“Ugh.” Taxian-jun huffs, trying to balance the huge wicker basket full of vegetables in his arms so that the long leeks and scallions dangling over the edge don’t fall out.
Just his luck that on his day, Chu Wanning needed him to go down the mountain into town to the market to get their weekly supplies. This kind of chore is clearly more suited to the plebeian that is Mo-zongshi, not someone of Taxian-jun’s stature and disposition. He confidently told Chu Wanning just that, certain that he’d see things from Taxian-jun’s point of view and let him off so that they could spend time together in their cottage.
Instead, Chu Wanning had turned away from him and said, quietly, “I thought you wanted to help out around the house, too. Forget it, I’ll ask Mo Ran tomorrow.”
Seized by panic, Taxian-jun had chased after a sulking Chu Wanning only to eventually somehow find himself with the wicker basket and several taels of silver on hand desperately yelling,
“This venerable one can buy better vegetables than he can!”
...which is how he still ended up at the market anyway, with Chu Wanning now mad at him and the ugly wicker basket that Mo bastard had woven specially for Chu Wanning under one arm.
Sighing, Taxian-jun squats down around the corner of a street to rearrange the vegetables he’d haphazardly tossed in while navigating the labyrinth of the town’s morning market to buy everything on Chu Wanning’s neatly written list. He did have difficulty recognising a few of the more complicated characters, but Taxian-jun had managed to save his face by thrusting the sheet of paper at some of the merchants while playing the clueless husband.
When he stands up again, Taxian-jun finds himself feeling extremely aggrieved. It’s bad enough that Mo-zongshi has a whole three days to his one day, since he already had decades with Chu Wanning in this life, and now… Taxian-jun only has these few precious hours of consciousness, but instead, he is chased away first thing in the morning for something so utterly menial like buying vegetables at a market.
Petty, he kicks a stone so that it skips across the cobblestones, watching its trajectory as it disappears into the crowd.
Taxian-jun never wanted to be here.
Is it so wrong to want to spend more time with Chu Wanning?
He’s glad to have this second chance, this undeserved second life with his former Shizun, he really is. Taxian-jun can scarcely believe it some days when he wakes up to the warmth in his arms, the familiar scent of haitang in their shared bed, so much so that he has to pinch himself a few times to check if he’s dreaming every time it happens.
For the first time in years— decades —Taxian-jun is… happy. Almost painfully so. Whenever he looks at Chu Wanning, alive and beautiful and whole, his heart tightens to the point where he feels it might burst.
Every day his consciousness emerges after three days of rest in that Mo Ran’s body is a blessing, a flurry of activity as he fills it with Chu Wanning’s words and touches and smiles from dawn ‘til dusk.
And yet, it’s not enough. It’s never enough. The more he gets, the more he wants. He starts missing Chu Wanning fiercely the moment the sun begins to set on his days, painting their home in the mountains with soft haloes of red and gold.
Why can’t Chu Wanning understand that?
“You look gloomy.”
Taxian-jun turns towards the source of the voice.
He doesn’t immediately identify it, because to his right all he can see is a massive bunch of flowers of varying colours and leafy plants in pots, many of which he’s never seen before.
“Here, young man,” the voice calls, pulling some thin branches and foliage out of the way to reveal a kindly, wrinkled face squinting up at him from underneath a grey cloth tying back even greyer hair.
“Oh.” Taxian-jun blinks, walking over to the semi-hidden auntie behind the swathes of green. “What did you say to this ve—to me?”
“Had a fight with your wife or something?” She tuts, completely ignoring his question, before thrusting a bouquet of yellow flowers in his face. “Cheer her up with this!”
The sweet scent of the blooms accosts him. Taxian-jun lightly pushes it to the side with a finger, doubtful. “With flowers?”
Chu Wanning might be receptive to a new set of tools for his work with mechanical contraptions, but not flowers, surely. The whipping he got from Chu Wanning for plucking that haitang blossom is still fresh in his mind after all these years, even if he knows now that Chu Wanning regretted his harshness.
“Yes, with flowers.” The auntie gives his basket a cursory once-over. “You got everything your Hedong lioness asked you to get?”
Inwardly sniggering at the mental image of his Wanning as a roaring lionness, Taxian-jun maintains a straight face, thinking of the folded, smudged list within his robes. “I don’t have much coin left after buying the meat.”
“No matter. If you get one, I’ll throw in another on the house.” Before Taxian-jun can open his mouth to reply, the auntie is already quickly tying another bunch of pink and little white flowers together.
Shaking his head, Taxian-jun laughs, amused. “Auntie, ah, auntie. I wasn’t born yesterday. Wool always comes off a sheep’s back. What’s the catch?”
“I don’t know what you mean, boy.” She gives him a toothy grin, her eyes gleaming. “I’m merely a lowly flower merchant making a living in this new farmer’s market. Happens once a month. You tell your friends to pay this humble stall a visit the next time they make their wives angry, too, ya?”
Taxian-jun sputters. “That—I never said—”
“Hoho, you don’t have to. I’d know that henpecked expression anywhere.”
The auntie hobbles over to him and pats him on the arm in commiseration. Her hands are worn and leathery as she pries his fingers open with surprising strength, right before placing something in his palm.
“Have some seeds, too. Grow your own.”
The little folded square feels very light. When he holds it up, he can hear the small seeds rustling inside. For whatever reason, Taxian-jun finds himself humouring her, even if he’s grimacing.
“So, what is it that I am to grow?”
“Oh, I don’t know. This and that,” the auntie says flippantly, tilting her head. “I just threw in a bunch of things in there. Flowers, maybe. Pea shoots? Radishes? Your guess is as good as mine.”
Taxian-jun stares at her, utterly dumbfounded. What does one even say to that?
She returns his stare. When he doesn’t say anything after a few beats, she smacks his arm and raises herself to her full height, which barely comes up to his chest. “Payment!” She orders, setting her hands on her hips.
“Ah, right,” Taxian-jun says hurriedly, stepping back in spite of himself and fishing inside his robes for his purse so he can hand her a few copper coins.
The auntie harrumphs, giving him a disapproving glance. She quickly counts the coins before handing some back, clucking her tongue. “Aiya. These don’t cost that much. You must not visit markets often, right? You act like a rich young master, but you don’t sound like you’re from a city.”
Feeling somewhat affronted, Taxian-jun bristles. Not from a city? Taxian-jun was once an emperor who had brought several kingdoms and cultivation sects to their knees! At the pinnacle of his power, he—
She just continues to stand there before Taxian-jun with a raised eyebrow, completely unfazed and oblivious to his inner turmoil. “Don’t let vendors cheat you, ah,” the auntie says, shaking her head. “You’ve got the face of someone who’s used to spending too much money.”
Taxian-jun hauls up his basket, slipping the packet of seeds inside his robes. Doesn’t he share the same face with Mo-zongshi, the penniless plebeian, though? Still, his dignified air and nobility must have found some way to shine through that unpolished facade—Taxian-jun finds himself warming up to this peculiar plant merchant.
“Auntie is observant,” he praises, feeling rather pleased.
The auntie looks at him oddly. “That’s not a compliment.”
“I don’t know the first thing about gardening.” Taxian-jun changes the topic. “My subjects, I mean, my servants used to handle such matters.”
“It’ll do you some good,” the auntie says. “Touch some grass. Feel the soil between your fingers. The warmth of the earth.”
Still skeptical, Taxian-jun grunts. “Uh-huh.”
“Aiyah. You might not believe this old auntie now, but...”
Waving him away, she sits back down behind a few stalks of bamboo, plucking off a small dried leaf and letting it flutter to the ground.
“Just you wait and see.”
The front door is ajar when Taxian-jun gets home, the sun hanging high in the sky and beating down on his warm, sweaty neck. He places the basket on a small stool near the entrance, ignoring how it wobbles because of its clearly inferior craftsmanship, given who had made it.
“I’m home,” he says tentatively, to the figure of his husband hunched over the table, hammering lightly at some mail.
Chu Wanning looks up, distracted. His brows are still knitted together from concentration, but there’s no mistaking the way his entire body relaxes and how his eyes light up at the sight of Taxian-jun. “Mo Ran.”
Taxian-jun had still been sulking on the path up to their little house, fully intending to play the wronged, wounded dog for the whole afternoon so that Chu Wanning would see the error of his ways and give him the affection he so deserved.
But, now that he’s actually here and in front of Chu Wanning…
Ah, he never could stay mad at Wanning for long.
“It’s me,” Taxian-jun says lamely, looking away and scratching the back of his neck, feeling awkward. He’s not one for apologies—it’s simply been too long since he’s known the taste of one in his mouth. “This venerable one… I got the things you asked for. And some flowers.”
Maybe getting the flowers was a bad idea, Taxian-jun thinks, nearly an hour too late. “No, this venerable one… just thought that. They looked nice. Can’t I—?”
