beats and again and again in its basket of bone
(from Salt Monody by Marzanna Kielar)
Zhang Qiling, as a rule, was not particularly disturbed by bodies. He wasn’t in the right profession to feel squeamish about corpses in, frankly, any degree of decay.
But even he felt an eyebrow raise ever so slightly in disbelief at the sheer number of skeletons grinning up at him, Wu Xie, and Pangzi from the floor of the new room they’d just excavated. Of course, neither Wu Xie nor Pangzi seemed particularly concerned ( even when , Zhang Qiling thought with a silent huff as he reflexively stopped Wu Xie from heedlessly scampering through the bone field, they really should be ).
At the redirecting touch of Zhang Qiling’s hand to his collar, Wu Xie flashed him a sheepishly apologetic smile, eyes crinkling slightly around the corners as they always did when he was trying to either woo or disarm whoever he was looking at. Zhang Qiling felt his heart tighten, a gut reflex to Wu Xie shooting a smile his way; sometimes, looking at Wu Xie felt like looking directly at the sun during an eclipse: otherworldly and exceedingly dangerous.
They were still in a tomb, however, so Zhang Qiling merely allowed himself a steadying blink. It was only through sheer force of will and years of practice that he remained otherwise outwardly unmoved as he unhanded Wu Xie, message to be more careful effectively sent. His floppy-haired companion quickly resumed his forward movement (thankfully via a safer, slightly more thoughtful path), unknowingly leaving Zhang Qiling forcefully and silently resetting the traitorous lurching of his heart.
Zhang Qiling may no longer be able to remember how he felt the first time he saw that particular expression on Wu Xie’s face, but he imagines it’s always inspired the same roil of emotions within him: a heady mix of exasperation, fondness, and something sticky sweet and toffee smooth, something tender and pure and too kind entirely for someone like Zhang Qiling.
(Caught off guard in a room full of bones, Zhang Qiling wonders how these corpses compare to his own legacy — to a too-long lifetime punctuated only by the snapped marrow and bloody streaks strewn in his wake.)
(The Zhang Patriarch’s hands were not trained for softness; his fingers were not designed for caresses.)
Mentally shaking his head, Zhang Qiling adjusted his stance slightly, recentering his thoughts; the tomb hadn’t proved to be particularly dangerous yet, but it wasn’t the time to be distracted. The shift in position brought his eyes to the third member of their Triangle, who was crouched by a corpse on the floor. Having caught the whole exchange, Pangzi shot him a bemused smirk, rolling his eyes slightly at their Xiao Tianzhen’s typical lack of self preservation instinct. While Zhang Qiling wholeheartedly agreed with Pangzi’s silent assessment, he had long ago accepted that his job on expeditions with Wu Xie essentially boiled down to, “Keep the beautiful fool with his big brain and no sense alive, preferably in one piece.” As such, he repressed a responding smirk, instead allowing only the faintest and briefest upward twitch of his mouth.
(Of course, any attempt at nonchalance was for naught. Pangzi knew him well enough to identify that in that one small motion, Zhang Qiling had essentially done his equivalent of rolling both eyes while loudly stating, “He’s an idiot, but he’s our idiot!”).
Pangzi snorted a laugh before resuming his thorough inspection of the remains on the ground for...grave goods? Zhang Qiling wasn’t sure what Pangzi hoped to find in the skeletal mouth of a less fortunate tomb raider, but he figured he might as well leave him to it. Instead, Zhang Qiling made his way to the door Wu Xie was examining, running his own fingers along the grooves and notches of the quartz. The mechanism in the door felt…gummy, like something set in tar that had begun to go gooey in the hot summer sun. He frowned slightly in concentration, vaguely aware of Wu Xie shifting his position beside him, and his fingers touched a switch.
The door clicked, and the world froze.
The seconds dragged on in silence, punctuated only by Wu Xie’s slightly uneven breaths (or were those his own lungs, shuddering in a primal fear that only reared its head when these two particular men were around to share the danger?). After a generous pause, Zhang Qiling cautiously removed his hand from the door, beginning to relax his tense frame in wary degrees. He allowed himself a moment to think, perhaps, that they had escaped the trap this time.
