Xu Baijiu was forced to sit upright, his feeble protests ignored. He couldn’t breathe. Blood burned his throat, the iron tang flared red-hot on his tongue—a clumsy hand pulled him to his side. Fingers felt for Baijiu’s stuttering pulse. From above him, Jinxi repeated, “Live,” again and again until Baijiu blacked out.
Smoke drifted up into the night. Tang Long, contemplative even after his agreement to play Baijiu’s scheme, got to his feet. Economic. It wasn’t graceless, but it lacked flair; Tang Long was a man who didn’t waste a movement.
“You need to sleep,” said Tang Long. A thought struck him. “Do you…have a place to sleep?”
Baijiu’s first instinct told him to say, ‘Obviously.’ Another lie for his record, and not even a useful one. “There are plenty of empty rooms,” he deflected. He would feel the lingering ghosts of the evacuated, but those would disappear once he quelled his empathy. Almost reflexively, he drummed his fingers against his chest.
Tang Long frowned at him. “That’s disrespectful.”
“I’ll leave an appropriate amount of money.”
“They’ve evacuated. Who says they will ever receive it?” Reproof from a reformed barbarian. How the world turns. “Just stay with me.” A humorless smirk. “There are plenty of empty rooms.”
And there wasn’t much Baijiu could fire back.
Baijiu woke up gasping. Even though his eyes were wide open, he could not see without—without the poison blurring his vision. For the first time in a while, Baijiu felt panic. He wrenched himself to the side, to where his needles were, and he groped blindly for them.
His hand hit a table. A bedside table that did not exist in his own bedroom. And to top it all off, his needles were missing.
“Detective?” asked a woman. Her voice sounded familiar, and he clung to that small comfort. Someone knew him. Not his estranged wife, Xiaoran—Baijiu was certain she had forsaken his health the moment he’d ruined her father’s. “Detective!” Small assertive hands tried to push him flat on his back; he shoved weakly at them, coughing harsh and loud.
“Help,” he wheezed. “My needles—where?”
Another voice, familiar too. “Ayu? Is he alright?” Tang Long. Or maybe not Tang Long anymore; the clan records listed him as Liu Jinxi, and the clan records were considered legal in the government’s eyes.
He pressed a hand to his mouth and valiantly attempted to stop dry-heaving. Jinxi and Ayu continued to speak, blessedly, in quiet voices full of concern. “His needles,” repeated Ayu, and Baijiu caught the silver glint of them in the candlelight. He waved for them, but she held them out of reach. Instead, she consulted her husband. “Do you know what these are for?”
A heavy weight on the bed, and Baijiu batted away (or tried to) Jinxi’s hand from his sweating body. “I think I do,” said Jinxi. “I need to check if—Ayu, could you support his head?” The bed dipped again, and the next time Baijiu curled into a spasm, he uncurled to find an open lap as his pillow.
Heat bloomed quick on his chest, and it took Baijiu a moment to recognize Jinxi’s hand on his sternum. He was trying to narrow down the beat of Baijiu’s heart, and the diagnosis would take too long.
But how he hated to expose this weakness.
“Poison,” he said. “I need to, to push it back. With the needles.”
Jinxi said, “I understand.” Baijiu believed him; Jinxi was a master of qigong. He surely knew the practice of acupuncture. Baijiu was in safe hands; there would be no medicine man prescribing him herbs to purge his body until he was empty of body as he was in soul. “Ayu, grab a needle.”
Baijiu’s eyebrows drew close. He revised his opinion of Jinxi’s character; surely he wasn’t going to have wife help with acupuncture? Acupuncture was a precise art, one that took years of learning and impossibly steady hands.
Oh, right. Jinxi had cut his arm off. And it wasn’t like Baijiu was capable in his state.
Baijiu was not a religious man, but exceptions to the rules existed for a reason.
Fingers tapped areas of his chest, tracing circles under his collarbone. “Here,” said Jinxi, and he reached to the side to grab a rough cloth and wipe Baijiu’s chest of sweat. Baijiu risked a blurry glance up, but at most he could tell Ayu’s lips were pressed in a tight line. Her hand did not shake, but the glint off the needle gripped in her hand had never looked so alarming. “Lock your hands behind your neck, detective.”
Obediently, Baijiu did so.
“Acupuncture is usually meant to relax a patient,” Jinxi explained to Ayu. His voice was unnervingly calm, even as he straddled Baijiu and scooted further down his hips. His one hand still against Baijiu’s chest. “But this is going to be a little painful for him. You’re going to hit tientu to release the build-up of poison.”
Ayu said, “He is marked by the needle further down too.”
