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The green world.

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When the ice in the trough had nearly cracked on its own, glinting white-gold in the sun, and the stream swelled with snowmelt, and even a few brave birds had begun to shriek, Baiyi had unkinked his joints and shaken the blanket from his shoulders and thought his first sluggish thoughts. Maybe his last thoughts of the year; he couldn’t tell how long it had been since his last real awakening. His body was like a glacier. Still frozen, faceless, half-submerged. But once his mind began to work again, it had snagged on every sound and stray sensation, flapping like a sleeve in a thornbush. He was getting hungry. He was stiff. He could hear water dripping somewhere close by, and smell the sweet-sour start of something rotting. Nothing frozen could rot. It had to be nearly spring, after all.

It had taken a long time for his body to wake all the way. For the deep internal haze to retreat and his heart to pump warmth into the tips of his fingers, the knuckles of his toes. His meridians were like icicles, cracked and crackling as he tested them, beginning to sing like taut strings.

Now, awake to the far ends of himself, he stands up.

His legs will bear him. His hands can grip the frame of the door, and then the handle. When he swings it open, sunlight floods his body from scalp to feet, sinking into his knees, his chest. Heating the backs of his eyelids. If he blinks those open right away he may go briefly blind.

Slowly, slowly, he lets it in.

When he opens his warmed eyes he sees the little yard in front of the cottage. A cottage? Pretension. It’s a hut. He sees the first straggling shoots of crocuses, the lively color returning to the otherwise colorless grass. The last time he looked out the ground had seemed still hard and grey. Another year coming, and him here to witness it. More or less.

It’s been at least three months, maybe four, since he saw another human body. Heard another human voice. His own feels too large, too loud, as he moves around the hut, peeling off his frozen clothes and gathering new clean ones in his hands. The cold doesn’t touch him the way that it might, or maybe just touches him differently: his body feels like those bulbs in the yard, hesitantly reaching for the surface of itself with green fingers, new and furled. His boots are by the door. He slides his bare feet into them, and for a moment his toes are still curled too tight, all wrong. Bent leaves deformed in the bud. He makes them fit. Again, again. Steps into the wet grass. It springs under his feet; the earth below it sinks. Everything is wet at this time of year. From frost, from dew, from skittering rain, from flooding. Winter comes first to the peak, descending later on the foothills and the valleys. It leaves later, trailing mud in its wake. The ground is soaking, black and soft and rich. It’s a dead fox that’s rotting, under the porch. The cold doesn’t make everything immortal.

Baiyi shivers, a little.

He is naked still, skin prickling. He needs to piss and to drink and to wash. He’s gone days without recalling his body, deep in a heart-slowing trance. Maybe it was longer. His groin throbs. His body was faraway but it’s here now, and insistent. Needy as an infant.

He does the first thing on his list, sending a warm stream into the bushes, and then wobbles out, relieved, into the sun again. The cracked ice in the trough is not quite cracked enough; his knuckles punch through easily, and then his hands cup frozen water and bring it to his mouth. It tastes stale and dead, and good too. The way old leaves must taste to soil, to roots. He drinks for a long time, realizing his terrible thirst only after it ceases. Cold water never used to cramp his belly—he could swallow chunks of ice all day without the slightest harm, without the merest flinch—but it does so now, a bit. His body is not what it used to be. It never will be again.

Shut up, he thinks at himself. Old fool, can't you enjoy anything?

There’s a reflection in the trough, wavering in the decaying wake of his blow, rattling bits of ice against the side. He lets his unfocused eyes gloss over it, not settling in the details, refusing to recognize himself there. All he can see that way is a black line drawn around the ring of water where his fist broke through. So his hair is not all white, not yet. But he still doesn’t want to look. If he looks, he’ll know. One way or another. Know what he's left with. What he has left to offer. Fool, fool, fool.

His body feels strong, at least. Every moment that passes it wakes more, eases in the joints. The cold preserves him still, but that preservation is less than physically pleasurable now, changed as he is. Someday it won’t even work.

A bird goes by, darting; Baiyi cranes his head to watch it pass.

And then he bends to the trough and scrubs himself until his skin is red and hissing, blotchy, rubbery, raw.

 

 

 

 

 

There are hoofbeats the next morning, early. Thudding quiet ones approaching from the winding, half-wild trail. Baiyi hears them while the rider must still be a ways off; he stands and listens to them ascending, irritation growing in his gut, his hands. His fingers flex and curl themselves with anger before his mind can even catch up to the feeling. He still hasn't looked at his reflection in the water.

It's too soon.

He stands on the grass in front of his hut and waits, frowning, for the horse and rider to crest the small rise. When they do, a traitorous sensation in his gut leaps with anticipation. Another traitor leaps with childish fear. Baiyi swallows it all down as if it were stones and he a chicken in need of them. Grinds his thoughts as mercilessly as grain.

It's the scorpion, of course, on his big snub-nosed spotted grey mare. He must be spoiling the beast: there are neat rows of ribboned braids in her mane. When he sees Baiyi the pretty idiot actually raises a hand to greet him. Something grasping curls in Baiyi's stomach.

