Zishu retches over the bucket, Lao-wen carefully holding his hair back as his body stubbornly insists on purging even the last foul dregs of bile left in his stomach.
The sheer pettiness of it leaves him as frustrated as he is miserable. He is the master of his body, he’s been walking off everything from hangovers to near-mortal wounds for years, and yet a month on nothing but broth and even a bowl of too-thick soup can bring him down.
When he finally stops heaving Lao-wen pulls him back from the bucket, tenderly wiping his mouth with a damp cloth and smoothing back the sweat-damp bangs clinging to his temples. When he speaks his voice is so low and soft that even as close as they are Zishu can barely make out the words.
“Is it a bad day?”
He shakes his head at the question, the worst of the nausea slowly passing now that his gut has emptied itself. “No, just the pork I think.” Even with his eyes closed against the shaky aftermath of the vomiting he can feel some of the tension unwinding from Lao-wen’s bones.
Overburdening his still-temperamental stomach with something too heavy is frustrating, but relatively easy to address after all.
The bad days are not so kind.
Bad days aren’t a simple matter of his stomach rejecting solid foods; they’re the times when the ghost of the nails haunts him and everything becomes too much for a body used to straining to register even the most extreme sensations.
Every bright color and ray of light sears his eyes, every whisper of sound slams through his ears to his brain like a miner’s pickaxe, every whisper of spring wind scrapes across his skin like a dull knife, and even the scent of the most delicate tea is overpowering enough to leave him gagging.
On the bad days merely existing in his own body becomes a torment and the only relief to be found is in allowing his mind to flee the prison of his flesh until the storm passes. Those are the days when Lao-wen bars all entrance to the Masters wing, shutters the windows, lays Zishu in a nest of unbearably soft blankets, and keeps a silent watch over him until the worst has passed and he can finally bear to creep back into himself.
Thankfully Wu Xi’s latest letter said that such occurrences should become rarer as time passes and his body relearns the full strength of his senses, but Lao-wen is ever wary of them.
Doing his best to shake off the aftermath of his bout of sickness, Zishu shoves himself to his feet. He sways a bit and before he even has time to stagger Lao-wen is at his side, catching him by the arms and steadying him easily. Relaxing into the touch, Zishu allows the taller man to help him back toward the low table by the window.
His touch is firmer and his voice louder now that he’s assured its a simple case of nausea, but the attentive fretting is undiminished. “Getting it out of your system will have helped. Wait a minute and I’ll fetch some ginger tea to settle your stomach.”
Zishu grimaces at the prospect, but doesn’t bother protesting as he’s settled onto the thick cushion waiting for him. He’s been fed enough ginger tea in the past two weeks to be thoroughly sick of it, but he can’t deny how helpful it’s been in the arduous process of learning what his body will and won’t accept in the way of food.
While Lao-wen goes to fetch the kettle warming on the brazier, Zishu picks up one of the handful of reports still spread out over the table and returns to his reading. Lao-wen’s spy network outside the valley doesn’t have anywhere near Tian Chuang’s reach, but they’re respectably wide spread and they have their fingers on the pulse of Jianghu.
He’s barely made more than a start when a steaming cup is set next to his hand and a familiar warmth settles against his back, arms winding gently around his waist as a chin hooks over his shoulder to peer down at the report.
“A-xu works too hard. Why bother with all this when the sects are already scattered?”
Zishu doesn’t look up from the scroll even as he tips his head to rest his temple against his Zhiji’s. “Guzhu thinks like a general. An enemy beaten merely means another rising to take their place; keeping an eye on the chaos now gives us a chance to prevent anyone from stirring up more trouble. And even after the Jianghu eventually regains its equilibrium, knowing how the eventual victors clawed their way to the top will be valuable for keeping them in check.”
Lao-wen grumbles petulantly as he digs his chin sharply into Zishu’s shoulder. “They’ve already failed to breach the valley twice at full strength, who could be troublesome now when my A-xu has already culled the worst of the dogs?”
