The autumn chill nipped at Cai Qixiu’s fingers as he leaned out of the carriage. Mountains he had only seen before in paintings loomed over him, shrouded in fog. In his entire life, he had never left the capital; now, he was leaving it forever. He had thought that it was his purpose to uncover corruption in the court. Why should he fear death, when his cause was righteous? But he had, in the end. Cai Qixiu was a very fortunate man. Instead of a length of white silk, he had merely been sentenced to exile.
There were no servants waiting for Cai Qixiu when he arrived at his modest new home. Everything was covered with a fine layer of dust, though it was clean enough otherwise. As the coachman left, Cai Qixiu felt abruptly alone.
He settled into his new life. What choice did he have? An old woman came by every morning, to tidy the home and cook a few meals. Even if Cai Qixiu could think of what to say to her, even if it had been appropriate, she was a mute. He read his books and composed letters to the few friends he still had. When the weather was good, Cai Qixiu went outside to paint. He’d never taken painting particularly seriously, but he found he cared about it now. It suddenly seemed more important to capture the mountains in autumn on silk. Cai Qixiu had nearly lost the season, after all.
Leaves crunched underfoot as he walked outside. He would have to pick them off the hem of his robe before he crossed the threshold of his home, though a few leaves always managed to follow him in. Cai Qixiu’s vantage point faced the west, towards Chang’an. He painted for most of the day. As the sun slipped behind the mountains, the view turned golden, far more beautiful than any sight in the capital. Yet at this time only a few months ago, his friends would have been calling him out to join them in drinking wine.
His brush suddenly slipped, a rockslide of ink along the mountain. Tears were in his eyes.
“It’s been so long already,” he said, his voice rough with disuse, “and you’re still crying over yourself?”
What a fool he’d been. If he could do it all over again, he would have been meek. Happy. Perhaps he would even have a lover, someone to warm his bed and his soul at once.
Cai Qixiu headed back to his home. There was a little bundle of red fur stretched out in front of his door. An arrow was embedded behind the fox’s shoulder blades, rising and falling with its ragged breaths. Cai Qixiu’s heart hurt to look at it. He rushed to its side and kneeled down.
“Will you trust me?”
It opened its eyes, seeming almost to understand. Sliding his hands beneath the injured fox, Cai Qixiu lifted it as gently as he could. The fox whimpered, but didn’t bite. Cai Qixiu carried it inside and put it on the couch.
“What do I…?” Cai Qixiu asked himself, even though he knew very well exactly what he had to do. He fetched a bowl of water and tore a strip out of an old robe he never wore.
Returning to the fox, Cai Qixiu mumbled an apology before he grasped the arrow as near to the base as he dared. The little fox probably wouldn’t make it; he was just putting it through more pain for nothing. It yelped when Cai Qixiu pulled out the arrow, its whole body shaking. Cai Qixiu quickly cleaned the wound and wrapped the rag around the fox’s shoulder.
“There there, you’re very brave,” Cai Qixiu said, stroking the fox’s head. “I’ll take care of you until you’re better.”
In case the fox got cold, Cai Qixiu put a light quilt over it.
The fox was still alive when he checked on it the next day. Cai Qixiu was unspeakably relieved. So it wouldn’t have to get up, he brought it some leftover tidbits of meat and fed it by hand. The fox didn’t so much as nip his fingertips, treating each morsel was utmost politeness.
“You’re hardly like a wild animal at all, Xiao Hong.”
The fox snorted. Cai Qixiu laughed for the first time since his exile. He ruffled the hair on top of Xiao Hong’s head, then discovered that it enjoyed having its chin scratched.
They soon fell into a routine. Cai Qixiu would sit with Xiao Hong and read in the morning, until the lazy thing hopped down from the couch and proceeded to tear up the house. When Cai Qixiu painted, Xiao Hong followed him out, never traveling very far from his side. Xiao Hong still limped. Cai Qixiu worried that its wound wouldn’t heal, yet, selfishly, he almost hoped it didn’t. He knew that when Xiao Hong was well enough, it would leave. Cai Qixiu would be alone again.
