Chuugi: Duty

With a careful tug, the wind plucks a leaf from its tree. Yellowed and stiff, the leaf dances for a time in the cool air, the breeze taking the lead, swirling and dipping. When they're tired, the breeze lays its partner gently on a carpeted step. The leaf, for its part, catches the soft red carpet, and sighs to a stop.

At the top of the staircase, a low horn blows. It sounds out over the crowd that's gathered at the base; they all bow their heads as the buke and samurai pass down the long aisle between them, and mount the Gosho steps with heavy feet. The sky is a dull grey; it colors the world.

Kyoto's shogun is dead.

Jensen looks down the aisle and toward the palace from the passenger window of his long black car. He's waiting and watching the assembly - there's people he knows, and people he was expecting. Of course Emperor Kurosawa is already inside, and Jared is in there as well, in a place of honor. The reading of Watanabe's will wasn't made public, but the right people are fully aware of who Jared is, and what his claims are.

Jensen feels an itch between his shoulder blades and tries not to squirm.

When everybody's inside and the rest of the dojo's samurai have established security, a woman knocks on the hearse's window. Jensen gets out of the car and nods to his friend Neko, Lieutenant Hakiri, the first Kyoto Dojo sparring partner Jensen ever had. She is the fastest human being Jensen knows; she has stood over his bruised and beaten body many times and called him a turtle, a slowpoke, a slack-ass. (Jensen taught her that last phrase himself, many years ago.)

He carefully does not acknowledge her red-rimmed eyes or her stiff shoulders. Everyone has those today.

Eight of them assemble at the back of the hearse: Kumakichi, Neko and Jensen, Watanabe's second nephew and four other buke and samurai. All are strong young people, and all represent a close friend, a dear companion. Kuma stands for Toshiro, Neko for Miyuki Watanabe, the shogun's wife, and Jensen - though nobody knows it - stands for Jared.

There are no smiles. No words are exchanged. It isn't necessary.

When the hearse doors open to reveal the shining black casket, there is a muffled sob from the assembly. Watanabe was beloved by buke, military and common alike. The Empire itself is observing a day of mourning today, and there will be no weddings or festivals for the next week at the Emperor's decree.

They heft the coffin from the car. The samurai try for crisp military precision, but the aristocrats don't know how, so it isn't all that impressive. Just a group of people, bearing a heavy burden.

They lift their faces, and start down the aisle.

Jensen tries not to look to either side. He just stares at the back of Kuma's head, so he won't have to look at the mourners. Time enough for that inside. He moves his feet to the beat of the taiko drums, one, two, three, slow and stately.

They pass through the doors of the Gosho's temple, which has been carefully cleared and prepared. The priests and buke are assembled inside, and Jensen spies dozens of familiar faces. At the front is Jared, and the area where the Emperor will sit. The room is a sea of white. Some of these ladies have been preparing for days, soaking their hair in product, their skin in milk baths so it will be perfect. Even the men's costumes are elaborate. The more time one puts into one's appearance at a funeral, the more one's respect shows.

The pallbearers proceed, slow and stately, up the aisle.

At the front, they turn to the side and lower the casket. To their credit, it makes no sound when it touches down on the pallet. They file to the sides, take their seats, and then the drums hush for the Emperor's entrance.

He comes in from a side door, his clothing more ornate than half the ladies. His eyes are elaborately made up, downcast and sorrowful. His influence is palpable in the threads of power that flow from him, as though, if he wished it, he could change the basic structure of the world, or simply leave it altogether. Jensen bows deeply, just like everyone else.

The Emperor steps up to the casket and bends his head in an attitude of prayer. Even he respects death, and the crossing to become an ancestor. One day he will make it too, and Watanabe died with supreme honor. One could ask for no better beginning to that journey. And so the Emperor bows his head low, and lays his hands on either side of the head of the casket. His blessing is given, and he stands and moves down to take his place by the shogun's widow, who stands silent and frail beside Jared on the family side of the temple.

Jensen's on the other side. At the end of his aisle is Rinko, followed by an empty space. Toshiro should occupy that space, but he is strangely absent. Jensen can't imagine what would be important enough to warrant missing the funeral, but Toshiro is a supremely reverent man, and so Jensen puts it from his mind. Whatever it is, it must surely be paramount.

At the front of the church, the priest enters in his most formal robes, followed by a dozen acolytes all dressed in white. They are already humming low in their throats, the beginning of the sutra chant. In his hands, the priest carries the wooden tablet, on which he has inscribed Watanabe's death name. The processional is careful and somber, and when he arrives at Watanabe's coffin, he sets the heavy tablet on a little stand built into the coffin's make.

Nihon no Ichiro, reads the kanji.

First son of Japan.

The Emperor nods; the assembly releases a collective breath at his approval. The priest steps back and raises his clasped hands, his mala pressed between them, and the acolytes' chant swells, deep and rich. The priest bows to the assembly, and then holds out a hand to Watanabe's wife.

Miyuki rises like thick smoke, slow and weightless. Up the stairs she drifts, sadness rolling off her in waves, and it seems that when she prays with her mala, when she takes her three pinches of incense and lays them on the coal, that she does so on behalf of the world. She returns to her seat, her kimono black and thick, the weight of sorrow making her pale. Even that cannot still her beauty - she is luminous, even in this gray half-light.

Jared stands up.

There is at least one gasp as he mounts the stairs, announcing to the world that he takes precedence over all other family members because he is a son. His back is straight, his shoulders strong; only the curve of his neck to hint at his feelings.

Jensen almost sighs. Maybe it was a private affair before, but it sure isn't now. Still, he can't help but sneak a look over at Rinko.

Shock. Rage. Barely suppressed indignation.

So, Jensen thinks, about what you'd expect. He sits back in his chair and waits for his turn to come up and pay his respects. When Jared returns to his seat, being the last immediate family member, the Emperor withdraws with a minimum of pomp, and then there is a general sort of very soft murmur as people relax a little, and whisper to each other. It's respectful and quiet, and one by one everyone goes to take their bit of incense and sprinkle it down. The breeze whispers through the temple, carrying the smoke out and away.

