Mu Qing stares at the pile of paperwork on his desk and gives thanks that gods don't actually need to sleep. He still does much of the time, just as the Heavenly City observes a night and day cycle that is completely arbitrary. It breaks up time, provides markers of passing time other than festivals and annual observances, and sleep is something to do.
But right now, looking at the still-impressive backlog of prayers spread before him, Mu Qing sighs and resigns himself to yet more sleepless nights, a lot of prayer-triage while he rebuilds his spiritual energy, and far too much utterly thankless paperwork.
His subordinates, especially Lei Su, did keep everything humming along well during his week-long self-imposed absence. The prayers are organized just as he wishes, and he's made a significant dent in them since taking care of Cao Xun and disproving the rumors that, admittedly, he himself started by accusing Feng Xin in the heavenly square.
The fight with Cao Xun wasn't even that hard in the end. The western General had been fading for some time even before he threw his lot in with Jun Wu, before he made the foolish decision to broadcast his spinelessness to his followers and lost much of their faith. He hadn't hit as hard as Feng Xin, and didn't know Mu Qing's weaknesses as well.
It still hadn't been an easy fight. No fight against a martial god is ever precisely easy. But the outcome of their one-on-one combat had not been in any kind of doubt from the first moment they crossed blades. Mu Qing had made sure to broadcast the battle -- and a carefully pre-planned monologue about deceit, entrapment, and betrayal -- into the dreams of his followers so they could see him get his revenge, so they could observe his continued strength and unbroken cultivation vows.
Still, Mu Qing thinks. His eyes are drawn to the single scroll that has been sitting to one side on his desk for some weeks. If he hadn't told Xie Lian what had happened, if Xie Lian hadn't roped in Hua Cheng, if Hua Cheng hadn't crushed the rest of Cao Xun's ghost allies.
Well. Perhaps he should have taken Feng Xin along with him, after all. It surely wouldn't have displayed too much weakness to invite someone else who was wronged on a revenge mission, even if Feng Xin is always a little bit twitchy in Ghost City.
The mental image of Feng Xin twitching away from female spirits in Ghost City reminds him that the other god is probably still passed out on top of Mu Qing's bed. Again. Mu Qing has no frame of reference beyond a handful of sticky, awkward, shameful dreams in his adolescence, but Feng Xin always seems to need an inordinate amount of time to recover after Mu Qing talks him to an orgasm.
Surely not everyone passes out or becomes a limp, shaking wreck after every single time they have sex. It seems thoroughly impractical.
Mu Qing shakes his head and goes back to answering prayers. He insists that his temples all sell their own incense at set price points that range from the astronomically expensive to the very, very cheap. Unlike some gods, who answer only the prayers of those who have literal money to burn, Mu Qing's attendants collect prayers and sort them by which sort of incense accompanied them. Now he pulls from each pile in turn, going through them at a steady clip.
New attendants in the palace of General Xuan Zhen sometimes try to deprioritize the prayers that accompany the cheapest incense. Some have even burned them, or thrown them in the trash. None of them have made that mistake twice, not since Mu Qing summarily demoted a repeat offender a few hundred years ago, sending him back down to die in the mortal realm after a thorough, vicious, and very public tongue-lashing.
It takes more time this way, but the prayers of the poor are sometimes easier to answer than those of the rich, and not everyone born poor remains that way. It's a practical, strategic approach to building his followers and retaining loyalty of those who fall on hard times, as well as ensuring the continued support of those who do well for themselves.
(It has nothing to do with the unheard prayers of Mu Qing's childhood. Shut up.)
Mu Qing is working his way through a set of prayers that will be fairly easy to answer when Feng Xin's voice enters his personal array.
Mu Qing? he hears. Feng Xin sounds exhausted, stripped bare of bravado, posturing, anger.
Just a minute, Mu Qing sends back. He needs only to send a few haunting dreams to some key toughs in a minor city for them to stop harassing one of his more loyal followers. He makes the appropriate notes, then tunes back into the array.
What is it? he asks. Feng Xin always leaves after he recovers himself. Usually it doesn't take this long, either.
Where are you? Feng Xin asks. He sounds quieter than usual. The softer timbre of his voice makes him sound smaller, as if he's been diminished somehow.
Doing work, Mu Qing says. He looks down at the piles of scrolls and log-books and feels a headache coming on. He doesn't want to be answering prayers right now, but it needs to be done. His wants haven't ever come first, and the never-ending work of maintaining divinity is necessary.
It's late, Feng Xin says. He sounds almost petulant. If Mu Qing didn't know better, he'd think Feng Xin was distressed. Why did you leave?
Some of us don't make a habit of pissing off Ling Wen by being late with our paperwork, Mu Qing retorts. This isn't strictly true: Ling Wen has been exasperated by the uneven flow of paperwork from Xuan Zhen's temple recently, after the week-long hiatus and following flood of catch-up work. But there's nothing he can do about that except keep processing prayers.
Oh, Feng Xin says, not fighting back. You're still behind? He sounds off-kilter. He pauses. Can I help?
Mu Qing's first instinct is a vicious denial. He doesn't need anyone's pity: he doesn't need to rely on handouts, on charity. But his gaze catches on the scroll, the list of ghosts, and he remembers Feng Xin's declaration that he's never wanted Mu Qing gone, how essential Xie Lian's help had been, unbeknownst to him, how crucial Feng Xin's presence would have been under other circumstances.
Dress properly first, he commands, not wanting a repeat of the one time Feng Xin wandered out of Mu Qing's bedroom barefoot, wearing only poorly-belted inner robes. The lock on his bedroom is keyed to Feng Xin for now. It's practical: it means he'll be able to leave without Mu Qing having to be interrupted. Mu Qing eyes the heights of the various stacks of prayers, judges that he has completed about a tenth of the outstanding ones in each of the lowest and second-lowest tiers, and moves up one incense level.
When Feng Xin slips in, Mu Qing is swearing under his breath at a prayer for marital harmony. He's a martial god! A celibate martial god! What is he supposed to know about keeping a husband from losing sexual interest and taking a second wife or a concubine? His experience in matters of the flesh is only several weeks old, and limited to a single person. A person who has lowered himself into a chair at the side of the room without a word, hair still unbound, though his robes are belted properly and he's wearing shoes.
"Here," Mu Qing says, and tosses him the scroll. "Why the fuck am I getting marital prayers anyway. Isn't that your department?"
