Qiang Jin Jiu – Chapter 209 : Embrace

Translated with: Jia<3

Chashi Sinkhole was Shen Zechuan’s darkest hour.

When he first entered Zhao Zui temple, the insides of the temple were old and dilapidated, with broken windows that could not keep out the chilly wind. Ji Gang kept the only spot that was sheltered from the wind for him to sleep, and he would rest his head on his arms, not daring to tell his shifu that he could not fall asleep.  

Back then, Shen Zechuan could still remember Ji Mu’s face. There were shadows of Hua Pingting in his big brother, a handsome man with delicate features. The number of matchmakers coming to play go-between while he was still at home was enough to break their threshold from all those coming and going.   

“I’ve been thinking about my promotion,” Ji Mu was squatting in the courtyard, picking up dumplings to eat. “Let’s move to the eastern side once I’m promoted.” 

Shen Zechuan imitated him and stuffed himself with dumplings until his cheeks were bulging. He nodded and slurred his words with his mouth full, “I’ll watch sister-in-law for you.”

Ji Mu had a childhood playmate, a maiden who originally lived next door to them and later moved away to the east. This maiden’s father played up to those in power and was always thinking of marrying his daughter off to someone in the yamen. In order to prove himself, Ji Mu enlisted in the military and worked hard all day attending to official duties, hoping to wed the maiden before she was married away. 

Ji Gang did not earn much. Their family was not well-off. With two sons to raise, Hua Pingting even saved her own dowry as funds for her sons’ future weddings. Seeing as Ji Mu was already of age, she and Ji Gang contemplated engaging a matchmaker. 

Winter in Duanzhou was a scene of desolation. The Chashi River lay to the east. When they were a little younger, they would go onto the ice in winter to pull sleds. Shen Zechuan was a smart one, and he always coaxed the little rascals who tagged along to be the horses while he himself played the old master sitting on the sled as he directed them to run all over the place. 

Ji Mu told Ji Gang at that time, “My younger brother will definitely go far in the future.” 

Hua Pingting treated Shen Zechuan as her own son, and so Ji Mu treated Shen Zechuan as his own kin younger brother. When Xiao Chiye and Xiao Jiming were in Libei riding horses and drawing bows, Ji Mu was still taking Shen Zechuan running around all over the mountains and plains. Shen Zechuan was very sloppy in his training of the Ji Clan boxing style before he was fifteen years old, but Ji Mu always covered for him and would not let Hua Pingting admonish him. 

In the third year of the reign of Xiande, Ji Mu was promoted to Squad Commander. The entire family was delighted, and Hua Pingting started making arrangements by counting the family’s savings over and over again as she and Ji Gang prepared to hire a matchmaker to propose marriage to the maiden in the east.

At that time, Ji Mu had to be on duty. Shen Zechuan took the food Hua Pingting packed for him and went to the garrison troops camp to deliver the meal to his elder brother. That night was the last time Shen Zechuan saw Hua Pingting. His shiniang stood at the entrance of the courtyard, where she fastened his lined jacket for him and put on his fur collar. She covered him up securely and gave him the instructions to “leave and return early.” 

Ji Mu secretly gave Shen Zechuan wine to drink, and Shen Zechuan drank it by dipping his chopsticks in it, looking very much like a green radish wrapped in a lined jacket sitting among a row of tough and muscular soldiers. When the snow fell, these rugged men said that the timely snow was an auspicious omen for a good harvest; Duanzhou was going to have a bumper harvest next year.

Ji Mu rapped his chopsticks on the porcelain bowl and sang the tune “A Song for Peaceful and Tranquil Times”.1 At that time, he was only twenty years old and was about to marry and bring home a pretty wife. Both brothers got along harmoniously with one another, and their parents at home were free from illnesses and worries. He was right in the prime of his life.

Every time Shen Zechuan thought back to that night, tears would stream down his cheeks. He lost the courage to reminisce and walk down memory lane when he was in Zhao Zui Temple; he no longer dreamed of those times again. Over the course of seven years in which he was plagued by nightmares, Ji Mu turned into a grotesque skeleton. Shen Zechuan forgot what his elder brother looked like; he could not even remember their last conversation. 

Why didn’t he pull Ji Mu up? 

Shen Zechuan crawled his way out, then fell back in again. In the first few years, he would still lie within and cry inconsolably. And so, “Shen Zechuan” was left behind here. He stood up and saw the snow burying himself. 

Military boots trod upon the snow, making slight noises. 

Shen Zechuan apathetically turned his head back and saw a travel-worn Ji Mu in the snow. Ji Mu was clean this night, without a trace of injury on him. He held on to the hilt of his blade and approached Shen Zechuan. 

Ji Mu had not changed at all even after seven years. His cheeks were slightly red from the freezing cold, and he huffed breaths of hot air as he walked. All that hostility during the struggle in the sea of blood vanished without a trace. Shen Zechuan looked at him and remembered the “Song for Peaceful and Tranquil Times” he sang before his departure. 

Shen Zechuan, who was already as tall as Ji Mu, called out wearily, “Ge.”

Ji Mu stood still before Shen Zechuan. As the snowstorm tousled the messy hair on his temples, he asked, “Why aren’t you going home?”

“The snow is too heavy. I forgot the way,” Shen Zechuan answered.  

Ji Mu laughed as he looked at Shen Zechuan. “Silly lad. Mother’s looking for you.”

