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The War Prize

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The War Prize

Part one

Jared Padalecki, Monarch of Valdesco, sat with his back straight listening to an update on the current emergency.

As much as the situation was dire, and his country was in crisis, there wasn't anything he could do at this meeting. He wasn't even sure why he'd been asked to attend, except that it was courtesy to include the Monarch. The truth was, he had no real power and he was too young and too inexperienced to even have a clue about what he should be doing.

The Prime Minister, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, his uncle and the person really in charge, was being updated about the ongoing war with Amaranth, the other country on the planet. Jared made an effort to try to pay attention, but he didn't have more than a layman's understanding of the situation. And he had nothing to add that would help.

"So all we know is that their sense of honor requires them to continue to fight to the last person unless we are willing to negotiate with them," Jeffrey said when Samantha Ferris, their chief negotiator and diplomat, stopped speaking.

"Excuse me," Jared said. "Isn't it in their best interest to negotiate with us? Why won't they?"

"We have very little information on their culture and even with the information we've been given we don't know anything about them as a people.

Jared took a deep breath. "Forgive my ignorance, but why not?"

Samantha sighed. "Aside from some unofficial business dealings, there has been no contact between us for hundreds of years."

"So, we're going to keep fighting until they all die?" Jared wished his voice was steadier, but by the Gods, that was not an outcome any sane person could want. No matter what Amaranth had done.

"We hope not," Samantha inclined her head. "One of the stipulations to peace is that one of their unmarried children must be handed over to the winning side to ensure peace everlasting. We think that the child is supposed to be married to the Monarch."

"You're joking?" Because that was insane. It sounded like something out of a novel. A bad romance novel at that. Not that he'd read any, of course.

"No, sir," Samantha said. "They are at least fifty to seventy-five years behind us technologically. Their High Chief rules with something close to absolute power -- or he might share it with the priests; we're not quite sure of it. But there is no popularly elected body that regulates them."

"I still don't understand how you can not know anything?"

"We have been told very little. They have kept us in their keep, and not allowed any contact with their people beyond the staff who work and live there." She rubbed her neck. "It's all been under the guise of keeping us safe."

"Seriously?" Jared choked out, appalled. "Keeping you safe? Were you in danger?"

"We don't believe so, but I'm sure the last delegation didn't believe there was any danger either."

"What I really don't get is how did they manage to miss what been going on on half the planet?"

Samantha pushed a stray lock of her hair back behind her ear. "That's just it, your majesty, they simply ignored it. They do have some level of technology. And with it, the social unrest that comes with an emerging middle-class with some amount of capital and leisure to spend it."

"And we've ignored them as well?"

"Yes, sir. We've had no reason to bother with them. The treaty of Amaranth, which was signed four hundred years ago, states that we will leave them to themselves on the southernmost continent and we won't have any dealings with them."

Jared already knew some of this from his history classes, but "Why did they get in touch with us then? And why did they kill the diplomats that they asked for?"

"We think there's a power struggle going on between the priests of the state religion and the High Chief. The High Chief wants our technology and medical advances. The priests don't. Or that's what I was given to understand," Samantha said.

Jared didn't understand how anyone could not want advanced medicines for their people. "So, they expect someone to marry one of the High Chief's children?"

"Yes, sir."

This was not how he wanted to start the day. Not with everyone in the room suddenly looking at him. No. "I'm too young to wed."

"You're twenty-five," Chad, his best friend and solicitor for his business said unhelpfully, "a full two years past majority".

"Exactly. No one marries that young." But Jared could see where this was going. Totally to a place he did not and would not go. "I'm sorry. It's out of the question."

"Of course, your majesty," Jeffrey said with that reasonable tone he had.

And he had that look in his eye that said Jared hadn't heard the end of this. Oh, that was just great. He didn't want to get married.

When the meeting ended about half an hour later, Jared signaled for Chad to wait for everyone else to file out of the room.

Before he could say anything to Chad, Jeffrey put a hand on his shoulder. "A few moments of your time, Your Majesty?"

"Of course, but I would like to meet with Chad about a matter of importance this morning. We have a board of directors meeting later today." He didn't want to be caught in a debate with Jeffrey for too long. It was pretty clear at this point it wouldn't end well.

Jeffrey nodded to Chad. "Mr. Murray, why don't you meet his majesty in his office?"

The rest of the participants filed out. And Jared turned to the Prime Minister. "I don't want to get married," he said preemptively.

"We don't know why they've insisted on this. But it's something we're going to consider very seriously."

"How can this be serious? How can it even be real?" Jared asked. Because he could not believe that even a backward country could require this of one of their people. "I mean, really, how can they send someone, a real live person, to this?"

Jeffrey shrugged. "I don't know. But all we can do is take care of the person they send us. We'll figure something out."

"Why me?" Jared wasn't really expecting an answer. "You're the one with the power here."

The look he got in return told him Jeffrey was losing patience. "You are the Monarch and you are not married, which I might point out that I am. And I doubt my wife would appreciate me even considering the idea."

"Allison would probably strangle you." The thought amused Jared for about ten seconds. Then he looked back at Jeffrey.

He was not smiling. "I'm sure she would. You are going to have to suck it up and do this."

As much as Jared wanted to argue, there was no question he would do what he had to for his country. But that didn't mean he had to like it. And he didn't have to do it quietly or with good grace. At least in private. "I wouldn't even consider it, if people's lives weren't at stake. This person is going to be...what? Do we even have a name for it?"

"From what Samantha has said, they call the person a War Prize. He or she will come here without rights or status. You will literally own them."

Jared's stomach roiled. It didn't seem possible that such barbaric conditions could exist anywhere. That they would exist here was unconscionable. "Seriously? Do you have any idea what the Network and the press are going to say about this?"

When he saw Jeffrey nod, he felt even sicker. "I can't live with that. I can't. This person must be given status immediately."

"As soon as you wed them, they are eligible for immediate citizenship."

"How long is it going to take to arrange the wedding once they get here?" Jared asked. He really should know this, too.

"If we fulfill only the minimum requirements and traditional dinners, maybe ten days. There are eight permanent worlds represented here. We'll need to have state dinners to introduce your spouse to each of them separately, as well as our own. So, it will be a ridiculously frantic time. Better to stretch it out and not exhaust the person as soon as they get here."

"No. I want this done and over with as soon as we can manage it. We'll do it and move on."

"Their world has required this. We don't know what they will expect. We may not even be able to convince this person they are not a prisoner."

"How can they do that to anyone? How can the High Chief do it to one of his own children?"

"I have no idea," Jeffrey said. And that seemed to be that. He wasn't even questioning it.

Jared didn't understand that at all. "Yet, you're willing to go along with it. Do you actually think the people of our world are going to tolerate it? This is a person we're talking about."

For a moment, Jeffrey was silent. "I think that it's this or more of our people and their people will die. We are weighing one life against what has already been hundreds and will likely range into the thousands if this conflict isn't resolved."

"I just can't --"

"If it will bring peace, then you have no real choice," Jeffrey said, sternly.

And the worst of it was, Jeffrey was right. As soon as the idea was on the table this morning, he'd known he would have no choice. "I don't want anyone else to die. I'll marry whomever they send. But it's going to be a political marriage. I might be the first Monarch in centuries to take a public lover."

"I suppose that people might accept a lover, but there will be a scandal no matter what you do. But public --"

"I will marry for political reasons if I have to, but I'm going to have an escort of my choice." Jared wasn't going to spend his life alone. Call him romantic, but even living in the fish bowl that was a constitutional monarchy, he'd always assumed he'd find someone to love and marry.

"You'll have to have children. Legitimate children. The people might look the other way about a lover, but they will not about an heir to the throne."

Well, he was probably right about that. Jared closed his eyes. "I'll do what I have to do. Just don't expect me to be happy about it." He looked at his watch. "I need to go talk to Chad about the business's finances."

"Things going well?"

"I assume so, and I'm hoping Chad doesn't tell me differently."

"Dude," Chad said and stood as he came into his office. "What the hell was that all about?"

"That was the sound of me taking one in the service of my country." Jared practically fell into the over-stuffed leather sofa that sat in front of the fire place. He put his feet up on the antique coffee table and waved at Chad to sit.

"Well, you are the Monarch." Chad grinned. "It's your duty."

It would be really unbecoming of the Monarch to hit him. "Not that you'd notice it."

"What else is your best friend for, if not to diss you?"

"I'm sure." And Jared appreciated having one person who he could talk to without all the crap that came with being the Monarch. No doubt that was why tradition said that the Monarch was to have at least one person who was totally outside of protocol -- usually someone whom the Monarch had a sexual relationship with. Jared just wasn't sure how it ended up being Chad. By all rights, it should have been Zoe, or David, both of whom he'd had long-term sexual relationships with, at least at one time.

But David was head of his security, and that didn't lend itself to this sort of thing. And Zoe ended up meeting and falling in love with his sister Anna, so that let her out, too. He was still close to both of them. Ultimately, that led to him ending up with Chad, who was definitely not someone he would ever have a sexual relationship with, but okay, Chad was a good and loyal friend. And he didn't trade -- well, mostly didn't trade -- on their closeness.

"Anyway, you're going to have to do it, aren't you?"

"Pretty much. I can't believe we're going to do that to a sentient being. I can't believe Amaranth is insisting on it. It just boggles my mind."

"I totally get that. I mean, it kind of makes me sick."

Jared nodded. "Yeah, me, too. If it's going to bring peace then it's worth my one life."

"I hope whomever they send agrees with you. They aren't getting a choice here."

"Neither am I," Jared pointed out.

"This has been going on for months, and already too many people on both sides have died," Chad said.

"A lot more on their side, that's for sure," Jared said. Valdesco had far superior weaponry and armaments, but they hadn't used their uranium-based weapons because the damage to the environment would be too great. Not to mention wiping Amaranth off the face of the planet.

"But we lost twelve of our best diplomats to their civil war," Chad said.

"Not really civil if they are fighting us as well as themselves. They are losing on all fronts," Jared said.

"Yeah. I wish we had better intel. I can't find out anything."

"You're the chief attorney for my company; what do you even know about intel about this?" Jared looked at him. He knew Chad had contacts everywhere.

"I've dealt with some of the business representatives from Amaranth," Chad admitted.

"Fuck. Really? Why would you do that?" Jared asked.

"Because they need our medicine and we could use some of the raw materials they have. I've talked to you about this before. I suggested to the representatives that maybe they should get the government or High Chief to open talks for formalized relations."

"You're not supposed to have anything to do with them."

Chad gave him that wry grin that said you're being stupid. "I've heard that. But it doesn't make sense."

Jared let out a sigh. Why did he always find out these kinds of things too late to do anything about it? "What do you know?"

"Not a lot. I know that the priests didn't want the contact with us, and that the High Chief pushed it. That someone from the church hierarchy -- and no, I don't know who -- ordered the kidnapping of the diplomats and then their murder as a way to stop it."

"They caught and publicly executed the six men who actually did it." Jared had seen the video of the execution. It had been on the Network here as soon as the tape had been turned over to Valdesco.

"Those guys might have been the ones who actually carried out the plans, but they didn't plan it themselves. They didn't have the resources to put a plot of that nature together." Chad was right about that.

"But why --"

Chad shrugged. "I don't know. I don't think anyone outside of the Church hierarchy knows. And they're not talking."

"Damn. What the hell am I supposed to do?" Jared wondered.

"Basically, you're going to have to suck it up and marry this person."

"What if they send a child?" Jared didn't even want to think about that possibility.

"That would suck even more. You'd have to consummate the marriage, too." Chad made a face.

It was one of the basic tenets of their marriage laws. "Not with a child I won't."

"Yeah. But you'd be the guardian. Which means you can dictate terms of consummation."

Right. That might work. "And a kiss can stand as consummation, if both parties agree," Jared said, relieved.

"Which would get you off the hook since you can sign for both of you."

"It might be easier if they do send a child. They won't know their precarious status until it's been fixed."

"I could not begin to think about living like that for even a few days." Chad shuddered dramatically. "But a child means you'd have to wait years for them to grow up to give you children."

"I know. But..." Jared shook his head. There was just no good way for this to work. "The high Chief is in his mid-sixties, how likely is it that he has a younger child?"

Chad scratched his head. "I think all of his children are grown. He has like five sons."

"All of them? That's kind of young to have all of his children grown."

"They marry younger there. I think one of my contacts said the royal kids get married at like sixteen or seventeen."

"Seriously? That's so --"

"Different than us," Chad finished.

Jared nodded. "Yeah. If they get married that young, then all of the High Chief's children will be married. Who are they going to send?"

"Maybe one of the children's children," Chad suggested.

"I don't know which will be worse."

"Don't ask." Chad pulled a folder out of his briefcase. "You want to actually talk about work?"

"Yeah, we'd better. Though I think I'm going to cancel the board meeting for today. I've got two other meetings." But really, Jared wanted some time to think about what was going on. No matter how much he hoped to keep his life intact, there was no way this wasn't going to change his whole way of living.

"Are you going see Zoe later?" Chad asked.

That was likely to be the highlight of his day. Jared smiled and nodded. "I'm supposed to meet her for a late dinner after the meeting about the financials of the meeting-day ceremonies."

"I didn't think you knew anything to do about that. Isn't it Anna's purview?"

"Pretty much, but I promised her I'd sit in and take notes since she's got another obligation and everyone seems to think that since I run the business, I actually know something about financial management," Jared said. "Which I don't."

Chad just shook his head.

Such was life as the Monarch.

Part Two

Jensen Ackles sat with his cousin Christian Kane at one of the long tables in the great hall of his father's keep. The huge room, with its rough stone walls, and polished wooden floors, was a throwback to older times when the court gathered together every night for meals.

The representatives from Valdesco had arrived just after lunch, requesting yet another audience with the High Chief, Jensen's father. Charles Ackles had left with his advisors to hear the final verdict for reparations.

"You know, I just don't get this, if priests didn't want Valdesco to come here, why didn't they just say no?" Jensen rubbed a hand across his face.

Christian pushed his hair out of his eyes. "You know as well as I do, this had less to do with formalizing relations with Valdesco than it did with your father pushing reform. The priests were not going to have it."

"My father is a true believer. They will chain him with that," Jensen said. "He will back down if the priests push hard enough."

But Christian was shaking his head. "Not this time. I mean, yes, he believes, but he wants the advances in medicines and technology that Valdesco has."

"The priests won't allow the advances. As much as they have distanced themselves from the murders, I'm willing to bet they all knew about it." Despite ten years in the military, it never failed to amaze him what people would do to keep power over others.

Even though the actual kidnappers had been captured quickly, it hadn't been quickly enough to stop Valdesco's retribution. Valdesco had acted in good faith and been savaged for their efforts, but the war that had ensued had cost all concerned too much already. They needed to end this.

Jensen absently rubbed his damaged knee. As grateful as he was that the injury wasn't life-threatening, he'd never walk without a limp again. And his career was over.

"Are you concerned about how the negotiations are going?" Christian fiddled with a knife left on the table from lunch.

Something in Christian's tone made the hair on the back of his neck stand up. While the treaty didn't affect him personally, he did worry about the concessions that Amaranth would have to give up. "Is there something I need to know about it?"

Christian looked away and let out a long breath. "I've heard rumors that we've offered a War Prize as part of the concessions."

A knot formed in the base of Jensen's belly. "A war prize?"

"A hostage to ensure our good behavior in the future." Christian still wasn't looking at him. "It's in our laws, though very old law, that as terms of our negotiations for surrender we will offer up a hostage -- the unmarried son or daughter of the High Chief."

"What does that mean exactly? And to me?" He knew an orchestrated conversation when he heard one.

"I don't know the details completely, but I do know the priests supposedly offered up a War Prize, though they didn't expect Valdesco to accept it. But Valdesco did."

Jensen felt nauseated. "That's barbaric. I thought Valdesco was supposed to be so much more advanced than us. How could they even think of accepting something like that?"

"I don't know what they were thinking, but it's going to happen."

There were no unmarried females in the entire Royal family, including the cousins. His sister was long married and his last female cousin had been married last summer and was now pregnant. He looked at Christian with his heart beating too fast. "Who?"

The sympathy in Christian's eyes told him the answer before he spoke. "You."

That was ludicrous. "Me? You're joking. I'm male. Beyond that, I'm too old and I have a child already. Why would they want me?"

"From what I am given to understand," Christian dropped his voice, "They don't care who it is. They were offered a hostage to peace as part of the negotiations, and they took it along with the rest of Amaranth's concessions."

"Isn't the Monarch male? What could he possibly want with me?" Jensen needed to stay calm. It was only a rumor. "Where did you hear this? Why wouldn't my father warn me?"

"The priests told him not to. They thought the shock might keep you quiet for as long as it took to get you to Valdesco." It was pretty clear that Christian didn't think that was possible.

Jensen closed his eyes. A fine trembling had started to move through him. "Who told you?"

"Your father," Christian said.

It was true. Jensen didn’t believe this could be happening to him. "He told you, knowing you'd tell me? Why didn't you mention it before now?"

"This is the first time I've seen you in days. You're not that easy to track down."

Since he'd gotten out of the hospital, he hadn't wanted to talk to anyone.

The sound of a door scratching across the wooden floor drew his attention. His father's page, Jackson, entered the great hall, and came to stand next to Jensen. The room became horrifyingly silent. So silent, Jensen could believe that everyone heard the pounding of his heart as it slammed against his chest.

"Sir, please join your father in the audience room." There was too much sympathy in the young man's eyes for Jensen not to understand.

Christian put a hand on his arm and squeezing hard. "Courage."

Patting Christian's hand, he stood. "I'll be there in a moment," Jensen told the page with a small smile.

The page nodded and fled. Jensen could feel all the eyes in the Hall on him as he stood.

Christian stood too, putting both hands on Jensen's shoulders. "Whatever you need, I'll get it for you."

A lump formed in Jensen's throat and he nodded. "Thank you. Wait for me here?"

"Of course."

Jensen limped slowly along the dim corridor towards his father's council chambers. When he got to the huge oak door, he paused for one second to smooth down his tunic. He would do this without an emotional display or, worse, hysterics. The door slid open under his touch.

All of his father's councillors and several of the priests stood off to one side. The delegation from Valdesco sat across from Jensen's father. The lead negotiator, a formidable looking woman with brown hair caught up in a complicated style, was in conversation with his father.

The slight buzz of conversation stopped completely at his entrance, dimming the vague hope he'd had of Chris being wrong. He took a deep breath and faced his father.

"Jensen." His father stood and motioned him forward. The negotiator and her party moved down the table to give them some privacy.

When he was close enough to touch, his father's hand came down on his shoulder. "Have you spoken to your cousin?"

His knee gave out completely and he sat down hard. "Yes, father. Not that I could really believe it."

"I don't either. We never thought they'd agree to accept a War Prize."

"Gods above and below, why did you even offer?"

"It was the thought that it would be something they would negotiate on. Something like a bargaining chip --"

"By the priests, who have no idea of the politics of their country? We always been told they were so advanced," Jensen said. Despite the coolness of the room, sweat started to trickle uncomfortably down his back. "I'm almost thirty. And male. How can they want me for something like that?"

Charles inclined his head towards the negotiator. "She doesn't appear to understand where the problem is. I can't believe they sent a woman in the first place. If I were in any position to do so, I would protest the insult."

Whatever else she was, that woman was no underling. Her bearing and confidence screamed authority and that she knew what she was doing. No doubt, his father saw her as a threat without realizing why.

Jensen cleared his throat, and caught the woman's eye. "What are the terms?"

"As the treaty your people negotiated stated, there are no terms for you," she said with clear command in her tone. "If you agree to surrender yourself as The War Prize, you will do so in three days at the Double Road Highway between Amaranth and Valdesco."

"I'm asking what my status will be in Valdesco?" Jensen said.

She met his eyes and nothing showed of what she was thinking or feeling. "You will have no status."

Well, that was just great. And it told him nothing. "Even a slave has some kind of status."

"That is correct. But you will have none. Your existence is completely at the whim of the Monarch."

"Seriously?" There was some part of him that wanted to laugh. Because he simply could not believe that was even possible. Not in this day and age.

But she nodded.

"Can his household staff and some family accompany him?" His father's question was absurd and he had to wonder if Charles had done it on purpose. There was no way he'd bring his daughter into a country that would do this to him.

"You may bring three members of your household with you. No one else."

His father opened his mouth to protest, but Jensen shook his head. Now was not the time to argue with the sanctions.

It didn't matter anyway. He wasn't going to take anyone with him anyway. But Halley had to be safe. "And I must agree?"

She nodded. "You're an adult. We can't move forward unless you agree."

"And if I don't?" Maybe something else could be negotiated.

Charles ran a hand over his face. "Valdesco will send an army to occupy Amaranth until I die and your brother can turn over his oldest son."

His father's health was good, and he could easily live another twenty or thirty years. Maybe more. And as much as his oldest brother had made his life miserable as a child, he would not condemn his son to this fate.

With everyone's fate depending upon him, he knew he had no choice. His heart was pounding hard as he leaned down and whispered, "I want your word that Halley will be educated and raised in a manner I would have wanted. And not married until she's reached at least eighteen."

"You're not going to take her with you?" Charles asked.

"Into a hostile situation where my status will be less than that of slave? I wouldn't take my worst enemy's child into that situation!"

"I will do my best for her. I'll see she goes to the Church school and is wed to someone acceptable."

He'd hoped to spare his daughter the experience of the Church school. Halley was strong-willed and smart, she'd adapt as she had to. "Promise me she'll go to Islas Merada, where her mother went."

Charles nodded. "Is there anything else?"

"Nothing." As long as he knew that Halley was safe, he'd live with what he had to.

"Who do you want to accompany you?" Charles asked.

"No one."

"I think Christian would be happy to go. He could protect you, too. Maybe one of your brothers as well. I know you haven't always gotten along with them, but I think they might accompany you for a while. It's not that far, perhaps they could switch off --"

"No, father. No one." He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "It will be hard enough to bear whatever they do to me without someone I love seeing me humiliated."

He looked over at the female negotiator. She was talking with her people, seemingly not listening to them.

"Will you agree?" Charles asked.

It wasn't as if there were any choice. Jensen nodded once.

Jensen closed the door to the room and leaned against it. The life he'd had before he went into the room was over, changed irrevocably with a few words and the brush of a pen across parchment. How could his father and his country do this to him?

His stomach roiled and his knee ached. He needed to find Christian and take care of the myriad details that would need to be dealt with before he could close out his life.

Christian was waiting for him in the Great Hall.

"I can tell it was as bad as I said." Christian frowned deeply.

"Worse than you can imagine." Jensen explained the terms (or lack thereof) of the treaty.

"How can they call themselves civilized? Even with all of our old laws and customs, we don't allow slavery anywhere anymore."

"I'm going to be less than that." It wasn't real to him yet. He took a breath and then another. The edges of his vision started to go gray, and he couldn't breathe.

"Jensen. Jensen." He could hear Christian's voice as if it were far away.

"Breathe, slowly. One. Two. Three."

He followed the instructions and the gray started to recede. It had been years since he'd had this problem. "Thanks."

"Are you okay?" Christian asked, his hand on Jensen's arm.

"Stupid question. What do you think?" Jensen closed his eyes and concentrated on breathing in and out slowly for a few minutes. "Sorry. Can you look after Halley?"

"Of course, I'll take her. And see that she's raised the way you'd want." At least, Christian hadn't suggested taking her with him to Valdesco.

"My father has promised to see her schooled and properly wed." Gods, how he hated that. But it would keep her safe until she could make her own decisions.

"You're going to let her go to the Church school?" Christian felt the same way about it that he did and for the same reasons.

Halley had to be safe, and his father was the only one who could ensure it. "My choices are limited."

"I could take her. Or what about one of your brothers? Especially since --"

He'd thought of that. With four brothers, at least three of them would take her, but, "I doubt they could do any better for her than my father could. Their daughters either went or will go to the church school. And while I wish you could take her, you know as well as I do, your job doesn't give you much free time. A child has to have at least one parent present."

"I'm sorry." Christian's eyes dropped. "What did you need me to do, then?"

"Can you visit her? So that she sees a friendly face now and then." A lump formed in Jensen's throat at the very thought of his baby alone.

She would be safe. If he wouldn't be there to take care of her, keeping her safe was all that he could hope for. In a very few days' time, he wasn't going to be able to take care of himself.

"I'll see her as often as possible." Christian put his hand over Jensen's, holding on for a moment. "I wish there was more I could do."

"I do, too, but unfortunately, there's nothing to be done. For either of us."

"When do you leave for Valdesco?" Christian asked.

"Three days." He had to take a breath to relieve the crushing constriction in his chest.

Christian stood and pulled Jensen to his feet. "Since there is nothing we can do to fix this, let's go out tonight and get drunk. We'll worry about the rest of it tomorrow."

"Thank you," Jensen said, following Christian towards the door.

As terrified of his future as he was, anytime anyone mentioned it to him, he just gritted his teeth and said it would be fine. He could see that no one believed him, but it didn't matter since everyone gave him the space he needed.

Christian stayed with him during the last few days as they made the necessary preparations for his surrender to Valdesco.

The night before he was to leave, after he'd spent the day saying good-bye to his brothers and cousins, he shared a quiet dinner with Halley and Christian. After dinner, he picked her up and carried her into her room. She cuddled against him.

"I have to go away in the morning," he said as he laid her gently in her bed.

"I don't want you to go," she said, clinging to his arm.

"I don't want to go either. But I have to. For grandpa Charles and all your cousins."

"Do I have to go to that school? Megan goes there, and she doesn't like it."

"It's a good school, baby girl." With excellent security. "I know it won't be as much fun as the school you're going to now, but I want you to promise me that you'll do what they say."

It killed him to make her promise that, but it was the only way he could guarantee she would be safe.

She thought about it for a moment, and then nodded. "Okay, daddy. You have to promise me you'll come home soon."

His eyes stung. "I promise baby. As soon as I can. Uncle Christian will come and see you."

At that, she smiled, but her green eyes were liquid. "You will come home?"

"I promise," he said, and his voice cracked on the lie. "You need to be good for me."

She wrapped her arms around him and held on tight. "Don't go," she whispered.

"I wish I didn't have to. I love you, baby girl."

"I love you too, daddy."

He leaned down and gently disengaged her arms. She sniffed and he did too. He tried not to think that she knew he was lying about coming back.

When he came out of Halley's room, Christian was holding his arms open, and Jensen walked right into them without a word. Fortunately, he could cry quietly.

After he'd wrestled himself back under control and had a stiff drink, he sat on the sofa. He should finish packing -- not that he was taking much. Just some clothes. But right now, he couldn't move.

Christian pulled a long cylindrical package from his cloak and handed it to him.

"What's this?" Jensen asked, accepting the gift and turning it over in his hands.

"Open it and see." Christian nodded for Jensen to do it.

It was an old fashioned walking stick, beautifully carved of hardwood. "I doubt I'll be able to use it to defend my virtue," Jensen said with a forced laugh.

"Keep it with you -- you may have need of it." Christian's eyes were serious.

"It will be good to have some protection. Thank you, my friend." Jensen hugged him.

"Can I ride with you tomorrow?" Christian stood, putting a hand on Jensen shoulder.

Jensen shook his head. "I need to go alone."

"If you need me for anything. Anything at all. I will come for you, I swear it." Christian hugged him tightly. He seemed to understand without words, but then, he always did.

Jensen's eyes stung as he pulled away from Christian.

From the moment he got into the vehicle taking him to the rendezvous point, Jensen started to distance himself from everything in his life. He ignored the others in the car with him, and focused on keeping his breath even.

If he thought about it too much, the grief would overwhelm him. As it was, all he could do was hope he didn't humiliate himself with tears.

While he would try to be polite, obedience and subservience were not his strong suits.

Jensen turned his attention to the window and the passing scenery. The sights of the devastation depressed him further. The once-lush farmlands had been seared by the lasers of the enemy forces.

At the northernmost tip of Amaranth and the southernmost of Valdesco, two roads along the border ran parallel to each other with a small field between them. He would cross from one side to the other, as the treaty dictated.

From there, Jensen would accompany the Monarch's party to the capital city of Jacaranda. The three priests his father sent to attend him would follow later in the day.

The car stopped. A prickle of sweat slid down his spine. When the door was opened by the driver, he looked quickly at his father, who put a hand on his arm, squeezing once, but otherwise remained silent. Jensen left the vehicle without a backward glance.

The driver saluted him.

Blinking several times, Jensen waited for his eyes to adjust after the dimness of the car

A cool breeze caught his hair and blew across his neck, and a shiver ran through him.

Across the road, three shiny vehicles hovered in the air just above the ground. He did not want to be impressed with anything about his captors. Instead, he focused on his anger at the situation and those who would be holding him.

Two men and a woman stood beside one of the cars, all richly dressed in tunics and trousers that were very different from what he was wearing. All three were tall and pale, with long dark brown hair, and were pleasant to look at -- the tallest of the men more so than the other two.

A dozen uniformed guards stood at attention flanking the three. And to Jensen's surprise, there were as many women in the guard as men. How was it possible that a woman was strong enough to be in their guard?

Leaning heavily on his walking stick, Jensen made his way across the uneven surface, hoping he would not slip. The coming days were going to be bad enough without further embarrassing himself by falling on his face.

When he reached the edge of the grass, he stopped for a moment to catch his breath.

Part Three

Of all the things that Jared had worried the War Prize might be, it never occurred to him that he might be beautiful. And really, beautiful didn't begin to describe him. Tall, light brown hair, green eyes, and a full, lush mouth. He looked like something out of a wet dream.

But a moment's admiration was all he could allow himself. There was too much to be done, too much at stake to get ridiculous over a pretty face. Time enough to worry about the way he looked later.

Jared had been told nothing about the man, not even his name, only that he was male and a younger son. Samantha said that both the High Chief's negotiators and the priests had mentioned both facts repeatedly, to what end she'd been unable to ascertain.

As he made way slowly across the small field between the two roads, leaning heavily on his walking stick, it was clear that he was in some amount of pain. Jared hoped that whatever the problem was, it could be healed. It would go a long way towards showing that they meant him no harm.

Jared straightened his shoulders and took a step forward, Anna and Ryan flanking him on either side, and six of the honor guard lined up behind them. He crossed to the edge of the road. "I am Jared, Monarch of Valdesco. Be welcome."

"Jensen Ackles, your War Prize." The tone was quiet, but his green eyes flashed with something that could have been apprehension or even fear, but it was gone before Jared could register what it had been.

He and Jensen looked at each other for a moment more, and then Jared said, "You and I will travel back to the capital in this car, and everyone else will follow in the other two."

"Alone?" Jensen seemed startled by the prospect.

Jared could not imagine why they shouldn't be alone. Maybe it had to do with some cultural thing. "I thought we might start to get to know one another. Unless there's some reason not to?"

"Other than being worried that I'll try to murder you once we're alone, no." The words were said completely without inflection.

It might also have been an attempt at a joke. But Jared couldn't tell. "There's no honor in killing an unarmed man."

And clearly that was the right thing to say. Jensen nodded. "Nor would I do it." He moved toward the car without waiting to be dismissed.

Jared nodded to his siblings and guards.

"Watch him closely," Ryan whispered to the Head of the Guard, David Boreanaz.

"Yes sir. I plan to," David said, and got into the front passenger side of the car Jared and Jensen would be riding in.

"Jared, be careful." Anna touched his arm as she moved toward the other car to join Ryan. Unarmed and injured, Jensen wasn't going to be a threat.

Jensen held onto the car door as he bent to get in, and Jared followed him into the car.

"Why don't you tell me about yourself," Jared prompted as the driver started the car, and it rose smoothly into the air. The ride back to the capital would take a few hours. Being friends would make living together so much easier.

"You know, it might be better for you to tell me what is required of me -- as a War Prize." Jensen said, bitterness not quite hidden.

"I actually don't know." Jared gave him a chagrined half-smile.

Jensen had been frowning, and now it was worse. "Excuse me? How can you not know? You accepted the terms of the treaty."

"Your people were the ones who insisted on this. We're just trying to figure how to deal with it. What do you think we will require of you?"

"As I understand it, I'm supposed to exist at your whim, without rights or status. That could mean anything." He took a breath. "Including being your bed slave." Despite the bravado of the tone, there was a note of concern, perhaps even true fear behind the words.

"You'd allow something like that?" Jared was absolutely appalled. How could anyone believe such a thing?

Even as he thought it, Jared knew he was being naïve. It wasn't as if he hadn't been off-planet enough times to see what other beings were capable of doing to each other. Not to mention Valdesco's own past, which provided quite a few examples of barbarism.

Jensen's face held no emotion when he spoke again. "I would not allow it, if I had any choice at all, but I was given to understand that I had no choice in the matter."

The implication nauseated Jared. "It won't be required of you, I promise you that. You'll be treated like any other guest of this country."

"But I have no status, no rights, correct?" Jensen seemed to understand what his status would be, at least to begin with.

Jared wasn't sure what provisions had been made. It was stupid of him to have arrived here without really knowing anything. He supposed he could call Chad and ask, but he would look like such a fool. "You're not going to be a citizen at first, so, yeah, that's correct."

"Then I am to be your slave." Jensen jaw tightened and he spoke through clenched teeth. "Why sugarcoat the truth?"

" Never. Slavery is illegal in Valdesco. And even if it weren't, I would never own anyone, ever." Jared didn't understand the rage in Jensen's eyes. Fear, yes, maybe, but shouldn't he be relieved that he wasn't going to be slave -- or worse?

"I don't understand what you're telling me." When Jensen blinked, Jared noticed how ridiculously long his eyes lashes were.

"Okay, so for the first ten or so days, you're not going to have any rights as a citizen, and your movements will be restricted to the palace, but absolutely no one is going abuse you or ask of you something you would not freely give."

"I see." Jensen's tone said he did not trust them. That this might be some kind of trick. "What else will be required of me?"

"You'll have to attend several receptions with me over the next ten days."

Jensen let out a slow breath. "That doesn't sound so difficult. What happens in ten days?"

"We'll be wed. And you'll be granted citizenship after that."

"Wed? Seriously? You and I?" Now, Jensen looked genuinely horrified.

Was he that unappealing? "I thought that was how this worked. You'd come here and marry me and that would satisfy whatever your country needed to be able to make peace with us."

"Is that what they told you? That you had to marry me to make peace with Amaranth?"

"Something like that."

"I don't understand how it's possible for us to wed."

What was there not to understand? Maybe it was something else that was cultural. Or religious. "A priest will say some holy words over us. Our lives will be joined. Your own priest or priests may be present and say whatever prayers are appropriate for you as well."

"Is that even legal?" Jensen asked, his voice rising slightly on the last word.

Legal? He'd heard that Amaranth was a religious state. "All religions are legal here, and have equal rights."

Jensen shook his head. "I meant for two males to wed."

"Of course. Isn't it legal in Amaranth?" Because how could it not be?

"No, of course it's not legal. Marriage is between a man and a woman. Two men aren't even supposed to have sex."

By all the Gods, Jared never heard of such an outrageous thing. All right, some worlds didn't allow same gender couples to wed, but even on the most primitive worlds, the people respected the rights of people to choose the partner they wanted. "Why not?" he choked out.

"Because sex is to make children and two men can't do that." Jensen said it as if it were a universal truth and Jared was an idiot for not knowing it.

Which prompted Jared to point out that, "Actually, two men can produce children here."

The look of horrified disbelief on Jensen's face would have been funny in other circumstances. "How could that even be possible?"

"It requires modifying and enhancing one of the male's bodies, so most don't go to the trouble. Most prefer more traditional means of child production."

Suddenly, Jensen looked greenish and he put his hand over his mouth. "That sounds horrible."

"I have to agree with you." Jared paused and then picked up their previous conversation. "You said that you only had sex to produce children?"

"That is the ideal, at least according to the priests in Amaranth. But to be truthful it rarely works that way."

That made Jared relax a little. "You don't believe it?"

For a second, Jensen said nothing. "No. But it is what we are taught."

"Things are different here," Jared said. He suspected that he'd be saying that a lot in the coming days, weeks. There were variations of customs in Valdesco, especially in the distant regions, but by and large everyone followed a version of the same traditions.

"Why do ..." Jensen looked down and sighed.

"Jensen? Why what? Never be afraid to ask questions. I will always answer them, or find you an answer."

"Why does your society allow men to wed?" Jensen hesitated, then went on. "I mean -- even with men able to bear children," Jensen paused to grimace and Jared smiled, "There is no logic in men marrying."

"It's not only men who marry each other, but women as well. And love and marriage are not always based on logic." Jared dredged up what information he could remember from a long-ago history class. "The first Monarch under the joint realm ..."

"What joint realm?" Jensen asked, surprised.

"For a short time, many hundreds years ago, the entire planet was united under a single ruler."

"That's not what our history says," Jensen said, but his voice lacked certainty, or any conviction, as if he wasn't sure what he believed. "We've always been told that we were never part of another society. Our history goes back for many, many hundreds of years."

At some point in the future, they should compare their histories of the planet, but for now, he wasn't going to disagree and cause offence. "As our history does," Jared continued, "My many-times great-grandfather Falcon Padalecki united the planet. As insurance for good behavior from his new allies, he took captives from each of the five clans -- we believe this is where your concept of the War Prize came from."

"But this is your history."

"Aside from this instance, we have no record of it happening after."

