Actions

Work Header

Palimpsest

Work Text:

Jingyan turned away from the brightly-lit luxury of the two-tiered music pavilion and stepped out onto the wooden walkway before any of his party had realized what he was doing. Behind him, the sounds of bells, qin, and pipa mingled, traveling from different rooms into the open garden grounds, where they were soon muffled as he slid the door panel closed behind himself. If he cared to listen closer, two side pavilions, connected by narrow wooden corridors to the main building, housed those guests who wished to stay the night and partake of a different kind of entertainment. Jingyan blushed, and moved on quickly.

Luckily for him, it was almost sunset, and the warm spring air blew past his face with soft and gentle fingers, leaving ripples on the surface of the stream that had its source in the front garden and flowed through the hall of music to the garden of blossoms.

A little ways into the courtyard, cherry trees gave way to crabapples and pear, and a rustic pavilion was perched at the end of a winding path through the trees. Somewhere behind him, a window creaked open, and the sounds of merrymaking wafted through the garden, the high-pitched giggles of the courtesans mingling with the chuckles of their patrons, and the delicate glissando of a pipa flowing throughout. Jingyan shuddered, and hastened his steps.

The slope was well-hidden by a flourishing grove, and Jingyan nearly slipped on the smooth cobbled path as he briskly made his way away from the main buildings.

He ducked behind a large decorative rock tucked into a convenient clearing, marking the edge between the flowering trees and a large bamboo forest. Suddenly, from behind him, a clatter of porcelain rang out.

Jingyan turned around, heart sinking, ears already ringing with the sly reproaches his uncle was sure to level at him. The pavilion had low, up-turned eaves in the Suzhou style, and smooth dark pillars that seamlessly joined the beams, undecorated yet graceful, unlike the palaces of his childhood home. The pavilion was, of course, currently occupied, and Jingyan found that he could not utter the commonplace apologies hovering on the tip of his tongue.

The stranger was holding a teacup, as if arrested mid-sip, and wearing, even in late spring, a fox-collared cloak. Jingyan stared at him over the rim of the celadon cup, all the manners Consort Jing had drummed into him fled far afield as Jingyan took in his pale complexion and uneven breaths, and the particular care with which he lowered a weiqi stone back to the bowl.

Jingyan looked down and saw an unfinished game laid out on the board, a swathe of stones disarranged in one corner, the makings of a classic opening maneuver disrupted. He had taken the sounds of the stones being swept aside for porcelain, and found, to his surprise, genuine regret for causing the disruption. He bowed, careful of the sweep of his borrowed robes, and made clear his intentions for leaving this stranger to his own refuge.

“I am the seventh son of the Sen family, of Jinling. My pardon, sir, for disturbing you.” Jingyan managed, feeling the tips of his ears flare into an unmistakeable red heat as the stranger continued in his silent attitude. His continued lack of response was a clear sign of outrage, and Jingyan had only himself to blame, if he had managed to offend a prominent guest and turn this evening into a bigger farce than it already was.

He had offered half a dozen excuses for why he had needed to stay with his soldiers, but his royal uncle had wanted to hear none of them, and nearly ordered him stuffed into the elaborate silk robes on the spot, in front of all his varied and sundry officers, all of whom found a reason to lurk about the commander’s tent. Jingyan had half a mind to order Zhanying write them up for insubordination, except Zhanying was also present, and looked suspiciously cheerful for a man who’d been ordered to stay in a garrison and submit to imperial review.

“Where is the fault, Master Sen?” His companion finally asked, the creases at the corner of his eyes wrinkled as if the speaker would very much like to smile, if only Jingyan would give him a reason.

“I -” Jingyan stuttered, “I have interrupted a most enjoyable bout of qi. I will leave you to your solitude.”

“Then it seems natural for you to remedy the fault,” he replied, placid as the sea of tall grass in the northern plains, “in whatever way I see fit.” He paused, and motioned for Jingyan to sit, long pale hands half hidden by pearl-coloured sleeves, not silken, but still embroidered with complex waves, the kind that would take his own mother months to finish.

