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Orioles Singing in the Willows 柳浪聞鶯

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After it is all over, they don’t get back to the Unclean Realms until it’s well within the depths of the night when there are only a handful of sleep-muddled servants to greet them. Nie Huaisang knows he should have stopped for the night elsewhere and continued the journey the next morning. His people are tired, his own head pounds, but he’s sick of the crowded intrusiveness of inns and longs for the privacy of home.

By the time they arrive, Huaisangs eyelids are heavy with sleep. He walks the pathways to his quarters more from memory than from sight. The two servants who tail him are dismissed before he reaches even the outer gate to his courtyard but Aunt Fenghua is harder to shake off.

“I’m a grown man of more than thirty years now,” he laughs as he shakes her hand from his arm. “I’m perfectly capable of putting myself to bed.”

Fenghua’s mouth presses down into a thin, hard line, so he presses the cap he holds into her hand instead.

“Will you put this away for me?”

It’s the hat he picked up from the ruined temple. A trophy of their success. And also nothing more than a wire frame overlaid with well stitched black cloth, now dirtied with blood.

Finally alone, Huaisang shuts the doors closed beside himself. He is tired, his headache relentless. But more than anything he is empty. The quest for revenge had filled the last years, months, weeks. Now that it is all done he feels more keenly the scooped out hollowness left by the exchange of one soul for another. The price paid for revenge that he could not afford.

He goes to the back of his room, pulls a key from his sleeve, opens the locked cabinet and takes out the tablet lying there. Mo Xuanyu. In memory to the husband he had lost almost as soon as they were married. The calligraphy is gold against ebony in the finest hand his shaking hands could muster.

It's the one thing he hasn't told anyone about. Not even Aunt Fenghua or Uncle Longhua.

He's not worried about their judgement. He knows well Fenghua's regard for Xuanyu and knows that she would approve. It’s the sad looks he doesn’t want. He doesn’t need their pity or their questions. He doesn’t want to think where Xuanyu might be. The Yiling Patriarch's notes were sprawling and sometimes nonsensical. Huaisang has read it ten times over since Xuanyu's...leaving, but he's still not clear if the ceremony of spirit summoning with a blood sacrifice costs simply a life or if it demands something more. All he knows is that there are similar ceremonies and rites written in the texts and some of them demand the cost of a soul.

The shadow of his qin sits silently in the corner of his room. Huaisang spent a week in Gusu secretly tailing Lan Wanji to learn Inquiry’s notes to seek his brother. He knows he can try to play it, to try to find Xuanyu's soul.

He hasn't yet, he doesn't tonight. He’s not sure if he can cope with the answer.

He lights a single stick of incense before Xuanyu's tablet. The spicy scent of sandalwood fills the room, smoke curling into the night air. Huaisang remembers other smoke for a different rite. The way the bamboo sticks in their hands had spluttered and burned as two bright points of flame on their wedding night. He places his hand on his chest, feels the paper there underneath his robes over lying his heart. The last letter from Xuanyu.

He doesn't think about the futility of burning incense for a soul that might no longer exist.

###

A year after the return of the Yiling Patriarch, a thin baby with a squawking wail is born in a nameless village nestled between misty tea-bush covered hills, three days’ walk from the edge of Xifu City. His parents are so overwhelmed with their other children that they give no more thought to his name than to give him the number of his birth. Jiu. Mouth to feed number nine.

When A-Jiu is five years old, his father takes him with Oldest Brother to Xifu where they will sell their autumn’s harvest. It is the longest journey A-Jiu has ever taken. Oldest brother is ten years older than A-Jiu, taller than Father with arms as thick as A-Jiu's head. He hauls A-Jiu onto his shoulders, so he can watch the passing countryside with wide, round eyes.

A-Jiu is small even for his age. He’s slight of build with wide eyes, a delicate chin, and useless milky skin that turns bright red, then peels under the midday sun instead of growing bronzed-brown like his siblings. When they get into Xifu, Father and Oldest Brother busy themselves by setting up the market stand. A-Jiu is allowed to sit in a shaded corner, nibbling on a candied ox as he watches the dance of sunlight glimmer across Xifu’s West Lake.

At the end of the day, Father takes A-Jiu's hand. He needs to visit an old friend, he says, and leaves Oldest Brother to finish the rest of the packing.

Uncle Lu lives in a section of the city where the walls press close together with angry, scrunched up windows. The streets here emit a rank, putrid stench: stale urine mixed with vomit. He has greasy hair and yellowed teeth. A-Jiu doesn’t like the way he pinches the skin on his arms or forces his mouth open to look at his teeth.

Father bends down and pats A-Jiu’s cheek. “Be a good boy,” he says. “Our room in the inn is only big enough for two. Stay with Uncle Lu tonight and a-die will come back for you in the morning.”

But Mo Xuanyu looks at his new lifetime’s father through A-Jiu's eyes and knows that he won’t be back in the morning. He’s seen the two men shake hands. He’s seen the exchange of copper coins, carefully counted into a waiting hand. And he’s already got all the memories of his previous lifetime to know well the fate of peasant’s children with the bad luck to have pretty faces and without the sense to grow sturdy and strong like their brothers.

###

The Lans of Gusu deal with their grief by entering seclusion. As Sect Leader, Nie Huaisang doesn't have that luxury. It wouldn't work for him anyway. All solitude does is emphasise that his bed is cold and that the silence around him hangs heavy and oppressive. Being alone emphasises the absence of a man with painted eyes and frayed smile. Who preferred Qinghe Nie’s sombre greys over Lanling Jin’s flashy gold.

The work of pursuing Jin Guangyao had eaten up entire weeks since Xuanyu’s departure. In the weeks following Huaisang finds himself longing for the same sort of all consuming work that will take away the hollow ache of grief. And so he makes sure he does not have an empty moment to himself. He presides over the works within his clan, makes sure he is active in the meetings and weaves complex threads to tease apart the politics within the different sects. All while wearing the same easy smile he’s been known for all his life. It’s not difficult to slip on a different mask when one is already used to wearing a facade.

The only time Huiasang is alone is when he tumbles into bed in a heap of exhaustion with the hope of finding Xuanyu in his dreams.

But Xuanyu never comes.

###

The morning after his father sells him, Uncle Lan takes A-Jiu’s hands and leads him out of the crowded slum district he resides in to the lantern fringed streets of Xifu’s Pleasure Quarter and into the Peony Pavilion.

