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Sanguine

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

The Heroes Conference is rarely anything out of the ordinary. As a matter of fact, the Five Lakes Alliance holds one every year.

From an objective perspective, it is far less an event for the gathering of heroes, and more a gathering for the rich and influential in the jianghu to indulge in food, drink, luxury, and over embellish their own achievements and merits in front of each other. Rarely is it anything different.

Judging by the look on Gao Chong’s face as he stares at the deceptively plain paper of the missive open in front of him, Shen Shen and Zhao Jing are certain that this time, something has changed.

“Dage,” Shen Shen finally ventures to ask in a careful tone, shaken by seeing Gao Chong shaken, “What is it?”

Gao Chong’s face had betrayed shock as soon as he’d opened the letter, but his eyes had only grown wider and face grown paler as his gaze travelled down the page. His hands, his brothers note with great unease, are shaking.

“The Ghost Valley…”

Zhao Jing sucks in a breath, wide eyes darting to Shen Shen as if wondering if he perhaps misheard those three words. Shen Shen ignores him; he has always been their most weak willed, passive brother. It’s no wonder the mere mention of the Ghost Valley would frighten him, rotted by riches and meek as he is.

“The Ghost Valley?” Shen Shen asks, hand seeking the hilt of his sword in a gesture he won’t admit is meant to bring him comfort in his unease and alarm. “What did they do? Who is the letter from?”

Gao Chong shakes his head, tossing the letter down. “The letter is from Ghost Valley,” he says. With a laugh of disbelief, he tells them, “They want to attend the Conference.”

 

----

 

“You want to what?” Luo Fumeng asks, tone sharp and incredulous gaze fixed on Wen Kexing, the man she follows as the Master of Ghost Valley.

He is also the little boy she kept alive by the skin of her teeth and watched grow, morph, into exactly the kind of man he had to be to survive in this place. Into the kind of man that sometimes makes her wonder if it wouldn’t have been a greater mercy to let him die with his parents.

Wen Kexing laughs at her, eyes alight with mad glee. Her reaction seems to be exactly what he was hoping for.

“I know you heard me the first time; your ears are as sharp as ever. What? You don’t like the idea?”

“Ghost Valley and the jianghu stay separated for a reason , Guzhu. Do you want to start another war?”

Wen Kexing turns away from her, his enthusiasm not dampened. He examines his own fingernails idly and takes up a leisurely pacing path back and forth where he stands in her receiving room. 

“Is it your place to ask me what I intend? Or is it your place to follow?”

Luo Fumeng hates this. Hates this mask Wen Kexing puts on, one that she suspects he finds harder and harder to separate from himself. He is twisted beyond belief, hardened and made mad with pain and the fight for survival, but she still sees him lurking underneath sometimes.

She knows he’s in there. Not the Valley Master, but Wen Kexing. She hates when he locks that person away under this carefully crafted exterior.

She also knows pushing against that exterior could prove the end of her someday, if she’s not careful. It is for this reason that she takes a deep breath to calm herself and answers in a measured tone. “To follow, Guzhu.”

“Good,” he says, lips curling and eyes still on his own hand. “Not that it would matter whether you like the idea, of course. I’ve already sent the letter.”

She can’t quite disguise the breath she hisses in at that. Lunatic Wen, the Valley calls him behind his back. Truly, he has earned that title many times over.

“So,” he claps, whirling in a graceful spin of robes and ebony hair, rounding on her with a bright grin. “I’ll need your help... Luo-yi.

Ah. How cruel of him, to call her that for the first time in so long when they both know he uses it as nothing more than a tool to soften her edges.

It works anyway.

 

----

 

Zhou Zishu is done. Done with assassination. Done with serving Prince Jin. Done with living in the shadows. Done living at all.

He has planned meticulously for being done , for finally leaving it all behind and embracing a few years of peace before finding the blessed release of death as a wanderer. He has built his exit from the ground up. He has, quite literally, nailed it together himself.

Today is the day he presents his resignation, a violent and painful one that has been in the process for eighteen months with the Prince never being the wiser. Today, he thinks as he makes his way towards the throne room with throbbing meridians and snow crunching under his feet, he will finally be free.

Whether that freedom be found through the nails or through a swift death at the hand of an enraged cousin, it matters not to him.

Prince Jin may have summoned him, but it is he who will be making an announcement today.

Servants and Tian Chuang agents kneel as he passes, show their respect, announce him as he strides down the palace halls as if he is not six sevenths of the way to being a crippled man already.

Zishu has always been good at playing pretend.

He has been summoned to this room more times than he can count in these long years past. He knows his cousin’s face and mannerisms like one does their own, can superimpose the same posture and expression and tone from nearly each visit on top of each other in his mind’s eye. 

With the rare exception, these things are predictable. With the rare exception, his cousin is the same each time.

Today, it seems, is a rare exception. An exception surprising enough that the single minded focus he has on his resignation is briefly shaken.

Zhou Zishu is rarely taken off guard. The way his cousin stands with a nearly manic grin and gleam in his eye does it like nothing has in a very long time.

“Zishu! Good, good. I have some very interesting news, and a mission for you.”

No sooner does he say this than is he holding a hand up in placation, hissing in a show of sympathy. “I know, I know. You have just returned from your last, and you deserve some rest.”

Zhou Zishu’s face had not changed. His cousin reads him well, though, as his six damaged meridians can attest, not well enough.

“But ,” Prince Jin continues, unfazed by the silence of his audience, “I think you will be quite intrigued by this one. I know how a good mystery scintillates you, Zishu.”

There will be no derailing his cousin’s enthusiasm. Zishu must simply resolve himself to listening until the Prince has worn himself out. Were he not so soul deep tired, Zishu thinks he might even take pleasure in the idea of shattering this enthusiasm Prince Jin shows with a most shocking resignation.

“The Five Lakes Alliance is holding their Heroes Conference soon, Zishu. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you this; nobody has their finger on the pulse of the jianghu like our Tian Chuang.”

A flare of bitter anger blooms in Zhou Zishu’s chest. Your Tian Chuang , he thinks to himself. I want nothing more to do with this legacy of blood and death.

Out loud, he says, “You have never shown a marked interest in the Five Lakes Alliance before, my lord.”

Prince Jin waves his hand dismissively. “Of course not. For all that they think highly of themselves, they are of little use to me. Guppies who think themselves big fish only because they do not realize it is but a barrel they swim in. What I am interested in are the guests. A guest. A guest they have never had before, Zishu.”

Maybe it’s not well enough to see his defection coming, but indeed his cousin knows him. His curiosity is piqued, despite himself. “What guest, my lord?”

Prince Jin leans forward with a delighted smirk, eyes shining and fingers turning his beads over and over. “The Ghost Valley has written the Alliance this year, asking to attend.”

There is satisfaction on the Prince’s face at finally seeing a reaction on Zhou Zishu’s. Zishu had had many split second theories on what kind of guest could have attracted his cousin’s attention like this. The Ghost Valley was not one of them, and it can be seen in the shock on his face.

Ghost Valley? ” he asks, caught hook, line, and sinker. “The Ghost Valley has kept to itself for nearly twenty years. What could they want with the Five Lakes Alliance and their Heroes Conference?”

Prince Jin sits back, smiling. “It would seem the Master of the Valley wrote himself, citing a concern of rising tension. The Valley and the jianghu both benefit from their long standing truce, he claims, and hopes to meet with the Alliance to solidify it, keep it on steady ground. He worries, as our agents tell me his letter says, that the total separation for so many years is breeding suspicion and rumors that could endanger such valued peace.”

Zhou Zishu does not bother to hide his scoff. “I don’t believe a word of it.”

“Of course you don’t, Zishu. Your mind is far too sharp to be taken in by such foolishness. The minds of the Five Lakes Alliance, it seems, are not. They’ve accepted.”

With a look on his face that says he knows he has Zishu exactly where he wants him, Prince Jin tilts his head. “I know you have just returned from you last mission, Zishu. But surely you wouldn’t mind spending some time drinking and dining as my eyes and ears?”

Zhou Zishu curls his fist around the nail tucked into his palm and weighs his options. He does not need to keep up this farce to go to the Conference, he thinks. He could kneel and expose his self imposed punishment just as he planned to do, and ask that it be finished. That he be given the seventh nail. Afterwards, he could still make his way to the Conference and find a route in.

Still...if he were to do that, it would be with no name to speak of, no reputation. No merit but his own martial skills to earn him the kind of front row seat that an airtight backstory from Tian Chuang is guaranteed to give him.

And that is provided that he is given the nail and allowed to leave, instead of executed on the spot.

Perhaps...perhaps, he thinks, even as he curses his own innate desire to know that makes him such an excellent spy, his seventh nail can wait. Whatever the Ghost Valley Master intends with this move, Zhou Zishu wants the best spot possible to watch it unfold.

Sighing, Zishu tucks the nail back into his sleeve with an imperceptible movement. “Of course, your Highness. As you wish.”

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

The Heroes Conference, Zhou Zishu thinks to himself with wry amusement, is obnoxiously easy to infiltrate. He’s reached Yueyang, bustling with the increased traffic the Conference always brings, and doesn’t so much as have to go into the backstory Tian Chuang crafted so tightly and cohesively.

Gao Chong has members of the local Yueyang sect wandering in squads in what he imagines is supposed to be security. How laughable. The young men that patrol around in their sect uniforms know how to do nothing but rely on their mere presence to make a statement, eyes bright with youthful naivety and idealism.

They, like the Alliance they serve, seem entirely too concerned with looks. Zishu gets a front seat look at that in no time.

Zhou Zishu cuts a striking figure. He knows this. He’s handsome, his jaw is strong, his features sharp and regal. The coldness and distance in his gaze and the way he holds his head only accentuates these things.

Dressed as he is in fine dark robes and with his hair in a perfect topknot, the Yueyang disciples ‘patrolling’ are falling over themselves to flatter him without so much as a second thought.

“Greetings, my Lord!” the young man at the front of their formation says, clasping his hands in front of him and offering a respectful bow that they all imitate. His eyes shine as he looks at Zishu.

Zhou Zishu has found that those still untainted by the horrors in life mistake the haunted gaze and dulled emotions of those who have seen true tragedy as something to be admired. The young ones always look at him with this awe, and he wishes he could impress upon them how they should do everything in their power to become nothing like him.

Unfortunately, it is only once they’ve been scarred by horror themselves that these young men will ever come to that realization. Until then, they will idolize people who have lived their worst nightmares.

“You must be here for the Conference,” the disciple says, eyes flickering over his posture and refined appearance with awe. “Lord…?”

“Zhou,” Zhou Zishu answers briskly, and wide eyes sparkle with delight again.

“Lord Zhou! We of the Yueyang sect are honored to welcome such a distinguished guest as yourself, Lord Zhou! Would you like us to show you to the manor?”

Zishu shakes his head, and it’s almost comical how predictably disappointed the squadron of young men in front of him look, as if being in his presence for a little longer could help them rise through the ranks and improve in their martial arts.

“No, thank you. I will find my own way. I still wish to wander the market for some time, if you don’t mind.”

“O-of course! Of course! Yueyang markets have the finest of wares and foods, I’m sure you’ll be very much pleased, Lord Zhou! If there is anything you need, the Five Lakes Alliance and the Yueyang sect will be happy to accommodate you. Welcome to the Heroes Conference!”

Zhou Zishu rolls his eyes as soon as he’s passed the little squadron. Such youthful exuberance, he can hardly remember what it’s like to possess it. It’s almost painful to be exposed to it nowadays.

He’s wandering the market less for its ‘fine wares and food’ and more to size up the people that have come for the Conference. It’s not so much that Prince Jin wants this information - nor that he much cares about doing what Prince Jin wants when he’s already overdue for his seventh nail - but that Zishu is curious.

Curious, and after so long in his profession, viscerally adverse to not knowing everything possible about every situation he finds himself in. This includes sizing up the other martial artists that have come for the Heroes Conference. There’s always trouble with rowdy bunches like this, and though none could stand a chance against him he at least wants to be able to identify them when they inevitably makes themselves a headache.

It’s easy to find the ones that are lacking in skill; they’re always the loudest, the proudest, the ones with the most bravado. They play and talk big to hide their woeful inadequacy. That is a fact that no amount of time will change. 

The quieter ones, the ones who keep to themselves or seem to be genuinely enjoying the wares and foods of the market are those that should be looked out for in a fight. They’re also the ones least likely to give him a headache trying to do something stupid. 

It’s simple to read the crowd, to deduce which sects have grudges against each other, which are allied closely, which are trying to form some kind of beneficial relationship and which are just pretending to in order to size the others up for weakness.

It’s all so, so painfully easy. Humans are so painfully easy to figure out. 

Zhou Zishu hasn’t met a human being who defied his expectations in a long, long time. Perhaps that’s why he’s so curious about the attendance of the Ghost Valley. If humans can’t surprise him anymore, perhaps ghosts can. 

Speaking of ghosts, Zhou Zishu hasn’t seen a single one. At least, he hasn’t seen any who present themselves outwardly as ghosts. He would be surprised if the Valley didn’t have people amongst the crowd doing their own kind of surveillance and reading the situation, reporting back to the mysterious Valley Chief himself.

Looking around at the martial artists, the passerby, the vendors, Zishu muses over the possibilities. Which one is a ghost wearing human skin? That man selling steamed dumplings? The woman playing the pipa in front of that inn? How about the pair of unassuming martial artists standing at the mouth of the alley two food stalls ahead?

When, he wonders, will they shed their skins and mingle in earnest? When will the Chief of Ghost Valley show his face in the world of the living?

 

----

 

Zhou Zishu has arrived in Yueyang, as was planned, just in time for the first real banquet held in Sanbai Manor. 

The thing about the Heroes Conference is that the wealthy and privileged are incapable of being satisfied with an actual conference alone. Instead, people come from far and wide for more than a week of feasting and socializing and bragging before they ever have their actual ‘Heroes Conference’.

Zishu is torn between being pleased at having this time to get a headstart on his plan of drinking himself to death, or irritated that he has to be around so many insufferable characters for this long.

The Ghost Valley better make this shit worth it.

Zishu settles back into his seat in Sanbai Manor’s main banquet hall and knocks back another cup of wine, sighing and observing the din around him with sharp eyes. Most of the guests are still sober, this early in the night, but they’re no less rowdy. 

People like this waste no time in singing their own praises and trying to one up each other, after all.

Sanbai Manor itself is quite grand, every nook and cranny dripping with wealth. The food, the drink, the dancers, the tapestries and gilding and paintings on the walls, it’s all obscenely high quality. To an eye unjaded by the ugly things hidden behind wealth and status, it is no doubt dazzling. To Zishu, it’s somewhat nauseating. 

No matter. Not nauseating enough to make him abandon the good wine and food he’s being served.

Although the crowd and their hosts do a good job of pretending it’s business as usual, Zishu can feel the undercurrent of nervousness and anticipation that thrums through them all. There’s not a soul here that’s not hyper aware of the letter Ghost Valley had sent, nor of the fact that the Five Lakes Alliance, for whatever reason, had ultimately decided to extend its invitation in response.

The jianghu holds its breath and waits for the Valley to show itself, all while doing their best to pretend they’re not waiting at all.

Zishu knows its coming before the rest of them do. His keen eyes catch the lone Yeuyang disciple scurrying along the outskirts of the room up to the table where their hosts sit, trying desperately to hide the alarm on his face.

Zishu wonders if it’s one of the ones who had mooned over him earlier, as he watches the young man bend to whisper something into Gao Chong’s ear that has him straightening and staring sharply towards the door.

It doesn’t take long after that for the first eyes to fall on new figures sweeping into the hall and for a hush to fall like fresh snow on the eaves of a roof.

The group of women entering the banquet hall with leisurely grace could not be mistaken for the usual martial artists, not in a million years. The majority of them are clad in uniform robes, red and white and delicately beautiful. Their doll-like faces are made up perfectly, ebony hair falling in neat, elaborate styles. 

One woman stands out from the rest, her robes richer and more intricately embroidered, golden jewelry and precious gems dripping from her like water. Her hair falls down her back in magnificent silver tresses.

Ah, Zishu thinks to himself, eyes greedy in their curiosity, this must be the Department of the Unfaithful.

The Department of the Unfaithful, led by the owner of the List of the Unfaithful, one of the Ten Devils of Ghost Valley. Tragicomic Ghost. 

Although, Zishu muses with surprise as his eyes fall on the same figure many others are now finding, he had been under the impression that the Department of the Unfaithful was made up entirely of women.

The very striking, very male figure mingling with them begs to differ.

He’s an otherworldly beauty, this man. He does the impossible; that is to say, he outshines the many beauties around him, draws the eye and captures it effortlessly. He too is draped in sanguine robes of beautiful quality, hair like a waterfall of ink down his dignified back. 

The set of his shoulders and his impeccable posture speak volumes, as does the height at which he holds his chin and the unabashed confidence with which he surveys the room. 

His face is truly a treasure to behold. A defined jaw, a strong brow, a straight, regal nose. His mouth is plush and flushed a sweet coral that might be natural, might be augmented with pigment. It wouldn’t be surprising were he to be wearing makeup on his lips, considering there is red streaked elegantly beneath his eyes.

Oh, and what eyes those are. They’re large, hooded, the outer corners curving elegantly downward. Their shape should lend themselves to a guileless, sweet look, and yet...and yet they’re as black and cold as a shark’s. They’re as calculating and empty as Zishu’s own. 

Eyes like that do not belong to a harmless man.

Those eyes meet Zhou Zishu’s from across the room in their intentionally uncaring sweep and, for the first time since he entered, show interest. Interest, actually, may be an understatement.

The beauty’s eyes land on Zhou Zishu and light up with fire. An expression of pleasant surprise crosses the strange ghost’s face, fascination kindling in the depths of his gaze. Fascination. Lust. Hunger.

It makes Zhou Zishu’s breath catch in his chest, which is a feat in and of itself. This man in red, he doesn’t even attempt to hide the way he devours Zhou Zishu with his eyes alone, slow smirk spreading across his face as he takes his time exploring Zishu’s figure.

Zishu has never had another man stare at him with such naked lust before. Nor, he muses, has he ever felt a kindling of desire in return.

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

He had been hoping the ghosts of Ghost Valley could surprise him, Zhou Zishu muses, but he hadn't meant it like this.

He is not a man who feels attraction for other men. At least, he hadn't thought he was. And yet, with all these beauties in front of him, it is this man with the eyes of a murderer who makes his breath catch in his throat and heat lick his belly in primal interest.

The Department of the Unfaithful comes to a stop in the middle of the room, the people parting around them like river waters around rock.

They wait. The onus is on Gao Chong now, to welcome them as if they were any other invited guests. To his credit, the man recovers from the shock of seeing them quickly and with grace, rising to his feet and saluting them briefly.

"Welcome," Gao Chong says, voice booming. "You are from the Ghost Valley?"

The magnificent woman with the silver hair bows slowly, painted face betraying nothing. "Xi Sang Gui and the Department of the Unfaithful are honored to make your acquaintance, Hero Gao."

As if the statement of her identity is somehow a surprise, a ripple of hisses and murmurs go through the crowd at confirmation that one of the Ten Devils is among them.

One of the Ten Devils is far less than Zishu was expecting. It is less than Gao Chong was expecting too. 

Gao Chong's eyes rove over the group in front of him, and fail to find anyone hiding in the ranks he hasn't already seen. He frowns.

"I was under the impression your Master intended to attend. It seems I was mistaken."

The man in red steps forward, lips curling into a smile that is only sincere to the unpracticed eye.

"Guzhu is here, and will attend the Conference. Please rest assured, Hero Gao."

His voice sends a shiver down Zhou Zishu's back; it is the first pleasant shiver he has felt in a very, very long time. 

His voice is masculine, rich, and it booms. He projects like he was born to demand attention. With a face and form like that, perhaps he was.

Gao Chong refocuses on him, curiosity shining even behind his stoic, guarded demeanor.

"And you are?"

The man smiles and bows with a coy twist of his head; everything he does seems to carry the slightest hint of condescension.  

"Wen. Wen Kexing."

Wen Kexing. Finally, a name to go with this captivating creature. 

"Wen Kexing," Gao Chong echoes. "I was not aware the Department of the Unfaithful had men in their ranks."

Wen Kexing's laugh - fake, so fake it makes Zishu suppress a smirk - echoes through the hall. He snaps a white fan open and wafts it in front of his face coyly, peering over it with an impish glint in his eyes.

"Hero Gao flatters me, to suggest I belong in the ranks of Xi Sang Gui's beauties. I'm afraid I'm not part of the Department of the Unfaithful; I simply find their company so much more pleasurable than that of the other Devils. Can you blame me?"

"Ah," Gao Chong says. "Which of the Devils, then, are you?"

Wen Kexing blinks at him, snapping his fan shut and tilting his head. "Sorry to disappoint Hero Gao, but I am no Devil. There are many more than ten ghosts in the Ghost Valley."

Gao Chong falters and backs down. It is, after all, a great slight in the jianghu to force someone to admit they are not as impressive as you thought they were.

“Apologies. It is unbecoming of a host to pry. Please, enjoy the festivities. You and whichever of your compatriots may decide to join us.”

It is a given, of course, that there are more ghosts in Yueyang right now than they see in front of them. Zhou Zishu, too, is curious as to whether they will see any tonight that are less pleasing to the eye.

That would require him managing to tear his eyes away from Wen Kexing, of course.

“He must belong to the Valley Master,” a conversation starts next to him. “He’s just the caliber of prize a Chief of the Ghost Valley would have.”

Another man hums his assent in response, their eyes tracking Wen Kexing just as Zishu’s do. “Not a member of the Department of the Unfaithful, but wearing such exquisite robes and a face that beautiful? He must be the Valley Master’s favorite pet. As expected of a place like Ghost Valley.”

That last sentence is said with a disdainful click of the tongue, and Zishu scoffs quietly to himself at the culture of hypocrisy around sexuality. 

Men who like women have their heads screwed on straight. Men who like men are sick, crazy, or strange. At least, that’s how it is on the surface. Zishu knows that opinion of cut sleeves and the way they are treated is not so simple.

Cut sleeves that live the poor and common life are invariably mistreated and sneered at should their inclinations be discovered, treated as mentally ill, people to be avoided and shunned. They hide their proclivities to avoid the stigma.

And yet, among the rich it is all too common for wealthy and notable men to enjoy the flesh of pretty boys, plenty available to be bought from the brothels along with the women. No one would dare suggest that a man with money and reputation was any less virtuous because he bedded men in recreation. There’s little need to hide, because the eyes of humans are ever so willingly blinded by the glare of coin and prestige. 

It is easily assumed that Wen Kexing is a bed pet of the Ghost Valley Master because any Master of the Ghost Valley must be a backwards, crooked, evil creature. It’s only natural that such a man would have a taste for other men, to this hall filled with hypocrites. 

These same hypocrites watch Wen Kexing’s graceful figure and regal face with covetous hearts. Plenty of the men here are watching Wen Kexing simply because they want him. They lust for him, and would gladly take him to their own beds.

Naturally, none of them would consider themselves any less virtuous for it. Perhaps it’s even easier for them to justify with this beauty in red; after all, he’s a ghost. He counts more as a trinket than a man , doesn’t he?

What despicable creatures humans are. None, Zishu muses, so despicable as those at the top of the pecking order.

Despite proclaiming that he is not a part of the Department of the Unfaithful, Wen Kexing continues to stick and mingle with them. He is one of many graceful figures in red that all travel together like a flock of birds, though he is by far the tallest. 

The group effortlessly commandeer a space for themselves in the hall, settling and helping themselves to food and drink. Wen Kexing is far enough away that Zishu can not hear him, but he can certainly see that the man is talkative. He chatters away at Xi Sang Gui, seeming overtly familiar and comfortable with her. Where the others clearly find their comfort zone in the role of servants, he shows her no deference at all. He acts as if they are of the same standing.

Not a member of the Department of the Unfaithful, not one of the Ten Devils, and yet so unabashedly comfortable with Xi Sang Gui. How interesting. A favorite pet of the Valley Master seems more and more likely, for Wen Kexing to be conducting himself as if he is of equal standing with a Devil. 

For all that he identifies the hypocrisy around the assumption, Zishu does not find it hard to believe that Wen Kexing could be the favorite whore of someone powerful enough to grasp control of Ghost Valley.

Especially not with how the other man wears his sexuality like a weapon, Zishu thinks, as Wen Kexing meets eyes with him from across the room and smirks over the top of his wine cup. When he knocks it back, it is with an exaggerated motion that can’t be mistaken for anything but an intentional flaunting of that pale, swan like throat. 

When Wen Kexing lowers his head again and licks his lips slowly, Zhou Zishu scoffs and looks away for the sake of his own sanity.

Were he to allow himself to watch the trail that tongue traces he may be lost to the siren’s charms in but one night. His pride demands he put up a better performance than that.

 

----

 

“Who knew,” Wen Kexing muses over good wine, lounging in his seat as if he still sits on the throne of the Valley, “that this laughable jianghu could hide such a peerless beauty. Don’t you think, Luo-yi?”

Luo Fumeng glances at him, follows his gaze across the room. The man he’s staring at with such naked hunger is dignified and handsome, face severe and presence powerful.

Many things can be said about Lunatic Wen, but she supposes that the quality of his taste in men can never be questioned.

“Hm,” she hums, looking back down at her wine. “I think you have set your sights on the only man here it wouldn’t be laughably easy for you to bed.”

Wen Kexing erupts in hearty laughter, laughter that is half way genuine. It’s a relief to hear, given how long it’s been since she last heard a laugh from him that wasn’t totally fake. 

“Ah, Luo-yi. What fun is a man I don’t have to pursue? It will make the taste of him all the sweeter. I’ve never seen a beauty quite like him...perhaps I’ll take him home and keep him as a pet. What do you think?”

“...I think that you are many things, but a picker of unwilling flowers you are not.”

Wen Kexing hums. “It is more fun to have them fight me when we are both exhilarated by it.”

She humphs, knowing that’s as close to admitting the truth out loud as he’ll get. 

Luo Fumeng has seen Wen Kexing do many horrible things. She’s watched him skin would be usurpers, burn them alive, leave them to be ripped apart by starving dogs. In one notable case, she watched him meticulously turn a man who attempted to peek at Gu Xiang bathing into a human stick.

She has watched him do all of these things and enjoy it , but for some reason, violating a person sexually is something he cannot stomach. Sex is, perhaps, the only thing one can refuse the Master of the Ghost Valley and live. Rape, the only thing one does not have to fear him perpetrating against them.

“Is this what you came here for, then? To satisfy your appetite for beautiful men?”

“Not entirely,” Wen Kexing answers flippantly, as if he would do something like this if he didn’t have great machinations hidden within that incomprehensible mind of his. “But I will certainly enjoy chasing him to the fullest.”

Luo Fumeng will not say it out loud, but she’s never seen such open fascination on Wen Kexing’s face before, even with his admittedly ravenous appetite for men. 

Good, she thinks. Perhaps this severe looking man will give Wen Kexing something to fixate on that isn’t the toxic hatred he harbors in his heart. It is more than she could have wished for, even if she had already been holding out hope that the human world might tempt him.

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

“Approach him? Why, Yifu?” Xie’er asks, hoping his beloved father won’t take his question as doubt. It pains him when Yifu thinks he doubts him; Xie’er only asks because he wants to understand. The machinations of Yifu’s mind are so brilliant, he can only benefit by hearing the thought processes behind his commands.

Zhao Jing sighs. “We must adapt, Xie’er. We cannot very well go ahead with our planned attack on the Zhangs now that the ghosts have shown themselves, can we?”

Xie’er finds, as he often does, that he does not understand, even though Yifu says it like it should be obvious. The plan had been to send forces dressed as ghosts from the Ghost Valley to attack Mirror Lake Manor, to take their piece of the Glazed Armor by force and have a convenient enemy to pin it on. 

“Buy why, Yifu? Nobody would believe them if they said it wasn’t them, especially having stepped openly out of the Valley now.”

Yifu sighs, shaking his head. Xie’er feels his heart drop; he’s disappointed Yifu again. Immediately, he bows his head and attempts to rectify the damage.

“I’m sorry, Yifu. I only wish to better understand you. It is not that I doubt your plans, only that I feel I become wiser with each occasion you enlighten me.”

Yifu’s hand comes down on his shoulder, and he tries to pretend that he doesn’t jump. Thankfully, Yifu is smiling down at him when he raises his head.

“It’s okay, Xie’er. I know you try your best, it’s not your fault. You’re just not as quick as Yifu, Yifu understands.”

Xie’er smiles, willingly ignoring the sting of being called stupid in favor of basking in his father’s smile and willingness to share with him.

“When something unexpected happens, Xie’er, just because your prior plan can work does not mean it is still the best plan. A strategist must always analyze their situation to see if there’s a better option available to them. This Wen Kexing...he could be my new plan.”

“How, Yifu?”

Zhao Jing’s hand slips off of his shoulder, the man taking to pacing leisurely around the room as he talks. Xie’er has always been awed by Yifu’s casual confidence, his ease in the soundness of his planning. 

“This Wen Kexing is not a member of the Department of the Unfaithful, nor is he a member of the Ten Devils, by his own admission. And yet, I’ve noticed some interesting things about him just from watching him this first night. Not a Devil, and not employed by the Department of the Unfaithful, but he is dressed exquisitely and carries himself with confidence and an an air of superiority.”

“He conducted himself with Fumeng...with Xi Sang Gui with no fear or hesitation, as if he were her equal. One would think only the other Devils would have the guts to act in such a way with one of their rank. What does that tell you, Xie’er?”

Xie’er hesitates, not wanting to be wrong and see disappointment flash in Yifu’s eyes again. 

“That he is...confident, that whatever position he has in the Ghost Valley affords him security? That he does not see the Devils as above him, despite not being in their ranks.”

Zhao Jing turns to him with a wide smile and eyes shining, and Xie’er blooms with joy for having done his father proud.

“Good! Good. Yes, he seems quite confident that his place is not inferior to that of the Ten Devils. Do you know what I think, Xie’er?”

“No, Yifu. Please tell me.”

“I think this Wen Kexing is quite close to the Valley Chief. The way he is groomed, the way he is dressed, the way he carries himself; I have no doubt he enjoys the status of a favorite concubine.”

“So you...want to use him to get close to the Valley Master? Yifu...do you really think the Valley Master could be convinced to to give up the key to the Armory?”

Zhao Jing sighs. “Ah, Xie’er...you were doing so well.”

Xie’er balks, swallowing. “I...I apologize, Yifu.”

“Alright. It’s alright. But Xie’er, don’t you feel bad for this Wen Kexing?”

“...bad?”

“Yes,” Zhao Jing says with fake sympathy in his voice. “You know how the Ghost Valley works, don’t you? A Valley Master becomes Valley Master by killing his predecessor, and he only keeps the throne for as long as nobody can kill him. Do you know how long the current Valley Master has ruled, Xie’er?”

“Eight years, Yifu.”

“Eight years. Do you know how long the second longest reigning Valley Master ruled before him?”

Xie’er is silent for a few moments, and then shakes his head.

Three.

Xie’er blinks. “The current Valley Master has ruled for more than twice as long as the last longest reigning Master, then.”

“Yes. Can you imagine how cruel, how ruthless such a man must be? How rough an existence it must be, Xie’er, to be the bed slave of such a man.”

Ah. “You hope to sway his allegiance to you, Yifu.”

Zhao Jing offers him another smile. “There you go, my boy. He likes the fine things, the security in his position. But surely we can offer him more of both than the Ghost Valley? And with them, he need not be violated by the Ghost Valley Guzhu, or live in a place where you must kill just to survive. We can offer him all this and more, Xie’er. All he has to do is use his status to help us get that key from his Master.”

“And you, my boy! So beautiful and silver tongued. Don’t you think Wen Kexing would take easier to someone like himself?”

Xie’er blinks. “I...of course, Yifu. As you wish.”

Xie’er leaves the room trying not to feel like he’s just been called a whore.

 

----

 

Zhou Zishu is used to being up at night. Once upon a time it was only because of the work he did for Prince Jin. Now, even if he’s able to spend a night as he wills, he can’t sleep. The Nails cause him the most agony around midnight, and he finds he prefers to be out and about to distract than curled up in bed while he weathers the waves of pain.

He walks with silent steps along the rooftops of Yueyang, watching the night life. People do their dirty work under the cover of dark, feel that at night they are safe from watching eyes. This is, of course, why Zhou Zishu makes sure to be those watching eyes. 

With his level of qinggong and dark clothes, there’s not a soul at this conference who is capable enough to notice him, not even were they to pass right by him. At least, there shouldn’t be.

“What favor from the heavens, to come across such a peerless beauty under the light of the moon!”

Zhou Zishu turns. On the roof with him stands a tall, dignified beauty in red, staring at him with a smirk and hungry eyes, beautiful, long fingered hand leisurely waving his fan. 

Zhou Zishu hadn’t even noticed him come up. This man only gets more interesting.

“Wen Kexing.”

Wen Kexing’s eyes light up, smirk growing even more crooked. He stalks towards Zhou Zishu with languid, leisurely steps. He is every inch a predator. Zhou Zishu is struck by how much he enjoys feeling like he’s being hunted.

“You know my name,” Wen Kexing says, “And yet I, tragically, have not been honored with yours.”

Zhou Zishu huffs out a wry breath through his nose. Dramatic, much?

“Zhou Xu.”

“Zhou Xu,” Wen Kexing says, as if savoring the taste on his tongue. “And what character is Xu?”

“The one for willow catkins.”

“Mnn,” Wen Kexing hums, the sound bordering on sexual as he lets his eyes rove down Zishu’s body. “How fitting. And what is such a lovely creature as you doing out here at this hour, A-Xu?”

“I could ask the same of you.”

Wen Kexing’s eyes light up, grinning with all his teeth. “A-Xu! You think I’m lovely? I’m flattered.”

Zishu scoffs. Dodging the question and flirting in one go. Wen Kexing is truly shameless in his interest, especially considering Zishu is also a man. Then again, the nature of the rumors about his status in Ghost Valley would leave no one surprised about his inclinations.

Zhou Zishu would not be surprised if a Guzhu of Ghost Valley took bed pets whether they were willing or inclined that way or not, but the way Wen Kexing looks at him makes him certain that he has a hunger for men.

He definitely has a hunger for Zhou Zishu.

A throb of agonizing pain pulses through Zishu’s body, radiating out from his meridians, and his face must falter because Wen Kexing picks up on it. The hunger fades from his gaze for long enough for him to peer curiously at Zishu. He takes a step closer.

“Is something wrong, A-Xu?”

“Nothing,” he bites out. “Just an old injury acting up.”

“Oh? Let me check your qi.”

Wen Kexing reaches to take his wrist, and Zishu knocks his hand aside, grasping his wrist in turn and yanking his arm out straight. It puts them nose to nose, delight sparking in those dark eyes again.

Zhou Zishu didn’t know it was possible to want to kiss another man so badly. “No need,” he says into the scant space between them, holding Wen Kexing’s gaze. Their eyes both hold a challenge. They are engaged in a dance, and they both know the nature of the conflict they’re embracing with each other. 

“I think I’ll just go to bed.”

“Oh?” Wen Kexing murmurs, eyes flickering down to Zhou Zishu’s own mouth. “Would you like me to come warm it?”

With a smirk and a huff, Zishu tosses Wen Kexing’s wrist away. “No, thank you.”

As he descends from the rooftops, he hears Wen Kexing’s laughing voice call out behind him. “Let me know if you change your mind!”

 

----

 

“Wen Kexing?”

Wen Kexing turns at the sound of an unfamiliar voice, curious even as he is readily prepared to slaughter whoever is hanging around near the room he’s been so graciously provided in Sanbai Manor, should it be necessary.

“A late night visitor, waiting for me at my chambers?” he asks, watching as the form of a beautiful young man with braided hair melts out of the shadows. “How bold.”

The pretty boy smiles. “Please, rest assured. I have no designs on your virtue. May I come in?”

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

The next Zhou Zishu sees Wen Kexing is at the next night’s banquet. Being here may involve being surrounded by idiots, Zishu muses, but it’s really not so bad when he gets to drink good wine and watch Wen Kexing all night.

He would remark on such a thought being a tad creepy, if it weren’t for the fact that Wen Kexing’s personal agenda also seems to be drink wine and watch him .

To Wen Kexing’s credit, he’s much more sociable with the other guests than Zhou Zishu is.

His presence is somewhat expected this time, so it would seem all the ‘heroes’ in attendance have started to muster the guts to approach the beautiful creature so many of them want to try their hand at conquering.

The mere idea makes Zhou ZIshu want to laugh. How self important and oblivious must they be, to think for even a moment that Wen Kexing would not be the conqueror here? He is far more capable and voracious an opponent than any of the jianghu rabble.

A man like Wen Kexing, he thinks, must overwhelm his partners like a natural disaster and leave them dazed and wondering what hit them. With nothing but shared breath and an intense stare, after all, he had set Zishu ablaze like a wildfire last night.

He wonders what would have become of him if he’d accepted that offer to warm his bed.

How unfortunate that bedding Wen Kexing would force him to reveal the gruesome secrets embedded in his chest.

The behavior of those who approach Wen Kexing is influenced heavily by their states of intoxication. At the beginning of the night, it’s about as proper as the approach of men with lustful stares can be.

Wen Kexing flits from place to place as eager faces beckon him to share a drink or sit and sample a dish, fanning himself and smiling and making toasts as he’s bid. Zishu smirks into his own wine at how easily Wen Kexing is wrapping them all around his little finger, all while allowing them to feel like they’re the ones charming him.

That graceful siren in red never fails to meet his gaze here and there, as if assuring him that he’s still Wen Kexing’s object of interest. 

All these fools falling all over themselves for me, his gaze says, and still I only have eyes for you. 

It’s a good feeling. Each prolonged moment of eye contact prompts Zishu’s hind brain to ask, would it really be so bad to show your nails, if it got you a taste of him?

Thankfully, Zhou Zishu is a master at locking his desires away behind iron willpower. It is novel to have it tested so, nonetheless. How much different would it be to have a man, he wonders? Then again...he suspects that having Wen Kexing would not be a reliable indicator of that. Wen Kexing, even under the guise of propriety that is required in public, is already an experience unique to himself.

As the alcohol flows, people start to get bolder in their prying, in trying to pick information from Wen Kexing as if he can’t read every motive behind every word. 

“Kexing!” one man cries, lifting a jar of wine. He’s clearly a bit tipsy. “Come, sit, Kexing! Have you tried the pheasant tonight? I’ve ordered a fresh dish just for you!”

Wen Kexing, who Zhou Zishu has absolutely seen eat pheasant already tonight, glides over with masterfully wide, guileless eyes.

“Just for me? Why, I’m not usually a fan of pheasant, but if you recommend it…”

“I do! I do! Come, sit! This pheasant will change your mind, Wen-daren.”

Wen Kexing offers a beaming smile and sits in a graceful flutter of robes, making the man who invited him puff up with pride. Even more so when an elegant hand takes a piece of pheasant in chopsticks, and Wen Kexing hums his delight with wide eyes, acting every bit the pleasantly surprised, empty headed beauty.

Zhou Zishu hides his laughter behind a bite of food. Wen Kexing has been eating the living shit out of pheasant tonight. What an absolute imp, lowering this idiot’s guard by stroking his ego. He is without a doubt absolutely preening that his recommendation of food managed to so delight Wen Kexing.

It probably goes without saying that the rest of the hall is focused almost singularly on the scene, intent on listening to whatever Wen Kexing has to say and figuring out how to get in his good books. How pathetic.

“Who knew,” the man says, “that ghosts could be so easy on the eyes? They say only those who have done irredeemable things flee to the Ghost Valley. It is difficult to imagine such a striking beauty as you being forced to such a place.”

Wen Kexing simpers, fanning himself and averting his eyes as if it’s a bit of a solemn subject. Zishu can see the absolute lack of caring in his eyes; it’s all an act.

“Ah...it really wasn’t my fault, Wu-daren,” Wen Kexing pouts, those big eyes of his helping him look terribly pathetic. “You believe me, don’t you?”

The man Zishu has only just learned is of the family name Wu - Kexing really is keeping tabs on who he manipulates, it almost makes Zishu feel proud - scrambles to reassure him. By now, they’ve gathered an audience, people all ready to offer any word they think might gain them a little of Wen Kexing’s favor.

“Of course, Wen-daren! But what could have happened to land you in such a place?”

Wen Kexing sighs, sipping delicately at a cup of wine in a manner totally unlike the way Zishu has seen him knock them back when people aren’t paying particular attention. “In truth, I’ve been a ghost since I was but a child. I can hardly remember the last time I mingled with the living like this.”

A murmuring of shock and sympathy moves through the crowd, surely pitying the beauty in front of them for such a fate.

“Aiyah,” Wu-daren sighs. “How tragic. To blossom into such an impressive young man in such a place, though! Very impressive.”

Wen Kexing smiles, eyes glinting. “Why thank you, Wu-daren. I’m flattered that you think so.”

Someone else takes the plunge, sitting at the table on Wen Kexing’s other side. This one is a younger man than Wu-daren, and is also evidently intoxicated.

“Clearly you’ve carved out a place for yourself, Kexing,” the younger man says, gesturing towards Wen Kexing in general. “Look at you! Dressed and groomed so beautifully, you’re no ordinary ghost. Tell us the truth now, A-Xing,”

Wen Kexing looks at Zishu just in time to see one of his eyebrows pop up at hearing this kid call Wen Kexing A-Xing, and he watches as Wen Kexing suppresses a smirk at his expression.

“You live in the Valley Master’s palace, don’t you?”

The drunk young man asks the question while leaning a little closer, smile on his face and eyes narrowed as if they’re co conspirators in something. Wen Kexing plays along flawlessly, incredibly adept at making others feel like they’re in control while he plays with them like a cat with a mouse.

Wen Kexing’s mouth pops open in an alluring ‘o’ shape, blinking wide eyes. He plays at hiding his face behind his fan, peering over the top. “How did you know?”

Laughter ripples through the crowd, like Kexing’s naive surprise is cute. Zishu will admit that it is, probably even more so if he were buying the act like these men are.

“Aiyah, A-Xing,” the young man says. “You would be a legendary beauty even you were wearing a potato sack, but look at you! You’re dripping with the finest silks, skin and hair healthy and perfect! You carry yourself like a prince! You must truly be the Valley Master’s favorite. How often does he get to have you in his bed?”

Several people hiss their surprise at such a bold question, not expecting the drunken young lord to ask so openly what everyone is wondering. The tension goes out of them when Kexing doesn’t react badly, instead feigning a bashful laugh. 

“Wherever Guzhu sleeps at night is where I sleep at night.”

“Every night?” someone bursts out in surprise. “Is he so hungry?”

Wen Kexing hums, eyes catching on Zhou Zishu again and lips curling into a tiny smirk. “Well...Guzhu does have a ravenous appetite for beautiful men, I’m afraid. I would dare say he’s insatiable.”

“How tough, how tough!” Wu-daren chimes back in. “You must be tired of him, poor thing.”

Another murmur ripples through the crowd. It’s dangerous territory, to suggest that Wen Kexing might bore of or like to leave the service of the Valley Master. Any Master of the Ghost Valley, after all, has to be cruel and volatile. If word were to reach him of such talk…

Wen Kexing hums, acting as if he’s weighing the decision of whether to say something or not. “Well,” he says, lowering his voice just a little. They all lean in like moths to a flame. “Don’t tell anyone I said this, but...it does get boring with just the Valley Master.”

“Not a word, not a word,” Wu-daren assures him, and the crowd murmurs their agreement. “Perhaps you’ll find someone to your liking here, Kexing.”

Wen Kexing smiles, making eye contact with Zhou Zishu. Zhou Zishu knows it’s coming when he says, gaze unfaltering. “Mm, perhaps I will.”

The next thing anyone knows is a loud crack sound, and the bold young man who sat next to Wen Kexing is drawing his hand into his chest with a cry, knuckles red. He had tried to slip a hand around Wen Kexing’s waist and on his hip, and the wooden spine of that fan had come down in a merciless smack.

Perhaps not merciless; Zhou Zishu gets the feeling he could have done a lot more damage than that. That was a reprimand. A warning.

Wen Kexing pouts that beautiful mouth and shakes his finger at the young man, eyes wide but lacking warmth. “Ah ah ah...I wouldn’t, if I were you.”

For all that the empty, soulless look in those dark eyes should frighten him, the young lord just laughs sheepishly and goes back to trying to curry favor. “Of course. The Valley Master would take my hands if I were to touch you without permission, right?”

“Oh, no.”

Everyone blinks, a little surprised. “No?”

“No,” Wen Kexing repeats, lips curling and fan snapping back open to resume its leisurely waving. “He’d skin you alive, like he did to his predecessor.”

A hush of silence falls, goosebumps rising and a chill running down spines. Wen Kexing looks around at the unsure eyes settled on him and laughs. 

“Aiyah, I can see it in your eyes! ‘Did he really?’ you want to ask. He did, I assure you. I was there, I should know!”

The flirting resumes slowly, but nobody tries to touch him again.

 

----

 

Zhou Zishu leaves the banquet when he can no longer stand the increasingly drunken idiocy of the guests. He can feel Wen Kexing’s eyes burning into his back while he goes, but doesn’t let himself look back. He’s not a pathetic fool like the men who surround Wen Kexing even now. If Wen Kexing wants him, he’ll have to fight for him.

He gets the feeling that Wen Kexing likes that about him. 

On the grounds of the manor it is blessedly quiet, a much needed reprieve from the din of voices and music and the clinking of dishes.

Zishu takes his time exploring the grounds, enjoying the scenery and the sound of night time wildlife. The buzzing of crickets has always soothed him, even in the darkest of times. 

Throughout the walk in blessed quiet, Zhou Zishu knows it’s only a matter of time before someone specific finds him. It’s for this reason that he’s not at all surprised when he enters a courtyard and sees Wen Kexing’s figure lounging on a railing, lips curling as soon as he spots him. 

“A-Xu!” he chimes, holding up a bottle. “Wine?”

Zhou Zishu huffs a breath and shakes his head, but is smiling just slightly as he approaches Wen Kexing’s languid figure. “What a coincidence that you keep running into me,” he says, voice wry.

Wen Kexing smirks back. “Mmm, truly we must be fated, don’t you think? Won’t you drink with me?”

Zishu pretends to consider it for a moment, and then takes the wine jug in a smooth motion that involves far more skin contact than necessary. He relishes in the flash of hunger that crosses Wen Kexing’s face because of it.

“You live in the Valley Master’s palace, huh?” he asks, before taking a swig of wine. 

“I do.”

“Hmph. Then maybe you can tell me something, Lao Wen.”

A delighted smile breaks across Wen Kexing’s lips at the name. “What do you want to know, my A-Xu?”

Zishu snorts, but doesn’t reproach him. “What has the Ghost Valley come here for?”

“Didn’t you hear what was in the letter?” Wen Kexing asks, fake confusion dripping from his lips and expression. Zishu gets the feeling that he knows Zishu doesn’t buy it, but still plays for the sake of it. “The Ghost Valley Guzhu wants to ensure we stay at peace.”

Zishu huffs a laugh. “I know you believe that just as much as I do.”

The act falls away, and Wen Kexing smirks, snatching the wine back and taking a swig himself. “As expected of you, A-Xu. You may just be the only one here whose head is there for anything but decoration. You’re right, of course. There’s another reason we’re here; just like there’s another reason you’re here. Isn’t that right?”

Zishu tilts his head, raising an eyebrow. “Is it so hard to believe there might be someone in the jianghu who simply isn’t stupid?”

“Absolutely.”

Zhou Zishu laughs, stealing back the wine with quick fingers. This time, he gets close enough to exchange quiet words that could only be heard between the two of them, even if they weren’t alone. 

“You’re right, of course,” he echoes. “I suppose we’ll both have to entertain ourselves with guessing each other’s motives, won’t we, Guzhu?

He lingers just long enough to see Wen Kexing’s face go open in genuine surprise, before he slips by with his stolen wine to make his way back to his rooms. It takes a couple of seconds of stunned silence before Wen Kexing calls out behind him.

“A-Xu?”

Zhou Zishu turns to glance over his shoulder at him. “Hm?”

Eyes dancing with mirth and new intrigue, Wen Kexing half hides his smile behind his fan. With a tone that would be fitting of the finest of seductions, he says, “If you were to touch me, I would not skin you alive.”

Zishu snorts and turns around to walk again. “Romantic. I’ll keep it in mind.”

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Just as Zhao Jing had hoped, Xie’er reports to him that he and Wen Kexing get along swimmingly quite quickly. He says the ghost is jovial and friendly, though he bears the behaviors one would expect of someone who’s lived in Ghost Valley. A certain wariness, like he’s always waiting for another shoe to drop. 

    Zhao Jing is not surprised about this, considering he claimed he’d been in the Valley since he was but a child. Less than a year in that place could likely do that to someone, nevermind a lifetime.

    Xie’er tells him that Wen Kexing seems happy to have a friend who is not interested in him for his body, and that too bolsters Zhao Jing’s confidence in his own plan. If Wen Kexing is appreciative of not being treated as a sex object, surely he can be tempted away from the life of a bed slave.

    These are the reasons Zhao Jing feels confident enough to ask Xie’er to bring Wen Kexing to him, and he smiles when he hears the murmur of voices approaching his rooms. 

    A young man, unused to kindness that doesn’t come with sexual strings attached? This should be all too easy.

    “I’d like you to meet my Yifu,” he hears Xie’er say. “He’s quite interested to talk to you, Wen-daren.”

    The voice of Wen Kexing responds as they grow closer. “Men are always interested in talking to me.”

    “Ah...you are safe with Yifu, Wen-daren. When I say he wishes to talk to you, I really do mean talk. Please, if you feel uncomfortable you are of course welcome to leave anytime. Just meet him for me?”

    He does not hear a response, but Wen Kexing must gesture his affirmative in some manner, because the doors to his quarters slide open and Xie’er escorts Wen Kexing’s dignified, tall figure inside.

    Zhao Jing sees a flicker of surprise on Wen Kexing’s face when he sees him - Xie’er had not told him who his Yifu was, it seems - but it’s hidden very quickly. As expected of anyone who has lived in a place like Ghost Valley, to learn to hide his emotions so well.

    Zhao Jing rises from where he sits, plastering on the patented warm smile that nary a soul has ever seen through. “Wen-daren. I’m glad you’ve come. Would you like some tea?”

    Wen Kexing surveys him with suspicious eyes, a sour little pout seen past the barrier of his fan. His posture is closed as he takes slow steps around and surveys the room, eyes never leaving Zhao Jing for long.

    His suspicion and raised chin are, dare Zhao Jing say it, precious.

    Zhao Jing sighs, smiling sympathetically. “I understand. You are wary. Your experience with men in power has not been ideal, has it?”

    Wen Kexing does not respond, simply continues to look at him with that suspicious pout. 

    “Xie’er,” Zhao Jing calls. “Come here. Pour us all some tea. You and I will drink first, to assure Wen-daren it is not tampered with. One can hardly blame him for worrying, with what he’s said about his position in the Valley, no?”

    “Of course, Yifu.”

    Xie’er comes forward to pour them all tea from the same pot, and Wen Kexing watches with intent eyes their every movement as they drink; no doubt he is keeping a keen eye on whether either of them make a move to covertly slip something into his cup. Smart child.

    Wen Kexing almost seems caught off guard when he sees no sign of mischief, and comes to join them at the table slowly. To Zhao Jing’s delight, he even takes the leap of faith to drink from the cup of tea poured for him.

    He smiles. “Is it to your liking?”

    Wen Kexing hesitates a moment, and then lifts his chin again defiantly. He watches Zhao Jing like he’s testing him when he says, “I prefer wine to tea.”

    Ah. The Ghost Valley Guzhu must not like dissent, Zhao Jing thinks. This pretty concubine of his acts like he’s waiting for Zhao Jing to show displeasure or anger at a contrary answer. 

If that is what he fears, Zhao Jing is more than willing to prove himself a kinder breed than Wen Kexing’s current master; even if it’s a farce.

“My apologies, then,” he says. “If you ever decide to come have a drink with us again, I’ll make sure to have liquor available for you.”

The flicker in Wen Kexing’s face tells him he’s passed this test. Easy, how easy it is to play even ghosts like a fiddle, he muses.

“When Xie’er told me he had made a friend of you,” Zhao Jing starts, “I will admit I was quite happy. I had wanted to approach you, but was not sure I’d be well received. I think it is clear that you would have mistaken my intentions for something...nefarious, hm?”

“Oh?” Wen Kexing asks, adopting a humorless smirk. A defense mechanism. How cute. “So you don’t want to talk about whether I’m the Valley Master’s favorite concubine?”

“Well,” Zhao Jing says, “In a way, I do.”

Triumph flashes in Wen Kexing’s face for only a moment, before Zhao Jing’s continuation wipes it away.

“I’m concerned about you, Wen-daren.”

Wen Kexing blinks in shock. “...concerned?”

“Yes,” Zhao Jing nods, sighing. “I’ve heard what you’ve said to others. To grow up in the Ghost Valley....how unkind a fate. And then to grow up to be a constant presence in the bed of a Valley Master? Surviving alone must have been hard enough, but I shudder to think how young you might have been when he set his eyes on you. How...how long have you been by his side the way you are, Kexing?”

He asks as if he’s not sure he wants the answer, gaze open and soft. It seems to work wonders. Wen Kexing’s chin rises, and he fans himself, averting his gaze. Zhao Jing suspects that hiding behind the fan, too, is a defense mechanism.

“All eight years of his reign. What of it?”

Zhao Jing closes his eyes, lets himself look like he needs a moment to collect himself. Like the revelation is heavy. “I’m very sorry, Kexing. That’s terrible.”

Defiance flares in Wen Kexing’s gaze, like a trapped animal puffing itself up. He laughs, cold and humorless. “Terrible? Look at me! Do I look deprived? There’s not a soul in the Ghost Valley who lives as luxuriously as me. I’m better off than all of them. I’m better off than even the Ten Devils.”

Zhao Jing nods, pity in his gaze. “Has it occurred to you, Kexing...that you do not have to be the Ghost Valley Guzhu’s pet to have those things? To have even better?”

Wen Kexing falters, then narrows his eyes. “What are you trying to say?”

“The Ghost Valley is no place for a young man like you, Wen Kexing. Especially when it is no fault of your own that you ended up there. It pains me, to think of what you’ve been through.”

Wen Kexing sneers. “Pains you.”

Zhao Jing smiles. “I know that you don’t believe me. It’s alright. I cannot blame you; you must not have encountered much kindness where you’ve grown up. But out here...it’s not normal to be used as you are, Kexing. Any decent person would take issue with it.”

“And you consider yourself a decent person, I take it?”

Zhao Jing nods indulgently in the face of the disbelief Wen Kexing shows. “I do. I’d like to get you out of there, Kexing.”

Wen Kexing blinks. “Out...of the Valley? And you expect me to believe you want nothing in return for...what? Taking me in? Would you like to be my Yifu as well, Philanthropist Zhao?”

Wen Kexing laughs coldly at that. Zhao Jing notes with pleasure that he is drinking his tea without hesitation now. Little things like this betray the tendrils of trust that are starting to build.

“I would like to get you out of there and make sure you are taken care of, yes. I have no lack of luxury here, Kexing. You need not worry about losing the finer things.”

Xie’er reaches out to lay a gentle hand over Wen Kexing’s, smiling at him when his gaze snaps over to him instead of Zhao Jing, eyes wary.

“You can trust Yifu’s word, Wen-daren. He did the same for me, when I was but a child. He treats me as if I were his own blood; he has given me a much better life here than I might have had otherwise. I assure you that Yifu’s caring is genuine.”

It seems to catch Wen Kexing off guard, to have his new friend assure him with such confidence of Zhao Jing’s trustworthiness. After a moment where the vulnerability shows through on his face, he puts his mask on again and humphs, taking his hand back.

Wen Kexing stands and brushes his robes free of imaginary dirt. “I’m not so foolish as to trust pretty words, Hero Zhao. If you were hoping for me to throw myself at your feet with gratitude, I will have to disappoint you.”

Zhao Jing chuckles, looking up at him warmly. “Of course not. All I ask is that you think about it, Wen-daren.”

Wen Kexing humphs at him and turns to leave, his demeanor haughty. And then...he pauses at the door. Without looking back, he says almost begrudgingly, as if making a concession, “The tea wasn’t bad.”

Zhao Jing smiles. “Please feel free to come visit any time, even if you don’t wish to discuss what we’ve discussed today. Xie’er and I would be happy to have a nice meal with you some time if you were so inclined.”

Wen Kexing’s fingers twitch at his side, and then he is opening the doors and ghosting away. 

Easy, Zhao Jing thinks with a smirk. How easy it is to play this little ghost like a pipa.

 

----

 

As he closes Zhao Jing’s doors behind him and walks away, Wen Kexing smirks. Easy, he thinks. How easy it is to play these Five Lakes fools like a pipa.

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

The relative peace of midmorning is broken by yelling and running. Zhou Zishu, who had been hoping to sleep in a little after spending all night kept awake by the nails spearing his meridians through, heaves a long suffering sigh and forces himself to get up and see what’s going on.

    Honestly, if this is some jackass martial artist with more bluster than skill, he’s going to kill the son of a bitch himself.

He emerges from his room grumpy but groomed to an acceptable degree, following the ruckus and pushing through the crowd. Already he's hearing something about someone assaulting the servants. 

He's really not expecting what he sees when he breaks through the front of the crowd.

There's a girl standing there barefoot in front of one of the manors elaborate koi ponds, hems of her robes soaked and fire in her eyes. There a couple of servants on the ground looking like they've been pushed around a little, mostly boys bigger than her.

They're obviously pissed but smart enough not to approach her again. She seems to be spoiling for a fight, after all, fuming over whatever has just happened.

"Who are you to tell me what to do?" She snaps, hand swinging wildly out to the side in an outraged gesture. 

"What are you still sitting there for? Are you gonna cry?! You grabbed me, you're lucky you're not dead, you stupid prick!"

In no time, actual Yueyang disciples start to arrive, barely getting through trying to ask her to calm down when she whirls on them.

"What?! You want to fight too?! Look at you! I could beat you with my hands tied behind my back, you're so scrawny! Pathetic! Come on, come at me!"

Zhou Zishu has never seen a girl like this before. For some reason, she almost reminds him of-

"A-Xiang!" a voice booms through the crowd, people parting like water for Wen Kexing. Wen Kexing. Yes, she reminds him of Wen Kexing with that mouth of hers and defiant attitude.

The girl he called A-Xiang turns towards him, pointing at the disciples and servants and stomping one bare foot.

"Zh- Ge! These idiots picked a fight, not me! Tell them they're lucky I only bullied them a little!"

For the first time since he arrived with the Department of the Unfaithful, Wen Kexing looks truly, openly dumbfounded at the scene in front of him.

"A-Xiang...why are you wet? Where are your shoes?"

A-Xiang huffs. "They're right here, ge! I just took them off was all!"

"... why?"

"Because of the fish! I was coming to visit you, ge, and look! This pond is huge, and all the fish are so fat they're ripe to burst if someone doesn't eat them! I was going to catch us some and then these idiots started yelling at me! One of them grabbed me, can you believe it?! The nerve!"

Wen Kexing blinks a couple of times, and then slowly says, "You were going to catch us fish...out of the koi pond?"

"Is that what they are? Koi? Yeah."

The whole crowd is silent for a long few moments, as if wondering if this is some kind of joke. Then, Wen Kexing collapses into howling laughter. It's one hundred percent genuine, filled to bursting with joy and affection, and it may just be the most beautiful thing Zhou Zishu has ever heard.

A-Xiang does not seem to agree. "Hey! Why are you laughing at me? Ge! Stop!"

"A-Xiang," Wen Kexing wheezes, walking towards her. "A-Xiang! These fish are for decoration, A-Xiang, not for eating!"

She blinks, flabbergasted. "Huh? That's...that's stupid! Who keeps fish around to look at?! Look at them, they're huge!"

Wen Kexing takes her shoulders in his hands and looks at the Yueyang disciples, the servants, and the gathered crowd in turn.

"Please forgive my little barbarian for the disruption," he says, still grinning. "I'm afraid she also grew up in the Valley, and food can be scarce there when you're still a low ranking ghost. Such things as a fish you use as decoration and not for dinner are foreign to us, it was an honest mistake."

The crowd starts getting the humor at that, especially considering it is Wen Kexing, the object of nearly everyone's desire, who is asking their forgiveness.

As the chuckles start to spread through the crowd, the unlucky servants who had gotten their asses handed to them get up in a huff.

"But she- she assaulted us!" one boy cries. "Whether she knew the fish were decoration or not, surely she can't just be allowed to get away with that?"

It's a valid point, but Zishu can tell this young man is really just humiliated over being beaten up by a pretty girl and trying to recover.

"Come now," another voice rings out, and Zhao Jing emerges from the crowd with a warm, amused smile. "Do try to be a little more understanding. They come from the Ghost Valley. She said you grabbed her, did she not? For us, it may simply be a servant trying to pull her out of the koi pond, but I imagine growing up in a place like that, such contact is rarely anything but a threat. Am I mistaken, Wen-daren?"

Wen Kexing sobers a little at the sight of him, and seems almost reluctant when he says, "No, you are not mistaken."

Zhao Jing turns back to the servant boys, who are now starting to look abashed at realizing that this pretty young girl isn't just a punk, but one who's used to struggling to survive.

"See? Surely you can forgive this genuine mistake."

"Yes, Hero Zhao," they all murmur, dispersing rather quickly. At Zhao Jing's imploring, the crowd begins to disperse too.

Zhao Jing turns his eyes back to the pair of ghosts. "I did not know you had a sister, Wen-daren. Would you like to join me for lunch?"

Wen Kexing blinks, and then puts on a falsely bright smile and glances at Zhou Zishu.

"I'm honored, Hero Zhao, but A-Xu already offered to take us to lunch in the city today! Right, A-Xu?"

Zhou Zishu's eyebrows bounce up into his hairline in disbelief, scoffing even as he walks slowly forward. 

"Did I?" he asks, voice wry. "My memory must be failing me, how alarming."

Wen Kexing beams and grabs his arm, eyes sparkling with satisfaction at having gotten out of a lunch with Zhao Jing and irritating Zhou Zishu all in one fell swoop. 

"You did!" he crows. "Perhaps it's because you asked after the banquet last night, and we had been sharing some wine, A-Xu."

"Right," Zishu grouses, leveling the taller man with an unimpressed stare. "That must be it."

"Ah," Zhao Jing sighs, nodding. "A shame. You are…?"

"Zhou Xu."

"Zhou Xu. A pleasure to have you at Sanbai Manor. I see you and Wen-daren are quite familiar already. Very well. Please, don't let me keep you, then."

Wen Kexing wastes no time in trying to tug Zishu away, though Zhao Jing stops them just once. 

"Ah, Kexing."

Wen Kexing glances over his shoulder, almost looking petulant.

"Please," Zhao Jing smiles, "Don't hesitate to visit for a meal or some tea any time."

Wen Kexing just scoffs and continues on his way.

 

----

 

"Where, exactly, are we going, Lao Wen?" Zishu asks, feeling exasperated. 

Wen Kexing has not relinquished his arm, and has towed him right out of the manor and into Yueyang proper, a mystified Gu Xiang (who has at least put her shoes back on) following the whole way.

Wen Kexing blinks in faux innocence. "Why, to lunch of course! Remember? You offered!"

Of course. Of course he's actually been roped into lunch. How foolish of him to think Wen Kexing wouldn't capitalize on the excuse.

"And I suppose I'm treating," he says dryly.

"Well, of course, A-Xu. You were the one who extended the invite."

"Right. How silly of me to ask."

Finally, Gu Xiang breaks. "Zhuren, who-"

She claps her hand over her mouth with a squeak, and then yanks it away as if Zhou Zishu won't notice her slip up if she recovers fast enough. 

"G-ge, who is this?"

Wen Kexing heaves a sigh and rolls his eyes. "Save it, little girl. You may speak openly in front of him. This is Zhou Xu, the only man currently at Sanbai manor who has a brain in his head. The only one with a face and body to die for, as well."

Zishu averts his eyes from the sharp, salacious grin Wen Kexing gives him. Wen Kexing just laughs.

    “Save it…?” Gu Xiang ventures. “You mean you told him that…?”

    “Oh, no,” Wen Kexing sing songs. “Even better. My A-Xu figured it out all by himself. And yet look! He is still willing to lead me around on his arm as if I were any other beauty.”

    Zhou Zishu snorts. “Who’s leading who, Lao Wen?”

    Without relinquishing his firm grip on Zhou Zishu’s arm, Wen Kexing continues to lie shamelessly. “Why, of course my A-Xu is leading us right to where he decided to take us for lunch. And look! We’re here! Oh my, A-Xu. Truly you know how to treat a date.”

    Zishu is not surprised at all that he’s being dragged right into one of the most expensive establishments in town.

    “You’re a pestilence, Lao Wen.”

    This laugh, too, is genuine. Zhou Zishu can’t help but smile at the sound of it.

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Wen Kexing orders a private room for them to dine in, which Zhou Zishu actually doesn’t mind despite the increased price. A private room will allow them to speak freely, not worrying about the prying ears of other patrons.

Nor does Zhou Zishu complain about Wen Kexing and Gu Xiang ordering dish upon dish as if they’ve never been to a real restaurant before. He doesn’t complain because he’s almost certain that that is exactly the case. This is new for them, and if it’s on his dime that they get to indulge, perhaps he doesn’t mind just this once.

If Wen Kexing were to call him out on it, of course, he would feign great offense.

“So what is it, then?” Zishu asks after a few minutes of watching them both scarf food down with great relish and few manners. “Zhuren or ge?”

Gu Xiang says “zhuren” at the same time that Wen Kexing says “ge”.

Gu Xiang absolutely gapes at Wen Kexing, and Zhou Zishu gets the feeling he just unintentionally forced them to have a heartfelt conversation.

Wen Kexing glances at her face and then scoffs, sniffing. “What? If you’re not careful your face will get stuck that like that, little idiot.”

Gu Xiang snaps her jaw shut, but her eyes don’t get any less wide. “Well, I...really? I-I mean...I thought you just said to call you ‘ge’ outside the Valley because you didn’t want people to know that you’re…”

“I did.” Wen Kexing replies. When Gu Xiang’s face starts to fall, though, he tacks on, “But nobody else was given permission to call me such a thing as ‘ge’. If I didn’t mean it I wouldn’t have let you say it, stupid.”

An overjoyed smile starts to spread slowly over Gu Xiang’s face, and Wen Kexing points his fan threateningly at her when he notices. “Stop that.”

The smile continues to grow. Wen Kexing widens his eyes and tilts his head. “I said stop it!”

“Ge!” she chirps, and he deflates, rolling his eyes and shaking his head.

“Stupid girl. Excited over nothing.”

“Ge! I’m having lunch with ge.”

“Don’t make me take it back!”

“You couldn’t if you tried, ge .”

“Who raised you to be such a brat, you monster?”

This time, it is Gu Xiang and Zhou ZIshu who say in stereo, “You.”

Both ghosts blink at him in surprise, but it is Wen Kexing who looks the most taken aback.

“What?” Zishu says. “She reminded me of you before you even showed up back there. If you think it’s not obvious you’ve molded her into a miniature version of yourself, Lao Wen, I don’t know what to tell you.”

Gu Xiang starts laughing as Wen Kexing flounders in outrage, pointing her delicate finger at him. “You’re not bad, Zhou Xu! Ge, you should keep this one.”

“A-Xiang!”

“What? You’re obviously still interested in him, with the way you look at each other. You’re always telling me to be careful I can’t get married, but what about you, getting tired of boys so quickly? This is already an improvement!”

Zhou Zishu blinks rapidly, gathering himself in the face of such crude honesty. “I think you’ve misunderstood something, young lady. But it’s good to know your zhuren is so fickle.”

He cocks an eyebrow at Wen Kexing, hoping to make him squirm a little.

Gu Xiang blinks slowly, and then realization finally dawns on her face. “No way?! Ge! You haven’t had him yet?”

The venomous look Wen Kexing gives her seems to make something click for her. “Ah-! Uh, you! Zhou Xu! Don’t- don’t be discouraged by what I said! Seriously! I’ve never seen him look at someone quite like he does you, so-”

A-Xiang,” Wen Kexing hisses, and she looks at him with indignation.

“What?! I’m telling the-”

Shut up.”

Finally, Zhou Zishu can’t hold it anymore. He laughs. It’s a deep belly laugh, one that has him almost in tears, and he can’t remember the last time he experienced such genuine, all consuming mirth.

It’s so pleasant a feeling it almost scares him. He’s not used to good feelings anymore. He hasn’t been in a very, very long time.

His fit of laughter seems to save Gu Xiang from Wen Kexing’s wrath. He’s far too busy staring at Zhou Zishu with a wide eyed, dazed look to be angry. He’s lost in the sight of such a wide, bright smile on his A-Xu, the beauty of which he could never have predicted. It’s like staring into the sun.

Wen Kexing thinks he would very much like to go blind this way.

For Zhou Zishu, the unexpected ruckus and impromptu lunch have answered some questions. He had wondered if Wen Kexing had a heart left, after eight years ruling a place so brutal as the Ghost Valley, and living in it for who knows how much longer. He'd wondered if Wen Kexing was capable of love.

Now he knows. There's a human being inside the careful exterior of a ghost he puts forth after all, and for this girl he is full to bursting with love. Zhou Zishu has no doubt Wen Kexing would burn the world down to keep her safe, and he finds that he very much likes this new, more genuine side he's seeing.

Perhaps it reassures him that his human side, too, is not a farce. Just because he's done such horrible things and become so cold does not mean his heart doesn't still hold love for those he's lost.

He and Wen Kexing...they're quite alike.

"I was surprised," Zishu says once the laughter has died down simply to a smile, "that Zhao Jing tried to invite you for lunch."

Wen Kexing humphs. "It's the second time he has, actually."

Zhou Zishu raises an eyebrow. "He didn't strike me as wanting you like the other fools."

"He doesn't," Kexing says. "He thinks he can manipulate me."

Oh. Well, isn't that interesting?

"What does he want?"

Wen Kexing's lips curl into the kind of fox-like grin that tells Zishu he's other going to like or really not like what he's about to say.

"He wants to convince me of his willingness to save my poor soul and body from the life of the Ghost Valley Guzhu's bed slave."

Silence reigns as Zishu takes that in slowly, blinking a couple of times. To his own surprise, he can't help but fall into laughter for the second time since they've arrived. When was the last time he laughed so much?

"The fool! And what does he want in return?"

This time Wen Kexing manages to look satisfied about making Zishu laugh, mischief in his eyes.

"He's not said, yet," he replies. "I'm sure he's waiting until he feels I've warmed up to him, that I trust him enough to do as he bids. It will be slow going if I'm not to tip him off that I'm not the fragile beauty he believes me to be."

Zishu takes a drag of wine and replies, "Patience is a virtue, Lao Wen."

Wen Kexing's eyes shine, leaning across the table and peering at him from behind his fan. "Oh, but A-Xu. That's where you're wrong. Patience is a weapon."

 

----

 

Gu Xiang leaves the restaurant before them, and Wen Kexing watches her go with a grumbling of, "Brat."

"She is a brat," Zishu agrees. "So what does that make you, ge?"

Wen Kexing puts on a forlorn, pouting expression. "A-Xu. I really did try my best, I have no idea how she turned out this way!"

Zishu snorts, pushing himself up and out of his seat. 

"Are we leaving?" Wen Kexing asks, standing as well. 

Zhou Zishu doesn't actually expect him to stay if Zishu leaves, but he still says, "I am. Your brat woke me up, and I still have to pay for your bottomless stomachs."

As he's grown to expect, Wen Kexing trails after him like an overgrown puppy.

As soon as they reach the top landing of the stairs, Zishu suspects he’s going to have to wait to pay for their food. Their waiter, along with just about every other patron in the restaurant, is gathered around one table.

    He and Wen Kexing don’t have to speak to come to the mutual agreement to descend the stairs and approach.

    What everyone is gathered around is one young man in white - a martial artist - and a table littered with an obscene amount of dishes. Even knowing there’s nobody else sitting there, Zishu feels like he has to double check to make sure that all this food was somehow demolished by this one guy.

    “Do you take it back, A-Xu?” Wen Kexing murmurs.

    “Take what back?”

    “That A-Xiang and I have bottomless stomachs.”

    Zhou Zishu doesn’t respond, just huffs a soft sound of amusement and elbows his companion. If his days weren’t numbered, Zhou Zishu thinks with a hint of wistfulness, he would have liked to stick around with Wen Kexing. This man, this Master of the Ghost Valley...he would have liked to travel the world with him, Zishu thinks. Travel the world with a zhiji.

    “Ah,” the man in white sighs, sitting back. “That was a good meal. Who’s treating me? I’ll do whoever treats me a favor.”

    The crowd scatters like insects. Zishu doesn’t know what possesses him to spend even more money on food today, but he sighs and takes pity, stepping forward. “I don’t need a favor, but I’ll treat you.”

    “Good!” the man crows, turning to face him. “Ye Baiyi. What’s your name, kid?”

Zishu doesn’t get to answer. Almost as soon as he sets eyes on Zhou ZIshu, his face changes. It becomes contemplative, looking Zhou Zishu up and down. ZIshu feels, strangely, like this man can look straight through his skin and to the very essence of him.

    “I don’t think I can fix what’s wrong with you,” he says. Zhou Zishu’s heart lurches in shock, and he distantly hears Wen Kexing make a curious sound next to him. How did he know? This Ye Baiyi, how did he know?

    “I said I didn’t need a favor,” ZIshu finally manages to reply. “I know the nature of my illness.”

    Ye Baiyi leans forward a little, eyes uncomfortably penetrating. “You know that it’s crippling you, then? Maybe even killing you?”

    Wen Kexing sucks in a shocked breath, but Zhou Zishu does not look at him. Not yet.

    “I do. Don’t worry yourself with it, Senior Ye.”

    “...you’re here for the Conference?” Ye Baiyi asks him, seemingly a non sequitur. 

    “Yes?”

    Ye Baiyi nods, standing. “Stick around. I’ll contact some friends and see what they can do.”

    He walks out while totally ignoring Zhou Zishu’s protests, leaving nothing but confusion and a dish washer’s worst nightmare in his wake.

    “A-Xu…?” Wen Kexing’s voice next to him is uncharacteristically quiet, uncharacteristically unsure. “You’re...sick?”

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Zhou Zishu glances at Wen Kexing, and then immediately looks away. He doesn’t know what to do with those eyes, not when they’re turned towards him and full of the most genuine concern he’s ever seen on Wen Kexing’s face.

    “It’s nothing, Lao Wen.”

    “Nothing?” Wen Kexing repeats, voice full of disbelief. “Is ‘nothing’ crippling you? ‘Nothing’ has the potential to kill you?”

    “Lao Wen,” he says, voice reprimanding. “Leave it be.”

    Wen Kexing steels his jaw, throat working like he wants to protest, but eventually he just scoffs, shaking his head and looking vaguely disbelieving. “A-Xu...no one has dared scold me in a very long time.”

    “Is that why you’re such a problem? I’ll have to do it more often, then.”

    Wen Kexing smiles teasingly, though it only holds some of his usual fire. “You really shouldn’t threaten me with a good time, A-Xu.”