The household, friends and heads of state are finished, the local buke are about halfway through, when a very upset young man comes hurrying up the aisle to kneel down by Rinko's side. He makes a bit of a rustle, people scowling at him, but his eyes are wild. When he's finished whispering, Rinko goes totally still.

Her face comes up, pale, and she looks at Kuma and Jensen pointedly before standing up, bowing to the altar, and heading for the back of the temple.

Jensen and Kuma do the same. They know an order when they see it, and with no shogun in the Watanabe shogunate, the Kanrei has full authority.

In the antechamber, Secretary Abe waits, his face drawn and pale. "Abe-san," says Rinko, striding up to him. "Is this true?"

Abe nods, his mouth a tight line. "It is," he confirms, hollow-voiced. "The general's body was found not an hour ago."

Jensen feels Kuma beside him. They lock into step, without even looking at each other. "What?" Kuma asks, and he speaks with the voice of the samurai.

Abe turns to him as Rinko bows her head and curses. The secretary's eyes are brimming. "Toshiro Mifune has been murdered, Colonel Tanimoto. It was poison."

Kuma stares at him.

Jensen feels the earth falling away under his feet. Surely, in another week, there will be nothing left. Everything he knows is falling apart.

Perhaps he might even stumble, but then there is a strong, wide hand on his shoulder, and a beloved voice. "Senseidono," Jared says. "What's going on?"

Jensen turns and meets Jared's eyes. He watches his lover read there everything he needs to know, and finally Jensen says, in a voice made of pain, "Toshiro."

Jared's hands tighten, his eyes fill with rage. "How?"

"Poison," Kumakichi says, his voice matching Jared's for shaking fury.

Those dark eyes look away, and Jensen can only try to keep standing, and listen to Jared talk. "We'll find them. We'll find this fucker, we'll tear Kyoto apart, I don't fucking care -"

A voice as sharp and cold as winter rain slices through his tirade. "We will do no such thing." Kanrei Kikuchi looks at him, and she does not waver even a moment. "We will track this person like we would any criminal, and they will be punished according to the law. There will be no samurai blood feuds started in this shogunate, certainly not now."

Jensen can feel Jared start to react, but Kuma's heavy hand falls on his arm, and he restrains himself. Jensen can feel the tension skating along his muscles, holding himself back.

"Secretary Abe will assist me," Rinko continues, icy calm. "We will put together a team to investigate. Abe-san, come with me."

The secretary hurries to follow her, and Jensen listens to their footsteps fade.

"Everything feels hollow," he says softly, putting a hand to his stomach. "I can't... think."

Jared guides Jensen to a seat, even as he seethes. "That fucking bitch."

Kuma's right behind him. "I'll call everyone. We'll have an investigation, a real one. This murderer -"

That word, murderer, it echoes through Jensen's head like a thunderclap. He's in the middle of sitting down when he hears it, and it sings along his spine and up into his brain where it rattles and rages and screams. Jensen strikes out, a vase shatters and Jared's voice comes, trying to soothe. "Easy, Jensen, easy. They won't get away, we're gonna get 'em. Easy."

Jensen can't hear. He knows he's talking, but what he's saying, there's no telling. He feels nauseous. "I can't do this."

And then his back is slamming against the wall, and Neko's pert, determined little face resolves in front of his eyes. Her fists are curled in his jacket, and she shakes him. "Colonel," she barks. "Get hold of yourself. You are a samurai."

Jensen blinks at her.

A moment, then the rushing in his ears fades away and he can see. He puts his hands on her shoulders and sets her back from him, gently. "Thank you, major." She lets him go and nods. Kuma and Jared are looking at him, but Neko just pats him once on the chest and then slides back, a respectful distance. He takes a deep breath, and then meets Kuma's eyes. "With the general gone, we will need someone to lead. The Kanrei will likely not appoint a successor, so we must find someone the dojo will form up under."

Kuma nods, serious. "Indeed," he says, in his deep bass rumble.

Jensen straightens his jacket. "We will finish the funeral, and then call the samurai home to the dojo. There is much to discuss." There are nods all around, and the samurai form up and re-enter the temple.

~

Later, they sit around the table in the dojo and drink tea together. They want clear heads, and a solid plan before they get hammered. Jared sits beside Jensen and brushes his hand sometimes, under the table, where nobody can see.

"Are you okay?" Jensen asks him, because this isn't easy for anybody.

Jared just smiles. "Do I look okay? Don't worry. We'll just. You know."

"Get through it," Jensen nods, and brushes their hands together again, just to remind himself that Jared is real, solid, alive.

Jared grunts a little, and brushes back, sipping at his tea. "Okay, Kuma-san," he says. "We're all here. What's the game plan?"

On the other side of the table, Kuma knits his brows. "Well. First we identify the murderer. But whoever it is has a boss. This wasn't just a random hit. It was an assassination."

Jared growls. "But why? What'd the general ever do to anybody that he never did before? Why now?"

"That's easy," Jensen says darkly. "Somebody's after your throne."

Kuma nods, his eyes equally upset. "Exactly my guess."

"What do you mean?" Jared asks. "The general wasn't in line for the shogunate."

"No," Jensen says. "But you are. And the general would have backed you. Now..."

Kumakichi leans back in his chair. "Now, your support base is weakened. There are samurai who will support you, but not all, and as for the buke, well. Nobody's good enough for them."

There is a glum silence, and then the doors to the room open to admit Neko and another samurai, tall and heavy. Years ago, on a diplomatic mission to the long-disputed islands of Hawaii, Jensen was acting as the Watanabe ambassador's bodyguard. The two of them were getting off the boat to Oahu when a group of insurgents opened fire political unrest in the region runs deep, rebelling against the shogunates that would claim them. Jensen flung himself over the ambassador, but they were in a bad location. Jensen surely would have taken a bullet if it hadn't been for the man that bellowed at them to cease fire, bug out, the target's more trouble than it's worth.

