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There is a very, very tiny human sitting in front of him.

Feng Xin thinks he might be having a stroke. Can gods get strokes? He’s never bothered to ask, but now he thinks maybe he should’ve so he could be prepared for when he inevitably had one.

“Um,” he says, blinking rapidly. The child does not disappear. This is not a hallucination.

Feng Xin really wishes this was a hallucination.

He inches closer, not entirely certain that his decision not to pull out his bow is a good one. This could, after all, very easily be a demon. Or worse, it could be an actual child , and the last actual child Feng Xin interacted with was that tiny fucking Crimson Rain, who kicked him in the shin because even at ten (or however old he was, Feng Xin never claimed to be an expert) he was already a fucking gremlin. The kid just stares at him.

“...do you have a name?” And god, he knows it, he already does, but he doesn’t think he’ll believe it until he hears it. 

The kid nods, but still doesn’t say anything. Feng Xin tries again.

“I’m General Nan Yang,” he says, with the little proud smile that always, always accompanies his title, no matter how long it’s been since he received it. He’s not embarrassed, it’s a fucking huge accomplishment, fuck you. And then, “Feng Xin,” because he doesn’t know how old the kid is, and doesn’t want to freak him out and expecting him to call him General might do exactly that. The kid blinks at him, shifting a little on his feet. He’s swimming in his way too big sleeping robes, and when he brings a hand up to rub his eyes, the sleeve flops around like a sail. 

“Mu Qing,” the kid offers at last, blinking up at Feng Xin through his very very messy hair, and Feng Xin really wishes that, just for once, he’d let Mu Qing’s palace handle their own shit. Oh, you haven’t been able to contact your general? Sure is a pity, don’t you have plenty of junior officials who can deal with that? But no, they’d contacted Xie Lian, and Xie Lian had contacted Feng Xin, and Feng Xin hasn’t outright told Xie Lian no since they were twelve , so he’d gone to Mu Qing’s palace, just as a jumping off point. And now there’s a kid. 

Mu Qing. 

Mu Qing is a kid.

Feng Xin needs to sit down.

But not here, because this is Mu Qing’s bedroom, and Feng Xin wouldn’t ordinarily have barged in at all but Xie Lian had asked and Mu Qing is sitting in a puddle of his sleeping robes, silky hair flopping into his eyes. He tries to brush it away, pouting. His hand doesn’t even emerge from his sleeve. He pouts harder.

Feng Xin possibly makes a noise like a tea kettle and sits down right where he’s standing. Because fuck chairs and propriety.

Mu Qing apparently gives up on his hair, because he scoots to the edge of his bed to peer down at Feng Xin, head tipped to the side like an adorable little bird. Feng Xin is going to die .

“Is this your house?” Mu Qing asks after a beat, evidently having decided that waiting for Feng Xin to say something would be a useless endeavor. He keeps looking down at his sleeves. Feng Xin would bet money on the fact that, if his hands were free, he’d be petting the silk of his robe. 

Mu Qing’s mother was a seamstress, Feng Xin remembers. It’s likely he might’ve seen fabrics like this as a child, but Feng Xin doubts he was ever allowed to touch. He looks a little overwhelmed. 

“Mm, no. It’s… a friend’s house,” he decides on saying, even though the word friend sticks in his throat. It tastes like a lie. He chooses not to think about that. “Um. We should get you some proper clothes, don’t you think? Those are a little big on you.” It’s a little alarming that Mu Qing isn’t asking questions like why am I here and when can I go home and who are you , but Feng Xin chooses to count his blessings. He doesn’t have the answers to those questions anyway. At least this gives him time to think about how he’d want to answer. 

Mu Qing looks a little bit like he wants to argue, and that , at least, is a familiar expression. Feng Xin kind of wants to cry. That expression belongs on the face of his Mu Qing, and it should be followed with cutting words spoken in a deceptively gentle voice, and Feng Xin should follow with shouting and cursing and maybe a punch or two. But where his Mu Qing would follow through on that desire, the kid just nods, moving like he’s going to climb off the bed.

Feng Xin is up and moving before he thinks it through, scooping the kid up and settling him on his hip. Mu Qing looks faintly mystified, but he accepts his fate without complaint, and Feng Xin wants to scream

“You really shouldn’t let strangers just pick you up and cart you around,” he scolds Mu Qing, even as he’s carrying the kid out of the bedroom and down the hall, keeping his eyes peeled for one of Mu Qing’s annoying little junior officials. “You could get hurt. Or kidnapped. Do you want to be kidnapped?”

