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a hurricane in all kinds of weather

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In retrospect, Yibo should have guessed exactly what was in the package once he saw the Rigellian seal. But he’s been awake for two days preparing for the Orion League conference, and after staring dry-eyed at protocol proposals all evening he’s just not thinking when he slides the stack of mail over to his head guardian without looking up and says, offering a silver letter opener crowned with the imperial lion, “Open this junk for me, will you?”

Opening the mail isn’t even remotely in Xiao Zhan’s job description, but he doesn’t complain. He never complains, just gives Yibo looks in varying degrees of silent challenge and chilly reproof, which Yibo ignores like he did the glares and sighs from the previous head guardian. He’d worked for both Yibo’s father and grandmother before he retired, and he wasn’t even that old. Most people in the palace of Yuehua have short if exciting lives, and Te Xing had left to enjoy more of his before Yibo’s coronation was even finished.

“No guard has ever served through three monarchs and I won’t be the first,” he said, handing over his formal sash. He added, with an ominous lift of his heavy brows, “You’re not the youngest emperor we’ve had, but you’ll either get both of us killed by the end of the year or rule for the next hundred.”

That was three years ago, and so far Yibo is banking on the latter, if only because he doesn’t have the time to start wars or any of the other things that usually end imperial reigns. For such a dangerous job, being the emperor of Yuehua is remarkably thankless, full of tedious duties and without nearly enough staff. Which is why Yibo is totally consumed by yet another request for seating changes as Xiao Zhan slits open the small, flat package from the Rigel system and sends iridescent pink powder spilling all over himself.

“What—?” Xiao Zhan says, before his face crumples in the rictus of a sneeze.

The powder goes everywhere, covering the rest of the imperial correspondence and some of the conference papers in close range. Yibo is already up and and scrambling away, his body processing the threat before his mind does as the pink cloud rolls across the table. Xiao Zhan sneezes again and looks over at Yibo, rubbing his nose.

“Admirer of yours?” he asks, nasally, and reaches to flip over the package. “From, uh, Rigel?”

The instant he says it, Yibo can see understanding flash across his face, right before another sneeze does. Yibo takes a step back, holding his hands up in an instinctive shield against the fresh flurry of pink sparkles flying up from the desk. When Xiao Zhan recovers he does the same, rising from his seat and backing away.

“Your Majesty,” he says, urgent and serious. “You need to leave at once.”

“You need help,” Yibo says, leaning in unconsciously.

“Stay back!” Xiao Zhan snaps. His face scrunches up like he’s going to sneeze again, but he holds it back with what must be an enormous effort. “You shouldn’t be in here. You could breathe it in.”

Yibo shoves his hand up his sleeve and emerges with one of the billowy cambric handkerchiefs his dresser insists on keeping in there, even though Yibo never remembers to use them. He flips it in half and ties it quickly around his face as a makeshift mask. “I’m fine. You’re not.”

“I am fine,” Xiao Zhan says, though it looks like he’s trying to choke back another sneeze.

“You won’t be. Rigellian amatory starts acting the moment it enters your lungs. Can’t you feel it?”

Xiao Zhan doesn’t answer, but there’s already a creeping flush from his throat up to his cheeks, and his eyes have gone wide and glassy. Yibo’s never seen anyone poisoned with amatory in person, but his old tutor drilled him endlessly on the effects of this and the other known bioweapons of Yuehua’s enemies. First the flush and blurred sight, then the dizziness and cognitive impairments, and finally—

“I’m fine,” Xiao Zhan repeats, but he’s already slurring his words, and he barely manages to sit down in the chair before he collapses, tearing at the brass buttons that fasten his long, crimson imperial guardian jacket up to the high collar. It reveals the skin of his throat and chest, already turning the same shade as his coat, and he gasps as he does it, his mouth hanging open.

“You need,” Yibo says, and stops.

They both know what he needs. Orgasms, several of them, and skin to skin contact with another person. Contact that will start something neither of them can stop.

It shouldn’t be Yibo, for so many reasons. He knows that. But he doesn’t look away, as he comes around the table to his head guardian’s side.

“Your Majesty,” Xiao Zhan wheezes. His color is so high, and he arches back in the chair, hips rising, even as he raises his hands in protest. “You can’t—”

Yibo stops behind Xiao Zhan’s chair, then drags it bodily away from the powder covering the table. There’s a worn couch in the corner of his study, where he sometimes grabs a few hours of sleep between dull meetings and duller state events, and he guides Xiao Zhan up and onto it. Xiao Zhan lets his head fall back, stretching his long legs across the floor and breathing hard, one hand gripping the carved wooden armrest until his knuckles turn white. When Yibo sits down next to him, he turns his head, still wheezing.

“Your Majesty, you can’t,” Xiao Zhan whispers, with what seems like the last of his strength. He’s already leaning in, though, his eyes falling almost shut.

Yibo has never seen Xiao Zhan like this before, ever. In the three years since he became head guardian, transferred from a detail superintending one of the lower palaces, Xiao Zhan has always been impeccable and implacable; sometimes Yibo senses the sly good humor behind his composed expression, but it only rarely shines through. His buttons are polished and his uniform immaculate, saber and blast pistol at the ready, and his every thought seems devoted to the task of supporting and protecting Yibo, with that practiced, detached gaze. His upright bearing has been a steady presence in Yibo’s life, never intruding but always exactly where he needs to be.

And now he’s gasping up at Yibo, his eyes hazy and his smooth hair in disarray across his forehead. His whole face glistens with sweat, and it should be unappealing but it only adds an ethereal glow to his handsome features. His fine hand is grasping the open lapel of his jacket, long fingers closing and unclosing on the thick hem as he pulls it open wider, and his tongue darts out, swiping over the rosy dent of his upper lip.

Yibo has—looked, before. Only in passing, when he’s been suddenly struck by Xiao Zhan’s elegant features or his quick and graceful movement, imagining being more intimate with him. Yibo’s never lingered on the thought, but he’s still a young man and for the most part he leads a solitary life. The imperial throne is not nearly as glamorous as it appears, and Xiao Zhan is one of the few people he can ever feel truly comfortable around.

He’s thought about Xiao Zhan before. But has he ever truly thought about this?

There’s no time to worry about that now, though. Xiao Zhan’s breaths grow more labored, like he’s drawing them through a swollen throat, and Yibo can’t sit by and watch this happen to him. No matter what the cost is to them after.

He pulls the handkerchief from his mouth and tosses it aside, reaching forward to put his hands on Xiao Zhan’s shoulders. He feels them tense beneath his palms, one last burst of resistance, and Xiao Zhan relaxes, eyes closing entirely. Yibo comes closer, until their foreheads are touching, and says, low, “I’m going to do this for you, to save your life. All right?”

Another difficult breath, and then Xiao Zhan nods against him.

Yibo doesn’t quite know where to begin. He wants to help, but all he can think is that Xiao Zhan needs to be the one to decide. Surely the amatory working in his veins will make this easy for both of them, demanding action.

He strokes Xiao Zhan’s neck with his thumb, trying to be reassuring. “What do you want?” he asks, but that sounds wrong. This isn’t about wanting. “Or—what do you need?”

“I need,” Xiao Zhan says, and then clears his throat. When he speaks it’s in a whisper Yibo can barely hear. “Help me undress. I need to feel...”

He trails off, not finishing, turning his head away. His face is still so flushed but Yibo swears it flushes even brighter. He can feel the blood pounding in his own head, heat rising on the back of his neck, but he nods, reaching for Xiao Zhan’s coat to finish unbuttoning it and push it off his shoulders. Xiao Zhan groans at the contact, arching his back off the couch to help, as Yibo drags the thick wool down his arms. Beneath it he’s only wearing a white undershirt of synthetic silk, low-necked and thin. Yibo lays his palm over Xiao Zhan’s chest, feeling his racing heartbeat, and Xiao Zhan groans again, closed eyelids fluttering.

“This too?” Yibo asks. He thinks his voice is steady.

“All of it,” Xiao Zhan whispers.

He sounds pained, and Yibo needs to get on with this more briskly, get over his own hesitation. The sooner it’s done the sooner Xiao Zhan will begin to recover and they can put this behind them, moving onto what’s next.

Yibo gets to his feet, reaching for the hem of Xiao Zhan’s undershirt and pulling it up and over his head. Xiao Zhan raises his arms weakly, and Yibo tries not to look at his body as it’s bared: lean arms hard with muscle, the trail of hair down his chest that disappears beneath his waistband, the little roll of flesh at his middle. He feels a flash of tenderness, seeing the evidence of Xiao Zhan’s hard training and fondness for the imperial pastry chef’s desserts, and then he puts it aside. He shouldn’t be thinking about these things he’s discovering about his loyal guardian, not when Xiao Zhan is half out of his mind. This is necessary, not a dalliance by choice.