“What sort of name is Jiu?” Madam Zhu’s painted mouth twists into an ugly sneer, as if the name Xuanyu wears in this new lifetime is a personal affront. Her gown of maroon billows around her like a bloodstained cloud. Every time she moves, the sickly sweet scent of jasmine chokes the air.

“Also, his skin is too sallow.” She takes Xuanyu’s cheek in a bruising grip and turns his head one way, then the other. “And he’s far too skinny — how do I make anything pretty from this bundle of gangly limbs?"

"Ah Madame.” Uncle Lu rubs his hands together, beady eyes darting to the right and then the left. “Skinniness is a flaw that is easily fixed by a bit of feeding. Look at his cheekbones and his chin! He has the potential to grow into a great beauty.

"Beauty isn’t everything." Her eyes narrow and grow shrewd. "The only price I can afford to pay for him is two hundred coins. Five hundred is a ridiculous price.”

"He's a good boy, a clever boy. Didn't even cry when he his father sold him to me." Uncle Lu says. “But for you, my favourite customer, I can lower my price down to four hundred.”

“Clever? All because he didn’t cry? Maybe he was too stupid to cry. Maybe he thinks his a-die will come back for him even now." She sniffs. "That A-Tao I bought from you two years ago? Couldn’t learn anything! I finally managed to pass her onto one of the brothels in the southern quarter last month, at considerable loss, I might add. This one is far too dull eyed, and you know that five years is already too old to start any good training. Two hundred and fifty — and not a cent more.”

Xuanyu keeps his eyes down and focuses on the way his grubby feet stain the polished marble tiles, as they haggle above his head. It could be worse. Evoking forbidden spirit summoning rituals should have collected enough bad karma that he be reborn into a gnat or a fly, not a still-human peasant’s son. The gold fringed lanterns outside, the silk of Madam Zhu's dress and the rubies that glitter in her ears suggest that this Pleasure House is at least expensive. He's not being sold into a salt-pork brothel where whores bodies are sold like pieces of meat and cycle through innumerable clients until even their life is wrung out of them.

And even if he somehow still ends up in one of those places, Xuanyu thinks, at least it will mean this lifetime of payment for a previous life's crimes will be short.

The adults in the room reach an agreement.

"You're to call me Zhu-mama now." Madame Yu bends down with an expression that is anything but motherly. "As for your name —" She scrunches her nose. "We'll call you Huang. At least until you demonstrate if you actually have any talents of your own."

And so A-Jiu enters the Peony Pavilion as courtesan-in-training Huang, Yellow, for a moderate sum of three hundred and fifty coins.

"I expect to have my full worth of that price from you, boy." Zhu-mama’s hand is a tight claw squeezed around his wrist as she takes him to his new sleeping quarters. "Work hard and you might even be able to get a good life. Be lazy, and I will personally show you exactly how bad suffering can be."

###

The smile Huaisang wears becomes easier and easier to slip on as the years fly by: a mask of mirth that becomes increasingly well-moulded to the contours of his face. Until even Aunt Fenghua stops questioning. The Nie Sect grows stronger and more prosperous under his hand.

Sometimes, Huaisang thinks of the youth of lazy summers he once was. How the Nie Huaisang of years ago would laugh at him, if he could see him now.

But a Sect Leader’s responsibilities don’t just end there. Hints become increasingly blunt suggestions that he should find a nice sect leader's daughter, marry and raise heirs. Huaisang tries to resist. He doesn’t want to remarry. He’s too heart sick and empty to love again. It feels like a final betrayal of the man who had given him his everything. But the stirrings of unease from within his own sect at the question of succession makes him reconsider his position. If it is for the good of the sect...

Then, illness rips through all of the northern realms and even Qinghe does not emerge untouched. In the sick room of a distant cousin, Huaisang finds two pairs of small, round eyes staring up at him. Their fever-hollowed cheeks are stained with tears for parents who are no longer there.

He remembers that marriage is not necessary for the production of heirs after all.

###

Xuanyu's new name follows a theme. Zhu-mama’s name means red. His fellow trainees are Fen'er, Pink, tall and willowy, with a quick wit and acid tongue; and Xiao Qing, Green, short and plump with deft fingers and an ability to wring exquisite music from any instrument he touches.

The first rule of being a courtesan is to never fall in love with a client. The servants whisper it in his ears as they paint his face and wrap him in delicate silks. His sibling courtesans twitter about it behind their fans. And Zhu-mama is full of horrific stories. Of Lan'er from Orchid House who ran away from her House with promises of marriage, only to be spurned by her lover’s primary Consort and reduced to begging in the streets. Of Qiufeng who wasted away in his apartments, longing for a client who had come full of summer promises, but left once the colour of the leaves turned gold and the winds took on winter’s chill, never to return.

What a waste, when you are all so fortunate, Zhu-mama declares. To be owned under the roof of a prosperous House, have servants to wait on you and good food in your belly! She takes them all on a day trip to the south western slums, to visit the whores who work street corners and cheap copper coin brothels. See the life you could have had! The men who come to our House are wealthy. They pay for your time and your bodies in gold and silver. If you are exceptionally good, they might even leave you a handful of sparkling something to keep as your own. What use is there to fantasise over things such as love or husbands, when all a courtesan can hope for in marriage is a dingy concubine's quarters living under the thumb of a primary consort? Why waste energy chasing something that is never yours to begin with? Nothing ever good comes out of overreaching.

Xuanyu listens to her ministrations with only half an ear. Falling in love with a client will never be a danger for him anyway. He doesn’t have a heart to fall in love with. It was left behind in another life time with a man with kind eyes and an easy smile, who he will likely never see again.

News of the Nie Sect trickles into the pleasure house in the same way that news of any of the cultivation sects do. Xuanyu hangs onto every word. His heart swells to know that Huaisang had reaped his heart's desire for revenge. That in the end, despite his decaying mind, Xuanyu had a small hand in it. If living the trials of this lifetime is part of the cost demanded for the ritual he enacted then he will gladly pay. Even if he could go back and change it all, Xuanyu knows with a fierce determination that he would do it again.

He learns of the growing strength of the Nie Sect and their always smiling leader. He thinks of the soft youth from another lifetime ago who liked admiring paintings and fine embroidery. Who always tried to sneak out of lessons early to go sleep under the afternoon sunshine.

