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Do you want to be friends?

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It was a pleasant evening. Well, It was a pleasant evening for Xie Lian and Hua Cheng who were sitting easily across from Mu Qing and Feng Xin who both sat with subconsciously board-straight backs.

Feng Xin and Xie Lian were discussing something animatedly when there was a knock at the door. Feng Xin and Xie Lian both quieted up looking expectantly at the ghost who had arrived.

“My Lord,” He said addressing Hua Cheng before pivoting to Xie Lian, “Your Highness, We’ve found a lead on the man you are looking for.”

Xie Lian and Feng Xin both stood up at once, staring at the little ghost as if bewitched. Xie Lian turned to Hua Cheng excitedly, “San Lang-!”

He started, but Hua Cheng cut him off with a chuckle, letting his hand slide from Xie Lian’s grasp, “Go gege, Mu Qing and I will be fine here on our own.”

Feng Xin turned to Mu Qing looking conflicted and like he was concerned for his safety, but Mu Qing glared at him before he could even open his mouth.

Hua Cheng took a look at the two of them and let out that damned laugh. How could it be so low and still sound like the chiming of bells? “Go off with gege, I won’t eat him.”

Mu Qing clenched his fists and glared openly at Hua Cheng. Hua Cheng arched an eyebrow at him, and then they were gone.

Mu Qing and Hua Cheng eyed each other like cats assessing their territory, fur all fluffed out to make them look twice their size. Hua Cheng broke the stare first and raised his tea cup gesturing to Mu Qing before downing the remainder of its contents.

“Well, I’ll stay in my corner, and you stay in yours.” Hua Cheng said standing up.

Mu Qing rolled his eyes at him, “I don’t have a corner, this is your house.”

Hua Cheng waved a hand at him lazily as he retreated from the room, “I’m glad you’re aware of that fact. You can go wherever you like. Just don’t break anything. Or touch anything. If you touched something cursed, I’d hate to see gege cry.”

Mu Qing snorted, and then he was alone.

He finished his tea quietly. Back straight, eyes looking slightly down, his entire face relaxed but not blank. He could have been a young scholar in a painting. Mu Qing set the cup down with a soft clack. And yet here he was, over eight hundred years old. Mu Qing lifted his gaze to stare at the air silently for a moment before standing up and retreating to the room designated in Paradise Manor for him and Feng Xin during their stay.
Mu Qing smiled as he laid a palm on the door. He remembered the first time they stayed here, Hua Cheng had refused to let him and Feng Xin share a room under the premise that he did not want to have to deal with the ensuing property damage, or be forced to send gege’s two dearest friends to an untimely death.

Mu Qing pushed the door open. That had changed, once they had demonstrated that he and Feng Xin really had learned to communicate without punching each other in the face. They still fought sometimes. Mu Qing shivered. Ugly nasty fights. But those were relegated to private now, and involved talking it out, and maybe a little yelling. Just a little.

After multiple hours, Xie Lian and Feng Xin still hadn’t returned from their outing, and Mu Qing was beginning to get bored of reading quietly in their room. He was feeling too melancholy tonight for that, so he took a walk around the manor. He did not touch anything.

After wandering for a while he came across Hua Cheng bent over a desk in a warmly lit study. Hua Cheng felt Mu Qing pass behind his chair and looked up, meeting his gaze through the glass of the window. Outside, big fluffy flakes of snow drifted lazily. It was too warm to snow where Ghost City was located, but there was a little girl living there who’s dying wish had been to see the snow. And so now it snowed in Ghost City.

Annoyingly, without warning, and definitely randomly. Heaven forbid you descend to Ghost City on what reasonably should be a nice, warm, summer's day, dressed in appropriate summer attire, only to return to said heavens with slush laden shoes and frozen halfway to death.

Hua Cheng was expecting Mu Qing to make an obligatorily rude remark about his demonic handwriting, and that he would say something suitably snippy back and that would be the end of it. But instead Mu Qing says, “Have you ever tried writing with your left hand?”

Hua Cheng’s expression changed, “What?”

Mu Qing pointed at the scribbles adorning the page, “Have you ever tried writing with your left hand?”

Hua Cheng eyed him calmly, “No.”

Mu Qing smiled at him smugly, “Do you want to impress Xie Lian?”

Hua Cheng looked back at the paper slowly and tried switching the brush to his left hand. It felt strange at first, but slowly the handwriting on the page began to morph from scribbles that looked like they had come from a demented toddler into actual characters. Characters Hua Cheng actually recognized.

Hua Cheng looked back, shocked, at Mu Qing who was leaning on the back of his chair looking very pleased with himself. No that wasn’t right, yes he looked smug but he also looked…genuinely contented?

“How did you know?” Hua Cheng asked him.