As he composed a letter to his teacher, Xiao Hong hopped into Cai Qixiu’s lap. Xiao Hong behaved at first, until it naughtily stuck its paw on the drying ink, leaving a print behind. Cai Qixiu sighed.
The next bit of mischief came when Xiao Hong nudged Cai Qixiu’s hand with his nose, smearing the next letter.
Cai Qixiu lifted Xiao Hong up to look it in the eyes. Xiao Hong showed not a single trace of guilt. “You don’t want me to write? I see. But, Xiao Hong, this is my teacher. I owe him my life—he pled for me at court when no one else would. The least I can do is continue to write to him.” Cai Qixiu had been telling his teacher about Xiao Hong, actually.
Xiao Hong tilted its head. Cai Qixiu put it down again, petting it idly. The wound in Xiao Hong’s shoulder had closed completely, leaving only a narrow scar. Xiao Hong didn’t have much longer in Cai Qixiu’s household.
“Would you like to hear about how I got here?”
When Xiao Hong made no objection, Cai Qixiu began his story. Cai Qixiu found it even harder to forgive himself in the retelling. Being a fox, Xiao Hong couldn’t judge him. Xiao Hong’s eyes were drifting closed by the time Cai Qixiu finished. He picked Xiao Hong up and placed it on the couch, pulling the quilt up over it before he left for bed.
The next morning, Cai Qixiu went to the couch to read with Xiao Hong. But when he saw what was under the quilt, he panicked.
There was a beautiful young man sleeping on the couch. How had he gotten inside? Was he a robber? He stirred, frowning in his sleep as one bare leg slipped out of the quilt. Cai Qixiu immediately shifted his gaze to the young man’s face. His looks were flawless, his lips gracefully curved, his long eyelashes fluttering as he awoke. He pulled himself up on one elbow and languidly opened his golden, peach blossom eyes.
“Xiao… Xiao Hong?” Cai Qixiu asked.
Cai Qixiu had been sheltering a fox spirit? Xiao Hong’s hair fell over his shoulder like ink spilling over silk, and the quilt slid down his arm to expose his chest. Cai Qixiu felt like his ears were going so red they’d start dripping blood.
“I’ll get you something to wear,” Cai Qixiu sputtered, rushing back to his wardrobe. He grabbed the first set of robes he put his hands on—he’d worn them to court, but that didn’t matter now. What mattered was dealing with the naked and shameless man who’d replaced his little fox.
Cai Qixiu returned, keeping his eyes off of Xiao Hong as he tossed the clothes to him. “Please put these on,” he said, then turned away so Xiao Hong could change.
He jumped when he suddenly felt a hand on his shoulder. Cai Qixiu whirled around and came face to face with Xiao Hong. This close, the difference in their height was obvious, even more so when Cai Qixiu saw how the sleeves of his robes didn’t meet Xiao Hong’s wrists.
“Would you like some tea?” Cai Qixiu asked.
Xiao Hong smiled, showing his teeth.
Cai Qixiu rushed to heat up the kettle. He was going to be murdered. Xiao Hong would suck out all of his yang energy. Sweat broke out on his forehead as Cai Qixiu racked his brain for ways to save himself. Surely, Xiao Hong had to feel gratitude for how he’d nursed him back to health? Fox spirits were fair creatures.
Awkwardly carrying the teapot and two cups, Cai Qixiu returned. Xiao Hong sat at the table with one knee up, staring at Cai Qixiu with half-lidded eyes. His silence made everything more awkward. Cai Qixiu kept his hands steady as he poured Xiao Hong a cup, but they began to shake as he moved on to his own. Xiao Hong put his hand over Cai Qixiu’s.
“Qixiu,” he said. Xiao Hong’s voice was deep. Cai Qixiu had forgotten how good his name sounded on someone else’s lips.
