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spirit running wild

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Summer in Baling is nothing like summer in Gusu, Jingyi finds on the first afternoon after their arrival. The heat is sticky, lazy; it clings to the skin and trickles down the spine like honey. There’s a breeze that comes from the lake, but the further they move away from the entrance to Kingfisher Cove, the more Jingyi’s robes stick to the skin of his back. He’s starting to rethink the four layers, but they’re supposed to greet Sect Leader Ouyang first, and it would reflect badly on Sizhui if he were to appear in the Great Hall with his chest half out. So four layers it is.

Zizhen comes to greet them as soon as they dock by the pier, and leads them through the compound, talking the entire time.

“I can’t believe Jin Ling couldn’t come,” he says in a whiny voice, while Jingyi looks to the side at Sizhui, still green around the gills after the boat ride. “I asked him three times, and he said it would be fine! But then he sent a message, saying that something came up in Lanling and he couldn’t leave. I know he’s a Sect Leader and all that, but it’s so unfair! It was supposed to be just like the old times.”

“We just saw each other at the wedding,” Jingyi says, rolling his eyes at Zizhen’s dramatics. Beside him, Sizhui smiles, close-lipped, like he’s still unsure if he can open his mouth without his last meal making an abrupt comeback.

“Yeah, but I had to go back right the next day with Father,” Zizhen argues. He takes a sharp turn left, leading them in the direction of the large pavilion that towers over the rest of the buildings. “Jin Ling stayed behind with Sect Leader Jiang for the whole week. That’s completely different.” A couple disciples pass them, bowing to Zizhen as they go; he returns the gesture, then turns back to Jingyi and Sizhui with a wide smile. “Anyway, Jin Ling or no Jin Ling, we’re going to have so much fun.”

Officially, they’re in Baling to diligently practice their cultivation among like-minded young cultivators from various sects, to exchange techniques and strengthen their golden cores. Unofficially, Sect Leader Ouyang will be gone for nearly two weeks, and they will have free rein of the place until his return.

Jingyi is, frankly, surprised that Zewu-Jun has agreed, but he let them go under the pretext of Sizhui strengthening his relationship with other sect heirs.

Senior Wei only winked and said, “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” which is, frankly, horrible advice, now that Jingyi knows what Senior Wei was like as a student in the Cloud Recesses. Sometimes he thinks he was better off not knowing, but Sect Leader Nie is a gossip once he’s had a few drinks in him.

“Have the other disciples already arrived, then?” Sizhui asks as they approach the entrance to the main pavilion.

“Some, mostly from the nearby sects.” Sure enough, as they approach the courtyard, they can see a group of other young disciples milling around. Zizhen turns back to them, explaining, “There are a few from Hengyang Zheng, a couple from Yichang Lin, and the Nanchang Feng sect heir. We’re still waiting for Yunmeng Jiang and Meishan Yu, but they won’t be arriving until tomorrow.”

The inside of the Great Hall is decorated in the shades of dark blue and red, against the backdrop of light wood. It’s an impressive building, Jingyi has to admit, even if it can’t compete with the opulence of the Koi Tower or the understated elegance of the Cloud Recesses. At the center of the room, Sect Leader Ouyang presides over the welcoming ceremony from his seat, his expression much more agreeable than Jingyi remembers.

There’s an exchange of greetings, after which Jingyi produces a carved wooden box from his qiankun pouch, containing a pretty tea set that Sizhui had commissioned on behalf of the Gusu Lan from an artisan in Caiyi before their departure, and presents it to Sect Leader Ouyang, as thanks for his hospitality. Sizhui is the one who does all the talking, exchanging pleasantries with ease, and then they’re finally free.

“Come on,” Zizhen says, dragging them outside, into the evening air, far too muggy for the hour. “I’ll show you where your room is.”

The guest quarters grow loud and busy as the disciples file in, each going their own way as they follow the servants to their rooms. The quarters, as Jingyi finds out, consist of a chain of interconnected pavilions, built far away enough from one another to guarantee some degree of privacy, but not enough to forget about decency and propriety, and all the other things Jingyi was hoping to leave behind for a little while. Not that he wanted to be completely shameless—he’s no Senior Wei—but he did dream about walking around in nothing but his underrobe in the evenings, maybe taking his forehead ribbon off for a while before he can get a really visible tan line. Just small things, something to take his mind off the rigid rules of the Cloud Recesses. But when they arrive, Jingyi can see the windows of another pavilion from the rooms he’s supposed to be sharing with Sizhui.

Which brings Jingyi to his second problem.

It’s been a while since he shared a room with Sizhui, the way they did when both of them were still placed in the juniors’ quarters. But when Sizhui agreed to officially take on some of the duties as the sect heir while Zewu-Jun was in seclusion, he was given his own place, small as it was, and Jingyi eventually moved into the senior disciple quarters. All of that, though, happened before Jingyi realized that the funny feeling in his chest wasn’t indigestion from Senior Wei’s cooking but something far, far worse.

He doesn’t know, exactly, when the friendship he shared with Sizhui over the years has changed into something that’s made Jingyi finally understand why Hanguang-Jun always wears that expression whenever he looks at Senior Wei. There hasn’t been one single moment that he can point to and say, yes, this is where it started, because the thing about falling in love with your best friend is that it happens gradually, until it’s impossible to tell which step has been the deciding one.

Jingyi knows the exact moment he realized, though. They were returning from Caiyi after a long day of fighting a yaoguai infestation in one of the warehouses by the waterfront, carrying an armful of fresh loquats each, eating them along the way. They were halfway up the mountain, treading a familiar path, when Jingyi tripped over an exposed root and went flying, loquats thrown into the air as he fought to find purchase. Before Jingyi could greet the ground with his face, though, Sizhui was there, bracing the weight of Jingyi’s body against his chest. Everything went quiet for a moment, and then Sizhui snorted—an ugly, undignified sound that sent Jingyi to the ground, cackling. They laughed until tears welled in their eyes and Jingyi’s stomach started to hurt, and then Sizhui held out a hand to help Jingyi up, a brilliant smile on his face, eyes full of mischief, and Jingyi’s traitorous heart whispered, you’re in love with him. Jingyi froze then, entire body going rigid, and when Sizhui asked if anything was wrong, Jingyi did what no good Gusu Lan disciple should ever do and lied through his teeth.

But that was just the moment he knew for sure. By then, the strange feeling between his ribs had long put down roots.

As a rule, Jingyi tries not to worry about too many things, but he can’t help but be concerned that it will be awkward, with just the two of them in the room. Ever since Jingyi’s unfortunate realization, whenever they spent the night outside the Cloud Recesses, there has always been someone else sharing the room with them, and Jingyi didn’t have to be concerned about accidentally betraying himself in some stupid way.

The other awful thing about being secretly in love with your best friend, Jingyi guesses, is that you can’t tell your best friend all about it.

As much as Master Lan likes to pretend that there is nothing to stop the words that come out of Jingyi’s mouth, Jingyi could never imagine actually telling Sizhui about any of this—could never imagine confessing. Sizhui is his best friend, and has been for years, and Jingyi is not about to throw it all away when he’s not sure where he’s standing. For all that Sizhui is well-behaved and polite, he’s not afraid to speak his mind, which must mean that he doesn’t feel the same way. Otherwise he would’ve said something already. And, considering that subtlety is not exactly Jingyi’s forte, he’s sure he must have betrayed himself somehow in Sizhui’s presence once or twice.

But this is not the time to get all weird about it. It’s just a room. There’s nothing new about this situation; Jingyi has been here before. Just like the old times, he thinks with a twinge in his heart and turns to face Sizhui.

It’s easier than Jingyi remembers to share space with Sizhui—one of the perks of literal years of friendship.

They all gather for supper in the main hall once they settle in, eating food too spicy for Jingyi’s palate that somehow is still mild in comparison to the kind of heat that Senior Wei enjoys in his cooking, and they definitely don’t keep quiet during the meal. Afterwards, they retire to their rooms in the evening, not wanting to get too rowdy while Sect Leader Ouyang is still at home.

It’s long past mao hour, but they’re not in the Cloud Recesses, which means that Jingyi is probably forgiven. It’s not like Hanguang-Jun hasn’t stayed up for hours after curfew, either, keeping Senior Wei company long into the night, so Jingyi doesn’t feel even the slightest bit guilty when he convinces Sizhui to join him outside on the deck.

Their pavilion has been built close to the edges of the lake, and there’s a small breeze that comes inland from above the water. It’s still hot, and Jingyi makes a concession to lose two outer layers before he goes outside, but Sizhui stays in his robes.

“I don’t know how you bear it,” Jingyi says. He tilts backwards until his shoulder blades hit the steps that lead back inside, and looks up. It’s late enough that the stars are out, looking down at them without any regard for Jingyi’s inner turmoil. “It’s so hot here, how are you not boiling? Do you think Master Lan would know if you lost a layer or two?”

Sizhui laughs, a small, melodic sound that makes the tips of Jingyi’s fingers and toes tingle. Oh no, he thinks, this is so bad.

“Best not to tempt luck,” Sizhui says, but he reclines next to Jingyi, gazing up at the stars.

Jingyi tries not to stare at his profile and fails miserably. It’s hardly his fault that Sizhui’s face is so pretty in that soft, gentle way that makes Jingyi’s stomach tie itself into knots, or that his smile is so bright, or that his eyes are so big and shining. It’s unfair, really, how pretty Sizhui is, and Jingyi has no idea how he’d never noticed that before his untimely realization.

But being around Sizhui, despite all the twisting of Jingyi’s stomach, is still easy. They fell into their old rhythms soon enough, navigating their shared room without bumping into each other, easily making space for each other as they unpacked and inspected the room earlier. That’s why they’ll always be friends.

“Hanguang-Jun told me the elders are saying it’s time to look for matches for me,” Sizhui says after a moment of silence, still staring up into the sky. Before Jingyi’s mind can catch up to the actual meaning of his words, he continues, “Hanguang-Jun and Senior Wei are against it, as is Zewu-Jun, but the elders are insisting I should be married soon, as the sect heir.”

Jingyi freezes. “They want you to get married?” he half-shouts, indignant. He turns on his side, pushing up on his elbow to hover over Sizhui. His stomach roils. “But it’s— it’s so soon! You’re so young! That can’t be— You can’t get married! What for?”

