Yuuki: Courage

In the morning Jensen wakes up early, unusually so. Jared's already up, packing. "Rise and shine," he smiles, and Jensen smiles right back at him even though it's morning and there is no coffee in evidence.

It's time to go home.

They fill their bags and toss quips back and forth, lighthearted like they haven't been in a while. Jared grins about Jensen being an old man who just wants to play Go all day, and Jensen coolly informs him that just because Jared's not quick enough to pick up the game is no reason to be disrespectful to his betters. Jared laughs, and Jensen smiles.

With duffels and satchels slung over their shoulders, weapons holstered and strapped in, they head for the gate. Their route takes them past an unexpected beehive of activity - the movers have come to remove the late shogun's belongings. It's appropriately solemn, procedurally, but people are moving quickly and efficiently. Jensen tilts his head toward Jared, disapproving. "Don't you think that's a little brusque?"

Jared shakes his head. "No, it's okay, his wife was already here. She took care of everything with sentimental value."

"Ah," Jensen nods. Then he lifts an eyebrow. "How did you know that?"

Jared looks at him, his voice still subdued and respectful. "She asked me to come see her, after the funeral. We talked a little. She's nice."

Jensen is taken utterly aback. He stares at Jared, grasping for words that won't come.

Jared isn't really listening. Instead, he looks into the room, his face becoming irate. Before Jensen can stop him, he stalks into the room, brushing the movers aside. "What are you doing here?" he demands, and Jensen hurries after him.

He's just in time to see the tape measure snap shut in Kanrei Kikuchi's hand. Her face is cold as Mount Fuji's summit, her eyes pure ice. "I am deciding which of my things I will keep, and which I will get rid of when I move into these rooms."

Jared laughs, a wholly different laugh than the one he gave in their rooms. It makes the pit of Jensen's stomach sink. "You're not moving in here," Jared tells her, low and sharp.

The Kanrei doesn't so much as flinch. "You may be acknowledged now, but that does not mean you have any authority over these rooms. Or this Gosho, or this shogunate."

Jared is about to step forward. Jensen can feel it in his own muscles. So he steps himself, forward and ahead of Jared, taking point, looking the Kanrei right in the eye. "The line of succession is clear," he says. "Should Jared wish authority, he has only to claim it."

"He will not," she says, just as crisp and clear as Jensen. He can see lines of stress around her eyes, her mouth, and he wants very badly to take a step back so he's not being overtly challenging, but if he did, Jared would stand still, which would mean a fight. So he stays exactly where he is, and watches her not back down.

Jensen clenches his jaw. Stubborn idiots. "Nihon no Ichiro made a sacrifice that cleansed Jared's name. You have no cause -"

"I know exactly what the shogun did," Rinko fires back, and for a brief moment that cold demeanor melts completely. Jensen can see the fire there, the insulted honor, the pride. "I have wished a dozen times that his spirit had more to watch over than what he left behind."

Jared crosses his arms over his chest. Jensen knows it's so he won't go for his guns, and feels the urge to copy the motion. Fixing the Kanrei with his eyes, he lowers his voice - he will not shout in the shogun's rooms. "You are way out of line, Kikuchi-san."

"No, Ackles-san. With all due respect, the one who is out of line here is you. You bring this fight here, while the smell of funeral incense still lingers in the rafters? You challenge my honor with your little boyfriend lurking behind your back? "

The world goes still. "Repeat that," Jensen says. It's not a request.

But the Kanrei hisses in low tones through her teeth, her composure shaken. "You heard me. You think nobody knows about you? You're wrong. Shudo is an ancient tradition, thousands of years of sacred history, and you and this ill-born have perverted it. You should take your half-blood bitch and go back where you came from, gaijin. Japan doesn't want you."

"Fuck you." Jared's normal speaking voice is loud and booming in the stillness.

Jensen looks at him. "Don't."

Jared ignores him, speaking right to the Kanrei. "Get out. Right now."

"Or what?" She snarls, forgetting to be quiet.

"Or I'll put you out," Jared tells her, curling his fists against his arms.

Rinko sneers. "You don't have the balls, bleach boy."

The sound of Jared's fist connecting with her face is twice as loud as it should be. She's spun by it, and comes up with blood on her lip and glittering eyes. She smiles, just for a second, before she swings back like lightning, and connects.

They fight for full seconds before Jensen can get over the shock, and when he finally does, he jumps between them, puts his back to Jared and shoves in both directions, with both hands. "Stop it," he orders, the same voice he uses to bark commands to the kids at the dojo. "Stop it right this instant! What the hell is wrong with you?" He looks from one to the other, can't decide who to blame first.

The whites of Jared's eyes are showing, he's in no condition to be reasoned with. Jensen keeps a firm arm braced against his chest and prays he's forgetting about the guns.

Rinko is the one who wipes a shaky hand over her mouth and steps back. "You're right," she says. "This is not the time or the place for this. But I'll tell you what is: the arena, tomorrow. I challenge you, Padalecki, for your claim to the throne. You or your champion will face me, and if I beat you, I will be shogun." She points a slender finger at him, her face twisting with rage. "And you, you stinking, knuckle-dragging baijo filth, will be on a plane the next morning with my fist marks all over your face."

Jensen pushes back, against Jared, holding him in place. "Your terms are acceptable," he whispers, trying so hard to stay where he is, to leave this fight alone. "Now. Get out."

The Kanrei spins on her heel and stalks from the room. As her footsteps are swallowed into the silence, no sound comes to replace it. It seems as though the world holds its breath.

And then, without warning, Jared steps back, spins around and shouts, like the shouts heard at the dojo every day. There echoes the deep, unpleasant crack of old wood cracking, splitting. And then another shout, another sick crunch, and another, and another.

Jensen steps forward, away from it, and waits for Jared to finish.

~

Later, Jensen takes Jared to a first aid room and picks splinters out of his knuckles. They don't speak. The dresser is ruined, but it wasn't that old.

A hesitant knock comes, on the frame of the door. They ignore it. When it comes again, Jensen doesn't even bother to lift his voice. "What is it?"

The door slides open slow and cautious, and the servant framed in it is already bowing. "Apologies, Nihonjiro-san, but I was sent with a summons."

"Tell whoever it is that we're not interested," Jared says, and there is rage, trauma, pain in his voice. Jensen wants, for one insane second, to do exactly what the Kanrei said - just get on a plane, him and Jared, straight back to Texas. Run and run until all that was left around them was the wide open sky and the flats and the grass, just the bright sun and the warm wind. Where nobody watched them all the time, where they could just go out somewhere and not be stared at. No work but what puts sweat on your back, no politics, no heavy responsibility, just... just good company.

The servant bows lower. "Please, forgive me, but the dowager regent made it clear that I should be certain to tell you it was her that requested you join her."

That's a surprise. Jared looks at Jensen, startled, and Jensen looks at him right back. "I want to see her," Jared says.

Nodding, Jensen bites at his lip. "We should," he agrees, and then smoothes his thumb over the tape and gauze. "You okay?"

"I'll live," Jared smiles, flexing his fist. "Come on."

At her apartments, the servant enters first and announces them in a calm, quiet voice. "As you requested, Watanabe-sama, Colonel Nihonjiro and... his student."

"Thank you," comes the soft, focused voice, strong as silk rope. "Please show them in."

The two men enter on careful feet and bow deeply, as befitting a woman of her status. "Watanabe-san," they say together. Jensen clears his throat and then adds, "We are honored."

"Thank you for coming," she says, also bowing. "Please, come. Be seated."

They do as she says, coming over to a little table that has been prepared with tea and sitting down across from Miyuki. Jensen looks at her - really looks at her - for the first time since the shogun was alive. Her white kimono is simple, even plain, but she wears it perfectly. Her face is drawn, of course, but still beautiful. Her eyes, though, they're what catch Jensen's attention; there is steel in those eyes. The wife of a shogun is a powerful woman, and until now Jensen had forgotten what that meant. The women's houses, founded by the geisha all those years ago, prepare a woman for exactly this life.

As if reading his mind, she nods to him. "I heard what happened with Kanrei Kikuchi. I'm sorry it's come to this."

Jared bares his teeth a little. "She's not gonna have that pretty title for long," he growls.

The lady bows her head. "No. I would imagine she will not."

With a shake of his head, Jensen sighs. "Not like she was wrong, though."

"What?" Jared's voice is a little shrill. "What are you talking about? Of course she's wrong."

"No, she isn't," Jensen insists. "You and I aren't exactly the poster children for tradition, Jared."

Jared's mouth curves into a sneer. "Stupid traditions should be ignored," he huffs. "There are ones that matter and ones that don't."

"You can't just pick and choose!"

"I can if I want!"

They're yelling at each other like kids, the tensions of the day bubbling up in their chests, and so it is that her soft sigh cuts across them both. Jared stops talking; Jensen feels his heart hurt. They bow their heads, ashamed. "We are sorry, Watanabe-san," says Jared, and Jensen bows lower. His chest hurts, for about twenty different reasons. He's tired of thinking.

She allows a moment to pass before lifting her hands, and gently pouring tea for her guests. Her movements are graceful, measured, like katas. A little tension drains out of the room as she performs the familiar ritual, every movement perfectly balanced.

Jensen takes his teacup and sips, a proper guest.

When they all have some tea in them, Miyuki speaks. "You were his favorites," she says, over her cup. "The pair of you."

They bow their heads, out of respect.

"What she said to you," Miyuki continues. "She spoke of your relationship, did she not? What you are to each other."

It hardly even seems like a question. Jensen nods. He has never been more ashamed of his lack of self-control, of his failure as a teacher, than he is right now. "I will take whatever punishment is fitting," Jensen says. "Padalecki-san suffers from my failure, he deserves no blame -"

Her hand raises to cut him off, and Jensen is instantly silent, biting back his words. Miyuki's own voice has not changed; it still is gentle, and firm. "Do not call him that," she says.

They look up at her, and blink.

"His name is Watanabe," she tells Jensen, looking him straight in the eyes.

Jensen blinks at her again, and then turns his eyes to Jared's.

Jared's head is bowed, his hands in his lap. "Miyuki-san, I. I still don't know. If I will."

She looks straight at him, her deep brown eyes fathomless. "If you are at all like your father, you will do what is right. All that remains to you is to uncover what that is."

"I know," he tells her. "I'm trying."

Jensen is at a loss. "When were you gonna tell me?" He asks.

"Don't know," Jared says, looking up at him and shrugging his shoulders. "Comes with the territory, though. I take the shogunate, I take the name."

"Well... you're gonna take the shogunate. Right? I mean, that's the plan."

Jared is about to answer, but Miyuki uses some subtle motion or shift in the air to create a pause in the conversation, so she can put in a comment with grace. "Jared-san will decide what is right," she says, with that same slow, silken finality. "Until he does, Jensen-san, all we can do is support him."

She refills their teacups, to give them time to think. They both sip, thoughtful.

"What you are now to each other, it cannot be undone," she continues. "You are bound together, you care for one another. And you must not dishonor that."

Jensen lifts his head, lost. "But... but the very act of it is dishonor," he says, his voice breaking. "I must marry, and so must he. How can we..."

"You must find a way to have both," she says softly. "For if you cannot, you have only one option."

Samurai on the mountainside. The images flash through Jensen's head, like a terrible dream. Red blood on green grass, and only pain left behind.

He feels Jared's eyes on him, and meets them. His thoughts are echoed there, in shadow and lines. Jensen has to look away, it's too much to feel in front of the shogun's wife. "I will," he says softly, his head bowed. "I will find a way."

Jared's voice follows his immediately. "We will," he pledges.

"Very good," she says, gracefully inclining her head with a little smile. "What time, tomorrow?"

"Dawn," Jensen says. "It's customary."

She nods. "I will not be there. But I will hear of the outcome, no matter what it is. Do not underestimate the Kanrei, but conduct yourself with honor, and she will do you the same courtesy. Rinko Kikuchi may be many things, but I have never known her to be anything but respectful when it comes to tradition."

They both bow. "Arigato, Miyuki-san," Jared says.

She bows to them in return, and then they stand. A dismissal, no matter how gently given, is still a dismissal. They are almost to the door when her voice catches them back. "Gentlemen."

They turn.

"This night that is in front of you. Spend it well."

Jensen blinks again, and then bows deeply. "It is an honor to know you, Watanabe-sama," he says formally.

She smiles at him, and he feels it like a blessing.

~

In their rooms, Jensen lets himself fall into an armchair. Jared flops on the bed, sprawling back with his arms wide. Their sighs match perfectly.

"Do you even believe that shit?" Jared asks, his English pointed and sharp. "I haven't had a day like this since my buddy Jackie Howell climbed up on the mission roof at the Alamo and started screamin he was Davey Crockett."

Jensen laughs, tired.

"I'm serious," Jared smiles. "Mama had to come get him down, you shoulda seen. She was the teacher, y'know."

