by Rei (レイ)
Yuan Jei first sees him in a busy teahouse, their eyes meeting over delicate porcelain cups, blue dragons winding a blazing path through white ceramic on the outside, slender green phoenixes tracking an invisible path on the inside, the cool grey of his oolong tea contrasting perfectly with the scalding heat it leaves on his tongue.
Who is that, the black-haired man wants to ask but his tongue doesn’t cooperate, and instead, he picks up his wooden chopsticks, pokes at his food and watches the other man absently through the corner of his eye. He’s pretty, in a delicate sort of way, with long black hair and elaborate red silk robes that pool at his feet. And Yuan Jei notices the way long fingers curl around the rim of the teacup, the way the pretty man covers his mouth with his long sleeve when he laughs, the way he smiles; slow, hinting at a secret that only he knows.
Later, he finds out that the man in the silk robes is called Ming Li and apparently, hails from one of the more infamous brothels in Guangzhou. Well, he thinks, that would explain some things, like how a young man could afford having silk robes. Silk robes embroidered with golden dragons and silver clouds.
A whore, he repeats under his breath, and thinks of long quick fingers and dark, dark eyes.
The thought of blood-red robes, silky black hair and dark eyes haunt him and when he’s sparring with another fighter, all he can think of is the way those fingers curled around the curve of the cup. The fight blurs together, hands, fist, legs, all moving on its own accord; he’s been a martial artist so long that now, everything starts to become natural.
Yuan Jei wins, declares the referee and he snap back to reality when he feels his arm lifted into the air and the crowd around him cheers his name. He bows towards his opponent who glares at him, but bows back anyway. Threading a slow path through the crush of the congratulating crowd, he manages to squeeze his way out and into a small food stall tucked away in one of the tiny little side roads.
Dumplings, freshly made, smiles the old lady behind the stove as she stirs the pot of clear soup in front of her.
Oh, I’m not really hungry—
I insist, she says and he catches her staring at the blood splatter on his white shirt.
You’re a martial artist?
All the more reason for you to eat!
Yuan Jei blinks at the old woman before laughing, the previous tension from the fight seeping out of his shoulders like the tide ebbing out and he sits on a sturdy worn wooden bench while he waits for his soup to be done.
The soup really is good, and Yuan Jei wonders why the old woman chose this remote spot all the way at the back when she could have made more money if she placed her store in the main streets. His body is starting to ache, a pleasant weariness spreading throughout his bones as he fishes through the clear soup, looking for his dumplings. His opponent has good strength and breathing is slightly painful now; he wonders if his ribs got fractured. He hopes not, fractured ribs were the hardest to heal and the most vulnerable part exposed when fighting.
An odd whiff of expensive sandalwood comes drifting his way and he looks up, only to see a familiar face, with dark eyes and neatly combed hair. This can’t be real, Yuan Jei tells himself as he resists the urge to slap himself.
Oh, you’re the martial artist who was fighting just now, says his vision, eye-brows arched over dark eyes, you were very good.
The man who invades his dreams settles down beside him, heavy silk robes rustling around as he folds himself in half and sits opposite Yuan Jei, long black hair spilling out of his ponytail. Yuan Jei gets the odd urge to tuck it back behind Ming Li’s ears.
How odd, comments Ming Li once they’ve finished their soup and Yuan Jei reaches for the pot of tea by their table before lifting one eyebrow at Ming Li’s comments.
You’re not uncomfortable by the fact that I’m sitting opposite you, shrugs Ming Li as he turn one dark eye onto him, people don’t really like having lunch with a whore.
The way he said whore causes Yuan Jei’s stomach to do a little flip-flop; people are still people, no matter what they do, he manages to mutter out and doesn’t miss the small, odd smile that flickers across Ming Li’s face.
You’re such a strange man, Yuan Jei!
Despite his initial misgivings, Yuan Jei doesn’t refuse when Ming Li asks to come along on one of his sparring sessions. It’s possible though, his brain laughs, that you can’t refuse, not when he uses that smile on you, not when he laughs and tugged at your sleeve and says “please?” The tall martial artist promptly tells his brain to shut up and go away because really, he could say no to Ming Li. Really.
It’s a little hard to believe though, when he’s practicing under the scorching sun and every few minutes he catches a glimpse of a slender figure standing under a tree, black hair dancing in the wind, one hand holding an opened golden-coloured fan with elegant black Chinese script painted down the sides.
Feeling strangely annoyed, Yuan Jei practices a little harder, aiming high kicks at invisible assailants’ heads and throwing quick deadly punches in the air. By the end of the day, his own muscles are screaming and he hunches, heaving in breaths of fresh air. Ming Li frowns and pressed a silk handkerchief to Yuan Jei’s forehead, you practice too hard, he said, elegant brows drawing together, stupid idiot, don’t over-exert yourself like that.