"You're awake," Xie calls. He smiles his broad soft smile and his eyes crinkle, and Baiyi's old stupid heart clenches. He waits for the handsome smile to slip down. For disappointment to creep in, at the sight of him. But his scorpion just looks him up and down and goes on smiling, even broader than before, and hops off his mare to slip the reins over her head. His cloak is heavy-looking, warm, trimmed in grey fur. He looks of a piece with his animal that way: the same thick-blown winter coat, the same fringed liquid eyes. His cheeks are pink with cold. His breath steams. Baiyi suddenly can't look at him. Xie just shakes the reins out, unaware. "You look well. I thought maybe I'd have to put you over a fire, melt you down," he laughs, slyly, and turns.

Baiyi stares past his shoulder. His throat feels rusted-over; it’s a second before he can get the words out, make them take their usual shape.

"I told you to stay put. You can't follow a simple instruction like that?"

"Hm, well, it was so long ago," Xie says, unbothered at the tone, and loops the mare's reins over a branch. And then he comes closer, reaching and leaning in, his face tilting, wanting. He's beautiful. Baiyi feels as if he might have forgotten that; against the crisp winter white he's like a grey moth, feathered lashes flicking like wings. "Months and months," he says, mouth soft. Upturned. Parted. Heat stirs in Baiyi's gut; embarrassment in all the rest of him. "Maybe I forgot."

Baiyi turns aside.

"I'd have started down tomorrow. You’ve got no patience."

"Maybe not," Xie says, lightly. He can make his voice toneless as a cloud when he wants to. It's a bit like that now, suddenly. The warmth in it leaches out. He drops his hands to his sides. "But I thought you might want to ride for a bit. It's a long trail."

"I was treading it before you were born, who needs your coddling?" Baiyi says, for no reason that he can tell. Like smoke without a fire, rising in choking tarry clouds.

Neither of them speak for a moment. There's no such thing as real silence on the mountain. Not when the wind runs intangible fingers along the pines; not when the ice creaks, and the weasels scuttle, and two mouths are huffing breath. But this pause between them is as close as it comes.

"You must be hungry,” Xie says, after a minute. His voice is still inflectionless and even-skinned as a porcelain cup. “I can make something hot.”

Baiyi snorts. Then wishes he hadn’t. Too late.

“Suit yourself,” he says, roughly.

Xie turns wordlessly away and goes to rummage in the saddlebags; Baiyi goes into the hut and closes the door behind him, but doesn’t latch it. He wants to. He wants to latch the door and leave it shut and wait him out, wait for him to get tired and bored and angry, angry enough to leave and to never come back. If only he would. Baiyi suddenly wants the silence again, misses the frozen stillness that was barely even cut by his own heartbeat. He wants to be alone. To be left here. The winter was long and it's slowly departing but he feels stuck to it still, like wet flesh frozen to iron. If only he could remain this way: just another old gnarled tree sitting bare and friendless on a ridge, roots cut into the rock, wind stripping the leaves off. A half-dead thing that wouldn’t have any stupid desires. Any vanities, any uncertainties. How stupid he is, even at this age.

He meditates, maybe. Sinks into himself like a heron’s bent neck. But slowly, slowly, something creeps under his nostrils. A warm smell, oniony and rich. The scent presses needles into his belly.

He isn't a glacier, a tree. His stomach rumbles.

When he comes out he finds Xie stripped of his cloak, sleeves tied up, working over the little wood stove at the back of the hut, under the low shed roof. There's an ugly dented pot sitting over the flames, blackened all around the outside from old use. He's stirring the cloudy thin soup inside it with a narrow, focused expression that makes him look like a student caught on a hard lesson; Baiyi wonders, with vague detachment, if he used to look that way when he was killing people as a boy. But then Xie looks up, and makes a thin smile, and Baiyi is reminded that he is almost a boy, still.

"It's almost ready," he says.

"Smells good," Baiyi says, because it's true. And then, cautiously, "I thought you liked food burned."

Xie huffs. But it sounds less irritated than amused. He scrapes a piece of green off his spoon, sends it sliding back into the broth. The first time he cooked for them both, he'd turned the chicken the color of this pot. Baiyi had called it leather and eaten some of it anyway, chewing so loudly and with such exaggerated disgust that Xie had turned red in shame and then laughed, laughed out loud. For maybe the first time, in Baiyi's hearing.

"Things change," Xie says now, not laughing, in his still careful voice.

When it's done he ladles out a bowl for Baiyi and sits on a stump watching him eat it. There's sliced spring onion and crisp-soft cabbage and shreds of mustard green, a small forest of leaves in a jumble. Nothing too heavy for his first real meal after a winter’s meditation; it sinks into him like a hot brick anyway, running through his throat and chest like boiling water through the neck of a kettle. It smells savory, sharp with ginger. Tastes earthy, from the dark greens. It's not salty enough. But when Baiyi lifts the bowl to his mouth to sip the dregs, his eyes feel steamed, prickling; his nasal passages have softened, and he can feel moisture starting to swell in his face, as if he were the same as the wet ground under their feet. He rubs his nose, and his eyes for good measure. Swipes their wetness away. Xie watches him do it with a calm, practiced placidity. A trained placidity.

Baiyi hates it.

"What?" he grumbles. "What are you looking at me for? I said it was good already, do you need me to compose lines about it?"

Xie's face is too good at not flinching to flinch at such a clumsy attack. But his eyes register it, as clearly as if he were marking a tally on a slate.

“Hm,” he says, but that's all.

 

 

 

 

 

It takes less than an hour to pack for the road and shut up the little house and yard; he brought almost nothing with him, and needed even less. He walks beside the horse with the bag on his back. Xie calls him a stubborn ass when he refuses the mount, but in truth Baiyi's legs feel better now in motion. Remembering themselves.

