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Sense & Simplicity

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As it were, Mou Ten knew perfectly well that he had to be the sensible one here —Shin couldn't be relied upon to have even a whit of sense on the best of days anywhere but on the front lines— and the least he could do if he was going to make terrible decisions was to not follow through. But sitting in a tent on a cool night, leaning into Shin's side after maybe ten or more cups of wine, a great many things were sounding far more reasonable and less outrageous than they had any right to be, and sensibilities are extremely relative.

“You and the king, you seem really close.” He's sure many people have noticed, but no one really talks about it.

“Aye, we go way back.” The other doesn't sound proud or anything — that smile is purely fond.

“Way back?” He refills their cups, just about managing not to spill anything. “How did you even meet His Majesty?”

“Eh,” Shin scratches his head awkwardly, “well, if it's you, you've probably heard about his brother's rebellion…”

Barely anyone outside the imperial court has heard, but “Sure, Father mentioned.”

“Well, uh, my childhood best friend was his body double.”

Mou Ten freezes. “Say what?”

“Mm. Hyou… That night…” Here, Shin's expression turns wistful, sombre, and he looks at his hands like he can still feel the weight he held in them back then. "Right before he died, he made me promise to meet up with Sei." He takes a deep breath, lets it out in a heavy sigh, “I miss him. Sometimes I think… if things had turned out differently, if we'd made it here together, if it'd been him here instead of me, maybe it'd all be better, maybe he'd be a general already, maybe Sei would have it easier. Hyou was always the smart one, always knew what to do, what to say… taught me everythin' and showed me the way. For the longest time, I thought… I'd never have to worry 'bout anythin'. We'd always be together, and I'd spend my whole life runnin' after his back as he chased our dream. And then…" As if suddenly realizing he's been rambling, Shin shakes himself. "A—anyway, 'bout that rebellion, well… lotsa stuff happened, and Sei got his throne back. We've just been through all of that together.”

Mou Ten blinks as they both take another swig of wine. He doesn't think the alcohol is why he can't follow. “But doesn't that mean His Majesty is the reason your best friend is dead?”

“Oh yeah, believe me, I was pissed. Heck, I almost killed Sei myself. But… Hyou knew what he was gettin' into. He risked his life willingly. And now… I can kinda understand why. There's just… somethin' special about that guy, ain't there? That's what's swayed everyone, even his former enemies' hearts.”

“More like stolen in your case,” he teases, nudging the other with a snicker. He knows that look — Shin is in love.

“St—eh—EH?!” They almost fall over together. “Th—the hell you talkin' about, Mou Ten? We're both guys, ya know!”

He'll admit that defensiveness somewhat stings, but Shin is a lot redder in the face than he was only seconds ago — clueless then.

“So?” He shrugs. “There's nothing strange about it being both guys. Even the King of Zhao does it.”

“Eh?” Right.

“Remember that time Ri Boku came to Kanyou?” He winks. “Surely you don't think that king risked his prime minister's life over just any minor noble, do you? I heard that lover of his is a most beautiful man.”

“E—eh?!”

Looking at Shin's wide-eyed flushed face, he dissolves helplessly into giggles. “Well, it's true not everyone approves. That aside, am I wrong?” he presses. “His Majesty is the most important person in the world to you, no?” Whether or not he simply transferred all of the feelings he had for his late friend… well, maybe it doesn't matter.

“Ah—uh…mm… That is—” Well, all that flustered stammering isn't even an attempt at denial.

“Besides,” he rests his head on a bony shoulder, smile turning wistful, “there's someone like that for me, too.”

“Really? Who?” As if it's instinct, the other immediately accommodates, a lean but muscular arm winding around his shoulders to support their new position.

Mou Ten sighs, pouting. “I'd be relieved it's not obvious, but since it's you, that's not reassuring.”

“OI.”

He laughs, and Shin retaliates with a poke in the sides. “Ack!”

“It's Ou Hon, isn't it?”

“Oh man. If you've figured it out, then the whole army knows, don't they?”

“Bastard,” Shin mutters, but refills their cups anyway. “How's that workin' out for you?”

He shrugs, “Who knows?” downing the full cup at once. “He's always busy with something or other, and every time we meet, there are always serious matters to discuss. What about you and the king?”

The other looks away, awkward. "Well, it's not like I've ever thought about it, y'know… What would we even do?"

"Oh?" He smiles slyly, lowers his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "Do you want to know? I can teach you."

“EH?!”

“Mm, I've tried it.”

There's a pregnant pause, his friend gaping at him as if trying to gauge whether he's joking or how to respond, then finally settling on “Uh… and how was it?”

Mou Ten grins — all according to plan. “Different. Good, like with women, lots of things in common, but… different.” He tilts his face up till they're a mere hair's breadth apart — a challenge, an invitation. “So, wanna try?”

Shin doesn't answer, doesn't move, still looks like he can't quite process what's happening. So Mou Ten leans in, slowly, in case it's shock, in case they need to laugh it off as a drunken dare, but no, the other allows it, even turns a little into the brush of their lips, curious. It's nice, so he does it again, bolder this time, with more purpose, and Shin responds even, albeit clumsily.

“Hold still one second,” he murmurs. “It's more like this.”

He demonstrates a bunch of different things he's done with people, both men and women — a gentle brush, a bit of suction, a nip here and there, a caress with the tongue. Despite the palpable nervous tension, Shin hasn't backed away freaking out yet, so maybe he's pretty serious about figuring things out with the king.

Heh, that's better than Mou Ten can say for himself.

“Now you try. Kinda like that, but change it up maybe. Everyone likes it a little different.”

“Like this?” As expected, Shin's quickly getting the hang of it — he's a genius at all things physical, if nothing else.

“Mm, the feeling's important, too.”

“The feeling?”

“Yeah. Like… try something like that again, but this time, close your eyes and imagine I'm the king.”

“Hm.” Shin takes a deep breath and shuts dark eyes, leaning in. Then, instead of closing the distance, he hauls Mou Ten forward, cradling him close —protective— and the offered kiss is ardent, but not domineering.

It's enough to make his playboy heart race.

“Mm… I hope it works out for you.” He smiles when they part, fond — as always, the other's feelings are so pure. “You want to protect and support him, help realize his dream. That's wonderful.”

“Eh? You can tell stuff like that from just a kiss?”

Mou Ten chuckles. “A little; not always, though. Some things are hard to get a read on. Some people are good at hiding or misdirecting. But sometimes, it really shines through, how you feel. It's more honest than talking, I think.”

Shin nods along, a moment of pensive silence, then “So what it'd be like, if you were with Ou Hon?”

“Heh.” Well, fair's fair, he supposes.

Without warning, he grabs Shin by the collar to seal their lips together, puts all the emotion he's never been able to convey to the absent commander into every flick and tangle of tongue between them, and—

They gasp, breaking apart for air. He's straddling Shin's lap with their arms around each other, and all this practice is getting him hot and bothered to say the least.

“Wow.”

He lets out a breathless laugh. “Did I prove I'm qualified to teach this subject?”

The other laughs along. “Yeah, but you— You wanna give that guy everything, don't you?”

Oh, “Not bad for your first guess,” it's pretty close. I don't think I can fill that void in his heart, but if he'd let me, "I'd certainly like to try."

“And do a lot more than kiss.”

He snorts. “Oh, I want to do a lot more than kiss right now with you, too, but what about you, Shin? Lesson Two, or call it a night?”

The other seems to take a moment to think, but green eyes look up with familiar determination — Shin has set his next goal, and he'll spare no effort in getting there.

“I'd keep goin', but… you sure it's okay? I mean, with the way you feel and all…”

“Ah.” He drops his gaze, worries the worn fabric of the other's collar with his fingers — maybe he should get Shin a formal outfit for the next awards ceremony in the palace. “No, actually, you'd be doing me a favour.”

“What? How?”

He smirks — of course Shin wouldn't understand this sort of logic; he's genuine and guileless — it's one of Mou Ten's favourite things about him. “With the way you two are so set on one-upping each other? If this doesn't get his attention, it'll be solid proof my only option is to give up.” And maybe, given how similar they are at heart, having one will help him get over the other.

“You sly dog.” Shin laughs, the earlier tension melting away, and draws him closer. “So what's Lesson Two, o' wise young master?”

“Why…” He rolls his hips thoughtfully, pleased that his partner's breath hitches in response. “Of course it's the process of taking each other's clothes off.”

“If we're both guys, isn't it just like takin' off my own?”

“Hee, you're only half right, and that'd be boring. It's easier to just show you, though.”

