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The Price of Iridescent Wings

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A tragedy can also be a love story.

Yes. It can.

Oh, Zhou Zishu, Zhou Zishu… Kexing never had anyone look at him like that before.

Is it instinct, then? Some animal need to huddle together for warmth, for safety that has him recognize the... love in that gaze for what it is?

How bold of Zhou Zishu. How skillful of him, lying to such an extent. It won’t be of use, however. After all, what need has Kexing for either thing?

And what does it tell about himself, being affected pleased by it anyway?

That wolf, however, was a hard nut to crack: The fox tried his best to win his heart over with poetry and music and pleasant conversation, but he would still snarl and curse and grouse at him all day. Surely, the poor, mistreated fox would have given up soon, if it wasn’t for the occasional smile the wolf wasn’t quite quick enough to hide. Sometimes, even a hunter longs to be chased.

Odd, to be the hunted one this time. Does he also want to be chased?

Kexing laughs and looks away at last. “Ah, Zhou Zishu... How does one even tell a love story without going into sordid details?”

“It’s not a—”

Zhou Zishu interrupts himself and sighs. Hilarious. As if he were the one whose patience is tested. “No,” he continues, “You know what? This is a good point to start, actually: your atrocious flirting!”

Caught off-guard, Kexing’s gaze flies back to him. He wishes Zhou Zishu weren’t so able to throw him off like that. Then again, he’s used to wishing for lots of things without getting them. “Excuse me?” he says.

Zhou Zishu has the gall to snort. “You heard me. You think you’re oh so clever, but—” He leans back and looks at the ceiling like someone lost in thought. A moment later, he makes a face and looks back at Kexing. “A-Xu, you’re good looking,” he starts to say in an oddly stilted way, making Kexing frown in confusion, “but your xiao playing is nothing to write home about.” Finally, Kexing realizes Zhou Zishu means to quote someone. “When I find the time,” he leans towards Kexing with an expression of dilettantish suggestiveness, “I shall teach you how to play it well.”

Kexing stares at him, speechless, feeling like no one has ever managed to offend him so in his entire life.

Zhou Zishu, the bastard, throws his head back and laughs. “Oh heavens, your face! Lao Wen!” He wipes actual tears from his eyes.

Kexing crosses his arms, waiting his amusement out. “Now I know for sure you’re lying,” he says when Zhou Zishu can finally contain himself, “I would have never made such a stupid face while saying that.”

Zhou Zishu flashes him a triumphant grin. “So you admit you would say such a thing?”

“What’s wrong with it?”

Zhou Zishu gapes at him. “...everything? Really, who says such things? Only people who talk big with nothing to back it up, that’s who!”

Full of conviction and verve, Kexing starts to inform Zhou Zishu that he very well can back things up, when the knowledge that he has never slept with anyone in his entire life hits him like lightning.

He clicks his mouth shut in shock.

“Lao Wen?” Zhou Zishu says, sounding far away.

For a moment, Kexing feels nothing. Then, he feels horribly sad. Bereft. He looks down at his shaking fingers.

No… How can this be? Until a moment ago, he was convinced—no. He knew—no. He shakes his head in confusion. There just existed this… surety, that these hands of his were good for something other than just dishing out death.

“Lao Wen!” This time, Zhou Zishu sounds normal. He reaches for Kexing’s hands. Holds them, very gently. “Was it a memory? Are you in pain?”

“No,” he says, shaking his head slowly. “...no.”

Zhou Zishu clicks his tongue. “I’m such an idiot! I’m sorry.”

Kexing smiles weakly, still studying his hands. “What for?” He combs through his memories, a collection of more or less fading faces, searches for something, anything—

“For speaking out of line. I should know better than to make fun of something you hardly had the chance to learn, growing up the way you did.”

Ah. Zhou Zishu thinks he hurt his feelings. Kexing ignores him, keeps searching instead.

The bad stuff is still there, sure enough, back from the time he was too small to have the strength to rip anyone apart who looked at him funny. There had been some unpleasant encounters, of course. But Aunt Luo and her women had taught him well how to deal with men who think they can prey on others like that. All in all, he had been lucky: The former Valley Master, for all his otherwise rampant cruelty, wasn't such inclined, and Kexing had gained himself a rather fortunate reputation early on after nearly castrating someone who’d tried to shove a dick into his face.

“Lao Wen?”

“Shhh…” he says. “You reminded me of something, let me think.”

Zhou Zishu falls silent, yet doesn’t let go of Kexing’s hands, and Kexing doesn’t try to draw away.

It’s terribly unfair, there must be good memories as well... Not in the Valley, obviously, not of that kind, at least. But outside of it? He’d ventured out often enough, even before becoming Valley Master himself, there has to—

Ah.

He looks back at Zhou Zishu. Of course. That would make sense…

“Hey,” Kexing says, trying and failing to squash the hope sprouting in his chest. “If you are who you claim to be: Did you sleep with me?”

Zhou Zishu’s eyebrows nearly climb into his hairline. “Did I—What exactly is going through your head to ask me this right now?”

“Well, did you?”

Zhou Zishu blinks. “I—no, I didn’t, why is this relevant?”

No? How disappointing puzzling. Kexing grinds his teeth together. Again, things don’t make any sense. He hates this feeling, this having the floor swept from under him, this freefall with no ground in sight.

He sorts through people he’s talked to—vendors, doctors, travellers, the occasional martial artist with bad judgement… nothing. Sure, people had been interested on occasion, but why would Kexing consider them if he was waiting for—

If he was waiting for A-Xu.

Kexing pulls free from Zhou Zishu’s hands to clutch at his head instead.

“Lao Wen!”

A-Xu… Of course he’s never slept with anyone, if not with him… But why had he just been so sure that he had? Is Zhou Zishu lying? Is he—

A memory, flashing before his inner eye:

Kexing sits outside a crowded inn. Patrons chatter idly; he barely listens. Eyes closed against the sun, he soaks up its warmth like the Valley would be nothing but a distant memory. It’s nice, pretending that things are alright for a while. That he can breathe for the first time in months.

The sun is shining, but Kexing remains in the shadows. If he were to show his face, people would see he isn’t one of them. He might command an army of ghosts, but in doing so, he had to become a ghost himself. Humans, when they see him, tend to run away in fear.

Cracking an eye open, Kexing sees a man in silken robes approach. His smile is very pretty, very sure of himself. Kexing looks him over: No weapon in sight, and movements elegant but not those of a fighter. Amused, Kexing watches him flap a large fan at himself. It’s nice to register the ways he could kill this man in the blink of an eye without any need to actually do it. Here, Kexing can just be a stranger among many, can bury the Valley Master underneath his human disguise. When the stranger comes to stand right in front of him, Kexing smiles lazily and says: “Young master, I must compliment you on your impeccable taste. Those cut from the same cloth can’t be separated by a thousand mountains.”

A man in silken robes approaches. His smile is very pretty, very sure of himself. People turn their heads and smile at him in turn. Kexing wishes he could walk among mortals like that. Intrigued, he watches the man flap a large fan at himself. When it becomes clear he is walking towards Kexing specifically, he tries to slink deeper into shadows, but to no avail. “Young master,” the stranger says and bows, “seeing such a beautiful face laced with sorrow, it saddens me in turn—may I keep you company and lighten your mood, perhaps with some poetry?”

“And for those who aren’t cut from the same cloth, the closest proximity can’t bring intimacy.” The stranger smiles in turn and bows deep. “Thank you, kind master. May this humble one learn your esteemed name?”

Pleased, Kexing gestures for the stranger to sit, then tells him a name, learns a name in turn. The conversation between them flows easily: Chen Yi is quick-minded and well-educated, knows which questions to ask, which ones to avoid. Just as sure, he picks topics which Kexing enjoys to discuss, drops those that he doesn’t. Despite this, he appears interested in Kexing’s opinions. When he catches up on Kexing’s willingness to flirt, he laughs and counters with ease. Even knowing what is going on, Kexing feels genuinely good and relaxed and pleasantly aroused and—

Normal.

