Of course, Zhou Zishu thinks. A fake death. How could he not have thought of it?
Years and years ago, a lifetime ago, Zhou Zishu pulled off a fake death.
The Prince of Jin had insisted on seeing the body, then. If he's alive, the Prince had thundered, I want to see his person. If he's dead, you will bring his corpse in front of me, no matter in how many pieces.
So Zhou Zishu did.
The Prince stared at the body for a long time, then sank into a seat and waved a hand weakly, suddenly weary. Zhou Zishu bowed, and his men brought the body out.
A week later, the Prince of Jin attended the burial of Jing Beiyuan and the other heroes and martyrs of the war, while the real Qiye was already safely in Nanjiang with the one he loved.
The person whose death he faked in front of the Prince is now sitting right opposite him, engrossed in blithe conversation after having successfully helped someone else fake his death, in front of Zhou Zishu.
Look at that. Retribution really goes in circles.
Zhou Zishu cannot remember the last time he sat at a table with so many people.
Faintly he hears A-Xiang pester Wen Kexing about how he did this and how he did that, and faintly he hears Wen Kexing indulgently answer her questions one by one. Then Shen Shen stands up and says something, probably, then someone else does. Wen Kexing sits at the head of the table, the honored hero presiding over the banquet.
Every movement makes Zhou Zishu's field of vision heave with color and noise. The grain of the wooden table by the foot of his wine jug looks so polished. Everyone here has become so foreign; he cannot see a single person clearly.
He can't really hear what they say, and he doesn't really want to either. It's just all about how meticulous Wen Kexing's plan was, how it wouldn't have worked if not for this and that and so and so, how clever he was, and the vanquishing of Zhao Jing, and justice for everyone fooled by the villain.
What a bustling conversation. As it should be. Evil defeated, righteousness returned to the jianghu. The worst devil coming back to life and ripping the mask off the most virtuous to reveal, in front of everyone, the gore and grime underneath. Everyone loves a story like that: a role reversal, revenge, good defeating evil. Everyone wants to be part of a story like that.
There is glee underneath the decorum, Zhou Zishu can feel it even with his head down and his hands grasping only for more alcohol. Why is he moping? He's the only one moping.
Wen Kexing isn't dead. He found his way back onto the honorable path, and avenged every atrocity weighing on him for the past two decades. The villain who inextricably bound three generations together with blood and poison has finally been exposed.
Zhou Zishu knows he should lift his head up, join the conversation, lead a toast to Wen Kexing's triumph. He wants to, he does. In any other circumstance he would be the first to grab his hand and drag him out on a full day of revelry, and then bring him home and hold him close with such joy and relief.
But now, he aches, he aches, he aches.
Zhou Zishu should be happy. He is happy. Why can't he be happy?
Actually, that day years ago, if the Prince had looked very, very closely, he would have found cracks.
No disguise, no matter how skillfully done, is perfect. Zhou Zishu was the best of the best, but even so he couldn't truly turn one person into someone else.
He remembers telling Wen Kexing, what seems like a lifetime ago, that disguises work best if one is very familiar with the person he's disguising as. Conversely, then, if you're trying to fool someone who knows the person you're pretending to be very well, it's likely your mask will fall apart in front of him.
Zhou Zishu had thought then, standing before the Prince of Jin and "Jing Beiyuan", that despite everything, the Prince had truly never known this person who'd grown up beside him.
And now what did that make of Zhou Zishu? What did that make of Zhou Zishu and the person he called zhiji, who called him zhiji?
Because this time, he's the one who was fooled.
That body in the hut—if Zhou Zishu had gone closer, if he'd walked into the hut, if he'd looked at the body lying there, he would've realised.
But he couldn't bear to; he couldn't even see clearly, and for once it wasn't because of the nails in his chest.
And besides, so what if he had realised?
In one swift motion, Zhou Zishu tilts his head back and downs the alcohol in his cup. It tastes like water. He can't even tell whether it's warm or cold.