So he slides one hand under the other's collar, going in for another kiss as he fumbles with sashes and fastenings. Breaking off to mouth along a bony jawline, he runs his hand down Shin's torso to part the robe, rakes his nails over the other's back as he moves it out of the way, and Shin seems to get the idea, palming his way up Mou Ten's thigh to knead his arse while pushing fine pants down.

“Y—yeah,” he moans, trailing kisses down the other's neck and savouring that spicy earthy scent. “Just like that. You're a quick study.”

“Heheh, I'm fully self-taught, after all; learned almost everythin' by trainin' and sparrin' with Hyou.”

“Mm…” He's not sure when his own robe was undone, but callused fingertips are distracting where they circle his bare hip to stroke the small of his back. If this is instinct, then Shin's is very good — he's always tantalizingly close to where Mou Ten really wants attention, and it's almost more arousing than the actual thing. “The good thing about being both guys is that it's easy to figure out — your partner will like a lot of the same things you do. With women, it's harder, but they have a different kind of allure, and in my experience, they're a lot more focused on their partners than themselves, unlike us.”

They share a chuckle, although his is a bit deprecating.

“With that said,” he takes Shin's hand to guide it, “I'm going to selfishly skip a few lessons because you're doing too well, and it's making me impatient— hngh…”

“M—Mou Ten…” It sounds breathy and a little awed, which is flattering, but Shin curls his fingers just then, either in reflex or experiment, so he only groans, pressing their foreheads together.

“Since this is your first time, and I'm, even tenuously, supposed to be the teacher here, I should say something like, ‘we can stop anytime you want,’ but honestly, I'll probably kill you if you back out now,” sensibility be damned.

“Oh yeah?” The other smirks, dark eyes alight. “Let's see you try.”

“No,” of course he doesn't for even a moment believe he would be a match for Shin in terms of raw strength, but fortunately, the other laughs it off, even obliges his move to lie down. “Seriously, though, pretend I'm the king or whatever you need to d—”

“Don't mess with me. Sei is Sei, and you are you. In the first place, there's no way I could pretend — you two are nothing alike. But even if I could, I wouldn't do you such a disservice.” Shin tucks a lock of chestnut hair behind an ear — unexpectedly affectionate. “You don't have to be anyone but you.”

Oh. “Well, look who's got a romantic side after all~”

“Hey, that's—”

He giggles at the other's flushed embarrassment. “Honestly, though?” He reels his partner in with a soft smile. “I'm kinda weak to that sorta thing.”

□■□■□■□

Something is wrong with Shin.

Perhaps something happened at this last battle because the commander certainly hadn't been acting so strangely when they last met. Now every time he glances at Shin, Ei Sei catches his friend looking away, which… is technically the correct protocol —commoners aren't exactly supposed to lift their heads to look directly at the king unless instructed— but he highly doubts Shin has suddenly developed an aptitude for formality and etiquette.

It's odd enough during the formal audience to report on the campaign, but when this strange behaviour continues even into their usual rooftop meeting, Sei decides enough is enough.

“What's the matter?” Direct is generally best when it comes to Shin — any attempt at subtlety would only be lost on him.

“Eh?”

“Don't play the fool. You've been acting strangely since you came back.” He crosses his arms. “If you've done something that you can't look me in the eye o—”

“The hell?! Of course it's nothing like that!”

Sei raises an eyebrow. Naturally, he doesn't suspect anything major — he's perfectly aware that Shin's loyalty to him is beyond question. But that only leaves him drawing a blank.

“Well, then what is it?” Being direct also has the added benefit of providing no escape route. Shin is a terrible liar, so backing him into a corner is a surefire way to get the truth out of him.

“Ah, that is—” The other scratches his head, looking anywhere but at Sei. “Well, it's just—” Wow, he's even getting red in the face. “You— I— Wh—when I look at you, I think y—you're suuuper b—beautiful these days, and that's kinda inappropriate, right? So I'm just trying not to think about it, okay?!”

O—oh. Sei covers his mouth in an effort to stifle a laugh, but fails miserably.

“Oi! Don't laugh! It's not funny!”

No, that defensiveness is only making it funnier. “And here I was thinking it'd be something really weird or terrible. Ah, you never cease to amaze.”

“Argh, I take that back! If you're just going to make fun of me, I'm leaving.”

He catches Shin's hand as the other starts to storm off. “What if I said I'm laughing in happiness?” It's not as if anyone else could make him laugh anyway.

“Wha—EH?!”

Decisively, he closes the distance between them, lingers a hair's breadth away to watch flustered surprise melt into seriousness. “Or was that just a passing thought?”

“No,” it's Shin who reels him in the rest of the way with an arm around his waist for a kiss that has his eyes fluttering shut, that takes his breath away. “I wanted to do this even before I knew it's what I wanted.”

Even Kou wouldn't be so bold, but this he appreciates — no one else can forget he's the king for even a moment.

“Come with me.”

He smiles, leading the way by the hand he hasn't let go of, the hand that will one day grasp his dream alongside his own. Has it really been years, he reflects, since the first time Shin followed him without knowing what lay beyond? Even now, there's no guarantee that they will succeed, that the next battle won't be Shin's last.

This is the path they have chosen, knowing of the blood to be spilled and the sacrifices to be made.

This is the path they chose together, so every moment is precious.

He wants to grasp and cherish it before it's gone, didn't think his friend would ever want more than what they had even though nothing could ever be enough for him.

Locking the door to his chambers behind them, he rings a bell signalling the servants to draw a bath, then turns to pull Shin into another kiss, more searing than the last.

“Sei,” the other whispers, pressing their foreheads together when they part. “Guess I kept you waiting.”

“Quite a while,” he agrees wryly, although he can't pinpoint exactly when his feelings changed. When, he wonders, did his anxiety shift from whether Shin achieved their joint objectives to whether Shin would return in one piece? When did you become too important to lose? As if reading his mind, the other pulls him into a tight embrace. He returns it, of course, probably more tightly than is comfortable, but “Shin?”

“Sorry. When I think about it, I never did anything like this with Hyou until the night he died, and— I don't ever want to make that mistake again.”

Oh. A bell tinkles, signalling that the bath is ready, but this isn't the time. “I feel the same way. I don't want to look back in regret at all the things I didn't do when I had the chance.”

“Aye,” Shin huffs as if a weight has been lifted off his shoulders, then steps back, letting go. But callused fingertips linger, trailing down Sei's arms to his hands, and for a moment, Sei doesn't know what he wants—no, he wants it all, all at once, and—

He laces their fingers, as if it could convey anything at all, but when their eyes meet, there's an intimacy in their shared smile that makes it hard to breathe, that he's never felt before, that shrouds the exact way they make it into the water in a haze of heat and closeness till—

He gasps, falling back, and chokes, swallowing water in the dark. He can't— He can't—

A hand grasps his own, pulling him sharply to the surface. “Sei!”

He coughs up some water and sways, falling into warm arms. Shin. It's just Shin. I'm all right. Safe.

“Oi, are you—”

“Sorry,” he whispers, clinging on, inhaling deeply of the other's familiar earthy musk to catch his breath. “It was reflex. Don't… don't place your hands on my neck.”

A beat passes before Shin tenses. “Who would dare—”

“My mother,” he interjects with a soft laugh. “Many times.” At the stricken look on his friend's face, he adds, “It was a long time ago,” sitting down on the ledge built into the side of the bath. “We were hostages in Zhao, did you know?”

Shin shakes his head, sitting down beside him, and he ends up telling the other everything, all the little details he's never told another soul. Shin asks every question imaginable, from why his father was sent there to what happened at the Battle of Chouhei, then finally, "Is that why you like Kou? 'Cause she's nothin' like your mom?"

His first impulse is to laugh it off, but upon reflection, there might be some truth to that. “Perhaps. I've never thought about it before.” Shin could, all at once, be the most perceptive yet most obtuse person in the world. “I think I like her for the same reason I like you. You are both guileless and sincere, strong-willed and kind.”

“Ah, um…” Shin looks away, awkward, cheeks ablaze. “A—anyway, that's why you and your brother are nothin' alike, right? 'Cause you've lived through that kinda life.”

“Mm, I suppose if Sei Kyou had experienced anything like it, perhaps we would get along better. But that's why… when I heard about the incident with that Thousand-Man Commander, I was really happy.” He takes both the other's hands in his own to redraw attention, gazes firmly into dark green eyes. “Listen, Shin, don't ever change. I understand that, sometimes, in war, we must be willing to do whatever it takes, even if it's horrible. But if we keep creating tragedies like the Battle of Chouhei, then the people will resist us to their last breath, and these lands will never be unified.”