Jensen feels his smile soften a little, and thinks of his own mom, back home. "You talk to her lately?" He asks Jared.

"About this? No. " Jared shakes his head. "She'd just worry."

The mood goes from light to bone-deep in the space of a moment. Jensen stands up, comes over to the bed and sits down at Jared's side, letting their thighs brush together. He puts one hand on the broad expanse of his lover's chest and feels the heart beat there, thick and heavy.

Jared watches him, sober and serious.

"This isn't your fight," Jensen murmurs. The things he says are almost drowned out by the things he doesn't.

"How do you figure?" Jared asks, looking up at him with pain in his eyes. "I'm the one got challenged. I'm not just giving in."

Jensen shakes his head. "No. Course not. But I'll tell you what you will do."

"What's that?" Jared smiles, small and wry.

Jensen leans down, puts his mouth to Jared's ear, and tells him.

When he sits up, Jared's eyes are wide. "No way," he says, insistent. "No fucking way. It's too dangerous."

"It's our only shot," Jensen tells him, serious. "And it'll work. It's the last thing she'll expect."

"That's because it's insane!" Jared bursts out, sitting up and pushing Jensen up too. "You can't expect me to do that. I won't, not after everything. Fucking forget it, Jensen, I'm gonna fight her."

Jensen grabs Jared's shirt, making a fist and shaking him. "Listen!" He growls. "It's the only way. You're gonna do what I tell you. I'm the teacher, you're the student, and that's the way it's gonna be. It's smart, it'll work, so shut up and kiss me, because we don't have a lot of chances left."

Jared grabs Jensen's shirt right back, shoves him back onto the bed and seals their mouths together. It's a battle, Jared swinging his leg over Jensen's thighs and holding him down. Jensen's instantly hard, pushing his hips up and grabbing at the broad shoulders above him. More, he thinks. More, now, while I still can.

Jared tastes like green tea and mint. The sun slides off him in waves and Jensen jerks at his clothes, pushing and yanking until he finds some skin, Jared's back. It's so warm under his hands, and Jensen groans into Jared's mouth, wanting more, wanting it all right this second. Jared pushes one hand into Jensen's hair, under the braid, and grips hard.

They break like that, panting. "We should tell Kuma," Jared rumbles.

"Fuck Kuma," snarls Jensen, teeth bared to the air.

Jared pushes his hips down, presses them together, and Jensen can only gasp and scratch at him, put finger bruises in his skin and shove back. Jared's breathing hard, cutting the air with his breath. "Maybe... maybe it can wait..."

"You're goddamn right it can wait," Jensen tells him, and shoves a hand into the back of Jared's pants, grabs his ass and hauls him closer.

They bite and shove and grab at each other. Clothes are ripped off, tossed aside. Jared's teeth leave marks on Jensen's neck and shoulder, and then the curve of his chest. "Jeichan," sighs Jensen, holding his head.

"Shut up, Daijen," he breathes, sliding down to press his teeth to Jensen's ribs.

Jensen digs his fingers into the rough curls and does not push down. He sighs and snarls, curling his fists, and when Jared tugs his pants open and kisses the curve of his hip, traces a scar with his tongue, Jensen can't help shoving up against that mouth. "Do it," he demands. "Come on."

Without even a second's hesitation, Jared opens over him, and the heat and wet of that mouth on him is rapture. Jensen bucks up, feels the slick slide as he bumps against the back of Jared's throat, and Jared scratches stinging marks into his hip as he pulls off, coughing. "Stay still or I'll fuck you blind," he rasps.

Jensen grins. "That's not convincing," he says, and then slams his eyes shut and his mouth open as Jared takes him back inside. "Ahhh, Jared, Jared, fuck..."

The heel of Jared's hand presses down on his hipbone, the sharp teeth skim his cock and spit trickles down - as blowjobs go, this one's inexpert - but who fucking cares, Jensen thinks, because this is Jared, his lover, his own, his home, and he bucks his hips again. Jared rides it this time, letting him in a little before pulling back, and Jensen hears his own voice loud in the room.

Jared pulls off, at that, leans over and wraps one huge hand around Jensen, jerking slow and tight. "Like that, don't you?"

"Hell yes," Jensen replies, instinctive, blind.

"Good," growls Jared, low and harsh. "You remember it."

And he lowers his head again, slides his tongue around the head of Jensen's dick to flick and tease, and Jensen can't take it, he can't. It's all been too much in a day, too much in a fucking year, and so he gives in. He grips and he thrusts and he shuts his eyes tight, he pants and he gives himself over. "Jeichan," he rasps, and then he can't talk anymore.

The power of speech returns when Jared's pressed warm against his side. "C'mere," Jensen gulps, breathless.

Jared shoves close and leans in, which Jensen takes as open invitation to tuck his tongue behind Jared's teeth. They kiss like that, open and heavy and wet, and Jensen pushes his hand down and wraps it around Jared's cock.

"Aww, yeah," he groans, right against Jensen's lips, and Jensen kisses him harder.

They push against each other, thick and desperate. Jensen bites that wide bottom lip, feels the scrape of stubble against his chin and shivers. "Give me what I want, Jeichan. Come like this, right in my hand."

Jared shudders, and presses his hips up his breath hitching. "Daijen," he breathes. "Please."

Jensen just tightens his fist, rubs his thumb hard over the hot ridge there, and kisses him again.

When Jared spills hot over his fingers, shivering, Jensen eases his grip and shushes him, kisses him, praises him. "Hottest damn thing I ever saw," he whispers, and Jared twitches again in his hand.

Jared pants, mouth to mouth, kissing when he remembers. He's a mess, and he feels so fucking good. Jensen kisses him slow and lazy, licking the pleasure from his lips.

Finally, Jared is able to put a shaky palm against Jensen's stomach. "Do you wanna..."

"No," Jensen says, reluctantly. "We probably ought to go see Kuma."

"Fuck Kuma," Jared mumbles, grinning and pushing closer.

Jensen laughs. "Nah. He's my best friend, it'd just be weird." Jared punches him weakly, and Jensen grabs his wrist. "Come on. Let's go to the dojo. There's lots of people that need to talk to us before tomorrow."

Jared sighs. "Just a minute more," he says softly, curling against Jensen's side. "Let's just stay for... a minute."

There is no possible way to say no to that, and so Jensen pulls him close and sighs along with him. "Okay. We should be all right for a minute."

The late morning brings bustle in the hallways of the Gosho, but inside this room, the samurai do not hear.

~

The next morning dawns bright and clear.

Through the square near the dojo, two little boys race to the training house's big double doors. One of them pulls a door open for his friend, and they execute formal little bows and then run inside.

They are not late yet, but close.

When they arrive, they push through past the hips of the crowd blurting childish apologies, gomennasai, gomennasai. They don't care to be on their very best behavior. They want a good seat.

Finally, they arrive at the edge of the dojo courtyard. People are ringing the wide wooden porches, tall ones in back and women in front. Some people are watching the small group of people in the courtyard - there is a woman, with the bearing of a warrior and eyes like ice. With her is a young samurai with a forbidding face who does not wear the marks of his rank; he is checking that the straps on the woman's sword are just tight enough.

"Tatsuya," whispers the taller of the two boys, excitedly. "Is that Nihonjiro?"

"No," his companion answers, hushed. His hands clutching the rails as he peers between them. "She must be the Kanrei."

"How do you know?" the first boy asks.

Tatsuya lifts his chin, proud. "Because I saw Nihonjiro once."

"You did not!"

"I did too! He was on the same plane as me and my mother. Do you dare to malign my honor!"

"No," his friend says, bowing his head. "Of course not. So how do you know who she is?"

"I was sneaking downstairs and I heard the daimyo talking about it," he whispers. "With his friend who came to our house. Nobody is supposed to know about this but buke and samurai."

"Ah!" His friend says. "Very clever of you!"

Tatsuya nods. "When I grow up, I'm going to be a ninja."

"Cool."

Just then, a great gong sounds. The whole courtyard seems to draw in a breath, and all eyes turn to the steps that lead inside.

Two samurai come out and take positions by the door, and then there comes a samurai of staggering size, both tall and broad. He has a dark beard and serious eyes, and he wears formal armor. "Ladies and gentlemen," he says, with a voice like distant thunder. "For those of you who may not know me, I am Colonel Kumakichi Tanimoto. In the wake of the general's death, I am in charge of this dojo, and all that occurs in its walls. Hear me well."

The two boys trade fast glances. This formidable man was unexpected - an extra treat. They look back, eagerly.

"I know many of you have come to see this battle. Some have traveled far. But a formal challenge is not to be taken lightly. There are rules, and they must be followed strictly. Therefore, I will ask you all to turn whatever weapons you may be carrying over to the samurai that are circulating through the arena. You will receive your weapons back at the end of the match."

An angry mutter races through the crowd, and there are outraged protests from some. Samurai stream out from every exit and entrance, it seems, increasing the number of the crowd by half again.

The great man standing at the steps lifts his voice, instantly being heard over everyone else. "Anyone who does not wish to turn in their weapons is free to leave."

There is a general exodus. The boys see scuffles in some places, samurai manhandling furious buke to the doors. Many stay, handing their swords and pistols to the samurai that come with bags and tags, zip-stripping everything together in shining plastic and handing out little white cards with numbers. In the square, the Kanrei and her companion whisper to each other. The man is angry, waving his arms, but the Kanrei is firm and clear. "No," they hear her say, and then nothing.

The boys hunker by their post, unwilling to look away, in case they miss anything. That is, until Tatsuya feels a heavy tap on his shoulder. The two spin around and look up into the face of a giant.

He towers over them, and crosses his arms over his chest. They stare at his dark skin, his strange features, his hair so thick that it is like snakes falling around his face. He is bristling with weapons, his armor is strange and piecemeal and he shows no mark of rank, either, but he is obviously a samurai. He raises one eyebrow, as though to ask what they are doing here.

He is absolutely terrifying.

But no man who calls himself a man would shrink from adversity. Tatsuya remembers those words, his father's, and stands up straight. He faces this giant, this mountain of a man, and though he can hardly breathe, he draws his dagger from behind his back. (No warrior goes unarmed.) With only a very slight tremble, he holds up his dagger for the samurai to take away.

The eyebrow goes down, and the corner of the man's mouth tilts up. He takes Tatsuya's dagger, zips it, and then hands him a little ticket with the number 86 on it.

And then he leaves.

Tatsuya crumples to the ground, breathing hard. He feels dizzy.

"I cannot believe you did that!" comes his friend's voice, high and excited. "That was amazing!"

Tatsuya breathes deeply, until the dizziness goes away. "It was nothing," he says heavily.

When everything has settled again, the remaining crowd is maybe a quarter of what it was. The big man in the courtyard clears his throat, and everyone is quiet. "Thank you," he says. "Your cooperation is appreciated. Now, it is time for the two warriors to give their addresses, if they wish. Kikuchi-san, do you wish to address the crowd?"

She steps forward and bows. "Yes, Tanimoto-san. Arigato." She faces the crowd, then, and lifts her voice. "I am Rinko Kikuchi, Kanrei of the Watanabe shogunate. I have made this challenge because I serve Japan. My honored opponent serves a different master. I do not malign his honor - one's origins are important, and one must honor them. But his origins are not ours. The Watanabe shogunate deserves someone who will respect its traditions, who counts it as master. That someone is me."

She bows, and there is strong applause, even some shouts of encouragement. If she appreciates it, she shows no sign - her face is as still as the arctic night. She steps back to her place, and bows to the great man.

He bows to her in return, formal and proper, and then raises his voice again. "He who has been challenged, step forward."

From out of the dojo, where the great man came, there steps another.

Just as tall, just as broad, the boys exchange quick looks of astonishment. Is everyone in this dojo a giant? Apparently. The man who comes from the dojo is dressed in a simple black suit and a heavy jacket. No armor. His hair is the same color as the snake-man's, but it's just normal hair. This man's skin, however - it is the color of gold under sunlight. His eyes are too round, his nose too pointed. This is a white man.

A group of people emerge behind him, sorting themselves along the railing - they bear boxes, bags and briefcases. The Kanrei and her friend look confused. What on earth is this? The boys wonder.

"Hello," says the new arrival, his voice accented. "I'm sure you all came to see me fight Kanrei Kikuchi. The way she challenged me yesterday, it seemed she didn't leave me any choice. No samurai would ever allow insults like that to go unpunished. And no samurai would let someone else do his fighting for him. He'd be a coward, and he would be forsaking his duty."

In the courtyard, the Kanrei smiles. It's the smile of one who knows she's won.

The new man continues, with a little furrow at his brow. "But then I got to thinking."

The Kanrei's face darkens again.

"What sort of duty do I have here? To protect my own honor, sure, but what's more important than that? Anyone?" There is silence. The boys hold their breath. Up front, the man snaps his fingers and smiles. "Oh, that's right. My father's honor. But, silly, I guess I forgot to introduce myself, so you all don't know who my father is, do you? Let me fix that up: my name is Jared Watanabe."