He realizes he should be undressing as well, if only to even things out. Yibo yanks down the diagonal zipper hidden in the cascading folds of his shimmering peach blouse and quickly shrugs out of it, leaving it on the floor. His position demands a certain level of formal attire, but at least he can make sure it’s easy to undress on his own, unlike the stiff, complicated outfits he was always forced into as crown prince.

Once he’s shirtless, Yibo doesn’t hesitate. He kicks off his high-heeled boots and shimmies down his navy leggings, leaving himself unclothed. He doesn’t know how with it Xiao Zhan is at this point, but he hopes it’s a comfort to see that Yibo’s all the way on board.

He kneels down in front of Xiao Zhan, reaching to undo his uniform trousers. It’s a double row of buttons like the coat, and Yibo has to lean up right between Xiao Zhan’s legs, where he can’t ignore the most obvious effect of the amatory. Xiao Zhan’s erection strains against his trousers, making undoing them even more difficult, but Yibo manages it at last.

One more moment of hesitation, and then he looks up at Xiao Zhan’s face, slack and breathing hard above his quickly-rising chest. “I’m going to take everything off now, OK?”

Please,” Xiao Zhan says, his voice suddenly stronger than a whisper. Yibo can hear the rough need in it, and he does what Xiao Zhan says.

Down come the trousers, and with them the standard-issue black military briefs. Yibo has to pull hard to get off his tall, shiny boots, but finally the whole uniform is on the floor and Xiao Zhan is fully undressed above him. Yibo can’t stop a last, wild, roving glance, and then he pulls himself together, focusing on what’s in front of him.

It seems terrible, backwards and invasive, but the only thing he should be thinking about right now is Xiao Zhan’s cock.

That’s what he’d want if their positions were reversed, Yibo thinks, only half-sure that’s the truth. But it must be what Xiao Zhan wants, to get this over as soon as possible, efficient and unshrinking. That’s how Yibo’s striven to be his entire reign, confident with the hard work to back it up, and that’s how he has to be now.

Still. He can’t help stroking Xiao Zhan’s thighs as he lays his hands on them, trying to infuse this with some kind of intimacy, an acknowledgement that it isn’t just a meaningless task. Yibo, Emperor of Yuehua, wouldn’t do this for just anyone.

Xiao Zhan’s whole body goes rigid when Yibo’s mouth touches his cock, jerking upright. “Your Majesty!” he says, and there’s more of his usual self in it. “You can’t—it’ll infect you too.”

“That’s going to happen anyway,” Yibo says. He tries to make it sound calm and accepting, rather than grimly determined. “But if you don’t want me to do this...”

Xiao Zhan lets out a strangled noise, between a harsh laugh and an urgent moan. “Gods. I want—” He shudders all over, giving out a trembling moan, and Yibo suddenly remembers the worst part of the amatory, the fiery nerve pain that doesn’t recede until treatment begins.

“Let me,” Yibo says softly, and this time when he bends his head Xiao Zhan doesn’t stop him.

The soft noise Xiao Zhan makes when Yibo touches him again sends is desperate and pained, and Yibo is chagrined to find how much it turns him on. He doesn’t think about why this is where he chose to start; he was on his knees already and Xiao Zhan needed immediate relief. It’s easy, mindless, to bob his head with his jaw slack and his lips tight, licking over the sensitive place beneath the head. He’s doing this because he has to, he tells himself. Xiao Zhan’s moans are louder and less pained with every stroke, his hips shifting and restless, but Yibo’s not arrogant enough to take it as praise. Xiao Zhan’s so far gone now he needs anything, anybody.

Xiao Zhan groans hard, through gritted teeth. His hands clench and unclench, wrapping around Yibo’s hands on his thighs like he really wants to be holding Yibo’s head, pulling his hair. “Yes, right there, right like that.”

Yibo keeps doing what he’s doing, focused and hard. He likes the direction, even as it borders on insubordination. It helps him not think about what he’s doing, this shocking intimacy between them, learning how Xiao Zhan tastes and what he sounds like when—

Fuck,” Xiao Zhan says, explosively, and his nails bite into Yibo’s wrists, hips arching up as he spills in Yibo’s mouth. Yibo swallows, a little desperate, trying to keep himself calm. He didn’t expect it this fast, but he’s relieved for Xiao Zhan’s sake, even as it propels them into what happens next.

Yibo sits up, his head ringing. The amatory will have worked its way through Xiao Zhan’s system by now, which means it’s about to enter his. There’s only a little while left before neither of them will be able to make rational choices or think straight.

He gets up on his knees, so he’s closer to Xiao Zhan’s eye level, and puts his hands on his shoulders. Xiao Zhan opens his eyes, looking a little clearer and less dazed now.

“It’s going to affect me too in a moment,” Yibo says, as steadily as he can. There’s already a little wheeze to his breath, his vision blurring, and he can feel a dull throbbing between his legs, blood rushing down. “So before that happens—how do you want to do this?”

The orgasm may have taken the edge off the toxin in his system, but Xiao Zhan still looks just as aroused and abandoned as he leans down, gaze dark, and cups Yibo’s face. He bites his own lower lip, and a surge of lust like nothing Yibo’s ever felt before pierces through him. He’s never imagined Xiao Zhan staring at him like this, open and unguarded, his eyes so full of naked desire.

“Come ride me, Your Majesty,” Xiao Zhan says, husky, and then crushes their mouths together in a kiss.

It seems like that’s the key that unlocks the amatory racing through Yibo’s veins, because he leans into the kiss with everything he has, suddenly needing the contact like air. Hot, fierce longing flows like a torrent of lava, sweeping away all other thoughts, and he surges up, kissing back hard. For a moment he loses all sense of who he’s with, what their naked bodies are doing, just seeking skin and heat and sweet, sweet pleasure. Then there are hands on his hips, dragging him forward, and he remembers it’s Xiao Zhan touching him and kissing him, Xiao Zhan breaking away to breathe, “Come here, please, now.”

Yibo’s chest goes tight, hearing the roughness in his voice. Xiao Zhan, always so composed and controlled, needing this so badly. All the times Yibo’s looked at him, has he ever been looking back?

Surely not, Yibo thinks, as he climbs into Xiao Zhan’s lap in a tangle of arms and legs, bodies rocking together. He can already feel the demanding pulse of arousal as the amatory takes over, the way it’s leaving him lust-fuzzed, stupid with desire. That’s why Xiao Zhan is looking up at him like this, as they tumble back on the couch with Yibo astride Xiao Zhan’s hips, thighs clutched around all that warm, bare skin. It’s the drug that’s making them both want this so much it hurts, like a throbbing bee sting in every part of his body. Yibo lifts up onto his knees, trying to fit their bodies together, and Xiao Zhan actually snarls at him, fingers biting into his hips savagely.

“Just wait,” Yibo gasps, and he hasn’t heard himself like this in years, desperate and out of control. He slaps at Xiao Zhan’s hand and reaches down to find his cock, already hard again. “Just let me—ah.”

He finds the right place, and, in his overwhelmed haste to get Xiao Zhan inside of him, forgets it can’t be this easy. But it is, because the amatory was made first for recreation and only later as a weapon. Yibo knew this, but he’s still shocked to find himself slick and relaxed inside, giving way smoothly as he moves down.

And then Yibo isn’t anything at all, just pure white noise as he comes in one sudden blinding rush. The relief that follows is almost as overwhelming, and he lets his head drop back, gasping for air that seems clearer and fresher than before, like waking up from a bad dream. The pain recedes, and tears slip from beneath his closed lids. It’s over.

And then it returns.

The ache rushes in again like a tide at springs, so deep it makes his bones ache. Yibo snaps upright with a gasp and then falls forward, planting his hands flat against Xiao Zhan’s chest. The sudden weight makes Xiao Zhan groan beneath him, and Yibo meets his fierce gaze, feeling like they’re on even ground at last. The desire is feral, unrestrained, overcoming all thought.

“Your Majesty,” Xiao Zhan says, breathing hard through clenched teeth.

“Let me,” Yibo says, and through the hot haze of pain and lust, he makes himself sound like the emperor he is.

He rides Xiao Zhan, hard. Hips rising and slapping back down, pushing himself onto Xiao Zhan’s cock. There’s a raw burn every time, his body protesting even with the aid of the drug, but it’s nothing compared to the agony of need running like flames along every nerve. Xiao Zhan holds Yibo’s waist tight, his eyes glassy with pain and desire. Yibo catches his gaze and looks away before looking back again, determined. They’re in this together.