“I don’t think Hanguang-Jun would permit it,” Sizhui says, turning his head to look at Jingyi, who suddenly feels like even all the waters of the lake could not make his tongue unstick from the roof of his mouth. “I think he’d rather I have a love match, but you know how the elders are.”

Jingyi pushes past the ringing in his ears. “But you know how Hanguang-Jun is, and he is Chief Cultivator,” he says. “I bet if he wanted, he could forbid you from marrying anyone you wouldn’t like, and they’d have to listen!”

“I know,” Sizhui says, reaching out a hand to squeeze Jingyi’s forearm in reassurance. It has the opposite effect, because Sizhui’s touch is scorching, and Jingyi wants to cry just a little bit. “Anyway, I’m not getting married, I promise. I just remembered that and wanted to tell you.”

The fact that Hanguang-Jun and Zewu-Jun are both so opposed to the idea calms Jingyi down a bit, but the whole thing makes him realize that there are things he can’t take for granted, even the kind of relationship he has with Sizhui now. They might not be living together anymore, but Jingyi spends a lot of his time around Sizhui. If he got married, that would have to change.

Then, a thought flashes through his mind. “Wait, so those cultivators who came to the Cloud Recesses a while ago. All those girls, they were—”


“Zizhen’s sister was there!” Jingyi hisses.

Zizhen’s older, prettier, more talented sister, who is as good with a sword and a bow as she is with a guqin. It’s a good thing Sizhui is not getting married, because there would be no way for Jingyi to even compete. If he were to enter the competition at all, which he won’t because Sizhui is his best friend, and he doesn’t want to lose what they have. But still.

“Yes,” Sizhui repeats. “I’m still not getting married, Jingyi. I just want to enjoy the summer.”

That, at least, Jingyi can agree with.

“Come on,” Zizhen says, walking into their room after supper the next day. “We’re going.”

Sizhui looks up from where he’s waxing the string of his bow after the afternoon archery practice. “Going where?” he asks.

Zizhen’s mouth widens in a smile. “There’s theater in town.”

Jingyi perks up. Sizhui, predictably, prefers musical performances, but Jingyi and Zizhen share a common passion for theater. What’s not to like? Jingyi thinks. He loves the thrill of a story well-told, the dramatics of it, the heightened tension. But it’s not often that he gets to indulge in this pastime, with the Cloud Recesses being as secluded as they are. There are troupes of travelling performers that visit Caiyi from time to time, but it’s still a rare occurrence. Jingyi is not about to pass the opportunity up.

“You’re going with us, right?” he asks Sizhui, who nods and puts away the bowstring and the wax.

That’s how they find themselves, together with a few disciples from other sects who wanted to tag along, pushing their way through the crowds gathered at the story house in search of better seats. The place is packed with people, air stale with the scent of sweat, hot and muggy as the weather refuses to let up. Jingyi, who leads the charge by virtue of being the one with the toughest elbows and the least shame, turns to yell over his shoulder, “I think I see some seats left further ahead!”

It’s a tight fit, but after more or less inconspicuously fighting off two other men for the last remaining seats, they sit down, the three of them crammed together in a space that could probably seat two on a good day. There are people in front of them and behind them, but the worst of it comes from the sides, people jostling them from every direction as they try to squeeze through the crowds to take their places before the performance starts.

Truth be told, Jingyi remembers none of it—he can’t even say what the play is about, because all he can focus on is Sizhui, his arm and thigh pressed up against Jingyi’s in the hot, crowded room through layers of silk and lace. Sizhui runs hot, Jingyi realizes, coupled with the terrible certainty that he will never be able to forget that for as long as he lives. But he can feel the heat of Sizhui’s body against his, and whenever Sizhui shifts, the muscles of his thighs tense and release, making Jingyi sweat from more than just the heat of the evening. He keeps wiping his palms on his robes, clenching them around his knees to keep himself from reaching out.

It would be so easy to grab Sizhui’s hand between them and lace their fingers together, squeeze them in reassurance. Jingyi’s throat grows dry. He’s never even kissed anyone, but he can imagine leading Sizhui outside, into the night, pressing him into some dark corner behind the story house and stealing the breath out of his lungs. He wonders if Sizhui’s lips are as soft as they look in the low light of the room.

By the time the performance is over, it’s long past mao hour, but there are still food stalls open under the open air when they pile out of the story house.

Jingyi, despite the inner storm he’s currently living through, is also starving. Without thinking much of it, he takes Sizhui by the sleeve and drags him in the direction of a baozi stand. They buy a couple dozen to eat between the three of them, but by the time Jingyi reaches into his sleeves for his money pouch, Sizhui is already putting his own away.

“Here,” he says, piling the steamed buns into Jingyi’s grasp, then does the same to Zizhen. “Let’s eat while we walk.”

They make their way back to Kingfisher Cove at an unhurried pace, the pile of baozi steadily disappearing.

“What, Jingyi?” Sizhui asks at some point, as they walk down a narrow street between two rows of houses that have seen better days. “Do I have something on my face?”

He goes to wipe the nonexistent crumbs away, and Jingyi realizes he’s been staring. He gulps, then laughs and goes to pretend-clean Sizhui’s completely crumb-free face.

“There,” he says, letting his hand fall away. It was a bad, bad idea. Jingyi didn’t realize Sizhui’s face would be so soft and so warm. His fingertips tingle. “Can’t have our sect heir walking around with baozi crumbs on his face.”

When he turns away, he’s faced with Zizhen’s incredulous expression, his brows almost disappearing into his hairline. He’s wearing the kind of face that tells Jingyi that Zizhen knows. His first reaction is panic. Then, once he comes back to his senses, he reconsiders. It’s still not ideal, because he’d rather no one bore witness to his pathetic fumbling, but Jingyi figures there are worse people to know about it. This way, he can at least talk to Zizhen if things get bad enough.

They also have a single jar of wine that they share between the three of them on the way back, bought at the stand next to the baozi vendor. One jar is not that much, considering, but it’s not like Jingyi has that many opportunities to drink, so by the time they reach the entrance to Kingfisher Cove, he’s feeling pleasantly mellow.

They bid Zizhen goodnight and leave in the direction of their rooms. Jingyi doesn’t quite sway on his feet, but his body seems to be naturally drawn to Sizhui, and he ends up brushing arms with him on their walk. It’s nothing compared to the way they were pressed up together back at the story house, but Jingyi feels every brush of Sizhui’s shoulders against his own. It’s really unfair how nice and toned his arms are, even through the layers of cloth. It’s also really unfair that Jingyi can’t seem to stop noticing these things, driving himself mad with all the overthinking he keeps doing whenever anything like this happens.

“Tired?” Sizhui asks, seemingly completely unaffected by the wine. Maybe it’s his Wen ancestry, Jingyi wonders idly. Maybe it’s just those who are Lan by blood who can’t hold their liquor. He truly must be a Lan, then. Take that, Master Lan and all those who used to doubt Jingyi’s heritage loudly and openly.

“The story house was so hot and loud, I’m exhausted,” Jingyi says, which earns him a quiet laugh from Sizhui.

“I thought you didn’t mind loud,” he says. They bump shoulders again, but too soon the doors of their pavilion appear before them and they come inside, taking off their shoes at the entrance.

“Mm.” Jingyi presses his back against the door and slides until he’s sitting down on the ground, head lolling back, eyes closed. “I don’t mind quiet, either.”

Later that night, as they lie in their respective beds, Jingyi keeps tossing and turning long past the point when Sizhui falls asleep. Jingyi knows the precise moment Sizhui drifts off, because years of sharing a bedroom have left him acutely attuned to everything Sizhui does. He recognizes the moment Sizhui’s breathing deepens, the soft sounds he makes in his sleep. It’s nice, Jingyi thinks. He’s missed this.

Maybe it’s just the wine making him maudlin, but he can’t help but think how, even if he spends most of his time with Sizhui, he always returns to an empty room in the senior quarters at the end of the day now. It’s easier to ignore at the Cloud Recesses, where everything has its place and its reason, but here they’re suspended in this weird state of limbo, where everything seems at the same time real and not real. The rules they’re supposed to follow recede into the background, without the strict supervision of Master Lan and the disapproving looks of the clan elders, but the Gusu Lan wear the reminder of those rules around their foreheads for a reason. Jingyi, too, finds himself stuck in between.

The summer stretches around them like dragon’s beard candy, sweet and hot, leaving them sated and lazy with it. On the fourth day since their arrival, the heat grows even more oppressive, which is how they find themselves lounging by the lake after an early supper. They spent most of their afternoon practicing swords under the sweltering sun, and Jingyi desperately wants to be rid of his robes, which stick to his skin all over.

There are trees casting shade on the grassy, mild slope leading down to the water that gradually transforms into a narrow stretch of pebbly beach. The water looks calm and undisturbed, the surface of the lake almost completely flat. It’s cooler in the shade, too, and Jingyi is content to just sit down with his back against a tree and watch for a while as lotus leaves drift on the water.

It’s not too long, though, before Jingyi grows fed up with the idleness. He’s never been one to sit still when he could be doing something else instead. And so, soon after the sun goes down, he pushes himself off the ground and dusts off his robes before declaring, “I’m bored. Let’s go swimming.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he catches the sight of Sizhui’s surprised face. “I don’t think we’re appropriately dressed for this,” Sizhui says, but his eyes dart longingly towards the water.

There are moments in Jingyi’s life, he will admit, when his mouth races his mind to the finish line and unfortunately wins. So when he opens his big, stupid mouth to say, “Oh, come on, where’s the fun in that? We should just get naked. It’s too hot for clothes, anyway!” it takes him a moment to fully comprehend the ramifications of his words.

To his left, Zizhen is already beginning to untie the sash from around his waist, never one to miss the fun. To his right, Sizhui hesitates and Jingyi finds himself torn between wanting Sizhui to refuse and wanting him to join them.

It’s not like they haven’t seen each other in various states of undress, over the years they spent sharing the same room, and it’s not like they haven’t soaked in the Cold Spring together, but they were always wearing trousers for that, mindful of propriety. And now, if Sizhui disrobes along with them, he will be very naked and far, far too close to Jingyi for him to even think straight.