Jingyan wondered if he could become vilely ill on command - but if he could have, surely the ability would have manifested itself when his uncle was commenting loudly about how he needed to, “Loosen up, my boy! Those years in the hinterland have been kind to you, but I daresay you and the men both need a night for some entertainment, eh?” and had followed that remark up with a list of the particular virtues this house possessed, in the lightness of the dancers’ carriage, in the cleverness of the musicians’ fingers, and in the beauty of its maidens, though of course, “They’re not a patch on your proper southern beauties, but much better than another evening brushing down your horses, nephew!”

“It is customary to introduce oneself, I believe.” his impromptu opponent continued, “Most remiss of me, but you know how it is when one is suddenly interrupted.” He held up a hand. “Ah, Master Sen, you must promise to be fair in our next game. A gentleman is only as good as his weiqi, and whatever spectres you currently flee, we are both still gentlemen.”

Jingyan opened his mouth, about to defend himself against the disgraceful insinuation that he was here, dodging his outraged courtesan lover, like some third rate scholar in a minstrel’s song, with no money and even less taste, but having begun their conversation, his companion evidently meant to continue without much input from Jingyan.

“I am Su Zhe, residing at the Begonia pavilion,” he offered, and finished clearing the board of weiqi stones. “Shall we?”

Ten moves in, two things became very clear to Jingyan - one, Su Zhe, whoever he was, was simply awful at weiqi; and two, even a secluded back garden past a bridge and an entire grove of blossoming trees was unable to provide Jingyan with enough protection from a determined uncle.

“My goodness, Jingyan,” his uncle Ji boomed, loudly enough that a group of startled sparrows left their perches for the night and fled into the bamboo forest confusedly. “Why didn’t you say something? And who is your charming companion?” He turned, and pulled Su Zhe, mid-bow, to his feet.

“Such refinement!” Prince Ji commented, after a dragonfly-quick glance of the weiqi board. “And so young!”

Su Zhe reacted as most people tended to do when Jingyan’s uncle was in full form: he looked to the nearest source of help. Jingyan hoped his face conveyed more than despair and a strong desire for the earth to open up and swallow him whole, but judging from the slight twitch of Su Zhe’s eyebrows, he doubted he had been entirely successful.

On the way back to the main music hall, his uncle pulled him aside and whispered kindly to him, which meant naturally that everyone in their party overheard. “Why did you never tell me you favoured the southern style? I will smooth it over with your father, and all will be well. You know, I did always wonder about you and that scamp of a boy -”

At this Su Zhe broke out in a series of violent coughing fits, and did not stop until they crossed the bridge into the main grounds, for which Jingyan was eternally grateful and swore to himself he would repay at some distant point in the future, possibly after he had finished building himself a hermit’s hut atop a suitably tall mountain.

The suite of rooms on the second floor was as he had left it, a profusion of silken pouf cushions arranged haphazardly behind three long tables, plates of fruit and strong wines littering the smooth, polished surface, and worst of all, the throngs of guests - friends of his royal uncle, no doubt - still seated, willing spectators to Jingyan being ushered, awkwardly and against his will, to the seat of honour, with Su Zhe coming to a rest beside him. Prince Ji offered a toast to Jingyan, who picked up the delicately molded celadon cup next to his hand and stared into its clear liquid depths in betrayal. Next to him, Su Zhe did the same, though the slightest tilt in the wrist betrayed his amusement at Jingyan’s predicament.

Jingyan steeled himself, and downed the fiery rice wine in one gulp, resigning himself to the festivities, such as they were.

By some unspoken signal, the performers and courtesans filtered back into the room, clad in a dazzling range of hues, and settled down next to the guests, seemingly at random. Jingyan’s grip on his empty cup tightened as one of them walked closer and closer, in the steady mincing footsteps of the well-trained. He barely resisted starting when Su Zhe’s arm brushed against his, a silent offer of reassurance, and reminded himself that this was less than a fraction of the enemies he usually faced on the battlefield.

Prince Ji chose that moment to turn to Jingyan, and wrinkled his brows. “You know,” he mused, downing his third cup of rice wine. “If you’re serious about this… It isn’t as though he’s looking at you to inherit. And rules are more lax in the borderlands.”

