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Of Princes and Prophecies

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"Pardon me, Sire, but it would be advisable for us to increase our pace for this portion of the journey."

Jensen gritted his teeth. He was hardly in a hurry to get where they were going, but he couldn't very well admit that to any of the King's Guard around him. Nor could he admit that their formal manner of speaking was driving him up the wall. "We aren't far from the inn where we are supposed to spend the evening, are we?"

"No, my lord, but this portion of the road is known to be dangerous."

"Hasn't the High King been informed of this?" Jensen asked. "Surely he would have sent more soldiers to patrol the region if he knew."

The Guardsman briefly cast his eyes downward before going on, "The High King has done so, my lord, especially in advance of your journey. Nevertheless, it is my judgment that it would be safest to move more quickly so as to complete this stage of our journey in daylight."

Jensen sighed. At least he would get to the inn sooner this way and would be able to shut himself up in a private room, away from the curious eyes of the dozen soldiers around him and the stream of passersby whose eyes widened when they inevitably realized who he was. "Very well," he sighed.

They urged the horses forward at a faster pace. The Guards seemed more alert, sitting up straighter in their saddles and constantly looking around at the forest they were passing through. Jensen thought about reprimanding them for not taking such care with his safety the rest of the time before deciding it wasn't worth it.

The path before them became darker as the trees grew closer together, crowding out the light of the early spring sun. A chilly breeze blew across the back of Jensen's neck, and he suppressed a shiver. Tugging at the laces of his cloak, he ensured his neck was protected from the wind before taking the reins with both hands once more.

Water glimmered off to the left between the tall tree trunks. It looked like a small lake, and he wished for a moment that they could stop. It would probably be a lovely place to draw, and his pencils and sketchbook were near the top of his saddlebags. He didn't dare take them out, though; the soldiers considered him weak enough already, regardless of his abilities, and it was apparently too dangerous to move through the woods at a walking pace. He wondered what the danger was. Bandits? Poachers? Common thieves taking advantage of the narrow road to make off with the goods of unwary travelers?

There was a lot Jensen didn't know about this land. He wondered how long he could avoid learning any of it.

There was a rustling sound off to his right, and he turned to look. The Guards turned, too, some of them putting hands to the hilts of their swords. The rustling grew louder, something other than a simple squirrel, and Jensen held his breath. Were there bears in this forest? Wolves? Was this the danger of which his Guardsman had spoken? He drew the fingertips of his right hand together, preparing to defend himself in his own way if necessary.

Suddenly, there were three sharp thumps all around Jensen, followed by the clatter of armor as three soldiers fell from their horses. The horses shied and stepped away, and so while three more missiles were quickly fired, only two met their mark. Jensen saw one of them, though: a round, white stone fired with precision and landing on the helmet of the lead Guardsman, sending him crashing to the ground as his horse neighed in confusion.

The remaining soldiers were looking around wildly, and Jensen raised his hand, looking for somewhere to aim while crouching low over his horse's neck. He was clearly the odd one out in this group, his rich red cape a clear sign of someone more important than an armored soldier, and his head had no protection at all against whatever was out there.

"Lay down your weapons!"

The cry came from the road ahead of them, and Jensen looked up sharply. Where the road had been empty a moment ago, there were three men standing with drawn bows, arrows nocked and aimed at three of the remaining seven soldiers. They were in rough clothing that blended in with the colors of the forest, and they all wore short cloaks with hoods up over their heads. In the shadow of their hoods, Jensen thought he saw kerchiefs tied over their faces for further concealment.

The second-in-command Guardsman brandished his sword. "You are on the High King's highway!" he thundered. "Attacking his soldiers without provocation is worthy of death! We will not—"

"Misha," the tallest of the men said loudly.

There was a whistle and a thump, and the second-in-command toppled from his horse as easily as the others had.

For a moment, there was silence. Then the tall man spoke again. "The rocks hurt, but your men will wake from them. Arrows, though, are more permanent. Will you come forward, Prince Jensen, and spare the lives of your men?"

A cold chill raced down Jensen's spine that had nothing to do with the breeze. Whoever these men were, they knew him, and that should not have been possible. While the seven kingdoms all knew that he was traveling to the High King's court, no one except a selected handful knew when he would be passing through a particular location.

The rustling off to their right happened again, only louder. Jensen slowly turned to see three more men in similar garb and with similarly-notched arrows. At this distance, their arrows would find plenty of unprotected flesh to pierce. Inwardly, he sighed. He was practically a hostage anyway. There was no use in any more people being hurt for his sake, even if they were the High King's Guard.

"All right." Jensen held up his hands, spreading his fingers wide. "Don't hurt them."

"My lord, you cannot—" the Guardsman nearest him started.

"Quiet," Jensen ordered. In a lower voice, he said, "Whatever precautions your leader took, they clearly were not enough, and he'll suffer for that when you all reach the High King. But I need you to be alive and to get to the High King so that you can come back for me. Is that understood?"

"My lord." The soldier gave a sharp nod of his head. "By nightfall we can—"

"By nightfall you will be sleeping," the tall man called out, and Jensen grimaced at the evidence that his voice had not been so quiet as he might have wished. "But not the sleep of the dead. As long as your prince comes with us, that is."

The man's voice was remarkably calm considering that he had attacked the High King's Guard and was threatening their lives. That was what convinced Jensen that he meant his threats. "No one need die for me," Jensen replied in an equally level tone, sitting up straight on his horse.

"You're a wise man," the tall man returned. "And you won't be harmed as long as you do what we say."

Keeping his hands in sight, Jensen nudged his horse forward with a flick of his heels. He maneuvered past the remaining Guards and came out in front of them, his breath briefly catching when the tall man shifted the aim of his arrow to point at Jensen's heart. Jensen was wearing light chain mail beneath his cloak, and he might be able to throw up a shield fast enough if he had to. But his arms and face were unprotected, and that arrow looked awfully sharp.

"Dismount," the tall man ordered.

Jensen carefully did so, patting his horse's neck to keep him still.

"Come here."

Head held high, Jensen strode forward, coming to a halt only a few feet in front of the man's bow.

"So far, so good." The man lowered his bow and crooked his finger at Jensen. "Closer, and turn around."

He couldn't see anything of the man's face, not even his eyes, and his skin crawled at the thought of turning his back on someone like that. "You said my men would not be harmed, and neither would I."

"So I did." The man's voice grew harder. "Now turn around. Keep your hands where I can see them."

Jensen's sword was still at his side, as decorative as it was useless. There was a short knife tucked into his belt as well, yet there was no way he could draw either before the two archers flanking his new captor could redirect their aim. Nor would he be able to use the other potential weapon he had at hand; if they knew who he was, they'd know what he was capable of as well. So he glared at the face he couldn't see beneath the hood before turning around, hands carefully at his sides.

He heard the sounds of someone approaching behind him, and then his cloak was being pushed back and his knife drawn from his belt. Then Jensen drew a sharp breath as the blade came to rest within an inch of his neck, the man's leather-gauntleted hand resting heavily on Jensen's shoulder. He could feel the presence of the man standing right behind him, could smell his sweat and feel the heat of his body, and Jensen wondered if he'd made a grave mistake by not striking out at their attackers as soon as he'd seen them.

"It looks as though you keep your blade sharp, my prince," the man murmured in Jensen's ear, his free hand closing over Jensen's other shoulder. "Is that true?"

Jensen had to take a slow breath before he knew his voice would be steady. "Yes, I do."

"Then you'll hold still." More loudly, he called, "Dismount, all of you, and lay your swords on the road."

Slowly, the Guards obeyed, their swords hitting the ground with a series of clangs. One of the brigands who had come up on their side ran around gathering up the swords, tucking them into a bag on his back before racing back to his position and picking up his bow.

"Now sit," the tall man ordered, pointing with the hand that wasn't holding Jensen's knife to his neck. "Each of you, off the road, back against a tree, hands behind you. It is not so cold that you will freeze. Nor are there predators in these woods who might prey on you." His voice shifted to a tone of amusement as he added, "Aside from us, that is."

Jensen watched helplessly as each of the Guardsmen was knocked out with a sharp blow and then tied to a tree. The already-unconscious men were dragged off the road and bound in a similar fashion, heads lolling against their chests or back against the tree trunks. Despite his captor's words, he worried that wolves or other animals would come across and prey upon the Guards. They might be doing a job he found distasteful, but they were still human beings. If nothing else, they would probably be damn cold tonight.

So was he, if he was going to be spending the night in the woods with a bunch of kidnappers.

"Jay, we should go. Someone's bound to come along soon." It was the archer to Jensen's right, who had continued to hold his bow aimed at the Guards without a break. That took a lot of endurance, and it further confirmed Jensen's assessment that these was not a rag-tag group of thieves. These men knew what they were doing.

"Round up the horses," Jay ordered. Then he tugged at the back of Jensen's cloak. "Pretty as this is, it's too brightly colored. Take it off."

Slowly, Jensen reached up to untie the laces of his heavy velvet cloak. It fell away into a heap on the ground, leaving him shivering in his breeches and overshirt.

A finger tapped the chain mail now visible at the back of his neck. "Better protected than I expected," Jay mused. "You can keep it for now. Mount your horse. I'll be right behind."

The Guards' horses had stayed put through the bandits' attack, though they were milling about in confusion. Jensen soothed his with a hand to its neck before climbing up in the saddle. Half of Jay's men had already claimed horses for their own, and though no one was aiming an arrow at him, they were watching him closely enough that digging in his heels and making a break for it was unlikely to end well.

Then there was a foot digging into the stirrup next to his, and his horse whickered as a second body swung up into the saddle. Jay was suddenly behind Jensen, right behind him, pressed closely together from chest to ass to legs. Jensen leaned away from the sudden heat of his body, but an arm around his waist pulled him back. "Hands on the pommel," Jay ordered. "I still have your pretty knife, you know."

Jensen grimaced and put his hands in front of him. He'd barely touched the pommel when he heard a clank behind him. Suddenly, both of Jay's arms were trapping him, one long-fingered hand closing around Jensen's wrists and the other closing a set of copper cuffs around his wrists.

He hadn't seen that coming, and he momentarily swayed in the saddle, fighting the sudden roaring sound in his ears. They knew who he was, so of course they'd been prepared to silence his magic. Even with the dampening effect of the cuffs, Jensen could feel Jay's hot breath on his ear, and he turned his head away to try and breathe in some fresh air.

"Huh, guess that does have some effect," Jay muttered behind him. His arm settled into place around Jensen's waist, and then he called out, "Let's go."

 

All in all, it had gone more smoothly than Jared could have hoped. Even though they were outnumbered, Misha's excellent aim had quickly evened the odds, and the element of surprise definitely worked in their favor. The prince had given in awfully easily, without trying a bit of his so-called magic, but Jared wasn't complaining. Maybe royal blood from a smaller kingdom wasn't as powerful or something. He only hoped the rest of their plan went as well.

They cantered down the road for a quarter of an hour, blessedly coming across no other travelers. Jared pulled up short before the last hill that led down to the bridge across the river, his riders doing the same behind him.

His passenger had been stiff and straight in the saddle, trying to put distance between himself and Jared. Jared would have none of it, keeping a tight arm around the prince to remind him that he was under someone else's control. It was about to get rougher for him, and Jared hoped he'd show the same willingness to cooperate that he had so far.

"Here we turn," he murmured in his captive's ear, and Ackles stiffened at the sound. "In case you were hoping to shout at the innkeeper or the soldiers quartered there as we passed."

"Whatever you're trying to do, it won't work," the prince shot back. "The High King will tear these woods apart until he finds me."

"Well, then, we'll have to leave these woods, won't we?" Jared's lips were almost brushing the prince's ear, and he was intrigued to notice that there were freckles all the way around the shell of the man's ear. "But then you might know where we were going, or at least how to get back once you'd been released, and we can't have that, now can we?"

He let go of the reins long enough to unknot the kerchief from around his face. "Just for a little while," he said, and then he put the cloth over the prince's eyes.

"Hey!" Ackles jerked in his seat, hands flying up towards his face. "What the hell are you doing?"

"It's for our protection," Jared replied as he tightened the knot at the back of Ackles' head and gripped his hands to force them back down. His short-cropped hair wasn't likely to get caught in the knot; truth be told, Jared didn't care much if it did. "Look at it this way: if we were taking you away to murder you, we wouldn't care what you saw along the way, would we?"

"If you were going to murder me, you'd've done it already."

The reply was sharp, but there was the slightest hitch in Ackles' voice. Good, Jared thought. A fearful captive would be a more compliant one.

"It's just for a while," he repeated. Then he slipped both arms around Ackles' waist to take the reins again. "Come on," he called over his shoulder, and urged the horse to the right, off the road and down what looked like a deer path through the trees.

He would have preferred a faster pace, but he didn't want to strain the horse carrying two large men. He hadn't counting on having horses at all, so that was a nice bonus. They'd have to leave them soon so they could find their way back to the road. Still, it was nice not to have to walk the whole way. Surely Jensen would agree, were the offer put to him.

The path, such as it was, grew ever narrower. Jared held an arm out in front of them to keep low-hanging branches from whacking them in the head. Ackles had gone silent some time ago, and Jared could almost feel the indignation wafting off of him. He seemed to be warm enough despite having to give up his cloak; there was a faint shimmer of sweat on the back of his neck, and his body felt warm pressed up against Jared's.

His body felt really good pressed up against Jared's, actually, but that was irrelevant. Ackles was promised to another man, after all—that was the whole point of this exercise. Soon enough, the prince would be back on his way to his king, and Jared and his gang would be many, many gold coins richer.

At least, that was the plan.

The sun was low in the sky by the time Jared brought the horses to a halt. "We go on foot from here," he said. "Send the horses back to the road."

"Jay," came the protest from Chad, as he'd known it would. "C'mon, these are good horses."

"And they're branded with the High King's mark," Jared replied. "We can disguise ourselves to move about in the world, but we would be spotted in an instant with these horses. We'll have to let them go." He tapped Ackles' arm. "Stay put for a moment."

Ackles clutched the pommel and didn't say a word as Jared dismounted. When Jared reached up and tugged on his elbow, he still didn't move. "Come on," Jared insisted. "Dismount."

"Where are we?" Ackles asked without moving.

"At the place where we need to start walking," Jared retorted. "Don't worry, I won't let you trip."

"What about my saddlebags?" Ackles asked.

"These?" Jared briefly rifled through the bag closest to him. It contained clothing rolled up into parcels, most of it as fine as what the prince was currently wearing. The sketchbook and pencils made him raise his eyebrows, but he closed the bag back up and said, "You don't need any of what's in here."

"Who are you to decide what I do and don't need?"

"Right now, I'm the one who makes all of the decisions for you," Jared replied sharply. "Like now. We're going to start walking."

Ackles reached up with his cuffed hands for the blindfold, and Jared lunged up to grab his arm. "Don't," he ordered. "Leave it for now."

"I can't walk without being able to see," Ackles retorted.

"You'll manage," Jared replied, putting a hint of steel in his voice. "Now get down."

Off to his right, Chad was waving his arms, and Jared turned to him in exasperation. "What?" he snapped.

Chad extended his hands in an exaggerated shrug, looking back and forth between Jared and the prince. Then he gestured to his eyes and shrugged again.

Jared rolled his eyes. "We're not there yet," he said. "I don't want him knowing the way. Now come on." He tugged at Ackles's arm again.

Slowly, clumsily, the prince climbed off the horse, pausing once both feet were on the ground. "Now what?" he asked.

"Down the hill," Jared said, taking his elbow.

"The hill," Ackles replied. "Right. Why don't you try it with a blindfold on and tell me about how easy it is to manage, hmm?"

Jared sighed. "All right, that's it." He bent down, bracing his shoulder against Ackles' midriff, and with a heave, lifted him over one shoulder.

"Hey!" Ackles yelped in Jared's ear, legs flailing and bound hands thumping against Jared's back. "What the hell? Put me down, you—"

"It's easier than walking," Jared replied sweetly. "Unless I'm distracted by someone yapping in my ear and accidentally run you into a tree." Planting his feet, he shifted his burden, making sure he had Ackles securely around the waist. "Don't worry, it's not far."

"Put me down, you oaf!" Ackles thumped his back again, and Jared very nearly considered dumping him to the ground in a pile.

Instead, he drew the fine knife he had earlier fastened to his waist, letting the sound of steel being drawn ring in the air. "You said you keep your knife sharpened, my prince. Is it time to find out if that is true?"

"You said I wouldn't be harmed," Ackles returned. "Are you a liar as well as a brigand?"

Jared set his jaw. "Be quiet or I'll gag you as well," he retorted, sheathing the knife. He waved at the rest of his gang. "Let's go."

They made their way down the hillside, fanning out so as not to leave visible tracks of their passage. Misha had been in the rear, making sure the horses got away safely and that their path was covered, and he came running up now, giving Jared a thumbs up. Jared let out a sigh of relief and shifted Ackles' weight on his shoulder. He hadn't pictured the man being quite so heavy when he got the idea to pick him up and carry him off, even with the chain mail he'd noticed earlier. A soft prince like this was probably well-fed, but he didn't look portly underneath his fine clothes. In fact, Jared had felt a trim waist while keeping him in place on the horse, and his arms looked to be in fine shape as well. Perhaps he was more well-muscled than Jared had expected.

He was certainly older than Jared would have thought, perhaps a couple of summers older than Jared himself. When the High King had announced his betrothal to a prince from one of the outermost kingdoms, Jared had assumed him to be young and fair. The fairness was definitely true, but there were younger men the High King could have had if he wanted to demonstrate his virility. He already had a wife to bear him children, so the second marriage would have to be either for cementing political alliances or to show off a prize. The Ackles kingdom was small, a collection of rocky islands at the tip of the continent. It wasn't worth much in terms of defense or tribute, so Jared had figured the High King wasn't looking for an alliance.

Not that he needs it, Jared thought bitterly, when he's shown that he can simply take what he wants.

That meant the promised bridegroom over Jared's shoulder was of the trophy variety. He could see that, given the man's beauty. What Jared didn't understand was why a full-grown man with such beauty and spirit would not already be wedded. True, he was heir to a minor kingdom, but that still put him ahead of most potential mates. What had his parents been waiting for?

Jared mentally shrugged and trudged on. Some would say it was none of his business. Only a handful of people would realize that Morgan's choices did, in fact, have everything to do with Jared, and most of those people were walking behind him at this very moment. He tossed his head at the thought. That was in the past, at any rate. If all they could do to Morgan now was extract a few gold coins from him, it would be better than nothing.

When they reached the bottom of the hill, next to the broad curves of the river, Jared said, "I'm going to set you down now, okay?"

Ackles grumbled, "Finally."

Jared didn't take his time about it, dropping Ackles' feet to the ground and pushing him upright. He was meanly glad when Ackles brought his bound hands up to his head as if staving off a dizzy spell. "Careful," he said, putting a hand to the prince's head to make sure the blindfold stayed in place.

"Fuck off," came the growled response.

"Language, my prince," Jared warned. "I would have thought someone as cultured as you would be more refined that that."

"Shut up," Ackles muttered, clutching at his head.

Rolling his eyes, Jared turned and gave the short, sharp whistle of a bird. A moment later, there was a splashing, rustling sound, and what had looked like a pile of leaves and twigs on the opposite bank was revealed to be two small boats, covered in camouflage. He waved at the two women across the water, and they waved back before pushing the boats into the river.

"We're changing our means of travel here," he said to Ackles. "Let me help you into the boat."

"Do I have a choice?" Ackles asked wearily.

"I could carry you again," Jared suggested, just to see the way Ackles' pretty face scrunched up in response. Maybe that was the way to play this, to poke at the man for his own amusement. Probably better than taking out his deep-seated anger on him.

He guided Ackles into the boat. "Now, space is limited, so I'm going to have to ask you to sit here." He lowered himself onto a cross-bar and pulled Ackles down into his lap. Before the prince could start to struggle, Jared wrapped his arms around Ackles' and warned, "You don't want us to tip over, do you?"

Kim and Briana each had a hand on the boat to keep it in place, and Jared winked at Kim. She rolled her eyes, but waited until Ackles shook his head. Then Jared said, "All right then. Off we go."

They pushed off and started gliding downstream. Jared knew this section of the river went through uninhabited woods, the only farmer's fields shielded by a hedge. They'd be getting out again well before the next bridge, since that was a day's ride downstream. No one would see them and their captive floating by.

Thankfully, the moon was nearly full, because the sun had all but set by the time they reached their destination. Jared had started to regret his decision to hold Ackles on his lap, having the man in such close proximity, smelling as good as he did, warm and quiet, with freckled skin right next to Jared's face that was almost begging to be touched. But he was well aware of the rest of his people around him, not to mention that he'd sworn not to harm the prince, and so he kept his hands and his thoughts to himself.

"Here we are," he said quietly as Kim and Chad splashed into the river and began to drag the boat up the shore. "I'm going to take this off now, okay?" His hands went to Ackles' temples, and he waited for the prince's nod.

When he tugged off the blindfold, Ackles shook his head and brought his cuffed hands up to scrub at his hair. He blinked as he looked around, frowning. Then his expression cleared. "The sun has set, hasn’t it?"

"We traveled for a while." Jared nudged him to his feet, missing his warmth already. "Come on now, off the boat."

He'd been riding with his hood off ever since they began journeying down the river, and so when Ackles turned around, there was nothing to prevent him from seeing Jared's face. Jared automatically went tense, his well-earned fear of discovery making him want to turn away. But it was too late: the prince's eyes were roaming over his face as if committing his features to memory, even by the dim light of the moon.

"Morgan will know who I am anyway," Jared said calmly, even though his heart was racing. "You don't need to memorize my face to be able to tell him who I am."

Ackles' eyebrows shot up. "Do you always speak of your High King so familiarly?"

Jared set his jaw and stood up. "I'll speak of him how I wish. Now get out of the boat."

 

Jensen supposed he shouldn't have been surprised that these bandits had no love lost for their king. After all, kidnapping the High King's husband-to-be was one of the worst things they could do. Still, having grown up in court the way he had, even if it was a small, little-visited court, he was accustomed to more deference and respect when people spoke of their rulers.

Not that people necessarily felt that deference or respect. Jensen knew that all too well, but somehow it was the thought that counted.

He clambered out of the boat and stood on his own legs for the first time in many hours. Thankfully, he was used to riding for long stretches at a time and his legs held steady. The cuffs at his wrists were chafing, but he thought it unlikely that he'd been able to find relief there. At least he'd been able to overcome his reaction to the copper. His father would be pleased to know that his insistence on training Jensen in that regard had paid off.

He turned around as Jay stepped out of the boat and beside him. He hadn't been able to completely make out the man's features as the blindfold came off. Now, with Jensen's adjusted to the moonlight, he noted a long, pointed nose and jaw that were as distinctive as the slight tilt of his eyes. He was noticeably taller than Jensen, even without his hood, and to Jensen's surprise, he seemed to be his own age or even younger.

Jensen cleared his throat. "Where am I going?"

"My tent."

He looked sharply at Jay, unease rippling down his spine. The man had promised not to hurt him and had seemed to take offense when Jensen suggested he might not have been honest about that promise. But what did "hurt" entail?

Jay leaned closer, a hand gripping Jensen's shoulder. "I won't lay a hand on you," he said into Jensen's ear. "Your virtue will remain as intact as the rest of you."

"Because you wouldn't want to risk the wrath of the High King," Jensen retorted, the bite in his voice meant to cover his sudden relief.

"Because that's not the kind of person I am," Jay returned. His hand slipped down to Jensen's elbow, and he tugged him forward. "Come on."

They trudged up the hill away from the riverbank, towards the flicker of firelight. Jensen saw half a dozen people coming forward to meet them when Jay tugged him to the left, away from the center of the camp. "You don't need to see them," Jay said. "They know who you are, though, so don't think you can escape from here without being seen."

"How many of you are there?" Jensen asked, stumbling over a tree root.

Jay's hand on his arm jerked him upright. "There's enough of us."

"Is this where you live?"

"Doesn't matter." They'd circled around the camp, and now stood in front of a low platform tent, dark and almost invisible against the backdrop of the forest. "There's a pole inside. Sit down with your back to it."

Jensen set his foot on the first step of the platform and realized that this might his best chance to get away: there was no one else nearby, and though his hands were still bound, if he could give Jay a shove in one direction and run in the other—

The hand on his arm tightened, and Jay gave him a teeth-ratting shake. "Inside. Now."

Jensen stumbled forward and entered the tent. Everything was dark until Jay entered and struck a flint to light a lamp. There was a low pallet on one side, a table on the other, and to Jensen's eyes, it looked like the tent of a field commander. "What army do you command?" he asked.

He heard Jay's huff of breath. "Never been called that before," he replied. "Sit."

Jensen had long since grown tired of being ordered around. The way Jay was looming between him and the exit, though, meant there was nowhere for him to go. So he sat down, glad for the small respite of having his legs stretched out in front of him and the sturdy tent pole to rest his back against.

"My apologies, but at least you're indoors." Before he could ask what that meant, Jay was squatting down in front of him, reaching for a small pouch at his waist. He withdrew a little key and unlocked the cuffs around Jensen's wrists.