At that exact moment, Nihonjiro strides out of the building and down the steps. The people bearing boxes hurry after him, and stop where he stops, forty paces from the Kanrei. Nihonjiro doesn't take his eyes off her, his skin glowing in the dawning light.

Every buke in the building gasps. Tatsuya just so happens to be watching Kumakichi, and his face shows no surprise at all.

Tatsuya shoves his friend. "Nihonjiro," he says, pointing, but his friend is already caught up on that, and doesn't even look over. He's busy watching the people with boxes set their burdens down on the sand, open them and pull out weapons and bits of armor, fastening them to Nihonjiro as quick as lightning. A second warrior comes down the steps, a woman, and takes up a flanking position just behind and to the left of Nihonjiro, just like the Kanrei's friend has taken behind her.

"Sorry!" comes Jared's voice again, ringing through the courtyard. All eyes swing back to him, only to find him setting down his overcoat. Shining against his chest is a brilliant red sash that bears the medals and marks of the Watanabe heir. "Didn't mean to startle you," he smiles.

"You have no right to use that name!" bellows one of the viewing buke. "The dishonor may have been purged from you but that doesn't make you acknowledged."

One of the briefcase-bearers steps forward. "Actually," he says, pushing his glasses up his nose. "That's not accurate. I have with me a copy of the late shogun's will which clearly stipulates that his sole heir is an acknowledged member of his family and despite an unusual birth circumstance, he should be given all rights and privileges conferred by that status. Watanabe-san is therefore entitled by binding law to that name, and all attendant benefits. A copy will be made available for public viewing after the battle."

Jared is all business, dark-eyed and serious. "I hope that settles that. Now. I have been challenged for my birthright, and I have accepted. It is no small matter for me to leave the samurai - they are my brothers and sisters and I owe them a great deal - but he who stands as shogun cannot stand as samurai. And so I must leave them behind."

The people surrounding Nihonjiro clear away, except for the samurai woman behind him. In his full armor, with traces of white shot through it, he looks every inch the Emperor's white hound. Indeed, from here, it seems almost possible to see his teeth glint in the sun.

"As you may have guessed," Jared continues, "this is my champion, Daiki Nihonjiro. I have spoken to the Emperor's commission on his behalf, and no matter the outcome of this battle, you may address him as General. If Watanabe shogunate no longer has need of him, he will go to Tokyo and serve under the command of the Emperor personally."

The boys boggle at each other. They were cheering for Nihonjiro before this anyway - but now they have a reason.

"Very good," says Kumakichi. "It seems everything is in order." The buke mutter amongst themselves, nervous whispers, panicked sounds. Kumakichi ignores them. "Do you each have a second to stand for you?"

The Kanrei's friend steps forward, his face serious and grim. Kumakichi bows. "Satoko-san," he says. Nihonjiro's companion steps forward as well, and Kumakichi does the same thing. "Hariki-san. Very well. Your job is to witness this battle and ensure that it is both honorable and fair. Do you understand? "

They both nod, and then turn and retreat to separate sides of the field.

Nihonjiro and the Kanrei face each other, Kumakichi between them. He addresses them now, as well as the crowd. "There is a medic on hand, to attempt to heal you after the battle is complete. It is to the yield, whatever form that may take. If you are unconscious or dead, you are assumed to yield. Should either of you injure someone who is not your opponent, the offender will forfeit the battle. When the battle is complete, the defeated party will relinquish all rights to rulership over the Watanabe shogunate. Is that clear?"

They both speak. "Hai."

"Do you agree?"

"Hai."

"Very well. You are so sworn in front of these witnesses." Kumakichi steps back, the little ritual completed. "I wish you luck," he adds, and then retreats to the balcony.

The area is clear, but for the two that now face each other over the dusty sand. Everyone is silent.

From the balcony, Kumakichi's voice booms. "You may begin."

Both warrior's hands flash instantly to their weapons. Katana and wakizashi come out of their sheaths on a single perfect note - overture. Two poses are struck, from two different schools of kendo.

Tatsuya grips the rails in sweaty palms, his heart pounding.

And then, with no sound, the two begin to move. Dust rises at their heels, they seem to fly across the courtyard, and then their swords clash, singing beautifully. There is a moment of unbearable tension, and then the two warriors glance apart and together again.

They strike and feint, moving like hummingbird's wings, too fast to see. A sword in each hand means twice as many moves - they lock hilts on one side and strike around them, straining, intense. Tatsuya watches as Nihonjiro races past his opponent, sticks his short blade in the sand and delivers a terrible overhand blow. The force leaves the Kanrei's arm shaking, and she dances back and shakes it out as he slides back and removes his wakizashi from the ground.

He comes at her again, fast, focused, and swings both her blades aside with his katana. He comes in with the short blade, low down, and very nearly skewers her right through the side, but she is able to spin just in time. His thrust leaves him ever so slightly overextended, and she opens the outside of one of his arms with the tip of her wakizashi just before they spin apart.

Their eyes meet and they nod at one another, back up a few more paces and catch their breath. Nihonjiro checks his armor - first blood goes to the Kanrei. But apparently it isn't too bad; he stuffs a cloth against it and waves off any further help.

They clash again - Tatsuya thinks he can hear the roar of their voices across the courtyard, even though neither one speaks - and they run at each other.

There's a terrible series of blows, ringing loud and clear in the air. The buke gasp, the boys gasp, only the samurai are quiet. Nihonjiro and the Kanrei strain together, snarling, sweat and a pink flush coming to their cheeks, their foreheads. They both are angry, it's clear even from the rail, and getting angrier with every passing moment.

There is a moment of stillness, their swords locked together, and then the Kanrei gives a fierce shout. There is a blur of movement, her wakizashi goes spinning away, and then Nihonjiro is stumbling backward with his arm over his face. She races at him with her katana, a battle cry loud on her lips, and he only barely parries her, squinting and blinking to clear his vision. He is on defense now, not striking for fear of losing his weapon, and they circle warily on the sand.

She watches him, sharp, for any opening. Finally she takes a chance, striking with her sword, and though it costs her another ringing blow that shakes her arm, she manages to hit him with her fist twice more. Then she strikes with a flattened palm and catches him at the wound she made before. Her hand comes back smeared with blood, and he drops his short sword when his fingers numb from pain. His teeth flash, his face creasing with pain.

She shakes her arm out, clenching her fist over and over, trying to restore it. For another few moments, the swords are silent.

When she comes at him again, he's got his vision back, and if his arm is still hurting, he shows no sign. Their swords clash again, and grate against each other, sparking. She is pushing him, their swords sparking together. Her blade is moving toward his throat, slow, her leverage is better, and she grits out loud enough to be heard, "You know he is not the rightful ruler. Why do you fight me!"

And with a gleam in his eyes, he spits back, "You're a fool." With a summoning of will and a low cry, he shoves her off of him; they stumble for a moment, each, before righting themselves and resuming their stances. Across the tense space, his eyes clash with hers, throwing off sparks of their own in the rising sun.

"I fight you because it is my destiny."

"Your destiny," she sneers, her curved blade glinting. "Gaijin destiny is to raise another gaijin to power. You fool no one!"

They trade blows again. Her movements are fast, practiced, but Nihonjiro watches her sharply. She's holding nothing back, and that is her weakness. He throws her back again with a dozen heavy strikes and she dances back on feet made of air.

They circle.

"My destiny," he says to her, "was foretold by a man far greater than you, or me."

"Who?" she spits back across the sand. "If he is so great, name him, so all will know." Overconfident, thinks Jensen. So sure she knows what she's going to hear.

"The name of my master is Goichi Oda," he says, soft and deadly.

Tatsuya gasps. This is legend in the making, he knows. Later, he will tell this story in the schoolyard, he will reenact it blow for blow. They will tell his tale for years to come.

~

The Kanrei's face drains of color. "You lie," she breathes.

Jensen lunges for her, battering her back with his sword and his body. They dance, flashing light at the crowd, and sure enough she's unsettled. Shaken. Their blades sing loud in the courtyard, and the people surrounding them step back, widening the circle. Her strikes turn desperate, and he breaks through a moment's weakness to feel his blade bite into her shoulder. She gasps, and spins away.

"I do not," he says, holding the sword low.

Her teeth grit and she steels herself. "So," she says, coming into stance again. "Your master is the great Goichi Oda."

"So," agrees Jensen.

"Then," she smiles, her long braid shining like the sweat on her brow. "Surely your destiny is to become a great warrior. A protector of Japan. Not to destroy our traditions for the sake of your lover."

The crowd draws back, shocked, as Jensen grits his teeth. He will not give in to this taunting, but the temptation is strong to cut her, to see her pay for that.

She strikes, pressing her advantage. It's smart. Jensen reluctantly allows that as he catches her sword on his and feels the shiver along his arm, too hurried, not ready. Rinko smiles, there is a whiplash of blows that press him back, and the effort of repelling them is taxing. She makes one brilliant feint, and Jensen feels pain slice along his thigh as she scores a hit. He spins away, heart pounding, and feels the blood begin to trickle down.

Her teeth flash in the sun. "As I said."

Jensen wills the pain away. It is nothing.

He listens to the wind toss the sand, feels it brush along his body. He feels the weight of the sword in his hand, an extension of his arm. Rinko's taunts fade to a mild buzz along the back of his neck, and he can see the brilliant blue of the fly it has become. He can admire his opponent's strategy, and let the sting of her words slide away.

There is no place for anything but respect when taking a life. Soto-san's lessons.

He opens his eyes, and Rinko grips her sword tighter, her smile fading.

"When I was born, Goichi Oda was dying."

She lets loose a cry and comes at him, but he sheds her blows easily. He's centered now, remembering his purpose, and the slip of blood down his leg means nothing. The burn in his arms means nothing.

"He gave the hospital a different name, but one of the nurses knew him anyway. She never said it, but her great respect told Oda-sama everything."

Again, she strikes, and again, he flicks her sword away. The crowd is watching, listening, breathless.

"One night, as he lay silent in the grip of a great pain, that nurse brought to him a bassinet. She said, The newly born bring health and vigor, so let him sleep beside you. Oda-sama looked at the child and felt the hooves of a thousand horses beat through his body."

Rinko is caught in the tale, just like the crowd. The two samurai stand facing each other, and a leaf blows by on the wind. Their swords are crossed over their bodies, ready and waiting.

"He heard a great rattle as the hoof beats shook him, and as he sat up in bed and coughed, he saw a dove at his window, its wings beating against the glass. But he had no time to stare - spasms wracked him, and as he coughed he felt burned from the inside out. A great black gout came up from his lungs, and as he spit it away, everything stopped."

"Oda-sama then heard me cry, and stood up from his bed like a young man. He picked me up in his arms and I quieted, but he knew where to take me. His sickness was gone, and he knew his destiny - and mine."

Jensen looks into Rinko's dismayed eyes and doesn't blink. "This he told me in my twelfth year, on the day of my genpuku."

The crowd begins to murmur, and Rinko tightens her mouth and grips her sword to fight. Jensen can't help but admire her bravery, for he sees the fear in her eyes.

"Don't fight me," he asks her. "You're a great warrior, you've proven it. We can compromise."

Rinko grits her teeth against his words. "I don't care what you say. I know what is right, and you will not sway me into allowing my country to suffer."

Her feet flicker like candle flame as she runs for him, and her cry rings out against the stones of the palace. Her blade sings through the air, and the clash of steel makes their audience gasp.

Sparks fly, lighting the air as they dance - high, low, strike and reverse, their movements are so fast that at times they blur. Jensen breathes deep and measured, his eyes catching every movement. His body moves by instinct, before he thinks, catching blows that should shear him in half, sliding them from his sword like raindrops.

He cuts her again, feeling the point of his sword part the flesh of her belly. It's a shallow cut, not a killing blow by any stretch, but it's closer than before. It's telling. She claps a hand over the wound as she spins away, her eyes a little wild.

"Don't make me do this," he urges. "You're a good woman."

"I will never submit to you!" She fires back, and centers herself.

Jensen sighs, and raises his sword to stand in a straight line in front of him, showing her the flat of the blade. It's a salute. She's earned it.

Hesitantly, she performs the same salute. Her face is shining with sweat, her body shaking just a little. The sand dust is in her hair, on her face and clothing, and Jensen cuts his sword down and away, and moves his body into a fighting stance. She's earned this, too.

The moment his katana strikes hers, he knows this is the final test. This time, there will be no pulling away - one of them will fall.

Their swords slice the air. It is savage, deadly; the slightest misstep will mean the end. Some buke turn away, and Jensen does not see them - only Rinko's feet, her hands, the set of her shoulders. The sun crests the roof of the dojo, but Jensen is guided by the flash of her sword, and the shine in her eyes. Over and over, they come at each other, panting, straining, bleeding, but nothing can shake Jensen. His will is iron.

At last, Rinko makes a mistake. She takes a hard swing that she shouldn't have, too far, too much.