Zishu rolled his eyes, setting aside the finished report in favor of the tea. The sharpness of the liquid washes soothingly down his throat and cuts easily through the lingering foulness left in the wake of his nausea.
“Don’t play the lunatic with me Lao-wen. You know very well the easiest rallying call for anyone looking to gain support among the sects is another attack on Ghost Valley.”
Kexing snorts as Zishu exchanges his teacup for another scroll, and for all his whining Zishu knows he’s reading the report over his shoulder with perfect diligence.
“And who would be suicidally stupid enough to answer such a call? Two of their precious Hero Conferences have collapsed in on themselves now, and thanks to my lovely A-xu the last one was an even greater disaster than the battle over Rong Xuan’s deathsite. Maybe in another twenty years such a banner might raise a new army, but certainly not before then.”
Zishu elbows him reprimandingly and can’t muster more than the barest annoyance when Kexing doesn’t bother to so much as flinch.
“Just because they can’t raise an army doesn’t mean they can’t target the Valley in other ways. Part of the reason the sects were so easily roused twice against the Valley was the lingering resentment over the first battle at Qingya. Better to keep their bitterness directed at each other this time.”
Lao-wen sighs mournfully at his chiding but obediently falls silent, apparently content to snuggle against Zishu’s back and silently read through the reports with him.
The morning slips quietly by them, the only disruptions coming when Lao-wen insists on refilling his teacup or murmuring extra comments on this or that operative that help flesh out their report. He's vaguely amused at how many of them seem to be like A-xiang, lost souls that Lao-wen smuggled out of the Valley on the pretext of making better use of them. He'll have to bring it up the next time his sweet Zhiji starts making silly comments about his supposed soft-heartedness.
By the time he’s made it through all but the last report the clear morning sun has shifted to the richer tones of early noon and his tongue is so thick with the spicy sweetness of honey and ginger he half-expects his lips to leave sticky golden smears on the rim of his cup. He reaches for the final scroll and Lao-wen explodes with a theatrical groan.
“A-xu, I’m so bored. Can’t we take a break from all this dreary reading? I’ll even bring you some wine if we stop for lunch now.”
Zishu huffs a near-silent laugh, eyes crinkling up into amused half-moons at the transparent attempt at manipulation.
“After we finish this last report. Information rots faster than fresh fruit, best to attend to it quickly.”
Lao-wen grumbles incoherently under his breath, shamelessly hiding his face in Zishu’s shoulder. It can’t be a comfortable angle for his neck given the differences in their height but he seems determined to stay there, hiding in the folds of Zishu's robes like a recalcitrant child. Helpless fondness flowers in his chest and he bites back a smile, tapping the scroll gently against the crown of his sulking Zhiji’s head.
“If you’re so bored go and find Chengling or A-xiang. Between the wedding and preparing a place for the rest of the disciples I’m sure both of them could use your help.”
Lao-wen’s arms tighten around his waist and he lifts his face, turning to pout exaggeratedly at him. Their faces are so close that Zishu can feel warm breath washing over his jaw, and his heart skips a beat at the sudden proximity.
“Are you trying to get rid of me? So cruel! It’s true what they say, affection really does wane after marriage.”
Zishu rolls his eyes and hopes Lao-wen hasn’t noticed the slight flush rising in his ears. “Who married a nuisance like you?”
The teasing pout darkens to something slow and heated, intimate to the point of being raw. Lao-wen’s voice drops to the barest murmur and Zishu can’t look away from the intensity of his eyes. “Is niangzi planning to be rid of this nuisance then? Will you sell me to a brothel after all?”
Zishu feels his ears heat further, the flush threatening to spread to his cheeks.
Without thinking, as easily as if he’s done it a thousand times before, he leans in to close the distance between them and kisses the beautiful fool.
It’s tender beyond anything Zishu believed himself capable of, a delicate press of lips so warm and sweet that he dazedly wonders if his heart has been hoarding away all the gentleness in him for this exact moment. He feels like if he just lingers long enough he could pour all the love and care and affection roiling in his chest into Lao-wen until it glows through the man’s skin like a lantern.