Shin smiles brightly. “Aye, I believed you'd say that, Sei.”

The other pulls him into another kiss, and it's too easy to remember their earlier passion, to pick up as if they'd never stopped, to straddle Shin's lap and revel in the feel of skin on skin, as if they could possibly meld into one if they just tried. Then Shin is pressing emphatic lips to the scar on his forearm, tracing a path up to his shoulder, and his heart races, his fingers tangle in short hair. "Is this okay?" is murmured against his skin, pausing at his collarbone.

"Yes," he breathes — it's more than okay; it's intoxicating, leaves him feverish, dizzy with desire. He gasps when callused fingers dip into unexpected places, and his partner pauses.

"Yes?"

He considers it for a moment, but "Yes," it was pleasure that caught him by surprise, and he whimpers when the other retraces the motion with surprising familiarity — Shin hadn't seemed the type to know anything about these matters. But it's good, simplifies things — Sei can't claim any experience in this specific area. What he does know is that the slide of their erections between them isn't anywhere nearly enough friction for his liking, and the satisfying groan he gets from wrapping his hand around them both tells him Shin agrees. His lover peppers his neck with kisses, strokes his entrance as he rocks their hips together into his grip, and Sei can tell he won't last — a familiar tension is coiling up inside, and he's too overwhelmed to hold back. "Shin," he moans, "Shin, I—"

He barely has the presence of mind to muffle his cry in dark hair as he sees stars, to be glad that Shin shudders in his arms soon after. He doesn't move, presses their temples together as they catch their breaths, and he wants more, again, always, wants to feel this close to Shin forever, and the transience of their time together, in every sense, creeps up on him, haunts his darkest hours. "Say you'll always come back to me, Shin."

He's blurted the words out before he can reconsider, but "Of course," Shin replies, as if it's the simplest, most natural thing in the world. “I'm your sword. Where else would I go?”

“You're more than a sword,” he whispers, tightening his hold. “You are my true friend, the only one in the world.” Leaning back, so he can look Shin in the eye—

“I love you,” they say as one.

They blink, then crack up at the same time. Sei rests his forehead on Shin's as they laugh, and this is perfect. Perfect.

Pressing a final kiss to his lover's lips, he shifts, so they're sitting side by side again, and settles into the other's side with an arm wound around his waist. "How did you figure it out anyway?"

"Hm?"

"You said you wanted to do this even before you knew it was what you wanted. So how did you it figure out?"

For a moment, he feels Shin tense and wonders if he should have asked. But then, "Mou Ten," Shin answers simply with a chuckle, and it takes a moment for his memory to catch up.

"As in General Mou Bu's eldest son?"

"Aye, they're nothing alike though."

The son of one of Ryo Fui's Four Pillars… It's true he loves Shin's lack of guile, but at the same time… "What did you tell him?" He remembers hearing that Shou Hei Kun thinks highly of Mou Bu's firstborn, and there are many ways to put any information to use.

"Nothin' he didn't already know. I guess the way I feel about you was pretty obvious to everyone 'sides me." Shin ducks his head, sheepish, but he's either missing the point or…

"You think we can trust him?"

"Ack!" The other straightens. "Mou Bu's one of your enemies, ain't he?"

Sei resists the urge to massage his temple — very reassuring.

"Shit. Hm…" Shin folds his legs and props his chin up on one hand, elbow resting on his knee and brow furrowed in deep thought. Sei would be the first to confess he doesn't have high expectations, but— "I don't think that guy's the type to get involved," Shin says suddenly.

"Oh?"

"He's nice and easygoing, unlike that jerk he's in love with."

Sei raises an eyebrow. The logic is one thing, but "That… jerk… he's… in love with…?"

"Ou Hon," Shin clarifies through gritted teeth, and there's clearly no love lost there, but more importantly—

"As in General Ou Sen's son?"

"Aye, that's the one." Shin crosses his arms and huffs, "He's an ass. Kinda like your brother."

"Right." Curiouser and worse all at the same time — rumour has it, Ou Sen's a pretty dangerous figure, too.

"Anyway, like I was sayin', I don't think he'll get involved."

"Because he's nice and easygoing…?" Perhaps the incredulity in his tone is lost on Shin. Heaven knows Shin makes him unspeakably happy, but intelligence and good sense are not his lover's strong suits.

The other shakes his head. "No. I dunno how to explain. He's just…" Shin shrugs, "not the type. Y'know it's thanks to him I got off easy in that Thousand-Man Commander incident?"

"So… you trust him?" Sei leans back against the wall of the bath, crossing his arms.

A moment's thought, then "Yeah. But…"

"But…?"

"But if things between you and Ryo Fui come to a head, he'll definitely stand with his family."

"Naturally. Which is why you should be more wary."

"C'mon, Sei, you know I don't have the brain for any of this crap going on here in Kanyou. I don't even know who's who in this kingdom of yours. If anything, it's Mou Ten teachin' me all the useful stuff. He's got nothin' to learn from me."

That's probably for the best, but… on the other hand, this could well be a good thing. In this chaotic age of endless war, there's no telling when General Mou Bu's heir might take over as clan head. And when that day comes, if Mou Ten is close to Shin, his family and their supporters would instead become loyal allies. No, given that it is true Shin would never have any politically useful information to leak by accident, deepening his relationship with Mou Ten would likely be beneficial in the long run.

"And if the day comes when he ends up on the other side of the battlefield… Well, that'd be terrible 'cause he's kinda smart, y'know? Like, good with tactics and strategies and that sorta stuff, but," Shin turns, eyes serious, and covers Sei's hand with his own, "even so, I will always be your sword, Sei, and I will not falter. I won't let anyone stand in the way of our dream."

That's good then, and of that Sei has no doubt. "If you trust him, Shin," he smiles, lacing their fingers, "then I'm glad you've made a good friend out there. We could use more of those."

"Aye, they're in pretty short supply, aren't they?" Shin agrees with a rueful chuckle, seeming glad to drop the subject.

“Even so, I'd heard rumours that Mou Bu's heir was popular with the ladies, but to think the men also…” That certainly answers the question of where Shin learned about these things, loyalties aside.

“Heh, right? Took me by surprise when he said he'd tried it before.” Shin laughs heartily, reclining beside him. “Hey.” Shin squeezes his hand under the water, and he turns to look. Shin presses a kiss to his brow. "I dunno much about what you're goin' through, but if there's anythin' I can do… You know I'll always be on your side, right?"

Sei smiles, teasing. “Even if I turn out to be a tyrant?”

“Hell, I'll drag you back to your senses myself!”

“Good.” He settles into Shin's side. “I'll be counting on you.”

■□■□■□■

Mou Ten stirs — there's some commotion outside. He wonders how long he's slept this time — it hadn't felt like he'd been unconscious for as long as he was told when he awoke yesterday.

“I thought you said he woke up yesterday!” Oh, it's Shin.

“Yes, but the young master still needs to recuperate!” Gramps protests as he opens the door.

“It's fine, Gramps. Let him in,” he says, smiling in fond exasperation. The old man worries too much — he's sure a friendly visit can only do him good.

“Hey, Two-Thousand-Man Commander Mou Ten!” Shin greets with a wide grin as he enters — the letter announcing Mou Ten's promotion in absentia came even before he regained consciousness.

“Hey, Three-Thousand-Man Commander Shin!” he returns with as much good cheer as he can muster — he'd been thoroughly updated while eating and taking his medicine yesterday.

Their eyes meet, and they burst out laughing — bad idea.

“Ow-ow-ow, don't make me laugh, you jerk; it still hurts, you know,” he gripes, but it's half-hearted. It's a funny custom of theirs, and he wouldn't change it for the world — they're always facing the grimness of the battlefield, so getting in some laughter to keep their spirits up is invaluable. It seems to satisfy his guardian, too — the old man huffs a sigh and shakes his head as he leaves, shutting the door behind him.

“Heh, looks like I worried for nothing.” Shin sits down beside him on the bed, his bright smile belying the relief in his eyes.

“Nothing? I did almost die, you know.”

“Why'd you think I rushed here as soon as I could?”

Oh. Maybe his surprise shows on his face because Shin immediately looks away awkwardly.

“A—anyway, sorry I'm not the guy you really wanna see, b—”

“Instead of saying such nonsense,” he interrupts firmly, “be a good chap and pour us some of that.” He indicates the bottle and cups on the nearby table. “Even if medicinal wine's the only drink I'm allowed, I'm glad my drinking buddy is here.”