Jensen rubbed the back of his neck. "We have many instances of it in our history. Continue your story."

"Falcon had planned to wed one of the daughters, and give two of the sons to his sisters. Despite his planning, his own true desire was one of the young men, and he decided he would go against tradition and marry him anyway."

"Against tradition?" Jensen's voice was hoarse with surprise. "Your cultural rules?"

"Yes, exactly. There had always been allowances made for shieldmates," Jared paused, and seeing Jensen's blank look, he explained, "warrior pairs."

Jensen nodded.

"Until then, they had not been allowed to wed, but Falcon broke that tradition. Some of the more conservative priests, indeed some citizens, were outraged. But he was Monarch, and they had to accept it."

"They did nothing about it?" Jensen asked.

"What could they do? He was the Monarch and his power was absolute. But that was when men and women started wedding their own gender. You and I will wed in ten days time." Jared paused to look at Jensen, trying to gauge what he was thinking. "Are we going to offend you irrecoverably by forcing you to wed me?"

"I will do what is required of me." Jensen sounded tired, resigned, not quite defeated, but close enough.

"Beyond that," Jared pressed. He could not bear the thought of forcing someone into something they felt was morally wrong.

"I don't want to get married, especially to someone I don't know. But the concept itself is so far from anything I've ever considered that I am without prejudice."

There was nothing else he could do so, so Jared decided to take Jensen at his word. And really, he did not seem unduly outraged by the idea. But that could just mean he was in too much shock to register it. The Gods knew, Jared was reeling.

Valdesco would have to look further into what made Amaranth society what it was. There was still too much they did not know, and Jared knew he was about to get a crash course. He pulled out his data padd, he had to make some notes or he'd forget half of what he wanted to look into about Jensen and Amaranth.

"What is that?" Jensen nodded towards his padd.

"It's a data padd. It's used to communicate, store information, read, watch video, play games and all sorts of other things. I guess they don't have anything like it in Amaranth?" Jared handed it to him.

Jensen just held it as if he were afraid to do anything with it. "No. Nothing. Show me something."


"I have no concept of what it is. Or what it can do. Just show me anything."

Jared brought up the main menu. "Each of these icons, the little pictures," he pointed at one, "represents a program or a service that you can access from the padd."

"Program? You mean like a computer program?"

"Yes. This is a computer. But I'm thinking this is pretty advanced from what you're used to."

"Our computers have keyboards and CRT monitors. They need special rooms with very cold air and raised floors."

Jared had done a course in school on the history of technology, that sounded like the beginnings of their computer age, maybe fifty or sixty years ago. "This probably has more processing power than your computers."

"What did you call it? A padd?"

"Would you like to try it?" Jared pulled up a game. "This is one of my favorites."

Jensen's hand-to-eye coordination was very good, and while he didn't win, he didn't do badly once he'd figured out how to use his hands for the game.

Before he put his padd away, Jared sent a quick note to Chad to find out what the rules were concerning Jensen and their technology. "What do you know of Valdesco?"

"Not much, I'm afraid. We thought that your people were like ours. We know you are more advanced than we are." Jensen waved a hand towards the padd sitting between them. "Your weapons were certainly more advanced than we ever expected."

"Aren't you curious?" He waited a moment. "I can't believe you don't care."

"I have no idea what to ask," Jensen said. "You should be telling me what I need to know. Because really, how would I even know what to ask?"

Jared supposed he had a point. But he'd gone to this meeting without all of his facts and he knew better. "How old are you?"

"I'm twenty-nine years, almost thirty. How old are you?" Jensen asked, curiosity creeping into his tone.

"Twenty-five." Jared looked at him. "Does that matter?"

"You asked first." Jensen looked down. "Can you tell me what is going to be expected of me, long term?"

"After we marry, you'll be expected to accompany me to events as my spouse. If you'd like to pursue a career, it will be your choice about what it is. If you'd like to do something else, volunteer work, whatever, you can do that, too."

Jensen closed his eyes for a moment. "I know nothing, absolutely nothing about your society. How can I even begin to make an informed decision?"

Another point. In all likelihood, Jensen wasn't going to know how to do anything. "I'll see what I can set up in the way of instructions. Did you have any sort of formal education?"

Wow. Yet another wrong question.

Jensen was scowling. "I had an excellent education. I went all the way up through the first master's level in school --"

"I don't know what that means."

"There are twelve years of primary schooling. Starting at about age six. After primary there are four years of apprentice education. And then there are two series of master's levels. And then an expert level for some things. Most professional careers require at least an apprentice-level education. Something like a healer requires an expert level."

"That's very like our system, though we don't call it the same thing." And much better than he'd thought. "I think that after an adjustment period, maybe all you'll need is to get specialized training."

Jensen just nodded. But he looked rather doubtful. Jared wished he could do something to allay his fears, but he hadn't a clue what.

He let the silence stretch out between them, hoping Jensen might offer something voluntarily. But Jensen remained stubbornly silent.

Jared could not imagine living the life Jensen must have led, and he didn't want to think about the implications of what his life was going to be like with Jensen in it.

They'd fallen silent and Jensen looked out at the verdant scenery. Viewing the lands from the air, one didn't see the advanced technologies. The cities along the route to the capital didn't look very different from his own land.

That computer thing that Jared was playing with was so far beyond anything he could have even conceived of. And Jared used it so effortlessly, with a level of comfort that said he'd probably never known a time without such a device.

"...hmm..." Jensen started to ask, but realized he wasn't sure how he should address the Monarch. "Jared?"

Jared jumped a little. "Yes."

"Can you tell me why you hide the technology?"

He set his padd down again. "What do you mean? It's not hidden."

"We're flying low enough for me to see the village we just passed. It looked no different from the towns in Amaranth." Jensen could see he wasn't getting through, but he lacked the proper reference points. "Aside from the air car – where it is obvious – your architecture is different, but not so different to be unrecognizable."

"Our technology, at least in the beginning, was given to us and worked into general use slowly," Jared said.

"Given? By whom?"

"By the conglomerate that contacted us, about four hundred and something years ago."

"Who in Valdesco could have given you the technology, and medicines?" Jensen asked, feeling like he'd lost track of the conversation somewhere along the way.

Shifting, Jared turned to look out the window for a moment, then turned back, probably deciding what he should say. "Do you know anything about the off-world consortium that Valdesco has been trading with?

It took a moment for the words to penetrate. "You've contacted life outside this world?" He'd been taught that no other life existed, but really, he'd always thought that the universe was too big for that to be true. Having his ideas confirmed was not the same as having the idea in the first place, though.

"They contacted us, after a fashion. Well, actually they crash-landed on the Western continent. We helped them out, and in return we were asked to join their consortium of planets involved in trade. We've had treaties and trade agreements for a long time." Jared chatted on as if encountering alien life was a common occurrence.

"They crash landed in Valdesco? How could no one in Amaranth have known that?"

"I think that the planet here is big enough that what happens on one continent is not necessarily known to another. But I also think that Amaranth had isolated itself by that point."

"By that point?" Jensen asked. As far as he knew, Amaranth had never had contact with Valdesco. "Were we ever in contact?"

"As I said earlier, we were at one point under the same rule. It didn't last. And the people went south to what became Amaranth."

"This isn't what I understood our history to be." Jensen suspected that there would be a lot of that. "How did you get the technology from the..." He shrugged. He had no idea what to call the alien life.

Jared nodded. "The Vashtians -- that's what the first peoples that contacted us called themselves -- proposed a deal with Falcon's son, Jerez, and he opened negotiations with the conglomerate."

"At the same time that he wanted the advances, Jerez also realized that to just dump their advanced technology into the population in one fell swoop would terrify the masses. He and the Vashtians proposed slowly working the technology into use.

"Horse-drawn carriages were slowly replaced by "horseless" carriages, which looked nearly the same except without the horse. Those became ground cars and then air cars. The advances in medicine were easier, doctors simply had the cures for various diseases, and distributed them as necessary."

There was too much information coming to Jensen too fast, but he just nodded. "This does make some sense. But it's been hundreds of years, why don't the towns look... more advanced?"

"Most of the towns along this route are older than that. We take pride in our traditions. There was no reason to change the way things look. Newer cities in the west and north look more modern."

Jensen's breath caught as the Palace of Valdesco came into view. He was not sure what he'd expected, but the sprawling complex of stark white buildings was not it. The whole thing looked like something that would be in a child's fairy story, with gleaming high towers, brass spires standing straight up, and what looked like vast gardens at the back of the palace. The city came right to the edges with wrought-iron gates at the sides.

"Impressive, isn't it?"

Jared's voice broke into his thoughts, startling him back to reality. "Yes, it's very impressive. But it wasn't built all at once, I think?"

"No. Many, many generations built it, over hundreds of years."

"It all fits together so well. Usually when the next generation builds after the last, it's always with the newest architecture, not the past one." His father's keep had been the work of many generations, and it looked it.

"An effort was made several generations ago to put the whole thing to rights," Jared said with an inflection of pride in his tone.


"Pride. We were hosting the bi-annual consortium meeting for the first time, and we wanted the palace and grounds to be impressive. It had to be expanded and updated to include the new spaceport, so it was decided that the whole thing would get a face lift."

"Have you seen alien life?" Jensen asked, the idea still too abstract to believe comfortably.

"Aside from the people who visit every year, several embassies have permanent residents here. I have been off-world several times. The last time was three years ago." Jared sounded a little sad that it had been so long.

"What was it like, being off this planet, seeing other worlds?" The idea intrigued him, more than he could put into words. He wanted to hear all about it, anything Jared would tell him.

Jared was quiet for a moment and then shook his head. "Different from here."

"That's not an answer." And it did nothing to satisfy Jensen's curiosity.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be vague, but it's hard to compare other worlds to this one."

"I'd like to know more about it." He'd more than like to know; this concept that Jared found so easy to dismiss was world-changing to Jensen. Alien life existed; how awesome was that?

Jared shifted, turning on the seat to look right at Jensen. "The last time I was off-world, I visited one of the conglomerate space stations. It's a big cylindrical steel structure that orbits one of the conglomerate planets, and there are at least a hundred different worlds represented there. Some people look like we do, and others are so different that it defies description. We are building our own space station in orbit of this planet."

Impressed despite himself, Jensen said wistfully, "I'd love to see it."

With a smile, Jared nodded. "It won't be open for at least another year. In time, we might visit one of the others, possibly when the difficulties between our countries are settled."

"Of course." Nothing like being reminded of why he was here. Jensen sat back in his seat, oddly disappointed. The idea that he might visit an alien world receded back into the realm of fantasy and the reality of his present situation took hold again.

Jensen was silent as the air shuttle touched down on a platform suspended in what looked like mid-air, some kind of ramp with moving stairs appeared, and several people came rushing forward.

Jared put his hand on Jensen's arm when he would have exited the vehicle. "There will be a welcoming ceremony and prayers said that there will be peace between our two countries."

"What is my role?"

"You're going to give yourself up as the War Prize." He held up a hand. "I'm sorry. We had no idea what to do about this since it's made the Network, and every news service in the entire nation is going to be there."

"What are you telling me?"

"I'm going to put a collar on you -- well, a jeweled necklace really, but we wanted something symbolic."

Jensen's stomach roiled. "Collar? Like an animal?"

"Listen, this is going to be filmed and sent back to Amaranth to prove that we were doing what they asked so that the peace talks can finish. And we can all go on."

He hadn't gotten over the last part. "A collar?"

"A necklace," Jared said, and he sounded dubious.

"The same thing." Gods above and below, just when he thought it might be okay. It got even worse.

"Yeah. I know. I'm sorry for this. We --"

"No. This is my people's doing. I know that. But seriously, a collar?" Something else occurred to him. "It won't come off, will it?"

"Not until you've been freed. Your country required most of this. We asked, and they told us what had to happen to make this work."

"Who did you ask?"

"I wasn't there, but I think I was told that it was one of the priest negotiators."

Jensen couldn't disparage the priests to this man, it would sound disloyal to his home. And while he might be angry about all of this, he was going to try his damnedest not to let it show.

"Look, both of our people are still dying out there until we can sign and deliver the treaty." Jared sighed. "I'm sorry to put you through more of this, but at this point, we both have our roles to play here."

"Of course," Jensen said, quietly.

Jared's hazel eyes met his solemnly and he put a hand on his arm. "Thank you. I know this will be very difficult for you, but I promise that I'll try and make it as uncomplicated as possible."

Even if Jared did believe it himself -- and Jensen thought that he probably did -- the likelihood that he was going to get out of this unscathed were slim to none. The door was opened, and Jared nodded and let go of his arm.

Stepping from the covered ramp onto the ground, Jensen was assaulted by a rush of sounds and smells coming from all directions. The lights were all too bright. He couldn't assimilate any of it. The humidity pounded oppressively at his sinuses. The heat of the morning pressed down on him, making him sweat.

He moved towards the steps of the palace, flanked by guards on either side of him. Did they really think he'd make a break for it? His walking stick slid a little on the smooth surface of the walk, and one of the guards put a hand on his arm to steady him.

None of the great cathedrals in Amaranth could come close to the majesty of the soaring complex in front of him. He'd never dreamed of anything like it, didn't have the imagination to even comprehend a place like this could exist. Jensen turned his attention away from the grandeur of the architecture, to the ceremony that was starting.

Without Jensen realizing it, Jared had mounted the steps, and a crown had somehow managed to make its way onto his head. No, not a crown exactly, more of a gold band with sapphires set into the metal. It looked good on him -- not that Jensen would admit it to anyone, but to himself he could be honest -- Jared was an attractive man.

Speaking to the gathered people, Jared told them about Jensen, and his status as the War Prize. The people cheered, obviously enthralled with the idea. Great. That said a lot about them, didn't it? They shouted again with glee when Jared said that he would wed him in ten days.

A pillow was placed on the step below the one Jared stood on. Jensen didn't even have to ask what was to happen next. Leaning heavily on his walking stick, but with his head held high, he made his way slowly to where Jared stood. Pain laced through him as he knelt.

Pride kept his eyes up. He wasn't going to give anyone the satisfaction of knowing how much pain he was in or how much this was costing him. Jared spoke a bit more and then took a jeweled collar from a velvet pad being held by a young girl. Jared smiled down at her, and she giggled and blushed.

At some other point in his life, Jensen might have found the child's reaction endearing. The necklace slid around his neck, the heaviness weighing him down. Involuntarily he reached out to touch cool metal, hating it and what it symbolized.

"Do you freely come to Valdesco as War Prize?" Jared's voice was pitched to carry through the crowd.

"Yes." His stomach roiled. Giving his life for his country was one thing, giving his freedom was another. He'd rather be dead.

"You can get up now." Jared offered his hand.

As much as he wished to rise on his own, his knee would not allow it. "Thanks," he murmured. "What now?"

"Now we go to my quarters so that you can rest."

Jensen hobbled up the long flight of stairs, and was introduced to many people along the way, including several who were clearly not human. Shock numbed his mind. All he could manage were simple remarks. He nodded, and remained silent where he could.

On the threshold of the palace, Jensen stopped, the vast expanse of the ground floor stunning him. Even though the doors behind him remained open, Jensen felt as if they had been slammed shut, and all the air in the huge room had been forced out.

While the outside had looked like a beautiful cathedral or castle, the inside was a marvel of glass, chrome, and high technology. Surveillance cameras, some kind of scanner, and a uniformed guard sat behind a desk checking identification; behind him sat another guard watching four large monitors with images flickering on it. One was obviously a news feed of some kind, since the first thing he saw was himself kneeling on the steps -- with a level of clarity unlike anything he'd ever seen on television in Amaranth.

"Jensen?" Jared's voice cut through his thoughts, jerking him back to the present.

"What?" he snapped. The imagine of him on his knees being collared like a dog was going to be broadcast back to his people and everyone was going to see it.

"Come this way," Jared said, holding his hand out.

Jensen followed without a word. As he moved deeper into the vast space, he felt as if he were losing himself in the hugeness of the room. The air smelled like -- he wasn't sure what -- but not fresh. How did these people live like this, so congested, so crowded?

The room past the guard station was elaborate, soaring glass windows looked out on well-manicured gardens. The white marble floors, the stone statuary, the crystal lights were all designed to impress, and had Jensen's mood been any better it might have impressed him, but as it was, he barely registered the grandeur of his prison. He'd trade it all and half he owned for a breath of fresh air.

An elevator brought them to the top floor, opening in front of a set of double doors. A peculiar glass filament with a red light at the end stretched out for six or so inches from the top of the door jamb.

"What is that?" He nodded towards the glass object.

Jared confirmed his suspicion. "It's a camera."

"Your comings and goings are recorded." Jensen was appalled.

"It's used if someone tries to enter the suite without permission."

That did make a certain amount of sense since Jared was the Monarch.

"This is my... our suite." Jared put his hand on a plaque next to the brass doorknob. There was an audible click, and he pressed the door open.

So, that was how they planned to keep him, computerized locks. Breaking into the program and getting out of this room would be out of the question. Not that he would try, even if he could.

"Your hand print will be coded into the lock after our wedding."

"And until then?"

"You'll enter a code into the key pad and let the camera see you. One of the guards will unlock the door manually."

His comings and goings would be monitored. Fantastic.

Jensen pushed past Jared and then stopped suddenly in the foyer, nearly slipping on the polished floor. The room was done in light brown tones, the expanse had several levels -- some up a few steps, some down a few -- and several doors opened onto the room. The entire area was open space and magnificent. A huge glass expanse made up the entire side wall, and the view was breathtaking.

Movement out the window caught his eye. He limped across the room to the window and put his hand on the glass, watching as some kind of craft lifted off in the distance and raced into the clouds.

It was like magic. He'd never seen anything quite like it. Whatever else he had to say about it, this country was so far beyond his that he could scarcely grasp the differences.

"How do you get used to it?" he asked with more reverence in his tone than he would have liked, but he could not control it.

Jared paused, and then shrugged carelessly, as if to dismiss his awe. "I've grown up with it."

"Where do I sleep?" Jensen asked. For all the nice words and assurances, Jensen wouldn't have been surprised to be told he had a pallet by the fire.

"You have a suite of rooms through that door. It's not a lot, but after the wedding you'll be moved in here." Jared gestured towards the door to their right.

"A suite of rooms?" What? Wait. He closed his mouth.

"A bedroom with a small sitting room off to one side and a bath." Jared didn't seem to notice his surprise.

He needed to process all of this. "I'm quite tired. I'd like to rest."

Jared reached towards him, his hand falling away as Jensen stepped back. "Of course, I'm sorry. You must be exhausted."

Jensen silently followed Jared towards the door to his room. Again he was astounded by the size and splendor of the suite. The decor was similar to the main room. The wooden furnishings were heavy and masculine, something Jensen might have picked for himself. His rooms in his father's keep, and even in his own home, didn't come close to this elegance. "Very nice. Thank you."

"You're welcome. I hate to have to leave you like this, but I need to meet with my advisors. Rest. There will be a reception tonight." Jared turned and strode out without another glance at him.

Jensen sighed. He did not want to like Jared, didn't want to be friends. What he did want, more than anything, was to fall into the bed and sleep for a week, and then wake up to find this was all a bad dream.

He pushed himself to his feet. He needed to use the toilet.

For a moment, Jensen just stared at the expanse of smooth white surfaces. It was all so...unfamiliar...alien. He could guess that the chair-like device was probably a toilet, but there were no levers or buttons to push to flush it, and there was no water in it.

The need to use it was becoming critical. With a sigh, he approached it, running his fingers along the smooth surface. If he did something wrong here, it would be humiliating, but he had to use it.

Once he was done, he stepped back and the device made a quiet gurgling sound. Some kind of greenish liquid ran down the sides of the bowl.

Okay, so that worked. He stepped forward again, and then back. It definitely worked.

He stepped over to the counter. It had a slight depression in it, but no drain. There were no faucets either.

"What now?" he muttered.

He ran his fingers over the depression and a faucet of sorts emerged, as well as a hole in the depression. Of course, it didn't turn on.

There were three squares on the top of the facet. One green, one blue and one yellow. He touched the green one, and ice cold water came out of the tap. The blue one tempered it with warmth. The yellow added something slick -- soap maybe? -- to the mix.

Before he could enjoy figuring any of this out, he realized there was no way to dry his hands. It was enough that he'd gotten them washed. He wiped them on his pants and left the room.

He sat heavily on the bed. Without warning, the walls started to close in on him, his heartbeat accelerating rapidly, and he took a deep breath. It tasted bad, flat, metallic and he could not breathe around it.

Oh, Gods. He had to get to fresh air.

Without another thought, he limped out of his room. Jensen was surprised to find the front door of the suite unlocked. There was a elevator across the hall. There were also two unmarked doors on the floor. Closing his eyes, and taking another breath, he pressed the call button for the elevator, and stepped into it when the doors opened.

All he wanted was a little fresh air, then he'd be all right.

"What floor?" a mechanical voice startled him. The surprise steadied him somewhat, but he still had to find a window or door or some way out.

"Bottom floor," Jensen said, hoping that was where he'd started.

As soon as he moved off the elevator he knew he was in the wrong place. Turning back, he tried go back the same way he'd come, but the doors had closed, and there didn't seem to be a button to call the damned thing back.

Jensen took another deep breath and fought the encroaching panic. He started down the long hall, leaning heavily on his walking stick. He tried every door he came to, finally finding one that opened under his hand, leading to a staircase. Jensen started up the stairs, climbing slowly. His heart pounded hard with his efforts; his knee was starting to ache pretty badly. He went through the first door he came to.

After the climb, he wasn't able to go on any farther, and he sat down heavily on a bench against the wall. He took several deep breaths as he waited for the pain to abate. At least the pain had eased the panic. He smelled food cooking. This must be the kitchen area, and the staff was probably preparing for tonight's dinner and reception.

A tall, thin boy of fourteen or fifteen came out of a pair of swinging double doors and stopped short at the sight of him. Without taking a breath, he turned around and went back through the doors.

A moment later, another man, this one older, came out with the boy. "See, I told you," the boy whispered to his companion just loud enough for Jensen to hear.

Great! Just what he needed now.

"Is there something we can help you with, sir?"

Jensen didn't want to admit he was lost and certainly did not want to admit he'd been trying to find fresh air, pathetic though the attempt was. Discretion was the better part of valor. "I'm lost."

Both men looked relieved at the explanation. "Donny, take... erm...," the man had the grace to look chagrined, but Jensen wasn't going to give him a name. "Take him, back up to his majesty's suite."

The boy nodded.

"Thanks," Jensen said, pushing himself to his feet. He hobbled after the boy, following him to a second bank of elevators. In far too short a time, he was back outside Jared's suite with no way in. The lad, who had not said one word to him, stared openly and pressed a button on the door.

Jared opened the door, looking first at him and then smiling down at the lad. "Thanks, Donny."

The young man bowed and left, moving back down the hall to the door and then disappearing through it.

Shaking his head, Jared smiled slightly at him. "I heard you had a little adventure."

Jensen said nothing, moving into the living room and standing before Jared. He blanked his mind. This could go so many different ways.

"I didn't realize you'd want to look around so soon or I would have given you a map." Jared's tone was pretty light.

That wasn't one of the ways he'd ever considered. "A map?"

"I'm afraid you'll need it. The palace and grounds are very complex and hard to negotiate, even for those of us who have lived here our whole lives. For people who come here for the first time, instructions are necessary."

A map and instructions would make getting out when he had to infinitely easier. "Thanks."

Jared smiled, his dimples showing.

Attraction tightened Jensen's stomach. There hadn't been many men who had truly attracted him, and those that had, hadn't been worth what the attraction would have cost him. Jensen was hard-pressed not to respond with a smile.

"Listen," Jared said, handing him the map. "There is every possibility that our medical staff can do something about your knee. Shall I make an appointment for you?"

Fix his knee? For a second, Jensen heart jumped at the prospect. But if he allowed it, he would be in Valdesco's debt. As much as he wanted to walk without aid, he wasn't about to sacrifice his honor for the privilege.


"No?" Jared's eyes widened in response. "Why not?"

"I don't want your doctors touching me." Jensen attempted to stalk towards his rooms, but the price of his pride was brought home with the pain shooting through his knee. He could only manage a halting limp.

"Be ready in one hour." Jared's tone was angry, and beyond that, there might have been a note of something else there too, but Jensen wasn't going to analyze it.

He told himself that he didn't care whether Jared was hurt or not. "Ready, ready for what?" Surely dinner would not be this early.

"There will be a receiving line tonight."

A receiving line? Like at a reception or wedding or something? "Why?"

"Because you're a guest here, and we want to welcome you properly." Jared said it as if he really meant it.

No. This wasn't going to work. He didn't want to be treated like a guest sometimes and a piece of property other times. It was going to be hard enough to adjust without them constantly changing the rules on him. There was no way he was going to know how to act. "An unwilling guest," he said.

"Be that as it may, you're going to be wed to me. That will afford you a certain amount of power and prestige."

How could someone without status have power and prestige? That just didn't make any sense at all. Jared was looking at him like he expected an answer. But Jensen had no idea what to say.

When the silence finally stretched too far, Jared said, "Do you have any formal clothes for tonight?"

Jensen wondered briefly what they'd do if he said no, but he doubted it would get him out of the reception. "Yes."

Part Four

The entire back of the hall was glass and looked out onto a lit garden. In his entire life, Jensen had never seen anything quite so grand. The room easily sat five hundred people and there was still room at the back for dancing. He'd barely had time to glance around before Jared led him to the receiving line.

For what seemed like hours, Jensen stood next to Jared as he was introduced to the millionth person. If seeing aliens in the crowd this morning had disconcerted him, making conversation with so many more this evening had inured him to the shock. Most had been quite pleasant, going out of their way to say something nice.

His knee ached abominably; he was hungry, and the line dragged on endlessly. How were there this many people in the whole city?

"Almost done," Jared leaned close to whisper in his ear.

Jensen sent a grateful look to Jared, then turned back to the next person. At this point, his mind was too fogged to be making sense. This day had to have been the longest of his life, and it wasn't over yet.

When he was finally allowed to make his way to his seat, he was surprised to find himself seated at Jared's right. At this point, he was too hungry to consider beyond that.

Some kind of floating robots things served before-dinner drinks and small snacks, but even as hungry as he was, Jensen could not bring himself to go near one of them. A few real waiters stood at attention behind the tables, but Jensen hadn't seen many servants around at all. Did the robots do all the work?

There were probably five hundred people here, and Jared knew maybe half of them. Political realities being what they were, he could guess that anyone here had some reason for being so, although he doubted anyone had considered what would be in Jensen's best interest.

If anyone had been thinking about it, their first night together should have been without all of this fanfare. A little time to talk alone and get to know each other would go a long way towards easing Jensen into life here.

Gods, what had they been thinking to throw Jensen into this fray?

Jensen was staring out at the gathered people with wide eyes. He'd shaken hands with everyone who'd approached him without batting an eye or flinching back. But he moved out of the way of a servo unit when it served dinner.

It was all so damned complicated. Jared wished he'd asked for more information about Amaranth's culture and traditions. What could they do to make him comfortable?

He looked at Jensen. Jared had never thought he'd be so beautiful. Before he could go too far down that road, he forced himself to let it go. It definitely was a bonus, yes, but they needed to come to understand each other. And the whole issue of Jensen's status was going to make that all the harder.

"Jensen," Jared said, leaning to his right to be heard above the din of the room. "Don't you like the food?"

Jensen looked up at him, the eyes weary. "I'm not used to the spices. In Amaranth we eat much plainer fare."

Dinner had been plain. To gauge what Jensen might like, Jared had ordered that their first few meals be cooked to be mild. "I'm sorry. We like our food with a bit of a kick here. Maybe you can work up to it?"

"And if don't?" Jensen said, pushing his plate away half-eaten. "I guess I'll starve?"

"Of course not. Everything here is cooked with spice of some sort." Jared tried to smile. Oh, this was not a good start.

Jensen at the crowd and then back at him. "I don't suppose I can leave, can I?"

Jared shook his head. Well, fuck. He pushed his plate away as well. "How do you like the wine?"

"I'm not going to drink anything on an empty stomach."

He signaled one of the wait staff behind him.

She stepped forward and bowed. "How can I serve you, sir?"

"Can you bring us fresh bread and butter? Maybe some cheese?" He looked at Jensen. "Something else?"

"Fruit?" Jensen said. "Thanks."

"We…I really don't want you to starve."

There were things they needed to discuss, and maybe they should start with the food. He let out a sigh and Jensen looked at him and then back at the table.

Jared woke up slowly, reluctantly. Today was going to be just as long and difficult as yesterday. Probably more so.

It wasn't Jensen's fault that they had no contingencies for the vast differences in culture. Everyone simply expected Jensen to adapt. That was all well and good except that Jensen was a real person, with real needs that they didn't have a hope in hell of filling. As a citizen, he had an expectation of…

He wasn't a citizen, and he wasn't anything else, either. There were no rules for him, and that was wrong on so many levels. But there was nothing Jared could do except try to ease the way until Jensen adjusted. Until all of them adjusted.

The first thing to do was invite him to breakfast, and perhaps sword practice afterward. Jared got out of bed, putting on his dressing gown.

Jensen's door wasn't locked, and Jared went in.

"Don't you knock?" Jensen asked, sitting up and rubbing his eyes like a child.

Jared would have found the gesture endearing, but his eyes never got that far up. The duvet and sheets were pooled on Jensen's thighs, leaving him bare from his hips to his face. Jensen's body was muscular and tan. Jared's mouth went dry.

"What?" Jensen growled, looking around for the reason Jared was staring.

Jared cleared his throat. "Sorry. Not quite awake yet. I came in to ask you if you'd like to join me for breakfast?"

"Downstairs? With all those people?" asked Jensen with distaste clear in his voice.

"No. There's a small family dining room on this level. There will be fewer people in there, especially now." Jared glanced at the clock; it was still very early for most of the family.

Jensen tossed off the duvet and sheets, standing and stretching, completely unselfconsciously, and giving Jared a very nice view of his naked body. His cock twitched in appreciation.

Turning around, Jensen caught his look. "What, dammit? What are you staring at?"

Jared had to take a deep breath before he had any hope of getting words past his dry throat. "You're very beautiful." It came out more breathless than he would have wanted.

Surprisingly, Jensen blushed, red slowly spreading down his face to his chest. He reached for his robe, bending slightly and giving Jared a view of his spectacular ass.

A strangled sound tried to emerge from Jared's mouth, and he cut it off ruthlessly. It was too early in the morning to deal with this. If he didn't move now, he would say something or do something unacceptable. "I'll meet you in the main room in ten minutes. If that's all right with you?"

Pulling the tie on his robe tightly, Jensen nodded. "Yes. Fine."

Jared got the hell out of there.

In his own bathroom, he locked the door and leaned against it, taking slow deep breaths. By all the Gods, just looking at Jensen turned him into a jabbering fool.

His behavior was so inexcusable. So absolutely and completely unacceptable. There had to be something he could do about the attraction, but right now all he could do was deal with the effects.

Turning on the shower, he dialed up a medium heat and soft water, which put bath oil into the stream. As much as he wanted to draw it out, he had to hurry. He didn't let himself think about Jensen as he slid his hands over his cock. Orgasm took him hard, leaving him breathless and drained.

He dried off and dressed quickly.

When he got out of his room, Jensen sat on the sofa with his arms folded over his chest. "You said ten minutes."

He tried not to laugh. "I'm, what, five minutes late?"

"Eight." Jensen smiled a little at that and slowly stood up.

"You don't have to stand in private. Did your father require it?"

"Only in public. I was his son, and most people stood when I came into the room." Jensen didn't look at him when he said it.

Oh, by all the Gods, in the last twenty-four hours they'd moved him from being royalty to being without any status at all. "I'm sorry. I wish --"

"Don't. All right. I don't want your sympathy. I'll learn to live with what I must." Jensen let out a long sigh. "Shall we have breakfast?"

"Let's go." Jared moved towards the door, holding it open for Jensen.

The morning sun came through the glass expanses that made up two sides of the private family dining room. The early hour ensured that the dining area was nearly empty; indeed, only Ryan and his wife Rachelle were present.

Ryan looked up as he came in, but Jared shook his head infinitesimally. Nodding, Ryan returned to his breakfast.

He led Jensen to the far side of the room, to a table by the window. A waiter came by and set a pot of coffee and cups on the table. Jared nodded his thanks. A second one came by with toast and butter and jam.

"Don't eat the jam," Jared said when Jensen reached for it. "It's pretty spicy."

"Seriously? You eat spicy jam?" He looked like he couldn't believe it.

"It's sweet and spicy."

"Maybe I'll try it. I like sweet things." He spread a bit of it on his bread and took a tentative bite. Then he reached for his water glass and drank about half of it.

Jared tried not to smile.

"Interesting," Jensen said. "It was the last kick that got me. Before that, it was…different. But not bad."

Why did Jared feel like he'd just won a huge concession?

As he worked on his breakfast, Jensen said nothing else.

"I work out with swords most mornings," Jared began, when the silence had stretched out too far for his liking. "Would you like to join me?"

Jensen looked up, surprise written across his face. "You'd allow it?"

"Why wouldn't I?" He took a sip of his coffee.

"Well, I wouldn't arm the enemy. I'd be afraid he might try and cut my head off." Jensen had this sort of half smile when he said it.

"Will you try to murder me?" Jared asked. He wasn't sure he should take Jensen seriously or not.

"Could I get away with it?" Jensen's mouth twitched a little as he asked the question.

He sense that Jensen was angry and bitter, but it wasn't directed at him personally. Jared took another sip of coffee. "Trust me, it would not be in your best interest to murder me."

"Then I guess I won't try it." Jensen tone seemed to say that he was joking, but Jared didn't know him well enough to know for certain.

Logically, if Jensen were going to try and murder him, he could do it just as easily in their suite. On the practice floor, Jared would make a good show of defending himself, whereas lying in bed, he didn't stand a chance.

As they stood, Jensen grimaced.

"Are you in pain?"

"My knee is stiff," Jensen said, bending to rub at it with his palm.

"We don't need to practice --"

"No. I want to. It's important."

"I think my physician can give you something to help with the pain. If you're sure you want to do this."

"Yes. Thank you."

They made their way to the medical center and then to the gym where Jared worked out.

"Will I be allowed to come here without you?" Jensen asked, as he was changing into the protective clothing.

"I don't see why not. The only restriction on your movement is that you can't go out of the palace without an escort."

"Do you think I'd try to escape?"

He sincerely hoped not. If Jensen tried to escape, it would cause no end of problems with Amaranth, and that was the last thing Jared wanted.

As soon as he left the palace grounds, the tracking device in Jensen's collar would set off all kinds of alarms. Jared hadn't thought it would be necessary, but Chad and David had both insisted on it when the collar had been designed.

"Do you plan to?" Jared asked, carefully.

"Would I tell you if I were going to make the attempt?" Jensen shrugged. The idea had to hold some appeal to him.

"Shall we spar?" Jensen asked, picking up his sword and swinging it a few times, clearly trying to get the feel of it.

He'd wondered if Jensen would fight full out, and was pleased when he was met with equal force. It seemed almost like a dance as they moved across the gym floor, their swords clanging and sparking. The sword work exhilarated Jared, especially since he got so little time to practice. Knowing how to fight with a sword was considered part of being a Monarch, even though no one used a sword anymore.

Jensen was good, better than Jared would have expected since he didn't use a sword in battle either. The knee didn't seem bother Jensen during the match, but when they stopped he immediately sat down, rubbing it.

"Are you okay?" Jared asked. Maybe he should not have suggested the bout after all.

Jensen winced, trying to straighten out his leg. "No."

What stupidity caused him to do it in the first place if he had any idea that he'd be hurt? Jared shook his head. "Then why? I thought it was only stiff."

"It was stiff, and it is stiff. The pills worked fine, besides which, you challenged me, I had to answer." Jensen's words where sharp, and the tone implied Jared should have known the answer without asking.

"It wasn't a challenge, just a friendly practice session. Certainty not worth injuring yourself over."

"If you challenge me, I must answer. To do otherwise would dishonor us both." Jensen spoke quietly.

Sighing, Jared sat on the wooden floor next to Jensen. "You're very good with a sword."

"You don't have to sound so surprised." Jensen shifted to meet his gaze.

"Why not? It's not a skill that most people have. It's not really good for anything." Having spent time acquiring those skills himself, Jared knew just how difficult they were to come by and how much practice it took to keep them sharp.

"My tradition says that all of the High Chief's sons learn to use a sword, despite the fact they are no longer used."

That was interesting, sons not daughters. "Valdesco's requires it of all Monarch's children too. In fact, my mother was a champion duelist before she was monarch."

The look on Jensen's face was so incredulous that Jared had to bite back a laugh.

"A woman? How could she possibly have the strength needed to wield a sword?" The absolute conviction in Jensen's voice surprised him.

Jared had to remind himself that it was a cultural thing. "Mastery of the sword isn't just about strength. It's about skill."

"But skill without strength does not do you as much good as skill with strength."

"You should duel with Zoe sometime --"

"Who is she?" Jensen asked.

"My sister's intended wife."

Jensen blinked and tilted his head to look at him. "I'm not familiar with that term. What does intended mean?"

"It's less than a betrothal contract, but more than just dating. They are living together."

"And she is good with a sword."

"Better than I am."

Jensen tilted his head and looked at him. It was clear he could not conceive of the possibility. "I would like to see this."