Mu Qing let go of the back of the chair and moved around him to pick up the paper with a small smile, “I was the oldest of all my siblings, and before Xie Lian took me in, I practically raised them myself while my mom was too busy trying to earn enough for us to eat. I encountered many children at the at the Royal Pavillion too that had been taught to write with their left hands and had absolutely atrocious handwriting.” He sets the paper down and turns to Hua Cheng with a small shrug, “And, I’m also left-handed, just like you.”

Hua Cheng stared at him in surprise for a few more seconds before returning with renewed energy to his work dragging over a large stack of paper. Mu Qing watched him silently, pointing things out here or there as he noticed them, however, Hua Cheng seemed to bristle every time he gave advice. Mu Qing knew when he wasn’t welcome and soon felt silent.

“Why do you keep copying the same poem,” Mu Qing frowned, breaking the silence when he finally couldn’t stand to watch him copy the same poem over and over and over again.

Hua Cheng glared at him and didn’t answer, so Mu Qing changed tactics, “Do you know Xie Lian’s favorite poem?”

Hua Cheng snorted, “Of course I do!”

Mu Qing smirked, “Do you know what Xie Lian’s favorite poem was when he was a kid?”

Hua Cheng looked up at him, and the feverish intensity in his eyes honestly scared him, causing Mu Qing to take a step back. However he quickly regained himself and smiled, clasping his hands behind his back and gesturing to the brush as he did so, “Keep writing and I’ll repeat it to you.”

Hua Cheng seemed intent on writing the poem a million times, but after copying it just a few times, he stopped. He considered the page in front of him for a moment before saying, “I think I need a new tattoo.”

Mu Qing looked at him quizzically, “What?”

Hua Cheng rolled up his sleeve revealing demonic writing that could only have been done by Hua Cheng himself. “What is that?” Mu Qing remarked in genuine horror.

Hua Cheng coughed, “Xie Lian’s name.”

They looked at each other silently. What else would it be?

Mu Qing made a sound of understanding, “Where are you going to put it?”

Hua Cheng frowned and examined his body, “The other arm I suppose? There aren’t many places I can reach.”

Mu Qing paused for a moment, debating if he really wanted to make this offer before finally saying, “Do you want me to do it?”

Hua Cheng eyed him mistrustfully, “No, it has to be in my handwriting.”

Mu Qing pointed down at the page, “It can be. If you write it, I can use a spell to transfer it wherever you want it to go, and then use the ink to make it permanent.”

Hua Cheng considered it, “Fine, but if you mess it up, I will kill you.”

Mu Qing rolled his eyes, “I wouldn’t have offered if I wasn’t confident in my ability to complete it. Write until you make one you think is satisfactory and I’ll transfer it.”

Hua Cheng said nothing in response, gathering more paper from the corner of the table before bowing his head in concentration. After a long time he straightened up to consider his work, and pointed to the most recent one, “This one.”

Something about it snagged Mu Qing’s attention and he said abruptly, “Write another one.”

Hua Cheng stared at Mu Qing as if he’d gone mad.

Mu Qing coughed and said again, a little less forcefully, “Just, write another one, I want to see something.”

Hua Cheng still eyed him incredulously, but he did turn to pull out another sheet of paper. His hands moved quickly and confidently across the paper. When he was done both he and Mu Qing stared at it in surprise. The characters on the paper were no longer Hua Cheng’s handwriting, but Xie Lian’s name. Graceful, generous, bold, and strong. Hua Cheng’s style was still unmistakably present for sure, but it gave itself completely to the strokes forming the characters of Xie Lian’s name.

“Where do you want it?” Mu Qing asked, breaking the trance the two of them had fallen into.

Hua Cheng considered it, “What if I got it on my face.”

Mu Qing snapped out of his reverie looking affronted, “Do not tattoo Xie Lian’s name on your face.”

Hua Cheng looked up at him sincerely, “Why not?”

Mu Qing eyed him as if he were looking at a poisonous snake, “Just trust me.”

Hua Cheng pouted, “Fine.”

“What about getting it on your neck?” Mu Qing offered.

Hua Cheng reached up to brush his hair out of the way. “Like right here?” Running his fingers vertically down his neck just behind his ear.

Mu Qing nodded. That would be much more tasteful. Hua Cheng considered it before nodding.

“Okay, now let's see what tools you have.”

Mu Qing got set up, while Hua Cheng moved to lie down on his stomach on a couch in the study. He transferred the writing before giving Hua Cheng a mirror to see if he liked the position. They moved it around a bit before starting to work.

While Mu Qing worked, they both lapsed into silence. Neither of the two men felt any desire to make conversation with the other. But, the silence wasn’t cold or awkward and the atmosphere in the room was quite harmonious.

After working for a while it was Mu Qing that finally broke the silence. “Why do you dislike Feng Xin and I so much?”

