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Does the air only feel this way

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Feng Xin ascends alongside Mu Qing, still feeling the ghosts of gentle hands in his hair. He can't remember the last time someone touched him so carefully, so cautiously. Jian Lan, he thinks. His Highness, pulling him out of danger, perhaps? Maybe not.

Feng Xin is a martial god. He fights often, spars with and trains his subordinates, fights Mu Qing, banters or boxes from time to time with Pei Ming, who seems to have taken a shine to the three gods of Xian Le after everything that happened. And since His Highness is so often in the mortal realm or Ghost City, and Mu Qing is about as sociable as a wet cat, Feng Xin has found himself drinking alone with Pei Ming more than once. They're friends, maybe, as much as any martial god has friends.

It's lonely, though, all the more so now that Jian Lan has departed again with their son, having chosen the appeal of safe passage through the mortal world over any hope of further reconciliation with him.

Over the last eight hundred years Feng Xin has grown accustomed to the day-to-day work of godhood. He keeps up with the never-ending prayers and occasional missions, monitors the subordinates he needs to keep in check, keeps an eye on the sidelong scheming of various Middle Heaven Officials who think General Nan Yang too stupid to see through their machinations.

(They are never as clever as they think.)

So it was all fine, until it wasn't. It was all fine until His Highness ascended again, until the revelation of schemes within schemes, until the unmasking of Jun Wu. Until a year of His Highness's sad eyes and persistent poking at the red string tied around his middle finger. Until Hua Cheng came back to His Highness's waiting arms, having cheated death again like the lucky bastard he so clearly is.

Feng Xin finds he had grown accustomed to being around people, in that year, visiting His Highness as often as he could manage, Mu Qing usually finding out and coming along too. He misses it now that His Highness is so often absent from the heavens, from the mortal realm, now that he is so clearly happy to be otherwise occupied. Pei Ming is amusing enough company in small doses, but there's a limit to the number of sexual conquests Feng Xin wants to hear about, General Ju Yang or no.

The biggest change has been in his interaction with Mu Qing, whose confession over a lava pit re-framed so much of the last eight hundred years for Feng Xin. General Xuan Zhen is still prickly, still hard to approach. But there's a softer core there than Feng Xin had known, a heartfelt desire for connection, for friendship, that he sometimes still has a hard time wrapping his head around.

Mu Qing has never taken the time to explain his actions, and Feng Xin has all too often assumed the worst.

But now he knows: when Mu Qing walked away from them in exile, he wasn't selfishly cutting his losses and tossing them aside as dead weight: he was trying to ascend faster so he could help His Highness, their Majesties, perhaps even Feng Xin himself. When he learned about Jian Lan and Feng Xin's tortured ghost-son, he kept the rumors to a minimum instead of exploiting them to bring about Feng Xin's downfall. Mu Qing knocked Feng Xin out at Jun Wu's command not as a self-serving lackey, but in a desperate bid to keep Feng Xin safe from his own stubbornness, desperate because of Feng Xin's refusal to leave for a more secure location.

It's forced Feng Xin into some very uncomfortable introspection, these last two years, as he watched Xie Lian mourn, and even more so after Xie Lian went off with his precious ghost king. Feng Xin has been angry. He's been unhappy. He's raged about the time lost, and grieved the misunderstandings between the three of them, the two of them. The four of them, now, are the only ones besides Guoshi and Bai Wuxiang who can remember the beauty of Xian Le, the anguish of its downfall. For a very, very long time it was only him and Mu Qing. He doesn't want to spend another eight hundred years shoring up his position: he, too, wants a friend.

But Feng Xin has never been good with words. He was a bodyguard before he was a martial god. He was never trained in diplomacy, in kind words and soft gestures, in saying one thing and meaning another, or even in disarming a fraught situation with carefully-framed phrases. He was the disciple whose job was to keep His Highness alive, to be stronger and faster and more willing to go into danger for his sake. For god's sake, his most significant attempt at peace-keeping in Xian Le had involved breaking his own arm as a distraction for His Highness!

So when Mu Qing came to him with news of a low-level Wrath targeting believers in an area that bordered on both of their regions, Feng Xin agreed to investigate without hesitation. He's always been a man of action, even when he can't figure out how to initiate. Knowing what he does now about Mu Qing, how could he say no? How could he resist the urge to learn more, to move closer to an attempt at friendship?

(He's long known he can't have what he might once have wanted.)

The Wrath is clever. It leads them into the mountains, into a disgustingly bloody disemboweled corpse forest, into an ambush of dozens of binu. Feng Xin holds them off with his bow while Mu Qing slaughters the Wrath, which explodes messily in a way that seems to be a signal for other, less powerful but more numerous ghosts to swarm them, to chase them toward what ended up being a patch of Land of Tender flowers.

So, yes, Feng Xin panicked when he realized they'd been poisoned; so he panicked more when the female-shaped root-bodies rushed them. And collapsing the cave mouth was probably less wise than just ascending immediately. Mu Qing hadn't said a thing about it at first, just explored the cave with his mouth a thin, dissatisfied line when he found no other exit.

Waiting the poison out had been a faint hope. Feng Xin flinches away from the memory of his mounting, heated desperation, his rising fear of his own actions, worry over Mu Qing's cultivation.

The world shimmers around them, and Feng Xin closes his eyes for a moment against the suddenly bright light of the Heavenly City as he takes a breath free from poison, from the lingering smell of sex and blood.

I'll need six trustworthy Middle Heaven officials from your palace Mu Qing tells him in his private array. I'll come select them in disguise later. He pauses, and then says, mental tone even softer, almost hesitant. Don't take this personally. 

A strong yank, and there are hands wrapped in the front of Feng Xin's robes. He's being shaken. Mu Qing's right hand flies out and slaps Feng Xin hard across the cheek, a strong blow, but not a warrior's gesture. It's as if he's Pei Ming being reprimanded by an angry human woman.

There's a god's strength behind the blow, though, and Feng Xin recoils in real pain. He tries to, at least: the hand gripping his robes holds him in place, and he's slapped again, a backhanded blow this time. He feels his lip split from the force of it. Feng Xin's cheeks burn from the impact and the embarrassment both, frozen in place by shock.

"Fuck you," Mu Qing hisses. His eyes are hard, expression savage, visibly betrayed. His voice is definitely loud enough to be overheard. "How dare you."

Then he shoves Feng Xin down to the pavement and strides away toward his own palace. He's limping visibly as he goes. His robes are obviously in disarray, though Feng Xin remembers Mu Qing fussing at his sash before they ascended.

The implications of his actions are obvious.

Feng Xin stares after him for a moment, shocked. His face aches, and he'll be a little bit surprised if he doesn't have a black eye tomorrow in addition to the split lip he can already feel bleeding onto his chin. He gets to his feet and heads for his own palace with swift, if slightly shaky steps, hearing the buzz of gossip rising around them as he beats a hasty retreat from the main square Mu Qing chose to have them ascend into.