“No thank you,” Mu Qing says politely, settling his head on Feng Xin’s shoulder. Feng Xin’s heart stops. “I’ll be careful, Gege. Promise.” 

If Feng Xin is a little sharper than he usually would be when he snags one of Mu Qing’s junior officials by the collar and demands that he fetch them some children’s clothing, now , well. It’s certainly not to hide the lump that rises into his throat at the feeling of Mu Qing’s warm weight in his arms and the way one of his little hands, newly freed from his sleeve, curls trustingly into Feng Xin’s collar, like he’s certain he’s safe. Like he knows Feng Xin will keep him safe. 

And if Feng Xin bounces him a little, shifts him in his arms so he can hold him just that little bit tighter, well. He was slipping. That’s all.

 

***

 

“And you’re absolutely certain there’s nothing we can do?” Feng Xin is pacing, back and forth. Ling Wen casts him an exasperated look from where she’s examining Mu Qing, who is standing very still and quiet in his new robes. 

Feng Xin had been very grateful when Mu Qing had insisted he was a big boy and could dress himself. He had not gone to pieces at the insistence that he was a big boy , no matter how much he wanted to. He had also not fallen apart at the reluctant look on Mu Qing’s face to relinquish the silky sleeping robe. 

The robe is in a qiankun bag attached at his hip. He doesn’t want to talk about it.

Yes , I’m sure.” Ling Wen’s voice is exhausted, as if this is the hundredth time she’s said this. It’s not. It’s the tenth, at most. “It’s a curse. Xuan Zhen is a child. For how long, I don’t know. But his energy is strong, and other than being… well, a child , he’s fine.” Feng Xin opens his mouth to argue. She raises a hand, silencing him. “I’d be more concerned that trying to break it would have adverse effects. We don’t know what caused it. Without more information, I’d be worried that we could make it worse. He could be a baby. He could be stuck like this permanently. It’s best to wait it out, Nan Yang.” 

She’s being very stern. Feng Xin thinks it would be wise to get out of her palace before she hands him paperwork.

“Thanks for your help.” He holds out a hand to Mu Qing, who scampers over to take it, little ponytail bobbing behind him. 

“Get out of my palace,” is all Ling Wen says. Her words are harsh, but her eyes, when she nods to Mu Qing, are warm.

Feng Xin finds himself feeling rather smug about this. Of course little Mu Qing would charm Ling Wen. Of course . He is, after all, rather adorable.

 

***

 

The smug feeling persists right up until the gates of Ling Wen’s palace close behind him, and then the terror sets in.

“Gege?” Mu Qing tugs at his robes. Feng Xin does not make a tea kettle noise. He does not . “Where’re we going?”

Feng Xin makes up his mind right then, swinging Mu Qing up to settle him on his hip again. “We’re going to visit a friend,” he says decisively, with a little nod for emphasis. Mu Qing’s eyes go wide.

Another friend?” he asks, and before Feng Xin can say anything , he adds, admiringly, “Gege has a lot of friends.” 

Feng Xin has no words. He’s dying. Or maybe he’s ascending all over again, because he feels kind of light and bubbly and surely death doesn’t feel like that

“Um. Sure.” His voice is gruff. He clears his throat. 

He jumps down to the mortal world before Mu Qing can say anything else embarrassing.

 

***

 

Puqi Shrine is less dilapidated than Feng Xin remembers it being. Certainly not a temple worthy of Dianxia , but. Well. Xie Lian is happy, and Feng Xin has spent too long making him sad to voice his opinions on something so small.

Mu Qing is peering around with interest. He’s clearly impressed, utterly unphased by the transition from the grandeur of the palaces of the Upper Court to the significantly less grand shrine where Xie Lian has made himself a home. Feng Xin just watches him, unwilling to pull his attention away. His face is so open like this, pleasure clearly written across his features, and Feng Xin… well, he doesn’t want to take that away.

Xie Lian spares him from having to do so, because one moment it’s just Feng Xin and Mu Qing, sharing a peaceful moment in the courtyard, and the next there’s a flurry of loose brown hair and white robes and then there’s Xie Lian, standing frozen just a few steps away where he’d clearly realized that Feng Xin hadn’t come alone. 

“Feng Xin! You… where did you get that child?” His cheeks are flushed. Feng Xin eyes him suspiciously.

