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The Turn of Events in Life

Chapter Text

Mìngyùn

命運; 命运

Translated literally as The Turn of Events in Life

 

 

  It all went wrong.

  He could feel it, feel that his meridians weren’t healing, feel the refined qi from his zhiji leaking from him rather than filling, healing him.  He could even feel Wen Kexing’s desperation.

  Then something changed, shifted.  The intent changed.  He tried to assist as best he could, lending his zhiji focus and channeling his own qi with Wen Kexing’s.

  He blinked his eyes open, clearing blurry vision, to find his Lao Wen with his head bent, his hair cascading silver about his shoulders.  Wen Kexing’s hands slipped from his own and Zhou Zishu lurched forward to capture them, pain erupting in his chest.  He fought to hold on as he felt himself fading.

  As his vision failed, he slipped to the side, Wen Kexing slumping with him.

  His heart ceased beating, his breath slowed then stopped.

  Black.  Or rather, nothingness.

  No Naihe Bridge.  No Three Life Stone.  Just...nothing.  No sound, no scent, nothing to be felt, absolutely nothing.

  

  Zhou Zishu came to awareness, slow, syrupy, sitting at what appeared to be his desk in his Tian Chuang office in the Imperial Palace in Jin.

  No Lao Wen.  No pain.  

  He gazed around, trying to orient himself.  Definitely his office.  The only truly personal item was the brush and ink stone of his master, Qin Huaizhang, sitting as it always had right in the centre of his desk.  He reached out to touch it, tentative.  It felt real.  Then his eyes drifted to the side, to the incongruous box he kept on a stand in the corner.

  The nails.

  He patted over his chest, then pulled open his robes, Tian Chuang robes, to find his chest clear of any scars.

  “What the fuck is going on?”  Was he dreaming?  He pinched the skin of his chest, frowning at the spark of pain.  Not a dream.

  He’s wearing Tian Chuang robes, sitting in his Tian Chuang office, he has no nails in his chest, nor even the marks of them, he’s most certainly not in the Armory.  He’s not with Wen Kexing.  He doesn’t feel dead.

  If it wasn’t a dream, then how was he back here?  Had he and Lao Wen somehow sent him here, and did that mean Wen Kexing was…where?  Ghost Valley?  Maybe, possibly.  It stands to reason, if such a thing even counts in this situation, that Lao Wen has somehow been transported somewhere.  Considering how his body was free of the scars from the nails, did that mean he had gone back?

  How far back?  When?

  He started frantically rifling through the paperwork on his desk, scanning reports.  One of them made him pause.  It detailed a mission to obtain information where several of their members had been killed.  Two had been from Siji Manor.  It sparked a memory of when .  He abandoned his search through the reports and wrenched open a small drawer in the desk, shaking hands now holding the list of men he’d brought with him from his sect.  Beside a lot of names was a small red blossom.  But there were still a number that had nothing to indicate death.  Including Jiuxiao.

  He slumped in his chair, robes still in disarray.

  Jiuxiao was still alive, his shidi wasn’t gone.

  Now he had an indication of when he was.  A few weeks, or maybe a month or two before the catalyst for him inserting the first nail.  Certainly not too much more than that.  The time when he had begun to suspect his sect was being sacrificed.  He should have seen it sooner, but Duan Pengju and Helian Yi had been clever, making sure that Siji Manor disciples weren’t the only ones to die.  Muddying the waters enough that it had taken Zhou Zishu far too long to put the pieces together.  

  His eyes widened.

  He could save some of them this time.

  So many that he could save, that they could save.  Jiuxiao was still alive, as was his lover, the princess.  Luo Hao, Jiang Xiaoxue, Bi Changfeng, a dozen others from Siji Manor were still alive.  Han Ying, Bi Xingming, Cheng Zichen and the others that Han Ying had recruited.  Zhang Yusen and his whole family, not just Chengling, could be saved.  Gu Xiang.  Oh, he had to save her.  The Four Sages of Anji, Long Que, Gao Chong.  Fan Huai Kong.  Cao Weining.  Luo FuMeng and Liu Qianqiao.

  He decided that Duan Pengju should still die.  Helian Yi would be sorely weakened with Tian Chuang’s second in command gone.  The next in line would have been Han Ying, but he would not be there to replace the man.  Zhou Zishu was determined that Han Ying would have his most fervent wish granted.  The next in line was nowhere near the expert in the craft of spy nor assassin that Han Ying was, so he felt safer knowing it would restrict Helian Yi from tracking him down.  

  Once he had everything lined up, they would all leave Siji Manor, find somewhere to stay, let Helian Yi think he hadn’t gone home.  Once his position was secure, everyone safe, Zhao Jing and Helian Yi dealt with, only then would they permanently return to his home.

  He glanced at the box he kept the nails in, thinking carefully about how to proceed.  He still had to make Helian Yi think he had taken them, but he wouldn’t this time.  He would need his full strength.  He could fake it.  Take something to mimic a weakening of his meridians, cut himself open and place the heads of the nails there to show the Prince.  Yes.  That would be what he would do.  Helian Yi would never let him go, he’d known it then and he knew it even more now.

  He may have to take one nail in fully to convince the man, but that was far easier to remedy than seven.  Wu Xi could surely help him recover from that.  And it wouldn’t restrict him.  Not enough to matter at any rate.  Wen Kexing surely would understand why he had still taken one.

  He considered which meridian to put it into, discarding the one over his lower dantain immediately with a blush.  When he saw his Lao Wen again, he wanted to be functioning in certain ways.  He decided on placing the true nail over one of his ribs, it would put a burden on his breathing when he exerted himself, but not completely as the other would be fine.

  Setting down the list of the remaining members from Siji Mountain Pavilion, he took up his brush and parchment.

  There were three letters he needed to write before he went any further.

  The first was to Jing Beiyuan and Wu Xi.  He apologised for not going to see them, and for not having a long awaited drink with Beiyuan, remembering how the former prince had teased him.  He explained what he needed and the extent of Long Que’s condition, that he was hoping to have him extracted from his imprisonment.  He asked them to meet him at Siji Manor, thinking it would be safe enough there for a while.  If not, he could repair the defensive array to give them time to escape through the secret room.

   I will need medical assistance also.  In order to complete my ruse and leave I will be injuring one of my meridians.  To leave Tian Chuang, one must take in seven nails, placed over one’s meridians.  They expand and block qi.  My body will display the scars of the other six, but I will not take them, only the heads to convince him I have taken them all.  It will convince him I am going to die.  I know I am asking a great favor, but I hope that you don’t mind doing this for me.

  Beiyuan, he’s been eradicating all the members of my sect.  Jiuxiao is still alive, but he is in danger, so I am going to send him away with several others and a number who are loyal to me.  I wish to keep them safe until I can fully resurrect my home.

  I will explain everything when I can, but please, for the history we share, trust me.  I will send this through Ping An, to ensure it reaches you, and will give him instructions on how to find me.  I hope to be at home, but if it becomes dangerous I will prevail upon your hospitality and use one of your properties.  Don’t ask how I know of them, as I said, I will explain when I can.

  I will need a few months to put my plans into action, but then I will leave, so it will give you both some time to plan yourselves.

  As an afterthought, he quickly sketched one of the nails, taking one out of the box and holding it so he could get it right.  Then he sketched it again as it would look expanded to show Wu Xi what he was dealing with, and sealed the letter.

  The next missive was to Ye Baiyi.  He was thoroughly honest in the letter, detailing precisely what had been happening, what had happened to him, what had happened to Wen Kexing and his parents, and that he hoped to change the course of the future (or past depending on the view point).  He desperately needed Ye Baiyi’s assistance, so he needed to convince the Immortal.  That was only possible if he told him all he knew.  He begged him to find a way to get Long Que out from under his son’s thumb, to take him to Siji Manor and wait for Beiyuan and Wu Xi.  He felt no compunction in mentioning their names, knowing Ye Baiyi knew who they were already, rather than make him a frog in a well this time.

  He used the same arguments he’d made to him before, asking if he was right to judge Wen Kexing when he had been fighting for survival.

   I hope this time to show him another way before he causes chaos in the Jianghu.  He repented, he felt remorse for what happened to Zhang Chengling’s family.  I will warn them, just in case he does not remember, however, he was not the cause of their deaths the first time, that was a faction within the Ghosts that were already working for Zhao Jing.  Wen Kexing deserves his revenge, and I will assist him with that, but I intend to limit the damage to just the man himself.  I will speak to Gao Chong if I must, to convince him as well.

  We can save so many lives this way, including Wen Kexing himself.  I have no token to offer you in exchange, so I can only beg.  Please, I beg you, Ye qianbei, please help me, help Long Que.  We can lay Rong Xuan to rest properly, clear his name.  We can right many wrongs by doing this.

  The third letter was the most difficult to write.

A-Xu sends love to his Lao Wen.  

He put down his brush for a moment, staring at what he’d written, hoping Lao Wen would remember, but he had to word the letter in such a way that it wouldn’t be disregarded if he didn’t.  Picking up his brush, he dipped it in the ink and very carefully set it to paper.

I hope you know what that means, Lao Wen, I truly do.  However, if you don’t, I will explain when we meet, because we do need to meet.  I have information about the death of your parents, I know exactly who was to blame and I can help you.  I will do what I can to prove my sincerity should you be without your memories of me.

  Please be wary of Kai Xin Gui, Ji Se Gui and most of all, Wu Chang Gui.  They are easily led astray.  I do not know how deep their betrayal goes, but I do know that Luo FuMeng and Liu Qianqiao are loyal to you.  Gu Xiang, is of course, beyond betrayal to her brother.

  As for who I am, if you don’t remember me, I am your Shixiong.  I will not use your real name, I know it causes you pain, but I do know it.  I know the name you have taken is a splitting of the character that makes up the name your parents gave you.  Your days with us were short, but they were bright, Lao Wen.  My Shifu accepted you as his disciple, second only to me, and that remained true for the rest of his life.  It remains true for me as well.

  If you remember, I will be leaving for my home, our home, soon, with as many as I can safely take.  If I am not there, it is because it became dangerous due to who I am, and who I left behind.  I will leave instructions at the Ping An Bank in Yue as to my whereabouts.  He can be trusted, implicitly.  The man who I am sending this letter with, he will assist you.  Han Ying can be trusted absolutely, let him serve you in my place.

  If you do not remember, I will meet you in Yue when the time comes.  With Swift Moving Steps, I will come to you.

  He signed the letter A-Xu and set it aside.  If Wen Kexing’s memories aren’t intact, he hopes it will be enough.  They are alike after all.  If Zhou Zishu received a letter like that one, he would at least want to know what was behind it.  He’s peppered it with enough insinuations and full truths that Wen Kexing will be intrigued and if he doesn’t understand where to meet Zhou Zishu, well, he will simply waltz up to the door of Ghost Valley and ask for an audience.  Failing that, he will inform Han Ying of the where and when and have him convince Wen Kexing to meet with him.

  He will not lose his zhiji.

  Now, it was time to start enacting his plan to leave the Imperial City and Tian Chuang.  He stood, shuffling the letters in his hands, then tucked them into his robes for the moment.  The one to Beiyuan he will take to the nearest Ping An bank himself, he’s leery of even letting his trusted subordinate handle it, lest Helian Yi catch wind of the place it’s going to.  He may just sniff out the who and that would be a disaster. The other two he will entrust to Han Ying while he does his bidding on the other matters.  Under the guise of Tian Chuang business.  If the third letter finds its recipient in the state Zhou Zishu hopes, Han Ying will be out of Helian Yi’s clutches.  If not, Zhou Zishu will have to handle things there a little differently.  

  Duan Pengju, he will deal with almost immediately.  He can’t have him sniffing around and disrupting his plans.  He smiled as he thought of the perfect way to dispatch him, something nasty to suit the man’s nature, vile and messy.  It was going to be a risk, perhaps, but Duan Pengju deserved nothing less than a truly painful death.

  Zhou Zishu pushed the door to his office open, asking the guard  stationed there to find Han Ying for him.  When the guard didn’t even blink at the command, Zhou Zishu's stomach settled.  Han Ying was alive.  He wanted to laugh, he’d been crafting all his plans without even truly checking that he was when he thought he was.

  Lao Wen’s influence.  Jumping in without thinking. 

 

Chapter Text

 

  When Han Ying presented himself, obedient and deferential as ever, living, breathing, Zhou Zishu had to resist the ache that made him want to reach out and make sure the man was real.  His subordinate already had an unhealthy amount of hero worship going on, and Zhou Zishu was loath to add to it by touching him so familiarly, even if it would have been a simple hand to his pale cheek.

  Keeping his voice low, Zhou Zishu greeted him, then leaned in, handing him the list of the remaining members of Siji Manor.  “I have several very important tasks for you, because I trust you implicitly.  I need you to send word, or speak personally to everyone on this list, have them be alert, and to not accept any commissions from anyone but me or yourself.  Never from Pengju.”  The last a hissed whisper.

  Han Ying nodded, eyes thoughtful as he scanned the list, understanding alighting his expression a moment later.  Zhou Zishu smiled at him, pleased he’d puzzled it out without him having to explain that there were undoubtedly spies among the ranks.

  “I understand Zhuangzhu,” Han Ying murmured.

  Zhou Zishu gifted him one of his rare smiles, a genuine one.  “Thank you, Ying’er.  Speak to Jiuxiao personally, ask him, plead if you have to, but make sure he understands that he is not to believe anything unless from your mouth or mine.  Tell him to…”  He paused, frowning, not wanting to say the name of his home out loud, even if he’d been speaking in tones so low anyone outside would have trouble hearing him.  He turned and quickly wrote the characters he needed and held it up for Han Ying to read, then touched the paper to the flame of the candle on his desk.  “Tell him, I am sorry I cannot see him tonight,” he said a little louder, inclining his head towards the door with a raised brow.  Han Ying’s eyes widened a fraction, then he nodded.  “I find I am tired, I will head to my residence and will be there when you are done to hear your report.”

  Han Ying’s brows raised in surprise at that, knowing Zhou Zishu rarely stayed there, let alone admitted to weariness but he recovered quickly and bowed.  The residence that Helian Yi had gifted him was far more secluded and private than his office in the Palace.

  It was an hour or two after he arrived at his residence that Han Ying turned up and met with him in his study.  He stood with his back to the man, studying the painting representing the members of Siji Manor, so few white blooms remained, but still more than he could have hoped for.  He’d dismissed all the staff and waited for Han Ying to approach.  When he stood beside him, he sighed.

  “I am sorry for the secrecy, but I cannot trust that Pengju and my illustrious cousin did not have spies listening in.  I cannot risk them hearing my plans.”  He glanced at the younger man, “Jiuxiao understood?”

  “Yes, Zhuangzhu, he wished to know more, but I told him that you would speak when you could.  Bi Changfeng seemed…pleased.”  Han Ying hesitated, unsure how to proceed.

  “Ask, Ying’er.  Speak freely, I wish to know your thoughts.”

  With a slow blink, Han Ying inclined his head, “you are…different.  I am honored by your trust, Zhuangzhu, and the…familiarity.  You are planning something.”

  Zhou Zishu’s lips quirked in a wry smile.    He didn’t feel the need to address the first part of Han Ying’s statement, hopefully there will be enough time later.  “I am...  I am planning several things, and I need your help.”

  Han Ying dropped to his knees, hands clasped before him, head bowed, “anything, Zhuangzhu.  It is yours to command.”

  “Up, up, Ying’er,” Zhou Zishu pleaded softly.  “I would ask , not command in this.”  Han Ying rose slowly and Zhou Zishu indicated the painting.  “You know what this signifies?”  At Han Ying’s quick nod, he continued, “each bloom is a disciple of this generation.”  He caressed one of the reddened blooms, “these in red are the blooms of those who have died.  They died because they followed me into a vipers den, because I thought they would be safe with me here.  They were not.  They have been systematically thrown away by a man I thought I could trust.”

  Han Ying sucked in a harsh breath, “he…”

  Zhou Zishu’s eyes flashed, “he is my cousin, but he thinks that to keep me he needs to isolate me from all that I love, give me nowhere to turn but him.  He’s wrong.  I will show him that in time, but not for a while.”  He glanced at Han Ying again, “I will keep them safe, and add to their number.”  The younger man’s eyes held a deep longing in their depths.  “You call me Lord, as my disciples do, Ying’er.  You wish to be a disciple of Siji Manor.”

  “Yes, Zhuangzhu,” Han Ying whispered fervently.  “Yes, I…”

  Zhou Zishu smiled at him, “then you shall be.  And any others you think would leave with us.  It must be done carefully, Ying’er.  Helian Yi must be kept in the dark as to our purpose.”

  Han Ying’s lip wobbled, then he got himself under control, following when Zhou Zishu went to his desk.  “Zhuangzhu?” he murmured when he saw the box that contained the nails, his face ashen.

  “I am going to use these, not in the way you think, Ying’er.  I made the rule, I think I should be allowed to rescind it.  But, Helian Yi will not know that.”  He opened the box and showed Han Ying the shortened nails, all but one made up of the heads only.  “When everything else is in place, I will place the heads over my meridians, then I will take the last and use it to convince Helian Yi I am dying and wish to be granted the last so I can leave.”  He closed the box again, “I wish to be free, and free to live.  I have things I need to do.”

  “Other than the revival of Siji Manor, Zhuangzhu?”

  Zhou Zishu nodded, “yes.”  He patted the three letters stacked on his desk.  “These are part of it.  This,” he said, holding up the letter to Beiyuan and Wu Xi.  “This is to be sent to someone Helian Yi thinks is dead, he and his husband can help me extract the full nail once they arrive.  Then I will be back to full strength.  One nail will weaken me a little, but not so much, yet I will need all my strength after for everything else I plan.  I will deliver it to the nearest Ping An bank myself.”  He held up the next, “this must be delivered to the Sword Immortal of Changming, Ye Baiyi.  I will entrust you with it, you can take it to a different Ping An bank, they are trustworthy.  Ye Baiyi…I need him to rescue someone important before it is too late.  The man he is to rescue is old and dying, but I want to make his last years far more pleasant than his life currently.  The place he is in is difficult to reach for anyone but Ye Baiyi.”  He placed the letter in front of Han Ying then took up the last.  

The most important. 

The one that held his heart and hopes. 

He swept his fingers over the characters that made up Wen Kexing’s title.  “This is…this is the most important to me, the most personal.  I would ask you to deliver it directly into his hands.  It is also the most dangerous task, as I am asking you to go somewhere that has a fearsome reputation.  A reputation well earned.”

  “Who is it for?” Han Ying asked quietly, watching Zhou Zishu’s fingers caress the address.  

  “He is…he is everything to me.”  Zhou Zishu sucked in a low breath, “he is the Guzhu of Ghost Valley.”

  Han Ying’s eyes went wide, flicking from the letter to Zhou Zishu, startled.  “The Guzhu…”

  “His name is Wen Kexing, but that is not widely known, so do not use it unless you have to.  When you get to the gates of the Valley, ask to speak to Guzhu on an important matter.  If they will not let you see him, ask for Gu Xiang, or Luo Fumeng.  Knowing those names should grant you access as they are also secret.  Do not fight with anyone, but also do not trust any but those three I have named.  A woman by the name of Liu Qianqiao may see you first, request that she take you to Luo Fumeng.  Liu Qianqiao is the Green Siren, the Beauty Ghost, the lowest of the Ten Devils.  She does not have the authority to take you to Wen Kexing himself, but she can take you to Luo Fumeng, Xi Sang Gui.  Luo Fumeng is easily recognisable, with pure white hair and red robes.”  

  He paused, considering what he should have Han Ying say to Luo Fumeng.  “She is an astute woman, and she cares for Wen Kexing dearly.  Impress upon her that the letter you carry bears information that will help Guzhu, that you mean him no harm.  If you meet Gu Xiang first, well…be prepared to defend yourself no matter what you say.  She uses a whip, and she is good, but young, wears purple.  Impetuous.  Do not hurt her, that will earn you the wrath of Wen Kexing.”  He scrubbed a hand over his face, “I wish I could go myself, it would save so much trouble, but I cannot leave here yet.  I hope when Wen Kexing sees you, he will…understand, but if he shows no recognition, just give him the letter.  Be respectful, Han Ying, even more than you would normally.  He is…he is your shishu, though he may not remember that and if he doesn’t he will not react well to being told so.”

  Han Ying blinked.  “He is…from Siji Manor?”

  Zhou Zishu sighed, “yes and no.  His history is complicated and I am not comfortable giving you all the information on his past without his knowledge.  He was taken in as second disciple when he was a child, but…he was not able to stay with us.  You can tell him my name, he knows it, regardless of what else he remembers.  You can use it to gain an audience, indeed it may be the fastest way to gain access to him.”

  “How will I know him, Zhuangzhu?”

  Zhou Zishu laughed, “that will be easy, Ying’er.  Most of the ghosts wear masks, all but the Ten Devils and Gu Xiang.  And Wen Kexing would never cover his face.  He’d think it a travesty to consider.  When in the Valley he lines his eyes in red, he’s tall, taller than me, slim, dresses all in red, beautifully embroidered red.  Often wears a pin of white jade in his hair.  Carries a deadly fan he can imbue with qi and his mood can change like lightning, so be aware of that.  There’s a good reason he’s known as a lunatic, Ying’er.  

“No-one is allowed close to him, the ghosts will step away when he approaches to a regulated distance.  He is elegant, graceful.  An incorrigible flirt who loves pretty men.  Loves poetry.  And fucking walnuts.”  He laughed again.  “In fact, take him a bag of Wolong nuts as a gift.”  

  Han Ying blinked again, looking a little confused by his Lord’s mirth.

  “He’s beautiful, Ying’er.  Deadly and so very beautiful,” he added softly.  “He is my zhiji, my everything, my reason to live.”  Han Ying made a soft sound at that and Zhou Zishu looked up sharply to find the younger man struggling to control his features.  He was deeply distressed at that news.  Oh.  Oh, poor Han Ying.  Zhou Zishu had not meant to cause him pain with that information, he simply hadn’t thought...  He crossed to him, taking up his hands, making Han Ying blink up at him.  “I did not know it went this deep, Ying’er.  I’m sorry.”

  Red painted Han Ying’s cheeks, casting his eyes down, “I do not presume…I would never…”  He tried to extract his hands from Zhou Zishu’s grip, but he held fast.

  “I know,” Zhou Zishu said, morose.  “Perhaps I should not send you, I have no wish to cause you more pain.”  Han Ying was a clever, sweet and attractive man.  Loyal to a fault.  A confidence in him that Zhou Zishu got to see when he was unaware of being watched by his Lord.  There may have been a possibility had Zhou Zishu never known Wen Kexing, but that was not the case.  “You are lovely, Ying’er, truly.  If my head and heart were not so full of another, I may have pursued you.”

  Han Ying’s eyes shone at that, the blush painting his cheeks deepening, “Zhuangzhu, it is enough to know that.  More than I could ever have hoped for.  I…I do not mind going to meet Wen Kexing.  He truly must be special for you to love him.”

  “He is,” Zhou Zishu murmured.  “But, so are you, Ying’er.”  He gave into his earlier impulse and stroked Han Ying’s cheek, the blush rising so he felt the heat of it.  “Please, remember that.  You’re young, this will pass.”

  Han Ying shook his head, lowering his gaze, “it will not, but I am alright with that.  As long as I can serve you, I am content.”

  “Will serving Wen Kexing in my stead suffice for now?  Once you have seen Bi Xingming and asked him to join us, he can sort through those you think would come, as I hope you will be with Guzhu in Ghost Valley until he is ready to meet me.  That might be almost immediately, if he…recalls.  If he doesn’t, it will be over a year, then I want you to convince him to meet me in Yue.”  He gave Han Ying the approximate date and the name of the restaurant where he had first locked eyes with Wen Kexing.  He released Han Ying’s hands, creating a little space between them to let the man think.

  It took Han Ying less than a second before he went down on his knees again, “it would be my honor to do this for you, Zhuangzhu.”  He gazed up at Zhou Zishu from his place at his feet, “I do this of my own free will.”

  Zhou Zishu raised him up, “no, I am honored by your service to me in this, Ying’er.  More than you can know.  Thank you.  I can rest easier knowing that you will be there with him.”

  

  Bi Xingming slipped into Zhou Zishu’s office in the darkest part of the night, “Zhuangzhu?”

  Zhou Zishu couldn’t hold back his little chuckle.  Since Han Ying had recruited him and the others, they had all taken to calling him Lord Zhou when out of earshot of anyone else.  Bi Xingming had been tasked with spiriting away the remaining remnants of Siji Manor, and was in the process of arranging the new disciples exit.  Thus far, Helian Yi was none the wiser, particularly as Zhou Zishu had dispatched his main spy, Duan Pengju.  Which had been stupidly easy.  And as messy as he’d hoped.  He got a cruel satisfaction from that.

  “I am here,” he answered, stepping out of the shadows and into the pool of light in the centre of the room.  His plans were progressing, though not fast enough for his liking.  He wanted nothing more than to flee the city and run to Wen Kexing’s side.  He desperately hoped the fact that Han Ying had not returned was a good sign, he had instructed him not to write or send word in any form, so he was in the dark as to the situation in Ghost Valley for now.  It chafed, but was necessary.

  He wasn’t actually concerned for Han Ying’s safety.  Wen Kexing may have been free with killing his ghosts, but he had been very careful with anyone else, only going after those who had wronged him, however skewed that list might have been.  Instructing Han Ying as he had, ensured that Wen Kexing would see Han Ying as an emissary on a diplomatic mission, someone not to be killed off hand should he not recall his past with Zhou Zishu.  If he remembered, Wen Kexing would make sure Han Ying was protected.

  “Three more have gone, Zhuangzhu,” Xingming informed him.  “This one and Zichen are the last.”

  Zhou Zishu sighed in relief, it was almost done.  “Good, good, well done, Xingming.”  He clapped the young man on the shoulder, “I want you to report again on my condition.  That I still have not fully recovered after the last mission.  That I am saddened by the loss of Jiuxiao.  That I seem unable to concentrate.  Remember to be careful, Xingming.  Lead him to believing I am delegating everything, that I am withering before your eyes, but do not state anything outright.  Make him believe you do not wish to say these things.  Let him think he is drawing it out of you, because you are loyal to him.  Do not mention anything about Siji Manor, appear confused if he directs the conversation that way, tell him I have not mentioned anything about it.”

  “I understand, Zhuangzhu, it will be done as you command.”  The young man smiled, ruefully, “as you ask,” he corrected.

  “Thank you, Xingming,” he smiled.  “I hope you and Zichen will be leaving a few days after me, in a week or so.  I will let you know when I am ready for the last part of the plan.”  He grimaced, “I do wish I could have you two leave first, but we need to allay any suspicions.  If you remain after I have departed, he will not suspect you.”

  “We understand, Zhuangzhu.”

  “There will be someone sent to follow me, I will lose them easily enough and wait for you in the place we spoke of.”  He crossed to his desk, fingers drifting over the inkstone on his desk.  “May I ask you to bring this with you, if you can?  I cannot risk taking it with me, as that would indicate I intend to use it.  That would mean I expect to live long enough to do so.”  He turned to Xingming, “if it remains after I leave it will help confirm my state.  It should be safe to take it when you and Zichen are ready to leave.  They will not check the room a second time.”

  “We will try, Zhuangzhu.”

  Zhou Zishu smiled, pleased that he wasn’t agreeing to do it offhand.  That they wouldn’t risk themselves for it.  He would be saddened if they couldn’t retrieve if for him, but he still had Baiyi and that was more important.

  Next was to set up the farce for Helian Yi.

 

Chapter Text

  Zhen Xuan bowed as he entered the Prince’s formal audience chamber.  Zhou Zishu barely acknowledged his new second in command, merely a slight dip of his head, keeping his face impassive as he swept past.  The man was new to the role after the death of Duan Pengju and the supposed death of Han Ying, nervous at his sudden elevation.  He spotted the head eunuch off to one side, and there were two guards inside the doors, but no-one else to witness the meeting between he and Helian Yi.

  The eunuch was an insatiable gossip, so he had no doubt word of what had occurred would fly through the palace within moments.  He halted on the threshold and waited for his name to be announced.

  Zhen Xuan followed when he was asked to come forward, taking up his place to the side, the same place Duan Pengju had stood before.  It was the only difference.

  The concoction he had taken prior to the meeting was starting to take effect, sweat beading on his brow.  He made sure to make his steps a little faltering, his face already pale, feigning a slight tremble in his hands as he clasped them to bow.

  Helian Yi noticed, his eyes narrowing at his condition.

  From there, it went just as it had before.  The Prince belligerent and resentful of losing his favourite toy assassin, Zhou Zishu contrite and resolute.  He wanted so badly to laugh at Helian Yi’s aghast expression when he stripped to the waist to expose the nails embedded in his skin, holding out the seventh in the palm of his hand.  Zhen Xuan’s expression was much less avaricious than Pengju’s had been, the man never coveting the second in command position, let alone leader of Tian Chuang.  Zhou Zishu found he couldn’t muster up any compassion for the man, he’d been Pengju’s man, not his.

  But he would still be easy to fool, easy to lose.

 

   He rode hard up the approach to Siji Manor, eager to be home after so long, a smile breaking out on his face as the Manor came into view.  The doors swung open and a slight figure raced out to meet him.

  Jiuxiao.

  Zhou Zishu spurred his mare on, one hand in the air.  He reined her in, leaping from the saddle and running the last few steps, sweeping Jiuxiao into his arms.  Alive, so very alive.  Jiuxiao gripped him tight, burying his face in Zhou Zishu’s shoulder.

  “Zishu,” his shidi murmured.  

  Zhou Zishu patted his back, holding back his tears.  “Jiuxiao.”  He pulled back from their embrace to get a good look at him, smiling softly at his shidi’s tear stained face.  He smiled wider, wiping his face like he had when Jiuxiao was a child.  He cupped his face, “you’re safe?  All the other disciples are here?”

  Jiuxiao nodded, hands covering Zhou Zishu’s, eyes wide as he took in the smile.  Zhou Zishu couldn’t blame him for the surprise, Jiuxiao hadn’t seen him smile for a long time, weighed down by being in the Imperial City with Helian Yi.  The slow loss of his Siji disciples

  “Zishu, why…”

  He smiled again, leading Jiuxiao inside the Manor, “I told Han Ying I would give you an explanation, and I will, as long as there is wine.”

  His shidi laughed, gleeful, happy, alive and Zhou Zishu knew that everything he was doing was worth it.  He tugged Zhou Zishu along, hand around his, “did you doubt I would find the stores, Zishu?  They have been awaiting your arrival.”

  Zhou Zishu laughed with him, glad to be home.

 

  “Zhuangzhu, your guest is here,” Bi Xingming stated as he stepped aside for Ye Baiyi to enter Zhou Zishu’s study.

  “Thank you, Xingming, you may leave us.”

  Xingming bowed respectfully, glancing at the Immortal then back to Zhou Zishu.  Zhou Zishu waved him off, a small smile playing on his lips as he noted how annoyed Ye Baiyi was.

  “You say you are Qin Huaizhang’s disciple.  Prove it.”

  Ah, as blunt as ever.  The fact that Zhou Zishu was referred to as Zhuangzhu in the master’s study of Siji Manor meant nothing.

  Zhou Zishu grinned, then wiped it off his face before Ye Baiyi could smack him with his sword.  “I am who I say I am, Ye-qianbei.”  He reached for his waist and pulled Baiyi out, extending it to Ye Baiyi to examine.

  Ye Baiyi took the sword, swiping two fingers over the inscription, then glaring at Zhou Zishu again.  “You said a great many stupid things, Qin Huaizhang’s disciple.  But, I know this sword, I knew it’s master.  I will listen to your ridiculous words.”

  Zhou Zishu led him to the table where he had several dishes laid out ready for the Immortal and his insatiable appetite.  Ye Baiyi snorted, then sat, digging in without anything else to say.

  “All I said was true.  Was .  I want to change some of it.  I know you were Rong Xuan’s master, and that he begged you to teach him the Six Harmonies Cultivation method, you refused and he left, stealing it.  I know that his death is a great pain for you, and I know that he was vilified.  I know that he gave the key to the Armory to Wen Ruyu, known as Zhen Ruyu, the Divine Hand of the Healer Valley.”

  “You know a great deal, Qin Huiazhang’s disciple.  Some of which I was not aware of.”  Ye Baiyi’s eyes narrowed, fingers tightening on his chopsticks.  “You say that you have lived this before, that things went wrong.”

  “Yes,” Zhou Zishu nodded.  “As I explained in my letter, you healed Wen Kexing so he could save me, but something went wrong, and I ended up back before I placed the nails in my body.  I only have one this time, it was a necessary action I had to take in order to leave Tian Chuang and the influence of Helian Yi.  I believe that Wen Kexing sent us back, but I cannot be totally sure until I speak to him.”

  Ye Baiyi harrumphed around his next mouthful, swallowing and pointing his chopsticks at Zhou Zishu again, “you say you want to fix things.”

  “I do, very much and so will Wen Kexing.  He blamed the whole jianghu last time, and they do share some of the burden of what happened to him and his parents, but he didn’t remember who was the real culprit, because of the water of Lethe.”

  “This Zhao Jing you spoke of?”

  Zhou Zishu nodded.  “Zhao Jing.  He’s the one who caused Rong Xuan to go mad when he poisoned Gao Chong’s sword, which led to his wife performing a forbidden method from the Ying Yang manual that brought him back.  Only it didn’t work the way she intended and he lost his mind.  Wen Ruyu tried to save him, but was ostracized, thrown out of his sect, and then Zhao Jing set the Ghost Valley on him and his family trying to get hold of the key.”  He glanced at Ye Baiyi who was listening with a scowl.  “It all starts with Zhao Jing because he felt inferior to his brothers.  He is a petty, conniving bastard.  It’s because of him that Lao Wen was taken by the Ghost Valley, made him fight for survival.”

  Ye Baiyi remained silent for a long time, clearly digesting not only his meal.  “The reason the Liuhe method didn’t work, I think I know why.”

  Zhou Zishu blinked at him, thinking Ye Baiyi would want to know more of the story.  “What?”

  “Keep up,  Qin Huaizhang’s disciple.  You were too far gone, those nails are nasty things, yes?”  Zhou Zishu nodded.  They were.  He’d designed them that way.  “The Shamanet may have been able to heal you, probably the only person who could, had he been around when you took them all out.  But he wasn’t.  How many days were you running around with them out?”

  Zhou Zishu blanched.  It had been several days in total.  Wen Kexing had shown up at the Heroes Conference the day after, but Zhou Zishu had then spent the next few days travelling to Ghost Valley, then going to the Armory to stop Xie Wang.  He told Ye Baiyi as much.

  “It was too much, you were already dying.  The moment you put the last nail in, you started on the path, taking them out hastened things.  The method might have worked had you not over taxed yourself in those days in between.  What Wen Kexing did was…not unheard of.”

  “I’ve never heard of such a thing,” Zhou Zishu whispered.  “Siji Manor is known for collecting knowledge, and there was no mention of anything like this.”

  Ye Baiyi snorted, “why would you know it?  Why do all the idiots of the jianghu think they are so wise when they are stupid?  There are many things that are kept from you lot.  Even the Cultivation sects don’t share things with you and they don’t know the half of it.  Oh, they know how to cultivate to the point of immortality, but they aren’t much smarter than the martial artists.  Arrogant, the lot of you.”  He rolled his eyes and stuffed his mouth full of noodles.  When he was done with his bowl he continued lecturing Zhou Zishu.  “What Wen Kexing did can only be done in certain circumstances, and it is rare that it works.  The refined qi I gave him was the catalyst, his emotional state the focus, his desire the result.”

  He made it sound simple, but Zhou Zishu was certain it wasn’t.  He wanted to ask more, but appraising the Immortal in front of him, he decided it would be fruitless.  Ye Baiyi appeared to have said all he was going to say on that subject.

  “Long Que?  Will you rescue him?”

  Ye Baiyi grimaced, “I will.  From your words, he does not deserve the treatment he is receiving from his monster of a child.  He was as stupid as my disciple, but he sequestered himself and has not joined in any other nonsense.  I wish to hear him explain himself.”

  Zhou Zishu closed his eyes inhaling deeply, ignoring the slight discomfort from the single nail in his side.  Compared to seven, one nail was proving to be so much easier to deal with.  “Thank you, Ye-qianbei.  Da Wu and Jing Beiyuan will be here soon to help him.  The chains through his shoulders make him weak and Long Xiao removed his legs, so he is…not very well.”

  Ye Baiyi waved the comments off, “I can handle one old man.  I will bring him here for the Shamanet to treat.”  He fixed Zhou Zishu with a cold glare, “his son will not be coming.”

  Zhou Zishu clasped his hands and bowed, “thank you, Ye-qianbei.”

 

  Beiyuan stepped forward, Wu Xi at his shoulder and several guardsmen with them.

  “Zishu!”  Beiyuan grabbed his hands, smiling widely, eyes twinkling with joy.  

  Zhou Zishu looked him over, grinning at what he found.  Beiyuan looked well and happy, really happy.  It was a relief to see that the distance in the man’s eyes had receded.  He looked open .  Still mischievous, and likely still just as cutting with his words.  

  “Nan Ning Wang, Da Wu, it is good to see your faces again,” he said, grin widening further.

  “Zishu, so formal,” he pouted, chiding, rolling his eyes.  “Drop it, old friend, we are far past that, and besides, because of you, I am no longer a prince, merely an idle husband, thank the gods.”

  Zhou Zishu laughed and embraced him, then grabbed the much less effusive Wu Xi and hugged him too.  He turned his head to find Cheng Zichen waiting patiently, the slightest of smiles on his face.  “Zichen, make sure my study is ready and inform the kitchen that we require refreshments for our honored guests.  Then have the disciples outside my study move to the end of the hall.  I will be safe with these two.  The room we set aside for our guests  is prepared?”

  Cheng Zichen bowed, “yes, Zhuangzhu, it will all be done as you request.”

  Zhou Zishu turned back to find that both Beiyuan and Wu Xi were regarding him in open astonishment.  He laughed again, “what?  Do I have something on my face?”

  “You are much changed, Zishu.”  Beiyuan tilted his head, smiling, “I like it.  The dour bastard is gone.  Have you turned soft?”

  He led them towards his study, noting that Cheng Zichen had already moved the guarding disciples from his door.  “No, Beiyuan, I just understand the value of good friends now.  I’m still an asshole when I need to be, just ask my disciples about how harsh I am when training them.”

  When he had them settled across from him, Zhou Zishu found Wu Xi appraising him with a curious expression.  Beiyuan glanced from his husband to his friend, raising a brow when Wu Xi kept staring, hand gripping his staff tightly.

  “What is it?” Beiyuan asked softly, making Wu Xi release the staff and laced their fingers together.  

  Wu Xi turned his gaze to his husband, mouth turned down, “he has…the same look you had when we were children.  He knows too much.”

  Beiyuan’s head swiveled fast on his neck, eyes wide.  “What did you do?  What happened to you?”  He leaned forward, eyes intent, not to be pushed away with gentle assurances.  “Wu Xi is right,” he whispered.

  “Fuck,” Zhou Zishu muttered, scrubbing his hand down his face.  “I had hoped I wouldn’t have to explain that part.  The rest is annoying enough.”  He grabbed a cup and poured himself some wine, tossing it back, then poured another while the other two watched him.  He sighed, staring down at the cup in his hand, “I look like I know too much because I do.  I lived it.”  

  Wu Xi’s hand darted out to take his wrist, Zhou Zishu resisting the urge to pull away.  The Shamanet’s eyes were round as little plates, blinking up at Zhou Zishu as he examined his qi and meridians.  “I feel the nail you wrote of, but…there is…”  He withdrew his hand with a shudder.  “You died.  Yet you are here.  You did not cross the bridge.  There is something…odd.”

  “I never even saw the bridge, Wu Xi, or the Three Life Stone,” Zhou Zishu sighed.  “It’s a long tale, one I cannot fathom telling without copious amounts of wine.  Are you both sure you wish to hear it?”

  Beiyuan flicked his eyes to Wu Xi for a brief moment, “neither of us are unfamiliar with the sort of thing this entails, Zishu.  Wu Xi recognised it in you because he recognised it in me.  However, that tale can wait, yours cannot.”

  Resigned, no matter how intriguing Beiyuan’s words were, Zhou Zishu downed his cup, “where to even start?”

  “The beginning is always a good place,” Beiyuan retorted.  He snatched up the jug and poured himself and Wu Xi a cup each.

  “I suppose it starts with something that happened twenty years ago,” he began.  He outlined the whole Rong Xuan saga, filling in details about the Wen’s and the key that weren’t public knowledge.  “Wen Kexing, he was Zhen Yan, the disciple my master accepted and never forgot.”  He went on to explain how Wen Kexing ended up in Ghost Valley and later became its master.  He talked about the Armory, the fact that his own father had had his part to play in its history, that he had been executed for treason by the late Prince.  Then he started the part of the tale that Zhao Jing had a hand in.  “He was behind Rong Xuan’s death, and that of Wen Kexing’s parents.  He is…evil.”

  “Everyone has been searching for this key?” Wu Xi asked when Zhou Zishu fell silent.

  “Not exactly.  The Liúlí is well known among the sects of the jianghu, but the key was only known to a few.  It can open the Armory on it’s own.  Which is why Rong Xuan entrusted it to Wen Ruyu of Shen Yi Valley.”

  “The Divine Hand gave it to his son?”  Beiyuan sighed, shaking his head.  

  Zhou Zishu nodded, “yes, disguised so no-one would know it.  It’s been with him ever since.  Except…”  He paused, mouth twisting.  He missed the weight of it in his hair.  He waved away Beiyuan’s concern at the aborted comment.  “What matters is that Zhao Jing has been searching for it, but so has Helian Yi.  To the Prince it is the key to the Long Lasting Country.”

  Beiyuan frowned, “the story from our family?  It’s not a simple tale?”

  With a wince, Zhou Zishu shook his head, “yes and no.  The Armory…it was empty when my father found it, the only thing it contained were farming manuals and tools, some rotted grain.  Farming is the secret to a Long Lasting Country.  I’ve been inside, it’s true.”

  “Helian Yi will not believe that, no more than his father did.”

  Zhou Zishu nodded at Beiyuan, “correct.  He won’t, and when the time comes, I will find a way to stop him, make him give it up.  What the Armory does house is all the stolen texts.  As well as the Ying Yang manual and the Liuhe.”

  Wu Xi’s head snapped to attention at that, “the Liuhe?  That’s…”  He pointed at Zhou Zishu, “that is what I can sense in you.”

  “I’m getting to that, Da Wu.  I need to tell it in order.”  He inhaled, then exhaled slowly, “I will tell you what happened before, then what I have done differently.”  He picked at the bowls on the table, long gone cold during the first part of the story, finding he still didn’t feel like eating.  Neither had Beiyuan and Wu Xi, too enthralled by his tale to bother with more than their wine.  “The nails.  Last time, when I wanted to leave Tian Chuang, it was something I put in place if someone wanted to leave, because of who we were, it was dangerous.  To discourage that I made the seven nails, they…well, they are a nasty thing.  They expand and break ones meridians, and when put in all at once will kill a man fairly quickly.  I did something different, I put them in, one by one, every three months until the last, which I presented to Helian Yi with my request to leave and die in peace.”

  Beiyuan covered his face with his hands, “why didn’t you do what we did, Zishu?  Why so…”

  “Using another’s body was too close to what we did to help you escape, I did not dare pull the same trick twice, it would lead him to you.”  He looked down at the table, “and, I felt I deserved the nails.  I was the only one left of my sect, Beiyuan.  Helian Yi had sacrificed them all, even Jiuxiao.  I just wanted to leave, wander the jianghu and drink wine until I died.”

  Beiyuan shook his head, “ I desire only the long ecstasy of wine, and desire not to awaken.”

  Hearing poetry recited made Zhou Zishu’s heart clench in longing.  He glanced at Beiyuan, hoping that his friend and his zhiji might form a bond over a love of poetry.

  “Something happened,” Wu Xi surmised very astutely.

  Zhou Zishu smiled for the first time since beginning his tale.  “Some one ,” he corrected.  “Helian Yi let me go, but he did send men after me to find out where I went.  They were easy enough to lose, and after that I wandered just like I wanted.  I found myself in Yue, and I met Wen Kexing there.”

  “Love at first sight,” Beiyuan laughed into his wine.

  Zhou Zishu snorted.  “Hardly.  I thought he was a pestilence sent to dog my final days.  He followed me around, spouting poetry about my shoulder blades, Beiyuan.  Fuck, he drove me to distraction, but the longer we traveled together, the more I…I understood him.  There was a young boy who was orphaned by all the shit that started over the Armory and we sort of…adopted him.”

  Beiyuan snickered, then burst out into unseemly giggles, slapping the table.  “Oh, Zishu,” he laughed, wiping at his eyes.  “I am so pleased this tale has some humor to it.”

  Zhou Zishu laughed with him, “Zhang Chengling was about the only bright spot in the whole business.  With Wen Kexing in his ear, the silly boy kept haranguing me to take him as my disciple.  Bastard knew who I was almost immediately.”

  Wu Xi smiled at that, “he remembered you from Siji Manor?”

  “Yeah, saw the Swift Moving Steps and then put the pieces together, but I didn’t know exactly who he was until much later.  He was cagey about telling me the truth.”  He went on to tell them about the first Heroes Conference and Gao Chong’s death, finding Long Que with Ye Baiyi and the gradual unraveling of the mystery.  Then he went silent for a moment, thinking of what came after.  In a flat tone he told them about Wen Kexing faking his death and how he had removed the nails so he could avenge his zhiji.  The second conference and Zhao Jing’s downfall.  The wedding that never was, Gu Xiang and Cao Weining’s death.  Wen Kexing’s injury.  His own resolution to stop Xie Wang and Helian Yi accessing the Armory.  “You were pissed at me, Da Wu.  And I don’t blame you.  You and Beiyuan came all that way to help me and I…well, I thought I was avenging Wen Kexing.”