“That’s not important right now.” As Baijiu rose to protest this—he didn’t want the excess of empathy, not now, not when he was weak and at the mercy of a man he had had a warrant for—Jinxi calmly and abruptly shoved Baijiu further down into the bedding. It startled Baijiu into another coughing fit. “Don’t stab too deep. Ready?”
Ayu must have nodded, because suddenly she loomed over him, the needle held steady over the dip of his collarbone. She corrected her position at the slight motion of Jinxi’s thumb. “Detective?” she murmured, and Baijiu swallowed past a dry tongue.
Jinxi patted his chest nonchalantly. “I have complete faith in her,” he told Baijiu, and Baijiu was almost reassured. There was still the matter of Ayu being completely untrained. His blood pounded.
“Go ahead,” croaked Baijiu.
The needle slid in, Baijiu’s knuckles went white, his nails bit deep into his neck, and Jinxi rode out the resultant violent shudder.
Baijiu had forgotten the lack of doors on the house. He grimaced to himself and stared balefully at the strong line of Tang Long’s back. No legal precedent forbade him from taking a temporary rest in an abandoned shelter. He did not have to dog Long’s heels to ensure his presence for the trip tomorrow, and yet here he was.
He could feel his empathy stirring back to life; it came back in uneven increments, in hasty impulsive thoughts that crossed and left Baijiu’s mind dizzy. Thoughts like: ‘his wife and children are refugees who will find no easy shelter’ and ‘his new family is a target the old will exploit’ and ‘why did he invite me to his home.’
And then Baijiu was being pressed against a wall, a thick forearm pinning his throat, a strong hand catching his dominant hand before it reached his stash of needles. Dark eyes, shining even in the relative darkness of the house, stared into his.
“Do you think it will work?” said Tang Long.
“Faking your death?”
Tang Long inclined his head. Baijiu could only discern this movement because the eyes shuttered. “Do you think it will cut me off from my family? For good?”
Baijiu laughed, a little out-of-breath, a little incredulous. “If death doesn’t cut you off from family, even though it may be a lie, than I’m at a loss. The Demons want your fighting ability back, don’t they? If you could get rid of that, I suppose that’s the alternative.”
A noise of acknowledgment.
Still he was caged against the wall. “Tang Long,” Baijiu said in a long-suffering fashion. He shut up when he heard Tang Long’s voice right up next to his ear.
“My name is Liu Jinxi, detective,” said the man. It was a warning wrapped in a reminder. It sent a shiver skittering down Baijiu’s spine, one he wasn’t yet able to confidently pin down as fear. “If I want to sever my relation to the past, I want to cast away the name that belongs to it.”
“Until the deed is done, you are Tang Long to me.” Intentionally baiting the once second-in-command of the 72 Demons was now on the short list of stupid things Baijiu had committed in his long career as a detective. Fingers curled tighter around his wrist; were the bones creaking?
The vice grip relented, as did the forearm at Baijiu’s throat, but both remained in place. He could breathe comfortably now, yet his breathing accelerated instead of steadied. Blood flushed his face. Was he—was he so susceptible to touch that Long’s rough one sparked arousal?
He furiously sent a prayer to the gods asking them to intervene. The gods, as per usual, let a gale of howling wind blow through the village and the house’s walls.
Despite himself, Baijiu shivered.
Despite himself, he leaned into the heat Long bled.
An impossible, wistful thought crossed his mind. ‘It’s only a night. Perhaps his last.’
And then aloud, straight from Tang Long himself. “Retire with me.” The low, rich voice resonated between them; Baijiu heard himself swallow his words, his tongue, his wit. “I can’t risk my own executioner having an off-day because he’s caught a cold.”
“Right,” said Baijiu, voice strangled with entangling emotions. “Right.”
The captain told him, “Take a break. You’ve done more work than a dozen men would be willing to do in a lifetime, Baijiu. Relax. Stay with this papermaker’s family for a bit, they seem to like you enough.”
Baijiu’s fingers twitched. Days he’d gone without stifling his empathy, and the world seemed too close at any given moment. “I understand,” he said evenly. It took all his effort to present a serene expression. “Please send me word if my presence is required for any additional cases.”
When the captain left, Baijiu slumped against the wall and scrubbed at his eyes. He needed his job—his job provided him with tasks and puzzles to tire his mind, and the law always needed a man who was willing to commit to it by the letter.
What could he do, stranded here?
As it turned out, a lot.
“Do you really trust me not to kill you in your sleep?”
Jinxi—no, no, this was Tang Long still—turned under the covers and said, his voice heavy with irony, “That is not justice.”