Xiao Hong said nothing else as Cai Qixiu put down the teapot. When he withdrew his hand, he left a tingling warmth behind. Xiao Hong lifted the cup to his lips and sipped; Cai Qixiu watched how Xiao Hong’s throat worked as he swallowed. His little fox was gone.
“I’ve been an annoyance to you,” Cai Qixiu said. “Especially yesterday.”
“You’re not an annoyance.”
Cai Qixiu took a sip of tea. It was far too hot. “I shouldn’t have taken such liberties with you. All the petting.”
The corner of Xiao Hong’s lip turned up. “If I didn’t like it, I would have bitten you.”
Cai Qixiu fumbled with his cup, spilling tea in his lap. Xiao Hong liked it? Should he pet him again—would that make Xiao Hong decide not to kill him? Cai Qixiu kept quiet as Xiao Hong finished his tea. Xiao Hong replaced the lid on his cup and stood up, leaving Cai Qixiu to rush to his feet after him.
“Are you leaving now?” Cai Qixiu asked.
Xiao Hong nodded. He turned and left without another word.
Winter came, blowing drifts of snow onto his doorstep. Cai Qixiu brushed it all away with a broom, leaving a path for his cook and occasional maid. There were some days when she couldn’t make it at all; luckily, Cai Qixiu had watched her a few times, and could cook a little for himself now. His family would be horrified. At least they’d come to no harm because of Cai Qixiu’s thoughtlessness in pursuing justice. Only Cai Qixiu had to pay for Cai Qixiu.
The house felt even lonelier than before. Cai Qixiu had gotten into the habit of talking to himself, but he lacked the excuse of a little fox to listen to him, so he stopped. He lacked even the consolation of letters, with the snow dragging everything to a halt. Sometimes, he imagined he heard Xiao Hong’s footsteps behind him. Cai Qixiu wondered if Xiao Hong ever thought of him. Were his thoughts fond, or had he simply tolerated Cai Qixiu?
While Cai Qixiu stayed comfortably on his couch, a snowstorm raged outside. A knock on the door interrupted Cai Qixiu’s candlelit reading. His blood froze at the thought of who could be knocking at his door during a night like this. Mountain bandits? Cai Qixiu was tempted to hide himself in his room and wait for the knocking to go away. But what if it was someone who earnestly needed shelter? Gathering his courage, Cai Qixiu went to the door.
“Can I help you?”
The stranger knocked harder. Cai Qixiu was afraid the door would get knocked down, so he opened it.
Xiao Hong was shivering, his lips nearly blue. He wasn’t even wearing a cape, though he was at least wearing clothes. His hair was down. “I’m cold,” he said.
Cai Qixiu stepped out of the way so Xiao Hong could come in. “Let me get you something warm,” Cai Qixiu murmured, once again running back to his wardrobe for Xiao Hong. Too late, he realized that the cape he had just wrapped around Xiao Hong’s shoulders was trimmed in fox fur. Xiao Hong sniffed at the fur and knit his eyebrows together. “It was a gift!” Cai Qixiu said quickly. “Please, seat yourself by the brazier. I’ll make tea.”
Xiao Hong had come back to drain him. If he hadn’t been going to do it before, the fox fur would’ve changed his mind. Cai Qixiu went to the stove and contemplated his own death as he waited for the water to heat up. He was so preoccupied with having his yang stolen that he dropped a cup on the floor, shattering it. As he knelt to pick up the pieces, he managed to slice his fingers. The cut started bleeding freely.
Suddenly, Xiao Hong was beside Cai Qixiu. He held Cai Qixiu’s hand in his. Then, Xiao Hong lifted it to his lips.
Xiao Hong ran his tongue over the cut. Cai Qixiu let out a startled noise, his fingers twitching in Xiao Hong’s grip. Xiao Hong’s eyes closed in clear pleasure as he licked Cai Qixiu clean. What had Cai Qixiu invited into his house? Xiao Hong’s mouth was reddened from Cai Qixiu’s blood. Opening his eyes, Xiao Hong turned Cai Qixiu’s hand over and took his two bleeding fingers into his mouth, sucking on them lightly. Cai Qixiu was starting to feel faint. Before Cai Qixiu could yank his hand back, Xiao Hong released him.