The horse picks its way cautiously through the mud, neat-footed and shy. Xie murmurs encouragement to it at the rockiest, narrowest turns of the path, where one man can barely edge by without feeling the wind on one side. Baiyi goes first, muttering under his breath at the delicacy of beasts. Trust the soft-hearted idiot to favor a gentle one like that. You’d think an assassin would know better. A nervous horse can send a man to his death with surprising ease. Baiyi’s seen it before: the twisted neck, the look of surprise. Well, Baiyi is done teaching lessons. None of his business what the little fool does or doesn’t do.

At the bottom of the mountain the path joins a forest road and merges with it; they follow it east for a while.

Xie gave him curious looks for a while at the outset, but he’s long since stopped. For hours he rides in near silence, chin tipped up and eyes forward. Baiyi doesn’t look at him either, except once or twice. He looks infuriatingly princely, with the cloak draped over the horse’s hindquarters, his shoulders set: undoubtedly he thinks so. Maybe he’s waiting for Baiyi to apologize.

He’ll have to wait longer than this.

They stop before nightfall, at an inn more than halfway back, the same one as last year. The owners make a show of remembering them. Xie stables the horse while Baiyi orders dinner. He has less appetite than he might, but he chooses optimistically anyway: sweet braised fish, piled wheat noodles slick as eels, chicken stir-fried with honey fungus, pickles, dumplings seared so hard and hot that they flake at the seam like paper. They burn the inside of Baiyi’s mouth when he eats them too quickly. It doesn’t hurt so much as it shocks: a flare of too much sensation after such a drought.

Baiyi gulps his wine and breathes through his nose. Ignores the look Xie gives him over the table. Thankfully, he doesn’t ask if Baiyi’s alright.

The brat got them one room, which is something. But then he pulls his mat and pillow to one side and slides his outer robes off and lies down under the thick blanket alone, his eyes shut and face serene, saying nothing but the most perfunctory words: good night. Sleep well.

“Are you staying over there?” Baiyi says, from his own mat.

“Am I?” Xie says, softly. There’s a hint of something mocking in it.

“Am I a fortune teller?” Baiyi grumbles. “Do or don’t. Whatever you want.”

He does. Baiyi lies alone in the middle of the room all night, sleeping in fits and starts. His body is too used to silence, the cold hard numbing whistle of the mountain wind. His ears prick up too easily: he opens his eyes when the eaves creak or the horses whinny, when feet tread soft on the stairs. In the morning he sleeps unexpectedly late. Xie is up before him, bringing tea and dried fruit on a tray and the smell of the woods on his clothes, wet wind and earth and growing things. His robes look unmarked but his cheeks are pink again, and the tips of his fingers are frosted. If he was off somewhere sulking, unhappy—but no, he looks fine. In fact his eyes are glittering like scales, like rippled ice. “Where’ve you been running to, so early?” Baiyi says. “Digging for worms?”

“Mm, yes. Maybe I put them in your shoes,” Xie says, sweetly.

“Insolent brat,” Baiyi says. “I’ll tan your hide.”

“Drink your tea first."

Baiyi does it. But that’s a mistake. He realizes after a few cups that his body is growing heavy, tired and thick as honey. He sets a hand against the floor to keep from sliding downward. Xie watches him from his seat on a cushion, just out of reach. He rests his cheek in one palm and studies Baiyi thoughtfully, while Baiyi’s head sways and his cup slides out of numb fingers, spilling onto the floorboards.

“What the fuck,” Baiyi manages, and tips sideways. His head lands on the mat. He reaches out, but his limbs have stopped obeying. Xie sighs.

“Did you mistake me?” he says. “You think I’m some sad little concubine who’ll run off and cry over your slights?”

“You,” Baiyi slurs. “Kill.”

“You’re not dying,” Xie chides. “Don’t be so dramatic. You’re safe with me, old man.”

If he says anything else, Baiyi doesn’t hear it. He turns onto his back and sees the ceiling through a grey haze. And then nothing at all.

 

 

 

 

 

When Baiyi wakes he’s lying on his back with his arms pulled above his head. The room is too blurry to make out at first. He tries to lift his hands but they’re bound up in some kind of snug cuffs. As he moves his arms a chain clinks. Baiyi turns his head up. Blinks. Realizes he’s in a familiar place: a familiar bedroom with painted screen windows in their quiet house on the mountain just east of Siji. At least he’s dressed. When he cranes his neck he can see that his cuffs are threaded through a metal ring, the chain looping around the bed frame and trailing to a heavier ring mounted in the wall. That’s new. He tugs, but the angle affords him little purchase. There’s something strengthening the hold: imbued steel, maybe. Something to sap and suppress qi. His feet are bound together the same way. He’s been brought home to his own room and trussed like a pig. The brat must have tied him to the fucking horse.

Baiyi speaks a truly vile curse into the air.

There’s a soft huff of laughter, from the other side of the thin door separating the bedroom from their bath. Xie pushes it open and steps in, and with him comes a wave of humid warmth, a smell like soap and roses, fresh peaches, a high floral sweetness that fills the room like a dropped bouquet. His hair is damp, and his skin flushed. There’s no makeup on him, nothing but the rouge of a hot bath in his cheeks. His braids are all undone, head curled from the steam. He’s wearing one of Baiyi’s better, heavier robes, cuffs and collar traced in silver embroidery. He hasn’t tied it shut; he’s just holding it closed with one long-fingered hand.

