(The Heart May be Tiny but the World’s Enormous)
by shukyou (主教)
Really, if it hadn’t been for the damn baby, Gong Ji would’ve gotten away with it.
Clouds had rolled in and shrouded the heavens, but about an hour previous he’d seen through a thin patch a glimpse of the moon, already past her peak and starting her slow procession down the sky, her attendant stars following in her wake. It was the time of night only thieves and the night watch saw, and the muted lanterns of the town where the latter patrolled were behind him now; he could see over his shoulder their dim glow in the valley below.
The night was warm, and the crickets were singing merrily in the trees, their chorus covering his careful bare footfalls as he stepped unsandaled by the small cottage and toward the barn. He’d left Guanyin half a mile back down the hill — she was many things to him, but a master of stealth did not number among them — after promising her he’d be back soon with something for them both to eat. He’d gotten kicked and nearly bitten in the ear for his troubles, but she was a tempermental old hag, and he was used to her ways. He just didn’t need those ways blowing his cover.
In the dark, his eyes made out the rough lines of a small fence, with a smaller animal in the middle: a goat, by the smell of it, and by the close-cropped look of the grass around the house and barn. It looked up when he got close, but didn’t make any sort of fuss, not even when he stretched his long legs over the wood beams of the fence and took hold of the rope that wound around its neck. It was a big goat, and one he wouldn’t have had any trouble hefting over his shoulders under normal conditions, if starving for three days hadn’t stolen all the strength from his muscles and left him barely steady holding up nothing but his own bony weight.
He tugged the rope, and the goat followed amicably enough, one hoof in front of the other, out of the soft dirt of its pen and onto the hard-packed road that led back past the house and down the hill. Its own steps were barely louder than his, and it seemed disinclined to argue with the direction in which it was being slowly led. He hadn’t checked the barn for oats, and was sure Guanyin wasn’t going to be too happy with him for that, but this fortune was too good to chance, and anyway, she probably didn’t know the difference whether she ate the emperor’s barley or a clutch of thistles. He’d have the goat back to where she was in ten minutes, up and into the hills in another twenty, and at least partly into his belly within the hour, and by sunrise they’d be well-fed and well into the next town, where no one had heard the one about the farm that got its goat stolen last night.
That was when the baby started crying, which caught Gong Ji off guard, because it’d been so long since he’d heard the sound that he’d nearly forgotten what on earth could make that horrible howling racket. Seconds behind it, also from inside the house, came the sounds of movement and attention, and Gong Ji froze in his tracks, too far in the open to find anywhere to hide; the goat took this as a cue that their adventure was over, and plopped down in the dirt, munching at a dandelion that had somehow missed its previous grazes. If he could stand still enough for long enough, surely the baby would quiet down, and whoever had picked it up would go back to sleep without having noticed a thing amiss, and he could carry on with his goat-eating plans on a slightly revised timeline.
He stood motionless, barely even blinking, as the baby’s wails softened to little anguished gasps, then finally settled to sniffles. He would be fine, then, if he could just hold out a few minutes longer, if he could ignore how his legs were going numb and his back had tensed up and the goat had decided to taste-test the strips of cloth he’d wrapped around the balls of his feet to give their leathery soles an extra ounce of protection. Any minute now, he’d be home free–
The front door to the cottage swung wide to reveal a lantern’s powerful beam, shining right on him. He yelped and tugged at the goat’s tether, determined to make a break for it, but the goat was having none of it; when he took his foot out of reach of its mouth, it grunted and sat down hard, making itself as impossible to move as it could. So surprised was he by the sudden change in weight that he stumbled forward, scraping the exposed ball of his foot on the rough ground. If goats could laugh, he swore quietly, that one would’ve been howling like a loon.
The figure holding the lantern cleared its throat, and as Gong Ji’s eyes adjusted, he could see that it was a man wearing loose pants and nothing else, holding a baby-sized bundle to his chest with his other arm; the bundle seemed to be making the sniffling noise, and Gong Ji, not known far and wide for being the sharpest sword in the armory, was still able to put two and two together there. “What are you doing?” asked the man, who seemed less angry and more honestly curious.
“Stealing your goat,” answered Gong Ji, who’d been beaten at the tender age of three for being a terrible liar, and had thus resolved never to bother doing it again. He tugged at the goat, who balked and gnawed at the rope, so he prodded the beast’s belly with his toes. “Stubborn animal.” The goat just glared at him.
“Is that so,” said the man in the doorway, and it wasn’t a question. The light shifted as he reached up to hang the lantern on a thin iron hook by the door. “What are you going to do with it?”
Bracing for a little more leverage, Gong Ji managed with the last of his strength to convince the goat to its feet. “Eat it,” he said, pulling the beast in the direction of back down the road, hoping that his hunger gave him that look he’d seen desperate men have about them when they had nothing left to lose.
The man in the doorway didn’t budge, just tucked the simpering baby a little tighter against his shoulder. The baby fussed some more, but its cries of hunger were halfhearted at best, tinged with a edge of weakness Gong Ji didn’t like the sound of. His own stomach grumbled faintly in response, having itself stopped bothering to make its needs heard nearly a day before. The man in the doorway, however, seemed unmoved by either plight. “Raw?”
Gong Ji made a face. “Who eats raw goat?”
“Then you know how to cook.”
“A little.” The goat had settled its backside down against the dirt again, folding its back legs beneath it in a human-like sort of posture, and it occurred to Gong Ji that this goat and Guanyin would get along splendidly. It also occurred to him that he should, at this point, let go of the stupid rope, count this entire adventure as a loss, run away as fast as his feeble legs could carry him, and stop talking to the man whose goat he was trying to steal. Why he didn’t was beyond even him.
The man shrugged, switching the baby to his other shoulder before picking up a bucket from just inside the door; he tossed it in Gong Ji’s direction, and Gong Ji only reached out to catch it by sheer force of reflex, managing quite manfully not to tip over with its weight. “Milk her. Then come in.”
Gong Ji looked from the man to the bucket to the stubborn beast and back to the man again. “…Milk it?”
“He’s hungry.” The man patted the baby on the back again, and the baby let out a hiccuping sort of sob, probably for dramatic effect. Gong Ji was starting to think the baby was the only one left in all of this who hadn’t yet gone entirely mad. Having spent the length of his life as he could remember it battering down all sense of conscience to zero, he still felt strange as he listened to the baby’s cries, which now had taken on the quality of quiet despair that he might ever get fed.
And yet, he hadn’t gotten this far by capitulating to every tear-streaked face in the night. “I think I’m just going to keep stealing your goat.”
The man shrugged again, a wooden sort of gesture one might expect from a mysteriously animated statue of a bodhisattva confronted with a perplexing question. “You’re within your rights. But I’m within my rights to alert the district police.” In the oily orange lamplight, Gong Ji could see that the man’s expression didn’t budge while making the threat, the mark of a man who meant what he said. “They probably couldn’t catch you before you left the valley, or before you had supper, but they could make your life miserable enough.”
“What makes you think I’m afraid of the police?” Gong Ji asked, letting the goat’s rope go a little slack even as he did.
“You don’t look like you’re skilled at getting away from them,” answered the man, and Gong Ji knew what he meant — even in the dim lamplight, the long black lines driven by uncareful state torturers into Gong Ji’s dusty skin stretched long and visible down his bare arms, and even his shaggy hair wasn’t long enough to cover completely the bright red characters that branded his left cheek. “Or you could milk my goat and sleep by my fire, and in the morning be on your way.” A gust rattled the branches of the nearby peach trees as Gong Ji tried to recall the last night he’d slept beneath a roof, and couldn’t.
Things might have turned out differently, and Gong Ji might very well have chose the unspoken third option — to drop beast and bucket alike, and flee on feeble legs into the darkness — had the high, thin single-stringed fiddle chorus of the crickets not at that moment been joined in song by a deep, percussive roll of thunder. The man cast his eyes to the sky, then back to Gong Ji, his bodhisattva’s face as fixed as ever. The wind, Gong Ji noticed, was heavier now, and every gust carried on it a damp warning he’d been too blinded by hunger to hear earlier: storm, storm.
Just for a night, then. To wait out the rain in the crazy man’s house.
“I have to go get my donkey,” said Gong Ji, lacing the goat’s lead through the handle of the bucket. He pointed down the road, as though this might explain everything. “I left her tied a ways back.”
“I’ll set water to boiling,” promised the man, and as Gong Ji passed him on his way back down the hill, he saw the lamplight glint off the blade of an impressive sword resting just inside the door’s frame, hovering close to its master as might a faithful guard dog, smooth and cold in the face of the intruder even as it bared its sharp teeth.
The barn, he’d been somewhat surprised to discover, was only half a barn; the other half was a forge, though its fire was long cold, and the tools strewn about had taken on the dust of many weeks of disuse. Guanyin settled down into the stall almost as soon as she was put there, munching straw in a way that indicated she didn’t care how crazy the owner of the house was, so long as he fed her and kept her out of the rain. Gong Ji hated to admit it, but he was beginning to see things her way.
Both bucket and goat had been removed from the path in his absence, and Gong Ji pushed the door to the cottage open to find the former half-full and resting on the hearth, happily being consumed one spoonful at a time by the baby, who was now fussing in a much more celebratory fashion. A long pipe hung out of the corner of the man’s mouth, smoking sweetly as he dribbled the white liquid as much down the baby’s front as into its mouth. He didn’t even look up as Gong Ji entered.
As promised, a black kettle was bubbling away above the cookfire, which heated the room too much for an already-warm night. On a waist-high table had been set a bucket of well water, a basket of vegetables, and a cooking knife that looked more like a weapon than like reasonable cutlery. It wasn’t fancy, but neither was he, so he took a fat carrot in his hand and began paring away its dirty skin. When he was done, he chopped it into pieces the size of his thumbnail, then grabbed the next vegetable on the stack — a radish, though an old one by the look of its dry, wrinkled leaves — and gave it the same treatment.
Though he’d stolen many meals in his life directly from gardens, the thought of eating the vegetables before tossing them into the pot barely crossed his mind, and even then he dismissed it as being incivil. Not that such things had mattered before, but he sensed they mattered now.
While he cooked, he looked around the cottage, or what of it there was to see. The single room and its sparse furnishings gave the impression of simplicity, not poverty, and everything was dusty but otherwise clean. Two chairs stood on either side of the fireplace, and a bassinet lay on the floor between them. A series of rough-hewn shelves covered the far wall, half-stocked with clay jars and baskets; on the floor beneath them was a half-cleaned mess of hastily swept potsherds and grains of rice, though that, too, looked as though it hadn’t been tended to in weeks. There were no ornamentations anywhere save above the fireplace, where had been mounted a pair of shang gou, longer even than Gong Ji’s long arms, with shining crescent blades at each handle. Their craftsmanship was amazing, visible even at a distance, and they gleamed in the firelight the same way the man’s sword had reflected the lamplight; they must, Gong Ji calculated idly, have cost a fortune.
After chipping his way through several root vegetables, he gathered the pieces into his hands and dropped them into the pot, careful not to splash himself with the boiling water. He’d made meals well enough from less, of course, but that didn’t mean one shouldn’t always strive for better. It didn’t, however, seem prudent to go rifling through his host’s things without permission, so he cleared his throat in the silence. “Do you have … herbs, or spices, or anything?”
The man nodded in the general direction of the shelves. “Whatever you can find.”
It was more permission than Gong Ji got for most things. A few of the jars on the shelf were marked, but it wasn’t like he could have read them anyway, so he resorted to the time-honoured method of opening every jar and sniffing at its contents. A few were strong-smelling but not what he needed, and he tried not to make a face at the one that smelled downright rotten, but he finally settled on two pungent herbs that seemed all right together, which was how he’d been taught to judge spices — if it smelled like something you wanted to eat, it was probably a safe bet. He tossed a half-fist of each into the pot and knelt on the ground, busying himself stirring the contents with a long wooden spoon.
From over his shoulder, he heard the baby sputter a few times, and turned to look to see it ball its tiny fists and shut its mouth, turning its face away from the milk-filled spoon the man held near its mouth; it sniffled and took a few hitching breaths, and Gong Ji had spent enough of his childhood living with prostitutes to know that sound was the harbinger of torrential sobs. The man, however, kept the spoon of milk steady, pushing diligently at the baby’s lower lip with it even as the baby kept its lips pressed together tightly.
It wasn’t his place to parent, of course, and he hadn’t been around that many babies in his life, but if he had to spend the night in what looked like a two-room cottage with an infant, he didn’t want it to be a squalling one. “You, uh, should probably burp it.”
The man looked at him, puzzled, his face surprised into an actual expression. “I….”
“Here.” Gong Ji put down the spoon over the rim of the pot — the stew needed to go for a little while longer, anyway — and reached for the baby. “Let me do it.”
After a hesitation barely more than a heart’s beat in length, the man leaned forward in his chair and passed the baby down to Gong Ji. He held it carefully but inexpertly, more like a man would pass a bowl filled to the brim with wine, and less like one should hold a newborn, and Gong Ji leaned forward to snatch the baby before its head teetered backward. He must have moved too quickly, though, because he saw the muscles in the man’s arms tense, and his statue’s eyes narrowed dangerously.