The deep, serious voice belonged to this man, Jason Momoa. He is is a ronin, a samurai who refuses to follow a shogun, the only man that holds any prayer of uniting those islands, and he saved Jensen's life. The presence of the ronin in the Kyoto Dojo would ordinarily be a matter to cause some distress, as those who refuse to serve a shogun are generally considered untrustworthy. But as it is a time of mourning, those who come to pay respects are granted a little more leave.

Jason and Neko sit down at the table. "Came as soon as I heard," Jason says gruffly to the room at large. "I'm sorry."

Nobody acknowledges it in particular, but they all nod, and tea is poured for the new arrivals.

Kuma clears his throat. "The real question," he says, picking up the conversation, "is who the assassin came from. Is it someone from inside the shogunate who wants to claim the throne for himself, or is it someone from outside, wanting to weaken Watanabe shogunate's position in general? The buke will take the second position, they're born paranoid."

Jason grunts. "Official word from the Gosho is that it was a psycho. Maybe one of mine."

Kuma's lip curls. "They love to blame ronin when they don't have an explanation."

"That will certainly make Jeikun's position less stable," Neko says. Jared looks at her, startled - she's never called him that before. She just shrugs.

Jensen, meanwhile, is nodding as the scowl on his face deepens. "It's true. Those sons of bitches, they're trying to hamstring us before we even get started."

Jared's fist slams down on the table, and everybody jumps, and looks at him.

He is still.

"Are we saying," he asks, slow and careful, "that it's possible that the person who murdered my master's master is Rinko Kikuchi? And that she did it so I wouldn't be shogun?"

There is a long moment. Nobody speaks.

"That," Jared continues, "is the most retarded thing I have ever heard. I haven't even decided if I'm going to take the fucking shogun's seat!"

Jensen watches his temper come to a boil, watches his eyes flash with it, his teeth biting off the words. He thinks, I should stop him. I should calm this down. But Jared's fury is only echoing the red rage in Jensen's own belly. He's only saying things Jensen wants to say. And for whatever reason, Jensen can't bring himself to object.

"Jeikun," Kuma says gently. "Calm yourself."

Jared thumps the table again, raw fury in the sharp jerk of his muscle. "Fucking bitch," he mutters, staring blindly at the table.

Jensen curls his fist under the table, hard against his thigh. "Kuma, it's not like he's wrong. We should be pissed."

Across the table, Kuma shakes his head. "No, Jenkun. Good decisions are not made by anger. It is a fine tool in battle, but not in war." His voice is strong and firm; he lays a hand down flat on the table and Jensen can practically feel the fortitude flowing from him. Kuma always was better at keeping a level head, and Jensen looks now into his dark eyes, his strong face, and feels calmer. Kumakichi's reputation as one of the best strategists in Japan is not undeserved, and this must be why - even in the direst circumstances, he looks out at his brothers and acts with intelligence.

It clicks together in Jensen's head like somebody striking a bell.

"Kumakichi-san," he says formally. "You must lead the school in the general's place."

Kuma blinks. "I am no master," he says, putting his hand up.

It's Neko who begins to nod, a considering look on her face. "I believe I agree. Perhaps you would not be suitable as a general, but as the leader of the dojo, you would do an excellent job. And it would give us some measure of authority. The Kyoto Dojo students are the shogun's army."

Jason, his arms crossed over his chest, shrugs his broad shoulders. "Wouldn't give us everything we need, but it'd be a start."

At that, Jensen can't help but look over at him and smile. "We? When did this become we, ronin?"

The table looks at him too, subtly. Jason's expression doesn't change - completely calm, and ready for anything. He tilts his chin at Jared. "When he decided to be shogun."

Everyone looks at Jared. Jared looks down, but his jaw is set. Jensen recognizes this look, mutinous and determined, dead serious. "Jeikun?" he asks, shocked.

But Jared doesn't twitch. "It's my decision. Isn't it?"

Kuma nods, cautiously, watching Jared close. "It is."

"Okay. Then that's the way it's gonna be."

This could go so badly. Jensen worries his bottom lip and absently grips the hilt of his wakizashi. Jared's life would be in danger all the time, he would be subject to hate mail and public opinion and constant scrutiny. There would be things he'd have to learn, and most importantly...

Most importantly, he couldn't be a samurai.

All shogun are prohibited from holding military rank. It's a check and balance against someone becoming power-mad, trying to take too much. All six of Japan's shoguns hold each other to a private agreement - one steps out of line, the others retaliate, and this is one of their prime rules. No exceptions.

"Are you sure, Jeikun?" Jensen presses. "It will not be easy."

"I know," Jared says softly. "But I have no choice."

Jensen watches him, like pages flipping on a storybook. Everything is fitting into a new place now, decisions are being made that cannot be unmade.

Kumakichi puts a heavy hand on the table. "Kyoto Dojo will support you," Kuma pledges. "This will not be easy, but you will have us."

Neko nods firmly, laying her hand down also. "I will see what I can do to rouse the women's houses. They too know what it is to struggle against unfair odds."

Jason puts his machete on the table with a ring of steel. "You pull this off," he says, his voice rumbling deep, "and I'll pledge to your house." Jensen raises an eyebrow at him, but Jason only shrugs. "Hawaii always should have been Watanabe territory. Suzuki can suck it up."

All eyes turn to Jensen.

Jared's face is turned down, almost shy. "Senseidono. I need you."

With a shake of his head, Jensen hesitates. "You won't be able to go outside without a bodyguard."

"I'll have one."

"You'll need to make alliances, your first year you'll barely get to sleep, let alone eat."

"I can do it."

"Your family, your time, your body, mind and soul won't be your own. Everything is sacrificed to the state, Jeichan, and I can't support this if you don't want that. If it's just revenge, then no, don't. This is your life." Jensen is serious, vehement - he grabs Jared's shoulder to make him understand. "You have to understand."

Jared's strong, wide hand grips Jensen's thigh under the table. His eyes are solemn. "I know all that. But somebody has to do this. I'm needed here." Jared pauses, and when he speaks again, his voice is quieter. He looks Jensen right in the eyes and squeezes his hand. "I never been needed anywhere before, don't you understand? It was always me and mom, lookin' for a place we wouldn't get noticed, maybe be useful enough not to get tossed out. I have to do this. And I need you with me, or I won't make it, Jen, please."

