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the pair of lovebirds that Loneliness painted

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A dull clank resounds through the room, and all eyes swivel to him.

“I understand, Grandma.” He purses his lips. There is still the occasional ripple that passes across the surface of the tea in the cup, which he set down on the wooden table with admittedly a little more force than necessary.

“Good. I chanced a look at some dates, and it seems as though there is a lack of auspicious days this month—the ceremony may be held next month then, perhaps. It is your wedding, Rui-er, should you not make preparations to organise the occasion yourself?”

He lowers his head in a half-nod, half-bow; half-submissive, half-appreciative. His jaw pops up at his temple when he clenches it, but if his grandmother noticed, she did not make any comments on it. “I shall, Grandma. You needn’t concern yourself.”

A smile passes over the old madam’s face. There’s the wrinkle around her eyes and the greying of hair just above her forehead before it is swallowed by intricate ornaments of gold and head-pieces made of all sorts of valuable gemstones. But her eyes still shine with the same twinkle that it always has throughout Chi Rui’s life whenever he acts satisfactorily and pleases her. And when she nods in approval with his decision, the dangling jewellery that have been pinned into her hair make a faint sort of tinkling sound that perhaps would’ve been lost in the air if the living room wasn’t so dead silent.

Chi Rui was only all-too-familiar with all of these, details that have been long embedded into his everyday life. He only stares into his tea, that slowly grows cold where it sits atop the wooden table that he and his grandmother sit around.

“It is about time, is it not, Rui-er? Your engagement with Shen Hu’s precious daughter is long overdue. If the kidnapping by those damned bandits did not get in our way, you and Shen Lingxue would have been married months ago.”

Chi Rui hardly hears her words. He only hears gun shots, his mind is only filled with wide, confident grins, crescent eyes that glittered with mirth at Chi Rui’s stupefied expression, and his ears only ring with a lighthearted call of “you alright there? You two go, we’ll take care of the rest!”

“Young Master Chi.”

Chi Rui forcefully drags himself out of the memories that have yet again haunted him in broad daylight. He reaches forward, taking his teacup and blowing on his tea again even though it has lost its warmth already, just to hide the slight shaking of his hands.

He doesn’t even glance up, sipping on his tea. “What is it?”

The butler, who had walked into the living room and stood opposite Chi Rui on the other side of the wooden table, bows. “We have news on Young Master Feng.”

“I do not want to hear it.”

Perhaps there was a bit more bite in his voice than the usual softness Chi Rui speaks with, perhaps it’s the knowledge that everyone has in the Chi household that Chi Rui and the Young Master of the Feng family walked particularly close at one point, because his hostility seems to take everyone aback, all the servants, the butler, even the old madam.

She sits a bit straighter in her tall wooden chair, eyebrows knitting together. “Rui-er, what warranted such attitude towards the Feng Young Master? There is much you owe him, for the help he has lent you in the past. And the Feng family is not a family to be messed with, you know this. We cannot afford to anger them.”

Chi Rui allows himself to close his eyes for a brief moment, dark eyebrows resting heavily and creasing his forehead just at the mere mention of him.

“Grandma, there is no need to worry yourself over such insignificant matters. I have already repaid Feng Yong for his help. I will see to the wedding preparations with Shen Lingxue.” Chi Rui stands from his seat, leaving his teacup on the table. He bows his head towards the old madam, voice low. “If there is nothing more you need me for, please excuse me.” And with that, he sweeps out of the room, leaving his grandmother to confusedly ask the butler, who is no wiser on what brought about the Young Master’s sudden change in mood.

 

He has already repaid Feng Yong for his help. He has given Feng Yong plenty.

 

“Hand over the girl,” Chi Rui hissed, voice low, a single arm raised. His finger hovered threateningly over the trigger, but the corners of the bandit’s lips only curved upwards further. “Name a price. I’ll pay.”

“Oh?” came a sneer, and Chi Rui’s jaw clenched a smidge harder. “I always knew you business owners were wealthy, but what’s the extent you’ll pay,” the man turns his head, inching his face closer to that of Shen Hu’s daughter. Her eyes, just below the line of her straight bangs, were widened and unblinking in shell-shocked fear. “Just for one little worthless life?”

“She’s an innocent girl,” Chi Rui warned again, the arm holding his handgun shifting—but even at that slightest movement, the bandit mirrored it, shuffling so that he held Shen Lingxue in his arms in front of him as a human shield. He pressed the metal point of his own gun harder against the girl’s temple, and she sucked in a breath, watery eyes finding Chi Rui’s.

The bandit had his eyes narrowed, running up and down Chi Rui’s pristine white suit without a single crease or crinkle in it. He tightened his own sleeveless arms around Shen Lingxue, a smirk on his face. Chi Rui talked, walked, looked, smelt like money.

“Whatever you want, I’ll pay for it.” Chi Rui said between gritted teeth. “It is the Chi family that you hate. Leave her out of it.”

“Last time I checked she was meant to be marrying into the Chi family, was she not?” The bandit grinned. “You can forget all about bringing your little bride home today, Chi Rui. Bring me a thousand handguns and five hundred machine guns, and then we’ll talk.”

Chi Rui had let out a shaky breath, thick eyebrows furrowed further on his forehead. “Xiang Tian, you bastard. The Chi family manufactures fabric, not weaponry!”

The bandit shrugged and raised an eyebrow. “Guess that’s your loss then.”

He whipped around, taking Shen Lingxue with him.

But the bullet that Chi Rui immediately fired missed the bandit by a mere hair’s length, whizzing right by his ear, and in the few moments that Xiang Tian paused in shock, Chi Rui lunged forward, grabbed hold of the girl’s wrist and tugged.

She came flying out of the bandit’s grasp, barrelling right into Chi Rui’s chest. A white suit-coated arm subconsciously wrapped around her shoulders and pulled her closer, Chi Rui’s gun still pointed at the bandit.

Just as Chi Rui’s men came forward to take down the few bandits that surrounded them and protect him from Xiang Tian launching any further attempts to take the girl again, his heart sank.

There, from the hilly terrain on all four sides of them, from behind the slopes and rocky mountain sides, appeared wave after wave of bandits.

He hardly registered his guard’s shout of “Protect the Young Master!”, too focused on counting down the number of bullets left in his little handgun. Every bullet that flew out of his gun was mirrored by one from Xiang Tian’s, and Chi Rui could only manoeuvre the girl in his arms, dodging bullets as he shuffled backwards while still shooting at the kidnapper. His men surged up in a protective circle around him as he moved himself and the girl backwards behind them, shielding her with his own body.

Bullet after bullet met target after target—but the mountains, they echoed back the gunshots and men’s screams of pain, they were all amplified until that was all Chi Rui heard. The thuds of bodies behind him, around him, that fell to the short grass underfoot, the seemingly endless swarms of bandits that came down upon them.

They were only a small band of men that accompanied Chi Rui to pick up Shen Hu’s long lost daughter, to escort her to town for their marriage. Passing through the mountains was a mistake. Underestimating the greed of the bandits was a mistake. Chi Rui shook his handgun, desperately pulling the trigger, but all that came out were a last few trails of smoke. Not bringing extra bullets was a mistake.

All of a sudden, the short bangs of gunshots were interrupted by a long, continuous stream, and Chi Rui’s eyes widened, initially at fear that the bandits had their hands on machine guns, then in astonishment at how it was flocks of bandits that fell to the ground instead of his own men. He spun around, only to watch as men in the signature tan military uniform poured down on the slopes.

They charged at the bandits, shot at them, while rifles perched atop hills, deafening machine gunshots filling the air. Xiang Tian was nowhere to be seen.