He's imagined this moment a hundred times, pictured heated kisses in the dark of night or soft teasing ones under the warmth of the morning sun, and somehow it's still more than he ever dreamed it would be. Part of him wants to just stay like this forever but he can feel how still and frozen Lao-wen is against him, so with a soft sigh he starts to pull away.
In an instant there’s a hand buried in his hair, dragging him back in as Lao-wen’s mouth crashes hungrily into his.
Zishu draws in a sharp, surprised breath at the ferocity of the kiss and the opportunistic bastard doesn’t even hesitate to lick into his mouth, deepening it to something desperate and borderline filthy. An involuntary sound that’s somewhere between a pleased moan and a scolding grumble escapes Zishu as he surges up to kiss back with equal fervor, his hands scrabbling blindly for something to hold on to. The best he can get is one hand reached awkwardly back to clutch at the shoulder of Lao-wen’s robes while the other clings desperately to the arm still wrapped around his waist like an iron bar, and distantly he can’t help but think it’s unfair that Lao-wen gets to curl his whole body around him like this when Zishu can barely manage to get his hands on him at all. The thought slips away quickly enough, all his attention stolen by Kexing's determination to kiss him senseless.
It goes on and on, every time one of them pulls back for air the other chases after them and they crash back together like they’d never parted in the first place, like they don’t know how to part. Lao-wen’s fingers are wound so tightly in Zishu’s hair that his scalp aches from the pull and his own grip must be cutting off the circulation to Lao-wen’s fingers but neither of them let up. He isn’t sure they even can. Perhaps they’ve somehow transmuted themselves into one of natures endless cycles, like the turning of the seasons or the crashing of the tide against the shore, destined to repeat eternally until they crumble to dust.
The moment only breaks when a deferential tap comes at the door, and a soft voice calls out from the corridor beyond. “The bureau has brought the tribute Guzhu requested.”
Lao-wen breaks away from him with a harsh gasp and even though Zishu can’t bring himself to open his eyes yet he can feel the killing intent all but radiating off the other man. Feeling slightly overwhelmed and struggling to catch his breath, he tips his head to hide his face against the curve of Kexing’s throat where the clean scent of him is strong and thick.
The hand in his hair slips down to cradle the soft spot at the base of his skull and Zishu all but melts against him. A hand there could kill so easily, and yet from Lao-wen the gesture feels as soothing as being tucked away beneath the warmth of Shifu’s cloak as a small boy.
The command is sharp with the threat of violence and normally Zishu would never allow anyone to see him so relaxed, but this time he doesn’t bother to so much as open his eyes. Lao-wen is here, he can let him handle things just this once.
The door slides open and someone pads into the room, their steps servant soft rather than killer quiet.
“Set it on the table and go.”
Lao-wen’s voice is edged with the dangerous command he only uses in his role as Guzhu and Zishu can’t help a quiet hum of appreciation at the soft rumble of it against his cheek. A thumb strokes gently over the nape of his neck in response, though Zishu knows his eyes must still be fixed unwaveringly on the handmaid as she murmurs a deferential acknowledgment and moves briefly to the table. Zishu can hear her brush a scroll out of the way, but other than that there’s no sound to indicate whatever tribute she brought being offered.
She’s gone almost as swiftly as she came, and only then does Lao-wen relax against him.
It takes nearly half an incense sticks worth of time before Zishu feels steady enough to emerge from the refuge of Kexing’s throat, the hand at the back of his neck sliding down to rest gently between his shoulder blades as he straightens. “What did they send you this time?”
He’s quietly pleased that Lao-wen’s voice is still a bit rough, his eyes still a touch more intent than is warranted by their light conversation as he nods distractedly at the neatly folded pile of vibrant blue silk on the table.
“This one’s yours actually. As captivating as you are in my clothes, I did say I’d commissioned some proper robes for you.”
Zishu blinks in surprise, eyeing the rich brilliance of the cloth.
He honestly hadn’t given much to the matter of his robes. He’s worn everything from the heavy, stifling layers of the court to the coarse rags of beggars; the slightly too large folds of Kexing’s bright robes were no particular hardship to endure in comparison. Still, he knows better than most the power ones appearance has when it comes to influencing and controlling perceptions.