“Oh fuck, oh fuck,” Xiao Zhan breathes, like he doesn’t know he’s saying it. His mouth falls open and his eyelids flutter, eyes rolling back. “Come on, come on.”

Yibo goes harder, faster. Xiao Zhan moans, low at first and then rising sharply into a high keen, and his grip goes tight and bruising again as he comes, his whole body convulsing up. Yibo keeps going as long as he can and then stops with a gasp, reaching down to fist his own cock. He’s so sensitive it hurts to touch, hot and swollen in his hand, but he jerks himself with abandon, pained little breaths punched out of his chest with every stroke. He squeezes his eyes shut, arching back, and comes with a shout, the relief of ecstasy mixed with a fiery burn.

The only sound is their gasping breath. Yibo feels Xiao Zhan’s chest heaving and expanding against his thighs, the cool snow peace of the retreating toxin, and he hopes—he hopes—

It returns.

“Fuck,” Xiao Zhan says, his head turned away and his arm flung over his eyes. Yibo can already feel him getting hard again. He lets out a sound that’s almost a sob, his hand tightening on Yibo’s hip.

“One more time,” Yibo says. It might be more than that, but he tries to sound confident and sure. “If we make it really good...”

Xiao Zhan groans again, nodding, and then he moves his arm off his face and sits up, his hands sliding beneath Yibo’s ass. In one smooth, startling move he stands, lifting them both with just the strength of his legs. Yibo lets out a surprised yelp and grabs hold of Xiao Zhan’s shoulders as he turns to slam Yibo against the wall, pinning him there.

Yibo hardly has time to gasp “shit” before Xiao Zhan is kissing him again, but it’s not like he wants to fight it. Yibo digs his hands into Xiao Zhan’s thick hair, pulling hard, and kisses back as Xiao Zhan begins to rock into him. It’s a rough, messy kiss, teeth catching until there’s the tang of blood mixed with spit, and if Yibo’s sore then Xiao Zhan must be too but neither of them can stop. The pulsing hot need stings through them, keeping pace with the pleasure until it all feels the same. Yibo feels like their bodies are the same too, every sensation mingled. The frantic, plush kisses, the firm thrust and drag of Xiao Zhan’s cock inside him, the strain of holding themselves up together. Yibo gasps in a strangled breath, not sure which one of them he’s breathing for.

Xiao Zhan is cursing against his mouth now, hips pounding short and staccato, and the heavy force of it sends Yibo over the edge. He comes so hard his whole body seizes up, leaving him too wrecked to do more than moan once as he rides it out. He’s only half-conscious as Xiao Zhan comes, his teeth in Yibo’s shoulder, and then staggers away from the wall, crashing back onto the couch with Yibo on top of him again.

Their heads are at the end with no pillow now, Yibo thinks stupidly. His face is buried in Xiao Zhan’s neck and he’s drooling everywhere, down his own chin too. Xiao Zhan has one hand on Yibo’s back, the other dangling to the floor. They’re panting, fever-hot, but when the receding pain reverses course it’s different from before, a needling irritation instead of a crushing demand.

“One more time,” Yibo says hoarsely, into Xiao Zhan’s neck, and pushes himself up.

He grits his teeth as he rides Xiao Zhan this time, feeling the rub of his knees against the rough fabric of the couch cushions, the ache in his hips. He’s so slick and swollen inside he can hardly feel anything good, just the satisfaction of the amatory’s need for him to be touching someone. He reaches for his cock again, wincing at the touch, and begins to pull at it in time with his movements, trying to finish them both once more.

Xiao Zhan keeps his eyes shut, but his face is so beautiful, delicately glowing even after everything, and Yibo can’t look away. It makes his blood race again, looking at Xiao Zhan’s kiss-flushed lips, and he jerks himself harder, his breath catching in a moan. He’s never felt like this before, looking at Xiao Zhan, and it must be the amatory but he doesn’t want to stop.

“Yibo,” Xiao Zhan murmurs, his face turned away, and Yibo feels so hot he can’t stand it. It’s the drug, he knows it’s only the drug, but no one’s called him by just his first name since his parents died and to hear it now is shattering. He strokes his cock so hard and fast that it’s agony, slick little noises coming from beneath his hand, and his last orgasm is like a knife through him, gutting and sharp and leaving him wide open, hollowed-out and exposed.

Yibo wants nothing more than to collapse, letting the last traces of the amatory sweat out his pores, but he owes Xiao Zhan more than that. He braces one hand on the back of the couch, the other behind him on Xiao Zhan’s thigh, and puts his back into it, riding him hard. Xiao Zhan lets out a whimper and reaches for Yibo, pulling him down onto his cock, not fighting his pace but working with him as his own hips rise up. He bites at his lips, face contorted in the same painful ecstasy Yibo just felt, and finally comes on a long, stuttered groan, his mouth making a gorgeous rosy O, as he gives himself up to it.

It’s over. The relief is indescribable, like a high fever breaking or a wild storm passing over, but Yibo feels irrevocably changed, like this is only the beginning. He’s sore and sticky everywhere, but all he can think about is their hands tangled together on his hip, sweaty but gripping tight.

There’s no way through this that isn’t awkward. He knows his duty here. Yibo squeezes Xiao Zhan’s hand once and then lets go, and Xiao Zhan opens his eyes at last.

“How are you feeling?” Yibo asks. His voice sounds as wrecked as he feels.

Xiao Zhan’s eyes are soft and bright, with an intimate expression Yibo’s never seen in them. “I’ll live,” he says, with a soft laugh.

Then he blinks, looking surprised, and his face shutters down, like he’s forgotten himself. “Thanks to you, Your Majesty,” he adds, stiffly, as if to make up for before.

Yibo wants to laugh, more bitter than soft, because Xiao Zhan using his personal name wasn’t the biggest transgression that happened here tonight. Instead he says, “Good,” and gets up on his knees, moving off the couch. It brings a rush of wet heat down his inner thighs, but Yibo just straightens up on unsteady legs and reaches for Xiao Zhan’s discarded clothes to toss them over. He finds his own, pulling on the leggings and zipping up the blouse, knowing they’ll have to be washed or just thrown away later. Laundry is the least of his concerns right now.

When he turns around again Xiao Zhan is standing behind him, trousers on and crimson coat partly buttoned, still showing a glimpse of white undershirt and his long lean neck. His face is composed and expectant, like he’s waiting for a command. Those are their usual roles, but Yibo feels suddenly shaky and exhausted, having this responsibility on top of everything else.

Without warning one of his knees gives way, and Xiao Zhan reaches out to catch him, a hand at the small of Yibo’s back. It brings them close, and Yibo feels an echo of that hot, needy ache tearing through him. Xiao Zhan seems to feel it too, his nostrils flaring and eyes widening, before he masters his expression again.

“Your Majesty?” he asks, setting that title between them. Putting them in their places: the loyal guardian and the emperor in charge of everything.

Yibo straightens up and takes a step away, his legs stronger beneath him now. “Take the next three days off,” he says, brusquely. He catches himself and softens his tone, trying to quell the panic. “If we separate ourselves now, then maybe it won’t take.”

They both know it will. Yibo can feel it already. Xiao Zhan just looks at him.

“I’ll need you back for the conference,” Yibo says, straightening his shoulders. “You can coordinate with your staff on leave until then?”

“Of course,” Xiao Zhan says. “Whatever you need, Your Majesty.”

He’s speaking in his usual calm voice, and now Yibo feels a rush of gratitude for it. His imperial duties are so heavy, and he’s always depended on Xiao Zhan for this kind of steady support, carrying out whatever needs to be done. After what just happened, Yibo has to act like everything is still normal, like he didn’t just impulsively make one of the worst decisions of his life, let alone his imperial reign.

Maybe it won’t take.

Yibo starts to cross the room, thinking he’ll take the rest of the correspondence with him. He stops, though, seeing the pink powder still spilled across the table.

“I’ll get the cleaning staff on the com,” Xiao Zhan says, anticipating his thoughts. “You should rest. I’ll have them send up these papers once they’re decontaminated.”

He touches the speaker panel on the wall, and as Yibo goes to the study door he hears Xiao Zhan giving directions with that pleasant but unshakable air of command: “Yes, get the biohazard team here immediately. Wake them up if you have to, and for fuck’s sake don’t let anyone in here without a mask.”

Yibo pauses with his hand on the door sensor, waiting. Xiao Zhan turns, probably expecting further orders, but Yibo only watches as he sets his jaw and says, “No. The emperor and I were unaffected.”