  “One last act for justice,” Beiyuan said softly.  “I think I understand why you wanted to vanish, let Wen Kexing think you had gone somewhere to recover.”  He glanced at Zhou Zishu, “save him the pain while he recovered from his wound.”

  “That was my thinking at the time,” Zhou Zishu confirmed.  “It didn’t quite work that way.  Ye Baiyi interfered.  He transferred the Liuhe to Wen Kexing.”

  “To save you,” Wu Xi murmured, thinking ahead.

  Zhou Zishu nodded.  “He followed the Scorpions to the Armory.  Helian Yi wasn’t there, but he had sent what remained of Tian Chuang.  When the Liúlí didn’t work because that key was a fake, all hell was about to break loose.  Wen Kexing arrived just as the avalanche I had set started.  He pulled the key from my hair and we made it in while everyone else was buried.  I honestly had no clue I’d been wandering around with the damn thing on my head.”  He chuckled softly, “Wen Kexing was furious with me for leaving him, but he still tried to save me.  It…it didn’t work.  Not properly.  We were trying to use the Liuhe, but Ye Baiyi says I was too far gone and nothing could have halted my death.”  He bit his lip, remembering the way Wen Kexing looked as he’d died.  “It…he changed the intent as he could feel it failing, I tried to help, we both…”  His voice broke then, unable to say it.

  “You died,” Beiyuan murmured, glancing at his husband.  Wu Xi nodded grimly.

  “I woke up in my Tian Chuang office, no nails, no sign of them ever being in my body.  I felt healthy and whole, but…I didn’t know what was going on, if I was dreaming or dead.  I didn’t know where my Lao Wen was.”  He sighed, “I scrounged my desk, trying to find out what was happening.  I’d been sent back to a month or two before I put the first nail in, and some of the Siji disciples were still alive.  Jiuxiao was still alive.”

  “Ahh,” Beiyuan muttered.  “You decided to fix things.  I see.”

  He nodded, “I’m trying, Beiyuan.  I need things to be different.  I want to save Wen Kexing from the guilt of what he set in motion the first time.  I want to save as many as I can, I want Zhao Jing punished.”  He looked away, “I want Wen Kexing.”

  “Does he remember as you do?” Wu Xi asked quietly.

  Zhou Zishu’s eyes were burning with unshed tears as he looked up.  “I don’t know,” he said, morose.  “I sent Han Ying to him in the Valley, but I…I’m scared he won’t remember everything.  Won’t remember what we are to each other.”  He inhaled sharply, trying to stop the tears falling, failing miserably.  

  “Zishu,” Beiyuan murmured, reaching out to take hold of Zhou Zishu’s hands in his own.  “It will be alright.  We will help you however we can.  Whatever you need, you only have to ask.”

 

Chapter Text

 

  “Zishu!  Zishu!”  Jiuxiao’s voice rang out, his footfalls fast pattering on the floor of the hall.  

  Zhou Zishu placed his brush down, pushing aside the papers in front of him as his shidi raced to his desk.  Jiuxiao’s face was flushed with running, eyes bright, hair streaming out behind him.  He blinked at the sight, still not accustomed to having his shidi alive and vibrant, and with him again.  Jiuxiao didn’t appear to be worried, more excited so Zhou Zishu waited for him calmly.  The younger man came to a halt right in front of his desk, wringing his hands together.

  Zhou Zishu raised a brow, “alright, what is it?”

  “Zishu, the Sword Immortal has returned.”

  Springing from his seat, Zhou Zishu sprinted out to the gates of the Manor, dodging past various disciples as he went, leaving them gasping in his wake.  Zichen and Xingming saw him coming, stepping out of his way and turning to follow.

  As a result of the Manor Lord using Swift Moving Steps to race to the gate, he was there before most of the inhabitants were in attendance to greet Ye Baiyi and Long Que.  Bi Changfeng pushed younger disciples aside to stand beside Zhou Zishu as the old man was carefully lifted from the sedan chair that Ye Baiyi had brought him in.  Luo Hao and Jiang Xiaoxue cradled him gently, another disciple arranging furs over the old man’s stumps and shoulders to keep him warm and covered.  Lend him a little dignity.

  Zhou Zishu clasped his hands and bowed low, lips forming a large smile as he came back up, Long Que’s eyes widening.

  “Zishu!  It is you, aiya, look at you, boy, come close so these old eyes can look upon you,” Long Que demanded, waving him close.

  “Long-Bo Bo,” Zhou Zishu croaked, eyes burning as he gripped the hands of his Shifu’s long missed friend.  “You remember me.”  He knew he would, he had last time, but to see him so much healthier than he had been last time, free from his son, was such a welcome relief.  He was managing what he had set out to do when all of this madness started, or restarted.  Long Que may just be one old man to many, but he was a link to his past with his own Shifu and someone who deserved a bit of comfortable peace.

  A papery skinned hand patted his cheek fondly, “I remember that smile.”  He peered about, taking note of everyone, “you are master here now.”

  Zhou Zishu nodded, knowing he needn’t tell Long Que that his shifu, Qin Huaizhang, was dead.  “I have been Zhuangzhu for over ten years, Long-Bo Bo.  Shifu tried to find you, to no avail.”

  Long Que laughed, a cackling thing that was not a happy sound.  “I hid myself away, I am too easily manipulated.  I don’t have to try and say no if no-one can find me.”  He glanced at Ye Baiyi, “Guseng found me.”

  Zhou Zishu smothered the urge to laugh at Ye Baiyi being called Ancient Monk.  “I asked Ye-qianbei to find you, I knew he could navigate the traps.”  He gestured to Luo Hao and Jiang Xiaoxue, walking beside them so he could continue talking with Long Que as they moved into the main courtyard of Siji Manor, Ye Baiyi yelled at a wide eyed disciple, demanding food.  Zhou Zishu grinned at the young man as he raced past to warn the kitchens that they needed to feed a one man army.  Jiuxiao followed behind Zhou Zishu, eager to speak to the master he had heard so much about as a child.  Bi Changfeng sent Bi Xingming and Cheng Zichen ahead to procure the special chair they had made for Long Que, something Zhou Zishu had told them of when he informed them Ye Baiyi would be bringing Long Que to Siji Manor.

  “This is your shidi?” Long Que asked, gesturing to Jiuxiao who came forward, eager and smiling, kneeling by his chair.  Long Que patted his hand, chuckling softly as he looked back to Zhou Zishu, “Siji is flourishing, Zishu.”

  “This is Qin Jiuxiao, Long Bo Bo, I hope to have another shidi here soon, but we will discuss him later, it’s too long a tale to begin without wine.”

  Long Que laughed, a cackling thing that made Zhou Zishu’s heart soar.

  After several jugs of wine had been consumed, Long Que listening as Zhou Zishu gave him a rough idea of what had been happening, the old man rolled his eyes and leaned back in his chair, shaking his head.

  “I have missed a great deal it seems.”

  Zhou Zishu laughed, “I am hoping to right some wrongs, Long Bo Bo.  I also have a friend here who can help you medically, I’ll send for him soon, he can ease your pain for you.”

  Long Que hummed, “it might be nice to feel less of that.”  He cocked his head, giving Zhou Zishu a rakish grin, “perhaps I can repay this kindness in fixing your woeful defenses.”

  “Long Bo Bo!  Our defenses are fine, and you need not repay anything, there is no debt you owe.”

  “Fine, fine, let me do it because I want to, the defenses do need work.  Perhaps they were adequate once, but I can improve them.  Let me have one reasonably intelligent disciple and I will see what I can do with them.”  He fixed Zhou Zishu with a knowing smirk, “if you are intending to upset the apple cart, then you will need protection from the apple sellers.”

  Zhou Zishu contemplated what Long Que was proposing.  “Could you hide the Manor like you did the LongYuan Cabinet?”

  “Easily, Zishu, easily.  And I can expand that to encompass a wide area, muddle the minds of those who would approach, turn them around and around.  I will create tokens for those you trust so they can come and go as they please.”

  “Thank you, Long Bo Bo.”

 

  He was on alert the moment he entered his bedroom, but when he was suddenly pushed against the wall, he melted into the arms of the man who held him, tilting his head up to accept the biting kiss, moaning as it deepened immediately.  

  “Lao Wen, zhiji, you’re here!”

  Wen Kexing dragged him into the circle of light cast by a lamp, and studied him carefully.  Long, delicate fingers cupped his cheek as Zhou Zishu drank him in.  He sucked in a gasp at the silver hair, the same as he remembered from those last moments in the Armory.  His hand went up to it, letting the silk of it run through his fingers.

  “A-Xu.”  

  “You remembered,” Zhou Zishu whispered, overcome with relief.  He tugged Wen Kexing close again, “you remembered.  I was so scared you wouldn’t.”

  Wen Kexing trembled in his arms, “how could I ever forget you, A-Xu.”  Fumbling in his sleeve, he extracted a well remembered hairpin, sliding it through Zhou Zishu’s hair with great satisfaction and relief.  Zhou Zishu’s hand went up to it, smiling.  “That’s better, now you are my A-Xu again.”

  Barking a harsh laugh, Zhou Zishu stumbled when his Lao Wen pulled at the front of his robes, at first thinking his zhiji meant to disrobe him then and there.  Unfortunately there was nothing lascivious in the man’s intentions.

  Wen Kexing bared his chest, whining in distress at the scars he found, opening his robes further to expose the others.  “No, why, A-Xu, why?”

  “Shh, it’s ok, let me explain.”  He grabbed Wen Kexing’s hand, bringing it to his own wrist, “feel, please.”

  Deep brown eyes widened in shock, then he collapsed against Zhou Zishu with a sob, “the nails…”

  “There’s only one, the other marks are just from the heads of them.  Wu Xi can take the one out, it won’t hurt me, not like before.  It’s ok, zhiji, I’m ok.”  He held Wen Kexing close, nuzzling his face into the fall of silver hair.  “I wouldn’t do that to you, I couldn’t put you through that again.  I still had to leave Tian Chuang, but I found a way to minimise the damage.  When Wu Xi takes this one out,” he said, tapping his side where the true nail resided.  “I will be alright.  It’s hardly affected me, I promise you.  I can even sleep through most nights, the pain is almost nothing.”  He pulled Wen Kexing down beside him on the bed, arms still securely around him, kissing his forehead.

  Wen Kexing sighed, snuggling in closer, “when your letter arrived, I was already considering how to get to you, how to get you out of Tian Chuang.  And then Han Ying showed up with that cryptic bloody thing.  I wanted to hug the poor man.  I knew it could only be you that sent him.”

  “I thought it better to send him, if you remembered, you would know, would trust that it was truly from me.  If you didn’t, having him there to personally deliver it was better than just sending it via the Ping An network.”  

  Wen Kexing pulled back enough to look at him properly, “I tore it open in front of him, read the first line and went down on my knees, laughing and crying.  Poor Han Ying.  Thankfully, we were alone, otherwise it would have been awkward.”  He smiled at Zhou Zishu, caressing his face, “he knows what we are to each other, you told him.  He was very deferential.  Not at all concerned about meeting with the Valley Master.”

  Zhou Zishu tilted his head, “how can I hide it?  Why would I?  I have told as much as I can to Beiyuan and Wu Xi, Ye Baiyi knows everything, I have spoken to Gao Chong.”

  Wen Kexing opened his mouth, but Zhou Zishu silenced him with a finger to his lips, not at all surprised when his zhiji sucked it into his mouth.

  “Menace,” he growled affectionately, warmth pooling in his lower dantain.  “I had to warn Gao Chong, I warned Zhang Yusen too.  I know you wouldn’t want their deaths to occur again.  We don’t want Zhao Jing to take any of us unawares.”

  “I killed the three you spoke of in your letter, I was going to anyway, but they can’t be manipulated by Xie Wang this time.  The other ghosts are under Luo-yi’s control now.  I told her as much as I dared.”

  “Is Gu Xiang here?  Did she come with you and Han Ying?”

  Wen Kexing nodded, “I still can’t bear to be parted from her.  I want to establish myself as a proper member of the jianghu before I let her meet Cao Weining.  If she is presented as the sister of a respectable man, Mo Huaiyang will have no cause against her.  Or perhaps we can entice the little rabbit to leave and join us first.  I want her happy, A-Xu.  I see that she was with him before.”

  “Once everything is settled, we can have the wedding here.  She’ll be safe, Lao Wen,” he assured him.

  “What of Chengling?  Our silly disciple is no longer our silly disciple,” Wen Kexing frowned.  “Without Wu Chang Gui and his subordinates attacking the Nan He…”

  “He’s safe for now with his family, Zhang Yusen has increased his defenses in case the Scorpions decide to attack themselves, but I did manage to meet with Chengling.  He was there when I demonstrated the Swift Moving Steps for his father to prove who I was.”  He grinned back at Wen Kexing when he beamed at him, that well loved brilliant smile.  “He was just as starry eyed as the first time, so I broached the subject with his father of taking him on.  Zhang Yusen will consider it, and given how tenacious we know the boy can be, I think we will see him once things are done.”

  “Long Que?” Wen Kexing asked tentatively.

  “He’s here, Wu Xi has been treating him.  Ye Baiyi went for him and was able to stabilise him before he brought him here.  Long Xiao is dead.”  It had been a relief when Ye Baiyi told him, he hadn’t said much about Long Que’s son, but the moment Ye Baiyi saw what the little monster had done to his father, well, there hadn’t been any other result than his death.  It took his puppets out of the equation.  Xie Wang wouldn’t be able to control them though he likely already had his own.  Or maybe he didn’t, they had no way of knowing at this juncture.  He would have to find out somehow.

  Wen Kexing slumped against him, “I hoped you would find a way to save him.”

  “He’s still a very sick man, and he is old, he won’t be with us long, but his last years will be comfortable ones.  His knowledge will still be saved.”  He guided Wen Kexing down so they were laying curled together.  “I told him of you, much as I did last time, I thought it wise.”  Wen Kexing nodded, snuggling even closer so they were pressed together as close as they could be still clothed.  “What went wrong?  In the Armory?  How are we here and not meeting at the Three Life Stone?”

  “I am not sure, I just felt it going wrong.  You weren’t healing and I was desperate, I started to pray, wishing we could go back, just far enough to stop the worst from happening.  I felt you try to help me, then I woke up in the Valley.”  His lips twisted in a wry smile, “with white hair and a screaming A-Xiang.”

  “What did you tell her?” he asked quietly.  If he thought waking up in his Tian Chuang office was a shock, Wen Kexing seeing his girl alive must have been more so.

  Wen Kexing sighed, “not much, I could not bear it, and I do not think she needs to know the worst of it.  I told her we were closing down the Valley and entering the real world, that I would make sure she had a proper life.  She’s confused, but she trusts me.  Luo-yi has been harder to deal with, but I think I almost have her convinced to leave as well, bring the whole Department of the Unfaithful with her, and Qianqiao.  The rest…I am unsure what to do with them.  They can’t be left for someone like Zhao Jing or Xie Wang to scoop up.”

  Zhou Zishu silenced him with a kiss, “we can worry about it later, Lao Wen, we have time.”  He pushed his still bared chest against Wen Kexing, grinning when his zhiji groaned, sliding his hands between them to feel his skin.  He arched into it, moaning when Wen Kexing tweaked a nipple, slinging his leg over Wen Kexing’s hip.  “When I put the nail in, I made sure it wouldn’t affect me like before,” he murmured against soft, plump lips.  He punctuated the statement with an insistent roll of his hips, pressing his growing erection into the dip between Wen Kexing’s groin and hip.

  “Oh,” his zhiji whispered, hands sliding down to Zhou Zishu’s stomach, pushing the robes open further.  Then he was fumbling with the belt and sash, baring Zhou Zishu’s torso completely.  Before his robes were tossed aside, he fished out the jar of oil he’d stashed there, making Wen Kexing’s eyes light up.  Long fingers plucked at the ties to his trousers, loosening them about his hips, his hand diving in to grip around his cock.  “Oh, A-Xu,” he crooned, stroking up to the head, toying with the foreskin.

  Zhou Zishu moaned, enjoying the feel of Wen Kexing’s hand stroking him, “I want you inside me, Lao Wen.  I need to feel you.”  He started fumbling at his Lao Wen’s robes, pushing them out of the way, he needed to feel his skin, feel the warmth of him.  “I can feel so much more now, Lao Wen, I want to truly know how you feel inside me.”

  Wen Kexing growled, ripping his own robes off, then focusing on Zhou Zishu’s trousers, kissing each new expanse of skin he exposed.  “I planned on taking my time, but I can’t,” he murmured against Zhou Zishu’s stomach.  “I missed you so much.”

  “Hurry up, we can go slow later,” Zhou Zishu demanded, hands roaming all over Wen Kexing’s body where he could reach, shoving his trousers down so he could curl his hand around his cock.  He whimpered as he stroked it, “fuck, I need this in me now!”

  Wen Kexing swore, tossing all the discarded clothing aside, ripping the lid off the oil to dip his fingers in as Zhou Zishu spread his thighs.  He knelt beside Zhou Zishu so he could still reach his cock, swirling one finger around his hole, moaning as he felt it contract.  

  Wen Kexing moaned as he watched Zhou Zishu’s reactions, teasing his ass as Zhou Zishu stroked his cock.  “You feel this?” he asked, awe colouring his tone.  Zhou Zishu nodded, hand working faster, arching as Wen Kexing pushed the tip of his slick finger in.

  It felt so good, just that much, Wen Kexing withdrawing it then pushing it back in a little deeper each time until he had his finger right in.  He wriggled onto his back, spreading his thighs wide to give Wen Kexing the room he needed, arching again as another finger joined the first.  The additional stretch made his eyes roll back in his head, moaning and rocking his hips, helping his zhiji fuck him open.

  “Fuck, Lao Wen,” he murmured.  “That feels good.”  Everytime Wen Kexing fingered him before he’d been ambivalent about it, knowing it was necessary, but it hadn’t felt like much.  Now, however, it felt fantastic.  He pried his eyes open and stared down at his own cock, leaking and bobbing against his stomach as he shifted into it.

  Wen Kexing beamed at him, brushing his fingers over that place in his ass that had always felt like dull pressure and a teasing hint of pleasure before, now it was like his whole body was tingling.  Wen Kexing’s eyes widened, his grin huge as Zhou Zishu writhed and moaned from his ministrations.

  “Oh, A-Xu!”  Wen Kexing bent down to kiss him, fingers working faster.

  Zhou Zishu gripped hold of him, letting go of his cock, “please, Lao Wen, I need to feel you.”

  Wen Kexing groaned, pulling his fingers free and blindly reaching for the oil.  He leaned back to coat himself, lining up between Zhou Zishu’s thighs.

  Then he was pushing in, the pair groaning at the sensations.

  Zhou Zishu arched, trembling as Wen Kexing’s cock filled him, the stretch almost burning, but still feeling wonderful.  His stomach coiled, cock throbbing painfully as Wen Kexing thrust in and out, then he was shouting, come splattering his stomach.

  “A-Xu!”  Wen Kexing stilled, poised above him, eyes shocked and wild as he peered down at the mess between them.  Zhou Zishu was just as shocked, gaping and gasping for breath.  “You...I...A-Xu, you came.”

  Zhou Zishu flopped back, laughing, “I told you, I can feel everything now.”  His body was still quivering, but he gripped hold of Wen Kexing and dragged him down so their bodies were flush, “keep going.”

  “I can do that,” Wen Kexing murmured, leaning down and licking into his mouth, tangling their tongues together, hips starting a slow grind.  Zhou Zishu trembled, gripping his thighs to pull them either side of his chest, allowing his zhiji to get deeper.  Wen Kexing’s lashes fluttered as he felt Zhou Zishu’s ass muscles contract around his girth, swearing softly.  He pulled out slowly, a delicious drag of his cock that made Zhou Zishu shudder and moan.  

  “Fuck,” he hissed.  Wen Kexing was so long, so thick, stretching him wide.  With the edge taken off, with his anxiety about seeing his Lao Wen gone, the man himself with him again, he could really concentrate on how it felt, how Wen Kexing felt inside him, moving together, sinuous and full of all the passion they both felt, not just Wen Kexing trying to help him feel something other than the pain of the nails.  He loved the feel of him on top of him, skin to skin, the flick of his tongue against his own, the drag of his cock in and out, slow and deep.

  Wen Kexing sucked his tongue, then his bottom lip, kissing along his jaw, suckling his earlobe, biting it, tugging it with his teeth, moaning in his ear as he rolled his hips back and forth.

  “Ai ni, ai ni, A-Xu”

  Zhou Zishu hooked his knees over Wen Kexing’s shoulders, fingers tangled in silver, almost sobbing, voice cracking when he made his own declaration.  “Ai ni, Lao Wen.”  The words weren’t even close to what he felt for this man, his reason for living, his reason for trying so hard to make things right.

  Wen Kexing’s pace increased, shifting Zhou Zishu’s legs back around his waist he laid over him, holding him close as he thrust faster and harder, his breath coming in harsh pants, matching Zhou Zishu’s.  Promises falling from his lips as he held him, kisses rained down on his face, his lips.

  Zhou Zishu felt another orgasm creeping up on him, his stomach flipping with each thrust of Wen Kexing.  He clawed at his zhiji’s back, arching up to meet him, head tipped back.  Wen Kexing’s mouth latched on to his throat, sucking as he drove into him.

  Release, when it came, had Zhou Zishu shouting, vision whiting out, body rigid.  Wen Kexing thrust hard once, twice, then he was trembling over him, pulsing inside.  Zhou Zishu felt that too.

  “A-Xu,” his Lao Wen whispered, voice hoarse and rough.

  Zhou Zishu sighed as Wen Kexing withdrew, feeling his seed leaking from his ass, dribbling down the crack.  Wen Kexing, hummed, then slid two fingers back in through the slippery mess.  Zhou Zishu was still basking in the glow of his orgasm, but he can feel his cock beginning to take interest, again .  Wen Kexing watched his reactions intently, licking his lips lasciviously as Zhou Zishu cants his hips up, inviting his fingers in deeper and Wen Kexing obliges, rubbing the spot inside him that makes him moan.

  Two fingers aren’t enough after a few minutes.  Not after feeling the girth of Wen Kexing splitting him open.

  When he and Wen Kexing had sex before, it had taken a while for him to feel enough to get off.  Now he feels everything .  He feels how big Wen Kexing is inside him, how amazing his hand feels around his cock.  How his mouth feels, his fingers, his body over Zhou Zishu’s.  It’s all he can focus on.

  He wants more and more and more.

  He spreads his legs wider, reaching down to hold himself open, rocking on the two fingers in his ass, arching when Wen Kexing pays more attention to that spot.  “More,” he demands and Wen Kexing obeys.

  Three fingers is better, he’s starting to feel the stretch which he’s discovered he really likes.

  Wen Kexing bends, licking and suckling his balls, which is spectacular.  His silver hair brushes over Zhou Zishu’s thighs, another layer of sensation.  Their eyes meet as Wen Kexing licked up his shaft, swirling his tongue around the head.

  Fuck, he needs more.

  “Another finger.”

  Wen Kexing blinks at him for a moment, then he reached for their oil pouring it directly over the fingers in his ass, then carefully, slowly, he added the fourth.  He watches Wen Kexing’s throat bob as he swallows, his eyes drifting from Zhou Zishu’s stretched hole and up to his face to check he’s alright.

  Zhou Zishu is more than alright.  He’s flying on the bliss of it.

  Whatever Wen Kexing finds in Zhou Zishu’s expression, he continues.  Indeed he made the pleasure more intense when he leaned over and sucked on one of Zhou Zishu’s nipples.

  “Ahh, fuck.”  He gasps and writhes, hands reaching for Wen Kexing’s hair to tangle his fingers in the silken strands.  “Deeper,” he begged.

  “A-Xuuu!”  Wen Kexing gazed at him as if he had hung the moon in the sky just for him.  Zhou Zishu can feel the way Wen Kexing’s fingers are curled together, but then he pushed them in a little deeper and the stretch widened.  Almost to his knuckles.  The idea excites him, and he pushed down on Wen Kexing’s hand, panting as he opened up more.  Wen Kexing twisted his hand a little and then his knuckles were inside, thumb brushing over the smooth, sensitive place behind his balls.

  His cock throbbed against his stomach, leaking all over the place as he jerked his hips up and down, fucking himself on Wen Kexing’s hand, shouting hoarsely as more entered his ass.  Wen Kexing stilled his hand and let Zhou Zishu control what he could take, pulling back to watch his hand pushing in and out, his mouth open, eyes wide.

  When he tired, panting on the bed, covered in a sheen of sweat, Wen Kexing took over, other hand curled tight around his own cock to stave off his release.  Once Zhou Zishu caught sight of it, the head an angry purple that had to be uncomfortable, all he wanted was for Wen Kexing to put it in him and fill him with his seed again.

  He yanked Wen Kexing down over him, “I want your cock now, Lao Wen.”  He let go when Wen Kexing whined, watching his eyes follow as he retracted his hand from his ass.

  “A-Xu!  You’re so open,” he whispered, quickly lining up.  He slid in so easily, both of them gasping.  Wen Kexing laid over him, rocking in and out, “you’re so loose, A-Xu.”  His lashes fluttered as he fucked in and out, in and out.  “I could fuck you for hours like this.”

 “Do it,” Zhou Zishu murmured, wrapping himself around Wen Kexing, keeping them close as his zhiji rolled his hips, fucking in and out slowly.

 

  Zhou Zishu snuggled close, running his fingers through the ends of silver hair that draped over Wen Kexing’s shoulder, sated, content, in his zhiji’s arms.

  Wen Kexing’s lips pressed to his temple, a deep exhale leaving him.  “A-Xu,” he murmured, sounding as if he just needed to say his name.

  Zhou Zishu smiled, “Lao Wen.”  He heard Wen Kexing hum in response.  “What did Han Ying say to you when he met you?”

  “Aiya, the poor boy, when I saw him, it was…a shock.  I am sure my expression was a little odd, but he bore it well.  He told me he had a letter from you, watching me carefully as he placed it in my hands.  I could feel his eyes on me, they never left.”  He tilted Zhou Zishu’s face up so they could gaze at each other, “once I had read the letter several times and got up off the floor, he knelt to me, said he would be honored to serve me, that he had been entrusted with it while we could not be together.  He peered up at me as he said it, a little smile on his face.  He truly did seem honored, A-Xu.”  He sighed and pressed another kiss to Zhou Zishu’s temple.  “He asked if I remembered.”

  Zhou Zishu squeezed him tighter, “I was so afraid you wouldn’t.  I had to tell him enough to make him understand what you were to me, but I did give him instructions if you didn’t.  He was still to stay with you, I felt he was safer with you than with me.”

  “He said you called me zhiji,” Wen Kexing whispered.

  Zhou Zishu nodded, staring into his lovely deep brown eyes, “I did.”  He didn’t mention how much it had shocked and upset Han Ying, there was no point in making Wen Kexing uncomfortable in the man’s presence.  “I said you were everything, that you were my reason for living.”

  “A-Xu,” Wen Kexing crooned, looking utterly besotted.  “You will make this wife blush.”

  Zhou Zishu laughed, kissing him, “you weren’t blushing while you were fucking me.”  Wen Kexing gave him his best lecherous gaze, lips curved into a smirk.  “No, not yet, my ass needs a rest.”

  A wider smirk.  “I am far from opposed to switching places, A-Xu.”

  With a fond roll of his eyes, he swatted Wen Kexing’s ass, “later, you menace.”

  He seemed satisfied with that, wrapping his leg over Zhou Zishu’s hip, but not pursuing it further.  His expression turned thoughtful, “Han Ying said you called me beautiful and elegant.”

  Zhou Zishu nodded, “I did, you are, you know that.”  He smiled into Wen Kexing’s shoulder, “I’m surprised Han Ying didn’t come with you to see me.”

  Wen Kexing laughed, “he did try, A-Xu, but I convinced him that I needed to see you alone first.  You should have seen the blush on his face.  He could guess what our reunion would entail.”

 

Chapter Text

 

  Zhou Zishu paced the polished floor, fidgeting with his sleeves.  Wen Kexing was equally nervous if the fan waving was any indication, feeding off his zhiji’s anxiety.  It was going to be alright, it had to be, nothing would go wrong.

  Zhou Zishu groaned, running his hand over his face.  He strode to Wen Kexing and cupped his face, kissing him softly, then a little more insistently, needing the reassurance of his touch.  Wen Kexing dropped his fan, pulling him close, tongue slipping into his mouth.

  A light cough broke them apart, Zhou Zishu cursing himself silently when he saw it was the man they’d been waiting on.

  Qin Jiuxiao.

  He disentangled himself from Wen Kexing’s grip, flushing guiltily at Jiuxiao’s pursed lips, his shidi fighting a grin.  He reached his young shidi in a few strides, trying  to admonish him with his glare, failing if Jiuxiao’s increasing grin was any indication.  He’d wanted the meeting to be a dignified affair, instead he’s been caught with his tongue in Wen Kexing’s mouth.  He glanced at Wen Kexing, who had retrieved his fan and was blinking at the pair in complete innocence, big doe eyes and all.  Bastard.

  Actually, fuck the pair of them.  This was an awful idea.  He was never going to get any peace.

  Jiuxiao clasped his hands and bowed, grin still firmly in place, then bowed to Wen Kexing with a curious gaze.  Sizing him up.  

  “At least he’s pretty, Zishu,” Jiuxiao whispered.  Zhou Zishu couldn’t help the pout that pulled at his lips, it was starting already.  Jiuxiao rolled his eyes, “don’t pout at me, I’m immune to that face.”

  Wen Kexing snorted, covering it with a cough.

  Zhou Zishu swatted at Jiuxiao, missing because he had already ducked under his arm, approaching Wen Kexing.  “You little brat,” he hissed.  He gathered his composure, sighing.  “Jiuxiao, this is your Shishu, Wen Kexing.  Zhiji, this is our third disciple, Qin Jiuxiao.  Well, second now I suppose.”

  Jiuxiao raised a brow at ‘zhiji’, but covered quickly, giving Wen Kexing a bright smile, “I have longed to meet you, Shishu.  Your absence has always been felt at Siji Manor.”  He bowed again, more deeply.   At least Jiuxiao remembered not to refer to Wen Kexing by Zhen Yan.

  Wen Kexing smiled at them both, a little bemused.  “A-Xu has spoken of you most fondly, Shidi.  I am honored to meet you,” he said, inclining his head.

  “A-Xu?” Jiuxiao queried, looking between them.  “Who is A-Xu?”

  Zhou Zishu rolled his eyes, “that’s me.  When we met again, I told him my name was Zhou Xu.  It…stuck, much like Lao Wen here.”  He neglected to mention the fact he kind of liked it.

  “A-Xu,” Wen Kexing affected an insulted expression.  “You wound me.”

  Zhou Zishu cupped his cheek, smoothing his thumb across the bone, he glanced back at Jiuxiao, “Wen Kexing is my wife, the whole reason I am here.”

  “A-Xu,” Wen Kexing whispered, leaning into his hand, cheeks now pink.

  Jiuxiao’s gaze flicked between them, a softer smile on his face now, “ai ren?”

  “More, much more,” Zhou Zishu murmured.  Lover was part, but not the whole of what they were to each other.  “ Zhiji .”  Allowing his tone to express the full weight of the phrase.  Wen Kexing gave him a look that said he was going to say something stupidly over the top and far too romantic, so poetry most likely.  To avoid that, and avoid feeling any more soppy than he already was, he continued.  “He’s a menace, Jiuxiao, never forget that part.  And don’t let him convince you we need to get Wolong Nuts, ever.  Or join him in a drinking contest…”

  “Zhou Zishu!  You will have our shidi thinking I am a drunkard.”  Wen Kexing planted his hands on his hips, not quite going so far as to wag a finger at him, but it was a close thing, “you are the one who drinks, I just join you .”

  Jiuxiao laughed, “I can see that you two together is akin to herding cats, nigh on impossible.”

  Wen Kexing turned the puppy dog eyes on Jiuxiao who just blinked at him, completely cool, calm and collected, utterly unaffected.  That made Wen Kexing frown, but then he was grinning, thoroughly charmed, “you must teach me, shidi, I have to know how you resist.  He who neglects to drink of the spring of experience is likely to die of thirst in the desert of ignorance .”

  Zhou Zishu shoved between them, holding his arm out, shielding them both from each other, “no, no colluding, absolutely not.”  His eyes slid from one to the other, stomach sinking at the twin innocent expressions.  “I am so fucked, aren’t I?”

  Jiuxiao’s expression was far too amused, eyes darting to the mark on his neck the collar of his robes didn’t quite hide, even if he’d been far more careful dressing himself that morning.  “I’d say that horse has already bolted, Zishu.”

  Wen Kexing laughed again, snapping his fan shut and tapping Jiuxiao’s shoulder, “oh, it most definitely has, shidi, several times.”

  Zhou Zishu threw his hands up, stalking away while the pair laughed, “what the fuck did I do to deserve this?  Seriously, what ?”

 

  Gu Xiang didn’t warm up to Zhou Zishu in quite the same way she had before.  But she did note how he and Wen Kexing acted together and it was that that had her melting little by little.  She didn’t call him sick dude this time, instead calling him Zongzhu to begin with.  Zhou Zishu surmised Wen Kexing had been training her a little differently than before, this time spending more time on etiquette  and terms of address, trying to turn her into something resembling a proper lady.  Trying being the operative word.

  She was still the fiery girl he remembered, but with a softer edge, a little younger than when he had met her before of course.  But she was settling in well at Siji Manor, teasing all the young disciples, sparring with them when Wen Kexing allowed her to.

  Gu Xiang absolutely delighted Beiyuan, the former prince found her thoroughly amusing, but in a kinder way than Zhou Zishu had recalled of his humor.  He was gentle with her without being condescending.  Wu Xi teased her in his own way, Gu Xiang taking a little longer to catch on to his jokes due to his serious faced delivery.

  Of all the Siji disciples, it was Han Ying that she gravitated to, which made sense as she had met him first this time.  Seeing them so comfortable with one another made Zhou Zishu long for Zhang Chengling.  He would spend the morning hours after he managed to get out of bed and out of Wen Kexing’s grip sitting in a shaded pavilion watching them spar in the courtyard.  It was wonderful to see the pair laugh gleefully, shoving at each other playfully.

  He did wonder idly whether there was something a little more there, but no, Han Ying was acting as an older brother only.  And while Gu Xiang teased him much as she had Cao Weining, that spark wasn’t there in her eyes when she looked at Han Ying.

  Zhou Zishu often found Bi Changfeng correcting her forms, praising her when she improved.  Pitting her against Jiuxiao.  His shidi had always been a talented, but indifferent student, which translated to an apathy when he fought.

  Until he came up against the firebrand that was Gu Xiang.  She nettled and teased, much as she had Chengling, but with Jiuxiao it was a touch more serious.  Jiuxiao was older, wiser, even if he was easily riled.  It made the young man focus, learn to strategise instead of simply using speed to dodge her attacks.  And it had a beneficial effect on Gu Xiang’s techniques, she became sharper, swifter, more fluid, Siji Manor grace blending into her forms.

  Away from the training courtyard, they bickered like siblings, which Zhou Zishu supposed they were in a way.  Wen Kexing seemed extraordinarily amused by the whole thing, proud as a peacock when his A-Xiang could put Jiuxiao in his place, but just as pleased when the older disciple managed to get one up on Gu Xiang.

  “It’s good for them both, A-Xu.  They are both far more unpredictable in their motions, which can only assist them if need be.”  He gazed back at where Gu Xiang was elbowing Jiuxiao in the ribs as they headed to the main hall to eat, Han Ying laughing behind them.  

  Everybody was happy, everybody was safe, even Chengling with his family.  This was how it should have been the first time around.  Zhou Zishu leaned into Wen Kexing, sighing, wishing they still didn’t have so much to do.

  Luo Fumeng had sent a mechanical sparrow several days before, informing the Manor of the impending arrival of the Buoqing Bu.  Ghost Valley would be locked up, the remaining ghosts unable to wander freely.  Qianqiao would be coming with Xi Sang Gui as her ever faithful shadow.  This time it would be a short visit, but soon they would move permanently. 

  It meant that Siji Manor would go from an almost completely male dominated domain to one of very mixed inhabitants, and rather unique and eccentric ones at that.

  Zhou Zishu had already taken the disciples aside and warned them against licentious behaviour, as he knew that Luo Fumeng would not stand for it, despite many of her girls coming from brothels.  Just because that was something they had done to survive it did not mean they deserved disrespect.  Any genuine petitions to court or marry would be considered as normal.  The girls were not to be taken as concubines or treated as whores.

  He ended the discussion with a stern reminder of who they were dealing with.  “Xi Sang Gui will be who you have to deal with if any of you should disrespect the girls of the Buoqing Bu.  They are to be integrated into Siji Manor as any other young woman would be, and nothing less than that will be acceptable to either myself, Wen Kexing or Luo Fumeng.”

  A chorus of “Yes, Shifu” was met with that and he dismissed them.  Han Ying in particular looked pleased by the statement.

  “You approve, Ying’er?”

  He bowed, small smile on his face, “I do, Zhuangzhu.  While serving Guzhu, I came to know several of the Buoqing Bu.  They are gentle and quiet, Xi Sang Gui and Qianqiao keep them on a tight leash in the Valley, but I hope they may have more freedom here, as it will be safer.”

  Zhou Zishu raised a brow, smirking playfully, “have you found a possible wife, Ying’er?”

  Han Ying took it with the humor it was meant, “not likely, Zhuangzhu.  My interests do not lie in that quarter.”  His eyes darted away for a moment, then unerringly returned, a wistful smile on his lips.  A curious expression came over his face, “my heart may expand to include others, but it will never change.”

  Zhou Zishu blinked as Han Ying bowed and departed.  Wen Kexing waved his hand in front of his face a moment later, snapping him out of the stupor Han Ying’s words had created.

  “What is it, A-Xu?”

  He shook his head, unable to shed the feeling that Han Ying had just told him something important within his cryptic remark, but not able to parse what it might mean.  He frowned at Han Ying’s back as he vanished around the far corner of the courtyard.  “I…nothing, I don’t think, just…no, nothing.”  He understood part of what Han Ying had said, he was still in love with Zhou Zishu and always would be, but the other part, did that mean another man had garnered his attention?  If that was the case, Zhou Zishu would welcome it.  He wanted everyone to be happy, Han Ying especially after how things had turned out last time.

 

  “Da Wu, no, I don’t need anything like that.  It’s just one fucking nail, not seven.”

  Beside him, his Lao Wen winces.  Beiyuan sighs, shaking his head at his obstinate behaviour.  Thankfully he doesn’t have to endure anyone else trying to coax him into oblivion.  Except the one man who might be more obstinate than him when it comes to his professional opinion.

  Wu Xi glared him down, his dark eyes furious.

  “Do you, or do you not recall asking for my expertise?”

  Zhou Zishu swallowed, glancing at Beiyuan for help with his rather intimidating husband.  Bad idea.  Beiyuan was not going to help him with this.  There was no point trying to get Wen Kexing’s assistance.  He had already been cajoling in every way he knew how, so a lot of pouting and fluttering of lashes at first.  Then had come the tears.  Then the guilt.

  Ugh.

  Damn it, he’d taken them out himself, all alone, with just wine to numb the pain last time.  And Wu Xi’s elixir, fuck.  He could handle one fucking nail, surely.

  “I asked for your help removing the nail, not with fucking drugging me,” he hissed, mulish and yes, obstinate.

  Wen Kexing sighed dramatically, Beiyuan rolled his eyes and Wu Xi slammed down the little pot of medicine with a vicious glare.

  Zhou Zishu winced.  He wasn’t intimidated by many, but Wu Xi was a whole different issue, even Wen Kexing was a little more cautious around him.  One never knew what he was hiding in his robes, or to what degree that thing would be poisonous, and if that wasn’t bad enough, there was that vicious sable that had adopted Beiyuan to contend with.  It had originally been Wu Xi’s but the Shamanet had admonished it after it had been it’s usually nasty self with the former Prince, after that it had seemed to take that to mean protect and attack any who threatened him.  What it deemed as a threat was rather arbitrary as far as Zhou Zishu could tell.  It wasn’t resting on Beiyuan’s shoulder, so that meant it was in his sleeves somewhere, just waiting to pounce.

  “And if you do not take that, it will put the whole procedure in jeopardy, Zhou Zhuangzhu.”

  His eyes widened at the acidity in Wu Xi’s tone, then glanced at the incongruous pot.  “I just don’t like the idea of being…”

  “Helpless?”  Wu Xi sighed.  “Are we not friends, Zhou Zishu?  Zyale ?  Can we not be trusted?  Would Wen Daren let anything happen to you?”  He huffed, “would either of us let anything happen to you,” he said, waving his hand at Beiyuan then himself.  He leaned close, “I would not have Beiyuan if not for you.  Do you not understand what that means to me?”

  He blanched at the reprimand, “Da Wu, I did not mean to imply…”

  “Yet, you have implied it.”

  Fucking guilt.  He felt guilt at making his friends feel that way.  “Fuck,” he hissed, running his hand over his face.  “I’m sorry.”

  Sensing that Zhou Zishu was going to relent, Wen Kexing reached for his hand, big doe eyes pleading, “I will be with you every moment, A-Xu.  No-one will let anything happen to you.  Everyone in the Manor would lay down their life for you, though I know you don’t want that.  You protect them, they protect you.”

  “They protect us , Lao Wen,” Zhou Zishu murmured.

  Wen Kexing tutted, “yes, yes, I concede that point, but what I said still stands, A-Xu.”  He curled his hand around Zhou Zishu’s nape, “we are safe, I am safe, you are safe.  I will not leave you.”  He hauled Zhou Zishu close, pressing their mouths together, Beiyuan gasping delightedly.

  Zhou Zishu melted into the kiss for a moment, then pushed at Wen Kexing’s chest, “you shameless menace, kissing me like that.  I should make you marry me.”

  “This worthless one will gladly marry you, A-Xu.”  He pulled him back in for a much steamier kiss, heedless of the others.  “This wife will spend every night making his husband happy.”  He flicked his tongue over Zhou Zishu’s lip, “and every day, whenever my husband wishes.”  He pulled back, eyes earnest, “please, take the medicine, let me watch over you, let Da Wu take care of the nail.  Please, A-Xu.”

  Three sets of pleading eyes met his in turn.

  Fuck.

  He grabbed the little pot before he could second guess the action and swallowed the foul scented contents.  It tasted worse than it smelled, his face contorting as he forced it down.  “That was fucking awful.”  He glared at Wu Xi, “well, I’ve taken it, what now?”

  Wu Xi sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose, pointing at the bed, “carry him,” he instructed Wen Kexing.

  “What?  I can…fucking…wa…”  His vision swam, voice slurring and falling away, strong arms catching him before he slid to the floor.

  Everything went black.

 

Chapter Text

 

  The pungent scent of moxa was the first thing Zhou Zishu registered after taking whatever Wu Xi had concocted.  He knew it facilitated healing, invigorated the blood and stimulated the flow of qi in the body, having come across it and even used it when he was still in Tian Chuang, before he had come across the old recipe for Drunk Like A Dream and refined it with Wu Xi’s assistance.  He drew in a deep breath, also noting the scents of both camellias and chrysanthemums.  Camellias were for aches and pains, detoxification and to energise, chrysanthemums in this case would be for dizziness, likely both in a tea for him to drink.  There were other things he could smell, but not quite identify, so he searched through his paltry knowledge of medicinal herbs and remedies to try and work out what they might be.

  Cucumber for fever and swelling seemed to be an obvious choice.  Maybe Dioscorea root to strengthen Yin and Yang, and tonify the lungs, spleen and kidney, considering where the nail had been.  Ginger for nausea, ginko for breathing.  Lily bulb for breathing again.  Wu Xi would likely pick the most effective, but Zhou Zishu had no way of determining which that might be in his current state.

  With his brain waking up, he started to become aware of the nagging pain in his side where the nail had been over his meridian.  He inhaled deeply, testing, the pain was bad but nothing like what he had gone through each night when all seven had been in his body.  And only a little worse than the one had been on its own before its removal.

  There is a hand holding his, another caressing his cheek.  He knows that touch, Lao Wen.  Keeping watch over him as he said he would.  He concentrates and he can make out the soft voices of Beiyuan, Wu Xi and Jiuxiao.  Then he heard Han Ying asking questions, his tone carefully controlled, but worried nonetheless.

  He cracked one eye open to find his Lao Wen waiting with a tentative smile, deep circles under his eyes speaking of sleepless nights..

  “A-Xu.”  The bone weary relief was palpable in his voice, evident in every line of his body.  He leaned closer, hand still to his cheek, “you’re awake.”  Wen Kexing turned his head, “Da Wu, he’s awake.”

  Wu Xi bustled over, not displacing Wen Kexing, sitting on his other side and grabbing his wrist.  He hummed as he assessed Zhou Zishu’s qi and meridians, nodding at an eagerly waiting Wen Kexing.

  “How long?” he croaked.

  Wu Xi pinched his wrist, “no talking.”  Zhou Zishu’s paltry glare availed him not, but Wu Xi eventually relented, “three days,” he said.  Then he slapped a hand over Zhou Zishu’s mouth to stop his protests.  “Wen Daren has been with you every moment, Beiyuan and I are frequent visitors.  Jiuxiao and Han Daren have been standing sentinel outside every night.  No-one else has been allowed through the door.”

  Wen Kexing pressed a cup of water to his lips, soothing his parched throat.

  “How did it go?” he asked, still a little raspy, ignoring Da Wu's instruction against speaking.

  Wu Xi sighed, “the nail is gone, your meridian will heal, but I caution against excessive activity for at least a few days, though I know it will be futile.”  He pulled the nail from his sleeve, back in its original form and not expanded as it had been inside him.  “I thought it best to close it before removal to make it easier.  It is a nasty thing, Zishu.”

  He turned his head, peering past his zhiji to see Beiyuan, Jiuxiao and Han Ying all standing a little distance away, all three with similarly relieved expressions.  Wu Xi moved aside, and Jiuxiao took his place first.

  “Zishu, good to see you back with us.  Everything is fine, you need not worry,” he told him, patting his arm.