To his utter mortification, Sizhui gives a smile that’s unlike his usual, gentle curving of the lips. There’s something wicked in it, and Sizhui’s eyes, when Jingyi looks up, are full of mischief.

“All right, then,” he says, then starts pulling off layers. “I’ll race you!”

Jingyi’s face burns and he looks away immediately, busying himself with his own robes. His tongue feels thick in his mouth, suddenly parched, and his heart keeps hammering against his ribs. He has, in all fairness, brought it on himself, and he has no one else to blame for the fact that he’s about to see Sizhui’s cock and there’s nothing he can do about it, other than avert his eyes. Is it weirder to look or not to look? Would it be weird if he just kept looking away from Sizhui the entire time? What has Jingyi done?

His thoughts are cut short when Sizhui steps out of his trousers and Jingyi doesn’t turn away fast enough, getting an eyeful of Sizhui’s thigh and the curve of his ass. He wants to groan. Sizhui’s thighs are really, really nice, well-proportioned and muscular and smooth, and if Jingyi maybe wants to sink his teeth into the swell of Sizhui’s ass—well, that’s only between him and his right hand, at some later, unspecified date. When he’s alone, instead of sleeping in the same room with the subject of his lewd fantasies.

Oh no, Jingyi realizes. Oh no.

They have to sleep in the same room for the next week and a half, with no privacy to speak of and Sizhui’s scent lingering in the air. Jingyi is an idiot.

“Are you coming, Jingyi?” Sizhui asks, snapping Jingyi out of his stupor only to find out that he’s the only one still left on the beach. He’s standing there like a fool, naked from head to toe except for his forehead ribbon, which must be a violation of the Gusu Lan Sect rules in some way, Jingyi is certain. If it isn’t, it should be carved into the Wall of Discipline, right next to, Don’t be a giant idiot.

Jingyi launches himself into the water at full speed and dunks his head under the surface until the air in his lungs runs out, then resurfaces with a huge gasp, hair plastered to his face and back. The water is cold, despite the lingering heat of the day, and Jingyi’s arms break out in gooseflesh. He barks out a laugh, at the same time strangely weightless and incredulous at the entire situation. He can’t believe he made Sizhui strip just to walk into a lake.

What’s done is done, though, so the best Jingyi can do is enjoy it, while trying to preserve what’s left of his sanity. It’s easier said than done, however, because as much as Sizhui hates boat rides, he loves swimming, and he’s currently paddling leisurely far too close for Jingyi’s comfort, comfortable in the still waters of the lake.

“Enjoying yourself?” Sizhui asks with a wide smile, stopping by Jingyi to tread the water for a moment.

His arms are nice, too, toned a bit from sword practice, and the movement accentuates his elegant collarbones. Jingyi wants to slap himself when he notices. Fortunately, the water is far too cold for the traitor that is his body to respond in any way, so there’s at least one less thing to worry about.

“You had the right idea, Jingyi. It’s very invigorating. And the heat was getting to me a bit, too,” Sizhui says in a lowered voice, like it’s a secret between the two of them, a sign that Hanguang-Jun’s untouchable son is not so untouchable after all.

Jingyi knows how much that reputation weighs on Sizhui, how much he wants to be worthy of it, and how much he sacrifices to live up to it, even if other people might think it comes easily to him. But Jingyi was there for the hours Sizhui spent practicing his guqin and his sword forms, doing calligraphy and making talismans. He knows how much time it took for Sizhui to master them. But he did it, and he never complained, and he’s just so good, in so many respects. In hindsight, it would be impossible for Jingyi not to be in love with him. He has been a fool to ever think otherwise.

In the end, they wade out of the lake once their hands and legs start to prune, thoroughly refreshed but no less naked, as Jingyi is reminded when a stray look to the side reveals more of Sizhui than Jingyi can currently bear to see without embarrassing himself. Quickly, he averts his eyes and collects his clothes, putting on nothing except for an underrobe, which immediately clings to his wet skin. His hair is soaked, heavy and drenched with the waters of the lake, and he wrings it carefully over a stretch of grass.

Jingyi is starving after the swim, and the others are hungry, too, so they dry themselves off in their shared room, dress and go to pester the kitchens for a snack. Fortunately, the cook is in a good mood and she fusses over them, Zizhen in particular, sending them off with a handful of green bean cake and a steamer basket’s worth of fresh mantou.

“This is too good,” Jingyi says later over a mouthful of the cake. There’s some rice wine that Zizhen has fetched from his room, too, but Jingyi is having enough trouble containing his feelings today, and he stays away from the jar for the most part.

“Jingyi,” Sizhui chides, in between bites of his mantou. “Don’t talk with your mouth full.”

After the meal, they lie down with their bellies full, lounging on the pillows arranged on the floor.

“I don’t want to move ever again,” Sizhui says.

He stretches his arms out, eyes fluttering closed, and one of his hands brushes against Jingyi’s shoulder. Jingyi swallows, glad that Sizhui can’t see his flustered expression. Zizhen gives him another pointed look. Jingyi purses his lips.

It takes them a moment to realize that Sizhui has fallen asleep, right there on the floor, nestled among the pillows. As soon as they notice, though, Zizhen gestures for Jingyi to follow him outside.

They take a stroll around the guest quarters, doubling back in the direction of the same stretch of beach that bore witness to Jingyi’s temporary insanity earlier. Jingyi, for lack of a better thing to do, picks up a flat stone and throws it, watching as it bounces off the water surface a few times before sinking. With that, he picks up another.

Zizhen watches him for a moment, then asks, “What’s going on with you? You’re being weird.”

The weather has cooled slightly over time, but the question makes Jingyi break out in sweat all over again. “Do you think Sizhui noticed?”

Zizhen crosses his arms over his chest. “Not yet, at least I don’t think so, but if you keep it up, he will. Seriously, what is with you?”

Jingyi turns the stone in his hand over a few times, then chucks it straight into the lake and watches it sink sadly the moment it hits the surface.

“I’m in love with him, okay?” he hisses, words coming out more defensive than he intended. “And the elders keep telling him he should be thinking about marriage. Hanguang-Jun and Zewu-Jun are opposed, but—”

“They want him to do what?” Zizhen interrupts, incredulous. “But he’s so young!”

“Well, Jin Ling’s dad was about his age when he married Jin Ling’s mom, so… But the elders are really stubborn about it, apparently, and they even brought girls to introduce to him, can you imagine?” Jingyi kicks the pebbles at his feet, sending them spraying in all directions. “Your sister was there!”

To Jingyi’s absolute dismay, Zizhen snorts.

“Excuse me, does my suffering amuse you?” Jingyi narrows his eyes, mouth pinched in a tight line.

“No, no, sorry!” Zizhen shakes his head, hands up in a placating gesture, but he keeps laughing. “It’s just that my sister has an understanding with the first disciple of Yunmeng Jiang. You can stop worrying about that; she’s not going to marry Sizhui.”

Jingyi throws his hands up in the air. “But what if someone else does?”

Zizhen’s face grows serious, and he sits down further up the slope, in the grass. He looks up at Jingyi. “Then you need to tell him.”

Silence falls for a moment, interrupted only by the buzzing of insects in the trees.

“Are you out of your mind?” Jingyi snaps, remembering at the last moment to lower his voice. “He’s my best friend!”

“Exactly,” Zizhen says. He plays with a blade of grass, knees splayed wide and pulled up high to his chest. “You don’t have to, and it’s not like I can tell you to do anything, but I think you should tell him. What’s the worst thing that will happen? He’ll stop being your friend? I don’t think so. You don’t even know for sure that he doesn’t like you back.”

Jingyi tips backwards until he’s lying in the grass, looking up at the sky. He can’t help but think of the first night after they’d come to Baling, when he lay down just like that with Sizhui at his side, watching the same stars.

“But that’s the problem with Sizhui!” Jingyi grabs a handful of grass in each hand and pulls, ripping it out of the soil. “He’s nice to everyone, so how can I even know if he likes me like that?”

He can hear Zizhen sigh next to him. “That’s why you need to tell him.”

Jingyi closes his eyes, his jaw going tight. He’s not going to cry about it like a little baby. He refuses to.

“This is stupid,” he announces. “I hate this.”

When Jingyi was younger, at that age when people start to pay attention to others as something more than just friends, he never liked to listen to other juniors babbling about their silly crushes, about the girls or boys they liked. He had better things to do, like practicing martial arts with Sizhui and keeping him company while he practiced his guqin.

That didn’t mean, though, that Jingyi didn’t like romance. He liked it in theory, on the pages of novels, accompanied by dramatic plot twists and a good helping of indecent scenes that made his heart race and his cheeks burn. He just never imagined what it would be like when he eventually fell in love himself.

As it turns out, being in love is awful.

“You don’t want to be like Hanguang-Jun and Senior Wei, right?” Zizhen says, breaking the moment of silence.

Jingyi’s head whips to the side. “What?”

“How long did it take them to finally understand they loved each other?” Zizhen continues. He lies down next to Jingyi, pillowing his head on his forearms in the grass. “How much time did they waste? Do you want to be like this with Sizhui?”

Jingyi groans and rolls over onto his stomach to hide his head in his arms. When he breathes, he inhales the scent of grass and warm earth.

“Ugh, stop making sense,” he says. “And if he says no and it’s awful?”

Zizhen shrugs. “Then at least you’ll know. And it won’t be awful for long. It’s Sizhui.”

Zizhen is right, of course. Sizhui would let him down gently and then go back to being friends with Jingyi like nothing ever happened. But Jingyi doesn’t think he could get past the awkwardness quite as fast, and he fears that would mean inevitably pushing Sizhui away. It’s just less risky not to try. And Jingyi knows it’s unlike him to be so cautious, to stop himself from speaking his mind, but just this once, he needs to be certain before he opens his mouth.

The days pass quickly, and before Jingyi knows it, a week has gone by, while he’s no closer to figuring out what to do with the entire Sizhui situation. He loves sharing a room with Sizhui again, loves talking in the dark like they used to, sneaking in moments of mischief past the strict Cloud Recesses curfew, but every time he hears the quiet rustling of the sheets, he can’t help but wish Sizhui were close enough to touch. There are other downsides to sharing space with the object of one’s hopeless crush, including but not limited to the awkward moments when the modesty screen doesn’t provide quite enough modesty during bath time, or the mortifying start to each day when Jingyi wakes up hard, his cock pressed between his stomach and the bed, with no way to take care of the problem.

