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Today is Shi Wudu’s birthday. 

The servants of his household have been busy for weeks in preparation. The estate cleaned and made more opulent for expected guests, the food stores bulging under the weight of pickled vegetables and honey soaked treats. The local farmers all rushed to volunteer their harvest in the market to the needs of the Shi House. Fishermen spent days ahead, securing a good spot in hopes of supplying the celebration a basket of the freshest catch, wanting to impress the kitchen staff with their skills and be remembered. Butchers handed over heavy slabs of fine meat and offered their time to help prepare such, all humble and doting towards the servants organizing the event.

Local shops send gifts of spun bolts of silk and sheer in Shi Wudu’s favorite blues and silvers. Seamstresses and tailors all eager to complete the master merchant’s robes. Silver thread and glass beading, an ocean depicted with the heavens in gold and pale gray resting across the man’s shoulders like a mantle. A garment to make even the King’s wives coo and pout in envy and awe. 

Wine and exotic treats are brought in by Shi Wudu’s own ships, his amassed fleet of dutiful merchants with handsome captains who know there is money or favor to be made in delivering things that will impress the guests. A city scrambling to be noticed in the haze of bodies and motions as the young master’s birthday felt more like an important festival rather than another year gained. 

Mothers and matchmakers whispered hopeful, trying to sneak conversations with the younger Shi sibling who flitted through the city with a bright smile and a sense of energy following them like a boisterous spring wind. Shi Qingxuan the only one known who might know of any chance of his brother’s interest in marriage - quickly surrounded by these women and needing to be rescued by his own scowling tutor in black from the clouds of local gossip.

“This will be fun!” Shi Qingxuan giggled as his tutor dragged him along, He Sheng already in a mood that they were sent off from lessons to play errand boys by the housekeepers. But it helped Shi Qingxuan keep focus if he wasn’t cooped up in the estate too long so there was little argument to be had.

“Your brother celebrates his birthday like a king.” He says, a touch annoyed until Shi Qingxuan presses coins into a passing vendor’s palm and presents a skewer of sugar drenched fruit to his teacher. Efficiently distracting him from his gloomy mood. 

“Well, ge is very popular.” Shi Qingxuan says proudly, despite knowing that popular was a much kinder word than others might use. But “popular” worked, as the elder Shi brother was master of the ports, the head of his own merchant armada, and a man of lethal business acumen and intelligence that even the frowning He Sheng couldn’t deny. “And think of all the good food there will be!” 

Not just food of course.

Musicians from the capital came through, offering their services and their time to fill each courtyard and street road with their songs. There were citizens spending time hanging pale blue lanterns across the streets, children giggling with silver streamers their little hands helped braid and affix to homes. The inns were full of visitors coming to pay tribute to the one called the Water Tyrant under hushed breaths, each with their own agenda and hope of gaining Shi Wudu’s attention - a thing that was worth their weight in gold.

Some men brought their daughters as temptation...smarter men brought their sons...and by the late afternoon of Shi Wudu’s birthday the city was flooded with song and celebration. Locals enjoying the spill over from the Shi estate as foreigners came to sell new wares, the ships in the harbor sparkling with silver lanterns and a celebration to a local businessman felt more like honoring a god.

And Shi Wudu certainly looked the part of one when he made his appearance.

The ornate crown of intricately spun gold and silver, the thick gemstones polished and bright as stars affixed to his black hair like midnight waves. Falling in tamed sheets down his back as he greeted the hall of guests. His robes outdoing even the pretty women there, lamplight setting the collar of glass beads ablaze and the ocean stitched into his coak held an illusion like crashing waters when he stepped to the head of the table. Smile contained and skin powered soft, the lethal edges of his eyes trimmed in thin paint as he took his place. Fingertips tickling the edges of a red earring on his left...ready to judge the gifts his city of guests brought.

Shi Qingxuan was delighted at the peacocks which would decorate the estate’s gardens from now on, but He Sheng thought the cases of tomes and historical maps would be more useful. There were trinkets of gold and fine jewelry carried on soft pillows. Beautiful furniture made with skilled hands presented to his household. Foreign tools and contraptions from the schools far from Shi Wudu’s home are given as means of enhancing his business or the navigation of his ships. Promises of materials from lumber suppliers and old families whose entire existence was to carve ships from the forest.

Those who are smartest offer trade promises without asking for anything in return, or bring Shi Qingxuan gifts as well. (things not as lavish as his brother, but impressive and a show that they understood Shi Wudu’s brother was important.) 

