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Is he, you know, a follower of Ju Yang?

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Feng Xin tossed a bamboo ring into the air. One of his young officials screwed up his face, drew back his bow string and fired an arrow neatly through the bamboo ring and into the center of the target. "Good!" Feng Xin said. "Let's add a few more."

He lined up half his students in front of the targets and instructed the other half to throw the rings in the air. He coached them for a while, and when the lesson was winding down, one student asked, "Hey, General, how many can you shoot?"

Feng Xin grinned. "Throw them all." He'd learned these tricks busking in the streets, and while he'd never tell anyone where they came from, he did enjoy the performance of it. His students flung the rings in the air, and Feng Xin shot rapid-fire, drawing the arrows and loosing them without a thought, relying on lessons learned so long ago and used so often they flowed as naturally from his body as breathing.

The students cheered as the last arrow hit the target, but silence dropped abruptly over the crowd. Feng Xin turned around, bow still in his hand and an arrow still left in his quiver.

In his dark robes, Mu Qing made an elegant shadow on the bright, sunny lawn. Feng Xin's students quietly scooted away from both of them. It was a survival instinct Feng Xin respected, although he and Mu Qing hadn't had a blowout since the aftermath of Mount Tonglu. Since they'd decided to be friends.

Mu Qing folded his arms across his chest and raised his eyebrows. "Is this why your paperwork is always late?"

Feng Xin lowered his bow. "I'm teaching a lesson," he said loftily.

Mu Qing rolled his eyes.

"All right. That's enough for now," Feng Xin told his officials. "Clean up and go back to standard drills." A couple of the officials looked uncertain, their eyes darting between Feng Xin and Mu Qing. "All of you!" Feng Xin barked, and they dashed to collect rings.

"Is this a social visit?" Feng Xin remembered the inn they'd found near one of his temples that had really excellent scallion pancakes. He could make time to descend for a meal. Then he frowned. "Is anything wrong with His Highness?"

"No, and no," Mu Qing said. He drew a few scrolls from his sleeve. "Caravans are going missing in the south."

"And you want my help?" Feng Xin asked, mourning the scallion pancakes that he'd so briefly held in his thoughts. 

"Yes," Mu Qing said, and did not elaborate.

"... all right," Feng Xin said. "Du Fan," he called to one of his officials. "Get the latest prayers and bring them to my office." The young official nodded. He thrust the rings he was holding into the hands of another official and ran towards the palace.

"Come on," Feng Xin said to Mu Qing, leading him in the same direction. "You going to tell me what this is about?" he asked.

"I want to know what your reports say," Mu Qing said. 

"You sure you're not just being dramatic for the effect?" Feng Xin muttered.

"No," Mu Qing said flatly.

Feng Xin led Mu Qing to his office. Du Fan arrived with a stack of prayers, followed by another official who carried a fresh pot of tea. Feng Xin closed and latched the door once they were gone, and sat down at his desk to read the prayers. 

He skimmed the first scroll, then dropped it on the table and grabbed another. Mu Qing picked up the first scroll and rolled it up neatly - then dropped it when he realized what he was doing. He picked up a brush instead, and rested the tip of it against his lips as he waited for Feng Xin to read.

Mu Qing's lips - Mu Qing's presence in his office was distracting Feng Xin from his scrolls. He snatched the brush away from his fellow general. But he'd read enough prayers to know what Mu Qing was driving at. "Silver butterflies and a figure in red," Feng Xin said. "That's what the prayers of the survivors report."

Mu Qing nodded. "I have people asking for protection from Crimson Rain Sought Flower. Do you think it's him?"

"Maybe," Feng Xin said. "Can't confirm it from these reports. Have you told His Highness?"

"No," Mu Qing said swiftly. "If it's him, there must be a reason he hasn't shown himself to His Highness. We need to know why."

Feng Xin spun the brush with his fingers, and didn't say, it will be easier to keep Crimson Rain Sought Flower away from His Highness if His Highness doesn't know he's back. He didn't say, if Hua Cheng is at full power the two of us can't defeat him, because if His Highness was in danger, they had to try.

