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I'll abide my time

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This is how Jingyan meets Su Zhe:

He's riding to Suzhou garrison with his men when he passes a gazebo on a hill. Xiao Shu would have wanted to stop and look at, climb all over and poke through all the corners, saying "Look, Jingyan, there's a tablet --" He looks over half-accidentally, and sees a tall figure standing there that looks so familiar that his heart gives a single hard thump.

But it can't be, and it isn't, it's a man standing there to look out over the view while his retainers swear over his carriage on the side of the road. The carriage looks like it belongs to someone from a good family, so Jingyan sends some men to see if they can help and goes up to the gazebo to speak to the man.

The man is dressed in white, not quite like a spirit, and has his hair bound by a white jade hairpiece. He looks like a strong wind would blow him away, but he turns his face into the wind blowing through the gazebo, like he enjoys it.

"Sir," says Jingyan, bowing slightly. "This is a lonely area to be by oneself."

The man turns and looks at him, and bows in return. "I'm not worried," he says.

"I don't mean to alarm you, sir," says Jingyan, because when Jingyan gets a good look at him, he's very obviously a scholar of good breeding and frail health. "But bandits are known to be in this area. Surely a man like yourself should have a bodyguard, at the very least."

"I have a most reliable bodyguard," says the gentleman, smiling faintly.

Jingyan draws his brows together, but before he can ask where the bodyguard is, if he's swearing at the cart instead of being near him, a little furry face pokes out of the gentleman's robes and meows.

The gentleman laughs at him, not out loud, but with his eyes, as he strokes a finger down the calico velvet of the cat's nose. "As you can see, my lord."

The gentleman's hand, as he rubs delicately under the cat's chin, is very long and pale. Jingyan takes a step forward, half unconsciously. "I hope you don't mind," he says, "but I sent some of my men to see if they could help your servants."

The gentleman smiles at him, and his eyes flick to something behind Jingyan. "That is most gracious of your Highness," he says. "Your servant is honored by your kindness."

Jingyan doesn't like that, this gentleman is speaking so formally to him. He wishes he would as smile at him again, and call him 'my lord' again, in that way that made Jingyan feel like he really was his lord. He turns around and sees that Zhanying is right behind him, waiting for his attention.

"Sir," says Zhanying. Jingyan bows at the gentleman and then moves a little closer to find out what Zhanying has found out. "The axle of the carriage is broken, it seems. Mr Su is of delicate health," he indicates the gentleman with a bare turn of his head, "and his men are very anxious that he get into town before it starts storming."

Jingyan looks up to see the sky. Clouds are drawing together, more rapidly than he likes to see. Perhaps an hour or two before the storm begins, but a long walk to Suzhou. The wind is picking up, too, already getting colder -- and it had been no warm breeze before. A storm is coming. "Can it be fixed?"

"Not before the storm hits, sir," says Zhanying. "They've already sent a messenger for a new rickshaw, and I asked if we could lend them a mount, but Mr Su's manservant says he's unable to ride by himself, and even being led on a horse --"

Because the horse could only go at the human's pace, Jingyan thinks, and by the time they arrived Mr Su would still be soaked through. He's bundled up, but it's clear that he is already suffering from the cold.

Later, Jingyan will wonder why it seemed so natural. Now, he nods to Zhanying, and turns back to the gentleman. "Perhaps," he says, "I could take you to your residence, Mr ...?"

"Su," says the gentleman. "Su Zhe, of Suzhou."

"I see you must know this already," says Jingyan, "but I am Xiao Jingyan, of Jinling."

A strange look passes Mr Su's face -- not quite unhappy, not quite… but it's gone before Jingyan can see it clearly. "Your Highness is magmonious indeed," he says. "But I can't accept such kindness."

Jingyan doesn't want to hear about his own kindness. "It would be no trouble," he says.

"I can't deprive Your Highness of your horse," says Mr Su, "And your men have all traveled so far, haven't they? I'm sure it will be fine if --"

A crack of thunder fills the air and Jingyan smells the air pressure drop. Without thinking, he swings his cloak around Mr Su's shoulders and hustles him to his horse with his arm around him, looking back to Zhanying only to say, "take shelter and have Mr Su's men tell you where to find his house."