Glancing at the clock on the wall, Jared knew he didn't have time for anything else. "It will have to be another day."

"Of course."

Jared stood. "I've got a meeting in twenty minutes. Also, one of my advisors will be by this morning to show you how to use some of our technology. Like the data padd and some of the cooking utensils."

"Is that necessary?" Jensen asked.

"I think so. I showed you a few things the other day, but there's a lot that the data padd can do. And some of it's complicated, so you'll need some instructions."

When he didn't say anything else, Jared stood. "I need to shower. You should go back to the suite."

"Exactly how am I supposed to get back into your rooms once I get there?" Jensen asked, crossing his arms over his chest.

"Can you remember a six-digit number?"

Jensen rolled his eyes. "I think so."

"Okay, so 827495 is the key code for the door. Step back and let the guard see you, they'll release the lock."

"Fine." Jensen climbed to his feet, then turned and limped off.

Jared shook his head, wondering what he'd said this time.

A chime sounded on the door. Jensen's heartbeat picked up a little. It was probably Jared's advisor.

Jensen made his way across the long room. If Jared had keyed his prints into the computer then he'd be able to open the door from the sofa.

"Hello," Jensen said as he pushed the door open. A blond man stood there, seeming to crackle with energy even though he wasn't moving.

"Hey Jensen. I'm Chad Murray. I’m one of Jared's advisors. Actually, I'm his top advisor. As well as his solicitor." He paused for a breath. "Can I come in?"

"Please." Jensen ushered him in and waved him towards the lounge. "Please have a seat."

"Thanks." Chad crossed the room and sat on the sofa, then looked back across the room at Jensen and motioned him over.

"This is your data padd. You'll do everything on it." Chad held the device out to him.

"Jared showed me one of these things." Jensen said as he took the device. It was black metal, smooth, and fit easily in his hand. He turned it over and back. It was the size of a softcover book in Amaranth, except thinner. He'd noticed there were no paper books here -- or any paper at all. "Jared showed me how to pull up maps of the palace on it."

"You can also use it for all manner of communications, as well as to access any of the networks that you have access to. There's a nearly limitless amount of information to be found using the networks that are available. With the right access you can even access information off-world." Chad took a breath and went on, "You can program it to do specific tasks."

Jensen had no idea what he was talking about. "Tasks?"

"Simple stuff, like waking you up, turning on the shower at a specific time and temperature, sending a food order at a specific time to be delivered here from the kitchen."

"Seriously? How do I do that?" Because that just amazed him to the point of disbelief.

"Maybe we'll save that for a day when you have more or less mastered the data here."

"Oh," Jensen supposed that made sense, even if it were disappointing. "Well, are you going to show me how to use this?"

"It wouldn't do you much good otherwise, would it?" Chad took out a second one. "Here, you start it by pressing the button to turn it on. And then, there are several kinds of menus that you can access."

He held it up. "The first menu is configurable so that you can have the applications you use the most on it. Most people have programs that let them look at the data sites for their interests."

"Data sites?" He had absolutely no reference for that concept.

"Yes, there are literally millions of data sites where you can access information. Some of it true, some of it false." Chad laughed. "And a lot of pornography."

Was that a test? To see how he'd react to a sexual reference? Jensen had no idea what to say to that. "How do I access information on Valdesco?"

"You do a search by entering a word or phrase in that box on the screen. You tap here to bring up a keyboard and then tap the letters with your finger." Chad put in "Valdesco" and came back with seven hundred million responses. "So, you see you need to narrow it down. Like: History of Valdesco. Or the name of a historical figure like Falcon Padalecki." That only got about a few hundred thousand responses.

After an hour, Jensen had mastered the basics of getting information in and out and how to do searches.

The afternoon passed swiftly and Jensen was startled when Jared came in.

"I thought you just left," Jensen said, leaning back in his chair and smiling up at Jared as he moved to join them.

Jared smiled back at him. "About twelve hours ago."

"Has it been that long?" Glancing over at the clock on the wall, he saw that it had indeed been that long.

Chad stood. "Good afternoon, sir. We're just finishing up."

Jared waved Chad back to his seat and sat next to Jensen. "How are you doing?"

Jensen nodded at the padd in his hand. "Much better than I expected."

"We'll give it some time and maybe test Jensen on his academic knowledge," Chad suggested. "He's picked this up very quickly.

That evening, Jensen found himself attending yet another dinner. This one was at the alien conglomerate's consulate, and Jensen tried not to stare at the people around him. Even though he'd met many of them before, he couldn't get over his fascination.

The food was strange, but not as spicy as the food in the palace, for which Jensen was grateful.

Throughout dinner, his conversation with Jared went from topic to topic. It had been a long time since he'd had the time to just talk with someone. They had a great deal of information to exchange, and he appreciated any bit he might gather to make his life easier.

"My father's word is the law," Jensen said. "His power is almost absolute. He has said that he would allow some input from the people, but the priests are against that."

"I actually don't have much real power. We have an elected body from the people, a constitutional monarchy," Jared said, signaling the waiter.

"I don't know what that is. How does it work?"

"It means that every adult has the right to vote in elections of officials to represent them in our parliament."

A waiter handed Jared a full glass of ale, glancing at Jensen to see if he wanted one. He shook his head no.

It was fascinating to hear about a working democracy. He'd read that the people were not able to govern themselves, but he'd never quite believed that. "You mentioned that you were younger than your brother. How is it that you are the monarch instead of him."

"The Monarch is chosen by the previous one. My mother decided I would be best to rule, a decision she reached with my father and her advisors."

"I had assumed your father was dead, since your mother was the Monarch." To Jensen the idea was so foreign. Women and men were equal, but separate in Amaranth. Only men could rule because men were stronger.

Jared raised an eyebrow at him. "You seem surprised?"

Oh, this wasn't going to be a good subject to get into. "Only those strong enough to hold the land can rule it. Only men are strong enough."

"That automatically excludes half the talent and intelligence of the land. That seems very short-sighted to me."

"I didn't say that women had no place; they can do any job that requires knowledge rather than strength, but they can't rule." For some reason Jensen didn't want to examine too closely, he wanted Jared to understand that his people were not backward, just different. "So you were chosen by your mother. What if one of your brothers," Jensen paused, inclining his head slightly, "or sisters decided they wanted to be Monarch and murdered you? What would happen then?"

"The previous Monarch would have to come out of retirement and a search for a new Monarch would have to be undertaken."

That was not what Jensen had expected. "Retired? Ascension through death was the only form of transition of power I've ever heard of."

"The reigning Monarch generally retires at somewhere between eighty and ninety years old. The new Monarch is somewhere between thirty at the low end, and forty at the high end. These are estimates, of course." Jared raised the glass to his lips, drinking down half the contents.

"You're only twenty-five." The whole age concept confused Jensen. It was as if these people did everything at a later age than his people did. They must live longer as well.

"My mother had the misfortune to be thrown from her horse and killed two years ago. There was no choice but for me to take over early, far too early. I will have to have my children early as well, but hopefully I will also be able to retire early."

"You would want to retire?" He couldn't believe anyone would willingly give up that kind of power.

"Even if I have no real power, I still have a great deal of responsibility. I think that after so long, the responsibilities of the Monarchy weighs on a person. I expect that I'll be more than ready to retire when the time comes."

"What about your mother's siblings -- couldn't they have taken over, or your brother or sister for that matter? If you were killed, I mean," Jensen asked, getting back to the ascension question.

"The siblings are not among those considered for the Monarchy when a search must be made. It has been many generations since the search has had to be done."

"Why aren't the siblings considered?"

"They were not chosen to begin with, why would they be chosen now? And usually they don't want it anyway." Jared pushed his hair back from his face absently.

"How is the heir chosen when there is no one in direct line?" One of the serving robots offered Jensen a sweet from a tray. He'd more or less gotten used to the mechanical devices, and took two of the confections, popping one into his mouth. The sweets were even more wonderful than the meal.

Jared absently took one as the serving thing passed him. "A search is made of the collateral blood lines of the previous Monarch for a person who meets all of the academic and physical criteria. As I said, it hasn't happened in many generations."

What a strange way to set things up. "So your siblings might gain nothing from murdering you, but what of your cousins?"

"They might, but usually there are so many cousins it would not be very good odds."

Jensen nodded. "Do you have children of your own?"

"Of course not!" Jared's eyes flashed with annoyance, but then he sighed, smiling slightly. "I'm sorry. You didn't know it was a huge insult. We do not have children before we are married. It's just not done."

"Seriously? How do you prevent...unexpected pregnancies?"

"With birth control."

"Which works all the time?"

"Yes. Doesn't yours work all the time?"

"Not well enough. We have many unwanted children."

"That's very sad," Jared said. "We'd like to believe that all of our children are wanted. But that's not always the case."

"I'm surprised you admit that."

"It's easy enough to look up. Besides most people do want children," Jared said and then looked at him. "Do you want children?"

Jensen almost said he already had a child. "I like children. But how?"

"When you and I are ready to have children, we will need some help in the actual production of the child."

Jensen stomach roiled. "Let me be direct here: there is no way I am going to be altered."

"No, of course not. We actually have a couple of ways to accomplish this."

He was almost afraid to ask.

"There are technical means or traditional ones. For the technical means, we would create the child using a device we received from one of the other worlds. It's complicated how it works, but the child grows in it, and is born out of it. We would need to spend time with the fetus as it grows, since we've found that it won't survive if it is left alone."

That was beyond anything he could possibly deal with. "And the traditional way?"

"We ask someone to help us out. To bear a child for us."

"Ask someone to bear a child?" Because who would want to have a child and then give it up?

"There are two ways to do this."

Jensen couldn't wait to hear what it was. No really. He just couldn't.

"We can take a woman to our bed when the time is right for her, or one of us could donate semen and she would be impregnated with it."

"A woman? Who would you choose?"

"Generally, you ask a good friend or even distant cousin."

"So, who would you chose?"

"We'd make the decision together. It's not something we're going to think about for a year or two. We need to get to know each other first."

"Are you so sure someone would be willing?"

"I have several close friends that would probably be willing. And as a last resort, we could always ask for volunteers, if no one else seems suitable."

"Volunteers?" Jensen could even conceive of that. That seemed... he could not come up with what it seemed, except not the way it should be done.

"It is considered a great honor to give a child to the Monarch. After we are married, any child of your body would be given the same consideration as a child of mine."

"You mean either could be the next Monarch?"

"Yes. Since we will be wed, it won't matter who is the biological father. We will both be the father. When all the children are in their late teens, we will decide with the council who will be the next Monarch. The best suited will be chosen."

Jensen shook his head. "I can't imagine how this came to be."

"Do you remember I told you about Falcon who chose the male captive to wed?"

"So?" Jensen wondered what kind of tale Jared would spin this time.

"The question of heirs was raised immediately."

"I'll bet it was," Jensen said. That was always a big issue with rulers.

"And one of Falcon's sisters had opted to wed a captive woman instead of a man, and to solve the issue of a heir, the two women agreed to bear one child each to the men. In exchange, they agreed to father two children for the other couple."

"Will the mothers abandon their children to us once they are weaned?" Because that was more wrong than he could even begin to imagine.

"Of course not. In a case where the mother is not already a part of the royal family, she will become an honorary member. She may live with the child here or if she has other children or another family, she may choose to visit regularly. She is never cut out of the child's life, although, we are the parents. It's easier when the mother is part of the family already, then all the children are raised together."

But if they were all raised together? "How do you tell them apart?"

"You know who your own children are." Jared took a final sip of his ale, and set the empty glass down on the table.

"I mean, genetically. You don't want to marry someone who is your cousin, or worse your half-sister."

Jared smiled. "Oh I see what you mean. Most know who their biological parents are, and a quick check of the records will tell a person all they must know."

"So have you fathered a child?"

"Yes, but the child is not mine. He has no claim on me, other than biology. I see him often since he is in the royal nursery, but only as his uncle."

"Most leaders in my land have many bastard children."

"Not here." Jared looked disapproving and Jensen had to agree with that.

Part Five

Jared watched Jensen trying to look attentive and failing rather badly. Although the ambassador from Sendar looked almost human, he did not have the same vocal cords to pronounce all of the words in Valdesco's language and it made listening to him difficult under the best of circumstances. And these were clearly not the best of circumstances.

"Are you all right?" Jared whispered when the ambassador finally stopped speaking.

His lips in a straight line, Jensen just nodded. "Yes. I'm fine. A little tired."

"Now that he's done speaking, we don't have to stay much longer." All was left was the dancing and drinking. And it wouldn't be rude to skip that.

"I'd like to leave as soon as it's possible," Jensen said.

Something about that tone got on Jared's nerves. He probably wasn't being fair, but Jensen's stoic attitude was starting to grate. "We can go now."

"Thank you," Jensen said, relief in his tone.

When they returned to their suite, Jensen went into the living room, rather than heading straight for his bedroom.

"I'm going to have a drink. Would you like one?" Jensen asked, tossing his jacket over the back of the couch.

Jared slipped off his shoes and sighed as his feet touched the soft carpet. "Yes, please."

Jensen handed him a tumbler and sat down on the couch. And silence stretched out between them.

"Did you enjoy the reception," Jared asked. Okay, that was a stupid question.

The look in Jensen's eyes was comical, as if he could not believe that Jared had asked him that. He shrugged. "It was fine."

Stifling a laugh, Jared smiled. "In other words..."

"It was dull beyond words. I swear the ambassador was speaking a language I couldn't even understand. The food was too spicy and those robot things are...I don't even have words for them. Do I need to go on?" Jensen asked, his lips twitching.

"But if it's any comfort, that's probably the worst of them."

"You mean, they'll get better?" Clearly, Jensen didn't believe that for one second.

Which was a good thing, if he had, he'd be destined for a disappointment. "There are few speakers worse than Ambassador Deccane. So, anything is possible."

Jensen actually laughed. "Somehow, I didn't think so."

The last couple of days were starting to catch up with him. Jared was having a hard time keeping his eyes open. Yawning again, Jared stood. "I'm so tired. I'll see you in the morning."

"Good night, Jared."

He could barely hear Jensen's voice as he stumbled toward his bed. Leaving his clothes in a heap on the floor, Jared slid naked between the sheets and was asleep as soon as his head touched the pillow.

Oh, thank the Gods that he was finally asleep. Jensen breathed out, his whole body vibrating.

Even with the packet of sleeping powder he'd slipped into Jared's drink, Jensen had been afraid he'd never get into bed. The last few days had been more and more intolerable. As hard as he tried to overcome the breathlessness that seized him, he couldn't anymore. He had to get out, had to breathe air that didn't leave a metallic aftertaste in his throat, had to have a few minutes to himself without someone else around.

He'd come back, as soon as his nerves settled down and he could think again. No one would even know he was gone.

Quietly, he eased Jared's door open. The lights were at half-level and he could see Jared across the room sleeping soundly. The sheet only came to his waist, and his back was bare. Jensen resisted the urge to move farther into the room.

When he'd mentioned in passing that he suffered from chronic sleeplessness, Jared's doctor had given him something mild to help him relax. She'd said specifically that it wasn't toxic with alcohol, obviously knowing he'd be drinking during the receptions.

Using the drug on Jared was a last-minute decision, something to make sure that Jared would be completely asleep while Jensen was out.

The maps on the padd turned out to be more helpful than Jared probably anticipated. It conveniently pointed out all the exits, the guard and information stations, where all of the elevators were located and even how to operate them. All sorts of other helpful information as well.

Jensen changed quickly into comfortable clothes. For a moment he thought of trying to steal some credit chips from Jared, just to have them, but he couldn't quite bring himself to do it. What would he need them for anyway?

His heart was pounded in his ears as he opened the suite door and stepped out. Finally, finally, out of here, if only for a few hours.

He avoided the private elevator. The second door opened onto a long hall that connected the royal suite with the rest of the rooms on the top floor. There was a set of elevators at the other end.

Both Jared's brother and sister had suites on this floor, along with a few other people from the royal family whom Jensen didn't know. Fortunately, there was no one around at this early hour. By the time he returned, everyone should be asleep and no one would be the wiser.

The elevator took him to the ground level on command. The bottom floor of the palace was like any other basement level, damp and gloomy with large silver pipes running along the ceiling. There were actually two or three more levels below this one.

The long grey corridors of the lower floors twisted and turned until Jensen finally made his way to an unguarded side entrance. The space between palace and the gate was smallest at this point.

He was sweating profusely from his walk through the building. As he passed out of the grounds into the street, he could swear he felt the hair on the back of his neck raised up. But that was ridiculous.

At this hour, the city streets were not very crowded. And no one paid any attention to him as he walked along. After a few blocks, his knee started to ache. After a few more it was worse. If he didn't rest for a second, he wasn't going to be able to make it to the park. He slipped into an alley, and leaned against the dirty wall.

From the depth of the alley, Jensen heard a sound he could not identify, and peered towards it. He couldn't see anything in the dim light. Damn. This had been a fool's mission to start with. By all the Gods, what had he been thinking to even attempt this?

Right now, he could barely walk. How did he expect to make it to the park and, more importantly, back to the palace? If he'd realized the park was this far, he would have picked something closer -- except there did not seem to be anything closer.

He pushed himself up and out of the alley before trouble could find him, and started back toward the palace, limping slowly. After ten minutes more, he had to rest again. His knee would not take much more walking. Another alley presented itself, and gratefully Jensen entered it. He slid down a dank wall, to sit against a building.

What had he been thinking? He banged his head lightly against the wall, and sighed. The air here smelled of damp city grime, no better than the air at the palace complex.

Right now, the important thing was getting back to the palace before someone noticed he was gone. He tried to stand, and his knee gave out completely. As he slid back down the wall, he let out a groan, and then buried his head in his hands. How did he get himself into these situations?

There is a pleasant fog to the world as Jared opens his eyes. Jensen is coming into his room without knocking. He saunters across the floor wearing only a short green silk robe that clings to his body and shifts as he does. The silk glides over him, calling attention to his long legs.

Jared sits up and his breath catches. Jensen is so beautiful.

But too far away.

He holds out his hand. "Come to me..."

Jensen smiles at him, but does not move faster.

As Jensen slips off the dressing gown, and lets it fall to the floor, Jared takes a deep breath. His heart is pounding so hard.

He reaches out again, but Jensen is still too far away...

White mist swirling around Jensen, bringing him closer, but...

At last, Jensen has reached the bed and is holding out his hands, reaching out for him, fingers burning into Jared's shoulder, moving in a slow caress. Jared cannot help leaning into it.

"Jared," Jensen whispers softly.

Jared can't speak. Can't move...

He wants Jensen so badly...

"Jared!" The grip on him becomes painful.

And Jensen starts to move away...

Don't go, Jared wants to beg.

With a groan of disappointment, Jared opened his eyes to find David sitting on the edge of his bed, looking concerned. His hand was warm on Jared's bare, cold shoulder.

"Jared, are you all right? You didn't answer the door page and then I had some trouble waking you now."

Shaking his head to clear it, Jared felt a little groggy. "I must have been more tired than I thought."

"Ackles has left the palace grounds." David's face was grim.

"Oh dear Gods." Jared could not believe Jensen would do something that stupid. What had he hoped to gain by trying to escape through the city? "How long has he been gone?"

"At least four hours."

"Why have you let it go so long?" David should have been notified immediately, and Jared not long after that.

"Unfortunately, I wasn't notified until a few minutes ago."

"And why not?"

Jensen should not have been allowed to be out this long. The streets were not safe this late at night for anyone, but especially someone who was looking for trouble, as he was sure Jensen was. "Wasn't Jensen on the top alert status?"

David sighed. "Yes. But Preston Padalecki was on the station and failed to notice the alarm go off."

"He was asleep again."

"I'm afraid so. And this was his very last chance."

"My cousin can't seem to do anything right. Shall I tell him when this is over?" Jared knew Preston would throw a tantrum, but it was his own fault. He'd been given every opportunity to do his job correctly. And he hadn't.

A member of the Royal family might find it easier to get a job, but keeping it was up to the individual person, and Preston had never been up to the task.

"Firing him is my job. Although, I'm sure he will come whining to you. I'd better go and send someone to retrieve Ackles." David stood.

"Would it impose terribly on our friendship to ask you to go yourself and not send someone else?" Jared got out of bed, pulling his dressing gown from the foot of the bed and sliding into it. David didn't hide the appreciative glance.

"Of course, I will," David said.

"Thank you."

"You care for him, don't you, Jared?" The look in David's eyes said he already knew the answer and he didn't like it.

"I'm attracted to him, yes. But I'm not stupid." At least, he hoped he could forestall his stupidity. Jensen was very, very beautiful, and were he anyone else, Jared would have totally fallen for him.

"I'd hate to see you hurt. And you will be."

Jared didn't want to be hurt. "As I said, I'm not stupid. And falling for him would be a really bad idea."

"I'm not sure you get a choice about these kinds of things." David smiled at him, and reached out to smooth his hair back.

"Of course I do." Jared leaned into the caress for a moment. As a teenager, he'd had such a crush on the then guard-captain, and David had been more than willing to indulge him.

Those days were long gone and Jared forced himself to pull back. They both had other responsibilities now, other things to cope with: Jensen being number one on his list.

"Shall I bring him here? Or do you want him processed?" David's tone said he'd like to process him, but that would probably do more harm than good.

"Here, I think. There really are no provisions for this."

David's brow creased. "If he were a regular guest from off-world, he'd have diplomatic immunity, and while we might bring him back if he got into trouble, we wouldn't restrict him like this."

"In theory, he's broken none of our laws. But given his lack of status, and what he is, he's broken his own laws. And we can't send him back to his country to be processed." Jared held out his hand and David went out into the main room.

Following, Jared was surprised at how sluggishly his body moved, almost as if he'd drunk too much, or been drugged.

Drugged? Jensen would not have gone that far.

"I'm going to call Jeffrey and see what he says. I'm at a loss."

"Good thought," David said. "I'll be back in about twenty minutes. He didn't get very far before he stopped." The door snicked closed and David was gone.

Jared made his way across the room slowly, like he was walking through water. Picking up his glass from earlier this evening. Nothing. There would be no residue, most sleeping powders dissolved completely in liquid.

The only way he would know for sure was to have it tested. And he could not do that. If the test came back positive, Jensen would have broken the law. Drugging someone in the commission of a crime was a top-level offense, and Jensen could go to prison for it.

He picked up his padd from the desk and dialed his uncle.

"Jared...Your Majesty?" Jeffrey said, sounding as if he'd been woken from a deep sleep. He had the view screen off.

"We have a situation. Jensen has tried to...has left the palace without an escort or permission." Even saying it sounded stupid.

"Fantastic. I take it David's retrieving him?"

"He'll be back here in fifteen minutes. I have no idea what to do. He hasn't committed an actual crime, not by our laws anyway."

"But by his own. We don't know what the penalty would be, but I imagine it would be harsh."

"Given what we know about them, I'd say so." Jared sighed. "You're the Prime Minister. I think this is your call."

"Grand. You want me to punish him?"

"Does he have to be punished?"

"We need to take some kind of corrective action. Do you want him to do this again? Or something worse. He may be testing us." The view screen popped on, and Jeffrey looked dead tired. "I'll be there in ten minutes. But I've got to tell you, I'm thinking of extending his non-status for this. It's the only thing we have over him."

Jared rubbed his face. "That is a horrible thought."

"I'll see if I can think of something else on the walk over."

The padd went black. Jared walked over to the window. What was it about this time of night always made things seem so much worse? He went into his bedroom and put on some clothes.

Ten minutes to the second later, the door buzzed. Jared left Jeffrey in.

"I can see already that you haven't changed your mind," Jared said.

"No. Unless you can think of something else."

Jared shook his head. They couldn't put him in prison. He had no money to pay a fine. There was literally nothing they could do to him to impress upon him that this was a very big mistake.

"All right. Another thirty days."

"God, I was thinking maybe ten. That's double what he was supposed to be."


"Okay. I guess I can live with that." Part of Jared was horrified to keep a person in this kind of status at all. On the other hand, Jensen had brought this on himself by trying to escape.

"It's whether or not Jensen can live with it."

"We're not doing a good job with this." Jared pushed his hair out of his face. "We are going to destroy him."

"No we won't. He'll adapt. It isn't as if we asked for this to happen to him," Jeffrey said. "Do you want me to do this?"

"No. I will. I guess you can just stand there and look official."

"In my dressing gown and slippers?" He held out his foot.

Jared forced out a laugh. The prime minister's residence connected to the palace by an underground tunnel. His uncle must have looked ridiculous walking over. "Do you want a drink?"

"Gods, yes."

Ten more minutes went by and the door buzzer sounded again. Jensen limped into the center of the room and took a seat on the sofa without a word. David followed behind him.

"You've caused quite a situation here, young man," Jeffrey said in a not completely unfriendly tone. "What do you have to say for yourself?"

Jensen looked up at him. "I've got nothing to say."

"What were you thinking to try to escape? The city isn't safe at this hour of the night," Jared said. "You didn't even have any credits."

"What did I have to lose?" Jensen gave them a look that said they were idiots for even asking such a stupid question.

"Your life, perhaps?" Jeffrey snapped. "And then how would we have explained that to you country? Or your father."

"My father is why I'm here. I'm sure he'd learn to live with it." Jensen looked down at his hands and then back at Jeffrey. "You've already done your worst, so just get it over with."

"Fine," Jared said, his patience wearing thin. "We're going to leave you in your non-status state for an additional fifteen days."

Something flashed in Jensen's eyes, but he just nodded. He put one hand on the arm of the sofa and the other clutched his walking stick as he forced himself to his feet.

Jared would have helped him but the look Jensen shot him stopped him dead. Somehow, with his head held high, Jensen limped into his room without another word.

Jeffrey looked at him, and then at David. "I don't even know what to make of that."

"Me either," Jared said.

Part Six

Jensen rolled over and tried to go back to sleep. It wasn't happening. His was knee throbbing. Even with the sleeping drug he'd taken last night after he'd gotten back, he'd slept poorly. And yeah, he understood irony.

How could he have been so stupid? The few hours of freedom he'd had wasn't worth the ignominy of his current situation. He forced himself to sit up.

If he'd been smart, he would have told Jared the truth last night. But, no, he'd sat there and let Jared believe that he'd run like a coward. As if he would bring shame on his country like that.

But coming back to find both the Prime Minister and the Monarch waiting for him had been too much. Being chastised like a child had fueled his anger. Admittedly, most of his anger was directed at himself, but right then, he couldn't admit it.

By remaining silent, he had been found guilty and was now bound to the palace for another fifteen days. He had no idea how he was going to manage that. And if he weren't allowed out, he'd go insane. Or worse, humiliate himself by not being able to breathe.

He reached for his dressing gown. Maybe he could try a different tack with Jared. Perhaps he could try to be charming. He snorted. As if he could pull that off.

Pain shot through his leg as he stood and he grabbed for his walking stick. He leaned heavily on it as he very slowly made his way to the door. There was no way he was going to be able to do anything today without some assistance.

Maybe the doctor could just give him something to relieve the pain. He'd have to ask this time. Still anything would be better than being unable to walk right for days, which he suspected was the outcome of the abuse he'd inflicted on his knee last night.

Pushing open his bedroom door, Jensen hobbled through it. Jared was sitting on the sofa, drinking coffee. And it smelled wonderful.

"Do you want some coffee?" The tone was perfectly normal, as if nothing had happened last night.

Which wasn't at all what Jensen had expected.

Well, if Jared was making an effort, then maybe he should, too. "Thanks," he said. His knee gave out and he stumbled as he sat down in the chair next to the sofa. He'd been on it, what, five minutes?

"Are you all right?" Jared said, pointedly looking at Jensen's knee.

"My knee is worse this morning." Jensen took a breath and reached for the coffee pot.

"I see." Jared took a bite of his muffin, and looked at the data padd in his hand.

So, he was correct. The only way he'd get medical attention, was to ask for it. Taking a sip of his hot coffee, he sat back, and waited for the caffeine to kick in.

"Um... do you think..." he tried to force the words out, but they stuck in his throat.

"Do I think what?" Jared met his eyes, waiting patiently for him to go on.

"That the healer might... um... give me something for the pain?" Jensen asked, pushing the words out past his pride.

Jared nodded. "I can call her for you."

"Thanks," Jensen murmured, busying himself with another sip of his coffee and avoiding looking anywhere near Jared.

When the doctor arrived, she was quick and thorough, telling him again that she could fix the problem itself with a simple surgical procedure. He declined, but thanked her for the pain meds.

The level of medicine available amazed him. The pain in his knee was gone, completely, and even though he knew it would return when the medication had worn off, it was amazing that he could be so pain-free and clear-headed.

"Last night..." Jensen started.

"What about last night?" Jared asked, turning to look at Jensen.

"Is something else... are you going to do..." Jensen asked. He did not want any nasty surprises, if they weren't done. Better to find out now.

But Jared shook his head. "I don't know what you mean."

"Is it over? This morning... you don't seem angry."

"I'm still angry. What you did was very foolish and could have caused many problems for both of us. I can't imagine where you thought you could go. But..." He shrugged.

This was where he should tell the truth. Unfortunately, but again, he couldn't bring himself to make an excuse. There were no excuses. Ever. "But what?"

"If we can, I'd like to put it behind us and move on."

All right. They could try to do that. It was probably better this way anyway. Relieved, Jensen smiled. "Yes, I'd like that, too."

He finished his coffee and set the cup aside.

"I think we can forego the sword practice this morning. Do you think you can ride?" Jared asked.

"A horse?"

Jared chuckled. "Well, unless you'd like to ride something else. We do have some other kinds of animals."

Jensen returned the laugh, flexing his knee, amazed again at the lack of pain. "Yes. I'd like to ride."

The sun on his face and the wind in his hair exhilarated Jensen, and he wished fervently that he could go on riding forever -- or at least until he got home to his family, and his daughter. His gut twisted into knots whenever he thought about Halley. All he could do was hold on to the hope that she was safe.

Thinking about his daughter dimmed the pleasure of his ride. He missed her desperately, and it had only been a few days. How could he go on for weeks or months without her? How could he do anything else?

No way he could trust Jared or the situation. Not with his child's life. Better she be out of his reach than used against him.

His horse slowed down as his thoughts wandered to his family and what they might be doing. Jared caught up with him. He tried not to hate Jared.

Either he learned to compartmentalize his life, or he would go mad. He refocused his attention on Jared. Somehow this man was going to be his husband in a few days. That just didn't make any sense. And yes, he could admit to himself that Jared was nice to look at, especially with the sun creating a halo around his hair and his eyes shining brightly.

He'd seen the way Jared looked at him sometimes and it made him feel kind of warm inside. But that was physical, chemical. Attraction to another man was something he'd never allowed himself to think about before. Despite how he'd grown up, he knew that people didn't choose who they were attracted to.

"Where are we?" Jensen asked. He hadn't seen this much land on the map that he'd been given. "Are we still in the city?"

"This land is actually behind the palace and just outside the city limits. Why?"

"I didn't think there was this much parkland anywhere close."

"It's not on the regular city maps because the palace sits on the very edge of the city. Crossing the road like we did to get here puts us outside the actual city limits."

Which would explain why he hadn't seen it on the map. If he'd known, he could have come out here and saved himself a whole lot of trouble.

"Do you want to have lunch?" Jared asked.

Jensen's stomach growled. "That would be nice. What do you have?"

Jared patted his saddlebags. "I had the kitchen make us something. I know a nice spot. Follow me."

He followed Jared into the woods. As they rode down a tree-lined path, the sun created murky white streams in front of them. They stopped along the banks of a beautiful blue lake.

The spot was perfect for a picnic. Jensen turned and smiled at Jared. "Very nice."

"I love it here," Jared said, pulling items from his saddlebags. "I used to come here as a kid when I wanted to be alone."

After spreading a blanket on the grass, Jared laid out lunch.

"I had a special place in the woods as well. Unfortunately, one of my brothers found it and told my father. "

Jared laughed. "Isn't that what brothers do? Ryan would totally have told if he'd known."

"Probably not with as much malicious glee." Jensen hadn't meant to sound as angry as he had. He'd more or less forgiven Justin for the transgressions of their youth. Mostly. Though he suspected that Justin would never quite forgive him for being their father's favorite.

"Why would he want to hurt you?"

"I was my father's last son, and my mother was his favorite. Justin was fourth in line. He wasn't the heir, the spare, the healer, or the baby. So, he felt..."


"It didn't help that he was unpleasant natured and ridiculously stubborn." Jensen held up a hand before Jared could speak. "What my father found amusing in me, he did not find so amusing in Justin."

"That hardly sounds fair."

"It wasn't. But it was how it was. I was often the butt of jokes with my brothers. They were all older, and none of them appreciated how much my father doted on my mother or me."

"That must have made your childhood difficult."

He started to say it was, but then realized he'd just given Jared way too much information. What had he been thinking? "Yes."

As if sensing his change, Jared lay down on the blanket. "My brother and sister and I all got on well enough. I'm different than they are. But I'd like to think there wasn't much resentment."

"How did they feel when you became the heir?"

"I think they were both relieved. It's a great burden."

"I thought you didn't have that much power."

"I have virtually no power, but I have influence. And I represent the Monarchy at all times. And when I'm off-world, I represent the planet."

Jensen could not imagine what it must be like. His father only ruled the country. And that seemed an enormous task.

"Why don't we eat?" Jared sat up and handed Jensen a plate.

The food was delicious, plain fare without a lot of spice or sauce. After the huge lunch, he was sleepy. He lay back on the blanket and closed his eyes. The warm sunshine helped to lull him into sleep.

"Wake up, Jensen," Jared said softly.

Jensen's eyes blinked open. "Sorry."

"You look adorable sleeping with your mouth open."

"I do not," Jensen laughed. "I'm too old to be adorable."

There was something in Jared's smile that surprised Jensen. He hadn't thought about the natural progression of his attraction or of Jared's. Men didn't act on such things at home. But apparently, things were different here.

Jared shifted, moving to his knees, and leaning over him.

Should he let him? What would be the consequences of allowing it? He probably should sit up and forestall what Jared was thinking. It had to be a bad idea, even if it were allowed. But some part of him wanted to --

While he was still dithering, Jared's lips settled onto his.

Jensen's stomach tightened and his heart started to pound. He pressed up into the kiss, enjoying the ease of it. It had been too long since anyone had kissed him. And even if it were a man doing it, it was still comforting.

Jared's tongue coaxed his lips open and he let his tongue move along his teeth, making all kinds of promises that couldn't possibly be kept -- but that he wanted to believe anyway.

Sliding down next to him on the blanket, Jared pulled Jensen into his arms, holding him as if he were fragile.

Desire was building in him for something he could not allow. Kissing Jared was one thing; anything else, that was further than he could go, probably further than he should go. Still, there was something wonderfully warm and sweet about being held in Jared's arms.

He put his hand on Jared's arm. When Jared raised his head, Jensen shook his head.

"You're right. We should get back," Jared said, sitting up.

There was a certain irony that the morning out in the park had done what last night's debacle was supposed to do. He felt nearly ready to face the crowds and congestion of tonight's reception. "Uh... Jared?"

Jared stopped packing up the remains of their lunch and looked at him. "Hmm?"

"Do you think... that..." Gods, why was this so hard?


"That we could do this again?"

"Yes. Whenever you would like," Jared answered quickly, with a smile. It looked as if Jensen had made his day with the question.

Maybe there was some home here, after all. "Tomorrow?"

"Well, perhaps not then. I'll have to check. Certainly the day after."

Well, if Jared couldn't ride with him every day then perhaps he'd be allowed to go alone. If he could get out of the palace for a little while each day then he might be able to survive the lack of fresh air the rest of the time. "Would it be possible for me to go for a ride by myself? I could promise not to run away?"

Jared frowned. "No. I'm sorry. You can't leave the palace without an escort."

Damn, he should have known.

For a moment, Jared tilted his head and started at him. "Is it that important?"

"No. It isn't important at all." He wasn't asking again. Somehow, he'd manage.

"What about an escort? You could ride here, if you were willing to take a couple of guardsmen with you. Would that work for you?"

He was torn between wanting to shove the concession back in Jared's face, and having some time each day in the sun. "Yes. Thank you. That would be great."

The hall was packed and warm. Jared was sweating in his formal clothes, and he could see, even from this distance, that Jensen was not having a good time. There was just too much distance between Jensen's society and this one. Despite his attempts, and Jared could see him trying, Jensen just wasn't comfortable, and that made everyone around him edgy and uncomfortable, too.

Over time, Jared was sure it would change. But right now, it was bordering on disaster. Jensen straightened as he approached.

"Would you like to dance with me?" Jared asked, holding out his hand.

"Dance? Jensen's eye brow rose, but his tone was mild, curious even. "With you?"

"You don't dance?" Jared asked, hoping he wasn't stepping into yet another mine field.

"Of course, I can dance," Jensen snapped, and then sighed. "But... can men dance together here?"

Jared couldn't help feeling relief that it wasn't him this time. "Yes. Haven't you noticed before?"

"I haven't." But Jensen made a show of looking around, and smiled slightly. "I guess they do."

Waiting with his arms folded across his chest, Jared was unwilling to be turned down a second time. He'd let Jensen do the asking, if he were interested in a dance.

"Do you want to..." Jensen started and then paused. "All right. Let's dance. But I lead." He crooked his arm in invitation, and bowed.

