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fairer than the evening air

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“Oh, Dr. Bai, thank you so much!” The spirit, former spirit, has tears in her eyes and Bai Qi’s glad that she’s holding onto the woman in front of her or he gets the impression that she might try and cling to him instead.

 

“We really do appreciate it, Dr. Bai.” It’s honestly quite comical watching the tiny woman trying her best to sooth her much taller crying girlfriend. “I have something for you too.”

 

The old fashioned scroll that the smaller woman pulls from her handbag takes Bai Qi aback for a moment. Turning it over in his hands, it looks to be from the Song dynasty and very well preserved. 

 

“No need, I’ve already received my payment.”

 

“I know, but think of it as a tip. It’s all thanks to you that Qian Qian and I can have this opportunity to spend the rest of our lives together.” She looks up adoringly at her girlfriend. “She’s made her sacrifice, so I want to show that I’m serious too.” 

 

“Ying-jiejie! It’s been passed down in your family for generations.”

 

“The family who didn’t want me when they found out you were the one I wanted?” Qian Qian looks like she’s about to start crying even harder until Ying Ying reaches up to pat her on the head. “They made their choice and I’m making mine. We’ll be starting our own family anyway.”

 

Bai Qi accepts the scroll and tries not to cringe as the two lovers profusely thank him again before walking out hand in hand, starry-eyed and optimistic. It was a relatively straightforward case, it always helps to have a cooperative patient, and Bai Qi puts the tie-tack into his collection after draining the Penglai energy from it.

 

When he unfolds the scroll, the scene depicted is of a young man playing polo. He’s dressed in fine clothes and has a noble bearing about him. It’s a nice painting, and there’s something about the man’s face, carefree, happy, and sweet, that puts him at ease so he hangs it up in his room.

 

A Li’s off doing whatever he does when he takes a day off, Yang Jian… inadvertently moved in with Xiao Xiao, and Lin Xia’s filming somewhere and he hates that the house feels so empty without the three of them. He falls asleep to a slightly too quiet house the smell of the Peach Blossom Tree outside his open window floating in on the breeze.

 

There’s a crashing noise and Bai Qi’s out of bed, summoned umbrella in hand, before he even fully registered that he’s awake. He can feel the Penglai force rushing through his body and hear his own harsh breathing filling the room.

 

A low groan of pain grabs his attention and he sees a young man lying on the floor of his room, scattered books and papers from Bai Qi’s desk around him.

 

“Who are you? What do you want from me?”

 

There’s another low groan from the floor but no other response. Bai Qi snaps his fingers to turn the light on and almost drops his umbrella in surprise. It’s the man from the painting, right down to the red ribbon holding back the sleeves of his robes. When he looks up at Bai Qi it’s the same sweet face, same wide eyes, and straight nose as in the painting and this is undoubtedly one of the strangest things to happen to him in his life.

 

“I think I’ve hit my head.” His voice is deeper than Bai Qi would have expected. There’s a red spot on his forehead from when he… fell out of the painting?

 

He’s human, that much is clear to Bai Qi immediately, but that only makes this whole situation even more confusing. Bai Qi reaches down to help the man up and he’s solid and warm in his arms. An incredibly puzzled look crosses over his face when Bai Qi helps him to sit on the bed and he’s still blinking at Bai Qi, at all of his surroundings, like a startled rabbit.

 

“Where am I?”

 

“Jiangbei,” Bai Qi says, still eyeing him warily. “Who are you?”

 

The man seems to come back to himself. “Sorry, I’ve been rude. My name is Qi Yuanruo.”

 

“Qi-gongzi.” It feels like he’s been dropped into a time machine, looking at this man sitting on his bed. “You can call me Bai Qi.”

 

Qi Yuanruo goes to bow and clenches his head in pain instead. “Sorry, I’m sure there’s many people who are looking for me, I need to get back to the capital.”

 

“The capital…” Bai Qi repeats slowly, wracking his brain on any information pertaining to the Song dynasty. “Kaifeng- wait, Bianjing?”

 

“Yes!” Qi Yuanruo brightens, gingerly touching the bruise on his forehead, a grimace stealing over his features. “The Princess… she doesn’t like not knowing where I am.”

 

Bai Qi doesn’t try to keep the wince from his face this time. “That is… I don’t think you need to worry about your princess.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

Bai Qi rubs the bridge of his nose. “Just come with me, I’ll get you something cold for your forehead. Maybe it’ll be easier if you just see…”

 

He walks a careful step behind Qi Yuanruo in case he faints but he seems to just take everything in with a mixture of fascination and disbelief. Bai Qi herds him towards the living room and sits him down in one of the couches before running to the freezer and taking out an ice pack and a bottle of water. He grabs one of his handkerchiefs to wrap around it and takes the scroll off his wall as an afterthought.

 

“Here.” Bai Qi holds out the icepack and takes a seat in his usual armchair. “Hold it to your forehead until I tell you to take it off or it starts to hurt.”

 

“Oh, it’s cold!” Qi Yuanruo flinches away before taking the icepack tentatively and holding it to his injury. “I don’t understand… Am I dreaming?”

 

“You’re not dreaming, unless I am too.” Bai Qi spreads the panting out on the coffee table. “Is this you?”

 

“Yes, the Princess commissioned this.” A carefully placid look slides over his face. “She said that polo match was the first time she saw me.”

 

Great, a prince consort is sitting on his living room couch, displaced through space-time, with a huge goose egg slowly forming on his forehead. He leans forward to study the painting again. There’s a little lingering force of Penglai clinging to the painting and he’s able to narrow the source down to the red seal in the corner.

 

He leans back with a sigh, pushing his hair out of his face and pulling his robe tighter around himself.

 

“Qi-gongzi, I really don’t know a more delicate way of putting this so I’ll be straight: you’re in the future.”

 

Qi Yuanruo stares at him for a moment searching his face for lies, looking around the room again at the lights and lamps and generally unfamiliar furnishings. “How far in the future?”

 

“Something like a thousand years.”

 

There’s another long silence during which Bai Qi wishes desperately that A Li was here, or he’d had the presence of mind to make them a cup of tea so they would at least have something to do with their hands. At least Qi Yuanruo doesn’t look like he’s about to dissolve into tears.

 

“Can you send me back?”

 

“No.” Better to rip off the Band-Aid. “It isn’t that you’ve been displaced in time so much as a version of you was saved inside the scroll. The painter your princess commissioned put his seal on the painting and the piece of jade that his seal was carved from had the force of Penglai in it. His intention was probably to make as lifelike a portrait as possible for the princess and so…” He waves a hand to indicate Qi Yuanruo sitting on the couch.

 

“But then why…” Qi Yuanruo’s brow wrinkles as he struggles to find the words. “Why is it this version of me who’s here? Why not the happier me from that picture?”

 

Bai Qi shrugs. “Your guess is as good as mine. Did the painter ask that you stay in the room as a reference?” Qi Yuanruo nods. “I would assume that it took…” Can’t say snapshot, he’d have no idea what that is. “An impression of the you from that moment and sealed you into the painting.”

 

He’s sitting so ramrod straight on the couch that it makes Bai Qi straighten in response.

 

“So you’re saying there’s another me- that there was another me who lived my life so many years ago already,” he says slowly, processing the words himself. “That I won’t be able to go back because there isn’t really anything for me to go back to, because I’m really just a copy…”

 

“You’re still human,” Bai Qi responds immediately and firmly, he’s already exhausted from this conversation. “Do you have any more immediate questions or can they wait till morning?”

 

“They can wait, I’m sorry that I’ve inconvenienced you so greatly already.”

 

It isn’t so much the inconvenience, but rather that Bai Qi doesn’t know what to do with him, has no idea what to say. Bai Qi points out his room before leading him to A Li’s room and finding that the sheets are clean and it’s passably tidy, tells Qi Yuanruo to come find him if he needs anything. He has the presence of mind to show him to the bathroom and explain the basics of plumbing and stuff a clean face cloth at Qi Yuanruo before he makes a strategic retreat.

 

He checks the time on his phone, 1:24 A.M., and sends A Li a message before falling into bed. 

 

Laoban: When you come home, don’t go into your room.

 

A Li: ?????

A Li: Please explain??

A Li: Boss is everything okay? Do I need to come home?

 

Laoban: It’s under control. I’ll explain when you’re back.

 

After putting his phone on do not disturb, he stares at the ceiling in hopes of sleep coming to him. Tossing and turning for half an hour, he sits up in bed and opens his laptop instead. Searching “Qi Yuanruo” on Biadu Baike pulls up a surprising number of results. His birth name was Qi Heng, Yuanruo being his courtesy name. As Bai Qi had assumed, considering he was married to a princess, he was nobility. 

 

Reading about the execution of Qi Yuanruo’s princess makes him wince, but considering his reaction when he’d mentioned her earlier he thinks it’s safe to assume they weren’t especially close. There’s records of his achievements, numerous, and that he married a second wife and the two of them had three sons together. There are a series of letters in an academic archive from Yunruo and his second wife that Bai Qi bookmarks but doesn’t read.

 

By the time he hears the front door creak open, Bai Qi’s been scouring the internet for the past six hours for anything even distantly related to Qi Yuanruo. It’s all been bookmarked in a folder on his browser labeled with the man in question’s name and Bai Qi would feel weirder about this if not for the fact that said stranger is currently sleeping in the next room. Bai Qi’s sure that he could take him, but they say “know your enemy” for a reason.

 

A tentative knock at his door breaks the silence. “Laoban?”

 

“Come in.” A Li pops his head into the room before quickly squeezing the rest of himself in as well. He’s still carrying his overnight bag on his back. “I received a painting as a gift and a man fell out of it last night.”

 

A Li blinks back at him. “A man fell out of your painting last night?”

 

“A man,” Bai Qi repeats slowly and clearly, gesturing to the scroll he’d tossed onto his bed at some point. “Fell out of my painting last night.”

 

“This man?” A Li picks up the painting, head tilted to the head as he scrutinizes it.

 

“That man.” Bai Qi rubs a hand over his eyes and takes a deep breath in through his nose. Technically, he doesn’t have to sleep, but he’s fallen into the routine and deviating always puts him a little off balance.

 

A Li gently puts the scroll back onto the bed and stares at Bai Qi, hands on his hips. “Laoban, I don’t know who taught you to play pranks but you’re not doing a very good job. You’re trying to tell me that you somehow got a magic painting and a man fell out of it last night? I haven’t even been gone for 24 hours, you should have thought of something less elaborate.”

 

There’s another knock at the door of Bai Qi’s room. “Mr. Bai?”

 

“Dr. Bai,” A Li calls out instinctively before he freezes at the unfamiliar voice. His eyes dart between the door and the painting. 

 

Bai Qi stands to open the door himself, which makes the look on A Li’s face turn even more incredulous. Qi Yuanruo’s dressed back in his clothes, hair pulled up as neatly as possible without the aid of a comb, and damp facecloth still held in his hand. The bruise on his forehead has deepened to a purple-blue colour.

 

“Sorry to disturb you…” His looks towards A Li, taking him in from the rips in his skinny jeans to the dyed colour of his hair with wide eyes. 

 

“This is my assistant, A Li.” A Li makes a movement between a bow and a wave that makes him look like a muscle in his lower back has seized.

 

Qi Yuanruo bows to A Li like an equal. “It’s an honour, my name’s Qi Yuanruo.”

 

A Li makes another attempt at a bow (he’s holding his hands wrong), still staring at Qi Yuanruo with complete disbelief. His eyes dart back to the painting on the bed before going back to Bai Qi.

 

“Laoban.” He sounds more than a little panicked. “He fell out of the painting.”

 

“I fell out of the painting,” Qi Yuanruo sighs. “I apologize, but could I have something to drink? You said not to drink any of the water from the tap.” He says the last word a little disbelievingly like he’s still wrapping his head around the concept.

 

“Right!” A Li pops up, ramrod straight. “I’ll make tea.”

 

When he gets behind Qi Yuanruo he makes eye-contact with Bai Qi and mouths, “Fell out of a painting!” before sprinting off.

 

He hadn’t been lying when he told Qi Yuanruo that they couldn’t send him back, there was no “back” to send him to, but watching the young man stand perfectly still, posture polite, taking in everything around the room with wonder, Bai Qi wonders if he’s going to be able to survive in the modern world.

 

Bai Qi clears his throat and Qi Yuanruo turns his full attention towards him, like a student called in class.

 

“Would you mind waiting out in the living room? I’d like to change out of my sleeping clothes.”

 

“Ah.” Qi Yuanruo takes in Bai Qi’s plain t-shirt and thin sleep pants and makes a quick retreat. “Right, apologies.”

 

When he turns to leave, Bai Qi notices that the back of his neck has flushed a deep red. Bai Qi amends his previous thought, there’s no way he’s going to survive if they just push him out into the wild. If he’d been flustered at Bai Qi’s bare arms, he can’t even imagine how he’ll react to mini-skirts. Maybe they can desensitize him somehow? With pictures? The thought of it makes Bai Qi feel like he’s corrupting something pure.

 

He gets dressed quickly and goes into the living room to see that A Li has at least managed to coax Qi Yuanruo into sitting at the kitchen table. He’s holding a cup of tea in his hands and nodding politely along with whatever it is that A Li’s telling him from the kitchen as he cooks breakfast.

 

“Don’t worry, whatever happens, Laoban won’t hang you out to dry. He seems cold, but he’s soft on the inside.” A Li expertly flips the omelet from the pan onto a plate and presents it to Qi Yuanruo with a flourish.

 

Qi Yuanruo stares at the accompanying fork and knife for a moment before A Li smacks himself the forehead and takes the plate away, cuts the omelet into easier to manage pieces and hands it back to him with chopsticks instead. “One thing at a time.”

 

Qi Yuanruo eats politely, but with a quiet urgency that makes it apparent he must be hungry. Bai Qi grabs an orange from out of their fruit basket and puts it next to his plate after he takes the seat next to him.

 

Qi Yuanruo takes a quick glance at Bai Qi’s clothes, black slacks and a grey turtleneck, and a little wrinkle appears in his brow when he looks back over to A Li again. “Is it common to have such a variety of different clothing now?”

 

“Very common,” Bai Qi says, accepting his breakfast from A Li who takes the seat across from them. “I should warn you, clothing has gone through a lot of changes… it’s acceptable to show an amount of skin that would have been considered indecent.”

 

“More than what you were showing this morning?” The back of Qi Yuanruo’s neck is bright red again. “With men and women both?”

 

“That was just a t-shirt,” A Li offers around his mouthful of egg sandwich. “Women often show much more skin, especially now that it’s summertime.”

 

Before they can explain any further, the front door swings open with a bang and Lin Xia drags herself into the house.

 

“I’m dying!” she cries, throwing herself onto the couch. “The building we were filming in didn’t have air-con, and I swear to god if this couch was leather, I would be stuck to it.”

 

When no one answers, Qi Yuanruo too busy gaping at her entrance, Bai Qi massaging his head in his hands for completely forgetting to warn him about their ‘landlady’, and A Li eagerly watching the two of them, Lin Xia pops her head up from on the couch. Her hair’s half-covering her face and the collar of her t-shirt is crooked. Lin Xia’s eyes grow wide as dinner plates when she notices Qi Yuanruo sitting at their table staring back at her.

 

“What’s going on, I’m gone for a couple days and you’ve replaced me with someone prettier?”

 

“Behave!” Bai Qi says, as Lin Xia comes bounding over. “This is Qi Yuanruo. He’ll be staying with us for a while.”

 

“Don’t you think that’s a decision that should be made by me, the landlady?” Lin Xia turns to Qi Yuanruo who’s making a conscious and obvious effort to keep his eyes on Lin Xia’s face and far away from her arms and legs, bare thanks to her t-shirt and jean shorts. “I’m Lin Xia. This is my house, those two freeloaders just live here. ” She holds out his hand for him to shake.

 

“First of all, I’ve paid 10 years of rent upfront!” Bai Qi says as Qi Yuanruo looks from Lin Xia’s hand back to him with panic in his eyes. “Second of all, put your hand down, you’re making him nervous. Qi-gongzi fell out of a painting last night and we’re still trying to catch him on everything, so back off, you’re making him uncomfortable.”

 

Lin Xia stares at him for a moment before turning back to Qi Yuanruo. He gives her a weak smile before standing up and giving her a bow.

 

“Oh, you’re good,” she says, eyes narrowed. “Where did they find you? Are you new to the industry? Which agency are you with? I don’t recognize you.” Lin Xia reaches out to touch his sleeve. “This is really nice, did you steal it off a set?”

 

Bai Qi catches her hand before she can give Qi Yuanruo a heart attack. “I’m serious, he fell out of a painting from the Northern Song Dynasty and now he’s stuck here.”

 

A Li holds up his hands in surrender when she turns to look at him. “Swear to god, I’ll even go get the painting.”

 

It takes another 10 minutes of convincing, with Qi Yuanruo awkwardly staying still so that she can look between him and the painting. Eventually Lin Xia slumps at her chair at the kitchen table, still looking incredulously between Qi Yuanruo, the painting, and Bai Qi while she eats her breakfast.

 

“So he’s like… a photocopy that got stuck in the printer until the Peach Blossom Tree rebooted it and spat him out?”

 

“You never cease to amaze me with your ability to phrase things in the roughest way possible, but yes.” Bai Qi refills Qi Yuanruo’s tea cup for him while the other man continues to cast disbelieving glances at Lin Xia as subtly as possible. “So, really, this is your fault.”

 

He doesn’t do a good job and Lin Xia shoves her index finger in front of Qi Yuanruo’s face. “Hey! If you look anymore, I’m going to start charging.”

 

“Sorry!” At least he looks genuine, all big plaintive eyes. “I’m just… incredibly unused to seeing someone dressed this way.”

 

“You better get used to it soon.” She pops her last apple slice into her mouth. “Are you going to bring him out like that? The hanfu movement is real, but he’ll stand out enough with a face like his.”

 

“There’s something wrong with my face?”

 

“You’re too shuai,” A Li says, elaborating when he stares back blankly. “Too handsome. Too pretty. Too attractive. Too good looking. I’m running out of synonyms here.”

 

“Right, thank you, understood.” He’s sitting relaxed but proper in his chair, but Bai Qi can see he’s gripping his teacup a little bit too hard. “I understand that I will have to… adapt my clothing choices somewhat, but even between the three of you there’s some variation in what you’re wearing. Would I be expected to dress more like Dr. Bai as I’m assuming we’re closer in age and class?”

 

Bai Qi half-hid a wince behind his own mug of coffee. “Yes, but maybe don’t phrase it that way. I think you’d fit better in A Li’s clothes though, considering he prefers oversized, so you can borrow something from him until we can get you your own clothes.”

 

Qi Yuanruo’s absently running his hands over one of the sleeves of his robes and A Li reaches out to clasp him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, Yuanruo-ge, the modern age is way more forgiving when it comes to freedom of expression. If you want to keep wearing the clothes you’re used to, I’m sure we can find something more like that.”

 

“Thank you, but I think I’d like to try and dress more... modern.” He smiles at A Li all sweetness and sincerity, and Bai Qi has to smack Lin Xia on the leg to keep her from sneaking a picture. “Since I can’t go back, I should try my best to adapt to this way of life.”

 

“We’ll go slowly,” says Bai Qi, nodding at A Li. “We can start with some clothes though. Grab some of mine too, you can see what you like and I can order you more of the same.”

 

They end up having something that Bai Qi refuses to refer to as a makeover montage even in the privacy of his own head. Qi Yuanruo gets changed in Bai Qi’s bathroom then gamely comes out to show the three of them the various outfits that they’ve put together for him, and stare at himself in the full length mirror of Bai Qi’s room in slight bewilderment. 

 

He likes A Li’s oversized sweaters, Bai Qi’s long jackets, long layers and soft fabrics in plain solid colours. Pants are more complicated, he politely refuses to even try on anything with rips, and it takes a fair bit of reassurance from all three of them that, yes, they’re supposed to fit like that, before he’ll even leave the bathroom and let them see.

 

The pair of darkwash jeans paired with a white knit turtleneck is a little at odds with his topknot but even Bai Qi has to admit that he looks good.

 

“You can keep the jeans, I never wear them anyway,” A Li says, helping him fix the hem a little bit. Qi Yuanruo stands perfectly still, used to having people fuss over him. “Whose sweater is this?”

 

Lin Xia puts up her hand from where she’s lounging on top of Bai Qi’s bed, typing something on her phone with her other hand. “You can have that too, Yuanruo. I can’t wear white, it never stays clean.”

