There’s a garden by the house that wasn’t there before. In the soft light of mid-afternoon, when the evergreen forest filters the sun into long, hazy strands of spun gold, Xu Baijiu sits at the window and looks out at the burgeoning green. From this vantage point, he can see the low stone fence that Jinxi erected with the help of his eldest son, the neat rows of lettuces and bok choy unfurling their curly heads alongside humble radishes, and pole-beans crawling eagerly around their stakes.
Swimming hip-deep in the young bamboo, Ayu straightens from weeding and puts her hand to her forehead, wiping back a strand of hair and tucking it into her cap. Her apron is gathered around her hips, laden with young cabbage-heads. When she calls something out across the yard, Xiaotian scampers into view, barefoot and dragging a too-long rake behind him. Only her gentle rebuke keeps him from trampling all over the lettuce patch.
This soil has borne a good crop. Baijiu doesn’t remember the planting of it—he was bedridden for some time, every movement so painful as to nearly stop his heart in his chest. It’s only recently that he’s been allowed to move about the room, to hold his own cups and bowls at mealtimes, to relieve himself without the humiliating assistance of one of his hosts. A small relief. He has now reached that aggravating stage where he longs to be up and about, to do something to occupy himself—even housework would be preferable to just sitting here. But the village doctor has expressly forbidden him from exerting himself, even from taking short walks around the property, and so here he sits, beholden still to Jinxi and Ayu, waiting pensively, resignedly, for the moment they decide his convalescence is no longer their burden to bear.
It’s a foregone conclusion, in his mind. He is the one who brought all this destruction. A harbinger of doom. And yet they coddle him, speak to him familiarly, treat him as part of the family. In the beginning, when he was in so much pain he could hardly speak, Ayu would sit up with him at night, holding his hand and keeping him from growing too restless. Jinxi, too, was convalescing, and he proved a more than adequate companion, keeping his spirits up when the long days abed sent his brain to rattling in his skull.
Now that he can sit up on his own, use the bedpan on his own, even walk a few paces from the bed to the window and back again, it’s only a matter of time. It’s a comfort, in a way. He hates that he’s been such a burden on their daily lives. Being sent away will curtail the lingering guilt he feels at intruding on the self-contained unit of their family.
Xiaotian has caught sight of him at the window. With a gleeful shout, the little boy rockets across the yard—his mother’s gaze follows him like an arrow and lands squarely between Baijiu’s eyes, arresting him. He lifts an awkward hand in salute.
“Uncle Heron, Uncle Heron!” Xiaotian crows, catapulting around the corner and screeching to a halt at Baijiu’s side. Both boys know very well that he must be treated with care, but Xiaotian’s delight is still palpable as he puts his cheek on Baijiu’s wiry shoulder. “Will you come with us to the market today?”
“Not today, little one,” Baijiu says with real regret. The boys have attached themselves to him for reasons he can’t dissect. He is unaccustomed to dealing with children, but they don’t know that, nor do they care. To him he is just another, newer facet of their daily lives, a bright star winking behind the moon’s gravid plenty. He knows they’ll be disappointed, when he’s finally made to leave. Their feelings are the ones he worries for, in that respect. But Jinxi and Ayu will explain things, and hopefully the boys won’t be too affected by his departure.
“Xiaotian.” Ayu steps around the corner, shed of her apron and its burden. She cups her son’s shorn head in her heads and kisses the top of it lightly. “Go clean up for dinner. Your father and brother will be here soon.”
When he is gone, Baijiu finds himself the sole recipient of Ayu’s sharp eyes. She seems terribly wise, sometimes, for a woman of her age; her slender frame has borne the weight of many cares. But when she smiles gently, sits in the chair at his side and pulls the leather wallet from her skirts, his discomfiture eases.
“How are you feeling?” she asks quietly. The room is quiet as she lights a candle and withdraws a needle from its resting place, passing it through the flame.
“Adequate,” he says. His fingers curl uselessly in his lap. Ayu’s hands, slim and work-worn, are steady in comparison as she parts the plackets of his shirt and wipes the sweat from his chest with the clean edge of her sleeve. “I can—”
“Hush. Take a deep breath for me, Baijiu.”