It's part of the plan, he reminds himself, trying not to feel hurt that Mu Qing -- again -- did not warn him, did not explain in advance. He had thought -- had hoped -- they might be past that, now. But Mu Qing had said that he would need to appear to have been defeated by the Wrath, to be weakened, and, Feng Xin thinks, he did tell Feng Xin not to take the blows personally.

He knows they have to move swiftly now, before anyone wonders why Mu Qing hasn't fallen from grace yet, why he's still a Heavenly Official after what his play-acting has implied about their actions. He doesn't know what paperwork he will need to fill out, exactly, beyond a request that Middle Heaven officials clean up the binu and Land of Tender flowers.

Feng Xin storms into his palace, cheeks flaming, robes flaring around his ankles in his haste.

He barks orders at subordinates as he strides to his rooms: paperwork to be prepared, a bath to be drawn immediately, new robes laid out, a meal laid out. He runs through potentially appropriate officials from his palace in his mind as he disrobes and bathes, scrubbing himself clean with rough, slightly shaky hands. He leaves the dirtied robes in a pile on the floor. Surely their obviously soiled state will spark gossip, will add weight to the story Mu Qing is building.

As he dresses in clean robes, Feng Xin feels his blood stir, poison still weak in his system. He shoves heated, blurry memories to the back of his mind. He can worry about what happened in the cave when Mu Qing is safe, when the conspirator has been unmasked and punished. That goal is more important than his embarrassment, than the excavation of his long-buried desire for someone he's always seen as utterly untouchable, than this new-found, aching want.

(Feng Xin was raised to be a bodyguard: if Xie Lian doesn't need him anymore, perhaps someone else could.)

By the time a messenger from General Xuan Zhen is reported to be at the gates, Feng Xin has a mental list of eleven candidates, paperwork, and tea prepared.

Mu Qing's stride in his disguise is even and balanced, with no sign of injury or lingering pain. Feng Xin relaxes a tiny bit, releasing tension he hadn't been consciously aware of holding onto. The wounds he'd healed on Mu Qing's left thigh had looked more like a mauling by a particularly sharp-toothed monster than anything self-inflicted.

"Go," Feng Xin says, dismissing the attendant still in the room. His office is as spy-proof as he and Mu Qing could make it, when they worked together on rebuilding their palaces in a kind of half-amiable competition to see whose could be more secure. "I'll take care of this."

Mu Qing releases the disguise only after the door closes and Feng Xin has raised a silencing array.

"I had to do that," Mu Qing says. His eyes are trained on Feng Xin's face, on his split lip. He sounds almost apologetic, which is unnerving in the extreme.

"I know," Feng Xin says, feeling offended. "You don't have to apologize, I'm not that stupid."

"Who's apologizing," Mu Qing shoots back, sitting up straight in outrage. "I'm just making sure we're on the same page. I know you don't like books."

Feng Xin quirks a small, relieved smile at the familiarity of the exchange. His lip stings, but he ignores it.

"Yeah," he says, instead of shooting back another insult. "I get it." He pauses. "You warned me," he points out.

Mu Qing blinks at him, clearly unsettled.

"Oh," he says. "All right, then."

The silence that falls between them is unfamiliar in its lack of barbs.

"I have a list of officials for you," Feng Xin says, after a long moment in which they both take sips of their tea, a floral white Feng Xin knows Mu Qing tends to prefer. "Eleven of them."

"I asked for six," Mu Qing points out. He sounds off-balance, uncertain under a layer of bluster.

"Well," Feng Xin says, and puts down his teacup with a click. "You're a picky bastard, so I figured I'd better let you decide some of them aren't good enough for your meticulous standards."

That jibe, oddly enough, seems to settle Mu Qing. He leans forward, visibly curious.

"It's not my fault so many people are utterly incompetent," he bites back, but there's no venom to it, not really. His eyes still linger on Feng Xin's split lip, which makes Feng Xin much more aware of it, almost self-conscious.

"Let's get this over with," Feng Xin says, biting back a complaint about how hard Mu Qing hit him. Instead he pulls over a group of scrolls, placing them in three piles. "These ones," he gestures at a stack of three scrolls,"are the most discreet. "These ones," he gestures at a stack of five, "are the ones I can easily create my own clones of so their absence won't be noted. And these ones," he says, finally gesturing at the last stack of three, "have the most experience in the mortal realm."

Mu Qing looks at him, blinks, and then takes the top scroll from the first pile, beginning to read without another word.

Feng Xin pours them both more tea, pushes it to Mu Qing without a word. Then he starts going through the lists of prayers that have built up in his absence, because the idea of watching Mu Qing read is both intensely awkward and far too appealing. He steals a glance despite himself: Mu Qing's hair is still faintly damp, wisping slightly around his hairline despite how put-together his robes and overall appearance are. Feng Xin suppresses an expression that almost feels like it wants to be a smile, and goes back to sorting prayers.

Some time later, Mu Qing looks up. He's pulled two scrolls from each stack, and pushes them across the desk at Feng Xin in pairs.

"Will these ones work well together?" Mu Qing asks.

Feng Xin looks at the names, and thinks it over. Then he swaps two of the scrolls, the two officials with the most experience in the mortal realm.

"Better this way," he says, expecting a question, a demand for an explanation.

Instead Mu Qing just nods. He looks again at the six selected dossiers, makes a note of their names in neatly aligned pairs on a separate piece of paper, and pushes the whole heap of scrolls back across the desk at Feng Xin.

"Do you have their passwords?" he asks.

It's a rude question, even if his tone is flat. First of all, of course Feng Xin knows how to communicate with his own officials! But it's the implicit question that's more worrisome. Giving out someone else's array password isn't forbidden, exactly. It's simply not often done outside of an emergency, and sometimes not even then.

Feng Xin must make a face, because Mu Qing holds up his hands. He looks almost cautious, as if he thinks Feng Xin will turn him down.

(When has Feng Xin ever denied him something that mattered this much?)

"It's more scheming, I know," Mu Qing says. He sounds defensive, like he's expecting criticism, like he thinks he'll be required to justify his actions. "But," and he pauses. "I can't contact them publicly, and I can't be seen in your palace right now."

Feng Xin would do worse for Mu Qing than give out his subordinates' array passwords without warning. Has he really not realized that yet?

But Feng Xin doesn't say anything: he's never been good with words, and he's not going to fuck things up now. Instead he holds out his hand for the piece of paper and the brush.

Mu Qing blinks at him, then hands them over, sitting utterly silent as Feng Xin writes out the passwords in small, neat brush strokes. Feng Xin sits back, waves a hand over the paper to let the ink dry, and looks up to see Mu Qing frowning at him.

"Here," Feng Xin says. He looks down, and points out two of the names. "These two might cooperate better if you don't tell them I know. They'll be trying to spy on you to surprise me."

Mu Qing snorts.

"They'll all be trying to spy on me," he points out.

