Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing had only just finished settling into their permanent residence on the mountain when Jing Beiyuan and Wu Xi came to visit, before their journey back to Nanjiang.
It had taken them weeks to find a second exit from the armory -- a narrow air shaft that was definitely meant to keep people from suffocating, and not to accommodate the passage of two grown men. It had been... uncomfortable. Still, after some considerable effort they'd made it, venturing only as far down the mountain as the first tiny excuse for a village, where they'd sent word to Zhang Chengling and the others of their survival. Chengling and an increasingly white haired Ye Baiyi had immediately sought them out. It was a tearful reunion, at least for Wen Kexing and the boy, and even Zhou Zishu's stoicism eventually cracked under Chengling's enthusiastic affection.
Ye Baiyi offered them his place on Changming Mountain, to live. He'd had enough of immortality, it seemed, and had resolved to rejoin the world and its earthly pleasures until death finally claimed him.
It doesn't sound like a bad way to go, Zhou Zishu had thought to himself. It seems like he'll have a lot longer than three years to live, for a start...
And so with the help of Chengling and their friends, they gathered the most important of their belongings and made their way to Changming Mountain right before the spring thaw.
Jing Beiyuan and Wu Xi had stayed with Zhang Chengling for a while even after they'd learned that Wen Kexing and Zhou Zishu had survived their ordeal, helping the boy and the other new disciples of Siji Manor get themselves together and map out the rebuilding effort, most of which was to take place during the warmer months when their shifu and shishu would be unable to stray from the mountaintop. Now that all of the men and boys were taken care of with temporary lodging, adequate supplies, a formal alliance with Deng Kuan and Gao Xiaolian which granted them the support and protection of the Yueyang Sect, and a functional chain of command among themselves, it was time for the prince and the shaman to return home, at last.
Before embarking on their journey the pair made sure to find time to come up the mountain and stay for a few weeks, both of them eager to see with their own eyes that their good friend Zhou Zishu was once again hale and flourishing, and that his unexpected yet wonderful paramour had survived his risky gamble with the Six Harmonies cultivation method.
So far it had been a wonderful visit. After their initial, emotionally joyful reunion, the atmosphere on the mountain quickly grew calm, relaxed, and homey.
Tonight, Zhou Zishu sat in a cool corner of their living space, watching across the room as Jing Beiyuan warmed his hands over a tiny brazier, and marveled that while he could finally feel it again, the cold didn't bother him at all, anymore.
Their enthusiasm was charming, but even Wen Kexing’s modest level of medical literacy was beyond Zhou Zishu’s easy grasp, and he didn’t feel inclined to force himself to focus and follow their conversation... especially since it had been going on for over three hours, now.
He was truly happy that they seemed to be enjoying themselves so well. But... if he were being honest... he was bored.
Being easily bored is not a great attribute for someone who is functionally immortal, he mused, chiding himself for his restlessness.
It was at that point that Jing Beiyuan, catching him in a yawn, decided to collect on a years-old promise.
“I believe you owe me a drink, old friend," he said, walking towards Zhou Zishu with the kind of wicked smile that made a person remember he had once destroyed the lives of two royal princes and countless ordinary men in order to defend a dynasty. "Shall we?”
Jing Beiyuan's smile was contagious, and Zhou Zishu found himself on his feet before his mind caught up with his body. Together they abandoned their partners and went in search of the wine.
“Happiness suits you, Your Highness,” Zhou Zishu commented as they walked towards the room he had set up as his personal study.
“I could say the same about you,” the prince replied blithely with a lazy half smile. “And please, Zishu, let’s do away with the titles. ‘His Highness’ is dead, remember? You helped kill him, after all."
The last was punctuated by a conspiratorial wink.
Zhou Zishu smiled and took a moment to feel grateful that he'd had a hand in securing this man's happiness and peace. Most of his life had been paid for with the blood of others -- it was nice to know that not everyone from his past remembered him by his aptitude for violence. It was nice that someone was still alive to remember, at all.
