There’s a single tree in the temple yard. A holy tree, even though it’s not very old – no more than a dozen years if that – and a bit spindly. Its branches are still thin and droop a bit, with sparse leaves. It looks hunched, as if it’s feeling cold in the rainy dawn of a rainy night. The yard reeks of smoke and burning flesh, and it’s snowing ash in papery flakes that dissolve in the cold, grey rain. The goddess of mercy smiles serenely amid the flames that still lick from the broken rafters. She has the face of a mother. It is a loving, tender face that once smiled gently, firmly down on a small boy and taught him the golden manners and steely ambition of a proper gentleman. Fire is cleansing the past, and the mother goddess smiles.
The fighting is over. The crowd has dispersed, gone back to their inns and clans. By the grand double doors of the ruin lie the bodies of two fake monks, and another four are dispersed as if forming a sentried trail between the steps and the gate to the street. The wings have closed behind the leavers, someone has taken pains to place a seal on them to keep out nosy idlers until the place has been cleaned and purified. Perhaps the temple can be rebuilt, with its softly smiling goddess. A mother, providing gentle comfort and steel-edged mercy.
His white robes are stained rust-red and black. He’s clutching his sword as he’s watching and listening to the ruin burn and groan. The roof has collapsed in a burst of flames, sparks showering from the heavy sky, a clatter of tiles crashing onto the gilded floor, exploding from the maw of the doors, stuck ajar in their grand hinges and spewing fragments of glazed clay amid sooty flames. He’s reliving what went before this moment, and terror runs freezing through his veins. It wrenches his insides and claws into his bowels. He holds himself still – his knees locked, his knuckles white – as heat gusts from the flaming temple ruin and blows his hair up in a cloud of black silk. He feels every hair on his skin stand on end as his robes, snowy white and patterned with smoke – billow around him, silk sliding over goosebumps.
Luckily, his mind supplies into the horror soaking his thoughts, luckily...
Sixteen years are so very long. A sea of waiting, a river of grief. He can still feel it in his bones, it’s melted into his flesh and soul. He hasn’t been able to – dared to – let go of it, and that past night it’s flared up and nearly put his reason to flight. He knows, with absolute certainty, that he cannot wait like that again.
He feels his heart as if it was a bird trembling in a clenching fist.
He’s turning his gaze from the groaning ruin to the one near him. The other is sitting against the spindly tree. Blood doesn’t show on his dark robes. He’s spinning his flute between his fingers. His knuckles are scraped raw; there’s a smudge of darkness across his cheek. Darkness speaks to him. It caresses and torments him, it wants to own him and swallow his soul yet he is its master, unafraid of walking its ghostly path. His eyes are black and clear, his gaze distant as he watches. Rain trails over his pale face. His hair lies in sodden tangles against his temples, coils against his face and neck, a stark contrast to the crimson gash across his throat.
Luckily, the cut isn’t particularly deep.
It is so terribly red.
His gaze grows heavy. His fingers clench more tightly around the hilt of the sword, his other hand behind his back bunches the folds of his robes as if that could somehow help. The yard reeks of smoke and death, of burning flesh and the blood pooling around the bodies lining the way from the gate to the doors like sentinels. It smells of rain and wet earth. The other smells of pain and a bit of sweat and stale clothes.
He’s looking, unable to break away. His grief is a hungry thing. It’s been feeding on his soul for nearly two decades. He’s been strong, keeping it carefully chained because he couldn’t put it down. He’s been feeding it memories. He needed to feel it to feel anything at all, and later he needed its company because it gave him the memory of loving. The shadow of his love, wreathed in sunny smiles and shrouded in regret bitter like bile. A dead love and a child’s love tethered him to living when he walked through time with his feet no longer touching the ground. He’d been longing for so long he’d forgotten how it was to do without, until grief had engraved his yearning into his soul too deeply to erase, scorched it onto his chest with a branding iron and soaked black and heavy into his blood.
He and the other spent a time together and a time apart, and it nearly broke him. He is good at keeping himself secret, at holding himself together – there was a child to raise, and he never did things by halves. There was a memory to uphold, and he stubbornly clung to it, a vessel for smiles and laughing eyes, for irreverent thought and rebellious action. It gave him slivers of satisfaction to harbour such memories in the heart of his pristine clan, amid the clouds and righteous rules, as hollow as the ruins of the burning temple. But he’d never been able to stop searching, until at last he found. After an eternity of mourning, he found and felt and woke up to living with a shock.