Jingyan felt blood roar up into his face, its force doubled with the help of alcohol, and refused to make eye contact with Su Zhe, who shook with silent laughter beside him. A small tendril of vexation rose inside Jingyan, at the ease with which Su Zhe disconcerted him, at how much his opinion mattered, and how strange it felt, after so long without -

Under the guise of pouring more wine for himself, Jingyan tried to put a little distance between himself and Su Zhe. He had reckoned without the unfamiliar tailoring of his borrowed robes, however, and fought to balance himself before throwing out a hand to arrest his fall. His uncle let out a satisfied laugh, and gestured to the performers to begin their play. “Music!” he announced, making a show of taking the small flagon of rice wine away from Jingyan’s side of the table. “Some of us are in considerable haste.”

The troupe of dancers took their positions at the slightly raised stage as one of the musicians strummed at her qin in a lilting introduction to the night’s main performance. Jingyan stared resolutely ahead of himself, barely registering the main dancer’s lightfooted twirling across the stage as her orange-red sleeves floated alluringly in her wake. Prince Ji applauded enthusiastically and called for his personal manservant to fetch suitable rewards for her, and handed a trinket to a passing tea maiden almost as an afterthought. She blushed, and settled down at his side, though Prince Ji soon redirected her attentions to Jingyan, who wished for nothing more than the ceiling beam to suffer catastrophic failure and crash down upon his head.

“Young master,” the tea maiden began, eyes demurely downcast, “Will you take some refreshment?”

Next to him, Jingyan felt Su Zhe begin laughing again. He cursed the garrison master for standing by while his uncle had inserted himself into their encampment, and Zhanying for allowing his uncle to drag him away to a house of ill-repute, and then, finally, himself for leaving a flank open for the enemy to exploit.

“She isn’t one of the original hellbeasts, Master Sen.” Su Zhe opined from behind Jingyan. “Look how well she pours your tea.”

“So I see.” Jingyan felt compelled to respond, but couldn't match the lilt of delight in Su Zhe’s voice.

“You should relax,” Su Zhe suggested, all sly amusement.

“I am relaxed,” Jingyan replied from between his teeth, as the tea maiden finished pouring his tea and presented it to him with both hands, the fine bones of her wrists turned to advantage.

“Is that so,” Su Zhe murmured in his ear, suddenly much closer, and reached past Jingyan to receive the teacup from her.

A low murmuring rose from the assembled company, while the tea maiden retreated, fumbling her way through serving the rest of their table. Prince Ji clapped his hands together and called their attention back to the principal dancer, who was now bidding a sad farewell to her lover, an immortal come down from the heavens, and shedding her brightly coloured outer robe to show the snow white robes underneath as a sign of her grief.

“Thank you,” Jingyan said, because he wasn't a complete boor.

Su Zhe merely raised an eyebrow at him. “Master Sen is overly courteous.” He replied, formal once more.

“For protecting me,” Jingyan clarified.

Su Zhe smiled then, the crinkles in the corner of his eyes making a reappearance. “She was a fearsome threat indeed.”

Embarrassed, Jingyan coughed into his hand and turned his gaze to the dance again, tried to convince himself that he was wholly absorbed in the blue-clad troupe as they turned in unison to represent the heavens cracking open, the lovers interrupted at their last moment together.

A sharp nudge from Su Zhe’s knee recalled Jingyan’s attention, and he turned to remonstrate with Su Zhe when the latter raised himself to his knees and reseated himself in Jingyan’s lap.

Under Prince Ji’s surprisingly commanding stares, the guests remained quiet, which made it more difficult for Jingyan to hiss without anyone noticing. “What do you think you're doing?”

Su Zhe smiled, and said out the corner of his mouth, his profile unyielding and firm with some hidden purpose. “Protecting you.”

Jingyan opened his mouth on a reflexive protest, but Su Zhe breezed past all his objections and commanded Jingyan, “Hold me.”

“What.” Jingyan managed, a distant pressure building in his temples.

Su Zhe moved his head so that they were facing each other, noses nearly touching. “Put your arms around me, unless you want yet more courtesans throwing themselves at the feet of the seventh prince.”

Jingyan complied, out of sheer shock, the material of Su Zhe’s robes smooth and warm to his touch. He frowned at how slight Su Zhe’s frame felt under his arms, then wrenched his mind back on topic. “How did you know?”