I’m not over-exerting, snaps Yuan Jei before he doubles up again, coughing while Ming Li mutters something under his breath and snaps his fan open with a loud audible click.
I worry for you, Yuan Jei, murmurs Ming Li behind his fan, and Yuan Jei pretends that his whisper is lost to the wind blowing through the trees.
Just a month after his last fight, Yuan Jei receives a challenge letter from a certain Master Shui of Hunan. The problem about winning a wushu fight was that eventually more fighters are going to come knocking on your door, and then when you fight them and win, even more will come. A vicious cycle. He doesn’t really have a choice and sends his agreement through the courier, a small thin man with a snow-white beard and a raspy Xiang accent colouring his every word. That makes five this year, the tall wiry Chinese man thinks wearily, five and it’s barely even summer.
Sometimes, he probably doesn’t mind fighting so much if it isn’t for the fact that he had been born into a prestigious pugilistic family, maybe if he didn’t opt to train under his teacher and master the infamous “100 Buddha Palm” technique, maybe if he didn’t win his first fight, and his second fight, and subsequently, every fight after that. Maybe, maybe, maybe. Yuan Jei has so many maybes that he can’t really choose one.
Letting the flimsy inked paper flutter down from his hands, Yuan Jei tiredly wishes he knows how to walk away.
The next day, during mid-practice, Yuan Jei realizes that the pain in his chest was far too painful to be a sprain. Half-way through his “Dragon fist” technique, he collapses and for a moment all he sees is white before cool hands turn him over and Ming Li’s face looms into view. Dark eyes wide and worried, his full lips pulling into a taut line, long fine black hair (the colour of the night sky, Yuan Jei registers absently) brushing against his face like the fingers of a passing breeze, cool silk robes resting on his hot body and all he can think of is, oh.
Yuan Jei! Yuan Jei! Yuan Jei!
All he can remember is Ming Li’s hands on his chest, individual fingers burning his skin and amid the pounding pain in his chest, Ming Li’s fan lying on the lush grass beside him and the way Ming Li’s voice breaks when he calls his name, Yuan Jei. Oh, thinks Yuan Jei deliriously, pain clouding his brain and making it hard to breathe; I would like to hear that again.
You have three fractured ribs, take this medicine twice daily and don’t over-exert yourself, that means, no more fighting for you for a while.
It’s not so bad, Yuan Jei tells himself, but he knows he’s lying. I can fight at the end of the month, he thinks, and he knows that if he is ever going to see himself dig a grave with his own bare hands, this would be it. There is no way he could recover on time and fight full-strength, and if he did fight, he risks getting his ribs broken and worse, even killed.
I mean it Yuan Jei, don’t fight when you’re in this condition, wait a few months before resuming.
Ming Li doesn’t say anything and has not said a single word ever since they came back from the physician, only fussing around him and making sure he is comfortable before sinking onto the top corner of the bed, slender back resting against the ornately carved wooden bed guard, one hand idly toying with Yuan Jei’s black hair.
Are you angry with me, he wants to ask, but the dull throb in his chest and the medicine are starting to take effect and all he can do is lift his hand and brush it against Ming Li’s hair; it’s unbelievably soft and as cool as silk. It’s odd now, how he can think of Ming Li and not think whore, instead, he thinks of Ming Li and thinks, fragile.
…You might break your ribs this way and even worse, you might die if your opponent hits you hard enough.
I never knew who my parents were, I was given to the brothel when I was barely a year old, Ming Li says, soft voice filtering gently through the dusty sunlight room, I didn’t mind it so much, it was my home. Those girls, they were my sisters, the elder ones were my mothers, did you know I had ten different mothers? His laugh is soft and Yuan Jei fights to keeps his eyes open, focusing on the closed golden fan on grey-silk covered lap, it’s not so hard being a whore; you just spread your legs and do whatever they want you to. I don’t get much attention, since I’m a boy, but occasionally… Ming Li’s hands wanders back to Yuan Jei’s hair and tugs lightly on the black strands, a small smile on his lips. Occasionally, even the unpopular ones become popular.
I’ve never really cared about the outside world, Ming Li continues, almost dreamily, dark eyes half-closed, fingers tangling themselves in Yuan Jei’s hair, then I saw you one day, by accident, when I was picked on outside and you stepped in and hit the other man so hard you broke his nose. And I thought, no one has ever stood up for me like that before. Ming Li untangles his fingers slowly and brings Yuan Jei’s own calloused hands up to his lips; they feel like petals of a blooming flower, he thinks drowsily before he closes his eyes.
Don’t die, Ming Li whispers and Yuan Jei feels the warm brush of air on his skin, don’t die.
I can’t go back on my word, he tells Ming Li, who looks back at him and opens his fan silently. I know, a fighter must never go back on his word, right? And the smile he gives him makes Yuan Jei want to punch a hand through a heavy oak tree. I understand, says Ming Li as he stares at Yuan Jei, dark eyes opaque but not unreadable, after all, you are an idiot.