Feng Xin only shrugs. It's true enough. Two of the names Mu Qing rejected are junior officials he knows to be on good terms with Mu Qing's own palace's staff, from whom he regularly receives reports in the course of normal events. The fact that Mu Qing rejected them could be a sign that Mu Qing knows they're spying and doesn't want them involved in this matter as a result; it could be a sign that Mu Qing knows and is leaving Feng Xin's spy network intact on purpose. It could be accidental. Feng Xin doesn't even consider the possibility that Mu Qing is unaware of their actions.

"I thought I was too stupid to scheme like that?" he asks, keeping his tone light through force of will. It's been a common enough insult, these last centuries.

Mu Qing looks over at him. His mouth visibly works, as if he's struggling for words. His expression is almost conflicted. He bites his lip, then shakes his head very slightly.

"Hm," he says, and looks down at the paper. "I'm sure you have work to do."

That is, from Mu Qing, as good as a thank you.

Mu Qing bends over, plucks the paper from Feng Xin's desk, and tucks it into his sleeve. Then he shimmers back into his disguise. He stands, drops the teacup on the stone floor, flings the door open with a bang, and storms out in what appears, to all intents and purposes, to be a towering rage almost worthy of General Xuan Zhen himself.

Feng Xin puts the personnel scrolls in a basket to be re-filed, along with the other thirty or so he pulled as a precaution against wagging tongues or undue attention. When the junior official on duty comes back in, Feng Xin is drinking his own tea, ignoring the spreading puddle on the floor surrounding the shards of a teacup he had actually quite liked, even as new as it was.

"That was ... loud?" his subordinate offers. He's clearly fishing. Feng Xin is fairly certain this one spies for Mu Qing out of nothing more than sheer busy-mindedness and desire for drama.

"Not as loud as if it had been General Xuan Zhen," Feng Xin says, doing his best to keep a straight face. "Clean that up," he directs, gesturing at the floor. "Then get me the forms for reporting an infestation of binu, and one for the Land of Tender," he says. "We're going to have to send someone to take care of both of those things." He looks over at the attendant, who is kneeling and picking up the shattered pieces of the teacup. "Coordinate with General Xuan Zhen's staff," he says. "I don't want him bitching about me interfering in his territory."

The man complies, and clearly mentions the forms to someone else, which Feng Xin had both expected and dreaded.

Within an hour the main heavenly array is buzzing with the news that Generals Nan Yang and Xuan Zhen were exposed to the Land of Tender and forced to endure it -- together. Those who saw Mu Qing slap Feng Xin in the main square spin more and more elaborate versions of the events they witnessed, until virtually no one in the heavens has any doubt that Xuan Zhen's cultivation vows have been thoroughly broken.

Did you see his robes, one of the literature gods hisses. Xuan Zhen is never in such disarray!

He was limping, too! 

Feng Xin doesn't recognize that voice, which is a good thing, because it means he can't go haring off to disembowel the bastard for the presumption of his statement.

I wonder if it's true what they say about General Ju Yang, someone says. His ... gigantic masculinity.

Feng Xin slams out of the array in a heartbeat, face flushed bright red. The gall! He's known the gods gossip worse than the aunties at the Xian Le palace had done, worse than the women and customers at Jian Lan's brothel. For so many of them it's the only occupation, after all. But this is -- this is too shameless.

Feng Xin, Mu Qing's voice sounds in his head, as he scrambles for words, trying to figure out who said what, who he has to confront. Don't do anything. Don't fuck this up by being oversensitive.

Feng Xin glowers at the empty air.

Oversensitive!? he demands. Do you hear what they're -- they think I -- he trails off.

They all think I raped you, he can't say, but that's what it comes down to. Two of the heavens' most powerful remaining martial gods got caught in a ridiculous demonic trap, and all the array cares about is the gossip-factor, and not the harm that may result to anyone involved, the potential fallout. What would happen to Mu Qing, if that were true? What harm might come to his believers as a result, if Mu Qing fell from grace?

Feng Xin has to quirk a small smile at himself: he sounds like His Highness, worrying about the common people like this.

This is the plan, Mu Qing hisses in his mind. If you can't take the heat, stay out of the array. It'll look better anyway, like you're regretful or ashamed. Let people think you're hiding from me.

Mu Qing is a cold-as-ice, scheming, manipulative asshole, Feng Xin thinks, impressed despite himself. He keeps it to himself: Mu Qing would only take it the wrong way.

Fine, he replies instead. Tell me when you need my help.

Mu Qing laughs in the private array, and exits without a word.

The rest of the day is occupied with paperwork. Feng Xin sends three officials of his own down with two of Mu Qing's to wipe out the binu and incinerate the Land of Tender infestation. They are flushed when they return, but it seems to be embarrassment rather than poisoning: all are still wearing the bandages around their noses and mouths that had saved the young soldier in Xian Le. None of them will meet his eyes, and he wonders what the flower-monsters said, what his officials are hearing in the array.

For all that Feng Xin might not be enormously self-aware, he knows himself well enough to be certain that if he enters the heavenly array and hears what people are saying about Mu Qing, he'll be swearing and knocking heads together in retaliation before he can stop himself.

Besides, he thinks, in the tiny, quiet corner of his mind that he's tried to ignore for so long. Mu Qing told him to stay silent. This is something he can do, a command he can obey, a way he can be of service.

The next morning brings a blossoming black eye that Feng Xin heals with a thought, though he's left the split lip alone for reasons he doesn't examine too closely. It brings sidelong looks from junior officials, and no small amount of whispering. He sets up clones of his junior officials when two of them contact him. One is curious, but shy, the other one is flustered. He tells them each to make themselves useful, dammit, and not to bother him unless Mu Qing tells them to.

Answering prayers keeps his focus for much of the morning; training some of his subordinates in the afternoon is so routine that his mind wanders. Feng Xin does not tap into his clones' hearing, does not spy on the people they are interacting with, does not enter the array. Instead he has four newly-appointed officials attempt to disarm him with their choice of live weapons and spiritual energy attacks.

That was, he thinks, looking around the courtyard in the aftermath of a very unsatisfying but impressively destructive fight, probably a bad idea.

Wang Lao staggers to her feet, hair singed from the fireball she only barely evaded, and frizzy from the lightning strike she had launched at him.

"General," she says, and bows. "This one apologizes--"

Feng Xin cuts her off.

"Why are you apologizing?" he demands. "You didn't even hit me!"

She blinks at him, still half-bowed, and he pulls her upright. Her gaze flits aside to the other three officials, who are laid out on the stone of the courtyard in varying states of singe and char.

"Get them to the infirmary," he says, gesturing at the other three. It's not his fault -- or her fault -- the other three of them didn't dodge her lightning strike swiftly enough, even as an attempted pincer with his -- perhaps, in retrospect, somewhat extravagant -- wall of flame. Lightning stings, but they'll be fine.

She looks doubtful.