Feng Xin almost fumbles the catch, uncharacteristically clumsy. Mu Qing realizes that must have sounded like a dig at Feng Xin's failed relationship with Jian Lan. He purses his lips, dissatisfied with himself. Feng Xin had clearly wanted to make amends with her, to do whatever he could to support the woman he had once loved. He was still prepared to accept his creepy ghost child, no matter the harm to his reputation.
"You want me to -- answer this?" Feng Xin asks. He sounds puzzled. "It's your prayer."
Mu Qing scowls, because he hadn't really thought this through. He wanted to complain about it, to bicker a little bit, but Feng Xin is in another one of his weird moods, unreasonably pliant and accommodating. Mu Qing can already tell he won't be getting anything like a mood-clearing argument out of this, not tonight.
"Do what you want," he says. "I can't answer it. They should know better than to ask an abstinent martial god about their marriage problems."
Feng Xin looks at it, and at Mu Qing, then unrolls the scroll and begins to read. He's tense, laser-focused, the familiar expression somewhat jarring when paired with his rumpled collar and loose hair, which Mu Qing realizes he now associates with a very different context. Feng Xin finishes reading, then looks up.
"I don't know," he says. "You could send a dream to scare him away from brothels, but that won't keep him faithful for long." His expression turns inwards. "He has to want to stay," he says, and now Mu Qing is sure he's talking about Jian Lan.
It makes no sense that Jian Lan would leave Feng Xin, when he's willing to take so many risks to keep her and their ghost-child safe. But Mu Qing knows himself well enough to be aware that he has never understood affairs of the heart, much less the kind of relationship Feng Xin shared with the former courtesan. When he lets himself think about it, he worries he'll misunderstand whatever they're doing now.
Feng Xin blinks at him, and Mu Qing realizes he expects a reply.
"Put it in that basket," Mu Qing says, gesturing at the bin for unanswerable prayers. "And come closer. If you're going to insist on being here, you can help triage."
Feng Xin comes over immediately, sits facing the desk, and takes the scroll Mu Qing hands him.
"Make notes about any of them that are answerable. If you're not sure, put them here," he gestures at the side of the desk. "If they're out of scope, they go in the bin."
The work in silence for a time. Feng Xin takes the scrolls he's handed, makes notes on a few. He puts most of them aside, puts one or two in the unanswerable prayer bin. It's oddly companionable, unlike the slightly antsy feeling of judgment Mu Qing has to face when he works with most of his subordinates in the room.
A shichen passes before their hands brush as Feng Xin hands back a scroll. It's nothing, a small, everyday, accidental contact, but Feng Xin sucks in a startled breath, hand drawing back instantly as if he's touched a hot coal, a death butterfly.
"Sorry," Feng Xin says. His voice is higher than usual, almost panicked. "I know I can't--" he gulps back. "Sorry."
Mu Qing stares at him, baffled, then takes the scroll. Feng Xin leans back in the chair, holding very still.
"What are you waiting for?" Mu Qing asks. "Take another one."
Feng Xin does, reaching out carefully, as if trying to be certain he won't brush against Mu Qing's hand again. He has been acting increasingly strange recently. They haven't sparred more than a handful of times since the fall of Cao Xun, and then only with sword or bow, not once in hand-to-hand combat. Feng Xin declared himself too busy when Mu Qing suggested that kind of sparring bout a week ago.
Mu Qing is not an especially tactile person by nature, but it occurs to him, watching Feng Xin, that the other god hasn't touched him even once since the first time they started whatever it is they have been doing, since the first time Mu Qing told him to touch himself. Feng Xin hasn't often reached out his hand to Mu Qing in the past, but over the last two years the occasional friendly clap on the shoulder had become almost normal between them.
"Are you --" Mu Qing says, testing the idea. "Are you avoiding touching me on purpose?"
Feng Xin blinks at him, motions freezing midway through unrolling the scroll he just took from the highest pile. He goes tense all over, like a child caught stealing, like a rabbit under a stooping hawk.
"Well?" Mu Qing asks.
"You said not to," Feng Xin says. He looks confused, like Mu Qing has just asked him something incredibly obvious, like what color the sky is, like whether Xie Lian's cooking is edible or not.
Mu Qing thinks back. He did tell Feng Xin not to touch him, that first time. Was that really the last time Feng Xin had touched him? It seems like it might have been.
"I --" he huffs out a breath. "Not during -- that," he says. "The rest of the time it's fine."
Feng Xin blinks at him, then nods.
"All right," he says. He sounds cautious.
"What, am I going to set a trap for you?" Mu Qing asks, voice sharp. "I'll tell you if it's a problem."
Feng Xin would usually have a sharp retort to that, would tell Mu Qing that of course he'd lay a trap, he's a scheming bastard who lives to trip people up. Instead he only looks relieved.
"All right," he says again, but his shoulders drop a little bit, some of the tension draining out of his body.
Mu Qing looks at him, and wonders what the fuck has gotten into him. Feng Xin won't tell him: Mu Qing asked the last time he was like this, and Feng Xin just blinked at him and shrunk even smaller into himself, like he could avoid answering if he just looked pathetic enough.
"I'm fine," he'd said. Then, with a pitiful attempt at normality, he'd added: "What, are you worried about me?"
"As if I'd worry," Mu Qing had shot back before sweeping out of the room to take care of his disciples' training for the day.
Now, looking at Feng Xin sitting across from him, perusing a scroll, voluntarily doing paperwork that isn't even his own, Mu Qing thinks that, yes, he is worried.
Feng Xin stays, dutifully processing paperwork, until nearly dawn. He only leaves when Mu Qing chases him out before his staff can get any ideas about their general needing help from another god.
Mu Qing gets called down to the mortal realm to deal with a Severe-level ghost making a fuss over pedestrian resentment: his wife remarried after his death, and though she and the second husband are long dead by now, the ghost in question refused to move on and was inevitably overtaken by ill will. In the end, Mu Qing has to dissipate his ashes, thankful that the body had been buried in the town's graveyard. It would have been more challenging if the ghost had bothered to guard his weak point better.
When Mu Qing returns to the Heavenly City, he fills out the appropriate paperwork, handing it to Lei Su to take to Ling Wen's palace for filing. There are days he wonders if he'd have ascended if he'd known the quantity of paperwork, and this is one of them. The ghost had been petty and malicious, stealing and vandalizing, escalating to the point that one of his lower-incense-tier followers mentioned it several times.
