

Thank him for dinner. As though Jared were a guest in a hotel, or as if this were a date. Jensen doesn't understand, and seats himself on a stone bench to contemplate the garden for a while before bed.

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