“You are very skilled at being excellent company,” Kexing says and pours them both another cup of tea, “Would it be presumptuous of me to ask the price of it if I wanted to enjoy it longer?”

“What do you want,” Kexing snarls, baring his teeth. The stranger folds his fan closed and turns to lean against a wooden beam of the apothecary Kexing kept himself hidden against, facing away from Kexing so he can only see the stranger’s profile. What a stupid move.That way, it would be even easier for Kexing to slit his throat. To leave him to bleed out in the shadows alone.

“Nothing untoward,” the stranger says. “To make the simple proposal to exchange some of my time for some of your money.”

“Go search for someone else with money.”

The stranger laughs softly. “Ah, but here is my predicament: I’m a traveller who’s seen a lot, whose tastes are refined, and whose standards are high. I don’t cater to those with money. I cater to those with money whose company I’d enjoy in return.” He looks back to Kexing with a docile smile. “To find another rare beauty such as yourself, one would have to search for quite some time.”

Upon hearing the considerable sum, Kexing merely nods. “I can easily see myself drown you in riches,” he sighs, honestly regretting he has to decline. It would have been nice to enjoy himself like that again; he can just tell things between them would have worked out well.

Chen Yi smiles. “Ah… and yet, you are going to leave me heartbroken, I see.”

“Are you aware I could snap your neck, just like that?” Kexing says, undecided if this man is stupid or reckless.

The stranger dips his head in acknowledgement. “But why should you, given I pose no threat to you?”

“I don’t need a reason, and you wouldn’t have time to learn about it even if there was any.”

“True. I guess it all depends on whether you want to be a person who kills without reason, just because you can.”

Perplexed, Kexing considers him for a long time. The stranger simply waits, eyes back on the patrons chatting in front of the inn across the street. “And what exactly would I pay all that money for?” Kexing finally asks.

The stranger laughs. “My excellent company, of course.”

“‘Company’ is a rather malleable term.”

“Indeed! Could be very little.” He turns his head and smiles at Kexing mildly. “Could be a whole lot.”

Kexing narrows his eyes. “Depending on what?”

“Oh, on you, on me… On how well what we both want aligns, mostly. If you’re amenable, we could try this out, starting with the thing you wanted while watching all these people, yet hiding away from them?”

Irritation prickles under Kexing’s skin. In a flash, he steps around the stranger, curls a hand loosely around his throat. He can feel his pulse quicken underneath his fingers, but otherwise, he appears only mildly alarmed. “I could,” Kexing hisses in his face.

The stranger looks at him, eyes never leaving Kexing’s.“Yes. Or you could choose to do something you actually want instead,” he says.

“Hilarious,” Kexing says, but lets his hand drop away. Slowly, as to not betray his racing heart. He jerks his head to where the humans go about their day, unaware of the two of them hidden in the alleyway. “Teach me how to make them feel at ease, then.”

“Gladly,” the stranger says and pulls off from the beam. “Just observe what I do, then try to do the same.”

Kexing follows him. He can decide to slit his throat later, after all.

Kexing inclines his head. “There’s another I want to return to.”

“Distinguished and true of heart! You’re not making this any easier for me…”

Laughing, Kexing reaches for his money bag, “Here,” he says, offering up a small fortune his companion clearly did not expect to receive upon Kexing’s rejection. “I hope that’s enough to mend your heart somewhat.”

“Oh… but that's truly too much, I didn’t—”

“Take it,” Kexing interrupts him. “But tell me: During your travels… did you ever come across someone called ‘A-Xu’?”

He does not slit his throat later.
He gets himself a fan instead and promptly makes it into a weapon. Kexing shows it to him the next time they meet. He is unimpressed. He is impressed, however, by Kexing asking for his name. Chen Yi is even more impressed by the results Kexing’s meticulous work on his expressions in front of a mirror yielded.

“Wonderful! Now that you look significantly less like you’d contemplate murder all of the time, how about we work on your voice next?”

Kexing frowns. “What’s wrong about my voice?”

No, he did not come across someone called ‘A-Xu’. No one ever did, it seems.
They bide each other farewell and go about diverging paths. Leaving Chen Yi to his travels, Kexing steers his own feet back towards hell, the absence of his beloved an open, bleeding wound that no-one can heal.

Everything is wrong about his voice, apparently, and reading poems out loud is the remedy. Kexing has never read the poems he collects out loud before—why should he? But the effect his experiments have on his ghosts show that Chen Yi has been right yet again: A threat merely whispered is so much more potent than any yelling could ever be, a sudden burst of laughter much more fear-inducing than sounding angry at all times. Trying to modulate his voice into something pleasing, soothing or enticing proofs to be much more difficult, however.

The first time Kexing manages to actually charm a vendor into giving him extra, he turns around to Chen Yi and laughs, proud of himself. Confident. Like in mastering this, he built himself a key to many doors. It’s a nice thing to feel.

One of such doors apparently leads to Chen Yi’s bed, because one day not long after, he leans in close, smiles attractively and says: “So, how do you feel about learning yet another form of art?”

To his surprise, Kexing finds he does feel entirely good about it, as long as he is the one doing the taking apart. He learns there is something to watching another person dissolve into bliss because of something he did—something satisfying, reassuring, almost. Like he is still capable of doing something good and normal, if only he chooses to. Like he is in control.

He takes this illusion with him, each time he descends back into hell.

Someone pinches him, sharply enough the pain inflicted on his arm pierces through the turmoil in Kexing’s head. He grunts and opens his eyes to being held and squashed against someone’s chest.

“What did I just say?!” Zhou Zishu barks, the vibrations rattling Kexing’s skull, making him wince. “Don’t search for lost memories! Can’t you listen for once?”

Kexing laughs, then groans because his head didn’t like that, either. Instead of pulling away from Zhou Zishu, he lets himself be held a moment longer, waiting out the pain. “I think I’m going insane,” he whispers into Zhou Zishu’s robes. “How can I—”

He doesn’t even know how to finish that sentence—a moment ago, it had made sense, but it’s slinking through his fingers like a slippery eel.

“You’re not going insane. I’m going insane because you keep on acting just like the impulsive, reckless, thick-headed idiot I know! Come here...”

Kexing gets bullied into an upright position so he faces away from Zhou Zishu, then gets fed qi for the second time today.

Everything feels immediately better. Surely, all of this will make sense after all. Mollified, Kexing relaxes, sighing in relief. Something heavy settles against the back of his neck, pressing Kexing’s hair firmly against his skin.

Zishu...
A-Xu.

“How can one person be like that, yet manage to see a vendetta decades in the making through?” His breath warms Kexing even through the curtain of hair. Kexing doesn’t want to talk about his parents or the lowlifes that killed them.

“You were about to tell me a love story,” he mumbles. “Why did you stop?”

A-Xu laughs, but it sounds strangely desperate. “Nonsense. I was about to tell you how horrible you are.” Kexing wants to make an affronted noise, but feels too comfortable to follow through with it.

“You are such a leech,” A-Xu continues cruelly, “living off my money when you don’t even need it! Some of these days, your teeth will rot from all the sweets you’re buying with it, too. When we’re getting out of here, I’ll make sure we’ll steer clear of any markets, you menace…”

“But I like markets,” Kexing says, feeling betrayed.

A-Xu snuggles his face deeper into his hair. “I know,” he whispers in a way that makes Kexing shiver. “I’m joking. I’ll buy you whatever you want.” A-Xu snakes his arms around Kexing’s middle, severing the flow of qi by doing so.

Oh.

“I’ll play more games with you,” Zishu says into the crook of Kexing’s neck, and it sounds strangely like a plea. “I’ll even listen to your hair-raising stories and endure your mouth sprouting poetry like it’s running out of fashion tomorrow; what do you say?”