The flood of sensation returning was almost as disorienting as losing it in the first place. Thankfully, the light was dim and the tent was quiet, so it only took a moment for Jensen to readjust to the return of his senses. He rotated his wrists and flexed his fingers, letting the sounds filter back in. "Thank you," he said roughly.

Jay laughed softly. "Don't thank me yet." He held up the cuffs. "I'll need you to put your hands behind the pole."

Jensen groaned. "No."

"Yes."

"Like you said, I'm not going anywhere with all of those people outside."

"Well, this'll make it harder for you to try." Jay raised his eyebrows with a pointed look.

Sighing, Jensen dropped his head against the pole and put his arms behind his back. At least this time he could brace himself for what was coming.

Jay crouched behind him and cuffed his wrists together again, though more loosely than before. "I'll be back in a bit," he said, pressing down hard on Jensen's shoulder as he rose to his feet.

Jensen managed to hold back a wince at the pressure on his shoulder. As if he needed another reminder of how strong his captor was. "What are you going to do to me?" he demanded.

"Nothing, as long as you sit here quietly until we get our ransom." Jay reached for a scrap of parchment and a quill sitting on the table. "Be good."

Then he ducked out of the tent and was gone.

Jensen let out a long breath before quickly taking stock of his situation. He was alone, at least for the moment, and if he could get free, this was the best chance he'd had in months. If he could sneak out of the bandits' camp before they sent their demands, Morgan wouldn't know who had taken him. All Jensen had to do was hide out in the forest until the High King stopped looking, and then—

He snorted and shook his head. "Who am I kidding?" he muttered. Morgan wasn't going to rest until he had Jensen back, no matter how long it took. Even if Jensen preferred to stay with these brigands, rough as they were, it wasn't like he had any choice in the matter.

Still, Jensen had to try.

He carefully rotated one wrist and felt at the edge of the cuff with the fingers of his other hand. They weren't as tight as they could have been, and as he slowly twisted his left wrist, he could feel it start to slide free. "That's it," Jensen murmured, bending so the copper was no longer touching the thin skin on the inside of his wrist. "Come on."

He concentrated as hard as he could on his left wrist, drawing on his energies and building up heat until the metal was painfully hot against his skin. He winced as he grabbed at the edge of the cuff with his right fingertips, but he was able to bend the heated metal enough to slip free.

Jensen held his breath as footsteps rustled outside, but they continued on past the tent. He didn't see the shadow of a guard on the wall, so he figured Jay must have counted on the cuffs being enough to hold him. Given that even at only half power, Jensen was managing to work his way out of them, that obviously wasn't going to bear out.

The question was what to do once he got free. He could probably find his way back to the river, and if the boats were still there, make his way upstream. Jay had mentioned ransom, which at least told him what his kidnappers had planned for him if he stayed—assuming the man's protestations that he was an honorable man who meant Jensen no harm were true.

The thing was, Jensen knew what the consequences would be of that ransom demand. Unless Jensen got himself free and back into the hands of the High King's Guard—maybe even if he did—this camp and the people in it were doomed. And he might not know anything about who they were or what they thought of him, but he couldn't bear the thought of them suffering because of him any more than he wanted the Guards to be hut. And suffer they would, if Morgan got a hold of them—he had no doubt about that.

"Right," Jensen muttered as he began to heat the other cuff enough to slide it off his wrist. He'd put away his fantasies of escape from the fate waiting for him, nice though they had been. "Back to the highway and the Guard it is."

 

Jared dropped onto the log next to Chad, right in front of the fire. "That went pretty well," he said. "All things considered."

"Says the guy who got to ride Ackles' ass all the way back to camp," Chad muttered, picking at the skin on the side of his finger.

Jared elbowed him. "He's betrothed."

"Like you give a shit about respecting Morgan's property."

"He's not his property." At Chad's raised eyebrows, he added, "Not yet, at least."

"And yet we're holding him for fucking ransom." Chad shook his head. "Jay, I know you want to strike out at Morgan at any opportunity you get, but I'm starting to wonder if this is really the best way."

"It's a little late for that now, Chad." Jared smoothed out the parchment onto his thigh and began to write.

Chad looked over Jared's shoulder as he carefully formed the letters, demanding gold coin and horses for the safe return of the High King's betrothed. "You should make more threats," Chad said, pointing at the parchment. "Include a lock of his hair or something."

"His hair's too short," Jared muttered. He studied the words on the page and then blew on them carefully to dry the ink. "We can send this tonight, right?"

"We've got a rider ready." Chad squinted at him. "You're sure about this?"

"For the last time, yes." Jared rolled up the parchment and carefully tied it. "You're always free to leave my company if you'd prefer."

In response, Chad punched him in the shoulder. "As if I'd ever do that." He rose to his feet and held out a hand for the parchment. "Come on, then. You can always blame me if it goes wrong."

Jared handed it over and watched him go. For a moment, a series of doubts rose up: could they really pull this off? Was he endangering the lives of everyone in his troop by doing this? Was this anything more than a childish tantrum, striking back at the man who'd ruined his life in the only small way he could?

He heard the rumble of hooves and looked up to see a rider heading towards the nearest road. Well, no matter. The die was cast. All he could do now was ensure that the prince was taken care of until their next steps were taken.

Jared made sure to chat with the people who'd come with him that day before heading back to his own tent. They had taken a tremendous risk, and even though he'd been told dozens of times that they believed in him and in what they were doing, it still amazed him. By all rights, he should have been the only one in this fight—okay, maybe Chad, too, being his childhood friend. Instead of being on his own, though, he had dozens of people on his side. It was a strange feeling sometimes, to be responsible for these people. Especially knowing that some of them thought he was something more than what he actually was.

He was turning back to his tent when he saw a flash in the moonlight, as if the tent flap had just raised and lowered. He went still for a moment, and then he saw movement around the far corner of the tent. "Son of a bitch," he muttered, striding forward with one hand resting on the handle of the knife he'd taken from Jensen. That's what he got for showing a little compassion and not tying the prince up as tightly as he could have.

Jared wasn't going to make that mistake again.

He rounded the corner of the tent in time to see Jensen's figure disappearing between two evergreens. "No, you don't," he muttered, and he broke into a run, flying over the leaves and roots. In the relatively strong moonlight, he could race across the uneven terrain without fear of falling.

He was within a few dozen yards when Jensen looked over his shoulder. Fear flashed across his face, and he turned and ran harder, putting distance between himself and Jared.

Jared gritted his teeth and pushed himself to go faster. There was no point in calling for help: he could run as fast or faster than anyone in the camp, and he wouldn't want to risk a horse's neck traversing the uneven ground. Their rocky hollow was well-hidden from the outside, but it was also hard to walk on if you didn't watch your step.

Apparently Ackles had been too hasty in his flight, for he suddenly sprawled forward, arms coming out to break his fall. To Jared's surprise, he rolled neatly forward with the fall like an acrobat, springing to his feet and lurching forward once more.

But the maneuver had slowed him enough for Jared to draw nearer, and when Ackles stumbled again, Jared was able to lunge forward and snag the back of his short tunic, slowing the prince enough to get an arm around him and wrestle him to the ground.

Jensen shouted, bucking and kicking wildly in Jared's grip. "Let me go!" he demanded.

"Not a chance," Jared huffed, tightening his arms around Jensen to keep the hands that could be his weapons at his side. He ducked a flailing fist before circling one leg out to the side to trap both of Jensen's legs under his. He didn't think the royal magic could be used from other limbs, but there was no use in taking a risk.

"Please!" Jensen writhed and twisted, nearly elbowing Jared in the side of the head. "Just let me go," he panted. "Please."

"Just be still!" Jared leaned forward, pressing more of his weight on Jensen's body. Jensen was flat on his back, arms pinned at his sides, legs still wriggling under Jared's. "The ransom demand's been sent. If your betrothed wants you as much as you say he does, he'll pay it in no time, and then we'll happily let you go."

Jensen's face was in shadow, but Jared could see his full lips readily enough. They briefly flattened into a straight line before Jensen growled, "He'll kill you all. Everyone in this camp. You can't stay here."

"The demand includes instructions to meet at—"

"It doesn't matter!" Jensen snarled. "He'll find you, and he'll kill you. That's just who he is. If you let me go, and I get to your rider before he can pass along the ransom demand, you'll be safe. I can go to the High King and assure him I'm safe and that he doesn’t need to hunt you down. Otherwise, you've doomed everyone in this camp."

"That's an interesting argument," Jared drawled. "I should let you go for my own protection?"

"You have no idea what he's capable of," Jensen returned.

Jared briefly saw red. He shifted his weight, pinning Jensen more solidly to the earth. When he let go of one of Jensen's wrists to reach for his belt and draw his sharpest dagger, Jensen's eyes widened. "I have much more of an idea than you think," Jared snapped, holding the dagger up so that it glinted in the moonlight as he glared at Jensen for all he was worth. "Now be quiet."

Jensen stared up at him for a moment, chest heaving under Jared's. Then he said quietly, "You will live to regret this."

Jared was about to retort something about how Jensen's idle threats on behalf of his king were meaningless, but then he caught the look in Jensen's eyes. It wasn't the bright defiance he would have expected. It was bleak and resigned, and it made Jared lower the dagger.

A moment later, he rose to sit back on his haunches, staring down at Jensen. "You don't want him to find you," he blurted in sudden realization. "You don't want to marry him."

Jensen's jaw tightened. "I don't want anyone to get hurt because of me."

Slowly, Jared released Jensen's other wrist and sheathed his dagger. Jensen carefully brought his hands up and rubbed at his wrists, one after the other. Jared watched closely, ready to spring back at Jensen if there was the faintest indication he was about to fling a spell in Jared's direction.

But nothing happened. Jensen was only rubbing at his wrists. Jared belatedly realized that he'd been grabbing where Jensen's skin was already chafed from the cuffs, and he winced. "Sorry."

"Doesn't matter." Jensen shook his head. "Should've gotten used to things not being my choice by now."

 

Jensen realized after he'd said it that he should have kept the thought to himself. Jay had cocked his head like a dog and was staring down at him as if trying to figure him out. He squirmed and tried to push himself out from underneath Jay. The heavy weight across Jensen's thighs was too much for him to move, and he soon stopped trying.

A moment later, Jay asked, "What do you mean by that?"

He sighed. "You obviously have no love lost for him, do you?"

Jay's eyes were dark. "That's an understatement."

"What did he do to you?" Jensen asked.

"Doesn't matter," Jay retorted in the same flat tone of voice Jensen had just used. "Why are you marrying him?"

"I don't have a choice." Jensen lifted his chin. "He came to our kingdom and announced he was going to make me his husband. I refused. He reminded us that he was the High King, and lesser kingdoms such as ours could be required to send more taxes or more soldiers for the army. Still I said no, and my father agreed with me."

"But Morgan doesn't like hearing 'no,' does he?" Jay's arms were folded across his chest, the strong lines of his forearms on full display.

"No, he doesn't." Jensen drew in a breath, centering himself. "It's probably easier if I show you."

"What do you mean?"

"Just watch." Still pinned on his back, Jensen held a hand out to the side, drawing on an all-too sharp and clear memory to produce a kind of magic he'd only tried a few times before.

A handful of ghostly-white figures appeared on the forest floor, a throne room forming around them, no taller than Jensen's knees would be if he was standing. He heard Jay gasp, as he concentrated hard on making the images clear. There was the whole court gathered at Miramar, Jensen's father on the throne with Jensen's mother beside him, Jensen and his sister standing to the side. There was no sound with the images, but it wasn't too hard to work out what was happening as the High King's guards took hold of Jensen's sister and forced her to her knees. The High King drew his sword, and then Jensen stepped forward, hands upraised, a pleading expression on his face.

Jensen curled his fingers up into a fist, and the image cut off.

Jay looked down at him, wide-eyed. "What was that?"

"It's called a memory-scene," Jensen said. "It's what happened the day Morgan came to demand my hand in marriage. When he threatened my sister, I said that I would give him what he wanted, if he promised to let everyone else live." He shook his head, still seeing in his mind's eye the cruel smile on that handsome, bearded face. "He left the next day after giving instructions as to when I should follow."

Jay frowned. "Couldn't you…you know." He waved his hands in the air, wiggling his fingers. "Stop him?"

Jensen raised an eyebrow. "Stop the High King?"

"Everyone knows he doesn't have magic. But your whole family does, right?" Jared pointed at the leaves and dirt where the small figures had been moving. "I mean, that was pretty amazing."

"Just because we have magic doesn't mean we can use it to attack the High King," Jensen retorted. "Besides, blades can overcome magic if there are enough of them."

"Will he harm your family when you don't arrive in the capital?"

"His guards will tell the truth of what happened." Jensen gave him a faint smile. "Thank you for sparing their lives, by the way."

Jay's eyes flashed. "I'm not that kind of man."

"So kidnapping is okay, but not murder. Got it."

"You've got quite a mouth on you, don’t you?"

Jensen couldn't hold back a wince at the words that sounded so much like the High King Morgan's sneering claim in front of Jensen's entire court, pitched just loud enough so that Jensen's parents would hear it.

Jay must have seen the flinch, because to Jensen's surprise, he held up his hands and clambered off of Jensen's thighs, sitting beside him in the dirt. "I'm sorry," Jay said. "I told you I wouldn’t lay a hand on you, and you have nothing to fear in that regard."

Slowly, Jensen sat up. "You don't want to claim the High King's prize for your own?"

A muscle clenched along Jay's jaw. "Why you?" he asked tightly. "I mean, you're certainly pretty, but threatening the life of a royal family is bold even for Morgan. Why does he want you so badly?"

Jensen shrugged. "He has his reasons."

"Tell me."

It was a simple command that Jensen should have bristled at. He was accustomed to giving orders, not taking them, and he'd been fighting this man from the moment they met. But there was something compelling about Jay's voice, and so he found himself opening his mouth and asking, "Do you believe in prophecy?"

The moonlight was already making their faces pale. Jay went even whiter at the question. "Why do you ask?" he asked, a faint tremor in his voice.

"Because there's one about me." Jensen rolled his eyes. "At least Morgan thinks it's about me. Second son of a seaside kingdom, russet and green like the earth and the trees, or something like that. Anyway, whoever marries this person will be the most powerful High King in generations. His rule will be secure, his line will be preserved, and his name will live forever. Morgan can't pass that up. Especially when, as you pointed out, he lacks his own magic."

"He's not even the real High King," Jay spat out. "That's why he can't do magic, even after all these years on the throne. And he doesn't care about prophecy."

Jensen narrowed his eyes. "He's the one on the throne. And he damn well cares about making this prophecy come true."

Jay only shook his head and looked away. In the moonlight, his profile stood out strongly, pointed nose and sharp jaw, looking faintly familiar to Jensen's eyes. He had seen a drawing of someone who looked like this, of several someones who looked like this, if only he could remember where.

Suddenly, it struck him, and Jensen breathed out a, "By the gods."

Jay frowned at him. "What?"

"Jay," Jensen said aloud as he thought through it. "He called you Jay earlier. Jay as in Jared." He scrambled up onto his knees. "You said Morgan isn't the real High King. He became the king when the Padaleckis died in a coup led by the army. Morgan was the High King's advisor who defeated the general and avenged his king, and the Council of Priests gave him the kingship as a reward. Since there were no surviving heirs."

"There aren't any surviving heirs," Jay said roughly. "None that matter."

"But you're him, aren't you?" Jensen asked. "You're Jared. There were always rumors that the youngest son survived."

"There are always stories like that," Jay shot back. "People want to believe in something, even if it's made up." He shook his head. "Besides, I don't have any more magic in me than Morgan does."

"That's too bad." Jensen lowered his head and went quiet. From under his eyelashes, he watched as Jay sighed and looked away.

Then, as quickly as he could, Jensen brought together the fingertips of his right hand and muttered a few words before flinging them outward in Jared's direction.

The arrow of red light that shot from his palm was a low-level bolt, not enough to do more than stun Jay. It cast a faint red glow over their surroundings, more than enough to see Jay notice it out of the corner of his eye and fling his hands in front of his face.

The light stopped about an inch from Jay's palms before sizzling and dissipating into the air.

Jensen could feel a slow grin spreading across his face. "You're Jared Padalecki." Hope rose up within him, sudden and sharp, and he made a low bow from his knees. "My king."

He was shocked when Jared gave him a shove, sending him tumbling to the dirt. "I’m not anyone's king," he snapped. "Don't mock me like that."

"I'm not, I swear." Jensen rose up onto one elbow. "You are him, though, aren't you? I've seen portraits of the family, of our last High King. You look so much like them. And that—that was magic. Only those of royal blood can counter an attack like that with their own magic. Even if you didn't think you had any."

Jared looked back at him for a moment before gazing down at his hands, turning them over as if he'd never seen them before. "I don't," he said quietly. "I—my father never taught me. I wasn't old enough yet to start learning."

"How old were you?" Jensen asked.

"I was eight," Jared said so softly Jensen almost couldn't hear him. "My father was the High King. And Morgan murdered him. Slaughtered them all and blamed it on the army."

"But he claimed that he was the one to avenge the king." Jensen's stomach lurched as he took in Jared's words. There had been rumors, there had always been rumors, but only the wildest speculations had ever included Morgan as being responsible for actually killing the true High King and his family himself.

Or at least most of his family. "How did you survive?" Jensen asked as he sat up, folding his legs to sit cross-legged on the earth.

"I played dead." Jared's features were curiously blank. "I hid under my mother's body until the Guards were all gone. Then I crawled away, and one of the stablehands found me and hid me. There was—there was a lot of confusion, after, and enough people who were loyal to my father who knew they had to keep me hidden. At first, I think they thought they were protecting me so I could reclaim the throne, but now…" He trailed off and shook his head. "By now, they know that's never going to happen."

"Do they all know?" Jensen asked, jerking a thumb back over his shoulder to indicate the camp. "Who you really are?"

"They do," Jared replied. "Some of them helped to hide me when I was still a child and then decided to come along when I set up camp here. Others heard about us and followed, with their own reasons for wanting to hide from Morgan. I don't—I've always told them if they're here to follow me, they're making a mistake. I'm just trying to get by, finding food for everyone and supplementing it by taking from people who won't miss it. I'm just trying to keep people safe from him. That's all."

"'Trying to get by' doesn't mean kidnapping the High King's fiancé," Jensen retorted. "And it definitely won't keep your people safe."

"It was spur of the moment," Jared admitted. "We heard you were coming so close to our camp, and I—we had to do it. That ransom could keep us going for a long time."

"More likely, it'll get you killed," Jensen rejoined. "He believes in this prophecy, Jared. He's going to do whatever it takes to make it come true in his favor. And if that means sending a message to anyone else who might want to get in the way, he'll gladly do that."

"I know damn well what he's capable of," Jared shot back. "But he's an idiot if he makes strategy based on prophecy."

"You don't believe in prophecies?" Jensen asked.

Jared scoffed. "I've learned not to. Especially the ones people say are about me."

 

Jared knew it was a mistake as soon as he said it. It had popped out of his mouth without him thinking about it. There was something about Jensen that was making him admit things he hadn't told more than a handful of souls. Much less somehow drawing actual magic out of him, which was frightening considering how many times he'd tried to do it on his own with no effect.

Maybe he should just let Jensen go before he got Jared into even more trouble than he'd already gotten himself.

Jensen was already leaning forward, eyes bright. "There's a prophecy about you, too?"

Jared gave a sharp shake of his head. "It's so new, it barely counts as one. Besides, it can't possibly be true if it's about me."

"Why not?" Jensen asked. "What does it say?"

"It says I'm going to save my people." Jared flung his arms out from his sides. "That the child who was lost will be found, and he will save his people and restore their lives. Doesn't look very likely from here, does it?"

"Have you ever thought about it?" Jensen asked quietly. "Taking back the throne?"

"Are you crazy?" Jared stared at him. "How would I do that? Who would believe me if I tried?"

"I recognized you," Jensen replied. "Others would, too. I can teach you how to use your magic, and then everyone will believe you. Besides, people might fear the High King, but they don't respect him. They're looking for a better leader, believe me."

Jared raised his eyebrows. "Instead they'd respect a man who leads a bunch of brigands in the woods?"

"You're clearly good at what you do," Jensen said. "To overpower the King's Guard the way you did, to remain hidden here for as long as you have? That takes a lot of planning and skill."

"And as you pointed out, we're all doomed as soon as our messenger arrives at the High King's door." Jared shook his head. "Sure, I've thought about it. I've fantasized about it more times than I can say. But that's all it'll be. A fantasy."

Silence fell in the clearing. Then Jensen drew in a deep breath. "You could marry me."

Jared stared at him. He couldn't have heard that right. "Excuse me?"

"Is there someone in your camp who could officiate?"

"I think Misha could—wait, no, that's not the point. What the hell are you talking about? Why would I marry you?"

"Whoever marries me will be the strongest High King in centuries," Jensen replied. He held out his hands. "And you've been foretold to save your people. This is how we do that."

Jared scoffed. "You think it's that easy? We get married, and poof, I'm now the High King? Give me a break." This had to be the prince's attempt at getting away from Jared and his camp. If he couldn't physically run, he would talk his way out of it. Too bad Jared had no intention of letting him leave.

"No, I don't think it's that easy," Jensen replied. "But I think it's true. Our priests keep careful track of all the prophecies of the seven kingdoms, minor and major, and send copies to the capital." He grimaced. "That's how the High King found out about me."

"How often do they come true?" Jared asked. "Do they bother to keep track of that?"

"They don't all," Jensen admitted. "But the one about me is apparently powerful enough that it's almost guaranteed to come true."

"The one you think is about you," Jared clarified. "Or at least that Morgan thinks is about you."

"We've always thought it was about me," Jensen said quietly. "That's why I've never married. We thought—" He looked around for a moment and then suddenly gave a rueful smile. "Right. It's not like I need to watch what I say around here."

"What did you think?" Jared pressed.

Jensen sighed. "As I said, people fear the High King but don't respect him. My father thought it wouldn't be wise, if the prophecy were true, for me to fulfill it by going to Morgan. The possibility of him being even more powerful and secure in his rule is not attractive, to say the least. So we kept it to ourselves and hoped that sooner or later, another High King would emerge."

"But you said the priests sent that information to Verdania City."

"We asked them not to," Jensen said. "And for years, they didn't. But the new head priest last year proclaimed he had to do what was in the gods' best interests, not our own, and he sent them on to Verdania City. Morgan arrived only a few months later. I think part of his anger at us was for having kept this from him for so long." He inclined his head at Jared. "And now I know why. If he truly took the throne though unlawful means, it must weigh on his mind. It must have done so for years. Using me and this prophecy would alleviate some of that weight. It might also give him some magic to control." He grimaced at the thought.

"And you want to take that away from him," Jared said. "That's why you're suggesting this…insanity." Okay, maybe Jared did approve of ensuring that Morgan didn't have anyone else's magic under his control, but that didn't mean he was going to take Jensen up on his offer.

Jensen raised an eyebrow. "A king can take a second spouse, but not if that person is already a spouse themselves."

"What if they're a widower?" Jared demanded, throwing his hands out from his sides. "You've been telling me how ruthless he is and that I've put all of my people in danger by sending the ransom demand. What about me? I agree to marry you, and the only thing Morgan's going to want to do when he finds out is run a sword through me."

Frowning, Jensen said, "But he won't be able to. Not when our prophecies both come true together."

Jared shook his head and scrambled to his feet. He'd had enough. "That's impossible, Jensen. You're asking for magic that doesn't exist. Prophecies are misread all the time. And they don't always come true the way you think they're going to."

"What is it that you're afraid of?"

Jared glared down at him. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"You're okay with kidnapping. You're okay with assaulting the King's Guard and threatening their lives. But you're not okay with marrying." Jensen slowly shook his head, leaning back on his hands. "That seems...odd."

"That's not what it's about. I have no problem with marrying in the abstract."

"But not to me."

"I don't even know you!" Jared threw his hands up. "This is ridiculous. Why are you so hellbent on marrying me all of a sudden? As you just pointed out, I kidnapped you."

Slowly, Jensen rose to his feet. Even if he was dusting leaves from his behind, he still looked regal as he rose to his full height. "I know that you're aware of what Morgan is capable of," he said in a low voice. "More than anyone in the seven kingdoms, I would imagine. But what you don't know is what he's done to those kingdoms."

Jared scoffed. "I don't spend my entire life in the woods," he said, folding his arms over his chest. "We're out there on the roads, in the fields. We know that people are struggling."

"People are struggling, yes," Jensen said. "So is the land. So is the sea. We've spoken of magic already. I know you weren't raised like I was, so I don't know if you believe in the connection between the king and the land. I'm not certain that I do myself. But there is something wrong. The land isn't as fertile as it used to be when we were children. The storms are stronger as they tear at the stones of our breakwaters. The animals in the forest are fewer and smaller. Morgan claims nothing is wrong, but out on the edge of the kingdoms, we see it. The land knows, Jared. It knows the rightful ruler is not where he needs to be."

Jared turned his head away. "You can't believe that," he said. "Droughts come and go. Some storms are stronger than others. It has nothing to do with who's on the throne, even if he is a murderous usurper."

"You said there was a prophecy that you would save your people," Jensen pushed. "The way to do that is through me. You'll be removing Morgan's most important piece from the board by taking me first."