“Your Highness,” he greets Xie Lian, inclining his head in a little bow. The child in his arms shifts, and then there’s a quiet voice at his ear, a little hand tugging at the neck of his robes.

“You’re friends with a prince ?” Mu Qing asks, and Feng Xin chuckles at the note of excitement in his voice.

“Mhmm.” Xie Lian is still watching them with interest, and then he must catch sight of Mu Qing’s face, because he squeaks, hands flying up to press against his mouth. Feng Xin sighs, fond. “Aren’t you going to invite us in, Your Highness?” 

Xie Lian squeaks again, flustered, and waves them inside. All of his hosting manners clearly went out the window at the sight of little Mu Qing. Feng Xin rather likes him better this way. He makes a move to put Mu Qing down, because the kid can walk after all, he’s not an infant, but Mu Qing immediately clings to him, burying his face in his neck. Feng Xin freezes.

“He’s so cute ,” he hears Xie Lian whisper, but it sounds very far away. Feng Xin’s world has narrowed to a single point, all of his attention on the tiny child currently clinging to him like a limpet. “Um,” he says helplessly, and feels Xie Lian’s hands on his back, pushing him into the shrine as he clucks and scolds him, like he wasn’t just a statue himself just five seconds prior. 

Mu Qing does not let go. Feng Xin resigns himself to his fate.

“Feng Xin and a friend came to visit!” he hears Xie Lian chirp, and the white noise in his ears stops just in time to hear a menacing chuckle. Fuck .

He should’ve known better, when he saw Xie Lian looking all flushed and rumpled. Where Xie Lian is, Crimson Rain is bound to follow sooner or later to defile him. It was only a matter of time before he showed up, if he wasn’t here already.

“I’m Mu Qing,” Mu Qing informs the room at large from his hiding place in Feng Xin’s shoulder, and Crimson Rain breaks off his disgusting nuzzling of Xie Lian’s shoulder to stare. Feng Xin wishes he wouldn’t.

The eyepatch-pirate-demon thing is creepy .

“You’re Mu Qing,” Crimson Rain repeats, and Feng Xin huffs, shifting Mu Qing a little higher in his arms. 

“That’s what he just said ,” he informs the Crimson Creep tartly, ignoring Xie Lian’s pleading look. A glance at Mu Qing reveals that the kid is also frowning at Crimson Rain. Good. At least his instincts weren’t cursed too.

“It’s lovely to meet you, Mu Qing,” Xie Lian cuts in smoothly before Crimson Rain can say anything rude back. Mu Qing shifts his gaze to Xie Lian. Xie Lian smiles warmly. Feng Xin resists the urge to stick his tongue out at Crimson Rain, because that would be childish, and he’s trying to set a good example . Whatever that means.

“I’m six,” Mu Qing says, twisting in Feng Xin’s arms to hold up six fingers. Feng Xin isn’t surprised that the kid immediately warmed up to Xie Lian. He can’t exactly blame him. 

Xie Lian’s smile brightens. “You’re six ?” he echoes, somehow making this simple fact sound like the most exciting thing to ever occur in the entire universe. “You’re so big !” 

Mu Qing brightens. Feng Xin takes the opportunity to set him on the ground. Mu Qing immediately clings to his leg, but at least he doesn’t insist on being picked up again. Feng Xin really shouldn’t encourage this clinginess. 

Not when he knows Mu Qing - his Mu Qing - would be pissed to find out that, in his cursed state, he was clinging to Feng Xin like a baby . Even though he is a baby. Still. Mu Qing hates touching people. Especially Feng Xin shaped people.

Maybe he's enjoying this a bit. It's fine. He's fine. Everything's fine.

“You’re pretty,” Mu Qing informs Xie Lian with all the candidness of a child, and Xie Lian laughs, getting right down on his knees so he’s at Mu Qing’s eye level. Crimson Rain watches, and Feng Xin is ready . One wrong move, and he’s taking the kid (and Xie Lian) and leaving

Crimson Rain is smiling. Fondly. It’s terrifying. Feng Xin revises his plan. Maybe he won’t take Xie Lian. That might end up poorly for all involved, after all.

“You’re pretty too!” Xie Lian is laughing, and pinching Mu Qing’s cheek, and Mu Qing is smiling back. Brightly. 

He’s missing a tooth, one of the bottom front ones, and Feng Xin’s heart hurts. 

“Are you really a prince?” Mu Qing asks, and Feng Xin blinks, because when did Mu Qing decide that Xie Lian’s lap was preferable to Feng Xin’s leg? Xie Lian is holding him close though, looking so so happy, and Feng Xin can’t find it in himself to complain.

