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Just a Puppet on a Lonely String

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Three days and three nights into his stay in Hengstenfurt, and Jensen still hasn’t gotten used to the mornings; he doesn’t think he ever will. In yet another cruel twist of fate that shouldn’t even come as a surprise anymore, Jared’s been accommodated in Jensen’s old rooms in the royal palace, so the first thing Jensen sees when he opens his eyes in the morning is the midnight blue canopy of his four-poster bed.

His own goddamn bed. Only now it belongs to Jared, who acts as if it’s extremely generous of him that he’s willing to share. As if it weren’t a sacrilege of the worst kind for him to be invading this place that holds so many memories, memories of a life Jensen will never get back.

Age four and Jensen is inhaling the lavender of his mother’s perfume as she leans over to kiss him goodnight, her palm soft and reassuring on his cheek as she smiles and whispers, “Sweet dreams, baby boy.”

Age six and Jensen is listening to Josh’s scary stories with bated breath. Although Josh pokes fun at him when he gets scared, he stays to chase away the monsters under the bed because he might be a jerk sometimes, but he’s also the best big brother ever.

Age twelve and Jensen is staying up way too late to finish the adventurous book his father gave him, devouring the pages with wide eyes, heart beating loud in his chest with excitement.

Age fifteen and Jensen is lounging on the bed with Steve and Jason, sharing a bottle of weird-tasting southern wine they snitched from the cellars, giggling at bawdy jokes and talking big about girls and swords and fight moves.

Age twenty-one and Jensen is chuckling as Danneel weakly bats his wandering hands away with a mumbled “Lemme sleep.” She changes her mind soon though, letting out a quiet, content sigh when Jensen slides inside her, her fingers on his back and her lips locked with his as they make love until the smell of sex is heavy in the air.

The smell of sex is in the air now too, only it’s sharper, muskier, clinging to Jensen like a stain that can’t be washed off, like the itchy stickiness of come between his thighs and more of it on his stomach because Jared knows Jensen’s hot spots just as well as Jensen knows Jared’s.

It feels like a betrayal of Jensen’s people to be sharing a bed with Jared, and a betrayal of Danneel to be sharing this bed, and the guilt is like a large stone crushing Jensen into the ground, making it nearly impossible to take a breath in, let alone to get up. It would be so easy to just stay here and wait until Jared comes back from whatever meeting he’s attending. So tempting to simply stop caring. So liberating.

But that’s not why Jensen is here.

Sure, there’s not much he can do, locked up and under constant watch of the soldiers from Jared’s unit. But staying down would mean admitting defeat, so Jensen has to get up, even if he’ll spend the day doing something as useless as pacing across the room until he wears down the carpet. It’s the principle of the thing.

He winces in discomfort as he sits up, the fast movement reminding his body of Jared’s enthusiasm last night. Jared tends to get rough whenever he gets too frustrated with something, and evidently nothing is as frustrating as Heyerdahl’s company.

Jensen’s only been to two of the meetings. The second one went in similar vein to the first, even though Heyerdahl didn’t go as far with the harassment as before, mainly thanks to General Manners’ insistence that Jensen’s skills of a pleasure slave are of little importance in regards to anything on the day’s agenda. But Jensen could feel the Commander’s eyes on him the entire time, could tell whenever Heyerdahl’s look got particularly lecherous from the painful way Jared’s fingers would dig into his shoulder.

After that, Jared declared that Misha would accompany him to the meetings in Jensen’s place for now.

The first time Misha went, Jensen spent hours biting his nails and fearing for the other slave, but when Misha assured him later that Heyerdahl had showed no interest in him whatsoever, apparently deeming him no more remarkable than a piece of furniture, Jensen allowed himself to relax and be glad for the reprieve.

It’s bad that he doesn’t get to be in the middle of things like he’d hoped and has to depend solely on whatever information Jared’s willing to give him, but at least he won’t have to face Heyerdahl again.

Just the thought of Heyerdahl makes his skin crawl, makes him want to scrub himself until he bleeds. No one’s ever made him feel as dirty, as dehumanized, as that man, and nothing’s ever scared him more than those two wrecks at Heyerdahl’s feet. Than the certainty that if Heyerdahl had been the one who bought him, sooner or later Jensen would’ve ended up just like them.

He would never admit it out loud, but he’s seen and heard enough to appreciate how lucky he is that he’s Jared’s and not anyone else’s.

Fuck. No. He isn’t Jared’s either!

 

***

 

“That’s too much. No wonder they’re rioting.”

“Is it?” Jared doesn’t look mistrustful, just curious, head tilted to the side as he regards Jensen attentively. “This is the standard taxation in the Empire.”