The baby, for its own part — his own part, Gong Ji saw clearly, as the loosely bound swaddling slipped open during the handoff — seemed less concerned about the change of handler and more worried about his digestive troubles. “Hey, now,” said Gong Ji, in what he hoped was his most calming voice, settling the baby’s legs on either side of his knee. “No need to fuss. You got fed.” Gong Ji bounced his knee up and down, and the baby bounced with him, slowly unclenching his fists and losing the look of great despair that had twisted his features. “Lucky you, huh?”
There was a moment, then, when the baby looked up at Gong Ji, and even though he knew babies couldn’t really look, not like people did, he would swear up and down to his dying breath that that baby had looked right at him, and fixed him with a gaze of such loving trust and unquestioning adoration that Gong Ji understood precisely why the man had reacted to Gong Ji’s sudden gesture with caution. Nothing in his life, not even the dogs that sometimes followed him after he tossed them scraps, had ever been so entirely at his mercy and yet trusted him completely; even the dogs knew to be cautious around a man who looked like he did, and to run at the slightest shift of his gaze. But the baby stared straight ahead at him and smiled, unafraid, and right then Gong Ji knew that he would kill, without even a moment’s hesitation, anyone who tried to lay a finger on that perfect baby boy.
And then the moment passed, and the baby let out a belch that made the precise sound of a bare foot stepping in pig shit, in the process throwing up what looked like an amazing amount of warm, slightly curdled milk all down the front of Gong Ji’s only shirt.
Gong Ji might have retched in return had his stomach not been so empty; as it was, he managed little more than disgusted noises, turning as head from the smell and closing his eyes, as though not seeing the mess might make it less overwhelming. It didn’t.
The baby, on the other hand, seemed quite pleased by the development, and gurgled happily in Gong Ji’s hands, spitting a little more down his chin with glee. Since it was already fairly well ruined, Gong Ji took the bottom edge of his shirt in his hand and wiped it across the baby’s mouth, hoping there wasn’t anything already on the fabric more disgusting than baby barf. The baby endured this cleaning manfully, then gave Gong Ji a wide smile that turned slowly into an even wider yawn. Gong Ji couldn’t blame him: crying, drinking, and puking really it took it out of a guy.
He was taken a little by surprise when the man reached down to reclaim the baby, as Gong Ji had nearly forgotten that he and the baby weren’t the only two in the room. But no, they were still watched by their imperturbable chaperone, who had barely deigned to smile at Gong Ji’s plight. “You’re lucky you didn’t get it out the other end,” he said, hugging the sleepy infant to his chest. “There’s a clothesline just outside; hang it there, and you can deal with it in the morning.”
The offer to rid himself of the stinky shirt didn’t need to be made twice; Gong Ji peeled off the offending garment and headed for the door. The storm was raging now, dumping buckets of water from the sky, and Gong Ji said his thanks to nature’s free laundress services as he leaned out into the night just far enough to toss the shirt onto the line. As he came back in, shaking the water from his hair, he caught the man’s eyes lingering on his bare upper body, but he did them both the favour of pretending not to notice. He’d been accumulating prisoner’s tattoos on his torso for nine years, and he’d gotten well-used to critical eyes.
Instead, he went back to kneel by the fire, poking at the nearly-done soup with the spoon as the man settled the baby down in the basket. “Hey, uh,” Gong Ji cleared his throat, pointing at the baby with the spoon, “does he have a name?”
“Yi,” the man answered, pulling the scrap of blanket up to the baby’s chin. Yi pushed away the blanket, but his eyes fluttered shut even as he did, and his sleepy protest was half-hearted at best. Satisfied that Yi was as settled down as he was going to get, the man stood and walked to the shelves, taking down two lacquered bowls and setting them by the fire.
“Good name,” said Gong Ji, who didn’t know a good name from a bad one, but figured it was the right thing to say. He picked up one of the bowls and spooned stew into it, then offered it back to the man. “Gong Ji. Is me, I mean. My name. I don’t know if it’s a good name, or not, but it’s what people call me.”
The man took the bowl from Gong Ji’s hands and returned to the chair where he’d been seated earlier. A trail of steam rose from the mouth of the bowl, and he blew across it, dispersing it into the air, then watching as it reformed, ascending in grey, soft lines. “Din,” he said softly, by way of introduction, and said nothing else for the rest of the night.
It was the sandaled foot in his gut that woke him the next morning, but it was Yi’s wailing, which for its their ferocity had somehow failed to penetrate his unconsciousness, that made sure he didn’t go back to sleep. “Wake up,” said foot’s owner, who was already headed for the door. “I’ll be in the forge.”
Gong Ji’s brain first protested that something here didn’t make sense, then amended that assessment to, no, nothing here made sense — not the roof over his head, nor the stone hearth serving as his bed, nor the way his belly was no longer caving in upon itself with hunger, nor the man who’d just rudely woken him and left him in the care of a screaming baby, nor the screaming baby. Especially not the screaming baby. But of all those things, the screaming baby seemed the most imperative.
It didn’t take long for Gong Ji’s nose to discern why, precisely, the baby was screaming. “You’re a foul little bastard,” he said, then looked around nervously to make sure Din hadn’t hung around just long enough to hear him swear at the baby. Fortunately, though — or unfortunately, the more he thought about it — he and Yi appeared to be the only ones in the cottage. And unless he wanted to smell shit and listen to displeased cries all day, Gong Ji reasoned, he’d better do something.
He felt like a tresspasser as he poked his head into the bedroom; seeing the baby’s diaper cloths — identifiable by their telltale staining — folded neatly atop the dresser, he snatched one and exited as quickly as he could, trying to look at as little of the interior as he could get away with seeing. Stealing a man’s goat was one thing, but snooping was entirely another. However, before he slipped out the door again, he couldn’t stop his eyes from brushing over a pair of women’s hair combs and a bed too impractically large for just one person.
All things considered, shit didn’t really bother Gong Ji. It didn’t make his top ten list of beloved things, to be sure, but it didn’t land in the bottom ten either, and he’d spent so much time in his own and other people’s that he’d developed a sort of practical calm about it. He wished he could convey this wisdom to the baby, but Yi was screaming his head off like the world was ending, which was the opposite of listening. So Gong Ji neatly unwrapped Yi’s lower half, giving him a good wipe with one of the clean ends to make sure nothing too unpleasant lingered, and wrapped him up again like a dumpling. Almost immediately, Yi calmed down and began kicking his legs contently, looking around the world with a new optimism unburdened by a soiled diaper.
“So,” said Gong Ji, lifting a now-clean Yi to his bare chest, “what am I going to do with you?” Yi drooled a little, as though that might be an appropriate answer, and Gong Ji shifted him to one arm, picking up the offensive-smelling cloth with his other hand. “Or, really, what am I going to do with this? Want to go dig a hole and see if it grows up to be a diaper tree next spring?”
Yi slobbered a little more, gumming earnestly at the rise of Gong Ji’s shoulderbone beneath his marked skin, and Gong Ji sighed. “If you’re going to keep that up, we’re going to have to think of a system. A little drool means no; a lot means yes. That good by you?” Yi answered in the spit-laden affirmative, and Gong Ji trudged them both outside.
In the dark, Gong Ji had assumed that the area beyond the barn was pastureland at best, but he saw clearly now neat rows of plants out a fair distance, some overgrown, some with vegetables rotting still on their vines. The peach trees beside the house sported several young, hard fruits promising to weigh down the branches soon with their full ripeness. A chicken coop stood beside the barn, with a dozen hens milling aimlessly about. Safely within the pen, the goat watched him with a wary eye.
The diaper went on its merry way down into a trash pit, and Gong Ji lifted Yi’s chubby hand to wave it farewell, which Yi endured dispassionately.
The morning was clear and a little cool, though that was only the dampness the sun would by mid-day turn into an oppressive, wet blanket of air. The heat and humidity would make travel brutal, and Guanyin would complain even more than she usually did. Not a good day for going anywhere.
As he walked back toward the house, Gong Ji heard the sounds of a fire from the barn, which caused him a moment’s worry before it was punctuated with the heavy sounds of a hammer’s striking metal. Parts of his sleep-fogged memory reminded him that the man — Din, right — had said something about forge work. Tucking Yi against his shoulder, Gong Ji pushed open the barn door.
A wall of heat hit his face, and he cringed, instinctively turning the side of his body where he held Yi back toward the cooler outside air. The workshop was dark, windowless and lit only by firelight, and it smelled of smoke and iron. Din stood facing away from the door, his bare back dusted with coal smudges and sweat-soaked. His body was all long, lean muscle, pounding away on a high anvil at a piece of metal that had the general shape and promise of a sword, working so intently that he didn’t even acknowledge his visitor. His dark hair was still fixed up atop his head, but a few long strands had come loose anyway, clinging to his skin, the longest among them stretching down past his shoulder blades.
Gong Ji shut the door as quickly as he’d opened, feeling again as though he were intruding somewhere he didn’t belong.
Din didn’t return to the house until after mid-day, and then only to eat the rice and vegetables Gong Ji had prepared, saying nothing about leaving. Gong Ji smushed a well-boiled, milk-soaked carrot between his fingers and stuck them into Yi’s mouth, and Yi gummed the treat happily. “I could pick some of that eggplant,” he offered, not looking at his host.
“Mm,” nodded Din, placing his chopsticks by his empty bowl and pushing away from the table. “That’d be fine.”
The day was too hot to travel, he thought later as he lifted the remaining unspoilt fruit and placed them in a tall basket as Yi napped in its shade. He’d leave in the evening, after the sun went down, and their lives would go on as though their paths had never crossed.
He’d been branded with his first penal tattoo at the tender age of ten, a cross-shaped mark on the inside of his left forearm to warn the law-abiding citizenry that here was young man who would steal your wares and likely your daughters, and from that moment he had become intimately familar with the attention of strangers. In every town he’d entered, he’d been greeted by more and more stares as his arms, his back, and finally his face accrued the evidence of his misdeeds.
He wasn’t, however, entirely prepared for when those stares came with bright smiles attached. “That’s Din’s boy, isn’t it?” asked the first shopkeeper, pointing to the curious bundle Gong Ji had finally managed to attach to his back, just between his shoulder blades. She hefted her pendulous breasts over her baskets of fruits to admire Yi, apparently not caring that he was being ferried around by a stranger.
“Yeah,” answered Gong Ji. “He is. I’m just,” he grasped for an appropriate description for his situation, and found none, “babysitting, I guess.”
“Well, it’s wonderful to see the child smiling,” she beamed, righting herself and pushing forward a bushel of spotty apples. “Two copper pieces for a dozen.”
Din hadn’t said to get fruit, but he hadn’t said not to get fruit either, and that was its own kind of permission. Still, the quality of the wares remained somewhat suspect. “He doesn’t usually smile?”
“And who could blame him, with his terrible tragedy!” She held one pink hand to her breast and clucked her tongue dramatically. “He’s young yet, but surely that doesn’t keep him from missing his mother. Two copper pieces for a dozen, and I add some kumquats.”
“His mother? What happened to her?” He supposed he’d known intellectually that Yi must’ve had a mother at some point, but her existence — like nearly everything else in the world — was something Din wasn’t talking about. For that matter, he hadn’t even been sure that Yi was Din’s son until the shopkeeper had brought it up. “And two copper pieces is highway robbery, and I should know.”
She clucked her tongue again, but this time with a note of anger. “The baby was barely out into the world before she marched right back to the front lines. And these are the freshest apples in three districts!”
Gong Ji’s eyes widened, surprise having gotten the better of him. “She did what? And come on, lady, I went to prison with men younger than these apples.” The shopkeeper’s answer was to chase him off with her broom, though, depriving Gong Ji of both further explanation and semi-fresh produce. He did his business elsewhere that day, and no one else offered any information, and he didn’t ask.
The first day Gong Ji made it all the way to sundown without thinking about how it was probably time for him to leave was the first day he noticed Din had an accent. It wasn’t much of one, just a little curling of his tongue at the end of some words, but he figured it took Din’s finally saying more than ten words to him for Gong Ji to notice.
Then he remembered how Din had said a fair amount to him while he was standing there with the goat, but excused himself from not noticing then on account of the sheer panic of the situation.
It was after supper one evening, and Gong Ji was stretched out along the floor, a dirty shirt pillowed under his head and Yi sitting upright on his full belly. Yi’s tiny hands were gripped around Gong Ji’s thumbs, and the rest of Gong Ji’s hands were wrapped around the rest of Yi’s wrists, so that whenever Yi lost his balance and started to topple over, nothing ill came of it. Gong Ji taught him one of the rowdier worksongs he’d picked up in prison, and Yi sang along as best as he could, interjecting an energetic if tuneless ‘ba ba ba ba’ here and there for counterpoint, and screaming with laughter every time Gong Ji brought their joined hands together to applaud his own performance.
At a break between verses, right before Yi’s enthusiasm pitched him off his bony mount, Din cleared his throat. “I’m going to re-open my shop in the village tomorrow,” he said, without even looking up from the book in his lap. That long pipe stayed tucked in the corner of his mouth, spilling its sweet smoke out into the room.