They each drank from their own bottle: Jing Beiyuan’s warmed against the chill of the mountain, and Zhou Zishu’s so cold that it poured thick and syrupy into his bowl.
Ye Baiyi had been very clear in his instructions to Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing. Any food or drink at all would shave years off of their immortal lives, but ice cold liquids would do the least damage.
Zhou Zishu had decided he could work with that. While he certainly no longer felt ready to die, he had also never sought immortality, and learned well the lesson that a life, no matter how long, was worthless without the people in it. He was grateful for a second chance at living, but he’d be damned if he’d squander that chance hiding like a monk in silent meditation while a friend sat near with bottles to share. Besides, he knew that whatever Prince Nan’ning had brought would be divine; the man loved to drink almost as much as he did. With this friend, one of the truest he could ask for, he drank happily and deeply.
It was a wonderful night. They talked for hours about everything and nothing, catching up on each other’s lives and vowing to stay in touch, this time.
They avoided the past, except when Zhou Zishu asked after Ping’an’s health and well-being (much less stressed out, with his vexing profligate of a master now residing abroad and living primarily off of his wealthy husband's fortune instead of his own), and that vicious little sable (departed, alas, but only after a full life and at a ripe old age, survived by two generations of progeny to keep its memory alive). Instead they went on at length about the food and culture of Nanjiang, Zhang Chengling’s promising future, and idle speculation about the fate of Helian Yi's throne, now that his health was… (ahem) mysteriously… failing.
Falling into the comfortable, quiet intimacy of spending time with someone who has known you for half your life, Zhou Zishu’s guard was down when Jing Beiyuan turned to him with a flush of wine on his cheeks and a wicked sparkle in his normally serene, too-old eyes.
“So... Wen Kexing.”
He should have known the topic was coming.
“What about him?” Zhou Zishu huffed suspiciously, narrowing his eyes.
Jing Beiyuan laughed lightly and poured them each another bowl of wine.
“My goodness, so defensive, Zishu!" he teased. "Calm yourself, noble porcupine! I simply wanted to express my admiration. It takes quite a bit to surprise me, and I honestly didn’t know you had it in you.
“Neither did I,” Zhou Zishu admitted honestly, with a self-deprecating chuckle and a shrug of acceptance. Wen Kexing was the first man in his life he’d even considered kissing, after all. Who could have imagined that they'd end up here... like this?
Jing Beiyuan smirked.
“I did assume I might have figured it out at some point back then, if you’d had any clue, yourself.”
Zhou Zishu ducked his head, feeling exposed.
“No need to hide, Zishu. On the contrary, you should be proud. He is gorgeous, brilliant, utterly shameless, and as devoted a companion as I’ve ever seen. What a catch! I'm just trying to figure out how in the world a cranky, rude, mean-spirited little bastard like you managed to find a love like that.”
Zhou Zishu scowled playfully at his friend, mock-affronted. God, he'd missed this. The prince's tongue had always been sharp enough to cut a man to the core -- he was just glad he'd only ever suffered its friendly teasing and not the caustic censure he knew it could provide when adequately provoked.
“You ask me that like he left me a choice,” Zhou Zishu groused amiably. “He’s an unbelievable pest, I’ll have you know. I couldn’t get away if I tried! Come to think of it, I did try, more than once, at the beginning.”
Remembering that left him feeling a little distressed, actually. Considering what he and Wen Kexing had been through together now, such a cavalier dismissal of his zhiji seemed like an unforgivable crime. He was so grateful Wen Kexing had stayed by his side until he came to his senses.
“You adore him,” Jing Beiyuan reminded him in a teasing whisper, entirely discrediting his grumpiness.
“I know!” Zhou Zishu cried out helplessly, letting his head fall back in exasperation. “I keep telling myself I have absolutely terrible taste. Either that or I guess he really is my soulmate.”