Chu Wanning pushes the items he’s been working on aside and gets up, walking across the room to Taxian-jun. He stills, wary, unsure of what to expect as Chu Wanning sidles up to him, looking intently at his face.
“What is it?” He says, at the exact same time his brow is dabbed at with a handkerchief.
“You’re all sweaty,” Chu Wanning explains, when Taxian-jun gapes at him. “It’s a hot day outside, isn’t it?”
Chu Wanning smiles at him.
“You’ve worked hard. Thank you, Mo Ran. For the vegetables. And the flowers.”
It’s been so long since anyone has called him Mo Ran. So long since he’s heard it in that beloved voice. Every time Chu Wanning says his name, quiet and warm, something slowly mends inside Taxian-jun—putting him back together, one broken piece at a time.
“I—!” Taxian-jun begins, clenching his fists at his sides as Chu Wanning holds his arm. “I do want to help you, baobei. This venerable one just…” The words are stuck in his throat. He never really knows the right things to say. Taxian-jun believes, knows that he’s more eloquent, more confident than that bastard Mo-zongshi, and yet.
Each time he says something, he just makes Chu Wanning disappointed. Or sad. Or angry.
Taxian-jun wants so badly to get it right.
“I know.” Chu Wanning cradles his cheek.
“I’m not useless,” Taxian-jun blurts out, placing one hand over Chu Wanning’s on his face. “This venerable one is not unwilling. There are tasks better done by the common people whose rough hands are more suited for such work, but I will do them all for you, if you ask it of me.”
His fingers tighten over Chu Wanning’s wrist as he fights the irrational fear of Chu Wanning fleeing if he lets go. Leaving him behind. Leaving him alone.
“Mmhmm.” Chu Wanning lets him keep his hand there, while his other palm settles on Taxian-jun’s chest. Something in Taxian-jun quiets at the gesture, his restlessness ebbing. “I know.”
“I don’t want to be apart from you.” He mumbles, averting his eyes. Saying it out loud somehow makes it sound more… shameful. When he sneaks a glance, Chu Wanning’s expression carries a hint of astonishment, as though he hadn’t been expecting that, but it remains otherwise neutral. “I only get one day with you. He gets three days. I missed you at the market today, in town.” He lets go of Chu Wanning’s hand so that he can wrap his arms around him. “I’m always missing you, Wanning. Did you know that?”
He feels arms wrapping around his waist, too. Chu Wanning buries his head in his robes, so his voice comes out muffled when he says, “Silly.”
Maybe he’s seeing things, but the tips of Chu Wanning’s ears look a little pink.
“I’m not silly,” Taxian-jun protests, but he doesn’t let go of Chu Wanning. “It’s only natural to want to spend all the limited time I have with you. Going down the mountain, walking into town, hauling all these vegetables back… that’s half the day gone, I won’t get to do all the things I’ve been wanting to do with you the last time it was my turn.”
Chu Wanning looks up at him.
“Then…” He pushes back some hair from Taxian-jun’s face, looking contemplative. “I’ll go with you.”
He’s not sure if he’s misheard. “What?”
“I’ll go with you.” Chu Wanning nods. “To the market, next time.”
His heart soars. “You would?”
Unable to find the words, Taxian-jun just squeezes him tighter, trying to convey his happiness and excitement and love all at the same time.
“What’s this?” Chu Wanning says after a moment, pulling back and poking the small, bumpy packet of seeds inside Taxian-jun’s robes.
“This venerable one’s broad, manly chest,” Taxian-jun jests, only to get a smack on his arm. “Ow, baobei, I was only joking. Uh… this auntie gave me plant seeds this morning.”
Fishing the folded packet out of his robes, Taxian-jun carefully opens it before laying out all the seeds on a table. They both hunch over the table, squinting at the little assortment of seeds in varying shades of red, brown and even grey.
Chu Wanning picks one up. “So, do we… eat them like this?”
Taxian-jun looks at him strangely. “No, these aren’t edible. She said to plant them.”
He feels a little offended when Chu Wanning drops the seed in surprise. “You’re going to garden? ”
“What’s with that reaction?” Taxian-jun says, folding his arms defensively. “Can’t this venerable one take up a hobby?”
Chu Wanning looks at him, down at the seeds, and then back up at him again. “Well, Mo Ran, it involves quite a lot of labour. And working the soil. You usually feel this kind of work is… beneath you.”
“I’m not that bad!”
Chu Wanning raises an eyebrow.
“...Fine, so this venerable one used to have legions of servants who toiled and maintained the gardens in the palace.” Taxian-jun waves a hand. “But anyway, it’s just gardening. How hard could it be?”
Unexpectedly hard, it turns out, as Taxian-jun wipes the sweat from his brow while kneeling down to check the soil where he’s planted his seeds for the fifth time that day.
“For all this effort that this venerable one is putting in for you…” He begins, glaring at the little mounds of soil and wagging a finger at them. “You had best sprout soon, or you will rue the day you decided to defy the great Taxian-jun, the inimitable real Mo Ran, Mo Weiyu, he of no equal under Heaven—”
“Are you threatening your seeds?”
He smells the congee before he even sees Chu Wanning, turning around to see him place two small bowls on the table. “I’m merely reminding them who holds the power of life and death over them.”
Chu Wanning shakes his head at him, tutting. “What if they become too scared and hide forever in the earth so they won’t have to see you? Take a break. You’ve worked all morning.”
Taxian-jun does, dusting off the soil from his palms and grimacing. He’s still not used to the icky feeling of wet soil between his fingers.
“Thank you,” he says, pausing as he looks at the bowl. This Chu Wanning and the one from his own world—it’s difficult to remember them being two different people when they cooked century egg and pork congee the same way, even serving the ginger in a separate plate for freshness so he could fully taste the spice. He’s never even mentioned it, but Chu Wanning somehow knows or remembers that he prefers older ginger, with the extra heat it offers. “It smells good, baobei.”
Chu Wanning gives him a small smile. “Let’s eat together.”
The tall trees around next to their home offer the perfect shade. It’s a lovely end to a rainy spring, full of cloudy days dotted across a bright blue sky. Dappled sunlight paints Chu Wanning like a halo, making him look like a painting even when he’s just lifting a spoon of congee to his lips.
“You’re staring,” Chu Wanning says, when he catches him.
Taxian-jun considers denying it for a moment, but rests his cheek on a hand instead. “Can you blame this venerable one?” And then he winks at Chu Wanning.
“That…” Chu Wanning stops, flustered, his congee forgotten as he opens and closes his mouth at Taxian-jun like a fish. In just a few beats, his entire face turns red. “You really— Mo Ran!”
He grins at him, wolflike and fond. It’s been months since they started living together, but Chu Wanning is still easy to fluster. “Cute.”
Gripping the ladle from the small pot, Chu Wanning stands up and brandishes it threateningly at him. Now that they’re together, it has about as much of an effect on Taxian-jun as a cat baring its claws—mildly intimidating, but it does nothing to diminish the urge to tease it and rub its belly.
“I, I’m not—you just try and say that again, Mo Weiyu!”
Taxian-jun laughs, a low rumble, before he pulls Chu Wanning towards him with a tug on his wrist, a mess of limbs tumbling right into his lap.
“Cute,” he repeats, looking right at Chu Wanning’s furious, flushed face. “You’re so bad at taking compliments, baobei. The right thing to say is ‘thank you’.”
Chu Wanning wriggles in his grasp. “Shut up.”
“Or what?” Taxian-jun purrs into a reddened ear, holding him in place with one strong arm. He licks his lips, the excitement he feels whenever he manages to overpower Chu Wanning already stirring in his blood. “Oh, Wanning, I’m so very scared. Whatever will you do to me?”
A palm smooshes Taxian-jun’s face as Chu Wanning shoves him away, swinging his arm to the side as golden light begins to emanate from his palm.
The birds perching overhead scatter at the sound of Taxian-jun’s screams.
Taxian-jun is antsy over his next few days, fretting over whether Mo-zongshi may have trampled over the mounds while he had control of their body (he didn’t, but Taxian-jun isn’t convinced it wasn’t for lack of trying) or if the weather had taken a specially harsh turn while he was asleep.
It makes him anxious, so much so that he wakes up unusually these days. Like today, he hesitates only for the briefest of moments to press a kiss to Chu Wanning’s sleeping face before he’s leaping out of bed to check on his seedlings outside in the cold, crisp morning air.
“Hey,” he says softly, gripping his flimsy inner robe around him as he squats down to look at the mounds, patting it gently to test for moisture. “Is it too cold after the rain? Maybe this venerable one should light a fire over there, ah?”
Of course, the seeds can’t answer him, buried as they are from where he’d plowed the soil behind their house with a crude but simple rake that Chu Wanning had made for him. While it’s still mostly dark out, he can hear a rooster crowing from down the mountain already, the sky beginning to brighten ever so slightly in the horizon.
Taxian-jun gets to his feet, circling the little plot he’d taken up for his future garden, leaning in to check the seeds he’d planted on the other side.