His dreams are full of Sizhui.

Despite all that, it’s probably the best summer of Jingyi’s life, even though he knows there’s an end date to it all. The days pass soft and hot and sweet, a little blurry from looking too much into the sun. They train during the day and play in the evening, and every time Sizhui laughs right in Jingyi’s ear, loud and carefree and unabashed, Jingyi’s heart does a funny flip.

It’s not too bad, though, until someone proposes a round of hand-to-hand, no weapons, no spiritual energy. They’re meant to pair off and work on their technique, which means that, of course, Jingyi finds himself across from Sizhui, circling him slowly, biding his time to lunge. The whole thing is base to its core, and Jingyi is pretty sure many cultivators would scoff at it, but Jingyi knows from experience that sometimes a well-timed kick or punch can be just as effective in a fight.

Some cultivators from other sects have shed at least a few layers, and Jingyi considers following suit for a while before realizing that it makes no sense. No attacker would wait for them to disrobe before kindly asking permission to punch them. So five layers it is.

“Best two out of three?” Sizhui asks, light on his feet.

Jingyi unsticks his tongue from the roof of his mouth. “Sure.”

He waits for a moment before lunging at Sizhui. Jingyi tries to throw him off his balance, a swipe of his foot to cut him off at the knee, but Sizhui steps back, blocking Jingyi’s momentum with his elbow.

“Come on, Jingyi,” he says, a bit of a challenge in his voice. “I know you can do better. I don’t want you to go easy on me.”

Jingyi narrows his eyes. “Who says I’m going easy on you?” he asks.

With a laugh, Sizhui darts to the side, a blur of white as he spins. The blow comes unexpectedly, landing between Jingyi’s ribs, knocking all air out of his chest. Sizhui seizes that moment to swipe at the backs of Jingyi’s knees, sending him to the ground.

“One,” Sizhui says, and when Jingyi looks up, he finds him grinning.

They trade blow for blow for a while after that, neither gaining the upper hand, until Jingyi finds an opening, a foot thrown slightly out of alignment. He charges, wrestling Sizhui to the ground, pinning him for a moment with his knee before letting go.

“One,” he says, then wipes the sweat off his brow. The heat is getting to him through the layers of clothes, but Sizhui is sweating, too. Their breathing is labored.

The next bout is shorter and ends with Jingyi once again on his knees, Sizhui’s shin pressing against the line of his back, Jingyi’s arms stretched out painfully behind him in Sizhui’s grip.

“Two,” Sizhui says, leaning forward to whisper in Jingyi’s ear.

Jingyi shudders. He can’t find his balance again, no matter how hard he tries to center his mind and body. It’s impossible with Sizhui touching him all the time, though, even if it’s just to pin Jingyi to the ground in a way that has nothing to do with what Jingyi actually wants. That’s what he tells himself when Sizhui manages to send him to the ground again, sitting astride Jingyi’s lap, keeping his hands in a tight grip above Jingyi’s head.

Jingyi swallows. They’re so close that he can see the smattering of freckles across the bridge of Sizhui’s nose and his cheeks, more prominent with all the sun they’ve been lounging in. They’re both breathing hard, pressed chest to chest, with Sizhui’s thighs pinning Jingyi to the ground.

This is bad, Jingyi realizes. This is so, so bad, because Sizhui keeps shifting in his lap in the effort to keep him pinned down, and Jingyi starts to get hard. It’s everything all at once—it’s Sizhui’s closeness and the smell of him, woody and earthy, and the freckles across his face, and the way Jingyi is so desperately in love with him.

“Ha, you won!” Jingyi says, his voice awkwardly loud for how close they are to each other. “I yield, I yield, okay?”

He keeps trying to squirm out from under Sizhui, but it’s only once Sizhui lets him go and pulls himself up to his feet that Jingyi can even think about moving. He has no idea when Sizhui has gotten this strong, but the idea of him using that strength in a very different way makes Jingyi all kinds of hot under the collar. His face is on fire.

“I think I’ve had enough for now,” he says, clambering to his feet and hastily making his way off the field, where there’s water waiting for them in gourds. He grabs one and sits down, hoping that his robes will hide his embarrassment until he can get it under control.

Jingyi drinks in long, desperate gulps, like he wants to drown his own mortification in it. Unfortunately, he’s given no reprieve when Sizhui sidles up to him and extends his hand, as if waiting for Jingyi to pass him the gourd. Jingyi does, eventually, trying not to think how Sizhui’s lips are about to touch the same spot Jingyi’s mouth just did.

“I think I’m going to go have a soak,” Jingyi says hastily as soon as Sizhui passes him the gourd back. “I’m too sweaty to live.”

Sizhui smiles. “Want some company?” he asks, and Jingyi wants to scream.

“No, no, I’m good.” He looks around, searching for a distraction. And, because maybe the Heavens don’t hate Jingyi quite so much, he finds one this time. “I think Zizhen is looking for a partner. You should have a go.” He elbows Sizhui in the side. “He’s better at hand-to-hand than me, might actually kick your ass for a change.”

Jingyi wouldn’t quite say he runs away, but it’s a near thing. With everyone else still busy at the training grounds, there is probably no one at the communal baths that Jingyi knows exist in Kingfisher Cove but has not visited before, content with washing down in the wooden tub in their rooms.

The building is a pretty pavilion with a wide entryway that leads to the changing room and then opens onto the baths themselves. There are a few standard wooden tubs here and there, but the largest baths are made of stone, and the prospect of leaning against its cool surface makes the trip more than worth it in Jingyi’s eyes.

The one thing the walk from the training grounds to the baths has not managed to alleviate is the growing hardness between Jingyi’s thighs. Whatever he does, he can’t seem to calm down, with his nostrils still full of Sizhui’s smell and the memory of his body pushing against his.

Jingyi is not particularly proud of himself when, after disrobing, he braces himself against the rim of the bath and takes a hand to himself, eyes closed, the image of Sizhui’s freckles burned into his mind. It’s quick and not particularly satisfying, and it leaves a bitter taste at the back of Jingyi’s throat. Once it’s done and Jingyi catches the mess into his hand to wipe on the inner layer of his robes, though, he can at least start to think straight.

He’s still breathing like he ran all the way here, and there’s shame burning through him, but it’s done—Jingyi has brought himself off to the thought of his best friend, and now he will have to live with the knowledge of that for the rest of his life. But he got it out of the system, at least. Now he will bathe and get a change of clothes, and then he’ll go back to join Sizhui for the meal, and he will be normal.

That’s how it’s going to be.

“Jingyi,” Sizhui’s voice comes from the other side of the room, quiet in the dark. They’re lying with their lights out, but it seems like neither of them is able to fall asleep. It’s a hot, muggy night, and Jingyi has kicked back the covers, half-tempted to get rid of his night robes as well, but that would be going a step too far, with someone else in the room..

He could pretend to be asleep, but Sizhui would know. So instead he whispers back, “Yeah?”

“Have I done something wrong?” Sizhui asks, and it takes Jingyi a moment to realize he’s not joking.

“What?” Jingyi raises his voice despite the late hour and the windows they’ve left thrown wide open.

“I can’t help but think you’re angry with me,” Sizhui continues in a quiet voice. There’s a rustling of sheets and a sigh, followed by another beat of silence. Jingyi wants to kick himself, repeatedly, because he knows what Sizhui’s face looks like when he’s sad, and Jingyi can’t believe he was the one to put that expression there.

“I’m not,” Jingyi protests. It’s the truth, but it’s so much more complicated than that. If he’s angry at anyone in this situation, it’s himself.

“It feels like you are, though,” Sizhui presses on.

Jingyi is glad they’re having this conversation in the dark, at least, where he doesn’t have to look at Sizhui or have Sizhui looking back at him. Jingyi is not very good at pretending—maybe that’s why they’re having this conversation in the first place. But he can bet he would betray himself somehow, if they were doing this face to face. This is better, really, for Jingyi’s sanity as well as his dignity.

“I’m not, Sizhui, really,” he says. “Just having a weird week, don’t even know why.”

Another moment of silence follows, during which Jingyi wipes his sweaty palms on the sheets and tries to wrench back control of his breathing. His heart is pounding in his chest.

“Is it because of what I said?” Sizhui asks. “About the marriage? You’re my best friend, Jingyi. That will never change, whatever else happens, you know that, right?”

Jingyi presses his eyes tightly shut. His throat clicks, and he coughs. “You’re my best friend, too.”

He curls in on himself, body tightly coiled around the embarrassment that burns in his stomach. Jingyi keeping his stupid mouth shut was supposed to be saving their friendship, not ruining it. Yet here he is, making Sizhui doubt that friendship to begin with. Some friend he is.

Everything is awful, and Jingyi is starting to regret coming here in the first place. But it’s on Jingyi to reach out now, reassure Sizhui that nothing is happening that would affect the kind of relationship they have, so he says, “Hey, that festival that Zizhen told us about, that’s happening tomorrow evening—we’re going together, right? I still owe you some candy for the last time.”

A quiet huff comes from the other side of the room, and Jingyi realizes it’s Sizhui’s laughter. His heart unclenches.

“Yeah, but you need to find some black sesame candy or it doesn’t count,” Sizhui says.

“Okay.” Jingyi can’t help but smile. “Okay, I will.”

The festival comes to Baling accompanied by a crowd of food vendors serving fish and meat, and sweets, selling wine and tea, and millet beer. There are kites soaring in the sky and an archery contest set up at the square by the temple. Some people are dancing, accompanied by a man playing on a xiao. Others are strolling between the stands, enjoying the evening air.

Jingyi would be lying if he said he wasn’t enjoying himself, too. The awkward night talk with Sizhui has cleared the air between them, and Jingyi is working really hard on not being weird around his best friend, which is just as well. He thinks he’s doing pretty well, too—they’re walking with their arms linked, shoulders brushing, and Jingyi doesn’t even flinch. Earlier, he bought Sizhui a huge pack of black sesame candy and all three of them keep nibbling on it while they walk.