“But you can’t compare this to the Empire,” Jensen steps closer to the table to inspect the numbers Jared’s currently going over. He can’t believe this issue hasn’t already been brought up and discussed long ago; it’s nothing but dilettantism on Heyerdahl’s part. “Your climate is much more suitable for grain production; you’ve got longer summers, milder winters, your soil’s more fertile. Your people can afford to pay that much, my people can’t.”

“Your people,” Jared repeats.

“Yes, my people. The crop yield in most parts of the Kingdom is 1:4, 1:5 at best, which means more grain has to be left for planting next season.” He can’t resist adding, “Guess we’re not as profitable as you thought we’d be. Are you sure we were worth the effort?”

“Oh, you were,” Jared’s voice drops to a lower, more intimate register as his hand curls around Jensen’s hip, tugging until Jensen follows and ends up in Jared’s lap. “Worth every effort,” he whispers, aiming for a kiss.

“Stop that,” Jensen turns his head away and taps his fingers against the open folder. “This is important. You have to talk to Manners, tell him to lower the taxes if he doesn’t want the populace to starve.”

A sigh. “Fine. So how much is tolerable?”

“After the war? I’m not sure.”

“You’re not sure?”

“I’m not a walking encyclopedia, you know. We had advisors for this kind of thing.” He pauses, taking in Jared’s smug little smirk. “You’re not a fool for needing advice; you’re only a fool for needing it and being too proud to ask.”

“Wise words.”                                                         

“My father’s.”

Jared’s eyes narrow slightly. “Your father was a wise man,” he says eventually, then slaps Jensen’s ass. “Now let me get up. I’ll go find someone who knows more about crops than we do.”

 

***

 

Dear Jensen,

It’s so good to finally hear from you, I was starting to think that something bad happened. The courier said the roads were too muddy and he couldn’t ride at full speed. Does that mean the rain season in the Kingdom started early this fall? It’s funny, all I ever did was complain about the rain, but now I miss it so much.

Jensen throws a quick glance to his right where raindrops are indeed drumming against the window panes.

I still haven’t grown accustomed to living here without you, and though I do my best not to look it, everyone around me can tell somehow, and they’re doing everything in their power to help me. I honestly hadn’t realized what great friends they all are – even Ty with his idiotic… well, everything.

Actually, they were so concerned with my well-being that they decided I need a roommate to cheer me up so I don’t just ‘sit alone in silence and brood’, as Alona put it – aptly, I must admit. They talked to the slave keeper and now Katherine is living with me. I can tell you this: there’s definitely no more silence. I know things about Katherine’s sex life I never wanted to; the woman has no conception of boundaries. Oh, and she likes to talk about Jared too, in exhaustive detail. I think she still hasn’t forgiven you for ‘stealing’ him from her.

Groaning, Jensen puts the letter down and hides his blushing face in his hands. Katherine can get very descriptive when talking about her work, which means Mackenzie now knows what Jared’s favorite position is (doggy style when he needs to let off some steam and on his back with his partner riding him when he wants to enjoy the view), whether he’s a shower or a grower (he’s actually both), what makes him go crazy (sucking his balls, kitten licks along the shells of his ears, showing how much you love his cock inside you), or what kinds of sounds does he make when he comes (loud grunts or full-blown shouts, depending on how much self-control he’s got left).

Wonderful. Just wonderful.

Jensen picks up the letter again. Mackenzie writes about Samantha’s sick father, about Alona’s crush on one of the cooks, about Misha’s kids, and about Chad’s increasingly frequent visits – he’s leaving the City soon with his troops and wants to enjoy Mackenzie’s presence as much as he can in the remaining time. There’s not much about Mackenzie herself, which means she’s still not doing that well and is trying to hide it, but there’s definitely some progress – in the previous few letters she didn’t talk about herself at all.

I have to go now; I don’t have much free time lately, too much work. Everyone in the City talks about it: Kripke’s new war campaign against ======== is starting in == days, and every aristocratic household is supposed to provide a certain amount of flags to be waved when the troops set out ceremonially. So it begins again... I pray that this is the beginning of the end. The end of the Empire, that is.

Take care of yourself, Jensen. Remember who you are, and remember that I love you.

Mackenzie

P. S.: Yes, I’m eating well. And yes, even the beef. Are you eating your vegetables? Someone should see to it that you do. Jared, would you be so kind?

“Oh, Kenzie,” Jensen mutters, shaking his head in amusement at Mackenzie’s newest jab intended to show her awareness of just how private their correspondence actually is. Hundreds of miles away, and his sister never fails to make him smile.

*

The thing is, reading letters is much easier than writing them. Jensen’s always known that, always struggled with putting words on paper. Hell, he’s never been that good with words in the first place, being much more comfortable with expressing himself through actions; but over the years, he’s learned to get around it. Most of the credit for that goes to Danneel, who complained and complained about Jensen’s significantly lacking art of correspondence whenever they were apart until he learned to be more eloquent.

