Mei Nianqing settles behind the basin with a wet rag in his hand. Jun Wu barely reacts to any of his pushing and pulling, allowing himself to be moved into whatever position Mei Nianqing would have to lather the soap in his hands and clean the sweat and grime off him. If not for his physical exhaustion alone, Jun Wu isn’t sure if he would have the mental energy to even bother fighting him back, at this point. It goes without saying that being cleaned like a child at his age (at their ages) is somewhat demeaning.
“This is the work of a house attendant,” he says after one of his arms is laid back to his side after being scrubbed down. “Not a head priest.”
“I’m not a head priest anymore, am I?” Mei Nianqing counters swiftly, as if expecting his words. His hands don’t still their work and swipe over Jun Wu’s neck, forcing his head to tilt up so the soapy rag can reach behind his ears. “Does it bother you?”
“It bothers me.”
“How unfortunate, because you have no other choice.”
“Do we not have the funds to hire servants?” Jun Wu asks, his eyes dancing along the fine lanterns and furnishings of the room they’re in. This home isn’t a royal palace by any means, but it certainly is nicer than a villager’s standard cottage. All these years, the head priest has had more than enough time to figure out how to make a living for himself, even if he doesn’t use that to be rich and instead gambles it all away.
They may not have enough money to fill the hall with servants and chefs and maids, but Mei Nianqing understands the implication. It is not uncommon even for those who are lower in class to hire help for their family members who were injured in the war or contracted some kind of plague. In his current state, Jun Wu is basically no different. It would not be strange to bring someone into their home for the sole sake of aiding him, especially when Mei Nianqing isn’t around.
As if he could hear his thoughts, Mei Nianqing takes that exact moment to respond with a shake of his head. “No funds, I’ve already lost it all playing cards.”
After being blessed with the careful books and finances of Ling Wen for so many centuries, the statement makes Jun Wu’s brow twitch.
Mei Nianqing doesn’t stop there, though. The cloth he uses to wash Jun Wu suddenly slows over his chest, softening as it approaches the deep scar over his heart. “There’s no need, anyways. I told you I’ll be right here.”
Jun Wu doesn’t say anything. He exhales slowly from his nose, sending the steam from the bathwater spinning in the air around them while he leans back into the tub. Warm water is ladled over his shoulders, sending the soap suds back into the barrel before the rag is discarded.
Mei Nianqing takes a moment to pour something fragrant across his bare hands, and by the slick warmth that lands on his shoulders, Jun Wu can only assume it’s some kind of medical oil. Carefully, his hands work into his skin in an attempt to heal or relax his tense muscles--Jun Wu can’t tell the difference. They’re not the strong fingers of a martial god, or the experienced work of a servant who has practiced washing their master for years by any means, so it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume not even Mei Nianqing knows what he’s doing. This is never the labor his hands, usually folded tight with beads in prayer, were intended for.
His fingers are stiff with arthritis and clumsy. They slip while trying to pursue knots buried deep in his shoulders and end up scraping him with his nails. Jun Wu doesn’t react, no stranger to pain as small as this, and Mei Nianqing doesn’t apologize. He doesn’t stop when he fails repeatedly, either, constantly circling his shoulderblades with thumbs that don’t quite dig deep enough to provide any relief to his stiff back. When his hands slide up his neck, the oil tangles in the back of his hair and glues tangles to his wet hands. They tug uncomfortably a few times.
But then they return to his front, massaging Jun Wu’s biceps, down to his hands, and pull every finger individually in a way that pleasantly stretches muscles that have gone unexercised for some time now. He thinks Mei Nianqing must have asked somebody for advice or read something about how this works, because even though he’s certainly a novice, the priest still seems to have some basic knowledge of what he’s doing when he massages even Jun Wu’s calloused palms.
He used to be a crown prince. He was the emperor of heaven, the greatest of all martial gods.
Lavish baths were no stranger to any palace he stepped foot in, and Jun Wu came to expect a dozen staff on hand when he reclined in jade pools with soaps that smelled of orange blossom. He wouldn’t have to do or say anything, allowing those who were trained for this specific act to come and relieve him. They would massage his body like this too, but their touches had always been… methodical, as if they were calculated and well practiced. It was lovely, of course, and he was never as refreshed as when he stepped out of the bath. But it was the same touch every time, experienced and impersonal.
Perhaps it’s purely romanticism that makes him believe this lukewarm bath in a barrel, sitting in a home not even a twelfth the size of his personal palace, is the most luxurious he’s ever had. ‘Luxurious’ may be the wrong word, Jun Wu thinks, opening his eyes to see Mei Nianqing intently smoothing out and pulling his calves. When he notices he’s being watched, the priest’s expression softens in a smile, and he lowers his head.
It isn’t luxurious, but it may be the… most pleasant.
“Even the title of ‘head priest’... carries a certain dignity with it,” Jun Wu says after minutes of silence, head turned away. He cannot bear to watch his previous confidant, his general, washing his feet so attentively like a mere servant. Each press of his fingers to his ankles, rubbing long strokes up his calves to stimulate the muscles of legs he does not walk on often, makes Jun Wu feel as if he should be ashamed--or rather, that Mei Nianqing should be ashamed for his position.
But, as expected, the priest doesn’t respond to his prodding. If anyone should know how Jun Wu is able to talk people into circles until they agree with him, even if it was about their own dignity, it’s Mei Nianqing. “Those two mentioned something good that day, did you hear them?”