“Oh, look, Jingyi!” Sizhui pulls him to the side, almost making him stumble in his rush. “Weren’t you saying you really wanted some candied lotus seeds?”

Jingyi did, indeed, mention that a while ago, bemoaning the fact that the best candied lotus seeds he’s ever had were in Yunmeng, and they had no reason to go to Yunmeng, other than Jingyi’s ridiculous cravings. Before Jingyi can say anything, though, Sizhui has his money pouch out already. The vendor measures the lotus seeds into three paper pouches and hands them to Sizhui, who passes a pouch to each of them.

The sweetness of it bursts on Jingyi’s tongue when he tries one out, and next time he reaches into the paper pouch, he stuffs a whole handful of the seeds into his mouth, chewing enthusiastically. “These are so good, Sizhui,” he says through the mouthfuls of the candy. “You’re the best.”

“And you still keep talking with your mouth full,” Sizhui counters, but there’s no heat to that. Instead there’s a smile.

The evening continues in this vein, as Jingyi grows more and more confused about this whole thing. Sizhui drags them from one place to another, spending money on sweets Jingyi has mentioned wanting to try or missing. He spots a stall selling woven knot pendants and buys three of them, pressing the midnight blue one into Jingyi’s palm. He darts over to where a vendor is selling braised lamb shanks, glistening with fat and fragrant with spices, and buys two: one for Zizhen and one for Jingyi, who likes meat a lot but doesn’t get to eat it often in the Cloud Recesses.

It feels like something else than what it is, even if there are moments when Jingyi thinks he’s right about Sizhui’s intentions. But that’s impossible, he reminds himself, because Sizhui sees him as a friend, and besides, if he wanted to court Jingyi, he wouldn’t be treating Zizhen to the same things, would he? So Jingyi is just imagining the things that he wants to see, instead of seeing what is actually there: a good friend who likes buying gifts. He tries not to let himself be disappointed, but it still stings a bit.

Jingyi doesn’t know what to think about all of this, so the least he can do is actually enjoy it for what it is, since it seems to bring Sizhui joy, too. He’s so much like Hanguang-Jun sometimes, doting on his friends the way Hanguang-Jun dotes on Senior Wei, that it would be difficult to ever forget who raised him.

In the end, just as they set off in the direction of Kingfisher Cove with their bellies full and sated, a sudden rainstorm catches them off guard. They run, yelling, the entire way back to the compound, while the rain keeps beating down on them, soaking them to the bone. Their waterlogged robes grow heavy and unwieldy, and Jingyi is about to keel over the moment they cross the threshold of their rooms, having bid Zizhen goodbye in a rush.

They’re laughing, too, with the kind of unrestrained laughter that Jingyi didn’t think he’d be capable of.

“I can’t believe we were just complaining about the heat!” Jingyi says, wringing his hair out by the entrance. Inside, Sizhui is trying to get out of his robes with little success. They’re both dripping all over the place, the fabric of their clothes clinging to their wet, clammy skin.

Jingyi has already shrugged off his outer robes when he hears Sizhui ask, “Jingyi, can you help me? I think I’m stuck.”

When he turns around, he finds Sizhui wrestling with his outer layer, one sleeve trapping his arm at an awkward angle. Without thinking, Jingyi crosses the room and tugs at the sleeve in an attempt to free Sizhui of his silk prison. The fabric resists any pull, though, and he ends up wrestling with it for a while before Sizhui manages to wiggle free. Neither of them expects the exact moment it happens, and when the fabric finally gives, Jingyi is thrown off balance, scrambling for purchase against Sizhui. When he looks up, ready to laugh it off, he finds his fingers pressed against Sizhui’s forehead ribbon, his thumb touching the band at the edge of the cloud filigree.

They both freeze for a moment, then jump back at the same time.

“I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!” Jingyi wails, close to tears. “I didn’t mean to, I really didn’t, it was an accident! I never would’ve done it otherwise, I promise!”

He stares back at Sizhui, who looks so incredibly upset that Jingyi is about to cry for real, eyes already brimming with tears. He wants to throw up.

“Jingyi, it’s fine,” Sizhui says in a tone he uses to talk to skittish rabbits. “I know you didn’t mean it. I promise, I’m not mad.”

There’s no way Sizhui is telling the truth, not with the way his face falls more and more with each moment, but Jingyi can’t even think about apologizing again without wanting to tear up. His throat and chest are tight, and he can’t even go outside to be alone, because the rain is still pouring buckets.

“Okay,” he says instead, quiet, and turns around to finish disrobing. He doesn’t turn around until he hears the rustling of the sheets and knows that Sizhui must have already slipped under the covers.

Jingyi’s hair is still soaking wet, but he doesn’t care. He snuffs out the candle and gets in bed as well. He won’t cry about it like a stupid baby, but the hand that touched Sizhui’s forehead ribbon is still shaking, and Jingyi needs to bite his lip to stop the sob that wants to get out.

He can’t believe he did this, accident or no accident. Sizhui’s forehead ribbon was never his to touch, and he should’ve been more careful, more mindful of where he put his hands. No one but Hanguang-Jun and maybe Zewu-Jun has ever touched it, and the first time someone else other than family was allowed to do it was supposed to be something special for Sizhui, but now Jingyi has gone and ruined it. It’s worse than stealing someone’s first kiss, and it’s all Jingyi’s fault.

He might not be great at following the rules at all times, but this is the one he’s always abided by. Jingyi understands why it’s so important, as well as all the meaning that comes with this simple touch, and now Sizhui will never get to experience that the way he deserves to because Jingyi had to spoil it for the person it was meant for.

Later, when he knows that Sizhui has fallen asleep for sure, he whispers another I’m sorry into the darkness of the room.

The awkwardness lingers throughout the next day, even though Sizhui is his usual pleasant self, but Jingyi is still too mortified to even think about moving past the events of the previous evening. Zizhen drags him away after their midday meal to ask what’s going on, which must mean that Jingyi is doing a really poor job of pretending. When Jingyi tells him, Zizhen only gives him a pointed look.

“This is just between you two,” he says, “but you’re both my friends, and as your friend, I’m telling you to tell him.”

“And what am I going to say, hey, Sizhui, I actually wanted to be the first one to touch your forehead ribbon like this?” Jingyi hisses, taking Zizhen by the arm to drag him even further away. “You didn’t see his face, he was all upset about it and then he went to bed without a word. Ugh!”

He doesn’t think before he takes a swing to kick a thick tree trunk with a loud yell. The pain in his foot goes through him like lightning, radiating from his toes outwards, until it rattles his teeth.

Jingyi screams again and curses, immediately regretting all decisions that have led him here. For the second time in less than a day, he can’t actually believe himself. What even possessed him to do this, and what if his foot is now broken because he’s an idiot?

Once the pain subsides a little, he can hobble around easily enough. He can also put enough weight on the foot that it’s probably not broken after all, because Jingyi might be an idiot, but he’s a lucky idiot, at least in matters other than his love life.

Jingyi half-expects Sizhui to appear out of nowhere to ask them what the ruckus is all about and why Jingyi is yelling expletives in the middle of a field, in complete disregard of at least two Gusu Lan Sect rules. But no one else comes.

“Can we—I don’t know, can we not come back yet?” Jingyi asks.

“I don’t think you could even walk that far right now,” Zizhen ripostes, and, as mean as it is, it’s pretty well-deserved. “Come on, sit down.”

They sit together under the shadow of the tree, leaning against the trunk, knees pulled up to their chests and legs splayed wide. Jingyi picks up a leaf that has fallen and is slowly shredding it to pieces.

“Father wants me to take over some of the training duties for junior disciples, you know?” Zizhen says after a moment of silence, and really, thank the Heavens for Zizhen, because Jingyi can’t be in his own head right now. “And it’s really weird, because I used to train with some of them as a junior disciple, and now— But I guess it’s good, too, because it means he trusts me with the sect, right? For a while, after the Burial Mounds and Yunmeng, and everything, I thought maybe he had some doubts about it, and I wasn’t the most obedient son back then. But I think he’s come around a bit, and now with this— It’s just such a huge change, and I didn’t think I would have to take over this soon.”

Jingyi closes his eyes and tips his head back until it hits the trunk of the tree. “Mm,” he says. “Sect Leader Jiang was already a sect leader by the time he was our age. That was a different time, though, I guess. But can you imagine?”

Jingyi, for one, cannot. Out of the four of them, Jin Ling and Sizhui are the ones who have been touched the most by the events of the not so distant past, and even then they grew up in much more peaceful times. Jingyi doesn’t think they could ever fully understand what Hanguang-Jun and Senior Wei’s generation has gone through.

“Yeah, I’m glad we can think about the silly things instead,” Zizhen says. “Like idiots who don’t realize they can’t compete with a tree trunk.”

Jingyi throws a handful of grass at Zizhen, but he laughs, too. He guesses he deserves it.

The awkwardness continues into the next day, even though Jingyi tries his best to hide it. But it can’t be denied that they’re walking around each other like they’re stepping over pieces of shattered glass. It’s no longer the uncomfortable silence of the first day after the festival, but even when they talk and laugh together like nothing happened, each time their bodies brush, they both freeze for a moment.

This lasts until the evening, when Zizhen drags them back to his room after supper, along with a few other disciples, and pulls five jars of wine from under the floorboards.

“You’re not getting out of this,” he announces, sitting down on one of the pillows by the table, where a handful of wine cups is already waiting for them. He unties the twine and pulls off the cloth from one jar, then pours and pushes the cups towards the rest of them. “I haven’t been keeping this hidden here for the past month for nothing.”

Jingyi hesitates, but when he sees Sizhui knock the wine back in a few swallows, he follows suit. Maybe he should get drunk, just a little bit. Not like things can get any worse, Jingyi thinks, and maybe this way he can finally get his muscles to loosen up.

Soon enough, the table is littered with peanut shells, and there are stains on the varnish from where the wine sloshed over the rim of the cup. Jingyi is feeling nice and mellow, half-listening to two Yunmeng Jiang disciples argue about something, half-glancing at Sizhui every now and then. Sizhui’s cheeks are pink by now, but he doesn’t look drunk, even if his eyes are a little glassy.