“You alright there? You two go, we’ll take care of the rest!”

Only then did Chi Rui notice the small group of military soldiers that rushed up to them.

The voice was loud, carrying over the gunshots, but carefree and confident. The smile was wide, pearly teeth flashed at him despite the situation at hand. The eyes were crinkled at the corners, shining beneath the brim of the military cap. The man was tall, a little taller than Chi Rui, shoulders straight, and gesturing for Chi Rui and the girl to get behind him, for his soldiers to escort them out of there. Chi Rui’s eyes lingered. The man was unexplainably handsome.

But Chi Rui shrugged him off. “We’re fine. No need.”

 

What he owed Feng Yong he has repaid—

 

The ‘friendly chat over some splendid wine’ was not going the way it should.

Chi Rui lifted the little cup to his lips again, tipping it back and letting the clear liquor scorch it’s way down his throat.

“Mr Wu,” he mutters lowly. “What I am proposing is a mutualistic offer between our families. You know perfectly well the success of our Chi family’s fabrics. It is not an unreasonable price that I am asking of you. Your suggestion only based on my family situation is simply unfair.”

The merchant who sat opposite Chi Rui at their little round table on the second floor wasn’t even looking at him. He was too busy giving filthy looks to the girls that milled around their table, letting them pour him drinks, grinning when they held the cup to his lips.

Chi Rui looked away.

If their business wasn’t in need of expansion, he would not need to look for a way to ship them to another city. If he didn’t need to ship his rolls and rolls of fabric to another city where they may sell better, he wouldn’t need to ask favours and do business with the Wus in order to buy space in train carriages that will travel to the north. If he didn’t need to do business with the Wus, he wouldn’t need to be here, in a damned brothel of all places, because it is the one place that Mr Wu would agree to meet to talk.

Their table was partially hidden from view, with red curtains draped around three sides. Scantily dressed waitresses, with silk dresses that had a side slit all the way up to the thigh, came in and out bringing over more jugs of wine and accompanying dishes.

The merchant, red-cheeked from the wine, chanced a glance at him, and simply laughed at Chi Rui’s tight jaw and tense shoulders. “Relax, Chi Rui. We’re here to have fun—aren’t we?” he chuckled, eyes glued back onto the girls that surrounded him. “Though I suppose, if I had your kind of bad luck in marriage, I would be just as dull as you.”

Chi Rui pointedly refused to look at him. Mr Wu, however, just sneered again.

“25 years old, still unmarried. Finally landed yourself Shen Hu’s one and only daughter, but now she’s bed-bound and there are no more follow up news of your wedding.” Mr Wu tutted and took a sip of wine.

Shen Lingxue, injured during the kidnapping ordeal, needed to be nursed back to full health, and for that, the wedding between her and Chi Rui was pushed back, for now. Chi Rui’s grip around his wine cup tightened. He brashly waved off one of the girls who reached over to pour him more, and grabbed the jug to fill his own cup instead.

“Bad luck. Isn’t it bad luck?” Mr Wu gave him a knife-like grin. “Do you bring bad luck, Chi Rui? If you keep going down this track, one day or another the Chi family business would be ruined in your hands. So tell me, why should I do business with you?”

Chi Rui tipped the alcohol down his throat. “My private life is none of your business,” he managed to grit out around the bitterness in his mouth and burn on his tongue.

“These are all things that simply make you a bad business candidate, young man,” Mr Wu flashed him a scathing look. “Father, killed at a prime young age by bandits. Mother, remarried as a lowly second wife.” Chi Rui’s knuckles turned white, fist forming around the wine cup. “To this day, the business is still run by a frail old lady who hardly knows what she’s doing anymore! Tell me, what future do you see in you and your cloth?”

And when Chi Rui didn’t respond, red in the face with unspoken rage, Mr Wu only tipped his head back and laughed.

“Long time no see, Wu. I see you’re still as much of a dickhead as ever.”

A voice cut through the music that wafted up from the hall of the brothel downstairs, through Mr Wu’s derisive laughter, through the alcohol-muddled thoughts that clouded the front of Chi Rui’s mind.

The voice, loud and lighthearted, spiked a hint of recognition in the back of Chi Rui’s brain, and when he looked up, his heart stuttered pitifully against his ribs.

“Young Master Feng,” Mr Wu jumped to his feet from his seat, only for the young man dressed from head to toe in that same strikingly familiar military uniform to smirk at him from beneath his cap. “What brings you here?”

Instead of answering his question, the man only raised a hand, prodding once, twice, at the silk garment over Mr Wu’s chest. “Whoever taught you to speak did a God awful job. I don’t believe you would like to cross the Feng family, Wu? Itching for a beating today?”

Mr Wu stiffened immediately. He left in a hurry, bumbling out of the room after quickly bowing towards the man in uniform as he went. Chi Rui still sat, looking up in a silent daze.

The man turned, the hard stare replaced with another eye-crinkling smile as his gaze landed, once again, on Chi Rui. He gestured to his companion, another man in a similar uniform, who nodded and walked over to the next table down, waving over the girls that had previously served Mr Wu for company.

Chi Rui’s eyes never left the man with the boyish smile, watched as he took Mr Wu’s seat opposite Chi Rui.

“So we meet again,” he said, carefree, leaning back in his seat to grin that same wide grin that he flashed at Chi Rui back on the mountains. “There wasn’t time to introduce myself when we first met. The name’s Feng Yong, my father is Feng Delin, from the Fengxi Army.”

Chi Rui stilled, blinking rapidly. Feng Yong. Feng Yong. Feng Yong.

The well-known Feng family. The revered Fengxi Army warlord’s only son. Feng Yong. The Chief of the Dongbei Army.

“Chi Rui,” he managed to mumble back. Not forgetting his manners, he gave a slight dip of his head in Feng Yong’s direction. He wasn’t looking at Feng Yong—he couldn’t, or the sight of his smiling eyes and clean sharp jawline would jumble his rational thinking more than the alcohol—but he heard the man’s amusement in the huff he let out.

Instead of introducing his family, Feng Yong probably heard most of it from Mr Wu just then anyway, Chi Rui flashed a glance up through his eyelashes, and asks, “Why do you keep helping me?”

Feng Yong, pouring himself a drink, looked up and chuckled. “Just passing by. Last time the army was headed to Bei Ping in the North through the mountain passage. This time I came to have a drink with a close friend.”

Chi Rui said nothing.

That seemed to have warranted Feng Yong to reach over the table, and he poured a slight trickle of alcohol to fill Chi Rui’s cup. He was able to feel Feng Yong’s glittering eyes on him, and he absolutely refused to look up and meet his gaze, keeping his eyes resolutely fixed on the flowers embroidered on the table cloth.

“Relax,” Feng Yong laughed, and tipped back the mouthful of wine in one go. He let out a short hiss at the burn, but even that turned into a little huff of breathy laughter directed back at Chi Rui. “I’m not going to ask you to repay me. Whatever gold you can offer, the Feng family already has. Just have a drink with me, since we’re already here.”

When Chi Rui voiced no objections, only silently downing the contents of his cup, Feng Yong grinned wide and reached over to fill it for him yet again. Chi Rui, throat dry and at an absolute loss for words, could only mutely nod in thanks.

Leaning forward, Feng Yong’s eyes travelled up and down Chi Rui, up and down the long white silk robe he was donned in. Chi Rui was helpless to the way his ears burned under Feng Yong’s gaze. “You look young. Was the lady from last time your wife?”

“No.” Chi Rui, oddly, did not want to elaborate. Feng Yong, too, only smiled at that.