When the village was restored to its peaceful existence and his license to return to his old job hadn’t, Baijiu started up work as an acupuncturist. It was a hobby, more or less, and it attracted few customers, but he made a tidy sum of income by the week. He’d started splitting what he could with his hosts; recent months of exposure rendered them immune to each other’s idiosyncrasies, so Baijiu stealthily hid what he could of his earnings amongst their precious belongings.
Their level of annoyance at this was equaled by his at their insistence (encouraged entirely by Jinxi) he stop trying to kill his empathy. During his convalescence, Ayu had come into Baijiu’s room and wrangled a promise to not ‘wound his soul’ any further. Baijiu, despite having every intention to do it by the time he reached his shop, was still unable to break this promise.
And Jinxi seemed to have a preternatural sense of Baijiu’s state of health, as much as he had for the rest of his family.
It was heartening in a way to know Baijiu had been seamlessly integrated into the Liu family’s routine. He woke up in the early mornings, just in time to see Jinxi run through the taxing martial arts forms, and he ate breakfast made by Ayu’s loving hands. He went to work at his shop, which consisted mostly of him sitting on a stool and staring at the clouds until they blessed him with a paying customer, and after he spent the majority of the day there, he came home.
That was the most thrilling part—knowing he could come home.
Predictably, it was when Baijiu settled into the dull repetition of his new life that Jinxi and Ayu endeavored to flip it over again.
It would be a sleepless night for Baijiu. Without going through his routine of puncturing tientu and shanzhong (a private matter, one Baijiu did not want to reveal to Tang Long), his body was on edge. So he kept talking, and Long kept humoring him. “Your wife, Ayu.”
“Speak carefully,” advised Long. He sounded more awake, when his previous response to an idle question of Baijiu’s—how should the courts handle the growing warlord clans—had been a slight snore.
“It’s not my intention to insult her,” said Baijiu. “It’s to compliment her. You’re the worst kind of fool I can imagine. The idealistic one. That Ayu agreed to marry you is nothing short of a miracle.”
Long laughed, and Baijiu warmed at the response. “She likes you, you know,” said Long, mirth finally existing in his tone. “You’re a good man when you’re, ah…” He hunted down the words in his memory. “When you’re not trying to butcher me.”
“I like her too,” Baijiu muttered.
One of the many dangers of not leashing his empathy: Baijiu was prone to wanting. He’d felt the bare twinges of it the one night, when he had been held up against a wall, but now. Now.
The married couple had taken their sons for a trip down the mountain (Baijiu begged off), and he had relished the isolation after being months of being hovered over by Ayu and Jinxi. Things were peaceful, quiet without the sound of a child babbling about his lessons and following his mother whilst she did chores. The day progressed normally.
Night had come, and Baijiu, at ease to slip the needle into shanzhong, froze. Unbidden did his mind conjure up images of Ayu’s disappointed expression, Jinxi’s disapproval.
He had set the needle aside, had closed his eyes and heard his hosts’ murmured praise. He dreamed of that praise becoming something more, something to be purred at him when he moved or gasped frightfully loud.
When Jinxi and Ayu came back, he had been outside on the deck, nursing a cup of tea while tracking any movements from the path leading to their house.
“Welcome back,” said Baijiu, getting to his feet.
“It’s good to be home,” Ayu returned, and as she swept her way inside, she pressed a hand to his cheek. No other words. Just a simple touch, and she was gone. Her sons trailed after her, giving Baijiu a brief hug on their way.
Jinxi took Baijiu’s elbow and guided him back inside. “Do you remember what you said about the warlords?” asked the man, and Baijiu reluctantly stopped paying attention to the delicate but firm hold to his elbow—the fingers were pressing into the softest part, where his blood ran strongest—and dredged up his memories.
“They’re amassing power,” guessed Baijiu.
“Yes.” Jinxi’s lips thinned into a flat line. “And they’re changing their ways. Swords and needles like ours are no longer the norm, Baijiu.” He snorted. “Not even qigong is good enough.”
Baijiu tugged his elbow back. “Yunnan is reunited with the Republic,” he said. “It wouldn’t secede, not again.” It was easy to forget about the outside world, up in the mountains. Life was sedate, tranquil, and so, so vulnerable to banditry and troublemakers. Baijiu pictured the what-ifs easily—the village set on fire, the able-bodied men drafted, Ayu left behind or even worse—
He was being hugged. A hand clasped the back of his neck and forced Baijiu to fold down until his forehead touched Jinxi’s. “Breathe,” the papermaker reminded him. “Breathe, Baijiu.”
“This is not something to be calm about,” said Baijiu.