And if a Ghost King was killing their followers in their territory, that was a challenge that couldn't go unanswered.

Feng Xin hoped it wasn't what it looked like, though. Much as he'd hate being killed, it would be worse to go to Mount Taicang and see His Highness's face when he told him his "San Lang" was gone forever.

"I wish His Highness could have found a better boyfriend," Feng Xin grumbled. He poured tea for both of them. He wondered briefly if he should send for wine, then remembered Mu Qing wouldn't drink it.

"It took him eight hundred years to find this one," Mu Qing pointed out, accepting his cup of tea.

"I never knew he was interested," Feng Xin said grouchily. "I thought the cultivation vows you guys took were pretty firm."

Mu Qing took a long drink of tea, then said, "Everyone honors their vows in their own way."

"What the hell does that mean?" Feng Xin asked.

"It means it's personal," Mu Qing said brusquely.

"Fine," Feng Xin said. "You're right, it's His Highness's business. You need to prepare anything, or are you ready to descend?"

"I'm ready," Mu Qing said, setting down his teacup.

---

It wasn't difficult to secure positions as caravan guards. The job was too high risk for most locals and the caravan leader couldn't pay enough to attract freelancers. Feng Xin looked over the other guards; they were young, untrained, and barely knew which side of the sword to hold. A couple of them sparred while they waited for the caravan to start moving, and Feng Xin winced every time they dropped their swords.

Mu Qing leaned against a tree and watched them as well. A couple of leaves drifted down and landed on him. He brushed off the one on his shoulder, but appeared to be unaware of the one stuck in his hair.

Feng Xin smirked, and reached for it. Mu Qing flinched back. "What are you doing?" he asked warily. Feng Xin plucked the leaf from his ponytail, then held it up for Mu Qing to see. "Oh," Mu Qing said. Another leaf drifted down and Feng Xin snatched it out of the air.

"How many do you need to braid a leaf crown?" Feng Xin teased.

"They've got the wrong kind of stems for braiding. You'd have to sew them together." Mu Qing scowled at the look he got from Feng Xin. "What?"

Feng Xin shook his head. "Nothing," he said. "I just - I don't think I've ever said it, but I like that you know that kind of shit."

"... why?" Mu Qing asked suspiciously.

Feng Xin shrugged. "I don't know. It's useful, I guess."

"Making leaf crowns."

Feng Xin scowled. "Shut up, it's a compliment." He felt his cheeks grow warm. He wished he'd kept his mouth shut instead of ruining things between them by saying stupid shit.

"Thanks," Mu Qing said, after a moment. He gave Feng Xin a quiet smile.

Maybe he hadn't ruined anything.

The caravan leader beckoned to Feng Xin and Mu Qing. He was an older man, silver hair bound up in a top knot, wearing clothes that were faded, but well-cared for. "You two, ah, have more experience than the other young men." An understatement, from what Feng Xin had seen. "I'd like you to guard our most precious cargo."

He led them to the wagon. "Honorable ladies, here are Nan Feng and Fu Yao. They will keep you safe throughout our journey."

A dozen female faces looked out at them from the wagon. Feng Xin made a noise (not a squeak, thank you) and took half a step back. Mu Qing snorted and shoved him forward. One of the older women gave them a very thorough lookover that made Feng Xin's ears heat up, but she only said, "Thank you, Lao Nan and Lao Fu."

Feng Xin and Mu Qin took their seats at the front of the wagon, behind the driver. They put their backs against the sides, and their feet met in the center, though they pulled up their knees to keep from touching each other.

Mu Qing's saber was disguised as a short blade, which he carried at his side. Feng Xin had likewise masked his bow, which he rested on his lap. 