Mu Qing seems to like being held. It shouldn’t matter who he’s being held by.

“I was,” Xie Lian assures him, bouncing him gently. “Now I’m just Xie Lian. And this is my husband, Hua Cheng.” Mu Qing eyes Crimson Rain suspiciously. Good. Crimson Rain stares back. There’s a beat. Feng Xin might be holding his breath.

“Mm,” Mu Qing says at last, sounding unimpressed, and Feng Xin can’t help it. He bursts out laughing, only laughing harder when Crimson Rain looks slightly miffed. It’s glorious . Xie Lian tries to look stern, but his lips are twitching. Mu Qing is smiling, looking a little confused, like he knows something is funny but doesn’t understand why. Feng Xin scoops him right up out of Xie Lian’s lap and tosses him in the air like his own father had done with him, all those centuries ago.

Mu Qing bursts into peals of laughter, childish and delighted and incandescently happy, and Feng Xin could burst .

 

***

 

It’s some time later when Xie Lian tears himself away from where he’s been sprawled on the floor, flipping through the pages of a cultivation manual and explaining the sword forms to a wide eyed Mu Qing, and announces that he’s making dinner.

“I’d love it if you joined us,” he adds in Feng Xin’s direction, and Feng Xin barely suppresses the shudder of horror at the prospect.

“Gege, can I?” Mu Qing bounces up and over to Feng Xin, tugging at his sleeve. “Can I eat?” 

Feng Xin notices Crimson Rain frowning, but doesn’t think much of it, choosing to focus his attention on scooping Mu Qing up and away . “No,” he says quickly, and Mu Qing’s face falls. “We can see Xie Lian later.” 

They return to the heavens, and when Mu Qing says at dinner that night that he’s not hungry, Gege, he’d like to go to bed now please, Feng Xin knows to worry, but doesn’t know why . Kids aren’t always hungry, right? It’s fine. He’s fine.

 

***

 

It’s not until a few days later that he realizes no, things are not fine. 

It’s the first day since he found Mu Qing that he’s left him alone with his junior officials, saying he needed a few hours, please, just a few hours to do paperwork so Ling Wen didn’t murder him in his sleep and then give him more paperwork

Mu Qing had been quiet since the visit to Xie Lian. Granted, Feng Xin had only had him in his care for a few hours prior, but he still thought it was strange. Were kids supposed to be this subdued? Feng Xin wasn’t super familiar with kids, not like Mu Qing was, but it felt like something was off.

He wasn’t quite at the point where he’d go begging Pei Ming for help, but it was getting there. Pei Ming was an ass, but at least he knew what to do with kids. He’d had so many of them, Feng Xin was sure. He at least had experience.

Mu Qing hadn’t fought when Feng Xin had told him he was going to play with his junior officials, but he hadn’t seemed excited either, and the look on his little face haunted Feng Xin in the hours he locked himself in his office. It was difficult for him to focus on the best of days. Knowing that Mu Qing was in his palace feeling off made focusing nearly impossible.

Finally, he pushes his papers away and stands, stretching until his spine cracks, and then releases himself from his self-imposed prison. Sunlight . How beautiful.

His junior officials had been under strict orders to stick to just a couple of rooms - he didn’t want Mu Qing getting lost , even though he’d been to the palace before. He was too tiny. Too easy to lose. 

It made it easy to find them, if nothing else, though the sight that greets him is troubling.

“We didn’t know what to do,” one says, and Feng Xin frowns. 

“Mu Qing? What are you doing?” Mu Qing looks up, clutching a broom in his tiny hands. It’s taller than he is. He looks scared, and Feng Xin immediately tries to soften his approach, kneeling at his eye level.

“Sweeping,” Mu Qing says at last, and doesn’t resist when Feng Xin eases the broom out of his hands. He hands it off to his officials, and they disappear, hopefully to put the broom out of reach. 

“Why?” Feng Xin reaches out to Mu Qing, and Mu Qing immediately takes the opportunity to curl up in his lap, clinging to his robes. Feng Xin cradles him close, rocking him gently. Fuck. 

“Gotta.” It’s a one word answer muffled by fabric, and Feng Xin frowns over Mu Qing’s head where he’s sure the kid can’t see. What the fuck?

“Why?” he asks again, sure that he’s fucking this up somehow, though he’s not sure how or how badly. Mu Qing cuddles closer, balling both hands in Feng Xin’s robes. He’s shaking. Feng Xin holds him tighter.