“They will not touch Liu Village.” Jinxi’s thumb stroked the nape of his neck in long lines, soothing and electrifying all at once. Then Baijiu was released and being escorted inside.
The peace and quiet of the house had disappeared, and Baijiu was once again home.
Eventually, Long drifted to a light sleep. His mouth was slightly open, but the tension in his shoulders hadn’t eased. He looked ready to spring awake and fight, and Baijiu was wary of accidentally setting the man off into a murderous rampage because Baijiu hadn’t been able to stay quiet.
The morning would see the plan be carried out. Tang Long trusted Baijiu to kill him and revive him, and Baijiu did so, even with the 72 Demons present to witness the miraculous return. He willed the life back into Long’s body, even as he willed the body to die and be spared the consequences of lying to the clan.
When Long regained his bearings, ascertaining their fraught situation with a single glance, he looked at Baijiu’s anxious face and smiled like he knew this was exactly what would have happened.
Baijiu was the first one home; Jinxi, he suspected, was lingering at the general store so as to indulge Fangzheng and Xiaotian as children once more. Jinxi was adamant in giving them a long childhood. Idealistic fool.
The now-familiar phrase slipped from his mouth before he saw Ayu demurely setting the table, before he smelled the spicy scent of mapo tofu: “I’m home.”
He blinked at the sight.
Ayu moved around the low table, the economic grace he usually saw in Jinxi echoed in her movements. “A good day?” she asked. She was heading back into her kitchen; without realizing it at first, Baijiu was following her.
“Not too busy,” said Baijiu.
She stirred at the rice noodles in her copper pot and the bubbling stock for the hot pot. It did not stop her from partly turning to him with a smile already softening her features. “So a good day,” Ayu teased.
He stopped at the edge of the kitchen, where he could smell everything but still have his lungs inhaling the thin air instead of steam. Baijiu cleared his throat for a protest, but he ended up shuffling his feet instead, turning a little red at how easily Ayu knew him.
The comparison was avoidable, but Baijiu forced himself to consider it anyway.
Xiaoran was a prideful woman, first and foremost, with a clear perspective of the world Baijiu fell in love with before he realized the perspective was flawed.
Xiaoran would not deign to condescend to menial trivialities.
(“You did not fall in love with me because I was soft,” she told him on their wedding night. “You love me because I know what is right and wrong, and my morals are in line with the law.” The last phrase was the lie; Baijiu could, now rearmed with his empathy, accept the first statement. But the last?
He despised being lied to.)
“You didn’t have to cook the tofu,” he finally said. Being indulged, even subtly, struck Baijiu as wasteful. “The spices must have cost too much.”
Ayu’s discerning stare made him flush. “Jinxi and I have stolen you from your home,” she returned. “And a merchant passed by in the market looking desperate to sell his foreign spices.”
He leaned against the doorframe and felt a crooked smile cross his face. A long time ago, he had told Jinxi that Ayu was certainly too good for his bloodied hands. Rather rapidly, Baijiu was coming to the same conclusion about himself. “Thank you,” said Baijiu. “It’s…it’s a gesture I cannot adequately pay back.”
“We’ve been making you eat our bland Yunnan food for months,” teased Ayu. “Consider this a once-a-year treat.”
Jinxi and the boys found them like this: Ayu, setting down the last of the dishes. Baijiu, sitting at the table glancing from Ayu to the floor to Jinxi.
“When this is done,” said Tang Long, his face pale and wan, “will you still take me back to the magistrate for trial?” He was unbalanced by the loss of his arm, and Baijiu quashed the nascent need to support the man’s faltering body with his own.
The scrape of dirt and gravel under Long’s feet rasped in the quiet air. Baijiu could see the flies descend and flit across his skin; Long flinched with the touch of each one victoriously getting past his guard.
He was losing control of his qi.
“Detective,” Jinxi pressed, and Baijiu gave up.
“I don’t have a warrant for Liu Jinxi,” he said, and that was that.
Wind roared, and sleep evaded Baijiu. Staring at the dark ceiling only served to further irritate him; he heard the soft footsteps of Fangzheng or Xiaotian pass with an uncertain rhythm to the other boy’s room. After listening further and realizing Jinxi had not stepped in and demanded his sons face the storm alone, Baijiu made up his mind.
If his body refused him the peace of sleep, then he would force it to appreciate the storm’s effect. He grabbed his glasses, shoved them on unceremoniously, and swung his legs out of bed. Before leaving his room, he pulled on a heavy cloak.
He stepped onto the deck and dropped into a cross-legged position with his back against a wall. Baijiu glared at the dark rustling forest and tugged his cloak tighter around himself.