With any other, Kexing would reach around with the knife hidden in his sleeve and gut them. But being held like that by Zishu—it’s unfair how his body turns against him, reduced to want like a dried-out sponge doused with water.

Kexing should get up. He should fight against being lulled into complacency, should remain level headed where Zishu—Zhou Zishu is concerned, and yet…

And yet.

”Storytelling is very similar to telling a lie. A beautiful, heartwarming lie. I have eyes, so it is clear to me you are beautiful. I may not have a heart, but you seem like you’d be good at warming it if I did.” That was what Kexing said, what feels like ages ago.

Yet, the story he’s telling is so raw and vulnerable, so full of warmth that, certainly, Zhou Zishu is setting his own heart on fire in an effort to reach Kexing.

Doesn’t it hurt him to believe his own lie like this? And wouldn’t it be scarier, if this were all true?

“I say these are easy things to find out about me,” Kexing lies after he finds his voice again, “one doesn’t even need to be a spy to manage.”

And yet, he does not budge a single cun. One has to count their victories: At least he didn’t grasp for Zishu’s arms. At least he did refrain from encouraging them to wrap around him tighter.

It doesn’t matter much, either way: Zishu clings to him all on his own. “Mm,” he says, inhaling deeply as if Zishu too can’t help himself either, soaking up as much of Kexing as he can manage. “There are things less likely to be known as well.”

“Oh?” Kexing says, trying not to tremble, trying not to tilt his head aside and invite Zishu closer. “Pray tell.”

Zishu sighs. “How am I to know you’ll do what you’re supposed to do this time? Do you want a repeat of what happened three days ago so badly?”

Kexing... doesn’t bother defending himself.

He didn’t intend for what just happened to happen. His mind still skirts the flavor of insanity left behind by one memory giving birth to a different version of itself, grateful he immediately forgot anything beyond the version he already knew. He won’t give Zhou Zishu the courtesy of informing him there’s another thing his explanations have to account for.

Either it will make sense on its own once he’s done talking—or...

“I promise,” Kexing says.

“You’ve promised already. How am I to trust you now?” Zishu sounds suspicious, of all things.

At that, Kexing can’t help but snort. “Are you looking for pointers?”

Finally, Zishu lets go of him, and Kexing turns around to face him, sitting so their knees almost touch. Zishu looks… oddly soft for an assassin, robes hanging loose, hair askew, watching Kexing as he watches him back. Has he slept these past days, he wonders.

At last, Zishu huffs, mouth curling into a rueful smile. “Alright. I guess I have no grounds to argue.” Then he falls silent for a moment, thinking about what to tell him next, most likely. Kexing watches the bangs that fall into his face, the sharp line of his nose, the ornamental bow of his lips. He waites, equal parts hunger and worry.

“You’re graceful with a sword,” Zishu settles on, and Kexing already opens his mouth to call him out on such trite a statement, but Zishu surprises him yet again: “When standing in the kitchen, that grace eludes you somehow. Every time you chopped vegetables, I feared for your fingers.”

The statement is so unexpected, it punches a laugh out of Kexing. “I see… So I played cook for you, after all? I hope the taste managed to satisfy your refined palate where the view fell short.”

Again, Zishu’s expression grows impossibly fond. Kexing forces himself to endure it.

“You cooked it for me,” Zishu says softly. “Of course it was perfect.”

Zishu reaches for his hand, and Kexing…

There is nothing Kexing can do to prevent it. He is doomed, he realizes, staring at him helplessly, longingly.

People have only ever tried to bring about his downfall with threats, with aggression.

Where they failed, Zishu’s look of raw adoration cleaves Kexing’s chest open like an afterthought. His fingers settle over and around his own, and Kexing can only garble out a laugh that sounds false to his own ears while bleeding out on the floor, fatally wounded. He is but a fly, he sees it now, entangling himself further in Zishu’s web of affection, of kindness, each time he tries to escape.

“You like to read,” Zishu continues, “because it’s like a window to the real world. A way out of all this.”

Those words now are like knives to Kexing’s gut. He tries to tear his hand out of Zishu’s grip, startled, but Zishu only holds onto him faster, squeezing his fingers. “You call yourself Philanthropist Wen like it’s some kind of joke when it’s really who you want to be: A refined scholar with a keen sense for beauty, a worldly traveler free to go where he likes, enjoying life to its fullest.”

Kexing’s breath shakes out of him unevenly. His heart is pounding in his ears. He wants to deflect, laugh it off, but every riposte dies in his throat. He wants to curl away and hide, he wants to snarl at Zishu and start a fight. But both would be even more telling, even more damning, so he stays where he is, stripped bare, paralyzed, until all there is left for him to do is drop his gaze from Zishu’s sad eyes and try to not fly apart at the seams.

Zishu reaches for his other hand, the one clawing at his own thigh. When he takes hold of it, Kexing moves to grab it tightly, reflexively, and doesn’t let go.

“You can sustain yourself on vengeance in order to survive,” Zishu continues gently, cruelly, “but you’d rather there was more to living than that, and there is. You are not some mindless beast, Lao Wen. You care for Zi Sha like a sister. You raised her instead of discarding her, you gave her a name besides just a title. You are so loyal and generous you’re forgetting yourself over it. You can’t wrap your head around the idea that others want to care for you in turn.”

Zishu swallows loudly. When he speaks again, his voice trembles. “You wished you were normal, and I’ve never seen you happier than upon discovering that you are. That outside of Ghost Valley, you already are the person that you long to be. That you are good.”

And so the fox asked the wolf: “What kind of person do you think I am? Good or bad?” The wolf looked at him as if the fox would be particularly dense. “If bad people can be forgiven when renouncing their weapons,” he said, “good people shouldn't be forsaken after they do something bad—it wouldn’t make sense otherwise, would it?

“Enough,” Kexing grates out, baring his teeth, unable to bear this one moment longer.

Zishu only shuffles closer, thighs pressing against Kexing’s. “Wait,” he says.

The desperation in his voice roots Kexing to the spot, winning out even against the violent urge to break free and run, consequences be damned. “Wait,” Zishu pleads, and so, against all reason, he does. Zishu just breathes for a moment, along with Kexing, raggedly like he’d be the one subjected to this horrifying ordeal.

“Remember what I told you earlier, about who I’d become? About leaving Tian Chuang? That I was ready to pay the price?” Zishu laughs wetly. “At that point, what else was left for me to want but suffer and die?”

At that, Kexing’s eyes fly back up to him. To his shock, he finds Zishu’s smile wavering, watery, as cracked open as Kexing feels.

“But then I met you,” he says, lips trembling. “And you made me so... angry. And annoyed. And intrigued. And awed.” A tear slips free from Zishu’s lashes. “But most of all, you made me happy.” He laughs again, a bittersweet sound. Kexing forgets how to breathe. “You made me feel all these things I didn’t ask for. Made me want all these things I did no longer deserve. You made me think although I wronged so many, I could do right by you. That I could be good for you. That we could be good for each other.” Zishu looks at him beseechingly, eyes overflowing, hands squeezing Kexing’s. “And we were,” he whispers, “we really were, Lao Wen.”

Kexing’s body reacts without any conscious decision. All he knows is the pain of seeing Zishu like this is breaking his heart, and the next moment, he has him gathered in his arms and Zishu’s tears soak into his shoulder.

“You idiot,” Kexing rasps into Zishu’s hair, “why are you doing this to yourself?” He can feel Zishu’s heartbeat where he’s pressed against his body. It goes fast, but slows down already alongside Kexing’s own. Does it work the same for Zishu? Proximity alone draining the tension out of his frame?

After a moment, Zishu lifts an arm and rubs at his face, composing himself. Kexing expects him to draw back then, but Zishu hooks his chin over Kexing’s shoulder instead, and Kexing does nothing to discourage him.

“I told you,” Zishu croaks, “I’d do a great many things for you.”

Oh…

Kexing hugs him tighter.