I’m not an idiot, he snaps back and Ming Li laughs at him, covering his mouth behind his golden fan. Something’s changing, Yuan Jei thinks, but he can’t put his finger on it.
Word on the street is that Master Shui is a dangerous man indeed, rumors of him hitting his opponents so hard their spine shatters is rampant and Yuan Jei half-believes and half-laughs at the rumors. His ribs is healing up not so nicely now and he doubles up in pain after two techniques. It’s bad he knows, but he can’t stop. His physician advises him against the fight while his drinking friends egg him on. Recently, he begins to wake up in the middle of the night, ribs throbbing like hell, sometimes the image of his late teacher imprinted into his mind like a burning torch, other times, he wakes up hard and aching, remembering vague pieces of his erotic dream like cool fingers, warm mouth and the silken brush of long black hair against his skin, the bare outline of a glowing fan receding into the darkness of his memory.
Unhealthy, he thinks, so unhealthy.
Unbeknownst to the martial artist, Ming Li keeps a calendar in his room and marks down the days. Twenty down, three more to go and Yuan Jei still hasn’t regained enough strength to fight a proper fight.
The fight day is stamped in red ink and Ming Li has rubbed his fingers over it so many times that the edges have started to fade.
The night before the fight, Yuan Jei finds himself in Ming Li’s room, dropping off-handed comments and excuses about why he is there, while Ming Li watches him with those oddly half-opaque eyes.
He’s in a brothel, his brain thinks desperately before Ming Li smiles that half-smirk of his and glides over to where Yuan Jei is sitting, placing himself firmly between his legs and leaning down to kiss him, a curtain of black hair sliding gracefully off silken shoulders. Ming Li tastes a little like wine, all tangy and sweet at the same time and for some reason, Yuan Jei kisses back, licking away the remnants of wine from the insides of Ming Li’s mouth.
A kiss leads to two, three or perhaps more; while the room spins in a blur of red, gold and black and Yuan Jei finds him on his back, expert fingers tugging at his clothes. Ming Li bends over him, mouth licking a path down his chin, under his neck, over his collarbone, past his chest, tracing a slow wet lazy trail down his stomach.
There’s no time for his brain to think and his mouth to open before the slim Chinese man manages to tug the last vestiges of his clothing away entirely and kneel down, looking up once at him before leaning in and taking him entirely in his mouth. He arches into the feel of that warmth before his instincts take over and he grabs Ming Li and pulls him up, pushing him onto the bed before kissing him roughly on the mouth.
Yuan Jei marvels at the way Ming Li moans and moves, the way that slim body is arched under him, fingers gripping silk sheets while he lowers his head and allows Yuan Jei to push into him. Ming Li’s skin is as pale as the moon hanging in the summer night and almost as smooth, thinks Yuan Jei in a rare burst of poetic creativity while the other man moans and writhes under him like a snake in heat. He marks Ming Li as his and when he arches off the sheets, a cry on his lips, Yuan Jei runs gentle fingers along a dark spot of red against his neck.
It doesn’t occur to him that his ribs never once bother him then.
He slips out just before dawn breaks, a silent figure leaving the most infamous brothel in Guangzhou so quietly; even the dogs sleeping in the shadows don’t stir.
Later, rumors of the fight between the undefeatable Yuan Jei and the bloodthirsty Master Shui of Hunan filters into town, passing from hawkers to customers, constables to officials, maids to prostitutes. Yuan Jei signs the death bond without blinking. Yuan Jei is losing. Yuan Jei can’t use his “Dragon Fist” technique. Yuan Jei coughs blood after being hit twice in the general chest region. Yuan Jei is using his legs more than his fists. Yuan Jei said that he would give up only after he was cold and dead. Yuan Jei said he couldn’t die, most of all, not at some prick’s hands. Yuan Jei who was hit so hard, he almost fell down. Yuan Jei, who laughs through bloodied lips and resumes his “Dragon fist” stance before telling Master Shui to bring it on.
When his sisters come in to tell Ming Li the news, they find only an empty room and a marked calendar.
Halfway back to the city, he runs into Ming Li who stares at him for a moment, mouth forming a small “o” of surprise before smirking and flipping his fan open with a soft click, lost to the blowing wind.
You have blood on your shirt, he says, almost casually and Yuan Jei catches the way his eyes gleam in the setting sun.
It matches your clothes, gestures Yuan Jei tiredly, a small smile tugging at his lips.
At least I’m not an idiot, laughs Ming Li, bringing the golden fan up to his lips and hiding his laughter behind a brief cough.
I’m not an idiot, snaps Yuan Jei, but his bark is lacking the bite and it takes a while before he notices Ming Li’s out-stretched hand. It fits into his own like a familiar weapon, the warmth seeping into his grooves and his skin.
The city’s that way.