"The first time, you can't imagine the pain."

The old woman shut her eyes and grasped Gen's hand. The other married women nodded in solidarity. Not that they had anything against Gen's inexperience, on the contrary it meant they could steer the conversation away from sex and stick to the more gratifying topic of natural family-planning. So far the word 'ovulation' had been spoken forty-two times, 'orgasm' not at all.

"Here," said one girl, sliding a medical journal across the table to Gen, "This one has some excellent advice for...you know."

Another girl broke in. "And I've found that drinking lots of water beforehand helps prevent...well..." she stammered, twisting the stem of her wine glass.

"I mean, ah, you can always start with that...that thing Dee gave you."

Gen studied her bridal shower gift. "But I thought this was a back massager."

The others exchanged looks. Danneel's gift was bright purple and came with several attachments. "That's right," one of them deadpanned, "It's for your back."

"In case, you know, you get a sore back."

Jared, who had been standing just outside the door, walked back to the ballroom with a slow flush creeping up his face. The donors were waiting, and he had a speech to give.

"Don't worry Gen," said the old woman, taking Gen's face in her gnarled hands, "You're going to make Doctor Padalecki a very happy man tomorrow."

(*)

Danneel was scarfing down chocolates and peering between her boobs for any lost soldiers when Jared touched her arm. "Oh hey you," she said, "Great speech, were you nervous?"

"Thanks, and no, I'm fine."

No need for Danneel to press the subject. Years of laboratory isolation had killed Jared's gift for small talk, and some days she was impressed that he could still form sentences.

"Um, Dee..." Jared stammered, "You're a girl."

She blinked slowly. "Yeeeeessss."

"Do you know anyone who can, um, talk to me, uh, about...it's about tomorrow night, I mean, we're friends but..."

She set down her plate. A five-year courtship during his doctoral research left Stanford's most promising geneticist little time for experimenting with his own fiancé .

"Oh sweetie," she tutted, curling a lock of his hair behind his ear, "It's like the blind leading the blind."

"I just have questions," said Jared, toying with his left ring finger, where a wedding band would sit in twenty-four hours, "And all the men here are my father's age."

"Not all of them."

He looked up, and she held up her hand with the caveat, "He can be difficult."

"I'm used to personalities."

"No really, watch yourself."

"Can he help me?"

"Oh of course, he's exactly what you need in this case. A gentleman's gentleman, worldly wise, and most importantly..." she said, eyes sliding away and back with a wicked glitter in her eyes, "...discreet."

(*)

Halfway through Jared's presentation, the brass-trimmed doors parted to admit the master of the house, a young man in a summer-weight jacket with the top shirt buttons loosened and riding boots still gleaming with rain. Jensen tossed his cloak over a chair and sat at the bar.

"Is this speech ever going to end?"

"I can't say sir," said Misha, pushing a cocktail toward him, "He's so far away I can hardly see him over the other guests."

Jensen sniffed. Having just inherited his uncle's estate, he was appalled to find a stipulation in the will requiring him to invest several million dollars in his uncle's alma mater. "Well I hope they're having fun on my dime, after tonight I'm buying a lawyer and telling Stanford they can go stand on the corner with a tin cup."

"Speaking of which, sir..."

"Don't tell me."

"A representative from the school would like to discuss this year's grant proposals," said Misha, as the speech ended and people began milling about, "I took the liberty of reserving the library later this evening."

Jensen drained his glass and listened to the ice tinkle as he set it down. "Why the hell's science gotta be so expensive?"

"It takes years to determine which biological markers predispose an individual to certain behaviors," said Misha, in the fine tradition of butlers who are exponentially better educated than their masters, "And frankly Doctor Padalecki's research is a bit controversial for the more discerning patrons."

"What kind of research?"

Misha's eyebrows lifted. "You mean you don't know?"

Danneel wafted up, putting her lips close to his ear. "Can I steal you for a minute?"

He stared at some distant spot over her shoulder. "You can tell me here."

Danneel ran her blood-red nails through his hair, still wet from his evening ride at the stables. "I found a little lost lamb in the woods."

"Boy or girl?"

"Boy."

"On a scale of one to ten?"

She made a vague hand gesture. "I don't like mine too skinny, so a seven?"

"I like sevens. I had a seven that looked like you once," said Jensen, pressing his tongue to the back of his teeth, "She liked to crawl around on all fours."

"Aaw, did you drop your ben-wa balls on the carpet?" said Danneel, patting his hand, "That's why I wear pantyhose."

Jensen lifted his drink to her in salute, then nodded to Misha to make her a cocktail. He never could abide thin-skinned women. "Yeah okay, tell him to come round my rooms after the party. Til then," said Jensen, pushing off from his stool, "I've got business to see to."

(*)

Jared loved playing the piano. First place in a high school competition had secured his entrance at Stanford, edging him out over the hundreds of other applicants with top grades and equally perfect board scores. Checking to see that he had the library to himself, he cleared away old wine bottles stacked atop the lid and ran through a quick chord progression. Old Mister Ackles had been good to him at the last fund-raiser, and he surely would not want his Steinway going to waste.

"In eines Köhlers engem Haus
Hab' Obdach ich gefunden;
Doch meine Glieder ruh'n nicht aus:
So brennen ihre Wunden."

He looked up when he spied another face reflected in the sideboard, and turned toward a wing-backed chair by the fire, his usual shyness forgotten. "I didn't see you there," said Jared, eyes alight as he swung his long legs around, "What do you think of the arrangement?"

Jensen stared at Jared, frozen, acutely aware of this stranger's knee touching his, his warm, expressive face disarmingly close. His chair faced the fireplace in such a way that no one would have seen him upon entering the library, and he'd been quietly nursing a champagne bottle to take the edge off boredom.

"I…"

"It's not the original Schubert," Jared continued, "The Barenreiter edition always drops a few notes. I had to dig up the original score ages ago and invent my own fingerings, do you think Mister Ackles has the Winterreise song cycle lying around? I love Schubert's darker works, don't you?"

"Um…"

"Here," said Jared, turning back to the keys before Jensen could answer, "I once played Die Erlkonig for a competition ages ago, I think I still remember it."

Jared flexed his left hand, so wide he could easily clear twelve keys. "This song used to frighten me, especially on rainy nights like this," said Jared, "Does Goethe frighten you?"

"What a question." Jensen said, mostly to himself. The rain fell so thick outside that Jensen felt as if the room were underwater, the air pressing on him. He shook his head, staring at the back of Jared's neck. "I never was into poetry."

"The beginning is the best," said Jared, demonstrating with an ominous little phrase, "It starts with a horse."

A corner of Jensen's mouth lifted. "A horse?"

