The world was still quiet here, at the foot of the mountain -- not as quiet as the mountain itself, of course, but all existence was a series of tradeoffs. In this one, they'd exchanged snow-covered stillness for making someone else fix supper and keep their jugs of wine filled. It wasn't a lifestyle change worth making permanent, but every so often, it was nice.
"That gentleman over there," said the man who'd once been the Changming Sword Immortal -- and still was, for that matter, so long as no one else was likely to step up and agitate for the title. It was one of the perks of creating one's own relatively obscure position. "The one in green, who looks like a scholar."
That got a smile from the man who'd once been the Scorpion King -- and wasn't now, and would never be again. He leaned back from the table, stretching his arms above his head with natural, casual grace. Two of the little silver beads woven through his braids clinked against one another as he turned to see without letting on that he was turning to see. "Ah," Xie'er said, settling back at the table. "I would look lost. Confused. A lowly little thing who couldn't exist in the world without his sage guidance." For punctuation, Xie'er widened his round, dark eyes with a look of frightened innocence that might have convinced someone who didn't know better.
Ye Baiyi very much so knew better. He smirked. "An effective approach, under the right circumstances."
"And his cock would be in my mouth within the hour," Xie'er declared, looking smug as he popped a wonton between his lips instead.
They weren't in disguise, not especially, and not in the way the Four Seasons hangers-on went about it. There was simply a line past which a person's appearance became notable, for one reason or another, and they were both safe on the inconspicuous side of it at the moment. Xie'er could never have looked ordinary , but without the sharp, dark lines painted around his eyes, his radiant beauty blended at least a little better into the crowd. The storm-grey robe Ye Baiyi currently had wrapped over his customary attire dulled likewise the effect of the intense white fabric beneath. They might have been noticed, but they wouldn't have to deal with the annoyance of being out-and-out identified.
"You think he's ever had another man do that to him before?" Ye Baiyi glanced over at the man in question, who was fussily wiping his glasses on the tail of the sash knotted around his waist. "Or anyone ?"
"Oh, he has," answered Xie'er with the air of a man who'd know. "But not enough. Not that there's ever enough."
"He has a nice mouth himself," Ye Baiyi agreed.
Xie'er nodded in appreciation. "Too bad he'd be too nervous for reciprocity. But I'd stick my fingers in it, just for a moment before I walked away. A little parting gift for him to think about later." He sighed dreamily, running the tapered ends of his chopsticks against his lower lip. "Also, an excellent way to administer poison."
Ye Baiyi smirked over his cup of wine. When they played this game (one of their favorites and perhaps the most publicly respectable of the lot), the vast majority of Xie'er's scenarios ended with variations on and then if I wanted to kill him, this is how I'd do it . Some habits, Ye Baiyi supposed, died hard.
"How would you take him?" Xie'er asked.
"Not within an hour," Ye Baiyi said, acknowledging that when it came to speed of seduction, Xie'er and his striking looks had the advantage. "I'd join him at his table. Get him talking, drinking, drinking a little more, a little more after that. Until the house is quiet and his companions have gone to bed, and he asks if I'd like to continue our conversation in his room, where he has -- unsurprisingly -- more wine."
Xie'er cupped his chin in the palm of his hand, a gesture that made him look far too young to have the past he'd had. "Would you tell him one of your stories?"
Ye Baiyi shook his head. "I'd let him talk. Pour and talk. Men like that love to find someone who'll listen, so much that he won't notice how close I'm sitting. Or how he's leaning back against my chest. Until it would be ruder to pull away than to stay put."
"He'd kiss you first, I think," Xie'er said. This wasn't quite how the game was meant to go, but Ye Baiyi could hardly be mad if some little scorpion's enthusiasm for imagining sexual encounters ran a bit away with him. "Like a new discovery he's making. Even if he's kissed men before, he hasn't kissed you ."
"No, he hasn't." False modesty was something Ye Baiyi had outgrown so long ago, it belonged to a time that might as well not even have existed. "What he wanted to taste next? I'd let him decide."
"I think he'd want to suck you." Xie'er stretched his legs out under the table so that his foot was up alongside Ye Baiyi's calf, nudging up under the edge of his robes. "I bet he'd like you standing over him. He'd be so wide-eyed, licking his lips. He might see the size of you and start to rethink his decision. But his pride wouldn't let him. And you'd finish in his mouth, wouldn't you? The full experience of tasting you. The Immortal's Blessing."