The wind’s cries drowned out the noise of Jinxi’s footsteps, so Baijiu startled at the sudden hand at his shoulder. He peered up to see the shadowed features of Jinxi’s disapproving face. “Can’t sleep?” he asked, sardonic.
Better to steal the question than answer it.
“This isn’t good for you,” said Jinxi. “Come inside and brood.”
“I don’t brood.”
The specifics of Jinxi’s silhouette blurred into the night, but he saw enough to discern Jinxi was crouching in front of him. He strained to hear the words over the storm. “If you don’t come inside, I will…” Jinxi seemed to be at a loss for threats.
“Feed me more Yunnan specialties?” Ayu’s cooking was a treat that never stopped giving; Baijiu could happily subside on her food, even if the majority of the dishes lacked the familiar kick of the spice. “Oblige me to do your work at the mill for a day?” Jinxi had too much pride. Fangzheng’s apprenticeship had been the only reason Jinxi had relented on trying to do everything by himself.
Exasperation coming from Jinxi had never sounded so long-suffering. “You are a stubborn man.”
“I am watching the storm.”
“In the dark?” Jinxi made another disgusted sigh. “I will do something drastic if you do not move yourself,” he warned.
Mulishly, Baijiu drew the cloak up over his mouth and nose, glaring at Jinxi’s general direction. He hoped his standoffish aura communicated itself to Jinxi’s sense of qi.
Jinxi said, “Stubborn man.” Jinxi crouched and snagged Baijiu’s waist in a tight hold, and he heaved Baijiu up until—until Baijiu was slung over his shoulder like a meat bag.
“Hey!” spluttered Baijiu. Jinxi staggered his way back inside, and the jostled movement threatened to send his glasses crashing to the floor. When he lifted his head to judge the increasing distance from him to the doorway, Baijiu heard Jinxi snort. “This is unnecessary,” he hissed, mindful of the sleeping.
“It is. But one must take drastic measures with you, Baijiu, or else you’ll never take them seriously.”
Up the stairs. Down a hallway. Into a room.
He was unceremoniously set on his feet at the foot of the bed, then spun around. If he squinted, he could see Ayu’s intrigued and bemused expression. Jinxi, brusque and efficient, took hold of the collar of Baijiu’s cloak and yanked the layer away. Questing fingers skated quickly up his throat, chin, and lips to grab Baijiu’s glasses and unhook them.
A hand shoved him sprawling forward.
“I’m very sorry,” said Baijiu to the pillow his face had planted into. He propped himself up on his elbows and repeated, hearing the soft clink of thin wire frames connecting to wood and the soft fwup of fabric pooling on the floor, “I’m very sorry, Ayu. Your husband is—”
The bed dipped with a third person’s weight—good gods, was Jinxi in-between his legs—and Baijiu was shoved, face-to-pillow, yet again.
“Trying to get sleep,” groused Jinxi. “You are noisy.”
“I was being quiet,” Baijiu argued, his voice muffled until he turned his head sideways. Jinxi’s arm burned a thick line at his waist; he was being ‘advised’ to stay pinned.
“He does not mean screaming,” said Ayu. “At least, not aloud. He means that he hears your brooding.” Baijiu’s breath caught when he felt a smaller, thinner arm join Jinxi’s. “This house is safe, Baijiu.” He turned in time to catch the wry smile. “You’re safe.”
“I’m going to sleep,” announced Jinxi. “Bother me when the sun rises.”
Baijiu was in a house he could, for once, call home without feeling empty. He was in bed with a married couple who clung to him like anchors, naked arms leashing him to their bed. He dropped off to sleep remarkably easy for a man of his lifestyle.
“Call in the constables,” said Jinxi. They were near his house, at the outskirts of it really. Baijiu disliked the idea of Jinxi committing patricide, but he hated the idea of Jinxi being horribly outclassed without his dominant arm even more. “I will buy you time.”
“I can try,” promised Baijiu.
“Retire with us tonight,” said Ayu, and the statement was bold and scandalous and Baijiu burned with the desire to accept. His hands twitched at his sides, and he compulsively swallowed past a dry throat. Ayu raised a hand, but instead of using it to frame his jaw or hold his shoulder, she pressed it against—against the shanzhong point.
“Ayu,” he began helplessly.
“I find no shame in it.” Ayu lifted her head and held his eyes. Strange, how Baijiu had so easily ignored her in the first days of their acquaintanceship. He was spellbound by the sincerity in her eyes. “We’ve known each other longer than most newly wedded couples do, Baijiu.”
Baijiu licked his lips. “And . . . and Jinxi?”