The qin struck a plaintive tone as it transitioned into the last act, when the carp spirit dedicated herself to guarding the last token from her immortal lover. Jingyan had to shift with Su Zhe’s movements as he reached for a candied walnut, and was tempted to pinch him, for having the nerve to think of eating at a time like this. “It was obvious,” Su Zhe said, bringing one half of the honeyed walnut to Jingyan’s lips. Jingyan stared at him, until he nudged impatiently at Jingyan’s mouth with the snack. Jingyan's lips parted, and he felt the lightest of touches feather over his mouth as Su Zhe fed him another piece from the tray in front of them.

“Prince Ji has never been entirely discreet about his real identity,” Su Zhe continued, content with Jingyan's acceptance, and signaled for another cup of tea. “He treats you like a favoured relative, and you are the seventh of your family - which rules out your being one of the Prince’s sons. The advance cavalry division of the northwest army is garrisoned not three leagues from here. Therefore I am speaking to Prince Jing, the seventh son of his imperial majesty, commander of the northwest armies.”

Jingyan mulled this over while he chewed, the sweet, nutty flavour exceptionally pleasing on his tongue after the dual tortures of rice wine and humiliation.

The principal dancer executed a particularly graceful leap, and allowed herself to sink slowly to her knees in the final act of the story, in what Jingyan supposed was to be a touching moment of reunion with her beloved after a thousand years of waiting, but she was interrupted in this by two gruff, well-armed men - bodyguards, Jingyan thought distantly, wondering which one of the guests downstairs had the unfortunate timing to be fighting for the same courtesan’s services as his uncle.

“Where is-”

The room was still reverberating with the sound of wooden frames colliding when the slighter of the two men paled and grabbed his compatriot in a series of rapid movements, and clapped a hand over his friend’s mouth when the latter began yelling.

“My apologies,” the slighter man said, bowing as much as he could with a struggling man under his arm. “We were misinformed about the location of our master.”

Prince Ji shook his head and waved them away, commenting that the provincials were grown more and more uncouth with each passing year.

“Mmfmm!” His colleague tried to say, but was unceremoniously dragged down the hallway. Jingyan didn’t hear them leave the second floor, but he had an armful of his own to worry about, and so put the two men out of his mind.

The dancers hovered together on the stage, uncertain whether to continue their performance, when Jingyan’s uncle sighed and rose to his feet. His manservant, accustomed to Prince Ji’s temperament, began ushering them out of the room, pressing reassurances upon the dance maidens and pulling the principal aside for several minutes, no doubt in order to facilitate a further connection. The guests, seeing the way of things, began to bid their farewell to Prince Ji as well. Some of the bolder ones looked over to where Jingyan sat, and met Jingyan’s best implacable stare.

Su Zhe blinked innocently and continued to pick at the tea cakes laid out on the table.

After a few moments, Jingyan said, at the very end of his patience. “You cannot possibly be hungry still.”

“Oh, but we provincials must enjoy our delicacies when we can.” Su Zhe replied, the edges of his mouth turned up in a wicked smile as he dusted the crumbs from his fine, long fingers.

Jingyan began to blush, for no accountable reason, and was too distracted to help Su Zhe untangle from himself when he got to his feet at last. It was in this attitude that Prince Ji found them, Jingyan still seated, one hand resting lightly on Su Zhe’s wave patterned outer robe, Su Zhe smiling down at him.

Prince Ji cleared his throat and said, rather gruffly, “Master Su has rooms of his own in the Begonia Pavillion. I’ll send word to the garrison that you’ll be staying out tonight.” He paused, and seemed to search for his words before continuing. “I - It’s good to see you happy again, nephew.”

“Wait,” Jingyan frowned, turning over his uncle’s words in his head. “I don’t -”

“Pfft,” Prince Ji waved dismissively. “Those soldier boys of yours will survive one night without their commander.”

“Uncle, I really think -” Jingyan struggled to his feet, one foot numb from having Su Zhe’s entire weight resting upon it for the duration of the play.

“If you’re worried about your adjutant, that young man will be just fine. He has the look of someone who has his head about his shoulders.” Prince Ji pronounced. “Anyway, what self-respecting officer would begrudge you one night of rest, I ask you? No, it’s final, and I’ll send my manservants to fetch you in the morning.”

