First thing in the morning, Gu Ruohai entered Su Huaizhu’s room to inform him of Shizun’s instructions. He complied and embraced Gu Ruohai before they both shared a lingering kiss.
“Come, let’s head over to the dining hall for breakfast.” Gu Ruohai said, tugging Su Huaizhu out the door once he finished washing and dressing up.
It had just started to snow again, and both of them were wearing thick coats and boots. Su Huaizhu and Gu Ruohai strolled hand in hand until they reached the inside of the dining hall. Qin Jianyue spotted them and waved them over to the table he was sitting at with Wang Ke and Luo Yu.
Gu Ruohai raised his hand to acknowledge him. Once he and Su Huaizhu had taken their food, they went over to join the rest of them to eat. Today’s menu included colourful glutinous balls in sweet soup, dumplings, and sticky rice cakes.
“Feels like we haven’t seen you in ages.” Wang Ke said as Su Huaizhu sat down.
Su Huaizhu just smiled in response and began to eat.
They all chatted as they ate. Throughout the meal, Gu Ruohai noticed that Su Huaizhu didn’t really participate in the conversations and seemed quite preoccupied with his thoughts.
Qin Jianyue was saying, “Back in the capital, when the ponds in the palace freeze over, I would bring my younger siblings, nephews, and nieces to skate on the surface. There was this wonderful royal shoemaker who would make us these fantastic ice shoes—well, more like ice ‘clogs’, since they were rather heavy—and we’d put them on. With some practice, we could slide all over the ice.”
“Eluo is frozen all year round.” Luo Yu said. “But we have a stretch of green with a warm lake. That’s where the royal court is located.”
Wang Ke cut in: “Have you been to Jade Mirror Pond here? It’s probably frozen solid by now. Too bad we don’t have those ice clogs of yours.” He raised his eyebrows at Qin Jianyue.
Gu Ruohai looked up. “I didn’t know there’s a pond here.”
Wang Ke nodded: “It’s truly picturesque. There’s even a waterfall nearby. That’s probably frozen too.”
Qin Jianyue asked Gu Ruohai, “What do you do in Tengyun Pavilion during winter?”
Gu Ruohai gave a wry smile and replied, “Martial arts training.”
“Even on the Winter Solstice?” Wang Ke asked disbelievingly.
“Except the Winter Solstice.” Gu Ruohai patted his shoulder and continued, “Sometimes, my good friend from Qianfeng Villa comes to visit with his father. I’d bring him into Lanyang City, and we’d spend the whole day walking the streets and enjoying ourselves.”
“Do you have snow in the Devil Sect?” Luo Yu asked Su Huaizhu.
Su Huaizhu had been extremely quiet and was caught off guard for a while. He replied, “Of course we do. The temperatures can vary quite significantly within the same day. It’s the best time to enjoy our osmanthus wine.”
Once breakfast was done, Su Huaizhu and Gu Ruohai excused themselves and left. The others understood. Su Huaizhu would be back in seclusion tomorrow; therefore, he and Gu Ruohai didn’t have much time to be together alone.
As Gu Ruohai walked with him out of the dining hall, he asked, “Is something the matter? You seem distracted.”
Su Huaizhu looked over and put his arm around Gu Ruohai’s shoulders. He smiled and said, “Nothing for you to worry about. I just need to discuss something with Huang shixiong about my training, that’s all.”
Gu Ruohai frowned. “Is it urgent? We can go look for him now if you want.”
Su Huaizhu pondered for a moment and seemed to have thought of something. He patted Gu Ruohai and said, “I can go look for him myself. Why don’t you rejoin Wang Ke and the rest? I’ll meet up with you once I’m done with shixiong.”
Gu Ruohai was a little dismayed, but he put on a smile and replied, “Alright, don’t be too long.” Then he turned and headed back to the dining hall.
Once Gu Ruohai was out of sight, Su Huaizhu headed off. He didn’t want to worry Gu Ruohai unnecessarily, so it was better if he spoke to Huang shixiong first. Hopefully he will be able to shed some light and resolve this quickly. Then he could get back to spending the rest of the day with Gu Ruohai without this hanging over his head.