But now every time he picks up the quill, he realizes he has nothing to say, especially since every letter has to be checked and approved by Jared, so it’s not like Jensen could boast about his successes in aiding the resistance movement and undermining the Empire’s influence in the Kingdom.

That is, if he had anything to boast about.

He’d known it would be next to impossible to contribute to the resistance, to slow the occupants down, to throw them off the scent of those who still fight. Jared is far too clever to let Jensen pull wool over his eyes, and what’s worse, he’s not overconfident or lost in his own world like Heyerdahl seems to be. He looks at the situation around him and sees it for what it really is, not for what he wants it to be.

And then there’s Manners, without whose consent Jared never makes a decision. Manners, who rarely talks but always watches, always sees, always somehow knows.

Which is why Jensen’s only accomplished so little so far. A few suggestions, nudges in the right direction. Settling disputes that turn out to be mere cultural misunderstandings. A false lead or misleading information dropped here and there. Begging, pleading and reasoning until a death sentence is reduced to a life sentence, a life sentence to a public whipping.

Jensen’s bargaining and making compromises, and once Manners assumes office and Heyerdahl leaves the country, once Jensen becomes more involved, it’s going to get even uglier. Because this isn’t a fairytale in which everything’s black or white, yes or no, good or bad. In which the hero saves the princess and the kingdom without having to choose the lesser of two evils, and comes out of the fight smelling of roses. That’s not how life works, oh no. Dirty hands and a conscience burdened by shady decisions, that’s what’s waiting for Jensen if he wants to help his country in any way.

Of course, Mackenzie doesn’t have to know any of this. She’s got enough on her plate as it is.

Jensen dips the quill into the ink. The tip of the quill scratches against the paper.

He writes mostly about the weather.

 

***

 

Jared tosses the folder on the table. “This is disgusting.”

“May I?” When Jared doesn’t object, Jensen picks up the papers to take a look. By the time he’s skimmed through the documents, he feels sick. “This has to stop.” So many arrests, and that’s just the numbers for this week. Heyerdahl certainly hasn’t slackened his efforts, more like the opposite – as if he’s trying to inflict as much pain and misery as he can before he’s removed from office.

“It will stop.” Jared says determinedly. “There’s not much use for confessions extracted under torture, or for any information obtained that way, for that matter. More often than not, it doesn’t get us any closer to the truth.” He snorts disdainfully. “But truth’s not what Heyerdahl is after. He just wants to watch them suffer.”

“How did he even become governor? I can hardly imagine anyone less suitable for the job.”

Heyerdahl’s popularity is a sore point with Jared, often making him so resentful that he drops his guard and talks freely, which is something that might be useful in the future. For now, Jensen nods and listens with unfeigned interest as Jared sourly explains how when Kripke’s father passed away and Kripke assumed the throne, one of his first actions as the new Emperor was to promote Heyerdahl, his childhood friend who shared his passion for blood and violence.

“What he’s doing here is ridiculous, not to mention counterproductive.” Jared’s voice is rising steadily as his anger grows. “Prisons are bursting at the seams, but finding real resistance fighters among the poor arrested bastards is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Heyerdahl doesn’t even differentiate between reasonable suspicion and denunciations from snitches, for gods’ sake!”

Jensen's first impulse is to protest that there are no snitches among his people, but luckily he doesn’t embarrass himself by actually saying so out loud. Of course there are snitches here, it’s not like the Kingdom is a country full of saints.

“Everyone knows the only reliable thing about denunciations is that they’re unreliable,” Jared grumbles, arms crossed over his chest, forehead creased as he frowns at his boots. “Most of them stem from envy or jealousy, neighbors telling on neighbors who have more crops or more cattle or a prettier wife.” He shakes his head in disgust. “Greed drives people to do all kinds of things.”

“Says the citizen of a country that lives off expansion and conquest.” It’s outrageous; the way Jared is quick to judge others while acting like his own character is unimpeachable.

Jared fixes his eyes on Jensen. “Touché,” he says after several beats of tense silence.

“Also, incidentally, doesn’t greed play a major role in your plan to pacify my people too?” Jensen’s playing with fire now, but he can’t help it. “Rewards for playing nice, for cooperating with the Imperial authorities, for selling out resistance fighters?”

“Well, yes,” Jared agrees and pushes his chair back, standing up abruptly. He starts pacing across Jensen’s former study, restless energy coming out of every pore. “But also punishments for false accusations. I want order, lawful order. Not Heyerdahl’s chaos and constant change of laws and regulations that only aim to trick the citizens into doing something illegal so he can arrest them, confiscate their property and take their families as slaves. The Empire’s rule in the Northmost Province will be legitimate.”