The secret is theirs alone, then. Yibo nods at him in approval and goes out into the hall, where he summons the first guard he sees. She doesn’t ask where his usual escort is, just accompanies him to the door of the imperial bedchamber, calling for backup as it seals shut behind him.

Once he’s alone, Yibo lets his mind drift into careful blankness. He strips off his clothes and drops them in the incinerator chute, not bothering with laundry, and then runs a brutally hot shower. For many reasons, he doesn’t keep the personal staff his father did, and he’s grateful for the privacy as he scrubs away the evidence of the last hour, finding marks all over his body. Heavy bruising at his hips, unmistakably fingertip-shaped, and the redness of stubble burn over his chin and throat. He’ll be wearing high-necked shirts for a few days.

Yibo shuts off the water, dries himself in the ionic heater, and gets into bed. The synth silk sheets feel good against his bare skin, and he dims the lights a little with a gesture command, just enough so they’re not shining in his eyes. Another gesture brings up soft music and white noise, even though he can already feel the heavy exhaustion pulling at him. Tonight he won’t need any of his usual sleep aids.

The correspondence was left unfinished, and the seating charts are still a mess, and there are a hundred other details to worry about before the conference begins, but Yibo isn’t thinking about any of those. He’s thinking about nothing instead, very determinedly, and he mostly succeeds except for right before he drifts off into sleep, when he remembers Xiao Zhan saying his name.

*****

The seating charts get finished, and all the other tedious details of the conference are either resolved or ignored. Yibo gets through the first morning of stultifying opening ceremonies without a hitch until he walks by Xiao Zhan on the dais when they break for the lunch recess, and less than two minutes later they’re making out in a broom closet.

It’s not really making out, and not technically a broom closet either. Mostly self-powered vacuums, and there might be some mops in here too. Yibo didn’t get a good look before Xiao Zhan slapped his hand on the lighting panel and plunged them into darkness, after which he pushed Yibo against the door and started devouring his mouth.

Yibo is doing his fair share of the devouring. He’s got one knee shoved between Xiao Zhan’s thighs, right up against his balls, and if Xiao Zhan is kissing him so hard there’s no space for breath, Yibo wouldn’t let him pull away anyhow. Yibo gives as good as he gets, hand clamped tight on the back of Xiao Zhan’s neck, the only thing that comes close to satisfying the hot, mindless ache that flared up the instant they got near to each other.

They’re so fucked.

Yibo really thought, for the last three days, that they might get away with it. He’s felt the same as always, in addition to being consumed with anxiety over this stupid conference, and maybe they worked through it that first night, coming in so hard and fast. Xiao Zhan took his leave, and when Yibo saw him again it was across the big formal reception chamber, crammed with leaders and diplomats from all over the Orion League. Yibo didn’t feel anything then, and it fooled him into thinking he wouldn’t feel anything at all.

And now—this. Right back where they started, with the same fiery nerve pain driving them into each other’s arms even though the amatory has long since left their systems, because this is how it was designed to work. Binding them to each other, creating an immune response so their bodies generate the neurotoxins on their own whenever they get too close, a reaction that will take weeks to fade away. Something that was no doubt intended to humiliate Yibo at best and incapacitate him at worst, sabotaging the whole conference.

He should care about that, and that the likely saboteur is out there in the reception chamber, but right now all he cares about is getting off as fast as he possibly can.

“I’m sorry, Your Majesty,” Xiao Zhan gasps, tearing away for a brief, horrible moment. “I shouldn’t be—” He sounds apologetic about how he’s crushing Yibo back against the door, which might mean he’s about to pull away altogether, and Yibo grabs the thick lapels of his coat, dropping their foreheads together.

“It took,” Yibo says, low and flat.

“What do you want me to do, Your Majesty?” Xiao Zhan asks, his voice raspy.

Yibo still has it together enough to know he can’t say fuck me senseless, but kissing isn’t getting them anywhere either. Yibo’s lost track of time in here but the lunch recess can’t be much longer.

“Blow me,” he says.

Xiao Zhan nods. “Right. Then we’ll know if once is enough.”

He slides to his knees, leaving Yibo with the awful question of what happens if once isn’t enough.

Xiao Zhan has Yibo’s long, billowing blue skirts hiked up in a moment, and then Yibo has to bite his own hand so hard it hurts to keep himself quiet. They should have just done this last time instead of fucking, he thinks, but then he’d have to live with the devastating knowledge of how hot and tight Xiao Zhan’s mouth is, and how good he is with his tongue, aggressive and efficient as he sucks Yibo off. The ache intensifies, building to a peak, and Yibo reaches down for a handful of Xiao Zhan’s thick, silky hair. He must pull harder than he means to, trying to anchor himself in the torrent of intense sensation, pain-pleasure and the heart-pounding anxiety of how this will all resolve, because Xiao Zhan groans around his cock and tilts his head so Yibo’s tugging even harder now.

Does Xiao Zhan like having his hair pulled? Does he like having Yibo’s cock pushed into his throat? Or does he just like the evidence of what he’s doing to Yibo?

The thought sends a bolt of confused ecstasy right through Yibo, and then he’s coming, spurting violently in Xiao Zhan’s mouth. He still has a grip on Xiao Zhan’s hair, so it must seem like he’s holding him there, like he meant to that, but Xiao Zhan doesn’t complain, just keeps swallowing until he finishes.

Yibo can’t stand after, and he doesn’t try. He lets himself slide down the wall until he lands on his ass, hard, skirts still up around his waist and his half-hard cock hanging out. He gasps for air in the darkness, feeling like he’s been electrocuted.

He hears Xiao Zhan swallow nearby, hard. “Did it work?”

The question is what makes Yibo realize the amatory has actually subsided, even though he’s still reverberating with the painful energy of what just happened. He nods, his mouth hanging open, and then pulls himself together enough to say, “Yeah.”

“Good,” Xiao Zhan says, tight and with a little quaver to it, like a bowstring cranked too high. He must still be feeling it himself, of course.

“Fuck, sorry,” Yibo says, indistinctly, and feels for Xiao Zhan in the dark. He gets a hold of his thick coat again, and then his jaw, reaching to pull him into another kiss before remembering that won’t do anything, and it’s probably inappropriate for them to kiss when they’re not both carried away by the amatory. Yibo doesn’t even know why they started off kissing, really, except it felt so good and so right.

They’re running out of time, so he just palms the jut of Xiao Zhan’s cock through his uniform trousers, moving hard and fast. His long coat will hide the wet spot, and Yibo needs to get out of here as soon as he can.

It’s still pitch black in here, no light source to adjust to, so he’s shocked to suddenly feel Xiao Zhan leaning in closer, one hand tilting Yibo’s face until they’re kissing again after all. It’s slower this time but just as desperate, and he can feel the fine-strung tension in Xiao Zhan’s body, the way he’s trying to hold back soft whimpers. Yibo rubs him harder, ignoring the harsh friction of the wool under his hand, until finally Xiao Zhan lets out a moan against Yibo’s mouth and shudders all over, grasping his shoulder tight.

For just a few moments, neither of them moves. They’re both breathing so hard in the warm dark, and Yibo feels sore and exhausted, like he just wants to curl up together and fall asleep here. The very idea sparks an unexpected cascade of tender feelings, imagining something so intimate between them.

It’s the amatory, Yibo thinks, squeezing his eyes shot tight. It’s in the name.

“I apologize, Your Majesty,” Xiao Zhan says, pulling away. “The kissing—we needed to be skin to skin.”

He sounds embarrassed but matter of fact, and Yibo feels a twinge of shame at how much he enjoyed the kissing. How much he enjoyed all of this.

“You’re better now?” he asks, clearing his throat.

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Xiao Zhan says, and Yibo can hear him getting to his feet, wincing as he does. He’s probably just as sore and tired as Yibo, with wet clothing on top of it.

Yibo gets to his feet too, tugging his skirt down into place. The darkness makes it easy to be as matter of fact as Xiao Zhan, even in the midst of this ridiculous situation they’ve found themselves in.

The right thing to do would be to dismiss Xiao Zhan for the foreseeable future, at least until the immune response calms down. There’s no medical treatment for it, but if they keep apart for a few weeks it should pass on its own. That’s probably the safest thing to do.

But whoever sent the package will be looking for exactly that, someone close to Yibo being suddenly absent. And then they’ll know that Yibo has been compromised, that he’s vulnerable, and exactly how to get at him. Until Yibo has a better idea of who has it in for him, he can’t afford to tip his hand.

After three years of ruling, Yibo’s used to there being constant threats to his life, both from outside his empire and within it. Just being the emperor of Yuehua is enough to make half the galaxy his enemy, without the multiple small feuds and tensions that have kicked up since he took the throne. The conference has thousands of attendees, and the culprit could honestly be just about any of them.