“From the way you fight, I thought you’d be lighter,” Xie says, and smiles childishly, head tilted. “But you’re like a brick. And just as dense. Surprise.”

“You have one chance,” Baiyi says, through his teeth. “Let me up now, and I’ll go easy on you.”

“As if you ever would,” Xie snorts.

“What do you want?” Baiyi says. “What’s your game? Whose—”

Xie steps forward, quick as a whip-lash, and claps one warm hand right over Baiyi’s mouth.

“Don’t say something you’ll regret,” he says, low and soft. His dark eyes are wild at the edges, even though his mouth is set. “You think I would do this for anyone else? I’ve done it for you.”

Baiyi looks up at him. His thumb strokes the curve of Baiyi’s cheek, while it’s resting there.

Something eases in Baiyi’s chest. Something he didn’t know was tightening, knotlike, until it loosened and fell away. This isn’t—it isn’t anything else. He’s not about to be interrogated or delivered to some other maniac. He’s just in the hands of his own maniac, here. Who must still want something from him, if he’s gone to so much trouble.

“You’re a lunatic,” Baiyi says, when the hand releases his mouth. “You have a depraved imagination.”

“I must,” Xie agrees. “I thought about this the whole way back. How I could best piss you off. Show you what a prick you were being. But the problem is, you can’t make up your mind.”

“I have,” Baiyi says. “I’m going to roll you off a cliff after all.”

“You had your chance,” Xie says, and thumbs Baiyi’s bottom lip. When he leans down like this his borrowed robe gaps open; his chest looks bare underneath. He smells even better up close. “You could have killed me. But you didn’t, and I know you wouldn’t now, so you can stop pretending. You acted this same way last spring when you got back. Like you didn’t know whether to crawl on top of me or shove me away.”

Baiyi clinks his chain.

“You see the source of my confusion.”

“No,” Xie says, with a horrible gentleness. He sits on the edge of the bed, dipping the mattress under his hip. “I see your fear. I’m good at seeing fear. You shouldn’t have forgotten that about me, either.”

“Shut up and set me loose, idiot,” Baiyi says, hotly. “Stop running your mouth. If you want attention so badly—”

“You can’t hold it off forever,” Xie says. “The cold can only slow it. What are you going to do when it starts catching up? Run away to die alone, like some loose-skinned old bear?”

“Why not?” Baiyi snaps. And then clips his own stupid mouth shut.

Xie leans back. Smiles humorlessly.

“This is why you’re so hard to punish,” he says. “If I left, you’d tell me good riddance.”

“Everyone does what they want to do,” Baiyi says. His body feels oddly hollow. “I’m not your master.”

“No,” Xie says. He strokes the front of Baiyi’s robes. “But I did finally think of a good revenge.”

“It’s so-so,” Baiyi says, and rattles his chain again. “You’d make a shitty prison guard. I’ll be out of these in another minute.”

Xie grins.

“Ha,” he says. He pats Baiyi’s chest and stands up. The scent of flowers trails after him; the warm damp weight lifts off Baiyi’s hip. “There’s a little more to it than that.”

He lets go of the front of the robe, to pull his wet hair out of the collar. It slips open, revealing a long sliver of golden chest, belly, thigh. The thatch of dark fuzz over his soft, dark cock. Baiyi means to keep his eyes up with bored disinterest, but they slide down anyway, following the sunlit line of him, the flush still lingering from the bath. Xie smiles and then shrugs the robe off entirely, letting it pool in a white cloud at his feet.

“This is revenge?” Baiyi says, rough-voiced. “You’re out of practice.” His throat feels thickened with something unnameable. Xie goes on smiling. His long, lean-muscled thighs flex as he strides across the room, lifts a covered tray and brings it to the side of the bed. He leans over to set it down, and Baiyi’s eyes follow him. Xie glances over his shoulder and his smile becomes sharp and mildly evil. “I thought you were supposed to be a skilled torturer. This is just a show.”

“Can’t it be both?” Xie says. He climbs onto the bed now, hair swinging over his shoulders, close to Baiyi’s legs. But not close enough. He sits on his heels, thighs taut and strong-looking, hands running down to his knees and back up again. Baiyi swallows. “You can make this stop anytime,” Xie says. “Just beg for me.”

“What?” Baiyi says, flabbergasted.

“Beg for me,” Xie says, evenly. “Beg me to sit on your cock and I will. I’ll give you anything you ask for. But you have to ask for it.”

White heat, like the roiling force of a waterfall, climbs Baiyi’s spine, his groin, clenches in his balls, shoots down his legs like being struck in a nerve. He hopes his body doesn’t jerk as helplessly as he thinks it does. While his body stirs he tries to cling to his outrage. The presumption! The fucking nerve of this one!

“Idiot,” he says, breathlessly. “What does—”

“I won’t lay a finger on you again until you do,” Xie says. “And you won’t get to lay a finger on me.”

“So what?” Baiyi says. “You vain little monster. Who wants to,” he says, and trails off as Xie’s thighs slowly spread apart, his fingers digging into the meat until pale lines appear. “Who’s begging,” he says, distantly. “You’ll want it in a minute anyway. All I have to do is wait. You’ll be begging me.”