"Practice with them at half-strength," he says. "They should be able to see that coming." He meets her eyes. "Don't apologize for winning a fight," he says. "Train with them more so it's a better match next time."

She blinks at him.

"Yes, General," she says, and goes over to help the least-injured man to his feet. Wang Lao is competent, for all that he only appointed her a few decades ago: she'll see to the others.

Someone clears his throat in what sounds like a poorly-concealed chuff of laughter. Feng Xin turns to see General Pei Ming standing there in his usual elaborate robes. He's eschewed the armor today, which means Feng Xin can't challenge him to a duel. Boring, Feng Xin thinks, and hears the echo of Quan Yizhen in his tone.

"Are you coming in, or not?" Feng Xin demands, sheathing his sword and striding into his office.

Pei Ming will follow, or he won't: it's none of Feng Xin's concern if he decides to leave.

"Friendly as always, General Nan Yang," Pei Ming says, but he follows without complaint, settles himself into what is fast becoming his usual chair in Feng Xin's outer office. Strangely, though, Pei Ming does not immediately launch into conversation.

"What?" Feng Xin demands. Pei Ming is staring at him oddly.

"So he did hit you," Pei Ming says, and he sounds uncharacteristically thoughtful. "I figured that was all trumped up."

Feng Xin scowls.

"Are you just here to dig for gossip, then?" he demands. "Because if you are, you can fuck off."

Pei Ming leans back, hands braced on his thighs. He looks serious, for once, and Feng Xin sees in him a hint of the general who won a hard-fought war, the god who has lost several descendants to heavenly intrigue, the strategist who has outrun the negative sides of his reputation for longer than Feng Xin has been alive or ascended himself.

"He's not leaving his palace," Pei Ming says, and it's clear he's talking about Mu Qing. "Rumors are flying faster than Crimson Rain's cursed butterflies. But you'd sooner cut off your own limbs than hurt him. So what really happened?"

Feng Xin blinks.

"We fight all the time," he points out. They destroy huge blocks of the capital when they really get into it. He broke Mu Qing's leg in two places the last time they fought seriously.

"Yes, yes," Pei Ming says, as if that's completely beside the point. "But you'd never hurt him."

His expression is still serious, almost insightful. Feng Xin glares at him.

"We got poisoned, and we got trapped," he said. "It sucked. Read the report, if Ling Wen is speaking to you again."

Ling Wen is not, in fact, on good terms with Pei Ming at the moment, a fact Feng Xin is deeply grateful for right now.

Pei Ming's expression flickers with annoyance, but he refuses to take the bait.

"There will be a serious power vacuum if he falls," Pei Ming says. "Maybe I'm worried about that."

Feng Xin shrugs, affecting a nonchalance he does not feel. The impact on the mortal realm will be bad, if someone takes Mu Qing out. The in-fighting in the heavens will be worse. But it's the thought of Mu Qing descending, becoming mortal again, dying, that has Feng Xin's heart in an inexorably painful grasp. He can't stand to lose anyone else, not now.

(He can't ever lose Mu Qing.)

"So go talk to Xuan Zhen," he says. "I can't answer your questions."

"You've got it bad," Pei Ming says. He sounds almost comforted, which is really bizarre. "Where's your hospitality, I know you have some decent booze around here somewhere. Let me tell you about my last trip!"

Feng Xin summons an attendant with wine and peanuts, and settles in to let Pei Ming wax poetic about the moon-pale beauty he seduced this time. She, at least, appears to have known exactly what she was getting herself in for, so there's no risk of another Xuan Ji.

If Feng Xin's thoughts stray from time to time to the remembered sight of Mu Qing in the cool light of the array, wreathed in light, visibly disheveled, that's no one's business but his own.

They drink, and Pei Ming carries the conversation with boasting, as he often does, and Feng Xin feels something settle in his chest, just a little bit. Surely it won't be that bad.

Several days later, he's reconsidering that assessment, and glaring daggers at Hua Cheng, who has the gall to have accompanied His Highness to Feng Xin's palace without any kind of warning or invitation.

Mu Qing has yet to be seen outside of his palace. His spies report that General Xuan Zhen shouts orders from behind closed doors, and will not let anyone see him. Rumors are going wild, and even though Feng Xin has still not entered the main array, he knows the whole heavens are stirred up to a fever pitch with speculation.

"San Lang," His Highness says, and the level of hostility in the air drops by perhaps ten percent. "Be nice."

"I'm not a nice person, gege," Hua Cheng says, which is one of the few things he's ever said that Feng Xin agrees with.

"Yes, you are," His Highness says, because he's a complete fucking idiot when it comes to Crimson Rain Sought Flower. "You can be," he says, and laces his fingers together with Hua Cheng's, squeezing gently. It's sickeningly sweet, domestic and familiar. Feng Xin glares at Hua Cheng harder.

Jealous? Hua Cheng asks him, in the array so His Highness can't hear him being a snake.

As if, Feng Xin shoots back. It's the truth: he's never wanted His Highness's attention in that way.

Hua Cheng settles slightly, and His Highness pats his hand gently.

"We've heard some concerning rumors," His Highness says. "Might we talk privately?"

Feng Xin lets them into his office, sends for His Highness's favorite Yunnan gushu black tea, ignoring the fact that he now knows Hua Cheng dislikes its slightly fruity flavor and prefers an aged white. When it has arrived, he closes the door and casts a silence array.

Sure, they could talk in the array, but he doesn't want Hua Cheng in his head if he can avoid it, and the feeling seems to be mutual.

"Have you heard from Mu Qing?" His Highness asks. Oh shit, Feng Xin thinks. He doesn't know how to handle this.

Mu Qing, he sends into the private array. His Highness is here asking about you! You didn't tell him what happened!?

Fuck off, Mu Qing sends back. He sounds out of breath, which is concerning. Figure it out yourself. I'm a little busy right now.

"Feng Xin," His Highness asks. "What's going on?"

Hua Cheng sips His Highness's favorite tea with an expression of repressed distaste that Feng Xin probably shouldn't treasure quite so much.

"I'm fine," Feng Xin says, thinking fast. "We -- uh." He feels himself flush. "We went to take care of a situation in the south last week," he says. "It turned out to be a Wrath kidnapping people and pretending to be Qi Rong," he says. When His Highness's brow furrows he hurries on. "We took care of that, but --" he shoots a glare at Hua Cheng, who glares right back and crosses his legs, stupid silver bells jangling ostentatiously. "It was a trap," he says. "Several Severe ghosts showed up when it died, and a few dozen binu," he continues. He takes a breath, because this is the worst part. "And we were herded into a Land of Tender plot. And then into a cave," he says, omitting the part where he panicked and trapped them in the cave.

His Highness takes a sharp breath, hands balling into tight fists on his thighs, and Feng Xin berates himself for not leading into it more discreetly. His Highness has such bad memories of the Land of Tender. But Feng Xin isn't a diplomat; he was trained to give military reports, not to eloquently dance around hard facts. Mu Qing is, for all his bluster, better at that kind of talk.