"Here," said Jared, patting the side of the piano bench, "There's plenty of room."

Jensen detached himself from the chair, still holding onto the champagne bottle. He sat down. "You want a drink?"

Jared eyed the bottle. It looked expensive. "Sure."

Jared took a long drag, sucking it down to foam, and the room softened around the edges, the fire casting everything in rosy shadows. Alcohol, along with dating, dancing, and any music written after 1885, was forbidden in Jared's family, and he glad to have a co-conspirator his own age. Passing the bottle back, he caught Jensen staring at him, a dark glitter set far back in his green eyes like precious stones.

"So um, the song," said Jared, swaying a little, "Ah, a man and his son are riding through a storm. The boy is ill."

He trilled low octaves to summon up a vision of thunderclouds. "And Death calls out to him."

Lightning flashed in the window, throwing their shadows across the room. All the light seemed to gather around Jared, bangs shading his face as he bent over the keys.

"Over and over the boy refuses Death's offer," said Jared, his shoulder lightly touching Jensen's, "And eventually Death realizes he doesn't need permission."

Outside, the other guests hurried to their cars, headlights swinging around the front of the house and vanishing in the rain. "What happens next?" asked Jensen.

Jared slipped his arm around Jensen's waist to reach a low chord. "Death had never loved anything so beautiful, and if the boy would not come willingly," said Jared, breath warm on Jensen's cheek, "He would come...unwillingly."

Jensen closed his eyes, the music washing over him. Jared was young, but had a man's body and a voice like timber and molasses. Jared's face drifted closer, reaching for the final note that would signify the boy's death.

CRACK.

The electricity cut out. A wind swept through the library, curtains billowing out as the fire in the grate bent drunkenly and winked out. Remembering himself, Jensen lept up and fastened the latch, his body momentarily etched in lightning as he struggled to close the window.

"Sorry about that," said Jensen, looking for matches to light the candles, "Old houses, you know?"

"Do you live here?"

He studied Jared's candid expression. While Jensen had endured a lonely childhood with no brothers or male cousins, Jared had come from a big family used to casual contact, and what Jensen had taken for a seduction was to Jared no more than the tender friendship between two men. Their little moment at the piano had not left a mark on Jared's soul.

"Yes," said Jensen, touching the flame to a candle wick, "It's my house."

Jared looked down at the champagne bottle, wiping dust off the label. A tiny portrait bearing Jensen's likeness, or at least his ancestor's, sat beneath the brand name. "But I thought Mister Ackles was very old."

Jensen pinched the match between his thumb and forefinger. "He was."

"That's unfortunate." said Jared, sad for the loss of his patron, now unsure of his future in research. Jensen seemed amiable enough though...

Jared stood up, shaking the empty bottle. "We should make a toast to his memory."

One stumbling trip to the cellar later, the men returned to the library with a bottle apiece, dropping cushions on the floor beside the fire and laying back and letting their eyes unfocus as Jared explained his research.

"I still don't get the science side of things," said Jensen, tipping his bottle back, "But you seem to know what you're doing."

"A picture will make more sense," said Jared, pulling out his smartphone, "Here's what I've spent the last five years on."

A man's skull stood propped open with forceps, a constellation of bright green figures curving through his brain.

"It's a virus," said Jared, "Change one little number in a DNA strand, and you can teach a virus to stop reproducing more of itself in the blood cells, and instead inject bioluminescent dye like those jellyfish you see in the Pacific. Makes surgery a lot easier."

"Sounds like Frankenstein to me."

"Yeah, but it's my monster, and it's going to do a lot of people a lot of good," said Jared, turning on one elbow, "How many fathers can choose their children?"
The candles behind Jared burned through his thin cotton shirt, silhouetting his narrow waist and wide shoulders. Jensen could still feel the touch of his body when he'd leaned into him by the piano.

"Okay I'm sold," said Jensen, "But we gotta work on your sales pitch. Nobody wants to see brains on the end of a pair of salad tongs."

Jared smiled. "You'll back it? After just meeting me? You haven't even seen my current research, it isn't cheap..."

"Every visionary needs a financier." said Jensen, smiling back. It was very easy to do around Jared. "Man, I knew one engineer, the idiot who patented the color magenta, and he said…"

They traded war stories, Jared quickly becoming impressed with Jensen's connections. He might have looked pretty, but behind the international playboy schtick was a shrewd head for business, and Jared was grateful to have his support.

The clock chimed midnight, and, regretfully, Jensen stood to leave. He still had his hook-up to deal with, and he did not want to risk Jared running into Danneel. "Here's my private line," he said, handing Jared a business card, "Why don't you stop in for brunch next week, we'll hash out the details and I can bring my accountant."

Jared shook his hand, fingers lingering on Jensen's wrist. "I'd like that."

Their eyes locked for an instant, easily, as if they'd known each other for years, and Jensen was glad of the excuse to leave. Men like him did not forge friendships easily. He would hate to ruin this one.

It was only when he ran into Danneel on the way out that he had never asked for the other man's name.

"Hey sweetie," she said, winding her arm through his, "On your way to bed?"

"Yes, how is your lamb?"

"Probably looking forward to a little R&R after his speech today."

Jensen paled. "The scientist?"

"I know right? His fiance's got it even worse, this cute little pathologist from Quaker Country who's probably never been kissed. And worse, half the guests left early when they found out what he's planning to research this fall, they nearly had him burned at the stake."

"What research?"

Her eyes twinkled. She loved knowing something first. "You mean you don't know?"

Disentangling his arm from hers, he made a show of checking his watch, and she added, "I've been invited to the wedding tomorrow, care to be my plus one?"

He smiled. "Wouldn't miss it."

(*)

Third door on the right. Jared thought, trying to recall Danneel's instructions. The champagne helped dull the fear, but his face felt hot and he kept wiping his sweaty hands on his slacks. A light shown under the third door.

Jared walked into the master bedroom and, finding it empty, looked to see who was watching him. He turned. Jensen stood in the shadows, one gloved hand on the door, and Jared's first thought was how odd it was for the man to wear his riding boots at this hour. The door swung closed.

"Is this the right room?" asked Jared.

"I thought you might appreciate an excuse," said Jensen, sounding slightly apprehensive, "So I had drinks brought up."

An excuse for what? Jared thought.

Jensen walked to his vanity table, wrapped a tea towel around a bottle in the ice bucket, and popped the cork. He had changed into a starched white shirt open at the top but otherwise appeared to have come straight from the stables. Filling a glass, he watched candlelight reflected in the streams of tiny bubbles and held it out. "Please, drink."

He pressed the glass to Jared's lips, cold champagne sliding down his throat and trickling down the corner of his mouth. On the other side of the door, a bolt slid shut.