The other brightens, setting the wine on a stool and bringing it closer to serve as a makeshift table. “Well, you can't be drinkin' anythin' lyin' down like that, so let's get you up.”

A strong arm slides under him to cradle him close with what would once have been surprising gentleness and lift him into a sitting position. Shin shifts to prop him up, then pours them each a cup of wine. He smiles, letting Shin support his weight, and takes the offered cup in his good hand before clinking it against his friend's.

“To health, victory and good fortune?”

“Aye, can't argue with that one.”

They down the wine in a single gulp, and he aborts his giggle at Shin's grimace with a wince of pain.

“Ugh, what is this stuff?!”

“Like I said, medicinal wine, chock full of restorative herbs. Your body is grateful even if your tongue is not, so you're welcome.”

His friend snorts, rolling green eyes. “In that case, please have more, o' recovering young master.” He refills only Mou Ten's cup.

“Hey, no fair! What kind of drinking buddy are you?”

“The generous kind. You're the injured one here, so you should have it all.”

The other's self-satisfied grin fills him with affection, and he smiles helplessly, draining his cup.

“Bah, you're learning to be sneaky; it's the worst.”

“Hah, I know a few people who'd be glad you were rubbing off on me.” Shin refills it.

“Oh? Like the king perhaps?" He waggles his eyebrows. "I heard you two spent a meaningful time together.”

“Aye, if that's what you call a week of fighting like we'd never see tomorrow, then yeah, we spent one helluva meaningful time together.” Words probably can't do the experience justice — given what he'd heard about the Battle of Sai and its circumstances, Shin's promotion was more than well earned.

“Well,” it hasn't quite worked for him and Ou Hon, but “I'm sure the crisis brought you closer.”

The other's smile softens. “You could say that. I almost lost him, and it was like that night all over again.”

For a moment, he envies the king, wonders if Ou Hon felt that sort of anxiety for him even briefly this time. Hah, such fruitless thoughts. “So…” he smirks, dropping his voice and leaning in further — conspiratory. “Put any of the stuff I taught you to use yet?”

His friend's cheeks instantly blaze. “What? Uh, 'c—”

“That's a yes then!” He's careful not to laugh this time, but his delight is completely genuine. “You're ten years too young to be lying to me, Shin. C'mon, spill. How was it?”

Shin smacks his hip lightly, but it jostles his injured side, so—

“Ow!”

Shin ignores his chagrined frown unrepentantly. “It was… amazing. Yeah. I dunno how else to describe it.”

Well, the happy, lovestruck look on his face is answer enough, and Mou Ten fights down that spike of something between envy and jealousy.

“I'm glad,” he says aloud. “I'm happy for you.”

Maybe he's just out of it, maybe he's losing his touch, because Shin immediately says, “Hey. It can't be helped, right? Ou Hon's gotta finish our work out there, yeah?”

“Mm,” that's true. “Thanks.” It's not exactly comforting, but he's grateful for the effort. “For the visit as well.” And he's definitely out of it if the minuscule quantity of medicinal wine he's had is making it hard to stay awake now.

It must be obvious, too, because his friend carefully lays him back down and tucks the blanket around him. “Guess I'll let you get back to recuperating.” But Shin hovers —awkward, unsure— then presses his lips to Mou Ten's forehead. “Get well soon, Ten.”

It suffuses him with warmth, and Mou Ten smiles — he is happy to see Shin. “I will. If I let you and Ou Hon hog all the glory for too long, there'll be way too much catching up to do.”

“Heheh, you bet! Oh!” Shin starts rifling through his robes. “I asked Sei what I should get you, since old man Shou Bun Kun said I can't go visiting empty-handed…” He pulls out a small white bottle and presses it into Mou Ten's hand. “He said to give you this.”

Mou Ten holds it up to see — it's labelled “wild notoginseng,” probably came straight out of the royal apothecary. “Please thank His Majesty for His thoughtfulness and generosity.”

“Huh, I take it you know what that is.”

He rolls his eyes —I take it you don't— stifling a yawn as Shin heads to the door. “It's the best medicine for healing wounds. You should keep some around yourself.”

“Huh. Well, you take care then. I'll see you out there!”

“Yeah!” He waves Shin off, heart strangely light. In the ensuing silence, he drifts off with a smile.

□■□■□■□

Through a series of different military assignments, the next time he sees Shin is on the way to his grandfather's estate. He hadn't expected Shin to rush over at the news that General Mou Gou was dying, but he supposes he shouldn't be surprised — Shin is a man of sentiment, he should know.

And it's as if his grandfather was just waiting for him.

With just some history and a few words of advice, Mou Gou goes, and the thought that his dear grandfather will never laugh indulgently at his pranks again… Even if everyone always said the White Elder was a mediocre general, to him, his grandfather was a great hero who left his home behind to give his father, and now him, a better life. He owes the easygoing patriarch his happy, carefree, privileged childhood. It was Grandpa who nurtured every interest, encouraged every pastime. If it were up to his father, he'd probably have been on the front lines as soon as he could steadily hold a sword. Heck, his father isn't even here because of the war.

Shin has to pry him away for them to prepare the body for the funeral — apparently, he hadn't heard a word anyone said. But even if Shin is nice enough to let him cry on the other's shoulder all day, he needs to pull himself together — with his father at the border as usual and his little brother still en route, there's no one else to deal with all the proceedings.

“Hey,” Shin murmurs as he dries his eyes and steels himself, “if there's anything I can do—”

“Stay,” he says without thinking. “As long as you can,” he adds, realizing how involved and unreasonable it sounds — it's the sort of demand one would make of someone a lot closer than they're supposed to be.

But Shin only nods, “Sure, 'course,” squeezing his shoulders, and it's unexpectedly grounding.

Visitors come in droves to pay their last respects, even some from foreign lands. The White Elder might not have been spectacular at warfare, but he was certainly great with people, if the turnout is anything to go by. Every subordinate not on active duty comes as well, and the halls are filled with grown men weeping openly.

To Mou Ten's chagrin, every vaguely noble family with an unmarried daughter shows up, too, and of course, no one would be so unbecoming as to even hint at anything, but it's stressful enough that he knows exactly why they're here — both he and Mou Ki have yet to even choose one to court, after all.

He's tired of bowing, of offering the intermittent prayers, of accepting gifts and condolences, of receiving all the visitors and thanking them for their kindness till he's choking on the incense smoke in the hall, and he all but falls over in relief and gratitude when Mou Ki finally arrives to take over.

It occurs to him that, no matter how exhausted he is, he should probably look for Shin after making his friend stay this long — Shin was one of the first ‘outsiders’ to pay his respects, and he hasn't seen the other since. First, though, he goes to the bath to clean off the smoke and ash, and the steaming water seems to wash away some of his weariness, too. Towelling his hair in a robe, he heads back to his room to change and look for Shin, but—

“Yo,” greets him as soon as he opens the door. Shin is seated at the table, a hand lifted in greeting.

“Shin!” He brightens, barring the door closed. “That certainly saves me the effort.”

“That gramps that's always with you, he said to wait here with this.” He taps the jars of Mou Ten's favourite wine on the table — ah, Gramps knows him so well.

“Wonderful,” he sighs, sinking into the chair next to Shin and dropping the towel on another. “Just what I had in mind.”

The other opens a jar to pour them each a cup. “I didn't pay much attention the last time I was here, but as expected of the young master, nice room.”

Mou Ten smiles, draining his cup — gotta savour life's simple pleasures. “Thanks, I decorated it myself.”

“Mm, isn't that your name?” He indicates the signed calligraphy scrolls hanging on the wall. “You drew all those?”

“Mmhm. The words are from a book, but I wrote those, yep.”

“Seems complicated.” He finishes his drink and refills their cups. “Looks beautiful, though. What's that?” He indicates the mess of wood and string Mou Ten's been tinkering with in a corner.

“Ah, just a side hobby of sorts. I keep thinking, what if, instead of having a bunch of different instruments with different sound ranges, we had one with a wide, adjustable range to suit many different pieces of music? So I've been trying to see what I can do about that.”

“Wow. You're actually… kinda amazing, aren't ya?”

He chuckles, refilling their cups again. “Enough about me. How did you meet my grandfather anyway? I know he took a shine to you during the Sanyou campaign, but there's some kinda story to that, isn't there?”

“Uh… well, I…” Shin scratches his head, averting his face awkwardly. “I stepped on his face?”

Mou Ten chokes on his wine. “What?”

“He was lying down, it was dark, and the grass was tall, okay?!” The other protests, arms crossed, as he coughs to clear his airways.