This isn't right, Feng Xin said in their communication array. The women played with their children and giggled as they gossiped. Some of the older ones had needlework or knitting. Crimson Rain doesn't slaughter women and children. Crimson Rain Sought Flower had killed more humans than they would probably ever know, but killing wagons full of women and children wasn't his usual style. Could he be trying to regain the power he gave to His Highness?

His Highness would happily return that power to him, and more, Mu Qing said. They both grimaced at each other. Feng Xin would be very happy if he never had to watch His Highness and the Ghost King sharing power ever again. Besides, half the Ghost Realm owes him debts, including Black Water.

Not just the Ghost Realm, Feng Xin reminded him.

True, Mu Qing said. He flicked his tongue over his lower lip as he pondered the situation. I don't think he'd be knocking on Heaven's door just now, though. He wouldn't want to advertise his weakness.

Vengeance, maybe? Feng Xin asked. He does love his grudges. As well they knew. Maybe the caravan driver-

"Do you mind holding him for a moment?" One of the women shoved her baby into Feng Xin's arms before he could refuse. She picked up a slightly older child, who was in tears. "Sh, sh, there you are," she said, rocking the child. "What happened?"

"She dropped her dolly," another woman said, and that instigated a collective search of the wagon floor.

Feng Xin shifted the babe in his arms to cradle him properly. The child stared up at him with big, dark eyes, as though he were the most fascinating sight he'd ever seen. Feng Xin stared back.

"Here it is!" The doll was passed around the wagon until it returned to the child who lost it. The little girl's mother cuddled the girl and her doll, and the child's tears faded.

The baby stuffed his hand in his mouth without looking away from Feng Xin's face. Feng Xin smiled and brushed a lock of hair away from the baby's eyes.

"Look at you, you're a natural," the mother said. "Do you have any children?"

"Don't be silly, Shan-jie, he's too young!" said a young woman, not much older than Nan Feng and Fu Yao appeared to be. 

The child grabbed a lock of Feng Xin's hair and pulled. "I have a son," he said, prying the child's fingers from his hair. He regretted his words instantly. "Nan Feng" had been a father on more than one adventure, and he'd never thought twice about it, but the words felt wrong in his mouth now. 

Or right. 

Mu Qing stretched his leg out and tapped Feng Xin's foot with his own. Feng Xin looked at him and he looked... sympathetic?

What? Feng Xin asked.

... Nothing, Mu Qing replied, and drew his foot back.

Reluctantly, he tried to hand the baby back to Shan-jie. "Do you mind holding him for a bit longer?" she asked, rocking the child in her arms. "Once she's asleep, I can pass her off to Ning'er."

Feng Xin intercepted the child's hand before the boy could grab his hair again, and let the boy's fingers wrap around his thumb instead. "All right," he said. 

"Are you married, Lao Fu?" Shan-jie asked.

Mu Qing's head shot up. "Me? No!"

Shan-jie's smile had a predatory edge. "You should meet Yan Ning. Ning'er!"

The girl, the one who had called Feng Xin too young, huffed. "I'm right here!" She put on a sweet smile and cocked her head to the side. "Hello," she said to Mu Qing.

Mu Qing threw a panicked look at Feng Xin.

"He does not keep company with women," Feng Xin said, amused.

But instead of being discouraged, Shan-jie's eyes lit up. "Oh, you should meet my nephew, Guo Huan."

Thank you SO much. Mu Qing shot Feng Xin a glare. Feng Xin just rocked the child, his face the picture of innocence.

"He's a follower of Ju Yang," Ning'er said meaningfully. She tossed her hair back and sat back. She didn't seem to mind missing the chance for love with Fu Yao.

"What?!" Mu Wing and Feng Xin exclaimed at the same time.

Ning'er shrank back and another girl said quickly, "We apologize, Lao Fu. She did not mean to imply..."

Mu Qing held up a hand to stop her. "I do not take offense," he said gently, and Ning'er relaxed a little. "I just didn't realize that the venerable Ju Yang-"

Oh, fuck you, Feng Xin said in the communication array.

"-was so popular with men. I thought the noble Ju Yang-"

For fuck's sake!