Her lips around his name become poetry. He breathes in, lets it out slow, staring at the play of afternoon’s shadows against the ceiling.
Ayu hits tientu. Baijiu’s heart stutters with the dregs of fear—how strange it is, still, to have another’s hands intruding on his body in this way. And then it’s over. She wipes the needle clean, passing it again through the flame. She has gotten very good at it in the last month or two of his convalescence, when his hands shook too much to do it himself and Jinxi, skilled though he was, had not the coordination to perform it properly.
“I must start dinner,” she says briskly, standing and tucking the acupuncture kit away again. “Would you like to sit somewhere else, or shall I leave you to it?”
“Here is fine,” he says, a little shaky in the aftermath of the adrenaline rush. “I will watch for him, and call to you when he arrives.”
Ayu smiles. Then, in an unprecedented gesture, she cups the back of his head in one hand and presses a gentle kiss to his forehead. Almost motherly, were it not for the warmth in her eyes as she withdraws and straightens her skirt. “I eagerly await your call.”
Baijiu is not left entirely alone. Xiaotian appears a few minutes later with a cup of tea, which he deposits solemnly on the windowsill before haring off again at his mother’s behest.
When Jinxi crests the hill, the sun has sunk low behind the pines, casting long, spindly shadows over the garden. Fangzheng walks ahead of him, bouncing along with his school things under his arm. When the house is in sight, he tears off ahead with a shout, leaving Jinxi to follow behind.
There are no doors. The shutters are wide open, and Baijiu watches, oddly spellbound, as Liu Jinxi comes across the yard to stand on the other side of the wall and smile in greeting.
“You’re still here,” he says nonsensically.
Baijiu frowns. “And where else would I be? Until my feet can sustain me, I fear I must still darken your door.”
Jinxi shakes his head. Reaches through the window to lay his palm to the side of Baijiu’s head, almost a caress. “You are like a startled hare on the verge of disappearing. You are not a shadow, Baijiu. You are welcome in this house.” He gives his cheek a pat and walks on, whistling under his breath.
From the next room, Baijiu hears Jinxi greeting his wife with a kiss, and realizes he forgot to call out to warn of his arrival.
two months later
In the earliest morning, Baijiu comes to their bed. The boys are still sound asleep, curled downstairs together after a nightmare had sent them both to Baijiu’s sleeping mat, and the surrounding woodlands are quiet and still, bathed in the first rosy glow of dawn’s creeping fingers.
Ayu is already awake. She sits with her back to the open threshold, legs crossed beneath her, running a brush through the long unbraided strands of her hair. Her nightshirt must be loose; it hangs generously off one shoulder, exposing the smooth skin of her back. Her husband slumbers peacefully beside her, his queue pulled over his shoulder. The stump of his arm is no longer so strange to look at—Ayu has taken needle and thread to all of his clothes, and now his nightshirt, like the rest of his things, is neatly closed up the left side, preventing him from getting tangled in the bed sheets.
If she hears him coming, Ayu gives no sign. But she shows no surprise when Baijiu drops a kiss on her bare shoulder and kneels down at her feet. She smiles and hands him the brush.
“Would you like to finish?”
He kneels up on the thin pallet and begins at her hairline, drawing the boar bristles down and away in long, sweeping strokes. The job was already mostly done, but he brushes her hair a little while longer, then gathers it in his hand and lifts it to place careful kisses to the nape of her neck. She tucks her chin to her chest and hums approval.
The mattress shifts and sighs. Jinxi is awake. Baijiu rests his smiling mouth against Ayu’s shoulder and hovers there in stillness, waiting to receive the touch of his hand.
Jinxi mumbles, half-awake, and sticks his cold hand up the back of Baijiu’s nightshirt.
“Ah!” He flinches away, laughing softly into Ayu’s shoulder. The press of his teeth leaves a neat little row of red marks that quickly fade into nothing.
“Boys,” Ayu tuts, pulling away. She drags her shirt over her head and spread it out at the foot of the bed, and Jinxi drags Baijiu down beside him into the warmth of the covers.
“Sleep well?” he asks, even as he plucks his glasses from his nose and passes them off to his wife. He cups Baijiu’s chin in his hand and rests their foreheads together, waiting.
