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“You’ve been kissed before?!” Xie Lian sounds unfairly shocked, in Feng Xin’s opinion.

“Of course,” he replies, still sorting through Xie Lian’s armoury whilst its owner hovers behind him. He has an incredible collection of swords, far too many really, but they are all beautiful. It is Feng Xin’s not-so-secret joy to be assigned the task of organising them, partly because it's easy, but mostly because he—just like his prince—adores swords. “We’re not boys any more, Your Highness.”

“Who?!”

“Just—” One scabbard has fallen off the wall and behind a floor-rack, and he grunts as he tries to reach it, “—ugh, just some visiting noble, it wasn’t much—”

“What was it like?”

Feng Xin straightens up, and gazes distantly at the armoury as he recalls. It had happened on a late summer’s night, at a festival for some god of fortune or other. He had been tipsy on peach wine for the first time, which probably should have heightened the experience, but instead made everything blurry: one haze of sensation.

“Wet,” he declares.

Xie Lian laughs, an abrupt sound that speaks of genuine startlement. Feng Xin’s lips quirk, and he returns to his task. The days have been easy, recently: that boy Mu Qing has joined him at Xie Lian's side. He has been handling the administrative parts of his prince’s princely duties, which involves a lot of schmoozing with other noble figures, and he seems to have taken a shine to this. That’s fine by Feng Xin. He doesn’t enjoy that at all, and neither does Xie Lian: that’s why the prince is with him right now, idling away the time before the Head Priest finally tracks him down and forces him back into lessons.

“Wait...” Xie Lian’s footsteps, which have been trailing around Feng Xin as he watches him work, come to a pause. “Feng Xin, I thought you were afraid of girls?”

Feng Xin whips his head around, a pale flush of red making its home on his cheekbones. Xie Lian looks down on him with curious eyes. “Wha... what does that have to do with anything?!”

“How did you kiss one, then? Did you close your eyes...?”

“I didn’t kiss a girl! And you have to close your eyes anyway, otherwise you’ll go cross-eyed staring at them.” Feng Xin sniffs, and looks back at the sword in his hands. He isn’t easily embarrassed, but something about this conversation makes him feel… unsteady. “Did you not close yours?”

“I’ve never needed to,” says Xie Lian, which is a very strange response. It takes a moment for Feng Xin to realise what he means.

“Your Highness... could it be that you’ve never been kissed?!”

The notion is ridiculous. His prince is literally the most eligible bachelor of the kingdom of Xian Le: he is a prince, first of all. A genius at martial arts, secondly, with good humour and dignified bearing. He can handle Qi Rong, Prince Xiao Jing, with ease, and he can put up with Mu Qing even on his most temperamental days. Surely everyone is tripping over themselves to kiss him.

“Of course I haven’t,” Xie Lian shrugs, and Feng Xin stares. “Who would be brave enough to kiss the Crown Prince of Xian Le? Nobody would risk offending me, or the kingdom.”

“That... makes sense. But it’s a rite of passage, Your Highness! Your transition into manhood!”

“Oh, you’re more of a man than me now?” Xie Lian laughs, eyes bright. He taps one of the swords on the wall as he thoughtfully says, “I think it might be the cultivation method I choose in the future, too.”

“Kissing?”

Not kissing. Abstinence!”

“Your Highness, abstinence is about sex, not kissing,” Feng Xin says bluntly.

“Well, that’s too easy. I’ll leave all of it out. That will be best, I think."

Feng Xin hums noncommittally. He hasn’t given much thought to whether he will cultivate or not, let alone how. But Xie Lian has always strived to be the very best at what he does. If anyone would take the cultivation method of abstinence furthest, it would be him.

“Still,” Feng Xin says absently, not thinking about his words, “it’s a shame. It is quite nice—kissing, I mean.” He had enjoyed it, or at least what he remembers of it. It had been wet, yes, but it had also been warm, and comforting, and he had liked being able to relax and focus completely on that singular moment. Nothing else has really given him that experience: perhaps fighting? But even he isn’t enough of a muscle-head to compare kissing to fighting, even if they both clear his mind of errant thoughts in a similar way—the soldiers would laugh him off the field. And they have been more disrespectful recently: he blames Mu Qing. Somehow, it is his fault.

Xie Lian is quiet for a moment, and he thinks nothing of it, busy with polishing swords: this collection really is too large, and only grows as the days continue. But then he says, “Alright, I’ll do it.”

“Huh?” says Feng Xin, who has lost track of the conversation already. “Do what?”

“Kiss someone! Or be kissed, I suppose.” Xie Lian taps his chin, thinking through his statement.

Feng Xin laughs recklessly and says, “Who? You said it yourself, who would risk offending the Crown Prince?”

“Only you and Mu Qing,” Xie Lian replies, as shameless as ever, and Feng Xin splutters. That—! He wouldn’t do anything to offend his prince. And kissing him certainly counts as offensive. If anyone found out, he would be fired from his post—removed from the country more likely, without a single honour to his name. Scratched out of the annals of Xian Le history. Blackened. Would he be able to stand with such shame hanging over him? What would he be known for, other than debauching his own prince? He can’t kiss Xie Lian.