“Jinxi,” said Ayu, some mirth leaking into her tone, “has me to present his side of the message.” Her other hand went to clasp the back of his neck, small fingers holding so much strength in them, and Baijiu let his head drop. His breathing stuttered.
She kissed him, and she took control. It lasted all of two, five seconds, but Baijiu felt like he had drowned in that interval. He certainly came out of it gasping for air, not helped at all by Ayu’s chaste kisses over his parted mouth and flushed cheeks. “Retire with us,” she repeated in a low voice.
“I—yes,” he answered. “I will. Just give me time.”
Ayu studied him. A small smile pulled at the corner of her mouth. “Soon,” she said. “And tell me when, so I can arrange for the children to spend a night with their friends.”
The warrant the magistrate had given Baijiu was incriminating evidence against a good man. So he destroyed it on the way over to the constabulary, and when he reached the station—all filled with good Liu men who respected the hard work of their papermaker more than the sordid details of his past—Baijiu persuaded them to send forces as fast as possible.
He’d slipped the needle into tientu at his shop and fastidiously cleaned himself during a lulled business hour. The night’s proceedings would not be interrupted, he vowed, by any unexpected coughing fits.
As it was, Baijiu still went into a coughing fit when he walked into the couple’s bedroom and saw first Ayu brushing her hair, then Jinxi sprawled in bed, half-naked and sitting against the wall. The stump where his arm used to be wasn’t covered by anything but thick scar tissue.
He recovered fast, though he hadn’t moved from his first step into the bedroom. Slowly, he pulled down the back of his wrist from his mouth. His eyes were caught fast between drinking in the muscled lines of Jinxi’s chest or the graceful slope of Ayu’s spine. “What do I—?” he stammered.
From the bed, Jinxi lazily said, “Take off your clothes.”
Baijiu stripped to his pants, and his fingers fumbled with the hem before the pants went too.
Jinxi rolled his neck. “Come here.”
So he did.
There was none of his famed elegance, not in this. Baijiu got on the bed, throwing a wild glance at Ayu’s direction, and he pulled himself up the bed until he had reached the crux of Jinxi’s spread legs. There he knelt, and there he waited.
He’d had sex, and it had been—fulfilling, to say the least, when he did the deed with Xiaoran. But after the betrayal of his goodwill and his misleading empathy, Baijiu had deadened his emotions and consequently his lusts. Xiaoran could tell immediately, but she could not understand why.
(“Most men drown themselves in iniquity,” said Xiaoran, and her face was full of scorn. He was good at sex, according to her. One of the very few men who’d sincerely devoted themselves to their partners’ gratification. Baijiu looked at her dispassionately, with only the echo of love he’d felt in their early months of marriage.)
His gaze flickered from Jinxi’s expectant look to Ayu’s encouraging one.
“Kiss him first,” she suggested. “He is slow to act sometimes.”
Baijiu nodded in acknowledgment. He readjusted his position; legs straddling Jinxi’s hips, hands braced on broad shoulders, and his face an inch from the other man’s. Jinxi tilted his chin up. His eyes went half-lidded.
“Sometime tonight, Baijiu,” murmured Jinxi. “I want to make you come several times over, until you are blind with pleasure. Do you understand?”
In lieu of an actual response, which would’ve consisted of choking on air, Baijiu closed the last inch and his eyes and his impulse control.
He moaned into the kiss, eyes slipping shut at the warm feel. Jinxi lapped at his upper lip and bit his lower one, his hand coming up to hold Baijiu’s neck and tilt his head slightly. He remembered how Ayu’s kiss had drowned him under a wealth of feelings, and it was like that now.
Hands, sudden and cold, slid up Baijiu’s ribs. He yelped at the sensation, and he squirmed when Ayu brushed inquisitive hands over his nipples.
Jinxi groaned. He thrust his hips up, grinding against the friction Baijiu gave him, relishing the small jolts and trembles. “Good,” he said, breathless. “You’re being so good, Baijiu.”
Ayu grabbed his attention. Her husband responded with a nod, and Baijiu twisted around to see her. He wanted to see if she shared Jinxi’s mischievous eyes—
Jinxi tapped at his legs, and Baijiu obligingly let Jinxi spin him around to properly face Ayu. “My wife,” he said wryly, his voice unsettlingly close to Baijiu’s ear. “It’s okay. We’ll have time to do all the other things.”
Baijiu wanted to demand, ‘What other things?’ He refrained from doing so, because there Ayu was, naked and demanding his attention. His hands curled into fists by his side; protocol, what was protocol here? Why hadn’t they set any boundaries or rules?
Was he allowed--
Casually, Ayu took Baijiu’s hands and had them run up her thighs to her stomach, where silvery stretchmarks could be seen. He traced what he could, fascinated, until he reached the undersides of her breasts. Ayu palmed his cock.