    Zhou Zishu snorts and walks away. Wen Kexing, as usual, follows.

 

----

 

Zhao Jing barely hears his door whisper open and then closed; he doesn’t hear footsteps at all. He only knows one person who can move so quietly.

    “What is it, Xie’er?”

    He continues to drag his brush in even strokes across the page in front of him, but there is no answer.

    “...Xie’er?”

    He looks up, and startles enough to spill ink across his half finished calligraphy. Wen Kexing stands tall and regal right next to the table he sits at, resplendent in robes of his usual sanguine red.

    Zhao Jing laughs and claps a hand to his chest to try and hide his uneasiness. He’s never been snuck up on like that before. Even Xie’er he would have noticed walking closer after entering the room. 

    “Kexing! Truly as silent as a ghost, my boy.”

    “I’m not your boy,” Wen Kexing answers shortly. The red pigment under his eyes accentuates their curve beautifully, even as he borderline scowls down at Zhao Jing. It’s adorable that he thinks he can play this game of showing disdain, when the fact that he has come here of his own volition tells Zhao Jing everything he needs to know.

    He’s nearly caught the little ghost. He’s sure of it.

    “Of course,” he concedes, gesturing towards a seat at the table. “I did not mean to be overly familiar, I apologize. Please, sit. I have wine for you this time.”

    Surprise flickers over Wen Kexing’s face, and Zhao Jing pretends to be surprised as well.

    “What?” he asks, and then blinks as if having had a slight revelation. “Kexing...you really didn’t expect me to make such a minor accommodation? If you prefer wine, it is no trouble for me to procure some wine for you. It is but a small thing.”

    Wen Kexing doesn’t respond, just flicks his robes out of the way and sits in a smooth motion, dignified and beautiful. He says nothing, just looks pointedly at the empty table in front of him and then raises an eyebrow in challenge, chin raised.

    Zhao Jing huffs a small laugh and smiles, nodding. Another test. He imagines the Master of the Ghost Valley would not take kindly to having Wen Kexing demand he serve him wine instead of the other way around. 

    Zhao Jing procures the jug and cups, and gladly pours them both a drink.

    Though he hides it well, Zhao Jing can tell that Wen Kexing is staring at the cup that’s set down in front of him like he doesn’t know what to do with it. It’s alright, Zhao Jing thinks. He is willing to keep defying Kexing’s expectations for as long as it takes to snare him.

    Zhao Jing notes with satisfaction that this time, Wen Kexing doesn’t seem to so much as consider that his drink might be tampered with, simply knocking the cup back and drinking.

    “Is it to your liking?” Zhao Jing asks.

    “It’s alright,” Wen Kexing answers with a little sneer. Zhao Jing takes it in stride, as he’s sure Wen Kexing expects him not to.

    “I’m happy you’ve stopped by, Kexing,” he says, pouring them both another cup. “Though I hope you will come to genuinely enjoy my company, I don’t think you’ve come just for a drink tonight, have you?”

    “Hmph. No.”

    Zhao Jing nods. “I thought so. Is there something you need, Kexing? Please, just say the word. I’ll do whatever I can.”

    Wen Kexing surveys him suspiciously, as if the words themselves sound absurd. They probably do, to someone who’s grown up the way Wen Kexing has. And yet, something seems to compel him to reach out. A curiosity, perhaps even a tad of hope. Just as Zhao Jing had hoped to cultivate in him.

    “You said you wanted to get me out of the Valley,” Wen Kexing says, tone flippant and haughty as if he’s not feeling Zhao Jing out for dishonesty and hidden intentions.

    “I did. I do.”

    Wen Kexing runs his fingers around the lip of his wine cup and scowls at it, clearly considering his next words. Perhaps considering whether to say them at all. “And her?”

    For a moment, Zhao Jing genuinely doesn’t understand. Then it clicks. “Ah. The girl? The one who called you ge this morning?”

    Wen Kexing doesn’t answer. Doesn’t move, just keeps staring into his cup.

    “Ah...you want to know if I would be willing to give her a place outside the Valley as well?”

    “...I do.”

    “She must matter greatly to you, then.”

    Wen Kexing sighs, a touch of openness, of vulnerability creeping into his demeanor and voice. “...I found her when she was but a baby. I’ve raised her on my back since I was but a child myself. The Valley is no place for her; she’s simply never had another choice.”

    “Neither did you, Kexing.”

    Wen Kexing finally lifts his gaze, defiance back. “So you’ve said. So surely if my supposed innocence moves you so much, hers would be no different, hm? How could a ‘good person’ like Philanthropist Zhao take me but leave her? Or is that too much? Only one charity case per hero?”

    Zhao Jing can see the nervousness, the hope behind Wen Kexing’s sneer and bravado. He doesn’t dare to hope, but can’t help himself. Expects to be shot down, but has to ask anyway. 

    Zhao Jing can already tell that if he doesn’t promise to help the girl, Kexing will not come to him either. No matter. Someone Wen Kexing genuinely cares for; to show her kindness will gain Wen Kexing’s fealty faster than extending his hand only to Kexing himself ever would. 

    “Of course, Kexing. I had no idea so many children fell into such a place so early...just a baby, you said? She was lucky it was you who found her...and a truly chivalrous act of you, Kexing, to take on such a responsibility and nurture her to this point.”

    Wen Kexing swallows, no doubt reeling from the agreement, and then scoffs weakly. “Don’t start trying to convince yourself that I’m a good person, Hero Zhao. You’ll be sorely disappointed.”

    Zhao Jing smiles indulgently. “I wouldn’t dream of it, Wen-daren. I only mean to say that someone who could not find a place back in the human world would not take on such a responsibility, especially not as a child themselves.”

    Wen Kexing scowls and averts his eyes, pouring himself a cup of wine now and knocking it back. He neglects to pour Zhao Jing one, another gesture that is no doubt intentional. 

    Zhao Jing doesn’t comment, simply pours himself some liquor without a complaint.

They sit in silence for a while, before Wen Kexing finally breaks it. 

"What do you want from me, Zhao Jing?"

Zhao Jing blinks. "What do you mean?"

"You must think I'm stupid. You really want me to believe you would aid my escape, my girl's escape from the Valley, and ask nothing in return?"

Zhao Jing sighs, setting his cup down. "Would you believe me if I told you seeing the two of you blossom out here, live the lives you deserve, is my payment?"

Wen Kexing sneers. "So what, you collect wayward children? You'd like more miscellaneous trash around to call you yifu?"

"You are not trash, Kexing. And," he says with a wryly amused smile, "considering the venom with which you say it, I think I'll pass on asking you to call me yifu."

"Oh? What, then? How do you intend to justify your relation with us, Hero Zhao? If not adopted children, what? People are likely to think you just wanted to take me for yourself."

He’s sure that Wen Kexing is trying to bait him, trying to make him angry or perhaps conflict him by claiming people may suspect he's using him as a concubine.  Zhao Jing does not take the bait.

Instead, he smiles good naturedly. “I suppose that’s up to you, Kexing. If not your godfather, perhaps I’m your uncle.”

 

----

 

Pain slices through Wen Kexing’s temples, strong enough to make him drop his wine in favor of clutching at his head. He doesn’t hear Zhao Jing’s reaction through the ringing, nor through the flashes of memory the Meng Po soup tries so hard to suppress. 

    “I’m your uncle, Yan’er. Can you take me to see your parents?”

    His parents, his Uncle Zhao, yelling at each other. Threats and pushing. His fault, all his fault, he brought him here-

    Strange figures standing around the bodies of his parents - how did they know? How did they know they were here? Uncle Zhao. Uncle Zhao must have told on them. Told people where they were.

    How could he? HOW COULD HE?

 

----

 

Wen Kexing gasps and drops his wine in favor of clutching at his head, the first thing tonight that’s genuinely surprised Zhao Jing. He stares, startled, at the way the young man scrunches his face up in pain, at the way his eyes widen and stare at nothing, see something nobody else can see.

    “Wen-daren? Wen-daren?”

    Wen Kexing sways a little, like he’s about to go down, and then promptly spits blood all over the table.

    “Wen-daren!”

Zhao Jing is shocked, reaching out in alarm to try to steady Wen Kexing through whatever is happening. Is it the Ghost Valley Guzhu? Did he find out somehow, that his favorite pet might be swaying from him? Poison, maybe?

As soon as he manages to put his hands on Wen Kexing’s shoulders, Wen Kexing is shoving him away, eyes finally back into the here and now, but wide with wild panic and confusion.

Zhao Jing can’t identify the look in them as they settle on him, wide and empty and animal. 

“Kexing! Kexing, are you-”

Wen Kexing lurches to his feet before Zhao Jing can finish, fleeing from the room on unsteady feet and making no attempt to pretend otherwise. He bounces off the door frame on the way out, careening almost out of control, but he’s swallowed by the night and out of Zhao Jing’s sight quickly enough.

Zhao Jing is left sitting, stunned, slightly blood-spattered, wondering what on Earth just happened.

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

"E-excuse me! Miss! Miss!"

Gu Xiang stops where she's walking through the market, irritated at being held up on her way to go see Luo-yi, but not able to deny that the voice getting ever closer is calling after her.

She turns with a scowl on her face to see a tall boy with eyes like saucers skid to a stop in front of her, like the weight of her gaze may as well have been a wall.

"What? What do you want?"

"Uh-" the boy stammers, and she can tell already that he wouldn't last a minute in the Valley. How do these people out here even survive, so soft and sheltered?

"Ah - um - I - my-my name is Cao Weining!" he finally manages, moments before she was about to snap at him to spit it out. He bows low as he introduces himself, and Gu Xiang wonders idly if something's wrong with him. 

"I'm from the Gentle Wind Sword Sect, h-here for the Heroes Conference. It's- it's a pleasure to meet you, Miss...miss…"

Gu Xiang sighs, wondering how much longer this is going to take.

"Gu Xiang."

Cao Weining's face lights up, and he repeats her name without seeming to have any real intention to. 

"It's very nice to meet you, Miss Gu!"

Oh, for fuck's sake. She can't take this anymore.

"What?! What do you want, Cao what's-your-name? Spit it out, I don't have all day!"

Cao Weining balks. "Uh-! Yes! So sorry! I just- I saw you at Sanbai Manor and-"

"So what? You want to fight too?"

"N-no!" Cao Weining exclaims, waving his hands in front of him. "No, not at all! I- I wanted to compliment you, was all! Your martial arts are very good, Miss Gu. Truly impressive! Y-you left before I could approach."

He wanted...to compliment her? ...huh. If he wasn't obviously as dumb as a bunny, she'd think he was playing some kind of game.

Gu Xiang scoffs. "They were just servants. I barely had to lift a finger, that wasn't a real fight. Is that all? Can I go now?"

She turns to leave, and he bounds after her in a near panic.

"W-wait!"

Heaving a sigh and rolling her eyes, Gu Xiang asks, "What is it now? "

"I, uh...I wanted to know if maybe you- you'd let me show you around? You...you're Wen-daren's sister, right? From...from the Ghost Valley?"

"So?"

"S-so! So you've probably never been around a real market before and I...I can show you around! I know all the best places to eat and everything!"

Hmm...well...if this dumb bunny is treating, then…

"Fine. Let's go, Cao whatever."

"Really? I mean- of course! Great! Y-you won't regret it, I promise!"

 

----

 

Zhou Zishu has only just settled down after excising his nails this night when he gets an unexpected visitor.

Because each nail was put in three months apart, he's had to make sure they stay at the surface throughout. He's not sure what would happen if he let them burrow deeper unevenly, all at different stages, and so he is forced to conduct the painful task of digging them back up every week or so.

He had thought he would be done with it by now, done with slicing his skin and prying at the heads of the nails, creating fresh wounds. He'd thought he'd have his seventh by now, and that he could allow them all to burrow in and quicken his death as one.

Things did not go as planned.

It's an exceptionally painful task, one very few could stand to inflict on themselves. There are very few who would could stand to give themselves the nails in the first place, of course.

Regardless, it always leaves him soaked in sweat and exhausted, fresh pain pulsing from the sites of his wounds.

Each time he does this, he cleans himself up with a rag,water, and shaking hands, then dresses in a single inner robe for sleep. As much as he can get, that is.

Apparently, this time that means none at all.

Something heavy slams into the doors to his rooms, and he's on his feet with the knife he used on himself so recently in hand faster than most eyes could see.

After the door is collided with the first time, there comes the rapid smacking sound of a hand against the frame, the staccato sound erratic and screaming of distress.

Zishu yanks the door open, and then drops his knife as the tall figure of Wen Kexing lurches into him.

"Lao Wen?!"

“It’s him ,” Wen Kexing wheezes, gripping Zishu’s upper arms tight enough to bruise. Zishu’s hands are supporting Kexing’s elbows in turn, both of them working to keep Lao Wen somewhat upright as Zishu tries to tow him further into the room.

“A-Xu! A-Xu, it’s him ,” Wen Kexing repeats, looking up at him with feral eyes. The look of him is startling. There’s blood on his lips and chin, his eyes wide and black. Zishu feels on an instinctual level that what’s staring up at him right now is more animal than man, running on primal instinct and panic.

Zhou Zishu feels real fear for the first time in a long time, and it is all for Lao Wen. “Who’s him? Lao Wen? Lao Wen, calm down! Sit. Sit down, let me close the door for God’s sake.”

They can’t let anyone see Wen Kexing like this, he feels that in his bones. He barely manages to pry Wen Kexing’s hands off of his own arms after he settles him down on the floor, Lao Wen’s knuckles white with how hard he was holding on.

As soon as Zhou Zishu has closed the door - peering outside first to ensure there are no onlookers - he’s rushing back to Wen Kexing’s side and falling to his knees next to him.

Wen Kexing crawls closer to him immediately, grabbing at him with desperate hands. He’s not himself, not even close. He’s confused and alarmed and shaken, and Zhou Zishu finds he absolutely hates the sight of it.

“He did it, A-Xu, he did it, it was him-” Wen Kexing is saying, nearly climbing into Zhou Zishu’s lap and staring at him like nothing has ever been as important as telling Zhou Zishu this is.

“I don’t understand, Lao Wen. What-”

“Him! It was him! I’ll kill him, A-Xu! I’ll kill him, I’ll-”

“Lao Wen! Stop!”

Unexpectedly, that actually works, at least a little. Wen Kexing falters, blinking at him and reeling for long enough for Zhou Zishu to keep talking, to try to bring the situation back under control.

“Breathe, Lao Wen. I need you to breathe. You can tell me what happened, I promise, but you have to breathe first. In and out, slowly. Do it with me, Lao Wen.”

Wen Kexing is trembling in his hands, wide eyes starting to look less animal and more like those of a lost, frightened child. When Zhou Zishu starts an even, slow pattern of breathing, he follows. It’s rough going at first, but as they go he starts getting the hang of it. His breaths start to even out and calm, and his awareness starts to return in a slow trickle.

“A-Xu…”

“Shhh...just breathe, Lao Wen. I’ve got you. You can tell me, let’s just make sure we have our heads on straight first.”

The bowl of water and rag he used not long ago are still out on the table, and Zhou Zishu moves to get them. Wen Kexing twitches with nervousness at first, before he realizes that Zishu isn’t leaving. Ideally Zishu would get a clean cloth, but in the circumstances he doesn’t think Lao Wen will mind too much about this one being slightly used.

Zhou Zishu cleans the blood from Wen Kexing’s chin and mouth gently, Lao Wen staring at him with open, vulnerable eyes. He seems distantly surprised when the cloth comes away red, as if he’d already forgotten that whatever happened had him spitting blood.

Somehow, the sight of his own blood staining the washcloth seems to help Wen Kexing ground himself. Zhou Zishu keeps dabbing at his face even after the blood is gone just to give him a repetitive, physical sensation to hold onto while he gathers his mind again.

Finally, Wen Kexing exhales a shaky sigh and closes his eyes, hand coming up to wrap gently around Zishu’s wrist and stop his wiping. Zhou Zishu lets him push his hand down slowly, watching Kexing’s face keenly.

When those large, expressive eyes open again, Zishu quite literally sighs his relief. 

“There you are,” he murmurs. “Welcome back, Lao Wen. Are you alright?”

    Wen Kexing swallows and takes another slow, deep breath before he nods just slightly. His hands shift, relinquishing Zishu’s wrist in favor of taking his hands in his own. Zhou Zishu lets him hold them, even turns his hands to hold Wen Kexing’s in return. He tries to give them a reassuring squeeze.

    “I’m okay,” Wen Kexing murmurs, whisper quiet. “...I’m okay.”

    Shifting to run his thumbs in slow circles on the backs of Wen Kexing’s hands, Zhou Zishu nods his slow assent. “...what happened, Lao Wen?”

    A weak, reedy laugh drifts from Wen Kexing’s throat. “I...I didn’t come to solidify peace,” he says.

    Zishu raises his brow and nods. “I know. We’re both here for more than what it appears, we’ve already told each other as much.”

    Wen Kexing looks down at their joined hands, exhaustion now drawing across his features. “When I was young, A-Xu...I ended up in the Ghost Valley.”

    Zhou ZIshu knows this, too. He heard him say as much, and he’s long since caught on to the game Wen Kexing plays, never answering the questions he’s asked with lies and laughing as the fools of the jianghu fall for a farce of their own making.

    “The Valley, the last Valley Master...they killed my parents. They took me. But they could only do it because someone spread word of where we were. We...we had something people wanted, A-Xu. So we had to hide. And someone spread the word, knowing what would happen.”

    Zhou Zishu absorbs every new piece of information he learns about Lao Wen like a sponge, finding himself consumed with a desire to know him. How wonderful it would be, his soul cries, to know every detail of Wen Kexing, both the fantastic and the mundane.

    “And you came here...to find them?”

    Wen Kexing shakes his head, furrowing his brow and looking a little dazed. “No. Yes. I...the Five Lakes Alliance, I knew they turned their backs on us when it counted. I knew I could drag something from them, but…”

    “You found out who it was. Didn’t you, Lao Wen?”

    Wen Kexing laughs, eyes a little wild when he looks up to meet Zhou Zishu’s gaze, but still present. They are the eyes of a lunatic, but not a lunatic out of control. “It’s Zhao Jing. I remember now, A-Xu. My parents blood is on his hands, and he has the audacity to think he can manipulate me.”

    The laughter gets louder, a little more crazed, but Zhou Zishu can’t find it in himself to try to put a stop to it. Lao Wen is still in control of himself, and the storm inside of him needs to be expressed somehow. 

    “Oh, A-Xu. I’m going to destroy him. He has no idea the hell he’s brought down on his head. To think, A-Xu. Fate brought me here for more than just your legendary beauty.”

    The peals of unhinged laughter continue, and Zhou Zishu holds his hands the entire time. After all he’s seen and done, something like the cracks of insanity showing through Lao Wen’s facade is nowhere near enough to scare him away.

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

Wen Kexing wakes in a bed he immediately recognizes as unfamiliar, but something about the smell of it keeps him from jerking awake and panicking. Instead, he floats gradually into awareness, feeling at a core level something he has rarely ever felt.

Safe.

He hears the door to the room slide open, quiet footsteps and the clink of a tray being set on a table. 

With a groan, he rolls over and cracks his eyes open. In the sleepy vulnerability of the moment, he allows himself to be absolutely taken by A-Xu's beauty. A-Xu, who is glancing at him after hearing him groan and making a little 'hmph' sound that makes Wen Kexing's lips curl into a smile.

"Good. You're awake. I brought food."

For the first time since Wen Kexing met him, he gets the absolute honor of seeing his A-Xu with his hair down, the sides pulled back into a little bun and the majority falling down his back. It makes him look softer. Sweeter. Wen Kexing loves it.

Then, as A-Xu looks back down at the tray to start setting bowls out, he also gets the honor of looking at that divine profile. How stunning it is, he thinks, now that he has time to let his eyes wander. The slope of his A-Xu's nose is straight and regal, his brow defined and his lashes long. Looking at him now, one would think those lips were always in a slight frown, but Wen Kexing knows better. He's seen them curl gently, seen them smirk, and he's seen them stretch around a laughing grin that could bring the strongest of men to their knees.

Had they not been sitting at lunch that day, it would have brought Kexing to his knees, he just knows it.

"You going to stare all day, or are you going to come get breakfast?"

That acerbic tongue really only makes his A-Xu all the more attractive, doesn't it?

"If I don't get up," Kexing murmurs, "Will you come join me here?"

A-Xu saddles him with a look , cocking his head and quirking an eyebrow. "If you don't get up, I'll eat your food."

The smile comes slowly, grows, until Wen Kexing is shaking with silent laughter under the covers. He forces himself to sit up, even through the stab of pain it causes his head.

Fighting the Meng Po soup always leaves him with a headache the day or so afterwards, drained and hurting. He's long since learned how to push through pain and discomfort, though. If he hadn't, he wouldn't have lived past so much as childhood.

A-Xu catches his wince anyway, looking at him with furrowed brow. "Are you okay? Whatever happened last night...it was a doozy. You came to my door looking like an animal, blood all down your chin."

Dragging his legs over the edge of the bed and taking stock of himself, Wen Kexing makes a mild attempt at skirting around that. He hates showing weakness, although he will admit that it doesn't feel nearly as bad as usual to know it was A-Xu who saw him that way.

"Well, if we're talking of animals it seems you are most certainly not one. A-Xu, I'm in all my layers! You didn't even take my outer robes off?"

A-Xu shrugs. "I took your shoes off. Figured it wouldn't kill you to sleep dressed, though."

"Really?" Kexing asks, leaning forward just a little where he sits. "Tell me the truth, A-Xu," he purrs. "You had me defenseless, you didn't so much as take a peek?"

Zhou Xu looks at him and says, with the utmost conviction, "I respect you too much for that, Lao Wen."

It hits Wen Kexing like a blow. He's left sitting in stunned silence for a solid few seconds, just blinking across the room at the beautiful man he's found himself so fixated by.

"You...respect me?" He asks, voice quiet.

"I do. Very much so."

Wen Kexing laughs weakly, unsure of what to do with himself. Ghosts show him 'respect' because they fear him, not because they actually respect him. 

"You respect me? Guzhu of the Ghost Valley? Is a man like me worth your respect, A-Xu?"

Zhou Xu sighs and turns to face him. "If you were under the impression I was a good person, Lao Wen, let's put that to rest right now. I have done unspeakable things. I am certain that you have done unspeakable things. I do not fear you, I do not hate you, and I would be a hypocrite to judge you. So yes, from one killer to another, I respect you."

Well...Wen Kexing is not used to his deflections not working, and A-Xu plows right through that one to force him to listen. Force him to know that here, with this man, he is respected. Truly respected.

In the safety of his own mind, Wen Kexing allows himself to admit that Zhou Xu scares him. Not because he perceives him as a threat, or because the man is crazy enough not to fear Wen Kexing, but because of this. Because he respects him. More than anything, because he sees him. Zhou Xu sees Wen Kexing for the bloodthirsty creature he is, and he does not flinch.

Wen Kexing doesn’t know what to do with a person like that, but avoiding him is clearly not an option. Kexing is too drawn, too captivated, too enchanted by A-Xu to so much as entertain the thought.

It was to A-Xu he came last night, half out of his mind and not thinking straight, no real destination in mind. It had been something instinctual that had guided his feet to where his soul told him he was safest.

And now that he’s in his right mind? He still feels safe here. Safer than he ever has, here with a man he cannot deny was meant for him. Their fates were woven together from the start, he can feel it. He never thought he’d be so lucky, but Wen Kexing knows without a shadow of a doubt that here, now, he’s found his zhiji.

He gets up and crosses the room to join his zhiji for breakfast.

They eat in silence for a few minutes, before Wen Kexing can not keep his thoughts to himself any longer. How could he, looking at such a stunning creature as he is?

“You look lovely with your hair down, A-Xu.”

Zhou Xu cocks an eyebrow at him and looks altogether skeptical, not bothering to stop eating long enough to reply. 

“Truly! I mean it. You’re striking with it all pulled up in a topknot, of course, with that gorgeous jaw accentuated and all your strong angles on display. I fell for that face in but a moment. But to see it down is refreshing. It makes you look just a tad softer, more delicate. I’d like to know what it looks like totally unbound...I wonder, A-Xu. Would you like it if I were to wind my hand into it? Use it to pull you back on my-”

“Wen Kexing!” Zhou Xu scolds, loud and sounding almost desperate to stop him before he can finish that sentence. Wen Kexing notices with delight that his cheeks are pink .

“A-Xu! Oh my, are you blushing? You didn’t strike me as a prude, you know?”

“I’m not,” Zishu grouses, scowling and doing a horrible job at pretending he’s not embarrassed.

“No? Then why so shy, my A-Xu? Ah,” he perks a little, wagging a finger like he’s just had a thought. “Could it be, A-Xu, that you’re more used to giving than taking? That’s alright. I would find it no chore to let you-”

Zhou Xu throws a wonton across the table at him, and he breaks into laughter at the same time that he recoils with genuine surprise and halfway genuine offense. “A-Xu! These robes are very high quality! You can’t just throw food on them!”

“Watch me,” his A-Xu replies, and lobs yet another wonton his way.

“A-Xu!”

Wen Kexing throws one of the wontons back at him; the other he plucks out of his own lap and eats, and that defuses Zhou Xu wonderfully. He gets to see the most lovely man he’s ever met snort and choke on his own laughter, and from there the short lived food war stops.

They eat for a few minutes more, mirth still lightening both of their hearts, before A-Xu tries again to bring up the events of the prior night.

“So,” he says, eyes careful but not pitying as they look at Wen Kexing. “You ready to tell me about what happened now?”

Wen Kexing pouts a little, pushing his food around with his chopsticks like a petulant child. “Didn’t I say enough last night?”

Zhou Xu snorts. “Hardly. You slammed into my door crazed and bloody, Lao Wen. I got a vague, disjointed explanation that Zhao Jing had something to do with the death of your parents and that you only just realized it last night. I’m afraid I’m the kind of man who likes to know the details of what I’m dealing with, Lao Wen. What happened?”

Wen Kexing sighs, puts down his chopsticks. Then, he huffs a laugh of slight disbelief and shakes his head at the realization that he has every intention of telling Zhou Xu what he wants to know, and telling the truth while he’s at it.

For the longest time he’s thought trust was something that he was no longer capable of. And yet it’s so instinctually, terrifying easy to trust this man. He’s never experienced anything like it.

“Why is it, A-Xu, that you make me feel safe spilling all my secrets?”

Zhou Xu shrugs. “Must be because you’re crazy. I don’t have a history of being trustworthy.”

Wen Kexing smiles, and feels no less trusting.

“How much do you know of the Glazed Armor, A-Xu?”

Zhou Xu shrugs. “Not much. The key to the World’s Armory, supposedly full of secret techniques and books that could make a man invincible. Load of shit if you ask me.”

Wen Kexing laughs. “How nice to know that our thoughts are in line on this. Truly, we are meant to be.”

“The Glazed Armor is split among the Five Lakes Alliance. One piece per brother. Most of these fools in the jianghu would slaughter each other for it in a heartbeat, never knowing that even if they had the whole Armor, it would do them no good.”

In that moment, Wen Kexing discovers something just from the glint that enters his A-Xu’s eyes. His A-Xu is a curious creature. He wants to know what Wen Kexing means, and badly, but he won’t push for it. He just sits and waits.

“You don’t just need the Armor to open the Armory,” Wen Kexing tells him, enjoying the way he’s clearly hanging on the words. It’s endearing, this little revelation about his A-Xu. “You need the key.”

“I’ve never heard of a key.”

“No. Most haven’t. That is, of course, by design.”

His A-Xu is so quick, so smart, it of course takes him but a moment before a piece is clicking into place behind his eyes and he’s saying, “That’s what your parents had, isn’t it? What they were hiding.”

Wen Kexing nods. “I was...very small. He told me he was my uncle. He was, I suppose. But it convinced me to bring him to my parents, and...and I led the fox right into our peaceful little chicken coop.”

“It wasn’t your fault, Lao Wen. You were a child.”

“Yes...I was. Not for long, after that. Childhood is not an option, in the Ghost Valley.”

Zhou Xu nods, not prying for any more details. He just takes what Wen Kexing has said, files it away, and drinks his breakfast tea. “...so what will you do, Lao Wen? Now that you realize who he is.”

Wen Kexing mulls that over for a while. He knows his A-Xu will leave him the silence, give him as much time as he needs to think through his answer. “...I will do exactly as I have been,” he finally decides. “I will let him think he’s snared me, and all the while I will prey on him. I will earn his trust by pretending to give him mine.”

“And what will you do with it?” A-Xu asks. Wen Kexing can see the gears turning behind his eyes, and gets great pleasure out of realizing that Zhou Xu, too, is thinking of ways to tear Zhao Jing off of his pedestal. How flattering, that he would consider such things just for Wen Kexing.

He doesn’t need to. Wen Kexing finds he knows exactly what he wants to do. It’s not that far off from his original plan; it’s just that now, he knows what he’s looking for. He knows who he’s going to destroy. 

“I’m going to pull the rug from under his feet, A-Xu. And I am going to delight in the horror that dawns on his face, when he realizes he ceased being the yellow sparrow the day he met me.”

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

Wen Kexing talks openly with him after that, like showing weakness and exposing some of the scars of his past and having Zhou Zishu listen without flinching or trying to extort him has reassured him somehow.

It's clearly only made him more clingy towards Zishu, and in a more genuine way than one fueled only by desire.

Not that Wen Kexing has stopped making it clear he desires him.

The night after Kexing comes to him in his panic, they attend the evening's banquet. Wen Kexing says he has to, to feel out his own reaction upon seeing Zhao Jing again. He tells Zhou Zishu that were he to go see him in private again immediately, he's not sure he'd be able to keep from killing the man there and then. It's safer to test himself this way.

Zhou Zishu wouldn't blame him for killing Zhao Jing, would help him dispose of the corpse without a second thought, but it's clear that Lao Wen has a plan. It's Lao Wen's pain, Lao Wen's enemy, and so it will be Lao Wen's revenge. Zishu will not take that from him.

He goes to the banquet because Wen Kexing asks him to, telling him teasingly that being able to look upon his lovely face will help settle his temper. Zhou Zishu can tell that it's not entirely a joke.

It is clear that Wen Kexing's presence was missed; all those hungry eyes are on him the moment he enters the hall, lighting up and followed quickly by calls for him to come, sit, drink, eat.

Wen Kexing swans into the attentive crowd naturally, and Zishu pretends to be mostly unaffiliated while simultaneously staying close enough to be there if Lao Wen needs him. Close enough to hear what's said and be seen whenever Lao Wen may need to see him.

Zishu wonders what kind of spell Wen Kexing put on him, to be so willingly at his beck and call like this. It's instinctual, this feeling. This desire to aid and protect the other.

As if the Guzhu of Ghost Valley needs protecting. 

"Kexing, my boy!" Wu-daren is crying, beckoning Wen Kexing into the seat next to him. "You left us all alone last night! The hall was dull without your elegance here to adorn it!"

Wen Kexing laughs, and Zishu is reassured to see him settling back into his act naturally.

"I do apologize," Lao Wen replies, laughter in his voice fake. "I did not mean to deprive you; I simply wasn't feeling well, was all. Perhaps I've been sampling too many exotic foods I've never tried before."

The crowd murmurs their sympathies. 

"Does that mean," Wu-daren asks, "That you are not willing to sample these quail eggs with me?"

He gestures at the dishes on the table, and Wen Kexing 'hmph's a laugh and leans in, face half hidden by his fan.

"Hardly," he says, and snags a pair of chopsticks to the raucous amusement of his audience.

Zhou Zishu turns his eyes to the head of the hall, and finds, much like he expected, that Zhao Jing is watching Wen Kexing as well. He looks assessing, like he’s trying to judge the state of Wen Kexing’s health and mood. It’s no wonder, considering Lao Wen had told him he’d spit blood all over the man after he’d unintentionally triggered suppressed memories.

Zhao Jing must be surprised and relieved to see him here acting as normal. Lao Wen seems certain that he wants something from him, and Zishu believes him. Even if being the Guzhu of Ghost Valley wouldn’t require someone have a sixth sense for the thoughts and intentions of others, what Lao Wen has told him of his actions is plenty suspicious.

“You always wear red,” someone says, drawing Zishu’s attention back to where men flock around Wen Kexing like moths to a flame. “Don’t you like to wear any other colors? I think you would look lovely in green.”

Zishu snorts. The young man who said it is dressed in the robes and colors of his sect, and unsurprisingly, they’re green. How pathetically transparent a ‘hint’.

“Hmm,” Lao Wen hums, indeed more than just sampling those quail eggs. “I have many robes of many colors, all of them beautiful. Guzhu thinks I look most impressive in red, however. It is only natural that I would wear it when attending a Conference like this one.”

What a long winded way of saying ‘I feel powerful in red’, Zishu muses. He’s right, though. He does look very impressive, very regal in red. Zishu imagines that as the Guzhu of Ghost Valley it’s also the best thing to wear when one needs to kill someone messily and doesn’t want it to mar their elegance too much in front of a crowd. 

Zishu does not like blood. Somehow, he still finds himself thinking that Wen Kexing would be absolutely delectable with someone else’s splattered across his high cheekbones.

He doesn’t like blood...and yet he hadn’t hesitated to clean it from Lao Wen’s face when he showed up at his door, did he? He hadn’t felt so much as an inkling of disgust, not in the face of that bone deep drive to care for the ghost that had come knocking at his door.

“Well,” the young man in green says, “I can’t say I disagree with him on that. You’re truly sultry in red. It’s no wonder he’s so captivated by you.”

Zishu might roll his eyes, if he weren’t also captivated by Lao Wen. He has no idea how it happened, when it became such a deep enchantment, but he knows despite himself that he’s been snared by Wen Kexing like a rabbit in a trap. He wants Lao Wen, although being brand new to such desires for another man does daunt him a little.

How laughable, he thinks. Zhou Zishu, leader of Tian Chuang, torturer, murderer, is daunted by the idea of surrendering his body to a man in a manner that would bring enjoyment rather than suffering.

He struggles not to think of what Lao Wen had said about his hair, and the gut deep reaction it got out of his body.

“Do you dance, Kexing?” yet another man who has finally gathered his bravery enough to speak to the ghostly beauty in their midst says, gesturing to the female dancers in the hall. They’re meant to be here for entertainment; how unfortunate that they’ve been overshadowed since the moment Wen Kexing walked in. 

Wen Kexing laughs, his denial half way genuine this time. “Oh, no. I’m afraid I have no talent for dancing.”

“Really?” the man asks, sounding genuinely surprised. “But it’s such a commonly taught and desired skill in a concubine!”

Zhou Zishu’s eyebrows rise. This is the first time anyone has outright addressed Wen Kexing as such, as much as they’ve talked around it without using the word itself. 

“I think you’re just too humble, Wen-daren!” an intoxicated, middle aged gentleman crows. “I imagine you’re well suited to the ballet! You should certainly be flexible en-”

“Gentlemen!”

Zishu sees Wen Kexing’s knuckles go white with his grip on his fan for just a moment. It’s no wonder. That voice was Zhao Jing’s, who has managed to descend from the head table and approach without Zhou Zishu or Wen Kexing noticing. Evidently nobody else had either.

With a disapproving, disappointed look on his face, Zhao Jing says, “Are you chevaliers or barbarians? Come now...Wen-daren is an esteemed guest as any one of you is, and an envoy of the Ghost Valley. Give him the respect befitting of an attendee of our Conference.”

It seems to jar the guests out of their headspace, remind them that they’re supposed to be the cream of the crop, not behaving like they’re at a brothel. Among the sheepish, murmured apologizes, Zishu watches Kexing.

Lao Wen looks up at him, meets his gaze...and rolls his eyes. That’s how Zishu knows he’s just fine.

 

----

 

It is not much longer after that, after reprimanding the covetous hounds that surround Kexing, that the act pays off for Zhao Jing. Perhaps Kexing would have approached him tonight nonetheless, but he’s certainly solidified himself as someone kind, someone Kexing can venture to trust.

That hauntingly beautiful figure in red stands and traverses the hall without haste, unconcerned by the fact that every eye in the hall follows him. He approaches the head table, climbs the few shallow stairs, and bows respectfully.

Zhao Jing can tell that his brothers don’t know what to do with themselves. Unlike him, they have not had close contact with Wen Kexing yet. They have not seen past the exterior of a ghost and to the cicada inside.

“Hero Gao, Hero Shen,” Wen Kexing salutes them in turn, chin up and demeanor haughty, gaze cool. “Would you allow me to borrow Hero Zhao for some time? I’d like to speak with him.”

Gao Chong and Shen Shen seems alarmed and unsure, and Zhao Jing chuckles as Gao Chong’s eyes turn to him with a severe set to his brow.

“Da-ge,” he says, smiling and warm-eyed. “There’s no need for alarm. I dare say Wen-daren and I have become something like friends over the past few days.”

To Wen Kexing he says, “If you wish to speak, Kexing, of course I am happy to oblige. Come, let’s have some tea in my chambers? Ah, or wine, as you prefer.”

“How kind of you to remember, Hero Zhao.”

 

----

 

Zhao Jing knows that approaching him during the banquet like that was but another test on Wen Kexing’s part. He’s testing to see if Zhao Jing would rebuke him, refute an association with him when the eyes of the public are looking upon him. The only way to pass such a test was obliging right there and then, and Zhao Jing is certain that he’s taken the little ghost by surprise by doing so.

It has surprised Wen Kexing every time Zhao Jing has passed on of his tests; he’s not nearly so good at acting as he thinks he is.

He can see the shift in Wen Kexing as soon as they are alone, as soon as the doors to Zhao Jing’s chambers are closed and they can be assured of their privacy. He is softer. His edges are not as intentionally jagged, like a porcupine trying to ward away the world around him.

He has stopped perceiving Zhao Jing as a threat. Dare Zhao Jing say it, he thinks he’s starting to perceive him as an ally.

“I was glad to see you arrive tonight, Kexing,” he starts, pouring them both some wine without being asked. “I was worried about you. You left the other night before I could ascertain your well being, and Xie’er told me that you were not in your usual room when I asked him to check on you.”

Wen Kexing blinks in surprise at the admission that Zhao Jing had even sent someone to check on him, but he says nothing, still trying to keep that aloof facade of his.

Zhao Jing sees the cracks in it. A stiff wind could blow it away now.

"I'm fine, now," Kexing says, drinking his wine without the usual flair. He's not putting on his act, not aggressively knocking his liquor back and waiting imperiously to be poured more. Does he even realize the way he's showing his hand? The poor thing hasn't a clue how outmatched he is.

"I can see that," Zhao Jing agrees. "At least physically. Though I worry about whatever happened, and how it might have affected you mentally."

Sighing, he sets his cup down and aims his most genuine look of concern at Wen Kexing. "...what did happen, Kexing?"

“Nothing. I’m fine.”

“Kexing-”

The facade breaks, cracks and blows away with the wind. Behind it is a tired little boy, one who had to grow up too fast and thus, in a way, never really grew up at all. “I don’t want to talk about it. Please...Uncle Zhao. I really don’t want to talk about it.”

He’s won. Inside, he feels vicious triumph at having snared this ghost, but on the outside he shows warm, delighted surprise at being called uncle.

“Kexing...alright. I won’t push. I’m glad you’re okay.”

He reaches out and puts a hand on one of Kexing’s, and Wen Kexing flinches away in a knee jerk reaction that leaves both of the blinking. Zhao Jing recovers quickly; such a reaction makes sense.

“Ah. I apologize. Touch must be something you are used to preceding...unpleasantness. I didn’t mean to startle you, only to offer comfort.”

Wen Kexing looks at him with a face that screams of hesitance, fear that if he puts his trust in someone it will be shattered.

“You would truly shelter me, Zhao Jing? Let me call you ‘Uncle’? Despite who I am? Where I’m from?”

“I’m a man of my word, Kexing. I will help you if you ask it. You and your sister.”

Wen Kexing’s throat bobs with a swallow, and he puts a thin veneer of defiance back on in what seems to be one last attempt to find a chink in Zhao Jing’s armor of sincerity. 

“There will be rumors. People will accuse you of taking me for a whore, question your morality.”

Zhao Jing huffs an indulgent laugh and smiles, nodding. “I’m sure they will. I am far more concerned, Kexing, with the immorality of leaving you to your situation when I could have helped than I am with the questioning of gossip-mongers.”

Wen Kexing’s jaw works, brow furrowed, obviously perturbed by his failure to poke a hole in Zhao Jing’s kindness. He tries again.

Leaning forward across the table, he widens his eyes and says, “I’m a killer, Uncle Zhao. A practiced one.”

“I cannot imagine anyone would survive growing up in Ghost Valley without becoming such, Kexing. It’s al-”

“I enjoy it.”

This time, the little ghost really does take him by surprise. He blinks in the face of those three words, and Wen Kexing grins like a feral animal, seizing upon the perceived weakness.

“I started killing because I had to, but now I enjoy it. I dare say, Uncle Zhao, that in the moment of the act, I love it. I’ve killed for offenses much unworthy of death in the eyes of the righteous jianghu, and it is never painless. I like the blood. I like the screams.”

Wen Kexing sits back, chin raised and lips curled in a crooked, cruel smirk. “Would you expect me to stop, if you took me in? I’m not sure I could. Too long without and my fingers might start to...itch.”

Zhao Jing is suitably stunned, but not for long. He can’t help but start laughing, a quiet rumble that grows. “Why, Kexing! And to think I was going to shelter you.”

Intrigue lights up in Wen Kexing’s eyes, caught off guard but for once looking almost like he thinks this surprise might be a good one.

“Oh, my boy,” Zhao Jing chuckles. “No wonder you and Xie’er get along so famously.”

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

Zhou Zishu stays later than he intended to at the banquet. This is not so much of his own free will, but because once he had decided he had his fill of the good food and drink, his godawful luck fucked him a good one.

    One guy. One guy recognized him as the man Wen Kexing had dragged out to lunch the day of the fiasco with the koi pond, and all of a sudden he’s the new center of attention. Since Wen Kexing left with Zhao Jing - much to everybody’s curiosity - the guy who got to take him to a private lunch is the next best thing.

    It’s absolutely fucking ridiculous. He doesn’t even want to go into some of the absurd questions he was asked. 

    Anyway, it took a while to get away. By the time he makes his way out of the hall and through the darkened grounds, he suspects Wen Kexing might already be waiting for him in his room. They didn’t talk about it, didn’t agree on it, but Zishu is almost certain that Wen Kexing will show up there tonight to tell him what happened with Zhao Jing.

    As he approaches the door to his rooms, he hears a loud series of  thuds that are most certainly out of place, and he breaks into a run. 

    Yanking the doors open, he’s already murmuring a halfway frantic, “Lao Wen?” 

    If Lao Wen is here and there’s been such noise, something is wrong. It’s dark inside, and he lights a brazier quickly. What he finds is not one, but two people inside, and they are both on his floor.

    “A-Xu!” Wen Kexing grins up at him from where he pins another figure to the ground. His bright grin is in contrast to the brutal knee between the other man’s shoulderblades and the strong hand that holds his head pinned roughly to the ground.

    “I came to visit you, and would you believe it? I found a rat!”

    “Zhou shou!” Lao Wen’s captive cries, slightly slurred from the way his face is smushed into the floor.

    Zhou Zishu sighs, crossing his arms and wondering how his life came to this. “Han Ying. If he weren’t who he is, I’d be ashamed to say I trained you.”

    Han Ying turns pink with embarrassment, as reticent to disappoint Zishu as ever.

    “Lao Wen,” Zishu says, nodding at his zhiji. “Let him up. He’s a friend.”

    Wen Kexing tsks, but does as he’s told. While Han Ying scrambles out from under him as soon as the hold on him is relinquished, Lao Wen rises with all the unhurried grace and elegance Zishu has come to expect of him. Especially when he’s putting on a show to make it clear to someone just how superior he is. Like now.

    Prick , Zishu thinks fondly.

    Han Ying bows to him almost frantically, ears still flushed pink. “Zhou shou! I apologize, I’ve let you down as a subordinate.”

    Zishu sighs. “Stop that. If it were anyone else I’d be upset; I suspect Lao Wen could be a match even for me. There’s no shame in being overpowered by him.”

    Han Ying looks surprised, glancing towards the person he’s only really getting a look at now, the man who pinned him so quickly and easily. He’s not expecting such an elegant, beautiful figure, but the shark-like smile that ‘Lao Wen’ aims at him and the complete lack of warmth in his eyes tells him immediately that this man is much more dangerous than he may look at first glance.

    Han Ying would ask who he is, but Wen Kexing beats him to addressing Zhou Zishu with a delighted grin and a sparkle in his eye.

    “A-Xu,” he croons. “You think we’d be well matched in a fight? Would you like to try it, have a spar? Test our skills against each other?”

    “I would love to,” Zhou Zishu responds honestly, “But not now, and preferably somewhere without loads of breakable furniture.”

    “I’ll hold you to it,” Wen Kexing tells him, pointing his fan in his direction and giving him that wide eyed look that Zishu imagines has meant death for many a ghost. Zhou Zishu just lets himself smile a tiny smile.

    “Why are you here, Han Ying?”

    “I-” Han Ying starts, and then glances at Wen Kexing with hesitance.

    Zishu sighs. “It’s fine. You can speak freely in front of him.”

    That seems to surprise Han Ying even more than hearing that Zhou Zishu thought this man would be a match for him in martial arts.

    “I...yes. Of course, Zhou shou.”

    Zishu walks further into the room, sitting down with little care for grace or appearance at the table he’d had breakfast with Lao Wen over so recently. 

    “Come on,” he says. “Sit, both of you. I’m too tired to stand around for this.”

    They sit as bid, Han Ying taking a respectful place across the table from him and Lao Wen making a point to settle right next to Zishu, unconscionably close. Zishu rolls his eyes but allows it, and Han Ying stares at them with wide eyes. He’s never seen Zhou Zishu allow someone so close, and especially not be so at ease with the proximity. 

    “Well?” Zishu prompts him.

    “Ah. You haven’t sent any word, Zhou shou, so…” he looks again at Wen Kexing, but was told to speak freely, so he does. Even if it’s uncomfortable. “Prince Jin sent me to see what was going on, and if you were alright.”

    Zishu pretends not to notice Wen Kexing’s eyebrows skyrocketing into his hairline at the clear implication that he’s involved with Helian Yi. He’ll ignore Lao Wen’s reactions until they have the space to talk by themselves. He sees no use in neglecting to tell Lao Wen the truth any further, especially not now that he’s encountered Han Ying.

    Zhou Zishu sighs, rubbing his temples. “Ying’er...you should know now, so that you are not surprised later. I have no interest in gathering and reporting information here. If I come back to Prince Jin, it will only be to hand in my resignation.”

    Han Ying is visibly blindsided, eyes going wide and color draining from his face. “Wh...what? Zhou shou...there is no resigning from Tian Chuang.”

    Zishu ‘hmph’s a wry laugh, smirking without much humor. “Isn’t there?”

    Han Ying goes even paler, panic entering his eyes. The words nearly trip over each other on their way out of his mouth. “You can’t! Zhou shou, you can’t possibly…”

    “I can. This has been a decision long in the making, Ying’er. I’m done.”

    “Zhou shou, please,” Han Ying says, face drawn with his confusion and panic. Zishu knows the young man cares for him, feels badly for giving him this shock, but it’s better like this than having him find out after the fact. 

    “Zhou shou...Zhou shou, surely you can find another way? If...if you just talk to the Prince -” 

    Zishu laughs again. “Ying’er. You and I both know that would get me nowhere. Besides, it’s too late to try to convince me. I’m only missing one.”

    There is confusion at first, a lack of understanding, and then the horrified enlightenment dawns on Han Ying’s face. “Zhou shou…? You...you didn’t.”

    Zhou Zishu just looks at him.

    “You didn’t! Tell me you didn’t!”

    “I intended to have finished it already. I was going to leave before this, my curiosity simply got the better of me. I will ask for the last one when I return, and I will be done with Tian Chuang.”

    Han Ying claps a hand over his mouth like he’s going to be sick, breathing deep through his nose and looking at anything but Zhou Zishu while he tries to process the news. He is not the only one alarmed. 

    Zishu has felt Lao Wen’s increasing confusion and alarm where he sits next to him, can see him out of the corner of his eye looking at him with those awful eyes. He dares not look at him, lest he crumble and truly destroy the image of a strong leader Han Ying has of him. 

    “Tell the Prince nothing much of note has happened here yet. The Ghost Valley Guzhu has not shown himself, and it has been only the Department of the Unfaithful and a few other ghosts that have stepped out into the light so far. They’ve caused little trouble, and the festivities go on as normal.”

    “Zhou shou -”

    “Han Ying.” His tone is firm, almost reprimanding. It gets the message across. Hang Ying swallows the lump in his throat and replies weakly,

    “Yes, sir.”

    “Good. Go.”

    Han Ying goes. He hesitates for a moment, like he wants to try one last time to plead with Zhou Zishu to rethink his decision, but ultimately flees like he needs to find somewhere to throw up or break down. Possibly both. Zishu feels bad, but there was no easy way to say such a thing, especially not to one of the few in Tian Chuang who are loyal to him long before they are loyal to the Prince.

    Silence reigns for a painfully long stretch of time, until Lao Wen breaks it.

    “Tian Chuang? A-Xu, you’re a part of Tian Chuang?”

    Zishu snorts. “I created Tian Chuang.”

    Lao Wen shows his surprise openly. He’s shown all of his thoughts and emotions more openly since Zishu cared for him the night he’d barreled into his room like a wounded animal. Not entirely transparent, but a far cry from the aloof mask he’d always kept on his face before.

    Zishu sighs, feeling a pang of guilt. “I owe you an apology, Lao Wen. I’ve known the secret of your identity for nearly the whole time now, but I haven’t given you the same privilege.”

    “I never asked,” Wen Kexing replies, and it’s true. Lao Wen had accepted him as he presented himself, surely knowing that he was not who he said he was. He had given Zhou Zishu the choice of whether to open himself in such a way, unlike the way Zhou Zishu had called him out that night over a jug of wine and some fledgling flirtation. 

    “Zhou Xu, leader of Tian Chuang. How impressive. No less impressive than I would have expected from you.”

    “My name is not Zhou Xu,” Zishu admits, getting up from the table to go through the motions of preparing for bed. Really it’s just that he prefers to have something to distract himself when having such conversations.

    “A-Xu...did you think I would be surprised? That I would be angry that you gave me a fake name? I had figured as much, though I would be honored to have your real one.”

    Zishu nods, relaxing. He’s a little relieved despite himself. Of all people, he doubts Lao Wen would hold a fake name against him, but he had still felt a strange measure of hesitance. Perhaps it is because he has been the only one hiding their identity, and because he cares for Lao Wen like he hasn’t cared for another in a very long time.

    He’s not used to giving a shit what other people think anymore.

    “It’s Zhou Zishu.”

    There’s a clatter. Zishu turns around to see Lao Wen looking like he’s been struck by lightning. The clatter was his fan, which he has, unthinkably, dropped in his shock.

    It confuses him, because his name was just about the only thing he hadn’t expected any real reaction from. Nobody knows the name of Tian Chuang’s leader outside of Tian Chuang. To the rest of the world, he is a ghost himself. That it would strike Lao Wen with such shock is a shock to him as well.

    “Lao Wen?” he asks, hesitant.

    Wen Kexing seems to be jarred back into awareness, swallowing and laughing a little. He picks up his fan and smooths his expression. “Ah...it’s nothing, A-Xu. Zhou Zishu...a beautiful name for a beautiful man, of course.”

    Zhou Zishu doesn’t buy the deflection, just as he never buys Lao Wen’s deflections, but he lets it go as much as he desires to unwind such a mystery. 

    “You created Tian Chuang,” Lao Wen muses, “And now you want to leave it? Why?”

    Zishu is quiet for a few moments, walking slowly back towards the table. He’s managed nothing in his time upright but discarding of his outermost robes and letting his hair down. 

    “...I no longer have the faith I once did in the Prince and his goals. I no longer believe that the blood I’ve spilled was for peace, but for his ambitions alone, and...and I am tired. I am no longer willing to be the blade he draws across the throats of his enemies.”

    “But you came here for him?” Lao Wen inquires as he settles back down next to him. 

    Zishu huffs, smiling humorlessly. “He thinks so. I came because I wanted to satisfy my curiosity as to why on Earth the Ghost Valley would attend the Five Lakes Alliance’s Heroes Conference. I have my answer now, so what reason do I have to keep this farce up for Prince Jin?”

    “Hmm…” Lao Wen hums. “So should I be thanking the Prince or your curiosity for dropping such a divine creature into my lap?”

    Zhou Zishu rolls his eyes. “I see your conversation with Zhao Jing hasn’t dampened your spirits any. Isn’t that what you came here to talk about, Lao Wen? Not my incredibly debatable divinity?”

    Wen Kexing takes the change of subject for what it is. “He’s a fool, A-Xu. He truly thinks he has me hook line and sinker. I told him I was a killer; he thought I was trying to test his commitment to ‘saving’ me. I was goading him into admitting that he was something of a monster himself, and he played into my hand like a fly to honey.”

    “Oh?” Zishu asks. “He gave you something on him?”

    “He’s begun to. Pathetic, how easily he’s convinced he has the upper hand. All I had to do was call him uncle.”

    Zishu screws his face up a little, and reaches out to lay his hand on Wen Kexing’s. He can tell by the tone that it does bother Kexing a little to call the man that, even if he can use it as a ploy. The past makes it a painful card to play, he’s certain.

    “And you’re alright? Calling him uncle?”

    Lao Wen turns his hand to hold Zishu’s for real, and Zishu doesn’t rebuke him or pull away. 

    “Yes,” Lao Wen says wryly. “Why, it feels familiar already.”

    Despite the bitterness behind the statement, Zishu snorts and takes it for what it was meant to be. A jest to lighten the heaviness of the reality.

    Lao Wen moves his hand in Zishu’s grip slightly, and Zishu pays little mind to it. He should have, he realizes, as Lao Wen’s index and middle finger land on the pulse point of his wrist and his grip turns to iron. 

    “Lao Wen!” he protest, trying to yank his hand away. It’s too late. Wen Kexing has already felt his chi, and he relinquishes his grip simply because he is shocked limp with what he’s found. The stunned, open face he stares at Zishu with is absolutely heartbreaking. 

    “A-Xu…”

    Zhou Zishu scowls, irritated not just at Wen Kexing, but with himself for not expecting such a move. “Lao Wen! I told you to let it go!”

    A-Xu ,” Wen Kexing says again, face paling as he processes the extent of what Zishu knows he’s just discovered. 

    Zhou Zishu’s chi is a mess. Six of his seven meridians are irreparably damaged in a brutal, painful way, pulsing with constant, ongoing trauma. The only one intact is overtaxed, trying desperately to keep his body on an even keel, keep his alive and functioning. It is a losing battle. He will no doubt decline in health at the very least eventually, in terrible pain and physically feeble. More likely than not, he would die eventually. 

That is, of course, the point, though seven nails will make it a sure thing.

The damage is too exactly placed, pinpointed on each meridian, to be an accidental injury. Zishu sees the moment the horror makes way for that realization on Lao Wen’s face, when an insane fury enters Wen Kexing’s eyes that leaves Zishu with no doubt that many of his ghosts likely truly think him a demon.

Who did this to you?” he hisses, frame trembling with his rage. Zhou Zishu imagines the entirety of Ghost Valley prostrating themselves in sheer terror at this face, begging for their very lives if they can manage to speak at all through the fear.

Zishu smirks, and shakes his head with a laughing breath. “Why? Will you skin them alive, Lao Wen?”

“They will wish that is all I did to them,” Lao Wen seethes, voice low and dangerous. “Don’t try to keep it from me, A-Xu. I’ll find out. Who did this?”

Zishu sighs, too tired to stay angry. Lao Wen knows how bad his illness is now. What’s done is done. “I did.”

Wen Kexing is derailed entirely. The anger drains, replaced by horror and shock, disbelief. “What?”

“I did it, Lao Wen. Are you going to skin me?”

Lao Wen is blindsided, helpless in the face of his confusion and dawning sorrow. “...you did this? This...is this what you were talking about? What Han Ying was talking about? A-Xu, what have you done?”

“It’s a punishment,” Zhou Zishu replies, turning his head. He can’t bear to look Lao Wen in the eye any longer. “A torture. I invented it. It’s the only way to leave Tian Chuang, and we’ve already discussed that I’m done with that. Once I finish it, I’ll have three years left to live as my own man.”

“Three years left…”

“Before I die.”

He knows that without a full explanation, Lao Wen doesn’t totally understand what’s happened. He doesn’t know what has damaged Zhou Zishu’s meridians in this way that must cause him constant pain, doesn’t know what torture one must endure to leave Tian Chuang, but he doesn’t explain.

If Lao Wen wants to know, he will ask, and right now…well, Lao Wen looks like he has more than enough information to try to come to terms with right now.

The distress on Lao Wen’s face hurts more than the nails, eyes shifting and looking at nothing as he processes his own thoughts. When he finally lifts his gaze and meets Zhou Zishu’s eyes again, Zishu barely has a moment to realize he might want to move away.

Wen Kexing surges forward and grips the back of his head with a brutal hold on his hair, yanking him into a primal, ravenous collision of a kiss. Zishu has barely registered what’s happening before Wen Kexing is using his other hand to force his jaw open and pushing his tongue inside.

It’s shocking, baffling, dizzying, intoxicating. Zishu finds himself taken with the savage pleasure of it immediately, feeling as if he’s being eaten alive. There is no elegance, no grace, just Wen Kexing and his dominating hunger. It sets Zhou Zishu’s nerves on fire.

He could give in. He could lay back and allow himself to be consumed like he so strongly, bewilderingly wants to. 

Instead, he plants both palms on Wen Kexing’s chest and shoves him away with all his strength.

Lao Wen sprawls back, barely catching himself on his hands to keep from landing flat on his back. Zishu, too, leans back on his hands, and they stare at each other with wild eyes and panting breaths, lips swollen from the brutal nature of their collision. 

“Lao Wen,” Zishu gasps out, bewildered. “What the hell was that?”

Lao Wen blinks at him, licks his lips, swallows. Then, like the lunatic he is, he starts laughing. It is an unhinged laugh, a miserable laugh, a laugh that at any point may turn to tears. He buries his face in his hands and, through the laughter, laments, “It didn’t work.”

“What didn’t work, you lunatic? Eating me alive?”

“A-Xu,” Lao Wen moans, raising his head. He still laughs, but his eyes are rife with pain. “A-Xu, it didn’t work. I thought...I thought maybe if I just had a taste, I could put this to rest. I could be done with this obsession with you. It didn’t work. It didn’t work, and you’re…”

Crippled. Dying. “Lao Wen…”

“Let me try again,” Wen Kexing says to him with desperation in his voice, already crawling closer. “Let me try again, just once more. If I can just have my fill of you-”

With Wen Kexing halfway in his lap already and Zishu ready to try to push him away and knock some sense back into him, both of them disheveled in a clearly inappropriate way, the door slides open.

“Am I interrupting something?” Ye Baiyi asks dryly.

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

Zishu scoffs, still unfairly dazed. “Other than my prompt molestation? Nothing, Ye-qianbei.”

He has met Ye Baiyi only once, and it was very brief, but the way the man carries himself makes his power and seniority obvious despite his youthful appearance.

“Although I’m beginning to feel a little suspicious, considering you are the third man to visit my rooms after dark tonight, and the second only just got done attempting to maul me.”

“Too much information, kid,” Ye Baiyi says dryly, sliding the doors closed behind him.

From what Zishu has heard around the Conference about Ye Baiyi, he is a disciple of the Changming Sword Immortal, who had announced his intention to come to the Conference after the Ghost Valley did. Something about him tells Zishu he hasn’t been a disciple in a long, long time. The power seeps from his pores, Zishu can feel it.

He won’t voice his suspicions out loud, not yet. It is, frankly, none of his concern if Ye Baiyi is the immortal himself. It changes little.

“I have some friends coming to look at you,” Ye Baiyi says casually, as if Zhou ZIshu and Wen Kexing are not still sprawled across the floor, and the air between them heavy with tension both sexual and otherwise. 

“I’m not making any promises, but they’re coming. What did you do to yourself, kid?”

Zishu scoffs. “Why does everyone want details about my illness tonight?”

“Probably because you’re the only idiot around who’d damage their own meridians like that. You’re like a convenient sideshow.”

Wen Kexing hisses, glaring up at Ye Baiyi. “Shut your mouth,” he spits. “What right do you have to speak to him like that?”

Ye Baiyi saddles Wen Kexing with a disbelieving look, like he can’t imagine being so disrespected. “I’ll speak to him however I want. If I think he’s an idiot, I’ll call him an idiot!”

Wen Kexing sneers. “What’s a boy toy like you know? All you do is stuff your mouth and get others to pay for it.”

Ye Baiyi scoffs. “Don’t bare your teeth at me, you puffed up kitten. It’s laughable.”

Zhou Zishu feels the beginnings of a headache coming on as Lao Wen barks an offended laugh, eyes wide and unhinged. “You have no idea who you’re-”

“I know you are, Ghost Valley Guzhu. Now shut your mouth and let the adults speak. I’ll get to you when I feel like it.”

That throws Zishu and Lao Wen both for a loop, looking at Ye Baiyi with wide eyes. How had he known?

Ye Baiyi surveys the pair of them and simply says, “Don’t do that. You look stupid.”

Zishu shuts his mouth, whereas Wen Kexing’s opens wider in outrage. He’s no doubt about to say something highly inadvisable to say to a man Zishu is nigh certain is actually immortal and far beyond the martial skill range of either of them, so Zhou Zishu cuts in with a stern, “Lao Wen.”

Wen Kexing’s gaze darts to him, jaw steeled and eyes wild with the desire to lash back out at Ye Baiyi, but he - miraculously - reigns himself in. 

Ye Baiyi immediately sabotages Zhou Zishu’s admirable effort to stop the fight by laughing and saying, “Look at that. Do you have him on a leash or just by the cock?”

Wen Kexing lunges, and Zishu hurls himself forward to grab his zhiji around the waist, hauling him back to the ground while he’s still off balance.

“Wen Kexing! Stop!”

Wen Kexing does not seem keen on stopping, so Zishu resorts to pulling him close enough to murmur into his ear, “ Behave yourself , and I might let you taste me again.”

That does the trick. It even holds, though just barely, through Ye Baiyi raising an eyebrow and drawling, “By the cock it is, then.”

“Ye-qianbei,” Zishu grouses, feeling as if he’s trying to separate two squabbling children. “Do you want to squabble with my zhiji, or do you want to hear about my illness?”

He doesn’t even realize what he’s said at first, until Ye Baiyi’s eyebrows climb and Lao Wen freezes in his arms, breath hitching. Wen Kexing’s head turns slowly to him, eyes wide open and childlike. 

“A-Xu…?”

“Huh,” Ye Baiyi says quietly. “Well that’s interesting.”

Zhou Zishu clears his throat and swallows, averting his eyes from Wen Kexing’s face and relinquishing his hold on him  so that he can try to distract from his own slip up. Ironically, the only way he finds to do that is exactly what he’d been trying to avoid moments before. Exposing his self imposed torture suddenly seems a more palatable option than facing what he just said out loud.

Sighing and shaking his head, he works at undoing the layers of robes he’s still in. 

“Since you both want to see so bad,” he gripes, pulling his innermost robe open, “Here. Look your fill.”

He knows it’s not a pretty picture. His nails were excised but days ago, so they stand no chance of passing as just gnarled scars. They are stark and dark, rough heads of vicious spikes of metal settled against the skin precisely on each of the six meridians they spear. The skin around them is red and angry from the procedure.

Ye Baiyi clicks his tongue and shakes his head as he looks at them, whereas Wen Kexing goes pale and loses his breath. 

A-Xu ,” he murmurs. “What is this?”

Shrugging his robes back over his shoulders to feel at least a little like he’s not on display for a pair of late night callers, Zishu answers in a carefully flat tone. “Nails of Seven Apertures for Three Autumns. They’re my creation. It’s the only way to leave Tian Chuang. They’re meant to be taken all seven in one go. It makes one a cripple, losing all of their senses and trapped in their agony, until the nails finally kill them in around three years time.”

“And yet you’ve clearly not lost your faculties,” Ye Baiyi says, seeming unsurprised and unalarmed by all of this.

Zishu nods, sitting back. “I figured out that if you take one nail every three months, the body has a chance to become accustomed. It will be a painful eighteen months, of course, and you will still die, but you will lose your senses slowly. You’ll have those three years to live as your own man, even if it’s in a steadily declining state.”

“You…” Wen Kexing croaks, looking frighteningly close to tears. “You’ve been hurting yourself like this for eighteen months…? Killing yourself, torturing yourself like this?”

Zishu glances at him, and then quickly glances away. He can’t stand it, simply can’t stand that face. “It’s not just freedom, Lao Wen. It’s penance. It’s less than what I deserve, but it’s what I can do. When I am done here, I’ll go back to Prince Jin and ask for someone to give me the seventh.”

Wen Kexing blinks blankly, and then nearly explodes with snarling outrage. “Like hell you will!”

“Lao Wen -”

“No! No. We’ll find another way. I dare this Helian Yi to come for you, I’ll-”

“Lao Wen. This was my decision.”

“And you can change your mind! You felt you had nothing left, is that it? So you were willing to do this to yourself? But it’s different now, A-Xu. It’s different n-”

“How is it different, Lao Wen? I -”

You have me now!” Wen Kexing nearly shrieks, teetering towards him like he’s on the precipice of a cliff, eyes desperate. “You have me! Am I not enough? You call me a zhiji, but I’m not enough? I’ve only just found you again, you can’t leave me! I won’t let you!”

Again? Zishu’s mind chimes faintly, but he’s a little too blindsided by the sheer desperation and determination in Wen Kexing’s wide eyes, the animalistic creature he keeps under wraps showing through once again. 

“I...you’re enough. You’re enough, Lao Wen. That’s not what I meant.”

Because Lao Wen is enough, isn’t he? Meeting Lao Wen had made him feel melancholy about his fate for the first time, had made him wish he had a life ahead to spend with this peculiar man he resonates with on such a deep level.

“You’re enough, but I...Lao Wen, it’s not something I can reverse. Even if I weren’t to take the seventh nail, what’s done is done.”

Wen Kexing seems heartened in an unhinged, borderline breakdown kind of way. He whips his head around to stare up at Ye Baiyi now, frame trembling. “You! You have someone coming. Someone who can fix this. Who can fix him.”

“That’s not what I said.”

“It is, you ugly toad! It is what you said!”

“I said they can take a look, and that they might find a way to help. If anyone could it would be them, but that doesn’t mean they’re miracle workers.”

Wen Kexing steels his jaw with the clear, overwhelming desire to say something incendiary and turns back to Zishu. His elegant, shaking hands take Zishu’s in a bruising grip.

“You’ll let them look at you. Right, A-Xu? For me? You’ll let them look at you, and...and if they can help, you’ll do it. You’ll let them do it.”

Zishu sighs, holding Lao Wen’s hands in return and leaning forward to press their foreheads together. His own pain is nothing, but to see Lao Wen in such distress...he finds that he’d acquiesce to just about anything to make it stop. 

“I’ll let them try. I promise, Lao Wen.”

He doesn’t get long to lean against his zhiji like this, to offer him comfort. Ye Baiyi seems to have no sense or no care for such things.

“Get it together, little ghost. I’ve business with you too.”

Wen Kexing scoffs, glaring venomously up at the elder. “I can’t imagine what would lead you to believe that I give a flying fuck whether you have business with me.”

“By all means,” Ye Baiyi sneers. “Keep hissing and spitting, kitten. You get cuter each time, in a pathetic sort of way. Tell me; what did you come here for? I can’t allow you to start violence, and somehow I doubt you came here with anything but violence in mind.”

“Oh?” Wen Kexing asks, lips curled. “And what, you intend to stop me? Does a son not have a right to avenge the murders of his parents?”

Ye Baiyi pauses, looking like he’s taking a few moments to judge whether the Master of Ghost Valley is trying to play him or not. Eventually, he concedes with a reluctant, although vaguely curious, “He does. If it’s justified.”

“It is,” Wen Kexing replies.

“I certainly hope you don’t think that’s all you’re going to have to tell me, brat. Spill. Everything. Who were your parents, and what makes you think you’ll find your vengeance here?”

Wen Kexing takes a deep breath to steady his anger, glancing at Zhou Zishu. Zishu blinks back at him, surprised that he would hesitate to talk in front of him. He’s even more surprised when Lao Wen rises and strides to the door with his head held high, walking straight out. 

It goes unspoken that Ye Baiyi is to follow, so they can have this conversation in private.

Ye Baiyi looks back down at him and says, after a moment of just subjecting him to that penetrating stare, “Do me a favor. Next time I come around, make sure everyone’s three treasures are still firmly in their pants. I don’t need to see that shit.”

With that, he ghosts out the door after Wen Kexing and closes it behind him, leaving Zishu to blessed silence. He appreciates it less than he thought he would.

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Luo Fumeng has laid low since their initial appearance at the opening banquet of the Heroes Conference, their presence there more to get Wen Kexing an in without immediately exposing his identity than anything. 

    She instructs her girls to stay as out of sight as possible to avoid any trouble, and she does the same. Wen Kexing seems to be flourishing in the setting, playing every person at the conference for a fool, and so she is content that her role is pretty much over here. There is only waiting to do.

    She is wrong, but the role she is about to be given is not one she would have expected.

    She’s startled to enter her chambers to find Wen Kexing already in them, sitting at the table in the middle of the main room and staring at nothing, dead eyes fixed at empty space.

    She hesitates, unsure of what kind of mood he’s in and whether it’s a dangerous one. “Guzhu. I was not expecting you; I apologize for not having wine ready.”

    He doesn’t move, doesn’t speak for a long few moments. When he does, it is simply a murmured, dull, “Luo-yi.”

    It startles her, because it is not said with the intention to manipulate or endear. It is simply...said. As if in this moment, that is what she is to him. It would be the first time in a very long time for that to be the case. The first time in at least eight years, probably more.

    “Luo-yi,” he says again, still staring at the wall. “Do you think I’m capable of love?”

    Her heart jumps. Is Wen Kexing capable of love? He was, once. He’s always been a little off, even when he was a child, but he was capable of love. Now, she is not entirely sure. She’d like to say that he is, that enough of him has survived through becoming the man he is now for there to be love left. And if he’s asking...there must be a reason.

    “...I think that you would know the answer to that better than I would, Guzhu.”

    There’s a tic in Wen Kexing’s jaw, like hearing himself called that almost startles him, and she pauses. Right now...right now, she’s not speaking to the Ghost Valley Guzhu, is she?

    “But if you want my opinion...I think that there is still love in you, Wen Kexing.”

    Wen Kexing takes a slow breath, blinking and directing his gaze down to his lap now, where he watches his own fingers flex.

    Luo Fumeng has a feeling she knows what started this. Or at least who. “...is it that man, Kexing? The one you saw that first night?”

    He doesn’t reply. She moves closer, slowly, until she is standing close enough to touch him, looking down at him where he sits. 

    “Kexing…”

    He doesn’t respond, doesn’t even look at her. 

    “...A-Xing.”

    His breath catches, and that’s how she feels safe reaching her hands out slowly to take his jaw in her hands, turning his head gently and tilting his face up to her. He doesn’t resist. 

    The face that stares up at her is the face of a child, eyes wide and wet and helpless, mouth downturned miserably. He stares at her like he once did when he genuinely called her Luo-yi, so long ago.

    “A-Xing...are you in love?”

    His lips tremble, his eyes get wetter. He swallows the lump in his throat and sniffs, but he does not tear his head away from her hands. Does not hide himself away. 

    “I’m scared, Luo-yi,” he whispers, voice cracking. “I’m scared.”

    It’s been a long time since Luo Fumeng wanted to cry. Looking into Wen Kexing’s face now, her eyes burn in a manner long unfamiliar.

    “Why are you scared, A-Xing?”

    Wen Kexing squeezes his eyes shut, but it doesn’t keep a few fledgling tears from rolling down his cheeks. She doesn’t wipe them away, fears it would jar them out of this balance they find themselves in. Fears it would make him withdraw.

    “I’m scared I’m going to lose him.”

    “...because of who you are? He knows you’re a ghost. He might -”

    Wen Kexing laughs, the sound sticking wetly in his throat. “He knows exactly who I am. He guessed right from the beginning.”

    Kexing opens his eyes, and they’re tired, open, honest. “He’s dying, Luo-yi.”

    She sucks in a little breath. Dying? What had this boy done, to make the gods hurt him in such a way, she wonders? Hasn’t he suffered enough? And now he finds someone he loves, and he’s dying?

    “He...there’s a doctor coming. To look at him, but...they might not be able to help. God, Luo-yi. What if they can’t help? What am I going to do?”

    Luo Fumeng closes her eyes and lets out a slow, measured sigh. With careful motions one might use with a cornered animal, she pulls Wen Kexing’s head gently into her stomach and cradles it there, holds him and offers him comfort. 

    “It’ll be alright, A-Xing. It’ll be alright.”

    She leaves him his dignity, and does not comment on the tears that wet her robes or the hiccuped sobs that shake his shoulders.

 

----

 

Zhang Chengling is lost. Well, he usually feels a little lost, actually, but right now he’s lost for real. He’s lost in Yueyang.

    He’s never been to a Heroes Conference before. Although his father is part of the sworn brotherhood of the Five Lakes Alliance, he has never met any of his uncles, and his father has never seemed keen on associating freely with them.

    Something lies between them, some kind of distrust. Even he can see that.

    Still...that doesn’t mean that his father doesn’t love his brothers, despite whatever happened to make him avoid them, keep his family separate from them almost entirely. Obviously he’d been concerned when news had come that the Ghost Valley was supposed to attend this year's conference.

    At first, Zhang Yusen wasn’t sure it wasn’t some kind of ploy just to get them all wound up. He’d thought the Ghost Valley might not show up at all, might just be playing some kind of game with them. They had, as usual, not set off for the Heroes Conference and stayed away from the rest of the Five Lakes Alliance.

    Once news that ghosts of the Ghost Valley really had shown up and were attending, and that those ghosts attested that the Valley Chief was in Yueyang and would attend the main event...that was the tipping point.

    Zhang Yusen couldn’t sit by knowing that his brothers could possibly be in danger for this, even if he wasn’t close with them like he once was. He decided that they had to attend. He had to be there, just in case.

    That means that just last night, Zhang Chengling, his father, and his brothers had arrived in Yueyang and gotten themselves a room in a nice inn. Chengling doesn’t ask his father why they didn’t go right to Sanbai manor, where they no doubt would have received rooms of luxury and honor. 

These reasons, he imagines, are much the same as whatever reasons has kept his father distant from his brothers for so long.

His father had encouraged he and his brothers to go out and enjoy the town, explore a little. Be young men in a new place and feast their eyes and tongues and ears on the lively street foods, the bright decorations and cheerful merchants hawking colorful wares.

Chengling had been a little reticent, naturally shy as he is, but he has actually been enjoying himself. The only problem is that now that he’s decided he’s had his fill of crowds for the day and wants to return to their inn...he has no idea how to get back.

He was paying attention to the directions he was going, he swears! At least, he thought he was. That doesn’t change the fact that he’s undeniably lost.

He tries multiple times to ask for help, though he knows that his shy stuttering is unimpressive.