So what if he had realised? Wen Kexing would still be dead-undead-missing, and he would still be the fool left out of the plan, with his hands empty, only grief to keep him company.
A fake death, a faked death. Everyone else knew that it was fake; he was the only one left behind to be devastated by the death.
Or rather—one of the two people left behind.
But—Zhou Zishu lifts his head marginally, straining against how heavy it's somehow become—there A-Xiang is, happily chattering away next to Wen Kexing, heaping food into his plate and beaming up at him.
Faintly Zhou Zishu wonders, how did a place as cruel as the Ghost Valley bring up a child as innocent and careless as her? A-Xiang can find out that her master isn't dead, and immediately start jumping around in celebration; she can just be happy that he isn't dead.
She truly doesn't wonder, like Zhou Zishu does, why she was left in the dark.
Then Zhou Zishu shakes his head slowly and downs another cup of wine. How narrow-hearted can he get, to be jealous of a seventeen year old girl's peace of mind?
Even so, he wishes he could be like her. Simply be grateful that Wen Kexing isn't dead, and proud that he chose the bright path. And he is, so much so that if he thinks too much about it he can hardly breathe from the relief. But—
He'd gone to the Wulin Assembly driven only by the need to avenge his shidi, his zhiji. And whatever happened after that would have nothing to do with him.
Zhou Zishu had thought, if he died there, it would at least be after avenging Wen Kexing's death. And if he didn't, he would before long, anyway. So he'd hobble away, spend the last months or weeks or days teaching Chengling all he could, while missing that constant voice by his ears, until his hearing dropped from him too and he could pretend that the silence was just because he was finally completely deaf, and not because that person he wanted to hear was gone.
Then Wen Kexing came back.
Alive, standing in the path of the light, pale as a ghost but alive.
As if he didn't die right in front of Zhou Zishu's eyes. As if that body in the hut, the body burnt to ashes in the fire Zhou Zishu set, wasn't him. Because he didn't. And it wasn't.
When Zhou Zishu was a kid in the Four Seasons Manor, the disciples would set off firecrackers each New Year. And kids, well, kids don't know what it means to be afraid, so they would go as close to the firecrackers as they could, and watch them go off right in front of their eyes. So for a moment after each one went off, the only thing they could see were the sparks, and the only thing they could hear was the explosion, and its reverberations.
That's what it felt like, seeing Wen Kexing there.
Just—he's not dead. He's not dead. He's not dead.
Then he watched his shidi rip off Zhao Jing's immaculate, filthy mask, and bring the truth in front of the entire jianghu, just as he'd vowed to do. And Zhou Zishu was filled with pride, and relief. That his shidi had finally taken his step back onto the bright path. That Wen Kexing could finally set down the pain that had consumed him for twenty years, and finally exist freely in the world again.
It was only after they got out of there, both finally safe, that the weight of reality crashed back onto him. But if this was real, then all that had happened before—
I'm going to take a gamble, Zhou Zishu hears himself say, firm and confident. I bet that you are the person I know you are.
The moon hanging above them, cold and silent. The inky surface of the river rippling in the wind.
Then, a different scene, this time mellowed by candlelight and alcohol. The same word, the same certainty. I bet that one day, you'll open up your heart to me.
How sure of himself he was.
He never thought he'd lose.
He knew, of course, that Wen Kexing had a plan, a plan which put him opposite the entire jianghu. He knew that Wen Kexing would willingly make the most brutal moves if it could destroy his opponents.
But brutal to whom? Every knife that Wen Kexing launched out ultimately found its target in Zhou Zishu's chest.
The person he knew wouldn't do that to him.
The person he thought would open himself to him instead opened himself to everyone but him.
He lost the bet. He was wrong. And Wen Kexing feels like a hazy shadow in the distance, wispy and intangible. Did he ever know him?
"Shifu," Chengling says, jolting Zhou Zishu from his thoughts. "If this disciple may be so bold, shifu should be punished too."
