Zhou Zishu sits quietly beside the bed, watching Wen KeXing's sleeping face with an ache in his chest that has nothing to do with his failing body, and everything to do with the fact that he is about to die.
When his shidi had made a miraculous reappearance at the Heroes Conference, his first reaction was gut-wrenching surprise. It felt as though the ground had suddenly dissolved beneath his feet. His heart leaping so high in his throat that he forgot how to breathe. Dizzy with the overwhelming rush of joy and confusion. Uncertain whether to laugh or cry.
But once the shock had subsided, the anger had been hot on its heels. And he wanted to be mad about it. Wanted to take Wen KeXing by the shoulders and shake him so hard that his teeth rattled around in his skull. Wanted to scream and sob and rail against the now inevitably fast-burning candle of his fate. At the unfairness of losing his life just as he had found something worth living for again. Someone worth living for. For a few moments, the fury had burned so brightly in him he thought it might be enough to kill him then and there. That the fire between his lungs would simply burst his chest open and engulf everything around them in a sea of red.
But when they had caught each other’s gaze, he had seen the apology roiling in Wen KeXing’s dark eyes, raw and miserable, even without a word being said. The apology, and the fear. That same fear Zishu had seen flicker across his face every time he had tried to coax him into confessing that he was from Ghost Valley. The same fear he had seen in him the night Wen KeXing had snuck out of the Four Seasons Manor to intercept Ye BaiYi and tried to prevent him from reveling his identity. And yet again, when Han Ying had died, and he had nearly killed himself in a blind panic trying to fix it somehow. The fear whispered that death was preferable to his hatred. That his blade would be kinder than his revulsion. That Wen KeXing would sacrifice anything to avoid being abandoned once again.
Zhou Zishu was helpless in the face of it; as he always seems to be. The look that passed between them had been fast and fleeting, there and gone again with barely a blink, but it was enough to douse the flames of his anger with a tide of chilling and fathomless grief. The rest of the Heroes Conference passed before him in a daze. Vengeance, and justice, and pride. Wen KeXing blazing in the brightest and truest version of himself for all to see. Dazzling and mesmerizing and impossible to look away from. He does not know if he has ever loved him more, even as he felt his heart slowly sinking down into the pit of his stomach. The numbness of acceptance settling into his bones.
There will be no escape from death, this time.
He had been quiet on the way back to Jing BeiYuan’s Manor. Quiet enough to worry both Wen KeXing and ChengLing, who always seems to see more than he understands. He had listened to their reasons and excuses, and he had done his best to reassure them afterwards, but his own words sound hollow in his ears. The best he could do was to get Lao Wen hopelessly drunk, and pray that it made him less intuitive. The suffusion of elation and hope in the air had nearly been enough to choke him, though. He did not want to rob them of it, but he found he could not take part in it either, no matter how much he wanted to. He could not bring himself to celebrate a future he can no longer share with them.
Zhou Zishu understands Wen KeXing. He understands that he is just as abysmal at properly conveying affection as he is himself, if not more so. The man only knows how to protect people he cares for by either sending them away from him or drowning them both in blood. It is how he had managed to survive all those years surrounded by madness and chaos and death. Zishu had done much the same, while he was working in the capital. Hiding all of their softer places far away from where the light could reach them. Playful banter has always passed easily between them, but tenderness is heavier, and vulnerabilities almost impossible to speak aloud. They are both trying to do better, struggling to pull their own humanity back into their hands where it can be shared freely, but Wen KeXing’s hurts are older and deeper. His path back to the world of the living inevitably more winding and complex. He still has not mastered the art of articulating his fears and concerns.
Zhou Zishu’s health was tenuous even before he had been kidnapped and tortured. As much as he hated to admit it, he had been in no fit state to fight an angry mob. Wen KeXing hid the truth from him because he knew that he would chafe at being told to stay out of harm’s way; that they would have argued about it until he was either allowed to participate in the scheme or he was spitting blood and passing out on the floor. Zishu cannot even say that this assessment of his character was a bad one, but it still stung to be kept in the dark, and the hurt was lingering. And yet, however deep the barb of this secret may have landed, however misplaced the caution may or may not have been, he knows without a shred of doubt that Wen KeXing’s deception was born of love, and he can hardly hold that against him.
Especially not now.
Wen KeXing turns his head slightly, mumbling something that sounds suspiciously like an extremely slurred version of his name. His expression is smooth and peaceful, his hair a dark fan across the bed behind him. The rosy glow of happiness and alcohol still pinking the apples of his cheeks.