“Be more careful,” Xiao Hong said, ripping off part of his sleeve and wrapping it around Cai Qixiu’s fingers.
“Should you be tearing up your clothes like that?”
“It’s fine; I took these from someone else.”
Cai Qixiu decided not to ask Xiao Hong for more details. They settled on the floor near the brazier while drinking tea. Cai Qixiu would have offered Xiao Hong something to eat as well, except he seemed to already… have had a meal. The storm was still howling outside, rattling the windows and seeping under the door, but the brazier and tea were warm. Xiao Hong sat with his knees curled up to his chest, wrapped in the fox fur-trimmed cape. Neither of them said a word. Having company on such a cold night lifted Cai Qixiu’s heart; it felt a little like he was waking up after a long sleep.
Xiao Hong sidled closer to Cai Qixiu. He was near enough that Cai Qixiu could see how his eyes dilated with the firelight, narrowing to slits. How old was Xiao Hong? He looked no more than twenty, but he could have cultivated for centuries. Yet he was choosing to spend his time with an exiled scholar of no consequence.
“Why did you come back?” Cai Qixiu asked.
“I like you, Qixiu.”
Cai Qixiu didn’t know what to say. Although he had spent over a month with Xiao Hong, that time had been with only his fox half. The man beside him now was someone Cai Qixiu had no claim to know. Xiao Hong was quiet in a way that didn’t feel like silence, strange in a way that wasn’t unfamiliar. Perhaps they had known each other in another life—that didn’t mean their paths must cross in this one.
Leaning forward, Xiao Hong’s hand pressed against Cai Qixiu’s nape as he drew Cai Qixiu into a kiss. His lips were soft against Cai Qixiu’s, undemanding. Cai Qixiu closed his eyes. If he were to die for this, that wouldn’t be so bad. It had been so long since anyone had touched him. Xiao Hong’s hand slipped from Cai Qixiu’s nape, trailing down his chest to settle on Cai Qixiu’s waist, setting off a spark of want. Cai Qixiu’s hands went to Xiao Hong’s collar.
Xiao Hong deepened the kiss and pulled Cai Qixiu into his lap. He busied his hands with letting down Cai Qixiu’s hair, massaging where the bun had tugged at his scalp all day. When Cai Qixiu shifted his weight to be more comfortable, he accidentally brushed against Xiao Hong’s arousal. A noise like a low growl rose from Xiao Hong’s throat. Startled, Cai Qixiu broke the kiss.
“Is this,” Cai Qixiu asked, “how you’ll drain my life away?”
Xiao Hong looked wounded. “I won’t take anything from you.”
His fingers went to Cai Qixiu’s belt, right before Cai Qixiu found himself pushed down onto his back. Xiao Hong quickly kissed Cai Qixiu’s lips before moving on to his neck, leaving behind soft bites as he undid the fastenings of Cai Qixiu’s robes and pulled down his pants. Cai Qixiu shivered when his skin was exposed to the cold air. Dipping his head, Xiao Hong pressed warm kisses to Cai Qixiu’s chest as his silken hair tickled Cai Qixiu’s skin. Cai Qixiu gasped the moment he felt Xiao Hong’s hand on his cock. He grabbed at Xiao Hong’s robes, finding it suddenly unfair that Xiao Hong was fully dressed when he was almost bared.
Xiao Hong stripped, then covered Cai Qixiu’s body with his own. Their lips met as Xiao Hong rolled his hips. Cai Qixiu moaned and held Xiao Hong closer, his fingers sliding over the scar by Xiao Hong’s shoulder blade. What if Cai Qixiu had thought it better to leave that wounded fox’s fate to nature? He hadn’t expected to ever have this again, to be so close that it seemed like every sense was meant for Xiao Hong, his heart following not far behind.
Cai Qixiu chased after Xiao Hong’s lips when he suddenly broke the kiss. Xiao Hong held his head back just far enough, an indulgent smile on his face. “I want you in my mouth.”
