torch, flambeau@strangeplaces.net
December 17-19 2010

Disclaimer: no real flowers (or gardeners' feelings) were damaged in the writing of this story. Written for starrystarrynight in yuletide 2010. Beta by elynross. Do not archive without permission.

slower and sweeter

"Wake up."

"Nf." Kenren made a sound of the no-I-won't variety. He refused to open his eyes.

"Wake up." Now there was a hand at his shoulder, too. Not shaking him, just gripping, fingers digging in underneath firmly enough that he wondered if he was about to be flipped to the floor.

"Don' wanna."

"This is my bed, you know."

Right. He cracked one eyelid, just barely, and there was Tenpou, wide awake and with that air of cheerful solemnity that meant there was no way of predicting which way he'd jump. "Yeah," Kenren got out. "I wondered if you had one, so I looked around a bit."

"You thought I slept on the floor?"

"I've seen you sleep on a pile of books," Kenren said. "And next to a pile of books. And mostly underneath a pile of books. I wasn't sure you knew about beds at all."

"Ah. And then when you found it, of course you had to try it out."

Kenren snorted. "By the time I found it, I was tired!" He wasn't about to admit that he'd wanted to put his own scent on the pillow. Tenpou likely wouldn't notice, anyway. The man lived too much in his head and not enough in his body.

"It's to be hoped you're done being tired. Goujun's set up training exercises."

Kenren sat bolt upright. "For me? I'm a general! I'm fully trained!"

"One wonders," Tenpou murmured. He sat back at the foot of the bed and watched as Kenren dragged his boots on and stood up, then sat down abruptly as the blood didn't get all the way up to his head for a moment. Only then did he say, "Not just for you personally. For all the squads currently on guard duty in the palace compound. You're in charge of first and second, and he will take third and fourth himself."

Kenren made a second attempt to stand up, and was pleased to find it met with success. "What about fifth and sixth?"

"Apparently my plan to spend the rest of the day reading has to wait." Tenpou stood up as well. "And tomorrow, seventh to twelfth."

Kenren groaned. "A little advance notice would be nice."

"I think this counts as a little." Tenpou went to the window and opened it. "If you read your paperwork, you would have had more, of course." He climbed out the window, which was certainly a faster and more direct route. Kenren considered kicking something, then shrugged and jumped out the window instead, landing in the middle of some lacy white hydrangeas and crushing most of them.

He'd managed to lose the irate gardeners by the time he made it to the training yard.

Goujun had planned everything out, which was good, since Kenren had a feeling his usual improvisation would have landed him in even more trouble than the flower petals clinging to his boots. Strategic napping wasn't on the schedule. And the squads really needed the fighting drills; maybe it was because they'd been on guard duty for too long, standing around one by one or two by two, that they'd lost the smoothness they needed to fight like a unit without taking each other's arms off at the elbow.

All they needed was a bit of reminding, though. Polishing. Kenren grinned and yelled out comments, encouragement, and instructions as the sand of the training yard really did wear down the rough edges, until he could set the squads against each other in a mock battle without worrying about any major injuries. After all, he'd take it kind of personally if the men under his command didn't have the same number of limbs after a training exercise as they did before it.

Once the squads had wrapped up the engagement, and first squad was explaining to second why they'd won, in a way that might start the whole thing over again, Kenren noticed Goujun and Tenpou standing together at one end of the yard. Someone from fourth squad whose name he couldn't remember was saying something to them and looking hopeful. Goujun nodded briefly, and when he and Tenpou faced off against each other, Kenren realized they were going to stage a sword fight demonstration.

Then they started, and no, that was not precisely a demonstration, not at that speed. It was no real surprise that Goujun was as patient as stone and quicker than a striking snake, but Kenren had never really imagined Tenpou with a sword like this, even though he was fairly sure Tenpou was a field marshal on his own merits and not because of the kind of divine intervention that involved powerful relatives and strategic nudging.

What Kenren saw now was that Tenpou with a sword in his hand existed in another world, where time flowed differently and gravity was mostly a distant rumor. This was not a man who lived too much in his head and not enough in his body. It was very clear that Tenpou was aware of his own body, down to the last hair. Kenren grinned. He knew that he himself was very much a physical being, but all he'd seen of Tenpou so far had been an addiction to cerebral pleasures. This... was something of a relief.