That’s when he sees it.
Taxian-jun nearly trips over himself in his haste rushing back inside the cottage, taking care to not slam the door on his way in as he clambers onto the bed, vibrating with excitement.
“Baobei,” he whispers, tugging at Chu Wanning’s sleeve as he cups his face, pecks his nose. “Baobei, wake up.”
“Mmn?” Chu Wanning mumbles, disoriented, before snuggling closer to him. “It’s still early… come back to bed.”
The warmth of him is so comforting, so tempting, Taxian-jun nearly caves even before he gets to say his piece. But his exhilaration cannot be contained. “Come with me. Please?”
When Chu Wanning makes a small grunt in protest, Taxian-jun kisses the side of his jaw, his brow, sweeping his hand down his arm. “This venerable one will make you a nice breakfast later,” he cajoles, tucking Chu Wanning’s hair behind his ear as he blinks sleepily up at Taxian-jun. “Promise. Just follow me, first.”
Draping an inner robe over Chu Wanning, Taxian-jun rummages around for the thin coat next to their bed as Chu Wanning clumsily slides his hands through the sleeves. It quickly becomes apparent that it’s too big for him with it being Taxian-jun’s coat, its sleeves just brushing past the tips of his fingers. When he’s got the robes on, Taxian-jun immediately bundles him up with a fox fur scarf, making sure it’s nice and cosy around his neck.
“Can’t have my Wanning freeze in this weather,” he says by way of explanation when Chu Wanning looks questioningly at him. Taxian-jun then holds out his palm, expectant.
“It’s already spring, Mo Ran,” Chu Wanning says, allowing himself to be led by the hand outside.
“It’s a very cold spring,” Taxian-jun corrects, opening the door as the first red-gold hues of the early morning sunrise wash over the hills in the distance. “This way.”
“To your garden?”
Taxian-jun just smiles as they continue walking. He hasn’t stopped smiling since he rushed into the house; his face is even beginning to hurt a little, but he couldn’t stop if he tried.
“Look,” he says, pointing at the edge of the garden, where it’s nearest to the wall of their house. “Right there.”
Chu Wanning steps gingerly around some tilled soil, looking down at the earth and the barely visible dots of green in the brightening morning light.
“They’ve sprouted,” he says, surprised, turning back to Taxian-jun, who is beaming from ear to ear, his dimples showing.
“They’ve sprouted!” Taxian-jun repeats happily, squatting down to carefully push back a little bit of soil obscuring where one of the sprouts has begun to unfurl from a knot under the ground, with one tiny leaf shyly peeking out. “Aren’t they beautiful?”
Reaching out to pour a bit more water over his sprouted seedlings with a wooden scoop, Taxian-jun puts it back only to see Chu Wanning looking right at him instead of the plants with an inscrutable expression, his eyes soft.
“En.” Chu Wanning meets his gaze, tentatively covering the back of Taxian-jun’s hand with his own. “They are.”
Taxian-jun hasn’t felt such joy in a very long time.
He makes Chu Wanning promise to keep an eye out for his plants as more and more of them begin to sprout, and to scold Mo-zongshi if he attempts to sabotage Taxian-jun’s little ones in any way.
It’s a whole new world for him. He raids Chu Wanning’s full shelves lining the walls of their home, scrounging for any information about plants he can get his hands on. That’s how Chu Wanning finds him at times, sprawled out and napping on the floor near their table, a book open and over his face while the sunlight shifts lazily over his body through the day.
“Why does this venerable one need fat grain?” He asks one day, with three different books open as Chu Wanning looks up from an intricate, half-drawing of a new spiritual and mechanical invention.
“Fat gra—” Chu Wanning taps his brush on Taxian-jun’s nose. “Just because the characters are for fat and grain, that’s not what they mean. The second character can mean materials, too. So combined, they mean ‘fertiliser’, for your plants.” He skims the notes that Taxian-jun has written in his scrawly, rough handwriting. “You missed two dian on the left, and have written ‘capital’ instead of ‘materials.”
“Aiya, but the people at the market will know what this venerable one means!”
Chu Wanning drums his fingers near the offending character. “If you are going to do something, do it right.”
Taxian-jun frowns, stretching his arms outward and peeking at Chu Wanning from behind his sleeve. “I seem to have forgotten how to write a dian.”
“There are two right there that you’ve written in the same character!” Chu Wanning says incredulously, but Taxian-jun is unrepentant.
“And here I was putting in such effort to learn how to write more characters, too.” Taxian-jun turns away, picking up his own brush, sighing dramatically. “This venerable one put in all that effort, and yet Wanning refuses to support my pursuit of knowledge, my attempts to become more learned, all so that I might—”
There’s a rustling of robes as Chu Wanning shuffles over to him. “Fine, fine.” He points to the spaces where the dian should be. “Write them here.”
“I don’t know how to write the strokes,” Taxian-jun says shamelessly, twirling his brush. “Baobei, you’ll simply have to show me up close.”
“You really are insufferable, Mo Weiyu.” Tucking his chin into the crook of Taxian-jun’s shoulder, Chu Wanning wraps his fingers around Taxian-jun’s knuckles and purlicue, nudging the brush. Just like he used to, Mo-zongshi had said. Because Chu Wanning had once taught him how to write, only Taxian-jun no longer remembers. “Like this. All right?”
Nodding, Taxian-jun lifts the brush after the last dian. “Wanning is so helpful. Then…” He turns back towards Chu Wanning. “Does this venerable one get a reward for getting it right?”
“Guidance this, reward that.” Chu Wanning lets go of his wrist, but he does lean towards Taxian-jun, breathing him in. “So demanding. Who raised you like this?”
“Of course, it is because Wanning has spoiled this venerable one.” Taxian-jun pulls Chu Wanning’s hands around him so that he’s being held from behind, the warmth of him flush along his back. “You’ll have to take responsibility.”
He can feel Chu Wanning sighing, before he hugs Taxian-jun tighter. “We’re already married, you know.”
“Then... take responsibility again.” Taxian-jun, seized by a sudden and intense surge of warmth and possessiveness overflowing from his heart, grabs Chu Wanning by the hand. “Marry me again. Drink ceremonial wine with me again. Become mine all over again.”
“Why would we need to do that?” Chu Wanning asks softly, ducking his head. “I… have always been yours.”
Taxian-jun nearly cracks the brush in his grip.
Ah!!! How is Taxian-jun supposed to resist Chu Wanning during moments like this!!
“Wanning.” He says perfectly seriously, scrambling up so that he’s on all fours and Chu Wanning is pressed up against the wall. “Give this venerable one an heir.”
Just like the last ten or so times he’s asked, Chu Wanning’s face twitches. “...That’s not how it works, Mo Ran. I’ve told you already.”
“So what if Wanning is not a woman?” Taxian-jun insists. “The jianghu has made such advances in cultivation and spiritual spells in the last century, this venerable one is certain there are ways around it. Like if we try hard enough, or maybe if we ask Jiang Yechen—”
“For the last time, Mo Weiyu—”
“This venerable one is not asking for a lot, just an heir and maybe another two children! No, three!”
“Do you hear yourself?! Go take care of your plant babies first before you spout such nonsense!”
“It’s not the same! Baobei, where are you going? Baobei!”
Despite Taxian-jun’s worries, a number of his seeds do take. He recognises what they are by some of the leaves—carrots, sweet potatoes, and even what looks suspiciously like radishes, but he doesn’t dare disturb the soil too much to make sure.
Spring rolls into the sweltering heat of summer, humid air collecting at the base of the mountain where cool breezes once blew. Taxian-jun takes to sitting outside on a stool between chores, watching the perimeters of his vegetable patch like a hawk, threatening any woodland creatures that come too close with a pitchfork.
One of the things he enjoys most about having started gardening is when Chu Wanning occasionally carries out a second wooden stool to sit next to him, asking him about his day and his plants. The sunsets are all the more beautiful from their side of the mountain when he has Chu Wanning by his side, the warmth of his hand tucked in his own.
There’s something more to his days now, like this. They’re all the richer for something he found for himself that’s uniquely his, something that isn’t also Mo-zongshi’s.
Every grain of sand that falls through his fingers, every new unfurling leaf in the sunlight—these are his . It reminds Taxian-jun that he is his own person, and not merely a shadow of Mo-zongshi’s existence in this world.
When Chu Wanning smiles at him like that on his days with him, when he spends time with Taxian-jun in the garden, when they walk down to the town together… Taxian-jun knows his eyes are for him. That smile is for him. For him—the Taxian-jun that was once Mo Ran, Mo Weiyu, a disciple of Sisheng Peak who had committed sins and wrongs so reprehensible in his life, and yet Chu Wanning had found it in him to forgive him. To still love him, despite everything.
For once, Taxian-jun feels like he belongs.
Although the summer is definitely one of the hottest ones he’s experienced, Taxian-jun quickly figures out that his plants withstand the scorching sun best when he waters them in the early morning while it’s still dark and cool, a good while before the sun rises.