Xie laughs at him. Wretch. And then he reaches up, arches his back, runs his fingers along the curve of his own spine, trailing down his neck, his collarbones: places Baiyi has set his mouth, his teeth, a hundred times. Places Baiyi has felt his pounding heart through the thin skin at the base of his throat. He itches nails over his chest, down the line of his belly, and up again, fingertips trailing a nipple. His hands splay out like fans, like knuckled wings, elegant and fine. His mouth is amused, lips parting on a breath when he slides fingers down to cup between his legs. It's weirdly innocent, shameless and easy; he touches himself unhurriedly, tenderly, with the same gentleness he showed that nervous mare. His hands pet and tease and stroke in slow arcs, as if learning blindly the surface of a map, the shape of some peerless gilded vessel.

Baiyi's own cock stirs; his legs and hands clench. Xie's eyes track the movement hungrily, delightedly.

"These can be your hands anytime," Xie says, rubbing fingers under his own soft sac, tilting his hips up so that Baiyi can see the split between his thighs, the slight bounce of his filling cock as he strokes himself.

"Do the work yourself for once," Baiyi scowls, shifting his legs together uneasily. "Lazy."

Xie ignores the jibe and traces a finger along his face, tucks it between his lips and sucks it. His lips part to show his white teeth, the way he bites himself lightly as he pulls his hand away. Baiyi’s fingers twitch, with the memory of those teeth, that mouth, the way he sometimes leaves little marks on Baiyi’s hands, soft red lines that steam out in the bath afterwards. Baiyi has fucked his mouth with fingers until he drooled and smiled and said, your skin is salty, and then—

Baiyi grits his teeth. Says nothing. Xie’s eyebrows lift, and then he bends down over the bed to the tray and swipes something off if.

“Stubborn,” he says, almost approvingly. “I knew you would be.”

He uncorks a little bottle and drips oil onto his fingers. He bends up onto his knees, one hand by Baiyi’s legs. He reaches behind himself, kinks his elbow back, loosens his shoulder, and then there’s a slick wet sound, and he bites at his own lip. Blood swells it, turns it the color of peonies. Baiyi was getting hard before, but now it’s choking in his clothes, already tight and nearly aching. "Uhh," Xie breathes, fucking himself with fingers Baiyi can't stretch to see. His wavy drying hair hangs down over one shoulder, swaying like a fringe of willows as he works himself, pushes in and rocks forward and back. At this angle Baiyi can’t get a glimpse of his backside, the glistening cleft where his fingers are sinking in, but he can imagine it fine: the puckered skin, the rim starting to pink with blood just like his bitten lips. Fresh-scrubbed like this it would taste of musk and soap and sweat. Baiyi’s pushed his tongue in, pushed shocked little cries out of his body; he’d been fucked there, but nobody had ever kissed that hole before. He’d been faun-legged afterwards, damp-eyed. Little killer. He’d curled in Baiyi’s arms and taken more kisses off him desperately, no matter where their mouths had been.

He's soft there, Baiyi's lover. Not in the skin but in what's beneath it. He's cruel and hard enough to live through nearly anything, but not so hard he can't ever be melted again afterwards, can't turn his face up for tenderness when he thinks he can get it. Baiyi was right about him when they met.

Xie twists his arm back and gasps; he looks at Baiyi slyly a heartbeat later, quick enough to catch the twitch under his clothes. "Anything to say to me?" he says, overly pleased with himself.

Baiyi turns his head away.

"What's there to say," he mutters. "Can't even give me a better view."

"If you want one, ask," Xie says.

Baiyi bites his tongue.

He's not sure what will come out of his mouth if he opens it: weakness or meanness. Needy slut, he thinks. Spoiled, wicked creature. Beauty. He longs to shove him down, hold his face against the floor and beat his presumptuous ass red. Longs to fuck him, to cry out for his warmth. To yield. To creep away and die alone. He's right. That's the worst part. The stupid preening jackass is right. Baiyi feels his own throat bob, against the noise that wants to choke its way free.

Xie sighs. He leans down again, and comes up holding—

"Where the hell did you get that?" Baiyi blurts out. His fingers curl around the chain. His bare heels skid a little against the bed.

Xie's smile could sear flesh.

"Wouldn't you like to know," he says, and holds it up against his chest: a thick curved cock in cloudy, greenish, polished jade. He runs it along his skin, shivering visibly at the coldness of it, then slides it down to his own lap, tucking it between thigh and calf where the blood will warm it quickly. "Jealous?"

"Of that little toy?” Baiyi manages. “Who would be?"

"Hm, you’re right,” Xie says, and draws it out from between the clench of his legs. It looks heavy, solid and smooth. Xie rubs it against his belly, then holds it up. Licks the head with his pink tongue. Baiyi manages, barely, to hold a sound in. “Your prick’s much bigger,” he says, and then meets Baiyi’s eyes and slides the jade one right into his mouth. A sound does come out, now. Up from Baiyi’s gut, sliding around his locked jaw. Xie smiles, mouth full of that fake cock, and tilts his head up as if he were on his knees before Baiyi’s body. He sucks and slurps at his mouthful, twisting it around and pumping it into his face in slow thrusts, and then turns his head to the side so Baiyi can watch the tip prodding out the flesh of his cheek from the inside. It’s obscene. Spit runs down his chin.

If Baiyi got a hand free he’s no longer sure what he would do with it: yank the other cuff off? Grab his own cock? It would only take a stroke, he’s so fucking hard he might come in his clothes like a boy soon. Or maybe he would throw that fucking toy out the window, slap that bulging cheek, pull him in by the hair and—fuck. Bastard! Baiyi’s not going to give him the fucking satisfaction!