Zishu smiles despite himself. It is much easier to find traces of the little boy his master had planned to take for his second disciple when he looks like this; safe and sleeping and completely at ease for the first time in who knows how long. He wishes he could recall those few precious days they had spent together as children with more clarity, but the memory of it is like a silk brocade left to sit too long in the sunshine, its delicate patterns fading as the colors wash away in a flood of light. Zhou Zishu had been too young to fully comprehend the weight of death when his master had returned from his trip to collect the Wen family without his shidi or his parents in tow. That his master had been sad about it was enough to impact him, but in the grand scheme of things, the wounds to his own heart had been minimal.
What would have happened if they had kept looking for Zhen Yan, he wonders. If he and Wen KeXing had grown up together as best friends and martial brothers and soulmates? Would their master have found a way to soothe Zhen Yan’s rage before it consumed him? Would Zhou Zishu have made the same mistakes with the Window of Heaven if Wen KeXing had been at his side? Perhaps they could have saved each other before things had reached the place they were now. Or perhaps Wen KeXing would have died under Zhou Zishu’s leadership with the rest of their sect, and his failures would have tasted that much more bitter.
He sighs quietly. There is no sense dwelling on things he cannot change. He had been a child, and just as powerless to save Wen KeXing from his fate as the boy himself had been. Feeling guilty about it was meaningless at this point. It was enough to have him here and now. Enough that they had had any time together at all. Enough that Wen KeXing had fallen off of that cliff and somehow still managed to walk back to him.
It has to be enough, because it is all they have. All they can have. Even if he wants more.
The voice is thick with sleep, but marginally less inebriated than before.
“Mn,” Zhou Zishu hums in acknowledgement, his gaze shifting slightly to watch Wen KeXing blink himself back into wakefulness.
“You didn’t go to bed?” he asks, bleary and swaying slightly as he attempts to sit up.
“There is someone in my bed.” Zishu points out archly.
Wen KeXing looks murderous for a few seconds until he realizes that the person in question is, in fact, himself. When the clouds break, his expression immediately shifts to one of insufferable satisfaction. He leans precariously off the side of the bed, robes and hair both hopelessly askew.
“I am always willing to share everything I have with Ah Xu,” he declares with feigned sweetness.
“How kind of Philanthropist Wen to make a present of what he stole from me,” Zhou Zishu snorts, “Your generosity knows no bounds.”
“Ah Xu!” Wen KeXing objects. “How is it stealing when you gave it to me freely? You think I would come to your bedroom with the intention of sleeping?”
“I’m sure I don’t know anything about your intentions.” The reply is given with a smirk, but his eyes dart away from him. “You asked me to drink with you, but the jar you brought was empty. Besides, I am thinking about giving it up. I have been told that it is bad for my health.”
“Aiya, first Ah Xu accuses me of being a thief, and now he tells me such scandalous falsehoods!” Wen KeXing shakes his head, attempting to seem wounded despite the grin on his face. “I already accepted your punishment earlier, there is no reason to be cruel.”
“Who is a liar here?” Zhou Zishu inquires laughingly, gesturing back and forth between them. “Which one of us is the most scandalous?”
“It’s me, it’s me,” Wen KeXing acknowledges, his head bobbing up and down in agreement, “But Ah Xu, you cannot expect me to ever believe that you would willingly give up drinking good wine with me? And as for not understanding my intentions, well…I believe that even less.”
“Was your intention to make sure I could not get any sleep?”
Wen KeXing only smiles at him widely.
“…I regret asking such a question,” Zhou Zishu chuckles, reaching out to lightly slap the side of Wen KeXing’s face in both fondness and chastisement. “Ask a shameless man a question and you are sure to get a shameless reply.”
Wen KeXing grabs hold of his hand before he can pull it away, leaning into it with a sigh.
“What is so shameless about it at this point?” he wonders, something soft and shining igniting within his gaze. “Living together. Dying together. Watching as our hair turns gray with old age. We’ve already promised to share these things, haven’t we? Why give me your bed when we could share that, too?”
Zhou Zishu takes a long look at him. At the dark hair spilling across his shoulder in disarray. The front of his robes just rumpled enough to expose the elegant line of his throat as well as part of his collar bones. The flush of his cheeks and the promise burning in his eyes.
