Maximilian sat on the edge of his canopied bed and mulled over his best friend's words. The flame of the room's single lit candle reflected off the closed window while rain gusted against the glass from the opposite side. The pane remained unlocked and vulnerable. He truly wished the unspoken invitation to his second-story bedroom would be accepted, the slender figure of the Howaluu leader leaping skillfully from the nearby tree in a swirl of heated passion. Yet that midnight visitor had passed beyond the border of his city.
Fei had gone to the neighboring city of Heilong on a rescue mission that Max himself had manipulated him into undertaking, yet there was no satisfaction at what should have been a victory. He had left an emotional vacancy much larger than could be accounted for by his physical absence. Where had the plan failed?
The White Dragon had once said that he only tormented those who enjoyed being the objects of his attention. An unwilling opponent could simply quit the game. That provided no entertainment at all. This time, however, he was certain he had found the perfect plaything. It was a figurine carved from the deepest green jade, polished to glistening perfection, ready to move across the board at his every whim. It danced without fail in patterns as rhythmic and complex as the sea waves, drawing him ever deeper into a game that had at long last given him an interest in living.
What could make jade lose its shine?
"Where are you looking, Howaluu?" Max asked once again. What had stolen Fei's gaze from him? Why would the young man who had sworn loyalty and accompanied him through every twist of the game so far--sometimes following, sometimes leading--suddenly avert his eyes and run away?
He slid back to recline against his pillow. He would be leaving in a few hours to pay a visit to the Black Dragon, and he needed to be in full possession of himself by then to be certain that negotiations went in his favor. He had already received warnings from both the former and current Red Dragons to be careful in his dealings with Heilong. He must not instigate a conflict, for the sake of the island's peace.
Fei wanted nothing more than peace in his territory of Bailong...or so he claimed. In order to secure that peace, he had suppressed his own pain and jealousy at seeing a woman come between him and his Dragon. Max, knowing exactly how his wedding affected the young man, couldn't help pressing for a reaction. He had purposely neglected to mention that he had no intention of making the princess his wife in any way other than name. Had that marriage been the cause of the Howaluu leader's unexpected coldness toward him? Had he finally pushed too hard?
Max dismissed that idea immediately. When circumstances forced Fei to take the bride's place secretly for the success of the wedding, he had been hurt and angry, but never distant. On the contrary, when Max closed his eyes, he could still feel the heat of the other's bare chest against him. Fei's heart raced with a mixture of fury and strongly denied arousal. Vibrant. Thrilling. He had been the most stimulating partner the newlywed husband could have desired, though the night ended with a disappointing lack of consummation.
Even during their recent unexpected encounter at the Red Dragon's estate, the Howaluu leader had thrown his whole spirit into their duel. Had the White Dragon's apparent willingness to let the female ruler bed his "jade" been too much for the repressed Fei to stomach? Directly after that experience, the young man had threatened to kill himself if Max touched him, looking truly repulsed for the first time at the suggestion of a physical aspect to their relationship.
Still, it wasn't the first time Max had pretended apathy to protect Fei. When the sadistic Blue Dragon had tortured Fei with evident relish, the slightest sign that he felt concern at the display would have made the ordeal immeasurably worse. The straightforward Howaluu took his words and actions at face value, unable to perceive the hidden motivations, but that had never been enough to sever their connection so utterly. The young man might rage at the treatment he received, yet he had never been the type to shun his devoted tormentor.
Max sighed and raked his fingers through his silver hair, Fei's desperate "Don't touch me!" echoing in his memory. It was a demand impossible for him to obey. He couldn't resist the attraction of his jade Dragonstone. He craved the excitement toying with the young man brought him, but more than that, he needed the absolute certainty that Fei was his alone. His to tease. His to touch.
"Look at me!" he ordered, momentarily giving in to the frustration no one else could evoke. If only Fei were with him tonight--not simply present, but with him body and soul, no distractions tugging that intense gaze away.
He had always been vulnerable to dreams and the escape they provided. The reality of his life had never been worth enduring before the discovery of this new game. It had taken the Howaluu to shake him forcibly from his slumber, using the promise of constant entertainment as a lure. With Fei abandoning his duty, the White Dragon reasoned it was only fair that he be allowed to dream the next round.