Zhou Zishu turns his head marginally towards the sound. Chengling is a good kid. He knows Chengling doesn't actually care about what he did that ostensibly deserves punishment. It's just that he's seen him sit hunched over the table and mutely nurse cups upon cups of alcohol; Chengling is just trying to draw him into the conversation.
The kid is a good kid, Zhou Zishu thinks, consoled by the knowledge that even after he's gone, Chengling won't stray onto the crooked path.
Zhou Zishu doesn't even try to think of what it is he did that Chengling is referring to. But then the boy says, "Did you really not trust me? And my bond with shishu?"
And something in Zhou Zishu's mind convulses. Because at the end of the day, this is exactly what he wants to know too—did Wen Kexing really not trust him enough to tell him what he was going to do? He called him zhiji. Why did he leave him out?
There is the sound of a chair being pushed back hurriedly. Zhou Zishu doesn't let himself spare a glance in that direction, but he can hear unsteadiness and the slightest bit of panic in Wen Kexing's steps.
It's funny, actually. Every day he wakes up and realizes there's something new he can no longer hear, no longer see. And yet, he can tell so much about Wen Kexing from his footsteps alone, so faint and unnoticed.
But what is it that puts that instability in those steps? When he stands in front of him, what is it that Wen Kexing needs him to know? What is it that Zhou Zishu even wants to hear?
Everyone tries to speak for Wen Kexing. It was for the fulfillment of the plan. It was for your health, Zishu.
Zhou Zishu doesn't want to know.
He lifts his eyes and looks at Wen Kexing, the first time since arriving here that he's looked anyone in the eye, and thinks, why?
I don't want to know their answers. I don't want them to find excuses for you. I just want to hear from you.
He could walk out, Zhou Zishu suddenly realises. He could just turn around and walk right out.
Tianchuang was a cage. A cage with harsh edges and the sharp stench of metal, walls and bars all around, as if everyone in it was already under the ground.
So he left. Opened up his own chest and tied himself to the wax dripping from the candles.
He thought he'd gotten freedom. Three years to roam and soak up the sun until, finally, he couldn't even feel warmth on his skin.
When Zhou Zishu was a child in the Four Seasons Manor, his shiniang loved to plant flowers and watch the butterflies in the gardens. He remembers straining his neck to stare at caterpillars wrapping themselves up and up and up, until they completely disappeared underneath.
What's the difference between himself and that?
He should have realized.
Wen Kexing's eyes are clear and guileless. There's worry too, Zhou Zishu can tell. He stares at them as his throat ties itself into knots, stopping his questions from swarming out, and he can't find an explanation in them.
Wen Kexing, he knows, genuinely did not think of how cruel—yes, cruel—his plan would be to him. Zhou Zishu isn't sure what of Wen Kexing he can say for certain he knows now, but there's this, at least: if Wen Kexing had known the pain it would cause him, he'd have taken another route.
But is that any better? To know that Wen Kexing didn't even think of the impact on him? He didn't mean to hurt him. But it still, somehow, feels callous.
It wasn't meant to be like this. Zhou Zishu is certain of that. Someone, Ye Baiyi maybe, was supposed to watch over him and probably keep him unconscious. He just happened to wake up at an inopportune time. Whose fault was that?
Zhou Zishu is uncomfortably aware of the silence around him, the glances darting between him and Wen Kexing. He's uncomfortably aware of Wen Kexing's gaze, the outside corners of his eyes sliding down in concern.
He wants to shake Wen Kexing until an answer falls out, but he doesn't even have the question. He could spill out his entire heart and lungs, and he still wouldn't be able to form a coherent sentence from that mess of flesh and blood.
And he finds that he can't even find it in himself to blame Wen Kexing, or hate him; the strongest emotion he can rustle up is resignation. As if something in him is saying, look, this is what you get. This is what he gets, this is who Wen Kexing is, but he can never walk away.