It’s so nice to hold him, to hear him say all these things. It would be so easy… So easy to let go, to submit to these honeyed words, to lose himself in Zishu fully, to burrow into the cavity of his chest and live there forever.

But between the two of them, doesn’t at least one of them have to remember the constraints of reality?

Kexing thought that could be him, that it needed to be him, but the reality Zishu is painting for him, for them—it looks like dawn in a world that’s never seen light. Truly the Ghost of Yeming, turning even the darkest of night upside down. It’s unfair.

But of course, this is nothing new. By now, Kexing is well used to unfairness, has dealt with it for most of his life. So he smiles, although jittery.

“You were right, Zhou Zishu—you are no storyteller. You forgot to explain how any of that can make sense. When did you find the time to meet me, a lone sovereign busy subduing an army of ghosts so they may not roam the world?”

At that, Zishu moves at last. He leans back until Kexing has to let him go, has to look him in the face again. His eyes are tinged in red and weariness.

“I didn’t forget," Zishu says. “But this part, it’s the one that will sound outlandish. So I figured I’ll save it for the end.”

Kexing laughs weakly. “To get my hopes up, only to crush them at the conclusion? I’m skeptical whether this is wise. But please continue, a masterpiece ought to be enjoyed in its entirety.”

Zishu takes a deep breath, regarding him minutely.

“All of what I just told you happened in the future,” he says.

Kexing blinks at him slowly, and then laughs, sharp with surprise. What a hysterical concept. To finish a story so beautiful in such crude a manner… Disappointment curdles in Kexing’s stomach. Of course he had to ruin it… He shouldn’t have been surprised. Disappointment is another thing he’s well accustomed to.

But from the way Zhou Zishu looks at him, Kexing realizes he is serious.

“You’re serious,” he says, baffled.

“There was a ritual—”

“A ritual,” Kexing says dryly and nods. “Of course. Go on, then.” Zhou Zishu merely sighs at his sarcasm. At least he seems to understand he’s doing himself no favors, going this route.

“There was a ritual you and I performed. I can’t tell you what it was supposed to do because it might harm you, and I can’t tell you what went wrong because I don’t know. All I can say is this: Several weeks ago, I didn’t expect to wake up in my old room in Tian Chuang, and yet I did. I woke up, expecting to see you, but…”

Zishu’s face crumbles into sorrow again, into grief, fear, pain in quick succession until he looks down, fighting a silent fight against himself. Kexing’s own throat closes up in sympathy. He doesn’t know what to say or do, so he just waits. Eventually, Zishu seems to get a handle on it, shoving his feelings back where they came from, out of Kexing’s sight, for which he is grateful.

“But you were not there,” Zishu finishes tonelessly. “I thought: Maybe we were kidnapped and separated? I left the room and ran into someone who should have been already dead. I thought I must be dreaming, but I was not. So I asked for the year, and learnt that this,” Zishu gestures all around them, “is approximately one year and nine months before you and I met. One year and a half before I left Tian Chuang. In the future, I eventually learnt you were the Master of Ghost Valley, so—”

“You did not know I was the Ghost Valley Master?” Kexing interrupts him, too shocked to pay the ‘in the future’ part further heed. Out of the blue, hearing this unsettles him. It should hardly matter whether the Kexing in Zishu’s story lied about his own nature.

Zishu shrugs. “No,” he says simply, then seems to realize this bothers Kexing more than it bothers him. “You didn’t lie, exactly. I think if I really asked, you would have told me. But it wouldn’t have been fair. I hadn’t told you everything about me, yet.”

“Yet. So did I tell you?” Kexing asks, after a moment. “Did you…” condemn me?

Zishu's eyes on Kexing are patient, steady. “I figured it out myself. I think you made it up in your head that if you told me, you would lose me forever.” The corners of his mouth slip into the smallest, most gentle smile Kexing has ever seen on any face. You believe such silly things, sometimes it seems to say, and something lodges itself inside Kexing's throat.

“...continue,” he barely manages.

Mercifully, Zishu does. “So, I left Tian Chuang again. Under a pretense, this time. And instead of going alone, I took Han Ying with me, a follower of mine. He has… proven himself to be loyal to a fault in the future. I sent him to Mirror Lake sect. Their youngest boy, Zhang Chengling, became my disciple in the future, and I wanted Han Ying to protect him while I...”

He looks at Kexing desperately.

Zhang Chengling… he has mentioned him before. Is Zishu heartbroken because the child is going to die in the future, or is it because...? Kexing swallows, overwhelmed by the intensity of that gaze.

“I just, I… I thought because of the ritual, maybe you had gotten thrown back in time, too. I traveled to Ghost Valley as fast as I could, hoping to meet you here. But you didn’t recognize me. I thought it was just me who travelled back, after all.”

Being left behind, the grief of finding oneself alone all of a sudden—this is a feeling Kexing is all too familiar with as well. Even though the plot twist Zishu proposes sounds absurd, Zishu must really believe it to be true...

“I was glad regardless—my worst fear all along was that you’d just be… gone. That we’d never meet again.” He smiles at Kexing, and it’s devastating. “But you are not,” Zishu whispers, “You’re still here…” He reaches for Kexing’s hand again, but retreats it a moment later without making contact. “And yet…”

You can’t look at me like that, Kexing thinks and moves to capture Zishu’s hand. He doesn’t even know whom he tries to comfort exactly. Or if it is wise. Doesn’t care enough to stop.

Heavens above…

Zishu might believe it, and Kexing might want it to be true. He wants Zishu to look at him like that and mean it. “Tell me,” he says, clutching at straws again, “How does one derive A-Xu from Zhou Zishu?”

A-Xiang has told him this already, but Kexing wants—no, needs to look at Zishu while being told in person.

Zishu’s gaze grows hesitant. “...I don’t know if I should tell you that.”

“I don’t care if you know or not. Make another gamble,” Kexing shouts. If not for me, then for yourself.

Zishu searches his face for a while. Whatever he finds there, it makes him talk.

“I refused to reveal my identity to you, at first. I was trying to lay low, so I lied and told you my name was Zhou Xu. Xu as used in willow catkins.”

There were few things the fox liked better than watching the wolf hunt. Unparalleled in skill, in beauty, he danced between their enemies like willow catkins dancing in the wind. Untouchable, elusive, he could be a shadow or a beam of light, eyes sharper than a blade and just as deadly.

Kexing laughs faintly. Oh...

How fitting. How fateful. How divine...

It’s surprising how mild the spike in headache is. Is this common knowledge he is now allowed to have? The link between A-Xu and Zishu has been drawn so many times...

Zishu tugs at his hand and Kexing squeezes back to show he’s okay. “Go on,” he prompts after a moment and holds his breath.

Kexing can see Zishu does like this even less now, but when Kexing doesn’t budge, he sighs and continues.

“A few days later, you asked whether you might call me ‘A-Xu’.” Zishu starts to brush his thumb over the back of Kexing’s hand. Kexing isn’t sure he’s aware of it.

“You didn’t even wait for an answer, but when has that ever stopped you? What’s worse, you wouldn’t shut up about it, calling me a hundred times a day for no other reason than to hear your own voice, I suppose. A bell would have been wasted on you, you insufferable brat.”

Kexing exhales shakily and closes his eyes.

You call my name so sweetly, he’d said upon greeting Zishu. What light from heaven has graced the hell of my Ghost Valley?

“That’s why you didn’t introduce yourself as A-Xu,” Kexing breathes, opening his eyes again. “You thought a nickname would mean nothing to me.”

Zishu starts to answer, but Kexing laughs. He looks at Zishu, whose face is an accurate depiction of the bewilderment Kexing feels. It makes him bark out another hiccup of laughter. And another. And another. There’s no holding it in, then, and soon, he’s desperately howling with it, unable to stop until his stomach hurts and Zishu clasps at his shoulders, clearly concerned.

“Lao Wen, what...”