Hua Cheng stiffed and Mu Qing was slightly afraid for his life, but after a long moment Hua Cheng only scoffed. “Where do I even begin?”

Mu Qing shrugged.

“You probably won’t even remember.”

Mu Qing’s hands paused for a moment, “I probably will. I remember practically everything.”

“Fine, do you remember the soldier you tried to chase out of the army? Xie Lian told you both to give me a position but instead you chased me out.”

Mu Qing frowned, sifting through all those memories of the war, one random soldier didn’t make an impression. He really didn’t remember this. He shook his head, “I don’t remember.”

Hua Cheng laughed sardonically, “Really, small teenage boy. About fourteen. Gege said I was really good with a sword but that I should use a saber instead. He said the only other person he’d seen with that ability was you.”

Oh! Mu Qing did remember, “You had bandages over one eye?”

Hua Cheng glared at him, “Yes, one of my eyes was bandaged.”

“So why do you hate us?” Mu Qing asked.

“Because you kicked me out!” Hua Cheng said emphatically.

“You’re mad because we stopped you from getting a promotion?”

Hua Cheng looked at him as if he were looking at an idiot, “No, I’m mad because you tried to stop me from protecting gege.”

Mu Qing lowered his head in thought as he carefully reviewed his memories of the situation. Lots of emotions boiled up. Things both connected and unconnected to the scenario Hua Cheng was talking about. Finally Mu Qing spoke slowly, “At that time you would have been around the same age as some of my siblings, and on top of that you were a citizen of Xianle. War is no place for a child that age, and neither Feng Xin nor I wanted to see someone so young to go through such a horrific experience. By chasing you off, we hoped that we would be able to protect you from a gruesome and untimely death.”

Hua Cheng’s gaze was hard, “It didn’t work.”

“What?”

“I did die in the Xianle war. Two years after that,” a ridiculously triumphant look gleamed in one eye that he’d managed to spite Mu Qing and Feng Xin’s plans, “You didn’t manage to stop me from helping gege.”

Hua Cheng didn’t know what he was expecting, but he certainly didn’t expect Mu Qing to look genuinely sad. However the melancholy on his face was only visible for a few moments before he changed it to a smirk, “Besides,” Mu Qing continued, “Put yourself in our shoes for a minute. If some strange grimy kid you didn’t know anything about started following your Crown Prince whose safety you were responsible for, wouldn’t you also try to chase him off?”

Hua Cheng’s lip twitched a little. That was… a reasonable point actually. They didn’t know him. Only gege had ever really believed in him.

“There was also the issue with the mountain where Xie Lian went to cultivate.” Hua Cheng said after a while.

Mu Qing’s expression twisted. He had no desire to admit his wrong-doings to a ghost king, but said ghost king was married to one of his best and only friends and he really wanted to be able to visit his friend without fearing for his life every second of the visit. “You are not the person I need to apologize too for that,” Mu Qing said by way of round about admission, “but I deeply regret those actions the most.”

Hua Cheng moved his gaze away to stare at the pattern decorating the arm of the couch before him, “Correct.”

They lapsed again into silence, this one a little more strained than the last before Hua Cheng finally broke it. “Where did you learn to do this. You don’t strike me as the type.”

Mu Qing pursed his lips, “I learned to win a bet. At that time, I was easily pressured to do things by my peers.”

After that the two men didn’t speak to each other again, coexisting in relaxed silence as the candles burned lower and lower in the room. It was already deep into the night when the sound of Feng Xin and Xie Lian’s voices echoed in the halls.

“Xie Lian, we have to hurry. We’ve gone so long, what if your husband has murdered my partner?”

Xie Lian’s bright, if not somewhat nervous, laughter filled the halls, “Ah, Feng Xin don’t say that. San Lang would never murder Mu Qing, he knows it would make me sad.”

Both Mu Qing and Hua Cheng tensed at the same time, but it was too late. Hua Cheng jerked himself on to his elbows as Mu Qing and Hua Cheng both shouted at the same time.

“Gege! It’s not what it looks like!”

“Xie Lian! It’s not what it looks like!”

In the doorway Xie Lian and Feng Xin both froze at the scene before them. Crimson rain lay on his stomach while Mu Qing held a sharp implement right over his neck.

Mu Qing felt Hua Cheng jostle him as he attempted to sit up, and he yelled at him, “Crimson Rain, don’t move! Do you know how close this thing is to your neck right now?!”

Hua Cheng glowered at him, “You couldn’t kill me if you tried!”

Mu Qing narrowed his eyes, “No, but you would get blood all over your very fancy couch and clothes.”

Hua Cheng made a triumphant sound at having made Mu Qing admit he couldn’t defeat him in battle and was about to give another retort when he was cut off by the sound of Xie Lian’s laughter. His head snapped towards him and he got up smoothly from the couch, padding over to Xie Lian, taking Xie Lian’s hands in his. “Gege, we weren’t-! I promise-!”

