"This is hardly necessary, Your Majesty."
Peony didn't even bother to look up, ignoring Jade's protest as though it were entirely inconsequential. "We're in private. There's no need to be so formal."
Jade sighed, the dramatic sound of a heavily put upon man. "Very well. Peony it is. Must you pat me down as though you suspect me of stealing the silver?" He twitched away from the probing hands, though he had no expectation of this protest being heeded either.
This time, Peony paused a moment, lifting his head to meet Jade's gaze. "I'm just making sure you're all right."
"That is not what you're doing. You can see I'm perfectly fine."
Peony pouted, a mannerism entirely unsuited to a man of his age and position. Though it was an expression Jade had seen many times before, it dissolved into a tolerant smile quickly enough that it might almost have never existed. It might as well not have; he wasn't serious about it. "You never let me have any fun, my Jade."
Another sigh, but he didn't protest the appellation. His Majesty would have his games. At least this one was harmless enough. "May I lower my arms now?"
"Yes, yes. Please, sit down."
Jade lowered his arms, resisting the urge to rub them. He wouldn't call himself a weak man, even if his expertise lay more in fonic artes than martial ones, but it was still uncomfortable to hold his arms extended for that long. It would likely be for anyone, but he was still vain enough not to want to admit it. Thus he kept his hands at his sides as he sat, obeying Peony's instructions. He didn't relax into the chair, instead sitting on its edge. "Nephry tells me that you alone were certain I'd survived."
Peony's smile this time was brilliant. "You're too stubborn to die." He sat, too, leaning back in the chair and resting one ankle on his other knee - the picture of confident relaxation.
"I appreciate the vote of confidence, Yo- Peony."
Intent blue eyes rested thoughtfully upon Jade's face as Peony leaned forward, resting his chin on one hand. "You don't often make mistakes like that. You must have had a hard time."
Jade neither answered nor altered his expression. He didn't truly expect it to fool someone who knew him as well as Peony did but he also had no intention of discussing it, at least not on a personal level. "Does that mean you're ready to hear my report?"
Peony shook his head, still watching him so intently that even Jade began to feel uncomfortable. "There'll be time for that later. You just got home."
"The situation is rather urgent." But he knew the Emperor knew that without hearing his report. If he felt it could wait a little, who was Jade to argue? However careless Peony seemed, he was a good ruler with a shrewd grasp of political situations.
"More urgent than welcoming you home?" Peony grinned and put both feet flat on the floor, patting his lap. "Come here."
Jade sighed again, but truthfully, not only did he obey readily enough, he wasn't nearly so displeased as he seemed. At least, he wasn't so long as no one saw them in such an undignified position. "I take it you missed me?"
Peony smiled and stroked Jade's hair fondly. It might have been more touching had it not been rather reminiscent of the way he stroked his rappigs. "You're always so much trouble, my Jade."
"In that case, I'll just be going." But an arm tightened around his waist when he would have stood to move away.
"The kind of trouble I could use more of," Peony continued firmly.
That was hardly the case, at least if you asked Jade, but he knew that Peony was lonely. How could he help being lonely? He was surrounded by people in his grand castle but they were all subjects and servants, not friends. In unspoken acknowledgment of this truth, Jade relaxed, leaning back into his monarch's arms.
The kiss wasn't a surprise, not like the first time, when he'd expected almost anything else. It was more skillful than that first one, more practiced and confident. It was the kiss of a man who made a habit of such gestures, though Jade was certain he rarely did much more.
"You know that I'm not my sister," he said, also not for the first time.
Peony looked almost annoyed. "Has it ever occurred to you that maybe I don't want you to be your sister?"
It had, of course. It was a hypothesis Jade had considered as he considered so many things. He had toyed with the idea and assembled evidence both for and against in his mind, dispassionately analyzing it as though he had no personal stake in the matter at all. Emotions, after all, were such messy things. Better not to get them involved at all. As cold as he often seemed, Jade did have them. If he hadn't, he never would have made the mistake that had nearly come to define his life.
As for the matter at hand, yes, he'd pondered the question, but he'd never told Peony what conclusion he'd come to. Perhaps he hadn't come to one at all. The truth in this particular case was a shifting thing, impossible to pin down or say with certainty, This is the answer. Jade disliked that sort of uncertainty but it wasn't as though it made a difference. Whatever that hidden answer was, it would change nothing. Neither of them would act any differently.
"I trust the rappigs are elsewhere?"
"I don't understand how you can dislike them. They're so cute!"
Rather than answering and repeating an argument they'd had many times, Jade chose to act. This time, it was he who initiated the kiss, turning fully around to make it more comfortable for them both. He kissed him, then moved back, but it was only to begin to remove his long gloves. "I'm sure you're aware that this isn't the usual method of welcoming someone home."
"If you'd prefer a party, I could arrange it."
"I'm also sure that you know I wouldn't." His gloves removed and left carelessly on the floor, Jade stood, reaching one bare hand down for Peony's.
"Then stop complaining just to complain or I'll arrange one anyway." Peony's expression was teasing, but Jade had no doubt at all that he'd do it.
Jade nodded and started toward the bedroom. "As you wish, Your Majesty."