Everyone had gathered round to watch the sparring match, cheering and shouting and jostling for a better place -- only it wasn't really a match, Kenren realized. Neither Goujun nor Tenpou fought to win, only for the pleasure of having a sufficiently skilled opponent. The men followed every move with fascination, awe, and respect and... Yes, that was a hint of desire as well, but Kenren was hardly in a position to say anything disapproving about that.

It was very enjoyable to watch these two, particularly as he didn't have to worry about how many arms and legs each would be left with afterward. Probably even Goujun's flying braid was safe, though in Tenpou's place, Kenren would have been tempted.

The sparring didn't end so much as wind down slowly, until Tenpou and Goujun backed away from each other, nodding quietly in agreement that it was over. Goujun looked completely unruffled; Tenpou had a faint smile on his face that made Kenren want to tackle him to the sand and find out which one of them would win a wrestling match.

"Amazing," someone said quietly behind him. Kenren could only agree; a smiling Tenpou was a fine, fine sight.

The men went off at a word from Goujun; their dragon commander never had to raise his voice to be heard. Sheathing his sword, Goujun nodded briefly at Tenpou and Kenren. "Tomorrow," he said, and strode away.

"You two looked like you had fun," Kenren said. He wandered over and slung an arm around Tenpou's shoulders. "And hey, you didn't even give Goujun a haircut."

"Bite your tongue," Tenpou said mildly. Turning under Kenren's arm, he looked towards the buildings and the low sun. "I suppose I can get some reading done now."

Kenren shook his head and pushed them both into motion. He retraced his steps around walls and through gates, and though Tenpou gave him an occasional sidelong glance, there was no protest and no attempt to choose a different route for them.

Back at Tenpou's open bedroom window, Kenren saw that the hydrangeas were in perfect order again. Someone had been busy, replacing and replanting. He also saw that there was a stone just below the window, close to the wall, perfectly placed for someone who wanted to scramble in and out without upsetting the gardeners every time. Tenpou took a long step over the flowers, balanced on the stone and lifted himself over the window sill. "So that's how you do it," Kenren muttered and followed after him.

The bedroom was just as before, but heavy with early-evening shadows, as it faced east. Tenpou stood in the middle of the floor and turned to look at Kenren, every trace of that wild little smile gone. "I really did mean to read."

Kenren shrugged. "So? I've got a nap to get back to."

He threw himself on the bed and crossed his arms behind his head. Tenpou looked reprovingly at him. "Boots!" Kenren just laughed, and Tenpou grabbed his leg and yanked his right boot off, then watched in dismay as a thin stream of sand poured from the bootleg onto the sheets.

"Sorry," Kenren said lazily and waggled his left leg. "Hey, aren't you going to do the other one as well?"

Tenpou dropped the boot on the floor. "I've heard that your superiors are far too lenient with you."

Kenren sat up and pulled off the other boot himself. "You're going to make me do some kind of demonstration with Goujun tomorrow, aren't you."

"It will be good for you," Tenpou said with fine ruthlessness and left the room. When he came back, carrying a lamp, Kenren had scrunched the pillows up into a comfortable nest and was working on perfecting his sprawl. Tenpou gave him a resigned look and sat on the floor, leaning back against the side of the bed and stretching his legs out. Kenren was still debating the wisdom of rolling over to ruffle Tenpou's hair when he fell asleep.

Hunger woke him. When he tipped his head back, he saw that the sky was close to full dark. Kenren rolled to his side and saw that Tenpou was asleep with his head on the mattress, glasses all askew and hair in a tangle. He grinned to himself and sat up, then scooted down until he could get off the bed without pushing Tenpou aside.

Kenren walked slowly out of the bedroom, stubbed his bare toes on a pile of philosophical treatises, and swore under his breath. He navigated out of Tenpou's rooms and into the corridor beyond, and was lucky enough to find a palace servant before he was many steps from the door. "Dinner," he said sleepily. "For two."