"As my queen?" Jared asked with a raised eyebrow.

He was gratified to see Jensen flush. "Whatever. The point is, this benefits us both. And the seven kingdoms besides. Look, I've been riding for days convinced that I'm on my way to doom not only my kingdom, but the other six. Now I have a chance to fix it."

Jared bit his lip. "I still don't believe it," he said. "That marrying you will magically remove Morgan from the throne and put me there in his place."

"I don't believe it will," Jensen replied. "Magically, at least. I think there's a long fight ahead of us. But I think that from what I've seen so far of you and your people, you're prepared for that fight. Or at least you can be, given time."

"You don't even know how many of us there are," Jared said accusingly. "And what are you bringing to the fight? A royal name and a prophecy? Did your training include any battle magic?"

"What do you do out here, anyway?" Jensen asked, waving a hand towards the rest of the camp. "Rob a few noblemen now and again? Harass the King's Guard, but never enough to draw attention? At least until now?"

"What are you trying to say?" Jared demanded. "That we're not worthy of your attention?"

"I'm saying that this is your chance," Jensen said. "If you've ever wanted to do more, if you've ever wanted to really strike back and take what should be yours. This is your chance!"

"And what if I don't want to?" Jared asked quietly. He'd made the same argument Jensen was making to himself so many times that the answer was automatic. "What if this is all I'm ever going to have, all I'm ever going to want?"

Jensen stopped and stared at him. "Then you're not the person I thought you were."

"I'm a brigand and a kidnapper," Jared retorted. "That's all you really know of me."

"You're a Padalecki," Jensen replied. "That's what I know of you, now. And from the stories my parents have told me of how things used to be, of how good your father's reign was..." He trailed off and shook his head. "That's the person I think you should be."

"Well, I'm not," Jared snapped. "Your stories didn't have my family being cut down in their own home, or people living alongside of me in their tents in the woods, worried every year about whether or not we have enough food to make it through the winter. I'm not a prince like you, Jensen. Even if I'm supposed to be, I'm not. I'm sorry."

There was silence for a moment except the distant noise of the camp. Then Jensen sighed. "I'm sorry, too," he said. "Look, I still...never mind. We still need to leave this place. You and all of your people. Morgan's going to trace back where the message came from, and then you'll all be in trouble."

Jared regarded him for a long moment, trying to assess his sincerity. Finally, he said, "This could be a trick. You could be flushing me out of hiding so it's easier for Morgan to find me."

"You're the one who kidnapped me," Jensen said with a raised eyebrow. "I had no idea you were going to be on that road."

"Maybe so, but now that you're here, you could be trying to flush us out by getting us to think you're on our side. Maybe you're determined to get back to him any way you can."

He didn't have to be watching Jensen as closely as he was to see the shudder of revulsion that swept over him. Before Jensen could speak, Jared went on, "But I'm pretty good at reading people. I've had to be, to be who I am and survive as long as I have. You're not faking your dislike of him. I think you want away from him as badly as I do."

The corner of Jensen's mouth turned up. "You had no idea you'd be stealing a willing victim, did you?"

"Would'nt've had to tie you up if I did," Jared replied.

Jensen scowled, rubbing absently at one wrist.

"And I hear what you're saying," Jared continued. "The thing is, I don't know where to go. Our camp is in this place because it's the best location for us. Anything else doesn't have the river close by, or is too close to the road, or—"

Jensen held up his hands. "Don't tell me where we are," he said. "I don't want to lead him to you."

He frowned. "What do you mean, 'lead him to me'?"

Jensen sighed. "When you get your people away from here, I'm going to go the other way. Once he has me back, he won't push quite as hard to find you, and you should be able to get away."

"I'm not turning you over to him!" Jared put his hands on his hips. "I mean, I was going to after the ransom was received, but not now that I know." As unexpected as it had been to find an ally in Jensen, he wasn't going to let him go. Not if he was going to walk back into the lion's den.

"Jared, you have to," Jensen said. "He won't stop looking for you unless you do."

He stubbornly shook his head. "No. This is your chance to be free of him. You've got to take it."

"Not if it means you and everyone with you are in danger because of it."

"Damn it, Jensen!" Jared wanted to shake him. "Aren't you worried about what he'll do to you?"

"Of course I am!" Jensen practically shouted. "That's not the point! But I’m no worse off than I was before. You, and all these people…I can't have him hunting you down."

"Fine!" Jared glared at Jensen. "Then I'll marry you."

Jensen blinked. "What?"

"If you're going to be stupid about this, then I don't see any other way. I'm not going to have you walking back into his clutches while he's pissed at you for getting kidnapped. And yeah, maybe it was stupid of me to do this in the first place, but I have to deal with the consequences now. I'm kind of in charge of these people, after all, and if I did something that might hurt them, I have to do what I can to make it right."

 

It was the closest thing to a speech Jensen had heard from this man, and he looked at Jared for a long moment. Finally, he let a slow smile spread over his face. "And you don't think you're worthy to be a king."

"I'm not," Jared insisted. "You need to understand that. We're not going to start a rebellion and march up to the palace gates and demand the usurper be overthrown."

"Why not?" Jensen asked.

Jared stared at him as if he had lost his mind—again. "Because we'd be thrown in the dungeons before we could get a word out," he said. "We're not—I don't have an army here. It's only me and a few people who have been loyal to me over the years. I have to take care of them. That's all."

"Why'd you kidnap me?" Jensen asked, folding his arms across his chest.

Jared let out a huff of breath. "Because the opportunity was too good to pass up."

Jensen spread his arms wide, cocking an eyebrow but not saying anything.

"I already said I'd do it," Jared replied. "Marry you, I mean."

"Don't sound so excited about the prospect," Jensen drawled.

Jared shook his head. "You have no idea what you're getting into here."

"Neither do you," Jensen returned. "But you said you had someone here who could do it?"

"You mean right now?" Jared almost squeaked.

"You already kidnapped the High King's intended today," Jensen replied. "Might as well go all the way."

It occurred to him a moment too late how innuendo-laden that statement was, but Jared didn't seem to pick up on it. He was frowning at Jensen, lower lip pinched between thumb and forefinger, and Jensen suddenly realized there might be more than one advantage of his spur-of-the-moment plan, if it involved getting closer to that mouth.

This was shaping up to be the strangest day of Jensen's life.

Finally, Jared straightened up. "All right," he said. "Misha can marry us. If you really think this can help us somehow."

"Can't hurt," Jensen replied.

He got a roll of the eyes in response. Then Jared turned around and started walking towards the camp, and Jensen had to take a few quick strides to catch up with him. Given how Jared had chased him into the woods only a few minutes ago, it was already hard to remember how he'd come to be here in the first place. The revelations of those last few minutes had been as shocking as anything else that had happened to Jensen that day, and it felt like a lifetime ago that he'd watched the members of the King's Guard felled like trees before being dragged off by the man he was now following. A low chuckle escaped his throat.

"Pretty weird, huh?" Jared asked. He gave Jensen a quick glance.

He supposed he shouldn't be surprised that Jared was thinking the same thing as he was. "What are your people going to think?"

Jared let out a snort. "I have no idea. Probably that I've lost my mind."

"Will they go along with it?"

"Not like they can stop it. Look, one of the rules here is that people are free to go if they want. And they're free to do what they want while they're here, as long as it doesn't harm anyone else. Everyone who came along today wanted to be there. More did besides, but there wasn't room. Others didn't want to come, thought it was a bad idea. I'm not sure what they're going to think of this hare-brained idea of yours."

"I'm sure they'll go along with it if you think it's the best thing to do," Jensen replied.

"Hmm." They walked a few more steps in silence, and then Jared muttered, "Chad'll say it's just because I want to get in your pants."

Jensen sputtered for a moment before turning it into a coughing fit. When he looked sideways at Jared, he saw a smile playing around the corners of his lips that put dimples in his cheeks. It made him look years younger, and Jensen thought with a pang of what this man should have been doing all this time instead of hiding in the woods like a thief.

They were approaching the camp, and heads started to turn in their direction from where people were gathered around the fire. Jensen watched as a man with short blond spikes of hair squinted in their direction and then did a doubletake. He popped to his feet and strode towards them, calling out, "Jay?" as he looked Jensen over.

"It's okay, Chad," Jared said. "He's not going anywhere."

"Yeah, but we're—"

"It's okay. Where's Misha?"

Chad jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "Helping to cover up the boats. Jay, are you sure it's wise to—"

"He knows who I am, Chad. For real."

Instantly, Chad was glaring at Jensen. Following the sudden hush that had fallen around the fire, Chad angrily whispered, "How the fuck did you know that?"

"Language, Chad, he's a—"

"I figured it out," Jensen said loudly to be heard over Jared. "I'm not stupid." He glanced at Jared before adding, "And I wasn't on my way to anywhere I wanted to be, either."

Chad narrowed his eyes. "You saying we did you a favor?"

Jensen scoffed. "I would say that if I thought it would hold. But he'll be coming after all of you. Even if I go back, he won't let this go. I know that much about him."

"Yeah, well, we probably know more about him than you do," Chad shot back.

"He knows about my family, Chad," Jared said quietly. "What really happened to them. I told him."

"Fuck, Jared! Is there anything else you managed to spill in the quarter hour you were alone with him?"

"The prophecy," Jensen added helpfully.

"Oh, for fuck's sake." Chad threw up his hands. "Jay, you don't know anything about this guy. Just because he says he doesn't like Morgan doesn't mean that—"

"There's a prophecy about me, too." Jensen looked Chad in the eye. "The priests think whomever I marry will be the most powerful High King in ages. I don't want that to be Morgan."

"It'd be a good deal for you," Chad shot back. "Married to the most powerful man in the seven kingdoms."

"And with my family continuing to be under threat if I don't do everything he says?" Jensen shook his head. "That's no deal at all. I would do anything to keep him from fulfilling that prophecy."

Jared spoke up. "That's why he's going to marry me."

There was dead silence except for the crackle of the fire. Then three or four voices started talking at once, all directed at Jared. Chad wasn't among them, but he was watching Jensen very closely.

A hand clapped Jensen on the shoulder, and he gave a start. He looked to see one of the men who'd been in the kidnapping party standing very close behind him. "You realize I'm the only one who can make that happen. Assuming you wish to do it soon and not wait until we can make our way to a town with a sympathetic priest."

Jensen cleared his throat. "Jared said you could do it, assuming you're Misha?"

"I am." His blue eyes raked over Jensen's features without saying another word.

Fighting the urge to step away, Jensen said, "You have very good aim with your rocks. Was that with a slingshot?"

Misha grinned. "It was," he said. "Most people don't appreciate the fine art of rock-throwing. But it's easier to find those particular missiles lying around than arrows, and no one can tell from the fletching to whom it is that they belong."

"They were…very effective," Jensen said. "Against the Guard, I mean."

"You're surprised we didn't kill them," Misha said.

For a moment, Jensen thought back to the King's Road, trying to filter his initial impressions through what he now knew. Finally he said, "Not anymore. I suppose I was at the time, but now that I know Jared better, I’m not."

Misha cocked one eyebrow. "You seem to have gotten to know him rather quickly."

"We have more in common than I would have thought," Jensen replied. Understatement, he added to himself.

"Indeed. I mean, I've heard of love at first sight, but never quite so literally."

"Misha, that's not it," Jared cut in. "It's just—it makes a lot of sense. For both of us. For all of us, really." He spread one arm out to indicate the camp.

"Oh, I don't need an explanation." Misha held up both of his hands. "Just give me a moment to gather the necessary items and refresh my memory, and we can begin."

He hurried off to a nearby tent, and Jensen turned back to Jared, nerves suddenly flickering in his gut. "How does he have the authority to perform a wedding, anyway?"

"Misha used to be a priest," Jared said. "It puts us in good stead sometimes. He's still on speaking terms with most of the country priests, who can be a good source of information. It's how we found out you would be traveling nearby. I wouldn't be surprised if he already knew of this prophecy about you."

"Why is he no longer a priest?" Jensen asked.

"He got kicked out." It was Chad, who had relaxed his stance even though he was still closely watching Jensen.

Jensen drew his head back. "Why?"

"C'mon, what do priests usually get kicked out for?" Chad asked with a knowing look.

"It's none of our business," Jared said primly. "Whatever it was, it hasn't been a problem here."

Chad was about to say something else when he abruptly looked away.

Jensen looked over his shoulder to see Misha approaching, carrying a long white cloth and a rolled-up scroll. "Been a long time since I've done this," Misha said, shaking the scroll. "But I think I've got it."

He directed them to stand next to the fire, facing each other. A crowd of people had quickly gathered, and they were nearly surrounded as soon as they were in place.

Jensen was suddenly acutely aware of how tall Jared was. When they took each other's hands so Misha could wrap the cloth around them, he was startled at how far around his own hands Jared's long fingers could wrap. The idea of marriage had sprung up in his head so suddenly—and Jared had gone along with it so quickly—that he hadn't had time to think through all of the implications. Now, Jensen was thinking about one of those implications in considerable detail, and he hoped he could blame the reddening of his cheeks on the fire's heat.

Misha was speaking some ceremonial words, some in the ancient language of the priests, some in their own tongue. Jensen was only half paying attention, his hands going cold with nerves, so when Misha suddenly addressed Jared, Jensen gave a little start.

"Do you, Jared, take this man, Prince Jensen of Miramar, to be your husband?"

"I do," Jared said, giving Jensen's hands a little squeeze with a small smile that Jensen did not at all find endearing.

"And do you, Jensen, take Jared to be your husband?"

Jensen frowned. "Say his name."

Misha blinked. "I just did."

"His full name and title," Jensen insisted. "Same as mine."

Misha exchanged a glance with Jared, and then with Chad. "I'm not really sure that—"

"It's not that complicated," Jensen said. "We're of, well, not quite equal rank, but close enough."

"It's okay, Misha," Jared said. "Everyone knows anyway."

Misha looked at Jared. "It's not a matter of secrecy," he said. "It's just—that's not who you are."

"Maybe it is," Jared said quietly. He gave Jensen's hands another squeeze. "Or at least maybe it should be."

Misha drew in a long breath. Then he said, his voice slightly louder than before, "Do you, Jensen, take Prince Jared Padalecki of Verdania to be your husband?"

There was a soft murmuring all around them in the clearing as people took in what had just been said aloud. Jensen thought about arguing the point that Misha really should have said King Jared. Then he realized that without an official coronation ceremony, Jared would technically still be just a prince. So he gave Jared a small smile and said, "Yes. I do."

"All right." Misha pulled on the cloth wrapped around their hands. "Then by the power invested in me by the priests of the seven kingdoms, with rings to be exchanged later once they have been procured, I now pronounce you as wed."

There was a beat of silence, and then quiet cheers and clapping burst out from the small crowd around them. Jared looked around with a sheepish smile, eyes lighting up as he took in one person after another. Jensen watched him, enjoying the sight of his dimpling cheeks as he smiled and the genuine affection in his eyes for the people around him.

Jared turned back to Jensen with a noticeably more mischievous look in his eyes. "I'm not sure how this kind of thing works in Miramar, but where I'm from, there's only one way to end a wedding ceremony."

There was a little knot tightening in Jensen's stomach, mostly at the thought of following this tradition in front of all of these strangers. But he lifted his chin and said, "Wouldn't want to miss out on any important customs, would we?"

"Indeed we wouldn't." Jared tugged on their clasped hands, and Jensen took a step closer. "What do you say?"

Jensen wasn't about to be seen as shy or retiring, and so he leaned forward the rest of the way and planted his mouth on Jared's.

Another cheer went up around them. Jensen barely heard it. He was too focused on the pressure of Jared's lips against his, their taste under the tip of his tongue, the press of Jared's fingers clutching his more tightly than before. He opened his mouth slightly to take one of Jared's lips between his, and the rumbling moan from Jared's mouth made Jensen's knees decidedly weak.

He pursed his lips hard against Jared's before stepping away. "There," he said, hoping the shakiness in his legs wasn't translating to his voice. "Now it's official."

 

Jared had only intended to tease, but when Jensen took up his offer so willingly, he had to go along. And wow, was that not what he had expected. For all he'd known, Jensen wasn't even interested in men, was being forced into marrying Morgan in more ways than one, had suggested marriage to Jared as a sheer matter of political strategy.

But that hadn't been a kiss of strategy. That had been…something else entirely. Something Jared really wanted to explore in further detail, preferably right now in his tent with everyone else in the camp busy and somewhere far away.

Everyone in the camp had something they had to be doing. Unfortunately, Jared did as well. And so he met Jensen's eyes and hoped his new husband could see everything that Jared was suddenly feeling, along with the hope that he'd get to do something about it later.

He squeezed Jensen's hands one more time and took a step back. Pitching his voice loudly enough to be heard by everyone at the campfire, he said, "Since you all are gathered here, there's something you need to do."

"Give the newlyweds some privacy!" Briana shouted from the back, followed by an eruption of laughter.

Jared shook his head with a rueful smile. "Not right now. I'm afraid we need to pack up our camp. As soon as we can."

"Wait, what?" Kim called out from Briana's side.

Jensen turned to face the crowd and said, "While I'm actually kind of grateful that Jared and the rest of you took me from the King's Highway today, there are likely to be serious consequences. Morgan has very good reasons for wanting to marry me, and when he finds out that I was taken, he'll be riding here himself."

"We covered our tracks," Chad insisted.

"You sent him a messenger," Jensen said. "Sooner or later, he'll extract information from that person about where to find you. I don't want any more of your people hurt because of me. The best thing to do is to leave this place at once."

"We can go to our secondary camp," Jared said. "It's far enough away that we'll be able to determine if Jensen's right about being pursued. And if we are, we might have to split up for a while in order to stay hidden."

"How far away is this site?" Jensen asked.

Jared hesitated, only for a second. It was long enough for Jensen's eyes to narrow. "What, are you going to need to blindfold me again?" he asked. "I already committed to staying here with you."

Jared sighed. "That's not it." He stepped closer and lowered his voice, aware of everyone watching them. "Look, I've been in hiding all of my life. I've had to keep my very existence secret, much less my location, not only for my sake but for the sake of those helping me. It's a long-held habit, is what I'm saying."

Jensen briefly closed his eyes and sighed. "I'm sorry," he said when he was looking at Jared again. "I tend to take things personally even when I shouldn't. This is…this is all a lot to take in."

Giving him a small smile, Jared said, "For me, too. I mean, everyone here knows who I am, but it's not like we ever talk about it. And bringing someone new in hasn't happened in a while."

"How many people are there here?" Jensen asked.

"About fifty," Jared said.

"Enough that we'll make a noticeable party on the road or the river," Jensen said. "Wouldn't it be best to split up now and rejoin later?"

"That makes us more vulnerable," Misha pointed out. Jared was suddenly aware of how closely Misha was watching them. "Not everyone here is trained to fight."

Jensen gave an abrupt shake of his head. "It would take an awful lot of training to take on a force of the King's Guard. More than the handful you encountered on the highway. Best to move as quietly as we can."

"You're using 'we' and 'us' all of a sudden." It was Chad, standing behind Misha. "Hard to trust someone who switches sides like that."

"Chad, he's always been on our side," Jared said, not looking away from Jensen. "We just didn't know it."

Chad snorted, but Jared watched the slow, conspiratorial smile spread across Jensen's face. He grinned back, and then clapped his hands sharply. "Okay, let's go," he said loudly. "We need to pack up and remove all trace that we've been here. We leave before sunrise."

Instantly, people scattered, talking in low tones. Jared watched them go, making a list in his head of everything he would need to do to make it look like no one had been here.

"What can I do to help?" Jensen asked.

"How much experience do you have with packing up a camp?" Jared asked.

Jensen grimaced. "Can't say that I have any. But if you tell me what to do, I'll do it."

"Can't you just…?" Jared wiggled his fingers in the air, hoping he didn't look too ridiculous. "Shrink everything so it fits in our saddlebags?"

Shaking his head, Jensen said, "Magic can't change the nature of something. It can change how it looks, but it can't change what it is. That includes its size."

"Oh." Jared sighed. "I don't suppose you can just move us all to the secondary campsite, either?"

"Part of the nature of something is where it is," Jensen explained. "A rock is different if it's at the top of a hill compared to the bottom in terms of what it can do. Moving it would alter its basic nature. So we can't just move things."

Jared frowned. "Magic might not be as useful as I thought it was."

"I was really disappointed as a kid when I learned about its limits," Jensen agreed. Then he raised an eyebrow. "Doesn't mean you can't still do a lot with it, though."

"Well, in the meantime, it might be best if you get some rest," Jared said. "We can pack up my tent last. It's going to be a long night, and a long day tomorrow."

"I want to help," Jensen insisted. "You're doing all this because of me."

"No, we're doing all this because of me," Jared replied. "If I hadn't been so impulsive and decided to go after you when I heard you were coming through my woods, we wouldn't have to be leaving. You're not responsible for who you happen to be, Jensen."

Jensen lifted his chin. "I happen to be married to you," he said. "And I want to help."

"I can direct him," Misha said. Jared suddenly realized Misha had been watching the two of them talk, a small smile playing around his lips. "We can start with Jared's tent, while he supervises everyone else."

"Oh, I see," Jensen said. "That way he gets out of doing any actual work." The words were delivered playfully, not with the bite they could have been.

That and Jensen's teasing smile had Jared's heart lifting. He might have made a rash decision to steal Jensen away from Morgan, but so far, it was turning out very well for him.

He just hoped their luck held.

 

To Jensen's surprise, by the time he was shaken awake, the first rays of dawn were washing over the campsite. More than that, Jared's tent was standing alone in the woods. There was no sign, at least to his non-expert eye, that several dozen people had been living here.

"Why didn’t you wake me earlier?" he asked, knuckling at his sleep-heavy eyes.

"I figured you needed it," Jared replied. He looked sheepish. "You had a hard day yesterday."

Jensen snorted. "Understatement."

"Well, today's not going to be much easier." Jared straightened up. "We've got a lot of walking ahead of us."

"Not riding?" Jensen asked.

"We don't have more than a handful of horses," Jared said. "So they carry the gear, and the rest of us walk."

"Got it." Jensen rose to his feet, yawning. "You guys have moved around a lot, then?"

"With the seasons," Jared said. "You'll see."

"Can I help?" Jensen gestured at the tent around him.

"It's probably better if I take care of it." Jared paused, mouth splitting open wide in a yawn larger than Jensen's. "Sorry about that," he said with a quick shake of his head.

"Did you sleep at all?" Jensen looked Jared over more critically, noticing the dark circles under his red-rimmed eyes.

Jared shook his head more vigorously. "Lots to do."

He slowly nodded. "I can help. Not with the packing, but…Look, magic is basically transferring energy from one thing to another. I got to sleep, so I have more energy than you. If it's okay with you, I can give you some of that energy."

Jared looked at him warily. "Won't it drain you?"

"A little." Jensen shrugged one shoulder. "You're the one who has to lead everyone to wherever we're going. I just have to walk."

"I expect more out of my husband than that." Jared raised his eyebrows.

Jensen stared at him, not sure if that was admonishment or innuendo.

A smile broke across Jared's face. "Sorry, I was just teasing. It's something you're gonna have to get used to, I'm afraid."

"It's all right." Jensen held up one hand, two fingers extended. "Do you trust me?"

Jared's expression turned serious. "I guess I do," he said quietly. "I mean…yeah."

It was Jensen's turn to raise his eyebrows. "I would understand if you didn't, but please, Jared, be honest with me."

"No, it's okay, I do." Jared scrunched his eyes shut and seemed to be holding his breath.

Jensen stepped forward and rubbed a hand up and down his shoulder. "Just relax. I'm not going to hurt you."

Jared shivered, but he did seem to relax, the lines on his face smoothing out even if he kept his eyes shut. "Ready," he said quietly.

Jensen reached out and put the tips of two fingers against Jared's heart. Closing his own eyes, he drew in a slow, deep breath. As he breathed out, he concentrated on his arm and fingertips, sending his strength down that pathway. He felt Jared's heart beat a little faster, and he drew one more breath before gently breaking the connection.

When he opened his eyes, Jared was looking at him in wonder. "That's amazing. I feel like I just had a cup of kava."

It was on the tip of Jensen's tongue to ask if they had any of that in their camp, but he restrained himself. They had to get moving, and he'd been managing without his favorite beverage for several days now anyway. "Glad it worked," he smiled.

Jared's brow furrowed. "You're not too tired now?"

Shaking his head, Jensen said, "I didn't do that much. Just wanted to perk you up a bit."

"I really appreciate it." To Jensen's surprise, Jared engulfed him in a hug. He had just enough time to take in the warm smell surrounding him when Jared drew back. It was funny how the same scent he had found distasteful only yesterday was now giving him more pleasant associations. "Okay, let's get going!"

By Jensen's estimation, another hour had passed before the group was on the road. There looked to be about fifty of them all told, each carrying packs over their backs in addition to the weight the horses were carrying. Jared was in front, of course, leading the way. Jensen decided to hang towards the back, bringing up the rear. There were others behind him who were tasked with covering their tracks, trying to make it look as though no one had passed this way. He tried to move quickly enough that he didn't interfere with their task.