Are you busy he asks Feng Xin in the private array. The fight was unsatisfying, and Mu Qing is antsy, distracted. Let's spar.
Feng Xin replies almost immediately.
Hello to you too, he says, sarcastic. What if I'm busy, Mu Qing. Some of us have prayers to answer.
Bullshit, Mu Qing shoots back. You hate paperwork.
Feng Xin has always done his paperwork in fits and starts, conscientious but easily distracted by more active pursuits. His prayer-sorting system appears to run more on random chance than anything more organized. It's a system that is far too common in the heavens, inefficient and reliant on quantity to convey real problems. His subordinates do more of the sorting than Mu Qing's, but then again Feng Xin has always been more comfortable with delegation than Mu Qing.
Fine, Feng Xin concedes, which Mu Qing takes to mean that he's been looking for an excuse to skip out on paperwork for some time now. Training grounds in ten minutes, he says, and closes out of the array.
When Mu Qing meets him there, Feng Xin has stripped out of the top layer of his formal robes, sword in hand. Mu Qing nods in greeting, and then launches himself at Feng Xin at top speed, pulling his saber as he goes.
Their blades meet with a satisfying clang, sending a shockwave of spiritual energy out to ruffle the grass at the edges of the ring of packed earth. Mu Qing leaps back, away from a retaliatory strike, and Feng Xin follows.
They trade blows time and again. The two of them are evenly matched for all that their fighting styles are different, and Mu Qing feels his blood racing, his pulse speeding up with the enjoyment of such equal combat. So few people can give him a good fight these days. Fewer still are willing to hit their hardest, to trust Mu Qing to hold his own. Feng Xin may be the only one.
Feng Xin wins the first match by a hair's breadth as Mu Qing falters at that thought. They immediately square up again, and Mu Qing wins the second round conclusively. They pause, then, and Mu Qing offers Feng Xin a hand up from where he's sprawled on the dirt with the tip of Mu Qing's saber at his throat.
"Come on," Mu Qing says, feeling something dark and possessive stirring inside him at the sight of Feng Xin still beneath his blade. "That's enough."
In the past, Feng Xin would have insisted on a third bout as a tie-breaker. Before Xie Lian's third ascension it would have been sharp, demanding. After, it would have been almost cajoling, as if Feng Xin wanted to spend more time with Mu Qing and didn't know how to ask in any other way.
Now he takes Mu Qing's hand, grip firm and solid and warm, and hauls himself up without a word of complaint. He follows Mu Qing back to his palace, seemingly content to walk in silence, and doesn't seem at all surprised when Mu Qing heads straight for his bedroom, taking them through the back hallways that his staff almost never uses at this time of day.
Lei Su has seen them at least once that Mu Qing knows of, but she's never brought it up, not even in his personal array, and Mu Qing thinks she might even approve, though she's hard to read. He'll have to talk to her about it at some point, but he feels himself flush at the mere thought. Easier not to admit to what they're doing, not to think about it too hard, to wonder what it means, what it might continue to mean.
When they enter the bedroom, Feng Xin immediately doffs his sword-belt, hanging it on the same chair as always. Then he stands still, hands at his sides, and waits. His hair is mussed from the fight, dirty from being slammed into the packed earth training grounds, and Mu Qing steps forwards before he can think about what he's doing.
Feng Xin shudders once, almost violently, when Mu Qing removes his hair piece to let his hair fall around his shoulders in dark waves. He trembles all over, fine vibrations like a nervous horse, when Mu Qing cards the dirt and dying leaves out of his hair with his fingers. Other than that, he holds perfectly still. He doesn’t reach out. He doesn’t attempt to touch Mu Qing, doesn't move a single voluntary inch.
"Sit down," Mu Qing says, and Feng Xin folds immediately to his knees, warrior-graceful and clumsily inelegant at the same time.
Mu Qing had meant in a chair, but it seems like Feng Xin is content taking things literally again. He huffs out a small breath, then moves to stand behind Feng Xin where he can see his hair clearly.
He pulls a comb from his sleeve and starts at the bottom. He works out the tangles methodically, pulling out dirt and leaf-fragments and combing with slow, even strokes until Feng Xin's hair lies dark and gleaming over his shoulders. Feng Xin's breath slows as he works until he's virtually still under Mu Qing's touch, a living statue of a martial god entirely at Mu Qing's mercy.
Mu Qing steps back, and hears Feng Xin's breath catch in his throat. It's almost, but not entirely, silent, as if he's trying to muffle the noise.
Mu Qing walks around him, and settles into his usual chair. When, he wonders, did this become something usual, expected, something he thinks of as normal.
He shakes his head. When he looks over, Feng Xin's hands are fisted in the cloth of his robes over his thighs. He's holding utterly still, eyes closed. He looks like he would be content to stay right where he is, like he needs nothing more than to remain quiet and still at Mu Qing's bidding, but that's not what they are here to do, is it.
"Stand," Mu Qing says, and Feng Xin rises to his feet. "Outer robes folded, inner robes on the bed," Mu Qing says, because that's normal now. "Boots by the chair. Quickly," he adds, to see what effect it will have.
Feng Xin's fingers fumble at his belts first, but then he moves more swiftly than Mu Qing has seen outside of battle, stripping off and folding his heavy, embroidered outer robes with practiced gestures, toeing off his boots, moving to the side of the bed and laying out his two layers of inner robes, head to foot, as he has each time they've done this. He stops, bare and visibly aroused, and stands at the side of the bed waiting for instructions.
He's become so good at following Mu Qing's lead, at doing exactly what he's told. His hair is hanging into his face, and Mu Qing has a moment to resent it for blocking his line of sight.
"Lie down on your back," Mu Qing commands.
Feng Xin complies.
It feels heady, that compliance, that obedience. Mu Qing makes a small, satisfied sound, and sees Feng Xin shiver.
"Good," he says, because that always gets a reaction. "Very good."
Feng Xin's hands grasp at the outspread fabric of his robes, but he doesn't move, flat on his back, cock straining up into the air.
"What is ityou want today," Mu Qing muses, watching Feng Xin's breathing pick up again. "I wonder."
Feng Xin closes his eyes, and Mu Qing doesn't like that.
"Look at me," he commands.
Feng Xin turns his head, opens his eyes, and meets Mu Qing's gaze. His pupils are wide, his expression open, vulnerable, and filled with something Mu Qing can't identify.