This works for a time, with his formerly drooping plants perking up to flourish even in the harsh weather, lush and green and defiant. Only, the summer turns rainy.
He’s overjoyed, at first. After all, a regular supply of water provided so generously by nature itself means less work for him hauling buckets from the nearby stream. The plants seem happy too, initially, looking fresh and dewy after every heavy downpour.
Except the rain doesn’t stop.
Taxian-jun tries, trying to build crude little wooden roofs over his plants so that they won’t get pelted so much by the rain, but water still floods the soil around their home, keeping it cold and damp throughout the dark, gloomy days with little respite. It’s one thunderstorm after another.
Taxian-jun tries, even as his heart sinks and the tips of his plants’ leaves begin to blacken, patches of sickly yellow staining vibrant green. He really does.
But it’s not enough.
Chu Wanning finds him in the garden one wet morning, kneeling at the edge of the garden as he gathers dead, soggy leaves in his palms.
“Mo Ran,” he says softly.
The drizzle above him is halted abruptly by the umbrella that Chu Wanning extends over him. The very same one that the Mo Ran of this world had promised to hold up for Chu Wanning for the rest of their lives, if the memories in this body ring true.
Taxian-jun lets out a hollow chuckle, looking down at the crops that have rotted, at the tight buds of the flowers that wilted even before they had the chance to bloom.
“They’re dead,” Taxian-jun says, his mouth curving into a smile that he doesn’t feel. His chest goes tight and wrong, suffocating him from the inside out. “Look.” He gestures to the entire plot of land. “This venerable one spent months trying to… I tried. I really did. And for what?”
Chu Wanning shifts in place behind him, his feet making squelching noises in the soil.
“We couldn’t have predicted the rain this summer,” Chu Wanning says, reaching out to rest a hand on Taxian-jun’s shoulder, where his soaked robes are clinging to his skin. “It’s all right—”
“It’s not all right!” Taxian-jun snaps, the hand on his shoulder stilling and being lifted off him. His cheeks are wet, but it’s all right as long as Chu Wanning still thinks it’s only the rain. “Every time I try, I just make things worse.”
“When this venerable one was resurrected, I tried to find you when you were missing from the Red Lotus Pavilion. Desperate to find you, any trace of you, in the entire Wushan Palace.”
He takes in a shuddering breath, clenching his fists. In the empty, lonely years before his death, he had both anticipated and dreaded his evening walks to the Red Lotus Pavilion.
Every night, he would hope beyond hope that perhaps that day would be the day Chu Wanning would finally open his eyes again, bleary and confused, and that everything that happened before would have just been one long, terrible dream.
He would stay up for hours caressing that cold, death-pale face in the water, looking helplessly down at the man he so hated. That he so missed.
In his silence, in his endless sleep, he had reduced Taxian-jun to a shouting, begging mess before the grave of his red flowers. Before his Chu Fei, before his Wanning, his one remaining tether to the filth and folly of the mortal realm, Taxian-jun was neither conqueror nor cultivator, but merely a man.
A man who had lost his everything.
Taxian-jun didn’t think it could get any worse, not until Hua Binan had brought him back from the dead. Not until he had stumbled and crawled to Red Lotus Pavilion, his dead heart trembling at the prospect of seeing Chu Wanning once more—only to find a garden of withering lotuses where his body had been.
For all his sins, for all his wrongs, the gods had seen fit to punish and spite Taxian-jun by denying him even that—the final chance to commit Chu Wanning’s face to memory, after he’d long forgotten his warmth. His voice.
“I tried, but I couldn’t even find your ashes. The red lotuses were dying, too, from neglect. I tried to save them, because they were once yours. But I failed to do that, too.”
He wipes dripping rainwater and wet strands of hair away from his eyes.
“They looked just like this,” Taxian-jun says quietly. “Brown with rot, fallen petals scattered all over the water. As though once you’d disappeared from the world, they had no reason to continue living, either.”
It’s something that Taxian-jun understands all too well.
The rain begins to fall on him again, and then there’s a muted clatter as the open umbrella falls to the ground. Taxian-jun turns around, startled, only to have Chu Wanning crash into his arms.
Chu Wanning doesn’t answer. Wrapping his arms around Taxian-jun’s neck, he exhales, making a frustrated noise. The rain begins to beat down on him, too, drenching those white robes as he clings to Taxian-jun.
Maybe Chu Wanning didn’t hear him. Taxian-jun cradles his head, murmuring, “Wanning. You’ll catch a cold like this.”
“You’ve been through so much,” Chu Wanning whispers, squeezing him tighter. “Mo Ran, I’m sorry. I never wanted to leave you.”
Taxian-jun closes his eyes, swallowing.
How long had he only known those hollow, painful nights, with only a jar of white pear blossom wine for company?
How long had he longed to hear those exact words from Chu Wanning as he lay in the water next to his cold, lifeless body, floating somewhere between his dreams and the waking so that he might see his smile again?
“I know.” Taxian-jun presses a kiss to the top of Chu Wanning’s head, sweeping him closer into his arms, deeper, as though they could melt into each other in the rain. “This venerable one knows.”
Water pools inside the umbrella next to their feet as Chu Wanning continues to hold him, gripping at Taxian-jun’s robes.
“I’m here now, Mo Ran.”
Taxian-jun’s fingers tremble.
“Promise?” He asks, his voice hoarse.
Chu Wanning nods.
They stand there like that for a long time, unmoving, until the rain finally subsides.
As luck would have it, the next time Taxian-jun’s day rolls around, it is once again time for them to get their supplies for the week in town.
During the monthly farmer’s market.
“But you don’t even like crowds!” Taxian-jun drags his feet about it, trying to make more excuses for them not to go, but Chu Wanning is having none of it.
“You wanted this, Mo Ran.” He glances briefly behind him at Taxian-jun while they’re on the path down the mountain, shaking his head. “For me to come with you, that is. What’s gotten into you today?”
Taxian-jun gives up and stays quiet, pulling down the edge of his own straw hat as he shuffles petulantly. He can’t exactly tell Chu Wanning that it’s not about him coming along, but that he’s worried about bumping into that plant seller auntie. After all, the plants he’d grown from her seeds had all died by his hand.
He looks down at his large palms gloomily, stopping briefly in his tracks.
Chu Wanning usually hates crowds, too, but he’d volunteered to go down the mountain with him to keep Taxian-jun company, at his request. He shouldn’t feel guilty, and yet...
A soft sigh interrupts his thoughts.
“Here.” Chu Wanning holds out a hand behind him, palm up. He continues to look straight ahead and not at Taxian-jun, coughing slightly under his breath.
Taxian-jun takes it, bemused. Chu Wanning had never… really initiated holding his hand before. Especially not in public, where anyone could see. “Mm?”
“What are you worried about?” Chu Wanning tugs at his hand, the veil fluttering in front of his face making it difficult to read his expression. “You’re frowning.”
“Ah…” Taxian-jun allows himself to be led along for once, holding the wicker basket behind him. “I’m… just thinking of what we should do with that plot of land now that the plants have died. This venerable one will clean it up for you later.”
“Whatever for?” Chu Wanning asks, when they pass the archway into town. A child shrieks and throws a pebble at the lantern right above Chu Wanning, but he flicks it away with a small burst of qi without even turning to look at it. “Um. Where’s this monthly market?”
“Here,” Taxian-jun offers, tugging lightly at his hand to pull Chu Wanning past a bustling soup noodle stall. “This way. And about the plot, this venerable one means you can do something else with it after. Dig up a little pond, maybe, or…”
When Chu Wanning abruptly stops walking, Taxian-jun walks right into him. “Oof.”
“Watch it!” A short and gruff uncle nearly half their height says, narrowly avoiding them with a bushel of radishes on his back.
“Oh. Uh… Sorry,” Chu Wanning says awkwardly as the uncle hobbles past them while grumbling, stepping to the side of the street and pulling Taxian-jun along with him. Turning to Taxian-jun, he folds his arms. “What are you saying? You silly man. That land is yours as much as it is mine.”
Taxian-jun almost deflects with a salacious joke about Chu Wanning sneaking the two of them into an alley, but Chu Wanning’s eyes are bright and earnest, making his words catch in his throat.
“...But there’s nothing else for me to do with it now,” he says eventually, looking away. “You’ll put it to better use, Wanning.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” Chu Wanning flicks his forehead, making Taxian-jun yelp. “I saw how much you enjoyed it.” His expression softens. “How much you loved it.”
Rubbing his forehead, Taxian-jun pouts at Chu Wanning, who simply gives him a small smile and tilts his head, gesturing for them to keep walking.
“It was a waste of time,” he mutters, tentatively reaching for Chu Wanning’s hand again. His heart warms as he feels an answering squeeze underneath the rippling hem of that white sleeve. “This venerable one just isn’t meant for such chores. I’ll just stick to buying vegetables for Wanning if I have to.”