He smoothed one hand over his chest, concentrating on the spot of warmth continuing steadily downward, covering his eyes with the other to block the faint candlelight. Melting out of the resulting darkness, the Howaluu leader appeared beside the bed. Long, ebony hair framed the delicate features that had passed as female on more than one occasion. Who would guess that the one possessing such beauty was a martial artist commanding over a hundred men as they kept order in Bailong's often rowdy streets?
Who would believe that the envy of every prostitute in this city famous for its nocturnal delights balked at the simple intimacy of an embrace?
"Howaluu," the White Dragon murmured, a trace of his usual smile returning.
"What do you want, Maximilian?" The tone was suspicious and challenging.
How should he answer that question? No matter how many times he bluntly told the truth, Fei interpreted it as mocking flirtation. Admittedly, that was part of what made the game interesting. He looked forward to the moment when the other realized the serious desire behind the easy words. *I want you*. I want your every trembling breath, every beat of your heart, every drop of your blood, and every minute of your attention.
He beckoned lazily, smile growing mysterious as if he were about to impart a delicious secret. Fei leaned forward hesitantly, still not trusting that this wouldn't all turn out to be a joke at his expense. Propping himself up on one elbow, Max brought his lips to the Howaluu's pierced ear and whispered, "I want to play with my favorite toy."
You've always had the bad habit...
His friend had intended it as an accusation. However, Max saw it as only natural. How else was the toy to know its master cared for it? Tucking a plaything away on a shelf or packing it carefully into a box might ensure its safety, but it also banished the object to the lonely realm of the forgotten. It was the toy worn out from constant use, shined daily by enthusiastic and often rough caresses, dragged everywhere to keep its master company, and never given a moment's rest except when it slept at its master's side--that toy alone could claim the title of "favorite."
Fei opened his mouth, no doubt ready to shoot back a scathing comment to the effect that the White Dragon should quit messing around and wasting his time. Max didn't give him the chance. The long fingers of his free hand wove through the other's unbound hair, preventing escape, and he sealed the impending response in the most expedient manner possible.
The Howaluu jerked at having his parted lips invaded in an unexpected kiss, but he couldn't pull away. This time no sharp-edged fragment of pottery interrupted the soft glide of tongues, no salty tang of blood or seawater tainted the sweetness of the brief contact. Max broke off first, retreating slowly, drawing the unbalanced young man onto the bed alongside him.
He could tell that Fei was in love with him. It was clear the Howaluu leader believed he contained nothing but anger for his Dragon because that was the one "safe" emotion that came close to describing the raging passion that filled him at their every encounter. He was deluding only himself. The effort it took to maintain that state of denial exhausted him more thoroughly than any physical endeavor. If he didn't gain any release soon, he truly would break.
"Resorting to hair-pulling to get your way?" Fei taunted, reinforcing his emotional barriers. However, he made no attempt to leave the bed.
Max moved to kneel straddling the young man, fingers tightening rather than loosening. Amanojaku. Contrary. He had a reputation to uphold as the capricious eccentric who never behaved as requested. If you ask me to let go, I'll cling to you with all my strength. It was a form of predictability, in its own fashion. He could be counted on to react exactly opposite to expectations.
Especially when that reaction itself was expected.
The Howaluu was quite familiar with that rule of the game, he just didn't often pause from his running long enough to use it to his advantage. Slowing would give him time to think, to breathe, to recognize the feelings burning inside him. And so he continued his frantic pace, blaming the White Dragon whenever he lost his footing, all the while believing it was the race that mattered.
Max faced the rebellious glare with amusement. If Fei insisted upon remaining out of breath, there were far better ways to accomplish that end than running. He bent down, carefully licking the Howaluu's neck where he had tasted the flesh once before. Fei stiffened at the touch and turned his head away. So he wouldn't have to watch the Dragon's expression...or so the Dragon wouldn't be able to see his? For whichever reason, the action couldn't be forgiven.
Max disentangled his fingers from the fine strands of hair and set about baring the young man's chest. As soon as Fei realized what was happening, he tried to struggle, but it served only to increase the flush of his skin and rub his lean hips against the man pinning him down. "Now, now," Max chided. "Don't get too far ahead, Dragonstone. It's not fair to have fun without me."