“Okay, now you've got to tell me everything.”

“Well, I went hunting for a midnight snack and caught a rabbit, so I went to a quiet spot to cook it, only to find I wasn't the only one there.”

“Do you do that a lot?”

Shin shrugs. “When we're on the march in the right place, and I'm not too tired, yeah! You should come by sometime when we're on the same campaign. I'll treat you to an awesome supper.” He winks, holding out a thumbs up, and his grin is infectious.

“I'll take you up on that someday.”

“Great! Anyway, didn't recognize him, since I'd never seen the commander till the day we got promoted, y'know? So we're just shootin' the breeze as I'm roastin' this rabbit, and he's talkin' 'bout some guy he could never beat —'course I didn't know that was Ren Pa at the time— but I told him somethin' like… ‘Isn't this your chance to turn it all around? All you gotta do is beat him this once, then spend the rest of your life runnin' away from him, and you'll have the last laugh!’ or some such.”

Mou Ten blinks, then snorts, dissolving into hysterical laughter.

Shin laughs along. “Yeah, that was his reaction, too.”

“Of course,” he gasps, gripping his aching sides as he tries to catch his breath. “Spend the rest of your life running away… Gods, you're unbelievable!” He wipes his eyes, calming down. “But thanks. You really cheered him up, you know? And that was good.” He nods with a quiet sniffle. “Better than all the grim lamentations out there. I think Grandpa would've wanted us to remember him more like this.” He lifts his cup. “To the White Elder?”

“Aye.” Shin clinks their cups in a toast. “To the White Elder.”

They down a few in quick succession, and he must have swayed because Shin is suddenly pulling him back upright with a hand on his arm.

“Woah.”

“Sorry.” He yawns, propping himself up with the table. “Guess I'm more tired than I thought.”

“Shit, yeah, it's been a long day, hasn't it? C'mon, go get some rest.” Shin tugs him to his feet.

“Mm.” He goes along agreeably, leaning into his friend's side, and it's nice, warm, familiar when they sit down on his bed together. “Shin?”

“Mm—ph.”

He presses their lips together when Shin turns to look, and he doesn't know where he finds the energy, the urgency that has him pinning the other down and rocking their hips together. Shin responds eagerly and without hesitation, pushing the bathrobe out of the way and, before he can even think to feel self-conscious, trailing kisses along his scar to take a nipple into his mouth.

“Oh fuck,” he moans as blood rushes down — honestly, he hadn't expected Shin to remember. He arches into the contact, fumbles in a drawer by the bed for a vial of oil and presses it into the other's hand.

“Heh, so you're always impatient,” Shin mutters with a chuckle, but doesn't keep him waiting — oil-slick fingers are stroking him open and pressing in soon enough, and too soon are nowhere near enough. The calluses add a maddening layer of sensation, and he rakes his fingers through short black hair to haul the other into another kiss, lets his partner roll them over to start taking him apart — he's taught Shin entirely too well. He gets a moment to adjust, but it's been too long, and Shin has shifted attention to his other nipple — he's already close. He barely remembers to muffle his first cry of pleasure with the back of his hand, but then Shin kisses him to muffle both their voices, and it doesn't take long. He's sure he's left marks on Shin's back with his nails, maybe even bruises where he pulled Shin deeper into that perfect spot with his legs, but strong arms cling tightly to him as they shudder through their climax, and—

“Oh,” he groans as they roll onto their sides on the bed, “I needed that.” All of the day's tension, wound suffocatingly tight, seems to melt away.

The other lets out a breathless chuckle. “I can tell.”

It's strangely funny, and they share a laugh. This is the nice thing about being with Shin — it's fun, uncomplicated, uplifting. Maybe that's how the king feels, too. Right, the king…

“Sorry.”

“Hm?”

“I should've at least asked.” They hadn't really discussed anything after that first time, after all.

“Hey,” Shin taps his cheek to make him focus, “it was good for me, too, y'know.”

“Mm,” he smiles, warm, “but I mean, what about the king?”

“Oh. He knows about us,” Shin replies simply.

“Oh?”

“Aye, and he said he's glad we're good friends.”

“Wow.” Well, ‘good friends’ isn't what he'd call this —heck, he's sure this isn't what Grandpa meant by ‘rise up together’ either— but if it's true the king knows… Mou Ten doesn't know what he was expecting, but tacit approval was definitely not it. “Lucky you,” he murmurs with a hint of bitterness — the king clearly loves Shin as an equal.

“Huh?”

He laughs mirthlessly. “How is it that every girl I've ever met, and even some I haven't, is here, some of the guys I've hooked up with are here, but the guy I really want to see won't show up?” Maybe the day's events are getting him emotional. He shouldn't be talking about this —now, like this, with Shin of all people— it's in such poor taste.

“Ah… well, you know how it is…” Shin mumbles tentatively, and—

“Yes,” yes, of course he knows — “Same reason my father's not here. I know, but… ironic, isn't it?”

“Ten.” He glances up as roughened thumbs run over his cheekbones. “That moron doesn't know what he's missing.”

He leans into the touch — in this regard, he's probably the biggest idiot of them all. “Can you sleep like this?”

Shin snorts. “Your bed's fuckin' luxurious. 'Course I can sleep, man. I sleep on the ground out there, ya know.”

“Good.” He closes his eyes, settling into the other's side. “Don't move then.”

■□■□■□■

“Wait, wait, wait.” Shin knocks the entire dish of wine back and slams it down. “You're tellin' me that in all the time you guys were at the Chu border, all the time that we were all at the Zhao border, you never told him?!”

They're drinking together in a tent again, much like how this whole affair started, and nothing much has changed.

“Shin, if you're not gonna let this go, I'm calling it a night and taking the wine with me,” Mou Ten declares firmly as he pours refills.

“Okay, all right.” Shin holds up his hands, pacifying. “It's just… the hell's wrong with you, man?”

He makes a show of standing up, but an arm snakes around his waist to hold him in place, and he pouts at the other's shit-eating grin.

“For one, we were in the middle of battle most of the time. For another, we have to work together, you know. What if it doesn't go as I hope?” He nurses his drink sullenly.

“Idiot.” Shin bops him lightly on the head with a fist. “That guy and I hate each other's guts, and we still work together just fine when it counts. St—”

“You do not hate each other,” Mou Ten interjects, rolling his eyes. “If anything, I'd say, in some clumsy, hyper-competitive way, you're like brothers, and all that bickering is some weird expression of love. When push comes to shove, you'd die for each other.”

“Ugh, don't make it sound gross! No, more importantly, don't change the subject!”

“Fine.” He drains his wine. “Fine. I'm just not prepared to hear no for an answer, okay?”

“Why'd you assume the answer's no?” Shin pours the refills this time. “He obviously likes you.”

“Why do y— Just because we,” he indicates them both, “have no reservations, doesn't mean everyone readily plays for both teams. It's not the same.” He downs his wine in one gulp.

“Plays for both—oh. Oh.” Shin seems to finally catch on at his meaningful Look and pauses to finish his wine, too. “Eh, you're smart. Surely you've figured out some roundabout way to ask. Same way you talked about Ri Boku and the Zhao king with me or somethin'.”

Mou Ten punches his friend lightly in the chest. “You think I haven't tried? Nothing. I got nothing.”

“Argh! This is stupid. The next time we get assigned to the same place, I'll ask him.”

“What, no.” It'll be a dead giveaway, and it'll be horrible.

Shin's grin widens. “Aw yeah, if you don't ask first.”

“No.” He grabs fistfuls of blue cloth. “Absolutely not. Shin, I'll kill you.”

The other cackles. “Uh-huh, you'll certainly try.”

“I am dead serious, Shin.” Mou Ten shoves him to the ground, pinning him in place. “I will kill you.”

The laughter dies. “Seriously, man, aren't you tired of bein' stuck in limbo like this? 'Cause I sure as hell am tired of watchin' you.”

Yes. Yes, of course he's tired, but…

“Just get it over with, Ten.” Shin pulls him into a chaste kiss. “It's gonna be fine.”

He flops down, head resting on the other's chest and a warm arm winds around him to hold him in place. “Let's stay like this for a bit.” It's perfect for the chilly weather tonight. “Maybe your boundless optimism will be infectious.”

“Oh, I think it is.” Shin laughs, squeezing in a hug. “That's part of bein' a general, ain't it?”

“Mm,” he supposes it's a lot like raising morale.

And maybe Shin's right in a way — he should make his peace and stop wondering. The thought of rejection doesn't carry nearly the same sting of pain or chest-clenching anxiety that it used to, and it's not like he's unhappy as they are.