Over and over again he's either not noticed, ignored, or brushed off. Frankly he's kind of jostled around in the crowd, too, until one unintentional passerby elbows him and he's propelled face first into the broad back of a man standing at one of the vendor stalls.

He hears, with his vision obscured by the red robes he just slammed face first into, the man in question make a surprised and questioning sound.

A warm hand steadies him, firm but gentle, and when he looks up he's staring into the amused face of a tall, dignified, handsome young man.

A tall, dignified, handsome man who laughs at the expression on Chengling's face and, in a teasing tone, says, "You look like you're lost."

Chengling brightens immediately, grinning at finally having someone's attention for long enough to say that he is indeed lost, and very much in need of some help.

"I am!"

The stranger laughs again, bopping him gently on top of the head with a white fan that looks to be top quality.

"Why do you look so happy about it? Was getting lost your intention?"

"N-no! It's just that I've been trying to find someone to help me f-for a while and...and...you're kind of the first person to even talk to me. So I thought maybe...you'd help?"

He shouldn't feel so unsure when the man is still smiling amiably at him, eyes twinkling with humor, but it's just his nature. He's always afraid of being a bother.

"Where are you trying to go?" 

Chengling lights up again, and tells him the name of their inn. 

"Thank you so much! Um...wh-what's your name?"

The man in red salutes him and gives a little bow, introducing himself as, "Wen. Wen Kexing."

"Wen-daren, then. Thank you for helping me. Are you here for the Conference?"

“I am,” Wen Kexing says, starting to walk. Chengling follows. “Though I’m beginning to wonder if anyone ever told you that it’s polite to give your name when you receive someone else’s.”

Chengling gasps, face turning red. “Ah! I-I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to be rude! I’m Zhang Chengling, of Mirror Lake Manor.”

Wen Kexing glances at him with surprise, but never stops fanning himself leisurely. “Mirror Lake Manor? You’re a son of Zhang Yusen, I presume?”

“Y-yeah. Um...what sect are you from, Wen-daren?”

“None.”

“Oh.”

“How old are you, Zhang Chengling?”

“I-I’m fourteen.”

Wen Kexing looks him over, and Chengling knows what he sees. He sees a boy who long since should have been training martial arts, but is scrawny and weak in a way that screams of mediocrity at best. 

“I-I know I’m not...where I should be. It’s just that I’m the third son and...and nothing is really expected of me except carrying the name so I...I haven’t trained like I should.”

Wen Kexing chuckles, tapping his shoulder this time with that fan. “Relax. I won’t scold you. When I was young, I also wanted to play all day when I was supposed to be training. When the time came that I wanted to learn, however...my parents were no longer there. Take advantage of your father’s tutelage while you have it.”

Oh. Chengling never thought of that...he’s always seen his father and his brothers as constants, people who will always be there to rely on. If Wen-daren had lost his parents young, though, like he suggests…

“...I will. Thanks, Wen shushu.”

Wen Kexing chokes on his own spit, and Chengling draws in on himself.

“S-sorry! I-I just... Father always says that in the jianghu, we rely on our family at home and our friends outside. And you just- you seem like- you’re the only person who’s been nice to me and I-”

Wen Kexing recovers enough to laugh, shaking his head in disbelief. “Wen shushu,” he echoes. “You trust too easily, Chengling. You musn’t assume people are friends just because they’re nice to you. Humans are many faced creatures, most of them ugly.”

Chengling blinks, for some reason having a hard time feeling wary of Wen Kexing despite what he says. “...even you?”

Wen Kexing looks at him, before sighing and smiling wryly. “I am a many faced creature indeed. But, I am not one you need to fear. Would you like some tanghulu? Wen shushu’s treat.”

Just like that, his calling Wen Kexing shushu is accepted, and the subject changed. Chengling is pleasantly surprised to find that Wen shushu doesn’t just buy Chengling a stick of tanghulu, but buys himself one as well. He looks as much like a child taken by sweets as Chengling does as they walk and become sticky with sugar.

He finds that casual conversation is easier with Wen shushu than just about anyone else. Wen Kexing listens to him instead of tuning him out, and doesn’t treat him like he’s dumb even when he offers teasing jabs.

He almost wishes they weren’t going back to his inn, because he’s enjoying himself and the walk is too short.

“Here it is,” Wen shushu announces, as if Chengling can’t see the building himself. “Try not to get lost next time, Chengling.”

“W-wait! Aren’t...aren’t you coming inside?”

Wen Kexing stares at him for a moment, looking just a tad dumbfounded, and then he sighs and smiles, shaking his head. “Of course I am. How could I have thought otherwise.”

 

----

 

As soon as Chengling’s father sees him he’s exhaling his relief, taking swift steps towards him and settling his hands on his shoulders.

    “Chengling! There you are. Your brothers have already returned, we were getting worried.”

    Chengling smiles sheepishly. “Sorry. I got lost.”

    Turning to smile at Wen Kexing’s elegant, red-clad figure, he continues, “Wen shushu showed me the way back.”

    The eyes of Zhang Yusen and Chengling’s brothers all turn to Wen Kexing, quite the dignified figure standing straight backed and quiet a respectful distance away from them.

    “I see,” Zhang Yusen says, releasing his son to salute Wen Kexing. “You have my thanks for guiding my son back. You are…?”

    Wen Kexing smiles with picture perfect decorum, and salutes back. “Wen. Wen Kexing.”

    “Wen Kexing,” Zhang Yusen says. Chengling is pleased to hear a note of approval in his father’s voice already. He’s not surprised, of course. Wen-shushu was the only one who listened to him, and guided him back safely, and he’s a dignified and refined looking individual as well. It’s easy to like him.

    “You are here for the Heroes Conference, Wen-daren?”

    Wen Kexing bows his head. “I am.”

    “May I ask what sect you are from, Wen-daren?”

    Wen Kexing offers a slight laugh. “I’m part of no sect, Zhang-daren. Simply a spectre visiting the human world while the veil is thin. I do apologize that I can’t stay and chat, but I must be on my way.”

    Chengling doesn’t understand why his father and brother’s faces pale at Wen Kexing’s words, after a moment of apparent confusion. Wen-shushu has already bowed and walked away by the time they seem to gather themselves, and Zhang Yusen reaches out to pull Chengling close to him with a white knucked grip.

    “Dad?”

    “Stay away from that man, Chengling,” his father breathes, face ghostly. 

    “What? Why? Wen-shushu’s really nice! He bought us both tanghulu and everything.”

    “He’s from Ghost Valley, Chengling. Nice people don’t end up there.”

    Chengling feels a chill. Ghost Valley? Wen-shushu? But...he was so amiable. He genuinely listened to him and gave him advice without making him feel bad. He carried conversation without being exasperated at Chengling’s awkwardness, and lit up like a little boy at the sight of tanghulu. Wen-shushu isn’t a bad person. He can’t be.

    “Actually, Father,” his brother Chengfeng speaks up, stepping forward. “I heard about this Wen Kexing while I was out today. The people of the Conference seem quite fond of him.”

    Zhang Yusen looks at his eldest son, and Chengfeng actually laughs a little at the expression on his face. “I know. But when I asked, people were more than willing to tell me all about him. They seemed to pity me, for not having met him yet.”

    “And what did they say…?”

    “Everyone seems to feel kind of bad for him. Supposedly he ended up in the Ghost Valley when he was just a child, and...well. Apparently the current Valley Master has a, uh... taste for men. Wen Kexing is his...pet. Has been for the entirety of his eight year reign.”

    Zhang Yusen’s face screws up with a hiss, looking pained over what he hears. “A bed slave….? God. How awful.”

    Chengling is old enough to know what being a bed slave implies, and it’s not pleasant. His gut churns unpleasantly. The nice man who guided him home...has been suffering such a fate? 

    Zhang Yusen looks at the door Wen Kexing had left through, guilt starting to dawn on his face. “And I judged him the moment I realized he was a ghost...he knew it was coming. That’s why he left so quickly.”

    Zhang Yusen heaves a sigh. “...I will apologize,” he says. “Next we see him.”

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

Gao Chong and Shen Shen are together when the missive comes from Zhang Yusen, announcing that he is in the city. That he had come because he heard word of the Ghost Valley attending the Conference, and wanted to be on standby in case it meant danger.

    It’s heartening, to the pair, to know that the brother who has stayed separate from them for so long came all the way to Yueyang to ensure that he’d be there for them, if anything went awry. 

    It is only Zhao Jing who needs to be notified, and so they set off together to their fifth brother’s rooms.

    Zhao Jing is at the table he likes to practice his calligraphy at when the doors slide open, and he looks up at them curiously. Seeing their faces, he sets his brush down and straightens.

    “Da-ge. Wu-di. You look as if you’ve just received good news.”

    Shen Shen doesn’t realize at first why Gao Chong stops dead half way into the room, until he follows his gaze and is struck by shock and disbelief himself. 

    Lounging across Zhao Jing’s bed on the other side of the room is the ghost that had come with the Department of the Unfaithful. The bed pet of the Valley Master. Wen Kexing.

    He’s draped artfully there like he owns the place, his every line elegant and seductive. He seems totally at ease, a bowl of nuts by his side and a jug of wine in one hand. He looks every bit the resplendent concubine.

    Wen Kexing blinks his big dark eyes at them and smiles, pushing a Wolong nut into his mouth in a motion that is unnecessarily suggestive. “Hero Gao. Hero Shen. Wine?”

    The two of them stare agape at Wen Kexing. In return, Wen Kexing slowly loses his smile, expression instead turning into a wide eyed, childlike one. Like he’s wondering what’s wrong.

    Zhao Jing sighs. “Da-ge. Wu-di. Please, relax. Whatever you came to say, you may speak freely in front of Kexing. I know you have not had much experience with him as of yet, but he is a good boy. I trust him.”

    Neither quite note the way both parties are putting on a show for each other, only one the wiser. Zhao Jing says it to endear Wen Kexing to him, flatter him and amaze him that he would tell his sworn brothers he can be trusted. Wen Kexing lets himself look exactly that, so that Zhao Jing will continue to dig himself into the hole of his own hubris.

    Gao Chong recovers with more grace than Shen Shen; there’s a reason he’s the face of the alliance, the one his brothers always turn to to speak publicly and manage crises. “I apologize for gaping at you so, Wen-daren. We were not expecting Er-di to have company. I do not mean to insult you, but I am sure you understand that some conversations are better had only between the intended parties…?”

    Wen Kexing blinks, before recovering his smile and laughing, swinging his legs over the edge of the bed and lifting himself in one smooth, graceful motion.

    “Of course, of course. I will leave you to your business, Hero Gao, Hero Shen. Uncle Zhao.”

    He bows to each of them in turn, either not noticing or ignoring the way Gao Chong and Shen Shen’s eyes bug out of their heads at hearing the words ‘Uncle Zhao.’ He simply swans out of the room with his head held high and bowl of nuts still in hand. He seems unconcerned that pilfering the nice ceramic bowl will be met with offense, and Zhao Jing makes no attempt to stop him.

    No sooner are the doors closed than is Shen Shen turning on Zhao Jing with stunned outrage. “Er-ge! Are you soft-hearted, stupid, or something else entirely? What is he doing in here with you like that?”

    Zhao Jing looks between the two of them in a dumbfounded manner, not seeming to understand their reactions.

    “I said it already,” he says, voice saying he’s at a loss. “Kexing and I have become rather fast friends. He is a good boy; it was no fault of his own that he ended up where he did. Would you villainize him for it?”

    Shen Shen scoffs, disbelieving. “Friends? Is that why he was spread across your bed like that? Like he’s waiting to have his legs spread and flower plucked?”

    Zhao Jing blinks at him, shocked. “...is that what you think of me, Wu-di?” He sighs, shaking his head and sitting back. “I don’t know that Kexing knows how not lounge in such a manner. It seems a...habit. I am trying to break him of it gently, show him that it is not necessary, but it’s so ingrained in him. It’s no wonder it will be slow going.”

    “A habit? What kind of habit is that?” Shen Shen sneers.

    Zhao Jing looks at him sharply, disapprovingly. It is uncommon enough that it gives Shen Shen pause.

    “A habit one develops after at least eight years being groomed and violated by a Master of the Ghost Valley. He is a bed slave, Wu-di. Are you truly surprised that he feels the need to appear desirable at any given time? Do you really think that wasn’t likely beaten into him when he was young enough that he shouldn’t have know what seduction really means? Someone in his position does what experience tells them is expected of them, to avoid disapproval.”

    Shen Shen and Gao Chong both pause at this, realization dawning that Zhao Jing is almost certainly right. Wen Kexing floats through his every action and interaction with his sensuality on display, accentuated by the way he moves, the way he talks, the way he smiles and flutters his eyes.  

Considering the nature of his place in Ghost Valley, they should have thought that this behavior might be less of a choice, and more because it is all he knows how to do. It is...a horrifying thing, to wonder how young Wen Kexing might have learned that ‘seductive’ had to be his default.

    “I’ve been trying to make sure he has a safe space here,” Zhao Jing says quietly. “Somewhere he can go where he does not have to worry about being used in such a way. That is your answer, Wu-di. What Wen Kexing is doing here is relishing in a place where he can drink wine, eat his favorite snacks, and have genuine conversation without fear for his sanctity.”

Shen Shen at least has the good sense to feel ashamed of himself, for making such lascivious assumptions about his brother and, well...for judging Wen Kexing. 

He thinks back on the ghost's arrival. He'd come with the Department of the Unfaithful, the only man in the bunch, and declared with a smile that he simply preferred their company. Is that, Shen Shen wonders, because experience has led him to feel safer with women than men?

Gao Chong sighs. "It is very kind of you, Er-di, to offer him that. 'Uncle Zhao'. I see. I'm glad he has found some measure of trust in you."

"As am I," Zhao Jing responds, meek as usual and not lashing out at the unfair assumptions that had been made of him. "What does bring you here, Da-ge? Wu-di?"

Gao Chong nods, straightening. A hint of joy renters his eyes. "Yusen is here."

Zhao Jing is visibly surprised. "Zhang Yusen? Our brother? In Sanbai Manor?"

"Not the manor, no, but Yueyang. He sent us a letter this morning. He was concerned to hear of the attendance of the Ghost Valley, and wishes to be close by in case we need him to lend aid."

Zhao Jing smiles, glowing with the same delight they had when they'd first gotten the missive.

"That's wonderful! I wish he would have come and let us accommodate him here, but…no matter. We will have to make arrangements to meet with him. Surely he can not deny us a meal, after all this time?"

Gao Chong smiles, nodding. "I would certainly hope not. It would be nice, to see him again. But Er-di…"

Zhao Jing's smile falls, face curious. "Da-ge?"

"I am glad you are doing what you are doing for Wen Kexing. Still...keep this from him, won't you? He has, as you say, been groomed by the Ghost Valley Master for a very long time. Were he to report it to his Guzhu and his Guzhu have unsavory intentions...well, I'd rather we not find out, agreed?"

Zhao Jing's face falls a little, frowning. "You do not trust him? Da-ge...he is not nearly so loyal to his Guzhu as his Guzhu would think. He wants out, he would not sabotage us."

"It could be an honest mistake; the Valley Master may even hurt him, Wu-di, if he suspected he was withholding information. It is for the best that he stays ignorant."

Zhao Jing sighs, before nodding slowly. "...alright. You are right, of course."

 

----

 

Zhao Jing is unsurprised when Kexing slips back in unbidden but moments after his sworn brothers have left. His regal face is sour, brow furrowed and lips pouted with distaste.

Zhao Jing chuckles. "What's that face for, Kexing?"

Wen Kexing glances imperiously back at the door. "They think you a fool. It...rankles me."

Oh, dear, Zhao Jing thinks. Offense on his behalf? He really has snared this curious creature quite thoroughly, hasn't he?

"I see...it rankles me as well, Kexing. It has always been this way."

Wen Kexing clicks his tongue. "Always? Hmph. Fools are those who see not what stands right in front of them. You'd be a more cunning and effective leader of the Alliance than that gray haired buffoon. Would you like me to take care of them?"

Zhao Jing laughs again, knowing that the borderline joking tone in Kexing's voice does not at all mean he's actually joking.

"Are you getting restless, having to behave yourself? You want to be my killer, Kexing?"

Wen Kexing hmphs a laughing breath, lips curling in a wry smirk. "I would love nothing more than to be your killer, Uncle Zhao."

Zhao Jing stands, smiling, to walk towards his pet ghost. "While your enthusiasm is delightful, Kexing, I'm afraid I can't let you do that."

A sultry pout is aimed at him, those big dark eyes puppy-like. "Why?"

"Kexing...did your Guzhu become and remain Valley Master for so long through killing ability alone?"

Wen Kexing raises an eyebrow. "No."

"Hmm," Zhao Jing hums, nodding. "I imagined not. What else, then, has kept him on top as he is?"

Wen Kexing watches Zhao Jing pace in a leisurely fashion, responding after but a moment's consideration. 

"Insidiousness. Cunning. A talent for reading the thoughts and intentions of others, and playing his opponents for fools while allowing them to believe themselves the yellow sparrows right up until the moment he plays his winning hand."

Zhao Jing smiles. "I see. Your Guzhu and I are very alike in that manner, Kexing. I let them believe I am a fool because it is to my benefit to be underestimated, my boy. I will let them dig their own graves, and push things into place from behind the scenes."

Taking a breath and turning towards Kexing, he says, "Zhang Yusen has arrived in Yueyang. One of our brothers."

Wen Kexing blinks at him, startled by what seems an abrupt change of topic. "Is that what they came to say?"

"Yes. Let me tell you, Kexing, how we will use Zhang Yusen to tear my beloved Da-ge from his pedestal. I think it will delight you."

A slow smile spreads across Wen Kexing's face, eyes twinkling. "Do tell."

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

It has been a full day since Wen Kexing and Ye Baiyi left Zhou Zishu alone in his room the other night, after his revealing his nails and Lao Wen’s near breakdown.

    The fact that he has not seen or heard from Lao Wen since worries him, but he will not go look for him. If Zhou Zishu has been feeling mildly alarmed at how soft he feels he’s become because of the other man, he can only imagine that the Master of Ghost Valley has felt the same. If anything, Lao Wen is likely less familiar with genuinely caring for others than Zishu is. 

    It is best to let a person like that have space to sort their thoughts out. He may worry, but he is also certain that Lao Wen will return to him when he’s ready.

    It’s no sooner that he thinks that than the devil himself knocks at Zishu’s doors. He doesn’t actually wait for a respectable amount of time after knocking, or announce himself properly. He just slides the doors open and comes inside, smiling his usual up-to-no-good smile at seeing that Zishu is present.

    This, too, Zishu had expected. That when Lao Wen came to find him again, it would be pretending nothing had happened at all.

    “Lao Wen,” he says dryly, doing some pretending himself. Pretending he doesn’t feel a great sense of relief and ease at the sight of his zhiji. “Was the purpose of knocking perhaps lost on you somewhere? What would you have done if I’d been bathing?”

    Wen Kexing grins like a shark and replies, “Rejoiced.”

    Zishu can’t help his genuine snort of amusement, and something like pride flickers across Wen Kexing’s face at coaxing mirth out of him. It’s a charming expression, one Zishu would like to see more of. Perhaps he’ll let his amusement show more often, though he’ll need to make sure Lao Wen doesn’t notice it’s intentional.

    “I have a favor to ask of you, A-Xu,” Wen Kexing says, coming to sit at the table with him. 

    Zhou Zishu raises an eyebrow. “Oh? And here I thought you came because you missed telling me how beautiful I am.”

    “Oh, I did,” Lao Wen says. “Every moment not looking upon your countenance is a moment wasted, I’m afraid. It is simply coincidence that I also have something I’d like to ask of you.”

    “Hmph. Fine then. Spit it out, Lao Wen.”

    Wen Kexing straightens his back, intentionally aloof. Zhou ZIshu wonders if he even realizes that Zishu has long since figured out he only does that when whatever he’s about to say or propose matters more to him than he wants someone to think.

    “Zhang Yusen arrived in Yueyang the other night.”

    Zishu blinks. “Zhang Yusen…? One of the brothers of the Five Lakes Alliance, correct?”

    “Correct.”

    “What about him, then?”

    “He will die tonight.”

    Zhou Zishu’s eyebrows bounce up. “Do you have some kind of grudge against him?”

    “Hm,” Lao Wen hums. “I suppose I do, in a way. But it isn’t me with his murder on my mind. Zhao Jing is sending his Scorpions to the inn Zhang Yusen has holed his family up in, to kill he and his three sons.”

    “Why?”

    “That is where it gets interesting, A-Xu. You ask the right questions. The Glazed Armor being in the possession of the Five Lakes Alliance is, of course, something of an open secret. Everyone knows, but nobody has had the guts to make a fuss quite yet. Zhang Yusen split from his brothers, stopped associating with them, after the mess with Rong Xuan that ended with the truce between Ghost Valley and the jianghu.”

    “Naturally,” Lao Wen continues, examining his fingernails idly, “that means that public opinion is that he does not trust his brothers any longer. That perhaps he believes they covet his piece of the Armor. And now, if people find out that he has was in Yueyang only because he and his children were murdered in their beds as soon as they arrived?”

    Zhou Zishu nods, understanding beginning to dawn. Lao Wen had told him already that he suspected Zhao Jing coveted the role of head of the Alliance, and he imagines that must have been confirmed somewhere in their short time apart, because…

    “The jianghu will suspect that someone in the Five Lakes Alliance thought they could get away with killing him covertly and taking his piece of the armor, since his presence in Yueyang was not known, and he was not staying at the manor.”

    Lao Wen smiles at him in that way he has, the one that says Zishu’s deductive reasoning is attractive to him.

    “Indeed. And who is considered the driving force, the leading mind in the Five Lakes Alliance?”

    “Gao Chong,” Zishu answers. “It will be the tipping point that attendees of the Conference needed to speak openly about the armor being in their possession, and accusations will fly.”

    Wen Kexing nods. “Public opinion will turn. With the temperaments of these jianghu fools, violence will likely break out in some form.”

    “And Zhao Jing can sit back and watch while his one little push brings disaster to the Alliance’s de facto leader,” Zishu finishes. “And what about this, Lao Wen, requires a favor from me?”

    “Well,” Kexing says, looking studiously at the table as if he hasn’t a care in the world. This favor means something to him, then. “I happen to know the inn the Zhangs are staying at. Wouldn’t it be unfortunate, if someone skilled enough to thwart such an assassination attempt just happened to be there at the right time?”

    Zhou Zishu sits back, intrigued. “You want me to stop this assassination plot. And you can’t do it yourself because Zhao Jing told you specifically it was going to happen and you need to appear to be on his side.”

    “You’re so intelligent, A-Xu. It’s terribly attractive.”

    “What I’m curious about,” Zishu continues, as if Lao Wen had not said anything at all, “Is why you care what happens to Zhang Yusen and his sons.”

    Lao Wen blinks at him, all wide eyes and feigned innocence. “Is it not enough to want to see my dear Uncle Zhao’s plan go awry?”

    Zishu says nothing, only quirks a skeptical brow.

    Lao Wen heaves a sigh and rolls his eyes, pouting. “I met the youngest of the brats in the market the other day. Painfully naive and a little dumb.”

    Zhou Zishu takes a moment to process it. Then, slowly, a shit-eating grin starts to spread across his face. “You liked him.”

    “Tch. He was tolerable, I suppose.”

    “You liked him, and you want to protect him,” Zishu pushes, trying not to laugh at the sour look on Lao Wen’s face.

    “I simply think it would be a shame for such an unsullied little lamb to die so soon. Is that not allowed of me?”

    “Of course, of course. It would be a shame for the little lamb you made friends with in the market to go to slaughter so soon, Guzhu.”

    Lao Wen clicks his tongue and swats at him, finally dropping the act as he realizes that there will be no convincing Zhou Zishu that he isn’t asking this favor simply because he likes the youngest of the Zhang brats.

    “Stop that. I’m not going soft, A-Xu.”

    “Of course not. I would never dream of suggesting such a thing.”

    “I’m not! I am a cruel and selfish man!”

    “Indeed, I have never doubted it.”

    “I am! Do you want to know, A-Xu, what I thought when I first saw you?” Wen Kexing leans in with those wide eyes, the ones that Zishu imagines very much frighten his ghosts.

    Zhou Zishu smiles and plays along. “What, Lao Wen? What cruel and selfish thing did you think when you first laid eyes on me?”

    Lao Wen smirks, looking him up and down slowly. “I thought, ‘I’ve never seen such a peerless beauty. I think I’ll take him home as a pet.’”

    Suddenly, Zishu stops finding things so funny and starts noticing how close they are. How handsome Wen Kexing is. How much he wants him.

    “The same kind of pet people think you are, Lao Wen?”

    “Mmm,” Wen Kexing hums, a hedonistic sound. “Exactly that kind of pet.”

    Heat starts to curl in Zhou Zishu’s belly. “Do you think, Lao Wen,” he murmurs into the scant space between their faces, noting with a jolt of satisfaction that Wen Kexing’s eyes flicker immediately down to his lips, “that I would let you make a pet of me without a fight?”

    “Absolutely not,” Lao Wen breathes, smiling. “That just makes you all the more alluring.”

    Zishu caves. He leans in, eyes on Lao Wen’s divine mouth and mind on the way it felt when he’d kissed him so roughly and desperately the other night. He’d like to know what that mouth feels like when Lao Wen is relaxed and willing to take his time. To enjoy.

    Lao Wen puts a hand on his chest just before their lips meet and breaths a, “Wait.”

    Zishu blinks, startled. He reels a little, confused and having to draw himself out of his single minded focus on pressing their mouths together. 

    “Lao Wen?”

    “Does this count as my taste?”

    His taste? His...his taste. The taste Zishu had promised him if he’d behave himself with Ye Baiyi. Zhou Zishu is unsure why that matters, but answers regardless.

    “Yes…?”

    Lao Wen exhales slowly, licking his lips and murmuring, “Then as much as it pains me to say it, A-Xu...don’t kiss me. I’d like a taste of something else.”

    He gets only a moment to process the meaning of such words, before Wen Kexing’s elegant hand is pressing itself between his legs and taking a hold of his cock through his robes. His hand is warm, his grip firm, his wrist turning to give Zishu one slow, languid roll. 

    Zhou Zishu fights the desire to close his eyes and exhales his pleasure shakily. That seems to be answer enough for Lao Wen.

    “Go sit for me, A-Xu? On the edge of the bed?”

    Zhou Zishu swallows the lump in his throat and gingerly eases Lao Wen’s hand off of him to obey. If Lao Wen wishes to taste him, he is far from unwilling. That being said, he still finds himself nervous when he settles there, watching Wen Kexing’s sultry figure approach, unhurried.

    It’s silly. He is not inexperienced. He is no stranger to oral sex. Why should it feel so different, just because it’s never been a man who prowls towards him like this?

    Something hot clenches in Zishu’s gut when Lao Wen falls to his knees between his spread legs, looking up at him like he’s never seen anything so delectable as Zhou Zishu. Looking like he’d give the whole world just for the opportunity to get on his knees for him. Zishu barely keeps from moaning at the sight of it.

    Lao Wen smooths his hands over Zhou Zishu’s knees, slowly down his calves. Instead of parting his robes right away, as Zishu expected him to, he pulls his boots off in languid, purposeful motions.

    At the sight of Zishu’s raised eyebrow, he smirks, eyes molten. “I want to see it when they curl.”

    Zishu scoffs breathily, adopting a small smirk and a challenging gaze as if the words didn’t make him twitch in his pants. “You’re quite self-confident, Lao Wen, to think you can make my toes curl.”

    He means it. He’s not a stranger to sex, even if much of it came when he was on his fair share of honeypot missions. He’s been brought off by hands, mouths, and the silken insides of many a woman. It’s felt good. Felt great. It’s rarely, if ever, managed to curl his toes.

    Lao Wen just takes the challenge in his gaze for what it is. “You’ve never had a tongue like mine, A-Xu.” 

The conviction with which he says it leads Zishu to believe it.

Wen Kexing doesn’t bother to untie his robes. He just hikes them up, parts them, and ducks under them to lay his hot, open mouth on the shape of Zhou Zishu’s cock right through the fabric of his pants.

It feels divine. Zishu sighs, relaxes, and lets his head roll back as Lao Wen laves his tongue lazily along the shape of him. Enjoys the warmth and lazy pleasure as Wen Kexing coaxes him to swell into full hardness. Only then do his elegant fingers free Zishu from the confines of his pants.

Getting to feel Lao Wen’s velvet lips and hot tongue on his bare skin gets him to hum, going lax and submitting to the feeling. How long has it been, he wonders, since he was so free of tension? So trusting in the presence of another?

Goosebumps break out across his skin when Lao Wen takes his tip into the wet heat of his mouth, tongue tracing lazy paths along his head and pushing his foreskin back to tease at the sensitive spots beneath.

In return, Zishu offers him his first open mouthed moan, soft but genuine and rife with pleasure. It feels good. It feels really good. There is no hurriedness in the way Lao Wen tastes him, all slow, languid strokes of tongue and lips, but each drag is intensely pleasurable.

“Does it feel good, A-Xu?” Lao Wen murmurs as he kisses a trail down the side of his cock, cradled and held in place by one large hand. 

“Mnnn,” he moans. “Feels good.”

Lao Wen’s lips curl into a smile against him, and he continues to kiss his way down until his mouth has landed on that velvety stretch of skin that lays in the crook between hip and groin. He kisses at it, licks at it - and then latches on with his teeth and bites hard enough to break skin.

Zishu shouts with equal measures surprise and pain, hand darting down to fist in Lao Wen’s hair and yank his head back.

“Lao Wen!” he growls. “You lunatic!”

Wen Kexing just grins at him with blood in his teeth, eyes hazy with lust. He seems far from adverse to the way Zishu holds him by the hair, licking his lips and moaning softly. 

He’s the sexiest thing Zhou Zishu has ever seen. 

“Do that again,” Zishu says, threat in his tone and brand new injury pulsing with fresh pain, “and see what happens to you.”

“Don’t worry, A-Xu,” Lao Wen slurs. “I’ve put my mark on you. I don’t need to do it again.”

Zishu scoffs and relinquishes Wen Kexing’s silken hair, pretending that his cock didn’t jump at the realization that what Wen Kexing had just done was mark him. Like property. 

He’s not softened one bit. Lao Wen grins when he realizes this, but thinks better than to comment. He resumes his work with gusto, as if to make up for sinking his teeth into Zishu’s hip.

Zishu is ashamed to say that within seconds, all is forgiven. He even spreads his legs wider without meaning to, groaning low in his throat as Wen Kexing mouths and suckles at him like a starving man. His tongue is wicked indeed, seeking out every sensitive spot Zishu didn’t know he had and exploiting them to the fullest.

The pleasure is so that he starts lose his awareness of his surroundings, world narrowing to precious little but the feeling of Lao Wen sucking him off. It’s not something he can say anyone has done before, made him feel good enough - safe enough - to just let go like this.

“Ohhhhh, Lao Wen,” he moans, shuddering as that sinful mouth starts to take him deeper. And deeper. He has but a moment to wonder when Lao Wen is going to stop when he’s promptly taken all the way to the base and into Wen Kexing’s throat. 

He gasps, blindsided by the pleasure; and then Lao Wen swallows around him.

He cries out, hands finding their own way back into Lao Wen’s hair simply because he desperately needs something to hold onto in the face of the unbearable pleasure that such heat and pressure around his cock brings.

“Lao Wen! Fuck, Lao Wen…”

Unexpectedly, a fingernail grazes the sole of his foot, and as he jerks his leg away in surprise he realizes why. His toes are curled. Even with his cock down Lao Wen’s throat, he can feel the smug curl of Wen Kexing’s lips where they’re settled against his groin.

“Mnnnnn, fuck,” he groans, Wen Kexing affording him no mercy now. He draws back, drags his tongue across the sensitive underside of the head, and plunges back down to take him in his throat. He does it over and over and over again until Zishu is gasping, rocking his hips, and, after an unbearably long moment teetering on the precipice, spills with a shout. 

The orgasm is blinding. The best he’s ever had. By the time he comes back to himself, chest heaving, Wen Kexing is pulling slowly away from him and licking his lips again, smug like the cat that got the cream.

Zishu can’t find much to say other than, “Fuck, Lao Wen…”

Wen Kexing laughs, an oddly genuine sound. He is pleased to have pleased Zhou Zishu. His eyes are hazy, aroused, and Zishu realizes after a moment that Lao Wen is palming himself lazily through his own robes.

“Lao Wen...let me touch you, instead?”

Wen Kexing grins, leaning his head on Zishu’s knee and purring his response. “I’d rather have your mouth. I dare say I’ve been fantasizing about it from the moment I laid eyes on you.”

It brings Zishu equal measures arousal and nervousness to hear him say that. The idea of jerking Lao Wen off had already been a little daunting if only because the only cock he’s ever touched is his own. That being said, at least he knows how he likes to do it to himself. 

To take Lao Wen in his mouth, though...it’s not only intimidating because it’s a first, but he finds that the idea of performing in a disappointing manner is one he greatly dislikes. 

His face must show his nervousness, his hesitance, because the grin falls off of Wen Kexing’s face slowly. His voice becomes gentle, genuine. “A-Xu...you don’t have to, if you don’t want to.”

“I do!” Zishu says, and finds he means it. He wants to, he just doesn’t know how. The last thing he wants is for Lao Wen to think he would let him do that to him with no intention of offering pleasure in return.

Lao Wen looks curious, hands smoothing up and down Zishu’s thighs in a motion that seems almost unconscious. “You do? Then why so shy, A-Xu? You look like a frightened rabbit.”

Zhou Zishu isn’t sure what to say, and something like disbelief dawns slowly across Lao Wen’s face. He blinks a few times, and then asks. “A-Xu? Have you really never sucked a partner off?”

Zishu flushes, and admits with a snappy tone, “I’ve never had a man at all.”

It does not get the reaction he was expecting. He was expecting surprise, expecting Lao Wen to even laugh at him, perhaps. He was not expecting the way Wen Kexing’s eyes go wide and hazy. He’s not expecting him to moan , a reedy sound that drifts from his throat.

A-Xu,” he croons, seeming unbearably aroused by the revelation. “You’ve never had a man…? Never?”

Zhou Zishu swallows, averting his eyes. He’s embarrassed. “Never wanted one. Until you.”

Wen Kexing moans again, hips shifting forward and, to Zishu’s surprise and arousal, rutting against his shin. “Oh, A-Xu . A-Xu, really?”

“Really! How many times do you want me to say it, Lao Wen? Leave me some of my face, will you?”

“Oh, A-Xu ,” Lao Wen groans, crawling up him like the manifestation of lust itself, climbing into his lap and nosing at his jaw, his neck. He seems possessed with the idea that he’s the first man Zhou Zishu has ever had. “You must let me have you, A-Xu. Not now, it doesn’t have to be now, but you must. Oh, A-Xu. I’ll make you feel things you didn’t know you could feel. To see your face when I press my fingers into you, what paradise that will be. To spear you open on my cock, watch you gasp and squirm and cry your pleasure. I’ll make it so good for you, A-Xu, so good…

Zhou Zishu fears that if he doesn’t get Wen Kexing to shut the fuck up, he may come again from this alone. His heart thunders in his chest as if he truly were a frightened rabbit, body quivering with each new promise Wen Kexing moans into his ear.

“Lao Wen,” he gasps, somewhat desperate to stop the onslaught of wanton words. “Lao Wen. Look at me.”

Wen Kexing draws his head back from where he was dragging his teeth across Zhou ZIshu’s jugular, eyes hazy with lust but still holding a question. Waiting to make sure Zishu is okay. 

“Lao Wen. How about you shut up and let me suck you off, okay?”

It’s as if Wen Kexing forgot that was on the table at all, blinking rapidly and then lighting up, hips giving a little kick where he sits in Zishu’s lap. “Yes. Yes, okay. Please.”

Lao Wen slips off of his lap, seeming to gather himself as he goes. His eyes have cleared some and demeanor returned to the collected man he usually is by the time he’s sat back on the bed and Zishu has taken up his place on his knees.

It’s...strangely arousing, to be sitting between Lao Wen’s open legs like this, knowing that he’s here with every intention to take Lao Wen’s cock in his mouth. Lao Wen lets him adjust quietly, patiently, just drinking the sight of him in as if he’s a fine work of art.

Oddly enough, Zishu finds being in this position...grounding. He calms as he, too, runs his hands along Lao Wen’s thighs and calves, and finds in himself something he hadn’t quite expected. A spiteful determination to excel.

The first thing he does, as a result, is pull Lao Wen’s boots off and look up at him with a steely determination in his gaze and a budding smirk. 

“I want to see them when they curl.”

Lao Wen is openly surprised, and then laughs his delight, eyes twinkling with something savage. “Is that so? You’ll be hard pressed, A-Xu, to make my toes curl. Especially as fresh as you are.”

“I’m a quick learner,” Zishu shoots back. “And I fight dirty.”

Wen Kexing laughs again, looking down at him like he hung the moon and the stars, instead of like he’s just a man down here to offer pleasure with his mouth. It’s empowering, to be looked at like that.

Zhou Zishu does what Lao Wen did not and undoes the ties of his robes, parting them so he can shuffle closer and see what he’s working with. Lao Wen strains against his pants. Zishu suspects it must be painful by now, and when he pulls at the trousers enough for the swollen, red head to peer out, he nearly winces.

Lao Wen has to be aching something fierce, and yet he sits and waits so patiently. It’s like he’s counting his lucky stars to have Zishu between his legs at all, ready to take whatever Zishu deigns to offer him.

“A-Xu,” comes the petulant whine, Wen Kexing wiggling his hips so his cock bobs pitifully. “Are you just going to stare at me all day?”

Well, Zishu amends with reluctant fondness, almost patient. Still impressively so, if the jump Lao Wen’s cock gives when Zishu exhales his amusement is anything to go by. 

Zhou Zishu takes him in hand, giving him a few languid strokes and finding himself surprised by the rush of power he feels when Lao Wen moans above him. His touch gives pleasure. What power, indeed.

Lao Wen sighs and rolls his head when Zishu starts to mouth at him, applying anything he can remember having been done to him through the overwhelming haze of pleasure the memory of it is. He seems to be doing a good enough job, if the way Lao Wen spreads his legs and continues to voice his pleasure is anything to go by. 

Of course, the bite mark on the delicate skin under his robes still throbs, so he feels no guilt when he takes Lao Wen’s balls between his fingers and pinches, hard.

Lao Wen howls, back bowing over Zishu’s head and hand flailing to grab Zishu’s and pull it away, threading their fingers together to keep it from wandering back to its target. 

“Don’t do that,” Lao Wen moans, and Zishu feels vicious satisfaction right up until the moment his zhiji finishes with, “you’ll make me come.”

He almost chokes around the cock in his mouth from shock alone. He should have known, he muses, that a lunatic like Wen Kexing would get off on that.

He pulls his mouth away for just long enough to look seriously at Lao Wen’s flushed, dazed face and say, “If you ever pinch me like that, I’ll castrate you.”

The laugh he gets in response dissolves into a moan as he sets back to his task with enthusiasm, a quick learner indeed. He’s sure he’s not doing quite as stellar a job as Lao Wen had, especially considering there’s only so far he can take his zhiji into his mouth before he chokes, but Lao Wen certainly seems to find it satisfactory. 

Satisfactory enough to start rocking his hips in aborted little motions and gasping, “A-Xu, A-Xu,” before he comes with a punched out groan and a full body tremble.

There is simply one problem. Wen Kexing’s toes are not curled, and that simply will not do. Fully aware of how cruel it is and not fooling himself into thinking either of them aren’t exceptionally cruel men, Zhou Zishu suckles Lao Wen through his orgasm and, when he starts to come down, doubles down.

Lao Wen gasps sharply as he sucks on his tip, hard, hips stuttering like they can’t figure out if they want to move away or into the stimulation.

“A- A-Xu! A-Xu, that’s- I’m- no more, A-Xu, I-!”

Wen Kexing’s hands flutter desperately around Zhou Zishu’s head, landing in his hair and pushing at him, but not with a convincing amount of strength. He’s a little busy gasping and trying to twist away, eyes wide and cock oversensitive. 

“A-Xu! A-Xu, please, I-!”

Only when Lao Wen’s cries reach a fever pitch and his hands push with actual force does Zishu relent, and Lao Wen curls in on himself as soon as he’s relinquished. His back bows, his knees come up to his chest, hands pinning his robes to the bed between his legs and body shaking. 

While Lao Wen shudders with eyes squeezed shut, making high pitched little gasps in a suspiciously rhythmic manner, it dawns on Zishu what exactly he’s looking at. 

Are you coming again?”

Lao Wen nods frantically, moaning out a trembling, “Uh-huuuuhhhhhh…!”

His toes are curled.

“You fucking lunatic,” Zishu murmurs, awe and affection in his voice as the throes of his second orgasm finally relinquish their hold on Lao Wen. “Didn’t it hurt?”

Lao Wen looks at him from where he’s sprawled back on his elbows, gasping and disheveled. “The torture,” he asks with a rasp, “Or the earth-shattering orgasm?”

Zishu just huffs, shaking his head in disbelief and climbing onto the bed to push sweaty hair out of his zhiji’s face. “You’re crazy, Lao Wen.”

“Mnnnnnn,” Wen Kexing moans in response, face one of total bliss. 

“Lao Wen.”

“Mnnn.”

“Your toes curled.”

Wen Kexing laughs, staring at Zhou Zishu with half lidded eyes that contain a depth of affection Zishu doesn’t know what to do with. “I know. Thank you.”

They lay together for but a few moments, tracing their fingers across whatever bare skin they can find, before there’s a knock at the door.

“Zhou Xu?” comes a female voice, brash and insistent. It’s Gu Xiang. “Is my ge there? Zhou Xu?”

Wen Kexing groans, calling out. “A-Xiang. Can’t you go away and let me bask in the afterglow?”

An exaggerated retching noise comes from beyond the door. “Gross! There are people asking for you outside the manor, ge.”

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

Lao Wen groans, a dramatic sound that makes Zishu smile.

"Well who is it, A-Xiang? What do they want?"

"I don't know," she grouses, sounding as if being asked to know such things is offensive to her sensibilities. "Some guy and his sons! He stopped me and asked if I knew you. He said you brought his dumb kid home or something."

This finally catches Lao Wen's interest.

"Zhang Yusen?" Zhou Zishu asks him.

"Mn, must be."

Gu Xiang continues, unaware of their quiet exchange of words. "I told him not to wait around, because if you said you didn't want to meet him I wasn't going to bother letting him know, but he just smiled and said he'd wait anyway."

Her tone says that she's irritated with such a reaction, and Zishu looks at Lao Wen with amusement.

"That's definitely your brat, Lao Wen."

Wen Kexing rolls his eyes at him and sighs, levering himself upright. 

"Fine," he calls to A-Xiang. "I'm coming."

As he gets up, slips his boots on and starts to move to the door, Zishu splutters. "Lao Wen! You can't go looking like that!"

Wen Kexing turns to look at him, all wide eyes and guileless pout. "Hm? Looking like what? I'm fully dressed, aren't I?"

"Like you've just sucked a cock and come a few times," Zishu says, scowling. Lao Wen is a debauched picture, his mouth swollen and color high on his cheeks, hair just mussed enough to be suspicious.

Wen Kexing laughs. "What a coincidence, A-Xu! That is what I've just done. What, you don't think it'll solidify the image of a pitiful bed pet?"

He...has a point there. Zishu sighs, shaking his head. "Fine. But you'd at least do well to have a couple of hickeys. We can't have people thinking the Valley Master is gentle with you, can we?"

Lao Wen grins like a shark. "Of course, what a disaster that would be. I suppose you'd like to do the honors?"

 

----

 

It doesn't take long for Zishu to leave a line of vicious bruises and bite marks along the gorgeous expanse of Lao Wen's throat. 

Lao Wen seems far too delighted with the result when he glances in the mirror, showing absolutely no shame in throwing the doors open and walking out looking like he does.

Zhou Zishu has at least made himself presentable. The only thing one may notice on him might be a flushed mouth.

Gu Xiang looks at them and then promptly flushes with horror. "Ge! You can't walk around like that! You look like you've just been assaulted!"

Wen Kexing smacks the top of her head with his fan. "That is the point, little girl. Catch up, will you?"

"Catch up?" Gu Xiang asks, eyebrows high and face indignant. "I'd sooner run away! I won't be seen with you like this!"

Wen Kexing turns to her, flapping his sleeve as if shooing a bird. "Leave then!"

"I will!" she barks, and sticks her tongue out at him. To Zishu's exasperation, Lao Wen responds in kind, and they both catch the giggle Gu Xiang tries to hide over it as she turns and stomps away.

" Children, " Zishu complains. "The both of you."

He follows Lao Wen through the grounds, although not too closely. If he's to do Lao Wen his favor, it wouldn't do for word to get to Zhao Jing that the pair of them seem particularly chummy. It could arouse his suspicion.

Although honestly, Zishu is coming to suspect that it wouldn't matter if he was right in step with Wen Kexing. Everybody would be too busy gawking at the ghost to notice him.

Lao Wen is just disheveled enough to look like he'd tried to make himself presentable, but hadn't done quite good enough of a job. Even if he weren't, the dark marks on his neck are beyond scandalous for a man at Sanbai manor to be wearing so openly.

One servant drops a plate in the midst of their double take. Zhou Zishu fights not to laugh.

 

----

 

Zhang Yusen is, as Gu Xiang had said he would be, waiting off to the side of a street not far outside of Sanbai manor. He and his sons. 

They are dressed well, but not as well as their station. Smart enough to blend in just a little. It seems Zhang Yusen truly has no interest in the rest of the Conference knowing he's there. He just wants to make sure his brothers are safe.

Zhang Yusen catches sight of them only a little after they catch sight of him, at enough of a distance that the fine details of each other are a tad hazy. It is no doubt Lao Wen's red robes that let them spot him in the first place. 

They only need to share a glance, he and Lao Wen, before Zishu melds into the crowd with all the experience of a spy and assassin, close by but unassuming. Like any other market goer.

Lao Wen strides towards the Zhangs where they linger out of the maindrag, smiling cheerily even as he watches their faces pale as they soak him in.

He does, after all, look like he's quite recently been used for stress relief.

"Zhang-daren," he chimes, bowing. "And Chengling. I'm afraid I'm ignorant of your others sons names, however. Do forgive me."

    Despite gaping wide eyed at him, the Zhang sons in question bow politely and stutter out their names and greetings. Zhang Chengfeng and Zhang Chengluan.

    “While I am curious as to why you wanted me,” Wen Kexing says, mood seeming cheery despite what’s obviously just befallen him, “I confess that I am more curious as to how you knew to ask A-Xiang about me.”

    “Ah,” Yusen says, actually smiling a little. “We have already heard tell, I’m afraid, of a certain incident with one of Sanbai Manor’s koi ponds, and a brash young woman in purple. Something about the way she carried herself told me she was probably who I was looking for.”

    “I do...apologize,” Yusen says, clearing his throat and trying not to look at Wen Kexing’s neck, “for interrupting whatever...business you may have, but I was surprised to hear that you do not often venture past the grounds of the manor, and wanted a chance to speak with you again.”

    “Hmmm,” Wen Kexing hums. “I was rather preoccupied, but it’s fine, I suppose. I admit that it piqued my curiosity to hear you were looking for me. I’d not thought you’d have much interest in further interaction after my chance encounter with Chengling.”

    Zhang Yusen genuinely surprises Wen Kexing by looking guilty when he says that and offering a penitant bow. “I feared you might think that. I wanted to apologize, Wen-daren.”

    Wen Kexing blinks, brows curved in confusion. “Apologize?”

    “You left after you returned Chengling to us, just as soon as you told us you were from the Valley...I am many things, Wen-daren, but I am not a total fool. You expected me to react negatively to it, and so you removed yourself from the situation. And I am ashamed to say that I lived up to that expectation. I judged you instantly and unfairly, as if my youngest son had not taken a rare liking to you and attested to your character. I’m sorry for that.”

    Wen Kexing is silent for a long time, having a hard time comprehending the situation he finds himself in. This man is one of the brothers of the Five Lakes Alliance, all of which he holds a deep resentment towards for the way they turned their backs on his family. And now here he stands, apologizing for...misjudging him?

    Wen Kexing shakes his head, recovering his wits, and stares at Zhang Yusen like he’s as amusing as he is puzzling. “On the contrary, Zhang-daren. I would not say you misjudged me at all.”

    It is the entire Zhang family’s turn to blink and look dumbfounded. 

    “While I am flattered that young Chengling is fond of me, and can honestly say that he needs not fear harm from me, I have told him already that he trusts too easily. I am a many faced creature, and most of them are ugly. Whatever you heard about how I ended up in the Valley, the fact remains that I know little other than the Valley, and, well...one does not survive there for so long without becoming more wraith than man.

“I am likely just as dangerous as you thought, Zhang-daren, if not more so. It is genuinely appreciated, but I implore you not to feel bad for being frightened of me.”

Zhang Yusen looks at him with inquisitive eyes, like he’s a riddle to be solved. “...you are a strange man, Wen Kexing.  You help my son out of the good of your heart, leave so that your presence will not frighten, and then try to make sure I do not feel badly about my rudeness...by trying to convince me that you are exactly the kind of person I thought you were. Yet the person I thought you were in that split second judgment would not have done any of these things. So what am I to make of you?”

Wen Kexing’s lips are curled in a puzzled smile now. The pair of them look at each other with very similar expressions of intrigue and confused amusement. “...I suppose you may think of me whatever you wish, Zhang-daren. Just do not be surprised if I disappoint you.”

“Wen-shushu!” Chengling bursts out, unable to hold it anymore, even with his family’s and Wen Kexing’s eyes all on him now. “Are...are you alright?”

Wen Kexing blinks down at him, hand stilling where he’d been lazily waving his fan, and then laughs. It’s a bright, genuine sound. 

“Little fool! Are you worried for me? You needn’t. I only suffered a little, I promise.” 

He says it with a devilish grin that only a lingering Zhou Zishu probably understands. He had indeed made Lao Wen suffer, though he hadn’t quite expected that it would be enjoyed as it was.

Zishu understands. The Zhangs pity, wondering what kind of life leads a man to smile and say such a thing as if only suffering a little is a great mercy. Although the context is a farce of the Conference’s making, the question itself is valid.

Wen Kexing is indeed far too used to weathering real suffering with a brave face to be considered normal.

“I see,” Yusen says, looking like he’s fighting not to wince. “Would we be able to convince you to have a meal with us? On me, of course. You may think it unnecessary, but I would like to continue to apologize in such a way.”

“As much as I would love to accept, Zhang-daren, I’m afraid I’ll have to decline for now. May I take you up on it another time?”

Until he has revealed himself and played his winning hand against Zhao Jing, it is better that Wen Kexing is not seen as chummy with the Zhangs. He can’t afford to rock the boat just because he finds that Chengling’s family is tolerable.

“Of course, Wen-daren. As long as you don’t mind that my boy Chengling will want much of your attention. It’s not often he finds someone he feels comfortable enough with to make friends. Perhaps you will meet again in the market some time; I would feel assured to know you had an eye on him.”

Yusen’s gaze flickers back down to Wen Kexing’s throat, and his surety fades. “Although…”

Wen Kexing cottons on to his line of thought quickly, shaking his head and huffing wryly. “He would be in no danger for being seen with me. He is not to Guzhu’s tastes.”

Zhang Yusen seems to sigh a sigh of relief, and then smiles apologetically. He’s learning, though, because he doesn’t open his mouth to apologize verbally. He already knows Wen Kexing would tell him that it was a valid concern and he had nothing to be sorry for.

“I’ll be on my way, Zhang-daren,” Wen Kexing says, bowing politely to he and his sons. He starts to turn to leave, and then pauses, contemplative. 

Zhang Yusen does not step back when Wen Kexing turns back and glides into his personal space, nor when he shields both of their faces from prying eyes with his fan, as if to prevent anyone from reading their lips.

“You’re right to be weary of your so called brothers,” he murmurs, eyes dead serious. “There is a traitor in their midst. Watch your back in Yueyang. Watch your sons backs.”

And just like that he’s gone, leaving a chill to run down Zhang Yusen’s spine. He will do as Wen Kexing bids him. He will do his best not to so much as blink.

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

Wen Kexing resolves to spend the evening with Zhao Jing. He cannot, after all, suspect that Wen Kexing sabotaged the murder of the Zhangs when Wen Kexing is by his side. 

Wen Kexing doubts the idea that he would have recruited someone else to do it will even occur to Zhao Jing. Not with how thoroughly he's convinced himself that he has Kexing wrapped around his finger.

Fool.

Wen Kexing looks forward to seeing his face when he discovers that someone has saved the lives of Zhang Yusen and his sons, because that is what will happen.

Wen Kexing has the utmost confidence in Zhou Zishu. He has so much confidence in him that sometimes he scares himself. And yet, he can't find it in himself to worry about being betrayed...A-Xu is his zhiji, and the sentiment is apparently mutual.

He has never trusted someone so implicitly. If Zhou Zishu were to tell him to hold still so he could slit his throat, Wen Kexing would close his eyes and let him do it.

Alas, he's getting lost in his own thoughts. He tends to do that when it involves A-Xu. What could be more pleasant to think about, after all?

It seems nobody had warned Zhao Jing of Wen Kexing's appearance earlier in the day, because when he lets himself into the room, Zhao Jing gapes.

Wen Kexing can't help but laugh at his expression. "What's the matter, Uncle Zhao? Aiyah, everyone's staring at me today."

He pouts and sighs, fwumping onto the bed and altogether looking put upon. "You know, in Ghost Valley nobody would blink at such a thing. The human world is so... proper."

Zhao Jing clears his throat, laughing awkwardly and trying to recover himself. "We have already discussed that what you are used to in the Valley is not normal, haven't we? I'm afraid we out here can't help but be aghast at what your Guzhu does. Are you alright, Kexing?"

"Me? They're but bruises and bite marks, Uncle Zhao. They will fade. As for being aghast with the actions of Ghost Valley's Guzhu...even ghosts find themselves as such, though it's usually when he makes a show of would be usurpers, not when he marks a lover."

Zhao Jing sighs. "Is what he does to you really any less cruel than what he does to challengers, Kexing?"

Zhao Jing means to plant in his head the idea that sexual violence is still violence, Kexing knows. Means to shake him of what must seem a mindset that to be used is not so bad. Wen Kexing leans forward, widening his eyes and letting them go eerily empty. 

"Hmmmm...you tell me, Uncle Zhao. Would you prefer to be skinned? Ripped apart by dogs? Burned alive? Perhaps turned into a human stick? Or would you prefer to be me?"

Zhao Jing balks. Swallows, almost as if he's for the first time wondering about the merits of trying to steal a concubine from this Valley Master.

"And you are certain, it seems, that he has truly done such horrible things, Kexing?"

Wen Kexing laughs, leaning back again. "Why, wondering if it's big talk to impress a beauty? I'm afraid every Ghost in the Valley could you tell you what he's done; attempted usurpers are dealt with in front of a crowd, after all. Attendance is... compulsory. "

Zhao Jing is quiet and pale for long enough to curl a smirk across Wen Kexing's face. "What's the matter, Uncle Zhao? Having second thoughts?"

It is precisely the right thing to say, to pull Zhao Jing right back into doing his utmost to please and endear.

"Of course not, Kexing. It is all the more reason we must get you out of there. I shudder to think what could happen if he were to...tire of you."

The comment is said with concern and hesitation, as if not wanting to scare Wen Kexing but wishing to warn him. What it's really meant to do is frighten him, make him think about what might happen to him if he doesn't do everything in his power to stay on Zhao Jing's good side for a way out of the Valley.

How cute, that he thinks he can play this game.

Wen Kexing lets his expression flicker accordingly for but a moment, before he snorts and puts on the face of dismissive amusement again. He makes it a little thinner than usual, as if it masks unease. 

"Please, Uncle Zhao. Who could ever tire of me?"

Waving his hand to dismiss the topic, Wen Kexing changes direction.

"Our Xiao Xie is sending some Scorpions to deal with Zhang Yusen and his brats tonight, is he not?"

Zhao Jing nods, smiling a little at the nickname Wen Kexing has taken to calling Xie'er.

"Indeed. By now, they are likely on the way."

"Hmmm...what will you do, Uncle Zhao, if they really do find a piece of the Glazed Armor on him? It may still be in Mirror Lake Manor, but he also may be the type to keep it on him."

"That is a good question, Kexing. It would be killing two birds with one stone. Suspicion alone will be enough to wreak havoc...but if we were able to actually place the Zhangs piece of the armor in Da-ge's quarters, that would be quite the incriminating addition."

"And I suppose you would wind up in possession of both pieces anyway, if Gao Chong were to...have an accident befall him, at the hands of all those flaring tempers."

"Naturally. Speaking of the Armor, Kexing…"

Wen Kexing raises a brow, cocking his head. Oh? Are they finally getting around to what Zhao Jing wants from this game he's trying to play with him?

"I have heard concerning rumors in the past, but never had a way to confirm them. Now that you are here, though, my boy…"

"What rumors are these, Uncle Zhao?"

"Rumors that the key to the Armory is in Ghost Valley. In the possession of the Valley Master. Do you know anything about it, Kexing? You are so close to him, after all."

Wen Kexing smiles, a slow curling of the lips, and leans back on his hands. "Why, Uncle Zhao. You are asking just the right person. I am just about the only ghost in the Valley who does know."

He pauses, raising his eyebrows, and Zhao Jing chuckles. He's become somewhat accustomed to this habit of Wen Kexing's, making someone ask for him to tell them what they want to know.

"What do you know, Kexing, that no other ghost does?"

"I know," Wen Kexing purrs, "that those are no rumors."

Zhao Jing's face lights up, excitement and greed showing through his facade. "The key does indeed lie with the Ghost Valley Guzhu, then?"

"It does."

Zhao Jing sits back, eyes shining. "And do you know where it is, Kexing?"

Wen Kexing lets himself grin with all of his teeth, the expression of a predator. He really doesn't know how Zhao Jing hasn't realized he's being preyed upon yet.

"I know exactly where it is. Would you like me to get it for you, Uncle Zhao?"

 

----

 

As Zhou Zishu wanders through Yueyang at night, making his way to his destination while making sure to look as if he has no destination at all, he muses on the situation he finds himself in.

He is here on a mission. Two missions. 

He came here on one from Helian Yi, but that one he had no intention of fulfilling. He came only because it lined up with satisfying his own ravenous curiosity. Curiosity about the Ghost Valley Guzhu's purpose here.

And now, who is it he finds himself willingly fulfilling another mission for, with no obligation to do so outside of his own fondness for the dispatcher? The Ghost Valley Guzhu himself.

What an odd turn of events. He had intended to do no work here, and yet here he is.  What would Helian Yi think, he wonders, if he knew Zishu is happily ignoring the Prince's wishes to do the bidding of a new master entirely?

This master, Zishu muses with a smirk and a flash of heated memory, even kneels for him.

For all he told Wen Kexing he would put up a fight, he suspects he already is his pet. In fairness, he also suspects that Lao Wen is Zishu's pet in turn. It feels nice. To own and be owned. He will be owned by Lao Wen long after the possessive mark of teeth on his hip has healed and gone.

Yes, no amount of bantering with his zhiji changes the fact that he already knows where he will end up when the Conference is over.

With Lao Wen there, he will have no problem seeing the palace in the Ghost Valley as home.

Zishu lingers at the stalls right outside the inn of the Zhangs, the market alive at all hours of the night. Many of the businesses are different than in the day, catering instead to the crowds that may be out at dark. Young couples, hard workers looking for a drink or some food to unwind after grueling hours under the sun. If one knows where to look or what to say, there are plenty that do nefarious business with criminals. 

It will be tricky, Zhou Zishu muses as he turns some baubles over in his hand without truly seeing them, to do this right. The Scorpions are no slouches, an assassination organization with a reach and power impressive enough that Tian Chuang has long been aware of them.

In other words, they are adept at striking quickly and silently. If all were to go as planned tonight, the Zhangs would die in the night with little noise or fanfare. Nobody would notice until their bodies were found in the morning.

Zishu will have to be vigilant enough to notice their entrance into the building and be there to stop the killings, all without seeming like he’s been waiting for them. The first part is not that hard. The second part is the one that’s going to be difficult. 

Or, he muses, as a series of crashes and shouts ring out from the upper floor of the inn shortly after he spots the shadowy figures crawling in the windows, not. It seems Zhang Yusen had taken Lao Wen’s word to heart; he’d been waiting. Watching. 

Zishu is inside and up the stairs faster than the average eye can track, not feeling all too bad about the fact that he kicks the door and splinters it into pieces. This, he muses, is a lot less expensive to fix than blood stains in your floors and furniture and the reputation of having a quadruple homicide occur in your establishment.

The first Scorpion doesn’t even manage to turn to face him before he’s drawn Baiyi and slit their throat. The others are pretty easy to dispatch as well; it’s not that they’re bad at what they do, it’s simply that there are very few people on this earth that can match Zhou Zishu’s martial arts.

It’s over in seconds, and he sustains only one relatively shallow slice to the upper arm. He knows why; it’s late. He’s in pain, and it makes him sluggish. No matter. He’s very practiced at hiding the pulsing agony that radiates from his meridians, as long as it’s not a particularly bad attack.

In the aftermath, Zishu realizes that he made a slight miscalculation in his musings about the damage of the door. There are still bodies pouring blood out onto the floor and splatters on the furniture. It’s just a different set of bodies. 

Hmph. The pain really is making his head fuzzy. How irritating.

When he turns to look at the Zhangs, take stock of them, he finds four wide sets of eyes staring back at him. Well, Zhang Yusen looks like he has a mental handle on the situation, but all of his sons are wide eyed and shellshocked. 

The boys seem mostly fine, save for a few cuts and abrasions. It’s Zhang Yusen who had obviously been ready to meet the assassins and protect his children. He’s bleeding from a couple of nasty slices, and looks to be developing a black eye to go with his split lip, but he’ll live. 

All in all, he should be thanking his lucky stars that that’s the extent of his injuries. Or his lucky ghost, at least.

“Th-that was amazing,” one reedy, frightened voice quivers into the silence. It’s Zhang Chengling, shaking a little and frightened, but staring at Zhou Zishu with awe in his face. “You moved so fast. And fluid. Like water, or...or the wind. How did you do that?”

Hmph...what had Lao Wen said? Painfully naive and a little dumb? Begrudgingly, Zishu can see why Lao Wen had become so quickly fond of the little idiot. Those earnest eyes are painfully endearing.

“He trained hard,” Zhang Yusen replies to his son, a gentle prodding at the awe he sees in his son’s face to encourage him to do the same for once. He rises to his feet slowly, cradling one arm, and surveys Zhou Zishu slowly. 

“...thank you. I’m afraid we owe you are lives, Hero…”

Zishu snorts. “Zhou Xu, and I’m no hero. I heard the commotion and happened to be in the right place at the right time. Fortune favored you tonight, is all.”

He intends to leave, especially before the staff and other guests can take the silence as leave to brave coming to see what happened and a crowd gathers. Zhang Yusen takes him by surprise, though, by huffing a laugh and shaking his head. “Usually I don’t take well to be lied to, Zhou Xu.”

Zishu blinks, pausing. He doesn’t quite formulate a response before Zhang Yusen is lifting his chin and saying, “Wen Kexing sent you. Am I wrong?”

His surprise must show on his face - he will blame that, too, on being thrown off by his pain - because Yusen chuckles and nods.

“I knew it. You were with him earlier today, right before he came over to meet us. I may be a bit older than the two of you, but my eyes aren’t going yet. He warned me we were in danger...but he sent you as well, didn’t he? To protect us.”

Zishu sighs, sheathing Baiyi back around his waist and ignoring the curious eyes on every Zhang in the room at the way it wraps, flexible, around the curve of his body. 

“He didn’t do it for you ,” Zishu says to Yusen, casting a meaningful glance at the waifish figure of Zhang Chengling. 

Zhang Yusen follows his gaze, realizes what he means, and laughs. To Chengling’s credit, he also seems to get it, face lighting up at the realization that Wen-shushu liked him so much he would go to the lengths of sending someone to save the lives of he and his family.

“Regardless,” Zhang Yusen says. “He did it.”

Sighing, Zhang Yusen shakes his head. “There will be no hiding our presence in Yueyang now. Not after this. By morning the Conference will know we are here and that an attempt was made on our lives. I suppose I’ll have to make an appearance after all; but if that’s the case, at least I can thank Wen-daren to his face.”

“Don’t,” Zishu says sharply, startling the Zhangs. 

“...why?” Yusen asks, brow furrowed but eyes sharp. He’s not a stupid man. There’s obviously a reason behind such vehemence.

“Lao Wen will show you no recognition if you show up. You must not show any recognition for him either. None of you.”

He looks specifically at young Zhang Chengling when he says this; he gets the feeling the boy will very much want to go to Wen Kexing, but he mustn’t. 

“Why?” Zhang Yusen asks. “What’s going on, that it cannot be known we know him?”

Zhou Zishu clicks his tongue. “I know Lao Wen told you. That there’s a traitor amongst your brothers here.”

Zhang Yusen takes in a deep breath and closes his eyes, centering himself before he opens them again. They’re tired, but also steely. Angry, but not surprised. “It was one of my brothers, then. That sent these assassins to us.”

“Are you surprised?”

“No. And what does this treachery have to do with what you ask of us?”

“...he will whine incessantly, you know, if he finds out I’ve told you so much.”

Zhang Chengling giggles softly at that, and Zishu curses the jolt of affection he feels. It’s just some brat. Just some brat. Some brat who charmed Lao Wen and is working on him now, god damn it.

“Lao Wen has his own games to play here. People to play.”

Zhang Yusen is no fool. He takes but a moment, before understanding dawns in his eyes. “He knew of this because he heard it from the orchestrator’s mouth.”

Zishu nods.

“He’s gotten close to them, then. He can’t be perceived as knowing us because it will endanger this...game, as you put it.”

“If you understand, do him this favor. You have never met Wen Kexing. None of you.”

Yusen nods, introspective. “Alright. Alright. Zhou Xu...to what end, is Wen-daren playing his game?”

“That’s not my story to tell, Zhang-daren.”

Zhang Yusen sighs. “Of course. That was rude of me.”

The telltale noises of tittering voices and hesitant footsteps begins to coalesce downstairs and down the halls, and that is Zhou Zishu’s cue to leave. 

“Zhang-daren. You’ve never met me either.”

“Of course. It was but a martial artist in the right place at the right time who killed these men. I’m afraid I couldn’t recognize him if I tried.”

Zishu smiles. This Zhang Yusen...he’s not bad.

Zhou Zishu leaves as silently as the Scorpions came.

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

Zhou Zishu would like to know what the fuck is up with men appearing in his rooms uninvited at night. Of course, Zhou Zishu is also shocked but delighted by the identities of these particular men, so he’ll let it go this time around.

It’s well past midnight, into the wee hours of the morning, as he returns carefully and silently to his place in Sanbai Manor after thwarting the assassination of the Zhangs. He is looking forward to collapsing into bed and trying to sleep, but that is, once again, not in the cards for him. 

The braziers in his quarters are already lit, and two figures sit at the table in the middle of the room. One is elegant, tall, a beautiful man in white. The other is a smaller man in black, hair braided intricately. Both turn to look at him when he comes in, and he blinks back at them, dumbfoundedness blossoming into delight.

“Beiyuan? Wu Xi?”

A radiant smile splits Jing Beiyuan’s face, and he rises to walk towards Zhou Zishu. “Zishu! It’s been too long!”

Zishu laughs, a little disbelieving but very happy to see his old friend. They embrace without hesitation, hands clapping each other’s backs. When they part, Zishu nods at the shaman still sitting at the table.

“Wu Xi. It is good to see you again.”

“Likewise, Lord Zhou. Though it’s regrettable that these are the circumstances.”

Zhou Zishu blinks, looking between he and Beiyuan. “Circumstances? Why are you here?”

Beiyuan takes a deep breath, putting his hands on Zishu’s shoulders and looking him over like he’s trying to find something amiss. “A friend contacted us. Asked us to come. Said that he’d met someone who was very sick, injured in a way that was crippling him. That might kill him.”

Zhou Zishu stares blankly at him, and then starts to laugh. “You’re kidding. You’re the friends Ye Baiyi spoke of?”

“Indeed we are. He told me to tell you that you’re an asshole, by the way, for letting him go through the trouble of sending a letter when you already knew us.”

Zishu scoffs. “He never said who you were, I couldn’t have known.”

Not, of course, that he expects that matters to Ye Baiyi.

Beiyuan squeezes his shoulders, joy at seeing Zishu again dampened a little by the concern that lingers in his smiling face. “What happened, Zishu?”

Right. Ye Baiyi had summoned them, which means...he’s going to have to tell his friends what he’s done to himself. He’s going to have to see the pain and fear dawn across yet another pair of faces he cares about. It is no one’s fault but his own, but he still dreads it. 

Lifting his hands to clasp Beiyuan’s elbows in turn, he says, “Let’s sit first, Beiy-”

The doors slam open in a flourish of red robes and an impudent trill of, “A-Xu!”

Wen Kexing stops in his tracks when he sees that Zhou Zishu is not the only one in the room, and his face sours and gets haughty as his eyes track the hands on Zishu’s shoulders, and Zishu’s hands on Beiyuan’s elbows in turn. 

Jing Beiyuan and Wu Xi stare at the new intruder with curious eyes, Wen Kexing glares daggers at Beiyuan, and Zhou Zishu heaves a sigh and laments his own existence.

“Lao Wen,” he grumbles. “Didn’t we have this conversation about knocking, already?”

Lao Wen just hmphs, closing the doors behind him and crossing his arms, looking every bit a spoiled young master drinking vinegar. “Who are our guests , dear A-Xu?”

“Lao Wen,” he warns, “stop your sulking. Our guests are the people Ye-qianbei sent for. Turns out they’re old friends.”

Surprise and a hint of hope flicker across Wen Kexing’s face, though he still aims displeased eyes at the friendly contact between Zishu and Beiyuan. 

“The doctor?” Lao Wen asks, then sneers. “Is this how doctors check qi nowadays?”

Jing Beiyuan laughs, withdrawing his hands. The curiosity is rampant in his face as he looks between the newcomer in red and Zhou Zishu, but he doesn’t ask yet. “Ah, I’m afraid I’m not the doctor. Zishu is simply an old friend, who has not visited me in a shamefully long time despite my recalling a promise to.”

Zishu huffs and smiles, rolling his eyes.

“It is Wu Xi here who is the physician,” Beiyuan finishes, stepping back and gesturing at the shaman where he sits. “Please, let us all join him at the table so we can speak more comfortably…?”

Lao Wen makes another haughty hmphing sound and tosses his head. “Wen. Wen Kexing.”

“Wen-daren. A pleasure to meet you. Any friend of Zishu’s is a friend of mine.”

When they move to sit at the table, Beiyuan and Zishu sitting first, there is a space left on the remaining side for Wen Kexing. He does not take it. Instead, he seats himself with a flourish directly next to Zhou Zishu, so closely that their hips and shoulders touch. 

Zishu sees the moment Beiyuan and Wu Xi spot the marks on Lao Wen’s neck, as well. Near the door, with only the moon behind and the braziers further in the room, the shadows had been stark. It had been easy to miss them. Here, with the braziers providing a more even lighting…

“Hm,” Beiyuan chimes, amusement and a tad bit of wonder on his face. Wu Xi just looks like he’s trying not to laugh. “I suppose I need not keep an eye out for a shapely woman for you any longer, Zishu?”

Lao Wen makes a scandalized sound next to him, and Zishu growls, “Beiyuan.”

His friend has the audacity to smile and look even more amused, raising his hands in a placating gesture. “I’m simply making sure, Zishu. I would not want to waste my time if you no longer need it.”

“He doesn’t,” Lao Wen says next to him, pressing even closer if that’s even possible. 

Beiyuan clears his throat to hide a chuckle, and Wu Xi does not hide his smirk.

“I see, I see. Jesting aside, Zishu...what’s wrong? We were...frightened, to hear Ye-qianbei say you were injured so seriously.”

Zishu twists his mouth, sitting back a little. He can’t look directly at them when he says it, not Beiyuan and not Wu Xi. 

“I’m leaving Tian Chuang.”

Silence prevails, until it clicks for Jing Beiyuan, and Zishu hears his sharp intake of breath. “You took the nails…?”

“All but one so far.”

“Zishu…! Why? If you wanted to leave you could have come to us! We would have sheltered you, Zishu! If I have gone unfound, why did you not think you could…ah. You...you did not want to live with us, did you? You didn’t want to live at all…”

Zhou Zishu nods, still looking somewhere off to the side. “Life itself is exactly what I wanted to escape from, Beiyuan.”

“...and now?”

“...and now I have reason to change my mind.”

Lao Wen shifts, and his creeping fingers find Zhou Zishu’s hand to hold, to entwine where they lay on his lap. 

Wu Xi reaches his hand out, and Zishu extends the arm that is not currently linking fingers with his zhiji. The shaman takes his wrist and feels his qi. 

Outside of the crackling of the fires that light the room, it’s so quiet it’s eerie. Lao Wen’s hand trembles in Zishu’s, and he gives it a squeeze as if that can help. As if Lao Wen’s eyes aren’t wide and not quite right and fixed on Wu Xi. 

Finally, the shaman lets go of him with a sigh, and Lao Wen snaps. “Well?”

“It’s bad.”

Zhou Zishu exhales, nodding slowly. “It’s meant to be.”

Wu Xi opens his eyes, seeming unperturbed by the disturbingly sharp focus that Wen Kexing is aiming at him, jaw clenched and eyes frightening in their intensity. 

“Your meridians are damaged to an extreme extent, and withering. The only one intact isn’t doing well under the stress of trying to keep you alive and running.”

Lao Wen clicks his tongue and huffs, frustrated and impatient. “We know all this already! Anyone can feel that. Can you do something about it, or are you as useless as you look?”

“Lao Wen.”

Wen Kexing turns his head to look at him, eyes molten. He battles visibly to reign his own anger and fear in, and he does not apologize, but he doesn’t snap further for the moment. 

Jing Beiyuan is looking at Zishu with raised eyebrows, as if asking without words just who exactly this rabid animal at his side is. 

“I might be able to help,” Wu Xi says. “But it would be a delicate and difficult process.”

Zhou Zishu doesn’t get to speak on his own behalf, not with the way Wen Kexing is chomping at the bit. “It doesn’t matter what it takes. Just do it! Fix him!”

Wu Xi starts giving Zishu the same look Beiyuan is, clearly wondering how and where Zhou Zishu managed to net a man so clearly not in his right mind and so overwhelmingly devoted to his well being. There is not a doubt in the mind of anyone present that Wen Kexing would tear the heavens themselves down to make Zhou Zishu better.

“Lao Wen.”

“What? Can I not speak, now? Am I not allowed to tell him to fix you? Did we not agree that if you could be helped you would do it? Was I mistaken? You said I was enough, A-Xu! You said-”

“Lao Wen! Enough! I’m not asking to go untreated, I’m asking you to calm down. You look like you’re a moment away from sinking your teeth into someone’s jugular and I dislike seeing my zhiji so distressed. Now stop. Just...just breathe for me, Lao Wen.”

Lao Wen blinks rapidly, derailed and reeling. Whether it be that Zishu addresses him again as a zhiji, tells him how visibly he’s losing it, or confesses he hates to see him upset, something gets through to him. 