He raised his cup towards Chi Rui before silently tipping it back, drinking even though Chi Rui did not yet return the gesture. Chi Rui awkwardly drank from his own cup a few beats too late, too busy observing the way Feng Yong pursed his full lips as he swallowed the mouthful of alcohol, Adam’s apple moving as it travelled down his throat.

A couple of silent drinks, Chi Rui blinking at Feng Yong from over the rim of his wine cup and under his long lashes, Feng Yong meeting his gaze square on and tilting his head. Chi Rui swallowed, looked away and downed a cup full of wine again. Seeing Feng Yong once again… a surge of emotion rushed up his throat, and Chi Rui could only swallow a mouthful of wine to drive it back down.

Feng Yong picked at the dishes, chuckling good-naturedly. “Don’t worry about getting on Wu’s bad side— you don’t need the connection with someone as despicable as him anyway. So you can relax, pretty boy.”

Chi Rui nearly spat out a mouthful of alcohol. He didn’t, his stature and pride would have never allowed him to do such a rude thing. But it went down his throat weirdly, it burnt his throat more than it already did and he ended up choking and coughing, all bright red in the face.

Feng Yong only laughed at him and handed him a handkerchief.

 

—and repaid again.

 

The breath was knocked out of Chi Rui’s lungs.

“What—”

He didn’t get to finish his sentence when the words were forced back, chapped lips pressed against his own. His heart dropped to the pit of his stomach, then grew wings and shot up his throat and seemingly flew right out of his own mouth to be swallowed down by Feng Yong. Feng Yong’s lips, tongue that swiped against Chi Rui’s bottom lip, hot breath that fanned into Chi Rui’s mouth, it all made Chi Rui’s eyelids flutter, made his hands move on their own accord to reach up and grab the front of Feng Yong’s crisp uniform coat. With the material fisted in his hands, Chi Rui tugged him down, tugged him closer, and Feng Yong let out an approving noise. He kissed Chi Rui with renewed vigour, and Chi Rui had half a mind to register feeling a brief graze of the slightest prickly new growth on Feng Yong’s sharp chin when he tilted his face.

Feng Yong lifted a hand that was propped up on the bed to pop open the buttons of his own high-collared coat, tugging it open without separating his mouth from Chi Rui’s. He shrugged it off his shoulders and threw it aside, letting it fall in a crumpled heap on the wooden floor beside the high bed. Immediately, Chi Rui’s hands fell on Feng Yong’s vest. He felt his way around the vest, fingers then finding the crisp shirt underneath.

Feng Yong pulled away just to tug off the vest and shirt, eyes never leaving Chi Rui’s face, the red flush that sat on Chi Rui’s high cheekbones, the way Chi Rui still lay there against the hard mattress with his eyes closed from Feng Yong’s kisses. He reached down, gently cupped one side of Chi Rui’s beautifully sculpted face in his palm, gazing intently as Chi Rui’s eyes fluttered open. He peered up at Feng Yong, blinking long lashes at him while catching his breath, and Feng Yong muttered an almost soundless curse.

He bent down to capture Chi Rui’s lips in his own again, with a hand trailing experimentally down from Chi Rui’s face to his jaw, his neck, his collarbones, his chest. Chi Rui shuddered under his touch even through the fabric of his robes, but did not push his hand away—and still did not push his hand away even when Feng Yong’s fingers clumsily unbuttoned the front of Chi Rui’s delicately embroided silk garments. Chi Rui only sucked in a breath when his robes came undone under Feng Yong’s hands, eyelashes shifting against Feng Yong’s cheek and body subconsciously tensing at the touch.

Poised, soft-spoken, well-mannered Chi Rui, well-educated, gifted and dignified Chi Rui, has never been touched like this, nevertheless by a man. Feng Yong’s hands were warm, fingers roughened from years of military training, and drew up goosebumps along Chi Rui’s skin.

He gave no voice to his thoughts, he did not know how to express himself in pleas and moans, but only pressed himself closer still, closer against Feng Yong and his touch, closer into his warmth. It was the only way Chi Rui could hope to convey the way his chest ached in want. Feng Yong seemed to understand.

 

Chi Rui shakes his head, eyes focusing back on the black characters inked onto pale beige parchment, the book held in a roll in his hand.

His other hand rests atop the wooden polished surface of his desk, absentmindedly drawing invisible strokes onto the tabletop. Two dots, one on top of the other. A line bent as though the corner of a square on top of another line bent the other way. A hook. A horizontal line.

Chi Rui doesn’t notice. They say his calligraphy is one of a kind, the result of years of hard work, years of his grandmother’s painstakingly long training.

Nice writing, Chi Rui,” that airy, masculine voice rings out somewhere only Chi Rui could hear. “You could write New Years wall couplets and sell them!

Subconsciously drawing the strokes of characters have become a habit born out of the long years of calligraphy practice. He doesn’t notice that he’s doing it, let alone notice that the character he traces with his finger onto the wood reads ‘Feng’.

He doesn’t want to see him ever again.

He had hissed those exact words and swept out of the Feng estate. The fact that Feng Yong never chased after him, never even called him back, never pleaded, only served to fuel the fire that was Chi Rui’s temper.

He huffs to himself, in the quiet stillness of his study. Just the thought of Feng Yong’s complete lack of response still ignites a sprout of that same anger even now that he had burnt with that night when he stormed to the Feng’s and confronted Feng Yong.

Chi Rui, born into a family of authority and wealth, Chi Rui, shielded and protected for his entire life by his grandmother who single-handedly raised him, with his every need and want seen to by their fleets of maids and butlers—of course Chi Rui has never experienced anything other than being tended to and spoilt rotten.

Tall and handsome Chi Rui, well-read and intelligent Chi Rui, gentlemanly and well-off Chi Rui—of course Chi Rui has only ever been fancied by others, by ladies from prominent families, by ladies walking along the street, by maids at home. Of course Chi Rui never experienced the heart break of learning that his lover was spending time toying with others.

The very day his personal guard told him about the rumours he’s heard of Young Master Feng being out and about with a bunch of girls all day then drinking at the brothel with them at night, Chi Rui headed out to the Feng estate. He was familiar with Feng Yong’s home, he was even more familiar with Feng Yong’s bedroom, and that was where he waited until Feng Yong came home.

But when Feng Yong’s only explanation to Chi Rui’s accusations was “there’s nothing I need to explain”, Chi Rui scoffed in his face. In a rage, Chi Rui left the Feng estate, refusing to see him ever again—and agreeing to renew his engagement with Shen Hu’s daughter. Perhaps it was just to spite Feng Yong, but in that moment, when Chi Rui was red in the face with anger, when Chi Rui’s eyes were prickling with hot tears in disappointment and despair, he could only heed his grandmother’s wishes.

His hand atop the desk forms a fist. He doesn’t want to see him ever again.

At the creak of the wooden doors of his study, Chi Rui snaps back to the book still held in his hand, forcing his eyes to take in the characters on the pages.

“Young Master,” his personal guard, a sturdy and slightly rotund young man with a heart of gold and kind, caring eyes despite his iron fist, bows as he walks up to Chi Rui’s desk.

“A-si, can’t you see that I’m reading?” Chi Rui says, voice soft and quiet—and yet with a telltale edge to it that sharpens his otherwise gentle tone. His eyes betray him though—they seem to be stuck on that one spot on the page instead of reading up and down the lines, one spot that he hasn’t moved past for the last few hours.

He hates Feng Yong, for doing this to him.

If A-si noticed, he doesn’t point it out, only mumbling “I have the news on Young Master Feng that you told me to ask around for.”