"-was favored by women," Mu Qing said.

"He is," Shan-jie said fondly. "He gave me my little Zhi'er," she said, gently patting the baby in Feng Xin's arms.

Feng Xin smoothed the child's blanket and realized there was a protection charm from one of his temples sewn into the corner.

"But the girls go to his temple when they want boys, so the boys started going to his temple when they want boys. You see?" Ning'er explained.

Fuck me, Feng Xin groaned into the communication array. I'm a martial god, not a God of Love!

Mu Qing's mouth barely twitched. "I do see," he said solemnly. "In that case, I would be honored to be protected by the esteemed Ju Yang."

The esteemed Nan Yang may just let you flap in the wind.

I thought we were friends now, Mu Qing said. 

Feng Xin wasn't entirely sure if this was teasing or serious. Teasing, probably, but things were so new and fragile with them that he needed to choose his words carefully. Of course we are, asshole, he said. Mu Qing looked at him, and that was definitely a faint smirk on his lips this time. Feng Xin relaxed. 

"Though some of the boys pray to Ju Yang when they want to get a bigger-"

"Ning'er!" Shan-jie exclaimed, and the girl looked contrite.

Shut up, Feng Xin said.

I didn't say- Mu Qing began.

Shut. Up.

Mu Qing leaned back against the wagon wall and said nothing.

"I will pray for Ju Yang to give you a nice young man," Shan-jie said to Mu Qing.

Would you just tell them you're a follower of Xuan Zhen? Feng Xin demanded.

Oh, can I speak now?

Yes! Tell her you're not interested!

Then how will I get the distinguished Ju Yang to bring me a man? Mu Qing asked. Out loud, he said, "Thank you," and bowed his head to Shan-jie.

You can just bow to me and cut out the middleman, Feng Xin grumbled. Kowtow three times and say, 'General Nan Yang is the most handsome god in the Heavens.'

'General Ju Yang is the-'

No.

"But what if I don't want someone young and nice?" Mu Qing asked out loud. The girls giggled.

"Someone old and rude?" Ning'er asked.

"Experienced," Mu Qing said thoughtfully. "And forthright." His eyes flicked over to Feng Xin.

Any other requests? Height? Weight? Boot size? Feng Xin dropped his head back against the wall of the wagon and adjusted his hold on the baby in his arms.

"Not too bright, though," Mu Qing said. The girls giggled again, but their giggles abruptly turned to gasps and shrieks as a flight of silver butterflies flew into the wagon. Feng Xin pushed the baby into Ning'er's arms and grabbed his bow. He and Mu Qing leapt to their feet at the same time.

Ning'er curled around the child, wrapped her fist around the protection charm on his blanket and started praying. The other women brought out their protection charms and amulets and began praying as well. Please protect us, they said, over and over. Please keep us safe. 

"Stop the wagon!" Feng Xin called to the lead driver, while Mu Qing signaled the other guards to remain in place. They turned back to each other, and a butterfly flew between them. Mu Qing snatched it from the air and examined it. 

"Fake," he declared, and flicked it away.

Feng Xin let out a breath. "Let's go," he said. They each turned, grabbed their side of the wagon and swung down onto the dirt road, feet hitting the ground in unison. They strode purposefully forward. A few butterflies followed each of them, but didn't get close.

About twenty steps in front of the wagon, Mu Qing snapped his fingers and dry leaves swirled up, caught in a small whirlwind which shielded them from the view of the caravan.

At thirty steps, they changed. Mu Qing's sabre and Feng Xin's bow lengthened and shifted shape. Nan Feng and Fu Yao's disguises fell away, revealing the armor and robes of true martial gods.

At forty steps they stopped. The ghost in front of them wore red robes and silver vambraces, and silver butterflies formed a nimbus around him. He had his arms crossed over his chest and he tilted his head as they approached. "Who are you?" he demanded.

"General Xuan Zhen," Mu Qing said. He lifted his blade.

