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light on dark water, lies beneath the skin

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"A-Xu," Wen Kexing said, looking sidelong at Zhou Zishu in the fading light, "I know you've been dying to have me."

His eyes seemed to be all darkness sometimes.

Zishu studied the sky. Golden-bellied clouds were scattered near the horizon. Geese wrote the shape of an arrow-tip above them, noisy black shadows against deepening purple-blue.

"Who wants you," he said.

"Oh, a lot of people," Wen Kexing told him sweetly. "Do you want me to make you jealous? I could."

"I'll pass."

Wen Kexing smiled.

"And why's that?"

Zishu shook his head. "You know why."

"A-Xu! I only kill some of the people I let fuck me. You know you're special."

Zishu stepped closer to him. It was getting cold fast now that the sun was gone. Wen Kexing unfastened his cloak, draped it around Zishu, fussed with it until he was satisfied that it was hanging right.

"Why are you being like this?" Zishu asked him.

"You get cold, and you never remember a cloak—"

"Why," Zishu said, putting weight on the word, "are you telling me to do something to you that we both know you—"

Wen Kexing kissed him—crowded up against him.

"I killed someone," he said, against Zishu's mouth. Kissed him again, small kisses, little brushes of lips as he talked. "It was ten years ago today. A-Xu—"

"What," Zishu muttered—caught Wen Kexing by the back of the neck, tugged him away—it seemed to be the only way to give himself enough space to draw a deep breath. "Feeling nostalgic, Lao Wen?"

"Something like that," Wen Kexing said. He pulled free of Zishu's hand, lurching in close to kiss Zishu again, on the mouth and then in messy drags of lips along his jaw. "I'm already prepared for you, A-Xu. I was very careful. Inside and out. I'm clean—look, even under my nails—"

"I don't give a shit about your nails," Zishu said.

Wen Kexing laughed. "You should."

Cleanliness demonstrated, his hands turned searching—burrowed their way under Zishu's clothes, looking for skin to clutch at.

Zishu shoved him off, turned his back on him—one step and he could reach the wide doors. He took hold of Wen Kexing by the wrist without looking at him, and yanked him inside—drew the mask of the doors across the evening sky.

"Light the brazier," he said. "If you're so worried about my catching a chill."

The room brightened slowly as Wen Kexing lit lanterns, lit the brazier as instructed. Zishu stood close to it, held his hands cupped around the heat which radiated from its mouth.

Wen Kexing let him be, bustling around the room like someone who had been thoroughly domesticated. Little pieces of rearrangement. He could get so fussy.

Finally the stiffness left Zishu's fingers, and he flexed them carefully, and then with more force, and, satisfied, turned away from the fire. His wrists had eased as well, though he could still feel the cold a little in his elbows.

"A drink to mark the joyous anniversary?" he suggested dryly, and Wen Kexing blinked at him, looking for a moment entirely baffled.

"Yes," he said, finally. "Yes, of course. Whatever you like."

He warmed the wine for them, and poured it, looking at Zishu coyly. Zishu thought about him saying I'm already prepared for you, thought about it in circles. About Wen Kexing being soft and wet under his demure robes, ready to be fucked.

Zishu tossed back the wine. It slid down his throat easily, mellow and smooth.

Wen Kexing, Wen Kexing. He only kills some of the people who fuck him. He—

Zishu caught Wen Kexing's delicately bared wrist as Wen Kexing went to refill his cup for the third time, squeezed it—hard, until Wen Kexing looked at him properly, his eyes wide. Dark, so dark.

"Come here," he said, and yanked.

Wen Kexing's knee caught on the edge of the table, the wine flask and their cups fell. A clatter, and then the drip of liquid onto the mat below.