Hua Cheng reaches out and covers His Highness's fist with one of his own, pressing gently, gentling his grasp. His hands are bigger than His Highness's, ghost-pale against His Highness's now-tanned skin.

"Gege," he says, and his voice is almost tender. "We don't know what happened." He looks over at Feng Xin, gaze hard.

"It was a trap," Feng Xin blurts. "It's not the first time he's been drugged like this, either," Feng Xin says. "I --" he pauses. "Mu Qing set up a barrier between us," he says, because it's important that His Highness know that. "In the cave. So he's fine," he insists. "He stabbed the shit out of his leg," he says. "But he's fine. Don't listen to rumors," he insists. "He's got a plan."

Mu Qing always has a plan. It's one of the things Feng Xin finds baffling about him, one of the things he's never understood. Why have so many contingency plans, so many backups, so many what-ifs. Feng Xin has done what is asked of him his whole life without needing to scheme. But, he's come to realize, Mu Qing sees the world very differently, having grown up without any of the certainty Feng Xin took for granted.

"Yes," Hua Cheng says, tone dry. "I'm sure he does. That's why he just stormed the gambler's den and dragged off a poorly-disguised heavenly official by the hair. Alone. An intricate plan."

"San Lang," His Highness chides. He looks over at Feng Xin. "It was alarming," he says. "We thought perhaps you might know --"

But Feng Xin is already in his personal array.

Mu Qing you utter shithead. You stubborn fuckwit! he yells. You said you'd tell me when you needed help!

If there's another trap -- if something happens to Mu Qing -- Feng Xin feels his chest tightening as he considers it.

No, Mu Qing replies. You told me to ask for help. I don't need help: I'm fine.

He's always fine, Feng Xin thinks. He never asks for help, never shows weakness. That he had allowed Feng Xin to heal his injured legs before they ascended was probably a minor miracle.

Where the fuck are you? Feng Xin demands. His Highness and that asshole husband of his are here asking questions because you made a scene in Ghost City. What the fuck!?

Mu Qing makes a soft "oof" sound in the array. Feng Xin knows that sound: that's the sound of a solid blow landing, and landing hard. Mu Qing is in the middle of a fight.

Where the FUCK are you, you asshole! he mentally screams. He might be making a face; he can't tell.

Fuck off, Mu Qing replies. I don't need your help.

And he cuts off the connection.

"Feng Xin?" His Highness asks. He looks worried. Hua Cheng looks almost amused, like this is some kind of show arranged for his personal entertainment.

"He's fighting something," Feng Xin says. "That stubborn --"

His Highness and Hua Cheng exchange a glance.

"I'm sure he'll be fine," His Highness says. "Mu Qing isn't inclined to be rash. If he's taking this on alone," he shrugs. "He's more than capable," he concludes. He looks serene, unbothered. Hua Cheng gently swipes a thumb across the back of His Highness's hand, and he turns his hand over, palm to palm, and laces their fingers together.

Feng Xin wants to shake His Highness until his teeth rattle for being so unconcerned. Only a combination of long-honed obedience and the knowledge that Hua Cheng would remove his hands at the wrist with that creepy saber of his hold him back.

"Of course," he says. "Of course he will be."

(The alternative is unthinkable.)

But His Highness didn't see Mu Qing under the poison's spell, the way he kept stabbing himself, flushed and desperate to resist. Feng Xin isn't sure which was worse: the desperation or the resignation he'd heard in Mu Qing's voice when he mentioned previous such attempts. That Feng Xin remained so long unaware of attacks on his fellow general stings his pride.

"You doubt him?" Hua Cheng asks. His voice is silky soft, dangerous.

Feng Xin glares at him.

"Of course not!" he exclaims. "Don't be stupid, Crimson Rain. He can take care of himself."

It's true, after all: Mu Qing ascended before Feng Xin, and has kept his place in the heavens despite everything, for eight hundred years. He's managed it despite more robust attacks than anyone knew. Somehow, that doesn't make Feng Xin feel better about Mu Qing going after this particular foe alone.

His Highness looks politely confused; Hua Cheng quirks a sarcastic eyebrow.

"I'm just --" Feng Xin sputters. "He should have told me," he bites out. "I was attacked too."

"You were collateral damage, at best," Hua Cheng sniffs. "Don't think so highly of yourself."

Feng Xin opens his mouth to reply, but His Highness shakes his head very slightly.

"San Lang," he says. "Didn't you have something to tell Feng Xin?"

Hua Cheng turns to His Highness, expression brightening like the sky in the moments before dawn. His features darken when he faces Feng Xin. He pulls a scroll out of his sleeve and places it on the desk, pushing it across with two fingers.

"I've destroyed the ashes of the known associates of the Wrath in question," he says. "These were their names."

Feng Xin blinks at him, shocked.

"Say thank you to gege," Hua Cheng snaps. "As if I'd waste my time on you trash otherwise."

Feng Xin glances at His Highness, who is smiling very faintly.

"Whoever Mu Qing dragged out of the Gambler's Den," His Highness says, as Hua Cheng mutters a name that sounds like "Cao Xun" under his breath. "He would have been counting on having backup that no longer exists."

"Shit," Feng Xin breathes. He nods his head in gratitude. "Thank you," he says. He's still angry: he hates being left behind, and he'd be lying if he said he didn't want to get his hands on the asshole who orchestrated their setup. But he's less terrified than he was before, and that's a relief.

Xie Lian takes a dainty sip of his tea, managing to look every inch the crown prince despite his plain robes, his ever-present shabby straw hat.

"This is my favorite," he says. Feng Xin flushes, and His Highness smiles. "You remembered," he says, and he sounds faintly surprised, and a little bit pleased.

Hua Cheng scowls, and Feng Xin shoots him a glare. Crimson Rain isn't the only one who's allowed to remember His Highness's favorites, or be nice to him. The moment hovers, delicate, and Feng Xin takes a sip of his own tea. It's fruitier than he prefers, but he's not about to admit that now.

"Yeah," Feng Xin says. He looks at the scroll on his desk, and makes up his mind. "Thank you," he says again, and puts his teacup down. "If Your Highness will excuse me," he says, half-ignoring Hua Cheng. "I --"

"Yes, of course," His Highness says, and he's smiling very faintly.

Hua Cheng puts his own teacup down as well, and pulls His Highness closer.

"Are we done here, gege?" he asks. "Can we go home?"

It takes only the barest nod for them to dissolve in a swarm of those fucking creepy silver butterflies.

Feng Xin grabs the scroll as soon as they've disappeared, and skims it, eyes going wide in disbelief.

Then he storms over to General Xuan Zhen's palace. Mu Qing has to come back eventually, and he's not going to wait to hear about it through the array. For one thing, he'd probably have to beat a few dozen faces in if he pops into the array now, for being disrespectful gossipy little shits. For another, he's not sure Mu Qing will make a production of his return, and Feng Xin isn't willing to wait.