They were only a little while into their journey when Misha dropped back to walk beside him. "How are you this morning, Prince Jensen?" he asked.

"Just Jensen, please," he replied. "And I'm doing well. I had more sleep than any of you, I think."

"Jared seemed to think we had put his new husband through quite enough already," Misha answered.

Jensen eyed him carefully. His expression and tone were bland, but he wondered if there wasn't some kind of bite underneath the words. "Do you think he made a wise decision? To marry me?"

"You believe in this prophecy," Misha said.

Shrugging one shoulder, Jensen replied, "I know that other people believe in it pretty strongly. In that sense, it has already had an impact on the world. So it might as well be real."

"I am surprised that Jared would believe it," Misha replied. "He has never asked of the knowledge I might have carried with me from my former profession. I assumed it was because he didn't believe. Now, however, I'm not so sure."

Somehow, Misha was managing to intently stare at him even as they walked side-by-side through the woods. Hoping to distract him, Jensen asked, "When did you find out who he really is?"

Misha gave a small smile. "After he robbed our Hall."

Jensen's eyebrows shot up. That didn't sound like the Jared he thought he knew. "What?"

Misha waved a hand at him. "It was a very difficult winter, and his people were starving. One morning, I went to get some potatoes from the root cellar, and Jared and his friend Chad were there, filling their pockets."

"What did you do?" Jensen asked.

"I asked them who they were and what they were doing, but it was apparent to me that they were lying," Misha replied. He tapped the side of his nose. "I might not have had the gift of prophecy as strongly as some in the priesthood, but I could tell there was something special about him. So I let them go."

"Did anyone else know?"

Misha shook his head. "They came back several months later with a gold necklace that paid for a whole winter's worth of potatoes. I had had some time to think it over, and like you, I recognized him from portraits I had seen of his family. When I asked him, he didn't deny it. Much as Chad berated him for doing so."

"So how did you end up joining them?"

"It was not something I had planned. I thought about them for another winter, out here on their own in the cold. The High King has little love for the priesthood, except for those who prophecy in ways he finds appealing." He eyed Jensen closely and went on, "But prophecy comes with its conditions. As does your magic, I would imagine."

Jensen nodded. "There are ways in which it is physically impossible to use, but also ways we are prescribed not to use it. Never to take another person's life, for example, except in self-defense."

Misha raised his eyebrows. "But that is not already fundamentally changing the nature of a thing? To kill it?"

"The answer to that depends very much on the nature of death itself," Jensen replied. "Priests and royalty have had that debate for centuries. I always suspected one of the reasons we are taught not to try to do it is that the question would be answered."

"Interesting." Misha pursed his lips. "I suppose in my small country Hall, there were never opportunities to interact with royalty to have those kinds of discussions." Jensen nodded cautiously, and Misha went on, "Anyway, one of the conditions of prophecy is that it always be neutral. The power comes from a place of purity, and to use that in the pursuit of something as mundane as political authority is to weaken or cheapen it. So we must remain neutral no matter who is on the throne."

Jensen narrowed his eyes. "And you didn't like who was on the throne."

"Especially not once I knew Jared was out there. I couldn't watch what was happening to the land and its people while knowing there was a possibility something might be done about it." Misha shook his head. "But I also respected Jared enough not to pressure him into trying to claim the throne somehow. He must make that kind of decision on his own, or he will lack the confidence to carry it out. Which is why I never told him why I left the priesthood. And why you must not tell him, either."

Leaning forward and lowering his voice, Jensen asked, "You mean you left the priesthood to be with Jared?"

"When you put it that way, it sounds much more salacious," Misha said, expression blank but his eyes twinkling.

Jensen rolled his eyes. Apparently Jared wasn't the only jokester around here. "You know that he's never going to try to take what's his. Not without a great deal of persuasion. You can't just stand back and hope he changes his mind about using his magic or claiming the throne."

Misha came to a dead stop and put his hand on Jensen's elbow, pulling him to the side. Lowering his voice, he said, "I have seen him walk out into the woods and try. He knows that as a royal, he should have magic inside of him. He has tried to use a dozen times that I've seen, and I've only been with him for four or five years. Every time, he grows frustrated and furious. Do not think for a minute that he is lazy or holding himself back. He's smart. He knows he can't do anything on his own, and he isn't willing to put his people at risk to do it." He eyed Jensen more closely. "The thing is, he's never had anyone to teach him how to use what he does have."

It was on the tip of Jensen's tongue to say that he could do that. Then he paused. He himself had been taught magic as a child by his parents, with the help of courtiers who had at least studied magic even if they couldn't practice it themselves. He knew nothing about how to teach it to someone else, especially someone who had tried and failed on their own. "You think I can do that for him?" he asked.

"Yes, I do." Misha tugged on his elbow, and they began walking again. "We all know who he is, and we try to offer the help that we can, but none of us can imagine what it's like to be in his shoes. You can. You can teach him what he needs to know about magic and strategy and ruling. You can teach him to believe in himself."

Jensen snorted. "That's years' worth of education you're talking about. I don't think we have that long, not with Morgan looking for me."

"Then we'll do what we can." Misha glanced ahead of them, where Jared's head was visible in the distance at the front of the group. "I would ask you again not to tell him what I have told you. Why I am here, or that I have seen him try to use magic and fail."

"No, of course not." Jensen reached out and clasped his shoulder. "Thank you for telling me, though."

"I think I can trust you," Misha replied. "And I have the feeling that soon, we will all need to trust each other."

 

By the time night fell, Jared and the rest of his group were exhausted. He estimated they'd made about sixteen miles, mostly down the river while occasionally cutting across fields in pairs and triads to short-cut the curving river course. They found shelter among a cluster of trees far from the roads, with fresh water close at hand and sufficient leaves and twigs around them to warn them of anyone's approach. Given how quiet it had been, Jared judged it safe enough to light fires, and there were a few small blazes burning around their camp, including the one he was standing in front of.

He hadn't seen Jensen for most of the day, so he was relieved when he came up to him once they were all settled in. "Got an extra bedroll for me?" Jensen asked. "Or room enough in yours?"

Jared frowned at him. "Of course I can make room. Where else should you go?"

Jensen shrugged. "There's one thing I want to do before bed."

Tired as he was, Jared still waggled his eyebrows.

Jensen shook his head with the hint of a smile on his face. It quickly faded, though, as he asked Jared, "Where are the cuffs you had on me yesterday?"

Jared jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "In my backpack."

Jensen held out a hand. "Give them to me."

"Why?" Jared asked.

Shrugging, Jensen said, "If what you said yesterday is true, and you have no magic, then the copper shouldn't affect you. I just want to see if that's true."

Jared narrowed his eyes. "If they do affect me, how do I know you'll take them off again?"

"You can keep the key in your hand if you want. Or get Misha or Chad over here to keep watch."

He eyed Jensen for a moment longer, trying to judge the truth of his words. He'd put these same cuffs on Jensen yesterday, and they hadn't seemed to hurt him, even if Jensen had shown a definite reaction. So even if Jared did have some magic that was buried so deep he'd never been able to find it, how bad could it be?

On the other hand, if Jared didn't have any kind of reaction to the cuffs, and Misha or Chad was watching, how humiliating would that be?

Jared took a deep breath and said, "Okay. Let's do it."

Jensen gestured toward Jared's pack but didn't move.

Jared bent down and rummaged through his pack until he found what he was looking for. He held up the copper cuffs in one hand and the key in the other. "If you're right, what's going to happen to me?"

"If you're right, nothing," Jensen returned. When Jared glared at him, he held up his hands and went on, "It doesn't hurt. I promise. But I'd rather you experienced it for yourself."

Jared frowned. Part of him wanted to show Jensen that he was wrong, that there was no way Jared had magic. Yesterday had been a fluke, Jensen's magic not as strong as he thought it was, or it was some kind of vestigial self-defense that remained in Jared's own blood. Still, he hesitated—what if Jensen was right? What if the cuffs did something to him and Jensen stood there and laughed?

"How can I even be holding these?" he asked, looking up. "Shouldn't they be doing something to me right now?"

"It's not just the copper, it's where it touches you," Jensen said. "It has to be over your pulse points, blocking the flow of energy. A collar would work for the same reason."

Jared nodded and pinched the key between his thumb and forefinger. As long as he had a hold of that, he would be fine. And so before he could change his mind, he quickly took hold of one cuff with each hand, crossed his wrists over each other, and slapped both cuffs on at once.

Instantly, he doubled over.

He was dimly aware of Jensen's hand on his shoulder, of Jensen's voice calling his name, but it all seemed so distant. It didn't hurt, exactly…Jensen had been right about that. He still felt as though he'd taken a blow to the stomach. Sounds were dimmed, everything looked fuzzy, and he could barely even feel the cuffs on his wrists.

In a panic, Jared jerked upright, tugging at the cuffs. Jensen had managed to get out of them somehow, so why couldn't he? He pulled harder, feeling a dull pressure on his wrist. He was still trapped.

Then Jensen's hand closed over his. He looked down and saw white knuckles, confused at how Jensen could be gripping so tightly when he could barely feel it. Jensen was fumbling with something small in his other hand, but try as he might, Jared couldn't make out what it was. His vision was blurry, and a headache was tightening around his temples the harder he tried to focus.

There was a click and both cuffs fell away.

Just as fast as Jared's senses had gone away, they came roaring back. He gasped at the brightness of the firelight, the sound of Jensen shouting his name, the sharp line of pain across one wrist where a cuff had dug in too deeply.

"Jared. Hey, Jared. Are you okay?" Jensen had his palms on Jared's cheeks, forcing him to meet his eyes. "Are you with me?"

Jared blinked a few times, taking in the bright green of Jensen's eyes and the firelight flickering across his face. "Yeah," he said hoarsely. "Yeah. What—what was that?"

Jensen's answering smile was soft. "It was your magic. Or, more accurately, it was you being cut off from your magic."

He stared back into Jensen's eyes, feeling lost. "What?" he asked weakly.

"Everything felt faint, right?" Jensen asked. "Like you couldn’t see or hear or smell?"

"Or feel," Jared added, remembering that overwhelming feeling, or really a lack of feeling. "Like there was something getting in the way. Like a veil or something."

Jensen nodded, lowering his hands. "You've probably never realized it, but your senses are sharper than those of everyone else around you. That's part of how your magic manifests itself. When you're cut off from that source, everything goes dim."

"So I really…" He trailed off and stared at Jensen, unexpected hope blossoming in his chest. "I really have magic."

Jensen's eyes were gleaming. "You really do. My king."

Jared quickly shook his head. "I'm not anyone's king."

"My prince, at least." Jensen grinned. "I knew it."

Before Jared could say anything else, he was suddenly hit by a horrible realization. He grabbed Jensen's shoulders. "I…I did this to you," he said haltingly. "Yesterday. I—you had to deal with that all day long. My God, Jensen, I can't—"

"You didn't know," Jensen said. "And it's not so bad if you've been through it before and you know how to prepare. I was surprised at first, but then I adjusted. I sprung this on you, and you had no idea what to expect, so it was going to be worse."

"But still, I can't believe I did that to you." He put a hand over Jensen's heart. "I'm so sorry, Jensen."

Jensen's expression turned rueful. "Truth be told, it wasn't my biggest concern at the time."

Jared grimaced. "I'm sorry about that, too. The kidnapping and everything."

"I don't know, seems to have turned out all right so far," Jensen said slyly. "Husband."

Jared flushed and stepped back. "I just hope none of my people have to pay for it," he said in a low voice.

Jensen instantly turned serious. "I know. I hope so, too."

Jared heaved in a deep breath and let it out in a rush. "Well, there's nothing to be done about it now. I've set up a watch for the night, so you can sleep by yourself after all." He gestured at the roll of blankets at the top of his pack.

Jensen frowned. "You're taking first watch?"

"Of course I am."

"Jared, you need sleep. You didn't rest at all last night, and I'm guessing you didn't sleep much before heading to the King's Road, did you? And that was before what I put you through with the cuffs."

"It doesn't matter," Jared replied. "I can't ask more of anyone else than what I'm willing to do myself. Not when I led them all into this."

"You're no good to any of them if you fall over while marching," Jensen retorted. He put a hand on Jared's shoulder. "I'll join the first watch. You rest."

"I don't feel that tired."

"Bullshit."

Jared raised his eyebrows. "Such indecorous language from a member of the royalty!"

"If that's the best you can think of, you need some sleep." Jensen pushed at his shoulder. "Go. Lie down."

Now that he thought about it, Jared was suddenly more tired than he thought. As long as he'd kept moving, he'd still felt like he had enough energy to go on. But he was suddenly too tired to think of keeping watch. Armed men could probably creep right past him and he'd never know. "All right," he finally said. "But you'll wake me for my turn?"

"Of course," Jensen replied, and Jared wished he knew him well enough to be able to say if he was lying or not.

Jared kept thinking about it as he laid his head down on the softest part of his pack, stretching out under the thin blanket. It was kind of ridiculous how quickly he had come to trust Jensen. It was even more absurd that Jensen seemed to trust him. Jared supposed he could only return the favor.

And with that, he fell asleep.

Jensen joined a half dozen other people gathered around the largest fire. He recognized the blonde woman who had been waiting at the boat and who had later cheered at their wedding—Briana, he thought. Chad was sending everyone in different directions with instructions for exchanging information and sending signals. There was some kind of birdlike whistling involved that Jensen thought he could handle, given a little practice.

Then Chad was standing in front of him, arms folded over his chest. "What are you doing here?"

Jensen straightened up. "Taking my turn."

"Thanks, but we don't need your help," Chad replied, narrowing his eyes.

"You're on the run like this because of me," Jensen retorted. "Because of what I told you about Morgan."

"Yeah, and for all we know, you're leading us to him," Chad snapped back. "So excuse me if I don't want you watching our backs."

"Are you stupid?" Jensen put his hands on his hips. "Why the hell would I be doing that? I don't want him to find me here any more than you do. And I don't even know where we're going."

"Fine," Chad nearly growled. "We've got an extra person, anyway. You can take the watch with me."

"Great," Jensen grumbled. He made sure his knife was secure at his side before following Chad into the night.

They were in a wooded area without much undergrowth, so the walking was easy enough even though clouds kept scudding over the round moon. They walked out far enough that Jensen could no longer hear the murmuring of voices around the small fires, only the wind in the branches overhead and their own feet rustling on the leaves.

When Chad came to a halt and turned to face him, Jensen instinctively put his hand on the hilt of his knife.

Chad's gaze flickered down with the motion, and he gave a slight smirk. In a low voice he asked, "Don't they trust you with a real sword, Prince Jensen?"

"I've been trained with the bow, long and short sword, and some with a knife," Jensen returned just as quietly. "Morgan's soldiers wouldn't let me travel with more than this."

"Afraid you'd fight them all off singlehandedly and free yourself?" Chad returned.

Jensen sighed. "He knows I wouldn't do anything to endanger my family. He can always send men back for them. I'm surprised he allowed me this much."

"And yet here you are, running away with Jared." Chad raised an eyebrow. "Won't your family pay for that?"

"He knows it was a kidnapping," Jensen replied. "So no, I’m only worried about the people in this camp right now."

"How noble of you," Chad replied.

Jensen sighed. Their voices had grown louder as they talked, and now he stepped forward and tried to be more quiet. "Look, I know this is not what you expected when you went along with Jared's plan," he started.

Chad threw his hands out from his sides. "Jared's plan?" he asked. "This was my idea. The whole thing. It was supposed to be so simple: do something to get back at Morgan the way Jared's wanted to do since he was a kid, and make some money so we could keep on surviving. That's it. Not add to our group with…you."

Jensen rocked back on his heels as though Chad's words had actually been a blow. "So you're the one who thought this was a good idea? That makes more sense than Jared coming up with it."

"Shut up," Chad growled.

Jensen paused, listening to the sounds around them. There was a rustling off to his left, and a moment later, a small furry creature scuttled through the leaves and up a tree, chittering at them as if to tell them to be quiet.

When he looked back at Chad, he found him glowering silently. "I get that you don't trust me," Jensen whispered, one hand held up in front of him. "I wouldn't in your position."

"And yet Jared does." Chad shook his head. "I thought he would know better after all this time."

"He seems to trust a lot of people." Jensen swept one arm towards the camp they'd left. "There's a few dozen people there who follow him when they could probably be safe at home in their beds."

Chad snorted. "Some of them, maybe. Others of them, Morgan would love to get his hands on for all sorts of reasons."

"Like you?" Jensen asked.

Chad pursed his lips for a moment, staring at Jensen. Then he said, "Yeah, like me. Because I'm such a threat to him, hiding out in the woods for most of my life."

"Because you're a good friend to Jared," Jensen replied. "If Morgan knew the real High King was out here and that you'd been supporting him all these years, it wouldn't go well for you. Not to mention, second in command is a valuable position. I understand why you're nervous."

"We can handle ourselves," Chad retorted. "We've done it this long."

"But you've never tried to strike at him like this." Jensen nodded slowly as the realization came to him. "Which is why you're really nervous. Because this was your idea."

"Shut up," Chad retorted again.

Jensen held up both hands. "It's okay. I’m going to do everything I can to keep your people safe. I want to get away from Morgan, yes, but I don't want to take anyone down with me. If it comes down to it, I'll go back to him."

"And that will fuck Jared up just as much as Morgan catching all of us," Chad hissed. "Don’t you get it? He's fallen for you in, like, a day."

Jensen shook his head. "That can't be. We got married, yeah, but only because of the prophecy."

"Whatever." Chad rolled his eyes. "Look, just take your watch, okay? And then let Jared sleep. God knows he needs it."

"At least we agree on that," Jensen muttered before moving a few steps away and turning his attention to the forest around them.

He resolutely did not think about Chad's last words. Jared couldn't have fallen for him. Jared didn't even know him. Sure, Jensen thought Jared was attractive, and interesting, and he didn't mind at all the thought of getting to know his husband better in a number of different ways…but that was all it was.

Wasn't it?

 

Jared awoke feeling like he'd slept for days instead of overnight. The refreshed feeling lasted about as long as it took him to realize that Jensen had never woken him up. At that point, he started yelling for Jensen.

When Chad came over and told him to shut up because he'd asked Jensen to let Jared sleep, Jared wasn't sure who was more taken aback—him or Jensen.

At any rate, they spent another long day walking, pausing only briefly to eat dried meat and fruit before continuing on. Jared thawed out as he walked, realizing that he did feel much better than he had the last couple of days, and that he had to be able to keep a clear head if he wanted to keep everyone safe. So he grudgingly thanked Jensen at the end of the day for letting him sleep, with a warning not to let it happen again.

Jensen only winked in response.

Jared did take his turn that night, watching the trail down which they'd come. The ground was rockier here, starting to rise into the mountains that would be several days' walk ahead on their current course. On the bright side, that made it easier to hide their tracks, if they concentrated on stepping on the rocks. It made it harder to find a comfortable place to sleep, though, and so when Jared did finally go to sleep, shaking Jensen awake to take his turn as promised, it took him a long time to fall asleep.

The next morning was cold and damp, and Jared awoke bleary-eyed. "At least we only have another day to go," he muttered.

"Will it be warmer there?" Jensen asked.

Jared gave a start and rolled over, or at least tried to. Jensen had apparently laid down beside him when his watch was over, and the blanket was tucked around both of them tightly enough that he couldn't really move. "We, uh, yeah, maybe."

Jensen raised his eyebrows.

Flushing at his lack of eloquence, Jared tried again. "It's down in a valley, so it doesn't get a lot of sunlight. But it doesn't freeze as fast as the hills, either, so it should be good."

"You mean we won't have to huddle together for warmth?" Jensen asked.

His face was only a few inches away, and Jared couldn't help looking at his mouth, remembering how it had felt against his own. When he met Jensen's eyes again, he saw enough heat there to warm him no matter how cold it was outside.

Jared cleared his throat. "We, um, we might."

Jensen suddenly grinned. "Hope so." And with that, he rolled gracefully to his feet, shucking the blanket off and heading to the stream.

Jared watched him go, admiring the breadth of his shoulders and wishing that Jensen wasn't wearing the spare cloak he'd lent him. He'd like to get a better glimpse of his—

"Breakfast?"

Jared looked up to see Misha standing over him, holding out a chunk of cheese. "Where'd that come from?"

"There's a small Hall just upstream," Misha said. "I paid them a visit last night after we arrived."

Jared accepted the cheese and took a big bite. It would have been better on some bread, but he was grateful just to have something in his stomach. "Is there more for Jensen?"

"You'll have to share," Misha replied. He looked at the blanket and said blandly, "It seems as though you have some experience in that already."

"Shut up," Jared mumbled, scrambling to his feet. "Are we ready to go?"

"Within the hour, I think," Misha replied. "The priests had no news for us, but I expected none."

"You didn't tell them anything in response?" Jared asked. "About why we're here?"

"We do regularly pass this way," Misha reminded him. "Although they seemed curious as to why we are traveling off season."

"Let them wonder," Jared returned. "So long as they keep it to themselves."

He saved half the cheese for Jensen, who examined it carefully before taking a small nibble. His expression brightened, and he gulped down the rest. "That's really good," he said. "Creamy, but there's a nice tang to it that would go really well with olives and sunflower bread."

"Well, let me see if I can get you some of those," Jared said dryly. "Maybe some wine, too?"

Jensen's cheeks pinked. "Sorry," he said. "I didn't mean—"

"No, I understand." Jared sighed. "Just reminds me of how different we are."

"How differently we grew up," Jensen said. "That's all." He must have noticed how Jared was opening his mouth to continue the argument, because he brushed the crumbs off his hands and asked, "You said it was less than a full day's travel from here?"

Jared frowned before deciding to let it slide. "It's over there." He pointed off into the distance. "See that hill with the two trees on the top? It's just on the other side of that. It's grassier than here, and there's a stream nearby."

"How defensible is it?" Jensen asked.

"From that hill, you can see half a day's ride in each direction, and the mountain will be at our back." Jared flashed a grin at him. "So it's good."

"Good." Jensen's expression was still serious. "And then what?"

"And then we wait," Jared replied. "We left instructions about where the ransom should go, and once it's clear that we haven't been followed, we'll go back to pick it up."

Jensen shook his head. "You shouldn't do that. It's too risky."

"We know what we're doing, Jensen." Jared sighed. "I know you're worried about what Morgan's going to do, but—"

"You're damn right I am. You don't need a ransom. You need to stay as far away from that spot as possible. That's all."

"We'll talk about it when we get there," Jared said, putting out a placating hand. "Right now, we're kind of exposed here. We need to get moving."

Jensen muttered something under his breath and bent down to pick up his pack. "Ready when you are," he said.

Jared led the group again, Misha and Jensen bringing up the rear once more. He would have loved to hear their conversation. They were probably talking about him—it made sense, after all: the only thing they really had in common.

Jared shook his head at himself—that really wasn't fair. While Misha knew a great deal about the world, Jensen was from a place none of them had been, and Jared knew how much Misha enjoyed learning about other places and people. That was probably all it was.

As Jared had planned, it was just after the noon hour when they approached the hill with the two trees on top. "It's just on the other side," Jared said. "We'll stop here for a moment while I make sure it's safe."

"I'll come with you," Jensen insisted.

"Maybe we have could someone other than the two most important people in our camp wandering off into the woods," Misha suggested.

"C'mon, Misha, they are newlyweds." Briana was a few feet away, grinning at Jared.

Jared's cheeks felt warm. "We'll be back in a few minutes," he said, tugging Jensen with him. "Don't go anywhere."

The group had stopped at the foot of a small rise that led up the side of the hill, and now he led Jensen up and over that rise. It was a grassy area, though there were rocky outcroppings on the far side, and the valley they were headed for had a few trees. Jared was looking forward to getting in the shade of one of those trees and lying down again. He'd pushed himself hard the last couple of days, and it would be nice to be somewhere they could rest longer.

As soon as they rounded an outcropping, Jared froze. He put out an arm to stop Jensen, silently cursing to himself as his heart sank.

Behind him, Jensen eased closer. "What is it?" he breathed in Jared's ear.

For answer, Jared pointed off to his right. There was a horseman visible in the distance, behind a tall oak tree. When he turned his head, his lips nearly brushed Jensen's cheek. "We need to get back and warn the others," he whispered. "We can't have anyone knowing we're here."

"Shit." Jensen stayed still. "Do you think he's seen us?"

Jared held his breath. After a moment, he whispered, "He hasn't moved. And I don't see any others."

"Then let's go," Jensen breathed. He started to move backwards.

Jared waited until he couldn't hear Jensen's movements and then followed him. With a quick glance over his shoulder, he kept an eye on the horseman as they fled.

He heard the shouts before they'd climbed the small rise, and he and Jensen simultaneously broke into a run. Jared drew his sword, readying himself to fight.

As soon as they topped the rise, Jared's worst fears were confirmed. There were at least two dozen horsemen surrounding their small group, half with arrows notched in bows and half with swords drawn. All were wearing the red colors of the King's Guard, including the High King at their center, watching it all with a satisfied smile.

"We're surrounded," Jared said bleakly.

 

It was Jensen's worst nightmare. He'd been afraid Morgan would find Jared and his group, but he had no idea how it had happened so quickly. And standing beside Jared, both of them with weapons drawn, made it clear that Jensen was no longer here under duress.