Jing Beiyuan wrinkled his nose in apparent distaste as the hint of a shadow stole the playfulness from his eyes, just for an instant. He took a deep drink.
“That word is useless and I despise it,” he said, his voice, for once, completely devoid of its usual glib amusement. When he spoke again it was with the particular, desperate focus unique to drunk men trying to communicate something important.
“You have to choose him, Zishu. Relying on fate is lazy. If you love him, choose him, with intention. That’s the only thing that matters, do you understand me? You do love him, I know. Anyone can see it. Choose that love. On purpose. Don’t just let it happen to you.”
Zhou Zishu didn’t speak for a moment, tipsy and stunned into momentary silence by the intensity of Jing Beiyuan’s emotions.
What was there to say, anyway? 'Love' seemed like a totally inadequate word to describe what he felt for Wen Kexing, but choosing him was certainly no hardship. Finding no words to help him, he simply held the other man’s gaze as he nodded.
Jing Beiyuan seemed to understand, though.
His eyes went soft at whatever he saw in Zhou Zishu’s face, and he drained his cup before speaking again, as lighthearted and flippant as if he hadn’t just been drunkenly lecturing Zhou Zishu like an old grandfather trying to impart wisdom on his deathbed.
“Zishu,” he began conspiratorially, cheeks flushed and eyes sparkling. “I have a bet to settle with my husband.”
Zhou Zishu raised a silent eyebrow, understandably cautious. That look was all mischief.
Jing Beiyuan nodded, then leaned close enough to whisper, “Top or bottom?”
Top or... OH!
“Excuse me!?” Zhou Zishu spluttered, feeling abruptly scandalized.
“Stop that, don’t be a prude. I know that act is nothing but horseshit anyway. You can’t fool me into thinking you’re too well mannered to speak about bawdy things, and even if you were, we’re drunk now. No excuses -- answer the question.”
Zhou Zishu's face felt hot, but not from the wine. What could he.... He didn’t know what to say!
Jing Beiyuan would not be ignored.
“This Prince of Nan’ning demands to know!” He declared in a parody of his most arrogant and formal tone, with authority that might have held more command if he hadn’t yet finished his fifth jar of wine.
“The Prince of Nan’ning is dead, remember?" Zhou Zishu shot back with a wolfish grin. "I helped to kill him myself.”
“Ohhhhh... not going to answer, then? Hmm? Such a shame, I didn’t mark you for being a coward."
Jing Beiyuan smiled haughtily, fully aware and entirely unrepentant that he was pushing Zhou Zishu's most sensitive buttons.
Was Zhou Zishu really going to have to have this conversation? Out loud? In words?
Jing Beiyuan gazed at him across the desk with a placid look on his uncommonly lovely face and cold steel in his eyes. Zhou Zishu took a moment to feel a rare pang of sympathy for Helian Yi's late brothers before taking a deep, slow breath.
“I don’t…” he stammered, “We haven’t… ahh… You have to understand, I was so ill, Your Highness. We haven’t...”
Jing Beiyuan looked at him incredulously for a moment, before reaching out to flick him on the forehead with a long, well manicured finger.
“Surely you can muster the will to call me Beiyuan, when I’m shamelessly prying into your sex life. Stop being so formal.”
Zhou Zishu dragged his hands down over his face, and then ground out with a pointed glare, “Okay. Fine, have it your way. Shut the hell up, Beiyuan, you absolute fucking bastard.”
That earned him a cackle of delight.
“That’s more like it!” the prince exclaimed, grinning from ear to ear.
Zhou Zishu chuckled despite himself.
Jing Beiyuan did not, however, shut up. He did pour them each another bowl of wine, though. Zhou Zishu took his back in a single, icy gulp and immediately decanted another in a transparent effort to calm his rattled nerves. Why was he so embarrassed? Why was talking about sex so challenging? They were both adults, after all.