While wandering through the Valley in the loose comfort of Kexing’s robes may yet prove useful later, his first impression on the ghosts calls for rather more drama.
Tapping absently at Lao-wen’s arm, he shifts his weight in preparation to stand. “Let me up, I want to try them on.”
Lao-wen makes a plaintive little whine at the request, but reluctantly lets him go. Zishu shoots him a tiny smile and then rises from his spot between Lao-wen’s legs, carefully stepping over one raised knee as he rounds the table toward the neatly folded clothing.
He’s steady enough to dress himself now but the time spent totally dependent on Lao-wen has long since killed any sense of shame or body shyness that might have existed between them, and he doesn’t bother to duck behind the folding screen in the corner or even withdraw to the far side of the room before he begins shedding layers, unbothered by the weight of Kexing's eyes on him as he does so.
He’s down to the sheer white cotton of his zhongyi and reaching for the shining silk of the new robes when Lao-wen stops him with a hand laid on his wrist. Zishu looks up to meet his eyes and blinks in surprise at the hopeful softness in his face. “Let me?”
Zishu has spent weeks all but clawing of his own skin with the desire to shake off his shameful reliance on his poor overburdened Zhiji and being able to dress himself still feels like a luxury, but he’s struck by the sincere want he finds in those dark eyes. After a moment he tips his head in resigned acceptance and his heart instantly eases at the way Lao-wen’s face brightens with an eager smile.
The moment Lao-wen lifts the inner robe Zishu sees why he’s so intent on this.
It’s a beautiful garment, the light silk dyed the deeply vibrant blue of ocean waves unmuddied by the debris of the shore and cut in the sort of simple flowing style Zishu prefers.
Against that backdrop the brilliance of the thicket of Spider Lillies proudly embroidered around the hems in Kexing’s signature vivid red burns like a signal fire on a moonless night. The message is simultaneously so poignant and so blatantly possessive that it almost makes a joke of the restrained dignity of the bamboo stalks embroidered across the shoulders of the outer robe in a far quieter silver blue.
It will certainly work wonders for affirming the particular flavor of rumors that he knows have been building among the ghosts since the last stray remnants of Wu Chang Gui’s surviving subordinates trickled back into the Valley but it’s still audacious enough that the only thing stopping Zishu from punching Lao-wen in the shoulder is the sincere happiness shining in his eyes as he ties the belt securely around Zishu’s waist and draws the outer robe reverently over his shoulders.
He breathes the word like a man drunk and Zishu smacks his wrists away with a roll of his eyes, determinedly ignoring the way his heart quickens with embarrassed pleasure at the compliment. “Never mind lovely, is it impressive?”
Lao-wen’s blissful smile curls into a bolder grin, the soft adoration easily tucked away beneath the mirthful delight dancing in his eyes.
“Naturally, my A-xu could never be anything less than magnificent!”
This time Zishu does hit him, though his lips are twitching with answering laughter as he does. “Shameless flirt, can you even make good on all these pretty words of yours? Didn’t Guzhu promise his blushing bride a public venue to introduce himself?”
Lao-wen throws his head back and savagely jubilant laughter fills the room.
Yuan Gui shuffles slightly in place and bitterly curses Wu Chang Gui in his heart.
He’d been so close to escaping this wretched place, years of carefully proving himself useful to the only Devil allowed contact with the outside world finally paying off when Guzhu had taken the remaining nine Devils to the human world to hunt Diao Si Gui.
It should have been simple once they were beyond the Valley gates; all it would have taken was an unguarded moment, perhaps during an attack on a sect where a minor captain could vanish without the loss being questioned, and he would have been free of the cursed Valley and its ghosts.
And then Wu Chang Gui had to be clever and align them with the Five Lakes. Before he ever got the chance to act the brochure of ghosts was dispersed throughout the Jianghu, every single named ghost to have set foot beyond the valley gates listed alongside their portrait, and just like that any hope of escape was snatched away.
