Chapter 56

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written by kakashi and MiniOrchid, with input by Chimera


Upon his arrival at the Crystal Palace, Die Feng found his poor parents in great distress. His mother's eyes were red and swollen and his father wrung his hands repeatedly, as he was wont to do when under a lot of pressure.

"It is a great calamity," the King of the Western Seas lamented, "the East Sea is accusing us of reneging on our promises!"

"Surely," Die Feng said more calmly than he felt, "they will be reasonable? We need a bit of time to investigate what has happened to Da-Ge but we will be able to sort this out."

"Reasonable?", snuffled the Queen, "these people are not reasonable! They never were! I was against this marriage, from the very beginning!"

"Please calm yourself, wife," the King said, "what good is it now to regret?"

"My poor Die Yong," the Queen sobbed, "I have never before seen him so happy. No wonder...," her voice trailed off as she sniffled more vehemently.

That and the look his father threw his mother after her statement gave Die Feng pause. He bowed.

"Mother, may I ask you to explain? If I am to find Da-Ge, I need to know exactly what happened before his disappearance."

But his mother just continued to sob into an elegant embroidered handkerchief and his father continued to look worried and... uncomfortable.

Ah. Some understanding dawned on Die Feng.

Die Feng's memories of Die Yong during his childhood were infused with great admiration for his sturdy older brother. However, there also had been a lot of silent and not so silent tears, because his Da-Ge had often excluded him, the little one, from playing with him and his friends. They had run away as quickly as they were able to, sometimes even taunting die Feng for his short legs. But even back then, Die Feng had been persistent - he had searched for the older children until he had found them or until they had all returned to the palace by their own volition.

It had been during one of those times that Die Feng had seen from behind a coral wall how his brother had kissed another boy: the chubby older son of one of the guards. Little Die Feng had not talked to anyone about it even though he had had questions. He had suspected from things he had heard that this was not something that people condoned and he did not want his brother to be scolded or teased. So he had kept quiet, always, except for a few times when his brother had come to him, to ease his heart.

Given his knowledge of his brother's leaning, the announcement of Die Yong's marriage to the Eastern Sea princess during the festival had caused Die Feng some sympathetic heartache. But he had also trusted his brother to do what was his duty and responsibility as a firstborn - produce an heir and secure the kingdom with this alliance, as he had assured him he would.

"Has he...," he began, and felt immediate discomfort. He was certain his parents knew about his brother's preferences, but what little Die Feng had sensed was of course correct: In contrast to how some other tribes handled the love between same-sex partners, the Water Kingdoms had always preferred to condemn, or at minimum, pointedly ignore it.

His father looked away and his mother sobbed some more, but she nodded slightly as she dabbed her tears away. Die Feng sighed inwardly. He needed a little more if he wanted to have a clue where to start the search. But he was not going to ask it from his parents.

"Mother, father," he declared, "I will take care of this situation, do not worry. I will set it right."

***

His brother's actions angered Die Feng, there was no use in denying it, even though he did not show his displeasure to anyone as he assembled the search team. In fact, he did feel betrayed by Die Yong's selfishness despite all the love and respect he felt for his brother. To be able to follow one's heart was a luxury the Crown Prince of the Western Sea's had never had - just like Die Feng knew his parents would choose a suitable match for him, Die Yong had always known he would be married to someone opportune for the Kingdom. It was how things were done and there was no use in trying to change it.

It required a lot of tact and quite a bit of persistence to shed some additional light into this affair. The servants were afraid to talk, fearing they would offend their Master, but Die Feng's obvious urgency that was slowly turning into desperation must have finally convinced them that it was necessary to share what they knew.

It had been love at first sight, they said. A new guard, a polite and quiet man, assigned to ensure Die Yong's personal safety. Meetings had been easy and natural, and passion - the servants had not used the word, but Die Feng could deduce this from what was said - had taken over. Not long ago, both men had disappeared, without a trace. Some of the First Prince things were missing, the report was, it seemed like a clear case of elopement.

That had eased some of Die Feng's worries in the beginning. Having a tendency to fret more than what was really necessary, he had convinced himself that it had to be something very sinister - Cheng Yin kidnapping his brother, for example - and therefore, an elopement seemed like the minor problem. However, as the initial relief faded, he had realized that maybe, it was worse than a kidnapping. If the Eastern Sea heard about his brother's willing elopement with a man...