He took a deep breath.
“We’ve… been intimate,” he explained haltingly. “We just haven’t….”
“You haven’t fucked,” Jing Beiyuan finished for him, drawing out the single syllable of the word "fucked" in a way that felt truly filthy, somehow. Then, after pausing to take a sip. “I understand why you didn't before, but you’ve both been safe and healthy for weeks now. Wu Xi says you're both as fighting fit as any young man he's ever seen. Why not now? Is it that you're not interested? Or does it make you nervous?”
Zhou Zishu blushed harder.
What the hell.
He was the world’s most dangerous living assassin and an immortal. Surely he could talk to his oldest friend about sex.
“You should let him take you,” Jing Beiyuan advised sagely, apparently done waiting for him to reply. There was only the barest hint of a slur from the wine in his voice.
Zhou Zishu most certainly could not talk to his oldest friend about sex.
“What!” he choked out “I mean… Why? Why would you say that?”
Jing Beiyuan rolled his eyes.
“Because it would be good for you both, Zishu. It’s often easier to let the more experienced party top the first time, as long as that suits your inclinations, and honestly he gives me the impression he’ll be very, very good at it. It’s more fun when they’re a little feral. And besides, We all know you’ve never been good at allowing yourself pleasure — all dour and serious all the time behind your fake faces for so many years. Do yourself a favor and let the man take care of you.”
Zhou Zishu wanted to crawl under his desk and hide.
“Surely it would be a greater pleasure to do the taking,” he murmured through gritted teeth, looking up from his wine for just a moment to catch Jing Beiyuan’s eye.
That earned him a regally arched eyebrow and a condescending smirk.
“You have no idea what you’re talking about, old friend. I assure you, you are gravely mistaken.”
In a daze of embarrassment Zhou Zishu thought back to their time in the capitol… he’d known Jing Qi was a cutsleeve from the beginning, of course, even as infrequent as his intimate connections had been, before his discreet departure for Nanjiang (excluding that one incident which had been deliberately crafted to attract as much attention as humanly possible, of course). It was Zhou Zishu's job to know things, especially about Helian Yi's inner circle. The types of boys Jing Qi had visited on his rare, discreet visits to the Yellow Flower Pavilion were all as slender and willowy as him, usually younger, and always incredibly deferential and submissive.
“I thought you never--“ he began.
“Times change,” Jing Beiyuan cut him off before he could finish his thought. “Sometimes they change for the better.”
Zhou Zishu took an indecently large gulp of his wine straight from the bottle and stared at his friend, fascinated against his will and desperately wishing his immortal metabolism would let him feel drunker.
“I know what you saw, back then," Jing Beiyuan went on, guessing at his train of thought. "It was what I allowed people to see. Because even that was all part of the game, living up to (or down to) everyone's expectations, you know? I had to make sure our enemies wouldn't pay any attention to us, and the best way to do that is to be predictable."
They shared a heavy look, before the prince continued.
"That's not to say it was a hardship. Clearly it wasn't! I always enjoyed the flirtation, of course, the banter and the moment of conquest. Who doesn’t? And the boys at the pleasure house were so pretty and pliant, you'd have to be a stronger man than I, to resist enjoying them. But I couldn't trust them, and I wasn’t going to allow myself to be vulnerable with them.
"Wu Xi... Wu Xi is different. Being in love is different. You have to feel that I'm right, Zishu. You must understand, now, what I mean."
Zhou Zishu felt his face flushing again. Talking about love was even more mortifying than sex, apparently. He nodded jerkily, forcing himself to meet Jing Beiyuan's eyes even though he couldn't make himself speak. The prince nodded back, apparently satisfied, and then (of course) he kept talking, fortified by copious wine and his own innate sense of arrogance.
