Xie Yun has started to see A-Fei in his dreams. Maybe that’s no surprise. Xie Yun’s dreams, when he sleeps well enough to have them, have always been complicated. He dreams about touching her, about slipping his hand into the collar of her robes. He dreams about running his finger down the line of her neck, into the dip of her collarbone, where the tiny sword he carved for her still rests. He dreams about putting his lips against that spot, where the leather and wood meets her skin, and licking the salty sweat from her skin.
Other nights, he dreams about her blade against his throat. He dreams about the prick of the edge against his skin. He dreams about touching her while she rests her blade against his throat, her muscles tense with determination, her eyes hard as steel. He’s woken up achingly hard after those dreams. Some mornings he’s woken up with sticky bedlinens and underrobes, the humiliating evidence of his desire.
Never in his dreams has he let himself see her like this, dressed up in delicate silks. He’ll steal as many glances as he can before she notices.
Xie Yun should have known the outfit borrowed from the Feather Robe Troupe wasn’t going to make A-Fei happy. Yes, she looks beautiful, the delicate colors and layers, shifting against the fluid motion of her body. But she is visibly uncomfortable, and that’s what dims the overall effect. Her beauty isn’t just her features. It’s the vibrant light inside of her, the spark in her eyes when she watches a really good fight, or executes a form with her blade better than she ever has before. Maybe she’d be more comfortable in the dress if it were lined with knives. He should ask Madam Nichang whether this is possible. She would definitely know—she thinks of everything.
Xie Yun can get away with a few lines of poetry, maybe, if he recites them casually, as a joke.
The beauty’s demeanor is elegant.
I am filled with admiration upon seeing so.
He rubs his chin like a scholar stroking his beard, one of his Royal Highness of Sorrow mannerisms. Her face is stoic, unmoving. That’s good, he thinks. She’s going to let him say it, even if she doesn’t like it.
She’s swishing her sleeves around awkwardly, flopping her arms like they’re dying fish. It’s the opposite of the grace with which she moves through her fighting forms. “Where are my clothes?” she complains. “Why do I have to wear this? Where are my normal clothes?”
He can’t help but smile. A few of the Feather Robe disciples had conspired with him to get her things into the laundry, so she can have clean clothes when it’s time for them to leave. “Your clothes are dirty. It’s not right for you to wear them out. You wearing this—isn’t it nice?”
“Fine,” she says, with exasperation. “Let’s go.” Her ponytail swings behind her, and he gets an idea.
“Do you want to have your hair up like that going out?” He catches her arm.
“Why not?” She doesn’t pull away. Every time she lets him touch her, his heart jumps.
His grip is loose, but he can feel her warmth even through the layers of silk. How warm and soft her skin must feel underneath, if she— His heart is pounding in his chest, but he puts on his most brilliant smile. “Sit down. I’ll do your hair.”
She’s almost docile, as they go together to the table with hair ornaments, combs, and a beautiful, burnished mirror. She gets quiet when she’s nervous, turning her focus inward. It means he can look, he can touch. Lightly, but not too tenderly. He thinks of the hours he’s spent cultivating qinggong, his lightness skill. He thinks, A light touch for her, not too much, not too heavy. He’ll try to float above his feelings for her, the way he glides from rooftop to rooftop. He’ll keep it light to keep from showing her how much more he wants.
“What hairstyle do you want?” He cracks his knuckles and stretches his fingers. He makes his voice as gentle as he can, as if he’s talking to a child. A-Fei must have sat like this as a little girl, impatient with the rituals of beauty, anxious to go outside and spar.
She’s still but not angry. Her eyes are downcast, she’s almost meeting her own glance in the mirror, but not quite. Is she— is she shy? She’s letting him— is she letting him flirt with her? He brushes his fingertips against the silken strands of her hair. Touching her like this is overwhelming—but there are so many things Xie Yun’s hiding from A-Fei. An inconvenient erection under his robe is just one more. He’ll save this moment and think of it later, late tonight, once he’s heard her breathing soften and slow into sleep. He knows how to be quiet enough not to wake her.
“Cross bun or flying sky bun?” He keeps his voice as steady as he can. Her hair is like water in his hands. With all the time she spends outside, in the dust and dirt of the world, how is it so smooth?
“Ice cloud bun?” She shakes her head, brushing him away. The silky strands of her hair slip from his hands, which suddenly seem so large and awkward as soon as he gets close to her. Apparently she’s reached her limit on gentle touching for the day. A pity.
He sighs inwardly. That’s fine. He can be a little rougher, if that’s what she likes. “I’m telling you, sit still while I do this, otherwise it will undo itself later.” He works the loops and braid a little bit more firmly.
She doesn’t say anything, but a smile passes over her face. He can’t help a grin. He tries to make his hands brisk, competent—even though he’s not really an expert at doing hair. He’s bluffed through countless dangerous situations in the jianghu; he can bluff through this.
“Young Master Xie, even if you can do beautiful girls’ hair, you don’t need to use me to practice.”
He pulls out the hair stick to fasten the bun in place. He tries to match her joking tone, but can’t meet her eyes. He knows he can sneak one genuine compliment in there before she draws her sword on him, if he makes it sound teasing enough.
“I don’t have any literary or military ambition,” he says, and his voice doesn’t shake. His hands don’t shake either. Lightness, he thinks. Lightness. “I only want to be a maid, combing my future wife’s hair.”
He finishes, and pats her gently, leaning down to look at her in the mirror over her shoulder. He smiles at her in the mirror, ignoring the soft scent of her skin. He’ll think about it later, the mix of something warm, and something floral—
“How’s that?” he says.
She holds still, for a long moment, her face unreadable.
“It’s so ugly,” she says, without any real conviction. She grabs the hat, swishing its voluminous veil, rough and uncaring. “Let’s go.”