"But sir," says Zhanying. He looks uneasily at Mr Su and then at Jingyan. "We don't know this gentleman. Surely --"

"Don't be disrespectful," says Jingyan.

"My lord!" says Mr Su, trying to resist. Jingyan points at one of Mr Su's men, now staring at him in surprise, and says, "Make sure everybody gets under cover."

The servant's eyes flick from Jingyan to Mr Su, and then his mouth splits open in a sudden, unnerving grin. "Yes, your Highness."

"Li Gang," says Mr Su, in threatening tones, and then coughs, covering his mouth with his fist, and by the the time he recovers, they're at Jingyan's horse and Li Gang is by their side to help him mount. "Your highness, surely I am too heavy for your horse."

Li Gang actually snorts at that. Jingyan pulls his cloak away from Mr Su's shoulders and swings up. He reaches down and Li Gang lifts up, and Mr Su is seated in front of Jingyan, fever-warm. Jingyan adjusts his cloak around him again, curling his arms around him to hold the reins. Mr Su makes a face.

"And this great beast," says Mr Su, as the cat pokes her head out and sniffs the air. "Even if I was fine, won't she be too much weight?"

"I'm depending on you," says Jingyan to Li Gang and Zhanying, and they both salute.

"It's just outside the outskirts of town, your Highness," says Li Gang, deftly avoiding a kick by his master. "The gate has an inscription of 'Knowledge Burns Eternally'." He points down the road. "It's about two li away."

Mr Su opens his mouth to abuse him, but a crack of thunder interrupts him. Jingyan says, "Thank you," and kicks his horse into motion. He hopes, for a minute, that his men aren't going to be fox-led into a marsh, but Zhanying has a lot of sense.

They set off on a canter, and Mr Su is quiet, concentrating on his balance. He has a hard time staying steady on the bow of the saddle, and he keeps making grabs at the breast of his robes as if he's worried about his cat. Jingyan slows to a halt and says, "Allow me."

He shifts Mr Su closer into his arms, so he's leaning securely against his chest and the cat is safe between them. Mr Su instinctively slides one arm around Jingyan's waist, and Jingyan urges the horse forward again.

"I feel like one of us is being rather forward, my lord," says Mr Su. His tone is gently chiding but his mouth is curling up in a tiny, pleased smile.

"I humbly beg your pardon," said Jingyan, as gravely as he could manage it. Mr Su hadn't seemed particularly thin when he was standing in the arbor, but now that he was being held in Jingyan's arms his bones pressed against Jingyan's body. It was no wonder he was so cold, with no flesh on his bones: the wonder was that he hadn't blown away in the wind of the hill.

"I must thank your highness again," said Mr Su, rather stiffly. "Your kindness exceeds my merit."

Jingyan makes a noncommittal sound. He doesn't want Mr Su to be formal with him. He wants him to show him more of that flash of playfulness. He smells good, too, so good that Jingyan wants to put his nose against the corner of his neck and sniff the different notes of clean skin and soap and bitter medicine until he forgets the scent of the battlefields, of being unable to wash in a place full of unclean things.

"One has heard, of course, that your highness was stationed at the border," says Mr Su. "I must confess, it seemed unlikely that humble Suzhou would be honored by your presence."

"I was ordered to exchange posts with the governor in Suzhou," says Jingyan. It had been a blow, a bitter one, to be reassigned after six months establishing himself at the border, and to be told he would be at Suzhou until the end of winter; he missed his mother desperately, and his men were beginning to be restless without their own families. The commander at Suzhou was said to take bribes, and from all Jingyan had heard, was incompetent at best. Jingyan's old post would be quickly demoralized by him, and Jingyan would be hated for his refusal to be lenient in Suzhou. His bluntness would offend the other officials there. The very thought made him tired, but there was nothing he could do but persevere.

There is nothing he can do.

"Hm," says Mr Su. It isn't much of a response, but Jingyan feels inexplicably as if Mr Su understands and sympathizes with him.