They spent time apart and time together. He found and lost and found again but he doesn’t know how to keep. It makes him frantic, a bird in a fist. That slash across the other’s throat – things had been so very close even if rain was washing over the other’s skin now, cool water softening the congealed blood, blurring the sharp red line and trailing faint rivulets down the other’s neck to his collarbone. He remembers the night before the fight at the temple, when he and the other had shared a room at an inn. They’d been eating and drinking together before bathing one after the other, primly, in a tub behind a screen. The other had insisted he go first, and he’d been making tea whilst the other was splashing about in the used water, humming a cheerful ditty he’d snapped up somewhere in the markets, perhaps from the girl selling silk ribbons and embroidered trinkets. He recalls the pang of jealous heat he’d felt and that he’d spilled some of the hot water over his thigh, scalding himself. He remembers the other stepping out from behind the sreen, eyes laughing, lips smiling as he tied his sash, his hair coiling wetly against his neck. They’d sat together drinking tea and wine, the other smiling with laughing eyes and teasing words, drinking copiously straight from the flask. One of the maids had brought the wine, and halfway through his tea the other went to fetch more, returning with five flasks. He lined them up by the table, laughing at the look he gave him. “What, you have your tea, are you grumpy because I am drinking too?” He could have pointed out the difference, but of course the other knew and was teasing. He’d been so very close. So warm. He’d been leaning in, with his scent of bitter herbs and love and laughter, and it had hurt so badly. He wanted to keep and he didn’t know how. This is why he’d taken the flask off the other and filled his tea cup with wine and drunk, all in one sweeping motion. And the other had gazed at him and his laughing eyes had darkened with something differernt – a passing shadow belying his smiling lips and cheerful words, and he’d been silent for a tiny eternity and put his thin hand over his own holding the tea cup. Those thin, bony fingers, hard and firm and comforting. They warmed him through and through with their comfort as they squeezed his knuckles. They had trembled the tiniest bit, perhaps, if he tried hard enough to recall. He’d longed so badly for their trembling. The other’s throat had bobbed, then he’d swayed back and raised the flask. “Fine, let’s drink, let’s drink, I’ll take care of you, if you trust me, you do, don’t you?”
He trusts him with all he has. He remembers the shadow of a lamp-lit street and a dusty yard with clucking chickens. He recalls a fight, and the closeness of the other’s face, his eyes bitter with regret and his smile soft and loving and dull with sorrow. He wants, fervently, to remember the touch of those lips on his own, but he cannot. It all vanished in the light of the morning, mercilessly drinking up the shadows of the night past.
But now, what was there now? He’s lost and found and doesn’t know how to hold on, and on that cold, rainy temple yard stinking of smoke and death, he is as lost as he’s ever been, alone with the one who has his heart and soul, his grief and every fibre of his being. He only knows he’s been staring when the other looks up at him. His face, strange and familiar, is calm, his eyes unlit by laughter. For a heartbeat, his expression is blank, before a shaded smile curves his lips. All pretense gone, all masks torn away. It is a soft, tender smile. It is strangely resigned, and it sends through him the full force of the horror he’d been living with for too long – of losing again, for good. It hits him in the gut like blow with an iron staff; he buckles, drops to his knees and yanks the other close. He cannot speak – he’s never been quick with words, and he’s never found words for what clenches his soul – so he crushes him so tightly, they both are gasping for breath. He feels the other’s hands coming up to cup his elbows, then slip to his back to hold him. He feels his warmth, his pulse, his life. He speaks his name and barely knows his own voice, heavy and coarse, as if he was still drunk with wine. The name wrenches from his throat, his chest, as if pressed from his lungs, as if saying it can spell out everything he’s been living with for far too long, all by himself, to bear it any longer.
It is cold on the abandaoned temple yard, under the thin tree with its spindly branches, under the snowy ashes raining from a heavy sky, but the other is warm and solid in his arms as he presses him close. Somewhere, dimly, sharply, he hears the other’s voice, and he doesn’t know if it’s a shout or a whisper, only that it’s soft and urgent. Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan… La… Lan Zhan, what are you doing? Are you drunk? You’re heavy, did you mean to sit down by me – are you hurt? Are you ill? La-
He’s kissing him silent. He’s sucking the air out of his lungs so he stops babbling; the other keeps his eyes open – they bulge a little as he’s weighing him down with everything he can muster whilst gripping his wrists, keeping them pressed to the ground by his sides. The grass is cold with rain. It’s an awkward position, not very stable; he stays where he is only because the other doesn’t shift beneath him.
A small, surprised puff of air from the other’s nostrils, but no protest. The other’s hands shift and turn in his grip, the other is still strong, his fingers come together around his arms, clasping him just as firmly. Steadying. Unafraid.