 

Qi Yuanruo twists a little bit, indicating the back of his neck. “I think there’s something…”

 

Bai Qi walks behind him and pulls the collar of the turtleneck out. He’s not wearing anything under it. He reaches in and firmly pulls the price tag out, ignoring the way Qi Yuanruo seems to hold his breath at the brush of bare skin on skin.

 

“Better?” He steps away to throw the tag away. “Lin Xia, do you have too much money? I can’t believe you spent that much on a sweater you never even wore.”

 

“It was an impulse purchase, let a girl live.”

 

He comes out in a button up, one of Bai Qi’s, and he immediately positions himself in front of him and shoves him back into the bathroom. 

 

“The shirt’s too thin; you have to wear something under it,” he says closing the door before Lin Xia can peek in behind him.

 

Lin Xia calls, “You don’t have to.”

 

“You do have to,” Bai Qi insists, not even bothering to look at Lin Xia as he grabs an undershirt from off the bed. He knocks on the door again and slips in with the shirt in hand after Qi Yuanruo says to come in. “There’s no real hard rules as to how you should wear clothes in the modern day, but if you can see your hand through the fabric you should probably wear something under it.”

 

He looks up and Qi Yuanruo’s already unbuttoned the shirt and is reaching for the undershirt in Bai Qi’s hand. There’s too much bare skin on display for a moment when he takes the button off to hold the undershirt under it and examine it under the light. 

 

“Ah.” Qi Yuanruo’s hair is starting to get a little dishevelled with all the changing and when he looks up at Ba Qi, it’s with a slightly sheepish expression. “I thought it was meant to be that way.”

 

“It’s all up to your preference, but I thought that you would prefer not to have everything on display.”

 

“Dr. Bai understands me so well already.” He flashes him a smile before his face disappears when he pulls the undershirt on.

 

“There’s no need for the formality, you can just call me Bai Qi. People tend to be a little more relaxed about these kinds of things now,” he says, leaning up against the door.

 

“Bai-xiong? Qi-xiong?” he says.

 

“Bai Qi,” he insists.

 

“Bai Qi,” he repeats obediently, smoothing out the shirt after he finishes buttoning it up. “You can call me Yuanruo too.”

 

“I can talk to the other two if you want, they shouldn’t have taken the liberty. You have a lot to deal with already, would you rather they call you by your title? You’re a duke, aren’t you?”

 

“No, it’s perfectly fine, I promise. They’ve been so kind, I’m lucky that they’ve extended their friendship to me so easily,” Qi Yuanruo says, brushing a couple stray strands of hair out of his face. “Besides, I’m not anything anymore.”

 

The flash of something playful that was on Qi Yuanruo’s face earlier has smoothed back into a mild calm and he pushes the door open to show their waiting audience the newest outfit. 

 

“Okay, no more, Yuanruo’s not a doll for you guys to play with.” He can see a little of the tension leave Qi Yuanruo’s back at his words. “And you can keep that too. It looks better on you.”

 


 

They separate the clothing that Qi Heng had liked from the things he hadn’t and A Li taps his thumbs against the glass of his little rectangle… his phone? He’s not sure, there’s been so many new things introduced to him in such a short amount of time that Qi Heng feels a little numb with the overload of new information.

 

Bai Qi left after giving A Li some vague instructions to help him get settled and yelling something about paperwork over his shoulder when Lin Xia asked where he was going.

 

Lin Xia’s still sprawled out on Bai Qi’s bed and he tries his best not to fidget considering the barely dressed woman is still watching him so intently. “We need to do something with your hair.”

 

“But A Li said…”

 

She waves away his concerns. “We don’t have to cut it, but people don’t tend to wear it the way you do anymore. Besides, you’re going to go bald if you keep pulling it back so tight. Be kind to your hairline.”

 

Qi Heng can’t help touching his forehead, wincing slightly when his fingers brush against the bruise again. “What about my hairline?”

 

“If you’re always pulling your hair so tight, it’ll kill the follicles and your hair will start to fall out. Or something like that anyway. Science!” Lin Xia holds her hands out at her sides and makes a shaking moment that he really doesn’t know how to respond to. He has no idea what she’s talking about. She crosses her bare legs and gestures for Qi Heng to sit down on the edge of the bed. “Can I? Trust me, I’m good at doing hair, I won’t make you look silly.”

 

Qi Heng sits and sees A Li pass her a brush out of the corner of his eye. His hair’s taken out of its knot and she passes him the zan and cloth. He presses his thumb against the familiar points of the flowers on his zan

 

She turns them so they’re both facing Bai Qi’s full length mirror and he can see what she’s doing out of the corner of his eye. “You can still wear it up, but this will look a little more modern.” Lin Xia gathers his hair in a thick tail, lower and looser than how he’d usually wear it, and makes a twisting motion with her hands until it’s all curled in on itself. She pauses and catches Qi Heng’s eye in the mirror. “Do you want to use a hair tie, or your zan?”

 

“It won’t be out of place?” he asks, holding it up for her to take.

 

“It won’t be,” she says weaving it through his hair to hold the bun in place. Her fingers brush against the carvings in the end before she pulls away to let him inspect himself more closely in the mirror. “What kind of flowers are those?”

 

“Plumb blossoms,” Qi Heng says absently. It was strange enough with the clothes, but with this more relaxed hairstyle, he’s looking at a stranger who bears an uncanny resemblance to him. Although his hair’s still pulled back, Lin Xia’s left him looking slightly disheveled as though he’s just climbed off the back of a horse after a full day of riding. He’d never been allowed to leave his room like this, much less the house.

 

“Yuanruo-ge, I have some bruise cream.” A Li always seems to be running around and he has a tub of something dark blue in his hands now as he waves for Qi Heng to sit on the bed so he can reach his forehead easier.

 

His careful attention and gentle fingers dabbing ointment against his forehead makes him miss Buwei so fiercely that Qi Heng has to dig his nails into his palms to keep his breathing even. 

 

“I don’t know what Lao-Bai was thinking,” Lin Xia says, wincing at his bruise. “he should have gotten some ointment on that earlier.”

 

Immediately jumping to his boss’ defence, A Li says, “How would Laoban even know where the bruise cream is? He doesn’t need this kind of stuff.”

 

“Bai Qi had me put ice on it last night before I went to bed. I’m assuming it would be even worse otherwise.”

 

Lin Xia groans and spreads out her arms and legs on the bed, just barely a hands-width from where Qi Heng’s sitting. “Great, now it’s going to be three against one all the time. Why couldn’t Bai Qi have gotten a painting of a woman instead?”

 

He doesn’t think his expression changes, but A Li’s immediately throwing down the now capped tub of ointment onto the bed and shoving roughly at Lin Xia’s leg.

 

“Xiao Xia-jie! Watch your words!”

 

When Lin Xia flips so he can see her face, she looks genuinely apologetic. “Sorry, that wasn’t a good thing for me to joke about. This must be hard for you.”

 

“It’s no problem.” Her words were careless but not malicious, and it really could be worse. At least here there’s no Princess for him to deal with. Qi Heng suddenly realizes that he’s a widower. He should probably be upset, but he doesn’t feel much of anything but a distant sense of relief.

 

They settle down at the kitchen table to wait for A Li to cook lunch, during which Lin Xia shows him pictures on her phone of some of the different ways that people in the modern age choose to dress now. It’s all a little confusing (how do people know the acceptable way to dress if all of these are deemed to be appropriate?) but it’s all very exciting at the same time.

 

“Oh!” Qi Heng points to one of the pictures, accidentally zooming in on the man’s nose. “Sorry, but his eyes! Is there something wrong with him?”

 

Lin Xia enlarges the picture again so the man’s whole face fits into the frame of her phone. The man’s eyes are an almost sky blue and his features are strange and unconventional. “There’s nothing wrong with him, he’s white. From overseas.”

 

Qi Heng nods and makes the widening motion on the glass that Lin Xia had showed him earlier to enlarge the man’s eyes again. “I’ve heard of men like this, but I’ve never actually seen one before.” The contrast between the darkness of his hair and the brightness of his eyes is very striking.

 

She pulls up more pictures on her phone and Qi Heng’s absolutely in awe of all the different types of people who Lin Xia shows him. Striking women with ink dark skin, heavily freckled men with flame red (red!!) hair, and people with dark glossy hair, brown skin, and wide dark eyes… Qi Heng’s always considered himself rather learned, but it’s obvious that with the passage of time, the world has become both infinitely larger and smaller. 

 

“Show him the hanfu Douyin videos!” A Li calls from the kitchen. He’d tried to explain videos to him earlier, but his too technical explanation had left both Qi Heng and Lin Xia more confused than when they’d started. Qi Heng had accepted Lin Xia’s much simpler explanations of a series of incredibly lifelike pictures played incredibly quickly in order to make it seem as though they’re moving and left it at that.

 

The clothing wasn’t very accurate, but Qi Heng felt a certain amount of comfort in knowing that he could dress in a way that was more familiar to him and it would still be acceptable.

 

“So, they’re famous, but not for any particular skill they have? Rather just that they wear traditional clothing and are attractive?” Qi Heng asks between bites of his lunch as the three of them crowded around Lin Xia’s tablet. “But why?”

 

“Why not, don’t you like looking at beautiful people?” A Li says. “Besides, look at some of the women, I can’t imagine how much time they put into getting dressed like that. Keep in mind, they don’t exactly have a household of servants to get them ready. Xiao Xia-jie don’t just show him the ones of the people flouncing around, show him the longboarders.”

 

After lunch, they come to the problem of where Qi Heng will be staying for the foreseeable future.

 

“No offence, but I would be more comfortable with A Li living upstairs with me.”

 

“None taken. I’m just sorry that I’m going to have to inconvenience you,” Qi Heng adds to A Li.

 

“You’re doing me a favour, if I’m further away, Laoban will hopefully stop coming to bother me when he thinks of something he wants at odd hours of the night.”

 

Between the three of them, they make short work of moving A Li’s possessions into the spare room upstairs. The room looks rather pitiful, with only Qi Heng’s robes and the sweater from Lin Xia hanging forlornly in the closet. The second-hand clothes from Bai Qi and A Li don’t even fill out one of the drawers in the dresser. 

 

Lin Xia excuses herself, claiming that she needs to get ready before she goes out that night, and reminding A Li that he’s agreed to pick her up after that night. A Li sighs and shoots Qi Heng a long-suffering look.

 

“She has a networking event. Xiao Xia-jie can drink really well, but Laoban and I both feel better knowing she’s not stumbling home alone after.”

 

It’s interesting to him that even after so long entertainers are still bound by so many of the same conventions. 

 

“Will she be safe by herself?”

 

“Xiao Xia-jie’s martial arts are really good and there’s laws now to keep entertainers safe. Besides, if anyone tries to make her do anything she doesn’t want, they’ll have Laoban to deal with.”

 

“The two of them are involved?” He’d assumed as much considering the ease Lin Xia felt being in Bai Qi’s private space and the intimacy between them.

 

A Li scratches his nose. “No, not anymore. It’s maybe something you should ask them about yourself. It isn’t a sore spot or anything, but a little complicated and a little too personal to hear from a third party.”

 

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have pried.”

 

His apologies are waved away as A Li picks up the last decorative pillow that had been left behind on the bed. The sheets with the unfamiliar animal from last night have been changed to plain dark green ones.

 

“Do you need anything else? There’s some time before dinner and Laoban said that you can feel free to read any of the books in his room.”

 

“I would like to wash if you could show me how to fill the tub?”

 

It’s simple enough to operate and A Li leaves him with clean towels and permission to use any of the products that he’d like. 

 

Sinking into the tub almost makes all of the insanity worth it and Qi Heng can’t stop the groan that leaves his lips when the perfectly hot water laps against his tense muscles. He’d turned the light off and there’s sun streaming in through the window. If he closes his eyes he can almost pretend that he’s back at home, back before everything happened. He can pretend that his biggest problem is what rank he’ll place on the imperial exam and if it will be high enough for his mother to allow him to marry Sheng Minglan.

 

He sinks deeper into the tub, water lapping dangerously close to the top. He’ll never know what happened to them now. If he was ever able to find something like happiness again, if his parents lived well into old age, if Sheng Minglan ever married. If she married someone who was worthy of her. If she ever thought about him the same way he still thinks of her.

 

Letting his head sink under the water makes everything around him feel dulled. His thoughts are drowned out by the pounding of his blood in his ears and the slowly mounting burn of his lungs. There’s nothing but the feeling of almost scalding water against his face, oppressive against his skin, his body screaming for air. His hair’s tangling in front of his face and he can feel the bubbles of air floating past his lips, but he still doesn’t move.

 

The pounding in his head becomes near unbearable and he finally allows himself to surface only to realize that the noise has been someone knocking on the door. 

 

He barely manages to get enough air to call, “Yes?” before he’s coughing, trying his best to push water and hair out of his eyes while he blindly gropes around for one of the towels that A Li had left him.

 

“It’s me.” Bai Qi’s voice is quiet, almost drowned out by the sounds of his own heavy breathing echoing through the tiled room. “A Li said he forgot to give you some things so I’m leaving them by the door for you when you’re done bathing.”

 

“Thank you.”

 

His voice sounds stripped raw. There’s a couple moments of silence and he thinks that Bai Qi must have left before his voice comes through again. “Are you okay?”

 

“I’m very well, thank you Dr. Bai.”

 

“I told you, Bai Qi’s fine.” He almost sounds exasperated and Qi Heng immediately feels guilty for forgetting. “Careful getting out of the tub when you’re done. It can be slippery.”

 

Qi Heng tracks the quiet steps leading away and stays in the tub until the water starts to cool, reading the words on the bottles lining the shelves and opening them all to smell before picking the one he likes the best to clean his hair. There’s a second matching bottle and he carefully distributes the contents of it through his hair, letting sit, and rinsing it out as instructed. It fills the room with the smell of fresh strawberries and mint.

 

Even with Bai Qi’s warning, he barely keeps himself from slipping when he climbs out of the tub. He sticks his arm through the door and pulls the slippers and tub of what he discovers to be lotion into the still steamy bathroom. He holds his hand behind the white undershirt the way that Bai Qi had showed him earlier and deems it thick enough to wear on its own and pulls it on along with the soft black pants he had been wearing earlier. 

 

He walks out of the bathroom, wet towel and button up in one hand and trying his best to dry his hair with the smaller towel in the other. 

 

The first person he bumps into is Lin Xia, dressed in a shining silver dress, shoulders and collarbones bare, with lipstick to match. She’s done something to make her eyes dark and sultry and her hair is curled and styled to frame her face.

 

“How do I look?” she says, giving a little spin. He notices that her toenails are painted the same red as her lips. “Do I look like leading lady material?”

 

He doesn’t know what that means, but nods. “You look fantastic, I’m sure that everyone will be stunned by you.”

 

She grins and gestures to the wet towel in his hands. “I’ll show you where to put these, you don’t have to carry them around.”

 

There’s a little blue basket with a lid in the bathroom that Qi Heng had completely overlooked that he tosses his clothes into while Lin Xia continues to watch him curiously. 

 

“Is there something wrong?”

 

“No, no,” she says, fluffing her hair in the mirror for a moment before leaving the bathroom. He follows. “Just make sure you dry your hair well. Even though it’s summer, it’s chilly in the house with the air-con.”

 

Qi Heng nods and squeezes the ends of his hair with the towel. He can feel where the wet strands have soaked into the back of his shirt and it sticks against his still bath-heated skin.

 

He holds out his hand for Lin Xia to steady herself when she pulls on her shoes with the, quite frankly, terrifyingly tall heel. Her eyes are gentle when she smiles up at him and Qi Heng startles when she kisses his cheek. 

 

“You are just so unbelievably sweet.” She looks behind him and Qi Heng turns around to see Bai Qi standing at the kitchen doorway, mug frozen halfway to his mouth. “We have to protect him.”

 

“What?” Lin Xia just gently pats his cheek before her phone chimes and she calls out a loud goodbye to A Li, who yells back from the kitchen, before she slips out the door.

 

There’s the quiet slapping of slippers against the hardwood floor before A Li sprints to the doorway, looking out after Lin Xia, spatula in hand and apron over his clothes. “Did she remember a jacket?”

 

“No,” Bai Qi says and turns back into the kitchen.

 

The wet spot on the back of his shirt is starting to become cold, so he pulls his hair over his shoulder and squeezes it with the towel again. A Li’s glancing between him and where Bai Qi had disappeared into the kitchen.

 

A Li gestures to his face. “You’ve got a little…”

 

Qi Heng touches his own cheek and his fingertips come away red. The same red as Lin Xia’s lipstick. 

 

“Ah.” He can feel the back of his neck heat up immediately. “Is he…”

 

“No! No, don’t worry; Laoban doesn’t get jealous about that kind of thing anymore. Xiao Xia-jie made it very, very clear how she feels about that the first time he tried to get possessive after they split up.” 

 

His doubtfulness must show on his face because A Li pats him on the shoulder. He’s received more affectionate touches this past day than he probably has in months prior. “Don’t worry about it. I think that he’s just worried.”

 

It’s fair enough. Although Qi Heng has done his best to be respectful, he is still a stranger. He’d be worried too if Sheng Minglan-

 

He cuts off the thought before it can fully form. “I’ll just go clean my face.”

 

“Okay, come take a seat at the table when you’re done, dinner will be ready soon.”

 

Qi Heng turns the water as cold as he can stand it and washes his face until his fingers come away clean. When he looks at himself in the glass, there’s the same familiar wretched look in his eyes that he’s come to recognize in the past year. He finds no comfort in it.

 

--

 

The next week rivals the one leading up to the imperial examination in intensity. He spends the majority of his time with Bai Qi who tries to teach him the basics of living in the 21st century as painlessly as possible. The two of them sit side by side at Bai Qi’s desk as he goes through page after page of information on his laptop. There’s so much to learn that, by the end of their lessons Qi Heng’s usually left with a headache and the feeling that he was likely the most useless man to walk the face of the earth.

 

Especially next to Bai Qi.

 

Bai Qi who has lived for thousands of years and is still so patient with him. Bai Qi who has seen all these changes happen in real time and understands exactly why Qi Heng feels so much like a fish out of water. Whatever questions Qi Heng has, Bai Qi always seems to have the answers, and all the books the man has! He’s generously allowed Qi Heng to read whatever catches his interest and he expects that even all the ones that he can understand, as Bai Qi has several shelves in languages that he doesn’t even recognize, would keep him occupied for months even if he did nothing but read.

 

Bai Qi who isn’t human at all. He’s explained to him that he’s a spirit, but Qi Heng can’t help but think of him as an immortal in the legends. Although, he’d never quite imagined an immortal to be so easily drawn into the type of bickering that he and Lin Xia engage in on an almost daily basis.

 

The two of them often sit in Bai Qi’s room to read. It’s more spacious than Qi Heng’s room and after the third time that he’d self-consciously knocked on the door of Bai Qi’s room to ask for clarification on the context of something he’d read, Bai Qi had invited him to stay instead. Bai Qi prefers to read in his bed and Qi Heng sits in the large cushioned chair next to a window by the bookshelves.

 

“Alright, this is too much.” He drops the brush pen that he’d been writing with and leaves a smudge in his notebook when the door to Bai Qi’s room is thrown open and Lin Xia walks in. He can write well enough with the new pens and pencils that Bai Qi has shown him, but he still deeply prefers a brush and the self-inking ones of the future are an absolute marvel.

 

“We’re going out.”

 

“Out where?” he asks slowly, looking between Lin Xia and Bai Qi hesitantly. “There’s still a lot that I don’t know…”

 

“There’s nothing better than practical experience. If anyone asks, we’ll just say that you’re from the countryside and not really used to the city yet.” Lin Xia throws Bai Qi a look. “Somebody needs to stop being so over-protective and let you experience the world a little.”

 

“Somebody needs to stop meddling when they don’t understand just how difficult it can be to adjust to the modern age,” Bai Qi shoots back, not looking away from the laptop in front of him. 

 

“Baobao managed just fine!”

 

Qi Heng has no idea who they’re talking about but judging from the look that Ba Qi gives her, he doesn’t agree. 

 

Lin Xia stares at him with her big puppy eyes. “Come on, Yuanruo, don’t you want to experience the world a little bit? Put some practical application to your learning? I promise I’ll take care of you!”

 

He feels whatever reluctance he’d felt before crumble. “I- uh….”