Gong Ji stopped, and Yi seemed distressed by this, so Gong Ji clapped their hands together again until he was placated. “…You have a shop?” he asked, thinking back to the times he’d ventured down to the village in the valley. There had been many closed-down shops there, but he had thought nothing of them; war was hard on a country, no matter where you went, no matter how close to or far from the actual battlefield you lived.
“I was a bladesmith.” Din turned a page, the yellowed paper crackling in protest as it shifted. “I can’t work a forge while minding a baby, or keep a store open.”
Yi wriggled one of his fingers out of Gong Ji’s grasp and began chewing on it intently, so Gong Ji sat up and cushioned him a little more carefully against his chest. The way that kid was chewing probably meant teeth were on their way, and Gong Ji wasn’t looking forward to that. You could feed a hungry baby and change a dirty one, but there was nothing to do for a kid cutting teeth. “I was wondering what you were making out there.”
Din made a neutral noise and puffed on his pipe, obviously consdering this comment not worth a real response. Yi had worked nearly his entire fist into his mouth, which was a trick that was sure to make him very popular someday, and as soon as Gong Ji pulled it out, he stuffed it back in again. Well, as long as he didn’t try to gnaw it off, though Gong Ji, who shrugged and let him be. “So, did you make those?” he asked, nodding up to the crossed shang gou mounted above the fireplace.
He thought he saw Din pause for a moment, caught by the question, but it was only for a moment, and his statue’s face remained stone. “I did,” he nodded.
Gong Ji, who had spent many baby-napping hours staring at the blades while he went about the house’s other chores, had been impressed before by their incredible craftsmanship, and now was impressed by proxy at Din’s skill. “Are they yours?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, I know you made them,” Gong Ji said, bouncing Yi on his lap, “but can you use them?”
Din was silent so long that Gong Ji figured that Din neither understood the question nor wanted to ask for clarification again, though Gong Ji was unwilling to push the issue. Adding to his list of similarities to temple statues, Din talked about as much as one, barely to Gong Ji and never to the baby. Gong Ji didn’t know much about child development, and wasn’t sure when babies were supposed to start talking, but he suspected that if Yi had been left entirely in Din’s care, his first word might not have come until his thirtieth birthday.
At last, Din set aside his book and dumped the embers of his pipe in dwindling cookfire, then reached down for his son; Gong Ji let him go, fighting the slight reluctance he always felt when asked to relinquish the baby. Yi, for his own part, handled the transition with little fuss, settling sleepily into his father’s arms. “They’re Yi’s,” said Din at last, looking neither at his son nor his guest, but at the long weapons that caught the room’s little light. “When he’s old enough to have them.”
“Oh,” said Gong Ji stupidly. Deciding he had nothing left to contribute to this exchange, he unrolled the straw mat he’d found stashed in the barn’s loft and settled down along it for the night, turning away from the light and from Din. He’d weeded and pruned nearly the entire garden single-handedly that day, and that kind of work tired a man out.
Try as he might, though, he couldn’t get to sleep, and so he was awake nearly an hour later to hear the sounds of Din’s pulling Yi in his bassinet, and Yi’s giving a few meek protests before settling down. Then came a long pause, in which Gong Ji ached to turn and look but didn’t, where above the occasional crackles of the fire and Yi’s soft snores, he could still hear Din’s breathing, though he couldn’t tell if Din was staring at the baby or at the swords or at something else. Finally, he heard the sound of Din’s retreating footsteps and the shutting of the door between them.
In the silence Din left behind him, Gong Ji resolved to extend his stay until Din got his shop up and running again. But by then, surely, it’d be time to go.
“Come on.” Gong Ji held out a wooden spoon with more warm leek-and-milk mush on the end, tapping it at Yi’s lips. “Oh, come on, you’ve barely eaten anything. You have to eat your vegetables so you can grow up big and strong and punch your enemies in the cock.”
Yi seemed unmoved by the argument, and finally Gong Ji relented, dropping the spoon back into the bowl. “Fine, but don’t come crying to me when you wind up short and funny-looking.” He took a damp rag and wiped it at Yi’s chin, which was plastered with so much uneaten food that Yi looked a bit like an old man with a ragged beard. More had wound up in Yi’s hair, which had been wispy and black when Gong Ji had arrived, but now was starting to grow in thicker and take on a reddish tint. “Hey, you better not barf any of that back up. I’m warning you.”
Yi blew a very deliberate, very defiant spit bubble. Taking this as an outright declaration of war, Gong Ji let out a semi-ferocious war cry and scooped Yi up unto his arms, making monster faces until Yi screamed with laughter. “Rar! I’m the troll-king who lives in the cave under the mountain!” he announced in a booming voice, holding Yi out at arm’s length. “I emerge from my den every night to eat … human babies! Excuse me, sir, but are you a human baby?”
Delighted by the volume and attention, and blissfully unaware of his impending status as a meal, Yi flailed in Gong Ji’s grasp. Gong Ji’s hands were large, though, and he’d spent too much time catching fish with nothing but his bare hands to let that disturb his grip. “You are? Excellent! The troll-king will eat well tonight!” With another exaggerated roar, he brought his mouth down to Yi’s exposed belly, making loud eating sounds while Yi squealed his joy and grabbed large clumps of Gong Ji’s wild hair.
His feast was brought to an abrupt halt by the sound of the door’s opening, and as though on cue, both Gong Ji and Yi fell silent and turned to the figure in the doorway, who was looking at them both with an expression of mild puzzlement. “Ah, we were,” said Gong Ji, resettling Yi on his lap and grabbing for the bowl of mush, “that is, we were just having … well, dinner.”
“Oh.” Din slipped off his travelling boots and hung his wide-brimmed straw hat on a hook by the door. “Your mule’s in the barn. I gave her some straw and greens.”
Gong Ji nodded as he tapped the spoon at Yi’s lower lip; Yi, not having been entirely convinced of the goodness of this concoction, conceded an obedient bite. “Then she’ll be fine. Did she bite and kick all the way there and back?”
Din looked a bit puzzled. “No, she was well-behaved the whole time.”
“Tempermental bitch,” muttered Gong Ji, who had decided that as long as Yi gave no sign of understanding the particulars of spoken language, he wasn’t going to waste any extra brain power holding his tongue. “She likes you, I guess.” He neglected to point out that this may have been because Din was not unlike the guy Gong Ji had stolen Guanyin from.
Din brought the hefty saddlebag that had been slung over his shoulder up to the table, and it made a clattering sound as he set it down. Gong Ji could see the outlines of the various hilts and scabbards bulging against the tan canvas; small wonder Din had elisted Guanyin’s help to get that load down the mountain and back up again. “Maybe she likes honest work.”
“With my luck? She probably does.” Gong Ji poked at the last few pale glops in the bowl, trying to decide how much he was willing to let Yi get away with not eating. “So, uh, how’d it go today?”
“Fine. Slow. Didn’t sell anything, didn’t expect to.” Taking his seat from the fire to the table, Din lifted the top of the pair of lacquered bowls stacked there lip-to-lip, revealing a pile of completely un-mushed leeks and red peppers over a bed of rice. The vegetable vendor had suggested combining the two, and Gong Ji had found it a most successful experiment. “Just as long as word spreads.” He lifted the black chopsticks Gong Ji had left beside them and began mixing the bowl’s contents together, then sat down to eat in silence.
And that, to Gong Ji’s great dismay, was the end of the conversation for the evening — no comments on the quality of the meal, encouraging or discouraging; no further information about what had transpired that day in the village, the people he’d met, whether or not they’d been glad to see him again; and, most disquieting to Gong Ji’s estimation, no questions about how Yi had been in Din’s absence. While he knew he’d been around probably long enough to trust without an accounting of every minute, it occured to Gong Ji that Din had never asked him how Yi was doing. In fact, Din didn’t interact with Yi much at all; oh, he attended to things when Yi was fussy and Gong Ji was literally elbows-deep in some other project, and he spent time in the evenings watching quietly over the top of his book as Gong Ji kept Yi entertained, but he never asked for any information Gong Ji didn’t volunteer, and he always talked about Yi, never to him.
He started to crawl today, Gong Ji wanted to say, but he held his tongue, and he turns his head when I call his name, and sometimes he fusses about cutting his teeth, so I soak my finger in a little rice wine and let him gnaw on that for a while, and I don’t know if that’s what you’re supposed to do but it’s what I’d want if I had a toothache like his, and he claps his hands when we go on walks and he sees birds, and whatever I say ‘no’ to he just wants to do that much more, and I know you’re not exactly the most talkative guy in the world, but he’s your son, for fuck’s sake, don’t you care? Even at all?
But he kept silent about this, and instead sang a song to Yi about the king’s three daughters who gathered the moon from the surface of the river and used it to weave their wedding robes, until Yi fell asleep in his arms. Not long after, Din rose quietly from the table and disappeared into his bedroom without so much as a good-night.
That night, as he lay back on the floor, staring at the starry sky through the wooden slats over the window, Gong Ji thought of the garden, and how everything was still growing, and how Din wouldn’t be able to pick all the vegetables and mind a shop by himself. He’d leave after the harvest was done, he decided quietly. That would be best for everyone.
“Anyway, the doctor said he was fine.” Gong Ji patted white cream onto either side of Yi’s cheeks, which had chapped in such a way as to give him the appearance of having a very full, bright red beard; Yi, sleepy and full from dinner, endured this patiently. “He just gave me this to put on a couple times a day. Told me to tell you he’d just put it on your tab.” Satisfied that Yi had been appropriately greased, he wiped his fingers on his pants and set the cork back in the neck of the bottle. “Mentioned that he’d patched you and … patched you up a few times before.”
Smoke rose in even bursts from his pipe as Din dragged a small knife methodically up and down a whetstone, honing its edge. “Are you talking to me?”
“…I don’t know, are you listening?” Gong Ji sniffed at his oily fingers, frowning at the pungent aloe smell. “You know that guy at the market with all the vegetables, that Lau guy? He’s a real cockbiter.”
Din paused and raised an eyebrow in Gong Ji’s general direction. “A what?”
Gong Ji pulled a blanket over Yi’s toes. “Cockbiter. You know, you put your cock in his mouth, he’d bite it. He’s that kind of guy. What is it with this town and all these people trying to sell me rotten produce? Like he thinks I’m too dumb to know good greens from spoiled ones. Like he doesn’t even care about what other people are doing. Which brings me back to my original point about cocks, and biting.”
By this point, Din had actually put down his work entirely, and was simply leaning back in his chair, looking at Gong Ji with an expression as close to disbelief as Gong Ji had ever seen him. “An interesting correlation,” he admitted, tendrils of smoke trailing from his lips as he spoke.
“I mean,” Gong Ji continued, having reached the dangerous middle ground between caring what words came out of his mouth and just talking for the sake of talking, “if you find someone’s cock in your mouth, do you bite it? No. And you don’t try to charge a guy five copper pieces for a bundle of limp spinach that’s not worth two, maybe, if I squint.”
“Mostly because I’m not a spinach vendor.”
“Well, if you were, even. Do I look like a guy who’s made of money? Drag the coins out of somebody who doesn’t have a baby to feed.” Gong Ji placed his hand on Yi’s arm, and Yi, who had drifted off to sleep somewhere in the course of the conversation, wrapped his fingers reflexively around Gong Ji’s thumb.
Din picked up the knife again, perching the pipe in the corner of his mouth. “He’s got six of his own.”
That gave Gong Ji pause, enough that he actually felt guilty for a moment about how much time he’d spent yelling at the guy earlier that day. It was weird, being in a place where people knew not just one another’s names, but one another’s lives; where everyone wasn’t just a bunch of strangers you could fuck over and never see again. “Still,” he muttered, “it doesn’t mean he has to gouge us.”
“By a copper.”
“By three.” Gong Ji held up the appropriate number of fingers for emphasis, then sighed, stretching out along the bare floor, leaving one hand within Yi’s easy reach. “Yeah, I get it, I’m an asshole for being stingy with a guy who’s just trying to feed his kids too. But hey, I’ve been an asshole ever since I can remember, and when it comes right down to it, do I look like I’m losing sleep over it?”
“Not unless losing sleep’s what makes you look like a half-plucked rooster,” observed Din drily.
Gong Ji blinked up at him, taken aback less by the sentiment and more by how Din had actually been bothered to voice it. “Okay, who’s the asshole here now?”
Din brought the blade close to his face, examining its edge as it reflected back the firelight. “Well,” he said as he found in it some flaw worth returning it to the grinding stone, “maybe we at least have that in common.”
The soldiers looked like bugs from that far away, little green beetles with pikes that had learned to travel in formation. The sky rolled clear above as they marched westward into the afternoon sun, toward the ever-encroaching front of Imperial conquest.
Gong Ji stood at the top of the hill and watched as Yi slept on, tied to the small of Gong Ji’s back by a length of cloth he’d picked up at the market. On shopping days, Din always left far more money than was necessary in a little pouch by the door, and he never counted the change nor asked Gong Ji for any accounting of what he’d bought. He also left little shopping lists on scraps of paper, and Gong Ji, who knew how to read at most two dozen characters, had taken to handing the list to the shopkeepers and asking, “Do you have anything on here?” If any merchant had cheated them yet, neither Gong Ji nor Din was the wiser.