Shen Zechuan looked back and saw Hua Pingting on the other end. Shiniang was carrying a lantern in the heavy snow, the hem of her skirt swaying in the wind. As he watched her, the tears started to gush from his eyes. 

He remembered everything. That was why he wanted to forget it all. 

Ji Mu held his blade steady and passed through Shen Zechuan to walk towards Hua Pingting. 

Shen Zechuan suddenly could not contain himself and shouted, “Ge!” 

With a teary voice, Shen Zechuan disconsolately attempted to grab Ji Mu. But Ji Mu did not turn back. Shen Zechuan chased after him. Every step he took, the blood under his feet rose an inch. He hastily started running, but he could not break free of his shackles. Eventually, he fell into the pool of blood, where he was bogged down by corpses. He shouted himself hoarse after Ji Mu, “Come back!” 

Ji Mu was already about to vanish in the snow. 

Shen Zechuan failed to grasp hold of anything as the blood swallowed him up in the inundated sinkhole. The terror of drowning swept over him. He could not breathe. All he could do was struggle and look on helplessly as that faint light died out.  

“Shen Lanzhou—!”

Xiao Chiye scooped up Shen Zechuan. Those sturdy shoulders of his could stand up against the assault of the storm. He brought with him the light of the blazing sun, and he used the strong wind to sweep this dark, gloomy world clean, dispelling the snowstorm. He was scorching hot, so scalding that there was no room for anything else around Shen Zechuan. 

Shen Zechuan abruptly returned to his senses. He was soaked all over through and through. Xiao Chiye cupped his cheeks, touched the tip of his nose to his in the darkness, and kissed him soothingly. Still gasping for breath, Shen Zechuan wrapped his arms around Xiao Chiye’s neck, his eyes turning damp as they clung to each other in a snuggle.

Xiao Chiye leaned in closer to coax him, “Lanzhou, come back. Come back to me.” 

With his heart still palpitating, Shen Zechuan nodded. He bumped his forehead against Xiao Chiye’s and gazed at Xiao Chiye with panicky eyes. Xiao Chiye wiped the corner of his eyes with his thumbs and caressed his cheeks. 

“Everything is alright now.” Xiao Chiye dropped him a kiss each time he spoke. “Give me a hug.” 

The military tent was newly erected. The fire in the charcoal brazier did not burn strong enough and went out in the middle of the night. Both of them slept on a simple plank bed, padded with a thin mattress underneath, and with an overcoat blanketing them. Fearing that Lanzhou would fall sick, Xiao Chiye grabbed his icy hands, stuffed them into his clothes, and pressed them against his own chest. 

Shen Zechuan’s breathing calmed as he grasped at Xiao Chiye’s clothes until they wrinkled. Not once had Xiao Chiye’s arms ever let go of him, and it was in this position he covered them with the overcoat and whispered to him underneath. 

“Are you cold?” Xiao Chiye asked. 

Shen Zechuan buried his face in the crook of Xiao Chiye’s neck and answered in a quiet voice, “cold.” 

Xiao Chiye embraced Shen Zechuan tightly and pressed down in the center of the top of his head with his chin. With eyes half-closed, he said, “Stick a little closer, and you won’t be cold anymore.”

Both of them clung to each other for warmth, like a pair of mutually dependent cubs relying on each other for survival. Shen Zechuan reached out to feel his way to Xiao Chiye’s back, his touch so icy-cold that Xiao Chiye inhaled sharply. Touching that wolf set Shen Zechuan’s mind at ease. His touch was careful and delicate, as though he was stroking a wolf’s fur. 

The stroking of the prominent muscles on Xiao Chiye’s back tickled him, but there was nowhere for him to hide, so he could only tilt his head back slightly and endure the waves of tingling sensation washing over the small of his back. Eventually, he could no longer bear it and lifted a hand to grab hold of Shen Zechuan’s wrist before turning over to pin Lanzhou down beneath him. His breathing was slightly heavy as he pressed up against him without moving.  

Shen Zechuan sulked in a huff. “Didn’t you want to hug?” 

“Is that what you call a hug?” Xiao Chiye leaned in closer to press down on him, then repeated his question in a whisper. “Is that what you call a hug?”

Shen Zechuan was of the opinion that this voice was one that escaped from his throat. He looked at Xiao Chiye, seeming to be choked with silent indignation. 

Xiao Chiye released Shen Zechuan’s wrist and slid his hand down along the latter’s waist, his touch turning Shen Zechuan’s face a shade of red. That was ticklish. Initially, he could endure it, but Xiao Chiye pressed against him with his chest, stirring him up so much that his expressive eyes gradually glazed over with water again. In between short, urgent breaths, he tilted his head up and smiled.

Xiao Chiye loved Lanzhou’s smile to the moon and back—when those half-shut eyes rippled with tidal surges of emotions, with his Xiao Ce’an’s silhouette drowning in them. 

Shen Zechuan smiled until his neck turned damp and his clothes clung to his back, soaked with sweat. He felt tired as he calmed his breathing to welcome Xiao Chiye’s kiss. It was warm under the overcoat, so stifling that Shen Zechuan forgot all about the snowstorm.  

Xiao Chiye knew Lanzhou did not sleep well, but tonight, he was here.

And he was burning with the ambition to make sure that he was all Lanzhou ever dreamed of from now on.

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  1. 清平调 Qing Ping Diao, or A Song/Tune for Peaceful and Tranquil Times by the famous poet, Li Bai.