Jared returned the bow. "All right. But usually the taller of the pair leads."

"I've never had to follow, so I don't know how." His lips twitched as he said it, too.

But it didn't surprise Jared one little bit. "I could show you."

"Not tonight."

Jensen moved well, his timing perfect. He turned Jared around the floor with an ease that was surprising.

"You dance quite well."

Jensen relaxed a little, and smiled. "In Amaranth, everyone learns to dance. We learn complicated line dances, with intricate moves, and processional dances where everyone moves down the floor in lines, each person in a group of four doing a different step, but in time with the rest. This is nothing in comparison. Most of us meet our spouses at such dances."

This was the first bit of information about their society that Jensen had volunteered willing. "Tell me about your courtship rituals," Jared asked.

Suspicion clouded Jensen's face, but he did not miss a step. "Why do you care?"

"I'm curious about not only you, but Amaranth as well."

"Even in this day and age, many marriages are arranged, especially by the nobility."

"Really?" Jared found it hard to imagine not choosing your own mate. "Do your parents choose?"

"Our fathers."

"What about your mothers, do they have a say?"

Jensen paused, clearly considering the question. "Sometimes with their daughters, but never with sons."

Jared nodded, keeping his mouth closed. Although Jensen had insisted that their culture was an equal society, as far as Jared could see, the males decided what was equal. "Most people in Valdesco marry in their mid to late thirties. What is the average age in Amaranth?"

Silent for a long beat, Jensen shook his head. "We marry young, especially by your standards."

Then why wasn't Jensen married? "How young?"

Another long pause. "Most are married by the time they are twenty," Jensen said with what sounded like a great deal of reluctance.

"But not you?" Jared said, wishing he could come right out and ask why Jensen hadn't married, but he sensed that Jensen would either put him off or become angry; either way, Jared was sure he wouldn't get an answer.

"No. Not me." The tone said Jensen wasn't going to say anything more on the subject.

They danced in silence for a time, and when the music stopped, Jared led Jensen out onto the terrace.

"I expected it to be hotter here," Jensen said, sitting on the low glass wall and looking up at the night sky.

"How so?" Jared asked, sitting down beside Jensen.

"I'd heard it was very humid and unpleasant, but it's been quite temperate."

"It will get hotter as the season goes on, but the weather is controlled."

"You can control the weather? How is that even possible?" Jensen asked, sounding as if he thought Jared were lying.

"We can control the pollution levels as well. There are filters in space and around the planet that clean the air and block the sun from getting too hot. They also store the sun's energy so that we can use it for other things.

By Jensen's look, Jared could tell he was caught between disbelief and wonder. He put a hand on Jensen's arm, and smiled. "Would you like to see them?

"Oh, yes. I would."

"The space filters require twenty-four-hour monitoring. The sub-station is not far from here, walking distance in fact," Jared said, pulling out his padd to let the station know he was coming, but that it was an unofficial visit.

The night was clear and warm, with both moons shining bright. Jensen's slower gait made the walk longer than it normally would have been.

When they reached the observatory, Jensen stopped, staring up at the cylindrical steel building. Anything that had to do with their most modern technology, or space travel, seemed to delight Jensen. Jared wished he could arrange a shuttle ride around the planet, but there wasn't time for it before the wedding. He'd been able to arrange a tour of the space shuttle facility as a surprise in a couple of days.

"You can see into space from here?" Jensen asked, his voice filling with awe and something else, longing perhaps.

"Yes." Jared palmed the door. "I'll show you."

They were met in the reception area by a uniformed guard captain. The walls held pictures of the filters as they looked in space and people using the equipment that monitored them. Senna Adams, their guide, was due to retire from her post in a month. She smiled pleasantly at them. "Please come in Your Majesty, and..." she hesitated unsure how to address Jensen.

"Call me Jensen," He said, smiling at her.

Senna's smile brightened, and Jared could almost hear her thinking what all the fuss about Jensen was about. She led them up to the main observatory, taking time to explain each monitor and what each item did.

After each work station, she paused and Jensen had many questions. She clearly knew her subject, and shared Jensen's fascination with it. When they left an hour later, Jensen was smiling and thanked Senna profusely.

"It was my pleasure, Jensen. Really. Come back and visit again." She bowed. "And you, too, Your Majesty."

"Thank you again." Jared made a mental note to send a card to thank her for her time and trouble.

She stepped back, and went inside, leaving him and Jensen alone on the walk way.

Jensen turned to him, putting a hand on his sleeve and kissing him gently on the mouth. "Thank you."

"You're more than welcome," Jared said. He would have liked nothing better than to take Jensen into his arms and kiss him again. But he satisfied himself with a caress of Jensen's cheek with his fingers. They were in public. And any kind of public displays of affection were frown upon, especially if they included the monarch.

"I'd like to come back here again," Jensen said as they started to walk back to the reception hall.

"Of course. Maybe in a month or two?" Jared wished he could promise it sooner, but there wasn't going to be much free time in the near future.

"That would be wonderful," Jensen said, still smiling.

They had almost reached the reception hall when someone moved out of the shadows into their path. Jensen stepped ahead of him, holding his walking stick in both hands.

Jared recognized his cousin Preston, who was a pain in the ass, but not particularly dangerous. Putting a hand on Jensen's shoulder, Jared shook his head.

"What can I do for you, cousin?" While Jared doubted it was possible to avoid a scene, at least they were outside the reception hall and the press was inside.

His cousin bowed, but his eyes met Jared's as he looked up. "Your Majesty. Your guard chief fired me. Can you believe that?"

"I understand you were asleep when you should have been awake," Jared said, folding his arms over his chest. What he really couldn't believe was that Preston had the audacity to say something to him, especially like this.

"How could you let him do this to me? He humiliated me. I'm your cousin." There was a perfectly pitched whine in Preston's voice, as if he were the wounded party.

Which annoyed Jared even more. "This is the third time you've been caught sleeping on the job. Most mortals only get one chance. You've had quite a bit more than that."

"Well, damn, Jared. If they gave me some real work to do, instead of monitoring a stupid screen, then maybe I might not be so bored and I might be able to stay awake," Preston said.

"If you'd done your job, you might have been promoted out of monitoring, but you didn't." Jared bit back a sigh. Did Preston really think he was fooling anyone?

"Can't you fix it for me, just this once?" Preston asked. "I swear I won't do it again."

Glancing at Jensen, Jared saw that he was standing back, still at attention, watching the scene and looked ready to slap Jared's cousin. Jared was, too. He turned back to Preston. "I told you the last time, it was your last chance. You should have listened to me."

Preston frowned, clearly surprised by the answer. "What do I do now?"

"I think you're going to have to find something on your own this time. Why don't you talk to your mother?"

"By the Gods, you know she won't help me. Please, Jared, don't make me ask her for anything."

Despite being cousins, they had never been friends. And even his brother and sister wouldn't call him by name in public. "Have I ever given you leave to call me Jared in public?"

That surprised Preston enough to stop him, and he glanced around, seeing Jensen for the first time. "I'm sorry, Your Majesty, of course not."

"We need to return to the reception," Jared said, turning to offer his arm to Jensen.

Preston seemed to focus on Jensen, and stepped closer to him. "You're the War Prize, aren't you? Come here. Let me have a look at you."

Ignoring Preston, Jensen turned to Jared. "Shall we go back inside?"

As Jensen started to move towards the door, Preston stepped forward and put a hand on Jensen's arm to stop him. "You're not leaving yet, are you?"

"You will remove your hand," Jensen said quietly, but with more menace than Jared had ever heard him use before.

"I guess he's as unfriendly as everyone says." Preston laughed as he stepped back. "I'll speak to you about this later."

Jared sighed. "There is nothing left to say. I won't intercede for you to get your job back. That is final."

"Jared -- Your Majesty... Please."

Before he could say anything, Jensen stepped closer to him. "I think you have your answer." He turned toward Jared, and he offering his arm this time. "Shall we?"

Nodding, Jared let himself be led back to the reception.

"Where in all seven hells have you been? And without an escort," Ryan hissed as soon as they came through the double doors. "You slipped out of here without a word to anyone. I was one minute from alerting the guards, especially since Jensen was also missing."

Jared looked down. He hated it when he didn't think about security. "I'm sorry. Preston caught us outside and made a scene." He turned to Jensen. "Why don't you get something to eat?"

Jensen looked like he might argue, but he nodded and walked away.

Ryan held out his hands. "Did I miss something?"

"Yes." Jared explained what happened.

"What do you want to do about Preston?" His tone said that Ryan had also reached his limit with their cousin.

"Truthfully, I don't know. But clearly, we'll have to do something." And despite the fact Jared didn't care for him, he also didn't want to see him harmed or get into trouble. "What would you suggest?"

"I don't know, either. He's not good at much. Except, of course, getting into trouble."

Jared laughed. "Maybe we could send him to work on the space station?"

Shaking his head, Ryan smiled. "It's a nice thought, but I somehow don't think he's going to be any better at that."

"Probably not. I'll think about it. Now, I guess I should find Jensen."

Jared found Jensen across the room, standing beside the far wall of the hall. "Had enough?" he asked when he was close enough to speak over the din of the room.

"More than enough," Jensen said quietly. "I don't understand how you can do this night after night."

"We don't. I don't." Usually he led a busy, but mostly quiet, life. "This is the lead up to our wedding. And that's why it's so insane. Once we're wed, things will calm down."

"We have what, a few more days of this?" Jensen asked. But he made it sound like six years. Which Jared could completely appreciate.

"I'm afraid so." Jared could find nothing to say to that look and so he found something else to keep him beside Jensen. "Do you want to dance again? How's your knee?"

"I took another pain pill so it's fine." Jensen held out his hand. "So, yes, I'd like to dance."

They moved onto the floor, joining the others in a three-step slow dance. Jensen felt so good in his arms, solid and warm. Jared was pretty sure he could go on like this forever, just moving slowly to the music.

Jensen's fingers stroked the back of his neck, and Jared leaned into the touch, hoping he could keep from purring. As they danced, Jensen moved closer, pressing a quick kiss to Jared's mouth. "Thank you."

At the touch of Jensen's lips, Jared heart started to pound. "Not that I'm complaining, you understand, but for what exactly?"

"For the tour and the dance." Jensen kissed him again, longer this time.

Jared pulled him a little closer. "It was my pleasure. All of it."

He took a quick glance around, making sure they were far enough out of the center of the room, and then drew Jensen fully into his arms, moving to the music. Manners be damned. With his hand on Jensen's jaw, he tilted it up just a few degrees and pressed his mouth onto Jensen's.

Jensen slipped his tongue out to meet Jared's. By all the Gods, Jensen tasted sweet and warm, of wine and cheese, and Jared savored it as all fine things should be savored. Sliding a hand down to Jensen's waist, he pulled Jensen even closer.

Someone cleared her throat loudly. With an unhappy sigh, he opened his eyes to see his sister shaking her head.

"You do know that you're making a display of yourself?" she asked. At Jared's look, she sighed. "There's too much speculation and talk already. You don't want to add more to it."

Jared blushed. She was right. "Perhaps we'd better retire for the night," Jared said.

"A very good idea." Anna nodded and bowed, stepping back to let them pass.

"I'm sorry," Jensen said as they made their way to the platform where the car would that would be waiting for them.

"It's not your fault. I was there with you all the way." Jared put his hand on Jensen's back as they started up the ramp.

"I'm sure that everyone thinks I'm a bad influence on you," Jensen said with a pleased chuckle.

"Probably." Jared smiled at him. "See that it continues, but perhaps, not so publicly."

The car was waiting for them at the top of the ramp. Jensen slid into the back, and Jared followed.

Turning to look at him, Jensen smiled. "Not so public?"

Jared moved closer and slid an arm around Jensen's shoulders. With the other hand, he touched the controls to raise the panel between the driver and the back seat. "That might work out better."

His mouth closed over Jensen's, and Jensen's strong arms closed around him. He was pushed backward until he was lying across the seat with Jensen sprawled on top of him. Of their own volition, his hand settled on the round curves of Jensen's bottom, squeezing slowly.

Pushing back into his hands, Jensen groaned. One of his hands slid down between them to touch.

Floating along in a pleasure-filled haze of Jensen's mouth on his and Jensen's body beneath his hands, he was startled when Jensen suddenly pulled back.

"We've stopped."

"So we have," Jared said, tugging his clothes back into place and refastening the few buttons he'd undone on Jensen's tunic.

When the door was opened, the guard who held it was blushing furiously and had her eyes averted. He and Jensen exited the vehicle without looking at each other.

As soon as they got into their suite, Jensen stopped, pulling Jared into his arms, and kissed him again. "Good night," Jensen whispered as he pulled back. "And thank you again."

"Do you want a drink before bed?" Jared asked, knowing it wasn't time for more yet, but not wanting to let Jensen go either.

Pausing for a moment, Jensen considered it, then shook his head. "No thank you. I'm tired. And my knee has begun to ache again."

"Would you like for me to call Stephanie and have her send down more pain meds for you?"

"Yes. Thanks." Jensen hesitated for another moment. He smiled slightly as he leaned forward and kissed Jared again. "Good night."

Part Seven

Jensen left his walking stick by the door when he came in from his morning ride. His horse had reared at the sight of a rodent, and he hadn't been paying enough attention to keep his seat. His knee ached from the fall. Where in all seven hells were his pain meds? And why hadn't he taken them before he'd gone out?

The door chimed.

"Chad?" Jensen asked, opening the door. "Jared is already gone."

"I know. We, Jared and I, thought maybe it was time to test you so that you can start to think about a career."

He'd forgotten they'd talked about testing him. "Come in," Jensen said and resumed his search for his pills.

"Is your knee still bothering you?" Chad asked as Jensen took a seat next to him on the sofa. At Jensen's nod, he said, "I guess I don't need to tell you that we could probably fix it without too much trouble."

"No. And no, thanks. I really don't want to talk about that."

"Okay, so let's get down to it." Chad pulled out his data padd. "I sent a file to your padd and you should see it on your main page."

Jensen opened his padd and saw there was an icon that hadn't been there yesterday. He still wasn't sure how all of this worked. He'd meant to look it up, but there hadn't been enough time. And the time he did get, he used it to research other things.

Aside from complete maps of not only the palace and the city, but also the world, including Amaranth, he'd found complete histories of Valdesco and most of the worlds they had contact with, as well as complete course listings of all the educational institutions in the country (and a few off-world), along with previous professors' notes and comments on the professors from students.

Then, there was every imaginable type of entertainment, and many that he'd never imagined. There were games, videos of music, current and historical news, any kind of historical record he could think of. And a cache of pornography so vast and far-reaching that he couldn't even take it all in. Just about everything.

One of the first things he'd done was look up Jared and his family. The amount of information, history and gossip was staggering. He could not imagine living his life in so public a fashion.

And then he'd looked up himself. There hadn't been much on him personally, but public opinion was pretty much split on his status. There were whole groups of people weighing in on the subject.

"Do you see the icon?" Chad said, startling him back to reality.

"I see it."

"Click on it and it's going to take you to a test page."

What came up looked like a standardized testing site. "I've taken these sorts of test in Amaranth." On paper, of course.

"Then it shouldn't be too hard. Okay, so when you're ready click on the first test. You'll be timed, so don't worry about finishing a question if you don't know the answer."

Jensen shrugged and clicked on the test. It was both harder and easier than he would have thought. He had no problems with the math at all. It was the same things he'd learned in school, and he'd always been good at it. The writing test didn't seem difficult either, but he didn't know anything about several of the topics that he was asked to write on. The history and literature were a disaster. There was no way he could answer questions about books he hadn't read or history he hadn't seen.

"Okay, done." Chad said, sometime later.

"When do I get the results back?" Jensen wasn't sure he wanted the results, but no one asked him.

"Give it about ten minutes. It should be back in your inbox by then."

"They are going to send it to me?"

Chad looked at him like he was nuts. "Of course. They always send the results to the person who took the test."

His padd dinged to let him know someone had sent something. He opened the results. "I’m not sure what I'm looking at." He handed the padd to Chad.

"Well, well, well, you've done very well in math. Top scores, in fact. And your writing is very good as well." Chad looked up at him. "You're very well-educated, aren't you?"

"You seem surprised. But yes, I did well in school."

"I guess," Chad started and then looked back at the screen. "I guess I wasn't expecting this. You can do just about anything you want."

"Brain surgery?" Jensen asked, keeping his face perfectly composed.

Chad choked. "You want to be a healer?"

"You said anything I wanted. I've always wanted to be a surgeon."

"You're not serious, are you?" Chad asked.

"No. Not really." Jensen waited patiently for him to get the joke.

"You do have a sense of humor in there somewhere, don't you?" Chad laughed.

"None whatsoever." Jensen assured him, but he could not keep the grin off his face. It felt good to joke with someone, as if there might be a place for him in this world after all.

Chad shook his head with a smile and stood. "I should go. Shall we meet again tomorrow at the same time?"

At the door, he put a hand on Chad's arm to stop him before he left. "Thank you for your help. I do appreciate it."

Could this possibly get any worse? Jensen leaned against the far wall. Maybe if he were quiet and didn't move no one would notice him over here. It had to be worth a try.

By all the Gods, even as the High Chief's son, he'd been one of many, so he'd only been required to attend one or two events like this a year. In the time he'd been here, he'd added up more than his quota for several years to come. And it wasn't even over yet.

That didn't even begin to take into account just how out of place he'd felt in Amaranth. Valdesco was an order of magnitude worse.

They'd arranged for another tour today, this one of the space shuttle dock. He'd only been able to stare at the vehicles that took people into space -- not only into space, but with an ease that Jensen found hard to imagine. His fingers had itched to touch the controls, to see if he could fly it. But the opportunity hadn't come. And in all likelihood, wouldn't come.

Valdesco's marvels impressed him tremendously. They were so much more advanced that anything he could even imagine, everything seemed possible.

And Jared. Gods, how he wished they could actually get to know each other, perhaps find some common ground. They got these ephemeral moments of accord, and then Jared hurried off to some meeting or other, leaving Jensen alone, with far too much time on his hands. Okay, so Jared's...friend Chad came by now and then and gave him more lessons on how to do things, on how to work the technology, but even that wasn't enough to fill his days.

And then it was time for yet another reception. He was so sick of the people and the noise and the smell he could scream. But that was probably breaking some rule.

He rubbed his eyes. Damn, the lights were too bright. Even with the glass panels on one side of the room open, it smelled ... not exactly bad, but that same recycled, not-quite-clean smell that most of the indoor places had. Or maybe it was just too many smells in too small a space.

The endless small talk was starting to give Jensen a headache. Under the best of circumstances, he wasn't that good at it, and he hated having to interact with people with whom he had nothing in common. There wasn't a soul present that he had anything to say to or who had anything of interest to say to him. That didn't stop every single person from wanting to talk to him -- he obviously was some kind of a novelty.

Just a few minutes ago, some overdressed woman had practically demanded that he have a conversation with her, and she would not take no -- or anything else -- for an answer. At first, he'd tried to be polite, but when that failed to make an impression, he'd been rude. Of course, that worked like a charm, and she'd gone off in a huff, no doubt to inform her high-ranking husband that the War Prize had been every bit as rude as everyone said he was.

"Hi." A dark-skinned woman with long curls smiled at him. How had she sneaked up on him like that? "Sorry, I didn't mean to startle you. I'm Zoe Saldana."

His feet hurt; he hadn't eaten anything at dinner; and he was so not in the mood to be polite. He looked down his nose at her. "And this means something to me?"

"We're in a fine temper, aren't we?" Her smile widened, and her eyes twinkled. "Of course, I would be unhappy, too, if I had to spend any amount of time with Allison."

"Allison?" Jensen asked almost against his will. Curiosity had always been his downfall and he was sure it would get him killed one day.

"The lady who was trying to talk your ears off. She doesn't take no for an answer."

"She didn't stop talking." Jensen looked away from Zoe, willing himself not to smile. The last thing he wanted was to encourage her.

"I wonder sometimes if she ever stops talking," Zoe said, still smiling for all she was worth. She seemed to bounce without moving, radiating with energy. "Don't bother to scowl at me. Seriously, I'm immune. I've been frowned at by experts, you can't come close."

"Oh, I'll have to work harder at it." Seriously, all he wanted was to get the hell out of here. It was late, and he wanted to go to sleep. Where the hell was Jared anyway?

She continued to grin at him, as if she didn't have a care in the world. "See that you do, but I doubt you can come close to Anna. She's His Majesty's sister and my lover. She is quite cantankerous."

Oddly enough, he'd had very little to do with Anna. It was pretty obvious that both she and Ryan were ridiculously protective of their brother. Jensen could appreciate that. "She did not strike me as overly churlish."

"You don't know her." Zoe's tone said she wasn't upset at all by her lover's bad moods. If anything, she seemed amused by it.

"I suppose not," Jensen said. He should be grateful that she was more pleasant that the last person who'd insisted on conversation.

"She's a financial manager. I think all those numbers make her bad-tempered."

Jensen snagged a glass of wine from the tray of a passing robot-waiter. He still wasn't quite used to the things, but after a week, he'd gotten to the point where he didn't flinch when one of them came near him.

"His Majesty mentioned that you've had some testing and that you've done very well? Much better than they expected, especially in math. Any thoughts as to what you'd like to study?" she asked.

"Excuse me?" Jensen could not quite believe what he'd just been asked. What kind of world was this where his test scores and the decisions that affected his life were discussed without his knowledge or consent?

She tilted her head to look up at him, clearly perplexed. "I was just talking to His Majesty this afternoon --"

"He discussed my career options with you?" Jensen was proud of how he kept his voice even. That he hadn't started yelling. Yet.

"Well, yes. We're good friends."

"And you think this is all right?" he asked very carefully. "Discussing me and my career choices without me being present?"

Her brow knitted and her smile faded. "Um... yes. Why would it be a problem?"

He could feel the blood drain from his face. This country never failed to shock him. Just when he thought he'd seen the worst they could throw at him, something else happened. How could Jared have discussed his academic test results and career possibilities with someone else before having the decency to speak to him about it?

"Maybe I have that wrong." She stepped back a pace, clearly backtracking. Too late.

"His Majesty has it wrong as well." Jensen tossed back the last of his wine and handed her the empty glass as he pushed past her. He was going to find Jared and kill him.

Zoe tried to forestall him by putting a hand on his arm. "Are you all right?"

He shook her off and then looked down at her. "I'm just fine. Really." Jensen swept a hand around the room. "No reason why I shouldn't be fine. It's all fine."

He stalked toward Jared. After he was done with Jared, his Majesty would think twice about talking about him again.

Between the scowl that was on his face and the purpose in his step, everyone got out of his way as he stomped toward Jared.

"Your Majesty?" Jensen said, turning Jared toward him with a hand on his shoulder. "I'd like to speak to you."

Jared's eyes flashed annoyance, but his tone was polite as he tried to move out from under Jensen's hand. "Give me a moment, please."

"I said I would like to speak to you privately. And I do mean now." Jensen ignored the gasps from the people around. With the way he felt right now, it was enough that he wasn't screaming or using Jared's given name in public.

"Excuse me," he said to those gathered. The sympathetic looks in everyone's eyes for Jared enraged Jensen even further.

"You will come with me," Jared ordered, the cold words losing any hint of politeness. He took Jensen by the upper arm, his fingers biting into Jensen's muscles.

It reminded him of his father. And the truth was, he never would have spoken to his father that way. Not in public anyway. He should probably try and remember that Jared was the Monarch of this country, as well as Jensen's keeper.

Silently, Jensen followed Jared to a small, private alcove, off to one side of the larger hall. Jared turned to face him, radiating disapproval. "What is so important that you pulled me away so rudely?"

"You were discussing my future?" Jensen spat the words out through his clenched teeth.

"What wrong with that? I've discussed it with several people. Why are you so upset?" Jared crossed his arms over his chest and glared, as if he were the one who was injured.

"You've discussed what I'm going to be doing and neglected to mention it to me first?" Jensen asked through his teeth, his fury making it hard to speak quietly.

"There is no offense when none is intended. Calm yourself --"

With a wave of his hand, he cut Jared off again. The last thing he wanted was to hear excuses or be told lies or whatever Jared wanted to tell him. "Do you have any idea what it felt like to find this out from a stranger?"

"It isn't that big an issue. I don't understand why you are so upset. Nothing is set in stone."

"Perhaps this isn't a big issue to you." Jensen closed his eyes. He was shaking. Jared's whole attitude only fuelled his rage. "This is my life you're deciding without consulting me."

"You're going to be here a long time. You should do something useful --"

"Something useful. What does that even mean? You make it sound as if I'm useless --" Which in some ways wasn't far from the truth, at least so far. Jensen's stomach twisted. He hated being here, and he hated that he couldn't do anything about it. Every time he started to believe that Jared might deal fairly with him, something else happened to destroy his hope.

Jared face was closed, showing nothing. "You forget your place, Jensen."

Being reminded that he had no status as a person was just about the last thing Jensen wanted to hear. "Damn you to hell. You're the one who has made me promises and then taken them back."

"What did I promise you?"

"That I would only have to endure this," Jensen said, waving his hand around him, "for ten days."

"And if you hadn't drugged me and run away," Jared whispered, and held out his hand when Jensen would have denied it. "Yes, I know about that and I know that you could have been arrested and sent to prison for that. Fifteen days of no status is better than prison."

Jensen sucked in a breath. It was bad enough that he had drugged Jared in his futile attempt to find fresh air to breathe. But that Jared knew it just made it all the worse. However, it didn't fix the matter at hand. "I don't want --"

"You know what," Jared said, his finger pointing at Jensen. "You don't get to say what you want anymore. I'm getting damned tired of being wrong, of bending over backward to accommodate you and your bad temper. You are going to do what I say from now on. And I'm going to return to my guests and you are going to shut up --"

The rage and frustration reached critical mass, and something in Jensen just snapped. Clenching his hand into a fist, he swung without thinking, slamming into Jared's solid jaw. To his immense satisfaction, Jared went down with a thud. Damn, but it felt so good to wipe that smug smile off his face.

There was no time to savor his victory as a collective gasp rocked the room. Vaguely, Jensen realized through his abating rage that everyone's attention must have been riveted on them. Which meant that the entire room just saw him strike their Monarch.

He shook his hand, trying to ease the sting. That punch hurt like all seven hells, and he wondered idly if he'd broken his hand. It also occurred to him, belatedly of course, that he really shouldn't have vented his anger in quite so public a fashion, especially with David Boreanaz bearing down on him with two more guards in tow.

Jared picked himself up off the floor and Jensen was seized by several guards.

"Let him go," Jared said, rubbing his jaw, which had already started to swell.

Boreanaz stood perfectly at attention, his dark brown eyes not even glancing in Jensen's direction. "Forgive me, sir, but there are witnesses to him striking you. And that is a violation of at least three different statutes I know of offhand, and probably three or four more that I can come up with without much trouble."

Jared closed his eyes for a moment. "Who is on the docket tonight?"

Boreanaz shook his head. "Sir, you're not going to try and get him off."

"Even if you arrest him, I am not going to press charges. You'll have no case if I don't testify."

"I have a room full of witness who will, sir."


"No. I'm sorry, sir. He's gone too far." Boreanaz was genuinely furious.

"I'll have him out in a couple of hours."

Boreanaz held out his hand to one of the guards, and she put a strip of something that didn't quite look like metal into his hand. "Put your hands together and hold them out."

"Is that really necessary?" Jared asked, his tone annoyed.

"Yes, sir. He's proven to be violent." Boreanaz looked at him and then back at Jensen.

He wasn't going to argue or put up a fight. Boreanaz bound his hands using some kind of locking deceive that bore no resemblance to the handcuffs he'd seen used by police in Amaranth.

He was led away and shoved none too gently into an elevator. They transferred to a second elevator that took them down to the subbasement. "Is there a dungeon?" he asked.

Boreanaz scowled at him. "No. Just holding cells. In case you didn't catch it, you're under arrest."

"Oh, I got it." Jensen's hand was starting to swell. Fuck. Maybe it was broken. It would be just his luck.

"Good. Although you're probably not going to need it, you're entitled to legal representation before your trial. And you don't have to say anything to incriminate yourself while you're questioned. Do you understand what I've just told you?"

"Yes." Some part of him registered that he'd been told his rights. There had been a ruling by the high court not that long ago that had said those arrested were entitled to certain rights. And Amaranth had just begun requiring that prisoners be told their rights under the law.

But before he could comment further, he was pushed down a corridor made of plain gray cinderblock. A uniformed woman looked up as they approached the desk. "Put him in unit one, sir," she said.

The cell where they pushed him was cold and dim. A bench was pushed against the far wall.

He remained silent as they stripped him to his skin and searched him. They ran a reader of some kind over both of his hands and his feet.

Under normal circumstances he would not have cared that he was naked, but one of the guards was a woman. In his entire life, the only woman he'd been undressed before was his wife. He was mortified and his anger increased, leaving him shaking.

The guards left the cell, and Boreanaz tossed him a grey cotton jumpsuit. He scrambled into it and sat down on the bench.

After some time, the suspense was starting to grate on Jensen. "What's going to happen?" he asked, wondering if he'd even get an answer from the silent Boreanaz.

"I have no doubt that his Majesty will get you off." Boreanaz's tone was completely without inflection, but still gave the impression of extreme displeasure at the thought that Jensen would escape punishment.

Jensen didn't care what David Boreanaz thought. "How?"

"I'm sure he'll claim mitigating circumstances."

"If you know that, why bother arresting me?"

Boreanaz stared hard at him. "You struck my Monarch. There is no excuse for that. Whatever reason you think you had for doing that, it's not good enough. He had every right to see you punished."

"And if he doesn't, you will?"

"You can rely on that."

Still, maybe Boreanaz had a point. Jensen didn't know anymore. He put his head in his hands. Gods, how had his life spun so out of control?

Jared's jaw ached. He could have had the bruise treated, but he wanted to speak to the judge on duty tonight before it got any later.

By all the Gods, Jared could not believe Jensen's utter stupidity. He had finally broken the law so badly, so publicly, that there could be no private reprieve. At least, he could still intervene with the judge. But there was no guarantee it would work, especially with David as angry as he was.

The monitor on the far wall buzzed, and a screen lowered itself. Jared pressed the receive button and one of the magistrates from the city's night court appeared. He did not look pleased.

"Your Majesty. I'm Judge Stephen Hathaway. I understand there was an incident involving you and the War Prize."

Even though it wasn't Hathaway's fault, Jared glared at him. "His name is Jensen Ackles, and yes, I'm afraid there were mitigating circumstances."

Hathaway gave him a hard look. "I can see you're injured."

It was an effort, but Jared did not reach out to touch the bruise on his face. "It's not that bad, your honor. I would like to have the whole thing taken care of quickly."

"You are not above the law, Your Majesty, and the War Prize...Ackles, certainly isn't." His tone was chiding, and superior.

It was an effort not to let it grate on his nerves. "I'm aware of both of those things. However, I don't think putting him in prison will solve anything. And it will cause us no end of trouble."

"It's not as if his country can do anything --"

"That's not really the point. He's a person and entitled to some recompense for what we've done to him."

Hathaway was silent for a moment. "All right. I'm assuming you're going to say he was provoked?"

Jared nodded. He wasn't going to go into the details unless he had no choice. Jensen lived by a different set of rules than they did. And while it had been easy to say Jensen would adapt before he'd met him, it wasn't that easy to force a real person to do so.

"Violence does not solve problems."

That was an understatement. "I know that, and you know that, but we may have to teach Jensen that."

"And a few weeks in jail won't do it?" Hathaway said almost to himself. "All right. But he must agree to four -- no, six counseling sessions. As well as another thirty days without any status before he is granted citizenship."

The last seemed harsh. Jared opened his mouth to protest, but Hathaway was glaring at him, so he closed it again. Really, he shouldn't argue with the judge. Not when he was asking for a favor like this. "All right."

"He has to agree and sign the paperwork, you can't do it for him."

Part of him wanted to point out that since Jensen was in effect in his custody, then he could, in fact, sign whatever he wanted for Jensen. Given everything, he seriously doubted Jensen or the judge would appreciate it. "I'll see that he does."

"I'll send over the paperwork now."

Jared glanced down at his data padd, and saw the file had been transferred. "Thank you."

"I'm still not sure this is the best solution, but I'll let you have the benefit of the doubt. This time, sir."

Jared nodded and the image went to black.

The buzzer startled him. "Come," he called, picking up the printed pages.

Ryan came in.

"Jared," he stopped beside him, and glanced at the padd in his hand. "So, you got him off, again."


"We're all aware that you've been interceding on his behalf since he got here. God, has it only been a week?"

With a deep sigh, Jared folded up the papers and put them into an envelope. He pinched the bridge of his nose.

"Do you want me to retrieve him?" Ryan asked.

As much as he'd like to just walk away, this was his mess. "I have to do it."

"You should let him sit there overnight. He needs to understand what he did was unacceptable." Ryan wasn't completely wrong, and if Jared actually thought it might help the situation, he'd agree to it, but right now, his satisfaction wasn't enough of a reason.

"I don't think that's going to do any good." Jared sighed. "He got thirty more days without status and then he's got to have six counseling sessions."

At that, Ryan nodded. "That last is a good idea. Who was the judge?"


"I don't know him."

"I hadn't realized you knew any of the night magistrates?" It did make sense that Ryan knew the courts since Jared didn't.

Ryan shrugged. "It helps to know who is doing what in the city. Even at night. I think the counseling is a good idea. It might help."

"You know, he won't see anyone willingly. Maybe I can have his priests talk to him."

"Are they even trained for that?" Ryan looked skeptical.

"They're clergy. They must be."

"I don't know. Have you seen them lurking around in those long brown robes? They don't seem much like the talking types to me. Maybe I'm wrong. Go, before it gets too late."

Jensen jumped as something banged against a wall in the distance. At some point earlier, Boreanaz had left. There was some part of Jensen that understood where he was coming from, but mostly, he was too angry to care.

He should have known that hitting Jared was a bad idea. Oh, hell, he did know it. His temper had gotten the best of him. It had been years since he'd lost it this badly. But the whole situation had reduced him to being a belligerent teenager, or worse, a bratty child.

The cell's glass door slid open. "Please proceed to the processing point. Follow the blue line on the floor," a metallic voice said.

That was something else he was probably never going to get used to. He sighed and stood up, moving cautiously out of his cell. It was slow going, his knee ached, and they had taken his walking stick along with his clothes. As instructed, he followed the blue line on the floor. When he came to the locked door that led out, it slid open silently.

At the desk, a bored-looking woman sat watching several monitors. "His Majesty will be here in a few minutes to meet you."

Jensen said nothing, and she finally turned around to look at him. "Hold out your hands, pressed together."

For a moment he thought about arguing, but really, she was armed and he was not. He held out his hands, pressed palm to palm. She wrapped one of those binding things around them, just a little too tight.

"You have nothing to say?" she asked as she sat back down.

He had no idea what she wanted from him, and really, he didn't care. It was cold and damp down here, and the jumpsuit they'd given him to wear was not nearly warm enough. "Where are my clothes?"

She smirked at him. "Mr Boreanaz said that we'd send them on to his majesty's suite."

So, he got to walk through the halls wearing his prison gray jumpsuit and, he was quite sure, bound. Fabulous. This day just got better and better.

There was a wooden bench pushed against the wall, and he moved towards it.

"Where do you think you're going?" she asked. "You're not free until his majesty shows up with your paperwork.

Which she knew was coming. He jerked his head towards the bench.

"Fine," she said, waving a dismissing hand at him.

Was every single person in this place rude? Or did they save it up for him? He sat down on the bench with his back perfectly straight.

David Boreanaz showed up about half an hour later. About the time that Jensen's temper was starting to fray.

The woman, who hadn't bothered to give Jensen her name, stood up as soon as Boreanaz came into the room. "Sir," she said, her tone amazingly respectful.

"His majesty is on his way." Boreanaz didn't even glance at him. "Has there been any trouble?"

"Nothing I couldn't handle, sir."

Jensen would have clenched his fists, but his hands were pressed together and all he could do was sit there and grit his teeth.

When Jared arrived, Jensen was sitting on a stone bench, handcuffed, and stripped of his dignity as well as his dress clothes. The vindictive part of him approved; Jensen needed to understand that he'd acted inappropriately. The compassionate part of him felt damned sorry for Jensen, who looked like he hadn't a friend in the world. Which, obviously, he didn't.

He was released into Jared's custody, but instead of thanking Jared for intervening on his behalf, Jensen hadn't said a word, simply followed whatever instructions he was given.

As soon as they were behind the closed doors of Jared's suite, Jensen stripped off the gray jumpsuit, leaving it in a heap on the floor, and stalked naked towards his door.

It took a second for Jared to respond. "Where are you going? I'm not done with you yet."

Jensen didn't answer, or maybe the quietly shut door was his answer. Jared followed him into the room.

"Don't you ever knock?" Jensen hissed as he slid into his robe.

"I said I wasn't done with you yet."

"Oh, yes, you are. It's been a very long night, already. I'm going to sleep."

"You have to sign the paperwork. Don't you even care about the penalty?"

"There's absolutely nothing I can do about it." He folded his arms over his chest. "What is it?"

"Six counseling sessions and thirty more days without status. You'll need to sign that --"

"I agree? Not a chance."

"That you understand the penalty. You're bound by it whether or not you want to be."