Thunder rolls again, and Jingyan's horse, already unhappy about the weather and the stranger on his back, puts his ears back and tosses his head. "Easy," says Jingyan, "easy," and Xiaoxiao settles again, even though he keeps one ear turns back toward Jingyan to listen to what was going on.

"You are a very skilled rider," says Mr Su, reaching down to pat Jingyan's horse.

"You flatter me," says Jingyan.

"No," says Mr Su. "I'm no rider now, but I can see it when it's done well." For a second his head dips down, and Jingyan wonders why he seems so sad. Had he some sort of accident? Jingyan wants to know everything about him.

Mr Su shivers, and Jingyan pulls the cloak around him more tightly and urges Xiaoxiao to a slightly faster canter. They've covered half the distance already but the wind is kicking up again and the thunder is coming closer. Jingyan wonders if there's a place that they can take shelter -- but no, even if he found a place, it would be better for Mr Su to be in a place where he could change his clothes, and the little cat could be put down safely.

He pictures what Mr Su must look like under his clothes -- very skinny, white as good porcelain, and somehow, he was sure, still exquisite and graceful, and a hot rush of blood rises to his neck. It's not appropriate. But he still wants to at least push aside the wraps of fabric cocooning Mr Su's neck to see if his shoulder is as sweet and elegant as he imagines.

The gate swings open, and servants rush out - an older man dressed as a doctor, an auntie wearing her sleeves tied up, a groom that reaches respectfully for Xiaoxiao's bridle --followed by and intermingled with what seems like an army of cats, all chirping and yowling. One, which is the size of a small dog, stands on its hind legs and lets out a noise like a battle horn. Xiaoxiao puts his ears back and prances nervously in place before Jingyan gets him to calm down. The little cat in Mr Su's robes sticks her face out and trills back at the large one.

"There, go greet your husband, Damao," says Mr Su, indulgently, and the little cat wiggles out and jumps lightly down to the ground to sniff at the big cat's face before rubbing their faces together.

"Damao?" says Jingyan. "You mean the one --"

"No, her husband is Xiaomao because he's so elegant and dainty," says Mr Su, straightfaced. "Damao is so big and tough, you know."

Jingyan stares hard at the tiny calico washing her shoulder fastidiously after her husband rubbed it with his massive head, and chooses not to say anything. "I suppose one of those white ones is Choumao," he says, as Mr Su is helped down by another groom.

"Well," says Mr Su. "They're both so dirty and stinky, I really had no choice."

Jingyan opens and closes his mouth. "You have four cats?" he says finally, as the best of his available choices.

"Oh, no, five, but Huaimao is so mean, he'd scare your horse away," says Mr Su, straightfaced.

Jingyan looks around and catches sight of a cat lurking in the shadows of the courtyard, staring at Xiaoxiao as if it expects to be eaten alive. The cat's ears are flat against its skull. As Jingyan watches, it opens its mouth in a silent, rather piteous hiss.

Jingyan says, "I see."

Jingyan dismounts and looks around the courtyard. The walls are white-plastered, with flower vines climbing over them, and sending out a sweet, subtle smell even though the scent of the coming rain. The moongate shows further courtyards leading to rooms and gardens. Jingyan hears the sound of the rain pattering down from the pointed eave-tiles into the ponds below: musical, sweet. Even though Mr Su's staff is fussing around, hustling forward with warm cloaks and handwarmers, and scolding Mr Su for being so careless of his health, the overall impression of the complex is of a deep, sweet peace, full of beauty and restful elegance. Everywhere he looks, things are in their right places, a delight to the eyes. The very vines climb over the walls in a way that satisfies his eyes.

Jingyan heaves out a sigh. He feels like he's been relieved of a great burden, that he hadn't even been aware of carrying.

Even if he's been fox-led, he thinks, to feel this sudden sense of peace would be worth it.

"My lord," says Mr Su. Jingyan looks at him. "Perhaps you will condescend to enter my humble residence until the rain ends?"

Jingyan squints up at the sky and gets a particularly fat raindrop in his eye for his trouble. He looks at Mr Su.