"Keep looking at me," Mu Qing says. "Or I'll stop."
Feng Xin nods.
"Good," Mu Qing says, and watches his cock jolt. He feels a smile quirk on his lips and doesn't hold it back. "Good," he says again. "Now," he says. "Straight to it, I think. Touch your cock, Feng Xin. Show me what you want."
Feng Xin blinks, wrenches his eyes back open again to keep looking at Mu Qing, and starts stroking his cock with his right hand.
"Stop," Mu Qing says.
Feng Xin stops immediately, though his hips judder. He's obviously worked up, more on-edge than Mu Qing can remember seeing him before.
"Wet your hand," Mu Qing says. "You choose how."
Feng Xin blinks, seeming to struggle with the choice, then raises his hand and licks it before placing it back on his erection.
"Good," Mu Qing says, and Feng Xin whines low in his throat. He's never done that before, not like that, Mu Qing thinks. "Touch yourself," Mu Qing says. "Don't come yet."
Feng Xin complies, utterly still except for the motion of his hand on his cock, eyes locked on Mu Qing. His eyelashes flutter from time to time; his face flushes. Mu Qing watches his body strain to remain in place, muscles taut, and feels powerful like he's been given a gift, like he's found something he didn't know he was missing.
"Is that all you want?" he asks.
Feng Xin whines again.
"Words," Mu Qing commands. "Tell me what you want."
Feng Xin's eyelids flutter again, but he doesn't look away.
"More," he gasps.
That's not very helpful, Mu Qing thinks sourly, and frowns in response. How is he supposed to guess what 'more' means in this context? He's not the one who has sired a child: he's the one who's never done any of this before. But Feng Xin's expression goes still, shuttering off.
"I'm sorry," he says. He sounds desperate. "I don't --"
Mu Qing shakes his head.
"Hush," he says, and Feng Xin bites his lip. He's still stroking himself, still holding still, still meeting Mu Qing's eyes. "More how?" Mu Qing asks. "Be specific."
Feng Xin's hand stutters, and he has to visibly force himself to keep going.
"Inside," he says. "I want -- I want you to fuck me. Oh god," he says, words distorted around a moan. "I want --"
Mu Qing frowns again.
"I'm not touching you," he says. Feng Xin knows that's impossible. He can't have forgotten, can he? He didn't forget in the cave, so how could he forget now, when he's not poisoned?
Feng Xin is still watching him.
"I know," he says. He sounds -- off-kilter somehow. "I know."
"So what do you want?" Mu Qing asks, trying to figure this out.
"I said," Feng Xin insists. "I -- please."
Mu Qing replays the fractured words.
"You can finger yourself," he says, after a moment. "You can even pretend it's me touching you."
Feng Xin's gasp this time sounds like a man who's had the air knocked out of him in combat, all the violence of a lethal blow with none of the bone-crunching impact.
"Yes," he gasps, left hand already skimming between his legs. "Please."
Mu Qing watches him, seeing Feng Xin's gaze go distant, and then remembers something he's overheard. Isn't oil necessary for this? He's sure it is.
"Stop," he says.
Feng Xin freezes, expression shocked, open, almost betrayed.
"You'll hurt yourself," Mu Qing says. "Wait."
He obviously doesn't have anything designed for this, but he's pretty sure the massage oil he uses for minor sprains will be fine. He stands and retrieves the soapstone container, then, following some instinct he doesn't examine too closely, walks over to the bed and places it directly next to Feng Xin. He tucks a strand of Feng Xin's hair behind his ear, brushing the warm skin for a moment, and then goes back to his chair.
Feng Xin's eyes stay locked on him the entire time.
"Go ahead," Mu Qing says. "Show me."
Feng Xin removes the lid, dips a finger in, then his hand disappears between his legs, moving steadily. He clearly knows what he's doing. Mu Qing doesn't particularly feel the need to see the details, which seem messy and somewhat unhygienic. Instead he keeps watching Feng Xin's face, tracking the expressions that race over the long-familiar features, changing them into something new.
"Keep going," Mu Qing directs. "Show me what you like."
Feng Xin sobs, slicks his right hand from the container, and strokes his cock ever so slowly, the sound loud in the enclosed space. His left hand moves in jagged thrusting motions. Every few thrusts he arches, visibly biting back noise.
"Let me hear you," Mu Qing says. He's never asked that before, but he's never asked Feng Xin to do this before either, and he's curious.
Feng Xin gasps, hand going still on his cock, visibly freezing in place, and then a groan punches its way out of him as he comes, whole body shaking from the force of it. It takes longer than usual, as if he's being wrung out from the inside. It seems as if the extra stimulation of his fingers made a very real difference, Mu Qing thinks. Feng Xin screwed his eyes shut at some point, so Mu Qing is free to look at the line of his body, tanned skin and lean muscle, strong shoulders and defined legs. His chest and belly are streaked with white, and he looks like he might be crying.
"I --" Feng Xin gasps. He seems to be struggling for breath. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to--"
Mu Qing blinks, confused, but Feng Xin lapses back into silence, eyes still shut, tears leaking from the corners of his eyes.
"Clean up when you're done," he says when the silence stretches too long. He stands and tosses a spare cloth onto the bed next to Feng Xin. The oil will be messier than usual, won't it?
"Use this," he says, and then, because he feels unsettled, and isn't sure how to explain why he's giving Feng Xin a cloth for the first time. "Don't expect me to do this again."
Then he stands and walks out of the room to give Feng Xin space to recover himself, wondering what just happened, why he feels so off-kilter as a result.
Feng Xin slips out of his palace without a word this time. Mu Qing dives into paperwork with a vengeance in an effort to distract himself from the feeling that something has gone awry, that he's done something wrong without meaning to.
(He always ends up doing something wrong -- why should this be any different?)
The next few days see a flurry of paperwork being sent to the palace of Ling Wen and unusual silence from Feng Xin, who doesn't reply in the private array even once. A week or so later Mu Qing finally gets sick of feeling like he's being ignored, gets sick of the roiling, uncertain feeling in his gut. So he goes to General Nan Yang's temple in person.
The Middle Heaven officials don't even try to stop him the way they usually would, which is very strange. One or two look like they might be about to step in his way until a stocky woman with a high, tight bun raises a single hand, and they all subside, looking away as Mu Qing stalks through the halls he knows as well as his own, having helped re-design them to keep Feng Xin from making incredibly stupid choices about materials sourcing or load-bearing walls.