Jensen's talking before he even gets the last word out. "Of course, Jeichan, of course. I am yours until death."

Kumakichi turns his face, just a little, toward the doorway.

"Well, all right then," Jared says firmly, looking at the others. "We're gonna do this, we're gonna have to do it right, right? So let's get planning."

They order up the sake - it's certainly time now - and draw up lists of buke that could be swayed, samurai that could be trouble, difficulties they'll need to watch for. They make new rules for Jared about where he can go, who he can talk to and who he absolutely cannot. Jensen announces that he will be apart from Jared approximately never until such time as the coronation, and possibly not even after that.

Kumakichi suggests that they keep Jared's decision to run a secret. He will continue to dress in primarily samurai clothing, and when he is not he will wear his father's colors - acknowledging the relationship, but obscuring his intent. Neko makes it absolutely clear that Jared will have to attend certain events, and he will have to learn to dance, or he is in a great deal of trouble.

For his part, Jason explains that he will be helping, but it's best if Jared doesn't know how until after the coronation. Privately, he tells Jensen that he'll be speaking to some of the moneyed underground. Many buke houses are heavily in debt, and quiet pressures might be applied should the situation become too stressful - a last resort. Jensen doesn't like it, but he believes in covering his bases, and when he remembers that the stakes in this game are life and death, he's forced to agree.

It is a very long night.

~

Jared and Jensen stay in Kyoto long enough to attend Toshiro's funeral. It's a less formal affair, but also more somber - the shogun's funeral was attended mostly by politicians, and Toshiro's is mostly friends. When they finally return to Takai, they sleep away most of a day.

At some time when the sun is up, Masi brings eggs and toast. At some time when it is not, he brings some chicken and bao. "You must eat," he frets. They assure him they are all right, and close the door again. For now, it is enough for them both to just be close to each other. They don't often touch, and when they do it's simple.

For all that, they sleep in Jensen's bed together.

It is enough to just wake up and find the face they need to see - maybe touch the curve of a shoulder. Then, and only then, is it safe to sleep again.

As it happened, when the astrologers and professionals are consulted, it seems that the ideal days for the funerals of both the shogun and the general are only days apart. (Someone deep in their sake cups at the dojo had joked, in black humor, that it must have been a good week to die.) In accordance with tradition, services are held one week after Watanabe's funeral day to make offerings. The whole shogunate takes part, as far away as Dallas. At Takai, Jensen and Jared disappear into the hills, and on the site of his death, they dot the field with incense and build a stone monument as it smolders. A friend of Watanabe's, a sculptor, had gifted Jared with a carved hunk of jade at the reading of the will; this they place at the center of the cairn, along with a stone from the Gosho's gardens, and one couriered in from Jared's mother in San Antonio.

That too is a long day.

Toshiro's turn comes five days after, and in that time the kasho eaves get new coats of paint and some reshingling, because the two grieving samurai need something to do with their hands or they'll go crazy. The household is at the mercy of Kaori, who curses out half the staff for not being solicitous enough, the house not being clean enough, the dono waiting too long for his tea, and Takashi finally hollers back at her that water will not boil any faster just because she wants it to. She winds up crying in his arms in the kitchen, confessing tearfully to the entire assembled household that she had once been in love with General Mifune.

When she was young, her father sold her to a house that sent out girls as housekeepers. Kaori was sent to the Mifune household and fell in love with the young master. He would have married her, Kaori tells them (seated now around the kitchen table with cups of hot tea) but his father found out about them, and demanded she be sent away. But Toshiro couldn't bear to put her in the street, so he pulled in all the favors he had and got her appointed as Takai's caretaker. While there, she had fallen in love with Takashi's father, and lived a happy life.

Jensen nods along, and tells them about when he was sent there, and how Toshiro asked him to keep Kaori on as a favor. He regales the group with tales of the old general from when he was training, and Jared pitches in with some of his own. By the end of the evening everyone's laughed a little bit, and sleep comes a little easier.

His mourning day comes and goes, and as the sun sets on that day, Jensen feels a weight lift from the pit of his stomach. He rolls over in bed and reaches down into the sheets, presses his hand to Jared's belly and lower. When Jared groans and pushes back against him, the weight is lighter still.

After, sweaty and sticking together, Jared lies on his back with Jensen flopped face-first across his arm and chest, panting against his shoulder. "I needed that," says Jensen, his voice rough.

"Me too."

They kiss, tired but happy, and are silent together for a while. Jensen is almost asleep when Jared's voice stirs him back to the waking world. "Senseidono?"

"Mm?"

"What do you figure happens? I mean. After this."

It doesn't take his vague hand wave for Jensen to realize what he's talking about. "I think," he says carefully, "that if people die with honor, they go to Heaven. And they watch over us from there."

"Like the ancestors?"

"Like the ancestors."

Jared makes a non-committal noise, but he settles. Jensen listens to his heart rate slow, until finally he's breathing deep and heavy. He shifts off so he won't cut off blood to Jared's arm, and lets sleep take him.

They will go back to the Gosho in the morning.

~

"We'll have the support of the Miroku clan," Jared muses, a palm cupped under his food. "They'll oppose Kikuchi to the death."

Jensen pokes idly at his tempura. He doesn't feel much like eating - every corner seems to hide another group of nobles that hush as soon as he or Jared enters, and it's been murdering his appetite. "You think? A Kikuchi or a gaijin. Tougher choice than you might think."

Jared looks at him and sighs. "Really? Dammit, I really wanted to be sure of them." His shoulders slump just a little, and Jensen reaches out to lay a careful hand on one.

Halfway across the gap, Jensen's gut instinct tells him to stop. He does, and in the following moments between breaths, he sees a flash of red. Then someone is there, snatching the red flash out of the air - Jensen looks up and sees a set of very familiar eyes above a black mask, simple servant's clothes. In his hand, the man holds a dart from a blowgun, stopped only an inch in front of Jensen's face. His eyes meet Jensen's for just a flash, a moment, but in that moment, Jensen understands that this man just saved his life.