For that alone he’d happily have put a knife in the goddamn fool’s back himself, but then he went and got himself and the rest of the officers killed until Yuan Gui was the only remaining named ghost in the whole department.
So here he stands alongside the handful of other surviving officers, not only still trapped in the Valley but now with authority’s perilous target painted on his back. For the moment the other departments are focused on undermining Xi Sang Gui and Shi Shi Gui, but that still leaves his own department to worry about. Not to mention the nightmarish prospect of his new proximity to Guzhu himself.
Yuan Gui’s mind rings with the terrible laughter and inhuman screams that resulted from the last summons, and he frantically forces the gory memory away. Guzhu will be arriving at any minute and hei doesn’t dare shake in front of him, not after how many times he’d seen the madman’s attention drawn by Kai Xin Gui’s desperate attempts to stifle his uncontrollable laughter.
He’s yanked abruptly out of his panic when one of those damned Handmaids from the Bureau of the Unfaithful announces Guzhu’s arrival and he freezes, frantically wishing for the safe anonymity of his old mask as he drops into a low bow and choruses a shaky welcome alongside the other officers.
The hem of a blood-bright silk robe sweeps past the edge of his vision, as eerily silent as a true Ghost, and Yuan Gui desperately struggles not to shiver.
Many of the Valley residents have speculated that Guzhu is not a man at all, but an actual restless ghost who wandered into the Valley after his death, and while Yuan Gui tells himself he doesn’t believe it, it’s hard to hold onto that skepticism in Guzhu’s actual presence. There’s something…death-touched about the man. Something unnatural. The Ten Devils were all master martial artists in their own right, cruel and terrible enough to be hunted to the very gates of Ghost Valley, yet none of them ever carried the same aura of uncanny bloodthirsty power that Guzhu wears like a second skin.
At least he sounds disinterested in their presence today. Yuan Gui has stood guard in the Yama Hall often enough to know that the safest place to be in the Valley is beneath Guzhu’s notice. He straightens along with the other officers and abruptly freezes in place.
Guzhu is stretched out on the Yanluo throne with his usual casual irreverence, indolently deadly as a well fed tiger with an expression of bored indifference. He’s propped one leg up on the seat of the throne and draped hedonistically across his lap using that leg as a backrest is a creature out of Yuan Gui’s nightmares.
He had only seen it twice, but horror had burned that ominous face irrevocably into his memory.
Xi Sang Gui steps forward, unfazed as ever in the face of Guzhu's madness as she begins her report on the current state of the Valley, but Yuan Gui isn't listening. The memory of what Guzhu had done to the last ghost he thought had looked too presumptuously on his 'lover' flashes through him and he reflexively tears his eyes away, fear-sweat beading at his temples as his mind races frantically.
He’d heard the rumors that Guzhu had brought a consort back to the Valley, but he’d dismissed them without a second thought, had silently mocked the wild tales being ascribed to the ‘bride’ in question. Only a fool would believe that Ghost Valley’s Guzhu was capable of a desire as harmless and human as taking a bride. Perhaps he’d dragged back a bedwarmer to amuse himself with, but had Bai Wu Chang still been alive to organize betting pools Yan Gui would have wagered a solid month of Hall duty on the playtoy in question being hung from the walls in bloody ruin inside a week.
He had never imagined that the bride in question was the creature that had stalked the dark nights beyond the Valley gate.
It might look like a man, but Yuan Gui had known it was something unnatural from the moment he first spotted it carrying Hei Wu Chang off into the trees like a leopard with a side of meat. At the time he’d thanked the heavens that the creature hadn’t noticed his presence, and only grown more grateful when the piles of dead left in it’s wake had to be dragged out of the caves.
Little had he known that the nightmare was only beginning.
The Demon’s handiwork had been everywhere in the days that followed, the whole mountain cursed with plagues, monsters, illusions, and deaths beyond counting. He hadn’t realized the creature was the one behind it all at first, not until he’d seized a chance to make a run back to the Valley under the cover of night and been driven almost to madness by the sight of the creature leading an army of dead men in a nightmarish rampage against the sleeping Jianghu camp.