Fei bit back a gasp at the feel of the White Dragon's hands against the heat of his belly. "You think I'm enjoying this?"
"Aren't you?" Max tossed back as he finished stripping the Howaluu to his waist. The young man's pride and stubbornness forced him to resist, but he hadn't once uttered the word "stop."
"What could possibly lead you to believe I'd appreciate being your plaything?"
Max paused, brushing his hair out of his eyes. Denial had become such a habit with Fei that it would take more than a sarcastic comment or two to set him free. "Roll over," he ordered, shifting to the side to give the Howaluu room. When it appeared Fei would ignore the command, Max toyed with the young man's waistband. "Unless you would rather I ripped these off right now. It's a bit ahead of schedule, but I'm sure I can adapt."
Slapping away the offending fingers, Fei levered himself up into a sitting position. "You'll have to deal with a lot of changes to your 'schedule,' but getting my pants off too soon will *not* be one of them."
"Oh?" He raised his eyebrows in mock surprise and twisted the words into an interpretation opposite what the tone intended. "You have your own ideas you want to try? Your sweet-talking has certainly improved since the wedding. I'm looking forward to finding out what other...oral skills you have."
Fei turned away sharply at being teased. Max took advantage of the momentum to force him all the way around, pushing him stomach-down on the blankets, right cheek crushed against the pillow. Reclining alongside him, and with a hand on each bare shoulder to hold the young man in place, the White Dragon nuzzled the spot where a carved jade earring had once marked the Howaluu as his. He had spent hours holding that small green bead, pondering what had changed about the relationship it represented. There must be something he could do to bring his Dragonstone back to the dance meant for the two of them alone.
He transferred his attention to Fei's neck, where he did his best to brand the Howaluu as visibly as possible. His hands stroked down the taut muscles of the young man's upper arms. The pulse beneath his lips raced. Fei's body language had always been honest and direct.
Nibbling a trail along the left shoulder, Max reached the striking tattoo of the Holy Dragon that coiled the length of the Howaluu's back, its tail winding to a point just above the right hip. Pressing a kiss onto the creature's fierce snout, Max couldn't help chuckling at the irony. Fei spent every moment embraced by a dragon, and yet he protested at his Dragon's touch. "This must have been painful," he said, drawing circles on the young man's shoulder blade with a fingertip.
"Of course it was."
"Did you cry out?" The White Dragon dug his nails into the image, though not deep enough to break the skin. "Did tears fill those dark eyes? Did you beg for it to stop hurting?"
"No," Max repeated. "And why not?" He traced the serpentine body of the dragon to the spot it crossed the ridge of Fei's spine. "Because you desired it. You wanted the pain. You treasured every prick of the needle. You knew it would make you stronger."
The Howaluu leader clenched his fists, his breath growing ragged. "I..."
"You ask why I think you like being tormented." Max rested his cheek on Fei's back. When he spoke, his voice was low, the sound resonating through to the other's heart as much as entering his ears. "Every time I offer you pleasure, you turn me down. However, by hurting you, I gain a response. All you accept from me is pain. It brings out the best in you."
"If you really want me to treat you differently, then send me another message. Don't hoard your agony inside, savoring every bitter drop while blaming me because the taste isn't to your liking. Let it out." Gripping Fei's thighs, he began kissing the rest of the way down the dragon's form. "Get it all out. Empty yourself." He sucked lightly on the tip of the tail. "I'll fill you with something far sweeter."
Manipulating this toy with the constant application of reverse psychology had one side effect. Though it increased the challenge and excitement of the game, it became a ritual impossible to ignore easily. He had to choose his words with precision, urging the Howaluu down one path while mentally circling around to meet him at the end of a trail heading in the opposite direction. Fei would consider any tantalizingly direct route suspect. Max had to tailor his seduction with the established pattern firmly in mind to reach his intended destination.
He slid his hands up, lingering suggestively on the firm rear before continuing on to caress either side of the young man's waist. Fei had a truly beautiful body. The warmth of it communicated directly to his palms, melting him from the inside like fine alcohol. Sweeping the black hair aside, he brought his lips to the back of the Howaluu's neck. He wanted to devour Fei completely, take the young man into himself where there could be no escape, hold him so tightly there would be no chance of distraction.