Jared steps forward, just one step, and his breath hitches in his chest.

Jensen looks.

It's just for a flash of an instant, just for a moment, but it's enough, and Rinko slices into his right side. The pain is immediate, sudden, and Jensen knows it's deep - not too deep, but it could be deep enough. His fingers go numb, and he drops his sword.

Impossible victory flares in Rinko's eyes and she lunges, the point of her sword aimed straight at Jensen's chest.

She clearly wasn't expecting him to know how to handle pain. Her second mistake, and this time, it costs. Jensen spins aside, grabs her wrist with his left hand, squeezes hard, and almost yanks her off her feet.

The move works just as it should - she stumbles toward him, dropping her katana as her hand goes numb. She takes the shot at his injured side but he's dragging her too fast and the sting is minimal; she goes sprawling into the dirt face-first, away from the swords. He storms after her, not even pausing as he uses his foot to flip a fallen wakizashi up into his hand, and when he reaches her she's just turned over. He drops instantly, planting a knee in her solar plexus and grinding down even as he puts the short sword to her throat.

He stops.

The dust clears over the blood-spattered sand, and still Jensen waits.

Rinko's eyes are brown. Clear brown, light - almost like Jared's. Jensen never noticed.

She looks at him straight on, doesn't tremble, doesn't spit. She just looks up at him, her round face smudged with dirt and blood, her hair falling across the ground, and she waits. She is beaten, but she is not cowed. "Do it," she whispers, for no ears but Jensen's. "I have lost; do it."

With his blade pressing down, Jensen whispers back. "Swear. Swear on your honor to leave the shogunate and never return, and I'll spare your life."

"Is it because I'm a woman?" she asks, without rancor. "Is that why you won't?"

He meets her gaze and answers her truthfully, as a drop of blood rolls down her neck. "No. It's 'cause I don't want to kill anyone unless I have to."

"Your master teach you that?" she asks softly.

"No," Jensen tells her. "That I learned from Ken Watanabe."

Under his knee, he feels her chest hitch. Her eyes shine a little brighter, and then even as Jensen watches it happen, a tear slips from her eye to slide down her temple and soak into her hair.

It's dead silent in the courtyard, and her chest hitches again. "I must tell you something," she says, softly.

She says it in English.

Jensen blinks. "All right," he agrees, feeling almost protective. "Say what you must."

She swallows, and Jensen eases up on her a little with the sword. She closes her eyes for a moment, and more tears spill. "Thank you. The first thing you must know is the name of your enemy. I cannot prove it, and I doubt he did it with his own hand, but the man who is responsible for the general's death is Secretary Hiroshi Abe."

Jensen's eyes widen, his heart thumps, and he presses the blade to her throat again. "How do you know this? Did you have anything to do with it?"

"No," she chokes, though she does not fight. "I swear it."

Jensen eases up again. "All right. Go on."

Rinko takes a deep, shaking breath. "He would listen to me. When I would talk about you and your... and Padalecki-san."

"Watanabe," Jensen corrects.

Her jaw works a little, but she nods. "Watanabe-san. Once I discussed with him that the general would be a difficulty, as he would be backing the shogun's son. Hiroshi told me I shouldn't worry - that the problem would likely resolve itself. At the time, I thought he meant that the general would come to the right way of thinking... but then..."

Jensen watches her face crumple and blinks. "Did you know the General?"

"I did," she confesses. "He was a friend of my father's."

"I'm sorry," Jensen tells her, soft.

But it seems to be the wrong thing to say - she composes her face, determined. "I investigated his death at length. I searched for anything that could lead to a killer, any proof, but I could find nothing. I would never protect the General's killer, but I did not want to accuse an innocent man."

"I understand," Jensen assures her. "Thank you for telling me."

She meets his eyes, tear-streaked and fierce. "Someone must know before I go, and I know you will demand proof before you harm him."

Jensen nods, a little reluctant. " I swear it," he promises.

"Thank you," she says, with just a little smile. "Now, I am ready."

Jensen thinks about it for only a second. He pulls back a little, which makes pain flare warm up his side. His head is swimming, but he raises his voice to ask in Japanese, "Rinko Kikuchi, do you yield to me?"

She nods. "I do," she responds. "You are an admirable opponent and an honorable man. I am ashamed to have opposed you, and I yield."

He lifts the sword. "I place you under the debt of service. You will serve as I choose, where I choose, in recompense for your actions." Her eyes go confused, and then angry. She opens her mouth to talk, but Jensen cuts her off. "This is non-negotiable, Kikuchi-san. If you serve well and faithfully, if you show honor and honesty, one day I will allow you to perform seppuku and join the ancestors, free of taint."

Rinko settles back to the ground, her anger allayed for now.

Jensen's head swims again, and he falls to one knee at Rinko's side. She scrambles up and takes his shoulders, to help him lie back. "I accept, I accept! Bring the medic!"

~

People pour in from the sides of the courtyard. Jared is the first one there; he rips Rinko away from Jensen's side and throws her away from him, easy as a rag doll. She skids on her side in the sand, raising more dust.

He won't let anybody near Jensen except the medic, and won't back off when he's told. "You can work around me," he growls.

The buke file out to pick up their weapons. Rinko stands, looking for her friend. "Raidon?" She calls. But he's nowhere to be seen.

The boy Tatsuya saw him leave when she fell, the young man's face dark with anger and contempt.

Beside Tatsuya, his friend is clinging to the rails. "You can be a ninja," he breathes, watching the medic soak blood off Nihonjiro's fair skin. "When I grow up, I want to be a samurai."

~

The sun rises and sets over the city of Kyoto. Word of the fight's outcome makes it every corner, every alley and hall - the dojo sees to that. There is some tension around the Gosho for a while, but those with ears inside those walls pick up what's going on.

Nihonjiro is kept at the dojo until sundown, when he walks out under his own power. Apparently the wound was not as serious as it seemed.

Now that night has fallen, Raidon is carrying that information to the one who needs it most.

The townhouse is dark, but he knows it's a ruse. He passes the gates with a security card, and then under a certain stone in the garden, he finds the key to the kitchen door. The front is always rigged to sound alarm, no matter if the man is home or not. The key to the kitchen works, and Raidon slips through and punches a long code into the softly glowing keypad on the wall nearby - it doesn't show any lights or make any sound, and it's on a twenty second delay from the moment the door unlatches.

But Raidon's got the code, entered with both speed and accuracy, so nothing explodes or shrieks. He lets out a soft breath, and closes the door behind him.

A soft click behind him makes him stop, and a familiar voice speaks. "Hands on your head."

Raidon instantly obeys. There's a gun there, and the man with his finger on the trigger is not one to be toyed with. "It's me, Hiroshi-san."

"I know that," says Abe, calm and quiet. Cold steel presses against the back of Raidon's skull, and Abe's slender hands pat down pockets, sides and boots.

"I'm clean," Raidon says. "You think I don't know better than to bring a weapon here?"

Abe doesn't so much as flinch. "Apparently you do." The gun slides away, and there is the sound of Velcro scratching open on a holster. "Very well. What have you learned?"

"It did not go as we would have liked, Hiroshi-san. She lost."

Abe's teeth flash in the light that sneaks in from the street. "Chikushoume! Why won't he die?"

As Abe stalks off into his study, Raidon follows him. "Be at ease, Hiroshi-san," he says, idly examining the shelves he passes. "She tried her best, but she is only a woman. Now that she has proven it, you may accept me as your leader. I will kill Nihonjiro twice before he hits the ground."

"I'm sure," Abe snorts. He arrives at his desk and begins to sort through some papers there.

But Abe's opinion is hardly important. Raidon stops in front of a pair of statues, gold Shinto dogs, and peers at them. They're probably worth a fair amount. Underneath that is a row of tidy little houseplants. The leaves shine in the warm light, and one has on it tiny white flower buds, almost ready to bloom. Raidon reaches out to touch one of the deep green leaves.

Abe's hand is on his wrist in an instant, pulling him away. "Do not touch that."

Raidon jerks his hand away from Abe's, irate. "I will if I like."

But Abe only shrugs. "As they say in America, boy, it will be your funeral." He walks back to his desk and seats himself, touching his computer to make it flare to life.

Raidon scowls and looks at the covers of the books on the shelves. He likes books – computers have always struck him as pathetic crutches, made for the stupid and weak.

After a few moments of clacking keys, Abe curses again and thumps his hand on the desk. "Why is it so hard to find a competent assassin? He is human, he must sleep sometime!"

"Why don't you just poison him?" Raidon asks, with not a little sneer in his voice for the cowardly tactic.

Abe's eyes go flat with contempt, his eyes still on the screen. "Because his chef cannot be bribed, bought or killed, and Nihonjiro takes the little peacock everywhere with him. Not a morsel of food passes Nihonjiro's lips, or the boy's, or anybody else in the damn household's without this brat having practically harvested it from the field himself. He sets dishes as the meal is being served, he hasn't allowed a new piece of clothing into the house since the General's death and the gifts he accepts on Nihonjiro's behalf are locked in a room untouched until they can be tested. It's impossible."

Raidon sniffs. "You should let me run a sword through Nihonjiro, Hiroshi-san. No more playing around. Simple, easy."

"Easy," Abe scoffs. "I'm sure."

"Come now," Raidon tries, sensing a opportunity. "They'd let me into the house. I'm a samurai. They wouldn't take my weapons and he wouldn't be expecting an attack. I could have a bullet in his heart before he could blink."

Abe thinks about it, cautious, and then shakes his head. "No. They'll be on guard right now, Nihonjiro"-

"Don't be an old woman!" Raidon says scornfully.

"Shut your mouth," Abe replies, absent, thinking. "He'll be expecting anything now. He'll expect us to try something rash, so we won't. We'll retreat, wait for him to get complacent, and go from there."

Angry, Raidon turns his back, paces over to the bookshelf. He looks for a moment, blankly, and then turns to face Abe again, the color high in his cheeks. "You can't talk to me like that," he insists. "My father is Hoshu Satoko, show some respect."

Abe looks over at him, slow and disbelieving. The curl of his lip is too lush, his focus narrowing on Raidon. His voice, when it comes, is careful, quiet and precise. "You will lie low. Like a lion in the grass. And when you strike it will be because it is time, not because you are impatient. You will not fuck this up, you idiot child."

Instantly, Raidon's hand moves to his wakizashi. The blade comes whistling out of its sheath and he levels it at Abe's chest, the hilt biting against his palm. "Do not insult me, Abe. You will regret it."

Abe smiles and relaxes in the chair. His face goes calm and placid, his hands lift and face up as if to say, no misunderstanding, no fighting, friend, everything's all right.

Raidon doesn't trust it, of course. But he slowly lowers his blade.

Before it's halfway to the floor, Abe moves like a flash, his hand dipping into his robe and emerging again, lightning fast. The silver shine of his Beretta in the depths of the room is glittering, sharp, and his arm is rock steady. The barrel is pointed right between Raidon's eyes, without so much as a moment's hesitation.

"...I am a samurai," Raidon says, shocked. "You cannot hope to defeat me."

"Would you like to test that?" Abe's voice is smooth as silk, whispering.

Raidon takes one step toward him and Abe's aim corrects by a half centimeter and fires. Raidon feels breeze, warmth, and the splintering of wood behind him; he touches his fingers to his cheek and they come away bloody. The bullet has scraped along his temple, just barely.

"Head wounds bleed like pigs," Abe smiles. "You should tend to that."

He blinks again, and steps back. Stumbling, the sound of the gunshot ringing in his ears, he almost doesn't hear when Abe calls him back, but he turns.

Abe still wears that calm, pleasant smile. "I didn't have to miss, Raidon. When you're properly bandaged, get out, and don't so much as turn your head in Nihonjiro's direction. If you do, I will know, and you will find yourself choking on your own blackened tongue before you can finish your next meal."

Raidon stares at him.

"Have a pleasant evening," Abe murmurs, and turns back to his desk, laying the gun down delicately on the warm wood surface.

Without a word, Raidon heads straight for the patio doors. His wound can be bandaged later.

~

"The Gosho, if you please."

Jensen's driver nods and slowly pulls away from the curb. As the Kyoto streets roll by, Jensen stares out the window with his most formal hakama in a dry cleaning bag across his lap, and watches them pass.

The ring on his finger is heavy and foreign.

The ceremony was long and boring, with dignitaries and politicians everywhere. A dozen people in the room, at least, made the area between Jensen's shoulder blades itch. Kumakichi had looked huge and intimidating at his side. At the back of the church, two more watched over the assembly. By the doors stood Jason Momoa, his giant sword strapped to his back, watching the perimeter for snipers. Up in the balcony, Neko Hariki watched the proceedings with an sharp eye. If so much as one hand in the assembled crowd went inside a jacket, Neko would push a button in her hand to alert Kumakichi and Jason. If she saw a weapon, two pushes would bring security swarming into the room.