Soft footsteps approached behind him, slow and light compared to the heavy, metered tread Gong Ji could imagine on the road below, and Din stepped up until his toes were in line with Gong Ji’s, just at the edge of where the hill began to slope sharply downward. He was dressed neatly, having set out early that morning to attend to his shop, but to Gong Ji’s surprise, he had returned without comment about mid-day. An hour later, the first martial edge of the long green line before them now had appeared.
“Good riddance,” Gong Ji said, watching them go.
From the corner of his eye, he could see Din’s gaze fixed straight ahead, toward the horizon. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, the more soldiers there are out there, the less there are here. They can go bother women and scare children and harass the elderly and demand food in the name of the crown elsewhere.” Gong Ji bent carefully and picked up the basket of string beans he’d been collecting earlier, setting off back toward the garden. To his surprise, Din followed him. “I mean, you know, I’ve been all over. I’ve seen a lot of places affected by the war. I’ve even lived on both sides of the occupation lines, and they start to look the same after a while.”
He couldn’t see Din anymore, but he could hear the edge to his voice as he asked, “You think there’s no difference?”
Gong Ji sighed and placed the basket on the ground near the garden’s edge. “No, I know there’s no difference. At least, not to me.” He knelt down at the closest row of beans, plucking the full-grown ones from the vines and hoping the rest of summer would be enough incentive for the smaller ones to grow strong. “It doesn’t mean a thing to me who’s in charge, our guys or the Imperials, because either way, I’m the guy stealing goats. Everything looks the same from the bottom.”
Din produced a small knife from his pocket and proceeded to trim dead leaves from the tallest plants. He looked ridiculous doing that, Gong Ji thought, not dressed for working in the sun at all. “I mean,” Gong Ji continued, accustomed after living this long with Din and Yi to holding up both sides of any conversation on his own, “I’ve seen what fighting this war has done to the country, and it’s by and large worse on this side than it is in the towns the Imperials have already taken over, and the only way I can tell their soldiers from ours is by the uniforms, and I hear they’ve got nice things and technology over there, so … really, why are we resisting again?”
“There is meaning in the struggle for freedom,” Din said, severing an entire withered vine and tossing it toward the goat-pen.
Gong Ji laughed sharply and shook his head. “Our guys throw me in jail same as their guys do.”
Din, true to form, was quiet for a long time, but when Gong Ji raised his head to look at him, he was surprised to find Din looking right back, his sharp gaze searching Gong Ji’s face as though for the first time. The wind blew loose strands of his long hair across his face. “When a man dies,” he said, his sage statue’s voice even, “he should go to his grave knowing that for the length of his life, he was his own and only master. Of anyone, you should know the truth of this, even in a jail cell.”
“Yeah,” said Gong Ji, checking the knot at his waist to make sure Yi wasn’t about to slip free and go tumbling into the dirt, “I do. And what I’m saying is, I am my own master, no matter who’s running the show. And from where I’m sitting, the view doesn’t change.”
“That’s because you’re sitting.” Din tapped the ground with the toe of his sandal. “You haven’t found anything to stand for.”
“So I can get my dumb ass killed? No, thank you.” Satisfied that he’d cleaned the available plants of ripe beans, Gong Ji stood, setting the basket by the garden fence. “Men like me? We’re rats. I was born in the Year of the Rat, I’ll live a rat, and I’ll die a rat, and until then, I don’t really care whose garbage I live off of.”
Din sheathed his knife in his belt, and his expression looked harder than any Gong Ji had seen him wear before, to the point where Gong Ji wondered if he had actually managed to piss him off. Well, good, Gong Ji thought, because even anger was better than nothing at all, and he’d rather be burned than frozen.
But when Din spoke again, his voice was as quiet and calm as ever: “Not everything worth standing for is a cause. Sometimes it’s just a person. Sometimes it’s a bean patch. Anything that means you’re giving instead of taking.”
“Which is nice when you have something to give,” Gong Ji snapped back, a little harsher than he’d intended, “but I don’t.”
“Have it your way.” Din shrugged loosely, though his jaw was still set tight. “Roosters crow obnoxiously, but even chickens lay eggs. Baby needs a bath.”
The master of the abrupt change of subject had spoken, and Gong Ji was content to let the argument end there for now. “Come on, Stinky!” he announced over his shoulder to Yi, who was squirming against his back in the manner of someone just waking up. “That’s right, Stinky. That’s you.”
Yi responded to this allegation with a rousing chorus of babble, and Gong Ji headed off toward the house without giving Din a second glance. Even rats knew not to dignify the people who’d kicked them with a response. “Come on,” he said, loud enough to be heard, “we’ll clean you up nice and noble like your real dad.”
He walked around to the westward side of the house, where a wide tub atop a stone slab awaited them. “It’s bathtime!” he anounced, unbundling Yi. He’d drawn bath water earlier that morning, and the late summer sun had warmed both water and air comfortably. Gong Ji put down Yi just long enough to strip out of his own clothes, then settled them both down into the tub. “We’ll get you clean, and then we’ll get your dad to teach you everything he knows about being proper and meaningful and honourable, because you sure don’t want to learn it from me.” He scooped water over Yi’s head with a small cup, and Yi patted his palms against his wet head delightedly.
“Yeah, we’ll get him to teach you how to be a good fighter, too,” Gong Ji continued, barely aware that he was speaking out loud now. Yi was such a good listener that Gong Ji had fallen into the habit of voicing all his thoughts when they were alone together. “A real bruiser, huh? You gonna be a real bruiser?” He took a little soap between his fingers and began to rub at Yi’s wild hair. “And make sure he teaches you how to read, so you don’t grow up an idiot like me who can’t even write his own name.”
Yi blew a spit bubble, and Gong Ji wiped it away with the back of his hand. “And so you can marry a lady like your momma. Who must’ve been gorgeous, just look at you.” He poked Yi’s nose with the damp tip of his index finger, and Yi laughed. “Yeah, I said look at you, that’s right. That’s right! Grow up to be all handsome like your mom and dad, and not like this ugly, skinny old rooster who’s only good for the stew-pot!”
From the corner of his eye, he thought he saw a shadow move through the high summer grass, but when he turned to look, there was nothing there but sunlight.
His first thought when the door crashed open was that he’d somehow left it unlatched and the night wind had blown it in, but then came the footsteps and he knew otherwise.
Gong Ji had presumed they were safe up there, so far away from everything else, even though he’d known that was a stupid thing to think, since he’d made his way up the hill, after all; but he’d never assumed that his own plans made great sense, and thus never expected them to be emulated. In the dark now, he could see at least four, maybe more, storming their way into the house, not even bothering with stealth.
Weighted down by having been wrenched from a deep sleep, Gong Ji took just a second too long to scramble for his sword, and in that second they were inside, storming toward him, storming toward Yi–
That last thought jerked him fully into consciousness, and he leapt forward with a shout, kicking Yi’s bassinet as far to the other side of the room as he could without toppline it over and placing himself between the men and the baby. Shocked from sleep, Yi began to wail with confusion. They were large men, most of them nearly twice his size and armed like bandits, and he was wearing only his most ragged nightclothes and brandishing a rusted old sword he’d picked up from the corpse of an Imperial soldier, and he had the sudden, crystaline thought: I am going to die where I stand.
It was followed, however, by a second, even clearer realization: they’ll kill Yi next.
Fueled by nothing more rational than pure adrenaline, Gong Ji roared again, hoping he might appear more menacing by volume than by weight. He swung his sword at them, stabbing it at the closest man, and he managed to score a glancing blow against the man’s shoulder. His companions rounded on Gong Ji, though, and when he brought up his sword to defend against a heavy axe blow, the blade bent sharply. A heavy fist followed the axe’s lead, and it smashed into Gong Ji’s stomach, sending him staggering backward and gasping for air. The largest man stood above him and laughed, his voice loud enough to rattle the house’s walls, and readied a blow Gong Ji knew would be the end of him.
It never fell. Instead, there was a flash of silver through the air, and the man’s laughter stopped as his head rolled forward, his body following it a minute later. The other intruders reeled in confusion, but turned quickly from Gong Ji’s prone figure to the white-clad form of their attacker.
Din held the sword Gong Ji had seen on his first night here, only not as a maker, but as a warrior, charging forward with incredible speed. The tight quarters of the house suited him well, as he dodged one blow and then another, rounding on the intruders until they very nearly struck one another in the confusion. One of them scrambled toward the door, but Din was too quick, and the man fell backward, dead before he reached the ground. Another, armed with a polearm of awkward dimensions, barely had time to launch his attach before Din slipped in beneath his defenses, plunging his sword through the man’s gut and withdrawing almost in a single motion.
Gong Ji had seen sword masters fight before, both for exhibition and in sincerity, and had seen their detached calm as they weilded their blades, reserving behind every stroke the kind of statue-like intelligence that was Din’s constant companion. Yet he no longer looked like a temple statue, but like a madman, his long hair loose and ragged, his white pajamas stained with dark blood, his teeth bared and clenched. Pure fury tensed his every muscle and guided his every step.
The last of them pulled a pair of butterfly swords, but barely had time to ready his stance before Din was upon him, aiming straight for his vitals. The man caught and twisted Din’s sword, trying to wrench it from his grasp, but Din twisted his body with it, using his sword instead to disarm the man; knife now in his own hand, Din came up from beneath the man’s chin and drove the blade upward with stunning force, holding it steady until he saw the light fade from the man’s eyes. The man slumped forward, and Din tossed him to the floor, not even bothering to remove the blade.
Gong Ji tried to say something, but his breath had not yet returned to his lungs, and anyway, Din looked to have no mind for him. He dropped his sword with a heavy clatter and crossed the room to where Yi’s bassinet had come to rest against the wall, no worse for wear. Din reached inside and drew a squalling Yi out with both hands, holding the screaming baby to his chest so tightly that Gong Ji could see the muscles in Din’s hands clench.
Though coughing pained him, Gong Ji forced himself until his lungs consented to work again. “Sorry,” was the first word he managed, “Din, I’m sorry, they just — and I didn’t — and there wasn’t any time–”
As though he hadn’t said a thing, Din turned and started for the bedroom door, stepping over two of the bodies and kicking aside Gong Ji’s twisted sword. Before Gong Ji could even pull himself to his feet, the door had slammed shut between them, muffling Yi’s wails.
That was a real father’s prerogative, Gong Ji supposed, to take his own son and retreat with him, and leave the imposter who couldn’t even protect a single baby out with the corpses. Gong Ji grabbed the ankles of the intruder closest to the door and began hauling him outside, at least to the middle of the road where they could be dealt with in the morning. Dead men, in his experience, were no easier to move than live men, but at least they complained less.
He made the trip from the house to the growing pile of corpses four more times, three times for bodies and once for a head, leaving dark trails to mark his path. Entering the house again when all removal had been completed, he pondered the deep bloodstains. They’d have to be cleaned up in the morning, of course, and that would be his job, to clean, because it wasn’t as if he was part of the family, because it wasn’t as if he belonged there anyway. He was just a hired vagabond who’d overstayed his welcome, and no one cared if he stayed or went, so long as he earned his keep while he was around.
Gong Ji put his ear to the bedroom door and heard nothing but faint sniffling, and even that grew quieter with each passing moment. It was good, then, that the boy had his real father to comfort him. Good that his real father cared enough about him to worry when he was nearly killed by bandits. Good they had each other.
Exhausted and sick with the copper smell of blood, Gong Ji lay down where he stood and cried himself to sleep, which he couldn’t remember having done since he was a boy. When he woke the next morning, Yi was babbling quietly in his bassinet, playing intently with his toes, and the sound of hammering from the forge was loud enough to be heard all the way inside the house.
The sun was warm that afternoon, the first dry day after two weeks of heavy rain, and Gong Ji had taken the break in the clouds as an opportunity to mend several cracks in the walls and roof which the rains had made apparent. If the weather held, he’d make a trip to the market tomorrow, but repairs were more important; a man could make a journey in a downpour, but he couldn’t patch a leak in one.
And then, if it held a third day, he’d leave. Din had barely said ten words total to him since the night the bandits had broken in, and had taken to disappearing to the forge first thing in the morning and keeping the fires going late into the evenings, sending the heavy black smoke upward into the rain-soaked air. He’d answered what few questions Gong Ji had presented with wordless grunts, and Gong Ji had eventually stopped asking, and then had stopped even talking to Yi, who’d spent most of his time awake crying over the weather or his new teeth anyway. They’d made a pretty miserable lot, the three of them.
At least the change in the weather had placated Yi somewhat, and he napped in the sunlight at Gong Ji’s feet, saved from the surrounding mud by the oasis of his bassinet. Gong Ji slapped the plasterer’s clay against the side of the house, giving little care to the artistry of the task. He’d never been one for appearances anyway, and figured it less important what a house looked like and more important whether it kept the rain out.
“Here,” said Din from behind him, and Gong Ji was so startled that he dropped the spade back into the bucket of plaster, which splattered the sleeping Yi with tiny white dots. In his outstretched hand, Din held two weapons, long copper-coloured poles each about the length of Din’s arm. They came to sharp points at one end, and just below that point on one side sprouted little hooks the shape of a chicken’s claw; just below them on the other side of the pole was a little hooked spur; over the hand grips were moon-spade blades. Gong Ji had never seen anything quite like them. “Here,” said Din again, extending them further.