Seeing the creature now, lounging across Ghuzhu’s lap with the madman’s eyes glittering dangerously and his hand resting on it’s thigh in a grotesque parody of possessive affection, a sudden shock of icy realization crashes over him like a wave.
He’d heard the righteous sects celebrating Guzhu’s death in the brief window before the Demon had come and they’d turned without warning on Wu Chang Gui and Kai Xin Gui, but he’d assumed it had been empty boasting when Guzhu returned to the Valley without so much as a bruise to show for their efforts.
But…he frantically scrambles to recall the rumors he had previously dismissed.
Didn’t they say that the Liulija had been a pretense? That Guzhu had led them out for the purpose of courting his chosen bride? What if those rumors were true? What if he’d SUCCEEDED? Would death have any hold on a man with a Demon consort to bind him to the mortal realm?
This time he can’t prevent the shudder of bone chilling terror that races down his spine.
Eight of the Ten Devils are dead. A dead man sits breathing on the Yanluo throne with a creature that commands monsters and weaves vicious spells in his lap. And Yuan Gui is trapped in the Valley with them.
He’s still gibbering mentally when Xi Sang Gui concludes her report on the state of the Valley. The creature watches them with a cold, crocodilian stare, and for some reason the laconic disinterest in it’s voice makes the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end.
“You’ve certainly trained them well Lao-wen.”
Guzhu doesn’t even bother to dismiss Xi Sang Gui, his eyes bright with a nauseating blend of fascination and lunacy as his full attention is drawn instantly to the monster on his lap. “How strange. A-xu is praising me but his lovely face seems dissatisfied. Has something vexed you?”
The sharp, blood-hungry edge of his amusement leaves Yuan Gui reflexively cowering. A Guzhu who spoke with such genial amusement was a Guzhu at his most unpredictable, and therefore his most dangerous. But the Demon merely tips its head, void-dark eyes narrow and intent on the uncertain ranks of ghosts still trying to decide what to make of it.
“I don’t like the way that one looks at you.”
Yuan Gui isn’t entirely sure which of them it’s looking at but like all the others freezes in place as Guzhu leans his head closer to the demons, the false smile dissolving into a raptor’s killing curiosity as he follows the Demon’s gaze.
“Mm? And how does she look at me?”
There’s an almost guileless quality to his cruelty, like a small child kicking over anthills for the sheer novelty of watching tiny creatures scramble. The Demon is not so relaxed, the vicious cold of it's attention never wavering from it's unfortunate target.
The newly promoted officers flinch as Guzhu bursts out in a nightmarishly gleeful cackle. “Does she? Well, are we not one in these matters? If these unruly ghosts of mine displease you then feel free to discipline them as you wish.”
The blood drains from Yuan Gui's face as the Demon hums and rises languidly to its feet. He barely has an instant to register the fear rising to choke him before the creature’s physical form splinters like a broken mirror, bleeding away to a rush of misty echoes that flow across the hall like death’s own shadow.
It’s only years of obediently following Wu Chang Gui’s lead that has him following Xi San Gui and Shi Shi Gui to their knees rather than freezing up or throwing himself back like most of the junior officers. His heart is pounding so fast he feels dizzy, and he can’t seem to take a proper breath.
The Demon doesn’t even glance at the rest of them, standing toe to toe with E Gui with two fingers resting gently against her forehead. His expression is as coolly disinterested as it was listening to Xi Sang Gui’s report and he hasn't so much as struck her but E Gui is rigid under his touch, her wide eyes locked with his. As Yuan Gui watches, blood begins seeping from her ears and nose.
The Demon narrows its eyes in faint distaste and pushes slightly against her forehead. E-gui stumbles back, body seizing soundlessly as she staggers, then collapses. The surrounding ghosts recoil from her, eyes wide and confused.
Guzhu sweeps down from the throne, stepping up beside his monstrous consort and curling an avaricious arm around it’s waist as he watches the unfortunate ghost's death throes with a truly insane smile. “My A-xu is so ruthless.”