But there was no fighting, no attempts and no foolishness. Jensen's friends shook his hand and smiled at him, bowed to his wife, and ribbed him in good nature.

His wife. He must get used to thinking those words, to saying them. Jensen has one more night in the capital and then it's back to Takai to get his new bride settled. She gets the room that adjoins Jensen's, the lady's chambers. Jensen had always imagined that sometime in his life, he would be married, but he never imagined this.

He drags his feet up the palace stairs, tired and wary.

Jared is going to be... displeased.

Sure enough, the minute Jensen gets into their room, the yelling starts.

"Did you think I wouldn't find out?" Jared seethes, sitting on the sofa, television droning in front of him. "Keep me at Takai, hide me in the room while you got fucking married and then take me back home?"

Jensen comes in and sits down beside him, fast. "Jared. Quiet."

He pushes a button on the remote in his hand and the TV flicks to glitzy, glamorous coverage of the surprise marriage of what "might just be" the most eligible bachelor in the world. Jensen watches, nauseated, as they push microphones into the faces of anybody that might have even shook hands with the new Mrs. Nihonjiro.

"I hear Biwa has great vacationing," Jared says, furious and sarcastic. "It'll be fun. Hey, I'll get married too and we can all go together."

"Jared."

"I'll marry some girl from Honolulu and we can summer there."

"Dammit, Jared -"

"One big happy family -"

Jensen grabs his shoulder and shakes him, makes him turn his head and look. Those dark eyes are so hurt, and so angry, that Jensen has to brace himself just to keep talking. "Please. Stop."

Jared just glares at him, his lips pressed white.

"What could I have said?" Jensen asks, shifting closer, his arm on the back of the sofa behind Jared's head. "What could I possibly have told you that would make this all right?"

"Nothing," Jared says, serious and flat.

Jensen nods at him, dropping his eyes. "Right. Nothing. They've been after me to get married for years and now, with Toshiro and the shogun gone, I don't have an excuse anymore. To secure my position, to secure your position, I needed to make an alliance. That's all this is about, Jeichan." He lets his hand come up to rest lightly on Jared's chest, just over his heart. He feels the thick beat there, strong and heavy, and it's reassuring.

Jared still exudes misery and rage, but he allows the touch. He looks away, then, the sadness starting to come through. "What am I supposed to do now?" he asks tightly. "Just go back to the kasho with you and pretend nothing's different? She has to live there, right?"

"I'm afraid so," Jensen says. "But she's on the far end of the hall. You'll hardly ever see her, I'm sure. We can give her the guest room for a study, if she wants."

Jared's jaw clenches. "I don't want her in our house. I don't want her in our lives. Let her stay in Kyoto."

And here's where it gets difficult. Jensen winces a little, rubbing his thumb in soothing circles. "I can't," he says. "Tomorrow night, I'm supposed to. Um."

Wide, horrified eyes meet his. "You have to… what? Jensen?"

"It's a legal necessity," Jensen says, pressing his hand against the jumping pulse.

Jared's so angry that he's almost vibrating with it. "You have to fuck her? In our house?"

"It's expected?" Jensen says helplessly. "It doesn't change anything about us," he insists, stressing it hard. He looks straight into his student's eyes, moving closer. "We're still what we always were to each other."

"And what's that?" Jared demands, his voice rising loud. "You mean you'll still teach me? Or we'll still fuck? What do you want from me, sensei, because I gotta tell you, it ain't real clear at this point!"

"Keep your voice down," Jensen says, reflexively, rubbing his hand in a soothing circle.

Jared grabs his wrist and pulls it aside, holds it away from them and pushes his body close. "You want me to whisper?" he growls, low and thick.

That voice, it thumps through Jensen's body and hits him deep. "Tell me what I can do," he says, soft as he can. "How do I make it up to you? I had to, Jeichan, I h-"

Jared cuts him off with his mouth, kissing him deep and hot. Their breath merges, these movements second nature, so easy to fall into. "Suck. My cock," Jared breathes, hot as the sun and still holding Jensen's wrist aside, still pressing forward. "You wanna prove I'm still important to you, do that, and don't stop until I say."

That, Jensen thinks, will not be a problem. He slides down off the couch and thumps down on his knees, pushing the table aside and crawling between Jared's legs. With eager, firm hands, he opens Jared's clothes and draws the fabric aside until he can bare Jared's flat belly and tug his cock free. He's thickening still, only halfway there, and Jensen leans down and buries his face in the warm, perfect skin. He takes Jared's cock into his mouth, letting it in deep until his lips meet Jared's skin, just for a second. It's a thrill, for that second, and then Jared groans and the head of him pushes firmly against the back of Jensen's throat. He has to pull back then, and coughs a little, his eyes watering. It happens sometimes, Jared being as big as he is.

But this time is different. This time, Jared settles a big hand on the back of Jensen's head, shoves his fingers in the queued hair, and holds him in place. "Hold it," he breathes, his voice rumbling across Jensen's skin. "Right there. Just let me..."

Jared plants his feet on the floor and, with only a little adjustment, starts to press his hips into a soft, slow rhythm.

It's only a moment before he starts making those simple, small sounds that Jensen has learned to love. It's presumptuous as all get out, what he's doing, but Jensen figures he's really earned the right to have one act of rebellion, and their relationship isn't exactly typical anyway. So he braces on his knees, cups Jared's hips in his hands and tries to ride it as best he can.

Jared's thick length is always a challenge and this time is no exception. Jensen's jaw starts to ache after just a minute, but he can still hear those little sounds, that groan and shudder under his hands that makes it worth it. Jared tastes good, he always does, and Jensen tries to shift his tongue, lick it a little.

When he opens his eyes to look, he sees Jared watching as his cock slides between Jensen's lips, and panting heavy. His eyes glitter and he brushes a stray lock of hair from Jensen's forehead. "Just suck it," he whispers, dark and rough. "Don't think."

Jensen feels his brows draw together, his mouth tighten with irritation. Jared leans back, groaning and pressing his cock a little deeper, and Jensen digs nails into his hips, just to teach him a lesson.

"God, sensei, I'd fuck your mouth all goddamn day," Jared says, squirming his hips, and that's just too damn much.

Jensen pulls away, shaking off Jared's hands. "I may be apologizing, but you will show the proper respect," he says, hearing the anger creeping into his voice.

Jared just smiles at him. "I respect you," he says softly. "You're supposed to do this thing tomorrow, right? At the house?"

A surge of guilt swamps Jensen's heart and he bows his head. "Yes. Tomorrow. I'm sorry, Jeichan, but I must."

That dark head bows, and Jared nods. "Okay."

Jared grabs Jensen's shoulders and wrenches him up off the floor, drags him up onto the couch and pushes him down on his back. "Then you're gonna feel me every goddamn second of it," he growls, and slides between Jensen's legs, one hand unknotting the obi. "You're gonna remember me, you're gonna think of me every minute, you got that?"

"Jeikun," Jensen says sternly, pushing at his wrists. "You are being inappropriate."

Jared ignores him, shoving his hands away with a little too much force. "I'll be damned straight to hell if you can say that again in five minutes," he snarls, and the belt comes loose under his rough fingers.

Jensen feels the push of firm, familiar hands against his belly, feels those long fingers curl into his waistband and pull, brush against his cock. This isn't right, he knows, it's all wrong. The too-hard grip should be too hard, the too-fast jerk should be too fast, but it's impossible to be angry when it feels so right, so good. It's his, his own lover with their own problems, it's familiar and normal and right and good, and if Jared just wants to touch him like this, then maybe it can be allowable this one time. Jensen can't stop his hips pushing up, thrusting his cock between Jared's fingers, and it's so tight. He sighs, shivering, and lets his grip on Jared's arm go from punishing to needing. "All right," he whispers into the space between them, perfectly private. "Okay, Jared, come on."

Jared sinks down on him instantly, his mouth rough against Jensen's own, and demanding. They tongue at each other, slick and ready; Jensen feels the soft touch of Jared's cock against his own, and Jared wraps one big, heavy hand around the both of them and jerks them together. It's perfect, thinks Jensen, pushing up against him, it's better than anything else they could give him.

And then, Jared's heavy hand burrows down underneath, gripping his balls for just a second before shoving further into his pants and pressing one thick finger inside. On his cock, Jared's other hand tightens, and Jensen's mouth opens wide. "Oh," he moans, pushing his hips forward, up. "Jeichan, no. You. You can't."

"I can," Jared groans, a bare inch away from Jensen's mouth. He pushes that finger in further, and then lets it slide in and out, opening Jensen up. "I want it. I want you, Jen, please."

Deep inside, Jensen feels the spark and thud of pleasure, the way it courses through his blood and makes him jerk and twitch. His cock spits slick into Jared's palm, and he feels a minute of nauseating vertigo - he's out of control, this isn't how it's supposed to go. "Jared," he mutters, reaching out to close his hands on heavy, steady shoulders.

"Just let me," Jared's saying, his voice rough. "Let me do this. Let me have it."

Jensen hears what he isn't saying as clear as day, and has to focus, make a conscious effort to relax. "You need. The."

"Mmm," Jared groans, kissing collarbone, neck and lips as he slides his hands free. "Come on. Bedroom."

The vertigo stays as Jared hauls him up off the couch and turns him toward the bedroom. Jensen almost trips as they start walking, he can't seem to make everything work together. The room is hazy and unimportant around him, sunlight barely limning the slatted blinds, and when he finally hits the bed, he just closes his eyes and pushes his head into the pillows. Everything that isn't on the bed is uneasy, unstable, and Jensen pushes at his clothes until he's naked, and doesn't look.

Jared's knee makes the bed sink, and Jensen doesn't have to open his eyes to know exactly how that looks. He puts his hand under him to sit up, flip over onto his stomach, but Jared stops him. "No," says that deep voice, heavy with the weight of the unstable outside. Jared's body brushes along his, there's a hand on his calf and then Jared's settling between his legs, running a heavy hand over Jensen's hip. "Like this. I wanna see your face, I wanna watch you come when I'm inside you, senseidono, I wanna make you come."

His voice is like the gods of the earth, and Jensen pushes up against that hand and opens his eyes.

Naked, Jared kneels just where he needs to be. Jensen is just in time to see him dip his fingers into the deep blue jar nestled in the sheets, and then Jared is pushing back in, slick fingers pushing aside resistance and sliding deep.

As Jensen throws his head back and groans, open-mouthed, the image of Jared's face is burning behind his eyes. Suffering, determined, ready, it is the face of a samurai that is not young enough, not inexperienced enough, to be a shudo student.

Jensen knows he should stop this. As Jared's fingers brush against the perfect place inside, he knows he should tell Jared no. He is a married man, and there is no mistaking what this is, no matter what name he gives it. In a moment of perfect clarity, Jensen knows his own weakness completely, and flushes with shame.

But then Jared adds a second finger, stretching Jensen open wider, and wraps a slick hand around Jensen's cock.

It is too much.

"Jeichan," he groans, making tight fists in the sheets just to feel the creak of the delicate fabric. "Do it. God, do it harder."

There is a little pause, just a moment where Jared's fingers still.

Jensen hears the groan, and the heavy thump inside as Jared shoves his fingers in, letting his palm lift Jensen's balls. "Say you want it," Jared rasps, thick and desperate. "I wanna hear you say you want me, Daijen, tell me you want me to fuck you."

"I want you," Jensen groans, instantly. The pleasure sears him, his body burning for it. His cock lies thick against Jared's fingers, his cheeks and chest are hot with shame and need, and all he knows in the rest of him is want, aching need. "I only want you. Don't. Don't stop."

Jared's fingers are shaking roughly as he pulls away, as he takes more of the slick oil and smoothes it over his own cock. "Shh," he says, as he leans down. "I know I said talk but. You don't have to, just." Interrupting himself, he kisses Jensen's mouth and face. The blunt end of his dick rubs over Jensen's entrance, sliding just as it should before fitting just there, just right.

Jensen wraps his arms and legs around Jared's body, trying to pull him closer. The warm weight feels necessary, steadying, the exact antidote to the disaster outside the bed, and Jensen wants that disaster to go away so badly that it overrides anything else. "Do it," he groans, pushing his hips up. He leans up and sinks his teeth against the thick swell of muscle at the base of Jared's neck, making it sting.

Just as he was intended, Jared snarls, and shoves with his hips.

Just like last time, it hurts. It burns. And it's perfect. Jared's thick cock slides past the sweet spot that Jensen knows is there, and it makes him jerk in Jared's arms. "Ohhh, oh, fuck, yes."

The soft hair on his belly brushes light against Jensen's cock, and Jared groans deep. "So good, god, you. You feel so good, Jen, mmm."

He starts to rock gently in and out, little thrusts of his hips, and Jensen pants and gasps for breath. His dick throbs, begging for attention, and Jensen tries futilely to get a hand between them.