Chu Wanning snorts, completely at odds with the ethereal image he’s cutting in his flowy white robes and veiled hat, bending over a fish cart. “You don’t mean that, Mo Ran. Do we want to get a fish for tonight? Maybe a light steamed dish…” He points at a fresh perch.
The auntie beams at him as Chu Wanning examines her goods, but before she can open her mouth, Taxian-jun shakes his head vigorously and pulls Chu Wanning back. “Wanning,” he says in a hushed voice, gripping him by the arms and looking around to make sure no one has heard them. “Under no circumstances will we steam perch. That’s what we use to make sweet pine nut fish, it’s better deep-fried.”
Furrowing his brows, Chu Wanning purses his lips, looking down at the gleaming, patterned fish. “Surely there’s no difference. A fish is a fish is a fish—”
“If I may—” The auntie tries to interject, but Taxian-jun interrupts the both of them.
“No, for steaming it’s best with a grass carp—”
“Mo Ran, I just don’t see why—”
“It’ll taste better because—”
“Wei!” The fishmonger auntie shouts, startling the two of them. “You two! Go fight over what to cook somewhere else!”
“Did you just ‘ wei ’ this venerable one?!” Taxian-jun begins, mortally offended, but Chu Wanning is already clearing his throat and tugging at the back of his robes.
“Let’s go , Mo Ran,” Chu Wanning hisses, veil blowing in the wind momentarily to reveal a hint of pink on his ears. “Never mind the fish.”
He’d been ready to roll up his sleeves to get into a fight with the fishmonger, but Taxian-jun can’t help but chuckle at Chu Wanning’s embarrassment, taking his hand back in his own to walk down the bustling street. How adorable.
“Really? So, no steamed fish for Wanning tonight?”
Taxian-jun takes over the buying later, getting some fresh eggs and milk so that he might make a nice hot dessert for Chu Wanning later in the evening. Chu Wanning is so thoroughly flustered by the fishmonger auntie’s scolding that he refuses to go back down the street they came from, so Taxian-jun eventually buys some fat shrimp from another fishmonger in another alley when Chu Wanning is distracted by some sweets.
“You bought them for how much!?” Chu Wanning exclaims after the fact, when Taxian-jun shows him the plump, wriggling shrimp. “Mo Ran, that’s excessive.”
“Not at all.” Taxian-jun waves a hand, tucking the shrimp back into the small vessel he’d prepared separately for it. It had taken quite a bit of convincing Chu Wanning to not use the qiankun pouch for shopping at the market so that they could keep their purchases in the best condition, but he’d gotten there in the end. “This venerable one will get only the finest ingredients to cook for my baobei.”
“Surely we don’t have enough for…” Chu Wanning pauses mid-adjusting long burdock roots before looking up at Taxian-jun suspiciously, narrowing his eyes. “Wait. How come you’ve so much money?”
“Oh, look!” Taxian-jun feigns surprise, prying Chu Wanning’s hands off the basket as he turns towards the opposite side of the street. “Sweet ginger milk curd!”
For all his smarts, Chu Wanning, the reserved and austere Yuheng Elder of Sisheng Peak does have several weaknesses that Taxian-jun never hesitates to exploit, unlike that coward Mo-zongshi. The mole behind his ear, the trembling hollow of his neck, the way he turns red when he’s called ‘baobei’ in a particular tone, and of course, desserts. Shooting Taxian-jun a look, he walks over to the sweet ginger milk curd stall anyway.
“Was it good?” Taxian-jun asks later, biting into his own spicy meat and chives bun.
“En.” Chu Wanning holds his own bag of radishes close to his chest. “But…”
Chu Wanning coughs into his fist, staring determinedly ahead and not at Taxian-jun walking next to him. “Mo Ran’s is better.”
He perks up. “Really?”
Taxian-jun considers this for a while longer. “Better than that guy’s, though?”
He thinks he’s never seen tides of regret wash over someone’s face that quickly.
“No, tell me, baobei. This venerable one makes better desserts, right?” Taxian-jun wheedles, unyielding. Chu Wanning hugs his bag tighter and begins to walk faster, so Taxian-jun tugs at his sleeve instead. “I’m the better chef, aren’t I? The better lover?”
“I’m not going to answer that,” Chu Wanning says evasively, looking towards the heavens as if he might find an escape there, but Taxian-jun is not letting him go so easily.
“Whyever not? Oh.” Taxian-jun claps his hands. “Ah… Wanning is so kind. That’s it. You’re worried that Mo-zongshi can’t handle the truth.”
Chu Wanning covers his face with a palm.
“It’s all right, this venerable one can keep a secret. You can tell me!”
“Go buy our vegetables!” Chu Wanning snipes, glaring at him in earnest now.
Taxian-jun’s shoulders slump. “All right, all right.”
He looks around them, and spots a stall with an overflowing bushel of lush, sweet leaves. Perfect for a smoky stir-fry with the fresh eggs they’d just gotten today.
“These vegetables are passable,” Taxian-jun declares arrogantly, even though he’s already fishing in his robes for his money pouch, eyes gleaming at the quality of the leaves. “How much for two jin?”
“Oh?” Comes a familiar voice. “Didn’t think I’d see your handsome mug again, rascal.”
Taxian-jun flinches, backing away from the table. Chu Wanning looks between him and the table full of flowers and vegetables, trying to locate the source of the voice.
“Th-th-that day! You’re that, that auntie!”
“Aiya, how many times do you want to say that in a sentence?” The very same flower merchant he’d been hoping to avoid hobbles out from behind a huge basket of yams, raising an eyebrow at him. “What can I do you for today, then?”
“I... “ Taxian-jun sets his basket down on the ground, flustered. Fuck. He can’t exactly leave now, can he? “Uh. Sweet leaves…”
“Right, two jin, was it? Just for you, this dajie will give you two jin for this much.” She holds up several fingers. “Don’t give me your extra coins, I don’t have enough change.”
“Isn’t that too little…” Taxian-jun begins dubiously, slowly counting his coins, but the auntie holds out a rolled up book and swats his hand with it. “Ow!”
“You’re in luck, is all. Our little farm’s harvest was quite bountiful.” She takes his coins, nodding. “So, how are your plants?”
Taxian-jun’s knuckles turn pale from where he’s gripping the basket.
Somehow sensing that something is amiss, Chu Wanning puts down the cabbage he’d been examining and walks over, glancing between the merchant and Taxian-jun.
The auntie watches Taxian-jun, a hint of understanding flickering across her wrinkled face. Still, she keeps her voice light when she says, “What, you didn’t get around to planting them?”
She knows, Taxian-jun thinks, feeling very small under that knowing, maternal gaze. “This… I did. But—”
Chu Wanning moves closer to him. Even though he’s not touching Taxian-jun, just the hint of his warmth where their fingers are nearly touching under their sleeves gives him comfort.
“They gave you trouble?”
“...You could say that.”
The auntie mulls for a moment. “Well, growing plants isn’t easy, young man.”
“But most didn’t survive.”
If so many of the common people could grow vegetables, it surely couldn’t have been that hard to begin with—and yet, Taxian-jun had failed where so many had succeeded.
Chu Wanning loosens the knot holding the hat under his chin, reaching out behind him to let it fall down his back. “Some did.”
“Oh?” The auntie raises her eyebrow at Chu Wanning, who averts his eyes at the attention. She looks back at Taxian-jun, instead. “Not all seeds take, and not all seedlings survive harsh weather. As long as the sun continues to rise and the seasons continue to turn, that will remain the truth.”
Taxian-jun doesn’t understand why she’s justifying his failure. “Still!”
“What’s still growing, then?”
“Uh,” He hesitates, trying to recall which few sprouts and vegetables he’d managed to save. “Some… carrots? Sweet potatoes. And something with white flowers.”
The auntie grunts, disappearing behind a small bush of clementines. She dips under her table only to reemerge with an earthen pot containing a bigger version of the exact plant that had survived the rain back home.
Turning it around, the auntie lifts up a few bigger leaves to reveal what are indeed a few tiny green chillies hiding under them next to the few shy, white petals. “See?”
It flummoxes him. “But… I thought it was just a flowering plant.”
“The haitang bears fruit too, Mo Ran.” Chu Wanning places a hand on his back. “Or had you forgotten?”
That’s right. All those years ago, back at Sisheng, they would wait so long for the first haitang to blossom. And once all the flowers had fallen, bunches of the little sunset-hued fruits would grow on those branches.
Maybe they were sour. Or bitter.
Taxian-jun has forgotten it all.
“If they’re flowering, you’re doing well. Carrots grow fast, too, while sweet potatoes are hardy.” The auntie rummages around some sacks briefly, before triumphantly scattering more seeds across her table. “Here. I’ve got more random seeds for you to try again.”
“Mo Ran?” Chu Wanning prompts quietly, before turning to the auntie. “Ah… How much for the seeds?”
“Oh, seeds cost nothing. It’s on the house.”