One summer afternoon whilst pouring tea for the Chief Magistrate's party, Xuanyu hears about Huaisang having children. His breath catches. Hot liquid scalds the back of his hand. He nearly drops the teapot altogether. Jin Yan, the courtesan leading the session sends him a sharp look. Xuanyu hunches his shoulders, remembers where he is and what he is doing. There will be punishment to pay for his breach of form, but both the promise of that, and the throbbing from his burned hand pale in comparison to the searing pain that tears through him.

He takes in a shuddering breath and forces his shaking hands to still.

It is not a bad thing, he tells himself. It's been fifteen years now since the Yiling Patriarch’s return. How can any man be expected to mourn for fifteen years? Even if he were to meet Huiasang — no Sect Leader Nie now — Xuanyu wears a different face and a different name. How will he even be recognised? Even if Huaisang somehow recognises him, what then? The difference between their ranks — an illegitimate son and a sect leader — was wide enough in his previous life. Now, he is a mere courtesan and the distance between them has stretched to an impassable gulf. Even if somehow, they were to meet again, to continue what they had before would only bring Huaisang immeasurable shame.

Nothing ever good comes out of overreaching.

It is a great thing that Sect Leader Nie has moved on, married and found love in another. Xuanyu hopes that she is beautiful and kind. That she loves him in the way he deserves to be loved. He is determined to be happy for his Huisang who now has a rich, fulfilling life without the complications of Mo Xuanyu.

###

Spring in Xifu is always a lovely time of year. Willow branches drip tender green fronds on West Lake’s causeway. Flurries of peach blossom petals float past in the air, as delicate as the misty spring rain.

Nie Huaisang pauses at a stall of sugar syrup animals. A-Hong has just turned eleven years and declared himself too old and tough for these trifles, but Yu'er who is six still delights in them and he's determined to enjoy these years as much as he can. She likes this region’s animal dumplings too. Xifu’s pastry makers are not as refined as Gusu’s but he can still purchase a basket tomorrow, so they'll still be fresh when he arrives in Qinghe. Perhaps some miniature cabbages filled with red bean paste will also appeal to A-Hong’s sweet tooth.

As he waits for his purchases to be wrapped, a flicker of gold catches the corner of his eye. Huisang turns. He freezes.

Those eyes, the corner of that mouth — it can’t be — Xuanyu?

But then the moment passes. The eyes of the figure in the white silk edged with gold are the wrong shape for Xuanyu. They’re lined with blue-black dai, not rouge. And the angle of his jaw, the tapering point of his chin, they’re all wrong. And he knows very well that Mo Xuanyu is dead. That someone else wears Xuanyu’s eyes and Xuanyu’s smile, and his heart is intertwined with another.

Still, he can’t help himself. He works some liquid into the back of his too dry throat and croaks out, “Who is...that?”

The store keeper looks past his shoulder. “Ah, Huang Jinli. He’s a courtesan at the Peony Pavilion.” Her face settles into something disapproving. “He’s said to be a good singer, if Sect Leader Nie likes these things.”

Huang Jinli. Golden Oriole. Even the name bears no resemblance to his fallen crane. Huaisang takes the packages offered to him and mentally gives himself a shake. It has been years since he has been lost in these petty illusions of thinking he’s seen his Xuanyu again.

Still, after the evening meal is done, Huaisang stops at the door to his empty room. He has run out of any tasks, meetings or duties to attend to, but it is too early to sleep and too quiet inside. He takes in a deep breath and makes a decision. Perhaps an evening at the Peony Pavilion will be a suitable distraction.

###

“Someone’s put in a request for your companionship, Xiao Huang. For the whole of tonight.”

Xuanyu has just barely come in from the stage when Zhu-mama appears to personally deliver this message. He’s only half out of the outer layers of his stage robes.

“To-tonight?” he manages after he clears his throat three times. He’s been singing half the evening and there is no more moisture left in his throat.

“Of course tonight, didn’t you hear what I said?” Zhu-mama flaps her hand impatiently. A servant slides past her and presses a cup of tea — lukewarm — into Xuanyu’s hand. He swallows the liquid gratefully and dips his head to hide his surprise.

It is not that he never has requests for companionship. But ever since The Incident with a client six months ago, which left a ring of bruises around his throat and him unable to sing for weeks, Zhu-mama has not permitted anyone to request him.

Xuanyu isn’t a fool to think she has done this out of care for him. Zhu-mama is a shrewd business woman, through and through. The Peony Pavilion is known for its Golden Oriole. His singing draws in most of their clients. Weeks of being unable to perform means lost income for her. And whilst a portion of any payment for his companionship must be given to him, there is no need for the House to pay for his time on stage. The meagre stash of savings he had been hiding under his mattress was found when the physicians came to look at his injured throat. It was fortunate that he was allowed to keep it, but it meant that she knew his secret. Knew that he was planning to one day buy his freedom away from this House. What better way to prevent him from doing so than by stopping any way he could accumulate savings altogether?

He wonders what outrageous amount she charged the gullible idiot who requested him tonight, so that she would actually be happy to let this request through.

“Besides.” Zhu-mama’s lips curve into a self-satisfied smile. “It is hardly as if Sect Leader Nie will be able to come here tomorrow night. Not when he needs to make the journey back to Qinghe in the morning. But he comes to Xifu often enough that if you please him, I’m sure he’ll be back here again. We need to build your patron list, Xiao-Huang.”

Her last words float past him, muffled and unintelligible. The hand she places on his arm feels cold and distant, as if it’s not his arm she’s touching at all. The world had stopped after the words Sect Leader Nie had come from her mouth.

It couldn’t be — it can’t — it

Zhu-mama waves to the window and he looks past the direction of her hand, onto the main floor of the Pleasure House below.

It is.

It’s too easy to pick Huiasang’s form from the crowd. In all the years his penchant for style has not changed. The Nie sect’s sombre greys match perfectly with a silver embroidered collar and sleeves. The fan he carries: silver edged with grey complements his outfit. He doesn't look a day older than when Xuanyu last saw him. He forces himself to breathe. Sect Leader Nie is more than fifty years of age now. He’s probably remarried. He has children. That he is here, requesting him specifically means nothing. He certainly isn’t here because—

Zhu-mama’s fingers pinch the skin on the inside of his elbow and twists. The pain is enough to jolt him back to reality. “What’s wrong? Just because I’ve been easy on you the last few months you think that you’re too good to entertain guests?”