“Legal,” Jensen corrects him as he stands up too, sensing that some kind of confrontation is coming. “Not legitimate. There’s a difference. Your rule here will never be legitimate as long as the people are opposed to it, no matter how law-abiding you’ll be.”

Jared stops his pacing to give Jensen an intent look, head inclined to the side, hands on his hips. “You’ll just never quit, huh?”

“Sure I will. Once my people are free and there’s not one Imperial soldier in the Kingdom.”

“An ambitious dream.”

“Not a dream.”

Jared doesn’t say anything, just stares at Jensen, who stares right back. Challenging one another. Neither of them willing to back down or look away.

Then Jared exhales, slow and easy, and his serious face breaks into a predatory grin.

Jensen knows that grin and what usually follows it, so he’s prepared for the two hundred plus pounds of hard flesh and muscle when Jared rams into him, and doesn’t topple over. They stumble back in a more or less controlled fashion, crashing into various pieces of furniture until Jensen’s back hits a wall and Jared’s kissing him deep and messy.

It resembles a fight more than anything else, and Jensen knows only one way how to respond to that.

He pushes back, using the moment of surprise to create some space between them and then drives into Jared, and they’re stumbling across the room again, only now in the opposite direction. When Jared trips over something they both go down. The fall doesn’t slow them at all and the grapple continues, grunts and sharp elbows, knees and forearms, curses and hard erections, teeth and lips and way too many clothes between them.

“That’s better,” Jared says approvingly once their clothes are strewn across the floor and they’re touching, skin on skin. “Bed?”

“Floor’s fine,” Jensen counters.  Jared’s in the mood, so sex is unavoidable, but there’s no way Jensen’s doing it in that bed – his bed, damn it! – unless he absolutely has to. “Or are you afraid of a little rug burn?”

Not one to turn down a challenge, Jared shakes his head, hair flying around his face, and tackles Jensen. They are on the floor again, rolling and wrestling for control until Jared manages to gain the upper hand, using his full weight to immobilize Jensen. “Gotcha,” he rumbles and dives down for another sharp-toothed kiss.

Jensen goes slack under the assault, letting Jared plunder his mouth and grind against him for a moment before retaliating by biting hard on Jared’s lip and bucking up when Jared draws back in surprise. Jared’s hold on him eases and Jensen wrenches himself free and then he’s moving again, fast and sure until he’s the one on top, straddling Jared’s waist, hands firmly locked around his wrists.

Jared doesn’t seem to particularly mind the change of positions though, if his lazy smile is anything to go by. He rolls his hips slowly, the hot length of his cock conveniently sliding into the cleft of Jensen’s ass. “Always a fighter,” he comments happily, and his smile widens when he adds, “Just don’t forget it doesn’t really matter who’s on top. I’m gonna have you either way. I can have you any way I want.”

The words rip through what Jensen likes to call ‘the body mode’ – no names, no identities, no guilt, just two bodies doing what feels good – and just like every time it happens, he is shaken to the core by the harsh truth he normally pushes away in the interest of self-preservation.

Taking advantage of Jensen’s momentary loss of focus, Jared easily flips them over once more. “Right now, I think I want you on your back.” He’s still smiling, clearly unaware of the impact his casual demonstration of dominance had on Jensen, and Jensen’s grateful for that, thanks the gods for small mercies, and closes his eyes, hoping to get swept under by the current of physical sensations again.

Despite – or maybe because of – his best efforts, it’s not easy at first and for a while Jensen has to fake it, shivering with revulsion instead of arousal when Jared plants kisses across his neck and licks and teases his nipples, and if it weren’t for the hands holding him down, he’d be trying to squirm away from the invasive touch.

But Jared knows what he’s doing, so Jensen’s back to fully hard by the time slick fingers slip inside him and Jared’s lips close around his cock, nimble tongue pressing at the underside. Jensen gasps and his hips buck up involuntarily, trying to get deeper into the wet heat of Jared’s mouth. Jared chuckles and sucks harder, the fingers inside Jensen working faster, and Jensen lets the world around him fall away.

Suddenly Jared pulls off, kneeling up, big palms on Jensen’s inner thighs, pushing his legs open and up to Jensen’s chest and settling between them, slotting his mouth over Jensen’s as he enters him in one long, smooth thrust. He stills then, swallowing the little whimpers Jensen’s making, giving him a few seconds to adjust.

“Okay?” He asks, lips moving over Jensen’s.

“Yeah,” Jensen rasps, voice a little strained because no matter how many times they’ve done this, there’s always the initial reaction of too big, too full, too much, and braces himself for more. “Okay.”

And just like that, Jared goes from mostly civil and considerate to completely animalistic and savage, all the energy he had to contain all day unleashed at once like an explosion. Pillars of muscled arms on either side of Jensen’s head, fat drops of sweat hitting Jensen’s chest, lips drawn back in a feral snarl as he fucks into Jensen again and again with no regard for anything but his own release.

