It became quickly evident that someone had spread the word that the youngest son of Zhang Yusen had been kidnapped by a pair of martial artists matching Wen Kexing and Zhou Zishu’s description. It was easy enough to intuit that Zhang Chengfeng had assumed that the men he had argued with had decided to take out their vendetta on the easiest target available and told his father as much.
Zishu blamed Kexing for everything going wrong in his life.
“A-Xu, I could hardly have predicted young Chengling would need rescuing so soon after his brother knocked you over right in front of me!” The human pestilence was pouting after they had been forced to fight their way out of yet another town. At this rate they were going to be compelled to detour around every major city they came across. “I could not let such an offence go unprotested!”
“He barely brushed me and your grudge against the Zhangs is none of my business, I don’t see why I needed to be dragged into it.” Zishu griped back. His response was half-hearted at best, for all his protestations, Zishu did trust that if Kexing had ill feeling towards someone, they were well earned. He focused more of his energy into ushering their young charge along in front of them.
Chengling had been changed into more travel appropriate robes, still in a light blue that complimented his light tan complexion, but of a sturdy cotton material. Kexing had been the one to choose them and he had obviously taken care to ensure that the outfit was stylish and attractive. Zishu wouldn’t have bothered.
“Shifu, if it’s this much trouble, I don’t mind going home. You can always pick me up on your way back to take me to the manor!” Chengling chimed in looking half excited and half worried. He always looked a little concerned when butting into what he thought might be an argument between the two men he was travelling with.
And that was the other thing. Wen Kexing had planted the idea of Chengling taking Zishu as his shifu and the child had attached himself to the idea like a piece of sticky rice. The damn pest had said a few words about persistence and now Zhang Chengling thought that Zishu was just being playfully stubborn. At this rate, Zishu was going to be stuck with the both of them for all eternity which really did not factor in with his long-term plans at all.
“Silly child, turning around and taking you back to Nan He would cost us more time than simply carrying on as we already are.” Kexing stated gently. He was better with the child than Zishu would have predicted. Ghost Valley didn’t seem like the sort of place where one picked up good parenting skills, but here he was, always able to head off a potential breakdown or temper tantrum with the grace of long practice. Maybe he did have a wife and child waiting for him back at the valley.
Zishu shuddered at the thought. It wouldn’t be such a repellent idea if it was just Kexing’s constant flirting. He had met plenty of married men who showed no qualms with sampling the blossoms of other flowers outside their own gardens. It was disgusting, but not his problem.
No. The problem here came in that he had grown to quite like the flirting. He would never admit it to Wen Kexing himself. Heavens forbid the man get any encouragement on that front; he was irrepressible enough as it was. But there it was. Zhou Zishu liked the attention. He liked the stupid compliments and the flirty looks and the overly familiar touching. Most of all, Zishu liked that they were kindred souls. Two people who were monstrous in ways few others could comprehend or care for brought together by sheer happenstance. Fated, as Kexing, with his flair for dramatics, would say.
But all of that would change if there was some pining woman waiting in Mount Qingya for the Valley Master. Zishu could not fathom touching Kexing with even a hint of the longing he felt if there was some little girl missing her father while clutching to her mother’s skirts out there. He may be a murderer and child killer and the man who single handedly all but destroyed the legacy his shifu left to him, but he was not some mistress.
The mere idea was repellent.
“A-Xu? A-Xu?” Kexing gripped his arm above the elbow and jostled him, more gently than he normally would have. Worry was clearly written across his face, which made Zishu concerned for what was going on on his own face.
“What?” He tried for annoyed and feared he managed only nauseated; a tone that was too close to the truth for his taste. He ripped his arm out of the loose grip it was still caught in and stepped away from the man now staring at him with a gaping mouth. “Why are you staring at me like that? What is it?” He managed a snappier response this time, but it was obviously too little too late as Kexing’s jaw tensed and something set behind his eyes, resolved and firm.