The auntie looks at him, squinting and scrutinising Chu Wanning’s face, his robes. His hand on Taxian-jun’s back.
“Oho,” the auntie says slyly. “So, this is the lioness.”
Chu Wanning blinks. “Lioness?”
Taxian-jun feighs the loudest coughing fit he’s ever feigned, stepping in front of Chu Wanning and hastily swiping the seeds off the table. “Auntie, you were saying?”
“What’s that?” She holds out an ear, pretending like she didn’t hear him. “I couldn’t hear you. Anyway… you will try again, won’t you, lad?”
The seeds feel so fragile in the sweaty palm of his hand.
“What if these don’t survive, either?” He asks, voice low, thinking about the hollow numbness he felt that rainy morning when he realised so many of his plants had died.
“Then you try again. And again. Until more of them grow... until more of them thrive.”
The auntie takes out a small pair of pruning scissors as she speaks, trimming away the yellow-tipped leaves of a plant.
“It just takes time.”
“I’ve killed a lot of plants in my garden too, you know. This auntie has given them all sorts of unnatural deaths!”
Snip, snip. One leaf falls, and then another.
“Such as…” She pauses, chuckling. “Too much water, ah… or too little. Or when I put the wrong kinds of plants out in the hot sun, when they should have been in the shade.”
Taxian-jun watches as a small ring of leaves forms around her pot. The scissors are set down.
“But I got a second chance.” The auntie nods. “I grew up in a farming village in the mountains far away, those really sprawling ones with rice terraces. Fought with my parents over wanting to grow flowers instead of just rice and cabbages. When I met my late husband, we became merchants together. Those were hard times, but… here we are.”
Tearing off an empty page in her book of accounts, the auntie carefully folds it into a small pouch and drops the seeds she’d given Taxian-jun in there. Tucking in the corner flap, she holds it out to him.
“Here’s your second chance, boy.”
Uncertain, Taxian-jun turns to Chu Wanning.
Chu Wanning’s mouth curves upward, as he mouths: Take it.
So Taxian-jun does.
It’s daunting for Taxian-jun at first, looking at the bare patch of land in their garden. He remembers all too well the sinking feeling of pulling out all the plants with rotted roots, the vegetable leaves tearing off wetly only to be thrown away.
Chu Wanning had helped him clear the soft, blackened things all those weeks ago without a word. He helps Taxian-jun now when he can, hovering in the periphery with a bucket of water at the ready or with a new helpful barrier spell he’s invented specially to catch rainwater and protect the garden from flooding.
Taxian-jun is grateful for it, though he really wishes Chu Wanning wouldn’t offer to help out with raking and working the soil if only because he keeps tripping over himself while stomping around in his boots. Eventually, Taxian-jun manages to find several small ways for Chu Wanning to help without picking up a rake and simultaneously managing to not offend him while doing so, which he’ll take as a small win.
With Chu Wanning beside him, he finds it in himself to start all over again. To turn the soil, to scatter the seeds, and to watch them grow.
Slowly, he gets used to it. The days ebb into weeks, and soon, there are little sproutlings popping up from the ground again.
Taxian-jun knows what to watch out for now, when little plants start to wilt slightly from the heat. More of them take while he’s asleep in Mo-zongshi’s body, though Chu Wanning continues to assure him that his other self had not so much as wandered towards his garden in his absence.
Some herblike plants start rapidly growing out of control, creeping over and around the edges of the little fence he’d built to keep wild rabbits out. He harvests some of the tiny leaves to make soups and stews for his Wanning, but they still continue to spread at an alarming rate, so he begins pinching some of the straggly stems off to place in the leftover pickle jars they have around their house.
Soon, small jars and vases of herbs and vines begin to speckle their house green and gold all over. They find homes in the unused corners of Chu Wanning’s bookshelves, peeking out next to his newest mechanical inventions, and even beside their bed.
Their home is now regularly suffused with pleasing herbal scents, complementing the sweet haitang in the air. They spend many afternoons this way, Chu Wanning leaning back comfortably against his chest, slowly leafing through a book while Taxian-jun absently folds and stuffs dried herbs into small sachets.
A few sprouts still dry up in the heat, but more survive this time now that Taxian-jun knows what to do. Well, a little more than he did the last time, at least. He’s still learning things the hard way, like when he accidentally swings a shear behind him while stretching and cuts off a whole stalk of healthy, fresh new leaves without meaning to.
But on the day Taxian-jun gets to harvesting his vegetables for the first time with his own two hands, he thinks he’s never felt more overjoyed and proud. The first radish he pulls out from the ground is a robust and beautiful specimen; Taxian-jun can’t believe that just weeks ago it had only been an unassuming, tiny brown seed. He scoops up carrots and cabbages after, too, plump and leafy and sweet.
And when Chu Wanning’s eyes light up at the first spoonful of the clear soup Taxian-jun makes with the bounty of his simple harvest, he knows then that it had all been worth it.
Emboldened and riding a very specific high experienced by reformed bloodthirsty despots who suddenly develop a knack for gardening, Taxian-jun decides to pursue his next challenge: planting flowers.
The only problem is, he has no idea where to start.
It’ll be weeks before one of his days coincides with the monthly farmers’ market again. So, Taxian-jun decides on a whim to seek out some wildflowers in the forest to see if he can take them home with him.
“Why, if it isn’t Mo-zongshi!” A voice like the rustling of leaves and wooden chimes echoes in the clearing, just as a little leaf spirit pops up from behind a rock. “Are you here to play with us today?”
“Play, what play,” Taxian-jun grumbles, bending down to inspect a little yellow flower before yanking it out. The leaf spirit winces a little in sympathy. “This venerable one is here to get flowers for Wanning. I’m a busy man, you know. No time for games or idle chit chat.”
“Oh…” A flower demon behind the leaf spirit droops, looking like it’s wilting. “It’s dijun today, not Mo-zongshi…”
“What was that?” Taxian-jun says, smiling threateningly, a twig cracking under his heel as he gets to his feet.
“N-nothing!” The flower demon tries to look unassuming, bending down to hide amongst the other wildflowers and closing its petals for good measure.
“How can you say that!” A fluttering, flying dandelion spirit scolds the flower demon. “Whether it’s Mo-zongshi or dijun, they’re both most beloved to the Spirit Wood Immortal!”
Chastened, the flower demon shrinks further into itself, saying nothing further.
“Flowers for the Spirit Wood Immortal, dijun?” Another small demon says, wandering into the clearing. This one looks like a small log of wood, with long, straggly roots for feet. “Is there a special occasion?”
“Tch.” Taxian-jun drops the yellow flower into his basket, poking at a couple of speckled white ones at the base of a tree. “This venerable one will get flowers for him if I feel like it, special occasion or not. Are you lot going to help me or just flutter about asking silly questions?”
“We’ll help!” They cry, scattering. “If it’s for the Spirit Wood Immortal, we’ll do our best!”
Taxian-jun had read somewhere that you could grow new plants by placing their cut stems in water until they grew roots. It worked for the herbs he accidentally propagated around the house in water—when he changed the water in the jars, he discovered some cuttings had new light-coloured roots, and he was then able to replant them back in the earth like any other seedling. Perhaps he could do the same with flowers?
Eh. He looks down at his basket, where he’s amassed a little colourful summer bouquet of blooms. Well. Even if they don’t take, at least these are grown flowers that might look good in a vase for when Chu Wanning comes back from hunting.
Taxian-jun does so love to see him smile.
“Dijun!” Two small wood spirits call to him from the ground, waving up at him as they hold up a few freshly unrooted stalks with gold-speckled green leaves. “We found some blooms we think you’ll like!”
“Aren’t these just leaves?” Taxian-jun asks suspiciously, narrowing his eyes at them. “If you’re lying to this venerable one…”
“How would we dare lie to the Spirit Wood Immortal’s husband!” The little forest spirits titter nervously, inching away from Taxian-jun and scuttling into the dancing shadows amongst the trees. “They’re very young flowers, the buds will form and bloom soon so that dijun may have the pleasure of experiencing it for yourself.”
Taxian-jun takes the stalks, examining them. “Hmph. Very well. This venerable one will remember your noble deeds when the time comes again for me to confer titles upon those who are worthy on Nanping Mountain.”
“Eh?” The spirits and demons vocalise in chorus.
“No matter.” Taxian-jun waves a hand. “This venerable one appreciates your contributions to the imperial household.”
“What will you name them, dijun?” A floating spirit consisting of several dancing acorns asks him in a high, reedy voice.
“Yes!” It chatters, while a large mushroom spirit next to it nods in agreement. “They say it helps flowers grow. Some of us cultivated to become forest spirits when we first gained sentience, usually after those who cared for us gave us names.”
“Humans name their children too, don’t they?” A wood spirit asks thoughtfully. “If they raise pets and plants and give them names… they’re like their very own children, too.”
Taxian-jun thumbs at the soft flower petals.