“Well enough.” He loops arm around Jinxi’s waist and settles in beside him, squinting myopically through the lavender half-light at his crow’s feet, at the dimple in his smiling chin. “Tianzi had a nightmare, so the boys came to sleep with me.”
“Uncle Heron,” Jinxi teases, eyes soften with affection.
“I hope they didn’t disturb you,” Ayu murmurs. The mattress dips, and a moment later he feels the press of warm skin against his back—soft breasts, smooth belly, the negligible weight of a slender arm around his ribs. She tucks her hand up against his chest and finds the knots of his nightshirt.
“I don’t mind,” he says, voice muffled as Ayu’s left and Jinix’s right hands work together to rid him of his clothes. He hadn’t come here intending to proposition them, but he can’t say he minds. He lets them manipulate his limbs how they wish, laying him flat on his back between them with his skin bared and his manhood curled half-hard against the crease of his thigh.
He stays very still, just watching them through hooded eyes. Their perfect synchronicity is fascinating to him. They move like two halves of a whole—hands clasping, lips meeting, perfectly accustomed to one another but not yet bored of the marriage bed—and for some reason he can’t yet discern, they have invited him into their perfect circle. He doesn’t quite feel like he fits, most days. Though they try, he rarely allows them to persuade him to stay the night. There is discomfort here, still, sometimes—a tightness in his chest, a swelling of emotion that cannot be released. It frightens him even as it draws him in. So he will stay away for as long as he can bear it, but in the end he always comes back.
“Enough,” Ayu murmurs, breaking away from her husband’s hungry, sleep-soft mouth. She takes his hand from her breast, fondling and familiar, and places it on Baijiu’s chest. “We have a guest, husband.”
“I didn’t mean to—” Baijiu begins, flustered. He only meant to get a little breathing room from the childish snores and the foot shoved into his face. But Ayu and Jinxi want him here; more than that, they are eager for his presence, eager to exploit his nakedness.
“Hush.” Jinxi rubs a proprietary hand across his chest and leans down, nuzzling sleepy, puppyish kisses to his half-open mouth. Baijiu whines and curls in toward him, against his better judgement.
“We can stop if you wish,” Ayu adds gently, running her fingers through the mussed hair on the top of his head. Her delicate touch sends spiderweb cracks of sensation all through his body—he is on the verge of splitting apart. Beneath the blank blur of sleep, arousal lurks, waiting to break free. Ayu cup his chin and pulls him away from her husband’s mouth. “Is that what you wish, dearest?”
He licks his lips and looks up at her, heavy-eyed, hair spilling over her shoulder like an inky waterfall. Then back to her husband. Jinxi grins at him, a lush river delta of crow’s feet spreading from the corners of his eyes, and Baijiu gives a jerky shake of his head. “You may… proceed.”
There had been a time when Baijiu’s skills would have been the envy of many a dissatisfied wife’s marriage bed, had he been the sort to brag about his husbandly accomplishments. He is still relearning that eloquence. Sometimes he fumbles and retreats, leaning back on the years of trust and empathy that his lovers have cultivated from barren soil.
But today, in spite of the heavy fog of slumber still clinging to his mind—or perhaps because of it—he is bold. He turns in Jinxi’s embrace, pressing back against his chest, and takes Ayu in his arms, marveling at her slight frame, the softness she carries at her waist and hips. She bears the marks of motherhood on her body like magnificent silk robes, the embroidery of pregnancy stamped into her belly, her breasts. He traces them with his tongue and drinks in her sighs. She pushes her fingers into his hair again, unsubtly directing the path of his mouth—her nails are short but still scrape against his scalp deliciously. He shudders, kisses the underside of her breast.
Behind him, Jinxi traces the hollow of his sternum, down the centerline of his body to take hold of his erection. He throbs in that snug, capable grip, accidentally scrapes his teeth against Ayu’s ribs.
“Easy,” Jinxi murmurs, voice thick with laughter. Ayu rolls her eyes and stretches out on her back, arms over her head—a veritable feast. Her husband reaches across to stroke her belly with his knuckles, then up to thumb one dark nipple. “Kiss her,” he whispers in Baijiu’s ear. “Her hips, her navel…” His fingers trail down, down, and she parts her thighs for him wordlessly, eyes dark and full like new moons.