He held out his hand for the padd. "Fine. I'll sign."

Jared pulled out the stylus and handed over the padd.

Without even bothering to look at it, Jensen scribbled his name. Clearly it didn't matter to him what it said.

"Are we done? Jensen asked.

By all the Gods, Jared wanted to be done with all of this. He wanted to turn around and walk away. Unfortunately, that wasn't an option. So, he'd stand and fight. "I'd like to talk about what happened. Preferably without resorting to violence."

Jensen let out a sigh and sat down on the bed. "I suppose we can try. I'm not actually prone to losing my temper like that."

Could have fooled him on that. "What caused it, then?"

"I told you in the hall. You discussed my future, my life, with someone else, without discussing it with me first." A host of emotions played across Jensen's face and he looked down at his hands for a moment.

"I don't see the problem. You would have been consulted before any decisions were made." Jared felt like he was missing something important here, but he had no clue what it might be. Their cultures were so far apart that it was a mine field to try to have even a random conversation, let alone discussing a volatile topic.

Closing his eyes, Jensen let out a breath. "Don't you think I should be the one making those decisions, rather than finding out about them after the fact? If I'm actually going to have a say in my life, then give it to me. Don't let me tell me one thing and do something else."

"You are right," Jared said. "I should have talked to you first. But I'm used to discussing things with my advisors and friends."

Jensen stood and walked over to the window. "Even if my future is of no great concern to you, it is very much a concern to me."

"Your future is a concern to everyone. And as much as you can, you'll be allowed to make your own decisions."

"What does that mean?" Jensen asked, suspiciously.

"There are some things you are going to have no say in, things that have to do with being my spouse. Other things, such as your education and career, I'll leave completely to your judgment. And for the record, we were just discussing possibilities given your high math scores."

"What does that have to do with anything? I mean, it's just math."

"Math is very important in many disciplines in the hard sciences and technology."

Jensen took an audible breath. "Even if I had the base for this, I lack any knowledge of your technology."

"Chad tells me you've picked up a lot of it very quickly. If you have the mathematical basis, you can learn anything you want."


"I'm not an expert, I have an advanced business degree, but I've been told that with your mathematics talents, you could be taught just about anything."

Jensen's expression was a combination of disbelief, hope and shock. "All right. I need time to figure out what I want to do. I just don't see why everyone cares that much about me. I'm nothing to them."

"Where did you get that idea? The people here all want you to be content. No one wants to see you suffer."

"I've read your Network and seen what your news people say about me."

"Have you read that you are the hope of peace between our two countries?" Because ultimately, that was why Jensen was here.

Jensen shrugged. "I'm a sacrifice of war. I don't think of myself as anything else."

"Whatever your people might think, you're more than that to us." Jared pushed his hair out of his eyes. "Are we all right on this?"

"As long as you're willing to discuss anything about me with me first, we won't have any more problems."

"I'm not the only one at fault here," Jared said. "You can't use violence as a means of discussion."

"You're not wrong on that." Jensen looked down and sighed.

Jared stood there waiting for him to finish.

"Look, I'm sorry, okay? I lost my temper. It's not something I do very often." Jensen took a step towards him and put a hand on his arm.

Stepping closer, Jared slid a hand though his hair. "I'm sorry too. And I'm sorry for the added days to your status. I would not have chosen that, but the judge made it part of the settlement."

"I guess it's better than jail. Thank you for going to all of this trouble on my behalf." Jensen nodded towards the padd Jared still held.

"I didn't want you to end up in jail for something that was partially my fault. I don't think we would have recovered well."

"Do you want to take a swing at me? I'll stand still for it and then we can be even."

"Is that how you handle things in Amaranth?"

"Sometimes. Most people are not prone to...striking out."

"You could have fooled me," Jared said. "And for the record, I don't want to hit you. I'd much rather kiss you."

Cocking his head, he studied Jared for a minute. "Seriously?"

Jared nodded. Because really, he enjoyed kissing Jensen more than just about anything in the world. And it might not solve their differences, but at least it made them both feel a little better.

Jensen slid his arm around Jared's shoulder and pulled him closer. "I think that can be arranged."

Another step brought Jared right up next to him, and then Jared's big warm hand was sliding onto Jensen's face, cupping his jaw as Jared looked deep into his eyes.

Slowly, Jared lowered his head and pressed his mouth against Jensen's, stroking very lightly along the skin on the back of his neck with his blunt fingertips. The gentleness of Jared's touch sent shivers down his spine.

Jared felt good under his hands, solid and warm. He ran his hands down Jared's long back and over his ass. The groan he got in return slid pleasantly along his nerves. Jared's hands moved down both of Jensen's arms, and he took Jensen's wrists in one hand, holding them behind his back.

It broke Jensen's mood. He went still and tried to pull his hands away.

Jared nuzzled closer, kissing his neck, but he didn't let go.

It was like ice water washing over him. Sex and being held like that were not a good combination for Jensen.

It only took another second for Jared to notice, but by then, Jensen had started to shake. He released Jensen's hands and took a step back. "Jensen? I'm sorry. I was just playing." Jared started to reach out for him, but his hands only got halfway to him. "Are you all right?"

"Yeah." Jensen took a deep breath. His heart was still beating way too hard. "Yeah. I'm fine. Sorry."

"What are you sorry for? What's the problem?" He still looked like he wanted to touch Jensen.

Jensen took a step back.

"Jensen?" Jared said, lowering his hand. "Tell me what just happened."

There wasn't anything anyone could do about it now. Jensen shook his head. "I don't want to talk about it."

"I need to know," Jared said, gently.

Talking was something Jensen had little interest in doing. "Why would you even care?"

"You're joking, right? I'm going to marry you in a few days. Don't you think I have a right to know?"

Right? What right did he think he had? "No, I don't think you have a right to know anything about me that I don't want to tell you," Jensen said.

Jensen turned away, but not before he saw the look of hurt on Jared's face. He walked to the glass expanse that made up one side of the room. He stood facing it for a long time, hoping Jared would take the hint and leave him alone.

But Jared wasn't that good with hints, it seemed, and he came to stand behind him, putting both of his hands on Jensen's shoulders and turning him to look at him. As soon as he'd turned, Jared dropped his hands. "Please. Tell me about it."

Jensen looked down. After all this time, he could almost believe it didn't matter anymore. "It was a long time ago. I was young. Sometimes at school the younger boys were used by the older ones. That's what happened, but they tied me up first."

As much as he hated to think about it, he knew he'd have to finish it. "Given my status, I should have been protected. But my brother -- the one I'd mentioned -- let it happen. My father found out and was furious. Suffice it to say that I was well avenged. And nothing like that happened again."

"Have you ever talked to anyone about it?" Jared's voice was very gentle, and he did reach out and put a hand on Jensen's arm.

Jensen shook his head. "It wasn't that important. I do not like to be bound. Or held down during sex."

"I'm surprised you'd let a man touch you --"

"You had nothing to do with what happened." He let out another sigh. "It never happened again. I've had other, more pleasant experiences. And I've always thought that some men are as pleasing to look at as women are."

That seemed to relax Jared. He stroked down Jensen's cheek with a finger. "I'd never do anything to hurt you."

Even now, he did know that. "I was just startled. I'm fine. Really."

Jensen reached out to draw Jared back into his arms. He liked the feel of Jared's huge hands moving up and down his back. And he liked touching Jared. The memories of what happened might never leave him completely, but he was not about to let them destroy his future. And yes, somewhere in the last few days, he'd realized that he did have a future, although he was going to have fight to make it the future of his choice.

For a while, Jared just kissed him, slowly, softly, and then with increasing need.

As his body pressed against Jared's, heat started to course through Jensen, tightening his groin and causing his heart start to pound.

Physically, Jared was magnificent. But there was more to him that that, and Jensen was only now starting to realize just how lucky he'd gotten. Despite all of the problems they'd had so far, things could have gone much worse than they had.

"Do we have to wait?" Jensen asked. "I mean, to..." He trailed off. How did he put that delicately?

"Only if you want to." Jared's hand slid onto his face and pulled his head back down for another slow kiss.

Clearly the decision was his to make. Not that it was a difficult decision. Against all the odds, he did want Jared.

"My tradition says that we would wait until we are married to..." he trailed off, blushing. Somehow fucking didn't seem like the correct word. "Do you mind?"

"Of course not," Jared said, and stepped back. "It's only a few more days. I want to follow your traditions as well as my own."

As much as Jensen could hear his disappointment, he was relieved to leave the fucking for another day. It would come soon enough.

Jensen moved closer. His hands stroked through Jared's hair, pushing the strands behind Jared's ears. His fingers lingered down Jared's cheek. "There are other things we can do besides that."

"What other things did you have in mind?" Jared grinned as if he had a good idea.

"Let me show you." Jensen put a hand on the clasp of Jared's shirt.

Jared's hands framed Jensen's face, and he leaned forward to kiss him again. They made their way slowly back across the room, until they fell across Jensen's bed.

For a long time, Jared only kissed him, over and over, sweetly, deeply, wonderfully, and Jensen was almost content to let him do that forever. Almost. After a little more, Jensen marshaled his strength, making a valiant effort to put Jared onto his back.

Jensen had undone the clasp of the tunic before the kiss, and now he removed the garment completely, leaving Jared's chest bare. Unable to resist, Jensen stroked down his chest, his fingers lingering over a nipple before moving on to the hard, flat belly, which rippled under his touch.

Jared's breath caught as Jensen reached the button on the trousers. Slowly, Jensen pushed the button through the hole and lowered the zipper. Obligingly, Jared raised his hips to allow the trousers and undergarments to be removed. Half-naked he was beautiful, but fully naked he was magnificent. Jensen's hands smoothed along the lines and planes. There was so much strength.

Under his fingers, Jared purred and writhed. It thrilled him to touch Jared, and he loved that he could bring him pleasure.

The taut flesh, the hard muscles, the musky smell all tantalized Jensen. His hand wrapped around the big, hard cock and he pumped it strongly, slowing when Jared seemed too near, but finally allowing the pleasure to build and break.

With a deep groan, Jared came over Jensen's hand, hips bucking up, face screwed up in pleasure.

A beat or two later, Jared exhaled sharply, pulling Jensen over into his arms and nuzzling his neck. Jensen wasn't going for subtlety when he pressed his hard cock into Jared's side.

Jared chuckled. A big hand reached down to pet his cock, not enough to do anything besides making him want more.

Starting slowly, using his fingers and lips, Jared had him on the edge almost immediately and then kept him there for longer than Jensen would have thought he could survive. He trembled and groaned under the assault. Jared seemed to know the exact pitch to play him on. Teeth raked his nipples, almost to the point of pain, but never quite getting there. Warm hands stroked his skin, just enough to sensitize, but no more.

Finally, after waiting forever, Jared's hands spread his legs wide, and he settled between them, nuzzling his belly and then licking downward. All thought stopped as Jared's mouth did wonderful things to him. Jensen was ready to beg when Jared finally moved onto his cock, mouth moving on him, sucking hard, soft, driving him mad. The pleasure crashed strong and white against him, and he cried out as it overtook him.

"Noisy much?" Jared laughed, sounding pleased by the idea.

Jensen shrugged. When the pleasure was that profound, he couldn't hold it back. "I like what you did to me."

Jared kissed his neck, tightening his arms. "Me too." Jared's eyes slid shut.

On the verge of sleep himself, Jensen wondered what he should do now. "You can sleep here. If you want to," he said.

"I'd be insulted if you threw me out."

Jensen let himself slide into sleep.

Part Eight

The next morning, Jensen lay in bed, trying to stay calm. He thought they'd settled their differences last night. Hell, he'd even offered Jared a chance for redress.

When they had awaked this morning, Jared had turned to him and casually mentioned that he'd sent for Jensen's priests. Something about counseling him. But by that point, Jensen's heart had been pounding too hard to do more than stare.

Then, without even waiting for Jensen protest or disagree, Jared had left the bed for yet another meeting.

None of it made sense. Especially after last night's sweetness.

Had he done something else?

The priests would be here soon. Because Jared had specifically asked them to see him, they would have free license to be particularly severe.

After confession, and the penance, he had no idea how he was supposed to go to a reception. He'd be lucky if he could move.

When the priests, dressed in long brown robes, entered the bedroom without knocking, Jensen spared a thought as to how they got into the suite. In all likelihood, Jared gave them access.

"We are here to have your confession and administer penance," Shawn Jackcych said in a quiet tone that made Jensen think he was trying to be intimidating. Jackcych was his father's confessor, and the other times he'd been forced to confession it was with him.

"I have nothing to confess." Despite the fact his heart was pulsing in his throat, he was pleased that his tone stayed even. He felt the sweat start to prickle under his arms and between his thighs. The thing that made him the angriest of all of this was the fear. He hated being afraid of anything.

"The sin of arrogance will be added to your penance." The second priest pointed to a spot on the floor. "Kneel there."

Jensen did as he was instructed. Jared had sent them; there could be no hope of reprieve. Despite his trembling, he kept his face carefully blank. He would not give them the satisfaction of seeing the fear, even if he was sure the smell clung to him.

"Will you beg for the Gods' mercy?" Jackcych asked. It was said that if one begged for mercy, showing proper contrition, the penance was less brutal.

"No." He never could bring himself to beg for anything, and in this case he expected it would do no good. It didn't seem worth his pride.

Grateful that the carpet was soft, and his knee would not be injured, he knelt where he'd been instructed. The second of the two priests knelt in front of him, and held him to his chest. The man hadn't bathed recently, and Jensen concentrated on the awful smell as the lash came down on his bare back.

Fire cut across his shoulders. The strap cut into him, over and over, and each time he bit back a scream. Eventually, he couldn't hold it back, and opened his mouth to cry out.

His back was on fire, each strike digging the pain in deeper.

As he opened his mouth on another moan, his teeth encountered the priest's flabby chest. Jensen bit down hard. Normally, he didn't take pleasure in causing pain, but this was a special case. It gave him some small sense of satisfaction.

After what seemed like forever, the beating finally ended. The law only allowed them to punish the repentant until the skin was broken. He'd been told part of the priest's training included instruction on how to give as much pain as possible before the skin broke and the victim bled.

"We will return in seven days' time for your next confession." They left him with that threat. Jensen was gratified to see one of the priests rubbing his chest as he left.

When the door closed, he slid face down on to the carpet. By the Gods, but it hurt. He breathed in and out slowly. After a few more moments, he forced himself to his knees. Nausea washed over him.

Somehow he got to his feet and stumbled to his bed; lying face down, he breathed in the scent of the sheets, which smelled like their night-time activities. If he could have mustered the energy, he would have been outraged. It was all he could to keep from bawling like a baby. He kept his eyes closed and concentrated on breathing.

An hour later, he was still lying on his stomach with his face in the pillow. All Jensen wanted was for it to stop hurting long enough for him to fall asleep.

He heard the door open and knew that Jared must be back.

"Who would dare this?" Jared's voice cracked with rage.

"The priests. You sent them to me, remember?" Jensen kept his voice to the barest whisper. Even talking hurt.

"Not to beat you!" Jared exploded, anger coming off him in tangible waves.

"It was penance." Jensen lifted his head slightly to look at Jared. It was pretty clear he hadn't realized what penance entailed.

"It's an abomination before all the Gods!" Jared closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "Forgive me, Jensen. I'm just surprised. My Gods don't require...this kind of penance. How you serve your Gods is your choice."

"You think this was my choice? You sent them to me." Jensen would have liked for his voice to come out firmer, but he was barely hanging on as it was.

"You have to have counseling as part of last night's agreement. I thought your own priests would be familiar to you. I didn't expect you to be savaged."

He heard the concern in Jared's voice.

"Counseling?" Jensen forced a laugh. "I don't think so. The priests bring only pain. There is no comfort in them."

"Then why did you agree to see them?" Jared asked, clearly nonplussed.

Gods, Jensen could not believe he was having this conversation. Jared gave no thought to his position here. "You told me they were coming. You gave me no choice."

"As if that ever mattered to you," Jared snorted. "You think nothing of arguing with me. You say no to me on a regular basis."

That did bring up a good point. There might not have been that much time, but he could have said something. Why had he assumed he had no choice? "This is different."


Given how he'd been acting, Jared could have expected him to at least object, but he'd been trained too well as a child. When a person was told to go to confession, they went, they didn't argue. "I don't know. I never thought to question..."

"I would never want you hurt. You should have explained what was involved."

"I assumed you understood what you were doing." But that sounded asinine, even to Jensen. And really, how could Jared have known?

Jared let out a sigh. "Next time say something, okay?"

He moved away and then returned, uncapping something that smelled of spice, but not unpleasantly. "This should take the worst of the sting out of the welts. If you were willing to go to the hospital, it could probably be healed completely." He began gently rubbing the ointment into Jensen's abused back and buttocks.

The relief was immediate. That there might be something to fix all of it, was a temptation. But he hadn't had to ask for this. And yes, he knew he should just give in and go, but he couldn't quite force himself.

"Thank you," Jensen said when Jared had finished rubbing in the cream. "It would have been two days or more before I would have moved without considerable pain." Sitting up and flexing his shoulders experimentally, he was relieved to find himself pain-free.

Jared reached out and dragged his knuckles softly down Jensen's cheek. "I'm sorry this happened to you."

"I am, too." He should say something about the wonder of the medicines here. Jensen smiled at him, reaching out his hand to the nape of Jared's neck, pulling him down for a kiss. He was so grateful for the lack of pain.

With the touch of his lips against Jared's, a familiar thrill slipped along his spine. He leaned into the kiss. His tongue darted out to touch Jared's. Jared moved his hands to rest lightly on Jensen's shoulders. They parted slowly, out of breath.

"Thanks," Jensen whispered, astounded that a kiss could be so moving, but he'd realized recently that Jared's kisses had the power to reduce him to a blithering fool -- something he hoped to keep from Jared for as long as possible.

Jared grinned at him, a hand reaching to slide along his face. "I'd say anytime, but really, let's not do this again."

"I'm sure there will be other things."

"I have no doubt."

Under normal circumstances, Jared preferred his own office to his formal audience chamber for meetings and dealing with minor matters. However, this was not normal circumstances. He asked both Anna and Ryan to join him and had guards posted around the room. The guards weren't needed for security. There were any number of modern weaponry and surveillance devices that saw to his protection, but they were impressive in their black trousers and red jackets.

He'd given half a thought to having Jeffrey join them as well, but that might be overkill since he was fairly sure he wasn't going to be able to press charges.

The room itself was rectangular, with works of art on the walls and wooden floors polished to high gloss.

The priests from Amaranth were announced and the three of them came forward and bowed deeply. They wore simple brown shifts that came to their ankles. The oldest of the three stepped forward and bowed again. "Your Majesty, I am Shawn Jackcych, I'm father confessor. These are my assistants: Brother Nathan Oravetz and Brother Brian Dominez." The two men nodded their heads. "How may we serve you?"

"I'd like you to explain to me why my..." Jared hesitated a fraction of a second, deciding on what to call Jensen, "Jensen's back is welted black and blue."

"That would have been my doing, sir. It is a private matter between Jensen and myself and the Gods," Jackcych said, quietly.

"I'm afraid I require a better answer than that." Jared glared down at them from his seat on the dais. Another advantage to this room was there was only one chair and he sat in it. Everyone else had to stand and look up at him.

"I'm sorry, there isn't one. Confession is private. What is said there is not to be discussed with anyone, for any reason, not even with the Monarch." Jackcych's voice was strong and determined, but it lacked the arrogance Jared had been expecting.

Ryan leaned over, and put a hand on his shoulder.

Jared looked up at him.

"Ask him about the confession in general terms, not specifically about Jensen," Ryan said. His brother and sister had both been shocked when Jared had explained what had happened this morning and agreed that an explanation was required. Both of his siblings had been sympathetic to Jensen's plight, or as much as they could be given last's nights fiasco.

Jared nodded and looked back at the priests. "All right. Explain to me why it was necessary."

"Do you mean the penance? Or the confession," Jackcych asked, running his hand through his short hair, disheveling it.


"Confession will cleanse the soul of misdeeds and penance pays the price for them. You can't be truly forgiven without a price paid for what you've done wrong."

"You force your people to this? Whether they wish to do it or not?"

Jackcych looked up sharply, his lips pressed together in a grim line for one moment. "No. No one is forced. Any adult may refuse both confession and penance."

"Are you saying that Jensen was willing?" Jared did not get that impression this morning.

"No one goes unwillingly to confession."

"I don't believe he understood that refusal was an option." Jared said. What were Jensen's exact words? Jared didn't remember exactly, but the implication was that Jensen had not been willing.

"All adults have the option of refusal. We believe that to refuse would be to court disaster, and would suggest, strongly in fact, that the person reconsider, but if one refuses, there is no way to force them. They must kneel for it, before anyone touches them." Again there was no arrogance in Jackcych's words, only a firm conviction in what he was saying.

"And you go to confession, too?" Jared asked, keeping his voice carefully neutral.

"This morning before I saw Jensen." Jackcych reached down to the hem of his tunic and brought it over his head, turning his back.

He wore only a pair of long cotton undergarments beneath it. There were three livid red stripes across his back. Beyond that, Jared could see the white and pink scars from previous penance.

Turning back, Jackcych held the tunic in his hands. "Do you understand now?" he asked, looking up at Jared, and meeting his eyes with firm conviction.

"Your penance seems far less severe than Jensen's was." Jared said.

"I'm willing to beg the Gods for forgiveness for my sins," Father Jackcych said.

While he didn't say that Jensen was not willing to beg for anything, Jared knew him well enough to infer it without much trouble.

"All right, put your tunic back on." Jared gestured with his hand. "I'll require more information about your religion."

Slipping the tunic over his head, Jackcych nodded. "What do you wish to know? I will do my poor best to answer your questions."

"Do all of the people of Amaranth follow your faith or are there variations?" Jared asked, looking first at the priest, and then back at his advisors.

"We follow the same path," Jackcych said. "But as we have become more modern, as our society has advanced, people have fallen away. Some think the penance is too harsh."

Jared could understand that. "What happens to those who fall away?"

"They are endangering their immortal souls." There was a kind of pleading in his voice, as if he were trying to make Jared see some point.

Anna cleared her throat and then asked, "Does anything else happen to them? Those that don't attend church, or go to confession?"

Jackcych shook his head and his mouth twitched into a small smile. "Isn't damning your soul enough?"

"That would depend on what else happens, wouldn't it?" Anna did not respond to the amusement or return the priest's smile.

"Nothing happens. We are not sure how to win back those who have left. Some feel that we should go back to the old ways, when people were forced to confession with the threat of being removed forever from the church. But those ways would not work with a modern populace."

Jared nodded. "I agree. I also think that the present situation would not exist, if someone in your order had not tried to stop progress."

"You are correct. There is a strong contingent among us who do not want change. Both the clergy and the people." Jackcych sighed. "I do not agree with that."

"I'm glad to hear that," Jared said. He'd gotten the impression that all of the clergy hierarchy was against any kind of change.

Jackcych continued, "Now Amaranth will wait years more for the medicines we would have traded for."

"What medicines?" There had been almost nothing said about what Amaranth had asked for in return for the minerals that Valdesco wanted.

"The High Chief had heard of your advanced medicines. We have many illnesses that kill our people, especially the young and old. He had wanted to bring cures to his people."

Anna stepped forward. "Why didn't he ask for the medical advances?"

Jackcych folded his hands in front of him and looked down and then up again. "Forgive me, my lady, but he was in no position to ask for anything. He was devastated by the forfeiture he had already paid."

"That was his choice," Jared said. "We didn't ask for a War Prize. You insisted."

"No one believed you'd accept it."

Jared had thought it was some kind of barbaric practice, but clearly it had been something else altogether. He wished he'd had Jeffrey here. "By rejecting Amaranth's first offer, we would have put you in a better bargaining position for peace? Yes?"

"I'm just a priest. I don't understand the finer points of negotiations," Jackcych said, looking down at his feet.

The finer points of negotiations were lost on Jared as well. "But you're speaking for Amaranth now, asking for the medicines they need."

"I will do what I can for Amaranth." Jackcych met his eyes briefly, and Jared saw the commitment in them.

He turned to Ryan and whispered, "Have Samantha Ferris look into this. If we can help them, then we should."

Ryan nodded. "I'll take care of it."

"Thank you." Jared turned back towards the priests. "Is there something more?"

"No, sir." Jackcych squared his shoulders. "That was kindly done of you, your Majesty. I...we appreciate it."

"I've done nothing yet." Jared was not about to make any promises, not without a good deal more information. "Thank you for your time."

After his meeting with the priests, Jared hurried along the glass and white steel corridors that ringed the palace. No matter how well he tried to plan, none of his meetings ever ran as quickly or as smoothly as he would have liked.

And now, he was late again.

He palmed the door plate of his office and it snicked open.

Zoe rose gracefully from the sofa, smiling at him as he came into the room. "Jared," she said, starting to move towards him. "Long morning?"

"Very long." He let out an exaggerated sigh.

She slung an arm around his shoulder and pulled him close. "What happened last night?"

"Last night?" Jared asked. Maybe she'd take the hint.

"The bruise on your jaw is huge and must hurt like all seven hells." She traced the mark with a finger.

Actually, the bruise didn't hurt at all, but that wasn't what she was talking about. He let out a sigh. "I handled it."

"So, you got him off? No charges?" Her tone was carefully neutral and she didn't look quite as enraged as everyone else he'd encountered this morning. Popular opinion was that he should have let Jensen rot in jail, at least for a few days.

"Six counseling sessions. And thirty more days in his non-status. I hope to hell he doesn't do something like this again, he'll be in so much deeper trouble." Jared would not be able to get him off if there was a next time.

"Are you all right with that?" she asked and met his eyes. And he didn't have a hope in all seven hells of hiding anything from her.

Her eyes went wide. "Oh, by the Gods, you're falling in love with him, aren't you?"

He grinned sheepishly and shrugged. "You can't fall into someplace you already are."

Zoe pushed a lock of his hair behind an ear, and smiled sadly. "You'll end up broken-hearted."

"Oh, I'm sure of it." Jared knew that in all likelihood even if he could change that course, he wouldn't.

"And you still go on with this?" She waved a hand around, vaguely in the direction of Jensen's room.

"It's not like I have a lot of choice here, if you'll remember. But if you have some advice, I'm open to suggestion." Jared held his hands open in a gesture of question.

"As you've told me more than once, we love whom we love. If he could adapt to the situation, and not fight everything, life would be better for both of you."

"You could get to know him," Jared suggested. She was his best hope for a friend for Jensen.

"I tried last night. He could give Anna a run for her money on cranky."

"You like that in a person, or you wouldn't still be with Anna." Jared laughed at her sour expression. "Once you get past his defenses, he can be quite charming."

Her look said she was more than a little skeptical, but she nodded. "I could try again."

Jared pressed a kiss to her palm. "Thank you."

Jensen was half asleep when he heard a knock on the door to his room.

Jared had finally learned to knock. He was too comfortable to move. "Come in," he called with his eyes still closed.

A gasp from the side of the bed made him look up. Fuck. It wasn't Jared standing there.

The woman from last night...Zoe stood there with a horrified expression on her face and tears welling in her eyes.

How did she get into the suite when he still couldn't get in without security intervention? And what the hell was wrong with her? As he moved to turn over, the muscles along his shoulders pulled. Oh, yeah. That was why he was in bed in the first place. His back must look pretty bad.

"He didn't do it," Jensen said, pulling the covers up and attempting to sit up underneath them. "How could you even believe that he would?"

"I didn't, exactly...but who else?" Zoe asked, her face relaxing.

There wasn't much point in lying since Jared would no doubt tell her the truth. And while he could just be rude and say nothing, it didn't feel right. "It was penance."

"Gods, above and below, you are required to serve your Gods this way?" She was so clearly appalled.

"Many of my people serve the Gods with this kind of penance." Not that he would ever be doing it again.

"Forgive me. How you must serve your Gods is up to you." Zoe said quietly, as if she meant it.

Did they all believe that, or was it the correct thing to say? They all must think they were so sophisticated. "I don't serve my Gods this way."

She snorted in a very unladylike way. "Then why does your back look like it's seen the wrong end of a strap for too long?"

He smiled despite himself. "Would you believe it was a misunderstanding?"

"Only if I must. Will you tell me what happened?" Her smile was far too endearing for Jensen's peace of mind. He didn't want to like her.

While telling her what happened was not his first choice, he had some questions about Jared that she might be able to answer. "Maybe we could work a trade? I'll tell you what you want to know, and you can tell me whether you and Jared are lovers?"

"We were. And not exactly lovers. I'm not sure you have anything like it in Amaranth. His majesty and I were playmates."

It was close enough. An uncomfortable tightness started to twist in his chest. Clearly, he was embarrassed from being naked and the reek of the bed.

Without being invited, she sat down on the bed.

"I don't understand the difference. You had sex with him," Jensen said. There was no way to get his dressing gown, which was at the end of the bed beyond her. Well, if she didn't care, then he would just pretend he was dressed.

"As teenagers, we are encouraged to experiment with our friends. Playmates are friends who have sex, nothing more than that. It's not meant to be a romantic relationship. Really, that kind of emotional attachment is discouraged." Zoe seemed completely unconcerned with his state of undress.

Just like everything else here, that was completely different from anything Jensen had ever known. "Why would that be encouraged?"

"So that all those teenage hormones are dealt with in a safe way." She said it like he should already know it.

And of course, he had no clue. "What about marriage?"

She tilted her head towards him. "What about it? Most of us don't think about marriage until we are in our thirties."

Jensen had been told that. "Are you still sleeping with Jared?"

"No. Not since I became involved with his majesty's sister." She shrugged a little too casually.

"But you still want to?"

"He my friend. I enjoyed his company. But Anna does not share well, and I would not hurt her. Tell me why this happened?"

He wasn't ready to talk about it yet. "Tell me about Jared and his playmates. Does he have many? What about Chad?"

"Chad?" she snorted again. "No. I can guarantee he's never had that kind of relationship with Chad."

Actually, Jensen could understand that. While Chad actually wasn't bad looking, he was far too high strung for Jensen's taste. "He is a bit much. David?"

"You must know that it's not for me to say. You should ask Jared if you really want to know." But that pretty much told him. And it made David's behavior make a whole lot more sense.

That would not come up in casual conversation.

She looked down at him and seemed to see that he was naked under the blankets. "I should go," she said standing.

"I never told you what happened with the priests."

"Another time, Jensen. I will see you tonight at the reception." And with that, she was gone.

Two days later, Jared watched Jensen dance with one of his cousins at the last of the pre-wedding receptions. After tomorrow, he hoped that things would settle down to what passed for calm. And maybe he and Jensen could start to build a life together.

"I think maybe you understand how I feel now," Anna said, startling him out of his thoughts.

"What do you mean?" Because he had no idea what she was talking about.

"You're in love with him, aren't you?"

How could he have been so stupid as to let his emotions show on his face? "This is not the place for this discussion," he snapped.

Anna's head came up and the surprised flashed through her eyes before she banked it. "Of course, sir. Forgive me." Bowing slightly, she started to move away.

Jared caught her arm, pulling her into a loose embrace. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to sound so…"


He nodded. "It's true."

"I know it is. I'm sorry, too." Her tone was soft.

"What's wrong?" He asked, and pressed a kiss to her hair.

"You are not his only conquest," she said, tilting her head towards the dance floor. For some reason, she sounded defeated.

She must mean Zoe. "I hadn't realized they'd become friends."

"Zoe has decided she likes him. They had lunch together today."

Jared laughed. "I'm glad he's getting out and seeing people other than me. I haven't had as much time as I'd hoped, and most people are afraid of him."

"Well, it isn't as if he's made an effort." It was pretty clear from her expression she had no intention of cutting Jensen any slack.

Which wasn't fair. "Neither have we. Why are you jealous? Surely you know that they could only be friends."

Her shoulders slumped. "It's not something I can help. And even a friend means more demands on her time. I thought perhaps you might understand now."

"I just said that I didn't mind Jensen spending time with Zoe. Really, I wish he'd gotten to be better friends with Chad, too. But Chad is a bit hard to take at the best of times. There hasn't been time for him to meet anyone else."

Anna stepped away from him. "I know I'm being foolish, but I can't seem to help myself."

"Zoe has put up with your jealousy for a long time now. She may yet get tired of it, but it's unlikely. She does love you." At least Anna could be sure of that.

Jared had no such assurances or even the hope of Jensen ever returning his feelings.

"I wish I could make it go away. I think that one more declaration, a little more of her time, and then everything will be all right."

"How can you believe that she doesn't love you?" This was so not the place to be discussing this, but she looked so unhappy that Jared wanted to say something to help her.

"I guess it's not in my nature to be trusting." She didn't look at him when she said it.

"Did someone hurt you so badly?" He didn't remember anyone, but it was possible he missed something. And if there were someone, he'd be having a long chat with them.

"I haven't had that many relationships."

He hadn't thought so. It had been remarked more than once that his sister had been resistant to getting involved with playmates or lovers. Perhaps it came back to the trust issue.

He was the opposite of her. It had always been easy for him to have many lovers -- at least until he'd become Monarch. And even if there were no reason at all to trust Jensen, Jared was inclined to do it anyway. It might pay off or it might land him in a world of heartache. Either way, he would sooner take the chance, than not try at all.

Ironically, Anna had known Zoe for years, knew she could be trusted, but still couldn't bring herself to do it. He had known Jensen for nine days and knew he shouldn't trust him, but did anyway. Which one of them was more of a fool?

Anna wrapped her arms around herself. "I'm going to try and hide it better. I do want Zoe to be happy."

"Have you thought about talking to someone about it?" Jared suggested.

Anna nodded. "I have thought about it. And maybe I will at some point. I'm hoping to deal with it on my own."

"There's no shame in asking for help, you know."

"You might remind your…Jensen of that."

He followed her gaze and saw both Jensen and Zoe coming towards them. Jensen limped noticeably. Damn, he was going to have to talk to Jensen about fixing his knee again.

Zoe and Jensen joined them, both smiling, a sheen of sweat on their faces.

"Do you want to dance with me," Zoe asked, holding out her hand to Anna.

Anna smiled, and took her hand.

He would have loved to have held Jensen against him in a slow dance, but it was pretty obvious that Jensen's knee was giving him problems. "Are you all right?"

"A little sore. But dancing with Zoe was fun. Mostly my back is starting to hurt again."

"Do you need more of the pain cream? I could rub it in for you."

That got a smile. "It would be so nice of you to ease my pain that way."

"I would be honored," Jared said, bowing.

"How much longer do we have to say?" Jensen glanced around pointedly.

When Jensen licked his lips slowly, Jared forgot how to breathe. Suddenly the room was way too hot.

"I think we can leave now," Jared said, his words coming out choked. He slid a hand around Jensen's waist and pulled him closer.

Jensen closed his eyes. "Don't tease me."

"Not teasing. Promising." His throat was so dry it was hard to get the words out.

"You'd both better get out of here before you do something to embarrass everyone or yourselves." Ryan's tone was amused, which was better than annoyed. "I'll say your goodnights."

Part Nine

Jensen looked at his reflection in the full-length mirror and smoothed down the gray coat he was wearing. This morning he'd woken up to find Jared gone and the suit waiting for him, along with a note from Jared saying this was traditional wedding attire and that he hoped that Jensen didn't mind he'd had it made. It was a sweet gesture, and well meaning, but nothing was going to help this situation.

A knock sounded on the door.

Ryan leaned his head into the room. "Are you ready?"

As ready as he'd ever be. He followed Ryan out of the small church dressing room, down a series of corridors, to the main floor of the church.

Standing at the back, he gazed upward. The high ceiling arched at least a hundred feet, with brightly colored stained glass scenes depicting what he could only assume were some part of the church doctrine or history. In the grandness of the vast space, he felt small, insignificant.

"Wait here until Jared joins you." Ryan whispered, moving away from him down the long aisle toward the front.

Jensen breathed out a deep sigh. The last time he'd been married, not only had his huge family had been present, but Kristen's big family as well. They'd filled the largest church in Amaranth to overflowing. This church was even bigger and more filled with people, but there was not a soul in the entire length and breadth who meant anything to him.

When Jared had asked if Ryan could stand with him, he'd said no. He was alone. And this was just one more thing to prove the point.

Just now, he wished there could be someone to stand with him, someone of his own choice. It didn't even have to be Christian and Halley. One of his brothers, even his sister would do. But wishing for things he couldn't have did no good at all.

He'd get through this, too. The next few hours would be hard, but when it was done perhaps he and Jared could begin to build an accord, some way to work towards trusting each other --

A hand on his shoulder startled him back to reality. Jared smiled at him, and Jensen's breath caught. He looked stunning. His long dark coat draped over his body perfectly. The shiny material of his trousers made Jensen's fingers itch to touch it, to run his hands along Jared's muscular thighs.

Jensen took a deep breath and smiled tentatively. "Thank you for the suit."

"You're welcome. You look very good in it." Jared ran a hand along his back. "When the music crescendos, we will start down the aisle together."

Jensen nodded, stepping away from Jared.

There were so many 'what ifs' that his mind could not process them. When he'd arrived in Valdesco – and he could not believe it was only ten days ago – he'd had more of an idea about what to expect than he did now. The uncertainties of his life, Jared included, were enough to drive him mad.

The music swelled dramatically, and everyone in the church stood and turned towards them. Jared took his hand and they started down the long aisle.