  Beiyuan came close, pushing Han Ying before him, “this one has been beside himself, Zishu.”  Han Ying dropped his gaze to the floor for a moment, then raised his eyes looking directly at him with such naked longing and affection it made Zhou Zishu ache for him.  Jiuxiao moved aside to let Han Ying in, pulling him down to sit with a grin.

  “He wouldn’t let anyone else stand guard, Zishu, except me,” Jiuxiao said, smiling at a bashful Han Ying.  “He wouldn’t hear any protests.”

  “Zhuangzhu,” Han Ying murmured, schooling his expression into something more appropriate for a subordinate.  His eyes flitted to Wen Kexing for a moment, then back to Zhou Zishu, “Guzhu has been kind enough to indulge this one.”

  Wen Kexing chuckled, “ Shishu , Ying’er.  Shishu, not Guzhu.”

  Zhou Zishu’s eyes darted from Han Ying to Wen Kexing and back again.  There was a story there.  For one, Wen Kexing had previously been very reluctant to be known as Shishu, or even Shidi, but here he was insisting on the title.  And then there was Han Ying.  The young man had been calling Wen Kexing Guzhu with an awed tone since he’d arrived with him, always deferential as his Lao Wen had said.  That wasn’t exactly surprising, what did have Zhou Zishu a touch confused was the look in Han Ying’s eyes when he had glanced at Wen Kexing so briefly.

  “Yes, Shishu, this one will remember,” Han Ying murmured, biting his lip and looking at Wen Kexing through his lashes.

  And there it was again.  Hunger.

  Zhou Zishu hummed to himself as everyone else chattered around him, his mind drifting to the odd conversation he’d had with the young man about the Buoqing Bu.  How his heart wouldn’t change, but it could expand.  Han Ying’s eyes had darted away for a moment, then Wen Kexing had sidled up as the young disciple left that day.

  The pieces fell into place.

 

  “A-Xu!”

  Zhou Zishu winced at the wheedling tone.  He’d been hearing it for days it felt like, although probably not that long.  Wen Kexing’s long fingers slid over his wrist, under his sleeve, blinking at Zhou Zishu innocently when a glare was sent his way.

  “A-Xu was the one who suggested it, why are you acting like a recalcitrant cat that doesn’t want to be petted?  Do you not want to be involved in any of the details?”

  Zhou Zishu scowled like a thundercloud.  Yes, it had been his suggestion but he’d honestly forgotten just how much was involved in a wedding.  He was simply content for them to make their three bows and be done, but Wen Kexing had jumped at the opportunity to see Zhou Zishu in red robes, and the manor had been inundated with merchants overflowing with silks to present and be chosen.

  He had managed to reign Wen Kexing in, and Beiyuan, who was curiously invested in the whole stupid affair.  None of the general nonsense usually associated with a wedding, just the main ceremony.  Jiuxiao would stand in for Zhou Zishu’s family for the tea drinking, Gu Xiang for Wen Kexing and that was it.  He’d conceded that there would be a banquet for all present, a simple, private wedding.  Although, Wen Kexing had insisted that Luo Fumeng, Qianqiao and the girls of the Buoqing Bu visit so they could attend, returning to Ghost Valley for a short while before Siji Manor became their permanent home.

  Gu Xiang was exceedingly excited about that.

  Wen Kexing had even wheedled Ye Baiyi into officiating their bows.

  How he’d managed, Zhou Zishu didn’t know.  In fact he’d rather not know.

  He glanced at Wen Kexing, his zhiji turning his puppy eyes on him with full effect.  Fuck, he couldn’t resist that look and his Lao Wen knew it.  Well, Wen Kexing did look stunning in red.  And the idea of removing layer by layer to expose him would be fun.  Maybe he could convince Lao Wen to wear a red dudou under his inner robe.  He’d look pretty in one, Zhou Zishu was sure.

  Or maybe he could wear one.

  The idea made him shiver.  He thought about how his zhiji’s eyes would widen when he slipped off Zhou Zishu’s inner robe to find him in women’s underthings.  He smiled, thoroughly smug.  Wen Kexing tilted his head like a curious puppy, narrowing his eyes as Zhou Zishu chuckled.

  Perhaps he could have some special chubi made.  He normally didn’t bother with anything under his ku, and neither did Wen Kexing, preferring the ease of just trousers, but a pretty chubi made out of something to match the dudou?  

  The more he thought about it, the more he liked the idea.

  “I’ll meet with them,” Zhou Zishu said, still smug.  “But I will do it alone, you handle your robes, I’ll handle mine.”

  Wen Kexing looked like he wanted to argue the point, but he backed down when Zhou Zishu shook his head.

  The merchant and seamstress were both a touch nonplussed by his odd request.

  “Make the outer robes pretty, just red robes, silk, whatever.  But I want a transparent inner robe, and then a dudou and chubi made of a similar fabric for underneath that.”

  The merchant set aside several swatches of fabric for him to assess, carefully schooling his expression into one of professional indifference.  Zhou Zishu quickly picked what he wanted for his outer robes, setting them to one side, then asked the seamstress her opinion on the transparent fabrics for the rest.

  “You wish the dudou and chubi to be a surprise for your...wife?” she asked quietly, fingers drifting over some of the fabric pieces with a practised eye.  When Zhou Zishu nodded, agreeing with her assessment of the situation, she smiled, pulling a slightly thicker transparent piece over, “then perhaps this for your zhongyi, to hint at what is underneath but not expose it fully to his eyes.”

  He grinned at her, pleased she understood his wishes, “yes.”

  “I have made many similar things for brides before,” she said, flicking her eyes up to his for a moment.  “I have also made undergarments for cutsleeves of this nature before.  I would suggest simpler embroidery for the zhongyi and more elaborate for the dudou so that it shines from underneath.”  She paused, hiding a little smile behind her hand.  “To tease, entice, so that he wishes to unwrap you to find what is hidden from his eyes.”  She held up a delicate piece of teased silk, her other hand behind it to show how transparent it was, “it is soft against the skin.  I would embroider the edges of the chubi but not the...center.  To prevent chafing.”  She shot him a cheeky smile, “with room to move should the need...arise.”

  He snorted in amusement at her diplomatic words.  “Perfect.”  He reached out to touch the piece she held, sucking in a harsh breath at how light and soft it was, it would be like a whisper over his skin.

  She grinned, “then I will get to work immediately and bring you the finished product personally.”  

  “How long will it take?”

  She chuckled, setting aside what had been chosen for the merchant, “not long, Zhuangzhu.  My girls will handle the outer robes, and I shall work on the zhongyi, dudou and chubi personally.”

  When the seamstress arrived with his parcels, Zhou Zishu sent away an exceedingly curious Wen Kexing with an admonishment not to pry.  Once they were alone, Zhou Zishu tore open the wrappings and laid out the pieces, his grin growing wider and wider as he stared at each flimsy piece.  She had simplified the chubi so that it resembled a pouch for his cock rather than something that covered his hips and upper thighs.  It was sinfully perfect.

  “I took the initiative to make something else for you, Zhuangzhu.  I saw that you prefer to wear blue, so I made these for other occasions.”  She handed him another parcel with a gleam in her eyes.

  Another set of zhongyi, dudou and chubi, all in transparent fabric like the red, but in a deep vibrant blue.

  “You have just earned yourself an exclusive contract with Siji Manor.”

  The seamstress beamed, clasping her hands and bowing, “this one is very grateful for your commissions and future contracts, Zhuangzhu.”

 

  When Jiuxiao came in to assist him in getting dressed, Zhou Zishu had already covered his surprise for Wen Kexing with his ku and zhongyi, slipping into the next layer as he entered.

  Jiuxiao raised a brow, seeing a little of what was shining through the semi transparent zhongyi but wisely keeping his mouth shut.  He helped tie the silk robe and then reached for the next layer as Zhou Zishu held his wide sleeves to slip them through the second to last robe.  This one was a heavily embroidered deeper red, a stiff silk that hung perfectly.  Jiuxiao wound the gold sash about his waist and tied it carefully, adding the yaopei that Zhou Zishu had chosen.  Over the top of that was a lighter silk robe, left open so that it fluttered as he moved, delicate golden embroidery shining.

  Next was his hair.

  Jiuxiao hummed to himself as he applied hair oil to his hands, the scent of lotus wafting to Zhou Zishu’s nose as he closed his eyes and allowed his Shidi to run his hands through his hair, smoothing the oil to the ends.  It was meditative and he found himself relaxing into the motions.

  “All of it up, Zishu?” Jiuxiao asked, breaking him out of his reveries.

  He smiled in the mirror, meeting Jiuxiao’s gaze, “no, Lao Wen likes it down.  Other than that, I don’t care, just put this in,” he said as he reached for the white jade hairpin.  He closed his eyes again as Jiuxiao sectioned off locks from the sides, weaving them into a braid.  Once that one was complete and fixed in place towards the crown of his head, Jiuxiao started on the other side.  When both braids were fixed, he wound them together into a bun and affixed the elaborate golden guan over it.  The White jade pin intersected the guan from side to side, then Jiuxiao added two long hair pins of gold with dangling precious gems in red tones.

  “A pity you don’t have pierced ears, we could add earrings,” Jiuxiao mused.

  Zhou Zishu laughed, “that would send Lao Wen in paroxysms on the floor.”

  A light chuckle came from behind him, “yes, I believe it might.  I do have another idea if we are trying to turn him to mush.”  Zhou Zishu raised his brow archly when his shidi produced pots of face pigment and fine tipped brushes.  “I have heard from Han Ying how Wen Kexing likes to line his eyes in red.  He said it’s very eye-catching.”

  It was.  Very.

  How would his zhiji react to him painting his face in a similar manner?  He grinned, taking hold of the pots and investigating their contents.  He took up a tiny brush and dipped it in the black, then with a steady hand, he drew a thin line from the inner corner to the outer of his upper eyelid with a little upwards flick at the end like he had seen Xie Wang wear.  He repeated the process on the other eye.  Then he found the red pigment and applied it to his lower lash line, smudging it a little for a more sultry look.

  Next his lips.

  Zhou Zishu dabbed his finger in the red pigment, then applied it lightly to his lips, turning his head to assess his appearance.  The thin black line close to his lashes on his upper eyelids made them seem darker, the slash of red under his lower lids seductive.  His lips plumper with the hint of colour.

  “You look like an empress,” Jiuxiao murmured behind him, fiddling with the two gold hairpins that stood out from the back of the simple bun held by the guan.  His fingers drifted over the white jade hairpin that Wen Kexing had given him, piercing the sides of the guan.  “Or an expensive courtesan.”

  “Will he like it?” Zhou Zishu asked softly.  “Is it too much?”

  Jiuxiao laughed, easing his nerves.  “That man is besotted already, Zishu.  He’s going to want to drop to his knees when he sees you.”  He smirked at Zhou Zishu in the mirror, “and at whatever you have under all that,” he added, gesturing to his robes.

  “Good,” Zhou Zishu said with a soft smile.

  Jiuxiao was very right.

  Wen Kexing’s knees gave an obvious wobble as Zhou Zishu approached, his mouth dropping open, reaching out to clutch at Gu Xiang as if he were faint.  His own robes were far more muted than Zhou Zishu had expected, but he still looked beautiful, regal as he gained back some of his composure.  His golden guan held up all of his silver hair, sides braided, exposing the long line of his neck above the collar of his robes.  He’d lined his eyes too, which made Zhou Zishu smile at him.  

  Gu Xiang rolled her eyes and propelled Wen Kexing forward so they could meet in the middle, directly in front of Ye Baiyi.  Wen Kexing’s eyes darted all over him, face to feet, then back again.  Then a slower, far more salacious drag of his eyes up and down, sucking his bottom lip between his teeth, lingering on Zhou Zishu’s eyes and lips, painted and enhanced.

  “A-Xu,” he breathed softly.  

  Zhou Zishu smiled at him, a smile he reserved just for him, full of promise.  “Lao Wen.”

  “Even more beautiful than I imagined,” Wen Kexing said, reaching out to take his hand.  He leaned close, “I want to take you on the floor right now, in front of everyone.”

  Zhou Zishu smacked his arm, making everyone laugh.  He fluttered his lashes, looking up through them coyly, “I’d rather you wait, I have a surprise for you.”

  Eyes darkening, Wen Kexing licked his lips, eyes flicking down, “something only I should see?  Something more than what I can see now?”

  “You will have to wait to find out, Lao Wen.”  His zhiji’s knees threatened to give out again, his grip on Zhou Zishu’s hand tightening.  Zhou Zishu held back a giggle and turned to Ye Baiyi, “I think you had better get things underway, Ye-qianbei, before Lao Wen passes out.”

  Ye Baiyi snorted, “fine, I’m hungry anyway.  Bow to the heavens,” he commanded.  Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing knelt together, bowing low, heads to the floor.  “Bow to your ancestors,” he told them next.  They faced the memorial tablets of the Wen couple and Qin Huaizhang and Zhou Zishu’s long gone parents.  “Bow to each other,” Ye Baiyi said when they rose from their second bows.  Shuffling on their knees, careful of their robes, they bowed to each other, fingertips brushing as their hands met the floor.  As they rose from the final bow, Ye Baiyi cleared his throat, “there, you are married.  Someone cut the locks of hair.  Now, can we eat?”

  Zhou Zishu couldn’t tear his eyes away from Wen Kexing.  Mine .  

   The banquet was stupidly lavish and equally stupidly long.  Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing were both vibrating with need, Zhou Zishu especially as the undergarments were brushing his skin every time he moved.  Wen Kexing had eyes for no-one but his husband, his hand continually on Zhou Zishu’s thigh, creeping ever higher under the table.

  Everyone in the room knew precisely where Wen Kexing’s hand was.

  The main hall was full of people, spilling out into the courtyard and beyond, laughter and voices raised in jubilation at every turn.  Wu Xi and Beiyuan were snuggled close together, staring at each other, possibly reliving their own bows.  Luo Fumeng and Qianqiao had given up trying to reign in the girls of the Buoqing Bu, drinking together and toasting the happy couple.  Gu Xiang was seated with Jiuxiao and Han Ying, nudging at them both every so often to make an off colour remark that made Jiuxiao’s ears pink and Han Ying hide his grin behind his hand.  Bi Changfeng and Long Que were drinking together, far quieter than the youngsters who were fast reaching a point of inebriation that would see many sore heads in the morning.

  The only person missing was Chengling.

  Wen Kexing noted the change in Zhou Zishu’s expression, guessing the cause as he studied everyone milling about.  “We will hold a special banquet just for him when he comes, A-Xu.  A grand celebration to welcome him.”

  Zhou Zishu leaned his head on Wen Kexing’s shoulder, arm about his waist, “I think he will like that.”

  Wen Kexing tipped his face up, pressing their lips together, heedless of the raucous cheering that started up when he did so.  He pulled back and licked his lips, some of the pigment transferring from Zhou Zishu’s lips to his own.  He rubbed the smeared red over Zhou Zishu’s lips, “you are stunning, husband, I have never seen a lovelier vision.”  His other hand crept into Zhou Zishu’s lap, knuckles brushing his crotch and making Zhou Zishu moan, a lewd sound lost in the noise around them.

  Zhou Zishu had been half hard since they sat down to eat and now he was starting to fill completely, pressing against the teased silk encasing his cock.  It was maddening.

 

  “Wait,” Zhou Zishu murmured against Wen Kexing’s lips, pushing him back to fish into his robes and unlace his ku, dropping it to the floor and stepping out of them.  He kicked them aside and beckoned Wen Kexing close, “now, continue.”  He wanted his wife to discover the whole inner set entire once he removed the thicker silk robe over his zhongyi.

  Wen Kexing keened when he discovered the semi transparent zhongyi, hinting at what was beneath.  “You were wearing this the whole time?”  He made Zhou Zishu turn slowly, moaning as he spotted the bared back and ties underneath.  He untied the zhongyi, fingers shaking, parting it with a low moan.  “A-Xu!”  His eyes darted down to the chubi, wet teased silk clinging to his leaking cock.  “Fuck.”

  “No poetry?”  Zhou Zishu watched him as he sank to his knees, his expression reverent, hands on Zhou Zishu’s bare thighs.

  With an emphatic shake of his head, “words pale into insignificance, A-Xu.  Gods would want you in their bed, Goddesses envious of your beauty.”  He bent his head forward, suckling at Zhou Zishu’s cock through the teased silk, eyes fluttering closed as he tasted him.  Zhou Zishu tipped his head back, slipping the inner robe to the floor so he stood in only the dudou and the chubi.  He cupped Wen Kexing’s head, rolling his pelvis into Wen Kexing’s mouth.  Wen Kexing’s deft hands were still shaking, gliding up his thighs to cup his ass cheeks with a low groan that vibrated along Zhou Zishu’s cock as he continued mouthing at it.  His hands made their way to the ties at the sides of his hips, pulling eagerly to loosen them.  The Chubi slithered to the floor with the rest of Zhou Zishu’s wedding attire.  

  Wen Kexing lifted the damp fabric, placing the aside, “I want you to wear these again for me sometime, I don’t want them ruined.”

  Zhou Zishu toyed with the idea of telling him he had another set in blue, but decided he’d save that information for another time.  He went to untie the dudou but his Lao Wen stopped him with a shake of his head.

  “Not yet,” he begged, eyes wide and pleading.  “Just a little longer.”

  “Alright,” Zhou Zishu whispered, his voice hoarse.  He turned and climbed up on their bed, laying himself out on it like a gift, amused when Wen Kexing hastily gathered his clothing off the floor and hung it over a rack so it wouldn’t wrinkle.  Then he added his own clothing to the rack next to it.

  He stalked back to the bed, completely naked, his cock hard and flushed at the tip, bobbing with each step.  Zhou Zishu eyed it hungrily, reaching to pull him down, “come here, wife.”  Wen Kexing climbed up over him, hands either side of Zhou Zishu’s head as he dipped down to kiss him, slowly lowering his body down to meet his husband’s.  Zhou Zishu hummed into the kiss, letting their tongues flick together, tangling his fingers in Wen Kexing’s loosened braids, pulling the guan away and letting his hair fall about his shoulders and back.  Zhou Zishu wrapped his arms around his wife, flipping them over so that he was looming above, grinning down at the besotted expression on Wen Kexing’s face, eyes glinting with mischief and delight.

  “Mmm, A-Xu, what will you do with this wife?”  He reached up and swept Zhou Zishu’s hair over his shoulder, letting his fingers trail over his collarbones, “these are almost as beautiful as your butterfly bones.”

  Zhou Zishu let his eyes roam, silver hair splayed out on the bed around his head and shoulders, the pigment from Zhou Zishu’s lips smeared over the plush pillows of Wen Kexing’s, eyes limpid and dark as they gazed up at him, cheeks pink, the long line of his throat exposed as he tilted his chin up invitingly.

  Seductive as ever.

  And all for Zhou Zishu to enjoy and love.

  “Zhou Furen,” he murmured, delighted by the deeping pink across his high cheekbones.  Wen Kexing really was a beautiful man.  And all his.

  Wen Kexing bit his lip in a coquettish display, batting his lashes, “xianggong.”  Long slim legs enfolded Zhou Zishu’s waist, a sly grin spreading over his zhiji’s face, bringing their groins into direct contact.  He rocked his hips up, grinding his cock against Zhou Zishu’s with a pleased sigh.

  Zhou Zishu wrapped his hand around them both, stroking them together in his fist, “I think,” he said with a smirk.  “I think I want to fuck my wife until he can’t speak.”  He bent down, lips to Wen Kexing’s ear, “first I want to taste his ass, open him up with my tongue.”

  Wen Kexing shuddered, whimpering, rocking up into the tight circle of Zhou Zishu’s fist so his cock slid against Zhou Zishu’s.  “My A-Xu has the best ideas.”

  Zhou Zishu leaned over, brushing their mouths together in the ghost of a kiss, a tease he knows drives Wen Kexing to distraction, eager for his tongue and denied it.  “You’re fucking beautiful, you know that?  You make me mad with desire all the time, and the way you constantly touch me, I find myself struggling not to rip your robes off and fuck you where ever we are.”

  Wen Kexing whimpered, rocking into his fist, “A-Xu!  You could do it and I would love it, everyone seeing how much we love each other, how good you fuck me.”

  Zhou Zishu laughed, swatting his Lao Wen’s thigh, “come on, on your knees.  I know one way to shut you up.”

 

Chapter Text

 

   Beiyuan’s grin was smug when Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing finally emerged from their rooms after several days.  He saluted them with his cup filled with steaming tea, gesturing to cushioned seats.

  Zhou Zishu growled as he lowered himself, a little careful of his waist, and back.  And his ass.  He took some satisfaction from the fact that his wife was just as gingerly lowering himself.  Beiyuan smiled serenely, pouring them both tea and pushing bowls of congee toward them.

  “I admit I am impressed by your stamina, gentlemen.”

  “Fuck you,” Zhou Zishu grumbled, grateful for the cushion and refusing to acknowledge it.

  Beiyuan raised an arched brow, smug.  “I would have thought your appearance meant you had had enough of that for the moment.”

  Zhou Zishu rolled his eyes, “where is Wu Xi?  I want him to beat you for your impertinence.”  Wen Kexing snorted at that, digging into his congee like a ravenous beast.  They had eaten while ensconced in their rooms, but the desire to feed on each other had been far too great to resist.  It was hunger that drove them from their bed.  And the fact they were both a little too sore to fuck again for a while.

  “Ahh, my husband has been procuring the ingredients he needs for Long Que,” Beiyuan answered, sipping at his tea in his leisurely manner.  “I am sure he will beat me with great relish when he returns from his latest shopping trip, and I am equally sure I will enjoy every moment.”

  Zhou Zishu choked on his own tea, “do you have to be such an indolent bastard?  Why am I friends with you?”  Was it too early for wine?  Probably.

  “Because I am an indolent bastard, Zishu, why else?”  Beiyuan leaned back, the very picture of the indolence Zhou Zishu accused him of.  “I would say that the type of connubial bliss you two are experiencing will ease in a few years, but from what I can tell, it won’t.”

  “Speaking from experience, Beiyuan?”  If he thought he was going to embarrass Beiyuan, he was sadly mistaken.  Honestly, he should have known better.  This was a man who openly admitted to seeking out male courtesans before he became involved with Wu Xi.

  Beiyuan smirked at Zhou Zishu, “of course.  Why do you think I like to do as little as possible all day?  I’m conserving my strength.”

  “How does he put up with you?” Zhou Zishu grumbled, pulling his bowl of congee closer so he could start in on it.

  “The same way Wen Daren puts up with you.”  He tapped his cup against Zhou Zishu’s on the table in a mocking toast, “love.”  He leaned back again, a familiar mischievous grin on his face, “or it could be I’m incredibly easy, who knows.”

  Wen Kexing laid his chopsticks down, regarding them with a curious smile, “why not both?”

  Beiyuan laughed, surprised by Wen Kexing joining the conversation, “I like him, Zishu.  Wen Daren gets it.  It is indeed both.”  He grinned at Wen Kexing, “did you know this bastard asked me to find him a slim waisted girl, told me he’d come drink with me, and then never did.  When I do see him again, he’s found himself a very handsome wife and intends to upend the whole Jianghu.  I really can’t leave him to his own devices, can I?”  He sighed, “not to mention the whole immortality thing.  I’d ask you to keep him out of trouble, but I think you two enjoy being menaces.”

  Wen Kexing snickered behind his sleeve.  

  Zhou Zishu rolled his eyes to disguise the fact he was pleased his oldest friend and his wife were getting along, even at his own expense.  “Lao Wen is definitely a menace,” he said, nudging his zhiji.  “But I like him that way.”

  “Aw, A-Xu,” Wen Kexing crooned.  “I will remember you said that, you know.”

  Beiyuan chuckled, “yes, keep him on his toes, Wen Daren, never let him get complacent.  Love the house and its crow .”  He shifted, ignoring Zhou Zishu’s eye roll, adjusting his robes, “I do hate to bring down the mood, but I think we should discuss what your next move is.  With that nail removed I assume you will be ready to proceed soon, yes?”

  Zhou Zishu grimaced, “yes, soon.  I think a meeting with Gao Chong and Zhang Yusen would be prudent.  They played a part in the past, so I think they should have a hand in fixing the mess they helped create.  Zhao Jing is the main issue for now.  We need to keep him in the dark as to what is going on around him.  It will be easier to achieve that if Gao Chong is assisting us.”

  Beiyuan hummed thoughtfully, “what of Helian Yi?  How will you deal with him, Zishu?  He’s powerful and from what you told me, power has gone to his head.  The throne is propped up by the bones of the dead.”  He shuddered, “I am glad I got away from him when I did.”

  “Yes, well, he shifted his focus from you to me, though he thought he was subtle about it.”  He rested his chin in his palm, “I know how I dealt with him before, and it may be the only way to deal with him again, but without me ending up skewered by hooks this time.  I’d rather not endure that this time around.”

  “Skewered...by hooks?  Zishu, that sounds...not particularly good.”

  Zhou Zishu inhaled, “it wasn’t.  He was being...Helian Yi, you know how he is, arrogant and so focused on his own goals he sees nothing else.  Thinks he can justify everything he does as a righteous fight.  Called me his zhiji.  He was not particularly pleased when I said he wasn’t qualified.”

  Beiyuan choked, “oh shit.”  He laughed bitterly, “he’s not exactly doing well in the zhiji count, is he?”

  “He either kills those he professes to care about, or drives them away.  If he loves his sword, break it .”

  Wen Kexing wriggled closer to Zhou Zishu, turning the full force of his doe eyed expression on him, “why can’t I kill him, A-Xu, surely he deserves it?”  He ran his fingers up Zhou Zishu’s arm, “he hurt you, he would hurt you more if he could, he doesn’t want you to be free.”

  “He wants you in his bed,” Beiyuan added darkly.

  “Not helping,” Zhou Zishu hissed at his friend.  The tree craves calm, but the wind will not abate.   Now he was thinking in metaphors, fuck, what had they done to him?  The last thing he needed was Wen Kexing racing off to Jin in a jealous rage and setting off a war.  “We need him alive, but not necessarily fully functioning.”

  Wen Kexing pouted grumpily, “if he touches you, I will cut off his cock and feed it to him.”

  Beiyuan gave the silver haired man an appraising look, “well, that gives new meaning to sucking cock.”  He raised a brow at Zhou Zishu, “it would likely be the first he’s had in his mouth.  Perhaps that is part of his problem, he needs a good fucking, or to be put on his knees.”

  Zhou Zishu laughed, “are you volunteering, Beiyuan?”

  The former prince rolled his eyes with a shudder, “hardly.  My little Toxin would do much as Wen Daren here, only he’d probably poison it before he shoved it in Helian Yi’s mouth.”  He glanced at Wen Kexing, “were you aware, Wen Daren, that my husband and your husband collaborated to create that noxious concoction Zishu uses for sleeping?”

  “Drunk Like a Dream?”  Wen Kexing’s brows rose, “I was not aware Da Wu was interested in poisons.”

  Zhou Zishu swatted his wife on the arm, “it’s not a poison, Lao Wen.”

  Catching his hand, Wen Kexing brought it to his lips, kissing Zhou Zishu’s fingers before it was snatched from his grasp with an annoyed grunt.  He pouted at his husband, “I always have the oddest dreams when you insist on using it.”  He shuddered, “and not the good kind of odd.”

  “Maybe that’s due to a reaction with the effects of the Meng Po.”  He had pondered his zhiji’s reaction to Drunk Like a Dream and that seemed to be the obvious conclusion.

  Beiyuan frowned, “the Waters of Lethe?  What do you know of that?”

  Wen Kexing didn’t notice Beiyuan’s disconcerted tone, shrugging.  “Upon entering Ghost Valley, it has been given to every ghost so that they will leave their obsessions behind.  It is meant to ensure one forgets so they will not be tempted to leave.”

  While his Lao Wen explained, Zhou Zishu watched Beiyuan.  The former Nan Ning Wang had paled, but upon listening to Wen Kexing had gone from confused to a perfectly blank expression that gave nothing away.

  How did Beiyuan know of the Meng Po Tang?

  When he asked, Beiyuan waved away the question, shaking his head, “it’s nothing important, Zishu.”

  The dissembling was very reminiscent of the Beiyuan while in Jin and it sparked Zhou Zishu’s curiosity, something the former prince appeared to be aware of, and studiously ignoring.  Until he no longer could pretend he wasn’t fully cognizant of Zhou Zishu burning holes in the side of his head with his glare.

  He sighed, resigned.  “I would rather not talk about this right now, Zishu, and not without my husband present.  Interrogate me another day, when other concerns are long behind us.”  He looked directly at Zhou Zishu, “please.”

  The plea was heartfelt, weary, and accompanied by a haunted expression.

  Zhou Zishu nodded, not sure he wanted to delve into that mystery.  Maybe it was better not to know.  He decided then and there, to let Beiyuan tell him if he wished, but he would not push the issue.

 

  “So,” Zhou Zishu said, fixing Wen Kexing with a determined glare.  “When did Han Ying decide to start calling you Shishu?”  The question had been bothering him for weeks now, and each time Han Ying used the title it made him even more curious.

  Wen Kexing chuckled, “he had to be told, A-Xu.”  He swept Zhou Zishu’s hair over his shoulder, placing a kiss on his shoulder.  “While you were in the coma, he refused to leave our door.  He brought me food and drink, worried because I wouldn’t leave your side.  I would wake to find he’d left things for me.”

  “So he looked after you, while you looked after me,” Zhou Zishu murmured, leaning against his wife.

  Wen Kexing nodded, “yes, he did.  Much like he had when we were still in Ghost Valley.  He was worried about us both.  He’s very endearing, A-Xu.  He blushed so prettily when I made him call me Shishu.”  He chuckled again, “he said he would agree if I called him Ying’er like you do.”

  Silence reigned between them after that as they watched the sun sink behind the walls, content just to stand side by side, Wen Kexing sneaking his arm around his waist as he leaned his head on his shoulder.  The moon was rising before Zhou Zishu turned in his embrace to tip his face up for a kiss.

  Zhou Zishu wasn’t so blinded by his wife that he wasn’t aware of the hungry glances of Han Ying.  Nor that they were directed at both he and Wen Kexing, something he found to be an interesting development.  That his Lao Wen had noticed the lust filled looks wasn’t a surprise.  Wen Kexing was ever alert to anyone looking in Zhou Zishu’s direction, particularly when it was of the kind of glance that Han Ying was indulging in.  So he was bound to notice that when they were together, Han Ying’s gaze was divided equally between them.

  Yet, Wen Kexing was serene.  Not jealous in any way.

  Whether it was security in his position in Zhou Zishu’s heart and bed, or the fact that they demonstrated their excessive affection rather more regularly than the usual married couple, Zhou Zishu couldn’t tell, but he appreciated that Han Ying wasn’t a bone of contention between them, not as Beiyuan had been for long months, despite the fact that Beiyuan only opened his legs for Wu Xi.

  That had simmered down to a vague dislike of Beiyuan’s open flirtatious nature, but not the man himself.  Zhou Zishu often scolded Wen Kexing for hypocrisy, given his own penchant for making ridiculously licentious remarks regardless of the company.  Wen Kexing merely replied that Zhou Zishu was the only one he directed such remarks to.  Smug.  Bastard.

  Han Ying was also the only inhabitant of Siji Manor that didn’t look away in embarrassment when the touches or kisses between Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing became more amorous than strictly proper.  Instead he gazed at them openly, hunger burning in his eyes.

  “Ying’er is watching again,” his zhiji whispered against his mouth, hand sliding down to cup his ass through his robes.

  “Mmm,” Zhou Zishu hummed, rolling his hips forward lazily.  “He does that a lot.”

  “He does,” Wen Kexing agreed softly.  “His feelings for you are obvious, but of late, I…”

  “He looks at you almost the same way, I noticed.”  Zhou Zishu leaned in closer.  “I thought to be more discrete, spare him the pain, but he seems to…enjoy watching us.”  He looked up at Wen Kexing’s thoughtful expression.  “You’re not drinking vinegar.”

  Silver hair swung from side to side as Wen Kexing shook his head, “no, I never could be now.  He’s too sweet.  When he came to the Valley he treated me with the greatest respect, not fear.  Before I came to you he served me and acted as if I were precious, simply because I was precious to you.  He loves you.”

  Zhou Zishu sighed, “yes, he does.  I told him he is young and that it would fade, he insisted it wouldn’t.”  He closed his eyes for a moment, “if there hadn’t been you, he might have been someone I could feel something for.  It doesn’t matter, regardless, I have you, who else would I want or need?”

  Wen Kexing’s kiss was possessive and feral, making Zhou Zishu groan with longing, clinging to the taller man.  When they pulled apart they were both breathless.  Han Ying had retreated into the shadows, but not completely.

  “What if…”  Wen Kexing paused, looking a little uncertain.  “What if we invited him into our bed, A-Xu?  I know you love me, we have proved that to each other, I feel no concern about that, I just…”  He sighed, pressing their foreheads together.  “You are enough, I am enough, I know that, I don’t doubt it or you, but…he’s endearing and attractive.  We could share a little of our love with him.”

  Zhou Zishu didn’t know what to think about that.  “I don’t want to hurt him, Lao Wen.  Giving him a taste like that, knowing it was only a shadow of what we feel for each other, wouldn’t that be cruel?”  He sighed, “I worry it would be using him for pleasure.  He would agree without thinking if I were to ask such a thing, not considering how it might affect him.”

  Wen Kexing walked them back to a bench, pulling Zhou Zishu into his lap, holding him tenderly, “he blooms under our attention, those eyes of his shining when either of us praise him.  He wants so much it makes me ache.  When we touch or kiss, his eyes burn into us, just like they are now.  If it were hurting him, he’d walk away, never from Siji or us entirely, I don’t think he’d be capable of that, but he would withdraw.”  Wen Kexing swept Zhou Zishu’s hair over one shoulder and kissed his neck on the other side, “he wishes to be the one to kiss you like this, or to be the one who receives the kiss from my lips.  It’s not a wish to supplant, but to be included.  He’s not looking away.”  Wen Kexing gripped Zhou Zishu’s ass and hauled him close so their groins met.  “Should we let him see, A-Xu?  See if he walks away, or stays?”

  Zhou Zishu shuddered, thinking of Han Ying watching from his darkened corner, watching them .  Before Wen Kexing, he had never considered himself an exhibitionist, since he’d found he simply didn’t care much who saw them in intimate situations, though never quite like this.  It was…arousing.  He groaned, rubbing against Wen Kexing like a wanton cat.  

  “You’re getting hard, husband,” Wen Kexing murmured into his neck, pressing kisses along the taut line of it when Zhou Zishu threw his head back to allow access.  

  “So are you, wife,” Zhou Zishu retorted, rolling his hips again, feeling his erection through his robes.  He reached between them to loosen Wen Kexing’s robes, lessen the fabric between them.  “Give him a little taste, see if he bites into the fruit or leaves it.”

  Wen Kexing growled, hands leaving Zhou Zishu’s ass only long enough to wrangle his robes open and push them down over his shoulders, then they were back on his ass, encouraging the rocking motion.  “A-Xu,” he moaned, seeking Zhou Zishu’s mouth.

  Wen Kexing kept hold of him as Zhou Zishu wriggled his hands between them and loosened the laces on both their pants, shoving them down and out of the way so he could take hold of them both and stroke their cocks in tandem.

  “He’s touching himself, A-Xu,” Wen Kexing moaned in his ear after they’d been rutting together for several minutes.  “He’s moved closer to see better, hand in his pants.”

  “Fuck,” Zhou Zishu moaned, hand working faster, both of them leaking making the glide much better.  He wanted to see for himself.  “Which way, Lao Wen, where?”

  “Just by the doorway to the hall,” Wen Kexing answered with a quiver as Zhou Zishu squeezed them both.  “Here,” he said softly, one hand leaving his ass to tangle in his hair and angle his head to the side, lips moving along the skin.  

  Zhou Zishu kept his eyes half closed and looked through his lashes towards where Wen Kexing indicated, sucking in a harsh breath as he spotted Han Ying, very obviously enjoying the show they were putting on for him.  His hand was under his tunic, down his pants, working furiously, mouth open, panting, eyes glued on them.  “Fuck,” he whispered.  “He’s really doing that, right there, because of us.”  He groaned again, his own hand faster and faster on their cocks.

  Wen Kexing pressed their temples together, watching along with him, “A-Xu, think of him in bed with us, all that desire bubbling over.  See how close he is?”

  “I want to make him come,” Zhou Zishu gasped as he felt his own orgasm barreling closer.  He planted one hand on Wen Kexing’s knee behind him and arched his back, creating a clear view of his hand wrapped around their glistening cocks.  He moved his hand up to the heads, squeezing before he stroked down again, twisting his fist.

  “A-Xu, you’re going to make me come,” Wen Kexing gasped, a little louder than necessary and they both twitched as Han Ying groaned audibly, hips stuttering.

  Zhou Zishu keened, twisting his fist again, “come on, show me, come for me.”  The command was just as much for Wen Kexing as it was for Han Ying.

  Han Ying’s orgasm set them both off, watching him throw his head back, lips caught between his teeth to stay quiet, free hand slapping against the wall to hold himself upright as his hips jerked into his hand.  They watched him slump against the wall, hand moving slower, prolonging it.  When his hand stopped altogether, Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing’s mouths met again, agreeing silently to let Han Ying collect himself without knowing he’d been observed.

  “He’s moved back into the shadows,” Wen Kexing whispered.  “But, still watching.  He licked his fingers clean, A-Xu.”

  “He didn’t leave,” Zhou Zishu whispered back, leaning his head against Wen Kexing’s shoulder.  

  “He was so lovely, A-Xu, wasn’t he?”  Wen Kexing lifted Zhou Zishu’s messy hand and licked at his fingers, cleaning his hand like Han Ying had done to his own, then kissed him when he was done to let Zhou Zishu taste their combined release on his tongue.

  Zhou Zishu wondered what Han Ying tasted like.

 

Chapter Text

 

  They decided that Wen Kexing should be the one to make the initial approach.  Han Ying had been a little skittish in the days after the incident in the courtyard, blushing furiously whenever either of them spoke to him, but the hunger in his eyes had intensified.

  If they were a little more vocal and enthusiastic on nights when Han Ying was stationed outside their rooms, well, that was neither here nor there.

  “Make him aware that I am in agreement, don’t let him think you are seducing him on his own, I don’t want him conflicted about that,” Zhou Zishu told him.  They were both naked and sweaty after a few intense rounds of fucking in the privacy of their room.  “As much as we want him, I don’t want him to feel he’s coming between us.”

  “Isn’t that rather the point, A-Xu,” his zhiji chuckled.

  Zhou Zishu swatted his ass, then squeezed the firm flesh under his hand because he could and he liked doing it, “you know what I mean.”  But he giggled too when Wen Kexing waggled his eyebrows.  They’d both been rather creative in their ideas for how they could all enjoy each other.  “We don’t know what he really wants, Lao Wen.  He might just like watching.”  He slid his hand over Wen Kexing’s ass, fingers delving between his cheeks, smirking when his zhiji sighed and parted his legs for Zhou Zishu to explore his leaking hole.  “I really would like to watch him fuck you.”

  “Mmm,” Wen Kexing hummed as Zhou Zishu slid a finger in.  “I’d like to watch him fuck you too, and while you fuck him, I really think he would be beautiful then, A-Xu.  Finally having you.”  He sighed happily as Zhou Zishu’s finger slid in and out.

  “He wants you just as much, zhiji, when you speak to him, his eyes keep dropping to your lips.  He likes your hands, too,” Zhou Zishu murmured as he rolled onto his side and wriggled closer so they were pressed together.  He kissed Wen Kexing’s shoulder as he added another finger and fucked him lazily, enjoying the way his breath hitched and he rolled his hips up into it.  “Insatiable,” he murmured as Wen Kexing began to rub his cock into the bed.  He made no mention of the fact he was getting hard again, he knew Wen Kexing could feel him against his hip.

  “A-Xu, please…”

  Zhou Zishu found he didn’t want to deny him, clambering over Wen Kexing and pushing into him again, tucking his arms under his shoulders as he rolled his hips, back and forth, so slick and loose.  His zhiji sighed, letting Zhou Zishu fuck him slow and deep.

  “No matter what, you will always be my wife, Lao Wen, my zhiji.  Nothing, or no-one can change that.”

  Wen Kexing sighed, rolling his hips up to meet him, “I know, A-Xu.”

  Zhou Zishu turned his head, finding Wen Kexing's mouth, even though the angle was odd.  “Ai ni, niangzi.”

  “Ai ni, xianggong.”

 

  “Ying’er,” Wen Kexing purred when Han Ying bowed at their door.  “Come in, come in.”

  Zhou Zishu rolled his eyes behind the screens that hid their bed from view of the doorway at Wen Kexing’s solicitous tone.  They’d put the screens in place after too many times being interrupted and having to fling covers over themselves to stave off the embarrassment of their disciples and staff.  And now they were hiding Zhou Zishu from Han Ying while Wen Kexing spoke to him about joining them in their bed.

  “You wished to see me, Shishu,” Han Ying said softly.  Zhou Zishu peered through a crack in the screens to see Han Ying standing perfectly still, a little nervous.  He grinned as Han Ying’s eyes flitted from Wen Kexing’s generous mouth to his long dexterous fingers.

  “I most certainly do, Ying’er, come sit, have a drink with me.  I have something that I wished to discuss with you.  A-Xu wanted me to make you comfortable before he joins us.”  Zhou Zishu heard the rustling of Wen Kexing’s robes as he sat himself down.  “It’s a private matter, you see, Ying’er, and A-Xu felt it was better discussed in here, and that I should be the one to speak to you first.”

  Han Ying was well trained by Zhou Zishu and didn’t betray his worry as he sat across from Wen Kexing, but Zhou Zishu could see the stiff set of his shoulders through the screens.

  “Have I offended Shishu, or Shifu?”

  Wen Kexing poured wine into their cups, pushing one to Han Ying with a soft smile, “no, of course not, Ying’er, it is simply delicate, shall we say, and we didn’t want you to be embarrassed.”

  “Delicate?” Han Ying murmured, dipping his head.

  Wen Kexing nodded encouragingly, “yes, your Shifu and I wish to propose something to you.  You may, of course, decline, you are under absolutely no obligation to agree and it will not affect your standing in any way should you refuse.  We both trust and respect you, Ying’er, implicitly.  We would not consider this proposition with anyone but you.”

  “Thank you, Shishu.”

  “I will get to the point, Ying’er.”  Wen Kexing reached out, stroking the back of Han Ying’s hand, noting the way his breath hitched and his eyes darted to Wen Kexing’s.  “It’s alright, it is…pertinent, to what we wish to ask of you.”

  “Pertinent?”  Han Ying stared down at Wen Kexing’s fingers, swallowing, his eyes drifting back up to his Shishu’s face, the questions he wanted to ask written all over his own.

  “Very,” Wen Kexing confirmed.  “We would like you to join us.  In our bed.”  He eyed Han Ying’s shocked, incredulous expression.  “As a lover, Ying’er.”  He leaned in, eyes intent, “is that something you would want?”

  Han Ying’s eyes were impossibly wide.  His mouth worked uselessly.  

  “I know how you feel, Ying’er.  A-Xu knows.  We do not want you to say yes simply because it was asked of you, we want you to join us because you want to.  If you do not think you can handle it, feeling as you do, then you don’t have to.”  He squeezed Han Ying’s fingers reassuringly, “we don’t want you hurt because of this.  We care for you.”

  His throat bobbed as he swallowed, “you do?”  He sounded so young, so eager, it made Zhou Zishu want to leave the bed and join them.

  Wen Kexing nodded, solemn as he could be.  “We do, both of us.  You matter a great deal, Ying’er.”  He kept stroking Han Ying’s fingers, slipping up to test his pulse at his wrist, “the idea excites you.”

  Han Ying keened, unconsciously moving closer, “I…yes.”  He ducked his head, trying to hide his flushing face from Wen Kexing.  “You saw me,” he whispered.  “In the courtyard.”

  “We did,” Wen Kexing confirmed.  “We wanted you to see us, to watch us.”

  Han Ying’s head came up, eyes shining, “you were beautiful, Shishu.  You were both so beautiful, I…I couldn’t help it.  I…I have heard you, when I am stationed outside your rooms, I…I have so badly wanted to see, to watch…”

  “To join us?”

  Han Ying bit his lip, nodding.  “Yes,” he whispered.

  Wen Kexing brought Han Ying’s hand to his lips, kissing the back of his fingers softly, “will you join us in our bed, Ying’er?”

  Poor Han Ying whimpered, staring at Wen Kexing’s lips on his fingers, “yes, please, yes.”

  Wen Kexing rose, eyes flitting to the screen with a triumphant grin, then helped Han Ying to his feet, “come with me.”  Han Ying trailed behind him, dazed expression on his face.  As Wen Kexing drew the younger man around the edge of the screen, Zhou Zishu propped himself up on his elbow with a grin on his face.  

  Han Ying dropped to his knees the moment he spotted Zhou Zishu, but his eyes flitted over his nearly exposed form, his lips parting a fraction before he lowered his gaze, “Zhuangzhu.”

  Rising from the bed, Zhou Zishu knelt in front of him, startling a shocked gasp out the young disciple.  “Ying’er, in here, with just the three of us, I am not your Lord, nor am I your Shifu.”  With a single finger he raised Han Ying’s chin, “in here, I am Zishu, please.  Can you do that for me?  Kexing and Zishu?”

  Han Ying whined, eyes flitting down to the transparent zhongyi, loosely tied, tongue darting out to wet his lips before his eyes found Zhou Zishu’s again.  “I…I can try.”  His cheeks flushed, almost crimson.  “Z…Zishu,” he stuttered shyly.

  Wen Kexing sucked in a breath, “oh, A-Xu, look at him, so lovely.”

  “He is,” Zhou Zishu agreed, watching the flush spread down Han Ying’s neck.  He touched the pink on his cheek, caressing the warm skin.  “We are honored that you accepted, Ying’er.”

  Han Ying’s lashes fluttered, “I am honored to be asked, I am honored to be wanted.”