"Good. You must have been thirsty." said Jensen, re-filling the glass. Jared smiled nervously and let Jensen cup his chin as he downed a second helping, gloved fingers gently mapping Jared's jaw, his throat, as one would a prize stallion. Jensen tilted his head and listened for footsteps in the hallway. A distant door clicked shut.

Then Jensen made his way back to the vanity, blowing out all the candles but two, and sat in his chair. Jared stood there with champagne dripping inside his collar, looked at Jensen, looked at the locked door, then back at Jensen.

"The wedding's in eighteen hours," said Jensen, "You have a lot of catching up to do."

"Ah. Yes. You must be Dee's friend," Jared wiped his mouth, tasting Jensen's cologne where the glove had touched him. "I had questions."

Jared looked around the room, unsure what to ask first. "Have you ever been married? No I suppose not. My fiance is so young, and if I disappointed her I suspect she would be too good to say anything."

"That's because you hardly know her. You don't even know your own body."

"But-"

"My valet will arrive four hours before the ceremony to ensure you arrive on time. If anyone asks him where you spent the night, he will lie. I will extend the same courtesy. You're also friends with Danneel. Did she tell you who I am?

"Yes."

"And what am I?"

Jared swallowed hard. "She said...she said that you're a gentleman's gentleman."

Jensen flicked his fingers at the champagne glass, making it sing. "That I am."

"What do I do first?"

Jensen studied him. Something hungry came into his face that hadn't been there before. "Take off your clothes."

Jared blushed and looked away. Rain scrolled down the window behind Jensen's head in fast sheets, as if the outside world were melting and only this room remained solid. "I...I can't."

"I know. It's hard. But you will do it for me."

Jared met his eyes. They were nearly all pupil in the dark, large and cold as if they'd been painted on.

"Start with the shoes." said Jensen.

Jared bent down, feeling the soft carpet under his fingers as he worked the laces and later as he stepped on it in his bare feet.

Jensen emptied the remainder of the bottle into his glass. "Good. Now everything else."

Unbuttoning first his shirt and then his slacks, his clothes puddled around his feet and he stepped out of them. Jared was built like a coat-hanger, wide-shouldered, lean and lanky from his hungry college years, with the faintest hint of sunburn around the edges. He stood with his hands over his cock, waiting for Jensen to finish his drink.

"Ever jerked off in front of someone else?"

Jared flushed. "No."

"You should. Everything changes when there's a second person in the room."

"It's different when you're married to them."

"Touché," said Jensen, smiling, "Clasp your wrists behind your back."

After a moment's hesitation, Jared did so, and Jensen set the glass aside and regarded him. His eyes remained blank, though a light glimmered there upon seeing Jared like this for the first time.

"So you've never done anything with your fiance?"

"No."

"And you're afraid you might hurt her the first time?"

"...yes."

"Will you stand next to me?"

For a moment the storm outside seemed muted, as if someone had turned down the dial for Jensen's benefit. As if waiting for Jared to say no.

Jared crossed the room. Jensen reached up and traced the air an inch above Jared's collarbone. "The thing about pain," Jensen began, "Is that it is so easily distracted. If I can divert your attention elsewhere-"

His finger skated down the line of Jared's belly, eliciting a shiver. "-then the pain is all but forgotten."

"Where did you learn all this?"

A smile touched the corner of Jensen's and just as quickly left, as if it had never been there. Danneel had taught him well. "Come closer."

"Like this?"

"Yes, excellent. Now," said Jensen, his tone all business, "Bend over my lap."

For a second Jared looked like he might argue. Might refuse and put on his clothes and bang on the door until another servant arrived. But Jensen looked up at him through his lashes, letting the silence stretch, eyes tranquil and dangerous, and Jared obeyed. Jensen wore breeches of heavy black silk that chafed against Jared's cock when he lay against them.

Jensen removed his glove and ran a long delicate hand along Jared's spine, the dip of his hipbone, the curve of his back as smooth and perfectly defined as if he'd been carved from a single piece of wood. He put the glove back on and smoothed Jared's hair. "Keep your hands together. If you're very good I might do something nice for you. If not, well-"

Jared glanced under the vanity table, where a saddle and riding crop had been hastily tucked away. Jensen raised his hand.

"-I have all night to break you in."

The first slap resounded like a gunshot. Jared cried out in surprise, his words muffled as Jensen's gloved fingers clapped over his mouth and dug into his cheek. Jared twisted his head around to look at him.

Jensen had been right about the pain. In the few seconds since they had come in contact, Jared had felt Jensen's cock swell through the fabric, hardening as he explored Jared's naked body, and this knowledge thrilled through Jared like electricity. The pain paled in comparison.

Jensen spoke very quietly, his handprint burning on Jared's ass. "Again?"

Jared's lips parted, tasting leather and champagne and the musk of horse sweat. All his fear evaporated, for he now understood what it was to be an object of desire. To be in a position of power. He nodded.

"Harder."

Jared caught his breath right as the volley of blows began. Jensen had a kind of wicked instinct for knowing where Jared least expected him to strike, never pausing long enough to let Jared recover. Despite his youth, Jared fought hard, and sweat ribboned down Jensen's back inside his shirt.

Jensen leaned in beside his ear. "That's it, go on and kick."

Biting down into Jensen's fingers, Jared twisted in his lap, never knowing if the next slap might hit his ass, his thighs, the back of his calves, his whole body on fire as he fought both the pain of Jensen's beatings and his own aching cock sliding across the silk leggings.

Through all this Jared had the presence of mind to keep his wrists clasped, for fear of what might happen if he disobeyed. His cock was now a misery to him, the friction of skin against silk reshaping his pain like discordant music resolving into harmonious delight. He shut his eyes and slow tears rolled down his cheeks.

And then just as suddenly it stopped. Jensen reached for a pitcher on the drink tray, dropped three ice cubes in some water, drained it, and pressed the glass to his forehead. A muscle jumped in his jaw. "You need water?"

Jared waited a beat, unsure if it were a trick question, then shook his head.

Something metal scraped across the vanity table, and Jared was treated to his own ruined, tear-stained reflection within a silver hand mirror. He caught Jensen's gaze from the corner, his green eyes very steady on his hazel ones.

"You have two choices, Jared."

Jared stared back in the mirror, eyes bright, Jensen's silk leggings soaked in sweat.

"You're doing very well, but there's a core to you I have yet to reach, and it would go easier for you if you met me somewhere in the middle, rather than my having to force it. So, you can stand up and jerk off for me," said Jensen, lips stretching over square white teeth, "Or I can give you something to really cry about.

Jared's face went still, his tears the only thing moving. Their cocks separated only by thin, wet silk, Jared imagined Jensen riding in the meadows, a willful steed between his legs. The tame ones did not suit him.