Yibo always makes his decisions quickly, mostly by instinct. He reaches for Xiao Zhan’s shoulder in the dark.

“If I put you on leave again, it’ll be noticed,” Yibo says. “Whoever sent this will use you against me.”

Xiao Zhan gets it right away. “You need me to stay on duty so everything seems normal.”

“Until the conference is over,” Yibo says. “This thing—the amatory...well, we’ll have to get through it somehow.”

There’s just a brief pause, and then Xiao Zhan says, “If we stay five meters apart, that should be enough. And don’t make eye contact, that triggers it at any distance.”

“I didn’t know that,” Yibo says.

“I did a lot of research on my leave,” Xiao Zhan says. “I thought you already knew the details, since bioweapons are part of the royal tutelage.”

Yibo shouldn’t be surprised—Xiao Zhan’s quiet and thoughtful, and he’s seen him coming out of the palace library often enough before. Still, the image of him reading up on their condition, taking steps to prepare, takes him aback.

Also, he realizes he’s the one who messed it up. Xiao Zhan sounded mildly reproving just now.

“Five meters, no eye contact,” Yibo repeats. “Anything else?”

“Once might not always be enough,” Xiao Zhan says.

“Well, hopefully it won’t be necessary again,” Yibo says. He brings up his wristscreen and illuminates it, giving off a green glow in the dark that makes him squint. “Fuck. The recess is over and I didn’t get any lunch.”

“I’ll find someone to bring you food in the hall, Your Majesty,” Xiao Zhan says. Yibo glances up and for the first time in a while he can actually see Xiao Zhan, looking sharp and sickly in the screen’s light, eyes concerned beneath his drawn brows. At least he doesn’t look like he just blew the emperor in a closet.

Xiao Zhan opens the door a crack, putting his eye to it and looking back and forth before he opens it further. “I’ll let you know when it’s safe to follow.”

He goes out, and Yibo just stands there a moment before running his hands over his face and clothes, smoothing down his hair and the hundred pleats around the collar of his formal jacket. He can’t get away with his usual informal clothing at an event like this, and he’s just thankful the stretchy, draping material of his outfit is meant to look rumpled.

No time to fuss with the tangle of silver necklaces or worry about his makeup; when he hears a low whistle from Xiao Zhan all Yibo can do is hurry out of the closet, shutting the door and looking both ways down the corridor before following him back to the reception chamber.

Five meters, Yibo remembers, and slows up his pace.

And he’s the emperor of Yuehua, he thinks as he enters the hall. He brings the strut into his step, slow and swaying, lowering his eyelids. His lipstick is probably smudged, so he lets his mouth fall in a disdainful pout, like he’s above such concerns. Whoever poisoned him is out there in this room, and he’s not letting them have the satisfaction of suspecting what just happened.

Yibo’s going to rule for the next century, and something like needing to fuck the devastatingly handsome head of his imperial guard whenever they get too close or look each other in the eye isn’t going to stop him.

*****

It’s necessary again.

“I’m sorry,” Xiao Zhan gasps, as he fucks Yibo over the low rail of the bridgeway between the imperial bedchamber and his private atrium.

“It’s my fault,” is what Yibo means to say, but instead he just chokes out “harder,” his fingers wrapped so tight around the railing that his knuckles have gone white.

It’s the evening of the second day of the conference, and Yibo thought they were going to get away with it. They’ve kept separate, and kept from looking at each other. Xiao Zhan’s done his job, managing security logistics for the conference and lending his presence to the imperial guard, and Yibo’s done his, presiding over interminable sessions where ambassadors and minor royals squabble over the same old territorial rights and warp portal privileges. He’s stayed awake, mostly, and given no one any reason to suspect he’s so compromised by Rigellian amatory that all it takes is a lingering glance before he’s got his trousers around his knees, begging to get fucked.

No, not begging. The toxin is burning sharp and bright along all his nerves, but Yibo has his teeth clenched tight, trying to keep some shred of control. He can’t say the things he’s thinking, so he groans instead, harsh and unrestrained.

He just didn’t expect to see Xiao Zhan on guard outside the atrium, where he’d gone to meditate and recover from his day in private, and Xiao Zhan must not have expected to see him either. Probably they should have tried to make it back to his room, or at least gone inside the atrium—Yibo imagines fucking on the warm, rich-smelling dirt, with spreading tropical trees above and the riot of colorful flowers all around—but they didn’t even kiss this time. Xiao Zhan just reached out for Yibo’s shoulders as he came near, spinning him around and bending him over the rail before yanking down his trousers.

Yibo should probably have feelings about that, and about how he didn’t resist at all, undoing his sash and arching his back, but he has to admit it was efficient.

“Harder, right there,” he demands, lifting his head from the void below the bridge, full of blinking electronic lights that fade into the darkness at the heart of the palace’s inner workings. “Don’t stop until I come.”

He’s never going to get used to how the amatory makes his body respond, taking Xiao Zhan so easily and reaching climax so quickly. Part of him wonders how the drug worked when it was purely for recreation; maybe it would have been slower but more sustained, lasting for hours before the effects faded. Yibo thinks about getting fucked all night, languorous but no less intense, their sweaty bodies moving together as they kiss with insatiable desire, and comes with a shout, knocking his chin against the rail and biting his tongue.

“Oh shit,” Xiao Zhan says, unsteadily, and Yibo realizes through the dimming lust and pain that he must have seized up inside because Xiao Zhan’s coming too, with jerky thrusts and panting moans.

Xiao Zhan staggers away after, retreating to the other side of the bridgeway. Yibo stays where he is, gasping for breath and barely holding himself up, drenched in that mix of exhaustion and disorientation he’s getting used to by now. He was coming out of the atrium thinking he’d take a bath and watch a vid, he thinks hazily. It feels like that was a year ago, instead of not even five minutes.

“Did it work?” Xiao Zhan asks from behind him, between wheezing breaths.

Yibo just nods, his head still hanging low. He stands up, pulling his loose linen trousers with him, and knots the sash around his waist. Another outfit ruined.

“We should—coordinate our schedules better,” Xiao Zhan says, still breathing hard.

“Yeah,” Yibo says, and then remembers. “Fuck. I need you for the breakout conference tomorrow. I’m mediating the Saiph federation and the Tao protectorate’s negotiation about their shared xenon mines. You were the one who said we might need a security presence.”

“I’ll do better tomorrow,” Xiao Zhan says. “This won’t happen again.”

Yibo feels a twist of guilt at his tone of voice, and finally turns around. Xiao Zhan has his hands spread wide on the railing behind him and he’s leaning heavily on them, like he can barely stand up. His clothing has been rearranged, but his color is still high and his black, leather-brimmed uniform cap is tipped askew on his sweaty forehead. He straightens up as soon as Yibo sees him, though, moving into his familiar guardian stance.

“Look, none of this is your fault,” Yibo says. “I’m the one who fucked up, if anyone did.”

The one who helped Xiao Zhan, instead of calling for someone else. The one who’s imperiled this conference and his own reign, for reasons he still can’t fully explain even to himself. The one who should be in control of all this, except every time he tries this happens again, the two of them falling together in a tangle of need and desire that drowns out everything else.

Xiao Zhan just looks at him for a brief moment, lifting his chin. “I respectfully disagree, Your Majesty.”

He shifts his gaze to behind Yibo’s shoulder, not saying anything more. Yibo sighs; it’s hard to talk to someone when you can’t even look them in the eye for long. He tugs at one end of his sash, tightening it around his waist, and then tosses his hair back out of his face.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Yibo says.

“I hope not, Your Majesty,” Xiao Zhan says, turning away, and Yibo’s mouth twists wryly as he catches his meaning.

*****

The mediation the next day is a predictable disaster. Not only can the Saiphan dictator and the Tao princess not come to terms on mining rights, but they dredge up three centuries’ worth of border disputes and two arranged marriages gone wrong before Mas Alfon has to be stopped from hurling herself across the table with her curved dagger. Princess Qi Fei’s royal cyborgs instantly glow nuclear green, setting off the room’s radiation detectors, and it’s another tense two hours before all parties agree to table the mining negotiations until next year’s conference.

“Which will be hosted by someone else,” Yibo mutters to himself wearily, rubbing his forehead as the last member of Mas Alfon’s advisory council files out of the room, narrowly missing catching its flat beaver-like tail in the door.

His own advisors hover near, each with an electronic pad brimming with agendas, dossiers, and briefs on the upcoming sessions, and Yibo ignores them pointedly, lifting his wristscreen to check the hypertrekking scores. If he’s lucky, he’ll still be able to catch the final round of quals back in his quarters.