He smiles wistfully all the way back to the cottage, feeling a little bittersweet. Taxian-jun knows very well the limitations he faces, but he had meant it when he said he would want to find some way for him and Chu Wanning to have a child together.
Chu Wanning would be a strict but soft-hearted parent, caring for a young son or daughter that might look like him. Or like Taxian-jun. Or, maybe the child would inherit features from the both of them! Their offspring would be very good-looking indeed.
Even before he’d come back to life, even during the madness that had consumed him as the flower of hatred bloomed inside him, Taxian-jun had in his moments of clarity longed fiercely for a family with Chu Wanning, wondering how his Chu Fei might look with a babe in his arms. A royal heir, living proof of their union and their love.
A child. Their child.
“Mo Ran,” Chu Wanning calls from the yard. “I’ve made some steamed bao for you.”
The small basket full of flowers is set down on the table outside just as Chu Wanning disappears into their house. Taxian-jun sweeps some fallen leaves off the surface, resting his fingers on the lightly lacquered surface of the wood.
Chu Wanning gingerly carries the hot bamboo steamer over while holding it with two thick towels, letting out a small sigh of relief when he’s carefully and safely placed it down on the table.
Taxian-jun watches him, tickled, as Chu Wanning lightly lifts the lid, grimacing at the hot wave of steam that engulfs his face when he does. “Are you all right, baobei?”
“Of course,” Chu Wanning says seriously, looking very focused as he picks up a bun with their worn pair of serving chopsticks, depositing it with a light splat on Taxian-jun’s plate.
The bottom of the bao is a tad wet, probably from Chu Wanning steaming it for too long, but Taxian-jun would never mention these things to Chu Wanning after he’d painstakingly spent the whole morning cooking something just for him.
Moreover, he remembers that Chu Wanning didn’t make bao for Mo-zongshi yesterday. Ha! A much-deserved victory for Taxian-jun.
“It’s lotus paste bao today.”
“With salted egg yolks?” Taxian-jun asks, beaming. Lotus paste bao on their own were a little too sweet for him, but salted egg yolks always rounded up the flavour nicely.
“With salted egg yolks,” Chu Wanning confirms, placing one bao on his own plate and sitting down to eat. Taking a bite with an initially worried expression, Chu Wanning’s features relax once he realises his bao is actually edible. “Where did you go earlier today?”
“Oh.” Taxian-jun pulls the basket towards him, scooting over next to Chu Wanning. “Here. Some flowers for the house. We can keep some indoors, and this venerable one will grow some outside.”
Chu Wanning peeks inside the basket.
“They’re lovely, Mo Ran.”
Taxian-jun just smiles, cupping Chu Wanning’s cheek and leaning in.
“Not as lovely as you.”
Taxian-jun has to do some renaming after the first flowers he’d transplanted start blooming in shades of red, yellow, white and even a bright, rich purple.
In hindsight, he shouldn’t have named them after colours before the buds had opened, but he’s happy with the little wooden sticks he’d stuck into the ground and their new names he’d painted on.
Chu Wanning had checked his strokes but had made minimal corrections, so Taxian-jun feels pleased about that, too.
“You haven’t bloomed yet, Xiaobai, but this venerable one knows you’ll be very pretty,” he says to a shy, tightly clasped white bud on a vine, a hint of pink dusting its petals like a faint touch of a painter’s colours on parchment. “You look just like Wanning when he dresses in white.”
Taxian-jun decides that he will, indeed, bestow the greatest praise upon the little wood spirits the next time he goes up Nanping Mountain.
Surprisingly, one of the plants had turned out to be osmanthus—Taxian-jun would recognise the scent anywhere, having made several dishes and desserts with the flower back in the day. It had bloomed at the very beginning of autumn a while back, the tiniest little petals unfurling one by one along its leafy stalks.
“Xiaohuang, you really gave me a surprise,” Taxian-jun states, shaking a finger at it. “This venerable one has never seen osmanthus plants, only trees! Be good for your father and quickly grow big and strong, so I can make all kinds of desserts with you to seduce Wanning.”
Maybe it’s just his imagination, but he thinks Xiaohuang shudders a little under his scrutiny.
“What nonsense are you saying to your plants now?” Chu Wanning says incredulously, walking around the corner to see Taxian-jun standing imperiously before his little patch of flowers.
“Nothing,” Taxian-jun says innocently, putting his hands behind his back as he grins at him. Chu Wanning looks so radiant in the sunlight, his flowing white robes a beautiful contrast against the red and gold colours of the forest as the leaves fall softly all around them. “This venerable one is just giving his morning greetings to his harem.”
“Right.” Chu Wanning doesn’t sound convinced. “Ah, I forgot to tell you, Mo Ran. Some villagers came by recently.”
Taxian-jun frowns. “I don’t remember this.”
“I think it wasn’t your turn, that day.”
“...Oh.” Taxian-jun looks down at his plants, trying not to sulk as he tries to sift through his other self’s memories. “The couple who run the… medicine shop?”
“Yes, the apothecary,” Chu Wanning says, without missing a beat. “I crafted a guardian for Chen-xiansheng some time ago. They gave us some dried herbs and medicine as thanks when they were on their way down from picking herbs in the mountain.”
“They really liked your garden,” Chu Wanning says, eyes crinkling. “Chen-taitai gushed over how healthy your vegetables were, and how pretty your flowers are. She asked me for some tips, but I said that the advice was not mine to give.”
The words sink in, as Taxian-jun realises that he’s being praised. Warmth blooms in his chest as pride surges in him. “That… well! While there were setbacks that might discourage those possessed of a weaker will than this venerable one, it was effortless once I—”
“Mo Ran,” Chu Wanning interrupts him gently, chuckling. Sidling up to him, he strokes the sides of Taxian-jun’s arms, sweeping some dust off his robes. “You should tell them yourself.”
Nonplussed, Taxian-jun blinks at him. “Uh… so, Wanning wants me to go down the mountain and—”
“No, no.” Shaking his head, Chu Wanning turns around to look at his little osmanthus plant and the small white flower next to it, before lightly trailing a finger up the stalk of a small purple, bell-shaped flower. “You could write it to them, no? Then, they’ll be able to refer to your written advice if they forget.”
“W-w-write?!” Taxian-jun says, staggering back. “But…”
“But, Wanning—” he starts, desperate, torn between wanting to share his newfound gardening wisdom with the world so they can bask in his imperial intellect and the potential embarrassment of people judging the chicken scratch that is his penmanship. “This venerable one… you know very well I can’t…”
“Can’t what?” Chu Wanning asks coolly.
“Well. That I can’t write.”
“Did this master not personally teach you how to write, all those years ago?”
Chu Wanning folds his arms, a flicker of his old demeanour as a Shizun flashing across his expression. Taxian-jun recalls his old fear as a student, cowering a little as Chu Wanning advances upon him with a raised eyebrow.
“And have I not been overseeing your recent lessons here, in this very cottage? So, my additional tutelage has all been for naught—is that what you’re trying to say?”
“No, baobei,” Taxian-jun mumbles, scratching the back of his head. “Just… while this venerable one has many talents, writing may not be for me.”
“Just like you said gardening might not be for you?”
“That’s different!” Taxian-jun says petulantly.
“If you really don’t want to do it,” Chu Wanning says, “I won’t force you. I just think you’ve been very happy watching your plants grow, and you might want to share that with others. Don’t you?”
Taxian-jun leans his forehead against Chu Wanning’s with a soft thump.
“I do,” he admits.
“Then, let’s write it together this weekend, when it’s your turn again.” Chu Wanning cajoles. “I’ll help you. Okay?”
For a moment, Taxian-jun is overcome by how blessed he is to see the harsh edges of the Yuheng Elder softened so, that he can partake in the unexpected sweetness hidden in the corners of those phoenix eyes.
And to think, the affection found there is reserved for him, and him alone. Well, and his other self, but Mo-zongshi is a useless dog who doesn’t count.
Despite his protests on the surface, he knows very well deep down that he is incapable of saying no to Chu Wanning three times. So, Taxian-jun squeezes Chu Wanning’s hand, knowing he’s already lost this battle.
Later that week, true to Chu Wanning’s word, they settle down at the table inside their bedroom once they’re done with their chores.
Chu Wanning works on his engineering sketches next to him, occasionally glancing over when Taxian-jun reaches out behind him to pull more books on herbs and medicine from the shelves.
Their room is quiet but for the sound of their breathing, the occasional rustle of paper, and the autumn breeze whistling through the trees and their open windows.
It’s peaceful and calm, their little slice of tranquility out in the mountains. Taxian-jun will never admit it out loud to Chu Wanning, but this is all he’s ever wanted, finally within his grasp—a simple life, tucked away in the heart of nature, with the man he loves most in all of the three realms.
Still, when Taxian-jun fake-complains about a meal not being lavish enough or that the tea served in a restaurant in town is not expensive enough, he thinks Chu Wanning sees through him too easily. More often than not, Chu Wanning ignores Taxian-jun, pouring him another cup of tea he knows Taxian-jun will drink and placing another piece of meat on his plate he knows Taxian-jun will eat, despite his protests.