He said the last phrase with such a lofty tone that Ye Baiyi half-choked on his wine. Past experience showed that one did not have to be a scholar or a gentleman to wax poetic about the idea of having one's lips wrapped around Ye Baiyi's cock. "He'll have to write a treatise on the subject," Ye Baiyi said, then frowned. "And I'll come back and read it in a century, and find it's all metaphors."
Xie'er wrinkled up his nose. "Dull!"
"The life of a legend is difficult," Ye Baiyi said with a shrug. He glanced out to the rest of the inn's main room. "All right. Next pick is yours."
With a thoughtful little hum, Xie'er looked out at the various people who'd gathered there: travelers, merchants, soldiers, musicians, waitstaff. Inns were the best places to play like this, for the sheer variety of choice. "That one," Xie'er said at last, nodding at a group of swordsmen congregating against a far wall. "The big one."
"Test of strength," Ye Baiyi said, sizing up the man out of the corner of his eye. He was a head taller than the tallest of his companions, broad-jawed and handsome in the lumpy, broken-nosed way career fighters tended to be. He sported a neat beard, too, giving him a bit of gravitas. It wasn't difficult to see why he'd caught Xie'er's eye. "He's a big man. He likes to test his skills against someone who can take him. Or," Ye Baiyi added, giving it another moment's thought, "I could just ask to see his sword."
"There's something to be said for the direct approach." Xie'er nodded. "I think he'd want me up against a wall. Pinning me there with a hand between my shoulderblades."
As a veteran of having Xie'er in exactly that position, Ye Baiyi understood the appeal. "With your robes torn off and pushed aside just enough to let him in?"
"Of course," Xie'er said, his voice taking on a smoky cadence as he leaned in, as though they were discussing imperial secrets. Truth be told, Ye Baiyi had long since ceased to care if anyone in the vicinity knew he was talking about fucking men, but there was still some fun to the play of keeping it quiet. "Taking me rough, finishing too fast inside of me. He hadn't realized how good I'd feel."
"Men like that poorly estimate their own stamina. Still, what little you'd get would feel good."
"Oh, inside and out," Xie'er agreed. He looked back over to the man, who was now laughing at something his companions had said, unaware that he was the subject of sexual scrutiny from across the room. "He'd have to watch himself, though. Men like that can get ... disrespectful with their words."
And disrespectful brought out the knives Xie'er had secreted in the folds of his robes. Sometimes the earliest skills one acquired remained the most useful one's whole life through. "And you deserve only respect for being such an excellent piece of ass," Ye Baiyi said, nodding his approval. "The little waiter over there. The sweet one who's been by a few times."
Xie'er barely glanced at the young man, who was currently working up a sweat keeping jugs filled at all the inn's tables. "He is sweet, isn't he?" Xie'er said, in the way that made it clear he'd already had an eye trained on that smooth, round face from some earlier point that evening. "A little smile every time he passes, touching his hand when he comes to the table." For a demonstration, Xie'er brushed the backs of his fingers along the side of Ye Baiyi's hand. "I think I'd leave him a little note. Tell him where to find me."
"A note!" Ye Baiyi chuckled. "How gentle. You would be sweet."
"Mm," Xie'er agreed. He let his fingertips linger just at the edge of contact, until Ye Baiyi almost couldn't tell whether he was actually being touched or just feeling the heat of proximity. "Something inviting. Not incriminating. A gentle promise, a bit mysterious, just to make him curious."
Xie'er's attraction to older men, Ye Baiyi could well and truly understand -- he was the beneficiary of that particular taste, after all. But there was also something lovely about the way Xie'er talked about the pretty young ones, where Ye Baiyi could no longer clearly see the lines between appreciation and identification. Maybe Xie'er wished someone had treated him with such kindness, when he had been that young and still tender. There was something to be said for a person who could endure hardships without feeling the need to pass them on to someone else. Many masters would be better teachers if they could learn that lesson themselves. "Would you give him your real smile?" asked Ye Baiyi.
"No." Xie'er shook his head.
Ye Baiyi smirked. "A bit mysterious indeed."