Jun Wu scoffs. What hadn’t he heard that day? He doesn’t bother answering Mei Nianqing, and he thinks the priest wasn’t expecting him to say anything back in the first place.
Mei Nianqing helps tuck both of Jun Wu’s legs back into the basin, ladling another few spoonfuls of water over his knees to wash away the persistent, sudsy bubbles. Then he stands to come back around and kneels behind Jun Wu. He gathers his long hair that was left hanging outside the rim of the tub to not get wet into his hands with gentle fingers that avoid tugging on any tangles. Surprisingly, his hands do seem practiced at this one thing, pulling his hair into sectioned pieces with ease. Jun Wu’s eyes gradually shut to try and trace the familiar, nostalgic feeling by cutting off the rest of his senses apart from the gentle touch on his head.
He’d had attendants in the past as a crown prince, naturally. But during and after battle, before they could travel back to the palace, only one person had taken the time to learn how to tie his hair to preserve his dignity in front of the kingdom.
Compared to the not quite warm bathwater, the hairpiece that slides in front of his topknot is cool and relieving against his sweaty scalp. A relaxed sigh escapes his lips.
“The one basking in infinite glory is you. The one fallen from grace is also you.’”
As soon as he recognizes the words, Jun Wu’s breath catches, remembering the events of that fateful day. But Mei Nianqing’s fingers in his hair are resolute as they comb through long locks, finishing their work with practiced ease. Once his hair is tied in white ribbons, a pair of arms wraps around his shoulders from behind.
Jun Wu thinks he could almost cry at how painfully familiar they are, how easy it is to lean back into them after two thousand years of yearning for this one simple touch. To have it delivered to him now, so easily, thinking that it could’ve truly been this easy at one point in his life, makes his weakened fingers tremble on the sides of the bath. He lifts his hands to cover Mei Nianqing’s arms over his neck that cover the dark tattoo of a collar hidden there.
“Tomorrow, we will play cards,” Mei Nianqing says in lieu of finishing the quote.
“I never learned how.”
“Your highness was so vigilant while we played away each day,” Mei Nianqing reminisces with a chuckle, and Jun Wu smiles as well.
“My luck may be considerably worse now… but I trust you will teach me well.”
The priest nods against the side of his head, tightening his arms around his shoulders in an embrace that Jun Wu can only melt into. At one time in his life, he would’ve given anything to feel this warmth at his back, at his side, or even just standing a few feet away, but still present. He had spent years checking over his shoulder, waiting for someone who left long ago to suddenly call for him and explain why they were late. Maybe he would scold them, or yell at them and punish them with all the ire and agony he’s suffered by himself all this time as an outlet. But that person, if they returned, didn’t that mean they were accepting that part of him too?
Jun Wu’s fingers curl into Mei Nianqing’s bare arms. Right now, even if he wanted to exert his anger at all the time it took for him to return, it would be impossible. His wings have been clipped, plucked, torn off, stomped, and burnt to ash before his eyes, and that person-- this person helped mediate it. His nails dig into his skin, unable to exert as much strength as he wishes, and the frustration only makes his fingers shake.
“Don’t… call me that.”
A pause of silence, just a beat. The same moment blood begins to appear beneath his nails, he feels those arms loosen.
Thinking he’s won, that this person has finally decided to leave once again after all, Jun Wu can’t help but feel vindicated in the same sick way he’d sought out as pleasure for two thousand years. It only lasts for a second before those hands, still slick with oil, slide up his neck and turn his head to the side.
“Jun Wu,” Mei Nianqing says again. Like this, he’s forced to meet his eye, and Jun Wu is almost scared at what he’s sees wading in his reflection there. Certainly, it isn’t him. It cannot be Jun Wu, the man he sees, swimming in pools of emotion in his eyes directed at him (at him ) that he hasn’t seen in years. He watches his reflection in horror for a few moments, waiting for him to fall beneath the surface of Mei Nianqing’s dark eyes and finally drown, but somehow, he’s kept afloat. The only time he feels he’s suffocating, water lodged in his throat, is when Mei Nianqing blinks.
Don’t blink, he wants to command, childishly. Not when you’re looking at me.
He should feel irritated, frustrated beyond belief that he’s unable to lash out right now. Some might call those feelings of wanting to prove a point so violently, contrarily childish. Doesn’t it all come back down to ‘I told you so’ at its heart, where he’s only trying to impress himself? The strength he has in his hands, in his entire body, would not be enough to even strangle Mei Nianqing if he chose.
But it’s just enough to reach up and grab the back of his collar, pulling him down for their lips to meet like fire in the bath that has long since gone cold.
Even though Mei Nianqing’s eyes are closed when they kiss, Jun Wu doesn’t feel like he will drown as he feared, air pouring into his lungs straight from the other’s mouth. He tangles his fingers in Mei Nianqing’s hair and doesn’t allow him to pull away, as if it would ever be a concern, as if Mei Nianqing could ever think of such a thing. Somehow, he feels like he can hear the last words of that quote from earlier being recited, as if through a communication array between them that doesn’t require him to have spiritual powers anymore.
What matters is ‘you’, and not the state of you. Jun Wu thinks he hears his voice say, though he knows it isn’t possible. But maybe the basis of religion and worshiping any god, the same way he ascended, is starting off with a blind, baseless belief. Maybe like this, he could ascend again.