The first place Su Huaizhu thought to look for Huang shixiong was back at Yingyuan courtyard. Luckily, he managed to catch him just as he was leaving the compound with another shixiong.
“I’ll meet you in the dining hall later, Mo Yun.” Huang shixiong nodded to the other shixiong before turning to Su Huaizhu and smiling, “I was expecting you.”
Su Huaizhu blinked in surprise. “You were?”
“Yes. Shizun’s letter yesterday mentioned that you would seek me out to ask me why you couldn’t achieve a breakthrough for your Six Underworlds Inter Flower technique. That’s why you’re here now, isn’t it?”
Su Huaizhu was taken aback and wasn’t able to respond for a moment. When he recovered, he managed to croak out, “Shizun is indeed wise and omnipotent.”
Huang shixiong smiled, “Shizun has always been all-seeing and all-knowing. You’ll get used to it eventually. Now, back to your issue.” He pulled out the letter and skimmed it. “Shizun knows the reason for the setback you’re facing and has even provided a solution.”
Su Huaizhu was dumbfounded and amazed at the same time. He swallowed and asked, “What did she say?”
Huang shixiong cleared his throat and proceeded to read out the letter:
“When Zhu Zhu comes to ask you tomorrow, tell him he can’t achieve a breakthrough on his Six Underworlds Inter Flower technique because he is no longer chaste. A session of Old Qi’s acupuncture will assist, but he must now extend his time in seclusion and abstain from any further “relations” until he achieves a breakthrough.”
By the time he’d finished reading, Su Huaizhu was already thunderstruck. Perhaps it was the wealth of information supplied within such a short time which he wasn’t able to process right away, or maybe it was the shocking content of the information itself. Su Huaizhu didn’t know how he should react to Huang shixiong just then.
Huang shixiong didn’t seem to notice. He folded the letter and said, “So there you have it. Now, why don’t you make your way to Old Qi and hand him this note. Shizun has listed down which acupuncture points he needs to work on.”
Huang shixiong passed him the letter and smiled, “I’ll inform Gu shidi that Shizun has sent you to find Old Qi. You can tell him the rest yourself.”
Once Su Huaizhu took hold of the letter, Huang shixiong turned and walked away, leaving him in his stupefied state.
When Su Huaizhu had finished his acupuncture session at Old Qi’s and returned to Yingyuan courtyard, it was late morning. Upon setting foot into the compound, he noticed Gu Ruohai practising his sword, sweeping up bits of snow in his wake.
He stood silently by the side and watched. It wasn’t until Gu Ruohai had completed his set, that he saw Su Huaizhu observing him and walked over to meet him.
“Huang shixiong said Shizun told you to find Old Qi. What’s going on?” Gu Ruohai asked.
Su Huaizhu leaned on one of the pillars and said, “Nothing much. She told Old Qi to give me acupuncture to aid my training.” That wasn’t a lie. Then he jerked his chin to where Gu Ruohai had been training earlier and asked, “Are you learning a new sword technique?”
Gu Ruohai glanced down at his long sword, “I’m creating my own set…… Well, I’m trying…”
Su Huaizhu put his arm around him, “I’m sure it’ll be great. We can spar once you’ve completed it.”
Seeing that Huang shixiong wasn’t around, Gu Ruohai turned and pulled Su Huaizhu in for a kiss. “I’ve missed you.” He murmured softly.
He curled his arm around Su Huaizhu’s neck and whispered seductively in his ear, “You’ll be going back into seclusion tomorrow. Shall we make the most of our time now?” Gu Ruohai slowly ran his hand down Su Huaizhu’s chest.
Su Huaizhu took hold of Gu Ruohai’s hand before it could slide down any further and brought it up to his lips for a kiss, “Mmm, shall we walk around Lesser Jade House instead? It’s been a while since I’ve been out and about.”
Gu Ruohai looked up at him, a jumble of emotions crossed his face. But he instantly schooled his features and gave Su Huaizhu a smile, coaxing, “Don’t you want to stay indoors? It’s warmer.”