“What?” Because he wasn’t entirely stupid, Gong Ji wiped the plaster from his hands before reaching for the weapons’ handles, which were wrapped tightly with a soft red cord. Din let go of the weapons, and Gong Ji had to step forward to balance their unexpected weight. “What are…?”
“The sword you had was disgraceful.” Din folded his hands in the sleeves of the long, light shirt he often wore after he’d been doing forge work. “Imperial craftsmen only care about putting any sharp thing into the hands of their warrior-sons. Their blades can only conquer; they cannot protect. Besides, you don’t even know how to use it.”
Gong Ji half-extended his arms, and was amazed at how well-weighted the weapons felt. “…Wait, are these for me?”
“Have you ever used dual weapons before?” Gong Ji, who didn’t think the few times he’d managed to steal pointy objects with both hands actually counted, shook his head, and Din nodded. “Let me see them again.”
Gong Ji handed back the blades with a certainty that he did not understand what exactly was going on here, and Din took one in each hand. “Like this,” said Din, and drew himself into a fighting stance, balancing on a single foot while he extended his arms at either side. “Not two weapons, but one with two halves.” He lunged forward, crossing his arms across his chest and pointing each claw inward at an imaginary opponent. “Therefore your body must become part of the weapon, forming the bridge that connects the blades.” With a fierce exhalation of breath, he pulled his arms sharply apart, ripping the invisible target in two.
The wind rustled the leaves as Din held the stance for a moment longer, then returned to a standing pose, the blades crossed low in front of his body, his head bowed. He looked so calm, nothing about his body language giving any hint that this might be the same man who had ripped through the house that evening, teeming with rage. Broad-shouldered and severe, Din became the boddhisatva statue again, filled with a deadly compassion that flowed outward from his arms into the long hooks.
At last, he gathered the weapons in a single hand and gave them to Gong Ji, who wrapped his fingers around the grips, feeling the warmth of where Din had held fast only a moment before. The rich copper blades gleamed warm in the sunlight, so exquisitely well-crafted that Gong Ji knew they could have fetched a price on the market more than his life was worth. “…Thank you,” he said, because everything else seemed trite.
Din shrugged and turned back to the forge. “Doesn’t matter if you’ve got something to protect if you don’t have anything to protect it with.” He walked off without looking back, his shuffling steps soft in the dry afternoon.
Steam rose from the heated bath water into the crisp air as Gong Ji dipped his toes in. “That’s about right,” he told Yi, settling into the tub and dipping Yi into the warm water up to his waist. Even in just the few months he’d been there, Yi had nearly doubled in size, to the point where the small bathing tub was getting a little cramped.
Gong Ji let go of Yi, who was sitting up on his own now. “Now, where was I?” he asked, somewhat rhetorically, as he rubbed the soap over Yi’s head. “Okay, Wu Tien Bao died, but the next night, he came back in a dream to a friend of his, as a ghost.” Yi squirmed as Gong Ji’s fingers wetted his thick brown hair, grown nearly as thick and wild as Gong Ji’s. “And he said to his friend, even though they killed me unjustly, the gods of the underworld have made me the Rabbit God!” Gong Ji made rabbit-ears over his own head with his hands, and Yi laughed at the spectacle. “Hooray! It’s the Rabbit God!”
“Isn’t he a little young for those stories?” asked Din, stepping around from behind the house. He’d always seemed a sneaky person by nature, but over the last several weeks had taken particularly to appearing from nowhere, more than once scaring Gong Ji good and proper while his attention was fixed elsewhere.
“You’re never too young for the classics,” answered Gong Ji, pleased that he hadn’t so much as flinched with surprise this time. “Close your eyes!” He demonstrated what he wanted from Yi, who neither understood nor complied, so Gong Ji created an awning with his hand as he dumped water over Yi’s head, doing his best to keep the soap from Yi’s eyes. “Okay, so maybe you’re a little young.”
“Nung nung,” answered Yi, who lifted his hands to either side of his wet head as though in great despair. “Nung nung eg eg eg.”
Gong Ji clapped his hands over his mouth in an exaggerated gesture of surprise. “You don’t say!” he exclaimed, and Yi burst into a giggling fit, shrieking with laughter and splashing water everywhere.
There was a large, mostly flat boulder by the tub, and Din sat down on top of it, crossing his legs under him. “How do you know what he’s saying?” he asked, resting his elbows on his knees.
“I don’t,” Gong Ji admitted. “Nope! Not a word!” He poked Yi in the belly, and Yi erupted again in spasms of pure delight. “Of course, you probably don’t understand a word I’m saying, but I don’t hold it against you!”
At just the edge of his vision, Gong Ji thought he saw the corner of Din’s mouth budge into a smile, though he didn’t turn to look, because he knew that if he did, it would surley cease to exist. So instead he scrubbed Yi up and down, washing off the layers of accumulated baby filth, until he heard Din ask, “Why does it say ‘this man stole seven sheep in Yan Province’ on the back of your shoulder?”
Gong Ji twisted around, grabbing at his shoulder to see the marks inked there, even though the characters meant as little to him now as they had every time he’d seen them before. “Son of a bitch, is that what it says?” Din gave a little nod, and Gong Ji rolled his eyes. “It was twelve, and a lamb! What, are they trying to take my sheep-stealing reputation from me now?” He turned back to Yi. “They say I only stole seven sheep!”
“Eep!” echoed Yi, enjoying what little of the word he could manage to say.
“Sheep!” said Gong Ji again, with the same didactic intensity.
“Eep!” Yi clapped his hands again, enjoying this game tremendously.
“Yeah, that’s close enough for a little squirt. Now close your eyes.” Gong Ji dumped another cupful of mostly soapy water over Yi’s head, then placed him bare onto the clean cloth waiting in the bassinet beside the tub. Yi looked ready to fuss, but Gong Ji tucked the blankets over his damp limbs so he wouldn’t be cold. “Look, I’m filthy too, so you’ll just have to hold your horses. Or your sheep.”
“Eep eep eep.” Yi squirmed in his bassinet, which was just about too small for him by now.
Din, who had brought his chin to rest in the cupped palm of his hand, watched and made no move to help. “What about your face?”
Feeling a little self-conscious about it for the first time in a long time, Gong Ji ran his damp fingers over his cheek, tracing the almost-imperceptible rise in the skin where his jailers had marked him with the same red clay characters all his fellow work-prisoners had worn. “Spent a year building an army tunnel though a mountain,” he said, reaching for the soap and starting in on the truly disgusting appendages that were his feet. “Didn’t want any of us getting away. Those of us that lived got let go when it was done.”
“For stealing those sheep?” asked Din, who’d barely asked Gong Ji so much as what he wanted for dinner before this.
Gong Ji shook his head, then bent it forward, dumping the rapidly cooling bathwater over his hair. “Stopping one of our own soldier boys from raping a little girl.” He lathered up his palms with soap, then worked the thin foam through. “So he said I assaulted him, and his commander took his word over the word of a skinny kid with a dozen other brands, and I learned how to use a pickaxe.”
With his eyes closed against the soap in a manner he hoped one day to get Yi to emulate, Gong Ji neither saw any response Din made nor heard him rise from where he sat. However, he felt the surface of the water’s being disturbed, and might have jerked himself upright were it not for a hand at the back of his neck and Din’s telling him, “Keep your eyes shut.”
Something of an expert at doing what he was told when the need arose, Gong Ji did just that, and he felt water cascading over his head three times before the cup splashed back into the tub with him. Gong Ji raked his fingers through his hair as he sat upright, pushing away remnants of the dampness, in time to see Din folding his shirt atop the rock where he’d been sitting. His back was strong and lean, his muscles quietly rippling beneath the surface of every move he made. It was just like the rest of Din, really, hidden away beneath layers of inaccessibility, ever-present but unreachable.
With a sigh, Gong Ji got out of the tub and shook out his hair, letting the chill breeze dry the rest of the water from his skin. He picked up Yi from the bassinet and held him to his chest, where Yi grabbed at the long, wet strands of Gong Ji’s hair and tugged. “It’s just something that happens. Soldiers and bullies.” He winced as Yi caught a particularly tender chunk, and tried to free it from the baby’s tight grip. “You know what I’m talking about, right?”
Din stopped in the middle of unfastening the knot of his pants, his expression as unreadable as ever. “What do you mean?”
“Well, it’s just….” Gong Ji switched Yi to his other shoulder, where Yi just as intently went about the business of yanking Gong Ji’s hair from his head. “You came back early that day the soldiers came by. Makes me think you didn’t want to see them. Or them to see you.” Gong Ji frowned, trying to choose his words carefully, then decided careful had never been his strong suit, and just said out loud what he was thinking: “Is it because of your wife?”
Din slipped out of his pants and into the tub, not even sparing Gong Ji a glance. “Water’s gone cold,” he observed as he sat down in the murky bath, rubbing the soap over the backs of his arms. And, with that, the conversation was at an end.
As he tugged his pants back up around his waist, the barmaid — whose name he’d already forgotten, if he’d ever known it — ran her fingers through her wild hair, pulling it back into a loose twist. She seemed in no hurry to cover her exposed body, nor to leave the storage room where they’d found a moment away from the crowd. “So what’s it like, living with the crazy man?”
Gong Ji frowned at her, unaccustomed as he was to any arrangement where ‘the crazy man’ did not refer specifically to him. “…What, Din? He’s not so crazy.”
That made her laugh out loud. “Your definition of ‘crazy’ must be different from most people’s.”
It was a fair assessment, and Gong Ji didn’t argue. “I don’t know. He’s quiet. Kind of a lonely guy, I guess.”
She shrugged at him, smoothing out her skirts. She was an older lady, heavyset and big-breasted, probably old enough to be his mother; but if there was one thing Gong Ji had learned growing up among whores, it was that the smart choice was always the one like her you found in every establishment, the one that grinned when she met your eye like she could teach a young buck like you a thing or two, because she probably could. “Well,” she said, watching Gong Ji’s body as he sorted out his buttons, “I guess you can’t blame him, after losing his wife.”
“Yeah, he doesn’t talk about her at all.” Gong Ji pulled his shirt on over his body, scratching at his scalp as his head popped free. “She was some kind of soldier, I hear?”
“Some kind of soldier is right. You ever heard of General Jiang-Wei of the Hooks?” she asked, and Gong Ji shook his head. “Well, that was her. They moved in to the land on top of that hill about three years ago, and he kept his shop and made weapons for the army. They say fighting broke out near her hometown last winter, almost a year ago, but by then the roads were covered with snow from an early blizzard and her belly was too huge to let her travel, much less fight.”
Gong Ji sat down on a crate as he re-laced his sandals. “He’s never said anything about this.”
“Well, I’m not saying it’s true or it’s not. But I keep my ears open around here.” She gave another tug at her hair, and Gong Ji could see a few early silver strands shine in the lamplight. She was still beautiful, but she was also growing old, and this kind of life didn’t make you any younger. “As soon as the roads cleared in early spring, she was gone. A royal messenger arrived a month later, carrying her weapons.”
With a deep breath, Gong Ji raked his fingers back through his own unkempt hair, pointedly not thinking about the look Din had given him when he’d said he was going out for the evening, the same damned stone stare it seemed he wore every time he even bothered to look Gong Ji in the eye. “I guess he really loved her, or something,” he said, and the words were heavy as they came out of his mouth, and left a bitter taste.
She nodded and pinned her hair back with a small comb, then began to fasten her own clothing more modestly about her body. “It was so romantic, seeing the two of them walking down the streets together. Lots of people thought he’d probably die up there without her. And then one day he was back, in his shop, like nothing ever happened.”
Gong Ji picked up his coat from where he’d left it over the back of the another stack of boxes. It was a new coat, not just new to him but actually new; Din had brought it home one day, just before the weather had turned, saying that it wouldn’t do to have Gong Ji freeze to death while doing his chores and all Din’s old ones would be too short in the arms anyway. It had been the first new piece of clothing he’d worn in as long as he could remember. “I don’t know,” he said honestly, feeling a knot he couldn’t identify settle in his stomach. “I never know what he’s thinking. Only safe bet is, it’s not about me.”
“Mm,” she said in that tone of voice a person could take so he couldn’t tell if they were agreeing with him or not. She took his hand, pulling him down so she could plant a parting kiss on his warm mouth. “Come back, we’ll do this again, any time.”
“Thanks.” He gave her a kiss in return before tucking his hands safe into his sleeves and setting out into the night. The old men in the village talked hopefully about how this winter was going to be a mild one, judging by their relative lack of aches and pains, to say nothing of how the new year was nearly upon them and there hadn’t yet been more than an inch of snow; but the evenings still carried a chill that cut through like a knife.
Bundled up tight and perched on Gong Ji’s shoulders, Yi watched the festival with awe, staring intently at every spinning sparkler and red lantern they passed as they walked through the crowd. He squirmed to get a better look at everything and laughed at every new sight, so much so that even Gong Ji, who thought himself far too old and jaded by now to be impressed by silly things like New Year’s celebrations, felt full of wonder. The Year of the Eep, as Gong Ji had taken to calling it, was drawing to a close, and all the monkey masks on the village children announced what year would follow.