 

He glances over to Bai Qi who immediately looks up as though he’s felt the weight of his gaze. “You don’t have to if you don’t want to,” he says and from the tone of his voice, Qi Heng can already tell that he’s given up trying to keep them in the house. “But A Li will drive you, I’m not going to risk you losing him on public transit.”

 

A genuine smile spreads over his face when Lin Xia whoops in triumph. Her energy is infectious and he has the feeling that she and Sheng Rulan would have caused an incredible amount of trouble together. 

 

Before he leaves, Bai Qi calls him back and passes him the cellphone that he’s left on the table. There’s only three people’s information programmed into it; Bai Qi, Lin Xia, and A Li. Bai Qi has made it explicitly clear that it, along with the shiny ID with his picture and (fake) information on it, needs to be kept on him at all times when he leaves the house.

 

“Sorry, I’m still not used to it,” he says, back of his neck burning when he takes it from Bai Qi’s warm hands. He must seem like a child. The pocket where his ID sits attached to his phone is slightly thicker than usual. “There’s an extra card in this?”

 

“I know.” He glares at Lin Xia who’s obviously eavesdropping in the doorway. “Do not let her convince you to buy her anything. She has her own money.”

 

He tries to give the credit card back to Bai Qi. “I can’t take this, you’ve already been extending your hospitality to me and I haven’t been contributing anything to your household.”

 

“I make enough passive income to take care of all four of us for the rest of our lives even if none of us ever work again,” Bai Qi says bluntly. “Think of it as your day’s assignment if you have to. Get yourself something nice.” A little smile creeps across his face.

 

Lin Xia makes a weird noise but when he turns to look, she’s innocently inspecting something on Bai Qi’s bookshelf.

 

“It really isn’t necessary.”

 

“I know it isn’t, stop being so stubborn.” Bai Qi lowers his voice. “You’ve been unhappy. I know this may never really feel like home, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t find things that you like here too.”

 

He swallows past the sudden lump in his throat. “Thank you.”

 

Bai Qi looks back to his laptop. “Tell A Li if you’ll be back in time for dinner or not.”

 

“Yes, Bai-shu,” Lin Xia intones, looping her arm through Qi Heng’s and dragging him towards the front door. “We won’t go with anyone who offers to show us goldfish, we won’t take offered candy, and if anyone asks us if we want to sing karaoke; we know the correct answer is ‘no’.

 

“Common ruses used to trick children and young women,” she explains at his confused look. “Don’t worry, a-jie will take care of you!”

 

Qi Heng spends most of the car ride trying not to keep his face pressed to the window as he watches the city speed past them. He’s no stranger to crowded places, but not only does everything spread outwards as far as he can see, the buildings reach up to the sky, blocking out the sun in a way that wasn’t properly conveyed in the pictures Bai Qi showed him. 

 

Just as Lin Xia had said on that first day, he can see people walking by dressed in all different types of clothing. He even sees a boy with a head full of vibrant pink hair and can’t stifle the shocked noise that he makes.

 

“Everything okay?”

 

“His hair!” Lin Xia grins even wider at him. “It was pink!”

 

“It’s a type of dye,” she says, gently holding up a lock of A Li’s hair, ignoring his protests that he’s driving. “Like his, but more extreme. Any colour you can think of, they can probably dye your hair now.”

 

He touches the end of his own hair, pulled back in a long French braid that Lin Xia had showed him how to do a couple days earlier, and tries to imagine it the same light lavender that one of his favourite set of robes had been. Probably not for him.

 

It’s a Monday morning, so the mall isn’t as crowded as he’d anticipated but the sounds echo off all the reflective surfaces and he finds himself a little dazed by the newness of it all. Lin Xia’s hand over his wrist grounds him again.

 

“Are you okay? A Li can be back in five minutes, I was hoping this would be fun for you, but we don’t have to stay.”

 

“I’m fine,” he says, smiling down at her. “I was promised some practical experience, so lead the way Teacher Lin. I’m in your care.”

 

She gives him her big, uninhibited smile again and lops her arm through his. “Let me teach you about the magic of window shopping.”

 

Qi Heng had never had much opportunity to go shopping, usually merchants brought their goods to the manor, but he found that he quite enjoyed it. Especially with Lin Xia as his companion.

 

“What do you think?” she asks, holding up two nearly identical scarves. “Which do you like better?”

 

He points to the one on the left.

 

“You’re forgetting the most important part of shopping for clothes again,” she says, holding them out for them to touch. “Which one feels nicer?”

 

They feel exactly the same to him, silky gauze that caught the light and gave of a gentle sheen. Qi Heng holds up the one on the left. “This one for sure.”

 

He takes the bag from the woman behind the counter and he lets Lin Xia drag him towards the smell of food. They’d had lunch not too long ago, but she insists that no mall trip was complete without some type of ridiculously unhealthy treat. She gets ice cream, which she lets him have the first spoonful of, and he buys a crepe with fruit and cream which gets all over his face.

 

“Thank you.” He accepts the offered wet wipe from Lin Xia sheepishly. “I didn’t think it would all shoot out like that.”

 

She’s tapping on the screen of her phone with her other hand. “Happens to the best of us, at least you haven’t gotten any on your clothes.”

 

“It’s a good thing you’re so well prepared.”

 

“Never know what you’re gonna need.” She pats her bag decisively.

 

He accepts another wipe for his hands. “Should I get one too?”

 

“Do you want one?” Her smile only grows bigger when he nods. He wouldn’t say that it scares him, but there is something about the manic gleam in her eye that makes him feel a little bit nervous. “I’m so happy you agreed to come out with me today.”

 

The next hour and a half of Qi Heng’s life is chaotic in a way that he’s never experienced before. Lin Xia drags him from store to store, they touch so many bags and he feels like his shoulder’s never going to be the same with the repeated motion of putting things on and taking them back off again.

 

But it’s fun.

 

He likes how hard Lin Xia laughs when he gets stuck in a tiny red backpack. He likes looking at the incredibly even stitching and feeling the strange new textures under his fingertips. He likes that Lin Xia makes fun of him for always gravitating towards the plainest gloomy colours. He likes that she seems equally thrilled when he teases her back.

 

Lin Xia doesn’t want anything from him and Qi Heng thinks that despite the short time that they’ve known each other, this might make her one of his truest friends.

 

In the end they settle on a slightly square bag made of a smooth type of leather that makes him think of a beautifully broken in saddle that Lin Xia shows him how to wear across his body.

 

“So people can’t pick your pocket,” she says, positioning it so that when he puts his arm down it presses the bag tight against his front pocket too. “It’s nice, but of course you had to go for the brown.”

 

“I thought the goal was blend in?” he says, holding still as she pulls off the price tags and tosses them into the garbage. “The bright yellow was a little… ostentatious.”

 

Lin Xia laughs. “I wish you could have seen your face when I put it on you. I’ve never seen someone look so politely put out before in my life.”

 

Qi Heng lets himself become momentarily distracted by the large water fountain in the middle of the wing of the mall. The water pulses out from the center, like a flower constantly in bloom. There’s a group of girls sitting on the edge and when he accidentally makes eye contact with one of them, he politely dips his head before turning back to Lin Xia.

 

She’s looking at him with a mixture of amusement and exasperation.

 

“What’s wrong?”

 

“Nothing, nothing,” she says, looping her arm through his and pulling him further away from the fountain. “Just suddenly reminded that I really do need to keep an eye on you.”

 

“I’m the man; I should be taking care of you.” He hadn’t said anything earlier, but now she sounds so serious that he can’t help but protest.

 

“Yuanruo, you got stuck in a change room earlier. Just accept that you need a little bit of help for now.” There’s the sound of someone calling out behind him and he turns to look, but Lin Xia sends a glare over her shoulder before speeding up and he quickens his own pace to match her. “I’ll call for you when I need to get something off a high shelf or something.”

 

“Why are we walking so fast?”

 

“We’re being followed by a pack of teenage girls. Keep walking!” she snaps briskly, when he instinctively freezes. “Ugh, I never had this problem with Lao-Bai.”

 

He can feel his shoulders involuntarily start to slump. “I’m sorry.”

 

“Don’t be, it’s not your fault teenagers are hormonal and weird.” She pats his arm comfortingly. “Ah, the hardships of being handsome and desirable.”

 

He must stiffen because Lin Xia looks up at him in concern. “You okay?”

 

“Yes.” All of a sudden he can hear the laughing, smell the kicked up dirt, grass and sweat in the air. He’s sitting on his horse, face tilted to the sun, watching his peers, watching Sheng Minglan, as they race across the polo field. Deep breath in, deep breath out. The lights are too bright, the space is to open.

 

Qi Heng points to the first store that catches his attention. “Can we go in there?”

 

It’s quiet and small enough that the gaggle of teenagers can’t follow without being disruptive, and he and Lin Xia watch as they disburse through the glass of the storefront. The art supply store is all dark wood and gentle lighting, full without seeming cluttered. The two of them separate to meander past the shelves and Qi Heng finds himself gravitating towards the brushes.

 

Some of them are familiar while others are completely foreign to him, and Qi Heng’s so engrossed in examining them that he almost jumps out of his skin when a young woman suddenly appears at his left.

 

“Can I help you?” Her lips are painted a dark, dark red and she wears her hair even shorter than Lin Xia does, but her expression is gentle.

 

“Yes, I was wondering if you had supplies for ink wash painting.”

 

She leads him to a different section of the store and seeing all the brushes, ink stones, and even brush stands sends an immediate rush of longing through his chest. He picks out a couple brushes, an ink stone, ink stick, and a large stack of xuan paper.

 

“Woah, look at you,” Lin Xia says, coming up to stand at his other side. “If I’d known you’d be so happy about art supplies, I would have brought you here first.”

 

“It’s familiar,” Qi Heng says, exchanging one of the brushes he was currently holding.

 

“Are you and your boyfriend finding everything okay?” The sales associate asks, handing Lin Xia a basket.

 

“Not my boyfriend,” Lin Xia immediately says, grabbing the brush that Qi Heng had put down and putting it into the basket. “Just buy them both, it’s not like you’re paying for it anyway. He’s my, uh, cousin. Just moved from the countryside, so it’s been a little of an adjustment period.”

 

Qi Heng takes the brush back out. “I shouldn’t take advantage of Bai Qi’s generosity.”

 

Lin Xia puts it back in. “Trust me, Lao-Bai really doesn’t mind.” Qi Heng goes to take the brush back out again and has his hand batted away. “Stop that! I promise he won’t care. Possessive bastard’s been letting you use his shampoo since you got here and I’m not sure if you’ve noticed how he is about ‘his’ stuff. Just buy the brush.”

 

Qi Heng doesn’t know, but the brush stays in the basket.

 

“Is there anything else I can help you with? Would you like to look at some of our watercolour sets as well?” The sales woman looks like she’s trying hard to suppress a smile. 

 

Qi Heng goes to shake his head but is overpowered by Lin Xia’s “Sure!”

 

They end up leaving the store with all Qi Heng’s choices and a set of 48 watercolours in a metal tin that the sales associate had sworn by. Lin Xia finally deems it a successful trip and the two of them sit in easy silence, watching the people pass, as they wait for A Li to come pick them up. 

 

When they get back to the house, Qi Heng hangs his new bag on the hook on the closet door and puts his new painting supplies on the desk in the room. Between his new purchases and the selection of clothing that Bai Qi’s helped him pick over the past week, the room feels significantly less lonely than it had before.

 

Pulling out a clean sheet of paper, Qi Heng falls into the easy routine of grinding ink, letting the scent of pine fill the room. His paintings have always been just fair at best, but he’s always enjoyed the process. He concentrates on his brushes against the paper, and the way the ink looks as it dries. Generally, he prefers to keep his paintings black and grey, but he pulls out the watercolour set and adds a couple highlights, wincing when the first touch of his brush to the paper ends up much darker than he anticipated.

 

He manages to save the painting in the end and is even rather pleased with the end result. 

 

There’s a gentle knock at the door of his room and he calls for them to come in. Bai Qi’s leaning comfortably against the doorframe, looking around the room.

 

“How was it? Did you complete your assignment for the day?”

 

Qi Heng smiles and gestures to where his bag’s hanging. “Lin Xia helped me pick it.”

 

“I suppose that means you’ll need things to put into it?” There’s the same teasing smile on his face that he was wearing that morning as he walked into the room to examine the bag. “Has Lin Xia introduced you to the world of wallets and keychains as well?”

 

“Not yet, the wallet would be tragically empty anyway.” He hands the credit card back to Bai Qi. “Thank you again. I don’t know how I’m ever going to begin to pay you back for everything you’ve done for me.”

 

“I’ve told you time and time again, I don’t need to be paid back. I have more money than I know what to do with anyway.” Bai Qi leans over his shoulder to look at the painting on his desk. “This is nice.”

 

“It’s fair at best.” His back feels warm where Bai Qi’s inches away from him. “Painting has never really been my strong suit. I lack inspiration,” he says, parroting the exact words he’d heard from his tutor in the past.

 

He leans in a little closer, arm coming down to rest on the desk. “Is this the Peach Blossom Tree?”

 

“Yes, I didn’t really have anything in mind when I started painting, but I suppose that it left an impression on me.”

 

Qi Heng traces one of the flowers, darker than the others, the one he had added colour to first. He can see every single mistake clearly. The places where too much water made the ink run in a way he hadn’t wanted, the wavering lines he hadn’t committed firmly enough to, the spot where he’d blown on the paper impatiently and caused a splatter. 

 

“I like it.” When he looks up in surprise, Bai Qi’s face is closer to his than expected. If he moves a breath further to the right, he would be able to feel the rasp of his beard against his skin. “It emulates the feeling of standing right under it.”

 

Bai Qi’s tone is matter-of-fact but his praise is genuine. It makes Qi Heng’s heart stutter in his chest.

 

“If you won’t take offence, I’d like to gift it to you.” He forces the muscles in his face to relax into something less nervous and more polite. “I know it’s a paltry thing, but I really am grateful for everything you’ve done.”

 

When he passes the painting to Bai Qi over his shoulder, his face is indecipherable for a moment before he breaks into a smile. It makes him look heart-achingly warm. “Let’s hope this one doesn’t burst into reality or this time we’ll have a bigger problem than some knocked over papers.”

 

The joke startles a laugh out of Qi Heng and it rings through the room, unfamiliar.

 


 

“I’m going to be unspeakably rude and offer you some unsolicited advice.”

 

Bai Qi doesn’t try and hide the way his eyebrows raise in surprise. Qi Yuanruo attempting to be ‘unspeakably rude’ will be amusing if nothing else. “Oh? Please do.”

 

“You should be kinder to A Li. He cares about you beyond what duty requires of him. That’s rare and you’re very fortunate to have someone like that in your life.” The words come out slowly, even more measured than his usual careful speech.

 

He had snapped at A Li when he’d been nagging about something or another this morning, but that was common place between them.

 

“A Li knows how I am. He won’t take offence, he never has before.”

 

“I know and that’s exactly why you should better appreciate him.” His voice is more urgent this time, the book he’d been reading face up and forgotten in his lap. “I know that you love A Li like a brother, but does he know? That question isn’t one that you want to live with unanswered. You don’t realize how much you rely on someone, how much you’ll miss having someone who understands you until they’re gone.”

 

Bai Qi blinks at him in silence for a moment unable to ignore those earnest eyes. “Are we still talking about A Li and me?”

 

“Yes, I’m speaking from personal experience, but I don’t want you to make the same mistakes I’ve made.” Qi Yuanruo finally breaks eye-contact, looking down as though embarrassed.

 

“Thank you, I appreciate the concern.” Qi Yuanruo seems to relax a fraction. “You miss your friend.”

 

He nods. “More than I ever thought possible. I think of him often. I used to miss him the most when…” He takes a deep breath in and turns to smile at Bai Qi, genuine and sentimental. “Now, I remember him fondly when I see you with A Li.”

 

Qi Yuanruo looks soft in the light of the room, wisps of hair escaping from the loose bun being held back by his zan, and eyes wet with emotion. He looks less like the forcefully polite young plucked out of time and more like… 

 

“Will you tell me about your friend?”

 

He fully expects Qi Yuanruo to politely change the subject. Instead, he blinks the tears from his eyes, marks the spot in his book, and turns his full attention to Bai Qi instead.

 

“Buwei was straightforward, loyal, and upright. He always did his best to keep me out of trouble, but I never wanted to listen. He always looked to me for answers, but I was always just a stupid boy who thought he knew everything.”

 

Bai Qi can’t imagine what kind of trouble he would have gotten into as a youth. Does being five minutes tardy to lessons count as trouble? “I would have liked to meet him.”

 

Qi Yuanruo looks wistful for a moment before he brightens again. “I must tell you about when I hid a kitten in my room and was absolutely convinced that between the two of us, we’d be able to hide it from my mother. I had plans to keep it in an empty drawer during the day and let it roam around my room at night. The thing made Buwei sneeze and his eyes itched so terribly that I wasn’t even able to hide it for a day before we had to let it back out again.”

 

“I’d say the two of you were successful,” he elaborates at Qi Yuanruo’s puzzled look. “Your mother didn’t catch you did she?”

 

Qi Yuanruo laughs and he finds himself chasing the brief sound. He smiles all the time, but Bai Qi can count the number of times he’s heard him laugh on one hand.

 

They talk until A Li comes pounding on the door telling them that dinner’s ready. Bai Qi goes to snap that they haven’t gone deaf in the hours between lunch and now, but catches Qi Yuanruo looking at him hopefully out of the corner of his eye.

 

He sighs and rolls his eyes, opening the door for Qi Yuanruo to step through first. “We’re coming.”

 

He hadn’t managed to make him laugh again, but between stepping out of the room and sitting down at the dinner table, the affable smile Bai Qi hadn’t even realized was missing is back in place again. 

 

Bai Qi must have been staring because A Li catches his eye and sends him a look that could not have said “What??” more clearly if it’d been written in neon letters over his head. He ignores him and goes back to his dinner, pretending to listen as Lin Xia talk about her newest role in some trashy romance series as fourth female lead.

 

It takes A Li stealing the last piece of chicken, which he was clearly reaching for, to break Bai Qi back out of his own head. 

 

“Shouldn’t you be nicer to me as a-ge? You’ve had so many more years to eat the drumstick.”

 

“Shouldn’t the young respect the old?” he shoots back, resisting the urge to snatch the chicken right out of A Li’s chopsticks.

 

“I’m just looking out for you Laoban. Think about your blood pressure.”

 

“My blood pressure doesn’t matter, I’m not even human!”

 

He catches Qi Yuanruo out of the corner of his eye, hiding his smirk behind his cup of water. His eyes are crinkled deeply at the corners but when he lowers the cup his face is almost carefully blank again.

 

--

 

He comes home to Qi Yuanruo, A Li, and Lin Xia side by side on the couch, sheet masks on all three of their faces and an assortment of snacks on the table in front of them.

 

“I’m telling you, she’s got an unfair advantage!” Lin Xia says around a mouthful of shrimp crackers. “She’s a well-established star already and has a wealth of experience to back her up!”

 

“So do a bunch of the others!” A Li says. “You’re just bitter that she won and your pretty-boy didn’t. Just listen to her voice, she has so much passion, and she’s so versatile! She absolutely deserved to win.”

 

“Yuanruo!” He turns to Lin Xia with big, wide eyes. “You be the judge, who’s better, Dimash or Sandy Lam?”

 

“They’re both very talented; I think it’s just a matter of personal preference.” Lin Xia lets out a groan at his tactful answer and he continues. “But I did notice you cried during one of her songs.”

 

Lin Xia immediately jumps to defend herself over the sounds of A Li’s cackling. “My Dearest is a classic, it’s hard not to get emotional!”

 

“It still takes talent to make the song their own though,” A Li says when he’s done laughing.

 

They’re so engrossed in their argument that they don’t even acknowledge Bai Qi when he sits down in his armchair, closest to Qi Yuanruo. He carefully puts the long cardboard box he’d carried in on the floor next to him. “How long have they been going at it?”

 

“At least ten minutes,” Qi Yuanruo says. “I don’t even know what happened. One second, the three of us are relaxing and they’re showing me different types of music, and the next thing I know they’re arguing about a singing show.”

 

Bai Qi rolls his eyes. “This show aired years ago and the two of them still drag it up.”

 

“What did you bring home?”