"My real smile belongs to someone else, anyway," Xie'er said, then continued without missing a beat: "I'd ride him, I think."
"Have to take it slow," Ye Baiyi pointed out, watching as the young man under discussion bowed deeply to some rich-looking patron. "Boys like that have no self-control."
Xie'er chuckled in agreement. "Then I'd hold his hands down."
The image of Xie'er perched over the stunned young man like a wildcat with its prey, trapping his wrists against the bed, staring down at him with dark hair falling all around them both as his hips rose and fell -- it was, to say the least, an arousing thought. There was no real goal to the game, per se, and no specific way to win or lose it. If they'd been counting points, though, Xie'er surely would just have scored one.
"He'd write a poem about it later," Ye Baiyi said. "More than one. For you, he'd become an entire poet."
Xie'er looked at Ye Baiyi through dark eyelashes. "But what would you make him into?"
What indeed? Ordinary lives were so strangely fragile -- most people lived them, and lived them comfortably, having assumed their whole lives that was their only choice. But once the illusion that such an existence was compulsory was shattered? In Ye Baiyi's experience, few people ever chose to go back. "A monk, perhaps," Ye Baiyi said, watching the way the waiter hurried across the room. It was oddly easy to imagine him at last at rest. "Or a traveler. Someone who prefers wilderness to walls."
"I think you should ride him too," Xie'er said, as though reminding Ye Baiyi that the game was about how they'd seduce various men, not how they'd put them on separate career paths. "He seems like he'd be good for it. Sturdy."
"He does, doesn't he?" Ye Baiyi filled Xie'er's cup for him. "To pin down and overwhelm. Maybe he'd even be sweet enough for the both of us."
Xie'er's eyes sparkled wickedly at the idea. The poor young man would hardly survive, but what a way to go. "Hold him down for me," Xie'er purred. "You underneath, and me on top. And then, if he has more to give, we'll trade."
" Definitely a poet after that." Ye Baiyi chuckled.
"A poet and a monk."
Ye Baiyi watched the waiter hurry and disappear into the kitchen. "...Shall we?"
It was never the object of their game, but it was always an option -- to make good on their threats, to test their theories in the real world. Most times, actually going to the trouble of seducing the men in question would have been at best more troublesome than it was worth, and not as satisfying to do as it would have been to deal with the mess afterwards. There were occasions, though, when risk and reward aligned. Ravishing a young waiter from a small mountain town might well have been one of them.
After a moment's serious consideration, though, Xie'er shook his head. "Mm, no. There are enough poets already."
Ye Baiyi was startled into a full-throated laugh. "No lie on your lips, there."
Xie'er smirked at that, leaning back against the table and looking out at the rest of the restaurant. It was strange, when seeing him like this, to think of how tight-wound and precarious Xie'er had been when they'd first encountered one another. He was easy now, loose and lightweight. He no longer made Ye Baiyi worried that he might shatter if touched, like a glass treasure under unsustainable pressure. Sometimes Ye Baiyi thought even Xie'er didn't quite know how to react without that constant weight on his chest. It wasn't so hard to imagine it had been there his whole life long.
Then Xie'er's lips quirked into a wicked little smile. "What about her?" he asked, indicating no particular person.
Every muscle in Ye Baiyi's expression remained flat and steady. "I'm sorry, which man in this inn are you referring to?"
Xie'er dissolved into giggles, helpless against the weight of Ye Baiyi's unamused glare. He hid his mouth behind the bell of his sleeve, peering over its edge as his shoulders shook.
Ye Baiyi rolled his eyes, carefully keeping his mouth from giving anything away. "I'd seduce her by letting someone else do it," he said with a snort.
"What if she had a cock?" Xie'er asked, his eyes bright.
"She could have a hundred. Still none of my business." Ye Baiyi reached for a clean pair of chopsticks and smacked Xie'er lightly across the back of his hand. "Little brat, play fair."
Rubbing his hand with exaggerated tenderness, Xie'er put on his widest-eyed pout for all of five seconds, then laughed and nodded to a far table. "The old man drinking alone over there."
Ye Baiyi shrugged as he eyed his quarry. The gentleman in question looked like a lifelong laborer, seemingly well-kept despite his age, with a bearing that spoke more of peace than loneliness and decline. "I'd be direct. Buy him some wine and tell him he should take me to his bed."