The king himself, Shi Wudu’s greatest customer (if one were to be so bold), bestows a grand gift. Honoring Shi Wudu with claim over some of the silkworm farms kept by the palace, leaving the guests speechless that the Water Tyrant would be permitted to wear the same silk as the King...but very few were surprised. Their sovereign was known for being too friendly with those he liked... and yet there was a look of unsatisfaction across Shi Wudu’s bright eyes as he accepted the gift from the palace courier. Bowing politely and asking for the messenger to linger so that he might prepare a letter of thanks for his majesty. Taking a quick leave from the hall and glancing at his younger brother, silently asking for time alone without needing to speak a single word.

Shi Qingxuan nodded with understanding, fully prepared to play host in his brother’s short absence. His own smile hesitated for a moment as his teacher in black frowned. Only noticing Shi Qingxuan’s disappointment rather than his employer’s quick exit.

“What’s that face for?” He Sheng questioned, taking food from Shi Qingxuan’s plate and ignoring the glances he got from the sycophant guests.

“I believe ge was hoping for something else from his majesty.” Shi Qingxuan sighed, voice low because he liked gossip but this was not something he thought should be loose across a house of strangers.

The party goes on well into the night. Drunken voices and cheering crowds loud and playful as Shi Wudu thanks his guests and escorts them to the northern gardens. An elaborate set up where they might continue to eat and drink him out of house and home while watching fireworks above. Brilliant lights scattering the night sky and outshining the stars. Locals climbing to their rooftops with their children seated safely at their side. Applauding and thinking themselves lucky that they lived alongside this Water Tyrant, the merchant prince who was so spoiled and important to so many that the world stopped just to celebrate another year of his presence.

Of course, no one was really paying attention to Shi Wudu once wine freely flowed. Suck ups and schemers distracted by the gifts of the Shi house that none noticed the young master’s quiet leave. His pretty face set in quiet enjoyment sinking to something flat and disinterested, even while he walked hallways still warmed and glittering with the party just for him.

Gold was lovely, silver and gems a delight, and the offerings of trade and power these visitors granted was not something Shi Wudu would take lightly…

But these things were hardly out of his reach any other day so it failed to move him. His beautiful clothes rippled like waters as he moved through his home. Quiet and unseen as he relocated to the private gardens of his chambers. 

The white stones of the elaborate pond twisting through and disappearing beneath the pavilion, a short waterfall crafted by expensive landscapers when he had this home built providing a soothing song of repetition. Something to ease the mind as his features slipped from disinterest to a frown as the echoes of the crowds carried on a chilling evening breeze. Intruding upon his sanctuary and leaving Shi Wudu furious at the noise. Angry at the many faces cramming themselves into his house, soiling his air, and none of them were that face. Not one of those drunken cheers was that man’s voice and he bit down the tension in his throat. Deciding it was outrage and not...longing.

He moved to the stone pavilion, ducking beneath the poured curtain of willow leaves, and stared down at the waters. Following the shine of fireworks above which caught the scales of the carp below. Their bodies calico or pure white, some deep orange or gold, darting about unaware of their purpose as decoration. Giving Shi Wudu only a moment of distraction as he watches two fight over a bug which was foolish enough to land on the water’s surface. Splashing about and ruining the mirror shine of the pond and disrupting the reflection of the world.

Shi Wudu tries not to think of the skirmishes in the north. Tries to ignore the reports he has brought to him, though he is no councilmen or court member, telling of vicious marauders attacking the scattered villages there. The number of attacks continued to grow and began to look more like an enemy force hiding in the mountains, so the King had sent his men to deal with the threat.

That was nearly a year ago, and while reports were slow to come to him, Shi Wudu felt each passing day without a conclusion to the incidents left him agitated and expecting the worst. 

His hand moved involuntarily to touch the red earring, wondering where it’s partner was?

He did not like this. He did not like that his thoughts were drifting off to a situation he could not influence or command. He did not like having no control.

Shi Wudu’s mood was verging on seething, his hand swiping a rock off the red wood railing and letting it clatter and sink into the pond. Scaring his expensive fish and closing his eyes against the distant sound of merriment and celebration. Trying to remind himself that the death of the king’s General would be fast gossip, and that no news was best...

But he just wanted to hear that stupid voice again.

“Shui-xiong?”

Tension fills his body, his reflection below in the dark waters distorted by the echoes of his tantrum, and Shi Wudu has to still his expression before remembering to breathe. 

“Shui-xiong, how very like you to ignore your own party guests.” There is someone in the reflection, approaching. A blur of red and bronze and growing in height as thick boots step onto the pavilion’s floor. Each step felt up Shi Wudu’s body. “Have you grown shy in the past few months?”