 

Bai Qi ignores the rush of satisfaction over his choice of words and bends over to pick up the package instead. He hands it over to him carefully. “Something for you. Careful, it’s a little heavier.”

 

Qi Yuanruo peels the face mask off, smearing some sort of cream on his face when Lin Xia hands it to him, before accepting the package.

 

He’s missed a spot rubbing it in. Bai Qi gestures to his own face. “You have a little…”

 

“Oh?” He rubs his palm over the line of his jaw where Bai Qi had indicated. “Did I get it?”

 

“Yes.” He’s strangely disappointed by this. “A Li, help clear the table so Yuanruo will have somewhere to put it.”

 

Bai Qi passes him a utility knife and the three of them watch as Qi Yuanruo cuts through the layers of tape and opens the box and then the case inside with a noise of surprise.

 

“Bai Qi…” He sounds slightly breathless, peeling back the cloth to reveal the guqin sitting inside. “This is too much…”

 

“Don’t tell me that you can’t play, because I absolutely will not believe it.”

 

“I can, but this is too generous a gift for me to accept.” Even as he says this, Qi Yuanruo can’t stop himself from running his hands greedily over the fine silk strings.

 

“I’ve already purchased it and no one else in this house knows how to play. If you choose not to accept it, it’ll only gather dust in storage.”

 

“Yuanruo-ge, will you play us something?” A Li asks.

 

“I’m terribly out of practice…” 

 

“We’re all coarse people, we won’t know the difference,” Lin Xia insists. “Something simple even!”

 

Qi Yuanruo’s eyes dart between the two of them, down towards the guqin, then back to Bai Qi.

 

“You don’t have to if you don’t want to,” Bai Qi says. “I bought it for you to do whatever you’d like with, not perform on demand.”

 

The two of them maintain eye-contact while Qi Yuanruo seems to search his face for something, although Bai Qi has no idea what. “No, I’d like to play for you if you don’t mind. Maybe if we could all move to the kitchen table?”

 

There’s almost an awkwardness that lingers in the air as the three of them watch Qi Yuanruo set up the guqin at the end of the kitchen table. He tunes by ear and by the time he’s begun to play, Bai Qi is completely and utterly transfixed by him. Music quickly fills the silence of the room as his fingers move over the strings easily. It doesn’t sound familiar to him, but Bai Qi’s never been much for music beyond the practical application of Xiao Zhou‘s flute-song. 

 

Qi Yuanruo’s face is completely relaxed, full attention directed to the guqin, eyes half-lidded as he plays. He almost seems in a trance, muscle memory moving his body more than anything and Bai Qi can‘t look away. He’s smiling just a little bit and there’s a peace and ease to his face that he’s never seen before.

 

He looks more real this way. Less like a perfect figure carved from jade, always polite, always bottled up tight. With his face relaxed, sweet and carefree, he looks like the young man in the painting again. Bai Qi could see this man racing around on a horse, teasing his opponents on the polo field, bold and confident. An unbelievable brightness, light, and life to him that makes him unable to look away. A captivating and calamitous beauty. 

 

And all is dross that is not Helena.

 

He can understand how this man won a princess’ heart.

 

When the last note finishes ringing through the room, the three of them sit in the same speechless silence while Qi Yuanruo stares back at them with slowly building anxiety in his eyes.

 

“I’m sorry, I really am out of practice-“

 

“Yuanruo, I’m pretty sure I’m in love with you now.” Lin Xia’s over-dramatic delivery makes a shy smile steal over his face. “No, I’m serious, I’m pretty sure you’ve ruined me.”

 

“If this is how you sound out of practice, I’m not entirely sure the world will be able to handle you in full form,” A Li says.

 

“There’s no need to be polite,” Lin Xia adds. “It’s not arrogance if you have the skills to back it up.”

 

“I’m pretty sure it’s still arrogance, but thank you all the same.” His smile’s genuine and pleased when he turns to Bai Qi. “Thank you, Bai Qi. It’s one of the most thoughtful gifts I’ve ever received. I’ll treasure it all my life.”

 

In the face of his innocent joy, all of Bai Qi’s words seemed to have failed him and he can only nod. “I’m glad.”

 

--

 

Bai Qi’s always been the type of person who watches the people around him to, what Lin Xia has made it very clear is, an unsettling degree. The way he prefers to keep Lin Xia within arm’s reach, the way he tracks A Li from across the room, even Yang Jian and Xiao Xiao have become people he tends to check in on periodically. 

 

So it isn’t a huge surprise when he finds himself gravitating towards Qi Yuanruo more and more. After all, he’s always around. A Li has errands to run, Lin Xia has school and work, so the two of them are often in the house alone together.

 

“May I ask you something?”

 

“You already have.” He rolls his eyes and Bai Qi feels a rush of pride and lets a smile steal over his face. “Go ahead.”

 

The two of them are seated on the porch swing moved under the Peach Blossom Tree, flowering despite the season, books abandoned on their laps. They haven’t quite managed to convince him to wear short-sleeves and even in his linen pants and thin long-sleeved top, Qi Yuanruo’s cheeks are slightly flushed from the mid-summer heat.

 

“You and Lin Xia…” He hesitates until Bai Qi nods at him to continue. “I asked A Li if the two of you were involved once and he said that it was complicated and I should ask you.”

 

He shrugs and picks up one of the fallen blooms in the grass. “It’s not that complicated at all. We were dating and now we’re not.”

 

“Would it be terribly out of line for me to ask what happened?”

 

“Well, you already have,” he says, echoing his words from earlier. This time Qi Yuanruo’s arm brushes against his like he’d thought of shoving him but held himself back. “I’m kidding. We didn’t have a terrible falling out or anything, if you’re worried about stepping on a landmine when it comes to the two of us. We just amicably agreed that we’d be better off remaining platonic.

 

“I care about her very much, she’s one of the most important people in my life and she probably always will be, but the added complication of being a romantic partner wrapped us up in one another to an unhealthy degree. There was nothing else but me and her. Nothing mattered more than the two of us, and that wasn’t something that she wanted.”

 

“You’re very fortunate still to have each other.”

 

“I’m fortunate, her less so,” Bai Qi says brusquely. “Before, thousands of years ago, she was someone who I did have a relationship with. Xiao Zhou was the first one to save me, to believe that I could be something more than just a bloodthirsty spirit. I loved her more than anything else in the world. She was my only reason for living.” He lets out an inelegant snort through his nose. “Then Lin Xia saved me again when I wasn’t strong enough to keep that bloodthirsty part of myself contained anymore. She’s doomed to save me over and over again at her own detriment.”

 

“I’m sure she doesn’t think that way.” There’s the same urgency in his voice that always comes out when he’s emotional about something. A tightness to his lips that comes from him trying to keep himself contained. “There’s nothing worse than watching someone you love suffer. The helplessness of it is agony beyond words. Being able to protect someone you care about is an honour.”

 

“Is this about Buwei?” Qi Yuanruo looks as though he’s been struck, the colour bleaching from his face. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have asked.”

 

“No, please don’t, I’ve asked enough prying questions of you.” He smooths out the wrinkles he’s left in his pants, visibly collecting himself. “It’s about him, but it’s also about someone else.

 

“I was in love with a young woman, the daughter of a concubine and a lower ranking official, Sheng Minglan. I knew from the beginning that my mother would never approve, but I was young and stubborn. I was convinced that I would be able to sway her and Buwei never really did develop the ability to say ‘no’ to me.” The silence sits between them as he fights to find the words. “It was my fault. My mother knew I was seeing Sheng Minglan in secret and had him caned to death as a warning to me.”

 

He takes a shaky breath in and when he looks up at Bai Qi, his eyes are bright with tears. “He called for me. He kept on calling for me and I had no idea what to do. I begged and begged for my mother to stop, I knelt at her feet and she ignored me, ignored him too. The two of us grew up together, she watched him grow up too. In the end, it didn’t even matter. I was given a marriage offer that I couldn't refuse. My mother killed him for nothing.”

 

Bai Qi wants to ask about this Sheng Minglan, if she was this ‘someone else’ that he’d mentioned, but Qi Yuanruo’s shaking so furiously that Bai Qi’s a little worried he’ll faint.

 

“We don’t have to talk about this if you don’t want to.”

 

“No, you’ve asked absolutely nothing of me in the time that I’ve been here. The least I can do is honestly let you know the type of man you’ve been living with.” His knuckles are white where his hands are clasped neatly in his lap and he won’t look Bai Qi in the face. The strands of his long hair, pulled out of its neat bun by the wind, fall in front of his face.

 

“The painting… The one that I came from, I only went to that polo game because I wanted to see Sheng Minglan. She loved polo and I knew that she would be there. I wanted to impress her so badly, but my mother later told me that it was at that game that I had caught the Princess of Jiacheng’s eye.” There’s a bitter twist to his lips and the sneer on his pale face makes Qi Yuanruo look like a resentful ghost. “When I refused, when I told them I would rather die, they threatened to execute my family. They threatened to kill Sheng Minglan. I had a close friend who offered to rescue my father through force, but I was too scared. I had no choice but to agree to the marriage.”

 

Qi Yuanruo unclenches his hands to brush the hair back from his face and Bai Qi can see that his short nails have left almost bloodied crescents in the backs of his hands.

 

“I swore to Sheng Minglan that I would marry her, I swore in front of her mother’s tablet that I would have none but her. I was a coward and a fool. I once asked why she treated me like a poisonous snake, but she was right to. I did nothing but cause her pain.”

 

He inhales deeply before letting his shaky breath back out and Bai Qi finally looks away. He tilts his face up to the sky, letting the sunlight wash over his face and watching the slow sway of petals from the miraculous tree.

 

“Xiao Zhou died because of me. She put all of her efforts into saving me and preserving the Peach Blossom Tree. The last thing she did was save my life, give me the Peach Blossom seed, and wipe my memories of her. Meeting Lin Xia, her reincarnation broke the seal on them somehow, so in the end I couldn’t even give her what she wanted by properly forgetting her.”

 

He looks back and Yuanruo’s finally facing him again. There’s pain and understanding on his face in equal measures.

 

“I’ll never forget her, I’ll never stop thinking about her, but I’ll at least do what she wanted and live on. Or else what was the point?”

 

“I should have just done what Sheng Minglan had asked from the beginning. It would have been kinder to let go.” There’s a rueful little twist to his lips. “I’ll never even know if she found someone else. Someone who would protect her instead of just constantly causing her grief.”

 

A strong breeze blows through the yard and the tree shakes, scattering petals all over the two of them in a flurry of pink. They land in Qi Yuanruo’s hair, the collar of his shirt, they stick to his damp eyelashes like snowflakes.

 

“You look like a painting.”

 

Qi Yuanruo stares at him for a moment, startled by his sudden proclamation before he breaks out in a smile. His eyes are still watery, but the colour’s returned to his face and when he reaches over to shove Bai Qi’s shoulder his hands are warm. “You can never pass up the opportunity to tease me, can you?”

 

“You’re always so well composed; I get so few openings.”

 

“You get more than everyone else.” He snaps before blinking furiously for a moment as though surprised by his own words. “Perhaps we should go back inside. It’s getting a little hot out here.”

 

The back of Qi Yuanruo’s neck is bright red when he turns to rush back into the house. If Bai Qi grins to himself, wide enough that he knows he looks a damn fool, that’s his own business.

 


 

He’s sitting at his desk after breakfast, head tilted slightly as he looks over a piece of calligraphy that he isn’t entirely happy with, when he sees Bai Qi standing in the hallway with a stack of papers in his hands.

 

“Hello.” He smiles wide. “Come in. Can I help you with something?”

 

“I’m actually hoping that I can help you.” He puts the stack of papers on a clear spot of Qi Heng’s desk and he can see that it’s been separated by colourful tabs between the stacks of paper. His own name’s written in Bai Qi’s hand at the very top of the first page.

 

“I don’t understand…”

 

“It’s a record of your life. It seems as though your descendants were quite diligent record keepers.” Bai Qi flips to the deep purple tab at the very back. “I was able to find a fair bit about your Sheng Minglan too. Much more than I expected considering she was a woman.”

 

He feels frozen in place. 

 

“You don’t have to look at them if you don’t want to. I just thought you should have the choice.”

 

He wants to ask how long Bai Qi has had all of this for. He wants to ask if Bai Qi has read everything already. He wants Bai Qi to tell him what he should do. 

 

“Thank you.”

 

Bai Qi reaches out for him but puts his hand into his pocket again before he can make contact. He clears his throat, nods, and leaves Qi Heng alone again, closing the door behind him.

 

Qi Heng stares at the closed door, shoulder tingling where Bai Qi might have touched him. 

 

He turns the page and starts to read.

 

--

 

He doesn’t know how long he’s been underwater.

 

There’s the sound of his own heartbeats echoing in his ears. He forces his eyes open and the water burns fiercely but he can see his hair floating around him like seaweed and he imagines that he’s fallen into a lake somewhere. That he’s fallen into the water and it’s all pressing in around him and he’s sinking and sinking and sinking, taking him nowhere.

 

He closes his eyes again and lets the air escape him in a burst of bubbles.

 

Qi Heng remembers hearing from someone that Sheng Minglan had fallen into a river once. His chest clenches with something that has nothing to do with lack of oxygen when he remembers that it was Gu Tingye who saved her then too.

 

He’s at once glad that someone was able to make her happy in a way that he never managed and burning with jealousy. It feels like it’s eating him alive.

 

The princess had died. Her whole family slaughtered, who else would have stood in their way? Why had she not married him instead?

 

There’s no use in thinking about it but Qi Heng can’t stop.

 

At least she was happy.

 

And he had, apparently, been happy too. It’s almost impossible to imagine, but the fondness in the preserved letters between him and his second wife was so clear.

 

He just wants to be happy again.

 

Something grabs his wrist and he takes in a mouthful of water in shock. Qi Heng’s blinking water out of his eyes, trying to push his hair out of his face, and coughing furiously while a hand firmly slaps him on the back forcing the water out of his mouth. 

 

“What the hell is wrong with you?!” His towel’s shoved into his face and when it’s pulled away, Bai Qi’s blurry face slowly comes into focus. His sleeves are wet up to his elbows and he’s scowling. “The water’s so hot! Have you been running it this hot every single time?”

 

He’s still trying to catch his breath and can’t resist when Bai Qi pulls him out of the bathtub. His hands feel like a brand against Qi Heng’s already heated skin and he can’t stop shaking.

 

“Get out.”

 

He tries to shake Bai Qi off, but his hands only tighten. “Were you trying to kill yourself?” He sounds so incredibly angry, it only fuels Qi Heng’s own rage.

 

“I said get out!” Qi Heng’s chest burns, from the water and anger both, and he locks his on hand over Bai Qi’s wrist and pries himself free. “Do you not understand human speech? I said, get out! Leave, fuck off!” Bai Qi seems frozen in shock. “Fuck off, fuck off, fuck off!” 

 

Qi Heng shoves him so hard that the momentum drives him backwards and he has to catch himself on the edge of the sink to keep from tripping. There’s the click of the door closing behind him as Bai Qi leaves. Qi Heng steadies himself against the counter with his eyes closed to try and even out his breathing again.

 

His chest still hurts, but it’s nothing compared to the sting of his back. Bai Qi really hadn’t held back. When he twists in the mirror, he can make out the very distinct impression of Bai Qi’s hands in several places.

 

He pulls his clothes on over his still damp body, throws open the door of the bathroom, and stalks to his room. Bai Qi’s waiting for him in the hallway and follows without a word, closing the door behind the two of them.

 

“What was that?” He’s still seething when he turns to look at Bai Qi, moving quickly enough that his wet hair falls against his hair with a splat. “Is a man not even allowed a little privacy in the bath now?”

 

“I knocked! I called your name so many times, but you didn’t respond. I thought something was wrong. ” Bai Qi’s arms are crossed protectively in front of him, face a storm cloud. “Evidently, I was right, considering I caught you trying to drown yourself!”

 

Qi Heng hisses, “I was thinking! Trying to think! I was fine.”

 

“Do you regularly think while fully submerged in boiling water?”

 

“Do you not?” he snaps back.

 

Bai Qi doesn’t respond and without someone to feed his fire, all the anger seems to leave Qi Heng in a rush. “I think you bruised my back.”

 

“Let me see.” Bai Qi’s hands are on his shoulders gently but firmly turning him around.

 

He pulls the wet shirt over his head and drops it onto a chair.

 

“Your hair…” Bai Qi’s voice makes his skin break out in goosebumps. His heart’s pounding in his chest when he pulls his hair over his shoulder.

 

“Did you put on lotion after you came out of the bath? The water was too hot.”

 

“I’m not a child,” he says, more tired than petulant. “But no, I didn’t.”

 

“I’m going to go get the bruise cream. Put lotion on.”

 

There’s a moment where Qi Heng’s tempted to ignore him just because he can, but his skin’s already starting to feel tight so he does as he’s told. He makes a half-hearted attempt at drying his hair when he’s done, mulling over what he’s going to say.

 

A knock at the door’s followed by Bai Qi saying, “Can I come in?”

 

“Does it matter if I say no?” he asks, opening the door for him anyway.

 

Bai Qi’s cold expression turns deeply unsettled. “Of course it matters, is that what you think of me? I swear to you, I would never have come in like that if I hadn't thought that something was wrong.”

 

His heart still feels like it’s trying to beat out of his chest so he just nods. Bai Qi makes a vague spinning motion with his finger so he turns to show him his back.

 

“Does it hurt?”

 

“Somewhat.”

 

“Do you want me to get A Li instead?”

 

“No!” He takes a deep breath and goes on drying his hair. “No, please. I don’t want him to…”

 

He trails off, unsure of even what he wants to say. He doesn’t want A Li to worry. He doesn’t want A Li to see him like this and come to the wrong conclusions about what happened. He doesn’t want A Li to see him like this and ask what happened.

 

The first touch of Bai Qi’s finger against his back makes him stiffen in surprise until he forces himself to relax again. It’s cool against the heated skin of his back and it feels like every single nerve in his body is focused on the press of Bai Qi’s fingertip against his skin.

 

“Yuanruo, what happened?”

 

His voice is soft, sad, and he takes a deep breath in before replying. “I told you, nothing happened. I was just thinking.”

 

“Thinking about?”

 

When he doesn’t answer, Bai Qi doesn’t ask again, diligently rubbing in the ointment in silence.

 

He feels hyper-aware of absolutely everything in the room. They’re not standing close enough that he should be able to feel Bai Qi’s breath on his neck, but for some reason it feels as though they’re breathing in time.

 

“I was thinking about drowning.” His voice is so quiet that Qi Heng can barely hear himself, but the pause in Bai Qi’s movements makes it clear that he’s heard him. “I didn’t intend to drown myself, but I was thinking of how it would feel.”

 

“After I married the princess, I never had any privacy. There was always someone watching me. I think that my initial threat to kill myself rather than be forced into this was still convincing enough that they felt it best to keep an eye on me. Even at night they had a servant stay in the room with me.”

 

He’s glad that Bai Qi can’t see his face because he feels so small and it must show in his expression. “They left me alone to bathe though, so I don’t really understand the logic in that. Maybe they assumed the man they had on the other side of the screen would hear me drowning and stop me in time. I was always quiet though, so no one ever thought there was anything out of the ordinary. I could pretend I was somewhere else, anywhere else. I just wanted to be allowed the privacy of my own thoughts.”

 

He can feel his mouth twisting into a grimace. “Once, when we were at a temple she asked me what I was praying for. I didn’t want to tell her, so I made something up, and she told me she would know if I were lying. I don’t know why, but I was so scared. For a moment, I was actually worried that she really could read my mind.”

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

“It’s past.”

 

Bai Qi’s hands move away from him and when he turns, he’s looking at him with an intensity that makes him feel more naked than he already is.

 

“It is past.” He can’t look away. He feels trapped in place. “I can’t take away what happened, but as long as you’re with me, you’ll have the freedom to do as you like.”

 

“What if I want to leave?” The words come out of him in a burst and his hands grow clammy. “What if I don’t want to stay here anymore?”

 

Bai Qi doesn’t hesitate. “Then you can leave. Where do you want to go? I’ll make sure you’re taken care of.”

 

“What if I don’t want to be taken care of?”

 

There’s a little bit of a pause this time. “If it’s what you want.”

 

“I want to stay here.” The relief in Bai Qi’s eyes makes him smile. “If you don’t mind having me around.”

 

“Even if I let you go, I don’t control Lin Xia,” Bai Qi says matching his smile. “She’d probably drag you back kicking and screaming, she’s grown pretty fond of you.”