To do that, he had to shatter the barriers Fei had constructed. Intended to endure any frontal assault, their only weakness lay within him. They would stand impenetrable until the Howaluu crashed through them. It would hurt. But it would make him stronger.
The White Dragon nestled his groin against the other's body, delighted to hear the catch in Fei's panting as he noticed the state of arousal. Their past flirtation had never progressed so far. Fei tried biting his lip to regain his focus, but the whimpered breath that escaped him proved the ineffectiveness of that tactic.
"How do you feel about me, Howaluu?"
"I hate you!"
"Of course. So you've said." He stroked the knuckles of the young man's right fist. "Because I toy with you."
"I humiliate you."
"I threaten everything you care about."
In the silence that followed his words, he couldn't help but feel the body beneath him tense. Fei still didn't grasp the depth of Max's possessiveness. He thought he could bestow his time and concern and friendship on anyone. He would have to realize how his every glance at another drove his Dragon mad with jealousy. The wedding was supposed to have given him a taste of that desperation, but it obviously hadn't been enough to make him aware that a strict diet of it was starving Max beyond endurance.
"It's too bad this hand is empty." Squeezing the Howaluu's fist briefly, the White Dragon sat up. "If only you had your sword..."
Fei pushed himself up to glare his defiance. "Why wish for that? It would be drawn against you."
"Imagine. All of your fury, your outrage, your pent-up anger focused into one naked blade. You could have the revenge you crave."
Max unfastened his sleeping robe, sliding it off his shoulders and down his arms to puddle on the bed. He offered his bare skin as a sacrifice to the other's desires. "Hurt me the way I've hurt you. Drive your sword into me with all your might." Keeping the young man captive with his eyes, he took Fei's wrist and held the palm against his chest. "In that instant, know that you have the ultimate control. You decide whether this heart beats. This life belongs to you alone. And when you make that final thrust, breath wild, muscles aching, my name on your lips..."
"It almost sounds as if you would welcome it," Fei interrupted, cutting off the stream of words before they swept him along with their strong current.
"I could hope for nothing greater."
The Howaluu's expression clouded with doubt. "Teasing again..."
"I speak only the truth. Search for yourself. You'll find no lies here." Max brought the young man's hand to his mouth. He drew one finger inside, then another, demonstrating his honesty as though an untruth could be felt on his tongue.
It took the astonished Fei several beats to collect himself. Max sucked hard, enjoying the play of emotions across the other's face. Finally the Howaluu jerked his hand free and wiped the dampened fingers on his leg. "You pretend to be helpful," he accused, "but I always wind up getting bitten."
The White Dragon pressed forward, forcing the young man horizontal once more, this time with his tattoo hidden beneath him. "In that case, you should bite back." Straddling the lean waist, Max followed his advice with a deep kiss. Challenging. Encouraging. Taunting. Yet above all, luxuriating in the physical connection edged with the danger that teeth could close upon him at any moment.
He paused to nibble at Fei's lower lip, then chuckled. "You care about me so much you can't bring yourself to do it?"
"I'm not desperate enough to sink to your level."
"Yet." He narrowed his silver-gray eyes as he contemplated the feast spread before him. Every taste only drove him to crave more.
Fei spent his afternoons assisting in his adoptive father's tea shop; the rich, warm fragrance clung to his hair and skin. The White Dragon lowered his attention to the tempting neck and inhaled deeply, allowing the darkly herbal scent to stimulate his appetite even further. Soon he could not help but sample once more. A series of delightful kisses brought him inevitably downward.
The young man's shallow breaths, laced with suppressed but unmistakable moans of pleasure, added spice to the meal. By the time Max started to ease the previously disputed pants down to uncover the dessert course awaiting him, the other's resistance had all but vanished beneath the waves of arousal.
That wouldn't do at all.
"How do you feel about me, Howaluu?"
"I--" Whatever he had been about to say was swallowed in a gasp as Max took the firm, self-evident answer into his mouth.
Contrary to stated expectations, he didn't bite.
He began forcefully, taking in as much as possible in an effort to appease his draconic hunger. After his initial surge of enthusiasm calmed, he raised his head slightly to give his tongue room to play. He became so involved in the delicate game of taste and touch that he nearly forgot his original intent. He drew back with a wry smile, half pleased and half incensed by the way his Dragonstone affected even his best plans, leading him on an ever-changing, convoluted chase.