Jared formed his lips and spoke in a low, hushed voice. "I'm not crying."

Jensen smiled at this little challenge, said, "My mistake, " and flipped the mirror in a wide arc to land on Jared's ass. Jared made a high hurt noise, a fresh tear floating in each eye. Jensen covered Jared's mouth with his hand. His voice was a throaty whisper that just reached Jared's ears. "How about now?"

For answer, Jared put his teeth around Jensen's fingers, letting his tongue briefly slide across the leather, and bit down until he heard a sharp intake of breath behind him.

"You bit me." said Jensen, and was there a hint of praise there? The mirror snapped three times, a deep punishing motion where Jensen's hand reached back to touch the corner of the mirror to his right shoulder and then swat under the swell of Jared's ass until Jared's whole body shook. Three strikes became ten, ten became thirty, and then Jensen lost count.

The pleas coming out of Jared weren't even words . There was no emotion in them, he was simply too tired to stay quiet. His limbs became heavy. The more he fought, the heavier he felt, and eventually it easier to simply let the beatings happen.

Something within him was threatening to surface, burning in his chest and filling his body from head to toe like molten bronze poured inside a clay mold, a new man waiting to burst out. And then he realized-he was content. Naked, bruised, at the mercy of another man, and perfectly at peace.

Once it dawned on him that he enjoyed suffering for the pleasure of others, the mold inside him broke, and all his shame drained out of him in a long, wretched sob.

Jensen lay the mirror aside, turning Jared over and shaping a gloved hand to the back of his head. Both their faces gleamed with sweat.

"Oh my darling boy, don't cry. You have everything, your beauty, your dignity, your rebelliousness, at your disposal to use over me. Can't you see that I belonged to you the moment we met?" said Jensen, the barest undercurrent of devotion beneath his words, "That I am the slave and not you?"

Jared's sobs wracked his body, one arm flung over his eyes and his fist balled up. Jensen's other hand traced Jared's chest, winding idly down his flat belly and touching one fingertip to the tip of Jared's cock until it elicited a gasp. Jensen smiled.

"Look at you. You have it in you to be a great husband," said Jensen, eyes turning hard again, "Put your arm down."

Jared did not appear to hear him, panting, body twisted away to avoid touching his bruises. The two of them looked like the Pieta repainted in reds and pinks.

"I don't like repeating myself Jared."

When Jared still did not reply, Jensen sent him rolling several feet across the floor. Jared caught himself on all fours. Then fingers twisted his long hair and a hard knee landed in the small of his back, wrenching him into an unnatural position and looking straight up into Jensen's face. His eyes were hollow as a skull.

"I'm not angry," said Jensen, his breath hot on Jared's face, "But I will be if you ever hide your face from me again."

Jared made a strangled sound, which might have been a 'yes sir'. This seemed to satisfy Jensen, and he ran one hand down the front of Jared's body with the fingers spread wide and stopped just above Jared's cock. "Ah, the first rose of summer."

He pinched Jared's cockhead between thumb and forefinger with a slow easy motion, hauling back on Jared's hair to keep him in place.

"I love keeping rosebuds around the house. Leaves open on top just enough to show the fire inside, and no thorns to get in my way," said Jensen, circling the head of Jared's cock with pre-cum until it glistened, "Mmmmm."

Jensen let his lips touch Jared's fevered cheek. "You still have two choices."

Jared set his mouth in a hard line, some chivalrous impulse to preserve his innocence rising up in him, and shook his head.

"And you were doing so well," said Jensen, "What were you thinking about earlier?"

Jared licked his lips.

"Be honest." Jensen warned.

Jared willed his heart to slow, his breath to deepen. It sounded far too loud in that closed room. "I want a kiss."

Fear flitted briefly across Jensen's face, and a new realization lit in Jared. "You can't do it. Can you."

It wasn't a question. Jensen straightened, leaving Jared sprawled on the carpet. "You're not mine to kiss."

Then he turned neatly on his heel and, as Jared watched through half-lidded eyes, went under the vanity to fetch the saddle.

Jared let the cold floor cool his aching limbs, his arms outflung and bare fingers tracing the flower pattern of the carpet, acutely sensitive to tactile differences now, and played over Jensen's words in his head.

He jumped at the pop of a cork. A moment later a dish of champagne was set down on the far end of the room under a window, little bubbles fuzzing on the surface, the scent drifting to Jared and making his mouth water. Jensen looked down at it and then at Jared. "Thirsty?"

He made the question sound natural. Jared nodded, said "Just a moment." and grimaced as he rolled over and sat up on his elbows, only to be stopped when he felt the hard end of something under his chin.

Jensen stared at him down the length of the riding crop. "No," he said, eyes silvering mischievously, "You will crawl."

Jared's lips parted, feeling like a chessmaster who'd finally found a worthy opponent, cock hard at the thought of disobeying. There was power even in submission. "Make me."

Jensen's teeth sank into his lower lip. "Was hoping you'd say that."

Jensen walked out of Jared's line of sight, leaving Jared to savor that little biting smile. He hungered for the man's praise. And then strong fingers pried Jared's jaw open, fixing a steel rod between his teeth that looped around the back of his head and cinched tight. The room sharpened into focus as he realized what was coming next, as the saddle weighted him down and Jensen straddled Jared's back, rare stones glittering in the handle of his riding crop. Jensen touched the reins.

"Go on then boy."

Jared tried to buck him off, a weak effort after so much punishment, sweat dripping off his face to plink on the floor. He didn't feel the carpet as the first swat landed on his ass, driving him forward. The crop struck whenever he moved too slowly, while Jensen made a low droning deep in his throat. He was singing.

The other side of the room looked very far away, and when he got halfway and had to stop, Jensen pulled sharply on the reins and hissed in his ear. "Keep going, or I'll have you drinking out of a puddle...in the rain."

Color bloomed fresh in Jared's cheek, the bit distorting his beautiful mouth as he moved on. Moonlight splashed across his naked body and reflected his face in the window, revealing a ferocity he did not recognize, and wondered what Jensen's end goal was in all this.

His cock dragged on the floor, painfully close to the edge of orgasm, and Jensen read this in the slow undulation of Jared's hips. He leaned down and whispered. "Better rein that in. Believe me when I say," he said, riding crop skating over Jared's cock, "I've got a bridle for everything."

Jared leaned into Jensen's hot cheek, closing his eyes and delighting at the tremor in Jensen's voice. He longed to spit out the steel rod and taste skin, wrap his lips around Jensen's gloved fingers again...or even something more forbidden.