With that parting shot, Prince Ji turned around and left Jingyan standing next to the centre table, wrongfooted and incapable of looking Su Zhe in the face.

“I’ll - I’ll sleep on the floor.” Jingyan promised.

“Your adjutant?” Su Zhe asked, a propos of absolutely nothing.

Jingyan looked at him, then, but could discern no visible emotions on his face, not even the foxlike mischief he’d maintained through the entire party.

“He means Zhanying." Jingyan offered. "Usually officers are promoted through the ranks, but I brought him from my household this year and he’s the youngest in the mounted company. There’s no need to worry; Zhanying’s more than proven himself this year in campaign.”

“I see,” Su Zhe said. “Your uncle seems the kind of person who would send people to check in the morning,” he continued, suddenly jumping tracks again. “I suppose you’d better come back with me for the night.”

Jingyan agreed, glumly, and followed him back across the stone bridge, through the blossoming grove, and past the pavilion where the weiqi board still laid forlornly upon the table. Once or twice he felt as though they were being followed, but when he turned around, there was no one there.

Su Zhe put a hand on his wrist. “It’s alright.” He told Jingyan. “We have absolute privacy here.”

Jingyan nodded, not trusting himself to speak when Su Zhe was washed in the fading light of the sunset, like an elemental spirit from the stories they’d been listening to tonight.

The rooms, when they finally arrived, were surprisingly simple though well-appointed. The bed was, once again, unseasonably covered in fur, but the neatness of the furnishings gave an openness and graciousness to the chamber that the ostentatious banquet hall had lacked. Jingyan looked for a place to lay his pallet, but was stopped by Su Zhe’s hand on his arm.

“Are you really going to sleep on the floor?” Su Zhe asked, gaze serious and searching.

Jingyan blushed. “I would never presume.” He said, hesitating. “It’s just -”

Su Zhe waited, his eyes unwavering.

“At times, you remind me of a dear friend.” Jingyan finished, somewhat lamely.

Su Zhe exhaled, then asked, lightning quick. “The one your uncle mentioned?”

Jingyan nodded.

Su Zhe raised his hand and very slowly, dragged his fingers down the back of Jingyan’s neck. Jingyan shivered, and watched Su Zhe’s eyes go liquid and dark.

“I can’t promise you anything,” Jingyan said, swaying into his body, “I don’t have -”

“I’m not here to negotiate terms,” Su Zhe said, and reeled Jingyan in for a bruising kiss. He licked at Jingyan’s lips, and hummed appreciatively when they slid open under his tongue. Jingyan brought his arms up to hold on, the back of his neck and jawline tingling pleasantly where Su Zhe’s clever fingers were caressing him.

Subconsciously, Jingyan pulled Su Zhe closer and closer until their chests bumped against each other, prompting Su Zhe to break the kiss and stroke the spot behind Jingyan’s ear while he caught his breath.

“Yes?” Su Zhe asked, breath puffing warmly on Jingyan’s cheek, his thumb still rubbing smooth circles at the spot where Jingyan’s neck met his ear.

“Yes.” Jingyan replied, throwing all caution to the wind. He caught a sliver of a wolfish grin on Su Zhe’s face before he backed them both up, into the bed and then onto it. With a particularly dexterous twist, Su Zhe undid both layers of outer robes Jingyan wore, leaving the silver and dark blue silks puddled on the floor. He set his mouth on Jingyan’s collarbone and mouthed at it wetly, before biting down.

Jingyan said, groaning a little, “Your turn,” and fumbled for the waist sash of Su Zhe’s robes.

Su Zhe laughed, and took hold of Jingyan’s hands. “My robes are more complicated than most. Allow me, your highness.”

Jingyan groaned, this time at the title. “Could we not?” He asked plaintively, shifting so that he could better rub himself against Su Zhe’s thighs.

Su Zhe pressed kisses to Jingyan’s hands, mimicking the mannerisms of a gallant with his lady, though Jingyan doubted any self-respecting gentleman would nip at his fingertips and open his mouth to suck his fingers in, his tongue lapping obscenely at the folds of skin between Jingyan’s fingers. Su Zhe hummed, thoughtfully, and released Jingyan’s fingers with an audible pop.