The room had warmed. Wen Kexing's flighty fidgety energy was focusing itself down into something more directed. He knelt across Zishu's lap, staring down at him. Lips parted. Under his silver-grey outer robe he was wearing stark white, layers of it folded tight against his throat. He had made himself neat and clean and his hair was fastened simply and under his clothes he was already—

"Good, A-Xu," Wen Kexing breathed. "Like that. Just, mm, like that—"

Zishu wrapped a hand around Wen Kexing's hip, squeezing him where the bone was close to the skin. They kissed in stuttering brushes of lips.

"Do you like having power over me?" Wen Kexing asked sweetly.

"I don't give a shit," Zishu said—and then, as Wen Kexing gasped under his touch: "Yes. I like it "

Wen Kexing laughed. "Honesty is adorable on you," he said, and he seemed a little more—alright, maybe. More balanced. Just for a little while, as Zishu slouched back onto one elbow, drew him along into more kisses, a little slower, a little deeper.

Wen Kexing's restlessness returned before long, and he pulled and prodded aimlessly at Zishu until Zishu had to push him off, onto the floor—pinned him there, a hand on each of his wrists, framing his pale face. His hair spread out untidily beneath him.

Zishu shifted his hands, shifted until they were palm to palm—slotted his fingers between Wen Kexing's limp ones and squeezed until Wen Kexing remembered that he could squeeze back.

Sometimes, although it was unseen, the night outside a room could become palpably vast. It spread out around them now—they came unmoored in it—the way lanterns drifted on the surface of water.

Ten years. A man stood very still behind a screen while a newly crowned emperor spoke, understood his tasks by studying the movements of ringed imperial fingers. He stood in the private chambers of that emperor and carefully did not watch him sag with tiredness, did not even think to consider that he was tired himself. And far away, far away, Wen Kexing began to kill a man.

Zishu released one of Wen Kexing's hands—pressed down heavily on the other as he grasped at Wen Kexing's robes, yanking them askew. No trousers below—just Wen Kexing's long pale legs. He looked so bloodless, often, but oh, the blood was there. It was easily drawn to the surface with fingers or teeth, no real violence was even needed. No hurt.

"No fight?" Zishu asked.

Wen Kexing shook his head. His muscles jumped under Zishu's fingers as Zishu pushed his thighs apart, a jerky movement like a part of him did want to.

"I'm good at not fighting," he said. He dropped his head back, showed his throat. "You have to be—don't you know that? You have to, to—"

"To get the chance," Zishu said.

He dragged his thumb up the inside of Wen Kexing's thigh. Wen Kexing clung harder to his hand, fingers twitching.

"That's right," Wen Kexing agreed. "Clever A-Xu—that's right. And I got the chance, I did—"

"I know."

"It felt good to kill him," Wen Kexing said.

"I know."

Wen Kexing was as soft and ready between his legs as he'd promised he would be. His thighs jerked again as Zishu's thumb found his entrance.

"Did you go to him like this?" Zishu asked. It could have been dirty talk, but it wasn't.

"Oh," Wen Kexing said. "Oh, no—he wouldn't have liked that at all."

It wasn't entirely evident under the mess of robes, and Zishu wasn't touching him there, but Wen Kexing wasn't, he thought, very hard—maybe not hard at all. He was in some sense aroused, colour spreading on his cheeks. He desired this—in some sense. But it wasn't an uncomplicated desire. It was tentative, or only half-sexual, or—something else.

"Just do it," Wen Kexing said, after another exploratory span of time—Zishu's fingers in him, checking how slick he was inside, how tense he was.

"I've been wanting to have you," Zishu told him. "You said it yourself. Let me enjoy it, Lao Wen."

"You bastard—"

"Mm."

"Some things should be savoured, I suppose," Wen Kexing admitted finally. He sounded dreamy. He was talking about something else, about the other thing.

Zishu pulled his own clothes aside, getting his cock out. It was hard—that surprised him a little. But of course it was hard—with all of this below him.

It wasn't that easy to push into Wen Kexing's body. He had been warm and soft under Zishu's fingers, but he tensed now, staring up at the ceiling. A heavy shudder ran through him.