  Zhou Zishu swept his thumb over Han Ying’s lips, smiling when he parted them a little, “what would you like first, Ying’er?”  He hoped Han Ying would express his desires, not simply be led.

  What Han Ying wanted firstly was betrayed by his eyes, slipping down to gaze upon Zhou Zishu’s lips, then back up again, pleading silently.

  Wen Kexing watched the exchange avidly, leaning over to rest his chin on his husband’s shoulder, “Ying’er wants a kiss from you, A-Xu.”  He watched Han Ying’s gaze flit from Zhou Zishu to himself, again down to lips.  “And one from me too?”

  Han Ying lowered his gaze, but he nodded.  “Yes,” he added softly.  He looked up, meeting Zhou Zishu’s eyes, then Wen Kexing’s, “this one wants that very much.”  

  “Oh, how could anyone not want him,” Wen Kexing cooed, slipping from the bed to his knees beside Zhou Zishu.  “Please, kiss him, A-Xu, before I steal that kiss for myself.”

  Zhou Zishu glanced at his husband, expecting to see a teasing expression, but what he found was genuine and soft.  He bit his lip and turned back to Han Ying, waiting patiently, almost expectantly.  He liked the slight change, that he knew he was wanted by them, was feeling more secure in himself.  It was closer to the Han Ying the man was when he didn’t know Zhou Zishu or Wen Kexing were watching.  He had a natural confidence and a little arrogance that Zhou Zishu liked, but never got to see often.  The moment Han Ying knew he was around, deference and adoration were his primary expressions.

  Zhou Zishu shuffled forward on his knees, cupping Han Ying’s cheek and urging him closer, “Ying’er can have whatever he desires.”  He closed the last bit of distance, pressing his lips softly to Han Ying’s, not particularly surprised by the gasp that left him.  He was surprised by the little sob and the way Han Ying suddenly clung to him, pressing their mouths together more forcefully.  Surprised, but he rejoiced, letting his lips part for Han Ying’s eager tongue.  He allowed Han Ying to explore with his tongue, relished the way hands stroked up and down his arms, the way he moved closer, all of his own accord.

  He gentled the kiss slowly, guiding him into something more sensual, then pulled away enough to take in Han Ying’s absolutely blissful expression, his lips glistening and turning up in a gentle smile.

  “You are so beautiful when you smile, Ying’er,” Wen Kexing murmured, shifting closer.

  Han Ying’s deep brown eyes fluttered open, locking on Wen Kexing, then he shocked both Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing himself when he reached for him, tangling his hand in his silver hair and tugging him close.  His other hand came up, fingers drifting over Wen Kexing’s plump lips.  “K…Kexing’s lips drive this one mad.”

  “I know that feeling well, Ying’er,” Zhou Zishu chuckled, moving to give them room, resting his hands on their waists so he could watch as Han Ying surged up.

  The kiss was hungry from the get go, Zhou Zishu fascinated by the flash of tongues between their lips, groaning when Han Ying sucked Wen Kexing’s bottom lip into his mouth.

  “You have been watching closely, Lao Wen loves that,” he murmured, stroking up Han Ying’s side.  He shuffled around behind the younger man, reaching around to pull Wen Kexing flush, pressing himself against Han Ying’s back.  “Is he getting hard for you, Ying’er?”  Han Ying nodded desperately, not breaking the kiss, both hands in Wen Kexing’s hair now.  “Are you getting hard for us?”  Han Ying answered with a moan.  Zhou Zishu pressed his groin to Han Ying’s ass, rolling his hips so his erection rubbed against him.  “Feel me against you?”

  Han Ying broke the kiss with a guttural groan, rocking forward and back.  “Please,” he whispered.

  Wen Kexing stroked Han Ying’s cheek, glancing at Zhou Zishu with a gleeful smile.  “What does our Ying’er want?”

  “Anything, everything,” he gasped, resting his head on Wen Kexing’s shoulder, pressing his ass back onto Zhou Zishu’s cock.  “Most of all, like this, between you, both of you, surrounding me.”

  With a deep groan, Zhou Zishu fumbled with Han Ying’s robes, parting them eagerly as Wen Kexing rid himself of his own outer layers.  Han Ying shocked them again when he insistently removed Wen Kexing’s zhongyi, turning after that in their embrace, to do the same to Zhou Zishu.  Now all three are bared to the waist, exploring warm skin.  Zhou Zishu craned his neck, leaning close to Wen Kexing, extending his tongue to flick at his zhiji’s between their open mouths, then gripping Han Ying’s nape to bring him close, three tongues exploring together.

  It was wet and messy and absolutely glorious.

  Zhou Zishu broke the three way kiss, “what do you want now, Ying’er?”  He pecked his lips again, “anything, you can have anything you want and we’ll give it to you.”

  “Anything, Ying’er, you only need ask,” Wen Kexing added, nuzzling his neck.

  Han Ying looked between them, eyes glazed with lust.  “Anything?” he asked hoarsely.

  “Whatever you desire,” Wen Kexing assured him, punctuating it with a nibble to his throat.  “If you want me to watch while A-Xu fucks you, or…”

  “Both of you, together,” Han Ying interrupted.  He met Wen Kexing’s gaze, “I…could I…could I fuck you while…Z…Zishu fucks me?”

  Wen Kexing and Zhou Zishu both groaned, nodding.

  “That is a wonderful idea, Ying’er, you are such a clever boy,” Wen Kexing crooned.  “Would you like me to prepare myself…”

  “I want to suck you while I finger you, Kexing, please, can I?”  Han Ying glanced back at Zhou Zishu, “is that alright?”

  Zhou Zishu stroked his cheek, “that is more than alright, Ying’er.”  He leaned in kissing him again, tongues tangling for a moment.  “I’ll get you ready while you do that, does that sound good?”

  Han Ying sighed, leaning into him, “that sounds perfect.”  One hand slid down to cup Zhou Zishu’s cock, the other Wen Kexing’s, “you are both perfect.”

  Wen Kexing edged back, kicking off his boots and shoving his trousers down, stepping out of them and sashaying toward the bed with a sultry backward glance, silver hair brushing over his ass.  He clambered up onto the bed, then laid himself out, spreading his thighs wide.  He crooked his finger at Han Ying, “come here you beautiful boy, I want to feel your mouth on me.”  He grinned at Zhou Zishu as Han Ying whined, ripping the rest of his own clothing off and crawling up to Wen Kexing.

  Zhou Zishu followed at a more leisurely pace, keeping his eyes on the pair on the bed, smirking when Wen Kexing produced a pot of oil and placed it within reach, coaxing Han Ying in for more kisses.  He felt not even the slightest twinge of jealousy watching them, rather it fired his desire more, seeing how hard they both were, how eager Han Ying was to touch and taste.  He watched avidly as Han Ying kissed his way down Wen Kexing’s toned stomach, nuzzling at him while shooting Zhou Zishu lust filled glances.  He kept his eyes locked with Zhou Zishu as he curled his fist around Wen Kexing’s cock, opening his mouth to lick at the tip.

  Then Han Ying sank down on Wen Kexing’s cock, closing his eyes blissfully.  He looked like there was nowhere he would rather be.

  Zhou Zishu looked up at Wen Kexing, seeing his eyes roll back in his head as Han Ying sucked him down, tangling his fingers in Han Ying’s hair.  When he gazed back at Zhou Zishu he grinned.

  Zhou Zishu climbed up beside them, caressing Han Ying’s back where he was curved over Wen Kexing’s groin, then he stroked Wen Kexing’s chest, leaning in to kiss his beautiful wife.  “Does his mouth feel good, Lao Wen?”

  Wen Kexing moaned, nodding, “he definitely knows what he’s doing, A-Xu.”  He arched up as Han Ying hummed around his cock, eyes glinting as he looked up at them both.  “This boy knows his way around a cock.”

  Zhou Zishu bent close to Han Ying’s ear, nibbling at it, “do you know your way around an ass too, Ying’er?”  Han Ying moaned, setting off an answering moan from Wen Kexing.  He nodded, bobbing on the cock in his mouth.  Zhou Zishu grinned, taking the lid off the pot of oil, “open up my wife, Ying’er, get him ready for your cock.  Give him two, I fucked him this morning.”

  Han Ying let go of Wen Kexing cock with a slick pop, “I know, I heard you.”  He licked the tip as he dipped his fingers in, grinning at Zhou Zishu, “and I heard him fuck you last night.”

  Zhou Zishu laughed, kissing him again, “did it make you hard, Ying’er?  I bet it did, and I bet you touched yourself.”

  Han Ying didn’t answer, but his little smirk was enough of an answer, circling Wen Kexing’s eager hole with the tips of two fingers.  He went back to sucking as he slipped them in, eyes flitting up to watch Wen Kexing tip his head back as they entered him.

  With Han Ying’s very capable mouth occupied with Wen Kexing’s cock, his fingers delving into his ass, Zhou Zishu settled behind him and decided he needed to occupy his own mouth with Han Ying’s rather delectable ass.  Han Ying responded to the first swipe of Zhou Zishu’s tongue with a deep groan around Wen Kexing’s cock, rocking back onto Zhou Zishu’s face eagerly.

  Han Ying was opening up beautifully, Zhou Zishu soon thrusting his tongue right into his ass, listening to his muffled moans.  Wen Kexing was writhing, spreading his legs wider and wider, fucking up into Han Ying’s mouth and down onto his fingers, three, when Zhou Zishu pulled away from Han Ying’s ass long enough to check.  Close to ready from the sounds he was making.

  Zhou Zishu crawled up and laid over Han Ying’s back, letting his cock rut between his ass cheeks, pressing kisses to his shoulder, “he wants you to fuck him, Ying’er.”

  Wen Kexing moaned, throwing his head back, “yes, yes, please Ying’er.”  He scrabbled at Han Ying, dragging him up for a filthy kiss, “please, fuck me.”  He adjusted his legs and hugged them to each side of his chest, exposing his slick hole for Han Ying, “please.”

  Zhou Zishu reached for the pot of oil and helped Han Ying slick his cock up, stroking him from root to tip, enjoying the feel of him, heavy and thick in his hand.  He nibbled at Han Ying’s neck, while Wen Kexing watched them with glazed eyes.  He took it upon himself to help Han Ying position the head of his cock at Wen Kexing’s hole, still stroking as Han Ying moaned.

  “Once you’re inside my wife, Ying’er, I’m going to finger you while you fuck him,” he purred into Han Ying’s reddening ear.  “Then I’m going to fuck you.”

  Han Ying completely lost his composure, thrusting into Wen Kexing wildly, grappling with Zhou Zishu’s shoulders and claiming his mouth.  Wen Kexing had obviously clenched down on the cock in his ass from the way Han Ying moaned into Zhou Zishu’s mouth before he wrenched away to grip Wen Kexing’s thighs and drive into him.  From the way his zhiji’s eyes rolled back, Han Ying was finding that spot within him that left him speechless.

  He shifted to kneel beside his husband’s hip, getting a wonderful view of the pair, admiring the way Han Ying’s body moved, the way his Lao Wen was responding.  He leaned over to kiss his husband for a moment, “does Ying’er feel good inside you, Lao Wen?”

  Big, glistening doe eyes blinked up at him, nodding, “oh, A-Xu, Ying’er’s cock feels wonderful.  You’ll really like it.”

  Zhou Zishu tilted his head to look up at Han Ying, licking his lips, “yeah, I bet I will, but I want his ass first.  He wanted to be in the middle of us at the same time, and what Ying’er wants, Ying’er is going to get.”  He stroked Wen Kexing’s chest as he gazed up at Han Ying, “we have many, many nights to explore everything, any desire…”

  Han Ying swallowed, nodding eagerly, “yes, yes, I… Oh! ”  He broke off, moaning, his response lost as he gripped hold of Wen Kexing and thrust hard.  Zhou Zishu had a feeling he knew what his husband had done.  Clench.  Squeeze.

  “His ass is amazing, right?”

  Han Ying whined, nodding fast.

  Zhou Zishu moved back around until he was behind the young man again, caressing his ass, “you feel like you want to come in him already, but I need you to wait, Ying’er.  Can you do that for me?  Hold on until I’m fucking you before you come?”  He leaned in, nibbling his earlobe, “I want to feel you come with my cock in you.”

  Tossing his head back, Han Ying gritted his teeth, “please, Z…Zishu, please.”

  Flirting his finger over Han Ying’s hole as he continued fucking Wen Kexing, Zhou Zishu licked his neck, “what do you want, Ying’er?  I want to hear you say it.”

  Wen Kexing panted, staring up at them both, “go on, Ying’er, tell him.”

  “I want you to fuck me.  I need your cock, I have to have it, please let me have it…”  He trailed off on a deep moan as Zhou Zishu slipped two slicked fingers into his ass.  “Oh, oh.”  His hips worked slower, into Wen Kexing, back onto the fingers opening his ass up.

  “Good boy,” Zhou Zishu murmured.

  Wen Kexing gasped, “oh, call him that again, A-Xu.”

  Zhou Zishu raised a brow at his crazy wife, “huh?”

  Wen Kexing rolled his eyes, “he liked you calling him that, trust me, I could feel the reaction.”  They both looked to Han Ying, who flushed.  “You can’t hide it from me, Ying’er.  I felt you twitch and swell.”

  “Mmm, interesting,” Zhou Zishu hummed, fucking Han Ying faster with his fingers.  “Goo…”

  It was all he got out, Han Ying twisting his torso and slapping a hand over Zhou Zishu’s mouth, then looking utterly aghast at what he’d done, eyes wide.  “I…I…”

  “Shh, Ying’er, I’m not mad, ok, just what…”

  “If you call me that again, I’ll come,” Han Ying rushed out, cheeks crimson.  He ducked his head, “I want to come with you in me, while I’m in Kexing.”

  Zhou Zishu slowed his fingers, giving Han Ying a little respite.  “You like praise?”

  “From you, from Kexing,” Han Ying clarified.  

  “Oh,” Wen Kexing whispers.  He sounds so surprised by that admission that Zhou Zishu peered at his face, carefully assessing.

   Ah, Lao Wen, Lao Wen.  When will you understand you are loved and worthy of love and admiration?   

  It’s Han Ying that bends down and takes Wen Kexing’s mouth with his own, hand to his cheek, tender and gentle, seemingly understanding what had been flitting through Wen Kexing’s mind.  Zhou Zishu heard him whisper to Wen Kexing: “Your praise means a great deal to me, Kexing.  So much.  Sweet words that make me wish to fall to my knees and worship you.”

  “Ying’er,” Wen Kexing keened.

  Zhou Zishu leaned over, nibbling at Han Ying’s ear as he stared into Wen Kexing’s eyes, “fuck him really good, Ying’er, show him how much he means to us.”  Han Ying stiffened, eyes slipping closed as he sucked in a deep breath.

  He turned to look at Zhou Zishu, earnest and so very devoted to them both, “I will.”  He kissed Zhou Zishu, hard, passionate, then he was seeking Wen Kexing’s mouth, hips working his cock deep into him, long, sure strokes into Wen Kexing’s ass, angled perfectly to have the silver haired man sobbing and writhing.  Zhou Zishu assessed Wen Kexing’s cock with an expert eye, the purple colour to the head, the weeping tip, the way it jerked against his Lao Wen’s stomach.

  He was still lazily fucking Han Ying with his fingers, letting him take his zhiji closer and closer to orgasm.  He started stroking his own cock, humming at how good just that bit of stimulation was.  Wen Kexing started to keen, eyes watering.

  Zhou Zishu abandoned his own cock to lean over Han Ying and blink at Wen Kexing’s desperate state.

  “You can hold on a bit longer, can’t you wife?  Wait until I’m in Ying’er?”

  Biting his lip, eyes wide and glistening, Wen Kexing nodded shakily.

  Zhou Zishu nuzzled Han Ying’s neck, kissing up this ear, “I’m going to put my cock in you now, Ying’er, then I want you to use us both.”  He swirled his tongue around Han Ying’s earlobe, “Lao Wen is so close, he’s going to come on your cock, I bet he will when I fuck into you.”

  Han Ying shuddered, curling one hand around Zhou Zishu’s nape, ass clenching down hard on his fingers, “please, Zishu, fuck me, fill me up.”

  He withdrew his fingers, soothing Han Ying’s whimper with a swift kiss, then he was slicking his cock and slowly, so slowly, he pushed into the younger man’s ass.  Han Ying trembled, matching his own pace to Zhou Zishu’s, into Wen Kexing, then back onto Zhou Zishu, his head tossed back, mouth open, panting loudly.

  Wen Kexing stared up at the both of them, brows furrowing for a brief moment, then he was arching, body seizing as he splashed come across his stomach.

  Zhou Zishi reached down, swiping a finger through the warm mess and fed it to Han Ying, moaning as his fingers were greedily sucked.

  “Do you want to come, Ying’er, are you ready?”  The younger man could only nod desperately.  Zhou Zishu gripped Han Ying’s hips, digging his fingers in, pulling him back and he thrust forward, he dipped his face to Han Ying’s ear, lips ghosting over the shell, “good boy, Ying’er, come for me, come for us.”

  Han Ying sobbed through his orgasm, hips stuttering into Wen Kexing, clenching down on Zhou Zishu.  Wen Kexing, still a little dazed from his own release, petted at Han Ying’s chest, gazing up at the man between them in awe and affection.

  Han Ying seemed overwrought, twitching, so Zhou Zishu began to withdraw, only for Han Ying to reach back and grip his hip, halting him.  He looked up to find deep brown eyes pleading with him, tears still spilling down his cheeks.

  “Don’t pull out, please.”  He looked away for a moment, then gathering his courage, met Zhou Zishu’s gaze, “I like…being sensitive.  I like being fucked through it.  I really like it.”

  Wen Kexing moaned, “oh, what a treasure we have in Ying’er, A-Xu.”  Reaching up, he wiped the tears from Han Ying’s eyes gently.  “You were so beautiful as you come, Ying’er, so beautiful.  And it felt lovely.”

  “Fuck, I want to see too,” Zhou Zishu hissed, pulling Han Ying out of Wen Kexing, withdrawing his own cock, flipping Han Ying onto his back and plunging back in. Zhou Zishu gazed at the man under him, blinking at the way he threw his head back, mouth open on a silent scream.  “Yeah, fuck, gorgeous.”

  Wen Kexing whined, crawling over to the pair, oblivious to Han Ying’s seed leaking out his ass and coating his thighs, hooking his arms over Zhou Zishu’s shoulders to take in the view he has of their younger lover.  “Oh, he loves your cock in his ass, look at the way he’s arching, A-Xu.  He’s getting hard again, already.  Oh, maybe Ying’er will come again for you, A-Xu.”

  Han Ying’s whole body is still quivering, yet he begs and pleads to be fucked, begs for Zhou Zishu to come inside him, mark him, claim him.

  “This one belongs to you, to Zishu and Kexing, ai ni, ai ni.”

  Han Ying’s words ripped Zhou Zishu’s orgasm from him, shoving hard into the young disciple, cock pulsing as Han Ying moaned, staring up at Zhou Zishu, eyes glazed with pleasure.  Both Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing watched in awe as Han Ying spilled over his stomach, untouched, so soon after the previous release.

  The whole experience had brought to light several things about Han Ying that neither man had thought before.  Zhou Zishu had known Han Ying felt something deep, but not exactly how deep.  Hearing it, hearing it directed at both he and Wen Kexing had set him off.  And Han Ying finding his confidence with them, asking for what he wanted, begging even, was certainly a revelation to Zhou Zishu’s dick.  The fact he loved being fucked when over sensitive, that he wanted Zhou Zishu to come in him, and most likely wanted Wen Kexing to do the same, was…well, the state of Zhou Zishu’s cock, trying valiantly to rise already, that spoke volumes.

  He leaned over, kissing Han Ying’s slack mouth, then whispered, “good boy.”

  Han Ying whimpered, grabbing at Zhou Zishu’s shoulders, rocking his hips up, “please.”

  Wen Kexing groaned, “A-Xu, let me fuck him now, it’s my turn.”  He tugged at Zhou Zishu’s hair, separating the pair, “I bet Ying’er would love to eat your ass.”

  Han Ying did indeed.  The younger man manhandled Zhou Zishu with surprising ease, positioning him over his face so that he faced his zhiji who was pumping his own cock and preparing to fuck into Han Ying.  Zhou Zishu felt strong fingers part the cheeks of his ass, then pull him down onto a very mobile tongue.

  Han Ying growling into his ass when Wen Kexing thrust into him was pretty damn good.

 

Chapter Text

 

  Gao Chong, Shen Shen and Zhang Yusen sit across from Zhou Zishu, Wen Kexing and Ye Baiyi in the main hall of Siji Manor.  The room is perfect, Bi Xingming and Cheng Zichen had been the ones to supervise each disciple that cleaned and polished until the wood gleamed in the lamp light.  Wen Kexing had spared no expense in purchasing new decorations for the whole manor, but it was tasteful and elegant.  A show of wealth without being ostentatious.  Han Ying stands in attendance by the door, no hint of the debauched young man he was in their bed, another two disciples outside.  Bi Changfeng was seated in the corner with Jiuxiao, watching intently as his Lords greeted the guests.

  Siji Manor is showing its strength in a subtle display, but Zhou Zishu had noted the way Gao Chong appraised the defense arrays, both on the approach and in the inner courtyard, eyes flitting over to where the disciples were practicing, sizing up their abilities.  He wasn’t to know that a number of them were trained assassins and spies.  While Siji Manor was only a small recently resurrected sect, the sect leader of the Dongting was now very aware that they weren’t to be taken lightly.  Shen Shen was much as Zhou Zishu remembered him, oblivious and content for his Da-Ge to take the lead, but slightly belligerent, quick to take offense and slow to understand.  Zhang Yusen was fixated on a slightly uncomfortable, fidgeting Wen Kexing.  His eyes were appraising, slightly confused.  Zhou Zishu wondered if he had somehow recognised him, or saw a resemblance to his father.

  He remembered when Gao Chong had met Wen Kexing before, there had been a slight hesitance, the same confusion that Zhang Yusen was displaying, the internal working of his mind obvious when Wen Kexing gave his name, split, so deliberately, to echo the name he was given by his parents.

  This meeting would be awkward for his zhiji, and he had spent days making sure he was prepared for what would be discussed.  Gao Chong knew a little, enough for him to readily accept the invitation.  Lu Taichong had been omitted simply because it was the three men in front of him that were the ones he needed to convince.  While Zhang Yusen had also made himself absent from his brother’s lives, Lu Taichong did not have the standing required among the Five Lakes Alliance that Zhang Yusen did.

  Shen Shen was regarding them with distrust, but Zhou Zishu wasn’t concerned, he would follow where Gao Chong went.  He always had.

  Zhang Yusen was an unknown.

  Zhou Zishu knew him by reputation only.  Before, he had only seen the man from a distance, briefly, they had never spoken, and Chengling hadn’t offered a great deal of insight.  By all accounts, he was an upright, righteous man.  One who had been uncomfortable with how the Rong Xuan issue had been dealt with.  When Zhou Zishu had visited him this time, he’d been cautious, both in words and actions, even after he was told who Zhou Zishu truly was.

  Intelligent.  Zhou Zishu could see that, and had evidence of it when they spoke.  It had been Zhang Yusen that had puzzled out Zhao Jing’s part in Rong Xuan’s death and had given his son a letter to send to Ye Baiyi with that information.  Zhou Zishu wasn’t sure if Zhang Yusen had known all along, or if Zhao Jing had done something to make him reflect and work it out.  Perhaps that was why Zhao Jing had attacked the Nan He and wiped out everyone except Chengling.

  He introduces himself, telling them he is the Zhuangzhu of Siji Manor, his heart still clenching at the memory of his own shifu, despite being Manor Lord for ten years, absent for most of it.  His introduction is mostly for Shen Shen’s benefit as Gao Chong and Zhang Yusen know who he is, but it’s a way to gently bring up Wen Kexing.

  Curious glances turn to the man at his side, clearly intimate with Zhou Zishu.  He meets their eyes one by one, conveying in silence what they already know.  Nothing said in this room must pass its walls.  Especially this.

  Gao Chong nodded, then Zhang Yusen, his eyes more curious now.  Shen Shen dipped his head.

  Agreement.

  Wen Kexing clutched his hand, trembling.

  Zhou Zishu squeezed back in reassurance.  It will be alright.

  Ye Baiyi very carefully drew their attention by pouring wine into all their cups, a thoughtful gesture Zhou Zishu knew him to be capable of yet not expecting it for his zhiji.  Or perhaps he should, knowing what he does of the Immortal’s soft heart.  He’d long learned that Ye Baiyi was rudely dismissive of those he couldn’t be bothered with, but those he genuinely cared for he bantered with, teased in his own way, like he did with Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing.

  “This is Wen Kexing,” Zhou Zishu said, very deliberately echoing how he’d introduced himself to Gao Chong before.  Enunciating each syllable of his name, making them consider the characters and how they fit together.  Gao Chong reacted much as he had before, a little startled, a little confused, clearly trying to place what it means.  Zhang Yusen frowned, brows coming together as he looked sharply at Wen Kexing.  Shen Shen merely nodded.  They all inclined their heads in respect and Wen Kexing responded in kind.

  Zhou Zishu glanced to Han Ying, who then led Jiuxiao and Bi Changfeng out of the room, closing the door behind them and standing at attention outside.  Once they were gone and only the men from the Wu Hu Meng and Ye Baiyi remained, Zhou Zishu turned back to see the three men a little disconcerted.

  “He was the second disciple of this generation, now Shishu of Siji Manor.  Wen Kexing is not the name given to him by his parents, you know him by that other name.”

  Gao Chong’s eyes narrow, “and what is that name?”

  Zhou Zishu locked eyes with Wen Kexing, fingers laced together.  “Zhen Yan.  Or more correctly Wen Yan.”

  Zhang Yusen sank back in his seat, nodding as if Zhou Zishu had just confirmed his suspicions. 

  “Yan’er, you are really Yan’er?” Shen Shen burst out, rising to his feet and pointing at Wen Kexing in shock.

  Zhou Zishu squeezed his zhiji’s hand, rising to face Shen Shen, much as he had in the little house where this had played out before.  He glared at Shen Shen, the man finally noticing his stare.  “Do not presume to call him that.  My Shidi took a new name for a reason, Shen Shen.  Please respect that.”

  “Kexing,” Gao Chong murmured, eyes downcast.  “I…you split the character to make a new name, but keep something that your parents gave you.”  Wen Kexing’s fingers gripped Zhou Zishu’s tighter as he resumed his seat beside him.  Shen Shen started pacing, eyes wild as he tried to reconcile what he had just learned.

  “Yes,” Wen Kexing answered eventually.  “Zhen Yan, Wen Yan, died when my parents did.”

  “I see the resemblance.”  Zhang Yusen cleared his throat, “Wen was Ruyu’s original family name.  He took Zhen when he joined the Shen Yi?”

  Wen Kexing nodded, refusing to meet their eyes, tucking himself in closer to Zhou Zishu.

  Zhou Zishu stroked his free hand over where Wen Kexing’s was holding him, “I’ll explain if you wish, Lao Wen.”  His zhiji nodded again, head down as he struggled to maintain control of himself.  Zhou Zishu glanced up at the other men, “why keep the name of someone who threw him away?  For nothing more than trying to help someone he saw as a brother?”  He met Ye Baiyi’s eyes when he spoke next, “my master found them, besieged by ghosts, saved them and brought them here.  He accepted Wen Kexing as his disciple.  He considered him second disciple for the rest of his life and would have done anything to help them.  They were only meant to be gone a few days, but they never returned.  He searched for a long time, but could find no trace of them.”

  Ye Baiyi’s eyes narrowed, taking the message of Zhou Zishu’s words, but he remained silent as he had thus far.

  “What happened?” Gao Chong asked softly.

  “Zhao Jing happened,” Zhou Zishu answered flatly.  “He had sent the first lot of ghosts that drove them to us,  but then he tried a new tactic.  He found Wen Kexing in the market place where they were staying and ingratiated himself so that the young boy would take him to his parents.”  His stare was cold as he looked at Gao Chong.  “He threatened them, he wanted the key to the Armory.”

  “Z…Wen Ruyu had it?” Zhang Yusen murmured.

  Zhou Zishu nodded, “yes, he did.”  He could see the three men of the Wu Hu Meng were itching to ask, so he merely poured more wine and waited.  Gao Chong surprised him by asking something different.

  “Zhao Jing knew it could open the Armory without the Liúlí?”

  Wen Kexing lifted his head at the formal address, Gao Chong not terming him brother.  When their eyes met, Wen Kexing relaxed against Zhou Zishu.  He’d been certain there would be more argument and protestation from them.  Shen Shen sat heavily beside Zhang Yusen, head in his hands.

  Zhou Zishu leaned close to his zhiji, “can I show them?” he whispered in his ear.

  Wen Kexing gazed at him, eyes flitting to the hair pin holding up Zhou Zishu’s hair, “I’ll do it.”  He reached up carefully withdrawing the jade pin and laid it in his palm, then drew two fingers over it, the shape changing as he did to reveal the key.  He placed it before him on the table.

  Ye Baiyi snorted and picked up his cup of wine, downing the cup and pouring himself another.  “Did my stupid disciple do that, or was it your father?”

  “Rong Xuan told my father to hide it, protect it, so he did,” Wen Kexing said softly.  “I wore it for years, then I gave it to my zhiji.  It was the most important thing I owned.”

  Zhou Zishu’s heart thumped wildly for a moment.  It never failed to affect him that Wen Kexing had given him the thing most precious to him, the one thing that remained of his family and a reminder of what had happened.

  Ye Baiyi laughed, “so, a pair of brats have been wandering around with the most sought after item in the jianghu on their heads.”

  “Zhao Jing isn’t the only person desperate for it,” Zhou Zishu said before Wen Kexing could take offense.  “I was formerly Shǒulǐng of Tian Chuang, reporting to Helian Yi.  Wangye wants the Armory as it has been spoken of in our family for generations as the secret to a long lasting country.  He thinks it contains treasure of immeasurable value and has been searching for it for years, as did his father before him.”  He looked at the three in turn, “there is no treasure.  The Yin Yang manual is there, as is the Liuhe, and all the stolen texts, but little else.  Except farming tools and rotted grain.  That was the secret, teaching nomads how to farm.”  He sighed, “my father found the Armory years before, but he knew the late Prince would not accept that it didn’t contain the Secret of the Long Lasting Country, so he gave the key to Long Que and was later executed for treason.  The key was given to Rong Xuan at some point later and he used the Armory to store everything he stole.”  He raised a brow at the three brothers, “everything you stole.”

  Gao Chong inhaled deeply, “it was stupid and misguided.”

  Ye Baiyi snorted at that.

  “None of you knew there was no other treasure?” Zhou Zishu asked, looking at each in turn.

  “Rong Xuan told us he had put the texts somewhere safe and gave the five of us a piece of the Liúlí, and kept the key for himself.”  Zhang Yusen shook his head ruefully, “I suspected the key could be used on its own without the Armor, the Liúlí was a token of trust, nothing more.”

  “Zhao Jing must have worked it out too, that was why he poisoned your sword, along with the pettiness of feeling less than the rest of you,” Zhou Zishu said to Gao Chong.  “Long Que obviously also knew about the key, but he was out of Zhao Jing’s reach.  Instead he tried to use Long Xiao who was resentful of his father.”

  “Long Xiao was an evil brat,” Ye Baiyi hissed.

  “Was?” Shen Shen’s head came up to look at the Immortal in question, Ye Baiyi ignored him and went back to his wine.

  “Long Que was rescued by Ye Baiyi, he was brought here and I have someone treating him, making him comfortable.  He was very badly treated by his son, his injuries are…permanent, but he no longer feels pain.”  He paused, “you may see him later, he is eager to see you.”

  “I have much to thank you both for,” Gao Chong said, clasping his hands and bowing to both Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing, then turning to Ye Baiyi and bowing again.  “And I thank you, Sword Immortal, for your help.”

  “What happens now?” Zhang Yusen asked, peering from Zhou Zishu to Wen Kexing.

  “Zhao Jing is moving ahead with his plans, and he must not become aware that he has been discovered or he will change things.  Right now, we know what he wants to do, and how.  He wishes to discredit you,” he said, pointing to Gao Chong, then he grimaced.  “Zhang Yusen he wishes to remove from the equation altogether and steal his piece of the Liúlí, then blame the Ghost Valley for the murder.”

  Zhang Yusen nodded seriously, “I have implemented new security measures to ensure my sect survives any attack he makes.  Your warning has been put to good use, Zhou Zhuangzhu.”

  Wen Kexing slumped, relieved that Chengling’s family’s safety was assured.  “There was a faction within the Ghost Valley that were to be utilised, but they have been dealt with.  It will be the Scorpions that attack you.”  He smiled wryly, “Ghost Valley is no longer a consideration, though it will take a while for that information to filter through.”

  Gao Chong blinked, “you know this how?”

  Wen Kexing tilted his head, “after the Ghost Valley murdered my parents at Zhao Jing’s behest, where would a small child go, what could he do against the Guzhu of Ghost Valley?”  His tone was icy, “where were my father’s brothers?  Did they search for me?  Did they even think of me?”  He exhaled, taking in the contrite expressions of the three men.  “Qin Huaizhang tried to find me, but did any of you?  You who were so close to him.”

  “Yan’er,” Shen Shen whispered.

  Wen Kexing whirled around, in full Guzhu mode, “Wen Yan is dead .  Do not call me that!”  His chest was heaving with his anger, barely controlled.  “I did what I had to to survive, without help.  Without my uncles .”

  “Lao Wen,” Zhou Zishu murmured, pulling him back down.  “Zhiji, it’s alright, you’re here now.”  He stroked through Wen Kexing’s silver hair, pressing a kiss to his temple, ignoring the sharply indrawn breaths across the table.

  The familiar warmth returned to Wen Kexing’s eyes, “A-Xu.”

  Zhang Yusen was regarding Wen Kexing carefully when they turned back, “you are the Guzhu now.”

  Wen Kexing straightened, staring back haughtily, daring any of them to say anything, “I am, or rather, I am the retired Guzhu.  I am closing Ghost Valley down, three of the Ten Devils have been…removed.  The others are easily handled.  The women of the Buoqing Bu and their master, Xi Sang Gui, will be coming here to settle.  Tragicomic Ghost is my Aunt, she did what she could to raise me in the Valley and protect me.”

  Zhou Zishu coughed discreetly, “I would like to suggest Wen Kexing be the one to deal with Zhao Jing when the time comes.  Zhao Jing will prompt you to call a Heroes Conference, primarily to deal with Ghost Valley, but his true objective is to bring up the Armory.  He wishes to stir up the other sects that have an interest in the Armory and their missing texts.  By placing the blame on you, he expects you to be disgraced and thinks you will retire, or die.”

  “You should speak to Huang He, explain the whole thing to him.  He may not believe it all, but it will make the crafty bastard think a little before he acts.  When the hunter sets traps only for rabbits, tigers and dragons are left uncaught. ”  Wen Kexing snapped his fan open, waving it lazily before his face, “Zhao Jing has been planting ideas in the man’s head.  Change his mind.”

  Gao Chong had been shaking with rage, but he closed his eyes and breathed deeply, “I will do so.  A son deserves to avenge his parents.”  

   As the other members of the Wu Hu Meng left, Zhang Yusen indicated he wished to speak with Zhou Zishu.  Gao Chong, Shen and Ye Baiyi left to go see Long Que, leaving Wen Kexing and Zhou Zishu facing Zhang Yusen across the table.

  Zhang Yusen cleared his throat pointedly.  “My youngest son has become a pest, Zhou Zhuangzhu.”  His brow rose, tilting his head, “I have two other, far more capable sons, yet, he is still precious to me.”

  “As any son is to his father,” Zhou Zishu said softly.  He knew what was coming, yet he kept it from his face, years of practice making it second nature.  Wen Kexing on the other hand, was not schooling his features as successfully.  Revealing himself was still something he did not have experience with and it did not come easily, so hiding his growing excitement was something he simply could not do.  He was practically vibrating beside Zhou Zishu.

  “Yes,” Zhang Yusen agreed heavily, eyes flitting to Wen Kexing briefly.  “And it is a father’s responsibility to see his son grow and flourish.  Chengling is not flourishing as he should, being eclipsed by his older brothers.  I am at fault for that.  He has potential, and these last months he has made progress, but only after meeting you, Zhou Zhuangzhu.  I find myself disconcerted by that.”

  Zhou Zishu bowed his head, “he is a filial son, Zhang Zhuangzhu, and he will always be a filial son, that cannot change.”

  “You will accept him when the time comes?”  Zhang Yusen looked concerned, worried he was foisting off a son to Zhou Zishu, not wanting to lose him, but recognising that his son wanted to be at Siji Manor.

  “I will, Zhang Zhuangzhu.  I see great potential in him, I think we can offer him a great deal.  And you would always be welcome to visit with us here, see how he is.  I am sure he will come back to you as well.”

  “If I may,” Wen Kexing spoke up.  “I am an example of blending methods and using qi in different ways.  I had to learn that way, but I think Chengling would do well if taught several differing special methods.  Long Que needs an heir to learn from him, you being his brother, I think he would take to Chengling readily.  A-Xu can teach him the Swift Moving Steps, and I can teach him my family’s Eighteen Moves.  Combined with your sects methods, I think he could be a very formidable opponent.  Unpredictable.”

  Zhang Yusen nodded thoughtfully, “I can see the advantage of that.”  He turned his attention back to Zhou Zishu, “he has not been disciplined, there has been no need to push him.”

  “I will push him, more than he thinks he can handle, but I will not be cruel.”  Zhou Zishu glanced at Wen Kexing, silent agreement in their gaze.  “When I met him, I noticed how wide his meridians are.  In a case like his, he will require a lot of training, but once he learns he will be a strong fighter.”

  “Ah, that is a family trait, but Chengling’s are wider than any other I have known.  Part of why he has been left is the difficulty in teaching him and honing that.  I have two other sons, older sons, sons I cannot neglect to dedicate all my time to him.  He needed focused attention, and when he did not show any interest in learning I was a little relieved.”  He gazed down at his hands, “I confess to being a bad father to my son in that respect, but I have tried to balance it with his other learning.”

  Zhou Zishu reached out, patting Zhang Yusen’s arm, “here he will have three masters and many shidis to help him.  He will be very cared for and cherished.”  He leaned back again, Wen Kexing’s arm immediately snaking around his waist.  “My Shifu was close to you once, I would like to foster those relationships again.”

 

  Long Que was carefully lowered into a softly cushioned chair, Han Ying helping him fix his robes around him while Xingming wheeled his other chair into the corner out of the way.  Zhou Zishu poured his wine and Wen Kexing placed a bowl in front of him.

  “The secondary array is complete, Zishu,” Long Que said as he lifted his cup.  “The tokens will still allow access, so you needn’t worry about that.”

  Zhou Zishu exhaled, it had been a major concern, keeping Siji Manor and all the inhabitants safe and hidden, from both Helian Yi and the Scorpions.  The first array had hidden the Manor itself from view, but now the second would confuse anyone approaching from any direction and would send them away.  Much like the one that hid Long Que’s sect from visitors.  Now, the only people who could enter were those who had the entrance token.  To ensure no-one could discover the tokens were for Siji Manor, Wen Kexing had suggested engraving an open fan on them, so Zhou Zishu had implemented the idea, with a little plum blossom in the center.  Even if the token happened to be stolen, no-one would know where it was for.  When going down into the valley for supplies, the disciples were disguised and took a circuitous route both there and back.

  “Thank you, Long Bo Bo.”

  Now, the only problem was the people of the town near the start of the path to the Manor.  They had long known Siji Manor was above them, and if someone came asking, they would have no reason to hide the fact.  He could perhaps send disciples to the town, ask the townspeople to fudge the issue.  Perhaps put about that the Manor had burnt down years ago.  He sighed, at least their precautions would keep them hidden.

  And at least they needn’t worry about Luo Fumeng, and Buoqing Bu.  When they visited for the wedding, Long Que had made sure to give them a special token so that their return trip would be problem free.  Zhou Zishu still intended to have several disciples escort them, likely with a small purple whirlwind accompanying them.  Gu Xiang had been a little hard to deal with after all the girls had left the manor to go back to the Valley for a few months.

  She missed them and made that known, very vocally.  And often.

  So far the token system was working well.  The Mechanical sparrows that went back and forth between Siji Manor and Ghost Valley, the Nan He for Zhang Yusen, and the Dongting for Gao Chong had not encountered any issues, none going missing enroute.  It meant a sure and reliable stream of information.  Siji Manor remained as a silent assistant to the other sects, and would be a stalwart defender of Ghost Valley while the Buoqing Bu were still in residence.  Once the women arrived, there would be no reason to protect the Valley as it would be closed completely.

  

  “A-Xing,” Luo Fumeng greeted Wen Kexing, adding an elegant inclination of her head to Zhou Zishu, “Zhou Zhuangzhu.”  Qianqiao and the girls of the Buoqing Bu milled behind her, no longer dressed in their customary red and white, but in a mix of muted colours befitting maids.  They could not hide their curiosity, peering about and whispering behind their hands until Qianqiao silenced them with a quick glare.  Luo Fumeng didn’t deign to acknowledge the exchange.

  Wen Kexing grabbed her hands, ever one to ignore protocol, “Luo-yi.”

  Luo Fumeng thawed at Wen Kexing’s affectionate tone, remembering that she was indeed Wen Kexing’s aunt and that she needn’t remain aloof.  She was no longer in Ghost Valley, there was no one to question her love of Wen Kexing.  Reverting to calling him A-Xing had come more naturally once Zhou Zishu had administered Drunk Like a Dream, the incense helping her memories resurface when she had been at Siji Manor for their wedding.  Zhou Zishu had asked and she had agreed.  Qianqiao had hovered, almost wringing her hands in her distress as Luo Fumeng relived her greatest pains.  While the former Xi Sang Gui had refused to elaborate on what she remembered, one thing was abundantly clear.  She loathed Zhao Jing for what he had done to her.

  Before the Department of the Unfaithful had returned to Ghost Valley temporarily, Zhou Zishu asked Luo Fumeng if she was alright, if she regretted remembering.

  The silver haired woman shook her head slowly, “no.  I think it is better to be aware of all the pains we go through.  How else can we learn from them, Zhuangzhu?  It is better I remember what that snake did to me.”  With those words, she had left him staring after her.

  And now she was back, permanently.  

  Zhou Zishu wanted to indicate how much he appreciated everything she had done for Wen Kexing, looking after him for so long, trying to guide him, but knew that a direct acknowledgement would not be advisable, instead he chose to acknowledge her as his zhiji’s aunt.

  “Luo-yi,” he said, gesturing to Siji Manor as a whole.  “Welcome to your new home, we hope you will be very happy here.”  Her eyes gleamed a little at the address, clearly taking his meaning.  “Please, call me Zishu, we are family now.”

  Wen Kexing was as excited as a child, almost bouncing on his feet, his grin wide and beaming at the two of them.  Gu Xiang grabbed Luo Fumeng’s hand, tearing her away.

  “Luo-yi, come, we have everything ready for you, Ge decorated your rooms himself.  He was so silly, you will see,” she said as she led Luo Fumeng through the courtyard, Qianqiao trailing behind with an amused grin.  The girls of the Buoqing Bu obediently following in their wake.  Wen Kexing skipped forward, chasing them to chatter about their trip, Zhou Zishu followed at much more sedate pace, allowing them time to talk and get the excitement out of their systems.

  Jiuxiao leaned in, “they seem pleased to be here, Zishu.”

  He hummed in response, watching Wen Kexing and Luo Fumeng lean their heads together, both smiling.  “Yeah, I think they are.  It will be an adjustment having them all here, but I think it will be good for all of us.”

  With a chuckle, Jiuxiao linked his arm with Zhou Zishu’s, “yes, and it might actually settle Xiang-jie a little.  She has been an utter terror waiting for them to come back.”

  Zhou Zishu snorted, “not likely, Shidi.  A-Xiang is A-Xiang.  Not even my wife can tame her.”  He spotted Han Ying greeting several of the girls with an indulgent smile.  They peeked up at him with blushing faces, giggling as he teased them.  Xingming and Zichen were taking care of their things, directing the other disciples to the new wing of the Manor that had been built especially for the Buoqing Bu to reside in.  Wen Kexing had spared no expense, wanting them all to be as comfortable as possible and show they were now part of Siji Manor.  Zhou Zishu had ignored the bills as they came in for the most part, simply setting his seal to them all.

  Even the kitchen has seen an overhaul, Wen Kexing tutting about the fact there would be so many more people to feed with the influx, cajoling several disciples into learning how to assist.  He was an utter tyrant in the kitchen, wielding a knife as easily as his fan, not beyond raising it above his head and threatening violence when one of them burnt something or forgot to chop something else fine enough.

  Zhou Zishu would wander in, seeking food to find his wife with flour on his face and a discerning eye cast over the young men trying to follow his instructions.

  Siji Manor rang with laughter as he followed his zhiji through to the new wing.  With the arrival of Luo Fumeng and the Buoqing Bu, their numbers had doubled to almost sixty.  He smiled to himself as he looked around at their home, vibrant and restored, full of people.

 

  Zhou Zishu extracted the message from the mechanical sparrow, setting it down on his desk.  He unfurled the coded message and quickly scanned it.

   Zhao Jing making move, Conf set for two months time.

  He placed Gao Chong’s message on his desk, calling out to Zichen who was stationed outside his door.  When he poked his head around the corner, Zhou Zishu told him to summon everyone to the main hall.  “I have news.”

  Zichen nodded and darted off to collect everyone.  Zhou Zishu rose and headed to the kitchens, seeking Wen Kexing and Gu Xiang.

  “The conference has been set for two months time.  Gao Chong said Zhao Jing is making his moves.  He didn’t mention the Scorpions, but I assume he would if there were anything to say.  Since they were thwarted in their attack on the Nan He they have been quiet.”

  Wen Kexing wiped flour off his fingers, passing his task off to Gu Xiang with a nudge, “licking their wounds?”

  “I couldn’t say.  It might be time to intercede with Xie Wang before he does any damage.  He’s…likely to take matters into his own hands, we know that, to try and please his Yifu.  If we can get in his ear sooner rather than later…”

  “He responded well last time, until he didn’t,” Wen Kexing added, eyes flitting to Gu Xiang for a moment.  “Qianqiao softened him, perhaps she could again.”