When he finally reached the other side, Jensen unlatched the bit and pushed Jared's face in the dish like a child pushing his kitten into a saucer of cream. But Jared was shameless, lapping up the champagne, coming up for air in great husky lungfuls before going down for more,while Jensen gently stroked his neck with one finger. For several minutes after the dish was empty, they sat there in silence, Jensen idly twisting a lock of Jared's hair as he fell into dreaming.

Jared was standing by the church altar, a red rose tucked into his lapel, and Jensen sat in the furthest pew dressed in black. They were alone. Jared reached out to beckon him, then saw the red wet stain on his own hand, on his suit, sprayed all over his lapel like a bomb had gone off in his chest.

He called out Jensen's name, and blood poured out his mouth.

"Wake up Jared."

Jared's eyes opened partway. The saddle was gone. He smelled faintly of rosewater, his skin clean, and when he looked at the vanity he spied a wash rag folded over the edge of a basin. How long had he been asleep?

"Look up."

Jared did. A woman's shoe pressed under his chin, forcing his head up, up to the miles of white satin and lace, piled in layers that curled in on each other like smoke. A corset gave Jensen a woman's waist and wound up his throat with ribbons fastened in the back. Jared never noticed how soft his face could be, his long lashes, his cheeks like strawberry peaches freckled by the sun. It hurt to look at him.

Jensen held out his upturned palm, black gloves switched out for white. "Come now."

Jared stood upright. The sheets had been turned down and fresh candles were lit. Convinced he was still in the dream, Jared let himself be dragged onto the bed on top of Jensen, buried between Jensen's legs in a cloud of chiffon.

"Undress me," said Jensen, "With your mouth."

His hands rested lightly on Jared's hips and then moved up to rest on the pillows on either side of his face, exposing delicate lacing up the side where Jared would have to begin opening the dress. The lacing was intricate and well thought out. It must have taken Jensen an hour.

"Is this a dream?"

"No, Jared."

"You're not a dream?"

"I told you, no."

Jared slid his hands across the bed, white sheets that had never been slept in, thick down blankets inside a silk coverlet. It warmed to his skin instantly. He wondered if they would stay on top of the sheets tonight.

"Why did you beat me?"

"Everything up to this point was necessary to soften you."

Jared licked his lips nervously. "Am I going to see your face every time I kiss my wife?"

"Don't look at me tonight. Look at the dress. At what it represents. I wore riding boots yesterday, I'll be back in a suit and tie tomorrow. These are all costumes, this is all...theater," said Jensen with a vague gesture, then let his hand fall back, "Are you angry with me?"

Jared considered the question and smiled, bringing out dimples Jensen hadn't realized he'd missed up until a moment ago. "For some reason," said Jared, his voice low and intimate, "I don't mind it from you."

Jared studied the bed. Rich velvet curtains gathered over an old headboard, older than the house, polished and carved with a bas-relief of horses in flight. It must have taken four men to move it in here. Rope burns circled the bedpost. Jared tried not to think too hard about that as he bent to take the lace in his teeth.

The lacing was knit in such a way that it cinched in the wearer but fell apart at the first tug. More silk shown between the gromits. As Jared pulled it open he felt intricately stitched flowers against his mouth but could not identify them, whorls and vines and leaves imprinting themselves against his skin. He closed his eyes and saw a field of roses on the back of his eyelids.

Jensen didn't shift his eyes from Jared's. Candlelight cast Jensen's face in half-shadow, smooth, with the sharp scent of cologne. He didn't look tired at all. Maybe he was used to this sort of thing, had become a little jaded. Jared pictured them earlier, him lathered in sweat on the carpet, Jensen climbing off the saddle just long enough to stop and shave.

Eventually Jared's lips touched skin, warm and dry, and, looking up for permission, he pressed a furtive kiss on Jensen's waist. Jensen said nothing, his eyes blank. Jared kissed him again, a little higher, his fingers inching up inside the skirt until, with a shock, he felt the edge of a gartered stocking.

"Ah ah," Jensen reproved him, moving Jared's hand to the top of his kneecap, "It's a little soon for that."

Jared kept his hands atop Jensen's knees. It was a slow kiss, Jared dragging his mouth up the front Jensen's body with the dress coming apart in his teeth, revealing tan muscle and thighs hardened from years of mastering unruly horses.

Then Jared bit the last ribbon and pulled it taut, his long hair whispering against Jensen's skin, the rest of the dress falling away like crepe paper, and his lips pressed against Jensen's throat.

Jared's eyes flicked down and then slowly up again, and Jensen let him look. He wore black silk stockings with satin gathered around the swell of his thighs that gave him an oddly gentlemanly look. Black satin panties lay beneath the garter. The shoes were high-heeled, but Jensen did not have particularly long feet, and it suddenly occurred to Jared that the shoes must have belonged to Danneel. Jared waited, eyes begging for permission to undress Jensen the rest of the way.

And then there came a knock at the door.

"Sir?" said a high young voice.

Jensen put a finger to Jared's lips and shook his head warningly.

"Sir, will you be taking coffee in your rooms today?"

Ignoring the servant, Jensen pushed Jared's face toward the garter, that he might remove it with his teeth. Jared ached to use his hands but obeyed, while outside the door a breakfast tray tinkled on the floor and footsteps receded down the hall.

He inhaled Jensen, his skin, the sheets between his legs as he unhooked the fasteners. Would he be able to smell the other people Jensen had been with? The shoeshine of the butler, the perfume of Danneel's hair?

The welts on his back smarted as he peeled back a stocking and let it fall to the carpet and went back for the next one, while Jensen grabbed the headboard for support, watching Jared with cold fascination as he stripped away the last of his clothes. Jared let his teeth linger on the inside of Jensen's thigh. An easy place to hide a love bite. Ought he to mark his new friend as Jensen had him?

Two seconds later he was flat on his back with Jensen's arm pressed across his chest, green eyes flaring in the candlelight.

"That's twice you've done that."

Jared looked up, eyes huge with terror.

"Repeat after me."

Jared nodded, not daring to look away.

"I'm sorry for biting you."

"'I'm sorry for biting you.'"

"It won't happen again."

"'I won't happen again.'"

"I should be punished."

Jared lay there, looking up through his bangs, a wanton edge in his voice.

"'I should be punished.'"

Jensen's eyes burned. Castle orgies, Japanese sex-tourist dungeons, a sea of red-haired women levitating on pure bitch power, all paled in comparison to hearing Jared say those four little words.

Jared didn't move. He didn't ask what was coming next. He didn't question it when Jensen's hand slipped under the pillow and pulled out a leather belt and bound his wrists to the bedpost and then left to get something from the side table. He just lay there, listening to the snap of a plastic bottle top, except that, right as he was about to ask if Jensen were still there or not, a slick hand wrapped around his cock and began greasing him, and biting his lip until it turned white, Jared watched as Jensen knelt over him and impaled himself on the first inch of Jared's cock and clamp down like a hot pink fist.