Something seemed to stir once again in the depths somewhere in Chi Rui’s chest. It may be residual anger at Feng Yong’s lies, or it may be lingering longing that resurfaced along with the mention of him. Chi Rui closes his eyes and turns away from the latter option.

He opens his mouth to instruct A-si that there is no need to find out information about what Feng Yong has been doing anymore, that he no longer needs to know and no longer cares—but the only thing that leaves his lips is “and? What is it?”

A-si hesitates. Chi Rui looks up from the book, placing it down on the desk and raising his eyebrows in silence.

“He’s at the brothel,” A-si quietly admitted, deliberately not looking at Chi Rui’s expression. “…Again. With Young Marshal Zhang this time.”

A short silence stretches out between them in the study, only broken by a quiet breath Chi Rui releases. He looks away from A-si, jaw tense and shoulders tenser. Eventually, he waves to dismiss his guard, who bows and hurries back out of the room all without a single word, perhaps feeling the way Chi Rui’s temper begins to bubble. He reaches blindly, grabbing a book that sat on the side of his desk, and hurled it to the ground on the other end of the room.

The bubbling rises to a boiling point when Chi Rui walks into the brothel himself, expression steely. If his anger was already sitting on fire before, silently watching Feng Yong sitting at a table with girls from the brothel all over him only results in Chi Rui nearly drawing blood with how hard he clenches his fists at his sides. He steps behind thick red curtains that perfectly hide the rest of his body while his eyes peer out from his hiding spot to watch despite knowing just how embarrassing and improper this is. Zhang Xueliang, Feng Yong’s close friend, laughs and raises his cup, waiting for Feng Yong to do the same before they both drink. The girls eagerly fill their cups again, even reaching over with chopsticks to hold something right up to Feng Yong’s lips.

They giggle at something Feng Yong says, holding a sleeved hand delicately up to their red lips as they laugh. One of them gently places a hand on one of Feng Yong’s biceps as she talks quietly in his ear, and Chi Rui sees red.

He isn’t given time to act on his sudden burst of anger, however, as Zhang Xueliang speaks up after letting out a short hiss at the burn of alcohol down his throat. “Feng Yong,” he starts, putting down his wine cup. “Are you really going to let things with Chi Rui go on like this?”

Chi Rui’s entire body stills. He strains his ears, peeking out from his hiding place to catch even the slightest glimpse of Feng Yong’s expression as he answers the question.

To his utmost disappointment, even though Chi Rui would rather die than admit it, Feng Yong’s face was void of any and all emotion that gives away what he felt deep down. “There’s nothing for me to do, Han Qing.” He sighs, raising another shot to Zhang Xueliang.

Chi Rui has met the man before, they ran into each other at the Feng mansion when Zhang Xueliang was paying his senior a visit. The two friends both graduated from Beijing Terrestrial Military Training Institution, with Feng Yong being Zhang Xueliang’s senior by a year or two. Zhang Xueliang, however, also goes by the name Han Qing, which is the name that only those of the same age or rank or lower may use to call him by.

“If he really hated you then seeing you with a girl wouldn’t bother him so much,” Zhang Xueliang reasons, but Feng Yong tips back another shot, shaking his head.

Then he laughs, huffing out breathy chuckles. But only his mouth is laughing—his eyes don’t crinkle at the edges with his smile, they don’t glitter with amusement. “Even if he didn’t hate me before, he sure as Hell hates me now.”

Zhang Xueliang leans forward across the table to rest a hand on Feng Yong’s shoulder, prompting another huff of a laugh. “So you’re not even going to try?”

Feng Yong falls quiet. He places a hand over Zhang Xueliang’s own hand, pats it, and throws him a smile.

Chi Rui narrows his eyes, turning away from the scene. He’s had enough.

He’s had enough of listening to how Feng Yong wouldn’t even bother to salvage their relationship, he’s had enough of watching Feng Yong and his best friend’s overly friendly touches. He’s perfectly well aware that Feng Yong and Zhang Xueliang were born in the same year, went to school together and became best friends, particularly as their fathers were both warlords of the Fengxi Army and were closely acquainted. But that doesn’t make the weird churning in his gut stop, it doesn’t lessen the way he clenched his jaw and held himself back from ripping those red curtains apart.

The sight of those red-nailed-fingertips touching Feng Yong, the sight of Feng Yong’s own hand touching Zhang Xueliang—it all makes those memories of hearing about Feng Yong and those supposed female partners resurface. The anger rapidly rises up his blood vessels until he felt like his blood was boiling with it. And with a violent flick of the long sleeves of his silk robe, Chi Rui stomped right back out of the brothel, not caring whether Feng Yong and the Young Marshal heard him or not.

Chi Rui has never once felt such strong emotion surge all through his body, and he hates it. It makes him undeniably childish, it makes him spiteful, it makes him lose his temper over ridiculous things. It makes him hate Feng Yong.

 

 

The doors close behind him.

Chi Rui chances a glance at the wooden doors of the room over his shoulder, before his gaze returns to the girl sitting at the little round table, grinning up at him. She beckons him over with a sweet smile, sliding a cup of tea across the smooth polished surface of the dark wood, and ushers him to take a seat while they wait for her father.

Chi Rui steps towards the table, sitting as told, but does not touch the tea.

“Miss, it is perfectly fine to await Mr Wu’s return in the tea room.” Chi Rui mumbles. “When did you say he will be back?”

She waves him off, flashing him her pearly white teeth once more. “It is no bother, Young Master Chi. He will be back soon I believe, please taste the tea. We had it shipped from the West Lake in Zhejiang, it is considerably premium quality tea. Please, try for yourself.”

Chi Rui only dips his head with a tiny polite smile, looking around the room again.

Upon first entering the room, as escorted by Mr Wu’s daughter who then sat at the table to pour them both some tea, the first thing Chi Rui’s eyes fell on was the wooden bed in the corner, with cloth drapery hanging above it and shielding it from unwanted eyes. The second thing he noticed was the lack of arm chairs for guests.

Interesting, that Mr Wu’s daughter invited him to wait for her father in the privacy of a bedroom that doesn’t appear to often have guests.

Chi Rui reaches out to take the dainty little teacup between his thumb and index finger, slowly turning it. He raises his eyes to peer at Wu Cuicui. “Mr Wu would not be joining us today, would he?”

The girl blinks, looks the slightest bit awkward for a moment with her gaze shifting around Chi Rui’s form instead of landing on him, but eventually breaks out into a smile. “I didn’t know Young Master Chi would be in such a rush. If there is anything in particular you wanted to discuss with my father, you can always do so with me.”

The teacup in Chi Rui’s hold is placed back down on the tabletop. “Miss Wu,” he mutters, voice low. “Whatever it is that you want to say, please go ahead. There is no such need to lure me here with a fake letter from your father just so you can play these games.”

Wu Cuicui blinks at him for a long moment, before sitting up straight in her seat and flicking a strand of hair behind her ear. “Alright. What I want to say is that I can help you ship your product to cities in the North.”

Chi Rui simply peers at her, giving no response and no expression on his features.

“I am my father’s only child, the only descendant of the Wu family. Naturally I can get him to do as I say.” She continues, standing from her seat and taking a few steps behind Chi Rui. He pretends to not notice her hand trailing along the back of his chair. “All I need to do is say a few words, and those train carriages will be yours, Young Master Chi.”

Chi Rui closes his eyes. “And?”

“I know about your engagement with Shen Lingxue. But all I want,” she pauses, standing behind Chi Rui’s chair. She leans forward, face almost pressing against Chi Rui’s ear, so close that he picks up the faint sounds of her breath, and he stops himself from shuddering in an effort to shake her off just in time. “Is for you to just spend some time with me, in this room.”