Oh, the irony of it all! Kexing wipes at his eyes as his laughter tempers down into giggles and gasps and finally a drawn-out moan. He wasn’t aware that cheeks could hurt like that. Winded, he lets himself fall forward, into Zishu’s waiting arms, lets his brow rest against his collar bone.

“What was this all about?” Zishu asks, rubbing circles into his back. Kexing closes his eyes and lets him.

“If you think you travelled through time alone,” he sighs, refusing to answer, “what are you trying to achieve by learning about Meng Po soup?”

Zishu shifts around him uneasily. “I… don’t think I came back alone any longer.”

Kexing smiles into Zishu’s robe. “Oh? How come? Explain it to me.”

“Lao Wen, I really don’t know—”

“Tell me regardless. If you want me to consider believing you, you will tell me whatever I want.”

“I’d rather have your distrust than hurt you badly,” Zishu says indignantly.

Kexing hisses and turns to shove his face into his neck. “Ah, heavens, Zishu…,” he says hotly, lips brushing against skin, and Zishu shudders. “Please tell me,” he adds, more quietly.

Zishu lifts a hand and starts petting Kexing’s hair. His fingers are trembling. “You’re a menace,” he whispers, “always such a fucking menace…”

“You said I make you mostly happy,” Kexing murmurs against his skin. “If I’m a menace, you must enjoy it.”

Zishu hugs him tighter at that, smooshing Kexing’s face, his chest against him further. For a moment, they just stay like that and breathe, again. Then, Zishu swallows—Kexing can feel his throat work against his cheek—and loosens the hold he has on him.

“In the future, I saw you suffer the effects of Meng Po soup, too. Not as severely. But I knew it made you forget things. About who was responsible for you ending up in Ghost Valley. When you didn’t recognize me a week ago, I just assumed that would also be the case here. I didn’t think anything of it, at first.”

Kexing draws back, needing to see his face again. “And then?”

Zishu holds his gaze, still looking so earnest. “Not long after I came here,” he says, “Zi Sha said something strange to me for no apparent reason: That—

For a moment I didn’t think
I said to him he must be the thing you lost.

—I must be the thing you lost. She was so angry and protective of you, as if she knew for a fact that I had given you grief somehow.”

Zishu frowns. “But that time you and I had played together as children, you had been laughing all day—what could there possibly be for you to complain about? And why should she assume a random stranger was that boy in the first place? I came to understand that you must have travelled back after all, further back in time that I had for reasons I can’t even guess at. You must have remembered your former life long enough to be able to tell Zi Sha about how we met as adults.”

Kexing blinks at him, floored.

“But when you came to the Valley as a child, Zi Sha hadn’t even been born yet. Therefore, I figured you must have drank the soup at least twice.”

Zishu, he’s so incredibly smart. It’s…

so fucking attractive.

Fleetingly, Kexing thinks Zhou Zishu could know all these things because he has captured A-Xu and tortured them out of him. But the thought is weak and barely lasts for the blink of an eye.

There are just so many things that Zishu did or evoked which don’t fit that picture: The way he was able to fight Kexing so smoothly, like he’d done it countless times already. These handful of memories Kexing got a glimpse of before falling unconscious. That weird double-image of a memory that didn’t even feature Zishu yet fits into his outlandish narrative seamlessly. A-Xiang, insisting that Zishu looks so genuine. Kexing, unable to do anything but second that assessment. Kexing’s body, craving Zishu’s touch like a parched man craves water.

All the little suspicious things a man hellbend on lulling Kexing into a false sense of security would never do. The explanation for why Zishu didn’t introduce himself as A-Xu.

The reason A-Xu never came for him until now.

The hope in his chest flares to life anew with a vengeance. Oh, he hungers for it to be true. He has spent almost all of his life in a perpetual state of things not making sense, and now that they finally, unbelievingly do, he wants them to make sense completely.

“The name you said I gave Zi Sha: What was it?” Kexing asks, eyeing Zishu expectantly.

Zishu gives a pained noise, but complies after Kexing assures him that, yes, he had given her a name here as well. Maybe he realized denying Kexing is a fruitless endeavor. Maybe he realized that this is what he needs right now. Either way, upon hearing him answer correctly, Kexing shuts his eyes briefly, feeling relief flood his body. Elation.

“There is one more thing,” he rasps. “Just one last thing, and then I shall ask no more. It’s something I have always wondered about. You know so much, Zishu, surely you will enlighten me?”

“Lao Wen…”

“How come when they made me drink Meng Po soup again, I forgot about A-Xu of all things?”

Kexing hadn’t wanted to ask that question per se. He dreaded it, really. It wasn’t so much that he wondered about the answer but desperately avoided it, shoving it back into a dark corner of his mind each time it reared its ugly and disturbing head.

Now, however, it is so crucial a thing, such a big and baffling unknown—being able to answer this satisfactorily would be akin to a painter signing their work. Without it, ah... It wouldn't speak well for the rest of the painting, to say the least.

Zishu looks a moment away from strongly protesting, but then he just…
doesn’t.

“I can see why you’d want that answered specifically,” he says at last. “Were I in your shoes, I’d want exactly the same.” Zishu laughs unhappily. “I guess it’s a tough thing to ask, to believe any good could ever come from someone associated with what the mind would like to forget.”

For a moment, Kexing doesn’t know what to say. “...yes,” he answers belatedly, stupidly.

“Alright,” Zishu says. “But I can only speculate, and I won’t go into details.”

“Alright,” Kexing echoes, tense and wary and bracing for… something.

“In the future, you managed to have your revenge.”

Kexing does a double take. Then, upon re-running what has been said inside his head, he perks up despite himself. “I got that fork-tongued, traitorous worm?!” he crows.

Zishu smiles tightly. “Ah. You really do know him now. Yes, you did. And you punished him justly instead of setting the whole world on fire like you had originally planned.” Zishu regards Kexing guardedly. “But I’m afraid getting this off your chest, I became your newest most painful memory instead since I… had made some really bad decisions over time.”

Kexing blinks at him, unease unfurling black wings inside his stomach again.

Your newest

Bad decisions...

A-Xu… A-Xiang…

How—

Abruptly, a hand closes around Kexing’s jaw. Pulls his chin upwards, roughly, until—

Until he meets Zishu’s hard, determined eyes. “No,” he commands. “You absolutely won’t go there. Just know I didn’t deliberately mistreat or betray you. I would never.”

That possibility hadn’t even occurred to Kexing because it’s absurd. Instead—

Zishu yanks at Kexing’s jaw again. “No! Don’t think about it more!”

“It’s not so easy, alright?” Kexing grouses, prying Zishu’s hand off. “It’s not like I can control what springs up inside my—”

Pain

Pain

Pain. Inside his skull, inside his heart, a grief so deep and vast he drowns in it, an agony unlike anything he’s ever felt; an absence so acute it’s eating him alive, he can’t—

A-Xiang...

Something sharp punctures his shoulder. His vision swims then rearranges until there’s A-Xu again in front of him with panic in his eyes and Kexing’s dagger in his hand, a single drop of blood adorning the tip. Kexing’s gaze drops down, fastens onto A-Xu’s chest, hidden behind layers of cloth, hidden from view because—

At that point, what else was left for me to want but suffer and die?

Because there’s something horrible there, and Kexing doesn’t want to see, but also he has to see, he needs to—

Through flashes of pain, Kexing shoots forward. A-Xu is shouting something. It’s irrelevant. His head feels close to bursting. He pays it no heed. He claws at A-Xu’s robes instead with A-Xu’s hands on Kexing’s wrists, a hindrance. Why is he holding him back when Kexing needs to—

But finally, A-Xu lets go and helps instead, fast fingers pulling all his layers apart at once, pulling them wide open to reveal—

Nothing?

It’s like Kexing’s head got dunked into ice water. He blinks at Zishu’s chest, uncomprehending. The pain that had just swamped his senses sizzles and fades, a mirage vanishing before the traveller who ventures too close.