He felt urgency, then, because he needed to find his brother fast or an immense scandal could shake their house - and worse. The tensions in all the realms were steadily rising and he knew that his Shifu was trying daily to convince the major tribes to join the Celestial cause. If the Eastern Sea were to take more offense, they were likely to withdraw their offer for troops, especially because of Die Feng's family's well-known connections to Kunlun.

The small search party was ready to be deployed in a reasonably short time. Where to start looking was another question, but Die Yong's assumed lover was known to be from a somewhat poorly town in the border region between the Western and the Northern Water Kingdom, so Die Feng had decided to start the search there.

It was a wild goose chase. Wherever he and his men turned, nobody had seen two men fitting the description. With every sunset and with every sunrise, Die Feng felt his desperation grow. What if his brother was not to be found at all? What if?

He had no clue where else to look when they happened to run into a group of Eastern Sea soldiers patrolling their border in the evening of the 4th day. In his urgency, Die Feng had led his search party further and further, until they had almost hit the Eastern Sea territory. It was something he could not quite understand when he thought about it later, but maybe his mind had stopped working entirely or maybe, a part of him had simply wished for this period of uncertainty to be over and for something to happen.

A party of soldiers at their own border would not have been such a big deal, but fate wanted it that the Eastern King was there himself, on inspection. He recognized Die Feng immediately. His eyes narrowed as he swept them over the bedraggled party.

"Second Prince," he said slowly, "this is an unexpected surprise."

"King of the Eastern Seas," Die Feng bowed, "it is my pleasure to meet you again."

"What brings you to our border?" Donghai Shuijin asked.

"We were...training," Die Feng said, unsure about how much details the King knew about their predicament. He had to fight his instinctive dislike of this man who should become his brother-in-law.

"I see," said the King and smiled, but the smile didn't reach his eyes. He obviously did not believe Die Feng. "You train on your allies' territories? You must share the reason with me, I'm intrigued."

He looked up to the sky. "It is going to rain soon," he remarked, "and by the looks of it, it's going to be quite a downpour. Why don't you and your men join us at our camp? It is not far from here and we can even spare a tent or two for your party until you have time to put up your own tents."

Die Feng feigned gratitude for such a generous offer, even if his head kept telling him to disengage and run.

The first heavy drops started falling when they reached the small encampment of the border guards. After showing the Western Sea men where they could put their things, the King of the Eastern Seas led Die Feng to his own tent and bid him to sit down. Uttering apologies for the limited luxuries, he sent one of his soldiers for tea and positioned himself on the floor opposite of Die Feng.

"What news do you bring from your own Kingdom?" Donghai Shuijin asked and leisurely polished a piece of metal on his armor.

"All is quiet," Die Feng said and quenched an urge to look at his own armor, which he knew to be quite dirty.

"So has your brother returned?" the King asked and blew a few specks of dust away from another part of his armor. The rain started hammering onto the roof of the tent, indeed a downpour, like the King had predicted.

Die Feng had never learnt how to lie. So he decided it was the better strategy to say nothing and let the Eastern Sea King further disclose how much he already knew or suspected.

However, as if on cue for his rescue out of this unpleasant situation, there was a sudden, huge commotion outside, with cursing, shouting, and the sound of bodies being hit. Die Feng and the King of the Eastern Seas jumped up in alarm and ran outside.

The grassy patch on which the encampment was situated was already turning into a mud-pit, all the more so because at least a dozen men were trying to hold down something struggling in their middle. While they were attempting to find a good foothold to apply pressure, their feet kept slipping on the ground, leaving brown, ugly streaks in their wake. Bodies were being thrown into the air and more soldiers poured in to join the melee.

"Let me go," a well-known voice shouted, "I am here to see Die Feng!"

Die Feng groaned. Not possible. She could not really be here, could she?

"I come in peace!" she shouted again and blasted herself free.

A very muddy Demon Princess appeared in a gap between now twenty Celestial soldiers. Their eyes locked. A wonderful smile spread across her face when she saw him standing there.

"Die Feng!" Li Ying shouted, "I have found you!"