Her fingertips trail along his shoulder, to his chest, across his collarbones. Chi Rui tenses up, every bone in his body attempting to shy away. Her hand dances up to his face before she gently takes his chin, turning it to the side. She slips into his field of view, smiling, and pops open the top button of her robe.

Chi Rui couldn’t bring himself to watch as button after button is undone, the outer robe falling open and slipping to the floor.

It’s not a bad idea, he tells himself. It’s not like there is anyone he has vowed to, or made any promises of forever to anyone. In a moment of pure bitterness, his mind flashes with Feng Yong’s smiling eyes and bright grin—but he doesn’t even have Feng Yong anymore. And perhaps he should—Wu Cuicui is the daughter of the wealthy, powerful Wu family afterall.

“You don’t need the connection with someone as despicable as him anyway.”

Chi Rui shakes the voice out of his head, shakes off the lingering threads of emotion attached to his own heart that start tugging the moment the voice sounded in his mind. No, the connection with Wu would be good, it would advantage Chi Rui’s business, and really, there’s not much for Chi Rui to lose.

Except when he focuses back onto reality, eyes falling onto Wu Cuicui batting long lashes at him, pink cheeked as she slowly peels off a sheer, see-through inner layer, he couldn’t help but want to look away. She shuffles closer and Chi Rui, in a moment’s hesitation, allows her to bring her face close, for her mouth to search for his.

Chapped, thick lips, sharp chin, slick tongue— hard, rough kisses.

He suddenly jerks his face away, lifting an arm to block himself from her and shove her off. He can’t bring himself to even kiss a woman.

Chi Rui rises from the chair with a growl of “get off me,” and is out of the room in moments, leaving Wu Cuicui standing in her under garments, calling after him.

 

It’s deep into the night when Chi Rui sits back in his chair and leaves his book open on his desk. He wasn’t reading it anyway.

The candle was almost burnt to the end of its lifetime, casting elongated, shuddering shadows against the beige parchment and making it look as though the characters written in black ink are dancing across the page. Is he even mad at Feng Yong anymore?

He stares unseeingly into the flickering flame.

No, his anger subsided long ago.

Really, he’s only still acting angry out of pure stubborn unwillingness to back down, stubborn unwillingness to accept anything other than himself being right and Feng Yong being wrong.

He suddenly feels a little childish, a little guilty—he wants what they had before, they way they might sit together and read their respective books with Feng Yong glancing over the top of his book at Chi Rui every once in a while. Or the way a gift of assorted pastries and sweets would be delivered to Chi Rui’s door even when Feng Yong was off test-flying the new air force planes. Or the way Feng Yong would kiss him, gentle and deep, cupping Chi Rui’s cheek in one palm, running his thumb over silky smooth pale skin.

He sighs. He wants that. He misses that.

It was an immature, stupid thing to blow up at his lover about. And it’s an even more immature and stupid thing to continue to ignore his lover.

Chi Rui glances over at the wooden-framed window on one side of his bedroom, at the inky blackness outside. The moon must be high above overhead, and the entire world seems to have fallen silent. He slowly stands from his chair and blows out the candlelight.

 

 

Chi Rui never had any knowledge of the ball held by the town mayor until A-si brought the news, that Young Master Feng would be attending accompanied by an unknown female partner. Chi Rui had gritted his teeth and gone to his grandmother, declaring that he too will be making an appearance.

“It would be a good chance to inform the guests there of my engagement with Shen Hu’s daughter if she is brought along,” he had reasoned, and the old madam smiled wide at that. She nodded in enthusiastic approval, and that’s how Chi Rui finds himself donned head to toe in a pristine, perfectly tailored white suit, Shen Lingxue climbing out of the motor car just behind him.

She steps up to him, tilting her pretty little face to peer at Chi Rui’s expressionless face.

“Young Master Chi?” she calls quietly, at how Chi Rui stands before the mayor’s mansion, silently gazing at it. Would he meet Feng Yong face to face tonight? What might he say? What might Feng Yong say? Who is the unknown girl that he is coming with?

Without responding to Shen Lingxue, Chi Rui wordlessly strides forward and ascends the steps to the mansion.

His eyes don’t immediately find Feng Yong amongst the lavishly dressed men and women that fill the hall. No, his gaze trails around just observing the people, the ball, taking in the music and the colourful swishing of women’s dresses and the loud laughter of businessmen. But his eyes fall on that familiar figure, as they always do, no matter how many people surround them.

On the mountain, his eyes fell on Feng Yong amongst the masses of military soldiers and bandits; in the brothel, his eyes couldn’t leave Feng Yong despite the eye-catching red colour of the curtains and despite the girls that surrounded them. Now, his eyes land on Feng Yong even in the ballroom full of people—Feng Yong dressed in a black suit, side burns freshly shaved… and a woman latched to his arm.

Chi Rui stiffens, eyes not leaving the duo. Feng Yong was laughing, clinking glasses with another man while his female partner smiled daintily beside him.

Perhaps Shen Lingxue felt the air around him change, or felt the tension in every inch of his body without needing to touch him, for she keeps her distance and doesn’t dare to even let out a peep. A waiter approaches them with glasses of wine and Chi Rui snatches one, tipping it down his throat in seconds. It does absolutely nothing to ease the awful churning in the pits of his stomach or the way his chest constricts at seeing Feng Yong so close to someone else. So he takes Shen Lingxue’s glass from her fingers, and downs that too.

He does nothing but watch as Feng Yong and the girl with him dressed in a blue silk robe move to the dance floor, her hand tiny and slim in his. They waltz under the warm lights that hang from the ceiling, making her large diamond earrings sparkle, the little light reflections that bounce off them dancing to their own rhythm. She says something and Feng Yong smiles, mumbling something back. Chi Rui grabs another wine glass from the table he stands beside.

“Young Master Chi,” Shen Lingxue speaks up quietly, eyes on yet another of the countless glasses in his hand that he tips his head back for. “Perhaps this should be your last drink—you’re not so steady on your feet.”

Chi Rui lowers the glass, gulping down the bittersweet taste of the wine—his eyes fall yet again on the woman in blue, her hand resting on Feng Yong’s arm. Chi Rui doesn’t respond to the lady beside him, only shoving the empty glass in her hands, and storms right out of the ballroom.

Stone steps, cement pavement spun under his feet, the cold night air hits his heated cheeks and Chi Rui hardly registers himself stumbling on weak feet, hardly registers strong hands that grab onto his shoulders.

His maid’s surprised hushed exclaim goes through one ear and out the other, the ground shifted under his feet like quicksand and his surroundings spin too much for him to notice the warm arms around his shoulders that carried him all the way to his own bedroom after they arrived at the Chi estate. But what he does register, despite his blissfully unaware state, is the drop of his own body onto his hard wooden bed—it was almost as though he was exorcised out of his own body, the sensation didn’t feel attached to his body, as though he was feeling it from somewhere else.

He squints, he could hardly open his eyes and they barely focused on anything in the darkness of his room, warped even further in his spinning vision—but he’d recognise that slicked-back hair, sharp jawline and suit-clad shoulders anywhere.

Instinctively, a hand shot out, grabbing a fistful of that spotlessly clean black suit.

“Feng Yong,” he breathes, and gives a hard tug.

A sudden weight collapses onto him and Chi Rui cranes his neck up, eyes closed. His lips clumsily land on an elegantly sculpted chin, and then Feng Yong, perhaps taking pity on Chi Rui blindly feeling around with his mouth, tilts his head down, letting his lips envelope Chi Rui’s.