“Wanna eat,” Mu Qing says at last, and Feng Xin’s stomach drops like a stone. “G-gege said I couldn’t.” He pauses, and Feng Xin doesn’t know what to say. Doesn’t know how to fix this. Mu Qing pushes on. “Mama said we gotta work for food. She sews. I can’t do anything .” Feng Xin squeezes even tighter, and Mu Qing doesn’t protest. He’s sniffling, using Feng Xin’s robes to scrub at his eyes. Feng Xin eases his hands away, both of Mu Qing’s hands fitting into one of Feng Xin’s.

“You can eat,” he says lamely, his stomach twisting at the disbelieving look Mu Qing gives him. “His Highness is just a really bad cook . You can’t eat his food. Only Crimson Rain can eat his food. But I have food here. You can eat it.” Mu Qing still looks unsure, and Feng Xin stands. He’s not sure where his kitchen is, but he does know where his junior officials are, and they know where the kitchen is. Hopefully. “We’ll eat now, okay? You just… gotta tell me when you’re hungry. And we can eat.”

Mu Qing nods, a tiny little blip of a thing, but he cuddles into Feng Xin’s arms and Feng Xin is pretty sure he believes him. He really, really hopes he does, anyway.

 

***

 

He doesn’t.

Feng Xin comes to this horrifying realization when he’s informed that there are ants . In his palace.

“We’re going to fight some nasty beasties,” he tells Mu Qing, who nods, very determined and fierce. It’s adorable.

He follows the trail of ants into the library, and as he approaches the shelves, Mu Qing stops short, tugging at his hand. Feng Xin frowns.

“What? What’s wrong?”

Mu Qing shrinks, looking very very tiny. He’s six . He looks afraid . Feng Xin wants to punch something .

“Hey.” He sits right on the floor with Mu Qing, and Mu Qing throws himself into Feng Xin’s lap, clinging with all of his strength. Feng Xin rocks him, bemused. “Talk to me,” he encourages the kid quietly, ready to fly out and fight whoever or whatever made him so afraid. “I won’t be mad. I promise.”

Mu Qing looks away, staring at the ant trail. Feng Xin waits. He’s being very patient. He’s pretty proud of himself.

“...you won’t be mad?” he asks at last, little fingers worrying at Feng Xin’s collar. Feng Xin catches his hands and squeezes gently.

Promise ,” Feng Xin says earnestly, and Mu Qing squeezes his eyes shut. "I made the ants happen," he says, and Feng Xin takes this as his cue to follow the ant trail to the source.

Two stale buns. A handful of shriveled grapes. A few slices of carrot.

Fuck.

“Mu Qing?” Mu Qing clings to him, shaking his head. Feng Xin rubs his back, unsure. He’s not good at this shit. Kids. Emotions. Mu Qing was better at understanding all that, even if he wasn’t the best at not being a dick about it. 

Feng Xin misses him so fiercely it aches.

“Are you… are you worried we’ll run out of food?” he guesses, feeling horribly awkward. He’d take help from anywhere at this point. Even Crimson Rain. Maybe. “Or… that I won’t feed you?”

Mu Qing sniffles. “Sometimes food is ex-expensive,” he explains at last, tripping over his words. “Gotta save it… Mama said so.” 

Feng Xin did not grow up like Mu Qing did. He knows this. He does, however, remember what it was like to be stressed and exhausted and hungry and low on money, and cannot imagine what it must’ve been like to raise a kid while also feeling all of those things. He holds Mu Qing closer. 

“Not here,” he says firmly. “We don’t run out of food here.” Mu Qing gives him a disbelieving look, complete with an arched eyebrow. Feng Xin’s stomach hurts. “I’m a god ,” he insists, mimicking Mu Qing’s look. It’s difficult to raise just one eyebrow, but he manages. “Gods don’t go hungry. And you won’t go hungry.”

Mu Qing thinks about this. “What about Mama?” he asks, all wide eyed and six years old and unaware that he’s tearing Feng Xin’s heart to shreds. “Will she go hungry?” Feng Xin shakes his head, trying for a reassuring smile. He’s pretty sure he just looks constipated.

“No,” he lies. “No, we’ll take care of her too.” 

It’s kinder to lie. But he still feels guilty as hell about it.

