Early the next morning, after Gu Ruohai finished his usual morning exercises, he took a bath and returned to the courtyard with a basin of water. Upon entering the house, he saw that Su Huaizhu was still asleep.
There was no training today in lieu of the festival. During such occasions, the disciples were allowed to visit each other’s courtyards and the dining hall would prepare festive foods. During the past week, everyone had been taking turns helping to hang lanterns all around the common areas of Lesser Jade House. Everyone was looking forward to a respite from training and to be able to celebrate this day with their fellow disciples.
Su Huaizhu had taken the opportunity to sleep in. Gu Ruohai had observed that he’d been in low spirits since yesterday. He’d even forgone their usual after-dinner chess game and couldn’t even be bothered to perform his usual exercises this morning.
Seeing this, Gu Ruohai didn’t want to wake him. He placed the basin gently down on the table and left the room as quietly as he could. He went to sit on the steps of the house to enjoy the gentle autumn breeze and the quiet of the morning.
He recalled Su Huaizhu’s expression when he’d mentioned the Mid-Autumn Festival yesterday. Although he’d tried to hide it, it was apparent to Gu Ruohai that he was disappointed that he couldn’t leave the courtyard and take part in any of the social activities.
He’d surmised that when Su Huaizhu was in the Devil Sect, this type of occasion would probably be celebrated like it was in Lanyang City; filled with noise, colour and excitement. Presently, he had to suffer these fourteen days of confinement and miss out while everyone else would obviously be enjoying themselves.
The sound of the door creaking open behind him startled Gu Ruohai out of his woolgathering.
He turned and saw Su Huaizhu standing at the doorway, having just washed his face and said, “You’re awake.” Then he stood up. “I’ll go get our breakfast. You go change first.”
Su Huaizhu nodded and went back into the room.
When Gu Ruohai returned with the food boxes, Su Huaizhu was already waiting for him at the courtyard table. He helped Gu Ruohai open up the boxes and set out the plates and utensils.
“So what are you doing later? We have no training today.” Gu Ruohai asked as they began to eat.
Su Huaizhu didn’t look up and gave a nonchalant shrug. “I don’t really feel like doing anything.” He finished breakfast in silence and sauntered back into his room.
Gu Ruohai stared at him as he disappeared into the house. He began to tidy up the food boxes and then headed back out to the dining hall. Just as he’d walked a few steps out of the courtyard, a thought suddenly came to him and the corners of his mouth curled up.
Su Huaizhu had declined lunch saying that he didn’t have an appetite and spent most of the day inside the house. That reason was partly true. The other part was that he didn’t want to hear sounds and voices of the other disciples, shixiong and shijies having a good time outside.
He read a book, meditated, then took a nap in the afternoon. By the time he awoke, the sun was already setting, casting its glow through the window and bathing the room in orange light. He lay on his bed and looked up at the ceiling boards in the room as he let out a long sigh.
Just then, there was a knock on the door.
“Su Huaizhu? I’ve brought dinner.” Gu Ruohai called from outside.
Su Huaizhu sat up. Having skipped lunch, his stomach was already growling, so he replied, “I’ll be out soon.” He adjusted his clothing and hair, put on a warm coat before opening the door and stepping outside.
The sight that greeted him caused him to stop in astonishment. His breath got caught in his throat.
There were two strings of colourful lanterns hung from one side of the courtyard to the other, giving a bright and cheery atmosphere to the space. The table in the corner had been laid out with special dishes from the dining hall. Gu Ruohai was standing in the middle smiling and looking at him.
Gu Ruohai cupped his fists: “Happy Mid-Autumn Festival, Su Huaizhu.”
Su Huaizhu slowly walked down the steps into the courtyard as he looked around. His gaze stopped at Gu Ruohai.
Gu Ruohai came next to him and put his arm around his shoulder as he proudly observed his handiwork, “It’s not much. What do you think?” He asked as he turned his head to Su Huaizhu.