“And you?” Baijiu rasps, already allowing himself to be drawn down between her thighs.
“Don’t worry about him. Jinxi can entertain himself.” Ayu traces her nails gingerly down the side of his face, along his jaw. She cups his chin in her palm again, tapping her thumb to his lower lip, and after a moment or two Baijiu opens his mouth and lets her probe his gums, the flat of his tongue. When she’s satisfied, she withdraws and presses the slick pad her thumb to Baijiu’s nipple.
His gasp is lost to the soft pop of a cork being unstoppered. Jinxi spits it onto the mattress and tips a little oil onto his fingers before setting the bottle aside. Ayu’s eyes flit over them both, and she smiles, stroking Baijiu’s hair back from his forehead. It’s gotten longer recently, even though Ayu kindly trimmed it at the neck and behind the ears when he complained of the heat, and it’s just enough for her to weave her fingers through and grab on as he mouths open kisses to her breasts, her stomach, her navel.
Jinxi traces a well-oiled finger up over his perineum and Baijiu goes still. Hovering over Ayu, on his knees, he breathes. Jinxi presses inside.
“Oh,” he whispers, nearly soundless. The soft exhale lifts the downy vellus hairs on Ayu’s upper thigh. He dips his face and kisses her there, feeling the coarse curls against his cheek. Her fingers in his hair tighten and twist, and he follows that pressure, lets her heat unfold against his tongue.
Ayu lets out a soft breath and holds him close. Her fingers are cool on his cheek, against the shell of his ear. Baijiu’s tongue laps softly, the only sound in the quiet room—and then, in counterpoint, the slick slide of Jinxi’s fingers inside his body. He muffles his curses against Ayu’s cunt and squeezes her hips with blunt, grasping fingers.
“Quickly,” Ayu breathes. “The children…”
“Shhh.” Jinxi rubs his open hand up Baijiu’s spine until he curls like a cat in the sun, the knobs of his vertebrae rising beneath the skin to meet his touch. Jinxi grips the back of his neck, fingers lacing with his wife’s. Baijiu snuffles for breath and presses his tongue in deep.
Jinxi splits him open in one smooth slide. A hand at his nape, in his hair, Ayu’s taste on the back of his tongue, and Jinxi’s cock pinning him in place like a needle sliding deep into his chest. Baijiu trembles with the effort of keeping quiet. He fights for focus—Ayu’s other hand guides him, guides his hand into place, and he strokes her inner walls until she comes against his tongue with a shudder and a hard, painful grasp at his hair.
“Up,” Jinxi whispers in his ear, soothing. He releases Baijiu’s neck and coaxes him forward with a hand to his belly. Pink-cheeked and bloomed in sweat, Ayu cups his face in her hands and kisses his lips clean of her juices.
Ayu may be on her back, prostrate, legs spread to accommodate her men, but she is the one doing the taking. She guides him with a hand to his hip, soothes him with whispered praises in his ear. When Jinxi fucks Baijiu, he fucks his wife, too, driving Baijiu deep. Baijiu buries his mouth against her neck and sobs in quiet rapture—between them, he is torn asunder.
When the morning sun touches his face, he is alone in their bed. The sheets are a disaster. He is naked, still, but someone has left a bowl of clean water by the bed, and a cloth for washing. He does so slowly, wrung out. His limbs feel disconnected, belonging to another. I belong to them, he thinks, and is alarmed to find that the thought is not displeasing.
Outside, there is laughter. He stands at the window with his changshan undone at the throat, and watches Ayu kissing her husband goodbye. Xiaotian is going with them today; he holds his father’s hand while Fangzheng darts ahead, evading his mother’s kisses, her gentle scold.
At the top of the rise, Jinxi turns and looks back across the garden. Everything is bathed in green and gold. Baijiu leans against the windowsill, arms folded loose over his chest, thumb pressed to the base of his sternum where an old scar puckers, undisturbed. Jinxi sees him, lifts his hand in farewell against the dappled dawn.
Baijiu bows his head and smiles.