Beside him walked Din, tucked inside his heavy grey winter coat, steam puffing from his mouth into the frozen air. He’d said nothing when Gong Ji had announced his intention to bring Yi to the village for the celebration, and had answered in the negative earlier that day when a customer had asked him if he planned to stay past sundown. Yet here he was, a quiet shadow, following along without comment.
Gong Ji pulled off a tiny, flaky piece of his roasted fish with his fingers, careful to avoid scales or bone, and when he felt it had cooled enough, raised it above his head. “It’s food, you can eat it,” he told Yi, and felt Yi’s warm, wet mouth close around his fingers. “Hey, eat the fish, not me! I haven’t been properly cooked!”
Yi laughed as a gold paper dragon on long sticks whirled its way through the street, though he began to cry when a firecracker dangling from its teeth snapped a little too close to his ear. “Hey, it’s okay,” said Gong Ji, taking Yi from his shoulders and bring him close to his chest. “See? Nothing to be scared about.” Apologetically, the puppeteer brought the dragon’s tail within reach of Yi’s hand, and Yi seemed placated by how the shiny serpent crinkled under his touch.
“Your son’s so cute!” exclaimed a flower vendor, draped from head to toe with her greenhouse wares. She looked a little younger than Gong Ji, and her brown eyes sparkled. “Aren’t you just the cutest thing? You look just like your dada!”
It took Gong Ji a moment to realize she was talking to him, and a moment more for his mind to work through why what she’d said sounded wrong. But before he could say anything, Yi echoed an enthusiastic, “Dada!” and fisted his hands in Gong Ji’s coat.
Gong Ji couldn’t recall having felt so totally at sea before in his life, and instead of being as excited as he knew he should probably be about Yi’s first word, he stammered and looked at Din — whose face, damn him, was completely unchanged. “Oh, I’m — well, uh, that’s his dad right there, I’m just the….” He let the sentence trail into nothing, as-yet unable to find an appropriate word to describe exactly what he was just the.
“Oh, I’m so sorry!” Her pretty cheeks lit up pink in the lamplight as she looked from Yi to Din to Gong Ji and back to Yi again. “I just thought — oh, but I can see the resemblance now!”
“Dada dada dada,” repeated Yi, apparently happy to find that human language did have a word for that man who hung around him all the time and fed him and took care of him. Well, at least this was working out for him.
Din just reached into his pocket for his money pouch. “Two peach blossoms, please,” he said, folding a pair of copper coins into the girl’s hand; once she’d plucked what looked to be the two largest sprigs of the pink blossoms from her bunches, she wished them both good fortune and disappeared into the night. After regarding the flowers for a moment, Din handed one cluster to Gong Ji.
“Thanks,” said Gong Ji, tucking it into the collar of his coat so Yi — who had mercifully been distracted from his awkward new word by a procession of bells and lanterns — didn’t get the idea that this, too, was food. “I’m, uh, well, he’s just a kid, so it doesn’t really–”
“He can call you whatever he wants,” said Din, the warm red light playing off his stone features as he stared straight ahead at the parade. Gong Ji felt a wave of nausea and swore again, this time for sure, that just as soon as the nights warmed enough that a man on the road wouldn’t freeze to death in them, he’d go, he’d go.
The three of them stood there in the bitter winter evening, watching the elaborately dressed performers spin and leap their way into the New Year.
The elderly prognosticators had been correct for a time, and the start of winter had been mild enough. Just after Yi’s first birthday, though, a blizzard came through, dumping snow nearly as high as Gong Ji’s knee and rendering the roads impassible. To make matters worse, the clouds had parted immediately afterward, melting down just enough to freeze back into a thick ice sheet overnight. Yi somehow managed to acquire a head cold, and became a fussy ball of mucus, only content to fall asleep in Gong Ji’s arms. Gong Ji spent the nights sleeping upright, resting his back against the fireplace, waking every hour or so to make certain neither the fire nor Yi had grown cold.
On the fourth day of their ice-bound isolation, when the yard between the barn and the house had melted down but the road to the village was still mostly impassible, Yi finally exhausted himself enough that he gave only a token protest when Gong Ji lay him down and covered him with a heavy blanket. After binding his feet with strips of heavy cloth under his winter sandals, Gong Ji stepped outdoors into the afternoon sunlight, filling his lungs with fresh, cold air. He ached with exhaustion as he made his way gingerly across the ice toward the forge.
He pulled back the door and was met with a wall of heat so strong it nearly knocked him off his feet, as though he’d opened a box containing summer itself. Stepping inside, he opened his coat so he didn’t sweat to death. “Nice and toasty in here,” he said, loud enough to be heard over the crackle of the forge fire.
Din looked up from where he hunched by the stone fireplace, holding a pair of metal tongs that gripped a short blade. In deference to the heat inside, he wore only light pants and boots beneath his heavy apron and heavier gloves. “Everything all right?” he asked, withdrawing the blade from the flame and setting it atop an anvil. It glowed a dangerous orange, and he set about knocking its edges with a tiny silver hammer.
“Oh, yeah, everything’s fine.” Gong Ji leaned against the wall farthest from the fire, already feeling beads of sweat prickle his forehead. Far at the other end of the barn, Guanyin and the nanny-goat napped happily in their stalls, thrilled by the local heat source. Blades of all types hung on walls and lay across tables in various states of order, some set into the fine hilts Din carved, most still bare metal waiting for further assembly. In the far corner, Gong Ji saw a pile of straw that looked decidedly slept-upon, and he found he couldn’t remember having heard the sounds of Din’s coming or leaving the night before. “Did you stay out here last night?”
Din plunged the blade into a bucket of water, which hissed forth a cloud of steam. “Some,” he said, setting it down on the table and peeling off his gloves. He walked over to the wall near the forge, where his copper sickles hung for sharpening. Now Din took them down, gathered them in a single hand, and grabbed a fierce-looking dadao from the table near them. “Come on,” he said, stepping shirtless out into the cold.
Gong Ji followed as ordered, mostly to see what the hell the crazy man had in mind, and was surprised when Din tossed him the twin weapons, only one of which he caught. “What….?”
“Your form is terrible.” Din untied the strings of his great leather apron and tossed it to the ground. His bare skin was so warm that curls of steam rose off it into the air. Taking the end of the long hilt in one hand, he steadied his other hand just beneath the S-shaped guard and shifted his weight onto his back leg, keeping the blade straight upright. “And I need the exercise.”
Exhausted and in barely any shape to fight, Gong Ji still gripped the handles and dropped into the stance Din had first shown him. “This isn’t fair,” he pointed out. “I’m tired and you’re just going to kick my ass.”
“I’d kick your ass anyway.” Din raised his back hand, bringing the blade level.
“Oh, it’s on,” grinned Gong Ji, lunging forward with a mighty swing.
Fighting Din was different from practicing on a rock; for one thing, rocks didn’t tend to fight back. For another, Din was relentless, barely giving Gong Ji enough time to set his footing between blows before Din was at him again. The dadao’s blade was dull, but it was still heavy enough to bruise when it made contact, and Din swung hard. Getting his blades in the way of Din’s was needed to keep his body from going black and blue.
He didn’t know what he’d expected from the match — perhaps Din giving him helpful hints as they fought, maybe demonstrating a move or two — but Din was silent except for his heavy breathing, and he taught with his blade. He swung low, and Gong Ji learned to keep one of his sickles ready to defend his kneecaps; he thrust straight ahead, and Gong Ji learned how to use the hooks to catch and deflect the blade; he swung up from under, and Gong Ji learned that his stance was too wide. By necessity as much as anything else, Gong Ji began to think of the sickles as invincible extensions of his arms, able to catch and block and turn away blows that would have cut his real hands to ribbons.
At last, Din took an uncareful step on the still-icy ground, and his swing weakened as he slid forward just a fraction more than he’d intended; and Gong Ji was there in the opening, crossing his arms in front of his body and pulling his elbows wide again, drawing the dadao’s blade downward and safely to the side of his hip, trapping them both chest-to-chest. Din tugged on the dadao, but Gong Ji kept the pressure tight, and the blade made no progress. “Gotcha,” he grinned, his mouth inches from Din’s ear.
Din leaned his head back enough to get a good look at his opponent; his was sweating hard now, and his oiled hair had begun to slip loose from its tight knot, trickling dark rivulets down his olive skin. “That’s what you think,” he said, and though his voice was dead even, a little smile played at the corners of his mouth.
“Yeah,” breathed Gong Ji, resettling his heels just slightly against the frozen ground and leaning closer, “I think I do.”
Whatever might have happened next was abruptly pre-empted by a mournful wail from inside the house, and Gong Ji relented instantly, releasing Din and stepping back. No apologies or explanations were necessary as Gong Ji headed back to the house to check on Yi — yet in the fraction before Din passed his field of vision, he thought he saw a flicker of sadness tint Din’s otherwise inscrutable face. But when he turned back to check, only an instant later, Din had already begun to bend down and retrieve his blacksmith’s apron, and whatever evidence of his mood that had been there was gone.
He’d drunk the first cup Din had handed him, because it had seemed polite, and because he’d had a shitty day tromping to the village and back through hip-high mud. When he’d placed the empty cup on the table without comment and Din had filled it again, also without comment, Gong Ji had done the same thing, this time with an added edge of curiosity; how long would he keep this up? By the third round, Gong Ji had noticed Din was matching him, shot for shot, and by the time half the bottle was gone, Din — of his own volition — began to talk.
When he finished his altogether too-brief story, Gong Ji let the silence sit for a moment, out of respect for the dead — and then, because he couldn’t help his fool mouth, blurted out the thought that had been plaguing his mind: “…How do you cheat at arm wrestling?”
“It turns out there are a variety of ways,” answered Din, eyeing the liquid left in his cup.
Gong Ji frowned. “You’re not going to tell me, are you?”
“She used magnets once. I never figured out exactly how that worked.”
“Bah.” Because it seemed like the only thing to do in light of the conversation, and because he hadn’t heard Din say this many words together to him in months, Gong Ji topped off both of their drinks without being asked; because the alcohol was the only thing keeping him from asking why the hell Din had decided to do this tonight, because asking would make it stop. “Sounds like a neat lady. Wish I could’ve met her.”
As Din placed the cup against his mouth, he smiled. “She would’ve liked you.”
Gong Ji scoffed so hard he nearly snorted the clear, strong alcohol up his nose. “Ha! I doubt it. Nobody does.”
“She was crazy like you,” Din shrugged. In the firelight, his expression was distant. “Beautiful and dangerous and crazy as all get-out.”
Though he tried earnestly to wrap his mind around the concept of staid, solid Din wed to a crazy person, Gong Ji found himself unable to picture it. “How’d she wind up with a chunk of rock like you?”
Din shrugged again, draining his cup. “I got lucky.”
As there was no real response to that, Gong Ji answered in the only way he knew how, which was to take the bottle and fill their cups again. He was so concerned with not spilling any of it, so fixed on aiming to hit the cup and not the table, that he forgot to police his mouth enough to keep from asking, “…She loved you as much as you loved her?”
“Maybe,” answered Din, and the word was a leaden weight dropped into a pond.
“Sorry.” Wincing, Gong Ji looked away. “Stupid thing to say.”
“It was a decent question,” Din said, his voice having found its evenness again. For all Gong Ji knew, alcohol turned to water as soon as it hit Din’s blood.
Gong Ji found his eyes turned toward Yi’s sleeping face. “You miss her.” The baby looked so little like his father, beyond a few telltale features that marked him as none other than Din’s; he must look a lot like his mother, Gong Ji reasoned, and wondered for the first time how hard it might be for Din to see his dead wife’s face every time he looked at his son.
There was a long silence after that, but Gong Ji had been with Din so long now that anything but silence following a question seemed abrupt. “It’s … like breathing after you’ve been sick. This thing you know you have to do to stay alive, lucky you’re alive at all, but it hurts too much to want to try.” He lifted the glass to his lips and took another drink. “And then you realize you’ll be forced to do it forever.”
A sickness rose in his stomach at that, and Gong Ji blamed the alcohol for it, because he didn’t know what else to do. You’ve still got Yi, he nearly said, but those words died in his throat, as he wondered bitterly whether or not Din might think that adequate compensation. Maybe the boy had his mother’s smile, or her eyes, or her laugh; maybe it’d lessen as he grew older, and maybe it wouldn’t.
“Those are hers.” Din broke the silence as he reached for the bottle again. Gong Ji frowned, then followed Din’s gaze to the wall above the fireplace, where the beautiful shang gou hung, crossed and still. “When he can bear their weight, they’ll be his.”
There were a thousand things to ask from that statement, but they all felt impolite, and for what might have been the first time in his life, Gong Ji found himself actually caring about not being an asshole. “I figured they were for fishing or something,” he joked lamely.
“She took out nearly the entire battalion with them before they took her down,” Din said, so calmly that he might have been talking about groceries, or chores, or any number of things that weren’t his wife’s death.
Gong Ji swallowed. “A whole battalion?”
At that, Din smiled with a bittersweet fondness Gong Ji had never seen on Din’s face before. “Yeah.”
“Well.” Gong Ji tucked his knees closer to his chest, feeling suddenly young and vulnerable, exposed, everything raw and bright. After a moment, he raised his glass. “Here’s to her, then.”
“Cheers,” answered Din.