Zishu tapped his leg, and then tapped it harder, and Wen Kexing's gaze slid finally to him, Wen Kexing slid somehow back into place in himself. The tension left him. The head of Zishu's cock slipped inside.

"Why are you so big?" Wen Kexing asked, a little petulantly.

"I'm not," Zishu said. "Relax."

Wen Kexing's laugh was choked.

Zishu rolled his hips. Deeper, a little deeper still. Wen Kexing's unrestrained hand flew to Zishu's shoulder, clutching.

"Ten years," he said. He laughed again. "He could be so careless sometimes. Stupid man. A-Xu, I—ah—"

Zishu bent over him, kissed him slowly. They were joined now. Wen Kexing's balls were pressed to his skin. The fragile inside of his body moved in a fluttery erratic way.

"I let him," Wen Kexing said. "And then I killed him."

"Good," Zishu murmured.

"Let me tell you," Wen Kexing said.

Zishu tried moving, a little rock of his hips. He held Wen Kexing's twitching leg behind the knee, used it for leverage.

His turn to laugh. "I can't stop you."

"It was on his throne," Wen Kexing said. "To start with. I had to move him later—to get all of his skin off—"

Zishu kissed him again. He tasted of blood—must have bitten himself. Wen Kexing was tugging at Zishu's robes, pulling them open, searching for skin to touch.

"Have you ever killed someone like that?" Wen Kexing asked.

Zishu released Wen Kexing's other hand, helped strip himself.

"No," he said.

"Ah—you surprise me—you seem so experienced, A-Xu."

"It's messy."

"That's the point—ah, you're very deep in me—it feels—"

He dropped a hand to his clothed belly, pressed his fingertips down as though expecting to feel something—then pressed the palm of his heel down—then slid his hand lower, fondling his cock, sighing at his own touch.

Zishu wanted to see—folded a layer of Wen Kexing's robes out of the way to find out whether he'd be permitted. Was. Folded back another. Wen Kexing pushed his hand away when there was one layer left draped across his crotch, returned to touching himself through that thin piece of cloth. There was the shape of his cock, visible between his curled fingers—he wasn't completely soft after all. His hand, where Zishu had been pinning it heavily to the floor, was ruddy-knuckled.

Zishu rocked his hips, watched how Wen Kexing's cock started to fill out—tenting the fabric, changing the way Wen Kexing's fingers curled. He had been ready for this to be something Wen Kexing's body simply wouldn't respond to—but it was a relief to have been wrong.

He wondered if Wen Kexing was surprised as well.

"I sealed his acupoints," Wen Kexing said—gasped a little as Zishu tried something closer to a small thrust. His legs twitched again. His cock didn't soften. "It, it—gave me time to get dressed—and I had a knife—you know the knife—"

"I know the knife."

Wen Kexing kept it in his boot, let it live against his skin from ankle to calf. It was wickedly sharp. A short-bladed hunter's knife with a curved handle. He rarely used it. He drew blood with his fan as first preference, and with Baiyi second—presumptuously possessive creature that he was. Then his nails—but sometimes with the knife. More commonly it found its way into Zishu's hand as he skinned rabbits.

Wen Kexing touched two of his fingertips to Zishu's chest, above the breastbone. Moved them downward, nails drawing a ticklishly light line. The sensation of it was interrupted briefly by a scar—resumed. Zishu remembered, in a quick flash of bodily sensation, how metal used to nestle close against his bones, how it pierced through his organs and made a home in them. The drag of a sharp knife wasn't so bad—was sweetly clean, in a way.

The nails of Wen Kexing's fingers moved down, down past his navel. Stopped just above the thickening nest of Zishu's pubic hair.