Chi Rui’s eyelashes immediately flutter against Feng Yong’s cheekbone and he parts his lips in an instinctive response. Despite feeling like his arms were weighted down with lead in his muddled state, his subconscious seemed to take control and lift both arms to loop them around Feng Yong’s neck, pulling him down further.

Chi Rui pushes himself closer. “Feng Yong, I miss you,” he whispers desperately into his mouth, eyes remaining closed and entire body burning—perhaps from all the alcohol running in his system, or perhaps from the touch of Feng Yong’s lips after so long of trying to block out his existence.

There’s a familiar chuckle, a familiar low breathy laugh hits Chi Rui’s lips, and a shudder of pure delight runs down Chi Rui’s spine. Right now he may not be able to distinguish left from right, or male from female, but he’d recognise Feng Yong anywhere. Feng Yong’s smell, Feng Yong’s features, Feng Yong’s voice, Feng Yong’s touch, Feng Yong’s taste.

Hands scrabbling at Feng Yong’s suit, hot breaths into Feng Yong’s mouth, fingers in Feng Yong’s short cropped hair, hands desperately seeking skin under Feng Yong’s layers of clothing. Soft thuds of items of clothing falling onto the wooden floor beside the bed, layer after layer, shirts and suit jackets and ties. Hands running up and down bare skin, thick lips attached to Chi Rui’s flawlessly pale skin, Feng Yong’s touches somehow grounding Chi Rui and being the only thing he could really focus on despite the swaying of the world around him.

The blush high on his cheekbones only deepens—and he could hardly remember where they are, let alone remember to keep his moans down. So he calls for him, muffled into Feng Yong’s mouth as he messily kisses him while Feng Yong’s fingers probe into Chi Rui’s body while Chi Rui writhes under his lips. And he breathes out Feng Yong’s name, over and over, he lets out short gasps and groans as Feng Yong’s fingers are replaced by something thicker, longer, hotter.

Chi Rui could only latch onto Feng Yong’s bare shoulders, the rocking of the bed is at a different rhythm to the swaying of the room and it only serves to make him dizzier. But the mounting pleasure easily overrides any other sensation, and Chi Rui, with his eyes closed and mouth slightly parted open, could think of nothing else except Feng Yong, Feng Yong, Feng Yong.

And those are the words that stumble in a tangled heap out of his mouth, with his eyes squeezed shut and all senses washed out in a moment of white noise in pleasure. Feng Yong's lean form hovering over him is silhouetted against the weak moonlight that struggled its way into the dark room from between the barely-drawn curtains of the tiny window.

The wooden bed no longer creaked with its rocking, and no longer thudded rhythmically against the wall—the room suddenly fell still, only filled with the sounds of two mouths panting. Feng Yong dips back down, gently slotting his lips over Chi Rui’s, moving his mouth with a sweetness that Chi Rui isn’t in the state of mind to comprehend.

 

 

He registers the rustling of sheets, the sudden cold as air hits his exposed skin, as warmth leaves his side.

Chi Rui frowns in his sleep, rolling over and subconsciously trying to chase the source of the warmth that had enveloped him so soundly all night. And in his hardly awake state, he reaches out with a hand, grabbing onto the smooth skin of a bare thigh.

Feng Yong looks down at him, lips curling upwards on their own accord at Chi Rui’s pale fingers, clinging to him.

Chi Rui mumbles something undecipherable in his sleep, cheek pressed flat against the hard cylindrical pillow. But his fingers curve tighter around Feng Yong’s thigh, and Feng Yong gazes at him. He sees past the constant blank face, the carefully controlled expressions and movements. He sees past the heart of steel that Chi Rui swears upon when in reality he hides a heart of glass.

He smiles. He pulls the blankets back over both of them, shuffling back closer to Chi Rui and wrapping arms around him again.

When Chi Rui’s eyelashes flutter, thick eyebrows furrowing as the pounding of his head forces him back into consciousness, the first thing he notices is the weight of an arm draped over his waist. The second thing he notices in his bleary vision is a pair of familiar warm eyes fixed on him.

Immediately wide awake, his eyes widen and he gives a shove on Feng Yong’s bare chest, whose mouth curves upwards into a pretty grin and those wrinkles once again make an appearance on the outer corners of his glittering eyes. The arm drops from his waist.

Chi Rui’s eyes, struggling from the sharp pain in his temples from the alcohol the night before, slowly travel down from Feng Yong’s smiling eyes and sharp chin to his defined collarbones, scratched-up shoulders, naked chest, gently defined torso…

In a sudden, dizzying rush of blood up to his face, Chi Rui’s cheeks heat immediately and he turns away, all too aware of his own unclothed body. What happened the night before is nothing but blurs and muffled, warped images in his mind and he curses inwardly at himself. How much would he love to relive those memories again.

Feng Yong only chuckles at his apparent embarrassment from the other side of the bed. “Alright, if Young Master Chi now wants me to leave, I will.”

Chi Rui closes his eyes against the headache digging into his thoughts. “What do you mean?” he mutters gruffly, voice still slightly hoarse.

“Nothing, just Young Master Chi seems to have changed his mind from not letting me leave to wanting me to leave,” comes Feng Yong’s teasing voice from the other side of the bed, accompanied by the rustling of clothes as he dresses himself. Chi Rui presses fingers into his temple, sighing.

“Feng Yong, you—” he wills the heat away from his face. “What did you do to me last night when I was drunk?”

With a characteristically loud laugh, Feng Yong turns around, once again dressed in the now-crumpled black suit that he had worn the night before. “Does Young Master Chi think I took advantage of you while you were drunk? Do you not remember a thing?”

He remembers… a sharp chin under his own mouth, the bunching of an expensive suit in his fists. He remembers “Feng Yong, Feng Yong, Feng Yong.”

A blush colours Chi Rui’s high cheekbones instantly, and he quickly turns away, determinedly not looking at the wide grin on Feng Yong’s face at his reaction.

There’s a lot sitting on his tongue. There’s a lot he wants to ask—and a lot that he wants to confess. A lot of things sitting in the depths of his heart that he never thought he’d consider saying, but now, with Feng Yong getting dressed in his bedroom in the morning light, those things all come to the surface again.

But before Chi Rui could open his mouth and say any of them, Feng Yong turns to him, slipping his leather shoes on. “Well if I am no longer welcome, I shall take my leave,” he tilts his head, the smile on his face stiffening. “I'll let you busy yourself with your… wedding preparations.”

Feng Yong turns. Chi Rui gazes at the expanse of his back.

“Feng Yong,” he blurts out. A still silence settled like a light layer of dust after his words. There’s a lot that Chi Rui wants to say. But what ends up tumbling out of his mouth is, “…Was it you who brought me home last night?”

With a sigh, Feng Yong turns his face to throw his words over his shoulder. “You can ask your maid if you wish,” he says airily, tone light but the set of his shoulders is heavy. “And don’t drink that much in the future. You don’t handle it so well.”

“Who was the woman accompanying you?” The words are out of his mouth before Feng Yong could take another step, stopping him in his tracks again. Chi Rui pauses. His parched throat only seemed to become even drier. He shifts a little in the blankets that still pool around his naked waist. His next words are more hesitant, tiptoeing from his lips and into the still air. “Why would I drink if not because of you?”

Feng Yong seems frozen for a few moments, as though turning things over in his mind. But then he turns back around, flickering gaze and parted lips meeting Chi Rui’s eyes. He strides back to the bedside. “The woman last night was the daughter of a Vice Admiral in the Dongbei Army division,” he sighs, raising both eyebrows. “Because Feng Delin wouldn’t stop telling me to get married. What is it to you?”