Shouldering aside soldiers, she came rushing towards Die Feng, but slipped on the wet grass and almost fell. Instantly, the soldiers jumped on her again.

"The Yellow Demon Princess ," the King said astounded as he recognized her. "Stand down!" he bellowed at his men.

The soldiers immediately complied, but glared sullenly at the Yellow Princess who scrambled up again and gingerly stepped forward to where Die Feng and the Eastern Sea King were standing. She managed to clear the worst of the mud off her face thanks to the water pouring from the sky and smiled happily at Die Feng again. She was the most beautiful and the most frightening thing Die Feng could imagine seeing in this situation.

"Another unexpected guest," Donghai Shuijin said, his brows furrowed in honest puzzlement.

"I am helping Die Feng track his brother!" Li Ying said eagerly, "I have come to report that I-"

"Demon Princess," Die Feng said in a desperate attempt to prevent what was a point of no return he was not ready to reach yet, "can I escort you to one of the tents, for warmth and shelter?"

"I have found him!" she exclaimed and stepped closer to grab Die Feng's arm, "I have seen where he and his bodyguard are living! They went to the mortal realm together!"

Instant silence came over the group gathered there. It was like the world stood still, frozen in a moment of shocking revelation, with only the water falling from the sky marking the passage of time.

"Well, well, well," the King of the Eastern Seas said slowly and menacingly and turned his head to look at Die Feng, "I knew there was something else you were trying to cover up, I just knew it. How are we going to solve this mess."

Die Feng felt a horrible sinking feeling in his stomach. Indeed, how could this be solved. How. Now that his family's secret was out in the open like this, the Eastern King was humiliated in front of his soldiers. Die Feng knew how close the King and his sister were - he would not easily forgive this disgrace; in fact, could not forgive unless he wanted to lose face completely.

Li Ying looked puzzled, not understanding why her successful tracking of a fugitive could be a bad thing. "Die Feng?" she asked, the look in her eyes changing from pride to insecurity to chagrin as she tried to read his expression.

"Please escort the Yellow Demon Princess to my tent," Die Feng instructed his right hand man who was standing among the gaping warriors, looking as apprehensive and shocked as Die Feng felt. Li Ying did not resist when the soldier bowed and took her arm to lead her away, but her mismatched, troubled eyes did not leave Die Feng's for a second. His heart reached out to her, he wanted to tell her it was not her fault, it was a secret that had wanted out anyway, it had just been a matter of time - but he could not say anything and wasn't even sure any of this mattered now.

Duty, honor, responsibility.

There was no use in lying to himself: Die Feng knew the King of the Eastern Seas needed to be appeased immediately or else this situation would escalate and spiral out of control. His own family would be the one to be thoroughly disgraced, his Shifu would be the one with an army short of men, and he would be the one forever regretting not having prevented this.

"I will take care of this situation," Die Feng said and pointed to Donghai Shuijin's tent with a bow, steeling himself for what he had to do.

***

Li Ying stared at the man standing in the tent before her, ignoring the heavily soaked garments that brought chills to her flesh because they could not in any way be compared to the piercing ice-cold words that froze her very bones. Words that silenced her own chattering instantly. Words that she could not comprehend, even though she had heard them spoken. This dedicated, devoted man, who never took his duty lightly. Whether it was for his juniors, his Shifu, or his family, he would remain loyal, true to his character, true to his Celestial lineage, never straying from the honorable paths. Why? What for? Anger began to consume her.

"What did you say?" her voice was barely above a whisper when she finally spoke.

"Princess..."

"You're offering yourself!?" she asked incredulously.

"As the 2nd Prince of the West Sea, it is my duty...."

"Quit talking about your duties!"

Remaining composed, he was undeterred by her outburst. "My family dishonored them, we have to restore their honor, our alliance cannot be broken," he continued to explain.

"So what?" came the selfish words. She did not care about his explanations, even though she understood.

His expression was unreadable. "You may have no interest in politics, but innocent lives are at stake if I don't deal with this matter appropriately."

"There must be other ways besides sacrificing yourself!"

Die Feng took a deep breath, collecting himself before he continued: "This is no sacrifice. The Great War may begin at any moment now. The alliance of the Four Seas has to remain stable, and because of my brother's disappearance, it is now my responsibility to assure that it will."