His voice is delighted and taunting, utterly unconcerned that the creature he’s crooning at just killed a ghost with nothing more than a finger laid lightly on unguarded skin. The Demon doesn’t spare him so much as a glance, and Guzhu all but crows with smug satisfaction.
Yuan Gui quails in the dust and prays not to draw their attention.
Later that night, after the quivering ghosts have been dismissed to spread what they’d seen through the Valley and dinner has been eaten alongside the enthusiastically chattering children, the two of them finally retire to their room.
Kexing is going through the motions of preparing for sleep, almost painfully aware of A-xu sitting on their bed to comb through his hair in nothing but his zhongyi. He's quietly torn between the desire to merely sit and watch A-xu's elegant hands slide rhythmically through the thick tresses of his hair and the desire to take the comb and bury his own hands in the shining length. He knows that A-xu is still reveling in the newly regained ability to attend to such tasks himself though, so he deliberately turns back to his own ablutions.
As he finishes weaving his hair into the loose sleeping plait he prefers to keep it from tangling during the night he notices a faint shadow around his mouth in the rippling bronze mirror. He frowns and runs a hand over his chin, vaguely annoyed to feel the stiff bristle of hairs trying to make an appearance.
Kexing has never liked the prickle of facial hair or the way it changes the shape of his face, so he sets about preparing the thick soap and sharp blade he uses to deal with such things. As he does his shoulders begin to tense.
He's never actually done this in the Valley without A-xiang standing watch in the corner, the risk of putting a blade to his own throat too high to accept without a deterrent of some kind in place in case of attacks. With A-xu sharing his chambers her presence is no longer necessary, but it still leaves a knot of tension in his gut to go through the preparations without the little chatterbox's bored complaints ringing in his ears.
He startles slightly when a hand lands on his shoulder, eyes flying up to meet A-xu’s quiet gaze. “Let me.”
Kexing blinks at him, but relinquishes blade and basin without protest. A-xu sets them aside on the table and guides him patiently back into the chair.
Kexing folds easily under the pressure at his shoulders and abruptly loses his breath when A-xu follows him down, swinging one leg over him to kneel straddling his thighs. His hands automatically fly to A-xu’s hips, head tipping back to stare wide-eyed up at the man hovering above him.
A-xu doesn't seem to notice his breathless attention, utterly focused on coating his his jaw and throat in thick soap before reaching for the blade. Perversely, Kexing relaxes at the sight of the shining steel. A-xu would never hurt him, would never allow him to be hurt if he could prevent it. If A-xu is this close to him and armed he's confident that not even Ye Baiyi himself could harm him.
The razor edge of the blade kisses his throat, and Kexing feels safer than he has in years.
The quiet warmth of the spring night thickens to something almost sacred around them as Kexing stares yearningly up at A-xu’s face as the assassin turns all the intensity of focus he usually reserves for dealing death to sliding a blade harmlessly over the soft, vulnerable flesh of Kexing’s throat. The moment stretches between them and the question is wrenched out of Kexing before he even knows he’s going to ask.
“Why did you do it?”
It’s a mark of how much care A-xu is pouring into the task that he doesn’t startle or cut Kexing at the sudden outburst. Instead he just glances down, eyes darkening from consternation to remote understanding at whatever he finds in Kexing’s eyes. He turns his gaze back to his task but answers with the same even calm he’d called this afternoons ghost disrespectful, serene and soft as an executioners blade being drawn from its sheath.
“They killed you. Did you really think I’d let them walk away after that?”
Kexing shrugs one shoulder, feeling lulled almost to the brink of sleep by the steady strokes of A-xu’s blade and the warm weight of him pressing down on his thighs. “I thought you’d spirit Chengling off to plan some terribly cunning and brutal punishment against Zhao Jing and maybe Xie Wang, not set fire to the entire Conference. Didn’t you disapprove of my actions in Yueyang?”
A-xu snorts and his eyes go half-lidded in such a way that Kexing knows if he weren’t so focused on his self-appointed task he’d have rolled his eyes.
“You have ears but you never bother to listen properly. I didn’t disapprove of your actions, I disapproved of your lack of caution.