Of course. The Fengxi Army warlord would push his son to get married to continue the family line, the same way Chi Rui’s grandmother does with him. Chi Rui stares at him, edges of his eyes heating up. “So, have you not considered my feelings at all?” he snaps, voice rising towards the end of his sentence. His ears still ring and there’s a hint of the same dizzying headache from the night before.

Chi Rui has his eyebrows drawn together, eyes wide and red-rimmed as he continues to peer intently at Feng Yong, continuing to run his gaze all over his face.

“Or have you become sick of me?” he murmurs, not trusting his shaking voice. “Is that what it is? Is it?!”

“Chi Rui.” At Feng Yong’s voice, laced with a hard edge to it, Chi Rui falls silent again. All he could do is helplessly stare up at the handsome man in his expensive suit, the man that he just couldn't manage to hate no matter how hard he tried. “Do you think I wanted to meet the women my father pressured me into seeing?”

Chi Rui’s watery eyes are met with a gaze staring right back, and those wide eyes blink up at Feng Yong, borderline pleading. Chi Rui, with his head held high and wearing his family name like a crown, would never beg, not with his mouth. But his eyes, pupils trembling yet gaze unwavering from Feng Yong’s face, is almost pained, hopeful, desperate, all at once.

Chi Rui has packaged himself up so well, so tightly, that not a single person could open him up—so perfectly poised and structured—but his seams are ripping open at this moment. At this moment, it’s almost as though he’s just asking for Feng Yong to unravel him, to let him breathe and loosen his constrictions.

Feng Yong’s voice has none of its usually cheeriness or lilt. “Yes, I never told my father about what we had between us. But what about you, Chi Rui? Did you ever tell the old madam about us?” At Chi Rui’s silence, Feng Yong only gives him a small upwards tweak of his lips. “I assumed not. Because you’re the one about to be wed.”

Chi Rui shuts his eyes, partially from the headache pounding into his skull, partially in embarrassment. “I only renewed the engagement out of anger. Marrying Shen Lingxue is not what I want.”

Feng Yong lets out a loud huff of disbelief. “So, Young Master Chi, what is it that you want?”

Chi Rui blinks open his eyes, looking up through those long eyelashes of his, fixing eyes swimming with unspoken words on the soldier standing by his bed. Feng Yong’s breath catches in his throat. Chi Rui may not remember the night before, but Feng Yong does. He remembers Chi Rui’s breathy little confession that was uttered in between heated kisses.

Feng Yong lunges forward, kneeling down on the bed and hands cupping Chi Rui’s jaw. He presses his lips to Chi Rui’s, who reaches up and grabs fistfuls of Feng Yong’s suit jacket immediately—the same way his heart was taken into Feng Yong’s clutches and squeezed hard from the brush of his lips.

“I missed you too,” Feng Yong whispers, pulling back just the slightest, and Chi Rui’s blood was roaring in an elated rush through his body so loudly that he hardly heard his words. He only gives Feng Yong a half-confused look, only for the man to chuckle. “Were you really so drunk that you don’t remember a thing from last night? What if it was someone else who chanced upon you in that drunken state? Don’t drink that much next time.”

“I would no longer have a reason to, if you stop appearing with strange women.”

When Feng Yong laughs at this, eyes crinkling into curves and flashing all his teeth, the hand around Chi Rui’s heart gives another squeeze. “Young Master Chi, you have a deal.”

Chi Rui pulls his face out of Feng Yong’s gentle hold, leaning away. “So you’ve agreed—then you are now my person. Don’t you know that businessmen have small hearts but a big presence? There’s only enough space in my heart to fit one person—and I must take up all the space in yours too.”

Feng Yong only laughs in the face of this surge of possessiveness. “Well, aren’t you glad that I enjoy being your person?”

A hint of a smile finally tugs at the corners of Chi Rui’s lips. Feng Yong’s eyes catch on this, on the small grin, the most that Chi Rui seems to allow onto his face, and simply leans down to kiss it again.

 

 

“Grandma, I have something to tell you.”

The old madam sits up straighter in her designated seat, the wood polished and elegantly carved as though a throne, fixing her eyes on him. The corners may be crinkled with age, her eyelids drooping, but the glittering of her spirit remains. “Rui-er, you may say whatever it is on your mind.”

Chi Rui takes a silent breath. He was only too afraid back then, that she wouldn’t approve of the in-the-air relationship that he had with Feng Yong—but that only resulted in his grandmother pushing the old marriage proposal that Chi Rui had with Shen Lingxue, and he can’t have that anymore.

“I would like to call off the engagement with Shen Hu’s daughter.”

The old madam immediately sits up in her seat, a frown already in place on her forehead. “What did you say?”

But before she could open her mouth to rebuke him any further, Chi Rui cuts in. “I have feelings for another.”

Immediately, the expression on the old madam’s face changes. Chi Rui, with his heart in his throat, isn’t sure if it’s for the better or the worse. “Another?” she echoes. “Who is it?”

And so he clears his throat, turns away from her and towards the door of the tea room. “Come in.”

Chi Rui doesn’t catch the look on his grandmother’s face when Feng Yong sweeps in, in his long flowing tweed coat and polished leather shoes. But Feng Yong’s bright, charming smile doesn’t leave his face, even as he steps up to the old madam’s chair and bows in front of her.

“Feng Yong?” she gapes, glancing from her grandson to the soldier, then back to her grandson.

Chi Rui nods once, smile tight. “Yes, Feng Yong. Chief of the Dongbei military army. Son of Feng Delin.”

“Greetings, Madam Chi,” Feng Yong grins, straightening himself up, standing before her. “I hope you have been well?”

At her bewildered silence, Chi Rui rises hurriedly from his seat to come up next to his lover, standing before his grandmother with his head bowed. “Grandma, please give us your blessing,” he says, voice tiny.

His face burns in both embarrassment and under Feng Yong’s gaze from beside him, and when Chi Rui turns his face slightly to meet his stares, Feng Yong only smiles.

 

 

Feng Yong glances up from the book in his hands, eyes falling on Chi Rui sitting opposite him on the other side of the wooden desk. Chi Rui, wearing a blue robe embroided with white with his hair swept up and out of his face as usual, remains focused on his own book in his hands. Just watching him, Feng Yong's lips tug upwards in the slightest little smile.

“What is it, Feng Yong?” Chi Rui mutters, delicately flipping a page, and Feng Yong chuckles.

“In a few days, Han Qing will be celebrating his birthday,” Feng Yong starts with a troubled sigh, as though his best friend celebrating his birthday was a personal inconvenience. “Of course his father Zhang Zuolin will be holding a ball at their property, and of course I am expected to attend.” His eyes lift up, landing once again on Chi Rui.

Chi Rui with his long lashes that flutter when he blinks, Chi Rui with his smooth, pale skin, Chi Rui with his pursed, pink lips.

“And of course I am expected to bring my fiancé along,” Feng Yong finishes, gazing at Chi Rui expectantly.

Chi Rui puts down his book. “I will agree,” his voice is quiet, even, and at the spark that immediately lights up Feng Yong’s eyes, he quickly continues. “On a condition.”

“Anything,” Feng Yong grins delightedly, leaning forward across the desk, the book in front of him long forgotten.

Chi Rui spares him a serene smile. “No more outings to brothels.”

“Consider it done!” Feng Yong throws his head back with a hearty laugh. He stretches, placing both hands behind his head to support it as he leans back in the wooden chair, looking at his lover with a wide grin on his face.

Chi Rui raises an eyebrow. “And what is this that I’ve been hearing from A-si—that there are rumours floating around everywhere about Mr Wu’s daughter seducing wealthy, betrothed men?”

Feng Yong looks at him, eyebrows raised and eyes wide in an unconvincing exaggerated act of surprise. “Are there such rumours?”