Su Huaizhu was staring at him unblinkingly. Gu Ruohai quietly stared back. He felt he would drown in those magnetic eyes. His heart abruptly skipped a beat and his breathing paused for a second as Su Huaizhu’s lips caught his attention. He stopped for a moment as if he had suddenly thought of something, then he turned back to the courtyard.
The atmosphere had instantly become rather thick despite the light evening breeze wafting around. It seemed to bear a somewhat ambiguous and beguiling energy that could combust with the slightest spark.
Gu Ruohai dazedly discerned that his arm that was over Su Huaizhu’s shoulders had begun to tremble ever so slightly. He delicately removed it and cleared his throat. “There’s more.” He said with a smile as he discreetly clenched his fist behind his back to stop the trembling.
Su Huaizhu: “Ng?”
Just then, a knock sounded from outside the courtyard door and Gu Ruohai walked over to open it.
Wang Ke, Luo Yu and Qin Jianyue stepped over the threshold, into the courtyard and made their hellos to Gu Ruohai. Upon seeing Su Huaizhu, they cupped their fists and gave their Mid-Autumn greetings.
Su Huaizhu returned their greetings.
“I’ve brought wine.” Qin Jianyue said holding up a jug.
Luo Yu was carrying a three-layered food box. “There’s snacks, fruit and desserts here for later.” He said as he placed it down on one side.
Wang Ke closed the door behind them and eyed the decorated courtyard with a smile.
“Come and have dinner first before the food gets cold.” Gu Ruohai ushered. In the few days that he’d been bringing Su Huaizhu his meals, he’d observed that Su Huaizhu enjoyed his food hot. Since then, Gu Ruohai would make it a point to not delay when fetching their food.
Everyone walked over and sat down at the table. Qin Jianyue poured everyone a small cup of wine. Then they toasted and drank before picking up their chopsticks to eat.
“Thank you, all of you, for this.” Su Huaizhu said, looking around at everyone.
“This was Gu shixiong’s idea.” Wang Ke said, gesturing at Gu Ruohai. “All we did was show up.”
Having heard that, Gu Ruohai felt Su Huaizhu look over.
He brushed it off. “It’s just a couple of lanterns.” Gu Ruohai said as he stole a quick look at Su Huaizhu and their gazes collided. A warm feeling began to blossom in his chest.
They all began to eat.
“All the other shixiongs and shijies are having some get-together at the martial arts field after dinner. We thought the bunch of us could hang out here, chat, drink wine and enjoy the moon.” Qin Jianyue said, throwing a look at Luo Yu.
“What’s it like training under Old Qi?” Gu Ruohai asked Luo Yu.
Luo Yu finished his bite of food, then said, “Quite interesting. He’s been bringing me to forage for herbs of all kinds and showing me how to process them.”
Wang Ke picked some vegetables into his bowl and said, “The world needs more people like you.”
“When you’re done with your discipleship here, you’ll be an expert healer or herb master of our generation. Maybe you can teach me some healing arts.” Qin Jianyue smiled and put a slice of meat into Luo Yu’s bowl.
Luo Yu nodded for the gesture and replied, “I don’t know about that yet. I’m just learning as much as I can here. What about you? You’re not from any sect or school. What are you going to do once your discipleship is completed?”
Qin Jianyue paused as he considered for a moment, “I’ll likely return to the capital. My whole family’s there.”
Su Huaizhu looked up from his food and asked, “Your family runs a business there?”
Qin Jianyue cleared his throat, “Most of my family’s been in the……imperial army at some point.”
Luo Yu abruptly started coughing and Qin Jianyue hurriedly patted him on the back. After a while, Luo Yu waved, “I’m fine…*cough*……swallowed too quickly……” He took the cup of tea offered by Qin Jianyue and slowly drank.
Gu Ruohai smiled, “What about you, Luo shidi? What does your family do?”
Luo Yu finished the tea and put down the cup. “Um……my family……they’re all healers and doctors.” He said, not looking up. Then he turned to Su Huaizhu and changed the subject, “Your confinement’s up in another two days, right?”