"He thought I would stab into his gut," Wen Kexing said. "But I only wanted his skin to start with—that's all—just a tiny bit of him. It's so thin. Nothing at all—"

They broke each other's skin all the time, the two of them. Zishu's skin had been paper-delicate in the late months of his long illness, and after Wen Kexing had torn his wrist open with his frantic mouth it hadn't entirely healed for weeks. Zishu had slowed the process, admittedly—worried at it with his fingers, probing a small pain to distract himself from a greater one. But still—

He imagined it, as Wen Kexing's fingers splayed across his skin. A cut down the centre of the chest, and then the flat of the knife pressed to the body so that the edge could slide in, beneath. Wen Kexing peeling an apple in the sun—one long strip of red-green skin, no flesh clinging to it, so thin the light glowed through it and fell, tinted, across his hands.

Zishu was barely moving, not really fucking Wen Kexing. Wen Kexing's hips shifted uneasily in no particular rhythm.

"Shall I give you your knife, Lao Wen?" Zishu asked.

"Careful," Wen Kexing said. He traced his fingers along Zishu's lower ribs, two of them at once. Hot parallel lines. "I'd use it."

Zishu studied him consideringly. "I don't think you would," he said. He felt along Wen Kexing's belt—there—he had guessed correctly.

The knife sliced a slit in the belt as Zishu drew it out of its concealed sheath. Newly sharpened. As it should be.

He flicked the tip of it across the front of Wen Kexing's belt, a gutting motion that didn't connect with skin—nudged the edges of broken fabric apart—another flick—Wen Kexing was breathing hard, but he was holding his stomach very still.

Zishu cut again—an upward stroke, the reverse of Wen Kexing's fingers sliding down his body, mirroring and inverting. He used all of his old exactness. Stitching caught and resisted on occasion, it wasn't quite a continuous motion—but it was close enough.

No blood—the skin he was peeling Wen Kexing out of was an artificial one, was the tightly wrapped set of robes which he used to hold the world at bay.

The point of the knife came to rest, finally, against the hollow of Wen Kexing's throat. Zishu shifted his hand, carefully, so carefully—a pin-prick contact with Wen Kexing's body—it took a moment before the blood began to well.

Zishu dropped the knife on Wen Kexing's chest, wiped the blood from Wen Kexing's throat with his thumb—offered it to Wen Kexing, who was looking through him with unfocused eyes, lips parted, but who still lapped obediently when something was pressed to his mouth.

"Go ahead," Zishu said. "Use it."

Wen Kexing touched his fingers to the hilt of the knife, stroking them back and forth along it—he grabbed reflexively at it as Zishu thrust into him properly, reminding him where he was, what was happening.

The both groaned—Wen Kexing's back arched—Zishu pushed Wen Kexing's ruined robes further aside and was granted the sight of Wen Kexing's cock, entirely hard, even a little wet at its tip. The knife—? Well. That was—it was good—

Wen Kexing was clutching at the handle of the knife now, but it was his own skin he held the blade to still. The reverse edge, dull, dented a line across his stomach. The tip, where the bladed edge curved up and back to a cruel point, scratched a fine red trail across his skin as he gasped for breath.

Light flickered in the cool mirror of its surface.

Zishu thrust into Wen Kexing again. Wen Kexing made shocked little noises as he was fucked. Kept clutching—at the knife—at his own cock with his other hand, squeezing it urgently rather than stroking it. He had put more gentleness into caressing the knife than he granted his own body.

Bending, Zishu kissed Wen Kexing's knuckles where they were tense on the knife handle—then kissed the flat of the blade—he did it for himself, and not for Wen Kexing. It was an unconsidered impulse, and, considering it after the fact, he found little reason in it. Why be grateful to a knife—if it was gratitude he felt—knives had no care for who wielded them. This one would have helped him slit its owner's throat, if he'd cared to.

Wen Kexing lay beneath him and let sex be something that happened. Sweat gathered on his forehead. He turned the knife between shaking fingers. Blood trickled across his skin—he had nicked his thumb.