  Zhou Zishu shook his head, “no, I don’t think so.  Things are different this time.  He has no leverage on her, we really need to expose Zhao Jing to him somehow.  Show him he’s being used.  Show him it doesn’t need to be that way.  As long as Zhao Jing has him on side, he’s a wild card.  And he’s still dangerous.  I won’t put any of us in danger.”

  Wen Kexing hummed, “we could send Ye Baiyi, maybe they could kill each other.”  He laughed, not seeing Zhou Zishu’s thoughtful expression.  

“That might work, Lao Wen.  I know you were joking, but Ye Baiyi is someone who Xie Wang can’t harm, and Ye Baiyi is just enough of a bastard to take the Scorpion by surprise.  He’s also soft as mush in his center, he’ll take one look at that situation and want to fix it.”  He eyed Lao Wen, “he likes brats as much as he says he doesn’t.”

  Gu Xiang snorted in the corner, dodging Wen Kexing’s hand when he half heartedly aimed a smack at her head.  “He’s right, Ge, the old monster likes you, that’s why he fights with you whenever he’s here.”  She dodged another smack and poked her tongue out, Wen Kexing responding in kind.

  Zhou Zishu rolled his eyes, “I am surrounded by heathens.”  He poked at Wen Kexing, “come on, I called everyone together to let them know what’s going on.

 

  The meeting went pretty well, all the disciples listened intently as Zhou Zishu told them what was happening.  Han Ying and Jiuxiao were scowling a little, Gu Xiang wide eyed as the two murmured to each other.  Luo Fumeng’s eyes flashed dangerously as Zhao Jing’s name was mentioned.  Zhou Zishu had decided that it was better they all know what was happening, preferring to keep some details from them, but not the whole.  If things went awry, he would rather they not be taken in by anything the bastard tried.

  They all wanted to accompany him and Wen Kexing, but Zhou Zishu shook his head.  He had many reasons not to take them all.  Primarily the fact he didn’t want Helian Yi to catch wind of the fact Siji was flourishing.  They hadn’t discussed who they would take with them yet, that conversation would be had in private, though Zhou Zishu had a few ideas about it.

  No doubt Wen Kexing would as well.  And they had a little time to work it out.

 

  “It’s time to leave,” Zhou Zishu murmured into Lao Wen’s shoulder several weeks later.  “I don’t want to, it’s safe for us here, but we need to deal with Zhao Jing.”  He sighed, “and later, Helian Yi.”

  Wen Kexing hummed, considering.  “Who do we take with us, A-Xu?”

  “I’m not sure yet,” he replied, rolling to prop himself up on an elbow.  “But not Gu Xiang or Han Ying.  Probably not Jiuxiao either, I don’t want him spotted in case any of the Tian Chuang are around.”  He inhaled, letting it out slowly, “I don’t want any of them seen, they’ll be safer that way.”

  Wen Kexing grimaced, “They won’t be happy about that, A-Xu.”

  He sighed, pressing his forehead to his zhiji’s, “I know, but they need to be safe.  If they aren’t with us…”  He leaned back again, “Most of the disciples will stay here with them, we can tell them we need them to look after them.  Bi Changfeng should probably stay too.  The Buoqing Bu.”

  “Mmm,” Wen Kexing agreed.  “I think Qianqiao should stay also, I don’t want to risk her seeing Yu Qiu Feng, but Luo-yi will want to come.  Zhao Jing ruined her.  She deserves to see his downfall as much as anyone.”

  Zhou Zishu nodded to that.  “I think just seeing her will unsettle him somewhat, that can only help us.  A lot of his previous weapons have been blunted or removed completely.  He’s relying heavily on the Scorpion sect to do his work for him.  Ye Baiyi sent word that he’d met with Xie Wang.  He didn’t say much else though.”  He frowned, “is it really so bad if Qianqiao sees Yu Qiu Feng?  Things are different this time.”

  Wen Kexing scowled, “no, she can’t...it would be bad for her.  He’s bad for her.  He always had excuses for why they couldn’t be together.  He let his wife ruin her because he was too much of a coward to do anything about it.”  He turned his eyes to Zhou Zishu, “he’s the sole reason she ended up in Ghost Valley, no, I...I think it best we keep them apart.”

   “Fine,” he agreed.  Wen Kexing knew her better than he did so he would defer to his judgment on that point.  They had enough to worry about as it was.  Telling Jiuxiao, Han Ying and Gu Xiang they were being left behind was going to be a trial as it was.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

  Time was running down, they needed to leave in a day or two and still Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing had held off telling Gu Xiang, Jiuxiao and Han Ying they would be left behind.  The others would obey without question, but those three would be the most trouble.  Gu Xiang pointedly refused to be away from her Ge, Jiuxiao seemed to be in a similar state with Zhou Zishu, trailing around behind him whenever his duties allowed, and Han Ying...well, he was a shadow to them both when he wasn’t coaxed into their bed.  It wasn’t exactly a regular thing, but this night Han Ying had surprised them both by appearing at their door without an express invitation.  It had pleased them to see him ask for something rather than wait and obey.  Zhou Zishu was loath to revert to being his Zhuangzhu again so soon, and demand something of him he knew would rankle, but it couldn’t be helped.  He hoped the fact Han Ying seemed relatively adept at switching roles would assist.

  But, still, it would not be pleasant to do.

  “I cannot imagine our lives without him, A-Xu,” Wen Kexing said softly so as to make sure Han Ying didn’t wake.  He ran fingers through Han Ying’s hair.  “All the people we saved by coming back, I think of them all,  A-Xiang and Ying’er are the ones I cherish most.”  He let Han Ying’s hair fall through his fingers to caress his cheek.  “He was important to you before, and now he’s important to me.”

  “Everyone here is important, Lao Wen,” Zhou Zishu replied.  “You most of all.”  He paused, thinking on how he had changed, how easy it had become to admit that.  That moment in the Armory just before he had succumbed to nothingness had etched itself on his mind and heart.  He never wanted to waste a moment with Wen Kexing ever again.  Too long he had denied everything, denied his feelings, his longing, and they had lost so much time together.  He was grateful for this chance to experience all he could now.

  Wen Kexing reached over, caressing his cheek, “you are everything, A-Xu.”

 

  Zhou Zishu knew it was going to be difficult, he knew his heart was going to ache the whole conversation, he knew his resolve would be tested, but he had no notion of just how wrenching it was to see Han Ying on his knees with tears in his eyes, pleading with him.

  He looked to Wen Kexing, seeing his zhiji struggling as much as he was, teeth digging into his bottom lip to stop it wobbling.

  “Why, Zhuangzhu?” Han Ying wailed, wringing his hands in his robes to stop reaching out.  “What have I done wrong, I will be better, I can be better…”

  “Fuck,” Zhou Zishu swore, dropping to his knees and folding Han Ying into his arms, holding him tight.  “You are perfect, Ying’er.  It’s nothing you have done or could have done, I promise.”  Han Ying sobbed on his shoulder, burying his nose into Zhou Zishu’s neck, breath hitching.  “I want you to be safe, we both need you to be safe.”

  “My place is by your side, with both of you…”

  “I know, I know, Ying’er,” Zhou Zishu murmured, hand at Han Ying’s nape.  He looked up to see Wen Kexing kneeling behind Han Ying, enveloping them both in his arms, kissing Han Ying’s temple.

  “Sweet boy,” Wen Kexing crooned.  “We need you here to protect everyone for us, we need you to be safe for us to come home to.”

  “You are the only one we can trust with the safety of Siji Manor, Ying’er.  We could not leave Gu Xiang or Jiuxiao with anyone else.”  Zhou Zishu gently tilted Han Ying’s tear stained face up, “Qianqiao will need help with all the girls of the Buoqing Bu, Luo Fumeng knows you will protect them.”

  “Gu Xiang and Jiuxiao are not going?”

  Wen Kexing bit his lip, hiding a smile from Han Ying as he looked at Zhou Zishu, sensing a way to mollify their boy.  “Will you make sure they don’t follow us, Ying’er?  Please, I can’t have my sister in danger, will you look after her for me?”  

  Han Ying scowled, knowing he was being played a little, but also knowing he was truly needed as both Jiuxiao and Gu Xiang could be obstinate.  He looked between them both, “you don’t want us seen by anyone in Tian Chuang.”

  Zhou Zishu sighed, resting his forehead against Han Ying’s.  He should have known he would get to the heart of the matter.  “Pengju’s dogs might be there to attend the conference.  If they see no-one but me they cannot use that information.  Helian Yi will be assured that you are all dead still, until I no longer need to hide that fact from him.  Zhao Jing is one issue, one we can handle, but Helian Yi is another again.”  He stroked Han Ying’s cheek, “if the remnants of Tian Chuang see any of you, it would cause Wangye to act against us before we are ready, so far we have kept hidden from him, but with us going out in public, we may be seen.  I cannot risk any of you.”

  Han Ying was almost pouting petulantly when Zhou Zishu pulled back to assess him.  It was such a cute expression.

  “I will stay as you wish,” Han Ying said quietly.  Then he flitted his gaze between them both, “but I won’t like it.”

  Zhou Zishu laughed, grateful and pleased that Han Ying was going to be safe.  And more than a little pleased by the teasing tone.  “Ying’er’s displeasure is noted.”  He hugged him again, “now, can you help us explain to Jiuxiao and Gu Xiang?”

  That had Han Ying giggling.

 

  “No!”

  Gu Xiang’s shout made Zhou Zishu’s ears ring.  He winced as Wen Kexing rapped her on the head with his fan, his face brooking no argument, a position Gu Xiang was thoroughly ignoring, hands on her hips in a pose reminiscent of his zhiji when he was annoyed with Zhou Zishu.  He sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose.  He could feel a headache coming on.

  To say it was not going well was a vast understatement.

  Zhou Zishu glanced at Jiuxiao, his obedient shidi, eyes cast at the floor.  He’d acquiesced to Zhou Zishu’s command that he stay behind with a sour look, but little more than that, seeing his shifu would not be moved on the subject.  That was when Gu Xiang began her tirade.  Han Ying looked like he wanted to voice his agreement with her but was wisely remaining silent, his own promise to stay had been hard wrung, but given.  He stood, stone still at Zhou Zishu’s shoulder.

  “You will do as you are told, you little heathen,” Wen Kexing shouted back, pacing around her.  

  Gu Xiang stuck out her bottom lip, “no, I fucking won’t,” she hissed back at him.

  Wen Kexing rounded on her, furious, “ language!  Have you learned nothing, how could I take you with us if this is how you behave?  What a disgrace!  You will never get an acceptable husband with a mouth like that, you stinky girl.”

  She crossed her arms over her chest, “I don’t want one.”

  Wen Kexing sighed in exasperation, massaging his temples, “you will want one eventually, A-Xiang, but that is beside the point.  We can’t take you with us, and that is my final word on the matter.”

  “I’ll just follow you,” she muttered, utterly petulant.

  Han Ying stepped forward, clearing his throat, “no, you won’t, Zhuangzhu has entrusted me with your safety.”  She eyed his grim faced determination and threw her hands up.

  “You traitor!”

  “Don’t berate Ying’er,” Wen Kexing admonished her.  “This is not his fault, you are the one behaving like a spoiled brat.”

  “Ge,” she whined, trying a new tactic, one that was likely to work as the last.  She flicked her gaze back to Han Ying, hanging her head, “I apologise, Han Daren.  I didn’t mean it.”

  “I know, little one,” he said softly, approaching slowly.  “It is for your safety, I promise.  We must all stay hidden so our Lords can do what they must.  It’s very important.  We want to help them, don’t we?  This is the best way, A-Xiang.”

  Wen Kexing watched in astonishment as Han Ying handled her so deftly, blinking rapidly.  He gazed at Zhou Zishu in shock, getting a shrug in return.  Han Ying had been an adept student in how to be persuasive, putting it to good use against Gu Xiang.

  “Ugh, fine.  I’ll stay with Han Daren and Jiuxiao-ge.  The conference will be boring,” she announced, arms crossed.  “Who wants to listen to a group of stuffy old men anyway?”  She tilted her nose in the air, glaring at them all to call her out.

  Han Ying patted her arm with a smile, clearly pleased with her.

  Zhou Zishu doubted the conference would be as boring as Gu Xiang thought.

 

  Beiyuan stood in the doorway of the hall, slight frown on his face.

  Zhou Zishu titled his head, staring at him for a long moment, then sighed, “what is it, Beiyuan?”

  “We have guests.”

  When Beiyuan didn’t elaborate further, Zhou Zishu got to his feet, following his friend out to the courtyard of his manor.  He stopped dead, mouth dropping open.  The Sword Immortal stood, feet planted, hands on hips as he stared at Wen Kexing.  Behind Ye Baiyi was Xie Wang.

  Xie Wang, blinking at everyone with big wide eyes, hands buried in the back of Ye Baiyi’s robes, face pale and frozen.

  “Lao Wen,” Zhou Zishu murmured, his zhiji swinging his head around to find him.  Wen Kexing looked...not furious exactly, but certainly not happy to see the Scorpion.  In the back of Zhou Zishu’s mind was the possibility that Ye Baiyi might do something like this, but he had never really considered it would actually happen.  Yet, there Xie Wang stood, hiding behind the one man who could protect him.  Zhou Zishu moved closer, taking Wen Kexing’s hand, leaning in, mouth to his zhiji’s ear, “calm down, Lao Wen.  She’s alive, she’s safe, he’s done nothing this time.  Remember what we are trying to achieve.”

  Wen Kexing inhaled, letting it out slowly, eyes closed, then he opened them, fixing Ye Baiyi with his usual disdainful expression, “old Monster.”

  “Brat,” Ye Baiyi returned, shoulders relaxing at the standard greeting.  He glanced at Zhou Zishu with a hint of gratitude in his gaze, “other brat.”

  “Ye-qianbei,” Zhou Zishu said with a slight bow.  “It is good to see you.”  He peered around Ye Baiyi to smile at Xie Wang, “I see you have a friend with you.”  That seemed to be the safest way to term the Scorpion hiding in his robes like a startled rabbit.

  “Friend?” Wen Kexing hissed under his breath.

  Ye Baiyi snorted, reaching behind himself to squeeze one of the hands wringing the back of his robes.  Zhou Zishu carefully kept his surprise at the gesture off his face, but he very much noted the way Xie Wang blinked, loosing his grip and clasping his hands to bow.

  Beiyuan relaxed as the tense atmosphere dissipated a little, “would you like refreshments, Ye-qianbei?”

  “Stupid question,” both Wen Kexing and Ye Baiyi answered together, glaring at each other again.  

  Beiyuan and Zhou Zishu quickly covered laughs with hasty coughs, Xie Wang’s eyes widening further as he assessed just what Ye Baiyi had brought him into.  Zhou Zishu wished him good luck with that, even he didn’t know half the time.

  “I’ll notify the kitchen,” Beiyuan said, clearly relieved to escape the situation.  Zhou Zishu watched him leave in a flurry of robes, uncharacteristically speedy.  He twisted his head over his shoulder just before he vanished around the corner, “no-one kill anyone, my little toxin will not be pleased if there are bloodstains in the flooring.”  He wriggled his fingers in a little wave as he disappeared from sight.

  Zhou Zishu would have chased him and hit him if he hadn’t been worried about retribution from either the vicious sable or, worse, Da Wu.  Actually, no, scratch that, the sable was the worst one, it was very quick and sneaky, slinking up a leg to latch it’s poisonous teeth into any part it could reach.  At least Zhou Zishu would see Wu Xi coming and take appropriate action.  Swift Moving Steps most likely.

  With neither the sable or Da Wu around, what he needed to worry about was a bristling Immortal, and a rather frightened Scorpion and of course, his wife.

  He wasn’t sure which of the three posed the most danger.

  Zhou Zishu pinched the bridge of his nose, exhaling noisily.  He opened his eyes, staring at all of them in turn, “right, let’s not pretend this is going to be easy, so shall we get it over with?”  He turned, tugging Wen Kexing with him, not bothering to make sure the other two were following.  Beiyuan had worked fast, or rather, the kitchen had worked fast on his behalf, the room prepared and servants delivering wine and several dishes.  Ye Baiyi looked at the scant amount of food disdainfully, but sat, pulling Xie Wang down beside him.

  Zhou Zishu looked between them, interested in the way Xie Wang skuttled closer under his scrutiny.  Ye Baiyi represented safety.  Interesting.  And the Immortal was more than allowing it, he was encouraging it.

  Wen Kexing was still glowering, yet he was sitting calmly.  At least gave the outward show of it.

  Where to start?

  And what to hold back?  Perhaps simple basics were best considering he didn’t know how much Xie Wang knew.  Ye Baiyi certainly hadn’t bothered to inform them of much, swanning in several days before to announce he had seen some proof of Zhao Jing’s machinations, and then leaving without explaining.

  “I am Zhou Zishu, Zhuangzhu of Siji Manor.  You may know of me from my former role as Shǒulǐng of Tian Chuan, we have had dealings before while I was in that position.”  Skimming over the fact those dealings had been rather deadly.

  Xie Wang’s eyes widened a little, quickly schooled.  He nodded, “yes, I know of you.”  He paused, looking down at his hands, then up again, “your reputation precedes you, Zhuangzhu.”  He accompanied his words with a clasping of hands and a bow.  His eyes flitted to Wen Kexing.

  “I am Wen Kexing, Zhou Furen, Shishu of Siji Manor, and the former Guzhu of Ghost Valley.”

  Xie Wang swallowed nervously, paling visibly.  Zhou Zishu could see he was trying to digest the information given to him so easily, something he would have prized as the Scorpion sect leader, and possibly attempting to decipher which of Wen Kexing’s titles to use.  His eyes darted between Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing, “Wen Zhuangzhu,” he began, faltering when Wen Kexing actually smiled at him.  “Your reputation also precedes you, Zhou Furen.  I am honored to meet you both,” he added, bowing to Wen Kexing.

  He certainly knew how to be diplomatic and polite.  He had not only acknowledged that Wen Kexing was part of Siji Manor, but also that he was Zhou Zishu’s wife, choosing to omit Guzhu from the equation for the moment.

  “Now that everybody knows who is who, can we get down to business,” Ye Baiyi muttered darkly.

  Wen Kexing glared at him, “well, you could start by explaining yourself, old Monster, this was unexpected.”

  Xie Wang’s gaze darted between the two men virtually snarling at each other.  Sensing impending doom, he broke in, “it is my fault.  I...I wanted to leave.  After Y...after Ye-qianbei told me what...my yifu had done and was planning to do, that he was using me to achieve his goals, I began to see that I had been a tool and nothing more.”  He glanced at Zhou Zishu, eyes pleading, “Ye-qianbei is not to blame.”

  Zhou Zishu appraised the young man carefully.  He seemed sincere, but Xie Wang was an assassin and an accomplished one to have created his sect so young.  Duplicity could not be discounted.

  “Does Zhao Jing know why you left?”

  Xie Wang shook his head, eyes cast down, “no, I just...left.  I did not wish to give him the chance to sway me with words that would be false.”  Ye Baiyi patted his knee, Xie Wang glancing at him gratefully.  “I had already displeased him, so he may think I am sulking.”

  “I told him he would be safe with me,” Ye Baiyi said, his tone low, a little threatening.

  Wen Kexing leaned forward, ignoring Ye Baiyi completely.  “Zhao Jing does not know where you are?”

  Zhou Zishu met Ye Baiyi’s gaze, the Immortal shaking his head slightly to confirm that Xie Wang had not left any trace of his whereabouts along the way.

  Xie Wang shook his head, braids swaying with the movement, “no, I would rather he not know.”  He shifted imperceptibly closer to Ye Baiyi.  “Y...Ye-qianbei told me you know what...what Yifu has done.  I saw some proof of it, though I wasn’t sure what it meant until Ye-qianbei.  I showed him Yifu’s treasure room, where he keeps things he kept from each of his plans, each time he won against someone.”

  Zhou Zishu’s brows rose in surprise.  He glanced at Wen Kexing who was equally shocked that Xie Wang had done such a thing, something against his godfather.  So that is what Ye Baiyi had meant.

  “He has Gao Chong’s sword,” Ye Baiyi added, eyes distant as he clasped Xie Wang closer.  “The bastard picked it up when Gao Chong dropped it and put it in his treasure room like a trophy.”

  Xie Wang closed his eyes, slipping his hand into the fold of his robes, withdrawing a cord with a piece of the Liúlí attached.  The central piece.  When he opened his eyes, he looked broken, placing the piece on the table.  “He gave me that as a token of his trust.”  He looked between Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing, “if I had stayed, I would have been like the others, a name on a memorial tablet and that placed before it.”  He pushed it towards Zhou Zishu, “please take it, I don’t want it.”

  Zhou Zishu left the piece where it was.  He met Xie Wang’s eyes, seeing a very young, hurt, man.  “Will you help us, Xie Wang?”

  He bowed his head, “yes, in any way I can, but I would ask respectfully not to be made to return.”

  Before either Zhou Zishu or Wen Kexing could answer, Ye Baiyi leaned forward, “he goes where I go.”  It was emphatic, brooking no argument on the subject, so Zhou Zishu nodded his agreement.  While he didn’t fully trust Xie Wang, Ye Baiyi could more than handle anything that might come up.

  Wen Kexing cleared his throat, “perhaps we can offer some information in return for that,” he said, pointing to the circular piece of glass.  “Zhao Jing gave it to you, letting you think it was important.  The five pieces were given to the five brothers of the Wu Hu Meng as a symbol of the trust Rong Xuan placed them in.  However, the Liúlí is not the only way to open the Armory.  There is another part, a more vital part, as without it, the Liúlí is useless, yet it can be used on its own to open the door.  A key.  A key that Rong Xuan was in possession of until he passed it on to someone else that he trusted.”  He paused, letting Xie Wang digest that information.  “It is that key that Zhao Jing is desperate for.”

  Xie Wang laughed bitterly, “of course, of course.  Why would he give me something so important?  And why did I believe he trusted me?  I am such a fool.”

  Wen Kexing grimaced, eyes darting to Zhou Zishu and then Ye Baiyi in distress.  The Immortal sighed, shaking his head at Wen Kexing, silently telling him it wasn’t his fault for Xie Wang’s state.  Ye Baiyi gathered the former assassin into his arms and led him out, glancing back with a sharp nod.

  “Zhao Jing truly is an incomparable asshole,” Zhou Zishu muttered.

  Wen Kexing scowled, “that boy is terribly frightened and confused, A-Xu.  I don’t think we are truly aware of how Zhao Jing treated him.”

  Zhou Zishu nodded to his wife’s words.  “I think you’re right, Lao Wen, but it’s probably best we don’t ask him directly.  It looks like it's an open wound.”

 

  Wen Kexing bursts through the door to their room in Beiyuan’s manor, looking thoroughly traumatised, which considering his history is a real feat.  Zhou Zishu rose and crossed to him, taking in the wild gaze, the way his hand is clasped to his mouth.  He pulled the hand away, peering up at him.

  “What?  What is it, Lao Wen?  What happened?”

  Wen Kexing's refusal to speak only made it worse, his silver hair swinging in long arcs as he shook his head.  “I…no…”

  “Lao Wen!  What is it?”  He gripped his zhiji’s arms, utterly alarmed.  “Tell me?”

  Wen Kexing keened, not a good keen, but a distressed one, only worrying Zhou Zishu further.  He tugged Wen Kexing over to the table where they drank most nights, and forced him down, kneeling before him.  For the first time ever, he looked horrified at having Zhou Zishu between his thighs.  That made Zhou Zishu sit back on his ass in shock, which had the counter effect of Wen Kexing snapping out of his stupor.

  “A-Xu!”

  “Fuck,” Zhou Zishu muttered, rubbing his tailbone.  “This is your fault, Lao Wen, just tell me what’s fucking wrong before I beat you.”

  Wen Kexing grimaced, assisting Zhou Zishu to his feet, “it was horrifying, A-Xu, I would rather spare you.”  He didn’t even offer to kiss his ass better.

  Now he really needed to know.  It appeared he would need to employ his best weapon.  He softened his expression, pouting a little, fluttering his lashes seductively, “my wife is hiding things from me, what is this poor husband to do?”  It was such a perfect parody of Lao Wen’s most wheedling expression the man laughed.

  “Don’t say I didn’t warn you, A-Xu,” Wen Kexing muttered.  He inhaled deeply, then let it out in a rush, “I saw Xie Wang sucking the old monster’s cock.”

  Zhou Zishu stared at Wen Kexing, dumbfounded.  Then he burst out laughing so hard he had to bend over, slapping his knees.  That was what had him in such a flustered state?  Zhou Zishu really wouldn’t want to see it either, but his wife was being ridiculously dramatic.  He should have known it was something so stupid.

  “A-Xu,” Wen Kexing whined, petulant.

  He straightened, wiping his eyes, trying to control his giggles, “you’re the one who originally suggested putting them together.”

  “I didn’t want them to do that !  It was a crime to subject my eyes to that atrocity, I fear I may go blind and never see my A-Xu’s beautiful face again.”  He pouted, in full tantrum mode, “the old monster was moaning.  It was horrific.  And the little Scorpion was enjoying it! ”  He shuddered, “I feel sullied, A-Xu.”  His eyes were wide and pleading for help, “they were naked .  I saw the old monster naked .”

  He really tried to hold it in, but another look at Wen Kexing and his pained expression had Zhou Zishu bent over laughing again.  Wen Kexing’s indignant cries ringing in his ears.

 

Chapter Text

 

  “Old Monster,” Wen Kexing hissed when the Immortal sauntered into the room, plonking onto a seat with utter nonchalance and picking up a pair of chopsticks.

  “Brat,” Ye Baiyi greeted him around a mouthful of food.  He closed his eyes briefly, an indication he was pleased with the meal.

  “You were supposed to turn Xie Wang away from Zhao Jing, not fuck him,” Wen Kexing growled, leaning forward, menacing to anyone but Zhou Zishu or, apparently, Ye Baiyi.  Or Gu Xiang, or Han Ying, or Jiuxiao.  Zhou Zishu wanted to laugh, his wife was becoming soft.  Well, soft to anyone at Siji Manor, or Beiyuan’s estate.  His maniacal glare hadn't been tested on anyone else yet.

  Maybe Shen Shen was a little intimidated still.

  Ye Baiyi shrugged, stuffing more into his mouth, swallowing and shrugging again.  “He’s very attractive, completely wasted on that Yifu of his.”  His lips quirked in a smug smile, “good with his mouth.”

  Zhou Zishu had remained silent until now.  He glared at Ye Baiyi, “I don’t think he’ll be appreciative of being used, again .  He can’t be trusted.”

  Ye Baiyi shot him an inscrutable look, “I am not using him.  I like him.  And who says we can’t trust him?”

  Wen Kexing sputtered, face contorting into an expression of disgust and disbelief.  “You…you like him?”  He pointed at the Immortal accusingly, “you like him and you’re fucking him?”

  Ye Baiyi sighed, placing down his chopsticks with a resigned air, giving the bowl a last longing look, “his Yifu has almost done our work for us already, brat.  He’s been kept hidden for years and used whenever Zhao Jing sees fit and then shoved aside when he doesn’t.  He’s been treated badly, very badly, worse than we expected.  Lied to constantly.  Honeyed words poured in his ear when Zhao Jing wanted his skills, shouted at any other time and told he was stupid.  He’s not stupid, merely young, a little naive about somethings.”  He sighed again, “he expects punishment at every turn, to be tossed aside.”  He leveled a considering gaze at Wen Kexing and Zhou Zishu, “I gave him bald truth.”

  Zhou Zishu placed a hand over Wen Kexing’s silently asking him to be quiet.  “And Xie Wang liked that?”

  Ye Baiyi nodded, “he did, he does.”  Then he grinned, “and apparently, he likes me too.”

  “So, you’re fucking him?”

  Ye Baiyi retrieved his chopsticks, fishing around in his bowl, “who said I’m just fucking him, you two aren’t the only ones around here who like dick.”

  “I did not need to know that,” Wen Kexing gasped like a shocked maiden.

  “Brat,” the Immortal snorted.  “I’m not the one who put me between you deviants and the other two, I hear too much.”

  Zhou Zishu coloured, he knew he and his zhiji could be loud, but he hadn’t thought about Beiyuan and Wu Xi.  He thanked whatever deity was watching that Han Ying was back at Siji Manor or the conversation would have been worse.

  Ignorant or just careless of Zhou Zishu’s discomfort, probably taking joy in Wen Kexing’s, Ye Baiyi continued.  “He’s intelligent, rather sweet, enjoys a gentle hand.  I already mentioned his mouth…”

  “Don’t,” Wen Kexing muttered, holding up a hand.  

  Ye Baiyi turned serious, “he’s been in his Yifu’s bed since he was twelve, Brat.  He deserves a chance to know himself and what he wants.  He’s been supplanted in Zhao Jing’s bed because he’s too old.”

  Zhou Zishu shuddered, “he’s only nineteen .”  Nineteen and he was too old to be in Zhao Jing’s bed?  What the actual fuck?

  “Precisely,” Ye Baiyi grumbled.  “He thought all that was love, and then he was practically thrown away.  His view of love has been warped, I’ve shown him something better.  He’s not in my bed because I require something from him, he’s there only if he wants to be.  It’s taken a while to get him to consider it might be really ok for him to want for himself.”

  Wen Kexing gaped at him, “you don’t just like him, you love him.”

  Ye Baiyi bristled in a way only he was capable of, “what of it?  Am I not allowed to?  I’ve been alone since…”  He paused, pain flitting across his face before it was gone again.  “He’s the first man I have really wanted for a long time.  I’m the first man who has wanted him as he is.  He cried like a child after I fucked him the first time, he’d never felt real pleasure before, then he was greedy for more.   Maybe he’ll leave me one day,” he said softly.  “But it will be his choice.”

  “It will,” Zhou Zishu agreed, his mind lingering on the thought of Xie Wang, harsh little Scorpion, crying because he had finally experienced something he himself experienced every day with Wen Kexing.  The thought made him uncomfortably sad.  “You said you were honest with him.  Did that include what we are trying to achieve?  Or just what his Yifu had done?”

  Ye Baiyi’s mouth twisted, “I told him most of it, he deserved to know the truth of what his Yifu had been up to.  He knew very little of his master’s motivations or even most of the past transgressions.  Zhao Jing doesn’t burden the little Scorpion with his brilliance.”

  Zhou Zishu narrowed his eyes.  That last phrase…had the cadence of something Ye Baiyi had heard and had disliked the sound of.  “He keeps him in the dark?  On more than Liúlí?”

  Ye Baiyi nodded, scowling fiercely.  

  “He craves truth and openness,” Wen Kexing said, eager, leaning forward.  “He’s come to abhor the way he had been treated.  He likes that you are so blunt, you hide nothing.”  He shot a fond glance at Zhou Zishu, “I find I have something in common with Xie Wang after all.”

  Ye Baiyi’s head swiveled between them, nose wrinkling, “you compare me to your spouse?  Bah, don’t bother, he’s a kitten compared to me.”

  Zhou Zishu’s mouth dropped open in indignation at being called a kitten .  He glanced at Wen Kexing to see him absolutely delighted by that.  Traitor.  He reached out and tweaked his Lao Wen’s ear, twisting it so his zhiji winced and leaned in, “I’ll show you my claws, Lao Wen.  We’ll see how you like this kitten then.”

  Wen Kexing sighed as if he were already being fucked over the table, eyes crinkling when he grinned up at Zhou Zishu, “I look forward to that, A-Xu.”

  Of course he did, what else did he expect?

  He let go of Wen Kexing’s ear, “lunatic,” he muttered fondly.  He turned back to Ye Baiyi who had resumed his demolishing of the bowls of food before him, “if you feel we can trust him, then we will trust him.”

  “Good,” Ye Baiyi said, slurping noodles into his ever ravenous maw.  He pointed his chopsticks at them as he swallowed, “don’t call him Xie’er, too many bad associations.  I call him Xiao Xie, don’t use that either.  That’s mine.”  He scooped up the last of the noodles then drank the remaining liquid with a smack of lips, then frowned when he realised there was no more.

  “Xie Gongzi?”  Zhou Zishu grinned at Ye Baiyi’s possessive tone.

  Ye Baiyi shrugged, “that will do, unless he suggests something else, but if he does, use what he prefers.  I don’t want all my hard work going to waste because of you two idiots.”

  As Ye Baiyi rose, Wen Kexing halted him, “have Xie Gongzi join us for meals, if we all mean to accept him, then we should start doing it.”

  The old tortoise looked inordinately pleased by that, a swagger in his step as he left.

 

  Zhou Zishu halted in Ye Baiyi’s doorway, eyes opening wide at the sight before him.  Xie Wang lay with his head on Ye Baiyi’s knee, the Immortal carefully braiding a length of his hair.  Xie Wang stiffened when he noticed Zhou Zishu, making as if to retreat and hide, but Ye Baiyi soothed him with a gentle whisper and a kiss to his cheek which promptly reddened.  Whatever Ye Baiyi had said made Xie Wang’s eyes soften, his pose not quite as relaxed as before he noted Zhou Zishu, but better than the headlong flight he had been contemplating.

  He could see why Ye Baiyi had warned them to be a little careful with the young man.  He was terribly skittish.  Yet, the change from the assassin Zhou Zishu remembered was stark and he internally congratulated Ye Baiyi for the progress he’d made.

  He bowed very correctly, hands clasped, “Ye-qianbei, Xie gongzi, I came to see if you would both join my wife and I for a meal and something to drink.”

  Xie Wang had eventually accepted that he was wanted for meals with everyone present in Beiyuan’s residence, but he had been very cautious and quiet, Zhou Zishu had only seen him speak quietly to Ye Baiyi and once or twice to Wu Xi, who Beiyuan had discreetly placed beside him.

  Clever Beiyuan.  To place the two Nanjiang natives together.  From what Zhou Zishu knew of Xie Wang’s past, he had been with Zhao Jing for a long time, and possibly knew little about his homeland, whereas Wu Xi would be a wealth of knowledge.  It was interesting to watch them converse softly, pretty faces with sharp mouths, similarly braided locks of hair.

  Xie Wang tipped his face up towards Ye Baiyi, eyes flitting to Zhou Zishu briefly, “Yiyi?”

  Zhou Zishu carefully controlled his face.  Yiyi ?  What the actual fuck?

  Ye Baiyi beamed at him, expression so open and soft, “do you think you can endure an evening of watching them flirt shamelessly, Xiao Xie?”  He fastened the braid with a circlet of silver, patting his head gently.

  Zhou Zishu snorted, “if we can endure your flirting, you reprobate, you can endure ours.”

  Xie Wang’s eyes widened, then he giggled, hiding his mouth behind his hand.  “Oh,” he murmured, sounding thoroughly delighted by the ease between them.  He glanced at Ye Baiyi as he righted himself, clasping his hands together and bowing his head, “if Zhou Zhuangzhu wishes, and Yiyi will join, then I would be honored.”

  

  Zhou Zishu was studiously ignoring Ye Baiyi’s hand slipped into Xie Wang’s robes and caressing his inner thigh.  He could hardly complain with a sticky Wen Kexing plastered to his side and petting his hair.

  In the beginning, Zhou Zishu and Xie Wang had been the more awkward of the four, Ye Baiyi and Wen Kexing trading insults as usual.  As the wine flowed and more and more empty jugs landed on the table, Xie Wang relaxed, leaning into Ye Baiyi.

  Like he belonged there.

  It was when Xie Wang had cheekily called Wen Kexing Zhou Furen and the man in question positively beamed at him that the little Scorpion had finally started to truly join the conversations, especially when Wen Kexing retaliated and called Xie Wang Ye Furen.

  Xie Wang giggled drunkenly, “it is more likely to be Xie Furen, Wen Daren.”

  The implication was one Zhou Zishu didn’t want to dwell on, grabbing his cup and downing more wine.  He was far too sober for this.

  Wen Kexing gasped dramatically, “oh.”  He shot a sly glance at Ye Baiyi who just shrugged, not denying it.  He leaned close to Xie Wang, “he told us he liked dick, but he didn’t say he preferred to be the one being fucked.  Does he beg you, Xie Gongzi, I bet he does.”

  Xie Wang laughed, cheeks colouring, “he does, he does.  Spreads his legs like a seasoned whore.”

  Ye Baiyi shrugged again, “I said he had a good mouth, he also has a great dick.  Knows what to do with it.”  Not even a spark of shame.  Not that Zhou Zishu truly expected any.

  “So do you, Yiyi,” Xie Wang purred, rubbing his cheek like a contented cat against Ye Baiyi’s.  “Will Yiyi show me his skills later?”  Ye Baiyi growled and hauled a giggling Xie Wang right into his lap, wriggling his hand into his robes.

  Zhou Zishu remained silent, downing yet another cup of wine, then reconsidered and picked up the jug.  Lao Wen snickered into Zhou Zishu’s hair, arm tightening around his waist.  He didn’t bother swatting Wen Kexing’s other hand away when it wormed down his stomach to his thigh.  

  Xie Wang calmed down, expression pensive, “it is good to laugh.  And to learn to laugh.”

  Zhou Zishu cleared his throat, “I think we all agree that is a good thing.  To find joy is a glorious thing.”  Wen Kexing nuzzled his neck, humming his agreement as Ye Baiyi pressed sloppy kisses to Xie Wang’s cheek, his hand creeping ever higher under Xie Wang’s robes.

  Xie Wang halted Ye Baiyi’s hand, giving him an inscrutable look, a look Ye Baiyi understands from the brief nod he gives his lover.  Xie Wang turned his attention back to the other pair, “I wish to tell you my name, my real name, the one I had taken from me.  This one is  Xie Jie Liubo.”

  Zhou Zishu smiled at him, inclining his head, “I greet you,  Xie Jie Liubo, and I am pleased to meet you.”

  

  Xie Wang, or rather, Xie Jie Liubo, is a wealth of information on Zhao Jing, despite the fact the man kept so much from him.  Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing had taken to calling him Liubo-ge as a sign of trust.  Ye Baiyi still called him Xiao Xie rather possessively, quietly determined to keep the boy for as long as he could.  Personally, Zhou Zishu didn’t think the Immortal had anything to worry about.  The now former assassin was besotted and enamoured, proudly displaying the multitude of marks on his neck, a corresponding set peeking above the collars of Ye Baiyi’s robes.

  Ye Baiyi couldn’t keep his hands to himself, continually petting, and Xie Jie Liubo allowed himself to be petted, leaning into each touch, at first like he thought that they would be denied, then over time, he came to expect them, leaning in at the same time Ye Baiyi extended his hand.

  Being treated as a treasure, treated as if he mattered, as if he were loved, had Xie Jie Liubo blossoming.  He gradually opened up, not just to Ye Baiyi, who had been a confidant from early on in the relationship, but he also began to speak to Wen Kexing.  The words had been hesitant and hushed at first as if he thought that his Yifu would somehow hear him, but eventually he spoke flatly about what he had gone through, and what his foster father had done.

  What he’d made Xie Jie Liubo do.

  “I thought I was special,” he told Wen Kexing, voice hushed.  Zhou Zishu rested with his head in his Lao Wen’s lap while the pair drank.  It spoke volumes that Xie Jie Liubo was willing to continue his tale while Zhou Zishu was present, warming to Wen Kexing’s far more effusive nature than Zhou Zishu’s rather taciturn one more readily.  “When he took me in, I think I was maybe five years of age, and I know now, he eased me into what he wanted.  He began to hint at what he really wanted when I was ten, touches began to linger.  He would tell me he had so many things I could help him with.  He told me I was his boy, his Xie’er.”  He downed a cup of wine, sighing, “I see it now, but then, I felt wanted.  Any time I ventured to touch him, he expressly encouraged it while his own advances were more…tinged with guilt, perhaps.  Or rather, the expression of guilt.  I don’t think he feels anything of the sort.  I have not seen any evidence or remorse when he takes a new boy to his bed.”

  Wen Kexing made a derisive noise in his throat, hand threading through Zhou Zishu’s hair, “being a cutsleeve is not shameful, but taking a child, that is…an abomination.  And I refuse to ascribe to the view that you are tainted, Liubo-ge.  It is him that has the problem, not you.  You trusted him, and he used that.”

  “Yiyi says the same,” he said, voice soft still, but less hesitant, less worried about Zhou Zishu’s presence.  “Yifu…”  He paused, shaking his head, “no, Zhao Jing, he did not love me.  He needed me for things, but he did not love me.  Yiyi…Yiyi loves me?”

  Wen Kexing nodded, “ nobody is worth your tears, and the one who is won’t make you cry .  I would say so.  In all my experiences of the old monster, I’ve never seen him act like he does when he’s with you.  I’ve seen him cry, but he was still…abrasive.  With Liubo-ge, he is soft, gentle.  And I will deny it, but he is also sweet with you.”

  “He’s kind of cute,” Zhou Zishu added, cracking one eye open lazily.

  “A-Xu!”

  Zhou Zishu shrugged, “I said kind of.  Don’t be drinking vinegar, Lao Wen.  You know how I feel about you.”

  Wen Kexing’s brow raised, “our Ying’er is cute, not the old monster.”

  Zhou Zishu snorted, closing his eye again, “I’ll be sure to tell him that when we go home, Lao Wen.”  He nuzzled his head into Wen Kexing’s lap with a sigh.  His eyes cracked open again, finding Xie Jie Liubo, “Ye Baiyi loves you and that man doesn’t love easily, nor does he seem to stop once he starts.  Being with you has helped him let go of the past.  I don’t hear him talking to his sword as much as he used to.”

  Xie Jie Liubo nodded solemnly, “Rong Changqing left a scar on his heart.  He has told me of him.  The situation with Rong Xuan made him feel he had failed them both.”

  Wen Kexing reached for Xie Jie Liubo’s hand, giving it a squeeze, “what we are all doing will help with that.  Rong Xuan was not exactly good in what he did, but he didn’t deserve what happened to him and to have his name sullied the way it was.  By bringing the truth to light we can help his reputation, which should help the old monster come to terms with his death.”

  “And avenge your parents,” Xie Jie Liubo added.  “I was blinded for so long,” he said softly, eyes cast down.

  “You were manipulated, Liubo-ge, it’s not your fault, you weren’t even born when my parents died.”  Wen Kexing squeezed his hand again, withdrawing it to resume his petting of Zhou Zishu’s hair.  “My A-Xu once told me that a man who does evil things can be forgiven once he puts down his sword, I think he was right.”  He gifted the young former assassin a small rueful smile.  “The weight of past deeds can be a heavy burden.  A-Xu shares my burden and I share his.  Ye Baiyi would be glad to share yours.”

  After Xie Jie Liubo left, Zhosu Zishu sat up, gripping hold of Wen Kexing much to his surprise, burying his face in his neck, “I’m sorry, Lao Wen.”

  Wen Kexing held him, arms warm and strong around him, “I don’t understand, why are you sorry, A-Xu?”

  “ Nobody is worth your tears, and the one who is won’t make you cry.”  He tightened his hold, “I’ve made you cry, Lao Wen.”

  “Oh, A-Xu,” Wen Kexing crooned.  “You are the exception to every rule.”  He tilted Zhou Zishu’s face up, “in our last life, I made you cry too.  Circumstance and missed chances.  Guilt and loss.  This time, there are none but happy tears between us.  I am the one you know, and you are the one I know.”  He kissed him gently, conveying everything in that simple press of lips.

  Mollified somewhat, Zhou Zishu chose to lighten the subject.  “Can I still make you cry in bed, Lao Wen?”

  Wen Kexing threw back his head, laughing joyously, “oh, I sincerely hope you do, A-Xu.”  He reached into Zhou Zishu’s robes and cupped his cock, “you cry so prettily when you are well fucked, so does our Ying’er.  I miss that boy terribly.”

  Zhou Zishu wrapped his arms around his zhiji, “I do too.  We’ll go home to him soon.”  He pecked Wen Kexing’s cheek, “but for now, take me to bed and make me cry, zhiji.”

  “Ahh, I would love nothing more, husband.”

  

  They had warned Zhang Yusen, they had prepared Gao Chong and Shen Shen.  But Zhou Zishu had neglected Lu Taichong in his calculations.  Perhaps the Danyang were vulnerable because Lu Taichong still hadn’t come back into the Wu Hu Meng fold like Zhang Yusen had apparently done.  Perhaps Zhao Jing was pissed that his attack on the Nan He had failed so spectacularly and he’d decided to bide his time there and attack the Danyang first as the easier target.

  Perhaps Zhao Jing was just being bloody minded and ruthless.

  It mattered not.  Lu Taichong was dead and Ghost Valley was being blamed.  The ghost masks were clearly fakes, yet that made no difference when Zhao Jing brandished one of them at a hastily gathered conference.  A conference he hadn’t told Gao Chong about before he called it, virtually nullifying the one Gao Chong had been involved in organising.

  Those that mattered knew it was a ruse, a blatant one in their eyes knowing the truth, but Wen Kexing still felt nervous about the implications.  Zhao Jing was managing to stir up a great many sects with his impassioned speech, tears pooling in his eyes.  The gold embroidery on his deep blue robes flashing as he swirled, mask held high.  Zhao Jing was nothing if not a consummate performer.

  Neither the E Ming nor the Shaolin Monastery were in attendance, which was some comfort.  Zhao Jing hadn’t managed to persuade them to attend, possibly through Ye Baiyi’s intervention.  Wen Kexing had tentatively let the E Ming know of his presence, spinning them a tale of his parents going into hiding, tragically betrayed, and the young Zhen Yan having to take shelter with friends until he was old enough to care for himself.  It was at least partially true which lent credence to the whole thing.  Like before he had given details of the birth gift that the nuns had sent as proof of who he was.

  Few of the eight major Sects had bothered to attend, nor send a representative, either, which doubtless made Zhao Jing furious at the slight.  But one or two had, joining the minor sects to swell the numbers.  Those under the influence of the Wu Hu Meng were all there, and their allies, Zhao Jing rousing them from their habitual nonchalance.  Any mention of Ghost Valley or the missing texts was a firebrand to them, a call to action and Zhao Jing played that card with finesse.