“If you’ll beam your files to me, I’ll ensure the emperor receives them,” he hears from behind him. “I believe His Majesty is fatigued and wishes to retire for the day.”

Xiao Zhan should know, Yibo thinks, with bitter amusement. He’s been guarding the door all day, well beyond five meters away, but Yibo has felt his presence like a looming bonfire, threatening to set him ablaze at any second. They’ve both done so well, not even glancing in the other’s direction, but Yibo’s been sweating beneath his formal robes resisting the temptation, which means Xiao Zhan must be absolutely drenched.

He knows things like that now about Xiao Zhan. How easily he sweats, at his temples and running down his chest. Yibo tries not to imagine Xiao Zhan’s lean, unclothed body beneath him, glistening and muscular, his dark eyes full of passion, and fails entirely.

The door closes behind the last of his advisors. Yibo’s not alone, because he’s never alone except in his private quarters, but he doesn’t know exactly who’s remained to guard him.

Lies. He knows exactly who.

A crimson-clad figure moves around the edges of his vision, coming to take a seat at the round table. Not directly across from him, but several chairs away, so when Yibo lifts his gaze they don’t make eye contact except peripherally.

It feels like Xiao Zhan has been in his periphery for hours. Even now, the heat rises on the back of Yibo’s neck, prickly and flushed, just knowing he’s there.

“That went well enough,” Xiao Zhan says, sounding cautious. “It was a good call, tabling the xenon issue until next year. Sirius Beta is hosting and they have an interest in the export trade, so they would have been angry if it had been settled without them.”

“How do you know that?” Yibo asks, surprised. He only knows what’s in the dossier in front of him, which someone printed out for him this morning.

“My mother’s people are from the Tao system,” Xiao Zhan says.

“So you knew things would get ugly,” Yibo says, realizing.

“I knew they wouldn’t be easy,” Xiao Zhan says. “Your Majesty.”

He’s always most formal when he’s being borderline insubordinate, Yibo thinks. He’s dying to see Xiao Zhan’s expression right now, but he keeps his eyes forward, switching to the more important subject. “I thought you said five meters would be enough,” he says, addressing the dimmed display screen on the wall instead.

He hears Xiao Zhan swallow before speaking. “It’s not the full immune reaction, but maybe the dose we received was engineered to a higher sensitivity. If we talk to the imperial physician—”

“No,” Yibo says, immediately. They’re in this now, both of them, and there’s nothing anyone can do to help but put them more at risk of the wrong people finding out. Besides, Dr. Feng has been treating him since he was a baby. “We’ll stay ten meters apart tomorrow. There aren’t any more small sessions like this, we should be able to manage it.”

“I think so, Your Majesty,” Xiao Zhan says.

His voice is strained now. Yibo can’t believe how fast he’s gotten used to that, hearing his always calm and collected guardian sounding rough and intimate, like they’re alone together somewhere besides a conference room. Like a bedroom.

“In the meantime...” Yibo says, and stops. He knows he sounds strained too, and that Xiao Zhan will understand what he means. The need is thrumming so strongly between them that he can almost hear Xiao Zhan’s thoughts.

It’s not overwhelming like it’s been before, though. Yibo thinks he could push past it, going to his chambers to watch the race vids while he eats a late dinner in bed. If he concentrates hard, or maybe if he jerks off a few times, he could manage until it subsides enough for him to fall asleep.

“It’s not the full immune reaction,” Xiao Zhan says again, his voice even tighter than before. “If we don’t do anything, eventually it should go away on its own. Sometime tonight.” He doesn’t sound very hopeful.

Yibo catches his breath, holds it, and lets it out. “Well, I need to get a good night’s sleep,” he says, and turns to look at Xiao Zhan.

To his surprise Xiao Zhan quickly averts his gaze, looking down at the table. Yibo can see he’s breathing hard, though, his cheeks almost the same color as his coat. He brings up one hand to shield his eyes, and a jolt of hurt rejection goes through Yibo before he can think.

Of course—Xiao Zhan doesn’t really want to be doing this at all. It’s just the amatory, just a biological imperative. An unfortunate side effect of his job. He’s not going to do it unless he has to, and Yibo certainly isn’t going to force him.

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have asked,” Yibo says, gathering his imperial dignity, but Xiao Zhan shakes his head hard.

“No,” he says. “I just think the reaction might intensify if we make eye contact, Your Majesty.” He adds, softer, “I won’t be able to sleep tonight either, if we don’t.”

Yibo didn’t know how much he was still reeling from Xiao Zhan’s averted eyes until his heart leaps in his chest. He gets up from his seat, no hesitation, just following that sudden joy across the room.

Xiao Zhan stands as he approaches, looking down at the ground. Yibo shuts his own eyes, reaching for him, and finds the soft wool of his coat. The fire Yibo’s been keeping at bay for hours roars to a blaze now as his fingers slide over Xiao Zhan’s bare throat, and he hears Xiao Zhan let out a quiet moan.

That does it. Yibo clutches Xiao Zhan’s lapels and drags him in, mouths meeting in a hungry kiss. It’s rough, slightly missing the mark, but Xiao Zhan kisses him back even as Yibo’s teeth catch his lip. His hands go around Yibo’s waist, gathering up his filmy black formal robe, pulling him in tight. The contact makes them both groan, the lengths of their bodies pressed together, desire roaring between them.

“Sit down,” Yibo growls against Xiao Zhan’s mouth.

They manage it in a tangle, Xiao Zhan collapsing back in one of the armless leather conference chairs with Yibo straddling him and cradling his head as they keep kissing, breathless and open-mouthed. Yibo grinds down, the dry friction of his trousers not really enough, but Xiao Zhan’s hands are still spanning his waist, holding him close. He’s getting hard against Yibo, and that’s so good, feeling how strong his need is too.

The amatory doesn’t hurt so much this time, just a sweet, insistent ache. Yibo wants to touch Xiao Zhan everywhere and never stop.

“If I’d opened the package first,” he gasps, between kisses. “It would have been like this. Demanding you before I even knew what happened. I wouldn’t have been able to stop myself.”

Xiao Zhan’s hands curve around his ass, digging in with his fingertips. “I would have let you, Your Majesty.”

Fuck.

Yibo doesn’t know what to say to that, except to kiss Xiao Zhan even more as the hot buzzing in his head grows louder. He rocks down short and quick, rubbing the head of his cock against Xiao Zhan’s hip, pleasure skittering like sparks. Suddenly Xiao Zhan stands, lifting him up, and Yibo grasps his shoulders, pulling him down as he lays Yibo out on the conference table.

Papers flutter everywhere as they keep kissing, frantic and sloppy now. Xiao Zhan braces himself with his hands on either side of Yibo’s head, and for a fleeting moment Yibo imagines them around his own wrists, pinning them down. He puts his hands on Xiao Zhan’s lower back instead, guiding his hips as they rock together, and when Xiao Zhan rakes his teeth over Yibo’s lower lip he comes with a sharp, wet burst and a cry he can’t hold back.

Xiao Zhan buries his face in the curve between Yibo’s neck and shoulder, breathing hot and fast as he keeps grinding into the hollow of Yibo’s hip. Yibo’s hands roam Xiao Zhan’s back, trying to feel the shape of his body through the thick wool of his coat, and when he pushes his hands into Xiao Zhan’s hair, tugging, he lets out a soft noise right under Yibo’s ear, a surprised groan that Yibo wants to hear again. He tugs harder, and Xiao Zhan exhales a curse and shudders under Yibo’s hands, with one last heavy thrust.

Silence, breath and pulse, that warm seeping wetness inside his trousers again. Xiao Zhan’s clean, sweet scent, with the musk of sweat and body heat beneath, that Yibo knows so well by now. It’s been a hell of a week.

“We have to figure out who sent that package,” Xiao Zhan mutters into Yibo’s shoulder.

“Rigel,” Yibo says, immediately, because it’s obvious.

Xiao Zhan sits up. His coat is askew, lips bitten red, hair tousled and face shiny. Yibo thinks he probably looks just as bad. They need to get better at this—or maybe not so good.

“Impossible,” Xiao Zhan says, shaking his hair back as he gets up off the table. He reaches inside his coat and finds a neat handkerchief, which he wipes his face with as he finger combs his hair down with the other hand. “They wouldn’t have put their own seal on it.”

“True,” Yibo says. He sits up, glancing around at the crumpled papers beneath him on the table. “But the amatory is a classified weapon there.”

Xiao Zhan waves a dismissive hand, tucking the handkerchief away again. “Black market. The powder, the seal, everything.”