Zhou Zishu can barely hear himself when he stretches out his hand, holding the jug of wine, and demands that Wen Kexing down three jugs as punishment. This is the most he can bear to do.
If he's honest with himself, Zhou Zishu has no reason to be surprised. Wen Kexing has never been a simple person. The fake liulijia pieces, the moon-gazing turned front row seats to the slaughter: the way he pushed him away, insisted he was not Zhen Yan, not his shidi. He can still feel the heat of Wen Kexing's palm on his shoulder, the force he used to wrench himself out of his embrace before running away.
There has always been something simmering just underneath the surface. It's just that Zhou Zishu hasn't looked hard enough. He knows it's because he could never bear to.
If he's honest with himself, he knew—he's always known—how cruel Wen Kexing can be. To himself, to everyone around him. It has never been unthinkable that he would do this. Deep down, Zhou Zishu knows this.
There is a crowded market street and the gentle rays of sunlight on his skin. A small wooden table and two jugs of wine. A person leaning towards him, calling his name, calling him back to life.
There are two cliffs and an abyss in between. An outstretched hand that turned into a firm grip, and laughter on soft grass.
There is a sharp figure in red, an admission like a breath held and finally released. A strong embrace holding him up. I knew you'd come for me. I didn't know when you'd come, or how, but I knew you'd always come for me.
This is the person he knows. This is what he believes in, resolutely.
So maybe trusting Wen Kexing has become a reflex, something as instinctive as breathing. As necessary as breathing. Even if he knows what he's greedily taking into his lungs might be poison.
The thing is, he likes trusting Wen Kexing. He likes knowing there's someone who'll always come for him and walk beside him and call his name.
The thing is, he can no longer picture himself with an empty space beside him. He cannot imagine how he'd laugh without Wen Kexing's constant chatter and jokes and shameless comments.
How could he not know Wen Kexing? Zhou Zishu tries to force himself to follow that thought and finds that he can't. As if there's a solid wall blocking him from moving ahead. How could he not know him?
So he will choose Wen Kexing, choose to trust Wen Kexing, however much it ends up hurting him. Because that pain is not even one ten-thousandth of the agony of not having Wen Kexing beside him—he should know. He does know.
And here's another thing, a thought straining in Zhou Zishu's mind. It howls, aren't you doing the same to him?
The nails which have made their home in his chest, some for years, are gone now. But there's a dull ache that hasn't left him since that day, radiating around the absences.
He could have had almost two more years. Now it is anyone's guess.
Wen Kexing has gotten his revenge and can live as a human in this world again. And what a beautiful world it is, for the two of them to wander around— two years was not enough time by far, but somehow, it could have been.
But now… but now—
When that day comes, unannounced and unanticipated, would Wen Kexing wonder the same thing? Would his zhiji look at his still body and ask, why , without a way to get any answer?
Zhou Zishu thinks of that scene and is gripped by pain. Not the pain from the nails, not the pain from any injury. It feels like a tower collapsing on him, crushing the air from his lungs.
And to think, he still has Wen Kexing. Here, alive.
Wen Kexing has already been so much kinder to him than he is being to Wen Kexing.
In his time as leader of Tianchuang, Zhou Zishu had made bets with many, many people.
He himself laid down stakes that were unimportant, irrelevant. And he watched as his opponents lost the bet, then information, names, secrets, armies, swathes and swathes of land, then finally, when they were wrung dry of value, their lives.
It's his turn now. To be a gambler, a degenerate gambler with an addiction. Sooner or later, he knows, he'll lay down all his stakes and push them towards Wen Kexing. Even though he knows he could lose everything. Even if he loses himself in the gamble; even if he's already lost himself.
But he still believes in his gamble. He still believes he'll be proven right.
He's in too deep now to take himself out of it. And what's worse, he's never wanted to do so. Zhou Zishu has been clever his entire life. He refuses to be wrong this time. But if he is—if, unthinkably, he is, then just this once, just this once, he'll let himself be a fool.