Xuangyu bows immediately and is grateful for his years of training that his face betrays none of the turmoil that swirls within his chest. “N-no, of course not Zhu-mama.”

He needs to remember that he now has a new face, a new body and a new name. That to Huaisang he is just Peony Pavilion’s Golden Oriole and that it is better for all that it stay that way. He shakes his shoulders, straightens and pulls a perfectly demure smile across his face.

“I should change, touch up the makeup. I want to look my best for Sect Leader Nie, after all. If Zhu-mama will be so kind and tell him that I will just be a few moments more…?”

A lifetime ago, Huiasang had called him his red crowned crane. Now, reborn into the body of an oriole, Xuanyu is determined to give Huaisang his very best even if it is just as a stranger for one night.

###

There’s something in the tea of this place, Nie Huasang thinks, or is it in the wine? It has him too fuzzy-headed and seeing truths where there are only lies. Or what other explanation could there be for him being here, after imparting with too much silver, to spend the entire night with the Peony Pavilion’s most prized courtesan?

This Golden Oriole isn’t Mo Xuanyu. Huaisang was sure of that as soon as he had entered the pleasure house and seen the famed courtesan on stage. There’s nothing in the way he looks or the way he moves that even remotely resembles Xuanyu. His smile is more hard polished porcelain than frayed cloth. He’s far too refined, far too elegant to be that messy-haired youth of his summer days. And yet—

And yet.

There is something inexplicable that draws Huaisang to him, though he had only glimpsed him once before as he had passed through a morning market. It is as if there is an invisible string linking the two of them together, even though Huaisang is sure that the person his red string of fate was tied to is now long gone. No matter what he can do, he cannot look away.

It is utter foolishness to think that this strange feeling he now has is the same as what he felt when he was with Xuanyu. To think he could have same such attachments towards a courtesan who likely had a whole pool of admirers was simple stupidity. Huiasang has spent twenty years without feeling attraction to another. He knows he doesn’t need it, isn’t ready for it.

But despite himself, Huaisang had called over an attendant, asked for the price for a night. And now he is in the same room as Xifu’s famed Huang Jinli, having paid the ridiculous sum with only a half hearted attempt at haggling it down.

Now, looking up at this Golden Oriole’s face through the warmth of too many cups of rice wine, Huaisang wonders if he was initially wrong. If there — maybe — is actually a passing resemblance. The way his eyes crinkle when he smiles? The tapering lines of blue-black dai that frame his eyes?

“I hear that my lord comes often here to Xifu?”

No, no that voice is wrong. It’s too soft, too sweet to be Xuanyu. Huaisang remembers how Xuanyu had threatened to punch him. Remembers how he had spluttered and gone red when Huaisang had insisted he use his name.

“Don’ call me m’lord,” he slurs, flinging out an arm more dramatically than he had intended. “Jus’ call me Huaisang.”

No going red or spluttering here. Just the barely perceptible widening of the eyes and the slight inclination of his head. “As my — as Huaisang wishes, of course.” His lips quirk as if he is laughing at some private joke of his own. Then his fingers brush along the edges of Huaisang’s jaw and tilt his face up.

“Huaisang paid a lot of money for my company tonight. Did he just intend to spend time on talk, and drinking wine?”

Huang Jinli leans down and he’s kissing him. His hands, his face, his lips are soft. He tastes of summer sunshine and warm, wet rain. He kisses nothing like Xuanyu. Xuanyu always kissed with a combination of awkward hesitation alternating with the rush of youthful enthusiasm. This Golden Oriole is restrained, confident and kisses with a skill that could only come through many hours of practice.

It feels wrong.

It also feels far too right.

Huaisang pushes him away, gasping for breath. He looks up wildly, looking for rogue-lined eyes and a crooked smile. But the eyes that looked down at him are black with dai and there is no smile that teases at the corner of those lips, only concern.

A tremor runs through Huaisang. His lips tremble. And then — it must have been the wine, because he’s leaning forward, body wracked with large, heaving sobs.

“My lord…?” Warm arms come around and encircle him. Huaisang fights the touch for a moment, then gives in. He sobs into the Golden Oriole’s shoulder, heaving cries, and tears that probably ruin the fine silks he’s wearing forever.

It is strange, for him to be crying in some stranger’s lap. Huaisang can’t remember when he last cried, or if he even cried the day Xuanyu went away.

“Oh Huaisang,” he thinks he hears. The words are muffled and pressed in against the crown of his hair. Hands are rubbing large, smooth circles into the small of his back. He hiccups twice, tries to remind himself that he needs to gather some composure. He is a sect leader of at least three decades, after all. But then a kiss is pressed against his forehead and another at the corner of his ear. It opens the floodgates of tears again. This time it takes much longer for everything to stop.

If his behaviour is strange for a client, at least the Golden Oriole has the grace not to say. He brings a basin of warm water and wipes down Huaisang’s face when he is finally finished. Tucks his exhausted body into bed and folds himself around him.

Huaisang drifts off to sleep to the sensation of soft fingers stroking his cheek, and dreams for the first time of Xuanyu. That it is Xuanyu who is lying there in bed with him, and it is Xuanyu who whispers “Huaisang,” into his ear.

###

The beats of the city’s drum tower announces the eleventh hour of the night. Nearly daybreak. Xuanyu pulls himself out from beside Huaisang’s sleeping form, wraps his ruined outer silk robe haphazardly around his shoulders and steps out into the night. The last remnants of the chill of the departed winter are still found in these early morning hours and his breath clouds the air in a plume of white.

He pulls his robe closer around his shoulders but continues along the covered corridor, refusing to look back.

What has he been doing all night?

He had intended to sit and drink with Huaisang. Intended to pour him glasses of rice wine until he fell into a drunken stupor then slip away before anything else happened.


He really should not have asked about his new wife.

Huaisang could have taken offense at the question. Not all clients like to be reminded of what they had back home. But he had just blinked up at Xuanyu with an unguardedness that took his breath away.

“My wife?” The soft snort had sent a dull ache curling through Xuanyu’s chest. “I...did have someone. They* died many years ago and I have not remarried since.”

He was wrong about Huaisang not having aged a day since he last saw him. The signs are subtle but they're there. The faintest of wrinkles between his eyebrows. Deeper creases round his nose and mouth. There’s a few strands of silver threaded through his coal black hair. The smile he wears seems more strained, more stretched thin than Xuanyu remembers.