Flooding the city with false armor is fine, doing so in a manner that can be tracked back to you is not. Turning the sects on each other is fine, doing so when there are people caught in the middle whose deaths tear wounds in your heart is not. Destroy anyone you wish, so long as you have enough control to keep the blade from turning back on yourself.”
Kexing’s throat tightens at the ferocious protectiveness that can’t quite hide behind the sharply scolding tone. He’s already fallen apart over that argument so many times, he can put off doing so again until after he gets his answers. “A-xu is avoiding my question.”
They both fall silent for a time, Kexing’s unspoken queries hanging in the air between them. A-xu spent so long advising him to think twice before striking, to consider showing mercy to those whose principle sins were weakness or incompetence. It’s not that Kexing truly thinks A-xu is some sort of benevolent bodihsattva committed to saving even the most undeserving, but he’s usually so careful about who he allows himself to kill. A care that seems to have gone completely missing from the moment Kexing threw himself over the cliff edge.
Eventually A-xu speaks, rinsing thick soap and fine hair from the blade as he shifts his attention from neck and jaw to chin and cheeks. “The situation was different. There were years of secrets and unspoken history separating you from your enemies, whereas mine were right before my eyes. I witnessed their crimes and the result of them myself. Joke all you like Lao-wen, but I’ve never been a man to let my enemies live.”
Kexing swallows hard, hands flexing on A-xu's hips with the desire to pull him closer. "Prince Jin still lives."
He throws it out more as a distraction than a denial, a bid to buy himself some time to wrestle down the swell of emotion rising at the admission that A-xu would so casually name the whole of the Jianghu his enemies for nothing more than killing Kexing.
A-xu's eyes narrow slightly though his calm doesn't otherwise waver. When he speaks there's a weight to his words that Kexing has only heard when he pronounces a final judgment, unwavering as the moment he accepted Chengling as his disciple or declared Ye Baiyi unworthy of spilling Kexing's blood.
"Helian Yi lives because my brothers gave their lives to put him on the throne, to spare the people a crueler fate under his brothers. I will not permit him to dishonor that sacrifice, be it by falling into tyranny or by dying before securing peace and prosperity for the people of Jin. When the time comes and a proper heir is ready to succeed him, I will see to it that he repays Han Ying's death with his own. Until then he will serve his duty faithfully, as the disciples of Siji Manor did before him."
Kexing curls his fingers tightly into the folds of A-xu's thin zhongyi, feeling warm and safe and cared for in a way he hasn't since he was a small boy in the Healer Valley. "You won't regret it? You wanted peace, to leave behind the troubles of the world to bask in the sun and quietly enjoy good wine. Even if no one knows you orchestrated all of this, the Jianghu knows your name now. You've irrevocably linked yourself to Ghost Valley."
A-xu snorts as if he's said something foolish. "Sha gua. There are many things I regret, but you will never be one of them."
A shudder runs through him and he tips his head further back, eyes sliding closed as he lets the glide of steel over flesh ground him in place of the embrace he can't pull his beloved into.
"I love you. A-xu, I love you. Please, don't ever risk your life like that again. I couldn't bear the loss of you, it would drive me truly mad."
The smooth rhythm of the blade pauses and a calloused palm cups his soap-streaked cheek as carefully as if he might shatter beneath too rough a touch. "I told you before, didn't I? So long as you want me I won't allow even death to take me from your side."
It's not an agreement to keep himself safe. Kexing can clearly hear the underlying promise, and it terrifies and reassures him in equal measure. Life and literature are both full of lovers making grand promises to live and die together but no one ever speaks of the overwhelming weight of such a promise made and kept; the knowledge that the person you hold dearest would hold to both sides of that oath without hesitation.
"I will always want you. I want you like a drowning man wants air."
The confession chokes out of him, adoring and apologetic and defenseless. Even with his eyes closed he can feel A-xu's smile warming his skin like sunlight.
"You know I-"
Silence falls over them, broken only by the rasp of blade on soap-slicked skin, and Kexing loses himself in the excruciating bliss of mutual acceptance.