“Silly child, why don’t you run down to the river and fill up the water flasks. Don’t wander too far, stay within shouting distance of us and yell if you even see anyone other than us.” Kexing said, his eyes never straying from Zhou Zishu.
Chengling glanced between the two of them nervously before deciding that this was a conversation he very much did not want to be a part of and dashing away as fast as his tiny legs could carry him. They were not far from the river; it was plainly visible between the trees. So long as Chengling did not wander to some distant facet, he would still be visible to them both. The rushing of the water would cover their words though, offering a bit of privacy that had been sorely lacking in the week since they had rescued the child.
“Alright. Spill. Why do you look like you caught your wife fucking the manservant every time you look at me lately?” Kexing spat out. Zishu would have liked to remain cold and removed for the entire argument, but the choice of words landed so close to home that he flinched immediately. “There it is again! What the hell, Zhou Zishu?”
“It’s nothing! There’s nothing to talk about.” He tried, trying to cover up his reaction by pulling away from Kexing and pacing a few steps towards the river. Of course, never one to let anything go once he had decided to sink his teeth into it, Wen Kexing grabbed him by the shoulder, forcing him to stop in his tracks.
“If it’s nothing, then why are running away? I never took you for a coward.” He hissed, baring every single one of his white teeth. His eyes were wild, dark with some vicious emotion that Zishu couldn’t name. It was hard to name any emotion with the turbulent flurry of emotions raging inside his own chest at that moment.
“It’s not cowardice to know which battles to pick and choose.” Zishu said through gritted teeth. He averted his eyes. If Kexing had chosen to have this fight, then they were going to have this fight. He could see Chengling dutifully filling their water flasks, up to his knees in the water to ensure he was getting clean water from a fast-flowing part of the river. His stylish blue robes hiked up and tied around his waist. He pictured a little girl with Kexing’s eyes and some strange woman’s nose doing the same and felt that nauseous jealousy twist in his gut.
“I don’t want to hear your excuses.” There was moment of dizzy, spinning color and then Chengling had disappeared from his line of site and all Zishu could see was Wen Kexing’s wide eyes, the iris lined with white all the way around. “I want to hear why you keep zoning out and looking at me like you’re going to throw up! Did I do something? What happened? Before we picked up the child, I thought…I had thought…”
Here, for a second, Kexing faltered. A grimace stole across his face, and he averted his eyes. Zishu knew that if he pressed now, he could escape this conversation for the moment. If he dug his fingers into this weak spot, Wen Kexing would falter and give in, unwilling to sacrifice what he had for what he might gain.
It would be a true cowards move. It would gain neither of them anything other than more pain.
Zishu had never been a coward. He had stood his ground as the members of his sect had fallen around him. He had stood true as he had been forced to forsake his morals in the face of what he believed to be the correct course of action. He could brave whatever truth was hiding behind Wen Kexing’s pretty words now. At the worst, he would have leverage to hand over to Helian Yi.
A wife and child would be nothing more than emotional blackmail to hold over the Ghost Valley Master.
Zhou Zishu refused to examine whether he could be able to do that to Kexing.
“Who is waiting for you in Ghost Valley?” Zishu asked, never one to second guess his decisions once they had been made. The slack jawed horror on Kexing’s face would have been funny in almost any other situation.
The fearsome Valley Master reeled back from Zishu, releasing his shoulder in favor of pulling out his ever-present fan. Zishu could recognize a move of self-defense when he saw one. He wondered what Kexing thought was going to happen. Did the man really think Zishu was going to draw his sword only after revealing he was aware of their destination?
“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” The denial came a beat to late, and it was obvious by the flash of dread in those dark eyes that Kexing was well aware of that. “How long have you known that was where we were headed?” He tried again. It was a better diversion, and one Zishu was willing to allow for now.
“Since we left Four Seasons Manor.” He said calmly. One of them had to maintain their heads in this. He could see Chengling in the corner of his eye, staying just out of earshot, but watching carefully for when it would be safe to return to their side. The child had the makings of a good disciple. It was too bad that Zhou Zishu would not be anyone’s shifu in this lifetime.
