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I thought that you were fond of me.

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The Emperor is tired. The things he has done tonight are not things he had ever pictured himself doing. Setting up guards around the Empress Dowager’s chambers, starting to form a plan of contacting his father—who he didn’t even know was alive until now—it’s a lot. A lot. Most of it is Little Kwai’s fault (and he isn’t even Little Kwai but Wai Siu-po, which is a whole other kettle of fish), so he should probably be irritated or even angry when he hears Wai Siu-po outside his door again, yelling at the guard to let him in.

Instead, he feels relieved. “Let him in,” he calls out, and Wai Siu-po tumbles into the room with his typical lack of grace.

He gives no good reason for his presence. “I was worried about your majesty,” he says, and maybe he was, but the Emperor doubts that was it. Anyways the words don’t sound entirely sincere.

“Little Yuen, now,” he says. “I’ve been Emperor all night.” He sighs. “Were you afraid, on your own? I won’t let the Empress Dowager get you.”

Wai Siu-po mopes. “I know. …Little Yuen, I really was worried about you.”

“Ah, were you?” It’s kind of sweet.

“You can’t sleep either.” Wai Siu-po is earnest. “Let me give you a back massage, please. I am very good at it. You will feel relaxed and safe.”

It’s ridiculous and honestly a little presumptuous, but Little Yuen decides to allow it. Wai Siu-po laughs easily as he presses his fingers against Little Yuen’s back. Little Yuen has, in his life, targeted pressure points plenty of times, but always as part of his martial arts practice, always with an intent to harm. This sort of subtle treatment is beyond his abilities. It’s no wonder Wai Siu-po gloats.

He closes his eyes. “You learned this at the brothel?”

Wai Siu-po, who is utterly unashamed of his background, cheerfully says, “Yes! It’s a great art that will charm both women and men. I could teach you some of it if you want to learn.”

He hits a particularly tense spot at that moment, and Little Yuen groans. “…ah. I don’t think I have time to learn that sort of thing. I’ll leave it to you.”

Wai Siu-po doesn’t flinch in his massaging—he presses hard, so hard it sometimes hurts. It makes Little Yuen think of the way he fights. He is the only one unafraid to hit his Emperor in sport. Little Yuen should have been more shocked to find out he wasn’t a eunuch, but it had been just his level of audacity, and the backstory had been just stupid enough to be true. Still. It’s quite a crime when you think about it. A man’s man running about as a eunuch is almost as big a deal as a man pretending to be a maid to hide in the Empress Dowager’s retinue.

Which brings him back to thinking about the Empress Dowager again. What a headache. To think Wai Siu-po was the only one to know about any of this… then again, he always does seem like someone who knows more than he should. Little Yuen sighs. “You know, Siu-po, I’m a little disappointed in you.”

“Eh? What did I do to offend your majesty?”

He’s retreated back into formality, but he’s still giving Little Yuen the massage so he’s clearly not that ruffled. Little Yuen says, “I thought when you were so glum about serving the Empress Dowager you were just disappointed to leave my service. As it turns out, you just wanted to save your neck. I overestimated your affection for me.”

He’s just teasing, but Wai Siu-po responds with a high level of energy: “Little Yuen, you’re being unfair! This very night I almost killed myself for you—how can you say I’m not loyal?”

“Yes. But that was loyalty to the Emperor. Those two eunuchs did the same thing.” Little Yuen pouts. “Wai Siu-po, I thought you were fond of Little Yuen.”

“Really! Who says I’m not fond of you? If I wasn’t fond of you, do you think I’d always be letting you beat me up? Though I will get the better of you eventually.”

Little Yuen hums.

Wai Siu-po continues to work on his back. His hands are moving lower now, away from the initial tension of the shoulders and neck and down to his lower spine. He makes small circles with his fingers, slow and meditative. It is odd how a man as restless as Wai Siu-po can make Little Yuen feel calm, but he does. Somehow, even when he is the one who has caused all the trouble, he is also the shelter from the storm.

When Wai Siu-po speaks again, he is a bit more hesitant, and his voice is serious—though with Wai Siu-po, of course, even a serious voice may contain lies. “Do you know what I was most afraid of when I thought the Empress Dowager might kill me?”

“Death,” Little Yuen says shortly.

“No, no, we all die eventually, why should I fear it? I’m not a coward. I was afraid that I would never see Little Yuen again, after I was left there. I was afraid that we had parted for the last time.”

“Oh?”

“I could have run away, anyhow, if I just wanted to live. That would have been a surer thing than trusting you not to kill me for what I knew,” Wai Siu-po says earnestly. “But I had you in mind. I was worried that the Empress Dowager would hurt you. Little Yuen, can you really say I am not fond of you?”

Little Yuen smiles. “Of course not. I was just kidding.”

“Why would you joke about something like that?”

“There, there. Of course we are the best of friends.”

Wai Siu-po hmphs. “Lie down.”

“Eh?”

“You think I can do the whole massage with you sitting up like this, at an awkward angle? I take my job very seriously. Lie down on your stomach and let me take care of you.”

The Emperor would be outraged at someone daring to speak to him so familiarly, but Little Yuen acquiesces, knowing he is safe in Wai Siu-po’s hands.