  The usual suspects were all shouting, fists in the air, arguing like fools.

  Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing stood on the fringes of the crowd, blending in with the lesser sects.  Gao Chong, Shen Shen and Zhang Yusen were close to the front, and even from their disadvantaged position, Zhou Zishu could see all three were fuming.  Gao Chong’s expression was grim, narrowed eyes watching his martial brother as he paced in the centre.  Zhang Yusen looked disgusted, barely able to look at Zhao Jing.  And Shen Shen was trembling with rage.  Thankfully, those were expressions one would expect of men whose brother had been murdered so ruthlessly.

  Zhou Zishu titled his head, peering through the throngs of shouting men to the far side and was able to see the white of Ye Baiyi’s robes, a dark blur hovering beside him that had to be Xie Jie Liubo.  Zhao Jing had not noticed them thus far, and Zhou Zishu hoped he wouldn’t yet.

  When Gao Chong’s mechanical sparrow arrived at Beiyuan’s manor, the news had created a funereal pall over the group, Xie Jie Liubo abruptly leaving with Ye Baiyi trailing after him with a scowl that could smite Zhao Jing on the spot had he been there.

  Their own council of war had gone through the night, sending a mechanical sparrow back to Gao Chong to arrange a short meeting before Zhao Jing’s farce of a conference.  All of Zhou Zishu’s diplomacy had come to the fore during that tense meeting, but in the end, everyone had agreed on a course of action.

  So Gao Chong allowed Zhao Jing his podium, allowed his rhetoric, allowed him to stir up the sects, then stood, hand raised.

  It took a moment, but there was eventual silence.  Gao Chong looked around at all the gathered men and women.  He pulled the Token of Honor from his robes.  He brandished it, letting them all get a good look at it.

  Zhao Jing did not look pleased, which of course was the whole point.

  “With this, I can call upon the honor of the Changming Sword Immortal.  A pledge was made many years ago, that we could call on him to aid us in taking down Ghost Valley.  I intend to use that pledge now.”

  Murmurs rose around them, Zhou Zishu seeing Ye Baiyi starting to move forward.  Xie Jie Liubo followed in his wake, mostly unobserved as everyone’s eyes locked on the figure in white.

  Zhou Zishu watched Zhao Jing instead.  He watched the expression on the man’s face darken as Ye Baiyi approached Gao Chong, then his eyes narrow as he finally perceived Xie Jie Liubo behind the Immortal.  Zhou Zishu did not like the calculating gaze he bestowed upon the young former assassin.  Nor the smug smile that followed it

  “He’s planning something,” his Lao Wen hissed in his ear.

  Zhou Zishu grunted, “I know.”

  Wen Kexing’s grip on his arm was almost bruising, “what do we do, do we step in?”

  Shaking his head, Zhou Zishu returned his attention to Ye Baiyi and Gao Chong, flicking his eyes over Zhao Jing every so often.  The smug smile had been replaced with feigned concern

  That he had shifted his gaze from Xie Jie Liubo was not comforting in the slightest.  If anything it made Zhou Zishu’s hackles rise more.  It meant, if he judged correctly, that Zhao Jing had decided on a course of action.

  While appraising Zhao Jing, Zhou Zishu missed Ye Baiyi accepting the Token of Honor back and pledging his assistance in wiping out Ghost Valley.

  As the room cleared and Gao Chong was occupied with several sect leaders, Zhao Jing made his move, sweeping his robes out as he approached Xie Jie Liubo from the side.  He was affecting a face that was the picture of indifference, but Zhou Zishu noted the gleam in his eyes as he looked at his errant godson.

  Ye Baiyi was bristling at his approach, eyes narrowed, while Xie Jie Liubo had cast his eyes down.

  The very picture of repentance.

  Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing slid into place behind Ye Baiyi and Xie Jie Liubo to present a united front, even if they all knew that Xie Jie Liubo would be leaving with Zhao Jing as per their plans.  The former assassin was the only one who was capable of getting close to their quarry without arousing suspicion.

  “Let me handle this,” Xie Jie Liubo hissed at Ye Baiyi.  “I can do this, Yiyi, please.”

  Ye Baiyi was obviously conflicted.  He trusted his Xiao Xie, felt he was strong enough to handle anything, except perhaps a direct confrontation with his Yifu.  That would be emotionally raw.  And something Ye Baiyi wished to avoid for as long as possible, but Zhao Jing was forcing the issue.  His Xiao Xie wished to assist.  His shoulders slumped, eyes pleading with the former assassin to change his mind, to stay where he was safe by Ye Baiyi’s side, but he didn’t voice it.

  Zhou Zishu felt as conflicted as Ye Baiyi.  No-one wanted to send the fragile Xie Jie Liubo into the tiger’s den, but he was the one person who could possibly disarm Zhao Jing.  Learn if he was suspicious.

  Zhao Jing’s eyes hardened, trained straight on Xie Jie Liubo where he stood half behind Ye Baiyi.  “Xie’er,” he murmured, lips twisting into a smirk.

  From Zhou Zishu’s standpoint he was able to see Ye Baiyi’s hand extend back to find Xie Jie Liubo’s and squeeze in comfort.  Ye Baiyi’s face was still, but his eyes flashed when Zhao Jing tilted his head, a triumphant smile on his face as Xie Jie Liubo stepped around the Immortal to approach his godfather.  He stopped a polite distance away, clasping his hands and bowing his head.

  “Come, we have much to discuss,” Zhao Jing commanded.

  Xie Jie Liubo inclined his head, then followed.

  The triumphant smirk widened when Ye Baiyi remained in place, allowing the Scorpion to be led away.

  “He’ll be alright, Ye-qianbei,” Zhou Zishu murmured as they all watched Xie Jie Liubo vanish into the crowd.

  “He better be,” Ye Baiyi muttered darkly, eyes still on the spot where his Xiao Xie had disappeared from view.  “I’ll kill that bastard myself if he isn’t.”

 

  Zhou Zishu kept his head lowered as Zhao Jing entered the hall, carefully schooling his expression into one of a model sect leader.  Wen Kexing was wearing his own version of the mask, but Zhou Zishu could see his clenched fist and the way his fan was trembling ever so slightly.

  The way Wen Kexing was reacting reminded him a little of how he had been when he met Gao Chong the first time around, and had been so quietly tense.  Only this time it was directed at the right individual.  But he was relatively controlled, so Zhou Zishu wasn’t too worried.

  It was Ye Baiyi that they needed to be concerned about.  The Immortal almost had steam pouring from his ears, narrowed eyes locked on Xie Jie Liubo’s slim form as he trailed dutifully, not up the centre of the room, but along the shadowed walls.  Where Zhao Jing thought he belonged.  Zhou Zishu flicked his gaze to the Immortal, grimacing slightly at the stony expression on his face, the tight set of his shoulders.

  Ye Baiyi was ready to slash the Tai Hu sect leader in two for the temerity of degrading his young lover.  Xie Jie Liubo had pleaded and begged him to make himself scarce for this reunion between he and Zhao Jing, but Ye Baiyi, stubborn to the point of stupidity, had refused.  Gently, because it was his precious Xiao Xie asking, but he hadn’t relented in the slightest.  Eventually Wen Kexing had taken Xie Jie Liubo’s hand, shaking his head.

  The former assassin was alternating between fear and righteous fury before they arrived, determined to assist in any way he could, refusing to let Ye Baiyi talk him out of it.  Now, no trace of it was on his face, long used to schooling himself in Zhao Jing’s presence.

  “Your Xiao Xie has all of us here, Ye-qianbei.  We can protect him.  And the bastard won't dare do anything too extravagant in front of everyone,” Zhou Zishu murmured out the side of his mouth, keeping his head low, but peering through his lashes at Xie Jie Liubo, then Zhao Jing.  “We just have to make sure that he can’t get him alone, or at least not somewhere we can’t monitor what’s going on.”

  Ye Baiyi harrumphed, clearly not satisfied with that, fingers itching to rip Longbei from it’s fabric wrapped sheath.  “We also have to make sure no-one else corners him.  The bastard has been used to giving him to his friends and allies as a sweetener.  I won’t have him raped again.”

  “One of us will have eyes on him at all times, Ye-qianbei.  I promise, he’ll be safe and we will intervene before anything happens to him.”

  That calmed Ye Baiyi somewhat, nodding at Zhou Zishu solemnly.  

 

Chapter Text

 

  Zhou Zishu, Wen Kexing and Ye Baiyi used qinggong to float up to the roof over Zhao Jing’s personal chambers, listening carefully they pinpointed a good place to remove a few roof tiles to spy on the meeting.  Zhou Zishu had promised Ye Baiyi they would have eyes on Xie Jie Liubo and he intended to honor that.

  The aura in the room was already making his hackles rise.  Zhao Jing looked far too self assured and Xie Jie Liubo was fidgeting with his rings, constantly twisting them on his fingers as he watched his godfather pace slowly around him.  Predator assessing his prey.

  Zhou Zishu had taken the precaution of giving Xie Jie Liubo a small packet of Monkshood root in powdered form in case he felt the need to use it.  It was something he had employed when he was in Tian Chuang, a nasty poison that could be absorbed through the skin, inhaled or put into a drink, causing a multitude of symptoms including respiratory paralysis before it killed the target.

  Xie Jie Liubo knew of it, nodding in understanding when Zhou Zishu gave it to him, aware he needed to be careful when employing it.  And only use it if he felt it was truly necessary.  Wen Kexing had even agreed to the measure, more concerned with Xie Jie Liubo’s safety than his revenge.  If it had to be done, the man would still be taken out of the equation.

  Zhou Zishu hoped it wouldn’t be necessary.  He wanted closure for Wen Kexing, even if in one sense, he’d already had it.

  “I apologise for my absence, Yifu,” Xie Jie Liubo said softly, wary of his godfather, keeping his eyes on him through his lashes as he lowered his head deferentially.  “I followed my heart.”

  “You followed your cock,” Zhao Jing spat.

  Clasping his hands, Xie Jie Liubo bowed, “this one is chastened, Yifu.  How may I redeem myself?”

  “If you wish to redeem yourself, Xie’er, I have something for you to do,” Zhao Jing said as he stalked towards the Scorpion.  He straightened the robes of the younger man, fussing a little, pretending he was concerned.  The three men peering through a hole in the roof were not fooled.

  “Yes, Y…Yifu,” Xie Jie Liubo murmured, affecting an expectant, eager expression.

  Ye Baiyi grumbled beside Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing.  He loathed seeing his Xiao Xie so subservient.

  “There are two men here that I need your assistance with,” Zhao Jing continued, moving away from his godson now that he thought he had his compliance.  “Your skills will be invaluable in this task, Xie’er.”

  “You want them killed?”

  Zhao Jing sighed as if he was dealing with someone completely incompetent.  “No, you silly little barbarian, I need your other skills for this.  You understand?  Or will I spell it out for you?  Has being pampered by that fool made you forget your purpose and rotted what little brain you have?  I suppose I should be grateful he got bored of you and you came running back.”  He sighed dramatically, “I need you on your back, or your knees, Xie’er, you haven’t forgotten how to do that have you?”

  All three men on the roof could see Xie Jie Liubo blanch, head swinging to stare at his godfather in shock, “Y…Yifu, why?”  He pouted, looking petulant.  “I don’t want to fuck them.  Do I have to?”

  Ye Baiyi went unnaturally still, his grip on the roof tiles going white.  Wen Kexing looked at Zhou Zishu in alarm.

  Zhao Jing stalked back to his errant Xie Wang, forcing his face up, “you ran away for months, Xie’er.  I needed your help.  It’s nothing you haven’t done before after all.  Why quibble about a couple of cocks in your ass now?  It’s one of the few things you are useful for.”

  Xie Jie Liubo cringed, wrenching his face away.  “I am not a whore.”

  Zhao Jing’s hand struck him hard across the face, Zhou Zishu gripping hold of Ye Baiyi to stop him giving them away.  Below, Xie Jie Liubo’s eyes blazed for a moment before he lowered his head, hiding his defiance.

  “You are mine to do with as I wish, whatever I wish, whenever I wish,” Zhao Jing hissed.  Then his expression shifted to one of pity and condescension.  “You have been unruly since I denied you my cock, Xie’er.  Is that what you want?  Is that why you left me?”  He stepped closer, stroking the cheek he’d struck.  “If I must indulge you to bring you back in line, then I shall.  I’ll take you before you do your duty for me with the others, go remove your clothes and lay face down on my bed, spread your legs like the whore you are.”

  Xie Jie Liubo’s eyes went wide, stepping back out of reach, shaking his head.

  Ye Baiyi was off the roof before either Zhou Zishu or Wen Kexing could react.

  “Shit,” Zhou Zishu hissed, hoping desperately Ye Baiyi could hold his temper.  He peered through the hole to see Zhao Jing advance then halt at the insistent knock on his door.  He exhaled, relieved Ye Baiyi hadn’t just burst in.

  Xie Jie Liubo was still frozen for a moment, then he was striding to the door.  Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing couldn’t see the doorway from their spy hole, but they didn’t need to wait long before Ye Baiyi was gliding across the floor, robes billowing out behind him.  Even from their position they could see how relieved Xie Jie Liubo was, the set of his shoulders more relaxed, the fright and terror bleeding from his eyes.  Zhao Jing looked like he was trying to affect being bored, yet there was something confused in his expression.  He was unsure why the Immortal was there.

  Ye Baiyi stroked Xie Jie Liubo’s cheek, “did you have a good visit with your godfather, Xiao Xie?  I know I said I would give you more time with him, but I missed you.”

  “Yiyi,” Xie Jie Liubo murmured, slipping into his arms, hiding his face in Ye Baiyi’s neck.

  Zhao Jing cleared his throat, “Xie’er and I were about to…”

  Ye Baiyi turned his glare on Zhao Jing, “did I speak to you?  I was talking to my Xiao Xie.  And it doesn’t seem to me he wants anything to do with what you think was going to happen.”  He stroked Xie Jie Liubo’s hair, “what do you want, my love?”

  Xie Jie Liubo raised his head, shooting Zhao Jing a triumphant smile, confident now that Ye Baiyi had reminded him he had the choice.  He gazed up at Ye Baiyi, “I go where you go, Yiyi.”

  “Xie’er?”  Zhao Jing tried to wrest control back.

  Ye Baiyi waved him away like shooing a fly, “go find one of your other little boys to stick your pathetic dick in, my husband doesn’t want it.”

  “I don’t know what you are insinuating,” Zhao Jing began, puffing up with indignant pride.

  Ye Baiyi looked bored, rolling his eyes, “I don’t bother with insinuations.  You like to fuck little boys because fucking anyone else would mean they might fight back or need to be satisfied.  Wonder what the rest of the Jianghu would think of that?”

  Pale wasn’t an adequate description for Zhao Jing’s face.  It had gone the colour of curdled milk.  His eyes darted between his errant godson and an Immortal who could squish him like a bug, hating how futile any action other than grovelling would be.

  From the hole in the roof, Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing watched as the former assassin straightened his spine and stood tall away from Ye Baiyi’s grounding embrace.  He faced his godfather, eyes glittering dangerously, the first time Zhou Zishu had seen the Scorpion persona in this life.  

  “I was a child when you took me the first time.  It hurt, I bled.  You fucked a child .  You disgust me,” he spat.  He stalked forward, sneering in Zhao Jing’s face, “and don’t try to tell me it was only me, we both know that’s not true.”

  Zhou Zishu nudged Wen Kexing, pointing to Ye Baiyi and the utterly besotted face he was making, eyes shining as his young lover tore strips off the man he had trusted.  Ye Baiyi looked like his knees were going to buckle so he could worship his little Scorpion.  Zhou Zishu was well aware of that sensation, Wen Kexing had him feeling that way every day.

  As he returned his attention to Xie Jie Liubo, he noted that not once had he mentioned anything other than his own grievances, never alluding to Zhao Jing’s other misdemeanors and indiscretions.  And he hadn’t raised his voice above a hissing whisper, laced with venom.  He was completely in control of himself, and in that moment, Zhao Jing was at his mercy.

  Quick as a true scorpion striking, Xie Jie Liubo whipped out his flexible blade and waved it under Zhao Jing’s nose, the links of the blade swinging like a snake’s tail.  Zhao Jing’s eyes tracked it, the whites of his eyes obvious even to Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing above.  Xie Jie Liubo slid his arm to the side, flicking the blade to stiffen it.  Zhao Jing trembled under his godson’s calculating gaze.

  “Xie’er…”

  Xie Jie Liubo laughed, ice cold, sneering at Zhao Jing.  “You have no right to call me thus.  Why not name me as you did earlier?  What was it, whore?  Yours to do with as you saw fit?”

  Zhao Jing’s eyes darted to Ye Baiyi, finding no solace there.  “I have not appreciated you as I should, you are my only family…”

  Another chilling laugh from the former assassin.  “Appreciated!  Appreciated!   Is that what you call it when you make me bleed, is that what it is to be given to men at your whim?”

  Zhao Jing’s eyes flicked to Ye Baiyi again, “he…”  He swallowed, trying to gain back some sense of composure.  “He didn’t want you when I gave you to him, what makes you think he still…”  He held back the rest when he saw Ye Baiyi sneer at him.

  “He denied you , not me,” Xie Jie Liubo spat, waving the stiffened blade under Zhao Jing’s wobbling chin.  “He understands the concept of mutual attraction, of consenting.”  He leaned in close, the tip of the articulated blade digging into the skin at Zhao Jing’s throat, “you did not ask me.   You think I am yours to command.”  He laughed again, then went deathly still, “I am not.  No-one commands me.”

  Zhao Zishu wanted to applaud.  Wen Kexing beamed at him, looking thoroughly impressed.  Ye Baiyi looked ready to rip his clothes off and jump his Xiao Xie right there and then.

  Four men flinched when Xie Jie Liubo dropped the blade with a clatter, Ye Baiyi scooping it up before Zhao Jing could think to grab it himself, then the wronged godson curled his hand into a fist.

  The crack Zhao Jing’s nose made told Zhou Zishu it was broken.

  Xie Jie Liubo bent over a kneeling Zhao Jing, “you are less than a worm in the dirt to me.”  He spun on his heel, nose imperiously in the air, linking his arm with Ye Baiyi’s as he swept out of the room, his straight spined bearing imperial.

 

  Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing moved aside, Ye Baiyi ushering Xie Jie Liubo into the room with a cautious arm around his shoulders.

  “I’m fine,” Xie Jie Liubo insisted, petulant when Ye Baiyi made him sit.

  Ye Baiyi knelt at his feet, stroking his face, “it’s fine to not be fine, Xiao Xie.  None of us here will judge you for that.”

  Xie Jie Liubo seemed to deflate a little, “I…he…”  He steeled himself, sucking in a harsh breath.  “He hadn’t wanted to fuck me in so long, I thought…and to demand I be…bedded by…like I was his to give away.”  His eyes were large in his pale face when he looked at Ye Baiyi, “I don’t want anyone but you, Yiyi.”

  “Your body is yours , Xiao Xie,” Ye Baiyi murmured softly, but there was something definite in his tone.  “You get to say what happens to it.  Who gets to touch you.  No-one else has that right, my love.”  He took Xie Jie Liubo’s hands in his, kissing his bruised knuckles.

  Wen Kexing stepped forward, then knelt on the other side of the former assassin, close, but not too close, “Ye Baiyi is right in this, Liubo-ge.  That bastard made you feel that you had to let him use you to make him happy, that is an horrendous thing to do.  We will never let him near you ever again.”  He sighed, “we should never have let him near you this time.  I apologise to you.”  He clasped his hands and bowed low.

  Xie Jie Liubo sighed, shaking his head, “no, it was my decision.  I just didn’t think he’d…want that.”  He bit his lip, eyes lighting up, “it felt wonderful to take control back.  Though my hand hurts.”  He gave them all a wry little smile.  “And I did manage a moment to check his treasure room earlier, everything is still there.  He doesn’t suspect anything.”  He looked at each in turn, smile widening at their relieved expressions, a little proud of himself.

  Wen Kexing extended his own hand, “may I?”  Xie Jie Liubo let him take it with a nod, visibly relaxing as Wen Kexing transferred qi into his swollen hand.

  “I wish to extend my gratitude to all of you.  You have given me more trust and honesty than I had in all my years at… his side.  I feel respected.  Wanted.  Valued.  I thought I understood what that felt like.”  He smiled ruefully, “I did not, but I do now.”  His gaze fixed on Ye Baiyi, “you called me husband,” he whispered.

  Ye Baiyi’s eyes widened and if Zhou Zishu had to judge, he would say that the term had slipped out and the Immortal was unaware he’d said it, which meant it was something Ye Baiyi felt, but had not given voice to.

  “What of it?” Ye Baiyi grumbled, cheeks taking on a pink tint.  He dropped his gaze to the floor, fidgeting with his robes, “it’s…I…fuck.”

  Xie Jie Liubo extended his uninjured hand, tipping Ye Baiyi’s face up, smiling softly, “Yiyi.”  He leaned in, pressing his lips to the Immortal’s.  “Are you proposing?”

  Ye Baiyi paled, standing suddenly, then whirling around to gesture wildly, “out, you two brats, out!”  At their stunned faces, he closed his eyes, inhaling slowly to calm himself.  “I’m not talking to you about this with them here,” he said to Xie Jie Liubo.

  The smile that had been on Xie Jie Liubo’s face slid away, seeing Ye Baiyi was very much not joking, flipping his hand at Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing urgently, rings glinting in the dim lamp light.  As they left, Zhou Zishu glanced back to see Ye Baiyi taking Xie Jie Liubo’s hand in his, looking utterly terrified, but hopeful.  He smiled to himself as he noted Xie Jie Liubo’s eyes welling with tears.  An answering hope on his face.

  They would be fine.

  He took hold of Wen Kexing’s hand in his and tugged him towards their room.

 

  The sense that Zhao Jing had been planning something came to the fore after they left Tai Hu Sect, departing quietly and with little fanfare.  They hadn’t taken their leave of Zhao Jing, nor had they had an obvious meeting with Gao Chong, Shen Shen or Zhang Yusen, preferring not to announce any possible relationship between them and Siji Manor beyond a general friendliness of sect leaders.

  Ye Baiyi and Xie Jie Liubo met them outside the gates, then Beiyuan and Wu Xi joined them outside the city.  Zhou Zishu remained on alert the whole time, not even relaxing once they were well out of sight.  The back of his neck was itching.  He was sure they were being observed.

  Wen Kexing was acting in a similar manner, eyes scanning the landscape, fan waving in what seemed to be a lazy manner, but Zhou Zishu could see how white his knuckles were.

  “It will come at nightfall,” Zhou Zishu murmured to him.  “If it comes.”

  Wen Kexing nodded slightly in acknowledgement.  “They will take advantage of the dying light and hope our eyes are too busy adjusting to see them come.”  He glanced at his husband, familiar smirk in place, “either then, or before dawn.”

  “It is what I would have them do,” Xie Jie Liubo said, moving closer so their conversation remained private.

  “As would I,” Zhou Zishu replied with a grin.  “Daylight is better for different types of subterfuge.  Nighttime is best for murder.”

  Xie Jie liubo snorted.  “They have picked the wrong group of men.  I imagine they will seek to draw Yiyi away and keep me occupied, they know me.  The rest are unknown quantities.  I am still assured Y...Zhao Jing does not know your true identities.”  He paused, frowning, “I doubt that any of those truly loyal to me will be involved, so will not need to deal with them”

  Zhou Zishu nodded, “it may be an attempt to capture you, Liubo-ge.”

  Xie Jie Liubo sighed, glancing back at Ye Baiyi conversing softly with Beiyuan and Wu Xi, “he might think to bring me back for punishment, separate me from Yiyi.”  He turned back to Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing, “he hates being humiliated.”

  Wen Kexing snorted, “well, you certainly did that, Liubo-ge.  It was glorious to watch.”

  Seeing a former assassin blush so brightly was very amusing.  Zhou Zishu imagined that Xie Jie Liubo felt like he had taken control of his life, and he hoped that would lead to confidence in himself rather than the false sort he had been employing.

  Zhou Zishu was right about the timing of the attack, but it became apparent very quickly that they weren’t bothering with Ye Baiyi at all, barely acknowledging Xie Jie Liubo and instead all their focus was on Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing.

  Beiyuan was behind Wu Xi, not being the accomplished swordsman that the others were, Wu Xi lashing out with his staff to protect his husband.  The former prince wasn’t entirely useless, swiping out with his fists and feet when any of the assassins made it through Wu Xi.

  Ye Baiyi was a flash of white among them, swirling like a tornado, his sword sending men flying with each swipe.  Xie Jie Liubo fought close to him, lashing out with his articulated blade in a fury of motion.

  Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing were back to back as they had fought together before, spinning in unison, Baiyi carving a path around them, Wen Kexing’s white fan flying through the air with precision.

  Their abilities gave the attackers pause, but they still kept coming.

  Zhou Zishu frowned at Xie Jie Liubo as they consistently turned their focus to the centre where he and Wen Kexing spun together.  The former assassin was just as perplexed, shrugging as he gutted another foe, kicking him away.

  Zhou Zishu turned, expecting Wen Kexing to be at his back, but he wasn’t there.  His head swung around, searching, not able to find him anywhere.  He spun in circles, searching wildly.

  “Lao Wen!  LAO WEN!”  Where the fuck did he go?  “I will beat your ass, Lao Wen,” he grumbled as he stepped around the carnage, flicking Baiyi out to dispatch another assailant.  “Lao Wen!”  He saw Wu Xi crack someone’s skull with his staff, whirling to meet another.  Ye Baiyi descended from on high, landing on another man and crushing him.  How the Immortal did that, Zhou Zishu didn’t know, he was light as a feather unless he intended harm.  Watching Ye Baiyi fight was like watching a storm rage unfettered, sowing chaos in his wake.

  But still no Wen Kexing.

  “Zishu!”

  Zhou Zishu turned to find Beiyuan pointing to the left of the clearing, through a sparse stand of trees.  He raced through them, to find another clearing.  What he found made his heart clench.  Wen Kexing behind a pile of bodies.  But behind his wife was another of the assailants, hand around Wen Kexing’s throat, blade pointed at his stomach. 

  Lips curled into a snarl, Zhou Zishu stalked forward, Baiyi extended out, arm perfectly straight, perfectly still as he leveled the tip of his sword at the man’s throat, “how dare you touch what’s mine.”

  Wen Kexing’s eyes widened, lips parting.

  Zhou Zishu could almost hear the words he wanted to say.

  A-Xu!  Zhou Zishu’s eyes flitted to Wen Kexing’s, letting them convey what he felt, letting the rage bleed away for just a moment.  Lao Wen .  His silver hair was in disarray, falling out of the knot on the back of his head, his guan knocked askew.  Zhou Zishu’s eyes narrowed as he noted that his zhiji’s robes were similarly askew.  Something in his gaze made the assailant swallow, throat bobbing as he skittered backwards, Wen Kexing still in his grip, forced to follow.  His sleeve was torn, no, not torn, sliced.  Appraising the man’s sword, he detected a slight sheen to the blade.  Poisoned, or treated with something that had allowed him to get the upper hand on his zhiji.  It couldn’t have been possible otherwise.

  Little did the bastard know, he was dealing with immortals.  Poison couldn’t kill his Lao Wen, it would just make him a touch woozy for a while.  Zhou Zishu glanced at Wen Kexing’s eyes again, now able to see a faint glazing to them.  Whatever it was would work its way out of his system without much to be concerned about.  Hopefully.  It certainly wasn’t any of the truly nefarious poisons he’d employed while with Tian Chuang.  Those may have caused his Lao Wen more trouble.

  But he was not going to let the assailant know any of that.  And he was furious that someone had laid hands on his wife.

  He let the tip of Baiyi drop a little, making himself appear smaller, weaker, less like a problem.  “Let him go,” he murmured.  Wen Kexing watched him carefully, eyes crinkling at the corners for the briefest moment.  He knew precisely what Zhou Zishu was doing.  Right on cue he performed a perfect execution of a fainting damsel, becoming a very heavy weight in the assailant's hold.

  Zhou Zishu would have laughed at the blatantly fake act had he not been skewering the man with Baiyi and flinging him aside like a child’s straw stuffed doll.  Wen Kexing blinked up at him innocently, taking the hand offered and wobbling to his feet.

  Zhou Zishu cupped his face, looking into his eyes properly, “do you know what it is?  How do you feel?”

  Wen Kexing sighed, leaning their foreheads together, “I don’t know exactly what it is, but I’ll be fine, I’m just a bit…”  He waved his hand in a wavy pattern, “dizzy.”  He wobbled again, knees folding under him and Zhou Zishu eased him down, cradling him in his lap, stroking his disheveled hair.

  Zhou Zishu tried not to panic, he knew there was very little that could harm either of them now, but still, having Wen Kexing collapse against him was feeding the tiny beast in him that feared.  Wen Kexing looked up at him with unfocused eyes, reaching up, like he had after the…wedding that never was, like Zhou Zishu was bathed in light and he wanted to catch it.

  “I was a dead thing, a ghost in truth, when I first saw you,” Wen Kexing muttered, hand weakly dropping to his side.  “I remembered light and life with you…”  Zhou Zishu frowned at his words, a chill entombing his heart.  It was too reminiscent of how he had spoken after the fight with Mo Huaiyang.  

  “I’ll find Wu Xi, he’ll…”

  Wen Kexing blinked slowly, “I’ll be fine,” he repeated.

  Zhou Zishu fought back tears, his throat constricting, “I’ve watched you die twice, zhiji, I won’t do it again.”  He averted his face, struggling to regain control, then realising it didn’t matter if his Lao Wen saw him vulnerable.  He stared down at Wen Kexing, letting it all show.  “I can’t, Lao Wen.  I can’t .”

  The hurried pattering of feet alerted Zhou Zishu to their friends arriving.  He looked up to see Wu Xi frowning at Wen Kexing’s condition, starting to extract little packets and pots from his sleeves.

  Wu Xi knelt down, peering into Wen Kexing’s eyes, then setting his fingers on his pulse at his wrist, eyes flitting to the cut in his sleeve near his shoulder.  He leaned in and sniffed it, comprehension dawning as he rocked back on his heels.

  “You know what it is?” Zhou Zishu asked him, anxious.  “Da Wu, do you have something to counteract it?”  Wu Xi rolled his eyes in answer, picking amongst the medicines at his feet, choosing one and handing the pot to Zhou Zishu as Wen Kexing’s head lolled against his shoulder.

  “One pill should do it,” Wu Xi said, replacing all the other medicines back in his sleeves.  “It was a derivative of a corpse poison.  It would have killed him had you both not been immortal now.  Still enough to weaken him considerably for a time.”

  Zhou Zishu fumbled with the pot, wrenching the cover off the top of it and shaking a large black pill into his palm.  He angled Wen Kexing against his shoulder, pushing the pill against his mouth.  Wen Kexing opened his lips to accept it, so weak and pliant.

  The effect was almost immediate, Wen Kexing’s eyes flashing open, his body trembling.  Zhou Zishu held him close, rubbing his back, trying to push down his festering anger at the whole situation.  Wen Kexing lurched to one side, hacking coughs leaving him, then he was retching, blackened blood spraying from his mouth as he expelled the poison.

  Wen Kexing rolled onto his knees, then struggled out of Zhou Zishu grasp and to his feet, still unsteady.  He smeared the blood on his lips with the back of his hand, “that was awful, were you trying to kill me, A-Xu?”

   Levity?  Levity .  He was trying to be funny and make jokes at a time like this?  Zhou Zishu fumed, flicking his sleeves out as he rose and squared off against Wen Kexing.  With the adrenaline of the fight gone, the panic of seeing his zhiji bleeding away, it was replaced with a deep seated anger.  He ignored the others joining them to continue glaring at his wife.

  “What the fuck?  Why did you do that?  If you had stayed with me we could have fought together.”  

  Wen Kexing straightened as Wu Xi’s cure coursed through his system, glaring right back at Zhou Zishu, “they were going to hurt you, A-Xu.”

  Zhou Zishu wanted to scream in frustration, “so?  They can’t kill me , not unless they take my fucking head off, you lunatic!  Are you really that stupid that you forgot everything that happened in the Armory?  Why the fuck did I marry you if you’re going to keep doing this shit?”

  A shocked gasp left Wen Kexing’s bloodied mouth, then he was whirling around and racing off in the other direction.  Zhou Zishu made to head as far from everyone as possible, stopped by a very angry and determined Beiyuan with a hand to his chest.

  “Fuck,” Ye Baiyi hissed.  He shoved at Wu Xi, “go get him, when these two fight like that it likely means a trail of bodies.  We can’t afford that right now.”  Ignoring the fact there were already a multitude of corpses laying around them.  Apparently, those didn’t count.

  Wu Xi scowled, “why me?”

  The Immortal rolled his eyes, “because you are one of the few people he’s actually a little scared of.  He’d just laugh at me.”  He shot a quick glance to where Beiyuan stood, preventing the escape of the other miscreant, “he respects you too much to kill you.”  He closed his eyes as the Shamanet continued to scowl but headed off after Wen Kexing.  “Now, you fucking brat,” he growled at Zhou Zishu, who had tried to make his escape to go sulk but had been prevented by Beiyuan.  “What the fuck is wrong with you?  Why would you provoke him like that?”

  Zhou Zishu was not pouting.  “He started it,” he grunted, mullish, arms crossed.

  “Aren’t you a fucking adult?” Ye Baiyi thundered, making Zhou Zishu wince.  “ He started it,” he mimicked in a whiny, childish tone.  “He’s always starting it, you foolish brat.”  He threw his hands up, stomping around Zhou Zishu, “you are both as stupid as one another.”

  Beiyuan stepped toward Ye Baiyi, “let me, old friend.”  Ye Baiyi snorted, sweeping his arm aside to indicate Beiyuan could make his attempt.  The former prince sighed, shaking his head.  “I get that you were scared, Zishu, Wen Daren was too, but arguing like that will get you nowhere.  I’ve seen you bickering and that seems to be foreplay to the pair of you, but you cannot snipe at each other like you just did.  What I just saw was the old Zishu and I didn’t like it.”

  Zhou Zishu balked, feeling a twinge of shame.  “He knows I didn’t mean it.”

   Beiyuan tilted his head, “does he?”  He speared Zhou Zishu with a steely glare, “from what you have told me and what I have observed, I am not sure he does.  He believes you love him, Zishu, but he doesn’t think he deserves it.”

  With a wince, Zhou Zishu stared at the place where Wen Kexing had disappeared.  He leaned forward, hands on his knees.  “Fuck!” he shouted at the ground.  Beiyuan was right, so very right.  He closed his eyes, a vision of the night Han Ying had been in their bed the first time, the bewildered look on Wen Kexing’s face and the way Han Ying had soothed his apprehension.

  The way he always seemed so bewildered when Zhou Zishu told him he loved him.

  Beiyuan sighed as Zhou Zishu straightened, “you are both new to being beholden to someone you love, Zishu.  It was bound to happen at some point.  The timing is not ideal, but perhaps it is better it happened now and not later.”

  “I have to find him,” Zhou Zishu murmured.

  “Da Wu will bring him back,” Ye Baiyi grumbled, clearly still annoyed with him.  “You need to calm down first.”

  “Ye-qianbei is right, Zishu.  Let my husband talk to him, he understands how Wen Kexing feels,” Beiyuan added.  “Wu Xi dealt with it a long time ago, but that feeling never truly leaves.  Wen Daren will need reassurance, Zishu, and you need to give it to him.  When he does something dangerous, you need to think about why he’s done it before you scold him.”  He held up his hand when Zhou Zishu made to interrupt.  “I’m not saying don’t scold him, but to think beforehand.  Everything he does is because he wants to protect you, Zishu.  Remember that.  He is so very frightened he will lose you.”  He sighed deeply, “do you recall the way you told me you wanted him back?”  He paused until Zhou Zishu nodded.  “He lives with that feeling every day.”

  Zhou Zishu hated himself.  How could he do that?  Yes, he and Wen Kexing bickered, but he knew what Wen Kexing dealt with, he knew how deep seated that insecurity went and Zhou Zishu had gone and stepped all over him.  He normally didn’t care about being an asshole, but this was vastly different.  He’d hurt his wife.

  “Fuck,” he whispered, sinking onto his knees in the bloodstained dirt.  “Why do I destroy everything I touch?”

  Ye Baiyi smacked the back of his head, “no talking like that, you fool.  Get up, no moping around.  Da Wu will bring him back and in the meantime you need to think about what you will say to him.”  He hauled Zhou Zishu to his feet, fist curled in the front of his robes, “don’t waste what you have.”  He shoved Zhou Zishu back, “I need to find Xiao Xie, take this idiot back to the hotel.”

  “Where is Liubo-ge?” he asked his friend, worried that maybe they had been attempting to abduct him after all.

  “He was inspecting the carnage,” Beiyuan explained.  “He told us not all were Scorpions, some appeared to be Tai Hu.”

  Zhou Zishu closed his eyes.  At least the young man was safe and still out of his god father’s clutches.  That was one bright spark in what had been a shitstorm otherwise.  “Right,” he muttered, glancing again at where Wen Kexing had vanished.

  Beiyuan shook his head at Ye Baiyi’s retreating back.  “I am pleased he found Xie Jie Liubo, I would have detested seeing him continue to pine for someone long gone.”

  Zhou Zishu brushed his knees, resigning himself to a little soul searching.  “You know about Rong Changqing?”

  Beiyuan nodded.  “He was incredibly drunk when he told us about him.  Do you know how much that man can drink before he even shows the slightest inebriation?  It’s a vast amount.”    He turned back to Zhou Zishu with a sad smile, “I asked him years later if he had still not let go.  His answer was the saddest thing I have ever heard.”

  Zhou Zishu glanced at the now tiny figure of Ye Baiyi, “what did he say?”

  “ I never held him to begin with.  How could I let him go?

  Zhou Zishu swallowed down a lump in his throat, “maybe he finally has now.”

  Shaking his head, Beiyuan sighed, “no, I don’t think so.  The hurt is less, the ache less, and he has Xie Jie Liubo now, but Ye Baiyi is not the sort to let go, ever.  He has room in his heart for his new lover, but he didn’t release Changqing to do that.”

  Zhou Zishu pondered that as they made their slow way back to their lodgings.  “Do you think Ye-qianbei and Xie Jie Liubo will be ok?”

  That brought a bright smile to Beiyuan’s pretty visage, “oh, yes, they will be good for one another.”  He glanced at Zhou Zishu from the corner of his eyes, “they both understand loss, being in love with someone who doesn’t return that love, it will make them both hold onto what they have now.  Be careful with it.  They may fight like you and Wen Daren,” he added, adjusting his sleeves nonchalantly.  “But they will not let the other go.  I believe that is why Ye-qianbei was so angry with you, he could see that you could so easily ruin what you have, that you are fortunate to have one another and know that love is mutual.”

  Zhou Zishu walked on in silence, taking the lesson for what it was.

 

Chapter Text

 

  Zhou Zishu shot to his feet when Wu Xi shoved Wen Kexing through the door, the slam of it shutting again loud in the silence.  Leaving them alone, staring at each other.  Until Wen Kexing dropped his gaze to the floor.

  Wen Kexing stood, head down, contrite, fiddling with his sleeves like a child about to be scolded.  He raised his head, eyes reddened, “A-Xu, I…”

  Zhou Zishu strode to him, wincing at the flinch his wife gave as he approached.  “Shh, Lao Wen,” he murmured gently, cupping his head and pulling him down for a bruising kiss.  Wen Kexing moaned, hands gripping Zhou Zishu’s hips, thrusting his tongue into Zhou Zishu’s mouth urgently.  When he pulled back, nipping at Wen Kexing’s lip, he nuzzled their cheeks together.  “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, zhiji.  I didn’t mean it, I married you because I love you.  I don’t care how mad you make me, I would never have you any other way.”

  Wen Kexing trembled in his hold, burying his face in Zhou Zishu’s neck with a harsh sob, “I know, I know.  I’m sorry too.”

  Rocking Wen Kexing softly, Zhou Zishu threaded his fingers in his silver locks, “I was just scared, I really didn’t mean it.  I promise.”

  Shuddering, Wen Kexing clung tighter, “it’s ok, A-Xu.  I deserved it.”

  How someone who could be so confident be so self deprecating, he didn’t know.  Zhou Zishu raised his head, tipping Wen Kexing’s face up, “no, you didn’t, Lao Wen.  What I said was cruel and hurtful.  And you didn’t deserve it, you really didn’t.  It’s my fault.”  Beiyuan was very right, Wen Kexing needed reassurance, so Zhou Zishu would give it to him, as much as he needed it and more.

  “But I…”

  “You were just trying to protect me, I know that, I knew it then, but I was scared and stupid.”  He pressed a finger to Wen Kexing’s lips as he tried to interject, shaking his head.  “No, you would do anything to protect me, save me, I know that.”  He sighed, “I made you cry again, I’m so sorry.”

  Wen Kexing wiped furiously at his eyes, “no tears, A-Xu.  See, no tears.”

  Zhou Zishu laughed despite himself, hugging his wife to his chest.  “I love you.”

  Snuggling into Zhou Zishu’s arms, Wen Kexing sighed deeply, sounding content, “I love you too.”  He nuzzled Zhou Zishu’s shoulder with his cheek, “I was scared too.  I saw them coming at you and I just...forgot they couldn’t actually hurt you.  I was furious and panicked and I know you can protect yourself, but…”

  “It’s ok, Lao Wen.  I understand.”  

  It felt for a moment like Wen Kexing was going to continue trying to explain himself, but then he simply kissed Zhou Zishu’s cheek, blinking lazily, “can we go to bed, A-Xu?”

  Zhou Zishu smiled, stroking his jaw, “alright.  I can check your wound too.”  He found the slash in Wen Kexing’s sleeve, frowning.  “Is it ok?”

  Wen Kexing shrugged, “a little...itchy now.  Da Wu tended to it.”

  That made Zhou Zishu pout, “he saw your shoulders bare?”

  A shocked laugh came from the taller of the two, hand flying up to cover his mouth.  His eyes shone, grin cheeky, “is my A-Xu drinking vinegar?

  A bigger pout.  “Yes,” he grunted.  No point denying that.

  Wen Kexing snorted, delighted by the admission, “oh, A-Xu.  Da Wu is a professional, he wasn’t leering at my bared shoulders.”  He poked Zhou Zishu’s cheek, “and you are the one forever telling me how devoted he is to Beiyuan.  Have you forgotten your own words, A-Xu.”

  Zhou Zishu laced his fingers with Wen Kexing’s and marched them to the bed, pushing his wife down so he could examine the wound himself.  “I don’t like anyone else seeing you like that,” he muttered as he stripped Wen Kexing of his outer layers, then gently pulled his inner robe off his shoulder to show the wound.  It was closed, a little red and puckered, but it looked ok.  He traced his fingers over it.

  "What about Ying’er?  He’s seen considerably more than Da Wu did.”

  “That’s...that’s different.  You know it’s different,” Zhou Zishu said, scowling at Wen Kexing’s cheeky grin.

  Wen Kexing giggled, pulling him down on top of him, “there is one way you can remind me who I belong to, A-Xu.”

  Zhou Zishu’s eyes gleamed, “oh, so you do need reminding, hmm?”

  “Oh, no,” Wen Kexing murmured, running his fingers through Zhou Zishu’s hair, then down to his shoulder blades.  “But I certainly won’t protest a lesson.”

  Leaning closer, Zhou Zishu nipped at his wife’s lovely lips, “good, because you will be getting a very thorough lesson, Lao Wen.”  He closed the distance between their mouths, his tongue slipping into Wen Kexing’s mouth, met with enthusiasm.  His hands finished what he started with his Lao Wen’s robes, letting them glide over warm silky skin.

  “A-Xu,” Wen Kexing sighed happily, ridding Zhou Zishu of his own robes in a lazy, haphazard fashion, far too busy exploring his body to bother being careful.  

  Much, much later, and one pot of oil laying empty on the floor, they laid in one another’s embrace, still naked, languidly tracing fingers over still flushed skin.

  “Why target us?”

  Zhou Zishu scowled, “it could be that they saw us with Ye Baiyi.  Zhao Jing knows he can’t hit back at him for taking Xie Jie Liubo away from him.  Perhaps we were easier targets.  Or, maybe he somehow found out who we are.”  He sighed, cradling Wen Kexing’s head to his chest, suddenly unbearably weary.  “I don’t know.”  

  “They were certainly focused on us rather than Liubo-ge and Ye-qianbei,” Wen Kexing mused, stroking Zhou Zishu’s chest.  “I suppose it doesn’t matter really.  They didn’t succeed.”

  He sighed, playing with Wen Kexing’s silver hair idly.  “Gao Chong’s conference is in a few days, I suggest we keep out of sight until then.”

 

  Zhao Jing strode in, with all the bearing of an emperor, robes stiff and elaborately embroidered, following Gao Chong, yet giving the air of someone who should have been first.  Gao Chong was conducting himself with far more dignity, robes somber for the occasion, expression stern as ever.  Shen Shen and Zhang Yusen trailed behind.

  Shen Shen wore his usual boorish belligerent expression, while Zhang Yusen’s face was closed off.  Of the remaining brothers of the Wu Hu Meng, he was the hardest to read, despite Zhou Zishu spending more time with him than the others.

  From their vantage point at the rear, Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing were not only hidden effectively from Zhao Jing until the moment of reckoning, but they had a decent view of the whole room.  All the martial sects of the jianghu had sent representatives, far more illustrious company than the attempt by Zhao Jing after the death of Lu Taichong.  Zhi Yin Shi Tai of the E Ming and Ci Mu Da Shi the Guseng of the Shaolin nodded to Wen Kexing when they came in, settling close to the dias in a primary position as befitted their standing.

  Everyone thought that they were conveening to discuss Ghost Valley further, and to receive an update from Ye Baiyi, arrange who would be going to Mount Qingya to assist.

  Gao Chong held his hand up for silence, “I must ask your forbearance.  This conference was called with one aim in mind, yet it is no longer the one which was stated.”  His eyes flitted to the side where his treacherous brother stood, “Zhao Jing’s conference was only days ago, yet much has changed since then.”