"No, don't," Jared rasps, so deep. "I want that." And so he kneels up, kissing Jensen's chest as he goes, and when his slicked hand curls around Jensen's cock, everything sort of goes blank.

Dimly, Jensen is aware that he is thrusting his hips up. Dimly, he can feel the smack of Jared's balls against his ass, the catch of his calluses, and the heat of his thighs. Dimly he can hear his own voice demanding that Jared do it harder, faster, more, but in the end all this is completely hazed out by the torrent of heat crashing through his body, jerking him around like a leaf in a hurricane. Jensen tries to ride it, to keep some kind of sense between the rise and swell of need, but Jared fucks him harder, licks his nipples and jerks his cock, and Jensen has no defense against him anyway.

He comes crying out, digging his nails into Jared's hair and pulsing into his hand. At the last possible second, Jared pulls out of him, wraps his hand around his own dick and fucks it till he comes, dripping hot onto Jensen's belly and filling the air with his groans.

After, they lie together and kiss, holding tight. Jared rubs one heavy hand over Jensen's belly, through his own come, and Jensen knows why, so he doesn't even mind.

~

Times are tense at the Gosho. With the mourning period for the shogun and General over, the time is coming to appoint a new shogun. Jared is expected to hold an audience as the Watanabe heir, and everyone's been run off their feet nailing down friendly buke and samurai, securing attendees that'll solidify Jared's hold. He is expected to announce at the audience what he plans to do about the seat, and if he chooses to take it, nobody can stop him. But until the announcement, everything's still up in the air.

The date is set a week and a half away.

Jensen and Jared return to Takai to wait it out. It's safer, quieter.

Jensen doesn't mention the other reason he needs to be home. Jared's no more comfortable with it now than he was when he first heard. But it'd be a little inappropriate to have his new wife come from Kyoto all the way up to the middle of nowhere and have nobody to greet her.

Besides, there's still one last duty to perform before Shiga prefecture is finally secure. Jensen isn't looking forward to it, exactly, but it must be done and so he will do it. Duty is one of the seven tenets of bushido, the most important rules there are, and Jensen broke two of them in bed back at the Gosho not a week ago.

Jared doesn't see it that way.

They fuck hard, harder. Jared promised Jensen would feel him and he seems determined to make that promise a reality – no matter how they arrange themselves, how they come together, Jared just keeps pushing and pushing. He puts marks on Jensen's shoulders, on his neck; he scratches and bites and even hits. Dojo fights are harder, Jared keeps getting up until his knuckles are bleeding and he wants to keep going.

"Do you think you'll wear me out?" Jensen finally blurts, frustrated. "That I won't be able to if you just fight with me enough, I'll be too tired? What!"

Jared just pushes away from him, angry, and storms off to his own room where he closes the door behind him, just firm enough to make his point. Stay out.

Everybody in the house is upset and shy. Jensen never sees the field hands, Kaori is hardly talking to him and even Takashi can't be heard hollering in the kitchen anymore. Masi is like a ghost in the house, hardly even pretending to be a servant. He comes in to sleep and eat, and the rest of his day is spent out, away, silent as the grave. Sometimes he comes back with a spot of blood on his hands, and sometimes a tear in his clothes. If he's hurt, he never mentions it, and it never shows.

Still, on the day she arrives, everyone turns up in the hall with bright smiles. The field hands are there in their turned-up trousers and wide brimmed hats. They too beam at her car as it appears, and hide their hands behind their backs so the new lady of Takai won't see the dirt under their nails, and in the creases of their palms.

Masi, Kaori and Takashi are in their best pressed uniforms. Even though Jensen now knows that Masi's bright-eyed, moon-faced innocence is an act, he can't help but smile to see it there. He looks like he's having fun, at least.

Jared isn't here. Of course. Jensen isn't sure where he is, but perhaps that's better.

The car is a deep, shining, black cherry red, a custom Rolls Phantom. It rolls up the gravel road slow and careful, so as not to chip the paint. Two intertwined Ns are stenciled on the glowing surface, where the roof slopes down to the trunk, and Jensen's sure that if he checked, they'd be on both sides.

Nakama. Nihonjiro. That's what they're for. A symbol of union and support. Jensen mentally thanks his father-in-law.

Everyone stands up a little straighter as the Rolls and the equally expensive blue Lexus SUV behind it come into the driveway and park beside Jensen's scuffed Rover, the beat-up Toyotas and Nissans of the staff. From behind the wheel, a tiny Chinese woman steps out. Jensen recognizes her from the engagement dinner and the wedding; his wife's chaperone. She is dressed in bright green silks, her hair piled high on her head. Stepping lightly around to the far rear wheel, she leans forward and gently swings the door open.

Shinju is just as beautiful as Jensen remembers. In a black kimono splashed with yellow, red and green, she blinks in the sun and shields her eyes with one delicate hand.

The blue Lexus yields a man in a black suit and sunglasses, obvious security. Both trunks pop open, and Kaori murmurs something that makes a couple of the field hands leap forward, a step or two behind Masi. They jog up to the Lexus and the Rolls and start unloading bags. There are several sets of identical blue luggage, more than a few plain cardboard boxes and one small set of suitcases in a light flower pattern.

Meanwhile, the ladies come up to the steps. The maidservant's eyes are downcast, her head already bowed, but Shinju's back is straight and she faces front. At the top of the steps she bows, graceful as a crane in flight.

Jensen returns the bow and offers her his arm to lead her inside, but she holds up one hand. "Please, Nihonjiro-san," she says, so soft.

He smiles, tries to make it gentle and not intimidate her. "I invite you to call me Jensen, if you like."

"Domo arigato, my husband, but I am afraid I must beg a favor of you," she says, looking right up at his eyes. It's almost a whisper, she's so quiet.

Jensen blinks. "Anything I can give, Nakama-san."

Shinju reaches back and puts her hand on the shoulder of her companion. Jensen looks over and notes that said companion is already blushing, head firmly bowed low. "This," says Shinju, "is Ziyi Zhang. Ziyi-san has been my maidservant and friend for years and I would be desolate to lose her. Please, Nihonjiro-san, if you could possibly see fit to allow her to come with me, I know it is much to ask but she doesn't need much space. She can stay with me-"

Jensen shakes his head, his hands up. "Of course, Nakama-san. Of course she can stay. I'm sure we can find her a room, right, Takashi?"

He looks over at his erstwhile majordomo and finds him smiling slow at the newest addition to their household. "I'm sure we can, Ackles-sama."

Ziyi immediately and gracefully sinks to her knees, presses her palms to the stone and bows her head. "Domo arigato, Nihonjiro-sama," she says, somehow clear and soft at the same time. Her lilting Chinese accent lends the Japanese words a distinct ring. Shinju bows low, clasping her hands in front of her chest and echoing the thanks.

Takashi takes a little step forward and bows his head. To anybody else, it's a shuffle. To Jensen, it's a very pointed reminder to introduce him to the pretty serving girl.

Jensen smiles. "Please," he says. "Please, stand. Ladies, I would like to you meet my majordomo, Takashi Sorimachi. Sorimachi-san, the Princess of Shiga."

Takashi bows deeply to Shinju. "Your humble servant, tonosama."

She smiles graciously at him and bows a little in return, which Jensen marks with a little pride. He likes that the woman he married shows respect to those who serve her – if she had not, he would have had to teach her, and that would not have boded well for their marriage.

"I am pleased to meet you, Sorimachi-san," she says, her voice like little bells. "May I impose upon you to show Ziyi around the kasho? She will need to become familiar with it."

"Of course, tonosama," Takashi smiles. He bows again. Ziyi also bows and then hurries around behind her mistress to follow him inside, just as the train luggage starts up the stairs. The men look like ants bearing leaves to the hill.

Jensen offers his arm to his wife. "May I show you to your rooms?" he asks. "You will no doubt wish to rest."

She puts a delicate hand on his wrist and inclines her head. Her lashes descend, black smudge on pale skin, and Jensen is struck again by just how pretty she is. "If it is not too much trouble, Nihonjiro-san."

"Not at all," he smiles.

He leads her back to the honden by way of the garden, telling her little things here and there designed to make her smile, make her comfortable. I like to meditate out in the garden, it's very peaceful. The kitchens are through there, Sorimachi is an excellent chef. This little bridge is heated in the winter, the brook ices over the moss, it's beautiful.

Shinju pays attention, smiles, asks questions where she feels it's appropriate. She asks about Kaori, the lady at the door, and when she learns of Kaori's stature in the household, she asks that she be allowed to greet the staff as soon as possible. Kaori, says Shinju, would certainly be the most knowledgeable about the house and the people in it – majordomos can keep a tidy barracks, but it is women who preserve, who nurture.

Jensen smiles. Her rooms are the same size as his own, which is to say huge. He hasn't been in them in years, but he ordered them aired and prepared. She opens the double doors wide and Jensen looks around at the room – seems right. Bed, vanity table, armoire, shelves, drawers. He shows her the patio and washroom.

When Shinju learns she shares it with him, she blushes deeply, looking down at the floor like a flower. Jensen tells her to feel free to leave anything of her things in there, it's hers now too.

Eventually, they run out of things to say to each other and just stand there, awkward. Jensen excuses himself and Shinju blushes; he says he'll meet her at dinner, and bows. She thanks him profusely, and bows.

He runs for it.

~

An hour passes. He receives an update from Masi that Ziyi and the three bags that comprised her entire life were housed in the remaining room in the servant's quarters. (Masi seems a little smug, and Jensen's confused until he remembers that the last remaining room in the kasho was located right next to Masi's.) Shinju and Ziyi are holed up in Shinju's quarters, redecorating with the contents of the remainder of the luggage and boxes, all of which was Shinju's. Dinner, Masi reports, is on schedule.

Jensen thanks him, and Masi turns to go, but then stops at the door. "Is there no word from Jared-san?" He asks quietly.

Jensen shakes his head solemnly, not looking up.

Masi nods. "I will check in on him," he says. "Perhaps he will wish supper in his room tonight, if he is not feeling well."

"Arigato," Jensen says softly.

Masi bows, and closes the door silently behind him.

Of course, Jared is not at supper. Jensen mentions to Shinju that he houses a student at the kasho, and she asks after him, but it quickly becomes clear that it's a touchy subject and is dropped. After that, they chat about nothing in particular until their plates are clear, and their teacups are empty. Jensen learns that Shinju has been studying Takai, the tiny economy that bustles between the kasho and the village, the flora and fauna. She very tentatively mentions that she has some ideas for him, ways things might be improved, requests she might have. Of course he is encouraging, and they seem to reach a sort of understanding – the kind of person Jensen is, the kind of person Shinju is, what they can expect from each other. It's pleasant, even encouraging.

At the end of the evening, he asks once again that she call him Jensen, and she blushes and returns that he might call her Shinju, if he likes.

He stands, shortly after, and bows deeply. He tells her he will retire to his rooms for an hour, to allow her to prepare – he can feel the blush on his own cheeks, just from that. Never, in all his years, has he had to behave like this with any woman. It's strange and awkward, but he knows if he doesn't, she'll be upset and scared, and that's the last thing he wants.

So he bows again, and withdraws, leaving her with her face turned to the floor, and the pink high in her cheeks.

He is almost to his door when, across the hall, Jared's door swings wide and thumps against the wall.

Jensen jumps.

He watches Jared come to the door jamb, lean against it and look. Dark eyes travel over Jensen's body, lewd and derisive, so deeply angry. Long, thick fingers are curled around the neck of a bottle of Tennessee whiskey, and it is half-empty. The color is high on those cheeks, the sheen is on his eyes, and the curve of those lips...

"Do you like her?" Jared asks softly, his English slurring just a little bit. Maybe it's the whiskey, Jensen thinks, maybe just the accent. "Is she nice?"

"Jared," he starts.

Jared just raises a hand, palm out. No. Stop. When Jensen bites his lip, Jared lowers the hand, and lifts the bottle to his mouth.

Jensen wants to tell him he shouldn't. He wants to take that bottle away, give Jared some aspirin and put him to bed.

But that wouldn't go over well. Oh, no. Violence radiates off of Jared; even though his blades and guns are nowhere in evidence, his knuckles are curled and his teeth are bared, sharp. He's heavy against that door, his hair striping down across his eyes, and Jensen wants to touch him so badly, but it wouldn't work. He tells himself that, over and over, it won't work. You can't soothe this one away.

"Go to bed," he suggests, gently.

"Go fuck yourself," Jared returns, just as quiet. "Or, better yet, go fuck your wife."

Jensen starts to get angry, to bristle, but Jared meets his eyes perfectly. Jensen can see the entire fight unfold in front of his eyes, and it ends in both of them covered in cuts and bruises, fucking or just falling down, together, and sleeping. Exactly what Jared wants.

Maybe what Jensen wants, too.

But this is not about what either of them want. Jensen forces that thought into the forefront of his mind – Shinju's scared face, Jared with an assassin's blade at his throat. The scathing comments of the buke, the smell of blood and armor. Toshiro's face.