Xie Lian laughed again and wave him off again, “San Lang, I’m glad to see you and Mu Qing getting along.”

Hua Cheng recaptured Xie Lian’s errant hand, and said urgently “Gege, the only person I will ever love is you.”

Xie Lian looked at Hua Cheng in shock for a moment and then laughed and freed his hand again to cup the side of his face, “I know that San Lang,” He dropped his hand in favor of clasping both of Hua Chengs, letting them hand in the air between them, “But Sang Lang~”

“Yes, gege.”

“You’re allowed to have friends.”

Hua Cheng reeled back as if he’d just received the greatest insult of his life, “We are not friends!”

Mu Qing only blushed and turned his head to the side.

“Anyway,” Xie Lian said lightly, ignoring the mayhem he had just caused, tipping forward to stand on his toes and brush the hair off of Hua Cheng’s neck, “What were you too doing?”

Hua Cheng pulled his hand away, “It’s not done yet, gege.”

Xie Lian let his hand hover, “Not done?”

Mu Qing cleared his throat, his face still red as he said in embarrassment, “I was giving Crimson Rain a tattoo.”

Xie Lian and Feng Xin both turned to stare at him as if the world had gone insane. Mu Qing’s face turned even redder, “Don’t look at me like that!”

Xie Lian’s stare was vacant, “Mu Qing, ah. I leave you alone with my husband and he ends up with a new tattoo?”

Feng Xin’s expression was also strange, “I was expecting to have to scrape your cold dead body from the tiles.”

Seeing their reactions Hua Cheng looked especially smug and walked over to the table in the study, “Gege, that’s not all I did while you were gone.”

Curiously, Xie Lian walked over to the table, and when he got there his eyes widened in shock. He picked up one of the pieces of parchment and turned to Hua Cheng, “Who wrote these?”

“Me,” Hua Cheng preened.

Xie Lian looked astonished, “San Lang, how did you make these?”

“Xie Lian,” Mu Qing said, every bit as smug as Hua Cheng from where he had come to stand on the other side of the table, “Your husband doesn’t have bad handwriting, he’s just left-handed.”

Xie Lian turned to Hua Cheng to confirm this, and Hua Cheng nodded. Xie Lian picked up one of the other sheets of paper and looked at it with a gaze usually only reserved for excellent swords, “San Lang, these are wonderful!” He picked up other sheet and then froze, “This is-” He looked up at Mu Qing who looked away sheepishly, “Mu Qing, after all these years, you actually remembered this?”

Mu Qing’s cheeks turned pink again and he coughed, but when he looked up again the smile on Xie Lian’s face was worth the embarrassment.

Then Xie Lian’s fingers brushed the smaller pieces of paper they had put off to the side when designing the tattoo. Xie Lian picked them up, “These are-”

Hua Cheng hugged him from behind, resting his chin on top of Xie Lian’s head, his voice vibrating through him, “Your name, gege.”

Xie Lian turned around in his grasp and lifted his hand again to brush away the hair covering Hua Cheng’s neck and this time he didn’t stop him.

Even unfinished it was stunning, and Xie Lian let his fingers drop. He felt strange looking at it. They were just characters and yet it somehow felt like looking in the mirror. And yet, it was totally different. When looking in the mirror it was too easy to become distracted by qualities you didn’t like and it was easy to lose sight of the complete picture.

Xie Lian dropped his head into Hua Cheng’s arms embarrassed, “San Lang, you’re going to be the death of me.”

Hua Cheng laughed easily as he held Xie Lian in his arms saying, “Gege, that’s my line.”

Xie Lian yawned suddenly, and Hua Cheng pulled away from him, one arm still supporting his back, “We’d better go to bed, gege, you’ve had a long night.”

Mu Qing nodded to him awkwardly, “We can… finish it in the morning.”

As they walked from the room Feng Xin came over and pulled Mu Qing into a half hug. Mu Qing remained stiff through the entire ordeal, but didn’t pull away. When he released him Mu Qing staggered away before yanking Feng Xin back over roughly to pull a leaf from his hair. “What on earth did you two get yourselves into,” Mu Qing muttered and Feng Xin grinned back at him, bringing up an arm to encircle his shoulders, “I’ll tell you in the morning over breakfast.”

Feng Xin’s gaze face was close to his and his gaze was filled with that pure unadulterated adoration of his that still activated Mu Qing’s fight or flight response. Still, Mu Qing stayed where he was ignoring the strong urge to either run or break something and lifted a hand to shove Feng Xin’s face away. Feng Xin understood, that stupid smile of his still visible in the way it lifted the muscles of his cheeks, even turned away, and released Mu Qing choosing instead to walk shoulder to shoulder with him down the hallway to their rooms.