At some point, someone proposes a game of finger guessing. Jingyi, full of confidence that has little to do with his actual skill at the game and a lot to do with the amount of liquor coursing through him, volunteers for the first round and proceeds to lose miserably. By the time the last round is over, his head is swimming and his tongue feels thick in his mouth.

“Hey,” he says quietly, finding Sizhui sitting in the corner and sidling up next to him. His voice sounds funny to his own ears, and he giggles. Most of the other disciples have already returned to their quarters by now, and the last few remaining are either asleep or close to it.

“Are you feeling okay?” Sizhui asks.

Jingyi is so incredibly sleepy, and Sizhui’s shoulder looks so inviting, and the only thing he can think about is how much he wants to rest his head against it, so he does. That’s much better, he thinks; it smells like Sizhui, and when Jingyi looks up, Sizhui’s face is so close he can see his freckles again. They’re usually really faint—it must be all the sun they’ve been getting.

“Mm,” he mumbles, burrowing further in Sizhui’s shoulder. It’s nice. It’s so nice, Jingyi doesn’t know how he can bear it. Being drunk helps.

“Do you want to go back?”

“No!” Jingyi protests. He thinks he clenches his fists around Sizhui’s sleeves, but he’s not sure. “No, this is nice. At least now you can’t be angry with me.”

The logic of that works in Jingyi’s foggy mind—he can’t really tell why; it just does.

“I’m not angry with you, Jingyi,” Sizhui says.

Someone—Zizhen? Someone else?—comes by to offer Jingyi another cup of wine, but before he can reach for it, Sizhui swipes it from that person’s grasp and drinks the entire thing without blinking.

“Mm,” Jingyi concedes. “But you’re sad. Because of me. This sucks. And I’m drunk.”

It feels like it’s important that Sizhui should know that.

“I think I’m a little drunk, too,” Sizhui confesses in a whisper. “It must’ve sneaked up on me. I was fine a moment ago.”

Jingyi looks up again, and that’s a mistake, because he finds Sizhui looking right back at him. He’s so close. His lashes are so long.

They’re sitting to the side, in their own quiet bubble, and no one is paying any attention to them. They could be alone, for all it’s worth, and that’s dangerous, because Sizhui smells so good, it’s really kind of unfair. Jingyi wants to tell him that, but some part of his foggy mind tells him he shouldn’t. He doesn’t know why, but it must be important if he can still remember. It’s the truth, though. Sizhui smells stupidly good.

Jingyi doesn’t know how it happens. He shifts in Sizhui’s arms, and when his lips brush against Sizhui’s neck, Sizhui gives a quiet gasp, and then they both lean in, or maybe it’s just him—it’s probably just him, but he can’t remember—and Jingyi’s upper lip catches against Sizhui’s mouth.

The touch is like a bucket of cold water poured over Jingyi. Where he was floating just a moment ago, he suddenly feels very, very sober.

“Oh no, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to—” He scrambles to his feet, which proves more difficult than he anticipated, because his mind might be sober, but his body is very much still drunk, and makes his way to the door at a relatively normal pace, before taking off at a sprint as soon as he’s out of view.

Sizhui doesn’t come after him.

It was barely even a kiss, barely a brush of lips, but Jingyi’s heart is hammering in his chest. He can’t quite catch his breath, and he feels like he’s going to be sick. Halfway back to their rooms, his stomach finally revolts and Jingyi heaves behind a bush, muttering quiet apologies to whoever is taking care of the gardens.

The bitter taste at the back of his throat lingers.

Jingyi can’t even believe himself. He’s literally the worst. Not only did he touch Sizhui’s forehead ribbon without permission—accident or not—but he also stole his first kiss. And it was a bad one, too. For a moment, he entertains the idea of just taking his sword, mounting it and flying back to Gusu, but as soon as the slightest sliver of his common sense returns, he realizes that this is an incredibly stupid idea. For one, it’s dark and really late. For another, he’s still drunk and would probably just fall off his sword somewhere over the lake. It would serve him right, too, but that’s not the point here. The point is that Jingyi can’t face Sizhui now. Not after what he’s just done.

Fortunately, it’s easier than he expects to pretend to be asleep. He can hear when Sizhui comes back, a good while later, and walks about the room, getting ready for bed. If he knows that Jingyi is pretending, he says nothing.

And Jingyi—Jingyi hates being afraid most of all, hates the sour aftertaste of it on his tongue, but he’s really afraid now that he’s about to lose his best friend. Or maybe not lose, because Sizhui is too good a person to just cut Jingyi off completely, but to see the kind of friendship they have transform into something fragile and cautious, always at an arm’s length.

His throat clicks when he swallows; his eyes burn.

Even after Sizhui slips under the covers and falls asleep, Jingyi is up, trying to stop himself from tossing too much in bed, afraid to wake him up. From the window by his bed, Jingyi sees the sky grow pink and purple in the east, and it’s only then that the exhaustion fully takes over, pulling him under.

The next morning, Sizhui greets him like nothing happened. He’s all smiles, asking Jingyi how his head feels (horrible) and how much he can even remember from last night (unfortunately, all of it), and if he had a good night’s sleep (no). Nothing to indicate that Sizhui even remembers how Jingyi kissed him and then ran like a coward. Maybe Sizhui is like Hanguang-Jun and never remembers what happens afterwards—and to be fair, he did say he was feeling a bit drunk. Maybe that’s it, then.

“You’ve had a lot to drink,” Sizhui says, preparing a fresh pot of tea. “Why didn’t you bow out earlier? I’ve never seen anyone lose so much at finger guessing in my life.”

Sizhui laughs, and Jingyi feels his stomach tighten. Maybe he needs to throw up again. Maybe then he’ll stop feeling like he was trampled by a herd of wild horses.

“Here,” Sizhui says, pushing something warm and medicinal-smelling into Jingyi’s palm. “Drink this, you’ll feel better.”

Jingyi takes it, feeling miserable for himself, which only intensifies once he puts the cup to his mouth. Whatever is in the concoction makes it taste hideous, the bitter aftertaste clinging to Jingyi’s tongue and the roof of his mouth.

He gags, passing the cup back to Sizhui, who pats his back.

“I know, but it will make you feel better, I promise,” he says, and suddenly Jingyi is hit with the realization that Sizhui must be so sure of this because it’s whatever Hanguang-Jun takes whenever he wakes up after a night of drinking—or rather after two cups, since that’s as much as he can drink before falling asleep these days; Senior Wei is still very proud.

“Thanks,” Jingyi says. In his mind, the moment his lips touched Sizhui’s mouth repeats again and again, every time he so much as looks at him.

After breakfast, which Jingyi skips in favor of slowly expiring in bed, Sizhui gathers the more musically inclined disciples for instrument practice. He’s the oldest out of all of them, and as sect heir, he’s given a lot of respect by the other disciples, so even those who were in Zizhen’s room yesterday and are clearly suffering go with him without much protest. They will be gone for at least a shichen, which means that Jingyi can talk to Zizhen without worrying about Sizhui finding out.

They go to find a spot that’s secluded enough but also in the shade, because Jingyi doesn’t think the direct sun would do him much good today. He still feels mildly queasy, but at least he doesn’t think he’s going to be sick anymore.

“So,” Jingyi begins without preamble once they’re alone, “how much of last night do you remember? You lost a lot at finger guessing, too.”

“Uh, all of it? I think?” Zizhen narrows his eyes. “Why?”

“I kissed Sizhui last night—well, almost kissed,” Jingyi blurts out and his stomach turns in a way that has nothing to do with the amount of wine he consumed.

“You did what?” Zizhen hisses, looking over his shoulder just in case, even though they’re completely alone here.

“It was more of a brush, but I still did it! And now he’s either pretending not to remember or he really doesn’t remember, and I don’t even know which one would be worse!”

Zizhen takes a breath and just looks at Jingyi for a long moment, which, admittedly, doesn’t help him feel like less of an idiot. Then he says, “And what did Sizhui do after you kissed him?”

“How should I know?” Jingyi is trying really, really hard not to raise his voice. “I got up and ran!”

As he recounts the events of the last evening, it occurs to him that he might not have been making the best decisions, before and after the almost-kiss. But it’s not like he can turn back time now and slap himself across the back of his head before he can even think about playing finger guessing. It’s not like he can stop himself from leaning into Sizhui’s space and nearly pressing his entire mouth against Sizhui’s lips, either. The whole running away routine was also not his finest moment, but he panicked, and Jingyi thinks he’s allowed to panic about these things.

He’s never felt like that before. He has no idea what to do, apart from what he’s read in his stupid romance books, and none of those ideas are helpful. He can’t save Sizhui with a kiss from an awful demon who wants to suck out his soul and possess his body. For one, they’re on sect grounds, so no demons could even enter; for another, that’s just not how things work. He’s also not a lonely shepherd living in a remote hut who one day saves an injured cultivator and nurses him back to health. And Jingyi is definitely not an emperor who falls in love with a lowly servant, who later turns out to be the prince of another kingdom, cast out by traitorous usurpers. So Jingyi doesn’t exactly have the right frame of reference for this. Sure, there’s Hanguang-Jun and Senior Wei, but considering that their love story included death and sixteen years of mourning, Jingyi doesn’t think he should try to emulate them, either.

“And what happened next?” Zizhen asks then.

“I went back to our room and pretended to be asleep when he came in later.”

Laid out like that, it sounds pretty childish, and Jingyi grows embarrassed for more than one reason. But still, he doesn’t know how to reconcile those two parts of himself: the part that wants to pretend none of it happened and preserve the kind of relationship they have now, and the part that wants to kiss Sizhui again, this time for real.

“What do I do?” Jingyi wails.

“I could tell you,” Zizhen says, “but you won’t like it.”

Jingyi groans. “I know, I know. I’ll fix it,” he says. “I don’t know how, yet, but I will.”

By the time their departure from Baling starts to loom on the horizon, Jingyi is no closer to figuring out what to do about his predicament. The two of them are stuck in this kind of awkward cautiousness that makes Jingyi want to scream—Sizhui is continuing on without even stumbling once, while Jingyi feels like he’s tripping over his feet at every turn.

It’s awkward in the mornings, when they shuffle around each other half-awake and half-dressed, and Jingyi can’t help but sneak a glance at Sizhui with his hair down. It’s awkward in the evenings, when they take their turns in the bath, and Jingyi desperately tries to stop himself from imagining Sizhui joining him in the tub, because that way lies madness.