This is not about "want" at all.

So he sighs, and lowers his head. "I will not fight with you, Jared-san. I must do what is right. If you must hate me... then hate me."

There is a long and terrible moment of silence. Jensen doesn't look up.

And then Jared's door clicks closed. When Jensen looks up, the hall is empty.

He waits – sure enough, a second or two later, there is the wet smash of a bottle against the wall.

His chest aching, his eyes burning, Jensen turns around and heads for the onsen. He needs to feel clean.

~

Some time later, Jensen crosses through the bathroom between Shinju's room and his own. A successful deflowering means his marriage is consummated and legal - he may even have an heir on the way. Anything's possible.

In the basin, he washes up, and then falls into his own bed. It's been a long day, and then some.

An hour later, he sits up in bed, thoroughly irritated. He can't sleep. His body is buzzing, Jared's words keep ringing in his head, and he can't shut it all off long enough to find any peace. He pulls on some yoga pants and a robe and goes down to the dojo to work out, some light aikido. When that fails, he goes to his den, out to the patio, where he kicks back and lights up a cigarette, staring into the night. He only gets to do that for about five minutes when Masi comes out and quietly asks if sir wouldn't perhaps like to do a surprise inspection on the kitchen staff, which Jensen takes as a firm suggestion to remove himself from potential sniper view as soon as humanly possible.

He sighs, gets a glass of milk from the kitchen and goes back to bed to toss and turn some more.

~

Jared doesn't come to breakfast the next morning. Jensen sighs - he could just let it go, but he's not that kind of man, and they need to talk about this. So he goes to Jared's room and knocks.

"Go away, Jensen. I'm busy."

Jensen rolls his eyes. Jared sounds bitchy and mad, which Jensen figures is better than the silent treatment, but not by much. He knocks again.

"Fuck off," Jared snarls, in harshly clipped English, and Jensen sets his mouth.

This will not do, no sir. He pushes open the door, already talking. "You might be angry with me, Jared, but I'm still your..." He trails off as he takes in the state of the room. Jared's drawers are open and empty, his things are missing from the shelves and dressers and piled on the bed. He's shoving his clothes into his big military duffel, which Jensen hasn't seen since it was packed away in the closet the day Jared got here. He blinks. "What are you doing?"

"I'm moving to Kyoto Gosho," Jared says, not looking at him. "I can't stay here anyway if I'm going to be shogun. I can stay in my father's old apartments."

Jensen stares at him. "I don't understand."

"You do and you know it," Jared bites off, stuffing a fistful of shirts inside. "You wanna do the right thing, Jensen, fine. This is the right thing."

The hell of it is that Jensen can't argue. He stands there and watches as the person he loves more than anything under heaven takes his things away, takes the sense of himself out of the room. Every instinct he has screams at him to stop this, to make Jared put everything back, but he can't.

Jensen started this. He tried to put their feet on the right path, make them honorable and brave again, instead of sheltering a shameful secret.

Well, he thinks. I have my wish. There is no shelter here.

He watches, and Jared packs. When it's finished, he's sitting on the floor by the door, just waiting for it to be over. Jared slings his duffel over his shoulder, picks up the knapsack with his free hand and walks toward the door. As he comes even with Jensen, he stops - hesitates, for a long second - and then keeps walking.

Jensen doesn't move. He just sits there on the floor in Jared's empty room, long enough to hear an engine turn over - Masi taking Jared to town.

It feels like an hour. It feels like forever. And when Jensen finally stumbles to his feet and starts to move, he instantly feels a pull in his gut like he's got to run, fast as he can, right this second, or it's all over. He picks up pace faster and faster, until he's racing through his own hallways, not stopping as Ziyi and Kaori stumble out of his path, crushing their questions and apologies under his heels.

He doesn't remember getting his keys or his boots, but he does understand the gravel flying by under his tires. He does feel the steering wheel in his hands, and he feels the empty void in his chest, trying to cripple him.

He's not even a hundred percent sure where he's going, but when he sees the burn of Masi's tail lights flick along the road far ahead, Jensen breathes a fast prayer to whatever god is listening. "Please let him be there. Please let him hear me."

He guns the rover and leans on the horn, blasting through the underbrush. Birds startle from the bushes around him as he races down the mountain, the car won't go fast enough. He takes a twist in the road at a vicious angle, feels two wheels lift off the ground just a bare inch before touching down again, gripping the ground like claws and throwing Jensen forward.

Good, he thinks. Faster.

The speedometer climbs, yellow, yellow, orange, red. There's no law around here but him, so what does he care? The red lights glow like the eyes of oni on the mountain, hungry and swelling, the closer Jensen gets.

Finally, it seems that Masi hears him - the lights flare red and bright and slow down, pulling to the side of the road. Jensen careens down the asphalt; every second apart is too much, is another second that it could all be over. He screeches to a halt, tires firmly straddling the yellow line, and climbs out of the car. The wind is brisk against the cloth of his robe; he didn't have time to get his armor before he left. "Jared?" he calls. "Jared!"

The long, lean body he wants unfolds from the driver's seat. Masi is nowhere to be seen - damn ninjas - but then, Jensen isn't looking for him anyway.

Jared stands with his boots planted firmly on the cold blacktop, the snow sliding past his heels and over the road like satin. His arms are folded over his chest, and his eyes.

Oh, his eyes make the weather seem tropical. Firm, fixed, hard, Jared stares him down. "What do you want, Jensen? Aside from running your car into the ditch, I mean."

Jensen walks straight to him, puts his hands on Jared's shoulders and drags him in to kiss. He presses his mouth to the cold, unresponsive lips and even takes Jared's face to hold him, but it only lasts a second before Jared's shoving him away, pushing him hard. Jensen's not expecting it, and there's definitely enough force to make him fall back. He scrapes the heels of his hands on the asphalt, feels the gravel dig into him.

"God dammit!" he grits out, glaring up at Jared, unbelieving.

But Jared's already leaning over to point a finger in his face and grit his teeth, his dark eyes going from ice to fire in a heartbeat. "You think you can just waltz in and fuck me and I'll forget all about your little woman, Jensen? Think I'll forget how she screamed the fucking house down when you fucked her and I got to lie there in the fucking guest bedroom and listen to it? Think again, you son of a bitch!" He pulls back a foot and sends it swinging.

Jensen can't believe it. He sees the kick coming, but he can't believe it until the pain explodes through his hip and he spins around, rolling over across the road. He's on his feet in a flash after that, his fists up, his body aligning itself just as it must in order to take the next hit. It's instinct - if Jensen hadn't spent the last twenty years of his life training for this, he'd still be on the ground.

The punches come then, one-two, one-two, one-two-three-four-five. Jensen blocks them one after another, swinging back out of pure sense memory. The rage, though - the rage is coming. His hip is starting to burn, and he can feel blood slipping down his hands.

Jared's face is a mask of pain and anger. The mountains rise around him like judges, giants, watching and tugging their silver beards. Jensen unleashes a series of blows designed to trap Jared, to wind him up in a lock on the ground - incapacitation. "Jared," he growls, blocking and twisting. "Let's talk about this."

"Let's see how your wife likes your face full of fucking gravel," Jared snarls, and slides out of the hook with a move Jensen taught him. Jensen is prepared for a knockdown - he is not prepared for Jared to sweep down and hurl a fistful of rocks and dirt in his face. Jensen spins away, blinking the dust away, and when he can see again, Jared is racing down the side of the road into the ditch, and back up into the valley. He's racing away, moving like smoke, and Jensen is too blind with rage to do anything but take off after him.

"Jared," he hollers.

"Fight me or go home to the missus, faggot." Jared's voice floats through the trees, echoes pinging off the high canyon walls.

Jensen ignores them utterly, his eyes on the footprints.

Jensen tracks him, his mind shutting off to follow the treads in the dirt and snow, to hunt. He catalogues every movement around him, every twitch of tree or brush. His feet, steady and sure, make little noise.

When he can't hear Jared crashing through the bush anymore, he stops. With an ease born of practice, he tunes out everything but the sound of the mountain - the wind through the trees. The hush of it.

Cold falls away. His heartbeat fades back. Nothing matters but the sound, and the white and green - but what is accountable, and what is unnatural.

A branch twitches, and Jensen doesn't hesitate, he throws himself at the movement and feels solid flesh under his hands. Jared hits the ground cursing, but Jensen's got the upper hand now, crouching over top of him and pushing him back against a big rock that shoulders up out of the ground. "Jared," he says, as the shirt under his hands smears with blood and dirt. "Jared, what the fuck are you doing?"

Jared seethes at him, his eyes red and bloodshot, his voice littered with rocks of its own. "Nothing I do to you could hurt like I hurt. Nothing." He thumps his hands against Jensen's grip, futile, just to make the point. A single tear slicks down his face, and Jensen watches him drag his cheek over the stone to dry it, teeth clenched.

He rests his face there, refusing to look Jensen in the eyes. "Get off me. Go home." His voice breaks on the word home, and Jensen is sharply reminded that, until he brought some stranger there, it was Jared's home too.

He lets go of Jared's arm, easing up a little so he can touch that tanned cheek. "Jared," he tries.

Next thing he's flying backward, his back in the snow, cold and wet. "Get up," Jared demands, low and rough. "Get up."

"What do you want?" Jensen shouts at him, climbing up off the ground. "You want to beat me up, is that it? Is that gonna make you feel better?"

Jared takes a clumsy swing, a bull charging a red flag. Jensen twists his arm behind his back and forces him to his knees, standing over him, right at his back. "Well, you can't," he tells Jared, harsh and severe. "I won't let you beat on me and I won't let you run off to god knows where by yourself, either."

"Fuck you," Jared spits back. "You don't have any say over me anymore."

With that, he drops forward, and Jensen is shocked enough to get pulled down with the momentum. He rolls, and has to let go of Jared to do it, right through the snow again, Christ. When he's got his bearings again, crouching down, Jared's off again, running past a crumbled stone pillar and disappearing behind a tree. Jensen jumps up and runs after him again, the need burning in his gut. Have to stop him. Have to make him stay.

Jensen tells himself that Jared is vulnerable without protection, but he knows that's not why he's running.

As he rounds the corner, he sees Jared's back fading into the darkness of an old ruined temple, its stone walls crumbling and ancient. Jensen pauses to adjust his tactics and then darts forward.

The air in the old temple is cold and brisk - some current, some wind must come through here and keep the air from going stale. Jensen rounds a corner cautiously, ready.

It's small, but it's a main room. That the roof remains intact enough to keep the sun out is a minor miracle, but there are evergreens growing high around the sides of this place, and surely they help. The air smells of them.

Jared is kneeling in front of the raised place where the altar would have been. He breathes heavily, looking up at the carved, crumbled stone statue that comes out of the wall.

Jensen recognizes the rearing hooves, the wild mane, and the stripes and claws on the animal it faces.

"I love you," says Jared, and his voice is like the sound of blood falling on fresh snow. "But I don't want to."

Jensen feels that sword slide through his gut; for a second he thinks Jared really did stab him, until he looks and sees that Jared's still kneeling in front of the altar, and both his blades are where they belong.

"You. You're with somebody else. You slept with her, without ever." Jared stops, bowing his head for a second. A chill breeze traces over Jensen's skin, and he shivers with it, listening to the mountain breathe. When Jared's ready, he continues. "I can't do this. I try to leave you and you chase me, I try to drive you away but you just keep coming. You won't get mad, you won't. Why don't you yell at me? I kicked you in the ribs, Jensen, why."

Carefully, Jensen steps forward, and kneels down behind Jared. He puts a cautious hand on one wide, white shoulder and squeezes lightly; Jared slumps under it like it's the weight of the world.

"I'm sorry," Jensen tries, but that just makes Jared send a pathetic punch at his chest. Jensen grabs his hand and holds it tight, presses it close. "No, I am."

"I don't want your pity," Jared says, miserably.

With a quiet shake of his head, Jensen lets that hand go. "You don't understand."

"Then what?" Jared demands, his voice thick in the air. "Tell me, make me understand, because I -"

Jensen brushes his thumb across that mouth, that perfect mouth, and Jared's sentence stutters to a halt. He slumps again, just a little, and Jensen's heart thumps hard in his chest.

"I'm sorry," he says again, feeling the world shift under his knees, under both of them. Everything is changing, and Jensen feels dizzy. He pulls Jared to him, and the weight of his lover against his chest and lap is heaven.

"All my life, I've known one thing: that being a samurai - learning to fight and living my life by a code of honor - was the most important thing in the world. That carried me through the hardest trials, it got me this far. I'm a decorated officer and a lord of Japan." Jared tries to push him away, but Jensen holds him still, holds him close. "My life was perfect."

"Do you have a point with all this, or do you just like to get hit?"

"Bear with me," Jensen says, fighting down Jared's fists. "It gets better."

"It damn well better," Jared says, irritable and offended - but he calms, and lies against Jensen's body peaceably.