  Murmurs broke out at the announcement, confused glances shared among many in the room.  The E Ming and Shaolin kept their faces turned to Gao Chong, well aware of the true purpose.  Zhao Jing was scowling, gaze flicking between Zhang Yusen and Shen Shen who were sitting quietly and not objecting to what Gao Chong was saying.  His growing scowl told how perplexed he was to be out of the loop.

  “When this conference was called its purpose was to deal with Ghost Valley, however, that is not necessary.  Ghost Valley has been shut down.”

  Sound swelled in the room, disbelief and shock primary of the reactions.  Some were expressing relief, others anger at being called for no reason.  Zhao Jing was visibly trying to calm his expression, assessing the situation for advantage.

  “The Changming Sword Immortal, Ye Baiyi has confirmed this,” Gao Chong continued, eyes flitting to where Wen Kexing stood beside Zhou Zishu.  Ye Baiyi most certainly hadn’t confirmed it, but Gao Chong was taking Wen Kexing’s word on the state of affairs in Ghost Valley.

  The mention of Ye Baiyi soured Zhao Jing’s scowl into something thunderous.

  “What of the Guzhu?”

  “Why are we here?”

  Gao Chong raised his hand again, waiting until the furore had died down patiently.  He blatantly ignored the questions.  “The purpose of Ghost Valley when it was created by Rong Changqing, the Ghost Hand, was to create a place where people could be rehabilitated and then reintegrated into society.  With Rong Changqing’s untimely death, then later the death of his son, Rong Xuan, the purpose was warped.”

  Ye Baiyi slipped in through a side door, sidling up to Zhou Zishu.  Xie Jie Liubo was shadowing him, hidden from the dais, Luo Fumeng beside him.  Her white hair was as stark as Wen Kexing’s, but her robes were dark, almost black, to help her blend in and were certainly making her less eye catching than the red would have been.

  “Why are we listening to this, what does Rong Xuan have to do with anything?” someone asked from the other side of the room.  “He’s dead, he went mad.”

  Leaving Xie Jie Liubo and Luo Fumeng with Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing, Ye Baiyi slipped through the crowd, making his way forward, but also drawing gazes to him - and away from eyes that may seek out Xie Jie Liubo.

  “Is it not wise to understand past misdeeds in order to save them being repeated,” Ye Baiyi said, the crowd parting before him.  He inclined his head when Gao Chong bowed to him.  “Changqing was stupid and misguided, his son and my disciple even more so.  Some of Xuan’er’s misdeeds fall at my feet.  Some do not.”  

  “When I asked Ye-qianbei to assist in the closing of Ghost Valley and he discovered that it was no longer necessary, the Token of Honor took on a new purpose,” Gao Chong explained.

  Zhao Jing paled, fidgeting in his seat.  He was obviously disconcerted having been omitted in the discussions that had been had.  .

  “Ye-qianbei agreed to investigate how everything went so wrong.  For so long too much of the whole tale has been kept quiet, which has led to death and destruction, not the least of which was Mount Qingya.  Here, today, we hope to clear many things up in the hope that nothing of its kind will occur again.”

  Huang He stood up, Zhao Jing’s eyes lighting up as he thought he had an ally in the man from the Beggar Sect.

  “What of the Amory and the Liúlí?  What of all the stolen texts?”

  Zhou Zishu wanted to laugh at Zhao Jing’s smug expression.  Ye Baiyi destroyed it with a wave of his hand.  Two of Siji Manor’s disciples entered carrying a palanquin full of scrolls and boxes.  Xingming and Zichen placed it down in front of the dais beside the Immortal, each bowing then departing again.

  “These are your silly books and things that were stolen.”  Ye Baiyi’s scowl halted any argument before it could begin to waylay the conversation.  “At the end of the conference, each sect that had something stolen may come forward and claim it.”  He moved in front of the pile, guarding it.  “Before that, everyone needs to understand why they were taken.”

  “The Luihe?  The Yin Yang Book?” Huang He questioned, just as Gao Chong had arranged.  The smug smile returned to Zhao Jing’s face, sensing a new avenue for his plans to take.

  Ye Baiyi raised a brow, “the Luihe is mine.  The Yin Yang book belongs to the Shen Yi and no-one else, do you dispute this?”

  Huang He frowned, stomping his staff against the floor, “the Luihe is indisputably yours, Ye-qianbei.  But the Yin Yang Book is another issue.  The Healer Valley is no more.”

  Zhi Yin Shi Tai ,the little nun from the E Ming stood, “that is true, much to our eternal misfortune, however, the son of the Divine Hand lives, so the Book should go to him as his inheritance.”

  “That is false,” Zhao Jing shouted, rising from his seat.  

  The nun shook her head, “it is not.  I have questioned him myself, he answered everything to my satisfaction.  He knew details that no-one but the son of the Divine Hand could know.”

  Ye Baiyi glared at Zhao Jing, “we will get to that.  I know who he is, that will do for now, yes?”

  It would have to suffice, Ye Baiyi hardly looked in the mood to discuss it further.  Who was going to argue with an Immortal?

  Zhou Zishu squeezed Wen Kexing’s hand, both of them watching Zhao Jing sit back down heavily.  He was obviously sensing a trap now, eyes seeking a way out.  Zhou Zishu grinned as he noted several of the Dongting disciples surreptitiously moving closer to Zhao Jing’s position.

  Wen Kexing leaned close, lips brushing Zhou Zishu’s ear, “rabbit caught in a trap.”  He laughed quietly when Zhao Jing’s eyes found them both, widening in shock.  “Ahh, he thought we were dead, A-Xu.”

  Zhou Zishu snickered, “he did.  I imagine he’s trying to work out how neither poison nor assassins managed to kill us.”  His grin widened, “I would bet he is wondering why the message that was sent back said we were taken care of.”

  Wen Kexing giggled behind his fan, “that was a nice touch from Liubo-ge, and it kept them off our backs while we waited for this.”  He tapped his fan on Zhou Zishu’s shoulder, “look, Luo-yi is about to speak.”

  “Ahh, this should be good,” Zhou Zishu said, watching her start to make her way through the congregation.  “Let’s move a little closer, Lao Wen.”

  Wen Kexing smirked, the lopsided one that said he was pleased and feeling smug about it, “yes, let’s.  I wouldn’t miss this for anything.”

 

Chapter Text

 

  The crowd parted for Luo Fumeng as it had for Ye Baiyi, the Immortal inclining his head to her as she approached, regal as an empress.  Gao Chong, Shen Shen and Zhang Yusen rose in unison, hands clasped and all three bowed very correctly.  Zhao Jing stumbled to his feet, belatedly bowing, eyes fixed on the woman he had wronged so long ago.

  “Fumeng,” he whispered, cowering back when she spun towards him, silver hair flying out behind her, the gold hairpins glinting.  Zhao Jing sat heavily as she glared at him.

  “Why not use the name you caused me to take, Jing’er?”  No affection in her tone, rather derision.

  A susurrus of voices drowned out Gao Chong calling for silence until Ye Baiyi clapped his hands together, a sharp slap that echoed in everyone’s ears.  Silence fell immediately, several covering their ears with a wince.

  Luo Fumeng bowed to Gao Chong, then Ye Baiyi, “thank you, Ye-qianbei.”  Her robes fanned out around her as she turned to face the assembled men, her back to Zhao Jing as if he mattered not one iota to her.  “I am here to provide insight into the character of that man,” she said, her voice deliberately soft so that everyone had to crane close to listen, her hand pointing directly at Zhao Jing.  “My name is Luo Fumeng, but I am known to you as something else, and he is the reason I took that name.  Xi Sang Gui is the name I gave myself to show my despair and disdain for men who destroy the lives of the women they profess to love.”

  A number of men shrank back from her, whispering furiously.  She quelled them with a single glance.

  “Only unfaithful, duplicitous men need fear me,” she continued.  “Men who worm their way between a woman’s thighs with false promises.  Promises of love and marriage and family, safety and security, only to abandon her once they find someone who can further their goals.  Men who leave a woman with a child in her belly and marry another.”  Her expression left no doubt that she was one of those women.

  Wen Kexing gasped, gripping Zhou Zishu’s arm in an iron grip, “she was pregnant.  A-Xu, Luo-yi was pregnant when he betrayed her.”  Wen Kexing’s eyes were filling with tears, other hand coming up to cover his mouth.  Zhou Zishu held him close, rubbing his back as he looked toward Luo Fumeng again, her pain obvious.

  “I was the princess of the Neon Palace when he found me, approaching my father with an offer of marriage.  When my father dismissed him as being less than I deserved, he approached me directly, courted me in secret, whispered honeyed words into my ear.”  She paused, “seduced me with words of love and devotion, turned a young girl’s head and heart so that she begged her father to relent.”

  “I admit to an affair with her, but,” Zhao Jing said as he struggled to his feet, face the colour of curdled milk, “why are we listening to a devil of the Ghost Valley?  Why should we listen to such slander?”

  Luo Fumeng’s eyes blazed, rounding on him, finger pointing at him, “you dare to call my words slander?  You, who on our wedding day slaughtered my whole family so you could marry another?  Another who furthered your aims better than I?”  She turned back to the assembled men of the jianghu, “I had just finished dressing for our wedding, when I entered the main hall to receive the blessing of my father I found them all drinking from a vat of wine gifted by that bastard.  Poisoned wine.  He tried to make me drink, more honeyed words dripping from his lips.  Surely I would wish to see him happy, see him successful.  Surely I would step aside and let him see through his plans.”  She lowered her head, inhaling deeply.  “I fled, broken in mind and heart, until I came to Healer Valley.”  She placed a hand on her stomach, “they could not save the babe in my belly, and could only heal my body.  When I heard that it was I that killed my family, my sect, I ran again, mad with grief and anger.”

  Gao Chong stepped down from the dias, ignoring Zhao Jing’s whispered pleas to send her away, that her words were false.  He shrugged him off and moved to Luo Fumeng, compassion and understanding in his eyes as he took her hands, face grim, “that is when you were found by Ghost Valley.  And became Xi Sang Gui?”

  She nodded, “yes.  I swore to avenge any woman treated as I was.  Concubines mistreated by their masters, wives abandoned by their husbands, girls raped and beaten, they became mine to protect and avenge.  No faithful man had anything to fear from me, I swear it.”  She lowered her head, “I have sought to cleanse myself, I left the Valley and Xi Sang Gui behind.  I now remember my true adversary and will never seek another.”

  “One woman’s words…” Zhao Jing began, but was cut off abruptly as Xie Jie Liubo wove through the crowd like a snake among the grass.

  “One woman?” the former assassin called in ringing tones, holding a jade ring aloft.  “What of your wife?  Li Yao?  The one you murdered after abandoning Luo Fumeng?”  He reached Luo Fumeng, inclining his head, then turned to the massed throng.  “This is her ring, a ring that Zhao Jing gave his wife and kept as a token to remember his deeds after he killed her.  He has a room where he keeps such things, a monument to his treachery.”

 “Lies, it is all lies,” Zhao Jing hissed, pointing at Xie Jie Liubo.  “He is the Scorpion.”  His typical tactic, distract, distract, distract.

  Xie Jie Liubo laughed, “and yet, I was yours, wasn’t I?  Your godson, yours to command.  A vicious thing sent to kill those who opposed you.”  He faced the men assembled with his head held high, “he kept me hidden, but I know some of you recognise me from his private entertainments.”

  More than a few men ducked their heads to hide their growing shame from their fellows.  Whispers ran around the assembled men like wind.

  Ye Baiyi bristled, noting each man who sought to hide their faces, expression thunderous as he stepped up beside Xie Jie Liubo.

  “It’s time,” Zhou Zishu murmured to Wen Kexing.

  Zhao Jing finally noticed the Dongting disciples standing at attention behind him, scowling at Gao Chong with an injured air, “what is the meaning of this?”  He struggled as his sword was taken from him, reddening in anger and indignation.

  Gao Chong ignored him, as did Zhang Yusen and Shen Shen, turning their faces from him and his fruitless rage.

  Wen Kexing strode through the assembly, coming to a stop by Ye Baiyi with Zhou Zishu at his heels.  They garnered a few curious glances, not obviously known to many of them, but the E Ming and the Shaolin bowed respectfully causing many to reassess the two men.

  Wen Kexing bowed, hands clasped to Ye Baiyi, “Ye-qianbei.”  Ye Baiyi rolled his eyes, but slid to one side, pulling Xie Jie Liubo with him, a clear indication that the tall man with silver hair now had the floor to speak.  Luo Fumeng grazed her hand over his sleeve as she passed, nodding to Zhou Zishu with a satisfied smile.

  Zhou Zishu reached out, grabbing her hand, inclining his head to her, “thank you, Luo-yi,” he said softly.

  Her eyes gleamed, a small smile gracing her painted lips, “I thank you also, Zishu, for many things.”  Her eyes drifted back to Wen Kexing for a moment, pride all over her face, “especially for bringing back the boy he was and for giving him this.”  She met his eyes again, tears gathering in her own, “for loving him as he was, as he is now and how he will be.”

  Zhou Zishu bowed to her, unable to voice what he was feeling, but he knew she understood regardless.

  Wen Kexing waited for silence, clearing his throat, “I am here to tell you all a tale, a story long hidden among the lies spread by this man.”  He paused, turning to look at Zhao Jing frowning at him in confusion and more than a little fear.  Wen Kexing tilted his head, his own smile a little feral and predatory.  

  “Many years ago, Rong Xuan absconded from Changming Mountain, running from his Shifu with a precious text.  It was the Liuhe, and his master was Ye Baiyi.  The Changming Sword Immortal had refused to teach the Liuhe to Rong Xuan, recognising that it was a dangerous and lonely path to tread, that the blending of human and nature were not something mortal man should aspire to.”

  Zhou Zishu flicked his gaze to Ye Baiyi, noting the slightly stunned expression on his face.  He had not been expecting Wen Kexing to speak in such a way, with such understanding of Ye Baiyi’s feelings on the subject.  What Ye Baiyi did not know was that they had heard the tale from his own lips, in the time before, that Wen Kexing had taken that to heart.

  “Ye Baiyi loved his disciple, so he refused, yet Rong Xuan would not be persuaded, pleading to be taught the method.  When Ye Baiyi did not relent, Rong Xuan stole the Liuhe Manual and fled down the mountain.”  He paused, inhaling deeply.  “Rong Xuan did not stop there.  He could not truly master the Liuhe, it takes more than one man to hold it and master it.  Ye Baiyi knew this, Rong Xuan did not.  The man that created the Liuhe, Rong Changqing, almost lost his life, would have lost it, had Ye Baiyi not intervened and took the burden for himself.  The son did not know this.  He had not thought to ask Ye Baiyi his reasons for refusing him.  And Ye-qianbei’s pain was too deep to bear explaining it to him.”

  Zhou Zishu peered at the assembly, at the enraptured faces of the men and women around him, Wen Kexing’s tale drawing them in, making them assess the validity of what he was saying, of what Ye Baiyi had done.  He was making them think, see the futility in trying to achieve something so far beyond their control.  The Guseng of the Shaolin, Ci Mu Da Shi,  was nodding sagely, meeting Ye Baiyi’s eyes with compassion.

  “For a man to become one with nature, he must first have another he is one with, one who will take on the burden with him, one who is willing to sacrifice everything, one who loves,” Wen Kexing said, looking at Zhou Zishu.  “Completely and unfailingly.”  He cleared his throat, tearing his gaze away from Zhou Zishu, “if one does not have that, it will not work and will shatter their meridians, burning them from the inside out.  For one must act as a cauldron, and if that cauldron is not strong enough, it will break.

  “Yet, men are greedy, stupid creatures, so they want what they cannot have, what they do not have the strength to possess,” Wen Kexing continued.  “When Rong Xuan discovered he could not master the Liuhe, he sought other ways to increase his power, not content with what he had.  He gathered together a group of like minded men, swaying them with dreams, yet there was a viper in their midst.”  He turned to fix Zhao Jing with his gaze, “a viper who felt slighted by his brothers, though such a thing was not true.  He stole with them, drank with them, but did not feel as they did.  Rong Xuan and his brothers thought to create a world of equals in strength, that sharing all the special methods was the true path.

  “Zhao Jing plotted and planned, wishing to bring down Rong Xuan and break the brotherhood, take it all for himself.  He coated Gao Chong’s sword with corpse poison, knowing how much they all liked to spar together, and waited.”

  “This is all lies,” Zhao Jing shouted, pointing at Wen Kexing, struggling against the hold of the Dongting disciples.  “Da-ge, this is not true,” he said to Gao Chong.

  Zhang Yusen rose, facing Zhao Jing for the first time, “it is.  It was you that took Da-ge’s sword to have it cleaned and sharpened just days before.  When we fought and Xuan’er was injured, it was you that pointed to the blood on Da-ge’s sword, you that accused him first.  And it was you that picked it up in the chaos that followed.”

  Shen Shen nodded to Zhang Yusen’s words, “we all knew Da-ge values brotherhood above all else, that he would never do such a thing, but Rong Furen was distraught and sent us all away.”  He sighed, head down, “we left in shame, knowing that one of us had caused it, yet not knowing which was to blame.  It broke us apart.”

  Xie Jie Liubo spoke again, “Gao Chong’s sword from then now resides in the place I spoke of before.”  He glanced at Zhao Jing.  “I have seen it, placed before the memorial tablet of Rong Xuan.”

  Wen Kexing acknowledged their assistance by dipping his head to them, then faced the assembly once more, “just so.  Zhao Jing had achieved part of his plan, but there was more to come.  Rong Furen sought to cure her husband, and there was a way.  A forbidden way from the Yin Yang Book.  As with the Liuhe, it is something men should not seek to do.  The ritual called for another man’s heart to be placed in Rong Xuan’s body, and this Rong Furen did, ostracised from Healer Valley as a result.  It sent Rong Xuan mad, killing his wife and many others in his madness.  An uprising against him was called by the Jianghu, but there was one man who sought to help Rong Xuan.”  Wen Kexing swallowed, dropping his gaze for a moment as he collected himself.  “That man was known as Zhen Ruyu, the Divine Hand of the Shen Yi.  He tried to calm the men seeking retribution, calling them to remember how many he had saved, yet they ignored him and his pleas for sanity to prevail.”

  A few murmurs broke out among the conference, some men old enough to have been present and knew what Wen Kexing was saying was true.  Men who had managed to escape the massacre.

  “Rong Xuan, in a moment of clarity, knocked the healer unconscious, perhaps hoping to save his friend, but it was not to be.  Zhen Ruyu was banished from Healer Valley, his tendons sliced and torn.  He wandered with his wife and child, hiding from the men he sought him, taking with him the true key to the Armory.”

  Mo Huaiyang rose from his place, “what of the Liúlí?  Does that not open the Armory?  Why has no-one heard of this key?”

  Wen Kexing glared at the leader of the Qing Feng Sword Sect, malice clear in his eyes.  He inhaled, turning away.  “The Liúlí is superfluous.  To open the Armory, one must have all five pieces and the key, or the key on its own.  Rong Xuan had kept the key himself and gave the five pieces of the Liúlí to the brothers of the Wu Hu Meng for safe keeping and as a sign of trust.  Before he died, he entrusted the key to...to Zhen Ruyu.  Zhao Jing knew this and pursued the Divine Hand and his family, employing the Ghost Valley to find them.”

  “Ridiculous, the key does not exist!” Zhao Jing called out, scowling as he was pushed down into his seat again.

  “It exists, you know it exists,” Wen Kexing spat back.  He stalked closer to Zhao Jing, staring him down.  “Zhen Ruyu discarded the name he had taken and began using his real name, Wen Ruyu.  He and his family were taken in by Qin Hauizhang of Siji Manor where they were disguised and the son was accepted as a disciple.  Where I was accepted as a disciple.”  He turned back to the assembly, “I am Wen Kexing, once known as Zhen Yan, son of the Divine Hand.”

  Zhou Zishu smiled, noting how pale Zhao Jing had gone with Wen Kexing’s revelation.  Pride filled his heart as he gazed at his zhiji, his wife, so strong and calm as the room erupted in murmurs of both names, everyone putting together the connection of the characters. 

  Chaos erupted, Zhao Jing lurched forward, fingers outstretched, trying to grapple Wen Kexing.  Zhou Zishu slipped into place beside him, Baiyi in hand, finding his zhiji’s hand, he passed the hilt over, closing Wen Kexing’s fingers around it.  A brief glance between them was all they needed, Zhou Zishu stepping back again.

  This was Wen Kexing’s moment.

  “Release him,” Gao Chong commanded his disciples that had gripped hold of Zhao Jing.  A triumphant smile crossed Zhao Jing’s face for a fleeting moment before he saw Gao Chong nod to Wen Kexing and turn his face from the man he had called brother.

  “Da-ge,” Zhao Jing called, desperately seeking some sort of reprieve.  He looked around only to find his own disciples all held at sword point, his godson refusing to meet his gaze.

  Shen Shen bustled forward, pointing, “you dare call him that?  You’re not qualified!”

  Wen Kexing brandished Baiyi, turning around and gesturing for a clear space.  “Give him his sword,” he said softly.  He raised a brow at Zhao Jing over his shoulder, “face me, if you dare.”

  Zhao Jing snatched his sword, stalking into the space created in the centre, facing Wen Kexing with narrowed eyes.  Wen Kexing stood calmly, waiting for the inevitable rush forward, spinning out of the way as Zhao Jing tried to skewer him.  Murmurs broke out again, the Eighteen Moves, the Divine Hand’s son.

  Wen Kexing was fluid, poetry in motion, robes swirling around him, using the Eighteen Moves of his father, Baiyi, the sword made by Rong Xuan’s father flashing through the air in his hand.  Zhou Zishu’s heart swelled with pride, just as it had the first time he saw his zhiji enact his revenge, so beautiful, so regal as he spun, hair flying out behind him, nothing of Guzhu in his expression, but that of a son righting a wrong decades in the making.

  This time there were no bodies left in his wake, no regrets, no heartache.  Just his revenge, long awaited and well deserved.

  “For A-Die, A-Niang, Rong Xuan, Luo-yi, Gao Chong, Xie Wang, and every father, mother, son, daughter that you have harmed and killed, every person that died due to your greed, this is all for you,” Wen Kexing cried in ringing tones as he slashed another tendon, blood spraying in an arc.  “For my A-Xu, A-Xiang, for   Lu Taichong, for Ye Baiyi.  For every child that lost a parent, for every child that could not be born because you killed their future parents.”

  Calls of kill him, ni bu pei, and many others echoed around Wen Kexing and Zhao Jing.  The voices coalesced together.  Ni Bu Pei, Ni Bu Pei. 

  Wen Kexing sneered as he slid Baiyi through Zhao Jing’s calf causing him to drop on one knee, “do you .hear that, Zhao Xuande.  You are not worthy! ”  He leaned in, “ostracised, alone, cornered, unable to defend yourself.”  His face close to Zhao Jing as he spat: “How does it feel?”

  Much as he had the last time, Zhao Jing began to laugh, hysterical this time.  As he began to spout nonsense about his legacy of evil, Wen Kexing rolled his eyes, clearly bored with him.  He stood back as Zhao Jing struggled back to his feet, one arm completely useless, one leg dragging as he moved forward to strike again.  Wen Kexing was almost lazy as he flicked Baiyi through Zhao Jing’s robes, a slash of crimson blooming over his stomach.

  Another slash to his stomach and Zhao Jing fell on his back, staring up, gasping.

  Xie Jie Liubo knelt by Zhao Jing, cradling his head in one hand, placing a large black pill to his godfather’s lip.  “Here, this will help you, Yifu,” he said gently, too gently.  Zhao Jing’s eyes locked on Xie Jie Liubo in hope, parting his lips obediently, eyes widening as Xie Jie Liubo smiled.  “It will certainly help everyone else too.  No-one will be swayed by your words any longer.”  His smile widened as Zhao Jing realised his treachery, gasping noiseless, trying to speak and unable.  “Ah, ah, don’t bother, there really is no point.  Have you forgotten my skills with poisons and medicines?  I crafted this one with you in mind.  It will not fail me as you have.”

  When Xie Jie Liubo rose, turning his back on the man bleeding on the floor, Gao Chong waved his hand, several of his disciples lifting Zhao Jing and carrying him away.

 

Chapter Text

 

  Wen Kexing paused, or rather, he came to grinding halt, the moment he rounded the screen and found Zhou Zishu in the blue version of his wedding underwear.  His mouth dropped open, eyes wide and roving all over his almost completely bared body.  Even the parts that were covered by fabric were visible through the flimsy teased silk.  The beautiful deep blue was a colour Wen Kexing adored on him.

  Zhou Zishu was seeing a great deal of that adoration right then.

  He laughed throatily when his wife shed his robes, throwing them without care as he stalked towards him, eyes still drifting, lips curling into a decidedly hungry smile, cock thickening with each step.

  “My husband is an incomparable beauty,” he purred, leaning down to stroke his hand up Zhou Zishu’s calf, then higher up his thigh.  “You look stunning, A-Xu.”  He glanced up to meet his eyes, “what is the occasion?”

  Zhou Zishu pulled him close, “my wife deserves a reward, I think.”  He leaned up, brushing their mouths together softly, “I am yours to do with as you wish, zhiji.”  He reached down to stroke Wen Kexing’s cock languidly, “anything you want.”  Craning his neck, he kissed him again.  “I am so proud of you, Lao Wen.”

  Wen Kexing rocked into his fist, lashes fluttering.  “A-Xu,” he murmured, pushing him back down onto the bed.  Long fingers explored the edge of the duodu, humming softly.  “These were made by the same hands that made your things from our wedding.”

  Zhou Zishu grinned, of course he would notice that.  He nodded, “she made them as an addition, she saw I wore a lot of blue and wanted to make a gift of them for commissioning my robes.”

  “Very talented,” Wen Kexing mused, fingers trailing down to his groin to flirt over his cock.  “I think I have many ideas for her.”

  Zhou Zishu arched into the touch, “told her she had exclusive rights to make things for us.”  Curling his fist tighter around his wife’s cock in retaliation.

  Wen Kexing leaned in, kissing his jaw, “I very much approve, A-Xu.”  He moaned softly as Zhou Zishu twisted his fist on the upstroke, capturing his lips in a frantic kiss.  When he pulled back he looked dazed.  “If she is going to make things for us, I am thinking it won’t matter so much if we make a mess of this set.”  He slid his hand to cup Zhou Zishu’s cock, squeezing, feeling the shape of him through the flimsy teased silk.

  Zhou Zishu moaned, he was already making a mess of the silk covering him, leaking and throbbing as Wen Kexing slid his long fingers over the head of his cock.  Wen Kexing hummed appreciatively, bending to suck a nipple through the fabric.  Zhou Zishu arched, eyes rolling in his head, gasping when Wen Kexing bit down through the teased silk.

  “Lao Wen, fuck.”

  Wen Kexing hummed again, the vibration an interesting sensation through the layer of fabric over his skin.  Zhou Zishu’s hands flailed, letting go of Wen Kexing’s cock to grip at his zhiji’s shoulders.  Wen Kexing let go of his nipple and nuzzled his way down to his groin, licking over the leaking tip of his cock, making Zhou Zishu hiss at the odd friction of the silk and his wife’s tongue rasping over him.  

  Wen Kexing cupped his balls, grinning up at him as his tongue flicked out again, tasting the fluid seeping through the fabric.  “Mmm, A-Xu.  I love the way you taste.”  He bent his head again, lapping and licking at him, hands massaging his balls.  Zhou Zishu arched again when Wen Kexing sucked at the head, the silk curving around his cock and moulding to him.  

  The teased silk was completely ruined by the time Wen Kexing decided to remove it, diving back in to suck at him properly, taking him right down to the root.  Zhou Zishu gripped silver locks, rocking up into his mouth, feeling his balls contract, stomach tensing.  Wen Kexing looked up at him, eyes dark and gleaming, lips curled around the shaft.

  “Lao Wen,” he gasped, fingers tangled in Wen Kexing’s hair.  His zhiji kept staring, sucking harder, tongue swirling.  “Ahh,” he moaned, his body rigid, cock pulsing his release into Wen Kexing’s throat.  He whined as Wen Kexing continued to suck well after he’d come, cock over sensitive.

  Wen Kexing slid his mouth off, flicking his tongue in a kittenish lick to the head.  He smiled at Zhou Zishu’s lax state, sweeping his hands up his sides and under the duodu.  “Beautiful.”  He leaned up to find Zhou Zishu’s mouth, slipping his tongue between his lips so he could taste himself.  Holding Zhou Zishu close, he carefully untied the top and pulled it away from his flushed skin, tossing it aside with the bottom half.

    Wen Kexing’s fingers drifted over the mark from the nail in his side, leaning in to kiss it, before he then mapped out where the others had been before the Armory happened and they ended up back in time.  He was reverent and a little teary as he laid kisses over each spot, placing his final kiss to the spot over his heart meridian.  Then he was cupping Zhou Zishu’s face, bestowing lingering kisses to his lips.

  The gentleness did not last long, Wen Kexing moving down his body again, fingers finding their oil and then slipping two straight into Zhou Zishu’s hole.  He was brutally efficient, thrusting them in and out, eyes locked on Zhou Zishu’s face, watching the way his eyes rolled back each time he shoved them in.

  Zhou Zishu didn’t voice a single complaint, laying back with his legs spread wide, taking everything his zhiji gave him.  He’d long since given up on pretending he didn’t enjoy it when Wen Kexing was so eager and focused on getting inside him as soon as possible.

  It seemed he was also eager to give Zhou Zishu as much pleasure as possible.  Leaning down, Wen Kexing flicked his tongue around the rim of Zhou Zishu’s hole, easing a third into him as he did, increasing the stretch and causing a litany of swearing from Zhou Zishu.

  Wen Kexing gazed up at him, flicking his tongue as his fingers slid in, rubbing the place in his ass that made stars spark behind his eyes, his whole body trembling.  His Lao Wen’s tongue was a wicked thing, wriggling into Zhou Zishu’s ass between his fingers, adding to the slick slide of his long fingers.  Ahh, those fingers of his, reaching so deep inside him, ever so effective at finding that place that made him arch off the bed.

  Dark eyes twinkled at him as he swore again.

  But he didn’t beg, didn’t plead for Wen Kexing to get on with it as he usually might when he had reached the end of his tether, instead he laid back and took it.  He’d told him he wanted his wife to do as he wished and he meant it.

  Eventually, well past when Zhou Zishu would have shoved him away and just mounted him, Wen Kexing pulled away, mouth shining with spit and oil, lips curved and swollen red.  When he reached for the oil again, Zhou Zishu wanted to cry in relief, even if he was fully aware that their night was just beginning.

  Wen Kexing gripped the base of his cock, teasing the tip around Zhou Zishu’s hole, both of them eager, but enjoying the anticipation.  Zhou Zishu held tight to his thighs, spreading as wide as possible, throwing his head back as Wen Kexing eased the tip in.  Instead of pushing his whole cock in, his zhiji did something he knew Zhou Zishu adored.  He slid in, just so the head was snug in his hole, then pulled back out, repeating it over and over.

  “Fuck, that’s good,” Zhou Zishu panted, eyes rolling back as Wen Kexing did it again, only this time when he pulled out, he held still when the crown was at it’s widest, Zhou Zishu’s rim clenching around it.  Wen Kexing let go of his cock to pull Zhou Zishu's ass cheeks wide, stretching his hole more, then slowly pushed all the way in until his balls hit his ass.

  Zhou Zishu curled his arms around Wen Kexing’s shoulders, lax and languid under his zhiji, content to continue allowing Wen Kexing to do as he wished.

 

  Things were coming to a close, one of their major objectives completed, the other within their grasp.

  Zhang Yusen’s message gave them several days to prepare, sending them rushing back to Siji Manor, a mechanical sparrow sent ahead to forewarn everyone there that Chengling was coming and to ready a room for him.  Zhou Zishu knew he could trust them with the task, Jiuxiao was very accomplished in the art of hospitality, Han Ying would ensure the Manor was perfectly defended.  Gu Xiang would no doubt be running everyone ragged in excitement.  It would be up to Bi Changfeng and Long Que to bring a sense of dignity to the affair, commanding the other disciples to clean and polish so Siji Manor looked its best.  Qianqiao would be gathering the girls to help wrangle the disciples and the kitchen staff.

  Chengling coming to take up his place as disciple was a welcome reprieve from all the chaos and tension.  

 

  Zhang Chengling bowed at Zhou Zishu’s feet, very correct in his posture, as he was accepted into Siji Manor as a disciple.  His father observed from the side with Wen Kexing and Jiuxiao.

  Zhou Zishu placed his hand on Chengling’s bowed head, overcome by memories of the young boy and how he’d been before.  This Chengling was different of course, not weighed down by grief and the responsibility of avenging his family and the Nan He.  He was still incredibly silly as far as Zhou Zishu could tell, those innocent eyes wide as he had stared around at everyone and everything.  Tripping over his feet as he forgot to look where he was going.  The boy he knew was still there, still the same in so many ways, but Zhou Zishu would have to learn the differences, learn this more joyous Chengling.  Watching him trip over his own feet as he stared, wide eyed at everything had him shaking his head in amusement.  Seeing Chengling at his feet brought tears to his eyes.

  Wen Kexing had hidden his chuckle behind his fan, eyes bright with unshed tears of his own as he glanced at his husband.  Zhou Zishu had been just as emotional, struggling to keep the tears from falling, swallowing the lump in his throat..

  Chengling raised his eyes to Zhou Zishu, hands clasped, “Shifu, this one greets you as a disciple of Siji Manor.”  He looked so earnest, so happy, bright and young, full of promise.

  Zhou Zishu had to choke back a sob of gratitude, swallowing thickly.  He nodded to him and helped him rise, presenting him to the other disciples gathered to watch.  “This is your new shidi, Zhang Chengling, please help him and take him into your care.”

  A chorus of “yes, Shifu” echoed through the courtyard.

  Wen Kexing smiled as Zhou Zishu turned to him, “hello, I am Wen Kexing, your Shishu, First Disciple and Zhou Zhuangzhu’s wife.  We are very pleased to have you with us, Chengling.  There are many who wish to meet you.”  He gestured to everyone in the surrounding courtyard, “we are a rather odd assortment as you will find, but we are all very close knit.  There will be a banquet later so you will be able to meet everyone then, but there are a few who you should be introduced to now.”

  Jiuxiao was the first to step forward and introduce himself, smiling gently at the young boy.  “Shidi, this one is Qin Jiuxiao, Second Disciple, I welcome you to your new home and I hope you will be very happy here.  It will be me overseeing your mastery of the Swift Moving Steps.  Our Shifu will no doubt test you at times, to assess your progress.”  He glanced at Wen Kexing, “our Shishu is a master of the Eighteen Moves and is very adaptable, so he will be able to teach you what he knows of that.  Long Que is also here, and he will teach you the techniques of the Longyuan Cabinet if you wish to learn those.”  Jiuxiao bowed to Zhang Yusen, “Zhang Zhuangzhu, Long-qianbei is inside, but he looks forward to seeing you and meeting your son.”

  Zhang Yusen inclined his head, small smile on his face.

  Chengling grinned, bowing, “Shixiong, I am happy to be here.”

  Jiang Xiaoxue, Luo Hao, Bi Xingming, Cheng Zichen and Han Ying were next to introduce themselves as more senior disciples of Siji.  Bi Changfeng was waiting with Long Que so it fell to Jiuxiao to present them to Chengling.  The young boy stared at each of them in awe, all in their Siji robes, smiling at him.

  Han Ying inclined his head, “Shidi, I will be helping to teach you with DaShixiong.  Zhuangzhu and Shishu have told me much about you.”  He leaned in, conspiratorial, “they have been very excited that you were coming to us.”  He glanced back to where Gu Xiang was hovering, “and I’d like to present your Jiejie, Gu Xiang.”

  Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing inhaled sharply at the same time as the girl in purple stepped up.

  Anticipation was high, holding their breath as Gu Xiang assessed her new shidi with a cool eye.  Jiuxiao and Han Ying stood back, allowing them a moment just to themselves.  Wen Kexing’s fan was eerily still, his eyes locked on Chengling and his A-Xiang, knuckles white.  Zhou Zishu had to remind himself to breathe as he watched the pair make cautious conversation.

  Then Gu Xiang wagged her finger at him and Chengling ducked his head, but Zhou Zishu could see the delighted smile.

  He let out a slow breath, relieved, hearing Wen Kexing’s whoosh of breath beside him.  The two were the youngest members of Siji Manor, and despite that, they had been close in the last timeline, Zhou Zishu was almost desperate for them to be that way again.  He wanted to see them tease each other, support each other.  This Gu Xiang was a softer version, her lessons with Luo-yi starting to pay off, Qianqiao lending a certain quiet to the girl that she was trying to emulate, but in all that Zhou Zishu liked that she was still so exuberant, a little brash.

  Still Gu Xiang.

  Chengling was another issue.  None of the grief of before was in his eyes, only a bright spark of excitement.  He was the Chengling that had been showing through at Siji Manor before and he hoped that would remain.

  Within moments the pair were acting as if they had been around each other all their lives, becoming Xiang-jie and Chengling-didi, Gu Xiang hooking her arm through Chengling’s and leading him into the hall.  Zhang Yusen chuckled, following when Zhou Zishu extended his arm in invitation.

  “I think he will enjoy having a sister to tease him,” Zhang Yusen said to him as they entered.  “He’s never had that, really.”

  Zhou Zishu laughed, “oh, she will tease him alright, it’s something she is very good at, but she has a huge heart, Zhang Zhuangzhu.  Gu Xiang will look after him, as we all will.”  He smiled at all the people of his sect as he walked through them, “we have a lot of strong women here also, something I think he will benefit from.  All our disciples have been looking forward to his arrival.”

  Bi Changfeng stood beside Long Que in his special chair when they entered, bowing as Zhang Yusen made his sedate way towards them, clearly pleased to see Long Que again.  And looking as healthy as was possible in his condition.

  “Yusen!” Long Que boomed from his chair, waving him close.

  “Long Que,” Zhang Yusen replied at a lower volume, yet just as effusive as the old man.  “It’s been far too long since I saw your face.”  He glanced around, then back at Long Que beaming at him, “this place is good for you.”

  “It is, it is,” Long Que laughed.  “Now show me your son, he’s been the subject of much conversation here of late.”

  Zhou Zishu thought that it was Long-Bobo’s presence that had swayed Zhang Yusen in allowing Chengling to come to Siji Manor, much as it had been the fact Chengling was Zhang Yusen’s son that made the old man accept him as a disciple before.  This time Chengling would receive his lessons directly from the man himself rather than from texts.  Long Que already had several disciples among those at Siji Manor, eager to pass on his knowledge and another would delight him.

  It was a lot to pile on the young boy’s shoulders, but Zhou Zishu knew he could handle it, especially under much better circumstances than previously.  Jiuxiao and Han Ying had been instructed to work him hard, but temper it with gentle coaxing.

  After Chengling was introduced to Long Que and Bi Changfeng, Luo Fumeng, Qianqiao and the girls of the Buoqing Bu came in, swelling the numbers in the hall to bursting.  Ye Baiyi, Xie Jie Liubo, Beiyuan and Wu Xi filled out the numbers and added to the general revelry as night fell.

  Noisy and joyous, the banquet began, Zhou Zishu unable to keep the satisfied smile off his face.  This was his home, his family, safe and secure.  It was what he had been working towards and it was finally happening.  

  Only one task to complete and he could completely relax.

 

Chapter Text

 

  Helian Yi had always had a penchant for looking down along the line of his nose at people, chin raised as he stared at them.  He had once confessed to Zhou Zishu that he felt it made him look regal in the days when they were younger and Helian Yi more honest.  Zhou Zishu thought it made him look ridiculous, as much then as it did now.  He raised a brow at Helian Yi in askance, the Prince frowning a little before he masked it.

  “I see you are alive and well, cousin.”  Helian Yi leaned back on his throne, tapping his fingertips together.    “How wonderful to see that rumours of your impending demise are false.”

  Zhou Zishu openly rolled his eyes, noting the carefully controlled malice emanating from his exalted cousin.  “I never actually stated I was going to die, dear cousin.”  Facetious and cold.  

  The answering sneer wasn’t concealed.  “So, my errant assassin has returned, shall I have the Tian Chuang come greet its former master.”  A thinly veiled threat.  But a useless one, Zhou Zishu knew.  He’d taken the best with him, and what had remained were led by a second rate man who was far below those who had come before him.  He’d even forgotten the man’s name, so unremarkable was he.

  Smothering a laugh he didn’t bother hiding from his eyes, “ah, you mean Pengju’s dogs.  Are they still wagging their tails loyally?  The dregs of Tian Chuang.”  He affected Helian Yi’s favourite expression, haughtiness.  “I took the best with me, do you truly believe those pathetic excuses could take me down, dear cousin?”

  “Where is this impertinence coming from, Zishu?”

  He did laugh then, “oh, I don’t know, perhaps discovering my own cousin was killing off my sect, or getting married to an utter lunatic who would happily kill the man who shackled me for so long under the pretence of needing my help.”

  Predictably, it was the second thing that stole Wangye’s attention.  “Married?”  His complexion paled further.  “You got married?”  His voice had lowered to a shocked whisper.  “Zishu?”

  Zhou Zishu shrugged nonchalantly, strolling forward.  “I met my zhiji, why wouldn’t I marry him?”

  Helian Yi sputtered indignantly, face reddening.  “Your zhiji HIM?   You married a man ?”  He gripped the side of his throne, knuckles white.  “A man?  You could have…”

  Zhou Zishu snorted rudely, “I could have what?  Married you?  Become your concubine?  A plaything in your bed as well as at court?  Bah,” he spat.  “I don’t think so, Wangye.”

  With narrowed eyes, Helian Yi stalked forward until he was close to Zhou Zishu, he reached out to cup his cheek, frowning when his former assassin jerked his head back, eyes blazing.  “I could show you what you are missing, Zishu.  For you I am willing to indulge your whims, just discard this other man, come back to me.”  He leaned closer, watching Zhou Zishu warily, emboldened when his cousin stayed still.  He brushed his lips over Zhou Zishu’s with a sigh, “you know I desire you, I made no secret of that.  I would have to take a concubine for heirs, but I would be true to you, Zishu, I would marry you, openly, if you would only come back to me, come to my bed, let me have you.”  His hands landed on Zhou Zishu’s hips and pulled them flush, letting him feel his hardness beneath his heavy silk robes.  “I would give you everything you ask for, if you only let me have you,” he murmured against Zhou Zishu’s cheek.

  Zhou Zishu got his hands between them, pushing Helian Yi back with a harsh shove, “you may desire me, cousin, but I have never once desired you.”

  Helian Yi stumbled then surged forward, grasping at Zhou Zishu again, crushing their mouths together desperately, trying to worm his tongue into his mouth, “let me show you, you will change your mind once I have bedded you.”

  Zhou Zishu shoved him again, this time pulling Baiyi and leveling the tip at Helian Yi’s throat to prevent further accosting.  He wiped his mouth with a grimace.  “You will wish you hadn’t done that, cousin.  I didn’t tell you who my wife is, did I?  How neglectful of me.”  He smirked, pacing around Wangye like a predatory cat, the man swiveling his head around to track every step he made.  “Do you recall Ghost Valley, cousin?  Do you remember the story of how the last Guzhu met his demise?”  He tapped his chin, affecting a musing expression, “ah, yes.  The last Guzhu was skinned by his replacement.  The new Guzhu is a known lunatic, truly vicious when crossed, very powerful, Wangye.  And beautiful, and elegant, and my wife .”  He faced Helian Yi again, “just so you are aware, dear cousin, my wife is extraordinarily jealous.  I wonder what he would do to a man who had the temerity to accost his beloved husband?  Shall we find out?”

  Helian Yi shouted for his guards, Zhou Zishu smirking when no-one came rushing through the door, all except a casually strolling figure dressed in red, waving an elegant white fan before his face, red lined eyes visible above, silver hair flowing down his back.

  Zhou Zishu held his composure when his Lao Wen cupped his ass through his robes and squeezed, but it was obvious that Wangye had tracked the motion of Wen Kexing’s hand, his eyes widening in disbelief.  They widened further when Zhou Zishu tipped his face up to meet Wen Kexing’s lips for a decidedly improper kiss.  He licked his lips, not bothering to hide his fond grin as he stared at his wife.  His sword arm didn’t wobble, the tip still pressed to Helian Yi’s throat.

  “Tsk, tsk, A-Xu, are you having all the fun without me?  How cruelly you treat your wife, you know I like a little mayhem and bloodshed,” he crooned in Zhou Zishu’s ear, loud enough that Helian Yi could not help but hear it.  Wen Kexing followed it up with another squeeze to his ass, positively eye-fucking Zhou Zishu while Helian Yi had no choice but to watch. 

  Before entering Helian Yi’s audience chamber, before entering the city or the palace, Zhou Zishu had told Wen Kexing he had free reign to be as ridiculous and open with his affection as he liked.  Wen Kexing had been in a state of absolute madness ever since, and now he was revelling in displaying his devotion in the most obnoxious way possible.  Zhou Zishu was enjoying letting him.

  “Zhou Zishu!”

  Wangye’s outraged shout finally drew his attention back to his illustrious cousin, fuming, eyes blazing, but unable to do much more than that with a very sharp pointy thing digging into his throat.  Zhou Zishu raised a brow, tilting his head like an inquisitive cat.

  Throat bobbing, Helian Yi gathered his own composure, “this has gone on long enough, dear cousin.  Stop this foolishness.”  His eyes darted between Zhou Zishu and the increasingly imposing Wen Kexing.  Helian Yi thought he had perfected the staring down his nose thing, but Wen Kexing had the advantage of additional height and a feral stare to add to it, eyes glittering dangerously.  He swallowed again, “this is your zhiji,” he sneered.  “No, I don’t accept that, you are my zhiji, Zishu.”

  Zhou Zishu laughed coldly, “you?  You’re not qualified.”

  “Zishu!”