Su Huaizhu nodded, “I can’t wait.”
Wang Ke piped up, “Shall we meet up for Chongyang too? It’s about three or more weeks away. Let’s go climb a mountain or something.”
“Why? So Su Huaizhu can break his leg this time?” Qin Jianyue joked.
Su Huaizhu flicked a grain of rice at Qin Jianyue, “Ha……ha……”
They continued to eat, chat and drink. As the evening wore on, the wine loosened everyone up and the atmosphere became more casual. All of them had over five cups by now, but their alcohol tolerance wasn’t up to par yet.
Qin Jianyue continued to refill everyone’s wine cups as he said, “Do we still have to address each other so formally? I mean, we’re all friends now and we’re in Lesser Jade House. Do we still have to bother with all these etiquettes and such?”
He gulped down his cup and pulled Luo Yu over, “Isn’t that right, Ah Yu?”
Luo Yu’s capacity for drink was the poorest among everyone there. Right now, his eyelids were half closed. “Mmm, etiquette cannot be abandoned.” He mumbled. “If not, we’re no different than animalssss…” He shoved a little at Qin Jianyue. “You can’t call me that…”
Qin Jianyue merely smiled.
Wang Ke fiddled and stared at his empty cup as he sat there muttering incoherently to himself.
Su Huaizhu had propped up his head with his elbow. He nudged his wine cup at Gu Ruohai’s chopsticks, “Ng……Ruohai?”
Gu Ruohai had also propped up his cheek with his elbow and was staring, half-lidded at Su Huaizhu. He slowly lifted his hand and extended it in Su Huaizhu’s direction. Su Huaizhu watched him and frowned, “Wha—what…?”
Then, Gu Ruohai’s fingers tapped Su Huaizhu’s cheek and he muttered, “Zhi*…”
(*zhi = bamboo)
Wang Ke, Qin Jianyue and Luo Yu looked over dazedly at them from across the table. All of a sudden, they snorted and began laughing. The laughter was infectious and pretty soon, everyone there was laughing together.
It was already rather late. A few minutes after that, Huang shixiong returned from the gathering outside and saw the five of them all tipsy. He approached and patted Qin Jianyue and Luo Yu, “Alright now. You’ve had your fun. Time to go back to your courtyards.”
Qin Jianyue and Wang Ke were still able to walk and headed over to splash their faces in the water vat to clear their heads. Qin Jianyue then lifted Luo Yu’s arm over his shoulder and helped him to get up. They all bade their farewells and left Yingyuan courtyard.
Huang shixiong looked back at Gu Ruohai and Su Huaizhu who were still sitting at the table. Both of them looked a little distracted. Huang shixiong asked, “Can you walk?”
“Yes, shixiong.” They answered.
“Fine, help each other back to the house and get some rest. You’ll need to sleep it off. We’ll start training after lunch tomorrow.” Huang shixiong rubbed his temples. He’d had a few sips of wine too, so he retired to his room to sleep.
Gu Ruohai and Su Huaizhu were a little merry from the wine, but still conscious enough to make their way back into the house. Su Huaizhu and Gu Ruohai supported each other and entered Gu Ruohai’s room first.
Su Huaizhu helped Gu Ruohai over and sat him down on the bed. He stumbled a little, but Gu Ruohai caught him in time and pulled him down to sit next to him.
“Thank you for just now.” Su Huaizhu said, a slight smile at the corner of his lips.
“I’m just glad you enjoyed yourself.” Gu Ruohai sighed next to Su Huaizhu.
He slowly turned his head and collided with an unwavering stare.
Su Huaizhu’s face displayed an unfathomable expression. Gu Ruohai’s heart skipped a beat, his breaths began to quicken and he could feel his face turning red. He wanted to say something, a feeble attempt to make the situation less awkward, perhaps. So he started to open his mouth.
Just then Su Huaizhu leaned over and pressed his lips to his.