 

***

 

They’re back at Puqi Shrine, Mu Qing having been thrilled at the prospect of spending an evening with his Prince Gege - though Feng Xin had made sure they had eaten before they left, so as to avoid getting caught unawares by Xie Lian’s culinary disasters - and this time Xie Lian is alone. Hua Cheng is busy, he’d explained when they arrived, but Feng Xin hadn’t cared beyond that. It was just the three of them. Just like old times.

Sort of.

Granted, in old times, Mu Qing hadn’t been six years old and curled up under one of his own sleeping robes, his head pillowed on Feng Xin’s thigh. He’s sound asleep, his thumb in his mouth, and Feng Xin doesn’t have the heart to make him stop, even though he knows he probably should. 

Does it really count as forming a bad habit when this childhood is only temporary? He hopes not.

“How are you coping?” Xie Lian asks in a hushed voice, careful not to wake Mu Qing. Xie Lian is rarely still, always bustling around and getting into various kinds of trouble, but this is one of those truly peaceful moments that come so few and far between. Feng Xin shrugs, gazing down at the sleeping boy in his lap.

“He’s… Mu Qing.” He shrugs again, avoiding Xie Lian’s knowing look. Xie Lian has the worst knowing looks. They strip right down to Feng Xin’s core and leave him raw and aching, and he’s never gotten used to them. 

“You miss him.” It’s not a question. Xie Lian shifts so he’s leaning against Feng Xin’s back, pressed against him like they’re kids again. Just two kids, fingers intertwined, telling secrets under the velvet blanket of the night sky, cherries staining their lips. Feng Xin sighs, tipping his head back to rest on Xie Lian’s own.

“You miss Crimson Rain.” He’s well aware that it’s a horrible comparison. He doesn’t care. It’s Xie Lian.

“I love him,” Xie Lian says simply, and Feng Xin feels his slender hand come to rest on his own larger one. He used to tease Xie Lian about having spider fingers, about having knobbly knuckles, and Xie Lian would laugh and jab his fingers into Feng Xin’s ribs until they were both doubled over laughing and swatting at each other. Those fingers are comforting now in their familiarity, and Feng Xin flips his hand over, palm up, to accept Xie Lian’s squeeze.

“What’s it like?” he asks, because it’s Xie Lian, and no one has ever understood his whole heart like Xie Lian does. Xie Lian hums, tipping his head just a little so it’s resting on Feng Xin’s shoulder. 

“Like there’s a piece of me that was missing. And now it’s not anymore.” Feng Xin closes his eyes, takes a shaky breath.

Fuck ,” he says, with feeling, and Xie Lian laughs, squeezing his hand again.

“Fuck,” he agrees, and the weight on Feng Xin’s chest lessens, just a little. Just enough.

 

***

 

It’s been days. A week. A week and a half. And Mu Qing is still six years old. He’s bright, beautiful, happy , and Feng Xin adores him, but.

He’s six.

He’s six, and just because he was smart enough to be wary around Crimson Rain, does not mean that the same wariness applies when he is confronted with Pei Ming. 

Feng Xin understands. Pei Ming is gorgeous. He’s friendly. He’s strong. He always seems to have treats in his pockets, which he produced upon meeting Mu Qing and won his eternal devotion. (Feng Xin is not jealous. He’s not.)

However. These qualities do not outweigh the fact that Pei Ming is an obnoxious asshole, and no child should ever be exposed to him.

Ever .

And yet, somehow Feng Xin has been roped into nervously fluttering on the doorstep of Puqi Shrine as Xie Lian and Pei Ming teach Mu Qing sword forms in the courtyard, his chubby little hand wrapped around a wooden practice sword and a determined pout on his face.

“Relax,” Crimson Rain drawls, kicking a foot at the back of Feng Xin’s knee. Feng Xin will not kill him. He will not .

“He’s a baby,” he hisses back, eyes firmly fixed on Mu Qing. He looks so small . “Babies should not be playing with swords.”

“He’s a fucking martial god,” Crimson Rain says with a wave of his hand and an eye roll that almost - but not quite - rivals one of Mu Qing’s. “And Gege is an excellent teacher. He’s fine.”

“He’s playing with swords with Pei Ming, ” Feng Xin snaps back, his voice rising. Immediately, he checks to make sure that he wasn’t overheard. Pei Ming catches his eye and winks. Feng Xin looks away, cheeks heating. “He’s six ,” he adds, quieter this time. “He might be a martial god, but he’s six , and he could get hurt.”  

Crimson Rain makes a considering noise, eyeing Feng Xin. Feng Xin squirms.