Which meant that whatever was going to happen, it was very, very bad.

"Drop your weapons!" the head of the King's Guard called, the red plumage on his helmet swaying in the wind. He came forward half a pace. The archers behind him had their bows trained on Jared's people, no matter what direction Jensen turned.

"Maybe if I go with him," he said under his breath to Jared while he kept his eyes on Morgan. "Let him think he's gotten what he wants."

"I'm not letting you—"

There was a thunk, and then an arrow was quivering in the ground at Jared's feet. "Drop your weapons!" the lead Guardsman roared again.

Some of the people at the far edges of Jared's group were already lowering their swords and knives. The others were looking to Jared, and Jensen put a hand on his arm. "Now," he said quietly. "Before this gets any worse."

Jared's eyes were pleading, but he didn't say a word as Jensen took one step forward and then another. Jensen held up his hands and said, "I surrender."

"All of you," the Guardsman insisted.

Jensen looked over his shoulder. With a heavy sigh, Jared nodded and lowered his sword.

Instantly, half of the King's Guard dismounted and moved forward, grabbing people and forcing them to their knees. Jensen was grabbed by the arm and yanked forward, until he was standing before the horse with the finest armor of them all. Slowly, he looked up until he saw Morgan gazing down on him, the same cruel triumph in his eyes as when Jensen had agreed to marry him with a sword at his sister's throat.

"Prince Jensen," Morgan said.

Heart pounding, Jensen lifted his chin and didn't say a word.

A hand gripped his hair at the same instant someone landed a hard kick to the back of his knees. Jensen fell to his knees, wincing as the hold on his hair kept him from falling all the way to the ground. "Kneel before your king," was hissed in his ear.

Jensen recognized the voice instantly: it was one of the men who had threatened his sister at the King's demand, though he hadn't seemed to mind doing it. He quietly seethed, eyes raised to glare at Morgan, still refusing to be obsequious.

Then he heard the ring of metal behind him, and he only had a moment to brace himself before he felt a copper collar closing around his neck.

The sounds around him dimmed, including Jared's frantic shouts. The colors before him faded like there was a veil over his eyes, and nausea briefly swam in his gut. Jensen took a few shallow breaths until he was able to adjust to his diminished senses. He might not be able to use his magic, but he still had to be able to take in everything going on around him.

"Let him up," Morgan commanded, and Jensen was hauled to his feet as unceremoniously as he'd been dropped to the ground. Morgan slowly dismounted, armor clanking, and handed his reins to another soldier before coming forward to where Jensen stood. "It's good to see you, my prince."

Jensen stayed silent, gathering his strength.

"When I heard you'd been kidnapped, I was quite upset." Morgan looked out over the group of people kneeling within the ring of armed men, most of them too far away to hear his low words. "It was a shame to lose so many of my Guards like that."

"We left them alive," Jared barked out. He was still a few paces behind Jensen, with the head of the Guards on his horse beside him, leveling a sword in his direction.

"Did you now?" Morgan looked him over and then nodded at the head Guard. In a flash, the man dismounted and dropped Jared to his knees, standing beside him with his sword resting across Jared's neck.

"Please," Jensen held his hands up, heart thumping. "I'll come with you. Just don't hurt anyone here."

Morgan continued to talk to Jared, completely ignoring Jensen. "The thing is, I can't have incompetent Guards. Their job is to protect the High King, and in this case, his betrothed. Their lives are to protect the High King. If they fail, well…" He shrugged.

Jared stared at him. "You killed them?"

"They failed me." Morgan glanced sideways at Jensen. "I'm beginning to think that you've failed me as well, my prince. Doesn't look like you've been trying too hard to get away from your kidnappers."

"All the more reason to let them go." Jensen lifted his chin.

"No, I can't do that," Morgan replied. "Might give other people the wrong idea about what happens when someone tries to take what's mine."

"I'm not yours," Jensen spat back.

"We had this conversation, Jensen," Morgan replied with a hard edge to his voice. "In your father's throne room. Don't you remember?"

"It's too late," Jensen retorted. "I'm already married."

Morgan drew his head back. "You're what now?"

"I'm married," Jensen replied.

Morgan looked at him for a moment longer, and then at Jared. "Well played, my prince. For all the good it will do you."

"Would you stop calling me—"

"I wasn't talking to you," Morgan retorted. "I was talking to Jared here."

There was dead silence for a second except for the rustle of the wind in the tall grass. Finally, Jensen cleared his throat. "What?"

Jared's eyes were a little wide, but he asked, "What happened to my messenger?"

Jensen's heart sank. That had to be how Morgan found out, and to think of the poor soul who'd given up that valuable information so readily made him shudder.

"He's back in the castle," Morgan replied. "Don't know that it's likely you'll get a chance to see that for yourself, though."

Jensen glanced at the sword resting an inch from Jared's throat, all too aware of the threat it posed. But Jared sounded calm enough as he asked, "Is that how you found out where we were? And who I am?"

Morgan shook his head. "No. I sent a rider ahead to your main camp, and when he returned and reported it was empty, we came here."

There was a slow, sick twist in Jensen's stomach that had nothing to do with the collar around his neck. The expression on Jared's face said he was feeling the same mix of confusion and dawning horror. When Jared spoke again, it was much quieter. "How did you know we were here?"

Morgan chuckled, low and deep. "Because I keep track of you, Jared. You see, it's good to know where your enemies are. Even your potential enemies who don't really have the power to do anything to you. Just in case."

Jared's eyes widened, and the lurch in Jensen's stomach grew deeper. He cleared his throat and asked, "You mean you've known he's been alive this whole time?"

"Of course." Morgan chuckled again and looked at Jared. "You thought you'd been hiding from me, didn't you? Secreting yourself away, escaping by the grace of the gods one time after another. Truth is, you're only alive because I let you be. Your little raids have been annoying, but never a threat." He reached out and grabbed Jensen's arm, hard. "Until you took something that belonged to me."

Jensen jerked and tried to pull his arm out of Morgan's grasp, but the man's grip only tightened around his bicep. "I don't understand," he said, trying to keep Morgan's attention on him and not Jared. "Why let him live? When you know he's the one who should be on the throne?"

"Watch your words," Morgan warned, giving Jensen a shake. "I'm the one who 'should be' on the throne. I'm your High King."

Jensen silently, mutinously, stared back at him.

After a moment, a cruel smile wreathed Morgan's face. "You'll pay me the proper respect soon enough." His gaze flickered down to Jensen's mouth, and Jensen couldn't help the shudder that ran over him.

Then Morgan turned to Jared. "I could have killed you with everyone else," he said. "Most men probably would have done that. But this has been useful. Watching to see who you ran to, who's hidden you over the years. I knew I could always nip it in the bud if it got out of hand, but then you've never reached very far, have you?"

 

Jared felt sick to his stomach. All this time, he'd been so grateful to the people who'd kept him safe, knowing it was at great risk to themselves. And now, it turned out that many of them might have paid for that risk, and he never even knew it.

The sword at his neck was no longer brushing against his skin, although it was still too close for him to be able to escape it easily. And where would he go anyway? His people were entirely surrounded. Even if Jensen wasn't at the point of a sword the way he himself was and with that damn collar around his neck, he had no doubt Morgan would do what was necessary to keep him in line. Maybe if Jared knew anything about the magic he supposedly had, he could do something, but as it was, he was completely helpless.

And there were so many questions he wanted to ask, but he was afraid that he either already knew the answers or wouldn't like them much anyway. Instead he asked, "What are you going to do with us?"

"Well, I suppose that's up to Jensen," Morgan replied, stroking his salt-and-pepper beard.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Jensen growled.

"You have a choice to make." Morgan's eyes narrowed. "Consider it my wedding gift to you. I would be well within my rights to put everyone here to the sword right here and now for kidnapping my husband-to-be."

"Don't do that," Jensen said quickly. "Please."

"So that's the choice you wish to make?" Morgan asked.

Jensen glanced nervously at Jared. "What's the other option?"

"It's simple, my prince. As Jared here has pointed out, even if I've known all along that he's been hiding out in the woods, most people don't. And I can't have him running around unsupervised any longer. Not when he's threatened the life of my future husband."

"Not when he is my husband, you mean," Jensen retorted, and Jared felt a flare of pride in him.

That flare was quickly quashed when Morgan reached out and grabbed Jensen's chin, fingers digging into his cheeks. "All right then, we'll make it a different choice," he growled. "Option one—my soldiers execute everyone here who has lifted a hand against their king. That means all of them. Every single person here."

"No!" Jared cried out.

"Option two," Morgan went on, his attention focused on Jensen. "You execute the head traitor. Right here and now. And I let everyone else go free."

Jared's stomach dropped, and he could see Jensen's eyes widen. "No," Jensen breathed out. "I don't believe you. You wouldn't let them go."

"I'd have to have some of my men keep an eye on them, of course. Until I'm confident they've been integrated back into society." Morgan shook Jensen's jaw hard before letting go. "Better than being dead, I'd imagine."

Jensen's gaze shifted to Jared, more fearful than Jared had ever seen it, even at the point of his own knife. It was an impossible choice that Morgan was asking him to make, and yet there was only one thing that made sense. "Do it, Jensen," Jared said as calmly as he could. "You have to save my people."

Jensen shook his head. "I can't do that, Jared. I can't..." He looked from Jared to Morgan and then at the dozens of people around them, all sitting quietly under the supervision of the soldiers. When he looked back at Jared, his gaze was bleaker than Jared had ever seen it.

"He'll kill them all," Jared said. "You know he will. If it's just me, well." He swallowed.

"He'll kill them all anyway," Jensen growled. "If not here and now, then in some other way."

"And if you spare me, but none of them? He'll kill me anyway. He has to, in order to marry you."

Morgan broke in. "Now, let's not be rash," he said. "The High King has the authority to declare any marriage performed in the kingdoms as void. There's no need to kill your boy here. In fact, it might be better to have him close at hand, maybe somewhere in the lower floors of the castle. Should you need any reminders of your place," he added.

"Jensen, no. I'm making the choice for you," Jared insisted. "You have to do it. You have to—" The sudden lump in his throat caught him off guard, and he had to clear it before he could go on. "You have to kill me. It's—it's the only way to keep them all safe." He didn't dare move, but he looked around as widely as he could to indicate the people kneeling on the ground around them.

"Jared, I can't!" Jensen's voice was low, but his anguish was clear. "Not only because I—" He stopped, looking like his heart had been caught in his throat. He briefly shook his head and went on, "Because if you're not here anymore, there's no one who knows the truth. No one else who was there and knows who you really are." He lowered his voice and added, "No one else to fulfill my prophecy."

Jared swallowed hard. "At least this way we'll fulfill mine." He gave Jensen a weak smile. "Told you they don't always come true in the way you expect."

Jensen's hand flew up to his mouth. For a moment, Jared saw his eyes glisten. He looked around at everyone assembled there, and finally at Morgan, who was watching their conversation with a smirk twisting his lips.

Finally, Jensen gave a deep sigh and held out his hand. "Give me your sword," he said to Morgan. "I'll do it."

Jared's stomach dropped, even though he knew it was the right decision. "That's good, Jensen," he said, hating the quiver in his voice. "It's the right thing to do." Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw the archers shifting position, keeping their nocked arrows aimed in his direction, but out of the way from where Jensen would soon be standing next to him.

"My sword, huh?" Morgan asked.

"Let me offer mine, my lord." It was the guard standing behind Jared, and he lifted the blade away from Jared's neck before offering the hilt to Jensen in one smooth motion.

A flicker of something like frustration passed across Jensen's features before he gave a slight nod and accepted the sword. Jared wondered if he could have been hoping to catch Morgan unarmed. Not that it would do them any good. The moment he sprang at the High King, a dozen arrows would be flying in his direction. There was nothing more they could do.

Taking a deep breath, letting the crisp spring air fill his lungs for the last time, Jared bowed his head. At least he could do this to make it easier on Jensen.

He heard soft footfalls on the grass, and then he saw Jensen's boots in front of him, coming slightly to his left side. Jared closed his eyes, bracing for the rushing sound of the sword descending and for everything to end.

Instead, he felt Jensen's hand on his hair, right at the crown of his head, as Jensen's voice rang out loud and clear. "The thing is, everyone should know the truth. Everyone here should know that this man is not just a prince. He is the rightful High King."

Jared jerked his head up so fast that his nose bumped into the heel of Jensen's hand. He looked up between Jensen's fingers, dumfounded. Jensen was giving him a small, fond smile, and he slid his hand along Jared's forehead in a caress before resting it on the top of his head again. "This man is Jared Padalecki." He eyed the soldiers gathered around them. "In case you didn't know that. The crown prince of Verdania and rightful ruler of all the kingdoms."

"The Padaleckis were all lost in the attempted coup, twenty years ago." It was the Guardsman who'd given Jensen his sword, speaking from over Jared's shoulder. "Everyone knows that."

"All but one," Jensen said. "And they weren't 'lost.' They were killed. Deliberately. By that man." He raised the sword and pointed it in Morgan's direction.

There was a murmuring among Jared's people, but the guards were silent and still, their swords still at the ready, their arrows still drawn and aimed at Jared. He bit back the urge to ask Jensen what the hell he thought he was doing and instead looked at Morgan.

The man was silent with a reddish tinge to his cheeks. Jared was suddenly terrified for Jensen, and he almost insisted that Jensen stop talking and just do it already.

Then the guard was speaking again. "Our High King would never do such a thing."

Jared's terror finally boiled over into rage of his own. "He wasn't High King when he did it," he spat out. "He was my father's trusted advisor. And he led the coup. He turned on his fellow traitors and claimed he was too late to save my family, but at least he could avenge them. And the priests were so grateful that they gave him the damn throne."

There was a rustling sound around them, soldiers shifting their weight on the grass, exchanging glances with each other, chain mail rustling with the movement.

Morgan's voice rang out. "A man can claim anything is true when his neck is on the line," he scoffed. "The Padaleckis were dead before I could save them. Even the children, may the gods rest their souls. This is the desperate story of a desperate man."

"You know it's true." Jensen was still pointing his sword in Morgan's direction, and he gave it a shake before moving it around in a slow sweep. "It's what you were taunting him with just now. And you know it's true, too," he said to the members of the Guard, "if you'll only look at him. You've seen their portraits in the castle, right? You know how they looked, same as I do. Their nose, their eyes, their faces. I recognized Jared almost as soon as I saw him. If you look, you will, too."

The rustling grew louder. Jared kept as still as he could, aware of the dozens of eyes suddenly on him.

Off to his left, he saw one of the guards lower his bow, and his heart gave a quick, small leap.

The Guardsman who'd been standing behind him came around to his front. He was shorter than Jared had expected, but even without his sword, he still looked dangerous. He had a helm on that covered his forehead and nose, his dark brown eyes narrowed as he took Jared in.

Suddenly, Jared had a flash of memory. "Sheppard?"

The Guardsman drew back. "How do you know—?"

"You were a member of my father's Guard," Jared said. "You had charge of me and my brother sometimes. When the—when the coup happened, you were away. I thought sometimes that if you had been there, my brother might have survived as well."

"Jared?" The Guardsman reached out and took a hold of Jared's chin, turning his head side to side. He let go to brush at the mole on Jared's neck, and then, featherlight, across the one on his cheek. After a moment, he breathed out a long sigh and said quietly, "Sweet goddess, it is you."

Jared was looking to the side, and so he saw another man lower his bow. He noticed Jensen watching the soldiers carefully, his hand tight on the hilt of Sheppard's sword. Slowly, carefully, Jared rose to his feet.

"But how?" Sheppard asked. "How are you here?"

"He hid beneath his mother's dead body." Jensen's voice rang out over the field. "And he thought he made his way to safety. But now we know: Morgan let him live so he could ferret out those who helped him. People like the ones around you here, people who wanted the prince to survive. People who know the truth. Like you now do."

"These are all lies." Morgan raised his own sword, dangerously near Jensen's. "None of this is true."

"This is Jared Padalecki." Sheppard put a hand on Jared's arm. With his other hand, he was reaching for the knife hanging from his belt. "I knew him as a boy. I'm not the only one here who did." He took a step back and said, "See for yourselves."

Jared looked around, trying to make eye contact with as many of the Guard as he could. His hands were fairly itching to be holding a blade, but unless Sheppard had another one secreted away, he was out of luck.

Two more bows were lowered on his left, and then all of them on the right. One archer remained aiming at Jared, and Sheppard turned toward him. "Did you not hear me, Abel? This is your king. Put down your damn bow."

"Sorry, I—"

"I am your king!" Morgan stepped forward, sword raised. "And I command all of you to do as I say. Kill this traitor and all of his people, now!"

There was silence for a moment. Then Sheppard turned around. "There's a traitor here, all right. And as the Captain of the King's Guard, I command that he be remanded into our custody."

"You cannot—"

Sheppard raised a hand. "Guards?"

Instantly, the bowmen redrew and aimed their arrows at Morgan.

Jared's knees went so weak that he actually fell back a step. Never in his wildest dreams could he have imagined something like this happening. To not only be saved from death, but to talk the Guard into supporting him instead of Morgan… He turned to Jensen, feeling the disbelieving smile spreading across his face.

Jensen had lowered the sword to his side, but he was grinning at Jared. He turned towards Jared, opening his mouth to say something.

There was a flash of movement over Jensen's shoulder. Before Jared could shout, he saw the small knife being released from Morgan's quickly-raised hand and flying through the air.

Jared flung up his hands in a defensive move, willing every inch of himself into stopping the knife. He didn't know what he was doing, couldn't channel the power he knew was within him into moving a physical object anymore than he could make Morgan disappear into thin air. He tried to push outward, and he thought he saw the knife slow in midair, but it wasn't enough.

And so he saw the knife sink into Jensen's back, the hilt quivering.

"No!" Jared lunged forward, grabbing Jensen by the shoulders to keep him from falling. "No, please, you can't—" Heart in his throat, he carefully turned Jensen around.

There was a tear in Jensen's clothing. Jared saw the tip of the knife embedded in the links of chain mail Jensen was wearing under it, the mail he'd completely forgotten Jensen was wearing. With a gasp of relief, Jared pulled the knife free.

Then he looked up at Morgan, now surrounded by the Guard. Jared's hand closed around the hilt of the knife Morgan had just thrown, hoping that his eyes were showing every inch of the murderous intent he was feeling. He took a step forward.

Quickly, Jensen reached out, hand closing over Jared's, pushing the blade down to his side. "It's a good thing I was wearing mail," Jensen said loudly. "As you advised me, Morgan. In case I ran into any thieves or brigands on the road. Good thing, since I've encountered the biggest thief of them all. The one who stole the throne."

The King's Guard were re-forming at Sheppard's command, letting go of the people they'd been guarding. Jared watched as about half of them encircled Morgan, relieving him of his sword and forcing him to sit on the grass. The other half were surrounding him, weapons drawn but at their sides. Jensen was casting a nervous glance around, but all of the Guard seemed to be going along with the sudden change in leadership.

Jensen reached up to his neck and tugged at the collar. "Shit," Jared exclaimed, moving behind him. "Sorry," he said as he fumbled with the small latch at the back.

"Not your fault," Jensen said calmly. When Jared loosened the latch and pulled the collar away, Jensen let out a huge sigh. "Thank you." He rubbed at his neck for a moment.

One of the Guardsmen started to move between him and Jensen, and Jared held out a hand. "No. If you're protecting me, you're protecting him." He looked at Jensen, intending to give him a quick smile of reassurance, when suddenly it all hit him, everything that had transpired in the last few minutes. He stood there, dumbstruck, unable to understand how dramatically his life had just changed.

It was Jensen who gave him a small, understanding smile and put a hand on his arm. "I'm his husband," he told the Guardsman. "Prince Jensen of Miramar. It's nice to meet you."

Chapter Text

They made camp there for the night, on the ground that Jared and his people had used to hide many times over the years. Morgan was under a triple guard that rotated every two hours, just in case there were any members of the Guard not willing to follow Sheppard's lead. It had been Jensen's suggestion, and he had been glad when Jared had jumped on it.

Jared's people were thrilled, of course. They clustered around him despite the Guard's presence, congratulating him and promising their fealty. It was overwhelming enough that Jensen slipped away to the side to let them have a moment with him. He knew all too well from his own experience that royalty did not often get to hold informal conversations with their people—much less when that royalty had been kept from the throne for nearly two decades. Jared was going to have a lot to deal with soon enough.

He told Misha as much when he came over to check on Jensen. "I'm not sure anyone here understands what just happened," Misha said. "I'm not sure we'll be able to persuade everyone outside this glen, either."

Jensen gave him a sharp look. "What do you mean?"

"Morgan didn't take the throne on his own," Misha replied. "There were others who went along with him. They'll still be in the castle when we get there. Having the King's Guard on our side is powerful, but it doesn't mean Jared's going to be crowned as soon as he arrives in the capital."

"Then what can we do?" Jensen asked. "I don't suppose we're going to get Morgan to sign a confession or anything."

Misha tapped his nose. "Leave it to me. Between your prophecy and Jared's, I can convince the priests I know to support him. There will be other people who recognize Jared on sight the way you and Sheppard both did, people who survived the coup and Morgan's machinations since then. I don't think it's impossible, but I don't want you to think we'll be strolling into the city and the throne room unopposed."

"Never thought we would," Jensen replied. "A man like Morgan doesn't stay in power without people of questionable character supporting him." Misha nodded, and Jensen went on, "But there has to be more of the King's Guard than this, right?"

"What's going on?" Jared asked, suddenly appearing in front of them.

Misha lowered his voice. "I think as long as Sheppard's on our side and people believe you're the rightful king, it will be fine. Which reminds me: I need to be on my way to get that process started." He sketched an elaborate bow and slipped away.

"What did he mean?" Jared asked.

"He thinks if he gets the priests on our side first, people will be more likely to believe that you're, well, you." Jensen tilted his head to the side. "We should really sit down and start talking strategy."

"Maybe in the morning." Jared's jaw split open on a huge yawn. "We still have to set up the camp." He looked pensively at Jensen. "I suppose you'll have to sleep in my tent."

"Where else would your husband be?" Jensen asked.

Jared suddenly looked more serious. "You don't have to be. My husband. I mean, I know Misha performed a legitimate ceremony, but we could claim it wasn't really. Legitimate, I mean."

Jensen drew his head back. Clearly, Chad had been wrong about Jared's affections. "Are you trying to get rid of me?"

"No! Not at all. Just—if you thought it was only a symbolic gesture, that—that would be fine. I would understand. We don't even know each other, and even in my wildest dreams I never thought something like this would happen, and—"

Stepping forward, Jensen grabbed Jared's hands, the same way they had during the ceremony. "They might have been simple vows, but I said them nonetheless. If you wish to keep me, I would be honored to be your husband."

"I—yes, I would." Jared squeezed his hands, a surprisingly shy smile spreading across his face. "I would like that."

Jensen had to lean up on his toes to do it, but he dropped a kiss on Jared's mouth that had the smile growing wider. When he was standing on his two feet again, he said, "I know this is going to take a lot of adjustment for both of us. I'm here to help you if you need it."

Jared stepped closer and murmured, "I would certainly like some help adjusting with you, if only we weren't surrounded by so many people."

Jensen felt his cheeks flush. "Once we're in the city," he said. "We need to make sure the conditions of the prophecy are met, after all."

"Absolutely," Jared nodded, trying to look as solemn and serious as he could. When Jensen rolled his eyes, Jared grinned at him. "There's room for a second pallet in my tent, anyway, once we get it set up. You needn't worry about your virtue."

"Believe me, I'm not worried," Jensen replied with a raised eyebrow that sent a pleasant shiver down Jared's spine.

Jared cleared his throat. "I appreciate the offer, though. I suspect there's a lot I can learn from you about being a good ruler."

"You've been doing great on your own," Jensen said. "Look at how you've taken care of these people for so long."

Jared's expression darkened. "Turns out there was never much of a threat to them anyway."

"It doesn't matter," Jensen insisted. "You kept them safe, kept them behind you. And really, there's just a few more people to worry about in the seven kingdoms. You can do it."

Jared regarded him for a moment. "You really think so?"

"I do." Jensen shrugged one shoulder. "And if not, I'll just take over."

Jared's eyes went wide, and he slapped Jensen on the shoulder. "You've got to be—"

Jensen shut him up with a kiss. As he'd hoped, Jared's arms went around him, and for just a moment, they were able to forget about the work ahead of them.

 

When they broke apart, Jared startled as Jensen lightly tapped him on the nose. "I know one thing that will convince people. Your magic."

Jared shook his head, feeling that familiar dread of trying and failing to use the magic that he was supposedly born to do. "I don't have any. At least, I don't have any idea how to use it. Jensen, I tried to stop the knife from reaching you, and I barely slowed it down!"

"You just need a few lessons," Jensen assured him. "I can show you some basic things that will look very impressive."

"I don't want to trick people," Jared protested.

"It's not like that," Jensen replied. "Here, like this." He stepped back and held his hands out in front of him, palms up. In a moment, the air was shimmering over his palms, and then a second later, there was fire flickering upward from both.

"Whoa." Jared instinctively took a step back. Then he realized he didn't feel any heat. "What is that?"