"So, all I'm saying is... if it's fear that's holding you back, just stop being an idiot and let that gorgeous man take care of you! He wants you so badly it makes me feel hot under the collar. I’ve never heard a man wax poetic about another man’s shoulder blades so eloquently; he obviously intends to spend a significant amount of time looking at them. It'll be hard to do that if you’re the one behind him, don’t you think?”
He was spared the ordeal of trying to come up with a response to that by the approach of Wen Kexing's footsteps.
Zhou Zishu had quite literally never been so happy to see the man, and considering the experiences the two of them had shared, that was really saying something.
“What are you two doing in here?” Wen Kexing asked as he walked into the study and approached Zhou Zishu and Jing Beiyuan, narrowing his eyes in disapproval at their closeness.
Jing Beiyuan held up both hands in a gesture of peace, saying, “Put away your fangs, Valley Master! You’ve nothing to fear from me. I’m happily married! I’ve got everything I want and need already, and my husband is... very possessive. I’m just having a conversation with my old friend here... and, I suppose, also... advocating for you.”
His smile was angelic, except for the red flush of alcohol.
“We we’re having a simple heart to heart about ah… logistics. From one friend to another.”
“You’re drunk.” The fact appeared to be a surprise to Wen Kexing.
“We are!!” Jing Beiyuan was evidently delighted by this. “Or at least I am. A little. Drunk and honest. It's marvelous. I've been wanting to share drinks with this man for a decade now -- he's the only one who could ever keep up with me... Ah, this Zishu! He’s more of a brother to me than my own family, you know. I owe him my life and everything that makes it worth living. I just... I want him to be as happy as I’ve learned how to be.”
Wen Kexing looked appraisingly at him, his expression bordering on sincere approval for the first time since they’d met.
“I will do anything for A’Xu’s happiness.”
“I know," Jing Beiyuan sighed happily. "I know! I love that about you. It's my favorite thing about you, Wen Kexing. And I’ve just been explaining to him that that’s why I think he should let you fuck him.”
Wen Kexing’s mouth dropped open in shock.
Jing Beiyuan took his stunned silence as license to continue speaking.
"I mean, it's obvious he should, unless I’ve tragically misread you, but I don’t think I have. I've got a feeling you know your way around a man’s body, and well... And... Well, there's the fact that he’s obviously a pillow princess.”
Zhou Zishu’s indignant squawk almost masked Wen Kexing’s strangled sound of shocked amusement.
“Beiyuan, what the fuck?" Zhou Zishu lept to defend his own honor, absolutely appalled at the accusation. "I am not! This is slander. What the fuck are you saying right now?”
Jing Beiyuan rolled his eyes.
Were he not a prince and the consort of the known world's most powerful poison master, Zhou Zishu would have certainly punched him. Even so, he was considering it, until he was distracted by Wen Kexing, the traitor, who laughed aloud, the sound erupting from him like he simply couldn't hold it in any longer.
“A’Xu," he said once he managed to catch his breath with his most infuriatingly patronizing smile, "I believe this wise prince has a point.”
“We’ll see about that, you fickle bitch.”
Enough was enough. He didn't have to put up with this kind of abuse.
Zhou Zishu leaped out of his chair and lunged for Wen Kexing, now spoiling for a fight. He hadn't even managed to land a single hit, though, before another pair of footsteps came down the corridor.
Wu Xi tapped lightly on the open door with a knuckle before entering.
“It's you! I love you!” Jing Beiyuan exclaimed, leaping out of his seat to drape himself over Wu Xi just like that old sable: apparently boneless and full of mischief.
Luckily, Wu Xi was a master at handling dangerous creatures.
Da Wu gave a long suffering sigh, intuiting immediately what was going on since, unlike Wen Kexing, he’d had countless experiences during his youth to inform his understanding about how a night of drinking between these two compatriots would inevitably end up.
“And so now you’re drunk, and talking even more than normal.”
“He really is.” Zhou Zishu complained, happy to shift the focus onto someone else.
“I am not! I’m merely explaining how good it is to be fucked.”