 

“And I of her,” Qi Heng says. “Of all of you. I still can’t believe how lucky I am that of all the rooms I could have fallen into, it was yours.”

 

“I don’t believe in luck,” he says, capping the tub of ointment.

 

“Then fate?”

 

“I don’t believe in that either.”

 

He laughs a little. “You are quite literally a doctor for spirits, you’ve lived for thousands of years, I fell out of a painting, and things like fate and luck are where you draw the line?”

 

“I don’t like to think that there are things out of my control.”

 

“Why am I not surprised.”

 

They smile at each other for a moment, content in the silence, until Qi Heng sneezes. 

 

“Sorry, I should…”

 

“Right, right!” Bai Qi blinks rapidly at him. “I should leave you to get dressed.” 

 

Qi Heng turns his back rather than watch as he goes, feeling the heat spreading from his chest towards the back of his neck. He can’t help being at least a little bit pleased that Bai Qi’s ears had been a little red when he left too.

 

--

 

Qi Heng wakes with tears on his face. He’d had strange dreams the night before that he couldn’t remember and desperately craved a cup of coffee. He really didn’t understand how quickly he’d become dependent on something that he’d previously lived his entire life without, but Qi Heng just knows that those sleepless nights of studying would have gone much easier if he’d had coffee.

 

He barely manages to shove his feet into his slippers and pull a hoodie, well-worn and probably previously owned by one of the others, over his sleep shirt before he stumbles into the hallway.

 

He’s still rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, completely focused on getting to the kitchen when he hears, “Who are you?”

 

There’s a young couple sitting on the couch, the man in a long green jacket, the woman in a gauzy pink dress. They’re complete and utter strangers to him and Qi Heng freezes like a rabbit.

 

“Who are you?” the woman demands again, a frown on her pretty face. “Where is A Li?”

 

“A Li…” He blinks back at them, still willing his brain to wake up completely. “A Li’s still in his room?”

 

“His room that you just came out of? A Li never told us he was seeing anyone!” The woman’s voice is getting louder and louder.

 

“I’m not seeing anyone?” A Li pokes his head past the banister of the stairs. “Oh! You two are here early. Xiao Xia-jie’s still getting ready. Yuanruo-ge, that’s Xiao Xiao and Yang Jian.” He slumps down on the loveseat beside the couch and adds, “That’s Qi Yuanruo. He fell out of one of Laoban’s paintings.”

 

“Ah,” Yang Jian says easily.

 

“He what?!” Xiao Xiao says loudly enough that a dog outside starts barking.

 

A Li ignores them both. “Yuanruo-ge, are you feeling okay? Your eyes are all red.”

 

“I’m fine, thank you, A Li. Is there any-”

 

“Coffee?” A Li says, big grin on his face. “I made a pot this morning.”

 

Qi Heng nods gratefully, instinctively bows in the couple’s direction before scrambling to the kitchen, back of his neck burning. The coffee’s almost too hot to drink, but Qi Heng throws it back desperately.

 

This really wasn’t how he expected to start the morning. He sneaks back to his room with his cup of coffee in hand, and can hear A Li going through the whole complicated ordeal of explaining his origins to his friends.

 

After his morning routine and a second cup of coffee, Qi Heng feels more alive. He pulls on the white turtleneck that he’d inherited from Lin Xia and a pair of soft blue jeans and inspects himself in the mirror. He’s pulled his hair back in a loose tail instead of putting it up with his zan and hopes it makes him look less like something strange and unusual. More like someone who’s meant to be in this time. 

 

Lin Xia and Bai Qi have both joined the group in the living room, Lin Xia squeezed between Xiao Xiao and Yang Jian. She waves when she notices him.

 

“Yuanruo! I heard you’ve finally met Xiao Xiao and Baobao.” 

 

He feels a little baffled when he realizes that the Baobao he’s heard so much about is this stoic looking young man. Especially when most of the stories involve some variation of “don’t worry about it, Baobao did the same thing when he was living with us” followed by some insane situation that sounded ten times worse than whatever faux pau Qi Heng had committed.

 

Baobao – Yang Jian, he mentally corrects himself – looks at him curiously for a moment before sending him a smile so guiltless that Qi Heng understands why they’ve given him the nickname of ‘baby’.

 

It’s immediately clear that he and Xiao Xiao are a pair, and listening to the conversation between the group of friends, Qi Heng learns that the two are going to be married in the winter.

 

“You should come. Give me your contact info,” Xiao Xiao says easily, passing Qi Heng her phone. It sounds more like a command than a question, but he can see the offer for what it is, an extension of her friendship as well.

 

He holds her phone, different from his, and stares at Bai Qi in mild panic. Bai Qi waves him over and he hovers next to him and watches intently as he explains step by step.

 

“Give me your phone, I’ll show you how to find your WeChat ID if you forget what it is.”

 

“Ah.” Qi Heng pats his empty pockets.

 

“In your room again?” There’s a smile pulling at the corners of Bai Qi’s mouth.

 

“Sorry, I’ll be right back.” It’s exactly where he left it and when he’s run back, Bai Qi’s still smiling at him.

 

“You didn’t have to run,” he teases, slowly showing Qi Heng what to do. It’s easier than he expected and he’s a little bit embarrassed that he’d immediately looked to Bai Qi for help. 

 

“Oh! Thank you.” He passes Xiao Xiao’s phone back to her and takes his back from Bai Qi. “How come there’s a picture of her next to her name, but none next to mine?”

 

“You have to take one first,” A Li says. “If you weren’t so opposed to selfies, you’d have more to choose from.”

 

Qi Heng resists the urge to wrinkle his nose. He’d reluctantly taken several at Lin Xia’s insistence when she and A Li had attempted to explain social media to him, but he’d found the whole process so intensely uncomfortable that he’d deleted the pictures immediately after.

 

“Wait, Lao-Bai, don’t you have pictures of Yuanruo?” The grin on Lin Xia’s face is positively wicked. He doesn’t remember Bai Qi ever taking pictures of him. He very rarely has his phone out around Qi Heng at all.

 

“Shut up,” Bai Qi says between gritted teeth. He sighs and beckons Qi Heng closer at his questioning look. “I would like the record to show that I didn’t take any of these. They were all Lin Xia and A Li.”

 

“Well, you didn’t have to save them,” A Li says, ducking behind Lin Xia when Bai Qi makes a threatening movement in his direction.

 

There are… an unexpected number of photos of Qi Heng in his photo album. He looks dazed and confused in all the ones where he’s looking at the camera; obviously, whoever had taken it had called him and immediately clicked the capture button after. They’re all excruciating to look at. They’re always when he’s in the middle of something; trying to figure out how to use his phone, washing a dish, there’s even one of him brushing his teeth, hair thrown up into a messy bun, loose strands all over.

 

Most of them, he’s not even looking at the camera and they all feature both him and Bai Qi. The two of them at Bai Qi’s desk, hovering over the laptop. Bai Qi explaining something from a book to him while Qi Heng stares at him intently. Bai Qi in a rare fit of laughter when Lin Xia had brought home popping candy for him to try one day, Qi Heng’s eyes so wide they look as though they’ll fall out of his head. Qi Heng playing his qin while Bai Qi reads.

 

Qi Heng and Bai Qi, Bai Qi and Qi Heng.

 

Then, one picture in particular catches his eye. His hair’s pulled back in a braid thrown haphazardly over his shoulder and the background is of the mall that Lin Xia brought him to what feels like forever ago. There’s whipped cream smeared on his face and he’s looking at his messy hands with such an expression of disbelief and betrayal that it even makes him want to laugh.

 

“I didn’t realize that she’d taken a picture of that.” He smiles at Bai Qi who’s doing his best to look unaffected, but Qi Heng can tell he’s biting the inside of his lower lip just a little. “I also hadn’t realized that she’d sent it to you.”

 

“She wanted to show me that you were adapting.” Bai Qi’s tone is dry. “I’m guessing from your face that you don’t want any of these?” He shakes his head. Bai Qi stands up from his armchair and pulls Qi Heng so that they’re standing next to a window.

 

“You look so stiff,” Xiao Xiao says from the couch. “You need to relax your shoulders, smile a little.”

 

“You should listen to her. Xiao Xiao takes a lot of pictures,” Yang Jian says so seriously that Qi Heng feels a smile start to come naturally.

 

Bai Qi, phone held up in front of him, looks handsome and serious in his blue button up and cream slacks. “Yuanruo, look at me.” When they make eye contact, his expression turns indulgent and Qi Heng can feel his heart start to beat a little faster. He’s completely helpless to do anything but obey.

 

“Come here.” The mirror image staring back at him looks relaxed, smiling naturally. “I think it’s contact photo worthy.”

 

“I defer to your expertise then.” He sets the photo the same way Bai Qi had shown him earlier. 

 

He clicks through his contact list, a grand total of four entries now, and notices that Bai Qi’s photograph looks a little familiar now. It’s from one of the pictures that features both of them, but he’s been cut out. It looks like they’re sitting in the yard and Bai Qi looks as though whatever stupid anecdote Qi Heng must have been telling him was the most important thing in the world.

 

He wonders if Lin Xia will send him some of those pictures.

 


 

Qi Yuanruo’s phone has been blowing up all morning.

 

The two of them had decided to explore a part of town that housed Bai Qi’s favourite bookstore/coffee shop and it had been one of the rare occasions when Qi Yuanruo had actually remembered his cellphone. Which was currently buzzing so furiously that he could hear it from the other side of the table.

 

“Who is it?”

 

“Sorry, it’s Xiao Xiao.” Qi Yuanruo looks a little like a schoolboy caught reading comics under his desk. “One of the women we go running with is asking about me.”

 

“Oh.” He’s seen the court of men and women that Xiao Xiao has gathered around her, each more beautiful than the last. “Asking for your WeChat?”

 

“She already has it. She’s asking about personal information.”

 

“And Xiao Xiao wants you to make something up to tell her?”

 

“No, I’ve already said that I wasn’t interested. Xiao Xiao says that she won’t stop asking though. She says that if she doesn’t stop asking, she’s going to kick her from the group-chat.” Qi Yuanruo’s on his second latte but his hands are steady when he takes another sip. “She is, in Xiao Xiao's words, getting super creepy.”

 

“Ah.” He picks up his book again to hide his relief.

 

He glances up to see that Qi Yuanruo’s still peaking at him over his mug. He’s a little alarmed to see that there’s dark smudges under his eyes. Qi Yuanruo’s days have been busier, with the running, the diligent guqin practice, and the online courses he’s been taking, but it isn’t as though he’s a stranger to hard work. Maybe he should ask A Li to start buying decaf.

 

“What?”

 

“Nothing. I was just thinking.”

 

“Do you ever stop thinking?”

 

“Sometimes.” He picks up his book too, a coquettish smile playing on his lips. “If something’s interesting enough to keep my attention.”

 

Bai Qi takes a deep drink of his tea, mouth suddenly bone dry. “For example?”

 

“I know it when I see it.”

 

He doesn’t see a word of the book in front of him. All of a sudden, he’s hyperaware of the man seated at the table in front of him, also pretending to read his book. He doesn’t really know what to do. Xiao Zhou had been the one who had taken the initiative in their relationship, and he and Lin Xia had been brought together through a series of strange, life and death circumstances.

 

This is something else. Qi Yuanruo is something else. Soft in a way that he’s not used to from the people around him. There seems to be a sweet air of naivety to him despite all the trauma that he’s gone through and it makes the feral part of Bai Qi want to lock him away somewhere where nothing and no one will ever touch him again. Keep him somewhere for Bai Qi alone. 

 

He almost drops his book in shock. This could be a little bit of a problem.

 

Qi Yuanruo’s looking at one of the other tables out of the corner of his eye. The couple next to them is sharing a pistachio tart and chocolate cake, and he has a pretty good idea which one Qi Yuanruo’s eyeing.

 

He waves down the next waitress who passes by and orders one of the tarts. Qi Yuanruo doesn’t say a word, but his eyes light up as he stares at the tart as it’s brought to their table. The waitress has kindly brought two forks without being asked and Bai Qi makes a mental note to leave her a generous tip. 

 

“Here, I don’t want the whole thing.” He barely tastes the first bite, too concentrated on watching the way that delight blooms across Qi Yuanruo’s face as he eats. Bai Qi pushes all the strawberries on the top to Qi Yuanruo’s side of the plate.

 

“I don’t want them. The seeds always get stuck in my teeth.”

 

He doesn’t look like he believes him, but still eats them with barely contained gusto. His tongue darts out to chase the taste of sugar and Bai Qi barely saves himself from choking on his own mouthful of pastry.

 

“Have at least one, you keep staring.” Qi Yuanruo lifts his fork, fruit on the end up towards Bai Qi’s face. It makes him think of bulls, and matadors, and red capes. “Surely it’ll be worth the hassle. You seem to want one so badly.”

 

His eyes narrow, but Qi Yuanruo’s expression remains as mild as ever. He wants to break his calm.

 

Bai Qi raises his hand and wraps it firmly around his wrist, bringing the fork closer to his mouth. He keeps eye contact as he wraps his lips around the tines of the fork, around the berry and takes it into his mouth. Qi Yuanruo is frozen in place, hand still hovering in the middle of the table, mouth slightly agape. 

 

He leans back in his chair, clenching his tingling hand in a fist on his lap, and chews nonchalantly. It’s sweet.

 

Qi Yuanruo eats the rest of the tart in silence, now openly looking up at him in curiosity while Bai Qi looks over the same three sentences over and over again in his book. Their knees brush against each other when he crosses his legs under the table, Qi Yuanruo’s fork pauses on the way to his mouth, but he doesn’t move away. The small point of contact under the table spreads warmth through his body.

 

They spend the rest of their trip reading in comfortable silence.

 

They’re close enough to home that they choose to walk. He can feel the press of the balmy air around him and he’s baffled by Qi Yuanruo’s insistence on long sleeves, pants, and even a face mask. 

 

“Picking up on Xiao Xiao’s habits?” With his cap pulled low over his brow, he looks like a celebrity attempting to be covert.

 

“It makes her feel less out of place if I wear one when we go out together. I suppose I’ve just become accustomed to it. It’s nice not having to continually be aware of your expressions.”

 

The heat makes the long strands of Qi Yuanruo’s hair stick to the nape of his neck. He can barely tear his eyes away for long enough to watch where they’re going. Thankfully Qi Yuanruo’s explored enough that he seems comfortable leading the way. He still stares at everything with his wide eyes, taking it all in as though it’ll disappear any second.

 

Even though he’s only been here a fraction of the time, Qi Yuanruo’s become quite the fixture in the neighborhood, always happy to help a granny carry her trolley of groceries or take a pack of the neighborhood kids down to the corner store to buy candy. 

 

He’s friendly and polite to everyone and part of that goodwill become extended to Bai Qi by virtue of their being friends. The neighborhood aunties had started with clucking over how Qi Yuanruo was much too skinny and, in what he insisted was not an act of self-preservation, Qi Yunaruo had directed their attention to Bai Qi instead. 

 

“Ai, look at you! All skin and bones!”

 

“You’re a doctor; you should know to take better care of yourself!”

 

“You look tired, have you been working too hard?”

 

He’s never had so many people clucking over him, caring for his well-being, before in his entire life. 

 

The blast of air conditioning immediately makes Qi Yuanruo shiver. His face is flushed from the heat and his hair mussed from his cap and Bai Qi quickly excuses himself and slips into his room.

 

It takes way more deep-breathing and counting to ten than he’d like to admit before his heartbeat comes back to a more regular level.

 

He shouldn’t. He really, really shouldn’t. Qi Yuanruo knows almost no one outside he and Bai Qi’s shared immediate circle. He’s financially and obviously emotionally dependent on him, and just overly accommodating enough that Bai Qi isn’t 100 percent sure that he wouldn’t respond to his advances just out of gratitude.

 

He’s too sweet, too new to this world, too young. 

 

This is absolutely going to be a problem.

 

When Bai Qi dreams, it’s usually of the past. He dreams of meeting A Li for the first time. He dreams of going to the amusement park with Lin Xia. He dreams of sparring with Yang Jian, the two of them laying in the grass in silence when they’ve both had enough, Yang Jian’s stupid dog snuffling around beside them before it lays down between them. He dreams of sitting next to Xiao Zhou in their house, heart pounding with nerves, wracking his brain for things to say that would make him look mature and capable. 

 

He dreams of long lashes, a strong jaw, and sweet smile. He dreams of long hair sticking with sweat to flushed skin. He dreams of teeth, and heat, and a familiar voice making unfamiliar noises. He dreams of hands gripping hard enough to bruise.

 

Bai Qi wakes up with a gasp, horrified and aroused in equal measures.

 


 

“How’s this?”

 

Qi Heng pushes his own ink stone towards Xiao Xiao. “Maybe use mine instead.”

 

Xiao Xiao pushes out her glossed lower lip in a pout. “Maybe your standards are just too high.” She stabs her brush into the ink with a viciousness that makes Qi Heng wince.

 

“This is meant to be relaxing. If you don’t enjoy it, we can do something else.”

 

“No, I’m getting sick of always saying the same things when people ask me in interviews what I’ve been doing lately.” She’s holding her arm too stiff and the characters come out messy on the page. “’I’m learning traditional calligraphy’ sounds classy.”

 

“You haven’t been practicing at home, have you?”

 

“I can never tell when the ink’s right!” Xiao Xiao says, looking at Qi Heng’s own paper with a frown, turning her big puppy dog eyes on him. “Can I have one of yours for reference?”

 

Qi Heng sighs and digs through his pile for the best looking one, accepting in the back of his mind that it’ll probably passed off as her own on some TV show or another.

 

“You have to practice. This is why we bought the bottled ink, right?” He gives her a plaintive look. “I don’t mind giving you mine, but I guarantee, it’ll be so much more satisfying to have done your own. You and I are so different; your words will have so much more spirit and fire than mine do.”

 

Xiao Xiao stares at him for a moment before letting out a groan and pushing the paper back to him.

 

“Fine, fine! Why do you have to be so reasonable and mature?” She straightens her back and sets up another page under her paperweights, lining it up with the desk pad underneath. “Yours is too nice anyway, no one would ever believe that I did it.”

 

They work with quiet music in the background, one of the playlists that Xiao Xiao had insisted was full of classics that he had to hear, Xiao Xiao occasionally glancing at her phone as she transcribes the poem she’d picked. A Li and Yang Jian had gone out somewhere together with the dog and besides the two of them, the house is empty.

 

“This is nice,” Xiao Xiao says, blowing on the ink to dry it. “Usually, Bai Qi’s stuck to you like a burr. I like having you to myself.”

 

His hand jerks and he’s left with an unseemly waver in one of his characters. “I honestly haven’t seen much of him lately.”

 

“What?” Xiao Xiao looks at him in disbelief. “Did the two of you have a fight or something?”

 

Qi Heng shakes his head, putting down his brush as he frowns at his ruined page. 

 

She sighs and pushes away from the table, stretching out her arms behind her back. “Come on, someone told me this is meant to be relaxing and you look like you’re going to snap the brush in half if you pick it up again.”

 

The two of them pack away their things and Xiao Xiao coaxes him into letting her braid his hair instead. They’re both sitting on the bed, almost a mirror of the way that he and Lin Xai had sat what felt like so long ago.

 

“I didn’t have any real friends growing up.” She tells him, hands gentle as she brushes through the strands. “I always wanted to have someone to get dressed up and gossip with.”

 

He thinks back to the evenings he’s come out of his room to see the two women curled up on the couch, watching TV, eating snacks, drinking beer, and painting their toes. Heads almost pressed together as they whispered. “I’m glad that you have Lin Xia now.”

 

Her hands pause in his hair before resuming their smooth motions. “I have you now too.” He can feel the tears prickling behind his eyes and scrunches his nose to keep them at bay.

 

The methodical motions of her hands through his hair lull him into an easy half-doze. 

 

“Do you ever think about it? The home you left behind?”

 

Xiao Xiao’s words, soft and tinted with worry, feel like a lance to his heart. “All the time.”

 

“Are you not happy here though? There are so many people who love you.”

 

“I had people who loved me then too.” There’s a heavy silence that sits between the two of them and Qi Heng knows they’re not really talking about him anymore. “Xiao Xiao, just because I think about what I left behind, it doesn’t mean that I’m not happy here. Yang Jian’s situation is different from mine. He chose this, he chose you. It doesn’t mean that he won’t miss it, but from what I’ve seen, he doesn’t regret his choice.”