Zhou Zishu lifts a hand to the back of Wen Kexing’s head and pulls it gently in, pressing their foreheads together. “Breathe, Lao Wen. Just like that. It’s alright.”

The thing is, Zishu understands what’s happening. He understands the broken way Lao Wen’s mind is working, and why it makes him behave the way he does. Lao Wen no longer knows how to respond to distress like a normal person. He has lived his life constantly in fight or flight, his only viable response to fear to be to exercise iron control. The only way to exercise iron control has been to bully and intimidate, to operate on primal instinct and wield an iron fist. He is spitting and hissing like a wild cat because the cracks in his mind say that is the only way to get what he so desperately wants. He doesn’t know how to discuss Zishu’s treatment civilly when an entire lifetime in the Valley has trained him to think the hope in front of him may be yanked cruelly away the moment he shows a sign of weakness. 

It is hard for a creature like Wen Kexing to wrap his mind around Wu Xi offering help because he wants to help, and not because he hopes to leverage the situation to his benefit through threat of withholding. 

Lao Wen opens his eyes after a long moment, and Zishu smiles. “There you are.”

He pats Wen Kexing’s cheek roughly a couple of times, nearly a slap at the end, and it makes Lao Wen wince and chuckle just as hoped it would.

    “What would it take, Wu Xi?” Zishu asks, not moving from the way he holds Lao Wen. Neither he or Beiyuan comment on it; not when it seems to be doing a good job of keeping the feral creature nearly in their friend’s lap from leaping across the table and tearing them apart.

    “We would have to break your meridians completely, and reconstruct them anew. It’s a dangerous and complicated process, and someone would have feed you enough qi to keep you alive during the process, but not enough to obstruct reconstruction or overwhelm your pathways. You would die if it weren’t done perfectly.”

    “I can do that,” Wen Kexing whispers into the space between them, before taking a breath to fully collect himself and pulling away. He faces Wu Xi and, voice firmer and mask back on, “I can do that.”

    Wu Xi nods slowly. “You would need to keep it consistent and constant. Any falter in concentration or flow could be disastrous. You would need to direct it with precision and care.”

    “For A-Xu, I can be as stalwart as stone and precise as a blade.”

    Wu Xi nods again, seeing something in Wen Kexing’s face that assures him. “Then all that is needed is time for me to prepare, and a safe place for the procedure and recovery.”

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

They agree that Zishu’s treatment will have to wait until the Conference is over, though it is likely that Wu Xi would not be prepared before then anyway. Zishu says that he has a location in mind, but he’ll have to discuss it first, and leaves it at that.

    He thinks Lao Wen doesn’t have a clue that Zhou Zishu is planning to go back to the Ghost Valley with him when the times comes. He was planning on it whether he could be cured or not; if he was going to die slowly, painfully, he would prefer to do it by Wen Kexing’s side.

    He will talk to Lao Wen about it, but only when they are alone and can be earnest and open without Wen Kexing feeling like he must keep up a face for an audience. Zishu can’t express the pride he feels, knowing that he’s one of very, very few people Lao Wen lets his mask down for.

    They chat for a while. Catch up. Lao Wen softens towards their guests as time goes on, though Zishu suspects he still harbors some jealousy for Jing Beiyuan. Perhaps he’s just irritated that Beiyuan has known Zhou Zishu for longer than he has, that they are familiar and fond of each other.

    It’s cute, Lao Wen’s jealousy.

    “You know, Zishu,” Beiyuan says with a smile and tone that tells Zhou Zishu he’s not going to like whatever’s about to come out of his friend’s mouth, “I remember once upon a time, I told you that I had fallen for a man. I was nervous, but I trusted you not to be hateful towards me. Do you remember what you said?”

    Zishu groans. “Beiyuan. Don’t.”

    Jing Beiyuan just smiles wider, eyes twinkling. “You said, ‘Beiyuan, I don’t get why you’d want to bed another man, but you know I’m your friend regardless.’”

    Zishu sighs, rubbing his temples as he feels Lao Wen start to shake with laughter next to him. 

    “Now I have to wonder, Zishu,” Beiyuan continues. “Were you lying to me back then?”

    “I wasn’t,” Zhou Zishu grumbles. “I really never wanted one before, until...until him.”

    He doesn’t have to look to his side to know that Lao Wen is preening and swelling with pride, and somehow he finds himself unsurprised by the salacious arm that Wen Kexing wraps around him.

    A-Xu, ” he croons. “Have I told you how honored I am? I can’t wait to be the first to have you.”

    Zishu scowls, ears and neck hot. He elbows Lao Wen none too gently, though it does nothing to wipe the grin off his zhiji’s face.

    “You pestilence; what do you sound so sure for? Who’s to say it won’t be me who has you?”

    Lao Wen hums, tilting his head. “A-Xu...it’s not that I wouldn’t love to let you have me, but I should at least show you what you’re doing first. The way you are now...would you even know where to find a lover’s prostate, as green as you are?”

    “Where to find your what now?”

    They have the audacity to laugh at him. All three of them, as if his sexual inexperience as a cutsleeve is the height of entertainment. 

"Maybe it's best you let him educate you first, Zishu," Beiyuan chuckles.

He burns with embarrassment, and responds as he usually does. He stands and waves his hand, face screwed up with displeasure. “Alright. Out, out! The sun will rise before I get rid of you at this rate.”

Beiyuan and Wu Xi are familiar with his responses to being embarrassed, so they don't take it to heart. They smile and chuckle and rise, brushing their robes off and bidding him fond farewell. Beiyuan tells him how happy he is to see him again, and that they will do everything they can to help him.

When Jing Beiyuan and Wu Xi have left, Wen Kexing stays. Zishu raises his eyebrows, flicking his sleeve.

"Well? Out. I was talking about you too!"

Lao Wen looks openly surprised and offended. "A-Xu! Surely you wouldn't kick me out into the cold night?"

"No?" Zishu asks. "Fine then. I'll go on a walk myself, please make yourself at home."

He breezes past with his chin high and opens the doors to walk right out, charting a random path through the manor grounds.

It only takes Lao Wen a few startled moments to chase after him, whining like a petulant child. 

"A-Xuuuuuuu! Why so cruel?"

Zhou Zishu rolls his eyes, walking on and tilting his head just slightly in Lao Wen's direction. 

"Did I invite you, Lao Wen?"

"A-Xu! But I'll be so lonely there without you! Why are you mad at me?" 

Zishu can hear the pout, the whine in his voice, and the cadence of his steps tells him that Lao Wen is quite literally dragging his feet like a sulking kid. It's cute.

He's not even really mad. Not even really annoyed anymore. He's playing. It's fun to play with Lao Wen, to tease him and banter with him. 

"A-Xu! Is it because I brought up your inexperience? I take it back, A-Xu, I'll let you have me first!"

Zhou Zishu waves his hand dismissively. "Good luck having me or being had by me at all."

Lao Wen gasps, a scandalized sound that almost breaks Zhou Zishu's act. He makes sure his face is turned resolutely away, because he can't totally suppress his smile.

"A-Xu! But A-Xu! I was so good in there! I let you scold me and I controlled myself and I even got along with them at the end!"

"And?"

"And I was good! I deserve a reward for that, don't I? What am I getting?"

"On my nerves."

Lao Wen sputters, pausing before he resumes his pursuit of Zishu, who has not stopped walking.

By now, they find themselves in a courtyard with a little walled fountain. As Wen Kexing draws up behind him, still complaining and whining and being a general nuisance of a man, Zishu turns around and lifts a hand to grab his face.

It is not a gentle motion, and he squeezes Lao Wen’s cheeks between his thumb and fingers so that lips puff out and the only speaking he can do is warped and slurred. Lao Wen doesn’t fight him, just looks at him with those pitiful puppy eyes and says, “Ehhhh-ssssuuuu…”

Zhou Zishu finally breaks, huffing a laugh. “What was that, Lao Wen? I can’t understand you.”

“Ehhh-ssshhuu!”

Zishu laughs a little louder, leaning in close. It’s an improper distance for two men to be, noses nearly touching, but he doesn’t much care. “You know, Lao Wen, I think I quite like this. You have such a pretty mouth, it’s nice to admire it without all the nonsense that’s usually spewing from it.”

Lao Wen whines petulantly, but still doesn’t pull away. He just stands there - shoulders slightly slumped to ease the height difference - with his lips squished out like a fish. He looks ridiculous. Zishu loves him. 

“You know,” he muses. “You’d look good with these painted red, like how Xi Sang Gui and her girls do. Maybe then it would be worth listening to you talk.”

    There’s a clatter off to the side that has them both whipping their heads around, Lao Wen’s face still in his hand. Had they really been so involved in each other that they hadn’t noticed someone coming?

    It’s even worse than that. They’d been so involved in each other they hadn’t heard multiple, drunk someones coming.

    It’s a group of three young masters, staring at them with wide eyes glazed with drink, clearly returning from a very long night on the town. One of them had walked into the railing of the courtyard path he’d been so busy gawking at them, the sound of his belt and sword colliding with the wood the clatter they’d heard.

    Well, shit. There goes the idea of not being known as associated with each other.

    The men finally seem to get their wits together enough to scramble to make hasty apologies and flee, as if afraid that if they stay they’ll be struck down on the spot.

    “Well,” Zishu says. “That could be a problem.”

 

----

 

Zishu attends the lunch banquet in the banquet hall of Sanbai manor the following morning; which affords him only a few hours of sleep, after a busy night preventing murder by committing murder, meeting old friends, and taking a walk with Lao Wen carried into the early morning hours.

    He attends not only because word of what happened with the Zhangs must be running rampant by now, but because he wants to know if anything is circulating about he and Lao Wen. If the drunken men last night had talked. 

    He fully expects they had, and with the way everyone is always focused on Lao Wen, he doubts even news of the attempted assassination of Zhang Yusen and his sons will manage to totally overshadow it.

    Sure enough, he hears talk of the situation with the Zhangs before he’s even made it to the banquet hall itself. He doesn’t expect to see Zhang Yusen himself present today; he’s without a doubt having his wounds properly attended to, he and his sons deserving a day of rest after an attempt on their lives.

    His first inkling of other rumors comes in the form of a gaggle of people near the very entrance of the banquet hall, speaking with the hushed excitement of juicy gossip.

    “-been right in front of us the whole time! How insidious!”

    “Poor Kexing! He had him by the face, telling him his mouth was pretty, but that he talked too much.”

    “I heard Wen-daren just stood there and took it, looking pitiful. How awful, this Ghost Valley Guzhu! How could anyone look at that face and say cruel things or grip him roughly?”

    Zhou Zishu chokes. Ghost Valley what now?

    The noise draws the attention of the little group finally, and they pale like they’ve seen death itself as they realize who’s staring at them, dumbfounded.

    “G-G-Guzhu!” one of them cries, bowing deep; the rest follow suit so quickly they almost fall over, and Zishu wonders if any of them have pissed themselves yet with the way they’re shaking. 

    “W-we meant no disrespect, Guzhu! I-I mean, we-”

    “I’m not the Ghost Valley Guzhu,” Zishu says, scowling. It’s absurd to him, that such a rumor would start circulating, and that people would believe it. Then again, the people of the jianghu have always been pitifully stupid. 

    “B-but-” one man stutters, and another elbows him hard in the ribs to shut him up before taking over.

    “O-of course! Please, forget he said anything, Lord...Lord…”

    Zhou ZIshu sighs. “Zhou.”

    “Lord Zhou! P-please excuse us!”

    They flee into the hall, and Zishu knows that they absolutely, unequivocally, don’t believe him. Which means, he thinks wryly, that the entire Heroes Conference probably now thinks that Zhou Zishu is secretly the Valley Master of Ghost Valley and will be trembling in their boots whenever he’s near.

    He takes a calming breath to suppress his rising irritation at such rampant idiocy, and walks into the hall to eat, drink, and listen as he’d planned to.

    People startle, pale, and whisper as he passes, and he fights very, very hard not to roll his eyes as he finds a seat and wastes no time in pulling a pitcher of wine over. He can not deal with this without some booze in his system.

    Although he had come here to listen to the whispers, he now finds himself wishing he could tune them out. 

    Finds himself wondering, also, where Lao Wen is. He would have expected he’d want to get a handle on the gossip as well, although Zishu is sure he’s already been to Zhao Jing to discuss the failed attempt on the lives of the Zhang family.

    He no sooner thinks of that godawful nuisance than does the nuisance himself walk into the hall. He has everyone’s attention immediately, as usual, although the staring eyes are even wider than usual. Zishu’s included.

    Lao Wen is striking as always in luxurious red robes, and his eyes are lined underneath with crimson pigment as usual, but he’s made a new addition. His lips are painted bright, sanguine red.

    He is absolutely, earth-shatteringly beautiful. So beautiful Zishu manages to forget the world around him and his frustrations for a long moment, staring with dazed eyes at Wen Kexing.

    Then, Wen Kexing spots him in turn, and a massive grin spreads across his face. It is accompanied by a twinkle in his eye, and that’s enough to tell Zishu that Lao Wen already knows what people are saying about him. 

    The exasperation returns. There’s not a doubt in his mind that Wen Kexing intends to make the situation worse instead of better. It seems to be his favorite past time, after all.

    Sure enough, Lao Wen ignores the rest of the hall to sweep elegantly in Zhou Zishu’s direction, clearly delighting in his new excuse to associate shamelessly with the object of his affections.

    “A-Xu!” he cries as he closes in, and gestures to his face. “What do you think? Aren’t I lovely? Exactly how you thought I’d be.”

    He stops in front of Zishu’s table, and Zhou Zishu stares up at him with a deadpan, unimpressed stare. Lao Wen waits for a few seconds, and then starts to pout and put on his show.

    “A-Xuuuu...I put it on just for you, you know. Don’t you like it?”

    Zhou Zishu sighs, closing his eyes and resisting the urge to massage his temples and fend off the oncoming headache. “You look lovely. Are you going to sit, or not?”

    He knows better than to think Wen Kexing will leave him alone, after all.

    “As you wish,” Lao Wen purrs, and then proceeds to round the table and sit directly in his lap. Zishu stiffens and splutters, scowling. 

    “Lao Wen!”

    “What? We can’t pretend we aren’t acquainted anymore, A-Xu. Won’t you allow me this? Here, I’ll even make myself useful!”

    Lao Wen hooks one arm around Zishu’s shoulders for stability and leans forward in a sinuous, elegant motion to snatch chopsticks from the table and pinch a baozi between them, bringing it to Zishu’s mouth with a self satisfied smirk. 

    Zishu glares daggers at him, but he doesn’t move, so eventually Zishu gives in and reluctantly opens his mouth to be fed. Lao Wen even pours him a cup of alcohol and presses the rim of the cup to his lips, every bit the cat that had the cream.

    After a few moments, he then turns to the rest of the banquet hall, pouting and putting on a look of displeasure and confusion. 

    “Have I done something?” he asks, pout as much in his voice as it is on his painted lips. “Usually I have so many friends here. Does no one wish to talk to me today?”

    The people staring wide eyed at them balk, immediately torn between folding to Wen Kexing’s every whim and desire and being absolutely terrified of approaching him with Zishu right there.

    The desire to please Lao Wen wins out, though just barely. People slowly begin to converse again, including Lao Wen here and there but being obviously nervous while they do it. 

    Wen Kexing acts as if he doesn’t notice, and enjoys himself to the fullest.

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

Although he'll die before he admits it, Zishu finds himself quite enjoying having Lao Wen plopped directly into his lap and doting on him.

He knows that Lao Wen is just being a shit, highly amused by the fact that people think Zhou Zishu, of all people, is the Master of Ghost Valley.

Still, to have him sit here and tease in the middle of the lunchtime banquet feels like a public admission of their mutual belonging to each other. Lao Wen's absolute lack of hesitance to show him this teasing affection in front of so many eyes is something he likes far more than he expected.

Zishu eats and drinks as much as he likes while Lao Wen chatters away at the other guests as he usually does, perched as if Zhou Zishu himself is a throne.

Occasionally Zishu wordlessly offers Lao Wen food from his own chopsticks, and each time Wen Kexing grins and maintains eye contact while he takes the food between those godawful red lips.

"Nuisance," Zishu grumbles, and Lao Wen pouts despite the laughter Zishu can see twinkling behind his eyes.

The crowd titters at the expression, wrapped around Lao Wen's finger and torn between soothing him and being terrified of the man whose lap he sits in.

One very brave individual pipes up, looking like he's actively doubting his own decision the whole way through.

"Y-you are very lucky to have such a beauty so devoted to you, L-Lord Zhou," he says, and then seems to await his own execution.

"Am I?" Zishu asks, tone and face flat. "Strange. Most of the time I find myself wishing he'd go away."

"A-Xu!" Lao Wen whines, playing right along with him. It's not hard to solidify the opinion that Lao Wen is a concubine treated cruelly by his master. All Zishu has to do is banter with him as he usually does; it's Lao Wen who makes a point not to fire back as is routine.

The crowd is clearly displeased, but don't dare talk back to him. Zishu is...starting to find the humor in the situation.

Someone approaches, clearly the young master of some well off sect. He's barely grown out of his teenage awkwardness, and his back is ramrod straight as he clears his throat.

"Um, I don't mean to intrude, Guzh-"

One of his companions punches him in the side, hissing, " Lord Zhou!"

The boy balks and pales, bows. "Ah, yes! L-Lord Zhou! I...I seek not to offend, but I...I would like to give something to Wen-daren."

I'm sure you would, Zishu thinks to himself. He stares dryly at the young man until he finally realizes that he’s being asked permission . This kid is asking his permission to give something to Lao Wen, because he fears that if he were to be so bold otherwise he may die on the spot.

Zishu scoffs, rolling his eyes at the way they all jump at the sound. He can feel Lao Wen’s frame tremble, holding in laughter.

“Are you giving it to him, or me?” Zishu asks, tilting his head and raising a brow. Lao Wen does laugh a little at that, and the young man seems to comprehend that it’s a go ahead.

He clears his throat, posture, if possible, becoming even more perfect. “I...you see, I like to paint, Wen-daren. And you struck me as quite beautiful, so I...here! Here.”

He presents a rolled up scroll, which Lao Wen leans forward to take with raised eyebrows. “A gift?” he coos, genuine curiosity tinging his tone.

When he unrolls it, he and Zishu both are surprised. Not only does the young man like to paint, he’s quite good at it. What he’s presented to Lao Wen is a beautifully done portrait of him, elegant and pretty in intricate red robes and hair style. Masterfully executed, and considering Zhou Zishu is something of a painter himself, that’s high praise.

He wants, with a rush of ugly emotion, to rip it up.

Lao Wen seems genuinely caught off guard and flattered, staring down at the painting with wide eyes for a long few moments. Eventually he gets a grip on himself and laughs, eyes dancing. 

“How lovely! You are truly talented!”

The young artist flushes and beams, though he tries to look less outright delighted when Zishu glares at him.

“I-It is to your liking, then?”

“It is! A-Xu, what do you think? Isn’t it lovely? I think I’ll hang it in your room!”

Zishu looks up at him with the same tired irritation he’s been displaying the whole time. “...I think you’re lucky I find you madly attractive.”

“That sounds like a yes to me,” Wen Kexing chimes, admiring the painting one last time before he rolls it up. “Does anyone else have gifts for me I didn’t know about? Don’t be shy!”

People actually start looking at each other and shifting nervously, and Zishu decided it’s time to get the fuck out of here before they start actually presenting Lao Wen with things they bought out at the market while thinking of him.

“We’re leaving,” he says, no room for argument in his tone as he nudges Lao Wen off of his lap. 

Instead of slipping onto his feet and standing as Zhou Zishu knows full well he can, Wen Kexing lets himself plop pitifully to the floor, pouting up at him with those wide eyes while Zishu stands up. 

“A-Xu?”

“Are you going deaf? I said we’re leaving. Come on.”

“A-Xu,” Lao Wen whines, “But I’m just about to be showered with gifts!”

Rolling his eyes, Zishu scoffs. “I am sure, Lao Wen, that you have plenty of just about anything they could think to give you. Do you want me to offer to buy you something? Is that it?”

Wen Kexing lights up, hopping to his feet and grinning a fox’s grin. “Well if you’re offering, who am I to refuse?”

He brushes right past Zishu to start walking towards the doors of the hall, sending a laughing smile over his shoulder. “Well, A-Xu? What are you waiting for?”

He heaves a long suffering sigh and follows, wondering why on Earth he likes this obnoxious prick so much. (That’s a lie. He doesn’t wonder at all.)

Just before he passes the threshold, he does take a glance at the head table. Zhao Jing is watching him like a hawk, just as he had expected, and Zishu wants to laugh at the idea that he’s up there assessing the wrong enemy entirely.

 

----

 

To Zhou Zishu’s absolute lack of surprise, Lao Wen really does tow him straight out of the manor and into Yueyang to browse the markets. He is intent on finding just the right thing for Zishu to buy for him, because ‘you offered, A-Xu, how could I turn you down?’

    He trails his zhiji tiredly from stall to stall, the whole experience dreadful but almost made worth it by the childish grin on Lao Wen’s face. It’s the same feeling as when he’d treated Wen Kexing and Gu Xiang to lunch, he thinks. The feeling of knowing that Lao Wen has never gotten to experience a real market like this in his adult life, and being happy that he can give that to him.

    Even if he keeps picking up snacks and leaving Zishu in the dust to pay for them.

    Speaking of Gu Xiang…

    “Who is that with your brat, Lao Wen?” he asks, gesturing down the street. A-Xiang’s back is clear to see, and right beside her is the figure of a young man. Zishu assumes he must be another ghost, because they seem casual and comfortable with each other.

    “Hmm? Who is who with my brat?” Lao Wen asks, turning in the direction Zishu gestures in. 

    He gets the hint that that’s no ghost - and nobody Lao Wen knows, either - as he watches Wen Kexing’s face go through surprise, confusion, and then darken into something akin to murderous intent.

    “Ah,” Zishu says. “A pig nibbling on your cabbage, is it?”

    Wen Kexing sneers, Zishu following him without question when he starts to move to trail the pair. “He’ll not nibble for long without any teeth left,” Lao Wen grumbles. “Or a cock, for that matter.”

    Zhou Zishu chuckles. “Lao Wen. Don’t you think your girl can protect herself?”

    Wen Kexing scoffs, seeming offended. “Of course she can! It’s the principle of the thing, A-Xu! How dare one of these jianghu rabble deign to try to get close to my A-Xiang! He’s not worthy of her!”

    “You’ve not even met him.”

    “I don’t need to! I can tell already; look at his shoulderblades. Pah! Subpar at best.”

    Zishu is about to say something else to try to defuse the situation when the young man walking with Gu Xiang points at something off to the side, and leads her right into the mouth of an alley.

    Lao Wen puffs up violently like a mother bird about to go absolutely apeshit. Zishu just sighs and trails after him as he ducks down a neighboring alley and moves to cut them off.

    The young man yelps and jumps a mile when Wen Kexing slides out an intersecting alley right in front of them, chin high and eyes radiating murder. Zishu sighs and leans against the wall to watch the show, shaking his head.

    He can tell just by looking at the kid that he’s not a threat. He looks like a big oaf with more romanticism than brain, and Gu Xiang is not so stupid that she’d wander around willingly with someone who was a threat to her. 

    Lao Wen, unfortunately, is incapable of seeing it through any eyes but those of a father.

    Gu Xiang already seems to be able to tell that Lao Wen is going to start trouble. She sighs and utters a preemptive, “Ge.”

    She seems entirely unfazed by the bright crimson on her brother’s lips, which Zishu muses means she either already saw it or she’s simply not surprised by much when it comes to Wen Kexing. Her wide eyed boy toy takes it in stride pretty quickly, especially once he registers who he’s looking at.

    “A-ah!” her companion says, innocent eyes sparkling with nervousness and hope. “You- You’re Wen-daren! It is a pleasure to finally meet you. I’m Cao Weining, of the Gentle Wind Sword Sect.”

    Cao Weining salutes and bows, clearly eager to make a good impression. Lao Wen smirks and hmphs back at him. 

    “Cao Weining,” he drawls. “What do you think you’re doing, leading a young girl down a dark alley?”

    “Dark?” Zishu asks dryly, looking around pointedly with crossed arms. It’s broad daylight, and the alley is no darker than the main street.

    Gu Xiang and Cao Weining seem to notice him for the first time, but Lao Wen is clearly the more intimidating figure here.

    “Ah! Well, a lot of people don’t know about the little jiangbing store down here, and they really do make the best of the best! I-I thought A-Xiang might like to try some…”

    Lao Wen pauses in his fanning, turning to look over his shoulder. Zishu tries not to laugh as he watches his zhiji set eyes on what is, indeed, a door and sign of a jianbing store not much farther down. 

    Wen Kexing blinks, and then puts his face of indignation back on and whips back around to glower suspiciously at this Cao Weining.

    “Trying to buy her with food, are you? Soften her up? My A-Xiang is not so naive as to-”

    “He’s been buying me with food, ge,” Gu Xiang says, setting Lao Wen to spluttering and Zhou Zishu to laughing heartily.

    She sighs and rolls her eyes. “Ge, relax. Cao da-ge is harmless. I could beat him up with both hands tied behind my back. I’ve known him for nearly a week! He knows all the best food spots!”

    Lao Wen looks to have a minor internal crisis over the realization that A-Xiang has been being preyed upon behind his back, before he clicks his tongue and fans himself imperiously. 

    “Has he now?” Lao Wen croons, venomously polite. “And I suppose he knows he’s feeding a ghost?”

    “I-I do!” Cao Weining cuts in. “B-but it doesn’t matter! A-Xiang’s not a bad person. She’s really smart, and pretty, and funny. I-I was nervous at first when I heard the Ghost Valley was coming to the Conference, but it’s clear now that not everyone there is bad! Like...like you, Wen-daren.”

    Wen Kexing’s eyebrows skyrocket into his hairline. “Like me?” he asks, disbelieving.

    “Yeah. A-Xiang says that you...you raised her, right? And she’s so wonderful! You must be good, to have raised such an amazing person!”

    Lao Wen balks, at an absolute loss, and Cao Weining continues on his oblivious way.

    “I...I was hoping I’d get to meet you soon, actually. I-I wanted to talk to you about something since...I mean, you’re the closest family she has, right?”

    Wen Kexing narrows his eyes, glaring suspiciously. “...I am.”

    “Right! So...so I wanted to ask you if - that is, I...I’d like to marry her!”

    Zhou Zishu is reasonably sure that Lao Wen is on the verge of having a stroke. He is absolutely sure that this is the best show he’s ever been to, and there wasn’t so much as an entrance fee.

    Lao Wen scoffs and gestures wildly with his fan, snapping it closed as if to accentuate his next words with the sound. “And I’d like to marry A-Xu, but we don’t all get what we want!”

    “Why not?” Zhou Zishu asks from where he still leans, at ease and arms crossed, against the wall. He as much means it as he says it to derail Lao Wen’s every attempt at nipping this cute courtship in the bud.

    Lao Wen turns to stare at him with wide eyes and a gaping mouth, lips moving but no words managing to come out. He has been soundly defeated by his little sister, a wide eyed buffoon, and his unfairly amused zhiji.

    “As a matter of fact, Lao Wen,” he continues, stepping forward to take Wen Kexing’s wrist in a firm grip and starting to tug him away. “Let’s leave the kids to their jianbing and go discuss the wedding plans, shall we? Come on. Come on!”

    He tows a dumbfounded and protesting Wen Kexing away, giving Gu Xiang a meaningful look that has her grinning impishly and mouthing a ‘thank you’.

    Cute girl, he thinks. Just like her brother.

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He placates Lao Wen by buying him a nice hairpin in the market, and by being roped into promising to do his hair for him with it.

    Nonetheless, Lao Wen grouses about leaving his girl with some doe-eyed buffoon the whole way back to the manor, pouting and gesturing and sighing and altogether being the most obnoxiously endearing person Zishu has ever met.

    He does his best not to look directly at Lao Wen’s face as they walk and he babbles, because those red painted lips are driving him insane.

    Lao Wen follows him right to his rooms, somehow still bitching the entire way. He trails in behind him, Zishu closing the doors, saying insistently, “A-Xu! A-Xu, are you listening to m-mmmm!”

    Zishu grabs the back of his head and yanks him into a kiss, deeply satisfied with the way Lao Wen hums his surprised delight and melts into it. He returns the kiss without hesitation, as if he finds Zhou Zishu just as intoxicating as Zhou Zishu finds him.

    Zishu is beginning to believe that’s exactly the case.

    Alas, assaulting Lao Wen is not actually his intention today. This was simply a lapse in control, brought on by Lao Wen’s impish decision to do exactly as Zishu had teasingly suggested and paint his lips a delectable red. Can he truly be blamed for needing to taste it?

    He pulls away after a prolonged moment of savoring the feeling, heart jumping with a primal satisfaction at the look on Lao Wen’s face. 

    He had tried to follow for a moment when Zishu had pulled away, but not desperately. His eyes are still closed, features lax and blissful. His mouth is just barely parted, lipstick now a tad smudged and...faded?

    Wen Kexing’s eyes flutter open, looking for all the world as if he’s just had a religious experience and not a forceful but relatively brief kiss. Then, he focuses on Zishu’s face, blinks a couple of times, and falls into raucous laughter. 

    Zishu is startled, both by the laughter and the sheer twinkling adoration in Wen Kexing’s eyes. 

    “A-Xu! Oh, A-Xu, who knew! You look lovely painted in red as well!”

    He realizes what’s so funny then, and chuckles himself, lifting his hand to press fingers against his own mouth. They come away tinted red.

    “Here I thought we were going to discuss serious things. Is this all you lured me here for after all, to take my mouth like an animal?”

    “No,” Zishu says, finding a cloth and filling a small bowl with water so he can wipe the pigment from his lips. “I just had a lapse in control, is all. Are you going to try to tell me that’s not exactly what you were hoping for, showing up like this? That color has been driving me crazy.”

    Lao Wen smiles in a way that is answer enough, and finds a mirror. He clicks his tongue and pouts as he looks into it, settling into complaining once again.

    “A-Xu, you ruined it. Look, it’s all dull and uneven now. Aiyah, you’ve even smeared it! You must redo it for me now. It’s the only way to make it up to me.”

    Zishu huffs and smiles, shaking his head. “Fine, then.”

    Wen Kexing glances at him with a hint of surprise. “Really?”

    “Do you have the makeup?”

    “Well, yes.”

    Zishu rolls his eyes. “Then it would be such a chore for me, wouldn’t it, to have to paint your gorgeous mouth.”

    A slow smile spreads across Lao Wen’s face, flattered and preening. “Well, when you put it that way…”

    “Come here, you fool.”

    Lao Wen comes as he’s bid, settling right in front of Zhou Zishu and fishing a little pot of red pigment and a small brush out from inside his sleeve. Zishu takes them and sets them on the table, opening the pot and dipping the brush in.

    He has every confidence that he’ll do a good job; one doesn’t master the disguise arts of Four Seasons Manor and be left incapable of something so simple as this.

    He uses the cloth he already has wetted to clean the smeared color from Lao Wen’s face first, exposing the natural rosy color of his lips. A fresh canvas. Lao Wen lets him hold his chin in his hand and do it, docile as a kitten.

    “I imagine you met with Zhao Jing this morning,” Zishu says, feeling as casual as he sounds. He’s starting conversations they must have, but he feels relaxed and comfortable with Lao Wen’s chin between his fingers and a task at hand. “How did that go?”

    “He wasn’t happy,” Lao Wen replies, watching Zishu’s hand as he sets the cloth down and reaches for the red-dipped brush. “But he maintains confidence that rumors will still spread of the attempt being Gao Chong’s doing.”

    Zishu nods. The men he’d killed had been Scorpions, but nobody knows that the Scorpion has anything to do with the Five Lakes Alliance, let alone that Zhao Jing has the leader under his thumb and calling him yifu. It will simply be known that someone hired Scorpion assassins to kill the Zhangs, and suspicion will likely still fall on Gao Chong first.

    Zishu presses the makeup brush to skin, drawing the first even, creamy line of pigment with a steady hand.

    “The Conference is but days away, Lao Wen. Is that enough time for you to nail down whatever you’re planning?”

    “It is,” Wen Kexing responds, with as little movement of his lips as possible. He, too, seems soothed into a blissful, domestic feeling by this little beauty ritual they’re sharing. “I have but one more significant piece to move, and I will do it tonight.”

    Zishu nods, humming and admiring the way the brush pulls and moves plump flesh. Lao Wen has not told him what his end goal is, what he plans at the Conference. He has not told him exactly what the moves are that he’s making or the pieces he’s playing, but it doesn’t really matter. Zishu finds he doesn’t mind. He trusts Lao Wen, and he will be here to offer any help or support that Wen Kexing may need or ask of him. 

    Sitting back when he finishes painting Lao Wen’s beautiful mouth that maddening sanguine red, Zishu says, “I can’t say I’m not looking forward to seeing them all, when they realize how thoroughly they’ve been played.”

    Lao Wen smiles and laughs. “You’re so mean, A-Xu. It’s no wonder I fell for you; my perfect match. You know, in my letter I wrote that I was coming because I wanted to ensure peace between the jianghu and the Ghost Valley.”

    “I do know. Why do you bring it up?”

    Lao Wen smirks, leaning towards him to bump their shoulders together. “I was simply wondering; should I offer them continued peace, and demand they give you to me as a pet in return?”

    Zishu scoffs. “They can’t give you what you already have, Lao Wen.”

Wen Kexing's grin disappears in a flash, replaced by slack lips and wide eyes, an expression not unlike that of a child who doesn't dare hope something good is coming.

"A-Xu…?"

Zhou Zishu rolls his eyes. "You can't really be that surprised, Lao Wen? I've spent the last eighteen months slowly, methodically killing myself...and yet now here I am, waiting for treatment. Changing my mind. For you, Lao Wen, and you really think I don't belong to you in every way?"

Lao Wen blinks, painfully vulnerable in this moment. He swallows, seeming to try to grasp the idea that someone - the man he loves - is truly, wholeheartedly devoted to him.

Zishu sighs, laying his hand gingerly over the back of Lao Wen's. 

"I need to ask, Lao Wen. Would you allow Beiyuan and Wu Xi into the Ghost Valley when it comes time for the procedure?"

Lao Wen searches his face for a moment, connecting the dots until realization dawns. "A-Xu! You...do you really want to…?"

Zishu scoffs and smiles, shaking his head and staring at Wen Kexing like he's a puzzle.

"What did you think? That I'd watch you return to the Valley with a wave and forget about you? You're my zhiji, Lao Wen. I don't use such a word lightly. Even if Wu Xi had said there was nothing he could do for me...I had still hoped that the Valley Master would let me wither by his side."

They stare silently at each other for a long time before anyone moves, open and vulnerable and showing the depth of their emotion in their eyes. This time, it is Wen Kexing who leans in and ruins his newly done lipstick.

 

----

 

Wen Kexing sits still and obedient while a fine tipped brush dipped in dark pigment traces a steady path along the curve of his eye.

This time, it is not A-Xu who is sitting with him and playing with makeup.

He had left A-Xu after kissing him breathless and speaking in low tones about the absolute dream of having his zhiji in the Valley with him, to rule by his side.

In his hair is the exquisitely carved plum wood hairpin A-Xu had bought him. It replaces the jade treasure he always keeps there. That now lies safely in the hair of his zhiji, Zhou Zishu none the wiser to exactly how meaningful a gesture it was to put it there.

Xie Wang coaxes him to tilt his head so he can get a better angle while doing his other eye.

This is not the first time Wen Kexing has spent time alone with Xiao Xie. He does it quite often, as a matter of fact, making the little Scorpion as fond and trusting of him as possible.

When he had walked in with his lips painted today, Xie'er had lit up with interest and asked if he'd like him to do with his eyes something similar to what the Scorpion himself wears.

He had seemed almost shy in that moment, hopeful but as if he'd expected to be shot down or insulted. Wen Kexing is not surprised; Zhao Jing is a two faced creature, and when he is frustrated Xie’er seems to be a go to punching bag.

He had agreed easily, and seen genuine happiness in Xie’er’s face for it. For all that he is a killer just like Wen Kexing, Xie Wang is in many ways still just a young boy. He yearns for acceptance and companionship, and he has found more of it with Wen Kexing than he has in just about anyone else.

Even Zhao Jing is not as consistently amiable or as welcoming of conversation as Wen Kexing.

Although it is an intentional move, endearing himself to Zhao Jing’s little assassin, Wen Kexing can not deny that he finds Xie’er genuinely likeable. He has blood on his hands, but he also has a childlike innocence, an inquisitive mind and an eagerness to be liked. 

Yes, Wen Kexing will use Xiao Xie, but he will not be as cruel as he could be. He will simply do what he must to push the last piece that is Xie Wang into place.

Xie’er does a lovely job on his eyes, beaming when he tells him so. In return, Wen Kexing produces the little pot of pigment from his sleeve and offers to do Xie’er’s lips for him, telling him truthfully that he thinks he’d look wonderful in it.

Xie Wang beams and takes him up on it, looking like he’s never been happier as Wen Kexing carefully paints the full curves of his mouth.

The two of them are much the same in this moment, Wen Kexing thinks. They are both young men who never had the chance at a normal life, who do not fit in in more ways then one. They sit here, indulging in makeup in a way the world would deem horribly improper for men, and they enjoy themselves with someone who will not judge them for it.

“Uncle Zhao finally got around to telling me what he wants from me in return for all this kindness,” Wen Kexing mentions as he drags the brush along the corner of Xie’er’s bottom lip. “It’s about time he gave up acting like he wanted to help me for the sake of it.”

Xie’er’s face flickers nervously. “Ah...Wen-daren,” he begins, doing his best not to disturb Wen Kexing’s work with the brush, “I assure you, yifu’s care is genuine.”

Wen Kexing chuckles, finishing and pulling back. “How lovely! This color truly suits you.”

Sighing, he turns to wipe the brush off. “Relax, Xiao Xie. I am well aware that I am being used and manipulated; but it benefits me to play along, doesn’t it? Not that I have to tell you that. We are in the same boat after all, you and I.”

Xie Wang blinks at him, gears turning behind his eyes and a furrow growing between his brows. Wen Kexing has been doing this slowly and steadily; planting tiny seeds of doubt in him about Zhao Jing. It is now that pushes and harvests the fruits of that labor.

“...what boat is that, Wen-daren? I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

Kexing turns to him, letting himself look caught off guard. “...Xiao Xie. Surely you…? Ah. I’m sorry. I thought you realized that he...he only sees us as tools to be used, Xie’er. I had been operating under the assumption that you were allowing it for your own benefit, as I have been.”

Xie’er shakes his head slowly, trying to cover his unease with a small laugh. “Yifu raised me. He does care for me, Wen-daren. I’m sure of it.”

Wen Kexing looks at him for a long time, silent and face solemn, sad. Pitying. “...would you do me a favor, Xiao Xie?”

“What favor, Wen-daren?”

“You are a master at being present but unseen. I’m going to go talk to Uncle Zhao. Would you mind being a fly on the wall for me?”

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

The doors to Zhao Jing's rooms slide quietly open, followed by three little knocks on the wood of the open frame.

When he looks up, Wen Kexing is standing there with a self satisfied smirk, eyes twinkling.

Zhao Jing blinks at the sight of him as he steps further into the room.

It had been a surprise when he'd seen him earlier, mouth painted a bright crimson in a shamelessly improper manner for a man. Still, Kexing is an odd duck, and a ghost to boot. That he would have few reservations about propriety is entirely unsurprising. 

It had made even more sense when he heard the rumors circling, that the Ghost Valley Guzhu had been here and posing as one of them the whole time. That he had been caught holding Kexing roughly in the dead of night and berating him. Telling him that were he to paint his mouth like the Department of the Unfaithful it might make it worth having to listen to him talk.

Kexing too had obviously heard that the secret was out, and his reaction to being able to openly associate with his Guzhu had only made the veracity of those claims more obvious.

No, it's not the red lips he'd already seen that surprise him. It's the familiar winged liner and smoky pigments he now sports around his eyes.

Zhao Jing sits back, chuckling. "I see you've been spending some time with Xie'er," he says.

"I have," Wen Kexing chimes. "I'd say I wear these eyes almost as well as he does. And he wears these lips almost as well as I do."

They had painted each other , then. Zhao Jing chuckles and shakes his head.

"The two of you are quite alike, hm?"

Wen Kexing smirks. "More than you know, Uncle Zhao. But do you know how Xiao Xie and I are not alike?"

Zhao Jing blinks, tilting his head. Wen Kexing, he admits, has a knack for piquing one's curiosity with but a few well placed words.

"How, Kexing?"

Wen Kexing's grin turns feral, and he hooks his fingers into a cord that hangs around his neck.

"I," he purrs, pulling the cord until the ornate key attached to it slips from the folds of his robes, " deliver."

Zhao Jing loses his breath for a moment, eyes wide. "Kexing. Is that…?"

"It is," Wen Kexing responds, puffed with pride. "I can hardly believe it, Uncle Zhao. Xiao Xie is quite pretty, but how is it that I can bring you the Valley Master's key and he can't manage an assassination in an unguarded inn? It's baffling."

Zhao Jing reaches his hand out, palm up, and tries to make sure that it's not shaking. This is it. Such a simple thing, and Wen Ruyu and Gu Miaomiao had chosen death over handing it to him. What fools. How they must be rolling in their graves, knowing that he has it now anyway. 

“That is a good question, Kexing,” he responds, feeling nearly euphoric as his little ghost reaches out and drops the key right into his waiting palm, like it’s nothing. Like it’s not an item of immeasurable value. “It would not be the first time he has disappointed me.”

“Oh? I thought you two were quite close? This is the first I’m hearing of dissatisfaction between you.”

Zhao Jing huffs and smiles a little at the way Wen Kexing tilts his head, eyes sparkling with curiosity. If there’s anything he’s learned about Wen Kexing, it’s that he’s quite the gossip. He always wants to know the juicy details, and he hangs on the edge of his seat with sparkling eyes whenever he gets them.

“Xie’er...he is a useful tool at times, Kexing. Don’t get me wrong. It is good to have his Scorpions under my thumb, and he is suitably naive and empty headed to be groomed into devotion. Unfortunately, I find that a tiger truly cannot change its stripes.”

Wen Kexing blinks, brow furrowing and face turning inquisitive. “What do you mean, Uncle Zhao?”

“He is but a Southern barbarian, Kexing. I took him from that life when he was small, and I have done my best to mold him and make something useful of him, but as time goes on it becomes clearer and clearer that one simply cannot remove his ancestral traits from him. He is dumb and often unreliable, even if he would roll over and die for me if I asked it.”

Wen Kexing laughs, eyebrows rising. “Uncle Zhao. Are you describing a person, or a dog?”

Zhao Jing chuckles in response. “Something in between, I think.”

“Aiyah,” Wen Kexing cries, betrayed by his sparkling eyes and curled lips. “How cruel! At the very least, he is easier on the eyes than most dogs and men.”

“Hmph,” Zhao Jing huffs. “I suppose you’re right. Perhaps he would be to your Guzhu’s tastes. Surely he can’t make too much of a fuss about me taking you if I provide him with an exotic new pet?”

Wen Kexing laughs heartily. “I know for a fact that Guzhu does think him beautiful, but I’m afraid I don’t think that’s a trade you can make, Uncle Zhao.”

“Hm. A pity. Well...if the itch in your fingers gets too bad, Kexing, I would not be heartbroken if something were to...happen. At least it wouldn’t be anyone the jianghu would notice missing.”

“Is that so? I will keep it in mind.”

“Speaking of your Guzhu, Kexing,” Zhao Jing says, getting to what he’s been thirsting to talk to the ghost about all day. “I hope he was not angry with you, for his exposure? It was not, of course, your fault. But I fear a man like the Ghost Valley Master would not much care for fault before striking a pet.”

Wen Kexing blinks, then clicks his tongue and sighs. “Aiyah, Uncle Zhao. A-Xu has said many times by now that he is not the Ghost Valley Guzhu, and yet no one seems to believe him.”

Zhao Jing huffs, smiling a tiny smirk. “Of course, of course. ‘Lord Zhou’. Well, this Lord Zhou surprised me today. Although it should have been expected, I couldn’t help but be bothered by how cold he was to you in the banquet hall. It was...heartbreaking, to see you seek his approval and be treated as if you were a nuisance.”

Wen Kexing chuckles, averting his eyes and snapping his fan open. “That’s simply how A-Xu is. One can not take his grousing seriously; he is really quite fond of me.”

Zhao Jing can see in the way he hides behind his fan and avoids eye contact that Wen Kexing is not nearly as sure of his Guzhu’s affections as he’d like to portray. Why else, after all, would he be so eager to leave his side?

 

----

 

Wen Kexing does not expect to find Xie Wang waiting for him outside when he leaves Zhao Jing; he is certain there came a point where the Scorpion simply could not stand by any longer without doing something stupid, and so had fled. 

    Wen Kexing goes right back to the room they’d done each other’s makeup in, the room in which Xiao Xie sleeps at night. It is eerily silent when he stops and stands outside of the doors, but he knows that does not mean he will find a peaceful scene inside.

    He slides the doors open just enough to slip inside, and surveys the carnage.

    Tables lie on their sides, vases shattered and scattered across the floor, scrolls unwound and lying where they’d bounced off of walls after being thrown.

    It is the aftermath of confusion, and rage, and grief. In the middle of it all, Xie’er sits with his head hanging, posture loose and broken like that of an abandoned doll.

    Wen Kexing does not speak to him. He just picks slow, careful steps through the carnage and comes to a quiet stop next to Xie Wang, sinking silently into place next to him. Waiting. Watching.

    Slowly, Xiao Xie’s head comes up to turn and look at him. His eyes are red and swollen, cheeks still wet with tears. They say nothing to each other. Xie’er looks at him with tired grief and betrayal, and Wen Kexing looks back at him with pity that he finds he doesn’t even have to fake.

    All it takes is one gesture. All it takes is Wen Kexing reaching out ever so slowly to lay a ginger hand over one of Xie’er’s, and the floodgates break. That beautiful little face crumples and bursts into tears, and the Scorpion launches himself into Wen Kexing’s waiting arms, burying his face in his shoulder and howling his pain.

    Holding him and petting his head, stroking his back, Wen Kexing smiles. It is not a wide and vicious smile like he thought it would be, but a wry one. He smiles because he feels the shift, the way Xiao Xie’s need to have someone he can depend on snaps its bond with Zhao Jing and latches, instead, onto Wen Kexing.

    Still...he does not smile wide, and he does not feel vicious. He feels instead a tinge of genuine care and pity and thinks to himself that he would very much like to kill Zhao Jing twice over for himself and the little creature that shakes in his arms.

    Ah , he thinks. Maybe A-Xu was right. I am getting soft.

 

----

 

Eventually, Xiao Xie runs out of tears. He lapses into that emptiness that comes after a gut wrenching outpouring of emotion, the one that leaves a person staring at nothing and feeling hollowed out.

    Wen Kexing takes care of him. He clears some space of debris and rights a table, gently coaxes the little Scorpion to sit there. He gets a bowl of water and a cloth, and he sets to cleaning the tear tracks and smudged makeup from his face.

    It is while he is doing that that he begins to see the emptiness start to give way for steely anger. A tight jaw and hard eyes and a brain that is now processing betrayal. Processing rage.

    “...I’m sorry, Xiao Xie,” Wen Kexing says quietly. “But I could not let you continue to be used, unknowing.”

    “Just a barbarian,” Xie’er whispers. “Not even quite human. Barely a step above a dog.”

    Wen Kexing sighs. “Xiao Xie…”

    “Would he have done it, do you think, Wen-daren? If you had said the Guzhu would want me, do you think he would have…”

    “...I do.”

    Xie’er closes his eyes and breathes deeply, the potent mixture of anger and sadness boiling just under his skin. “He thinks I’m stupid. Easy. He’s right.”

    “He’s not right,” Wen Kexing contradicts, lifting Xie’er’s chin and looking at him. “He’s not right, Xiao Xie. You are just a boy who wanted the love of a father, and he took advantage of that.”

    Xie Wang huffs a laugh that holds more venom than amusement and closes his eyes again, though he does not pull his chin from Wen Kexing’s hands. 

    “...death would not be enough to pay him back for this pain,” he murmurs. “But what else can I do, but kill him?”

    Wen Kexing sits back, lets himself look assessing but still kind. “You want revenge, Xiao Xie?”

    Xie’er scoffs. “How could I not?”

    “Relax, little one. I don’t mean to question you, but...I would like to know how sure you are. That you won’t change your mind if he feeds you sweet words.”

    Xie Wang blinks, starting to clue in to the look in Wen Kexing’s eyes. “...after what I heard tonight...yes. You...you have something in mind, don’t you?”

    Wen Kexing smiles, looking down. “Xiao Xie...have you ever heard me say that I’m a concubine?”

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

With the Conference being but days away, it would seem that more ghosts have been given leave to show themselves and enjoy the festivities. 

It is not difficult for Zishu to surmise why they had not been allowed into the light before. Lao Wen must not have trusted them not to slip and expose his game early. 

It seems a kindness not strictly necessary for Wen Kexing to give them these last few days to enjoy the world of the living, but Zishu finds himself unsurprised. 

Lao Wen is a cruel, bloodthirsty, insane creature. His extreme mercuriality makes him doubly terrifying to those he rules...but it also lends itself to odd moments of kindness like this.

Lao Wen did not need to allow them to enjoy the markets and the feasts, but he did. It is likely the only time any of these ghosts will have the opportunity to do so in their lifetime, and Zishu thinks that it is just like him to allow them that joy while pretending it was simply a whim of a lunatic.

The ghosts can be recognized by their clothing at first sight, although they do not wear the masks they are so well known for. Probably to avoid frightening the townspeople of Yeuyang too greatly.

These minor ghosts...they seem nervous and shy without those masks. It is as if they are without a crucial piece of their armor, and without the mask of a ghost to hide behind, they do not feel the part. They are being forced to be people and not faceless spectres, and it is uncomfortable for them.

This being said, Zishu sees plenty of nervous smiles and shining eyes in their ranks.

The only ones who are clearly still comfortable in their ghostly skins are those notable enough that they do not wear masks normally. Ghosts that have earned names and reputations. None, of course, quite so notable as the Ten Devils.

Zishu does not think they are all here, but he has seen glimpses of multiple so far. It is one of them, as a matter of fact, that clues him in to Lao Wen having talked to his ghosts about more than just being allowed out of their cages.

His attention is drawn to the rising hum of unease in the crowd on one side of the hall, and he drifts over as quietly as a ghost himself. 

The center of the problem is a sallow man in pale robes, hair a mousey brown and hanging, loosely braided on either side of his face. He has a face that lends itself to appearing harmless, but the sharp predator’s focus in his wide eyes gives him away.

It is a young woman, a female servant, that that gaze is honed in on. 

She is clearly trying to leave, go about her duties, but he keeps blocking her with deft steps, ducking his head to try and get in her face. He coos at her, tells her how pretty she is and asks her if she’s afraid.The hunger in him when he asks such a question tells Zishu what he needs to know.

 One of the Ten Devils, Lovelace. An infamous sexual predator who had fled to the Ghost Valley in recent years. He arrived after Lao Wen took the throne, surely.

How disgusting, that none of these supposedly righteous jianghu fools have the guts to step in and put a stop to this shameful show. 

He can see Lao Wen in his mind’s eye, fanning himself and smirking. He knows without a doubt that Lao Wen’s ghosts are as good as his, and if they’re his ghosts...well, he needs not fear retribution from the Guzhu for stepping in, does he?

When the revolting creature in front of him ducks down with a teasing lilt in his voice to try to lift the hems of the poor girl’s robes, it is Zishu’s foot that comes down on his hand mercilessly, pinning and grinding it into the floor.

Lovelace howls, falling to his knees and trying to pull his hand away while the servant girl takes her chance to flee.

When Zishu lifts his foot the ghost scrambles back and cradles it to his chest, standing and turning with outrage in his face. “You! Who are you to-!”

The moment he really sets eyes on Zishu’s face, Lovelace pales as if he’s seen death itself and backs down, every bit a coward. Still, Zhou Zishu hadn’t though his face was quite that intimidating.

“L-Lord Zhou,” Lovelace titters nervously, trying to put on a placating smile and really only looking like he’s about to wet himself. “I-I did not realize it was you! Please, forgive my harsh tone! Surely this, this misunderstanding can be forgiven?”

Of course. Of course they know him. Whatever Lao Wen had said to his ghosts about Zhou Zishu, it is clear that it was impressed upon them that he was to be offered respect and reverence. It’s clear they know he’s close to their Valley Master, and could have their heads with one stray word to Wen Kexing.

He is exasperated, because this without a doubt only convinces the idiots of the Conference further that he is the Valley Master, and he knows Lao Wen knew it would. He can hear the smug fucker laughing in his mind. Still, he is not above using the privilege Lao Wen has bestowed upon him.

Clasping his hands behind his back and rolling his neck, Zishu let's his silent stare cow the ghost further. Intimidation is something he's very familiar with, and he mastered it long ago.

"Do you think," he finally says, "It was your tone with me I had a problem with?"

Lovelace falters, looking down at the hand he still cradles and then laughing nervously, nodding his head and smiling with the desperation of a cornered animal.

"A-ah! Of course, of course! I apologize, I truly deserved Lord Zhou's punishment - no! His- his mercy! Please forgive me, I simply have a hard time controlling myself around such beauties as-"

"Control yourself anyway," Zishu cuts in. "If it happens again, your Guzhu will decide what to do with you."

If possible, Lovelace pales even further, bordering on gray with his horror. 

"Yes! Yes, of course! Thank you! Thank you!"

Zishu let's himself stare silently for a moment longer before he turns and walks away. He really just can't stand to look at the disgusting creature any longer.

The crowd parts for him as if fearing so much as catching his eye. Well, almost the whole crowd.

“A-Xu!” Wen Kexing calls once the people part and expose him, the only individual in the vicinity not moving desperately out of Zhou Zishu’s way. Zhou Zishu is pretty sure he hears Lovelace whimper behind him. 

Lao Wen takes quick, jaunty steps towards him, sporting a bright grin. “What’s all the fuss? Did something happen?”

“Nothing, Lao Wen. But if nothing happens again, I will be sure to let you know.”

He knows he hears Lovelace whimper after that one, and Lao Wen keeps his shark smile on and settles those chilling, haunting eyes on his unruly ghost for but a moment as he turns to accompany Zhou Zishu away, side by side.

Zhou Zishu will deny to his dying day that he feels pride, having the Valley Master stride by his side as an equal in plain view of at least one of his Devils. He is not dumb enough to think it is not an intentional display on Lao Wen’s part.

This is mine, he’s saying with the way he links their arms together. And you will do your utmost to please him, lest you draw my ire.

Yes, Zishu thinks. It is good to be the Valley Master’s pet.

He is hoping they may get away from the eyes of the crowd, and he can relax with only Lao Wen to focus on. That must be why Shen Shen, Gao Chong, and Zhao Jing choose this moment to make their move. Because Zhou Zishu is never simply allowed to have what he wants.

By the time he sees them coming there is no socially acceptable way to avoid them, nor any hope of pretending he didn’t see them and trying to coincidentally evade them.

He fights not to heave a sigh and stops, he and Lao Wen waiting for the trio to close the rest of the distance.

Gao Chong takes point, as is only fitting of the head of the Five Lakes Alliance. He salutes them both and nods in greeting.

“Wen-daren. Lord Zhou.”

Lao Wen relinquishes his hold on Zishu’s arm reluctantly so they can both respond in kind as is expected of them. Funny, he thinks, considering neither he or Lao Wen actually much care for what is proper or expected. It is simply best to play along, so close to the culmination of Lao Wen’s game.

“I apologize that I have not previously greeted you properly, Lord Zhou,” Gao Chong says, his brothers following suit and all three examining him with curious and cautious eyes.

Zishu simply raises an eyebrow. “I don’t see why you would have. I’m nobody of particular note.”

He can see them all trying to figure out what he gains from ‘pretending’ he’s not the Ghost Valley Guzhu when he’s been so obviously found out, and it’s hard not to laugh at the absurdity of the situation.

Ultimately, they do what everyone else has been and play along with the game that Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing are the only ones not playing.

“Of course,” Gao Chong cedes. “We simply thought to seize on this opportunity to let Wen-daren know something we would like for him to pass on to his Guzhu.”

Wen Kexing perks at that, curiosity piqued. “Oh?”

“There will be a place of honor for him on the main platform with us, should he wish it. We will leave him the space on the farthest right side and hope he will join us. It is such a shame after all that we have not yet gotten to...meet him.”

Wen Kexing’s eyes dance with amusement. “A place of honor with the brothers of the Alliance themselves. How flattering! Isn’t it flattering, A-Xu?”

Zishu rolls his eyes. “If you say so, Lao Wen.”

“I do! Many thanks, Hero Gao. Hero Shen. Uncle Zhao. I will make sure to take a look and ensure we are prepared for the main event. I hope you do not mind if some minor ghosts come and go in the process?”

“Of course. It is a place of honor because he is a guest of honor. He may prepare however he sees fit; we are quite eager to speak to him at last, after all.”

Something catches Zishu’s eye. Is it the movement? The shape? Perhaps it’s simply intuition, honed by long years of life and death situations. Regardless of the cause, he focuses his eyes on the doors on the other side of the hall, and spies the figure in black that had drawn him. 

Han Ying. He stares back at Zhou Zishu, and casually taps his finger against the bracer on his other arm. It is code.

“Lao Wen,” he says lowly, stopping Wen Kexing in his tracks where he was still chattering happily away with the Five Lakes trio.

Wen Kexing blinks at him, keying into his energy flawlessly. “A-Xu?”

“We need to go attend to something.”

“I see. Please excuse us, it seems something has come up my A-Xu would like assistance with.”

 

----

 

Han Ying is already waiting for them in Zishu’s chambers, and Zhou Zishu wastes no time, alarms raised. 

    “What trouble, Han Ying?”

    That is what he had signalled, after all. Trouble. Urgent need to speak.

    “The Prince knows of your defection,” Han Ying responds, look on his face nervous but firm. He is an elite Tian Chuang agent, after all. It is only that in Zhou Zishu’s presence, he has always been something of a boy in the presence of his idol. “He became suspicious, when you reported simply that nothing was amiss and did not stay in touch. He sent a spy, my Lord. They...heard you speak. You and the Valley Master, about...about defecting to the Valley.”

    Han Ying’s gaze flickers to Wen Kexing with renewed caution and understanding, but returns to Zhou Zishu quite quickly. 

    “I’m sorry, My Lord. I couldn’t stop him before he had sent the mechanical sparrow with the news.”

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

Zishu frowns, shaking his head. "It's not your fault, Ying'er. How long ago was the sparrow sent?"

Han Ying fidgets like he absolutely thinks it's his fault, but answers the question he's asked without any fussing about the matter.

"Two days ago, Zhou shou."

Lao Wen makes an affronted sound next to him, frame swelling to match, and Zhou Zishu sighs preemptively. 

What is it that Ye-qianbei had said? Ah, yes. Hissing and spitting like a kitten.

"Two days?" Lao Wen spits, as if Han Ying is his subordinate and not Zhou Zishu's. Then again, if Lao Wen's ghosts are his, perhaps Zishu's Tian Chuang is Lao Wen's. 

"What were you doing for two days that you failed to let him know?" Lao Wen finishes, jaw set stubbornly. 

Han Ying glares back at him; if there's one way to get under Han Ying's skin, it's always been to question his loyalty to Zhou Zishu.

"I was taking care of the spy responsible, and making sure no others had been planted."

Lao Wen seems to begrudgingly approve of this answer, but Zhou Zishu does not.

"Ying'er! You killed him?"

The way Han Ying hesitates like a child in trouble is answer enough.

" Han Ying," Zishu scolds, alarmed. "Why would you do that? If the Prince realizes you did such a thing, it is treason! You've put not just your position in Tian Chuang at risk, but your very life. For what? My privacy ?"

Han Ying sets his jaw, lifts his chin stubbornly. "I did not swear my oath of fealty to the Prince or to Tian Chuang. I swore it to you."

Zishu clenches his teeth and closes his eyes, taking a deep breath. Stubborn child. Stubborn, foolish child.

"A-Xu," Lao Wen says, opinion of Han Ying seeming to have done a one eighty. "Must you be so coarse to him? Why, I like a man who would die for you."

Zhou Zishu opens his eyes to aim a half hearted glare at Wen Kexing. "And I would prefer one who would live for me. Forget it. What's done is done."

"...what will you do, Zhou shou? What can I do?"

Zhou Zishu shakes his head, starting to realize that this...is not as much of a problem as he'd initially thought.

"Nothing," he decides, firm and sure.

Lao Wen leans into his field of view just to blink at him with an expression of mild disbelief.

"Nothing?"

Zishu shakes his head. Starts to smile. Starts to chuckle. "Nothing. It's too late. There's nothing he can do."

Han Ying looks at him with a mixture of emotion, hopeful yet also seeming a little like he's wondering if Zhou Zishu has lost it.

"Zhou shou? I don't understand.  If he sends a force to kill you-"

"He won't," Zishu interrupts, as sure of this as he is his skill with a blade. “I know my cousin. He thinks he needs me. He has depended on my all these years...he will be afraid of losing me. No, he won’t send forces to kill me. He’ll want to convince me. Lure me back into serving him.”

    “Hell,” he continues, “I wouldn’t be surprised if he came himself. He has too much confidence in his silver tongue. Or maybe not; it’s always worked on me before. He will try, if he has to, to take me by force so that he can work on convincing me in his own territory.”

    “And that’s not a problem how, my love?”

    Zhou Zishu’s heart jumps at that simple address. ‘My love’. Han Ying, too, goes wide eyed and looks between them as if wondering if he heard right. Zhou Zishu swallows and forces himself to push the swelling feeling in his chest down.

    “Because although the sparrow has no doubt brought him the news already, the soonest his party could get here would be the day of the Conference itself, and that’s if they push their horses to the edge.”

    “You do not think they will push their horses?”

    Zishu snorts. “I’m sure they will. But nothing can be done if the Conference is already underway and I am in attendance.”

    “Why, A-Xu? I’m afraid your beautiful brain is quite out pacing me for once.”

    “Because to get what he wants, he can’t make a scene in taking me. If he were to do so, it would be known that Zhou Zishu is the leader of Helian Yi’s Tian Chuang soon enough, and he can’t have that. He wants me back where I was, serving him in the shadows. I can not do that if my identity and my position are exposed.”

    Lao Wen and Han Ying look at him with the same dawning realization, until a smirk curls Wen Kexing’s lips and he ‘hmph’s his amusement. “Hmph. So even if were to arrive on time, he could do little but watch me claim you. And what of any attempt he may make to take you after the Conference, A-Xu? Before I whisk you away back to the Valley?”

    Zishu nods at the question, and then coughs weakly and furrows his brow, clutching a hand to his chest. Lao Wen gives him a look at what an obviously fake act it is; he has to fight not to smile.

    “This new ghost is ill,” he says, shaking his head. “Surely the Ghost Valley Master would not allow his zhiji to be taken from under his nose?”

    Wen Kexing blinks, and then starts to shine with his delight, eyes dancing with amusement and pride. He puffs up like a courting bird, chin high. “With me by your side, A-Xu, gods nor monsters could hope to bring you harm.”

 

----

 

Why, if it isn’t the Ghost Valley Master himself,” Zishu hears a voice say behind him. “What an honor to meet you, Guzhu.”

    He is in the markets of Yueyang, keeping an eye out for Tian Chuang activity. It is not that he doesn’t trust Han Ying, but that his paranoia would not allow him to go without this due diligence. Even if he were to do nothing, he still wants to know if the Prince has any remaining eyes in the city.

    At least, that’s what he was doing.

    Zishu huffs an irritated breath, eyes already furrowed as he turns, fully prepared to tell yet another person with closed ears that he is not the Ghost Valley Guzhu. When he lays eyes on the person standing behind him, he realizes why the voice had sounded vaguely familiar.

    It is Zhang Yusen, standing there with no fear in his frame and a glint in his eyes that tells Zishu he is being teased. Zhang Yusen, it would seem, is not as much of a fool as the rest. He doesn’t believe Zhou Zishu to be the head of the Ghost Valley, not one bit.

    Zhou Zishu lets his posture relax, smirking wryly as he begins to join Zhang Yusen’s good humor. “Zhang-daren. How bold of you to approach me. Don’t you know the rest of the Conference wets themselves at my mere approach?”

    Zhang Yusen laughs, a hearty and genuine sound. Zishu begins to walk again, and Zhang Yusen falls into step with him easily. They both know passerby pay less attention to a conversation in motion than one that is had standing still.

    “I apologize, Zhou-daren, but I must admit I had quite a laugh when the rumors first reached myself and my sons. Perhaps it is only because I knew previously that you knew Wen-daren in some way, but I’d hope I would have seen through the nonsense otherwise.”

    “I would hope as well. I’ve gone blue in the face telling people it’s not true. I think they think I just don’t like to be called ‘Guzhu’.”

    Zhang Yusen laughs again, shaking his head. “I suppose they will all feel like quite the fools when the Conference happens. It is nearly upon us now.”

    “You have no idea how foolish they will feel, Zhang-daren.”

    The curious look the other man aims at him when he says that is enough to tell him what he wanted to know. Zhang Yusen may not buy that he’s Valley Master, but he has not yet made the connection about who is.

    They walk in silence for a few moments, Zhou ZIshu allowing Zhang Yusen to come to whatever he approached for in his own time.

    “...do you remember my son, Zhou-daren?”

    Zhou Zishu blinks. “The youngest one, Chengling? The one Lao Wen took a liking to.”

    Yusen nods, smiling. “I have to thank you. That boy has always been lazy when it comes to practicing his martial arts, and I’m afraid I’ve been too lenient with him. Since you came to our aid that night, however, he’s been quite eager to learn.”

    Zishu is not good with being thanked. At least not genuinely; he’s had plenty of thanks given to him for diplomatic reasons only, thanks that hide venomous thoughts and poisoned blades.

    “He does not seem satisfied with our family’s teachings, however,” Yusen continues, blessedly relieving Zishu of the need to find a way to respond to his thanks.

    “No?” Zishu asks. “Has he already mastered them, then?”

    Zhang Yusen chuckles, detecting the wry teasing in Zishu’s voice. They both know how children are, always wanting to run before they’ve even begun to walk. They, too, were like that once.

    “Not quite yet, I’m afraid. But after seeing you fight for that scant few seconds, I’m afraid he won’t stop asking after the idea of learning other styles. Zhou-daren...he wishes to call you shifu.”

    Zhou Zishu’s heart stops in his chest, his step falters. The mere idea of it is overwhelming, tear-jerking. The idea of there being someone who could learn the martial arts of Four Seasons Manor. Carry it. That it could carry on, instead of dying some day with Zhou Zishu.

    “I...I am honored, Zhang-daren. But I can’t. I am not a ghost, but I soon will be. I would not dare take your son to the Valley. Especially not when I myself do not yet have a handle on what it’s like there.”

    Zhang Yusen is startled, understandably. It is not easy to imagine someone not of the Valley arriving for something like the Heroes Conference and leaving a ghost himself. It is a testament to his tact that he does not ask; he simply soaks the information in and nods slowly, questions behind his eyes.

    “...I see. And I suppose Wen-daren, too, will be returning to the Valley.”

    Zishu nods. “He will.”

    “I see,” Zhang Yusen repeats. “Zhou-daren...keep him safe there, will you?”

    Zhou Zishu can’t help it. This time, it’s his turn to laugh. “I will do my best, but please rest assured. Wen Kexing is more than capable of protecting himself.”

 

----

 

The night before the Conference proper, Lao Wen insists they attend the last banquet. He reassures Zishu - who had not been worried about it - that he will have all the food and wine he could wish for in the Valley, but it will be their last chance to look around at all the fools and gloat at their ignorance.

    Zishu goes not because of that, but because he simply has a hard time denying Lao Wen much of anything when he has that childlike glint in his eye.

    For the first time, they walk in side by side. Lao Wen links their arms and Zishu does not protest, both wearing the hairpin the other gifted them like marks of pride.

    Zhou Zishu wonders at how it’s possible, to feel love so strongly as he does for Wen Kexing. He would be content to walk at his side like this forever, the warm weight of him against his side and the sound of his voice as soothing as an embrace.

    This last banquet turns out to be something of a throwback to the first, though now he is not looking in from the outside. He is within.

    The Department of the Unfaithful are there in a gaggle, like they had been that first night. Luo Fumeng comes to meet them, her eyes assessing as they land on Zhou Zishu. Zishu feels, oddly, like he’s being sized up by a protective parent.

    Stopping in front of them, she bows and greets him. “Lord Zhou.”

    Zhou Zishu shoots Lao Wen’s smug face a quick look, and then greets her in turn. “Xi Sang Gui.”

    “A-Xu, please. You and I are as one. Call her Luo-yi.”

    Zhou Zishu blinks at the address. Huh. Perhaps he is being sized up by a protective parent in a way. He looks back at her for confirmation that he is allowed such a familiarity, and she nods. Of course she does. Wen Kexing is her Guzhu, he thinks, and ‘Luo-yi’ or not she likely does not dare defy him.

    “Madame Luo,” he settles on. “It is a pleasure.”

    “The pleasure is mine,” she replies, voice cool but not standoffish. “We would be honored if you and A-Xing were to join us for the meal.”

    And so, the last night almost mirrors the first. From where he sits among the sea of beauties in red, he can see the place he sat that first day. The place where he stared with equal parts fascination and lust and the puzzle of Wen Kexing, and where he had been pinned by Lao Wen’s stare in turn.

    This, he muses, is far from where the Zhou Zishu of that night would have expected to end up.

    They arrived relatively early, and many of the guests trail in after them. Many of the same guests have clearly already been celebrating, most of the men loitering around well on their way to drunk. 

    They gather in little groups and get rowdy, have contests and debates and devolve into equal parts shouting and laughter. Zishu sees a few eyes cast around for Wen Kexing, before it is realized that he’s one of the many pretty creatures in red over here with the Department of the Unfaithful. 

    One drunken man breaks away from one of those squabbling groups eventually, stumbling towards the group of ghosts. They seem to have been having a debate of some kind, and he’s seen it as an excuse to beg the attention of the object of everyone’s affections. 

    “Kexing! Kexing, you must come settle this!”

    He gets nearly three quarters of the way to them before he realizes that Zhou ZIshu sits right next to Wen Kexing, and pales, sputtering. He can’t seem to decide what to do, in his drunken haze. Retreat? Change the informality with which he addressed the Valley Master’s concubine? Fall to his knees for forgiveness?

    Wen Kexing smiles and knocks shoulders with Zhou Zishu. “I will be right back, A-Xu. I have an argument to resolve.”

    He rises in that beautiful, sinuous way of his and approaches the man as if nothing is amiss, who follows him back to his group with more than a few nervous glances over the shoulder at Zhou Zishu. 

    Zhou Zishu and Luo Fumeng are left there with the girls of the Unfaithful, watching Wen Kexing swan into the crowd and wrap everyone around his little finger with nary so much as a smile.

    “...he loves you,” Luo Fumeng says, not looking back at him when Zishu’s head turns towards her, startled. She continues to watch Wen Kexing, and Zishu blinks slowly, also resettling his gaze.

    “...and I him.”

    “I have watched that boy grow up. He has never been quite right, but the Valley has warped him. ...he is on his best behavior here, Zhou Zishu,” she says. “If he were to take you to the Valley, and you were to shy away when he showed his true colors...it would devastate him.”

    Suddenly, Zhou Zishu understands what this is about. He smiles softly, and looks over at her. This time, she looks back.

    “Madame Luo. I am no better a man than he is. You need not worry that this monster will shy away from one of his own. I will do my best not to hurt him.”

    She scans his face. Seems to find what she’s looking for, and her expression softens as she smiles and looks out at the crowd again. “No more than he wishes you to, at least.”

    Zhou Zishu barks a startled laugh, and raises his wine cup in her direction. “No more than he wishes me to.”

    They toast, and watch the man they love play his game.

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

Zhou Zishu wakes the day of the Conference to the soft pressure of kisses being lain along the column of his neck. He is not surprised; he had gone to sleep with Lao Wen laying next to him, after all.

    It had not been for lust that they had lain together, but for the bliss of another warm body in one’s arms, and the feeling of a zhiji’s breath ghosting over skin.

    Now, it is not Wen Kexing’s breath but his lips that ghost across the sensitive flesh of Zhou Zishu’s neck. These kisses, too, are not kisses of lust. They are kisses of adoration. Of reverence. Like Lao Wen thinks he can press worship in its purest form into his skin, where it will be captured and kept in the very lining of his cells themselves until the day he dies.

    Zhou ZIshu takes a deep breath and lets it out in a blissful sigh the likes of which he doesn’t remember ever having cause to give, and Lao Wen’s mouth curls against his throat.

    “Good morning, A-Xu,” he murmurs, the brush of his lips and the gust of his breath raising goosebumps in their wake.

    “Good morning, Lao Wen.”

    Zhou Zishu raises his arm lazily to find the back of Wen Kexing’s head, burying his fingers in the silk of his hair and running them through the tresses. Lao Wen purrs a pleased sound and burrows his face into Zishu’s shoulder, arms wrapping snugly around Zhou Zishu’s waist. It is, of course, too much to hope for that he would do so quietly.

    “A-Xu,” he laments. “How easily my arms wrap around you like this. What a tiny waist - you have a form I’ve only ever seen in my dreams. Won’t you let me see how my hands span your sides?”

    Zishu snorts. “Not right now I won’t. We have an obligation today, you pestilence.”

    Lao Wen heaves a gusty sigh. “Obligation! Is it not also my duty to worship a body so divine as yours? You have allowed me to see so precious little of it, A-Xu, how am I meant to offer my prayers to this deity in my bed?”

    Zhou Zishu starts to chuckle, shaking his head. “You’re ridiculous. Is that what you’re going to do? Take me back to the Valley and worship me as a God?”

    “It’s not a bad idea,” Wen Kexing protests. “I would love to put you on a pedestal and look upon you every day. If you wished it, I’d offer a beating heart fresh out of one of my ghost’s chest every day to you.”

    “You’re a freak, Lao Wen. The only heart I want is yours, and I am happy with it staying in your chest.”

    Wen Kexing’s fingers twitch against his side and breath catches in his chest, something Zhou Zishu has gotten used to happening whenever he honestly proclaims how he feels for Lao Wen.

    “I’m afraid I can offer you nothing else, then,” Lao Wen murmurs quietly. “For you already have all you desire.”

    “Not quite.”

    Lao Wen raises his head, eyebrows quirked and eyes curious. “Oh? What else do you want?”

    Zhou Zishu stares back, certain that he is not doing a good job at hiding the adoration in his eyes when he responds. “I want you to get off of me. You’re heavy.”

    His face splits into a grin when Wen Kexing wails just as he’d expected him to, even as he shifts his weight so Zhou Zishu can get up and out of the bed. 

    “A-Xu! How can you be so cruel to me?! Have I not laid my heart bare for you? Proclaimed my love loudly enough?”

    “There’s nothing you don’t do loudly, Lao Wen,” he responds, stretching and then bending to fetch his boots. He no sooner bends then are greedy, playful hands gripping his hips and pulling them back into what is unmistakably Wen Kexing’s groin.

    Zhou Zishu’s blush explodes across his face and ears like a wildfire. 