When Mu Qing storms into Feng Xin's office, he sees uncharacteristically unruly stacks of paperwork on every surface, and Feng Xin asleep at the desk in full armor, hair dull and obviously unwashed. He has dark circles under his eyes even in sleep.
What the fuck, Mu Qing has time to think, in the bare moment before Feng Xin wakes up.
"What?" Feng Xin demands. His expression shifts from something soft to an old, familiar, thoroughly unwelcome sneer. "Is the great and efficient General Xuan Zhen here to tell me I'm doing something wrong? Does he have a godly complaint or pearls of wisdom to scatter before this unworthy one?"
Mu Qing stops in the doorway, shocked. Feng Xin hasn't been so aggressive for years now. They've fought, but it's not been this vicious a verbal assault, not since Jun Wu. Mu Qing had gotten used to the new normal, to half-heated bickering carried out mostly due to habit. He doesn't like the vitriol in these words.
"What is wrong with you?" Mu Qing demands, stepping in and kicking the door shut. "Ignoring me in the array? What else am I supposed to do, find you in the main square? Try to corner you in the public array? You know how the gods gossip!"
"Fuck off," Feng Xin says. "You're the one who told me to leave you alone. What do you want now?"
Mu Qing stares at him.
"I did what?" he asks.
"Don't expect me to do this again," Feng Xin says. He stares at Mu Qing, expression aggressive, but almost forcedly so. "That's exactly what you said. So. Fuck off."
Mu Qing stares at him. He ... might have said something like that, but he'd been referring to handing Feng Xin a piece of cloth.
"You look like shit," he says instead, and wants to take the words back when Feng Xin flinches.
"Fuck off!" Feng Xin yells. "Go find someone else to jerk around, Mu Qing. I don't need your pity."
He picks up a scroll, seemingly at random, and pointedly ignores Mu Qing. He's holding it upside down.
Something, Mu Qing realizes, is very, very badly wrong.
"Pity?" he asks. He keeps his voice even, tone low. "What the fuck, Feng Xin."
Feng Xin doesn't look at him.
"I don't --" Mu Qing says. He hates having to put his feelings into words. He can wheel and deal with the best of them, learned that before he got a position at the palace, lifetimes ago. He can set terms and maneuver his way past political minefields. But there's no lava field beneath him now, no threat of imminent death to loosen his tongue. "I don't pity you," he says. "Why would I --"
Feng Xin's hands tighten on the scroll's ends. He doesn't reply.
"How could I?" Mu Qing asks. "I don't --"
Feng Xin slams the scroll on the desk hard enough that one end of it tears. Mu Qing irrationally wants to take it, to patch it, as if repairing a simple piece of paper might make this all better.
He's always been better at patching up objects than repairing relationships with only his words.
"You keep leaving," Feng Xin says. His voice is choked up, tight with emotions Mu Qing can't read. "What am I supposed to think. I can't do this. I can't keep watching you leave." He doesn't look up; his eyes are rimmed in red. "Just go away," he says, and his voice is so soft Mu Qing almost doesn't hear it when he continues. "Please."
Feng Xin sounds small, defeated, and Mu Qing doesn't have any idea what to say. He decides to make a tactical retreat.
(Who is he kidding? He flees.)
Clearly, Mu Qing thinks, after he's taken out his frustration on several training dummies and some of his less-useless lower officials, he's fucked something up by not knowing the first thing about how sex works. He checks his saber blade for damage: it's fine, so he sheathes it, and leaves the courtyard a smoking wreck. He'll arrange for it to be cleaned up later.
His office is haunted by the memory of Feng Xin quietly helping him with paperwork; his bedroom is haunted by memories of Feng Xin's pleasure, his quiet, unquestioning obedience and trust.
Mu Qing goes up to the roof to clear his head.
As much as he doesn't want to admit it, he needs help. He needs to talk to someone who can tell him what he's done wrong, and while his first instinct might be to turn to Xie Lian, that won't actually help. His Highness is very nearly as new to these things as Mu Qing himself, having followed the same abstinent path for eight centuries. But he clearly hasn't bothered to keep his vows. Xie Lian's advice would be well-meaning, but he can't actually tell Mu Qing how to navigate this kind of relationship without breaking his vows, without losing his cultivation. For all his merits, Feng Xin is no Crimson Rain, to top Mu Qing's dissipated spiritual energy up at will. Plus Xie Lian would end up telling Hua Cheng, and Mu Qing refuses to ever allow Crimson Rain this far into his confidence, or Feng Xin's.
If he knew the right terms, he might bully some of Ling Wen's officials into turning up literature for him, but he doesn't, and they all gossip. He's tired of being talked about. Quan Yizhen knows less about sex than Mu Qing, and Yin Yu would tell Hua Cheng.
That leaves one person.
Mu Qing digs up a few bottles of halfway decent alcohol from his palace's stores, kept for guests who do not abstain. He dresses just a little bit more formally than usual, cleans his saber, and then forces himself to stop procrastinating and heads towards General Ming Guang's temple.
Pei Ming is in conversation with one of the many minor Northern gods, holding court in his usual effusive manner as Mu Qing enters his halls.
"General Xuan Zhen!" Pei Ming exclaims. "A genuine pleasure to see you." His smile is almost real, Mu Qing thinks. He has been more friendly to the gods of Xian Le since the world nearly ended, since he learned about the sins of his former companions, Shi Wudu and Ling Wen. He and Feng Xin drink together from time to time, Mu Qing thinks.
"Ming Guang," he says, and nods. "And ...?"
He knows the god before them, as he knows all the martial gods, no matter how small, but this one was particularly vicious in the array after the Land of Tender affair. Mu Qing will not grant him any face.
"Wang Su," the man says. He looks back and forth between Pei Ming and Mu Qing, looking for all the world like an animal caught in a trap. "I've just remembered," he blurts. "I've another appointment. I --" he swallows. "Excuse me," he says, bows, and all but runs from the room.
Pei Ming chuckles, as if that display of abject cowardice were amusing rather than insulting, as if Mu Qing has performed some kind of minor street-busking trick.
"Well," he says. "That's one way to end a tiresome conversation. What can I do for you, Xuan Zhen?"
Mu Qing sets the jars of alcohol on the table, and settles into a seated position.