"Just an illusion," Jensen said. "Magic doesn't allow us to create something out of nothing, but it does allow us to temporarily fake it. Here, stick your hand in. You won't feel a thing."

Jared eyed him dubiously. He could hear the crackle of the flames, for goodness sake.

Rolling his eyes, Jensen tilted his palms forward. The fire followed, almost immediately licking at Jared's chest.

He yelped in surprise, but fighting every instinct, he stood his ground. He didn't feel anything, maybe a faint tingle where the magic flames were brushing his chest. Curiously, he brought up a finger and waved it through the fire. Nothing.

Jensen grinned and closed his hands into fists. Instantly, the fire went out. "Good. You'll get even more used to it as you practice."

"I felt something, though," Jared said. "Not like actual fire, but…something."

Jensen's cheeks looked faintly flushed. "That was me. I mean, the fire was a manifestation of me, or at least my energy, and so that's what you felt touching you."

"I see." Jared raised his eyebrows. "So you can use magic to touch people from a distance?"

He was pleased to see Jensen's cheeks growing even darker. "In a manner of speaking, yes."

"What manner of speaking?" He moved close enough to brush his fingertips across Jensen's chest, trying to replicate the sensation of the fire's touch. When Jensen shivered, he knew he'd gotten it right.

He started to say something else when he heard a voice calling him. "Yo, Prince Jared!"

Jared briefly closed his eyes. "Yeah, Chad?"

When he opened them again, Chad was striding towards him, eyeing Jensen suspiciously. "Were you trying to set my boy on fire?" he asked.

"I was showing him some magic," Jensen replied with more courtesy than Jared expected him to manage.

"Why?" Chad asked.

"Because he's going to teach me." Jared turned towards Chad, unable to keep back his grin. "It turns out I have magic after all. All this time, and I didn't even know it."

"How do you know for sure?" Chad demanded. "When did you do magic?"

Jared shook his head. "I tried with the knife Morgan threw, and I don't know if it helped. But the cuffs we put on Jensen: they did something to me."

"What did you do to him?" Chad demanded, turning on Jensen.

"Nothing you didn't do to me first," Jensen responded calmly.

"Chad, it wasn't him. I mean, yes, it was his idea, but it was a good idea."

Chad frowned. "You've tried for years to do magic, Jay. Why does it work now?"

"It's not something you can just do," Jensen explained. "It's like fighting. Anyone can pick up a sword or a knife, but if you don't know how to use it, you won't do very well in a fight."

"Pretty convenient for you, huh?" Chad asked Jensen.

Jensen took a step towards Chad and lowered his voice. Jared had to strain his ears to hear, but he thought Jensen said, "I'm not going to hurt him."

Chad looked back at him for a moment before rolling his eyes and stomping off.

"I don't understand his problem," Jared said, watching him go. "He should be thrilled. He's been telling me for years that I should try to take the throne back, and I've always told him it was a dumb idea. I don't get why it bothers him now. Why you bother him now, when there's finally a real chance."

"It's because I'm taking you away from him," Jensen said.

Jared frowned. "What do you mean?"

"I mean all of this." Jensen swept an arm around. "The King's Guard is answering to you now. We're about to ride to Verdania City and hopefully install you as the High King. You have a husband now. It's an incredible amount of change in a very short period of time, and it's going to affect everyone you know."

Jared frowned. Somehow in all his fantasies of taking back the throne and making Morgan pay for his crimes, he'd never thought about what his own life would be like. Sure, his fantasies had been about having a secure roof over his head and no worries about feeding himself or his people, but he'd never really thought of how separate he'd be from his people. Could his friends still spend time with him once he took on the obligations of being a king?

That was a worry for tomorrow. Right now, he was taking one thing at a time. "I should go after Chad."

"It can wait till tomorrow," Jensen replied.

"No, it can't. Jensen, he's been my friend since I was a child. He's stuck with me this whole time. I can't have him think that I'm getting rid of him." With that, Jared walked off after his friend.

He caught up with Chad halfway up the hill overlooking the site of their brief battle. "Chad, wait!" he called.

Chad threw back over his shoulder, "Catch up!" But he slowed down until Jared was next to him before pointing up to the top of the hill. "No one's bothered to look if there are reinforcements hiding in the hills, have they?"

"Even if there are, the Guard is on our side now." Jared put out a hand to stop Chad from climbing farther. "It's okay, Chad. We're safe."

Chad turned around to look out over the mass of red-clad Guardsmen roaming the grassy area below, intermingled with their own people in their rougher clothing in the colors of the woods. "You sure about that?"

"Morgan could have killed us all right there," Jared said. "If not for Jensen, he probably would have." He spread his arms wide. "Chad, your plan worked out even better than you could have imagined. We didn't just get money from Morgan. We got the crown."

"You got the crown," Chad muttered.

Jared tilted his head to the side. "Is that your problem?"

He heard the hurt in his own voice, and Chad must have, too, for he looked up with a frown. "God, no, Jay. You deserve it, man. I've told you for years that you should go for it, and now you have. That's fantastic."

"I wouldn't have been able to do it without you," Jared said. When Chad rolled his eyes, he went on, "No, I mean it. Not just today, but all this time. You've always believed in me, Chad. I need you to keep doing that."

"Don't you have someone else to believe in you now?"

"Doesn't mean I don't need you." Jared took a hold of Chad's shoulders, waiting until his oldest friend looked him in the eye. "I have no idea what I'm doing, you know. I need people around me I can trust. I need people who will tell me I'm being stupid when I need it."

"Sign me up," Chad replied with the hint of a smirk.

Jared grinned and squeezed his shoulders before letting go. "So we're good?"

Chad lightly slugged him on the shoulder. "You're good. I'm awesome."

Jared rolled his eyes fondly. "Of course you are."

Jensen waited as long as he could for Jared to come to the tent, but eventually his eyes grew too heavy, and he drifted off to sleep.

He dreamed about the soldiers outside, about them changing their minds and dragging him off with Morgan while Jared and all of his people were executed in the grassy field. He awoke with a shout, clapping his hand over his mouth when he saw Jared asleep beside him on the other pallet.

Jared looked younger in sleep, lips slightly parted and hair falling over his forehead. Anyone who saw him like this would find it hard to see him as the High King, Jensen thought.

Their pallets were side-by-side, almost touching, which made it easy for Jensen to reach over and brush Jared's hair from his face. Jared made a soft snorting noise, and Jensen held his breath. Jared didn't wake up, and Jensen lowered his hand and kept watching him.

He was married to this man. It hadn't really hit Jensen before in the rush of events, but now it did. And he'd not only asked on the spur of the moment, and gone through with the ceremony just as quickly, but he'd reaffirmed it when Jared had asked last night. He was in this now, for better or for worse, no matter what might happen. He was committed to someone he barely knew.

To be sure, he had started his journey many days ago expecting to be married to the High King, so in some ways, nothing had changed. Still, those ways were very few in number. Jensen had expected to essentially be a prisoner of his husband, or at least a possession rather than a partner. With Jared, everything was different. Jensen trusted him, which was a bizarre thing to feel for someone who had kidnapped him at the point of a blade only a few days earlier. At first, it had been an "enemy of my enemy" kind of thing. After only a few days, though it had evolved to something else.

It was strange to think that they were going to have a long time to explore what that "something else" was.

Jensen watched Jared's chest rise and fall, the breath moving in and out of his parted lips, and then he closed his eyes. He could hear the sounds of the wind rustling the grass outside, but he concentrated on the soft noises of Jared's breathing.

Before he knew it, Jared was lightly shaking him awake. "Hey, Jensen."

He blinked his eyes open and sat up. Jared was kneeling beside him, holding out a chunk of flatbread. "Breakfast?"

Jensen took it and started to nibble at it. "Don't suppose the King's Guard travels with kava?"

Jared smiled. "Afraid not. Is that something you require in the mornings?"

"Usually, yeah." Jensen yawned and stretched. "But I can manage."

"Good." Jared hesitated for a second, then leaned closer and gave Jensen a too-quick kiss. "Good morning."

"Good morning," Jensen raised an eyebrow. "A few more of those would help with the waking up, too."

Dimples formed in Jared's cheeks before he bent closer and kissed Jensen again, more slowly and thoroughly. Jensen's hands came up to cup Jared's face and keep him in place.

It wasn't until Jared twisted away, making a face, that Jensen realized he was still holding the flatbread in one hand. He laughed and combed his other hand through Jared's hair in apology. "I should mention, I'm not the best at getting up quickly in the mornings."

"Hopefully soon, we'll be able to indulge that." Jared touched a finger to the tip of Jensen's nose before rocking back onto his heels and standing up, at least as much as he could under the tent. "But for now, we've got to get going."

"What's the plan for today?" Jensen asked. "Ride to Verdania City as fast as we can?"

"Misha said he's got something to tell us," Jared replied. "About the priests. I guess it all depends on that."

"He's already back from talking to them?" Jensen stuffed the last of the bread in his mouth and stood up, brushing the crumbs from his hands.

"Arrived at dawn," Jared replied. "I was out checking on the guards on Morgan, and he came riding up with one of the priests he knew. Said he wanted to talk to both of us at once."

"You should have woken me up," Jensen chided him.

Jared's cheeks turned pink. "You looked like you needed to sleep."

"No more than you, I'm sure," Jensen replied.

"Well, at any rate. Shall we?" Jared held open the tent flap and nodded towards the bright day outside.

Jensen yawned and stumbled through the opening, steadied by Jared's hand on his back. He looked around the camp, surprised at how different it looked from when he'd turned in the night before. Jared's tent had been pitched in the center, and it was only now that Jensen realized there was a ring of six tents around it, with a King's Guardsman between each. Beyond those tents, Jared's people were gathered on one side and the Guardsmen on the other, both seemingly ignoring the others' existence.

In the middle stood Misha and a petite woman with long red hair, both of whom looked up as Jared and Jensen approached. She was garbed in a cream-colored gown with a simple rope belt, her hair cascading over her shoulders.

"Princes." Misha gave them a small bow.

"Misha," Jared returned.

Jensen gave Misha a nod in reply, realizing suddenly that this was a formal situation.

"May I present to you Mother Ruth Connell of the Windside Hall," Misha said with an outswept arm.

She nodded slightly at them both. "Prince Jared. Prince Jensen."

Jensen absently nodded back. "Wait, 'Mother'?"

She frowned. "Well, you can't very well call me 'Father,' now can you?"

Jensen drew his head back. "You're a priest?"

"Jensen!" Jared started beside him.

Ruth was holding up a hand. "You're from Miramar, yes?"

He nodded stiffly.

She regarded him for a moment longer, and then her eyes widened. "Well now. I always hoped I would meet the person behind this particular prophecy. I just didn't think they'd be so stupid."

"What?" Jared demanded, turning on her as quickly as he'd chastised Jensen just a moment ago.

"Perhaps that's the wrong choice of words." Ruth waved a hand in the air. "Perhaps 'sheltered' is more polite?"

"In most of the seven kingdoms, priests are female as well as male," Misha said. "I thought you would have known that."

"Oh." Jensen bit his lip. "I—I must admit, I've always tried to pay as little attention as possible to the priesthood. Given what they've prophesied about me, I've tried to avoid them as much as I can." He turned to Ruth and gave her a short bow. "My apologies, my lady. I did not mean to impugn you or your calling."

"Given what's been prophesied about you, I suppose I can understand that," she replied. "At least, given who it would have been applied to." She looked off to the edge of the camp, where Morgan was seated on the ground, being closely watched by Chad and a Guardsman. Then she looked back at Jensen with a quick smile. "Anyway. What matters is that you're here now, and apparently able to learn quickly from your mistakes."

Jensen ducked his head, and Jared gave a chuckle.

"However, there's a slight problem," Ruth went on. She turned to Jared. "With you."

Jared drew himself up taller. "What kind of problem?"

She sighed. "I understand that the Guard has accepted you as the rightful ruler. Based on the head Guardsman recognizing you as the boy he used to know."

"That's right." Jared's voice grew sharper. "And my own word, of course."

"Of course." She nodded. "You must believe that we wish this to be true. The problem is finding a way to verify it."

"I thought you stayed out of politics," Jensen cut in. "That's what Misha told me."

Ruth gave a pained smile. "This is not a matter of politics, my boy. We keep a close eye on the land, being connected to it through our prophecy. We know that the land and its people have been suffering. We know that there are two people who are destined to redeem it." She gestured at the two of them. "We want those people to be the two of you. If we were to declare that to be so, our word would be trusted. But we cannot simply say it to be true."

"Should I describe for you what it was like?" Jared demanded, taking a step forward. "To watch Morgan slaughter my family in front of me? To spend years hiding from him only to find out that he knew all along who and where I was?" He flung out an arm in the direction Ruth had been looking. "Ask him! He knows who I am."

Jensen put a hand on his other arm. "It's not that simple, Jared. She needs proof. They all do. A way to know for sure that you are who you say you are."

Jared turned to face him, brow furrowed. "Like what?"

For answer, Jensen held out his hand. A small flame danced in his palm before flickering out.

Jared's eyes went wide. "Jensen, you know I—" He looked at Ruth and then went silent.

Jensen squeezed his arm. "What would you need?" he asked Ruth. "A demonstration here and now, or one in front of your entire hall? Or in the city?"

"The city is what, a few days' ride away?" She pursed her lips. "I think that would be best. The Council of Priests would be the ones to observe and make their determination."

"Oh, that's great," Jared muttered under his breath.

Jensen gave his arm another squeeze, this time in warning. "Will you be there?" he asked her.

"Oh, dearie, I'm not one of the Council," Ruth explained. She leaned forward, eyes twinkling. "They don't think that would be any more proper than you thought of me being a priest in the first place."

"That doesn't seem right," Jared said.

"A lot of things don't seem right," Ruth replied. She looked back and forth between Jared and Jensen. "But I think we're well on our way to fixing many of those."

She nodded to them both and swept away, Misha walking alongside her.

Once she was out of earshot, Jared bent closer and hissed, "I can't do magic, Jensen! You know that! What are we going to do?"

"It takes a few days to get there, right?" Jensen asked. When Jared nodded, he went on, "So I'll teach you."

Jared raised an eyebrow. "In two days."

"You have the latent ability," Jensen pointed out. "We just need to bring it to light."

"How long did it take you to learn?" Jared demanded.

"That's different," Jensen said. "I was a child."

"I might as well be one," Jared returned. "I couldn't even use it to save your life! How am I supposed to figure it out in time to satisfy the Council?"

"Because there's no alternative," Jensen replied. "We can't base your claim to the throne on your word and my recognition of your facial features. And it's not like Morgan is going to testify on your behalf."

"There's Sheppard," Jared muttered as if he already knew the word of one man wouldn’t be enough.

"You can do this, Jared." He took both of Jared's hands in his, holding on when Jared tried to pull away. "I know you can."

"That's one of us," Jared replied. With an unreadable look at Jensen, he pulled his hands free and walked away.

 

For the next hour or so, Jared buried himself in logistical details. He talked to Kim and Briana, who vowed to work with Sheppard to keep Morgan and any of his Guard who might still support him under control. He talked to Sheppard's second-in-command, a woman named Alaina who had been one of the first to aim her arrow away from Jared. She and Sheppard hand-picked six of the Guard to ride alongside Jared and Jensen to Verdania City on the available horses while the rest of the group followed on foot.

Jared selected some of his own people for accompaniment: Misha, Genevieve, Jim, and Chad. Or at least, he wanted to select Chad, but he couldn't find him.

"He was guarding Morgan this morning," Genevieve said. "I think he went up the hill when he heard you guys were leaving already."

Jared ran a hand through his hair. "I need him to come along."

She shrugged. "Then you'd better go get him."

With a sigh, Jared trudged up the hill. After a few minutes of climbing, he spotted a figure seated at the very top, and he angled his walk in that direction. When he reached the top, he dropped down next to Chad, looking out over the view. It was flat all the way to the river, twinkling on the horizon.

"Gonna be weird to cross that river on a bridge," Jared said. "We're so used to avoiding the roads."

"Lot of things are gonna be weird, Jay." Chad plucked a handful of grass from the ground. "'Course, you've always been weird, so that's okay."

Jared punched his friend in the shoulder, mostly because he felt he was expected to. "You're coming, right?"

"Yeah, I'll be right behind you guys," Chad said. "Someone's gotta keep Morgan in line."

"Someone's got to keep me in line," Jared said. When Chad turned towards him, eyebrows raised, he went on, "They need to see me do magic. The Council of the Priests. Jensen thinks he can teach me in time, but I don't know."

"Can't be that hard, right?" Chad asked. "You're a smart guy."

"I can't do it by myself," Jared said, looking at him meaningfully.

"Dude, if I could help you learn magic, I'd've done it already."

"Chad, it's like I told you last night: I need people around me I can trust. I need to know you're there with me, not following a few days behind."

Chad shrugged. "You need someone to be in charge of everyone who's following behind."

"And I have people who can do that. I know you could, too, but this is more important." He put a hand on Chad's shoulder. "For me, all right?"

Chad squinted at him for a moment. Then he gave a sharp nod. "Okay, when do we go?"

They were ready to go within the hour. It was still before noon, and Jared was hopeful they would only need to spend one night on the road. Then again, maybe it would be better to spend two nights and arrive in Verdania City in the morning, ready to face whatever was going to come. He knew it would be difficult, returning to his childhood home after so many years away. Not to mention the meeting with the Council of Priests, which was looming as the final hurdle to reclaiming the crown that should have always been his. And that was if Jensen was able to teach him how to do something he'd been trying most of his life to figure out.

To his surprise, Jensen had claimed the large bay war horse that Morgan had been riding, though he didn't put on the armor. Mounted on the bay, Jensen towered above the group, even the other Guards. Jared had picked out his own steed, a trusty-looking grey, and he was putting a saddle on him when Jensen called out his name.

He looked up to see Jensen shaking his head. "Up here," he said, gesturing to the space behind him on the saddle. "It'll be easier for our lessons."

Jared frowned. "Can he carry both of us?"

"You didn't worry about that so much the other day," Jensen said with raised eyebrows.

Jared huffed; Jensen was right, even when it seemed like ages ago that he'd approached Jensen with much less friendly intentions. Climbing up behind Jensen, nestling close to him in the saddle and putting his arms around him to grab the pommel like he had when taking Jensen captive, made it even stranger.

Remembering that he was married to Jensen and didn't have to keep his thoughts from straying down questionable paths had him shifting his position for a moment.

"Hold on," Jensen warned. He flicked the reins, and they were moving forward, the small pack of Guards and Jared's people around them.

They spread out along the road: Genevieve and Alaina in the front, other riders interspersed behind them, and only Chad and a Guardsman named Cohen behind Jared and Jensen. They rode in silence for a while, Jared waiting for Jensen to start teaching him something.

Finally, after they'd crossed the bridge he had seen in the distance with Chad, Jared asked, "When do we start?"

"Just concentrate on the rhythm of the horse," Jensen said. "Feel how it moves beneath you, feel how its power propels us forward."

"I've ridden a horse before, Jensen," Jared snapped.

"I know," Jensen said, soothing and calm like he was talking to the animal and not to Jared. "Just pay attention. The hoofbeats on the ground, the way his muscles move, the way the wind feels. Focus on those things."

Jared shut his eyes and tried to concentrate. The steady rhythm of the horse was soothing, and he could picture the bunching of his muscles as they cantered along. He could feel Jensen's back pressed up against his chest, both of them moving together with the same rhythm as the horse, bodies moving in unison as they—

His eyes opened on a gasp, and he clutched at the pommel. Leaning that much closer brought his nose up against the side of Jensen's neck, and when he breathed in, there was an already familiar scent he'd noticed after sharing sleeping quarters. Keeping his voice low, he murmured, "I'm kind of having a problem with that."

Jensen's intake of breath sharp. His voice remained calm as he replied, "What kind of problem?"

"I'm becoming distracted," Jared went on. He curved his body more closely around Jensen's back, though he tried to keep his increasingly-uncomfortable crotch away from Jensen's rear.

"Ah." Jensen shifted back in the saddle, making all of Jared's efforts for naught. His voice was a little rougher as he said, "I can work with that."

Jared cleared his throat. "I'm not sure I can."

Jensen's low chuckle rumbled through him so that even his back vibrated against Jared's chest. "The point is, magic is part of you. It has to come from your energy. That's why copper is used to restrain magic-doers, because it blocks that energy. If you're not familiar with how it works, it might make sense to focus on another living thing and how it's using its energy. Then you can learn to recognize it in yourself."

"Oh." Jared thought about that for a moment. "So I should focus on how your muscles are moving or on the noises you make?"

"Yes. Er." Jensen cleared his throat. "Maybe also on my breathing." He took one of Jared's hands and placed it over his chest. "Or my heartbeat."

Jared closed his eyes again, chin still hooked over Jensen's shoulder. He flattened his palm against Jensen's chest, fingers brushing the hollow of his throat. He thought he felt a shiver run over Jensen, but he wasn't entirely sure. Instead, he concentrated on the steady thump beneath his palm and the lighter pulse beneath his fingertips, the rise and fall of Jensen's chest, and the warmth of his body in front of Jared's.

It should have been arousing, and Jared was sure that if he let himself think about it, it would be. But he tried to pay attention to what Jensen had said, focusing on the energy and life in Jensen rather than his physical presence. He felt Jensen relax back against him. Then, for a moment he felt something strange enough that he lifted his head with a gasp, withdrawing his arms from where they'd been wrapped around Jensen.

"Still distracted?" Jensen asked.

"No, not really." Jared put his hands on Jensen's waist to steady himself as they rode. "Just—it was really weird. It felt for a moment like I wasn't holding you, I was holding this thing—I don't know how to describe it."

"That's perfect, Jared." Jensen's voice was warm, and he turned his head to flash a grin at him. "Being able to tune everything else out and concentrate on the energy of a life force is the first thing you need to be able to do."

"It was just for a second, though."

"That's okay. It's a start." Jensen reached back and squeezed Jared's hand at his side. "We'll get you there. Now, see if you can find that place with me again. Once you can, try it with the horse."

It took the rest of the morning, but by the time they stopped for their midday meal, Jared was able to sense the form and shape of the animal carrying them: not as a horse so much as a power or force. He could feel Jensen that way, too; sometimes, both Jensen and the horse at once.

"It feels really weird," he tried to explain to Chad. "Like I'm seeing a different kind of creature than what's really there."

Chad eyed him dubiously. "How is this supposed to help you do magic?"

Jared finished chewing his dried meat before replying, "Jensen says it's the first step. Then I have to figure out how to feel myself that same way."

"Feel yourself." Chad was looking at him with such a deliberately straight face that Jared couldn't help but crack up.

Jensen was talking to Misha on the far side of their little group, but he looked up when Jared's laughter boomed out over the road. Jared caught him watching with a small smile on his face, and he grinned back before looking away.

They started riding again after only a short break. The bay seemed to have no trouble with the two of them on its back. That surprised Jared; then again, one man in full armor was probably almost as heavy as the two of them in cloaks and breeches.

"Okay, what's the next step?" he badgered Jensen once they were underway.

"You have to be able to sense your own energy," Jensen explained. "That's what you draw on when you're doing magic, so you need to be very aware of how much you have, how readily available it is, and what it will cost you to use it."

"Can you—can you use it up?" Jared asked. "I mean, hurt yourself doing magic?"

"You can use enough of your energy that you fall unconscious," Jensen said. "It's what your body will do to protect itself so that you don't completely use up your life force."

"That's good, I guess," Jared replied.

"My father had me do it once, just so I could see what it would take." Jensen shot a quick, reassuring smile over his shoulder. "I accomplished a lot before I lost it. The odds that you would need to use that much power for anything are extremely low. Perhaps when the seven kingdoms were at war with each other and the royals had to use battle magic, but not anymore."

"Okay, that is good."

"Just keep in mind, it can be tricky. You had to work past some distractions to sense another being. Trying to look into yourself—there are even more thoughts and feelings and inner voices you'll have to ignore. My mother explained once that we're used to thinking of ourselves as much more complex beings, not as animals. Stripping that away and understanding yourself as only a living being and nothing more can take a lot of practice."

"I've got what, a day and two nights to figure it out?" Jared scoffed, hoping it sounded confident. "Piece of cake." He took a deep breath and made sure he had a good grip of Jensen's waist. "Here we go."

He started with Jensen again, making sure he understood what he was searching for. It took a while for him to get back in that zone, moving past the sensations of Jensen's body pressed up against his. It briefly crossed his mind to wonder how one could do magic during sex if he'd have to detach himself from his senses like this. He pushed it aside to ask Jensen later.

Soon, he was feeling Jensen and their horse again, and he smiled to himself. Reaching out a little farther, he sensed Chad's horse behind them, and then Chad. There wasn't anything qualitatively different about the energies he could feel coming from Chad or Jensen, or even from the men and the horses. At the same time, he could feel himself sitting in the middle of these beings, yet he was still Jared.

Jared shook his head and tried again. Eyes closed, he concentrated on his own heartbeat, his own breathing. But his thoughts were soon racing, circling around the group of riders and what might be waiting for them in Verdania City. Subconsciously, he went back to Morgan and the people bringing him along, farther back to the fateful choice he'd made to go along with Chad's plan and strike against the High King. It was up to him now: he had to be able to prove he was the rightful king, and if he couldn't do that—

He opened his eyes and dropped his forehead onto Jensen's shoulder. "I can't."