Xie sees him fuming. Pulls the toy out of his mouth and sits back on his heels, wipes his chin with one hand. Turns around, knees shuffling in the sheets, until his back is visible. He leans forward and then reaches behind himself with the toy, nudging the tip against the place where he’s already slick. The rounded head pops in, and Xie sinks down an inch with a loud groan that reverberates all the way through Baiyi’s brain, his skull, down his limbs to the soles of his feet. There’s a phantom ache in his cock, a memory of that first press: the heat, the sucking sensation of skin and wet insides. All the times Xie has moaned and laughed and pushed onto him, greedy and insistent, taking him like a root, they flash before his eyes: the bare back, the arched vertebrae, the teasing eyes. The hands that slap and push and drag him in. All winter he suppressed it, and now it’s awake: the pulsing desire that screams like metal in the forge, so hot it frightens.

Baiyi’s had a parade of lovers, and then prolonged dry spells that would make the most sentimental man forget their names. He was in love with the wrong person for such a long, long time. He doesn’t know if this is—should Baiyi want a half-repentant killer so badly? He doesn’t know. He doesn’t know what honest feeling is left in him. But in this second he sees that two years hasn't been enough. Two years of him in two hundred's not nearly enough. He wants more. He does. Xie slides down, down, onto the jade cock and Baiyi makes another pained noise in his throat. He’s going to come. His body throbs with it.

He can’t remember what he’s been resisting for. It’s gone, suddenly. Some useless inner shackle snaps loose. Some bud pushes out of the ground, heedless of what might be awaiting it.

“Come here,” Baiyi groans. “Fuck, come up here. Get on my face.”

Xie stops. Turns his head over his shoulder, curiously. Cautiously. His mouth is still wet, lips shining where he’s licked them.

“You want—”

“You said to ask!” Baiyi yells. “What are you making me wait for? Get up here or fuck off!”

Xie’s lips curl over his teeth, but his eyes go hot and happy, and he pulls the toy out slowly, tosses it aside. Then climbs over Baiyi’s chest, straddles him, leans his body down and scoots up, until Baiyi’s nose is almost at his cleft.

“Is this—”

“Closer,” Baiyi growls, and Xie obeys. Baiyi lifts his head and licks a flat line along him, tasting oil and sweat. Xie’s head hangs low between his braced arms, and his hips tilt back a little. Baiyi licks him again, circling the spot behind his balls, pressing the tip of his tongue in as hard as the muscle will go. Xie huffs something that might be a laugh or a sigh. “Closer,” Baiyi says, and then at last he can stop craning his neck. It’s humid and overwhelming under him; Baiyi smothers his higher thinking and just buries his face in the warm damp skin above him, bites at the curve of his ass and then tongues at him, presses open-mouthed kisses to the slicked ring and pushes inside. Xie trembles on top of him, thighs quivering around Baiyi’s armpits. Baiyi tongue-fucks him sloppily that way, wishing he could dig fingers in to spread him. Then realizes he can. “Take these off,” he says, and rattles the chain loudly. Clears his throat. “Let me touch you.” It’s only a little humiliating.

Xie wobbles off him, slides down to the tray and plucks a tiny key off it, then leans over Baiyi’s body to unfasten one cuff. As soon as his wrist is loose Baiyi yanks it free, reaches around and shoves Xie onto his back, twisting his legs painfully to lay over him and pin his wrist to the mattress. “Beg, huh?” Baiyi says, meanly, his heart pounding. "You think I'll kneel? Who's mistaking who?"

Xie smiles up at him. His leg twines invitingly over Baiyi’s hip.

“You still haven’t said please,” he says, and drives that same bare knee into Baiyi’s side, hard enough to knock the air out, then pushes him off and straddles his waist. He dangles the key over their heads. Baiyi reaches for it, and Xie holds it higher. “Ah ah ah,” he says. “I’ll swallow it. I’ve done it before.”

“You fucking little madman,” Baiyi fumes. “When I—”

“When you what?” Xie says, archly innocent. “When you get free you’ll teach me a lesson?” he says, and sits back, and his ass presses brutally down into Baiyi’s unflagging hard-on. Baiyi makes a choked groan. “I’ll let you. Just beg a little bit.”

“I'm going to fuck you until you scream," Baiyi grinds out. "I'll beat your ass raw and fuck what's left of it."

"Promises, promises," Xie says, coolly. His eyes are like steel. "Say please."

“Why should I?”

“Just say it out loud,” Xie says. Something playful is sliding out of his tone. Something hurt is sliding in. “Ask nicely, like you really want it. What’s so hard? Would that really cost you anything?”

He is really asking, Baiyi realizes. This is no joke to him. The thought comes late and sudden, but clearly.

His hand slides slowly up to Xie’s hip, settling against the jut, the curve. Not to pull him down again. Just to hold him in place for a moment. Baiyi rubs his thumb against the bone and thinks, how different his life would be. If people could really speak such things aloud, understand them so simply.

Can't they both say the same?

“Pride,” Baiyi says, truthfully.

That's what everything costs, in the end. Love, skill, acquiring old age. Time will collect it, that same price, over and over.