His words were reasonable, but why were they so agonizing to hear? A shield, a barrier, a wall continued to rise, because the more he spoke the more distant he became. He did not take marriage lightly, he had told her that before. An unsettling feeling set in, anger... frustration... and the bitter knowledge of a future that was inevitably lost and could never be. Forever gone were the days of carefree teasing, unreserved laughter, and furtive glances.

This moment, she knew...his intention.

"Why does it have to be you?" her voice echoed defeat.

"Princess...I understand you are concerned about me due to our friendship but please don't be upset on my account."

"Friendship?" Never would she have thought this word would haunt her. "You think this is about friendship?" Her eyes narrowed as fury took hold. She was right, he was taking the coward's way out.

"You've been a great friend to me. And I still owe you a debt for your assistance with my junior, I do want us to remain amiable," he reasoned.

"This is not about friendship and you know it!"

"Princess, I know I've upset you...but in matters of alliance..."

"Oh, I understand enough. Don't use politics to insult my intelligence. And stop calling me Princess! I have a name!"

Unable to refute her statement, he could only avoid her gaze. Infuriated by his mute stance, she walked towards him and only stopped when their bodies almost touched. She saw him suck in a breath. He was affected. He couldn't hide from her.

Her head arched, capturing his eyes. "If we were friends like you said, then why have you not called my name even once?" she asked, her dark gaze daring him to turn away, daring him to lie.

"I...I have my utmost respect for you...," he stammered, though he continued to steel his expression.

She laughed cynically at his clumsy attempts to hide the truth, while her heart hurt. Did he actually believe she was that naive?

"Die Feng, let's stop playing this game between us. You know very well why you never called me by my name," she challenged him, but he wouldn't reply, he wouldn't give in.

"Say my name...," she drawled, her voice like spider silk drawing in its prey. His face flushed, his composure cracked....good, she thought. Without further thought, her hand swiftly grabbed his neck and pulled herself up on tiptoes, while her other hand grabbed the armor at his chest. His eyes widened as her face drew close to his, was now merely inches away.

She saw him draw in breath again, felt his body quiver from her touch, from her presence. His head shook in refusal, but his body spoke otherwise. The damn man refused to speak the truth, to let it come to the surface.

"I'll make you say it before this night is over." Startled by her words, Die Feng tried to pull away, but her grip was tight, not allowing him to escape. Their eyes locked. "Don't you owe me a debt? Several in fact."

"You can't possibly mean...," he said unsteadily, but she captured his lips before he could finish, taking possession of the warm silk sweetness she wanted to consume, the honey nectar she wanted to devour. The tip of her tongue brushed the outer edges of his mouth, he moaned against hers and returned her kiss with enthusiasm. As floodgate of desire washed over her and she arched her body against his, molding her softness to his hardness. The moment his arms raised to pull her closer, her body shivered in response.

"Die Feng..." she gasped. Abruptly, he tore himself away from her. Shocked by his own behavior, Die Feng backed away. She did not mind, because he couldn't deny her tonight. She would mark him, brand him, lay claim to the man who would no longer be hers because of his celestial honor.

Eyes determined, she stared at the prize she wished to claim and pulled at the first silk string ribbon that held her yellow cape. "Duty..."

"Honor..." there went the second string.

"Responsibility..." her cape dropped to her feet.

As much as he may try to deny it, he wanted her. He never took his eyes away, his heated gaze continued to sweep over her soaked garments. Demon blood possessed her as she advanced towards him: "Those are your mottos in life, aren't they? I wish to claim them."

Retreating from her until he couldn't go any further, his knees hit the makeshift wooden bed, forcing him to sit down. "Princess...I apologize for upsetting you. I know you're not thinking straight right now," he rationalized in desperation.

"Am I? I want what is owed, unless you are not a man of your word," she told him, her voice never wavering. "Demons have never been denied what is owed to them. Demons do not hold back what they want to possess. All debts need to be repaid."

"Don't...," his eyes briefly closed before he continued. "Don't ruin what we had...," he pleaded.