When he heard himself speak, it sounded as if he’d become such a wanton since they’d been apart. So Gu Ruohai gave a cough and added, “Of course, you’d want to have a stroll. You’ve been stuck in here for a while.” He took a step back, “Just let me put away my sword first.” Then he turned and headed into the house.
Once he was inside, he closed the door, and a litany of thoughts began to unravel in his mind. He sheathed his sword into its scabbard and placed it back atop the rack. Gu Ruohai mentally chided himself for allowing his insecurities to unsettle him. Then he loosened the fist he didn’t realise he was clenching before straightening his coat and stepping back into the courtyard.
Su Huaizhu was waiting for him at the bottom of the steps. He held out his hand, and Gu Ruohai twined their fingers together as they walked out the door.
“I’ve just thought of a nickname for you.” Su Huaizhu turned to Gu Ruohai and said softly as they ambled through the snow.
“Oh?” Gu Ruohai looked at him intently.
Su Huaizhu smiled and said, “Hai Bo’er.”
Gu Ruohai tapped him between the eyes. “That’s just making fun of my name.”
Su Huaizhu pulled him to face him and hugged him close. “No.” He said as he pushed away a strand of hair behind Gu Ruohai’s ear, then leaned in to whisper: “It’s because you’re my sea and you make me want to drown in your waves.”
Gu Ruohai shuddered, but not from the cold. Su Huaizhu pinched his chin to kiss him deeply, but Gu Ruohai pushed at him a little. “Someone will see us,” he gasped in a low voice.
Su Huaizhu ignored him and continued to plunder his mouth. “Let them see,” he said huskily.
In a moment, there was a loud and familiar-sounding “Ai!” from a few meters away.
Gu Ruohai separated from Su Huaizhu almost instantly and leapt backwards. Gu Ruohai felt his face go up in flames, but Su Huaizhu merely appeared amused.
It turned out to be Wang Ke who’d shouted, and his eyes were closed tight. “I didn’t see anything,” he said. Luo Yu and Qin Jianyue were also with him and doing their utmost to not look their way.
“So why are your eyes shut?” Su Huaizhu smiled as he asked. He tugged the blushing Gu Ruohai back over and placed a kiss on his forehead.
“Ak…… Something went into my eyes.” Wang Ke said casually and peeked open one eye to ascertain that the coast was clear before opening them completely.
“We assumed you both would be ensconced in your courtyard until dinner time.” Qin Jianyue grinned.
Su Huaizhu replied, “I’ve been trapped in there for weeks and will start seclusion again tomorrow. So I thought to enjoy the sights while I can.”
Luo Yu threw a glance at Gu Ruohai and said, “I see…”
Gu Ruohai shot him a look of warning that said: Don’t ask.
The light snow that had been falling all morning was gradually getting heavier.
Qin Jianyue turned to Luo Yu and said,“I don’t know about the rest of you, but I prefer the indoors right now.”
Everyone agreed to head back to the dining hall since it was nearly lunchtime anyway. Su Huaizhu and Gu Ruohai were in the back of the group. When everyone wasn’t looking, Su Huaizhu tugged Gu Ruohai over for another kiss. Gu Ruohai still hadn’t fully recovered from his embarrassment of having their earlier kiss witnessed and glared menacingly at Su Huaizhu, shoving him away.
The rest of the Winter Solstice was spent together with the group. After lunch, they visited Qin Jianyue’s courtyard to continue chatting and playing games there. They had dinner together and later went over to Wang Ke’s courtyard for tea because Su Huaizhu mentioned they’d never been there. They stayed until the moon was high in the sky before calling it a night.
As Su Huaizhu and Gu Ruohai made their way back to Yingyuan courtyard, Gu Ruohai couldn’t help feeling disappointed that they hadn’t spent much time alone today. At the same time, he didn’t want to complain and risk sounding selfish and controlling.
Once they arrived back in their house, Su Huaizhu gave Gu Ruohai’s hand a squeeze. He dropped a soft kiss onto Gu Ruohai’s forehead, said goodnight, and headed into his own room to sleep.
Gu Ruohai stood on the spot in bewilderment. Any hopes he had for a late-night affair were now dashed.
He trudged despondently into his room, blew out the candles, and buried himself beneath the blanket.