Perhaps his plan worked a little too well, after all.

□■□■□■□

Ei Sei sighs, going back to the beginning of the report scroll he's reading. He can't focus — the thought that the Zhao invasion begins tomorrow…

Suddenly, he senses the presence of someone outside a beat before he catches the sound of approaching footsteps. At this hour… He grabs his sword from the nook between the bed and bedside drawer, quietly unsheathing it as he moves to stand by the door. The footsteps stop right outside, and he readies himself.

The door opens— “Yo, S—” He stabs— “Whoa!” Shin evades backwards as he aborts the motion and huffs in relief.

“Shin,” he resheathes his sword, “don't do that.”

“I wasn't even trying to be quiet!” Shin protests as he enters, closing the door behind him.

“Given whom we're up against,” he returns to sitting on the bed and puts his sword back, “I fully expect a series of Zhao assassins to try.”

Shin reclines beside him without invitation, arms folded behind his head. “Thank the gods Kyou Kai's taken care of the worst one then.”

“Hm?”

“The Shiyuu. The worst one, she said she found her in Zhao.”

Sei glances sideways. “Well, that's one fewer to worry about.”

“Yep.”

They fall silent then, and Sei would usually take that as his cue to resume reading, but his eyes won't focus on the words.

“Sei.” Shin's hand covers his on the bed between them, and their eyes meet when he glances sideways. “We won't let you down.”

He laughs, but it comes out weaker than he'd intended. “I know. These days, I'm more worried you'll die trying.”

“Hey.” Shin squeezes his hand. “I promised I'd always come back to you, remember?” He smiles, bright and optimistic as always. “I'm your sword, Sei, and I will not break… at least not until the unification is complete, and I see you crowned king of a united China with my own two eyes.”

“Not even then,” he finds himself saying. “Not before me.”

And even though it's the most ridiculous thing, Shin readily agrees, “Aye, we're gonna live long and create new legends together,” raising a fist into the air.

“Yes.” He sets the scroll aside and lies down as well, lifting his own fist to bump Shin's, then lacing their fingers as they let their hands fall.

“Even so, after tomorrow, it'll be a while till we see each other again, yeah?”

“Mm,” a while is fine — he's used to that. But this plan is so risky… even though he knows it's necessary, that it's the only way to achieve their dream, he can't help but feel like he's sending Shin and his friends to their deaths.

It must show on his face because the other says, “Don't write those two off either. They don't die easy. Mou Ten survived Kan Mei, remember? And that Ou Hon,” Shin frowns, annoyed, “He's like a cockroach that could live on sheer spite.”

He snorts. “You know that's not flattering?” Ah, no matter how grim the situation, Shin can always make him laugh.

“Hmph. Wasn't meant to be. Gods know what Mou Ten sees in that jerk.”

“Hah, you say that, but you care about him, don't you?” He's sure, by now, Shin sees them both as precious comrades.

“Argh, not you, too…” Shin grimaces. “Ten said the same thing.” In Mou Ten's case, much more, clearly. It's different from the bond he shares with Shin, but even in their brief interaction during the strategy meeting earlier, he can sense the palpable affection between them.

More importantly, Mou Ten is one that he sincerely hopes will survive the unification war. Ou Hon, he can tell, is mostly militarily inclined like Shin, but Mou Ten has the makings of a brilliant civil officer, and they will need plenty of those once the war is over.

“It's true. So that's Ou Hon and Mou Ten…” Shin talks about them a lot, but that was his first time meeting them in person, and “They really don't resemble their fathers much.”

“Right?! You never would've guessed, right? Especially Ten. Him, his dad and his granddad, they all look nothing alike, right?”

Sei laughs fondly at his friend's excitement. Honestly, the only ones who can bring him this much cheer are Shin and his children, and he wouldn't have one without the other.

He rolls onto his side to face Shin. “Thanks,” for everything, really, from helping him reclaim his throne to rescuing Kou and Rei, and in case he never gets to say it again, but mostly, “That optimism of yours is exactly what we need right now.”

“Sheesh.” Shin mirrors the move. “You and Mou Ten are starting to sound scarily alike.”

“Great minds. Speaking of which, though, it didn't seem like those two have the sort of relationship you mentioned.” They are obviously good friends, but Shin had said Mou Ten was in love with Ou Hon. Granted, such gossip is hardly the business of a king, but every so often, he needs a break from matters of state.

“Ah,” Shin is annoyed all over again, “Would you believe, that after all this time, —years, I tell you, years— that idiot still hasn't said anything?”

Aha. “Sure,” he believes it. “That makes sense. They seem like close friends. I can understand not wanting to ruin it. Same reason I didn't say anything until you did.”

“What, seriously?!” Shin's shock is rather amusing. “I wouldn't have stopped bein' your friend even if you'd blown me off that day.”

“You mean you'd have continued as normal?”

“Yeah, what else is there?”

“Shin— So you're saying that, say hypothetically,” or maybe not so hypothetically, since Sei is fairly certain there's at least some truth to it, “Ka Ryo Ten comes up to you and says she's in love with you—”

“The hell? She's like my li'l sister, man!”

“Right, so you'd turn her down?” Poor girl.

“'Course! That'd just be friggin' weird!”

“And then go right back to planning the next battle's strategy the next day?”

“Yeah, 'course. What else would we do?”

Sei cracks up — oh, he really does feel bad for Ka Ryo Ten, but this is… “As expected, Shin, you are one of a kind.”

“Oi, what's that supposed to mean?!”

He shakes his head, still laughing — Shin's indignation only makes it all funnier. “Just that almost no one else would or could.”

“Eh?!”

“I don't know about your friends, but I doubt Ka Ryo Ten or even I could immediately go on as normal. There would always be a bit of awkwardness like we can't pretend it never happened.”

“Hm…” Shin's brows furrow like he's thinking hard. “Well, what if you could pretend it never happened?”

“Hm? No, wait, whatever you're thinking—”

“Like what if you'd found out from someone else?”

Sei doesn't feel like he's qualified to be dispensing such advice, but he's also worried Shin will do something terrible and stupid.

“I imagine it depends on how each side feels, whether it's the same, whether it's acceptable, whether they can let go. Regardless, Shin,” and he needs to seriously impress this upon his friend, “it is not your decision to make.”

He watches Shin digest that and nod once, then shrug. “Eh, who knows? We're all gonna be stuck together in Zhao for a while. Maybe they'll have a breakthrough.”

He smiles, relieved to have averted disaster. “Indeed.”

They lean in as one, kissing and embracing with easy familiarity. He'd imagined, perhaps, that this might be urgent, desperate, final, but it's not. Instead, it's languid, tender, as if to savour every moment for the memories. It's exactly what he needs —reassurance that Shin's optimism isn't mere bravado— but his lover's always had a knack for knowing that. Shin holds him close like a cherished treasure, mouths at every inch of exposed skin, then finally—

Sei gasps, arching into the contact.

Shin hooks his legs over broad shoulders to venture deeper, and he'll never get used to this — it's like nothing and no one else.

“Hngh,” he moans, but it's a feint — Shin pulls back to trace a path to the tip with his tongue, and the obscenity of the sight alone makes his insides tighten. “Shin…”

The other smirks, “Heheh,” then sucks at the ridge, plays with his skin, and the sheer pleasure turns his limbs to jelly. He won't last —if he's honest, he rarely does when Shin is this determined— and every flick of tongue is driving him crazy.

“Y'know,” he hears distantly, “sometimes I imagine—” I—is he…? He clenches helplessly around the intrusion, but— “doin' this on the throne—” F—

His vision whites out. He must have screamed. Gods, he hopes no one heard.

“I take it that's a yes.” Shin is grinning, triumphant, and he can't even form coherent words. “A promise for when I get back then.”

“Outrageous,” he manages, struggling to catch his breath, but it doesn't take the other to point out “That's not a no.”

Instead of answering, he tugs Shin up for another kiss, tastes himself on the other's lips, laps up some stray drops on that sharp chin. "Give me a few minutes," he murmurs at last.

"As long as you need," comes the reply with a self-satisfied chuckle, and—

“On second thought,” he reaches for the bedside drawer and pours some oil onto his hand from the bottle there, then tugs Shin's leg over his hip, “that look on your face doesn't sit well with me.”

Shin only grins like everything is going his way and kisses him again, consciously relaxes as he strokes his way in. They've experimented quite a bit over the years — Shin would try anything at least once and isn't particular exactly how things go down. For his part, Sei has his moods — sometimes, he's content to let Shin lead as he pleases, but sometimes… sometimes, he wants finesse, wants to see his lover's desperate pleasure as he's brought to the edge again and again.