"Now let's see how long you can suffer."

Jensen was not innocent, but not well-used. Men like him always enjoyed the chase more than the actual kill, and if it were up to him he'd have months to wear Jared down before they reached this point. Still, Jared was very pretty with his face screwed up like that, the leather creaking as he strained against the headboard, and sat down until he was stretched tight around the base of Jared's cock.

"Tell me what you want, Jared. You want me to fuck you? You want me to come in your face? I'll do it. Just tell me what you want," Jensen said, his voice a dangerous whisper as he leaned in close, "I'm hard."

Jared watched his cock disappear inside the plump pink ring of Jensen's ass, wanting to let Jensen ruin him, milk the innocence out of him until his virgin cock was wrung out like wetwash. But if Jared's upbringing was to be believed, marriage was solely for the purpose of child-bearing, and any extracurricular activities-stripping, masturbation, the secret rape fantasies that he didn't know he'd harbored until that exact moment-was like casting seed on a rocky plain. A terrible waste after so many years of chastity. It also gave Jared an idea.

Then there came a knock at the door.

"Sir?"

Jared tensed. Who could it be this time?

"Sir, you have a visitor."

They waited, hardly daring to breathe, and eventually a breakfast tray tinkled as it was set on the floor outside and the servant walked away. She'd only gone a few steps when Jared heard Gen's voice, had anyone seen Jared take a cab home? Did they know his car was still parked in the garage?

Gen, Jared thought. He had to understand what she would be made to suffer, he had to do the right thing by her, to understand the pain. His mouth grazed Jensen's cheek so no one else might hear his secret. "I want to be the bride." he whispered, so low he felt the words more than heard them.

Jensen froze. It was not the answer he'd expected, but it was too dark within the canopied bed to read his expression. They could hear every word Gen and the other woman were saying, and he waited for them to leave.

"Are you sure this is what you want?"

Jared nodded vaguely, eyes glazed, and a second later Jensen pulled off and once again the sharp tang of lube filled Jared's lungs.

"Spread your legs for me." Jensen ordered, voice raw with lust. He bent toward the side table and looked over his shoulder at Jared's face, sweaty, tossled, a week shy of twenty-three with half a tube of KY inside him and begging to be claimed.

Hands gathered beneath Jared's thighs, and a small part of him wanted to back out now, preserve his innocence. Was he doing the right thing?

And then he heard the tearing of paper, the sharp snap of latex.

Jensen's body from the waist up blocked everything in the room and Jared made a noise as Jensen's cock pressed against his ass. He felt guilt and elated all at once, like a kid sneaking under the Christmas tree a night early to peak inside the gift wrap.

He had a final sad thought for his virginity as Jensen hid himself in the shadow of Jared's throat and opened his body.

Jensen lay still, waiting for Jared to show some fear, but as a man Jared had not grown up with the horrors of invasion that Gen might have endured, of old Quaker nurses comparing sex to intubation or the sliding of a needle into a vein.

Instead, Jensen's cock fit him well, warm, thick as a table leg and leaking slick, with Jared speared on the head and shaking with the need to be filled.

"It's okay." Jared said, exhaling, trying to commit this all to memory. He needed to be able to do the same with his fiance, and he'd rather it be a friend teaching him then to screw this up on his wedding night.

Jensen leaned in another inch. "Are you sure?" he asked, genuinely needing to know the answer, as if he had an entire menu of options for Jared to choose from and that if Jared wasn't satisfied he'd invite Danneel and they'd both take turns teaching Jared all about the high art of fuckery.

Jared nodded against Jensen's shoulder, and choked as the rest of Jensen's cock buried itself in him, until Jensen's hips met his and whispered a name he only called his most beloved stallions.

Jensen breathed harder, nails marking the underside of Jared's thigh and slowly pumping Jared's cock with the other hand to distract him. Jared's legs shivered, eyes clenched tight as he was stretched out. If he going to give it up now, he wanted to give up hard.

"Make it hurt." Jared rasped.

Jensen fucked him, gave him the best pain possible, his hand pumping Jared's cock as Jared stared at the canopy ceiling and felt his innocence slip away with each body-pounding snap of his hips.

Science was a necessarily antiseptic enterprise, and Jared wished they didn't have to use the condom, that his first time could have been messier, that he could walk out of this bedroom with hot jizz running down his leg as a sign of their bond.

But there was one other thing Jensen could give him. He put his mouth to Jensen's ear.

"Kiss me. Please kiss me."

A sweaty hand clapped over his mouth. Green eyes burned into his. "Sorry," said Jensen, as he levered in deeper and fucked Jared to the other side of manhood, "You're not mine to kiss."

Jared screamed into his hand, eyes flashing. Jensen battened down with his face in the pillow where Jared couldn't see his face, fucking him harder, willing Jared to read his body where words always failed him. They seized up in time with one another for one last bone-rattling suck of air and then collapsed on the bed, listening to each other breathe.

(*)

The belt came off and they slept a while. When Jared rose hours later, he dressed carefully and wrote something on a leaf of paper and slipped it into an envelope. He would not leave it here for the servants to find.

And fishing the condom from the trash can, Jared walked out of the house and drove to Stanford. There was still a little work to be done before the ceremony.

Jensen awoke late in the afternoon, looking out the window, the rain having washed the garden clean. He stretched his hand out to the empty side of the bed where Jared had been, and closed his eyes as wedding bells pealed through the air.

(*)

The wedding reception was a fog of noise. Someone had slapped a bottle in Jensen's hand and lost the cork, and by dinner he'd filled his glass with the last remaining inch. Too early for dancing, much too early for guests to pair off and sneak into one of the many unlocked bedrooms.

Danneel looked great beside him, in gold sequins and her hair model-huge. The crowd parted and an old man in spectacles came to shake Jensen's hand. "Just wanted to say, how grateful Stanford is for your continued support."

"Ah, you work with Doctor Padalecki?"

The scientist nodded, revealing a great deal of domed forehead. "I was his advisor. Him and his wife."

"I didn't realize they worked together."

"Oh yes, excellent professional relationship, I don't see that their lives will much change after this..." said the old man, gesturing at the party, "...is all over."

Jensen watched him over the lip of the glass. He was a pick-up artist and the slow burn of workplace romance meant nothing to him. He smiled. "I believe I see him just there, give him my congratulations." He raised his glass toward the other side of the room, and the old man drifted in that direction.