"General Nan Yang," Feng Xin said. He set an arrow to the string.

"Oh, fuck," the ghost said. He turned and ran.

Feng Xin loosed an arrow full of spiritual power and stopped the ghost in his tracks. It didn't take them long to subdue the ghost completely. He was only a Menace, though he had ambitions. Dressing as Crimson Rain Sought Flower had kept the other ghosts away from "his" territory and let him gather power. Feng Xin sealed him in a pot and tucked him into a qiankun bag.

Feng Xin and Mu Qing strode back to the wagons, becoming Nan Feng and Fu Yao again just before Mu Qing dropped the curtain of leaves. The other guards stood to the sides of their wagons, swords gripped in white-knuckled hands as they waited to see what would walk down the road towards them. They had courage, if not skill, Feng Xin observed. Not one had left their post. Perhaps he should find a wandering cultivator and send him a few dreams of teaching young village lads. 

All that remained of the silver butterflies was a scattering of silver dust.

Feng Xin and Mu Qing split up on either side of the caravan and informed all the guards and drivers that the threat was gone. They returned to their spots on the lead wagon and the caravan leader started the oxes walking again.

"Are we safe?" Ning'er exclaimed.

"Yes," Feng Xin said. "We've eliminated the threat."

"Thank you! Thank you!" the women exclaimed, then whispered the same words to their protection charms and amulets. 

"I will light incense to Xuan Zhen!" one woman said, and several others nodded.

"I'll light incense to Ju Yang," Shan-jie said, reaching over to brush her hand over Zhi'er's head. The baby still rested in Ning'er's arms. 

Mu Qing gave Feng Xin a sideways look. Feng Xin sighed internally, but only said. "I know he's watching over you."

What am I supposed to do? I'm not Quan Yizhen, Feng Xin said to Mu Qing. They were his followers; he would protect them no matter what name they called him by.

Ning'er tapped her finger against her chin. "Are you a follower of Ju Yang?" she asked Feng Xin mischievously.

"Meimei!" Shan-jie scolded. "The boy is married."

Feng Xin was pretty sure he hadn't said that, but he wasn't going to argue with the assumption. "I'm a follower of Nan Yang, yes," he said.

Ning'er looked at Mu Qing.

"I'm from the temple of Xuan Zhen," he said.

"We should introduce him to Guo Huan," Ning'er said to Shan-jie.

"We need to report back to our temples," Mu Qing said quickly.

"Yes, we'll be leaving as soon as you have arrived safely," Feng Xin said. Be careful. They might just walk that poor boy over here while the caravan's still moving. 

I think you need to find Guo Huan a nice young man and save him from interfering aunties,  Mu Qing replied.

Feng Xin snorted, and turned it into a cough when everyone looked at him.

---

"Don't think I wasn't paying attention," Feng Xin said. They'd escaped from matchmakers - barely - then contacted Xie Lian over a communication array and filled him in on what happened. They didn't want any misunderstandings if word got out that they'd killed "Crimson Rain Sought Flower". Now they'd returned to Feng Xin's office to write up the paperwork.

"I wouldn't assume that," Mu Qing said prudently, then asked, "To what?"

"Experienced, forthright..." Feng Xin waved a hand. "Don't worry, I left out the 'not too bright' part when I talked to him."

"That was the most important part," Mu Qing muttered, then his eyes widened. "'Left out'? What? Who-?" He grabbed the front of Feng Xin's tunic with both hands and shook him. "Who did you talk to?"

Feng Xin just laughed. "Pei Ming, of course. And he's interested. You're welcome."

Mu Qing's flushed face barreled past red and into purple. His lips moved, but the words couldn't escape his fury and panic. He threw Feng Xin across the room and onto his desk, which split down the center and dumped Feng Xin on the floor.

Feng Xin laid in the wreckage of his desk as scrolls rained down on him. An ink stone bounced off his head. He said, "No thanks are necessary. Just burn a little incense next time you're in one of my temples."