“Damn it, Sei…” Shin groans, voice rough, as he stops completely for the third time, and he smiles, peppering weathered skin with kisses. Every scar, every blemish is for him, he knows, for their dream, and some nights, he's afraid, one day, he won't even have a body to bury. Such is war, after all — that's why they have to end it.

“It's your fault you have to wait,” he points out coolly, and Shin grins.

“No regrets there.”

The other pecks him on the nose, then nips lightly at his neck, trailing up to an earlobe. He sighs, tilting his head to offer better access. He's ready now; they both are.

Moving in tandem, they shift into place, and Shin pulls him deeper, closer with strong arms and legs. “Mm, I like those eyes. Like you wanna burn me up and swallow me whole.”

Green eyes look up with open adoration, and Sei doesn't think he'll love anyone quite as deeply ever again. “I do,” he agrees as he starts moving, and Shin's breath hitches.

“Yeah,” he breathes, “Yeah. Sei.” Shin nips at his lower lip, and he obliges. This kiss is slow, deep, sensual — the way Shin's tongue caresses and tangles with his own seems at once so debauched yet so indescribably intimate; he almost forgets to stop in time. “Fuck,” Shin thunks his head back on the mattress, “I hate it when you're in this mood.”

Sei chuckles, a little breathless. “No, you don't.”

“Oh yeah, I do; depends how long you keep it up.”

He's had plenty of practice to master this, edging ever closer, and Shin always complains, but always allows it, sometimes even returns the favour. He rocks his hips again, just once, and his lover gasps, then swears again.

“Not too long,” he promises — with Shin clenching this hard around him, he won't last that much longer either.

Another thrust, and honestly, he's not sure which of them whimpers. He runs his thumbs along sharp cheekbones, makes Shin look at him, and green eyes are blown, almost fully black. Then Shin smirks.

“Hngh! Ch—ahh!”

They come as one, muffling their cries in each other's skin, and he draws out every last second of it. It's a bone-deep contentment as they cling on through the aftershocks, as the tingly hypersensitivity slowly fades away, and he presses their foreheads together.

“You cheated.”

“Nothing you haven't done before,” Shin retorts, grinning widely, and really, this is the kind of conversation he can't have with anyone else.

Shin makes him feel human —no one else would dare— and that's why… he hopes, at the end of this road, Shin will still be waiting for him. It'll be their sign that everything still makes sense, that he hasn't lost sight of why they're doing this through all the politics and bloodshed to come.

“Hmph.”

He rolls off and drags himself to clean up, tosses Shin a clean damp towel to do the same, and is surprised when the other quietly pads over to embrace him from behind and drop a kiss on his shoulder as they dispose of the towels in a basket.

“Y'know, there is a real reason I'm here, not that I'm sayin' that wasn't or anythin'…”

He glances back. “Hm?”

“General Ou Ki's glaive.”

In the beat that follows, he can hear the thud of his heart in his ears. “So it's finally time…”

“Aye, I think… finally, I'll be able to use it.” Shin tightens the embrace, resting his chin on Sei's shoulder. “And just in time, too. Time to take this fight back to Zhao and claim Ri Boku's head with it.”

He closes his eyes, leaning back and covering Shin's hands with his own. “Yes.” There's nothing left to do, but to strengthen their resolve and pray for success. “I'll bring it to you tomorrow.”

■□■□■□■

Mou Ten doesn't think anyone could be more relieved to make it out of that last battle than he is. Shin and Ou Hon, probably many of the others as well, may have grandiose dreams of dying gloriously on the battlefield. Not him. No, Mou Ten fully intends to see the peaceful world their king has promised with his own eyes if he can help it, a world in which he'll write some music, build some useful things, make some kids and grandkids — live long and prosper. Maybe that's why he's the one in a condition to be visiting other people.

When he opens the door, Ou Hon is glaring at it from where he's lying on the bed covered in medicine and bandages, as if daring an intruder to presume he wasn't fully capable of defending himself regardless.

“Oh, it's just you.” His friend relaxes as he sets the two bottles of medicinal wine he's carrying down on the table.

He smiles, pulling the nearby chair over to sit down beside the bed. “You seem to be recovering well.” Man, he thinks only Ou Hon could make bandages look good — they do nothing to hide the other's well-toned physique, and he's always loved seeing lustrous dark hair let down like this.

“Of course. I don't have time to be lying around in here.”

Ou Hon's handsome face is, as usual, the picture of fierce determination, as if he'd heal overnight through sheer willpower alone, and Mou Ten wants to say, “Don't overdo it,” since he can see how serious his friend's injuries are, but instead, he leans back and sighs, “All work and no play as always.”

Grey eyes snap to his. “I'd ask if that's why you chose that idiot, but… that's not really the case, is it?”

Wait, what? He sits up, tamps down on the stirrings of panic. “Wh—”

“When I mentioned your relationship with him, that idiot told me to talk to you,” Ou Hon clarifies calmly, “saying maybe I might, and I quote, understand the convoluted thinking of smart asses.”

Are y— Shin, I'm gonna kill you. I told y— Gods, Shin, at least warn a guy! To be fair, it was his choice to visit Ou Hon first, but Shin wasn't supposed to breathe a damn word in the first place!

“I can only conclude from this information that it is, in reality, merely a misguided ploy to get my attention.”

He's not surprised that it's all been figured out —Shin is a terrible liar, and Ou Hon has always been astute— but put that way, it sounds like his relationship with Shin is mere charade, and it isn't, never was. It isn't even purely physical — they may never have made each other any commitments, but he knows for certain that Shin cares deeply for him, and the feeling is mutual. It wasn't duty or strategy that had Shin searching frantically for him along with his men the night he fell off his horse, and the warmth and comfort he'd felt from that discreet kiss to the temple is completely genuine. Certainly, they both know whom they'd choose if it really came down to it, but that doesn't mean they don't treasure what they have. In truth, it'd be difficult— No, if he's perfectly honest, he doesn't want to let go.

Still, as far as motivations go, it's true “That's how it started.”

Those grey eyes bore into him with their signature intensity, unreadable. “But you came to love him?”

It'd be easy, Mou Ten thinks, to simply state the truth, but this is Ou Hon — he'll never get this chance again.

They drop away. “That's just like y—”

“Just because what I share with him isn't meaningless doesn't mean my feelings for you have changed!” It's now or never — time to play all his cards, but play them carefully. He covers the other's hand with his own. “Ou Hon, I have loved you ever since the first time you came with your father to my house and refused to put your spear practice on hold to play with me and the other kids until Grandpa told you football was a military training exercise. Even now, I'm still chasing the smile I saw that day, the first time you beat me at it. Although,” he huffs ruefully, looking at their hands, “since I've rarely seen it since, I must not be very successful.”

He opens his mouth to continue, but his friend beats him to words.

“All I have ever done and ever will do is keep moving forward, and I never wanted or needed any distractions,” Ou Hon says slowly, and well, Mou Ten doesn't know what he was expecting. It's Ou Hon — ‘distraction’ sounds about right.

“But I won't pretend I didn't enjoy them.”

He glances up to meet the other's gaze. “Eh?”

“Recently, I've considered that for those like us who face death every day, it's important to remember why we do this, what's important, why we must live,” Ou Hon continues, pensive. “And when I look back, the days I spent with you were always the most vivid. Ten,” the hand he's holding turns to grasp his own, and that usually commanding voice is surprisingly tender, “you never needed any foolish ploys. You've had my attention from the time you sneaked up on me while I was training to drop a crab in my clothes.”

Oh. All this time... It feels like he's choking up, so he laughs through it. “Really? You were so angry, you almost killed me, as I recall.”

“Mostly at myself for letting you get the jump on me. That said, if you try anything like it again, you won't be dodging my spear this time.”

“Heh,” he leans in to whisper, “the next time I get anything under your clothes, Hon, rest assured it won't be seafood, and dodging will be the last thing on my mind.”

Ou Hon responds by reeling him in, and the kiss is clumsy, but ardent — everything he's ever wanted, and he doesn't know how he ever thought he could give up on this. He kisses back like he's longed to for so long now, runs his fingers through the other's hair, and it's as soft as he always imagined. He can't wait to live out every other fantasy he's ever had now, but he can't be making those injuries worse.

“Guess that's another reason to get well sooner,” he murmurs over soft lips with a smile, pressing their foreheads together, and Ou Hon scoffs.

“That was always the plan.”