Xuanyu knows that Huaisang’s youngest is six, so it must have been less than six years since his wife passed away. But the way he looks into the distance at the mention of her as if he's searching for someone not there, shows that he loves her still.

So Huaisang was the same man Xuanyu fell in love with, but also different. Still Nie Huaisang but not Xuanyu's Huaisang anymore.

He should have apologised and ended the night there.

But Huaisang had tipped another cup of wine down his throat before he could say anything. And when he looked up at him again, the glimmer of candlelight in his eyes had reminded Xuanyu of a night, many years ago, of how Huaisang had looked at him the same way.

Then, he had told him to call him Huaisang…

Xuanyu shudders. He had wanted, just for a moment, to pretend he wasn’t wearing this new life and new face anymore. That he was simply Mo Xuanyu again, kissing his husband Nie Huaisang. One last kiss for their night together.

And then Huaisang had pushed him way. Pushed him away and started crying with such pain. How could he have walked away from that? It was all he could do, to curl his arms around his husband from a lifetime ago. He wants to find who had the gall to hurt the revered leader of the Nie clan so much. Wants to track that person down, fight them.

But Nie Huaisang’s life has moved on since Mo Xuanyu died. He had given up the right to be part of Huaisang’s life when he had evoked the ritual to bring Wei Wuxian back. This matter is no longer his fight, and even if it still is, what could Xuanyu do? He had no aptitude when he attempted to learn cultivation in his previous life. He has no training in any martial arts as a soft courtesan in this one.

Xuanyu stops halfway back to his own room and watches as the last stars of the morning disappear from the still-dark sky. The first rule of being a courtesan is to never fall in love with a client. He would do well to remember it.

###

Summer in Qinghe’s lowlands is like living within a roaring furnace. Dry and hot with winds that roar through and rip away any last traces of moisture, leaving its inhabitants feeling like withered, empty hulks. Which is why most of the residents of the Unclean Realm relocate to summer residences in the mountains, where cool shade guards against the oppressive sun and babbling creeks provides a welcome respite against the midday heat.

Which doesn’t explain why Huaisang is in Xifu this summer, where the sweltering heat is a humid stickiness that thickens the air around him until it feels like he’s swimming in liquid. He’s barely walked five steps outside his inn, but his zhongyi is already soaked and stuck to his skin. Beads of sweat roll down his neck. The fan in his hand waves ineffectual puffs of air at his dripping face. Even West Lake’s usual serenity is splintered by the shards of white-hot sun reflected by the shimmering waters.

He really could have left the business here to a subordinate, if not for how, when he returned to the Unclean Realms last spring, he could not stop thinking about a certain Oriole he had encountered—

“Sect Leader Nie.”

White and gold silk flutters as the figure dips into a low bow. Huaisang realises belatedly that it’s the Golden Oriole who has interrupted his thoughts. The robes he is dressed in are embroidered with a lotus motif that echoes the flowering lotuses dotted along the edges of West Lake. He must be either going to or coming back from an engagement. There is an attendant behind him, carrying a pipa, and another with an umbrella and a heavy basket of flowers.

“Master Huang.” Huaisang dips his head in a slight nod. Huang Jinli straightens.

Huaisang’s chest squeezes tight.

His eyes are lined with black, but also with red. With rouge. Just like another pair of eyes that looked at him from a similar bowed position too many years ago.

They’re different. Huaisang forces his mind to acknowledge it. The eyes are different. And the work around them is too pristine and perfect to be the smudged lines that outline the eyes of Mo Xuanyu. There are black and red accents in the embroidery of Huang Jinli’s robes. That’s obviously why he has painted his eyes this way. The art does enhance the Oriole’s delicate beauty.

Huaisang takes in a long, slow breath. This man is obviously not Mo Xuanyu. Why does he keep thinking this man could be Mo Xuanyu? Xuanyu died — more than twenty years ago — he needs to stop thinking that this man could be Mo Xuanyu.

There are common folk stories of fox spirits who trick the minds of men into believing they are in love until they are either so bewitched they willingingly give up their hearts to be consumed, or else waste away into nothingness, longing for something that doesn’t exist. He wonders, fleetingly, if this man, this Golden Oriole could also be a fox spirit in disguise come to eat his heart. If that is why he feels such an incessant pull towards him when they meet, and why his mind cannot forget him when they are apart.

It is ridiculous, of course. Nie Huaisang may not be the most highly skilled cultivator in all the realms but he has more than enough spiritual energy to tell what is mortal and what is yaojing. And even now, he senses nothing more from the Peony Pavilion’s Golden Oriole than that of a simple mortal life.

“Is Sect Leader Nie ...all right?”

Huaisang realises he’s been caught open mouthed and staring. He snaps open his fan as a distraction and tries for a laugh. “Ah — yes. It is good to see you well. It is quite a hot day, isn’t it? I hope you have been able to avoid the worst of it.”

“Summers in Xifu are indeed oppressive.” Huang Jinli says gravely with no mention of the awkwardness when they had last spent a night together. He smiles. It’s soft and meant to be pleasing if Huaisang didn’t know where to look for the signs: the strain at the corner of the mouth, the warmth that doesn’t quite meet the eyes.

Huaisang returns the smile: one masked raised towards another. “It is good to see you anyway. I hope that I will be able to see you again soon.”

“Oh —” A crack appears in the Oriole’s polished porcelain exterior. Confusion? Panic? But Huaisang blinks and it’s gone again, replaced by nothing but smooth composure. “If Sect Leader Nie would like my company, I of course, would be honoured. But such arrangements need to be made through Zhu-mama of the Peony Pavilion.”

Ice slaps down on Huiasang’s head. Of course a courtesan’s time is not his own. He had only known Huang Jinli for one night. What was he thinking, saying that he hoped to see him again soon as if they were friends or even acquaintances.

Huaisang knew how arrangements with courtesans normally worked. Approach the Pleasure House’s Madam, negotiate a time and a price. And if the Madam agreed and money was exchanged then the courtesan had no right to refuse him.

Did this Golden Oriole even want to see him again? Was that hopeful note at the end of his voice true or something trained into him by a resourceful Madam keen on increasing profit?

Huaisang takes Huang Jinli’s form before him: the stiffness of his shoulders, the way his folded hands are actually squeezed together tight. He notes that his robes are creaseless, that despite the summer’s heat there’s not a single drop of sweat on his brow. If this was Mo Xuanyu there would already be sweat soaked through, or mud or both.