He drops the dart and races from the room.

Jensen tackles Jared to the floor, covering as much of that body with his own that he can. He hollers for the guards, putting his hands over Jared's neck and head, feeling Jared fold up as small as possible underneath him so the enemy doesn't have a target.

There is some scuffling, and Jensen looks up just as a second man comes racing into the room, with gleaming dagger held high. His face is uncovered, his clothes are a generic servant's garb, and he flies straight at Jensen, his target clear. Jensen's eyes widen, his mind racing, who would send an assassin after him and not Jared? But there is no time to think; Jensen braces himself to roll and take the wound in the shoulder. He will not allow Jared to be harmed.

But the blow doesn't come. Jensen looks up.

Jensen's erstwhile saviour is struggling with the assassin. Both men are small and lithe, and Jensen's practiced eye can see that both men are using ninjutsu - the art of the ninja. Shrouded always in secrecy, the shogun's private assassins and spies - there weren't supposed to be any of them left.

They strain against each other, the two ninja locked in deadly combat. Their hands flick together and apart, a dozen blows blocked or dodged in the space of a second. They're light, testing; plain hands, and feet braced apart and eyes locked together. Their hair flies away from their braids, how fast they move, and Jensen can see the blow gun swinging from the enemy ninja's belt, watches him use it as a weapon, even though he can barely track it with his eyes. And then, in a flurry of blows, the enemy ninja slices his dagger at the face of the man in black, and severs the cords of his mask.

Jensen watches the black cloth flutter to the ground, and feels Jared go slack and stare, just as Jensen himself is staring.

Their very own Masi - smiling, deferential Masi - strikes point by point in perfect rhythm. He scores hit after hit on the enemy ninja, as does his opponent score in return, and Jensen watches the bruises blossom. Their hands flicker almost too fast to see.

Then, from a short distance, comes the thunder of the guards storming through the halls, shouting alarm. The ninja fight on, harder, stronger their concentration does not waver even a moment.

Only then does Jensen realize that the fight is taking place in almost total silence. There is no power word that breaks the air, no open-handed slap of skin to skin, and only the lightest of footsteps. If their breath can be said to have a sound, it is the sound of smoke rising into the air.

The enemy ninja is growing red and blotched with bruises, and Masi looks impatient, even a little afraid as the guards draw nearer. In a final, vicious series of blows, he strikes the chest, the ribs and the stomach, and then digs his finger into a nerve on his rival's thigh. The lines of pain carve deep into the enemy's face, and Masi grabs his head and twists it efficiently to the side. A muffled but sickening pop is the only sound, and before the ninja hits the ground, Masi is stepping back and crouching down to cower in the corner, stripping his jacket off and clutching it against his chest. He wears a servant's shirt, just like any other Jensen's ever seen him wear.

The guards enter and take in the scene - Jensen protecting Jared, a fallen killer with a knife in his hand, and a terrified servant clutching his master's coat. "Where is the assassin, Nihonjiro-sama?" one of them demands.

Masi is already babbling and pointing with a trembling finger. "He fled, toward the courtyard, oh great God, oh God, please catch him, oh God."

Two guards rush off as their leader hovers. "Are you all right, masters?"

Jensen sits up, blinking, and notes the rank insignia hanging from the guardsman's obi. "Yes. I believe we're safe, corporal, thank you."

The man bows sharply, respectfully, and then stands. "We'll catch him, sir," he says, and strides from the room with confidence.

As his footsteps fade, Masi composes himself, and bows his head.

Jensen sits up and away from Jared, and feels Jared doing the same. "What," Jensen says, starting a question but unsure how to finish it. He gropes for words and finally gives up, shrugging a little.

Masi drops the coat and straightens his shirt. "My apologies, Ackles-sama. He should never have gotten that close to you. I wish I could have left him alive to be questioned, but with the guard coming, I had no choice. Your closest defenses must never be known by your enemies."

Jared is the first to recover the ability to speak. "Masi... how long have you been protecting me?"

Masi bows his head respectfully. "My apologies, Jared-san, but it is not you that I guard."

Jensen blinks, shocked to the core. "Me?"

"You," Masi affirms. "Watanabe-sama felt that your progression through the ranks of the samurai would be offensive enough to some of the buke that they might take matters into their own hands, and he was right. To date, I have killed or detained seventeen assassins - though I admit, it has been some time since anyone has tried."

"Seventeen?!" It's like Masi is speaking Urdu, for all Jensen understands him.

"From eight different houses," Masi confirms, a hint of a smile peeking through.

Jensen sits back against the table, stunned, and it's Jared who finally asks a question, just inside the humming edges of Jensen's hearing. "Who employs you?" Jared asks.

Masi smiles. "Well. Technically, Jared-san, I work for you."

Everything he says hits Jensen right between the eyes, but apparently Jared's still rattled. "You said it was my father who hired you?" he asks.

"Correct. I assumed you would want me to continue the job I had been assigned, if you knew."

Jared nods. "Absolutely. But why didn't you tell me? Or Jensen?"

Masi's head bows a little, so he can look away. "Respectfully, Jared-san, I was afraid that if I told Ackles-sama, he would want me to stop."

Jared laughs just as Jensen scowls. "A fair precaution," Jared says, and Jensen punches him in the shoulder.

Masi's face is all business. "I will continue to protect Ackles-sama until such time as you are confirmed as shogun," he tells Jared. "After that, if you wish me to stop, I will do so."

"Don't I get a say in this?" Jensen demands. "I don't need a babysitter. You just said it's been a long time since anybody'd tried to -"

Jared cuts him off. "A long time in this case is about ten minutes, senseidono. No, somebody's gotta watch your back while you're watchin mine."

Jensen looks at him, squinting his eyes a little. "Are you overruling me, Jeikun?"

"If you're gonna be stubborn about it, then yeah." Jared grins at him, blithe and undauntable.