He’s being too bold, too forward, and he doesn’t want to help it anymore. He’s expecting the other to punch him the moment his grip loosens. He’s waiting for him to buck and yank a knee to his groin to send him reeling backwards, to be followed by a whack with the flute. The flute isn’t light as it ought to be, made of bamboo, but heavy like lead with the resentful energy soaking it. The other can handle that thing like a fighting stick, or a sheathed blade; he’s seen it and it’s impressed him enough to know the other is not defenceless, even now, when he’s holding him down, pushed against the soaking grass on the cold wet ground.
Lan Zhan, slow, slow…
Not ‘no’. Not ‘get off’. Just slow. There is a small part of him that still listens, carefully, icy clear, ready to protect. Ready to slice into himself with something that sounds like ‘no’ and freeze him. But until that happens, he can wedge his leg between the other’s – readily, surprisingly – opening thighs and roll himself into the widening space. Feel. The other’s fingers splaying on his back and shakily pressing into his skin. The other’s palm rubbing small circles, soothing, encouraging.
Lan… Lan Zhan… slow… ah… Lan… Zhan...
Startling him with how they send sharp little spikes through his flesh. The warmth flaring through him from there, when they touch intimately, and every bit of cloth between is just a nuisance that has to go. The other is raising his hips off the ground and twists, his fingers clench and tear at the grass, he is moving his head and finally at least succeeds in breaking their kiss. Gulps for air and exhales it in a low chant:
Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan...
He doesn’t want to wait for a gasp to become a swearword, or a shout of rejection, but haven’t they kissed before, havent’ they felt one another up, hasn’t the other told him, told him – in that burning temple, when they thought they were going to perish, hasn’t he told-
Lan Zhan… Lan Zhan… ah, Lan Zhan...
He needs one hand at least, so he yanks the other’s arms up over his head and clasps both thin, wiry wrists with his long fingers. He knows his grip is bruising, like a vice. He knows without looking that it will leave blackening marks, but he is busy hitching up the other’s robes and pulling at the drawstring of his trousers. Their clothes are wide and loose to allow for vigorous movement – fighting, horse-riding, exercise – and he only needs to shift a little to swipe the trousers down the other’s pale thighs to his ankles; he only needs to part his own robes down there and loosen his own waistband enough to free himself.
Lan Zhan, why’re you crying? It’ll be fine… it’ll be fine… just… go slow...
He feels so bare as he registers that the other isn’t fighting at all. He feels himself quake with the last sliver of control he can muster as he quickly pulls back to look – the other’s lips are drawn between his teeth; his eyes are clear and wide, his expression strange, a little disbelieving, a bit uncertain, but it’s not what he’s expected. A soft blush colours his cheeks and neck, paints over the bleeding cut across his throat. There’s neither anger nor fear. Just curiosity and something else he can’t read, and he hasn’t got the mind to decipher it. All he has is a bit of spittle, and suddenly the other seems to recover from whatever shocked daze he’s been in and squirms as he gets touched. He winces – into his touch, away from it? - and hisses his name out in a sharp gasp. Is he trying, trying-
He knows he should pace this, but he has no idea how, or what to say – he cannot find the words, he needs to show. He’s better at action than at words. He touches deeper, and it nearly makes him white out what he feels. The blinding knowledge that he is touching the other most intimately, that he’ll have him like this, that he’ll-
The other’s gaze watches him, wide and luminous. The other’s body rises towards him. Willing. Giving.
It tears through him like wildfire and slams into his guts like a fist. It burns, the way it’s knotting and twisting his insides and obliterates his thoughts. It’s like he’s swallowed a thousand razorblades, and later he’ll think of death by a thousand cuts. Now, it costs him an effort of will he didn’t know he was capable of to raise himself on one arm, just enough to see, to tremble above the other for a heartbeat or two, a sliver of eternity, just enough to see the other’s lips part and his eyes stare up at him. The other pulls one hand free.
He sobs, unable to keep hold of it because he can see the bruises he’s made. But it doesn’t slap him or punch him in the face. It comes up and settles on the small of his back, to rub shaky little circles there. An oddly soothing gesture, and he’s unbelievably glad for it. He recognises the shift in the other’s expressive features, and relief floods him, makes him drop back and thump his full weight onto the other and push to close that last bit of distance.
Come on, my love. If that’s what you want...
They snap together, a yelp, and he feels home. Now he’s got him. He has the other in a way he never quite dared hoping he could. He doesn’t look at the other’s face – he knows, from his laboured breathing, the small, jagged noises wrenching from his throat, that he’s hurting the other in a way he never wanted to hurt him, when all he wanted was love him, love him, flesh and soul.
Lan Zhan… Lan Zhan… Lan Zhan…
It hadn’t been the other’s relentless teasing that made him snap like this. It had been the moment the wire sliced into the other’s pale throat, drawing a crimson line between life and death. It jolted him into action – delayed perhaps by the fighting that followed, by all the others around them, by the collapse of the building and the spreading smoke – and he isn’t easy to stall.