The man looked at him, and Kenren became aware that he was barefoot and looked as though he'd just rolled out of bed, since he had, in fact, just rolled out of bed. But the nod he got seemed entirely respectful. Kenren went back through the open door and sat on a stack of encyclopedias to wait. He felt good, warm and relaxed, all the parts of his body at ease with each other.

Maybe the training exercises really had been good for him, not that he was going to tell anybody.

When the servant came back with a laden tray, Kenren got up and took it from him. "Thanks. Close the door when you go, will you?" Which might have been a mistake, he realized when he was left in the near-dark to try to make his way through the labyrinthine paths of Tenpou's rooms without ending up with dinner all over his feet.

He made it all the way back to the bedroom, though, and only when he stepped into the warm lamplight did he look down to see what he was actually carrying. Bowls of rice, skewers with grilled fish and huge prawns rolled in spices, five different sauces, some chopped-up vegetables, a pot of tea... Kenren smiled and set the tray down on the steadiest pile he could see, before poking his toes into Tenpou's leg. "Hey, wake up."

Tenpou made a face. "Ow, my neck." Then he straightened up. "You're still here."

"Yeah, I hear it's like trying to get rid of cockroaches."

Kenren sat down cross-legged on the floor and set out mugs and poured the tea. Tenpou's eyes lit up; he lifted a mug and breathed in the steam as it fogged up his glasses. Kenren reached for the food. The prawns were good; the black sauce made his hair try to stand on end. Tenpou laughed silently at him. "I'm surprised there's no wine."

"Forgot to ask," Kenren said with a shrug.

Tenpou smiled, got up and disappeared into the next room, then came back with a plain brown pottery bottle and two cups. "I'm not such a poor host as all that."

Kenren grinned. "Now that's more like it." He finished eating first, though, and made sure Tenpou ate as well, because he hadn't arranged for dinner just to let it sit around and dry out while they toasted everything they could think of. Then he took his cup and tried to find a comfortable position to sprawl on the floor.

Tenpou watched him squirm for a while, and then said, "Why don't you just get back on the bed."

"Yeah." Kenren climbed up and settled himself with a grin, and started to dig through his pockets. "Hey, do you have any cigarettes?"

Tenpou shook his head. "You don't get to smoke in my bed."

About to protest, Kenren thought about it. He got to sleep there, and drink sake. Smoking wasn't really the next pleasure on his list of things to be done in Tenpou's bed. Instead he said, "Why'm I here and you're on the floor? It's your bed."

"I'm a good host, aren't I?" Tenpou said with a sweet smile. Then he stood up and pushed at Kenren's feet. "Move over."

Kenren moved, but not too far, and when Tenpou sat down their legs pressed against each other. He looked at the wine left in his cup. "To good hosts everywhere," he said, and they both drank to that.

Then they drank to another ten things at random, cigarettes and friendship and good dinners and the scent of flowers on the late evening air, and various quotes Tenpou came up with, things writers in the world below had said, about flowers and war and drinking. Tenpou bent forward and fished up the bottle from the floor, and Kenren slid sideways against the pillows.

When Tenpou sat up again, he turned enough that he could watch Kenren without craning his neck. "It looks as though you're about to sleep in my bed again."

"You could go sleep in mine," Kenren offered. "It's over there somewhere." He waved a hand.

"In the ceiling? Somehow I doubt that."

Tenpou refilled his own cup, and Kenren kicked him. "You're not being a very good host now."

Tenpou smiled a little. "You get to sleep on my bed. Don't push it."

"Hmm." Kenren thought about pushing it anyway, because what fun was life otherwise, but his heart wasn't in it; he was warm and full of delicious food and in the best company he knew, and when he stretched out, Tenpou pinched his ankle but didn't shove his legs away. "I do, don't I." He closed his eyes.

When he woke up again, the bed was unexpectedly crowded. The lamp had been extinguished, but there was enough moonlight through the still-open window for Kenren to see Tenpou lying next to him, and a pile of books and a sword lying next to Tenpou.

Kenren sighed. Well, it was Tenpou's bed. At least he got to share it. He rolled over on his side and put his arm around the lean body next to his; his face ended up in Tenpou's hair, which smelled like smoke and sand and maybe a little like flowers.

When Tenpou didn't wake up, Kenren smiled. There'd be time enough to get in trouble tomorrow.

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