“A good afternoon to you, Master Huang.” Huisang inclines his head and reaches for some meaningless pleasantries. “Perhaps I will have the pleasure of hearing you sing again in the near future.”

He walks away as Huang Jinli returns another low bow. He doesn’t look back to see the pair of wide brown eyes following his form until he’s nothing more than a distant speck on the street.

###

I hope that I will be able to see you again soon.

Perhaps I will have the pleasure of hearing you sing again in the near future.

Xuanyu knows better than to see any deeper meaning in these inconsequential words. They’re said often enough to him, because he is well known and popular in Xifu. He knows better than to take them to heart, to hear them as promises, to expect that Huaisang will visit him again.

Still when Zhu-mama’s message comes that the Chief Magistrate has booked his time to sing at a dinner party, he can’t help himself.

“Only the Chief Magistrate?” he asks, “No...no one else?”

The servant relaying the message frowns and shakes her head. “Is Master Huang expecting another engagement from the Madam?”

Xuanyu smiles through the sinking of his heart. “No, of course not A-Mei. Not when the Chief Magistrate has paid for my time for the entire evening. I expect it will be quite late before I am able to come back.”

A-Mei folds her hands, bows and retreats. Xuanyu remembers Zhu-mama’s stories of courtesans being cast out onto the streets or pining away into nothingness for the sake of love.

He tells himself that it is all for the best that Huaisang never comes back.

###

“A fairy!”

Xuanyu is stopped in the late afternoon, as he’s crossing a bridge on his way back from the temple districts, by a warm lump running into his leg. A pair of eyes: round and liquid brown, look up at him. The little girl is dressed in a gown of flowery pink. Her hair has been neatly parted, tied into two fat buns that sit ties back by ribbons on either side of her head.

The mid autumn festival is one of the busiest times in Xifu with a stream of travellers coming from far and wide to view the reflections of the lit mini pagodas on the surface of the lake as they dance around the mirrored image of the moon at moonrise. But this year, they’ve come to find nothing but bad luck. The weather this year is terrible for moon viewing. All heavy grey storm clouds without even a hint of blue sky in sight.

Xuanyu frowns as he looks around. Who could this little girl possibly belong to?

“Are you a fairy?”

“Yu’er!” The harried voice comes first followed by the smattering of footsteps. Xuanyu looks up to see a figure running towards them. He blinks. It’s Huaisang but not as he’s ever seen him before. The overrobe of his hanfu is askew, his fan is tucked haphazardly under one arm and — is that a stray strand of hair peeking out from the half bun of his topknot?

“Yu’er,” Huaisang’s face is blotchy and red although Xuanyu remembers that he’s always managed to stop his sword training before he’s exhausted himself to such a state. “Yu’er I told you not to go running off by yourself and stop bothering—” He looks up, eyes meet Xuanyu’s, and his breath catches. “...Master Huang.”

Yu’er only tightens her grip around Xuanyu’s thigh. “Die-die said he was in love with a fairy once. Then the fairy left. That is why die-die is sometimes sad. Yu’er wants to find a fairy so die-die can be happy again.”

It’s time for Xuanyu’s breath to stick in his throat. A buzzing rushes in his ears. Her mother. The fairy must have been this girl’s mother. And looking at Yu’er he can see why she might have been called fairy. The little girl’s fair skin, her pointed nose and long lashes speak of a future beauty. It is strange though...there seems to be very little of Huaisang’s features in her face.

Yu’er,” Huaisang’s voice rises with exasperation. “I’m sure this shu-shu isn’t interested in those stories.”

“Xiaomei,” another voice chimes in, and it is at this that Yu’er finally lets go. A scowling boy about a head taller than Yu’er steps around Huaisang, takes the little girl’s hand and pulls her away. He whispers something into her ear. Her bottom lip trembles.

“A-Hong, be nice to your sister.” This time Huaisang just sounds tired.

“But we’re going to be late to the moon viewing.” A-Hong’s bottom lip juts out. “And she was the one who ran off.”

“And you’re her ge-ge, and should be old enough to know to show her grace,” Huaisang replies.

A-Hong’s pulls a face but he mutters something to Yu’er that sounds like half an apology.

Xuanyu bows low to the boy who is obviously Huaisang’s son and heir. “I will also extend an apology for Xifu’s weather. I am afraid with this much cloud it will be difficult to see the moon tonight.”

A-Hong screws his nose as he looks at Xuanyu. “And who are you?”

Manners.” Huaisang’s voice is pleasant and mild but his hand comes onto A-Hong’s shoulder and pushes his son into half a bow. “Give your greetings to Huang shu-shu.”

A-Hong splutters even as he acquiesces but when he straightens he looks suitably contrite. He scuffs his shoe against the cobbled pavement. “Good afternoon, uncle.”

Xuanyu can’t help but notice he doesn’t seem to share any of Huaisang’s features either.

“Little A-Hong is still young, plenty of time to learn his manners,” Xuanyu says even though at half A-Hong’s age he would have never dared to say such things to an elder either in this life, or the one he lived before.

Huaisang snorts and it’s the first time that his expression doesn’t look overstretched. “And it’s never too early or late to start learning them.”

So this is what Huaisang is like as a father.

Something squeezes tight in Xuanyu’s chest. The three of them, father son and daughter look so happy together. A little family. Even if he had stayed alive, this was a thing he could never have given Huaisang. This new life that Huaisang has, it is a good thing.

Thunder growls in the distance. The little girl shrieks. Huaisang bends down and scoops her up with one swift movement and she buries her head into his neck. Raindrops, fat and heavy, start to fall.

“Where is Sect Leader Nie staying? Wait, here.” Xuanyu opens the umbrella he’s carrying and thrusts it into Huaisang’s hand. “Take this.”

Travellers to Xifu never remember to carry umbrellas whenever they step out of their house in the way the locals, used to the temperamental weather, do.

“What? No you’ll get wet— ” Huaisang pushes the umbrella back towards him but Xuanyu shakes his head.

“I’ll be fine. I can wash this, you need to protect your fine sect leader’s clothes.” Today’s outing to the temple district was in his own time. He’s dressed in cottons which will survive the rain. “You have children, Sect Leader Nie. And you know where you can find me if you want to return it.”

He turns, offers a half bow before raising his hands overhead to give himself a shadow of protection as he sprints into the downpour.