His fingers trundle over Zishu aimlessly like confused birds, grazing old sword scars, the odd arrow wound or two, planes of unblemished skin in between. Things one would expect to find on the body of a seasoned martial artist, yet not what Kexing expected to see.

“A-Xu,” Kexing says, timid, lost.

“Lao Wen,” Zishu says and captures Kexing’s hand. He draws it up to his breastbone, flattens Kexing’s palm over his middle dantian. Holds it there.

His qi is flowing free and strong, a tremendous power to rival Kexing’s own. Kexing looks up at him in wonder.

“See?” Zishu says warmly, though his voice is trembling. “Everything is alright now. I’m alright now. And this time, if I have any say in it, this is how things will stay. I’m going to find that antidote. You’ll remember soon enough, don’t worry. There is no need to rush.”

Kexing lets his gaze flit across Zishu’s features as if he sees them for the very first time. And maybe he does; maybe Kexing looked at him before without actually seeing. Maybe he’s looked from the wrong angle, or in the wrong light, or—

“A-Xu,” he says, reaching out with the hand that isn’t shielding Zishu’s dantian. Kexing’s fingertips skim a cheekbone, the edge of a jaw, the flank of his nose, mapping this face so familiar and unfamiliar at once. Mesmerized, he watches his eyes widen, his lips drop apart.

“A-Xu,” he whispers, “is that really you?”

Zishu’s reaches up, traces his fingers over the back of Kexing’s hand. “Yes,” he says, revering, eyes fever-bright. “Yes, Lao Wen, I am.” He presses Kexing’s palm against the side of his face, turns his head, nuzzles into it. “I came for you, remember?”

Something is different. Zishu has touched him before, but—

His perception shifts just so, and all of a sudden, it becomes so obvious that Kexing doesn't know how he could have missed it in the first place: Zishu’s hands, they are clammy and cold.

Kexing is perplexed for a moment, but then it dawns on him: Right now, Zishu must be terrified.

He’s told Kexing this story, hoping it would reach him. Now, here, all he could have said is said, all he could have done is done. Now is where he must let go, forced to rescind control while he is left kneeling, bare and seen, awaiting Kexing’s verdict, hoping he would bring his story to a fitting end.

Ah...

Kexing does not want to prolong his suffering. He should make up his mind. That should be simple, no? One out of two options, it’s all such stories demand: Either one chooses doubt—or makes a leap of faith instead.

I came for you, remember?

Many, Kexing bets, have perished under these honeyed lips, many were caught off guard by the blade that followed in their wake.

If Kexing makes the wrong choice by trusting him—surely it would have been well played on Zishu’s part. Surely it’s an honorable death, to die at the hands of such a peerless master of deception. A satisfying end for a tragedy.

But to turn away from him, from the desperation written all over his lovely face if every word he said was true: Wouldn’t it be blasphemous? Something monstrous, something unforgivable? What redeeming quality could lie in a story bleaker than life?

No... out of these two mistakes to make, the latter seems to come at a far greater price.

Making a leap of faith, then… Hadn’t he done the same for A-Xiang? For Tragicomic Ghost?

Zishu said he'd done the same for Kexing.

He looks at Zishu, at the beating heart he’s holding out for him, risking it being tossed away, and finds that A-Xiang has been right, after all.

Kexing, too, doesn’t want to be alone.

If loneliness was what he desired, he could have let go of a past (future) he can’t even remember. He could have scared away the little girl wanting to sneak into his bed. He could have refused to take her in at all, could have left her to die. He could have let go of a faceless name, a handful of fables that haunted his dreams.

But Kexing had done none of these things.

Hadn’t he always wanted whatever comfort he could wring from his miserable life? Foolishly, stubbornly perhaps, but it is what it is.

And now, more than ever, what he wants is Zishu. His mind, his body, his soul.

I came for you, remember?

Isn’t it fortunate? Zishu being so eager to breathe life into the A-Xu shaped hole in Kexing’s heart?

After all, what did Kexing know about A-Xu? Wasn’t every word this mirage has ever said to him Kexing’s own? Wasn’t each soothing gesture something Kexing has comforted himself with? Wasn't he a mere idea inside Kexing’s head, a childish dream of being loved no matter what?

You’re an insufferable brat.

Half the broth went to waste because of you! You’re going to eat the rest without a fuss, or so help me…

Pestering me is what you were born to do.

But here in front of him, isn’t this a person with their own thoughts, their own ideas of comfort? Isn’t this a man of flesh and blood whose faults are probably as many as Kexing’s, but who won’t let himself be defined by them?

And isn’t this better, to be seen so completely by a kindred soul and deemed capable of doing the same?

You just want to be normal. You were so happy when you discovered that you are.

He looks at Zishu, at the way his eyes close against Kexing’s caress, and finds the answer to all these questions is yes.

Kexing releases a shuddering breath. “Zishu,” he says, finally. “A-Xu.”

Zishu blinks his eyes open, deep and wistful. He is so beautiful, even at the edge of breaking apart.

I came for you, remember?

Kexing slides the hand on Zishu’s chest up, up to his neck, around the base of his skull. Lets his fingers curl there, into the dark, sweaty warmth of his hair. It’s just as soft as he imagined.

(He could break his neck like this. It wouldn’t take much—Kexing knows it, Zishu knows it. And yet, he lets it happen. Yet, he doesn’t move away.)

Kexing closes his eyes. “What you said… It sounds like the truth. I don’t remember that future you speak of, so there’s no way for me to be sure whether it is the truth. But—” He swallows. Looks at him, at his absolute trust again.

I came for you, remember?

Yes, he thinks, awed, you did.

“I choose to believe you, anyway.”

Zishu inhales sharply at that. Mouths around a sound he doesn’t make.

Kexing lets himself sink forward. Presses his brow against Zishu's. “Will you regret it?" he asks into the small space between them. "If you can’t give me the memories you want me to have, will you discard me once you learn I’m not the one you knew after all?”

And Zishu’s eyes blaze as if accused of a terrible crime. “Lao Wen,” he says, voice thick with emotion. “You were my zhiji, you are my zhiji, and you will always be my zhiji—no matter what version of yourself you are. I just—” He reaches for Kexing’s robes. Fists his hands into the fabric. Pulls him closer still until Kexing can’t go anywhere other but into his lap. “I just want you,” he tells the side of Kexing’s neck, the goosebumps blooming on his skin. “I’ll always want you.” He threads his arms around Kexing. Hugs him so tightly it steals his breath away. “Will you let me?”

Kexing curls around him like a vine. “Yes.” What a stupid question to ask. “Yes,” he breathes into Zishu’s hair, his ear.

Zishu makes a choked-up sound. "Lao Wen," he says, burying his face into Kexing's hair, inhaling deeply. "Lao Wen—ah, heavens, you smell so good."

Holding onto him is the easiest thing he has ever done. It feels so right, Kexing wants to remain like this forever, falling further into each other until they become one, fused together by merciless proximity. He steals his hands between them, inside Zishu’s open robes, through the scarce space between fabric and skin where he is warmest, where he is most solid, most real.

"A-Xu," Kexing says silently, reverently. Presses his face into the crook of Zishu’s neck. Breathes him in as well. “A-Xu...

Zishu makes a desperate little noise. "Don't you dare sleep anywhere other than your bed tonight," he says fiercely.

"Will you be in it?" Kexing pleads. “In my bed, will you be—”

Zishu’s mouth opens against the corner of his jaw. "Where else would I be? You gave it to me, remember?" His breath scalds a line into his skin when he lets his lips wander, slowly, maddeningly, and Kexing lets his head roll back. Lets Zishu sear his throat, his neck, his clavicle, to where he places a single, lingering kiss.

Kexing laughs, helplessly. “You stabbed me.”

What a ridiculous remark. It makes Zishu laugh as well. “Only a little,” he says. Sets a hand atop the wound, lets his qi mend it easily. Rubs his cheek against Kexing’s neck like an affectionate cat. Sighs.