He leans down to kiss, instinctively, eyes half-closed as his brow comes to rest against the other’s. He can feel the other’s breathing on his skin, registers the rise and fall of the other’s chest against his own, but above all he feels his groin like a small sun burning in his lower belly. His fingers unclench and the other’s arms come up to wrap around his waist. The other shifts his hips; there’s a small hiss of discomfort, and he can’t help but move as he seeks the other’s lips with his own. Surprised to feel the other’s mouth open to let him in, touch, explore – it’s a fumble just as everything else about this, and it’s mindblowingly beautiful in all its messiness. The other holds still down there, letting him do what instincts tell him to do because anything he’s ever read and learned about this is long gone from his brain, and he just does, and all through it it is as if the other’s hands on his waist are steadying, holding him when they could have fought him off. His own hands move over the other’s arms to his shoulders into his hair that’s spreading in wet tangles about his head and his fingers clench into this cool damp mass of silk as he feels himself as he’s never felt himself before. It’s not the best position, but he’s strong and he can sustain it well enough, and in any case he doesn’t last long because it only takes for the other’s hips to tremble towards him the tiniest bit and it overwhelms him. It’s so sudden, he cannot even cry out. It’s so strong, he cannot breathe. It’s taking him under so deeply and for so long, he only emerges with a mindless keening wail when he must open his lungs again. He catches its echo when his conscious mind stutters back to awareness and his pinpoint vision spreads wider, and he stifles the rest of what’s in his throat by sinking his teeth into the other’s neck, close to his throat. The other jolts but lets him, keeps holding him, keeps cradling him with his knees pressed against his ribs.
Keeps holding him. Doesn’t push him away, doesn’t berate or curse him.
He can feel the other’s warmth seep through him where skin touches skin. He can feel it through the layers of clothes still between them further up, and he knows, he knows, that he had wanted this too desperately for too long, and that he’d wanted it to be nothing like this: Messy. Hurtful. Rushed, lying in the cold grass under a thin tree by a burning temple ruin.
The other runs one hand up his back into his hair, fingers pressing gently, massaging, caressing. How can he be so… tender now? After this? After what he’s done to the other?
He doesn’t know why the rain seems to come from the ground to make his face wet. Rain should fall from the sky, not climb out of the grass to soak his skin. He can feel their bodies separate and how the other flinches, but no sounds comes from the other’s lips. It isn’t like the other to be this still, so he scrapes together enough willpower to push himself to his elbows, further to prop himself up with his arms – one, then the other – his hair sliding messily over his shoulder, so he can gaze at the one beneath him. it’s only because discipline kicks in again, ingrained through a lifetime of practice, that he can do it, that he can climb to his hands and face the other at all.
He looks a bit out of it. His lower lip is split on one side, and it mortifies him to think he might have-
And he’s been selfish. Shakily, he tries to reach between them, but the other shakes his head and reaches for his wrist. “It’s fine. I couldn’t, right now.” A soft smile curves his mouth, his eyes are warm, curious as they meet his own. “I bit my lip,” he says, “by accident.” And then, “I can hear what you’re thinking. Quit beating yourself up.”
He wants to clear his throat that feels tight and dry. He wants to say something, but he’s always been better at thinking and doing than talking. The other beats him to it.
“I’m getting cold,” he says. “And it’s… sticky down there.” He wriggles a little to illustrate his discomfort.
He shudders, almost jumps up and hastily reaches out to pull the other from the ground too. The other quickly grabs the waistband of his rucked-down pants and smoothly pulls them up as he rises.
For a moment, his knees feel wobbly when he catches sight of the other like this but he quickly averts his eyes as if giving him a little privacy now could help.
Help what? his guilty conscience prods him sharply. Does he even want help?
They tidy themselves up. His legs regain their steadiness. He clenches down on the turmoil in his head and his insides. And when he turns, the other tilts his head a little, his dark eyes questioning. “Ready?” he asks, and his smile is soft.
They wander back to the inn where they’d rented a room the night before. They order a bath, and like the night before, the other insists he go first. He doesn’t argue. He’s washing himself when the other steps behind the screen and looks at him. He’s in his inner robe only, without a sash, his hair unbound. He waves a flask at him. “There’s no more warm water. Mind if I come in?” And then, stepping closer, leaning down, he wraps his still-clothed arm around his bare shoulders and kisses his temple. “If I’d known...” He sighs, laughs a little. “Ayah, Lan Zhan, we were stupid, right?” And then, “There’s a lot to catch up on. Care to show?”