    “Lao Wen!” he scolds, straightening and swatting vehemently behind him. Lao Wen laughs and dances away, eyes sparkling. He looks like he feels absolutely no shame, despite having just fit them together when they both wear no more than their inner robes.

    “A-Xu! How can you bend in front of me like that and expect me to behave? You are as gorgeous from behind as you are from the front!”

    Zhou Zishu grabs one of Lao Wen’s boots instead of his own and hurls it at his laughing form. “Out! Get dressed and get out, you monster!”

 

----

 

Zhou Zishu arrives at the site of the Five Lakes Monument - the site of the Conference - not early, and not late. He drifts in with the main body of the rest of the attendees, though they universally give him startled looks and a wide berth when they realize he is near them.

    He is dignified and handsome in his dark robes, leather belt and bracers, but he has not put his hair up in the tight topknot he has worn for most of the Conference. It is, instead, partially down the way Lao Wen has proclaimed his liking for and secured with the white jade pin his zhiji had given him. 

    Has he ever run his fingers over something with so much warmth in his chest as he does every time he handles this pin, he wonders? Lao Wen had worn it nearly every day; it was something important to him, he could tell. And yet he had slid it into Zishu’s hair and relinquished it to his possession without a hint of hesitance. 

    This hairpin became his most treasured possession in that very moment, though only because he can not tuck Lao Wen himself snugly into his pocket for safe keeping.

Looking up at the main platform, even if one had not heard the conversation about the Valley Master being afforded a place of honor, they would know. How could they not? On the far right of the stage there are two lines of fully dressed and masked ghost standing stock still and facing each other, bordering the space in which the Valley Master will stand. They trail all the way back to where the stairs up to the platform proper are, and there’s no way to know how far back the lines go. 

The ones at the very front stand with sticks in hand for the large, traditional drums they have placed there.

Zhou Zishu rolls his eyes openly. He had known, of course, that Lao Wen would want to make an entrance. Still, it’s quite the setup. Wen Kexing’s waiting ghosts are the only ones up there right now, not even the brothers of the Alliance in place yet.

There is nothing to do, once Zhou Zishu has found a space below to occupy, but wait.

Sects group together and find their places, circling the monument and facing the main stage. Curious, cautious eyes alight on the drums and the ghosts all around. The same eyes linger on him in surprise and confusion when they see him. 

Through each stare he stands dignified and unfazed, not bothering to give a reaction. The only gaze he meets is Zhang Yusen’s, who looks at him with a twinkle of amusement as he rolls his eyes to properly convey how he feels about the whole situation.

Casting around, he does not see Ye Baiyi, but he is sure that the immortal is here somewhere. He seems just as tired of people as Zhou Zishu feels, so he is unsurprised that he is out of sight.

Zishu has not yet gotten a chance, he realizes, to thank Ye-qianbei to his face for calling Beiyuan and Wu Xi to the Conference. If he had not, Zishu would never have known he had a chance to hang on to his life. To live more than just a painful and ill three years with the zhiji he’s only just found.

The arrival of Gao Chong, Shen Shen, and Zhao Jing on the main platform above signals the beginning of the Conference. At least, it should. The space to the far right remains empty of anything but drums and the eerily still figures of ghosts.

It can be seen that even their hosts are thrown off by that, unsure what to do with themselves. For the longest time, the entire Conference is suffocated by confused, awkward silence. A miracle, Zishu muses, that something has managed to shut all these insufferable braggards up.

Zhou Zishu has no doubt that Lao Wen has every intention of making them wait until someone tries to start without him; it’s exactly the kind of calculated disrespect he can see his zhiji giggling over committing. 

Gao Chong clears his throat. “Welcome, everyone-”

Just as Zishu had expected, he is cut off by movement from the ghosts. It’s like a wave, each ghost in the line from farther back than they can see turning to whisper to the next, the message being carried all the way to the front until it reaches the ghosts who stand stationed at the drums.

In perfect sync, they turn and beat out a heavy rhythm. The ghost behind them begin to sink to their knees in a show of reverence, tips of their blades dug into the wood of the platform and their hands clasped on the pommels, heads down. Their voices echo out as one. 

“Guzhu is here! All evils retreat! All ghosts return!”

Zhou Zishu smiles and shakes his head, even as confused and alarmed eyes dart to him. Ridiculous, he thinks. Melodramatic. A peacock of a man, his Lao Wen.

When figures start to crest the the stairs onto the platform, all eyes are wide and focused. 

Wen Kexing is beautiful and regal. His robes are exquisite, his hair perfect, his eyes lined underneath in that stark red. The only difference from usual is the expression on his face. His chin is high, his mouth is void of a smile. If the eyes are a window to the soul, Lao Wen has left his locked away somewhere.

Trailing behind him in orderly lines are the Ten Devils. They have the air of people who dare not step a foot out of line, for fear of losing their lives. When Wen Kexing stops at the head of the stage next to the brothers of the Alliance, they too sink to their knees in deference.

The silence is stark. Nearly every face is pale and frantically confused. They do not yet dare believe what’s in front of them, lest the horror of their own conduct truly set in.

Lao Wen lets the silence hang for a few long moments, before he starts to blink and turn his head towards the brothers of the Alliance, brow quirked and eyes wide. “Is something wrong?” he asks. “You did say this end of the stage was reserved for me?”

Zhou Zishu sees on all three of their faces how caught off guard they are, but it is Zhao Jing who really catches his eye. It is Zhao Jing who is turning ashen with horrified realization.

Gao Chong casts a lost glance at Zhou Zishu, and Zishu just quirks a questioning brow back. Lao Wen follows his gaze and scoffs a little laugh, looking enlightened. “Ah. Hero Gao...A-Xu said many times he was not the Ghost Valley Guzhu. Did no one really believe him?”

Lao Wen straightens, settling dancing eyes on Zhou Zishu. “Speaking of A-Xu,” he starts. Zhou Zishu spots movement from behind him right before he’s cut off.

One of the nearby ghosts in line has been shifting nervously, hands adjusting their position on the pommel of his sword, head twitching as if he’s glancing upward here and there. It is now that he takes his chance and lunges at Wen Kexing’s back with blade brandished, showing every intent to kill.

He does not get far. 

Zishu can hardly track it, for how fast Lao Wen has reached back to grab the ghost’s sword wielding wrist and yanked him close, bending and launching him over his back to slam him down onto the stage in front of him. His back has barely made contact with the wood before the sole of Wen Kexing’s boot is coming down on his throat with a sickening crunch, the breath wheezing out his attacker’s form in an agonizing gust.

Lao Wen blinks down at the ghost with surprise, paying no mind to the desperate fingers that scrabble at his ankle. The ghost is trying futilely to breath through a windpipe that is no longer capable of drawing air, gurgling as he chokes on his own blood under the mask.

After a moment of staring downward with a nonplussed expression, it seems to sink in to Lao Wen what just happened, and he starts to laugh. It starts small, but quickly swells to booming guffaws, graceful hands coming up to clap as if this attempt on his life is the funniest thing he’s seen all year.

“Good,” he cries, eyes dancing with madness. “Very good! Was it going to be incredible? Impressive? The most memorable usurpation of a Valley Master to be committed? To take my place in front of the jianghu, you would have been the stuff of legends!”

Wen Kexing continues to laugh, an unhinged and unsettling sound that has him doubling over in his mirth. He waves his hand after a moment, and some minor ghosts break from their formation to scramble forward and drag the corpse away. Lao Wen lifts his foot to allow it.

“G-Guzhu,” a voice speaks up from behind. Wen Kexing looks over his shoulder, still chuckling and wiping what seems to be a tear of mirth from his eye.

The speaker is one of the Ten Devils, a short, plump man who is staring at the new corpse being dragged away with covetous eyes. “G-Guzhu...m-may I…?”

Lao Wen blinks, glancing down. “Hmm? Do you want him?”

The Devil nods rapidly, face hopeful. Ah. Corpse Eating Ghost, then. How...lovely.

Lao Wen seems to consider it for a moment, and then waves his fan dismissively. “You may. After the Conference.”

The frantic thanks the Corpse Eating Ghost starts to give are cut off by a frantic, “You can’t!” from another minor ghost. Everyone, minor ghosts and Devils included, freeze. 

Lao Wen turns his head to look at the speaker very slowly, eyes vacant.

The minor ghost trembles. “G-Guzhu! I apologize! I misspoke, I misspoke! I would never made a demand of you, never! I-I-I-I only hoped that, that Guzhu would reconsider! H-he deserved to die! He deserved it, but! I-In his infinite kindness, perhaps Guzhu would leave him his body intact?”

Silence prevails, Lao Wen looking at the minor ghost as if he’s a zoo animal, and the ghost trembling so hard it’s a wonder he hasn’t fallen out of his kneel. Finally, Lao Wen crooks one finger as a summons.

The ghost hesitates, until Wen Kexing says a firm, “Now.”

He scrambles to obey, coming to stand with knocking knees in front of his Guzhu. Lao Wen surveys him idly, tapping his fan on his palm.

“Was he your friend?” Lao Wen asks, a total lack of sympathy in his voice.

The ghost swallows and nods.

“I see. You do not want to see him eaten, I presume?”

Another moment of hesitation, and another nod.

“Hmmmm,” Lao Wen hums, nodding to himself. “Very well, then.”

His hand is a blur, it moves so swiftly, and the ghost’s throat splits nearly from ear to ear under the edge of Lao Wen’s fan. Wen Kexing smiles as he falls, gurgling.

“Now, you will not see him eaten. Aren’t I kind?”

The edge of his fan drips with blood, a chilling notice that Wen Kexing has never been unarmed. Still smiling as if discussing the weather, Lao Wen turns over his shoulder towards the Devils again. 

“I’m feeling generous today. You may have him as well,” he tells Corpse Eating Ghost as this body, too, is dragged away. The little fat man babbles his vehement thanks, absolutely glowing with delight.

In the chilled, terrified silence that ensues, one soul gathers his voice in the gaggle of martial artists below.

“Y-you lied to us!”

Lao Wen blinks, putting on a face of surprise. “Lied to you?”

Another one of those chilling laughs rings out, Wen Kexing’s eyes and the curl of his lips showing his amusement. “When have I lied to you?”

He takes up a short, leisurely circuit of pacing back and forth, gesturing with his fan as if he had not just used it to kill a man.

“Guzhu is here, and will attend the Conference. I am not a part of the Department of the Unfaithful, or am I one of the Ten Devils. I have been a ghost since I was but a child, and I live in the Valley Master’s palace.”

His lips curl as he thinks back on all the truths he has told, looking out over the top of his fan. “Wherever Guzhu sleeps is where I sleep, indeed. I do have a ravenous appetite for beautiful men, and it does get boring in my bed when it’s only me. Were you to touch me without permission, however, I would skin you alive without hesitation, just as I did to my predecessor.”

Zhou Zishu wonders how the young man who’d had his knuckles rapped feels right about now.

“Let’s see,” Lao Wen drawls, “What else? Ah! I am not much of a dancer, and I own many robes of many colors, but I think I look loveliest in red. Wouldn’t you agree?”

Turning with a whirl towards Gao Chong and his brothers, Wen Kexing offers a bow. “And of course, I am truly flattered, as I said, that you would offer me a place here for the Conference. Very kind of you. Please rest assured, I will make sure my ghosts clean the blood out of the wood before we go.”

Straightening, Wen Kexing sighs and shakes his head. “No, I don’t believe I’ve ever told any of you a single lie. Nor has A-Xu, and all of his truth telling was brushed off the poor thing.”

Refocusing his attention on Zhou Zishu, as he had before the ghost had made his attempt on the Valley Master’s life, Lao Wen points his folded fan at him. “You, A-Xu! What are you doing down there?”

Zhou Zishu quirks a brow. “I was under the impression I was attending the Heroes Conference, Lao Wen.”

Wen Kexing sighs, shaking his head. “A-Xu! I am to take you back to the Valley for a pet, and you think you are not welcome to stand here with me? Come! Come up!”

A raucous murmur goes through the crowd at his words, wide eyes that settle on Zhou Zishu containing an entirely different set of sentiments now. 

Zishu stares with his usual unimpressed expression up at Lao Wen, but Lao Wen just smiles back at him and makes another jaunty ‘come on’ motion with his fan. Zishu sighs and does as he’s bid, ascending to take a place next to Lao Wen. 

His zhiji beams at him and leans it to murmur, quiet enough for only Zishu to hear, “What would you do if I kissed you right now?”

At the same low volume, Zishu replies, “Castrate you, probably.”

Lao Wen’s laughter rings out, and Zhou Zishu can’t help but smile.

“What have you come here for, Guzhu?” Gao Chong asks in a serious tone and a severe expression that only Wen Kexing and Zhou Zishu do not share with him. He is frightened, and he wants an explanation.

Wen Kexing blinks at him with those wide eyes. “Oh? Are we starting with me? I thought you would at least welcome your guests, but alright. You did read my letter, didn’t you, Hero Gao?”

Gao Chong frowns. “...I did.”

“And?”

It is a clear disrespect, to make Gao Chong say out loud what he means as if he’s a child, despite them both knowing the answer. Nevertheless, Gao Chong swallows his irritation and replies.

“You cited a desire for continued peace. Somehow, I do not believe you want nothing in return.”

Lao Wen smiles, snapping his fan open. Zhou Zishu almost laughs at the way nearly everyone in the crowd flinches at the motion now. 

“You are truly perceptive, Hero Gao,” he says, sounding not at all sincere. “I am more than willing to uphold my end of the long standing truce, of course. I will make sure that my ghosts stay reigned in and inside the Valley...for but one favor in return, of course. I do not think you will find it an unreasonable request.”

All three brothers hold themselves stiff like they absolutely expect to find it an unreasonable request.

“What do you want, Wen Kexing?” Gao Chong asks.

Lao Wen lifts his chin, easing back into the cold exterior of the Ghost Valley Guzhu. “I want the head of my parents’ killer.”

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

A murmur goes through the crowd. Gao Chong blinks, all of the brothers seeming caught off guard. It is, just as Wen Kexing had said it would be, not an unreasonable request. It is also an abrupt reminder that Wen Kexing is a human being. A man who loved his mother and father, and had lost them. 

    A man who wants vengeance for their deaths as any man would.

    The raised hackles of the Alliance begin to smooth, the square set of Gao Chong’s shoulders start to relax.

    Lao Wen continues to look at him, chin raised. “Well?” he asks. “Is it not reasonable?”

    Gao Chong blinks, nodding. “...it is. Any son has the right to ask for such a thing. Rest assured, Wen-daren. After the Conference, we of the Five Lakes Alliance will do our utmost to help you find the person responsible.”

    Lao Wen hmphs and shakes his head. “You misunderstand. I want his head now. Why should I wait, after all, when he is here?”

    The breath goes out of everyone. Murmurs spread, heads start to turn to look at each other. Gao Chong looks out at the Conference with a surprised but assessing gaze. After all, if someone notable of the jianghu was responsible, then…

    “Who were your parents, Wen-daren?” Gao Chong asks, brow furrowed.

    Lao Wen steels his jaw and raises his head further, eyes going hard and determined. “The Divine Hand Zhen Ruyu, and his wife Gu Miaomiao.”

    The Heroes Conference explodes into a ruckus of cries and questions, alarm and confusion abound. Zhou Zishu hardly hears it. He is too busy staring wide eyed at Wen Kexing. At...at Zhen Yan?

    “Lao Wen…?” he whispers, heart pounding. The pin he now wears...has he seen it before after all? Wen Kexing glances at him with the first hint of warmth he has shown since mounting the stage. It is all he allows himself before averting his gaze again. 

    Zishu understands. He cannot let himself feel, the way he feels when he opens up with Zhou Zishu. Not now. 

    “You are…” Gao Chong starts, face open with shock. “...the son of Zhen Ruyu...and Gu Miaomiao…?”

    Lao Wen smirks. “Do you doubt me, Hero Gao?”

    “I…” Gao Chong does not seem sure of what to say. Huang He of the Beggar Gangs does, stepping out from his place with his sect and waving his arm to mirror the outrage in his voice. 

“Nonsense! Zhen Ruyu was a great man! How could he have such a vile son?! He laughs over the deaths of his own, and you’re going to believe these lies?!”

Lao Wen turns his chiling gaze on Huang He, who falters under the weight of that stare and the fresh memory of the lives he’d just taken with nothing more than his foot and the fan he holds in hand.

“Hmm?” Wen Kexing asks. “You knew him, then?”

Huang He splutters, the coldness in Wen Kexing’s face frightening no matter how hardened one thinks they are. “I...who here did not? You can not fool us with lies of one of our compatriots!”

A slow smile curls across Lao Wen’s face. “That’s a yes, then. Good. Very good. Do any of you, then, remember the Eighteen Moves of Qiuming?”

By the ripple that goes through the crowd, it is clear that they not only remember the eighteen moves; they are wondering how a man who proclaims to have been a ghost since childhood could know of them.

Lao Wen huffs his cold amusement. “Good. Who will lend me their blade, then?”

He holds his hand out, palm up, surely knowing that there’s not a soul present who wants to put a sword in the hand of the Ghost Valley Guzhu. Especially not one who has already proven leagues more cunning, cruel and vicious than they ever expected.

“No one?” Lao Wen chimes, widening his eyes guilelessly. “You doubt me, but do not wish to give me the chance to prove my heritage? Tsk tsk. How...unrighteous of the righteous jianghu.”

“Lao Wen…” Zishu murmurs, feeling frighteningly close to tears at the realization of just who truly stands beside him. Could there be any greater confirmation that they were meant to be, than fate guiding them together again like this? He unwinds Baiyi from his waist and holds it out, drinking Wen Kexing’s face in as if it’s the first time he’s seen it.

“Here, Lao Wen. Use mine.”

Lao Wen turns and meets his eyes with a hesitant gaze of his own, as if afraid that knowing will somehow change things. Change that Zhou Zishu loves him. Change that he wants to go back to the Valley with him. As if it will change anything other than Zishu’s new understanding of just how true it is to call him zhiji.

Wen Kexing’s elegant, beautiful fingers take Baiyi from his hand, a small smile curling his lips at the veracity with which Zhou Zishu is trying to tell him with eyes alone that he has nothing to fear.

He watches the flip switch without even a hint of unease, unafraid of how quickly and easily his Lao Wen hardens and withdraws into the haughty shell of Wen Kexing, Ghost Valley Guzhu.

“Always an honor,” Lao Wen purrs at full volume, glint in his eye, “to hold your sword, A-Xu.”

Zhou Zishu scoffs and turns his head away, pretending that anyone looking probably can’t see the pink that rises to his cheeks.

Lao Wen turns his condescending gaze back to the Conference, and he performs . It is the first time that Zhou Zishu has gotten to truly see martial arts from him. His ability to sneak up on him, his subjugation of Han Ying, his effortless dispatch of his would be assassin today, they all told him Lao Wen was a formidable opponent. It’s different from seeing the effortless way he handles a sword, the elegance and precision with which he executes exactly what he’d said he would.

The Eighteen Moves of Qiuming. The signature of Zhen Ruyu of the Healer Valley.

Shock settles over the Conference, cold shock. Shock is easier for them than reality, but they are forced to process reality anyway. It sinks in slowly, like a poison, and every person in attendance pales gradually with the sickening effect.

The slow, heavy steps of Shen Shen breaking gradually away from his brothers to approach is the first sound for a while, and Zishu stands at the ready to come to Lao Wen’s defense as if it is needed. The look on the man’s face says it is not.

Shen Shen does not bear an expression of anger, but one of devastation and hope, eyes shining with genuine emotion. He comes almost within arms reach of them before he stops, hesitating.

“...Yan’er?” he murmurs, and the reaction is explosive.

Lao Wen rounds on him with the snarl and glare of a wild animal, sending him stumbling frantically backwards with a flick of the hand that still holds Zhou Zishu’s sword.

“You are not qualified to call me that!” he spits, the venom in his voice nearly frothing as it leaves his lips.

Gao Chong catches Shen Shen’s stumbling figure by the shoulders, though he does not show anger or outrage at Wen Kexing lashing out. He is looking at Lao Wen, instead, with the same wide eyed emotion that his brother is. The only one of the three not, Zishu notices, is Zhao Jing.

Zhao Jing looks like a corpse walking. Like a man who has just been handed a death sentence. Or, Zishu muses, a man who has just realized that he is the killer who’s head the Ghost Valley Master yearns for.

As if not fully in his right mind as of yet, Shen Shen blinks and murmurs the name again. “Yan’er, I-”

“Zhen Yan is dead,” Lao Wen hisses. “He died with his parents! I am Wen. Ke. Xing.”

“Dead…” Gao Chong breathes, as if it is just now truly sinking in that this is what Lao Wen has been saying from the beginning. Wen Ruyu and Gu Miaomiao are dead. Murdered. “Yan- Wen-daren...I am so sorry. We didn’t kn-”

Lao Wen laughs, eyes wild and tone shrill. “You didn’t know? You care now , do you? Why, I’m surprised you even remember him! I’m surprised any of you remember him!” he cries, sweeping his sleeve out to gesture to the crowd at large.

“Where were you? Hm? When he sacrificed himself in Mount Qingya? When he was threatened in the Healer Valley? When his martial arts were taken from him? When he and his wife were killed by the Ghost Valley, where were you? Where?!”

“You…” one woman wavers out; she is a distinct figure. The head of the Mount Emei sect. “You’re lying! You call yourself Wen, not Zhen!”

Lao Wen scoffs, curling his lip. “My father’s original surname was Wen. Chief Zhen of the Healer Valley gave him that name; expelled by his sect unjustly, of course I would take the name Wen.”

He nods at her, assessing. “You knew him?”

She raises her chin. “I did! I met Benefactor Zhen many a time!”

“Hmph. Good,” Lao Wen says. “When I was one month old, the women of the Mount Emei Sect sewed a patchwork and sent it to the Healer Valley as a gift.”

She balks, going pale. Lao Wen continues. 

“I must apologize, that I never came to thank you for your kindness.”

The fight drains from her slowly. Instead, the same complicated emotion enters her eyes. “You…you’re really…?”

“Who was it?” Shen Shen breathes, Gao Chong’s steadying hands still on his shoulders. “Y...Wen-daren. Who...the Ghost Valley? They were killed by the Ghost Valley? And you...were taken?”

Lao Wen clicks his tongue, heaving a sigh. “If it was as simple as that, Hero Shen, would I not have been satisfied by razing the Guzhu and his former Devils to the ground? Someone led them to us. He knows who he is. So I wonder…”

He turns towards the trio of brothers, cold challenge in his eyes. “Will you confess?”

Gao Chong and Shen Shen seem to stumble with the question, startled. The frantic murmurs that echo through the crowd can be seen in their very eyes.

“Will you confess, or shall I drag all the rest of your skeletons from the closet too... Uncle Zhao?”

Zhou Zishu can see the chills that run down Gao Chong and Shen Shen’s backs. They turn slowly, to aim disbelieving eyes at a pale and cornered Zhao Jing. Every eye in the Conference is on him, and for once he has no plan.

Slowly, shakily, Zhao Jing laughs. It is a nervous sound. “Da-ge...Wu-di. Why do you look at me like this? Surely you do not believe I would do such a thing? Look...look at him! That is not Zhen Yan. He may once have been, but the Valley has warped him. He rules it. Would you truly take the accusations of the Ghost Valley’s most feared Guzhu over the word of your sworn brother?”

Lao Wen barks a laugh. “Uncle Zhao. Wasn’t it you who told them they could trust me? Or did that only apply when you still thought you were the yellow sparrow?”

He sighs, shaking his head. “I suspected you would choose this route. A shame; I would have let you die with at least some of your honor intact. But since you insist, let’s tell them everything , shall we?”

Zhao Jing straightens, pulse pounding in his throat giving him away through the act of bravado he tries to put on. “What nonsense are you spouting now? You cannot expect Heroes such as those present to believe the lies of a lunatic!”

Wen Kexing blinks. “...lunatic?”

Zhao Jing tenses. Everyone does. Lao Wen does something even more frightening than becoming angry, as they’d expected him to. He laughs.

“Ha! What a coincidence, Uncle Zhao! That’s the nickname my ghosts have for me as well! Lunatic Wen, they all call me behind my back!”

Judging by the way the ghosts gasp and tremble where they kneel, they thought he didn’t know. Regardless of their fear, Lao Wen has made his point loud and clear, judging by the look on Zhao Jing’s face. He has proven that slinging insults will do nothing to distract or irritate him, make him open a hole in his attack to be taken advantage of. He can not be made to waver with such petty tactics. Not like the people of the jianghu could be, ever sensitive to even perceived slights.

“So where shall we start, Uncle Zhao?” Lao Wen asks, eyes sparkling. “Hmmm...how about with Rong Xuan? It was no accident, after all, that he went mad. It’s only fitting we start there, since he is your first skeleton.”

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

"Rong Xuan?" the crowd murmurs, confusion abound. 

Zhao Jing shakes his head. "I don't know what you're talking about."

Gao Chong chimes in, shaking his head in disbelief. "Wen-daren...what happened with Brother Rong was awful, but what he did was caused by madness."

"Indeed," Wen Kexing chimes. "And his madness was the result of poison."

He smiles after he says it, as casual as a man discussing the weather. As if he didn't just cause an audible uproar.

"You dueled him, didn't you, Hero Gao? All you brothers on one side, he on the other. Just a friendly bout, of course. It was only you who managed to nick him; isn't it after that that things went...wrong?"

Gao Chong is outraged, swelling to his full height. "Are you accusing me?"

Lao Wen blinks, tilting his head innocently. "Not at all. To cut a friend in a duel is not unusual. It was your sword that wounded him, but it was Zhao Jing who had applied the poison to the blade."

Gao Chong goes pale, as does Shen Shen. They both turn to their brother.

"N-nonsense!" Zhao Jing cries, eyes wild.

Lao Wen puts on a face of amused surprise. "Nonsense? Uncle Zhao, it was you who told me the story!"

He sighs and clicks his tongue. "I did not lie to the people of the Conference, and I was also very honest with you, Uncle Zhao. I told you quite honestly that while it was once only a necessity, I now quite enjoy the act of murder."

He ignores the startled splutters of Gao Chong and Shen Shen - though Zhou Zishu spies the hint of an amused twitch at the corner of his mouth - to continue.

"It is not my fault, Uncle Zhao, that you decided that meant you should woo me with tales of your own wrong doings."

"Er-di…" Gao Chong ventures, face pale and unreadable. 

Zhao Jing looks back at him and shakes his head. "Da-ge! It is nothing but lies!"

"...Er-di. How does he know, that we dueled like that with Brother Rong…? That it was I who cut him?"

Zhao Jing balks. He doesn't have an answer for that.

"I don't understand," Shen Shen murmurs, lost and distressed. "Why would Er-ge want to hurt Brother Rong? Why would he want to frame Da-ge for it, if the poison was discovered?"

Wen Kexing laughs. "Because! They're everything he's not. Powerful figures, natural leaders with natural presence. They have everything he wants. Power and notoriety. Uncle Zhao fancies himself a ruler , but he's simply not good enough to be one without playing dirty. Why, it wouldn't be the only time he tried to implicate you in something, Hero Gao."

Gao Chong blinks. He hides it well, but devastation is starting to dawn behind his eyes. "...what?"

"What? The murder of Zhang Yusen and his sons is what. Or it would have been, if it was successful. Even botched, wasn't it somewhat effective? Surely you, too, have heard the whispers that it was you who hired the assassins. Zhang Yusen has shown distrust with his separation from his brothers, after all. Who would be the first to come to mind but the head of the Alliance himself? He was hoping tensions would come to a head and you would have an...accident."

Lao Wen heaves a put upon sigh. "I imagine it might have worked, if the Scorpions hadn't been killed in the attempt."

"Scorpions?" Shen Shen says. "I've heard nothing about where the assassins were from, how do you-"

"That's right!" Zhao Jing seizes on the perceived opportunity. "There has been no news of who made the attempt on our brother, only that one was made. When one mentions organized assassins, the Scorpion is the first group that would come to mind - he's named them because they're well known; a convenient detail to add to his farce! Just a lie, like everything else."

"They were Scorpions," a voice rings out from below. All heads turn towards Zhang Yusen.

He still bears visible evidence of the attempt on his life via the sling on his arm and the yellowed bruising on his face. He looks like he doesn't quite know what to think of Wen Kexing anymore, but will not let it keep him from speaking the truth.

“The men who came for myself and my sons, they were Scorpion assassins. They would have taken our lives, if not for the intervention of Wen Kexing.”

The rippling murmurs, the confusion in people’s eyes, it is all understandable. How does one reconcile, after all, the Ghost Valley Guzhu who had taken the lives of his subordinates with a laugh and a smile, who has openly said on this stage itself that he enjoys the act of killing, with someone who would prevent the assassination of Zhang Yusen?

“What intervention?” Gao Chong asks, face severe.

Zhang Yusen takes a deep breath, collects himself. “...I met Wen-daren when he guided my youngest son back to our inn after he got lost at the market. I made some snap judgments, and sought him out to apologize. When I did...he warned me there was a traitor in the Alliance. That I was right not to have come to Sanbai Manor or announce my presence. He warned me to watch our backs.”

Zhou Zishu takes a glance at Zhao Jing. He looks livid for just a moment at the realization that it had been Wen Kexing who had ruined this ploy, before he puts his public face back on. 

“It was that very night the Scorpions came. Wen-daren’s warning was the only reason I was awake to fend off the first of the attack; that alone would have been a kindness, but he did not leave it to chance. He sent someone to watch and defend us that night; if he had not, I am afraid I still would not have been able to guard the lives of my sons and myself.”

Zhang Yusen’s eyes settle on Zhou Zishu, and that is enough to answer the question of ‘who’. The Valley Master had sent his pet, and his pet had dispatched a squad of Scorpion assassins and come out of it unscathed enough to turn up to the next morning’s meal.

Is that a pet, people wonder, or a collared tiger?

“I’m afraid I’ll have to break my word, Zhou-daren,” Zhang Yusen calls. “I know you did not wish him to find out we spoke of it, but I hope you will forgive me in the circumstances. Zhou-daren made it clear we could not let it be known we had ever met he or the Ghost Valley Guzhu, because it would tip the culprit off. Er-ge...that was you, wasn’t it? He knew of the attack because he heard it from your mouth. And if that’s the case, I do not doubt what he says about you confessing to the poisoning of Brother Rong to him.”

“This…” Zhao Jing starts, shaking his head. “This is...ridiculous. He knew where the assassins were from when no one else did. Don’t you see, my brothers? This Ghost Valley Guzhu, he is cunning. Scheming. It is clear what he has done! You truly do not see that this attempt on our beloved Brother Zhang was his doing? How convenient it would be, to foil his own killers for hire and then give the detail of their origin, for the would be victim himself to confirm! He has truly crafted quite the ploy, but the heroes of the jianghu are not so foolish to fall for it!”

Zhao Jing laughs, getting his bearings. Getting his feet under him. “Why, what reason would I have to set up the murder of my Brother Zhang? To frame Da-ge? To start rumors that might end badly for him? Absurd!”

Lao Wen smiles, chuckling. “You’re right, Uncle Zhao.”

He takes leisurely steps forward; all three of the brothers back out of his path, but only Zhao Jing pales with fear at his approach. “You did not do it just to frame Hero Gao. You did it because it presented you an opportunity to take the Zhang’s piece of the Glazed Armor. Two birds with one stone, isn’t that what you said to me when we discussed it? Doubly incriminating, after all, if Zhang Yusen’s piece of the Armor was found in Gao Chong’s quarters after his murder. And once the ensuing outrage and flaring, violent tempers resulted in your dear Da-Ge’s death, you would have three pieces all to yourself. Your own, the Zhangs, and Hero Gao’s.”

Zhao Jing splutters, grasps for something to say. “I-”

“And now that you mention it...you didn’t hire the Scorpions. You didn’t have to. You have their leader under your thumb and calling you Yifu, after all.”

The crowd explodes. It’s an insane accusation, and the implications are devastating. For one of the brothers of the Five Lakes Alliance to have been practically running the Scorpions all this time? Using them to his ends while keeping up a facade of righteousness? It is an irredeemable offense.

“Nonsense!” Zhao Jing barks. “You go too far! I would have nothing to do with the kind of filth that would head such a group!”

The voice that drifts through the air after that is soft, mournful, but projected for all to hear. It belongs to the pretty, waifish thing that climbs the stairs and joins them unhesitatingly on the main stage.

“It is truly so easy for you to forsake me, Yifu?”

Zhao Jing goes grey, shock clear on his face. It simply does not compute for him, after all, that his loyal dog would stand against him. His Xie’er knows how important it is that people do not know, not yet. How could he stand here and call him Yifu, knowing that it could sink him?

“...I have never seen you before in my life.”

Hurt flashes across Xie Wang’s face, but it a resigned hurt. It is the expression of someone who expected as much, but could not quite manage to prepare for the blow. “...I see. Just a southern barbarian, then, aren’t I? Little more than a dog.”

Horrified realization flashes across Zhao Jing’s features. He’d heard. 

Xie’er steps up to the front of the stage, bowing. “I am Xie Wang. I sent my Scorpions to kill Zhang Yusen and his three children at the behest of the man who raised me. Zhao Jing.”

“You…” Zhao Jing spits. “You...how could anyone believe you? You could just as easily have been hired off the street to play this role!”

Xie’er’s jaw twitches. His eyes steel. “I sent four assassins. Three men and one woman. Two of the men had facial hair, and the woman was distinctive because she was taller than all three of her male compatriots. Correct, Zhang-daren?”

Zhang Yusen is stunned. It is the last piece. The last confirmation that it was indeed Zhao Jing who tried to kill him. “...correct.”

Er-di ,” Gao Chong cries. “How could you?”

“Da-ge! Please! I already told you it was no doubt this Wen Kexing who hired the Scorpions! You think he did not pay the leader to come attest as well? To call me Yifu and contribute to this farce?”

Xie Wang huffs a humorless laugh. “How funny. You throw me away like trash, when you once told me I was your greatest treasure. You even gave me a token of your trust, to convince me that I truly meant something to you. Now that you have cast me aside...would you like it back, Yifu?”

Xie Wang’s slender fingers hook into the cord around his neck, and slowly he pulls it from the folds of his robes. On it hangs a piece of the Glazed Armor. Zhao Jing’s piece of the Glazed Armor. The attendees of the Conference may not be able to tell which it is, but his brothers know it is his.

It is the final straw. The final piece of evidence. Shen Shen shakes his head slowly, backing away from Zhao Jing as if he now faces a stranger. He feels like he does. Gao Chong steps back as well, heartbreak and anger on his face. 

“How could you, Er-di? How could you?

“Easily,” Wen Kexing answers. “For he has never cared for anything but power. He would not have been satisfied with just taking your place as head of the Alliance, Hero Gao.”

Lao Wen strolls forward, sword in hand, as he speaks. Neither Shen Shen or Gao Chong move to stop him as he advances on their sworn brother.

“He wanted the Armor so he could ultimately rule the world. Hmph. What a...lofty goal. But it is a long standing one, isn’t it? It is for refusing to give you the key that you had my parents murdered, after all. As their son, it is only my right to take your life in kind.”

Zhao Jing backs up with frantic, stumbling steps. He draws his own sword, though his hand trembles. 

Wen Kexing smiles the empty eyed smile of a shark. “I was very honest with you, Uncle Zhao. I would love to be your killer.”

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

Wen Kexing's first strike is almost lazy in the way he flicks his wrist, although his speed is still frightening. 

The swing opens a shallow cut along Zhao Jing's side that gets a startled cry out of him. It is not a serious wound, but Wen Kexing did not miss.

Everyone here is well versed with a sword, and can see what's happening. Wen Kexing is playing with him.

Lao Wen clicks his tongue. "Tsk, tsk. I suggest you raise your sword and fight, Uncle Zhao. It won't do you much good, but at least there would be some dignity to it. Or...did you just not see me coming? Should I slow down for you?"

Lao Wen laughs at the embarrassment and anger that crosses Zhao Jing's face. The snake glances almost desperately at his brothers, as if expecting they will cave and come to his defense. They do not.

Wen Kexing darts forward and strikes again, leaving a shallow but painful cut on Zhao Jing's non-dominant arm.

The man snarls and swings back, but all he cuts is air.

"Eyes on me, Uncle Zhao! They will not help you; your mask has fallen away."

Zhao Jing lunges for the first time. He is quicker, more adept than Zhou Zishu had expected, but not nearly enough. Lao Wen's smiling figure is behind him and opening a gash across his back before Zhao Jing's swing has carried all the way through.

He stumbles, teeth grit and face screwed up with pain. Wen Kexing doesn't take advantage of it; he just stands, smiling, until Zhao Jing whirls to face him again.

He is having fun. It should be disturbing. Zhou Zishu is not disturbed; Zhou Zishu is quite enjoying the show.

Another cut, this time to the shoulder. To the thigh. A slice across the sword wielding forearm that makes Zhao Jing drop his sword with a clatter, and then a clean severance of the Achilles tendon that sends him sprawling to the ground.

The predator's smile never leaves Lao Wen's face, still sitting beautiful and eerie on his lips as he makes a leisurely circuit around his prey. He seems to drink the sight in before he rolls Zhao Jing over with his boot.

"What's the matter, Uncle Zhao?" he purrs. "Can't get up? Surely you can try. It would be quite amusing to see you hop for a while."

Even facing death, Zhao Jing flushes with humiliation at the words. Being humiliated, being looked down on, has always been what he hates most.

"Do it, then," he spits. "If you want a confession, you will get none. I will take my innocence to the afterlife with me!"

Wen Kexing throws his head back and laughs . "Really? You're still trying to play this game? What, do you hope someone will intervene? Hope that after your death, your brothers will be plagued with doubt? Ah, Uncle Zhao...that's good. Thank you for one last laugh."

Lao Wen drags the tip of Baiyi slowly, leisurely up Zhao Jing's belly and chest, as if deciding where he'd like to strike the killing blow. When the sharp edge settles in the hollow of his throat, the weight of its lingering drawing a bead of blood, he seems to decide. 

No sooner does he raise the sword with the intention of plunging it back down into tender flesh does Xie Wang step forward, voice frantic.

"Wait!"

Lao Wen pauses, head turning slowly to survey the Scorpion.

"...having second thoughts, Xie Wang?"

Xie'er falters, eyes on Zhao Jing. "I...just a moment with him. Surely you can allow me that, before…?"

Wen Kexing screws his mouth up, considering. It is a long, tense silence before he sighs and steps back.

"Fine then. Since you were so helpful. Do what you must."

The little Scorpion stumbles forward, falling to his knees beside the bleeding figure of the man he once called Yifu. 

Zhou Zishu sees him gently move a stray lock of hair out of Zhao Jing's face, but cannot quite hear what he's saying. 

He might consider stepping closer to listen, if not for Lao Wen turning his head to look at him with an expression that warns him he might want to step back .

Wen Kexing's eyes are alight with adrenaline and a primal sense of victory. His pupils are blown with it. There is blood spattered across his cheek, and a feral grin is slowly spreading across his face.

Zhou Zishu can see what he wants to do in the animal twinkle in his eye. He starts to back cautiously away.

"Lao Wen," he says in a warning tone, tilting his head and scowling as if facing a beast.

Wen Kexing only grins wider and starts to approach just as slowly. His steps grow faster quickly, and Zishu nearly trips over himself to try to speed his own retreat with another somewhat frantic reproach of, " Lao Wen!"

It does not work. Wen Kexing catches him by the wrist and yanks him forward into a crushing kiss, one hand on his back and the other his head to keep him still.

It feels less like a kiss and more like a plundering, with the merciless way Wen Kexing forces his tongue into his mouth.

It is not that Zhou Zishu doesn't like it. It's that he's hyper aware of their unwilling audience.

With the way they gasp and cry in shock, one would think this was even worse than finding out that Zhao Jing controlled the Scorpions.

His outraged pushing at Lao Wen's chest is ignored until Wen Kexing has decided it suits him and relinquishes his hostage to stumble back and grin like a feral fool.

Zhou Zishu is mortified. He is livid. He is...a little hot under the collar.

" I told you not to do that!" he hisses, face the kind of hot that means he must be red as a ripe apple.

A glance at Gao Chong and Shen Shen only makes it worse. Shen Shen is staring flabbergasted and wide eyed, while Gao Chong is very stiff and politely looking at anything but them.

Zhou Zishu whirls around and away from them, though that only really forces him to face the crowd. 

"A-Xu," Lao Wen whines. "Why won't you look at me? Are you mad? A-Xu!"

As if all the eyes mean absolutely nothing, Wen Kexing drapes himself over Zishu's back and shoulders like some kind of domesticated wildcat.

"A-Xu, I couldn't help myself. Don't be angry. A-Xu? A-Xu!"

Zhou Zishu is not listening. He's just locked eyes with the horrified faces of Helian Yi and Duan Pengju. They are dressed plainly, the people around them none the wiser to who stands there with them.

Hmph. So Zishu was right when he thought his cousin may come in person. 

His cousin, who is nearly purple with outrage after having just seen him assaulted in public. Duan Pengju looks more shocked than angry. Zishu has no doubt the man is trying to figure out how to work the recent happenings in their favor.

There comes a choking sound off to the side that draws his attention to the figures of Zhao Jing and Xie Wang, and when he looks back the Prince and Pengju are gone.

Well...that is a problem for later. Right now, Lao Wen is laughing a delighted and disbelieving laugh and bouncing towards the Scorpion.

"Did he take it?" Lao Wen crows, grinning. "Truly? What a fool!"

Zhou Zishu follows him over, looking down at a Zhao Jing who looks more frightened now than he had with a blade at his throat. His muscles are tensing, stiffening, relaxing, all clearly without his consent. 

"A paralytic," Lao Wen says to him, knowing him well enough to answer the unasked question.

It was planned, then, that the Scorpion would ask for a moment with his father. Used those big doe eyes and years of loyalty to make him think it was safe to take whatever 'medicine' is now working through Zhao Jing's system.

Xie Wang stands up, looking coldly satisfied. 

"Congratulations, Xiao Xie," Lao Wen tells him, "on your new pet. Just don't forget our deal, yes?"

"Of course, Wen-daren. When I tire of playing with him, rest assured that I will deliver you his head personally."

Suddenly, Zishu understands. How...magnanimous of his Lao Wen. His Lao Wen, who looks down at Zhao Jing with a satisfied smile.

"Good, good. I think I would quite like to drink wine from his skull when that time comes."

Zishu snorts at the wide eyed terror that enters Zhao Jing's eyes. How ostentatious; he thinks he'll share that cup when it's poured.

"Are you satisfied, Wen-daren?" 

Gao Chong takes slow, cautious steps towards them. He clearly does not begrudge Wen Kexing this filial vengeance of his, but he is very wary of this Ghost Valley Guzhu. He would not admit it out loud, but he is afraid of him. 

Still...this is not just a ghost. This...this is Zhen Yan. This is the son of his dear friends, and it is his own brother who made him the monster that stands here today.

Lao Wen blinks his big dark eyes as if he's not sure what he means, and then puts on an enlightened smile, snapping his fan open and waving it primly.

"Ah, I see. Hero Gao...I am a man of my word, even if I am less than scrupulous. You will have no trouble from Ghost Valley. If you do, you need only let me know. I'll... deal with any troublemakers."

Peering around with much satisfaction at the total mess he has created, Wen Kexing says, "I hope you don't mind if A-Xu and I don't stay for the rest of the Conference. Although...I seem to have quite derailed it."

He doesn't seem to feel at all bad about that, gravitating towards Zishu's side as he says with a wry smirk and plainly fake contrition, "I suppose I won't be invited to the next one."

    Gao Chong hesitates. Looks like he’s second guessing himself, but pushes ahead anyway. “Actually...we would very much like it if you felt welcome here any time...Yan’er.”

    Lao Wen stiffens, balks. It can be seen on his face, in the way he blinks a couple of times in quick succession, that he was far from expecting such an answer. Eventually he steels his jaw and loses his good humor, glaring.

    “I was certain I made it clear that is not your name to call. Do not be mistaken in thinking that my exoneration of you today was an act of kindness or good will, Hero Gao. It was simply a natural consequence of exposing Zhao Jing’s wrongdoings and taking my right to his life. The monster you see here is not Zhen Yan. I would have thought that was more than clear after what you’ve seen today.”

    Gao Chong takes a deep breath, but doesn’t back down. “...it is in part my fault that you are this monster. Our fault. You are right. We were not there when we should have been, and we doomed you. Regardless of what you have become...you are my good friend’s son, and I would like you to know that...that I am willing to get to know Wen Kexing. That even if Zhen Yan is dead, his ghost is still our nephew.”

    Lao Wen swallows, lost. For a moment, Zhen Yan is in his face; his expression, the expression of a lost and confused child. Zhou Zishu lays a hand on his arm to ground him, and when Lao Wen glances at him, it seems to work.

    He clears his throat. “A-Xu. Let’s go.”

    Zhou Zishu follows when Lao Wen begins to walk, though Wen Kexing pauses before long. “Xiao Xie?”

    Xie’er looks up, eyes open. Zishu looks at that gaze and suspects that Xie Wang does not just see Wen Kexing as a temporary ally; that perhaps he dares hope he has a friend. Someone who is more genuine than Zhao Jing.

    Wen Kexing glances at him, does not maintain eye contact. Turns to look ahead as he speaks. “You understand that you have now outlived your usefulness to me, correct?”

    Xie Wang hesitates, his face falling. He closes his eyes as if to stave off the devastation. “Yes, Wen-daren. I-”

    “All the same,” Lao Wen interrupts him, resolutely staring forward. “When the time comes that you bring me his head...there will be a place for you in the Valley, if you wish it.”

    He strides away as if trying to escape having to see the result of his words, like he can pretend that what he just did was anything but a kindness. An extended hand, an offer of camaraderie. 

    Zhou Zishu humphs a laugh and shakes his head at his zhiji’s retreating back, sparing one glance to Xie Wang’s stunned, incandescently happy face before he follows.

    He must stick close to Lao Wen, after all, if he is to keep his promise of protecting Zishu from the Prince. Besides, what kind of pet would he be if he didn’t let Lao Wen show him off on his arm?

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

The first thing Zhou Zishu does when he gets Lao Wen in his room alone is take his face in his hands and look at him.

Lao Wen blinks in open surprise and allows it, just staring at him with a question in his face.

Zhou Zishu runs his thumbs over Wen Kexing's high cheekbones, cups his jaw and tilts his face this way and that. He drinks Lao Wen in, analyzes every little detail, and then finally smiles and humphs a satisfied sound, shaking his head.

"A-Xu?" Lao Wen asks, almost a whisper.

"I should have known," he responds. "Who could have guessed you'd grow up to be so beautiful? But I should have known, because I've never seen eyes like these on anyone else. So big and round and dark. You're a far cry from that little kid, Lao Wen, but your eyes haven't changed."

Lao Wen loses his breath, blinking and becoming vulnerable in a heartbeat.

"A-Xu...I'm...I'm not…"

Zhou Zishu just smiles, running his thumbs in slow circles where they sit on Wen Kexing's jaw.

"I know, Lao Wen. I know. I'm not either."

Neither of them are those children anymore, scarred and warped by pain and trauma, but Zhou Zishu is glad to have him back anyway.

It seems to help. Lao Wen starts to relax incrementally, and they lean into each other to press their foreheads together, breathing the same air and being silently thankful for the others presence.

Until Zhou Zishu raises a hand and pinches his zhiji's arm mercilessly.

Lao Wen squawks.

"Ow! A-Xu! What was that for?"

"For the stunt you pulled in front of the Conference! I told you not to kiss me there! Did you think that meant mauling me was a valid alternative? Huh?"

He smacks Wen Kexing again, refusing to fall for the wide-eyed, wounded act he's putting on.

"A-Xu!" Lao Wen whines, every bit a kicked puppy. "I couldn't help it! I swear! Did you really hate it that much?"

Zishu opens his mouth, scowling, to say yes he hated it with every fiber of his being and...and hesitates. 

He huffs a breath out of his nose and looks away, glaring at a wall. "I don't know how you can just...not care that people are looking."

In but a single moment Lao Wen's expression changes entirely, smirk curling his lips and demeanor becoming sly.

"Oh?" he purrs, and Zhou Zishu immediately regrets not just saying he hated it. "Is that what it is, A-Xu? Not that it was bad, but that you're shy? "

"Lao Wen," he warns.

"That's so precious, A-Xu! But it's really not about not caring that people are looking, you know…"

" Lao Wen ," he growls, feeling his face get hot.

"What?" Wen Kexing asks, sitting back and pouting. "Am I not allowed to enjoy showing you off? Flaunting you? Making everybody jealous that they'll never have you? Give them a good look at what they're missing, because you're mine ?"

Zishu scoffs, as if it wasn't exactly the feeling that Lao Wen was putting on a show of claiming him that left him hot and flustered.

"Well you certainly did that. You did it in front of someone very specific."

Lao Wen quirks an eyebrow, a silent question, and Zishu grows a little more serious.

"The Prince and my former second in command were in the crowd. I caught sight of them while you were hanging off of me like a languid beast."

Wen Kexing sobers as well. "So he did come. Just as you suspected. What do you think he will do, A-Xu?"

Zhou Zishu shakes his head. "I don't know. I suspect he has more enmity for you than me right now, though."

"Oh?"

"From the apoplectic look on his face, I'd wager he thinks I really have been made a pet of somehow."

Wen Kexing raises his eyebrows slowly, eyes considering. "You mean in the manner people thought I was? You think he thinks I've enslaved you, somehow?"

Zishu nods. "I wouldn't be surprised. It would be much easier for him to accept as a theory than that I could possibly wish to leave him."

Lao Wen blinks, narrowing his eyes with a measure of uncomfortable suspicion. "...you said he is your cousin, did you not?"

Zishu blinks back, caught off guard. "I did. Why?"

Lao Wen clicks his tongue, waving a hand. "Nothing. The way you said that, it almost made him sound like a jilted stalker."

Zishu laughs. Then...laughs again, with a little less humor and a little more hesitance. It gets Lao Wen to look at him with wide eyes, a tad alarmed. 

"A-Xu? He hasn't…?"

"No! No," Zishu scrambles to reassure him. "No, I promise. But you're right. He has always been...quite fixated with having me by his side. Dependent and...familiar. He thinks I'm the only one who truly understands him. The only one who will always be by his side."

Lao Wen scoffs a cynical laugh, face sour. "Hmph. I meant what I said. If he lays a filthy hand on you, I'll string him up and torture him to death."

Something about Lao Wen’s demeanor, about the liquid fear in his gaze when the idea that Zishu might have been...imposed upon occurred to him, the venom in what is meant to appear an idle threat...it alarms Zishu in turn.

“...Lao Wen?”

Wen Kexing glances at him, then sniffs and looks back away. “What? I just don’t like predators, is all.”

Zishu quirks an eyebrow. “And you’re not a predator?”

“Not like that.”

Zhou Zishu nods and leaves it alone. The topic is closed, and it is not his right to pry. They will speak of it only if and when Lao Wen wishes it. Zhou Zishu has his share of memories he does not wish to speak about, after all.

“Well I needn’t worry,” Zishu says, voice firm and signalling a change of topic. “As long as the Valley Master is by my side, neither god nor demon could hope to harm me, isn’t that so?”

Lao Wen blinks. Smiles. Blossoms back into the unholy terror Zhou Zishu knows and loves. “It is. And once I’ve taken my beautiful prize back to the Valley? Why, what hope do they have of even laying eyes on you, then?”

Zishu smiles, endeared as his zhiji crawls closer to him with mischief in his face. “Are you going to hide me away, Lao Wen? I thought you’d want to have me on your arm. Show me off, wasn’t it?”

Lao Wen wedges himself impishly right between Zhou Zishu’s legs, pinning him against the table; although Zishu is far from an unwilling captive. He lets himself lean back and opens his posture so Wen Kexing can press them together chest to chest and nose to nose.

“You’re right,” Lao Wen murmurs. “You are far too beautiful to hide away. It is only that those with covetous eyes must mind their manners, lest I make an example out of them.”

Zishu snorts, tucking a lock of hair behind Wen Kexing’s ear. “As if anyone could forget who’d have their head, with the way you act. Shameless. Disgusting.”

“But A-Xu,” Wen Kexing whines. “What about when I’m not there? How will they resist?”

The way Lao Wen starts to nose at his jaw, laying delicate kisses down the curve of it, tells Zhou Zishu what the answer is. “Do you have revenge in mind, Lao Wen?” he asks dryly, still able to see the hint of the marks he left on Wen Kexing’s throat.

“Revenge?” Lao Wen murmurs into his neck, laving his tongue against the skin before he nips, kisses. “Nonsense. I’m just making sure nobody forgets you’re a forbidden fruit.”

Zishu chuckles, fond exasperation an emotion he’s intimately familiar with now, and relaxes. Lays his head back so Lao Wen has an open canvas to paint. He knows he should be more adverse to being marked where all can see; he would be, if Lao Wen’s talented mouth didn’t feel so good.

He sighs, closing his eyes. Really good. He doesn’t think anyone has melted him before the way Lao Wen melts him, though in retrospect he thinks half of that is trust. He’s never actually trusted a partner before, not like he trusts Lao Wen. It’s the trust that allows him to enjoy fully, to just sit back and lose himself in warm bliss.

Lao Wen seems to preen as he feels Zishu go boneless and relaxed, like Zhou Zishu’s level of comfort with him is Wen Kexing’s greatest accomplishment. It warms Zishu’s heart, even as the sinful lips on his neck speed the pace at which it beats.

When Zishu had marked Lao Wen, it had been a quick and business like affair. Lao Wen had voiced his impish pleasure, and Zhou Zishu had enjoyed the act as well, but it had been done to make a show of him when he stepped out into public.

This...Lao Wen is taking his time and enjoying this. Large, elegant hands slide down his sides and grip his thighs to lift them, pull them to slot over Wen Kexing’s own so that Zishu is truly trapped with his legs hooked over Lao Wen’s hips.

Like this, Lao Wen presses them together from hips to chest, flush and intimate. Coupled with the pleasure of nipping teeth and kissing lips, it has Zhou Zishu sighing a tiny sound of pleasure.

This...he could get used to this, he thinks, carding his fingers lazily through Lao Wen’s hair. It’s so long, he muses. Down to his waist. Pretty. Soft.

There’s a knock at the door. Zhou Zishu groans and rolls his eyes, shifting to get up in anticipation of Lao Wen moving to allow him. That doesn’t happen. Instead, he feels Wen Kexing’s lips curl slowly against his neck and he knows he’s in trouble.

Wen Kexing pulls back just enough to yank the pin out of Zishu’s hair and ruffle it, and pull his robes forcefully open just enough to suggest indecency, chiming a cheerful, “Come in!”

“Lao Wen!” he hisses, already flushed with panic and embarrassment. He should never have admitted he didn’t hate being kissed in public like that.

The door opens at about the same time that Lao Wen’s hand slips under the hiked up skirts of Zishu’s robes that cover both of their laps, trying to find its way into his pants. He grasps that wrist to keep it at bay, and they engage in an unseen war of strengths to decide whether or not Lao Wen gets his hand on Zhou Zishu’s dick.

It is an unfortunate Yueyang disciple who opens the door to see them in this position; Zhou Zishu disheveled and legs splayed indecently around the Ghost Valley Master’s hips, pinned against a table. Dark marks decorating his throat and flush on his face, he is a sinful spectacle.

The young man yelps, flushing and floundering like he doesn’t know what to do. “I-I!” he starts, and turns his head away, only to glance back every other second and grow increasingly flustered.

Flustered enough, Zishu thinks with a mortified burst of humor, not to just close the fucking door.

“Well?” Lao Wen asks him. “What is it? I assume you’re here looking for us.”

“U-Um! Yes! I-I was sent to f-find the Ghost Valley Guzhu and- and he was not in his...in his own room! So!”

Lao Wen sneaks a glance at Zhou Zishu, and Zishu is startled to find that it is a meaningful one. It is a glance that asks him if he’s okay. If Lao Wen is wrong that the idea of this turned Zishu on before, and he wants him to end it. 

Zhou Zishu swallows, hit by the silent knowing of the message behind his zhiji’s eyes...and lets Lao Wen’s wrist go. Wen Kexing’s eyes light up with savage delight as the Yueyang disciple tries to find his words and plunges his hand into Zishu’s pants to grab a firm hold.

Zishu can’t help the startled little moan that leaves him at that firm grasp and the first rough stroke.

The disciple chokes on his own tongue, and Lao Wen pretends that they didn’t just have this silent exchange at all. Conversationally, he glances at Zishu and says, “Oh? Was that good?”

The young man at the door glances at them for but a moment longer than he did before and seems to realize where the Ghost Valley Guzhu’s right hand has disappeared to under the robes. His eyes dart away again in mortification. “I! I - H-Hero Gao wished to have a-a message passed to you, G-Guzh-”

He’s trying, he really is, to get it out. Zishu is also trying, though he’s trying not to voice his pleasure at the merciless pace at which Lao Wen is stroking him. He looks away from the door with his face screwed up in embarrassment and sighs a wavering moan he just can’t hold back.

“I’d hurry up if you don’t want to see him spill,” Lao Wen comments to the disciple. Zhou Zishu knocks him in the side with a knee as hard as he can, trying and failing to regulate his breathing.

“H-Hero Gao wishes to invite the Ghost Valley Guzhu and his...his..um, both of you to a final banquet as g-guests of honor!”

With his message passed, the young man slams the doors closed and flees, and Lao Wen laughs at the same time that Zishu lets out the long moan he’s been holding back.

“Lao Wen ,” he groans, half an admonishment and half an uttering of pleasure. “ I hate you.”

“And yet you got hard in my hand so fast with eyes on you,” Lao Wen teases. It’s awful because it’s true; he’s never been so turned on. 

“You know what I think, A-Xu?” Lao Wen asks casually, watching Zhou Zishu’s head fall back in his pleasure with satisfied eyes.

“Mnnnnnnnnn,” Zishu says, and Wen Kexing treats it as if it’s an answer.

“I think if we can get you past this shyness of yours, we could make your little fantasy of being made a show of a reality some time.”

Zishu splutters, kneeing his zhiji again. “Not- I don’t have a fantasy.”

“No?” Lao Wen asks, twisting his wrist in a way that makes Zishu’s hips twitch and his eyes roll back. “So you don’t wonder what it would be like, if I took you to this banquet and laid you out on the table? Had you in front of everyone?”

This...this is a whole new world for Zhou Zishu. His experience with sex has been good, but often the result of honeypot missions and almost always quite vanilla. To have Wen Kexing talk to him this way, suggest such absolutely scandalous things, it makes his head swim. It makes his cock twitch, his gut clenching with pleasure.

Fuck. He does wonder, doesn’t he? Oh God, and he likes it. “Lao Wen - fuck. Ah, Lao Wen, please…”

“Please what?”

“Please shut the fuck up, I’m begging you,” he groans, body trembling as he gets close to the edge.

Wen Kexing laughs. “Why? Am I putting the image in your head? Turning you on? Are you going to cum to the idea of me making a meal of you in front of everyone? Spreading your legs and -”

Zhou Zishu gasps and cums, grasping Wen Kexing’s biceps so hard in the throes of it he must leave bruises. It’s good. It’s so good. It’s the second time Lao Wen has curled his toes, this time so hard they cramp.

When he comes down, the afterglow he’s left floating in is absolute bliss. His chest is still heaving for breath, his body still trapped under Lao Wen’s, but he feels like he’s nestled securely on cloud nine.

When he tunes into Lao Wen, he realizes his zhiji is kissing his neck again and murmuring to him, “-so pretty, A-Xu, you’re so beautiful like this, so pretty when you spill -”

The babbling cuts off with a little gasp and a shudder, and he knows Lao Wen has just finished in his own hand.

“I can not express firmly enough, Lao Wen,” Zishu slurs, stretching his legs out and willing himself back into his body, “that you are an absolute bastard.”

Lao Wen rumbles with laughter, still pressed against Zishu as if trying to fuse them together, and Zishu can’t help the dopey smile that spreads across his face.

“Fucking freak,” he says, tone unerringly fond.

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

Once they've collected themselves and gotten presentable - with a few very necessary interruptions to kiss the daylights out of each other - the fact that Gao Chong wants to have a final banquet and wants them there as guests of honor seems to sink in for Lao Wen.

Zishu didn't even realize it hadn't yet until his zhiji starts losing his good humor and frowning, seeming puzzled and troubled.

"Lao Wen?" he asks, unsure of why Wen Kexing wears such an expression. "What's the matter?"

Lao Wen blinks at him, sitting back and tapping his fingers thoughtfully on the table. "He wants us at a last banquet. As guests of honor."

Zishu blinks. That had seemed...a pretty simple request to him.

"...yes. And?"

Wen Kexing glances at him, seeming mildly startled. "And? And what does he want? Why would he do that?"

Zhou Zishu blinks, realizing that this...this is another glimpse into Wen Kexing's broken mind. Lao Wen really just doesn't get it .

"Lao Wen...you're thinking too much."

Wen Kexing perks. "Is it obvious? You've figured it out already? What does he want, A-Xu? What is he angling for?"

Abruptly, Zhou Zishu finds himself weathering a deep wave of sadness. He is not trusting, has had his fair share of trauma and is always second guessing people's intentions. But Lao Wen…

He sighs. "Lao Wen…"

Wen Kexing puffs up at the look on his face and tone of his voice, pouting and wondering what he's missing to be looked at as if he's pitiable. "What?"

"Lao Wen, Gao Chong isn't trying to play some trick on you. He's trying to extend an olive branch."

Wen Kexing blinks, still obviously not getting it. He narrows his eyes suspiciously; it is his A-Xu who says it, so he does not scoff and dismiss it, but he doesn't understand.

Zishu moves closer to him, takes his hands. "You're the son of people he cared about. You exposed the plots of a man who had designs on his power and was willing to take his life and the lives of others to get it. In doing so, you prevented not just the irreversible tarnishing of the Alliance's reputation, but the disintegration of the Alliance as a whole. You're his nephew, Lao Wen."

He takes Wen Kexing's confused, vulnerable face between his hands and presses their foreheads together. "You have done more than earn a place of honor at a banquet, even if you are feared by the attendees."

Lao Wen swallows, throat working like he wants to say something but doesn't quite know what. Finally, with a furrowed brow and awful puppy eyes, he starts with, "But-"

"Lao Wen," Zishu interrupts him. Anything that starts with 'but' right now is just Wen Kexing trying to reconcile the viciousness of his upbringing in the Valley with something that simply cannot be so reconciled. "I know it's hard to believe, but there are people out there who are honest in their intentions. They are few, but they're out there. I truly believe Gao Chong is one of them."

He chuckles, looking fondly at Wen Kexing's pretty face and furrowed brow. "How come you didn't have this problem with believing that my intentions were honest?"

Lao Wen pouts, sulking like a child. "Because! You were honest about not being honest. You called me out on being full of it about why I was here, and admitted that you were too. You never pretended to be a hero for me, like the rest of these fools."

"Besides," he adds, looking petulant. "You're handsome, A-Xu."

Zhou Zishu laughs, and Wen Kexing starts to smile and relax at the sound. He looks at Zishu like he hung the moon and stars. Like he's found the warmth he's always longed for here, in this man.

Wen Kexing raises his hands to circle gently around Zishu's wrists, seemingly for no other reason but to hold them.

“A-Xu,” he murmurs, “...you know I don’t really see you as a pet, right? I just like to tease you, and to see the looks on all their faces.”

Zhou Zishu huffs a breath out of his nose, smiling. Was Lao Wen really worried about that? Like the moon eyed way he’s being looked at right now doesn’t tell him everything he needs to know about what Wen Kexing thinks of him?

“I know, Lao Wen.”

“...you’re my zhiji, A-Xu.”

“And you, mine.”

Lao Wen closes his eyes for a moment, like hearing he’s cared for in such a way is the same as weathering a blow. When he opens them again, they’re almost nervous.

“...I love you, A-Xu.”

Zhou Zishu suddenly understands. Good words can feel like a blow, after all. It’s strange, because he’d already known. Why is it different to hear it out loud?

“Lao Wen…” he murmurs, heart aching. It’s a good ache. A warm ache. A full ache.

“A-Xu?” Wen Kexing parrots back, and Zhou Zishu realizes that Lao Wen is looking anxious . He chuckles, chucking his zhiji under the chin.

“What are you looking at me like that for? You can’t possibly not know that I love you, can you?”

With the way Wen Kexing’s breath catches, he hadn’t. Perhaps he knew, but he didn’t dare let himself believe. “You do?” he whispers, eyes wide and vulnerable and heart breaking.

“Idiot,” Zishu calls him fondly, and it makes his Lao Wen smile even though he looks on the verge of overwhelmed tears. “Fool. Bastard. I’m willing to live for you, of course I love you. I didn’t know it was possible to love the way I love you.”

That does it. It’s the final straw that makes his absolute nimrod of a zhiji sniffle, tears spilling over his lashes. Zishu wipes them away as they come and chuckles, unbearably fond.

“Stupid,” he says. “You stupid, stupid man. Take me to the banquet, and I’ll let you be a smug prick about showing me off. Okay?”

Lao Wen smiles, teary eyed but radiating joy. “Okay.”

 

----

 

By the time they stride into the banquet hall as a pair, there’s not a hint that Wen Kexing has ever been anything but composed. He’s coiffed and impeccably dressed and he has a beauty on his arm.

    Although he does love it down, Lao Wen had done Zishu’s hair up in a topknot himself before they left, and Zishu didn’t have to ask why. With his hair up and out of the way, there’s no missing the marks on his neck.

    There is a tentative hush when they enter, much like when the fools had thought Zishu the Ghost Valley Guzhu, but worse. Wen Kexing is more terrifying than Zhou Zishu ever was, because he’s made it clear how far outclassed the jianghu is in his presence. He’s demonstrated his cunning, his viciousness, his unrepentant mercilessness. 

    Zhou Zishu is now nothing more than the collared tiger he shows off on his arm, beautiful and dangerous.

    At the head table, the brothers of the Alliance rise. Gao Chong, Shen Shen...and, surprisingly enough, Zhang Yusen and his sons. It would seem that one brother’s betrayal may be able to bring about the mending of bonds between the others.

    There are two seats open up there just as they’d been told there would be, side by side.

    The brothers of the Five Lakes Alliance and the Zhang boys salute and bow to them when they reach the head of the hall, and they return the gesture. Lao Wen is surveying the whole ordeal with cold, wary eyes. He is doing his best to believe what Zhou Zishu had said, but Zishu can tell he can’t help but look for a trap. 

    “We’re glad you’ve come, Wen-daren,” Gao Chong says, eyes hesitant but earnest. “It is only fitting that you would sit here for the night’s meal. Please, take your seats.”

    They do as they’re asked, Zhou Zishu keeping a subtle point of contact with Lao Wen at all times. I’m here , he’s saying. It’s alright.

    While they sit, Gao Chong remains standing, raising a cup of wine; he is dedicating a toast. “Tonight,” he says, voice booming, “we feast to celebrate. To justice, a renewed truce between the jianghu and the Ghost Valley. To my nephew.”

    Lao Wen hisses a breath in through his teeth, and Zishu winds their fingers together. It is strange for him, Zishu knows, scary, to have these people insist on calling him family when he’s tried so hard to scare them into keeping their distance. It is in his own defense that he does it; he is frightened of people getting close to him. Frightened of caring, and of being betrayed.

    It takes time for Lao Wen to begin relaxing. For him to stop expected some kind of trick, some kind of attack, at every turn.

    It takes Zhang Chengling.

    Some time into the meal - with Lao Wen having barely touched the food - Zhang Yusen takes a breath and breaks the ice, offering a smile. Testing the waters.

    “It is good to meet you as truly yourself, Wen-daren. I apologize, for buying into the rumors the jianghu crafted for itself about you.”

    Wen Kexing swallows, unsure what to do with the start of conversation. He had clearly not expected that he would have to associate with all of his layers of disguise pulled away. He’d thought he would be feared, shunned, and would be able to make his way back to the Ghost Valley without ever having to sit here and show his true face after the show of revealing himself he’d made at the Conference.

    Finally, he settles on looking loftily at the other man and fanning himself leisurely, tone cold. “I did warn you, Zhang-daren, did I not?”

    Zhang Yusen blinks for a moment, and then seems to realize what he means. He hums, nods. “...you told me not to be surprised if you disappointed me. You did not disappoint me, Wen-daren. I may be unsure what to make of you, but that isn’t much of a change from before, is it?”

    Lao Wen blinks, aiming a look that is something like disbelief Zhang Yusen’s way. It seems to settle some of Yusen’s anxiety. Seems to reassure him of something. Reassure him that, “You are indeed the same Wen Kexing my Chengling took a liking to, after all. You told us you had many faces. You’ve never been anything but honest, just as you said.”

    The mention of Chengling brings Wen Kexing’s and Zhou Zishu’s eyes to the boy in question. He has been very quiet, and he is looking at Lao Wen with hesitance. He seems like he wants to speak, wants to approach them, but is no longer sure if he’s allowed to act as he once did with Wen Kexing.

    Lao Wen looks at him. Looks away. Glances over again, glances away. Grows increasingly visibly uncomfortable with the way the boy looks at him and finally clicks his tongue, his icy facade breaking. 

    “Stop looking at me like that, little idiot,” he says, reaching over to smack the boy gently on the head with his fan. There is a ripple of unease in those watching, but he ignores it. “Is the world ending? Do I need to buy tanghulu to convince you this Wen-shushu isn’t some impostor?”

    Chengling is startled at first, and then slowly starts to ease into a bashful smile. Shyly, quietly, he says, “No, Wen-shushu. Sorry, Wen-shushu.”

    Wen Kexing hmphs. “Brat. You need to learn how to fake sincerity better; that ‘sorry’ wouldn’t fool an infant.”

    Zhang Chengling’s smile grows, he huffs a little laugh, and Wen Kexing begins to eat. Zhou Zishu smiles, because if Lao Wen is eating, it means the worst of the his nerves have settled. He has, miraculously, accepted that perhaps this really is just a meal, and not a trap.

    While the attendees of the banquet are ever glancing with nervous eyes, the people at the head table slowly start to ease around Lao Wen, start to include him in conversation. Eventually, Zishu finds with delight that Lao Wen is even smiling a genuine smile, one he likely doesn’t even realize is on his face.

    Zhou Zishu plucks food up with his chopsticks, turns to put it on Lao Wen’s plate in a quiet show of caring. He stops in the middle of the action, he and Lao Wen blinking at each other as they realize they’ve just caught each other doing the exact same thing.

    It dawns on both of them at the same time how silly it is to feed each other, as if they are not two of the most fearsome men in the world. Two fearsome men who are used to quietly caring for others, not being cared for.

    Lao Wen huffs a breath of amusement, before brandishing his chopsticks with a theatrically polite tilt of the head. 

    “A-Xu,” he says. “Would like this prawn, which you, as a fully grown adult man could not possibly have gotten yourself?”

    Zhou Zishu smiles, laughter in his eyes. “I’m afraid that prawn looks much too good to turn down. Your kindness is truly legendary, Philanthropist Wen. Would you like this slice of braised duck, which you, as a fully grown adult man could not possibly have gotten yourself?”

    “Why, Philanthropist Zhou! As a matter of fact I was just starving for duck, but it was simply so far away, I could not possibly have reached it. Your consideration is truly that of a gentleman.”

    Zhou Zishu laughs softly as they cross arms to serve each other, shaking his head. “Should I be honored, I wonder, to be of a mind with someone called Lunatic Wen?”

    Lao Wen laughs, the others at the table looking at them with a new realization in their eyes. The realization that there is no pet here, but a pair of lovers. “I’m afraid you wouldn’t sit by my side the way you do if you weren’t crazy, Lunatic Zhou.”

    “Hmph. How long do you think it will take, Lao Wen, before your ghosts start calling me that as well?”

    “I’m not sure,” Wen Kexing chimes, seeming thoughtful. “Perhaps we should think it over and make a wager.”

    “I will be entering the Valley with near nothing but the clothes on my back and the Valley Master by my side, Lao Wen. What could I possibly hope to wager?”

    Lao Wen grins wolfishly. “The things I would like to wager with you are not suited to be discussed in polite company, A-Xu.”

    Zhou Zishu raises a brow. “You, unwilling to speak crudely in polite company? I think this Wen-shushu may be an impostor after all.”

    Lao Wen’s laughter is bright, and Zhou Zishu’s chest is warm. Even when his zhiji’s expression sours at the sight of an approaching figure, it doesn’t dampen Zishu’s spirits, for this sour look is a petulant, familiar one. It is, after all, aimed at Ye Baiyi.

    Ye-qianbei walks into the hall and does what nobody else could imagine having the guts to do, striding up to the head table where the Ghost Valley Guzhu sits as if he doesn’t consider him the slightest of danger.

    Lao Wen glares at him, but sneers a smile and greets him with, “Immortal Ye.”

    Shen Shen chokes on his wine. Zhou Zishu is pretty sure multiple people choke on their wine, though thankfully Shen Shen is the only one to do so at the main table. The others are lucky enough not to have been in the process of drinking.

    Zhou Zishu long suspected it, but it seems nobody else had clued in. Many faces pale and go awe-struck when they realize they are in the presence of the Changming Sword Immortal himself. 

    The Changming Sword Immortal, who snorts and responds with his own greeting of, “Brat.”

    Wen Kexing grits his teeth and glares, no doubt refraining from starting a petty squabble only because he has an image of Ghost Valley Guzhu to maintain. 

    “To what do I owe the displeasure?” Lao Wen asks with a curl to his lip and one of the fakest smiles Zishu has ever seen on his face. Scratch that, he supposes, about not starting a petty squabble.

    Ye-qianbei scoffs, smirking. “Just making sure you remember what we talked about. You’ve put on your cute little show and gotten your vengeance. The exceptions are over. Any more temper tantrums, and I will put the Ghost Valley in its grave.”

    “Please feel free to kill any ghost who steps out of line, Immortal Ye. Although I don’t think you’ll have a problem; they may not fear death, but the threat of the last thing they see being your ugly face should be enough to keep them on their best behavior.”

    Zhou Zishu sighs, massaging his temples. The rest of the Conference has been watching this exchange with wide eyes, eyes darting back and forth between the two like they’re watching a duel, but Zhou Zishu is used to and exasperated by this ridiculous bickering. 

    “Ye-qianbei,” he sighs, hoping to put an end to it. “I assure you there will be no trouble on our way to the Valley.”

    Ye Baiyi snorts. “Right, I almost forgot you’d be leading him there by the cock.”

    Lao Wen bristles, and Zishu cuts in before he can say anything stupid. 

    “Ye-qianbei. Do you know where our mutual friends are at the moment?”

    Ye Baiyi looks at him like he’s an annoying child, cutting to the chase instead of even allowing Zishu to lead further into the topic. “What do you want?”

    “If you would be so kind,” Zishu says, feeling tempted to see if he can knock himself out if he slams his head down on the table hard enough, “please let them know that the place has been decided, and they will be welcomed into the Valley to render their aid. And let them know to be careful of who they let see them; there’s a royal problem around.”

    Ye Baiyi scoffs. “What, it’s not enough that I contacted them in the first place, you want me to be your carrier pigeon now?”

    Zishu heaves another long-suffering sigh, preparing to politely deny the accusation, but Ye Baiyi waves his hand. “Whatever. If it gets the two of you out of my hair and to the Valley faster, so be it. You better have some good food ready there.”