“Yeah,” Yibo says. He’s still sitting on the table, knees drawn up with his arms resting on them, which is probably undignified but it’s his palace. “So someone who has it in for me, or at least for this conference, and wants to make Rigel look bad, or at least doesn’t mind if they get caught in it.”

“Right,” Xiao Zhan says. His black uniform cap is resting on the table where he took it off earlier, and he picks it up and puts it on, pulling it straight. Even without a mirror, it’s amazing how polished he’s made himself look in just a few minutes, as if nothing happened. “So—the Mintaka system. They’re blood feuding with both Yuehua and Rigel, and they wanted to host the conference, didn’t they?”

“Yes, and I wish I’d let them,” Yibo says, absently.

He pauses, thinking. How distant and professional Xiao Zhan looks and sounds now, how close they were a minute ago. What did Xiao Zhan mean, “I would have let you”? It’s so hard to keep his head clear whenever they’re together.

“Well,” Xiao Zhan says, tugging his cap in place again, “I’ll consult with imperial intelligence. I won’t share all the details,” he adds, as Yibo opens his mouth. “But they know about the package. They can at least put the Mintakan ambassador in custody.”

“Not until the conference ends,” Yibo says, quickly. “Fuck, I spent too much time over the seating arrangements for everything to get blown up over something like this. Wait two days.”

Xiao Zhan gives him a sidelong look, but all he says is, “As you wish, Your Majesty.”

“Put a surveillance detail on the Mintaka delegation, of course,” Yibo says. “Uh, if we can spare the staff.”

“It would be a good idea,” Xiao Zhan says. “If their first plan doesn’t work out as expected, they may try something else.”

If they don’t expose the Yuehua emperor having public sex with the head of his guard, he means, and Yibo nods.

“Two more days,” he says. “Believe me, I’ll make them pay. I just don’t want them wrecking my stupid conference.”

*****

It turns out that the immune reaction is less about proximity and more about frequency. The longer they go between encounters, the more the need rises, like an itch under Yibo’s skin that he can’t do anything about.

He spends the fourth day of the conference at the head of the reception hall, sitting straight-backed in his throne as iridescent lights chase each other beneath the shiny plastic surface, overseeing various small proposals and requests between the members of the Orion League. There are so many petty little tensions that underlie everything, and Yibo thinks again, desolately, of how threadbare the agreements that hold them together are. His own empire is just two planets, the humid jungles of the Yuehua homeworld and the windy desert plains of its tiny twin planet, but the Orion League comprises thousands of planets and countless trillions of inhabitants, all living under the fragile peace of the treaty.

Open war with Mintaka would upset all that. There hasn’t been real conflict between any of the league members in centuries, but the ancient alliances are still in place and ready to go off like a series of firecrackers. This would risk everything.

Yibo can’t think that Mintaka wants war any more than he does, but it seems they do.

He brings himself back to the discussion before him, another tedious debate about currency exchange rates, and stifles a yawn. His eyes flicker to the back of the chamber, where a line of crimson-clad guards stand at the ready against the wall and near the door, and tries not to search for one face in particular. With the restless hunger he’s felt all day, even eye contact at this distance would probably be enough to spark the reaction again.

“Thus concludes the Nebula’s position,” says the tall pink lizard in front of him, rolling up its scroll. “If his Imperial Majesty cares to provide an advisory ruling?”

“Um,” Yibo says.

He makes it through the rest of the day, somehow. Near the end a protocol dispute breaks out over the order of petitions among the minor systems, and that wakes him up both because of the laser blast through the black rock crystal ceiling and because the first guard to reach the angry diplomat is, of course, Xiao Zhan. He neatly twists the gun out of the man’s hand and drops him with an elbow under the chin, and Yibo watches just a second too long because he can feel that dangerous, familiar heat sparking in the pit of his stomach before he wrenches his gaze away.

Yibo thinks about it all the rest of the night, though, after two guards hustle him out of the reception hall for safety’s sake. The way Xiao Zhan reached the scene before anyone else, with huge running strides on his long legs, and the cool focus in his expression as he took hold of the man’s wrist and bent it at just the right angle to make him open his fingers and drop the weapon. That could have been enough, but Xiao Zhan didn’t even blink before raising his arm to knock him out.

The dangerous heat builds, as Yibo remembers it again while he eats dinner lying on his side in bed watching a vid, and he has to stop, rubbing his cool fingers over his forehead and across his cheeks. They only need one more day, and then they’ve made it through. After the conference is over, they can decide what to do next.

Yibo pushes his hover tray aside and rolls onto his back, folding his arms under his head and staring up at the ceiling. Maybe Xiao Zhan will request a reassignment, after the too-intimate moments they’ve shared. Probably Yibo should offer one before he even asks, giving him a polite escape. Xiao Zhan is too competent to spend his career as a bodyguard and glorified personal assistant and whatever else Yibo has asked of him these last three years. Yibo could promote him into the diplomacy corps; maybe he’d like to travel, or govern a province. It’s only fair.

The feeling that washes through him at the thought of sending Xiao Zhan away is nothing like the toxic burn of the amatory, but somehow it’s fair more painful. It’s just because Xiao Zhan’s been at his side almost his entire reign, Yibo tells himself, even though he knows it’s more than that. They’ve connected in a way he didn’t even realize until it became more than just working together, more than Xiao Zhan conveying his thoughts with a raised eyebrow or working quietly and efficiently to keep Yibo safe. The amatory has only brought out feelings Yibo didn’t even know he had, until they were staring him right in the face.

One more day, he thinks. And then he’ll offer another position to Xiao Zhan, and see how he reacts.

Yibo drifts off into a fitful sleep, with a vid still playing on the screen. It’s an action thriller, and he keeps being half woken up by explosions and falling back asleep before he can think to turn to something quieter. The sound of a much louder explosion jolts him awake, and Yibo lies awake for a while, listening to the chaotic sounds, until he realizes it wasn’t the vid.

His door slides open, bringing yellow light and clouds of acrid smoke. They’re immediately blotted out by a tall silhouette, and Yibo sits bolts upright, reaching for the panic button in his headboard.

“Your Majesty,” Xiao Zhan says, and he sounds strained and anxious, emotions Yibo’s never heard from him in the course of his duties.

“What happened?” Yibo croaks, his voice still hoarse from sleep.

“You’re all right? You’re alone in here?”

“Yes,” Yibo says, impatiently. “What happened?

He hears Xiao Zhan let out a relieved sigh, and then the door slides shut behind him, sending the room into semi-darkness again. The vid is still playing, sending out flickering light, and there’s an argument happening on top of a collapsing building. Yibo finds the remote and pauses it, leaving ringing stillness behind.

“There was an assassination attempt,” Xiao Zhan says, low but still with that same intensity of emotion. “Flash bangs set off in the corridors all over the residential complex. They blinded your door guards, and I assume they were supposed to lure you outside. Maybe it was an abduction attempt, I don’t know. We weren’t sure if they’d accessed your room some other way first and intended to escape through the front door.”

“Well,” Yibo says. He clears his throat.

Xiao Zhan crossed the room as he spoke, and now he’s standing at Yibo’s bedside. He’s in civilian clothes, a loose white shirt over black leggings. Too close, part of Yibo’s brain screams, but the rest of him says not close enough.

“Did they catch anyone?” Yibo asks, finally.

“Yes,” Xiao Zhan says. Gods, Yibo loves every shade of his musical voice, all the more vivid here in the darkness. “A minor diplomat from Mintaka and her aide, extremist sympathizers. We think they were working alone.”

Alone?” Yibo asks, stunned. If they were working alone it doesn’t implicate the entire system. They could be disavowed by the Mintakan empress, the whole thing swept aside. There doesn’t have to be a war.

“Alone,” Xiao Zhan repeats, and the strangled note in it makes Yibo look up, sharply.

Oh. It’s happening again.

Yibo throws back the blankets as Xiao Zhan climbs onto the bed, kneeling up next to him. It makes him too tall and Yibo reaches up for his shoulders, yanking him down. Even in the dark, their movements are sure as they find each other, their kiss warm and passionate and full of ecstatic relief.

“Someone else might come in,” Xiao Zhan gasps, rolling over in the bed with Yibo above him, and Yibo fumbles for the control panel in the headboard, slapping the button that bars the door.

Tonight everything feels sweet and good, as if they’re getting ahead of the toxin in their systems. Yibo devours Xiao Zhan’s mouth, full of the knowledge that this might be the last time they’re close like this. Tomorrow they’ll have to face the future, the reality of where they go from here, but tonight there’s only this bed and their driving need for each other.