“General, you’re here.” His voice does not break, his face giving no sign of the tremble in his mind as Shi Wudu turns to greet the man.

Though there are few lights and the fireworks distort the color of the night sky, General Pei Ming looks exactly the same as if he were standing beneath a noon sun. Resplendent and handsome, the shine of his polished armor like a sunrise over golden hills. His dark hair in a proud ponytail and crowned with red ribbon and gold ornamentation, copper freckles in his eyes brighter than the gold and silver of Shi Wudu’s rings put together.

There is a new scar on his cheek, small and still healing. It will not mark his face for long as Heaven has chosen to keep Pei Ming’s face safe from all harm. Leaving scars to gather at his arms, his back and his palms which will always be rough from the sword. But even the sight of such a small thing lights Shi Wudu’s head with a flash of anger. Praying whoever dared was long cut down...

“I just returned, thought I’d stop by and bring you your birthday present.”  He grins and he looks so delighted with his existence that Shi Wudu can’t stop the annoyed huff of air that spills from clenched teeth. Trying to still himself as the General stands so close, heat pouring off him while leaving him shivering at the same time. 

Freckles eyes catch sight of the red jewelry dangling from Shi Wudu’s ear, pupils swelling with the image, and Shi Wudu tilts his chin away. Feigning annoyance instead of embarrassment at being caught.

“It’s a new fashion.” He lies and commands his body not to flinch when Pei Ming’s hand reaches forward. Touching the tassel of red gently between his fingers, his face softening in return.

“Is it?” He muses and Shi Wudu turns his eyes back to the soldier. “It looks lovely on you.” 

Pei Ming said the same the morning of his departure with his chosen soldiers. Pressing the earring into Shi Wudu’s ear while he pretended to be asleep so he didn’t have to deal with the awkwardness of goodbye. Thinking of Pei Ming’s sleep-soft voice calling him lovely and leaving a kiss to his cheek before slipping out to join his ranks. 

Each time Shi Wudu considered that Pei Ming had been killed by scoundrels in the mountains, he was glad he didn’t say goodbye. He’d much prefer if Pei Ming’s ghost lingered because of words never spoken - so that he’d make his way back to him one day. Even as a spirit.

“You brought me a gift, what is it?” He speaks, sharp and trying to cover the relief when he can feel a rough palm brush his cheek in the hand’s retreat. General Ming Guang looked delighted for a second before that hand moved to take Shi Wudu’s wrist.

He doesn’t fight but watches, openly suspicious, as Pei Ming stepped close enough their arms brushed and they were sharing breath when Shi Wudu’s hand was curved to the warm skin of the General’s collar.

“Right here.” Pei Ming says as his heartbeat skipped and swelled against Shi Wudu’s touch. Alive. Warm. Something Shi Wudu could press fingertips into and hold the man’s throat as he counted the pulse beats without thinking. “As I’ve promised, time and time again. I am returned to where I belong, Shi Wudu.” 

 Were they anyone else, he might have swooned. 

But they were Shi Wudu and his General, so he squeezed the pulse instead. Enough to leave dents in the flesh, to shorten the breath and feel when Pei Ming gasps against his palm, sending sparks as bright and hot as the fireworks above up his spine.

“I would prefer gold.” He lies and lets rough hands guide his hips. The strength of the grip on his body bruising, pulled in to be smothered by heavy armor, leather and red cloth. Pei Ming smelling of forest paths, of camp smoke and sweat. Then a sweetness like temple air burning incense to anoint this man in blessings - praise for his victories - sending his deeds to the gods above.

Shi Wudu has to pretend he is not jealous of the gods for being able to keep this man in their sights at all times.

“Did you miss me?” 

“Not at all.”  He snaps before lips clash together. The clatter of teeth and tongue, his body lead backwards in tripping steps until Pei Ming's hand catches the railing. Sparing him the bruise while smoothing broad hands down the fine coat for his birthday. Fingers tracing the elegant waves into the curve of his backside and hoisting him up. Holding him with one arm's strength alone while Pei Ming’s mouth opened to him, and Shi Wudu took. 

“Happy birthday, Shui-xiong.” The man pants hot and loud against his lips and Shi Wudu cradles that handsome face between his palms. Kissing his lower lip, his nose, his brow - the left eyelid then the right - before digging nails against dense pauldrons and wanting to feel skin.

“Thank you, General.” He replies, draping fingers against the quickened pulse of the other. Kisses the sun drenched throat and shamelessly leaves the impression of teeth behind. 

It is his present, afterall.