What?!”

Crimson Rain smirks, standing.

“You should’ve just told him you were in love with him. Like, ages ago. Saved us all a headache.” He strolls away as Feng Xin splutters, and demands to switch with Pei Ming like the arrogant, domineering asshole he is. Pei Ming takes it in stride, ruffling Mu Qing’s hair and saying something that makes him light up like a thousand lanterns, and Feng Xin…

Feng Xin is not jealous.

He just doesn’t think that encouraging babies to be playing with swords is a good idea. That’s all.

“He’s a good kid,” Pei Ming says when he reaches his side, elbowing Feng Xin in the ribs. “You’re doing good.”

Feng Xin pretends that that doesn’t make him feel as good as it does. He’s not sure he succeeds.

“I’m not doing anything,” he says. “He’s just like that.” 

Pei Ming raises an eyebrow at him, and Feng Xin shifts away instinctively. Fucker.

“You let him feel safe to be like that,” Pei Ming says, and Feng Xin kind of wants to check for possession because there’s no way Pei “Ho Ho” Ming is this fucking observant of anything but a woman’s figure. “He loves you.” Feng Xin scoffs.

“Bullshit.”

“Serious. Call him over.”

Feng Xin gives him the stink eye, but obeys, because fuck, he’s got nothing to lose, right? And when he does, Mu Qing’s face lights up, brighter than the fucking sun, and he’s dropping the wooden practice sword and running, and Feng Xin is catching him up and swinging around in his arms like it’s pure instinct, and Mu Qing is laughing, and.

And.

Pei Ming is still a dick.

 

***

 

That night, he can’t sleep. Mu Qing lies next to him, curled up like a shrimp, his thumb in his mouth. Feng Xin cradles him closer, dropping a kiss on his hair.

“I hope you’re happy,” he says quietly. Mu Qing’s eyelashes flutter. Feng Xin hopes it’s a good dream. He adds, “I hope I made you happy,” because he’s a hopeless bastard and even though he misses his god, he’s liked seeing his smile.

Mu Qing as a teenager, and later as an adult, was always so cautious . So quick to assume that people thought the worst of him, so easy to anger. So difficult to love, but even more difficult to hate. Feng Xin certainly had never managed it, even when he’d wanted to.

“I’m going to make you happy,” he promises, more to himself than to Mu Qing. “When you’re back. I’m going to make you smile, and not just because you’re glad you beat me at something. You’re going to smile because of me .”

It’s so stupid. He knows it’s stupid. He doesn’t care.

He drifts off curled protectively around Mu Qing, determined to keep him safe even in sleep. As long as the kid is happy, Feng Xin is happy. That’s what’s important. Not his feelings. Not his aches. Just this.

 

***

 

Feng Xin wakes up to a warm weight cuddled up against his side and an arm thrown over his chest. Over the past week, he’s grown accustomed to sharing his bed - that much, at least, is not new. But when he peeks down at his bedmate to find a fully grown Mu Qing, very nude, very asleep, that . Well. That is new.

He chances a kiss to the top of Mu Qing’s head, brushing his lips over silky silver hair, and Mu Qing mumbles something, shifting so he’s tucked more firmly into Feng Xin’s side. His head is on Feng Xin’s chest. He is using Feng Xin as a pillow .

“Stop fucking moving ,” Mu Qing grumbles, and Feng Xin freezes, because what the fuck .

“You’re awake?!” He can’t see his face, but he knows Mu Qing rolls his eyes. It makes him smile.

“I wasn’t until you started flailing around like an idiot ,” Mu Qing snaps, his voice muffled by Feng Xin’s sleeping robes. “It’s hard fucking work being six, shut the fuck up and let me sleep .” 

Feng Xin boldly strokes his fingers through Mu Qing’s hair. Mu Qing sighs, resigned. Feng Xin smiles like an idiot.

“Language, General,” he scolds quietly, though there’s no heat to it. Mu Qing’s breath is warm through the thin fabric of his sleeping robes. Feng Xin thinks Mu Qing might be smiling. He holds him a little tighter. A little closer. 

“Thanks,” Mu Qing mumbles, though it’s so quiet Feng Xin can barely hear him. “For. You know. Keeping me alive and shit.” 

Feng Xin has never been more grateful for the dark. He can feel himself blushing.

It’s ridiculous, that all it takes is one thank you from this man and he’s blushing like a maiden.