After they reached the altar, without thinking Jensen glanced around, looking for a familiar face. But of course, there was no one for him to see.

The ceremony started. Jensen did his best to follow the priest's words, but after a few moments they seemed to blur into unintelligibility. She was talking about what a great thing it was that they were going to be wed, how it was going to bring peace between their countries. Peace was the only reason he was here. The only reason he could possibly tolerate this life.

He'd stand and agree to this for his country's honor. And he supposed that it could have been a lot worse. And the truth be told, if he'd met Jared under other circumstances -- of course, if the circumstances had been different then they wouldn't have met at all --

"-- Jensen, answer the question," Jared whispered, nudging him.

Looking up he saw the priest waiting for an answer. What was the question? He must have looked confused because the priest repeated herself with a slight edge to her tone. "Jensen Ackles of Amaranth, do you come to this union willingly?"

"Yes," he said strongly, trying to sound like he wasn't lying, but not sure of anything, anymore.

She nodded, and turned to look at Jared. "Jared Padalecki of Valdesco, do you come to this union willingly?"

There was no hesitation on Jared's part. He smiled and nodded. "Yes."

The play of lights on the stained glass distracted him from the drone of the priest's words.

And then it was done. The music rose again. Jared caught his arm when he would have turned away. Turning him back, and pulling him close, Jared closed his mouth over Jensen's. Despite himself, Jensen responded. He slipped his arms around Jared, giving himself up to the kiss.

A loud cheer went up, and it seemed to echo through the cathedral.

Pulling back a moment later, Jared smiled brilliantly, his eyes sparkling and inviting Jensen to return the smile. Jensen did, for a moment. What he really wanted was to return to the comfort of Jared's arms. Instead, he followed Jared back down the aisle.

Most of the reception was a blur for Jensen. His knee had begun to ache and he continued to dance on it, making it worse.

He had no interest in the rest of the night's activities. Even excluding the time he'd been forced, the few other times he'd willingly engaged in fucking with a man had been painful and messy. Either way he'd done it, it had hurt. Even with Christian, there had been no joy in it.

There was no doubt in his mind that Jared would not hurt him unnecessarily, but that didn't mean it wouldn't happen. Jared was dancing with someone Jensen didn't know, but when he looked over he caught Jensen's eye and smiled sweetly.

When the dance ended, Jared appeared at his side. "Are you ready to go?"

"Isn't it too early?" Jensen asked, sweat starting to prickle on his back.

Jared shook his head. "We've just been married. It's expected that we leave early."

He supposed there was no reason to put it off. Maybe they could get it over with quickly and go on to more pleasant things.

They said goodbye to those around them, each person looking pleased, some even winking at them, all of them knowing what was going to happen. These people made no sense to him.

"The marriage has to be consummated tonight." Jared said, putting a sheaf of papers on the table. "And then we'll have to sign these documents."

"I didn't think you did anything on real paper."

"Several electronic copies will be made of this, but tradition holds that marriage documents are done on parchment."

"Of course," Jensen said, following him into the bedroom.

"Do you consider intercourse the only means of consummating our marriage?" Jared asked. Given what Jensen had said before and his obvious distress, it would probably be for the best if they didn't have to have actual intercourse yet.

Jensen considered the question for a moment and then nodded. "Yes. You'll take me?"

For a moment, Jared thought about arguing, but he couldn't force Jensen's beliefs. With a sigh, he said, "Why don't we have each other? You can go first."

Which admittedly might not be the best idea. It was painfully clear that Jensen didn't have a lot of experience, and the thought of forcing him to have intercourse seemed worse than dealing with his inexperience. Perhaps he'd take some instructions.

"All right. Thanks." Jensen wasn't looking at Jared, his hands limp at his sides.

"We should begin." Jared began to remove his clothes. This wasn't starting well. And really, making love shouldn't be an obligation of the state. But it was too late to argue that point.

When Jared was naked, he sat down on his bed, and waited.

Jensen looked lost, standing in the middle of the room, still dressed. Jared wasn't sure what he should do. Even with Jensen's past experience, he should understand it would be different with Jared.

"I wish we could wait a little while, but being who I am... it must be done tonight." Jared held open his arms and smiled tentatively.

"I'm sorry, too. I don't want to hurt you." Jensen finally started to undo the clasps of his suit.

Something in the way he said it raised the hairs on the back of Jared's neck. "It's not supposed to hurt." As Jared watched, Jensen stripped off all of his clothing, draping each piece over a nearby chair.

"Turn over," Jensen said as he approached the bed.

Jared opened his mouth say that the almond oil -- his preferred lubricant -- was on the bedside table, but he never got the words out. Suddenly Jensen was all over him, pushing him down, trying to climb on top of him, his hands locked on Jared's wrists. It was pretty clear he was going to go straight for a fuck without lubrication or any sort of preparation. For a second, Jared considered letting him do it. But no, that so wasn't going to happen.

Jared reared up and pushed with all his strength, putting Jensen on his back. Oddly, Jensen didn't even struggle; he just closed his eyes and let out a shuddering breath as he surrendered.

"Not like that," Jared said. "Never like that."

Jensen's eyes blinked open. "You said --"

"I said you could go first. I was talking about making love. Not violence."

"It's not --"

Jared sighed and pushed a hand through his hair. "You're right. If you'd kept going, without any thought to me, it would have hurt me. Probably pretty badly."

"Sex between men always hurts." The way he said it stopped Jared cold. It was like his experience left him with that impression and nothing had ever changed it.

Jared sat up and let go of Jensen. "For the last few days you've been so gentle. Why was this different? You weren't even going to take time to prepare me."

"I hoped to get it over with as quickly as possible. And what we did before wasn't really sex."

No? It had felt like sex to Jared, not only sex, but great sex. "Can you explain the difference?"

"Sex between men was supposed to be hard, painful even. Otherwise you might prefer it to a woman, and that would be wrong."

"Do you really believe that?"

Jensen looked down and shrugged. "Not that it's wrong..."

"You've never enjoyed sex with a man?" Jared asked.

"Not like that. It always hurts. Even being on the top doesn't make it any more pleasant. But sometimes...with someone who cares about you, if you don't do that, it can be sweet." Jensen paused, looking down, his cheeks pink.

Jared hated that someone -- or several someones -- had hurt Jensen so badly. "There was someone who was gentle with you? A man who gave you pleasure?"

"A friend. When I was young. We touched each other like you and I have done. It was always fun." Jensen looked up, meeting Jared's eyes.

Jared could work with that. What they'd done previously had been nice, and he'd be content with that. If Jensen thought they had to have intercourse to consummate the marriage, that's what it had to be. "Maybe we can continue what we've been doing all along, and simply taking it a step or two further."

His brow creased. Clearly, Jensen had no idea what he was talking about. Okay, so maybe a practical demonstration was in order.

"Come on then, let's do this right." Jared held out his hand.

Jensen's hand trembled when he slid it into Jared's.

"I won't hurt you," Jared said, kissing his palm.

He gently pushed Jensen back until they were lying side-by-side. For a while, he just kissed Jensen, waiting for him relax. He moved his hands slowly, up and down Jensen's back, but it wasn't helping.

Jensen was still tense. His whole body vibrated with fear. And if he didn't relax, then Jared didn't have a chance of making it pleasant.

"Let's try this another way, okay?" Jared sat up. "Why don't you lie down on your belly?"

Even as he did as Jared asked, Jensen seemed to get more tense. He looked more surprised when Jared opened the almond oil and poured some on his hands. "What is that?" Jensen asked.

"It's massage oil." Jared used it for other things, too.

Jared began to stroke Jensen's trembling shoulders, down his stiff back, over his arms. It took some time, but the knotted muscles started to relax under Jared's fingers.

"Oh, that feels good," Jensen sighed, settling into the bedding. "Really good."

"It's supposed to." He moved his hands down Jensen's back and over his ass.

Moving with him, pressing up into his hands, Jensen groaned again.

"I promise to make the rest of it feel as good as well," Jared said."

"I'll hold you to that." The low tone said he didn't believe it was possible.

"Trust me." Jared nuzzled the back of the long neck, inhaling the warm scent, his lips making contact with the skin behind Jensen's ear, and Jensen sighed, pressing back against his mouth.

The sound went right through to Jared's groin.

"Like that?" he asked, kissing the back of Jensen's neck.

"Oh, yeah." Jensen's voice had become breathless.

"It gets better. I promise you that."

Jared's hand returned to Jensen's buttocks, stroking slowly, before letting a finger slide down into the crease between them.

Jensen froze.

"Easy. Don't tense up." He took hold of Jensen's hips, and starting at his tailbone, he licked slowly up along his spine, his tongue moving halfway up Jensen's back before returning to start again, a little lower each time. Jensen groaned, moving back against his mouth.

After several times up his back, Jared parted his cheeks and dipped his tongue to touch Jensen's hole.

"Oh! Oh!" Jensen whimpered, fingers clenching into the bedding and feet braced apart.

Jared's tongue was too busy for him to respond. He continued until Jensen was whimpering incoherently. Then Jared coated his fingers with oil, slowly pressing one into Jensen.

That got Jensen's attention; he moved experimentally against it. "What are you doing?"

"I'm going to open you up with my fingers. It won't hurt if you're stretched out properly," Jared said, pressing in just a little more.

Jensen turned and gave him a doubtful look over his shoulder. "I liked what you were doing."

"I know. And you'll like this too." Jared teasingly moved his fingers slowly in and out. "It won't hurt." "All right." Jensen subsided back onto the bed, still dubious.

As Jensen's body adjusted, his breathing became choppy and ragged, his hips moving with the fingers inside him.

Jared eased his fingers out.

"Put them back. Now," Jensen ordered, breathless, hips canting back.

"It will get better. Really," Jared promised, stroking a hand down Jensen's back. Leaning forward, Jared pressed a kiss to the small of his back. "Come up onto your knees. Do you need a pillow for your knee?"

"No. But--"

"What?" Jared asked, putting a hand on Jensen's cheek.

Jensen took a shallow breath. "I want to see that it's you."

He should have thought of that. "Lie down on your back."

With his heart pounding, Jared positioned Jensen's legs on his shoulders and leaned forward, slowly pushing into him. He held himself very still as he waited for Jensen to relax. Soon, the constriction eased, and he slid in the rest of the way in.

The need to move was nearly overwhelming, but Jared forced himself to be slow and careful. Even going slowly and trying to hold out, in far too short a time, he was ready to explode with the intensity.

Jared wrapped a hand around Jensen's cock, pulling hard once and then again. Jensen came, his back arching up nearly off the bed. That was Jared's cue. He moved into Jensen a few more times, and the entire world broke apart in a flash of white heat and light.

When he became aware of his surroundings, he was lying heavily on top of Jensen. "Sorry," he murmured, lifting himself off and settling next to Jensen.

"Had I not just experienced it, I would never have believed that much pleasure was possible." There was a definite note of awe in Jensen's tone.

Jared's chest felt warm, and he kissed Jensen hard. "It only gets better with time and practice."

A half-smile curved onto Jensen's mouth. "While I'm all for practicing, I'm not sure how much better I can survive." Jensen snuggled down into his arms, and with one more kiss, he fell asleep.

Jensen woke in the early hours of the morning with Jared wrapped around him, one arm across his belly, the other between his legs, cupping his balls. His cock nudged the crack in his ass.

Sighing, Jensen slowly eased out of Jared's arms and watched as Jared's hand reached across the bed searching for him. Jared sighed, turning onto his back and wrapping his arm over his stomach.

Naked, he padded out into the main room and sat down on the carpeted steps that led to the terrace.

He'd never guessed that such pleasure existed with a man, or with anyone for that matter. It was the stuff that was written about in novels that women read, not something he'd ever believed possible.

Even his experiences with his wife, whom he'd loved dearly, could not match the sheer pleasure Jared had given him. But neither he nor Kristen had any idea what they'd been doing to start with. Over time, they had learned to pleasure each other, but not like last night.

It was more than pleasure, too. Nascent emotion that Jensen wasn't ready to acknowledge was stirring inside him. Ten days was not long enough to trust anyone; ten years in this place would not be long enough. And while something might grow between Jared and him, it was going to take a long time.

"Jensen?" Jared said, startling him out of his thoughts. "Are you all right?"

"Yes. Fine."

"Then why are you sitting here in the dark?"

"I wanted to think," Jensen said. Was there such a thing as too much concern? Jared's solicitousness might drive him crazy after a while.

"And you couldn't do it in our bed?"

"Ours?" That was a new concept, and one he'd have to think about before deciding if he liked it or not.

"I had thought we'd share the room now that we're wed." Jared sat down next to him, his robe loosely tied. "My parents did not share a room." Married men and women rarely shared a bedroom in Amaranth.

"My parents shared a room until my father died." Jared put a hand on Jensen's thigh, his fingers moving back and forth in a slow caress. "I had hoped we would follow that tradition."

"All right," Jensen said, shifting his leg a little closer to Jared's fingers. Jared didn't snore. And sharing the room would mean that he would not have to sleep alone.

Jared frowned at him and his hand stopped moving. "It's not required."

"I said it was fine." It always seemed that whatever Jensen gave, it was never quite enough.

"And I don't want to force my presence on you, if you don't want it," Jared snapped, pulling his hand away from Jensen's leg.

"I said I would do it." Jensen crossed his arms over his chest and glared at him.

Jared stood, gathering his robe to him, his face flushed. "Don't do me any favors."

He stood as well. "You say I'm difficult? I want to share your room, all right? Do you want more? How about if I got down on my knees and begged, or maybe I could write it in blood?"

And then Jared had the nerve to smile. "That won't be necessary. I'll have your things moved in tomorrow," Jared said.

He sat back down, leaning against the glass. "Are we going to have any time together as part of the wedding?"

"You mean like a marriage trip?" Jared asked.

Jensen nodded.

"I wish we could. But I can't get away just now," Jared said.

Jensen turned towards the glass. To have been alone with Jared, even for a few days, would have been nice. It might have gone a long way toward actually getting to know each other. Sex was fine, great even, but without time together, it wasn't going to amount to anything.

"I wish we could go somewhere alone." Jared started to sit back down in front of him, but at the last second he reversed himself and sat against Jensen.

For a reason Jensen was not about to examine too closely, he wrapped an arm around Jared's middle and held him closer. Jared made a sound of pleasure, and something inside Jensen melted.

"You never told me why you are out here."

"I was thinking," Jensen said. There was always the possibility that Jared would just let it go.

"About what?"

"I was thinking about last night. About how good it was for me." He took a breath. "I would have hurt you, had you not stopped me."

Jared turned and kissed his shoulder. "I know. But we did stop and start again. And it turned out quite nice."

A stray image of Jared's mouth touching him more intimately than anyone ever had made him blush, and he was more than glad Jared was facing away from him. "I didn't want to hurt you."

"I'm glad of that." Jared's voice was low.

He ran his hand down Jared's arm. "Will you show me how to do what you did? I..." He paused, and then forced himself on. "I'd like to learn to please you that way."

Turning around, so that he was sitting between Jensen's spread legs, Jared leaned up and kissed him. "It would be my pleasure."

It would be both of their pleasures. Jensen ended up lying on the soft carpet with Jared on top of him. There were worse places he could be.

Part Ten

The morning after the wedding, Jared got out of bed, waking Jensen in the process.

"Where are you going?" Jensen rolled over to look at him. The morning light highlighted the muscles on Jared's chest and abdomen. Jensen drew in a breath. Damn. Jared was magnificent.

Jared's smile was regretful. "I've got meetings in a few hours. I have to prepare."

What? Wait. "It's the day after our wedding. I thought we'd..." Jensen stopped; clearly that was not what Jared wanted. "Fine."

Jared leaned down and pressed his mouth to Jensen's bare shoulder. "I know. I'm sorry. I have responsibilities."

What about your responsibilities to me, Jensen wanted to ask. He turned his back on Jared.

The bathing room door closed with a quiet snick.

Jared seemed to spend all of his damned time at meetings, and Jensen was getting very tired of it. After a few minutes, Jared came out, dressed in trousers and a tunic.

"You have your morning ride in a bit," Jared said.

He did. After the crowds and noise of yesterday, he'd need it. "Thanks."

"Why don't you have breakfast with me?" Jared sounded just a little too careful.

And for whatever reason, Jensen didn't want to disappoint him. "Give me a couple of minutes to get dressed."

Jensen sat down next to Jared and a waiter promptly appeared with coffee. He focused on his cup, and putting some much-needed caffeine into his stomach. As it hit, he sighed and closed his eyes. Nothing ever tasted as good as the first few sips of coffee in the morning.

"You know, sir," Chad said, sounding very amused. "He shouldn't look like that over coffee the morning after your wedding."

Jared laughed. "I suppose not. You're here early."

Chad sat down and helped himself to a breakfast roll. "I wanted to remind you of a couple of items that require your attention."

He sounded serious enough to make Jensen look at him. Gods, what now?

"I'm afraid to ask," Jared said, taking a sip of his coffee.

"Well, first thing this morning, you have that finance meeting. Your sister's going to attend, too, and hopefully translate for you."

"Can't she go without me? Why do I have to go?"

"You know, it's unbecoming of a monarch to whine." Chad reached for another roll. "Because it's your company, is why. And it has a big impact on our economy."

"Fine. I'll be there."

"Also, you have a meeting with Pam Danvers from Baytheon Corp. about the merger with your company."

"Yes, I did remember that. You know my secretary would have reminded me about all of this?"

"Yeah, she could have. But she doesn't know that Jensen still has to do six counseling sessions to satisfy the judgment against him." Chad held up his hand. "The judge was willing to let it slide a few days because of the wedding, but you," and Chad nodded towards Jared, "and Jensen need to work out the details."

That got a smile from Jared. "I'm assuming that you have them already worked out for us."

"Mostly. I chose Molly Lee for the sessions. She's got a really good reputation for dealing --"

"A woman?" Jensen couldn't believe he'd chosen a woman. It just wasn't done that way.

Both Chad and Jared were looking at him like they'd never seen him before. Chad cleared his throat. "What's wrong with that?"

He could lie, but that might make it worse. "Women don't counsel men. Or the opposite either: men don't counsel women. I mean, how could either understand?"

Chad and Jared now were looking at each other.

Then, Chad cleared his throat. "Okay, so you're saying you'd rather have a man for the sessions?"

Actually that wasn't what he was saying at all. "I don't want to do this. So, I don't care who you choose."

"Well, you have to do it. So it's either Dr. Lee, or Chad can find you a male psychologist." Jared's tone was tense and annoyed. "Choose one."

Once again, Jensen had no idea what he'd done wrong this time. "I don't care. When is the session set for?"

"Tomorrow morning at 11:00," Chad said.

"Where do I need to go?" He'd found that if he asked enough annoying questions, he could sometimes get enough information to know what to do.

"She'll come to our suite for the first session," Jared said.

"I'll have time to ride first." Which would make sure that he was relaxed enough to deal with whatever the person did. And speaking of riding, he should be getting ready to do that right now. He stood. "Is there anything else?"

Jared started to shake his head, but then he stopped. "We've got another reception at the end of the week. You'll need to be fitted for dress clothes."

"I have dress clothes." Not that he wasn't sick to death of wearing the same outfit after ten nights, but he'd rather wear his own clothes.

"Now that you're married to me, you'll need more appropriate clothes."

Married to him. That concept was going to take a while to set in. And new clothes? How the hell was he supposed to pay for that? "I thought we were done with all the receptions?"

"Just the ones that lead up to the wedding. I go to one or two receptions or galas or openings a week." At least, Jared didn't sound like he had to go out every night. "They generally don't run very late since I have to be at work in the morning."

There didn't seem to be a way around it.

"After lunch, maybe tomorrow, I'll have someone escort you to the shop." He turned to Chad who nodded.

"If you're both done? I'm going for my ride now." It was probably very rude to walk away like that, but he just didn't have enough energy to be polite. He got back to the door of his rooms and realized again he had to buzz the guards to let him in.

Jensen wasn't sure how he ended up out to lunch with Zoe again so soon. He hadn't thought the first time, a few days before the wedding, had gone that well. She'd shown up right after his session with the councilor, and practically dragged him out of the palace for lunch. And actually, it was nice to get out. Even more surprising was how much he was enjoying her company.

It also didn't hurt that she seemed actually interested in him and how he was doing. Though he had to wonder whether she reported back to Jared about anything he said. It limited the personal information he might have given her.

"So, let me understand this," Jensen said. "Your lover -- the monarch's sister -- is jealous of you for no reason. You've never done anything to make her that way?"

Zoe nodded. "Essentially, yes."

"How do you think I can help you? I don't have much experience with women, especially jealous women." His wife had been very even-tempered -- and actually, so was his sister. Most of the women he'd encountered in his life were like that. Unlike most of the women here.

"I was just hoping for advice. Why don't you have much experience with women? I mean, you're almost thirty."

"In Amaranth, the sexes are separated much more than they are here. We go to different schools and have different careers."

"Seriously? Why?"

"What do you mean, why? Men and women are different." He looked at her nonplussed expression and added, "but equal, of course."

"Who decided what equal is?"

He had no idea what to say to that. "It's known by everyone." At her incredulous look, he added, "There are laws and traditions that go back many years."

"And everyone agrees?"

"Not everyone." There were protests all the time by people who didn't agree with it. People who said that everyone was not treated equally and that we needed to rethink how society looked at women. However, that was not a topic he was going to discuss with a stranger. "But most people understand and agree."

She opened her mouth to say something and then closed it again. "How was your session with the counselor today?"

People did that to him all the time. Completely changing the subject in mid-conversation. He was never sure why, either. Clearly, he'd said something wrong, something that possibly even offended her, but he had no clue what it was. "The session was fine. We barely spoke."

That got a laugh for some reason. "I thought the whole idea was for you to talk."

"I had heard that, too. But truthfully, she asked a bunch of really personal questions and I answered or not depending on the stupidity of the question."

"Like what kind of stupid questions? I'd love to hear about it. Might be good for a laugh."

He looked at her. Did he dare even say and risk offending her? But something about her smile and the way she leaned in as if he were going to tell her a secret charmed him. "She asked why I hit Jared. What I was thinking at the time? What I was feeling?"


"And I told her it was none of her business. I don't see what she was trying to accomplish?" This far after the fact, there was no changing what happened. And the truth was, he had no real idea what he'd been thinking -- or maybe that was it. He hadn't been thinking at all.

"Maybe figure out what made you want to hit him?"

"I was angry. That's why I hit him. He'd infuriated me." Jensen made a conscious effort to unclench his fists. There was no need to dwell on it.

"And you don't want to talk about that with Dr. Lee?"

"No. I don't want to talk about it with anyone. But I think that I'll ask for a new counselor for the next session."

"Dr. Lee doesn't seem like the kind of person to give up so easily."

"I don't want to talk to her." It went without saying that he didn't want to talk to anyone.

Zoe just nodded.

"Your Majesty," David said, as Jared came out of his third finance meeting in the last week.

Jared turned to his sister. "I'll see you at dinner?"

Anna nodded and walked in the opposite direction.

"David, I've got another meeting in like, ten minutes. Do you want to walk me there? Or is it important enough for me to cancel?" He kind of hoped it was. Half the meetings he went to were boring as dust and he was only invited as a courtesy.

"I'll walk along, sir." David fell into step with him.

They walked in silence for a moment, until they were alone in the corridor.

"Your aunt called me. It seems that your cousin hasn't been seen for a couple of days."

"I assume we're talking about Preston?" Jared sighed.

"He's pretty much fallen off the grid. I've put a few feelers out, but no one seems to have seen him."

"Do you think he's in trouble?" Jared pinched the bridge of his nose. He could feel a headache coming on. This was just about the last thing Jared needed right now.

"I don't know. It's possible. Or he's found some trouble and is making it worse." Pretty clearly, David's thoughts ran in the same direction.

Jared snorted. "I think we both know that's actually more likely. He has made no effort to find another job, either. So, I'm not sure what he's doing for money."

"Well, it has only been a little more than a week."

By all the Gods, David was right. How had so much happened in such a short time? "It feels so much longer."

David nodded. "Do you want to do anything?"

"What can I do?" Jared asked. "You can't arrest him unless he actually commits a crime. I doubt he's really dangerous."

"Probably not," David admitted. "I'll see what else I can come up with."

Jared looked at his watch. His ten minutes had now passed and he was going to be late. "Anything else?"

"Only that your Mr. Ackles has been requesting his guard escort more often. He's gone out several times in the last few days."

"It's not like we want to keep him prisoner." Jared was happy that he was getting out more. Maybe he'd start to meet people and have a life. He'd been so isolated the last two weeks. It hadn't helped that Jared had gone back to his previous work schedule and had been so busy that he'd barely seen Jensen.

"And you're avoiding him." It was rare he could get anything by David. And though he might be more polite about it, David never let anything pass without comment.

But Jared wasn't ready to deal with that now. "Why do you say that?"

David gave him an impatient look. One that said he wasn't stupid or unobservant. "Because despite being newly married, you spend almost no time with him."

"I always said we'd go our separate ways once the wedding was over." Admittedly, it was a lot easier for Jared to do than for Jensen.

David wasn't done, of course. He couldn't leave well enough alone. "Given everything, it's almost impossible for him to go his own way."

It was better for both of them if he left Jensen alone. At least, that was what he told himself when he was feeling guilty for doing it. "You just said --"

"I was pointing out that he was trying, but all of those were official outings. To ride in the mornings, to have lunch with Zoe, to go to the tailor, or to tour one of our facilities."

"What are you trying to say?"

"He's still very awkward around people. It's unfair to let him flounder like this."

"You're worrying about him? I thought you didn't like him."

"I don't. He's rude and difficult. And he seems to thrive on breaking our rules, but even I can see that he's alone." David met his eyes. "If you were avoiding him because you didn't like him, that would be one thing, but it's pretty clear that's not why you're avoiding him."

He couldn't look at Jensen and not want him. And it was so clear that even if Jensen liked having sex with him, he just barely tolerated Jared's company for other things. Which kind of hurt. A lot.

But David was right. It wasn't fair. That didn't mean Jared could do anything about it. "I have a meeting right now."

David frowned at him. "Of course, sir."

Jensen woke with a start. What? He opened his eyes, but didn't move. The light was on low, and he heard Jared moving around. "What time is it?"

"Late," Jared said. "I'm sorry to wake you." He slid into bed and dialed the lights down.

"You're even later than usual."

"Gallery opening. And I didn't have you as an excuse to leave early."

"You said that I didn't have to go. It was nice to have a night off."

"It's not like we go out every night."

"No. Just three or four times a week. Which is more than I care for." Jensen sighed. He would have liked to be able to say he needed to get up for work -- which was his excuse to his father -- but that wasn't a possibility here. "It would be one thing if this were going out with friends --"

"They were my friends. At least tonight."

But Jensen didn't know them. They weren't his friends. Or likely to be his friends. And he'd met enough new people already. He put a hand on Jared's back and he rolled towards Jensen.

That was all it took and Jared leaned in and kissed him slowly. "Not too tired?"

"I went to bed at a reasonable hour." Jensen kissed him back, deepening the kiss. His hand slid into Jared's hair, holding him still.

There was something in the generosity of Jared's kiss that always surprised Jensen. It was almost as if kissing were enough for him. He seemed to love to do it and he was never in a hurry for more. Though, obviously, that would happen. But in its own time.

Jensen rolled on top of him, running a hand down Jared's front. Jared arched into his touching, murmuring softly, "Oh, yes."

The few bedclothes between them magically disappeared, and Jensen found the vial of oil that had migrated under his pillow. He slicked his fingers and slid them carefully into Jared. The sound Jared made tightened Jensen's chest and put low coiled heat into his belly. He loved that sound so much. It never failed to amaze him the amount of pleasure he got from this, but more so the amount of pleasure he gave.

As he slid into Jared, he closed his eyes and lost himself in the push and pull of their bodies moving together so splendidly. The fire in his belly intensified, and he gripped Jared tighter, pressing harder, moving with the sounds of Jared's moans.

Heat flashed and took him away with it.

Later, he lay content, stroking Jared's back as he fought to stay awake for just a little longer. There were so many things that were wrong with his life, so many things he wished were different, but this, this one thing was one of the few things that worked perfectly.

If he could make everything else work this well, he could live this life. Well, he'd need to have Halley with him. He planned to talk to Jared about her, bringing her here as soon as it seemed like it was possible. It was a lot to ask, and he needed to work up to it. If Jared said no, that it wasn't allowed, he wasn't sure how he'd survive.

One of his guards held the door open to the shop so that he could go out. "Thank you," Jensen said. He was damned glad to be out of there. Everyone treated him with a certain amount of deference, but it seemed forced. Like they weren't sure what to do or say to him.

He didn't know how to ameliorate it. Being polite seemed to help. But not completely. It was probably the whole lack of status, and not being a real person thing. At least, very few people were actively hostile.

It was a nice day and the thought of getting back into the air car didn't appeal to him at all.

"If it's not too far, I'd like to walk back," he said.

"As you please, sir. It's about half to three-quarters of a mile." The guard fell into step beside him, and the other one walked a pace or two behind.

The walk was mostly silent. He supposed that the guards had been ordered to interact with him as little as possible. They rarely said anything unless he spoke first. Although he recognized some of them from the contact they'd had over the last few weeks, none had given their names.

It might also be a status thing, but given his lack of status, that didn't seem like it would matter. At one point, he'd considered asking, but it seemed pointless.

When they had almost made it back to the palace, the priest, Shawn Jackcych, stepped into his path. "A word with you, Jensen, if you please."

One of the guards stepped between him and the priest, unsnapping his weapon. "Do you wish to speak with him, sir?"

"What do you want?" Jensen asked. He had nothing to fear from this man anymore. There was nothing Jackcych or any of the priests could do to him.

"Just to have a few words with you," Jackcych said, spreading his hands in a gesture of neutrality.

Jensen had to admit to a certain curiosity about why this particular priest would seek him out. "All right." He moved to the side of the ramp to the palace entrance. "Shall we walk back this way?"

"Thank you." Jackcych fell into step with him and the guards followed several steps behind.

"You look like you're walking much better than before," Jackcych said. Clearly his conversation starter.

"They have medicines that make the pain go away for several hours."

"We should have medicines like that. And medicines that cure our ills. Perhaps you can ask for them?"

"I didn't think the priests wanted anything that would lessen their hold," Jensen said before he could stop himself. Outside of confession or services, he'd had few dealings with priests.

"We do not wish to see our people suffer."

"Except at confession."

Jackcych had the audacity to laugh at that. "You suffer more than most with that stubborn pride of yours."

Jensen stopped. He'd like to tell this man to go to hell any of the seven hells he chose, but he couldn't quite bring himself to do it. "Since you inflicted the suffering on me and everyone else --"

"It's the Gods' punishment. But I didn't come here to talk to you about that."

"Then what did you want to talk to me about?"

"I wished to let you know that we will be leaving within the month."

For a second, Jensen thought he meant him as well, but no, of course not. He meant the priests. "Why tell me?"

"We'll be leaving you alone. I don't relish doing that, but I do not believe this place is good for my two companions."

"Are they getting into trouble?" Jensen could not figure out where this was going.

"They have the potential for it. I'm sorry to have to leave you."

"It's not like you can do anything for me in this place." Jensen waved a hand around.

"I live in hope that you'll see the error of your ways and come back into the fold. Or barring that, you'll see fit to confide in me." At least, Jackcych was smiling when he said it. It was clear that he had no real hope of that.

"Why would you even think that? I have never confided in you, even if you are my father's confessor."

"I'm one of the few people here who is from Amaranth. I know what you're going through trying to survive in this place."

"You have no idea." Because no one could understand what it was like to live with no status in a place that was so different from anything he'd ever known.

"We don't have any status here either, though admittedly," Jackcych glanced at the guards behind them. "We have much more freedom of movement. I know it is an abomination to be forced to have sexual relations with another male --"

Now it was Jensen's turn to laugh. "That's not the part I have a problem with." Because really, sex with Jared was the only thing that he did understand. And he'd never met anyone who had as much skill as a lover as Jared did.

Jensen looked at Jackcych, maybe he'd shocked him.

But no, Jackcych just nodded. "Then what do you have a problem with?"

"The rest of it. As you said, not being able to move freely. Not having anything of value to do with my time." He almost said being separated from his family, but he didn't want to remind Jackcych that he wasn't there to protect Halley.

"Is there something I could help you with?" And by the Gods, he sounded like he meant it. If Jensen hadn't known better, he might have believed him.

Jensen tilted his head and looked at him. "No. There is nothing you can do." And belatedly, he added, "thank you."

"Then I shall leave you. I wish you only good luck in your endeavors." Jackcych bowed slightly and turned around to walk away.

"Okay, was that the most bizarre thing ever or what?"

"Sir?" One of the guards asked.

"Nothing." Jensen went into the palace and the guards left him at the elevator to the top floor. When he got there, he pressed the button to alert the guard on duty to open the door for him. Not having a key to his living quarters had long since gotten very old.

Jared smoothed down his coat and looked around the crowded room for Jensen. There he was, standing with his back against the far wall, looking around at the crowd.

This was the second event of the weekend, and boring beyond all measure, on top of it. At least with an art opening or some artistic event, there was something to do or to look at or to listen to. This was a fundraiser for a local children's charity. A worthy cause, to be sure, but none of the speakers had been particularly skilled and the food had only been mediocre.

"Enjoying yourself, sir?" Ryan asked, coming to stand beside him.

Jared sighed. "Of course." But it was clear he was being polite. "Is there a problem?"

"Not with the reception. It's come to Judge Hathaway's attention that Jensen has had three different councilors in two weeks. And he's refused to talk to any of them."

"You really weren't expecting anything else, were you?" Only someone who didn't know Jensen would think he'd actually speak to anyone about himself.

"The judge isn't pleased."

"What can he actually do?"

"Sir...Jared. He can order Jensen into jail for failure to comply with his order."

"He won't do that. It would cause a huge scandal."

"Oh, from what I know of Hathaway, he absolutely would do it."

"So, you want me to talk to Jensen?" Because Jared had so much luck in getting Jensen to do what he wanted.

Ryan laughed. "Pretty much, you got it in one."

Jared snagged two glasses of wine from a servo unit and headed towards Jensen. When Jensen caught sight of him, he straightened up. And Jared could not help noticing how his wide shoulders and narrow hips were displayed so nicely in his new evening clothes. Even if Jensen had hated the fittings, the results had been excellent.

"You look good, Jensen." Jared handed him a glass of wine.

Jensen drank half the glass in one long gulp. "Thanks. Did you want something?"

"Was I that obvious?"

"You've barely spoken to me in the last week. You left me on my own as soon as you got here tonight. So, I can only assume that if you're here, you have a reason."

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to leave you by yourself for so long. I've just been so busy --"

"Spare me. Please. I'm sure whatever it was, it was very important." Jensen didn't sound angry so much as resigned.

"I'm the monarch. I also run a national company." Jared wished it didn't sound quite so much like an excuse. Which it totally was. And Jensen knew it, too.

"As I said. I'm aware of that."

"But it's still rude to leave you alone so much."

"That's not why you're here now, is it?" At Jared's look, Jensen sighed. "I saw you talking to your brother. You looked at me after he spoke to you."

Jensen was more observant and perceptive than most people gave him credit for.

"Right. It seems that Judge Hathaway isn't pleased that you keep changing counselors."

"They ask stupid questions," Jensen said with some disdain. He folded his arms across his chest.

Jared supposed from his point of view they did, but that didn't really change anything. "It's their job to do that. To make you think about why you've done something."

"And they get angry when I don't want to answer them."

"They aren't supposed to get angry. They're supposed to coax you into answering them."

Jensen snorted. "It's none of their damned business."

"You have three more sessions. Just answer the questions, okay?"

Jensen looked disgusted, and Jared wondered if he was going to get punched again. But no, Jensen let out a sigh and the fight went out of his stance.

"Fine," he said. "But I refuse to tell any of them anything personal."

Oh, that was going to go over so well. "Is the counselor you saw today all right, or do you want another one?"

"I think I'd rather go back to the first one."

"Dr. Lee? You'd rather have a woman?"

"Dr. Carter spoke to me as if I were a child without any intelligence. And Dr. Ross seemed quite threatened when I wouldn't answer his questions. He got agitated. So yes, she was the least of the three evils."

Jared made a mental note to have Chad look into both of them. It could be Jensen's impressions were wrong, but Jared knew him well enough to know that something had to be off.

"Okay, I'll have Chad set it up for a couple of days from now."

Jensen nodded. "Is it time for us to leave yet?"

He was done at this point. "Yes."

"Thank the Gods."

"I'm so glad you decided to come back to see me, Jensen," Dr. Lee said, waving him to the chair beside her desk.

Anything he could say would no doubt be insulting, and he doubted it would add anything to the conversation. "Yes."

There was a moment or two of silence, and then she cleared her throat. "Why don't you tell me about life in Amaranth?"

That wasn't what he was expecting to be asked. "Why?"

"I don't know anything about it and I'm curious. How is it different from here?"

He wasn't sure where she was going with this, but anything was better than personal questions. "It's different in every way imaginable. We don't have anything close to your technology. Or your medicines. We don't think the way you do."

"Let's start with the technology, then. How is it different from what you're used to? Do you like it better?"