“You say please when you want more to drink,” Xie scoffs. “Does that hurt your pride?” The key glitters in his fingers, like the unshed water climbing into his eyes. “You’d rather crawl back up the mountain and bury yourself in a snowdrift for good than admit you want something? That your life’s not over? You’re that proud? You’d rather die with your back to me, pushing me off, than tell me once that you—”

“Shut up,” Baiyi says, gruffly, and fumbles his free hand up to Xie’s arm. Pulls him down sideways. “Shut up. How am I supposed to say anything with you yammering at me.” Xie makes a furious face but Baiyi grabs him by the back of the neck, yanks him close into a hard kiss. Xie shoves at him, still trying to keep the key out of reach, but Baiyi’s got a good hold now; he opens his mouth onto Xie’s neck and sucks at it, bites it, and then they’re kissing again, angrily, messily, grinding on each other.

He tastes so good, Baiyi thinks, absurdly. Not like wine or sweet fruit, not like anything: only like himself, like warmth, like living. He's so fucking young.

Xie shifts over him, panting. Tightens his hard thighs. Baiyi is going to come apart under him. He's going to learn to beg. The inevitability flattens him like a hard blow and he gasps as it strikes him. “Please,” Baiyi says, against his throat, when he can't not. Xie makes a hurt noise and grabs at Baiyi’s hair. “Let me have you. I want—” he says, and Xie takes the words out of his mouth, inhales them in one long shocked breath, and then suddenly Baiyi’s other wrist is free, and both his hands are clutching at Xie’s back, nails dug into his shoulder blades, and Xie is struggling to shove Baiyi’s robes aside, to yank down his thin pants to the knee. And then he’s rising up, Baiyi’s hands on his thighs, easing him into a straddle, and he reaches back—and then Baiyi’s inside him, pushing up into him with a hard loud exhale that comes from both their chests at once.

Xie lifts up, slams down again with a slap of flesh, and Baiyi bucks up into his scalding heat and yells hoarsely at the ceiling.

His vision blurs for a second; Xie rolls his hips and Baiyi’s cock shoves inside him, rubbing against nerves and flesh, sliding where the oil’s already streaked, pushing where the toy stretched him but not quite wide enough. He feels like a vise, a tight fist, like sinking an aching body into a hot spring, like fucking into a volcano. Something cold cracks inside Baiyi and gives all the way, like old ice dissolving in a lake; heat sings through his veins and meridians like fire through the points of a constellation, like sap in a vine bursting into a thousand minute white flowers. Xie cries out in something like ecstasy, like grief; his hips grind and his back bows and Baiyi catches him as he tips, holds onto his forearms to keep him upright, and fucks into him desperately, as if their moving bodies were the only force spinning the sky.

Someone comes.

The feeling catches and spreads, and Baiyi feels himself jerk and expand and push into wetter heat. Foreign dampness slides across his stomach. His cock throbs, but doesn’t soften. His balls clench and his gut tightens and when he reaches for Xie he feels an answering hardness still digging into his belly. Baiyi holds their bodies together, pulsing his hips up frantically until Xie lurches off him with a little bitten-back cry. He fumbles down to Baiyi's ankles and unlocks them. When the last of the chains come off him Baiyi feels something surge inside, awakening like licks of flame: his suppressed qi floods back in on a wave. Freed and strong and ravenous, Baiyi rolls up to crush him into the bed.

They tumble over each other, scrabbling at each other’s flesh; Baiyi hauls Xie's leg up and holds his chest down with one hand and tries to slide inside, but both of them are kissing and twisting too feverishly to line up right. His cock slides between Xie's spread thighs instead, pushing along the back of his legs like a plow rutting out of a furrow. Xie laughs silently, shaking with it, and shoves Baiyi away, kicks at him, still laughing. Baiyi topples off the bed and catches himself, stands up. He tears his arms from his sleeves, drops his clothes, steps out of his wrecked pants, and then Xie is up and on him, dragging him into kisses as if their mouths were drawn together by invisible strings. Baiyi pulls at his curled hair, sucks his tongue, lifts him effortlessly. His arms go over Baiyi's shoulders, legs around his waist. Baiyi braces his back against the door frame and finally slides himself in to the hilt with a loud grunt, the sound of a spade thunking into fresh earth.

The wall shudders. Xie throws his head back and sobs. Baiyi fucks the cries out of him in pounding hard thrusts, yanking him down and pulling him up again with hands hooked under his thighs. Noises punch out of his own belly, tearing up his throat like thorns.

Baiyi fucks him the way mares are fucked, the way fruit is pulled open to get at the pulp. Baiyi fucks him like birds fuck, loud and wild, crashing in the branches. Xie goes hoarse and Baiyi blind inside him, seeing nothing but vast sky and shaking trees, the rain of petals blown off in wind that coats the ground and turns the air to perfume. If Baiyi could put a child into him this would be the moment: he can feel power pouring from him, from them both, towards the place where neither of them end and both begin. It sings between them, a pulsing, endless, reckless thrum of life.

He still wants it, after all. As much of it as he can get.

Baiyi comes and the room quakes around them; Xie clenches and makes a brutal noise and follows him, and then they rest there for a second, collapsed drunkenly against the wall, arms tight around each other. Heat dribbles between them, from everywhere they're joined.

“I’m so hot,” Xie says, finally, panting. Baiyi helps him lift off and away. He staggers to the window and slides the screen aside, pushes the heavy winter shutter out, and a burst of cool wind rushes into the steamed room in a great gusting tide. With it comes that rich dark secret smell of spring again: the marrowbone taste of half-dead things bursting to be born.