Which, of course, is when everything went to hell.
Zhang Qiling tasted the poisonous powder before he saw it. Acting wholly on instinct, he spun, hand grasping out blindly for Wu Xie behind him. His entire focus narrowed down into this one need: find Wu Xie, protect Wu Xie, keep this precious thing safe from the dust coating his tongue, chalky in his mouth and acrid in his throat.
He felt Wu Xie’s arm, firm in his grip, and then Zhang Qiling knew no more.
Zhang Qiling was floating.
His limbs were cotton; his mouth a desert. He wondered if this is what it felt like to truly die — a gradual loss of consciousness, a piecemeal fracturing of the body, so different from the sharp-edged end he had always expected.
He thought he heard the faint beep of a heart monitor beside him, the low hum of machinery settling, soothingly, over his heated skin. In his foggy, disoriented mind, he frowned.
If he was dead, why could he hear the familiar sounds of a hospital?
But if he wasn’t dead, why couldn’t he move his limbs?
He shifted uneasily, eyelashes fluttering, heart beating faster, feeling on the verge of remembering something, something important , something he needed to know. A gentle, calloused hand landed on his forehead, and he heard (or imagined he heard?) a whisper in soothing baritone, “Shh, Xiaoge. You’re safe. He’s safe. You’re both here.”
Zhang Qiling felt his brow furrowed in confusion — where was “here?” Who was “he?” What was he grasping so desperately for, fingers creaking and clenched? He felt again, the telltale fuzziness that something was missing . No answers came, and too soon Zhang Qiling could feel his grasp on awareness slipping, the tendrils keeping him afloat retracting.
Zhang Qiling drifted off, lulled by the murmuring lilt of a voice that both was and wasn’t the sound he desperately wanted to hear.
Zhang Qiling felt, knew, touched something solid beneath him. A clavicle, a bone shrouded in living skin. He felt the chest beneath lift with breath, the steady rise and fall bringing with it a wash of relief so sudden and so numbingly intense that he was dragged back out of consciousness by the undertow, deposited once more into the murky sea of deep sleep.
Zhang Qiling was caught in a tumbling tide, the rolling water bringing him up almost to the surface before shoving him back down into the fathomless dark. He had the vague sense that he had experienced something similar before (he tasted sea salt, choking his mouth and burning his lungs; he saw a boy, eyes wide, mouth stretched by panic around a name he thought might be his own) but the impression was faint and dream-edged.
And so he swam, adrift, with only the steady, thrumming beat of a heart — not his own, though he felt his chest arc and gape and crave in unison — to break the silence.
Even miles underwater, Zhang Qiling heard the soft whump of a pained exhale of breath. He needed, viscerally and immediately, to check on that breath; to feel it, to taste it, to affirm for his own hands that whoever this person was, his name a siren song in Zhang Qiling’s blood, he was ok.
Through sheer force of will, Zhang Qiling broke the surface of his thoughts. He was immediately overwhelmed by the intensity of the sensations surrounding him — beeping, a shuffle of movement, a taut tension near his wrist, a scratch of polyester along his skin, and something warm and alive beneath him.
Where was the breath he heard? Where was he ? Zhang Qiling felt a rumble rupture out of his chest, unbidden, the hairs on his arms lifting in confusion and fear as his fingers clenched even tighter.
The familiar weight of an arm around him. The smell of books and ink and cheap cigarettes, distinct even layered underneath something artificial and sickly that made Zhang Qiling’s nose twitch.
And then, most importantly of all, a voice; the sound he craved; him : “Xiaoge, Xiaoge. It’s fine, we’re fine. It’s me.”
Mind still addled and slowed by fear, Zhang Qiling allowed himself another rumbling sound. He felt something clench tight around his bicep, grip uncomfortably hard, and he heard what might have been the scratch of pencil on paper. All of this was background, however, subsumed by the throbbing beat of Wu Xie’s heart beneath him. Zhang Qiling pressed his fingers into the skin, seeking proof that the other man was truly ok, truly here, truly breathing. He felt an almost overwhelming desire to take apart Wu Xie’s fragile rib cage, piecing it apart like a particularly sensitive trap, and to cradle the beating muscle inside within his aching fingers.