    He walks away without paying any mind to the gawking stares, and Lao Wen blinks after him looking like a posturing chicken, feathers all puffed up. 

    “He’s not coming with them ,” Lao Wen says, looking at Zishu as if the idea itself is ridiculous. “Is he?”

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

They leave for the Valley first thing the next morning. Lao Wen had wanted to leave immediately after the banquet that night, eager to get out of the manor and start feeling like himself again. Even if the night had turned out to be pleasant, Lao Wen is still struggling with how to handle the brothers of the Alliance attempting to treat him as an ally. As a tentative friend. 

    It scares him, and he’s been chomping at the bit to get out.

    Zhou Zishu had been the one to convince him not to leave at night like an idiot when they could instead wait for a full day of sunlight to get underway. He had not done so by saying it was dumb to travel at night - he and Lao Wen are both well practiced in moving under the light of the moon, silent as shadows - but by stressing how eventful a day it had been, and that it was tough on him because of the nails. That he was tired. 

    It was quite flattering, how fast an ‘I’m tired’ got Lao Wen to fuss and cave and bundle him into bed to be held all night. 

    It’s wonderful, falling asleep and waking up in Wen Kexing’s arms, feeling his breath in the crook of his neck and his arms tightening around his waist with a disgruntled little grumble when Zishu shifts. He can’t wait to make a habit of it in the Valley.

    He is reluctant to get up, even though he knows he has a new home to go to. Even though he knows the sooner they’re in the Valley, the sooner he will be safe from any attempt Prince Jin will make at reclaiming him.

    When, he wonders, did he become a possession, an asset, to be quibbled over? Then again, he can answer his own question pretty easily; he had become Prince Jin’s property the moment he’d sworn Four Seasons Manor to him and created Tian Chuang. He just hadn’t quite realized it, then.

    Lao Wen is right, he thinks. His cousin...he doesn’t look at Zishu normally. There is some measure of obsession there, like Zishu is the good luck charm, the prized possession Helian Yi can’t imagine taking the throne without. Like a child who can’t be convinced to let go of their favorite toy for even a moment, but far more dangerous.

    Yes, he thinks he’d very much like to start heading to the safety of the Valley. How unexpected, he muses, that he would view the Ghost Valley of all places as his best bet for safety. For safety, and for happiness.

    When he tries to lever himself up, Wen Kexing reacts exactly as he’d expected him to. He whines, pathetic and petulant, and reels Zhou Zishu right back in by the waist.

“A-Xuuuuu,” he whines, as if he’s not the one who hadn’t even wanted to stay the night. “Won’t you stay in bed with me?”

    It is extremely tempting, with the soothing warmth of his zhiji’s chest against his back trying its best to lull him back into sleep. Lao Wen feels so warm, so comforting, so alive when it’s only their inner robes that separate their skin. 

    “I would love to stay in bed, Lao Wen," he answers honestly. “But I’d like to know what it’s like to sleep in in your bed. Isn’t that part of my job, as a pet?”

    Lao Wen pauses where he was burying his nose between Zishu’s shoulderblades, seeming to ponder the idea. Wen Kexing’s pondering, of course, rarely stays silent.

    “My A-Xu, warm and sleep-addled in my bed, the morning sun spilling in and draping his bare flesh in light...what a vision. Divine. Fine, then. Your silver tongue has won you this round, A-Xu.”

    Zhou Zishu chuckles, shaking his head as he drags himself out of the embrace of both blankets and man. His Lao Wen is so easy. 

 

----

 

They find in the way of their departure a lanky, fourteen year old obstacle. Zhang Chengling is awake and waiting for them at the stables, where they had intended to take their horses and leave quietly. 

    “Wen-shushu! Zhou-shushu!” the boy cries when he sees them, shifting shyly on his feet. “Are you...are you leaving?”

    Zhou Zishu gives Lao Wen a look. You did this, the look says. You’re the one who found this little barnacle, and now it’s attached.

    Lao Wen sighs, his eyes fond as they approach the boy. “We are. Didn’t you know we would be leaving at the banquet last night?”

    Chengling aims those awful eyes at him, wringing his own hands without seeming to realize it. A nervous tic. “Well, I...I did, but...but Wen-shushu. Do you really have to go? Can’t you come visit Mirror Lake first? Or stay a few more days?”

    Lao Wen doesn’t even get the chance to let him down before he’s turning his big eyes on Zhou Zishu. “A-and Zhou-shushu! Sh...shifu! Please teach me martial arts!”

    Zhou Zishu nearly chokes on his own tongue. “Who told you you could call me shifu?” he asks, disbelieving. “I know you want to learn from me, Chengling, but I already told your f-”

    “I know you told my father no,” Chengling interrupts. “But that was before! Before we knew who Wen-shushu was.”

    Zhou Zishu sighs, glaring at Wen Kexing for the smirk he can see his zhiji barely suppressing at his struggle. “I’m going to the Ghost Valley, Chengling.”

    “But...but can’t you wait? Just a little while?”

    Zhou Zishu sucks in a deep, calming breath. He hates that this fucking kid’s puppy eyes are actually working . Why is it so hard to disappoint this boy? He’s disappointed people a million times, and it’s never felt like this. 

    “I can’t, Chengling. I...I’m sick.”

    Zhang Chengling looks thunderstruck. If possible, the concern that enters his face is even worse than the pitiful puppy eyes from just a moment ago.

    “Sick?”

    “Yes. I need to get treatment as soon as possible, and I can only safely do that once we’re in the Valley. I can’t stay here and train you, Chengling. I’m sorry.”

    Zhang Chengling soaks the information in slowly, gears turning behind his eyes. It’s sweet, how genuinely concerned for Zhou Zishu he seems at the realization that something is wrong with him. At the same time...there’s something about the way his brain can be seen working behind those big eyes that’s slightly alarming.

    When the boy brightens and opens his mouth, Zishu figures out why. “Then I can come to the Valley!”

    Zhou Zishu chokes, and Lao Wen laughs a reedy, disbelieving laugh. 

    “Come to the Valley?” Lao Wen says. “Little fool, do you know what kind of place the Ghost Valley is? You’ll never convince your father to allow such a thing.”

    Chengling lifts his chin, looking determined. “So...so if I convince him, can I come?”

    Wen Kexing blinks several times in quick succession, shaking his head as less of an answer and more an expression of disbelief. “If you can convince your father to step foot in the Ghost Valley, little idiot, I will open the gates for you.”

    Zhang Chengling brightens and thanks them profusely, quite literally running off to presumably convince his father - though only after he darts forward and lands a hug around an unsuspecting Wen Kexing’s waist. Lao Wen is left blinking and stunned for a few moments after he’s relinquished and they’re left alone.

    “Lao Wen,” Zishu scolds. “Why did you tell him that?”

    Wen Kexing looks at him, clearing his throat and trying not to look affected by being hugged with genuine affection by a child. “A-Xu. He’ll never get Zhang Yusen to consent to such a thing.”

    Zishu scoffs, shaking his head. “He wrapped the Ghost Valley Master around his finger. You think he hasn’t long done the same to his own father?”

 

----

 

Lao Wen assures him that the ghosts that had come to Yueyang know it is time to return to the Valley; that most, if not all of them, will arrive before them. Both for having a day or so’s headstart, and for being deathly afraid of displeasing the Valley Master by not being there when he arrives.

    He notes with an amused smile that they all seem to think he can identify each and every one of them at a glance, despite most of the minor ghosts all wearing the same uniforms and masks in his presence. 

    Clearly, he has done nothing to discourage this belief. 

    Gu Xiang meets them partway through the journey, and it is clear immediately that something is off. She’s not bubbly and snarky like Zhou Zishu has become accustomed to, and he and Lao Wen both immediately key into it.

    Despite Wen Kexing trying to ask about it, she brushes him off time and time again, saying that nothing happened, nothing’s wrong. She gains some of her usual spirit while snapping at him to stop being a nag, but she’s not fooling anyone. 

    Unfortunately, she seems dead set on not telling Wen Kexing about whatever it is that’s on her mind.

    It is for this reason that when Zhou Zishu spots her alone by the campfire one night, he sits his ass down next to her and stares at her with raised eyebrows and a prompting expression. 

    She puffs up, just like her brother does. “What? What do you want?”

    He rolls his eyes. “Spill, kid.”

    “Spill what? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

    “Whatever it is that’s got you all gloomy and you don’t want to tell your ge about, that’s what.”

    Gu Xiang hmphs and turns her head away, proud little chin raised stubbornly. “There’s nothing going on. I don’t know how many times I have to tell you.”

    “Really?” Zishu asks, plainly skeptical. “Because I figure whatever it is, you don’t want to tell Lao Wen because he’ll get all worked up like an angry rooster and make a nuisance of himself.”

    Gu Xiang snorts, trying and failing not to smile. She still won’t look at him, but he’s obviously hit the nail right on the head.

    “Uh-huh,” he nods. “That’s what I thought. I’d be lying if I told you that’s not exactly what he’d probably do. Isn’t it lucky, then, that I’m here to complain to without any of that nonsense?”

    Gu Xiang finally turns to look at him, twisting her mouth and then finally sighing and acting as if she’s doing him a favor by talking. 

    “It’s Cao-dage,” she grumbles, pouting at her hands.

    “The one who narrowly escaped being castrated for saying he wanted to marry you?”

    She giggles. “Yeah.”

    “What about him? ...if you wanted to stay, I don’t think Lao Wen would begrudge you it, you know.”

    “I can’t,” she murmurs. “His sect leader is a dumb old fogey. Cao-dage told him he wanted to marry me and he almost had a stroke. Too bad he didn’t. He wouldn’t approve of it, not in a million years.”

    Zhou Zishu nods, pursing his lips. Yeah, that does sound like the jianghu. He wishes he was surprised. “Your Cao-dage gave you up, then?”

    Gu Xiang snorts. “No. Stupid boy put up a fight. He thinks he can convince him if he tries hard enough, but...I don’t want to be the reason he’s shunned or hated by them. His sect means so much to him. So I...I left.”

    Zhou Zishu nods slowly. “...without telling him, I imagine?”

    She nods. They sit in silence for a little while, before Zhou Zishu heaves a sigh. “You’re just as dumb as Lao Wen, aren’t you?”

    “Hey!” she yelps, smacking him. It’s not genuine outrage, and he smiles and rises while she pouts and settles back into her seat. There’s nothing he can do other than have heard her out; she’s gotten it off of her chest, he’ll leave her be to think, now.

    “Hey,” she calls out to him again as he starts to walk away. Then, very quietly once he pauses, “...thanks.”

    Zishu smiles, huffs. “I just didn’t want to hear Lao Wen bitch about it any more, that’s all. Perk up before he drives me nuts, will you?”

    He can see her smile in the curve of her cheek where she faces the fire, and he knows she’ll be okay.

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

The gates to the Ghost Valley are massive, intimidating things. Solid, heavy stone nestled right into the only dip in the outward rockface for miles that could permit easy entry. One would be hard pressed to find a way over or around and into the Valley. 

    Even if you were to find a way, Zishu muses, you wouldn’t do so unnoticed. He can see the masks of ghosts peeking out from overtop the wall, from strategic hidey holes and vantage points all along the horizon. He has no doubt they are similarly stationed anywhere one might feasibly be able to get into the Valley. 

    Although the nature of his own mind means that he’s actively analyzing how he could manage to covertly infiltrate the place despite these guards and unfriendly terrain, his company makes it so that he doesn’t have a problem with entry.

    Ghostly masks spot them approaching and duck out of sight, no doubt scrambling to pass the news of their arrival along to make the proper preparations, whatever those preparations are.

    The doors groan slowly open for them as they get close, and Zishu can already hear the distant sound of drums as they enter the Valley. They are no doubt the same kind of drums that had been used at the Conference, and Zishu snorts a little at the thought of Lao Wen making some poor ghosts lug drums all the way out to Yueyang just so he could make a fantastic entrance.

    Ghosts drop to their knees in orderly lines their entire way in, and Zishu can feel all the curious, disbelieving eyes on his back as they pass.

    Gu Xiang had once exposed Lao Wen as having a penchant for tasting pretty boys once or twice and then getting tired of them, so Zhou Zishu imagines that the idea he’d take one home and have him ride by his side as an equal is something the ghosts of Ghost Valley never expected to see.

    “A-Xiang,” Lao Wen says, face cold and haughty in front of his ghosts from the moment they were in sight of the Valley. “I want the Ten Devils and the ghosts of the Valley gathered in the main hall immediately.”

    She chirps her assent and pulls off to go a separate way from them; Zhou Zishu simply follows Lao Wen, leaving his horse when Lao Wen does and following in his footsteps. 

    The Valley is not as desolate a place as one might imagine; not in the way of flora and fauna, at least. The sun shines here just as it does anywhere else, and there are copses of trees and a wild landscape as far as the eye can see. The main settlement of the Valley seems to spread out from the Valley Master’s palace, which sits with stone to its back, half carved into the mountainside. 

    There is no approaching it from behind; a very defensible position. In a place like this, a ruler is best off not living somewhere where potential attackers make their homes on all sides. The palace watches over everything, though Zishu suspects there are ghosts who live out in the trees rather than in real buildings. 

    Many of these people, he thinks, have become more animal than man.

    Lao Wen leads him into the palace, deeper and into snaking hallways that it is clear few are allowed, and it is then, when they are alone, that he starts to show himself again through the mask.

    Namely, he starts surreptitiously glancing at Zishu where he walks by his side, seeming almost like a nervous child. He’s trying to ascertain whether Zhou Zishu approves. Whether this is a place he finds worthy of living in. 

    “Lao Wen,” he says, and Wen Kexing’s eyes snap back forward like he thinks he can pretend he was never glancing over in the first place.

    “Hmm?”

    “Stop looking at me like that.”

    “Like what, A-Xu?”

    “Like you think I’m going to change my mind and leave at any moment.”

    Wen Kexing doesn’t respond right away, seeming to consider trying to keep the suave face of Valley Master on, before he turns and looks at Zishu with his little boy pout and his big dark eyes.

    “Well,” he says, “...are you?”

    Zishu snorts and elbows him. “No. I’m not.”

    Lao Wen blinks. “Oh.” Then, as if he hadn’t been worried at all, shakes himself and lifts his chin, strides becoming more confident and upbeat. “Well of course not. Who would abandon such a bounty as me, even if it meant living in the wilds?”

    Not me, Zishu thinks to himself, staring fondly at his zhiji’s back. What he says out loud is, “Why are you summoning an audience, Lao Wen?”

    Wen Kexing looks at him as if it’s a stupid question, pushing a set of intricate doors open to let them into what must be his own room. “Why? To present you to them, of course! They must all know your face and how to treat you; I will not have a single ghost trying to put their filthy hands on you and crying ignorance! Claiming they thought you were just a hapless beauty would not save them, of course, but still. It must be made clear that you are to be treated as if you are the Guzhu himself.”

    Zishu shakes his head, smiling. If Lao Wen wishes it, he’ll not make a fuss. He also will not admit that it makes his chest swell to have Wen Kexing say he wishes to proclaim him as a person of power, so near and dear to himself that he should be considered as ruling by his side.

    Zhou Zishu has never coveted power. This power feels special only because it is really just  Lao Wen trying to show him he’s loved. Trying to protect him, put him on a pedestal where all know he is not to be crossed.

    Lao Wen’s main room, Zishu thinks as he looks around, is quite cozy. It is spacious, but not overly large. It is decorated, the furniture and decorations ornate and valuable, but it is not ostentatious. 

    It is a place where only Lao Wen goes, and perhaps his sister too, and so it is a place decorated in a way that speaks less of the show Wen Kexing feels he must put on in front of others, and more of Lao Wen himself. Lao Wen’s tastes, Lao Wen’s personality. It is the room of an exotic bird, surely, but not quite the room of a peacock as one might expect.

    It is also, Zishu notes after a moment, “Warm.”

    Yes, it is warm. The palace and halls up until now had been quite cool in temperature, hewn out of rock and in some places carved right into the mountain. In here, however, it is quite comfortably warm. 

    Lao Wen smiles at him like a child who just got an excuse to show someone their favorite toy and gestures to another set of doors off to the side, face smug and eager. Whatever it is, he’s hoping he’ll impress Zishu with it.

    Stupid man. Zhou Zishu does as he’s bid and opens the doors anyway. There is a series of screens that form a route to the main chamber behind, and a few areas that serve as little rooms with minimal furniture. When he rounds the corner of a screen into the actual chamber, he realizes they must be changing rooms.

    The heat is stronger in here, and no wonder. He’s looking at a natural hot spring. Slowly, he starts to chuckle. Of course. Of course the Guzhu of the Ghost Valley would fashion his room directly adjacent to a hotspring to bathe in. 

    Zishu is sure this was done long before Lao Wen was born, but if it hadn’t, Lao Wen would no doubt have remedied that quickly. He is clearly quite proud to show this off, now that he has someone worth showing it to.

    “Well?” Lao Wen’s smug voice comes from behind him, and when he turns he can’t help but smile at the unbearably self satisfied expression he wears.

    “The Ghost Valley Guzhu truly does not want for anything,” he replies. Except for a life without any assassination attempts, but frankly no leader lives without danger of those. Here it is simply more common, and the ghosts are far more open in their intentions to usurp the throne. It is the way of life here.

    “Nor will his zhiji,” Wen Kexing proclaims proudly, offering Zhou Zishu a grin. “So what do you say, A-Xu? Shall we bathe together, before we make our appearance?”

    Zishu is utterly unsurprised that Lao Wen intends to make the ghosts wait for however long they take to arrive, and has no doubt that he has kept them there waiting on him for absurd amounts of time before just for the sake of it.

    “I am willing to bathe, Lao Wen,” Zishu says. “But not together.”

    Lao Wen pouts a monumental pout, despite looking as if he’d somewhat expected the refusal. “A-Xuuu. Why not?”

    Zishu cocks a brow, stepping closer. “Do you want me to be honest?”

    “Of course,” Kexing replies, no doubt expecting Zishu to cite that he doesn’t trust Lao Wen to keep his hands or cock to himself. Zhou Zishu will have to surprise him.

    “Because, Lao Wen,” he murmurs, smoothing the collar of Wen Kexing’s robes affectionately. “If I finally get to see you nude, I don’t think I’ll be able to control myself.”

    Wen Kexing’s breath stops in his chest, body shivering beneath the hands Zhou Zishu still has on his chest. He watches with great satisfaction as his zhiji swallows, staring at him with wide eyes, and finally croaks, “...oh.”

    “‘Oh’.” Zishu says back, smiling. “So I’m afraid we’ll have to bath separately for now, so that we can make at least a semi-timely appearance for your ghosts.”

    Usually, Wen Kexing would likely protest, say they don’t have to make a semi-timely appearance if they don’t want to. He seems to be so caught off guard and borderline devastated by hearing Zhou Zishu admit that he wants him so strongly, however, that he just swallows and nods meekly, retreating with a lingering, reverent gaze.

 

----

 

Somehow, it is only after Zishu has let the hot water unwind and clean him that it occurs to him he needs clothes that aren’t travel worn and dusty. Although…

    Acting on a suspicion that is less a suspicion and more the product of knowing his Lao Wen, he climbs out of the water and takes wet, bare steps across the stone towards the screens. 

    When he peeks into one of the little rooms, he huffs and smiles. Of course Lao Wen already has clothes ready and set out for him. Clothes that he picks up and examines with a fond shake of his head. They are brand new, just his size, and primarily a bright, sanguine red.

    They look to be just his size; when he puts them on, they fit perfectly. He thinks with an exasperated smirk of Lao Wen bullying his servants long before they’d even returned to the Valley, using his own frame to compare and estimate Zishu’s sizes to have clothes - likely many clothes - made and tailored just for him. 

He feels warm. He feels loved. He feels cared for.

He looks, he thinks, every bit the part of a new pet. The first few layers of robes are the same bright red Lao Wen so loves to wear, the silk of the collar and belt a darker burgundy color with elaborate black embroidery. 

The outermost robe, on the other hand, is...well, it’s more tease than clothing. It is black, but entirely transparent. Only the hems and edges of the sleeves are solid, and they are the same burgundy and black embroidery. 

He hears movement on the other side of the screen; where he was not too long ago, leaving his clothes so that he could step into the water.

When he turns, he sees Lao Wen’s silhouette, just as he knew he would. 

“Do they fit, A-Xu?”

Zhou Zishu hmphs, smiling. “Perfectly.”

“Wonderful. I’ll try not to take too long. Although, if you change your mind about bathing together,” he purrs, “I would not be upset if you joined me.”

On the other side of the screen, close enough to touch, Wen Kexing drops his loosened robes from his body, and Zishu watches the slim silhouette of him with hunger. He knows very well that he is being intentionally tempted; he forces himself to look away and leave, but he at least knows one thing.

He was very right, when he said he wouldn’t have been able to control himself if he laid eyes on this demon’s bare flesh.

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

Zhou Zishu hears it when Wen Kexing enters the room after bathing, but he ignores him at first. Ignores him until he hears the footsteps stop dead and Wen Kexing give a pathetic little moan at the sight of him.

    Zishu drops his head and shakes it, smiling.

    “If you couldn’t handle seeing me in them, Lao Wen,” he says as he turns, amusement on his face, “Then you shouldn’t have dressed me like a whore.”

    Lao Wen blinks out of his stupor enough to splutter at that comment, protesting, “You do not look like a whore!”

    Zishu raises an eyebrow and stares him down. 

    Lao Wen pouts in response, taking leisurely steps towards him and drinking his figure in. “You look like a courtesan ,” he insists as he draws near, seemingly unable to look his fill no matter how hard he tries.

    “A very high class one,” he finishes as he lays his hands delicately on Zhou Zishu’s waist and his eyes darken at finally getting to see just how his hands look spanning his zhiji’s sides.

    Zishu lets him, finding he quite likes both the feeling of those hands on his waist and the feeling of being desirable. The way Lao Wen is looking at him right now makes him feel like the most delectable creature in the world.

    “To be honest, A-Xu,” Lao Wen pouts, “I expected you to scold me and demand something else to wear, not for you to put them on.”

    Zishu pauses. Blinks. He...hadn’t even considered doing such a thing, despite thinking the robes scandalous, if not tastefully so.

    He huffs, shaking his head. Really, how has Lao Wen enchanted him so? “I take that to mean you had other options ready?”

    “Of course,” Lao Wen purrs, seeming to have clued in on Zihsu’s line of thought there and preening accordingly over Zhou Zishu wearing what he was given just because Lao Wen would want to see him in it. “I made sure there would be a wardrobe ready for you by the time we arrived. Only the best for my A-Xu.”

    Zhou Zishu chuckles, looking up at the absolute bastard that stands in front of him. “Did you terrorize some poor ghost, Lao Wen? ‘He comes up to here on me, and his shoulders are like this compared to mine - no, not there, here ’. They must have been fearing for their lives up until now hoping desperately what they made would fit.”

    Wen Kexing does not look at all ashamed as he says, “That is exactly what I did. You know me so well, A-Xu.”

    “And you, me,” Zhou Zishu responds dryly, gesturing to himself. “My figure, at least.”

    Lao Wen laughs. “I could trace the exact size and shape of your figure in my sleep for how ravenously I’ve spent my days staring, A-Xu. And it has paid off, hasn’t it? That ghost shall keep their life because I knew exactly how you compared to me.”

    “That’s creepy, Lao Wen,” Zishu responds with a fond smile. “Now are you going to introduce me to your Valley, or not?”

 

----

 

The drums have begun to beat long before they’ve entered the main hall. The sound began only a few short moments after the first ghosts had spotted them on their way through the more populated hallways.

    Zishu suspects that there are very few people seen in this palace unless Lao Wen specifically calls for them, and he can’t say he doesn’t understand. Not a single one of these ghosts can be trusted as far as they can be thrown.

    Despite having been waiting all this time while their Guzhu and his lover took their time bathing and dressing and flirting, there’s not a single ghost in the hall who looks like they’ve so much as moved a muscle since they first arrived.

    Zishu doesn’t doubt all it took was one example to be made for them to act this way. 

    The drums cease their beating only once he and Lao Wen have come to a stop at the head of the hall, replaced instead by an eerie, fear-filled silence.

    Wen Kexing does not speak for a long time, simply surveying the ghosts below. Finally, he hmphs and smiles. “No stragglers? Good.”

    Zishu snorts. As if there was a single ghost outside the Valley who hadn’t fled back to the Valley as fast as they could as soon as the news reached them it was time, just to avoid being singled out as a straggler.

    His snort is what gets the first ripple of movement or sound out of the gathered audience. Many of the ghosts flinch, a wave of quiet gasps whispering along like wind through paper. There is no doubt that wide eyes are staring up at them and waiting for some kind of repercussion to such insolence, any and all of the ghosts who had not been at the Conference to see how their Guzhu treats Zhou Zishu struck dumb with shock and confusion.

    As if totally missing that they’re expecting violence, Lao Wen smiles and clasps his hands behind his back. “Ah, good. I see you’ve all set your eyes on A-Xu. He is by far the loveliest creature in the Valley, is he not?”

    Dead silence. Nobody dares speak. This, of course, means that Lao Wen starts singling people out.

    “You!” he barks, pointing at one random, unlucky figure. They jump and tremble.

    “Well?” Lao Wen insists. “Is he not lovely? Go on, take a look. Not too hungry, now, or I’ll have to take your eyes, but you may look. What do you think?”

    The lump the ghost swallows is audible, before his wavering reply comes. “V-very lovely, Guzhu…”

    Wen Kexing beams. “I agree. I want all of you to take a good, long look at him. Burn his beauty into your mind; it should not be too hard.”

    He waits again, as if actually waiting for them all to complete the set task. Zishu struggles not to roll his eyes, but he doesn’t stop himself from smiling and watching Lao Wen’s pacing figure with exasperated fondness.

    “Everyone have it? Yes? Good. I am your Guzhu. From today on, as far as you are concerned, he is also your Guzhu.”

    The shock is palpable, the gasps stronger now, heads actually turning to look at each other. Lao Wen ignores them and soldiers on, voice strong and booming.

    “He is to be treated like a god descended from the heavens. The slightest hint of disrespect, never mind any attempt to harm him, and I will make a show of you the likes of which you have never seen. Understand?”

    There is deathly quiet again, and Lao Wen’s eyes flash dangerously. “ Do you understand?”

    Disorganized and panicked babbling ensues, everyone trying to scramble to say yes, yes they do understand. It is the least put together Zhou Zishu has ever seen Lao Wen’s ghosts, and it speaks to how incredibly flabbergasted by this decree they are.

    Wen Kexing is clearly not pleased with the disorganization, even if he does like it when they show fear. He sneers, radiating cold danger.

    “Have you gotten dumber, while I was gone?” he spits. “I not only have to ask for an answer twice, but you turn into a pack of blubbering children when you finally get around to doing as you’re told?”

    He raises his chin, cruel and assessing. “Has my absence softened your image of me, is that it? Do I need to offer you a reminder of what happens when you do not meet my expectations?”

    The raw terror is palpable in the gathered ghosts, stuttering their apologies and their pleas for mercy. Zishu steps in.

    “Lao Wen,” he murmurs, touching his zhiji’s arm. Again, ghosts flinch as if expecting him to be hurt, but Wen Kexing just turns to look at him, eyes smoldering but immediately tempered and curious.

    “A-Xu?”

    He steps close, close enough that their noses nearly touch, and lowers his voice so their words are between them and them only. “Pretend I’m talking some mercy into you for me, will you?”

    Lao Wen huffs a curious and indulgent sound, and bends his head to confer with Zishu as he is asked. They are turned into each other, focused on each other, as if there is not another soul in the room.

    At least, that’s how they look. 

    “That drummer has awfully sharp eyes for you, Lao Wen,” he says. 

    His zhiji smiles and hums. “You’ve noticed as well? As expected of my A-Xu. Your brain matches your beauty.”

    Although they stand at the head of the hall, there are a few ghosts to their sides, ones who had knelt and lined their approach on the way in. This includes those who had been beating the drums. The ghost he speaks of stands behind Lao Wen’s back now, and he’s been fidgety the whole time.

    Zhou  Zishu is not surprised that Lao Wen has already noticed his potential assassin. So far, Zishu has seen two of them, and they’ve both been so nervous they’re nearly shaking and pathetically transparent. He wonders how they think they could possibly have a chance.

    “Mm, I have. And you know what I thought, Lao Wen?”

    “What did you think, A-Xu?” Wen Kexing murmurs, looking to the outside every bit like he’s being charmed and seduced by his new plaything’s silver tongue.

    “I thought to myself, ‘he’s looking for an opportunity. He’s not decided yet, he’s hoping for a vulnerable moment so he can make today his day’. And do you know what else I thought?”

    Lao Wen grins, fond and amused. “What, A-Xu?”

    “I thought, ‘these fools think I am but an ornament, don’t they’?”

    “Hmmmm,” Lao Wen hums. “Surely you are right. It would be a shame, if this ghost were to keep his intentions under wraps for longer and we had to keep an eye out, wouldn’t it?”

    “It would,” Zishu nods sagely, starting to play with the collar of Lao Wen’s robes. Although the ghost in question has not seen him glance his way once, Zishu has long since mastered watching out of his periphery.

    “And how much more off guard could a demon like me get, than lost in the eyes of a peerless beauty such as yourself?” Lao Wen asks, hands coming to lay on Zishu’s waist.

    “Why, Lao Wen,” Zishu replies. “I dare say a better opportunity could not be found.”

    “And what would my A-Xu have me do,” Wen Kexing asks as Zishu pretends he does not see the figure of the assassin start to step slowly away from the drum and towards Lao Wen’s back, “now that he has so effectively captivated me and left me vulnerable?”

    “Do you trust me, Lao Wen?”

    Wen Kexing’s face melts into soft, genuine adoration. “More than I trust myself.”

    “Then I would have you not. Move. A muscle.”

    In response, Wen Kexing smiles and closes his eyes, no doubt just as aware of the ghost growing slowly closer as Zhou Zishu is and quite literally putting his life in his zhiji’s hands. Luckily, there are no hands that are better to be guarded in than the hands of an elite assassin himself.

    The ghost finally judges himself close enough - not a soul in the hall breathing as they’ve watched the entire approach - to strike, and draws a knife from his sleeve to lunge.

    Zhou Zishu reaches around Lao Wen’s shoulder and grasps the weapon bearing wrist faster than most of these ghosts can track. They only realize something has happened with the unholy shriek that comes from the would be assassin as his wrist is promptly snapped in Zishu’s iron grip. 

    Lao Wen stands still as Zhou Zishu shifts to yank the howling ghost close, taking his knife and whirling him around to yank his chin up with a forearm before he plunges the stolen blade with two precise and perfunctory jabs into a freshly exposed throat.

    He drops the wheezing ghost’s body before it can bleed on him too much, face and eyes as cold and sharklike as these people are used to Lao Wen’s being. They are they eyes of a killer, frigid and merciless.

    When he looks over, Wen Kexing is standing exactly where he was at the beginning. Regal, smiling, at ease. His eyes have been closed the entire time. Only now do they open slowly, leisurely. 

    Looking down at the gurgling creature that now lays slumped and dying at Zishu’s feet, he chuckles softly and tells it, “If you wanted to know how his martial skill was, you should have just asked.”

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

The first time Zhou Zishu is left alone in the Valley is at lunch after the first night they spend there. 

This lunch is technically also breakfast, because they had stayed true to their prior fantasizing about sleeping in in a bed they can truly call their own.

When the nails had woken him up at midnight with their awful, penetrating pain, he had not said anything. Lao Wen had woken anyway, and pressed gentle hands to his back to feed him qi and soothe his pain until the attack had passed. 

They fell asleep curled into each other afterward, all without a word spoken.

Anyway, they'd slept until the sun was high in the sky, and until the grumbling of Zhou Zishu's stomach had prompted a laughing Wen Kexing to rise and coax him out of bed for lunch.

He finds himself alone at the table in this dining area because he had made the fatal mistake of mentioning that he's fond of lychee fruit; which are not currently on the table.

Lao Wen, in light of this new information, seemed to take personal offense to their absence and had marched off to, presumably, terrorize the kitchen staff into finding some lychee.

Zhou Zishu is not alone for long. Lao Wen has been gone for nary five minutes before pretty girls start coming out of the metaphorical woodwork.

They are women from the Department of the Unfaithful, all pretty faces and curious eyes. Most of them carry something, like wine jugs or plates of snacks, but Zishu can already tell they're just props to be used if their presence is questioned.

They're here to satisfy the curious light that sits in all their faces, and would be lying the moment they tried to say otherwise.

Zhou Zishu watches them all flit around like nervous butterflies with raised eyebrows, the girls going through the motions of setting snacks down and pouring wine despite the look he's giving them.

One of them finally takes the plunge to speak to him, bashful and cautious like she hopes he'll be nice but isn't quite sure.

"Will...will you be staying for good, Lord Zhou?" she asks, keeping her eyes lowered respectfully but unable to help but glance up briefly to ascertain his reaction.

He blinks slowly, confused but amused. It is hard not to like bashful, pretty girls, even when one is not in the market for a wife.

"I am."

They all glance at each other and titter little whispers he can't quite catch. He grows more amused by the strange situation by the minute. 

"Is that alright?" He asks dryly, as if the answer will change anything.

They chatter their assent nearly as one, seeming to grow cautiously more at ease now that he's engaged calmly and civilly with them.

"It's good, it's good, Lord Zhou," the original speaker assures quickly. "Please do not mistake us! Guzhu seems quite happy with you...we hoped that may be your answer."

Zishu scoffs, but his smile keeps them from panicking.

"You were hoping because you care, or because everyone will benefit from an improvement in his mood?"

There's a lot of whispering and hesitating, before the consensus comes about with nodding heads and a mishmashed chorus of 'both'.

He gets the feeling it's not that they're lying about caring, but that they were debating whether to admit to fearing the Guzhu's moods. They are trusting him not to tattle and get them in trouble.

Cute. Girls are so cute. He loves girls.

Still, he’s surprised they confess to caring at least in some capacity about whether Lao Wen is happy. He would not have expected such a thing.

“You care that he seems happier?” he inquires, too curious to refrain from asking. “I can’t say I’ve seen any other ghosts who would say the same; they’re all far too busy quivering with terror. Aren’t you afraid of your Guzhu?”

They nod as a group, immediate and honest. One girl wrings her petite little hands and ventures to speak out. 

“Guzhu is very frightening, but…” she looks around as if making sure that Wen Kexing has not yet returned, and then leans forward a little to impart a secret. “He’s softer with girls.”

Zishu’s eyebrows bounce up. “Softer? Does he not kill women?”

Somehow, Zishu finds that hard to believe.

“He does!” she insists, confirming Zishu’s suspicions. “But...well, he’ll kill a man just because he feels like it, but girls...he only kills them when they do something to earn it.”

“A-And!” another woman pipes up. “It feels safer to be around Guzhu than other men. We know Guzhu won’t try to touch us, so…”

Zhou Zishu starts to understand. “...you like him because he has no interest in assaulting you, and stays his hand with women unless they do something stupid. He’s a much better option as Guzhu for you than just about anyone else would be.”

They all nod, and Zishu nods thoughtfully in return, sipping his morning (afternoon?) tea. He may be something of an alcoholic, but he’ll at least pretend to put up a fight before he starts drinking the wine on the table.

“Well,” he says decisively. “You needn’t worry about any of that from me, either. And unless you make an attempt on mine or Lao Wen’s lives, you won’t lose your life to me. Still...a better option than others still doesn’t quite make me understand why you’d care if he’s happy.”

The assurance that he won’t kill or rape them, accompanied by his prodding for more information, seems to serve as some kind of unspoken invitation for them all to advance on him and gather around, some standing, some sitting on the table, some kneeling on the floor.

Once upon a time, he thinks to himself, he would have been in heaven. Well, he is in heaven getting to look at all these gorgeous women, but he holds no hopes that he might be of interest to any of them. He is very happy with being taken by Lao Wen. He finds he can’t imagine touching another person, man or woman.

“Guzhu thinks we don’t notice,” one girl tells him with a conspiratorial smile, “But he always keeps an eye on us when he’s around.”

“And if Master says we need something, he always provides it! He never waves her away when she requests funds for clothes or for repairs around the Manor.”

“He cut a man’s hand off for me once!” one girl attests with an impish grin. “He cornered me, and I didn’t even know Guzhu was there until the blood and the screaming. He acted like he only did it on a whim, but I saw the hate in his face.”

That Zhou Zishu can believe. He remembers vividly the sour look on Lao Wen’s face, the sound of his voice when he’d said, I just don’t like predators. Still...he feels fond at the revelation, that Lao Wen is gentle - comparatively, at least - and a tad protective of the women in the Valley; the defenseless ones. Those who can take care of themselves and fight, Zishu has noticed he doesn’t treat much different from the men at all.

Thinking back on the little boy he once knew, he murmurs, “Maybe because he was so fond of his mother.”

There’s dead silence, and then they all explode into more tittering questions. Questions about how he knows, whether he knew him as a child, what he was like, how he looked.

“What’s going on in here?” Lao Wen’s irritated voice booms from the entry way, his brow furrowed in a scowl and one hand carrying a bowl of fresh lychees.

The girls promptly prove that they do indeed fear their Guzhu despite his partiality towards women by scattering like mice. Zhou Zishu isn’t sure he’s ever seen such a frantic yet efficient getaway. They’re all gone in the blink of an eye.

Lao Wen huffs and strides over, expression sour. “A-Xu. I step out for but ten minutes and you’ve collected pets of your own?”

Zishu rolls his eyes. “As if I could have eyes for anyone but you. Can you blame them for being curious, Lao Wen? I don’t think there’s a ghost in the Valley who expected you to settle down someday.”

Lao Wen huffs and smiles, betraying his lack of genuine anger as he takes his seat next to Zhou Zishu.

“I’m afraid the Guzhu himself did not expect such a thing. Alas, when a beauty descends from the heavens and captures his heart, what is a man to do but dedicate himself to their worship?”

As he spews syrupy words with no shame, Wen Kexing peels a lychee and holds it out. Zishu moves to take it, only to have it yanked away from his hand with a reprimanding, “Ah ah!”

Raising his eyebrow, Zishu lowers his hand. Lao Wen extends the fruit for him to take between his lips, and he heaves an exasperated sigh. How had he not expected this would be what Lao Wen wanted to do?

He tries to take the fruit with as little fanfare as possible, though he can’t quite stop Lao Wen from pressing it into his mouth and dragging his fingers over the curve of Zishu’s lips as he draws away. 

Zhou Zishu takes a lychee from the bowl himself, though instead of peeling it he rolls it around in his hand while he thinks, saying, “Lao Wen.”

“Hmm?”

“Our journey here...it was quite uneventful.”

Wen Kexing keys into his mood and his thoughts immediately, as he always does. “Too uneventful, you mean?”

“Mn. Not a single hint of interference. Now that I’m in the Valley, who could hope to reach me? The Prince knows this. So why? I don’t believe he’s alright with just giving me up.”

“If you don’t believe it,” Wen Kexing says, “then neither do I. I imagine he knew he didn’t have a chance of taking you on the road while I travelled by your side.”

“No, he didn’t. But now? Isn’t this even worse than trying to attack on the road? How could he even get in?”

Lao Wen reaches out, laying a hand over his. “He can’t, A-Xu. Nobody can get into this Valley unless they are allowed in. I promise. You’re safe.”

Zishu sighs, nodding and taking his zhiji’s hand.

Someone clears their throat politely from the doorway.

Lao Wen and he turn with the sharp eyes and quick movements of hawks, to see a ghost in dark robes and a tall hat bowing politely to them.

ZIshu feels a shiver. Wu Chang Gui; Lao Wen had pointed all his Devils out to him yesterday. How long has he been here? Listening?

“Guzhus,” the Devil intones. “My apologies for interrupting your meal. The minor ghosts at the gates say there is a trio asking for entry. Two men in white, and one in black. They claim they were invited, but of course they will be left outside unless Guzhu otherwise gives his order.”

Lao Wen clicks his tongue, hearing that there are two men in white instead of one. He sighs irritably. “Let the Southern shaman and the pretty one in white in and bring them to us. Leave the ugly old toad outside.”

“Lao Wen,” Zishu says as Wu Chang Gui leaves as quietly as he’d come, “...you know Ye-qianbei is objectively attractive, right? What will you do if they leave Beiyuan outside and invite Ye-qianbei in instead?”

Lao Wen sputters, seemingly outraged. “Jing Beiyuan far outclasses the old monster! They could never make such a mistake.”

Zishu snorts, smiling and shaking his head. Instead of responding, he finally peels the lychee in his hand and moves to eat it - only to be met with another frantic ‘ah ah ah’.

Sighing, he looks at his zhiji with a face that says, What is it this time?

Pouting, Lao Wen taps his own bottom lip. Zishu’s stare turns flat and unimpressed, and they look at each other like that for a long time before he finally caves to those miserable puppy eyes and offers the fruit.

He knows better than to expect Lao Wen to take it like a normal fucking human being, but somehow the way he curls his tongue around it as he takes it from Zishu’s fingers and leaves a nip on his fingertips is still like a gut punch.

Wen Kexing can tell he’s won by the heat that flashes in Zishu’s eyes, and grins smugly while he peels another fruit to offer.

It becomes a game of sorts, staring heatedly into each other’s eyes and taking the fruit they offer each other slowly, sensually. It is ridiculous to think that eating could be seductive, and yet here sits Wen Kexing. Seducing him, and even coercing him into returning the favor.

Zhou Zishu is about five seconds away from deciding to find out what lychee tastes like when it’s still on his Lao Wen’s tongue when an irritatingly familiar voice rings out.

“Can you two eye fuck each other over fruit after I’m gone?”

Lao Wen steels and rolls his jaw, taking a deep breath before he sits back and glares at Ye Baiyi’s approaching figure. Beiyuan and Wu Xi follow with amused expressions.

“I told them,” Wen Kexing grits out with a superficial smile. “To leave you outside.”

Ye Baiyi snorts. “They tried. It was like swatting gnats aside.”

Zhou Zishu chuckles, because he had expected as much. He meets eyes with Jing Beiyuan over Ye Baiyi’s shoulder, who raises his eyebrows and gives him a meaningful once over.

Zishu flushes and tries to pretend like what he’s wearing, in its sanguine reds and gauzy fabrics, isn’t a blatant claim of ownership. Today’s robes aren’t the robes of a prostitute, but they are certainly airy and alluring and scream of Wen Kexing.

“If you didn’t want to see me eye fucking my zhiji in my own home,” Lao Wen is hissing through grit teeth, “then you shouldn’t have showed up at all. I don’t recall anyone inviting you.”

Ye Baiyi tsks. “As if I want to hear your pathetic spitting any longer than I have to. I’m only here because I don’t want to deal with the lecture Qin Hauizhang will give me in the afterlife if I don’t keep an eye on his useless disciple while they fix what he did to himself.”

Zhou Zishu gapes. “How…?”

Ye Baiyi snorts and gestures to the sword wrapped around his waist. “Idiot. Whose name is on your sword?”

Zhou Zishu blinks, hand ghosting along the hilt of Baiyi. Of...of Baiyi .

That’s why it’s called Baiyi?” he asks, absolutely flabbergasted at the realization that his shifu had been friends with this insufferable immortal.

“I gave it to him. How far it’s fallen to be wielded by a moron like you.”

Are you trying to die? ” Wen Kexing hisses, incensed.

“Yeah,” Ye Baiyi scoffs, already starting to steal food off the table, “But you don’t have a chance of being the cause, kitten. Put your claws away, you’re making a fool of yourself.”

Wu Xi clears his throat, setting a small container down on the table in front of Zishu. When he opens it, there are pills inside.

“They will slow the flow of your qi through your meridians,” Wu Xi tells him. “So that the procedure will be easier for us to conduct, and for your body to recover from. Take them every day for four days, and we can address your nails.”

Zishu blinks, closing the container and drawing it closer to him. “I see. Thank you.”

“They’ll make you tired, for obvious reasons. Don’t be alarmed.”

Zishu nods again. “And...after? What can I expect for recovery?”

“You will be weak, and exhausted,” Wu Xi tells him, albeit reluctantly. Being weak is something Zhou Zishu hates with a passion, and he and Beiyuan both know it. “It will take time for you to rehabilitate, to recover. A couple of months, at least.

Zishu screws his face up. “ Months?”

Wu Xi gives him an entirely unimpressed look. “You’ve crippled yourself, Lord Zhou. Were well on your way to killing yourself. You’re lucky a few months is all it will be.”

“A-Xu,” Lao Wen says, taking his hand again and looking almost nervous. “Don’t worry about that. You won’t want for a thing, I’ll be at your beck and call. Your very own servant.”

Zishu sighs, smirking and looking with tired but amused eyes at his zhiji. “Aren’t you already?”

Lao Wen opens his mouth in faux offense, but Zishu interrupts him. “Relax, Lao Wen. I’m not going to refuse treatment just because of that. I just don’t like being weak.”

Lao Wen nods, assured. “I know, A-Xu. But you’re safe here.”

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

To be completely honest, Zhou Zishu had expected to be vigorously deflowered just about as soon as he was taken to the Valley. 

    He’d expected Lao Wen to touch him, leer at him, crowd him, kiss him, take him. He’s been, dare he admit, looking forward to it. He trusts Lao Wen with every fiber of his being, knows that a single word or sign from him and everything would screech to a halt. 

    And yet, there’s been little to nothing to halt.

    Lao Wen looks at him as hungrily as ever, flirts and says things not suited for polite company, but he does not truly push for sex. It’s baffling.

    Each night they go to sleep in the same bed. Each night he looks at Lao Wen’s slim form in his sleep robes with interest. Each night, Lao Wen looks at his scantily clad form with interest.

    Each night Lao Wen holds him like the most important thing in the world and goes to sleep without trying anything untoward. At least not beyond idle,  loving, gentle caresses as they drift off to oblivion.

    It takes a shamefully long time for Zhou Zishu to realize that Lao Wen is waiting for him.

    Wen Kexing will be the first man Zhou Zishu has ever lain with, and he knows it. He’s trying to make sure Zhou Zishu feels safe, knows he’s loved and respected. Trying to make sure he doesn’t push farther than Zhou Zishu is ready for. He’s being considerate.

    Wen Kexing. Considerate. Ridiculous.

    The idea of asking for sex is humiliating, makes him want to blush and curl up and hide. And yet, it is nearing time for Wu Xi to take his nails from him and shatter his meridians, reconstruct them. After that, he will spend months recovering.

    He is not willing to wait months to taste Wen Kexing.

    And so, Zhou Zishu is forced to recognize that he must be the one who makes it clear he wants Lao Wen. Still, to approach his zhiji and simply say such a thing is absolutely out of the question. This leaves only one option.

    Seduction.

    The night before Wu Xi is to operate on him, he retreats to their room early. They’ve had dinner with their guests every night since they arrived, and Lao Wen has gotten over his jealousy to become rather fast friends with Jing Beiyuan and Wu Xi.

    They are of the rare breed who do not treat him as a villain or a nightmare, and Zishu has been glad to see him unfold and get along with them.

    He is laughing and talking with them when Zishu rises, murmuring that he’s going to head to bed. Lao Wen looks at him with concern immediately, clearly ready to toss everything aside to attend to his beloved’s needs.

    “A-Xu?”

    He smiles. “Relax, Lao Wen. I’m just tired. Stay here and gossip your fill; I’ll be there when you decide to turn in.”

    Wen Kexing pouts, but accepts the answer relatively easily. Zishu has been tired because of the medicine slowing the flow of his qi, just as Wu Xi had said he’d be. Not tired enough to keep from trying to get what he wants tonight.

    He’s setting upon the wardrobe that Wen Kexing really did have made for him as soon as he’s entered their chambers, sorting through robes not knowing exactly what he’s looking for, but hoping he’ll know it when he finds it.

    There are enough borderline indecent outfits in here that there must be a fitting garment.

    He is decided as soon as he sees it. It’s a flimsy, gauzy, just barely see through inner robe, of the highest quality white fabric. It will hide nothing and just enough all at the same time.

    This robe is all he puts on. He is bare underneath, and there’s something scintillating about knowing that he is dressed in such a way with the express intention of tempting. Of being made love to.

    Although he briefly entertains the idea of trying to pose somehow, he knows without a shadow of a doubt that he’ll not only look but feel ridiculous. Very unsexy. He settles instead for lounging as he would any other time, just...feeling a lot more exposed.

    The comfortable warmth of the room and the quality of the bed (the smell of Lao Wen on the sheets) lulls him into relaxing and closing his eyes, and he drifts somewhere between waking and sleeping for an indeterminate amount of time.

    The sound of Wen Kexing’s footsteps coming down the hall rouses him enough to smile, not yet opening his eyes.

    The door opens slowly, quietly, like Lao Wen expects him to be asleep and is trying to sneak in without rousing him. Then, of course, the sharp gasp and the shattering of ceramic render that attempt moot.

    Smug smile curling further across his face, Zhou Zishu opens his eyes in a leisurely manner to look at what he’s done. A wine jug lays shattered on the floor where his zhiji has dropped it at the sight of him, and Wen Kexing himself looks like he may follow it at any moment.

    His eyes are wide, mouth open in shock, trying to absorb what lays in front of him. Zhou Zishu is almost certain the foolish man is already swelling with arousal where he’s tucked away and hidden under his robes.

    “Are you going to faint, Lao Wen?” he asks dryly, feeling smug and desirable. The robe is cinched around his waist and billowing loose elsewhere, laying open to bare his chest. When he shifts to draw one knee up, that leg slips from the folds of the fabric as well, one bare thigh and calf on full display.

    Not that the other leg can’t be seen under this poor excuse for cover. His leg and everything else, though it’s all obscured just enough to be a tantalizing tease.

    Lao Wen moans , walking forward like he’s trapped in a siren’s spell.

    A-Xu ,” he breathes, crawling onto the bed and letting his gaze roam over Zishu’s form like he’s been offered a gift the likes of which he could not have imagined. “Oh, A-Xu. Look at you.

"That is what I was hoping you would do," he comments dryly, eyebrows raised.

Lao Wen stops and sits back, reverent hands laying on his knees and sliding slowly down his calves.

"Is looking at you all you had hoped I would do, A-Xu?" he murmurs, eyes heavy lidded with arousal and bright with awe at the body he drags his gaze over.

"Don't ask me stupid questions, Lao Wen."

Wen Kexing laughs, lifting his foot to press kisses to the ankle, up the calf, over the knee. The path he traces with his adoring lips is slow and meandering, and Zhou Zishu finds himself absolutely captivated by it.

Lao Wen kisses him up to mid thigh, before he stops in favor of running his hands with firm, sensual pressure down Zishu's thighs, over his hips, up his sides.

His covetous eyes catch the way Zhou Zishu is starting to harden under the gauzy veil of fabric immediately, one large, warm hand covering it and pressing it to his belly with a firm roll of the wrist.

Zishu sighs his pleasure and lets his head fall back, thighs parting. 

"You're so pretty, A-Xu," Wen Kexing murmurs with awe. "Can I really have you? Are you sure?"

"You walked in to me waiting in your bed, dressed like a whore," Zishu replies, voice a little airy with arousal. "And you think I'm not sure?"

Wen Kexing smiles a small, impish smile and chuckles. "Is it so bad that I want to be certain?"

Sighing and looking fondly at his zhiji, Zishu shakes his head. "No...no, it's not bad at all. Though the longer you stay dressed the more dissatisfied I'm becoming with the situation."

This time, Lao Wen's grin is wolfish, and he sits back on his heels to start unfastening his belt and removing his robes. He goes slowly, one layer at a time, and Zishu is so hungrily spellbound by the sight of it he can't bring himself to snap at Lao Wen to hurry.

Finally, the last layer is shrugged off of broad shoulders. Lao Wen is nude, and Zhou Zishu may as well be.

Zhou ZIshu has seen men naked, but he has never wanted one the way he wants Lao Wen, or thought their form so magnificent. He can’t help but sit up and lay his hands on those shoulders, drag them hungrily down Lao Wen’s chest and stomach. He rakes his nails across the skin just to watch Wen Kexing’s belly quiver with arousal.

“How do I look?” Lao Wen whispers, nose to nose with him and staring at him with naked lust.

“Like a wet dream,” Zishu replies, and his zhiji chuckles, wrapping his arms around him to lean in and start kissing and nipping at the juncture of Zishu’s neck and shoulder. 

“Have you ever had a wet dream about a man before, A-Xu?” he teases as he eases Zhou Zishu onto his back.

“No,” Zishu rasps, delighted by the feeling of Wen Kexing’s bare body pressed against him, “But I will now.”

The massive grin that he feels against his shoulder makes him smile in turn, though his smile quickly turns to an ‘o’ of pleasure as Lao Wen grinds down against him. He groans, shivering. 

“Fuck, Lao Wen.”

“You should at least let me stretch you first,” Wen Kexing responds cheekily, and chuckles when Zhou Zishu smacks him. He is, as usual, totally uncowed by being reprimanded.

He sits up and pushes the robe off of Zishu’s shoulders - lingering with hesitation and a flash of pain at the sight of the nails in Zishu’s chest - and spreads it out so Zhou Zishu is laying on and haloed by the fabric.

The way he looks down at him, ghosting his fingers down the curves of his sides, makes Zhou Zishu feel like the most desirable creature in the world.

"Turn over for me, A-Xu," Lao Wen murmurs, and Zhou Zishu obeys with a mixture of arousal and nervousness. He knows how cutsleeve sex works, and he can't say he's ever even touched himself in such a way.

Wen Kexing hums a lascivious sound of approval at the sight of Zishu's bare back and ass, stopping him before he settles down with a gentle hand to the hip so he can slide a pillow underneath.

Zishu flushes as he lays on his belly, at the feeling of being watched so hungrily, and at having that pillow elevate his hips as if to… to present him for the taking.

The embarrassment fades when Lao Wen drapes himself over his back and kisses behind his ear, drags his hands up and down his sides and hips.

It fades not because of the pleasure of the kisses or the touch, Zishu realizes, but because he feels safe . Being caged in by Lao Wen like this makes him feel safe and protected. Makes him feel like it's okay to just relax and enjoy.

Zishu sighs and shivers as Lao Wen sucks and nips and kisses a trail of marks against the nape of his neck, between his shoulders, down his spine. He fades into a fuzzy place of pleasure, enjoyment, and then is promptly startled out of it when Wen Kexing’s graceful hands grab hold of his ass and spread him to expose his hole.

“L-Lao Wen!” he cries, face going hot.

“What?” Wen Kexing asks. “You’re so delightfully plump back here, A-Xu. I knew it, of course, but it’s different getting to see such a prize bare.”

Before he can complain or throw insults, Lao Wen takes him by surprise by leaning down to lay his tongue in a hot, thick stripe over his entrance.

Zishu gasps at the sensation, far more intense than he anticipated. It makes his breath stutter in his chest and his hips thrust shortly into the pillow beneath them. He tries to scold his zhiji for doing such a thing, but he doesn’t get far. 

“Lao Wen! That’s - ohhhh…”

All it takes is another pass of that tongue and he’s losing his words and his train of thought, turning his face into the sheets to muffle his moan. It feels good. Why does it feel so good? It makes no sense, he thinks, even as Lao Wen sets in on him like he’s a meal and leaves him breathless.

A woman’s flower is at least meant to offer her pleasure when stimulated in such a way; his is not. His body, apparently, did not get that memo.

He doesn’t even realize he’s trying to squirm away from the intense sensations until Lao Wen pulls him back by the hips and spears him open on his tongue .

Zishu cries out, grabbing a desperate handful of sheets. “Fuck! Lao Wen!”

He hardly notices the slight burn of the penetration in favor of the pleasure, gasping for air and having moans forced out of him by Wen Kexing’s devilish tongue. The pleasure is climbing almost alarmingly fast, and he tries his best to gasp out a warning, a plea. 

“Lao Wen! Lao Wen, Lao Wen, please, I...oh! Lao Wen, Lao Wen... I’m gonna cum. I’m gonna - you have to stop, Lao Wen, please, I can’t-!”

Wen Kexing ignores him and maintains his assault, driving Zishu higher until finally, with a sharp gasp and a shudder, he endures one of the most intense orgasms he’s ever had.

By the time he starts to come down, Wen Kexing is back to biting and kissing his shoulderblades. 

“Why did you…?” he starts, not quite able to find his tongue and finish the question. His zhiji seems to know what he wants to ask regardless, kissing the nape of his neck and stretching over him to reach towards the little bureau by their bedside.

Zishu tracks his movement, his heart jumping when he realizes what Wen Kexing is retrieving from it. A jar of oil.

“It’s a tried and true method for laying with virgins, A-Xu,” Lao Wen replies while he settles back between Zishu’s legs casually, as if the sound of the lid coming off the oil doesn’t make Zishu’s belly quiver nervously. “Make them cum, and they’re more relaxed.”

Zishu hates to admit that actually makes sense. He’s not a virgin strictly speaking, but he is in the way that matters tonight, and that orgasm has left him quite malleable.

He still jumps a little when a wet finger touches his entrance, Lao Wen shushing him gently and rubbing little circles into the rim. That, too, feels surprisingly good. He hadn’t expected to be so pleasantly sensitive in such a place.

“Let me take care of you, A-Xu,” Lao Wen murmurs. “Do you trust me?”

Of course he does. The reminder of who’s touching him actually helps a lot, and he sighs and relaxes. Gives himself over. “I trust you.”

“Good boy,” Lao Wen purrs, and sinks a finger into him in one slow, smooth motion.

It’s...weird. There’s a stretch, but not much of a burn yet. He’s more startled by how deep it slides in than anything. He knew Lao Wen’s fingers were long, but he didn’t realize just how long until one was buried in him to the knuckle.

“Good boy,” Lao Wen murmurs again. “You didn’t even tense, so good for me.”

“Please shut up,” Zishu protests weakly, unwilling to admit that he does so because the praise makes him feel hot. Lao Wen seems to know anyway.

That long finger rocks in and out of him gently, eases him into getting used to the sensation before a second breaches him as well. This time, it burns a little, but that’s okay. 

Zhou Zishu is used to pain, has been subjected to literal torture and has tortured in turn. A little burn is nothing. It’s the feeling of fullness that he’s not used to, the stretch.

He wiggles his hips a little as if it will make Lao Wen’s fingers feel smaller, and Wen Kexing chuckles an airy, fond laugh behind him. “Shh, A-Xu. I know it feels like a lot, doesn’t it? I’ve got you.”

Those fingers push in over and over, the slow drag and the feeling of being pressed open again and again oddly intoxicating. Pleasurable. Yes, it’s pleasurable. It feels good, better the more he gets used to it and his body starts to register it less as weird and more as yes, good, more.

He’s relaxed and humming his pleasure when Lao Wen gives his fingers a little crook and his whole body shudders and jumps with pleasure. It leaves him gasping, wide-eyed. 

“Wh-what -” he starts to ask, but Wen Kexing presses into that godawful place inside of him firmer this time and leaves him crying out and squirming instead. “Ah! Ah, Lao Wen! Fuck, hold on. Give me a -”

Wen Kexing rubs a couple more firm circles right into what he now suspects is the prostate he was once teased over finding, making him try to muffle his moans into the bed and squirm away, before he lets up as asked.

Zishu gasps for breath, head swimming and cock hard again. “ Fuck ,” he murmurs, reeling. “Fuck, Lao Wen.”

“Starting to get the appeal, A-Xu?” Lao Wen asks with laughter in his voice as he presses a third finger into his lover’s body. It burns, but Wen Kexing grazes his prostate on the first push in, and that provides a good distraction.

“Lao Wen,” he whines, body on fire and craving contact with Wen Kexing. He wants more than just Lao Wen’s fingers in him. He wants to be blanketed by his zhiji’s body again, feel skin against skin and his lips on his neck, hear his heavy breathing in his ear. He wants...he wants…

“Lao Wen. Lao Wen, please. Just do it, please, I want you.”

“Are you sure?” Wen Kexing murmurs, and Zishu reaches back to smack at him.

“I wouldn’t be asking if I wasn’t sure!”

Lao Wen laughs, pulling his fingers free and politely not commenting on the little whine of loss Zishu can’t hold back.

“Okay, okay. I’ve got you.”

The sound of Lao Wen slicking himself is arousing and nerve-wracking; he doesn’t dare look over his shoulder to see it. Then, he feels the hard heat of him pressing against his entrance, and just like that he’s pressing in.

It leaves him gasping immediately, the stretch and the burn and the drag turning all his thoughts to static and narrowing his world to nothing but the brand new feeling of being breached.

Lao Wen slides in in one slow, constant push, murmuring into Zishu’s ear. “Breathe, A-Xu. I’ve got you. Just relax for me - there you go, good boy. Good boy. Breathe, love.”

It feels like there’s no end to him, and he’s gripping the hand that Lao Wen had taken his with for dear life by the time Wen Kexing finally sheathes himself fully. 

“W-wait,” he murmurs, threading their fingers together and trying to calm his racing heart. “Wait a minute.”

“Shh, I’m waiting, A-Xu. I’m waiting. Take your time. You took me so well, A-Xu, you’re doing such a good job.”

The praise feels like a touch, coaxes a little moan out of him even as he struggles to adjust.  He’s been through so many things, he thinks fuzzily. Why is it this that he finds himself overwhelmed by the sensation of?

Although the hot grip of him must be unbearable not to thrust into, Lao Wen keeps his word and stays still, kissing him and stroking his sides and murmuring sweet nothings.

Each time he starts to shift, Zishu gasps his little mantra of ‘wait’. It’s not that it hurts. The pain fades, but it’s just...it’s so...it’s so much. Every time one of them so much as breathes they shift and rub together and the feeling makes Zishu want to squirm, except squirming would make them rub more and the rubbing is the problem , the rubbing makes his thighs twitch and his belly quiver and he doesn’t know what to make of it and-

“Wait. Wait, wait.”

“Shhhh, I’m waiting. I’m waiting. Does it still hurt, A-Xu?” Lao Wen asks, sounding concerned. Zishu reassures him, answering honestly. 

“No. No, it doesn’t hurt.”

He can practically hear Wen Kexing blink. “No?”

“Nuh-uh…”

“Not at all?”

“No…”

Lao Wen shifts. Zishu gasps, breathes a plea of ‘wait’.

“A-Xu…” Lao Wen says, starting to sound equal parts puzzled and amused. “You have to let me move eventually.”

“You’re in my throat , Lao Wen!” he snaps over his shoulder, flushing with embarrassment. “There’s no room for you to move!”

Wen Kexing is quiet for a moment, until… “Oh. Oh. Oh, A-Xu,” he says, laughter in his voice. “You’re just overwhelmed, aren’t you? That’s so cute.”

Zishu swats in his general direction, but doesn’t manage to do much but graze his zhiji’s side. Lao Wen sighs fondly, plants a firm hand between his shoulderblades, and moves . He pulls out in a slow drag and pushes in in one long, smooth thrust.

Zishu gasps and gets halfway through gasping to wait before the pleasure seeps through his body and he melts, moaning long and low. Oh. Oh. That’s good.

“Okay?” Lao Wen murmurs into his ear, and he moans again.

“Again,” he whispers, and feels Wen Kexing smile against the shell of his ear as he obeys.

Ohh ,” Zishu moans, shivering as Wen Kexing starts a slow, gentle pace. “Oh, Lao Wen.”

It feels good. The stretch, the drag, the fullness. He could let Lao Wen do this to him forever, toes curling and breath hitching with the pleasure. The way Wen Kexing works his hips into him is divine, and Zishu finds himself immensely grateful for having snagged an experienced lover.

“Good?”

Yeah, ” Zishu slurs. “More. Please.”

Lao Wen huffs a tiny, fond laugh and obliges. His thrusts grow shorter, harder. The pace quickens. Zishu’s mouth pops open and brow furrows in ecstasy, before he bites his lip and starts to push back into Lao Wen’s hips.

Wen Kexing groans. “There you go. Feel good?”

“Yeah. Yeah, please.”

He’s not sure whether it’s a mistake or the best decision he’s ever made to say that, with how he’s left gasping with the response. His Lao Wen grabs his hips and pulls him back onto his cock, starts losing the gentleness and giving in to animal instinct.

Each thrust knocks Zishu’s breath out of him, punches his moans out of his lungs and makes his cock throb where it rubs against the pillow beneath his hips, his thighs shake. It’s good, so good, and then Lao Wen shifts and drags against that spot and it’s torture. 

“Oh, fuck!” he cries, letting his head fall into his folded arms and gasping for breath. It’s so much, it feels so good, it’s torture and he loves it. “Lao Wen! Lao Wen, please! Please!”

Wen Kexing growls, reaches forward to fist a hand in his hair, and he barely has time to remember how a comment about just such a thing had made him feel so long ago before his zhiji uses it to yank him back into his thrusts and he breaks.

The orgasm comes without a warning, sending him hurtling into waves of ecstasy so good they hurt. He knows vaguely that he’s crying out, that his eyes are rolling back, but how can he pay attention to that when the pleasure is shaking him apart?

Lao Wen drives into him through it, drags it out until it leaves him quivering like a leaf, and then all of a sudden the pleasure it too much, so good it hurts, hurts but almost feels good.

He quivers and gasps, squirms. “Lao Wen! Lao Wen, ah , I-”

He doesn’t endure the overstimulation for long; Wen Kexing pulls him close and buries his face in his shoulder and bites as he comes, leaving a mark on his A-Xu even as he moans through the throes of his orgasm.

The feeling of it as Lao Wen spills inside of him is indescribable. Mortifying and satisfying and bizarre all at once.

Lao Wen’s teeth only free his newly bleeding shoulder when the orgasm lets him go, and they’re both left gasping and dazed in the aftermath. Zhou Zishu has never felt so good in his life. He could die happy, right here, right now.

Except he won’t. Instead, he’ll get treatment tomorrow, and he can live instead. He can live with the love of his life, his soulmate, for years and years to come. He can do this with him again and again, whenever he wants, because soon he’ll no longer have an expiration date.

“A-Xu?” Lao Wen slurs, and it’s only then that Zhou Zishu realizes he’s laughing. He’s high on the afterglow and the realization that he has a future, and he’s laughing because it’s the only way to withstand the pure joy that’s coursing through his veins.

“I love you,” he replies, grinning like a loon and feeling like he might cry over how beautiful Wen Kexing looks glowing and flushed in the aftermath. “I love you.”

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

When he takes his robes off to bare his nails for Wu Xi, Beiyuan absolutely loses it. No amount of glaring from Zishu stops him from laughing, and Wu Xi looks quite amused himself.

    Zhou Zishu knows what’s so funny. He knows he looks like he’s been mauled by a wild animal, but they could at least try to leave him some dignity.

    The smug smirk on Lao Wen’s face isn’t helping anything.

They're in a small guest room (though one wonders why the Valley Master's palace even has such a thing), where Zishu sits partially reclined on the narrow, wood framed bed. He sits back against Lao Wen's chest, who is petting his waist and holding one of his hands as if Zhou Zishu has showed even a hint of nervousness so far.

They are performing the procedure here because the room is less cluttered with items that aren't medical tools, the bed is lower and more suited for a doctor who needs access to his patient, and because it is best to keep memories of pain and stress out of the place they sleep together.

Beiyuan has, at this point, turned his back, but his shoulders are still shaking.

Zishu glares at him, grousing, "You can leave, you know."

It only spurs another burst of laughter from his friend, who turns back towards him and shakes his head. The bastard is wiping tears from his eyes.

"No, no," Beiyuan says, actively reigning himself in. "I'm sorry, Zishu. I'm happy, that you're finally letting yourself be a man instead of an automaton. Truly. I worried about you, you know."

He knows. He knows, and it means a lot. "Worried I'd never be mauled by a lunatic?"

Beiyuan smiles, eyes still dancing. "Among other things."

Wu Xi seems to finish setting out what he needs, and turns to offer him what seems to be a cup of wine; a cup of wine Zishu has no doubt the shaman just mixed mafeisan into.

Zishu shakes his head, the idea of being anesthetized the first thing to make anxiety curl in his gut.

"I don't need it."

Wu Xi sighs, seeming like he'd half expected such an answer. "Lord Zhou. The first thing I'm going to have to do is excise your nails so I can remo-"

"I've done that myself more times than I can count; I'm not afraid of pain."

Lao Wen hisses a breath in behind him at the admission, and Wu Xi gives him a blank and exasperated look that says, of COURSE you have.

"I put the nails in myself, Wu Xi," he argues. "Do you really think I can't endure their removal?"

"I am sure you can," the shaman tells him. "But that does not mean you should or that you have to."

“I’ll be fine.”

"And when I shatter your meridians, Lord Zhou?" Wu Xi asks, sounding like he's dealing with a particularly stubborn and exasperating child. "Would you like a bracer or a belt to chew on so you don't bite your own tongue off?"

Zishu stares back at him with the same stubborn challenge in his eyes. "That would be lovely, thank you."

"A-Xu!" Lao Wen cries, sounding horrified.

Wu Xi sighs, scowling. "I can not in good conscience do this while you are awake, Lord Zhou. Whether you can endure or not, the stress hormones from the pain will hamper your recovery and your qi will be harder to handle. Never mind whether Wen-daren would be able to stay as focused as I need him when he's seeing you in pain."

Zishu hesitates. 

"You're with friends, Zishu," Beiyuan implores him. "There is no danger here."

Because of course Jing Beiyuan would know exactly why he's being so obstinate. Jing Beiyuan knows that Zhou Zishu doesn't know how to trust the idea of safety anymore, doesn't know how to depend on anything but his own instinct to guard himself after all these years.

Jing Beiyuan knows that to be helpless and unaware scares him more than any agony ever could.

“It will hurt him, Zishu,” Beiyuan coaxes, nodding at Wen Kexing, “to see you hurt. Will you do that to him?”

Fuck. He clenches his jaw, because he fears they’ve won. Lao Wen...it would hurt Lao Wen to see him in pain. 

“Please, A-Xu?” Lao Wen whispers, and he makes the mistake of looking back into those wide, pitiful eyes.

Zhou Zishu sighs, beaten. “Okay. Okay.”

He drinks the drugged wine and leans back into Wen Kexing, heart pounding from the knowledge that he will soon be dead to the world and unable to defend himself. 

    Lao Wen runs his fingers through his hair and murmurs sweet nothings to him right up until the point that everything goes dark.

 

----

 

When he wakes, he feels groggy. His head is fuzzy, and his body is heavy. It hurts, but it’s a different kind of hurt. It’s not the digging, deep, radiating pain of his meridians being speared through and slowly destroyed. It’s the raw ache of fresh wounds tended to and trying to heal.

    His meridians...his meridians are whole. He’d almost forgotten what this felt like. They feel awkward, unfamiliar. They have been destroyed and remade, and now his qi is slowly relearning them. Relearning new pathways and relearning how to flow through him. How to sustain him. 

    Drowsily, he tries to open his eyes. 

    The world is fuzzy. It’s hard to focus. The first thing he registers is that he’s been relocated; this is Lao Wen’s bed. He can tell as much from the soothing smell of him that lingers on the sheets as the ceiling and what little of the room he sees.

    There’s movement to his right. He has to fight to turn his head that way, and his movement seems to catch the other person’s attention.

    He finds himself blinking at the fuzzy but unmistakable face of Zhang Chengling.

    ….wait, what?

    “The fuck?” he rasps, and that seems to jar the wide eyed boy out of his shock and into motion.

    “Zhou-shushu! You’re awake!”

    “I-” is all he gets out before the kid is nearly skidding out of the room, crying Wen-shushu, Wen-shushu !

    He’s not sure how far away Lao Wen was, but either way it’s impressive how fast Lao Wen skids into the room, eyes wide and a little wild. 

    “A-Xu,” he says when he lays eyes on his zhiji, somehow both a whisper and a shout. “A-Xu!”

    Zhou Zishu finds the energy to smile, slow and languid, as he watches the man he loves scramble to his side, taking his hands and looking at him with concern and joy and wonder all in one.

    “How do you feel? Do you hurt? Are you thirsty? Do you want me to get you lychee? I can get you-”

    “Brat convinced his father, didn’t he?” Zishu rasps, interrupting the tirade.

    Lao Wen blinks, then sighs and tilts his head. “Aiyah, A-Xu. Is the first thing you say to me in days really going to be an ‘I told you so’?”

    Zishu’s heart jumps. “...days?”

    Lao Wen squeezes his hand, seeing the shock and anxiety in his face. The idea that he’d been helpless for days

    “Yes, days. You’ve been asleep for three days, A-Xu. Wu Xi said it wasn’t cause for alarm, but...I worried. Yes, the brat convinced his father. Zhang Yusen showed up at the gates almost two days ago with four ducklings in tow.”

    Zishu chuckles, fully intending to offer that mentioned ‘I told you so’, before Lao Wen’s words catch up to him.

    “...four?”

    Lao Wen’s face turns petulant and sour, huffing and giving Zhou Zishu a meaningful, displeased look. 

    Zhou Zishu suspects he knows the cause behind that face. “No way. ...Cao Weining?”

    Lao Wen heaves a sigh and rolls his eyes, and that’s all the confirmation Zishu needs. He laughs . It’s a deep laugh, and immediately he’s whining in pain in the midst of it and hovering a hand over his own chest, but he can’t quite stop.

    Cao Weining . The lovestruck little fool came all the way to Ghost Valley for a girl.

    Lao Wen flutters over him, half concerned over his pain and half irritated that he’s laughing at Lao Wen’s misery. 

    “Come on, Lao Wen,” he wheezes. “You can’t really object to him still? The idiot is so captivated by her he came all the way to the Ghost Valley to be with her. Who does that?”

    Lao Wen clicks his tongue and glares. “ You do.”

    “Good, then. If he’s half as in love with her as I am with you, you have nothing to worry about.”

    Wen Kexing short circuits, all vulnerable wide eyes and working throat. It’s a sight Zishu never tires of.

    “I swear I recall,” Wu Xi says as he enters the room, “asking that you get me right away when he woke, Wen-daren. How do you feel, Lord Zhou?”

    “Like I’ve had my meridians shattered and there are six gaping holes in my chest.”

    “Exactly how you should, then. Good to hear.”

    Zishu smiles, and endures his lecture about being patient with himself and getting a lot of rest obediently.

 

----

 

It’s nearly a week after waking that Lao Wen so much as leaves his side.

    Chengling is a common guest, and Beiyuan and Wu Xi monitor his condition and engage him in idle conversation very often. Ye Baiyi makes a brief appearance to give him a once over, ascertain that he’s not dead, and fling some insults before disappearing again. 

    When Zhang Yusen first steps in to see him, the man looks somewhat awestruck beneath the kind smile. He seems to have gotten accustomed to Lao Wen over the last few days, as he doesn’t seem hesitant to approach despite his zhiji’s presence by the bedside.

    “Lord Zhou,” he says, shaking his head disbelievingly. “I must admit that I find the realization that you saved my life that night so effortlessly while all the while ill enough to cripple somewhat frightening. It’s no wonder you and the Ghost Valley Guzhu found each other a good match.”

    Zishu chuckles, both at the comment and the way Lao Wen preens. 

“I must admit, Zhang-daren, that I find your youngest son’s ability to get whatever he wants with those eyes of his somewhat frightening. What were you thinking, bringing him here?”

    Zhang Yusen nods, not offended by the question or what could be perceived as criticism of his parenting. “I was thinking that coming here was already something I had been considering doing anyway.”