"A conversation," he says. "In confidence," he adds. "An array, if you will?"
Pei Ming's eyebrow arches, but he comes over to the table and settles down.
"And why would I do that?" he asks. He's smiling, but his eyes are sharp. "Arrays are tiresome, after all, and information is power. You know this better than most, if I'm not mistaken."
Mu Qing could play this game, could beat around the bush, could draw Pei Ming into verbal traps, match wits until one of them concedes. He finds he's unwilling to make the attempt.
"Because if you don't, I might remember who spiked my drink at the lantern festival five hundred and ninety-seven years ago," he says. "And I might tell several people, who might be inclined to take it very poorly."
Pei Ming goes very still.
"You're serious, then," he says. "How interesting." He waves a hand, and a silencing spell shimmers into life around the two of them.
"You're going to listen," Mu Qing says. "And then you're going to tell me what I've done wrong, how to fix it, and you'll never breathe a word of this to anyone else."
Pei Ming looks intrigued now.
"Very well," he says. "Do tell."
Mu Qing lays out the exact circumstances of the cave, Feng Xin's apparent willingness to continue in the same pattern after Mu Qing sorted out Cao Xun. He is as clinical as he can be, avoids as much detail as he can. Sharing even this much feels like a betrayal, but he has -- somehow -- hurt Feng Xin, and he needs to know how, so he can stop doing it.
(He has never wanted to hurt Feng Xin. Not really.)
When he mentions Feng Xin's odd reaction to praise, Pei Ming's eyebrow quirks; when he describes Feng Xin's habit of a near-boneless collapse after orgasm, Pei Ming frowns.
"And then what do you do?" Pei Ming asks, interrupting him.
Mu Qing blinks at him.
"Nothing," he says. An orgasm is the point of sex, isn't it? What more is there to it, beyond the messy clean-up and bodily mechanics of it. He doesn't want anything to do with that.
Pei Ming puts his face in one hand, then reaches out, takes a jar of liquor, and downs most of it in a few swift swallows, skipping cups entirely.
"Let me get this straight," he says. "You sit there and watch, tell him what to do, praise him when he does something right, punish him when he does something wrong, and then as soon as he comes, you just ... walk out of the room and leave him there alone?"
Mu Qing shrugs. It's a fairly accurate description: he doesn't see why Pei Ming needs to sound so judgmental about it.
"Oh, shit," Pei Ming says, expression somewhere between pained and gleeful. "You have absolutely no idea what you're doing, do you?"
"What part of 'ascetic cultivation path' made you think otherwise," Mu Qing bites out. He's getting annoyed, and starting to feel very foolish, which only sparks his temper.
"You should stay," Pei Ming says. "Afterwards. It's --" he frowns. "It's intense, that kind of thing, like someone sniping your kill in the middle of a hard fight. It leaves the body confused, if you don't do it right. it can be bad for both of you, maybe worse for him."
Mu Qing glares at him.
"How do you know all of this?" he demands.
Pei Ming shrugs, and holds his hands out.
"Some women like that kind of thing," he says. "Directions, and praise, and clear expectations. And they're a lot less likely to curse me out the next day or commit arson in a temple looking for revenge if I take good care of them immediately afterwards."
His expression goes distant. Mu Qing doesn't point out that those are alarmingly specific examples.
"Physical contact helps," Pei Ming says. "Sometimes more praise. Cleanup, confirmation, contact." He shakes his head. "You look like shit," he says. "I bet he does too."
Feng Xin does look like shit, but Mu Qing sees no reason to confirm that.
"You --" Pei Ming says, and trails off. "All right," he says. "Here's what you're going to do. You can't touch him during, right?" He waits for Mu Qing to nod. "So you find out how long after orgasm you have to wait, and then you help clean him up, even if you hate it. You tell him he did well, and you fucking cuddle. Skin to skin contact is better, if you're not too much of a prude. You've been fucking this up, Xuan Zhen. It's no wonder Ling Wen's been bitchier than usual about his paperwork this last week or so."
Some part of Mu Qing -- the part that's always keeping track of information he might be able to use -- files away the fact that Pei Ming appears to have spies among Ling Wen's people. The rest of him is running through these instructions. He's not enthusiastic about the idea of all of it, but -- Feng Xin is a mess. He needs to make amends. And, he thinks, he might not mind that much, if it's Feng Xin.
Pei Ming looks at him for a long moment, and something seems to shift in his expression.
"I'm sorry," he says, and Mu Qing blinks at him. "About the lantern festival," he continues. "It was a shitty thing to do."
Mu Qing thinks back to it. He's pretty sure Shi Wudu put Pei Ming up to it, but there's no point bringing that up. Shi Wudu is long dead, and that was by far the least of his crimes.
"It was," he agrees.
Even if it had been by far the weakest dose he'd been subjected to, even if he'd been able to meditate through it, making his excuses to miss the festival banquet had been awkward. He'd fought with Feng Xin over it the next day, a fight that left both of them bloodied in mind and body and unwilling to approach each other for months.
"Is there anything else?" Mu Qing asks, seeing the shimmer of the privacy array in the edges of his vision.
Pei Ming smiles, rueful.
"You live up to your reputation," he says, and Mu Qing doesn't know what to make of that. "No," Pei Ming says. "Come ask me again if you keep fucking this up," he says. "You don't need to blackmail me to ask for advice," he says. "What are friends for?"
Mu Qing hasn't ever considered Pei Ming a friend, but perhaps Pei Ming and Feng Xin are closer than he expected. He nods, and Pei Ming waves a hand, dispersing the array.
"Stick around and I'll tell you about my last trip --" Pei Ming starts, in a tone of voice that can only mean one thing. Mu Qing is on his feet before he's consciously thought about how to react, and Pei Ming chuckles. "Go on," he says, and waves a hand. "Thanks for the booze," he says, and finishes the first jar, reaching out for the second.
Mu Qing nods at him, forcing politeness, and leaves as swiftly as he can without being seen to run. When he returns to his palace, Lei Su has arranged for the courtyard to be cleaned, for the training dummies to be replaced. Mu Qing wonders how he can reward her without it seeming like a bribe: she's by far the most competent of his officials, for all that she's only about two hundred years old.
"General," she says. "You have visitors."
Mu Qing scowls, and she waves a hand.
"They have a standing invitation," she says. "Well," she amends. "One of them does."
Mu Qing sighs, and nods, because there's only one 'them' that meets that criteria.