Mu Qing's staff attempt to bar his entry, and Feng Xin ignores them, barreling through into the main hall, where he can see all the major entry points. He plops down onto the ground, ignoring the several Middle Heaven officials who flutter around him in perfectly arranged robes, fussing about what their general will say on his return.

"He'll be pissed," Feng Xin says, looking at them. "But I'll beat your heads in if you try to make me leave, so fuck off."

He must be exuding nearly as much anger as he feels, because the officials take one look at his expression and flee, all but one.

"General Nan Yang," the woman says. She's not one of Feng Xin's spies; that's all Feng Xin knows about her. She takes a deep breath, then bows, alarmingly low. "This lowly one begs you to help General Xuan Zhen in any way possible," she says. "This one does not know what happened, but does not believe the rumors to be true," she continues. "Please. General Xuan Zhen is prickly and sharp-tongued, but he is good to his subordinates and believers," she says. "This one begs you to talk sense into him."

She looks like she's considering dropping to her knees before him, tone beseeching and distraught in equal shares.

Feng Xin huffs out a breath, anger banking in the face of her sincere devotion.

"Get up," he says, and his tone is too sharp, but she straightens. "Why the fuck do you think I'm here?" he demands.

It's not well-phrased, but something makes her look at him again, and then smile.

"This one thanks General Nan Yang," she says, very formally, and then quirks what looks almost like a conspiratorial grin. "No one will warn General Xuan Zhen that he has a visitor," she says, and leaves Feng Xin alone.

Feng Xin sits for an indeterminate period of time, musing over the list of names he holds in his sleeve. One of them was another Wrath; several were Severes. All were in the pay of the same Heavenly Official, Cao Xun, who is the god Mu Qing dragged out of the Gambler's Den earlier.

General Cao Xun is a fairly minor western god who has been falling on hard times recently, declining in importance as his followers flock to other deities and temples, especially after the revelation of Cao Xun's abject cowardice in the fight against Jun Wu. Many of his followers have flocked to General Xuan Zhen, as the martial god of the southwest.

Feng Xin sits uncharacteristically still. He waits.

Finally the doors are flung open, and Mu Qing storms in. His robes are torn in several places, his hair untidy, and he looks like he just went up against Quan Yizhen bare-handed and won.

Something settles in Feng Xin's chest.

"What are you doing here?" Mu Qing snaps.

The doors slam behind him, and no subordinates enter the room. Feng Xin suspects the hand of that particularly bold female official, even as he reassesses the situation.

"Waiting," Feng Xin snaps back. "Because some asshole didn't seem to think I needed to know he was going off to fight Cao Xun. Alone."

Mu Qing stares at him, visibly shocked, then pivots.

"Since when do I need your help?" he demands. "Get out."

Feng Xin flinches internally. He knows Mu Qing doesn't want his help: that's clear. That's been clear. But something in him still clamors to give it.

"He attacked me, too," Feng Xin spits back at him, counter-attacking instead of giving ground. "Maybe I wanted a chance to get a few blows in on my own behalf."

Mu Qing sneers at him.

"You were just collateral damage," he says, unwittingly echoing Crimson Rain Sought Flower's words. "Anyone would have done as well."

Anyone else might not have done what Feng Xin did, though. Someone else, someone with less practice ignoring inconvenient wants, burying impossible desire, might have hurt Mu Qing. The plot might have succeeded, if it had been anyone else.

Feng Xin is too angry for words. He grabs the scroll from inside his sleeve and launches it at Mu Qing's head. Mu Qing catches it without a glance, motions smooth and graceful, visibly un-injured.

"Fuck you," Feng Xin says.

"You first," Mu Qing shoots back. But he's already unrolling the scroll, though, skimming its tidy columns. (His Highness must have been the one to write it, Feng Xin knows.) "What is this," Mu Qing demands, color rising in his cheeks. He looks up at Feng Xin. He looks almost alarmed.

Feng Xin wants to punch him; he wants to tidy his hair and look after him. He can't do either of those things, so he explains.

"Those are the ghosts Crimson Rain destroyed," he says. "The ones who would have fought for Cao Xun today if His Highness hadn't stepped in for you." He scowls. "It was a trap, you fuckwit," he says. He balls his hands into fists, and stands. "It was another trap." He strides forwards, and pokes a finger into Mu Qing's chest. "It would have worked," he says. "Look at that list and tell me you could have gotten through all of them and a god without something going wrong."

He might have. Feng Xin hopes he would have. But hope is a fragile thing, and Feng Xin is unwilling to hang very much on it, anymore.

"So what?" Mu Qing demands. "You'd expand your territory. Don't pretend you care."

Feng Xin steps back, shocked.

"Fuck you too," he says. They're being too loud: he doesn't have it in himself to care. "Would it kill you to accept help for once in your life?"

Mu Qing's head whips up to stare at him.

"Help?" he demands. "Since when have you wanted to help me?"

Feng Xin has only ever wanted to help the people he cares about. With Mu Qing, he's only been able to fight. He'd hoped the two wouldn't be mutually exclusive, not for them.

"You asshole," Feng Xin says, too angry to hold back. "Some people aren't actually scheming against you. Did it ever occur to you that I might not want you gone?"

(He can't think of anything worse than Mu Qing being gone.)

Mu Qing scoffs, and Feng Xin feels himself flush darker with anger.

"What?" he demands.

"Like I'd believe that," Mu Qing says. His hands are shaking. He's flushed and angry and looks almost as he had in the cave. "Go fuck yourself."

Feng Xin stares at him and feels a traitorous wave of heat wash over himself. He didn't mean it that way, he tells himself, but it's too late. Mu Qing knows him as well as he knows himself, after all.

"Oh," Mu Qing says, and takes a small step forward. "You like that idea."

"Fuck off," Feng Xin says. There's not enough anger in it to cover the nameless worry, the dread. The cave he could chalk up to poison: what would this mean?

"I don't think so," Mu Qing says. "I'm not the one who likes fucking."

How can he just say that, Feng Xin thinks, head spinning.

"But you do," Mu Qing says. His tone is almost speculative, inexorable. "Not that you have the first idea what to do with yourself," he says.

Feng Xin bristles, and Mu Qing glares at him.

"Shut up," he says.

Feng Xin feels his mouth close, as if he's being compelled. It would be easier if he were being compelled, less damning.

"What is that," Mu Qing muses. "That reaction. Do you want me to order you around, I wonder?"

Feng Xin has stopped breathing. He makes a strangled sound, a half-gasp.

"Is that it?" Mu Qing says. He sounds halfway amused, half something Feng Xin can't identify. It's disorienting. "You want me to tell you what to do again? Like in the cave?"

Feng Xin takes a deep breath, shocked. He'd thought they were never going to mention that. Heat suffuses his body at the memories, and he bites back the first dozen things that come to mind, all rejections, denials, refusals. Lies. He's never been good with words; now he has to find the shape of the truth.