“What do you mean!? That’s not possible! That would mean…that..that-“
“That I’ve known you were a ghost since pretty much the moment you arrived at the manor. Yes.” Zishu chose not to mention that he knew Wen Kexing was the Ghost Valley Master. Some inkling in his gut told him that revealing he knew that would only scare his friend more. Kexing was already on the verge of panicking, his chest heaving as he clutched his fan tightly. Zishu could see his eyes darting back and forth as though searching for an escape route. “You wanted to have this conversation, Lao Wen. Don’t go running away from it now.”
“Ha!” The laugh was high and desperate. Zishu immediately decided he never wanted to hear it again. Kexing was refusing to look at him, his eyes jumping all around without ever landing on him. “That was when I thought…I don’t know what I thought. Something stupid. Some silly thing we could both laugh about after.”
“You haven’t answered my question Lao Wen.” Zishu refused to be distracted from his purpose. They were closing in on Mount Qingya now. Another week at their current pace. Only a day or two if he and Kexing were able to use their qinggong and encountered no obstacles. He refused to be surprised by the weeping wife of the man he had grown to care for.
“Does it matter? What are you going to do with the information? Send it off in one of your little reports?” Kexing shot back, venom in his voice. It was the retort of a wounded animal, something small and cornered and all the more dangerous for it.
It was Zishu’s turn to be put on the back foot. He would like to think he handled it more gracefully. It was not the first time one of his targets had parsed out who he was or what he did before he was able to make a clean break from them. Still, he had hoped that Wen Kexing would never know about Tian Chuang or any part of Zishu’s role in it.
“It depends on your answer.” He said honestly. There was a lot about Kexing that Zishu had already left out of his reports to his prince. Information that could have benefited his fairytale hunt for some magic treasure trove. But more and more, Zishu had found his loyalty slipping. “If you knew who I am, why even take the risk of coming to Four Seasons Manor in the first place?”
“I didn’t know you were part of Tian Chuang when I came at first.” Kexing replied, slumping in on himself. He flapped his hands helplessly before finally making eye contact with Zishu for the first time since it had been revealed that he knew some part of his identity. “I had just heard that…Four Seasons Pavilion was reestablishing itself.”
Zishu decided not to ask why that was enough to draw the mysterious Valley Master all the way across Jiangnan to Kun. If they were derailed by every question they had, they would be here all day and Chengling would be forced to wait ten paces out of earshot for who knew how long. It was already more than a little ridiculous that the poor child was having to do it at all.
“You can’t hide whatever it is forever, why won’t you just tell me what is waiting for you at the valley?” Zishu demanded. He was determined to force this conversation back on track. They could sit down and discuss all their secrets at some other time, preferably where there would be plenty of wine available.
“Why are you so set on knowing this? You set out to find out what I was doing in the human world and now you have to know why I’m leaving it as well?”
The constant back and forth finally caused something to snap in Zishu’s self-control and he all but shouted at Kexing. “Stop trying to change the subject. Everything else can wait. Why are you in such a rush to go back to the one place every ghost is eager to leave?”
“And if you don’t like the answer? If you don’t believe me? What then, huh?” There was an audible tremor to Kexing’s voice. It would have made Zishu feel a little bad if he wasn’t already annoyed with all the deflection and his own brain being hooked on the mental image of his zhiji having some hidden family.
And wouldn’t that just be fate’s last laugh at him? To finally find a kindred soul, someone he thought of as zhiji without even noticing it happening and that person already belongs to someone else? Zishu bit back a bark of wild laughter.
“I trust you, you idiot! I’ll believe what you tell me.” How hard was it for a person to understand? It had been a long time since Zhou Zishu had distrusted Wen Kexing.
The answer still seemed to have shocked the fight out of the other man. His mouth was already open with some planned retort, some scathing remark to turn this from an interrogation into a full-on fight, but the words had been laughed hanging on his tongue. Kexing’s eyes were wide open as well, staring in hopeless confusion at the man he had proclaimed his zhiji.