###

Nie Huaisang watches as Huang Jinli straightens from his bow and disappears into the rising squall. He sees the same scene, but from too many years ago. Another boy, in a pavilion, who raised an arm in an awkward salute before disappearing into a storm. Huang Jinli’s words as he had put the umbrella into Huisang’s hands echo in his ears. They hold no greater meaning by themselves, but speak of another of Huiasang’s memories. Of a boy who stripped out of his own outer robe so he and his companion could sit in the middle of a peony field.

How old is this Huang Jinli? Surely no more than twenty years. Huiasang slowly counts in his head. It has been just over twenty years since the Yiling Patriarch’s return. Is it possible — could there be another explanation for this inexplicable tie between them?

Father, I’m getting wet.”

A-Hong’s tugs impatiently on his sleeve. Huaisang nods absent-mindedly and gathers his son closer to his side. “Of course, we should start heading back.”

Perhaps Huang Jinli is Mo Xuanyu reincarnated. But even if so, the Golden Oriole still wouldn’t have any knowledge of his previous life. All souls pass through judgement, the underworld and finally drink Meng Po’s forgetfulness soup before it is their turn to be reborn. To him, Huaisang is still nothing but a stranger. A rebirth is not the explanation for him to utter words or echo scenes from a life gone past.

And perhaps, this idea of reincarnation and rebirth is nothing more than simple straws he is clutching onto as he is engulfed under waves of his own madness.

Huaisang ushers his children in from the rain before stepping into shelter. His boots squelch under his feet. A-Hong is going to need to change out of his clothes entirely but Huaisang finds himself unusually distracted.

If Huang Jinli is Xuanyu reborn, does this mean he has another chance? No. Huang Jinli is a simple mortal, who is living his own life. What right does Huaisang have to barge in and disrupt everything under some belief he is an incarnation of a previously lost love? It is not as if the cultivation sects don’t have their own complications and prejudices.

And Huang Jinli is a courtesan. If he is contracted to a Pleasure House, could he even refuse Huaisang’s advances if he did not want them?

He reaches to close the umbrella but when he looks up he sees the picture painted onto the oiled paper that is stretched over the bamboo frame: a red crested crane flying through the clouds.

Nie Huaisang takes in a sharp inhalation of breath. There are too many coincidences. He cannot go without an answer.

###

The howling wind and lashing rain slows down business in one way and makes things busier in another. Xuanyu isn’t surprised when his engagements for moon viewing parties are cancelled but then quickly replaced by appointments for private engagements. There is nothing like cold weather that makes men seek out warm bodies and the pleasures of the flesh.

He is surprised to open the room his evening’s client is sitting in to find it is occupied by Nie Huaisang.

“Sect Leader Nie…” He manages to close his mouth before he finishes the question with a very unseemly what are you doing here.

Huaisang flashes a crooked smile and, as if he knows exactly what Xuanyu is thinking, says “I came to return your umbrella!” He waves the item of reference in his hand.

“I…see.” Xuanyu stares. He paid the price to engage him for a night in order to return an umbrella? “I hope then that it was of use,” he adds weakly and tries to pull himself together. “And that your children were not too disappointed by the weather?”

Huaisang shrugs. “I think Yu-er just wanted to do more fairy hunting, and I managed to win A-Hong over by procuring some flaky pastry mooncakes.”

Xuanyu searches for something else to say but his mind draws a complete blank. The more the silence stretches out between them, the more difficult it is to think. He starts to panic. He’s meant to be trained in the art of witty discourse. He isn’t meant to be staring awkwardly at his client like this!

He tries give his hands something to do by sitting and pouring tea. The familiar grassy sweetness of the region’s longjing rises up to greet him and he grounds himself in it. Finally, a line of conversation comes to him. “Your children….they take after their mother very well.”

“Oh? I must admit I don’t know.” Huaisang shrugs. “I did not know her well when she was alive. They’re the children of a cousin. I adopted them after the fever that came through the Northern Realms, three years ago.”

“Oh.” Adopted? Xuanyu’s hands still. That meant — Huaisang had never had a wife then? That that the person he seems to mourn — could that possibly be his husband? Was himself?

Nie Huaisang takes a long, slow sip of his tea. His cup clinks softly against the table when he sets it down. He leans forward. “No, I’ve never remarried after my first wedding, but how does the Golden Oriole of the Peony Pavilion know that my first spouse was a man?”

Blood rushes up into Xuanyu’s face. Had he really said that last thought aloud? He stammers, fights for an answer. His cheeks glow hot. Their marriage had been rushed and in secret. Two lonely souls bowing before an old picture in an abandoned cottage with nothing more than burning pieces of bamboo in the darkness. Who could Huaisang have told after his death that could then have relayed that information onto himself?

Huaisang reaches forward, fingers enclosing around Xuanyu’s own.

“...Xuanyu?”

Mo Xuanyu should pretend ignorance and deny all recognition of that name. It is only fair to Huaisang, to his children. Their marriage vows were only for one lifetime anyway, and Huaisang didn’t need the complication of who he was in this life: an expensive whore, staining his life now.

But Huaisang’s eyes looked so full, and his voice as he said Xuanyu’s name was a strangled note caught between longing and agony. Xuanyu finds his throat closing over. He cannot say anything to deny the question at all.

The last time he had come here, Huaisang had cried into his lap. This time it’s Xuanyu’s turn for his eyes to sting and blur over as tears stream silently down his cheeks.

The warmth of Huaisang’s hand leaves his. He hears the scraping of wood against wood as Huaisang pushes his chair back.

He really needs to pull himself together. The leader of the Nie sect paid for his time and his smile. Not for him to be sitting across the table from him bawling like a newly bought trainee spending their first night away from the parents who abandoned them.

But then Huaisang’s arms are suddenly around him. His hands reach up and cup his cheeks. His thumbs brush away the tracks of wetness away.

“Xuanyu, it’s you isn’t it? Do….do you remember?”

And how can Xuanyu bear to crush the hope in that voice? He nods because he doesn’t trust himself to speak.

Huaisang’s fingers stroke along his nose, his jaw, as if he’s trying to trace every line of his face. Xuanyu turns his head, kisses those fingertips, and then he’s being cradled in soft hands and being kissed.