 

“We’re not talking about me.” Her nose sounds stuffed.

 

“Aren’t we always?”

 

She pulls his hair hard enough that he lets out a noise of surprise. “Stop that, you’ve been spending too much time with Bai Qi.”

 

At his mention, Qi Heng feels his shoulders droop again.

 

“What do you miss the most about it?” Xiao Xiao really has seemed to have picked up the art of asking probing questions from all her years in the entertainment business.

 

He takes a deep breath before answering. “My parents.” There had been no real records of anything happening to them, beyond mention of their death dates making it clear that they’d lived long lives. “My father and I used to paint together. We would mix them up and have my mother guess who had done which one. My mother used to have me read to her and relentlessly questioned me on whatever text it was that I had picked.”

 

The memories are old and bitter-sweet. Once he’d married the princess there had been no more painting, no more laughing when he and his mother combined forces against his father playing weiqi even if she’d sworn to stay a neutral party beforehand. Before he married the princess even. The moment Qi Heng had decided to step away from the beautiful paved path that his mother had mapped out for him their relationship had never been the same.

 

“She had my best friend beaten to death as a warning to me. A warning that didn’t even matter in the end.”

 

“My father… he did really terrible things. There was a side of him that was nothing less than a monster.” She takes a deep breath in through her mouth. “I miss him a lot too. He could only cook one thing, beef noodles, and he’d make me a bowl every single year for my birthday. He’d send away all the servants and we’d eat dinner together, just the two of us.”

 

She ties off the end of the braid and throws it over his shoulder for him to see. “What do you think? It’s called a fishtail braid.”

 

It’s pretty and he tells her so.

 

She stretches out on his bed and pats the empty spot next to her when he just stares. “Come on, this is part of the experience. In movies, they always braid each other’s hair then have some sort of intense heart to heart.”

 

The bed’s big enough, or maybe Xiao Xiao’s small enough, that there’s just enough room for both of them without being crowded. It should be weird, it’s deeply inappropriate, but the boundaries are so different and if Xiao Xiao doesn’t mind he supposes he doesn’t either.

 

“Do you think I’d be a good mother?”

 

“Yes,” H=he says without hesitation, “you won’t make the same mistakes. I think I read in one of Bai Qi’s books that you either follow in your parents’ footsteps or you break the cycle.” He turns to her with a little smile. “You’ve never struck me as much of a follower.”

 

“How about you then? Do you think you want kids?”

 

“That’s thinking a little far ahead… I’m not exactly flush with romantic prospects.”

 

She flips to her side to look him in the eye. “What about you and Bai Qi? Don’t even try and deny it, A Li keeps complaining about eating dog food whenever he’s stuck with the two of you.”

 

He doesn’t know what that means, but the implication is clear. “We haven’t been doing anything!”

 

“Are you not interested because he’s a man?”

 

“No!” This conversation has spun completely out of his control. “I mean. It’s not because he’s a man.”

 

“So you’re not interested because it’s Bai Qi?”

 

“I don’t have anything to offer him! I don’t have any money, I don’t have a career, my title is effectively meaningless. I can’t even bear him children.”

 

Xiao Xiao’s making the same kind of face that Lin Xia makes when she talks to him sometimes, like he’s a small child who’s completely missed the point of something. It would probably make him angry if he were any less fond of them.

 

“I don’t think you need me to tell you that none of that matters to him. He doesn’t need your money, he doesn’t need whatever title you could offer him, and he doesn’t need for you to have some sort of career or reputation he can brag about. As for children, we’re in the modern age now, there’s lots of different ways you can figure that out.”

 

Qi Heng looks away, hoping that if he doesn’t answer for long enough she’ll just change the subject, but Xiao Xiao stares at him stubbornly until he sighs.

 

“I don’t think he’s interested.”

 

He’s sure that Bai Qi has been avoiding him. Qi Heng likes him, likes him a lot, and was under the impression that maybe the feelings were mutual but perhaps he’d pushed too hard that day at the coffee shop. Bai Qi hasn’t seemed able to look him in the eye since and has politely but firmly rebuffed all of his attempts to spend time alone with him.

 

He'd tried everything he could think of. Asking Bai Qi to explain something in his book had lead to an impromptu lesson from A Li on how to use Baidu. His invitation to take some of the neighborhood children, who were completely enamored of Bai Qi and his magic tricks (some slight of hand, some actual magic), to get ice cream was quickly brushed off with an excuse that he had a meeting to run to. He'd even brought home desserts from Bai Qi's favourite coffee shop and slyly knocked on his door to offer him the first choice. Bai Qi had stared at the pistachio tart then said something about a toothache before closing the door in his face. From what Qi Heng understood, he couldn't even get toothaches.

 

She’s looking at him like he’s speaking a completely different language now. “If he’s not interested, I’ll eat my own shoes. Do you really not see the way he looks at you? I’m pretty sure you could sue him for harassment in some countries.” Her smile turns wicked. “Not to mention the way you look at him.”

 

“Oh?” He tries to make his face as impassive as possible but the back of his neck feels like it’s on fire. “How do I look at him?”

 

“Like rain after drought,” she says simply. ”Like a man in love.”

 

Qi Heng finds himself choking on absolutely nothing at all, coughing into his elbow as Xiao Xiao pats his back.

 

“That’s a pretty strong word to use.”

 

“I’m glad that I didn’t use some of the other ones I was thinking then.” She sits back up in the bed and he follows suit. “Trust me, he’s interested, but you’ll have to be the one to make the first move. Lin Xia told me just how long it took for him to clue in that she was flirting with him, you’re going to have make it really clear.”

 

“Maybe we should give calligraphy another try?” Qi Heng says desperately. “I feel much calmer now and we should try and make sure you leave with at least one acceptable piece for you to show off.”

 

Xiao Xiao narrows her eyes at him and for a moment he’s worried that she won’t let it go, she can be incredibly tenacious, but she flips her hair back over her shoulder and sits down behind the desk obediently. 

 

“I’m your eager student, Teacher Qi.”

 

The entire group goes out for dinner together and between the number of people and the general boisterousness of some of the members of their party, it makes for an interesting experience. Qi Heng didn’t have many friends growing up, he certainly didn’t have anything like this, and although it isn’t the first time it’s still a little bit overwhelming.

 

They’ve been seated in a private room, Xiao Xiao’s need for discretion being paramount, and the sounds of conversation and laughter making it seem like there’s double the number of people in the space. Lin Xia’s said something that has Xiao Xiao laughing so hard she’s dropped her chopsticks somewhere, and A Li’s running commentary only makes the whole situation livelier.

 

He feels a foot kick him gently in the ankle and when he looks up, Bai Qi’s staring directly at him. He tilts his head to the side, Are you okay? 

 

Qi Heng manages a small smile and nods. This is the most meaningful interaction that they’ve had in days. He tries not to cling to it. 

 

A Li’s sitting between the two of them and he jostles Bai Qi when he reaches across the table to point his chopsticks at Lin Xia. Bai Qi immediately catches his eye and makes such a deeply exasperated expression that he laughs. It’s so easy, like the past couple days never happened.

 

Even though the two of them don’t speak again during dinner, they’re back to the knowing glances and easy non-verbal communication that he’d gotten used to before Bai Qi had suddenly pulled away.

 

The weight’s been lifted off his shoulders but Qi Heng isn’t any less confused than he was before. It still feels like he’s walking on eggshells, overthinking absolutely every single interaction between the two of them, constantly worried that something will go wrong again.

 

But right now they’re fine.

 

But he doesn’t try again. He doesn’t touch Bai Qi, he doesn’t tease him, or smile at him in the way that the other boys used to tell him made him look fresh-faced and flirtatious. He doesn’t ask him for his opinions on his paintings, or ask him about his past, or slowly peel back his metaphorical layers until he'll tell him what's wrong when he pouts and storms around the house.

 

They play weiqi, they read in the garden, they take walks around the neighborhood. On occasion, Bai Qi even seeks him out and asks him to play his qin for him. Even when Qi Heng’s alone, it’s comforting to know that he’s only a couple rooms or a text away.

 

Qi Heng likes him. He likes him so much, but has nothing to offer in return. He lives in Bai Qi’s house (technically Lin Xia’s house, but really Bai Qi’s in all but name), eats the food that he buys, wears the clothes that he pays for, spends time with the friends who were his first. Everything that he has is thanks to Bai Qi and the only thing he’s ever given him in return is a barely mediocre painting. 

 

--

 

The three days that A Li and Bai Qi leave for a business trip, he almost crawls out of his skin. Lin Xia’s gone for classes and work and he spends most of his time trying his best not to make it too obvious to his newly acquired calligraphy students that he’s barely resisting the urge to check his phone every five minutes to see if Bai Qi’s messaged him.

 

When they come back, he’s barely able to stop himself from sprinting over to open the door and welcome them home. He doesn’t even try to keep the huge smile off his face.

 

“Yuanruo-ge, we brought something back for you too,” A Li says after passing Lin Xia the snacks that she’d requested. “You have no idea how much of a pain it was to get this stuff onto the plane.”

 

“It’s good for calligraphy. I thought you might want to try it.” They’re sheets of thin paper, delicate, and just the size that he prefers. He takes it from Bai Qi like it’ll crumble to pieces in his hands.

 

He swallows back the hope that blooms in his chest. “Thank you, that’s very kind of you.”

 

“It’s nothing.” But Bai Qi looks pleased and he has to take deep breaths in through his nose to keep from crushing his new gift in his hands. His usually neat facial hair is a little longer than he usually wears it and Qi Heng wants to know if it would feel rough or soft against his skin.

 

“It’s beautiful.” He’s already thinking about what he wants to write on them as a return-gift to Bai Qi. “It’s perfect.”

 

He’s standing too close. He can smell the oil Bai Qi uses for his beard, woodsy and minty and sweet, and his clothes are slightly wrinkled from the flight.

 

“Would you want a cup of tea?” A Li’s already taken their bags back to their respective rooms. “I could make you a cup of tea. Or I could run you a bath?”

 

“The service at home is better than it was at the hotel. If this is the way that I’m going to be greeted when I’m gone for a while, I should leave more often.”

 

Bai Qi sits down by the kitchen table and he busies himself with the hot water to keep from revealing too much, either by his expression or his words. His hands are a little unsteady when he brings the pot of tea over and he grips his mug too tight. When he brings the mug to his face, the steam obscures his vision. It would make Bai Qi look alluring and mysterious but he’s cradling a mug that looks like a hedgehog between his two cupped hands and blowing carefully over the surface of his tea.

 

They sit in silence, Bai Qi sipping his mug of tea while he tries his best not to just stare and take him in after three days apart. He looks a little bit tired, but relaxed and content to be home.

 

He’s happy to have him home. He’s barely able to keep himself from beaming over at him like a child whose favourite relative’s come to visit.

 

After the third time he glances up, Bai Qi catches his eye. He looks away but when he looks back up Bai Qi’s the one staring this time. 

 

He shrugs abashed, but can’t think of anything to say so he just smiles.

 

Bai Qi lifts his mug to his lips, his own smile on his lips, eyebrow raised.

 

The silence is warm.

 


 

It’s one of those nights where Bai Qi spends more time tossing and turning in bed more than falling into the easy routine of sleep. He’s lying in bed staring at the ceiling when a quiet noise in the kitchen catches his attention. 

 

The lights are all off and Qi Yuanruo’s standing at the counter, pouring himself a cup of water, hair loose down his back like an ink-spill. Bai Qi wonders how he ever thought that he’d be able to resist being drawn to him, like the Earth orbiting around the Sun. He’s clearly distracted, not even turning when Bai Qi makes his way to the kitchen in his bare feet.

 

“Couldn’t sleep?” He keeps his voice low, but Qi Yuanruo’s shoulders stiffen at the sound of his voice anyway.

 

“I’m sorry if I woke you. The weather’s been really dry lately.” 

 

The two of them stand side by side at the counter, a just barely polite distance between the two of them. He still hasn’t turned around and Bai Qi can just make out the profile of his face in the light streaming in from outside. 

 

“I’ll ask A Li to bring something home for a nourishing soup tomorrow.” 

 

Qi Yuanruo nods and turns the opposite direction to walk back to his room and Bai Qi’s hand reaches out to catch him by the shoulder. He startles but doesn’t pull away.

 

“Why won’t you look at me?”

 

“Why do I have to look at you?”

 

“Yuanruo.” He can feel his shoulders start to shake under his hands. He’s surprised with how gently his voice comes out. “What’s wrong?”

 

His eyes are red and his face wet with tears when he finally turns around. “I don’t know.”

 

Qi Yuanruo steps towards him and they’re barely a breath away. His long lashes are heavy with tears and his face more open and vulnerable than he’s ever seen before. Qi Yuanruo leans forwards, face resting against Bai Qi’s shoulder and soaking his robes with his tears and silently shakes.

 

He’s solid and almost fever hot when Bai Qi gingerly wraps his arms around him. 

 

He’s not sure how long the two of them stand there, Qi Yuanruo almost limp against him as Bai Qi holds him together, but eventually he manages to guide the two of them into his room. In the stark light, Bai Qi can see that there are dark circles under his eyes and a bone-deep exhaustion to the slump of his shoulders as tears continue to roll down his face. 

 

The two of them sit down on his bed and Bai Qi wipes his cheeks with the sleeve of his robe. Qi Yuanruo slumps heavily against him again. They don’t speak and when Bai Qi hesitantly pulls him into his arms again, Qi Yunaruo squeezes him back almost painfully tightly.

 

“What will I do now?” He can barely make out his words in between his sobs. “I have no one. Everything I’ve worked for is gone. I’ll never see any of my friends again. I’ll never see my parents again.”

 

He’s clinging to Bai Qi like a lifeline, shaking like a leaf in a storm. “I want my mom.”

 

His previously calmed breathing begins to hitch and before he knows it, Qi Yuanruo’s crying in earnest. It’s like a dam has burst and there’s nothing that Bai Qi can do to stem the flood.

 

“You’re okay, deep breaths, I have you.” He almost doesn’t recognize his own voice, soothing and gentle as he mutters nonsense while he holds Qi Yuanruo against him. He breathes deeply, letting Qi Yuanruo feel the level rise and fall of his chest even as the near inaudible whimpers that he makes breaks Bai Qi’s heart. 

 

He seems to pull himself together by sheer force of will, intentionally matching Bai Qi’s breathing and visibly pushing himself away with effort. Bai Qi hands him the glass of water he keeps on his bedside table and watches him drain it dry. 

 

“I can’t seem to stop.” His voice is raw and he dabs at his eyes with his sleeves. “Is this what it is to go insane? Every morning I wake up, there’s a moment before I come to awareness where I think that I’m a child again, late for my classes, but then I remember.

 

It’s as if I’ve slept for a thousand years and woken up somewhere completely unrecognizable to me. At night, I dream I’m back with the princess and I hate every single moment of it. In the morning, I remember that she’s long dead and it fills me with relief. But then I remember that everyone else I’ve ever loved is dead too and I’m filled with guilt.”

 

His breathing is becoming more and more erratic. Bai Qi reaches out and puts a hand on his shoulder. He’s still radiating heat and there’s cold sweat gathering at his temples.

 

“Yuanruo, look at me. I need you to look at me, okay?” They stare at each other in silence, Qi Yuanruo’s breathing slowly evening out to match his own again.

 

The first brush of lips against his own is so brief that it could barely even be considered a kiss. Qi Yuanruo leans forward again, bolder this time, soft hand at the nape of Bai Qi’s neck pulling him closer. His face is still wet with tears and his mouth is clumsy and sweet.

 

He jerks back and Qi Yuanruo drops his hand like he’s been burned. “I apologize.” He looks terrified. “I’ve made you uncomfortable.”

 

“You haven’t,” Bai Qi insists. Neither of them have moved away. “I don’t want you to feel as though you’re… indebted to me.”

 

Qi Yuanruo reaches back to him, settles his hand at the base of his neck where it was before. He shivers from the warmth of his hands.

 

“Nothing about this feels real, so why should I hold myself back? Why shouldn’t I have what I want for once?”

 

This does absolutely nothing to reassure him, but when Bai Qi tries to pull away, Qi Yuanruo leans in for another kiss. His mouth moves insistently against his own, the feeling of blunt nails against Bai Qi’s scalp sending shivers down his spine as he runs his fingers through his hair. He kisses back, the scrape of his teeth against Qi Yuanruo’s lower lip earning him a gasp.

 

He wants to move away, to give them some space to breathe, but Qi Yuanruo’s pressed himself so close that Bai Qi swears he can feel his heart beating against his chest. It takes a handful of Qi Yuanruo’s hair clenched firmly in his fist before he pulls away with a silent, open mouthed gasp.

 

“Sorry.” He immediately releases his grip and runs his hand over the smooth length of Qi Yuanruo’s hair in apology.

 

“Don’t be.” The two of them are still pressed up against another, close enough that he can feel the warmth of Qi Yuanruo’s breath mingling with his. Qi Yuanruo rubs his nose against his in a gesture so affectionate it makes Bai Qi’s chest clench. “Nothing feels real. I barely feel real, but you feel real. This feels real.”

 

Qi Yuanruo kisses the vulnerable part of Bai Qi’s neck where it meets his jaw. “Let me feel real again. Just for a while.”

 

Bai Qi knows this is a bad idea. That he’s vulnerable and desperately clinging to whatever he can, and that he’ll probably regret this in the morning. He shouldn’t have let it get this far at all, but he can’t make himself pull away.

 

He wants this so badly. Wants Yuanruo so badly. 

 

The next time Qi Yuanruo leans in for a kiss, he pushes the robe off Bai Qi’s shoulders and runs his hands over the bare skin of his arms. He doesn’t need to breathe, but when the two of them pull back he’s panting and dizzy.

 

“Tell me if you want me to stop,” Bai Qi says, brushing his thumb over the curve of Qi Yuanruo’s cheekbone. “Yuanruo, whenever you want to stop, I won’t be upset.”

 

Qi Yuanruo buries his face back into the curve of Bai Qi’s neck in lieu of an answer and he lets out a rough groan at the scrape of teeth against his skin. He pushes Qi Yuanruo back and reaches a hand under his shirt, hungry for the sensation of bare skin against bare skin, throwing it somewhere onto the floor. He’s flushed from his chest all the way up to his pretty face, eyes still watery and red, hair a mess around him.

 

He’s looking up at Bai Qi with his big eyes, vulnerable and half naked and it takes all of his not inconsiderable self-control not to sink his teeth into him and devour him whole. 

 

Instead, he wiggles Qi Yuanruo’s pants and underwear down over his hips leaving him completely bare, and blankets himself over him to kiss him gently again.

 

“Yuanruo.” he breaths, kissing his way down his body. “Tell me to stop.”

 

A whimper followed by a hand clamped urgently on his shoulder makes Bai Qi freeze. He looks up, but doesn’t move away from where he is by Qi Yuanruo’s navel.

 

“Will you call me Qi Heng?” His hand is shaking a little where he’s touching Bai Qi and he leans up to kiss his lips again.

 

“Qi Heng.” The name feels right against his lips and he feels the hot, possessive, dark thing in his chest curl with delight. “Qi Heng, you look so beautiful.”

 

This isn’t something that he’s ever done for anyone before, so Bai Qi experiments. Qi Heng squirms uncomfortably when he touches his nipples, his eyes flutter shut when Bai Qi trails his fingers down his abdomen, and he shivers when he kisses him from his knees to his soft inner thighs.

 

Qi Heng lets out an outright cry of surprise when Bai Qi first takes him into his mouth. Eyes flying wide open in surprise, hands tangling in Bai Qi’s hair like he’s not sure if he wants to pull him away or keep him close. He goes slow, keeping his eyes on Qi Heng’s face to gauge his reactions. 

 

He’s silent when he cums into Bai Qi’s mouth, hands pulling almost painfully on his hair. There’s red marks on the insides of Qi Heng’s thighs and hips that Bai Qi’s sure will darken into bruises by morning.

 

Qi Heng props himself up on his elbows, still breathing heavily, and presses Bai Qi backwards until he’s laying propped against his headboard.

 

“You don’t have to,” Bai Qi says, ignoring the way he twitches with interest when Qi Heng’s long hair brushes over his bare skin.

 

“I want to,” He insists, hands steady as he pulls off Bai Qi’s pajama pants. He blinks down in astonishment for a moment before looking back up at Bai Qi again. “I haven’t the faintest idea what I’m doing.”