“Is that so surprising? You call me zhiji and take my following you and caring for you as expected, but the idea that I might also trust you shocks you to silence?” Zishu shook his head in wonderment. He really was an idiot. A brilliant moron.
Even in this they were a matched set it seemed.
“I didn’t realize…I didn’t think you thought of me the same way.” Kexing answered slowly. It was obvious he was still trying to process this sudden information, his eyes finally locked on Zishu’s face as though searching for a lie or clue as to what was happening. “You’ve never said anything.”
“How can anyone get a word in edgewise with you always chattering on.” Zishu quipped. He could feel the corner of his mouth curling up despite himself and tried to get his face back under control, but the blooming expression of pure joy and exultation on Kexing’s face was too much. “If I didn’t trust you, I would hardly have suggested we babysit a child together.”
“You think of me as zhiji.” The breath of a reply was almost lost in the ambient noise of the forest, but Zishu easily caught the words even if the tone was gone at that volume.
“Yes. And your zhiji would like to know why we are trekking across the country to Ghost Valley, please.”
“My sister. I need to help me sister.” How easy answer came out now that this had been established. Zishu would have rolled his eyes except he was still half-smiling from the beaming grin on Kexing’s face and didn’t want to give the impression he was amused by the situation. He was probably giving that impression anyway. “I received word that there might be a revolt against the Valley Master, but my sister is still in the valley. I left her with our aunt, but it’s not safe if a riot breaks out.”
The Ghost Valley Master had a sister? Zishu felt the burgeoning well of jealousy and frustration he had been nursing for the last couple weeks abruptly run dry. He had considered siblings to be one of the options for why the rush, of course. But in the rush of new feelings and suddenly realizing just how much he liked having Wen Kexing around, he had latched onto the worst conclusion.
He could have collapsed in relief that it was a sister.
“Your sister. Why did you not bring her with you to Four Seasons Manor?” Zishu asked. He believed Kexing, trusted him like he said he would. It was obvious that this was information the man kept under close guard. That only made sense, a family was a liability, but a single, solitary little sister was a huge vulnerability. Why would he leave her behind?
“I wasn’t sure what I would find at the manor.” Kexing answered bluntly, his eyes stating with clear dire intent that was equally unsure who he would find at the manor. The original lord, as he had been lucky enough to run into, or some rowdy group of upstarts hoping to chase the tails of past fame into easy glory. “It should have been fine. Our aunt is strong and well-insulated from most of the politics inside the valley. An uprising was the only thing that she couldn’t defend A-Xiang against.”
Zhou Zishu could only imagine the chaos that would reign in that place if someone managed to take out the Valley Master or even just install themselves as the new master while Kexing was gone. A little girl would be at risk even with a bit of protection, and something about the way Kexing had phrased that last sentence sounded off.
Probably, it was less that this aunt couldn’t defend the girl, and more that she wouldn’t.
“Alright then. So we’re going to the valley to rescue your little sister.” Zishu smirked, finally giving in to the urge to roll his eyes. “Why didn’t you just say that? We’ve left the little idiot standing over there all this time.”
Kexing glanced to the side and looked slightly taken aback to discover their little shadow tucked against a tree, trying to look very patient in the way children did sometimes. Which is to say, he looked ravenously impatient, but was making a clear effort to try to not let that show on his face.
“Ah, silly child, get over here!” Kexing shouted loud enough to be heard where their charge had settled. The boy wasted no time in darting up and over to them at a pace that gave away just how eager he was to be back in earshot.
“Shifu, Wen-shu! I thought you were going to talk forever!” Chengling whined while handing back the now full waterskins. “Are you done fighting now? Can we go? You took so long, I’m bored.”
Zhou Zishu was not looking forward to adding another chattering child to their entourage. Maybe he’d get lucky and this A-Xiang would be a quiet, even-tempered girl unlike her brother.