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Plum blossom wine drifts on the air, sweet and mellow, mingling with the faint, woodsy scent of a handful of candles. Soft chirps from crickets and the occasional distant conversation of birds is all that deigns to interrupt the quiet that blankets the room. The crinkle of well-loved pages being turned has long since passed this late into the night.

Yan Wushi is a predator biding his time, watching with patient laziness as his Ah-Qiao slowly but surely accedes to defeat where he sits kneeling at the low table, eyelids opening less and less with each blink, upright posture loosening into a slight slouch that whispers of relaxed weariness, yet somehow still managing to exude grace with such a small concession. The dim candles cast flickering shadows that ease his edges, creating an ever-softer image of a beauty from a painting reading by moon- and candlelight.

Something not unpleasant coils tightly in Yan Wushi’s chest.

“That page must be absolutely riveting.” Yan Wushi keeps his voice low, but the words are deafening in the stillness, even to him. “You’ve been reading it for the past ten minutes.”

Shen Qiao doesn’t jolt or startle, but he does sit up a little straighter and blink his eyes a bit owlishly. His eyes stay down, seemingly looking at said page, but his gaze is unseeing, unfocused. He doesn’t respond, merely hums, little more than a light exhale, neither question nor affirmation.

The coil gets tighter. Yan Wushi allows the fond smile to come easily. He seems to be doing that more and more lately, an assent to a defeat of his own, one he welcomes with open arms.

Pushing himself up from his seat, Yan Wushi strides over to peer over Shen Qiao’s shoulder. His hands clasp loosely behind his back and he waits a moment, feigning interest in scanning the contents of the page before he leans a little further and mutters in Shen Qiao’s ear, “It doesn’t seem that interesting to me. Why don’t you put it down?”

They both know it’s not a request. He slips the book out of his Ah-Qiao’s nonexistent grip and, ignoring the feeble protest, tosses it aside without caring to see where it lands.

“Ah, that was . . .” Shen Qiao mumbles, but the rest either gets woven into the surrounding words, a soft, malformed yarn ball of syllables, or perhaps he doesn’t finish it at all. Yan Wushi never does get to learn what it was exactly.

As if he cared in the first place.

Instead, he takes Shen Qiao’s left hand in his own and wraps the other arm around his waist to help him stand up, gentle yet firm. Shen Qiao complies without a hint of reservation, making Yan Wushi chuckle low as he asks, “My, my, Ah-Qiao, so obedient. Do you enjoy going where this venerable one’s hands guide you so much? When's the last time you slept? ”

“Mm . . . three days, I think . . .”

The smile freezes on his lips, little more than a cold facsimile. He’d meant it as a joke, but it isn’t so funny anymore. Of course his Ah-Qiao would run himself into the ground trying to take care of his sect and those bratty little disciples. Losing sleep is probably nothing to him, a worthy sacrifice, or perhaps not a sacrifice at all; that would imply cherishing that which was lost, and that potentially there could be gain. For his silly, silly Ah-Qiao, this is merely him giving that which he believes the receiving party deserves, whether they truly do or not, and never once expecting a return in kind.

Silly, silly Ah-Qiao.

Without another word, Yan Wushi snakes his arm around Shen Qiao’s waist a little further, bringing him closer against him as he leads him to the seat before the modest vanity that had been installed only after much unabashed whining on Yan Wushi’s part and a myriad of sighs from Shen Qiao. Although he wants to drag his little daoist to bed while he’s still pliable and drowsy and not in the mind to put up a stoic front to continue working, there are certain daily rituals that must be tended to, especially seeing as how they are apart for such long periods at a time. Yan Wushi must take his opportunities where and when he can, and he listens unashamed and wholeheartedly to the selfish part of him that seeks the enjoyment he’ll get out of caring for his Ah-Qiao.

Shen Qiao goes where Yan Wushi guides him, sitting at the vanity with closed eyes and leaning against Yan Wushi all the while. He’s hit with fresh astonishment and amusement every time Shen Qiao gives himself over to him, leans into his touch and bares his neck, so full of trust. Placing himself wholly and absolutely in Yan Wushi’s hands because he feels safe there.