Xiao Hong nuzzled Cai Qixiu’s cheek before making his way downwards. Cai Qixiu shuddered when Xiao Hong pressed his teeth to Cai Qixiu’s hip at the same time he wrapped his hand around the base of his cock.
“You never bit me as a fox,” Cai Qixiu said.
Smiling again, Xiao Hong replied, “Because my fox teeth are sharper. Your skin…” He rubbed his thumb against Cai Qixiu’s inner thigh. “It reddens so easily—I can’t help it.”
Xiao Hong slowly licked along the length of Cai Qixiu’s cock, his golden eyes watching Cai Qixiu’s reactions. Embarrassed by how heavily he was breathing, Cai Qixiu covered his mouth. Xiao Hong reached up to brush his fingertips against Cai Qixiu’s hand. Cai Qixiu relaxed and kissed Xiao Hong’s fingers before Xiao Hong returned his attention to Cai Qixiu’s arousal. Xiao Hong closed his eyes, then took the head into his mouth and sucked.
Cai Qixiu wasn’t inexperienced, but no one had ever done this for him—everything was a shock. Xiao Hong’s tongue was hot, gliding wetly along Cai Qixiu’s length as he bobbed his head. He stroked Cai Qixiu’s thigh, seeming to steady him as Cai Qixiu couldn’t help tensing from the strain of keeping still. Cai Qixiu caressed Xiao Hong’s face. Xiao Hong’s lashes were dark against his cheek, trembling as Cai Qixiu touched him and ran his fingers through his hair. With a satisfied sound, Xiao Hong took more of Cai Qixiu inside.
“Xiao Hong, please,” Cai Qixiu said, not even knowing what he was asking for. More, perhaps, of whatever Xiao Hong was willing to give.
The wood crackled in the brazier. A stray ember floated to the floor as Cai Qixiu realized he wouldn’t last much longer.
“I don’t want to dirty you,” Cai Qixiu stammered, “but I’m…”
Xiao Hong didn’t move away. He swallowed down Cai Qixiu’s seed, giving Cai Qixiu’s cock a few lingering licks afterwards as he looked up at him. Cai Qixiu turned his eyes towards the ceiling. Dizzy and panting, he almost thought Xiao Hong had taken his yang energy after all, until Xiao Hong gathered him in his arms and kissed Cai Qixiu’s forehead. The room had never felt so warm before.
Cai Qixiu sought out his mouth and thrust his tongue past Xiao Hong’s lips, wanting to feel as much of him as he could. Xiao Hong let out a small sigh. Cai Qixiu fumbled for Xiao Hong’s cock where it pressed hard against his thigh, stroking him while Xiao Hong thrust into his hand. Xiao Hong groaned. Cai Qixiu ignored the growing ache in his wrist as Xiao Hong slowly came to completion, spilling against Cai Qixiu’s stomach.
The wind blew so hard that it shook the door. Xiao Hong wiped off Cai Qixiu with his pants and tucked his head beneath Cai Qixiu’s chin, his tall body fitting together with Cai Qixiu’s as he entangled their legs. It wasn’t long before Xiao Hong’s breathing switched to a sleeping rhythm. Cai Qixiu groped behind him for the cape, tucking it over both of them before he fell asleep himself.
In the spring, mail began to arrive again. His parents were well. As for his younger brother, he’d received an appointment in the country, but it was not a disgraceful one. Perhaps Cai Qixiu’s transgressions had been forgotten. Cai Qixiu would soon go to town to drop off his latest bundle of letters. Today, however, he was going to paint.
The mountains had turned green. His vantage point was a bit of a hike, so he was sweating by the time he reached it. He shouldn’t have tried to keep up with the little blur of red ahead of him. Cai Qixiu set up his easel and prepared his paints. He found he was less interested in the subject of the mountains. Instead, he focused on closer things. The birds, trees, flowers—anything before his eyes.
A fox, basking in the sun.