When Jensen sneaks one hand between their bodies to touch himself, Jared immediately bats it away. “That’s mine,” he warns.

“Mine to take care of,” he specifies not much later as he lets his softening cock slip out of Jensen. He scoots back, settling on his knees between Jensen’s legs. “Mine to watch.” His gaze never leaves Jensen’s face as he starts to jack Jensen with one hand while the fingers of the other push back into him. He unerringly finds Jensen’s prostate at the first go and starts to rub, his earlier single-minded hunger gone and replaced by something more tender but no less intense, and he continues to stare with rapt fascination as he brings Jensen closer and closer to the brink.

As the pleasure builds inside him, Jensen’s eyes fall closed, but when he comes he sees Jared’s face anyway; it’s automatic now, a conditioned response instilled into him from the moment he accepted the fact that his sexuality isn’t his own anymore.

“That was relaxing,” Jared says, settling on the carpet next to Jensen.

Jensen doesn’t reply, just lets out a long, shuddering breath. There’s a deep, throbbing ache in his ass and the skin on his back feels like it’s on fire, chafed raw. He’s still trembling with the aftershocks of his orgasm.

“This is exactly what I needed after a long, frustratingly boring day,” Jared keeps on talking, his tone friendly, light. “I was originally gonna suggest a quick jog or something, but this is so much better. Right?” He turns his head to give Jensen a smile, the one with bright eyes and dimples and white teeth, the one that sometimes almost makes Jensen forget what exactly it is between them.

Almost.

 

***

 

The door opens and closes but Jensen doesn’t move from where he’s standing next to the window overlooking the inner courtyard, doesn’t turn around to see who the person coming in is. He could tell Jared’s gait apart from anyone else’s.

In fact, he’s gotten so good at reading the man’s moods that he picks up on Jared’s unusual aloofness just from the quality of silence that settles in the room.

“So you heard.” Jared doesn’t specify as to what he’s talking about; he doesn’t have to.

“Yes, I heard.”

Footsteps; one, two, three. “I thought Misha would know better than to babble out everything that happens at meetings behind closed doors.”

The smile that’s taken up residence on Jensen’s lips once he pried the news out of Misha this afternoon between small talk slips away as it dawns on Jensen that he might have gotten the other slave into serious trouble. It hasn’t even occurred to him before. “He didn’t mean to,” he tries lamely, cursing himself for using Misha’s susceptibility for his own purposes. He turns around to look Jared in the face. “I tricked him into it, so if you want to punish someone, it should be me.”

“Ever the self-sacrificing hero.” Jared chuckles darkly. “Don’t worry though; Misha rectified his mistake by confessing to it as soon as he realized it. Besides, I was going to tell you anyway. So, how much do you know?”

“Just what Misha told me – that an Imperial spy has spotted Jason Manns in Ahtoburgen. Reportedly he’s been making contact with members of the Ahtoburgen high council.” He pauses. “Is it true?”

“Another source just confirmed it.” Jared’s watching Jensen closely, standing in the middle of the room with his hands crossed over his chest. Unreadable. “It doesn’t really change anything, you know.”

Except it actually might. Ahtoburgen – the confederation of eight free merchant cities in the northern coast – have the strongest navy on the continent and more importantly, they control the long-distance trade, both onshore and seaborne. Though they rarely interfere in matters that don’t concern them directly, they definitely are a force to be reckoned with; even the Empire would think twice before picking a quarrel with them. And if somebody can manage to sway Ahtoburgen in the Kingdom’s favor, it’s Jason, the most skilled diplomat Jensen’s ever seen.

Jared seems to be following the same train of thought. “They aren’t going to start a war because of your country. They haven’t before.”

He does have a point there. After all, Ahtoburgen sat by and did nothing when the forces of the Empire invaded the Ackles kingdom, despite the treaty of alliance with Jensen’s father. On their own accord, Jensen’s eyes shift downwards, to the courtyard where eight months ago he stood next to his father and watched the mud streaked messenger slide from his horse and collapse on the cobbled pavement half dead with fatigue, voice cracking as he reported that the Kingdom would have to stand alone because none of the neighbors are willing to take the risks necessary to stand up to the aggressor.

But things have changed since then.

“Not just because of us, no,” Jensen agrees, bitterness on his tongue. “They did nothing then because they were hoping Kripke would content himself with taking the Kingdom and leave the rest of the countries alone. They threw us to the lions.”

“Yes, you were the sacrificial lamb.” There’s no compassion in Jared’s voice, but no mockery either. If he has any opinion on what Jensen can’t help perceive as unforgivable betrayal, he keeps it to himself.