The snow is sinking into the knees of Jensen's pants, the cold whistling past them. It's freezing and their cars are parked on the road, the sun is going down. Jensen doesn't care.

"Now... everything's different. If I can't have you, I. I'll."

"You'll what," Jared sighs. "Be sad for a bit? Console yourself with your perfect life?"

Jensen strokes his hair. "I would ask Kumakun to help me."

"Help you? "Jared pushes away from him again, harder this time, he really means it. "Is that what you think is-"

Jensen fights with him for control, forces his arms shut and makes him listen. "With his sword, Jeichan. I would ask him to help me die."

Jared pushes away from him and then grabs his shoulders. Searching his eyes, Jared puts his big, cold hands on either side of Jensen's dirt-smudged face; he's breathless, his eyes wide.

"Take it back."

Jensen blinks. "What?"

"Take it back," Jared insists in a terrible voice, shaking his shoulders a little. "You wouldn't fucking die."

"I would," Jensen counters. "Remember what Miyuki-san told me. I will not live my entire life cheating one person into thinking I love her and wish with every breath, in every moment, that I was with someone else. I refuse."

Jared stares at him. Those big hands fall away, gently.

With infinite care, Jensen puts his hand behind Jared's neck and tugs him closer. "That is why I will not leave you. So long as you are with me, I must live. For your sake and Shinju's, for my parents and myself and my Empire, I must live. But apart..."

Jared's face is close to his now, feeling the words as they come between Jensen's lips. Jensen threads his fingers into the shaggy hair and feels the horrible, unalterable truth of what he's saying - and in a way, it's almost freeing.

"Apart from you, Jared, I have nothing."

In the moment that follows, someone moves toward someone else. How they end up together on the stone floor, kissing the breath from each other's mouths, Jensen could not say.

The grey stone is cold under his back, but he can feel only the weight of his lover on his thighs, on his chest. He strokes the stray locks away from Jared's beloved face and kisses what's revealed, his heart raw. "I love you," he says, finally, and Jared shudders and buries his face in Jensen's neck.

They lie like that for a long moment. Jensen holds him tightly, the strong solidity of Jared's body like the eye of a storm. There's a thick pressure in Jensen's throat, and he tries to swallow past it.

When those wide, warm palms come up to cup Jensen's face, when Jared kisses him hard and serious, Jensen can feel a heavy weight lifting. He kisses back, he rubs the heels of his hands against the sweet curve of Jared's lower back, and he moans when he wants to, right into that perfect mouth. There is a sharp knot of fear, deep down in his stomach, and he digs his nails into the warmth he finds, searching it out. All the armor blocks his fingers, the buckles and stiff leather bruising him. He tears his mouth away and groans. "I need to feel you. Jared, please."

It takes only a moment; Jared hauls himself up and wrenches things open and off. His sword clatters to the ground, the steel ringing nervously against the stone. Jensen feels the sound shiver up his spine, resonate in the pit of his belly; just the same frequency.

You don't let your sword drop. You don't let the metal rest against something cold. It's not done.

But then Jared's back again, warm body heating against Jensen's belly, in the cradle of his hips, god, yes. Jensen winds his hands in the soft, warm curls and pulls him closer. "I love you," he says again, and Jared groans against his mouth; Jensen hears a little catch at the end, and then Jared's fingers press hard into his arms.

"Shut up," comes the deep, pained response, and Jensen feels it in his chest, vibrating through him. Jared's eyes are closed, his cheek pressed to Jensen's. "I can't. Just shh, okay, just..." His fingers slide down to Jensen's belt, tug the knots apart, and even though there should be a cold wind here, Jensen can't feel anything but heat and need. When those rough hands touch him, sliding over his ribs and pressing his nipples, all he feels is desperation.

"Jared," he groans, digging his fingers against heated fabric. "Please, I need you. Please stay."

He feels a hot, slick drop go sliding down his neck, then another. "Jensen. I'm staying, okay, I swear, just. Just shut up."

The world is standing still. The snow does not melt and the wind has frozen in the valley. The only warmth, the only life is between their bodies. It has come to this.

Jensen strokes Jared's back, soft and careful, and he says nothing.

When Jared is ready, he turns his head. His stubble scrapes against Jensen's, and it is almost possible to see the sparks fly, steel on steel, as he lifts his chin up to kiss. Jensen drags the shirt off his lover's back, and shoves their mouths together.

Ready, set, Jensen presses his hips up and feels Jared gasp into his mouth as they slide against one another. Jensen tears at his own clothes, in the way, not helping, and Jared grips him hard enough to leave dark smudges on pale skin. Fingerprints, bite marks, scratch marks, reddening burn from fabric and beard, it all blooms and blossoms across pale fields, slow and steady.

The cold draws back from them; it does not dare to stay.

Jensen gasps when he feels Jared's teeth against his nipple, against his ribs. He wants to say no, to demand that Jared come back and put his cock back in reach, but it's too late; he's no sooner thought it than he's surrounded by slick, tight heat and the softness of Jared's lips, and he grips Jared's hair too hard and shoves his hips too far.

Somehow, the impossible happens, and Jared opens to take him in. Jensen sinks into heat and tightness like he's never known; he pushes until he feels Jared's nose bump against him and then he pulls all the way out. He can't think, he can't feel anything that isn't the perfect heat of it.

Jared gasps and clears his throat - it echoes off the stone pillars, off the great carved animals that face each other on the wall - and then he opens his mouth again, slides back down. It takes a second, Jensen muttering prayers to whatever gods watch over men like him, but Jared concentrates and then he opens up again, impossible and perfect and impossible some more.

Jensen's hips buck, he hears his own voice screaming something senseless. There is a slow brightening of everything, blinding, and then everything is white and his body is shaking and all that's real is the heat that surrounds him, the weight on his legs and the soft curls in his fists, Jared, Jared, Jared.

When his heart comes back into his chest and the world goes from white to star-covered, Jensen gasps air back into his chest. Jared's head is lying heavy on his hip, and Jensen lets his far arm fall out to the side, blind. " I love you," he says again, quiet this time.

Jared kisses the bare skin under his cheek, and rubs his thumb over the top of Jensen's thigh. "You fuckin better, man, I'll kill you myself."

"Okay," Jensen laughs, feeling giddy. His chest feels weird, his head. Something's different. "My life is yours," he says, and he feels the words echo through the valley and up into the sky, like ripples across a pond. The sun is setting, out there, into an unusually warm night. Somewhere nearby, he can hear the trickle of water.

Jared lifts his head and slides up Jensen's body, leaning down to kiss his mouth. It's good, it's right.

"Let me," Jensen smiles, stars still spinning into the edges of his vision as he runs his hands up Jared's sides. "Your turn, come on."

Somehow, amidst some knocking around and falling down, they flip over. Jared lies on his back and looks up at Jensen with the most serious eyes, and even though it's clear that he needs something, some kind of reassuring, Jensen just can't feel anything but bliss, and he smiles down into that dark gaze, that firm-lipped mouth. "Shh," he whispers, kissing light. "I'll take care of you, too, Jeichan, I promise."

Jared's eyes close, he turns his face away just a little, but his hand comes up to curve around the back of Jensen's head, pull him down. Jensen decides to just go as he wants to, do what he feels. It can't be wrong.

Because just now, what he wants and feels is a serious need to get as close to Jared as he possibly can. He presses his mouth to that long, warm neck, that broad chest. He's got Jared's belt open in no time at all, letting the fabric fall away under his hands until he finds what he wants. Jared gasps above him as he opens his mouth wide and licks the salt from that narrow belly, from the curve of this hip, trailing just the tip of his tongue.

"Do you like that?" Jensen asks, feeling the corner of his mouth tugging up.

Jared squirms under him, his hips pressing up and his hand pressing down on the back of Jensen's head. "You know I do, just... God."

Jensen smiles sharp against the thin skin. He leans forward and licks the tip of Jared cock, slow and delicate as he traces the hot ridges. Every time he does this, he loves it more.

Deep in his throat, Jared growls. His big hand cups the back of Jensen's neck and settles there, his fingernails scoring warning marks across the skin.

Jensen almost laughs, because he knows what that means: now, now, do it. So he puts the heel of his hand on Jared's hip and holds him down that way, pausing to enjoy it when Jared bucks against him, lifting against his hand. Jensen leans forward to rub that thick, perfect length over his lips, and then takes it inside. The feel of Jared's cock settling against his tongue, fitting just right, and the desperate, impatient sounds above… sometimes Jensen thinks he didn't know what satisfaction was until he owned these moments. He closes his eyes and starts to move.

Jared snarls into the air, panting heavy and demanding that Jensen go faster. His fingers scrabble in Jensen's hair, trying to drag him closer, and Jensen sucks him harder, just to get more.

Jared obliges perfectly.

Jensen rides the bucking hips, he presses Jared back down onto the stone and draws him on, licking as low as he dares to go. When that's not far enough, he pulls off and slides his mouth down the hot length, sucking gentle marks onto his lover and listening to him curse. At the soft base, Jensen opens his mouth and lets his tongue slide over the heavy balls, lifting them one at a time, just gently. Jared calls him out, "You bastard, you fuck, I'll, oh, Jesus, please, let me, Daijen, do it, fucking do it, I'll fucking, I'll, oh oh oh..."

Something deep in Jensen's chest starts to burn, to hear him promise to be there. Jensen shifts his own hips against the warmed stone, lifts up and takes that cock back into his mouth, slides down as far as he can and sucks hard. Jared cries out, and Jensen wraps his fist around the base.

Jared withstands about three strokes of hand and mouth together, and then it all comes slamming together like a ringing clap of thunder. Jared bucks and roars at the sky, and Jensen tastes him, hot and vital at the back of his throat.

He swallows as best he can, his nails digging into Jared's hip as he tries to hold him down. It's perfect, Jared's totally gone, and Jensen could swear he feels the ripples of it pass through him and echo in his belly and heart. There is nothing that matches this, it's the center of everything worth anything, and only when he's sure he's felt every last shudder does he pull away.

He rests his head against Jared's hip, wanting to savor it, just a moment more.

But so quietly, Jared whispers at him. "Daijen," he says, his voice soft and dreamy. "Look."

Jensen lifts his head, and what he sees is impossible.

Ah, but he has done a thousand impossible things today. So perhaps it is not so strange that, when he follows Jared's gaze, he sees a fully grown gold and orange and black striped tiger. It sits in the snow, where one wall has fallen away, and it looks in at them with ancient eyes.

Jensen feels a part of his mind enter a state of total panic. He knows perfectly well that something like that has no damn business being in this country or this mountain range or this temple, right here, right now. And he knows that even if by some bizarre circumstance, it should actually be here, he should be afraid for their lives.

The tiger licks its chops with a lazy blink, turns its head to the side and yawns, finishing it off with a great, purring growf.

Jared pushes at Jensen lightly, shifting under him. "Get off," he says, warm and fond. Jensen looks at him, sees his gentle smile, and can't bring himself to be afraid. So he moves, and Jared stands up and fixes his pants. Then, he turns to face the tiger and gently bows to it.

It roars a little, short and lazy, a salutation. And then it stands up, shakes itself off, and puts one huge paw up on a fallen stone at its feet. Again, it roars, and this one is still a greeting, but louder, longer and more serious.

Behind them, Jensen hears an answering call - high, loud and shimmering. He spins around to look back, and sees the pure white stallion just as its hooves thud into the ground. Around them, everything seems to shake.

Jensen stands too, his back to Jared's. The stallion is all he can see: the wild white mane, the pure black of its eyes and the heavy curve of muscle in its body, strong and deadly serious.

For a long moment, they all stare at each other.

Jensen feels cold at his back. He turns around, and Jared has disappeared. Only the tiger is left, looking at him with serious eyes the color of earth and forest.

Only then he realizes that his feet are in the snow, and there is a long, empty, ruined temple room between them.

~

Side by side, Jared and Jensen walk back to the Rover.

They do not touch. There is no need.

Behind them, the temple ruins fade into the forest; trees obscure the stones, little by little, until they're gone from sight. Jensen shifts his sword on his back, uncomfortable without his armor – he'll have to get Masi to bring it up to the Gosho.

Jared clears his throat, his voice is a little hoarse from rough use. "You'll need your armor when we get into the city."

Jensen nods. "I was just thinking the same thing."

"It'll be rough," Jared says, and Jensen can hear the serious look on that sharp face without having to look up.

"I know. Only one more week to get through, though, so I guess that's something."

"Man, I'm starving," Jared says, apropos of nothing. "When we get to Kyoto, we gotta stop in at a steakhouse."

"Thank god we don't have import tax on decent steak," Jensen agrees, feeling the rumble in his belly. "Trying to get it in Tokyo, Christ, you have to take out a mortgage."

"But you'd do it," Jared smiles, his long, easy step swinging just right at Jensen's side. "If I asked you to."

Jensen smiles too, a secret between him and the mountain. "Yeah. I guess I would."

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