"Or until your cloak dries and your men return," amends Mr Su. "Of course my meals are very simple, but I should be glad to have you share what humble fare I have."

"If it won't be a bother," says Jingyan.

Jingyan washes and checks on Xiaoxiao before a smiling older woman leads him to the main hall. Mr Su bows, and Jingyan returns the bow, before they sit down and begin their meal.

Honestly, anything would taste delicious after the rations Jingyan and his men had been living on for months now, but the food is almost as good as Jingyan's mother's cooking. The thought hurts for a second: he misses his mother so much. He wants to talk to her and eat her delicious food, and it will be so long before he sees her again.

A girl glides into the room, dressed in white. She's very beautiful in a austere sort of way: this is a girl who would listen to your pleas of love and only smile. She bows to Jingyan, and then, very slightly deeper, to Mr Su. She looks at Jingyan from under her thick eyelashes, and Jingyan is unsettled by the resentment in her eyes. Is she Mr Su's concubine? The look she gives him is like the ones his father's wives give each other when they think no one was looking.

"Master Su," she says, turning away from Jingyan with an air of finality.

"Gong Yu," says Mr Su, smiling at her. Jingyan notices that the way he looks at her is much more friendly and impersonal than the way she looks at him, more brotherly and fond. "Won't you play a song for His Highness and me?"

She hesitates. "Surely His Highness is used to much better music than I can produce," she says.

"Any music would be a pleasure," says Jingyan, quite honestly. Mr Su's hand twitches, hidden in his robes. Jingyan hastily says, "To tell you the truth, my friend used to scold me because I never noticed things that he would. My teachers did their best but I'm afraid I am unteachable."

The look she gives him is pure poison.

(Never mind, Xiao Shu had said, laughing at him with his warm eyes, I'll play for you while you chew your cud.)

Jingyan clears his throat and looks away. It's embarrassing, but he's never been good at understanding music: he likes to listen to it, but he's never appreciated the subtle complexities of it. Either it's good, and he likes it, or it's bad, and he's annoyed.

"I hope Your Highness is pleased by my humble efforts," says Gong Yu, in tones of freezing courtesy, and glides to the qin.

Jingyan stares down at the tray in front of him and feels his ears burning with humiliation. Mr Su touches his sleeve, and when Jingyan looks at him, smiles softly at him. "Gong Yu is a very skilled and talented player."

"Master Su flatters me," says Gong Yu. Her voice lingers over "Master Su", as if she likes the taste in her mouth. Jingyan can't blame her, not really. She kneels gracefully behind the qin, and says, "This is a song my father was fond of, they tell me."

She waits for a minute, as if she is listening to something that Jingyan and Mr Su can't hear, and then touches the strings of the qin. One note shatters the stillness of the room, like a drop of water falling into a clear pool, and hangs suspended in the air for a long, long moment: another follows, and another, falling and rushing together like a stream of water gathering itself from where it began in the mountains and flinging itself down, toward the sea and the rest of its fellow streams below.

Jingyan hardly dares to breathe.

Gong Yu's face is calm and serene as she bends over the qin, even as her fingers dance over the strings. Jingyan feels like if he moves, the spell will break, and the music will fade into the chirp of crickets and the croaking of frogs.

When she lifts her hands again and the next note fades, Jingyan doesn't know how to respond. To applaud almost seems like an insult. When she looks up, he looks at her and they stare at each other for a long moment. Her eyes are challenging, daring him to misunderstand her music.

He says, "Your music sounds like the spring melt in the mountains."

Gong Yu's eyes widen slightly before she drops them again. Her lips compress slightly, like she is trying to hide a frown or a smile; Jingyan can't quite tell. He looks over at Mr Su for a suggestion, but Mr Su's expression is quite, quite blank.

"Thank you, Gong Yu," says Mr Su, gently.

Gong Yu bows her head. For a moment, she looks very sad, and Jingyan feels a strange sympathy for her, without being quite sure why. Then she stands up in a single fluid motion and bows to them again. "If you will excuse me," she says, and glides quickly out of the room.

Jingyan stares after her with a frown on his face, and then looks over at Mr Su.