"And if I did?" he demands, finally. It feels insufficient.

He looks away, down to the ground beside Mu Qing: he can't look at that flushed face, color high from the fight, from their argument, from the things he's just said, and not want to crush their mouths together, can't look at that perfect hair and not want to wind his fingers through it. His own scalp prickles with the phantom touch of Mu Qing's achingly gentle hands.

Mu Qing doesn't respond, and Feng Xin feels defeat weigh down his shoulders.

"It doesn't matter," he says. "Your cultivation --"

"Is fine," Mu Qing cuts him off. "Obviously."

Feng Xin looks up, startled. That isn't the rejection he was so sure was coming. He blinks, and he must look confused, because Mu Qing laughs, a little sharp, a little bitter, maybe a little surprised. He turns away, then extends a hand beckoning for Feng Xin to follow.

We're not discussing this here, Mu Qing says in the array. Come on.

Feng Xin feels shaky, off-balance from the abrupt end to the argument. His blood is up, expecting a fight, angry enough to tear up the streets again, no matter the fines they'd face from Ling Wen's staff. It seems like he's not going to get one.

Instead he follows: he knows how to follow. After His Highness sent him away, he followed in Mu Qing's footsteps. He ascended second and clawed his way out of the ranks of mediocre martial gods and to a position of prominence tied with the man who seemed to want only to be his rival.

Feng Xin keeps his eyes trained on Mu Qing's robes, the fluttering sleeves, the faintly stained hem. He almost runs into Mu Qing's back when he comes to an abrupt halt, then shoves a door open with a small, fiercely controlled burst of spiritual energy, like he's disarming a trap, unlocking an array.

"Well?" Mu Qing demands, stepping over the threshold. His back is still turned, moving farther into the room. "Are you coming in?"

Feng Xin follows, then stops dead in the doorway, eyes going wide.

It's unmistakably Mu Qing's bedroom.

The room is neither small nor large. Feng Xin's martial eye sees that the walls are thick, the floors stone, the windows small and barred inside and out. The door was locked with an array attuned to Mu Qing's spiritual energy. The implications, after what Mu Qing let slip in the cave, are horrifying. Where Feng Xin's bedroom is a refuge, Mu Qing's, with bars on the windows, is almost a kind of cage.

Mu Qing walks over and perches on a chair. The furniture is simple but less ascetic than Feng Xin might have expected, if he'd ever allowed himself to imagine the inside of this room.

(He has, despite himself, imagined this room.)

"Close the door," Mu Qing says. His expression is sharp, considering. "Unless you'd rather just pretend nothing happened for the next eight hundred years," he offers. It might be a barb, phrased as it is. It might be meant as a goad. It sounds, oddly, almost sincere.

Feng Xin steps in, closes the door behind himself.

"Do you need to do anything to it?" he asks. "To -- re-lock it?"

Mu Qing cocks his head to one side.

"You noticed that?" he asks. His eyes soften, almost imperceptibly. "It's already set," he says. Then he grins, suddenly predatory, looking every inch the warrior Feng Xin fights against and fights beside, the powerful martial god who takes down monsters and ghosts and, apparently, other gods, without a hint of hesitation. "You can't leave unless I let you out," he says.

Feng Xin shivers.

"Here's how this will work," Mu Qing says. "You don't get to touch me. If you do what I say, I'll let you come. If you don't follow my instructions, I won't."

Feng Xin nods.

"Strip," Mu Qing says, and leans back in the chair, propping his forearms on the chair's wide arms. He looks like a king enthroned.

Feng Xin hesitates.

"Well?" Mu Qing says. "Was that too complex an instruction?" He scoffs. "Start with your sword and belts," he says. "Hang them up -- there," he gestures. "Don't make a mess, I won't pick up after you."

Mu Qing used to pick up after him, Feng Xin doesn't say. He used to dress His Highness, to sweep clean the courtyards where Feng Xin's only responsibilities were martial training and meditation.

Feng Xin's hands move to his belts, and he unfastens them with steady gestures. He doesn't know where this is going. He wants to find out.

"Good," Mu Qing says, when Feng Xin hangs them over the indicated chair back. His sword swings gently before coming to a halt.

Feng Xin feels the praise shoot through his body like a lightning strike. He holds still through sheer force of will. He's growing hard, desire flowing through him fast and strong like nothing he's felt in centuries.

"You like that," Mu Qing muses. "Outer robes," he says. "Fold them neatly."

Feng Xin peels off the embroidered outer layer of his robes, flushing slightly as his erection is made visible when he parts the thicker fabric. He straightens the seams, folds the robes carefully into a neat rectangle, places them on the seat of the chair. Then he stands still, hands at his sides.

"Inner robes," Mu Qing says. "One layer only."

Feng Xin pulls them off as well. The air in the room isn't chilly, but he shivers nonetheless. He starts to fold them.

"Stop," Mu Qing raps out.

Feng Xin freezes.

"Did I tell you to do that?" Mu Qing asks. His voice is soft, clearly enunciated. "I don't think I did," he says. "Weren't you going to follow instructions?" he asks.

Feng Xin feels himself flush, and lets the robes hang, half-folded from his hands. He doesn't know what he did wrong; he wants to know. He wants to comply.

"Answer me," Mu Qing presses.

"Yes," Feng Xin says.

"Yes I told you do that?" Mu Qing says. "Or yes, you were going to follow instructions."

"... the second one," Feng Xin says. "You said to --"

Mu Qing interrupts him. "I said to fold the outer robes, not these ones," he says. "I don't need you to show initiative here, Feng Xin," he continues, and his tone is sharp. "I need you to do what you're told. Exactly what you're told. Only," he pauses. "What you're told."

It should be humiliating, Feng Xin thinks, to be berated for something as small as folding his robes without explicit instruction. Instead it's oddly thrilling.

"Yes," he says, and waits.

"Fine," Mu Qing says. "Go lay them out on the bed. I don't want you messing things up later."

Feng Xin's heart beats faster at the implications of that. His blood is racing, arousal clouding his mind, and he pads over to the bed. It's larger than he'd expected, with a thicker mattress. He bends over and lays out the robes, splaying the smooth fabric wide to cover almost the whole surface.

"Now the next layer, head-to-foot," Mu Qing directs. "Spread out the sleeves."

Feng Xin strips his last layer of robes and shivers, bending over the bed in nothing but trousers, shoes, and hair ornaments to do as he's told.

Mu Qing gestures for him to move aside, and Feng Xin does, watching the expression on his face.

"Acceptable," Mu Qing says. "Sit down, and take off your boots."

Feng Xin blinks at him, then sits on the floor. Mu Qing makes a surprised sound, shakes his head in Feng Xin's peripheral vision.

"You idiot," Mu Qing says. He sounds almost fond, which makes no sense. "Put them beside the chair when you're done," Mu Qing says. "Then go sit on the bed."