Huaisang kisses with an achingly slow tenderness. As if by holding Xuanyu, by tasting him, he could stop time itself. Xuangyu groans. He reaches out and tugs open Huaisang’s outer robe, hands slide in, wanting to revisit all the parts of Huaisang he knows well. Huaisang’s hands work to peel back every layer of his robes as his mouth writes a new map of Xuanyu’s skin. They make it to the bed entangled as one.

Morning breaks as gentle sunlight streaming through the window. Sometime during the night, the storm has broken and the clouds have parted. Xuanyu smiles at the early morning sky. The blue after a rainstorm always seem so fresh and new. He reaches out for his husband from a lifetime before—

—but his hands meet nothing but cold crumpled sheets.

Nie Huaisang is...gone?

Xuanyu pushes himself up from the bed, rubbing a hand across his eyes. Where could he have gone? Was the last night some sort of strange dream?

But he cannot continue that line of thought because a servant starts banging at his door. He needs to get up. Zhu-mama is calling for him.

###

Something is wrong. Zhu-mama, owner of the Peony Pavilion, knows well she can swan in and out of her courtesan's quarters and they can do nothing to protest. To be called into her private study is always because some grave mistake. Even punishments for smaller infractions are dealt with elsewhere.

Xuanyu stands in front of her large mahogany desk, hands folded in front of himself and tries not to fidget.

‘If you wish to go, you can pack up your things when you like.”

Xuanyu’s head snaps up. What has he done that’s so bad, that he is being turned out? He thinks back through the actions of the last few days in his mind. Even when he had gone out to the temple districts it had been with the permission of the house. And surely after last night Huaisang would never come to her and say he was not pleased with—

The sound of Zhu-mama clearing her throat cuts through his thoughts. She takes out a record book, his record book. Where she records all the details of the costs of his training and the debts of his living expenses: the silk robes, the upkeep of his apartments, the servants who look after him. The amounts that he needs to pay back if he is ever to be free. Mo Xuanyu doesn’t need to look at her pages to see the numbers. He has been keeping his own records in his rooms and knows that it will be at least another ten, maybe even twenty years before he can hope to have scraped enough savings to leave this place.

But when Zhu-mama opens the book, all the numbers that Xuanyu can see are crossed out.

“He came this morning.” She sniffs. “Banged on the door to my private apartment and demanded that I wake. Just to do this.”

Xuanyu stares. His hands, still in their folded position tremble. He doesn’t ask, who was the one who did this, because who else could it be?

“If you wish to stay, you are welcome to, of course,” Zhu-mama continues. “We can make an arrangement about the cost of your rooms, your servants to be written against any earnings you bring in. He didn’t specify exactly what he wanted with you, but when I offered to give him your papers of ownership, he told me I should burn them instead.”

Xuanyu works some moisture into his too-dry throat. “Where — do you know where I can find Sect Leader Nie?”

Zhu-mama frowns. “He didn’t say where he was staying…” She arches a brow. “But Xiao-Qing did note the other day that he saw him come out from the inn at the corner of Osthmanthus Road and Lotus Street.”

“Thankyou, th-thankyou.” Xuanyu bows deep. Bows multiple times like a chicken pecking grain. “I— I will take my leave.”

“We’ll continue this conversation when you come back then.”

He doesn’t answer because he doesn’t know how to answer.

Back in his rooms, Xuanyu pulls on the first overobe over his zhonyi that he finds in his wardrobe. He doesn’t care if his belt tie is crooked. He runs all the way to Osthmanthus Road and doesn’t notice how the mud in pooled puddles from the rain the night before splashes over his legs or how his hair is coming undone from his messy half bun.

He meets Nie Huaisang as he is coming out of his inn.

“Why.” This is not the right etiquette for a courtesan to be greeting a sect leader. Nor is out on the open street the right place to be having this conversation. Xuanyu doesn’t care. “Why,” he asks again.

“Ah, I was coming back to see you this morning, I just had to go back and say good morning to the children,” Huaisang starts but he breaks off as his eyes take in the mess of Xuanyu’s form. “I was coming back to tell you, but I — I didn’t want to make you think that I was doing this for you to meet any conditions...”

“It’s too much.” The Nie Sect has grown in wealth over the years but Xuanyu is very conscious of exactly how much he had owed. “You cannot spend such an amount on just me.

“Too much? Nothing is too much.” Huiasang takes a step closer. His voice lowers. “Can’t you see that you are worth every coin? I couldn’t keep my promises in your last life. In this one I—”

“You want me as your concubine. I’ll — I’ll gladly serve you as your concubine.”

“What? No.

Xuanyu’s heart sinks. If Huaisang doesn’t want him then why —

“If you want — and only if you want, I’d rather have you as my full consort.” Huaisang takes a step forward. His takes Xuanyu’s right hand in his own. His voice grows soft. “I’ll have us marry, if you are willing. As you know, I haven’t ever remarried.”

Xuanyu stares. “But — you’re a sect leader. I’m a —” He swallows. “I’m a courtesan.”

“I don’t care. My people won't care either once they know who you are.”

“But I —” Xuanyu’s thoughts catch up to him. Just because they had that one night together does not mean Huaisang deserves someone like him for a lifetime. “I’m mortal. I mean, in my last life I didn’t have much of any cultivation anyway but in this life…” he swallows. “I’m going to grow old. I’m going to die.” And surely Huaisang deserves to spend his days with another cultivator. Someone his equal in strength and mind.

Huaisang’s fingers slide across his palm. Xuanyu squeezes on them tight. Is he being selfish? He just can’t bear to let them go.

“I don’t care.” Huaisang’s left hand strokes Xuanyu’s cheek. “We’ll have one lifetime together at least and after that…. I’ll wait for you. In any lifetime. As long as you want me, I’ll be there. But — ” His voice catches. “If you don’t then — ”

Want,” Xuanyu says quickly because he hears the hint of hurt in Huaisang’s voice. Because the only thing more horrifying that the leader of the Nie sect marrying a mere courtesan is if Huaisang thinks that he doesn’t want him at all.

“Then come back to Qinghe with me?” Huaisang’s voice is hoarse. “It’s beautiful in autumn, the cities are bathed in red and gold. Winter’s more miserable but….” He leans in, presses their foreheads together. “Meet my people, get to know my children. And then if you are still willing after all of that — we could get married in the spring?”

Xuanyu’s fingers bunch together the embroidered silk of the collar of Huaisang’s robes as he pulls him in even tighter. He is being selfish. But if being selfish makes Huaisang happy...

This time, when they kiss, it feels like a promise of things to come.