Mr Su looks weary, as if faced with a long-standing burden that he must take up again, no matter what. JIngyan feels an absurd desire to reach out to him. Surely it can't be so harsh that he can't help Mr Su, even if just a little. But he doesn't know how to ask.

There's a silence before the big cat, Xiaomao, comes into the room, claws tapping against the polished wood of the floor. He stops in the center of the room, looks at them, and then opens his mouth in a querulous shriek, tail twitching back and forth impatiently.

"What an old man you are," says Mr Su, amusement in his voice. "It's not even time for bed."

Xiaomao makes another noise, this one more like a squeak, and trots up to Mr Su. He is so heavy that his footsteps resound on the floor like the steps of a man in armor. He sniffs at Jingyan's sleeve in passing, and then sits beside Mr Su, paws crossed under his snowy breast, his tail curled around his flank. Mr Su drops his hand to Xiaomao's back and he begins to purr, a deep, basso-profundo sound. It reverberates in the room like the sound of drums, joined by the clicking of more claws against the floor. First Damao, and then the two Choumaos appear, slinking in the room like familiar spirits. Their eyes glow like foxfire in the flickering light of the candles.

Finally even Huaimao slinks in, tail low, and creeps timidly up to them, sitting a little away from them, bolt upright, ears wide to catch any sound as it comes.

Outside, lightning flashes, and a second or two later, thunder booms out, and rain begins to pour down again.

At the next flash and crack of thunder, Huaimao scrabbles into Jingyan's lap, trembling with fear. He pushes his head into Jingyan's elbow, and when Jingyan strokes him, static crackles from his black coat. As Jingyan continues to pet him slowly, Huaimao begins to relax, even though he flinches at the sound of thunder.

It should be strange, sitting here in this uncanny house with Mr Su and his cats, but Jingyan thinks he could stay like this for a long time.

Jingyan turns to look at Mr Su, and finds him already looking at Jingyan. His eyes look almost as mysterious as the eyes of the cats in the candlelight. Jingyan can't understand why he seems so remote, as if he's looking at Jingyan and seeing something - somebody - else.

The spell is broken when the manservant that had been with Mr Su on the hill enters the room quietly and kneels beside Mr Su to murmur something to him. Jingyan wonders idly where the man had served in the army: he doesn't recognize him but it's clear by his bearing that he had military training.

Mr Su seems to come back to himself and smiles at Jingyan. "It's been a long day for both of us, I'm sure."

The man -- Li Gang? -- bows to Jingyan respectfully and says, "It seems that the bridge into the city is flooded out, Your Highness. It will be a little cramped, but we think we can fit everybody into the house."

Jingyan hesitates for a second. He should press on anyway, but his men are so tired that it seems too cruel to make them ford the river and then unpack in the cold, probably damp barracks and make their own meals.

"We don't often get visitors here," says Mr Su. "I'm afraid I live a very retired life. Auntie Ji is probably in seventh heaven with all this cooking to do."

"It would be an honor to entertain His HIghness's men tonight," says Li Gang, bowing again. "Ch - Master Su is right, we don't often have visitors."

"If it really wouldn''t be a nuisance," says Jingyan, and bows to Mr Su. "Thank you for your gracious hospitality."

Li Gang bows and leaves. The silence returns, but it's no long the heavy, loaded silence of before. The thunder seems to have cleared the air in the room, and Jingyan takes in a deep breath.

"I -" he starts, and Mr Su says,

"Would my lord -"

They both stop and look at each other. Mr Su is laughing with his eyes again. Jingyan can't help but reach out and touch the back of his hand where it slips from the folds of his robes. He waits for a minute, watching intently for any signs of disapproval or refusal.

The only one who seems to object is Xiaomao, a minute later, who stalks off in a huff as Jingyan leans closer to put his hand on Mr Su's jaw and his mouth on Mr Su's lips.

Jingyan thinks, a while later, that it's even lovelier than the poets said to be fox-led. Mr Su's body is cool and very real against his own, as Jingyan pulls the covers over them both.