It’s easier during the day, but that doesn’t mean Jingyi doesn’t freeze when they brush fingers while reaching for the same bowl of fried cabbage or when they get too close to each other at sword practice.

It’s awkward, but it’s not unbearable, at least objectively speaking, Jingyi thinks. From his own perspective, it’s torture. He has been told, in the long years of his youth spent in the Cloud Recesses, that he does have a tendency towards the dramatic, and Jingyi can’t really figure out how much of that applies in this situation. But his mind knows that it’s torture, and that’s good enough for him, even if Master Lan would probably assign him an essay on the subject of the relationship between perception and consciousness if he heard him say that.

Good thing Master Lan is not here, then.

This strange equilibrium manages to hold until the last night before their departure. They get together again with the other disciples, this time with a little less alcohol and a bit more sensible decisions, to play games and argue over using spiritual energy to cheat, and flick peanuts at each other in retaliation until Zizhen’s room turns into a mess.

Jingyi slips out when everyone else is occupied by a particularly rowdy game of liar’s dice and turns towards the guest quarters. He’s not really in the mood to play today, and he’s definitely staying away from any wine or other liquor, because he still hasn’t dealt with the consequences of his last overindulgence. Maybe some of the Gusu Lan rules have more merit than Jingyi has ever suspected, after all, if only to spare him from perpetual embarrassment.

By the time he gets to their room, he’s feeling restless, unmoored. Jingyi opens the side door that overlooks the lake and takes the wooden stairs down, towards the pebbly beach. The weather has turned bearable last night, and now the air is pleasantly warm against his skin instead of sweltering. The pebbles, too, feel more cool to the touch when Jingyi sits down.

It’s hard to tell how much time he spends there, looking into the still waters of the lake and skipping stones to disturb it. The moon is just a few nights shy of full, illuminating the surroundings well enough that he doesn’t need to strain his eyes too much. There are some torches, too, that light up the paths of the guest quarters visible from where he’s sitting.

Jingyi wonders if it will be easier to forget about what happened here when they’re back in the Cloud Recesses. That’s one of the things about lazy summers away from home, he thinks—once they’re gone, they feel less real, more like a dream that he managed to remember particularly well. Jingyi was sent, once, to visit his relatives in his mother’s clan during the summer months as a child. He spent four weeks there, and once he returned and some time had passed, he could never be sure if what he remembered was an actual memory of that time or just something he dreamed up. This feels the same; maybe they will return to the Cloud Recesses and whatever possessed Jingyi to act the way he has these past weeks will stay behind in Baling.

“Why didn’t you tell me you were leaving?” A voice sounds behind Jingyi, and he turns around abruptly to find Sizhui standing a few steps away. “I would have come with you.”

Jingyi blows air out through his nose and falls backwards onto the beach, until he can feel the pebbles digging into his back. Then he hides his face in his hands.

It’s no use, he thinks. He’s only deluding himself that this will go away on its own if he just ignores it long enough. It won’t. It will stay there, and it will fester until one day it erupts in such a spectacular way that there will be no way to pick up the pieces that will, inevitably, blow up right in Jingyi’s face.

Jingyi can be afraid sometimes, like when there’s a disgusting hungry ghost or a fierce corpse running straight at him, but he’s usually not a coward. Here, with Sizhui, he’s been a coward all along.

At last, Jingyi drags his hands away from his face and sits up again. Sizhui joins him.

Then Sizhui opens his mouth to speak again, and Jingyi contemplates the Silencing Spell for less than a heartbeat, if only to make himself say it without Sizhui interrupting. But that would be rude, and probably not the best way to go about it, regardless of the outcome, so Jingyi does what he does best and interrupts Sizhui first.

“Wait, I need to actually tell you something.” He can’t believe he’s doing this. He can’t believe Zizhen was right. “So just don’t interrupt me until I’m done, because if you do, I’ll never be able to say what I need to say, okay?”

Sizhui nods, eyes inquisitive. There’s a slight tilt to his head, an uncertain slant to his mouth. Jingyi wants to kiss him so much.

“Okay, so, here goes.” Jingyi takes a deep breath. “I don’t even know how it happened, or how long it’s been, but I’ve been keeping this to myself so long I feel like I’m about to burst, so I just need to tell you. And we’ve been friends for such a long time that I didn’t know if I even wanted to say anything, because what if this changes things for the worse, you know? But then we came here, and everything happened, and you told me about the marriage thing and how Hanguang-Jun and Senior Wei wanted it to be a love match for you, and I keep thinking, but what if it changes things for the better? But it’s scary, because you can never know how things are going to change until they do, and when there’s someone else involved, it gets even worse. And I can’t tell if I’m reading all the clues right or wrong, but I guess things can’t stay the same forever. So. I really like you, Sizhui. I really, really like you. More than like, even, and now I’m going to need you to say something fast, because I feel like I’m going to faint, okay?”

The moment of silence that comes after stretches impossibly between them, and then Sizhui says, “I thought you were angry with me.”

“What? No!” Jingyi looks to the side, where Sizhui is sitting, looking stunned. “With myself, I guess? I thought I was being so obvious and that I was ruining everything. And then I touched your forehead ribbon, and then I kissed you! How was I not supposed to freak out? And you were so calm about it, and pretended like nothing happened! Oh gods, do you really not remember that I kissed you? Have I actually ruined everything now?”

Sizhui looks at Jingyi, his lips parted. If Jingyi were better at poetry, he would compose a poem. As it is, he can only stare back.

“Jingyi,” Sizhui says then, and Jingyi feels like his heart is about to explode in his chest, because this is it. The answer he’s been waiting for. “But I wanted you to touch my forehead ribbon. And I wanted you to kiss me.”

In the briefest moment of madness, Jingyi contemplates getting up and submerging himself completely in the water, robes and all, until his heart calms down and his body stops feeling like it’s on fire.

“But then you kept saying that you didn’t mean it, until I didn’t know what to think anymore,” Sizhui continues, oblivious to Jingyi’s struggle. “And I thought I was being obvious!”

Jingyi gapes. “What? How?”

“I kept buying you things!” Sizhui says, gesticulating wildly. They’re both standing, but Jingyi can’t remember getting up.

“You kept buying things for Zizhen, too!”

At that, Sizhui visibly deflates a bit. “I didn’t want to be too obvious about it,” he admits. “But I still wanted to dote on you a bit.”

“I kicked a tree,” Jingyi blurts out.

It’s Sizhui’s turn to gape. “What?”

Jingyi’s cheeks are burning with embarrassment. It’s a good thing it’s dark here. “I was talking with Zizhen about…well, this,” he says. “I kicked a tree in frustration, thought I broke my foot.”


“I know! I know, okay?” Jingyi wails. “You don’t need to tell me how much of an idiot I’ve been.”

“You have, a bit,” Sizhui says. “And you haven’t even properly kissed me yet.”

Jingyi freezes. Right, of course they would kiss. But should he do it now? What if somebody sees? Would Sizhui mind if somebody saw them kissing? Should they return to their rooms first?

Fortunately, he’s saved from this spiral of doubt by Sizhui, who grabs a handful of Jingyi’s robes, pulls him in by the collar and presses their mouths together.

Sizhui’s lips are so soft, so warm, tasting faintly of the wine he had earlier. For a while, it’s just a simple press of lips on lips, but Jingyi knows that’s not how people kiss, not really, so he angles his face and parts his mouth, catching Sizhui’s lower lip between his own. The dry, chaste kiss suddenly turns wet, the touch of their lips slippery as Sizhui exhales with surprise. His mouth opens against Jingyi’s own, and then Jingyi feels the warm slide of Sizhui’s tongue, the swipe of it against the seam of Jingyi’s mouth.

Jingyi moans a little, and that’s apparently all Sizhui needs, because the kiss turns wet and hot and desperate, open-mouthed and full of tongue.

They’re both panting by the time they separate. Jingyi feels a little stunned, but Sizhui just looks smug.

“I wasn’t just going to wait for you to do it,” he says with a wicked smile that makes Jingyi go hot under the collar of his robes. “Or else we’d be waiting until tomorrow.”

“Hey!” Jingyi protests and, to mark his objection, pulls Sizhui closer, crashing their mouths together in another kiss. They’re probably not great at this, but with each slide of lips against lips, they grow more confident. It’s just like learning to ride a sword—you have to take the plunge, and then let your body guide you. Sizhui licks into Jingyi’s lips, and Jingyi runs his tongue against the line of Sizhui’s teeth. They clutch at each other, desperate, until they tumble to the ground, and once again Jingyi finds himself under Sizhui, who pushes a thigh between Jingyi’s legs and leans forward, putting pressure right onto Jingyi’s cock.

It must be deliberate, because Sizhui grins into the kiss when Jingyi groans. It’s also about to get awkward very, very soon, because the pressure on Jingyi’s cock, coupled with Sizhui’s weight and the scent of him surrounding Jingyi, make him slowly begin to harden in his trousers.

“Wait, wait, wait,” Jingyi says, out of breath, when Sizhui moves to kiss the underside of his jaw. “We should…we should probably get inside. Before someone sees.”

Sizhui pushes himself off Jingyi, who suddenly becomes far less convinced that they need to move at all. They’re completely fine where they are, as far as he’s concerned, and he’d rather not walk back to the guest quarters with his cock tenting his robes out.

But Sizhui clambers to his feet, dusting off his hands, and extends an arm towards Jingyi to help him up.

“You’re right. We should go back inside,” he says, but he doesn’t sound disappointed. Instead, he sounds like someone with a plan.

Jingyi would never call himself shy, but there’s no other way to describe the feeling that settles at the bottom of his stomach once they’re back in their room. It was easy to kiss Sizhui in the dark, in the spur of the moment, but now that they’re here and candles have been lit, it feels a lot more deliberate. The promise of what could happen hangs between them, heavy and obvious.

“Do you want to go to bed?” Jingyi asks. “We can just go to bed, you know. We can just sleep.”

Maybe they could sleep together—the beds are big enough to fit the two of them.

“Do you want to just go to bed?” Sizhui parries. They’re still standing by the door, hovering in indecision.