Feng Xin complies. His hands seem to be moving independent of his control, as if he's watching someone else pull off his boots, stand, and place them next to his hanging sword belt, his folded robes. He moves to the bed and perches on the edge of it, aching as the movement drags the cloth of his trousers across his straining cock. He hasn't been this hard in -- years. Longer, maybe.

"Look at you," Mu Qing says, softer now, as if he's talking to himself. He raises his voice. "Stay there," he says. "You can touch yourself," he says.

That's so unspecific as to be impossible to understand. Feng Xin just looks at him, then wets his lips, and asks.

"Where?"

Mu Qing's lips curve into a domineering smile.

"Good question," he replies. "Your chest," he says. "Run one hand along it."

Feng Xin complies. He doesn't often take the time for this, wouldn't have said he was particularly sensitive, not like some people were said to be, but it's different now. It's different now, with Mu Qing's eyes on him, feeling his own hands moving at Mu Qing's direction. His hands are broad; he's always known that. They're warm and callused from sword and bow; he's always known that too.

It never occurred to him before that he might feel that, not like this. He runs his right hand across his own chest, and arches into the touch, gasping out a breath when his fingertips brush the hard peak of a nipple.

"Harder," Mu Qing says. "Pinch it."

Feng Xin does, and feels the breath get punched out of him at the jolt of sensation that runs from his nipple to his cock.

"Again," Mu Qing says, and Feng Xin does.

He feels like he's submerged, now, as Mu Qing directs his hands, draws them across his skin like a master calligrapher moving a brush. His words flow through the room, his gaze cool, hands loose on the arms of the chair. He is visibly unaffected by arousal, though Feng Xin can feel the weight of his attention.

"Again," Mu Qing directs, and proceeds to render Feng Xin a gasping wreck. When Feng Xin is on the verge of begging, Mu Qing pauses.

"Remove your hands and take down your hair," he says. "Put the pins by the bed."

Feng Xin blinks at him, blinks again, hands still hot on his own skin. He wants -- he wants just a little bit more. He's so close.

He closes his eyes and moves his hands away, begins to undo his hair, feeling the pull of the styling release, the weight of it against his shoulders. He's thankful that he's never gone in for the kinds of complicated hairstyling that was so popular in the Xian Le court, is still so popular among some of the gods of the Heavenly Court. His hands barely obey him now.

"Very good," Mu Qing says, when he sets the pins on the table with a sharp click.

Feng Xin shudders, hips jerking.

"Are you close?" Mu Qing asks. He sounds interested in a kind of abstract way.

Feng Xin wants to laugh: isn't it obvious. He wants to swear, for being denied. He nods instead, hands gripping his out-spread robes. He wants to touch himself again, but he hasn't been told what to do yet.

"Good," Mu Qing says. "Take off your trousers. You can leave them unfolded on the bed," he says.

Feng Xin shucks them off in haste, placing them beside him. His cock is achingly hard, straining toward his belly. The tip is already wet. He wants so desperately to touch.

"Show me," Mu Qing says. "Lie down, and touch your cock for me. Show me what you like."

Feng Xin slams himself onto his back so hard the bedframe shakes, hand flying to his erection immediately. It's too dry, and he hardly cares, jacking himself without finesse, eyes screwed shut as he pants after his release.

"Stop," Mu Qing says, voice sharp.

Feng Xin's hand jerks. He whimpers.

He stops.

"Not like that," Mu Qing says, tone sarcastic. "If I wanted to see such utterly ridiculous desperation, I'd spy on Pei Ming."

Feng Xin growls at the idea. His hand is hot on his cock. He aches for friction, for contact, for just that little bit more, to get him over the edge.

He doesn't move.

"Spit in your hand," Mu Qing directs, and Feng Xin almost comes just from hearing it. He opens his eyes and stares, utterly shocked. "What?" Mu Qing asks. He sounds amused. "You think I'm deaf?"

Feng Xin shakes his head. He spits in his hand, flushing at the idea that Mu Qing is watching him.

"Again," Mu Qing says, and he does.

"Now go slowly," Mu Qing says. "Show me what you prefer. Don't just fuck your hand like an animal."

Feng Xin touches himself slowly, this time, his grasp slick and hot, and far too good. He tosses his head back against his inner robes, and gasps at the sensation. It doesn't feel like his own hand; it doesn't feel like he's in control at all. He is shocked by how much he loves it.  

"Like that," Mu Qing directs. "A little harder, I think." He sounds speculative, like Feng Xin is a puzzle that demands his full attention.

Feng Xin complies, and can't prevent the full-throated moan that spills from his lips. His hips jerk up, and he freezes. He wasn't told to move like that.

"Oh," Mu Qing says. "Did I say you could do that?"

"No," Feng Xin gasps. "No, I --" he's frozen in place. "I didn't mean to," he says.

"Hm," Mu Qing says, still speculative, not angry. "Don't do it again unless I say so," he concludes. "Keep touching yourself." His voice is low, smooth, focused. "Don't come yet."

Feng Xin strokes his cock, slowly, runs his thumb over the head of his erection, gasps at the sensation.

"Do that again," Mu Qing says, and he does, feeling hazy and achingly aroused.

Time must pass; Feng Xin holds onto himself by the barest of edges. He pinches his nipples, runs a hand down his stomach, across the arch of his hip-bones. He is finally -- finally -- permitted to fuck into his fist, and it feels so good he can't stop the breathy moans that punch out of him on each thrust.

It's heady and unmoored, being so obedient to someone else's commands. It's nothing like the poison. It's so much better.

Finally it's too much.

"Please," Feng Xin begs. He isn't fucking his fist anymore, is barely touching his cock, following instructions to the letter, trying not to come yet. He's so close. He's been so close.

"Please what?" Mu Qing asks. He's perfectly composed, only leaning very faintly forward to watch as Feng Xin shakes apart for him. His eyes narrow. "I don't think I gave you permission to stop," he says.

"Please," Feng Xin manages, moving, stroking himself again, gasping at the contact. "I can't--"

"You're close?" Mu Qing asks.

Feng Xin sobs. He's not just close. He's balanced on the edge of a knife. He's a hair's breadth away from coming, and he doesn't have permission, and he doesn't know how much longer he can hold off for.

"Yes," he snarls. "Yes."

Mu Qing settles back, crosses one leg over his knee. He looks thoughtful.

"You have been obedient," he muses. He smiles, small and almost mean, and Feng Xin thinks for a heart-stopping moment that it wasn't enough, he wasn't enough. He thinks he might tip over the edge anyway, even without permission.

"Please," he gasps. His free hand is fisted in his robes so hard it hurts. He might be tearing the cloth; he couldn't say.

"Yes," Mu Qing says, and he leans back further in his seat, every inch of his body screaming casual command. "Come for me, Feng Xin."

Feng Xin comes immediately, arching off the bed with a half-muffled scream. Orgasm rips through him, more powerful than any he can remember, and drags him down into the dark.

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