“But it wasn’t enough. And Ahtoburgen – and the others, too – they will have to fight if the Empire keeps up the expansion policy.” Jensen remembers Mackenzie mentioning Chad’s upcoming campaign in her latest letter. “Kripke is too greedy, too reckless; he’s doing this too fast. He plans to take over the whole continent, one country at a time, and sooner or later he’s going to get his fingers burned.”

“You know what? I think you might be right,” Jared concedes, and moves to Jensen in several long steps, his front now to Jensen’s back, chin coming to rest on Jensen’s shoulder, arms around Jensen’s waist. Not too tight or oppressive; just there, holding Jensen trapped between the window and Jared’s body. “Kripke doesn’t always listen to reason, and there’s a fair chance one day he’s going to bite off more than he can chew. But I say it doesn’t matter, not to you, not to your country. Because by then, you’ll have been long chewed and swallowed by the Empire. You’re already ours; you just don’t know it yet.”

“You’re wrong.”

“Am I?” Still no mockery. Mild amusement at best, which is worse, somehow. “Don’t be so sure. Just look,” Jared taps the window pane, pointing his finger at the courtyard and the people there. “They seem that unhappy to you?”

Truth be told, they really don’t.

There’s a group of cooks standing in a circle, enjoying their afternoon break and laughing at something Jensen can’t hear. An old sweeper that Jensen knows from childhood is cleaning horse droppings off the pavement, lips pursed as he whistles a tune. A kitchen maid is throwing amorous glances at the stable boy who hurries to help her with a bucket of water, blushing when he returns her smile.

Jensen has to admit this isn’t how he envisioned the situation in the Kingdom when he was still in the City. Whenever his thoughts carried him home, he imagined every scene in bleak, somber colors, with everyone gravely quiet. Grief-stricken faces and heads bowed down under the weight of forced subjugation, joyless conversations in hushed tones, no light.

And he has seen all of that on his journey through the country, but somewhere along the way he realized how immensely grateful he is that that’s not all he’s seen. Because no light means no life, and no life means no hope.

The laughter, the smiles, the songs and jokes, the kids running around and playing, the girls and boys dancing around campfires, that’s life, that’s survival, that’s the strength human beings need in order to remain human. It’s what kept Jensen and Mackenzie sane and in fighting spirit, and it’s what will help the Ackles people last out these hard times and come out victorious in the end.

“You’re wrong,” Jensen repeats, louder this time.

“I admire your faith.” Jared presses his body more firmly against Jensen, as if trying to counter the distance between their opinions with physical proximity. “But we’re both realists. You have to admit you’re only lying to yourself. It’s time to stop dreaming and accept the truth. There’s only so long you can keep resisting, and once you stop, you’ll be ours.”

Jensen doesn’t attempt to free himself of Jared’s increasingly suffocating hold, but he shakes his head. “No.”

The sharp huff of breath Jared lets out is slightly agitated now. “Why do you do this? Would it really be that bad for you to surrender, for your country to surrender? Manners is a just, reasonable man, and you can’t honestly claim I’m a monster like Heyerdahl either, not after all the mercy I’ve shown you and your sister. We’ll take good care of your people.” He rolls his hips as he speaks, slow, lazy, intimate. “Just like I take good take care of you.

“We don’t need to be taken care of!” Jensen replies automatically, a familiar edge of indignant fury creeping into his tone. He pushes it down, not trusting himself around Jared when his emotions are high. “We were fine before you came, we’ll be even better once you’re gone.”

“But we’re not going anywhere, boy.” The hated word is accompanied by another roll of Jared’s hips, the press of his cock against Jensen’s ass unmistakable now. “We’re staying here to make sure everyone learns to bend the knee.” His thumb brushes Jensen’s lips, the blunt tip slipping inside. “Just like you learned. Quite spectacularly, I might add.”

It’s a provocation that Jensen doesn’t respond to, biting back angry retorts, pocketing his pride for now. Jared’s innuendo stings because Jared’s not lying – Jensen did learn to go down to his knees, and he did learn to spread his legs for Jared. He did what he had to, and he survived.

Bend, but not break, that’s the key to getting through this. Bow your head when told to, then draw yourself up again, live to fight another day.

The problem is that when you bend something repeatedly, ultimately it will break. Given enough time, everything will break.

This is going to be a battle against time, the Empire’s superior power against the Kingdom’s resolve to hold on until something changes, until they get a fighting chance.

“You can’t win,” Jared says, not a hint of doubt in his voice. “Even if Ahtoburgen or anyone else decides to step in, it will be too late for you.”

“We’ll see,” Jensen replies just as firmly. “We’ll see.”