"We have nothing like the Network. Nothing. Our computers seem ancient and very slow after using these. I've never seen so much information about so many things in one place at one time. Ever. Our biggest libraries have a fraction of the books and references that are available on your Network. And I don't even know where to start with the rest of your technology. It's so advanced. Everything from your cooking units. Even your bathrooms are different."

She raised an eyebrow. "Was it hard to use?"

"I figured it out, if that's what you mean?" But Jensen was not about to go into that with her. He wasn't crazy about where this was starting to lead.

"How are our medicines different?"

Jensen relaxed a little. Maybe she really was curious about the differences. "Your painkillers really work."

"And yours don't?"

"Ours make your head fuzzy so that you don't notice the pain as much, but they don't take it away as fast or as long."

"And what about our cars? I've heard that you don't have flying cars." She didn't make it sound like it was a failing that they didn't.

"We don't have flying cars, no. Not like yours, anyway. We do have crafts that fly. Mostly they need propellers. Though we do have some jet engines."

"What's the difference?" Oddly, she really sounded like she wanted to know.

And flying was a subject that Jensen could talk about. He explained the details of their emerging jet technology. It was in many ways still experimental. But given the level of technology here, he wasn't going to give away any secrets. He didn't mention that he'd flown both jets and helicopters.

Dr. Lee laughed, finally. "That's all very interesting. But you've gotten beyond where I can follow. I don't know anything about aerodynamics."

Jensen's cheeks heated. Gods, how good it felt to just talk about something he was knowledgeable on. It had been too long since anyone had asked him about something he knew about.

She smiled at him. "It's nice to see you enthusiastic about something. Do you fly often?"

Jensen froze. She'd led him along and he'd given himself away. That was a mistake he could not afford to have made.

"I'm legally and morally obligated to keep anything you tell me confidential." She met his eyes. "I will tell no one about what you've said."

"You expect me to believe that?"

"I will go to jail if I betray your confidence," Dr. Lee said.

It was clear she believed it. But it didn't mean that he did.

"How could anyone trust me to help them if I told their secrets?"

There was some sense to that. The priests were supposed to keep confession a secret, but he'd heard that wasn't always the case.

"So, you like to fly?"

Jensen was silent for another moment. Then, he nodded. "I love to fly."

"You know, you could do that here. I expect it wouldn't even take much retraining."

"Not with my knee as injured as it is. I can barely walk without the pain medicine. And I'm sure I can't drive a car on it, let alone fly anything." He held up his hand. "Don't say it. I know."

She nodded. "Why don't we meet again in a few days?"

Jensen looked at his watch. The session had gone much more quickly this time.

Part Eleven

After a third week just like the two weeks after his wedding, Jensen started to resent the long hours by himself. He really should speak to Jared about it, if his -- he still had a hard time thinking of Jared as his spouse -- ever came home long enough.

Jensen picked up his data padd. Even after a month, he could not believe the amount of information available. It was staggering. And he was probably more overwhelmed by it than he thought he was. He could lose hours to reading the various information sites. And then he'd felt like he'd wasted another day doing nothing of real value.

This morning, he was supposed to take another look at the careers that might be available to him.

All he had to do now was find something that was remotely interesting to him. Which, unfortunately, hadn't proved to be that easy. Or maybe he'd found things of interest, but nothing jumped out at him as a possible career choice.

He pressed the top button and the padd lit. The sins of the father will be visited upon the daughter was written across his padd. His hands started to shake, and he dropped the padd to the counter.


He couldn't breathe. Oh, Gods, no. His vision started to gray at the edges as he gulped for air. But he couldn't let this happen now. In his head, he could hear Christian telling him to breathe with him and counting. The panic receded enough so that he could breathe.

No one from Valdesco knew about Halley. And of those few here who did know -- there was no way they could have put that message on his padd. None of them had the skills.


Whoever it was had to know enough about him to know what was important to him. First thing: he had to get Halley out of Amaranth and bring her here. Jared would protect her.


He forced himself to continue to take slow deep breaths as he opened and closed his hands to try to still the shaking. It took three tries for him to call up the phone function. And another two to get his trembling fingers to touch the correct sequence. The phone on the padd didn't match exactly with the phone system in Amaranth, but it was close enough that he could call home.

He'd gotten through only once to his father. That had been a strained conversation. And he'd tried Chris twice. Between the time differences and the hours Chris worked, he'd not been able to connect. Now, he prayed Chris was home. He'd hate to have to try him at the precinct.

"Hello," Christian answered, sounding as if Jensen had woken him up.

"Christian, this is Jensen."

"Dear Gods, Jensen. Are you all right? How are you calling me? What have they done to you?"

Jensen took another breath. "I'm…okay. I need you to do something for me. It's a huge favor."

"What do you need?" He sounded a little more alert.

"I need you to get Halley and bring to her to the border crossing. As soon as you can. I mean today. Now."

"Why? What's happening?"

"I can't explain it now. But it's really important."

"Will she be safe there? You said --"

"I know. I was wrong about a lot of things with this arrangement."

"So, it's not as bad as you thought?" Christian sounded so hopeful.

"It wasn't what I thought, no. In some ways, it's worse. But I'm not worried about her physical safety here." If he'd learned nothing in the short time he'd been here it was that he could trust Jared to try and do the right thing. He would not let anything happen to Halley.

"Oh, Gods," Christian said, sounding just horrified. "How is it worse?"

"I'll tell you when I see you." Because there was no way Jensen could even begin to go into it on the phone. They would be there for hours. And he didn't have time.

"Are they going to let you out to meet us?"

"Let me out? No. I'm not allowed to leave the palace without a guard escort." Gods, but that hurt to say. It was as much his own fault as it was theirs. But that didn't make it any better.

"Then how --"

"I'm going to sneak out and either hire a car or more likely steal one. I'm pretty sure the ground cars work the same way as they do in Amaranth." He'd been in enough of them to see the technology at work. It wasn't exactly the same, but it was similar enough that he had a chance of operating one even if Valdesco did drive on the wrong side of the road.

"Are you insane? Steal a car? You'll be caught --"

"I've got a map out of the palace and the city. I'll be back in a day." He knew they'd miss him, but when he came back, willingly, then he was pretty sure he could convince Jared of why he'd had to go.

"It's at least four hours from here to Isla Merada and then to the border."

"It will take me that long to get there. Look, if something holds me up, cross into Valdesco and drive north to the capital city. According to the map I have, there's really only one major road. I think it's about three hours or so."

"And what do I do when I get there." Christian did not sound like he liked that plan at all. "I can't just waltz into their keep."

"It's a palace, not a keep. And If I haven't contacted you, tell them who you are and then bring Halley to the monarch."

"Just like that? I'll be slaughtered and her along with me."

"They won't do that. I promise. Tell Jared, the monarch, that I asked you to protect her. Please. I need you to do this for me."

Christian let out a sigh. "All right. I'll do it." Even though it was clear what he thought. Christian had always followed him into trouble, and Jensen was glad beyond words that hadn't changed.

"Thank you. I love you."

"And I you."

Jared fought to suppress yawn. It would be rude, and no doubt someone would tell the news services that the monarch was falling asleep in his budget meetings and that was why the economy was so bad. As if he really had anything to do with it in the first place. He took a sip of his coffee and prayed the caffeine would keep him awake.

A knock on the door startled everyone. He pressed the camera button and saw that it was David Boreanaz. And from the look on his face, it was clear there was a major problem.

"I'm going to have to interrupt, Mr. Bowers. This is important." Bowers didn't quite snarl at him, but it was close.

He pressed the unlock for the room, and a moment later, David stepped inside and bowed.

"I'm sorry to bother you, your Majesty. There's an issue that you need to be made aware of, immediately." David stood at attention.

"Excuse me, please," he said to those gathered. He stood. "Go on without me."

He waited until the door was closed and he'd followed David over to an alcove. "David?"

"Listen, sir," David said and he pressed the play button.

It was a recording of Jensen's conversation with someone from Amaranth.

"Gods, how could he be so stupid."

"I've locked the door here," David said, pointing a finger to the route that he obviously thought Jensen would take. "He'll have to go around and then double back here, if he wants to go out that gate." It was the most accessible of the exits to the palace and led right to the street.

Jared looked at him. "If he steps off the palace grounds, he'll be in violation of the treaty and Hathaway's judgment, you'll have to arrest him. We want to avoid that at all costs."

David nodded. "This way, your Majesty."

Jared followed him into the elevator, his anger rising with each step. Why hadn't Jensen come to him?

"He's just getting to the locked door. We need to hurry to be in place when he comes back around." The padd that David was holding showed Jensen's location.

Jared waited as David pushed open the door that Jensen would have gone through.

David approached Jensen from behind. "If you take one more step, I'll arrest you," David said quietly to Jensen's back. There was no triumph in David's voice, just deadly calm and no small amount of menace.

Jensen stopped and his whole body went stiff before he turned and looked first at David and then at Jared, devastation in his eyes.

What had made him do this? Why? And who was Halley? Truth was, Jared didn't want to think about who she could be. He'd thought it very unlikely that a man as beautiful as Jensen was completely unattached, especially given what he'd been able to ascertain about Amaranth society.

Slowly, Jensen sank to his knees. His eyes fixed on Jared. "Please. I beg you. I must get to the border. I will do anything, anything at all, to have safe passage."

Of all the things he'd expected, that wasn't even on this list. It was clear that whatever trouble Jensen --, or his family -- was in, it was urgent.

"All right."

"Your majesty?" David's tone was comically incredulous. "Seriously?"

"I'm very serious. We'll take him to the border as he asks."

"I really don't think --"

Jared didn't care what he thought; Jensen was his only concern. "Arrange it. Now."

David blinked. It was probably the first time Jared had ever used that tone with him. "Yes, sir. Thirty minutes."


David gave him a stiff nod. "Yes, sir." And he walked away, pulling out his padd as he did so.

"Get up," Jared said. "I'll want an explanation."

Jensen climbed stiffly to his feet. Taking a long slow breath, Jensen closed his eyes and rubbed his knee. "Thank you."

"Don't thank me yet." It was all too much. Jared didn't say anything else.

When they were finally on their way, Jensen let out a sigh of relief. He could not believe that things were working out this well. And he didn't trust it. After everything, why would Jared agree to give him what he wanted?

"Who is Halley?" Jared asked, his voice tight, not giving anything away.

It was going to become obvious who she was very shortly. "My daughter."

"And where is your wife?"

Jensen looked away. "She's dead."

"I'm sorry." Jared said, quietly. The play of emotions across Jared's face said that hadn't been the answer he'd been expecting. Jensen wondered what he'd been thinking.

"You might have mentioned you had a daughter before this," Jared finally said.

Jensen cleared his throat. "Not really. I wasn't going to give you anything to use against me."

"It should have been clear to you from the beginning that no one would harm you."

"Physically, yes. And I have to say that I didn't actually believe I'd end up your bed slave, though I suspect my father still fears that." Jensen laughed. "However, my status here, as you've pointed out so many times, is less than nothing. I couldn't completely discount the possibility that I was wrong."

"Thanks ever so much," Jared said. "Surely after a few days you could have said something about her existence."

"It's hasn't been that long. Do I need to remind you what's happened in the time I've been here?" Jensen let out a long sigh. Gods, but he hated arguing like this. "I was going to mention it soon. I've missed her badly." "What prompted your concern?" Jared asked.

"There was a message across the top of my padd." Jensen closed his eyes and told them what it said.

Jared sat up straighter and glanced at the front seat. Boreanaz was clearly listening. "Someone would hurt your daughter to get back at you?"

"It's all I could think of. No one here knew of her existence. Only the priests. And none of them would know how to put that message on the padd."

"Have you done anything with the padd?"

"I used it to call Christian, but I left it in the suite." But that brought up another question. "How did you know I... How did you know what I was trying to do? How did you find me?"

"I heard your conversation with Christian? Who is he?"

"My cousin." Jensen breathed out. "Do you listen to all of my conversations?"

"Of course not. But any calls made to Amaranth are monitored." Jared shook his head. "Think about it. We don't have even informal diplomatic relations with your country, yet. What did you expect?"

The general lack of privacy and the easy acceptance of it was appalling. "You might have mentioned it. I didn't expect to be monitored like I was a criminal."

That laugh sounded bitter and forced. "You're even less than that right now."

"Thanks for reminding me of my place in your country. I had forgotten again." He looked at Jared and wanted to hit him. But he pushed the anger back. "Why did you even agree to allow me to go when I asked?"

"Because it was clearly important to you. And I wanted to know how living here was worse than you expected?"

How could he even ask that? Didn't these people think about what they did at all? "You're joking, right? You've taken everything I had or was away from me. How could it be anything other than the worst experience of my life?"

"I didn't --" Jared choked.

"Oh, yes you did. By making me the fucking War Prize. I'm nothing. A casualty of war, that's all. You said it yourself, I'm less than nothing. What do you think that does to a person? What do you think it has done to me?"

"I married you." And Jared clearly thought that meant something. "And you'd be a citizen already but for your temper."

As if he didn't have a world of other things to be angry about. "You know, that's getting very old. I am tired of hearing about what I'm doing wrong." Jensen took a deep breath. "As for the marriage, it's another forced contract that I had nothing to do with." He held up a hand. "I'm not saying that some of it hasn't been…pleasurable beyond words, because it has been. But none of this was my choice."

Jared looked like he'd been slapped. But Jensen wasn't going to feel sorry for him. He was the one with all the options.

"When you're granted citizenship, you'll be able to do anything you want."

"Except go home. Live my old life."

"You're right about that. But that's not my fault. Do I need to remind you whose country required this of you in first place? There was never anything I could have done about it."

"Exactly. I can't either." Jensen sighed. "Do you know what I was going to do today?"

Jared shook his head.

"Continue my endless search for something useful to do with the rest of my life. I'm going to have to start all over." Jensen didn't even want to think about the interview process. His father had not used his influence to get any of his son's positions. And as such, Jensen had started as an airman, doing all the boring flights that airmen did at first. Just like everyone else. But when his promotions came, he'd known he'd earned them.

And yes, eventually, if he hadn't been injured, he would have been made head of the air corps, but he still would have spent years flying as one of them.

To have to start at the bottom again, and probably with no hope of rising past a certain point, would just break him.

"You're tied to the monarch; you won't have a problem finding a job." Jared's eyes blazed for a moment. "You don't have to work."

"Yes I do. For my own sanity and self-esteem."

"You can do anything you want."

Before he could answer, David turned around and told them they were going to land.

There was a car on the double road. As soon as the air car touched down, Jensen pulled himself out and started to move across the grass. Halley broke away from Christian, and raced across the expanse.

"Daddy --" she screamed as she threw herself into his arms. "I missed you so much."

"Oh, baby girl, I missed you too." He pulled her tight, holding on to her with all his might.

When he looked up, Christian was standing beside him. He shifted Halley and drew Christian into his arms as well. As soon as he felt Christian's arms tighten around him and Halley, his eyes stung and he knew he was going to humiliate himself, but he couldn't do anything about it. He laid his head on Christian's shoulder and just breathed in the scent of them both.

Oh, how he'd missed them. Until this moment, he hadn't realized how bleak his life had become. How had he expected himself to live without them for years and years to come?

After a moment more, he pulled back. Jared stood beside him, towering over Christian.

"Jared, this is Christian. Christian, this is Jared. The monarch."

They looked at each other warily. Boreanaz stood a few feet away, tense. "Your Majesty," Boreanaz said. "We should start back."

"Come back with me, Christian?" Jensen could hear the plea in his voice.

Clearly so could Christian. "Absolutely," he said. "I've got a bag packed,"

"And me too, Daddy?"

"Of course, baby girl." He held her a little tighter. "I won't ever leave you again."

As soon as they returned to the suite, Jared took Jensen's padd and left them. He said that he had to meet with Chad and arrange for Christian to be able to stay in Valdesco.

Halley talked until she was yawning with the effort to stay awake. She'd been disciplined with a ruler across her hand -- standard procedure for a child so young -- but nothing more than was acceptable for a boisterous student. No more than any of her friends. Jensen was relieved, but glad to have her out of that environment.

He'd put her to bed in his old room and showed her how to use the bathroom before she'd gone to bed.

"So, are you going to tell me about it?" Chris asked when Jensen came back into the main room.

Jensen shook his head, pacing back and forth in front of the big window. He didn't even bother to look out.

Of course, Chris wasn't taking no for an answer. "Son, it's like this. You tell me, or I sit on you until you do."

Jensen laughed at that. By the Gods, it was so good to have him here. "I don't even know where to begin."

"The last thing any of us heard or saw were the pictures of them putting that collar on you." The level of disgust in Chris' voice was balm on his nerves.

Jensen touched the jeweled collar. "The one where I'm on my knees?"

"Yeah. That one."

"I spoke with my father about a week ago." Jensen stopped. "As you saw, I can make the technology work, but it's hard going with the phone system in Amaranth being different. Plus the time differences, and of course, he's embarrassed."

"Yeah. I get that. He hasn't talked to me since you left. Not that I've had time to call him, but I get the feeling he doesn't want to think about it."

"I can't blame him. I still can't believe this has happened to me."

"It must feel like so much longer."

"You don't even what to know."

"What did he do to you?" Christ stood up, and clearly he was ready to defend Jensen's honor.

"It wasn't him so much as everything else. He's been remarkably patient." More so that Jensen might have been in the same situation. But then, Jensen wouldn't have been this situation if it weren’t for Jared.

"You married him."

"In a church with a thousand people, none of whom I knew. And I didn't marry him by choice. It was all part of their plan."

"I hadn't thought it was your choice. What with him being a man and all."

"Oddly, that isn't even an issue here. No one cares about who you sleep with."

Chris looked like he might choke. "Seriously...seriously?"

"Yeah, and the sex with him is pretty damned good."

"That's what you choose to tell me?" Chris said with a complicated hand gesture. But it was clear that he wasn't uncomfortable with the knowledge.

"I can't even begin to talk about anything else. It's all so..." Jensen stopped. What the hell could he say? And how. It was all too much for him. There was no way to explain that there were times he just wanted to crawl away, and he couldn't.

"Jen, tell me." Clearly Chris wasn't going to let it go.

Jensen took a deep breath. "What do you want to know? Do you want to hear about how I couldn't figure out how to use the toilet, or how I had to be taught to operate their cooking devices, or the data padd? How about that to have any sort of meaningful work, I'm going to have to go back to school and start all over at the bottom? Jensen drew in a deep breath. "Or would you like to hear how I can't get into my own rooms without guard intervention? And let's not even go into not being able to leave the palace --"

Chris held up a hand. "Wait. You said that before. Why can't you leave?"

"Being the War Prize means I have no status at all. I'm not a citizen or even a person."


"Yeah. But eventually, that is supposed to change. Or so I've been told." After this long, the truth was, he was starting to believe they were lying just to torture him.


"Twenty-eight days." Or until they found another reason to extend it.

Chris' eyes narrowed. "Fifty-five days? That doesn't make any sense."

"It was supposed to be ten. Just until we were wed, but the Prime Minister added fifteen days to that and then a judge added thirty more."


"For the first one, I supposedly tried to escape."

Chris tilted his head. "Supposedly? Did you?"

As much as he wanted to look at Chris, he couldn't. He held out his hands. "Where would I go?"

"Then why do they think you did? And why didn't you set them straight?"

"They didn't ask."

"Jen." Christian stretched his name out. He sounded annoyed that Jensen had let them believe what they wanted to believe.

"I needed to get some air. They took it wrong." And okay, drugging Jared might not have been his brightest idea, but he hadn't been thinking very clearly.

"You had a..." he didn't say it, which Jensen appreciated. "I though those were under control? Have you been having more of them?"

"No. I get out for a bit of time every day and I'm good. I ride. You can join me tomorrow morning."

"Fine. Why didn't you tell them the truth?"

He knew Jensen too well. "I wasn't going to show them any weakness. Especially not at the beginning."

"So, you get yourself into even more trouble. What else happened?"

This was more embarrassing than the other reason. He deserved it the second time. "I might have punched the monarch in the jaw. In public."

All of the color drained out of Chris' face. "Please tell me you're joking?"

"Not really."

"You know, if you'd done that to the High Chief, they would have flayed the skin off your back."

"Yeah. I got six counseling sessions and thirty more days without status, but Jared managed to keep me out of prison."

Chris pinned him with a look of disbelief. "Okay, so why did you do it? You're not given to violence."

"I don't know. I have been so angry lately." Oh, he wasn't stupid, and looking back on it, he understood why he'd been angry, why he was still angry.

"You have a right to be angry. But it doesn't seem overly awful." Chris looked around the room.

And yeah, it was beautiful, luxurious even, but that didn't make it any less of a prison. "No one here seems to think I should be angry at all. They expect me to follow all of these rules, and then neglect to tell me what they are, so it guarantees I break them. I was not the right person for this." Jensen looked down at his hands. "I know. There was no one else. And even now, I wouldn't have subjected my brother's son to this. It's all so alien."

"You've got that right," Chris said. "I can't believe some of this stuff even exists."

Jensen looked at the clock and then pointed to the spaceport out the window. "Watch."

"Oh, dear Gods," Chris said as he moved across the room. "That's a spaceship?"

"Yeah. Twice a day there's a launch to either the space station or other worlds.

"Have you been out there yet?" Chris waved his hand towards the spaceport.

"Not yet. But I've toured some of the facilities they have here. They have giant filters that regulate the weather."

Chris looked stunned. "That's awesome. I want to see that."

"Yeah. And wait until you meet some of the alien races."

"Really. Really?"

"Yeah. That's been one of the really good things about all of this. I knew that logically we could not be alone in the universe, no matter what The Book says. And I was right."

"What are they like?"

"Some of the ones I've met look just like us. Some are slightly different. I understand that some are very different, but I haven't seen them yet."

"How do you communicate?"

"There's some kind of translator device that makes it seem like we're all speaking the same language."

"Do we speak the same languages as the people here?"

"Oddly, yes. There are clearly some dialects, but mostly the whole planet speaks a variation of the same language." Not that it helped with understanding each other.

As soon as Jensen pointed out the ship, Jared pressed the button to end the surveillance. "I think that's enough."

"You were the one who wanted to know," Chad said, sitting back. "You didn't think it would be any different, did you?"

"I hadn't even thought about some of it." By the Gods, he was a fool, Jared thought. He should have at least considered some of this. But he'd been too busy hiding from his own feelings to think about Jensen's. What did that say about him?

"Of course not. You weren't the one who showed him how to use the food prep equipment. Or how to use the data padd. It wasn't your job to think about it."

"I haven't been around to do much of anything with him. I have been running my business and playing at being monarch at the same time. It doesn't leave much time for anything else."

"You are going to have to make some choices here." Chad met his eyes, and for once, there was no joke in them. "And while you might not like some of them, I think you know what you need to do."

Jared could feel the heat in his cheeks. Man, they'd fucked this up well and good. "I think we really need to rethink the whole thing."

But Chad was already shaking his head. "I think it's way too late for that. You can't send him back --"

"I don't want to send him back," Jared said quickly, probably too quickly. But the reality of the situation was that there was no sending him back, even if they wanted to. As much as he hated to think about it that way, Jensen was the price of peace.

"Then you're going to need to work within the situation. You're already married to him. You haven't even gone on a wedding trip. "

Jared wasn't quite past the fucked-up part yet. "I thought I understood him. I feel --"

"Jared. Seriously. It's pretty obvious what you feel. But I think you're basing at least some of that on how hot he is." Chad smirked salaciously. "And he is scorchingly hot."

"You make that sound so dirty."

"Don't I wish." Chad laughed at his scowl. "Don't turn into Anna. Seriously, dude, it's hard to miss how hot he is. There are many people who've noticed."

"I'm not Anna." But even as he said it, there was a part of him that wanted to keep Jensen to himself.

"You need to spend a few weeks with him, getting to know him without everyone else around."

Like he should have done right after the wedding, but he'd been more interested in saving his own ass. Gods, but he sounded selfish and immature. "I'm going to need to get to know all of them. I need you to set up a meeting with everyone for first thing tomorrow morning."

"Now?" Chad nodded towards the clock. "It's a little late."

"Yes. And with Jeffrey, too."

Chad looked like he wanted to argue, but after a minute, he nodded. "Anyone else I need to wake up?"

Another time, Jared might have smiled. "Not that I can think of. But can you also clear my schedule for the next two weeks?"

"You do know you have a secretary, right?" Chad sighed. "Why?"

There really weren't that many people who would ask him why he wanted to do something. "I want to take Jensen, Halley and Christian to Castle Padalecki."

"Maybe you should ask your sister and brother, too."

"Yeah, that's not a bad idea. Everyone could use a break. And I want Jensen's family to get to know mine." Jared looked at him. "You know what, you and David, too."

Chad snorted. "David will love that."

When Jared got back to the suite, he found Jensen asleep on the sofa and Christian standing in front of the window, looking out into the night. He turned around as soon as Jared closed the door, and put his finger to his lips.

They stared at each other for a moment, and then Christian nodded his head towards the door. "Take a walk with me?" he whispered.

Jared nodded and led him out. The garden seemed like a logical choice. They didn't speak until they were pretty far into the maze of plants and trees. "Let's sit here," Jared suggested. It wasn't as private as he might have liked, but at this hour, there weren't many people up.

As much as he wanted to ask a million questions, Jared remained silent, waiting for Christian to speak.

It took another couple of minutes. "I don't even know where to start," Christian said. "Jen...Jensen wasn't a good choice for this."

"If you're saying he's too stubborn and pride-bound to adapt, then I'd agree." But Jared knew that he was a lot of other things, too. And that was part of the problem.

"I won't try to tell you that he isn't, but he didn't deserve this."

Jared gritted his teeth. They all made it seem like Jensen's coming here was Valdesco's fault. "My country never would have thought of something like this."

"I don't know a whole lot about the negotiations, or what anyone else was thinking, but I do know that Jensen is in a world of hurt right now, and I think that matters to you." He looked right at Jared when he said it.

He had some vague hope that he could hide what he felt long enough to get some answers. "Why would you think that?"

From the way Christian snorted, it was clear it was a fool's hope.

"For someone who should know how, you don't hide what you're feeling very well," Christian said.

"I've been assured it's just because Jensen is so very good-looking." Jared tried to smile. If it were true, it would make things so much easier.

"You keep tellin' yourself that, your Majesty."

"I will, thank you very much," Jared said.

"He's a good man. And usually pretty easygoing, but this is so far away from something anyone from Amaranth could begin to accept." Christian held up a hand. "Our society doesn't come close to the marvels I've seen in the few hours I've been here. By the Gods, most of the people in Amaranth don't believe that there's life outside of this planet."

Jared remembered Jensen shifting away from the serving robots, but he hadn't flinched back from anyone he'd met. "Jensen didn't seem to have a problem with it --"

"He was in shock. I can guarantee that." Christian pushed his hair out of his face. "Seriously. He's probably still in shock. I know that this had to have been.... I don't even know. I came here willingly for him, but he...he was forced."

"He agreed --"

"Because he had no choice. I can't believe you didn't have a plan for dealing with him." Christian folded his arms over his chest. "You've all let him flounder without any help at all."

"How do you know --"

"Because it's fucking obvious that he was expected to adapt, and no one took the fact that he's a real live person into consideration." Christian shook his head. "What were you thinking?"

"That's it exactly," Jared said, losing patience. "No one -- not even Jensen, who didn't fucking say a word about anything except that the food was too spicy -- had a fucking clue. We know nothing about your society, your culture, or what you expected us to do with him. Jensen didn't tell us anything at all. He refused all help. Did you know we've offered to fix his knee at least half a dozen times and he has refused each and every time?"

"Seriously?" Christian said, his tone choked with shock. "You could fix his knee? And he didn't let you?"

"I offered the first afternoon he was here." Back when Jared still thought it would be easy. Every time Jensen limped, it felt like a knife to the gut.

"Well, okay, so he probably didn't trust you then. When was the last time you offered?"

"I don't know. He's going to have to ask the next time." Jared wasn't offering again. It was hard enough now. He didn't need to have Jensen's lack of trust thrown back into his face. "Was that all?"

"I thought a society as advanced as yours would have done better by someone like Jensen."

"I just told you that we have no idea how to how to deal with him. It never even occurred to me that he might not know how to use our most basic tools." Jared looked down. They should have thought of it. He or someone should have considered it was at least possible. But they'd all grown up knowing. He couldn't even remember learning to use most of those things. "It also doesn't help that he's not a citizen yet."

"Couldn't you have just granted him citizenship when he got here?"

Jared hadn't, they hadn't, thought of that. "We thought that if he married me, he'd be a citizen through that."

"How does someone get to be a citizen here?"

"Being born here and reaching the age of twenty-three."

"What if you're not born here?"

"Most people are born here. But the easiest and most likely way is to marry someone who was born here."

"But what if you come here from another...planet," Christian hesitated over the word. "Then what?"

"That's where the people who were not born here come from. We have immigration laws. I think it takes living here for a year and you have to learn our history and take some kind of test on it. We didn't even consider it because we didn't want him to be without status for that long."

"But now he's been without status for a month and will continue to be for another month."

Jared took a deep breath. It was hard to imagine what Jensen had been going through when he first arrived. "He should have fucking told me he had panic attacks --"

Christian pointed a finger at him. "You were listening to us."

"It's not as if Jensen ever tells me anything on his own." Which wasn't even a valid excuse. And he could see by the look on Christian's face what he thought of it. "I am just so --" He stopped. What was he doing? He didn't know this man.

"Frustrated?" Christian asked. "I can only imagine."

"I don't think you can."

"You forget how well I know Jensen." And he kind of ducked his head and smiled at that.

And Jared was not going to address that at all. "My advisor Chad says I should take Jensen on a...marriage trip."

"That's not a bad idea," Christian said, rubbing his neck. Then he shook his head. "I don't think you're going to separate him from Halley anytime soon."

"I wouldn't expect to. Or you, either. I think he needs both of you." Even in the short time he'd been here, Jared could see how it had affected Jensen.

Christian let out a long, slow sigh. "I knew I should have forced him to let me come with him when he left."

As if anyone could force Jensen to do anything. Maybe Christian could have. But Jared knew it would not be easy. "It would have made things easier. You could have spoken for him."

"Would anyone have listened to me?" Christian's tone made it plain he didn't believe it would have made a difference.

"I would have." He didn't know about anyone else. But Jensen's whole suffering-in-silence attitude would have been so much easier to deal with if they'd known something, anything about what he really wanted or needed.

"Maybe we can go on from here," Christian said.

It sounded so simple. As if they could just put the last month behind them. Maybe it was possible. Jared hoped so. "At this point, we have to do something. Jensen and I are married. What?"

"I have a problem wrapping my head around two men being married." Christian ducked his head and smiled a little.

"Jensen told me it's not legal in Amaranth. And implied it wasn't accepted at all." Which Jared thought explained a lot.

"Two men together in a relationship isn't talked about. It officially doesn't exist. No one acknowledges it even happens, and no one would ever bring the subject up." Christian stood and looked back towards the palace. "I should get back upstairs."

There was no way he'd be able to negotiate the palace on his own. If Jared didn't go with him, he'd have to have an escort back.

"Christian, one last question?"

He looked wary. "If I can."

"What did Jensen do in Amaranth?" He could find out easily enough, but somehow he didn't want to go through regular channels.

Christian let out a long breath. "He hasn't told you?"

"Only that he couldn't do it here."

Christian paused and looked out into the garden. It was clear he was debating what to say. "He was a Royal Air Corps pilot."

Well, that was a surprise. It was the nature of the military to have a healthy respect for rules and order. Being here must have been doubly frustrating.

"He was an excellent pilot. Had an incredible ability to fly anything with wings. He was damned impressive. Could get himself out of almost any situation, too. "

"Why couldn't he do that here?"

"You mean aside from the fact he has no status or training on your aircraft?"

Jared bit his lip and nodded. "Aside from that."

"I'm sure he thinks his injury would stop him. He resigned as soon as he was released from the hospital."

"Was he forced to do so?" Because that seemed like damned little thanks to a man who had been that good at his job.

"His mind wasn't hurt. Just his knee. He could have taken a desk job, or even taken over as head of the Corps. Or if he didn't want to do that, he could have been head of his father's personal guard."

"Why didn't he?" But really, Jared already knew the answer to that.

"Pride," Christian said, just confirming it. "He'd flown for the Corps for ten years, during school and after. He'd always said that to lead effectively, he'd need to have been one of them for a while."

He could have just taken over and probably no one would have said anything. But to earn the respect of those he would lead did make better sense. "His father allowed that?"

"His father indulged him. And it was always assumed that Jensen would take over one day and use his skills to better the Corps."

"I'm surprised they allowed him to fly missions at all. It sounds dangerous."

"All of the High Chief's sons served in the military." Christian smiled. "But no one expected Jensen to be so damned good at it. His skills allowed him to stay and be promoted as if he were a regular officer."

"I wonder if he could learn to fly our craft." But that didn't seem likely. Beyond the status problems, the same situation existed. He was too important to risk on dangerous missions. And ferrying people around would get boring after a while.

There was something like hope in Christian's look. "You know, I might not be able to even drive one of your cars, but I'd bet my life that Jensen could fly anything you give him with the most minimal instructions."

"He was that good?"

"Better. He used to fly his father when he would go on a tour of the country. The High Chief was damned proud of him."

"You said Jensen was his father's favorite. How could his father have sent him to this? Especially not knowing what we'd do with him."

"Make no mistake, the High Chief was heartbroken to do it, but he couldn't send his oldest son's first son. Jason is nine years old and second in line for High Chief. Jensen is now fairly far down the line. He was the last of five sons, all of whom have sons of their own now."

It never failed to startle Jared when he heard Jensen -- or now, Chris -- refer to sons or males as the only ones fit to rule. The general disregard for woman's abilities grated unpleasantly even as much as he tried to understand the culture that produced that attitude. "Didn't his older brothers resent his father playing favorites when they were young?"

"Not as much as you might think. The heir and the spare were much older and already established. The next in line, Marcus, was already studying to be a healer, and really, it was only Justin that had a problem with Jensen. I mean, they all teased him when he was young, but only Justin was out to get him." Christian stopped and looked at him. "He told you about Justin?"

"Only that he caused problems for Jensen when they were young." And there was a part of Jared that wasn't very civilized and wanted to hunt Justin down and make him pay for what he'd allowed to be done to Jensen because of his jealousy.

Christian tilted his head and starred at him. "Did he tell you about what school?"

"I have no idea what you're talking about. And even if I did, it's not our place to discuss it." Jared glared at him.

That made Christian smile. "Of course not. But just so you know, Jensen was well avenged for it."

As far as Jared could see, there could be nothing in the world that could make up for what was allowed to happen to someone who should have been protected. Maybe he should order more sessions with the psychologist. But it had been torture getting Jensen to go as it was. He didn't see it happening voluntarily.

"Was there something else?" Christian asked. "I'd like to get back before Jensen wakes up and finds me gone."

"Too late for that," Jensen said, startling Jared. He looked pretty damned annoyed.

Jared would have liked to say they weren't talking about him, but there was not a chance that would be believed.

"It's not as if you've told his Majesty here anything that would be useful to either of you," Christian said, and his tone was more chastising than Jared would have expected.

Jensen looked down and surprisingly twin spots of red appeared on his cheeks. "Fuck you."

"Let's not discuss this here," Jared said. Because, really, this could go south so quickly. And they were in public.

"Actually, you both should talk about it," Christian said.

Jensen looked up at him. "He's right. We should talk."

Jared pulled out his padd and sent a message to the guard desk. A few seconds later a guard found them. "Your Majesty?"

"Can you take Mr. Kane back to the guest quarters that have been arranged for him? They're on the family level."

Christian grinned. "I was wondering how I'd get back there. I'll see you both in the morning."

Jensen hugged him. "Sleep well, cousin."

"And you."

"Let's go back up to the suite. Halley's alone," Jensen said as he watched Chris follow the guard out of the garden.

Jared nodded and Jensen followed him back to the suite.

When Jensen reached the door, he stepped back, swallowing his anger, and Jared touched the keypad. It was enough to make him want to walk away. How could they ever even talk to each other when they were so unequal? "Why don't we sit for a minute, maybe try and actually talk to each other," Jared suggested, sitting down and waving him to sit beside him.

"I don't even know what to say here." There were so many issues, and each one had the power to make Jensen's stomach clench up into knots. "You were spying on me."

Jared folded his arms over his chest and didn't look at all repentant. "You don't tell me anything. Don't you understand that if I don't know what the problems are, I can't fix them?"

"How can you not know? You've been watching this spectacle as it happened." But really, hadn't that assumption been what got them into this predicament in the first place?

Jared held his hands out. "Forgive me, but I have no frame of reference for you. You grew up in a society that is so alien to me, it might have been another planet. Maybe I should have known or realized that, but it just didn't occur to anyone."

They all had assumed they understood each other. That because they spoke the same language it meant the same thing. "Are you trying to say that you didn't expect me to adapt to your society without regard for where I came from or what I had done before? Because I don't believe that for one second."

"To my shame, you're right. We did expect it. It was arrogant beyond all measure since we knew your society is not as advanced as ours. We thought we'd give you all of this very cool advanced technology and you'd be grateful to have it. We never actually considered you as a person before you got here."

"That really is damned arrogant of you." Jensen shrugged. "That said, I do love the technology and the access to information. Even if it contradicts itself in ten different ways. But this life is alien. I'm out of place, and I doubt I'll ever find a place in it."