“It has completely destroyed their family name and business,” Chi Rui continues, voice at the same calm pace as before. “I’ve also heard that a bunch of men have gone and trashed a couple of Mr Wu’s train carriages and essentially pulled it apart.”

He raises his eyes, pinning Feng Yong down with his stare. Feng Yong only smiles easily, with a shrug of his shoulders. “Did you really think I would have no reaction to that girl attempting to sleep with you, so that she could then bear your children, then force you to wed her and henceforth ruin your life? And her father is no better. If he refuses to do business with you then I shall destroy his business.”

Chi Rui, at a complete loss for words, only stares back at the man casually sitting opposite him—the man with enough military power at his fingertips to do as he pleases, without fearing any consequence. But there is a certain kind of sparkle in Feng Yong’s eyes, a sparkle that tells Chi Rui that things are not that simple, and that Feng Yong is not that stupid.

“What about the military officials who disprove of your leadership? The Squadron Leader who dislikes you for no reason?” Chi Rui whispers instead. The Standing Committee that Feng Yong is the Chief of is not a friendly place—the military is not full of friendly men. “You never retaliate like this to those who attack you, and yet you make such a big ruckus for a small problem someone imposed on me. Why?”

Feng Yong shrugs again. He holds his chin high, a shadow of a smile on his full lips, blinking slowly at Chi Rui. “Because I care about your bullies more than mine.”

In the silence that follows, Feng Yong’s smile only grows, seemingly amused at Chi Rui’s speechlessness.

“Why? Touched?” he chuckles, leaning forward on the table again, propping up his face with his elbows on the wood. “Don’t worry, no need to thank me. Just call me something nice.”

Chi Rui blinks big, hesitant eyes at him, much to Feng Yong’s endless entertainment. “Something nice?”

“Try ‘honey’, for one.”

Chi Rui’s cheeks colour immediately, and with a quick shake of his head, he picks up his abandoned book once again, beginning to read it with vigour, doing his absolute best to pretend the military official sitting in his study doesn’t exist. Feng Yong, however, just throws his head back and laughs heartily.

 

 

Chi Rui fidgets in his all-white suit, wanting to reach up to loosen his necktie but opting instead to reach for a glass of wine from a passing waiter, scowling. He chances another glance over at the dance floor of the ballroom, scowl darkening on his handsome features.

With a few large mouthfuls, he swallows the wine down his throat.

The woman who dragged Feng Yong from his side and into the middle of the room with an arm looped around his lets him place his hand on her waist, her own on Feng Yong’s shoulder. Chi Rui, with his eyes on the two from the edge of the ballroom, clenches his jaw around the bitter-sweetness of the wine.

Feng Yong grins down at the lavishly dressed lady in his arms, stepping to the music. “How have you been, big sister?” he chuckles good-naturedly. “It’s been a while.”

“It has,” the woman smiles gently, letting Feng Yong twirl her with a pretty laugh. “We have been missing your company at home, you haven’t come over for tea very much at all these days.”

Feng Yong chuckles. The perfectly tailored three piece suit pulls tight at the waist, almost accentuating his figure more so than the woman’s flowing blue dress does on her. “What can I do, I am now a man with my own loved one to accompany.”

“Xueliang has been telling me so—when is the ceremony to be held?” the woman smiles wide in delight at the prospect of new love, and Feng Yong couldn’t help but smile along with her, warmth spreading all throughout his chest and lighting him up from the inside.

“Soon, next month. We are still making preparations, deciding on last minute details—Chi Rui can be picky,” Feng Yong leans close to her ear to say, continuing to sway to the music, and the lady giggles. “Be sure to come to our wedding, big sister.”

“I will, I will,” she reassures, before her eyes slip over the top of Feng Yong’s shoulders as they twirl around the ballroom. “Is that him over there?”

Feng Yong looks up, turning his face to let his gaze sweep across the room… and land on a figure dressed in a striking all white suit, downing a glass of wine and determinedly avoiding conversation with the beautiful women standing a short distance away admiring him. Feng Yong barks out a laugh, gazing across the ballroom with a gentler, enamoured expression on his features.

“That’s my Chi Rui indeed,” he chuckles. “Isn’t he gorgeous?”

“He most certainly has an exceptionally beautiful face,” the lady observes. “I think your company is missed, he keeps looking over at us.”

Feng Yong only laughs again at this. That’s definitely Chi Rui all right.

“Why did he leave all of a sudden? The party has hardly begun.”

Feng Yong looks up, eyes indeed catching on the sight of Chi Rui’s white backside weaving through the crowded ballroom towards the great wooden doors at the entrance. With an apologetic smile, Feng Yong lowers his arms and steps away from the woman, leaving her in the middle of the dance floor. “That’s just him getting jealous—again. Excuse me for a moment!”

And so Feng Yong rushes off, barging his way through the all people milling around just to celebrate Zhang Xueliang’s birthday, too busy pursuing Chi Rui to care who he bumps into.

“Chi Rui!” he calls. “That was just Han Qing’s older sister! Chi Rui come back, we haven’t wished Han Qing a Happy Birthday yet!”

In a sudden crescendo of music, Feng Yong manages to dart out a hand and grab onto the end of one of Chi Rui’s perfectly pristine white sleeves, tugging him back. His fiancé glances back over his shoulder, sights falling on Feng Yong. Chi Rui simply glowers at him, yanking his sleeve out of Feng Yong’s fingers.

But the young military official is only too familiar with this, and reaches out again to loop an arm around Chi Rui’s waist. With a sharp jerk, Chi Rui finds himself stumbling back into Feng Yong’s arms—and finds Feng Yong’s lips on his own, even as they stand right by the entrance of the Zhang warlord’s estate, despite being in a ballroom packed with people.

With a shove, Chi Rui pushes Feng Yong off him, glaring at him. “Are you mad?” he hisses, furtively glancing around in fear that their little smooch was witnessed by the crowd.

Feng Yong, however, just leans closer, grinning with a raise of his eyebrows. His eyes shine under the overhead chandeliers, sparkling with a kind of mischievous mirth. “Are you jealous?” he asks right back instead, watching as Chi Rui’s cheekbones colour right in front of his eyes.

“I don’t want to see you ever again,” Chi Rui mumbles, but does nothing to stop Feng Yong taking his hand and slotting their fingers together, palms pressing against each other’s.

And he once again does not protest as Feng Yong leans down, pressing a second quick kiss to his lips before dragging him right back into the ballroom, into the midst of people, into the music. The lights reflecting off the walls bounces into Chi Rui’s wide eyes, making them sparkle once again.

Now with his own arm looped around Feng Yong’s, he only watches as Feng Yong greets one extravagantly dressed guest after another, loudly proclaiming Chi Rui as his husband-to-be, essentially inviting every single person at the ball to their wedding. Chi Rui, again, does nothing to stop him, only abashedly lowering his head and sipping from a glass.

At one point, in between talking to a couple of military officials, Feng Yong leans close to his lover, whispering in Chi Rui’s ear.

“There’s no need being jealous of people that don’t matter.”

And while Feng Yong straightens up, cheerily greeting another man clad in a flawlessly pristine suit, Chi Rui continues to stare up at his fiancé. The lights overhead shine on Feng Yong’s cropped black hair and his beautifully sculpted nose bridge and cheekbones, which are even more evident when he laughs. Chi Rui too, allows his mouth to curve into a wide grin, hiding it behind his wine glass. His hand clutches Feng Yong’s arm tightly, with absolutely no plans on letting go. If Feng Yong noticed, he doesn’t say a single word, only silently pulling Chi Rui further into his side as they walk together.