The ballroom was very much to his taste, Greek statues and crystal chandeliers that would have looked at home on a doomed luxury liner. Danneel asked him to dance, he begged off. He had another three events to attend that week, and he did not wish to tire himself. A wooden stool sat unattended at the bar, and he nursed his drink while listening to the string quartet by the dance floor, all their waltzes muted by the loneliness of constant partying.

Hungry for fresh meat, he scanned the room and saw Misha in animated conversation with a pretty girl at the next table. No one else sat with them, and Misha had to lean in to hear her answers over the din of the crowd. Jensen caught her eye.

She was dark and large-eyed, with her black hair plaited over one shoulder. In it she had strung tiny white flowers, and she wore gloves with a conservative white dress running from her neck to below her knee that made her look like a stewardess. No make-up. No jewelry. She gave Jensen a slow smile in return.

Misha was drawing on the back of a napkin as Jensen walked over, and he pushed his chair back and stood. "Sir, have you met Ms. Cortese?"

Jensen sat and laid his hand on the table so it rested an inch from the woman's plate. "I have not."

"Will you be needing anything, sir?"

"I haven't stopped to eat all day, can you check the kitchen?" asked Jensen, without looking at him.

A few women watched Jensen from over their dance partners' shoulders. Misha almost asked another servant to fetch the dinner, but thought better of it and vanished through double doors. Danneel examined her nails one table over, listening intently.

Ms. Cortese said something, but she was so quiet that Jensen had to lean in. "I'm sorry I couldn't hear you."

She pointed to his hand, the one with Jared's bite mark, but he did not remove it from the table. "I work with horses." he said, as explanation.

With a slight raise of her eyebrows, she took his enormous hand in her tiny gloved ones, and he let himself be examined, fingers probing the bruised skin. She was so petite her shoes swung over the floor from her chair. Seeing nothing of great interest, she returned his hand to it's place and smiled.

Jensen looked her up and down. "You grow up around here?"

"No."

"Are you having a good time?"

"It's okay."

Her hands couldn't keep still, folding and refolding the napkin in her lap while avoiding eye contact with him. She nodded to something behind Jensen. "There's your meal."

Misha's arm materialized in front of Jensen, sweeping away non-existent crumbs and setting a tray of food between them. Strawberries, blackberries, a stack of waffles, with honey and a ramekin of freshly whipped butter. Jensen stared over it at Ms. Cortese with an alcoholic glitter in his eyes.

"Will there be anything else, sir?"

"No, that will be all Misha, thank you."

Jensen waited for her eyes to come back around to his, then bent forward. "Why don't you talk?" he asked.

She gave a nervous smile and looked to the women chatting at the next table, all wearing backless gowns with foxes draped around their necks. She didn't know anyone here.

He asked again, wrapping a hand around the top of her chair. "Do you even speak English?"

She replied, but her words were covered by nearby laughter and she did not try and repeat herself.

"You're very beautiful," he said, and he wasn't lying, though he knew to throw in a neg, "But you're too thin."

He piled food on her plate, topping the waffles with honey and all the whipped butter. Cutting her waffle for her, he held out the loaded fork, and she stared at it a moment before taking it between her fingers.

He smiled, the string quartet switching to a more upbeat tune that had a lot of people rising from their chairs to go dance. All the adjoining tables were now empty. Ms. Cortese ate one waffle and then a second, partly out of politeness but mostly as an excuse not to look at him.

Danneel shimmered into a chair beside him with a few other girls in tow, one of whom playfully slapped Jensen's arm with her purse. "You missed the ceremony. And it was such perfect weather," she said, though it wasn't clear if the last comment was directed to Jensen or Ms. Cortese, "Isn't she a lovely bride?"

Jensen snorted, and one of the other girls curled her lip. "What's so funny?"

"Nothing," he said, taking Danneel's drink from her without asking, "People just get the wrong idea about some things.

He swung his hand around to take in the whole room. "I mean, take the word 'bride' for example..."

Under the table, Danneel dug her nails into his thigh, but he had at least a pint of gin in him. He could have undergone dental surgery.

"I mean, what a loaded word. Used to be German slang for your cook or your daughter-in-law, but that doesn't really do full justice to the original meaning. In reality, a bride was a village girl so brain-damaged," he said, pausing to leer over his glass, "That even her own brothers wouldn't fuck her."

Ms. Cortese continued to eat, feigning lack of interest in his little speech, and he got a little louder.

"It was the best label for women to use on their social inferiors," he said, turning his glass on the table, "For it pointed to all the areas where women might fall short: beauty, success, intelligence, and the need for approval."

Some of the neighboring couples lowered their voices, bending their heads to listen, and servants found errands needing doing on the other side of the room.

"But 'bride' wasn't meant to be relegated to one person," Jensen continued, eyes on Ms. Cortese, not even pretending to address the other women, "It's much more abstract. Broken traffic lights, politicians, talking heads on the radio, the high cost of living, these are all our brides. So by that definition, all the sin and misery of this world as well as your own personal hardships are due to one thing: the darlings who, through no fault of theirs, have chiseled society in their own feeble likeness. And that is the core of any bride, to multiply herself until that day," he said, his face inches from Ms. Cortese, "When the world is overrun by all her well-intended failures."

He looked around at Danneel and her friends behind him, like the cafeteria bully expecting a high-five. The room had fallen silent, and a sea of people turned to stare at him in horror, as slow as mechanical toys.

"What?" he asked, looking from face to face and not getting an answer. Then he turned back around.

Misha's napkin lay open, a sketch of chemical compounds arrayed in his neat handwriting. Beside that was a personalized stencil that read "Padalecki + Cortese, Together Forever". Jensen looked up, the plates empty, everything gone. Ms. Cortese's face had turned a pale shade of green.

And then she vomited up all her food onto the table.

(*)

The parking lot stood at the top of a hill, sprinklers drifting over a lot of silky green lawn with a red brick path winding from it to the house. Jensen touched his mouth and stared at the blood on his hand. He didn't remember leaving the reception.

Another punch landed on his ear, and his head made a sickening crack as he hit the pavement. He looked up at the front door, where Danneel was talking to someone on the phone. A black car with a very pretty, very unhappy girl in the driver's seat sped past, the words JUST MARRIED visible on the back window before she turned a corner and vanished forever.

He jerked. Someone lifted him by his jacket and turned him over, ten feet of white tuxedo back-lit by the sun with a rose in his lapel and a gun in his right hand.

Jensen swallowed. "I'm sorry."

Jared swung again, but Jensen rolled with it, latching onto Jared's arm and smashing his wrist on the ground. The gun bounced across the ground. Misha was shouting very far away. People peered out of every window in the house, but made no move to interfere.

After some wrestling, Jared regained the gun and stood up. Jensen pushed up onto his knees.

"I said I was sorry."