Jingyi really, really doesn’t—this once, his body and his mind are in agreement on this. So he shakes his head and takes a step towards Sizhui, and another one, until the tips of their boots are touching.

“No,” Jingyi says. “I don’t just want to go to bed.”

He’s promising himself that they will go slow, because there’s no rush, and they have all the time in the world to work up to something more. So he kisses Sizhui for a moment, soft and gentle, and then pushes him towards his bed, because it’s slightly bigger than Jingyi’s own. The fit is tight, but Jingyi enjoys the way their bodies are pressed against each other from head to toe.

They kiss for a while, hands roaming once they get a little bit bolder. It’s all soft and gentle, and a little bit shy still, until Sizhui does something particularly good with his tongue, and the kiss turns dirty. Jingyi is pretty sure that he moans again, leaning over Sizhui, with his thigh resting between Sizhui’s legs.

They were supposed to be going slowly, at least in Jingyi’s own mind, but it seems like his body has a different opinion. They’re also pretty close to each other, as close as they were back by the lake, and Jingyi’s cock reacts in kind. He tries to angle his hips away from Sizhui as inconspicuously as he can, because he’s not sure what the etiquette is on poking someone you’ve just confessed to in the hip with a hard-on, but Sizhui just pulls him back in. He clasps his hands around Jingyi’s waist, making any kind of movement difficult, his fingers digging into Jingyi’s sides.

“What, Jingyi?” he asks, tearing his mouth away from Jingyi’s lips. His eyes are searching.

“I’m having, uh…a bit of a problem,” Jingyi admits, his cheeks in flames. “If I could just move a bit, that would help.”

Sizhui’s eyes flick between Jingyi’s face and the place where their hips are pressed together. He bites down on his lower lip. It looks half-dirty, half-shy.

“I could help, too, if you wanted,” Sizhui offers.

It takes Jingyi a moment to understand what he means, but when he does, he flushes all over. He’s going to die before this night ends, and it will be all Sizhui’s fault. But he wants it so bad he might die anyway, whether he gets to have it or not.

“Okay,” he says, breathless. “Okay, that’s…that would be good, too.”

At once, Sizhui reaches for the fastenings of Jingyi’s robes. He unties his belt and pushes the outer robes off his shoulders, then the inner robes, until Jingyi is left only in his trousers. The white silk of his undergarments leaves nothing hidden, and as soon as the other garments are off, they can see that the fabric is wet where the tip of Jingyi’s cock presses against it. It’s so embarrassing that Jingyi is ready to be swallowed by the floor any moment now, but Sizhui presses a thumb to the spot and rubs. Jingyi can’t think, with the heat that pools low in his abdomen. He’s flushed all over and sweating, and his skin feels like it’s on fire.

“Can I try something?” Sizhui asks, deft fingers at the fastenings of Jingyi’s trousers.

Jingyi nods frantically as Sizhui pushes Jingyi’s trousers open enough to take out his cock and flips them over, until it’s Jingyi on his back, looking up at the ceiling instead of Sizhui because he’s worried that if he does, he will embarrass himself horribly in a matter of moments.

It all becomes irrelevant, though, when Sizhui presses a trail of kisses down Jingyi’s neck and sternum, down the center of his stomach, until he reaches Jingyi’s cock. He wraps a hand around the base of it, and Jingyi almost jumps out of his skin at the touch. It’s too much already, but when Sizhui gives him a soft smile and then presses a firm kiss just beneath the crown on the underside, Jingyi makes the most mortifying sound and comes immediately. It feels like his insides stretch and contract at the same time as his orgasm is wrung out of him, but then the mind-numbing pleasure of it gives way to panic, because he just came all over Sizhui’s lips. Sizhui didn’t even properly get his mouth on Jingyi, and he came anyway.

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” he wails, scrambling into a sitting position, away from Sizhui. “I didn’t know that would happen!”

The humiliation seizes his body, his chest and throat tight with shame. He can barely look Sizhui in the face, but when he finally does, he sees Sizhui lick his lips clean with an expression of awe in his eyes. The rest of it he wipes away with the back of his hand.

“Me neither, but it was nice,” Sizhui says, and it takes Jingyi a moment to understand he’s not making fun of him.

None of that ever happened in the dirty novels Jingyi has been collecting since his teenage years. There was nothing that could have prepared him for the reality of seeing Sizhui lick Jingyi’s own seed off his lips with a content expression, like he was sampling the finest of Lanling wines, after Jingyi came all over his face by accident after the most embarrassingly short amount of time.

He wants to maybe go and drown himself in the lake in shame, but then Sizhui sidles up to him and kisses him gently. There’s a salty, slightly bitter aftertaste to the kiss, and that’s when Jingyi realizes he’s still tasting himself on Sizhui’s tongue.

“It just means you like me a lot, right?” Sizhui says with a smile when they part.

There’s something stiff that digs into Jingyi’s hip, and it takes him a moment to realize it’s Sizhui’s cock. He’s hard. It’s not so much a revelation, because Jingyi is pretty confident Sizhui is very much into whatever they’re doing here, but it’s still a bit of a shock to learn that some kissing and Jingyi spilling all over Sizhui’s face could get him this hard.

Fighting through the throttling mortification, Jingyi gives the most smug smile he can muster and says, “Something tells me you like me a lot, too.”

Sizhui presses himself harder against Jingyi, hips jerking a bit as he does so. “Maybe I do.”

It’s a challenge, if Jingyi has ever seen one, and if Jingyi can make Sizhui come as fast as he did, maybe he won’t have to live in a state of perpetual embarrassment until the day he dies.

He pushes his own trousers past his hips and kicks them off, then reaches for Sizhui’s robes. Together, they manage to make a quick work of them, until Sizhui is completely naked under Jingyi, one leg bent at the knee, exposing him completely.

The last thing to go is the forehead ribbon. Sizhui gestures towards it, and it takes Jingyi a moment to catch up, his breath arrested in his lungs when he finally understands. He runs his fingers along the soft band and finds the knot at the back of Sizhui’s head that secures it.

“Are you sure?” he asks and waits until Sizhui nods to pull it loose. “Now you.”

Sizhui sits up and reaches for Jingyi’s forehead ribbon with a reverent touch. Some of his hair must have tangled in the knot earlier, but Sizhui gently untangles the hair and unties the knot.

It’s strange to be seen without it, to have it touched by another person, but the sight of it in Sizhui’s hands makes Jingyi’s chest seize in a sudden onslaught of tenderness.

Sizhui is pretty all over—that much has always been obvious. But it’s only now that Jingyi can really appreciate the lines of his body, the slightly toned stomach, the light smattering of freckles on tops of his shoulders, the strong, muscular thighs. His cock is pretty as well, not too small and not too big, in Jingyi’s opinion, curving slightly towards Sizhui’s abdomen and flushed at the tip, leaking clear fluid.

It’s just like jerking off, he tells himself before he takes Sizhui’s cock in hand, stroking slightly to spread the slickness around.

Sizhui gives a quiet ah and arches off the bed, his eyes fluttering shut, his lips parted. Jingyi has no other choice but to kiss him. Just as quickly as he came before, he feels himself grow hard again as he continues to slowly stroke Sizhui, who seems to be teetering on the edge the entire time. His hands are grabbing at the sheets, his breathing labored. In a stroke of ingenuity, Jingyi brings their cocks together, wraps his hand around both of them and moves his hips.

The touch is like a crack of lightning down his spine; they both moan, Sizhui’s eyes falling open again. Jingyi’s hand can’t quite get a good grip around both of them, but a moment later he feels Sizhui’s fingers join his.

Jingyi knows he’s close already, but this is so good, the feeling of the two of them together. Sizhui is so smart, so pretty and so lovely under him that Jingyi can do nothing but let himself be carried with the rapid current as they hurtle towards the crest of that wave.

They keep kissing, too, the entire time their hips come to meet each other over and over again, but those kisses are wet and open-mouthed, more teeth and tongue than anything else.

There are no stories that could have prepared Jingyi for this. It’s the kind of feeling that can be felt only with his whole chest—a lightness and a dizzying spin all at once, a spirit running wild. They don’t last long, either of them, but when Jingyi comes for the second time and Sizhui follows right after, it doesn’t really matter anymore.

When they finally part, Sizhui’s stomach is a mess, and their hands are sticky.

“We need a bath,” Sizhui says, laughing. “Just look at us.”

They do. They really, really do. Jingyi has never been so happy to be so dirty.

“You draw the talisman to warm up the water,” he says, rolling onto the bed to lie on his back. “I can’t move.”

Surprisingly, it turns out that their bath can fit two people. It’s not the most comfortable fit, but it’s the most efficient, because it turns out that sex makes you sleepy, and they’re both yawning every few moments.

There’s also a downside to this, though, because at first they don’t get much of the actual bathing done, spending the time on kissing instead while the water in the bath begins to cool. Equally surprisingly, it’s Jingyi who puts a stop to this, but considering the amount of emotional turmoil he’s been through today, no one should begrudge him being a little bit tired.

They go back to Sizhui’s bed together, though Jingyi brings his own pillow and set of covers, but by the time they settle themselves comfortably, Jingyi’s mind is whirring again instead of settling down.

He can hardly believe all of this evening actually happened. Happy, his mind floating, Jingyi tells Sizhui that while they lie in a loose embrace.

“I think once we return home, it will become more real, you know? And then, after we return to the Cloud Recesses, we can officially begin courting…” Sizhui pauses, a hint of uncertainty in his voice. “If that is something you want.”

Jingyi very much does want that, but at that moment, he realizes a terrifying truth.

“Oh gods, does that mean I’ll have to ask Hanguang-Jun for your hand in marriage?” he asks, turning around in Sizhui’s arms to face him. “But he will never agree! He’ll never trust me with you enough to agree!”

Sizhui casts his eyes down, a small smile on his lips.

“Jingyi, Hanguang-Jun has been trusting you with me for a really long time,” he says. “Ever since the day we met. I don’t think you have anything to worry about.”

Oh, Jingyi thinks. He’s never thought about it that way, but it makes sense, when laid out like this.

Now he can only do his best to deserve that trust, but, looking at Sizhui’s face and his sweet smile, he doesn’t think it will be too hard.