Xue Xiangsi was stunned silent. Share a room, with him?
Snowfall Peak was very strict in its pursuit of the Dao. Cultivation was the one thing at the forefront of all disciple’s minds. They practiced their cultivation with their teachers, and when alone in their rooms. All secular distractions were discouraged. While another sect might keep their disciples in separate rooms to prevent them from having sexual encounters before an appropriate marriage was found, Snowfall Peak cared less about that, and much more about how those encounters might distract disciples from their studies, and possibly create inner demons that would prevent them from advancing in their cultivation. There was nothing more dangerous for a young cultivator than developing an inner demon because of frustrated desires or unrequited love. While all manner of internal conflict could create an inner demon which would hinder cultivation, Liu Zhiruo was adamant that the obsessions born out of love were the most dangerous. Therefore, all Snowfall Peak disciples had separate rooms, and only married pairs shared the same roof.
In all his 19 years, Xue Xiangsi had never shared a room with anyone, not even with Liu Zhuyu, the person to whom he was closest. And now Zhu Chunlai wanted to be the first.
“I’m sure sect leader Liu can find you appropriate accommodations,” Xue Xiangsi said.
“It was sect leader Liu that suggested I room with Xiangsi,” Zhu Chunlai said, shortening the distance between them once again.
Xue Xiangsi wasn’t in the mood to go find sect leader Liu, who was probably still in a foul mood, and ask her to confirm Zhu Chunlai’s words. He sighed, and motioned Zhu Chunlai to follow him.
He led the way, and didn’t see Zhu Chunlai’s self-satisfied smirk.
The Willow Courtyard opened up to a row of the ever-present Snowfall Peak plum trees, and to three squat pavilions where the disciples roomed, according to their ages. The oldest disciples stayed in the Begonia pavilion, Xue Xiangsi’s room was located in the east wing. He even had his own door with access to the small garden and pond on the back of the pavilion. He didn’t want to attract the curious eyes of his brothers by bringing in Zhu Chunlai through the main entrance, so he led him around the building, and into the room through the back door.
His room wasn’t any bigger than any of the other student’s, but Liu Zhuyu gifted him a nice silk mattress and comforter set, with richly embroidered rectangular pillows to match. He had an oak canopy bed, with thick panels around it, and billowy silk drapes. The bed wasn’t very wide, which made him come to an unfortunate realisation.
“Uhm, you can take the bed, I’ll sleep on the floor,” Xue Xiangsi said, picking up one of the pillows and preparing himself for very uncomfortable night’s sleep on the wooden floor.
“I would never make Xiangsi give up his bed. I’ll sleep on the floor.” Zhu Chunlai took the other pillow and held it under his arm.
“You are a guest; I can’t make you sleep on the floor.” If sect leader Liu really wanted him to share his room with Zhu Chunlai, she would have his hide if she found out Xue Xiangsi made him sleep on the floor.
“Then, if Xiangsi doesn’t mind, we can share the bed,” Zhu Chunlai said, placing the pillow he had just picked up back on the mattress.
Xue Xiangsi felt his ears and cheeks heat up in embarrassment. The bed really wasn’t meant for two people.
“Then...that’s fine. Good night.” Xue Xiangsi moved his right hand in a wide arch and used a simple wind summoning technique to put out all the candles, steeping the room in sudden gloom.
He took off his outer robes, and stood awkwardly in his middle clothes, simple cotton pants and shirt, until his embarrassment made him crawl into the bed, and move as close as possible to the back panel, his back to Zhu Chunlai.
He heard an amused chuckle, and soon the mattress rustled with the weight of a body settling behind him. He assumed Zhu Chunlai would lay on his back, or with his back to him, but he was on his side as well, his knees almost slotting under Xue Xiangsi’s due to their proximity.
“The bed is really small, I apologize for making Xiangsi uncomfortable,” Zhu Chunlai said. His breath tickled Xue Xiangsi’s nape.
“It’s fine. Please sleep well,” Xue Xiangsi said, supressing a shiver. He could almost feel Zhu Chunlai’s body heat through their middle clothes. He had never thought that his room was small before, but now he could almost feel the walls closing down on them, bringing him and Zhu Chunlai unbearably closer.
Xue Xiangsi closed his eyes tightly, hoping he could fall asleep as soon as possible. After a few minutes of futile attempts to trick his body into feeling drowsy instead of hyper alert, he felt Zhu Chunlai’s breathing even out in the soft cadence of sleep. It was vexing knowing Zhu Chunlai was able to fall asleep so quickly when he was feeling so out of sorts, but he managed to relax somewhat, knowing Zhu Chunlai wasn’t awake to notice his bated breath and stiff posture.
Just as he was relaxing into a more comfortable position, Zhu Chunlai moved closer to him, and nuzzled his neck with a sleepy murmur. His lips brushed Xue Xiangsi’s nape, in an unconscious kiss, that made Xue Xiangsi draw in a shuddering breath. He had never felt such an intimate touch before, and it was making his head spin.