"Of course you can." Jensen reached back and ruffled his hair. "It just takes some time."

"We don't have time, Jensen. This isn't magic yet. It's not something the Council can see. I need more time than I've got."

"Then we'll slow down," Jensen said. "We can spend two nights out and arrive mid-morning. That's probably better than getting there at the end of a long day, anyway."

"That's not a whole lot of time to figure out something I've never done before."

Jensen's voice was suddenly sterner. "You have it in you, Jared. I've seen it. But you have to be able to do this first. Now try again. Please."

With a sigh, Jared lifted his head and closed his eyes once more, trying to reach for something he had no idea if he could do.

They rode in silence for quite a while after that. Jensen thought the countryside around them was beautiful: gentle, green hills with sparse trees and every valley with a tiny brook winding through it. The road led across most of the little streams, and the horses barely made a splash. Once in a while, there were planks laid down for a rough bridge, reminding Jensen that this wasn't the King's Road they were on with its stone bridges. Nor was it as wide as the path he'd taken only a few days ago; he had to put up an arm from time to time to keep a tree limb from catching him or Jared in the face. There were also far fewer travelers here, since they'd only passed a handful of people on foot and one rider coming from the opposite direction.

Behind him, Jared was mostly quiet. Once in a while, Jensen heard a grunt or a sigh, both of which told him that Jared hadn't managed to center himself yet. Jensen bit back his own sigh every time that happened. He'd been so pleased when Jared had taken the first step so quickly, assuming the rest would follow and Jared would be lighting their campfire by himself that night.

Instead, Jensen was starting to wnoder if there would be a way for him to fake Jared's magic in front of the Council.

Late in the afternoon, Misha rode up to meet them. "How's he doing?" he asked in a low voice.

Jensen looked over his shoulder. Jared's eyes were closed, and he didn't give any indication that he had heard Misha. "Working on it," Jensen muttered. "How far along are we?"

"There's a good campsite in the next valley," Misha suggested. "It's a little early for the night, but there's a Hall of Priests that allows travelers to stay in their woods, and I can update them on who Jared is and what's going on. Ruth will have already send a bird on to Verdania City with the news so that the Council will be prepared for our arrival, but letting as many people as possible know the truth is paramount."

I just hope we're prepared, too, Jensen thought. Out loud he said, "Then we should stop here. Jared and I were talking about arriving the morning after next anyway."

"All right," Misha replied. "I'll ride on ahead and let them know."

They had crested the hill and were riding down towards a cluster of stone buildings when Jared gave a big jerk behind Jensen, hands briefly digging into his sides. "Sorry," he said, patting Jensen's sides. "I thought I had it there."

"It might be easier when we're not moving. Misha says there's a Hall up ahead that should be able to find room for us." Jensen patted Jared's hand on his side. "I don't think they'll mind if you're too tired to talk to them."

"I need to keep trying," Jared said. "I need to figure this out."

"Once we've eaten and can rest," Jensen said. "You're probably tired from the long day of riding."

The Hall of the Priests was a humble collection of stone buildings with thatched roofs. Jensen was used to seeing more elaborate quarters for the priests, but then he really only knew the ones who were based at the palace. He and Misha managed to convince them that Jared needed time to rest after their ordeal of the previous day. In no time, they were sitting beneath a tall, broadleaf tree towards the back of the property, munching on skewers of freshly-cooked meat and handfuls of berries that were sweet enough to make Jensen's teeth ache.

"I love these things." Jared wolfed down another mouthful. Jensen dropped his remaining handful into Jared's outstretched palm, and Jared grinned at him. "Thanks," he said before swallowing them down.

"If you ate them one at a time, they'd last longer," Jensen said.

Jared shook his head. "If I eat them one at a time, I might not get to eat them all."

Jensen was taken aback. "I forget sometimes how different our lives have been."

Raising an eyebrow, Jared asked, "My failure at magic hadn't already made that clear?"

"You're still learning," Jensen pointed out. "Don't call it failure yet."

Jared rolled his eyes, licking the last bit of berry juice off his fingers before brushing them together. "Then I better get back to it, right?"

"I'll help you," Jensen said. He held out a hand, and Jared took it. "I want you to do what you've been doing—tuning in to my energy. Then, I'm going to center myself, and I want you to see how different it feels."

Jared nodded, suddenly looking serious. He closed his eyes, drawing in a deep breath.

Jensen concentrated on the sounds around them: the rustle of leaves overhead as the evening breeze blew, the trickling stream behind them, the murmur of voices from the Hall. He could slip into his centering mode as easily as could be, but for now, he would just wait and listen.

He could tell when Jared had achieved his first step, because his hand went lax in Jensen's. Smiling, Jensen closed his eyes and drew himself inward to that space where everything was light and energy.

He could sense Jared beside him, and not just because his energy was different than that of any other living thing; it was because they were seated so close together. Jensen waited calmly, keeping his mind clear.

He had no idea how long it took until the shape of Jared's energy began to change. Or maybe "shape" was the wrong word—maybe it was the color or the intensity or some other word. He'd never had to describe it to anyone before Jared: his parents and siblings knew what he meant, and no one else would understand how doing magic felt.

Whatever it was, when Jensen opened his eyes, he saw Jared grinning back at him. "I did it!" he exclaimed.

Before Jensen could move, Jared was tugging him closer and planting a kiss on his lips.

He didn't object, exactly, but it was a sudden rush of sensation after the quiet calm he'd just been experiencing. So he didn't really respond, and when Jared pulled away after a moment, there was a frown on his face. "I'm sorry," Jared immediately apologized. "Was that not okay?"

Jensen blinked. "No, it's fine, I just—wasn't expecting it." He smiled at Jared. "Got reason to celebrate, huh?"

Jared nodded, the smile returning to his face. "Just for a bit, but now I know what I'm reaching for, if that makes sense."

"It makes perfect sense. It's so hard for me to describe because I've been doing it for so long. I'm glad you've got it, Jared." He leaned closer and returned the kiss like he should have a moment ago.

Jared made a low noise in the back of his throat, and then his free hand was cupping Jensen's cheek. Jensen let go of their joined hands to run all of his fingers through Jared's hair, enjoying the feel of it even as their mouths continued to press against each other.

When they broke apart, they were both a little flushed. "Wow," Jared blinked. "I'm not sure I'm going to be able to concentrate on anything else after that."

"You need to." Jensen stroked his thumbs along Jared's cheekbones before letting go. "Tuning out physical sensations and sensing only yourself is vital."

Jared pouted. "Can't we kiss a little more first?"

"Tomorrow," Jensen said. "If you're good."

"Oh, I'll be good," Jared purred, throwing in a wink for good measure that made Jensen smile.

They practiced again until Jared was satisfied that he had really made it to the second step. "Now what?"

"Now, we sleep." Jensen held up a hand before Jared could protest. "You've worked really hard today. You need to rest in order to be able to do magic. And that's what we're going to do tomorrow."

"Okay." Jared looked disappointed, even as he agreed. "I mean, I got this far in one day, so I should be able to pick up even more tomorrow, right?"

"Well, you won't be casting memory-scenes like I did for you, but I think you can get the basics down, yeah." He clapped Jared on the shoulder. "After some rest."

 

Jared slept as soundly as he could ever remember doing. It wasn't just the exhaustion of the past couple of days. His life had fundamentally changed, and even if there was a lot of work ahead of him yet, he felt safe in a way he hadn't since he was a child. Morgan had fallen, he had Jensen on his side, and in a couple of days, he would be able to get the priests in his camp as well. Then hopefully the rest of the population would follow.

If everything went well.

They were a few hours down the road before Jared was able to settle himself back into the proper mindset. "Centering," Jensen had called it, and it was harder to do on the back of a moving horse than in the quiet clearing the night before. Still, by the time Jensen was satisfied that Jared could do it, it was already midday, and Jared was growing impatient.

"Can you show me how to create fire?" Jared asked. "Like you did?"

"It wasn't real fire, Jared. It was an illusion. But yeah, I think that would be a good place to start." Jensen shifted in his seat so he was looking over his shoulder at Jared. "Now, you have to be patient."

Jared nodded quickly.

"What you're going to do is take some of that energy you sense in yourself and try to push it outward," Jensen instructed. "Like this." He held out his hand, palm up. "Think about the heat and light of a flame, about what it would look like in your palm." A moment later, there was a flickering ball of fire in Jensen's hand. "It doesn't require a lot of energy since it's only the illusion of a fire. So don't push too hard."

"Okay, got it." Jared wiped his sweaty palms on his breeches. "This isn't going to scare the horse, is it?"

"Not unless you actually manage to conjure fire," Jensen said dryly. "And that's a lot harder to do."

"Okay, good." Jared took a deep breath. "Here goes."

Once Jared found his way back to that centered place, he focused on pushing outwards, like Jensen had said. He could feel the edges of his body, where his energy stopped, and he tried to nudge a little beyond that. It was hard to hold his mental image of himself and also picture what fire would look like, how it would feel. He was briefly distracted by the thought of how dumb he looked holding his hand out with his eyes closed as they cantered along down the road.

He hadn't figured it out by the time they stopped for lunch, and he hadn't figured it out by mid-afternoon, either. Jensen had suggested trying to create the illusion of water instead of fire, and that hadn't been any more successful. By the time they stopped for the day in a clearing just off the main road, Jared was ready to give up.

He stomped off as soon as they'd dismounted, knowing that he was leaving everyone else to set up camp, but somehow not caring. If he couldn't do this basic thing by tomorrow, something a royal teenager could do, they would all be lost.

After a few minutes, Jensen came to find him where he was sitting with his back to a rock beside a small stream. Jared braced himself for more tips or suggestions or encouragement. Instead, Jensen pushed his shoulder. "Move forward."

Jared inched himself forward on the grass, hunching his shoulders.

Jensen swung a leg over the rock and sat behind Jared, nestling up against him. "Here," he said, putting an arm across Jared's shoulders and pulling him back. "Relax."

"I can't relax, Jensen. I have to figure this out, like now."

"You've got time." Jensen's other hand started to move through Jared's hair, over and over.

As ready as Jared had been to argue why he couldn't keep trying if nothing was going to work, he had to restrain himself from the opposite. He couldn't just lie here in Jensen's arms, either; he had to do something.

But he was exhausted, and Jensen's hand in his hair felt so good. "Just a nap," he muttered. "Then I'll try again."

"That's right, Jay," Jensen murmured in his ear. "Just relax."

In no time at all, Jared was in that half-asleep, half-awake state where everything was distant and blurry. He felt Jensen's chest rising and falling behind him, and it was already habit to slip into that other state where he sensed them both as energy. He could feel that he had less energy than earlier in the day, so there probably wasn't much sense in trying the fire illusion again. Maybe Jensen was right, and he just needed to rest.

Jared's hands had fallen at his sides, palms up, while he sat back as though Jensen were a large chair. He started to wonder what it would actually feel like to do magic—would he feel the energy leaving his body? Would he sense the power he was exerting? Would he actually feel the heat of the fire, even if it was only an illusion? How would he get used to seeing fire in his hands and not have the instinctual reaction of pulling away?

In his half-awake state, Jared could almost feel the heat on his palms. It was kind of uncomfortably warm, and he was impressed with how vivid his imagination was. Maybe that was what he needed to concentrate on in order to—

"Jared!"

Jensen's voice startled him awake, and when Jared looked down, he saw singed grass beneath his hands. His palms were bright red. "Ow," he said weakly.

"C'mon, get up!" Jensen was tugging beneath his arms, and it was only then that Jared realized the grass wasn't completely done burning. He stumbled to his feet and a few paces away, looking down at his hands.

Jensen stomping at the grass, and soon the fire was out. "Are you okay?" he asked.

"I—I think so." Jared looked up. "Did I just set myself on fire?"

"You might have." Jensen took Jared's hands in his, turning them over. "Does it hurt?"

"A little." Jared was relieved to see that his palms didn't appear as red as they had at first. He hadn't even realized he was hurting himself.

"What did you do?"

"I just—pictured the fire. Imagined how hot it would be, and then I really felt it." Jared blinked. He had actually done it. He had done magic, apparently without really trying. Or maybe he'd been trying the wrong way all day, and what he really needed was to trick himself into it. He tried to remember the paths his thoughts had taken, if he'd been centered before imagining the fire or if the sensations had come first. He needed to ask Jensen about that, if maybe he'd been doing the order of things wrong; maybe the way a child was taught wasn't the same way an adult should be taught, and maybe—

"Can you do it again?"

Jared's eyebrows shot up, and butterflies suddenly fluttered in his stomach. "You want me to do that again?"

"Not for real. Not with the actual heat. Just the light. Do you think you can do that?"

Jared was wide awake now, his palms were tingling, and there was excitement building in his gut that maybe, just maybe, he could actually do magic. None of those things were conducive to repeating the experience. But Jensen was gazing at him with so much hope, fingers wrapped around Jared's, that he knew he had to give it a shot.

 

A few minutes later, Chad's voice boomed out. "What is going on here?"

"Just a minute," Jensen threw over his shoulder. His hands were up at the level of his head, fingers spread wide, before he started to slowly lowering them. "Check on Jared?"

"What'd you do to him?" Chad growled, but Jensen was too busy to respond.

"Why is it raining?" Misha asked. "Or really, how is it raining?"

Jared's voice was small and miserable. "I set a tree on fire."

Jensen made sure the mini-raincloud he'd created was putting out said fire, and then he turned around. "It's okay, Jared," he said, putting his hands on Jared's shoulders. "It'll be fine. It's not going to spread. Now, are you okay?"

Jared's palms were redder than before, but the skin wasn't torn or abraded, and there didn't seem to be any blisters forming. "I think so."

"Go put your hands in the stream," Jensen suggested. "The cold water will help."

Jared crouched down and stuck his hands in a small pool at the side of the stream. He winced at first, but then he seemed to relax.

"What happened?" Chad demanded.

"It was supposed to be the illusion of fire," Jared said over his shoulder. "Like you saw Jensen doing the other day. Only I have no idea what I'm doing, so I guess I made an actual fire. And I freaked out and kind of threw it away from me, and it caught the tree, and, yeah. Jensen had to make a little rainstorm to put it out."

"You set yourself on fire?"

Jared nodded sheepishly.

"That's awesome!"

"What?" Jensen asked.

"I told you, you could do it," Chad said triumphantly. "That's magic, Jay."

"I…" Jared blinked. "Yeah, I guess it is."

Alaina spoke up from beside Misha. "I don't suppose the Council of Priests is going to be too pleased if you set their chambers on fire."

Jensen glared at her. "Jared just needs to learn to control it. After that, he'll pass with flying colors."

She looked dubious, but she stayed quiet.

"Well, we have some dinner prepared for you when you're ready," Misha informed them. "And I can find bandages, if you need them."

Jensen watched everyone else file off, Chad giving a thumbs-up on the way. Then he sat down on a large rock next to where Jared was crouched at the edge of the stream. "Are you okay?"

"It hurts a little, but I've had worse." Jared looked up at him from beneath his bangs. "Do you really think I can control this? Or create the illusion and not the real thing? I mean, I wasn't even trying to make actual fire. I have no idea what I'm doing."

"We'll figure it out." Jensen rubbed his shoulder. "You've come so far already, Jared. I can't see why you won't be ready by the time the Council meets."

Jared sighed sat back against the rock, shaking the water off his hands. He looked off to the side. "Sorry," he offered to the tree.

Jensen hid a smile. "It'll probably grow back," he said. "Only some of the branches were aflame."

Jared frowned. "I thought you said magic couldn't change the nature of things. Didn't we just do that? We both made something that wasn't there a moment ago."

"Not really. Fire isn't a thing, it's a kind of energy. And there's always water in the air, except in the driest of deserts. You just have to know how to pull it out. You're not changing the nature of the air or the energy, you're just shaping it."

"I don't know." Jared pointed at the smoldering tree. "That tree seems to have had its nature changed pretty substantially."

"Ah." Jensen grinned. "Now you're starting to understand how magic can be so powerful."

"Not really."

"Think of it like this. You might not be able to change the nature of something directly, but you can make use of something else that can do it for you."

Jared was quiet for a moment. Finally he asked, "So I can't set a tree on fire by myself, but I can create fire and let the fire burn the tree?"

"And I can't eliminate the fire, because it's your doing, but I can create the raincloud that does it for me."

"Huh." Jared slowly nodded. "That makes more sense."

"There are more direct ways to use energy, of course. That punch I sent at you as a test, the one you blocked by instinct."

"We're not going to start doing that, are we?" Jared looked alarmed.

"No, I don't think that would be a good idea." Jensen put his arm around Jared's shoulders, pleased when Jared rested his head against Jensen's knee. "We'll stick with the fire. Really, we should backtrack to the illusion of fire. And maybe we should work on pulling water from the air, too, just in case."

"Probably a good idea," Jared murmured, closing his eyes.

Jensen carded his fingers through Jared's hair again, and Jared relaxed against his leg.

When Misha came to check on them a moment later, Jensen put his finger to his lips. Jared was asleep.

 

The next morning, they saddled up in silence. Jared was as nervous as he'd been in years, even more so than when he'd headed off with Chad and Misha and the crew to kidnap Jensen. Even though he'd made Jensen practice with him last night until he could legitimately produce fake fire, not the real thing, he was still afraid that he wouldn't be able to do it in front of the Council.

Jared kept those fears to himself. He was riding home today, as he'd dreamed of doing for so many years. Not sneaking in during the night like he'd imagined, but entering as himself, as who he was supposed to be. The King's Guard was with him, Jensen was at his side, and soon everyone else would join them.

"You are not riding that horse together."

Jared frowned at Alaina. "What do you mean?"

She rolled her eyes. "You're claiming to be the High King. My lord. The High King doesn't share a horse."

"She's right, Jared," Jensen pointed out. "I'll double up with someone else."

"No way." Jared shook his head. "If you're worried about appearances, my husband will ride his own horse as well."

Alaina crossed her arms over her chest. "The King's Guard needs to be able to move quickly in case of an attack. We can't do that if we're two to a horse."

Chad piped up, "I'll share with Genevieve."

"No, you won't," said Genevieve and Jared at the same time.

Jim shook his head. "Mine's got about all it can handle carrying me."

They all turned to Misha, and he sighed. "I knew there would be a price for claiming the second largest mount."

Shortly after they emerged onto the road, Chad and Misha having worked out how to share the saddle, they came to a crossroads and turned left. Soon, they weren't going for a minute without seeing another person, either on foot or on horseback. Jared had been hoping to practice his fire some more, but there was no way he was taking the risk in front of strangers' eyes. Their fellow travelers quickly moved aside when they took in the red cloaks of the Guard, looking with curiosity at Jared, Jensen, and the others in their midst.

"They probably think we're being hauled to the dungeons or something," Jared murmured to Jensen after they passed a small group of women that had stared more intently than the rest.

"Misha did say they'd sent word on ahead of time, didn't he?" Jensen replied.

Jared drew his head back. "You don't think—they don't know who we are, do they?"

Jensen shrugged. "Might make things easier if they did."

They rounded a bend in the road with the city walls suddenly visible at the end of a long straightaway. The broad gate was open in the wall, the drawbridge lowered across the moat. The road was lined along one side with vendors and peddlers from where they were all the way up to the gate, and people and carts were blocking the road for nearly the whole distance.

Jared suddenly remembered Market Day as a child—running around the stalls under the watchful eye of a Guardsman, using the copper pennies his father had given him to buy fruit or candy even if the merchants tried to give it to him for free. It had been one of the best parts of the week, smelling the cooking meat and seeing the shiny rows of fruits and vegetables, taking in the swirl of people and the excitement of the day.

Right now, Jared just wanted to turn tail and leave.

He suddenly realized that he was even less prepared for this kind of thing than he was for the Council of Priests. He'd tried to stay hidden for years, for the sake of himself and his friends. Now, he had to be as open about who he was as possible, had to make people believe he was who he said he was. And it wasn't going to stop. Once he was High King, he'd be even less able to come out to the Market unnoticed than he had as a child.

They brought their horses to a halt. Jared rubbed a soothing hand over his horse's neck, though it was standing rock-steady in the road.

"Can we go around?" Jensen asked.

Misha shook his head. "I think this is it," he said, looking meaningfully at Jared. "Are you ready?"

Jared gave him a weak smile. "No, but I don't have much choice, do I?"

"The Council knows that you're coming," Misha said. "It's probably best not to keep them waiting."

He looked over at Jensen, who was regarding him with the same quiet confidence he had ever since he found out who Jared really was. It had thrown him at first: how this man he'd just met, who he'd kidnapped, for God's sake, could believe in him more than he himself did. Now, Jared realized how much he'd come to rely on that, and how much he would need it in both the immediate and long-term future.

He cleared his throat. "Captain Huffman, would you do the honor of leading us forward?"

She sat taller in her saddle, the red plume on her helmet swaying in the breeze. "Your Majesties, if you would follow me?"

She set off at a walking pace, Jared falling into line behind her. From the corner of his eye, he saw Jensen move in behind him, and he felt better knowing that Jensen had his back.

Then he realized that a hush had fallen over the crowd. Every eye at the market was on them.

Jared looked straight ahead between his horse's ears. The murmuring started from the people he was passing, and then voices grew louder up and down the line of the market stalls. He couldn’t make out individual words, just a general sense of curiosity and apprehension.

As they neared the gate, Alaina raised a hand to the two Guardsmen on either side of the bridge. "Hail," she said.

"Hail," one of them replied. He looked behind her, at Jared and then at the rest of the group. "The Council has told us to expect you."

"Good," she nodded. "There will be a second group following tomorrow or the day after. Has the Council told you what to do when they arrive?"

The Guardsman's gaze flickered to Jared and then back to Alaina. "We've been told that depends on the results of this afternoon's meeting."

Jared swallowed hard. He wasn't even going to get time to practice.

"Well, see to it," she replied. Then she nudged her horse forward, and Jared followed.

He forced himself to keep looking straight ahead, even though he wanted to crane his neck in every direction and see what his city looked like after all this time. There were people in the streets who moved quickly out of Alaina's way, heads down and quiet. But there were others who watched them go, and soon it was as if the murmuring from the Market had passed through the gate along with them.

They wound their way through the narrow streets down a path that Jared could have taken blindfolded. The spires of the central Hall were visible and growing ever nearer, and soon, once they cleared the winter market grounds—yes, there it was. There was the palace, its towers grimier and not shining in the sunlight like Jared remembered, but still tall and magnificent and home.

The voices beside them in the street grew louder. It wasn't until they rounded the final corner, the palace steps at the end of the street, that Jared first heard it.

"Hail the High King!"

He whipped his head around, startled. He couldn't tell who had said it: it was a man's deep voice, but no one seemed to be meeting his eye.

Then a woman, off on his other side. "The High King!"

"King Padalecki!" came from behind her.

Jared's heart thumped faster, his palms growing sweaty. His gut was churning with nerves, but he knew this was his moment. He pulled his horse to a halt before holding up his hands and saying in a loud voice, "I am not the High King."

The crowd went silent. Behind him, there was a muttered, "Jay!" that could have been Jensen or Chad, he wasn't sure.

Jared slowly turned the horse in a circle, taking in the people around them. They looked tired and wary, but also hopeful. He pitched his voice as loudly as he could and went on, "I am Jared Padalecki, yes. I am the son of Gerald and Sharon. I was born here and grew up here as your prince. But I am not the High King." He paused and added, "At least, not yet."

Excited murmuring began before being cut off by a sharp voice. "That's right, he's not."

 

Jensen looked up, shocked.

On the steps of the palace stood a man with short-cropped blond hair in a long red robe, trimmed with gilded designs. He carried a long staff with a golden knob at the top, and he was eyeing them with distaste.

Jensen instantly felt the hackles rise at the back of his neck. This wasn't going to be as easy as he had hoped.

Jared walked his horse forward to the base of the steps with Alaina on one side of him. Jensen hurried to catch up on the other side. "No, I'm not," Jared agreed. "And who might you be?"

"Mark Pellegrino. The High King's chief advisor. The true High King."

"Well then, you're in luck, because he's right here," Jensen said, jerking a thumb to the side. "Pellegrino, let me introduce you to Jared Padalecki."

"I know who he claims to be," Pellegrino replied, his voice pitched loud enough to be heard by the gathering crowd. "And I know who you are as well. Prince Jensen of Miramar, running away from your duties and obligations in a well-planned but fake kidnapping."

Jensen quietly seethed. If he protested the "fake" part, then he'd have to admit that Jared had, in fact, kidnapped him, which was a strange thing for a claimant to the throne to do. But if he let it go—

"Prince Jensen is my husband," Jared said, voice louder than before. "And I am the last of the Padaleckis. I am here to assert my right to the throne."

"Where is the High King?" Pellegrino asked.

"Morgan will be here in a few days," Jared said. "Ready to stand trial for the coup he perpetrated twenty years ago."

"I'm sure the trial will uncover all of those who worked with him at the time," Jensen added, watching with pleasure as Pellegrino flinched.