 

Bai Qi has to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing. “Come here and kiss me again.”

 

Having Qi Heng in his lap, pretty and languid while they kiss, is a different type of pleasure. Slow-burning and easy, almost playful. He doesn’t cringe away although Bai Qi’s sure that he can taste himself on his tongue. Qi Heng likes it when he wraps his arms around his waist, pulls him in possessively. He likes when he tangles his fingers in his hair. He smiles against Bai Qi’s mouth when he groans after Qi Heng bites his lower lip.

 

There’s the still underlying hum of need under Bai Qi’s skin, but he waits until Qi Heng’s once again hard against his stomach before he reaches down to stroke the two of them together. Qi Heng groans against his neck, hands tight against his shoulders as he thrusts into Bai Qi’s hand.

 

When he moves in for a kiss, there are tear tracks on his face. Bai Qi immediately stops, but Qi Heng groans and moves his hips more urgently against his.

 

“Don’t stop, I’m okay. Please, don’t stop.”

 

The next kiss tastes like saltwater and Qi Heng makes little moaning noises that only spurs him on when he moves his hand over the two of them faster. With his head thrown back, eyes filled with tears, and lips bitten red, Qi Heng looks like alluring and seductive.

 

“Bai Qi.” His name coming from Qi Heng, needy and desperate and more vulnerable than he’s ever heard him sound before, makes him want to keep him trapped in his arms forever. “Bai Qi, Bai Qi!”

 

He wants to take him apart over and over again. He wants to know all the ugly, shameful parts of him, everything he hides under his manners and courtesies. He wants to hold him down and fuck him until he cries.

 

“Ah, ah!” He only realizes he’d been babbling out loud when Qi Heng cums face flushed and eyes glazed. He shakes and shakes in Bai Qi’s arms, overwhelmed and overstimulated as Bai Qi uses his release to chase his own way to climax.

 

When Bai Qi finally comes, Qi Heng lets out a sob of relief slumping heavily against his chest. They’re both sweaty, Qi Heng’s hair wild and sticking to both of them and he uses his clean hand to push the hair out of his face.

 

Qi Heng presses his cheek against his chest and grunts in displeasure when he pulls his dirty hand out from between their bodies. He stares at Bai Qi’s hand like he can’t quite believe what he’s seeing and Bai Qi, struck by a moment of recklessness, lifts his hand to Qi Heng’s lips.

 

Qi Heng’s staring, eyes wide as dinner plates, between Bai Qi’s face and his hand. His voice comes out quiet and firm, “Open your mouth.”

 

He opens his mouth and tentatively touches his tongue to Bai Qi’s hand, face calm as he cleans his finger with kitten licks before sucking it into his mouth gently. Bai Qi brushes the hair away from his face with his other hand as Qi Heng cleans his hand with his mouth. He keeps his eyes fixed on Qi Heng’s face; his eyes are half-lidded and unfocused, his hair falling forwards to cover the marks that Bai Qi had left on him earlier.

 

His fingers leave Qi Heng’s mouth with a pop and he waves his hand to clean their bodies and switch off the lights before pulling the covers up over the two of them. 

 

“You could have done that from the beginning,” Qi Heng says, still curled up against his chest. He sounds slightly accusatory, but not at all put out.

 

“I thought you might enjoy it.”

 

“You certainly did,” Qi Heng’s words are starting to slur together. He strokes his hair gently, pressing a kiss to the top of Qi Heng’s head. It still smells faintly of mint and strawberries. “I’m not a cat.”

 

“Should I stop then?” His hand stills and Qi Heng stiffens in unhappiness but shrugs his shoulders. Bai Qi continues to stroke his hair and he relaxes against him once again. He can feel him smiling against the bare skin of his chest.

 

Qi Heng falls asleep quickly and Bai Qi follows soon after, hand still buried in long silken strands of hair.

 

He wakes up alone.

 

The pajamas he’d tossed onto the floor the night before are still there, but the covers have been tucked gently around him. Qi Heng’s clothes are missing and when he touches the mattress next to him, he finds that it’s cold.

 

The various marks that had been left on him the night before have faded and Bai Qi tries not to let the slowly creeping worry overwhelm him. There’s a multitude of reasons as to why Qi Heng would have left without waking him, he tells himself as he pushes his face under the stream of water in the shower. He tries to list them to himself as he continues the rest of his morning routine, but each idea only seems more absurd than the last and by the time he’s finished getting ready for the morning his heart’s pounding in his chest.

 

Qi Heng’s sitting at the kitchen table, hair brushed and pulled back with his zan, soft grey turtleneck hiding the bites that he’d left on his skin the night before. Lin Xia’s slumped over at the table next to him, head on her arms as she continues to snooze. A Li’s bustling around in the kitchen, the smell of congee filling the room. 

 

Qi Heng smiles at him, calm and ordinary. “Good morning.”

 

Bai Qi takes the seat next to him, hope draining away at the lack of warmth in Qi Heng’s eyes, and reaches to take his hand in his. Qi Heng immediately flinches away and claps his hands onto his lap under the table.

 

“Qi Heng-” He flinches like he’s been slapped and Bai Qi closes his mouth with a snap.

 

It feels as though his heart which was previously in his throat has dropped out of his stomach and scattered into pieces on the ground. He clasps his own hands in his lap in a white knuckled grip.

 

“Never mind,” he says, turning away to hide his rapidly reddening eyes. “Forget it.”

 

It’s one of the only times where Bai Qi wishes that he hadn’t been right. 

 

It had been a problem, and it had ruined everything.

 


 

It should be easier to distance himself from Bai Qi considering it’s his own choice, but it isn’t.

 

He can still feel Bai Qi’s hands around his waist, his teeth against his skin, his lips against his own. He can still feel his warm arms wrapped around him as he cried and cried and cried, as he’d asked for his mother, and it makes him flush in mortification that overpowers whatever desire he feels when he thinks back to that night. 

 

The morning after he and Bai Qi had slept together, Qi Heng had awoken in a panic. He’d seen the way Bai Qi’s face had been so peaceful in his sleep, hand still curled around Qi Heng’s shoulder possessively and been filled with an overwhelming joy that had quickly turned to panic. He’d held his breath as he crawled out of Bai Qi’s arms, shivering at the way the cold hit his bare skin, flushing at the marks left on his body.

 

As he’d gathered his discarded clothes from last night, he’d reached behind a dresser for his shirt and noticed something familiar out of the corner of his eye. He straightened to see the painting he’d gifted Bai Qi, what felt like so long ago. It was enclosed in a smart wooden frame and placed just so that he never would have noticed it from the armchair or the desk where he usually sat. 

 

He reached out to touch the one darker flower he’d put too much pigment into. Bai Qi could see it perfectly from his position on the bed, something that he’d been too… otherwise occupied to notice the night before.

 

He’d pulled his shirt back over his head and walked back over to the bed. Bai Qi was still sleeping, breathing even, lips slightly parted, hair a mess.

 

It would have been easy to strip off his clothes again and crawl back into bed like he’d never left. He wanted so badly to kiss Bai Qi awake. To have him stroke his hair as he listened to the steady beat of his heart.

 

Qi Heng gently tucked the covers around his sleeping form instead and walked to the bathroom to run a bath.

 

He’d run like the coward he’d always been.

 

He can barely look Bai Qi in the eye without shaking anymore. But during his time as prince consort, he’s been able to develop and highly refine his ability to keep his feelings locked up.

 

So he eats with everyone normally, smiles when he needs to smile, speaks when he needs to speak, and looks at the spot just to the left of Bai Qi’s ear whenever he can’t keep his eyes averted without being rude. Bai Qi stops recommending books for him to read, no longer asks him about his courses, doesn’t invite him to explore museums and little bookstores.

 

Qi Heng tries to read, but he can’t concentrate. When he goes for walks, his feet always lead him back to the places that the two of them had agreed to go together and he can’t seem to make himself walk another step so he goes home instead. When he takes the neighborhood children to the corner store, the ice cream melts into a terrible mess while he watches them play at the park. They tease him and don’t notice the way his smile turns brittle while he tosses it away and reaches in his bag for wet-wipes.

 

He plays his qin until his fingers are sore and the whole scenario becomes too maudlin even for him.

 

His paintings are blander than ever and he crumples and throws them out in frustration.

 

He lays in bed awake. 

 

He runs his baths too hot.

 

He runs too much.

 

“Yuanruo, I swear to god you’ve gotten way faster.” Long Long’s gasping for breath as he rounds the corner to where he’s stretching his hamstring. “Have you been cheating on us? Running with somebody else?”

 

He forces the corners of his mouth up. “No one else, I’m a loyal man.”

 

He runs because he can’t stay in the house, in the silence, with Bai Qi so close. He runs because the burn in his lungs and in his legs is a good distraction from the way his heart aches and his eyes burn when he thinks about how stupid he’s been.

 

Xiao Xiao narrows her eyes at him in suspicion when he begs out of going to brunch, but lets him go even glaring at one of the other girls into submission when she tries to whine at him to stay. He usually would stay to be polite, but he feels like he’s crawling out of his own skin and he can’t stand the idea of having to sit around and listen to small-talk for over an hour while shoveling food that tastes like absolutely nothing into his mouth. There’s also a small part of him that’s worried he’ll overindulge in the alcohol that will inevitably be ordered and end up saying too much.

 

Qi Heng waves goodbye to everyone, mouths a relieved ‘Thank you.’ to Xiao Xiao whose expression promised to squeeze an explanation out of him if it was the last thing she did.

 

He takes another punishing lap around the park before making his way back home. Around the time that he slows down coming into the neighborhood, Qi Heng realizes he may have been a little harder on himself than he’d thought. There’s a sharp pain along the back of his left leg that has him limping over to a nearby bench.

 

He grits his teeth as he gently massages it, but even after a couple minutes the sharp pain has only lessened to a dull throb instead of disappearing the way he’d hoped.

 

“Qi-gege, are you okay?” Qi Heng’s barely able to muster a polite smile when he looks up to see Xiao-Hei standing next to his mother. Both of them are staring at him in concern.

 

“I’m okay, thank you for asking. I don’t think I stretched enough before going out running today.”

 

Xiao-Hei’s mother’s brow furrows in worry. “Xiao-Qi, you need to take better care of yourself. We’ve seen you out running almost every single day for the past couple weeks when we’re walking to school. Even if you’re training, you need to rest your body.”

 

“Thank you, Auntie, I know.” He bites down a wince when he digs in his thumb too hard where’s massaging the back of his calf. “I promise I’ll rest when I get home.”

 

“You should take some medicine too,” Xiao-Hei says wisely. “Jiejie twisted her ankle last week and Dad said she had to swallow a pill to make the swelling go down faster.”

 

This pulls a genuine smile to his face and he reaches forward to pat the four year old on his shoulder. “Thank you for the advice, I’ll heed it well.”

 

Xiao-Hei nods back seriously and the two slowly make their way down the street again, leaving Qi Heng alone.

 

He pulls off his cap, wiping the sweat off his forehead and tilting his face to the sun. His leg doesn’t hurt so much anymore, and he’s sure that he can make it back home on the rest of his runner’s high.

 

Qi Heng isn’t quite stubborn enough to force himself to run the rest of the way. He all but collapses in the doorway after he closes the doors, kicking his runners off haphazardly instead of unlacing them the way he usually does.

 

His left leg still hurts and now his right one is burning from the added exertion of favouring the left. 

 

“What are you doing?”

 

He jumps then hisses in pain when the movement jostles his leg again, and Bai Qi’s immediately at his side, eyes wide with concern. “Where does it hurt?”

 

Everywhere, he wants to say. I hurt everywhere.

 

Qi Heng indicates the general area of his pain, running all the way up the back of his left leg. This is the closest the two of them have been in weeks. Bai Qi’s staring at where he’s still rubbing his leg, expression completely blank, and for the first time in a long time Qi Heng has no idea what he’s thinking.

 

Bai Qi doesn’t touch him but nods soberly. “Your leg’s been stiff when you get up in the morning lately.”

 

It’s more a statement than a question but Qi Heng slowly nods anyway. He squishes down the spark of delight that rises in his chest. Bai Qi watches everyone.

 

“Oh, don’t they’re dirty!” Bai Qi ignores him and goes to pick up Qi Heng’s runners from where they’d been tossed anyway, flipping them over to look at the bottom. “I apologize, I was going to put them away after. I shouldn’t have just left them lying around in any case, please pass them back I’ll-”

 

“You need to get new runners,” Bai Qi says, pointing to the treads. “These are too worn. Combined with how much you’ve been running lately and how hard you’ve been pushing yourself, it’s given you an injury.” He throws the runners back down and stares at Qi Heng, lips a thin line. “Congratulations, it’s Achilles tendinitis.”

 

“Oh.” He continues to gingerly massage his leg. “Is it bad?”

 

“It’s not good. If it really starts to hurt, tell me. It could be that your Achilles tendon’s been torn and we’ll have to go to the hospital,” Bai Qi says. “Stretch and rest until it doesn’t hurt anymore. Take an anti-inflammatory. You need to stretch better and warm up instead of just starting off like you’re running for your life every single time you go out.”

 

He nods, feeling appropriately chastised. He’s caused trouble again. “I will. Thank you.

 

Bai Qi stands up and watches as Qi Heng slowly eases himself up the floor before slipping back into his room. He runs the bath hot, just stopping himself from slipping under the water out of habit.

 

He blows bubbles in the water instead, staring at the faucet as it drip, drip, drips.

 

Bai Qi had gone out of his way not to touch him, always respectful of Qi Heng’s boundaries. He wishes that he hadn’t been. Qi Heng reaches for himself under the water, thinking of Bai Qi’s hands massaging the soreness out of his leg, reaching higher and higher until it’s wrapped his cock instead.

 

He thinks of Bai Qi’s mouth on him, his hands holding his hips down, his fingers in his mouth. He almost bites through his lip to keep quiet as he cums.

 

He finishes his bath and limps back to his room, feeling exhausted and dirtier than he had before. There’s a bottle of ibuprofen on his bedside table along with a note under a glass of water.

 

Take two. No running for at least a month. Remember to stretch, but don’t overstretch. You need to rest.

 

Bai

 

The memory of Bai Qi helping him rub ointment over the bruises on his back comes to mind unbidden. They’ve long since faded, all the marks that Bai Qi had left on him have long since faded, but he can still feel them like a brand on his soul.

 

He traces his finger over the character of Bai Qi’s name. After taking the two pills, Qi Heng crawls into bed, facing way from his bedside table where the note still sits.

 

There’s the phantom feeling of a grasping hand curled over his shoulder, a steady heartbeat under his ears, soft hands carding through his hair.

 

He pulls the covers over his head and cries.

 

The next morning, the sharp pain in his leg has retreated to a dull ache. Qi Heng does as instructed and goes through a series of gentle stretches but he’s still favouring it slightly when he wanders out for breakfast.

 

“Yuanruo-ge, what happened?” A Li runs over to help him into a chair, ignoring him when he tries to wave him away.

 

“It’s nothing, please don’t worry, A Li. I just hurt myself running.”

 

“Ah, has Xiao Xiao been pushing you too hard?” Lin Xia asks around a mouthful of noodles. “You have to tell her to ease up, she forgets that not everyone has the kind of insane stamina she’s built up.”

 

“Really, it’s my own fault,” he insists. “I overestimated myself.”

 

Lin Xia and A Li continue to cluck over him for the rest of breakfast while he watches Bai Qi eat in silence out of the corner of his eye. He looks as unruffled as ever, hair perfectly in place, shirt pressed and starched, immaculate right down to his slippers. It makes Qi Heng’s chest ache.

 

“Yuanruo, does it really hurt? Your eyes are all red.”

 

“No, it’s fine.” Qi Heng reaches down to rub at his calf and hide his expression as he tries to swallow the sudden lump in his throat. “It just twinges sometimes and catches me off guard. I just need to stretch and let it rest.”

 

There’s the sound of a chair roughly scraping across hardwood. “Take two more pills. Stop touching it all the time.”

 

When looks up, Bai Qi’s already gone, empty bowl left at the table. He studiously ignores the worried looks that Lin Xia and A Li shoot each other while he finishes the rest of his meal in silence.

 

--

 

Xiao Xiao: We’re outside

 

Qi Yuanruo: Pardon?

 

Xiao Xiao: Be out here in five or A Jian’s coming in to drag you out.

 

He makes it out of the door just in time to see Yang Jian crawling out the driver side of the van. 

 

“Was this really necessary?” he asks, finger combing his hair frantically. “Why didn’t you tell me that you were coming earlier?”

 

“Because then you would have made some sort of excuse and told us not to come.” She shoots his rumpled lilac hoodie a look. “Were you still in bed?”

 

“I didn’t sleep well last night,” he says, running his hands over the sleeves nervously. “Should I go back inside and change?”

 

“No, don’t worry about it, we’re not going anywhere with a dress code.” She pulls on her own face mask out of her purse. Even though she’s similarly in a hoodie and jeans, she looks put together and alert, where Qi Heng still feels like he’s barely awake.

 

“Will there be coffee?”

 

“There’ll be coffee,” she laughs, patting him on the shoulder at his obvious relief. “We’re going to stop by a shop I like then take a walk around the park. Did you put on sun cream?”

 

“I put on sun cream.” It was an easy habit to get into considering the way Lin Xia had relentlessly drilled the importance of sun protection into him during his introduction to 21st century skincare. 

 

Xiao Xiao passes him a hair elastic without being asked and he nods gratefully, holding it in his teeth as he gathers his hair into a low tail. It really was an ambush and he’d barley been able to roll out of bed, brush his teeth, wash his face, and pull on some clothes before the five minutes were up.

 

He looks away politely when Xiao Xiao leans towards the front seat to kiss Yang Jian goodbye before the two of them head off on their own. The coffee shop’s tiny, only a singular table with two chairs making up the indoor seating, and he and Xiao Xiao press against the wall with their face masks in place while they await their orders. Xiao Xiao keeps staring up at him like there’s a question on the tip of her tongue, but she doesn’t say anything so Qi Heng lets the silence hang between them.

 

Summer’s fast approaching an end and as they walk aimlessly through the park, hat pulled low over Xiao Xiao’s brow, he takes in the slowly changing colours and the sound of wind rushing through the drying leaves.

 

"A Li told Yang Jian that Bai Qi's thinking of moving out of the house."

 

He almost loses his footing on the even path. Neither of them had mentioned anything to him. He keeps his eyes forward and schools his expression, ignoring the sharp, steadily increasing ache in his chest. 

 

“What’s wrong with you lately?” Xiao Xiao asks, worrying the straw of her drink with her teeth.

 

“Nothing’s wrong. I’m sorry I haven’t been out running, but I really have been hurt.”

 

“Oh please, you know I’m not talking about that. You’ve been off, even Yang Jian noticed.” She glances at his leg. “Tell me if you start to get sore or if we should walk slower.”

 

Qi Heng remains stubbornly quiet, holding his extra-large coffee in his hands and leeching the warmth from it greedily. 

 

“And you keep making that face! You’re going to give yourself frown lines!” She gestures to him as though he could see his own expression. “Tell me what’s wrong.”

 

“Nothing’s wrong,” he repeats.

 

“You just told me you haven’t been sleeping, you look like shit, you’ve pushed yourself to the point of injury, for some reason Bai Qi's talking about moving, and Lin Xia told me that you haven’t been doing anything but locking yourself in your room,” she says bluntly. “She says sometimes she can hear you crying.”

 

He’s not sure if he wants to curse Lin Xia or apologize to her for worrying her. He takes another huge gulp of his coffee.

 

Xiao Xiao sighs. “You’re worse than Yang Jian. You look all sweet and innocent, with your thick eyebrows and your little smile, but getting anything out of you is like pulling teeth.”

 

“I’m sorry.” 

 

“Don’t apologize! Stop apologizing to me!” He startles a little at the fury, at the hurt in her eyes when she stops to look at him. “I don’t want your ‘sorry’, I want you to talk to me! I want you to tell me what’s wrong. I want to help you, Yuanruo.”

 

He tries to turn away, to keep walking, but she pulls him back by the sleeve of his hoodie. He’s bigger than she is, stronger than she is. It would be easy for him to shake her off, but Xiao Xiao has tears in her eyes and it pins him in place.

 

“You’ve been so unhappy and I don’t know what to do. Please, just talk to me, even if I can’t help. Aren’t we friends?”