A surprisingly delicate touch stroked over his knuckles, keeping him grounded. With a sigh, Zhang Qiling allowed the last, lingering tension in his body to leak away, curving his body around Wu Xie’s instead. At that, he felt a kiss press softly into his hair, and Zhang Qiling almost let out a purr of contentment. He was still unbalanced, and his limbs were far too heavy, but Wu Xie was here . Wu Xie was breathing and speaking and wrapped around him.
“There was sleeping powder in the tomb. Pangzi got us out.”
Ah, that explained the, well, everything he was feeling. Zhang Qiling made a mental note to thank Pangzi when he regained control of his tongue, which was currently lying sluggish and useless in his mouth. Despite Wu Xie’s explanations, Zhang Qiling still felt almost skittish, his long-honed survival instincts protesting loudly against his unresponsive muscles. He could feel the dark current of sleep tugging, ever more insistently, at the edges of his mind, but —
“We’re okay,” Wu Xie’s voice, sacred and soothing, was a balm on his scattered thoughts, “We can sleep.”
Zhang Qiling had long accepted that Wu Xie’s words were the only gospel he cared to know. He nodded, or tried to nod, and let his exhausted head fall forward.
He was asleep again before his face even fully landed in the soft crook of Wu Xie’s neck.
Zhang Qiling filtered into wakefulness, synapses still slow, eyes blearily. He cracked open a single eye, wincing internally against the harsh light reflecting off of the white hospital walls.
He was...in bed, sweaty against the thin sheets, sensation in his limbs still just slightly removed from his body. Zhang Qiling frowned, trying to slot everything back into place. They were in a tomb, the trap went off, he grabbed Wu Xie —
Zhang Qiling shot straight up, ignoring the resulting wooziness and disgruntled beeping of the heart monitor. In the next moment he realized that the comfortable warmth he had snuggled into in his sleep was the man he was desperately seeking, seemingly asleep.
Wu Xie’s hair was fanned out against the pillow, the wiry brown strands thrown into sharp relief against the crisp white of the hospital bedding. He was pale, skin nearly translucent in the overhead light, and dark purple bags hung heavily beneath his closed eyes. Zhang Qiling counted four small scratches scattered across Wu Xie’s slack face, his heart clenching tighter at the sight.
Zhang Qiling frowned, sifting through his unclear memories, and remembered something about sleeping powder. He glanced back down at Wu Xie, lying terrifying still next to him, and he felt his heart skip a beat. He knew, rationally, Wu Xie was probably simply asleep, chest rising and falling in slumber.
He knew this, but…
Wu Xie was so pale . Zhang Qiling found his muddled thoughts suddenly overwhelmed by a terrible certainty that Wu Xie’s eyes wouldn’t open again; in a brief flash, he saw the macabre, smiling visage of a skeleton from the tomb overlayed on Wu Xie’s fine features. Zhang Qiling could feel his breath picking up, coming out in harsh pants as the body (bodies?) in front of him spiraled and swirled. He was shaking Wu Xie’s shoulder, almost violent in his desperation, before he even registered moving.
What if what if whatif whatifwhatifwhatif—-
Wu Xie’s eyes snapped open, taking a moment to find their focus, and Zhang Qiling felt his entire body relax, every single nerve ending sagging like a string suddenly snapped. He barely heard Wu Xie offer quiet reassurances, the sheer relief at seeing Wu Xie’s open eyes rushing loudly through his ears.
Wu Xie brought his hands up to frame Zhang Qiling’s face, soothingly swiping his fingertips through Zhang Qiling’s hair as he resituated the older man against his side. Zhang Qiling sighed, content in the knowledge that Wu Xie was alive beside him, and allowed himself to be moved. He tucked his nose against Wu Xie’s neck, nuzzling against the tendons he found there, and offered up a silent prayer of thanks for each blood vessel, each muscle, each cell that made up this glorious man. Zhang Qiling fell back asleep like this: Wu Xie’s fingers in his hair, Wu Xie’s name on his lips.