From the top of the steps, two more people were coming down towards them. They wore the same long cream robes with rope belts that Ruth had, and Jensen felt his shoulders relax a little. Not that the priests didn't potentially pose a huge problem for them, given that Jared had to satisfy them that he could do magic. However, he didn't think they weren't likely to be as hostile as Pellegrino was. He'd been starting to center himself in case he needed to protect Jared, but now he paused.

They stayed quiet as the two priests approached, one man and one woman. When they were on the step above Pellegrino, they both turned to Jared. "You are the claimant for the throne?" the woman asked. She had long blond hair, a kindly face, and despite her formal words, her tone was warm.

"I am Jared Padalecki." Jared sat up straighter in his saddle. "And I can prove it."

"With some magic tricks that are meant to make us think there's something special about you?" Pellegrino sneered. "We don't all believe in the old legends anymore. If you think you can fool the Council into believing your story, you can—"

It was an easy matter for Jensen to flick a hand in Pellegrino's direction, twisting and thickening the air as it entered his mouth. The chief advisor fell silent mid-word. His mouth continued to move, yet no sound came out. Jensen watched impassively, and he thought he heard a snort coming from Jared.

"Did you just do that?" It was the male priest, and it wasn't until Jensen heard the wonder in his voice that he took a close look at him and realized how young he was.

Jared held up his hands.

"I confess," Jensen said. He twisted his hand in the other direction, and Pellegrino was suddenly coughing, both hands to his throat. "Sorry for the sore throat you'll likely have tomorrow," he added in as insincere of a voice as he could manage.

"Did you see him assault me?" Pellegrino demanded of the priests.

The woman lifted her voice over his complaints. "I am Samantha. This is Colin. We know you must be tired from your journey, but we also know you are likely eager to dispense with the formalities of your claim. Based on the news we've received from various Halls, we are prepared to accept you as Jared Padalecki. Should you, of course, be able to perform the magic that only royals can do." She nodded at Jensen. "As we have already seen."

"Of course." Jared's chin lifted, his voice steady. "We were told there would be a meeting this afternoon?"

"Yes, but the Council would first like you see you in private." She briefly looked at Jensen and then back at Jared. "To confirm that your abilities are your own."

"I understand," Jared said. The line of his neck moved as he swallowed. "Right now?"

"No time like the present," she said with a smile.

"Right." Jared glanced at Jensen, and even though he was trying to hide it, the growing panic was apparent in his eyes.

Jensen turned to Samantha. "As Jared's husband and a fellow royal, I'd like to be there with him."

Pellegrino cut in. "You can't—"

Jensen talked over him. "Do you have copper?"

"Jensen, no!" Jared hissed.

"It's okay." Jensen held out a hand in his direction. "I'm willing to do it."

Samantha was nodding slowly. "That would be acceptable."

"Good. Then let's go."

They dismounted and walked up the steps, Alaina staying behind to keep Pellegrino from following them. Jensen wanted to offer Jared some encouraging words, but he also didn't want to be overhead. It was vital that no one here know how difficult this was going to be for Jared. If he wanted to win his claim to the throne, Jared had to project as much confidence as possible.

But Jensen wasn't going to let him go through it alone.

They reached the top of the stairs and crossed through a doorway into a grand entrance hall. Beside him, Jared drew in a sharp breath. "You all right?" Jensen asked quietly.

Out of the corner of his mouth, Jared said, "It looks terrible, doesn't it?"

The grandeur of the hall was apparent in the tall columns gilded at their tops, the heavy tapestries on the walls, and the finely-patterned marble flooring. But it all looked…dirty. Neglected. Jensen compared it to the gleaming hall of his own home and found it definitely coming up short.

"They say it's part of the same malady afflicting the land." It was Colin, who'd dropped back to walk next to Jensen. "That the palace itself is tarnished until the prophecy is fulfilled."

"You sure it's not just Morgan failing to take care of things?" Jensen asked.

Colin shrugged. "I don't know. They tell me it's been getting worse as long as he's been High King. No matter how much the staff try to clean it."

Jensen considered him for a moment. "How old are you, anyway?"

"Old enough," Colin retorted, obviously used to answering that question.

"Sorry. I'm learning that the seven kingdoms don't all do things the same way," Jensen apologized. "I always think of priests as old men."

"Not here." Colin shook his head.

"What Colin is failing to tell you," Samantha cut in, "is that he is the youngest priest ever to sit on the Council. After making a prophecy that you should well be familiar with." She looked pointedly at Jared as they left the entrance hall and crossed a hallway before climbing a wide flight of stairs.

Jared's eyebrows shot up. "Me? The one people say is about me?"

"The one that you said was so new," Jensen reminded him. He was tactful enough not to mention the rest of what Jared had said, that it was so new as to be useless.

"Age doesn't matter when it comes to prophecy," Samantha said. "Strength does, and Colin's prophecy was scored as one of the strongest in centuries." She smiled at Jared. "It would be wonderful to have it come true so quickly."

"I'll do my best, ma'am." Jared nodded at her and then at Colin. "Sir."

Colin's cheeks were pink. "My lord."

"This is the other reason we've been preparing for you, Jared," Samantha said. "Colin knew you'd be coming soon."

And with that, she led them into a huge chamber, the largest room that Jensen had ever seen.

Ten priests were seated around a semi-circular wooden table, two empty seats on one side. There was a single, plain wooden chair in the middle of the semi-circle, and rows of empty benches waiting for an audience. The walls around them and dome above them were the same light wood as the table, and with the sun shining through the large windows, it was a very bright space.

"Prince Jensen, if you'll have a seat in the front." Samantha gestured to one of the benches. "I'll be right back, Julian," she said more loudly.

The tall, sallow man sitting at the center of the semi-circle of priests nodded.

Jensen sat down, nerves starting to thrum in his gut. Jared was standing beside him, hands down at his sides, starting to fidget. Jensen wanted to take his hand, but he was aware of the priests eyeing them. He didn't want to give the impression that this was anything but easy for Jared.

Still, he turned his head to the side and whispered, "There's a lot of wood in here."

Jared lowered his head and murmured, "Then I'd better make sure it's a fake fire." The corner of his mouth turned up before he looked away, his expression becoming serious again.

Samantha was soon back with a copper collar. "It's all I could find on short notice," she said apologetically.

"It's all right." Jensen held out a hand.

"Jensen, you don't have to—" Jared started.

"I do if I want to be here," Jensen replied firmly. He hoped Jared heard the unspoken message—that he was going to be here for Jared, no matter what it took.

Jared's grateful smile told Jensen that he knew.

"Let us begin." It was Julian, and if Jensen hadn't already guessed that he was the chief priest, the gold chain around his neck confirmed it. He gestured to the solitary chair. "Please, be seated."

Samantha and Colin filled in the empty seats in the half-circle, and Jared gracefully sat in the plain chair at the center. Jensen took a deep breath before putting the collar around his neck and clicking it shut.

The bright sunlight dimmed, and the rustle of movement from the priests all but disappeared. Jensen drew another breath and lifted his head, fighting against the fog he could feel around him. He wasn't surprised to see Jared looking at him from over his shoulder at him, concerned. Jensen gave him the strongest smile he could manage, and Jared turned back around.

"The Council of Priests has gathered here because there has been a claim to the High Throne," the chief priest began, and Jared turned back around. "A claim that the throne was stolen from the Padalecki family by the one who now occupies it."

Jared's hand tightened on the arm of the chair, but that was the only response Jensen could see. Then again, he could barely see Jared's profile from this angle, so he'd be unlikely to catch any subtle change in his expression.

"If that claim is true, there will need to be an accounting for what he has done." There was a dangerous undercurrent to Julian's voice, and then it smoothed out as he went on. "In the meantime, there is one certain way to confirm that you are who you say you are. Do you agree?"

Jared gave a single nod. "Only those of royal blood are able to perform magic."

"Indeed." He looked briefly at Jensen and the collar he wore. "Is that something you are able to do?"

"Shall I show you?" Jared asked.

"Tell us, how did you learn your magic?" The voice was that of an older woman with long brown hair.

"Excuse me?" Jared turned to face her.

Jensen could no longer see any of Jared's face from that angle. All he had to go by was his tone of voice: still strong. It kept Jensen from jumping up from his seat and demanding of this priest what kind of a question that was. That, and the fear that he would draw too much attention to himself. If the Council knew that Jared had never performed magic in his life before the previous day, this hearing might be over before it started.

"I've been on the Council for a long time," she replied. "I remember the Padaleckis. Their custom was not to train their children until they were nearly teenagers."

"What's your point, Mother Ferris?" Samantha called out across the half-circle.

Ferris gave her an overly polite smile. "The point, Mother Smith, is that even if this man is who he claims to be, he won't be able to do magic. His parents wouldn't have taught him before they died, and no one in history has ever managed to learn it on their own."

"I can do it," Jared said tightly. He looked at Julian. "Let me try."

"Please." Julian made an elegant gesture with one hand. "In a manner of your choosing."

"Okay." Jared made as if to wipe his palms on his breeches and then stopped himself. With a quick glance at the assembled Council, he closed his eyes, putting his hands palms-up on his thighs.

Even with Jensen's diminished senses, he could tell the room had gone absolutely silent. Colin seemed to be holding his breath, and Jensen almost smiled. He was so young, he had probably never seen someone perform magic before Jensen had stopped Pellegrino from talking outside. The Padaleckis would have been gone before he was born. Even then, if their family was anything like Jensen's, it wasn't as if they performed magic on a daily basis. It was just something there, latent in their blood, a way of tying them to the land and ensuring the survival of both.

While Jensen was musing about Colin, Jared still hadn't moved.

Jensen reminded himself to be patient. It took a long time for Jared to center himself with as little experience as he had. He glanced around at the priests, ready to point this out to them if need be, but they were all regarding Jared with patient or impassive expressions.

So they waited.

Colin was the first to shift in his seat. Jensen didn't think Jared had even tried to use his magic yet, and he was worried that a distraction would make it even harder, so he glared at Colin. Samantha caught his eye, and she put a hand over Colin's wrist. He went quiet, shooting Jensen an embarrassed look.

In the center of the room, Jared drew in a deep breath. He held out one hand, and Jensen thought he saw a flicker of light. Leaning forward on the bench, Jensen watched excitedly.

But it was only a flicker, and soon Jared lowered his hand and let out a sigh. "I'm sorry," he said. "This…is difficult for me."

"Were you planning on having your husband do it for you?" Ferris nodded at Jensen. "Should we check and make sure that's really copper?"

Jensen opened his mouth to speak, or possibly shout, but Samantha slammed her hand down on the table. The sudden noise made Jensen and a good half of the priests jump in their seats. "That is uncalled for. I know you're high in Morgan's favor, but don't you impugn the integrity of our process."

"She's right," Julian tilted his head to the side. "Both of them. Jared, how did you learn magic?"

Jared straightened in his seat. "Jensen taught me."

More than one set of eyebrows went up around the room, and Jensen felt those nerves in his gut again. He had not wanted this to come out lest it cause the kind of doubt he could see on people's faces right now.

Julian cleared his throat. "You've known him for a while?"

"No," Jared admitted.

"You've known him less than a fortnight." Ferris leaned back in her seat, folding her arms over her chest. "It takes years to learn magic. There's no way you did it in a few days."

Jared set his jaw. "If you'll let me try again—"

"He's the one," Colin cut in. "He's the one in my prophecy. I know he is."

Ferris's smile that time was downright supercilious. "I know you're eager to have that prophecy come true, Colin. But there's plenty of time. Most of us will be outlived by our prophecies." She turned to Julian. "I propose that we stop wasting time and move to a more conventional setting. Bring in witnesses for both sides and see if there is any merit to his story."

"Any merit?" Jared was leaning forward in his chair, his voice low. "Are you saying I didn't see my family murdered in front of me?"

She gave him the same insincere smile as Colin. "I'm saying there are different versions of what happened on the same night at the same time, and they can't possibly coexist. In the absence of magical proof, we should follow regular judicial procedures to determine the truth."

"You want the truth?" Jared rose to his feet and pointed at the ground beneath his feet. "Two floors down, in my mother's chambers. My brother and I were hiding there after the fighting broke out. Morgan's men broke down the door and started to kill her servants. She took up a sword to defend us, knowing that the Guard and their Captain had betrayed us all."

"That's not what happened," Ferris scoffed. "It was a betrayal by the Guard, but Morgan was no part of it."

"He was the one who slaughtered Jared's mother." Jensen couldn't stay silent any longer. "Then his brother, right in front of him. And an eight-year-old child hid beneath his mother's body while Morgan claimed to have saved the throne instead of stolen it."

"How would you know?" Ferris asked. "Were you there?"

"No, but it's what happened." Jared was standing tall, hands at his sides, palms forward. "It's probably easier if I show you."

Jensen recognized his own words, and he took in a sharp breath. Jared, what are you doing? There's no way you can—

To his astonishment, ghostly-white figures were forming in the space between Jared and the semi-circle of seated priests. Samantha gasped, hand coming to her mouth, and Colin's eyes were wide. Even Julian looked astonished.

They all watched as a tall woman in royal court dress attempted to shield two small boys behind her while she fought off a Guardsman with a short sword. A second Guardsman darted behind her, and a second later, one of the boys fell to the ground. The woman whirled around, and even though they couldn’t hear a sound, it was obvious she was screaming.

The first Guardsman took advantage of her distraction and plunged his sword through her back.

She collapsed to the ground, and the smaller boy fell with her. The images were growing dim, but they could see the boy hiding his face behind her back, curling into a small ball before going absolutely still.

There were soft gasps around the room, and Jensen felt a lump in his throat. It had been horrifying enough to hear Jared describe what happened to him. To see it right in front of them tore him apart.

He looked at Jared just in time to see him wobble on his feet before falling back into the chair.

"Jared!" Jensen sprang to his feet, protocol be damned. He bent over Jared and was alarmed to see a trickle of blood coming out of his nose. "Damn it, Jared, what were you thinking?"

The priests were murmuring behind him, but Jensen was concentrating on Jared, cupping his face in his hands. "Jared, can you hear me?"

He only received a low moan in response.

"Can someone get this damn collar off me?" Jensen flung over his shoulder.

To his surprise, it was Julian who came around and released the clasp, the roar of sensation flooding back. "Take care of him," he said.

Jensen was already putting two fingers over Jared's heart, closing his eyes and trying to center himself despite his desperate worry. It took longer than normal, but he was able to pull forth the strength he needed and send it into Jared. He fell to his knees with the drain of energy, but when he opened his eyes, Jared was looking back at him. "Hey," Jared said softly.

"Hey." Jensen flattened his palm over Jared's heart. "You with us?"

"Yeah, I think so." Jared took a steadying breath. "You?"

"I'm not the one who did the most amazing thing I've ever seen," Jensen replied. "Without even knowing how to do it."

Jared's smile was soft. "You showed me how. Or at least, that it could be done. I was listening to her." He pointed at Ferris, who was quietly glowering as her eyes darted around the room as though she was looking for an escape. "And I realized wasn't it just about me. About my claim to the throne, I mean. It was about my family, too, and getting justice for them. If I couldn't speak for them, then no one could. Suddenly I could see it in my head, just the way happened."

Jensen rubbed Jared's chest. "And like with the fire, once you could imagine it, you could do it."

"I suppose so." Jared looked over at Ferris and spoke more loudly. "So thank you, I guess."

There was a snort from behind them, and Jensen looked to see Samantha's eyes dancing. "We're glad you're okay, Jared."

Colin cleared his throat. "Don't you mean King Jared?"

"Not just yet." Julian was looking down on the two of them with something like a smile playing around the corners of his mouth. "But the rest will be formalities. There will be some significant changes coming to this city, and indeed, all of the seven kingdoms." He leaned a little closer and said in a conspiratorial tone, "And I’m looking forward to it."

Jensen grinned at Jared. "You did it," he said.

"I guess I did." Jared's smile was slow before it spread across his face until it seemed brighter than the sunlight through the windows. "Thanks to you."

Unable to resist the impulse, Jensen leaned up and kissed him. Jared stiffened as if in shock, but he soon returned it, and Jensen smiled against his mouth.

Yes, there were a lot of things he was now looking forward to.

 

"Thank you, but we'll be fine." Jared firmly shut the door and turned around, leaning up against it with a long sigh. He was half-surprised the Guards had agreed to stay outside his bedchamber, even if he wasn't officially the High King yet. On the bright side, it was Alaina who'd been appointed as his personal Guardsman, at least until Sheppard arrived, and she seemed willing to give him the privacy he requested. At the same time, Jared just wanted to be left alone after the beyond-exhausting day he'd had.

Well, maybe not entirely alone. Jensen was sitting in one of the two plush chairs next to the fireplace, looking at him with a little smile that was warming Jared's heart.

Jared shook his head. "I can't believe it's over. I mean, it's just starting, really, but…I'm here. I'm home. I never thought I'd be here again."

"And you're the High King." Jensen shrugged. "Or you will be, soon enough."

Jared pushed away from the door and walked over until he was standing behind the second chair with his hands on the high back. "This has all happened so fast. Not just today, but all of it. It's a lot to take in."

Jensen stood up and joined him, putting a hand on Jared's. "I know. Only a fortnight ago, I was on my way here, being forced to marry a man I despised. I knew I was going to hate it here: this city, this palace. Now, well…" He slipped his fingers through Jared's. "Now I can't wait to have you show me around."

"Me too." Jared squeezed his hand. "I mean, in my copious spare time after I learn about my kingdom plus the other six, and how to even be a king, and maybe how to actually do magic instead of a couple of tricks, and—"

He was cut off by Jensen's mouth on his.

After a surprised grunt, Jared reciprocated, leaning into the kiss. It was already warm and familiar, kissing Jensen. Among the many surprises the last week had brought, that one should hardly top the list. And yet it did.

When Jensen drew back, he pointed a stern finger at Jared. "Those were not remotely tricks. That was real, legitimate magic. You blew me away with that memory-scene. You're only getting started, Jay."

"I just want to spend months learning how to do it. All of it. Now that I have a sense of what to do, finally." He grinned at Jensen. "Thanks to you."

"I told you that you could do it." Jensen was smiling at him so warmly, Jared didn't even need the fire burning in the hearth.

"I know you did." He stepped close enough to put an arm around Jensen's waist. "I don't know why you believe in me so strongly, but I'm so grateful that you do. I couldn't have made it through the Council meeting without knowing you were right there behind me."

Jensen was shaking his head. "It wasn't me who had to believe you could do it. It was you."

"Well, that wouldn't have happened without you, either. So, thank you." Jared pulled Jensen closer, wrapping his other arm around him in a quick embrace.

At least, it was meant to be quick. Once he lowered his head and got a whiff of Jensen's warm scent, though, he suddenly didn't want to move. Jensen's arms came around him in response, hesitantly at first and then more securely. Jared closed his eyes and breathed him in.

After a moment, Jensen spoke. His voice was nearly in Jared's ear, and its low timbre made Jared shiver. "Are you sniffing me?"

Jared quickly shook his head, his hair rustling against Jensen's. "No?"

"Mmm-hmm." Jensen's hands splayed across Jared's back, holding him firmly in place. "You know, we never did get to do something very important."

Jared was finding it increasingly hard to think with Jensen pressed up against him, but he managed to blurt out, "What?"

"Consummate our marriage."

Jared's "What?" that time was more of a squeak.

Jensen's low chuckle in his ear was doing even more things to his self-control. "I mean, I'm not an expert on these things, but we probably should in order to ensure that my prophecy comes true. To confirm that we really are married." He drew back enough to look at Jared directly, his long-lashed green eyes staring up at him like a challenge. "Don't you think?"

"I—yeah, that's a good idea, but there're people right outside the door. Guards."

"Because you insisted in being in a guest room instead of the king's chambers," Jensen retorted. "You can still change your mind, you know."

Jared shook his head. "It would be weird enough sleeping in my parents' bedroom, much less having…you know."

Jensen only raised his eyebrows.

Jared let out a frustrated sigh. "Okay, here's the thing. When you live your life in hiding, it's kind of hard to, well, meet people."

Jensen's eyebrows went higher. "You mean you’ve never…?"

"No! I mean, yes, I have. Just not…not that many times."

"So magic isn't the only thing I have to teach you?" Jensen gave him a sly grin.

"I didn't say that, I just—" Jared huffed. "Just don't expect too much, okay?"

Jensen's expression softened. "We don't have to do anything, Jared. You probably want to rest, anyway."

"Oh, I'm gonna want to rest when we're done," Jared retorted. He gave Jensen the wickedest grin he could manage. "And so are you."

He had a moment to see surprise flash across Jensen's face before he started kissing him, hard and fast.

Jensen met him kiss for kiss, nipping at Jared's lips and getting his hands in Jared's hair. Jared's arms were tight around him, pressing them together from head to toe. When Jensen shifted against him, he could feel the hardening press of Jensen's groin against his, and a low noise broke from Jared's throat.

Jensen paused and then rocked against him more deliberately, mouth going still on Jared's as if to see what he was going to do.

Jared sighed into his mouth and started to do the same, rolling his hips against Jensen's. Jensen gave a low grunt and set up a counterpoint, and soon they were rubbing against each other as they continued to kiss more and more frantically.

Jared could feel the arousal building up inside of him, far faster than he would have expected. He hadn't been exaggerating a moment ago: living in hiding meant opportunities for this kind of companionship were few and far between. He didn't dare get involved with someone from his camp in case it didn't work out, and he couldn't exactly spend time with anyone in a village lest they wonder where he was from or why he was always moving. So, it had been a long time since he'd been able to release this kind of tension, and he was suddenly afraid that it was all happening too fast.

"Jensen," he panted between kisses. "Jensen, this is…I'm not sure I can…"

"Don't hold back." Jensen slid a hand down his back and then over his rear, holding Jared even more closely against him. "We got all the time we need, Jared. It's just you and me, okay?" He tilted his face up and kissed Jared again, tongue plunging into his mouth all warm and wet.

Jared was sure he'd never been so hard in his life, and when Jensen grabbed a handful of his ass and squeezed, his hips bucked forward as he gasped. He was rubbing even more frantically now, clutching at Jensen's shirt, trying to twist his tongue around Jensen's. Jensen grunted encouragement, rocking back and forth in a steady rhythm that Jared instinctively matched.

He felt his climax approaching like a runaway horse, inexorable and ever-faster. Jensen was all around him, one hand up the back of his tunic on his bare back, the other still urging him on. Jared shoved up Jensen's shirt and finally got his hands on warm skin, sighing with the pleasure of it and yet only able to think about what it was going to be like to have all of Jensen spread out for him.

And then Jared pitched over the edge with a low cry.

His hips stuttered against Jensen's as white light washed over him from behind his closed eyelids. He buried his face in Jensen's neck, licking and nipping at the sweaty skin there, feeling a second, smaller wave of pleasure wash over him as he held on to Jensen.

Jensen muttered, "Oh, goddess," and then his hand tightened on Jared's ass as he bucked forward, hard. His guttural grunt was right in Jared's ear, and Jared thought he'd never heard anything so hot in his life.

They clung to each other for a while, hands still on each other's skin, no longer clutching, but caressing. Jared breathed in deeply, the sharp tang of sex mingling with Jensen's warm scent at the nape of his neck. If he could bottle that up, he'd go around smelling it all day long if he could.

"Talk about being distracted," Jensen murmured with a pat of his ass.

Jared drew back and blinked. "Did I say that out loud?"

Jensen grinned. "You did."

"Damn." He rested his forehead against Jensen's. "Might be time for bed." Something occurred to him, and he brightened. "I get to sleep in an actual bed!"

"Mm-hmm. Sleep." Jensen's tone indicated that he wasn't thinking about sleeping any time soon. As did the slow thrust he gave against Jared.

Tired and satisfied as Jared was, his cock still gave a twitch at the sensation. "Maybe we should clean up first?"

"I had the house staff fill a basin with warm water," Jensen said. "While you were talking with your biggest admirer."

Jared flushed. "He's a good kid. I mean, he's on the Council, for the gods' sake, but he's just a kid."

"A kid who's going to see the biggest prophecy of his generation come true." Jensen caressed his neck. "Because you are going to make these seven kingdoms the finest they've ever been."

"Only because I married you." Jared dropped a kiss on the tip of Jensen's nose.

Jensen mock glared at him. "That's all I'm good for?"

Jared shifted his hips against Jensen's, delighting in the way it made Jensen's eyes darken. "I don't know, I think you're good for some other things, too."

It turned out Jared didn't get to make much use of the big, soft bed to sleep that night. He already knew that Jensen was a patient teacher. He learned that Jensen could get quite impatient when Jared was teasing him, though, especially when it involved Jared's mouth or hands on him, bringing him to the edge before holding him back.

Jared was a fast learner at all sorts of things.

The next day, every time Jared had to fight back a yawn in a meeting or ask someone to bring him another cup of kava, it was totally worth it. It was also worth it for the times he had to shift in his chair to alleviate some unfamiliar soreness, deliberately not catching Jensen's eye so that he didn't blush a royal red.

Besides, he had the rest of his life to sleep next to Jensen. Not to mention the rest of their lives to make the seven kingdoms the best they'd ever been.

And Jared didn't need any prophecies to tell him that.