“‘S no big deal.” He strokes Mu Qing’s hair again, trailing his fingers down his bare shoulder. Mu Qing sighs contently, and Feng Xin’s heart swells . “You were sweet,” he adds, feeling a little mischievous. Mu Qing seems too sleepy to notice. “Called me ‘Gege.’” 

Mu Qing whines , turning to hide his face more securely in Feng Xin’s chest. Feng Xin might be floating. He’s not sure at this point. 

“Love you,” he tacks on, voice low. And then he quickly backtracks, because he’s an idiot, and because Mu Qing has popped up to stare at him, leaning on one elbow. He’s very close. “I mean! We’re your friends, you know? Me and Xie Lian. Dianxia. We’re your friends , always were, you were just such an ass no one wanted to say anything because you’d probably bite their heads off or something!” 

It’s dark, but he knows Mu Qing is flushed. He knows

“You were so cute as a kid, you know?” Feng Xin barrels on determinedly, because if he just keeps talking, Mu Qing can’t . “Trusting and shit. Clingy. Easy to take care of, easy to care about , why can’t you be nice like that now, huh?” Mu Qing is still staring. Feng Xin squirms. 

“Say it again,” Mu Qing demands finally, silver hair tumbling over his shoulders. The sunrise is peeking through the window, casting Mu Qing in its glow, and it’s Feng Xin’s turn to stare as Mu Qing is turned to bronze under its warmth. Mu Qing promptly goes red again, but his gaze doesn’t waver. 

Determined fucker, that one. Feng Xin has always hated that about him.

“Say what again?” he hedges, shifting so there’s a little bit of distance between them. He’s not sure how they went from cuddling to a stare down. 

This is why he doesn’t open his mouth. This is why he tends to turn things into a fistfight instead. It’s so much easier not to blurt out I love you you impossible asshole when someone’s intent on giving you two black eyes. 

“You know what.” And Mu Qing still isn’t backing down. Feng Xin pulls the covers over his head. He can feel the eye roll.

“Just forget it, okay? I know you don’t… whatever. Forget it.”

He doesn’t expect Mu Qing to duck under the blankets with him, doesn’t expect him to cuddle up close again, doesn’t expect him to kiss him . Feng Xin feels like lava. He turns to ice. He’s feeling several very intense emotions and any one of them could explode him. It’s very precarious.

“You took care of me ,” Mu Qing insists in the dark. His nose brushes Feng Xin’s. His hair is tumbling over both of them in a sweet smelling curtain. Feng Xin is dying. “ You did.”

“You were six , of course I did!” Feng Xin isn’t sure where he managed to scrape the brain cells together to argue back. He’s sort of proud of himself.

“You could’ve left me with Xie Lian. Or Pei Ming. Or, fuck, in the care of my junior officials.” Mu Qing is being too intense about this , Feng Xin thinks. 

“It wasn’t that big of a deal,” is what he says out loud, and Mu Qing groans , dropping his forehead onto Feng Xin’s collarbone. Feng Xin immediately kisses the top of his head. Because he’s an idiot.

“It was a big deal!” Mu Qing insists, and really, Feng Xin is proud of him for being able to express this many emotions at once. He’ll probably need to sleep for a week after this. Feng Xin will happily hold him for all of it. “You l-loved me.” Predictably, he trips over the word, and Feng Xin finally wraps both of his arms around Mu Qing’s tiny waist, squeezing.

“I love you,” he agrees, holding Mu Qing tighter when he feels the full body shudder that runs down his spine. “Loved you. Love you. Dumbass.” 

Mu Qing huffs a laugh. It sounds shaky. Feng Xin chooses not to call him on it, because he’s good like that. “Stay,” he says instead, and Mu Qing nods immediately, settling his face into the crook of Feng Xin’s neck. Yesterday, a tiny kid did the same thing. This is infinitely better.

“Love you,” Mu Qing murmurs into Feng Xin’s skin, and Feng Xin is very proud of him for saying it without stuttering. 

There’s a beat where they breathe together, Feng Xin’s fingers trailing a path up and down Mu Qing’s spine, Mu Qing taking a moment to free them from their blanket cave and then returning to his pillow of Feng Xin’s shoulder, curling his fingers in the neck of Feng Xin’s robes just like he did as his smaller self.

There’s another beat. A breath.

“...You know, I really wouldn’t mind if you still wanted to call me Gege. At least in private. It’s cute.”

When Mu Qing rises up with a war cry, using his pillow as a weapon to beat Feng Xin into submission, Feng Xin is laughing.