  Wen Kexing rolled his eyes, “oh, shut up would you.”  He leaned forward, right into Helian Yi’s face, appraising him and finding him wanting.  

  Helian Yi was not used to being disobeyed, and he certainly wasn’t used to the attention Wen Kexing sent his way, Guzhu mask firmly in place as he stared at the arrogant royal.  He paled the longer Wen Kexing stared, eyes flitting to the lazily waving fan, noting that the edge wasn’t red from simple decoration, but something far more sinister.

  Wen Kexing stepped forward, Wangye stepped back, stumbling on the trailing edge of his robes.  Wen Kexing leaned forward as Helian Yi landed on his ass in a sprawl of deep crimson and gold silks.  The sneer on his Lao Wen’s face was gloriously snide.  The royal scrambled to right himself, hampered by the very robes that tripped him in the first place.

  “Oh, dear,” Wen Kexing murmured, sounding contrite, though he really wasn’t, that much was obvious to all three men in the room.  “Have you fallen, Wangye?  Do you require assistance?”  He glanced back at Zhou Zishu, mischief dancing in his gaze, “whatever shall we do, beloved husband?”  He turned back to a still struggling Helian Yi, mask firmly back in place, “I would stay there if I were you Xiao Wang.”  He placed his foot firmly on Helian Yi’s chest, leaning into it and pressing him into the polished wood floor.  “I heard you try to sway my husband, now isn’t that rather a rude thing to do, don’t you think?  I certainly do.”  His foot ground on Wangye’s chest, the man wincing.  “The last man I considered rude, a certain annoying Immortal notwithstanding,” he continued in a conversational tone.  “Well, he is now a eunuch, and the one before that, I gave him to Shi Shi Gui to eat.  You may have heard what I did to the last autocratic despot I came across, it’s a rather infamous story, Wangye.”  He withdrew his foot, waving his fan lazily, circling Helian Yi prostrate on the floor.  “Do you know how long it takes to skin a man, Xiao Wang?  It’s a dreadfully messy business, blood is notoriously difficult to get out of ones robes.”

  “Z...Zishu, are you going to let him treat me this way?”  Helian Yi scrabbled back, getting his elbows under him so he was at least propped up somewhat.  

  Zhou Zishu sighed, “what can I possibly do, dear cousin, my wife does what he likes.”  He tested the edge of Baiyi against his thumb, “you brought this misfortune upon yourself, Wangye.  You refused to listen.”  He was trying to keep his face still, but he was delighted by Wen Kexing calling Helian Yi little Prince.  “Let him up, zhiji.”

  Wen Kexing pouted, snapping his fan shut, “he put his mouth on you, A-Xu!”  The whine was as petulant as could be, though Zhou Zishu had warned him it might happen.  

  “Come here,” he coaxed, holding the arm free of Baiyi out for Wen Kexing to snuggle under.  His wife was at his side in a moment, nuzzling his cheek, “it’s alright, Lao Wen, you know I didn’t like it.”  He petted Wen Kexing’s silver locks, kissing his temple, letting Helian Yi see that the tiger was tamed in his embrace.

  Wangye managed to get himself to his knees, but halted when Wen Kexing glared at him.  His shoulder slumped, sighing deeply, “what would you have of me, Zishu?”

  It wasn’t exactly easily given, but Zhou Zishu took the offer for what it was.  Defeat.  At least for the moment, Zhou Zishu didn’t trust it would last.  Helian Yi was as changeable as the seasons.

  “I want several things, Wangye.”  He kept up the motion of his hand soothing Wen Kexing, “I want you to abandon this ridiculous idea of the Armory.  I’ve been inside, my father told your’s the truth.  There’s nothing there, and going after it will only harm anyone involved.”  He gazed up at Wen Kexing who had extracted his face from Zhou Zishu’s neck, “I want my sect to be left alone, all of them, every single one.  That includes my wife, Jiuxiao, Han Ying, every single disciple and servant no matter how small.  Do you understand, Wangye?”

  Helian Yi pursed his lips, but nodded, “I understand.  Is that all?”  But his eyes flashed at the mention of Jiuxiao and Han Ying.

  Zhou Zishu pushed Wen Kexing behind him as he stalked forward, “no, it’s not.  Once you had a purpose, and I felt you were the better option among your brothers.  That has not proven true, but they are all gone and you are all that remains.  I could remove you, but that would send the land into chaos, so I will allow you to remain in place.”  He paused, looking at Baiyi meaningfully, “for now.  Stop sacrificing people who could be loyal if you let them.  Fear breeds contempt, cousin.  I am not the only man to have run from you, learn to accept rejection or one day you will find another blade at your throat.”  He extended his hand to help Helian Yi to his feet.  “Marry, beget an heir, teach them kindness.  Take a concubine if you must, but let them be yours because they want to, not because you demand it.”

  Helian Yi withdrew his hand as he stood, frowning.  “They would be with me for what I am, Zishu.”

  Zhou Zishu pinched the bridge of his nose, sighing noisily, “then disguise yourself, appear as a normal man if you can still do that.  Approach them that way, I don’t care, just don’t make them feel they have no way out.”

  Helian Yi flicked his sleeves, giving them both his back.  “You make me sound a monster.”

  Zhou Zishu closed his eyes, “you have become one, Wangye, but you weren’t always.  Not entirely.”

  The Prince bristled, shoulders stiffening, “you dare much, Zishu.”

  The imperious tone was back, Zhou Zishu sliding Baiyi away and flexing his hand, gathering his qi.  “You dared eradicate my sect so I would only be loyal to you!”  He felt Wen Kexing’s presence at his side, silently offering support, calming him a little.  He gave Helian Yi one last chance to do as he was asked.  “Cousin,” he said softly.  “I do not want to force you, but I will if I have to.”

  Helian Yi whirled around, robes flaring around him, eyes blazing once more, “force me?  And how will you force me, Zishu?  Or will your wife do it for you?”  He sneered at them both, shoulders set, raising his chin.  “You forget who I am!”

  “It’s because of who you are that you are still alive!” Zhou Zishu spat back, clenching his fist.  “Do not test me, Helian Yi, you will not like the result.”

  Wen Kexing snapped open his fan, garnering him Helian Yi’s attention, malicious as it was.  “Right about now you will be thinking of your army, am I correct?  Let’s assume I am, I am very astute at these things.  An army of foot soldiers, a number on horseback, yes?  And let us not forget your weaponry.”  He laughed behind his fan, eyes twinkling as he glanced at Zhou Zishu.  “We are not without our own resources.  Shall I detail them for you?”

  Helian Yi’s eyes narrowed, darting from Wen Kexing to Zhou Zishu suspiciously.  “A small sect of martial artists, what do I have to fear from that?”

  “One small sect?  Aiya, this man is a fool, A-Xu, he thinks it is just us.”  He sighed dramatically, “your Tian Chuang is gone completely, they were the elite in your arsenal, my husband the very best of them.  How will your army fare against the whole of the Jianghu, hmm?  A rather talented group who are very motivated to assist us.  Oh, and did I mention my Ghost Valley?  Ah, no I neglected to do that, didn’t I?  3,000 of them, all at my beck and call.”  A blatant lie, but Helian Yi was not aware of that.  The Ghost Valley was shut, never to be opened again.  He tapped the bloodied edge of his fan against his lips, staining them red.  He licked his lips deliberately, smiling in a rather unhinged way.  He glanced at Zhou Zishu again, “who am I forgetting, A-Xu?  Ahh, I recall, the Old Monster said the Cultivation Sects would come to our aid, another talented bunch.”

  “They are,” Zhou Zishu agreed.  “I know there is a very good reason you haven’t interfered with them, or the Jianghu.  Why none of the Imperial family have ever tried to bring us to heel.  You can’t, not without a great deal of bloodshed.  Too much bloodshed, cousin.  Ahh, and the tribes of the Nanjiang, let’s not forget them, they have long memories, and have not forgiven the way you tried to bring them down.  That didn’t work, did it, you had to deal with them diplomatically in the end.”  He stepped closer to Wangye, making the man step back carefully, his face blanching.  “Wu Xi has never forgiven you for Beiyuan, cousin,” he said softly.

  Helian Yi’s eyes widened, remembering the young Shamanet with a shudder.

  “I’ve mentioned the Old Monster a few times, haven’t I?  Do you know who that is?  The Sword Immortal of Changming, Ye Baiyi.”  Wen Kexing grinned, all teeth, as Helian Yi’s eyes darted to where Zhou Zishu’s sword rested at his back, the hilt barely visible, but a reminder just the same.  “Yes, that Ye Baiyi.  He’s a particularly intractable individual, and unfortunately for you, fond of us.”

  Helian Yi’s complexion was pale as parchment, taking another step back as Zhou Zishu advanced yet again.  His mouth pursed into a thin line as he assessed their words.

  “Ye Baiyi is not the only Immortal you will have to deal with, cousin.”  He glanced at Wen Kexing, “shall we show him, Lao Wen?”

  Another of Wen Kexing’s feral grins lit up his face.  He swirled his fan, stepping away from Zhou Zishu, gathering the air around him, Helian Yi’s eyes narrowing as wind began to pull at his heavy silk robes.  His gaze darted about as the hangings in the room began to flap and snap in the breeze inexplicably moving around the room now.  He scowled, realising it was Wen Kexing in control of it.

  “Ye-qianbei is a master of the Liuhe, a combination of man and nature’s elements,” Zhou Zishu said, pacing around his cousin.  “And we are his students.”  Not exactly true, Ye Baiyi only gave them both some rudimentary instruction for a few little tricks to impress upon Helian Yi the futility of fighting them.  Both he and Wen Kexing had decided that immortality wasn’t exactly desirable, so the Liuhe had merely saved them both and would not increase their power any further.

  A normal lifespan would be more than enough for them, able to grow old together in peace was all they wished.

  “Can you fight wind and rain, cousin?  Can your men?”  He leaned close to Helian Yi with a curious expression on his face.  “How long can they endure the sun with no water do you think?”

  “Enough!”  Helian Yi’s chest was heavy as he sneered at Zhou Zishu.  “You think I will succumb to such tactics?  Petty tricks, that’s all this is!”  

  Zhou Zishu clenched his fist, gathering qi, then opened his palm as his cousin lunged at him, planting his hand flat over his chest.  Helain Yi ground to a halt as if hitting a rock wall, staring down at Zhou Zishu’s hand against him in shock.  He truly hadn’t believed his former tamed assassin would harm him.  He coughed, curling in on himself as qi circulated around his meridians, blood spraying from his mouth as he collapsed at Zhou Zishu’s feet.

  The wind stopped as Wen Kexing stilled the motion of his fan.

  “I warned you,” Zhou Zishu said with a sigh.  He closed his eyes, shaking his head.  “You’re beaten, Wangye.  Now you will spend the rest of your life in bed, having to rely on other people for everything .”  He opened his eyes again to find Helian Yi gasping and clutching at his chest.  “It’s something exclusive to my sect, cousin.  And I’m the only person alive who knows how to use it, or reverse it.  An insurance against you finding a way to come after us.”  He straightened, staring down at the pittiful picture he made.  “That is if you can manage while asking someone to wipe your ass for you after you’ve shit yourself again.”

  Helian Yi glared as much as he was able through the pain, blood trickling from the corner of his mouth.

  Zhou Zishu spun on his heel, taking Wen Kexing's hand in his, marching out as his cousin’s head eunuch tottered through the door.

  “Wangye has fallen, he needs assistance,” Wen Kexing called over his shoulder at the wide eyed man.

 

Chapter Text

 

  After the banquet for Chengling, Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing had found their Ying’er in their bed, asleep, waiting for them to arrive.  He’d had a polished jade plug in his ass, the girth of which had been something of a spectacle as Zhou Zishu eased it out of a still slumbering Han Ying.  When their lover woke, he’d been delightfully bratty, demanding kisses and cocks to make up for their neglect while they had been absent dealing with Zhao Jing.

  He’d also expressed a deep desire to see Zhou Zishu in his Tian Chuang robes, confessing that Zhou Zishu was the sexiest man he had ever seen in those robes.  That had amused Wen Kexing greatly, wishing to see his husband in his robes himself.  Han Ying had turned those expressive eyes on Wen Kexng next, demanding he wear his Guzhu robes at the same time.

  There hadn’t been a great deal of conversation after that, but neither Zhou Zishu nor Wen Kexing had forgotten that desire.

  Now they were making it happen.  And testing how far Han Ying’s need to kneel went.

  Han Ying’s knees hit the polished wooden floor with a loud crack, his mouth open, eyes greedy as he watched his Lords.  Wen Kexing bent over the edge of the bed, his beautiful Guzhu robes hiked up around his waist, trousers pooling around his ankles.  Ass held open by Zhou Zishu in his Tian Chuang uniform, barely undressed, only enough to get his cock free to drive it into his wife.

  Zhou Zishu had wanted to wait for Han Ying to arrive before starting, but he and Wen Kexing had taken one glance at each other and had discarded that immediately, falling upon each other in a frenzy.

  Han Ying crawled forward when they both turned their heads and found him, twin glazed glances beckoning him to them.  He stopped beside the bed, biting his lip as he took in the slick girth of Zhou Zishu sliding in and out of Wen Kexing’s hole.  He pressed the heel of his hand down over his quickly thickening cock, whining.  With his other hand he explored Wen Kexing’s puffy rim, circling around Zhou Zishu’s shaft.

  “Join in or watch, Ying’er?” Zhou Zishu asked gently, slowing his thrusts so Han Ying could keep exploring with his fingers.

  “Watch, like I used to, Zhuangzhu,” Han Ying whispered, reverent as he caressed Wen Kexing’s rim again.  “Guzhu looks beautiful with Zhuangzhu’s cock in him.”  The use of titles showed Zhou Zishu that Han Ying knew the game they were to play this night.

  “Touch yourself, Xiao Daren,” Wen Kexing commanded breathlessly, slightly ruining the Guzhu image, but Han Ying pulled his robes apart eagerly, shoving his pants down far enough to get at his leaking cock.  “Touch yourself like you used when you watched us.”  Wen Kexing hummed as Han Ying’s hand slid around his shaft, watching him stroke slowly.  “Did you do this when you were in Tian Chuang, Xiao Daren?  Did you fuck yourself on your fingers after seeing your Zhuangzhu in his uniform?”

  “Every night,” Han Ying admitted breathlessly, gazing up at Zhou Zishu with limpid eyes.  “I would shove my fingers in, thinking about Zhuangzhu’s ass, wanting to lick and bite it.”  He stroked a little faster, “ I would have to get off over and over just to find some sort of satisfaction and not get hard around Zhuangzhu.”  He bit his lip, looking up at Zhou Zishu through his lashes, “it didn’t always work.”

  “Is that so?”  Zhou Zishu licked his lips, slowly rolling his hips, watching Han Ying stroke his cock.

  Han Ying flushed, nodding.  “I came once watching you berate Pengju.  You were so regal and commanding, staring him down, then you slapped him and it…just happened while I was standing there.”  He stroked faster, speeding up to match Zhou Zishu’s increasing pace.

  Wen Kexing moaned, “what a slutty little thing you are, Xiao Daren.”  He tilted his head back, gripping hold of the bed until his knuckles whitened as Zhou Zishu adjusted his angle.

  “I am,” Han Ying admitted readily, palming his balls as he continued stroking with his other hand.  “I went to the Yellow Flower House every night for two weeks straight after that.”  He groaned in frustration, eyes still watching the way Zhou Zishu slid in and out of Wen Kexing.  He let go of his balls and slipped fingers into his mouth, slicking them with his saliva then reached behind himself and the way his eyes fluttered told Zhou Zishu he’d shoved them both in his ass for additional stimulation.

  The way all three of them were feeling, Zhou Zishu doubted Han Ying would remain simply watching for much longer.

  Of the three of them, it’s Wen Kexing who has the least patience, growling suddenly and shifting his torso to get closer to Han Ying, leaning in to capture his mouth.  Han Ying whimpered, tongue slipping between Wen Kexing’s lips eagerly.  Zhou Zishu held his zhiji’s hips in place, fucking in and out slowly as the other two indulge.  Watching Wen Kexing and Han Ying kiss like that is almost as good as participating.  Wen Kexing pulled away with a gasp, urging Han Ying up on the edge of the bed, pulling his trousers fully off and spreading his thighs.

  Zhou Zishu grinned when Han Ying threw his head back, mouth open, Wen Kexing bobbing his head between Han Ying’s thighs.  He kicked his boots off and wriggled his trousers down until they slipped to the floor, stepping out of them, but leaving his robes in place.

  He leaned over Wen Kexing’s back, peering over his shoulder, watching Wen Kexing’s hand stroking Han Ying’s cock, his mouth open around his balls.

  “Get him nice and hard for me, Lao Wen.  I want him to fuck me.”  He licked his wife’s earlobe, “then I want you to join him in me.”

  Wen Kexing groaned around Han Ying’s balls, his ass tightening on Zhou Zishu’s cock.  Han Ying stared up at the both, thoroughly besotted and debauched.  Wen Kexing redoubled his efforts, Han Ying gasping with each pull of Wen Kexing’s talented mouth over his balls, then back to his cock.  He tangled his hands in Wen Kexing’s silver hair, arching off the bed and fucking his mouth.

  “Guzhu, Guzhu, fuck…”

  Zhou Zishu thrust languidly into his Lao Wen, watching Han Ying struggle to stay in control of his body, watching the way he bit his lip, chest heaving.  “That’s it, zhiji, he’s nearly ready for me.”  He kissed Wen Kexing’s cheek, then started to pound into him, chasing his orgasm, wanting to be lax and pliant for them both.

  Wen Kexing pulled off with slick pop, gasping as Zhou Zishu railed him, Han Ying wriggling out from under him to stroke himself and watch as Zhou Zishu came with a grunt.  But Wen Kexing had held off, whining as Zhou Zishu pulled his cock free of his ass.  His red robes slid back down over his legs but he was tenting the fabric obscenely when he scrambled onto the bed beside Han Ying, waiting for Zhou Zishu to arrange them to his liking.

  “Lay back, Ying’er,” he commanded, hiking his Tian Chaung robes around his waist.  “Guzhu fucked me this morning, so I am nice and loose for you.”  Wen Kexing grabbed the oil, pouring a liberal amount directly over Han Ying’s cock as he did as he was told, then coated his own fingers and waited again.

  Zhou Zishu straddled Han Ying’s waist, facing Wen Kexing with his back and ass to Han Ying, leaning back on his hands so his wife could slip two fingers straight into him.  He hummed, enjoying the slick sensation for a moment, then pushed Wen Kexing back so he could line up over Han Ying’s cock, sinking right down to the hilt immediately.  It was still a stretch, but it felt good, settling his ass against Han Ying’s groin.

  Han Ying moaned, gripping Zhou Zishu’s hips to start a rocking motion.  “Zhuangzhu, ahh.”  When Zhou Zishu reclined back again, Han Ying held onto him, pumping his pelvis up, kissing his neck as he fucked into him.

  Wen Kexing’s slick fingers returned, circling around his rim and toying with Han Ying’s cock as it slid in and out, humming low in his throat.  “A-Xu’s ass looks lovely with Ying’er’s cock in it.”  Those fingers pulled Zhou Zishu’s ass cheeks wider, “and will look even better with two, I am sure.”

  With that salacious little comment, a slick finger nudged at his hole beside Han Ying’s cock, the tip wriggling in.  Zhou Zishu’s breath came in harsh pants, eyes wide at the increased stretch.  His brain started to race.  What if it doesn’t fit?  Will it hurt more than I can take?  

  Wen Kexing noticed Zhou Zishu’s tense expression, leaning up to crowd over him, taking his face in one hand, lips soft against his.  “Shhh, A-Xu.  Nice and slow.  I would never hurt you.”

  Zhou Zishu knows that, he does.  The thought calms him, Han Ying’s hands on his hips soothing along with Wen Kexing’s words.  Neither of them would do anything to hurt him.

  He trusts them both.

  It’s that thought, that knowledge, that relaxes him and Wen Kexing’s finger eases in.  The hand on his face never ceased its motion, caressing his cheek.  He stared up into Wen Kexing’s liquid ink eyes, the deep devotion evident in them as they gaze at each other.  Han Ying kissed his neck, letting his lips speak for him.

  Zhou Zishu arched, feeling like he was going to split open as Wen Kexing pushed in slowly alongside Han Ying.  “Fuck, fuck…”  Han Ying whimpered under him, holding tight to his hips as Wen Kexing held his thighs open.  Being pressed between them both was wonderful, the feeling of fullness overwhelmingly good.  Now he knew why Han Ying had been such a mess, and why he’d begged for it.  There was nothing like it, no way to describe the sensation of being stuffed full of them both, feeling loved by them both.

  The pressure in his ass was a white hot thing, too much, possibly, but Zhou Zishu wasn’t one to quit, and being a bit of a masochist, he was thoroughly enjoying the burn.

  Then they both began to move, holding him between them, thrusting together, one in, one out.  Slowly at first until Zhou Zishu was a moaning mess, then faster as he opened up for them, head lolling on Han Ying’s shoulder, Wen Kexing holding his thighs in place.

  “Feels good, doesn’t it, Zishu,” Han Ying murmured in his ear breathlessly, thrusting up as Wen Kexing half withdrew.

  Zhou Zishu could only sob in response, delirious with pleasure.

  Wen Kexing bent over him, nuzzling his cheek, “A-Xu is wonderful.  You feel wonderful, wǒ de ài.”  He kissed Zhou Zishu languidly as his thrusting increased in pace, Han Ying slowing his own to allow him to take over.  The incongruity of it had Zhou Zishu sobbing harder, tangling his tongue with his wife’s as best he could through his gasping breaths.

  He whimpered as they both withdrew, rearranging him so that he was laying over Wen Kexing, Han Ying behind, pushing back into him and letting him flop against his Lao Wen’s chest.  He clung on weakly, burying his face in Wen Kexing’s silver locks, strong, long fingered hands, sweeping up and down his back.  He registered Wen Kexing’s deep voice murmuring to him softly, unable to decipher the words through the fog of bliss, but the tone was soothing, full of praise.  Han Ying laid over his back, kissing his shoulders and neck, holding his hips in place for them both to continue the onslaught of sensation.

  His orgasm was a nebulous thing, engulfing his whole body, tensing and spilling with a long drawn out cry in Wen Kexing’s shoulder, Han Ying swearing and releasing soon after.  Wen Kexing moaned, holding him tight as Han Ying withdrew completely, thrusting hard and following them both with a cry of his own a few moments later.

  When Zhou Zishu clawed his way out of the fog of his release he was being handled carefully, propped against the pillows, Han Ying tending to his thighs and ass with a warm, damp cloth, Wen Kexing brushing his hair out of his face.

  Zhou Zishu reclined back, sighing contentedly, eyeing both wife and lover as they both fussed over him.  Wen Kexing as ever, was the more effusive of the two about it, while Han Ying was quieter, though less of late than he had been, his security in his place assured.  

  “Aiya,” he exclaimed, slapping two pairs of hands away.  “Stop fussing, I’m fine.  How did I end up with two such menaces?”

  Wen Kexing beamed, predictably, but Han Ying was also grinning like a demon as he leaned back in and adjusted Zhou Zishu’s pillow.

  “Zishu is as pretty as a fairy,” Han Ying announced, smug smile firmly in place.  He leaned in, kissing him softly.  “This one cannot help but fuss.”  His hand swept down over Zhou Zishu’s chest, down his stomach, “I would not want the fairy to leave, so I must serve in all ways I can.”  Zhou Zishu moaned as his hand curled around his cock, softened and still a little tacky from his release.  “Is the fairy satisfied?” he murmured against Zhou Zishu’s lips, Wen Kexing laughing softly beside him.

  Zhou Zishu spread his thighs with a deep sigh, feeling another pair of hands joining Han Ying’s on his body.  “The fairy is too tired to do any work.”  He lifted his hand to curl it around Han Ying’s nape, pouting up at him with wide eyes.  “You two can do all the work for me.”

  “Ah, Ying’er, we have a lazy fairy on our hands, whatever shall we do?”

  Han Ying turned his head to roll his eyes at Wen Kexing, earning him a pinched cheek for his trouble.  He giggled and rubbed his abused cheek, “Kexing is cruel to his Ying’er.”

  With derisive snort, Wen Kexing pinched his cheek again, “Ying’er likes it.”

  A cheeky little chuckle came from Han Ying, “Ying’er does like it.”  He settled down on his side, curling around a lax Zhou Zishu, Wen Kexing doing the same, surrounding him.

 

Chapter Text

 

  Mo Huaiyang is as much of an arrogant bastard as he’d been before, the wily old fox’s eyes flitting over the disciples of Siji Manor with a sneer.  Fan Huai Kong stood beside him, a far more amiable expression on his face, hands clasped as he bowed and made the introductions.

  Zhou Zishu kept the grin off his face as he spotted Cao Weining.  The boy was just as immediately besotted by the pretty girl in purple and pink as he’d been the first time, his eyes never leaving her figure as she stood slightly behind Wen Kexing.

  Everyone from Siji Manor were dressed in their best.  Jiuxiao, Han Ying, Chengling and the other disciples were all in shades of pale blue and grey, Siji colours.  Luo Fumeng and Qianqiao had abandoned their usual colours for more muted robes in similar shades to match.  The girls of the Buoqing Bu were now dressed as demure maidens.  Wen Kexing was in a pale blue with deeper blue accents throughout, while Zhou Zishu was in deep blue and white, trimmed in fur.

  Ye Baiyi and Xie Jie Liubo were out of sight, but no doubt keeping watch somewhere.

  Ostensibly the meeting was one of strengthening ties, but Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing had hopes that Gu Xiang would be as intrigued by Cao Weining as she’d been before.  Though she had denied it as long as possible last time, the way she had let Cao Weining trail around after her had been enough for Zhou Zishu to know they would be a pair before long and that had borne out.

  He flicked his eyes back to see how she was reacting.  He bit back a smile, disinterest on her face, yet her eyes found the young rabbit time and time again.  He gripped Wen Kexing’s hand for a moment, squeezing.  The attraction was there.

  Mo Weixu nudged Cao Weining, keeping his eyes on his father so he wouldn’t notice them, a teasing smile on his lips as he noted Cao Weining’s attention had been taken entirely by the young woman in purple.  Cao Weining ducked his head, nudging Weixu right back, but it wasn’t long before his gaze sought out Gu Xiang again.

  Wen Kexing was stiff, his hand in Zhou Zishu’s tightly gripping, flexing as he tried so hard not to glare at  Mo Huaiyang.  He tipped his head to Zhou Zishu’s, “I want to kill him, can I, please?”

  Zhou Zishu actually considered it.  The man was nothing but a judgemental asshole.  Fan Huai Kong was a much more temperate individual as was Mo Weixu.  Perhaps the Qing Feng would benefit from new leadership.  Not having to deal with the man regularly was also an incentive.  A rather large one.

  Zhou Zishu closed his eyes, breathing in and out slowly.  “Stop tempting me, Lao Wen.  We’re trying to be good people, remember?’ he hissed out the side of his mouth.

  A disgruntled snort came from beside him, Wen Kexing clearly finding that a stupid reason to let the man live.  “Would it not be doing the world a service, A-Xu?”

  Again, Zhou Zishu thought about it.  Mo Huaiyang’s face was one that irritated him, arrogant, convinced of his own self importance, looking down at everyone else.  How Cao Weining had come from such an environment, he didn’t know.  Fan Huai Kong and Mo Weixu must have had far more to do with the little rabbit’s education than Mo Huaiyang.  

  “Probably,” he conceded.  “But we aren’t going to kill him unless he does something bad.”  He peered at Wen Kexing out of the corner of his eyes, “and that doesn't mean you get to provoke him.”

  Wen Kexing’s fan came up to hide his mouth from view as he leaned close to Zhou Zishu, eyes still trained on Mo Huaiyang.  “He’s a very detestable man, A-Xu.  I am sure he is incapable of being agreeable for long.  You see the way he is looking down on us.”

  It didn’t matter that the leader of the Qing Feng had been present at the down fall of Zhao Jing, had been witness to the part Wen Kexing and Zhou Zishu, to a lesser degree, had played in that.  He’d witnessed the revelations and yet he was still sneering at them from behind a mask of polite indifference.

  Perhaps he could prevail upon Gao Chong to smooth things over?

  He grimaced, hiding it quickly lest Mo Huaiyang see the indiscrete expression.  No, he and Wen Kexing should handle it.  They were the Zhuangzhu’s of Siji Manor.  It was their responsibility and no-one else’s.  

  “Let’s get everyone inside, maybe he’s more palatable with a bit of drink in him,” Zhou Zishu murmured to an amused Wen Kexing.  “Remember why we are doing this, Lao Wen,” he prompted with a quick glance to where Gu Xiang was studiously not looking at Cao Weining.

  “Oh, I remember,” Wen Kexing muttered darkly, Zhou Zishu mildly alarmed by the tone.  His mouth was pursed in a grim line.

 

  Wen Kexing had quickly grown bored of the whole affair, Gu Xiang was obviously just as enamoured as she had been the first time and if anything, Cao Weining was worse, positively fawning over her.  Mo Huaiyang had settled somewhat and that had bored Wen Kexing.

  Zhou Zishu only worried more.

  A bored Wen Kexing was akin to a mischievous cat in a room full of delicate pottery.  A recipe for disaster.

  With Han Ying, Jiuxiao, and Mo Weixu playing chaperones for Gu Xiang and Cao Weining, Chengling flitting back and forth, reporting on progress for Wen Kexing, they had nothing to be particularly vigilant about.  With Fan Huai Kong tentatively pleased with a possible marriage alliance between their sects, Zhou Zishu was no longer as concerned about Mo Huaiyang, so he’d become a little less observant of the social niceties and let his more natural snarkiness show.

  Consequently, every time Mo Huaiyang glared at them for being affectionate, Zhou Zishu encouraged Wen Kexing into more scandalous behaviour.  Fan Huai Kong appeared amused by it all.

  He raised his brows as Chengling stuttered to a stop before them, bowing hastily.

  “Shifu, Shishu,” he said, breathless.  “Ye-qianbei and Xie Daren are coming in.”

  Zhou Zishu fought to contain his grin.  If Mo Huaiyang thought he and Wen Kexing were bad, he couldn’t wait to see what he thought of the Immortal and his husband.  Wen Kexing huffed beside him, obviously gleaning his thoughts, deliberately slipping his hand higher up Zhou Zishu’s thigh.

  “Old Monster,” he proclaimed loudly, watching Mo Huaiyang’s reaction from the corner of his eye, a startled blink.  “He’ll eat us out of all our stores as usual,” he added as an aside to Zhou Zishu.

  The casual nature of the comment, the lack of deference for someone so clearly higher in status than anyone else in attendance, the familiarity had Mo Huaiyang a little flustered, his complexion paling as Ye Baiyi strolled in, Xie Jie Liubo on his arm and commandeered a place for them without so much as glancing in Mo Huaiyang’s direction.

  “Brat,” he greeted Zhou Zishu.  “Other brat,” was directed at Wen Kexing.  Xie Jie Liubo rolled his eyes and swatted Ye Baiyi’s arm in admonishment.  Ye Baiyi scowled, “what?  I didn’t smack anyone with my sword, isn’t that enough?”

  Xie Jie Liubo sighed, eyes rolling heavenward like a long suffering wife, which Zhou Zishu supposed he was.  “You said you would be on your best behaviour, Yiyi.”

  Ye Baiyi pouted, “again, no swords.  I’m behaving, wǒ de ài .”

  With a far more polite bow, Xie Jie Liubo greeted Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing, “I did try, but you know how he is.”

  Zhou Zishu chuckled, signaling for more wine and then sent a servant scurrying to the kitchens for more dishes for Ye Baiyi.  “Nevermind, Liubo-ge.  Ye-qianbei is like part of the furniture.”  He leaned close to Xie Jie Liubo, “I am glad you came in, I have just about convinced Lao Wen not to kill our guest, but now I’m considering it.”

  Hiding a laugh behind his hand, Xie Jie Liubo’s eyes flicked to Mo Huaiyang briefly.  “He looks rather sour, a poor guest.”

  Zhou Zishu raised his cup, covering his mouth as he whispered, “hates cutsleeves evidently.”

  Astute eyes picked out Wen Kexing’s hand, a smile tugging at Xie Jie Liubo’s lips, knowing and a little smug as he patted Ye Baiyi’s arm fondly, “well, this should be an interesting evening.”  He chuckled as he gazed about the room, noting Jing Beiyuan and Wu Xi, “he really has picked the wrong company if he detests cutsleeves so much.”

  Zhou Zishu snorted into his wine.

  Ye Baiyi leaned forward, chopsticks halfway to his mouth, “who hates cutsleeves?”

  Oh no.

  Zhou Zishu shook his head desperately, trying to convey to Xie Jie Liubo that it would not be the best idea to unleash Ye Baiyi on Mo Huaiyang directly.

  It was one thing for Wen Kexing to blatantly feel him up under the cover of the table, a completely different kettle of stinky fish for Ye Baiyi to become involved beyond his usual flirting with Xie Jie Liubo.

  “Mo Huaiyang,” Xie Jie Liubo told the Immortal with a tiny giggle in Zhou Zishu’s direction.

  Shit.  Too late.

  “You did that on purpose,” Zhou Zishu hissed, Xie Jie Liubo shrugging nonchalantly.  He rolled his eyes, wanting to drown himself in his wine.  He wasn’t truly upset with Xie Jie Liubo, more he was annoyed with Mo Huaiyang.

  “Him?” Ye Baiyi snorted derisively.  “Probably drinking vinegar,” he announced, loudly.  “In my experience, it’s the men who want dick and are too cowardly to go out and get it that bellyache about cutsleeves the most.”

  Mo Huaiyang’s face turned the colour of a ripe plum.  Wen Kexing choked on his wine and Zhou Zishu wanted to vanish through the floor.  He glared at a thoroughly unrepentant Ye Baiyi, knowing he couldn’t apologise to Mo Huaiyang for the Immortal’s comment, as that would imply that he was the type of man Ye Baiyi had spoken of.  But then, Mo Huaiyang could not openly complain either for the same reason.  Ye Baiyi started to smirk at him, seeing him realise Mo Huaiyang’s dilemma.  Clever bastard.

  Beiyuan down the table chuckled behind his hand, clearly coming to the same conclusion as Zhou Zishu.

  In fact, everyone, except Mo Huaiyang, in the vicinity of Ye Baiyi was chuckling or struggling to hide laughter.  Even Fan Huai Kong.  Zhou Zishu watched avidly as Mo Huaiyang began to realise he was very much in the wrong place to be acting as he was, scowling and staring down at his wine.  Fan Huai Kong patted him on the shoulder, murmuring to him and Zhou Zishu saw the scowl carefully set aside, replaced with a blank, pleasant expression.

  He admired his resilience and the man obviously had enough intelligence to admit defeat.  

  

  Beiyuan sat across from Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing, Wu Xi at his side, the pair exhibiting a stillness and gravity he’d never quite experienced from them.  Wu Xi, he was more accustomed to seeing with a serious expression, but Bieuyan was another thing entirely.

  It was discomforting.

  “You asked me some time ago how it was that we knew there was something different about you, and then there was that time you were curious about how I knew of the Meng Po,” Beiyuan began, his whole demeanor making Zhou Zishu cringe internally.  “I told you I would explain another time, and now that everything is settled, I feel that perhaps that conversation can be held now.”

  Zhou Zishu cleared his throat, “we need not talk of it if it is such a private thing, Beiyuan.  I do not need to know.”  Wen Kexing nodded his agreement, looking between the somber pair.

  Beiyuan sighed, “I appreciate that, Zishu, but it is something I do wish to explain, as it may clear up some of my behaviour from our time in Jin.”  He paused, glancing at his husband, Wu Xi gripping his hand.  “In my first life, I was...hopelessly obsessed with Helian Yi.  It did not go well, not really.”

  Zhou Zishu choked, blinking rapidly at his friend.  “W...what?  First life…”

  Another deep sigh from Beiyuan as he nodded, “yes, my first life, this life now, is my seventh incarnation.  I know of the Meng Po because when I died in that first life, I was offered it and refused it so I was not reincarnated as a human.  I have been...an insect, a dog, a jasmine plant, a fox...those lives do not matter, it is this one, how I came to be here again that matters.  Bai Wuchang, the Soul Reaper, instructed one of the Ghost Officials, Hu Jia, to move me on, tell me it was time.  He had told me so himself, many times, explaining he had reaped the wrong soul and that I was doomed to separation and longing for a love I would not have.  I am afraid I was a little rude to Hu Jia,” he said with a soft smile at Wu Xi.  “Bai Wuchang told me then, that once I was done with this seventh incarnation, my destiny with Helian Yi would finally come to an end and we would no longer be entangled with each other.”

  Zhou Zishu frowned, recalling that while Helian Yi had been rather obsessed with Beiyuan, the feeling hadn’t been mutual.  As he knew it.  Beiyuan nodded at him with a tiny smile curling his lips.

  “After I was the white fox, I was offered the Meng Po again, and this time I drank.  Three cups I drank, and yet...I remembered things I was meant to forget and forgot those I should remember.  I refused to go back, sitting by the Three Life Stone.  Sixty three years I sat by that stone, waiting.  When it was time again, Bu Wuchang performed a spell as I entered the pool.”  He shook his head ruefully, “he said to me as I went under the water ‘ It was my fault that your fate became incomplete and full of suffering. There is nothing I can do to make it up to you but this; giving up all of my cultivation to trade for one lifetime where you can have black hair again.’”

  “Was it you that he reaped by mistake?” Zhou Zishu asked softly.

  Beiyuan shook his head, “no, but...it caused Helian Yi and I to become enemies instead of great lovers.”  Again, he glanced at Wu Xi, “when I woke, he had sent me back to the first life in a fashion, similar to what happened to you two.  I remembered everything, but I was a child.”

  “Too knowing,” Zhou Zishu muttered.

  “Yes,” Beiyuan said.  “Too knowing.  I too felt that I could change things.  I made the decision that while I knew Helian Yi, he would never truly know me.  And I met Wu Xi.”  He caressed his husband’s face fondly, “I am a much better man for knowing him.”

  “And I am better for finding you,” Wu Xi said with a gentle smile.

  “Finding,” Wen Kexing whispered, peering at Wu Xi curiously.  “Bai Wuchang gave up his cultivation to send Beiyuan back.  What happened to him?”

  Wu Xi actually chuckled.  “I once had a dream where I saw Beiyuan, a head of white hair, sitting by a large rock.  He ignored me when I tried to talk to him.”

  “I don’t ignore you now, my little Toxin,” Beiyuan murmured, thumb sweeping over Wu Xi’s cheek tenderly.

  Zhou Zishu stared at them both in astonishment, “well, fuck.”  He pointed at Wu Xi, “you...you’re…”

  Wu Xi shook his head, “don’t think on it too much, Zishu.  It is a subject that can lead the mind in circles.”  He quirked his lips in a wry smile, “I am Wu Xi, nothing more.”

  “Besides, do we or do we not we have another wedding to plan,” Beiyuan interjected with a clap of his hands, deftly changing the subject and mood.  He grinned at Wen Kexing, “you seem pleased this particular pig is nibbling your cabbage, Kexing.”

  With a raised brow at the new informal address from Beiyuan, Wen Kexing shrugged, “the benefit of knowing things, I suppose.  The fool will be good for her, if his bastard shifu does not get in the way.”  His fist clenched and Zhou Zishu patted it soothingly.

  “Well, I am far from opposed to a good scheme, you can rely on me if you need another mind on the problem of Mo Huaiyang,” Beiyuan said with a wide grin.

 

  “We’re leaving,” Ye Baiyi announced, apropos to nothing one afternoon while Zhou Zishu was supervising his disciples training.  Wen Kexing leaned forward to look around his husband with a raised brow.

  “Our kitchens will thank you for that,” he commented snidely.

  Xie Jie Liubo snickered, “we will visit, Kexing-ge.”

   Wen Kexing scowled, but it held no real heat to it and would have been useless if it had, Ye Baiyi ignoring it regardless.

  “Where are you going, Ye-qianbei?” Zhou Zishu asked.

  “Back to Changming for a time, but Xie Xiao purchased a property, so we will go there after.”  He rubbed his hand over Xie Jie Liubo’s back, “he has many ideas.”

   “Oh?”  Zhou Zishu tilted his head to one side.  “Planning your garden, Liubo-ge?”

  Xie Jie Liubo grinned, “yes, Da Wu gave me an idea some time ago, I thought to make a beginning on it.  He told me that I possibly have a propensity for healing as I know so much about poisons and plants.”  He bit his lip, looking a little shy, yet proud at the same time.  “I also like to decorate, so I will be refurbishing the house once we settle there.”

  Wen Kexing beamed at him, “I knew you had a little flair, Liubo-ge, I look forward to seeing it.  We will have to visit.  With you in charge it won’t be the hovel the Old Monster would decorate.”

  Xie Jie Liubo shot Ye Baiyi an apologetic glance, “you will not have far to go, Kexing-ge.  It is down in the valley.”  He leaned close to Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing conspiratorily, “it took a great deal of cajoling to get Yiyi to agree.”

  “I’m sure the deciding factor was the fact he could wander up the hill any time he likes to plunder our kitchens,” Wen Kexing groused.

  “Ignore him,” Zhou Zishu said, elbowing Wen Kexing.  “It will be good to have you both so close.  With Beiyuan and Wu Xi leaving for home sooner or later, Siji will feel their absence, and yours.  We have enjoyed having you here.”  His sharp eyes noted something off in Chengling’s motions.  “Jiuxiao, have Chengling practise that form for two hours, he’s looking like a lumbering bear still.”

  Jiuxiao grimaced, shooting Chengling a sympathetic glance.

  “Shifu!”  Chengling moaned, pouting with wide eyes.  “My limbs will fall off.”

  Ye Baiyi snorted, “I’m not getting you a new one if you kill him.”

  Wen Kexing and Zhou Zishu burst into laughter at that.  Chengling looked like he thought he’d managed to escape his punishment, but he was soon abused of that notion.

  “Make it three hours,” he barked, glowering at Chengling.

  Wen Kexing leaned into him, “A-Xu, surely he can have a break.”

  Zhou Zishu raised one brow, narrowing his eyes at his wife, “don’t think I am not aware of the fact you let him off already this morning.”

 

  A few days later, Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing came across Jiuxiao in the garden, fixated upon a small piece of cherry wood in his hands.  Zhou Zishu’s heart clenched in his chest.  He stopped a short distance from his shidi, watching him carve the hairpin he remembered so vividly.  Wen Kexing halted with him, peering at him curiously, eyes widening as Zhou Zishu smiled.  Wen Kexing’s eyes flitted to the hairpin and he mouthed a soft ‘ahh’ in recognition.

  Jiuxiao lifted his head, cheeks colouring as he noticed the pair, hiding the hairpin in his sleeves, averting his eyes in embarrassment.

  “Shidi,” Zhou Zishu said, stepping closer.  “Who is she?”  Even though he already knew, he wanted Jiuxiao to be able to tell him this time.  He wished his shidi had been able to tell him before, but now he could make up for the teasing and indifference.  

  Jiuxiao scowled, fidgeting with his fingers.  “I hate you.”

  Zhou Zishu sat beside him, “no, you don’t.”  He patted Jiuxiao’s knee, still smiling.  “I can’t broker a marriage for you if you don’t tell me who she is.”

  “Aiya, you’re so annoying,” Jiuxiao huffed.  He flicked his eyes to Zhou Zishu, then back to his hands, eventually pulling the hairpin out of his sleeve to toy with it.  “Military Governor Li’s daughter.  Sinking fish, falling goose, hiding the moon, shaming the flowers .

 Zhou Zishu struggled to hide his laugh at that.  Jiuxiao was completely and utterly in love with her.  His mooning expression as he recited was something he never thought he’d get to see.  One should always think their spouse, or spouse to be, was the most beautiful in the world, he certainly did of his own.

  Wen Kexing lowered himself to the bench on the other side of him, holding his hand out for the hairpin to examine it.  “It’s a pretty piece, Jiuxiao.  It will mean more being carved by you personally, rather than simply buying one.”

  Jiuxiao blinked at them both, swiveling his head from side to side.  “Do you think so?” he asked timidly.  “It’s not very good.”  He stared down at it when Wen Kexing delivered it back to his hand.  His fingers curled around it protectively.

  “Lao Wen is right, Shidi,” Zhou Zishu assured him.  “Princess Jing An will cherish it all the more because you made it for her.”  He nodded when Jiuxiao turned wide, pleading eyes on him.  “Does she know?”

  Jiuxiao bit his lip, nodding again, cheeks colouring.   “I know she is above my station…”

  Zhou Zishu stopped him, taking his hand, “no, it would be a good match, Jiuxiao.  I will speak to Governor Li for you, I am sure he’ll be amenable.  He is a righteous and sensible man.  I do not think he would deny his daughter her happiness.”  He squeezed Jiuxiao’s hand gently, reassuring.  “I will give you some advice, Shidi.  Don’t hide how you feel, always tell her how you feel about her, let her see it.  Don’t get lost in pride and indecision.  Let her know you.”

  Jiuxiao stared at him, mouth open.  Then he shook his head ruefully, “when you told me what happened to you, Zishu, I did not expect such a change in you as a result.  You are again the Zishu I knew as a child, but more...open.  Wiser, more playful too.”  He smiled at them both, “I hope I can be as happy as you are.”

  “So do I, Jiuxiao,” Zhou Zishu told him.

  “Ge, Ge,” Gu Xiang shouted, racing in, dragging Cao Weining behind her, a chuckling Han Ying following at a more sedate pace.  “Ge, Zishu-ge, Mo Huaiyang said no, so A-Ning left, can he stay with us?”  She stopped in front of them, hair swinging as her gaze shifted between the three sitting on the bench, “Fan Bo Bo says he’ll work on the old man, but A-Ning left saying he would follow me anywhere.”  She blushed a little, biting her lip, “please, can he join us?  He likes it here.”  Cao Weining nodded, looking hopeful.

  Wen Kexing blinked, turning to look at Zhou Zishu with a bewildered expression.

  Zhou Zishu laughed, joyous.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.

  Mostly.