On the first full warm day of spring, Yi managed to walk by himself all the way from the peach tree to the edge of the bean patch before teetering backward and landing on his bottom. For a moment, his failure threatened to ruin his good mood, but Gong Ji gave such a cheer that Yi was convinced he’d done something else good, and applauded instead of crying. Then he taunted a grasshopper for a few minutes before it hopped on his head and scared him, and he sumbled forward crying, “Dada, dada, dada,” all the way into Gong Ji’s arms.
“Oh, it’s a good thing you’re still stupid,” Gong Ji told him, rocking him and kissing his hair. “You wouldn’t think I’m half this awesome if you weren’t.”
Eventually able to overcome his grasshopper trauma, Yi ventured away from Gong Ji’s embrace and back toward the peach tree, wobbling a few times but staying upright the whole way. Gong Ji smiled and pulled a small knife from his pocket, peeling away at the last of the winter oranges. Tiny bright buds were beginning to appear on the peach tree’s branches, but it’d be at least another several weeks before the fruit was ready to eat. He’d already silently decided on the arrival of the first hard peaches as his departure date, reasoning that though the tree would still need pruning and tending, Din could probably manage after that, especially now that Yi was big enough not to need such constant attention.
What he did need, though, was a leash. Gong Ji swooped Yi up in his arms before he could make a break for the garden and trample the new green shoots that had just begun to poke up from the dirt. “Easy there,” he said. “Otherwise, it’ll be dried beets for us all summer.”
“Ride eets,” agreed Yi, whose attention suddenly shifted to something near the barn.
Gong Ji turned to see Din emerge with a pair of sheathed swords under his arm. “Okay, now,” said Gong Ji, turning Yi fully in Din’s direction, “there’s your papa. When he comes by, we’ll wave and say, ‘Hi, Papa!’ How does that sound?” It wasn’t an ideal solution, but since Gong Ji had quite firmly become ‘Dada’, and nothing seemed capable of convincing Yi otherwise, Gong Ji had resolved to give Din an equally paternal nickname, or to die trying.
“Down,” answered Yi, kicking his feet in a way that indicated he wanted his freedom.
“In a minute.” Gong Ji took Yi’s wrist in his hand, helping Yi wave at Din as he approached. “Okay, you’re on! What do you say?”
“Down!” Yi squirmed so violently that Gong Ji had little choice but to lower him to the ground, lest Yi wrench himself free and find his journey downward a lot less pleasant. Yi sat down in the grass and became instantly fascinated by a rock.
Determined to salvage the situation as best he could, Gong Ji waved to Din. “Hey, want to come take a break? We were just going to have some lunch.”
For a moment, Din stopped and looked at them both, letting his gaze linger on Yi. At last, he shook his head and started toward the house again. “Have to finish cleaning up.”
“Well, hey, I can do that for you,” Gong Ji offered. “We’ll switch for a while. Yi was just showing me what a champion walker he is.”
“Can’t. Thanks.” Din’s shoulders straightened.
Gong Ji folded his arms. “Have you even eaten today?”
“Before you got up.”
Leaving aside the issue of how there had been no breakfast dishes to clean when he’d woken up that morning, Gong Ji gestured to the toddler at his feet. “I’ll bet Yi might like to spend time with you.”
“He’s fine now.”
“Yeah, well, all I know is that if he was my son–”
“You’d what?” snapped Din, and for a moment, Gong Ji saw the same hardness to Din’s eyes he’d seen the night the bandits attacked, and it twisted his stomach up in cold knots. “If he were your son, what would you do?”
Gong Ji held Din’s challenging gaze for as long as he could, but in the end, he backed down. “Nothing,” he said, raking his fingers through his hair. “Not a damned thing different.”
With a step that still seemed furious for all its careful measure, Din stepped into the house and closed the door behind him with more force than was necessary. Seconds later, he emerged and stalked back across the yard, not even turning toward them, and disappeared into the forge. Within a minute, black smoke began belching forth from the chimney again.
Sighing deeply, Gong Ji crossed his legs beneath him and sat, drawing Yi onto his lap. He took one of the slices of orange he’d cut earlier and handed it to Yi, who gummed at it experimentally before deciding that he liked it and must therefore devour it with all due haste. When he’d done all the damage to that one he could, Gong Ji pulled the sticky white leavings from his hands and gave him a new slice, which Yi proceeded to eat in the same manner.
“I’d never let you go, is what,” said Gong Ji, as Yi munched messily on the juicy fruit, oblivious to the drama around him. “You’re the only thing in the whole world that’s ever loved me, you know? You’re the only thing that gives a shit if I keep breathing. If you could be my son, I’d never let you out of my sight.”
A breeze rustled through the still-barren branches, and Gong Ji lay on his back as clouds rolled across the blue sky, wondering how long Yi would continue to miss him before he forgot his dada entirely.
A seemingly endless spring storm beat down heavy on the land, painting everything a uniform shade of mud-brown, and it would have been easy to blame the argument on the weather, had they not nearly come to blows twenty times in as many days. As spring had come, bringing its frequent squalls that seemed to blow in from nowhere and disappear as quickly as they’d came, they’d fought in the same way, each small incident flaring up until it ran out of fuel and smoldered back into silence.
Three days of solid rain had strung tempers razor-thin, though, and Gong Ji could see this one had its own spare woodpile.
“You know,” he said without preamble, one day when crankiness had been left to stew so long it had boiled right over into sheer antagonistic need. “You know, you have the same face now you did when I met you. Whether you’re threatening me with the police or talking to your son — when you talk to him,” he added, because they’d fought about that, too, and when Gong Ji was in a truly foul mood, he went for recent wounds first.
Din didn’t even bother looking up from where he sat at the table, etching designs by dim lamplight into what looked to become a hilt. “Maybe you require the same tone as my infant son,” he said evenly.
“Maybe your infant son requires a different tone than you use to threaten thieves,” Gong Ji said, sparing half a glance to Yi, who slept on by the fire, blanketed from their conversation by the rain. He’d had a very fussy and loud day, running around the house and climbing on everything, and that hadn’t contributed to anyone’s tempers.
“For an unsuccessful goat-thief,” Din replied, after a moment’s pause, “you have very firm ideas about child-raising.”
“I don’t know, maybe that’s just the impression I’ve gotten from taking care of him every minute for the last year.” Gong Ji raked his fingers roughly through his hair, feeling little satisfaction in picking this fight and yet unable to stop himself. He’d been the one who’d picked nearly every fight they’d had, in fact, blowing tiny sparks into bonfires because the only way to get any reaction from Din anymore these days seemed to be through anger. “But, you know, I’m not his real father, so I probably don’t have a fucking clue.”
“No. You don’t.” The tool in Din’s hand cut a deep, sharp groove through the wood, and Gong Ji had no way of telling whether or not this move was intentional, because his damned statue’s face gave nothing away.
Gong Ji regretted his next words nearly before they formed in his head, but once they were there, there was no way he could have swallowed them down again: “Guess that’s why he calls you ‘dada’. Oh, wait.”
“Get out of my house,” said Din, so immediately and so conversationally that Gong Ji almost couldn’t make sense of the words themselves, much less their meaning.
“Get out of my house,” Din repeated. He took his pipe from his mouth and set it down on a small ceramic dish, grinding its glowing coals to darkness.
“Did I actually strike a nerve? Did the stone man actually crack?” Gong Ji rose even as he spoke, folding his arms in a challenge he knew was useless. He was gone, finally exiled, all his failed weeks and months of planning to leave completed for him in a single stroke; now, his only concern was doing as much damage as he could on the way out.
Din, who never backed down, placed the tool and half-carved hilt atop the table, and stood. What few inches Gong Ji had on him in height, Din made up for in sheer presence. He stared Gong Ji down, and Gong Ji saw his gaze harden: “Get out before I make you leave.”
“What are you going to tell him tomorrow?” asked Gong Ji, even as he took a step backward toward the door. He looked at Yi, who now might as well have been a million miles away, and he knew that the second he stepped out the door, he’d never see that baby again. He felt sick to his stomach, and the only thing that kept him from throwing up was that he wasn’t going to give Din the satisfaction.
“That’s not your problem anymore.” Din took a step closer, and Gong Ji took one back, and the heel of his foot bumped the door open into the downpour. He was barefoot and had nothing on him but the clothes on his back, but it was how he’d arrived, and at least Din couldn’t spit at him for being a thief again. Hell, he’d even leave Guaniyn here; she’d grown used to having a barn and being fed, and even to honest work. Consider it a donation, then.
Even as his mind raced through the panic of leaving, his mouth ran of its own angry accord, slashing with all the destructive force of one of Din’s swords. “Gonna keep that stone fucking face of yours on? ‘Sorry, son, learn to live with disappointment’?” He took another step back, and he was on the stoop, sheltered by the far eaves of the roof; another step, and he was beneath nothing but sky.
To his surprise, Din followed him into the storm, the heavy rain soaking his grey tunic to black. “Do you think it’s some sort of accomplishment that a fifteen-month-old likes you?” he asked, his hands clenching into fists at his sides. “He likes beetles. We’ll forget about a scrawny rooster like you soon enough.”
“Yeah, well, he’ll also forget about being fed right and changed and having someone who fucking pays attention to him!” The rain was almost warm, but certainly not as warm the inside of the house had been, and the hairs on Gong Ji’s arms stood at attention.
“Don’t pretend you’re doing this for him. You’d do anything for a roof over your head and a hot meal.”
Snarling, Gong Ji stopped his retreat and took a step forward so quickly that he actually had the pleasure of seeing Din falter in his advance. “That boy is the only reason I put up with you treating me like something you just scraped off your shoe!”
“I treat as I find,” said Din, maddeningly flat and even.
“You treat me like shit,” Gong Ji yelled back, not even bothering to keep his voice down anymore. “You treat everyone like shit! How old does Yi get to be before you start in on him?”
With that, Din’s expression cracked like an earthquake, his brow furrowing into a deep V, his lip rising until Gong Ji could see his teeth. “He’s my son.”
“Yeah? Does that get him an extra year or something? Two?”
“What the hell do I do that’s made you so mad?”
And there it was, nearly handed to him on a platter, the question Gong Ji didn’t even know he’d been waiting for Din to ask. His answer erupted forth as sharply and completely as though he’d been planning it from the start: “Nothing! That’s exactly what you do! You do nothing! Most of the time, it’s like you’re not even there at all! Your wife is dead, okay, and I’m real sorry about that, but she is, and you’re going to have to fucking get over it someday, because you have a son who needs a father, and he doesn’t have one so he latches on to the nearest piece of garbage that’ll give him the time of day, and I know you can’t have been like this before she died, because if you had, she’d’ve up and left you years before the Imperials got a chance to kill her!”
Almost mildly, as though they might have been speaking in a noisy tavern instead of shouting down a rainstorm, Din asked, “What did you say?”
“I said she would’ve left your stuck-up ass,” growled Gong Ji, aware that he’d crossed a line over which there was no retreat, “because nobody deserves living with this!”
Din nodded thoughtfully, a nobleman contemplating a business proposition. “That’s what I thought you said.” And he struck Gong Ji hard across the mouth.
A veteran of being punched in the face, Gong Ji still reeled backward, taken by both the force and the surprise of the blow; he felt with his tongue where his teeth had split his lip wide, and spat bloody rain. Then, with the same deep growl, he lunged forward, heading straight for Din’s throat.
They’d sparred before on more than one occasion, short bouts meant for instruction and exercise, but this was completely different. Din was again the man he’d been on the night the bandits had arrived, bare-knuckled and wild, hitting not to teach but to hurt. He brought up his knee and kicked Gong Ji square in the ribs, hard enough to knock the wind from his lungs, then wheeled around and made another strike for Gong Ji’s head. Gong Ji saw it coming and ducked in time, coming up from under with his elbow against the underside of Din’s chin. Din’s head snapped back hard, and he lost his footing for a moment, but regained it in time to sweep a leg beneath Gong Ji’s ankles, knocking him to the ground.
A blow like that might have taken mightier men out of the fight, but Gong Ji had been tall for a large portion of his life, and had learned that when fighting a tall man, no one ever guarded low. From where he lay half-caught on his side, he kicked hard with the heel of his foot and hit Din square in the knee. The blow took Din unexpectedly downward, and Din grabbed for Gong Ji in his fall, using him for a cushion and taking them both down again.
Gong Ji hit hard beneath their combined weight, and when he caught his bearings, Din was on him, his hands clutched tight around Gong Ji’s throat — not hard enough to kill, but definitely hard enough to make breathing unpleasant. Din’s hair had slipped free of its tight knot, and it hung in dark curtains from his face, obscuring his expression.
And then, because he was the master of all things inappropriate, Gong Ji began to laugh.
Din hissed and let go with one of his hands, bringing his elbow down sharply in the middle of Gong Ji’s chest — which made it difficult to laugh on several fronts, but which discouraged Gong Ji not in the slightest. Instead, he kicked Din’s leg again, hitting his shin with a bruising speed, then hauled off and punched Din’s jaw again. It wasn’t a hard blow, and his angle was bad, but the combination at least got Din off of him.
“About fucking time,” he choked, his throat aching. He went in for another blow to the face, catching Din instead around the forearm with a punch that probably hurt Gong Ji’s knuckles more than anything. “You know, where I come from,” he spat blood with every word, “you hate a guy, you don’t ignore him while he cleans your fucking house, you fucking punch him in the face and get it over with!”