Xie turns to look at him, and strands of hair blow across his face like naked branches, looking as lush as the hills will be when the sun finally wakes them all the way. Baiyi feels himself going hard again, feels his dead old heart kicking like a mule. When Baiyi gathers him up this time he forgets winter completely, forgets ice, forgets anything but this. He forgets about the death that comes for everyone. Forgets to be ashamed. Becomes as ignorant as any sunflower, summering in bliss. He touches the root in the earth and pushes upwards, comes back, comes out, all new, alive.

 

 

 

 

 

When Baiyi wakes up, at some point just after dawn, there are streaks of soil across his chest. His fingers are black with it.

He nudges Xie with a foot, and Xie starts up, lifting on an elbow to blink at the wreckage of their room.

"What's that on you?"

"What do you think?" Baiyi says, and dips a finger onto his nose. Little crumbs of dirt smear off. Xie wrinkles his face like a displeased cat. Baiyi only half-remembers going outside, but most of the night is a blur. His body is sticky, but not as sticky as it should be: could they really have gone out in the dark and tried to wash in the pond? It seems they must have.

“I don’t remember your hands getting dirty.”

"Maybe I tried to plant you." Baiyi pushes on his leg with one foot again. "It's time you earned your keep, go stand out in the garden and grow some pears."

Xie cackles at him: not an arch chuckle but a big honest bizarre-sounding laugh. Rare and sweet. He rests his face down onto the floor again. At some point they must have torn the sheets from the bed and thrown them into this pile. They’re tangled nude inside them like a nest, like two smooth birds’ eggs. There are smashed leaves in here with them, staining the sheets green and yellow, releasing their bruised ripe smell. Baiyi plucks one up and thumbs at a wet yellow bud thoughtfully. “How many days until the new year?”

“Just a few,” Xie says. He strokes Baiyi’s calf with his fingertips. “There was a letter. We can go to Siji, if you want. But we’ll have to find something to bring. Wen Kexing’s serving-wench is pregnant. He’s almost crazier over it than the father is.”

Baiyi snorts.

“More idiots.”

The world swells with them, as it swells with flowers.

They get dressed enough to go stoke the fire and start water for a bath. Xie goes first, washing quickly and tying his hair up and sliding out of Baiyi’s grubby grasp afterwards.

“You can have that, or a hot breakfast,” he warns, and Baiyi sighs and sinks back into the tub.

He stays there until his fingers wrinkle. He looks at them for a while. All fingers look this way, newborn ones and ancient ones alike, in bathwater. Sometimes his life sits on top of him like a pile of stones, and sometimes he feels the same inside, as if no time has passed at all. He could be looking at these same fingers at seventeen, at thirty. Watching the pads pucker and turn bloodless. He doesn’t feel old, this morning. Nor immortal. Just—like himself. Awake and curious again. Like someone he used to be.

When he’s clean and dressed he finds Xie with a cloth tied around his forehead, tearing strips of flattened dough. Xie gives him a cleaver and tells him to shave spring onions and dried mushroom, and takes them afterwards and dumps them into the broth. When it smells good he drops the torn noodles in, and stirs them around a few times to keep them from sticking. Baiyi leans in to let the steam soak his nostrils.

“Who taught you this?” Baiyi says. “You couldn’t cook to save your life before.”

“I practiced,” Xie huffs, red-cheeked from the heat and probably a little from anger. It looks good on him: his real feelings. Baiyi would rather see those than the mask, however ugly they are. “Is that so unbelievable? I know how to work a kettle.”

“To brew poisons,” Baiyi agrees, and Xie slides him a dangerous, then amused look.

“True,” he says. “The principles are the same.”

“I hope not!”

“Eat up and find out,” Xie says.

It’s good. It could use more salt, again. They both eat three bowls each. And then they go to clean up after themselves.

“I thought you’d have gotten a servant by now,” Baiyi complains, bundling up the sheets to be washed. “What are you spending my money on, if not that?”

“I sent them off yesterday,” Xie says. “They’ll be back tonight.”

“Oh?” A thought occurs to Baiyi. “Not your old—”

“No,” Xie says. He’s silent for a second, sweeping the dirt on the floor into a neat pile. Baiyi doesn’t know what happened to them, what he did with them, the ones who betrayed him. He doesn’t talk about that part. He was battered when Baiyi found him, but alone. The victor. “Girls from the ghost valley. There were two that didn’t want to go back. Wen Kexing sent them over.”

“You soft touch,” Baiyi snorts. “So you fill my house with stray murderers and forget to tell me about it, huh? Wonderful. When I’m dead will you turn this place into a gambling den? A whorehouse?”

“Of course.”

“Shameless beast,” Baiyi says, and flicks a rag at him.

“If that makes you angry, then wait on this side of the bridge,” Xie says. “And you can beat me when I catch up.”

Baiyi looks at him blankly, horrified.

“Don’t say nonsense like that,” he says, after a moment, and wraps the linens up a little more viciously. “Who asked you to?”

“You did,” Xie says. He pauses his sweeping and lifts his eyebrows, daring Baiyi to correct him. “Last night. I seem to recall you biting my ear and saying that in our next life you’d put strong sons in me. Are you so senile you’ve forgotten already? Or just embarassed?”

Baiyi scowls. Xie smiles, smug with triumph.

“If your head swells any bigger, it’ll pop.”

“Yours hasn’t yet, and it’s huge.”

“Jackass! I’ll—”

Xie throws the broom at his face. Nothing gets cleaned up, after all.