He moves down Xiao Zhan’s body, pushing up his shirt to rub his cheek against the softness of his belly and the sharp hollows of his hips. Xiao Zhan caresses his shoulders, murmuring soft and indistinct as Yibo works at his leggings, baring him. Yibo takes a moment to run his lips over the head of Xiao Zhan’s cock, breathing warmth against it, lapping with the tip of his tongue.

“Your Majesty,” Xiao Zhan groans, and then, softly, “Yibo.”

The heat blazes up, that old demanding ache, and Yibo takes him in fast, almost choking in his haste. But he doesn’t want it to be fast like the very first time; he wants to hear Xiao Zhan say his name again, to delight in the taste and feel of him, to make this into a memory he can keep. Touching like lovers, here in the dark.

So he takes his time, as long as Xiao Zhan will let him. Slick and slow and deep, utterly lost in the feeling as he goes down over and over again. Xiao Zhan shifts restlessly beneath him, gathering up Yibo’s hair to push it aside, letting out throaty moans with his head tipped back as Yibo brings him close. When Xiao Zhan finally breathes “Yibo” he takes him as deep as he can, encouraging. It turns into a broken whimper and then a cry as Yibo gives it to him harder, swallowing him deep, and Xiao Zhan’s fingers bite into Yibo’s shoulders as he comes down his throat.

Xiao Zhan’s a wreck when Yibo finally lifts his head; clothes askew and his head turned aside, one arm thrown across his forehead as he breathes hard. Yibo thinks for a moment and then gets up on his knees, reaching into his sleep shorts with one hand and touching Xiao Zhan’s bare thigh with the other. Skin contact, he thinks, as he starts to jerk himself fast.

But Xiao Zhan’s eyes fly open at the touch. He glances up and down at Yibo, expression hard to make out in the weird light of the paused vid, and then sits up, reaching for Yibo.

“Not like that, Your Majesty,” he says, and pulls Yibo down with him.

They kiss as they go, Xiao Zhan gentle as he presses against Yibo’s swollen lips. He settles Yibo on top of him, tugging down his shorts until Yibo’s cock is bare against his stomach, hands resting on Yibo’s ass to keep him close.

Yibo raises himself up a little, looking down. “Is this all right?”

Xiao Zhan blinks, fast. “Of course, Your Majesty.”

Yibo leans in, looking down tenderly at Xiao Zhan, and shakes his head. “Don’t call me that,” he says, low, voice breaking over it.

Another blink, and Xiao Zhan’s red lips part. “Yibo,” he breathes.

When they move, it’s as one. Kissing, rocking, holding, shifting together. Yibo doesn’t know if he moves or Xiao Zhan does it for him, but Xiao Zhan’s hands are so tight on him as his cock gets rubbed against Xiao Zhan’s stomach, and their kiss is hot and breathless, like they’ve gone beyond the need for air. Just this, the heat of their bodies and the bright golden dawn ahead.

Yibo comes, a shuddering gasping thing that arcs through him like a rolling current, and he spends all his breath against Xiao Zhan’s mouth, chasing the last dregs of it. When he finishes he’s too weak to move, both physically and emotionally. Why move when Xiao Zhan is holding him like this, when for just a few moments it feels like everything is right, like every fear has receded and all his troubles solved. Like he’s home.

At last he does move, mindful that they can’t stay close for long. Whatever he wants to say, it will have to be fast, before the madness takes them again. He settles himself on the pillow, looking at Xiao Zhan, and Xiao Zhan looks back.

“I should offer you a promotion,” Yibo says, his throat so raspy he can hardly get the words out. Oh, his voice will be wrecked tomorrow.

“What kind of promotion?” Xiao Zhan asks.

“Governorship of a province, or an ambassador job somewhere,” Yibo says. “But I don’t want to.”

“You don’t?” Xiao Zhan says, lightly, like he’s teasing.

Yibo is the emperor of two planets and a fleet of star voyaging ships and he has the most important personages in the Orion League under his palace roof tonight, and his tongue still feels thick and clumsy in his mouth as he says, “I don’t want you to leave.”

“You don’t,” Xiao Zhan says again, more flatly. He looks like he’s about to smile, uncertain, but he frowns instead.

“You can if you want,” Yibo says, and reaches out to take Xiao Zhan’s hand. “But I’d really like it if you’d stay here.”

“As head of your guard?” Xiao Zhan asks, and his eyes are so clear and wide. Yibo’s never seen him like this before, all armor cast aside, honest and open.

“As—fuck,” Yibo says. He feels like a fool, but: “Consort? I don’t even know what the word is. I want you with me. Not just like this,” he adds, squeezing Xiao Zhan’s hand before he can speak. “You’re smart. You know so much. Too much to be guarding my bedroom and opening my mail.”

Xiao Zhan just stares back at him, for the longest moment of his life. Finally he says, low and wry, “Why do I get the feeling I’ll still be opening your mail.”

His words hang between them for a moment, and then Yibo leans in and Xiao Zhan puts up a hand to stop him. “Wait. This is the amatory, isn’t it? You’re not yourself. You wouldn’t be saying all of this otherwise.”

“Ask me tomorrow,” Yibo says, seriously. “Ask me from a thousand meters away. Ask me in a month. All the amatory did was wake me up to something I should have known all along.”

“All right,” Xiao Zhan says, nodding. He puts his hand on Yibo’s face, cupping his jaw, thumb resting on his lip and stroking gently. “I’ll ask you tomorrow.”

He’s leaning in when Yibo says, lifting his chin, “And you?”

Xiao Zhan just smiles, their faces close. “I didn’t need the amatory to realize anything,” he says, quietly. “But I’m glad it happened.” He leans in almost all the way and murmurs, “Your Majesty.”

Yibo bites him when they kiss, and they both laugh before everything turns very, very serious again.

*****

Mintaka is just as glad to sweep the mess under the rug as Yuehua is, which is a relief to everyone. Blood feuds have their uses, but nobody really wants to go to war. Palace security turns over the disgruntled diplomat turned fanatic, along with her accomplice, and Mintaka makes a few trade concessions and the whole thing is forgotten.

The conference doesn’t conclude quite as neatly, mostly for the reason that Yibo is dying to get back to his private quarters. The closing ceremonies take forever, and then the multi-course banquet, and at the party Yibo has to do the rounds with all the various representatives, making polite remarks and wishing safe journeys, while he’s keeping one eye on Xiao Zhan across the hall.

“That breach of etiquette yesterday!” an Alnitakan prince is trilling, backed up by his chorus of bird-beaked sycophants. “Weapons in the hall. You’ll never see such a thing in a Sirian conference.”

“Yeah, well,” Yibo says. “Let’s see how the Sirians cope with it next year.”

He watches as someone approaches Xiao Zhan, speaking to him for a few moments before handing him an envelope. Xiao Zhan seems puzzled, and then he opens the envelope and scans the contents. Even at this distance, Yibo can read his face well enough to see he’s even more surprised than before.

“If you’ll just excuse me, Your Grace,” Yibo says, absently, not remembering if that’s the correct title or not.

He crosses the chamber, keeping his eyes slightly averted, and stops just close enough to catch Xiao Zhan’s attention. No sense in throwing everything away now, just when they’ve almost made it through the whole ordeal.

To his surprise, Xiao Zhan looks right at him and comes up close. Yibo clenches his jaw and takes a step back, reflexively, but Xiao Zhan reaches out to take hold of his arm casually, as if it’s nothing.

“I’ve just spoken with Peng Wu from the intelligence office,” Xiao Zhan says, and holds up the letter he was just reading. “He apologized for the delay in chemical analysis on the package you received last week.”

“Oh?” Yibo asks. He’s still unnerved by Xiao Zhan’s hand on his arm, and the way the heat is uncoiling in his stomach. He averts his eyes, looking across the room as his ears begin to burn.

“Mm,” Xiao Zhan says. “As we thought, the powder was Rigellian amatory. Not the usual formulation, so something probably purchased on the black market.”

“Right,” Yibo says, nodding dumbly. He doesn’t want to wrench his arm away in front of all these people, but it might be better than what’s about to happen.

Far less potent than the official formulation,” Xiao Zhan says, slow and emphatic, like he’s reading aloud.

Yibo whips his head around. “What?”

Xiao Zhan isn’t smiling, but it’s the nearest thing to it. “Cheap black market stuff. The immune reaction wouldn’t be expected to last more than a few days, a week at most. Probably not even that.”

“So somewhere in there—that was just us,” Yibo says, blankly.

At last Xiao Zhan drops Yibo’s arm. He reaches up to brush off the front of Yibo’s formal jacket, woven in a profusion of colors with gold medallions hanging everywhere, and smiles, slow and knowing. “Amatory or no, I think it was always us,” he says, and murmurs, “Yibo.”