"Thank you," he says. "Take tomorrow off."
Hua Cheng is sitting half in Xie Lian's lap in the main hall of Mu Qing's palace, shamelessly twirling a strand of his husband's hair around his fingers as if he has no sense of dignity at all.
"Mu Qing!" Xie Lian says, clearly delighted, and Hua Cheng straightens up with a poorly-concealed frown.
"Hello," Mu Qing says. "Is something wrong?"
Xie Lian pouts, and Hua Cheng exudes a few of those creepy silver butterflies.
"Why do you assume something is wrong?" Xie Lian says. "Can't we just visit?"
Mu Qing takes a seat across from them, and sends an official for tea.
"You could," he agrees. "But you don't, and he--" he glares at Hua Cheng, who smiles at him like the asshole he is, "--hates the heavens. So either something's wrong, or else you need something."
Xie Lian deflates, unreasonably disappointed. Hua Cheng glares at Mu Qing, as though he were responsible for Xie Lian's volatile moods. That's Hua Cheng's job now, and Mu Qing has rarely been so glad to shed a responsibility after that seemingly-endless year of the ghost's absence. And even if he can't stand Crimson Rain most of the time, and finds his eight hundred year long obsession with Xie Lian deeply unnerving, he has to admit Hua Cheng would do anything to keep Xie Lian happy and safe.
"It really is a social call," Hua Cheng says. "Gege wanted to see you. I came along because gods are assholes, gege excepted, and I don't trust any of you."
Mu Qing wants to protest -- who kept Xie Lian safe while you were gone, he wants to demand -- but there's no point to it. He hadn't done much, and Xie Lian would have been fine on his own, anyway. He'd had Feng Xin, and if he'd survived eight hundred years, well. What was one more?
"Oh," Mu Qing says, feeling off-balance, uncertain what to do next.
The official returns with tea, a light floral white of a variety they drank often enough in Xian Le. Hua Cheng's expression brightens when he smells it, and he pours a cup for Xie Lian immediately, then, at a sharp look, pours a cup for Mu Qing as well, and allows Xie Lian to pour for him. It's disgustingly domestic. It makes Mu Qing ache with a want he's never been able to identify. That kind of companionship came with marriage, which his vows made forbidden. What point was there in wanting something impossible?
(Mu Qing has always wanted impossible things.)
The conversation is initially stilted, but Xie Lian seems happy enough to chatter into the awkward silences, to take up both Hua Cheng and Mu Qing's slack. When the two of them take their leave an hour later, Mu Qing feels irrationally better. They never did tell him what the purpose of the visit was: he wonders if perhaps he's been unfair, if Xie Lian is trying to actually be friends. Mu Qing has never been good at friendship: he's never allowed himself the risk of trying.
Mu Qing is tempted to rush over to Feng Xin's palace, but he doesn't think cornering him will help things any more than it did last time.
Instead, he starts sending small messages in the private array. Have you eaten, is one, after a spy reports that General Nan Yang has been practicing inedia more and more often. You're working too late, is another, sent at nearly halfway through the night, when a spy reports that General Nan Yang is still working excessively long hours.
He keeps this up for nearly a week, to no reply, until he's up in the middle of the night again, tired and too worried to sleep. Take a goddamn break, Feng Xin, he sends, and some of his frustration bleeds through into his tone. It's intended as much for himself as for Feng Xin.
Fuck off! Feng Xin sends back, snarling. Leave me alone, you asshole.
Mu Qing blinks. He has long since stopped expecting a reply. Make me, he says, instinctively pushing back against Feng Xin's demands.
What do you want? Feng Xin shoots back. I'm leaving you alone, what the fuck.
I want to apologize, Mu Qing all but yells. And I can't do that if you keep avoiding me when I never told you to in the first place!
Silence echoes in the array. Mu Qing stares into the dimly lit corner of his office and wonders how he managed to fuck up trying to apologize. It figures, he thinks.
Then the door begins to glow, and slams open to reveal Feng Xin.
"What the fuck?" Mu Qing says. "You just drew an array to get here?"
Feng Xin steps into the room, shuts the door behind himself surprisingly quietly, and drops into the chair across from Mu Qing. His hair is still dull, though at least it's been combed properly. He's still in full armor, though Mu Qing knows he's been doing nothing but paperwork for the last three days and there's no reason to be wearing so much weight.
"Did you want me to walk over in the middle of the night?" Feng Xin demands. "What happened to thinking about gossip?"
He has a point, Mu Qing has to admit. He blinks, thrown off-balance in a way very few people have ever been able to do to him.
"So," Feng Xin says, leaning back in the chair and crossing his hands over his chest. "I don't hear an apology."
Mu Qing glares at him, instinctively, then works to rein in his expression to something less antagonistic.
"I'm sorry," he says, "I fucked up." He takes a deep breath. "I -- don't really know how this all works, and," he pauses, looking down at the desk, at his hands clenched into fists. "I didn't mean to hurt you," he admits. "I'm sorry."
Feng Xin doesn't say anything for a very long moment.
"You didn't --" Feng Xin starts.
"I did!" Mu Qing insists. "And I didn't mean to, but you still look like shit, and that's my fault."
Feng Xin barks out a laugh, bitter and half-voiced.
"Not everything is your fault," he says.
"Sure. You could have used your words too." Mu Qing shrugs, still staring at his hands. "Apparently we both need to be better at that for this to work."
Feng Xin takes a shocked breath. When Mu Qing finally looks up, Feng Xin is staring at him with open longing on his face.
Mu Qing reaches out toward him. Feng Xin flinches back, just a tiny bit, before he freezes in place. Mu Qing keeps the hurt off of his expression with years of long practice. Feng Xin has no reason to expect anything but violence at his hands, does he. Mu Qing has so rarely touched him in kindness since they ascended.
Mu Qing stands up and walks around the desk. Telegraphing his motions clearly, he takes Feng Xin's hands and pulls him to his feet. Awkwardly, he pulls Feng Xin into an embrace.
"Your armor is uncomfortable," he complains, and Feng Xin laughs. "Come on," Mu Qing says. They need to talk more, he's sure. It's going to be terrible. But for now, he thinks, maybe Feng Xin will understand actions rather than words.
Mu Qing draws Feng Xin to his bedroom, where the door is still keyed to Feng Xin's spiritual energy.
"Open it," he says.