Jensen throws up his hands and stands up, just as the guards come back in to announce, with sorrow, that they were unable to apprehend the intruder. Jensen shakes his head and absolves them of responsibility, then tells them to double the guard in the Gosho. "It will have to be enough," he says, and they bow as Masi and Jared help each other up off the floor.

~

A day or two later, Jensen finds himself knocking at Kumakichi's door. It is answered by Kuma's majordomo, a stern and silent man who bears no resemblance whatsoever to Jensen's own brash Takashi. He takes Jensen's boots and bows without a word, only his simple extended hand to indicate the direction Kuma might be in. Kuma's staff have instructions to allow Jensen the run of the house, so he only bows in return, and walks into the hall.

Tanimoto House in Kyoto is huge. The walls rise for three stories on either side of Jensen's head, the vast staircase spiraling gracefully up the inside of the pagoda. As Jensen takes a moment to appreciate the beauty of it, his eye is caught by a slight movement on the second floor. In a moment, a woman appears - the lady of the house, Kuma's wife, Sayomi. Her black hair is perfectly styled, her face made up lightly, but traditionally. Her kimono is in subdued tones, as befits a married woman of her station, but the threads are richly, deeply colored. She seems to shimmer in the air, a little taller than most, like the blue blood she is. Jensen has always imagined that, one day, he would marry a woman like her.

She spies him about halfway down the stairs, and her eyes lower to her feet even as she smiles. She moves smoothly down the rest of the staircase and makes a perfect bow - not too long, not too deep - before gliding up to him and taking his hands, her eyes bright. "Ackles-dono," she says, smiling. "It is such a pleasure to see you again."

He bows over her hands and smiles in return. "Arigato, Tanimoto-dono. Thank you for having me."

"I assume you come to see Kuma?" she asks.

Buke society manners are very subtle - Sayomi will never address him informally, but instead shows her favor for him by applying the familiarity to her husband, and letting it carry over. Jensen only nods politely, accepting her familiarity with grace.

"He is puttering with his books," she says fondly. "I tell him over and over that they are meant to be read, not preserved like museum pieces, but he does not listen."

Jensen laughs a little. "May I go distract him, dono?"

"You may," she says magnanimously, and bows to him again with a warm smile. "If he needs me, I will be in my study."

"Hai," Jensen says, returning her bow, and then they part ways. He listens for her little shuffling step as long as he can - indeed, it's part of why he's here.

When he arrives at the library, he finds Kuma doing just as Sayomi said: puttering. At least a dozen antique books are spread out in front of him on the desk, and he is carefully wiping at the spine of one with a cotton swab. The air smells of chemicals and, underneath that, dust. Around him, bookshelves hold hundreds more volumes on every topic - mostly the art of war, tactics, strategy and international diplomacy. There are rare books here worth thousands of dollars, and still more, Jensen knows, that are technically illegal.

"Kumakun," Jensen smiles.

Kuma looks up sharply, and then relaxes. "Ah, Jenkun. Come in, come in. Look at this. I just found it the other day."

He holds out the book he's working on, a soft cloth shielding it from the oils on Kuma's hands. Jensen takes it carefully; the spine, newly glittering with gold leaf, reads "Histoire de l'Academie Royale des Sciences." Jensen knits his eyebrows - another one of debatable legality. "This is French," he says, and what he means is, "the Caribbean Republic would happily kill you to get this."

Kuma beams. "Hai, my latest. There are only a few more I still want, and then the France section is complete."

"Very nice," Jensen approves, handing it back. "I hope you're full up on ammunition."

The deep, rolling laugh that comes is reminiscent of a bear, deep in the forest, king among the creatures there. "I certainly hope they try. One must keep in practice somehow." The two men share a moment's amusement at that, and then Kuma puts his book to the side and gestures to the chair. "Sit, sit. What brings you by?"

Jensen slides into the chair and leans back, his hands on his belly, and makes a face. "Things are very difficult now, and I find it's difficult to see the whole picture. I thought a talk might help, if you have time."

"Of course," Kuma says. "Let's go have some sake and smoke. Everything's clearer then."

"Yes to the smoke, no to the sake," Jensen compromises, standing as his host does. "I said clearer thoughts, Kumakun, not fuzzier."

They wander out and up the stairs. There is a terrace on the third level, and when they reach it Kuma extends his silver cigarette case to Jensen. Jensen politely takes one, and they find chairs and kick back to look out over Kyoto. "So," Kuma rumbles.

"So," Jensen agrees. "They couldn't wait even a week."

"I heard you had a playmate show up. At the Gosho?"

"Yes."

Kuma whistles low. "Cheeky."

"We need some stability, Kumakun. We have six more weeks until the mourning period is over and a new shogun is announced - if Jared is to have any prayer of taking the seat, we must show the buke that we are serious people."

There is a moment's silence, and then Kuma speaks, his voice like the voice of the mountain. "So he's convinced, then. We all seemed to decide together, but I wasn't sure..."

Jensen bows his head. "He is serious, yes. I might wish it otherwise, for his safety... but he has made up his mind."

"Well! All right!" Kuma says, after a moment. "Then we must make our aid swift and sure."

Jensen looks at him soberly. "Domo arigato, my friend."

Kuma looks at him briefly, and then claps him on the shoulder. He holds for a moment, and then drops, and clears his throat. "Listen, Jenkun. There is nothing more stabilizing than marriage."

"I know," Jensen says, dragging thoughtful and serious on his cigarette.

"It will make news in buke circles, even the engagement," Kuma continues. "It's something, you know? It's a commitment, and acceptance."

Jensen nods, and allows the thoughts to swim in his mind, to find their places. After a short time, he sighs. "I will need someone to speak for me," he says. "Before I would have asked the General, but..."

Kuma nods. "But. Things have changed."

They bow their heads and give a moment's thought to their fallen friend. When Jensen lifts his eyes again, Kuma's great hand comes down on his shoulder again. "I will do it," he says, meeting Jensen's eyes with his own.

Jensen blinks at him. Kuma's job description would indeed carry a lot of weight with the buke. "You would do this for me?" he asks, feeling stupid and grateful.