    Lao Wen’s eyebrows bounce up. “Why?”

    Zhang Yusen looks at him in that way he always has, like Wen Kexing is an interesting puzzle. This time, however, it is tinged with the complicated tangles of their past. “...you are my nephew too, Yan-er. I can’t help but believe the gods had a reason for it be you of all people who helped Chengling in the market.”

    Lao Wen doesn’t know what to do with that, and it’s clear on his face. Zhang Yusen takes pity on him and changes the subject smoothly, using the brat as a segue. 

    “Speaking of Chengling, he has been too shy to ask you if you’d show him a few more things. He’s been working remarkably hard on the few moves you gave him. I’ve never seen him study his martial arts so diligently.”

    Zhou Zishu raises his eyebrows. “Lao Wen?”

    Wen Kexing scowls to mask his embarrassment, looking away. “What? He came here looking for you to teach him, and you can’t. I...well, I learned a few of the basic techniques of the Four Seasons Manor when we were children, didn’t I? I...I’ve just been giving him things here and there to keep him busy, that’s all. Until you’ve recovered.”

    Zishu blinks at him, heart swelling and aching at once. “...you’ve been teaching him Four Seasons techniques?”

    Wen Kexing, he notes with great awe, is starting to blush . “Just to stop him from getting underfoot!”

    Zishu starts to smile, unbearably fond and also teasing. “Sure. I’m sure that’s all it is.”

    “It is ,” Lao Wen insists, scowling at him. Zhang Yusen’s poorly hidden smile says that he doesn’t buy it either.

    “And you’ve been neglecting him since I woke? Tsk tsk. What kind of shifu are you, Lao Wen?”

    Lao Wen splutters. “I’m not! You are!”

    “I’m afraid I can’t be right now. I’m so glad I have a dedicated shidi who took on the responsibility all on his own.”

    “A-Xu,” Wen Kexing whines, unable to decide how he feels about being called ‘shidi’ but sure that he hates (doesn’t hate) how he’s being teased.

    Zhou Zishu’s smile softens. “Go spend some time with him, Lao Wen. Critique his form. Toss him around a little.”

    Wen Kexing hesitates; it would be the first time he’s left Zhou Zishu’s side since he woke up. “But-”

    “I’ll be right here when you come back, Lao Wen,” Zishu assures him. “I can’t go anywhere; I’d just fall down for you to make fun of if I tried. I’ll probably sleep the whole time you’re gone, anyway.”

    Lao Wen sighs, looking down at their joined hands thoughtfully and running his thumb in slow circles across Zishu’s palm.

    “...alright. Alright, fine. Let me kiss you, first?”

    Zishu snorts. “ Now is when you start asking permission to do that?”

 

----

 

True to his word, Zhou Zishu is in and out of dozing just about as soon as he’s left alone. He doesn’t know how much time passes, but it doesn’t really matter.

    He can’t go anywhere, will be recovering for months. The more time passes dozing, the better.

    He hears the door slide open near silently, but he assumes it’s Lao Wen trying not to wake him. Assumes so until a hand presses a sweet-smelling cloth to his face with brutal force; someone who knows they can expect resistance.

    His eyes snap open, but he can’t see well; he scrabbles at the bracer on the attacker’s wrist - Tian Chuang, that’s a standard Tian Chuang bracer - but is too pathetically weak to make any real difference.

    He glares bloody murder at the fuzzy figure above him as the scent gradually robs him of his consciousness, unable to do anything but breathe in and sink into oblivion.

    This time, he knows he’s not with friends.

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

Wen Kexing spends a fair amount of time with Chengling, which pleases Zhang Yusen greatly. 

When he watches them together...well, he sees just a little bit of Zhen Yan behind Wen Kexing's eyes. He becomes playful, his smiles are genuine, the theatrical set of his shoulders eases.

He looks just a tad more human than ghost when he is with Zhang Chengling, and Chengling is overjoyed to have his attention too.

It has been quite an experience, seeing Wen Kexing in the Valley this last week and a half. It's been an experience to step into the Valley at all, very disconcerting, but no doubt a lot more pleasant for being plainly under the Valley Master's protection.

Zhen Yan had had no such privilege, Yusen thinks to himself. He had to fight tooth and nail to survive in this god forsaken place, and only he and the walls themselves may ever know the horrors he endured.

He grew into a monster of such a calibre that he now rules this place, and Yusen thinks it must be some kind of miracle that he retains enough scraps of a soul to take a genuine liking to a child and mentor them. Tease them. Make friends with them.

Although, perhaps that is just a trait that lies in his blood, irreversibly a part of him.

He thinks of the moment when, standing at the bedside of a sleeping Zhou Zishu, he had tentatively asked Wen Kexing why he had chosen men. 

He had tried his best to get his earnestness across, to not sound as if he was making a judgment. He truly was just...curious.

The Ghost Valley Guzhu had looked at him searchingly for a moment, before he had seemed to detect that the question was not meant to be of harm. He had sighed, offered a tired, indulgent smile and said, "Cutsleeves are born, Zhang-daren. Not made."

So Zhang Yusen thinks perhaps this is like that. This kindness towards his son that not even the crippling trauma of life in the Valley could stamp out, it's simply part of him. Something that cannot be changed.

That being said, he has also seen the ghost Wen Kexing has grown into. He saw it at the Conference, and he has seen it here.

He has seen the way Wen Kexing's ghosts tremble when he passes, when they have no choice but to interact with him.

He has seen the cold, soulless look in dark eyes that freezes them like mice staring down a hawk. The slow sneer that knocks their knees and the icy tone that, even to a bystander, feels as if it carries the cold fingers of death towards you, ready to wrap around your throat. 

Today he sees the demon for the first time.

It has been no more than a few minutes since Wen Kexing left them that the commotion starts.

At first it is a distant, unidentifiable noise. As it grows closer it can be discerned to be footsteps, screams, cries of fright.

Quite suddenly, ghosts burst from the hall into the chamber Yusen and Chengling stand in. They are frantic, terrified, tripping over each other to get away from something.

"Run!" they're crying at anyone they see, voices shrill with animal terror. "Run, run!"

The last ghost to breach the hall threshold is snagged by the collar and yanked back in before being thrown unceremoniously out again with immense force.

The others scatter with cries as he hits the ground among them, and Wen Kexing strides out after him with murder on his face the likes of which Zhang Yusen has never seen. 

"WHERE IS HE?" he bellows, this animal creature, this unholy abomination of rage that wears Wen Kexing's skin.

    “I-I don’t know! I don’t know, mercy, please, Guz-”

    “ Useless.” Wen Kexing stomps a foot down on the ghost’s head with a sickening crunch and he dies on the spot. 

    Chengling cries out in shock. Yusen turns him away, staring wide eyed at the scene and wondering what has happened. Zhou Zishu? Has something happened with Zhou Zishu?

    The sound brings Wen Kexing’s attention to them, and when his eyes settle on them he doesn’t seem to so much as register Chengling’s existence. He sets eyes on Zhang Yusen and hones in with eerily wide eyes, absent of anything but instinct and rage and sheer insanity.

    “ You.

    He’s crossed the distance between them in the blink of an eye, strong fingers wrapped around Zhang Yusen’s throat and hoisting him upward before he can so much as try to back away.

    “What did you do?” Wen Kexing spits at him, the demon in his eyes seemingly moments away from tearing through his skin and showing itself in full.

    This is not Wen Kexing; it’s Lunatic Wen, Ghost Valley Guzhu. The man many of his ghosts truly believe is not human, but a creature from the depths of hell masquerading beneath a human skin.

    “Nothing,” he croaks past the brutal grip on his throat. He holds no illusions that he could not have been dead already with one squeeze of the hand. Somewhere in there, Wen Kexing is showing restraint.

    “Bullshit!” Wen Kexing snarls. “You were the last ones in! The last ones the gates opened for! Who did you let in? What did you DO?”

    “Wen-shushu!” Chengling cries, frantic and frightened. “Please stop! We didn’t let anyone in! We didn’t!”

    Wen Kexing drops Zhang Yusen like he’s been startled into his own head; at least partially. He blinks those wide, glassy eyes rapidly, glancing at Chengling as if registering his existence for the first time.

    Zhang Yusen coughs, and finds that he’s not angry. He’s worried. Something has happened to Zhou Zishu. There’s nothing else he can think of that would turn Wen Kexing into this creature, that would make him attack him like this.

    Something is very, very wrong.

    “Ge!” the voice of Gu Xiang rings out, and she enters the room dragging a ghost behind her by the collar. The poor bastard looks like he has a thoroughly broken leg, no doubt her work. “This one knows something!”

    Wen Kexing wheels around, and the ghost gasps his terror, trying to scramble away despite his injuries. “N-no! No no no, I don’t know! I don’t know anything, I don’t!”

    No amount of pleading keeps Wen Kexing from advancing on him, radiating violence. “ Where is he?”

    “I don’t know! Please, I don’t-”

    The Ghost Valley Guzhu stomps and grinds his foot into the ghost’s already broken leg, and the howl he lets loose is blood-curdling.

    “WHERE. IS. HE?”

    “G-gone! Gone! They took him, please, please have mercy!”

    Wen Kexing sways, gasping, like he’s just been submerged in cold water. He bends to grab the ghost by the collar, lifting him up to face level. Zhang Yusen knows now just how terrifying it is to be face to face with those unhinged eyes, and he pities the blubbering creature who is now in that place.

    “Who took him? Where?”

    “I-I don’t know! I don’t-”

    The beast that wears Wen Kexing’s skin tosses the ghost back down to the floor and promptly breaks his other leg. 

    “WHO TOOK HIM?” he roars through the ensuing scream.

    “I don’t know! Please, I don’t know! W-Wu Chang Gui! Wu Chang Gui let them in! He gave them m-masks and let them in when we opened the gates for Guzhu’s guests! Please!”

    So they had come in with them, Zhang Yusen thinks with a twinge of guilt. When he glances at his son, Chengling looks devastated with the realization. It is not their fault, but it feels like it. It was their entry that gave this Wu Chang Gui a chance to sneak disguised individuals with ill intentions inside. 

    “Wu Chang Gui…” Wen Kexing murmurs, before he starts to laugh. It is a chilling sound.

    “Wuuuu Chang Guiii,” he croons, shaking with his cold mirth. “How good at listening , this Wu Chang Gui. Is he as good at hiding, the rat?”

 

----

 

Consciousness is a fuzzy, fleeting thing. He is in and out, struggling towards awareness but never quite managing to open his eyes.

    He feels the bumps and slopes of roads, hears the creaking of wheels. He’s in a wagon, then.

    He hears voices over him when he fades in and out, catches sentences and words here and there.

    “...very weak…”

    “...how it happened…”

    “...might not be in his right mind, don’t be surprised if…”

    “...clearly been taken advantage of…”

    “...will need the doctor to be sure…”

Try as he might, Zhou Zishu can not hang onto consciousness, and he fades into sleep again.

 

----

 

When he finally wakes in a real way, he is no longer in a cart. He knows this immediately, because there is no movement, no instability, no sound of wheels or the hooves of horses.

    He is laying in a bed, soft and luxurious, but it does not smell like Lao Wen.

    He groans, blinking his eyes open to try to get a grip of his surroundings despite how sluggish and tired he still feels.

    The room is ornate, rich. It is not a room he is familiar with, but the manner of the furnishings and the taste of the decorations are familiar. He already knew who was behind his abduction, but this room alone would have given it away.

    “Zishu,” his cousin’s voice says, pleased and low in the manner one speaks when around an invalid. When with someone who is on a sickbed.

    He turns his head, shifts his gaze, and there he is. Helian Yi, his cousin, smiling at him and approaching his bedside as if he thinks abducting him from his zhiji’s bed is not an unforgivable offense.

    “Zishu. You’re awake, thank goodness. You’re safe now, Zishu. I’ve got you.”

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

He stares silently at his cousin for a very long time. Long enough that the smile starts to slide off of Helian Yi’s face, brow furrowing.

    “Zishu…?” he asks quietly, curiously, before there is a flash of alarm in his face. “We did not think to check your tongue. Are you-”

    “I still have my tongue,” Zishu rasps, still staring. Does he really not understand, Zishu wonders? Did he expect a smile? A loyal, grateful dog?

    Helian Yi blinks, then chuckles his relief and nods. “I see. I see. Forgive me, Zishu; one cannot help but fear the worst in such a situation. You must simply be trying to wrap your head around things, aren’t you? You are not dreaming, Zishu. You’re safe.”

    He stares a little longer, disbelieving, and then starts laughing. It’s a raspy, low chuckle that hurts his chest, rife with disbelief.

    “...safe?”

    “Yes, Zishu. You’re s-”

    “You took me from my own bed against my will while I’m weak and recovering from surgery, and you have the nerve to tell me I’m safe? As if you’ve done me a favor?

    He laughs harder, lifting a hand to his chest and grimacing at the pain.

    His cousin looks startled for a moment, but does not grow angry like he thought he would. Instead, he smiles again, looking a little resigned but pitying and amiable. 

    “I see…” Helian Yi murmurs. “The physician’s apprentice said that you may be...confused. Rest assured, Zishu. The doctor is on the way, he will take good care of you. He will make sure you recover physically, and I’m sure he can figure out how to counteract whatever this Ghost Valley Guzhu has been giving you to confound your mind.”

    Zishu’s eyebrows climb slowly. “...confound my mind?”

    Helian Yi moves from where he was standing, approaching slowly. He comes closer as if he’s approaching a frightened animal. 

    “I know you do not understand, Zishu. It’s alright. We’ll figure it out, and get you back in your right mind. I am so sorry, Zishu, that this demon managed to ensnare you, take you from under my nose, and I did not pay enough attention to put a stop to it before you became his victim. I’ve got you now.”

    When he reaches a hand out to cup Zishu’s cheek, he barely has the energy or strength to jerk his head away, though he manages enough to get the message across. His cousin’s hand stills for a moment, and then draws away.

    “Okay,” he says. “Okay. We’ll get you sorted out, Zishu. I promise.”

 

----

 

By the time the doctor comes, Zishu has ascertained a few things.

    One, he is not in the palace. If he were, the doctor already would have been here, considering he is the personal physician of Helian Yi. The Prince knows better than to take him back there, naturally, anticipating that the Ghost Valley Master would be able to find them too easily. 

    He wonders what Helian Yi intends to do; just hide him here forever? Wherever here is. It is no doubt some private villa or vacation spot of the Prince’s, unknown and sequestered away. Good for escaping the business of a royal, and good for hiding a captive.

    Two, his cousin has truly convinced himself that Zhou Zishu has been abused and bespelled in some manner, as opposed to having wanted to willingly leave him. He can’t handle the idea of Zhou Zishu abandoning him, and so he has crafted a farce for himself.

    That’s fine. It gives Zishu time and material to work with while he figures out how to get out of here. While he waits for his zhiji to descend upon this place like the ruler of of one of Diyu’s hells.

    Lao Wen’s, he thinks with morbid humor, would be the eleventh hell. The Hell of Skinning.

    He will have to find a way, he muses in his tired and aching stupor, to guide the demon here. He can not sit by and do nothing, but he must have the strength to do anything first, and he must think carefully about his approach.

When the doctor enters, he is flanked by servants who carry a variety of chests and containers. They no doubt all contain medicines and tools; the doctor does not know what he is dealing with, and has brought everything he could feasibly need until he ascertains what needs to be done.

Zishu thinks idly that it’s a waste of time, considering Wu Xi has already done all the work required to mend his illness. Now he must rest; he had simply anticipated doing so with a much prettier man doting on him than this.

“It is good to see you, Lord Zhou,” the doctor says to him, offering a smile. They have seen each other plenty of times, after all. They are both under the employ of the Prince, and though Zishu always avoided seeing a doctor unless he quite literally could not tend to his wounds himself, this man has still treated him a number of times.

Zhou Zishu does what he has been doing with his cousin. He stares, silent.

The doctor seems mostly unfazed; to be honest, Zhou Zishu hadn’t done much talking any of the other times they’d met either, usually either incapacitated or irate at having to be tended to by someone other than himself.

Instead, the physician turns to speaking to Helian Yi.

“My assistant said he had multiple deep wounds, and evidence of sexual assault?”

Zishu chokes. Sexual assault.

The sound draws both of their attentions, and the doctor smiles kindly while he approaches. “Please don’t fret, Lord Zhou. There is no shame in it; it is not your fault, and I assure you nobody will be told. Now let me take a look at you, hmm?”

As if he has much of a choice. His body is so heavy, he’s so tired. The drug used to knock him out has no doubt worn off almost entirely by now, but he is, unfortunately, just as weak and useless as Wu Xi said he would be after surgery.

Protesting will do nothing, so he has no choice but to quietly allow himself to be examined. Quietly allow them to make their assumptions, because he has decided it is in his best interest to do what Lao Wen did so well in Yueyang; let others craft convenient lies for themselves.

The doctor - Zishu can’t for the life of him remember his name - pulls the covers back from him and opens the sleep robe he’s in with clinical hands. It grates on Zishu to realize that while he slept, he had been undressed and redressed.

The first thing the doctor does is hiss at the deep ring of teeth marks on his shoulder; the one Lao Wen had left when they’d lain with each other. He skims his fingers over it and shakes his head, though at least seems pleased that it doesn’t appear to be infected.

Of course it isn’t. Lao Wen had cooed at him and disinfected it himself, all the while failing to look anywhere close to contrite.

He still bears some yellowing, very faded marks from that night, and others that are darker and more recent. Lao Wen may have been reluctantly controlling himself in the last week or so under threat of death from Wu Xi, but he discovered quickly that playful love bites were harmless and made Zishu laugh and smile, and so made them a favorite pastime while they were alone.

It is, Zishu admits reluctantly to himself, reasonable that they might think he’s been violated by a tyrant.

Zhou Zishu is pretty sure it doesn’t count as a violation when he so thoroughly enjoyed it, and would gladly do it again.

The bandages around his chest are not the same ones that were there when he was taken, but he already knew they must have been unwound and redone by the physician’s assistant. The doctor undoes the fresh ones now, exposing the six deep, ugly pits in Zishu’s flesh.

He knows the doctor knows what he’s looking at. The dumbstruck expression on his face says as much, even if Zishu didn’t know this man has seen his handiwork plenty of times on other victims. 

“Lord Zhou…” he breathes. “He gave you the nails?”

Helian Yi goes pale and shocked; of course. He has always sat comfortably in his palace while Zhou Zishu tortures deserters. He would not have realized what the pits in his spymaster meant at first sight.

“I gave me the nails,” Zishu responds in a tired rasp. “He had them removed.”

The doctor blinks in rapid succession, before taking his wrist and looking even more baffled. “...your meridians are whole. Healthy.”

“That was the point of the surgery, yes,” Zishu says dryly, not bothering to explain further. He doesn’t owe them an explanation. Not this doctor, and not his visibly alarmed and perplexed cousin.

The doctor swallows and slowly releases his wrist, clearly not sure what to make of such information. Something about Zishu’s expression must tell him he has no intention to expand on the information, though, as he simply gathers himself and tries to continue his examination. 

When, without any verbal warning of what he’s doing, the man moves to lift and push his leg aside in a manner that leaves no question of where he’s intending to look, Zishu finds out that under the right circumstances, he can move.

Namely, he snaps his leg out in a brutal kick on instinct and promptly breaks the physician’s nose and a few of his front teeth, fuming with anger and embarrassment.

Don’t touch me,” he growls as the doctor reels away cupping his face, features bloody and screwed up in pain.

Despite his injuries, he makes a valiant attempt at explaining himself through the pain and through a shocked Helian Yi asking him if he’s alright.

“Lord Zhou,” he says, voice muffled by his hand and his newly reconfigured face, “I admit I should have announced my intentions, but it is very important you allow me to examine you. It could be very dangerous if you are torn-”

I’m not.” Zishu hisses, eyes alight with fire. “Your examination is over.”

The doctor elects to take his word for it.

 

----

 

“Where did you meet him, Zishu?” his cousin asks him out of the blue later. Zishu had been dozing, and Helian Yi sitting at the desk in the room attending to paperwork.

    Zhou Zishu blinks his eyes open, confused by the question. “In Yueyang.”

    Prince Jin sighs and sets his brush down. “Zishu...you can be honest with me. Where did you meet him? How? He did not present himself to you as Guzhu of the Ghost Valley at first, I take it. He mustn’t have.”

    Heaving a breath and sitting back, his cousin turns to look at him. “How long ago did he begin to ingratiate himself with you, Zishu? To mislead you and manipulate you, for it to get to the point where he could convince you to impose the nails upon yourself? To let him take you to the Valley for a slave? Was it some test of loyalty? A way to ascertain whether he had sufficiently brainwashed you, to see if you would do such a thing to yourself? To see if you had been groomed enough to be taken as his pet?”

    Zishu thinks, not for the first time but perhaps more strongly than he ever has before, that his cousin is a little insane. Is there no length he will not go to to convince himself that Zishu can be reclaimed? That he did not leave him simply because he no longer wished to be his blade?

    He chuckles lowly in disbelief and shakes his head. “I met him in Yueyang.”

    Helian Yi frowns and sighs, but nods and turns back to his paperwork. Zishu wonders how long of trying to deprogram him it will take before his cousin realizes he was never programmed in the first place.

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

“He will not have taken him to the palace,” Jing Beiyuan is saying when Zhang Yusen walks into the room sweet Gu Xiang had been kind enough to point him towards.

    Wu Xi, Jing Beiyuan, and Wen Kexing are all gathered around a map. They all look grim, but it is Wen Kexing who still looks like he wants to vibrate out of his own skin with anxiety.

    The sentence takes him off guard. “You know who took him?”

    They all look up at him, and again Wen Kexing is a bit of an outlier. He is the only one who looks like a startled animal, uncomfortable and guilty at the sight of him. Yusen is not surprised. He has been avoiding he and Chengling like a plague, head lowered and guilt radiating off of him. 

    He has not so much as given them a chance to say they are not angry, and do not blame him for his split second reaction, as violent as it was.

    Yusen is no fool. He was the only person on the receiving end of Wen Kexing’s rage today who had survived, and that is not a coincidence.

    Instead of trying to offer any comforting words, he simply offers a smile and walks further in. “I apologize for intruding. I simply wished to know what I may be able to do to help, and Miss Gu pointed the way for me. You know who took him?”

    Wen Kexing blinks and swallows, thrown off by Zhang Yusen’s seeming lack of anger or grudge, but replies. “Prince Jin. A-Xu was...in his employ. He suspected that the man would not want to let him go, but we had thought he would be safe here.”

    And then Zhang Yusen had come knocking, and given one of the Ten Devils the opportunity they needed to let the enemy in. He nods quietly, his silence serving as a plea to continue with their talk.

    He is glad to find that Wen Kexing does not object to his presence; he no longer suspects the Zhangs had anything to do with the entrance of the intruders, then.

    “He will not have taken him to the palace,” Jing Beiyuan repeats, “because he knows they could be too easily found.”

    Where , then?” Wen Kexing asks, sounding impatient but visibly reigning his temper in. 

    “I can’t be sure. I imagine he must have taken him to a private villa somewhere he could hide him, but the Prince has many of those. I can’t know if he’s acquired any more since I left, either. Even the ones I know about, I can really only give us a general area. They are secretive and hidden for a reason.”

    Beiyuan does what he can, and circles areas on the map that signify general locations he knows the Prince has a property in somewhere. They are all in the wilds, sequestered away from the public eye, and the search areas are rather broad. It is still better than nothing.

    “Would he have been stupid enough to take him to the closest one?” Wen Kexing asks, but his face says he already knows the answer.

    “No,” Beiyuan replies. “But that at least likely eliminates at least one from our list of possibilities. No matter where we choose to look, Wen-daren, I would advise you have eyes in the directions of each possibility. Zishu is not a helpless flower. He will do what he can to help us... if he can manage it.”

    “I’ll have it done right away,” Wen Kexing responds. “There will be a watch at all times, instructed to report anything even remotely suspicious.”

    Beiyuan nods. “Good. Now, considering Zishu’s state, I don’t think he’d want to be on the road for too long. I think it would be our best bet to look first in the middle ground; not the closest to the Valley, but not the farthest either. If Zishu had been in good health he would have gone as far as possible, but since he is weak and recovering...well. Take your pick, Wen-daren.”

 

----

 

To the doctor’s credit, he comes back like a real trooper. When he walks in the next day with a black and blue face and a broken nose that has since been reset, Zishu raises his eyebrows and looks entirely unrepentant. 

    The doctor sees the look on his face and huffs a little laugh, to which Zhou Zishu replies, “We’re not going to have any problems today, are we, doctor?”

    “No,” the man says, wry laughter in his voice. “No, I certainly hope not.”

    Zhou Zishu gives him credit, not only for coming back but for recognizing that what happened was entirely his own fault and being a good sport. Not many people are, after getting their face kicked in.

    “How are you feeling, Lord Zhou?”

    “Like I’ve been abducted in the middle of trying to recover from a major surgery.”

    The doctor blinks and glances at Helian Yi. The glance they share seems to serve the purpose of sharing the information that Zishu is ‘confused’. 

    “And if you wouldn’t mind humoring me,” the doctor replies, “How does that feel?”

    Zishu sighs, leaning back into the pillows. “I’m tired. I feel weak. My chest hurts, but it’s healing. There’s nothing to be done but rest.”

    The doctor nods, conceding, “You do seem to be healing well. I’ve seen no signs of infection, and your level of fatigue and weakness doesn’t seem unusual to me. Whoever managed to remove the nails from you and repair your meridians...well, quite frankly I didn’t know such a thing could be done. Who was it?”

    “I don’t know,” Zishu responds without hesitation. He had anticipated such a question. “Someone in the Valley. Good doctor. Never had to break his face.”

    The doctor nods and continues to be a good sport. His cousin chuckles a little, likely pleased that Zhou Zishu retains his good humor. He no doubt takes it as a sign that Zhou Zishu is still himself enough to be rehabilitated.

    The doctor turns to the case of medicines he brought in with him, a lot less than last time considering now he knows the state of his patient. As he pulls little bottles from their places with clinking sounds and sets about mixing something, he asks, “Do you recall this ghost Valley Guzhu or any of his servants giving you anything? Any ‘medicines’ or tonics, anything you didn’t know the contents of?”

    Zishu scoffs, shaking his head. “No, I’ve not been fed any concoctions to brainwash me.”

    It is as much the truth as it is exactly what they expect him to say. To suddenly do a one eighty in his attitude would ruin the act, would jar their perception of him as a victim. He must at least let them believe they are ‘fixing’ him, to give Lao Wen and he both time to figure out what they’re going to do. 

    “I see, I see,” the doctor replies, glancing at Helian Yi. This shared look, Zishu thinks with amusement at how pathetically transparent they are to the eyes of a practiced spy, says that he’s either lying, or whatever it was was mixed into his food or drink.

    “Well,” the doctor says, “I suppose I’ll be the first to give you any medicine, then. That’s comforting.”

    He turns around with a cup of liquid steeped with the ingredients he’d pulled out of his chest, and starts to assure Zishu that it is harmless. “This is a harmless remedy, Lord Zhou. It is just-”

    Zhou Zishu, who had watched what he was doing with keen eyes, interrupts him. “Red date, wheatgrass and white peony root. To speed and aid the purification of any toxins or poisons you suspect may be in my system.”

    He takes the cup and knocks it back while the doctor is busy blinking in surprise; his hand is still in the same place it was when Zishu swallows, so he puts the cup back in it.

    “Have you forgotten who I am, doctor? I’m more than proficient in herbal remedies and poisons; I’ve created a few myself. I’m not some hapless victim. I created Tian Chuang, one would be hard pressed to feed me something I didn’t know of and have a remedy to.”

    The way his cousin perks up and smiles at the perceived admission that Zhou Zishu still belongs to Tian Chuang - an admission he had not made, but his cousin is welcome to fool himself into believing he heard - makes him feel vaguely ill.

    The doctor clears his throat. “Of course. Forgive me, Lord Zhou. Perhaps I’m simply too used to your usual uniform and top knot; it’s like looking at a different person!”

    He is joking to try to lighten the mood and smooth Zishu’s sharp edges. What it does is make Zhou Zishu realize that his hair is down, and his hand flies to the top of his head with a panicked jolt of the heart. His stomach sinks when he realizes what’s missing.

    “The hairpin. The jade hairpin, where is it?”

    He doesn’t mean to sound so frantic. It’s just that the realization that he doesn’t know where it is, something Lao Wen had gifted to him, something that mattered to Lao Wen absolutely destroys him. He can’t lose it. He can’t.

    Helian Yi blinks in surprise, caught off guard by his sudden change in demeanor. “Zishu. Zishu, relax. It’s just stored away, is all.”

    He takes a few more seconds to stare at Zishu like he’s trying to figure out what about a hairpin could cause such sudden panic. Then, his face darkens. “Did he give that to you? That demon?”

    Zishu knows without a shadow of a doubt that if he were to tell the truth, that hairpin would be destroyed.

    “No,” he breathes out, forcing himself to calm and look as if the mere idea is something he hadn’t considered. “No. I...I met a girl, in Yueyang. At the Conference. I knew I couldn’t have her, but I...I took to her. Fell a little in love with her. Maybe more than a little. She gave it to me, to remember her by. Please, can I…?”

His lie must be smooth enough and the pleading in his face genuine enough that his cousin takes pity on him, softening.

"Of course, Zishu. Of course. I did not mean to cause you alarm."

He makes a motion, and one of the Tian Chuang agents near the door leaves. They have been there since Zhou Zishu woke, always silent and guarding. They switch out here and there, but there is always a silent presence watching over the room.

As if Zishu could manage trying to flee or get violent. As if they'd stand a chance against a raging Wen Kexing.

One of the two at the door leaves for the hairpin. The doctor turns to the Prince and starts speaking to him about how there is not much to do but give Zhou Zishu time to recover and help him rehabilitate, both physically and mentally.

Zhou Zishu is not paying attention to them. He is looking at the one remaining Tian Chuang agent, a young man who had started tapping out a casual rhythm on his bracer as soon as the only other person capable of understanding the meaning had left.

Nineteen. Loyal. Awaiting orders.

He taps it out over and over again, never looking their way.

Well, Zishu thinks. Perhaps it is still Zhou Zishu's Tian Chuang after all.

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

It takes almost another full week before Zhou Zishu manages to stand. 

    Every day the doctor comes and guides him through physical exercises to try to strengthen and rehabilitate his body after a procedure he still won’t give them the details of. 

    He has no interest in giving them even a rudimentary explanation of what Wu Xi had done to him. They don’t deserve even a peek at the shaman’s medical knowledge, not even a sliver of a chance at attaining any of it.

    The things Wu Xi knows, both of healing and of harming, Zhou Zishu thinks is safest if it stays with him and the other doctors and shamans of Nanjiang.

    The hairpin has not left his hair again since it was returned to him. He had taken it, clutched it to his chest with such instinctual relief that the Prince had no trouble believing it came from someone he had fallen deeply in love with. It did come from someone he has fallen deeply in love with.

    He supposes his historical lack of interest in men makes the Prince disregard the idea that something he holds so dear for such a reason could have come from the Ghost Valley Guzhu. That’s fine. Like this, with this little piece of Lao Wen in his hair, he feels safer. Calmer. Better.

    “Would you like me to find her, Zishu?” the Prince had asked when he’d seen how clearly dear to him the pin was. “You know I would not forbid you love, don’t you?”

    Zhou Zishu knows that as long as it does not interfere with your service to me goes unspoken in those words. He shakes his head.

    “No...a life like mine, how could I drag a good woman into such a world? I would only put her in danger.”

    A good thing, he muses, that Lao Wen is far from a good woman.

    Helian Yi nods, pretends to be understanding and otherwise unaffected, but Zishu sees the delight that flashes in his eyes. He thinks that it’s a step in the right direction. That saying he wouldn’t want to drag a good woman into a life like his suggests Zishu can be brought back into the fold and take his place as Helian Yi’s spy and assassin.

    What a fool, Zishu thinks. It is a venomous thought. He may not have quite hated his cousin before, but now...now he hates this man. Hates him for his obsession, and his entitlement, and the sheer nerve of taking him from his zhiji’s side. From the only place he’s ever truly been happy since he was but a child.

    Luckily, life as a spy makes one a superb actor, and so he keeps his hatred far from his placid surface. It is but a vicious serpent dwelling in his depths, watching the light far above and waiting patiently for the right time to strike.

    Even as it is his cousin who supports him when he finally manages to stand from the bed, the serpent waits. Zhou Zishu allows himself to take as much support as he needs while he gets his legs under him, and he pretends that he does not hate.

    He is reluctant to admit a few things. One, the doctor’s daily visits for physical therapy have been helping, and probably enabled him to take these weak, shaky steps - albeit with support - sooner than he would have otherwise.

    Two, Wu Xi was very right when he said it would take months for him to get his strength back. Even when he can walk under his own power, he can tell he’s going to tire quickly and be weak for a long time.

    This is what he hates most about injury. Not the pain, not the fear. The recovery.

 

----

 

A few days after he’s started taking small walks around the room under his own power, news of the consequences of Helian Yi’s actions comes.

    It comes in the form of a single young Tian Chuang agent knocking and entering, offering them both a respectful bow. “My Prince,” he says, before straightening. “There is news of trouble at some of the other private villas.”

    Helian Yi blinks, and Zhou Zishu sits on the edge of the bed. As reluctant as he is to admit it, if his legs fail him while his cousin’s attention is off of him, he’ll hit the floor instead of being caught. That would be humiliating. A sign of his weakness.

    “Trouble?” Prince Jin asks, brow furrowed.

    “Yes,” the young man answers. “Although they are not the closest ones to us, three of them have been burned, my Lord.”

    Zhou Zishu nearly snorts, but keeps it down. Keeps his face schooled. This is good news, because it means that Lao Wen knows that he’s being kept at one of the Prince’s private residences. He just doesn’t know which one, and he’s petty enough that he’s burning each one he comes across.

    Although the Tian Chuang agent doesn’t look at him, he taps a little rhythm out on his thigh that lets Zhou Zishu know he is one of the nineteen.

    Allies?

    Zishu taps the confirmation idly on his own knee.

    Burned?” the Prince hisses, brow furrowed. Zishu is satisfied to see a hint of uneasiness in his face at the realization that the Ghost Valley Guzhu is in the right ballpark as to Zhou Zishu’s location.

    “Double up security,” he tells the young man. “Check and double check for holes in the perimeter, make sure we have eyes on all sides at all times. I want men with crossbows on each wall, day and night.”

    “Yes, my Lord,” the young man replies, bowing and leaving as if he and eighteen others here aren’t ready to help Zishu plan and execute subterfuge.

    Helian Yi sighs through his nose, face severe and troubled. “This demon is not so eager to let you go, is he, Zishu? How does he know where I have residences?”

    Zhou Zishu shakes his head. “I don’t know, but he has many eyes in many places, and he is resourceful. His ghosts call him Lunatic Wen, and it is a well earned title, but he is very cunning and intelligent.”

    He’s sure that his cousin will take the admittance that ‘Lunatic Wen’ is a fitting and earned moniker as encouragement that Zhou Zishu is starting to fall away form the ‘spell’. Idiot. Who could a lunatic like Zhou Zishu find a true match in, if not someone who was a lunatic themselves?

    Helian Yi ‘hmph’s and mulls the information over, and then seems to dismiss it in favor of the comfort of believing in one’s own superiority. 

    “Well,” he says. “It matters not. You do not have to worry, Zishu. He cannot get to you, even if he were to find this place. To attack us here would be a fatal mistake.”

    Zhou Zishu does not reply, just gets up to start walking again. To build his strength. The only fatal mistake that has been made here, he thinks, was taking him from Lao Wen at all.

 

----

 

By the time Zishu is well enough to take a slow, cautious walk through the grounds, Lao Wen has burnt two more residences. They are still not close, but they are closer.

    Under the supervision of the doctor and the supporting arm of his cousin, Zhou Zishu finally gets to step outside. It is a beautiful place, this private little paradise. He is taken to the central courtyard to walk around, and it’s arranged and built beautifully. The plants are in full bloom and in some cases quite exotic. There are multiple ponds, an ornate bridge arcing gracefully over the largest one.

    It would be a lovely place to recover, if it were anything more than a gilded prison.

    It is when the rhythmic ‘tok’ draws his eyes to a bamboo water fountain that he knows what he needs to do. He simply needs the opportunity to do it. His cousin takes him on a few rounds of the courtyard, preening when, after asking if Zishu likes the place, he answers with an affirmative.

    “It is lovely,” Zishu tells him. “A beautiful place to hide from the world. To find some peace.”

    “Good, good!” the Prince responds. “I want you to consider it as good as your own while you are recovering, Zishu.”

    “You are too kind, my Prince.”

    This, too, is a calculated choice of words. He says them as if they are said without a thought, and he says them to give his cousin further reason to settle into the idea that his ‘rehabilitation’ is working. That he’s winning Zhou Zishu over to his side.

    The more he trusts, the less he will scrutinize. The less he scrutinizes, the more Zhou Zishu can slip under his nose.

    There is more than one bamboo fountain in this courtyard, and so he doesn’t worry about the absence of the sound registering when, on their third round, he snags the spout of one off of its fulcrum and slips it into his sleeve in a smooth, fast, nearly imperceptible motion.

    It is not the ideal vessel for what he aims to do, but it is the only option he has. It will suffice.

    When he sees a familiar face on the way back inside to rest his tired body, he taps a message into his hip. Saltpeter. Sulphur. Charcoal. 

 

----

 

He finds the requested materials after he returns from a similar walk the next day, wedged between the mattress and bed frame in an inconspicuous little pouch. 

    Good, he thinks. He will have to stay up at night to put it all together, considering that is the only time he is not closely watched, but to have it all with him is a comfort. It’s heartening. It’s the first real step he’s taken towards freedom.

    He could have instructed one of these nineteen loyal agents to do this for him. To bring him the finished product, or do the deed themselves. The problem is that he’s not willing to run the risk of sacrificing their lives for his benefit. He cannot bring himself to ask one of them to do this, knowing that if they are caught it will be their head that rolls.

    They are loyal to him, and the least they deserve in return is his effort to guard their lives.

 

----

 

It is, unfortunately enough, another week or so before he’s well enough to take his slow walks through the courtyard on his own. 

    He has allowed himself to show slow progress, to seem as if he is slowly growing to trust his cousin and become distant from the idea of Wen Kexing. He has allowed his cousin to fall into the trap of believing anything a master spy says and does as if he couldn’t fool the Emperor himself into thinking he was poor.

    Truly, it is Helian Yi’s own fault for believing him when he knows and has made active use of his skill at lying in the past. 

    He makes his progress, he takes his slow jaunts, and he works at night. He slowly and methodically carves appropriately sized and shaped pieces out of the bottom of his own bedframe with a letter opener, of all things, from the desk his cousin likes to work at when in the room with him. 

    He is very easily tired and weak, so it takes longer than he would like to admit. He burrows a hole into one of the pieces and threads a thin shred of his own innermost robe through it before he fits it into the end of the stolen bamboo tube.

    It is not ideally shaped, but he does his best to make it something that will fly relatively straight. 

    The day after he’s finished his little craft, he snags a match off of the same desk he’d gotten the letter opener, and takes his customary walk outside. 

    It is a clear day. Good. The sky is open, visible, few clouds and weather fair. He takes his walk as he always does, keeping the routine to make sure that nobody notes odd behavior and starts looking at him more closely; not that there’s any feasible way to get away with what he’s about to do without being discovered. What’s important is that he gets in trouble after it happens. Once it can’t be stopped or taken back.

    Zhou Zishu stops after a couple of meandering circuits of the courtyard just in front of the stairs into the main building and does his utmost to look as if he is only taking a rest. A rest does not draw eyes, after all.

    What would draw eyes would be people realizing that he’s slipping his contraband out of his sleeve, aiming it upwards while keeping his arm at as relaxed and casual an angle at his side as he can, and striking a match.

    There is no hiding the godawful whistle his homemade firework makes as it screams high into the air, nevermind when it explodes into a shower of sparks that will be seen for miles off, but he hadn’t expected to. 

    He has done his part. All he can do now is hope it was seen by the right eyes and wait.

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

Wen Kexing is getting very, very tired of getting his hopes up. Getting tired of searching broad areas, only for his heart to jump when he lays eyes on one of this god forsaken Prince's rich estates and then find it empty.

With each property he burns he becomes a little more animal than man. The flames of his anger grow with each blaze he leaves behind, and the coals that keep the anger burning are pure panic and desperation.

Rage is, after all, how he has learned to cope with and hide any and all other emotions. Fear, confusion, panic, it all reads to the hungry eyes of the Valley as weakness. 

Rage, on the other hand, sets the Valley to quivering in their own fear and panic. Makes it weak. To keep the ghosts weak in their fear of him is to keep a hold on the throne. To survive.

It must be becoming increasingly unsettling to be travelling with him, he imagines, the emptier his eyes get and the more disconnected he is with his own humanity. With reality. 

Only A-Xiang is used to it, and he knows it still makes her worry. Her worry is always for him .

He had instructed her to stay behind and find the traitor, if he was stupid enough to still be inside the Valley. Word must have reached him that someone had tattled, that the Valley Master was out for him, out to take his skin for a winter coat.

He had instructed her to do that. As one of the only people in the world who is not terrified of disobeying him, what she had actually done was follow them. When he had realized as much about four days in and pulled her by the scruff out of the bushes, he had found a dumb bunny right there with her.

He hadn't even had to say anything for her to start complaining and justifying Cao Weining's presence. 

He, she claimed, had followed her , and by the time she caught him she couldn't trust him to go back on his own without dying if a stiff wind so much as blew.

Wen Kexing reluctantly conceded that she was right about that; her paramour is tragically dumb, naive, and unskilled in martial arts.

Really, he can't imagine what she sees in the fool, but at least the boy truly does seem loyal and madly in love with her. As anyone should be, of course.

So, what was supposed to be Wen Kexing, Jing Beiyuan and Wu Xi has become Wen Kexing, Jing Beiyuan, and Wu Xi plus two.

Before they’d left he had tried to convince the Zhangs to leave as well, but it would seem that Zhang Chengling actually gets his stubbornness and a little bit of his idiocy from his father, because Zhang Yusen had insisted they would stay and wait for their return.

Wen Kexing had left them in the care of the Department of the Unfaithful. The other Devils and the minor ghosts may not want to admit it simply for her being a woman, but they are all suitably frightened of Luo-yi. She is more than capable of handing their asses to them on a silver platter.

It has been Wen Kexing and Gu Xiang who have scouted out each estate they’ve come across to ascertain whether it’s currently being used, as Beiyuan and Wu Xi have already made it clear that it is not safe for them to be seen by this Prince.

When it is discovered that it is empty, however, they have been helping set the fires. Only Cao Weining is not allowed to help with that, after he’d nearly set himself ablaze the first time.

A-Xiang had gotten mad at him for laughing. He still thinks it was pretty funny, and it eased some of his tension for a moment or two to laugh at the fool.

Now, his tension is nowhere near eased. His tension is sky high. He’s ready to snap, and perhaps that’s why whoever manages to sneak up on their group doesn’t get a single syllable out before he has them pinned against a tree by the throat.

He delights in the raw fear that he sees in the other person’s eyes, relishes in it. He loves instilling fear. Loves causing pain. He is twisted and cruel and bloodthirsty and - and this is A-Xu’s rat.

A-Xu’s rat, the one he’d pinned in his room all the way back at Sanbai Manor. The one who had killed a fellow spy for A-Xu. If A-Xu’s rat has found them…

He drops the man, and watches with a total lack of remorse as he gasps for breath and coughs where he lands, sprawled and dazed. 

“Why are you here?” he asks, finding he has very little patience for this gasping creature’s need to regain his breath. He had a name, what was his name? Han Ying. Hang Ying is the rat’s name. A good little rat, a loyal rat. A-Xu’s rat, Han Ying.

He doesn’t dare ask what he really wants to ask, because if he asks Han Ying where A-Xu is and he says he doesn’t know, Wen Kexing doesn’t know what he’ll do. Lose it entirely? Kill this man? Something else? All of the above? Why, the possibilities are endless when one feels as close to snapping as he does right now.

Why are you here, Han Ying?” he repeats, tone dangerous now. He is out of patience. He was out of patience before he’d even relinquished his grip on Han Ying’s throat.

“I-I’ve been looking for you,” Han Ying answers him, climbing to his feet. Although he is clearly frightened of Wen Kexing to a degree, he stands his ground and meets his eyes. There’s something to be admired in that. “I heard about the fires, and I’ve been trying to track you down.”

“For what? Spit it out, little rat! Do you know where he is or not?” 

He doesn’t even register he’s advancing on the Tian Chuang agent until A-Xiang is clutching his arm to give him pause. He knows why. She’s seen him like this before, seen him kill people before they can answer his questions because his fingers itch and he’s angryangryangryspititoutgetonwithituselessrat -

“I do!” Han Ying scrambles to say, stepping backwards and away from him. From the violence he radiates. “But there are men loyal to him there; I will show you the way, but please don’t kill anyone who doesn’t attack you. There are nineteen of them, ready to help get him o-”

“I will leave your nineteen alive,” Wen Kexing hisses, “Just tell me where he -”

There’s a whistle in the distance. By the time they all turn towards the sound, it’s exploding in the air. A firework, a long way off. 

Wen Kexing’s heart swells with something akin to euphoria. Clever, clever A-Xu. So clever, his beloved. 

“There?” he asks, though he knows the answer.

“There.”

 

----

 

Zhou Zishu feels quite calm, quite satisfied with himself as he watches the sparks fizzle out in the air. He makes no attempt to run, to hide. He simply listens to the rapid, furious footsteps in the hall behind him, on the walkway, and then lets himself be grabbed by the collar and yanked inside, thrown into the wall.

    His cousin is purple with rage, holding him against the wall of the main building’s hallway by the front of his robes and shaking him, fuming with his anger.

    What have you done?” his cousin hisses, pulling him forward to slam him back again. Zhou Zishu can’t help but wince, the impact hurting a lot more when he’s weak and injured.

    “Do you really want to be a whore that badly, Zishu?” his cousin roars, shaking him. “Huh? Do you?!”

    Zhou Zishu does not answer him, just glares back defiantly. His cousin can do whatever he likes in his anger; there is no stopping the living hell that will descend on this place now. It is only a matter of time.

    Sucking in a breath through grit teeth, Helian Yi closes his eyes as if trying to gather himself. 

    “Zishu,” he says with another little shake. “Zishu. What do I have to do to fix you? Huh? To bring you back to my side? Where you belong?”

    Zishu scoffs, disbelieving. “Where I belong? Being your blade? Killing the guilty and innocent alike for nothing more than your ambition? Is that where I belong?”

    “You belong by my side , Zishu!” Prince Jin bellows, and Zishu winces as his back hits the wood again. “Zishu...don’t you understand? I always thought you were the one who knew me best. Who will always be by my side. My zhiji, Zishu.”

    The flare of rage Zhou Zishu feels is unspeakable. It surges to the surface, flashes in his eyes, spills from his tongue. 

    “My zhiji?” he spits, dripping venom. “You are not qualified.”

    He knows he will be struck as soon as he sees the outrage and anger cross his cousin’s face. He is not fast or strong enough to so much as move before he is backhanded hard enough to knock him to the floor.

    Humiliating, so humiliating. Such a blow could never have knocked him down before.

    He feels blood running down his cheek. One of the Prince’s rings has cut him, then. If his cousin thinks he can be so easily cowed, he is a fool. Zishu glares up at him from his place on the floor, Helian Yi’s looming figure nearly apoplectic. 

    “Not qualified? Not qualified?”

    He bends to yank Zhou Zishu back up by the robes, only to strike him and send him sprawling again. Zishu’s head spins. His wounds throb.

    “I am not qualified?” Helian Yi is snarling. “And who is? This Ghost Valley Guzhu, this monster? You would call such a demon your zhiji, Zishu?”

    Zhou Zishu laughs, a raspy sound tainted by pain. Weak, he’s so weak. Pathetic. “A monster? I am a monster, cousin. You made me one, and you’re surprised that I’ve found my match in one of my own? If being a monster makes one an unfitting choice for zhiji, do you really think you’re not a beast as well?”

    The doctor comes to investigate the commotion just in time to see Helian Yi grab Zishu by the hair and yank him upward, both of their faces twisted with rage, one with pain.

    “Your Majesty! Your Majesty! What are you doing?! He is still recovering, you mustn’t - !”

    “What right do you have to tell me what to do?!” Helian Yi roars at him, glare poisonous. The physician backs down immediately.

    “N-none! None, my Lord! I am simply concerned for the well being of my patient -”

    Prince Jin laughs, winding Zishu’s hair around his fist to crane his head back. “Patient? What patient? Haven’t you heard? He wants to be a common whore; why should a royal physician mind the well being of such a lowly creature?”

    He leans down, close enough that Zhou Zishu thinks he can spit blood and land a direct shot if he wishes it. He glares back with defiance, unafraid and uncowed.

    “You want to be a whore, Zishu? Fine. Fine!”

    In the blink of an eye he’s being dragged by his hair back towards the courtyard, one of his cousin’s hands yanking at his robes, ripping them and spreading them open and making an indecent picture of him. 

    Zishu hits the stones of the courtyard hard before his brain has even registered that he’s been let go of, nevermind thrown. The jade hairpin skitters across the stones, black tresses falling into his face in disheveled disarray.

    “Gather here!” he hears his cousin shout behind him. “Now!”

    His Tian Chuang knows how to move quickly when ordered, and they are huddled in the courtyard watching the scene in front of them with a myriad of expressions in moments. They are there before Zhou Zishu has managed to get his scraped palms under him to push himself weakly up from his sprawl. 

    His arms shake. He is panting and disheveled with robes ripped and in disarray, hair loose and wild. His legs are not quite working; they stay where they landed, and he props himself up on his hands because it is all he can manage to do so far.

    “My cousin fancies himself a prostitute!” Helian Yi barks; Zishu can hear the sneer in his voice. “If that is what he wishes, fine! I’m sure he’ll fetch a handsome price if I sell him to a brothel.”

    If they were not so well trained, Zishu knows there would be murmurs of shock and unease in the gathered agents. When he lifts his gaze, he sees one tapping out a rhythm. A question. 

    Intervene?

    He shakes his head. They will only get themselves killed if they try. He casts a meaningful gaze to the fallen pin instead, and sees the young man’s eyes flicker to it. Sees him tap out an affirmative.

    Good. He can hold out hope that that will be picked up by suitable hands.

    “But before I sell him,” his cousin crows behind him, and Zishu suddenly gets a cold pit in his stomach. A feeling like he knows what Helian Yi is about to say. “Who would like to have a turn at him? He needs practice, doesn’t he, if he’s going to satisfy clientele?”

    Fuck. Fuck. Rape...rape is just about the only torture he’s not endured. The only one he’d not been prepared to be threatened with. Rape is frightening. He thinks of the way Lao Wen had felt in him, even after being so careful and loving.

    The idea of having the same act foisted upon him with none of that gentility, none of that careful preparation...it’s horrific.

    There is silence. Long, shocked silence. Of course there is. Zhou Zishu has trained every Tian Chuang agent personally. They all know him, see him as an authority figure, have grown into the assassins they are now under his strict tutelage. How jarring, how disorienting it must be to be looking at him now. To have their Prince offering him for free use.

    The silence stretches for so long that for a moment, Zhou Zishu thinks none of them will be willing to participate in this sick punishment. Then, one figure steps forward.

    “I would, Your Majesty.”

    It is a familiar voice. A familiar face he glowers up at. Duan Pengju smirks down at him cruelly; he always has envied Zishu. Hated him for being better than him. Zhou Zishu is not surprised at all that he would take this opportunity to knock his superior down a peg.

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

It is the first time Zhou Zishu struggles, when he’s yanked up and back towards the main building and down the hall by his cousin. He knows he’s being dragged back towards the bedroom. Towards the one thing he hadn’t been prepared to endure.

    Despite his efforts, Helian Yi manages to manhandle him with only some difficulty, and that says everything about the physical state Zhou Zishu is in. It says everything about the rare opportunity Duan Pengju just found in front of him.

    His former second in command fears him, Zhou Zishu knows this. Duan Pengju knows that at his full strength, the way he’s always been in front of his Tian Chuang, Zhou Zishu could end him in the blink of an eye. It is a large part of the envy and resentment Pengju holds, but it also means he has always been far too intimidated by Zhou Zishu to ever try to usurp him.

    But now? Tian Chuang exists to do the bidding of and protect Helian Yi; if Helian Yi himself can toss Zhou Zishu around, force him to go where he does not want to and do what he does not wish, any member of Tian Chuang is more than capable of the same.

There is nothing he can do to keep from being dragged into the same room he's been recuperating in, although he tries.

Prince Jin turns him around and pushes him back onto the bed when they reach it. Zishu is sent sprawling onto his back, legs still hanging off the edge. He tries to rebound up and run, but he's caged and pinned by his cousin's body before he can even make it into a sitting position.

Helian Yi presses him into the mattress, one foot on the floor and one knee bordering Zishu's hip.

He grabs Zhou Zishu by the jaw, skin-crawlingly close, and stares intently at him.

Zishu stares back, chest heaving and wide eyes those of a wild animal. Cornered. Frightened. Glaring to use anger as a thin veneer over his terror.

"Zishu," Helian Yi murmurs, ghosting a thumb over his bruised cheekbone in a gentle, nearly reverent manner. His eyes have gone softer. Imploring.

"This does not have to happen, Zishu. It can all stop right now. Just snap out of it , Zishu. That is all I ask of you. Take your place by my side again."

Zhou Zishu steels his nerves and his gaze, and spits a mouthful of blood into his cousin’s face.

Prince Jin reels back with a roar of outrage and disgust, wiping the blood and spittle from his eyes in a violent motion. His teeth are bared, eyes alight with fury. Although his throat works, he doesn’t seem to be able to find words venomous enough for the anger coursing through his veins, and so he finally scoffs and turns towards the door.

Break him,” he hisses to a waiting Duan Pengju as he storms past, and Pengju nods his assent with a smug, satisfied smile.

When the doors slam closed, it’s just the two of them left. The silence is deafening.

Zhou Zishu sits on the bed and watches with the wary eyes of a cornered beast, face bruised, lips bloody, clothes and hair a mess.

Duan Pengju watches him in turn with the lazy satisfaction of a predator, smirk curled across his lips. When he finally moves, it is to pace lazily around the perimeter of the room; the first step makes Zishu jolt despite his trying to appear calm, and Duan Pengju humphs a little laugh at the sight of it.

He is circling. Pacing. Leisurely and ever watching. Zhou Zishu knows what he’s doing; he’s done it himself so many times. To have a victim at one’s mercy and let the silence and the stare be a torture in and of itself before you ever inflict pain. To let the anticipation and fear build until the prisoner is shaking apart in their terror from that alone.

He’s the one who taught this smug prick how to do it. He taught them all how to do it.

What Pengju seems to be forgetting is that Zhou Zishu is not the usual victim. Zhou Zishu’s mind is racing, working, turning. Always looking for a solution, even to a problem so unanticipated and frightening as this.

It is his turn to take Duan Pengju off guard when he asks, “Do you remember him?”

Pengju falters in his pacing, blinking. His face says that he knows this is some kind of trap, but he can’t quite resist it. “...the Ghost Valley Guzhu?”

Zishu humphs and adopts a wry smirk, still obviously a cornered animal, but now one who holds a threat behind his eyes. A weapon. “How much did you see of him that day, Pengju? What did you think?”

Pengju furrows his brow, actively trying to figure out what game Zhou Zishu is playing.

“Did you think him powerful? Violent? Insane?”

There is no response. Just that scrutinizing stare, but Zishu has his attention. That’s all he needs right now.

“Do you know what I think he was the day of the Conference, Pengju? Well behaved. I might go so far as to say docile.”

Though well masked, surprise flickers across Duan Pengju’s face.

“I wonder, Pengju,” he says, tilting his head assessingly. “What he will do to you, when he finds out what you’ve done to me here. His personal favorite seems to be skinning, but...I know my Lao Wen. To be skinned would be to get off easy with him, after violating me.”

Pengju stands stock still, the barest fluctuation of his adam’s apple all Zhou Zishu needs to go on to know he’s struck a hint of apprehension into the other man. 

“You know you’re no match for me when we’re both at our full strength, Pengju. But Lao Wen? Lao Wen could match me. Lao Wen might be able to beat me. How do you think you will fare, trying to defend yourself against him?”

“I created Tian Chuang. I know every agent, trained each one of you myself. I can tell you honestly, Pengju; they won’t stand a chance. He’ll cut them down like chaff. The Prince is a fool to think he’s safe behind Tian Chuang ranks; the gods themselves couldn’t keep him from me. Keep him from you.”

Hesitation. For just a moment, but Zhou Zishu sees it. 

“I’m willing to make you a deal, Pengju.”

Pengju sneers, as if Zhou Zishu hasn’t already seen the minute, telltale signs of his apprehension. “What deal, Zhou shouling?”

The title is said mockingly. That’s alright. Zishu doesn’t mind.

“That lunatic is well on his way to being here by now, Pengju. It only depends on how far he was, and his qinggong is superb. It won’t take him long. Fortunately for you, he’s quite fond of me; if I tell him to spare you, he will.”

Pengju huffs a laugh that holds little amusement, shaking his head. “So you want to bargain my life for your virtue, Zhou-shouling?”

“No. I want to bargain your escape from suffering that will linger long after you’ve begged for death, for my virtue. To be honest, Pengju...I’m surprised you don’t realize what a bum deal this would be, even if Lao Wen was taken out of the picture.”

Curious confusion flickers over Duan Pengju’s face. “...how so?”

“You resent me. You’ve always wanted to be the Leader of Tian Chuang, and I’ve always been in the way. You’ve been given my cousin’s blessing to break me, but don’t you realize what this momentary, vicious satisfaction is meant to do?”

Silence. A furrowed brow. Caught hook, line and sinker.

“He wants you to break me so he can remake me, Pengju. If he can’t have me willingly, he’ll do to me what he thought Lao Wen had. And when I’m a broken doll willing to follow orders, where do you think I’ll be? Back by his side.”

“That’s all this is,” Zishu tells him, narrowing his eyes and tilting his head. “This is his final resort to get me back to where he wants me; back to being the leader of Tian Chuang. And there you’ll be, second best again and yearning for my position.”

He says it because it’s true; that’s exactly what his cousin intends to do, and he sees the moment that Pengju realizes he is absolutely right. That this petty victory, this torture, will only land him exactly where he so hates to be again. 

Zishu smiles wryly, eyebrows raised. 

“So there’s our deal, Pengju. I will make sure Lao Wen does not kill you. And of course, you could not possibly have stopped him from taking me. And once I’m gone, despite your best efforts to do as the Prince asked you to, you’ll have what you always wanted. You’ll be head of Tian Chuang.”

He can practically hear the cogs turn in Duan Pengju’s head. He is nigh certain of what the other man’s decision will be, but Pengju has to let go of the voracious liking he had taken to the idea of violating Zhou Zishu first. Has to take this moment to sort his priorities, decide what matters more. The momentary satisfaction, or the long term goal.

Duan Pengju does not get to answer him. Instead, they both hear fledgling cries of alarm and the beginnings of a commotion. Yelling and panic; something is happening. Something big.

Zhou Zishu does not wonder at the cause; he knows Duan Pengju does not either. He manages to take all but two hurried steps towards the doors before they slam open and he stumbles back.

Zishu is expecting Helian Yi, come to try to spirit him away before he is found. He gets Lao Wen.

The relief, the joy is so strong it’s nearly euphoric.

Wen Kexing is happy to see him only for a split second. His face falls as he takes his zhiji in, his disheveled, bruised and bloodied figure. Zhou Zishu makes a pretty clear picture of what was about to happen here, and he can see the ‘Lao Wen’ drain from those wide eyes in favor of ‘Wen Kexing’. In favor of cold horror. Rage.

Empty, eerie eyes slide slowly over to Duan Pengju, who has gone pale. He is stuck like a mouse in the eyes of a hawk, suddenly the prey and not the predator.

“You dare?” Lao Wen whispers.

Pengju stutters, glances frantically at Zishu as if looking for help. As if he hadn’t come here with every intention of committing sexual violence against him.

Lao Wen is still, taut, like a bowstring drawn tight - until he’s not.

Until he’s across the room with a snarl, leaving an afterimage in his wake like few martial artists can ever hope to do. Until he’s knocking the half drawn sword from Daun Pengju’s hand by slicing his wrist with his fan, until he’s flinging the man clear across the room before he can even shout his pain. 

Wen Kexing tosses Duan Pengju around as if he were a ragdoll; he would resemble a cat playing with a mouse if not for the vicious, violent rage that skews his beautiful features. He sends the target of his wrath flying into furniture enough times to have undoubtedly broken several bones, before falling on him like a rabid wolf where he lays prone and groaning.

He sits atop Duan Pengju with hands wrapped around the man’s throat, looking as if he just crawled up through the floorboards from Diyu itself.

“You DARE?” he spits, so taken by his rage he fails to so much as show pleasure at the raw terror in his victim’s face.

One hand comes away from Duan Pengju’s throat to grip his jaw, fingers like claws digging into flesh.

“Is he pretty?” Lao Wen hisses. “Beautiful? Alluring? Did you want him? Want to touch him? Want to take him? Want to fuck him?”

“P-please -” Pengju struggles to get out. It is all he manages before Wen Kexing interrupts him, gripping harder and shaking his head in a way that threatens to result in a broken neck.

“Could you not help yourself? Couldn’t resist? If you are so ruled by your cock, I would be happy to free you of the burden!”

Zishu does avert his eyes, when he sees where Lao Wen’s hand is going. He does not feel pity, and does not find it an unfitting punishment, but he is still a man. To hear the ungodly screaming is one thing; to see something so near and dear to any man mangled with his own eyes is something he’s not keen on experiencing.

He looks back when the screaming stops, especially considering it’s accompanied by a brutal, rhythmic thunking sound.

He finds that Lao Wen is slamming Pengju’s head into the floor, over and over and over. From his tongue spill the same words again and again. 

“You dare? You dare? You dare? YOU DARE?”

The screaming has stopped because Lao Wen has caved Pengju’s skull in. He’s dead. Lao Wen either does not realize it or does not care, and what’s under is hands is progressively becoming more pulp than head. 

Zhou Zishu is unconcerned for the degree to which Pengju’s body is intact, but he does hold concern for his zhiji.

“Lao Wen,” he barks, sharp and demanding to cut through the fog, the trance Wen Kexing is in. “Lao Wen! Lao Wen!”

Wen Kexing’s breath catches, and his head rises in jerky, stilted motions, as if he’s nothing more than a broken puppet on strings.

His face is streaked with gore, his eyes wide and flat, but he recognizes Zhou Zishu. He will always recognize Zhou Zishu.

“A-Xu…”

“Lao Wen. He’s dead, Lao Wen.”

Wen Kexing blinks, looking slowly down at the mess beneath him. “...is he dead enough, A-Xu?”

Have I done enough? Desecrated him enough? Is my offering sufficient? Does it please you, my love?

“He’s dead enough, Lao Wen. He’s dead enough.”

Lao Wen nods slowly, before he rises and trods, sodden with gore and glassy eyed, towards the man who welcomes him with open arms regardless.

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

Zhou Zishu opens his arms to welcome Lao Wen's horrific figure as he grows closer, and the gesture has his zhiji nearly tripping over the last few steps to get to him, life finally sparking in his eyes.

" A-Xu," he breathes, falling into him with one knee on the bed to surge forward in a desperate bid for a kiss. He nearly gets there, before he jerks to a stop and pulls away, wide eyes full of searching hesitation.

It takes Zhou Zishu all of a moment to realize that he's worried . He had surged forward for a kiss he clearly desperately wanted, and stopped at the horrifying thought that such an act may no longer be welcome. That it may have been tainted for Zishu quite recently.

Zishu smiles, eyes soft. He cups Lao Wen's face in his hands. "It's alright, Lao Wen," he murmurs. "I'm not afraid of you. Never of you."

Wen Kexing blinks, swallows. Averts his eyes for only a moment before they snap back again. He acts as if looking away for too long will make Zhou Zishu vanish into thin air.

Graceful hands sliding up to take Zishu's from his face and hold them gently, delicately, Wen Kexing asks in a near whisper, "Did they…?"

He shakes his head. "No. No."

Lao Wen looks nearly euphoric in his relief. He gives a shaky sigh and closes his eyes for a moment, nodding more to himself than anything. When he opens them, he is a little more present. A little calmer.

"Okay," he murmurs, starting to run his fingers gently along the cuts and bruises on Zhou Zishu's face. "Okay."

Zishu lets him trace the marks, the smears of blood. Watches his zhiji watch him, face reverent and worshipful. 

It says everything, Zishu thinks, that he is a beaten and bruised mess and this man still looks at him as if he hung the moon and stars.

"Am I pretty?" he asks with a wry tone and smirk. 

It breaks Lao Wen from his trance, gets a smile just as wry but gaze genuine when he says, "You're perfect."

Lao Wen does not pay any mind to the blood drying on his lips, just leans in to kiss him slow and gentle.

No amount of stinging from a split lip and bitten cheeks could keep Zishu from savoring it. Lao Wen seems to be doing his utmost to pour all his love and devotion into the soft press of their lips, and Zhou Zishu tries with all his might to do the same.

If time froze here, he would be happy. 

Time, unfortunately, does not freeze. Neither has the commotion outside, although now it draws closer to their room.

 Actually, no. It is not the sound of fighting or conflict that approaches, but hurried footsteps and voices. He catches snippets as they draw closer, and they are intriguing snippets indeed.

“...hasn’t found this room yet.”

“We’ve secured a route out, Your Majesty.”

“-must get Zhou-shouling and get out before they find him.”

Is there any doubt as to who is coming? His cousin, here to spirit he and Pengju away before the Ghost Valley Guzhu manages to find and reclaim him.

Strange, Zishu thinks, because there’s no way nobody noticed Lao Wen when he was on his way here. No way nobody heard the screaming and came to what would have been a very easy conclusion.

Helian Yi throws the doors open, trusting the spies at his back fully. He doesn’t even get the start of Zishu’s name out before he stops like he’s hit an invisible wall, staring with wide eyed horror at the scene in front of him.

It must be quite an image, Zishu muses. Him, disheveled and bloody and beaten, nose to nose with the Ghost Valley Guzhu himself. The Ghost Valley Guzhu who is covered in remnants of Duan Pengju, and Duan Pengju’s corpse on the floor. 

He no longer has a recognizable face, and his skull and brain are...everywhere, but by clothes and process of elimination there’s no doubt of his identity.

The doors slam closed behind the Prince and do not budge when he tries frantically to yank them open, despite the line of Tian Chuang silhouettes that stand like sentinels just on the other side.

“Open this door! I said open this door!”

They do not respond, and Zhou Zishu starts to smile. Starts to chuckle. His cousin looks at him when the sound drifts through the room, and he stares Helian Yi in the eyes as he says, “No matter what you hear, stay put unless I tell you otherwise.”

“Yes, Zhou-shouling!” comes the chorus from behind the door, and Zhou Zishu enjoys watching the cold realization dawn over Prince Jin’s face.

Slowly, like he’s trying to keep from provoking a wild animal, Helian Yi turns to face them again.

“Zishu…” he says. “Zishu…”

He doesn’t seem to know what to say to save himself, is just stalling for time. Desperately wracking his brain. 

Zhou Zishu leans into Wen Kexing’s bloodied figure and smiles, quirking an eyebrow. “Yes?”

Helian Yi swallows. “...look around you, Zishu. Look at him. Look at Pengju.”

Zishu knows where this is going, but plays along. He gives Lao Wen a slow once over, who is staring at Helian Yi with the glassy, predatory eyes of a shark. He looks at what is left of Duan Pengju, thinking idly that he really had gotten off easy, being finished off so fast.

He does not respond to his cousin’s prompting verbally, just settles lazy and expectant eyes back on him. 

Helian Yi swallows again, pulse thundering in his throat but trying his futile best to talk his way out of the nightmare he finds himself in. 

“Is this what you want, Zishu…? You want to go home with this demon? With a creature that could do this? Do that to Pengju and feel nothing at all?”

Zhou Zishu blinks, brows raised in a disbelieving smile. “He intended to rape me, Jin Wang. Am I supposed to feel badly about what Lao Wen did to him for it?”

He huffs a little laugh, shaking his head. “Isn’t it a little hypocritical, Your Majesty, to call him a demon for his lack of remorse? It was not long ago that you offered to let anyone who wished for a taste force themselves on me.”

Wen Kexing tenses in a rapid ripple of anger next to him, and is gone the next moment.

“Lao Wen!” he barks, and Helian Yi finds himself nose to nose with the demon. It radiates rage, the depths of Diyu are in its empty eyes, and yet it is frozen at Zishu’s mere call of its name where it crowds the Prince against the door. 

It thirsts for Helian Yi’s suffering, and yet it stands frozen, heaving with its rage yet obediently still. Like an animal on a leash. Like a pet, and it is with that single thought that Helian Yi realizes what a fatal miscalculation he made about Zhou Zishu’s relationship to this creature.

“Lao Wen. We cannot kill him.”

The animal makes a low, wounded sound. Shudders with the strain of staying its hand. 

A-Xu,” it whispers, rabid and hungry. “ Please…”

“We can’t, Lao Wen. The power vacuum he would leave...it would be disastrous. The country would suffer through war.”

The beast hisses through its teeth, hatred the likes of which Helian Yi did not know existed flaring in its gaze. “ What do I care for the country?”

“You don’t. But I do. He must still be able to do his job, Lao Wen.”

Despite looking as if the idea of leaving him be causes it physical pain, the creature his Zishu calls ‘Lao Wen’ is clearly, miraculously, unwilling to disobey. He thinks for one joyous moment that he has been saved, and then...

“He must be able to do his job, Lao Wen. ...that is all he must be able to do.”

The beast named Wen Kexing blinks slowly, before the realization dawns and a vicious, inhuman grin spreads across its face.

Truly, it is lucky that the Tian Chuang agents at the door have much practice at overhearing torture.

 

----

 

The doors open only when he tells them to, just as he’d ordered.

    Lao Wen supports him on the way out of the room, only because he had refused to be fully carried. He still has his pride, especially in front of loyal members of Tian Chuang. Not even being thrown to them as an offering can rid him of that.

    It would seem someone had made the executive decision to fetch the doctor when he’d told Lao Wen - a long time ago, now - that the Prince must be left alive. The man is white with fear and quivering, but standing under his own power and looking at them with wide, terrified eyes.

    Zishu stares at him for a moment, and then nods lazily over his shoulder.

    “He’s missing some pieces. Fair warning.”

    The doctor’s throat works, his lips tremble, before he croaks, “Much appreciated.”

    Zishu tugs at Lao Wen’s arm to prompt him to help him walk forward, and the doctor scurries into the room behind them as the guards at the door rush to join their compatriots in the courtyard.

    Despite everything, it still catches Zhou Zishu entirely off guard when the lot of them sink to their knees in salute of him, all lined up in perfect rows. All nineteen of them. Wait. Nineteen?

    He counts. ….nineteen, twenty, twenty one, twenty two, twenty three. Four more than there are supposed to be. Had the Prince managed to turn some of his soldiers against himself, pulling what he did with Zishu?

    It would seem some of these men look up to him, respect him, more than he realized.

    There are bodies strewn across the courtyard, although that is not unexpected. There are a number of ghosts as well, both living and dead. Those who still breath sink hastily into a salute of their own when Lao Wen glares at them.

    Zishu shakes his head. That’s right. They’re supposed to consider him their Guzhu as well, aren’t they? He had almost forgotten that he’s a ghost now. That he has the Valley to return to.

    “Zhou shouling.”

    That is Han Ying, stepping forward and sinking into a salute of his own. “We are at your service, Zhou shouling.”

    Zhou Zishu stares at the lot of them, shaking his head slowly. “...I am no longer of Tian Chuang, Han Ying. I cannot lead you.”

    “We are not loyal to Tian Chuang, Zhou shouling,” Han Ying says firmly, an echo of what he once said at Sanbai manor. “We are loyal to you. We nineteen have long since agreed that we would like to follow you as disciples of Siji Manor, if you would so allow it.”

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

...Siji Manor? Follow him...as disciples of Siji Manor? Surely, he thinks, he could not have heard right. 

He has been bruised, threatened, terrified, stressed to his limits and already injured. In a delicate physical state before he had been beaten bloody. He’s simply not thinking straight. That’s what this is.

Not thinking straight. Not standing straight either, he realizes, though with how tired his legs are and fuzzy his head is from the beating and the stress, that’s not surprising. 

He shakes his head, swaying enough that Lao Wen makes an alarmed sound and tightens his grip on him. “A-Xu?”

“Disciples of Siji Manor…?” he asks, though he’s not sure if he’s asking them or himself. “And take me as what? Sect leader?”

He laughs, dizzy and starting to feel a little frayed. Disbelieving and exhausted and...and what could have been done to him is starting to sink in, the fade of the adrenaline is leaving him cold and confused and-

“You want to follow me? Every brother of Siji Manor who followed me is dead. How could you think to trust me with that again? Trust yourselves to me?”

“...we have long since trusted ourselves to you, Zhou shouling,” Han Ying says quietly, watching him like he’s ready to catch him at any moment. If Han Ying is looking at him like that, he must look on the edge of collapsing. “The only change would be the pride with which we could carry our affiliation.”

He swallows, nodding at the stone of the walkway he’s staring a hole through. “...nineteen. Have you counted yourselves recently, Han Ying? The extra four...the extra four should know they are not obligated to pledge themselves like this.”

He shakes his head, laughing, shaky. “And you nineteen. Do you even know what you’re asking? I’m going back to the Ghost Valley. I am going to the Valley, where I will live my days out with my zhiji. What will you nineteen do? Become ghosts? Try to rebuild the Manor right there inside the Valley? A sect of the living hiding right there in the land of the dead?”

They hesitate, clearly unprepared to be faced with his questions. With his hesitation, his resistance.

He’s not sure why he’s so resistant, why he’s pushing back so desperately. 

That’s a lie. He does know, doesn’t he? He’s afraid. He’s afraid of how badly he wants that fantasy, the fantasy of reviving the Four Seasons Manor he nearly single handedly destroyed. He’s afraid of failing. Afraid of losing them all over again. Afraid of painting white flowers and, one by one, painting over them with red.

“...I will go where Zhou shouling goes,” one young man says firmly, breaking the silence. One or two echo the sentiment, then more, and then all of them are announcing it firmly.

“I will go where Zhou shouling goes.”

He closes his eyes, breathes deeply. Everything hurts. His body, his head, his heart. He wants this. He’s scared of wanting it. Of letting them down.

“..I would allow it,” Lao Wen says from beside him, and his head whips around to look at Lao Wen with wide eyes.

“...Lao Wen?”

“Wu Chang Gui and his subordinates are and will be hunted down and exterminated. I would allow them to transform his property in any way they see fit, if they wish to rebuild Siji Manor in the Valley.”

Lao Wen swallows, looks a little hesitant himself, and then murmurs, “I would allow it...but only if my shixiong were to approve the decision.”