Well, all that notwithstanding, Taxian-jun still needs to keep his pride! He may enjoy a simple peasant’s life as a retiree, but that doesn’t mean he has forgotten his indulgences, nor his impeccable palate! A part of him would always remain a lofty and arrogant tyrant with only the finest tastes in wine, silk, and men. Taxian-jun is still at the top of the jianghu, after all, with the unrivalled beauty that is his Wanning in his bed and by his side.
Huffing and getting worked up all by himself, Taxian-jun tuts and turns back to the letter he’s writing, copying a character’s strokes off a page about how much sunlight flowers should have compared to herbal plants that burn easily in the afternoon sun.
“You’re making good progress,” Chu Wanning says, completely oblivious to Taxian-jun’s inner angst over his realisation that he does, on some level, enjoy the peasant life that he shares with Mo-zongshi. “May I read what you’ve written so far?”
Taxian-jun looks down at the letter, where he’s accidentally smudged a few of his last lines from how he’d held the brush. Several of the characters are of different sizes, awkward and out of place from when he’d forgotten to account for radicals he’d forgotten to write at the bottom of a word.
“Uh.” Taxian-jun begins, holding it just out of reach of Chu Wanning’s hands and making as if to crumple it. “This venerable one should redo it…”
Chu Wanning twirls his brush and smacks Taxian-jun’s hand with it.
Taking advantage of Taxian-jun’s shaking his wrist in pain, Chu Wanning picks up the letter and holds it up to the light.
“Wanning!” Taxian-jun whines, but Chu Wanning silences him, blowing on the paper and reading it intently.
A few seconds later, Chu Wanning takes one of his steel bolts as a paperweight to hold the letter down.
“It’s perfect, Mo Ran.”
Taxian-jun makes a face. “It should’ve been a simple letter. But this venerable one couldn’t recognise all those words…”
Chu Wanning scoots back on the floor, patting his lap meaningfully.
Of course, Taxian-jun never lets an invitation like that go unheeded. Mo-zongshi might make a show of refusing something like that at first, to pretend he’s all noble and above it all, but Taxian-jun has no such qualms.
Embracing his honesty, Taxian-jun immediately flops back onto the floor, shamelessly resting his head on Chu Wanning’s thigh like it’s a pillow. Every time Chu Wanning allows him this rare indulgence, Taxian-jun feels like he’s ascended to the Jade Emperor’s throne in Heaven.
Chu Wanning strokes his hair, pushing back his fringe. Sweet, slow, and intimate.
“You wrote an entire letter by yourself, and you only asked me for help once or twice. All the characters were correct, too.”
He rubs his knuckles along Taxian-jun’s jaw, before poking playfully at his cheek.
“I’m proud of you.”
“Really?” Taxian-jun asks, smiling up so widely at him that his cheeks are beginning to ache.
Ah, how long he’d waited to hear words like that from his Wanning. Two lifetimes, and he didn’t think he would ever… well. And yet, when he can find it in him, Chu Wanning spoils him so, making Taxian-jun greedier and longing for more. Always chasing his praise, chasing his love.
“En.” Chu Wanning says, rubbing Taxian-jun’s ear. “I’ll take your letter into town tomorrow.”
Taxian-jun pulls at Chu Wanning’s hand, so he can kiss that slender wrist.
“Wanning treats me so well.”
Chu Wanning’s eyes soften even more as he looks at him.
“Mo Ran deserves it.”
The Chens are delighted when they try out Taxian-jun’s advice in his clumsily written letter, at least according to Chu Wanning. So delighted, in fact, that they tell the Luos, who share it with their neighbours, the Huangs, who then proceed to tell a bunch of customers in their tailoring shop about it, too.
Chu Wanning comes back from his next round of fixing and maintaining some armour guardians in town with a list of requests from a little over ten people, all asking different questions about growing herbs or vegetables or flowers.
“How do you… know that…” Taxian-jun squints at the sentence.
“Cabbages are ready for harvesting,” Chu Wanning finishes it for him, closing the window. The evening winds are turning cold, bringing with them the promise of winter’s coming frost. “That’s from Uncle Wu.”
Taxian-jun sets the little sheet of questions aside, dipping the end of his brush in the ink that Chu Wanning had ground for him that morning. “Has this venerable one met him before?”
“Not this version of you. He’s an antiques merchant… Uncle Wu and his wife live near the river. Their children have moved away to the city, so they’ve just started taking up gardening as a hobby, too. Mo Ran has helped him with moving some things before.”
“Oh.” Taxian-jun says neutrally, while mentally making a note of how he would not find any opportunities for part-time work as Gou-zongshi there if that Mo dog had already performed some free labour.
Aiya, how is Taxian-jun supposed to earn his money in town on the sly if Mo-zongshi keeps offering things for free and people think they are one and the same?! How frustrating.
“Well, cabbages take longer to grow… but this venerable one just gives their heads a poke.”
He’s just about to put his brush to paper in reply to that question when Chu Wanning laughs, holding his wrist. “Surely you can word that better, Mo Ran.”
“Fine… I squeeze the heads and see if they’re all firm-like. If they’re still too soft and loose, then they need more time to grow. Kind of like when this venerable one needs to use my mouth on Wanning’s—”
A flash of gold out of the corner of his eye is all Taxian-jun needs to abruptly shut his mouth and feign a cough. “Why are the bunch of them suddenly so interested in vegetables and flowers, anyway?”
Letting Tianwen dissipate, Chu Wanning shrugs. “Some of them are older couples. Some want to try using up the extra space in front of their homes on the outskirts of town. Some want to try planting vegetables with their children… I didn’t really ask.”
Taxian-jun hums, writing a few more words down. “It can’t be helped, then. This venerable one’s imperial wisdom and talent must be shared with the adoring masses.”
“I suppose so,” Chu Wanning agrees indulgently, wrapping his arms around Taxian-jun from behind. “Aren’t you cold?”
The candle on the desk flickers, making light and shadow dance in the darkened room as the sun sets outside. Taxian-jun laughs, tilting his head up so his face brushes Chu Wanning’s chin.
“Why? Is Wanning offering to warm this venerable one up?” He purrs.
“Is that all you ever think about?” Chu Wanning says, but there’s no heat in it. Instead, he hugs Taxian-jun tighter.
“Maybe. It’s all Wanning’s fault, seducing this venerable one at every turn,” Taxian-jun says casually, earning a slap on his arm. “Ow. So this next question is from a… Zhao-xiansheng.”
“He asked, ‘How do I protect my plants during overwintering?’” Chu Wanning kneels behind him, pressing his thumbs into the meat of Taxian-jun’s neck. He’s never really been good at massages, at least not compared to the way Taxian-jun massages him occasionally after a long day’s work with his inventions, but he appreciates Chu Wanning’s efforts all the same.
Closing his eyes, Taxian-jun leans into it, hissing when Chu Wanning kneads at a particularly stiff knot. “That… This venerable one doesn’t know, either. I read a bit about it, it’s like keeping plants alive so they rest in winter, but flourish in spring.” He pauses. “I can’t really answer that, so...”
“Not yet,” Chu Wanning corrects him, working his shoulders and digging his fingers in. He’s too rough by half and awkward with it, but Taxian-jun has never minded that. “We’ll figure it out. We’ve harvested most of our vegetables, haven’t we? And we already know plants are mostly dormant in winter, but that they’ll bloom and grow again come spring.”
Taxian-jun looks at the boxes of cabbages he harvested in the last week, stuffed to the brim with straw following the auntie’s advice the last time he bumped into her at the market with Chu Wanning at the end of autumn.
He’d been a touch paranoid about them, lifting the lids and checking his cabbages every few nights until Chu Wanning found him rummaging through the straw one night like a burglar and had scolded him for disturbing their winter supplies. They harvested plenty of potatoes and radishes too, which should see them through the colder days with lots of soup.
Taxian-jun scoots back, gently tugging and manoeuvring Chu Wanning towards him to cage him in between his thighs. Before Chu Wanning can protest, he gives his husband a quick peck on the lips, gathering him up and holding him close, right there on the floor.
The fire crackles in their small, modest hearth, filling their little cottage with warmth as Chu Wanning relaxes into his arms.
Outside, snow begins to fall, catching on the boughs of Taxian-jun’s plants. The flowers have long since wilted, leaving only empty twigs and branches.
Taxian-jun would be lying if he said he hadn’t fretted about what would happen to his herbs and flowers come winter. There’s so much he doesn’t know about them, and he’s only just starting to come to terms with how, sometimes, there’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to caring for his garden of little leafy children.w
But he doesn’t have to worry about this winter, or the countless winters that await him.
The seasons will turn again, the flowers will bloom again.
With every new morning in this new world, as the sun rises… with Chu Wanning by his side, Taxian-jun knows he has found his home, at last.
And home is where he will stay.