"I need," he mumbled—blinked sweat or tears from his eyes, looked at Zishu with a glazed expression. "I—A-Xu—I need—I need to break something—that's what—"

"Monsters do," Zishu finished for him.

Wen Kexing's laughter was knocked out of him in uneven huffs. "You understand."

"Going to cut me up?"

"I could—"

"You couldn't," Zishu told him, not unkindly. "You've gone soft. Here."

He slowed his thrusts again—took Wen Kexing's hand—held it as it held the knife. Guided it to the centre of his own chest, where Wen Kexing's fingers had touched him in demonstration. His hold was firm—a teacher's hold. He made Wen Kexing bring the blade to his skin.

The bite of it didn't hurt at all. The blade was too good for that. the sting of broken skin trailed after it, a heartbeat behind. Down—down—across his breastbone—across his stomach—

He let go—had to catch the knife as it slipped from Wen Kexing's suddenly slack fingers.

"You see," he said.

Wen Kexing was breathing so quickly it was in clear danger of slipping beyond his control.

Blood beaded slowly, and began to trickle. Zishu ignored it.

"I still could," Wen Kexing said. He licked his lips, a nervous movement rather than a suggestive one.

"Alright," Zishu said. "You could. Sure. You know how to get the better of me. You're so scheming."

He brushed away the stray strands of hair that were clinging to Wen Kexing's face and neck, took a piece of cloth from the mess around them and patted sweat from Wen Kexing's forehead—then from his jaw.

"Don't be patronising," Wen Kexing mumbled. His chest was still heaving, although the edge of panic had gone from his breathing. Stray drops of blood fell on his skin, blurred across it. "It's serious—I didn't just stop at skin—"

"I know," Zishu said.

He eased his cock out of Wen Kexing, and Wen Kexing hissed, grabbed at him—

"Fuck's sake," Zishu said. "I'm getting tired, that's all. I'm old. Do some of the work yourself."

He lay down beside Wen Kexing, nudged him with his foot. It took some coaxing to get Wen Kexing to understand—to crawl on top of Zishu, straddling him.

Zishu held him by the hips, guiding him. He'd rarely seen Wen Kexing so clumsy as this, and besides, he wasn't entirely sure if Wen Kexing would ever have had cause to ride someone—he never alluded to it having been anything like that. It was always—other things—

Wen Kexing stopped breathing as Zishu's cock slid into him again, wide-eyed at the way his weight sunk him down onto it—took a long shuddering breath only once Zishu was fully inside him again.

He touched Zishu's chest and stomach, ran his fingers through the blood there. Spread his palms so that red smeared between skin and skin.

"I strung him up by the arms," Wen Kexing said—still not ready to relinquish his grip on his own monstrosity. "Shackles—after I'd taken the skin off him there—so I could, could do the rest of it—"

He collected himself visibly—smiled his usual confiding smile.

How far did a person have to be pushed, to reach that point—it varied, of course, from person to person—but still—but still.

Zishu stroked Wen Kexing's hips, rocked their bodies together. Wen Kexing tipped his head back with a little sigh.

The knife was discarded to the side, but it was well within reach for either of them. Exposed, undeniably present.

"I cut pieces out of him," Wen Kexing said. He almost dropped the knife as he picked it up—found the right grip. He ran the knife along Zishu's upper arm, traced a circle which brightened into pain. Shallow marks, really only scratches.

Zishu was beginning to realise that he might like this—like the knife in Wen Kexing's hands, the trickling blood. The way his pulse was present in the lines Wen Kexing drew, was telling him he was alive. He wasn't sure if that was fortunate or unfortunate.

The back of the knife dragged across his skin, gathering blood. Wen Kexing held it to Zishu's mouth—Zishu didn't have Wen Kexing's taste for blood, although he liked to claim a little from his husband now and then. Still, he licked the knife carefully.

Wen Kexing put it aside again. There was blood on the mat where his fingers had touched it. "Like that," he said. "Pieces and pieces. Look what you're fucking, A-Xu."