"A good approach," Xie'er said, nodding. "Old men seldom have time to waste."
"They're flattered by interest," Ye Baiyi said. "And very eager." That was something he'd learned as a much younger man, how white-haired men often made fine lovers on account of how rare their chances to bed someone were. Those who might earlier in their lives have been likely to reject such advances, in their twilight years often found themselves much less discriminating.
"I'd pour his wine all evening," Xie'er said, picking up the jug from the table and using it to refill Ye Baiyi's own cup. "Ask him for his wisdom."
"Tell him you have another lover even older than he is?" Ye Baiyi smirked as he took a sip. If Xie'er had been trying to tease him with that, well, he'd failed; Ye Baiyi was old, and now he just had more wine to drink about it.
Xie'er smirked, letting his hand linger along Ye Baiyi's forearm. The touch was far more affectionate than public propriety should have allowed, but so what? Woe betide the fool who decided to give them shit about it. "I could slip my hand into his robes while we're still at the table," Xie'er purred, playing at the soft fabric of Ye Baiyi's sleeve. "He wouldn't even have to get up. He could keep his composure while I stroke him. Feel him get nice and hard in my hand. I would be such a wicked boy, making him so hard. And no one would ever see it on his face."
Was this a particular fantasy, one that predated their knowing one another? Ye Baiyi didn't know, and he knew better than to ask. "Would you try to break that composure? Or help him keep it?"
"Oh, help him," Xie'er said, as though offended by any suggestion otherwise. "He'd be so disappointed if he broke. And then I'd wipe my hand on his robes when he finished, so he'd remember me later."
Chuckling, Ye Baiyi reached out to brush the curve of Xie'er's jaw with the backs of his fingers. "As though he'd ever think of anything but you again." Was he showing more sentimentality here than he cared to display? It didn't matter. He could blame it on the wine, if he needed to.
Xie'er leaned into the touch, like a cat being petted. "For the rest of the few years he has left. He can dream of me in his final days."
Once upon a time, not so long ago, that would have appealed to Ye Baiyi: the idea of drifting off under the weight of his full age, thinking of warm touches and smiles he'd known in years past. But when he'd hauled a black-clad body out of the mountain snows, half-frozen and barely breathing, it seemed he'd dragged himself out along with it. Now they both had a long time to figure out exactly what to do about having a long time.
Straightening his spine with a little wiggle, Xie'er pointed at his own face. "How about this one?" he asked with a cheeky grin.
Before he could catch himself and temper his expression, Ye Baiyi found himself breaking into a full, beaming smile. "How would I seduce a rare beauty like that?" He shook his head thoughtfully. "That would take time to be done properly. I could bed him once, but then he might forget about me."
"You?" Xie'er shook his head, making the beads jingle. "Never."
Ye Baiyi reached over and covered Xie'er's hand with his own, feeling the cool contours of the silver rings against his warm skin. "He catches the eye of so many men. It's still competition. I might have to keep seducing him for the rest of my life. Give him a reason to keep saying yes."
A rosy blush spread across Xie'er's pale cheeks. His gaze dropped to their joined hands. "Saying yes." He turned his hand over, interlacing Ye Baiyi's fingers with his, the touch half-hidden in the overlapping folds of their robes. "Not just shouting it. Repeatedly."
Ye Baiyi chuckled. "Shouting is easy. Saying is difficult."
Xie'er gave a casual shrug, as though this were a conversation that meant anything else. "Not that hard, though. Just let him see your cock."
A smirk quirked Ye Baiyi's lips. "What an excellent idea," he said with great dignity. "I'm glad I thought of it."
That set Xie'er off on another fit of giggles, light as bubbles in wine. He didn't bother to shield his face this time, though, but let his head fall back, closing his eyes. There were not enough what-ifs in the world to think of how things could have been different in both their lives, but there were enough to know that difference was sharp. And if the past could not be changed to accommodate those differences, then future would have to. That was a lesson in compassion worth learning, that everyone was better than their own worst instincts. Even an old man himself.
"There," Ye Baiyi said quietly. "That smile."
Xie'er turned his gaze right on Ye Baiyi, humming happily. "This one. It's yours."
With a wink, Ye Baiyi squeezed his hand. "I'll take good care of it."