 

She sounds so plaintive and Qi Heng feels tears rushing to his eyes too. “I think I’ve made a mistake.”

 

It all comes pouring out of him like a flood, the two of them standing in the middle of the park, completely oblivious to the people passing them by. Xiao Xiao doesn’t say anything throughout, just nodding silently for him to continue.

 

“I have nothing,” he says, digging into his bag for tissues when he sniffles grossly. He’s managed not to cry, but his nose keeps running. “The only thing I’ve done is throw myself at him shamelessly after taking advantage of his generosity and good nature.”

 

“Not really sure what ‘good nature’ you’re talking about in reference to Bai Qi, but I know for sure that no one takes advantage of that man without his consent,” Xiao Xiao finally says, pulling Qi Heng’s sleeve gently so the two of them finally resume their easy pace. “Has he ever complained about your not paying rent, or having a job?”

 

He shakes his head.

 

“Yuanruo, do you know why I like you so much?”

 

He blinks, confused at the abrupt change of topic. “I’m good looking in a way that complements rather than overshadows you?” he parrots.

 

“Besides that, I’m being serious you little brat.” She shoves him gently and he manages a little smile. “I like you because I think we have a lot of similarities between us. You understand me, and I’d like to think that I understand you as well.”

 

He nods and she takes a deep breath before continuing. “So I hope you won’t take offence and know that I say this out of love: you’re being fucking stupid about all of this.”

 

“I’m not sure how I’m meant not to take offence to that.”

 

“Shut up, I’m not done. I’ve said it before, Bai Qi doesn’t care about any of that, none of us care about any of that. The only one who seems to care is you.” She throws her cup, disgustingly mangled straw and all, into the garbage can. “You’re starting over from absolutely nothing, that’s not something you’re used to and that’s okay, but you need to give yourself a break. You’re trying. You’ve been taking classes and learning what you can from A Li, helping around the house when he’s busy doing other things.

 

"You’ll never be the Young Duke again, but you don’t have to be. If you don’t like that you’re not making money, get a job. You’re already taking classes, so it’s not like you’re not trying to re-educate yourself.”

 

He digs his fingers into the plastic lid of his cup. The coffee’s gone cold.

 

Xiao Xiao lets out a deep sigh. “Look, do you want to cling onto your pride or do you want him? And why does it hurt your pride so much to let someone you love take care of you?”

 

“I don’t want him to think I’m weak,” he whispers.

 

“Bai Qi supports Lin Xia and A Li too, do you think they’re weak?”

 

“No!”

 

“Then what’s the difference?” she asks, refusing to let him avoid her gaze. “Why is the standard you hold for yourself so much higher? You’re capable and talented too, you just need to figure out where you can apply your skills now that everything’s so different. Give yourself some time, it won’t be like this forever.”

 

He throws away the rest of his coffee and lets Xiao Xiao’s words sink in. “But I’ve treated him so coldly already.”

 

“This is would be an actual good time to apologize. To him. Even though he acts like he can read your mind, you still need to tell him what you want.” She squeezes his shoulder. “You don’t have to be perfect to let him love you. You don’t have to be perfect for any of us to love you.”

 

“Stop it, I know you’re just trying to make me emotional now.”

 

“Is it working?”

 

“No.” He wipes his eyes with his sleeve. “What if he says ‘no’? What if he doesn’t want me anymore?”

 

Xiao Xiao briefly squeezes his hand in her small, cold one. “Then he says ‘no’ and you’ll just have to live with that.”

 

The rest of their walk is filled with wedding talk and he’s almost startled into tripping with Xiao Xiao asks him to be one of his bridesmaids. 

 

“Bride’s man?” she amends. “I don’t know, but please say ‘yes’ because Yang Jian’s already has three people standing up for him and I really don’t want the photos to be unbalanced.”

 

“Are you sure though? We haven’t known each other long…”

 

“If I wasn’t sure, I wouldn’t have asked.” Yang Jian’s standing by the van at the park’s entrance waiting for them and she immediately brightens when she sees him.

 

He nods, a genuine smile pulling at his lips. “Then I would be honoured.”

 

Xiao Xiao gives him a firm hug before he gets out of the van. “I’ll set something up so you can meet Long-jie before the bachelorette party.”

 

His smile comes out more like a wince. “And you’re sure I have to go to that?”

 

“You could try and get out of it, but you’ll get to be the one to tell Lin Xia that you’re leaving her alone with all my friends.”

 

“Ah. I’ll be sure to attend.”

 

Bai Qi’s in the yard, sitting on the ground under the Peach Blossom Tree, eyes closed and face tipped to the sky. He looks more relaxed than Qi Heng’s seen him in weeks. He feels a little stab of guilt over the realization that he’s likely heavily contributed to his discontent.

 

Rain after drought, he remembers Xiao Xiao saying. 

 

There’s petals and leaves falling all around him, on him, and Qi Heng wants to sit down next to him, pull him into his arms, and sit in comfortable silence. He wants to crawl into Bai Qi’s lap and kiss him until he looks at Qi Heng the same way he did the only night they spent together. He wants Bai Qi to love him again.

 

Qi Heng leaves him to his peace.

 

--

 

His palms are already clammy before he even sees Bai Qi.

 

“Good evening.”

 

“Evening.” He doesn’t look up from his phone.

 

“I’m sorry, I’ll leave you be.” He feels a little lightheaded with how nervous he is. “Maybe if you have a moment, please let me know. I’d like to talk.”

 

“I’m free right now.” Bai Qi tucks his phone back into his pocket and nods for Qi Heng to sit down at the table across from him.

 

He lets the silence sit for a little too long and he can see Bai Qi’s expression, although still calm, is starting to crack at the edges.

 

“I’m sorry,” he blurts. “I shouldn’t have left without saying anything.”

 

“No need, your message came across perfectly clear.”

 

The pre-written apology that he’d prepared is completely erased from his mind and Qi Heng’s tongue is like lead in his mouth.

 

“I am sorry though. I didn’t… I just didn’t know what to say. I wanted to stay, but I was scared.” He can feel his nails digging into the palm of his hand with how tightly he’s clenching his fist. “I’m just a mess. I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t have anything to my name that you didn’t buy for me and I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to fully acclimatize to the modern world.”

 

He can’t keep speaking with Bai Qi looking at him with his emotionless expression so he stares at his hands instead. “I’m scared that you’ll tire of me. All of you have been so kind to me, but I feel as though I’m just a lazy lay-about with nothing to contribute. There are no longer any expectations for me, but I still don’t know what I want to do with myself.

 

"I know that I haven’t been very forthcoming with my feelings, Xiao Xiao attributed it to pulling teeth, but you to know that I’ve given more of myself to you than I have anyone else in my entire life. Past or present.

 

"I want to spend every single moment that I can with you. I want to be able to ease your troubles and take care of you the way you’ve done for me.”

 

Bai Qi’s still silent. His voice comes out embarrassingly quiet, scared. “Is there still room for me in your heart? Could we try again?”

 

Bai Qi lets out a sigh and when he finally looks back up again, he looks tired. “I’ve told you before, I don’t expect anything from you. You don’t have to do this out of some sense of obligation towards me.”

 

“I’m not doing this out of obligation. I know I’ve said that I don’t know what I want to do with my life now, but I know that whatever it is I want to it with you by my side. I want to spend every possible moment that I can with you.” Qi Heng hesitantly reaches across the table for Bai Qi’s hand. Relief crashes over him when Bai Qi doesn’t pull away, lets him twine their fingers together. “I would do anything that you asked of me, I like you so much that it scares me.”

 

“I thought that I scared you away,” Bai Qi starts slowly, “I thought that I’d pushed you too far with the things I’d said and done.”

 

“No.” He rushes to reassure him with a squeeze of his fingers. “You were so good to me. I was just embarrassed. Embarrassed over how I’d lost control of my emotions in front of you.” He can feel the heat rising to his face. “Embarrassed over much I’d enjoyed the things we’d done. You’ve always been so good to me and I threw myself at you so shamelessly.”

 

“It wasn’t anything that I didn’t want either.” Bai Qi’s thumb rubs gentle circles over the back of his hand and his heart’s racing for an entirely different reason now. “I thought I’d made my feelings for you clear, but I suppose if we’re going to get into the habit of verbally communicating, I should say it too.” 

 

He smiles and it makes him look like a little boy. “Qi Heng, I like you. We can go anywhere you want, do anything you want as long as you’ll stay with me. I want to sleep with you, wake up next to you. I want to tease you until you get mad and kiss you until you forgive me again.”

 

Qi Heng gives him a watery smile and nods so vigorously he that lets out a bark of laughter. He leans forward for a kiss and even though the table’s digging into his ribs and Bai Qi’s holding his hand a little too hard, his heart soars.

 

They pull away before Qi Heng can completely forget himself and pull Bai Qi across the table into his lap. He's quite sure that he'd let him. There’s the sound of someone clearing their throat pointedly behind him and he jumps in surprise. He tries to pull away instinctively, but Bai Qi’s still holding onto his hand.

 

“Yes, can we help you?” His tone is dry, but there’s still a bright smile on his face.

 

“A Li wants to get the chicken to defrost for tomorrow but he was too scared of walking in on something.” Lin Xia sits down in the chair next to him and rolls her eyes when Bai Qi deliberately pulls him closer. “Problem solved?”

 

Bai Qi nods. “We’ve reached an understanding.”

 

“Good. I’ll let you text Xiao Xiao yourself.” She reaches into her hoodie pocket and slides a tube of aloe vera towards Qi Heng. “For the beard burn. If you need concealer, let me know and we can go shopping.”

 

“My beard is soft!” Bai Qi protests, lifting Qi Heng’s hand to feel it. “Tell her!”

 

“It’s not a matter of if your beard is soft or not,” Lin Xia says. “It’s a matter of if someone gets too enthusiastic and forgets himself.”

 

“Okay! Great, thank you Lin Xia, it’s a very thoughtful gift and I’ll let you know about the shopping.” His face feels like it’s about to burst into flame and he quickly pockets the tube of aloe vera. “I’ll let A Li know that we’re done here, please have a good evening.”

 

He stands to leave and Bai Qi goes with him, hands still linked.

 

“What are you doing?”

 

“Coming with you,” he says easily. “Didn’t you say that you wanted to spend every possible moment together?”

 

“Yes, but-”

 

He’s cut off by another kiss. His hand’s finally freed and he feels one of Bai Qi’s hands sneak into the back pocket of his pants while he wraps his own arms around his waist. They hadn’t kissed before that night, but when Bai Qi lets out a sigh against his lips, it feels like home. It feels like something Qi Heng’s been missing his entire life.

 

“Oh god!” A Li sounds physically pained and there’s the sound of someone running into a wall. “Oh god, I didn’t see anything! I didn’t see anything! Xiao Xia-jie! Xiao Xia-jie! You said they were done!”

 

The sound of A Li’s slippers sliding across the hardwood as he makes his escape makes Qi Heng burst into laughter even as all the blood rushes to his face in embarrassment. He’s not sure that either of them will be able to look each other in the eye without blushing for the next week, but as Bai Qi presses a kiss to his neck shaking with his own peals of laughter he knows that he wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

--

 

After everything he’s been through, he’d never have imagined that his death would have come at the hands of an angry bride on her wedding day. Qi Heng stares at himself in the mirror and hopes that Xiao Xiao will at least be merciful and end it quickly.

 

Bai Qi’s lying on the bed, covers pooled around his hips looking so blasé that Qi Heng wonders if it will earn his way back into Xiao Xiao’s good books if he kills his boyfriend. At least then the wedding photos will be even on both sides again.

 

“You have to fix this,” he says, dabbing concealer fruitlessly against the obvious bite mark on his jaw. Everything else will probably be covered by the high collar of his suit, but that spot… “Xiao Xiao’s going to be furious!”

 

“Don’t you still have that tube of aloe that Lin Xia gave you?”

 

“It’s aloe, not a miracle!”

 

There’s a knock on the door and Lin Xia pokes her head in, eyes closed. “You ready yet? The driver’s here and Xiao Xiao wants all of us to get ready together.”

 

“Lin Xia.” She opens her eyes at the desperation in his voice. “Save me.”

 

She stares for a couple seconds before she says, “Oh no, that’s bad.”

 

Qi Heng doesn’t know if he wants to scream or cry. “Please don’t say that. Lin Xia, please don’t say that.”

 

“The makeup artist will probably be able to fix it,” she says, patting his shoulder reassuringly. “Let’s just go now before you do something you’ll regret.”

 

He shoots Bai Qi one last heated glare, he has the audacity to pout at him- to pout at him, before Lin Xia drags him out of the house.

 

Qi Heng hasn’t always done everything right, but he’s never been one to be scared of the consequences of his actions, so he walks into the hotel room Xiao Xiao booked to get ready in with his head held high.

 

Xiao Xiao takes one look at him and something in her expression cracks. He’s braces himself for yelling, but instead she begins to laugh so hard that begins to wish that she’d gotten angry instead.

 

“Oh my god, that’s just like him, territorial bastard.” She gestures at the makeup artist who rushes forwards with a barely concealed smirk of her own. “I really needed a laugh.”

 

The makeup artist dabs the product on gently, but he can’t help wincing anyway. “I really am sorry. I don’t know why he’s like this.”

 

“Because you encourage it?” Lin Xia says from where she’s getting her hair done. “We live in the same house, the soundproofing is good but the two of you are shameless.”

 

He can feel the heat rushing to his face as even Long-jie, who he’s only met a couple times before, laughs in agreement. He isn’t encouraging Bai Qi, he just isn’t actively discouraging him either…

 

“Honey, you’re redder than a tomato,” the makeup artist says. “I have a little bit of powder foundation that will fix that if you want?”

 

“Just put it on him,” Xiao Xiao says from where she’s getting some sort of sparkling hairpiece put in. “His boyfriend’s standing up for my fiancé and knowing him, they’re going to be eye-fucking across the aisle the whole ceremony.”

 

“Xiao Xiao, please!” The makeup artist takes mercy on him and manages to tamper down her reaction to a smirk, but no one else shows him such mercy. “It’s your wedding day, shouldn’t we be talking about… your future with Yang Jian? Shall we all offer a traditional wedding blessing?”

 

“She’s been in a panic all morning before the two of you walked in, she really needs something to take her mind off of the pre-wedding jitters,” Long-jie says, patting him on the shoulder. “Just take one for the team.”

 

The wedding goes by in a blur. Qi Heng distinctly remembers reminding himself to walk slowly, not to trip, and not to stare at Bai Qi too obviously throughout, but he doesn’t do particularly well in keeping to the last point. He’s no stranger to the sight of Bai Qi in a suit, but with all the sparkling lights, flowers, and the heartbreakingly soft expression in his eyes, it’s impossible for him not to keep sneaking glances at him across the aisle.

 

Xiao Xiao looks resplendent in her wedding dress, like a princess out of a western fairy tale, and Yang Jian perfectly fits the role of her prince. Despite all the panicking, yelling, and micromanaging that Xiao Xiao had put into planning the wedding, she looks completely and utterly at peace now, staring directly at Yang Jian as he repeats his vows to her. Qi Heng has no doubt that the entire floral wall of lilies could fall off right now and she wouldn’t bat an eyelash.

 

He looks away to keep himself from tearing up when Bai Qi catches his eye.

 

Bai Qi just barely raises an eyebrow. What?

 

He smiles a little bit wider. Nothing, just thinking.

 

He can predict Bai Qi’s eye roll before it happens and beams in response. When are you not?

 

“-wife. You may now kiss!”

 

Qi Heng turns just in time to see the two of them lock lips, Yang Jian lifting Xiao Xiao clean off the ground after she jumps into his arms. His eyes are a little wet and she’s smiling wildly, completely uncaring of what it may look like in the photos.

 

He claps along with the rest of the wedding guests.

 

Naturally, his eyes drift to Bai Qi again. He’s still staring at him, no indication that he’d ever looked away at all. The two of them are the last to file off the stage with the rest of the wedding party and, even though it’s only been a handful of hours since they last saw one another, looping his arm though Bai Qi’s feels like coming home.

 

“You look wonderful,” he says lowly.

 

“So do you. I see you managed to cover up the bite mark.”

 

“Do you think that the two of us would still be standing here if I hadn’t managed to? You’re an animal.”

 

"You don't like it?" He knows that Bai Qi's just pushing his buttons, but there's also a sulky tilt to his lips that he recognizes well enough to know is real. That he'll probably never do it again if Qi Heng complains about it one more time. 

 

"It doesn't matter if I like it or not, it's not our wedding day." 

 

It seems to have been enough to appease him and Bai Qi glances to where half his hair’s been pulled up in a braided style and the rest left to fall straight down his back. “You should wear it down more often.”

 

They’re ushered into the front receiving area and the sounds of clapping and cheering is muted by the click of the doors closing behind them.

 

“It’s a hassle.”

 

Bai Qi reaches to pull a lock from over his shoulder and presses it to his lips. “I like it.”

 

Qi Heng blushes.

 

“See, told you you’d need the foundation,” Xiao Xiao says, making him jump back from Bai Qi in surprise, pulling the hair out of his hands. “Now whose big day is it here? Get back in line! I don’t know why I thought I’d be a good idea to pair the two of you together.”

 

“For the pictures,” he and Bai Qi say in chorus.

 

“You said we’d have to be bookends because we were too tall and would look weird scattered in the middle,” Qi Heng adds.

 

“Don’t make me regret it.” Xiao Xiao’s still grinning like a loon when she lets go of Yang Jian’s hand to run over and give him a hug. “Thank you for being here.”

 

He hugs her back, careful not to disrupt her hair or giant dress. Lin Xia and Long-jie are laughing at something that A Li had said, Yang Jian looking mildly confused but smiling gamely too. Bai Qi’s looking at the two of them, posture relaxed and smile indulgent.

 

“There’s nowhere else that I’d rather be.”

 


 

Bai Qi collapses onto the bed and pulls Qi Heng back down to meet him pressing their mouths together in another warm kiss. Their bodies are a mess where they’re still pressed together, the inside of Qi Heng’s thighs are scraped red and raw from where Bai Qi had scraped his beard against them opening him up slowly with his fingers and tongue. It's not something that Qi Heng agrees to often, usually preferring to be inside Bai Qi (to which he has absolutely no objections), so when he'd nodded after during a particularly heated session of kissing, Bai Qi had jumped at the chance.

 

“You either have to snap us clean or let me go shower. I have a student coming at 3:00,” Qi Heng mutters against his mouth, slumping next to him and letting out a wince when Bai Qi pulls out.

 

Bai Qi glances at the clock on the wall, 2:35, but doesn’t let go of Qi Heng. He’s all languid and warm and he wants to stay in bed with his lover, run his fingers through his long hair and watch him lounge in their bed in the late afternoon light.

 

He’s happy that Qi Heng’s managed to accumulate a small army of devoted students who love learning traditional arts from him, but in this moment he resents the little gremlins to the core.

 

He snaps his fingers to clean the two of them and monopolize the next 20 minutes of Qi Heng’s time, but nothing happens.

 

He snaps again.

 

Nothing.

 

Qi Heng lifts his head off the pillow, hair falling in his face. “Are you trying to get me to clean you with my mouth again, because I really don’t think we have time.”

 

“I’m not,” Bai Qi tries something else this time, reaches out to pull Qi Heng’s discarded hair tie off the floor. Nothing happens. There’s no familiar rush of Penglai energy, no buzz of power under his skin.

 

“Oh.” Qi Heng stares at him, wide eyes full of worry. He touches his shoulder gently. “Are you… okay?”

 

He looks out the window of his room, their room, where the Peach Blossom Tree is still gently swaying in the wind, pink buds slowly peeking out of green as they’re readying to bloom. He thinks about Xiao Zhou and it aches the way it always has, but then he looks at Qi Heng and the pain’s… muted.

 

He leans forwards to kiss Qi Heng carefully.

 

“Let’s go shower.” He pulls him upright, throws their robes over their shoulders and pokes his head out the door to make sure Lin Xi and A Li haven’t come back from their grocery trip yet.

 

The spray of the hot water against his chest as Qi Heng massages shampoo through his hair is wonderful.

 

“You’re really okay?” Qi Heng says, quiet enough that Bai Qi almost misses it under the rush of water.

 

Xiao Zhou would be happy for him.

 

“I’m okay.” He kisses the tip of his nose and when Qi Heng smiles at him, Bai Qi doesn’t feel anything but a deep content gratitude.

 

He’s happy too.