 

***

 

Dear Jensen,

I want to express my endless gratitude for your last letter. It was such an utterly fascinating read that I couldn’t even tear my eyes off the pages. I don’t think anyone’s ever been informed about anything in such depth and detail as I have been informed about the weather in the Kingdom. My beloved brother, it seems like you entirely missed your true calling – I swear, you should have became a weather forecaster.

Now if you managed just a fraction of that informativeness and articulateness when it comes to other topics, for example yourself, it would make me indescribably happy. I know expressing yourself in words has always been a daring feat for you and the fact that Padalecki gets to read every word isn’t making it any better, and I know I haven’t been exactly talkative either lately, but you have to admit there’s an upward tendency in my letters. In yours, not so much.

I’ve tried to be patient and give you time, but now I guess I’m too worried to be patient. Look, you don’t have to pour out your heart, you don’t have to confide in me with every little thing that troubles you – gods know you never did. But Jensen, please, talk to me, let me know that you’re still there, that it’s still you. I’ll sleep better at night. And you want me to sleep well, don’t you, big brother? Yes, as you can see, I’m not above using emotional blackmail. And as long as it works, I don’t give a damn.

I understand that this is so much easier for me than it is for you, because I have my friends with me, while you must probably get horribly lonely back home. But you’re not alone. You have me, and you have other people who care about you, who trust you, who pin their hopes on you. Probably more of them than you realize. You’re not alone. Please remember that. (I apologize if that was a bit sentimental, but it’s the truth. And you shaking your head and thinking ‘she’s not right at all’ doesn’t change a thing about that. So you better come to terms with it.)

I have to go now, or I’ll miss dinner and Chris will throw a fit. He’s taking this protective step-brother mission you’ve given him very seriously.

Take care of yourself, and remember who you are.

Love,

Mackenzie

Jensen puts the letter down with slightly trembling hands, blinking away the tears caught in his lashes. He takes a deep breath, holds it for several beats, releases it shakily.

He and Mackenzie are a team, sticking together in a world turned upside down, keeping each other’s heads above water. The hundreds of miles between them are an unpleasant complication, but they shouldn’t – won’t – be enough to break their bond, sever the lifeline, unless one of them lets go. And Jensen’s grip just got a hell lot stronger.

He doesn’t start with his reply right away though; he sits there for a long while, carefully weighing his words, trying to find the right balance between personal enough for Mackenzie and impersonal enough not to reveal too much to Jared who’s going to read every single line.

Not satisfied with his first two attempts, Jensen’s just about to crumple the third one – still too revealing – when it hits him, what he’s doing. He’s letting Jared dictate his life again, making concessions again, without even meaning to. He was already made a stranger in his own home, and now he’s allowing Jared to make him a stranger to the only family he’s got left. What’s next, a stranger in his own mind? That’s just one step from having no mind of his own at all.

No way. No way Jensen’s going to let that happen.

And so he starts writing, throwing his thoughts on paper in a disorganized heap of feelings and hopes and memories and doubts, random old stories, bits and pieces of life in the Kingdom as it is now, stray observations and little anecdotes, anything and everything that crosses his mind.

And if the letter shows Jared pieces of Jensen that he’s managed to keep secret from him so far, then be it. It’s better than losing those pieces altogether.

*

That night, Jensen sits still and tense as he watches Jared go over what he wrote, waiting for the ridicule to come.

But it never does.

“I’m sure this will put your sister’s mind at ease,” is all Jared says as he seals the envelope.

 

***

 

The first time it happens, Jensen thinks nothing of it. He’s sitting cross-legged on the bed, passing the time by reading a historical novel he found in his considerably reduced library, when he hears a familiar melody coming from the adjoining room where an elderly cleaning lady is scrubbing the floor under the watchful gaze of one of Jared’s men.

Jensen hasn’t heard that song since long before the war. It’s not particularly refined or polished, but that’s to be expected – after all, Jason and Steve and Jensen composed it during a late night, somewhat inebriated strumming session when they were what, sixteen, seventeen? The song, titled Stand Together, is mostly about things they knew nothing about at the time – hardships and the fickleness of fate and the power of friendship – but for some reason it became fairly popular.

The cleaning lady is humming the energetic, upbeat chorus under her breath now, moving her brush across the floor to the beat, and Jensen’s throat constricts painfully under the onslaught of sweet memories turned bitter.

It happens again the next day, with a different cleaning lady guarded by a different guard. Then with the stable boy who waits for Jared and Jensen when they return from a late afternoon ride, leaning against the wall, hands stuck down his pockets. When you feel all alone, We’ll help you carry on, Standing together we’ll take you home, those are the words to the melody the boy is whistling, and in a brief moment when Jared’s looking elsewhere, the boy gives Jensen a conspiratorial wink.

The next time Jensen hears the song – from a maidservant who comes to change the sheets – he hums along with her. She doesn’t risk glancing at him, not with the guard standing in the room, but there’s a faint smile on her face as she gathers the dirty sheets and leaves.