But... he is Xie Lian’s retainer. It is his job to do anything the prince requires. And if the alternative is Mu Qing…

“Alright,” he says, after a moment. “Please close your eyes, Your Highness.”

Feng Xin puts down the sword in his hands, and stands in front of him. Xie Lian shuffles closer and shuts his eyes, long lashes fluttering against his cheeks as his eyelids tremble. He purses his lips slightly, waiting.

Cute, thinks Feng Xin, and he cautiously presses their lips together. Their kiss is nothing more than a peck, only a few short seconds of contact before he draws away—there, he thinks, he's done his job. As he pulls back, he is greeted with the sight of Xie Lian blinking his eyes open. He looks... thoroughly unimpressed.

“Oh,” says Xie Lian, “Was that it?”

Well, if that doesn’t rankle Feng Xin’s pride. He bristles, his fear forgotten. “What do you mean, ‘was that it’! What more were you expecting?!” How much dignity does Xie Lian want to take from him?!

“I don’t know, you’re the only one who’s been kissed! You said it was nice, that was... kind of boring?!” Xie Lian looks confused, as though he hasn’t realised the damage he has done to Feng Xin’s ego—even if he is right.

But Feng Xin has always started moving before thinking through his movement, and this is no exception. Before his sense returns to him and reminds him of his status, he mutters, “I’ll show you ‘boring’,” and kisses him again.

Xie Lian isn’t expecting it this time, and he makes a little noise, his lips parting slightly. But he listens to Feng Xin’s earlier advice, and closes his eyes.

Feng Xin kisses him properly, now. He moves slowly, gently, because he will never be anything but gentle towards Xie Lian, but this is a lesson, of sorts, and he does his best for his prince. Xie Lian’s lips are soft, and Feng Xin’s own, chapped and slightly rough, drag slightly as he tilts his head. Xie Lian is a quick learner even here, because he does the same. It brings them closer, deeper into each other’s space. Xie Lian breathes out, and the exhale of air that brushes against his cheek is warm.

A kiss doesn’t really have any meaning, or power: it is just a moment of contact, even with Xie Lian. But just for a moment, there is nothing else. The careful movement of their lips against each other, the warmth, the slow seconds ticking by—this is all that happens, all that he thinks of. It would be so easy for Feng Xin to go further, to open their mouths more, to let Xie Lian understand what a kiss really is. But he won’t. The moment ends, and Feng Xin draws back.

He sees Xie Lian open his eyes again, but slower, as though he wants them to stay closed. His face is open, too open: his lips are redder, his eyes are brighter. There is no hiding what has happened. And now that Xie Lian is on the other side of the kiss, and can think clearly again, embarrassment starts to take hold of him. He presses his hands to his cheeks, white against a blooming pink.

“Ok,” says Feng Xin, rubbing his nose and trying valiantly to pretend that there isn’t a rising blush on his face. “That’s a kiss. Now you know.”

Why is he blushing? It was just a kiss, to show Xie Lian what it was like. The proper duty of a retainer. Xie Lian had asked! Why is he blushing!?

“Uhuh,” says Xie Lian faintly. He looks as though he might fall over. Actually, he does sway a little, and Feng Xin quickly moves to steady him. Xie Lian startles as his hands clap against his shoulders, and Feng Xin immediately removes them. The movement is too fast, and he decides to fake nonchalance by brushing non-existent dirt off his clothes.

It doesn’t work. An awkward silence fills the space between them, choking any attempt at conversation—not that either of them are going to try. Xie Lian coughs into his hand, looking to the side, and it just makes it worse. Oh gods, thinks Feng Xin. He feels as though he might explode if he doesn’t say anything. But what should he say?

Then there is a quiet sound, and the two of them freeze. It is muffled, faint, but they both strain their hearing—footsteps.

“Where is he now...” says someone in the distance. The Head Priest.

They look at each other in panic. The embarrassment is still there, writing the relationship between them—it will probably remain until they talk about this properly, popping up whenever it is least wanted. But they have other problems now, and they have always been people who are consumed by single thoughts only.

“He’s found me!” cries Xie Lian, just as Feng Xin says, “Your Highness, you can’t avoid him forever.”

Xie Lian wrings his hands, looking as though he might disintegrate on the spot. “I haven’t done my work! Oh no, I’ve already skipped two lessons. I have to go!” Then he turns to run out the door in a flurry, robes fluttering behind him.

“Not that way! He’ll catch you!”

Xie Lian stops immediately, and then spins around to rush towards the window instead. He opens the shutters and fluidly climbs out, picking up the hems of his clothes as he does. Feng Xin nearly chokes: it is a clean movement, efficient and neat, but it is not fitting for a prince to be hurtling out of a window at all.

Xie Lian pauses for a second, hanging precariously. He looks down at his retainer and his expression turns complicated, his blush starting to return. “Feng Xin,” he blurts. “... Thank you!”

Then he jumps, clearly unwilling to hear a response. Feng Xin runs to the window, and watches as Xie Lian quickly absconds the scene. He moves as fearlessly as ever, as though nothing can stand in his way. Unbidden, a smile rises to his lips.