"Of course," Kuma grins, baring his teeth. "My gaijin brother deserves no less."

Jensen reacts from old habit, socking Kuma on the shoulder, but still he shakes his head in surprise and happiness. "Fat man."

"Paleface." They trade childhood insults, and Kuma's face is shining. "You will love being married, Jenkun. It is the best thing I have ever done."

Jensen smiles at him, sly. "We can't all marry the perfect woman, Kuma."

"Get your own!" Kuma jokes. The Tanimotos' marriage is a quiet point of pride in the shogunate; it started an arranged match like any other, his family name and her money. But Kuma and Sayomi fell in love fast and hard, like a fairy tale, and now they are ever-so-slightly inappropriate with each other in public.

Jensen settles back in his chair and drags again, quiet.

Kuma allows that to slide for about two minutes before his deep voice interrupts Jensen's thoughts. "What is it? I know there is something."

"What do you mean?" Jensen asks.

Kuma snorts, low in his throat. "You did not come here to ask me questions you already knew the answers to, brother."

"...well. Fine." Jensen lowers down in his chair, hands on the wooden arms.

Years of meditation have taught Kuma patience. He smokes and waits.

Jensen searches for the words. It's not easy to make an admission like the one he's about to - he hasn't said it out loud, even to himself. He turns the phrase around in his mind, trying to find a way to say it that isn't quite so damning.

"I can smell the wood smoke," Kuma sings.

Jensen draws up one eyebrow. "Shut up."

"Spit it out," Kuma coaxes, crossing his long legs in front of him. "No point in splitting hairs, hm?"

Not looking at him, Jensen growls. "It's hard to say."

"Should I start you out?" Kuma asks gently. Jensen whips his head around, startled, but Kuma's sharp gaze is diffused out into the blue sky and the blue smoke. He picks a bit of tobacco leaf off his lip, and flicks it away, so calm. "It's to do with your student, I think. Yes?"

Jensen feels his whole face flush, red and shamed. "Am I obvious?" he asks, with not a little dread. "I am. We are. I've finished him before he even starts."

Kuma makes small soothing sounds. "I know you, Jenkun. I can see your heart. You allow few others in, so don't worry too much. You are not obvious to anybody but me."

Jensen stands up, restless, and paces to the balcony. He leans on the rail, and watches ash float away on the breeze. "Kumakun, what do I do?"

After a moment, Kuma joins him by the rail. His strong face is calm when Jensen looks, no hint of judgment. The red pagoda buttress behind him, and the mountains beyond - he is everything Jensen loves about Japan, in this moment. "Jen," he says. "You should get married. What you feel is infatuation, nothing more. When you are married, everything will fall into place. Your student will assume his birthright, and the friendship between you will settle into what it is, strong as steel. When your house is in order, your heart will follow. You will see."

Jensen hesitates, looking out across Kyoto's rooftops. "Are you sure, brother?"

"Of course," he says with a firm smile. "I would not steer you wrong. I will find you a good wife. In fact, I have someone already in mind."

"All right," Jensen says, raising his hands. "All right! I place my fate in your hands."

"But they're hairy," Kuma says, wrinkling his nose and waving a hand toward Jensen's feet. "And they stink. Ugh."

Jensen punches him in the shoulder, Kuma punches back, and they take a second to put the cigarettes down before tussling across Kuma's terrace, only stopping when they finally knock over a planter and smash the pot on the ground.

~

A month passes.

When a family mourns, services are held once seven days after the funeral, and again after seven weeks. Two weeks remain, and weddings only take place after the mourning period is done, so when Kuma's note arrives at Takai, Jensen only feels a little nervous.

They've been fighting off assassins in the intervening weeks; Masi has had his work cut out for him. One got so far as Jensen's bedroom, startling him and Jared out of a sound sleep, before Masi appeared and cut the assassin down. They always commit suicide if they're caught, some way or other, so there's been no questioning to speak of. Nobody comes to collect the bodies, so Takai's cemetery has been expanding. Kaori insists after all, it wouldn't do to have their restless spirits wandering the grounds.

They're never sure if the assassins are sent for Jared or Jensen so far, it seems about equal.

They spend time at the Gosho as well; they have to. Strategy takes time, and the phone lines aren't always trustworthy. They settle into Jensen's rooms there, and if anyone ever notices that Jared's bed is rarely slept in, nothing is said.

True to form, the buke cut them dead at every opportunity. There are some few who allow them to talk, to convince them, but even they say it's dangerous to go so strongly against tradition. They will support the true heir, they say, but not publicly. Not until the time is right. It's not much to count on, but it's not nothing, so they make do.

Consolidating the dojo is difficult Raidon, in the time they have left him alone, has conjured himself up a not-insignificant number of followers who must be convinced that Kumakichi is a good successor to Toshiro. Neko takes the women and Kuma takes the men, and the argument that winds up having the most success is that without a leader, the buke will have their run of Kyoto, and the samurai will have no say. Reluctantly, the children agree that Raidon is too young, and only four or five including Raidon himself leave the dojo in a huff for their parents' houses.

A note from Kuma, sealed with an unusually ornate wax stamp, arrives at Takai by courier one morning at breakfast. Jensen breaks open the seal and is surprised as hell to learn that he's almost engaged contract's negotiated, it's a good deal, all that remains is the signing at the end of the engagement dinner. Jensen has some excellent prospects to recommend him. It was thought that, if he played his cards right, he could be right hand to a shogun, and now it seems he surely will be. So Kuma's job wasn't that hard.

The girl is a buke of a marriageable age, which in this day and age is twenty-one and not a day earlier. (It was the women's houses who came up with that rule. It's enough time to train a woman to think for herself, and to learn how to think for her husband, too.)

Shinju Nakama is twenty-three the same age as Jared and has never been outside her town. Her father is Prefect Nakama, of the terribly wealthy Shiga prefecture in the Watanabe shogunate. Her dowry is impressive, and includes some of the lands surrounding Takai.