“Catchy tune,” the guard mutters ten minutes later with a scowl. “Can’t get it out of my head.”

“Yeah,” Jensen agrees, hiding a smirk behind his book. “Me neither.”

 

***

 

In the morning on the seventh day, Jensen wakes up so early that the rest of the palace is still asleep, no sounds coming from the courtyard, no sunlight pouring through the small slit in the drawn curtains. Everything is quiet and calm, but it’s the silence before the storm, oppressive and merciless in the inevitability of what’s to come.

Beside him, Jared stirs, blinking several times to clear his vision. Moving the arm he’d slung over Jensen sometime during the night to rest his palm over Jensen’s wildly beating heart, he asks, “Nervous?”

“So are you,” Jensen points out, touching Jared’s chest to feel the fast, irregular thump-thump under his hand. “This is a big day for both of us.”

“Yeah.” Jared sits up, running his fingers through his unruly hair in an ineffectual attempt to tame it. He looks so young like this, deceptively childlike and innocent. “Yeah, it is.”

Jensen fixes his stare on the canopy above him and concentrates on getting his breathing under control, on pulling himself together, but the sharp talons of fear shredding his insides make it extremely difficult. He hasn’t felt this bad since… well, if he’s honest with himself, he’s felt this bad a lot lately. What an encouraging thought.

“Hey, Jensen… Did you mean it, what you said the other day?”

“Mean what?”

“Do you really think you have any chance of victory?” Jared’s expression is open, unguarded.

“Honestly? I don’t know,” Jensen confesses. “But I’ll do everything for it.”

“I know. And I’ll do everything against it.”

“I know.”

*

The bell strikes noon, and Jensen lifts his eyes towards the sun overhead. It’s bravely doing what it can, but the sunrays don’t have much warmth left in them anymore.

At least it’s not raining.

The drone of thousands of voices on the main square quiets gradually, until finally there’s perfect silence. On the elevated platform decorated with Imperial flags and banners, Commander Heyerdahl starts to deliver his speech in which he says goodbye to the Kingdom and officially introduces the new governor, General Manners.

Jensen doesn’t listen, doesn’t care to hear anything the man has to say.

Manners is next speaker in line. He speaks well, coming across as both respectful and authoritative, but not offensive; his words chosen thoughtfully and deliberately in such a way that makes it hard to find anything to disagree with. He’s good, good and very dangerous, and under different circumstances Jensen would be paying more attention. But as it is, he’s finding it increasingly difficult to hear what Manners is saying. In fact, it’s getting increasingly difficult just to breathe.

“Jensen,” Jared’s voice cuts through his growing panic, low and gentle. “It’s almost time. You need to get ready.”

Jensen nods wordlessly and steps out of his shoes, bare feet on the pavement. A shiver runs through him, not just from the cold, and it only gets worse when he slips out of the long, heavy robe, now completely naked in the chilly autumn air.

“Here, let me take this,” Jared takes the robe and immediately hands it over to Misha. He’s dressed in full festive armor, all leather and polished brass and jewels, hair blowing in the wind. “I’m really sorry about this.” He shifts his weight uncomfortably before taking the set of golden shackles from a soldier standing by and locking them around Jensen’s wrists, making sure the fit is as loose and comfortable as possible. “We tried to talk him out of this, but… I’m sorry.”

Strangely enough, Jensen believes him, but the words get stuck in his throat, so he just nods again. Sure, his reason for not liking this scenario probably differs from Jared’s – parading the Kingdom’s former royalty in nothing but a set of golden chains and a leash around his neck will probably trample on the showing the friendly, civilized face of the Empire strategy that Jared and Manners are planning – but Heyerdahl wouldn’t budge on this, so here they are.

On the platform, Manners finishes his speech, and then Heyerdahl’s strong voice invites the people gathered at the square to “behold what has become of the man who once presumed to rule you all.”

“Jensen,” Jared’s large, warm hand rests on the small of Jensen’s back, giving him a slight shove. “Let’s go.”

There’s a tug on the leash around his neck and Jensen follows Jared towards the platform, ascending the few steps. Head down, staring at his feet as they make one step after another, gathering the courage to look at the men and women in the crowd.

He knows what to expect – he’s already seen it in the faces of those who have met him in the palace. A few will gloat, those who benefit from the royal house’s misfortune. Some will be indifferent, because after all, a ruler is a ruler. Most of them will avert their eyes, too uncomfortable to see Jensen like this. And some will meet his gaze, look up at him with trust and hope.

They all used to be his people, his responsibility. And no matter what Kripke or Heyerdahl or Jared or anyone else says, Jensen still considers them his people, and he’s going to fight for them.

Keeping his spine straight, he squares his shoulders and raises his head.

This is not the end.