"I know what you are, Lao Wen," Zishu said. He pinched Wen Kexing's thigh, digging his nails in until Wen Kexing swatted at him.

"Do you want to hear about what I did with his intestines? His heart?"

"I hope you burnt them," Zishu said—too harsh, too honest.

Wen Kexing's smile crinkled the corners of his eyes this time. A proper smile, true and deep.

"I made you jealous," he said. "Don't worry, don't worry—I've only eaten one person."

Zishu felt hot all through his body. It was the blood, it was Wen Kexing seated on his cock, it was the look on Wen Kexing's face—the sudden simplicity of his pleasure—I've made you jealous.

It was the truth of Wen Kexing's words, too. The way he had thought—

Nobody else. Don't take anyone else's heart between your hands ever again. Don't lick another man's blood from your fingers. Isn't my body enough—

He grabbed Wen Kexing by the hair, yanked him down—threw him to the floor. He was satisfied that his knees were recovered enough.

A hard kiss. Wen Kexing clutched at Zishu's back—and Zishu thrust into him—hard—hard—hard hands, hard teeth. They grabbed at each other. Wen Kexing made pained noises as Zishu jerked him off. Blood was sticky between them, drying and flaking, spilling and spreading.

Wen Kexing came, wailing—not wailing in a pretty bedchamber way but like a lost dying thing—

"Not in me," he said, as Zishu started to grow unsteady with approaching orgasm, and Zishu pulled out, jerked himself off with quick strokes—came across Wen Kexing's front—came with his forehead pressed to Wen Kexing's.

Zishu fell next to Wen Kexing when they were done. He felt shivery, and the brazier seemed to have died down—or else it was just that his body was tired, prickling with imagined cold. The smell of blood was heavy, although not very much had been spilt as these things went. It made him think again of that other frenzied night. It had been summer, and his body had been gathering its strength for death. Wen Kexing had needed so many things Zishu hadn't expected to be able to give him, things Zishu hadn't understood he was sincere in desiring.

He had been cruel, perhaps—or Wen Kexing had been. They were cruel people.

It was late now. Zishu knew it by the quality of his tiredness, and not because his death was making itself known within his body.

"It isn't really ten years today," Wen Kexing said. "I don't think so, anyway. I don't remember. It was—I was—I don't remember."

Zishu hummed. He pulled Wen Kexing closer. A warm body. Skin to skin, two thin layers—then blood and fat and muscle, bones and tendons, viscera.

"It was autumn," Wen Kexing said. "I know it was autumn. Everything was red. The braziers were lit then too. A-Xu, I feel cold. Is it cold?"

"It's cold," Zishu said, although he wasn't sure it was true.

"I don't want to kill you," Wen Kexing whispered.

Zishu kicked at his shin. "Idiot."

"A-Xu—!"

Zishu, feeling mildly provoked, tugged a lock of his hair.

"Who's killing who? Huh?"

"Aiya—mercy—"

Zishu relented with a snort.

"Lao Wen, Lao Wen," he said. He was still feeling shivery, and Wen Kexing's shivering was visible.

There was the knife. Such a small thing made for such intimate violence. The blade needed cleaning. He wanted to pick it up carelessly, let it bite him again. He wanted to take Wen Kexing to bed and find better ways to fuck him. He felt a little sick. He felt a little aroused, still.

He found one of the discarded robes which hadn't been cut apart, wrapped it around them both. Found the cloak Wen Kexing had tucked around him as the sun set and drew it across them.

"You keep not leaving," Wen Kexing said—ludicrous, when he had been the one to hold a comatose man's hand for months on end.

"Take a nap," Zishu told him, prodding him again. "don't just keep saying stupid shit."

"Alright, alright—but you're not leaving—"

"I'm not leaving," Zishu said.

Dry blood was itchy on his skin.

He stayed where he was.