He almost wants to laugh. There’s a momentary itch, an echo of instincts that yearn to betray that trust, pure and innocent as it is, but it is nothing more than that. An echo. In its place is a foreign and twisting feeling, enveloping and fond and warm, but he’s gradually beginning to learn how to identify it. It only makes itself known for one person.

Yan Wushi pulls a seat up behind Shen Qiao, looking over his left shoulder at their reflections. He has to pause to gather himself when he looks in the mirror to see his Ah-Qiao,  his life, his husband cast in the hazy, golden glow of the candle flames, eyelashes gracing his cheeks and hair melting about his shoulders like warm honey, night robes loose and flowing about his figure. 

Unraveling the tight knot in his chest with slow precision and tentative care, Yan Wushi sets about undoing Shen Qiao’s hair in kind. His fingers untie the sky blue ribbon that keeps his hair in its usual half up-do, and the locks cascade to join the rest, slightly wavy and curly from being wound for so long. They frame his face, a dark waterfall parting about clear jade, his expression at ease and head slightly downturned as he dances between consciousness and the dream realm. Yan Wushi sighs before he realizes what he’s doing.

He sets to using just his fingers at first, combing through and massaging Shen Qiao’s scalp every now and then before running his hand down. He revels in the way his Ah-Qiao hums in hazy appreciation, almost like a purr. 

He makes sure to not tug or pull, but the hair in his hands is like silk, and it soon becomes clear that the more pressing worry is making sure Shen Qiao doesn’t tip over, so he keeps one hand on his shoulder. In the end, though, this doesn’t prevent Shen Qiao from leaning back against his husband’s chest instead, so Yan Wushi merely huffs a soft laugh and hooks his foot on a leg of Shen Qiao’s chair, tugging it toward him so his Ah-Qiao won’t be in such an uncomfortable position. He slips the hand on his shoulder down around his waist and continues combing with his fingers, leaning his cheek against the top of Shen Qiao’s head.

The crickets, though quiet, fill the hush. A few miǎo, maybe fēn, pass this way.

Yan Wushi knows the moment Shen Qiao is getting restless when his fingers fidget, quick and subtle, before he lies still once more. He’s long since picked up that little movements like this, while superficial and meaningless, belie an internal process for his Ah-Qiao, one of working up courage to voice his desires or worries or next action. Yan Wushi waits for whatever it may be, still combing his fingers through the long strands.

Shen Qiao turns his head to nuzzle in the crook between Yan Wushi’s shoulder and neck, yet his exhaustion is still unable to leave him entirely without a sense of shame. A light pink dusts his cheeks as he mumbles into Yan Wushi’s clothes, most words muffled and lost, but he catches the last one, and he can’t help the way his heart skips a beat.

“. . . bed?”

Yan Wushi brings the hand he’s using to comb through Shen Qiao’s hair up and cups his jaw, pushing his head closer as he places a firm kiss on his forehead. He laughs openly at the inadvertent squish of his Ah-Qiao’s cheek, at how much he looks like an indignant kitten. Shen Qiao rests his left hand on the wrist of the hand holding his head, palm warm and touch weighted with sleep, but doesn’t say anything more. 

Yan Wushi kisses him again and gently maneuvers him to sit up a little, saying, “Of course, my Ah-Qiao, but first . . .” He scoops Shen Qiao’s hair back with both hands and leans around, placing his chin on his lover’s shoulder with raised brows and an innocent tilt of his head. “Won’t you let this husband take care of you?”

Despite his weariness, there’s a glint of suspicion in Ah-Qiao’s half-lidded eyes. Even his testy mutterings send that tightly coiled sensation in Yan Wushi’s chest writhing as he asks, “Is that not what you’ve been doing?”

One corner of Yan Wushi’s lips quirk up. He lifts his head and reaches around to grab the brush from the vanity, replying, “Precisely. Which is why Shen- daozhang shouldn’t be so cruel. Would you really seek to deprive me of this one request, when I’ve provided and cared for you so lovingly, so attentively?”

Although his narrowed eyes and furrowed brow are watered down by the drowsiness that envelopes him, the shift in Shen Qiao’s expression and soft tone belies his tentative curiosity - the obvious fear that he has truly done something so callous and selfish that he’d hurt Yan Wushi’s feelings. 