Jared took a deep breath. "Do you want to go home?"

"Of course I do. But I can't. Since I've been here, no one else has died. My life for the lives of many. I made that choice." It went without saying that he'd make it again.

"Perhaps I could make you an ambassador or even just liaison to Amaranth," Jared suggested, but it was clear immediately that he didn't know how it could be done.

Because it couldn’t. "I'm not qualified on any level to do either of those tasks. All I have is the potential to be something. I have no qualifications."

Jared put his head in his hands. "What do you want? If you could have anything you wanted, do anything you wanted, besides returning to Amaranth."

"Having Halley and Chris here is going to go a long way towards making me content. Beyond that, I'd like to be able to come and go as I please. I can't tell you how humiliating it is to not be able to open the door to the rooms I live in. I'd like to see my family again. I'd like to have a job that I'm as good at as I was in Amaranth. I'd like to see all of those alien worlds." Jensen let out a sigh. "And I'd like to actually get to know you."

Jared sucked in a breath at the last and his eyes widened. "Really? I would have thought --"

Oh, he could just guess what Jared thought, but despite everything, he liked Jared. And it wasn't impossible to believe he'd come to care for him deeply over time. "You don't know me, and I don't know you. The last month hasn't been about getting to know each other."

"It could have been. If I hadn't been so busy."

Jensen knew what part of that was, and he understood. It had to be hard to be in Jared's position. "No recriminations now. I'm just as much to blame. I did nothing to help you."

"What changed?"

It was pretty simple when it came down to it. "You took me to the border because I asked. Before that, I had no idea I was that important to you."

Jared's expression was a mix of denial and pleasure. He looked down, his cheeks turning red. "I wish I could say it wasn't true."

"Why? Because you think I won't return your feelings?"

"You don't --"

"Give me a chance to get to know you." Jensen couldn't help but smile. It might not be love yet. But given a chance, what he felt could grow into that. "Give me a chance to make a life for myself and Halley and Chris."

"I think that can be arranged." Jared smiled full out with his dimples showing.

Oh, the hell with it. He leaned forward and kissed him. "Thank you," he whispered against Jared's mouth.

"I haven't done anything yet."

"I'm going to believe you will."

Jensen kissed him again, pulling him to his feet and embracing him fully. He could feel the hard length of Jared's body warm against his own. There was nothing like it. With his eyes closed, he leaned closer, letting Jared hold him. He loved being kissed and touched by Jared. It made him feel good the way few things had since he'd gotten here.

"Let's go to bed," Jared said, taking his hand.

Part Twelve

The next morning, Jensen woke to Halley climbing into bed with him. He snuggled her close. "Did you sleep well, Baby Girl?" Gods, how he'd missed her.

"Yes. But I'm hungry. And there's nothing to eat here. So, can you get up and find me something to eat?"

"Bossy little thing, isn't she?" At least Jared sounded amused.

She sat up and looked over Jensen's shoulder. Obviously, she hadn't realized there was anyone else there. "What are you doing here?"

Jared laughed. "This is my bed."

"Oh." Her brow creased. "Why is daddy in it?"

"It's his bed, too."

"We share it, Baby Girl."


"Because we're married," Jared said.

She laughed at that. "Only boys and girls can be married."

"Here," Jared said. "Anyone can marry anyone else."

Halley thought about that for a second and shrugged. "Okay. But I'm still hungry."

"Why don't you get dressed. I showed you how everything works last night. Do you need me to show you again?"

"No. I'm a big girl. I'll get dressed."

Jensen kissed her head and she went out the door, carefully closing it. "I think we can expect that for a while."

"Maybe I should start wearing sleep pants then?" Jared looked under the blankets.

"She knows she's supposed to knock. I'll probably have to remind her."

"We should probably take her down to the infirmary and have her checked out."

"Why?" Jensen tried not to sound too suspicious.

"So that we can get a baseline. Just in case."

"All right. Chris, too, then?"

"Good thought." Jared yawned and got out of bed and slid into his robe.

Jensen took a second to admire him before he sat up, too. A couple of months ago he would have had to hide that look. Of course, a couple of months ago, he would not have been in bed with a man naked or otherwise. By the Gods, his life had changed.

"I have a meeting this morning after we take Halley to see Stephanie."

After last night, there had been the brief hope that something might change, but clearly that wasn't going to happen. At least now, he'd have some time to get Halley settled. "Of course."

"Since it's about you, I'd like you to come with me," Jared said.

Jensen got out of bed and pulled his robe on, too. "Seriously?"

"I don't know what we can do to about your situation, but all of this has gone on long enough. It ends today." Jared let out a long sigh. "I've got Chad, Jeff, Anna, David and Ryan coming this morning to figure something out."

"Why now? This has been going on for the entire time I've been here. What exactly do you think you can do to mitigate it?" Because as far as Jensen could tell, there was no way out except to wait the situation out. He supposed he had plenty of time to wait.

"Don't you think it's time we tried?"

"Yes, of course. But how?" It was all well and good to acknowledge it, but there wasn't a way to fix it.

"Even when you become a citizen, none of us will have a clue what to do with you. It's time to start to plan for that."

He'd heard this refrain over and over, and it was starting to wear him out. It did no good at all to constantly harp on how fucked-up his situation was. "And whose fault is it that the situation is so bad?"

From the look on Jared's face, he didn't appreciate the comment. "Well, I guess this is where I point out this was not our fault. That your country --"

Every time he started to believe things might change, even a little, Jared pulled out that line, and he was ready to explode. Gods, he hated that refrain. "You can say that all you want, but it doesn't change the fact that none of you even considered me. You took another human --"

"We’ve already talked this to death. It's done. I can't change it. All we can do is go on from here," Jared said through his gritted teeth.

That was going to be the answer to everything, wasn't it? Jensen had had enough. "I need a shower."

"Wait. Damn it. We're not done here." Jared put a hand on Jensen's arm as if to hold him in place.

But Jensen was having none of it. He shook him off, and took a step towards the bathroom. "Oh, yes, we are."

Halley picked that second to walk back through the door.

"What have I told you about knocking before you enter a room?" Jensen snapped.

Her eyes got wide and started to fill with tears. "I'm sorry. Please don't send me away again." She rushed at him and started to sob.

Jensen felt like an ogre as he knelt down to pull her into his arms. "I'm sorry, sweetheart. I'm not going to send you away, but that doesn't mean you can act any way you want to. You know the rules. You always knock when you see a closed door."

"Yes, daddy. I'm sorry." She sniffed loudly.

"I shouldn't have snapped at you. I'm sorry, too." He kissed her cheek. "Jared and I need to get dressed. We'll be out in a few minutes."

"Jensen?" Jared said as the door closed behind Halley.

"I need a shower. We'll talk about this later." He sighed. "And I will come with you this morning. I'd like Chris to come, too. We'll need someone to watch Halley."

"I'll ask Zoe."

As they were leaving the suite, Jared stopped him. "Let's take care of this, first." He keyed several numbers into the door padd, and it made a beeping sound. "Give me your hand."

He pressed Jensen's hand to the plate and held it until the light turned blue. "Okay. Pick a six-letter-number sequence and type it into the pad."

Jensen used Halley's birthday. It was all he could think of on short notice. "Okay."

"Put your hand on the plate here."

Jensen did, and the door lock audibly disengaged. He let out the breath he'd been holding.

"If you want to program the door for things other than opening, I can show you how."

It was a door. What other things did it do, Jensen wondered? "Not at this second."

"Okay." Jared smiled at him. "That was probably the easiest of all of the things that need to be done with regard to you."

"Probably," Jensen agreed. "Let's go get something to eat."

"It finally occurred to me," Jared said, as everyone settled into their seats in his small conference room after breakfast, "that if we were going to move ahead on what to do with Jensen, then it was going to fall to me to figure it out."

"Excuse me, sir," David said, rubbing the back of his neck. "But what are you talking about?"

"I was going to ask the same thing. I'm not even sure why I'm here," Jeffrey said, his arms folded over his chest.

"Funny you should ask that, Prime Minister, since you were the one who agreed to this in the first place." Okay, so maybe it was unfair to blame Jeff completely, but he had been the one to agree and then force it on Jared.

"It's not like we had a choice," Jeffrey huffed. "Amaranth required --" He stopped and looked at Jensen. "Should we even be discussing this with Jensen here?"

"I'm directly involved," Jensen said. "So, maybe you might try actually talking to me, rather than pretending I don't exist. Or worse, thinking that I'm a child."

That was the first time Jensen had ever spoken up about anything. And the look of surprise on just about everyone's face was a good thing. They all needed to realized that Jensen was a person and needed to be accorded some basic human rights.

Jeffrey blinked first. "It's not as if you've been anything close to cooperative. Hell, you even tried to escape --"

"No, he didn't!" Christian said, glaring at Jeffrey.

Who focused on him. "Who the hell are you?" Jeffrey demanded.

Christian gave him a smile that didn't reach his eyes, and inclined his head. "Christian Kane. Jensen's cousin."

"Where did you come from?" Jeffrey asked, and then looked at Jared with his eyebrow raised. "And why wasn't I informed."

Jared took a deep breath. Damn, this wasn't starting well at all. Maybe there should have been introductions. "Let's start again. The man beside Jensen, as you heard, is his cousin. His daughter, who arrived with Mr. Kane yesterday, is in the infirmary, getting a full work-up. Mr. Kane is here at my request."

"Why weren't we told Jensen had a child?" Ryan asked. He didn't sound annoyed so much as resigned. As if this were just one more nuisance from Jensen.

"What difference would it have made?" Jensen scowled at him.

"I'm still back on the part where you said Jensen didn't try to escape," Jeffrey muttered, glancing at Christian. "Because I was there and you weren't."

"But you didn't even bother to ask him why he was trying to get out. Didn't it occur to you that he had nowhere to go? But no, you just assumed he was trying to escape, just like you've been assuming the entire time he's been here. What part of coming from an entirely different culture don't you people get?"

There was a moment or two of silence. Then Anna cleared her throat. "So you're going to speak for him, rather than having him speak up for himself, which he could have done at any point along the way."

"You know, Anna, that's all well and good to say that now," Jensen said. "But how was I to know that you wouldn't cut my tongue out if I said the wrong thing?"

Her eyes got wide and she gasped. "That's too barbaric to even joke about --"

"I am not joking. Exactly what do you think taking a War Prize as reparations is? Exactly what do you think I thought coming here under these circumstances?" Jensen held up his hand. "Don't say it anymore. I'm so sick of hearing that my country required it. You accepted it. You took me away from my home, my family and my country."

"We didn't think Amaranth would negotiate any further without it. And frankly, our people were dying, too." Jeffrey sighed. "Maybe we should have said no. I don't know. There was no way to know what your people were thinking."

"It was a negotiating tactic," Christian said. "You were supposed to balk."

"No one told us that. We were flying blind. In our arrogance, I think we thought we could handle having someone come here. That we'd take care of them properly." Jeffrey looked at Jensen. "Trust me, we were appalled by the whole thing."

"And you took all of your discomfort out on me," Jensen said.

David frowned. "Between your attitude and breaking all the rules --"

"Thing is, I needed to know what the rules were going in. Someone should have damned well explained them to me."

"Violence should be wrong in all cultures," David said.

Christian snorted. "By the time that happened Jensen had been jerked around so much by you people --"

"Stop," Jensen hissed. "Just let it go."

But David was already shaking his head. "I can't let it go. His majesty might be able to forgive you for punching him, but I won't. There is no excuse."

David always did see things in black and white. "There were extenuating circumstances," Jared said.

David opened his mouth to say something else and Jared shook his head. "There were. We're going to get past this. Please just let it go, David."

"Fine, sir."

Jared waited a beat. "Anything else?"

Jeffrey raised an eyebrow. "If it wasn't an escape attempt, then what was it?"

"Jensen?" He'd let him tell it any way he wanted.

Jensen looked down, his cheeks red. "I just had to get out. I literally could not breathe. The recycled air smelled so foul to me I was starting to choke on it." He looked up and pinned Jeffrey with a hard look. "I had every intention of coming back as soon as I caught my breath. All I really wanted was to find air that didn't smell stale."

"Where were you going?" Chad asked.

"There was a park on the map --"

"That's at least two miles from the palace. Why not just head out back towards the woods?" Ryan asked.

"And how would I have known it's there? I didn't see it on the map I had."

Ryan nodded. "Surely you could have told someone you needed to get out?"

"Oh, because I had so much reason to trust any of you. As far as I knew, I was your prisoner."

"You're trusting us now," Chad said.

"It's been a month. I've learned enough to start to trust that Jared, his Majesty, wants to do the right thing."

"Fair enough," Jeffrey said. "We still have another month to go without status for Jensen. It's a court order. I don't think we can do anything about it."

"True," Jared agreed. "But what does that really mean?"

"Pardon me?" Both Jeffrey and Chad said at the same time.

"We've been going around and around about what we should or shouldn't be doing with Jensen, what no status actually means." Jared looked at them. "Had he been a commoner or from one of the far western provinces, what would we have done then?"

Chad tilted his head. "Damn. We would have arranged for lessons in the various protocols. Trained him on how to act in public. And when you wed him --"

"He would have become Consort of the Monarch," Jared finished for him. "What does that even mean?" Jensen asked.

"It's the highest royal title you can be appointed to," Anna said. "Instead of born to."

"Even though she was a lady already, my mother was made high queen when she married my father. And that set her above all the other women."

"Something like that. The royal family doesn't have a lot of royal designations anymore. Mostly all of us have careers outside the monarchy and such titles get in the way of that." Ryan waved a hand around. "Mostly it's monarch's sister or brother or mother or what-have-you. Anyone outside of the immediate family is a lord or lady."

"So, you're going to do make Jensen your consort?" Anna asked. And surprisingly, she sounded like she approved.

"I'll be issuing an announcement today." He hoped it would mitigate some of the uncertainty of all of this. It wasn't going to help with everything, though. Only time would.

"What is Judge Hathaway going to say to that, I wonder." Something in David's tone had moderated. As if he weren't opposed to the idea. Not that it would matter if he were.

"It's my right to name a consort. There's nothing he can do about it. Jensen won't be a citizen until the sentence is complete, but that doesn't mean we have to continue to treat him like we have been doing." He turned to look at Jensen, who looked a bit stunned. "It will also give him some protection."

"Quite a bit of status, actually," Chad said.

"Why now?" Jeffrey asked.

"Like I said, it's gone on long enough. We...I should have done something sooner than this. But," Jared shrugged. He'd been hiding from the whole thing until he couldn't anymore. "It's past time we all got on with our lives. To that end, I'm going to be taking two weeks off to take Jensen and his family, along with my family, to Castle Padalecki."

"When do you leave?" David asked, his expression sour. Castle Padalecki was old and a lot less modernized than any of Jared's other residences. It was a nightmare for security.

But that was part of the reason he wanted to go there. It might be a good place to bridge the gap between him and Jensen.

"This afternoon, if you can arrange it. If not, we can go tomorrow morning."

"Tomorrow morning would work a lot better. I need the time for a proper security sweep, and a complete surveillance set-up." David sighed. "I'll see to it personally."

"Thanks," Jared said. "One more time. Is there anything else I should know about?" He looked around. Jensen still looked suspicious, but he also looked hopeful. Jeffrey and Chad were looking thoughtful. Christian was smiling.

Jensen was surprised by the outcome of the meeting. Given everything that had happened already, he would have thought they all liked having him in a position of always being on guard, always unsure of his next step. That everyone agreed to the consort status thing gave Jensen some hope that things might actually work out.

Zoe was waiting for them when they left the conference room.

"Where's Halley?" Jensen asked.

"The healer wanted to keep her for more tests." Zoe didn't look concerned, but that didn't stop Jensen's heart squeezing tight.

"Why?" His voice cracked. There was no way to hide the fear in his voice. Something was clearly wrong.

"I'm not sure," Zoe said. "But Stephanie should be done by now. Why don't we go down there and find out." Zoe smiled brightly and it didn't seem forced.

"Good thought," Jared said, putting a hand on the small of Jensen's back.

The walk down to the infirmary was endless.

Halley came out to them as soon as they were inside. "Daddy, they did tests. And they didn't hurt. Dr. Stephanie gave me candy. It's different than the candy from home." She looked at the healer. "But it's still good. Can I have some more?"

"I think that you'll need to eat lunch before you have any more sweets, Baby Girl." Jensen picked her up and kissed her cheek.

She pouted at him for a moment but was too excited to hold it for long. "Okay. When do we eat lunch?"

"Soon." He looked at the healer. "Is everything all right?"

"Right now, everything is fine." But her tone said something else. And it made Jensen's already tight chest, tighter. He set her down. "Zoe, would you take Halley down and get her some lunch?"

Zoe smiled and held out her hand to Halley. "My pleasure. Maybe some new clothes, too?"

He looked down at Halley. She was wearing typical girl's clothes. A long underskirt and a shorter top-skirt with a belted tunic top over it. Aside from wearing a skirt rather than trousers, it wasn't that different in style or color from what he'd worn when he'd first arrived. "Maybe that would be a good idea. But why don't you come back here after lunch and we'll all go get some new clothes."

"Uncle, too?"

Yeah, that wouldn't hurt either. Christian had wandered off after the meeting, saying he'd meet them back at the suite after lunch. "Yes, Baby Girl, Uncle, too."

Zoe took her hand. "Let's go get some lunch."

"I'm hungry," she said, nodding.

When they had gone, Jensen turned to the healer. "All right, tell me."

"Let's go into my office." She held out her hand for them to precede her.

Jared started to follow.

"You don't have to --"

"Don't even say it. We're married, she's going to be mine, too."

Jensen hadn't even considered that. And it touched him. "All right."

As soon as they were seated, the healer pulled out a chart and a couple of blow ups that sort of looked like x-rays, but were in color and much clearer. "Your daughter has what looks like a congenital heart defect." She held up her hand before Jensen could do more than gasp. "It's completely treatable. If you'll allow it."

For them to do this, he would owe them more than he could ever repay. And while he might not want to owe this place or these people anything for himself, for Halley he would sell his soul. "I want a complete explanation of the problem and how you're going to fix it?"

"Your daughter's heartbeat isn't always regular. And if she strains too hard when she has an irregular heartbeat, her heart could stop."

The world started to narrow, and Jensen felt like all the air was leaving the room. He gasped and tried to take a slow breath. Now was not the time for this. He took another slow, deep breath.

"Are you okay?" Jared asked from very far away.

Jensen nodded, closing his eyes. He counted, and took another breath. Okay. Breathe. Breathe.

The gray receded enough for him to open his eyes again. The healer was looking at him, clearly concerned.

"Are you all --"

"Yes. How can you fix Halley's problem? How did you detect it? What will you do? When can you do it? How much will it cost?"

"Cost?" The healer said. "What do you mean cost?"

He wasn't sure what she was saying. "What do I have to pay you to do the surgery?"

"Pay me?" She looked horrified. "All medical costs are covered by the state."

Jensen still didn't understand. "For everyone?"

"Yes. Everyone is entitled to complete health services."

He knew there had to be a catch, but right now, he was too concerned about Halley to ask more than that. "When can you do it?"

"You're going to allow it?" Jared asked. His surprise was clear. But also, clearly, he'd never had a child. And no, Jensen did not think contributing genetic material made you a father.

"Of course I will. Why would you even think otherwise?"

"Maybe because you haven't allowed us to fix --"

"My knee?" He supposed they might have a point. And he'd get to that, too. "This is my daughter. I would do anything, pay anything for her safety," he said. And turned toward the healer. "How can you fix the problem?"

"Fixing the problem is very easy. We'll do some minor surgery -- we won't even have to put her under for it. And then we'll strengthen her muscles with exercise." She looked right at him. "I've rarely seen a child with so little muscle tone. Doesn't she run around or play?"

Jensen opened his mouth and then shut it. "We don't let girls run or play rough."

The healer frowned. "Why not?"

"They need to learn to stay quiet. We encourage them to read and write and to study."

"You're joking," Jared said. Hadn't he been listening to the healer?

He knew he'd said something that horrified Jared, but he wasn't sure what. They had to keep their girls safe, and allowing them to run around would hurt them.

The healer was nodding. Clearly, she understood. "The problem is genetic. Many of your women have it, don't they?"

"I don't think we call it that. I'm not even sure it has a name beyond a weak heart. Some women die in their teens, some die in childbirth. Their hearts just give out, much sooner than men's do."

The healer nodded. "So keeping your women segregated and quiet keeps them alive long enough to live to be adults. Many die trying to have children?"

"Not all women, not even half of them. Just the unlucky ones."

"Your wife," Jared asked softly.

"Yes. And Christian's as well." He sighed. "But my sister has had four children, all healthy. And most of my female cousins have suffered no problems." He looked down at his hands and took a breath. He'd wanted more children. "When my wife had Halley without a problem, we thought it safe for her to have a second child."

Jared just put a hand on his arm. And Jensen was torn between appreciating the comfort and wanting to shake it off.

He looked at Jared. "You've always made it seem that the way we treat our women is somehow wrong, but we protect them. Yes, they are separated, but none would harm them. A man would not hurt his wife, ever --"

"You're saying you have no instances of spousal abuse?" the healer asked. She didn't sound like she believed him.

"Few. The penalties for abusing your wife are harsh. But really, it's not done. I can't think of a single instance that I've ever heard of." And with Christian being a police officer, he would have heard of it.

"Seriously?" Jared asked. "That doesn't seem possible. It's rare here, but it does happen."

"Men are raised to know that their women are fragile and must be cared for. If a man didn't care for his wife properly, he could be taken to court by his wife or her family. And of course, having your wife divorce you is the worst stigma a man can suffer. No woman would have him after that." Jensen sighed. "Your women are not fragile, but you allow them to be abused."

"We don't allow it, Jensen. But sometimes it happens." Jared pinched the bridge of his nose. "How do you know this much about our culture?"

Jensen shook his head. "What do you think I've been doing for the last month? I've been watching your news shows and reading about your culture. I was surprised at the number of women who are abused, and men, too."

"Why is the inclusion of men a surprise?" the healer asked.

"Most crimes against men of that nature do not get reported. Or if they do, it's hushed up. Usually the family will take care of the abuser themselves. No one would say a word," Jensen explained.

Jared seemed startled. "Are there laws against abusing men?"

"Some, but as I said, it's rarely reported. Not like it is here."

"We don't have a lot of sexual crime--"

"You have more than we do. You have a much freer society, it goes without saying that you'll have more people who are abusive in it."

"I'm not sure I agree with that." Jared looked like he wanted to say something else.

But Jensen turned back to the healer. "What are you going to do about Halley?"

She looked at Jared for a second. "Once we do the surgery, we'll start her on an exercise regime for a few months to catch her up with her peers. Once she's in school, she'll be fine."

Jensen breathed out. "Just like that?"

"Yes. She's in very good health otherwise. What about the rest of the women in Amaranth?" the healer asked. "We could help them. Maybe figure out a way to fix this so that it isn't passed on to the next generation."

"Why would you?" Jensen asked. Because they had no reason to help Amaranth.

"Because we can," the healer said. "Because it's out duty to help the people on our planet." She folded her arms across her chest. "I am going to offer my services to your country. Are you telling me they will say no?"

"I think they would be very grateful. I will be very grateful." Jensen couldn’t even begin to imagine how their world would change if women could participate in everything. But he wanted to find out.

The actual surgery was scheduled for the following morning and took only about forty-five minutes. Halley had to spend the day resting afterward, but she was able to walk back to her room after about an hour. He was surprised at how fast she recovered.

Jensen sat with her all day. Chris sat with him. Jared came in and out along with Zoe, Anna and Ryan.

After Halley fell asleep, Jensen went out into the garden. He stood at the end of the street that separated it from the woods and sighed. Whatever changes to his status Jared had made today, he still couldn't cross the street. Oh, he knew it wasn't likely that anyone would catch him, but if Jared could play nice, so could he.

He sighed and turned around. It had only been two days, but Halley had taken to Zoe very quickly. Maybe she needed a woman in her life.

Chris had taken an unreasonable liking to David, which didn't please Jensen at all. Where the hell had that come from? Not that he could was going to say anything to Chris about it.

His knee started to ache, and he leaned harder on his walking stick. He really should have remembered to take his painkillers. Or, at this point, he could just let them fix his knee. Even if they didn't charge him monetarily, there was no paying the debt he now owed Valdesco for Halley's surgery anyway, so maybe he should just let them fix his knee and be done with it.

A sound came out of the alcove to his right. It sounded like someone crying. He paused for a second. It wasn't any of his business. And Gods, but he hated it when anyone cried. But the thought of someone in pain kept him from walking away. With a sigh, he followed the sound.

Anna was sitting on a bench with her head in her hands.

Oh, fuck. Of all the people here, he knew her the least well. It didn't help that according to Zoe, their friendship was a point of contention between Anna and Zoe. Although, Anna had never said anything to him about it.

Before he could decide what he should do, she looked up. "What do you want?"

Damn, she was nasty, like a wounded animal.

"Nothing," he snapped. "I thought we'd established that."

She winced. "Then why are you here?"

"Probably for the same reason you are. I wanted a few minutes alone."

"Then --" She waved her hand.

He was surprisingly reluctant to leave her. "Well, I heard you."


"What's the problem?" He couldn't believe that he'd just asked that. What was he thinking? Still, if he could help her...

"Why do you care?"

He shrugged. There was no good answer to that. "You're my...husband's sister." And wow, calling Jared his husband was still hard to say. Would it ever stop being so strange?

"Which means exactly nothing since it's a political marriage."

"Except that maybe it's not."

She looked up at that. Her eyes were bloodshot. "He might have feelings for you, but it's not like you care for him."

"How do you know that?" Jensen snapped. He hated it when people made assumptions about him. Especially where Jared was concerned.

"What? Wait. Are you saying that you do?"

He couldn't understand why it sounded like it mattered that much to her. "I could say it's none of your business." But he kind of smiled as he said it. It was strange that they all wanted to know what he thought and felt about everything.

"Are you? Saying that, I mean."

"No. And no. I'm not in love with Jared." He rubbed the back of his neck. "But maybe I could be. At some point." Probably sooner rather than later.

She looked at him and then down. "At which point would that be?"

"At the point when I'm not the fucking War Prize with no status. When I'm free to make that choice."

She tilted her head and her expression changed. "I can understand that."

"Why were you crying?" he asked. Fair was fair.

She was silent long enough that Jensen thought she wasn't going to answer. "Because Zoe said she was going to leave me if I didn't get help with my possessiveness."

"What did you do?" Jensen asked -- because Zoe had put up with Anna for years by this point.

Anna's cheeks were red, and she didn't meet Jensen's eyes. "I complained about the amount of time she was spending with your daughter."

"I've asked her to do that. Halley likes her." And Zoe was so good with her.

"I know," Anna sniffed. "I can't seem to help it."

He couldn't believe he was going to say this, but... "Zoe's right, you really should see someone. Dr. Lee seems competent."

Anna laughed. "You hate her."

"No. I hated going to see her. She was very nice. I didn't want to talk about anything personal with someone I didn't know." Okay, so by the last session he did know her at least somewhat. And it was easier.

"Maybe I should."

"If you want to keep Zoe, you should. Because she really does love you."

"I do know that."

"Good." Jensen held out his hand. "We should both get back."

"Probably." She stood. "Thanks."

"I didn't do anything."

"I know you're friends with Zoe. You could have gone on about what an idiot I am to be so possessive." Clearly, she'd been told that more than once before.

"Would it have added anything to the conversation?"

She shook her head.

"That would be why."

"I'm starting to see what Jared sees in you."

Jensen laughed. "Was that a compliment?"

"Possibly." She smiled at him. "I think we're all in a hard situation with your status and how you came here. Maybe now we can...I don't together so that you're not so miserable."

It never failed to surprise him when he saw that people here really did care. Maybe he should have spoken up for himself. "It helps that Chris and Halley are here."

As soon as the elevator doors opened, Jensen blinked as the scene before him registered. Preston Padalecki was standing with his back to Jensen. He held some kind of weapon that didn't look like anything Jensen had ever seen before, pointed at Jared and Chris, and he held Halley against his chest. She was struggling, and there were tears on her face.

Preston jerked her tighter against him. "Don't move or I'll kill you."

Halley went still and whimpered.

Jensen knew he could lose everyone he loved in that one second. Rage soared through him. He pushed Anna back into the cab of the elevator right before it closed.

"What the hell is going on here?" Jensen yelled.

After that, everything seemed to happen in slow motion. Preston swung around towards him, still pointing his weapon. As Jensen had intended, the distraction gave Chris a chance to move. He jumped at Halley, pushing her out of the way. Jensen pulled his walking stick apart and plunged the pointy end into Preston's chest -- but not before Preston had a chance to fire his weapon.

It hit Jensen in the shoulder, and he smelled burnt flesh, but it didn't have a chance to start to hurt before he blacked out.

"Explain to me how this happened?" Jared demanded as soon as David came into the small infirmary waiting room half an hour later.

"How is Jensen?" David asked, standing at attention.

"He's alive," Christian said, his voice was something less that steady. "But that laser pistol did a lot of damage. We'll know more as soon as the healer is done putting him back together."

"And Halley?"

"She's asleep with Zoe watching her." For which Jared was very grateful. "David?"

"Sir," David said. "As far as we can tell, Preston used his family access to get up to your floor. And then he used a stolen access card to enter your suite. Can you tell me what happened? Even with his access, he should not have been able to get that weapon into your suite."

"Well, he had it," Chris said. "Waltzed right in like he owned the place. Halley was just coming out of her bedroom for a glass of water. And before his majesty or I could react, he'd grabbed her."

"What did he want? Did he make any demands?" David asked

"He said he was going to get even with me for ruining his life," Jared said. "But when Halley came out, he grabbed her." He couldn't believe he'd misjudged Preston so badly. "I didn't think he was violent. I would never have expected this from him."

David shook his head. "I know. I feel responsible. I should have made more of an attempt to find him after he disappeared."

"From what everyone has said, there was no way anyone could have known he'd snap and do this," Christian said, standing and starting to pace. "I wish they'd come out and tell us something."

Jared could only nod. "Do you need anything else from us, David?"

"I need to file a report. And find out how Preston got the access card. Your aunt is pretty upset by all of this. She seems to feel it was Jensen's fault somehow."

"Excuse me?" Christian said. "How is that even possible?"

David shrugged. "People believe what they want to believe."

"Can she make trouble?"

"No. Most of what happened was recorded. It was clear there was a present danger. The only problem is the sword in the walking stick. That's a violation of the weapons laws that surround the Monarch."

"I gave it to him. And I defy anyone to say it wasn't a good idea. He needed to feel like he had some protection." Christian folded his arms over his chest.

"David, not now, okay? I think we can just overlook it for the moment."

"Of course. I have some other questions, but they can wait until I can ask Jensen. His reaction time was amazing."

David left after that. And the seconds slowed down to taking twice as long to pass.

"Can I bring you some coffee, sir?" Ryan asked, his voice sounding too loud in the quiet room. "Christian?"

Christian shook his head. "No, thanks."

While Jared might have liked something warm right now, he was pretty sure his hands were trembling too badly to hold the cup.

Ryan left the room.

Before he got back, Stephanie came in.

"How is he?" Jared said, standing. Christian was at his shoulder.

"Better than he has a right to be. That laser could have done a lot more damage. He'll be fine in a few days. Sore, but fine. It missed his heart, but it did do some muscle damage around his shoulder."

"Oh, thank the Gods," Christian said. "When can we see him?"

"Right now. One visitor at a time," she said. "He's been through a lot and needs to rest."

"I'd like to see him." Jared just needed to make sure.

"Of course, sir. I'll take you back." She led him back.

Jensen opened his eyes to see Jared standing over him, looking kind of ragged. "Are you okay?" he asked, his throat was dry.

Jared nodded, but his eyes looked suspiciously wet. "Are you?"

What was going on? Oh, wait. Yeah. "Halley?"

"Fine. Upset that you were hurt. But Christian got her out of the way."

"I want to see her." Jensen believed him, but seeing her was a necessity.

"You'll be coming back to the suite in the morning." Jared looked over at the clock. "Well, later in the morning. You'll need to stay in bed for a couple of days."

Jensen shifted, and there was a dull throb in his shoulder. "It doesn't hurt." He'd smelled his own flesh burning. "How can it not hurt?"

"Stephanie said you'd be sore. But that's only to be expected." Jared took his hand. "You scared the hell out of me."

"Sorry. I just reacted. I didn't even think about it."

Jared nodded. "The sword in your walking stick has created a major stir."

"It's illegal, isn't it?" Jensen didn't care. It saved their lives, and he'd live with whatever he had to because of it.

"I don't care." Jared ran his fingers gently along Jensen's cheek. "I don't think David does either."

Jensen couldn't help but lean into the touch. "I finally did something right by him, didn't I."

"Saving my life and your daughter's life pretty much puts you in his good graces forever."

Jensen smiled at that. "Preston is dead?"

"Yeah. His mother is angry. But the scene in the hall was recorded. So, pretty much no one is going to say anything. He was the one who put the message on your padd."

"How did he know about Halley?"

"One of the priests, brother Orvitz, I think, told him."

"Why would they do that?"

"It seems he and the other priests were not pleased with you."

"No surprise there." Jensen shook his head. "Was Father Jackcych involved?"

"Not as far as we can tell. He's sent the both of them home to be disciplined," Jared said. "I think he is planning to follow shortly."

"He said something about that a couple of weeks ago."

Jared smiled at him. "You know, you're a hero."

"Great." Jensen would just as soon not have the publicity.

"Yeah. It kind of is." Jared leaned down to kiss him.

Maybe he could learn to live with it. Jensen put his hand on Jared's face and brought him down for a second one. "I had a thought."


"Since I'm already here, do you think Stephanie could fix my knee before I leave?"

"If not before you leave, than certainly tomorrow. She does need to get some sleep." Jared kissed him again, slowly. "Not that I'm complaining, but what changed your mind?"

"I've been thinking about it for a while now, but with everything, there hasn't been time to ask about it." He met Jared's eyes. "I know you were waiting for me to ask."

"I was half convinced you never would."

"You underestimate yourself. It always came down to that. I just needed to trust the situation, you, a little better."

"And you do now?" Jared sounded like the answer mattered more than anything else in the world to him.

That was okay, too. "Yes. I do."


"You know, I wish I could destroy that thing," Jensen said, nodding to the collar that had finally been removed and put in a glass case for posterity. Only three days after he had been granted citizenship.

"Yes," Jared agreed. "I'm glad we're done with it."

"I know it's after the fact, but you could track me with it, couldn't you?"

Jared nodded. "When did you realize that?"

"Actually, it only occurred to me recently." Jensen couldn't decide whether he should have guessed sooner or not. On the one hand, he'd been found twice with it, but on the other, "We don't have anything like that."

"You're not angry?" Jared sounded a bit concerned about that.

Not that he should be. "That, of everything, actually made sense. I would have done the same thing in your shoes."

"At least you won't have to wear it anymore. I'm sorry it took this long." Jared curled a hand around the back of his neck.

Jensen sighed and leaned into it. He looked across the room. Chris was chatting with David. "What's going on with them?"

"They seem to be getting to be friends. I'm not sure I understand it either."

"Maybe Chris is thinking of a job with your guard." Chris hadn't mentioned anything to Jensen about it, but he had to be thinking about what he was going to do. And now, with his knee fixed, Jensen was a lot happier about his own job prospects.

"He can't be part of your detail," Jared said. "In fact, he should probably have a detail of his own since he's tied so closely to you. But I guess that would make it hard to be a police officer."

"And I'm sure that would go over so well with him." Jensen smirked. He could just imagine what Chris might say to that. "I can't believe after all of this, I'm still ending up with a guard detail everywhere I go."

"Being consort of the monarch requires you have the same kind of guard detail I have. It's as much for show as it is for security." Jared put a hand on his arm and squeezed. "It will really only be for formal occasions. You won't need to worry about it day-to-day. When do you start flight school?"

"I start next week. I'm looking forward to it." Jensen smiled. "I'm just glad it's possible. And I won't have to deal with the nameless detail."

The look on Jared's face was kind of comical. "You didn't know their names?"

"They never said." Jensen said. And didn't add that he'd never asked. He could tell that Jared already knew that.

"Of course they didn't. You were supposed to introduce yourself, and then, they would have told you their names."

"As if I knew that." Jensen shrugged. One more thing in a list of many, many things. "It was some kind of insult, wasn't it?"

"That you didn't introduce yourself? Yes. But...I think they probably understood." Jared shrugged. "You should have said something sooner."

"Maybe. Even if those lessons in protocol were a little late in coming, they were very informative. Right now, I almost feel like I have an idea of what's expected. Two months late."

Jared opened his mouth to say something else, probably another apology, but Jensen put his fingers to his lips to stop him. "We need to go on from here."

"I think we've progressed a lot in the last month."

Jensen supposed they had -- further than he would have suspected was possible when he'd gotten here. "I hope things are going to be quieter from now on."

Jared laughed. "Don't count on it."

Even though he knew it was bad manners, he leaned up and kissed Jared anyway. "You know, I'm okay with that. And you."

Jared slid his arm though Jensen's. "Let's leave early."

"Sounds like a plan to me."

Jensen's life had not ended up being anything like what he'd thought it might be, but it was possible it was going to be better.