Thunderstruck. That is the word for how he feels. How he must look. Lao Wen has shown such vicious resistance towards being identified as the boy he once was. The boy who was once adopted as his shidi. He had reacted with violent discomfort whenever the brothers of the Five Lakes Alliance had suggested he and Zhen Yan were one and the same, and now…

“Lao Wen…?” he whispers again, voice choked. He’s blinking back tears. He won’t cry in front of...in front of his disciples. He mustn’t. “Lao Wen, are you…?”

Something about his hesitance seems to erode away at Wen Kexing’s, and his eyes become steely and determined. He eases his grip away from Zhou Zishu’s arm, ascertains that he can stand on his own, and then steps slowly in front of him with stubborn purpose and fire in his eyes.

He kneels right there, in front of every prying eye. Kneels and bows his head.

“I am the unworthy second disciple of Siji Manor,” he intones, looking straight ahead instead of at Zhou Zishu’s face. “Greetings, My Lord.”

The tears spill, but at least they spill silently. At least they allow him his faculties, let him lay a shaky hand down on the head of the man he loves. 

He watches the flicker of a proud smile grace the corners of Lao Wen’s lips before he can suppress it, and his soul sings.

 

----

 

Quite literally the only reason Zhou Zishu doesn’t cave and let Lao Wen carry him after that is because of twenty three brand new disciples he is too proud to show such weakness in front of. 

    Lao Wen is one thing. Jing Beiyuan and Wu Xi, he can also allow to see him weak. He is unwilling to admit that he has not strictly been able to feel his legs for the last twenty minutes in front of anyone else.

    That being said, he knows there’s not a single one of them who can’t tell he’s on the verge of collapsing. A few of them split off to find horses and a carriage for the trip back to the Valley, because there is quite literally no way he’s going to make it there on foot. A few others are sent to find Beiyuan and Wu Xi and let them know it is safe to come meet them. 

    The two tasks happen to converge, in that Wu Xi and Beiyuan approach the gates of the estate with hurried steps at about the same time that the disciples pull horses and a carriage around the perimeter wall.

    “Zishu!” Beiyuan cries, taking his bruised and swaying figure in with the kind of alarm only a dear friend can show. He takes Wen Kexing’s gore streaked figure in stride; he has seen just as many horrific things as Zhou Zishu has, and there is no way he didn’t expect that Lao Wen had brutal, sadistic intentions on the search for where the Prince was hiding.

    Wu Xi’s brow is furrowed, but he handles the situation with the clinical, business-like manner of a top tier healer. He can allow himself to worry for a friend later; now, he must manage the situation and attend to the needs of a patient.

    “Get him in the carriage,” Wu Xi barks, and for once Lao Wen takes an order from someone who isn’t Zhou Zishu without any fussing or grandstanding.

    Although the carriage is larger and richer than average, it is still a relatively small space inside. That being said, the disciples have clearly made hurried but thorough preparations to make it as comfortable as possible. 

    Zishu will be able to lie down, and Lao Wen and Wu Xi will be able to squeeze inside with him; that is all that is needed. Certainly, Beiyuan will make himself fit inside as well. 

    As he sighs with the relief of being led to recline by Lao Wen’s gentle hands, Zhou Zishu enjoys finally feeling as if he’s safe again. As if he can relax. Wen Kexing smells of blood and suffering right now, but underneath is still the scent of Lao Wen.

    It’s soothing, so soothing he could cry.

    “...Zhou. Lord Zhou!”

    Wu Xi’s voice jerks him awake, the only reason he realizes he was dozing. He must have begun to nod off for just long enough for the shaman to get in with them, before Wu Xi woke him.

    “I’m sure you are tired, Lord Zhou,” Wu Xi tells him, “but I need to know what was done to you.”

    Zhou Zishu takes a slow, deep breath, finding his tongue heavy in his mouth and his mind sluggish. Utter exhaustion.

    “I’m alright,” he slurs. “Just tossed me around when I sent the firework up. Looks worse than it is, as beatings go…”

    He fights to try to keep his eyes open, but he does see Wu Xi’s concerned glance at the state of his clothes. Lao Wen cuts in, stroking his hair. When had his head gotten in Lao Wen’s lap? He decides it doesn’t matter after another pass or two of gentle fingers through his hair; it feels nice.

    “He said they didn’t...hurt him like that. Just threatened to. Intended to.”

    Wu Xi nods. “And were you telling the truth when you said that, Lord Zhou, or were you just trying not to get everyone within a twenty mile radius killed?”

    Zishu rolls his eyes, grumbling, “Not lying…”

    Wu Xi seems to take his word for it.

    He knows he should be trying to stay awake, after being tossed around and taking a couple of blows ot the face. As a matter of fact, he’s sure even as he closes his eyes that Wu Xi is scolding him not to go to sleep, trying to jar him awake, but the idea of rest is far too tempting to ignore.

    Lao Wen is here. It’ll be fine. It’s a nonsensical thought, as Lao Wen most certainly cannot do anything about the effects of head trauma, but it’s all he can find it in himself to care about. Lao Wen is here. Lao Wen has him. It’s okay to sleep.

 

----

 

When he next wakes, it is to the feeling of a comb in his hair. Gentle hands comb his hair out in long, even strokes; it feels like any tangles have long been smoothed out. It’s being done now just for the sake of it. For the feeling of caring for someone dear.

    Zhou Zishu hums his low satisfaction with the feeling, and feels Lao Wen’s hand twitch, hears his breath catch.

    “A-Xu?”

    “Mmmmnnnnnnnn?”

    “A-Xu,” Wen Kexing whines, and Zhou Zishu doesn’t try to hide the smile it puts on his face. “You stubborn bastard. We told you not to go to sleep, and all the while you ignored us. Do you know how worried I’ve been?”

    “Has it been long?” he murmurs, wondering if he’s been out for days again.

    “...no,” Lao Wen admits in a petulant tone. “Less than a full day. But still! Zhou Zishu, don’t you know it’s a bad idea to sleep after you’ve been smacked around like that?”

    “Mnn. But you’re here.”

    Lao Wen clicks his tongue, and Zhou Zishu shakes a little with silent laughter. 

    “I’m here? What do you think I’m able to do about your idiot brain being sloshed around in your skull? Hmm?”

    “Nothing.”

    “Then what does it matter if I’m here?”

    “Only feel safe enough to sleep when I’m with you.”

    The choked sound that comes from above is mildly alarming, but he figures Lao Wen is a big boy. He can figure out how to breathe again on his own, Zishu has confidence.

    “A-Xu…”

    Ah, there he goes. Good as new.

    “...how am I meant to stay angry at you, if you say things like that to me?”

    “Sounds like a personal problem to me,” Zishu slurs, feeling warm and happy at the startled little laugh it gets. 

    You , my dear, are the biggest problem I have ever had.”

    Zhou Zishu smiles, raising one hand and making blind grabbing motions until Lao Wen takes it in one of his own. 

    “Good,” he responds. “About time you got a taste of your own medicine, you pestilence.”

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

Zhou Zishu feels a lot better by the time they approach the Valley. He’s been given time to rest, he’s had Wu Xi to attend to his wounds and keep an eye on him, and he’s had Lao Wen to fuss and coo over him every time he so much as sighs. 

    About midway through the trip he starts taking short walks outside of the carriage, both to keep from backsliding too much from the physical therapy the royal physician had done with him, and to keep himself sane. 

    Being incapable is a nightmare for him; it was the biggest con to the procedure for him in the first place, after all. Weakness. Recovery. 

    In those periods, he familiarizes himself with the faces of twenty three brand new disciples of Siji Manor. He knows all of them, of course; he has trained every Tian Chuang agent himself, overseen their progress from day one to their becoming fully fledged assassins.

    Still, it’s a little different to see them like this. These twenty three want to take him as their Leader in a manner far more integrous and meaningful than before. They want to help him reestablish the sect he was born into, the one he loved and destroyed despite his best efforts.

    He will get to train these young men all over again, and this time it will not be as harbingers of death.

    He also sees a few other familiar faces he wasn’t expecting. Gu Xiang isn’t too shocking. He knows she’s more than capable in martial arts and would make a good ally in a fight. Cao Weining, on the other hand…

    Well, that one makes a lot more sense after it’s explained that he had tagged along and couldn’t be trusted to get back without dying in a pathetic manner.

    Zhou Zishu also gets in trouble for laughing when Lao Wen tells him that the boy had been banned from helping with the fires after nearly immolating himself. Oh well. At least they’d been smart enough to keep fire starting implements away from him afterward. Cao Weining almost setting himself on fire is hysterical, but Cao Weining actually setting himself on fire would not be.

    Lao Wen may not be fond of the kid, but Zishu can reluctantly admit that the young man is likeable and good for A-Xiang. He loves her dearly, and she him.

    It is Cao Weining and Gu Xiang who recognize the people that stand outside the gates of Ghost Valley. 

    Mo Huaiyang, the sect leader of the Gentle Wind Sword Sect, along with a few other members of the sect. It is not a large group, definitely not large enough to try to stage any kind of attack on the Valley, but...with the current relations between the Ghost Valley Guzhu and the Five Lakes Alliance, they could not afford to do such a thing. That doesn’t make it any less suspicious to Zhou Zishu’s eyes.

    According to Gu Xiang, this man had absolutely refused to let Cao Weining have anything to do with her. Cao Weining had come all the way to the Valley to be with her because he couldn’t get his sect leader’s approval. 

    “Lao Wen,” Zishu murmurs, the two of them peering out from the carriage. “Does this seem right to you?”

    Brow furrowed, Wen Kexing shakes his head. “No. Not at all.”

    Cao Weining, preciously naive boy that he is, lights up at the sight of them and bounds ahead. Gu Xiang follows him simply to be by his side, the set of her brow telling Zhou Zishu that she too is a little suspicious of this. He also sees a hint of hope in her eyes, though, and it breaks his heart to be so certain that that hope is going to be dashed by this man. 

    “Stop the carriage,” he says, and as soon as the wheels have halted Lao Wen is stepping out and helping him down. He is certain that at this point he can get out of a carriage by himself, but he hasn’t had the heart to deny Wen Kexing this little indulgence so far.

    It is clear that Mo Huaiyang and his accompanying disciples were not expected to see Cao Weining outside of the Valley. Zishu wonders with a hint of amusement how long they’ve been standing out here trying to convince the ghosts at the gate to get the Guzhu to let them in. 

    It is also clear that Mo Huaiyang is not expecting to see a carriage and twenty three strange faces approaching with Cao Weining and Gu Xiang, and he is especially not expecting to see the Ghost Valley Master climb out of said carriage with his pet.

    Wen Kexing and Zhou Zishu’s approach puts a hint of hesitation in Mo Huaiyang’s face, the entire situation clearly not he was anticipating. 

    Zhou Zishu allows himself to be toted along on Wen Kexing’s arm like a trophy, torn between watching Mo Huaiyang with suspicious eyes and admiring the haughty, imperious look on his Lao Wen’s face as he, too, watches Mo Huaiyang with cold suspicion. 

    “Members of the jianghu, at my gates?” Wen Kexing’s voice rings out. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

    Mo Huaiyang looks sour at having been caught off guard, clearing his throat. “My apologies...Wen-daren,” he says, sounding as if having to address Wen Kexing respectfully in such a way grates on him. “I wasn’t aware you were out .”

    Wen Kexing hmphs, gives a humorless little smile. “The fact that my ghosts would not give you the time of day did not clue you in?”

    Mo Huaiyang smiles back, tight and artificial. “I had simply assumed you told them to ignore me.”

    Lao Wen barks a little laugh. “A valid conclusion! That is most likely what I would have told them to do.”

    Mo Huaiyang bristles with offense, his jaw tightening, but he does not lash out. Beside him, one of the disciples that had come along is greeting Cao Weining and Gu Xiang with genuine friendliness, seeming happy to see them.

    “Well, since I am so lucky as to have your audience now,” Mo Huaiyang grits out, “I came to speak to my disciple, Cao Weining.”

    Lao Wen blinks, gesturing with a guileless expression at the boy in question. “Well?”

    Mo Huaiyang hesitates, not pleased with the response. “I would politely request to speak to him alone, if you do not mind.”

    With a cheerful smile and a snap of the fan to fan himself gently, Wen Kexing chirps, “Denied.”

    Mo Huaiyang splutters, absolutely flabbergasted. “ Excuse me?”

    Lao Wen tilts his head, frowning like a child not sure what he’s done wrong. “You requested politely to speak to him alone. I denied your request. This is my Valley you have come to seeking him, Mo-daren. It is my word that is final here; you are welcome to speak to him right here and now, or you may leave. Please, take your pick.”

    Mo Huaiyang glares at him, fumes, but does not speak. He doesn’t dare, especially not in Wen Kexing’s territory and with Wen Kexing’s ghosts watching from the wall and who knows where else. Finally, he turns.

    “Weining.”

    Cao Weining straightens, standing at attention. “Y-yes, shifu?”

    His wide eyes are full of nervous hope. He is clearly hoping for the best here, and Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing are waiting for the worst. They both watch with eyes like hawks.

    “...you left us. To come here. To her .” he says flatly, nodding with a disdainful gaze towards Gu Xiang.

    Cao Weining swallows, shifting on his feet but standing his ground. “...I did. I love her, shifu. I tried to tell you, but…”

    Mo Huaiyang nods slowly. “And you would forsake your sect, for this ghost? This siren?”

    The hope in Cao Weining’s eyes is starting to turn to hurt, though it doesn’t seem that he was entirely unexpecting of this. “...I don’t wish to forsake my sect, but...isn’t it a man’s duty, to stand by the woman he loves? You always taught me to stand by my promises. I can’t forsake her.”

    Mo Huaiyang’s jaw twitches. “...you can not have both. I will give you one more chance to choose, Weining. Will you come back with us? Or will you throw a righteous life away for some she-demon?”

    Lao Wen ripples next to him with anger, hearing his little girl referred to in such a way, but he is good. He does not lash out, not without reason. With Zhou Zishu and the new disciples of Siji Manor, peace between the Valley and the jianghu suddenly has worth to him.

    Cao Weining shakes his head slowly, eyes sad. “I...I’m sorry. I won’t leave her. I won’t betray her.”

    Mo Huaiyang closes his eyes and hisses in a breath, and the sight of it sends Cao Weining to his knees. “Shifu, please! I know you do not understand, because you do not get along with her, but she is kind and good at heart! If you would just give her a chance, show some mercy!”

    He stares up at Mo Huaiyang with tears in his eyes, and his shifu stays for a long few moments with his eyes closed and jaw steeled before he turns slowly towards him and looks down at him. Guides him gently up by the elbows.

    It’s not right. Something’s not right.

    Mo Huaiyang’s hands come up slowly, shaking just slightly, to border either side of Cao Weining’s face. In his eyes is something like mourning, and also...intent. Intent far too familiar for people like Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing to miss.

    It would seem even the elder disciple that of the Gentle Wind Sword Sect sees something wrong , his face starting to fall and become confused. 

    Mo Huaiyang’s hands grip either side of Cao Weining’s jaw and begin to twist , and Lao Wen moves like a flash.

    “Shifu!” the elder disciple cries, startled and clearly not aware that they had come here to murder his junior. To his credit, he is moving to try to push his shifu’s hands aside at the same time that Lao Wen is moving, but Lao Wen is infinitely faster.

    The other boy would not have been able to get there before Cao Weining’s neck was snapped. Lao Wen’s fan has struck its mark faster than anyone but Zishu has realized he’s moved. 

    Cao Weining and Mo Huaiyang both cry out and fall back. Cao Weining’s neck has been wrenched; he is hurt, but he is alive to grimace and cry out and stumble backwards into Gu Xiang’s waiting, frantic arms.

    “Cao-dage! Cao-dage!”

    Wu Xi is out of the carriage and running to them immediately. 

    Mo Huaiyang is yelling and clutching his wrist; his hand is hanging nearly all the way off of it. The razor’s edge of Lao Wen’s fan has sliced through meat and bone, but it has not severed the appendage entirely. 

    Zhou Zishu is certain it was intentional. A calculated and plausibly deniable cruelty. It is almost certain that the hand can not be saved, but the way it is now it will be the Gentle Wind Sword Sect who have to make the decision to amputate it and do so themselves. 

    Lao Wen is stalking forward and grabbing the howling man by the throat in the next moment, lifting him to glare him in the face. “A righteous life or no life at all, is that it? How righteous a life you lead, willing to kill your disciple for disapproving of his choice in women. Touch my son-in-law again, and I will raze you and your sect to the ground.”

    Teeth bared, Lao Wen throws Mo Huaiyang to the ground, fingers visibly twitching with the desire to kill. He turns his head, eyes alight with unconcealed  and barely restrained anger, on the elder disciple who is still reeling from horror both at the sight of his sect leader’s injury, and the realization that his sect leader had intended to kill his junior just moments ago. 

    “Take him and leave, before I change my mind and decide to kill him regardless of how the jianghu would feel about my pruning some of their detritus for them.”

    The young man nods frantically, glancing with wide eyes at Cao Weining where he lays with Gu Xiang and Wu Xi huddled over him. “I-I...please, my name is Fan Huaikong. Please, tell him I didn’t know. I swear I didn’t know! I would never have…!”

    Go!” Lao Wen spits, and they obey. 

    Zishu breaks away from him to step towards Wu Xi while Lao Wen watches the group leave until they are long out of sight. 

    “Wu Xi. Is he -?”

    “He will be alright,” Wu Xi tells him. “It is not broken, but it was a close thing. We will have to keep his head still on the way in, and he will need some time to regain range of motion without pain.”

    “Zhou-daren,” Cao Weining says through grit teeth, clearly in pain but conscious. “Zhou-daren, did...did Wen-daren call me his son-in-law?”

    Zhou Zishu blinks down at the boy, and then relaxes enough to laugh disbelievingly. Fucking kid will be fine, he thinks, if that’s what he’s worried about.

    “Yes, you fool. Don’t worry, I won’t let him forget it.”

    “Open the gates!” Wen Kexing barks, fuming clearly enough that every order he gives on the way in is obeyed with frantic words and running steps. 

It was a rockier last stretch than expected, but they are home. Miraculously enough for someone with his luck, Zishu thinks, everyone has even made it with their heads still on their shoulders. Barely, but he’ll take it.

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once Wu Xi assures them that he can take care of Cao Weining, Wen Kexing’s first priority becomes to get Zhou Zishu spirited away to be pampered and bathed and fed and altogether fussed over.

    That being said, they don’t get very far before being waylaid by the one person neither one of them is capable of telling to fuck off. Zhang Chengling.

    “Zhou-shushu!”

    They both turn at the frantic call to find Zhang Chengling running towards them, his father following behind him at a much more reasonable pace but clearly happy to see Zhou Zishu alive and walking, even if he’s clearly taking a little support from Wen Kexing.

    Chengling draws up short of them, wide eyes taking them both in but focusing mostly on Zhou ZIshu. 

    “Zhou-shushu...are you…?”

    Zhou Zishu sighs. He is very tired and does not want to deal with anything that doesn’t include being doted on by his zhiji and going the fuck to sleep. Unfortunately, he cannot resist the power of Zhang Chengling’s puppy dog eyes. 

    “I’m alright, Chengling. Just a little banged up, is all.” He knows, after all, that he still sports some yellowing bruises on his face. He won’t fool anyone into thinking he was totally unharmed during his captivity.

    The boy is silent for a long time, before his face starts to scrunch up, his eyes start to grow wet and...oh. Oh, no.

    “Hey,” Zishu says, alarmed and uncomfortable. “Don’t do that. Don’t do that, don’t cry! What’s wrong with you? I said I’m fine, don’t cry!”

    Zhang Chengling doesn’t even try to do as he’s told, face crumbling and tears spilling with pathetic, hiccuped sobs. “I’m sorry, Zhou-shushu. It’s all my fault, I’m so sorry!”

    Zhou Zishu has absolutely no idea what to do with the boy, or what he’s talking about. He casts a borderline desperate glance at Zhang Yusen, who seems to be happy to let him handle it with only a vaguely pitying look. 

    “What are you talking about, Chengling?” he asks, baffled.

    Chengling sniffles, wiping his eyes and immediately replacing the dried tears with new ones. “They came in when the gates opened for us,” Chengling blubbers. “I’m the one who convinced father to bring us here. If Wen-shushu hadn’t had to open the gates for us you wouldn’t have - wouldn’t have-”

    Ah. Zhou Zishu sighs, tired and starting to feel a headache come on. “Chengling. It’s not your fault.”

    “But-”

    “He would have found a way into the Valley whether you came or not. You had nothing to do with him taking me. Nothing. Understand?”

    Chengling sniffles again, pathetic, wet eyes searching his face hesitantly. “B-but-”

    “Ay!” Zishu barks, exasperated. “No buts! If you can’t even listen to me on this, how do you expect me to let you call me shifu?”

    Chengling seems to short circuit momentarily, eyes going wide. “...really?”

    Lao Wen snorts next to him for the same reason that Zhou Zishu stares at the boy in disbelief. He had threatened not to let the kid call him shifu; had all he heard really been some kind of acceptance?

    “Not if you keep talking back to me!” he tries, trying to stay stern through his blatant confusion.

    Zhang Yusen, too, seems to be laughing at his predicament.

    “I-I won’t!” Chengling cries. “Thank you, shifu!”

    The boy darts forward to hug him, and he winces hard at the way it jostles him but manages to keep quiet to avoid starting another round of blubbering apologies. He grimaces over Zhang Chengling’s shoulder at a smiling Zhang Yusen, patting the boy’s back awkwardly.

    “Alright, alright,” Lao Wen cuts in after a moment, making shooing motions with his hands. “Get off of him, little idiot. Your shifu is tired and hurt; he needs a good bath and a meal and some rest.”

    Chengling backs off quickly, nodding his assent and his apologies. His eyes are wide and wet still, but they shine with joy now. “Sorry, Wen-shushu!”

    Lao Wen sighs and shakes his head, smacking the boy on the head with the fan before they go. Really, how did they end up with such a little fool stuck to them?

 

----

 

Zhou Zishu makes it very clear that the first thing he wants is a bath, and he wants it now. His irritable delivery of the demand gets fond laughter out of Lao Wen, who looks at him with pure adoration.

    To enter Wen Kexing’s bedroom again is a unique kind of joy. It looks and smells of Lao Wen, and Lao Wen is safety. Lao Wen is joy. Lao Wen is his soulmate, the other half of him.

    Zhou Zishu toddles on his tired legs right towards the doors to the baths, Lao Wen’s laughing figure following him all the way; right up until the sectioned off space where one is meant to discard of their clothes. 

    Zishu pauses and smiles. His Lao Wen. Why is his Lao Wen only courteous when he doesn’t want him to be?

    He peeks back out from behind the screen with raised eyebrows. “What are you still out here for, idiot?”

    Lao Wen blinks back at him, those big child-like eyes as precious and devastating as ever. “I...don’t know?”

    “Neither do I. I’m tired and injured. You expect me to wash and care for myself? What kind of wife are you?”

    Lao Wen blinks, sputtering but smiling. He ultimately seems to decide against saying anything, instead nodding his head obediently and following Zhou Zishu in.

    They both disrobe, eyes appreciative but lacking heat. Now is the time for tenderness and domestic care. Nothing more.

    Zishu groans like a dying man as he sinks into the water, and then smacks Wen Kexing as he follows him in for laughing at the sound. It doesn’t do anything to discourage the nuisance, but at this point in their knowing each other he thinks Lao Wen might worry he’s sick if he doesn’t lash out.

    At the very least he would pout. His Lao Wen loves being scolded and admonished by him, the fool.

    Wen Kexing’s gentle hands are on him immediately. Elegant and deft, they handle him gently; like a precious treasure. Zhou Zishu closes his eyes and relaxes into the touch as Lao Wen washes him.

    It’s so soothing, so therapeutic that he nearly falls asleep.

    Wen Kexing doesn’t scold him or jar him, just pauses to settle against the edge of the spring and manhandle him into his lap so they sit chest to chest, Zhou Zishu’s legs splayed around Lao Wen’s hips.

    Lao Wen starts on his hair once he’s settled in, chuckling as Zishu hums his pleasure. 

    “Feels good?” he murmurs, combing Zishu’s hair out in long, gentle strokes.

    “Don’t ask me stupid questions,” Zishu slurs in answer, and relishes in the rumble of Lao Wen’s laugh that transfers from Lao Wen’s chest into his own ribcage where they’re pressed together.

    He wishes he could cage it there forever, keep it next to his heart until the day he dies.

    “What do you want to eat, A-Xu?” Lao Wen murmurs in his ear as he washes his hair. “I’ll have whatever you want made. I’ll make them go out and get it if we don’t have it! I’ll have them travel half the country for whatever delicacies you desire.”

    Zhou Zishu smiles into Wen Kexing’s shoulder, totally limp. “I want jiaozi. And eggrolls. Braised pork and tea eggs. Spicy noodles. Lychee.”

    The more things he lists, the harder Lao Wen laughs, and the wider Zishu smiles. 

    “Anything else, my love?”

    “Mnn. Make them make me shaobing and youtiao. And zongzi.”

    Lao Wen has stopped combing his hair for fear of yanking it at this point, jostling the both of them with his laughter. 

    “Why, A-Xu! How wonderfully you take to being the spoiled pet of the Valley Master!”

    “Can you get me my food or not?”

    Lao Wen throws the comb in favor of grabbing his face and kissing him in laughing, short pecks filled with adoration. Zishu laughs and allows himself to be thusly assaulted, on cloud nine like he’s never been before. 

    This...this is absolute bliss.

    He remains a ridiculously unhelpful lump of flesh plopped in Lao Wen’s lap when his zhiji finally starts trying to wash himself. He forces Lao Wen to push and pull and manipulate him to conduct the basic tasks of self maintenance, and Wen Kexing doesn’t complain once.

    Zhou Zishu starts to fall asleep on Lao Wen’s lap eventually, the two of them long clean but mutually unwilling to move. It is then that there’s a knock at the door between the baths and Lao Wen’s room.

    Only one person would dare enter Wen Kexing’s chambers aside from themselves uninvited.

    “Ge!”

    Lao Wen sighs. “What is it, A-Xiang?”

    “The ghosts caught Wu Chang Gui while we were gone. They’ve been holding him for you. What do you want to do?”

    Cruel joy lights up in Wen Kexing’s eyes, a slow smile spreading across his face. “Mnnnnnnn. Wu Chang Gui. Not so good at running after all. What do you think, A-Xu? What would you like done with him?”

    Zhou Zishu hums thoughtfully where he lays boneless against Lao Wen’s nude figure, running his fingers mindlessly up and down Wen Kexing’s bicep. “Hmm...I never have gotten to see you skin someone.”

    Wen Kexing chuckles lowly. “As you wish, my love. A-Xiang! Call an audience in the main hall. Strip him and string him up for me.”

    “Yes, ge!”

    “A-Xiang!”

    “What?”

    “Have a table and food set up for my A-Xu. Jiaozi, eggrolls, spicy noodles and tea eggs. Lychee, shaobing, youtiao and zongzi as well. The first person who says they can’t do it or don’t have something dies.”

    “Yes, ge.”

    “Don’t roll your eyes at me, little girl!”

    “You can’t even see me! How did you know?!”

    Zhou Zishu rumbles with laughter. It’s good to be home, he thinks. People he loves, a bed to share with his zhiji, and now dinner and a show. 

    “I hope your technique lives up to my expectations, Lao Wen.”

    Wen Kexing laughs, absolutely not talking about skinning when he replies, “My technique is impeccable, A-Xu. It shall never leave you disappointed.”

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

“Does that look straight to you?!”

“N-no, Guzhu! Sorry, Guzhu!”

Zhou Zishu sighs, sitting back and drinking a cup of wine while he watches his zhiji terrorize ghosts. 

It is the day of Gu Xiang’s wedding to Cao Weining, and Lao Wen, Zishu muses, puts most noblewomen to shame in nitpicking and making a fuss over everything being perfect for his little girl’s big day.

For all that he apparently used to warn her that she couldn’t get married, little A-Xiang certainly managed to land a man being exactly the way she is. Zhou Zishu has never seen someone as happy to be bullied as Cao Weining.

Well...he’s seen one other person who enjoys being bullied, he thinks, looking at Lao Wen’s wildly gesticulating figure. He and Cao Weining are more alike than he likes to think. Big puppy eyes, diehard devotion to the one they love, and a joyful willingness to let that person bully them.

“Do not make me come over there and do that myself!”

“Y-yes, Guzhu! Sorry, Guzhu!”

“Lao Wen,” he calls, deeply amused. “The more you scare them the more crooked the decorations become.”

Wen Kexing clicks his tongue. “What good are they if pointing out their incompetence can’t fix said incompetence? I may as well just purge them and start anew!”

The ghosts become even more nervous, hearing that, and true to Zishu’s word their shaking hands get even worse at their work. 

“Guzhu.”

It’s not the first time the minor ghosts are visibly relieved to have one of the Ten Devils divert Wen Kexing’s attention. Not even the first time since Zishu has been in the Valley.

“Luo-yi,” Lao Wen says. He has started calling her that more often since Zishu softened him, regardless of who’s around to hear it. “What is it?”

“The dowry is ready. Would you like to -”

Lao Wen’s eyes go wide as saucers, and he’s marching off before she even finishes the sentence, fuming as he goes. “The dowry! The incompetence of these fools distracted me so I forgot to make sure the dowry was all in place!”

Zhou Zishu and Luo Fumeng look at each other with identical fond smirks of amusement and trail leisurely through the path Wen Kexing has made of terrified ghosts who part like the sea  just to stay out of his way.

“Madame Luo,” he says as they walk, nodding at her.

“Lunatic Zhou,” she nods back, and his eyebrows pop up. 

“Have they finally started calling me that?”

“You didn’t know?” she asks. “They started calling you as such after the skinning of Wu Chang Gui.”

Zishu nods. “Ah...I see. What do you think did it, the pointers on his technique or enjoying a meal while I watched?”

“I believe the true turning point may have been when you had him take a break so you could feed him lychee to ‘keep his strength up’.”

“Understandable, understandable.”

She chuckles, shaking her head. It goes without saying that she is no longer afraid that Wen Kexing’s true nature may scare him away. 

“I must thank you, Lord Zhou.”

He quirks a brow, glancing over at her. “For what?”

“For saving him.”

Zhou Zishu is struck silent, confused and surprised. “...I’m afraid I don’t understand, Madame Luo.”

Luo Fumeng takes a slow breath, looking at the ground ahead; or through it, more like. She’s lost in thought. Perhaps in memory.

“I’ve known Kexing since he was but a child. This place...it is a miracle he survived to adulthood at all, but he did not do so unharmed. He’s always been a little off, but...but the Valley made a monster of him. Year after year, I’ve watched him lose his humanity. I think, Lord Zhou...that if he had not met you when he did, he would have lost what little you dredged back to the surface. That there would have been nothing left of him but rage and pain, and when that happens all a man can do is, eventually, self destruct. So thank you. For giving him something worth keeping his heart for.”

Zhou Zishu swallows, throat tight with emotion. He never thought about that. Never thought about what the feral creature he met may eventually have devolved into, if he had not gained anything to live for past his revenge.

“...he did the same for me, Madame Luo,” he says quietly. “It is not something I share, and few knew but those involved in stopping it, but...my own self destruction was well underway, Madame Luo. I was ending myself, when I met him. Slowly, but surely. He saved me as well.”

They walk in silence for a few moments more, before she smiles at him gently. “I am glad, Lord Zhou, that you found what you needed in each other. It is a pleasure to have you here.”

“It’s a pleasure to be here, Madame Luo.”

They catch up with Lao Wen to find him examining items of the dowry with a soft, fond smile on his face, like the joy of the occasion is finally sinking in for him. Zhou Zishu draws up next to him quietly, knowing his presence will be sensed long before he can surprise his zhiji.

They are so in tune with each other that if they weren’t both insane it might be a little scary. 

“She’s getting married, A-Xu,” Wen Kexing murmurs, and Zishu smiles. He lays a hand over Lao Wen’s, where it’s tracing the filigree of a gold hairpin.

“She is. Are you happy?”

So happy ,” Lao Wen whispers, eyes shining with wetness that Zhou Zishu won’t embarrass him by calling out. Not until they’re alone, at least.

“Good,” he nods. “I am too. She deserves it, brat that she is.”

Lao Wen chuckles, getting the emotion in his eyes under control just in time for the sound of running footsteps and a loud sound of awe, Gu Xiang striding into the hall with the wide eyes of a child.

She is stunning in her wedding robes and makeup, her hairpiece magnificent. Lao Wen looks momentarily starstruck by the sight of her.

“Wow,” she breathes, turning to take it all in. “This much?”

Lao Wen preens like the peacock he is, chin high and eyes full of pure, intense satisfaction. It is the face of a father who feels he has done well, one who has never done anything more important than pleasing his baby in this moment.

It is a good look on him, Zhou Zishu thinks. It makes his chest swell with adoration of his own. 

They fuss over Gu Xiang for a while. Lao Wen presents her with a bracelet, one of a pair, with great pride on his face. They are one of a kind, meant to keep the souls of the wearers linked for all eternity. Even in their next lives, he tells her, she and Cao Weining will find each other.

Luo Fumeng, in turn, presents her with a beautiful pair of hairpins. Gu Xiang insists she put them in for her, and they go with the crown on her head perfectly. 

    “G-Guzhu,” the hesitant voice of a minor ghost comes from the entryway, and he cowers immediately as Wen Kexing’s glare whips over. 

    “What?”

    “A-apologies, Guzhu! There...there are people at the gates.”

 

----

 

The ‘people’, as it happens, are the brothers of the Five Lakes Alliance and just enough disciples to carry a multitude of what for all intents and purposes look to be wedding presents.

    They stand quietly, patiently at the front gates of the Valley, although a keen eye can see that they’re nervous just for being here. The brothers, that is; the disciples, no keen eye is necessary for. 

    Where they stand in the crags of a small mountain path long worn by lookout use just off the side of the gates, Wen Kexing is also palpably uneasy. He stares down at the party with a furrowed brow, cogs obviously turning in his mind. He’s looking for a reason. A trap. A hidden motive.

    Zhou Zishu understands, especially considering they hadn’t sent any word of the wedding to any of the brothers save for Zhang Yusen, whose youngest son resides in the newly built Siji Manor to study under Zhou Zishu’s martial tutelage.

    Zhang Yusen, who is among the party below. That tells Zhou Zishu what he needs to know. He truly believes Gao Chong and Shen Shen wish to know their nephew and desire to reach out to him without ulterior motives, but Zhang Yusen’s presence assures him that this is not trouble come knocking.

    Wen Kexing trusts Zhang Yusen too, sees him down there, but he has a fractured and twisted mind beyond even the mess that is Zhou Zishu’s. He’s going through mental gymnastics to find ill intent, and Zishu can see it.

    “Lao Wen,” he murmurs, and his zhiji’s big eyes dart to him, brow still furrowed and lips still downturned.

    Zhou ZIshu smiles at him, taking his hands and facing him fully. “Lao Wen. Repeat after me.”

    Lao Wen stares at him pathetically, and that’s all Zishu needs to know he’ll be obedient.

    “They are my uncles and they want to know me.”

    Flatly, like he’s reading off of a script, Lao Wen repeats, “They are my uncles and they want to know me.”

    “They know that I care deeply for my little sister.”

    “They know that I care deeply for my little sister.”

    “They are here to celebrate A-Xiang’s wedding.”

    “They are here to celebrate A-Xiang’s wedding.”

    Zishu smiles, trying not to laugh at the image Lao Wen makes. The fearsome Ghost Valley Guzhu, dressed and groomed for a wedding, pouting pathetically and being forced to repeat affirmations.

    “Better?” Zishu asks.

    “No,” Wen Kexing answers honestly, and Zhou Zishu laughs.

    “Fair enough. Let’s go talk to them, and you can decide whether you want to allow them in. Okay?”

    That seems to be a good enough answer for Wen Kexing, and it gives him something to focus his energy on. Lao Wen fares much better having something to do when he’s agitated than having to stew in his thoughts.

    They descend in front of the group, most of the disciples carrying the presents watching Lao Wen land gracefully like they’re expecting the devil that just dropped from the sky to kill them on the spot.

    The two of them make formidable figures, dressed and groomed as impeccably as they are and clearly ready for a wedding. They are both in exquisite sanguine robes, Lao Wen’s hair all pulled out of his face and pulled up into a tail affixed by a golden circlet. Zhou Zishu’s is mostly loose, some gathered into an artful bun speared through with a precious white jade hairpin.

    He’d been so relieved, when one of the new Siji Manor disciples had returned it to him, knowing it had been kept safe just as he’d asked. Lao Wen had looked at him with a strange, soft smile and asked him why he was so relieved. He would not have cared if it were lost or broken, he had said, as long as Zhou Zishu was alive and well by his side.

    All the same...one would be hard pressed to find Zhou Zishu wearing anything but this hairpin, no matter the occasion. 

    Zishu catches Zhang Yusen’s eye and raises an eyebrow, smiling wryly. “Loose lips aren’t like you, Zhang-daren.”

    Zhang Yusen chuckles. “No, they are not. Your missive had the misfortune of finding me when my brothers were visiting, you see, and I would implore you to face them and refuse to tell them what news paper from their nephew delivers before you judge me.”

    Lao Wen stands by his side, that furrow still in his brow, cogs still turning behind his eyes. He’s surveying the whole group of them with cautious eyes. The eyes of a predator trying to shape up whether another is trying to make prey of it.

    Gao Chong clears his throat, looking like he’s trying to gain some insight into the creature Zhen Yan has become by observing the way Lao Wen scrutinizes them. “Wen-daren. It is good to see you again. I apologize that we have come unannounced and uninvited. You are welcome to turn us away, but it would have been remiss of us not to at least try.”

    Lao Wen hums lowly, staring at Gao Chong like he’s trying to peel his skin away to see at his soul. “...you would come all the way out here just to attend a wedding?”

    Shen Shen frowns, seeming saddened at Wen Kexing’s suspicion but not stupid enough not to have expected it. Gao Chong looks much the same, though he moderates his expression better.

    “Yes, Wen-daren. That is all we came for. I promise you.”

    The promise puts a deeper furrow in Lao Wen’s brow as opposed to smoothing it, his chin rising in a challenge.

    “Open the gifts.”

    The disciples seem startled at the request, at the blatant violation of tradition such a thing would be.  They do not move, not until Gao Chong nods and says, “Do as he says. Allow him to inspect them as he wishes.”

    Although hesitant, the disciples do as they are told and set the gifts down to be opened and examined, and Lao Wen sweeps past the brothers to inspect every single one within an inch of its life.

    Zhou Zishu sighs and smiles a little wryly, stepping forward to speak to the brothers in the meantime.

    “Gentlemen,” he greets, saluting and being saluted in turn. “Thank you for coming, and for your patience.”

    Gao Chong shakes his head. “It is understandable. Not only for having lived here for so long, but especially after hearing what happened with Mo Huaiyang.”

    Ah. Well, if they are here to attend A-Xiang’s wedding, those who had been with him must have made sure Mo Huaiyang could not twist the truth of why he had lost his hand.

    “Many thanks for your understanding, then. His companions stayed honest, then?”

    Gao Chong nods, glancing at the tornado of a man that’s picking apart their gifts for just a moment before he returns his attention to their conversation.

    “Indeed. While some do not wish to accept it, it is known that Wen-daren acting in the defense of Young Master Cao. It is also known that you seemed a small bit...weary, at the time. I am glad to see you looking well.”

    Zishu nods slowly, huffing a breath through his nose. Of course the yellowed bruises on his face and his apparent weakness would have been talked about, no doubt misconstrued into tales of how the Valley Master’s pet is abused at his hand.

    “I am very well indeed, thank you. I assure you that my weariness was no fault of Lao Wen’s; he would sooner immolate himself.”

    Gao Chong nods. “I see. Brother Zhang told us as much; forgive me for seeking reassurance.”

    Lao Wen stalks with a scowl that borders on a pout on his face back to Zhou Zishu’s side, the presents being closed up again after his thorough examination. Zishu prompts him with a quirk of a brow, to which he sighs and nods. Nothing shady. 

    Still, he gives the whole group of them one more uneasy once over before finally saying, “Open the gates.”

 

----

 

The wedding is lovely. Zhou Zishu would say perfect, although he’s sure Lao Wen would find tiny things to pick at and complain about the incompetence of his ghosts for. He had certainly snapped at them and sent them quivering and scurrying about time and time again right up until the ceremony.

    The wedded couple make their bows, one to heaven and earth, one to Wen Kexing and Zhou Zishu, and the third to each other. 

    Not a ghost dares step out of line the entire day and night, which for the Valley is quite the miracle. 

    Shen Shen and Gao Chong are uneasy to be inside the Ghost Valley, and see hints of Lao Wen’s temper when something isn’t quite perfect enough here and there, but seem to manage to enjoy themselves. At the very least, they are happy that their dear friend’s son allowed them to celebrate the occasion with him, despite his suspicion and the ghosts of the past.

    “What are you thinking about, A-Xu?” Lao Wen murmurs to him from where they sit at the head of the hall, drinking and looking out at the guests.

    “Hmmm,” Zishu hums, knocking back his liquor. “I’m thinking that I’m glad we’re finally done with wedding preparations.”

    Wen Kexing laughs lowly, and nudges him. “A-Xu! Don’t be ridiculous. We must begin planning ours next.”

    Zishu closes his eyes and sighs, though he has a hard time feeling true exasperation. Not just for the sweet laughter of his zhiji next to him, but for the idea of making his bows with the lunatic his soul is already bound to.

    “Alright,” he acquiesces. “One more wedding it is.”

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

They arrive fashionably late to the Heroes Conference. Fashionably late meaning just late enough that the majority of the attendees have likely breathed sighs of relief with the belief that they will not be attending at all. This is very intentional on their part, and just the kind of petty and mean they both think is hysterical. 

    Zhou Zishu can’t even pretend not to be amused by it, considering it was he who had laughingly proposed it when they’d been considering whether to attend at all. Lao Wen had laughed a deep belly laugh, and the decision had thus been made.

    So now here they sit in the inn they’d stayed the night at. The Conference has been on for a few days, and today they will make their appearance. 

    Lao Wen had insisted Zishu allow him to paint underneath his eyes with red just the same as Wen Kexing wears it. Zishu had refused. Lao Wen had pouted and whined, and Zhou Zishu had caved.

    In other words, he currently lays on his back with his zhiji straddling him to paint careful lines of red under and at the corners of his eyes. It is a completely unnecessary position, but there is a certain point at which arguing with Lao Wen is pointless and one should simply give in to his whims.

    He would be lying, of course, to say he doesn’t enjoy the closeness.

    Lao Wen leans back to admire his work and smiles slowly, humming a slow sound of appreciation. “A-Xu....even lovelier than I imagined.”

    “You look so pretty like this,” he purrs, leaning in close. “It makes me want you.”

    Zhou Zishu scoffs, deftly catching the wrist of the hand that has started sliding down his belly and towards unmentionable places.

    “Don’t try to pretend you’re not always looking for an excuse to fuck me,” he murmurs, smirking back up at the bastard.

    “Can you blame me, A-Xu?” Lao Wen asks in return, turning his captured hand to lace their fingers together and press the hand down next to Zishu’s head. “You’re just so beautiful. Would you really deny me a taste of you?”

    “Yes. Get off of me.”

    He doesn’t wait for a response, just bucks up and chucks the whining figure of the fearsome Ghost Valley Guzhu off of his lap and to the side.

    “A-Xu!” his Lao Wen wails, and he smiles while his back is turned. He doesn’t bother wiping it off of his face as he looks into the small mirror in the room, even though that means Lao Wen can see it. “How can you be so cruel to me?”

    “We’re fully dressed, and I’ve just let you paint me. You want to ruin all that now?

    He watches Wen Kexing behind him through the mirror, sees him pout, and then throw his arms up shortly and proclaim, “Yes!”

    He laughs, shaking his head as he puts the mirror down. He will reluctantly admit that the pigment looks good; Lao Wen knows what he’s doing with a makeup brush. 

    “Behave yourself, you pestilence,” he says, “And I might let you have your pleasure later.”

    It’s enough to get the nuisance he’s made the deeply questionable decision of marrying to behave. For now.

 

----

 

The shocked silence that falls in the banquet hall when they enter is everything they could have hoped for and more. Every eye in the hall is on them as they walk in arm in arm, looking as if they don’t have a care in the world.

    They are, as usual, an impressive pair. Two beautiful and powerful men, carrying themselves with confidence and not showing a sliver of shame for how loudly they proclaim their romantic ties to each other.

    Lao Wen is in his usual reds, rich and luxurious and imposing. The cut of his robes accentuates the broadness of his shoulders and the narrowness of his waist in a way that, admittedly, made it a tad difficult for Zishu to refuse him earlier. He never ceases to be startled by the appetite he has for his husband, after so many years with no interest in the same sex.

    Zhou Zishu is wearing flowing robes in whites and pale blues, pearly greys. Lao Wen had dressed him, cooing and waxing poetic over how beautiful he looked in light colors like these. Like something divine. Although he will never admit it, Zhou Zishu loves the way his husband talks about him. Loves being so adored.

    Holding Zishu’s hair back is the same white jade pin Lao Wen had gifted him a year ago now, just like it is every day. He thinks Wen Kexing doesn’t think he notices, but Zishu catches the soft, fond way that he looks at him when he does his hair with it in the morning. He may care far more for Zishu’s safety than the safety of the pin, but it clearly means something to him that Zhou Zishu values it so greatly. 

    Lao Wen’s hair is affixed with a pin too, though his is lacquered plum wood. He too rarely wears anything but this pin now; Zhou Zishu had carved it by hand, after all. Wen Kexing had nearly cried when he had presented it to him, a proper gift carefully crafted to show his affections.

    Zishu had felt a bittersweet longing while he was working on it; had wished Jiuxiao had been able to pluck it from his fingers and call it ugly. It would only have been fair.

    Gao Chong, Shen Shen, and Zhang Yusen sit at the head of the hall, along with Zhang Yusen’s sons. He had come to collect Chengling early so that he could arrive to the Conference on time with his family. They are the only ones who had known of this petty little plan. Judging by the look on the faces of Gao Chong and Shen Shen, they’d kept mum about it too.

    By the time they reach the head table to greet their hosts as is proper, Gao Chong and Shen Shen have pretty clearly realized this was a move designed just to fuck with the attendees. 

    Gao Chong stands and salutes them properly, thinly veiled exasperation and amusement in his eyes. “Wen-daren. Zhou-daren. A pleasure to have you; we had been under the impression that the Ghost Valley would not attend.”

    Lao Wen smiles, more of a smirk than anything. “My apologies for our lateness. Guzhu is here, and will attend the Conference.”

    Zishu nearly snorts at the echo of that first day. God, he loves this man. This awful, insufferable prick.

    Said awful, insufferable prick makes a point to echo things he said or call back to events of the last years Conference just to make people uncomfortable, and Zhou Zishu is enjoying it immensely. 

    He sees the young master who had painted him and brightens, loudly letting him know that he still has the lovely portrait he made for him. He asks the man who had had his knuckles rapped how his hand is doing. He sneaks up behind Wu-daren to pluck some pheasant off of his plate and scare the living daylights out of him, jovially thanking him for turning him on to such a delicious bird he had not previously eaten much of.

    He is petty and improper and borderline mean and not a single soul dares to call him out on it. A year is not nearly long enough to forget how insidious he’d been in playing them all, or how flippantly he’d killed two of his own ghosts in front of them all, or how he’d effortlessly dredged up Zhao Jing’s wrongdoings, humiliated, outmatched, and sentenced him to a fate worse than death.

    He is the boogeyman in their midst, although a gorgeous one that they all still can’t help but look at with a hint of wanting. Anyone who displays more than a hint is quickly cowed by the murder in Zhou Zishu’s face, of course.

    Zhou Zishu, who is frightening in his own right. The Ghost Valley Guzhu’s collared tiger, deadly enough to dispatch an entire group of Scorpion assassins without anyone realizing he’d been in a conflict the next day. The one who has spent a year in the Ghost Valley now and come out not only looking untraumatized, but thriving and holding his head high. 

    The jianghu perhaps has even less of an idea what to think of him than they do Lao Wen.

    He doesn’t realize exactly how true that is until they nearly bump into a man who balks at the realization that he’s come face to face with the Ghost Valley Guzhu and his pet, and has no way to escape without exchanging greetings properly. 

    “G-Guzhu,” he greets, saluting Wen Kexing. And then, eyes flicking over to Zhou Zishu, he hesitates. His throat works, his mouth opens and closes. Zhou Zishu quirks a brow and waits.

    The man falters, hesitates, false starts a few times. Then, as if the words are vomited more than consciously decided on, he says, “Guzhu-furen.”

    Zhou Zishu’s eyes go wide as saucers, absolutely floored. Lao Wen, on the other hand, seems to think it’s the best thing he’s ever heard. He descends into raucous laughter. Not the graceful laugh he laughs when he’s faking it for company, but the stomach deep cackles that very few outside of Zhou Zishu get to hear.

    It saves the pale and spluttering man who caused it from Zishu’s ire, because he turns immediately to glaring at his zhiji’s laughing figure.

    “What are you laughing at?” he barks, scowling. Lao Wen takes one look at the offense on his face and only laughs harder, getting smacked for his trouble.

    “You think this is funny? Huh?”

    “No, no,” Wen Kexing tries to say, turning his back just to try to stifle his amusement. He achieves nothing other than giving Zhou Zishu a good view of the way his shoulders shake as he presses his knuckles to his mouth in a desperate bid to suppress the laughter.

    Zishu shoves one of those shoulders roughly, and the sound spills from Lao Wen’s lips again. 

    “You like that, huh? You lunatic?” Zishu asks, face far more righteously offended than he actually is. He has a hard time being so when Lao Wen is so openly happy and tickled. He has it bad for Wen Kexing. Truly unfortunate.

    “Fine then!” Zishu finally proclaims, flicking his sleeve. “See if I let you in our room when you get back! Laugh and eat your fill, you pestilence!”

    He whirls and marches towards the doors, people scattering before him like mice. Lao Wen’s laughing voice sets to calling after him immediately, the whines of ‘A-Xu’ cut through with giggles as he pursues Zhou Zishu out of the hall. 

    Zishu marches straight out the doors and through the courtyard, until he finds a nice pavilion on the west side of the manor to sit in. He crosses his legs and tilts his chin up imperiously as he watches Lao Wen’s grinning figure approach. 

    He is carrying a wine jug and a handful of cups; he must have plucked them hurriedly from someone’s table on the way out to use as a bribe.

    “A-Xuuuu,” Lao Wen plies him, not even bothering to wipe the grin off of his face as he sits down. “I didn’t mean to laugh. Truly!”

    “Bullshit,” Zishu says, pouring himself a cup of wine.

    “It’s true! It caught me off guard, that’s all!”

    “Well you best not be caught off guard by being made to sleep on the floor tonight. Perhaps I’ll even sleep in the nude; make sure you know what you’re missing.”

    Lao Wen makes a crushed sound, hissing in a breath as if pained. “A-Xu. The venom on your tongue, it burns so deeply.”

    Zhou Zishu huffs a laugh through his nose, smiling and leaning closer, playful. “Is there venom on my tongue? I do know my poisons well.”

    Wen Kexing suppresses the flicker of a smile to look pathetic, seeming magnetized as always by Zhou Zishu’s proximity. “It is a powerful toxin indeed, A-Xu. I know not if I’ll survive.”

    Zishu huffs, admiring Wen Kexing’s beautiful face and allowing himself to give in to the pull, to let them gravitate towards each other until they’re so close their noses nearly touch. “I think I know what poison you’ve been afflicted with, Lao Wen.”

    “Do you? Will I live, A-Xu?”

    “Hmmmm,” he hums, tilting his head and letting his eyes flicker to Lao Wen’s mouth. “Perhaps. I may have an antidote for you.”

    Lao Wen is positively lost in him, he can see it. His eyes are growing dark, his voice growing quieter. He is hanging on the edge of Zishu’s tongue, waiting for permission to take his mouth with his own.

    “What would you have me do, A-Xu, to remedy this cruel poison of yours?”

    “I don’t know if you can manage it, Lao Wen. It is a simple cure, but I fear it will be difficult for you.”

    “I can do it, A-Xu. Anything.”

    “Anything?”

    “Anything. Tell me what you would have me do.”

    Poor, insatiable Lao Wen. Zishu almost feels bad for him when he pushes him away with a firm shove to the chest and replies, “Stop being such a fucking nuisance, and my tongue will need not poison you.”

    He can’t help the belly laugh he gives as Lao Wen reels back with righteous offense and faux hurt, momentarily thrown by the change in what he thought was a lustful atmosphere but quickly cottoning on and making an almighty fuss about how mean his A-Xu is to him. 

    His eyes shine with delight, watching Zhou Zishu laugh at him. That is, perhaps, one of the things about Wen Kexing that overwhelms Zhou Zishu the most; the pure joy he seems to derive from seeing Zhou Zishu happy. 

    As Lao Wen crows and complains and makes a nuisance of himself, Zishu catches sight of a figure in his periphery as he’s lifting his cup to his lips. He turns his head. 

    Standing a distance away in the courtyard is one young man, looking like he’s just arrived at the manor itself. He stands still, staring at the two of them with a wide open expression. That alone is not strange, considering how visibly close and intimate and improper they were just being. 

    What is out of the ordinary is that the expression the young man holds is not one of disgust or shock or morbid fascination. It’s…

    “Lao Wen,” he murmurs. “Are you seeing what I’m seeing?”

    Wen Kexing blinks, turns to look at the young man. He’s silent for a moment, before he makes a disbelieving sound of amusement and says, “Puppy love. Hmph. Understandable, of course; my A-Xu’s beauty is unparalleled.”

    “Funny,” Zishu says, knocking a cup of liquor back. “I thought it was you he must be mooning over.”

    Lao Wen scoffs. “Nonsense. Who could pay any attention to me, with your radiance sitting right here?”

    Zhou Zishu chuckles, closing his eyes and shaking his head. There is only one occasion under which Lao Wen downplays his own beauty in order to pay Zishu compliments. 

    “Don’t think you can butter me up, you pestilence. There’s no sweet talking your way out of sleeping on the floor tonight.”

    Lao Wen pouts, whines. “Can I at least sweet talk you into sleeping on the floor with me? It’s fine if you still choose to do so nude.”

    Zishu smacks him even as he laughs. They’re so easily drawn back into each other that they almost forget the boy is there, until he begins to move towards them. 

    The expression on his face is a mixture of nerves and determination, and Zishu has a sudden realization. He doesn’t know. He has no idea the two men he’s currently approaching with an air that is reminiscent of poor dumb Cao Weining are the current Guzhus of Ghost Valley, the two most feared men in Yueyang. The two monsters who strike fear in the hearts of the jianghu. 

    “Oh dear,” Lao Wen murmurs next to him. “This should be fun.”

    Zhou Zishu elbows him, but does not refute the statement.

    As the young man climbs the few stairs into the pavilion, he clears his throat and puts forward a nervous but bright smile. “Forgive me for intruding, my Lords. I see that you are enjoying the evening with some good wine. Would it be terribly unwelcome of me to ask to join you?”

    Lao Wen smirks and leans back in his seat, making a show of sizing the poor young man up. “I’ll allow it.”

    The poor kid lights up at the welcome, sitting with a straight back and shining eyes. He is every bit a young man with a crush, though his moon eyes do not seem to be reserved for either one of them more than the other. 

    Ah, Zishu thinks. What ambition this little lamb has, to set his sights on the both of them at once.

    “Have you only just arrived?” Lao Wen asks him, pouring him a cup of wine that he accepts with a grateful smile. Zhou Zishu can practically see the butterflies in his stomach, the little fool.

    “Ah, y-yes. It is my first Heroes Conference, but I stayed behind for a few days to tend to matters with some of the younger disciples of my sect. And you gentlemen?”

    “It is not our first Conference,” Lao Wen replies easily, filling Zishu’s and his own cup as well. “But we have also just arrived today. How serendipitous.”

    The young man smiles, drinking his wine. “Serendipitous indeed. Forgive my boldness, but you two are very admirable in your...openness.”

    Lao Wen smirks, taking the excuse to wrap his arm around Zishu’s waist and tug him close. “I see. So that is why you’ve approached us, is it? Not used to seeing cutsleeves out of hiding?”

    The young man laughs, a little awkward and shy, but not uncomfortable. It’s just new to him, to be able to speak so openly about such things.

    “Ah, n-no, I suppose not. I have only just recently come to terms with being...inclined that way myself, instead of trying to pretend I’m like everyone else. I can only hope to some day be as comfortable with myself as you two seem to be.”

    He clears his throat, looking between them with an earnest face. Poor kid, Zishu thinks. He has no idea that Lao Wen is playing with him like a cat with a mouse for nothing more than amusement.

    “Might I ask,” he says, “when you gentlemen became comfortable with it? Being how we are.”

    Wen Kexing hums, fanning himself thoughtfully. “Myself? I’ve known for as long as I can remember, and never really bothered to hide it or try to change it. If someone has a problem, they learn quickly to keep it to themselves.”

    Lao Wen gives a shark like grin as he professes this; Zishu has no doubt it only took one or two corpses when he was still quite young for people in the Valley to realize that this cutsleeve was not one who could be bullied.

    The young man’s eyes turn to Zishu, who clicks his tongue and averts his eyes. This kid, he muses with a hint of embarrassment, has probably known he likes men for longer than Zhou Zishu has.

    “Wasn’t into men,” he grumbles, not looking at either of them. “Not until him.”

    The boy is startled, though he laughs good naturedly and glances back at Wen Kexing with those pathetic moon eyes. “I see. Well, it’s certainly understandable. I’m sure you are not the first man someone of his calibre has swayed from women.”

    Lao Wen laughs, bright and loud. “Ah, a flatterer! Truly he claims I won him over, and yet would you believe it? He refused me this afternoon! A heartless creature he is, my A-Xu.”

    Zhou Zishu snorts and rolls his eyes, elbowing his zhiji roughly. “If I didn’t make a habit of refusing you, you’d never let me out of bed, you pest.”

    Lao Wen pouts, putting those awful puppy eyes on. “A-Xu. It’s not my fault; anyone would want to keep you in bed, so lovely as you are! Don’t you agree, daren?”

    The young man flushes, sputtering but laughing and seeming delighted by their easy teasing back and forth. “Ah, well...you are both indeed quite beautiful, it is no wonder you’ve ended up together. I didn’t know there were any other people in the jianghu who were openly cutsleeves. Other than...you know.”

    Almost in sync, Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing each raise a single eyebrow.

"Other than who?" Lao Wen asks, just to make him say it. Zishu admits it is amusing that the young man skirted around it as if mention of the Ghost Valley Guzhus may summon them.

"Ah, well...you were here last year, right? So you know that the Ghost Valley attended."

"Indeed," Lao Wen replies, playing flawlessly dumb with those big guileless eyes. "What of them?"

The young man balks. "Well, he is the only other man I know of in or around the jianghu who is so openly like us."

"Who?" Lao Wen asks, and Zhou Zishu nearly loses the tenuous grip he has on a straight face.

"T-the Guzhu!"

Wen Kexing opens his mouth and eyes with an exaggerated, 'ohhhhh' that makes Zishu hide his smile behind his wine cup.

"Well why didn't you just say so, silly thing?"

The young man flushes at the address. "I suppose I thought it obvious. All the same, it is good he stayed away this time; for a man like that to be the example of cutsleeves in the public eye...well, I just think handsome and refined gentlemen such as yourselves put forth a better image."

Zishu chokes around a mouthful of wine on his laugh, waving the concerned boy off as he bangs on his own chest and coughs his airways clear.

Lao Wen just smirks, considering he knows exactly why Zishu inhaled his liquor. 

"Is the Ghost Valley Guzhu truly such a bad example of cutsleeves?" Wen Kexing asks, tilting his head and eyes dancing. "He has quite improved the relationship between the Alliance and the Valley, hasn't he?"

The young man blinks, not expecting such a thing to be questioned. "Well yes, but...certainly you wouldn't want a violent and unhinged man to be what the public thinks cutsleeves are like. Why, by all accounts he took one of the attendees back as a slave last year! My-my shifu says there's word that he keeps the poor man chained to his bed!"

Zishu can't help it. He laughs, despite the flabbergasted look the young man gives him for it.

"I think your shifu is too fond of shocking rumors," he chuckles, shaking his head. "We were here last year, remember? The Ghost Valley Guzhu's pet is no unwilling damsel."

"As a matter of fact," Lao Wen cuts in, glancing at Zhou Zishu with a sly smirk. "I'd wager a bet the vixen made a pet out of the Guzhu, contrary to popular belief."

Zhou Zishu snorts, shaking his head and drinking. "Nonsense, Lao Wen. They both wear collars; they simply hold each other's leash."

Predictably, he feels Lao Wen's large, graceful hand slide onto his upper thigh and give it a squeeze. 

"Hmmm, now isn't that a picture, A-Xu," he purrs. "I think I'd quite like to see such a thing."

He rolls his eyes, about to rebuke his zhiji as if he too wouldn't like to put a collar on this walking nuisance. He does not get the chance to say anything disparaging.

"Xuan'er!" a voice calls, slightly behind and to the right of he and Lao Wen. When they turn, it's apparent that this is a group of older martial artists from the young man's sect out to look for him. They surely knew he was supposed to be arriving soon, and wondered what was holding him up.

Evidently, they weren't expecting that to be the Guzhus of Ghost Valley.

They all stop dead in their tracks and turn pale as their ignorant compatriot calls, "Ah, shifu! My apologies, I got lost in conversation."

"Shifu!" Lao Wen crows, eyes alight with mischief. "Why, we were just talking about you!"

The man in question visibly flinches, the beginnings of a nervous sweat starting to crest his brow. Fool. Showing such signs of fear only sharpen the predator’s delight in his Lao Wen’s eyes. 

He has to admit, the look of a predator is an attractive look indeed on Wen Kexing.

“Xuan’er,” the older man says in a weak, thready voice. “I see you have met the Guzhus of Ghost Valley.”

Zishu glances back at the young man they’ve been conversing with with a sly smirk on his face, eyes dancing and bouncing his brow at the poor bastard while he watches realization slowly dawn across his face.

Next to him, Wen Kexing tilts his head dangerously. Only Zhou Zishu would be able to tell he’s playing; the difference between Wen Kexing getting this dangerous look on his face just to scare someone for his own amusement and Wen Kexing getting this dangerous look on his face because he actually intends to cause harm is nearly imperceptible.

Right now, Lao Wen is playing. He’s playing as he tilts his head in something like disbelief and says, “Surely you don’t mean to simply ignore me?”

If possible, the group goes even paler. Especially the man this Xuan’er calls shifu. “N-no, of course n-”

Wen Kexing rises languidly from where he’s seated next to Zhou Zishu, and Zhou ZIshu smiles into his wine and watches his husband’s tall figure take the stairs in a slow, confident gait. 

“As a matter of fact,” Lao Wen purrs, snapping his fan open and sauntering slowly towards the quivering man, “I hear that you’ve been telling lies about the way I treat my husband. Is that true?”

The man splutters, frozen in place. They all are, as Lao Wen circles them slowly like a shark. 

He’s stunning like this, Zishu thinks as he drinks his figure in. The graceful curve of his wrist as he fans himself leisurely, the breadth of his shoulders and the narrowness of his waist, the way the cut of his robes accentuates his figure. The sinuous predation in his every step, in the flutter of his lashes and the curl of his lips...it just does something for Zhou Zishu. There’s no other way to explain it.

“Because if that were the case,” his Lao Wen purrs, “it wouldn’t be very nice, would it? Especially considering how dear my A-Xu is to me.”

Lao Wen turns in his slow circling when he rounds behind them again to step towards the target of his faux ire, and the others in the group scatter away like they may as well be strangers. Every man for themselves.

It’s sexy, how Lao Wen inspires that feeling in people.

His zhiji pulls up behind the poor quivering sap, nearly flush to his back and breathing on his neck and ear. The man looks like he may well piss himself soon, but does not move. Is it that he can’t, ZIshu wonders, or that he doesn’t dare?

“Well?” Lao Wen nearly whispers. “Haven’t you anything to say to me?”

Zishu smiles and sighs, shaking his head before he stands up and calls, “Lao Wen.”

Lao Wen raises his eyes to meet Zhou Zishu’s, curious. 

Zhou Zishu gives him a heated look and quirks one brow, drinking the last of the wine in his cup before he sets it down and descends the stairs of the pavilion, never looking away from those dark eyes.

“I’m bored.”

He doesn’t need to say anything else; Wen Kexing knows the look on his face well, and lights up with a less than innocent delight.

“Oh dear,” he croons, sliding out from behind his trembling victim and approaching Zhou Zishu to loop an arm around his waist.

He glances back over and smiles at the man as if they’d just been having a pleasant conversation, chiming. “It would seem we have to cut this short; marital duties call. You know how it is when they get needy. Well…”

He gives the man a pointed once over just to add insult to injury and says, “...maybe.”

 

----

 

They barely make it through the door.

    Zhou Zishu doubts either of them could pinpoint who crashes into who, only that there’s the wild clashing of tongues and teeth and grabbing hands. 

    He barely manages to kick the door shut before he’s being slammed into the table, grunting at the hard impact but kissing Wen Kexing back with just as much viciousness as he’s being kissed.

    Half of the things on the table are knocked off as Zhou Zishu is slammed onto his back onto it, half of them are swept off by Lao Wen’s sleeve.

    Lao Wen is heavy where he shoves himself between Zhou Zishu’s legs and lays against him, devouring his mouth like a starved animal. It’s maddeningly arousing, to be kissed with such raw desire. To hear the desperate, hungry sounds Lao Wen makes into his mouth, the ones he makes in return. 

    Their hands grab and pull and push at the ties and belts and lapels of their robes without any rhyme or reason, two people reduced to the basest of instinct to strip, kiss, touch, fuck.

    Their hips crash and grind together, hard enough that it hurts as much as it feels good, but they just can’t stop . As long as it’s Lao Wen who’s doing it, the hurt is okay. The hurt is good.

    Even when Lao Wen pulls away from their kiss to sink his teeth into the bared flesh of Zhou Zishu’s shoulder, the hurt is good. He cries out and arches and grinds back into his zhiji’s insistent hips and it’s good.

    Fuck, Lao Wen,” he gasps breathlessly, head rolling back with the pleasure of their grinding. He’s so intoxicated he lets himself whine in complaint when the pressure and friction stops.

    In answer to his wordless complaint, Lao Wen pulls him up, murmuring an equally breathless, “Bed, bed.”

    Zishu laughs as he’s hoisted bodily from the table, wrapping his legs around Lao Wen’s waist. “So romantic, Lao Wen, refusing to fuck me on the table.”

    Lao Wen laughs back, stumbling across the room and nothing short of throwing him onto the bed. He’s reaching out for his zhiji before he’s even stopped bouncing from the impact.

    Wen Kexing crashes into him just as brutally as he had at the door and on the table, and he loves it. Loves that now that he’s healthy and whole, Lao Wen isn’t afraid to be rough like this when he’s so desperate with desire. He knows now that he won’t hurt Zishu so easily, and that Zishu is just as capable and strong as he is.

    They’re probably going to have to hunt for their layers after this, with how they fling each piece of clothing they manage to yank off of each other. They break into breathless laughter more than once at seeing each other struggle with fabric or swear at a garment. 

    It is not graceful, it is not seductive, but it is absolutely perfect. As long as it’s Lao Wen, it’s perfect.

    The moment Lao Wen wraps his hand around the both of them, skin against skin, and starts stroking is absolute bliss. Zishu groans, head falling back and eyes fluttering shut.

    “Fuck yes, Lao Wen. Just like that.”

    “Just like that?” Wen Kexing asks breathlessly. “Are you sure, A-Xu? I had something tighter than my hand in mind for you, you know.”

    Zishu hisses, shivers. “God, yeah. That sounds good. Do you want me to-”

    “I don’t want you to do a thing,” Lao Wen tells him, kissing him firmly and searching him blind for the jar of oil they never leave far from their pillows. 

    When he finds it he sits up triumphantly, straddling Zhou Zishu’s lap and looking like a vision from heaven. Nude and flushed, his cock hard and standing at attention. He’s beautiful, grinning down at Zishu as he smears oil over his fingers and reaches behind himself.

    He makes a show of himself, his Lao Wen. Rolls his head and his hips, parts his lips just so and makes the sweetest sounds. Presses fingers into himself one by one, only the catch of his breath and the flutter of his eyelashes telling Zishu what he’s doing or when he finds a good angle.

    It’s maddening. He thinks Lao Wen is waiting for him to show it or say something, because he grins in a triumphant, euphoric way when Zishu grabs his hips tight enough to bruise, rocking his hips up under him in a silent plea.

    As usual, Lao Wen gives him his way. He pulls his fingers free from himself, guides Zishu’s cock into place, and sinks down with slow, even pressure that steals the breath from Zhou Zishu’s lungs.

    He groans, the whole world narrowing to the feeling of Lao Wen under his hands and around his cock.

    The squeeze is overwhelming, but he forces himself to open his eyes anyway. He knows that a true vision awaits him, after all. 

    Lao Wen is stunning. Lean muscle and soft skin, hair spilling over his shoulders like ink and chest expanding with the little gasps that his lips part so prettily around. He’s gorgeous like this, aroused and stuffed full.

    It’s truly all Zishu can do to watch him and hold on for the ride once Lao Wen adjusts and starts to move. When Wen Kexing rides him, it’s like being consumed by a natural disaster. 

    “A-Xu,” Lao Wen gasps, biting his lips and rocking back and forth with the kind of practice and skill that can drive a man mad. “A-Xu, A-Xu…”

    This is one of Zishu’s favorite parts of having Lao Wen on top of him like this; watching him lose his mask. He knows that Zishu likes to hear him, and at first he always puts on a show. His moans are sultry and calculated, his movements seductive. What Zishu loves more than anything is watching him lose himself in the pleasure. Hearing his cries become raw and unrestrained, forced from his throat instead of intentionally given. Watching his face crumble from seduction into wanton pleasure, seeing his movements change from calculated and pretty to whatever feels good, whatever makes him cry and shudder.

    He loves seeing Lao Wen stripped down to this purely base creature, chasing his pleasure and unable to string a coherent thought together. Stunning. Absolutely stunning.

    And through the whole process, through every stage of Wen Kexing breaking down under the pleasure and letting himself just be , he gasps Zishu’s name like it’s the only thing that’s keeping him tethered to Earth. 

    “A-Xu,” he whines, cock leaking and movements becoming frantic. “A-Xu, A-Xu! Gonna come!”

    “No you’re not,” he answers, and Lao Wen whines a loud, pitiful sound.

    Every now and then, they’re mean like this to each other. Every now and then, someone approaches their peak and their lover denies them, makes them squirm and beg and cry before they give them release.

    Lao Wen knows it’s a command. He knows it’s his job to still his hips himself and sit there, tremble and beg and wait for permission. He doesn’t. Instead, he lifts his hips and bounces harder, frantic.

    This brat, Zishu realizes with disbelief, is trying to chase his orgasm before Zishu can stop him. He should know better.

    Wen Kexing cries out as he’s pushed over and off of his zhiji, pressed onto his back and reentered in one rough motion.

    Zishu can tell by the way he throws his head back and shouts, by the way his body tenses and his lashes flutter, that the rough penetration drives him within a hairs breadth of the orgasm he so desperately wants. And then, when he starts to slide back from the edge, he whines and comes alive.

    He starts to writhe, rolling his hips desperately in an attempt to fuck himself back on Zishu’s cock and find his climax. It is unfortunate, then, that Zishu expected as much and sets quickly to tangling their legs in such a way that he can get no leverage. 

Lao Wen whines, gasps, pinned like a butterfly beneath Zishu’s body. His hand darts towards his cock like he thinks he can jerk himself to orgasm instead, only to have his wrist caught and both hands pinned.

“A-Xu! A-Xu, please, please, I need it! I need it, I need it…!”

“Shhh,” Zishu soothes him, mouthing at his throat and delighting in the way his lover shivers beneath him. “You don’t need it. You want it. Be a good boy and wait.”

    Whining and trying fruitlessly to buck, Wen Kexing complains, “I’m not a good boy.”

    Zishu laughs, Lao Wen shivering and biting his lip at the way it jostles them where they’re slotted together. “No,” he agrees. “You’re not. I wouldn’t have to pin you like this if you were.”

    He tries a few slow, deep thrusts. Almost immediately Lao Wen is gasping and jerking his hands free to cling to Zishu’s shoulders. Hm. Too soon, then.

    The sob his zhiji lets out when he stops moving is music to his ears. 

    “A-Xu. A-Xu, please. Please, I’m begging you. I’m so close, A-Xu.”

    “I know,” he murmurs soothingly, “I know. That’s why I’m waiting; so you won’t be so close.”

    Wen Kexing makes a low, mournful sound and surrenders. He trembles with the need to move and try to chase his pleasure, but he forces his body to go lax inside the cage of his husband’s arms and wait for his climax to escape his clutches.

    “A-Xu,” he moans pitifully. “A-Xu, it hurts.”

    It certainly looks like it hurts, he thinks as he peers down at Lao Wen’s cock where it’s trapped between them. Flushed and red and leaking. Gorgeous. He reaches down to ghost his fingers over the tip just to watch it jump and hear Lao Wen gasp.

    “Please,” he whispers, big dark eyes wet and pitiful. “Please, A-Xu.”

    Zhou Zishu caves. He adjusts his position, pulls Lao Wen’s hips more firmly into his lap, and starts a deep, rolling rhythm he knows from past experience drags against his zhiji’s sweet spot in brutal grinds that drive him absolutely insane.

    True to expectation, Lao Wen throws his head back and cries out, eyes wide and chest heaving for breath. “Oh! Oh, A-Xu! A-Xu! Don’t stop! Please don’t stop!”

    The tears spill over Lao Wen’s lashes; a sign of a job well done, Zishu thinks as he feels those graceful fingers rake trails down his back. He can track how close Lao Wen is by the gradual increase in pitch his frantic cries take, music like nothing else in this world.

    “A-Xu! A-Xu, please, please, please, I’m-”

    “Shhhh,” he soothes, petting dark hair and kissing a trail along Lao Wen’s jaw. “I’ve got you. I’ve got you.”

    Lao Wen shouts, rakes his nails down his back hard enough to draw blood, and tightens like a vice around Zishu’s cock.

    It’s enough to roll his eyes back in his head and make him come on the spot, stars behind his eyelids and body wracked with pleasure. It’s always so good when he’s first gotten to watch Lao Wen shake apart.

    They’re left limp and gasping for breath in the aftermath, tangled together in that easy, intimate way that always leaves Zhou Zishu wondering what he did to deserve such profound bliss. Such love.

    “Okay?” he manages to slur, and Lao Wen rumbles with laughter beneath him. 

    So okay. Never been more okay. God, A-Xu...I love it when you’re mean to me.”

    “Mnnnnn,” he replies. “I love you .”

    Lao Wen’s breath catches. Even a year in, it never fails to provoke such a reaction from him when Zishu tells him honestly how he feels. “I love you too...love you so much, A-Xu.”

    He hums, more than willing to fall asleep now and wake up sticky. “Good. You’re stuck with me.”

    “Stuck with you…” Lao Wen murmurs, almost like it’s an epiphany. “A sweeter sentence I’ve never heard.”

    They need not say anything more on their love; they simply trace it into each other’s skin with their fingers, like if they try hard enough they can wear scars into the flesh in the exact shape of their adoration. 

    It is slow going, but they have a lifetime left to try.