He skillfully used the opportunity to remove the young man's pants completely, tossing them on the floor with a negligent motion. As far as he was concerned, clothes served only as a barrier between him and the warm flesh he desired. He ran his fingers lightly along the Howaluu's inner thigh, stopping just shy of the erection still glistening with moisture. "How do you feel about me?" he repeated.
"I..." Fei pushed the distracting hand away and made himself take a slow breath. "I hate you."
Undaunted by words so incongruent with the mood he had created, Max leaned close and licked the tender skin where it would have the greatest impact. "How do you feel about me?"
The young man finally realized his verbal response was being parried without effort, turned aside to dissipate harmlessly. It would take more than words to penetrate the White Dragon's armor. He twined his fingers through the shimmering silver veil of heir and pulled, bringing the city's ruler up to face him.
For a long moment, their gazes locked in silence. Desperation shone from Fei's dark eyes. Intellectually, he attributed his racing heart to a consuming anger, convincing himself that every flirtatious gesture and seductive phrase had been calculated to wound him and therefore must be disregarded. His inability to reconcile that self-protective view with his undeniable physical pleasure threw him into turmoil. He searched for answers in Max's provocatively amused expression.
His deliberation ended at last, his brows rising with amazement at the audacity of his conclusion. "Amanojaku," he accused in a husky whisper.
Lips curved into a mocking smile. "How do you feel about me, Howaluu?"
Once he made up his mind, it took the highly trained martial artist less than a second to twist over and pin the Dragon beneath him, reversing their positions. His next move took slightly longer, for he had no prior experience. His opponent, however, had practiced enough for both, and knew exactly how to guide him. The attack pierced deep, as if seeking to touch the fiery core of desire that had been hidden with blinding honesty. Though disguised as Fei's revenge for months of torment, it served equally well to reward the tormentor with the one thing he had always wanted.
Max rocked his hips to complement the young man's clumsy yet passionate thrusts. Forcing himself upon the Howaluu would have gained him nothing more than a truly broken toy, jade shattered beyond repair by even the most talented artisan. He had not needed an unwilling or unresponsive partner. What mesmerized him was Fei's vitality and spirit, the Dragonstone's ability to take the lead and bring him to heights he had never before been able to reach.
Each shuddering breath now marked his path toward a peak he knew would only be the first of many. The hot, strong body in his arms promised him that.
He understood the courage it took for the Howaluu leader to swear his life in service to the ruler of Bailong. The young man had already proven himself willing to stand in harm's way to protect the city's master. Yet that was from his sense of duty, for the good of the people. It had nothing to do with his personal feelings, only his judgment that Maximilian's continued rule would benefit the city more than his absence would. It implied nothing more than the lack of better options.
This act, in contrast, allowed Fei to commit himself on a private level. Aggressive and intimate, it spoke of the burning possessiveness that he felt for Max as an individual. In this, he risked not his life, but his heart--the heart whose pounding beat the White Dragon could no longer distinguish from his own.
He clung to the lean figure, his hands memorizing the play of muscles beneath the elaborate tattoo. Sweat-dampened hair tickled his shoulder, but he did not notice or care whether it was black or silver or both. Union with Fei had gone past being an obsession; it was a necessity, the fundamental nourishment that kept him alive. He had likened his craving to starvation, but it was so much more than that.
Tradition held that the Dragon and the Flower were a mated pair. What Max felt now, what the swelling tide of emotion within him verified, was that they were meant to be part of one another. Without Fei beside him, touching him, joined with him, he could not survive on this earth.
He detected the change in urgency that signaled his Dragonstone was ready to crest the first peak, preparing to draw him along for the plunge into weightless bliss that lay just beyond. His entire body sang with tension, his senses opened to their fullest to drink in every moment of the pending climax.
Whipped by the storm, the branch outside his window struck the wall with the fury of the wind, jolting him out of his trance. The ragged gasps that filled the room were his alone. The hands that had been fully occupied now clenched in frustrated anger at the ill-timed interruption.
He sat up, regarding the flame of the candle in silence while he collected himself. Fei was out there, somewhere, in the stormy darkness. Out of his grasp. But not for long.
"I am not a patient man, Howaluu..."