“He wants a lot,” she told Baijiu before kissing him. She gasped against his mouth; Jinxi had slipped his hand between them, fitting his fingers to her core and the bundle of nerves with unerring accuracy. “He wants you alone,” Ayu continued, his voice faltering when her husband ground his palm against her clit. “He wants you to ride him, suck him; he wants to do the same.”
“Please,” groaned Baijiu, licking at her neck and scraping his beard on the soft skin. When Jinxi’s fingers left Ayu, Baijiu replaced them. He jolted at the first probing fingers to his own entrance, spreading slick in an even layer. She moaned the same time Baijiu thought to hold himself back from being too wanton.
“Is this alright?” Jinxi. Baijiu dipped his head and steadied his breathing. Then the first finger pushed into him, and all was lost.
He had to remove his hand from Ayu, clutch her waist and beg forgiveness for the tight grip. It’d been so long. Years and years of chastity, enforced by himself, had done a number to his sensitivity.
Baijiu was pressing soft kisses on Ayu’s collarbone when the second finger was introduced and caused him to accidentally scrape his teeth against her breast, and he’d started keening at the press of the third. The fingers started to stretch the muscle. “Ayu, Jinxi, please,” Baijiu begged. “Please.”
“Sh-h-h,” soothed Jinxi, and he must’ve reslicked his fingers, because Baijiu snapped his mouth shut at the surprisingly smooth slide. “Ayu,” said Jinxi, and there were multitudes of meaning in that one word, multitudes Baijiu hoped would one night apply to his own name.
“Now,” said Ayu, almost distractedly, and Baijiu’s eyes widened as he was bodily pulled back, as he felt himself being held above a cock, the head of it rubbing against his entrance. “When he’s ready, Jinxi.”
“I’m—waiting,” Jinxi gritted, and Baijiu saw Ayu stifle a smile. “Baijiu?”
Baijiu shut his eyes. “Yes,” he breathed. “Yes.”
How to describe it, the slow inexorable slide of Jinxi’s cock into him? By the time Jinxi bottomed out, Baijiu was fairly certain Jinxi had succeeded in making him blind with pleasure. He let the man coax him into collapsing against his chest; Jinxi nosed his sweaty nape and kissed the heated skin. “Breathe.”
Moments passed where Baijiu tried his damnedest to center himself, and eventually he reached a state of a finely-balanced calm.
And then Ayu rocked herself down his cock.
Ayu reached up to brush her fingers on the curve of Baijiu’s cheekbone as he moaned, and Jinxi stroked the long line of his twitching flank. “How’s it feel?” Jinxi, it must have been Jinxi who’d asked, because the question was asked with the knowledge that the speaker held the reins. “Baijiu.”
It’d been Ayu. His throat seized, dry as sandpaper.
“Hot,” managed Baijiu after a second. “It’s—it’s good.” Drowning. He was drowning, he wanted to sit up and kiss Ayu, but he was already flailing for a grounding sensation and failing miserably. Jinxi had moved his hand away, but Jinxi was still here, Baijiu heard the still steady beat of his heart. “Oh, oh, ah—nn—”
Jinxi grinded against Baijiu, repeated the motion. Baijiu choked out a small whine when Ayu rotated her hips and squeezed his cock. His control over his climax was fraying impossibly fast, every action on their part hastening its complete destruction.
“Let go,” said Ayu. Her breathing hitched. “Let go, Baijiu.”
A little more than a second and a half behind, Jinxi said, “Come.”
Baijiu cried out, a long exultation that seemed like it echoed from their bed to the other end of the village. His fingers caught on the sheets, and his pleasure-addled mind remembered the concept of reciprocation, and Baijiu clumsily brought his hands up to the juncture where they joined. Ayu shuddered, bowed her head, and ground down.
Dimly, he registered Jinxi and Ayu kissing over his shoulder. “Alright?” murmured Jinxi, and Baijiu ached at the tenderness. On instinct he shied away.
A little belatedly did Baijiu remember who hadn’t climaxed yet.
The light touch of lips against his cheek. Ayu’s eyes, full of affection and concern. “If it’s too much,” she began, already removing his spent cock from her warmth. He twitched at the sensation, and at her words.
A part of him wished to say, ‘It may soon be, depending on your husband’s stamina.’ The larger part of him, the more prideful and intrigued part, rasped, “I want this.”
She kissed him, and he closed his eyes and let himself be swept away for a few seconds. His eyes snapped open when Ayu stopped and smiled at him.