Jingyan wanted to bury his face in something - his arms, the crook of Su Zhe’s neck, a cushion, even. His cheeks felt so red they could light the dark coal braziers in the corners of the room.

“You have very beautiful hands,” Su Zhe murmured, and kissed Jingyan again. His mouth was warm and inviting, and Jingyan lost himself in the sweep of his tongue, licking into Su Zhe’s mouth as Jingyan slowly slid his hands into Su Zhe’s hair and picked apart the jade circlet. Su Zhe made a surprised noise into Jingyan’s mouth as he felt his hair fall down in a wave of jet black strands, and nipped gently at Jingyan’s lips.

Emboldened, Jingyan moved his hands across Su Zhe’s chest, pinching lightly at his pebbled nipples, then softened his touch to small, circular motions with just the pads of his fingers. Su Zhe broke off their kiss, chuckling breathlessly, and conceded. “Point taken.”

The two of them made short work of the remaining layers between them, Jingyan glorying in the expanses of skin he could feel against himself, and made wide, open-palmed sweeps across Su Zhe’s back.

“Do you have the oil?” Jingyan asked, still too shy to say the actual words out loud.

Su Zhe tilted his head, his gaze momentarily sharp again as he paused in the middle of pushing Jingyan down on the bed. “And where would his highness have learned the ways of the southern style?”

Jingyan blushed, and muttered, his eyes focused on a midpoint somewhere between Su Zhe’s forehead and left cheek. “The men speak of it, sometimes.”

“Oh?” Su Zhe asked. “Are you sure it wasn’t from that young adjutant of yours?”

“You-!” Jingyan said, surging up so he was sitting astride Su Zhe, their hips bumping together in an electrifying moment of contact.

“Me.” Su Zhe agreed, simply, disguising his own reaction with a solid raking of fingers down Jingyan’s back. He kissed Jingyan softly, lush with yearning, in a way that would have been sweet, if his hands didn’t also travel over Jingyan’s body with the assurance of a conqueror surveying his spoils.

With practiced movements, Su Zhe slicked up his fingers and stroked at Jingyan’s entrance inquiringly. Jingyan groaned, the sound vibrating deep in his chest, and pushed back down, eager for more. Su Zhe held still for a moment, out of deference to Jingyan’s nerves, well-hidden but all the more apparent for his attempts at boldness.

“Move,” Jingyan ground out, once he had caught his breath.

Su Zhe kissed him, lightly, at the very tip of his nose. “We don’t have to.” He told Jingyan, his thumb stroking soothingly over the curve of Jingyan’s ass.

Jingyan stared at him. “You’re a terrible liar.”

Startled, Su Zhe laughed so hard he began coughing, and he hid his face in Jingyan’s shoulder until the shaking stopped, though his voice, still infuriatingly indulgent, now held a hint of a rasp to it. “Very well then.”

Su Zhe started with only one finger, slowly working him open, while Jingyan moved his hips and tried to bear down on the strange new sensation. After a few minutes, Su Zhe added another finger, and then suddenly twisted so that Jingyan nearly arched off his lap entirely and cried out. Su Zhe redoubled his efforts, skimming over something in Jingyan that made him jerk and gasp, his toes curling and uncurling with the force of the pleasure rolling over himself.

Jingyan looked down at Su Zhe, who was as pale as ever, excepting two bright red spots on his cheeks, and the almost feverish sheen in his eyes, and said, “More.”

“As your highness commands,” Su Zhe granted, and kissed him again, with teeth and barely concealed aggression, his free hand dragging Jingyan down by the hips so they could rub against each other, the oil slicking up all the places where they touched, so that they groaned into each other’s mouths and rocked with increasing force.

“What a prize you are,” Su Zhe said, between kisses. “I wonder that your friend could bear to part with you.”

Winded and panting, Jingyan felt something lance through him, the stinging lash of a whip and the almost numbing pain that followed, a moment’s weakness and longing for Lin Shu that threatened to overwhelm him. A second sting followed, and Jingyan came back to himself as he saw a red mark bloom over his collarbone, the indentations of Su Zhe’s teeth clear as day.