Then Zhu Chunlai threw an arm around Xue Xiangsi’s waist and pulled him tighter against his chest, bringing their bodies into sharp contact.
He could feel Zhu Chunlai’s smooth chest muscles against his back, and a sharp hipbone digging into his side. It was too much, Xue Xiangsi wouldn’t be able to withstand an entire night of such close proximity.
He disentangled himself from Zhu Chunlai’s arms in quiet and fluid movements, picked up his pillow, and stepped over Zhu Chunlai’s sleeping form, trying his best not to disturb him.
He threw the pillow on the floor with a huff, and laid down to sleep as far away from the bed as possible, and from the menace sleeping on it.
When Xue Xiangsi woke up the next day, he was surprised to find the comforter wrapped around him, and the bed empty.
He had managed to fall asleep the previous night after much tossing and turning, but he had a vague feeling that his dreams had been chaotic and tinged with red.
Xue Xiangsi was glad he didn’t have to face Zhu Chunlai after the awkwardness of the past night, he had no idea what to say if he saw him, or how to explain why he chose to sleep on the floor. “You hugged me while you slept and rubbed your face against my neck, which made me almost qi-deviate from shame?” He would rather die than admit something that embarrassing.
He would be meeting with Bai Yunkai to leave and find Qiu Yuliang soon, but he still had time for a bath, and there was nothing he wanted more, than to wash away the memories of the confusing night before.
He picked a fresh set of robes, and made his way to the hot springs in the Willow courtyard, just half a li away from the Begonia pavilion and hidden behind a large granite outcropping and several pine trees. This early in the morning there shouldn’t be any other disciples around, which suited him just fine.
Xue Xiangsi began to the relax as he drew nearer to the hot spring and could smell the fresh pine scent, hear the warm bubbling of the thermal water and the wind rustling the pine leaves with a sibilant whistle. The familiar scenery and relaxing atmosphere melted off someone of the anxiety coiling his shoulders even before he got into the water.
As he expected, the pool was completely deserted. He made quick work of his robes and folded them neatly on the granite edge of the spring. He got into the hot water and sat down on a rock bench. A lazy disciple must have dragged into the spring many centuries ago. Soaking up in the warm water made him feel more rested, he spent a long time just lazing in the spring before starting to wash his body.
He had his back turned to the stone path leading up to the spring. The noise of the running water muffled the approaching steps of someone drawing nearer. Xue Xiangsi tied up his long har into a loose bun on top of his head, and used a wood ladle to throw water onto his back. He was rubbing a fresh mixture of herbs and oils into his skin to cleanse it, when a nearby splash drew his eye, making him instinctively reach for a sword that wasn’t there.
“I’m making it a habit to startle Xiangsi, I apologize.”
Xue Xiangsi turned around and came face to face with Zhu Chunlai’s naked chest. He already knew the other disciple was taller and broader than him, but his muscles were also more defined, albeit lean instead of bulging. A water droplet made its way down the valley of Zhu Chunlai’s chest muscles, and the hard valleys of his abdomen, until it disappeared under stark mermaid lines. Xue Xiangsi was arrested to that droplet’s path until it was obscured by the rising steam from the spring. He managed to tear his eyes away after staring for an inappropriate amount of time.
He lowered himself into water up to his nose to hide his furious blush. He must have been afflicted by a sudden wave of madness to stare so brazenly. He needed to visit Doctor Hui and ask him for an acupuncture session to balance his qi.
“I’m almost done, you’ll have the spring to yourself,” Xue Xiangsi said, raising his chin just slightly above the water to speak.
“I don’t mind sharing with Xiangsi,” Zhu Chunlai said, lathering his body with fast economic movements, as if he hadn’t noticed Xue Xiangsi’s mortification.
In any case, Xue Xiangsi wanted to finish his bath as soon as possible. He swam further away from Zhu Chunlai and tried to wash his body as discretely as possible. At least Zhu Chunlai was keeping to his side of the pool and not trying to draw Xue Xiangsi into unnecessary conversation. Clearly the Gods thought he had suffered enough for a day.
As soon as that thought fleeted through his mind, he felt a rough cloth against the skin of his back.
“I’ll help Xiangsi wash his back,” whispered Zhu Chunlai, near Xue Xiangsi’s scarlet left ear.
Xue Xiangsi changed his mind; the Gods hated him. He must have committed a heinous sin in his past life to be punished in this way. He had Zhu Chunlai plastered to his back, and he could also hear voices drawing nearer. He tried to disentangle himself, and get away from Zhu Chunlai, but in his haste, he slipped on the smooth stone of the spring's floor and ended up falling back into the body behind his.
Which was why the three approaching junior disciples found him sitting on Zhu Chunlai’s lap, completely naked, and redder than a peach core.