“Would it kill you to show some excitement for my sake?” he whines, and an arm hooks around his waist to pull him down to the bed.

“More like what you had in mind?”

“Mm.” He snuggles into the other's side, content. “Shin will never let me live this down. He always said I should just tell you, and it'd be fine.” Wait. Shin.

“So even idiots have their less daft moments.”

By all accounts, he hears his childhood friend wouldn't be alive if Shin hadn't rushed over or asked Kyou Kai to treat his wounds, but that's something best left unsaid. More importantly, will Ou Hon make him choose?

“Speaking of which, what do you plan to do?”

Ever to the point. He can't catch a break.

He sighs. “Well, it's simple. The real question is, what do you want me to do? As you've surmised, Shin has known everything from the start.”

“Mou Ten.” The unexpected severity of the other's tone has him sitting up, and the piercing grey eyes trained on him are stern. “Where is your conviction? If what you said earlier is true, then is what you have with him worth so little to you?”

He opens his mouth, but no words come, and Ou Hon crosses his arms disapprovingly.

“If you, who never gave up after all these years, would throw that away so easily, then you should never have dragged him into your nonsense.”

Oh. OH. If there's such a thing as being loved by the heavens, Mou Ten is sure that he is, can't even begin to count his blessings. He blinks to clear his vision, and a laugh bubbles up — he can't help it.

“As I thought, you actually care about him, don't you?”

“Don't be ridiculous, and don't change the subject.”

Mou Ten shakes his head, resolute. “No, there is a way for all of us to be happy. I'll find it, and it's going to work; I'm sure of it.”

“Hmph. That's better.” The corners of Ou Hon's mouth curl up in the hint of a smile. “Then go. Grasp the path to happiness that only you can see.”

He stands, “Yeah,” and stretches. Never mind the victory, this is like a new dawn on the best day of his life. “Need to bring him some of this medicinal wine anyway.” He picks up one of the bottles on the table and glances back. “You should drink some, too. They all but forced it down my throat while I was recovering from Kan Mei's strike.”

“Tomorrow,” Ou Hon replies with a pointed grimace at a nearby shelf littered with bottles, jars and boxes in all manner of shapes and sizes, ostensibly mostly from the Gyoku Hou unit. “If I take one more restorative pill, herb or tonic today, they'll be treating me for overdose instead.”

He chuckles as he opens the door. “It's a date then. I'll be back to drink with you tomorrow.”

The other grunts in assent, closing grey eyes and waving him away, and Mou Ten can barely keep the spring out of his step as he all but skips down the corridor to the room where Shin is being treated. A bunch of the Hi Shin guys are there when he opens the door, but despite the raucous laughter, Shin notices him immediately.

“Mou Ten!” comes the bright and energetic greeting — honestly, Shin doesn't even look like he needs to be in bed.

The others stand. “Well, guess we'll get goin' then,” says a man with an eyepatch — he recognizes him as one of Shin's sub-commanders.

“No, you don't have to leave.”

“Nah,” says one of the others, a tall man with a tattoo under his right eye and two ponytails, “we've been here a while, and we've got more visiting to do.”

“Ah,” that's true —the Hi Shin unit saw heavy casualties in this last battle, after all— but he's sure it's mostly to give them privacy anyway.

Shin waves them off, and he steps aside to let them pass before closing the door behind them.

“Augh, tell me that's not what I think it is,” Shin groans, obviously recognizing the bottle in his hands.

“Yep, sure is!” He grabs two cups from the nearby shelf and sits beside Shin on the bed to pour some out. “Need to return the favour, after all.”

Despite the clear apprehension on his face, Shin accepts the offered cup and clinks it against Mou Ten's before downing the contents. “Urgh, that taste has not improved.”

“Of course not. But now you're the one that needs it, so drink up, o' recuperating captain,” he teases, refilling only Shin's cup.

“Payback, huh? I see how it is.” Shin rolls his eyes, but obediently finishes the wine and lets Mou Ten pour him another cup. “So what's the good news? You seem happier than usual.”

“Heh.” Shin could sometimes be so perceptive. “You know, if that hadn't gone as well as it had, Shin, you'd be dead meat right now.”

“Wh—” A beat, and it clicks. “Aha! So you and Ou Hon…?”

He grins, nodding excitedly, and Shin lets out something between a laugh and a cheer. “See? Told you it'd be just fine,” punctuated by a friendly punch to the shoulder. “And you guys call me an idiot.”

He laughs along. “That's exactly what makes you able to stay true to your feelings. Us— What's that word you used, 'smart asses'? We're always thinking too hard about everything.”

Shin frowns, arms crossed. “Gah, I can't tell if you're praisin' or insultin' me.”

“Good, that's a useful skill.” He refills Shin's empty cup again. “You should learn it, too.”

“Nah,” the other knocks the wine back like he's trying to get it over with as quickly as possible — probably is, “sounds like the sorta skill that gets you in trouble.”

“Hee, Gramps used to say the same thing.”

As soon as the words leave his mouth, the mood turns sombre, and he regrets it, doesn't know if he's ready.

“Hey. I— I heard about what happened. I—”

“Don't.” Shit, he'd thought he was done crying. His fingers tighten on the bottle, and he puts the stopper back in, sets it down before he spills or drops or breaks it. “Just—”

Shin pulls him into a hug, and he sobs, burying his face in his friend's shoulder.

“He raised you, didn't he? I'm sorry. I'm sorry. That monster, he came for me, and—”

“No,” he interjects sharply, firmly, shaking his head. “It's war. It's just war. That's how it is. If not today, then tomorrow. If not this battle, then the next. We chose this life.” Hell, Gramps had been overjoyed when he took to battle, dismayed when he said he'd rather have been a civil officer. Gramps wouldn't have had it any other way. “Don't apologize.”

Shin tightens the embrace, and he does the same. “Yeah. Yeah, that's why we've gotta end it. You, me, Sei and Ou Hon, yeah? So no one has to go through this again. We're gonna end this together. With everyone's help, together.”

He nods. You, me, Sei and Ou Hon… “Yes, together; that's exactly what I came here to talk about.”

“Eh?”

“Well, not the war,” he clarifies as he straightens, letting go and wiping his eyes. “Gods, your shoulder is too comfortable, Shin. You can't let me get used to this.”

The other huffs in fond exasperation. “Leave the emotional constipation to Ou Hon, Ten. You're best exactly as you are.”

He smiles — yes, this is why he's here, why he always will be. “Listen, I—” He pauses to gather his thoughts, takes a deep breath, at once to stall and to calm himself. “I believe that everyone needs all kinds of different things in life, and there's no such thing as someone who can be all things to any one person. That's why… just as what I share with Ou Hon is special, and what you share with the king is irreplaceable, I feel that what we share is special and irreplaceable, too, so…”

“Uh-huh, that's obvious, ain't it?” Shin deadpans, and he smacks the nearest spot.

“Ow!” Oops, there was a bandage there — bad reflex.

“You're hopeless at reading the mood!”

“Yeah, yeah…” Shin shakes his head. “Seriously, you guys always gotta overcomplicate everything. What you're sayin' is, nothin's gonna change, right?”

He exhales, something between a sigh and a laugh. I guess it really is that simple. “Well, I'd like that. I'd really like that. And in case you're wondering, Ou Hon's the one who brought it up.” He grins, teasing. “Told you when push came to shove, you'd die for each other.”

“Ugh.” Shin makes a face like he's about to throw up, and Mou Ten dissolves into giggles. Someday, he tells himself, someday, he'll get those two to admit they are the great friends they are and stop being silly. But in the meantime…

Shin flicks him between the eyes. “Idiot. Didja really have to ask?”

Mou Ten's smile brightens — this really is the best day of his life. “No, I guess not.”

“Good. Then open that back up,” Shin waves at the bottle of wine, “and tell me all about your duel with Ba Nan Ji 'cause I heard it was awesome!”

“Who's been exaggerating?” He rolls his eyes, pouring them each a cup of the wine this time and shifting so they're sitting side by side. “It hardly counts as a duel.”

“I don't care. Spill.” Shin clinks their cups together, overly enthusiastic. “Let me be the judge of that.”

“Oh, fine, fine.” He drains his cup along with Shin, looking out the window at the sunny blue sky, and as he settles into Shin's side to tell the story, Watch over me, Gramps, Grandpa, he offers to the heavens. You don't have to worry anymore. I'll be fine; I'm happy now. It's a happiness he never dreamed he could have, especially not in these turbulent times, but that's why he's going to make the very most of it. Everything is going to be just fine.