“Beiyuan!” Wu Xi hissed, appropriately scandalized. Too bad no one had told him there was no polite company to be had, here.
“Oh hush," Jing Beiyuan shushed his husband with a finger against his lips. "We’re grown men who have all done absolutely unspeakable things in our torrid and complicated lives. You don’t need to be so priggish about sex, honestly. It’s just sex.”
The Great Shaman’s expression spoke volumes about his opinion on the idea that, "sex is just sex.”
“Stop scheming,” he chided softly, but with an edge of steel in his voice.
Jing Beiyuan sniffed haughtily.
“I absolutely shall not! Don’t be absurd. I’m amazing at scheming. It’s what I do best, and these boys are in dire need of help if they don’t want to use up their whole eternity talking around the issue. That would be a waste, Little Venom, and you know it. When you have a handsome, brilliant, devoted, murderous husband, you’re supposed to let him take care of you! I should know.”
He gave Wu Xi a pointed look.
"I'm going to gag you," Wu Xi promised with narrowed eyes, but his husband wasn't listening. He was speaking to a bewildered Wen Kexing again.
“You don’t have to be jealous of me, handsome Kexing. Even if Zishu wasn’t absolutely gagging for your cock, and even if I weren’t hopelessly in love with this gorgeous wizard and his perfect arms, Zishu would be far too much work for me. I prefer eager-to-please boys. This one needs more care. He doesn’t know how to feel good, yet, I think, but when he figures it out... ah! He's going to be so greedy....”
Zhou Zishu could practically see the emotions battling for dominance on Wen Kexing's face. He was struggling to be possessive and jealous but the uncontrollable amusement kept breaking through against his will.
“We should leave. We're leaving.”
“Yes!" Jing Beiyuan went willingly, and with great enthusiasm. "Take me to bed, finally. It's about time! Ravage me, Little Venom. It's so cold and I need you to warm me up....”
And then they were gone.
The silence in the room after their departure was absolutely deafening.
“Are you?” Wen Kexing finally asked, a slow, wicked smile spreading across his face.
“Am I what?”
“Gagging for my cock.”
Zhou Zishu elbowed him sharply, a fresh wave of embarrassment flooding over him.
Zhou Zishu resolved to find himself a new mountain. His own mountain where he could live alone and spend eternity unmolested and untormented.
“It isn’t a yes, either!"
"Well, are you?"
Zhou Zishu turned to glare at his zhiji's face.
"What I am, is about to beat you up until you can't stand up tomorrow."
"Hmmmmmmm idle threats...."
Zhou Zishu went to throw a punch, but Wen Kexing caught him by the wrist. He squeezed gently, stepping forward into Zhou Zishu's personal space.
“That’s not how that’s supposed to work.”
“Oh, no? Well then, enlighten me. How should this work? What can I do to make my A'Xu happy?"
Wen Kexing bent his head again, pressing his lips to the same spot he'd just bitten. A shiver ran from the base of Zhou Zishu's spine to the top of his head, and a hot curl of arousal settled low in his belly.
“You want to fuck me?” he asked Wen Kexing, suddenly feeling brazen.
“Like I want to breathe,” Wen Kexing replied easily, his voice low and intimate, breath ghosting along the shell of Zhou Zishu's ear.
Zhou Zishu felt reckless and bold, tipsy from the effects of the wine.
“Well then," he smirked. "I hope you can catch me and take what you want. Otherwise I guess you’ll just have to suffocate."
He broke into a run, leaving Wen Kexing laughing behind him.
The game was on.
Qin Huaizhang would surely be appalled at this blatantly inappropriate use of Siji Manor's trademark Fast Moving Steps -- a childish game of tag, with sex on the line as the prize.
Then again… maybe not. He'd only ever wanted to see his disciples happy and safe, after all.
Zhou Zishu laughed as he ran, feeling exhilarated.
It was good to be alive.