“When was the last time you’ve eaten?”

“Huh?”

“I’m hungry,” Zishu whispers. “Aren’t you?”

“I’m not hungry,” Kexing answers truthfully. He was at some point, but now he can live on Zishu’s sight and smell alone somehow.

Cruelly, Zishu takes hold of Kexing’s forearms and pulls them out of his robes. “Well, I am. What are you going to do, let me starve?” Despite the words, his tone is nothing but gentle, amused, belying their harshness. He leans back and smiles at him. Rearranges his robes, pulling them close at the front.

Kexing looks at the proceedings forlornly.

Zishu chuckles. “Come now. Let us eat first. You need to eat, you know? Ah, Lao Wen...”

Zishu sighs again and leans in. He kisses the corner of his mouth briefly, and Kexing turns his head to chase after his lips, but Zishu shoves a palm between them, laughing. “Behave,” he says, stroking his cheek with his other hand. His eyes shine with unshed tears. Sparkle with mirth. He looks so relieved. So indescribably happy.

Kexing wants to make him glow like that forever, but Zishu drops him off onto the floor, disregarding his protests. He is, Kexing realizes, truly a very cruel man.

Zishu stands and offers him a hand, grinning broadly, looking ever so lovely, ever so bright.

Kexing reaches for him with an echoing smile.

*

Over the table, Zishu keeps looking at him like he wants to devour him instead, and Kexing is on fire.

Let us eat first.
Let us eat first.

He still isn't hungry, feeling like he transcended hunger, won't have further need of it for as long as he lives, if only he can feast his eyes on A-Xu, but Zishu insists: “Let me,” he says.

Bits and morsels find their way into his bowl one after the next. As long as it makes A-Xu happy, Kexing is going to ensure he eats what he is given while handing out plenty in turn.

Even if it slowly, sweetly kills him.

*

“Let me,” says Zishu.

“Let me,” says A-Xu.

Wash his hands, wash the make-up from his face; careful like Kexing might shatter at a touch too firm, a touch too many.

And he might. Ah, heavens… He really might.

*

"Let me comb your hair?" Zishu whispers, standing behind him with fingers already burrowing into Kexing's nape.

Kexing moans, letting his head fall back against A-Xu’s belly. They look at each other, and Kexing could drown in him. What is he doing, he wonders as A-Xu reaches for the comb. Is he trying to seduce him? Kexing smiles. Can't he see he is plenty seduced already? If A-Xu wanted him to kiss him, Kexing would. If A-Xu wanted him to kneel and worship, he'd do so in a heartbeat.

A-Xu pulls his hairpin free, and Kexing's hair tumbles down. It's heavy, and the roots ache from being pulled in another direction after a day of confinement. Zishu nudges his head forward until he has room to knead soothing fingertips into Kexing's scalp, then combs his hair out in slow sweeps, running the strands through his fingers one by one. His knuckles brush over Kexing's neck in the process, making him shiver.

His eyelids flutter closed. Inevitably, he becomes putty under A-Xu's hands, under his meticulous attention. It would be easy for him to slit Kexing's throat like that. Kexing couldn't care less. A-Xu would never betray him.

"There," Zishu says, no longer combing, fingers lingering behind the shell of Kexing's ear. His eyes, when Kexing meets them, are dark and bottomless. His voice sounds rough. "All done."

Kexing blinks up at him, sluggish with comfort, with want. Maybe that's what Zishu is doing, Kexing thinks: comforting him, caring for him. It's... nice. He reaches up for A-Xu's hand, catches trembling fingers to link with his own. Kexing's throat clicks. A-Xu's gaze flits to his mouth and back again.

He squeezes Kexing's fingers once, then draws away. "I'm going to bed," he says, taking one step back.

Kexing turns his head after him, watching. "Oh?"

"Mm," Zishu confirms, undoing his sash. It drops from his fingers to pool on the floor, making the softest sound. Kexing rises like in a dream. Weightless, unreal. A-Xu smiles and turns away. His outer robe slides over his shoulders, down, down.

"A-Xu,” Kexing says, following behind. He shucks his own sash, letting it fall where it wants, paying it no heed. "A-Xu, don't go."

When he moves to hug him from behind, Zishu laughs and turns in his arms. He looks so happy, it steals Kexing's breath away. A-Xu threads his fingers behind Kexing's neck. Drags them higher, slips them into Kexing's hair. Pulls his head down until it comes to rest against his brow. "You’re a fool," Zishu says, "if you think I'm going anywhere without you."

Even to Kexing's own ears, the sound he makes at that is pitiful. He cradles A-Xu's face, brushes his lips against his cheek, the corner of his eye, his waiting mouth. It's Zishu who's chasing after him, then, and Kexing gladly lets him. Lets him lick against the seam of his mouth until Kexing laughs because it tickles, until he moans because A-Xu seizes the moment and kisses him deeply.

Three days ago, he tried to talk himself into letting him go... How absurd—would he willingly sever a limb from his body? Cut the still beating heart from his chest? And now, to imagine he could have this, could have Zishu, could keep him—

Kexing wraps his arms around A-Xu and kisses back ardently, lost in the taste of him, and A-Xu pushes impossibly close. He fits the two of them together, his body under Kexing's fingertips strong and sinuous and deadly.

"Lao Wen," he laughs, breathlessly, beautifully, "ah, Lao Wen..." Zishu presses his cheek against Kexing's. Laughs again. "Fuck, I just—I want you so much."

As if Kexing couldn't tell. As if he couldn't feel him, hard and insistent and hungry; as if he couldn't smell the desire coming off him in waves, dark and alluring and heady, a night flower in bloom. "A-Xu," he whispers, burying his nose in his neck, "A-Xu, A-Xu, A-Xu..."

"Ah, shut up, you," Zishu answers fondly, untangling himself from Kexing, cruelly slipping out of his reach. Kexing could watch his face soften forever, could write poems about the way his hair spills free from its leather tie, about the way he moves when peeling off layer after layer while Kexing follows suit, adding to the trail of clothes A-Xu leaves carelessly behind.

Thank the heavens they are about to lie down—Kexing's knees could buckle under the weight of his yearning, the extend of his heartache, this malady of being handed without warning what he missed so dearly, was deprived of too long:

A companion.

A lover.

A friend.

They slip into bed naked, A-Xu pouring over the sheets all loose-limbed grace, arms over his head, legs dropping apart. His body spells invitation; his expression is an open wound, overcome and dazed, eyes fixed on Kexing's in a way that makes him shiver all over, makes him feel more naked than a lack of clothes ever could, touched more intimately than a hand could ever dream to accomplish.

Kexing crawls on top of him slowly, deliberately. For a moment, he is irked by his own hair, irked it can already caress his hip, his stomach, his chest, can already cause A-Xu's eyelids to flutter. Kexing flicks it aside and snuggles into the warmth between his thighs. Sighs at the relief of it, the agony of it.

"Kexing," A-Xu whispers urgently. He reaches for Kexing, for his face, his jaw, reels him in and kisses him messily, closing his eyes at last. "Lao Wen..."

Kexing moans into him softly, rocks his hips against A-Xu’s. He’s so beautiful with his head thrown back, with his face first lax, then tense with pleasure, skin flushed and eyes glassy. Kexing feels strangely undeserving, seeing him like this—he didn't do anything, didn’t earn this embarrassment of riches yet. It must be more about him, about what he means to Zishu instead, and the mere idea is blowing his mind.

A-Xu’s toes curl into the meat of his calves, draw along the back of his knees, and Kexing steals a hand down between them, exploring the smoothness of his inner thigh, the sweaty seam of his leg. He strokes the hair that hides all of his soft places, and A-Xu shivers. Pushes against him, against his fingers, and Kexing can’t help but wonder if Zishu would like for him to find some nice oil and sink into him slowly, deeply; if A-Xu would like for them to be as close as they could possibly get.