"Go on, keep talking," said Jared, thumbing back the hammer, "I wanna kill you with your mouth open so I can watch blood pour out of it."

"I can…" Jensen shut his eyes and opened them again. "I can pay. You could have your own lab, you wouldn't be dependant on the university-"

The noise coming out from Jared wasn't even remotely human, like a wounded animal.

"Please," Jensen pleaded, trying to stand, "Let's go back inside. We'll talk. We'll have a drink. Nothing has to change."

The gun barrel fell a couple of inches. Wavered. Then Jared aimed it at Jensen again. "No."

It was all the hesitation Jensen needed. Kicking one ankle out from under him, Jensen wound one arm around Jared's waist while the other hand took hold of the gun and twisted it around beneath his body. It should have been enough to make Jared drop the gun.

It wasn't.

Nightingales burst from the trees as if someone had slammed a door very hard. For a moment they stood in tableau like two lovers, and then the front of Jared's shirt turned red. His body went lax in Jensen's arms as if he had no bones at all, and the air was sharp with cordite. He dropped the gun.

"What is it?" Jensen asked, trying to make out what Jared was trying to say. But then his eyes looked at something very far away, and then at nothing at all.

Misha ran up the brick path and knelt beside Jared, a large crowd now gathered outside. Jensen staggered away and saw Jared's hat at some distance, pinwheeling in the wind toward the forest, flying free. Unreachable. He closed his eyes and when he opened them a moment later it was gone.

He looked back at Misha. "Dead?"

Misha looked up, his voice very quiet. "Dead."

(*)

-TWENTY YEARS LATER-

Jensen stepped out of the limousine and looked up at his uncle's house. His absence had not done it any harm.

He carried a silver cane under his arm. His eyes crinkled a little more when he smiled and he had just enough gray at the temples to drive women wild. A servant took his coat at the door.

"How many we got tonight?" Jensen asked.

The servant totted up the guests on his fingers. "Three hundred? The Board of Directors is waiting for you in the main lobby."

Jensen walked down the familiar halls, the smell of food and servants flitting from room to room like moths. He passed the library where two women bent over some Pushkin poems, and waved at him. In the lobby, a half-circle of people crowded around something he couldn't quite see, when the old scientist in spectacles took his hand.

"You're late."

"I've been abroad," said Jensen, too polite to say exiled, "Though clearly my money has not."

He smiled. "Oh wait til you see."

"What was the name of the research project?"

"Gen. Truly astounding, already developing non-Newtonian materials for use at the International Space Station, and at such an early stage."

Jensen smiled and moved to leave. His last act before leaving the country was writing a blank check towards Jared's research, but failed to stay informed of it's progress. "I'll take your word for it."

"Oh don't go, you ought to at least say hello."

Jensen faltered. "To who? Genevieve?"

"No, it's J-E-N. For Jenny."

The crowd parted. She wore a light pink dress that set off green eyes, little rosettes trimmed on the hem, and her hair hung in blonde ringlets. She sat very straight, looking each man in the eye as they kissed her hand with all the bearing of royalty. Beautiful, brilliant, and bored. She looked about nineteen years old.

Suddenly the room was full of ghosts. A trash can with no condom in it. An unorthodox experiment that everyone had known about, save him. And something Jared had said in the library that night.

"How many fathers can choose their children?"

A leather photo album lay on the coffee table, open at the very end with Jenny in a graduation cap and gown. Jensen flipped backwards in time-touring the NASA labs, shaking hands with Neil DeGrasse Tyson, looking through a telescope in pigtails-until it stopped at a grainy newspaper article with two old men beaming beside a uterine replicator.

She smiled up at him when his turn to make introductions came. He didn't smile back. She could have been his twin.

He bent to kiss her hand. "I've heard only good things."

Her eyes moved over him, indifferent. If she recognized him she didn't show it. "You're too kind. I understand this is your estate."

"Yes, I've been away on business," he said, gently pressing her hand, "But I'm back now."

"Ah. Then perhaps we will meet again."

"I would like that."

More people came to meet her, and Jenny passed the time explaining her research a hundred different ways until she grew weary of the attention and asked to be excused. The library was empty, and she moused around with the piano. It was very out of tune.

"What's your last name?"

She turned on the bench. Jensen sat in the chair by the fireplace, though no fire had burned there in nearly twenty years. "Padalecki." she said.

"I knew your namesake," said Jensen, "He was a good man. I was with him the day he collapsed."

"I thought he'd been shot."

"Where did you hear that?"

She leaned forward with one hand on the bench, eyes narrowed in a look all too familiar to him. "Do I look stupid to you?"

He studied her, Jared's great masterpiece. All of Jensen's beauty with the thorns pruned away. "No, you don't."

She closed the piano lid. "I need to get back."

He rose from his chair and fell to his knees before her, taking her hands in his. "Don't go, please, there's so much I want to say to you."

She regarded him coolly, but did not pull away.

He went on, voice very low. "Look at my face. Look at my eyes. What do you see?"

The corner of her mouth twitched, but otherwise her expression betrayed nothing.

"I can do a lot for you. Access to the school of your choice. The greatest minds of the world at your command. And this estate," he said, tears floating in his eyes, "It's yours. You would be the mistress of this house. "

For a moment her eyes softened, very much wanting the life he painted for her. It was the kind of offer orphans dreamed of, assuming they hadn't long ago forsaken the vanity of fairy tale love for the more tempered life of academic achievement. Remembering herself, she squirmed out of his embrace and made for the door.

"Tell them who I am," he pleaded, reaching out to her, "Tell them I'm your father. Tell them-"

She stopped with her back to him, one hand holding the door-frame. "I thank you for your patronage. You have been most generous and none of this would have been possible without your support," she said, turning to look over her shoulder with hard eyes, "But my father is dead."

She turned the corner. Another door opened down the hall, the volume of the party went up a notch, and then that too faded as the door closed.

Jensen stared at the door. When he sank into the piano bench, he noticed the corner of a letter stuck inside a sheaf of music, addressed to him on the day before Jared's death. He studied the name on the envelope, at Jared's handwriting. He opened it.

Dear Jensen,

I had two dreams about you last night. The first one was some place I'd never been, but in the second dream you and I were on your porch drinking champagne. We were old. I had built something for you, something that glowed just on the edge of the forest, and we were watching the trees and waiting for it to come home to us.

I know you don't love me. Your heart is stone. It won't let you love me.

But I am your friend, and I am not going away.

Where would I go?

Jensen closed the letter and put in back inside the music where he wouldn't have to look at it. Jared would be forty-three now. A little grayer, a little wiser, with the heart Jensen had always wanted for himself.

He stared at the music a while, at a world that was no longer waiting for him.

And then he covered his face with his hands and fell to his knees and wept.

THE END