Jingyan hopes he wakes up to this, and not a grassy meadow. But for once, he's willing to close his eyes and accept whatever comes.

Something wakes him up, but he doesn't know what it is until he blinks a few times. The cold light of pre-dawn is just creeping into the edges of the window. There's a man beside the bed. Jingyan blinks up at him. For some reason, he's not startled or angry.

The man, dressed all in white, pays no attention to Jingyan, beyond a flicker of a frown when he shifts. His fingers lie delicately on Mr Su's pulse point, and he's staring down at the white underside of Mr Su's arm with great intensity, like he can read the blood rushing in the faint blue lines there.

The man lets out an annoyed puff of air, and looks up at Jingyan. He studies him for a long moment, starting from his face and going down the line of Jingyan's shoulder and his arm wrapped around Mr Su's waist. He sighs again, very impatiently, and holds out his hand to Jingyan.

Jingyan holds out his arm obediently, like his mother taught him, and before he can draw it back or even realize what's going on, the man is feeling his pulse at his wrist bone and at the crook of his elbow.

"Huh," says the man finally. "I suppose you have plenty of yang, at least."

"Thank you?" says Jingyan. His mother always says Jingyan has too much yang, and makes him eat cooling foods while making gentle, pointed remarks about how to decrease it.

Which, Jingyan supposes, he's done.

The man picks up one of the white cats, who allows him to drape it over his shoulder with only a sleepy chirp, and points a finger at Jingyan. "Don't let him get up without a brazier lit. And make him wear his damn cloak."

Then he walks out, with the cat on his shoulder limp as a noodle and obviously asleep.

Jingyan has no idea what just happened.

He waits for a while, to see if the man or the cat comes back, but after a while his eyes close against the peace of the room and Mr Su curled in his arms, and he falls back asleep.

When he wakes again, the color of the light has changed to soft gold, dawn seeping into the room like honey. Mr Su is talking to someone, very quietly, although he hasn't moved from Jingyan's arms: he feels warmer now, as if he'd soaked up all of Jingyan's excess heat overnight. His hair is lying ticklishly over Jingyan's nose, which Jingyan would be annoyed about, but it smells like incense. Jingyan shifts a little so he can smell it more easily. It's very soft.

Mr Su must think he's still asleep, because he says, in a coaxing voice, "Come now, you don't want to be rude, do you? Su-gege has a guest. When His Highness wakes up Su-gege will get up and play with you."

"Late!" says a stubborn, childish voice.

Jingyan wonders if Mr Su's bedchamber is always such a well-frequented spot.

He shifts again, and says, "I'm awake." He yawns, and buries his face in the silken mass of Mr Su's hair to hide it. When he lifts his head up, he sees a boy with a curiously innocent face staring at him. He looks to be perhaps eight or nine years old, and is dressed simply but expensively in an indigo-dyed tunic and pants. His posture, kneeling beside the bed to speak to Mr Su, one hand on Mr Su's wrist, is balanced and well-trained, a fighter's pose. It's a charming picture, even though it only lasts for a second before the child hides his face from Jingyan, burying it in Mr Su's sleeve. When Jingyan just waits without saying anything, he lifts it cautiously again and stares at him.

"This is my ward, Fei Liu," says Mr Su. "Greet His Highness properly, little one."

Fei Liu stands up and bows correctly, if roughly. The contrast between that and the way he stood was puzzling, and Jingyan has a sudden fancy that perhaps Fei Liu is just another cat that belongs to Mr Su, only enchanted to human form. It's ridiculous, of course.

"Good," says Mr Su, smiling at Fei Liu.

"What time is it," says Jingyan. He wonders if he's been asleep for hours -- or if he's been asleep for years.

"Not long past dawn," says Mr Su.

Jingyan says, "There was a man this morning. He took one of the cats with him."

Mr Su blinks at him, and then says, "Ah. Was he dressed in white?"

"Yes," said Jingyan. "His hair was loose."

"Did Lin Chen-gege come to play with you?" says Mr Su to Fei Liu.

The child scowls instantly, sticking his lower lip out and drawing his eyebrows together in an exaggerated and adorable way. "Didn't play!" He thinks for a second, and adds, "Didn't want to!"