"I'll burn your temples!" Mu Qing growled. "What did you say?"

Feng Xin laughed. "Nothing, nothing!" he said, batting scrolls away from his face. "I haven't talked to anyone."

Mu Qing folded his arms across his chest and glared at Feng Xin. "That was a joke? You think you're funny?"

At that moment, Feng Xin was certain that Mu Qing didn't know any spells that allowed a man to kill by sight alone, because if he did, Feng Xin would already be playing pai gow in Ghost City. "I think I'm fucking hilarious," Feng Xin informed him. "Come on, help me up." His hand emerged from the sea of scrolls.

"You can rot," Mu Qing said, and turned away.

"Oh, come on," Feng Xin said. He pulled himself up into a seating position and untangled a brush from his hair. "You've been mocking me all day. I can't have a little fun?"

"Not like that," Mu Qing said, frowning.

Feng Xin wiped inky fingers on his pants. "There is someone? Really?"

Mu Qing sighed heavily. "I'll send you merits for the desk." He started to leave but Feng Xin jumped to his feet.

"Wait!" Feng Xin said. Mu Qing paused. "Who is it?"

Mu Qing turned around slowly. "Are you asking because you want to know?" He gave Feng Xin a hard look. "Or because you already do?"

Feng Xin's heart pounded. "Well, one of my friends says I'm not too bright."

Mu Qing stared at him for a long moment, and Feng Xin swallowed, wondering if there was a path for retreat here. But at last, Mu Qing rolled his eyes and gave Feng Xing a smile. "You are the worst God of Love ever," he said.

"I'm not a God of Love!" Feng Xin protested, an edge of panic in his voice.

Mu Qing took both Feng Xin's hands in his, tugged him closer, and leaned forward to speak into his ear. "General Nan Yang is the most handsome god in the Heavens," Feng Xin could feel the warmth of Mu Qing's breath against his neck, and shivered.

"You're supposed to kowtow three times," Feng Xin reminded him, and to his absolute horror, Mu Qing started to go down on his knees. "Don't you fucking dare!" He grabbed Mu Qing's elbows and pulled him back up. "You're serious?" he asked. "Me?"

"Believe me, I was surprised, too," Mu Qing said. "It's ridiculous, even laughable, and when I think about it-"

"Shut up before you ruin this," Feng Xin said hastily. He gave Mu Qing a thoughtful look. "What happens if I go to a temple of Xuan Zhen and ask for a man?"

Mu Qing studied Feng Xin's face. "He's going to keep his cultivation vows," he warned.

Feng Xin nodded. "I know."

"He's not going to build you ten thousand statues," Mu Qing said. "Or flood the sky with lanterns."

Feng Xin grimaced. "By the Heavens, I hope not."

"He'll be able to beat you in saber fighting," Mu Qing said.

"Can't hit a bullseye from ten chi, though," Feng Xin said.

"He'll tell you that starch and cool water will get that ink out of your pants, but he won't do the washing for you," Mu Qing said.

Feng Xin glanced down at the black smudge on his thigh. "He sounds like a very nice young man."

"Experienced," Mu Qing corrected. "And forthright."

"Not too bright?" Feng Xin asked.

Mu Qing considered. "Sometimes he says foolish things," he admitted. "Especially when he's teasing his friend, who is smart and very handsome, even when he's got ink on his cheek."

"Don't laugh; you're the one who dropped the ink stone on me."

"I'm not laughing," Mu Qing said. He produced a handkerchief and handed it to Feng Xing, who wiped his fingers clean and dabbed at his cheek.

"I think it's in my hair," Feng Xin sighed. He tossed the handkerchief aside. "Can I kiss you?"

Mu Qing nodded. Feng Xin cupped Mu Qing's cheeks in his hands. Mu Qing smelled of leather and silk and that faint scent of ozone that they all had just after ascending. This was his last chance to turn back. Last chance to say "just kidding" and avoid 800 years of mockery if this fell apart. Last chance to-

Mu Qing's mouth pressed against his. Feng Xin closed his eyes and parted his lips as Mu Qing's arms wrapped around him, and Mu Qing deepened the kiss. It was a long time before they pulled apart, and even then Feng Xin didn't want to let go. He brushed his thumb over Mu Qing's lower lip as he gazed into Mu Qing's deep brown eyes. 