Feng Xin blinks at him, then focuses, makes the series of seals that open the door. He turns back to look at Mu Qing, clearly astonished.
"You kept it," he says. His tone is raw, full of an emotion Mu Qing can't name.
"Get in," Mu Qing says, shoving him into the room. Then, because he needs to say things, he needs to tell Feng Xin things directly: "Of course I kept it. I trust you."
Feng Xin stares at him, then glances at the bed, at Mu Qing. He opens his mouth, then closes it again.
"This isn't about sex," Mu Qing says, swallowing down irrational anxiety. "I mean, not right now. I just --" he closes his eyes to get the words out "--I haven't been sleeping well."
Feng Xin huffs a small almost-laugh.
"Who are you laughing at," Mu Qing demands. "You haven't been sleeping either."
"No," Feng Xin admits, "I thought you didn't like my armor."
Mu Qing does like Feng Xin's armor, under the appropriate circumstances. It's sturdy and functional, and still has echoes of the style of Xian Le, a small reminder of their shared history, the country that so few people still remember.
"I don't like hugging it," Mu Qing says instead. "Take it off."
Feng Xin blinks at him.
"I'll tell you what to do," Mu Qing says. He's trying to figure out how to make this work. "No sex, now, but --" he pauses "--that way I can touch you?"
He hopes that's an acceptable compromise. He really doesn't know what Feng Xin is getting out of this. He'll have to steel himself for that conversation, but he's so tired right now.
To his surprise, Feng Xin beams, and starts unbuckling his armor with hasty fingers.
"Slower," Mu Qing says. "Set it on the chair."
Feng Xin complies perfectly. When he comes to the sword belt, he pauses, looks at Mu Qing for permission. Mu Qing feels himself smile, and goes to sit on the edge of the bed.
"Good," he says. "Yes, you can remove that too."
Feng Xin's eyes go darker as he complies. When he stands there in only his robes, Mu Qing nods.
"Shoes off," he says. "Outer robes off and folded. Then come here."
Feng Xin's hands shake very slightly as he obeys. He steps over to stand before Mu Qing, motions almost hesitant. Mu Qing stands, and holds his arms out, echoing the posture Xie Lian took before him day after day.
"Undress me," he says, "leave the inner robes."
Feng Xin swallows. His hands are shockingly gentle. Mu Qing has seen these hands break necks, break noses, destroy minor gods and major ghosts. They are callused and battered from years of work, and they touch Mu Qing's clothing and brush against his skin as if he is made of spun glass, as if he is something immeasurably precious.
Mu Qing holds still as his belts are unfastened, as the ties of his robes are untied, as Feng Xin removes them, then pauses and holds them, waiting.
"Fold them," Mu Qing says, and Feng Xin nods, and does so. His obedience is just as heady this time as it ever has been. "Continue," Mu Qing directs, and Feng Xin strips his next layer of robes, leaving Mu Qing in trousers and a single light robe.
"Fold those," Mu Qing says, and then sits on the edge of the bed. "Then take down my hair," he directs.
Feng Xin's hands are gentle, slow, almost worshipful. Mu Qing tries to think of the last time someone undid his hair for him, and draws a blank. He's not sure he has ever allowed someone this close. Has he ever been in a position where he might ask this of someone and trusted them enough to make such a demand?
Feng Xin stops, holding the hair ornaments, and Mu Qing smiles up at him.
"Turn around," he directs, and stands. "My turn."
He takes down Feng Xin's hair, handing him the ornaments in turn, finger-combing the hair as it falls over Feng Xin's shoulders.
"Put them over there," he directs, gesturing at a low dressing table. "Then come back here."
Feng Xin's obedience is perfect. Mu Qing watches him walk, motions smooth and fluid, admires the lines of his shoulders, the pace of his stride. Feng Xin is a powerful martial god, one of the top four most powerful in the heavens, Xie Lian excepted. Having him obey is a heady feeling, better than a fight, far better than the bubbling lightness of alcohol, all of the elation with none of the loss of control.
Feng Xin places each piece on the table with small, quiet clicking sounds, then turns and walks back to Mu Qing. He's half-hard, but he doesn't seem to be paying it any attention.
"Turn down the bed," Mu Qing directs, stepping back.
Feng Xin complies, then pauses. He clears his throat.
"Can I --" he asks, blinking as if he's worried he's done something wrong. Mu Qing gestures for him to go on.
"I never said you can't talk," Mu Qing says. Maybe Feng Xin needs a reminder.
"I want to sleep on this side," Feng Xin says quickly. He's gesturing at the side closer to the door. "Can I?" he asks.
Mu Qing remembers Feng Xin sleeping on the floor in shared rooms after the fall of Xian Le, how he'd always placed himself closest to the door or window, to the largest threat. It seems he still hasn't shed his bodyguard training, even eight hundred years later.
"All right," he concedes, and sees Feng Xin smile, small and shy. Mu Qing moves to climb into bed, scooting over farther than he usually does, and pats the space next to him. "Come here," he says, and Feng Xin lies down on his back beside him. He appears to be trying not to take up too much space, only their arms brushing. Mu Qing sighs internally. The whole point of this was physical contact. Pei Ming said cuddling would help, didn't he?
They lie there in silence, and it's increasingly awkward: Mu Qing has so little experience sleeping next to other people outside of an over-crowded military camp. He shuffles in dissatisfaction, wanting to turn over onto his side, to sleep as he usually does, and hears Feng Xin huff a small almost-amused breath.
"What," he says. "Like I've done this before. Make it more comfortable, if you're so amused," he demands.
Feng Xin's hands are on his shoulders immediately, pulling Mu Qing over onto his side, until he's curled halfway on top of Feng Xin, head pillowed on his chest. One broad arm curls over his waist. It's odd. It's not entirely objectionable. Feng Xin's breath is slow and even under Mu Qing's head, a soothing repetitive reminder of his presence, his existence, his trust.
"I'm too heavy," Mu Qing complains, and Feng Xin pulls him closer.
"You're not," Feng Xin says, and pets his hair very gently. Maybe he's moving a strand of Mu Qing's hair out of his face. "Stay?"
Mu Qing does not nuzzle closer into Feng Xin's broad chest at that. But he doesn't move away either, and even goes so far as to throw a leg over one of Feng Xin's own.
"Good," he thinks he hears Feng Xin say, soft against the crown of his head, as he drifts off to sleep, more comfortable than he can remember being in centuries.
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