"Ah—" Zishu gasps, "don't move," and Kexing doesn't, marveling at the shudders running through A-Xu's body, at the way he desperately tries to catch his breath. A-Xu lets go of his face and pulls at his shoulders instead, coaxing Kexing to cover him like a blanket.

"If you move, I'll come all over myself..."

Kexing laughs breathlessly. "How is that an undesirable outcome?"

A-Xu gives him a disgruntled look. It's not too impressive, given Kexing can only see one eye glare at him from where they're mashed together. It makes him laugh more, and A-Xu digs his fingers into Kexing's back at being jostled.

"Someone has kept me on my toes for days. Make me come, and I'll go out like a light. I'll sleep for an entire week. I—" He shifts and wraps his legs around Kexing’s waist slowly, one after the other, until the whole of his body is hugging him tight. “I don’t want to let go of you yet,” he adds quietly, and Kexing—

Kexing doesn't want to let go of Zishu either.

And if he is completely honest: The other thing, about going to go out like a light... Kexing might feel now as if he's running on desire alone, but really, he's just riding a wave, an all-consuming high, and when it finally crashes, it’s going to drag him along.

So he gingerly extracts himself from A-Xu, succeeding in not setting him off like fireworks while doing so. Zishu grumbles like Kexing wronged him somehow despite his efforts, and Kexing snorts at his antics.

Without doubt, that wolf was the crankiest person he’d ever run across. But like any true beauty, he was tough on the outside and soft of heart—how was the fox supposed to resist?

They settle down on their sides instead, knees and shins tangled, their middles kept neatly apart. A-Xu reverts to kissing him languidly, sweetly, and brushes his fingertips against Kexing's skin. Across his arms, his ribs, his collar bones, barely-there sweeps of nonsense patterns that reduce him to shivers and goosebumps somehow, to pleased little noises outside his control. Now and then, Kexing has to scratch at the sparks A-Xu's fingers leave in their wake, soothing away a pleasure becoming impossible to bear.

"...Lao Wen?"

Kexing blinks his eyes open. "Mm?"

"I said: Let's run away from here. Let's take the kids and Han Ying and just go."

Running from my problems, again.

Kexing laughs weakly. "And then?"

Zishu noses at his cheek. "We could live together. I'd train Chengling and—Han Ying, if he wants to. You'd hang around, confuse my disciple, bother me all day. In the evenings, we'd eat your dishes, play some games, then retire for the night."

Kexing smiles and strokes knuckles over Zishu's flank, his stomach, his twitching cock. "Retire... like this?"

"Mm," Zishu says and closes his eyes against the caress. He shifts his legs and Kexing uses the moment, drags the thigh A-Xu held hostage higher, presses it against the heat of his crotch. A-Xu clamps down on it and sighs.

"You really have no idea how to tell stories," Kexing whispers, leaning in to lick the salt from Zishu's throat. "Will Tian Chuang scatter in the wind? Will my enemies repent and answer for their crimes? Will everyone just let us be out of the goodness of their hearts?"

"We would... take care of that, first."

"With a bunch of children in tow?"

A-Xu frowns. “No. No, of course not, I—” He huffs. “Tomorrow. We’re going to figure it out tomorrow.” He buries his face in Kexing’s hair. “Didn’t we earn ourselves that much of a break?”

Yes, Kexing thinks. Yes, we did.

“Tomorrow,” Kexing agrees. “I expect to be dazzled by your peerless talent for tactics.”

Zishu ascends from where he hid in Kexing’s hair and narrows his eyes at him. “Are you making fun of me?”

Kexing smirks. “I’d never! Can’t I be excited about seeing the former leader of Tian Chuang plan something properly for the first time after arriving in my valley?”

“You insolent brat,” Zishu hisses and descends upon him.

They grapple briefly until Kexing manages to roll on top of him, in which moment all the fight leaves Zishu at once as he conveniently fails to protect himself from Kexing’s mouth on his neck and his hands in his hair and his hips rocking down on him again.

This time, A-Xu only stops to kick him out of bed to make him go and fetch the vial of oil he keeps in a desk drawer—

I know for a fact you have one there—go get it already, you'll give us a rash.

But I don't want to get up…

It's your own damn fault, who fails to keep such things at their bedside?

People who don't have the luxury of abundant privacy, you spoiled princeling.

—and yes, of course this is a sensible thing to do, Kexing isn’t stupid, but A-Xu isn't the one forced to get up and do something about the shortcomings of spit, so in Kexing's view, he has earned every right to bemoan the terrible fate bestowed upon him regardless, and Zishu is just mean.

He pours too great an amount onto Zishu's lap in retaliation, smirking through his complaints about things being too slippery now. "First you nag about too much friction, then you say there is too little," Kexing cries, happily thrusting his cock alongside A-Xu's into the tight press between both of their bellies. It actually feels pretty amazing in his opinion, the way they slide against each other so messily.

A-Xu rolls his eyes. "Why are you like this," he says yet pushes against him with relish, belying his put-upon act.

It’s so easy to lose himself in him, to move together in a way that is new but also isn’t, not for Kexing’s body, at least, which somehow knows how to do this well as long as Kexing listens to his gut feeling instead of his head. Like when to give A-Xu exactly what he wants (sometimes, when he's desperate for it) and when to withhold it (every other time), moving too slowly or too fleetingly instead. To Kexing's delight, it’s making A-Xu not only curse aplenty but also lose his entire mind.

In the end, when Zishu apparently has had enough of it, he flips them and ruts against Kexing to his heart's content while attempting to keep an extremely annoyed expression on his face. Kexing clutches at his shoulders and laughs, and then A-Xu has to laugh, too, and Kexing rolls them over onto their sides again.

There, they lend each other a hand while kissing with abandon, and somewhere between Kexing discovering Zishu likes to be bitten whereas he himself emphatically does not

What the—Lao Wen... Did you just squawk?

...no?

—and Zishu discovering it’s a whole different affair if only he subtracts teeth from the equation and adds a lot more tongue and suction instead, things careen from heated to frantic, and soon after, they succeed in making an even greater mess between themselves, what with their hips twitching and knuckles bumping together, and in Kexing’s humble opinion, it’s the most perfect thing.

For a while, they don't do anything but lie there and look at each other, plastered together, breathing each other's air. Trailing fingers across cooling skin just because it feels nice and soothing.

Kexing doesn't think he's ever felt this way, this relaxed and... content, yes, that's what it is. There’s exhaustion as well, just as predicted. It’s tugging at his limbs, his eyes, but it's comfortable, mild. It even helps with the rampant affection for A-Xu that wants to burst through his chest.

“Alright,” Zishu says eventually.

Kexing blinks sleepy eyes at him and can immediately tell by the slant to his mouth that his peace is about to be ruined.

“That was surprisingly adequate.”

Kexing makes an outraged noise and hits him, and Zishu cackles. Then, he smiles. The fond one where his eyes go all soft and loving, and Kexing has no choice but to lean in, has no choice but to kiss him again. Gently, although he hardly deserves it.

When he'll drift off like that, all satisfied and with Zishu by his side, his sleep will be deep and restful for a change, he just knows. So it's nice to succumb to it. To let Zishu snort and get up and come back and wipe him clean. To let him settle against him, let him kiss his cheek, pull his hair from his face.

Kexing sighs and snuggles up to him, maneuvering himself right into waiting arms. A-Xu starts petting him like he did before, prompting Kexing’s mind to fizzle out in bliss.

"Lao Wen," he says softly.

"Mm?"

"When we've sorted things out... Will you come with me?"

Kexing doesn't bother opening his eyes again. "If you think you can get rid of me," he mumbles into A-Xu's neck, scooting even closer, "the fool between the two of us is you."

Zishu retorts something at that, but Kexing doesn't quite catch it. By the time he decides it was likely just another jibe, anyway, he's fast asleep already.