The next time Zhang Qiling awoke, it was to the entirely unwelcome sensation of someone, apparently, taking a jackhammer to his head. He was pretty sure that was the only rational explanation for the sharp pain radiating across his cranium, each wave alternating with a dull ache stabbing inwards from his eye sockets. Scrunching his eyes as tightly shut as possible, he burrowed himself deeper into Wu Xie’s neck in a futile attempt to shut out the room’s light.
Unfortunately, Wu Xie seemed to realize Zhang Qiling was awake and shifted to the side in response, slightly dislodging the older man from his makeshift solace. Zhang Qiling failed to bite down a groan, head throbbing with far too much pain to be ashamed of the raw sound. Even distracted as he was, he could feel Wu Xie tense beneath him, voice worried as his hands started fluttering around Zhang Qiling: “Are you okay? Are you hurt, is that — do you have a headache?”
Bless Wu Xie and his big, beautiful, smart brain, because Zhang Qiling could not muster up the energy to talk and, also, desperately needed Wu Xie to be a bit quieter in his questioning. Each word was sending an additional spark of pain through his beleaguered head. In a move he would probably deny until his dying day, Zhang Qiling pulled the covers up over himself, burying his face under the sheets like a teenager trying to get out of going to school.
Wu Xie joined him under the covers moments later, and Zhang Qiling felt his body angle, almost without conscious thought, towards the other man. Wu Xie always made him feel better; Wu Xie always knew what he needed. And, true to form, within moments Wu Xie was using his clever fingers to smooth across Zhang Qiling’s temples, rubbing soothing patterns in counterpoint to the pounding in his skull.
As the pain began to recede into a more manageable ache, Zhang Qiling’s grimacing frown finally smoothing off his face, he spared a moment to think, mind already starting to sink back into the respite of sleep:
God, I love this man so much.
An indeterminate amount of time later, Zhang Qiling found himself jostled slightly, roused into a semi-wakefulness as he was propped up into sitting position. He felt the rim of a cup touch his lips, and, surrounded as he was by the warmth and scent of Wu Xie, he did not even hesitate to open his mouth obediently.
Zhang Qiling would never question anything Wu Xie gave him.
The next time Zhang Qiling awoke, it was to blessed silence. The pounding in his head had been muted, and the fuzziness that blurred the edges of his waking moments was finally fading. Feeling a bit more alert, Zhang Qiling opened his eyes, pausing as he took in Wu Xie’s sleeping face across from him.
It was so rare to see the other man, always buzzing with ideas and theories, still and at rest. Zhang Qiling allowed himself to treasure the moment, cataloguing how the fan of Wu Xie’s eyelashes cast soft shadows across his cheeks; how his mouth fell slightly slack, delicate pink lips barely parted on each exhale.
Under the covers as they were, wrapped up in a bubble of their own warmth, Zhang Qiling could almost imagine that Wu Xie was something transcendent, something alien; something Other, too good to be born from the same dirt that sprouted a being as bloody as Zhang Qiling.
As if summoned by Zhang Qiling thoughts, which he would no doubt stridently protest should they be voiced aloud, Wu Xie’s own eyes slowly opened. He wrinkled his nose slightly as awareness filtered in and let out a small yawn. Entranced, Zhang Qiling held his gaze, savoring the sight of life bringing energy and verve to the lines of Wu Xie’s features.
“How’s your head?” the other man asked in a quiet whisper, reaching out a hand to run soothing circles along Zhang Qiling’s hip. Zhang Qiling could only shift slightly forward, running his nose lightly against Wu Xie’s in response, afraid that speaking would somehow break the spell he felt being woven around them in the soft half-twilight under the hospital sheets.
And maybe it was the beguiling sense of intimacy, the sensation that they were alone in a world of their own making. Maybe it was the memory of gentle hands, running with infinite tenderness along his temples.
Maybe it was simply because Zhang Qiling had wanted for so long.
Whatever the reason, when Wu Xie rubbed his nose in return, Zhang Qiling mustered his courage and pressed a kiss once, then twice to Wu Xie’s lips. On the third kiss, he felt — miraculously, shockingly, inevitably — Wu Xie kiss him back, fingers forming creases on the sheets between them.
Ensconced within the muted maroon light of the hospital covers, each shared breath hushed and hallowed, Zhang Qiling reached, and Zhang Qiling let himself fall.