"Feng Xin?" Mu Qing asked. He wasn't letting go either.

"Mm-hm?" Feng Xin answered.

"Is there still ink on your fingers?"

Feng Xin lifted his thumb. Yeah. Yeah, there was. "Uh-"

"Never mind," Mu Qing said. He pressed his lips lightly against Feng Xin's thumb. "I don't care." He pulled them into another kiss.

---

"It was really a romance," Xie Lian said, munching on melon seeds. He passed the bowl to Feng Xin and Mu Qing. The three of them were sprawled on the grass in front of the cottage on Mount Taicang, enjoying the sunlight.

Feng Xin smirked. "Oh? Who was romancing Fu Yao in this theatrical masterpiece, the tender young maiden or the handsome young caravan guard?" Mu Qing dropped his face into his hand.

"Ah, neither," Xie Lian said, and gave Feng Xin a pointed look.

Feng Xin's mouth opened and closed.

"What," Mu Qing said, lifting his head.

"It was a romance between Fu Yao and Nan Feng," Xie Lian said cheerfully. "Isn't that funny? Where do they get these ideas?"

Mu Qing and Feng Xin looked at each other.

"It's ridiculous," Feng Xin said. "They made it all up. You know how these shows are." He tried to remember one of the recent ones with Xie Lian. "Like that play about you at Banyou Pass, where-" Mu Qing's eyes widened.

Not that one! Mu Qing said in their communication array, and Feng Xin remembered the longing glances and casual touches of Xie Lian and Hua Cheng in that play.

"-they got our clothing all wrong," he finished lamely.

That wasn't obvious at ALL, Mu Qing said sarcastically.

Come up with something better, then! Feng Xin replied. He and Mu Qing had decided not to tell anyone about the change in their relationship just yet. It felt too fragile and new.

Xie Lian munched on his melon seeds. "You know," he said gently, "if there's anything you want to tell me, you can just say it. I won't pass judgement."

"Your Highness," Mu Qing said gravely, "the time is not right for some things to be told."

"And when time passes?" Xie Lian asked.

"Then this one will be honored to share with you," Mu Qing said. To Feng Xin, privately, he said, See? Is that so hard?

I am secretly rolling my eyes. Take one of your eyerolls, double it, and that's how much I'm rolling my eyes in my head. What nonsense is that?

Is it a lie?

... No, Feng Xin admitted, then spotted Xie Lian moving. Oh shit, the food!

"Your Highness, the food we brought doesn't require heating," Mu Qing said. He blocked Xie Lian from carrying it to the kitchen.

"It's all right," Xie Lian said. "It won't take long. Oh, I could add a bit of fennel. Maybe some cloves and anise."

"Your Highness." Feng Xin also leapt up to stand between Xie Lian and the kitchen. "We can't stay long, so let's not waste time on cooking food that's already cooked. You can prepare us something next time."

Why would you say that. Why.

... I panicked.

Xie Lian brightened. "All right. I'll fix something special just for the two of you."

Do you see the havoc you've wrought? Mu Qing demanded.

Let's not worry about tomorrow's problems today, Feng Xin said.

"I'll get chopsticks and bowls, at least," Xie Liean said. "Come inside." He headed inside the house.

I hate you, Mu Qing grumbled.

No, you don't, Feng Xin said with glee. You love me.

Well, you love me, too! Mu Qing countered.

Yeah, Feng Xin said, savoring the moment. I really do. The two of them stared at each other, then broke into grins.

Mu Qing reached for Feng Xin's hand, and then his eyes widened. Oh no, he's going for the fennel! The two of them dashed after Xie Lian, not noticing they were still holding hands.

---