But she was beyond hearing as she walked up right in front of him, putting her hands onto his shoulders and leaning close. His hands remained besides him, still refusing to touch her. "Then say it...," she coaxed.

Still, he refused to utter what she wanted to hear most. The stubborn man who fought so hard against revealing what he truly desired. Undeterred by his passiveness, her hands ran over his dark blue studded armor. When she had seen him in all his glory for the first time outside, her heart had jumped in her chest at how handsome he was. He was a Commander, a Prince of the West Sea, so right for her - but soon to be married to an unknown woman because of duty. Because of honor. Because of stubbornness.

All thoughts ceased as absolute possessiveness took over. She wanted to peel him out of his protective shell. She roughly pulled at his belt; his body jerked in response, but Die Feng didn't push her away, nor did he look away, though he refused to participate. Silently, their eyes locking, she pulled at the first piece of outer armor, removed it, then the second, getting more angry at every, stubborn piece. She stripped away the thick robe with the cape attached, as he sat there, unmoved by her touch.

Li Ying straddled his waist, her heart continuing to thunder as she framed his face in her hands. She could feel his pulse quicken under her touch as his silent yet intense gaze continued to search hers. Her thumbs brushed over his lips, probing, stroking, testing the dark soft velvet lushness, softening their resistance to her will. She soon felt them melt and moisten from her intimate caress, bringing out the sweet savory nectar she couldn't wait to drink more of. She continued to tease his lips with her delicate strokes until his mouth parted, his heated breath warming her cold fingers. Softly, she leaned in, her lips brushed his like a feather, merely touching - until her petal kisses were no longer enough. She possessed him hungrily then, and his firm, silky contours parted beneath her lips. Finally, finally he gave her what she wanted as his tongue responded to hers.

The mixture of sea salt, fresh rain, and masculine scent were all around her...too intoxicating...too addicting...she needed more. And he gave it to her, unexpectedly, when his hands came up to glide all over her body, over her soaked yellow gown, turned near transparent by the rain. His mouth was hard, demanding, all consuming as he gave way to his desire - and pleasure engulfed her, multiplied by the certainty that he really wanted her. A whimper rose from her throat as she writhed and rubbed against him. She felt his hardness grow and despite his gasp, she continued to press herself against him, rhythmically and demanding.

"We have to stop," he tore his mouth away, but his body continued to tremble, like hers frustrated by the tantalizing waves of unfulfilled lust.

"No, you want me, don't fight this," she whispered against his heavy breath. Molding her body against his again, she urged his head back, exposing the long white length of his neck, and started to nibble, lick and bite him with her blatant lustful kisses, until he ceased his resistance.

Before she knew it, she felt the bed against her back, with Die Feng settling his large figure over her trembling body, which was so hungry for his touch. He did not disappoint, the unbearable sweet heat of his mouth traveled lower, tracing the arch of her throat, the sensitive collarbone, and finally reaching the hardening bud beneath her damp gown. She clutched his shoulders, her body throbbing with longing as he continued to devour her. Soon, he growled in frustration at the barrier between his and her flesh. Unaccustomed to women's garments, he clumsily fumbled with her clothes and then started to rip away the wet layers between them. The sound of the tearing silk further heightened her desire. She succumbed to the relentless caress of his lips and hands, a tide of sensual urgency rolling through her. His name continued to escape her lips, but he silenced her with another sweet, shocking kiss. As he drew her tongue into his mouth, his hand cupped her bare breasts. Drowning in the sensation of his touch, all her thoughts ceased in the ecstasy of the moment.

Abruptly, the weight was no more. He was gone.

Gone was the warmth, the passion, the ecstasy. Her eyes fluttered opened. Die Feng? She found him standing before her.

She sat up, confused. His face held an expression of tormented revelation.

"Li Ying...," came the soft yet harrowing whisper, the words she had longed to hear from his lips, but now, it was all wrong. Now, her mind heard something else. Something much more startling. She saw something in his eyes she couldn't understand, yet it was as clear as day. Why? Why now?

Di Feng looked at her distraught, regretful. His anguish eyes are those of a lost man.

"Li Ying, I'm sorry..."

She stared at him aghast, her face drained of all color. "No...I shouldn't have..."

"Li Ying?"

Without another word, she cloud jumped away.

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