“Firstly,” said Jinxi, and he pushed for Baijiu to get off his cock. “Turn and face me, please.” When Baijiu obliged, albeit with trembling limbs, he was faced with the sight of Jinxi slicking his cock. The remaining oil on his fingers were smeared unceremoniously on Baijiu’s inner thighs.
Words did not have to be spoken to know of Jinxi’s desire.
Baijiu sank back down on Jinxi’s length. A hoarse moan left him, and Baijiu hung his head in a bid to hide his overcome expression.
Ayu’s mouth at the nape of his neck, biting; Baijiu stiffened at the idea of a visible mark, but then Jinxi slammed his hips the rest of the way up into Baijiu and he melted. It took a few thrusts until Jinxi had found Baijiu’s prostate, and the first time Jinxi’s cock had slid past the spot, Baijiu had spasmed.
“Wait, wait, wait,” he blurted. His hands were caught by Ayu, who refused to let Baijiu use Jinxi’s abdomen as a grounding point, but he didn’t want to wrench them away.
His cock stirred, and Baijiu’s mind blanked.
Jinxi noticed it first, and the savage grin reminded Baijiu of a dragon. “Feels good?” He urged Baijiu to sit flush against his cock, and Jinxi grinded up, and Baijiu was heaving for breath. “Tell me, Baijiu.” He nodded—to Ayu—and returned to grinning up at his lover’s reddened face and neck.
Ayu laid her hands on Baijiu’s shoulders first, and they slipped down to explore the sensitive areas of his chest and occasionally made a point in rubbing the skin above the shanzhong meridian, possessively scratching it with blunt fingernails.
“I—I can’t,” gasped Baijiu. “I can’t hold it. Please, I’m going to come.”
Jinxi sat up from his recline; it seemed to make his cock go deeper into Baijiu, deep enough that he felt like he was choking on it. “You’ve been so good,” he said, sucking a mark against Baijiu’s neck. “Hasn’t he been, Ayu?”
She hummed. One of Ayu’s hands had lingered on his chest, the pad of her thumb brushing over the tip of his nipple, and the other hand had moved down to—Baijiu shook, wrenching himself from witnessing or feeling the grip against his cock.
“Watch,” said Jinxi. “Watch yourself come again.”
And Baijiu did, eyelids fluttering, voice subdued to a long whine, and cock weakly pulsing seed onto Jinxi’s stomach. Jinxi took advantage of the slackened limbs, quickening his thrusts until he spent inside of Baijiu.
He felt Ayu kiss his temple, felt the bed creak at her departure. She came back with a basin of water and a rag. It must have been stashed somewhere in the room.
Jinxi pulled out, to Baijiu’s bleary dismay. “Thank you,” he said—to Ayu?—and a damp rag wiped at Baijiu’s sticky thighs. He shivered away from the rough texture, especially when it dipped towards his entrance. “Sorry,” said Jinxi to Baijiu unrepentantly, and calloused fingers slipped inside the rim and tugged gently. Come and oil trickled out.
“Nngh,” returned Baijiu, a little higher-pitched than he would’ve preferred. How was the aftermath feeling dirtier than the actual deed?
“Don’t be mean,” chided Ayu, and she kissed Baijiu and Jinxi in quick succession. “A draft is in the house,” she added, “so if you’re done teasing him…?”
Jinxi grinned at his wife. “Are you afraid of the cold when the two of us are here to warm you? Have warmed you?” He finished wiping the excess fluids, gave himself a courtesy wipe, and tossed it in the general direction of the basin. Judging by Ayu’s sigh, Jinxi had missed.
Baijiu was stuck on Jinxi’s words. “I’m staying?”
Jinxi pushed him off, towards the center of the bed. “Of course,” he said, not a little indignantly. “Did you think we’d kick you out by the end of the night?”
“This is a married couple’s bed,” sputtered Baijiu, and he found Ayu’s arm hooked at his waist.
“Stay with us,” she said, implacable.
He stared down at her stubborn brow, then glanced to the side to see Jinxi’s fond smile and creased eyes. His heart seized; for a second, Baijiu thought the poison had begun to seep through his system again and loathed the idea of having to shatter this small peaceful bubble. When he failed to start coughing, Baijiu realized.
It should not have to take so long for a man like him, unfortunately wealthy in empathy, to know this: he loved them as much as they did him. He wanted this idyllic life in the mountains. Baijiu wanted to wake up in a bed between the two of them, sharing in their quiet love.
He wanted this.
“Alright,” he said. Baijiu fumbled to grab Ayu’s hand, and he raised it so he could kiss the knuckles. With Jinxi, he did the same, but he pressed the hand to his forehead. “I’ll stay.”