Best, Kuma's note continues, is that an alliance with the Shiga prefect virtually guarantees alliance with half of the surrounding prefectures, and solid connections to Tokyo. Biwa Lake, which is the largest freshwater lake in Japan, draws endless tourists, some of which were hiking up into Jensen's beloved mountains anyway. The revenue is monumental, and any influence over that house brings with it influence over anybody who draws secondary and tertiary revenue off of it. And that's half the damn Empire, if Jensen works the connection properly.

It all strikes Jensen as a little mercenary, but that's what weddings are for.

Kuma included a picture of the young lady she is, of course, stunningly beautiful.

The next step is the engagement dinner. Ostensibly, the purpose of it is to allow the potential newlyweds time to meet and greet, to see if they'll be compatible. In actuality, that choice is already made for both of them, but the custom persists because it's a good way to get both parties in the same place to sign the contract, and that way only one official witness must be present to notarize it.

Kuma helps him prepare, and provides his alibi. Jensen still can't help but think of it that way.

He just can't bring himself to tell Jared yet. Everything's so up in the air, the mourning period isn't over yet, assassins are all over the damn place, and just when the time seems right, suddenly it's time to talk strategy.

It's easier this way, Jensen tells himself, brushing lint off the shoulders of his formal uniform as he stands in front of Kuma's mirror. Jared knows that marriage is in the cards, he knows this is just a formality. He knows how Jensen feels about him. And more than that, Jared is a samurai. He respects duty. This, getting married, this is just another duty that Jensen has to perform. Jared would understand.

Jensen will tell him. Just... when it's the right time. When it won't cause any trouble. When he can explain it properly. That's all.

Kuma talks the young lady up as Jensen checks his obi, and Jensen lets him.

~

It's a beautiful restaurant, one of the most expensive in Kyoto. They take his boots at the door and provide him with a soft-soled replacement in butter-soft black calfskin, kept on hand especially for samurai. They know just who he is and just where he's going, and when the little perfect doll of a hostess stops and gestures gracefully at one of the sliding doors, Jensen bows to her and steps carefully through. The stiff joints in his dress uniform chafe and pull at him, and he carefully avoids tugging at them as he turns to face the woman by the table.

She is already bowing low, the gold beads in her hair jingling just a little. "Nihonjiro-san," she greets him, and her voice is cherry petals on the wind, soft and barely there for a moment before fading and blowing away.

Another woman bows beside her - her chaperone, surely. Jensen bows low to them both. "Nakama-san."

She holds the bow until he straightens, and then lifts just enough to shuffle around the table in tiny steps.

She offers him a place at her table, and when he kneels down, she does the same and pours him a cup of tea. With both hands, she offers it to him, and when he takes it and drinks, she folds her hands in her lap and bows her head.

It's traditional, and almost silent. Her companion, a young Chinese woman, is sitting in the same way, with her head turned away - her mistress's shadow. Both women are made up just so, extravagant jewelry and perfectly pressed kimonos that only serve to accent their natural beauty.

Jensen puts his cup down on the saucer, empty. "Arigato, my wife-to-be," he says, a traditional gesture of acceptance.

She bows again, and Jensen notices that she doesn't smile. Her cheeks are pale under the blusher, and her almond eyes stay downcast - she seems almost afraid.

This is exactly what Jensen didn't want, but he sees no other option, and so holds back his sigh. "Does my intended have siblings?" he asks instead, some prescribed small talk.

"I regret to say I do not, Nihonjiro-san." She blushes a little, reddening under her powder. "O, forgive me, please, I did not mean to offend - husband-to-be, of course, you are most kind to ask after my family."

Jensen waves a little. "Please, think nothing of it. We are both... new."

She bows further, more.

Jensen sighs again. The two hours pass in uncomfortable small talk and blessed, mouth-occupying food, and then comes the knock on the door to tell them the papers are ready. Jensen offers his arm to the tiny woman with distinct relief - the sooner they get this over with, the sooner he can breathe again.

~

When he finally gets back to the Gosho, his mood is black as the night sky. Jared persuades him to come out somewhere, go to a tea house - he's tired of living with a hermit, he says, it's been too long since he's been out in the city.

Jared decides on a place, high class, and Jensen argues a bit - some glossy room full of buke is the last place he wants to be right now - but he can't say why he doesn't want to go. They tussle over it, back and forth, sniping at each other until Jensen finally just lets Jared win to shut him up. None of this is how it should be, and Jensen hates it.

In the tea house they get into it again. Jared asks what kind of tea Jensen wants and Jensen says it doesn't matter, so Jared snaps the menu shut. "If you don't want to be here, you shouldn't have come."

"Well, you didn't give me a lot of choice," Jensen fires back, heated.

Jared glowers at him. "I was just trying to get you out of your head for ten seconds. All you can do lately is brood at the wall."

"I'm trying to do the right thing, here," Jensen grits back. "You could help, if you wanted, but no. You've got to get on my ass about it because I'm not chipper enough for you."

"That's not what I meant," Jared says, rolling his eyes, and they bicker like that for another few minutes until a couple passes by their table.

Two buke, a pair of women. One is more matronly and one is younger, and the younger leans over to her aunt or mother or whatever and says, loud enough to be heard, "I hear it's quite common in America to scream in public."

"Indeed," the elder woman replies haughtily. "Such unfortunate customs. I suppose that explains the smell, as well."

The younger woman giggles and they depart, but not before complaining stridently to the manager about the unfortunate odor in the teahouse, and he really ought not to allow rats - or possibly pigs - inside if he hopes to be frequented by quality people.

They finish their tea and return to the Gosho, and while they don't actually barricade themselves inside, they don't speak much. Jared decides to bathe, and Jensen stays in the room while he's gone, practicing some easy, simple katas. Going to the dojo would mean seeing people that shouldn't be seen right now - he'd bite off Kuma's head, and there'd be a fight. Tempers are too high.

When Jared comes back, there's a minimum of words. The two go to bed, and only when the lights are out do they whisper to each other. "It's been a long time since I didn't feel safe in the Gosho," Jared says, and the words are swallowed up by the shadows on the walls.

"I know what you mean," says Jensen. Under the covers, he takes Jared's hand.

They fall asleep, just like that.

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