Jingyan is puzzled for a second, and then ventures, "You didn't want to play with him?"

"NO!" yells Fei Liu.

Jingyan blinks at him and then turns to look at Mr Su, who smiles a little, apologetically. "Lin Chen gives him medicine and he doesn't like it." He pushes away from Jingyan, and sits up.

Jingyan says, "He said you mustn't get up before the brazier was lit, and you were to wear your cloak."

A flash of genuine annoyance goes over Mr Su's calm face. "He worries too much."

Jingyan can see why. Already it seems like Mr Su takes up the entire household's worrying, and Jingyan thinks it would be terribly, wonderfully easy to worry over him too. "Little one, can you get your gege a cloak?" he says to Fei Liu.

Fei Liu studies him for a long, long minute, Jingyan holds himself still. He feels like he's being judged competently and may be found wanting, and he's not sure what he'll do if he is. Fei Liu's mouth suddenly relaxes, and he turns and glares at Mr Su. "Don't catch cold!" he says, and flies to the wardrobe. His feet seem to scarcely touch the ground. He pulls out a cloak trimmed with some gray, rough looking fur, and returns. Fei Liu flings it over Mr Su's shoulders, and rushes out of the room, returning with an enameled handwarmer that he presses into Mr Su's hands. He's followed by Mr Su's majordomo - Li Gang, his name is Li Gang, Jingyan thinks - who seems to find Jingyan in bed with his master something entirely ordinary. He's carrying a portable brazier, which he sets down close to the bed.

"I'm perfectly fine," says Mr Su.

Li Gang gives him a look of equal parts exasperation and fondness. "And when you get out of bed?" he says chidingly, in the tones of an old retainer. "Then what will happen?" He looks at Jingyan and bows politely. "Auntie Ji has prepared a bath for you, Your Highness."

"Thank you," says Jingyan. It seems the safest.

Mr Su swings his feet over, apparently ready to stand up, when the little white cat reappears. It leaps onto Mr Su's lap with a chirp. There's a red stain on its fur. A red dye? Mr Su picked up the cat so it dangled by its armpits, and it becomes clear someone had painted "happiness" on the cat in what smells like pomegranate jam, as if it were a living wedding decoration.

"What," said Jingyan, staring at it.

The cat stays relaxed in Mr Su's grip, and begins to purr loudly. Mr Su lets it go, and says, "Oh, really, Lin Chen!" The cat sinks happily down to his lap and begins to wash its side. "No, Choumao, you'll get yourself all pink. Fei Liu, take him to Auntie Ji and help her bathe him, please."

"If you'll excuse me, I'll go help," says Li Gang. "If you call, Your Highness, one of the others will show you to your bath." He bows again, and follows Fei Liu and Choumao out the door. Jingyan hears him calling for Fei Liu to stop.

It's quiet after they leave. Jingyan knows he should get up, but it's so peaceful here. Mr Su's shoulder is half-slipping out from under the gray fur of the cloak that Fei Liu had been so careful to put on him. HIs shoulder is so bony, but Jingyan wants to kiss the knob of it before he pulls the cloak back up. His hair falls down in a long inky sweep. Jingyan reaches out. He's somehow surprised to find that it just feels like ordinary hair. He rubs a lock of it slowly, delicately, in his grip.

Jingyan doesn't feel like this. This isn't something he does. He's too reserved. He's too straightforward. He's never understood the point of a love affair, when there's better things to do with his time.

He can't help himself.

"May I see you again?" This isn't the way he should do it. There's protocol he should follow. His mother would be embarrassed by him. Xiao Shu would have scolded him. Even if you're a water buffalo, this is too blunt! he'd say.

Mr Su's lashes dip down over his eyes, hiding his expression from Jingyan. Jingyan finds that he's content to wait. Even if Mr Su says no, it seems to Jingyan like the fates will bring them together again somehow, as if there really was a thing as a red thread between the two of them.

Mr Su's mouth twists in a bittersweet curve. He says, "It seems we were destined to meet, does it not?"

"Yes," says Jingyan.