“You should know,” Su Zhe told him, tone almost conversational save for the way his pupils were completely blown, “I don’t share well.”

As Jingyan tried to catch his breath, Su Zhe removed his fingers, the oil-soaked slide made difficult with Jingyan’s involuntary clutching. Reflexively, Su Zhe pressed lingering, open-mouthed kisses on Jingyan’s collarbone, soothing him for when he pressed against the cleft of Jingyan’s ass and thrust up in one clean stroke. Jingyan whined, rolling his hips back and bore down on the deep satisfying stretch, the breath punched out of himself as he felt Su Zhe come to a rest against him, buried to the hilt.

“Did you pour the entire bottle out?” Jingyan bit back another whine, and lifted his hips, his need temporarily assuaged by the way he could rock back down and be filled again.

Su Zhe raised a hand and lazily stroked down the length of Jingyan’s spine, his eyes assessing the raised scars and faded wounds Jingyan had accumulated over the years, the remaining oil on his hands mingling freely with the sweat on Jingyan’s back, the sweet apricot notes of the osmanthus flower mixed with the musky scent of sex.

“Don’t stop,” Jingyan begged, somehow arch while he fucked himself on Su Zhe’s cock. “You were doing so well.”

“As you say,” Su Zhe replied, surging up and pressing down with his hands at the same time, relentless and brutal. Jingyan brought his arms around Su Zhe’s shoulders, bracing himself and rocking back when he was able, trying to match the rhythm Su Zhe set. Su Zhe reached a hand between them, catching Jingyan’s neglected cock, and thumbed at the slit, spreading the precome messily as his own hips began to stutter. Determinedly, Su Zhe searched until he managed to hit the spot again, catching Jingyan up and reaching behind him to press one slick finger against his entrance.

Jingyan cried out, shaking with the force of his orgasm, striping Su Zhe’s stomach and his own chest with streaks of white. Su Zhe followed him over, managing a few more thrusts before he groaned and panted into Jingyan’s shoulder.

Distantly, Jingyan heard himself make terrible, heaving gasps for breath, and collapsed onto Su Zhe wholesale, the two of them tangled together as they fell backward onto the bed.

Gradually, their breaths evened out, and Su Zhe began laughing, sandwiched against Jingyan’s shoulder and arm.

Jingyan made a sleepily questioning noise, and Su Zhe answered, “I’m not even a courtesan at this establishment.” Jingyan twitched a little, torn between surprise and gratification. “Or any establishment,” Su Zhe continued. “I’m just passing by with a message for a friend.”

With a great deal of effort, Jingyan turned his head to face Su Zhe. “And you planned to mention this when?”

“Sometime before you tried to flee in the night, hopefully.” Su Zhe smirked.

Jingyan heaved a sigh, and moved slowly until he could roll off the bed. “Not another word.”

“I’ll just lie here and enjoy the view.” Su Zhe quipped, and chuckled when Jingyan tossed a pile of cleaning cloths at him.

In the morning, when Jingyan woke, the bed was empty save for himself, and there was a full change of clothes laid out on the table, a different set than the ones from last night, but still in the silvers and dark blues that he now favoured. Jingyan searched in vain for a note, but had to give up at last when his uncle’s body servants came to escort him back to the garrison, their faces expressionless and utterly discreet.

Jingyan spent the next three years in a haze of campaigns, being sent to and fro by his father, who commanded him with the sort of careless scorn that made it harder and harder to stay in the capital for long. He would occasionally send Zhanying to inquire for scholars named Su when they were in the south, but always he would return empty-handed with an apologetic expression on his face, until at last Jingyan gave up on that too. He couldn’t, however, stop himself from finding and keeping the things he thought Su Zhe would like, furs and weiqi sets and music scrolls.

In the fall of the third year, when he came back to Jinling, preoccupied with Nihuang’s plight and worried that the last person who had loved Lin Shu as he did was being forced to leave his memory behind, Jingyan stopped short in a pavilion in the imperial palace. There Su Zhe stood, a small smile on his face as he spoke softly to Tingsheng.

Jingyan’s heart soared in his chest and he called out, scarcely daring to believe his eyes, “Su Zhe?”