The soft, open Ah-Qiao of moments before vanishes in the place of an upright, dutiful Shen Qiao as he says, “I apologize if this humble daoist has offended you in any way. I did not mean to hurt Yan- zongzhu , truly.”

Please, Yan Wushi scoffs inside. You could never. Hurt or comfort, pain or pleasure - it is you, and only you. Always.

Yan Wushi doesn’t say anything along those lines, though, wishing only for his Ah-Qiao to be comfortable and back in his arms once more, unguarded and without the guilt that worries his brows right now. His favorite pastime is teasing without mercy, but now he reaches out to smooth away Shen Qiao’s pinched brows, hugging his middle with a quick kiss to the spot between his jaw and neck. He feels the muscles loosen beneath his fingers, tension rushing away with this simple gesture.

“No worries,” Yan Wushi says next to his ear, breath warm and voice low. “My only request is for my wife to allow this husband to braid his hair.”

Ah-Qiao tenses again briefly, confusion pinching his lips together, but it passes as quickly as it comes. “Braid . . . my hair?”

“Mn.”

Shen Qiao turns his head to look him in the eyes. “Just braid?”

“Mn.”

He waits a moment more, but whatever he’s looking for he must find - or not find - and a soft smile crosses his lips. The candlelight flickers and reflects in his eyes, creating a bottomless pool of faint stars.

Yan Wushi is drowning, and he has no intention of resurfacing.

“Sure, then.”

Shen Qiao turns back to the mirror, closing his eyes with complete and utter trust, hands resting delicately in his lap.

Yan Wushi cups his jaw and presses another quick kiss to his cheek in thanks, then begins combing with even, slow strokes, watching his expressions in the mirror all the while.

Eyes still closed, Shen Qiao leans into the patient brushstrokes, quickly coaxed back to the edge of sleep’s embrace. As much as Yan Wushi loves this sight, he can’t keep the comment of “about three days” from echoing bitterly in his mind, an irritating reminder that he’s aiding in nearly making it four, so he comforts himself with the promise of more of these nights and puts the brush down. He refuses to rush though, taking his time in parting and weaving together his Ah-Qiao’s hair with practiced fluidity, keeping the braid loose enough for comfort in sleep.

While it’s a quick indulgence, it is satisfying nonetheless, and Yan Wushi’s chest floods with warmth. Not for himself, though; he is proud in a way that somehow does not pertain to him at all, residing in the soft sighs his Ah-Qiao exhales, the easing of his pursed lips and knit brow, the subtle tilt of his body into Yan Wushi’s space.

He carefully drapes the long braid over one of Shen Qiao’s shoulders, who responds with little more than the flutter of his eyelashes at the movement, practically sleeping where he sits. Yan Wushi laughs softly and stands up, leaning down to ease an arm under Ah-Qiao’s legs and around his back, picking him up and carrying them both to bed.

Tender in a way he never imagined himself being, Yan Wushi lays Shen Qiao down and climbs in beside him. He pulls his Ah-Qiao closer to him, tucking his head under his own chin and entangling their legs to leave as little open space between them as possible. He absentmindedly runs a hand along Ah-Qiao’s braid, wrapping it around his left hand and letting it unravel like a sleeping snake, focusing on the velvety texture and the steady, hot breaths against his chest.

“Ah-Qiao.”

“. . . Mn.”

“What do you think of this husband’s work?”

“. . . ‘sbeautifulmm . . .”

“But you didn’t even see it.” He gives him a soft squeeze. “Are you lying to save my pride?”

Shen Qiao doesn’t respond for a moment. After Yan Wushi gives up on an answer and believes he’s finally fallen asleep, Shen Qiao mumbles a comment nearly too incoherent to understand, but that which Yan Wushi can distinguish as clear as day.

“I’d never lie to save your pride. There’s too much of it.”

He snuggles deeper into Yan Wushi’s embrace, hands grasping his robes in a loose hold as sleep’s waves finally take him under. 

Yan Wushi huffs a laugh for the umpteenth time that night, holding him closer as he allows his consciousness to drift with each inhale of his scent, waiting for the waves to take him along to catch up with his Ah-Qiao.