He cannot deny that he wants it. Even knowing it might make things more painful later on. He wants to be selfish. He wants to be greedy while he still can. While he can still hear Lao Wen calling for him and feel his skin beneath his hands. His sense of taste and smell have gone already, but can still see him, and that could be enough. More than enough.
But will it be enough for Wen KeXing?
This is the last thing they have to give each other. The last pieces of themselves they have been holding back. Mostly because there simply had not been time for it amidst the chaos swirling around them. It always seemed as though either their lives were in danger or one of them was injured. Up until now, even Zishu had been optimistic enough to assume they would have time for it later, though. Time to use physical intimacy as an almost second meeting. To learn how they need each other in the quiet and the dark. To learn the ways they can be gentle, and the ways they can be fierce. To burn each other up in desperation and desire.
It seems too heartless to have it be a farewell instead.
Zhou Zishu lets out a long breath.
“…Not when you are drunk,” he says quietly.
Wen KeXing blinks at him in astonishment, eyes blown wide and round as saucers, clearly expecting a flat-out rejection.
A moment later, the blankets have been hastily flung aside, and he is staggering off of the bed has fast as he can. Which, as it turns out, is not very fast at all. Zhou Zishu easily catches him with one arm, lightly pushing him back into a seated position.
“Lao Wen, where do you think you are going?” he laughs.
“I need to sober up,” Wen KeXing explains, looking so serious about it that Zhou Zishu cannot help but reach out and pinch his cheek. Lao Wen slaps his hand away, his expression mulish.
“Don’t pout,” Zishu scolds, still chuckling, “It is too late to be staggering around someone else’s house. With my luck, you would drown yourself in the fish pond, and then BeiYuan and Wu Xi would be terribly put out.”
“But Ah Xu, if you won’t let me leave, and you won’t share the bed, just what do you want me to do?” Lao Wen complains. “Even if you don’t want to have sex, you should at least lay down and rest properly. I want you to get well as soon as possible.”
Zhou Zishu’s mouth stiffens slightly.
Wen KeXing’s brow furrows in concern. He reaches out a hand, long fingers hovering just above his heart, when Zhou Zishu catches them tightly in his own. He is not certain if Lao Wen could glean the truth about his condition from his pulse while still tipsy, but he is not about to run that risk tonight.
“Are the nails bothering you again?” Wen KeXing asks, doleful this time.
It is not a lie.
“Then come to bed,” Lao Wen cajoles, using their joined hands to tug him closer, “I promise not to molest you unless you ask me to.”
Zhou Zishu makes a sound of grumbling disbelief, but still allows himself to be pulled down next to Wen KeXing. The bed is big enough for two, but only just. Lao Wen retrieves the formerly discarded blankets from whatever corner he had toss them and bundles them up together like two caterpillars in a single cocoon. His face is close beside him on the pillow, warm breath fanning the side of his neck. An arm drapes loosely about Zishu’s waist, and he turns his head slightly, intending to shoot a warning glare in the other man’s direction.
This is a mistake.
Wen KeXing’s eyes are dark and intense in the moonlight, half closed with either sleep or desire, it is hard to say. His lips part slightly as Zhou Zishu turns to him, and the hand draped around his waist clutches faintly at his robes as if on instinct. Both of them seem to have forgotten how to breathe.
“…Ah Xu, you can kiss me, if you like,” Lao Wen whispers finally, so soft it almost seems like a dream.
“What makes you think I want to kiss you?” he means it to sound teasing, but it comes out in almost a sigh.
“Because I want to kiss you,” Lao Wen replies matter-of-factly.
“I never thought of you as a pillar of self-restraint,” Zhou Zishu huffs.
“I promised to be a gentleman.”
Zishu closes his eyes and lets out a deep, soul-rattling sigh. He is almost glad he cannot smell the oils Wen KeXing uses in his hair or the trace of alcohol on his lips. The proximity is staggering enough all on its own.
“…It would not stop with a kiss,” he admits aloud to both of them.
He does not open his eyes again, but he can feel Wen KeXing’s body tremble slightly as he laughs, and that is almost as bad.
“Ah Xu, I would hardly complain,” he replies, testing his luck by shifting close enough so that their foreheads are lightly touching. “But you want to rest, and I want you rested, so it is no great loss, either way. You will still be here with me tomorrow, after all. There is no need to rush these things. Sometimes, a slow spring is sweeter.”
“Yes,” Zhou Zishu manages to reply around the lump lodged in his throat, “I will still be here tomorrow.”