As though taking Gong Ji’s advice, Din jabbed him in the temple, knocking him flat on his back in the mud. He wasn’t as big or fast as some of the guys Gong Ji had gone up against in prisons and taverns, and he’d dealt fewer blows than the average barfight participant, but damn him if he didn’t know how to hit exactly where it hurt. The brawl was essentially over — hell, it’d been over before it started, truly — but Gong Ji wasn’t willing to concede defeat when he still had some fight left, even if that fight had nearly poured like blood all out of him.
Before he could make the decision whether he wanted to try getting up again or just lay there bleeding in the rain, though, Din was on top of him, pinning his wrists down in the mud. Gong Ji put forth a testing struggle, but gave up when he realized he’d have more luck wrestling iron. Din’s mouth was cut, he could see now, and starting to swell already. “I’m gone,” said Gong Ji, though anger had nearly burned itself out, leaving ashy grief where it had been. “Okay? I’m gone, just let me up and you’ll never see me again, I swear, you don’t even have to–”
“I don’t hate you.” Din’s words were softened around the edges by his swollen lip, but their meaning cut sharp. He sighed and added what Gong Ji felt was a somewhat unnecessary, “Idiot.”
“Bullshit.” Gong Ji winced as the rain washed a trickle of blood and sweat from his split eyebrow into the corner of his eye. Travelling like this would be awful, but he’d gone farther in worse conditions before, and he’d be all right to keep going — just as soon as Din let him back up. Any minute now.
Din, however, seemed to be in no hurry to stop looming over Gong Ji’s prone figure, waiting as their heartbeats slowed. Here in the darkness, with only the pale light from the house to see by, Gong Ji could see Din’s eyes shut as he sighed, his shoulders falling forward as though a great weight had either been placed on or lifted from them. “Idiot,” he repeated, and Gong Ji only had an instant to register that Din’s grip around his wrists had gone tight again before Din bent down and lightly bit at Gong Ji’s ear.
Gong Ji’s first reaction was to flail in incomprehension, but he was trapped, and his heart wasn’t even remotely in making Din stop. He lay there in the mud and the pouring rain as Din licked his ear, then bit at the corner of his jaw with a kind of tenderness Gong Ji honestly hadn’t assumed him capable of. At last, he drew back again, rising up far enough to meet Gong Ji’s gaze. His breathing had grown ragged, not with exertion but with a kind of nervous fear, silently waiting for a response.
So Gong Ji, wide-eyed and rather at sea, summoned up the entirety of his understanding of the situation, rounding it all out into one very perplexed, “…What?”
That actually won a quiet laugh from Din, barely more than a breath. “Rooster-headed moron,” he sighed, and he loosed one of Gong Ji’s hands, fisting his fingers in Gong Ji’s sodden hair before kissing him hard on the mouth.
Kissing Din wasn’t a thought Gong Ji had spent a great deal of time entertaining over the past year, largely because such fantasies had seemed deeply silly at best, and exercises in frustration at worst. He couldn’t even try to pretend that he hadn’t thought on it, though, and some nights thought longingly on it, with his fingertips pressed against the heavy wood of the bedroom door, imagining that he could hear Din’s breathing from the other side. He was so shocked to find it actually happening, though — to say nothing of finding it actually happening in a downpour after a real ass-kicking — that he was kissing back before he even registered fully what he was doing. His hand that had been trapped now locked fingers with its captor; his other found a place on the bony rise of Din’s hip, feeling out the warmth of his skin through the thin, soaked material.
Every time Din’s teeth met the gash on the inside of Gong Ji’s lip, Gong Ji thought about relenting, and every time he reminded himself that his mouth would still hurt in the morning, but he might not be kissing Din then, and this was more than worth it. Din tasted like blood and sweat and the smoke from his pipe, and Gong Ji thrust his tongue as far as he could into Din’s mouth, trying to devour it all.
After a moment, Din relented, pulling back his weight enough that he no longer trapped Gong Ji, moving until they stretched out side-by-side along the ground. He broke the kiss to breathe, pressing their foreheads together so hard Gong Ji suspected they’d have matching bruises in the morning. “Don’t leave us,” he begged, his voice a ragged gasp. “Don’t leave me.”
“I won’t,” said Gong Ji, pulling Din’s body as close to his own as he could and drawing any further pleas back into a kiss. It had never been far from fight to fuck for him, and by the feel of their hips pressed tight to one another, it wasn’t far for Din either. He lifted a leg and hooked it around the backs of Din’s knees, twining them together, and did the only thing that made sense to him right then, which was to push his pants down his hips. Din’s were slightly harder to navigate, as the wet fabric of his long tunic kept bunching and twisting, but he was never a man to give up when things grew difficult, and momentarily he had gathered both their bared cocks in his hand, wrapping his long fingers around them both.
Din gasped into Gong Ji’s mouth, and Gong Ji wondered how long it had been for him, for how he trembled beneath the surface like this was all unfamiliar territory. Still, he took the lead, rolling onto his knees between Gong Ji’s thighs and bracing his weight on his elbows. Gong Ji suddenly got it into his head that he wanted as much of Din’s skin as he could get his hands on, and he fumbled with the clasps of Din’s tunic until he pushed it free. Din’s long dark hair stuck to his face and bared shoulders, wild and beautiful, and Gong Ji had to kiss him again just for existing.
“Come on,” said Din at last, rocking back on his heels and standing; as he did, he left his trousers crumpled on the ground, until he towered above Gong Ji, bare and hard in the rain. Gong Ji did the same, tossing the scrap of his shirt somewhere before following Din back inside the house. They tiptoed quietly through the main room, noting that Yi was still sleeping peacefully by the fireplace, and stepped into the bedroom.
As soon as the door was shut behind them, Din grabbed Gong Ji and pushed him onto the soft bed, climbing atop him again. “Shh,” he whispered into Gong Ji’s mouth, as though Gong Ji had no idea the importance of keeping quiet or the immediately problematic amount of hell Yi could raise if awakened. Gong Ji nodded, then parted his knees, letting his thighs come to rest at either side of Din’s hips.
For a once-married man, Din seemed to know exactly what to do with another man under him. He spat in his hand, though they were already soaked to the bone, and pressed his fingers against Gong Ji’s ass. Gong Ji hissed a bit, but willed himself to relax, and found it mostly easy; he’d been had by more men than this in rougher conditions, after all, and they’d not been nearly as interested in making sure he had a good time as Din seemed to be. He worked his fingers slowly in, then withdrew and spat in his hand again — then paused, giving Gong Ji one last questioning look: Is this all right?
“Come on, fuck me,” Gong Ji purred, brushing Din’s damp hair from his face. “Make me feel it.”
Din, it seemed, didn’t take more encouragement than that. With a slight pause to settle his knees against the bed, he pushed inside Gong Ji, who clenched his hands tight around Din’s biceps. “Come on,” Gong Ji hissed, “is that all you got?”
Not surprisingly, it wasn’t. After only a moment to let them both adjust to their new positions, Din began to withdraw, then thrust in hard, and Gong Ji dug his fingers into Din’s skin hard enough to bruise. Without making a sound, Din stretched his body out along Gong Ji’s and began pounding his cock into him, just gentle enough not to give the bed any reason to voice a protest, but hard enough that Gong Ji felt robbed of breath.
He released one of Din’s arms long enough to fist his hand around his own cock, jerking himself off as Din thrust into him again and again. He was sore from all the places Din had punched him, and he was going to be even more so down below come morning, but he made the executive decision that this, right here, right now, was more than worth whatever followed. “Yeah, fuck my skinny ass like you mean it,” he grinned.
“Do you ever shut up?” Din growled at him, grabbing one of Gong Ji’s legs and hitching it over his shoulder, driving his cock in so deep Gong Ji would’ve sworn he could feel it all the way in the back of his throat.
“Fucking make me shut up,” taunted Gong Ji, and Din scowled back, sticking his hand palm-first over Gong Ji’s mouth. Gong Ji had expected this, though, and at the last minute he turned his face, catching Din’s fingertips in his mouth. He ran his tongue up across their tips, tasting the blood and sweat and dirt lingering there, and Din groaned deeply, his eyes fluttering shut.
Both men were too exhausted and edgy to hold out long, too caught up in adrenaline and emotion to worry about making this last. Gong Ji came first, biting down on Din’s knuckles to keep from making any sound as he spilled threads of warm come all over his damp stomach. He sighed as he came back down, letting himself settle into the pleasant post-orgasmic sensation of being fucked; it wasn’t always his favourite thing, having someone’s dick still inside after he’d already gotten off, but this was actually nice, feeling his nearly too-sensitive nerves jangle every time Din moved in him. He arched his back off the bed, taking more of his weight onto his own elbows, and watched the soft, aroused contortions of Din’s handsome face.
Din’s own orgasm was little more than a hitching breath and a furrowing of his brow, as quiet and beautiful as he was; almost too quickly after, he slipped out of Gong Ji, slick and wet, and collapsed next to him. His head ended up pillowed against the inside of Gong Ji’s right arm, tucked just beneath Gong Ji’s chin. After a few breathless moments, he sat up, grabbed for the heavy blanket at the end of the bed, and pulled it over their bare bodies.
“…Thought you wanted me gone,” said Gong Ji, for once not to be contrary, but because it was what he’d honestly believed.
“You were the one who was always planning when to go.” Din took a long, unsteady breath. “Got hard, every morning, not knowing if you’d still be out there when I opened the door.”
Gong Ji snorted, rolling his eyes. “So you decided to kick me out.”
“Decided to give you a reason to go, if you wanted to so bad.”
“Well.” Gong Ji’s fingers lingered along the curve of Din’s shoulder, feeling where his rain-chilled skin was already beginning to warm. Spent in more ways than one, and in a comfortable bed for the first time in nearly as long as he could remember, he felt his eyelids growing heavy.
“Well.” Din cleared his throat, pressing his palm flat to Gong Ji’s bare chest. “You’re un-kicked out. So. Stay.”
Even exhausted as he was, Gong Ji couldn’t keep from lifting his head to look at Din. “Only if you kiss me like that again.”
“Pushy rooster,” muttered Din even as he lifted his chin to meet Gong Ji’s mouth.
Gong Ji knew this sensation — it was what it felt like to wake up in an alley when a stray dog crawled over you. Except he wasn’t in an alley, he was in a bed, and the stray dog was demonstrating how well it knew the word ‘dada’.
Bleary-eyed and feeling slightly hung over, Gong Ji opened his eyes a crack and found that Yi had woken up on his own, found his way through the bedroom door (which apparently hadn’t been shut well enough the previous night), and dragged himself up onto the bed. “Dada!” Yi smacked his hands palm-down on the covers, coming into contact with the unfortunately tender skin beneath. “Dada dada dada egg!”
Sun streamed through the shutters of the room’s single window. Gong Ji dragged his hand over the corner of his mouth. “…Huh?”
“Think the boy wants breakfast,” muttered Din — or, at least, the Din-shaped lump of blankets which sounded a lot like Din, but which gave no visual confirmation.
The voice from out of nowhere seemed to startle Yi, and he placed his hand against the talking lump experimentally. “…Papa?” He looked to Gong Ji as though needing to make sure both that he’d used the word correctly, and that it was, in fact, his papa under there.
Gong Ji’s mouth stretched into a grin so wide it busted his lip open again, but he figured it was worth it. “Yes!” he said, ruffling Yi’s hair as he shook himself to consciousness. “Papa! Let’s wake Papa up for breakfast!”
“Papa papa!” Yi beat his open palms against Din’s covered body, having apparently determined at some point that physical violence was the best way to wake up recalcitrant adults. “Papa egg!”
“Papa sleep,” grunted Din, pulling the covers tight over his head.
“Oh, no.” Gong Ji patted his palms against Din like Yi did, which only encouraged Yi to increase the ferocity of his attacks up. “If Dada has to get up, Papa has to get up too.”
Din pulled back the covers enough to reveal one slightly bloodshot eye. “I take it back. You’re un-un-kicked out.”
“Hit Papa harder, Yi,” Gong Ji instructed, and Yi complied, laughing his head off at being allowed to join in this fascinating game the adults were playing. “Come on, put your back into it!”
“That’s it,” growled Din, emerging from beneath the covers in a single unexpectedly graceful pounce and sweeping Yi up into his arms; Yi looked very uncertain about this for a second, then began to squeal happily, kicking his arms and legs as Din marched nakedly into the other half of the house. “Papa is going to have stewed baby for breakfast.”
Moving stiffly, Gong Ji pulled himself to his feet and stretched, feeling every injury he’d sustained last night protest this morning. Still, not one of them was enough to kill his good mood as he followed into the other room, where Din stood pondering the basket of yesterday’s eggs on the counter, still holding a gleeful Yi like a parcel under his arm.
Outside, the morning sky shone clear and warm; by mid-day, all the puddles would be gone, and by nightfall, everything would be dry and steady again. Just on the other side of the window, drops of water shone off the pink peach blossoms, which would soon become fruit in their own right, weighing down the branches already filled with pale green leaves. Bruised and bare against the daylight, Gong Ji opened the door of his home and stepped outside.